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Bring Me To Life

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“Bring my son before me,” Odin ordered his Einherjari. Thor had brought Loki back to be judged before the throne for his crimes against Asgard and Midgard.  But the wily king was puzzled. Nothing his mischievous son had done since he had discovered his true heritage seemed in keeping with his normally even-tempered nature. It was almost as if someone else had inhabited his body and mind. Frigga also agreed that the actions Loki had instigated with Laufey and the Jotun as well as on Midgard seemed like they had been done by a different person. Loki had never wished to take over Earth, or to subjugate its people. He had visited Midgard before and shown only curiosity and amusement at the world which was so young compared to Asgard—and so unadvanced compared with Asgardian science, medicine, and magic.

Odin was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. He watched as Loki was led into the throne room, concealing a flinch at the clank of the chains and shackles the guards had placed upon his son. The king almost banished them, feeling ill that any prince of the realm should be chained like a dog or a common criminal. But he forced himself to remain impassive.

The guards halted with Loki between them, and Loki gazed at his father and said in a flippant yet cold tone, “I really don’t see what the fuss is about.”

Odin blinked. “Do you not realize the gravity of your crimes, my son?” There it was again, this niggling feeling that something was not right.

Loki shrugged, as if disinterested in whatever Odin had to say. “My crimes? Are you sure they were mine, Father?”

Odin leaned forward. “If not yours, then whose?”

Loki did not reply, simply gazed at him with his bright emerald eyes. Those eyes usually sparkled with mischief and fun. But there was something different about them on this day. They were flat and lifeless, like the eyes of a corpse.

Odin shuddered. His sense of uneasiness increased. The apathetic response was not like Loki. “Did you not bring war, chaos, and death to Midgard?” he persisted.

Loki’s lip curled. “So you believe. According to my brother’s testimony.”

“Loki! Speak plainly!” Odin ordered.

Again those lifeless orbs met his one good eye. “For mercy’s sake, if you are going to execute me, then just swing the axe. It is what you wish is it not? To remove the mistake you made so long ago, by harboring the Jotun monster in your midst. Do it and be done! Then your precious true son can rule. As you said he was meant to.”

Loki’s words were spoken in a tone devoid of emotion, as if he discussed the fate of some stranger, not his own.

Odin shook his head. “I will not execute my own son.” He was goading the king to kill him. Indeed, he looked almost distraught when Odin refused. “What in Hel happened to you, Loki?” he asked softly. For he knew something terrible had occurred, for this shell of his once proud and laughing son to stand before him thus.

“Why do you care?” Loki hissed.

Odin frowned. “You are my child.”

“I have none of your blood.” Loki replied chillingly. I am blood of your enemy. Why do you hesitate?”

“Why do you wish to die?” Odin countered.

“Why would I not?” Loki spat. His eyes were deep pools of despair and they sucked Odin into their depths, where the old king saw the pieces of a soul shattered.

“What happened to you?” he repeated, trying to draw Loki out.

But Loki simply gazed at him with that bleak look. Then he said two words. “I died.”

Realizing he was getting nowhere with his recalcitrant son, Odin turned to the Einherjari. “Put him back in his room. Remove those,” he indicated the shackles. “He is to be guarded at all times, until I figure out what to do.”

His guards saluted and tugged on the chain, dragging Loki away.

Odin watched him go, his heart heavy as a mountain within him. Oh, Loki what happened to you? I must know! For this is not my son that stood before me. It is naught but a shell, a husk of the brilliant, fun-loving, prankster I used to know. He thought again of what Loki had said to him. I died. Then he recalled what Loki had said when asked about his crimes. Are you sure it was me who committed them? What was that supposed to mean? That Thor lied? Odin did not believe that. Or that Thor had been mistaken? There was something he was missing, and he was determined to figure out what it was.

He rose from his throne. He needed to speak with his Watcher.

As he was leaving to travel to the Bifrost interface where Heimdall watched, Frigga approached. “Did you find out what happened?” she asked worriedly.

Odin sighed. “Not really. I need to see Heimdall.”

“Loki would not speak with you?”

Odin shook his head. Then he leaned down and whispered what Loki had said in her ear.

Frigga put a hand to her mouth, her blue eyes gleaming with tears. “Odin! He wanted you to—to execute him? Norns have mercy!”

“He is lost, Frigga. Broken,” the king whispered. “And I must find out why.”

Together they went towards the Bifrost.

 

Loki’s chambers:

 

The Einherjar unlocked the shackles and took them away, leaving Loki alone in his chambers. They looked the same as always, with the green carpet and golden wood floors, the velvet draperies drawn back so he could see the noonday sun on the balcony, and the large four poster bed with its green hangings and duvet. His books and desk remained the same as when he had left, yet nothing was the same.

Loki rubbed absently at his wrist where a shackle had irritated his skin then shrugged and went to sit in the window seat. He gazed out at the picturesque landscape but his eyes were unseeing of the beauty they beheld. Instead they saw only nightmares.

 

Bifrost:

Heimdall stared as he saw his monarchs approaching. He waited politely with his hands at his sides for them to arrive, then he bowed and said, “My Queen, Sire, what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

“I wish to speak with you about Loki,” Odin began with a nod.

“What about him?” Heimdall asked.

“I wish to know what occurred after Loki fell from the Bifrost into the Void.” Odin said calmly. “No, not fell . . . he let go. Tell me, Heimdall, what you Saw after I restored you.”

Heimdall looked uncomfortable. “Sire, why—” he began, but Odin cut him off.

“Tell me!”

Loki’s chambers:

 

Loki stared out the window, wondering why he was still alive, when the doors to his room opened and Thor strode in. Thor always strode everywhere, commanding attention as he always did. Loki ignored him until Thor came up to him.

“Loki,” Thor began.

Loki turned his head a quarter turn. “What do you want?” he asked colorlessly. “Come to gawk at the prisoner?”

“No. I came to see how you were,” his brother replied.

Loki rolled his eyes. “You’ve seen. Now leave. I don’t need a guard or a baby minder. I have two already.” He jerked his chin at the door, where the Einherjari were on duty.

Thor winced at the drawled lifeless tone. “No, but perhaps you need a brother.” He seated himself beside Loki in the window seat and together they looked out the window, not speaking.

Loki stiffened, but made no attempt to protest, simply gazing out the window with unseeing eyes, his mind far away.

Thor wished to put a hand upon his brother’s shoulder, but did not dare. So he just sat beside him, hoping his presence would bring Loki out of the fugue he wandered in.

Bifrost:

 

Odin glared at his friend and Watcher. “Let me see if I am comprehending this correctly. You Saw Loki captured by this Thanos being and brought aboard his ship, where Thanos proceeded to interrogate my son on the whereabouts of the Tesseract which Bors had hidden deep upon the Earth, and when Loki refused to speak of it, Thanos tortured him and mind-raped him with some alien scepter device and you didn’t tell ME?!”

His fists clenched and his good eye flared.

“Heimdall, why? We asked you where Loki was,” Frigga began, laying her arm upon her husband.

Heimdall looked ashamed. “I . . . At first I could not See where Loki had gone. Then later . . . I . . .refused to tell you because I was angry. Loki had betrayed me by freezing me solid and . . . bringing Laufey into Asgard. So I thought . . . we were well rid of him after . . .”

“You thought? You thought?” Odin raged. “You pledged as my Watcher to tell me anything of import in the Nine! I trusted you to keep your word! And instead I find you keeping secrets! About my own son! Because of your hurt pride!”

Heimdall bowed his head and went to his knees. “Forgive me, Sire. I overstepped . . .”

Power crackled about the furious god. “I ought to . . .!”

Before Odin could complete his sentence, Frigga placed her hand on his arm again. She was the only one who would have dared to do this. “Odin! Think about what you are doing, dear,” she called. “Yes, Heimdall made a grave error, but—”

“But what, Frigga?” Odin snapped. His power flickered. “He watched our son being tortured!

“I know. And he owes restitution to Loki. But . . . Heimdall is not the one you ought to be furious with,” Frigga reminded. “It is this Thanos who deserves your wrath.”

The angry king paused, reining in his volatile temper, to consider what his beloved wife had said.

Long moments passed, and Heimdall remained on his knees, praying to all the Norns that Frigga’s cool common sense would prevail.

"You are right, dear wife," Odin finally said.

Heimdall heaved out a breath of relief.

Odin held out a hand. “Get up off your knees, you fool! I ought to beat you senseless, but I will allow you this mercy.” Heimdall allowed himself to be drawn to his feet.

“Thank you, My King.”

“Humph!  Thank Frigga.” Odin snorted. “Now . . . tell me where this Thanos is.”

"I have seen him in two locations.  One is the planet called Titan.  The other is a vessel called  the Q-Ship.  That is how Loki was rescued from the Void.  They used some sort of beam to bring him on board the ship," Heimdall said.

“I see,” the king said thoughtfully, rubbing his beard.

Frigga eyed him askance. “Odin, what are you planning?”

Her husband gave her a sly smirk, his blue eye glinting wrathfully. “I am planning to show this upstart Titan that one does not harm a member of my family.” He turned to Heimdall. “Open the Bifrost.”

“As you will, Sire.” Heimdall inserted the sword into the interface and the Rainbow Bridge sprang to life.

Before he could disappear, Frigga called, “Give him a few from me, dear!”

 

Titan:

 Thanos perched upon his hover throne, watching the goings on of his Black Order as they walked among the populace, who shrank from them. Nebula and Proxima Midnight strolled along the street, both women carrying their signature weapons, their blue skin glinting in the afternoon sun.

Beside the giant Titan was his right-hand man, Corvus Glaive, a tall, lean muscled alien who wielded a weapon of the same name. On his left was the pale and slender Ebony Maw, an alien with wrinkled parchment like skin, haunting dark eyes, and a bald head. Maw was Thanos’ spokesperson as well as his master torturer, a psychic who could break minds and telekinetically restrain people. Behind the throne was the hulking Cull Obsidian, a brown skinned creature the size of a barn with a fierce expression on his face.

Thanos stirred, and as he glanced over to his right there came a brilliant flare of rainbowed light and then it resolved into Odin, whose form seemed to tower to the heavens, Gungnir crackling in his grip, his good eye flaring with his Odinforce. His Asgardian golden armor gleamed with light, and his helmet sparked with lambent energy.

Thanos frowned. “Well, well, my children. Look who has dropped by to see us. It’s the Wanderer of Asgard!”

“SILENCE!” Odin thundered. “You face the Wrath of the Allfather!”

“And you face the wrath of Thanos!” Ebony Maw taunted.

Odin spun upon him, recalling what Heimdall had told him, and suddenly Gungnir flew from his hand.

The Black Spear was like a flicker of light as it sped towards the psychic alien.

Maw attempted to halt Gungnir with his telekinesis, but the Black Spear was not affected by the alien’s mind powers and blew through the shield as if it were paper.

Maw gurgled as Gungnir impaled him, slamming the master torturer into the earth. He shrieked in agony as Odin twisted the spear and yelled, “No one tortures my son and lives to tell the tale! No one!

Heimdall had informed Odin that Ebony Maw had mentally tortured Loki under Thanos’ directive until he broke him.

Odin summoned his power and Gungnir crackled with electricity, lighting up Maw like a star gone supernova before it reduced him to ash.

“Maw!” Thanos bellowed, shocked that his favorite lieutenant was dead. He pointed one purple finger at Odin. “Kill him!”

But the Asgardian King of the Nine was not so easily defeated. Corvus Glaive launched himself at the god, his spear that cut through almost anything slicing through Odin’s armor and cutting his side.

But Odin shrugged off the hit and spun, conjuring a sword out of nothing, and used the magical weapon to shatter the glaive into pieces. Corvus gasped as his weapon fell at his feet, then before he could dodge, Gungnir found his heart.

“Brother!” Cull Obsidian howled and went to slam Odin with his giant fist.

But the old king ducked the blow, which might have knocked him down, and Cull’s fist swiped harmlessly over his head. Then Odin augmented his strength with his Power and slugged Cull so hard the huge creature was knocked ass over teakettle and sent flying off the hill to crash down on top of a house a few miles away.

“Nebula! Proxima! To me!” Thanos yelled.

But his daughters were too distant to hear him at first, and Odin took full advantage of that fact. He stamped a boot on the ground and caused an earthquake, which separated the hill where they stood from the earth. His one eye flashing destruction, Odin growled, “Now, Mad Titan, you face me! And for your evil actions towards Loki I will teach you a lesson you will be dying to learn!”

Thanos laughed. “I beg to differ, old man! It is you who will be dying this day! Like your weak-willed son, whose weakness was his family!” the Titan sneered.

Then Thanos pulled a disruptor from his belt and fired it.

The destructive ray sliced into the god’s armor . . . and was repelled by the mystic protections upon it.

Odin spun the Black Spear about and thrust it at the Titan, who parried with a black blade that shimmered in the light.

Back and forth the two titanic beings struggled, light entwined with dark, and blood spattered the broken ground. But despite Thanos’s greater strength and younger body, the Mad Titan found he could not prevail over the Allfather.

The Odinforce lent the elder Asgardian the energy and power of a thousand suns, it was the primal force of the universe itself, harnessed into a form that a physical being could wield, and Odin did so with impunity.

For he knew from Heimdall that not only did Thanos mind control and torture Loki, the Watcher had spoken to him of a distant future where this mad being in his quest for ultimate power would someday destroy half the universe and begin that destruction over the body of Loki.  Odin knew he had to prevent that from happening. Thanos must not be allowed to gain control over the Infinity Stones. Not now and not ever.

Odin’s hand shot out, faster than the blink of an eye, and closed upon the Titan’s neck.

Thanos’ eyes went wide, and he tried to wrench Odin’s fist from him, gasping with denial.

The old god snarled, “This is for Loki! For all that you have done—and all that you will do!”

“Release me!”

“As you wish!” Odin thundered and then he summoned the OdinForce through his gauntleted hand.

Thanos lit up like a giant supernova before he exploded.

Below on the ground, Nebula and Proxima Midnight screamed in horror as they saw Thanos destroyed and discovered Glaive and Maw dead, their bodies lay where they had fallen.

Odin turned, still haloed by his majestic and terrifying might. One finger stabbed down at the two women. “You!” he bellowed. “Bear witness to my righteous wrath! And know that whosoever brings harm upon my family, will reap that harm a thousandfold! I, Odin, King of Asgard, give you this warning!”

So the universe was saved from the depredations of a madman, and millions of lives and worlds, because of a father’s vengeance.

Odin thrust Gungnir towards the sky and as if on cue, the brilliant rainbowed light of the Bifrost washed over him and transported him away, back to Asgard, where he hoped he could help his son mend the broken pieces of his heart and mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

A triumphant Odin returned from Titan, and walked swiftly back to his chambers in the palace to have his squire remove his armor and put the Black Spear in the armory. His squire, Halfdan, clucked worriedly over the wound in the king's side. "Shall I fetch Healer Eir, My King?"

Odin shook his head. "It's a scratch, Halfdan. Frigga can see to it."

At that precise moment, the queen entered their chambers. "Odin, you're back! Tell me, did you give that skulking coward what for?" she demanded, sounding as fierce as a dragon, for indeed she was such when the lives of her sons were threatened.

"Aye, love." Odin answered, sitting on a chair beside the settee, stripped to the waist.

"Oh, you are injured!" his wife exclaimed. "Let me clean that for you."

"I shall fetch the medical kit, My Queen," said Halfdan, and then scurried off to do so.

When the squire returned, Frigga set about gently cleaning and bandaging the cut in her husband's side, using special salve that prevented infection and promoted quick healing.

While she did so, Odin told her what had happened on Titan, and how Thanos was no more.

 

Loki's chambers:

After an interminable time staring out the window, Loki finally blinked and returned to the present. He turned and saw Thor sitting beside him still, and quirked an eyebrow. "Why are you still here?"

"I thought you might wish to talk a bit," Thor said. He rang for Ravn, Loki's valet, and asked the small man to bring them something to drink and some food. Ravn bowed, he was dressed in Loki's livery, a green tunic with a black border and Loki's silver serpent on the left breast.

"At once, My Prince."

When the valet was gone, the two were quiet for a few moments, until Loki stirred and sighed. There was one thing he needed to know.

"Did…? Did Father know what happened to me after I fell off Bifrost?"

"I remember Mother demanding he look for…"

"My body?"

"Yes."

"You told me all of you mourned. Does that mean there was a funeral?"

"There was."

"But Odin never looked, did he? He just used an illusion for my funeral."

"Loki…."

"He never looked! Or Heimdall never did!"

"Why wouldn't Heimdall look for you?"

"I froze him solid, remember?! His not looking was his revenge!"

"But that would be in violation of his duties."

Thor felt a ball of ice building in his chest, of regret and sorrow, while Loki just shook his head, his eyes dark.

"Nearly every night, I would call out for Odin, you, Heimdall… Mother… I begged you to rescue me, but I knew you couldn't."

"That was due to us destroying Bifrost."

"Once I knew no one was going to rescue me . . . that something blocked my telepathy . . . Once Thanos broke me…. I did whatever he wanted."

"Then I was right. You were being controlled."

"I was. But while we were fighting, I finally freed myself."

"How?"

"Simple. Regardless of the anger or hatred I had for you, seeing you there… Seeing how hard you were fighting to save me… It helped me remember how much I love my big brother." His voice broke, like glass splintering against solid rock.

Thor pulled him into an embrace as Loki wept quietly into his brother's shoulder, hot tears slipping down his cheeks. He clung tightly to Thor, as if to a lifeline in a storm, for he felt like he was drowning in fear and pain. Thor simply held him, his own heart breaking, for he hated that Loki was in such turmoil and he felt guilty that he had not come to Loki's aid.

Once he calmed down, Loki drew away, wiping the tears out of his eyes and Thor sadly smiled at him.

"Forgive me, Brother," the sorcerer muttered, his emerald eyes lowered in shame. "I . . . am not myself lately."

"You have been wounded, Loki. But we will help you heal," Thor promised.

Loki nodded, feeling an immense weariness sweep over him. He was so tired . . . tired of fighting, tired of pretending everything was fine when it was not. He felt dead inside, empty as a hollowed out piece of driftwood, and he doubted there would be anyone who could mend what Thanos had shattered. Or who would want to.

Ravn returned with a tray. On it were two tankards of mead, fruit, sharp cheese, freshly baked rolls, thinly sliced ham and a container of honey mustard. "Here you go, my lords. I shall return later for the tray, sir." He exited, sensing the brothers wished to be alone.

Thor fixed himself a large sandwich, watching in alarm as Loki took a small amount of the food. "That's all you're eating? That's barely enough for a sparrow!"

"It's enough. I have no real appetite," his brother replied, nibbling some cheese.

Thor sighed but did not press. He leaned forward to pick up his mead and Loki noticed an odd thing.

"Thor, why do you have a lock of dark hair on the right side?" He indicated a piece of hair braided and tied with a green tie.

Thor took a large swallow before answering, "It's a mourning lock. For you."

Loki looked startled. "For me? I . . ." He paused searching for words. ". . . Am honored."

Thor coughed. "It seemed the right thing to do. The palace . . . was empty without you, Loki."

Loki did not know what to say, how to feel. Or rather, he did not know how to let himself feel anymore. The fact that his family had mourned him as dead surprised him only because he thought they would have been glad, like Heimdall, to be rid of him. During his captivity, Ebony Maw had insinuated that no one loved him, not even Frigga. All of them thought he was a disappointment, a failure that never should have been born. That insidious statement had been repeated so often into his subconscious by the wicked psychic that Loki had begun to believe it.

A part of him still did.

It was why he had thought Odin would execute him. Instead he had allowed him to live. It was a small mercy, Loki supposed. If only he felt grateful for it. He nibbled absently on a pear, sipping his mead. Since being captured, nothing tasted right anymore. It was as if his tastebuds, along with everything else, were frozen.

"Where is the king?" he asked Thor abruptly.

"He went to visit Heimdall, I believe. Then I think he went off searching for those bastards who hurt you."

Loki gaped at him. "What? Why?"

"To punish them for hurting you!" Thor declared, astonished Loki would need to ask. "Surely you don't think he would—any of us would—allow them to get away with what they did to you?" His brother's cerulean eyes flashed. "Father will make mincemeat out of them. And you will never need fear them again, Brother."

"I am not afraid," Loki replied automatically. But that was a lie.

Thor looked at Loki askance but did not refute his brother. He would let Loki keep his pride. Then he prayed to the Norns to bring healing to Loki's troubled spirit.

Loki managed to finish a piece of bread, fruit, and a small piece of cheese before pushing the plate away. An awkward silence descended before Thor finished his mead and rose. "You look tired. I will leave you to your rest, Brother. Pleasant dreams."

The younger prince watched him depart and for a fleeting instant opened his mouth to call Thor back. Then he clamped his lips shut. He would be damned if he went whining to Thor like a baby.

Ravn summoned another servant to clear away everything but the bowl of fruit, then went to assist Loki, removing his cloak and boots so the prince could lie down.

When Ravn would have powered the lamps down, Loki said, "Leave one on low, Ravn."

Ravn nodded, saying nothing, though Loki cringed inside.

But he hoped the light would keep the nightmares away.

Ravn tiptoed away, shutting the door quietly. Loki settled down to sleep but found that even among these peaceful surroundings the demons came.

Loki ran down a corridor of black marble, through silent halls filled with the stench of rotting things, and behind him he heard the whisper of the wind as Maw levitated after him, calling in that sickening high-pitched voice.

"Loki! Lo-o-k-i-i! Lo-o-k-i-i!"

He ran, knowing one thing above all. He must not be caught. Or else they would take him back—back to the room of shadows, to have his mind probed and his self stripped from him.

He shuddered, sweating.

Where is the Tesseract? Where? Where? Tell me where it is? You know you want to. Tell me!

Maw's voice in his head. Unceasing, pounding at his shields, chipping away at them bit by bit.

He had fought, but the bastard was strong, bloated full of psychic strength like a puff adder from the victims who he had broken before Loki. For that was Maw's secret, the one Loki had learned before being discovered. Maw drew his strength from his victims, taking their psychic power for his own. He fed off it and upon it, using their pain and suffering and despair. An alien, but similar to a psychic noseferatu.

His breath rasped in his throat, yet still he ran. On and on, feeling Maw's psychic claws scrabbling at his brain, searching for a way in.

"Lo-o-o-k-i-i!"

Pain stabbed him like a thousand shards of glass. He stumbled, going to one knee.

"Surrender! There is no escape!" Maw taunted. "I will know all your secrets, Jotun prince!"

"Go to Hel!" Loki spat defiantly.

Pain exploded in his head and he felt himself falling—falling into darkness . . .

"Tell me!" Maw ordered. "Where is the Tesseract?!"

Loki sat up, yelling, "I don't know! It is lost! Lost!"

Sweat drenched him and his ebony hair straggled about his pale face.

He clutched his head, groaning at the headaches that always seemed to accompany such vivid nightmares.

Suddenly guards and Ravn burst into the room.

"My Prince, are you well?" asked the young Asgardian.

The guards searched for intruders while the blond valet ran to his master, alarm written on his face.

Ravn reached out to touch Loki, and then drew his hand back, yelping in pain as frost rimed his fingers.

Loki blinked, coming out of the nightmare that had gripped him. He brushed his hair from his eyes, seeing Ravn at his bedside, shaking his stinging hand. "Ravn? What happened?"

"Twas nothing, My Prince," the valet said through gritted teeth. "You were having a nightmare, sir—"

Loki eyed him warily, then saw the frostbitten fingers. "Did I do that?"

"It was my fault, sir. I went to wake you and . . . startled you," Ravn replied.

"My apologies. I thought . . . you were . . . someone else . . ." Loki murmured. You wretched fool! You could have killed the boy! "Here. Let me see." He held out his hand.

"My Prince, it is fine—"

"Ravn. Let me see," Loki ordered wearily.

The valet placed his hand in Loki's. Loki shook his head, angry at himself. "Next time I dream, don't touch me," he told Ravn stiffly. He traced a rune above the youth's hand. Then he blew on it.

The valet's fingers turned pink again and Ravn gasped in relief. "Thank you, sir."

Loki snorted. "You shouldn't thank me. I was the one who gave you frostbite."

"An accident. Do you wish anything else, sir? Some warm mulled wine, milk and honey . . ."

"Water," Loki answered. "Just put it down on the nightstand. Then go."

"Aye, sir." The valet bowed and left, and Loki cursed his weakness.

He sipped the water, trying to breathe deeply to calm his racing heart, and cursing his lack of control. He never would have done something like that before . . . before Maw had tortured him. Somehow the ghostly alien had shattered Loki's control over his frost magic.

Weak fool! Now you are not only a coward, you are a dangerous one! He castigated himself. Once he had prided himself on his iron discipline and control over his arcane power. But whatever Maw had done to him had broken that control and now he was no better than an apprentice.

He set his cup down and tried to find sleep again, for the clock said it was still the wee hours of the morning. But sleep proved an elusive quarry and he tossed and turned until the sun's rays peeked through the drapes on the balcony. Then and only then did he succumb to the sleep he craved, his mind drifting.

 

The king's chambers:

Frigga helped Odin put on his purple and gold robe of estate, and as she did so, she said, "Have you heard what happened last night with Loki?"

Her husband nodded. "Yes, Muninn informed me of it. He said Loki had a nightmare."

"He did not mean to hurt Ravn," Frigga began, her sky-blue eyes concerned.

"I know that, dear. Do you forget, I am a mage too?" Odin reminded gently. "I know what it is to suffer from night terrors. And to mistakenly lash out when wakened suddenly." He sighed and touched the side of her face.

The queen closed her hand over his. "Will you never stop beating yourself up over that? I was stupid to try and awaken you after you had just arrived home from the war with Jotunheim. And see? My cheek healed with no scar." She smiled at him.

"I will never stop regretting that. Even though you forgave me."

"Odin, you and Loki are much alike," Frigga said. "Both of you stubborn as stones and hardest upon yourself." She squeezed his hand before letting go. "You need to forgive yourself once in awhile, husband. Now what shall we do about Loki?"

Odin paced, his hands behind his back, thinking. Frigga walked beside him, not speaking, allowing him to ponder. Her husband seemed to think best on his feet, she thought in amusement. While the royal couple walked, their servants came in and tidied up their chambers, making the bed, running the sweeper over the carpet, and polishing the furniture.

Frigga had already considered a possible solution towards helping her son recover, but she remained silent, wishing to see if Odin would also consider the same thing. After thousands of years of marriage, they tended to think along the same lines—unless Odin allowed his temper to cloud his judgment.

Odin halted, his expression firming. Frigga turned to face him, her sapphire samite gown rustling about her feet. "Well?" she queried, one golden brow arching. "Have you thought of a solution, dear heart?"

"I believe so. That pox ridden psychic hurt Loki in ways that we cannot imagine. And given the fact that we have also hurt him by withholding the truth of his heritage, we have lost his trust."

Frigga nodded regretfully. "That is so." It pained her deeply to think that the son she adored now felt she had betrayed him. But she could not deny that he was right to feel so—for she had allowed herself to be swayed by her husband, and now they must reap the whirlwind. "Perhaps someday we can gain it back."

"Yes. But right now, Loki needs more help than you or I can give him. For all my power, I do not know how to heal a broken mind and heart." He held up a finger. "But I know of one who does."

"Go on."

"Lady Vivienne of Scarpsey," Odin stated, naming a town not far from the capital city. "Otherwise known as Lady Viva."

"The Mind Healer renowned across Asgard for her work with war torn veterans and victims of abuse," Frigga smiled. "I have met her. A lovely young woman. She came to the palace to deliver a presentation on her work. I was most impressed with her."

"As was I," Odin conceded. "She helped General Tyr and others. I think she is one of the few who could help Loki. She is experienced and she is also compassionate."

"She is also a skilled Empath and Dreamwalker," Frigga reminded. "I think if anyone can gain Loki's trust and heal him it is her."

"I agree, love," Odin nodded. "I shall send Muninn to her with a message without delay. I cannot bear to watch him suffer."

"Nor can I," Frigga asserted. "After breakfast, I will go and speak with Loki, and see how he is faring. I will mention your decision to employ Lady Viva and hope that he sees the wisdom in it."

"That is good. I will be in a council meeting, discussing the unusual activity of the Dark Elves. Tell me how it goes later."

"I will," Frigga said, and then she kissed him lightly before taking his arm, allowing him to escort her to the hall for breakfast.

 

Loki's chambers:

 

Loki picked at his breakfast, even the tantalizing aroma of brown sugar bacon and lefse with cloudberry jam and butter failing to whet his appetite. He drank the peppermint tea, however, in hopes that it would quiet his stomach, pushing the rest of the plate to the side. He would eat later.

Ravn frowned worriedly, but said nothing, simply leaving the plate, hoping that his master's appetite would return later. He departed with the tray, and Loki retreated to the window seat to gaze out upon the gardens, a book lying forgotten in his lap.

He wondered when he would be summoned again before Odin. Then he shook his head. Best not to dwell upon it. He did not care what happened to him any longer.

There came a knock on the door, and Loki looked up to see one of his Einherjari holding the door open for his mother to enter.

"Loki," she began, a smile gracing her beautiful face.

"Hello, Mother," he said quietly, remaining seated, though good manners prodded him to rise. He gestured to himself, then with a twist of his lips, said derisively, "Have I made you proud?"

A/N: Thanks everyone for the awesome response to this story so far!

Next: A conversation with Frigga and Lady Viva receives a letter from the king.

Chapter Text

 

Frigga winced at the pain in her son's eyes, pain that she knew was a result of not just the torture he had endured, but also the lies that she and Odin had perpetrated for years. In the beginning, it had been done for an infant Loki's safety, but once he was the Prince of Asgard, and old enough to understand, they should have told him the truth. But hiding it became a habit, until the truth had come out in the worst possible fashion, resulting in betrayal and hurt.

She went to sit down in a chair beside the desk, some feet away from him, and replied, "Loki, I have always been proud of you."

He quirked an eyebrow, clearly in disbelief. "Have you? You are proud of the wreck I am?" He gestured again to himself. "I find that hard to believe."

Frigga sighed. "You are not a wreck."

"I am falling apart!" he said harshly. "Let's not hide behind a façade here. Like you did all my life."

"What do you mean?" she asked softly.

"I mean the façade that we were all one big happy family," he sneered. "That was a lie. I am not even of your family. I am the castoff son of your enemy that Odin took in out of pity or some twisted need to use me as a political pawn. And you agreed to it. You are not my mother."

"Not by blood. But I have always loved you, Loki."

He gazed at her, wondering if he dared to believe that. Once he would not have doubted. But that was before Ebony Maw. "If you are proud of me, then why hide the truth all those years?"

She twisted her hands in her lap. "It was not because I was ashamed of you. Of what you were born as. It's complicated."

"Deception usually is," Loki answered softly, but with a bleak edge to his tone.

Frigga sighed. "I deserved that. Your father and I betrayed your trust. But it was not done to hurt you. In the beginning, it was done to protect you. Odin had many enemies, who wouldn't have hesitated to destroy you if they learned whose son you truly were."

"I have been grown long beyond needing my father's protection," Loki refuted. "A thousand years or more. So why wait?"

"When your father placed you in my arms, I told him it did not matter if you were Laufey's son. Because he had given you up, and did not deserve you. From then on, you were my son, the same as Thor, even though I did not bear you. I cautioned your father against waiting too long to tell you the truth, but he thought it best to wait until all his enemies were dead or neutralized. He made me promise to keep it a secret until he decided the time was right."

"When was that? Never?"

He could not keep the bitterness from his tone, it leaked out despite the numbness enfolding him like a cloak.

"We became . . .complacent after so long," she replied regretfully. "Believing that things should just go on as they were, and the tangled web we wove would never need to be broken. But we should have known better. Eventually all secrets will be revealed, intentionally or not, one way or another. So we waited, long past the time when we should have told you the truth, and the Norns took matters into their own hands."

Loki shook his head. "But there is more to this than simply not telling me I was adopted. Father made sure to teach me and Thor as boys that our enemies were Jotun-and I am Jotun! How could he do such a thing? He made me believe I was a monster and evil!" His voice rose, slipping his control. "Why do you think I let go? Because I could not stand to know that I was nothing more than a monster!'

His voice was a hoarse rasp of pain so deep it made his soul bleed.

"No!" Frigga cried. "Don't say such a thing. I never believed you were a monster! Never! You were always my son!" She silently cursed Odin for telling her impressionable sons the old tales of war and violence. "Your father made peace with the Jotun eventually. Because we were all tired of the endless slaughter and blood."

Loki gazed at her, and felt a flicker of hope within his chest. But it was fragile, like the gossamer wings of a butterfly in a windstorm. "You say you did not believe. . . but what of Father? He stole me like he did the Cask of Ancient Winters, another relic to use as he saw fit."

"No, he never thought of you as a monster. Or a pawn or a relic. You were an innocent."

"But he killed Jotun children and infants before. Why stop with me?!"

She heard the venom and pain his voice and she desperately wanted to get off the chair and hold him. But she hesitated.

"When he was in battle, he used his magic to kill the Jotun from a distance. He never looked them in the eye. It was only when he saw you... A small, frightened babe... It softened his warrior heart. He couldn't bring himself to slaughter someone so innocent."

Loki felt the flicker of hope grow a little stronger, but he still wasn't convinced. Maw had driven it into him that Odin only wanted him as a puppet. A tool to be used later on.

"It is hard to believe what you say when I know from experience that he only cared for Thor. Never mind he was the heir and crown prince. He praised everything Thor did! Where was my praise!?"

His voice was cracking again as the flicker of hope grew smaller and he wanted to smash something.

"He did praise you," Frigga said, fighting the urge to hold him. She sensed he would not permit her to touch him right then.

"When!? When did he ever praise me!?"

The pain was rising to the point where he couldn't stand it another second and Frigga noticed the agonized look in his eyes. She had never seen Loki look that way, and it tore her to pieces.

Unwanted. Disgraced. No one ever loved you. Maw's voice in his head, whispering words that poisoned his vulnerable spirit.

"Loki, what's is the matter?" she asked, finally rising from the chair. She had noticed the air in the room was becoming ice cold and frost had formed on the windowpanes and mirrors.

She never loved you.

"Loki, please, talk to me."

She never wanted you.

He did not respond, his eyes gone flat and empty.

"Loki, you are beginning to frighten me."

She wants to kill you.

"No!" Loki shouted as his skin became blue and his eyes turned blood red. "Leave me alone!"

Suddenly, the guards burst into the room. Frigga turned and Loki placed his head in his hands.

"My queen, you must leave! He might harm you!" one of the guards shouted and she saw they had their weapons drawn.

"My son would not hurt me," she replied.

"I knew Odin should have killed him!" the other guard said, softly, but Frigga had heard him.

"Get out!" Frigga said, glaring at the guard. "And you are dismissed!"

Loki shivered and muttered. "Get out of my head . . .get out . . .!"

"My Queen. We need to go!" the guard pleaded.

Frigga carefully moved toward her youngest son as Loki rocked back and forth and she wondered what to do. She was sure he needed her, but the idea of him accidentally harming himself or her also filled her mind.

"Loki?" she called in a soft voice, praying to the Norns he could hear her. "Loki, it's alright. You're safe. Whatever you are seeing or hearing isn't real. Please. Please return to me."

The prince whimpered in pain. "Stay out of my head, you bastard spawn of Thanos. Stay . . . out!" he snarled, and with a tremendous effort he shoved Maw's voice away and opened his eyes, squinting at the bright light.

He now had a pounding headache, but Maw's voice had ceased to whisper. He pulled back his frost magic and the room returned to its normal temperature. "I . . .I didn't mean to . . .sorry . . ." he began, and a wave of exhaustion crashed over him.

He slumped over in the window seat, and a moment later was sound asleep.

Frigga gave a sigh of relief that her spell had worked. If Loki had not been caught off guard, she might not have been able to send him to sleep, for the student had outstripped his teacher years before. In fact, Frigga knew of only one other person who had outclasse her, and that one was her younger sister, long dead.

She turned to see Ravn and the remaining guard, Eirik, behind her. "Help me put him to bed," she ordered.

As the two men did as she had ordered, she waved a hand and swapped out Loki's clothes for soft pajamas. Then she tucked the covers around her son. "Ravn, I want you to call me when he wakes."

"Yes, My Queen."

"Furthermore, you are not to gossip about what happened here today. I will, however, tell you this. Prince Loki was kidnapped by some of the most evil beings in the realms and interrogated and put under coercion by them when he refused to tell them where some powerful objects were hidden. That is why he is like this. But I want no gossip. You are to speak of this only to stop rumors of the wrong kind from spreading. Am I understood?"

"Yes, My Queen." They bowed to her.

"I will pray for him to know peace," Eirik said. "Knew a few of my friends who came back from the Muspelheim War like that," he said sympathetically.

Then Frigga departed, and went looking for Odin. She found him in his study, going over some correspondences with his Chief Secretary. He looked up as his wife entered. "Frigga, how is Loki?"

She looked upset. "He is not well, Odin. I need to speak to you in private."

Odin nodded and dismissed his secretary. Then he activated the privacy wards about the study so no one could eavesdrop. "Darling, what has happened?"

"Loki had . . . he had an . . . episode of some kind . . . like a waking nightmare . . ." she explained what had gone on. "Odin, I was lucky that I could put him to sleep this time. We need to get help for him now."

"I shall write to Lady Viva and send Muninn at once," Odin reassured her. "If she agrees to come, then I shall tell Loki."

"I just hope he will accept her help." Frigga murmured. "If those beasts weren't already dead, I would wring their necks!"

Odin patted her hand. "And I would let you!"

"Let me? I would like to see you stop me," she snorted.

Her husband laughed. "I would not dare." Then he took out a pen and began to write.

Viva's house:

The raven circled over the neat house carved of blue stone that sat at the end of Whistle Street. In the front yard was a flowering pink yarwood tree, whose blossoms carpeted the thick grass. Rosebushes and hollyhocks framed the front walk and on the porch was a white walnut rocker with an embroidered green and blue cushion on it. Upon the cushion was a large fluffy gray and white cat with deep blue eyes. Underneath the rocker was another cat, younger, gold and white, with emerald eyes.

The gray and white cat yawned and stretched, watching as the large raven landed in the yarwood tree. Muninn cawed at the feline, then took wing again and flew in through a window.

Once inside the house, the raven noted this was a parlor, with comfortable blue couches made of a kind of material known as whisperfoam, which cradled the person sitting on it, and made them feel as if they were weightless and sitting on a cloud. There were tall lamps with flower petal globes and a thick rug with many patterns was in front of the fireplace. The fire crackled in the grate, filling the room with the aroma of applewood. Behind the couches was a vast bookshelf filled with many volumes. Ensconced on the couch, with a knitted afghan thrown over her knees, was a young woman reading a book.

She wore a simple aqua tunic and cream-colored pants, her feet were under the blanket. She had dark hair cut short that framed her pixie-like face, which was dominated by large expressive eyes, one blue one and one green one. The book was propped up on her knees, and she absently ate a handful of peanuts and tiny chocolate drops from a bowl as she read.

"Greetings, Lady Viva!" Muninn cawed as he landed gently on the back of the couch, the missive from the king tied to a cylinder on his leg.

Viva jerked up, startled, and almost spilled her bowl of nuts and chocolate on the rug. "By the Nine! It's the king's raven!"

Muninn bobbed his head. "Hello, pretty lady!" he cooed, extending his head for her to scratch his crest.

Viva's pale fingers obligingly rubbed the bird, and Muninn made a sort of happy chirruping noise. "Do you have a letter for me?" she asked softly.

"Of course!" Muninn held out his leg so she could remove the tube and opened it.

The rolled piece of parchment fell into Viva's lap. She carefully unfolded it and began to read, noting the royal seal at the bottom.

Salutations Lady Vivienne of Scarpsey,

I write to you to request your services as a Mind Healer for my youngest son, Prince Loki. Recently, the prince fell victim to a band of thugs and villains known as the Black Order. While he was their prisoner, my son was compelled to do heinous things by the will of their leader, the Mad Titan Thanos.

Viva gasped, going pale. There was no one who had not heard of Thanos and his Black Order, whose very names struck terror into the people of the realms. "Norns have mercy! Poor Loki!" she murmured. Then she continued to read.

. . .suffering from nightmares, both waking and sleeping, loss of appetite, fatigue, and whatever was done to him has caused him to lose control over his frost magic. It is my hope that you can help heal him, as you have done General Tyr and others who suffered as he has.

If you are willing to take his case, please send word back with Muninn. I will have rooms prepared at the palace for you, and will give you whatever you require to make my son well again. You may name your fee, nothing is too high to pay for my son's recovery.

You have a most impressive reputation, and the queen assures me that you are the best trauma therapist in Asgard.

I await your reply.

Regards,

Odin, King of the Nine

Viva almost fell off the couch. The king wanted her to treat Prince Loki? She was shocked, for she had not thought her reputation preceded her that much. Still, she would not refuse. Not only was this a request from her king, but she would never turn away someone in need. Especially not when that someone was Prince Loki.

"Well?" Muninn queried.

"Tell My King that I will see him tomorrow morning," she told Muninn. "I just need tonight to pack and bring my cats with me."

"Very good, pretty lady!" the raven purred. "I shall tell my master so!"

After one last scratch, Muninn flew out the window again, leaving Viva alone to figure out what she would need in the way of clothes, herbs, books, and other paraphernalia to treat Loki.

As she packed a trunk with books, her cats strolled in from outside and wound about her ankles, purring loudly.

"Hello, darlings!" she laughed, kneeling to pet them. "Kiva, guess what?" she asked the gray cat, who was the mother of the younger one. "We are going on a royal adventure. And you too, Little One." She stroked the kitten, whom she had called that because the kitten used to be tiny, but had since grown into a good sized forest cat. "I just hope the queen's faith in my skills is not misplaced." She stood up. "Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the mortals say."

Then she padded barefoot into the bedroom, to pick out clothing, hoping her embroidered skirts, tunics, and pants would past muster at court. Then she chuckled at her own vanity. You are not going to the palace to play with the courtiers, Viva, but there to work and Heal the prince, who is in sore need of it. She had a feeling this case was going to require all of her skills and then some. But she would not fail. She would Heal Loki, no matter how long it took.

Chapter Text

 

Viva arrived at the palace in a hover coach early in the morning. After reporting to the Steward, who she knew would then inform the king and queen of her arrival, several footmen carried her belongings inside. Two trunks went inside her suite of rooms, for they were her personal items and effects, as well as the cat's. Steward Makon showed her to a room down the corridor from the king's study, stating that she could use this room for her sessions with Prince Loki.

"I thank you, sir," Viva said politely. She saw the room had been outfitted with a desk, a comfortable rolling leather chair, a large carpet of muted blue, green, and cream hues, and a sectional whispercouch.

"Is there anything else you need, lady?" Makon queried, brushing his blond hair back from his forehead. "You have but to ask."

"A low table, some plants, and a tray sent up of tea upon my request," Viva answered.

The Steward bowed and then departed to obtain what she wished.

Viva had the porters carry two bags and a padded large leather case into the room. She discreetly tipped them, they doffed their caps to her, and then she set about remodeling the decor. She had discovered long ago that in order to put her patients at ease and make them talk to her she needed to promote a relaxed environment.

She knelt and opened the cat carriers, allowing the cats out to explore. The two sauntered about the room, sniffing and rubbing against the furniture. Finally they settled upon the couch to nap, letting the Mind Healer work on her improvements.

Loki's chambers:

Even though he had slept, Loki still felt tired. He always felt tired. He also wondered why he bothered waking up.

What's the point? he thought. It took him a few moments before he noticed Ravn and the young man bowed.

"Where...? Where is my mother?" Loki asked, looking around with a slight panic in his voice.

"She left so you can rest, My Prince," Ravn said. "Would you like something to eat?"

"I am not hungry," Loki said as he moved the bedding back. Ravn held up Loki's emerald green silk robe when he saw the fear in Loki's eyes and he placed the robe on the bed. Loki felt a knot of guilt building in his chest as he sighed and lowered his head. "I do apologize."

"There is no need," Ravn said with a small smile. He felt sorry for Loki and hated whoever it was who damaged his once jolly and spirited prince. Loki glanced from the robe to his valet. Then he nodded and Ravn helped him dress in the robe and lambs-wool lined slippers.

"No, you have been my friend for centuries. So, me being jumpy..."

"My prince, stop. I do understand. Honestly, I do."

"Thank you for being so understanding."

"Would you like to talk about it?"

"No. Not right now," he said and Ravn nodded.

"May I speak freely then?" Ravn asked.

"Of course."

"It is true I have no idea what you went through, but you must remember you are not alone. You may believe such foolishness, but the fact is you have more friends and people who care about you then you realize."

"I do know that."

"But you don't believe! I have heard you mumble about being in your brother's shadow, but only because you believe that you are! You are not your brother and he is not you. The thing is, put you two into a situation which needs both brawn and brains and you win nearly every time. Take the revolt in Vanaheim for example."

"What about it?"

"I was there. I saw how the two of you handled it. You were both brilliant in your own way and the revolt was brought to a swift end."

Loki looked at his friend as the fragile hope he had seemed a little stronger and he arched an eyebrow.

"Have I stepped out of line?"

"No," Loki said, shaking his head. "But you have given me something to think about."

"Good!" Ravn said, relieved that Loki was not angry.

Ravn busied himself tidying up the room, and laying out clothes Loki might wish to wear that day. "I've sent Rayna for some peppermint tea, sir. And toast with butter and jam. Sometimes when I'm not very hungry I find I enjoy simple food like that."

Loki gave him a wry glance. "You are determined to worry about me, aren't you?"

Ravn coughed. "It's what friends do, sir." His turquoise eyes twinkled merrily. "If you decide you don't want it, then I'll eat it."

Loki chuckled. "Now you sound like Thor."

"I don't have his or Lord Volstagg's appetite," Ravn returned.

Soon the tea and toast came, Rayna had brought enough for two. Loki allowed himself to sit down at the table in the receiving room and slowly drink his tea and eat some toast. He motioned for the valet to join him, and the two ate companionably.

Ravn gathered the dishes and placed them on the empty cart beside the door when a knock came. The valet answered the door to find Odin on the other side.

"My King, greetings!" Ravn said, bowing.

"Greetings, Ravn. I would like to speak with Loki."

"Of course, Sire. If you will excuse me, I am just going to take this down to the kitchen," the valet said, and stepped aside to allow the king to enter, then departed with the cart.

"Good morning, Loki," Odin greeted his son. He motioned for Loki to remain seated when the younger man would have risen. "No, no, please finish your breakfast. I merely came to see how you were doing and to make a proposal."

Loki eyed his father warily. "Good morning, sir. I am . . . somewhat better than yesterday," he replied cautiously.

He assumed that Odin knew what had happened with Frigga, and had learned of what he had endured at the hands of Thanos and the Black Order, given what Thor had said.

The king noted the wary look in his son's eyes and inwardly winced because he knew that Loki's mistrust of him was all his fault. He was the one who had refused to tell Loki the truth about his heritage, resulting in his son's untimely discovery and subsequent horrified reaction. He was responsible for Loki's self-loathing and in a way had caused Loki's decision to fall off the Bifrost and be captured and tortured. Frigga had warned him long ago, when they had begun this deception, that he might come to regret it—and she had been right, for he regretted it tenfold now. I should have listened to her. But now is too late for regrets. All I can do now is try and pick up the pieces and hope someday that I can mend what has been broken.

Loki set his cup down, swallowing the lump in his throat. Odin looked almost . . .nervous, though the prince could not fathom why that should be so. What had the Allfather to be nervous about?

"Are you unwell, sir?" Loki asked after a few seconds.

"No, I am fine," Odin said, but Loki noticed his hesitation.

His mind is still sharp as his daggers, his father thought.

"Are you sure? You seem a little out of sorts."

"Loki, I... I don't know how to say what I want to say without causing you any more pain."

A ghost of a smile crossed his son's face. "Nothing you can say will hurt me more than what has already been done to me."

"Then let me start by telling you the ones who have harmed you will never do so again."

Loki felt his heart slam in his chest.

He lies, Maw's voice hissed. Nothing can defeat Thanos.

"What are you saying?" Loki asked with suspicion in his voice. Odin took his time as he explained and Loki felt the truth in every word he spoke.

"Thanos... He is truly gone?" Loki asked as he started pacing.

"Yes, as are his people."

"Even... Even Ebony Maw?"

"All of them!"

Loki felt a small sense of relief, but he still felt the anger of Odin's deception and he stopped, turning to look at the man he thought was his father.

"Good! I am glad they are dead," he hissed. Then he gathered what courage he had remaining and asked, "Why did you wait to tell me the truth about whose son I was?"

"I have no excuse except one. I did not want to lose you. Tell me honestly, what would you have done as a child if we had told you? Would you hate your mother and I as you do now?"

"I might have."

"What would you have done? Leave Asgard and return to Jotunheim?"

"It is my home."

Odin felt a pain rip through his heart as he slowly nodded and Loki sighed.

"This is also your home. It always has been," Odin said after a few moments.

"There were times when it didn't feel that way."

"You didn't answer me. Would you have left?"

"I'm not sure. I might have. Just to find answers to my unanswered questions."

"What questions?"

"Who was my mother? Why did Laufey reject me? There had to be more to it then me being small for a Frost Giant. Why was I in that temple?"

Odin nodded while he watched his youngest son trying hard to keep his anger in check then he decided to tell Loki about Viva.

"Maybe I should go and ask him," Loki said, suddenly. Odin did know Loki hadn't killed Laufey when Laufey had gone into Odin's chambers to kill him. He had injured the Frost Giant badly enough, but Laufey had used an emergency portal to escape. No one had seen or heard from him since and most had thought him dead.

"No, I would not advise it. Not right now."

"Why not?! If one "father" won't kill me, the other might!"

Odin felt bile rushing up his throat as his one eye widened and Loki glared at him.

"Is that what you truly wish? To die?"

Loki spread his hands. "Don't you see? I am already dead! And nothing you do will bring me to life again."

"Are you certain of that?"

"Yes!"

"What if there was someone who could help you feel alive again?"

"What are you talking about?! There is no way...!"

"I am talking about Lady Vivienne."

Loki froze. "The Mind Healer who helped Tyr with his night terrors? And his Night Hawks?"

The Night Hawks were Tyr's company that had gone into Muspelheim to fight Surtur-and they had very nearly not come out again. It was said that campaign had scarred them for life. It had-but Lady Vivienne had done something no one else could-she had made the scars something bearable.

"Would you like to speak with her?" Odin asked. Loki heard the concern in Odin's voice and sat down hard in the chair.

"I... I don't know if she can help me," Loki whispered, placing his head in his hands. "I am too far gone."

"No, you are not," Odin said, walking closer and he slowly knelt down in front of his son. Loki didn't move away as Odin gently moved his fingers through Loki's hair. Loki gave a shuddering sigh.

"Tyr insists Lady Viva works miracles. Or something close to it. Will you at least try and let her work with you?"

Don't listen to him! This woman will just use what you say against you! Maw's voice said and Loki pushed the voice deep into his mind before he looked at Odin.

"I would like to try," he said in a soft voice and Odin smiled.

"Please do not be angry, but I have already sent for her."

"She's here?!"

"Yes, would you like to meet her? You don't have to say anything right away, if you don't want to."

"I would like that."

"Would you like to see her now or after lunch?"

"We best get it over with," Loki said, rising and he went behind the dressing screen.

Viva had just finished putting the last painting on the wall of her new office when a knock came at the door.

"Who is it?" she asked.

"It is King Odin and Prince Loki," Odin's voice said from behind the door. She walked to the door when she opened the door and her eyes locked onto the saddest emerald eyes she had ever seen. Loki had picked a green linen tunic, opened at the top, and black trousers. He was still wearing his slippers and his hair hung in curly waves around his shoulders.

"My king," Viva said with a small curtsy then she looked at Loki. "Prince Loki."

"Greetings, Lady Viva," Loki said, softly.

"Would you like to come in?"

She saw some fear in his eyes as Loki nodded and she stood back so he could enter the room.

Sensing his distress, she used her empathic gift to project an aura of calm and welcome, her bi-colored eyes sparkling with warmth.

Loki looked at the paintings while Odin watched him move about the room and Viva turned to the AllFather.

"Do you wish me to stay?" Odin asked.

"No. We'll be fine," she said, slowly closing the door after the king exited. Odin felt the guilt building in his chest as he walked down the hall and a single tear rolled down his cheek.

The cats had awoken at the sound of voices when they looked at Loki as he stood near the painting of the snowcapped mountains.

"Do you like the painting?" Viva asked, walking over to him.

"It is remarkable in detail. Did you paint it?" he asked perceptively.

"I did. It is of the Snowfall Mountains where I grew up." She made a discreet gesture and the painting rippled and suddenly Loki could feel the chill wind off the peaks and hear it softly shushing through the air.

"I find it soothes me to look at it," she told him.

"It is soothing," he agreed and she swore she saw a ghost of a smile on his face.

"Would you like to see another painting?"

Nodding, he let her lead him to another painting and he recognized the location.

"That is the seashore at Kjarten Point," he exclaimed.

"That's right. It is one of my favorite places to go on vacation," Viva told him. Another gesture made the painting emit the soft hush of the ocean waves lapping against the shore and the cry of seabirds.

Loki could almost smell the salty air as he blinked then he swallowed a lump in his throat.

"We... We used to summer there when Thor and I were children," he said.

Sensing an opening, Viva murmured, "Did you make sandcastles? I grew up in the mountains so I never saw the ocean until I came to the Point as an adult. And I fell in love with the ocean and the sand. One of the first things I did was try and build a sandcastle." She laughed, it sounded like the chiming of bells to his ears. "Only I didn't know how and it collapsed when the first waves washed ashore."

"I do remember building a sandcastle once. I spent hours on it. When I was done, I showed it to... To Frigga. She said it was the best sandcastle she had ever seen," he said and she noted he didn't call Frigga "Mother".

"What did your father say when you showed it to him?"

"He... He was more interested in what Thor was doing."

"What was he doing?"

"He had swum out to this large rock all on his own," Loki said, pointing to a large rock sticking out of the water.

"Did Thor like your sandcastle?"

"He...knocked it down."

"Did your parents do anything? Did they make him apologize?"

"No," Loki said with a shake of his head and some of his hair flew into his face.

"That must have upset you very much. To work so hard only to have all your efforts ruined. What did you do?"

"I just walked away."

"You didn't confront him?"

"What was the point? He is allowed to do whatever he wants."

She noticed a hint of a glint in his eyes and she folded her arms over her chest.

"You did do something," she teased.

"Well, he did end up covered in itchy spots for the rest of the trip."

She smirked. "Ah ha! So you didn't get mad you got even."

He nodded his head as she rolled her eyes and he noticed he felt comfortable talking with her.

It was an odd thing for most women made him rather uncomfortable. They either stared at him like he was some exotic creature from another planet, giggled inanely, or babbled about anything and everything. But Viva did none of those things. When he spoke she listened, and her voice was soft and melodic, with a slight burr he could not place.

"You're staring," Viva said and he looked away. He suddenly noticed something rubbing his leg and he looked down, seeing one of Viva's cats.

"Oh," he said, kneeling down and Kiva allowed him to scratch her ear. "Who is this?"

"This is Kiva," Viva said. "Her name means "Lovely Reflection." She told him. "She likes when you pet her under her chin."

Loki obligingly petted the gray and white cat there and Kiva purred loudly and arched her head into his hand, then curled her tail against his arm.

Viva hid a grin as she watched Loki with her cat, clearly Kiva liked him or else she would not have approached him. And he certainly seemed to enjoy Kiva.

"Did you have a pet growing up?"

"I had a cat, Mystic, until she passed on."

"How old were you when she died?"

"Almost twenty. She was quite old by then, and she went peacefully in my arms. Yet I still miss her." He continued stroking Kiva, who meowed for him to pick her up.

Viva watched, observing that he knew what the cat desired, and then gently lifted her into his arms. Kiva purred like a mad motor and snuggled into his arms. "She likes to be held."

Loki relaxed further as he held the purring ball of fur in his arms, the tension slowly draining out of his shoulders and back. Viva smiled and beckoned him to come and sit on the couch with Kiva.

Then she sent to her cat, Very good, my friend. He needs your warmth and the feel of your fur against his skin and to hear your purring.

Kiva winked at her lazily.

They sat on the end of the couch, and Little One came and crawled into Viva's lap to be petted. Viva stroked the kitten and then said, "I hope you don't mind getting cat hair on your clothes. That's an unfortunate side effect of a cat as your friend."

Loki did not answer her for long moments, enjoying the feel of the cat in his arms, his starved spirit soaking up the comfort of the silky fur against his fingers and the vibrating purr that seemed to soothe his anxiety. He slowly turned his head and murmured, "Into every life a little cat hair must fall."

Viva laughed again, her blue and green eyes twinkling. "Yes indeed." She continued stroking Little One. "This is Kiva's kitten. I called her Little One because she was born tiny. But as you can see, she is no longer so little." The kitten took up half her lap.

She noted that Loki's breathing was more relaxed, and his posture was not as erect and stiff as it had been upon first meeting him. She gestured about the office. "How do you like the ice blue walls in here?"

"They are very . . . relaxing," he admitted, gazing at them.

"I find that this color helps me feel calm and serene," Viva said. "It reminds of the mountains on a sunny day at my old home." There was some wistfulness that crept into her tone then.

"You aren't from around here, I take it?" Loki surmised.

"No. I grew up in the north. But I moved here because I grew lonely after my mother passed to Valhalla. And here there were people who needed my skills. The mountains are beautiful, but isolated, which would be fine if I were not a Mind Healer."

"Was your mother one too?" he asked wonderingly.

"No. She was a Seer, among other things. Which was why she liked living in the mountains. Because she said the quiet enabled her to have clarity of vision," Viva answered. "I was raised by her after my parents separated."

Loki caught the slight hurt in her tone, but forbear from asking anymore personal questions. He gazed at her and said softly, "So, like me, you grew up with a father who was not really there."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because for most of my childhood, my father the king was there but did not notice me because of my older brother. I was the shadow prince, and Thor was the sun that eclipsed me."

He shook his head. "I don't know why I am even talking about this. That isn't even why I came to see you. I'm sure you know why I'm here."

Viva nodded. "I am aware of your current situation. However, sometimes a problem you experience in the present has its roots in the past. Which I think is the case here."

Loki steepled his fingers together, ignoring for the moment the purring cat who nudged his arm with her nose. "Tell me honestly, do you think you can help me?"

She met his eyes with her own blue and green eyed gaze. "Yours is not the first case I have dealt with. But I will tell you this-I can help you only if you are willing to be helped. Part of healing comes from within, it is not just from me. So you must want to be healed, or else anything I accomplish will only be a straw victory. Do you understand, My Prince?"

He nodded. "You are saying that only together can we defeat my demons."

"Exactly. It will require an effort on your part as well as mine. But I believe you can beat this. You may not feel that way now, but I see the strength in you. Now you must learn to see it in yourself. And remember, you are not alone. I am here, and I daresay that you have friends and even your family who will also support you." She projected a wave of encouragement at him, bolstering his faltering confidence.

He absorbed it with a gasp. Then he straightened. "I am not sure that I can trust my family . . . not the way I used to."

"Then perhaps we need to work on that," the Mind Healer acknowledged. "I will also tell you this. Trust in me is paramount for me to heal what was broken. But trust is earned, not blindly given. So to begin with, I will tell you what I tell all my new patients. Nothing we discuss goes further than my ears. This entire room is proofed against spying by any means. I do not write anything down of our sessions, except any medications I prescribe. So no one can read your file and find out anything we discuss here."

She tapped her forehead. "I keep anything you tell me in confidence up here. And I tell it to no one, not even your family. On my honor and my life, I swear this."

Loki admitted to himself he was relieved to hear that. But then he recalled how Maw had broken past his own defenses and gotten into his head. But Maw was dead, he reminded himself. Ashes on the wind. Still, he shivered at the mere thought of a dark psychic like that getting into Viva's head.

Viva frowned. "You are troubled. What bothers you?"

"Are you reading my mind?"

"No. I would never read you without permission. But I am an Empath, I can both send and receive emotions. Right now I sense that something we discussed bothers you. You may tell me if you feel you are able."

Loki hesitated. Then he shrugged. "I suppose I might as well. It is only conjecture, after all."

Viva waited patiently.

Finally Loki said, "I . . . was just thinking what if you came up against a dark psychic like Ebony Maw? I would not wish what he did to me on my worst enemy. And I shudder to think what it would do to you."

"I thank you for your concern. But I know how to defend myself against dark psychics. It was part of my training as a Mind Healer. I have repelled those who wished to try and coerce me with their power, and I know how to keep the information I store in my head from falling into the hands of someone who would exploit it."

Loki could tell she was not boasting or exaggerating. Or lying to comfort him. She was being honest. "Can . . . you teach me how to do that, my lady?"

Viva smiled. "I can. But not before I help you heal from the trauma you have endured."

"I would like that very much," he admitted.

"As would I." Viva said. She scratched the kitten under the chin and was rewarded with a loud purr. Then she rose and pulled a velvet blue tasseled cord. "I've taken the liberty of having some tea brought up, Prince Loki. It is my own special blend-it helps with anxiety, stress, and promotes good moods, restful sleep, and stirs your appetite."

"What sort of tea is it?"

"It is one of the secrets of my trade," she told him. "I can give you a bag of it to brew, but not the formula. Or else I shall have to kill you."

Loki stared at her, then realized suddenly she had made a joke and to his astonishment he burst out laughing.

It felt good to laugh again, to find something amusing. It had been too long since he had done that. Perhaps, just perhaps, he wasn't as dead inside as he had thought.

The tea came, and it smelled of fragrant apple blossoms, cinnamon, and other spices he could not put a name to. it tasted mainly of apples and cinnamon but again there was that undefinable something extra that he was unsure of. One thing he did know was that he enjoyed sipping it.

He also enjoyed petting the cat on his lap, and the fact that he could simply sit here and not feel as if he were being judged or compared and found wanting. Or pitied for his broken state.

"Is there anything we should be doing?" he asked suddenly.

"No. For now you can simply relax," she replied. "Just sit here, pet Kiva, drink your tea, and breathe. That's all."

This has to be the strangest Healing session I have ever known, he thought and closed his eyes, chasing down the elusive feeling of peace he had felt momentarily before.

He breathed carefully in and out, and slowly the flicker of hope returned. It was a tiny spark of light in the ocean of pain and despair. But it was there, and Loki prayed it would not go out.

A/N: hope you all liked!

Next: A second and third session occur and also a small setback.

Chapter Text

 

Bifrost:

Heimdall stood at his post while he looked straight ahead, but, for the first time, he wasn't paying attention to what he heard or saw. The sun had risen over the tops of the spires of the city, making everything it touched glisten, but he remained unmoved at the sight. All he could think about was Loki and what he had done to him. He had seen Loki fall. A part of him was glad that the Trickster was gone. It had never matter to him about who and what Loki was. What mattered was he used his Jotun powers against him. Him!

"And look what your pride has brought upon the kingdom," he whispered.

"Do you normally talk to yourself? Not that I blame you. It is so lonely here," a voice said and he turned, seeing Viva behind him. She had moved so silently he had not heard her, even with his enhanced senses. "Well, it is possible to startle the Watcher."

"Welcome, Lady Viva. What can I do for you?" Heimdall asked with a small nod of his head.

"I need you to speak with Prince Loki."

"Why should I do that?"

"It is necessary to his recovery for him to speak with people who know him best."

"For what purpose?"

"He needs to see who cares about him and who he can trust. Seeing how you are somewhat responsible for what happened to him..."

"I did nothing."

"That is what I am saying. You. Did. Nothing."

"Who told you...?"

"No one told me anything. I am empathic and I sensed your guilt. Now, will you speak with him?"

"Will he speak with me?"

"Even if he doesn't, you should explain things to him. Wounds of the spirit fester in the dark and create misunderstandings and hinder healing. It is time to let the light into dark places."

Heimdall watched her walk away as he slowly blinked his eyes and he flexed his fingers into fists.

Wounds of the spirit . . . he paced about the interface, pondering the Mind Healer's words.

Loki's quarters:

Loki sat on the window seat while he looked out at the gardens and Ravn brought in a tray with some food and a cup of tea.

"It looks like a wonderful day out, My Prince. Maybe you would like to take a walk in the gardens?" he asked and Loki glanced at him.

"No thank you," Loki said, getting up after Ravn placed the tray on the table.

"Not to pry, but how was your first session with Lady Viva?"

"You know she's here?"

"Everyone knows, but I assure you no one will spread gossip about her being here to help you."

Loki went silent while Ravn poured the tea and Loki picked up the teacup. His mind replayed his session with Viva and he felt himself relaxing.

"It went very well. She is easy to talk to," Loki said, taking a sip of tea.

"Good," he said with a nod when someone knocked on the door and the teacup rattled in Loki's hand.

"Who is it?" Loki asked. Ravn noticed how his friend's hands were shaking as he took the teacup away from Loki and he placed it on the tray.

"It is I. Heimdall. I wish to speak with you," Heimdall said.

What is he doing here? Loki thought. His heart started slamming in his chest as he started to breathe hard and Ravn stood in front of him.

"I will send him away if you do not wish to speak with him," Ravn whispered.

"No. Let him in then leave us," Loki said.

"Are you sure?"

"Tell the guards to stand by just in case I need them."

"Yes, My Prince," Ravn said with a small bow then he headed for the door. He opened the door as he looked up at the Watcher and Heimdall saw the warning in Ravn's eyes. "Prince Loki wants you to keep an ear out."

"Yes," Eiric said and his friend nodded. Heimdall walked in the room, but the guards did not close the door behind him and he noticed they had their hands on the top of the handles of their swords.

Do they truly think I will harm Loki? he thought. I am sworn to serve the royal House of Asgard. Yet look at the service you rendered Prince Loki, his inner voice chided. Beware the sin of pride. It was not pride! I thought he was a traitor to Asgard! Loki had returned to the window seat as he sat with his back to the window and Heimdall noticed how menacing Loki looked in the shadows.

"Greetings, My Prince," Heimdall said with a low bow.

"Your...prince?! Are you sure that is what I am?" Loki asked with a cold tone to his voice.

Heimdall bowed his head in shame, knowing he deserved his prince's scorn and anger. "Aye, my lord. You are, and I . . .I have done you a grave disservice."

Loki's eyebrow arched into his hair. "Is that what you call it? You left me at the mercy of the Black Order! To be kidnapped and tortured for knowledge I did not possess. What were you thinking?"

"I . . . was not thinking." Heimdall admitted softly, not meeting Loki's green-eyed gaze. Despite the cool temperature of the prince's quarters, the warrior had sweat trickling down the back of his neck. "Or rather, I was thinking only of myself at first."

"You were angry that I froze you," Loki surmised.

"Yes. It irked my pride that you dared do such to me—the Watcher."

Loki sensed there was another reason for Heimdall's betrayal. "Go on. What else?"

"I felt you were a traitor to Asgard. After all, you let Laufey and his Jotun in." Heimdall stated.

"Yes, I did," Loki replied. "In order to kill them. Not to betray Asgard."

"You would have killed your own father?" Heimdall gasped.

'Oh, don't look so shocked!" Loki sneered. "That Jotun was never a father to me. Except in the biological sense. He abandoned me to die as a baby. For whatever twisted reason he concocted. Therefore, why should I have any filial feeling for him whatsoever? Would you?"

"No. I suppose not." Heimdall conceded. "I assumed that you meant to kill King Odin and rule Asgard though."

Loki shook his head. "You really don't know me at all. I never wanted the throne. All I ever wanted was to be counted the equal of Thor. Queen Frigga had to persuade me to take the throne while the king was sleeping and Thor banished. She insisted I do so, it was not my own doing."

"I . . . was unaware of that," the Watcher stammered.

"Humph!" Loki snorted. "There seems to be a lot you were not aware of. Or is it that you simply assumed things about me and never bothered to verify the truth?"

"What may I do to rectify my betrayal?"

Loki looked at the Watcher for a long time before he answered as he placed his still trembling hands behind his back then stood a little taller.

"I need to think long and hard on that answer. But I am surprised my... I am surprised King Odin did not dismiss you from your post. Wasn't there anyone else to take your place?"

"No, I am afraid not. And it was only through the grace of your mother that I still live," Heimdall said.

"I wager Thor will have some words with you once he realizes your part in all this."

"I have not spoken with your brother yet."

"I would like to be there when you do."

Heimdall felt a cold chill move through him as he nodded and Loki headed for the door.

"You are dismissed."

Heimdall didn't look at Loki as he walked by him and the guards gave the Watcher angry looks. Loki waited a few seconds before he closed the door. He recalled falling off the Bifrost into the Void, endlessly tumbling into nothing and his trembling increased so much that his legs refused to hold him up.

He sank to the floor, huddling against the wall with his knees drawn up. His whole body shivered as with an ague and he fought to keep from screaming. He placed his head in his hands, sobbing softly, overwhelmed with fear and despair as he relived his endless fall into darkness. You deserve this. You are nothing but a Jotun monster that not even your own mother loved. Despair beat brass wings inside his head and he wept.

The guards exchanged glances from the other side of the doors. They could barely hear him as they turned and looked straight ahead. Both felt terrible for their prince and they sent out silent prayers to the Norns that he would find the peace he deserved. The king had let it be known that Loki's actions while ruling Asgard had been part of a ruse to trap Laufey and the Jotun, and Loki was no more a traitor than the king himself was. Thor had misunderstood and so they had fought and destroyed the Bifrost, resulting in Loki's fall and subsequent capture and torture by an enemy even greater than Laufey, an enemy who had coerced their prince into doing his bidding, until finally his control had been broken and now Loki had come home to heal from his ordeal.

Suddenly a fuzzy gold kitten with a white stripe up her nose and white paws ran up the corridor and scratched at Loki's door, meowing.

"Where did that come from?" Eiric asked.

"I have no idea," replied Harald, his companion.

The kitten kept meowing and scratching at the door and Eiric shrugged. He opened the door enough for the kitten to run into the room. He caught a peek at Loki sobbing, huddled against the wall, before he shut the door. Eiric sighed and shook his head. He had seen this sort of thing before in some of his comrades who had been prisoners of war in Muspelheim. "May the Norns and Lady Viva bring you peace, My Prince," he murmured.

Loki was breathing hard and fast while he tried to calm down and the kitten sat near his hand.

Little One, for it was Viva's other cat who had come in answer to Loki's distress, began to purr loudly and gently lick the prince's fingers.

Sniffing, Loki looked at the kitten when he slowly reached over and picked Little One off the floor, holding the kitten to his chest. Little One could hear Loki's heart pounding and the forest kitten purred louder and nuzzled against his chest. The purring vibrated through his chest as his heart slowed its frantic beat and he lightly rubbed the top of the kitten's head.

"You know, don't you?" he asked with a crack to his voice and the kitten meowed.

He sat in the silence of the room as he held the kitten until finally he felt his strength returning to him as the episode passed. Then he rose to his feet and walked to the bathing chamber. He placed the kitten on the counter as he looked at his reflection in the mirror and he didn't like the reflection that stared back at him. The swollen red eyes. The puffy complexion. His raven hair dangling in his face.

"I really look this bad?" he teased as he looked at the kitten and Little One meowed. He washed his face with some cold water then dried it with a towel and brushed the hair out of his eyes. He wanted to create an illusion in which he looked like his old, confident self again, but it felt wrong somehow.

"Loki, are you here?" a voice asked as he turned and headed out of the bathing room. He had picked up Little One when he saw Frigga standing in the center of the room.

She smiled upon seeing the fluffy cat. "Oh, where did you get the kitten?!"

"She is one of Lady Viva's cats," he said in a soft voice and cradled the kitten to his chest.

"Has something happened?" she asked, concerned, but didn't approach him.

"Heimdall came to see me."

"He did? Why? Was it to apologize?" his mother queried.

Loki swallowed sharply before he replied. "Yes. He admitted he was guilty of assuming many things about me, including that I was only after the throne."

"What?! That is not true! Your father told me you were to be king due to Thor being in exile! I told you this myself!"

"Yes, you did. He also said he thought I was a traitor for letting Laufey and his army into Asgard."

Frigga gasped and Loki walked to the window seat, looking out of the window.

"I cannot believe he would think such a thing!"

"Are you calling me a liar?!" Loki snapped and Little One sensed his anger. The kitten purred as he stroked the soft fur and he sighed.

"No, that is not what I meant. I meant I never thought he felt that way."

"Do...? Do you believe I am a traitor?"

"No, I do not."

"Did you know what I did to Laufey?"

"Yes, one of the guards told me."

"I wanted to kill him."

She had heard the growl in his voice as she walked over and stood beside him.

"I cannot blame you for that," she admitted. "I would have wanted to kill him myself only he knocked me out. And not only because of what he planned to do to your father, but what he had done to you and to . . . someone else I loved dearly."

He gave her a puzzled glance, tilting his head questioningly.

"Who are you talking about?" Loki asked.

"I am speaking of my younger sister, Freya," she answered.

"I didn't know you had a sister."

"It pains me to speak of her, so I try not to do so," Frigga sighed. "We were very close growing up. Similar to you and Thor as children." she smiled reminiscently. "Oh, the trouble we used to get into! She was youngest, but she was full of mischief and magic. Our elder brother Frey was the heir, but that meant that Freya and I were to make alliance marriages for Vanaheim."

Loki nodded. He understood well the practice of royal children being married off to secure alliances and peace with neighboring realms. "So you married the King of Asgard. And who did Freya marry?"

"She married Laufey, King of Jotunheim."

Loki nearly fell on the floor. "She was Laufey's queen?"

"Only for a short time. Barely a year and a half. Long enough to get with child and then die with her babe." Frigga answered sadly. "Then we heard Laufey remarried."

"She and the babe died?"

"Yes."

"And the woman he remarried? Was she...? Was she my mother?"

"Her name is Farbouti. And I do not know. It would seem so but . . . I cannot fathom how any mother would ever give up her baby that way. It does not seem right or natural. I would have died before I did so."

He could hear the conviction in her words and see it in her face. Her sapphire eyes shone with love for him, as they always had, he realized then. In his hurt and pain he had lashed out at her, but deep down he had always known that she loved him, whether or not he was blood of her blood. She had loved him more than the queen who had allowed him to be tossed away like nothing.

Loki slowly placed Little One on the cushion then he walked to Frigga and slipped his arms around her. She held him as they hugged and he placed his head against hers.

Loki felt the tiny bit of hope growing as he closed his eyes and could see the light shining in the darkness. It was growing brighter and he wanted so badly to say something.

"I know you would die for Thor...and me," he suddenly said.

"For my sons and my husband I would sacrifice all that I am. For you are my life, Loki. As Asgard is my home." She looked up at him, smiling gently, her tender regard illuminating the dark places in his soul.

"So, am I your mother?" she asked. His mind replayed what he had told her before and he cupped her cheek in his hand.

"Yes."

Her smile warmed him like the sun after a hard rain.

"And you are my son."

"Your favorite son?" he teased and she gently smacked his chest.

"Loki!" she pretended to scold him.

But her tall son just gave her a slight knowing smirk then said, "I know the truth. Did you ever wonder sometimes what would have happened if you had a daughter?"

"I might have, but I am glad with the children the Norns have blessed me with."

A knock on the door made them turn. Eiric opened the door and Viva quickly entered the room, looking rather flustered.

"My Prince, have you seen...?" she asked then paused when she saw Little One sitting on the cushion. "What are you doing in here?"

"It appears Little One knew I was upset and came to calm me," he said, picking up the kitten.

"What upset you?" she asked, glancing at Frigga.

"It wasn't my mother," Loki said then told her about his visit with Heimdall.

"I see," she said, not missing the fact that he had referred the Frigga as his mother, then she projected a wave of reassurance and peace at him, soothing away his pain and anguish.

"I suggested that he speak with you, however, I did not intend for him to do so without me present. When I left him he didn't seem receptive to the idea and I thought he would have waited," she said.

"I guess he changed his mind," Loki said.

"Even so, I should have been here."

"Should I tell my husband?" Frigga asked.

Viva considered, eyeing Loki before she responded. "No. I believe Prince Loki has handled it on his own." She knew that Loki would not want to feel like a child who needed protecting by his father.

"Fine," she said, patting Loki's arm, then she departed.

Viva watched Loki while he wiggled his fingers just above Little One's paws and the kitten patted at them, her bi-colored eyes crinkling with amusement. So my kitten works her magic again.

"I am amazed she knew I was upset. I had the door closed," Loki said, lifting the kitten up so they were face to face.

"She is a forest cat, they are very intuitive and intelligent." Viva laughed. "And she is like her mother that way." She watched the kitten and Loki for a few more moments before she came to a decision. "You know, of course that cats do what they want."

"So do I," Loki said and Little One pretended to swipe at his nose.

"I thought as much. Would you like to have a session and we can talk more about what happened?"

"What sort of a session?"

"I was wondering if you would like to try art therapy."

"What is that?" he asked, puzzled.

"It is where you draw or paint whatever is on your mind. It can be something happy or something which is bothering you. I have had patients who drew or painted something they had either forgotten or something they do not wish to talk about."

"Did Tyr do art therapy?"

"He did. He found it helped him to deal with the loss of his comrades and with his hand. It's a way to release all those pent-up emotions without screaming or breaking the furniture."

"And you won't judge my artwork?"

"It has to be better than his. No offense, but it looked like he painted it with his feet," she teased and he laughed.

"Then, yes, I would like that."

"Come along then," Viva beckoned him out of his room. She was wearing an elegant looking lavender tunic today with embroidered flowers on the sleeves and hem and gray trousers stuffed into suede half boots. She also wore a round multi-colored gem on a chain about her neck.

They headed to her office, and she unlocked the door by touching the knob and entered. He placed Little One on the floor. The kitten ran to the couch and hopped onto the cushion. He looked at the paintings on the wall as Viva closed the door and went to get the art supplies.

He noticed her desk was very organized and contained only standard supplies of paper, pens, and envelopes, as well as some books and a notepad. There was also a mini computer, but it seemed to be asleep. A lavender beeswax candle in a swirled glass holder emitted a pleasant scent as it burned.

He knew she said she kept anything she heard in the room in her head, but a part of him wanted to see what was on her computer.

"Do you wish to paint or draw?" she asked and he looked at her.

"I would like to paint, if that is alright," he said.

"That is fine. Wear this," she handed him an old cotton smock. "You don't want to get paint on your clothes."

He took the smock then placed it on over his clothes and she set up the paper, brushes and tubes of paint on the table. She also placed a bottle of water on the table for them to clean their brushes and Loki sat at the table. He looked at the piece of paper then at the tubes of paint and she saw he was trying to figure out what to paint.

"Don't overthink it. Paint the first thing that comes to you," she said and he nodded. "Also, I have one rule. You aren't allowed to say that your painting is terrible. This isn't a contest. It's meant for you to put your emotions down on paper." she said. She sat next to him and showed him how to put the paint on a palette.

He marveled anew at how different it was being with Viva in a room than it was any of the ladies of the court. Viva did not make him feel nervous or worried about doing or saying the wrong thing. She was simply herself, and he felt relaxed around her the way he had never did any woman save his mother.

He picked up the brush then began to paint. He was unschooled but the picture was recognizable of a boy with blonde hair. He was smiling, but what she noticed was a shadowy figure behind him. The figure was small and the sadness on his face made her ache inside. Loki looked at the painting as he blinked a few times then he started painting again. He painted the boy again, but the smaller figure was now standing beside him and both were smiling.

"Who are they?" she asked and he looked at her.

"They are me and Thor," he said.

"Why are you behind Thor?"

"I always felt like I was living in his shadow. That, no matter what I did, he would always outshine me."

"But not anymore?" she asked, pointing to the other painting.

"Well, I hope that will happen someday."

"When was the first time you felt that way?"

Loki thought for a moment. Then he said quietly, "It was when we were young, maybe five. My-the king had just arrived home from one of his campaigns, I think it was against the frost giants, and he walked into the nursery where Thor and I were playing. . . ."

"What were you playing?"

"We were playing war. Thor had these wooden swords and he made... He made me be a Frost Giant."

Viva pursed her lips. "Did you always play what Thor wished?"

"If I didn't, he would get angry and tell on me."

"You mean he would say you were being mean to him or something?"

"That or I wasn't doing want he wanted."

"What would happen?"

"My... Odin would tell me to play nice and do what Thor wanted."

"So you felt you always had to please your elder brother," she murmured. "When Odin came home that day, what happened when he came in the nursery?"

"Thor went running to him and Odin lifted him up. They hugged and Odin asked if he was a good boy. He said he was, though he had gotten into trouble, and Odin laughed. Odin then... He carried Thor out of the room."

"He didn't even say hello to you?!"

"He said he forgot I was there."

"Did he hug you?"

"He patted me on the head," he growled and nearly snapped the brush in half. "Like I was . . . Like I was a dog."

She sent some comfort into him as Loki placed the brush on the table and sat back in the chair.

"Another time, we were six or seven, Odin returned from Nidavellir. He had gone there on business. When he returned, he told us he had gone there to retrieve something special."

"What was it?"

"It was a toy hammer for Thor. Thor was so excited. He swung the thing around and nearly hit me a few times."

"Didn't he get you anything?"

"No. He forgot."

"What did he do once he realized he had forgotten to get you something?"

"He reached into his pocket and brought out a tiny carving knife."

"He gave you a knife?"

"It was my first one."

"What did he expect you to do with that?"

"I stabbed Thor with it."

"You...stabbed him with it?!"

"Yes, but he didn't get too upset about it. We were playing and my brother has very thick skin. Literally. That knife barely scratched him."

"Oh."

"Do you see now? I am a monster."

She shook her head, sending more warmth and reassurance into him. "No. I see a little boy who was neglected and forgotten by his father trying to get attention and be noticed any way he could."

"I guess."

"No, look at the painting again. See how happy the boys look standing side-by-side? What does that mean to you?"

"You tell me."

"No, you painted it. Why are they standing like that?"

Loki looked at the painting again as he pressed his lips into a thin line and she waited.

'It... It means, no matter what happens, we will always be there for each other. That we just want each other to be happy."

"Do you really want that?"

"Yes."

"Do you think Thor wants that also?"

"I think so, but there are times I feel he is done. That he doesn't care what I do and has given up."

"Why do you think that?"

He thought for a few moments as he picked up the paintbrush and rolled the brush between his fingers.

"Because I'm done."

"Done with what?"

"Done with trying. I can't be what he wants me to be and he can't understand I like who and what I am."

"Then don't."

"Don't what?"

"Don't keep living up to his expectations."

"But..."

"No, if he cannot see the real you then he is blind."

"I beg your pardon?! You have no idea what he means to me! If he hadn't confronted me about someone controlling me, I would have destroyed Midgard!"

"Which means he hasn't given up on you."

He gave her a stunned look then smiled and shook his head.

"You did that on purpose."

"Yes, I did," she said. "Sometimes your mind knows things but you refuse to listen to them. So I simply made you hear the truth."

"You are clever, lady." He acknowledged, thinking that there was nothing simple about what she had done.

He picked up the brush again and began painting a sun shining down upon the child Thor and Loki.

"Did Queen Frigga also favor Thor over you?" was Viva's next question.

"Mmm . . . no. She tried not to. And she never forgot me. Not like Odin." Loki replied.

As he painted, he recalled another incident from their childhood, this time with Thor's friends—Volstagg, Fandral, Sif, and Hogun. He painted them in at the edge of the picture with Thor and him standing behind him. They were pointing at him and laughing.

"Who are they?"

Loki told her. "They were my brother's friends."

"Not yours?" she asked perceptively.

He shook his head. "Not really. I didn't really have friends among the nobility. Most of them were older and almost all of them preferred Thor over me. I was quiet and liked to read more than almost anything, so . . ." Loki shrugged. "But sometimes I would grow lonely and they would let me tag along after them."

She sensed a feeling of isolation coming from him, and a picture formed in her mind of a small skinny boy with dark hair who was always on the outside looking in, never quite belonging. How well she knew that feeling!

"Neither fish nor fowl, always on the fringes, never quite belonging to either," she murmured.

"Yes, exactly," he agreed. "How did you know that?"

"Because I felt that way also as a child." She replied. "These friends of your brother's-were they cruel to you? Did they tease you?"

"Almost every day," he sighed.

"Did Thor stop them?"

"No. Sometimes he would join them, other times he would laugh. It made me mad, and then I would play tricks on them to get even."

"Was that how you became known as God of Mischief?"

"That's how."

She watched for a moment more, then picked up her own brush and began painting a view of the royal rose gardens she had been walking in earlier that day. Her brush flew across the paper as she painted from memory the beautiful shrubs and thorny roses with their sweet smelling blossoms climbing up the trellises and a marble bench upon which a cat slept.

Loki paused in his own painting to peer over at her work. "That is wonderful," he said. "Mine looks awful compared to yours."

"Ah ah!" she shook her brush at him. "Now you just broke my rule!" Smirking mischievously, she scooped up a bit of paint on her finger and smeared the blue paint on the tip of his nose. Loki nearly went cross-eyed as she laughed and he chuckled with her.

Then he pressed his finger into some red paint and smeared it on her nose. "Surprise! It's red nose day!"

Viva's green eye sparkled and she said, "Don't go there, My Prince. Or else I shall have to start a paint war to get even."

He gazed at her challengingly. "Oh, really?"

But before she could respond, the cats jumped onto the table and walked through the paint palettes. Their paws spattered paint all over the table and the rest of the papers as they sauntered across the wooden surface.

"Oh, by the Frost Reaver!" Viva exclaimed, rolling her eyes.

Loki giggled. "I guess they wanted to paint, too," hhe said, lifting Little One off the table.

Viva shook her head. "Either that or just get into trouble. They are cats after all." She picked up Kiva, who gave her an insolent look.

"We should wash their paws," he remarked. "Unless you like rainbow cats?"

"Now that would be a sensation!" she laughed and went to get some wet rags.

Loki and Viva cleaned off the cats, themselves, and then the table. The felines allowed it, but were slightly indignant and licked their paws dry as soon as they were released.

Loki peered at the painting of himself and Thor smiling, holding the paper carefully in his hands.

"Do you want to keep this?" she asked.

"Yes," he said, placing the painting on the table then picked up Little One before she could sit upon it.

"She really likes you."

"I like her as well."

"Then why don't you take her with you?"

"Why?"

"She will sense when you are getting upset and will help you calm down."

Loki looked at the gold kitten, purring happily in his arms and he gently stroked the tip of one ear.

"If you don't mind."

"No, it's fine. She has chosen to be with you," she said and he nodded. "Cats do what they want."

He gave her a sort of half-smile and picked the painting up in one hand and holding the kitten in the other, said, "I believe it's time for lunch. Are you hungry?" he asked Little One.

The gold kitten meowed.

"I had better feed her," he said. "And perhaps I will get a bite to eat also." He hurried from the room, a slight spring in his step that had not been there before.

Viva gazed after him, noticing how relaxed he was now compared to earlier. It would seem that her session had done some good—as had the kitten. She also could not fail to notice her own mood when she was around the prince. Though they had only just met, she felt as comfortable with him as if she had known him all her life. She had always kept herself in a professional mindset when it came to her patients, but there was something about Loki that was different. Almost familiar. Sighing, she sat down on the couch and Kiva hopped onto her lap.

"That went well," she said, scratching Kiva's chin and the cat happily purred. "Slowly but surely, the ice is thawing about his heart. I pray it continues, but we have a long road ahead, my friend."

Chapter Text

 

 

After the art therapy session, Loki decided he felt well enough to walk in the gardens. He put his drawing away in his desk, carefully locking it, though he knew Ravn would never pry into his personal effects, other servants weren’t so upright. The valet helped him fix up a basket with a soft pillow for Little One, and a mat with her dishes, a litter pan, and a scratching post with some toys.  Loki left the kitten snoozing in her new bed while Ravn accompanied him on his walk.

The day was warm, so Loki left his cloak in his room, and changed into a short-sleeved tunic.  They passed several courtiers on their way to the gardens, and they all nodded politely and greeted them cordially. Loki felt himself stiffen slightly, wondering how many of them thought him crazy or pitied him behind their smiling facades. Once he would have been able to tell, but that ability seemed to have vanished along with his ability to control his frost magic when he became agitated. Heaving a soft sigh, he entered the gardens, where a hundred varieties of flowers grew, including several kinds of roses.

Loki breathed deeply of the fresh air, which carried on it the sweet perfume of roses and white cherry blossoms from the fruit trees that grew further down the concentric paths of crushed iridescent marble streaked with green and blue striations. The gardens were one of the wonders of the palace, and had been started by Odin’s mother long and long ago and added to by Frigga when she became queen. Loki paused to bask in the sun, and Ravn picked a rose from a nearby bush and said, “I remember my mother used to send me and my sister out here to gather blooms for the queen’s solar when we were children.”

Loki nodded. “My mother loves the sunstar roses. How is Lady Brida doing?” Brida was Ravn’s mother, and also the Lady of the Queen’s Wardrobe.

“She is well, My Prince,” Ravn answered. “She inquired about you the other day and says she prays the Norns grant you peace and healing.”

“And your sister, Astrid? How does she fare with her new baby?” Loki queried.

“Both mother and daughter are doing fine,” Ravn answered. “My new niece grows rapidly.”

“What did they call her?”

“Her name is Vanora,” Ravn told him proudly. “I told Haakon he would need to beat boys off with his sword when she and her older sister are ready to be courted. He said I was going to help him.”

Loki gave him a wry grin. Haakon was an earl, a rank above Ravn’s baronial title, but that had not prevented him from marrying Astrid, whom he had loved since they were children. “Tell Astrid I wish her joy and happiness with her new daughter. I will be sending a gift to her to congratulate her soon.”

“She would be very honored, sir,” Ravn smiled.

They continued walking, making a complete circuit of the gardens, pausing every now and again to admire some of the plants and bushes. The royal gardeners trimmed some of the thick bushes into fanciful topiary creatures and Loki recalled how he and Thor used to pretend to fight them when they were boys, though Thor would always play too rough and poke holes in some of the creatures, then shrug it off when Loki scolded him.

“They’re just plants. The gardeners can fix them. Or you can disguise them with your illusions,” he would say.

“Even so, Brother, it was wrong of you to damage Mother’s garden,” Loki would remind him.

Thor would just laugh. “I never liked that bush anyway. It was ugly.”

It had always irked Loki that Thor was so unconcerned with the consequences of his actions, believing there would always be someone around to clean up after him. That was not the case if Loki had damaged something. He would be expected to fix what he had broken or be punished for his carelessness. He had always thought it unfair that Thor was able to get away with things just because he was the heir.

Why were we treated so differently? Loki wondered. It had been something he had always wished to know but had never had the courage to ask Odin about, for fear he would not like the answer.

But perhaps it was time to start asking those questions.

He still felt uncomfortable around a group of people, so Loki requested another tray to be sent up to his suite and after drinking the tea Viva had given him, found he had more of an appetite than before and ate half his dinner.

Then he read for awhile before deciding to retire. He supposed the walk about the gardens had tired him out and he prayed he would sleep without dreams.

The Jotun prince crawled into his bed, Little One jumping up to curl on his chest, purring like a washer gone berserk. Ravn bid him good night, leaving one lamp with a barely glowing circle of light, and departed for his own chambers across from Loki’s own.

Loki felt himself drawn down into the realm of dreams, and as he drifted off, listening to Little One purring, his mind took him down a dark path, bringing all his inner demons out to play.

He dreamed he was a child again, a mere seven-year-old, chasing after Thor and his friends—Fandral, Volstagg, Heimdall, Sif, and Hogun. “Come on, let’s go exploring in the woods!” Thor challenged his friends, the woods in question being a small park where deer and other woodland denizens often came to feed. “We can pretend we’re in enemy territory and sneaking up on the dumb Dark Elves.”

All of them were armed with wooden swords, except Thor, who had his toy hammer, and Volstagg had a toy mace.

“Wait! I want to play too!” Loki called, approaching them.

“We don’t need Thor’s baby brother following us!” Fandral sneered.

“Yes, he’s so puny we might mistake him for a Dark Elf!” Volstagg laughed.

“Why don’t you go home, Loki?” Thor demanded, rolling his eyes.

“Yes, go back to your tales and your little magic tricks!” Heimdall said scornfully.

“But . . . I want to play with you,” Loki protested, upset. “I’m almost as big as you, Thor.”

“Ha! Even Sif is bigger and she’s a girl,” Hogun hooted.

Loki felt himself go crimson. He hated being the youngest and smallest. No one respected him.

“We could let him play,” Sif began.

Loki looked at her hopefully.

Then she added, “We need somebody to be the enemy. He’ll do.”

Loki clenched his fists. “No!”

“Why not?” Thor asked, frowning. “You wanted to play with us.”

“I don’t want to be the Dark Elf!” Loki cried. “You always make me be the villain!”

“It’s what you’re good at, little Loki!” Fandral jeered.

Loki was crushed. But he knew better than to let them see it. “I can be a hero too!”

“We don’t need you to be a hero, Little Brother. Either be a Dark Elf or you can stay here like the mama’s boy you are!” Thor snapped.

Loki glared at him. He didn’t want to be a Dark Elf. But he was tired of playing by himself too.

“I’m not a mama’s  boy! You take that back, Thor!”

Thor snorted. “Make me.”

Loki ran at his brother then, his fist raised, but Thor just sneered and shoved him hard. Loki fell backwards into the grass and the others laughed.

“Know your place, Brother!” Thor yelled.

“See ya! Wouldn’t wanna be ya!” Fandral taunted.

Before Loki could climb back to his feet, the others turned and ran off, jeering and mocking him as they did so. Loki watched them go, feeling utterly alone and sick with shame.

Loki stood up and began to run after the others, but no matter how fast he ran, he could never catch up to them, and suddenly he was running into a thick gray fog, it surrounded him and clung to him like a smothering blanket, tendrils wisping into his hair.

“Thor?” he called, frightened. “Where are you? Brother, wait for me! I’m coming!”

But they ignored him, and he stumbled through the fog alone.

Finally he emerged in front of the Great Hall, and saw Thor laughing and talking with their father. Loki’s face brightened.

“Thor! Father! I found you!”

"Loki, where have you been?!" Odin demanded.  Loki was shocked with his anger and he blinked.

"I got lost in the fog," Loki said.

"What fog?  There was no fog."

"I...," he started when he looked at Thor and the anger he felt grew.  "Thor left me behind when they went to play in the woods!  I wanted to play, but they wouldn't let me."

"Is this true Thor?" Odin asked, looking at Thor.

"We offered to let him play with us, but he didn't want to," Thor said, shrugging.

"You wanted me to be the villain!" Loki shouted.

"Do not yell at your brother!" Odin said.

"They also teased me about being small and..."

"That is enough!"

Loki felt tears prickle his eyes. "But Father--!"

"I said enough!"

Loki watched as Odin and Thor turned and they walked into the Feast Hall.  Loki went to follow them, but it felt liked he walked into a wall.  He placed his hands against the invisible wall as he watched Odin and Thor sit at the table with Frigga and the others and he pounded his hands against the invisible wall.

"Father! Mother! Thor! Don't leave me alone! I'm right here! Please! Don't leave me alone in the dark!" Loki begged.

They didn't seem to hear or see him as he beat on the invisible wall. They continued talking, laughing and eating.

"Please!  Don't leave me!" he begged and the darkness started swarming around him.  "Please."

He pressed his nose against the wall, swallowing hard, sniffling miserably. The fire crackled merrily in the grate and he heard laughter and saw Odin toast Thor and people clapping.

"Father!  Thor!  Can't you hear me?!"

The darkness moved closer and closer and the air turned ice cold.

No one seemed to care that he was out in the darkness and shadows, cold and hungry, yearning to go inside and be with his family. Shivering he beat on the wall, crying, but no one even remembered he wasn't at the feast. He had been forgotten.

"No," he repeated as he slid to his knees and the tears rolled down his cheeks.  The darkness surrounded him as he felt the pain of being alone dig its claws into him and he screamed.

Alone in the dark . . . lost and forgotten . . . nobody cares . . . nobody . . .

Loki's eyes snapped open, but he wasn't sure if he was still asleep or awake.  He felt like he couldn't breathe.  He felt his body shaking.  His heart felt like it was going to explode from its rapid beating.  He felt like he was dying and he sent out prayers to the Norns to forgive him.

"Forgive me," he repeated over and over and his chest burned from lack of oxygen.

He saw dark spots before his eyes.

Little One noticed Loki was in distress.  She started purring like a loud engine, moving her paws against his chest and Loki panted.  The kitten meowed in a soft voice to reassure him things were alright and his shaking right hand slowly rose.  He started stroking the soft fur as the purring grew louder and he gulped in some breathes of air.

Loki closed his eyes as he tried to calm his pounding heart and Little One licked his hand.  He felt himself calming down as he opened his eyes and Little One rose, walking up his chest to his chin.  He felt the soft fur tickling his chin and he lifted the kitten up, looking up at Little One.

The forest kitten instinctively sensed that her person needed help and sent a silent call for help to the one person who would hear her.

 

Viva's chambers:

 

The sleeping Mind Healer sat straight up in bed, hearing Little One's frantic meow in her head. Help! Help! My prince needs you!

"What?" she cried, rubbing sleep from her eyes.

He is scared!  He won't fully wake!  Help!

"Loki!" she said, getting out of bed and putting on her slippers and robe.  She hurried out of the room.

She had almost reached the prince's chambers when she encountered Ravn, also still in his pajamas. "My lady! What has happened?" he asked. "I thought I heard Prince Loki call me.”

"Something is the matter with Prince Loki," she replied. "I can feel his distress and Little One summoned me because of it." Viva answered.

Her temples throbbed suddenly with the force of Loki's fear and pain and she shielded quickly lest it overwhelm her.

"We must go check on him."

They raced down the hallway as the guards watched them and Viva gave them a pleading look.

"What is the matter?" the guard asked.

"Forgive the late hour but Prince Loki needs us," Viva began. "He could be having a night terror."

"Let us in, Eiric!" Ravn ordered.

A sudden scream came from behind the door as Eiric opened the door and they followed Ravn and Viva in the room.

Loki was curled into a ball on the bed as Little One meowed and paced up and down the mattress.

Viva ran to the bed while she picked up the kitten and she sent comfort and peace into Loki's mind.

"It is alright.  You are safe," she whispered, but Loki whimpered.

"Please.  Don't leave me alone," Loki whispered.

"Don't touch him!" Viva ordered when Ravn would have started to shake his prince awake. "He must wake on his own. Otherwise you will make it worse."

Nodding, Ravn backed away, praying for Loki to wake, and Viva examined her patient.

"My Prince, can you hear me?" she asked, but Loki moaned.

"Father!?  Thor?!  Can you see me?!  I'm right here!" Loki half-shouted.

"What can I do, lady?"

"Put the kettle on for tea," she replied. Then she concentrated, slipping into his mind.

She immediately became surrounded by the smothering fog, but countered it with thoughts of sunlight and projected comfort and calm for all she was worth. "I am here. You are not alone. Now wake, Loki, wake and see me. I am here with you."

"No, I am alone," his voice said somewhere in the fog.  She watched the fog vanishing when she saw a small, dark haired boy curled up in a ball in front of what looked like the entrance to the Feast Hall.  She carefully walked over then she knelt down and the boy looked at her.  Terrible loneliness and sorrow moved through her like a foul wind and she stiffened, then she gave the boy a cheery smile.  "Hello, Loki.  What is the matter?"

"They...  They..." he said then started sobbing.  Viva peered into the Feasting Hall when she saw Thor and Odin laughing and talking, but neither of them noticed Loki was missing.  No one seemed to notice he wasn't there.

"Take my hand," she said.  Loki stood then he took her hand and they walked into the Feasting Hall.  Peace and love surged through him as Loki smiled then there was a brilliant flash of light. . .

Loki's heart quit racing and he slowly began to stir, coming out of the dream.

"He's waking!" Ravn remarked, heating the teakettle up with a small spell.

"Yes, he is," Viva said and Little One climbed up onto Loki's chest, curled into a ball and started purring.

 

Loki's eyelids fluttered and he slowly opened them to see Little One peering into his face. Glancing upwards, his eyes met Viva's one green and one blue. "Lady Viva? What are you doing here?"

"You were having a night terror," Viva said.

"I...  I had this nightmare."

"Do you wish to talk about it?" she asked and Ravn brought over the cup of tea.

She placed the cup on the night table as Loki sighed and she saw he was still upset.

"Will you let me help you calm down?" she asked.

"How?"

“With this.” She removed a small bottle of lavender oil from her pocket as he looked at the purple liquid and she removed the stopper.  He sniffed in the pleasant scent and she placed some of the oil on her hands.  She slowly moved her fingers over his temples and he breathed in the soft scent.  she massaged his neck and head as Loki felt himself relaxing, but he started to feel a little embarrassed.

"Don't be embarrassed.  I do this with any patient who has night terrors.  They find it very relaxing," she assured him and he nodded.

"I am enjoying this," he teased and she smiled. “Where did you learn this?”

“There was an old woman, an herb witch who lived in the hollow nearby, she taught me this,” Viva responded, her skillful fingers easing all the tension away. “I used to massage my mother when she had bad headaches.”

“You are very good,” Loki admitted.

"Do you wish to tell me what the nightmare was about?"

He hesitated. "I . . . You will think it stupid," he murmured, flushing.

"No, I will not."

"Nor will I," Ravn said.

Loki was hesitant at first then he took a cleansing breathe and he told them about his nightmare.

Norns, how could they treat him like this? Viva thought and she moved her fingers through Loki's hair.

"Have you ever had this nightmare before?" she asked, locking eyes with him.

"Many times, but it was never this strong."

Viva was silent for a moment, considering something. “Part of the reason this may have occurred is because it was brought to the surface during our last session. Clearly, your subconscious is trying to tell you that this issue needs to be dealt with before you can heal.”

“I thought we were doing that,” Loki murmured.

“We started to,” she corrected. “However, your night terror tells me that simply having sessions with me and discussing it is not enough.”

She withdrew her hands and wiped them with a soft cloth.

“What should we do then?” Loki queried. He was amazed at how relaxed he was feeling and fought to keep from yawning.

“Well, I know of one thing,” Viva began softly. “But it is not something I do with all of my patients.”

Loki gazed at her. “What is it?”

“It is a group therapy session,” she explained. “Normally my patients do not have the people present who they have problems with, so they cannot do one. However, your case is different. Both your father and brother are here, and they can participate in it.”

“What would this involve?” Loki frowned. He wasn’t sure he liked the sound of this.

“They would sit across from you and you would tell them exactly how they made you feel over the years. You could be as specific as you want, referring to certain incidents which have bothered you. They would not be able to respond until you were done speaking. Then they could do so . . . but they would not be allowed to be condescending or dismissive or mock your fears and memories.”

Loki gave her a sardonic look. “Who is going to stop them?”

“Me,” Viva answered firmly. “In my office, I make the rules. And you are my top priority, no matter if your brother and father are Crown Prince and King of Asgard. I will not allow them to hurt you, Loki.”

He heard the conviction in her words and realized she was deadly serious. She would challenge Thor and Odin for his well-being. And he had the oddest feeling that she might very well win.

Even so, he was reluctant. He had already endured Thor’s mockery and Odin’s slights. Could he endure it again with everything else he had gone through? “Is this the only way?”

She sighed. “No, but it is the best way,” she answered. “But it is up to you.”

“Why is it necessary for me to confront them?”

“Because they need to understand what they did to you, and that will never happen unless they are forced to face the consequences of their actions. I could tell them, but it would not have the same impact than if you did so. I would not suggest it, Loki, if I did not think it would do you good.”

She rose and put back her vial of oil into her pocket, indicating he should drink the tea as she did so.

Loki sipped and considered.  Though he had misgivings, he couldn’t deny that Viva knew what she was about. Thus far, her treatments had been helping. What do you have to lose?

Finally he nodded. “Very well. Let’s do this.”

“You are certain? Because we do not have to,” she reminded him. “We can continue as we were.”

“But the nightmares will keep coming,” he pointed out.

“Yes, I am afraid so. They may still trouble you even with the group session, but they may not bother you as much, since what you are doing is the equivalent of lancing an infected wound.”

“I am tired of being a prisoner to my fears,” he said. “Let’s try this.”

“Very well. I shall inform your father and brother in the morning,” Viva agreed. She took the cup he handed her, noting it was empty.

Little One curled up in the crook of Loki’s arm, her eyes at half mast, her whole body throbbing with purrs.

Loki gently scratched behind her ears and she rubbed her nose against his hand. He smiled down at her, and murmured, “I have you to thank for helping me, darling.” He looked up at Viva. “Before you came, I woke and felt like I was dying. I couldn’t breathe and I was . . . I thought my heart was going to come out of my throat. I have never felt like that before.”

“That was what we call an anxiety attack,” Viva said calmly. “Sometimes when you have suffered great trauma, you will have one. The night terror triggered it. But luckily, Little One knew how to help you combat it.”

“She is quite an amazing cat,” Loki stated, running his fingers through the silky golden fur. “But I think she has earned a new name. I would like to call her Axelle, if you will allow it.”

“Axelle.  A father’s peace,” Viva replied. “I like that name. Does she?”

Loki turned to the kitten on his arm. “Well, little darling? Would you like to be Axelle?”

In answer, the kitten purred louder and licked his cheek.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Loki smiled.

Then he yawned, unable to keep his eyes open.

“Forgive me. I seem to be falling asleep,” he began apologetically.

Viva waved away his concern. “That is fine, My Prince. You need sleep. Your body knows that. And I have ensured you will sleep without dreams.”

“My thanks,” the sorcerer muttered, feeling his eyes growing heavier.

“Good night, sir.” She rose from the chair she had been perched on and started to leave the chamber, pausing to whisper to Ravn, “Call me if you need me.”

“I shall, my lady,” Ravn said, bowing. “Pleasant dreams.”

“You also, Ravn.” Then Viva hurried back to her room, not wishing to stir up any gossip.

Ravn waited until he was certain his master was sleeping soundly before exiting the room as well, nodding to the guards and returning to his own bed.

The next morning dawned bright and cheerful, with the weather bidding to be fair and it put Thor and Odin in jolly moods as they sat in the Feast Hall for breakfast.

Thor was describing a contest he had with Volstagg, gesturing with a piece of sausage on a fork, while Odin ate his ham and eggs, when Viva came into the hall. She was dressed that morning in a light blue skirt and matching blouse with a small jacket, embroidered with snow blossoms and frost doves.

A group of guards and soldiers seated at a table in the center of the hall, lifted their glasses in a toast and saluted her with a fist over their hearts as she passed them. Viva colored slightly at their regard, but simply smiled and nodded. She knew they did so because of her successful treatment of General Tyr and their Night Hawk comrades.

But it was Odin who noticed there was something wrong.  She seemed angry or upset.  Had something happened to Loki?  Had he harmed her in some way?  She did not look injured.  She glanced at him with a warrior's eye and he realized she was angry with...him.

"How fare you this morning, Healer?" Odin inquired.

"I am well, Sire," she said with a nod.  "But I do need to speak with you and Prince Thor."

"What do you think she needs to speak to you about?" Frigga asked in a soft whisper.

"I do not know," he whispered then looked at Viva.  "Does this concern Prince Loki?"

"Yes, it does," Viva said.

"Then we will speak of it after we eat."

"I would like to discuss it now, if that is alright."

"Did something happen to our son?" Frigga asked.

"I am afraid it has," she said and the others in the room whispered to each other.

Odin looked at Thor as Thor rose to his feet and he and Odin walked to Viva.  She led them out of the room while they walked down the hallway a bit then she stopped, turning to look at them.

"What happened to my brother?" Thor asked.

"He suffered a near crippling panic attack last night," she said after a few moments.

"What brought it on?" Odin asked.

"It was a nightmare."

"What sort of nightmare?"

Viva sighed as she explained what happened to Loki and Odin's one eye widened.

"But we...  We would never do something like that to him," Odin sputtered.

"And I would never mock him or treat him in such a manner," Thor protested.

Loki is right.  They are denying they ever did anything wrong against him, Viva thought. A clear case of denial if I ever saw it.

"I need you two there for the next session I have with him," she said.

"Why?"

"If he is to heal, he needs to talk with you in a controlled environment so he can speak freely and tell you exactly what is bothering him."

"He has spoken to us about what bothers him."

"Do you deny it when he confronts you?"

"Uh....." Thor said then he looked at his feet.

"And you, Sire, do you really listen to him?" she asked, looking at Odin.  He stayed silent as she nodded then crossed her arms over her chest.  "The next session is this afternoon at two.  I will see you then." She told them, her voice icily polite.

They watched her go back into the Feast Hall as Thor stared at Odin then followed his father.  Thor had never thought his teasing and mockery had really done that much harm to his little brother.  Looking down the hallway, Thor sighed and went to go have breakfast.

Frigga looked up as he husband and son returned to the high table. "What did Viva say about Loki?"

"That he had a panic attack after a nightmare," Odin said, sitting down.

"Is he alright?"

"I believe he is."

"What was the nightmare about?"

Odin knew she would be angry and hurt as he told her and Frigga gasped.

"We all will be at this session," she declared firmly.

Thor gaped at her. "Mother, you don't---"

"Not another word," she snapped. "I will be joining you. I am sure Lady Viva will not mind." The look on her face said no one else had better mind either, including the two other gods at the table.

 

Loki's chamber:

 

Loki felt something soft swiping at his nose when he yawned and slowly opened his eyes.  Axelle purred and nuzzled his chin, making him chuckle.  He did remember part of what happened during the night and he slowly sat up.

"Ah, you are awake," Ravn announced as he entered the room with a breakfast tray in his hands.

"I...  I am sorry for waking you," Loki muttered and Ravn shook his head.

"No, there is no need to be sorry.  I am just glad Lady Viva was able to help you through it."

"You helped as well."

"All I did was make tea."

Loki smiled at his friend when he got out of bed and held Axelle in his arms.

"Thank you anyway," he said and Ravn just smiled.

"Do you think your brother and father will be at the session?" Ravn asked, watching Loki sit and Loki placed the kitten on the table.

"If Lady Viva has anything to say about it, they will be there," Loki said, sipping on the coffee.  Axelle sniffed some of the honey bacon while he ripped off a tiny piece and gave it to her.

Ravn watched his prince and friend eat when Loki glanced at him then sighed.

"You don't have to hover.  I am not going to have another attack," Loki said. Nodding, Ravn went to set out Loki's clothes and boots and Loki sighed.  "Sorry."

"Stop saying that.  It is fine."

"Tell me more about Vanora.  Does her older sister mind having her around?" Loki asked with a tone of despair in his voice.

"Oh, no, her older sister Krista adores her. She insists in helping to take care of her and Krista even makes up stories to make her laugh."

"And her parents..."

Ravn saw Loki's hands were shaking as Axelle hopped onto Loki's lap and the kitten placed her paws on Loki's chest.  He felt his heart racing as he breathed in and out through his nose and the kitten started purring.  He held the kitten against his chest when he saw Ravn's face and he knew he was blaming himself for the small attack.

"Are you alright?" Ravn asked.

"Yes, and it wasn't your fault.  I really did want to hear about your new niece."

"My sister told me she rolled over onto her stomach the other day and had this shocked look on her face," he said, showing Loki the face she had made and Loki laughed.  Axelle looked at the plate when she wiggled in Loki's arms and he fed her some more bacon.  "So, are you finished eating?"

"Yes, I am not really that hungry."

"Looks like your kitten is."

"Seems so," Loki said and Axelle nudged his hand with her nose.  As if she was telling him to eat, Loki picked up the fork and started eating.

He managed to eat half of what was on his plate before pushing the rest away.

“Shall we go for another walk today, Prince Loki?” his valet asked.

“No. I think . . . I think today I will read,” Loki replied, and ensconced himself in the window seat again, summoning a book on mind magic to him to read.

Axelle curled up on his lap and slept while he read.

Muninn flew in the window and chirruped, making Loki stop reading. “Greetings, Prince Loki.”

“Greetings, Muninn,” Loki said. “Have you a message for me?”

“I do!” the raven chortled. “Lady Viva wishes me to tell you that your group session is at two o’clock this afternoon.”

“I shall be there,” Loki said, flipping a page. He summoned a bit of dried beef and fed the raven the treat.

Muninn purred, causing Axelle to give the raucous bird an annoyed look.

Loki chuckled as the raven flew off, stroking his indignant kitten. “He was just imitating you, silly cat. Ravens can’t purr like you.”

Axelle sniffed and began to groom her fur as Loki returned to his reading.

At five minutes to two, his mantle clock chimed and Loki rose, put Axelle on his shoulder, and walked down towards Viva’s office. He placed his hand on the door handle, feeling a nervous fluttering in the vicinity of his chest.

Then he turned the handle and went inside.

A/N: Hope you all liked!

Next: A Family Affair . . . how do you think the group session will go?

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Viva smiled as Loki walked in the room and Axelle hopped off his shoulder.

"I see that I'm the first to arrive," Loki said, closing the door.

His voice was as frigid as the wind off the Snowcaps as he walked over gazed at the seascape. The soft hush of the waves seemed to soothe him momentarily.

"Would you like some tea?" Viva asked.

"No thank you."

Axelle curled around his legs and he leaned down and picked her up.

"They will be here," Viva reassured him, wondering where Thor and Odin were. It was almost half past two.

Odin's study:

Frigga knocked on the door, then receiving no answer, came into the room. Odin was standing in front of a portrait of Loki and Thor as children and he had his hands behind his back.

"Odin?" she asked, but he didn't turn and she walked to him. It was then she saw the pained look upon his face.

"How could I have been so blind?" Odin finally said and she placed her hand on his upper arm.

"Sometimes we miss what is right under our noses, because we are busy with other things. Or we assume without having facts." She said softly. "If it helps, I was not aware either that Thor was so selfish and mean to Loki. Loki never told me about it, and I never saw anything amiss with them, which means these things must have happened when they were out of our sight."

Odin heaved a sigh. "Even so, dear, I should have suspected something. I am supposed to be this all-wise king and instead I am naught as wise as I believed."

"You must be sure to tell Loki that," Frigga said. "Now come, we are late enough as it is."

"Where is Thor?"

"He said he would meet us as soon as he can."

Odin nodded then he held his hand out and she placed hers in his. She smiled fondly at her husband and he gave her hand a gentle squeeze as they walked towards Viva's office, which was down the corridor.

The Sparring Arena:

Thor sat on the bench while he watched Sif and Fandral sparring. He knew he should be heading for the group therapy session with Viva, but he didn't believe he had done anything wrong.

Loki is just overreacting as usual, Thor thought, tossing a pebble on the ground and the pebble bounced a few times.

"Thor, why are you just sitting there? Come join us!" Sif said. Nodding, he got up as he picked up his hammer and ran to them.

Why would he want to sit around in a room and listen to Loki whine when he could be practicing battle moves? he thought, and went to take down Fandral.

Meanwhile, Odin and Frigga reached the office and entered. They found Loki seated beside Viva on the sectional whisper couch, his kitten on his lap.

Frigga couldn't help but notice how much weight Loki had lost, and there were shadows underneath his expressive emerald eyes.

"Good afternoon," Odin said with a nod.

"Mother, why are you here?"

"This is a group session and I am a part of the group, am I not?" she asked.

"Well, yes, but..."

"Where is Prince Thor?" Viva interrupted when she noticed Thor was missing.

"I thought he would be here already," Odin said.

"I knew it," Loki whispered and Axelle looked up at him. The kitten sensed he was getting upset and started purring.

Kiva approached also and draped herself over the back of the couch behind Loki, her paws resting on his shoulders.

"Shall I send someone to fetch him?" Viva murmured.

"I will send Muninn," Odin offered.

But Frigga shook her head, irritation written all over face. "No, dear. I will see what is keeping him."

Her tone was such that Thor had better hope he had a very good reason for being late to this session or she would know the reason why. She stormed out of the room. Odin sat on the couch across from Loki and Viva as Loki closed his eyes and Viva sent comforting thoughts into his mind.

The Sparring Arena

Thor grunted as he fell to the ground and Sif stood over him, laughing.

"Well done, Dear Lady," he said and she helped him to his feet. The three friends were hot and sweaty and Sif patted Thor's back.

"How is your brother?" Fandral asked.

"He is getting better," Thor said, not wanting to tell them about Viva.

"Knew it wouldn't take long for him to get back to his old self," Sif said. Nodding, Thor went to pick up Mjolnir when he saw Frigga storming toward them and he stiffened.

"Norns," he whispered and he stood up straighter.

"Thor, I wish to have words with you," Frigga, her tone cold as hoarfrost. Sif and Fandral exchanged glances, deciding immediately that discretion was the better part of valor.

"Uh-oh," Fandral said and he and Sif quickly walked away.

Thor watched as Frigga stopped in front of him and he saw the anger flaring behind her eyes.

"Well, explain yourself," she finally said.

"Explain myself?" he asked.

"You know full well we all were supposed to be in Lady Viva's office for a therapy session."

"Mother, what's the point? All Loki is going to do is moan about those imagined slights of his."

"Did you not hear about his nightmare?! He nearly died from fright because of it?! Was that imaginary?!" she said, her voice rising in anger.

"It was just a dream. He is fine now."

She put her hands on her hips and said sternly, "You have not seen your brother lately, have you? Or else you would know he is not fine! He has dark shadows under his eyes and is barely eating."

"Mother, Loki has always been a picky eater," Thor began. "And he is probably staying up late reading like he always does."

"Thor Odinson!" she growled and he knew the tone she was using full well.

"Fine. I'll go, but I am not going to say anything."

Thor stomped off as she followed him and she prayed to the Norns to give her strength.

Viva's office:

Loki seemed to doze off as Viva watched him sleep and Odin wondered where Frigga and Thor were.

The loud sounds of footsteps made him look at the door when the door opened and Frigga led Thor into the room. Viva saw how dirty he looked as she rose and walked to him.

"Where have you been?!" she demanded and Thor looked at Frigga.

"Is she allowed to speak to me like that?" he asked.

Viva drew herself up to her full height, which was almost to Thor's nose, and said frostily, "You agreed to keep an appointment with me, sir, and I do not take them lightly. You may be a prince of this realm but here in this room you answer to me." Her tone was soft, but sharp enough to cut glass and her eyes glittered with unfeigned annoyance and disappointment.

"Can we just get this over with?" Thor grumbled, annoyed at being taken to task like a schoolboy.

"Go, wash up!" she ordered. "Norns forfend we are keeping you from more important matters!" she snorted.

She pointed to the wash basin. As Thor went to do as she had said, she walked to the couch. She gently shook Loki as he woke and blinked sleepily at her.

"Your brother is here," she whispered and Loki looked over at Thor.

"Where did you find him?" Loki asked, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

"He was at the sparring arena," Frigga said. She eyed Viva thoughtfully, thinking that the Mind Healer reminded her of someone, but she couldn't place who at the moment.

Thor walked to the couch and sat down next to Odin and Loki glared at him.

"Glad you could join us, Brother," Loki said sarcastically.

"What do we do now?" Frigga asked, sitting on the chair.

"First, I would like to explain what I intend to accomplish here," Viva began. "This session is important because it will allow Loki to tell you certain things which have been troubling him and which he has never, until now, felt comfortable speaking about. While he speaks, I want all of you to remain silent and listen. You may hear things you were unaware of, or things you have forgotten happened, or things you never realized before. But you are not to speak until Loki has finished airing his grievances. Then you will each have a turn to answer him."

"What grievances?! None of us did anything wrong!" Thor grumbled.

"I beg your pardon?" Viva said quietly. "There has been much wrong done here. You may not wish to admit it, but I would not be needed here if nothing was wrong, sir." She projected a feeling of calmness at Thor, so he would quit sulking and pay attention.

Loki was impressed with how she handled his older brother as he sat up a little more and Axelle snuggled against his stomach.

"You may start when you are ready," Viva said and he nodded. Loki took a few moments before he spoke and the first person he looked at was Frigga.

Moistening his lips, Loki began, his voice calm and collected. "Mother, I would like to begin by saying that you were not the cause of the . . . nightmares I was having. That is why I was surprised to see you here. But I thank you for your concern." He stroked Axelle as he spoke. "I . . . would like to tell you that there were many times when I was growing up that I should have come to you and told you what was happening, but . . . I lost my nerve. I was ashamed and did not want you to think poorly of me. Or worse, that you would not believe me when I said Thor and his friends did something to me."

Viva saw Thor was about to snort and say something, but he sunk down in the cushion from the glare she was giving him.

"I also thought you would tell Odin about what Thor was doing and I would end up being punished for lying."

His hand trembled and he buried his fingers in Axelle's silky fur to hide it.

"How would Odin punish you for lying?" Viva asked. Loki paused for a few seconds while Axelle licked his fingers and he sighed.

"It has been written in books and stories here on Asgard and on Midgard that I am an excellent liar, but I am not," he started then paused to look at Thor, Odin and Frigga.

"You're not?"

"No," he said with a shake of his head. "But I do remember the one time I did lie and the punishment which followed."

"Tell me what happened," Viva encouraged, projecting confidence at him.

"I was six and had just learned how to levitate objects," Loki recalled. "I was in the Hall of Artifacts, and decided to see how many things I could levitate at once."

"What happened?"

"There was this urn. It was a cream color and had these green vines painted on it. I knew I could easily levitate it and cast the spell. What I didn't know was the urn was heavier than it looked. I was concentrating when I thought I heard someone and the spell failed. The urn crashed to the ground and I... I panicked."

Odin arched an eyebrow when a fragment of memory skirted across his mind and Viva nodded her head for Loki to continue.

"I knew I would be punished. Not only for being in the hall, but for practicing magic without my mother being present. I tried to cast a spell to repair the urn, but I was too upset and it took a long time before I finally repaired the urn. I levitated the urn back on the pedestal and left the room. What I didn't know was I had missed a piece."

"Who found out the urn had been broken?"

"Odin," he said, looking at his father. "He had gone into the hall and he found the missing piece. He checked the artifacts and found the urn. He called Thor and I into his office and questioned us about what happened. Thor, of course, denied having anything to do with what happened. When it was my turn, I also told him I had nothing to do with what happened. I am not sure how, but Odin knew I was lying. He dismissed Thor then he looked at me. He walked to me and I saw he knew I had lied to him."

"You must have been terrified."

"I was," Loki said with a nod. "He asked me again if I had any knowledge of what happened to the urn. He also told me only dark mages lie. "Do you want to be a dark mage, Loki?" he asked me. "No," I said.

"Then tell me the truth."

"Did you tell him the truth?"

"Yes, I did," he said, glancing at Odin. Odin remembered how frightened Loki looked that day. He was terrified. He knew Loki had lied, but to see that amount of fear in his son's eyes caused a cold chill to move through his chest.

Oh Loki, can you ever forgive me? he thought regretfully.

"The odd thing was, he told me the urn wasn't an artifact. It was just a decoration. Even though I was relieved, I was still worried about what he would do."

"What did he do?"

"He made me promise to never do magic without my mother being present and to never lie again. After that day, I have never lied. Not once."

Yes, you have, Thor thought with a smug look.

"But how were you punished?" Viva queried again.

"He forbid me from using magic for a time. He bound my powers and reminded me that I was on the road to becoming a dark mage."

Frigga's mouth dropped open and she scowled at her husband.

"That is just like breaking a warrior's sword or spear and telling him he is unworthy to serve his or her king," Viva said and Loki nodded. "A mage's magic is their life."

"Odin! You did that over a mere urn? That was broken by accident?" Frigga growled.

Odin looked down as he balled his fingers into fists and Viva sent comforting waves into Loki's mind.

"Is there anything else you wish to say to your mother?" she asked.

"I do understand you were not allowed to tell me about my true origins, but it still hurts that you had such little faith in me. In my reaction."

"What would have been your reaction?"

"I would have been angry and confused."

"But you wouldn't have stopped loving them?"

"No," he said with a shake of his head.

"And you forgive her?"

"Yes," he said and Frigga smiled. "When I... When I fell off of Bifrost, my last thoughts were of her."

I didn't know that, Frigga thought, tears dripping down her cheeks.

"During my captivity, I wanted to see you once last time and tell you I was sorry. Sorry that I was such a disappointment."

Loki, you were never that, she thought, using a handkerchief to wipe her eyes.

"When they finally broke me, I tried to hate you, but I couldn't do that. So, I decided it would be best if I got you to hate me."

Frigga's heart ached as she sniffed and Viva sent her some calming thoughts.

The Mind Healer sensed great guilt and regret from the two monarchs and slight scorn from Thor, who still believed he had done nothing serious to Loki, who was just being his usual dramatic and oversensitive self.

This is a waste of time. Thor thought, folding his arms over his wide chest.

Viva's eyes narrowed and the big warrior flinched at the Look she was giving him, as if she could read his mind and she disapproved of what she saw there.

"Now who do you wish to speak to?" Viva asked, looking at Loki. Loki looked from Thor to Odin and Axelle nuzzled Loki's fingers.

Odin noticed how his son's eyes lingered on him and Odin nodded.

Loki considered who he wished to tackle next, and decided to speak to his father first. He saw that his words had affected the king, and Odin seemed to be upset, and a little part of him was glad of it. But another part of him was hoping that the remorse was genuine and he could make his father understand how much his favoritism had hurt his son.

"To say I am ungrateful for you taking me from that temple would be a lie. True, I have not fully learned the reason behind it, but I accept I would not be alive if you had left me there," Loki said and Viva frowned.

"What temple?" she asked.

"It was during the last war with the Frost Giants," he said and told her the tale Odin had told him.

Viva looked startled. but then her face smoothed and returned to its normal serene expression.

"Is there something wrong?" he asked.

"No. I was just unaware of your origins," she replied.

He wasn't sure, but he felt like she was hiding something, but he nodded and looked at Odin.

"What really bothered me was how differently you treated Thor over how you treated me. You would dote over him, praise him and lavish him with gifts. Me? I was an afterthought or you gave no thought to me at all. If Thor wanted to tell you or show you something, you gave him your complete attention. When I did the same, you said you were busy or you criticized it."

"You did tell me the story about the sandcastle," she reminded him.

"I had spent all day working on it and all he did was talk about Thor swimming out to the rock all on his own."

Odin remember that day as he looked at the seascape painting and he sighed.

"And then Thor came and knocked it down showing you some battle move and you didn't even yell at him for ruining it. I know it was just a sandcastle, of no worth to anyone, but I had worked hard on it and I felt like nothing I did was worthy of your regard. I excelled at my studies, and you just said, "You could have done better, Loki." But when I did you never rewarded my efforts, simply told me to run along, you were busy. But when Thor did well he got special desserts and once, a pony. I couldn't understand why whatever I did was never good enough. And I broke my heart trying to please you!"

Thor looked at the crushed look on Odin's face then Thor rolled his eyes, shaking his head.

"It got worse as we got older. You would throw banquets for him, yet I got little or no recognition at all. Or I was punished for the smallest thing. That is why I was in a state of disbelief when Mother told me you wished me to be king after Thor was exiled and you had fallen into Odinsleep."

Loki continued.

"I have always felt like the shadow prince, the forgotten son, never belonging."

He paused, feeling his anxiety and anger start to rise.

"Breathe," Viva whispered and he took some deep, cleansing breaths. The cats started purring while he closed his eyes and his heart and mind slowly returned to normal. "Do you wish to take a break?"

Odin and Frigga both felt the guilt surging through them. Odin held tightly onto her hand as a drowning man clings to a lifeline and Frigga longed to go and hold her son, her heart cracking in two for his suffering.

"No, I wish to continue," Loki muttered, opening his eyes and Axelle rose onto her hind legs and rubbed her head under his chin.

"Take your time."

Nodding, Loki glanced at Odin and he moved his hand over the soft fur.

"Even knowing the truth, I wanted to finish off the Frost Giants and that is why I let Laufey and his army into the palace. I would have succeeded, but Laufey escaped and I felt like a failure. That was one of the reasons I took my anger out on Thor and his friends. I do admit using the Destroyer was a bit much, but all that did was prove Thor was worthy and he was released from exile. If it had been the other way around, I would be dead. When I fell off Bifrost, I wanted one last chance to prove I was just as good as Thor. If you would have let me destroy the Frost Giants once and for all... I thought I could save Asgard . . . that I could finally prove I was worthy of your regard . . .and that I was not the monster I believed myself to be . . . But you just said no. That was when something broke in me. You really didn't care about me. You didn't... because I was nothing . . .nothing but a disappointment, an unwanted freak that only belonged in Hel. Then I let go."

"Loki," Odin thought, feeling the tears in his eye.

"While I was in my exile, I wondered if you even missed me. If you gave one thought about me. Did you even look for me? I would scream for you night after night, trying to contact you with my telepathy. But I was only met with silence. Only ever silence. And that just confirmed what I had always known. That nobody cared." His voice trembled. "Once I broke, I realized they were right. I wasn't your son. I was just a pawn. A relic you brought back from the war."

The green eyes went glassy suddenly, and his breath hitched in his chest.

But Viva had sensed the panic building in him and she laid a hand on his arm, stilling the panic with one focused burst of warmth and serenity. I am here, Loki. And you are safe.

Loki glanced at her as he shook and Frigga stood, walking to him. She knelt down as she placed her hand on his right knee and Loki looked at his mother.

"Calm yourself," she said and he reached over with a shaking hand to cup her cheek.

Odin watched them as he stood then walked to the window. He placed his hands behind his back when he looked out at the view then wiped the tears away on the back of his hand. He knew he had hurt his youngest son, but he had never thought he had broken him.

You are worse than Thanos, he thought.

Axelle looked at Odin when she hopped off Loki's lap and scampered over to Odin. She swatted at his robe when he looked down and sighed. He reached down for the kitten when he straightened up and held the kitten against his chest.

The forest cat purred as he stroked the soft fur and the purring moved through his chest like a small shock wave.

You will not fall apart! You will NOT! Loki ordered himself, and then he locked the anxiety down through sheer force of will. "I'm all right now, Mother."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Viva can verify it."

"That is true," Viva reassured her. "Loki, do you want to take a break?"

"Yes," he said with a nod and Frigga stood. He followed when she wrapped her arms around him and he held her in his arms. Odin turned, walking back to them, when he handed the kitten to Viva then sandwiched Loki between them as he hugged them.

"Air," Loki teased and Odin weakly laughed.

Viva rang a small bell as the door opened and a servant entered the room. She asked for some tea and some food as the servant nodded, bowed and left the room. Frigga helped Loki lie on the couch as she knelt down and brushed the hair out of his eyes.

Thor stared at them, then turned to the Healer and asked, "How-how often does he get these . . . fits?"

"They are called anxiety attacks, and he gets them when he is triggered. Stress is a trigger. As are traumatic memories."

"Like the memories of falling off Bifrost?"

"Yes."

"How can we stop them?"

"You remove the triggers. Or learn how to return to a calm state after being triggered. Right now I haven't figured out everything that triggers them. Because there is usually more than one cause. But I shall. You saw me help him just now with my Gift. But he also pushed the anxiety away himself. With time, he can learn to control them and eventually to stop them before they start."

"And Axelle helps calm me down," Loki said while the kitten jumped out of Odin's arms and hopped onto Loki's lap.

"The cat?" Thor asked, looking puzzled.

"Yes. My cats are taught how to comfort people in distress. It is well known among Mind Healers that cats and dogs can sense emotional disturbances in people and act to prevent them. Petting a cat and hearing it purr lowers blood pressure and prevents heart attacks and strokes."

"Could that...? Could Loki suffer one of those?"

"He could."

Thor looked alarmed.

"You do remember me telling you he thought he was dying from the last fit he had, don't you?" she asked and Thor nodded.

"If a panic attack is bad enough, sometimes the person's airway can constrict, preventing him or her from breathing. Sometimes they are bad enough to cause unconsciousness and in very rare cases . . . they can kill you if your heart rate goes too high."

Thor was stunned at the thought of Loki dying from a memory of something he had done or said to him.

"I... I...," Thor stuttered. The door slammed as the volatile god strode through it. He stormed down the hallway, until he reached a wall and slammed his fist into it. He pounded his fists over and over into the wall, and dust and chunks of stone fell about him. "No! No, this can't be true!" He put his head against the wall, his rage slowly fading.

Viva had followed him out of the room, feeling his despair.

"Prince Thor?" she asked and he turned to look at her. His knuckles were bruised and cut, but it was the guilt and remorse coming from him which made her approach him and she placed her hand on his arm.

"I had no idea," he finally said in a soft voice.

"Most people don't. Until they see for themselves. But now you know." She told him quietly. "The majority of times, anxiety attacks are not life threatening. However, I prefer to err on the side of caution. Especially when dealing with trauma like Loki's." She cleared her throat. "I have become very . . . determined to help Loki, even more so than I usually am. There is something . . . I don't fully understand it but . . .I know that if necessary, I would die for him."

"You would?"

"Yes. Now, when it is your turn to be confronted by him, you need to fully listen to what he is going to tell you."

"He did tell me a few things earlier. Like he was grateful when I showed up on Midgard after he was sent there to take it over."

"I would like to hear about that."

"It's not pleasant. He... He encountered someone there who pounded him into the floor."

"They what?!"

"I'll let him explain."

Viva's bi-colored eyes flashed and she thought about taking whoever had harmed Loki and pounding THEM into the floor. Or making them flee in terror from her fearcasting.

"Suddenly, lady, I am glad a thousand times over that I am not your enemy," Thor said fervently. "If half the stories I have heard about Empaths are true . . ."

"Shall we go back now?" she asked. Nodding, Thor followed her down the hallway. They entered the office and Loki saw the damage to Thor's hands.

"Taking your anger out on the walls again?" Loki teased. Thor walked to the couch, kneeling so Loki could use healing magic on his sore hands. Within moments, they were totally healed.

"Thank you, Brother," Thor said, rising to his feet. The servant had returned, bringing around some tea and sandwiches. Frigga helped Loki sit up, and he carefully held the teacup in his hand while Axelle perched upon his shoulder.

"What a lovely fragrance this tea has!" the queen exclaimed.

"It's delicious," Odin said.

"Thank you, Sire," Viva said modestly. "It is an old recipe handed down from Master Healer to apprentice."

Thor removed three sandwiches from the tray and began eating. He sampled the tea, though he normally preferred mead, he didn't want to insult Viva and risk her temper again.

"It is very good," he said.

Loki felt a bit better, but he wished to tell the king one other thing.

"When you fell into Odinsleep in the vault, I reached out to touch your hand, but changed my mind. It wasn't because I couldn't bring myself to touch you. It was because I was afraid I would hurt you," Loki said in a soft voice.

"I know you wouldn't have harmed me," Odin said.

"Magic, even mine, is based on emotions and mine were out of control."

"And a mage without control is a danger to all," Viva quoted. "It is why we are taught discipline over our emotions at a young age."

"Even you, lady?" Thor queried. "But your magic is emotions."

"Especially me, Prince Thor. The very first thing I was taught was how to shield my mind from feeling other's emotions," Viva said. "Because without that protection, I would have gone mad. An untrained Empath feels everything—my own emotions plus anyone else's nearby. That is why my mother decided to move to the mountains, because it was easier for me to maintain control in a place where there were few people. Not just for myself, but for others too."

Loki nibbled on a sandwich to calm down. As he did so, something occurred to him.

"May I ask you something?" Loki asked and Odin nodded. "You taught Thor and I to hate Jotuns even though you knew I was one of them. Why did you do that?"

"It . . . was not something I meant to do. But when you have become used to thinking of a race as evil and corrupt for so long it is hard to remember that the Jotun are not just monsters, that like any people they have both good and bad in them. I had fought against them for so long that a part of me had grown used to thinking of them as the enemy. So I told you the old stories, but I never meant for you to take them literally."

"Like the stories and myths people on Midgard tell in regard to us? There are people there who believe I...," Loki said then paused. "They believe I gave birth to a horse."

Odin bit into a sandwich, then said, "Yes. Like that." The king's eyes twinkled. "Well, you are a shifter. And you do love horses. I practically had to drag you out of the stables when you were a child."

"But how were we to know if what you told us was true or not? You never took us to Jotunheim."

"There was a reason for that."

"You mean me getting touched by a Frost Giant and discovering my heritage?"

"Yes," he said with a nod.

"It was still wrong, Sire," Viva said.

"You're right. I should have watched what I said around you." Odin agreed. "However, most of what was said in those stories about the land itself was true, if not always the people."

"King Laufey is not very welcoming to guests," Viva spoke up. "He prefers the ways of war or so I have heard."

"He certainly has no love for me," Loki declared coldly. "Any more than I do him."

They finished their lunch, then Viva asked if Loki was ready to resume the session. "I am," he affirmed, and they returned to the couch. Loki brought his second cup of tea with him, but set it down by his feet. Axelle curled in his lap, her presence giving him courage. He took a deep breath and looked directly at Thor.

"You may not have realized this, but when we were children, I used to wish I was more like you, Brother. At first it was because I looked up to you, but part of it was because I knew our father preferred you over me. I didn't understand why, but I knew it was so."

He paused to sip some tea.

Loki continued. "You were everything I wasn't-you looked like our parents, you liked playing with swords and hammers, everyone wanted to be your friend, and no one ever had a cross word for you. But me-I was different. I was small and I preferred quiet games and books. I was shy and not comfortable around too many people. And I asked too many questions and annoyed adults, especially our father. I was the Odd One, the Clever One, but I was never anyone's favorite, except Mother's.

"But I tried, oh how I tried, to be more like you. But it was no use. I was not you and never would be, and what was worse, all of your friends knew it. And they made no bones about it. When I asked to play with you, it was only on your terms . . . or theirs. You may not wish to remember this, but I could never forget it."

He paused, sifting among his memories for one in particular.

Thor remained silent, but he felt uneasy, shuffling his boots on the floor. He had feeling he would not like what Loki was going to say next.

"This was just after Odin came back from a trip to Nidvallir and brought you the toy replica of Mjolnir. I asked you if I could play with it, and you laughed at me and said a skinny little shrimp like me couldn't even lift it. Then Volstagg came up and asked, and you allowed him to play with it. All of your friends were allowed to do so, but when I asked again, you told me 'Go away, Loki! You are a little weakling and will probably drop it on your foot.' "

Thor remembered that day and he felt a knot building in his chest.

"I tried to grab it from you, but you turned and smacked me in the head with it. I remember falling on the ground and you and your friends laughing and telling me to run on home to Mama, little baby! I just lay on the ground afterwards and you ran off with your friends."

Frigga gasped as she glared at Thor and he lowered his head.

"I was dizzy and I just lay there until Knut the gardener found me and helped me up. He asked what had happened and I just told him I tripped and fell. I knew nobody would believe me if I said you whacked me over the head with your hammer because your friends would all say I lied."

Loki frowned than continued. "That night at supper, Odin asked us what we did that day. You told him you were playing with your friends and then you looked over at me and laughed and said, "Loki was reading again and walked into a wall." Everyone thought it was hilarious. But only I knew the truth."

Odin frowned at Thor as the Thunder God sighed and Loki took a sip of tea.

"I am amazed you didn't feel the need to get back at him," Viva said, hinting for Loki to continue.

"I did get back at him. Odin had given me a small knife because he forgot to get me anything. While they were laughing, I had retrieved it from my pocket and... I stabbed Thor in the side with it. When Thor yelped, he told Odin and I was sent to my room without supper. He also took the knife back."

Frigga glared daggers at both Odin and Thor, who glanced away unable to meet her censorious gaze.

He stroked the purring kitten. "And that was only one of many incidents. I walked into a lot of walls when we were growing up. Because your friends soon realized that they could pound on me and not only would they get away with it, you thought it was fine for them to do so. By the time I learned to defend myself, they had no respect for me."

Viva wondered if he was shutting down when he leaned back against the cushion and he looked at the ceiling.

"Not even your new friends on Midgard respected me. Well, they weren't your friends, but you sided with them instead of convincing them there must be a reason for my behavior. You didn't even seem upset about that vile creature of theirs pounding me into the floor."

Frigga and Odin gave Thor shocked looks as he felt like he was on trial and he placed his head in his hands. He wished now he had spoken up for Loki, instead of just going along with the others who had labelled his brother a villain. He had known something was not quite right. What have I done? I have behaved like a fool or worse.

"While we were going to their ship, which was where they held me while deciding my fate, I admit I was being sarcastic, but that gave you no right to slap a gag on me and tell me to shut up. If I had my chance, I would have just teleported myself somewhere and you would have never seen me again."

"Would you really have done that?" Viva asked. Loki thought while he looked at them and his fingers moved over the soft fur.

"I might. But that really isn't the answer, is it? I would still have my memories and there is no escaping them."

He swallowed sharply and went on. "When I was a prisoner of the Black Order, Maw used to take great delight in making me see a construct that looked like you and it would tell me in your voice, "Know your place, Brother." He hoped to drive me to despair. But he didn't know that I had learned my place long ago-and it was not by your side, but five paces behind you."

The green eyes glittered with suppressed anger and Thor found he could not look at his brother's face, though he knew he richly deserved Loki's scorn and anger.

Loki's hand clenched into a fist. "But he didn't have to work that hard to break me-I made it easy for him. I was already depressed and thought I was nothing. I had done half his work for him. All he needed to do was fill me up with anger and hatred. Then set me free. I was controlled by the scepter the Other gave me."

"I didn't know that was what it was doing," Thor muttered.

"And I used that scepter to control others. I made them my puppets while I, myself, was one. I also enjoyed it. I enjoyed the power. I enjoyed being the one people had to listen to. But there was one I could not control. That was the Man of Iron. I am still not sure how he was able to resist, but he did the one thing none of you did. He showed me some respect. True, he was the enemy, but he saw something in me that he recognized. If I hadn't been controlled, I feel we would have become allies. Friends."

"Certain people have minds that are resistant to mental control," Viva replied. "He may have been one of those. But you must remember, the scepter could not only control what you did, but how you felt also. So when you said you enjoyed it-that was not you-it was the one whose will was implanted upon you through the scepter. HE was feeding you emotions, which would ensure that you did as commanded."

"How do you know all this?" Loki asked.

"I know because we—the Mind Healers I studied under—captured a dark psychic and using empathic persuasion on him, he told us how he used his Talents to control others. He provided valuable information so we knew how to counter what he did and also how to heal the damage caused by such a thing."

"What happened to this dark psychic?" Odin wanted to know.

"His own guilt killed him," Viva answered. "Once he had realized the horrible nature of his crimes he stopped his own heart. We found him dead in his cell the next morning without a mark on him. He had written a single line in the dirt-May the Norns forgive me."

The room fell silent as she looked at them and Loki thought about what she said.

At last Viva spoke into the silence, which was fraught with guilt and sorrow and anger. "Now, if you wish, you may answer Loki and explain your actions towards him."

"Brother," Thor said after a few minutes and Loki looked at him. "I know there is no way for me to go back and undo the damage I have done. Nor do I fully expect you to forgive me. All I ask is for you to try."

"Try and forgive you?" Loki asked.

"Yes."

"What about you? Will you try to see I am not your shadow, but your right hand?"

"Maybe that's what I always meant when I said know your place," he said with a rueful grin and Loki smiled slightly.

"I had noticed you let your friends run ahead, but kept me close by."

"How else was I supposed to know what to do?"

"But the teasing...? The bulling...?"

"Old habits die hard," Viva said as she looked at the two of them.

"I can only tell you that I was stupid back then . . . and even now with my mortal friends. I have always enjoyed being the one who is praised and celebrated," the Thunder God admitted.

"You are something of a glory hound," Viva remarked.

"Aye. And when I was a child, I feared losing that attention to Loki, who was so much smarter than I was. So I . . . treated him badly."

"Not only you," Frigga pointed out scathingly. "You allowed your friends to bully your brother, when you promised me long ago you would look after him. You broke that promise, Thor!"

"I know," her son said, looking ashamed. "I told myself it didn't matter, but I was wrong. I should have stood up for you, Loki. I was a terrible older brother."

"Yes, you were," Loki agreed softly.

"Perhaps you can give me another chance?" Thor said, his cerulean eyes hopeful.

"And me also?" Odin queried.

Loki's jaw clenched. "I . . . will think on it. I cannot promise more than that right now."

Thor nodded. "That is fair. And Loki—I would have come for you if I had known that you were alive. But I swear I thought you dead." He turned to Odin. "Father, what does Heimdall have to say about this? Why did he not See where Loki was?"

"I confronted him over that," Odin said. "And he admitted to me that after a time he did See Loki's whereabouts. But he let his pride and anger and his assumption that Loki was a traitor to Asgard make him keep his silence."

"He what?!" Thor exploded. "That—that bloody damned asshole!"

"Thor!" Frigga snapped. "Watch your mouth, young man! There is a lady present!"

Thor flushed and bowed to Viva. "Forgive me, lady. My tongue ran away with me."

"You're forgiven. I've heard worse from Tyr," Viva admitted with a smirk.

"Still, he and I will have words," Thor declared heatedly.

"I would like to watch," Loki remarked gleefully.

"So would I," Viva muttered.

"Be my guest," Thor said. Just wait until I get hold of him!

"I will leave his chastisement in your and Loki's hands," Odin declared. He forced himself to meet his younger son's gaze. "Loki, I can only say that I regret what I did when you were growing up. And I wish I knew of a way to make it up to you. But I cannot change the past, much as I wish I could."

"No, you cannot change what has been, but you can do something else to help Loki," Viva told the king earnestly. "I would like you to complete an assignment for me, Sire. Sometimes words alone are not enough to express oneself."

She handed both Odin and Thor pieces of paper and a note.

On the note was written: Please complete the following in a timely manner—write a letter to the child Loki was and apologize to him for what you have done. Consider what has been said at this session—and what has been unsaid as well. Only through understanding can you mend what has been torn asunder. The pen is mightier than the sword.

Frigga approached and peered at the paper in Odin's hand. Then she turned and said to Viva, "May I have one too? There are things I would like to say also."

"You may, My Queen," Viva handed her paper. "When these are completed, return them to me. I will give them to Loki."

Loki cocked an eyebrow at the Healer. "What are they going to do?"

"A bit of reflection," Viva replied mysteriously.

Loki looked amused. "It will take a miracle for Thor to do that."

His brother gave Loki a Look. "Be quiet, Loki. I can do this."

"Sure you can," the other teased. "I'll believe it when I see it."

"This session is at an end," Viva declared. She glanced at the mantle clock and saw they had been talking for almost three hours.

The others departed, and she turned to her patient and asked, "How do you feel now?"

"A little better now that I have unburdened myself," Loki admitted. "I am surprised they actually listened."

"I'm not. Though they hurt you greatly, your family does truly care for you, Loki. Otherwise they would not have shown up here."

"I suppose you are right."

"I could feel their honest remorse and regret. That is more than my father felt for my mother. He would not come even when he knew she was dying." Viva told him, a slight tinge of bitterness to her voice.

"I am sorry," Loki murmured. "I take it theirs was not a happy marriage?"

"No. They separated, but still, he must have loved her once," Viva muttered. Then she shook her head. "But that is neither here nor there. You have more important things to concern you than something that happened over ten years ago."

Loki closed his hand over hers. "Viva," he said quietly. "Someday I would like to hear about it."

She nodded abruptly. "Perhaps one day I shall tell you." Then she covered her mouth with a hand. "Excuse me, I seem to be feeling a bit sleepy. Must be the heat."

"You aren't the only one," Loki said, also yawning. He felt a warm lassitude sweep over him, and suddenly he felt too comfortable to rise and go to his chambers. He snuggled deeper into the whispercouch. "Do you mind if I sleep here?"

"Not at all," Viva said, and took a blanket from a chest and draped it over him. It was a hand-knitted one of greens and blues with geometric shapes.

"It's very cozy," Loki muttered.

"I know. That is my mother's work. She was a talented craftswoman." Viva smiled, then she went and lay on the other end of the couch, drawing a second blanket, this one of ice blue and gold, about her. "Pleasant dreams, Loki."

Soon the office grew still, as its occupants slept after the emotional whirlwind that had just occurred, and the two cats purred upon their laps, gently kneading the blanket.

A/N: so what did you think?

Chapter Text

 

Thor paced to and fro inside his chambers. Crumpled balls if paper upon the floor bore mute testimony to his failed efforts at writing the apology letter to Loki. He was too wound up to concentrate on the letter when all he wanted to do was break Heimdall's nose.

Finally, he halted and gazed out of the doors of his balcony, admiring the rising sun and thinking about how the Watcher had betrayed his brother. He felt slightly sick at the knowledge but it was eclipsed by anger. How could his friend have stood by and watched Loki being tortured?

Dark storm clouds formed in the sky and he knew they were forming due to his anger.

"Calm yourself," he whispered and the clouds faded. Like with Loki, Thor's powers ebb and flow with his emotions and he turned, his mind made up, and left his room.

His feet took him past Loki's chambers and recalling his brother's wish, the Thunderer knocked on the door, nodding at Eiric and Magnus on duty.

The door opened while a sleepy eyed Loki looked at Thor and Thor noticed how tired he looked.

"Morning, Brother," Thor said. Loki yawned as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and gave a hint of a smile.

"Morning," Loki said.

"Did you sleep well?"

"It was a rough night, but not as bad as the night before."

"Do you still wish to be there while I confront Heimdall?"

"Yes, I just need to dress."

Thor nodded when Loki closed the door then he appeared in the doorway. He was wearing his battle armor and cape and Thor saw he had slicked back his hair.

"Shall we go?" Loki asked. Nodding, Thor led the way and Eiric and Magnus glanced at each other.

"I would not like to be the Watcher this day," Eiric said and Magnus nodded.

As if summoned, Viva appeared in her doorway. She was wearing a soft ice blue tunic and gray breeches with a white half cloak. "Going somewhere, my lords?"

"We are going to speak with Heimdall," Loki said.

"Mind if I join you?"

"Of course you can," Thor said. She felt the anger coming from the Thunder God as they headed down the hallway and she sent calming thoughts to him. "As much as I appreciate what you are doing, Healer, I need my anger right now."

"Just don't go and do something foolish, Brother," Loki said.

"I will try and restrain myself."

"That would be good. We don't need to break the Bifrost again," Loki joked.

Thor chuckled softly as he lightly nudged Loki and Viva sensed the bond between brothers starting to grow stronger again.

"How about the Watcher's head?" Thor snorted.

"It would be a little hard for him to talk if his mind is scrambled," Viva said. They left the palace as they headed into the village and walked the path toward Bifrost.

Bifrost:

Heimdall had heard Thor, Loki and Viva's conversations before they arrived and he admitted he was frightened. Facing Odin and Frigga's wrath was one thing, but Thor...

"My princes," he said with a bow and they came to a stop on front of him.

"I am your prince? I thought I was a traitor," Loki said coldly.

"I was mistaken, my lord," Heimdall said respectfully.

Heimdall felt Thor's eyes on him as he glanced at his friend and prince and Thor balled his fingers into tight fists.

"Remember. You need to keep calm and think before you speak," Viva whispered and Thor nodded.

"I have apologized to your brother for my error in judgement, Thor," Heimdall told him, hoping to mitigate his anger.

Loki wondered what Thor was going to say as Thor took a few deep breaths, but the fingers of his right hand bent over the handle of Mjolnir.

"Do you think an apology is enough for what you have done!" The elder prince demanded. "You LIED to all of us! You let us mourn Loki as dead when all the time he was alive and being tortured!"

"There was nothing I could do. Bifrost..."

"The blast with Bifrost! If you had TOLD us, Father would have tried to find a way to free my brother from his captivity!"

Thor's eyes flared electric blue.

"Brother . . ." Loki warned.

"He was tortured for MONTHS! He told me he spent nights in his cell calling out for us to rescue him until he lost his voice! He cried out for our mother! How could you bare to HEAR that, yet do NOTHING!?" Thor bellowed, lightning crackling around his hands.

"My prince..."

"When you and Father finally repaired Bifrost, you warned me my brother was dangerous and I should end things quickly!"

"He did?!" Loki asked with wide eyes.

"I wasn't sure if you were or not. I just wanted him to be cautious when dealing with you," Heimdall stated.

You are not helping, Viva thought, sensing Thor's anger rising.

Loki moved back slightly as Thor growled, but Loki didn't see he was getting too close to the edge of the rainbow bridge.

"Loki!" Viva shouted. Quickly, Thor ran to Loki, grabbing onto Loki's arms and pulled his brother towards him. Loki looked behind him when his eyes widened and Thor felt his body shaking.

Falling. Endlessly falling. The deadly cold wrapping itself around him. His eyes still looking up at the tattered remains of Bifrost and he could just see Thor and Odin reaching out for him.

"Loki, look at me!" Thor demanded, but Loki just looked at the Void. Viva could sense Loki's distress as she ran to them and she placed her hand on Thor's arm.

"He can't hear you," she said and Thor let go of his brother so she could help Loki calm down.

"What is happening?" Heimdall asked.

"Loki is having a panic attack!" Thor said.

"A what?"

"He is reacting to being here. This is where he fell. This is where it all started. Thanks to not only you, but me, my brother is locked in a nightmare!"

Viva put both her hands on his shoulders. "Listen to me, Loki. You are not falling you are safe here with me. Trust me. Come back to me. Come back." She blanketed his mind with her own soothing thoughts.

He could hear her, but all he felt was the cold. Cold never bothered him before, but this was different.

"Loki, Thor is here. He needs you. Come back to us."

"Thor?" he mouthed and she nodded.

"Yes, Thor. He needs you. Please."

Loki blinked his eyes a few time then she carefully walked him over to Thor and Thor placed his hands on his brother's shoulders.

"I am here, Brother," Thor said in a calming tone and Loki nodded.

"I... I am fine now," Loki said, feeling Thor cup the back of his head in his large hand. Heimdall looked at the brothers while a large knot formed in his stomach and he sighed.

Norns forgive me. I caused this, he thought.

Viva turned to stare at the Watcher and sent, You owe Loki a life debt. For the life that was stolen from him.

I understand, he sent back.

"My Prince, I believe I know how I can repay you for what I have done," Heimdall said and Loki looked at him.

"I don't know what you can do which can give me back what I have lost," Loki said.

"I offer you a life debt."

Loki stared at him. "Do you realize what that entails?"

"Yes, I do," he said with a bow.

Loki considered. If he accepted, it meant Heimdall's life was bound to his, for the Watcher must protect his holder's life with his own, the debt only fulfilled when he saved Loki's life or died trying.

Heimdall felt his heart slamming in his chest while they waited for Loki's answer and Loki frowned, folding his arms over his chest,

"I accept." Loki murmured.

"Thank you, My Prince," Heimdall said with a deep bow then he looked at Thor. "And how can I repay you?"

Thor rubbed his beard, thinking.

"You must never betray my brother ever again. If he is in danger, no matter where he is, you MUST tell us immediately!" Thor said.

"I swear, my liege." Heimdall promised, saluting him. "My life is now his."

Thor nodded brusquely. "Make it count."

The three departed after that, and while Loki and Viva strolled in the gardens, avoiding the prying eyes of the courtiers, Thor returned to his room to try composing the letter once again.

His spirt now calm, his anger banished, Thor now found he could concentrate, and he set the pen to the paper and began to write, scrawling the words quickly across the page lest he forget them.

Elsewhere, two monarchs also wrote letters, pouring their heartfelt words upon the paper in hopes that doing so would help to heal their broken son.

Soon three letters arrived at Viva's balcony, brought there by Huginn and Muninn so the Mind Healer could give them to Loki at her leisure.

Viva glanced up from the book she was perusing, a text upon discovering triggering episodes, and smiled at the two roguish ravens tapping upon her balcony doors.

"Pretty lady. I come bearing a message for you!" Muninn trilled.

"I also, enchanting one!" Huginn called, not to be outdone by his brother.

"Come in, you rogues!" she laughed and threw open the doors.

Kiva woke as the ravens fluttered inside, and then yawned and resumed her nap, as if to say, "Oh, it's only you!"

A raven landed one on each shoulder, and glared at the other.

"Lady, I have here an important missive from the king-" Muninn squawked.

"I was here first!" argued Huginn.

"So? I am the eldest!" Muninn snapped.

"But mine is more important!"

"No, mine is!"

Huginn stuck out his tongue at his brother. "Spoilsport!"

"Enough," Viva said with a laugh. "I will look at both."

That seemed to mollify both birds, who preened themselves while Viva opened the letters and scanned their contents briefly.

She smiled and traced some runes above them, which would let Loki hear the letters in each of the authors' voices.

Loki's Chambers

Loki had retired to his room as he sat at the window seat and looked out at the view. Even though he knew it was just a frightening memory, he could still feel the cold from the Void and shivered. Axelle, sensing her friend's distress, jumped onto his lap. He looked at the kitten, smiling, and held the tiny feline against his chest.

"I am alright," he whispered and Axelle purred. He felt the vibration moving through his chest as he smiled and stroked the top of the kitten's head. "Well, not alright, but calmer. I wish I didn't get these attacks."

Suddenly, he thought he heard Viva's voice as he leaned against the windowpane and closed his eyes.

Loki, I am coming with the letters from your family, Viva sent, already moving down the hall towards his room.

Soon he heard a knock at the door. "Come in, Lady Viva."

Viva entered, a packet of letters in her hands. "They were just delivered. Take your time and read them."

"I shall," he said. Loki stood, holding Axelle in his arms, as he walked to her and she held out the packet of letters. He placed the kitten in one arm as he took the packet of letters and looked at them.

"Don't look at them! They are all lies!" Maw's voice whispered in his head, but Loki shook his head.

"You're wrong," he whispered.

"Who are you talking to?" Viva asked.

"A ghost of someone who doesn't matter anymore," he said, walking to the highbacked chair, he sat with Axelle on his lap and opened the packet.

"They have a small enchantment on them," Viva told him. "When you read them, you will hear the voice of the one who wrote it in your mind."

Nodding, Loki looked at the elegant scrolling of his name on the first letter and recognized it as his mother's. He slowly opened the letter as he leaned back against the cushion and he started reading.

Viva watched for a moment before departing to give him privacy.

She went to make him some tea as his eyes moved over the page and Frigga's voice filled his head.

My dearest Loki,

Words cannot describe how precious you are to me. You were only a week old when Odin placed you in my arms, and I had recently discovered that I had lost my second child, it had not even had time to quicken before it was gone. But then I was given a gift by the Norns, or so it seemed, and such you have been to me since.

I created a simple enchantment so that no one would question your legitimacy as my son, once your father had explained where he found you and why he had taken you from the temple. Anyone who saw you would remember that you were born a bit earlier than usual, about eight months later than Thor.

You accept me as your mother, though I was not, and the bond between mother and son seemed unbreakable.

I am, and always have been, proud to call you mine. Odin explained how you shifted the moment he held you, and I could not help but notice that you resembled my father, King Gunnar. Odin thinks it was because he was thinking of my father when he found you, recalling how Father used to go into a temple after a battle and pray for forgiveness for the lives he had taken. Your latent telepathy probably picked that thought from his mind.

You even have Father's eyes. Bright. Green. Curious. I see a lot of him in you. He also liked to read and ask questions. I wish he could have met you. He would have loved you.

I inherited my magic from him, as did my brother and sister. He was a great war mage, but he preferred peace to waging war if possible.

The best days of my life was teaching you magic. You were so eager to learn and your powers appear to outshine mine. Or Father's. I pray that you will continue to grow and will someday reach your full potential.

As you grew, I saw how sad you were, but you would never tell me what was wrong. I know now you felt I would have been angry or would not have believed you. What I want you to know, My Darling Boy, is I would have believed you. I would have made sure Thor would have been punished for his mistreatment of you and so would his friends.

Loki smiled at those words and nodded as he took the teacup from Viva before looking at the rest of Frigga's letter.

Watching you grow more and more melancholy, I feared you would turn to dark magic and become something I would no longer recognize. That is why I was so thrilled when Odin explained YOU were to be king after Thor's exile! I thought you would finally see how much your father and I love you and believed in you. I remember the look you gave me when I told you. You were not pleased as much as you were confused. You didn't believe me. Once I handed you his spear, you changed. I wasn't sure what you were thinking. It was frightening. But not as frightening as when your father and Thor returned to the palace and told me about Bifrost. You and Thor fought before, but never like that. The most frightening part was when your father told me you had let go of Gungnir. I swear my heart shattered. My sweet child was gone! No, this could not be true! You could not be dead!

I demanded he have Heimdall... I cannot begin to tell you the anger I feel toward him for what he had done to you. I demanded Heimdall look for you. To FIND you! When he said he could not sense you anywhere, I cried. I was so distraught that I took to my bed for weeks after your funeral. Your father thought he would lose me as well. It took a while, but I recovered. I never gave up hope that you were alive.

Loki dropped the letter on his lap as he looked at Viva and she felt the grief coursing through him.

"Do you want to take a break?" Viva asked.

"No," he said, picking up the letter again.

When Heimdall finally found you, I was thrilled. You were alive! Your father immediately sent Thor to you, but we had no idea what had happened to you. You seemed so different when you returned. So much anger. So much pain in your eyes.

I wish I could take it from you, but since I cannot, I hope Viva can. I give you all the courage I possess, may you take it and grow stronger. Use it to fight your fears and defeat your demons. Always know you can come to me I will always be there for you.

With all my love,

Mother

Loki found himself blinking back tears. He could feel Frigga' s love for him flowing through him and also her courage.

He put the letters on his lap when he closed his eyes and Viva removed the letters, placing them on the floor. Axelle gently kneaded her paws on his chest as he made a shuddering sigh and the tears fell.

After a brief moment, he surreptitiously wiped them away, then looked at her ruefully. "Forgive me, I am—"

"There is no need to explain. I would give everything I own to hear my mother's voice again," Viva said feelingly, blinking back her own tears.

"You miss her, don't you?"

"Always. Even though I carry her here," she touched her heart.

"I take it you were close with her."

"She was the only parent I had. I was very young—two or three—when my parents separated and Mama and I moved to the mountains. As soon as the ink was dry on the contract, my father remarried. To a 'woman more fitting his station' was how he put it." Viva sneered.

"Was your mother a commoner?"

"No. She was of equal rank as my father. But he preferred another. So we left, and I never saw him again. My mother became both father and mother to me."

He reached out and took her hand in his. "Was she your only family?"

"That I will acknowledge," Viva answered. "My father still lives, and he most likely has children with his second wife. But they do not wish me to be a part of their family, so I am not." She shrugged. "I am content as I am, Loki."

He did not refute her, but he thought of how miserable he had been in his exile, bereft of home and family. He wondered if Viva were truly content, or had she only convinced herself of that fact? Still, he did not want to pry, and as it was he had his own problems to deal with.

He picked up the next letter, recognizing Thor's handwriting, which was a bit messy, though Loki knew his brother had attempted to be neat.

Loki,

Sometimes you must wonder what you did to deserve a wretched older brother like me. I assure you, the blame is all mine. Mother mentioned a promise I made to her. A promise that I later broke. When you were a baby, I asked her what I could do to help her take care of you, and she told me that I needed to teach and protect my little brother. I promised her I would always do so. But when we were children I broke that promise, to my shame now. I have no real excuse, save that as a boy I wanted to impress my friends, and I couldn't if I was looking after my little brother. I was stupid and cruel.

Father should have taken a switch to my backside instead of overlooking what I did all those years ago. Norns know I would have done so to any son of mine who behaved that way. At the time, all I thought of was how lucky I was to be the heir apparent and I thought it made me better than anyone else, including you. How wrong I was!

I was arrogant and selfish and not ready to become king. But no one wanted to admit it, least of all me and Father. Only you were wise enough to know what needed to be done. Getting me exiled to Midgard was the best thing that could have happened to me. For there I truly learned what it meant to be a worthy person. I don't know how you put up with me before.

Loki laughed and shook his head.

"It wasn't easy," he whispered then went back to reading the letter.

I h ave always admired your determination and discipline, which I lack except when it comes to sparring. You remember how when we were boys our tutor was always telling me to sit still and concentrate? I always envied you your ability to study effortlessly. You are so smart it scares me sometimes. I meant it when I said I need you by my side, Brother. I need your cool conscience to keep me from going off half-cocked and getting Asgard and myself into situations that would destroy us.

Father always told me that a king needs one wise counselor who will always tell him the truth, even if it means calling him an ass. You are my Wise Counselor. I value your wit and your ability to see all sides of an issue, and as angry as I get occasionally, never doubt that I love you for it. Together, we are unstoppable.

Honestly, I am lost without you, Brother.

I pray you forgive me my transgressions, and you mend from whatever those bastards did you. I know you will get better, because you are the strongest person I know. The sun will shine upon you again, Brother.

Thor

Loki re-read the letter as he felt the honesty of Thor's words and he smiled.

"It will, Brother," he whispered then looked at Viva. He wasn't sure if he should ask, but he needed to know. "Do you have any siblings?"

"That I know of? I may," she allowed.

He accepted her answer as he picked up the final letter. His hands shook a little as he looked at Odin's neat handwriting of his name and he opened the letter.

Dear Loki,

As I write this, I stare at the picture on the wall of you and Thor when you were boys and I wonder how I could have been so blind? Laufey took my eye in battle, but I swore that he did not take my ability to discern right from wrong and good from evil But I suppose there is no fool like an old fool. For I missed all the signs that there was something amiss between you and Thor, and between you and I, until you pointed them out to me yesterday.

To begin with, let me start by saying that when I took you from the temple, I did so out of compassion, not out of a need to use you as a pawn upon a chessboard. I would not even have known whose son you were had not I found a note with you stating you were the rightful prince of Jotunheim, Laufey's son whom he had rejected because you were not what he expected. The note asked whoever found you to show you mercy and raise you as their own. I realized that I could not harm an innocent like this, that battle-harden warrior I was, I did not have it in me to make war upon a baby. Before, I had killed with magic from afar, but that was not the same as seeing you before my eyes. So I decided to take you with me, for I knew that Frigga would welcome you, and Thor needed a sibling, the way I had my brothers growing up.

I never saw you as a monster, only as a child who needed a family. I also never meant to make you feel second to your brother. I am ashamed to admit it, but I behaved exactly like my own father did with me and my brothers Villi and Ve. Like you, I was the youngest, and also like you, I had more in common with my mother, Bestla, than I did with my father Bor. And Father never let me forget it. My brothers came first in his regard and affections until the day they died.

It wasn't until they were gone that he actually saw me as anything except the least of his sons. And I swore I would never do what he did to any of my children.

It is to my everlasting shame that I ended up doing so despite all my good intentions.

That day in the vault, I knew my secrets were now on the table. But words failed me as much as my body. When I said "No. Not now.", I was not speaking to you. I was speaking to myself. I prayed the Norns would halt the Odinsleep long enough for me to explain and calm your fears. But that was not to be. My last thought before I entered the dreamworld was for you wait until I woke for us to speak again. I had instructed your mother to give you my spear and make you king during my rest and your brother's exile, but, to my shame, you were not ready to rule. Your mind was clouded by anger, fear and betrayal.

When I woke, she told me about Laufey's attack and my aide told me he had witnessed your battle with Laufey. Before the coward fled, you said you were the Son of Odin. I never felt so proud. Even after everything, you still felt you WERE my son.

Then I heard you and Thor were battling. I feared one or the other would do something foolish and sped to stop you both. I arrived just as Thor destroyed Bifrost and you fell. If I didn't act quickly, I would lose you. You held onto Gunginir with only one hand and refused to take your brother's hand. You told me you had done all this for us. For Asgard. That you still wanted to prove to me that you were worthy. That is why I said no. You didn't have to prove to me that you are worthy. I knew you were.

Loki looked at those last few words and the tears appeared in his eyes again.

I still have nightmares of the look in your eyes. You were totally crushed and defeated. Nothing I would have said if and when we pulled you back up would matter. Not anymore. My heart stopped when you let go and I watched you fall. I tried to use my magic to retrieve you, but my powers were not at full strength. I know that is an excuse, but it is the truth.

After he had been freed, I demanded Heimdall Look for you! I told him finding you was his only mission and he would face death if he did NOT find you! When he reported there was no sign of you anywhere, I was crushed. I lost my sweet boy. I decreed a state funeral for you and everyone from nearly all the realms came to mourn.

The tears blurred his eyes as Loki used the back of his hand to wipe his eyes, but he shook his head from the questions in Viva's eyes.

For months, I would go to him and ask Heimdall to Look again for any sign of you and he told me there were none I do not have your talent for knowing when someone is lying. If I had, he would have paid for what he did to you.

Finally, he saw you on Midgard. You were leading an army of monsters against the mortals. I could not believe this. You were never a violent man. You did not fight unless it was necessary. There had to be a reason for this sudden change.

But even I could have never imagined what had been done to you. or the horrors you have suffered. All because some madman thought he needed ultimate power, and could torture a son of mine with impunity. I have never taken such pleasure as I did when I killed that purple bastard, and his evil torturers! I would have made them all suffer the way they did you, but my greater concern was mending you, so I killed them swiftly.

I retained Viva because I knew she was the best Mind Healer in Asgard, and only the best is good enough for my son. I pray every night for your swift recovery and also that someday you can find it in your heart to forgive your foolish father for his past mistakes. I know that this may seem hard to believe. but I have always been proud of you, you are the son of my heart, and I love you as much as I do Thor.

You will always be a Prince of Asgard, no matter where you were born.

Your loving father,

Odin Rex

Loki set the correspondence down, a stunned look upon his face.

"You look as though you have been hit over the head with Mjolnir," Viva joked. "Was his letter surprising?"

Loki nodded. "All my life, I have waited for my father to tell me what he did in this letter. Now that he finally did, I . . . don't know how to react."

Viva chuckled. "Perhaps you need to take a few moments to process it all. Why don't you finish your tea and do so? I will leave you be for an hour, then I shall return. I need to discuss what may be triggering your panic attacks."

Loki frowned. "But I thought they were brought on by my bad memories and the dark."

"You may also have other things which trigger one, and it is my job to figure out what they are so we can halt them."

"I see. Will it take long?"

"Hopefully not," Viva smiled. "Right now take some time and think upon the letters and consider how they have affected you, for good or bad." She rose gracefully to her feet and slipped from his room like a specter.

He looked at the letters again when Axelle hopped onto his lap and he scratched her chin. She purred as he sipped on the tea and he leaned back in the chair. A soft knock made him look up when the door opened and Thor looked around the door.

"May I...? May I enter?" Thor asked. Nodding, Loki pointed to the chair next to his and Thor walked to the chair, sitting down. "Did you read the letters?"

"Yes, I have," Loki said.

"I want you to know I mean everything I wrote."

"I believe you."

"And I will make amends for what I have done."

"Well, I could use some help."

"Anything!"

"I need help finding out why I am having night terrors and panic attacks."

"I will do whatever it takes to help you, Loki." Thor stated earnestly.

"I know some of the attacks are triggered by things like Bifrost. My falling from it."

"You almost fell again while I was confronting Heimdall."

"Not on purpose!"

"I know. But even seeing you that close to the edge caused me to panic."

"The only difference this time is you caught me!" he said with a smile.

"I caught you last time." "But, this time, I didn't let go."

"No, you didn't."

"Maybe- Maybe we should start there." Loki proposed.

"Start there?"

"We should go to Bifrost and let me stand there. Not close to the edge, though."

Thor smiled then nodded and Axelle hopped off Loki's lap and onto Thor's.

Chapter Text

 

 

Heimdall was surprised when Loki and Thor returned as he watched them walk across the Rainbow Bridge then they stopped.  Loki could feel his heart slamming in his chest as he sighed and Thor glanced at him.

"We don't have to do this," Thor whispered.

"No, I need to do this," Loki whispered.  He turned and walked back the way he came. Thor watched him stop at the end of the bridge.  Loki took a few calming breaths before he stood a little straighter and looked at Thor.

"You can do this," Loki whispered when he flexed his fingers, but something clicked in his head.

"I bet you can't walk to the Watcher with your eyes closed," a younger Thor challenged him.  They were around six at the time and he admitted he was nervous.  He had closed his eyes and started walking, but he didn't know he was walking too close to the edge.

"My Prince!" Heimdall's father's voice had called out when he felt a hand on his shoulder and he had opened his eyes, looking down into the Void.

"I..."

"Loki!  Brother, are you alright!?" Thor had called out and he ran to him.  He saw the fear in Thor's eyes as Heimdall's father glared at them and Thor swallowed hard.  "I...  I just wanted to see if he would do it."

"Do you have any idea what would have happened if he had fallen off?!"

"Sorry, Brother," Thor said and Loki had nodded.

Loki wasn't sure if Heimdall's father ever mentioned it to Odin or Frigga and he made a mental note to ask them when they returned to the palace.

"Whenever you're ready," Thor called out.  He had seen Loki close his eyes, but he wasn't ready for Loki to start walking and Thor's mouth fell open.  "Open your eyes!"

"I will once I'm done," Loki said.  He could feel the slight motion of Bifrost as it swayed in the pull of the Void, but he didn't stop.  He replayed the fight he had with Thor and how it was his threatening to see Jane Foster which caused Thor to break the bridge.  He wasn't really going to go see her.  He also would never harm a woman.  He had been taught raising a hand against a woman was wrong.  He walked by Thor and Thor turned, watching him head for Heimdall.  Both of them watched as he headed to the edge on the left, paused then he moved to the edge on the right.  Finally, he walked to Heimdall as he opened his eyes and Thor ran to Loki.

"Well done, Brother!  How do you feel?!" Thor asked.

"I...  I still feel uncomfortable being here."

"There might be a reason for that."

Heimdall saw the look in the Thunder God's eyes as he sighed and Loki nodded.  His stomach was doing flips as he felt his hands shaking and Thor placed his right hand on Loki's shoulder.

"Let's go back to the palace," Thor said, patting Loki's shoulder.  Loki nodded his head in agreement as they turned and walked away.  Thor noticed the look on his brother's face when he frowned and Loki glanced at him.

"Tell me something.  Do you remember challenging me to cross Bifrost with my eyes closed?" Loki asked.

"Aye, I do.  You nearly fell off."

"Did Heimdall's father tell Odin or Mother?"

"No," he said then paused.  "I did."

"You told them?"

"I nearly caused you to fall to your death.  Do you think I wouldn't say anything?!"

"What did they do?"

"Mother lectured me for over an hour about how irresponsible I was and Father....  That was one of the only times he ever spanked me.  He also made me clean the stables, help in the kitchen and aide the maids in scrubbing the floors for a month."

"Oh, so that's what you were doing.  I thought you were just ignoring me again."

Thor laughed while Loki looked down at the colors swirling by them and a smile spread across his face.

"Race you home!" Loki called out as he started running and Thor gasped.  Rolling his eyes, he took off after him and their laughter echoed across the bridge.

 

Viva's chambers:

 

Viva sat at her desk as she looked through her medical books and she tried to think of ways to help Loki with his panic attacks.  She had made a long list of things which could trigger the attacks and what she could do to help him.

She didn't hear the door open as Axelle strolled in the room and she had a piece of paper in her mouth.  She walked to the desk when she jumped up on it and nudged Viva.

"Is this for me?" Viva asked, taking the piece of paper from the kitten.  She opened it and saw the drawing of a blonde-haired boy on one end of what looked like a rainbow and a dark-haired boy walking across it.  She could see the dark-haired boy had his eyes closed and she wondered why Loki drew this.

One of the dumbest things I ever did helped me with my problems with Bifrost, was written in his handwriting at the bottom and she frowned.  I will tell you more at lunch.

She glanced at the kitten as she scratched the top of the feline's head and she wondered what he was talking about.

Around noon, Ravn came and knocked on her door. “Hello, my lady,” he greeted her, bowing. “Prince Loki sent me to tell you he wishes for you to join him and Prince Thor in the private dining hall for lunch.”

“Thank you, Ravn. I would be glad to accept. Will you show me where it is?”

“Certainly, lady.”

Ravn led the way to the private dining hall, where Viva found only the two brothers. Both were sitting across from each other, reminiscing about some childhood antics.

When they spotted Viva, the princes rose and greeted her. “Please, do sit down, my lady,” Loki said politely, and held out the chair beside him.

Viva sat down, and Loki pushed her chair in. “We were just discussing an incident in our childhood,” he began. “The one that I mentioned in the picture I sent to you.”

"I did receive the drawing and I am curious to hear what it was about," Viva said and Loki sat down.

"We were around six at the time," Thor began while Ravin served their lunch.  "Lessons were over and both of us were bored."

"You were bored, Brother.  I was content reading one of my books," Loki corrected as he nodded to Ravn.

"What were you reading?" Viva asked.

"It was a Midgard story about this magical imp called Rumplestiltskin.  According to the tale, a daughter of a miller had been sent to a king after her drunk of a father bragged she could spin straw into gold."

"That is impossible," Thor said, stuffing a half of a sandwich in his mouth.

"Maybe it is or maybe it isn't.  But the king did tell the daughter he would kill her if she was unable to perform the feat."

"How barbaric," Viva said.

"Fearing for her life, the daughter started crying and this attracted the imp.  He made a deal with her to spin the straw into gold, but she had to give him her mother's ring.  She did and the king was impressed.  The king gave her more straw and the imp returned.  They made a new deal and he spun the gold for the necklace she wore.  For a second time, the king was thrilled, but he gave her more straw.  If she spun the straw into gold, he would marry her and make her queen."

"This king sounds very selfish."

"He was.  The imp returned and offered one last time to turn the straw into gold.  The price for this final task was her first born child."

"That is insane!"

"Fearing for her life, she made the deal.  He turned the straw into gold and the king married her.  A year later, the imp returned for her first born child, but she begged him not to."

"Which means she was breaking their deal," Thor said, sipping on some mead.

"True, but he told her he would let her keep the baby if she could guess his name in three days.  She guessed and guessed, but she couldn't tell him his name.  On the night of the second day, she ordered servants to go out and search for his name," Loki said.

"Wait.  She had to do it, not her servants," Viva said.

"Right.  One of the servants did find out the name while spying on him and the imp had said his name.  When he appeared the next day, she guessed his name and vanished."

"She cheated."

"Yes, she did," Loki said, taking a sip of the mead and nibbled on one of the sandwiches.

"What did Thor want to do?"

"We were going to do some dares," Thor said.

"They were not supposed to be dangerous," Loki corrected and he nodded.

"And this dare in the picture?  Did it have to do with Bifrost?" Viva asked.

"Yes," Thor said with a nod.  "I challenged Loki to walk from one end of Bifrost to the other."

"That doesn't sound so..."

"With my eyes closed," Loki interrupted and her mouth fell open.

"You took this dare?" Viva gasped.

"Yes.  I thought it would prove I was just as brave as he was."

"Why didn't Heimdall stop you?"

"Heimdall wasn't the Watcher then.  His father was," Thor said.

"Why didn't he stop Loki."

"He must of thought I wouldn't do it," Loki said.

"Loki was nearly half way across Bifrost when he started walking to the edge,"Thor said and her eyes widened.

"If Heimdall's father hadn't caught me, I would have fallen," Loki said with a sigh.  The room became quiet as she sensed the fear and the guilt coming from both of them and she nodded for them to continue.

"I had never felt so frightened in my life.  The idea of Loki falling to his death...," Thor said, lowering his head.

"I remember you hugging me so hard I couldn't breathe," Loki said.

"I nearly killed you."

"Did your mother or father show up?" Viva asked.

"No," Thor said, shaking his head.

"He didn't tell them!?"

"He had informed them something happened, but it was I who finally told them everything after we returned to the palace."

"What did they do?"

"Odin took me to the infirmary to be checked then he sent me to my room," Loki said.

"Mother lectured me for hours about being irresponsible.  She told me I would be devastated if Loki had fallen to his death and she was right.  I had nightmares for months afterwards."

"What about your father?"

"Father spanked me.  It was one of the only times he ever did.  He also made me clean out the stables, help in the kitchen and aide the maids in scrubbing the floors for a month."

"What about you?" she asked, looking at Loki.

"Mother and I talked for hours about dares and how foolish I was.  I promised I would never take another dare.  No matter how fun it sounded.  As for Odin, he...," Loki said then he went silent.

"What did he do?"

"He took away my books for months and threatened to send me to a school for bad children.  He said it was in Helheim."

 

Viva felt anger building in her as she took a long drink of tea and she tried to calm herself.

"That is awful! That punishment would have given me nightmares." she muttered. "I'm shocked the Queen's hair is not white by now with both of your escapades."

"So are we," Thor said, laughing.  Viva noticed Loki's face as he thought about what she said and he picked up a grape, putting it in his mouth.  She waited for him to swallow as he sighed and leaned back in the chair.

"I did have nightmares about a school in Helheim," Loki admitted and they gave him a shocked look.  "Mother would run into my room and tell me it wasn't true.  She also told me Odin had to sleep in the stables for a month."

"She made him do that?!" Thor said and he nodded.

"Good for her," Viva said, smiling.

Thor arched an eyebrow. "Lady, are you trying to make us believe you never did anything foolish as a child? Something your mother told you not to?"

 

Viva shook her head. "I was mostly obedient. But on occasion . . .I did misbehave. There were these ski trails near our house, and Mama always told me I could ski the trail on the right but never the one on the left. That was for experienced adult skiers."

Loki wasn't sure, but there was something with the way she spoke which reminded him of himself and he cupped his chin in his hand, nodding for her to continue.

"I was nine and we had been hosting some guests that night who were talking about the left-hand trail. Some folks called it Heartbreak Hill because more than one skier had come to grief on it. Mama gave them tips on how to ski it safely, she was one of the best racers on the mountain. I was supposed to be in bed, but I pretended to fall asleep on the couch and heard everything--including the bet one man made with his friend."

"What sort of bet?" Thor asked, sipping on the mead.  Loki saw something familiar in her eyes and he picked up a cheese cube and ate it slowly.

"A hundred gold pieces that he could make it down without falling. I almost fell off the couch. Now we weren't poor, but that winter had been harder than usual, and I knew we could use the money. So I thought what if I could ski that trail and beat them both down it? I was very good, Mama had taught me how to ski when I was three. I was sure I could do it. After all, I was my mother's daughter."

Thor was enchanted by the story as Loki smiled and folded his arms over his chest.

"Let me guess," Loki teased.  "You left the house and followed them."

"So I got up very early the next morning and put a fresh coat of wax on my skis and hid them in the barn. I ate breakfast and told Mama I was taking the goats to the winter pasture, which I did everyday. Then I followed the guests when they left. The mountain trail was right near the pasture, so I left the goats there and skied over. The two men were just putting their skis on when I arrived."

Viva paused to eat her sandwich. "They were shocked to see me there and I told them I would bet them that I could beat them both down the mountain for a hundred gold pieces. They laughed at me and told me to run on home. But I got angry and said, "I'll have the last laugh here!" Then I took off down the trail, remembering what my mother had said."

"I bet that made those men angry," Thor said.

"It did. They yelled at me to stop and then they came after me, threatening to tan my hide. But it had snowed the night before and that meant the trail had fresh powder on it. I was lighter than they were and glided on top of the snow. But they were heavy and sank into it. Which meant I could go faster."

Thor laughed while he slammed his hand on the table and Loki grabbed the cup which had flown into the air, placing it back on the table.  Shrugging, Thor gave him an amused look and Loki rolled his eyes.

"Now I had never skied this course before, but I had listened to Mama describe it, and I remembered whatever I heard. I knew all the little tricks and hopefully how to avoid crashing. The mountain was steep, and twisty, but I knew I had to do this." Viva shook her head. "I was a stubborn fool. I took those gates at an insane speed for a slalom course, but I just wanted to win that bet."

"You won?" Loki asked.

"I almost didn't. The last section, Devils’ Snare, was the toughest, but I remembered to turn one pole in as I went around the bend. If I had miscalculated even a little . . . I could have easily died. The other man forgot and his edge slipped and he fell, but he only slid a bit before he stopped. But I kept going. Right to the end."

"Marvelous!" Thor roared.

"Did the men give you the gold?" Loki asked.

"He did, even though one of them said I should be spanked instead. I projected calm at them and they got over being mad that a little girl beat them. I was so proud of myself."

"But your mother was not happy once you returned, was she?"

"No. I nearly gave her a heart attack once I told her what I had done. She was furious. I had risked my life on a bet and I had tricked her to do it. I also had left our goats alone in the pasture, where a predator might have gotten them. Luckily the Norns smiled upon me." Viva sighed ruefully.

"How did she punish you?" Thor asked.

"First she lectured me about risking my life, saying no amount of money was worth it. She was very good at making me feel guilty. Then she took my skis away and made me flea dip the goats and our neighbor's goats, which took days and smelled horrible. And she made me scrub the house from top to bottom for a month and write a hundred times I will never lie to my mother. But we did get to keep the money so it was worth it."

The brothers smiled as she nibbled on a sandwich and Thor shook his head. "She must be so proud of you," he said.

 

Loki saw the pain in her eyes and he knew why she looked so sad.

"I would like to think she would be, if she had lived to see me now," Viva said. "But she was killed in a ski accident just before I left to go to the Academy of Mind Magics. She was on a new trail and there was an avalanche . . .she was swept away." Viva shut her eyes. " They found her a day later, by some miracle she was still alive, but not for much longer. They brought her back home so I could say goodbye . . . I had known for hours that something was wrong, and then . . . In my desperation I sent a letter to my father.  But he refused to come. He left me alone, waiting, until . . .I . . . felt her die. The last thing she said to me was I love you . . . Remember me always . . ."

Thor sank down in the chair.  He hadn't known her mother had died and he felt like a fool. “Forgive me, lady, for bringing up such a painful subject.”

Viva dabbed her eyes with a napkin. "Don't feel bad, Prince Thor. You didn't know. I only told Loki during one of our sessions. It was long ago, but I will never forget what she taught me. Love is the one thing you take with you . . . And the one thing you leave behind."

"True," Thor agreed. Then he scowled. “Your father refused to come to you even when he knew that your mother was dying? What a jackass!”

“Very much so. But my father has ever been a selfish and cold man. I was not important enough for him to concern himself with. He sent one of his manservants instead, a sly greedy idiot who thought to take what inheritance I had been left. I sent him away screaming for his mother, and told him if he returned, he would rue the day. Once the funeral was over, I left and have never returned.”

“You are better off here, my lady,” Loki acknowledged. When he gazed at the pretty woman next to him, his emerald eyes were soft with compassion. "Have you found anything which can help me with my panic attacks or night terrors?"

"First we need to discover what triggers them. I have compiled a list of things which may do so. You can look it over and tell me if you noticed any of them before you had one. Some may not be on here though. Because sometimes a trigger is personal from your experience."

"Like with Bifrost?" Thor asked.

"Yes, like with Bifrost."

"So me going there, walking the Rainbow Bridge, might help me not panic if I need to see Heimdall or travel somewhere?" Loki asked.

"Yes, but just be careful."

"I will.  May I have the list?"

She handed him it. He noticed her handwriting was elegant and neat.

As he perused it, he found a few things which he could relate to. “The dark. My nightmares are always worse in the dark. So I keep a lamp on low.”

“That is a common trigger,” Viva told him. “Does it help?”

Loki shrugged. “Sometimes. Axelle helps more. As does your tea if I drink some before bed.”

“Can you not give him something to make him sleep?” Thor queried.

“There are some medicines I can use,” Viva allowed. “However, I prefer that my patients sleep naturally, because they can become dependent upon such things if used for a long time. Plus, the sleep aids do not prevent the night terrors. They simply make it harder to wake from them.” She tapped a finger thoughtfully on her chin. “Perhaps some meditation will help there. What else?”

Loki put his finger on another line. “This one. Feeling anxious or nervous. I suppose that is common too.”

“Yes. Anxiety about something or someone will induce a panic attack. My cure for that is to leave whatever situation or person is making you nervous. Or, if you cannot, to do some counted breathing and picture soothing places in your mind.”

Loki examined the list again. “I do know one other thing. I don’t like it when people loom over me. That is what Glaive and Maw did when they questioned me about the Tesseract. They leaned forward at me.”

Viva nodded. “The classic intimidation technique. What is the Tesseract?”

“It is a gem of great power, shaped like a glowing blue cube,” Loki explained. “It is one of a set of power gems called the Infinity Stones. It can let the holder travel to anywhere in the universe instantaneously, even through time. My grandfather hid it somewhere on Midgard to keep it from being used by unscrupulous and evil beings. Like Thanos. He thought I knew where it was. But I had no idea. I just knew it had been hidden.”

“I see.”

“That was why Thanos sent me to Midgard. He wanted the Space Stone. I was tasked with finding it—and bringing the unruly people of Midgard to heel so he could rule them.” Loki related.

“And did you find it?” Viva asked curiously.

“Yes.”

“Where is it now?”

“The king has it in a safe place,” Thor answered. “What else makes you nervous, Brother?”

Loki considered. “Nothing else seems to remind me of my captivity.”

“As I said, some of your triggers may be specific to your circumstances while Thanos’ prisoner,” Viva said. “I would like you to keep a journal, Loki. Where you can record what you were doing throughout the day and before bed. Write down events and thoughts you had . . . and pay attention if you find yourself having an episode. I want you to write down what you were doing before it occurred. That way we can figure out what triggered you.”

She handed him a green leather journal with an embossed “L” upon it. “Here. This is yours. It has charms on it so no one but you can see what is written in the pages. These are your private thoughts and all I ask is for you to tell me what happened before you panicked. This may take some time, so don’t get discouraged.”

Loki took the journal reverently. “Thank you, my lady.”

“Perhaps it may help if you speak to others who have been in a similar situation as you,” Viva suggested. “General Tyr was also a prisoner of Surtur during the Muspelheim campaign. He might be able to offer solutions or suggestions. Though his triggers could have been different from yours.”

Loki looked thoughtful. “I . . . will think on it.” He wasn’t sure if he felt comfortable exposing himself that way, even to a veteran who had possibly endured similar torture. Tyr was a warrior, one of the greatest in Asgard, and Loki didn’t want him to think that his prince was weakling coward. Then again, perhaps the elder Asgardian would understand.

As he pondered, Thor spoke up.

“Brother, perhaps we could go and visit the stables? You always said that being around the horses relaxed you. Besides, I think it would be good for you to get outside. You are too pale.”

Loki slanted an eyebrow. “I’m always pale.” He looked over at Viva. “Would that be a good idea?”

“I don’t see why not. I have always found animals to be a calming influence,” she grinned.

“Then let’s go. Ravenshadow probably thinks I have forgotten her,” Loki chuckled. “That is the name of my mare. She is the color of midnight with a single white star on her forehead.”

“She sounds lovely.” Viva said appreciatively. “Might I see her?”

“Of course.” Loki swiped two apple from the fruit bowl in the center of the table and tucked them in a pocket.

They arrived at the stables and were greeted heartily by Godwin, the stablemaster. “Aye, My Prince, yer lady mare has been pining for ye these past months. Went off her feed for a bit, and then started chewing her stall till we brought in a cloak o’ yourn and put it on her so’s she got yer scent. Then she settled.”

Loki felt awful. “Poor ‘Shadow! Let me see her, Godwin.”

The stablemaster led them down two rows to a roomy stall with a gold nameplate that read “Ravenshadow.”

Inside the stall was a tall ebony mare with a high crest, tail, and long sleek lines. She had a delicate head, but large nostrils for drinking the wind. She looked like she could fly standing still, but there was an air of melancholy about her that resonated to them.

“My lady, lookit who has come to see ye,” Godwin crooned.

Ravenshadow whickered when she caught the familiar scent and gave a glad whinny upon seeing Loki.

“Shadow, darling, did you miss me?” Loki murmured, and reached over to stroke her questing nose.

The mare buried her nose in Loki’s chest, whickering happily at her beloved master. Loki scratched the place between her ears where her forelock grew and Shadow sighed in pleasure and leaned into him. You are home at last, she seemed to be saying. And now I am happy.

“What a gorgeous mare!” exclaimed Viva.

“She is of the royal Asgardian line, lady,” said Godwin proudly. “There is none finer in all of Asgard. She is built for speed, endurance, and intelligence. See the wide forehead? That’s because she has more brains than most horses. And her deep chest and long legs? Means she can run long distances like the wind through tall grass. And she is fast as wildfire.”

“And her temperament?”

“She has a mischievous spirit, but there’s nary a mean bone in her body.” Godwin replied. “She be gentle as a kitten when a child or lady rides her. Though she doesna like a heavy hand on her mouth. Then she’ll make her displeasure known.”

“She bucked me off once,” Thor said ruefully. “But it was deserved. I was pulling too hard on her mouth.”

“Aye, right into a manure pile, if I recall!” Godwin chortled, and Viva and Loki laughed.

The mare nuzzled Loki and neighed.

“All right, Mistress Impatience!” he smiled. “I know what you want.” He produced a golden apple and Ravenshadow delicately lipped it off his palm, crunching it happily.

As Loki bonded with his mare, Thor showed Viva some of the other horses in the royal stables, like his big red stallion, Tempest, who was, ironically, Ravenshadow’s brother. He slobbered all over his master, making Viva giggle.

Thor introduced her to Woodland Rose, Frigga’s gentle cream colored mare, and Royal Majesty, Odin’s war steed, a bright bay with one blue and one brown eye.

“He is like me!” Viva exclaimed.

“He is an unusual horse,” Godwin smiled. “But a more loyal and brave steed there never was.”

Loki had fed Shadow his other apple and then went to find the cold bin where Godwin store the fresh carrots and small sugar beets to give to the horses as treats. Carrots and beets were good for a horse, and would not make them colic like too many apples or oats.

He walked towards the feed room, which was a small chamber just down the corridor from the tack room.

The prince pressed his hand to the dimmer panel, and the lights in the ceiling went on. He entered the room and soon found the bin he wanted. As he began filling his pockets with treats, a freak wind gust blew the door shut behind him.

The noise of the door slamming made Loki jump, as did the fact that he was now inside a windowless room the size of his cell back on Titan. He felt his breath come in harsh gasps and his chest begin to tighten in pain.

Suddenly he was no longer in the feed room, surrounded by the comforting scents of horses, oats, and root vegetables. He was back in the windowless airless cell, awaiting a visit from Ebony Maw . . .

The cell was dim, the lighting flickering and always seeming on the verge of shorting out. Loki assumed the circuits had gotten shorted somewhere or else had been deliberately allowed to corrode, since this was a prison cell and who cared if the prisoner had adequate lighting? He shut his eyes, praying to the Norns that someone come and rescue him, for he did not know how much longer his shields could hold against Maw’s probing.

He began to sweat, for the temperature was much higher than he liked, and as sweat tricked down his neck, like chilling fingers walking down his spine, he heard footsteps coming down the corridor . . .

“I wonder where Loki went?” Thor said, seeing that his brother was no longer by Ravenshadow.

“Perhaps he went to get some more treats?” Godwin suggested. Just then the gust of wind swirled through the barn, and the feed door slammed shut.

Suddenly a stableboy raced up. “Master Godwin, Sultan is giving the farrier a hard time again. Can ye come calm him down, sir?”

“Aye, Njord. Excuse me,” Godwin said, and rushed off.

Viva frowned, she was sensing some distress nearby. Her eyes narrowed. “Loki! Thor, Loki is feeling anxious and afraid. We must find him.”

“Do you think he is still in the stables?” the Thunderer asked.

“Yes! I can feel him,” the Mind Healer replied. “This way!”

They ran down the corridor towards the feed room.

 

The cell door opened and Loki felt his heart quicken with dread. He spun about to face his tormentors . . .

Thor jerked open the feed room door, calling, “Loki? Are you in here, Brother?”

Viva ran inside, seeing Loki backed up against the feed bin, his eyes glassy, his breathing coming in harsh pants , like an animal in a snare. “Loki!” she called softly. “You are having a panic attack. You need to come back to us.”

She projected waves of soothing peace and serenity and walked up and laid a hand on his chest. She could feel his heart thumping rapidly beneath her fingers. She made a gesture with her other hand and summoned a round orange ball with holes in it. She held it up to Loki’s nose. The soothing aroma of cloves, lavender, and ginger wafted into his nostrils.

As he breathed in the soothing scent, his heart quit thundering like a runaway horse, and he slowly blinked, coming out of the flashback.

“What . . . what happened?” he asked muzzily.

“We found you inside the feed room, and you were having another panic attack,” Viva told him calmly. “Do you remember anything before it?”

Loki inhaled the aromas coming from the odd orange ball in her hand. “I . . . Give me a moment.” He took several deep breaths. “What is that in your hand?”

“It’s an aromatic diffuser. I have put some soothing oils inside it, like cloves, mint, lavender, and ginger. When you feel yourself grow anxious you simply breathe them in and it will help calm you.”

“It smells nice,” Thor muttered, looking concerned. “Are you well now, Brother?”

Loki gave a short nod. “Yes. I am better. I was getting some treats for Shadow and the other horses when . . . the wind blew the door shut behind me. It . . . It reminded me of being locked in my cell on Titan.”

“Was the cell small and dimly lit?” Viva guessed.

“Yes, the lighting was poor, always flickering. I hated it.” Loki replied. “After the door shut I . . . started to grow nervous and then . . . I was back in the cell, waiting for Maw and Glaive to come question me again.”

He licked his lips, which were dry. “Then . . . I thought I heard footsteps coming towards my cell. I thought it was them . . .”

“I think you heard us, running over here,” Viva surmised.

Loki felt his heartrate return to normal and the stiffness in his back and neck slowly drain from him. He felt in his pockets and found the carrots and beets. “Well, I guess I should bring the horses their treats.” He said with a slight half-smile.

“I guess we figured out some more triggers,” Thor stated. “Doors slamming and small spaces.”

“Indeed,” Viva agreed, and then followed the brothers back to the horses.

“Should I write this down?” Loki wanted to know.

“Yes. That way you can reference it if you need to,” she told him.

He nodded, resolving to do so once he returned to his room. He held out a carrot for Ravenshadow, who nuzzled him before taking the treat from his palm. He gently leaned his head against the mare’s cheek, letting her clean scent surround him and soothe away the last lingering touch of fear.

He fed her a sugar beet as well, then after one last pat, went over to Tempest to give him some treats. Tempest gleefully slobbered on his arm, and Loki chuckled. “You are as messy as your master, big fellow!”

Thor shot him an indignant look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Figure it out!” Loki taunted.

"I'm not that messy," Thor grumbled.  Loki lightly nudged his big brother as they laughed and Viva smiled.

"Have ya found him?" Godwin asked as he ran to them then saw Loki.  "Ah, there ye are."

"He was in the feed room," Thor said, not wanting to say too much about Loki's attack.

"Just glad you're alright, My Prince.  Do ye wish to go for a ride?"

 

"That would be nice," Loki said with a nod.  After Ravenshadow was saddled and ready for Loki ride her, Loki mounted and Thor had vaulted on Tempest's back.  Woodland Rose was saddled so Viva could ride her and they headed out of the stable.

The fresh air and bright sunlight relaxed Loki as they rode down the path and he lightly patted Ravenshadow's side.  Servants and guards nodded in his direction as he nodded back and he sat a little taller in the saddle.

His mare pranced lightly beneath him, clearly enjoying being ridden again.

Loki felt her need to go faster as he lightly nudged her sides and Ravenshadow began to canter.

"Slow down, Brother," Thor said.

Loki glanced behind him. "Come on, Thor! Keep up!" he challenged.

Thor nudged Tempest's side as the stallion began to gallop and Viva sighed, shaking her head.

"Let's show them how it's done," she whispered and Woodland Rose nodded.  She urged the mare into a run as she caught up to Thor then rode past him.

"Oh no you don't," he growled and Tempest galloped faster.  Loki turned to see Woodland Rose gaining on him and he laughed.

Turning, he saw the large shadow behind a tree and his mind went black.  He was back in Stark Tower.  He was standing in the center of the room when a large shadow appeared and he heard a low growl.  He looked at the shadow as it loomed over him and the Hulk glared at him.  The Hulk moved closer and closer when Loki felt his feet going out from under him and he screamed.

"Loki!" Thor had shouted when he saw Ravenshadow slowing down and Loki started to slide out of the saddle.  Tempest had quickly rode up to Ravenshadow so Thor could catch Loki and he slid out of the saddle, holding Loki in his arms.

"Sit him down!" Viva cried after she had dismounted and ran to them.  Loki was shaking and breathing hard as she conjured the diffuser again and held it under his nose.  "Loki, it's alright.  Come back to us."

Loki breathed in the sweet scents for a few minutes while Ravenshadow nudged his head and Viva placed her hand against his chest.

His heart was thundering in his chest as the images of the Hulk slamming him into the floor, the pain from the impact and the blurry images of the room faded and he blinked.

"No worry.  Safe," Ravenshadow sent him as he reached up a shaky hand and patted her soft nose.

She blew into his face, like a mother mare did when calming a skittish foal.

“Brother, are you back with us?” Thor queried.

"Yes. That time it was a shadow . . . I thought I saw the Hulk . . ." Loki panted.

He smacked the ground with his palm, disgusted. "Will I never be able to do anything normal again? Must I always be haunted by these damned ghosts?"

"Yes, you will be able to do things again.  It just takes time," Viva assured him.  "As for the ghosts, we will work on making them go away or be less frightening. What was done to you was done over the course of weeks and months, so it will take the same amount of time to heal what they harmed. But you will overcome this. Believe in yourself, Loki. I do."

"I just wish we could go to Midgard so you could speak with Stark and the others," Thor said.  "If we explain..."

"Do you truly think they would listen or believe I was under Thanos' control just like they were?!” Loki asked bleakly.

 

"Easy," Viva said, feeling his heart slamming harder against her hand.  She sent some calming thoughts into his head as his heart returned to normal and Ravenshadow nuzzled his head.  "I think we should go back to the palace."

"I agree," Thor said, helping Loki to his feet.

"You may feel better after a rest," Viva told him softly. "These episodes take a lot out of you. You can write everything down after you rest."

Feeling like a child, Loki nodded and Thor helped him back onto his horse.  The ride back to the palace was silent as Loki looked straight ahead and he wondered when his nightmare would be over and he would be his old self again.

Chapter Text

 

Loki fell asleep with a sense of failure hovering over him. Even though Viva had assured him he was making progress with his therapy, he felt as if he were stumbling around in the dark holding a dagger and praying to the Norns he didn't trip.

He drifted off to sleep listening to Axelle purr in his ear, hoping she would keep the terrors at bay.

In his dream he walked up a steep mountain path, like the picture Viva had painted of the Snowfall Mountains. He turned right and soon arrived at an alpine meadow. The meadow was green with thick grass carpeted with tiny blue and white flowers and iridescent butterflies with gauzy wings fluttered all about it. In the distance, the mountains were still capped with snow.

In the middle of the meadow was a small cottage made of silver and blue stone, with a shingled blue roof whose chimney emitted plumes of smoke.

As soon as Loki set foot in the meadow, the door of the cottage opened and a tall woman with her dark hair piled upon her head in complicated braids and loops set with glittering pins like stars in the night sky, stood before him.  She wore a purple dress with a long vest in rainbow stripes. The clothing was reminiscent of that worn by a Vanir lady.

Loki bowed politely. "Good morning, my lady. Forgive the intrusion but I seem to have lost my way."

"There is nothing to forgive. You are where you are meant to be, Loki Laufeyson."

"Do I know you?" he gasped.

"No. But I know you," the woman smiled serenely.

"But . . .we have never met before," he began, yet at the same time he felt an odd sort of connection to this woman, as if he had known her all his life. It was almost like what he felt with Viva. "Who are you?"

"Call me Vanadis," she said simply, walking over to him. Then she hugged him, not the casual touch of an acquaintance, but the hug such as one would give a long lost relative, full of warmth.

A startled Loki hugged her back.

"Welcome to my home. You are just in time for tea."

He followed her into the cottage.

The cottage was small but cozy. Furniture made of reddish wood adorned the two rooms he could see. Colorfully woven rugs added warmth to the pine floor. The fireplace crackled cheerily with applewood logs. Vanadis led her visitor to the table and poured two cups of tea and offered Loki some small cakes flavored with cinnamon, nuts, and caramel icing.

As they nibbled the delicious cakes and drank the tea, Vanadis said, "You seem troubled, Loki. Perhaps I can help."

He gave her a gentle smile. "I appreciate your offer, but I doubt there is anything you can do to help."

"You won't know until you speak of it to me." Her voice was low and soothing, in a way it reminded him of Frigga's, when she used to sing to him as small child, long ago.

He hesitated, then abruptly nodded. What could it hurt? "As you wish, Lady Vanadis. It all started with my brother Thor's coronation . . ." As he related what had happened to him he felt a sudden weight lifted from his shoulders, as though the black beast that had tormented him since falling into Thanos' clutches had been banished, like a bad dream upon waking.

The lady listened intently, absorbing all he told her, her beautiful green eyes by turns sorrowful and angry. She reminded him of Viva in the way she listened, to not only his words, but the emotions accompanying them.

"Do you have any suggestions on how to rid myself of these night terrors and panic attacks?"

"Your mind must learn to trust again. Trust in yourself and in your family. And your heart to love. Love and trust shall heal the wounds of the spirit."

"Sometimes it feels like I will never be free of the demons that haunt me." Loki sighed.

"In order to be free you must walk the shadows and confront what you fear. Then fear has no power over you."

"How?"

"Trust Viva. She knows." she replied mysteriously.

He found that her answer, while puzzling, also gave him a measure of peace.

In fact, the lady sitting across from him radiated peace and serenity like no one he had ever known. He had the strangest feeling they had met before . . .once upon a dream.

She lifted her cup and said, "I need to tell you one other thing, Loki. You have more family than you know. One wishes only to help and the other to harm. But honor makes allies out of enemies."

"You sound like a Seer."

"I am. But even I do not See all."

"Can you tell me the names of these relatives?"

"You will know when it is time."

They ate and sipped tea in silence for a while when Loki felt himself growing tired and he yawned.

"I do apologize, Lady Vanadis. It appears I am growing tired," he said.

"No, you are waking up," she said.

"I am?!" he asked, arching his eyebrows up.

"Yes, and you will feel more relaxed then you have in a long time."

She helped him to his feet as she led him to a large bed with a soft down mattress and thick, warm blankets and feather soft pillows. She helped him into bed after she removed his boots and she covered him like Frigga used to cover him when he was a child. His eyelids grew heavy as he closed his eyes and felt her sit on the bed. As the darkness drifted over him, he heard a soft humming and a part of his brain recognized the song. He wasn't sure where he had heard the song before as he sighed and the darkness covered him.

Loki's bedchamber:

Loki opened his eyes as Axelle purred in his ear and he reached over, scratching the kitten's ears. His mind felt clear and his body felt refreshed and he moved the blankets back. He picked the kitten up as he walked to the window seat and sat down. He looked out at the setting sunlight, but the idea of night approaching didn't frighten him as it had the last few nights.

"My Prince, are you awake?" Ravn asked while walking in the room.

"It appears that I am," Loki teased and Ravn laughed. "Did you need something?"

"No, but it is time for you to get dressed for dinner."

"Have I been sleeping that long?"

"Yes, you have."

"No wonder I'm hungry."

"Prince Thor told me that you had a scare while riding."

"My brother talks too much."

"Do you wish to eat in your chambers?"

"No, I want to go eat in the Feast Hall."

"Are you sure?" he asked and Loki nodded. After getting Loki dressed in a green silk tunic, a black suit jacket and black pants and shoes, they left the room and Loki held Axelle in his arms. Ravn noticed a change in Loki as Loki glanced at him and he smiled slightly. "I don't mean to stare, but you seem, well, a little more relaxed this evening."

"I am feeling more relaxed."

"That's wonderful!"

"Yes, it is," he said and they went around the corner, heading for the Feast Hall.

As Loki and Ravn walked down the corridor, they passed two servants who were loitering in the hallway. One, a maid, had a featherduster in her hand and the other, a man, had a broom but neither were working. Instead, they stared at Loki and his valet and the man nudged the maid and whispered loudly, "Looks like the poor crazy prince has finally emerged from his room."

"Poor fellow! I hear he's quite unsettled in his mind," the maid gossiped.

Loki felt his ears burn at what the servants were saying, but clenched his jaw, resolving not to respond to it.

Ravn spun about, his mouth opening to give the two a piece of his mind, when Loki's hand closed over his shoulder. "Don't, Ravn. We will not give them the satisfaction of a reaction. Understand?"

"But My Prince-!" protested his friend. He wanted to slug those gossipy wretches and only Loki's command kept him from doing so.

"Ravn, no," Loki hissed. "They aren't worth it."

Suddenly, another voice echoed down the corridor. "It would seem you two do not have enough work, or else you'd not be standing around slinging mud on your betters!" Tyr said.

The two servants jumped at the general's tone.

"General-I ah- . . ." they stammered.

"Get back to work!"

"Ye-yes Sir!" they said together.

They took one look at Tyr's face and fled as if the hounds of Hel pursued them.

Loki turned to gaze at Tyr in astonishment. "Thank you, General."

Tyr waved off his thanks. "No, My Prince. I simply said what you did not. We Phoenixes must stick together."

"Phoenixes?" Ravn asked.

"Aye. "Tis a term coined by my men to represent those of us who survived interrogation in Muspelheim."

"You all rose from the ashes of your torment and were born anew," Loki said.

The general gestured with his good hand. "Aye, milord. And so will you."

"I do hope you're right."

"I am right! I have been where you are. Now, come, dinner awaits!"

Tyr walked by them as Loki smiled and Ravn shrugged. They went to walk beside him as the three entered the Feast Hall and Loki was slightly overwhelmed with the loud voices and laughter.

"Easy, lad. It's just noise. Just put it in the background and go have something to eat," Tyr whispered and Loki nodded.

They watched Tyr stride toward his friends and Ravn looked at Loki.

"Well...?" he asked, nodding his head toward the Royal Table and Loki stood a little straighter. Ravn watched his friend walking away as he smiled and went to go get Loki's evening meal.

Loki felt the eyes of the others on him, but he just kept walking until he came to the Royal Table and Odin looked at him.

"Good evening, Father," Loki said then looked at Frigga. "Mother."

"Good evening," Odin said, nodding.

"Good evening, Loki," Frigga said.

"Do you wish to sit with us or with your brother?"

Loki looked toward Thor sitting with Sif and his other friends and he felt butterflies in his stomach. He saw the empty place where he usually sat next to Thor and he thought for a few moments. Odin and Frigga watched as he turned, walked to the table and sat down next to Thor.

Axelle settled down on his lap, her purring relaxing him. He stroked her coat, running his fingers through her sleek golden fur.

"Put that beast on the floor. It'll get hair in the food," Fandral complained.

"Volstagg's beard gets hair in the food," Sif teased and Volstagg laughed a hearty laugh.

"Aye, she's right," Volstagg admitted then he looked at Loki. "Tis good to see you again."

"Is it?" Loki asked, arching an eyebrow.

"We missed you," Sif said.

"She speaks the truth," Hogun said, sipping on some wine. "When you... When you left, it was like the laughter left this table."

That was because you were laughing at me, Loki thought and Axelle purred loudly, sensing he was starting to panic.

"Norns, what is that sound?" Fandral asked.

"She's purring," Loki said.

"Aye, forest cats tend to purr loudly," Volstagg said with a nod. "My nan had one and you could hear its purr for miles."

Thor saw how uncomfortable Loki looked when he reached over and picked up a roll. Loki wondered what he was going to do when Thor placed the roll in Loki's hand then his brother arched an eyebrow. Loki's eyes widened when he realized what Thor wanted him to do and Loki nodded.

"Fandral." Loki called.

"Aye?" Fandral asked then he yelped when Loki used his powers and the roll rose in the air. The roll rushed toward the handsome swordsman, slamming into his face and he gasped. "My nose!"

"Oh, stop being a babe! Tis not broken," Volstagg said, laughing.

Snorting, Fandral reached over for a Rolland tossed the roll at Loki, but Loki caught it.

"Nice try," Loki teased then tossed the roll at Sif. "Take that, My Lady."

"Oh, now you have done it," she said, scooping some mashed turnips into her hand. Soon, food started flying as Axelle hopped off of Loki's lap and hid under the chair. She nibbled on the scraps which fell on the floor. The king looked over and saw how happy Loki looked.

"Should we stop them?" Frigga whispered.

"No," Odin said and took a long sip of wine. "I have not seen him smile like that since he returned to Asgard."

Loki took some peas on his fork and lobbed the peas at Volstagg. They lodged in his beard. "Surprise! You've been peabodied!"

"Good one, Brother!" Thor laughed.

The large warrior laughed then gasped when Sif dumped some carrots on his head.

"Now eat your vegetables!" she giggled. Loki watched as Volstagg rose and leaned closer to her. Even though he was smiling, Loki focused on what Volstagg as doing and his mind fogged over. He saw himself in his cell. He was on his cot. He was in pain. He heard the door open as he heard footsteps and he saw Ebony Maw enter, his features colder than ice.

"It's time for another talk," Maw said, looming over his prisoner, and his hands reached for the side of Loki's head.

"Loki?" Thor whispered, seeing the distress on his brother's face. "Brother, can you hear me?"

"What's wrong?" Hogun asked.

"Is he all right?" Fandral queried.

Axelle, sensing Loki's panic, jumped into his lap and placed her paws on his chest.

Mistress, help! Loki is scared! Axelle meowed and Loki breathed hard and fast through his nose.

Viva, sensing Loki's panic and hearing Axelle, got up from her seat beside Ravn and approached Loki.

"Loki, can you hear me?!" she asked, summoning the diffuser and waving it under his nose. "Breathe."

"What is happening?" Fandral asked.

"He is having a panic attack."

Odin and Frigga had arrived to see what was wrong while Loki took some deep breaths, slowly blinking his eyes.

"Is he all right?" Frigga asked worriedly.

"I think so," Viva said as he looked at her and his pupils returned to normal. "Hello, are you back now?"

"Ye-yes," Loki said in a soft voice. He could hear the whispering as Tyr stood and pounded his fist on the table.

"Enough with this foolishness! He is fine! Return to your meals and stop acting like gossiping fishwives!" the General said then he sat down.

Loki then looked at Sif, and the Warriors and Volstagg had a guilty look on his face.

"There is no need to look so guilty," Loki said.

"Want to tell us what happened?" Fandral asked. Loki glanced at Viva as she nodded and Loki cleared his throat.

"I... I saw...," he said then paused for a few seconds. Axelle purred as she rubbed her head against his chest and he stroked the soft fur. "While I was in exile, there was this...creature. He was a strong psychic and he used his powers to torture me. One of the things which gave him great pleasure was looming over me and bragging about how much all of you hated me and had forgotten me."

"What did this creature look like?" Sif asked. Loki wasn't sure if he wanted to shift into Maw, but he changed and they all gasped. He changed back as he saw the fury in their eyes and he lowered his head.

"Where does this creature live?!" Fandral demanded. "How dare he harm a prince of Asgard!?"

"He is dead. I killed him," Odin replied and they looked satisfied.

"Do you want to go back to your chambers?" Ravn asked after he had arrived. He felt horrible for leaving Loki's side and he glared at the others.

"No, I am fine." Loki said. "Go eat."

Nodding, Ravn walked away and Viva checked to see if Loki was alright. He held Axelle against his chest and Volstagg cleared his throat.

"Was it my looming over Sif which brought this on?" he asked.

"Yes, but I do not blame you. You had no idea what Maw had done to me. And I do not want all of you to walk on eggshells when you are around me. Up until now, it felt... It felt like old times and I really was enjoying myself," Loki said, grinning.

"He's right," Hogun said, picking some chicken off his tunic. "It did feel like old times."

"What is this old times nonsense?! Nothing had changed. Loki has caused chaos and that is fine by me!" Thor said. Loki raised an eyebrow then they started laughing.

"Healer, please sit," Thor said and Viva sat next to Loki.

"Are you sure you're all right?" Viva whispered and Loki nodded. "Keep this," she handed him the diffuser. Loki tucked it in a pocket. Satisfied Loki was fine, Odin and Frigga went to sit down and Loki looked at them and Odin raised his goblet, saluting him.

After supper, Loki returned to his room then sat at the desk and wrote in his journal. Axelle sat on the desk as he scratched the kitten's ear and he sat back in the chair. He had changed into his emerald green silk pajamas and lambswool slippers and he read over what he had written.

Loki got up and walked to the full-length mirror. His reflection gazed back at him as he shifted into Maw. He locked eyes with his former nemesis. He flexed his fingers and bared his teeth in a silent snarl.

"You no longer have control over me." Loki said in Maw's voice then he shifted back. A sudden knock made him turn and he walked to the door and opened it. Odin stood on the other side, a smile upon his face.

"Good evening, My Son." Odin said.

"Good evening," Loki replied, wondering why his father had come to visit him.

"I was wondering if we can have a little talk," he said and pointed to the chess set. "Maybe over a game of chess?"

Loki glanced at the carved marble pieces and the onyx and mother of pearl inlaid board. "It has been a long time since I have played." He acknowledged. "But I would like to see if I still have my old skill."

The king chuckled. "I don't think you forget that."

They seated themselves at the board. "You choose first," Odin said magnanimously.

"Black," Loki replied.

"As you wish," Odin said, and moved his white pawn.

Loki soon realized that his father had been correct, and all his old skill came back to him. They played intently for several minutes, until Loki's bishop captured Odin's castle.

Then the king looked over at his son and asked, "So how are you finding your sessions so far?"

Loki paused and replied. "I think they are going well . . . though I feel like I am crawling towards my recovery."

Odin lofted an eyebrow. "You are not satisfied with your progress?"

"Not really. Though Viva assures me I am doing quite well for only having therapy for a week and a few days."

"I know this must be difficult for you, son," Odin said feelingly. "You are not used to being hurt like this. So you think your recovery should be swift like it always was. But you must learn to see it differently."

"How?" Loki asked, steepling his fingers.

Odin was silent, thinking. At last he said, "Think of it like a tree that has had most of its branches broken. Yet new buds will sprout in place of the old, but not for quite some time. The tree must be nurtured with fertilizer and sunlight and water first. Only then can it regrow what it has lost. It starts out slowly, with a single bud, then a sprout, then a twig, and so on until the branch is regrown, stronger than before. Each step builds upon the other. All it takes is patience, time, and the right combination of nutrients." Odin spread his hands. "Right now you are just budding. You have barely begun to sprout, Loki. Take your time and grow strong. It does not matter how long it takes. Only that you are whole at the end of it."

Loki recalled what the woman in his dream had said. Love and trust will heal the wounds of the spirit.

"I will try and be patient," his son replied. Once he would not have had to even try. But it seemed that like so much else, he had to relearn the patience he had mastered along with his magic long ago.

"Remember, one step at a time," Odin encouraged. "Have you figured out what causes these attacks?"

"Some of them, yes," Loki nodded. He named the triggers they had discovered so far. "I know there are more but . . . we haven't figured them all out yet."

"You will. You can do anything you set your mind to, Loki. And with Viva helping, you will be unstoppable."

Loki felt a sudden surge of delight and pride at the king's words. Odin had never praised him this way before, and it took him a few moments to convince himself he was not dreaming. "You honor me, Father."

Odin shook his head. "No, my son. It is you who honor me. Your courage and determination are an inspiration to all those who have endured torment and adversity. You may not think so, but I swear by Yggdrasil it is so."

Loki's brilliant green eyes widened in shock. Never in his wildest imaginings had he ever thought to hear such words come out of the Allfather's mouth. He almost pinched himself to see if he was awake. "I . . . do not know what to say," he admitted awkwardly.

Odin gently patted his hand. "There is no need to say anything. I would have you know that if our places were reversed, and it was I who had endured what you had, I would not have handled it with the same grace and fortitude." He lifted the queen and saluted his son.

Loki thought his heart would burst with pride.

His father had done something Loki used to think him incapable of doing—he had praised his youngest son and admitted that Loki was better than him at something as well.

The Trickster God grinned then moved his rook. While Odin had been speaking, Loki had studied the board, seeing a pattern that he had missed before.

Until now.

"Checkmate!"

And Odin laughed in delight, amused to have been outfoxed by his clever son.

A/N: I hope you are enjoying this so far. My sincere gratitude towards everyone who has been reading this, I hope you continue the journey with Loki as he heals himself.

So who do you think the mysterious woman was in his dream? Will Loki ever find out who his unknown relatives are? What do you think will happen next to our wounded prince?

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Heartened by Odin's sincere praise and admiration, that night Loki slept well for the first time in months. He awoke feeling more spry and eager than he had been in a long time. Ravn remarked that he thought Loki was slowly getting better, and his prince flashed him a smile as he put his boots on.

"We'll see, won't we?" was all Loki said.

Axelle rubbed against his ankles and he stroked her back, making her purr loudly. "I think . . . I think I will go and practice with my daggers after breakfast," he told his valet.

"Very good, My Prince," Ravn said, trying to hide the grin that crept over his face.

"Yes, I fear I will grow rusty otherwise." Loki admitted.

"A wonderful idea, sir," Ravn said. "Shall you take breakfast here or in the hall with your brother and the Warriors?"

Loki considered, then figured he didn't want to stress himself too much and said, "Here is fine, Ravn. I will go to the sparring arena afterwards."

"Shall I inform Lady Viva where you are?" the valet asked while Loki ate his bacon, eggs, and buttered toast.

"Yes, that would be a good idea," Loki agreed. "Just in case."

Afterwards, Loki took his twin Uru daggers down from their space on the wall and fastened the belt about his slim waist. "I'll be awhile, Ravn so after you've finished here, go and take the morning off and go see Astrid and the baby."

"Thank you, My Prince. I shall. Perhaps you would like them to come for a visit?" the valet suggested shyly.

"That would be wonderful. Let's make it for this weekend," Loki said, thinking that would give him enough time to go and shop for a baby gift for Vannora.

"I will tell my sister,"Ravn said, bowing slightly.

Finished with breakfast, Loki walked down to the sparring arena, prepared to spend several hours regaining the edge he had lost while a prisoner. Since it was early, at first the arena was deserted, allowing him sufficient space to practice throwing his daggers at stationary targets and then upgrading them to moving ones which flew into the air or holograms which peeked out from trees, rocks, walls, and other places.

A light sheen of sweat trickled down the back of his neck, making him glad he had chosen to wear his hair caught back in a tail. He continued tossing his daggers, using several positions to do so--sometimes kneeling, other times prone.

He hit the mark every time, though he was slightly slower than he had been months ago. He practiced throwing while moving, taking out multiple opponents with four daggers, using combinations of martial arts and magic that  was dazzling to behold.

"Seems like you've lost none of your skill, Brother," Thor praised after Loki had dismantled a construct.

He turned. "I just need to work on my speed again."

Thor was glad to see Loki finally regaining some of his old autonomy again, then he waved at him and went to practice with Volstagg. Loki reprogrammed the holograms in the target arena, setting them up again for another session.

As he did so, Fandral stepped into the ring next to his with Sif, the two of them jeering goodnaturedly at the other as they prepared for their bout.

At first Loki ignored them, concentrating on his own practice, but slowly he became aware of the noise of Sif's sword being parried by Fandral's rapier. He glanced up, and saw the handsome warrior giving ground, and then Sif's foot shot out, connecting with Fandral's knee, and the other folded with a grunt.

"Good one, lady!" Fandral laughed, straightening.

 

Suddenly Loki was no longer in the sparring arena but back on Titan . . .

 

"You WILL tell my father what he wishes to know, Trickster!" Nebula growled at him. "Or else!"

Loki glared at her from where he was chained. "I pity you with a father like that!"

"Pity? Your pity is wasted!" the blue-skinned woman spat. "I am strong, like he is! Worlds tremble at my coming!"

"I'm sure you can be proud of that one," Loki sneered. "It is better to be feared than loved," he quoted a Midgardian author.

"Indeed!" Nebula affirmed. "Now tell me where the Tesseract is!"

Loki rolled his eyes. "Obviously, none of you have been listening. I. Don't. Know."

"Lies!" she raged. "You HAVE to know! Your people were the ones who hid it!" She clenched a fist. "I give you fair warning. Tell me or face my wrath!"

"Would you like me to lie?" Loki countered. "Because I really don't know."

"I don't believe you," sneered Nebula.

"Not my problem," Loki shrugged, his chains clanking. "You want to find something go hire a Seer. Or a bloodhound."

 

"You will show respect or I shall beat it into you!"

"For you? Or your father?" Loki's lip curled. "I have news for you, darling. I don't respect anyone who locks me up and tries to interrogate me for information I don't have."

Nebula bared her teeth in an evil grin.

Her first blow snapped his head back, banging it against the wall.  "Coward!" he taunted. "Only a coward hits an enemy who can't defend himself."

"Shut up, Trickster God!" Nebula howled. "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!"

A flurry of blows followed, making him gasp, but he used his magical discipline to withdraw from his body, passing out moments later.

He woke lying curled on his side, his ribs and back throbbing, even his hair hurt. Woke to her ice-cold devilish face glaring at him, hissing, "There is no escape from ME, Asgardian! No esscape . . ."

Her bionic hand reached for him, then it turned into a blue viper and bit him . . .

Abruptly he was back in the present, yet he felt his whole body shuddering as he recalled how badly she had beaten him. His breath came in harsh pants and he hovered on the verge of a full blown attack.

No! I will not let this happen! he thought ferociously. He dug in a pocket and found the orange diffuser. Bringing it to his nose, he inhaled sharply.

The soothing scent of cloves, oranges, cinnamon and lavender drifted to his nostrils.

He breathed it in, slowly, taking deep breaths, until he felt his heart slowing and the fear leaving him.

He tucked the ball away, one hand still gripping his dagger, a feeling of triumph echoing through him.

"Brother, are you all right?" Thor queried, seeing Loki just standing there clutching a dagger.

"Yes," Loki nodded. He tossed the dagger and it landed dead center in the hologram's eye. He imagined it was Nebula's face.

He held a hand out and the dagger magically returned to him. Sheathing it, Loki decided to go and see Viva and tell her what had occurred, and speak to her about the vision he had yesterday. Perhaps the Mind Healer would know what the mystery woman meant.

Soon he knocked on the door of Viva's office.

"Come in!" she called cheerily.

Loki did so. He found her sitting on the couch, dangling some string for Kiva to play with. "Hello, Viva."

She smiled at him, and he wondered how it was that she was still single. Then he reminded himself that was none of his business. "Hello, Loki."

She waved him to a seat on the couch. He stood before her awkwardly.

"I'm sorry to disturb you--" he began, feeling guilty for bothering her on her day off.

"No, not at all. Has something happened?" she queried, looking worried.

"In a way . . ." he began, telling her what had occurred in the arena and then telling her of the dream he had had.

Viva listened without interruption, looking surprised when he spoke of the strange woman he had dreamed. She was puzzled at his description, but did not show it. How odd. It sounds almost as though he were dreaming of my mother.

"Do you know what she was referring to?" Loki asked.

"I do." Viva replied. "She is referring to an ability I have developed as Mind Healer and Empath. I can travel in your dreams."

"Is that what she meant by facing my fears?" Loki mused.

"Yes. Together we can confront your fears and hopefully banish them," Viva conceded.

"Banish them how?"

"By me going into your head and projecting myself there as a frost-blue knight to help you deal with what you fear most. However, this requires you to trust me implicitly which is why I did not suggest it to begin with."

"I do trust you."

"Then go lie on the couch," she pointed towards it.  He lay down and she placed a pillow behind his head.  Kiva hopped on top of the couch as he looked up at the cat and he reached up, scratching the cat's ear.  Kiva purred as he smiled and Viva moved a chair to the couch, sitting down.

"What do we do now?" Loki asked.

"I need you to close your eyes."

Loki nodded as he closed his eyes and Viva sent calming thoughts into his mind.

"Don't fight me.  Just let me in."

"Right," he said with a nod.

"Concentrate on your breathing.  In and out.  In and out."

Loki breathed as his body relaxed and he realized he heard the soft whisper of the wind and tinkling of wind chimes.  He could smell the orange scent filling his nose and he sighed.

"Loki, can you hear me?" Viva asked.

"Yes," he said in a sleepy tone.

She moved to sit on the couch as she placed her fingers against the sides of his head and she gently rubbed his temples.  Closing her eyes, Viva slowed her breathing and she opened her mind.  She felt her mind link to Loki's. Then she appeared in his mind and she shifted into a Frost Knight.

She looked around when she realized she was in a barren landscape of ice and snow and the sky was dark.  She felt the coldness in the air and a frosty mist blew out of her nose.  She started walking when she saw Loki and he was dressed in his body armor.

Her armor was pale blue and glistened with iridescent highlights. She carried her sword, Frost Reaver across her back and her hair had changed from ebony to platinum. But her eyes were silver and her skin ice pale

"Viva?" he asked.

"Yes, it's me," she said.

"You look...  You look so different."

"This is my warrior persona.  Is this how you see things?"

"Sometimes," he said with a sigh.

"It is so cold and bleak."

A sudden scream made them peer into the darkness and Loki summoned his twin Uru daggers and Viva removed Frost Reaver from the scabbard on her back.

"The scream came from that direction," Loki pointed.  They ran into the darkness while the wind whipped through them and the snow started falling.  They came to a clearing when they saw a temple made of ice and they slowly went inside.  They heard screams and shouts as they came into a main room and their eyes widened.

Several dark shadowy figures were surrounding a woman and she held something wrapped in a blue blanket.

"No!  Please!  He is just a baby!" the woman shouted.

"He is a threat!" one of the shadows shouted, reaching for the blanket.

"Who are they talking about?" Viva asked.

"I think that's me," Loki said, pointing to the blanket.

She watched as Loki tossed the daggers as two of the shadow figures screamed and vanished.  Viva ran toward two more as she swung Frost Reaver and cut through two others.

Loki came between the woman and the largest of the shadows and he thought he could see a face.  The face became clearer as Laufey's face appeared and the shadow figure smiled.

"Well, if it isn't the bastard prince," the figure said in a slightly garbled voice and Loki backed up.

"I am not a bastard!" Loki said, thrusting the daggers, but the figure dodged out of the way.  Viva watched them for a few seconds then she raised Frost Reaver over her head, bellowed and ran at the figure.  She swung the sword as the shadow screamed then vanished and she turned to Loki.

He was looking at the woman as the woman hushed the baby. Loki approached them.

"Is he alright?" he asked.

"Aye, he's fine," the woman said with a nod.  Loki looked at the blanket when something clicked in his head and he blinked.

Why do I have a feeling I have seen that blanket before? he thought and Viva came over.  She peered at the baby then at the blanket and her eyes slightly widened.

No, it can't be, she thought after recognizing the pattern.

"Are you from Asgard?" the woman asked, holding the baby against her chest.  "Please.  Don't harm him.  He's just baby."

"We just saved you from those shadows.  We have no intention of harming the baby," Viva said.

"Thank you.  His mother....  She told me to bring him here.  She said he would be safe."

"Safe from Odin and his army?" Loki asked.

"No.  From his father."

"Why would his father wish to harm him?" Viva asked.

"It is because he is too small.  Too weak.  He would never be a proper Jotun."

"That shouldn't matter," Loki said.

"No, it shouldn't, but that is what his father wants."

They watched the woman place the baby on the stone as the blanket fell away from him then she kissed the baby's forehead.

"Be safe, Little Snow," she said then nodded and they watched her leave.  The baby started crying as Loki and Viva looked at the baby and she noticed the markings on the baby's face and body.

Those are Laufey’s family markings, she thought and Loki blinked.  Suddenly, they heard someone coming as they ran behind a pillar of ice and Odin walked in the room.  He walked to the stone as he looked down and Loki saw the look on Odin's face.  Carefully, Odin lifted the baby up as they watched the baby change and Odin smiled.  He didn't speak as he wrapped the baby in the blanket then in a corner of his cloak and he left the room.

"Did you see the look on his face?" Loki asked.

"Yes," she said as the temple faded and they were surrounded by the ice and snow once more.

A golden light shimmered in the distance as they started walking, but the wind and snow tried to stop them.

"Why is the weather so bad?" Loki shouted over the howling winds.

"It's your mind.  It's fighting us," Viva shouted.

She was nearly blown off her feet by a particularly strong gust.  Loki grabbed her arm. "I've got you!" he panted. "How do I stop this?"

"You have to focus your subconscious and will it to relax!" she cried, rubbing snow from her eyes.

A part of Loki wondered why these defenses had not manifested when Maw had invaded his mind before.

"Why is this happening now?" he yelled, as the wind rose to an unholy shriek. "I allowed you in. Not like Maw. Why didn't they work on him?"

"They probably did--for a time. But Maw knew ways that I will not use to subdue a mind who fights the intrusion of a psychic," Viva explained.

"As for why . . . it is not easy to let go of what you fear. Sometimes the worst enemy you have is yourself."

Loki closed his eyes as he tried to calm down and he breathed hard and fast through his nose.

It's all right.  This is Viva not Maw.  She will not harm us, he thought, but the wind kept blowing and he opened his eyes to look up at the darkness.

"Stop!" he shouted in a commanding voice and the wind stopped.  The snow slowed to flurries.  He looked at her when they heard someone approaching and Viva saw the little boy she had seen in Loki's nightmare.  Loki watched him walk toward him then Loki looked at Viva and he frowned.  "Why is my subconscious mind a little boy?"

"Because this is how you see yourself.  A frightened little boy who no one loves or wants," Viva said.

"You are safe now," Loki told his small self. "No one will hurt you. You are loved."

"How do you know?" his younger self demanded suspiciously.

Loki paused then knelt and placed his hands on the small Loki's shoulders. "Let me show you our memories.  Look!"

He concentrated, showing his younger self the family session he had with Frigga, Thor, and Odin. He replayed what they had said to him and then he showed the lost little boy self the letters they had written to him. Lastly, he showed him how Thor had helped him with his Bifrost demons and Odin had praised him using the tree imagery.

"Do you see now? You are not unwanted or unloved. Not anymore. I love you. And our family does too."

"I love you too," Viva said, and projected love and acceptance at the child.

His younger self blinked, absorbing the truth that Loki had shown him and Viva felt for him.  Two glistening tears fell from his emerald eyes. “Do—do you mean it? It’s not a trick?”

“No. It’s real,” Loki reassured his younger self. Then he drew the small boy into a hug.

Viva wrapped her arms about them both and together their combined embrace of love and acceptance caused his younger self to stop crying and smile instead, as love filled the unwanted child to bursting.

Suddenly, Loki’s younger self began to glow with a steady gold and green light and when the light faded the two dream warriors found they were hugging a tall figure dressed in ceremonial green, gold, and black robes holding a scepter and wearing a golden diadem.

Loki released him and stepped away. “What—what happened to--?” he sputtered.

“Love made me grow,” laughed his adult self. “I am now the prince I was born to be. Love makes all things possible.”

Your perception of yourself changed, Viva sent. So now your inner self reflects that.

Does this mean I am healed? Loki queried.

No, not yet. But you have made a great stride to being whole again. How you see yourself is half the battle.

The snow and wind had calmed and suddenly there were green shoots poking up from the frosty ground. His princely self grinned.

“See you around!” Then his subconscious vanished.

“Where did he go?” Loki wondered.

“Back to sleep,” Viva informed him. “You have calmed your subconscious.”

“Now what?”

“Let us continue,” the frost-blue knight replied. “Though your subconscious is not actively fighting us any longer, that does not mean your fears are laid to rest.”

No sooner had the words left her mouth then they heard the clash of steel on steel and cries of battle.

“This way!” Loki called, and led the way down a snowy slope into a clearing.

There they saw another Loki, this one dressed in gray with a soft green tunic, barefoot, fighting a blue-skinned warrior maid with bionic implants in her arm, leg, and head. Blood dripped from several slashes on his person, and stained the snowy ground crimson.

“You cannot defeat me, Trickster!” Nebula snarled. “You are weak! Unfit!”

“I beg your pardon?” the armored Loki cried. “You are the one who is unfit, lady! Unfit to command so much as a flea circus!”

Nebula turned, blinking as she beheld the two warriors. “Have at thee, varlets!” she howled and rushed them.

Loki dodged and tossed a dagger at her. It embedded itself in her arm.

“Nice shot!” Viva said approvingly, then slashed Frost Reaver down at the other woman.

“Traitor!” Nebula growled.

“What did you call me?” the frost-blue knight demanded.

“Traitor to your own kind!” Nebula spat. “You are a woman, yet you fight on his side!”

She parried Nebula’s rush, setting the other back on her heels.

“I fight on the side of right, not might,” Viva snapped. She spun Frost Reaver about and brought it smashing down against Nebula’s skull.

The blue assassin staggered, going to one knee.

Then Loki swooped down upon her, stabbing her in the opposite shoulder, and Nebula cried out, then lunged upward, trying to skewer him.

Until the barefoot Loki smashed her over the back of the head with a rock.

Nebula crumpled to the ground and lay still. An instant later she vanished.

Barefoot Loki saluted his rescuers, then disappeared.

“Well, that’s one fear laid to rest,” Viva declared in satisfaction. “Well done!”

“One down and who knows how many more to go?” Loki muttered.

“Would you like to continue?” the blue knight asked. “Or do you feel drained and tired? If you do, then we can go back and wake up. Sometimes being in the dream realm can exhaust you.”

Loki considered. He was feeling rather tired. “But there are more fears to fight,” he pointed out.

“Yes. But we do not have to battle them all in one day,” Viva said reasonably. “Who was the blue warrior maid we fought?”

“Her name was Nebula. She was one of Thanos’ adopted daughters. She was trained to be a master assassin. She would torture me if I refused to do what Thanos wished—which was tell him where the Tesseract was hidden.”

Viva’s mouth tightened into a grim line. “I see. Well, she has been defeated.”

Loki debated whether or not to go on. He wasn’t sure he wanted to face Ebony Maw yet. At the same time he didn’t want to leave.

Off to the left there came the unmistakable crack of a whip upon flesh.

Loki snarled. “Come, Lady Viva! Someone is in trouble!”

Together the two dream warriors raced towards the dreadful noise, weapons drawn.

This time they emerged onto a crowded arena, similar to the sparring one Loki had been using. But unlike the real one, this one had high stone walls and benches built in a semi-circle overlooking the sands where a huge black wolf with bright green eyes fought a tall alien wielding a whip and a glaive.

“Corvus!” Loki spat, his eyes blazing.

“Who?”

“Corvus Glaive. Thanos’ second.” Loki growled.

Corvus attacked the snarling wolf, thrusting with his glaive and striking with the whip.

The wolf, recognizing the glaive as the bigger threat, dodged it, and only the whip struck him.

The two adversaries circled, while above in the stands, faceless people jeered and yelled at Corvus to finish off the monster.

The great wolf lunged, his teeth scoring Corvus’s side.

Thanos’ general cursed in some alien tongue, then stabbed again with his glaive.

It sliced a shallow cut along the wolf’s shoulder.

As the wolf drew back, his snarl growing to a crescendo, Loki and Viva flipped over the stone wall and landed in the arena, inbetween the wolf and Corvus.

“Who the hell are you?” Corvus demanded. “This is none of your business! Leave!”

“We’re making it our business!” Viva snapped.

“Your funeral, babe,” laughed the alien.

“I rather doubt that,” answered the blue knight, and she sliced the whip in two with Frost Reaver, the runes along the blade glowing brilliant cobalt.

“You bitch!” Corvus cried, dropping the now useless whip. “You’re going to pay for that!”

“Make me!” Viva taunted, then she parried a blow from the glaive.

Loki summoned a scepter and thrust it at Corvus, it glowed and then discharged a bolt of blue magic.

It slammed into Corvus and knocked him flying.

As the other flipped to his feet, the gigantic wolf sprang, its huge front paws pinning the alien to the ground. Corvus screamed as the wolf’s fangs sought his throat.

“No! Get it off! Get it away!”

“In your dreams!” Loki giggled. “See you in Hel, you pathetic wanna be!”

He reversed his scepter, bringing the butt end down upon Corvus’ head. His former tormentor went down, stunned.

The wolf quit growling and went and licked Loki’s hand. He ruffled the sleek fur, and the wolf whined happily and wagged his tail slightly.

Before Loki could speak, the wolf turned and became a large flowering tree.

Loki bowed and muttered, ”That’s two!”

Before Viva could persuade him to leave, Loki began yawning.

“I think it’s time to go back,” he told his therapist.

“Follow me,” Viva ordered. They soon reached the crossroads in a blink. Loki was now exhausted. “But we’ll be back!” he called, shaking his fist towards the darkening landscape.

Viva slipped from Loki’s mind first, waking a moment later.

Loki felt muzzyheaded, but the dizziness faded and then he found himself waking up as well.

He sat up slowly, a weight upon his chest. Looking over he saw it was Kiva curled upon him.

He laughed softly. “Were you trying to protect me?”

“That or she liked the way you felt like a pillow,” Viva laughed.

Loki turned and saw she was back to normal, with her dark pixie hair and bi-colored eyes, dressed in her soft mint green skirt and royal blue tunic. He almost expected to see the frost-blue knight sitting beside him, but the warrior was gone, lost like a dream upon waking.

“How do you feel?” she asked then.

“I feel good.”

“Norns be praised!” Viva said in relief.

Loki reached for her hand and clasped it. “We make a good team.”

They smiled at each other, their grins identical, though they did not realize it.

“Yes,” she agreed. “We will do this again soon.”

“I look forward to it.”

He gently gave Kiva to her mistress, then rose and stretched. “I think I need to change before lunch,” he stated.

As he left the office, another thought occurred to him. He remembered the baby wrapped in the patterned blanket. He did not know why the blanket seemed familiar, but he knew whom to ask about it.

He spun on his heel and headed down to Frigga’s solar.

Chapter Text

Loki knocked on the solar door. "Mother, are you in there? It's Loki."

"Come in, dear," he heard Frigga say.

He entered the room, which was well lit with not just ceiling lamps but the sun shining in from three huge windows. Frigga was seated in a comfortable armchair, stitching what looked like a set of baby clothes. Her ladies, Gunnora, Agnilda, Rayna, and Tylka were spread out around her, they were working on a quilt, sewing blocks onto a quilt topper.

"Good afternoon, Mother, ladies," Loki greeted the other women politely.

"Good afternoon, My Prince!" the ladies said, and got up to give him a curtsey.

Frigga smiled at him. "What brings you here at this time of day, Loki?"

Loki approached her, his hands clasped behind his back. "Well . . . I was having a session with Viva when I recalled something I never did before."

Frigga nodded, then gestured to her ladies. "Keep piecing that quilt, darlings. I need to speak privately with my son."

Loki followed his mother into the storage room, which contained all kinds of fabrics, threads, and other things to make clothes. There was a padded bench inside and both of them sat down on it. Frigga waved a hand and the room's privacy wards were activated.

"Now, what did you want to tell me?" she asked.

"As I said, I was having a session when I remembered something. I remembered when Father took me from the temple, I was wrapped in a special blanket with an unusual pattern. It was like knots entwined together with a wolf's head inbetween them. I wondered if you might still have the blanket, or if you recall it." Loki said, feeling suddenly foolish.

Frigga placed her hand in his. "Of course I still have it, darling. I saved a few things from when you and Thor were babies. I put preserving charms on them."

"You still have it?" Loki gaped at her. "Can I see it?"

"I would need to send one of the maids to fetch it from the storage room it is in." Frigga said. "How strange, I haven't thought of that in many years. But now that you mention it, I can't stop thinking about it."

"Neither can I. I thought . . . it might be a clue to who my birth mother was," Loki said.

"I know that the blanket was handmade, not something one would buy in the market," Frigga said. "Are you thinking of trying to contact her—if she still lives?"

"Maybe. But mostly I just want to know who she was. If she was Jotun, or even the queen who now rules with Laufey."

"I understand, dear." She patted Loki's shoulder. "How are you feeling?"

"Today I feel wonderful." Loki said, and told her about what they had done in the dream realm.

"I'm impressed," Frigga admitted. "It would seem you are healing well from your ordeal, Loki."

Loki shrugged. "Yes, if a bit slower than I had hoped. Still, beggars can't be choosers, as the mortals say."

"I shall send Tabitha to fetch the blanket," Frigga said, and they left the storage room.

Once the maid had been dispatched, there was nothing to do but wait. Loki seated himself on a chair and poured himself a cup of tea, sipping it while making small talk with his mother's ladies, all of whom he had known for centuries.

"Here, My Queen," Tabitha said triumphantly some forty minutes later. In her arms she bore a silvery bundle. Loki recognized the wrappings of silkane, a lightweight material found on Asgard, spun from the secretions left by silkworms mixed with the fibers of taro leaves, to make cloth that would keep out dust, moths, germs, and other things that would destroy fabrics. But silkane was worth its weight in gold, it was so costly to make, and to see Frigga had used an entire piece of it to wrap his baby blanket in made Loki flush. She treasured it that much? He thought wonderingly. He looked down briefly at his hands, thinking rapidly that if she had treasured a mere object so, how much more had she treasured the baby wrapped in it? Obviously more than the woman who bore you did.

Tabitha handed the wrapped blanket to the queen reverently, curtseying. Frigga smiled and told her to have some tea and cakes, then she carried the bundle over to Loki. Her ladies drew back respectfully so she could lay it on the table and undo the wrappings.

Loki stared at what was revealed. There, among the silvery casing, was a blanket big enough to wrap an infant in. It was made of ice blue fabric that looked exceedingly soft and warm. Woven into the fabric were concentric circles and knots, and between every second circle was a wolf's head, with twinkling green eyes and questing nose. The circles and knots were colored green, gold, and royal blue, and they glistened slightly in the light. Up on top, runes in gold thread spelled out 'Loki'.

"Oh!" exclaimed Rayna, one of Frigga's younger ladies. "It is beautiful, My Queen! Such a fine weave!"

Loki cautiously reached out a hand to touch the blanket, his fingers gliding over the exquisite softness. "It is as if it were spun from clouds with fur!" he marveled.

Frigga nodded. "Does it match the one in your dream?"

Loki nodded. "It does. What is it made from?"

"I believe the fabric is called cloud wool, it is one woven from the hair of Jotun goats, very soft, lightweight, yet warm enough to keep out the frost of winter." Frigga replied. "You were bundled from head to toe in it."

"How odd, My Queen," mused Agnilda. "Aren't Jotun babies immune to cold?"

"Perhaps as babies they don't develop the immunity right away," Frigga answered. "A duck's feathers are waterproof, but as ducklings they are born almost naked with only fluff."

Loki was examining the pattern in the weaving. "Then this is a Jotun pattern?"

Frigga shook her head. "Actually, dear, it is Vanir."

Loki lofted an eyebrow. "Vanir? How can you tell?"

Frigga gently picked up a corner of the blanket. "See the pattern here—the knots and circles entwined? That is an old Vanir pattern women have been weaving there for time out of mind. The pattern represents health, love, and unending happiness. All Vanir mothers weave blankets and tunics for their babes with this on it. The colors too are representative. Green for growing things and new life, gold for the sunshine, blue for health and prosperity." Frigga's hand gently traced each circle. "The pattern repeats so the circle remains unbroken. Or so my Lady Grandmother used to tell my sister and me."

"What of the wolf? Is that a Jotun symbol?" Loki queried.

But again Frigga shook her head. "It may be, but the wolf is the symbol for royalty in Vanaheim. The noble wolf, guardian and protector of the realm, loyal to his pack, who is family, fierce and gentle, honorable and wise. My father's banner bore a wolf running on a green and gold field."

Loki frowned. "But why would a Jotun baby have a Vanir blanket?"

"Well, there were Vanir at court in Jotunheim," Frigga replied. "They accompanied my sister Freya there when she became queen. Not all of them might have left when she passed. Some may have stayed to serve the new queen. They say King Laufey is a hard man, with a heart made of stone, and not one given to smiling and laughing. Perhaps a few Vanir ladies thought to keep the queen company and one of them wove this when she was expecting."

Loki shrugged. "I guess it doesn't really matter who made it." He indicated the runes at the top. "And those? Are they Vanir?"

"No. They are Jotun. That is your name, which was probably added on once you were born," Frigga explained.

"I see. Then you did not name me," he stated.

"No, darling. You were named by she who bore you. Perhaps it was the only thing she could give you." Frigga murmured. Once more she marveled at how any woman could have given up her baby that way. Then she thought perhaps the lady did not have a choice. She had heard Jotun law was cold and strict, and there women did not have equal say as they did on Vanaheim and Asgard. And Laufey was a warrior king, who did not know softness—or so it was said. "In Jotun I believe your name means conundrum or tangle but in Vanir it means mystical ruler."

"I was unaware of that," Loki murmured, then he thought how strange it was to have a name which meant two different things in different languages. He wondered why that particular name had been given to him. One would have thought she would have chosen something more traditional. Then again, he supposed the name was accurate.

He studied the blanket some more, then asked, "May I keep this for a bit?"

"Of course. it is yours, after all," Frigga said. "Perhaps it will give you more pleasant dreams."

"Perhaps," was all he said, and then wrapped the blanket back up and tucked it under his arm.

"Oh, Loki," Frigga called after him. He turned. "Try and make sure your kitten doesn't get hair on it. It's rather delicate."

"I will, Mother," he assured her.

Arriving back at his room, Loki set the blanket on his settee while he went to grab one of his magical texts. When he returned with the tome, he found Axelle curled upon the silkane bundle. The kitten purred as she gazed up at him.

"Hey! Get off there, you little brakmaker!" Loki scolded. He tried to shoo the cat away. "Mother will skin me if you get hair on that!"

Axelle opened one eye, and yawned insolently.

Loki huffed. "Axelle, go chase mice! Or lie on my bed."

The golden kitten closed her eye, clearly not minded to move anywhere.

Sighing, Loki picked her up and put her on his pillow. She opened both eyes and glared at him affronted.

"Never you mind!" he waved a finger at her. "I make the rules around here."

Unimpressed, Axelle turned about, presenting her back to him, and promptly went back to sleep.

Loki paged open his text and read the spell he wished to cast. Then he sent the book back on the shelf and unwrapped the blanket. He traced several sigils in the air over it then chanted words in Old Norse. "Finn din skaperen!'

The spell activated, the runes glowing stridently and he felt the magic go seek as he had commanded.

He waited with bated breath, hoping.

Until after several long moments, he felt the spell fizzle and fade.

"Nine Hells!" he swore.

Either the creator was too far away for the spell to identify . . . or the person was no longer alive.

Heaving a sigh of frustration, the dark-haired sorcerer rewrapped the blanket up and placed it in his dresser drawer, removing the temptation to lie on it again from his kitten.

Ravn was off shopping for a gift for Vanora, according to his request, and Viva had suggested he take the next day off from his sessions to let himself relax. Finding himself at loose ends, Loki decided to take a book out to a secret place beside the pond and read for awhile.

He found his old hideaway easily enough, it was a hammock strung between two oak trees overlooking the pond. He waved a hand to clean the hammock, then restrengthened the cords so it would hold his weight as an adult. He conjured a pillow and then jumped into it, setting it swaying.

Ensconced in the hammock, with the noonday sun dappling the leaves above him, he started to read the book he had chosen. He read two chapters before his eyelids grew heavy and he started to drift off to sleep, the gentle breeze swaying the hammock just enough to encourage him to fall asleep. He didn't even notice when the book fell open over his nose.

He felt a familiar rocking sensation, not unlike being held in the arms of the Sweet Smelling One. He snuggled deeper into the familiar blue blanket, his hand reaching automatically to clutch another's. As his tiny fingers gripped the other little hand, he sighed contentedly and yawned. His eyes focused blearily upon the hand in his, the hand that was always there at bedtime and naptime.

Above him he heard a familiar voice singing, and the rocking motion increased. Loki yawned again, then settled down to slumber, his other hand coming up to suck his thumb.

As he sought the land of dreams, he heard a voice whisper, The bond that was broken is renewed.

He woke suddenly, the voice echoing in his head.

The bond that was broken is renewed.

He removed the book, looking about. All was peaceful, no one was nearby. Birdsong echoed from the treetops and the sound of a fish splashing made him glance at the pond.

I don't understand. Why am I hearing a voice speaking when there is no one here but me? He rubbed his eyes and supposed he had dreamt it. For once he was grateful that he hadn't dreamed anything horrifying. In fact, his dream had been oddly peaceful. I was a baby, falling asleep in a cradle, holding onto Thor's hand, he thought. He hadn't known that Frigga had put him and his brother together for naps, but apparently she had, though Thor was older than Loki, he must not have minded sleeping beside his little brother.

Loki smiled reminiscently. The bond that was broken is renewed.

What bond? he wondered. He had never considered he had a bond with Thor when he was growing up, but perhaps he had when they were both very small? He sat up, hopping off the hammock. His stomach was rumbling, it was time for lunch.

As he walked back towards the palace, he debated on whether to tell Viva about this dream. He decided to write it down in his journal, though he wouldn't reveal it just yet to the Mind Healer. It was really a silly dream, he thought. It had no bearing on his current issues, and was probably brought on by his studying the blanket. The phrase whispered in his head, nagging at him, but he shoved it aside.

If the bond between him and Thor had been renewed that was all well and good. Perhaps it meant that Loki could trust his brother again.

He walked down the hallway towards the Feast Hall, passing a large tapestry on the way there. He must have gone past that hanging thousands of times before, but this time something caught his eye. He halted and looked at the tapestry. He had never noticed it before, but this particular hanging was not a scene from Asgard's history but a simple weaving of geometric designs to form an aesthetically pleasing whole. The tapestry had been woven in bright threads, cool blues, verdant greens, bright gold, mysterious purple, jet black and crimson. The pattern in the weaving was of concentric circles and knots.

Like my baby blanket.

He wondered who had woven it, but saw nothing to indicate a signature. The circle without beginning or end, hope and love and renewal. How is it that I never noticed this before?

But then, he had never really paid attention before. He would have just shrugged it off as pretty decoration.

But now . . . now he was certain it had been woven by someone versed in Vanir symbolism. Could Frigga have done so?

Shaking his head, he continued on into the Feast Hall. Before he knew it he would be seeing that pattern everywhere.

He entered to see Tyr and a few of the Night Hawks seated at a table. To his surprise, the general waved him over. "Good afternoon, General."

"Good afternoon, my Lord Prince." Tyr said genially. "Would you care to join me and my men for lunch?"

Loki hesitated for a fraction, then slowly nodded. He sat beside the one-armed general, and a servant came and brought him a plate of carved pheasant with gravy, stuffing, and vegetables. Loki found he was actually hungry today and ate more than usual.

"Got your appetite back, Prince Loki?" Tyr inquired knowingly.

Loki looked up from his meal. "I have. How did-?"

"I know because all of us here went through that stage. When we first came home, none of us could eat much. Our stomachs were in revolt."

"Theron's still isn't good," remarked a blonde bearded man with an eye patch. He indicated a slender man with reddish hair and silvery eyes that darted all over. The redhead had his left hand in a cast.

Theron snorted. "We can't all be bottomless pits like you, Sigurd." He glanced shyly at Loki. "I'm Theron Olafson, My Prince. I'm a cartographer. Or I was until they broke my hands." He wriggled his cast hand. "But I'm healing, as you can see."

"And he can still draw with one hand," another said, nodding at his friend.

Loki was startled. "How long ago did you return?" he asked the cartographer.

"Four months, my lord. It's taken that long for my one hand to heal. This one, though, was worse, so it needed a few more surgeries," Theron replied.

"But then he'll be good as new," said another.

"How goes your recovery, My Prince?" Tyr asked as he ate some buttered corn.

"It is proceeding. Lady Viva says I am doing well," Loki replied cautiously.

The general smiled. "You can trust Viva. She is like a miracle worker, eh, lads?"

All of the men at the table lifted their steins in a salute to the Mind Healer.

For a few moments there was silence as they all ate, then one of the soldiers asked, "General, when is the next meeting?"

Tyr paused to drink some beer, then replied, "It is this Friday at seven in the evening." He turned to Loki. "I have been meaning to speak to you, My Prince. To see if you would be interested in attending one of our little meetings as a guest."

Loki raised an eyebrow. "But I am not a soldier, sir."

"No, no, it's not a military matter," Tyr chuckled. "We are all on leave. This is . . . well it's a gathering of us Phoenixes. We meet every month to discuss our recoveries and talk about different methods to cope with our problems. Not just for ourselves, but for others too. Friends, family, sometimes it can be difficult to adjust to life at home after being in Hel. No one knows that better than us. You needn't speak if you don't wish to, my lord. You can just observe. But I thought I would offer, because I remember how difficult it was the first month or so after I came back. And perhaps you would welcome someone else to talk to besides Lady Viva."

"I will think about it, General. Thank you for offering," Loki replied. Today was Wednesday. "I shall send Ravn with a note if I decided to attend."

"Very good, lad." Tyr said, and gave him a friendly clap on the back.

Loki ate some more food, pondering on whether he would like to attend this Phoenix meeting. All of these men shared a common bond, they were all former Night Hawks and all had been prisoners on Muspelheim. But even though he had not shared their captivity, he began to see that he did have a lot in common with these men.

They talked softly with one another, not shouting or yelling like half the warriors in the hall did. Loki felt oddly comfortable around them, not nervous the way he normally did about having a panic attack in mixed company. He sensed that none of these men would be alarmed if he did have one, and would not gossip or jeer at him. He finished his lunch and bid them good day, returning to his quarters.

Ravn was already there, placing the present he had chosen for his baby niece on the table in the parlor. "Afternoon, my lord. Here is the present for Vanora. I hope it meets with your approval."

Loki came to examine the box. Inside was a soft huggable doll and a pretty lilac day dress with a white eyelet apron and tiny socks. "It's perfect, Ravn. You have good taste."

His friend laughed. "I learned from the best, sir."

"Have you eaten yet?" Loki asked shrewdly.

"No, sir. I came straight here."

"Then go and eat." Loki waved him away.

As Ravn scurried out of the room, Loki went to set his book on his nightstand. He spied Axelle still curled up on the pillow.

"Hey, minx." He gently ran his hand down her back.

She gave a lazy sort of half-purr but didn't look at him.

Loki chuckled. "Still mad at me because I wouldn't let you lay on my blanket, huh?"

He continued petting her, scratching under her ears and chin, until she finally rose, stretched, and came over to rub against his hand, her jade eyes sleepy.

Her purr resounded through the room like a ship's engine.

"Guess I'm forgiven, hmm?"

She rolled over on her back, inviting him to play, and he wriggled his fingers and she playfully grabbed them with her sheathed paws and nibbled at him. He stroked her belly, she purred, then sprang to her paws and pounced on his hand.

She play-growled and attacked him, pulling his hand to her chest and pretending to gnaw it while kicking it with her back paws.

Loki recognized that maneuver as one a cat would use to kill and disembowel prey, and grinned. "I think you've killed it, little brakmaker!"

His kitten growled some more and then released his hand, sitting up and grooming her paws as if she had not been rolling about on the bed playing a moment earlier.

Loki left her to her grooming and wrote down the dream in his journal, then went down the hall to Viva's office, wanting to see if the young woman wished to play cards or chess or some other game. He knocked on the door, but received no answer.

He turned to leave, disappointed, when he heard Kiva meowing on the other side. Figuring she needed to go out, Loki opened the door. The gray and white forest cat strutted out, her tail held high, and trotted down the hallway. Loki peered into the room, then decided he would wait for Viva inside the office.

As he went to seat himself on the couch, he noticed a half finished canvas propped on an easel in front of the window. Curiosity drew him over to it.

It was a picture of a room in a cottage of silvery stone walls and a braided rug on the floor. There was a fireplace and off to one side was a golden oak cradle with a blanket hanging over the side. There was a cat which looked like Kiva curled beneath the cradle.

Loki eyed the blanket, and with a start saw that it was a soft golden color with the same pattern of interlocking circles and knots as the tapestry and his own baby blanket. Only the color scheme was different. Soft gray, heather purple, mint green, and rose. He also saw cats curled inbetween the circles, they were painted ivory.

"Yggdrasil's Roots!" he exclaimed aloud. "It's nearly the same pattern as mine!"

He cupped his chin in his hand. He wondered briefly why Viva had painted such a scene. Was this her baby blanket or had she been inspired by seeing his in his dream? Then he recalled Frigga saying the pattern was very popular among women who made such things and figured that if it was hers, it was just coincidence that it resembled his own. Perhaps her mother had been Vanir, he had never asked, assuming that her mother had been Asgardian.

He stared at it some more, inconceivably drawn to it, then abruptly he turned away. He should leave. She might not have wanted him to see this unfinished painting and he had now invaded her privacy. Feeling like a spy, he slipped from the office like a shadow. Once she finished it, if she deigned to show him it, he would ask her then about the blanket. Until then he would need to be patient.

He couldn't fathom why he was getting so worked up over a simple pattern on a blanket anyhow. His spell had fizzled, indicating that the creator of his blanket was gone, and it was highly unlikely he would meet anyone in Asgard who had known his mother.

Frigga is your mother, he reminded himself. Whoever created that blanket gave you up to die. Who needs a mother like that?

Pursing his lips, he returned to his room, where he found Ravn straightening his clothing. "Ravn, how would you like to play a game of Empires?" He named a favorite strategy board game of the Asgardian court.

His valet looked up. "That would be splendid, My Prince. Let me get the board and the pieces."

A/N: Hope you liked this more relaxed chapter!

brakmaker~ Norwegian for troublemaker

Finn din skaperen~ Norwegian for Find Your Creator

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

At supper that evening, Loki sat beside Viva, so he could tell her about Tyr’s invitation to join the Phoenix group. He was also dying to ask her about the painting he had seen, but reined in his curiosity, because he didn’t want to make her angry that he had looked at it before it was finished. Some artists were touchy about people seeing their work before it was finished.

She smiled at Loki over her lamb chops, parslied carrots, and mashed potatoes. “How was your day, Prince Loki?”

“It was very relaxing,” he told her. “I visited with my mother, read a book, and played Empires. Then I fell asleep in my hammock and had a peaceful dream for once.”

“That sounds lovely,” she said. “I’m glad you seem to be making some good progress with your therapy. Like you did earlier when you stopped your panic attack. I meant to tell you that you should be very proud that you managed to do that.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes. Knowing when to act before you have an episode is the key to taking control of your life back.” Viva reassured him. “Have you had any today?”

“No,” Loki murmured, taking a bite of his lamb chop. “I haven’t. I can’t remember the last time I went this long without one.”

“That’s good. It means that you are healing. Slowly but surely.”

“There is something else I wished to speak about,” he began. “I met with Tyr over lunch and he suggested I come and observe this . . . gathering of Phoenixes he holds every few weeks.” Loki explained what Tyr had told him the group was. “What do you think?”

“I approve wholeheartedly,” Viva said enthusiastically. “When Tyr had sessions with me, I suggested a group like that, because sometimes you need the support and advice of people who have gone through the same thing you have. As a Mind Healer, I am available to you to discuss whatever you need, but I do not have the experience that Tyr and his soldiers do of being prisoners and withstanding mental and physical torture.”

Loki shuddered. “I pray to the Norns you never experience that!” The thought made him feel sick and he took several deep breaths to calm himself.

“I do not intend to. But attend the meeting if you like. It can’t hurt and perhaps it also may help just to talk about different issues and hear other’s solutions to problems you may have.”

“Then you believe this to be a good idea?”

Viva nodded. “New perspectives are always a good idea. Not only that, but you may make some new friends also.”

Loki thought about that. “I . . . have never had many of those.”

“You don’t need many, Loki. Just ones that you can trust to have your back,” she pointed out.

“Like you,” he replied honestly.

She colored slightly, her fair skin showing even the hint of a blush.  “You honor me.”

“You are worth doing so,” he answered. Then he asked softly, “What did you do today?”

“Nothing much. I went for a walk and I painted for awhile.”

“Oh. Would you mind showing me when it is finished?”

She hesitated. “You would probably find the subject matter boring.”

“I’ll be the judge of that, my lady.”

“Very well. When it is finished,” she agreed.

Then perhaps he would have an answer to his question.

 

Friday arrived, and Loki had arranged to have a small picnic on the Green Terrace, a part of the royal gardens he was especially fond of. It was a series of beautifully sculpted topiary bushes amid large flowering hartwood trees, and a marble fountain of a horse rearing, which was dotted with water lilies and large angelwing fish—the fish were blue-green and had fins that resembled white wings, when they swam it looked as though they were soaring.

There were tables of white thornwood and chairs with cushions set up for the prince and his guests, Lady Astrid and her daughter, Lady Vanora. Loki had placed a small seat lined with lambswool beneath a pink hartwood to provide shade, and the seat would rock gently with magic when the baby was in it.

A light breeze blew through the leaves as he smelled the scent of the nearby flowers and smiled.  Ravn led Astrid into the garden while Loki turned, making a small bow.

"Lady Astrid, it is good to see you again," Loki said, walking to them.  He looked at Vanora then at the baby blanket she was wrapped in and he blinked.

"Hello, little one," Loki crooned, and the baby smiled up at him, her lapis eyes huge in her pixie face. "She is adorable."

"Thank you, My Prince." Her mother said proudly.

Loki examined the blanket. "Is this made from cloud wool?" he asked, indicating the rose colored fabric.

"It is, my lord," Astrid smiled. "Her grandmother bought it in the market from a Jotun wool seller. There is nothing as soft to a baby's skin."

I know, he thought as he remembered how soft his own blanket felt.  He looked at the little silk roses stitched onto the edges, but he also noticed some Vanir patterns on the blanket.

"That interlocking circle pattern . . .that's Vanir," he murmured.

"Our great-grandmother was from there," Astrid told him. Vanora held her hands out to Loki. "Would you like to hold her, my lord? She seems to want you to."

Loki felt a little unsure as he lifted the baby up and he held her against his chest.  Vanora looked up at him as she wrapped her fingers around his finger and Loki smiled.  He gently rocked her as Vanora leaned her head against his chest and Ravn gave him a pleased look.

So small and innocent, Loki thought as he held the baby carefully. And so very precious.

For a split second, he heard Maw's voice in his head.

"Wait until she finds out what sort of monster you are.  She will look upon you with only fear and dread in her eyes."

Ravn noticed the look in Loki's eyes as he gently took Vanora from him and Astrid walked closer to Loki.

"My lord, are you alright?" she asked.  Loki took a few deep breathes before he calmed down and  he nodded his head.

"I do apologize.  I thought I was going to drop her," Loki lied and she nodded.  Ravn handed the baby back to him as Loki rocked her and she placed her head against his chest.  She seemed to fuss over the fast beat of his heart and Loki started humming.

"I know.  I know." he whispered and she settled once his heartbeat returned to normal.

“She likes you, My Prince,” Ravn grinned. “The first time I held her she cried.”

“Because you scared her, Ravn.” Astrid reproved. “You woke her from her nap and she was startled.”

“I will never do that again,” her brother laughed. “Vanora has a set of lungs like General Tyr!”

Loki smiled as the baby looked at him and he looked down at her.

"That was rude, wasn't it, Princess?" Loki teased and they laughed.

 “You should hear her when she is hungry, My Prince,” Astrid said. “They can hear her in Midgard.”

"I see," he said and he rocked Vanora.  The baby yawned and the sound of his heartbeat sent her off to sleep.

"Well, look at that.  She never falls asleep so quickly," Ravn said.

"Do you wish me to put her in her basket?" Astrid asked.

"No.  We're fine," Loki said.

He sat down, cradling the baby in his arm, her tiny fingers still clutching his thumb.

Astrid sat as he looked at Ravn and Loki nodded for him to sit.  Ravn looked surprised then he sat and the servants served the tea.

"You are a natural with children, my lord," she remarked. "Even her father hasn't been able to get her to sleep like that."

"I am?" Loki was startled. "This is the first time I have held a baby."

"I would never have guessed."

Loki looked down at the sleeping baby as he smiled then he reached over and picked up the teacup.  He took a sip of tea when the baby wiggled a little to get comfortable and she made a small sigh.

"If I may ask," Astrid said and he nodded for her to continue.  "How are you?"

"I am slowly getting better," Loki answered, touched by her concern. "At least, I don't think I have woken Ravn recently screaming."

“Not recently, My Prince,” Ravn said wryly.

"That is good," Astrid said, but Loki noticed she seemed worried about something.

"Is there something wrong?" Loki asked.

"You didn't almost drop her, did you?"

"No.  I...  I had a small flash of something, but it appears she was able to calm me down," he said, looking at the sleeping baby.

"When her father holds her while he is in a bad mood, she gets very fussy.  My mother told me it was because she didn't like to hear his heart crying.  Once he calmed down, she was fine."

"Is that why?" he whispered to the baby and she sighed, lightly squeezing his thumb.

“Haakon calls her his little sunshine,” Astrid told him. “He and my older daughter Krista fight to be the first one to pick her up in the morning.”

Loki nodded when he smelt something and looked down at the baby.

"Do they sometimes call her Stinky?" he said with a small laugh.

"Oh! Astrid said, standing up and taking Vanora from him.  "I am so sorry!"

"It's fine.  There is a tent over there for some privacy."

Astrid nodded as she headed for the white tent and Ravn laughed.

"Babies are known to do that," Ravn said.  One of the servants helped Loki wash his hands as he nodded and Astrid returned a few minutes later.  Loki held his arms out as she gave the baby back to him and Vanora snuggled against his chest.

Axelle padded over to see what Loki was holding, standing up and putting her paws on his leg.

"I know, I'm holding someone who isn't you," Loki said to the kitten. "This is Vanora."

Axelle hopped onto the arm of the chair for a better look and her tail slowly moved side to side.  She sniffed the baby's hand as Vanora reached over to pat the kitten and Loki gently took her tiny hand.

"Nice kitty," Loki said, helping her pat Axelle and the kitten purred.

 

"What a beautiful cat!" Astrid exclaimed. "Is she yours?"

"Yes, she adopted me," Loki said. "Her name is Axelle, she is my therapy cat. She is a forest cat, they are very friendly."

"She seems to like children."

 

"Forest cats like almost everyone," Loki replied. "Unless you harm them."

"Perhaps I should get one for Krista. I think she would like a pet to play with."

"That sounds like an excellent idea."

The rest of the afternoon was filled with small talk and laughter as Loki relaxed, even though his arm went numb a few times from holding the baby, and he felt the spark of hope growing stronger and brighter.

The sun was starting to go down as Ravn and Loki watched the carriage stop while the footman opened the door and Lady Astrid was helped inside.  Loki moved Vanora toward her while the baby whimpered and fussed about being separated from her new friend and Loki hushed her.

"Now, now, Little Flower, it's alright.  Mama will bring you back to see me soon," he whispered, rocking her.  Vanora calmed down as Astrid smiled and he handed her the baby.

"It appears you have made a friend for life, my lord," she said and he nodded.  The footman closed the door as she made Vanora wave goodbye. Loki waved, watching the carriage leaving.  Ravn noticed the sad look in Loki's eyes as they returned to the palace and Loki glanced at him.

"I'm fine," Loki said and his friend nodded.

"I know.  And I understand how you feel.  I miss them when they leave, too."

"I admit I was really nervous about holding Vanora.  Like I told her mother, I never held a baby before."

Axelle had run up to them as he leaned down to pick her off the ground and he cradled her in his arms.

"And yet you are great at holding a kitten," Ravn teased and Loki looked at the kitten.

"That's different."

"No, it's not.  Both of them are very delicate creatures and yet you hold them perfectly.  If I am be so bold, I think you will make a great father one day."

"Thank you...I think."

"You will," he said as they arrived at Loki's chambers and Ravn opened the door.  "Do you need me for anything else?"

"No, you can go."

"I will return when it's time to get you ready for dinner."

Loki watched him walking away then Loki held the kitten up to look into her face and he sighed.

"Do you think he's right?  Will I make a great father some day?" Loki asked and Axelle meowed, gently touching his face with her paws.  "Is that "You're a great father to me"?"

Axelle purred as he smiled, held the kitten to his chest then he went into his chambers, closing the door behind him.

At dinner that night, Loki elected to sit with his parents, figuring they would be quieter than Thor and his friends, and right then he needed to keep the relaxed feeling he had from the afternoon going.

Frigga smiled at him over her wine glass. "What did you do today, Loki?"

"I had a very good visit from Lady Astrid and her baby daughter," he answered. "You remember Astrid, Mother. Ravn's sister, and Earl Haakon's wife?"

 

"Of course I do," Frigga chuckled. "She recently had a baby, about four months ago."  Which was right around the time Loki was captured, though she did not mention that. "How was she doing? They have not been back at court  yet."

"Astrid looks very well and Vanora is thriving," Loki replied, eating a stuffed mushroom.

"That is good news," Odin said, drinking some mead and eating a mini meat pie.

"I do admit I was a little nervous around Vanora.  I never held a baby before."

"How did she react to you holding her?" Frigga asked.

"She was fine.  In fact, she fell asleep," he said with a small grin.

"That's because she knew she could trust you.  Just like you trusted me," Odin said.

"I did?"

"Yes.  Shortly after I had found you in the temple, you fell asleep in my arms and you had a look of complete contentment on your face."

"After he had returned to Asgard, you woke up and fussed after he had handed you to me," Frigga said.

"Vanora fussed after I handed her back to Astrid," Loki said when he thought of something and sighed.  "She also fussed when I had a small episode."

"What was it about?" Odin asked, sounding concerned.

"I heard Maw's voice in my head.  He taunted me about her being terrified once she realizes what I really am.  A monster."

Odin growled as he remembered how terrified Maw was of him just before Odin had killed him and he took a long drink of mead.

"You used to fuss when your father held you while he was angry or upset.  I was told it was because his heart was beating too hard.  Once he calmed down, you were fine."

"I believe you were right.   Ravn said I would make a great father someday," Loki said, sighing.

"You will, darling," she said, patting his hand.

"I just find it odd.  Me with a house filled with children.  I think my hair would turn white due to all the craziness."

"No, I believe you would love all the craziness."

"Imagine a little Loki running around," Odin said, smiling.

"He would be adorable," Frigga said and Loki laughed, shaking his head.

That's all I need.  A little imp who looks just like me, he thought then ate some of the roast.

"Or a daughter. You would need to beat off the boys with your sword," his mother laughed. "And Thor would help you."

"I am sure he would," Loki said, looking at Thor.  Thor nodded as he raised his tankard and Loki raised his goblet.

He looked around the room as he listened to the sounds of laughter and talking when Loki glanced over to the table where Tyr and his men sat and he caught a glimpse of a young lady sitting next to Tyr.  She was talking and laughing with the General and Frigga noticed him looking at the young woman.

"Ah, that's General Tyr's youngest daughter.  I believe her name is Sigyn," she whispered.

"I remember him having daughters, but I never met any of them," Loki said when he saw Sigyn walk away and he noticed she was wearing the robes of a green mage, pale green with the broad golden stripe of a mistress of botanical healing.  She left the room as he sighed and Frigga saw the look on his face.

"Are you alright?"

"Yes," he nodded and she patted his hand.  She knew Loki never felt confident when it came to women due to the young maidens being interested in Thor more than him.  She sent a small prayer to the Norns for him to find the strength to try with Sigyn and she took a sip of wine.

 

After dinner, Loki returned to his chambers when he picked up Axelle and he walked to the desk.  He decided to write down his time with Ravn's sister and niece and he opened the journal.  He wrote down his thoughts and feelings and he included Maw's words.  He also wrote down how Vanora reacted to the episode and he questioned if she really could understand why he was upset.  He also wrote down his thoughts about becoming a father at some point and if it would be a good idea.  Looking at what he wrote, Loki closed the journal and used the quill to tease Axelle, who was sitting on the desk.  The kitten jumped and swatted at the feather quill as he smiled then picked her up, putting the quill back in the holder.

"You really are a good companion." he said, holding the kitten up to his face and Axelle purred.  Loki yawned as he looked at the bed when he got up and walked over to it.  He went to rest on the bed with Axelle on his chest while he looked at the ceiling then he soon drifted off to sleep.

 

~*~*0000~*~*

 

"Prince Loki, wake up!" he heard Ravn's voice calling him from the mists inbetween asleep and awake. "It's almost time for you to attend your meeting with the general."

 

Loki stirred and woke, blinking his eyes several times. "What time is it, Ravn?"

 

"It is seven thirty, sir," the valet answered. "I figured you would like some time to wash up beforehand."

“Yes, thank you,” Loki said, sitting up. He rose and went to the bathing room, where he washed his face and hands.

Afterwards he put on the clean tunic Ravn gave him, it was gold with green vines on the sleeves. Then he pulled his hair back into a tail.

“You look very dashing, sir,” Ravn commented.

“By which you mean I don’t look like something the cat dragged in,” Loki teased.

“My Lord Prince!” Ravn sputtered. “I would never—”

“Relax, Ragnarsson! I’m only joking,” Loki chuckled.

Ravn laughed. “You got me again, sir.” His blue eyes sparkled. “I will set out your pajamas on the bed for when you return. Unless you would like me to wait up and bring you tea or something.”

“No, I’m sure Tyr will have refreshments served,” Loki waved away the offer. “Best you get some sleep. In case you are awakened early,” he remarked, referring to the occasional nightmares he was prone to.

“Of course, My Prince. I hope you have a good experience,” Ravn said sincerely.

“So do I,” Loki said fervently. He put Axelle on his shoulder, and then strode out the door, leaving the valet to make up the bed and lay out his nightclothes.

Loki went down the corridor, turned right, and then down a side corridor and turned left. Tyr held his meetings in an old lounge with several couches and tables for him and his men to sit at. The walls held old murals of pastoral scenes.

When he arrived he found the general, his former captain, Drago, Theron the cartographer, and Sigurd already there. Someone had placed a lavender plant in the center of one table, and a pitcher with cider and cups rested upon the corner of the table, as well as a platter of sandwiches and jam tarts.

Tyr turned at Loki’s entrance, and bowed. “Prince Loki, welcome to our gathering of Phoenixes!” He gestured to the men beside him. “Some of my men you met before, but just in case you’ve forgotten, let me introduce you.”

“Thank you, General,” Loki said. He greeted the other men present. “Is this all of us?”

“No, a few others will join us,” Tyr replied. He held out his fingers for Axelle to sniff. “Hello, little one. You look like Lady Viva’s cat, except hers is gray and white.”

“That’s because Kiva is her mother,” Loki told him. “Viva gave me Axelle when she chose to come to wake me from a particularly bad night terror.”

“The cat is nearly as wise as the Lady,” Tyr smiled. “Please, have a seat. Take some refreshments.”

After Loki had done so, Tyr sat beside him and said, “Let me tell you a bit about what we do here. This is mainly a group to discuss different issues we have with our recovery and to get input from our fellow Phoenixes or to simply listen and offer support. If you would like to share an incident, you simply stand up and do so. If you have a question, you just raise your hand and I will call on you and then you ask it and see what answers you may get. This is a rather informal group, so the men will talk freely here. I have finally gotten then to stop addressing me as sir, because here in this room I am simply Tyr. You, however, they will address according to your rank, unless you inform them otherwise.”

“I understand.” Loki said, nibbling a jam tart. He sipped some cider, noting that it was not alcoholic.

Seeing Loki’s surprise, Tyr said, “We drink regular cider here or fruit juices. It has been proven that alcohol only increases the level of depression and dark thoughts we have, so we mostly have refrained from drinking too much, especially here.”

“That is wise,” Loki said.

As they talked five other men entered the room, bringing the total to ten including Loki. Tyr had explained that not all the Night Hawks attended every meeting, it depended upon whether or not they felt they needed to, or if they had prior engagements.

The general waited until five after eight before calling the meeting to order.

Loki had seated himself on the couch nearest the door, content to observe.

"Now who would like to go first?" Tyr asked.

Theron stood as he looked at the others and Tyr nodded his head for him to speak.

"I had the nightmare again about what happened to my hands," Theron started as he looked at his hands.  "I could hear the laughter as each bone broke and the pain...  What I found interesting was how I wasn't as frightened as I had been in the past.  I came to the conclusion pain was something I had to live with and my hands are healing.  I know it will take time for them to completely heal.  But I also know there is a chance they will never be the same.  That I will need to learn a new way of drawing maps as well as other thing.  Does the thought of that happening bother me?  Yes, it does.  But I am more than just my hands."

The men cheered as he sat back down and Loki looked at him.  He wondered if he could mange if his hands were as badly damaged as Theron's hands.  His hands helped him control his magic and  the thought of a spell going wrong due to his hands caused a small shiver to move through him.

The next man was a redhead with two braids and a mustache.  His name was Olaf. "The other day I was walking with my son through the market and we passed a stall where I smelled charcoal burning. And . . . it scared me so badly I froze.  My son who is ten had to call me three times to get me to come back. I thought . . . I thought I was over that but I guess not."

"Remember, Olaf, Lady Viva said that sometimes our fears ambush us." remarked another man.

"It's happened to me," said Sigurd.

"Aye, me also," agreed Leif.

Me also, Loki thought.

"And what did you do?" Tyr prompted.

"I did counted breathing," answered one.

"I remind myself that I am safe and no one is going to hurt me," Theron said.

"I think of a good place that I love being in," answered Sigurd.

"I do meditation exercises," reported another.

Loki made a mental note to ask about that later, then said quietly, 'The last time I started to have one, I stopped it with my diffuser." He pulled the orange ball out of his pocket.

 

"What is that, My Prince?" asked Theron.

"It's a porous ball with scented oils that calm and relax you inside. When you breathe it in, it causes you to calm down. Here." He held the ball out to the other man.

"This is marvelous!" the cartographer exclaimed. He passed the ball to Sigurd and it went around the room.

When Tyr took it, he said,"I believe my daughter Sigyn can make these, she is a green mage, My Prince. I smell lavender and cloves."

Loki nodded, pleased with how the reception of the diffuser was received.

After handing the ball back, Tyr thanked Loki for showing it to them.

"I have a question for you," Loki said once he had placed the diffuser away. "How do you do this meditation you speak of?"

 

"It's a way of breathing and focusing your mind, my lord," Tyr replied. "Why don't we do a brief session now?"

 

Loki followed along as Tyr led the group in some simple meditation exercises designed clear one's mind and relax. He found it to be quite serene and not at all difficult to do. It reminded him of the state of concentration he needed  to put his mind in when he used magic.

Axelle purred in delight, then promptly went to sleep on Loki's lap, satisfied her master would not need her at this time.

While Loki was learning how to meditate, Viva was finishing up her painting, She wiped her hands on a clean cloth and decided to go down to the kitchens for a snack. On the way there she met Ravn.

 

"Hello, my lady," he greeted her, bowing slightly. He carried a small repast on a plate in one hand. "I forgot to eat earlier."

As they were traversing the hallway, they came upon three other servants gossiping, and the topic of their conversation was Loki.

"Have you heard that Prince Loki succumbs more and more to madness every day?" whispered a tall maid with a large nose.

 

"I've heard that he almost caused a riot in the hall the other evening," smirked a Groom of the Chamber wearing white and gold livery.

 

"They ought to lock him up like the crazy beast he is!' cried the second maid.

A furious Ravn set his plate to hover with a spell and stalked over to the three, He recognized the big-nosed maid and the Groom as the servants who had been loitering in the hall a few evenings ago that Tyr had driven off. "Gossiping again, Knute and Dravina?" Ravn remarked coldly. As Loki's private valet he outranked both of them in the hierarchy of servants.

The three jumped upon hearing his voice, having been so busy talking they hadn't even noticed him. "Sir, we weren't saying anything untrue!" protested Dravina.

 

"Weren't you?" Ravn demanded. "My Prince is NOT mad or even close to it! Now hold your tongue, you stupid wench!"

 

"How dare you speak to her like that?" Knute cried. "Just because you kiss the prince's arse--!"

 

"Watch your mouth, Knute!" snarled the valet. "Before I do it for you. You speak nothing but rumors and lies and pretend you know what you're talking about but the truth is you don't know your arse from a hole in the ground!"

 

"We know your master may be crazy!" put in the second maid.

"Prince Loki is not and never was crazy," Viva declared, her eyes flashing. "I do not know where you heard that piece of information but it's as stale as a troll's breath." She walked over and gave the maid a Look that should have skewered the woman where she stood.

 

The maid flinched and backed away. "Begging yer pardon, milady! I meant no disrespect!" She curtsied and then darted away.

"Mind you repeat no more gossip, or else you may be speaking to the Steward about finding new employment." Viva warned

"You think you're so high and mighty, Ravn!" sneered Knute. "But the truth is you only got your position because the prince felt sorry for you, Whereas I am a jarl's son--"

 

"Whose father paid to have Lord Brykfathn take you off his hands!" Ravn shot back. "And as the prince's valet, I outrank you, Knute."

"Ha! The servant to a crazy beast like Loki has no rank worthy of the name!"

Ravn's eyes narrowed to slits. "Say that again and you'll be drinking your meals through a straw Bjornsson!"

"Why? Can't handle the truth? Loony Loki belongs in a cell--"

Ravn's fist hit him right in the mouth and sent him into the wall.

 

"You--you HIT me!" Knut howled, holding his bleeding mouth.

 

"Next time keep your filthy mouth shut!"

 

"I could report you for that!" Dravina began.

 

Viva caught her eyes with her own and hissed, "No, you will report nothing, you talebaring witch! Look at me!"

 

Like a mouse that sees a hawk circling, the maid gazed into Viva's bi-colored eyes, feeling her head spin. "My lady."

 

"You will leave here and remember nothing that has happened this night. You will go to sleep and wake up and never speak lies about your prince again!"

"As you wish, lady!" Dravina murmured and then she turned and left, walking unsteadily back to her quarters, enspelled by the Mind Healer.

 

"I detest gossips," Viva said casually to Ravn, eyeing the bloody Knute.

"You....!  You bewitched her!  You are no healer!" Knute said.  "I am going to see you locked up along with him!"

"Wrong!" Viva Looked at him. "You were speaking lies against one who has harmed you not, out of cruelty and jealousy. You will speak no more untruths." She made a brief gesture and Knute found his tongue frozen to the roof of his mouth for several moments. “You forget you speak slander of your prince and a lady who is of higher birth than you. Such a thing is not permissible even in this court, where rules are more relaxed.”

Ravn was shocked to see her in such a state.  He also felt like he had seen this before.  The anger.  The need to defend.

She is...  She is acting like Loki, he thought.  Knute struggled to speak when the spell faded and he gasped for air.

"Now, you will leave, but, know this, the AllFather will hear about what you have been up to!" Viva said coldly and Knute ran down the hallway.

Ravn stared at her in admiration.

 "Perhaps I shouldn't have lost my temper, but . . . such rumors endanger Loki’s recovery. And it is all lies and half-truths.”

"No.  You had all right to get angry.  Even I was angry.  And you are right.  Knute is known for his lies and rumors.  He has been warned, but he still does it.  As for Dravina, she, too, is a gossip.  She was spreading rumors about Loki for years."

"Why would she do that?"

"She is one of many maids who are attracted to him.  But, being who he is, Loki never gave her the time of day."

"And the other maid?  She agreed with them even though she said she meant no disrespect."

"Grezti is young.  I'll ask the Queen to speak with her."

"No, I'll talk with her.  This gossip has to stop."

Ravn watched her storm down the hallway as he sighed, lowered the plate and he headed for his quarters.

Viva tried to calm herself as she went around the corner and saw Grezti.  She was talking with another maid then stopped and the other maid ran off.

"Still gossiping?" Viva asked and Grezti swallowed.

"I...  I was...," she said when one of the royal guards approached them and he bowed.

"Good evening, Healer," he said and Viva nodded.

"Good evening," Viva said and he looked at Grezti.

"The AllFather sent me to fetch you,"

"Me?!" Grezti asked and Viva felt fear coming from her.  Lowering her head, Grezti followed him down the hallway and they walked around the corner.

Viva muttered something uncomplimentary in Jotun, thinking that this gossip might hinder Loki's recovery if allowed to run unchecked. It was why she had done what she had did, besides the fact that  she would have done the same for anyone she called friend who was being maligned unfairly.

She continued down the hallway to the kitchen.  The kitchen staff were cleaning up from the evening meal or getting bread and rolls ready for the morning meal and the cook smiled when she saw her.

"Good evening, Healer," the cook said.

"Good evening.  Is there still some food?  I forgot to eat dinner," Viva said, smiling.

"Yes, there is," she said and ordered one one of the aides to bring Viva some food.

As she ate, the Mind Healer thought it best to keep the incident between herself and Ravn, for it would only upset Loki and that was not a good thing at this stage of his recovery. She hoped that Odin was making it clear to the wayward servants that such behavior was unacceptable and grounds for dismissal.

 

In Jotunheim, the laws were much harsher. Anyone caught speaking ill of King Laufey was flogged and thrown out of the palace in disgrace. Or so her mother had told her.

She glanced around the kitchen as the staff talked when she heard Loki's name.

"What did you say about Prince Loki?" she asked.

"We were just talking about how sweet he was with that little baby earlier," Karvi said.

"Yes, she looked so content," Hanna said.

"I always said he was a natural," the cook said and the rest of the staff nodded.

"My little Hanz fussed whenever a stranger held him when he was small," the maid washing dishes said with a laugh.

"It's sad that he's never found someone, though," one of the undercooks said.

"He will.  The Norns can't be so cruel as to deny him that happiness," the cook said.

 

"It is the maid who marries him who will be happy.  He is rather handsome," Karvi said and Viva noticed she was blushing.

"Now.  Now.  No more talk.  We have work to do!"

Viva watched as they went back to work and she smiled, nibbling on a cube of cheese.

Odin's office:

 

Odin glanced at the reports as he strummed his fingers on the top of the desk and Huginn and Muninn were sitting on the perch near the window.

 

Heimdall had told him about what had happened in the hallway and Odin had sent for Knute and the maids.

"How dare they gossip about my son," he growled.  A knock at the door made him look up as the doors opened and the guard led Knute and the maid in the room.  Odin saw the dried blood on Knute's face as Knute gave him a blank look at Odin sat up a little straighter in the chair.

 

The guard led them closer to the desk while Grezti saw the anger in the AllFather's eye and her stomach fell.  Dravina and Knute looked slightly alarmed as they stood in front of the desk and the ravens ruffled their feathers.

"Somebody's in trouble!" Huginn singsonged to Muninn.

"Ooo! Nasty! Nasty!" Muninn hissed. "Off with their heads!"

"Boil 'em in oil!"

“Peck out their eyes!”

"No, make them watch reruns of Two Stupid Dogs!" Huginn squawked.

The three miscreants went pale at those words.

 

"Silence," Odin demanded and the ravens lowered their heads.

"Now look what you did," Muninn clucked.

"Me?!" Huginn squawked, ruffled its feathers and looked away.

 

Grezti barely smiled at the ravens as Odin stood and walked around to the other side of the desk.

The three miscreants watched as Odin glanced from one to the other and Grezti had tears in her eyes.  She knew her parents would disown her once they learned she had lost her job at the palace and she prayed to the Norns for forgiveness.

Odin stood in front of Knute as he gave him a stern look and Odin placed his hands behind his back.

 

"I hear you are spreading gossip and rumors about my youngest son," Odin said in a voice Knute felt was too calm.

 

"I was just talking about how he nearly caused a riot in the hall the other night," Knute protested.

"I heard he is succumbing to madness more and more each day, sire" Dravina said out of turn and Odin glared at her.

 

"You will stay silent!" Odin demanded and she nodded.

"Sire, is it true? Has he gone mad?" Grezti asked.

"No, he is not gone mad.  But he is ill and we need to be careful with what we say around him."

"I am sorry I spoke ill of him, Sire," she said.

"You said he should be locked up like a crazy beast."

"I was...  I was just afraid."

"Were you afraid of him before he left?"

"No, Sire.  He was always kind to me."

"And this is how you repay his kindness?!"

Grezti swallowed hard as he walked to Dravina and she gave him a fearful look.

"As for you," he growled, locking eyes with Dravina.  "You told Ravn what you were saying was true.  You, none of you, have any idea what my son has gone through."

“Will you enlighten us then, My King?” Dravina asked, trying not to shiver.

 

"My son...," Odin started with a calm tone to his voice.  "He had fallen from Bifrost after he and his brother fought.  No, I will not tell you what they fought about..."

"I heard he wanted to kill Prince Thor so he could be king and he allowed the Frost Giants into the palace so they could kill you," Knute said.

"Silence!" the ravens called out, ruffling their feathers.

“No. He was using a ruse to get the Jotun close so he could kill Laufey. He was not a traitor, not at all. He never wanted the throne, only to be thought of as equal to his brother.”

"How did he survive the fall?" Grezti asked and Odin saw a softness and regret in her eyes.

"He was rescued by a being called Thanos.  Thanos was a true monster.  He captured and tortured my son until he broke.  It was only after he broke that Thanos used him in his plans to overtake Midgard."

"That...  That sounds like the rumors I heard about General Tyr and his men."

"Are you saying they should be locked up as well?"

"No, Sire, I do not!"

"Like General Tyr and his men, my son returned home with wounds no one could see.  That is why I asked Healer Viva for help.  She is trying to heal him and I assure you, given time, my son will heal.  Will he still be the same Loki we know, I cannot say.  All I can say is rumors and gossip such as you three are spreading will only harm him."

"We beg pardon for our ill conceived words, sire,” Knute said smoothly, looking at the floor. Then he pointed to Ravn. “However, Ravn attacked me and nearly broke my jaw. I ask for justice!”

Odin looked over at Ravn. “Is this true, Ravn?”

"I did hit him, Sire. But only after he disparaged my prince.” He glared at Knute. “Or don’t you remember, sir, when you said the only reason I got my position was because Prince Loki felt sorry for me?  You also said Prince Loki was a crazy beast and I wasn't worthy of my rank as his valet.  You then called him Loony Loki and he belongs in a cell."

Odin’s jaw tightened. “Then I would say you have the justice you deserve for speaking so poorly about your prince, who had done you no ill, Lord Knute.”

Dravina looked puzzled. “I . . . I don’t remember any of that.”

“Because Lady Viva ensorcelled you,” Knute said.

“For spreading lies and threatening me,” Ravn added. “You forget your place, Dravina. All of you do!”

"Enough!" Odin snapped and the threesome backed up.

Ravn saw the fear in Grezti's eyes and face and he felt sorry for her.  Dravina and Knute stood still as Odin waited and Ravn wondered what he was going to do.

"I should have all three of you imprisoned for slandering my son or killed," he began and Grezti started shaking.  "You have been nothing but disrespectful since you came in this room and I will not stand for it."

He glared at Grezti and approached her, wrath glinting in his eye. Tears fell down her cheeks.

"You will be sent back to your family.  They will be informed of your misdeeds..."

"Sire!  Please!  Do not do this!  My family will disown me!" she begged, falling to her knees.  "I promise I will never speak ill will about Prince Loki ever again!  I promise on my life!"

Odin studied her, realizing that she truly regretted her hasty words. “Where did you hear these rumors, girl?”

“They . . . are everywhere,” she replied, breathless. “I don’t know who first started them.”

“Was it you?” Odin demanded of Knute.

The Groom shook his head frantically. “No, Sire! I swear upon my House and my Name. I am guilty only of repeating what I have heard. I did not start them.” He dropped to one knee. “Please, show me thy mercy, great king! I was stupid and my tongue ran away with me.”

Ravn snorted and muttered, “Like always.” But he fell silent when the king gave him a look of reproof.

Odin turned to Dravina. “What have you to say, Mistress? You not only insulted my son, but a lady of rank.”

Dravina dropped to her knees, her hands held out. “I beg your forgiveness, Sire. I . . . I . . . have long admired Prince Loki and I regret to say he has never seemed to notice me. Not that he should. But I was a fool and I listened to rumors. I am guilty of gossip, Sire, but I would wish none in the royal family harm, My King! I need this position, Sire, so please do not dismiss me, I beg you!”

Odin harrumphed and began to pace back and forth in front of the three miscreants. They remained on their knees, staring at the floor, obviously stricken by the realization that their actions could well carry a heavy price.

Finally Odin stopped and spun about, his good eye fixing upon them. It was filled with disappointment and anger, but not the killing rage they feared. “By all rights, I should  dismiss the lot of you. You swore to serve faithfully and with honor, yet you behave in a manner worse than a knave’s.” The two women sniffled and Knute swallowed. Odin lifted a finger. “However . . . I am prepared to be merciful . . . so long as you perform a service to prove to me you truly regret your behavior and will never do such again.”

“Yes, Sire.” They chorused.

Odin crossed his arms over his chest. “Your penance is thus—find me the person or persons who started the rumors that Prince Loki is crazy and needs to be locked up. Do this and I shall forgive you your transgressions and restore you to your duties. But until then, your only duty is to be my hounds and seek the quarry I have told you to find.”

The three nodded mutely, relieved that they would not be summarily dismissed.

“You may go. I shall inform Steward Egil about my dictates.” The king said, and waved at them to go.

All three stood, gave him obeisance, then fled as if Surtur’s dragon was at their heels.

Ravn bowed also. “Sire, if you will give me leave to depart, I need to see to My Prince’s affairs.”

“Indeed, young Ravn. But first I would like to commend your loyalty and give you this.” Odin held out a small drawstring bag. Inside were ten gold coins.

“Sire! You are most generous but . . . I didn’t do what I did for a reward,” Ravn said, taking the purse.

“I know that. Nevertheless, I feel it is deserved. May you continue to serve your master well, Lord Ravn.” Then Odin dismissed him.

Ravn bowed and departed, hurrying back to Loki’s chambers to ready them.

Odin returned to his chambers, his familiars perched upon his shoulders. He found Frigga sitting on the bed, reading while one of her ladies brushed her waist length golden hair and then braided it for the night.

“Hello, dear,” she greeted her husband, and then dismissed her lady-in-waiting. “You look troubled. Has something happened?”

“Gossip!” Muninn cried.

“Rumors!” Huginn added.

“Stupid servants saying bad things about Loki!” they both replied.

The queen frowned. “Who dares to malign my son?”

“It is as my familiars said. Stupid servants repeating gossip they heard,” Odin reassured her. “They have seen the error of their ways, my love. They will now hunt the source of the gossip instead of spreading it.”

“Good! Loki does not need loose tongues making mischief,” Frigga sniffed. “He has enough to deal with.”

She drew the covers back and climbed into the vast bed, which could have held four people easily. “Oh, I do hope his meeting went well. Tyr seemed to think it was a good idea to have Loki attend. Perhaps he shall make some new friends there. He is too much alone, Odin.”

“Loki has never had many friends, dear. Not like Thor,” Odin reminded her.

“I know but whose fault is that? Thor always received the lion’s share of attention and we permitted it.” Frigga said. “So Loki learned to be content by himself, because Thor’s friends were cruel to him and his brother slighted him. But perhaps this time things will be different.”

“I believe he has two friends already. Ravn and Viva,” Odin stated, climbing into the other side.

Frigga smiled. “Good. But if he makes friends with Tyr and some of his men, that would be even better. Ravn is his valet, and so there will always be a kind of divide there. And Viva—she will leave once her task is accomplished. So Loki needs friends who will be his equals and remain here.”

“I see what you are saying,” Odin agreed. “But Loki will choose whom he wishes to be friends with, dear. Trust his judgment.”

“I shall. Only . . . sometimes it is hard to remember that he is no longer the little boy I raised.” Then she laughed merrily. “I must sound like a right proper idiot! How Loki would roll his eyes at me.”

“Aye, but once a mother always a mother,” Odin said sagely. “Good night, darling.” He kissed his wife goodnight.

Loki returned to his quarters feeling more relaxed and happy than he had felt in a long time. He found his pajamas set out for him and a cup of tea on the nightstand.

He quickly undressed and drank the tea, then lowered the lamp, and began a set of breathing exercises before he snuggled beneath the covers and fell fast asleep.  Axelle curled in the hollow of his shoulder, her purrs resounding in the still room.

And the Prince of Asgard slept undisturbed through the night.

 

A/N: So some of my reviewers on here have asked me how they can get chapter alerts for this story.  I finally figured it out. Click on the story and then on the "Subscribe" button on top and you will be able to get emails when I update a chapter. Hope this helps! Happy reading all!

Chapter Text

Loki woke refreshed and relaxed as he moved the covers back and Axelle crawled onto his lap.

"Good morning," he said, rubbing the kitten under her chin and she purred.

"Good morning, My Prince," Ravn replied as he entered the room and Loki smiled.

"I was talking to my cat."

"I know. Just saying good morning."

"Same to you," he said while he got up and Axelle hopped onto Loki's shoulder. He headed for the bathroom as he closed the door and Ravn went to set out Loki's clothes.

"How did you sleep last night?" Ravin called out as he smoothed down Loki's white tunic with gold and green trim.

"I slept very well."

"I'm glad to hear that."

"So am I," he whispered and scratched the kitten behind her ear.

"How did the meeting go?"

"It went very well," Loki said and he told Ravn about what he had learned to do if he had another attack. A short time later, Loki walked out of the bathroom and Ravn helped him dress.

"Are you going to see Lady Viva today?"

"Yes, I have a session with her after breakfast," he said and Axelle jumped into his arms.

Nodding, Ravn allowed Loki to precede him from the room. Ravn noticed how Loki looked at the servants and guards as they walked by and Loki nodded to some of them.

"I am not blind, you know," Loki finally said and Ravn frowned.

"My Prince?"

"I have been the subject of palace gossip enough to know the signs."

"No one..."

"Servants talk, Ravn."

"Even if they do gossip, they know better than to speak slander against you."

"You're right," he said as they went around the corner and through the double doors to the Feasting Hall.

The Feasting Hall was crowded but Loki saw Tyr waving for him to join the Phoenixes and Ravn walked off to go eat with some of his friends. Loki sat beside the general and Tyr gave him a plate, which he filled with crispy potatoes, over which he put eggs, sausage, and a creamy pepper sauce. That plus a hot buttered piece of bread was his breakfast that morning.

Loki noted that Tyr had almost the same kind of breakfast on his plate, and was using his prosthetic arm and hand to eat it with. He had seen for himself that the prosthetic looked very like a real arm, and it bent and held things also, though not with the same dexterity as a real one.

Tyr noticed Loki looking at the prosthetic and he smiled.

"I still feel it sometimes. My arm. The healers say it's called a ghost limb," Tyr said.

Loki wondered how he had lost it, if it had been in combat before he was captured, or afterwards. But he didn't want to be rude or open old wounds by asking.

"How did you sleep last night?" Tyr asked, sipping on some coffee.

"I slept very well," Loki said.

"That's good. Shows that you are healing. I had nightmares for months after I returned home."

"How did you handle them?"

"I would talk about them with my wife or wrote them down."

"Viva gave me a dream journal."

"Have you been using it?"

"Yes," he said with a nod.

"If it helps, I didn't sleep beside my wife in the beginning, because the first time I had a nightmare I almost choked her." Tyr recalled.

Loki's eyes slightly widened and Tyr shrugged a shoulder.

"She has been very understanding. So have my daughters."

"I saw one of your daughters here at the hall the other day."

"Ah, that would be Sigyn."

Loki nodded as he ate some eggs and Tyr sipped his coffee.

"She asked about you," Tyr said.

"She did?"

"Yes, she asked how you were doing and I told her you were recovering."

"Tell her I appreciate her asking about my welfare," he said and Tyr nodded.

A servant walked to the table when he handed Tyr a note and he opened the piece of paper. Loki noticed the look in the General's eyes as he nodded and handed the note back to the servant.

"I beg your leave, My Prince. It appears one of my men is having an episode and I need to help calm him down," Tyr said, standing.

"Do you need Lady Viva's assistance?" Loki said, standing.

"No, I can handle this."

Nodding, Loki sat back down as he watched Tyr leave the room and he placed his chin in the palm of his hand.

After breakfast, Loki walked down the hallway while Axelle sat on his shoulder and he headed for Viva's office. Tyr had returned and told him the man who had the episode was going to be fine. Loki was impressed with how Tyr and his men took care of each other and he silently wished for friends like that.

You do have friends like that. Ravn and Lady Viva, he thought and he stood in front of the door to her office.

"Come in, Loki," he heard her call.

He opened the door and entered. "How did you know I was there?"

She smiled at him from the couch. "I could feel your presence. It was like a warm ray of sunlight."

"Ah," he said as he walked to the couch and Axelle hopped off his shoulder.

"I heard one of General Tyr's men had an episode this morning."

"Yes, I asked if he wanted you to help him, but he said he could handle it."

"Usually he can," she said without rancor. "I taught him some techniques once he had healed enough from his own trauma to help others that served with him. He said he felt responsible for them and wanted to help them as best he could."

Nodding, Loki sat down and she went to sit down next to him.

"What do you wish to do today? We could paint."

He perked up at that. "Speaking of painting . . . have you finished the one you were working on?"

"How did you know I was working on a new painting?"

"You told me, don't you remember? And I asked you if I could see it when you were finished."

"It is finished."

They stood to go look at the painting and Loki placed his hands behind his back.

Once again his attention was caught by the blanket lying over the cradle. "This scene . . .was it one you remember or one that you imagined?"

"It is one that I remember. Why do you ask?"

"Because the blanket in the painting looks remarkably like the one that I was found with as a baby." Loki admitted. "Only mine was an ice blue color with green and gold and black circles and wolves on it. My mother says the pattern is Vanir in origin."

"Do you still have the blanket?"

"Yes. Would you like to see it?"

"Yes."

She watched him vanish in a puff of green smoke then reappear a few seconds later and he had the blanket in his hands.

He held his hands out as she carefully took the blanket and looked at the designs stitched in the fabric.

"You are right. This is Vanir."

"But my name appears to have been added later." He pointed at the Jotun runes that spelled Loki.

"Perhaps your blanket was made by a grandmother or aunt." Viva mused. "They wouldn't have known your name until later."

"True, but it is still odd that the blankets look alike," Loki said, looking at the painting.

"Not really. It is a common pattern, I believe."

Nodding, he watched her place the blanket on a chair and Axelle immediately hopped onto the blanket.

"Not again," he teased and lifted the kitten off the blanket. "She appears to like sleeping on it."

"It is soft and probably smells like you," Viva giggled. "Kiva likes to sleep on my laundry after it has been folded."

"Must be a cat thing," he said, scratched the kitten's chin and Axelle purred.

"We always had cats in our house when I was growing up. At least two or more. Mama adored them. She said a house was not a home without one or more cats."

"I agree. My mother said she had cats in her house while she was growing up."

Viva grinned. "It seems our mothers have a lot in common." She drew Loki towards the table. "Shall we paint for a bit?"

"I would like that," he said. They sat down at the table and Loki placed the kitten on the floor. "What should we paint?"

"Whatever you wish. Let your heart tell you." The Mind Healer replied. She summoned everything they needed.

Loki looked at the blank page when he picked up a brush then he started painting. He let his mind and heart guide his hand while the brush moved over the page and Viva smiled at the sight of his tongue sticking out between his teeth.

"Do you always do that?"

"Do what?" he asked, reaching over to put some more blue on the brush.

"Stick your tongue out between your teeth while you are concentrating?"

"Uh, yes, I do. It's a habit I've been doing since I was a child."

"I thought I was the only one who did that," she declared. "Though usually I only do it while reading or painting something difficult."

Viva picked up a brush.

She began to paint some woodland animals by a stream.

He glanced over at her painting then he looked at his painting and he had painted two hawks flying through a blue sky. One had dark feathers and the other had white feathers. They were flying one above the other and both looked happy.

He sat back as he smiled and Viva looked at his painting.

"That is excellent! Can you tell me what it means?"

"I think it's about freedom."

"Freedom?"

"Yes. I feel like I will someday be free from all this and I will soar above the pain and fear."

"Why are there two hawks?"

"The white one is hope. As long as I have it, there is nothing I cannot do."

"That is so. Hope and love heal the broken spirit and mind," she quoted softly.

Loki blinked, startled. "Where did you hear that saying?"

"It's a quote from Mind Healer Serran, one of the founders of my order. He was one of the first to put his Gifts to this type of career, and help people free themselves from pain, guilt, and the silent terrors we create within ourselves. Why do you ask?"

Loki shook his head. "I don't really know. I just remember hearing it before." He waved a hand. "It doesn't really matter. But I agree with you."

"Serran was very wise. He is still revered by the Mind Healers today." Viva said quietly.

"I can understand why," Loki said. He began painting another picture, this one of Axelle.

Viva began to paint a snow falcon on a branch, its detail so striking Loki stopped painting to stare at it. "That is amazing!" he exclaimed. "It looks like it could fly off the paper. Where did you learn to paint like that?"

Viva shrugged, embarrassed. "I always liked to sketch. Mama hired a local artist to show me how to use colors and techniques when I was eight and after three years he said I had learned all he could teach me and I just continued on my own. Mama could paint watercolors and liked to paint flowers and sunrises and sunsets. And cats. I have some of her work at my house."

She smiled reminiscently. "I used to watch the snow falcons flying from the front yard in the house I grew up in."

Loki nodded as he picked up a brush and started painting. He painted a little baby with blue skin and red eyes covered in a baby blanket and the baby was sucking on his fingers. He was careful while painting the baby's face and Viva noticed the baby seemed to be a little upset.

"Who is that?" she asked.

"It's supposed to be me," Loki said, placing the brush down.

"Why are you upset?"

"I'm missing someone."

"Your brother?"

"I think so. Even though he was older than I, he would sneak in and sleep in my cradle. Mother told me I would wake up and cry if she tried to move him."

Viva nodded when she noticed how Baby Loki was wrapped in the baby blanket and she sighed.

"Why didn't you paint your clan markings on the baby's face?"

"I forgot," he said, picking up the brush.

Viva thought that if Loki had been raised Jotun he never would have forgotten his clan markings because to a Frost Giant those markings were an integral part of how they saw themselves. But she said nothing. Perhaps he didn't wish to recall that part of himself since his father had abandoned him to die.

He placed the brush down as he examined the painting then he sat back in the chair.

"That looks great! What do you want to do now?" Viva asked.

"I would like to do another dream journey," Loki said.

"Why?"

"I want to fight my fear of the dark. I haven't been afraid of it since I was a child. If I defeat that demon, maybe I can sleep with the lights off."

"All right."

She prepared them for the journey by using some of the meditation exercises Tyr had shown to Loki, putting them both in a semi-sleeping state, then had Loki lie on the couch while she sat in the chair. "Ready?"

"Ready."

She put her hands on his temples and sent him to sleep with a gentle pulse of her magic. Then she closed her eyes and followed him.

Once within his dreamscape, she shifted into the frost-blue knight again.

The darkness surrounded them, eerie and cold, impenetrable as the Void. Loki took a deep breath and he felt his heart thumping hard in his chest.

"Ready?" Viva asked.

"Ready," he said with a nod and they stepped into the darkness. They heard voices whispering as Loki glanced around and Viva drew her sword.

"Hello, Little Ssssssssoul."

"You have nothing to fear."

"We will not hurt you."

"Much."

Viva spun around when something brushed by her and red eyes appeared in the darkness.

"Show yourself!" she shouted, but the hissing laughter echoed around her.

"We are showing ourssssselvessss."

Loki felt the icy coldness of the dark as he felt someone pulling on him and he spun around, trying to find where it was.

"I am not afraid of you!" Loki shouted.

"Yessssss, you are!"

They walked onward as ghostly phantasms pulled at them, shoved them, and scratched at them. Viva swung her sword into the nothingness, trying to sense where they were, but her mind senses were dulled, as if muffled by a fog.

"You cannot harm what you cannot sssssssee!" the voices giggled maniacally.

"What I cannot see?" Loki whispered when something clicked in his head.

"What is in the dark is what was there in the light. Once you understand that, you will not be afraid," Frigga had told him when he was younger and he formed a ball of bright light in the palm of his hand.

"What are you doing, Little Sssssssoul?!"

"I am shedding some light on things," Loki answered, the light growing brighter and brighter.

"No!"

"Ssssssstop!"

"Not the light!"

The light blazed from his hand and suddenly clots of shadows dropped over him and Viva.

"Loki!" she called out as the darkness spread over him and the last thing she saw was his emerald green eyes. The hissing laughter echoed around her as she hacked at the darkness and she growled.

"He issssss ourssss now!"

"No, he is not!"

Claws scrabbled at her, plucking at her armor, and she slashed down at them, but encountered only empty air. Mocking laughter echoed about her. She hissed a swear word in Vanir. Suddenly the shadows howled in agony and she grinned.

"So, you can be harmed."

"Make him sssssstop!"

"It burnsssssss!"

Viva watched as the darkness started growing brighter and she blinked. The shadows exploded into brilliant light and she covered her eyes with her hand.

"You do not control me! Not anymore!" Loki's voice echoed while the bright light flared and screams filled the air. She could just see a figure in the light. It slowly moved towards her and Loki smiled at her. Suddenly, the shadows regrouped and surrounded them as they stood in a spot of bright light. Loki sighed, rolling his eyes.

"You can never defeat ussss!"

Loki closed his right hand into a fist while Viva took hold of his left hand and he felt a wave of confidence move through him.

"Wrong," he snarled and the bright light flared. Screams echoed around them. Loki smirked coldly as Viva lightly squeezed his hand. The darkness faded as a sense of peace flowed through him and he looked at her. "Well, that was easy."

"I guess you weren't as afraid of the dark as you thought you were," she teased and he laughed.

"Well, I wouldn't say that. The darkness still plays a big part in what happened. The darkness of the Void was eternal. They kept me in the darkness while I was in my cell and I had no idea of who or what was in the darkness."

"But now you know how to fight it."

"You're right."

"Do you wish to wake up now?"

"No," Loki said. "Not yet. Follow me." She had no idea where they were going when they came to what appeared to be an iron door and Loki kicked the door open. They gazed into the darkness when he formed a ball of light in his right hand and he walked into the room. Viva saw the black stone walls, floor, and ceiling and something was sitting in the corner. Whoever it was had on tattered rags and his feet were bare. She could see dried blood on his feet and his dark hair was hanging over his face.

"Is that...?" she asked and he nodded. Loki carefully walked over and knelt, reaching out a hand. The dream Loki snapped his head up, staring in shock, and Viva saw the horror in those emerald green eyes.

"It's all right. You can come out now," Loki said in a reassuring voice. He helped the other Loki to his feet and they approached Viva, who held out her arms.

"Who...? Who are you?" the other Loki asked.

"I am a friend," she said and she sent comfort and peace into him.

"And I can leave?"

"Yes, you no longer need to fear the dark."

"You look like a Frost Giant."

"Would you like to see the real me?"

"Yes," he said and she changed into her normal form. He blinked his eyes a few times then smiled tentatively and she held her hand out. The imprisoned Loki clasped it in his own. They helped the other Loki out of the cell into the light and he squinted his eyes. Slowly, he walked away from them then turned and he held his arms out to his side. With a bow, he vanished and Loki looked at Viva.

"Mission accomplished," he said to the Mind Healer. "Now I can wake."

Viva moved her hands away as Loki opened his eyes and he sat up.

"How do you feel?" she asked. Axelle sprang upon the couch and sat on Loki's lap.

"Much better. Like a great weight has been lifted from me," he replied. His hands petted his kitten.

"I am happy to hear it," Viva said, her bi-colored eyes shimmering. "Try sleeping tonight with the lamp off and see how you do."

"I shall." Loki agreed, hoping that endeavor would be a success.

That night, he read before starting to fall asleep, and then he waved his hand and turned the lamp off with his magic. The only light in the room came from the moon and stars shining through the curtains from the balcony doors and the window.

He listened to Axelle purr in his ear before he sank into slumber.

When he opened his eyes again the sun was shining brightly and he grinned at the sight. It appeared a new day had dawned at last, and he had conquered his fear of the dark.

Things could only get better from here, he thought. Indeed, his recovery seemed assured after that hurdle had been leaped. He continued to improve, his night terrors seemed vanquished and he slept and woke refreshed. His mood improved until he felt nearly like the Loki of old, the one he had thought dead and buried in that cell on Titan. He continued to meet with Viva but the sessions were more of a mood enhancing therapy, and on the occasions he felt triggered, he used his diffuser and his meditation techniques to fight off the panic attacks.

His family had begun to hope that he was free of the crippling terror and pain that had haunted him. A week passed, then another, and by the third week he had begun to regain most of his old confidence and be seen more and more in public, both with his Phoenix friends, Viva, and Thor.

Friday dawned sunny as Loki headed for the sparring arena and Axelle sat on his shoulder. She had grown a little over the weeks and she kept a paw on top of his head for balance.

"Brother!" Thor greeted him as Loki entered. He gave his brother a smile and quickened his pace.

"Good morning,"Loki said with a nod and Axelle leaped off his shoulder. Thor leaned down to scratch the cat's head then he stood up.

"Do you feel like doing a little sparring?"

"I would like that."

Thor lightly patted his little brother's back as they walked to the weapons rack and Loki picked up the battle staff. They walked to the middle of the sparring circle and faced each other. Loki thumped the end of the battle staff on the ground.

Nodding, Thor got into battle stance as Loki lunged at him, his staff meeting Thor's with a loud clack. Back and forth they sparred, their staves cracking together sharply, but neither would give ground. Loki swung the staff low, and hooked it around Thor's leg and he pulled. Thor hit the ground, and grunted sharply.

Loki peered down at him. "The bigger they are, the harder they fall."

"Well played," Thor said. Taking his hand, Loki helped his older brother to his feet when they heard applause and turned to see Viva watching from the sidelines.

"That was amazing," she praised and Loki gave her a little bow.

"You should see us when we're really trying," Thor teased.

"Shall we show her the Tornado Twist?" Loki asked.

"And what is that?" Viva asked.

"You'll see," Thor said and Loki went to get a battle mace and a war hammer. Viva went to sit on the bench as Thor and Loki faced each other and Thor nodded. Raising the battle mace over his head, Loki charged at Thor, but Thor twirled the war hammer around in large circles and the wind blew dust into the air like a mini tornado. He hadn't realized he had spun the war hammer too hard when he released the power of the wind and Loki went sailing through the air.

"Loki!" Viva cried as Loki hit the ground hard and they ran to him. His eyes went in and out of focus as he felt his head swim, then as blackness encroached, he shut his eyes.

"Fetch a healer!" Thor called out to one of the groundskeepers as the man ran off and Viva checked Loki's vitals. "Is he still breathing?!"

"Yes," she said and she gently took Loki's head in her hands. "Loki, can you hear me?"

"I... I didn't mean to hurt him."

"My Prince, I assure you he knows that," she reassured him when Loki moaned and she felt fear surging through the ebony-haired prince.

"What's wrong?" Thor asked. worriedly

"I don't know," she said and Loki started shaking.

Loki was no longer in the battle circle. He was in his cell and the door opened. He heard familiar footsteps as Ebony Maw entered and the alien psychic smiled at him.

"Get to your feet," Maw ordered and Loki slowly rose to his feet. "Follow me."

Maw led him down the hallway until they came to Maw's lab and the doors hissed open. He led Loki to the center of the room when Maw pointed towards the platform in the center of the room and Loki slowly walked onto the platform. Maw stood at the control panel when he started pushing buttons then he looked at Loki.

"Now, one more time. Where is the Tesseract?"

"I am not going to tell you," Loki said. Maw shook his head as he tutted then he pushed the button. A blast of air slammed into Loki as he went flying then he hit the force field which surrounded the platform.

Loki climbed back to his feet walking back to the center of the platform and Maw sighed.

"Where?! Is?! The?! Tesseract?!" he said, pushing the button and a blast of air slammed Loki into the force field with each word. Loki staggered to his feet when a loud booming sound filled the air and he fell to his knees. The concussion blast caused his ears to ring as Loki placed his hands over his ears, screaming in agony.

Thor noticed the horrified look on Viva's face as she felt all of Loki's fear and pain. Loki began gasping for air. His face was covered in sweat and he felt his heart thundering in his chest. He had tried to wake up, but his head hurt and he realized he was having a panic attack.

Viva fished inside a pocket of her tunic and pulled out a purple diffuser, this one was stronger than the orange one. "Loki, breathe this!" She ordered calmly and held it beneath his nose.

Loki fought to breathe as the panic rose and his heart slammed harder.

He managed to breathe in some of the lavender and eucalyptus scented mist.

"That's it. Just breathe," she whispered and Loki groaned.

"Brother, I am so sorry," Thor said, taking Loki's hands in his.

"Loki," Frigga called out and she and Odin arrived and she ran to kneel next to Loki.

"Heimdall told us what happened," Odin said.

"Father, I didn't mean to hurt him," Thor began, guilt and regret written all over his features.

"I understand," his father replied with a nod then turned to Viva. "How is he doing?"

Viva did not respond for a moment, as she was projecting calmness and relaxation into Loki's mind.

One of Loki's hands came up to grip Viva's.

She took his hand as his eyes opened, but his vision was blurry. His eyes moved to look at her while the healers arrived, but Viva held up a hand to stop them.

"Loki, can you hear me?" Viva queried.

"Yes," he said in a soft voice.

"Loki..." Thor said and he moved his eyes to look at his brother.

"Stop."

"Stop what?"

"Stop acting so guilty."

"But I..."

"Miscalculated the power of the wind. Not the first time." Loki said with a grin and Thor nodded.

"Then you forgive me?"

"Only if you forgive yourself," Loki murmured.

Thor sighed heavily. "I will try."

"We need to talk about what happened, but, first, we need to get you to the infirmary," Viva said firmly, and Loki glanced over at her, sighing.

"She's right, dear," Frigga said and he looked at her.

"Yes, Mother," he acquiesced and she brushed the hair out of his eyes.

Viva and his concerned family moved away as the healers examined Loki, finding he had a bump on his head and they placed a soft foam collar around his neck then he was levitated onto the hover stretcher and it floated out of the arena to the infirmary with the rest of them following.

Once in the infirmary, Healer Eir had Loki put in a diagnostic bed and after reading the results, declared the prince needed a night of observation for his slight concussion and gave him some pain medication and something to relax him and help him sleep.

After bringing Loki to a private room, and posting guards at the door, Thor told his parents he wished to stay and keep vigil in case Loki needed him.

Frigga eyed him askance, knowing that was an excuse. "You shouldn't blame yourself, Thor. It was an accident."

"I should have watched my control," her eldest sighed. "But I forgot I wasn't wielding Mjolnir."

"Very well, dear," Frigga patted Thor's shoulder. "Stay if you like."

Just then Axelle came and sprang up onto the bed, and curled up next to Loki, purring loudly.

"It looks like Axelle will keep you company." Viva said softly.

"If anything changes, inform me immediately," Odin ordered.

Thor nodded and then they departed, leaving the Thunder God alone with his slumbering brother.

Thor reached out and held Loki's hand, murmuring, "Get well soon, Brother." Then he blinked back tears, because he feared this injury would hinder Loki's recovery, and his brother had been doing so well until now.

Thor leaned his head back against the wall, and soon the only sounds in the room were the kitten purring, Loki's soft breathing, and soon afterwards Thor snoring.

Twice a nurse came and checked Loki's vitals, but the prince did not stir.

Thor woke, stretched, and took the blanket and pillow an orderly gave him, then resumed his vigil.

He was just drifting off to sleep again when Loki's scream made him jump awake, the chair crashing against the wall as Thor sprang to his feet.

"Loki!" he cried, taking two steps to the bed, where his brother was whimpering and tossing his head from side to side.

Axelle patted Loki's cheek, meowing pitifully.

Thor gently tapped Loki's shoulder. "Brother, wake up! You're having a nightmare. Loki, it's all right. I'm here."

Abruptly Loki's eyes snapped open, but he gazed at Thor without truly seeing him.

"Get away! He's coming!" Loki cried, panicked.

"Shh! Little Brother, no one is going to hurt you." Thor soothed. "Loki, it's me, Thor."

"Get away!"

"Why? What are you afraid of?"

"Maw," Loki hissed, all the terror in the universe infused into that single name.

"Loki, he's dead." Thor told him.

Suddenly Loki blinked, as Thor's words penetrated the fog surrounding him. "Dead?"

"Yes. Remember? Father killed him."

"Yes . . . I just . . ." he gripped Thor's hand. "Thor . . . I was dreaming . . . I was back there . . ." Loki gulped sharply, shivering.

"It was only a dream. You're safe here in the infirmary," Thor soothed.

Loki sighed softly. Then he grimaced. "My head aches."

Thor nodded and then reached over to give Loki a dissolvable pill. "Rest now, Brother."

Loki nodded slowly. "All right." Then his hand reached out and clasped Thor's. His eyes pleaded mutely with Thor to stay.

"Don't worry. I'm right here," the Thunder God murmured and pulled the chair closer to the bed.

Axelle curled up on Loki's stomach, purring like an engine gone berserk.

Loki drifted off to sleep again as the pain lessened, praying there would be no more nightmares so long as Thor was near. He recalled how Thor used to sit by his bed when he was younger and promise that he would kill all the monsters under Loki's bed and the child Loki believed him utterly and slept soundly.

A slight smile quirked up one side of the Mischief God's mouth as Thor's big hand wrapped about his, and the demon called Maw shrank and faded in the presence of the mighty Thunder God, whose shadow stretched protectively over Loki's, driving away the wicked being for a time.

But that reprieve was only temporary, little did they know.

A/N: Next up: Loki's night terrors worsen, leading to another dream journey to face the worst nightmare of all-Ebony Maw!

Chapter Text

 

 

Viva had spent an almost sleepless night, her dreams formless dark things, as part of her psyche seemed to latch onto Loki’s and draw some of his darkness to her. She woke twice, an unnamed feeling of dread running through her, that required her mental discipline to control and Kiva’s warm presence and purring to alleviate.

Upon rising, she bid good morning to Ava, her maid, who had come into her room to open the drapes and bring her breakfast. Sometimes she would eat in the hall, but early in the morning she preferred the privacy of her own chambers, as her mind shields were sometimes not up to full strength first thing upon waking, and she would rather not embarrass anyone by unintentionally feeling their emotions. That had happened a few times during her adolescence, before she had learned the necessary control over her powerful Gift.

“Good morning, lady,” Ava, a fresh-faced young woman, greeted her, in her blue dress and white apron, with her hair braided and tucked under a neat white cap. “’Tis a fair day today.” She indicated the sun shining out of the window.

“Aye, it is,” Viva agreed, rising and pulling on her lavender dressing gown. She padded barefoot over to the table to pick up her mug of peppermint tea. She had always liked the feel of wood and carpet beneath her feet, or even grass, and in the summer had loved racing outside without shoes to wander the meadows like a wild thing.

“Is it true Prince Loki was injured yesterday?” Ava asked worriedly.

Viva nodded. “He had an accident while sparring with his brother. But he was not injured badly and hopefully shall be released from the infirmary today.”

“Oh, that is good news!” Ava sighed. Then she eyed Viva knowingly. “My lady, have you ever thought about . . .courting the prince? You would make such a stunning couple.”

Viva almost choked on her tea. “Me? With Prince Loki?”

“Why not you? You are of equal rank and he seems to like you.”

“Oh, Ava!” Viva chuckled. “He likes me as his Mind Healer. But anything more than that . . . no. He is my patient and I don’t date my patients.”

“Then you don’t think he is handsome?” the girl persisted.

“Well, yes, but . . . it’s unethical for me to even think about him in that way.” Viva explained.

“What about when he isn’t your patient?”

Again Viva shook her head. “Even then, I don’t think he sees me as someone he wishes to court.”

“But how do you see him?”

“As a friend,” she answered honestly.

Ava just giggled and then began to make up the bed, leaving Viva to her breakfast of fruit, toast, and bacon.

As she ate, Viva thought about her bond with Loki, which despite the maid’s assumptions, was not at all romantic. It was a deep bond, however, though one of friendship and trust.  Not that she couldn’t love Loki, for she sensed that she could love him, if she allowed herself to, but it would not be the passionate love of a wife to a husband.  Viva had never loved anyone that way—it was too dangerous for an Empath of her caliber to risk her heart unless the love was returned. But there were other forms of love, she thought, eating a pear. And that was what she had begun to feel for Loki.

She hoped he would be released today, because she needed to speak with him about the episode he had had in the arena before going to the infirmary. Whatever he had experienced there had frightened him badly, and she sensed that this demon was one which would require all of her formidable talent to defeat.

She was not surprised that Loki had a panic attack, because such things were often caused by physical injuries, as they triggered memories of being hurt and helpless. She also knew there was more to Loki’s time as a prisoner of Thanos than he had chosen to discuss with her, but she had wished him to reveal his trauma in his own time. However, she feared that the demons that hid in his mind would now emerge with a vengeance, and in order for her to help him, he must trust her to speak about them.

The deepest wounds had been inflicted by the dark psychic Ebony Maw. Who was the complete opposite of herself, she thought grimly. But what he had broken, she must heal.

Finishing her breakfast, she dressed quickly and hurried from her chambers, making her way to the infirmary, which was located in the eastern portion of the palace complex.

When she arrived, she saw Loki and Thor speaking to Healer Eir in the waiting area, apparently the Healer was giving Loki a few instructions. Loki nodded, took the bottle she handed him and put it in his jacket pocket. Viva noted he looked almost well, with a small bandage on the back of his head, almost hidden by his hair and the only obvious sign of trauma were the shadows under his expressive eyes.

Another nightmare? She wondered then approached them. “Hello. How are you feeling, My Prince?” She gazed knowingly at Loki.

“I am feeling better than yesterday,” he replied cautiously, not wanting to speak about the nightmare he had had. “Healer Eir has instructed me to rest today.”

“Of course. If you feel better, please come and speak with me later,” she urged.

“I will see how I am feeling,” Loki answered evasively, then cursed himself for a coward for using his injury as a shield. He held Axelle in his arms.

“You should write down what happened in your journal,” Viva suggested, hoping that might get him to open up about what had happened.

“I said I am fine!” he snapped. “I do not wish to discuss it.”

“As you wish,” Viva replied evenly, sensing it would not go well if she pushed him. “But if you need to talk then you know where to find me.” Stubborn fool! You are letting your fear and pride dictate your actions.

Loki just nodded, then said, “I believe I will go and lie down now,” and hurried towards the royal wing of the palace.

Thor gazed after him, concerned, then said softly to Viva, “He had another nightmare last night. I had to wake him up from it. I managed to calm him down but . . .”

“Do you know what it was about?” the Mind Healer asked.

“Not really. Something about Ebony Maw was all he would tell me,” Thor replied.

Viva sighed. “I believe that was also why he had the panic attack in the sparring circle. But unless he chooses to discuss it with me, I cannot help him.”

“My brother can be a stubborn goat,” Thor muttered. “Something we both share, though he will tell you I am worse than he is.”

Viva arched an eyebrow. “Is he right?”

“Only sometimes,” the Thunder God admitted. “Perhaps I can speak with him?”

“No. Let him be. Sometimes if you push too hard, the more he will dig in his heels,” Viva answered.

“Maybe you’re right. I will see you later, my lady,” Thor said politely, and then walked off.

Viva watched him leave, hoping her instincts were correct.

 

Loki returned to his room, placing his kitten on the bed so she could lay on his pillow. Then he lay on his bed with his hands behind his head, wishing there was a spell to keep Maw out of his head. The only problem was that Maw wasn’t actually in his head anymore, just his imprint was. An imprint of fear and pain, a phantasm of his mind that continued to haunt him.

Sighing, he summoned his journal and began to write in it. He wrote what he had seen in the flashback in the sparring arena and what he could recall of the nightmare, which was almost nothing. He knew that his mind had blocked it out.

He felt himself growing sleepy so he set the journal aside and put the pen beside it. Then he curled on his side and dozed with Axelle in the hollow of his stomach.

He woke drenched in sweat with Maw’s voice ringing in his ears and swore softly. Will I never be free of you, you bastard son of whoring goat?

His jaw clenched. You know what you must do to be free of him, whispered the wise part of his soul.

No, I can’t. Not now. The other part of his mind argued.

He felt his heart begin to speed up and he pulled out his diffuser and inhaled the calming aroma. He shut his eyes and breathed softly, willing himself to be calm, to drift, to be a leaf upon the breeze, the wind upon the mountain.

Gradually his heartbeat slowed, and the fear that lived within him was flung back into its dark cage.

Axelle purred into his ear and Loki lifted her from the bed and snuggled with her. Stroking the kitten’s soft fur, he gently placed her on the floor and pulled on his boots. Axelle began to groom herself, washing her paws and face.

He took one of his pills and the slight ache in his head lessened. He thought about how Thor had felt so guilty and hoped his brother would have forgiven himself by now. Loki already had. Thor was not to blame for a mere accident.

You should go talk with him, a little voice in the back of his mind urged. And with Viva.

Loki slowly got off the bed then he walked to the doors and stopped.  The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he slowly turned around, his eyes widening at the sight of Maw standing behind him.  The alien psychic raised a finger to his lips as he grinned. Loki felt utter terror explode within him and he howled in fear.

The doors slammed open as the guards ran in and saw Loki standing in the center of his room.  He was trembling with his face in his hands and Eiric and Magnus exchanged glances.

"My Prince, are you alright?" Magnus asked, but he didn't answer.  Axelle sensed her friend’s distress as she ran to Loki.  She stood up on her hind legs and put her paws on Loki’s knee and purred.

Mistress, come quickly!  Loki needs you! she sent and Loki whimpered.

Viva's eyes snapped open, she had been dozing on her book at the table.

 

She quickly ran out of the room as the terror and pain she felt coming from Loki nearly overwhelmed her and she ran faster.

She arrived at Loki's chambers just as the distraught prince screamed into his hands.

"Should we call a Healer, lady?" asked Eiric.

"No. I will handle it," Viva murmured and quickly projected reassurance at them.

The guards nodded then left the room as she carefully moved toward Loki and Axelle meowed, rubbing against his legs.

"You will never be free of me," Maw's voice teased and his cackling laugh echoed through his mind.

"Go away!" Loki shouted as he tried to breathe and his heart slammed in his chest.

"I am inside you, you fool.  Where can I go?"

 

"You can go to Hel!" he screamed and the tears rolled down his cheeks.

 

Viva could sense his panic as well as something else.  It was vile and cruel and she realized it was a residue of Maw's psyche.

Some of the most powerful dark psychics could leave an imprint of themselves on a victim’s mind. Like a ghost haunting a certain place where it had died. It was a forbidden art, but those of the Left-hand Path cared not for the Codes the more ethical followed.

Viva sent waves of comfort and peace into Loki's mind as he slowly sat down on the floor and she went to sit next to him.

"She cannot hold me back forever," Maw's voice hissed as Loki closed his eyes and he tried to calm down.  Axelle hopped onto his lap as she placed her paws against his chest and purred.

Viva reached out a hand and clasped his larger one, their fingers entwining.

He held onto tightly to her hand as his body shook and she moved her thumb over his index finger.  He wasn't sure, but something about holding hands with her felt right.  He felt like he would fall apart if he let go.

"Loki," she said in a soft voice.  "It's alright.  You are safe."

"Am I? Or is that just an illusion?"

"No, it is no illusion.  Open your eyes."

"No.  If I open them, he will be there."

"There is no one here, but you, me and Axelle."

"Are you real?"

"What does your hand tell you?  You can feel my hand in yours, can't you?"

"Yes, but that can be an illusion as well."

"Do you trust me?"

"Yes."

"Then open your eyes."

Petrified emerald eyes met her one blue and one meadow green one.

He tilted his head to one side as she slowly reached over and she brushed the hair out of his face.

"Hello," she said in a soft voice and the corners of his mouth arched up.

"Hello," he said and Axelle rubbed her head under his chin.  "And hello to you as well."

 

"Do you want to tell me what happened?"

"I...  I saw..."

"Take your time."

"I saw Ebony Maw," he said, looking to where Maw was standing.  "He was standing right there."

"Were you dreaming when you saw him?"

"No, I was awake.  I was going to go see Thor and talk to him about what happened.  I was nearly to the door when I felt like there was someone behind me.  That is when I turned and Maw was standing there."

She sent some calming thoughts into his mind as he sighed and he looked at Axelle.

"Now I am seeing my nightmares when I am awake," Loki growled.

"It's called a projection," Viva informed him. "Your mind is projecting your worst fears."

"Am I mad then?"

"No. But I sensed something just a bit ago."

"What was it?"

"A remnant. . . An imprint we call it."

"An imprint?"

"Maw left a bit of his psych behind when he--when he tortured you. It's that which is tormenting you."

"How do we get rid of it?"

"We would need to do another dream walk.  But I must warn you.  It is not going to be easy."

"I don't care.  I want him out of my head."

"Very well. Once we eat we can begin to confront him."

Loki wasn't sure if he could eat, but he knew he needed all his strength if he was going to defeat Maw and he nodded.  Viva helped him to his feet, led him to the table, and he sat down.

"My Prince, are you all right?" Ravn asked as he ran into the room and he saw how pale and ill Loki looked.

"Is it your injury?" The blonde valet queried.

"No, I had a waking nightmare," Loki said then he explained what happened.

"I am going to kill that monster."

"My father beat you to it."

"Do you wish me to get you something to eat?"

"Yes, but make it something light."

Nodding, Ravn left the room and, a few minutes later, he returned with a tray.

On it was some soup and bread with honey butter as well as a cup of peppermint tea. “Here you are, my lord. Helga says drink the tea first, it will settle your stomach.”

“Thank you, Ravn,” Loki murmured, then did as the cook had said.

Viva ate also, marshalling her own strength.

“Before we begin, I would like to put some lemongrass oil on your temples,” she said quietly. She took a small vial from the pouch at her waist.

“What will that do?” Loki asked.

“It will help you become calm and remove the tension within you,” she answered.

“Go ahead,” he agreed, and allowed her to anoint his forehead and temples with the sweet-smelling oil.

He found that when he breathed it in, he felt comforted and the tension in his neck and shoulders began to melt away.

“Where would you like to do this?”

“Here is fine.” Viva said, figuring it was best to face his fears in this room. She needed Loki to look upon this as his sanctuary and not be afraid to come here to relax and sleep.

Loki went and lay down on his bed, which Ravn had made up. Viva went to sit down beside him, her hand closing over his.

A gentle pulse of her power sent him to sleep, and she slipped into his mind, finding it as easy as stepping into a pool of cool water. Once inside Loki’s mind, she became the ice-blue warrior again, ready to defend her prince against the demon that plagued him.

Maw’s lab:

Loki glared at the pale alien before him, wondering why he had been brought here. “Why am I here? I am not some animal for you to experiment on.”

Maw smirked coldly at him. “You will be whatever my father Thanos wishes you to be. It matters not what you want.”

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “I am Loki, Prince of Asgard! And you will release me immediately!”

The lab began to become freezing cold as Loki’s Jotun magic activated.

Maw shivered, yet despite that, the alien looked positively gleeful. For little did Loki know that by using his magic in Maw’s presence, he had granted the psychic access to taking it from him and locking it away.

“Now you are mine!” he cackled, and suddenly the air returned to normal.

“I belong to no one, you pale-faced tapeworm!” Loki spat, and then he locked eyes with the psychic, slamming his shields up as the alien tried to penetrate his mind.

The struggle lasted for what seemed like hours, until finally Maw backed off, then summoned some large purple aliens to drag Loki back into a cell made of black granite. He would try again when the Asgardian was asleep.

Loki was flung into the cell and the door slammed shut. He lay on the cold stone floor in the dark and curled up with his head on his knees. The darkness in the stone cell reminded him of falling into the Void, which in turn recalled to him the desperate fight upon the Bifrost with Thor, and then his attempt to prove to Odin that he could have been worthy, only to have the Allfather deny him at the last minute.

“No, Loki.”

Those words had shattered something inside him. You will never be more than a monster to him. The Jotun freak he masqueraded as an Asgardian prince to put a puppet king on the throne of JotunheimA relic who has outlived its usefulness.

Then he had let go, wishing only to end everything.

Despair raked cruel claws into his psyche, opening all the old wounds until they bled anew. He curled tighter into a ball, the darkness smothering him. And with the darkness came the insidious whispers.

Unworthy. Disgraced! Never will you be equal to your brother!

Loki moaned softly, not willing to give his captors the satisfaction of knowing he was afraid.

Monster! You are the devil that mothers warn their children about. Behave or the Jotun will come and eat you!

You were abandoned by your blood father, unwanted and cast out to die!

Loki squeezed his eyes shut, but the images kept replaying in his head—images of a time long past, when a large blue skinned hand held a tiny baby aloft. The baby began to cry as the crimson eyes peered down at him disapprovingly.

“Weak! Look at how puny he is! This one will never survive here!” a voice boomed, frightening the baby even further.

“Perhaps, Sire, you ought to wait—” began another voice timidly.

“What for! He will never thrive as the son of a king needs to! Little half-breed bastard!” sneered the cold voice. “I knew no good would come of this! Here! Get rid of him! No need to suckle such a puny babe! Let the elements and the Frost Goddess have him!”

The baby wailed as another pair of hands took him, holding him against a large chest where a heartbeat echoed through a woolen tunic, soothing the sobbing child. “Sire—”

“Go! Take him away!” ordered Laufey.

The shadows drew closer and the whispers increased.

Unwanted! Outcast! Born to die upon some rock, a sacrifice to their bloodthirsty gods!

The baby, wrapped in a blanket, was left upon the stone altar, cold and alone, his shrill cries filling the temple with its frantic treble. He wanted to be held, to be fed, but no one came. No one cared.

Unworthy! Puny bastard! Unwanted! The whispers chanted mercilessly.

The baby screamed, choking in his desperation, huge tears rolling down his cheeks.

And still no one came.

Because no one wants you. For who could love a sickly whiny weakling? Not even the mother who bore you! Your destiny was to die upon that rock!

 

In the cell, Loki shivered as with an ague, his spirit plunged into the depths of despair so deep he drowned in it, viscous black liquid tasting of sorrow and solitude.  

Maw’s eyes glowed in the darkness, hellish pits of ecstasy, as he fed upon the bleak despair that infected Loki’s spirit. The alien laughed silently and continued to whisper in the unsuspecting Asgardian’s mind, the litany of poisonous self-loathing and despair preventing Loki from realizing what Maw was doing—which was making chinks in Loki’s defenses—so he could eventually slip inside and control the prince.

Maw's tongue came out, the purplish-blue appendage licking his nose.

More memories flew by.  Loki heard the laughter and the jeers of Thor and his friends.

"Weakling."

"Bookworm,"

"He will never be a true warrior."

Neglected.  Abandoned.  Unwanted.

He saw them running away as he tried to keep up, but he couldn't.

"Go away, Loki!"

He saw balls and galas where Thor was the center of attention and he was left alone in the shadows.  Shadows which grew darker and longer with each passing second.

"Who would want to dance with him?"

"He's nothing."

 

Ignored.  Left alone.  Unwanted.

"Always second-best. Never good enough."

Words that pricked his faltering self-esteem to pieces.

He saw his meeting with Laufey.

"The bastard prince."

He saw his talk with Odin after he went into the vault.

"Am I cursed?"

Was he?  Was he cursed to spend his life alone?  In the dark?  With no one to love him or care about him?

"All I ever wanted was to be your equal!"

Those were the words he shouted at Thor, but Thor didn't care.  He just wanted to stop him.

Your brother, your enemy, Maw hissed.

His....enemy?

"No, that is not true!  Thor loves me!" Loki shouted.

"Then where is he?!  Why hasn't he come to save you?!  Why hasn't your father sent his troops?!"

"They...  They can't."

"No, they won't come.  You mean nothing to them."

 

The Forgotten Prince.

"The Unwanted Prince."

 

"I was wanted!"

The darkness grew thicker around him as he tried to breathe and Maw's cackling laugh echoed around him.

 

"Thanos wants you.  All you have to do is give in," Maw hissed.

"No!" Loki shouted and he held his head in his hands.

"Give in! Give up! " Maw taunted. "Your family has abandoned you! You were never one of them. Never! You were the mistake they took in out of pity!"

"No!  That is not true!"

"It is true!"

"Get out of my head!"

Maw grinned. He could feel his quarry weakening.

"You say no, but what was the last thing they said to you?  What did they say?!"

 

"It was...no."

"Did you believe what you wanted to do was right?"

"Yes."

"And yet you were denied.  Ignored.”

"Shut up!"

"If you had stayed, you would have been left in the dark.  Always in the dark.  Never allowed out of the shadows."

"I said shut up!"

Maw felt the cracks growing larger and more fragile.  One more push and he would be his.

"My mother . . . always loved me!" Loki gasped, feeling the dark waters pulling at him, threatening to drag him down.

He tried to focus on the memories of Frigga and how she was always there for him.  Always smiling.  Always there for him.  Always...

Lying! a voice suddenly said in his head.  If she loved you, why didn't she say anything about you being adopted?!

He attempted to fight back, but there was no defense against the awful truth. Deception.

“Mother, why didn’t you tell me!” he screamed. “WHY?!”

“Because she never loved you.”

It was the final blow. Loki felt the dark water close over his head as his defenses shattered, crumbling like sand beneath a great wave.

“Now you are MINE!” Maw shrieked, victorious.

 

Elsewhere:

 

Viva had been walking for what felt like hours.  The snow was blinding and the wind howled in her ears.  She didn't know where Loki was.  She had tried to focus on his mind, but wherever he was had blocked her powers.

"Where are you?" she thought.

Suddenly, Loki's screams echoed around her and she looked up.  On the top of a large chunk of ice was a black castle.  The screams came roaring down at her and Viva drew up to her full height.

"Loki," she said then she started climbing.   

She was careful as she found foot and hand holds,but the wind and blinding snow tried to knock her down.

"No, you are not going to stop me!" she growled.

Just as her bones and muscles felt like they could not go any further, she finally made it to the top and she looked up at the castle.  Loki's screams had stopped and she tried to send out her mind to his.

"Loki, if you can hear me, don't give up.  I'm here!," she sent.

The darkness was absolute, like the endless night of the Void . . . except there was a glimmer of light . . . barely there . . . but he could see it . . . could hear her voice . . .

Viva stormed toward the castle when she stopped and two women were standing in front of her.  One had green skin and red hair.  The other was bald with purple and blue skin.

"You shall not pass," Gamora said, holding two swords in her hands.

"You don't frighten me!" Viva said.

"We should," Nebula said, removing her blaster rifle from her back.

As she took aim at the frost-blue knight, Viva brought her sword around and then blasted both women with her fearcasting, one of an Empath’s greatest weapons.

Nebula and Gamora released twin howls of terror and they backed away, fear freezing them in their tracks.

Viva’s eyes glittered wrathfully. “You were saying?”

Her opponents cringed and whimpered, weapons falling to the ground at their feet.

Teeth bared in a feral smirk, Viva stalked past them and into the castle.

Loki, I’m coming! She sent, projecting courage and warmth with everything she had. There is no dark without light. No night without day. And no courage without fear.

She raced down the hallway, and where she strode, frost preceded her, freezing the stone beneath her boots. But she paid no attention, for the cold never bothered her. Instead she followed the silent cries of Loki’s heart.

Until she emerged at the door of a black cell.

Extending her senses outward, Viva could feel the gloating presence of Ebony Maw as well as Loki’s weaker one, filled with pain and loathing. Gritting her teeth, Viva kicked the door in.

As the door slammed back on its hinges, Maw turned. “You cannot defeat me!” he cried triumphantly. “I am the devil in the dark, the nightmare that never ends, the master of fear! You are beaten! None can stand against me!”

On the floor, Loki huddled into a ball, shivering.

“I can!” Viva declared.

Then she thrust out a fist and her power surged through her.

“Love casts out fear!”

Maw staggered, nearly knocked from his feet as she sent a blast of light, hope, and love at the dark psychic.

“Who are you?” the alien cried, whimpering.

“Your worst nightmare!”

Maw attempted to try and block her sending, but Viva’s anger and determination fueled her powers, making them ten times as strong.

“No!” the psychic howled. “You cannot defeat me!”

But it was a hollow threat.

“Liar!” Viva spat. “You are naught but lies and manipulation, Ebony Maw! Your truths are false, words without substance, as you yourself are nothing but a disembodied voice shouting in the wilderness. Your power is built upon fear and deception! But I will expose you for what you truly are!”

Brilliant blue light exploded from her hand and from Frost Reaver, striking Maw between the eyes.

The dark psychic screeched, letting out a shriek of pure and unadulterated fear as the light penetrated the evil construct.

Remember, Loki! Remember you are loved!

Viva’s sending washed over him, and the dark water receded, unable to withstand the power of love and memory.

Loki blinked, and sat up, freed from his crippling self-doubt, his courage renewed.

The Prince of Asgard sprang to his feet, and suddenly he was no longer dressed in rags and barefoot. Now he was clad in battle armor of green and gold, his horned helmet upon his ebony curls, sword and staff in his gauntleted hands.

Eyes glowing with wrath, Loki spat, “Once you tricked me! Once you broke me! Once I believed the lies you spun! But not this time! This time I see the light!”

He thrust his staff out, and the blue stone in the center glowed with eldritch fire. It slammed into the pale figure of Ebony Maw, singing the ghostly flesh. Maw’s scream of agony echoed off the granite walls.

“Fear is naught but the lies we tell ourselves. And I am through lying. I am not the Forgotten Prince! I am not an unwanted baby cast out to die! I was found! I was accepted! I am Loki Odinson, Prince of Asgard! And I . . . am . . . not . . . your pawn!”

With each word he spoke, Loki blasted the cringing Maw with energy—the energy formed of magic’s truth and light.

Every time he did so, Maw seemed to shrink, becoming smaller and smaller, until he dwindled to a tiny speck on the floor, no bigger than an ant.

“Finish him!” Viva urged.

Though Loki needed no urging. He stepped forward, his boot crunching down upon the miniscule psychic. “An ant has no quarrel with a boot!”

And the whispers were silenced for now.

Suddenly the floor beneath them began to tremble.

Viva staggered and grabbed onto Loki’s arm.

“What the Hel?!” he yelled.

“The construct is dissolving!” Viva cried. “You’re waking up! Bring us back!”

Loki concentrated and they blinked away—just as the dark castle crumbled into the abyss . . .

 

Loki woke, panting sharply, as if he had just run a race. His emerald eyes glanced about the room, but nothing lurked in the shadows. He released a huge sigh and then said, “Maw is gone.”

Viva blinked and woke. “That part of him is,” she corrected.

“What—what do you mean?”

“I mean that you have defeated one piece of the remnant today,” Viva told him quietly. “You achieved a great victory. But the war is not won. Not yet.”

“How do you know?”

“Trust me. I am a Mind Healer. What was done to you occurred over time. Therefore your demons will not all be defeated in one session.”

Loki sat up. “Then I will still have these . . . waking nightmares?”

“Possibly. But I think you may have stopped that from happening,” she soothed.

“But the remnant is still there?” he persisted.

“Yes, but it has been weakened,” Viva informed him. “You have faced some of your fears. And once faced, fear loses its power over you. That is a truth all Empaths know.”

“It is a truth we all should know,” Loki declared quietly. “If not for you, I would still be a prisoner in my own head.” He bit his lip then looked out the window, shame and guilt pricking him. Finally he turned back and said, “I ask your pardon, my lady, for my harsh words earlier. I was scared only my pride would not allow me to admit it. Sometimes I am a stubborn fool.”

“Sometimes we all are,” Viva replied, her eyes glistening with understanding. “You are not the first patient to refuse a session because you were afraid. Nor will you be the last.”

“I should not have snapped at you,” he said remorsefully.

She closed her hand over his own. “I’ve heard worse,” she chuckled. “Just ask Tyr.”

Loki gaped. “Did he--?”

Viva nodded. “Fear makes fools of all of us, My Prince. Whether generals, princes, or ordinary people. But it is how you deal with that fear that is the difference between victory and defeat.”

“Am I forgiven?”

“Always,” she reassured him, giving him a brilliant smile.

“What did I ever do to deserve a friend like you?” he asked, half to himself.

“You took my hand,” she replied.

It warmed him down to his toes, as if he stood in a pool of liquid sunlight.

“When can we do another session?” he asked eagerly.

“Not right away,” she laughed. “You must give yourself time to recover from this one. I know you may feel exhilarated now, but trust me, it will soon wear off, and you will need to rest. As will I.”

“Tomorrow then.”

“Yes. I have a new tea for you to try tonight. White chamomile lemongrass.” Viva said, handing him a silver packet with several tea bags inside. “Hopefully this will help you sleep without dreams.”

“Thank you, Viva,” Loki said sincerely, taking the packet. He saw the yawn she tried to hide. “You should go and rest. The last thing we need is for you to exhaust yourself.”

Viva raised an eyebrow. “I am only a little bit tired.”

“Now who’s being stubborn?” Loki mock-scolded.

“Very well, My Prince.” She acquiesced, smiling.

“Pleasant dreams, Viva.”

“And you also, Loki,” she waved as she slipped from the room.

Loki rose and went to the window seat, placing his journal on his knee. Then he took the pen and began to write, his elegant script filling the pages, while Axelle batted at the pen with her paws.

He wrote boldly— Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the acknowledgment of fear and the determination to do what needed to be done despite of itI have nothing to fear but fear itself.

He prayed that Viva was right, and a few more dream walking sessions would finish the remnant. 

But Ebony Maw was not all that he feared.

Chapter Text

 

 

That evening Loki attended a concert in the hall with Viva, Ravn, and Frigga. The symphony was performed by a well-known Asgardian string quartet. The music resounded through the hall, the pieces well-chosen to stir emotions and set hearts to racing or tears to come to one’s eyes. Loki listened, enraptured, with Viva beside him, and did not realize, until the finale, that three seats down from him were General Tyr, his wife Elsa, and Sigyn.

The quartet received a standing ovation, and as Loki applauded, he noted the general and his family out of the corner of his eye. Afterwards, etiquette insisted he go and greet them, which he did, bringing them back to meet Viva, Ravn, and Frigga. Viva was known to them from her previous work with Tyr and so of course was Frigga. Tyr and his family were warm and courteous to Ravn, who Loki introduced by his title—he was a baron as well as Loki’s valet.

While Ravn made polite conversation with Tyr, Loki turned to Sigyn, whom he found rather charming, and asked, “How did you like the symphony, my lady?”

“I thought it was wonderful, My Prince.” She replied, her hazel eyes sparkling. She was of average height, with red-gold hair that was pulled into single complex braid, her hair studded with simple wildflowers. She wore a beautiful meadow-green and gold robe with detailed embroidery upon it of leaves, trumpet violets, and woodland animals—including a fox, a deer, a hawk, a wildcat, and a raven. On her right hand she wore a moonstone ring with small peridots on either side. “What part did you like best?”

Loki thought for a moment. “The piece called “Raindrops and Rainbows.” I thought it was beautiful in its simplicity, even though it wasn’t as complex as the other pieces, the emotions were .stronger throughout it.”

Sigyn grinned. “That was my favorite too. Though I wish they had added a flute to it. Then it would have been even more dynamic.”

“You’re right, my lady. Do you play an instrument?”

Sigyn nodded. “Yes. I can play the flute and the piano. And you?”

“I know how to play the piano also. And the guitar and lute.” Loki answered.

“You never told me that you liked music so much, Loki,” Viva said. “Perhaps we can arrange some music therapy.”

“If you like,” Loki agreed. “Do you play an instrument, Lady Viva?”

She nodded. “I do. I play the harp and the lute. My mama insisted I learn all the social graces.” She cocked her head. “Does your brother play one too?”

“He does. Thor plays the drums.” Loki grinned.

Sigyn giggled. “I should have known that.”

Loki found Sigyn’s laughter to be sweet and melodious, not shrill or annoying like some women’s were. There was a genuine warmth about her, and Loki found himself enjoying her company, normally he was reserved and shy around ladies, unless he knew them well, like he did Viva and Astrid.

They continued discussing the merits of the concert for a few more moments, until Elsa saw the time and then the general and his family bid the royals good night.

Loki gazed after Sigyn’s retreating form, thinking of the way her laughter had echoed in the hall, free and unrestrained.  He started as Frigga touched his arm.

“That went well, don’t you think?” she asked her son.

“Yes, the concert was quite good, I enjoyed it,” he replied, though he wasn’t sure if she meant the symphony or the meeting with Sigyn. But he chose to answer with the former assumption.

“So did I,” the queen smiled. “It was good to do something fun this evening. It’s too bad I couldn’t persuade your father to come. He needs to get out of the council chambers. This fretting over alliances is not good for him.”

Loki frowned. “What do you mean, Mother?”

“A few weeks ago, your father sent a letter to Jotunheim, asking Laufey to renew the old terms of the treaty. He still hasn’t received an answer.” Frigga sighed.

“Is this unusual?” Viva queried.

“Years ago, Laufey would have responded promptly. But we have heard no word of anything recently. Not even a letter penned by his secretary sending his regrets because he is unable to respond at this time. It has made your father uneasy.”

“Hmm,” Loki said. “Perhaps no news is good news.” Or perhaps their silence is because they don’t wish to renew the treaty, he thought but did not say aloud.

“In any case, I am glad you had a good time, Loki,” Frigga said. “Perhaps later on this week we could go and see a play.”

“That would be good,” Loki agreed, then he smothered a yawn with his hand. “Right now, though, I think I only want to see my bed.”

After bidding Viva and Frigga good night, Loki and Ravn returned to his chambers, and the valet assisted Loki as he prepared for bed, turning down the sheets, laying out his pajamas, and fixing him a cup of chamomile lemongrass tea. Axelle wound about Loki’s ankles, purring and asking to be petted.

Loki obliged her, then got ready for bed. “Pleasant dreams, Ravn.”

“And you also, sir,” the valet called out before he dimmed the lamp and left.

Loki settled down under the covers, Axelle curled on his chest, and closed his eyes. Within moments he was asleep, initially dreaming peacefully.  Until the dream suddenly turned into a nightmare . . .

He was a child again, around nine, skinny, small, and awkward. He spotted Thor playing with his friends Volstagg, Fandral, and Sif on the back lawn near the forest. Hoping to join in their fun, he ran over to them. “Thor, what are you playing? Can I play?”

But his brother ignored him, running at a tree and smiting it with his toy hammer. “I will kill you, Frost Giant Freak!” he yelled.

The other children charged after him, all swinging toy weapons and yelling.

Loki watched in dismay, then called, “I want to play too, Brother!”

Thor spun around, a sneer contorting his face. “Go away, Little Brother! We don’t need your whining face here!”

Crushed, Loki turned away, only to hear Fandral yell, “Wait! He can be the Jotun!”

“No!” Loki shouted. “Leave me alone, you dumb lout!”

“What did you call me?” Fandral demanded, incensed. He charged after Loki, shoving him hard and knocking him in the dirt.

Before Loki could do anything, suddenly Thor, Sif, Volstagg, and several other children were there, jeering and poking him with sticks and laughing.

“Stop! Leave me be!” Loki shouted, trying to get to his feet.

“Aww! Did the baby Jotun fall down?” Thor mocked.

“Let’s teach this Jotun freak a lesson!” someone yelled.

Suddenly rough hands grabbed Loki, punching and dragging him to his feet.

“Kill the Jotun!”

“Murdering monster!”

Loki struggled but he was no match for the crazed mob of children.

“Brother! Help me!”

But Thor just watched. “You are no brother of mine!”

“Thor! Thor, don’t let them hurt me! It’s me, Loki!” he screamed, panicked.

But Thor turned away, leaving Loki at the mercy of the vicious pack of bullies, who beat and kicked him until he retaliated with a blast of frost magic . . .

Loki woke trembling and sweating, his heart thundering in his chest like a runaway train.

He sat up, on the verge of another attack, and grabbed his diffuser. Breathing in the calming aroma, he began to do some counted breathing.

It was then he noticed the temperature in the room had plummeted and frost rimed the windowpanes and the mirror. He found Axelle down under the covers, trembling by his feet. Sweet Valhalla on a ski sled! I've used my frost magic in my sleep!

Taking a deep breath, he banished the frost creeping all over the room, restoring it to its normal-for an Asgardian-temperature. Then he spent ten minutes coaxing the forest kitten from beneath the covers into his arms. "I'm so sorry, little one! I didn't mean to scare you or make you cold with my magic. I just had a night terror." He stroked the kitten over and over, infusing her with warmth until she quit shivering and purred.

His mouth tightened in determination. He knew he had to regain control over his magic again. Because otherwise he was dangerous to everyone around him. He suspected the wicked nightmare he had probably had something to do with his loss of control. He recalled Maw questioning him endlessly about his Jotun roots, wanting to know if he had any kind of violent outbursts and what he could do with his frost magic. He knew that Maw had probably wished to use that magic against Thanos' enemies, but the Other had convinced Thanos to use the Scepter instead. Still, whatever the dark psychic had done, it had shattered part of his control and he had to regain it.

He summoned his journal and wrote the dream down, shivering slightly as he recalled it. He used the diffuser again to stave off more anxiety, the kitten purring away on his shoulder. For three nights he had been free of night terrors, but as Viva had warned, his demons were not defeated so easily as that. But, he thought determinedly, they would eventually be so. He refused to entertain the idea that he would be forever a prisoner to fear. You will not win! he thought defiantly. Not this time! And you only did so last time because I came to you wounded and broken already. But now those wounds are healing. The truth has set me free.

He also recalled what Viva had said to him yesterday, how several small victories made up a larger one, and knew that despite his impatience, his victories were starting to outnumber his setbacks, thanks in no small part to his Mind Healer and his family, who had, after having their shortcomings exposed, done their level best to be supportive and loving, as he had always hoped they would be. For Maw had been right when he had hammered into Loki that his family was his weakness. It had been-it had been the chink in his armor-because he had been so desperate for their love and approval-which he had never believed he possessed. But over the two months since his return, he had come to see that his perception had been mistaken. He was loved-by all of them, though before only Frigga and occasionally Thor had shown any regard for him. Yet now he could see and feel his father's love as well as his mother's and brother's. He could even see the respect that many of the palace staff and guards held for him, when before he had thought they all shunned and mocked him behind his back. Those realizations had helped his recovery tremendously . . . and hopefully would continue to do so.

Setting the journal aside, he did a few more meditation exercises, then he summoned a small wristband with a snowflake design etched into it and slipped it on his wrist. He had not worn this in ages, but as a child he always had until he learned how to control his magic and emotions. This would prevent his frost magic from flaring. He did not want to risk harming someone or hurting Axelle.

After putting the bracelet on, he went back to sleep, figuring he would have much to speak to Viva about in his next session.

Viva's office:

"Is this the first nightmare of this kind you've had?" the Mind Healer asked softly.

"That I remember, yes," Loki answered.

"And the first time your frost magic flared like this?" she queried, fixing them some tea.

"No. The first time was when I had a dream soon after arriving on Asgard. I projected then too. Damn near froze poor Ravn's fingers to the bone."

Viva looked slightly alarmed. "Is he well now?"

"Yes, I healed him and he's fine now. So that's one reason I started wearing the bracelet after this second dream." Worry creased his features. "I'm . . . not used to things like this happening to me any longer. When I was a child they occurred, but eventually they stopped after I learned control. But I'm afraid that Maw did something to me and I have lost the control I used to have."

"Perhaps. Or perhaps he only wished you to believe you had," Viva surmised. "A psychic like Maw does not always have to directly change your mind in order to affect you. Sometimes he can subtly do so by altering your perceptions. Belief is sometimes synonymous with action."

Loki put his chin in his hand. "Meaning that Maw played with my fears again."

"Yes. That does seem to be how he operated," Viva replied. "The remnant would want you to believe you have lost your control, because then self-doubt would creep in, and he who doubts is vulnerable to subconscious suggestions."

"He would also have me believe that as a Jotun I am nothing but a monster. Because that was what I grew up thinking."

"That also," she answered.

"How can I defeat this?"

"Two ways. One, you must learn about the culture of Jotunheim and its people. Fear and hatred are often based upon ignorance. Knowledge will defeat that. And two, we must dream walk again and confront the remnant and the part of yourself he had influenced."

"Understood." He rose to his feet. "I suppose I may as well begin my research now." He eyed her speculatively. "Tell me, Viva, have you ever been to the Royal Library?"

"Not yet, but I would love to visit," she said eagerly.

Some five minutes later, they were entering the hallowed halls of the Royal Library-a huge sprawling building made of titanium gold that housed over a million volumes of all kinds.

However, upon looking up the subject of Jotunheim via the computer catalog, Loki discovered that nearly all the books about that realm were written by Asgardians, and were woefully biased. Most dealt with the last war they had had, and only a few mentioned anything to do with the Frost Giant culture, and even that Loki found, had been tainted by prejudice when he skimmed through the four or five books that were there.

Frustrated, he scowled down at the books. Then Viva returned, her arms carrying four volumes, some were poetry, and others were interesting legends and theories about techniques for conquering fear in anxious patients. "Is something wrong, Loki?" she asked, feeling the frustration coming off him.

"I'll say!"He shoved the books towards her. "There is not a single volume here that has anything but bias in it towards the Jotun. I supposed that's to be expected considering we were at war with them for so long but . . ."

"Hmm . . . I see." Viva said, pursing her lips. "Perhaps I might have one but I would need to browse through the books I brought."

"You've studied Jotun culture?"

"Some. Mostly physiology and magic though, before I came to treat you,' she admitted. "I believe I have a book or two that could be helpful."

Loki nodded. "Then let's go find it."

He teleported them back to the palace, where Viva went to her chambers to dig through her trunk of books.

After half-an-hour she found two volumes that she hoped would enlighten the prince. They were titled Clan Markings and Symbols and A Concise History of Jotunheim.

Loki dozed on the couch while she searched, waking only when she returned. "Did you find anything?" he asked hopefully.

"I did!" she beamed and handed him the books.

"Where did you acquire these?"

"From an old trader when I was living in the mountains. He had been everywhere. I had no formal schooling until I went to the Academy of Mind Healers," she explained. "My mother and I lived in such a remote area there were no schools for me to attend. So she taught me at home with books we traded an old peddler for whenever he made a trip up mountain," Viva admitted candidly. "These were written long ago by a Jotun scholar but they were accurate then and now, since Jotun culture has changed very little."

Loki thanked her for the books, promising he would read them.

"If you are anything like me, you will have read them in a day or so," Viva said knowingly. "But for now, why don't you relax and listen to some music?"

"What sort of music?" Loki queried.

Viva went to a cabinet and opened it, withdrawing a gold leather case. Upon opening it, she drew out a fine rosewood harp strung with silver strings. "Shall I play for you, My Prince?"

Loki nodded eagerly.

Viva sat down on the couch across from him and picked up Lady Firebird. Then she began to play, the harp emitting the most beautiful music.

Loki found himself getting lost in the melody, his frustration melting away as the song continued. When it was done he applauded enthusiastically. "You play very well, Viva."

She looked embarrassed. "It's a hobby of mine. Did you like the song?"

"Very much. It was one I hadn't heard before."

"It's called Frostsong, and is an old Jotun folk tune. I thought you might like to hear it."

"Where did you learn it?"

"From that same peddler. He was also something of a bard. Often times he told me he sang for his supper if he didn't have coin. One day he played that and I learned it."

"You're a quick study," he praised. "Your mother must have been very bright to teach you so well, if I may say so."

"My mother had a brilliant mind," Viva said proudly. "She also had first class education before she met my father. But she chose to live in the mountains after they separated not just for me but so she could use her own magic with more clarity and she loved the high wild places. In that, she and I were much alike."

"I wish I could have known her," Loki said suddenly, filled with an odd unnamed longing.

"I wish you could too. She would have liked you," Viva said softly, her expressive eyes sad. Then she shook her head, banishing the doleful air, and began to play a spritely tune called Winter's Eve Dance that soon had Loki tapping his foot to the rhythm.

After the impromptu concert it was time for supper, which Loki had with Thor and his friends, because he wished to and also because he wished to prove to that part of himself that his dream fears no longer controlled him with the choices he made.

He enjoyed the camaraderie at the table, but elected to not stay past the dessert, since the books Viva had given him were calling his name insistently. He bid good night to Thor and the Warriors, as well as his parents, before retreating to his room to begin reading.

“A new book, sir?” Ravn asked when he saw Loki ensconced upon the window seat with the book in his lap, barely noticing when the valet came into the room.

“Mmmhmm,” Loki muttered, totally engrossed in his reading.

Ravn simply smiled and left after making sure his master’s clothing was set out and tea made. He also fed Axelle some dried turkey bits as a treat, knowing Loki was too intent on his reading to pay attention to anything or anyone until he was finished.

Loki read until he felt his eyes begun to shut. Then he yawned and set the book down reluctantly. He had discovered several things he had not known before about the Jotun history, though right then he was too tired to process all of it. He quickly undressed and drank his now cold tea, then slipped beneath the covers.

He went to lay down on his pillow and heard an annoyed meow.

Loki sat up. “Sorry, Axelle! I didn’t see you there,” he said to the disgruntled cat.

Annoyed at being laid on, the kitten stalked off to lay on the opposite side of the bed.

Loki glanced at her ruefully. “You sure are touchy. I said I was sorry.”

Axelle sniffed and curled up, giving him the silent treatment.

Loki rolled his eyes. “Fine! Be like that!” He turned on his side, put out the light, and tumbled into the world of dreams.

 

This time his dream was of a time he had gone to the marketplace with Frigga, and as she looked at new fabrics in the modiste’s shop, Loki waited outside, eating an ice pop. The ice pop was blue raspberry and turned his lips blue as he sucked on it. Loki wasn’t bothered by it, but apparently this offended some other children walking by.

They pointed at him and sneered. “Look at that! His lips turned blue like a—like a Frost Giant’s!”

One older boy marched up to Loki and sneered, “Get along with ye, you Jotun freak! We don’t want your kind around here!”

Loki glared at him. “I’m not a freak! I’m the Prince of Asgard!”

“Adopted prince of a Jotun bastard!” laughed the boy. “Now get! Before we show ye what we do to Jotun freaks!”

Loki threw the ice pop in the bully’s face, then followed it with a right hook.

He had seen Thor deal with a nasty squire that way. But this time it didn’t seem to work.

Instead the bully suddenly changed into some sort of creature with a demonic face and rows of sharp fangs. It had glittering eyes of yellow—eyes like Ebony Maw, and it screeched, “Let’s teach him some manners, boys! Looks like the freak needs his hide nailed to a wall!”

“Meat’s back on the menu!” screamed another boy, also morphing into a demonic creature.

As they reached for Loki, he ducked and ran, fear making him sweat. “Mother! Mother! Help!” he yelled.

But Frigga did not seem to hear him and he ran desperately down the street while behind him a mob of demonic creatures howled for his blood.

“Kill the freak!”

“Eat his liver!”

“Rip his heart out!”

“What heart? Everyone knows Jotun ain’t got none!”

“Then rip his eyes out instead!”

Like a fox harried  by bloodthirsty hounds, Loki fled.

But no matter where he hid or how fast he ran, they were always behind him.

Finally they cornered him against a high stone wall, and as they drew nearer, eyes red as blood, fangs gleaming, saliva dripping from their mouths, ready to rend him limb from limb, Loki awoke with a scream . . .

Or at least he thought he screamed, but no one came in response, which led him to believe he had only screamed in his head. As his breath came in harsh pants, Axelle suddenly came to him, purring and rubbing her head against him.

He hugged the kitten to him, breathing in her sweet scent, and letting her purr soothe him.

This must have been because of what I read before, he thought, trying to defeat his fear logically. Some of what he had read disturbed him greatly, especially because it showed that in the beginning, the Asgardians had used the Jotun’s strict policy of work and honoring one’s word to build much of the cities of Asgard, and when they had done so, a few of the more unscrupulous business associates had refused to pay the agreed upon price, leading to anger and harsh words. One Jotun builder had demanded he be paid what was greed upon and the Asgardian had set a mob upon him, and they had almost killed him despite his size and strength.

There were other things which showed that the Jotun who had lived in Asgard long ago had not been treated well by either their neighbors or the ruling monarchs. They had fines levied against them for not worshipping the same gods the Asgardians did, taxes on their property because it “exceeded the limits set for commoners”, taxes on their goods which they sold because they were “foreign”, even a tax to leave Asgard and return to Jotunheim to visit their relatives.  In addition to this, they had rumors spread about blood practices, based upon what some Jotun had done in war, and many were reviled by their neighbors as savages and monsters.

In the end many of them had either returned to Jotunheim or immigrated down to Midgard, living in the high lonely mountains. Left alone at first by the mortals, eventually the mortals listened to the tales told by wandering Asgardian minstrels and started to hunt the Frost Giants they discovered. It became a test of their strength and manhood to kill a monster, until one day a mortal knight slew the royal nephew of the Jotun King Gunnar Ironheart, who was Laufey’s father, and thus brought the wrath of the Jotun army down upon their heads.

Loki learned things which had been either left out of his history texts and lessons, or altered to make it seem like the Jotun were the evil enemies who were always looking to kill Asgardians at the slightest provocation. While it was true the Jotun were an old and proud race often given to answering slights with violence and bloodshed, it could also be said that the ancient Asgardians were just as hotheaded and went out of their way to pick fights then blamed everything on the giants.  Some of what he had read shocked him, but the author gave equal time to showing the Asgardian viewpoint and neither race was entirely blameless for the enmity that had developed.

Unable to sleep, Loki summoned the book to him and continued reading, learning that the First Jotun War had not been caused only by the Jotun trying to kill and enslave the Midgardians, but in retaliation for a band of Midgardian knights and Asgardian warriors who invaded Jotunheim to take some Jotun heads as trophies and make a name for themselves as great warriors who killed monsters. Loki felt his blood run cold in his veins.

Does Father know this? Or Mother? Was this perhaps the reason why they agreed to raise me, an outcast Jotun prince?

He decided to ask Odin when he next saw him, then continued reading until dawn lightened the sky.

He then fell into a light doze until Ravn woke him for breakfast, which he opted to eat in his chambers. Then he tucked the book under an arm and sought out his father, who was reading missives in his study at this hour of the morning.

“Enter,” he heard Odin call.

A guard held open the door for Loki and he approached the king at his desk. “Father, I wish to ask you a question if you’re not busy,” his son began.

“Loki! You’re looking well, my son,” Odin greeted him. “Have a seat. I will be finished with this correspondence momentarily.”

“I can return later if you need me to.”

“No, I need a break from this anyhow,” the king assured him. He rubbed his eye. Then he signed a letter, stamped it with his seal, and handed it to his page, Anselm. As the boy scurried away with the letter, Odin said, “What did you wish to ask me, son?”

Loki showed him the book he had been reading, explaining where he had gotten it and what had led to him reading it. Odin looked distressed when Loki mentioned his nightmares. But when Loki mentioned the injustices suffered by the Jotun as well as the causes of the First War, Odin did not grow angry or agitated.

“You know about this, don’t you,” Loki stated.

Odin nodded. “I do. I learned the truth after my father passed on and I became king. Not at first, but later, I read the same book you have, and then I used my ravens and asked Heimdall to verify certain things. The Watchers not only see what happens in the realms, they also keep extensive records of what they see and hear. Heimdall’s father had written down events as he observed them, and they coincided with the ones in that book.”

“Then was that why you adopted me?”

Odin shook his head. “Only partly. The main reason was because I couldn’t leave a helpless infant to die. Exposure and starvation is a cruel death. And undeserved. I knew that I could give you a better life than any Frost Giant, and your mother would love you no matter where you came from or what you were born as. Once you smiled at me, I was helpless to do anything but take you home with me. And I swear by the Nine I never regretted it.”

Loki smiled upon hearing the honest sincerity in the old king’s voice. “I am glad to hear that, Father.”

“It is the simple truth,” Odin said.

“Then you do not care that I am reading this—a book that would surely have been banned during my grandfather’s time?”

Odin shook his head. “No. I am not my father, and there are always two sides to every story. It was never my intention for you to distrust or fear what you were, Loki. Read the book, and make peace with yourself. Then perhaps you shall stop having those awful dreams.”

“I shall, Your Majesty,” Loki said, then he returned to his room to finish the book he had borrowed.

He then devoured the next book, which was not as thick, and had nearly finished it by lunchtime.

He met Viva in the private dining hall, and over their soup and encrusted salmon, they discussed what Loki had read.

“I am glad you are finding the reading interesting as well as informative,” Viva said. “What did you think of the clan markings?”

“I found it quite interesting.” Loki answered. “It actually made sense once I read about it.”

Jotun clan markings had been magically engineered so each giant could identify a clan  member without the tired ritual of announcing one’s name and family or wearing some kind of crest upon their clothing like Asgardians did. Each set of markings was individual to the clan the giant was born to, and also could identify the parents of a child, as long as one parent was Jotun.

Loki coughed, then said very softly, “I could only identify one set of markings when I shifted. I bear Laufey’s clan markings, of the Frost Phoenix, but I could not find any from my mother’s clan.”

Viva looked startled. “Are you certain?”

“Yes. Would you like to see?”

“If you would not mind.” Viva said softly.

Loki shifted and Viva examined the white markings on his skin. As he had said, the Frost Phoenix markings were quite obvious, but though she looked, Viva could not find any clan belonging to his mother.

“See? I’m right, aren’t I?”

Viva nodded slowly. “Yes. And that can only mean one thing.”

“That I only had one Jotun parent,” Loki whispered. “My mother, whoever she was—was not Jotun.”

Viva’s mouth twisted. “It is well known that King Laufey had affairs with many women. Even though he was married twice, and his second wife is still living.”

“I take it that you do not approve of a king like Laufey’s behavior?”

“Stones and Stars, no! Even a king should show proper respect towards his wife and not flaunt his lovers like he is a merchant selling pots at a market! He is lucky Queen Farbouti did not divorce him. Any husband who shamed his wife so would deserve it.”

“Perhaps she feels that being queen is worth putting up with Laufey,” Loki snorted. This new knowledge did not endear the king to him at all, and it made Laufey calling him “a bastard prince” even more cutting because it meant he had been born on the wrong side of the blanket.  A prince who was never meant to rule. Not in this realm or any other.

Viva rolled her eyes, saying without words that she would have never put up with such behavior from any man, king or no.

Loki sighed softly. “Too bad that I can’t identify her, it would help a great deal if I knew who she was.”

“I am sorry I cannot tell you more,” Viva murmured.

Loki transformed back. “It’s not your fault, my lady. At least now I know why I am smaller than your average Frost Giant.”

“There is that,” Viva agreed.

Loki gazed at her. “I am ready to begin another dream walk now.”

“Very well. Remember, fear is the mind killer,” Viva informed him.

“Ignorance breeds fear, but knowledge destroys ignorance, and love casts out fear,” Loki murmured. “Once again into the breach, as the mortal playwright Shakespeare said.”

“I shall have to read this . . . Shakespeare,” Viva remarked. “He sounds wise. Though he has an odd name. What was he shaking his spear at?”

“I have no idea,” Loki said, then went to lay down on the couch. “Let’s begin.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

This time Loki and Viva entered his mind and walked through a stygian darkness, shadows surrounding them that brought endless cold, like that of the legendary Fimbul Winter mortals whispered about in tales around the fire in ancient days. Luckily, neither Loki or Viva, as the frost-blue warrior, were bothered by the chilling cold. Loki called a will-o-wisp to his hand and the light burned through the blackness, revealing a landscape of stark peaks and a tall castle of dark stone hunched beneath them. All was silent, save for the mourning howl of the wind as it shrieked down from the heights, kicking up spurts of snow.

Without speaking, both knew where they must go, to the brooding castle in the mountain’s shadow. They glided upon the snow, Loki enchanting their boots to be like skis.

Loki felt a frisson of fear crawl down his spine. He did not know exactly what he must face inside the castle, but he knew Maw would be there, waiting like a spider bloated with poison, for him to enter the web he had spun of fear and deceit. Then somehow he must face him, and discover what he had done to cause his control over his frost power to be erased. Yet a part of him wished to do nothing more than run away and hide. He swallowed sharply and continued walking.

Beside him, Viva felt the same kind of nervous fear she had when she had first begun to practice Mind Healing. She anticipated a fight when they reached the castle, and prayed that she and Loki would be equal to the task ahead. There was something sinister about the structure, something that made her flesh creep, and she gave an involuntary shudder.

But you must not falter! She told herself firmly. You must remain true and fight the fears Loki’s mind throws at you. For only then will he be free.

She was determined that he would be so, for he had endured so much, and it was not right that he should be crippled by self-doubt and fear.  She had grown to care for him very much over the months since she had accepted Odin’s request, and wanted nothing more than to see him well and happy again.

But first these crippling fears must be faced, for when you looked into the countenance of fear and saw it for what it was—and what it was not—then it lost its power over you. That was a simple truth that all Empaths knew.

Even then, that was only the beginning of the healing process. The rest of it occurred with time and support from family and friends and the Mind Healer lending an ear when necessary.

They reached the castle, and Loki sent the will-o-wisp fluttering into the courtyard, illuminating the gloomy structure and revealing that nothing lay in wait for them. Glancing at Viva, Loki drew his daggers and started up the stairs into the great hall, wary as a hunted fox.

Inside the castle the walls were rimed with frost and ice coated the flagstones. Tapestries were coated with ice crystals, and the scenes upon them were disturbing—a hunt with a Jotun as the quarry, men with boar spears stabbing the giant in the side, dogs tearing at his feet and arms, another with a basket abandoned upon a snowy hillside, and a third with a stony face Jotun on a throne made of iron wearing a crown of swords, his crimson eyes deep pools of hatred.

Their footsteps echoed in the hall, loud as ice breaking up during the spring thaw and Loki gripped Laevateinn hard, his senses ever alert for an attack.

But there was nothing but silence to greet them.

They came to the end of the frozen hall and Viva said, “Where to now? Left or right?”

To the left there was a long winding corridor, to the right a spiral staircase.

“Up the stairs,” Loki motioned with Laevateinn.

Viva nodded and drew Frost Reaver, then followed Loki up the stairs.

At the top of the stairs was a heavy wooden door with Frost Phoenix markings upon it, also rimed with frost. Loki turned the handle and it opened silently.

Inside was a circular room of black stone with blue veins running through it. Chained to a wall was a tall blue-skinned figure with long unkempt ebony hair and two curved ivory horns peeked out from the top of his head. He wore little save the chains on his ankles, wrists, and about his throat like a macabre collar. White clan markings stood out upon his body, marking him as a member of the Frost Phoenix clan.

Loki slowly stepped closer when the figure looked up and Loki saw his own red eyes looking back at him.

"Help...me," Frost Giant Loki whispered, lowering his head.  Loki looked frantically for a key while Viva walked to Frost Giant Loki and she felt pain, fear and despair assaulting her in waves.  She felt herself drowning when she drew back and calmed her mind.

"I can't find the key!" Loki shouted.

"And you won't," a familiar voice said and a cackle echoed around the room.  Turning, Loki saw Maw standing in the doorway and the alien psychic smiled.  "He is mine."

"No, he is not!"

"He was the first thing I took from you."

"And we shall get him back, Demon!" Viva said, holding the handle of Frost Reaver in both her hands.  Loki felt his hand shaking, but he kept hold of Laevateinn.

Maw smirked maddeningly. "Have you not figured it out, Prince of Fools? I am the master here and you are the slave!" He pointed to the bound figure. "He knows this! And soon you shall too!"

"No, I am no one's slave!"

"You are so stubborn.  Maybe you need a reminder!"

Loki watched as Frost Giant Loki lifted his head and looked at him.  The red eyes flashed. The room turned ice cold and ice soared out of Frost Giant's hands.

Loki used Laevateinn to block the ice while Viva charged at Maw with Frost Reaver over her head.

The ice came at Loki again while he dodged out of the way and he landed at Frost Giant Loki's feet.  Looking up, Loki saw the sorrow and emptiness in his Frost Giant self and he recognized those dark feelings.  He had seen it so many times since he returned.

"Listen to me!  You are no one's slave!

You are Loki!

Prince of Asgard!

Odinson!

Lord of Magic!

The Silver Tongue!

A Child of Chaos!

THE GOD OF MISCHIEF!”

He prayed to the Norns that a part of his other self believed him.

Viva fought Maw as the alien psychic tried to enter her mind and she smiled.

"That isn't going to work," she said.

"Are you that sure of yourself?" Maw said, sarcastically.

She slammed her shields up, repelling his attempt to infiltrate her mind. "The question is--are YOU?

She recognized the hubris within Maw, the overweening pride and arrogance that led him to believe he was stronger than any psychic ever born.

But he had never reckoned with one trained in the disciplines of both telepathy and empathy, taught to bend like the willow and yet stand firm as a stone in a flowing stream.

"Who are you?!" Maw whispered.

"Your worst nightmare."

Blocking his psychic blast, she wove an empathic web of fear and despair and cast it at him. It flew from her mind to his in a glittering swath, settling over his mind like a shroud.

“For all the fear and pain you have caused others, I now give it back unto you tenfold!” she cried, her eyes glowing.

For the first time in his life, Maw was afraid.

"Is that fear I see in your eyes?"

"This is impossible!  I am...  I am Maw!"

"You are nothing, but a shadow.  A wraith who is haunting my friend.  Now, I cast you out!"

He cringed from her, terror sweeping through him, a terror that froze the blood in his veins. "You cannot . . .!" he gasped in denial.

He  tried to marshal his power, but he was not used to being the one under attack, and he had no idea how to react to being under siege like this. Always he had been the one in control, always the torturer never the victim. Always the master never the slave.

Not even Thanos had ever controlled him fully.

But this frost-blue warrior had slipped past his defenses and her power was crippling him. Insidious doubt and fear stripped him bare, laid open all his weaknesses, and like a turtle turned on its back. he could only struggle helplessly.

"Please.  Don't hurt me," he whimpered.

"Is that what Loki said?!  Did he beg you to stop, but you just laughed and kept pounding at his defenses until he broke?!"

"I rule here, bitch!" he hissed, writhing in agony.

"You rule nothing save a realm of ghosts and shadows, you are the king of phantoms, and I say to you--get thee hence and trouble us no more!"

Loki heard the anger coming from Viva's voice.  He had heard that tone before.  It reminded him of when his mother got angry.  Blinking, he finally found the key as he started unlocking the chains which held his Frost Giant self and Frost Giant Loki slid onto his bottom.  Loki helped him to his feet while they looked at Viva and Maw and she raised Frost Reaver into the air.

“You are free," he told Frost Giant Loki. "No one binds me!"

“Hold!" Frost Giant Loki said and she held her attack.  Loki and Frost Giant Loki walked to her while frost and ice encircled their hands and snow fell around the room.  "Are you ready?"

"Yes," Loki said.

Sheer cold blew Maw into the air as he screamed and Loki raised his hands.

Viva watched Frost Giant Loki move closer to Loki until they became whole again and Loki felt his control returning.  He roared as the ice and snow vaporized Maw and Maw's screams echoed into the darkness.

After the snow and ice faded, Viva turned to Loki and he gave her a pleased look.

Loki was in his Frost Giant form and Viva smiled, walking to him.

"Well done," she said and he changed back.

"I have control of my powers again," he said.

"I saw that."

"May I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"What did you do to him?"

"I withstood his attack and then bound him in a Web of Terror," she replied. "It's something only an Empath can do. His arrogance and pride proved to be his undoing."

Loki gave her an impressed look and they traversed the stairs again.  He shifted into his Jotun form and walked swiftly down the stairs, Viva following. The Mind Healer noticed he looked much more confident now that he was whole again.

They reached the bottom of the stairs and some nameless urging made Loki turn down the twisting lefthand corridor.

They came to a fork in the hallway as the sense of pure evil came from the right and Viva sensed fear coming from Loki.

He halted, all of his newfound courage draining away.

"Loki..."

"He's down there," Loki whispered.

"Thanos?"

"Yes."

 

 

 

Fear coated his limbs like ice and he shivered.

His heart started pounding and he felt panic racing through him.

Viva put a hand on his shoulder. "Well, you have two choices--we can go on and face him or we can wait another day to confront him. It's up to you."

Loki bit his lip, mulling it over.

"Remember what you told your other self.  You are Loki!  Odin son.  Son of Frigga.  Brother to Thor.  You can do this!” Viva encouraged.

"Let's go," Loki said, storming down the hallway.

The fears and insecurities he felt were dwarfed by his courage, rage and anger. They surged to the forefront of his mind and Viva ran to catch up to him.

Nodding, she followed his lead.  They came to the end of the hallway as the doors hissed open and they entered the room.

Windows covered three of the walls as she looked out at an alien landscape and she looked at Loki.

"This is Titan.  His home."

The wall behind them was black with blue lights formed in a zigzag pattern.

At the center of the room was a raised platform and thin steps lined in blue light led up to the platform.

Their footsteps echoed off the black tile as they headed for the stairs, but Loki stopped.

In front of them were Gamora and Nebula.  They were dressed in battle armor and Nebula gave Loki a smug look.

"Do you really think we would allow you near Father, Traitor?" she asked, raising her pulse rifle.

Loki eyed them askance. "Can you truly call that one Father when he tortured you and made you fight your sister like two dogs in a match fight? What sort of parent does that?"

"He loves us!" she shouted.

"No, he doesn't.  You are nothing more than pawns."

For a split second, he saw doubt in Gamora's eyes.   He remembered times when she had been kind to him and she aided him to eat when he was too weak to feed himself.  They would talk for hours about little things, but he never told anyone about her secret.

"Gamora, do you truly believe what she says?  Does Thanos love you?"

Nebula glanced at her sister.  She had wondered about her loyalty and now she saw doubt in Gamora's eyes.

"Don't listen to him, Sister! He lies!"

 

 

 

 

"No . . . he tells the truth." Gamora said softly. "The truth that we were too blind and frightened to see. I knew what love was . . . long ago . . . when my mother sang to me as the moons came out on my homeworld. And my father hugged me tight."

She gazed at Loki. "He knows too . . . and he helped me to remember . . ."

"Traitor!" Nebula said, aiming her pulse rifle at Gamora.  Before she could fire, Loki raised his hand and froze her solid.  Gamora walked to him when she sighed and Viva placed a hand on her arm.

"Will you help us?" Viva asked.

"Help you fight Father?" Gamora asked, looking up at the platform.

"If you do, you can be free," Loki said.

"Then what would I do?"

"Whatever you want," Viva said, smiling.

Gamora thought for a few seconds then she nodded and they headed up the stairs.  Loki looked straight ahead while he walked up the stairs and Thanos' form slowly appeared before him.  Thanos had his back to them.  He was looking out the windows and had his hands behind his back.

"So many worlds, so little time." The purple despot muttered. “But soon all the worlds will fall to me!”

"Not today, Monster," Loki said.  Thanos balled his hands into fists and he slowly turned.

"By the Norns," Viva thought as she looked at the monster who used her friend.  Tortured  him.  Broke him.

"Well, Asgardian, you have returned," Thanos said.

Gamora saw a familiar look in his eyes as she stood closer to Loki and Thanos looked at her.

"Why didn't you stop him?"

"She didn't want to," Viva said.  She felt an overwhelming sense of evil coming from the Mad Titan, yet she also felt something else.  Sadness?  Remorse?  She wasn't sure.

“If she is not with me, she is against me,” Thanos thundered. “And she will share in your fate!”

“You would kill your own daughter?” Loki demanded.

“She is none of mine! I saved her to use her as my henchman, for I saw she had potential to be a good soldier and follow orders.”

“Is that all you saw in her? Or Nebula? Tin soldiers to do your bidding?” Viva snapped. “Then why call them your children?”

“Because it was easier to make them do as I wished. If they believed I saw them as family, they would become devoted to me and to my cause.” Thanos replied indifferently.

Gamora’s teeth ground together. “Then you never loved us?”

“Love is for weaklings and fools!” Thanos sneered. “Ask the Asgardian what love got him? Marooned in space and then tortured and forgotten! With power you do not need love!”

“I knew it! I knew it was all a lie!” Gamora howled. “You destroyed my home and my people . . . and you killed my family!”

“A necessary loss of life,” Thanos shrugged. “They were of little importance.”

Gamora trembled with rage.

The frozen Nebula felt her heart crack in two at Thanos’ words—words that she knew were true—and the truth was like a thousand daggers stabbing her. It had all been a terrible dreadful lie. Thanos had never considered her his daughter—only a soldier to use as he saw fit.

Images flashed through her head, half-forgotten memories of a time long ago, of running and jumping into a stream with her brother, eating some cake with her mother, and riding on her father’s shoulders.  Then he had come, with his ship of destruction, and suddenly everything was burning, houses, fields, people. Burning to ash and leaving nothing behind except one small cobalt-skinned child screaming for her mother.

Viva could feel the betrayal, hurt, and rage building inside Nebula and she sent to Loki, Free Nebula! She will help us now that she realizes the truth.

Loki twitched a finger and Nebula was unfrozen.

The blue assassin spun, leveling her pulse rifle at the man she had once called “Father”. “Liar! You are no father of mine!”

She fired her rifle at the Mad Titan.

Thanos simply raised a hand and the blast was absorbed by his forcefield.

“Always so predictable!”

While Thanos was distracted by Nebula, Viva concentrated and slipped into the Titan’s mind.

Gamora moved about the dais, striking Thanos from behind. As she did so, Loki opened his hand and flung a spell at Thanos that blinded him.

The Mad Titan roared as he stumbled backwards and Gamora swung her swords, slicing into Thanos' back.

Spinning around, Thanos swung his fist, but Gamora dived out of the way and he growled.

Nebula aimed the pulse rifle then she fired and the pulse blast hit Thanos' right shoulder.  The arm went flying as blood splattered  through the air and Thanos growled.

 

"Traitors!  All of you!" Thanos shouted.

"You are the traitor!" Gamora yelled. "You betrayed us!"

"Stop talking!  Kill him!" Nebula shouted.

Inside Thanos's mind, Viva summoned feelings of guilt and failure, discovering that Thanos had a secret--he was in love with the Goddess of Death and wished to impress her with his deeds.

A cold shiver moved through her as she dug deeper and found something about the Infinity Stones and the Infinity Gauntlet,  She had heard of the myth about the Soul Stone, but the idea of Thanos getting hold of such a powerful item made her ill.  She saw the Power Stone, the Reality Stone, the Space Stone, the Time Stone, but it was the Mind Stone which caused anger to blaze through her.  She saw Maw and the Other using the Mind Stone on Loki then Loki using the Mind Stone on people she didn't recognize and Thanos laughed inside her head.

"Now you understand, Child.  Once I get hold of the Infinity Stones, nothing can stop me!" he sent.

Worlds in flames and hundreds of millions of souls screaming in agony as they wer

e destroyed in the mad despot's quest for universal domination.

She saw a mortal boy dressed in a strange outfit and his fear of dying swept through her.

She saw a man in armor and his regret and sadness caused tears in her eyes.

She saw a mage with a flowing cloak and his resolve and sorrow touched her.

"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure of that if I were you, Monster!" Loki growled and Thanos turned to face him.

“I broke you like an egg once before, Asgardian!” Thanos boasted. “This time I will make sure you are never put back together again!”

Gamora had handed Loki one of her swords as he coated the blade with ice and frost then he roared, raising the sword.

Thanos conjured a black blade and parried Loki’s strike. Back and forth across the dais they dueled, their blades striking sparks off each other, but neither would give ground.

Evenly matched, the dance of death continued, until sweat trickled in rivulets down their faces. 

Patience. Wait for an opening. Wait for it, Loki reminded himself as he beat back Thanos’ sword once again.

Loki felt his muscles burn as he parried one mighty blow after another. I . . . will . . . not . . . surrender . . . the only thing I have to fear is . . . fear itself!

Then the Titan stumbled slightly on a patch of blood, it was a small error but costly.

Thanos' eyes widened as Loki swung the sword while using his Jotun strength and the blade sliced through Thanos' neck.  The Mad Titan's head flew into the air as the body trembled then fell with a loud crash to the dais and Loki breathed hard and fast through his nose.

"Always aim for the head," he panted.

"Exactly," Nebula said as she fired the pulse blaster and Thanos' body shattered into atoms.

Viva walked over to Loki who gave her a pleased look before she sheathed Frost Reaver.

"How do you feel?" she asked, placing a hand on his arm.

"I feel...free," Loki said as he looked at Nebula and Gamora.  "And so are you."

 

"So are we?" Nebula asked.

"You're free.  He no longer has a hold on you."

"He's right, Sister," Gamora said.

"You are not my sister," Nebula said.

"That is not true," Viva said.  "Even though you come from different worlds, you became sisters.  That will never change."

“Love is stronger than blood,” Loki whispered.

Loki saw the look on Nebula's face when she gently shoved Gamora and she rolled her eyes.

"I am still better than you," Nebula teased and Gamora laughed.

Loki felt the darkness swirling over him as he started waking up and he and Viva vanished.

Slowly, Loki opened his eyes, squinting at the bright sunlight.

Viva removed her hand from his temples, her face alight with joy. "Loki, how do you feel?"

"I feel like I can finally think.  Like I am, as I told you, free.  It is true there is still some things I need to work out, but I am not afraid to face them," Loki said.

He felt giddy, as if he was drunk, and indeed he was drunk in a way, drunk with feeling alive again.

"That is wonderful!" Viva said, grinning.

"It's all because of you."

"No.  I just helped.  You were the one who did all the hard work."

"Then..."

Loki felt an ache inside him.  If he really was better, did it mean she was leaving?

"I think we should celebrate!" she said. "We've reached an important milestone in your recovery."

She then felt his sadness and he looked down at his hands.

"Loki?"

"Are you leaving?"

"No, I am not.  Why do you ask?"

"I’m better."

"Yes, you are, but there is still things we have to do."

"Then I'm not  . . .  cured?"

"Not yet. But you have achieved a hard-won victory. You've turned the corner.  But you still have a ways to go."

"I am sorry if I sound, well, a little childish."

"Not at all.  You have been through a lot today."

"Should we go tell Thor and my parents?"

"Yes," she said and they stood up.  She was a little shocked when he suddenly hugged her and she gently patted his back.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

She could feel his joy like the sun upon her face, and it filled her with delight and warmth.

They parted as Axelle hopped onto Loki's shoulder and he took Viva's hand, leading her to the door.  As they left the room, Loki saw the flicker of hope in his head and it was shining brightly as the first rays of dawn.

Later that evening, Loki, Viva, Thor, Odin and Frigga sat at the dining table in the private dining hall and Loki had told them about his breakthrough.  Odin had congratulated him.  Thor had patted his back, nearly making him choke on his wine.  Frigga had hugged him.

"I'm so proud of you, Loki!" his mother said, her eyes shining. "I feel like you have won a great battle, even if it was one none of us can see."

"Viva saw it," Loki corrected, feeling slightly embarrassed.

"For which we owe you an eternal debt of gratitude, Lady Viva," Odin said to the Mind Healer.

Viva blushed. “Oh no, Sire. I was just doing my job. Loki here did all the hard work himself.”

“You are too modest, my dear,” Frigga smiled. “It was you who helped Loki see his way through those thorn thickets of his. If there is ever anything we can do for you . . .”

Viva sipped on some wine as Loki saw a sad look in her eyes and Viva placed the glass down.

"There is something," Viva said hesitantly, debating on whether or not to tell them.

“Go on,” Odin encouraged.

"You see, Sire, I might need some help."

"With what?" Thor asked.

"My father is a high-ranking Jotun noble and is a relative to Laufey.  My mother, Lady Vanadis, married my father when she was very young, but he soon fell in love with someone else."

"How horrible!" Frigga gasped.

"They divorced and my mother and I went to live in the mountains after I was born."

"Why would he want the two of you to go into the mountains?"

"He wanted her as far away from him as possible.  My mother agreed, but only if she could keep custody of me.  He agreed."

"The cad," Odin grumbled, sipping on some wine.

"Before she died, my mother made me promise me to go to Asgard due to my father trying to take my inheritance and make me a pawn."

"His pawn?" Loki asked.  He felt anger building inside him.  How could her father treat her like cattle or act so ungentlemanly toward her mother.

"He wanted to marry me off to whoever he thought would increase his power."

"Shameful," Frigga said.

"So, I left the mountains and came to Asgard."

"And became a Mind Healer," Thor said with a nod.

"Yes," she said then she looked at Odin.  "So, Sire, shall you grant me sanctuary?"

"I would be happy to. No one shall force you to marry against your will. Or to live in a manner you do not desire. This I swear by the Norns!"

"Thank you, Sire."

Thor looked at Viva questioningly. "Lady, was your mother one of us?"

"No, she was Vanir," Viva replied. "But she always stressed to me that if ever I needed a refuge, to come to Asgard. That my father would not dare break the treaty between the two realms."

"Then you are a half-blood like me," Loki said wonderingly.

"Yes, I am."

"If your father thinks to take advantage of you, he will have to go through me first!" Loki declared, the light of battle shining in his emerald eyes.

"And me also, Brother!" Thor said stoutly.

"And me as well," Odin said.

Viva was stunned.  She never thought she would have so many defenders.

"I...  Thank you," she said and Loki placed his hand on top of hers.

"Now, seeing how this is a celebration," Frigga said, changing the subject.  "Why don't we play a game?"

"That is a grand idea, darling," Odin said approvingly.

"I know just the game," Loki said, getting up and hurrying down the hallway as a crash of thunder filled the air and he stopped near the window.  He saw the storm clouds forming and he knew the storm was a result of Thor's anger.

The wind picked up rapidly and thunder boomed overhead as the heavens opened up and rain poured from the sky.

It pattered hard on the roof of the palace and wind lashed it against the windows as Loki entered his chambers. Ravn had turned up the lamps and Loki went to his shelf and took down the box containing the game Empires.

Just as he was about to leave, there came a crack of lightning and he heard a sharp cry. It sounded almost like a frightened child. Or the wind, which was howling like a banshee.

What in Hel?

He turned and saw that the curtains over the balcony doors were slightly ajar and he thought Axelle might have gotten scared and was hiding behind them.

Moving to them he pulled them aside, looking for the scared feline. Instead he saw a small child hunched in a ball against the balcony doors, bedraggled and soaking wet.

The boy was crying and had his face pressed up against the glass, his cobalt eyes huge with fear.

"Sweet Valhalla!" Loki cried, and yanked open the doors.

The boy tumbled to the floor at his feet.

Loki knelt and said softly, "Hello. I'm Prince Loki."

The little boy looked up at him, eyes wide.

"What's your name?"

The child swallowed then said in a very small voice. "Balder, sir."

"What are you doing here?"

The child shivered. "Hiding." He sniffled.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

"Who are you hiding from?" Loki asked.  Balder started shaking while his eyes darted around as if he was looking for someone then Balder sighed.

"I am hiding from my step-father," Balder said.

"Who is your step-father?" Loki asked when a loud crash of thunder made Balder scream.  "Let's go inside."

He led Balder inside the room then he went to get some towels from the bathroom. He rang the bell to summon Ravn.

"My Prince?" Ravn asked as he quickly entered the room, fearing Loki was having an attack.  He stopped when he saw Balder and the boy hid behind Loki.  "Who is this?"

"This is Balder," Loki said, looking behind him.  "It's all right.  This is my valet, Ravn."

Balder simply stared at Ravn warily, dripping water all over the wood floor that wasn’t covered by the rug.

Ravn was puzzled. “I don’t understand, My Prince. What is this boy doing here in your room looking like a mucky Monday wash?”

“I found him out on the balcony trying to get away from the storm,” Loki explained, kneeling to wrap a fluffy towel about the child. “He told me he was hiding from his step-father.”

Ravn eyed the boy, who huddled inside the towel as if it were the finest blanket. “Sir, he looks rather grungy, if you don’t mind my saying so. Who are your parents, boy? Do they live here at the palace?”

Balder shivered and shook his head no.

Ravn glanced out at the balcony and then asked, “How did you get up here?” The balcony was at least sixteen feet high since Loki’s rooms were on the second floor of the palace.

“Climbed,” the boy answered, as if that were nothing.

Ravn gaped at him. “By the Nine! You climb like a cat!”

Suddenly the child began to cough, wracking harsh coughs that shook his small frame.

Loki frowned. "I don't like the sound of that cough. Ravn. see if you can find some clothes for him, I'm sure the castle secondhand bin has something that will fit him. And can you ask Helga to give you some of her cough syrup and chicken soup, please? I'm going to run a bath for him, he's freezing."

"Yes, My Prince," Ravn bowed and left.

Loki sent to Thor, Brother, I got delayed. I found a sick child on my balcony and am giving him a bath. Please tell Mother, Father, and Viva I send my regrets and will bring the game as soon as possible.

So that's what kept you, Thor replied. I will tell them. Do you need help?

 

No, Ravn and I can handle this. He's shy, I don't want him to be frightened.

I understand.

"Come, Balder. Would you like to take a hot bubble bath?" Loki asked kindly.

Balder's teeth chattered. "Y-yes, s-sir." The boy went to follow Loki, the towel dragging behind him.

They headed into the bathroom as Balder looked around the elegant room while Loki filled the tub with warm water and Balder walked over to  the large marble tub. There were thick green rugs on the floor and gold fixtures with a large green granite counter and sinks. Off to one side was another small door that led to the toilet.

"Let's get you out of those wet clothes, lad."

"N-no," Balder said, shaking his head and he backed up.

Loki raised an eyebrow. "Why not? You going to take a bath with your clothes on? That's kind of silly, don't you think?”

"Uh...."

Loki cautiously moved closer then he removed the towel from Balder's shoulders and helped the boy undress.

He noted the boy's clothing had at one time been good quality, but was now dirty, and torn. He gently removed Balder's shirt,  observing how skinny he was. "When was the last time you ate, Balder?"

"Two days ago. Dame Agnilda at the temple gave me bread and cheese and fruit."

Nodding, Loki placed the shirt on the towel then he saw Balder was barefoot.

"Where are your shoes?"

"Someone took them off me."

"They stole your shoes?!"

"They said I wasn't going to need them."

Loki shook his head. "Where are your parents?"

"My mother went to Valhalla after she had my baby brother. And my father died two years before that when his ship crashed. Then Mother married Lars."

"I see."

"Lars said it was my fault Mother died.  She was sick while my baby brother was inside her and Lars told me I had to be good or Mother would die."

 

Loki was shocked.

How dare someone tell their child that?! he thought.

"Balder, it was not your fault. Sometimes things happen when a lady has a baby, and only the Norns determine how long we live. You shouldn't blame yourself." He knelt and removed the boy's trousers, which were ragged and filthy.

Loki suddenly noticed the scars over the boy's arms, legs, chest and stomach.

"Turn around," Loki whispered.  Balder turned around and Loki's heart slammed hard in his chest at the scars on the boy's back.

"Lars beat me," Balder said, softly.

"That bastard!" Loki swore.  "Why?"

"He said I was bad and that I killed my mother."

Balder started sobbing while tears rolled down his cheeks and Loki pressed his lips into a thin line.   He carefully placed his hands on the boy's thin shoulders while Balder looked at him and Loki softly smiled.

"Don’t cry. You’re  here now and I swear my family and I will make sure he never lays a hand on you again," Loki assured him and Balder nodded.  Loki checked the water when he helped Balder into the tub and Ravn entered the room with clean clothes and a pair of child's soft leather boots.

"Where do you wish these, My Prince?" Ravn asked.

"Just place them over there," Loki said, pointing to the counter and Ravn placed the clothes on the counter.

"Do you require my help?"

"You can bring me some soap, a washcloth and that blue bottle."

Ravn picked up the blue bottle of medicated shampoo as he brought the things to the tub and he handed them to Loki.

He then saw the scars on Balder's back and Loki shook his head.  Nodding, Ravn left the room as Balder looked down and Loki saw the sadness in his eyes.  With a wave of his hand, toy boats appeared in the water and Balder's eyes widened.

"It's all right.  You can play with them," Loki said.

"Thank you," the child said. He smiled wistfully. "I used to have a sea monster I played with. Until Lars threw it away. He said I was too old for silly toys like that."

His eyes widened when a toy sea monster appeared from behind a pile of bubbles and he laughed.

Loki let the boy play for awhile then he held out the washcloth and soap and Balder nodded.  Balder washed off his body when the water turned black and Loki waved his hand to clean the water.

"When was the last time you had a bath?" Loki asked.

"Dunno. A long time, I guess. Before Lars made me leave," he replied.

"I see."

Loki helped rinse the boy off when Loki picked up the blue bottle and Balder looked at it questioningly.

"What is that?" Balder asked.

"It's a special shampoo.  It has medicine in it to remove any bugs or lice in your hair."

"My head has been itchy."

Loki poured some of the white shampoo into his hands then he washed Balder's matted hair and Balder winced.

"Sorry," Loki said and Balder nodded.

After rinsing Balder's hair, Loki helped him out of the marble tub and he wrapped Balder in the soft thick towel.

He saw that the boy's hair was now a bright golden color.

Loki helped Balder dry off then dress when they walked back into the bedroom and Ravn smiled at Balder.

"Did you enjoy your bath?" Ravn asked.

"Ye-yes sir," Balder said when he started coughing and his body shook.

"You need to be in bed." Loki said quietly.

"I don't have a bed.  Lars made me sleep on the floor," Balder said.

Loki bit his lip hard to keep from spitting out a swear word.

"I made up the couch for you," Ravn said.  Balder saw the pillows, sheet and blankets on the couch, and his eyes were like saucers. He walked over and touched them like they were the most precious things in the world.

Balder climbed onto the couch and Loki tucked him in. He took the brown bottle of cough syrup Ravn brought and measured out a dose.

 

Balder looked alarmed. "What's that?"

"It's cough medicine," Loki answered.

"Does it taste gross?"

"No. It tastes like cherries. Now open up," Loki ordered.

Balder obeyed, screwing his eyes closed and opening his mouth.

Loki popped the spoon in and the boy swallowed.

"It tastes good!”

"Told you so," Loki said and ruffled his hair.

"Here you go, Master Balder," Ravn placed a tray with some soup, a piece of bread with butter, and hot cocoa on his lap.

Balder's eyes widened. "All this for me?"

"You look like you haven't eaten in a month," Loki said. "Go ahead, eat as much as you can."

The boy didn't need to be told twice, he began to eat like the food would run away from him.

"Slow down, lad.  You don't want to choke!" Loki teased and Balder slowed down.  After he was finished, Balder handed the tray to Ravn and Ravn smiled.

"Thank you, sir," Balder said.

"You're welcome.  And you may call me Ravn," Ravn said.  With a big yawn, Balder closed his eyes and he soon fell asleep.  Loki noticed the boy sounded a little congested as he hushed Ravn, picked up the game, and they walked to the door.

"Will you please stay with him until I get back?" Loki asked.

"Of course, My Prince," Ravn said. 

Loki stalked down the hall, struggling to control his temper.

He returned to the dining room to find both the king and queen, Thor, and Viva waiting for him.

“Who is this child you found, Loki?” Frigga asked, her eyes bright with concern. “Was he lost?”

“No, not exactly. He got caught in the storm and took shelter on my balcony. He said he was hiding from his step-father.”

“How old is he?”

“Around five, I believe. He says his name is Balder.” Loki told her the rest of what the child had told him about his parents and step-father.

"Mother, he cannot go back to that piece of trash! Lars beat him and left scars all over him. He told the poor boy he killed his mother and deserved it. I want to horsewhip that bastard!"

Loki's eyes flared a deep green, nearly black with anger.

Viva laid a hand upon his arm. "Loki, calm down. Lars is not here for you to make him answer for his crimes. And you don't wish to frighten poor Balder."

With a monumental effort, Loki wrestled his temper back under control.

Odin and Thor also looked angry, and so did Frigga and Viva.

Frigga pursed her lips and said softly, "You are right, Loki. We cannot send him back to a person who hurts him. Did he tell you the names of his parents?"

"No. Just how they died. His father died when his ship crashed and his mother died after she gave birth to his little brother."

Frigga gasped. "Oh! I think I know who they were!"

"Did they serve here at court?" Odin asked. "I seem to recall one of our nobles had a tragedy like that, but I can't recall his name at the moment."

"It was Lord Bjorn of Ironwood!" Frigga exclaimed. "His wife was Rena, she used to be my maid-of-honor before she married him. She had a little boy they named Balder. Then, after Bjorn died in that awful crash--his ship exploded upon re-entry, remember, it hit an asteroid before it did so--she married another lord, Lars Svenson. And she had another boy, Leif. Only she had complications and died afterwards. Such a shame!"

"And the baby, Leif? Did he live?" Thor queried.

"Yes, he did," Frigga murmured.

"If Lars was abusing Balder, then perhaps he ran away?" Odin mused.

Loki shook his head. "No, Father. Balder told me Lars made him leave. He probably told the boy he was bad and no one wanted him." His hands clenched into fists.

“The question now should be why?” Viva queried. “If Balder were the elder son, then the estate and whatever money his parents had would be his when he is grown. Lars would only be the caretaker, am I right?”

Odin nodded. “Normally, the way in which these things work, is the children of a lord’s first marriage inherit the property and most of the revenue it brings in. When Bjorn died, it would have reverted to Rena, as Balder’s guardian, to take care of it until he was grown. Then when Rena died, it would fall to Lars to be the guardian. And Leif would get a trust, but not the estate because that would belong to Balder.”

“Which is a motive to get rid of Balder,” Thor spoke up. “If Balder is missing or presumed dead, the estate would pass to Leif.”

“Is Ironwood a rich estate, Mother?” Loki queried.

“Yes, at least it was when Rena married Bjorn,” Frigga answered. “She would not have wanted for anything. Bjorn was a good businessman and husband, from what I knew of him. They were very much in love. Rena was broken-hearted when he was killed.”

“Why did she marry Lars?” Thor wondered.

“Well, after two years perhaps she was lonely and wanted to give Balder a father,” Frigga surmised. “They weren’t married all that long before she was with child. But the pregnancy did not go well. She was in poor health and in the end . . . such a sad tale!”

Viva nodded. “I wonder if they ever loved each other? Or if Lars only married her so he could get his hands on Ironwood?”

“That’s possible given how he treats her son,” Odin said. “But we are getting nowhere with this speculation. I will summon Lord Ironwood to court and then question him and see what he has to say for himself.”

“Nothing he could say justifies hurting Balder the way he has!” Loki declared.

“No, he will answer for that, fear not, Loki.” Odin reassured his angry son. “And Balder will become a ward of the kingdom . . . you may be his guardian if you wish.”

Loki blinked, startled. “Me? But . . . I don’t know anything about raising a child.”

“It seems to me you’ve done a better job than Lars so far, my son,” Frigga said approvingly.

“Well, I just . . . did what anyone would do for a sick child,” Loki protested.

“Most people would have called a servant to take care of a child that was not his or her blood relation,” Odin pointed out. “You have shown compassion and kindness, Loki. As your mother has said, you will make a good guardian for the lad. If you choose to be.”

“I . . . I would have to think it over,” Loki stammered, nervous about suddenly being responsible for anyone except himself.

“Take your time. In the meanwhile, shall we play a game?” the king chuckled.

Loki set up the game board and they began to play a rousing game of Empires.

 

Loki’s chambers:

 

Balder slept deeply, his breathing raspy and hoarse, and Ravn dozed in a chair. Axelle suddenly came out from beneath the bed, and went over and sniffed the sleeping boy. Finding nothing to be alarmed over, the kitten jumped onto the couch and curled up next to Balder, purring happily. Soon all three occupants were asleep.

Loki returned to his room and smiled at the sight of the boy, the kitten, and the valet all in repose. “Too bad I couldn’t paint this like Viva,” he murmured.

He heard a tap at his door and said, “Who is it?”

“Loki, it’s your mother,” Frigga called softly.

Loki opened the door and the queen entered. “Did you come to see my little guest?” He indicated the sleeping Balder. “He seems to have won over my cat.”

She laughed softly. “How sweet he looks!” she approached the couch and peered down at the boy. “He looks so much like Rena, Loki! I do believe this is her boy.” She brushed a lock of Balder’s golden hair from his forehead. Then she frowned, and placed the back of her hand on his forehead.

“What is it, Mother? Has he grown worse?” Loki asked, alarmed.

“I think he had a fever, Loki. Do you have a thermometer?”

“Yes, one moment,” Loki went into the bathroom and fetched the thermometer from the medicine cabinet.

Frigga took it and ran it over Balder’s forehead until it beeped, then she looked at the reading. “Norns! I was right! He has a fever.”

Loki saw the reading too. “What shall we do? Should we wake him to give him something to bring it down?”

“Well . . . the fever elixir would help, but I hate to wake the child. This is probably the first decent sleep he’s had in a long time.” Frigga thought for a moment. “I know! I will ask Eir to bring a fever reducer patch. We can put that on him for now and it will prevent the fever from going higher. Once he wakes, we can give him the elixir and have her examine him. He may have caught a respiratory infection from being out in the rain.”

Frigga went to Loki’s wall com and tapped in the number for the infirmary. In moments Eir’s face appeared on the display.

“You have need of my services, My Queen?” the Head Healer asked.

“Not for myself, for a sick little boy,” Frigga told her and then explained what had happened to Balder.

“I shall come at once, Majesty,” Eir said and then she turned off the connection.

In a few minutes the Healer was in Loki’s room, examining the sleeping boy and asking some questions about him. Loki told her what he knew about the boy’s health and how he had found him.

Eir ran a little med scanner over the child and nodded at the results. “He seems to have caught a chill, My Prince. And has some congestion in his lungs, as well as a fever.” She removed a fever reducer patch from her bag. “This will alleviate the fever for now, but the elixir I will give you is stronger.” She placed the patch on Balder’s forehead, it turned red. “When it turns green, remove it, My Prince.” She left instructions to give Balder the fever elixir and a stronger cough medicine. “Make sure he drinks plenty of liquids—water, juice, tea, cocoa—but avoid milk because that can cause more phlegm to build up.  He can eat whatever he wishes, but don’t let him run around. He needs rest most of all. If he gets worse, call me.”

“Thank you, Eir,” Frigga said, and then the Healer bowed and left. The queen looked at her son. “Will you be all right watching him, Loki?”

He nodded. “I shall be fine, Mother. Let me wake Ravn so he can sleep in his own bed.”

Once he had done so, Ravn woke and apologized, but Loki just waved him off and told him to get some rest.

He bid Frigga good night, then he undressed and did some meditation exercises before he wrote in his journal. When his eyelids grew heavy he set it aside and crawled beneath the sheets.  Soon he was asleep, and dreaming pleasantly.

Loki slept for several hours, until he was wakened near dawn by Axelle pawing at his face and mewing.

“Huh? What’s the matter, girl?” he yawned.

The kitten ran over to the couch and meowed. Loki saw that Balder was restless, tossing and turning and moaning in his sleep.

Loki sprang out of bed and ran to the couch. He saw the fever patch was almost green, meaning the fever was down, but that did not relieve him. Balder whimpered and Loki knew he was in the throes of a nightmare.

Empathy welled up in the sorcerer prince, and he gently rested his hand on the child’s shoulder. “It’s all right, Balder,” he whispered, not knowing if the boy could hear him but knowing that his voice might bring the child out of the nightmare he wandered in.

Balder stirred, and Loki began to hope he was waking up, until the boy cried, “Please . . . Please I’ll be good! I’ll do anything . . .anything . . .!” He clutched Loki’s sleeve, and tears leaked from his closed eyes. “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!”

Loki stroked the child’s hair and murmured, “Hush, Balder! No one’s going to leave you. It’s only a dream.”

Suddenly the boy woke, his blue eyes wide with fear and pain.

“Balder, it’s all right,” Loki said soothing.

Suddenly the boy started crying. “He left me! All alone! He said—he said he didn’t want me . . . that no one would ever want me again  . . .!”

He dissolved into tears and acting on instinct, Loki picked up the boy and held him. “He lied, Balder    . . . . shhh . . . shhh . . .” The child buried his face in Loki’s shoulder and wept, and Loki held him close, patting his back, and let him cry.

Loki knew exactly how the child felt, for he had felt that way too long and long ago. But unlike Balder, Loki had managed to find the love he had been denied, whereas he doubted Balder’s stepfather would ever love the boy.  

At last the boy quit sobbing and just lay quietly in Loki’s arms, listening to the sound of his heartbeat. He sniffled and began to cough, and Loki pulled a handkerchief from the air and held it to Balder’s face. “Blow, alskling.” He ordered softly, calling Balder the word for “dear one” in Norse.

Balder obeyed and then sighed.

“Feel better?” Loki asked.

The boy nodded, keeping his face hidden.

“Look at me, please,” Loki requested.

Balder slowly lifted his head. “Sorry. Don’t mean to act like—like a crybaby.”

“You’re not,” Loki refuted. “Everyone needs a good cry once in awhile. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“It’s not? But Lars said—” He halted when Loki put a finger to his lips.

“Now, I want to know who you believe, me or Lars?”

Balder swallowed. “You, Prince Loki.”

“Good! I knew you were smart.” Loki praised.

Balder gave him a tentative smile. Then he coughed again.

“Hmm. I think you need more medicine.” Loki took the new bottle of cough elixir and gave Balder a spoonful. Then he took the fever elixir and gave him that also. He noticed the patch had turned green and removed it.

As he tucked the little boy back in his bed, Axelle came and rubbed against his hand. Loki petted her under chin.

"Who's that?" Balder asked curiously.

"This is Axelle, my forest kitten," Loki told him. "Axelle, meet Balder."

The golden kitten purred loudly and Balder gently petted her. "She's really soft!"

"She is. She likes when you stroke her like this," Loki ran his hand down the kitten's back to the base of her tail.

Axelle arched up into his hand, purring happily.

Balder giggled. "I always wanted a cat. But Lars said they were useless animals."

Loki rolled his eyes. "Lars sounds like he was a useless animal." He continued petting the feline. "Right, darling?" Axelle meowed. "See, she agrees with me."

"Me too!" the little boy whispered. Then he gulped and looked around as if afraid his step-father would emerge out of the air.

Loki saw and said quietly, "Don't be afraid. He'll never hurt you again. I swear by the Norns."

“Do you promise, sir?”

“Yes.” Loki paused, then said, “You were dreaming and you said that no one wanted you. Did Lars tell you that?”

“Uh huh. Nobody’s wanted me since my mother died,” Balder sniffled.

Loki felt his heart break at the forlorn tone. He gently tipped the boy’s head up so he was looking into the prince’s eyes. “Well, now someone does.”

Balder gasped. “Who?”

“Me.”

The boy’s whole face lit up with joy and he smiled, a smile so bright it was as though the sun were shining at midnight.

Then his small arms came around Loki’s waist and hugged him. For a moment, Loki was astonished at the way the boy trusted him, a stranger he had only just met. But then he hugged the child back and all he could think of was how very right it felt to have Balder in his arms.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

After getting Balder back to sleep, Loki lay awake in his large four poster bed, thinking about the boy's plight and something Viva had said to him recently. The Mind Healer had told him that sometimes helping another heal could mend wounds in your own psyche. It was as though the act of healing another rebounded upon you and allowed you to heal yourself. Loki did not doubt her words, though he wondered if that were true of him and Balder. He decided it was too soon to tell.

Snuggling beneath his green blanket and gold sheets, Loki tried to fall asleep, but his mind kept coming back to Odin's suggestion that he become Balder's guardian—assuming his stepfather proved unfit for the position. Loki had a sickening feeling that Lars was not only unfit, but vindictive and cruel as well.

Even so, how can I be a parent? I don't even have the faintest idea what I'm doing. And my own experiences as a child aren't one I could use as a model. Being a parent is a great responsibility, being a GOOD parent even more so. He picked nervously at the blanket. He's already had one bad parent. And while I won't beat him like Lars, what if I do something wrong? I don't want to repeat the mistakes my fathers made, but what if I am doomed to repeat them? He put his head in his hands, rubbing his temples. Norns! How do I know if I will be any good at being a father? I've never even been around children on a regular basis until recently with Vanora and all I did was hold her.

He fell asleep still fretting, and woke starving and slightly tired. Axelle was standing on his arm, meowing for him to feed her.

"All right, keep your fur on!" he ordered grumpily.

From the couch came a small giggle.

Loki glanced over and saw that Balder was awake, sitting up among the blankets. "Good morning!" he called to the boy, then he ruffled his kitten's fur. "I'd better feed Axelle before she starts nibbling on my toes."

Balder laughed.

"Think that's funny, do you?" Loki teased.

"Uh huh!"

"Well, then I'll tell her to start with you!" he winked at the boy.

Then he rose and found the small dishes and filled them with water and food—today the cook had made scrambled eggs and salmon diced small for his kitten.

Axelle ran over to her dish and began to eat hungrily.

"Glutton!" Loki said fondly. He walked over to Balder. "How are you feeling?"

"Better, sir," the boy said, then he coughed.

"Hmm. You still need rest and medicine though." Loki said.

"Aww!" the child groaned.

"Ah ah!" Loki tisked at him. "You be a big boy and take your medicine and I will give you a surprise after breakfast."

"Really? What kind?"

"That's for me to know and you to wait and see," Loki said, tweaking the boy's nose playfully.

"I'll be good," Balder said eagerly, wondering what Loki was going to give him.

Loki gave him both medicines and some juice, which was in a covered pitcher on the table.

Balder drank it down, then went to the bathroom. Afterwards, he returned to the couch and lay down, finding he was still tired.

Ravn came into the room, greeted his master and the boy, then went to pick out Loki's clothing. "Any preference today, My Prince?"

"No. Pick what you like," Loki said.

Ravn chose a gold shirt over green pants with a green leather vest. A black belt went well with the ensemble as did his cloak. Once he had done so, Loki put them on.

"Shall I bring you and Master Balder some breakfast, My Prince?" Ravn offered.

"Yes, please," Loki answered.

Ravn hurried from the room, returning some minutes later with two trays on a cart.

"Here you go," the valet said, and uncovered the trays.

There was tea for Loki and some sweet plum juice for Balder. There were scrambled eggs, maple glazed bacon, and small pancakes with bananas and honey cinnamon syrup.

Loki inhaled the delectable aroma and then began eating, saying happily, "I'm glad that the cook made pancakes this morning. This is one of my favorite things to eat."

He peered over at Balder and noticed the boy wasn't eating. Instead he was staring at the pancakes and looking as though he was about to cry.

"Balder? Is something wrong?"

The child shook his head.

"No? Then why do you look upset? Do you not like something? If you do, you only need to tell me and I will get you whatever you wish to eat." Loki told him, guessing the boy might be afraid to say he didn't like a particular food.

Balder shook his head again, blinking back tears.

Loki set down his fork and went over to the couch, saying gently, "Something is bothering you. Won't you tell me what it is? I can't help you unless I know what's the matter."

Balder sniffled and swiped his sleeve over his nose.

"Here," Loki handed him a handkerchief. "Use that."

Balder did so, then continued staring down at his breakfast.

Loki waited patiently.

Finally the boy said, "I like these fine, sir. But . . . Mama used to make these same kind of pancakes and bacon for breakfast before . . ." He stopped, starting to get teary eyed again.

"Oh. If you don't wish to eat them, that's all right." Loki soothed, understanding.

"No!" Balder yelped. "I like them, really I do."

Loki returned to the table and resumed eating, content to let Balder eat at his own pace.

After a moment, Balder slowly started eating. He dabbed his eyes with the handkerchief when he began eating the pancakes, but other than that seemed happy to be mending.

After the food was eaten, Balder snuggled under the blankets and Axelle hopped onto the couch. She settled on top of blanket while Loki smiled and Axelle started purring.

"She purrs really loud," Balder said, smiling.

"Yes, she does," Loki said, sipping on the coffee in the white mug and he placed the mug on the table.

"Can you tell me a story?" Balder asked and Loki gave him a slightly startle look. "Mama used to tell me stories when I was poorly."

Loki got up when he brought the chair over with him and he sat the chair next to the couch. He sat down as he thought for a few minutes when he remembered a Midgard story he liked as a child.

In the Feast Hall:

Thor, Sif and the Warriors Three ate their breakfast when Sif looked around and noticed Loki wasn't sitting in his usual spot at the table.

"Where is Loki?" Sif asked.

"Did he have another episode?" Fandral asked.

"No, he is fine," Thor said as he drank down some coffee. "In fact, Lady Viva said he had a major breakthrough."

"That's wonderful!" Volstagg said while one of his children sat on his lap and she grabbed some bacon off his plate. He laughed as he kissed the top of her head and Thor smiled.

"You are spoiling her," Hogun grumbled.

"Like you would be a ray of sunshine if you had children, Grim One," Fandral teased and Hogun glared at him.

"Good morning," Viva said as they looked at her.

"Good morning, Healer," Thor said.

"Where is Loki?"

She hadn't felt him stressed or upset when she woke up, but she had sensed something was wrong.

"That is what we were wondering," Sif said.

Thor decided he better tell them about Balder when he bit into to a slice of bacon and Viva waited for him to speak. He chewed then swallowed when he sat back and they looked at him.

"I guess I should tell you the truth. You see, he found a small boy out on his balcony last night...," Thor said.

"What was this boy doing out on Loki's balcony?" Sif asked.

Thor explained what had happened, much to the shock and anger of his friends. "So that is most likely where Loki is right now, taking care of Balder."

Viva sat down and ate, listening to the others mutter about Balder's situation and how they would have gone to Lars and demanded he account for his awful behavior-at the point of a sword if necessary, Viva agreed with them, and was glad the Allfather would call the abusive lord to account.

Meanwhile, Loki began telling Balder the old Norwegian fairytale of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Loki had always enjoyed that story as a child because it showed the goats having to outwit the hungry troll under the bridge in order to cross it. However, being Loki, he decided to add a few things to make the tale even more interesting.

"Once upon a time, long ago in Midgard, there lived three billy goats. They were brothers, the Gruffsons, and they lived on Midgard in a high lonely place called Norway. Each day they would travel to a meadow where the sweetest grasses grew and eat their fill until they were fat . . "

As he spoke, the sorcerer prince gestured with one hand and made an illusion appear of a lovely meadow filled with thick blue-tipped grass and three goats wearing small caps of different colors eating in it.

Balder gasped in delight, his mouth hanging open.

Loki continued, hiding a grin.

"The goat's names were Edgar, Bert and Frith," Loki told him. "Edgar was the eldest, with a fine white beard. Bert was the middle brother, he had a brown and white spotted coat and thought he was quite handsome, and Frith was the youngest, a little black goat with clever green eyes, and out of all the brothers he was the smartest . . ."

Loki made the goats all trot over to "look" at Balder, so the boy could see what they looked like, then he waved a hand and the scene changed to an old stone bridge over a fast moving stream.

"Now, the only bad part of reaching the meadow was the brothers needed to cross an old stone bridge over a stream to get there. And under the bridge there lived a nasty, wicked, ugly old—TROLL!"

Loki growled that last word and suddenly the troll appeared from under the bridge—all snaggly teeth and yellow eyes and warty green leathery skin with claws.

Balder yelped in pretend fright.

"The troll's name was Bone Picker, because he liked to use the bones of his prey to pick his teeth with after he ate them . . ."

"Ooh! The Gruffsons better watch out!" the little boy cried.

Loki smirked. "They should . . . but listen to what happens next . . ."

Balder listened and watched the illusionary story, enraptured, his cobalt eyes huge with wonder and awe.

"So the next day, Frith gamboled up to the stone bridge, and began to run across it, his hooves making a loud sound—trip trap, trip trap—and it woke up Bone Picker . . ."

Balder gasped. So did Volstagg, Sif, Thor, and Fandral, who had come to see how Loki was getting on with his new charge. The Thunder God and his friends huddled in a knot in the doorway of Loki's room, and were soon joined by Viva, who saw them gathered there and wondered what in Asgard they were doing.

Loki's voice floated into the hallway.

"Come on Bert and Edgar!" Frith called. "You three are slower than molasses on a misty morning!"

Loki made his voice high-pitched and added a goat's nyahin noise to it.

Thor's shoulder's shook when he heard the ridiculous noise Loki made. Brother, you should have been on stage!

Loki waved a hand and suddenly Bone Picker sprang up from beneath the bridge with a terrible roar, all his teeth showing.

"Ahhh!" Balder yelped and covered his eyes with his hands.

So did Fandral.

Hogun rolled his eyes and smacked the blond warrior in the back of the head.

"Sweet Valhalla, Fandral!"

"What?" hissed the handsome warrior. "It was scary!"

Viva put a finger to her lips." Shhh!"

Luckily, Loki was too intent upon his storytelling to realize he had an audience.

"Who is trip, trap, trip trapping on my bridge?!" Bone Picker demanded and Frith stood tall, holding his head high.

"I am Frith the Brave! Stand aside so I can cross!" Frith demanded.

Bone Picker looked at the goat when he laughed and shook his head.

Balder peeked out from behind his fingers as the troll growled at the goat then he moved his fingers back.

"He is going to give the lad nightmares," Volstagg whispered.

"Shhh! I can't hear!" Fandral whispered.

"No one crosses my bridge without paying a toll!" Bone Picker snarled, showing all his snaggly fangs.

"W-What sort of toll?" Frith asked, frightened.

"The sort that ends up with you in a stew!" the troll sneered. "I've got a hankering for goat stew!"

"Eeep!" squeaked the little goat. "Oh please, Master Troll, don't eat me!"

"And why not?"

"Because . . . because I am small and scrawny without a lot of meat, only gristle!" Frith stammered. "I need fattening up before I am good enough to eat!"

"Hmmm . . . " Bone Picker considered. "If I let you go, what do I get out of it?"

"Nothing!" Sif snorted.

"Shhh! I want to hear what happens!" Thor muttered.

"We-ell . . ." Frith thought fast. "I have two big brothers coming right behind me . . ."

He let the troll draw his own conclusions.

Greedy, Bone Picker laughed. "Go on then! I don't need a toothpick when I can have a banquet!"

Frith ran across the bridge. He prayed to the Norns his brothers could outfox the troll.

Soon Bert, the middle brother came trip-trapping along the bridge.

As before, the troll bellowed, "Who is that I hear trip-trapping along my bridge?"

Bert reared up when he saw the troll in front of him. "Whoo asks?"

"I am Bone Picker the Terrible! And all who wish to cross my bridge must pay a toll!" The troll licked his lips.

Balder frowned. "I hope Bert can make him let him pass."

"Me too!" whispered Volstagg.

"They're going to have to kill it, or else . . ." Hogun predicted.

Thor scowled at them and they hushed.

Loki now used Thor's voice for Bert. "I am Bert the Bold and I say you are nothing but a coward, Nose Picker!"

"Hey! That's Bone Picker to you!"

Balder giggled. "That's telling him!"

Loki smirked. "But Bert wasn't afraid, despite the fact that trolls ate goats. He told Bone Picker, "I bet you can't chase me to the end of the bridge!"

"That goat's crazy!" Volstagg coughed.

"He sounds like Thor!" Fandral remarked.

"He's brave like him." Viva asserted.

They listened with bated breath as Loki told how Bert led Bone Picker on a merry chase across the bridge—and got to the other side, leaving the troll gnashing his teeth.

"Clever!" Thor approved.

"But what happens next?" the little boy asked. "That troll's gonna be hopping mad now!"

"You're right!" Loki grinned. "And along came the oldest brother, Edgar."

Again the troll yelled, "Who is that trip-trapping across my bridge?"

"I am Edgar the Excellent!" Edgar cried, and he was almost as big as Bone Picker, with large curling horns.

"And you'll make an excellent stew!" Bone Picker cried, and lunged at the goat.

The listeners all gasped.

"Oh no!" Balder cried. "Does he get eaten?"

"Wait and see!" Loki told him and continued.

But Edgar ducked and head butted the troll, saying, "I see something even better than a goat! Look in the water! There is a large salmon swimming upstream! He is so big he could feed ten trolls!"

Bone Picker spun around. "Where? I will have it!" He ran to the edge of the bridge to look into the water.

As he did so, Edgar, Bert, and Frith all ran up behind him and slammed him with their horns.

Balder cheered.

So did Sif and the others.

"Then Bone Picker toppled into the water and being a troll, he sank like a stone, because everybody knows trolls can't swim. And so the three Gruffsons went on to their pasture, and ate all the sweet grass they could hold. Later, they all trip-trapped home over the bridge, which was now safe again thanks to three brave brothers and a dumb greedy troll who had bitten off more than he could chew!" Loki finished the tale.

As he did so, he ceased speaking in Odin's voice and the illusions vanished.

"That was a great story, Prince Loki!" Balder cried. Then he yawned. "But I'm kinda sleepy right now."

Loki smiled. "That's good. You need your rest." He tucked the boy in and within moments the child was fast asleep.

Loki smiled down at the child, and thought how much he had enjoyed that. He stroked the kitten and whispered, "You stay with him, all right?"

Axelle yawned and curled up on the blanket.

Loki turned to ring for Ravn and saw Thor, Viva, Sif, and the Warriors all standing in the doorway. "Why are you all lurking in the doorway?"

"We . . . ahhh . . . wanted to see how the boy was doing?" Thor coughed, looking embarrassed.

"Yes, we thought you might need help," Sif added.

Loki frowned. "No, but thank you for offering. As you can see, he's asleep." He eyed the rest of them. "It took all of you to come and see how he's doing?"

"It was Thor's idea," Fandral said.

Hogun said nothing, but contrived to look innocent.

"The lad seems to be getting better," Volstagg said.

"Sleep is the best medicine," Viva added, hiding her amusement.

Loki nodded. "I agree. As long as you don't have nightmares."

"But if he does, you know what to do," Viva encouraged.

Loki looked at them all again, thinking something was up but not knowing what it could be. He rang for Ravn, and asked him to watch Balder again while he went and had a session with Viva.

The others dispersed when the valet came, and Volstagg whispered to Thor, "Your brother is quite the storyteller. I wouldn't mind hearing another!"

"I agree," Thor said.

"Loki makes the stories come alive," Hogun hissed as they walked down the hall.

"Perhaps he should consider a career in storytelling," Sif said.

Thor laughed. "I'll tell him you said so."

He was impressed beyond words at how well Loki seemed to get on with Balder. Loki will be a good father. He seems to have a knack for getting children to trust him. Who would have thought?

Viva's chambers:

"How have you been sleeping since we banished Maw and Thanos?" Viva queried, sitting on the couch next to Loki. Kiva was curled on her lap, dozing with her tail over her nose.

"Quite well actually," Loki replied. "What fears I have I seem to be able to control with help from my diffuser and the meditation techniques Tyr taught me. So far I have not had a panic attack in a few days."

"I am glad to hear it. I think you have turned a corner," she said, pleased. "How do you feel about taking care of Balder? Does it make you anxious?"

Loki was amazed at her perceptiveness. Then again, she was an Empath. "Yes. Sometimes I feel like I am not ready for such great responsibility. And then there is the fact that we still have to meet with Lars and discuss things with him." Loki grimaced. "I am not looking forward to that at all."

"I don't blame you," Viva said feelingly. "The man seems like a nasty bastard."

"Anyone who could do what he did to a helpless child is someone who deserves to be beaten like he did Balder!" Loki said hotly. "I have never seen anything like that done to a child before. It . . . it's almost like the torture that Tyr and I endured. But that was different." Loki clenched his fists. "The boy just lost his mother and instead of comforting him, that piece of trash beats him and says he's to blame! What kind of man does that?"

"Someone who has much anger in his heart. Or someone who enjoys hurting those weaker than himself. Perhaps Lars found it easier to blame Balder for his wife's death than to accept the fact that it was the will of the Norns."

"Either way, that is not an excuse," Loki pointed out. "I know that some parents believe the only way to discipline is with a belt or a switch, but that is not so. My parents rarely used such methods on us. My mother never raised a hand to Thor or me, and my father only spanked Thor twice and me once, and he never used a whip or a belt. And once it was done he forgave us with a hug. For all his failings with me, Odin was not violent towards me."

"That is well. My mama was not a believer in using corporal punishment on me either," Viva said. "Though I know it was common for other families on the mountain, she always said that a child who is beaten learns to fear and not trust and that is not how it should be."

Loki cleared his throat. "She was right. But what can I do now to help him?"

Viva considered. "I would say just what you've been doing. Being compassionate and showing that you care about him. I suspect what was done to him happened recently, since his mother passed away. Something tells me that his step-father would never have dared behave in such a manner while Rena lived. Which could mean he is either grieving and taking it out on Balder, or that he harbored resentment and anger towards him and only when his wife was dead did he feel he could show it. Either way, it is not a situation that is safe for the boy."

"He will not go back there!" Loki said firmly. "Here in Asgard we have laws against such things. And if this was done so the boy would leave, or perhaps even die from ill treatment so the estate would pass to his younger brother and by extension, Lars, we will find out and Balder will have justice. I will see it done myself if necessary!"

There was fire in Loki's gaze, and Viva wanted to cheer upon seeing this side of him. It proved that he was finally beginning to come back from the dark place he had dwelled in, by standing up for a cause other than his own.

"I'm sure you would. However, I think that your parents intend to also seek justice on Balder's behalf," Viva pointed out. Then she asked, "Has he had any nightmares?"

"Yes," Loki answered and told her what Balder had dreamed of and what he had done. "I hope that was the right thing."

She smiled at him. "Comfort is always the right thing, Loki. He is probably starved for affection since losing his mother." She gave him a sorrowful glance. "I remember when I lost mine, I was older than he was, just past my majority, but I know that any kindness shown to me was like a balm to my spirit. It is probably like that for him also."

He patted her shoulder lightly. "I suppose you would know best. Does it ever go away? The pain and loss, I mean?"

"It lessens with time. But it really never leaves. It's always there in the back of your head. But it loses its sharpness after a while. Still, while I will always miss my mother, I take comfort in knowing she is in Valhalla and watching over me."

"Then perhaps Balder will know that peace too one day."

"I pray that is so," Viva said feelingly.

They played the guitar and harp for the rest of their session, discovering that they harmonized well, and just as they had finished a set, a knock came at the door.

It was Thor. "Father sent me to fetch the two of you. Lord Lars has returned with his guards and he wishes you two to be present for the hearing."

"Of course," Viva said, and they all trooped back into the audience chamber.

This was not the Great Hall where Odin sometimes heard petitions, but a smaller chamber with an elegantly padded throne where he heard petitions and cases of a more private nature. However, his secretary and several Council Members and the queen were present as well.

Lars stood between two guards, he was not restrained, but it was clear that he was not in the king's good graces. He was a tall man with wavy blonde hair and eyes like a muddy lake, somewhere between blue and brown. He was handsome enough, looking to be around two thousand years of age, as Asgardians measured time. He was fit and trim, wearing rich clothing—a velvet blue and gold doublet over a silk shirt and leather trousers with embroidery along the sides. His boots were fine quality and he wore a large gold chain and two golden arm rings with bears on them as well as several rings. His manner was haughty and cold, he did not seem worried about being summoned before his monarch.

Loki felt his lip curl in dislike. Everything about this man oozed privilege and arrogance, and knowing what he did made Loki long to put his fist through those perfect teeth.

He waited with Viva off to one side of the throne where Odin sat. Frigga sat next to him on her own throne. Both monarchs faces looked grave.

"I have come as you summoned me, Sire," Lars began, his voice a pleasant baritone.

"The reason you have been summoned is so we can discuss your step-son, Balder," Odin said. Lars fought hard not to show his contempt as he stood straighter and he stuck out his chin.

"Has he done something wrong?"

No, you motherless maggot, you have, Loki thought, still fighting the urge to hit him.

"No, he was found on my son Loki's balcony. He was wet, ill, and frightened. When questioned by my son, Balder told him he was hiding...from you!"

"Why would my son be hiding from me?!"

"Your son?!" Loki finally asked and Lars turned to look at him. Viva could sense the hate and anger coming from Lars and she brushed her hand against Loki's hand.

"That is why we have called you here, my lord," Frigga declared. "Did you even know that the boy was missing from your home?"

"Of course I noticed, My Queen," Lars said with a bow, but he didn't take his eyes from Loki.

"Did you send out men to look for him?" Odin asked.

"Yes, I have."

"Liar," Viva thought.

"My son told me Balder has been beaten."

"I don't know where the lad got that idea. I may have spanked his bottom, but I would never harm a child," Lars said with a humble look.

"I saw the scars," Loki said and the muscles on Lars' jaw twitched.

"He also told my son you have not only blamed him for his mother's death, but no one would want or love him," Odin said and Viva felt the anger building in Lars' mind.

"The child is obviously lying. I never said anything of the sort. Yes, I was crushed when my dear wife died after giving birth to my youngest son, but I never blamed Balder for her death," Lars said.

Viva looked at Lars then at Loki and Loki flexed his fingers.

"Then why would Balder run away from home?" Frigga asked.

"I guess he wanted attention. I have been busy since his mother died."

"Who is taking care of your youngest son?" Odin asked.

"His nanny has been taking care of him."

"Is she taking care of Balder as well?"

"No, we didn't need a nanny then. His mother took care of him."

"How long has Balder been missing?" Frigga asked shrewdly.

"It has only been a few days."

Odin arched his eyebrows when he sat back in the chair and he gave him a blank look.

"Really?" Loki said softly. "Are you sure you wouldn't like to rephrase that, my lord? Because the boy was very thin-as if he hadn't had a decent meal in weeks. His clothes were filthy and falling apart, and he had head lice. You don't get that way from a few days away from home."

Lars glared at Loki when tears appeared in Lars' eyes and he placed his hands in his face.

"Fine," Lars sobbed. "He has been gone for nearly two months. I... I had woken up one morning and he was gone! I sent men to find him, but they all came back with no word of him."

"Why didn't you send word of him missing?!" Odin demanded.

"I didn't wish to bother you, Sire," he said as he glanced at Loki. "You had your own problems."

Odin growled, but he soon calmed after Frigga placed her hand on top of his and Odin cleared his throat.

"I would not have been bothered," Odin said. "But I do find it odd that you didn't ask about your son's well-being once you found out he was here. I would have if it had been Thor or Loki."

Loki nodded in agreement.

"You didn't even ask where he was or if he was well?" Frigga added.

"How...? How is my son?" Lars asked.

"We have had our Head Healer examine him," Frigga replied. "He has a bad upper respiratory infection with a fever and she has instructed that he stay in bed until it is gone. Loki has been caring for him."

"You allowed that...?!" he demanded, stopped and he placed his hands behind his back. "Thank you, My Prince."

"What were you about to say?" Viva asked.

"I beg your pardon?"

"It sounds to me like you were going to say something insulting about Prince Loki."

"No, I wasn't," he said, shaking his head.

"Then you better watch your words," Odin said.

"May I see my son?" Lars asked.

Loki stiffened, all his instincts crying out for him to refuse. There was something slick and devious about Lars, something that put his back up in the worst way. "He is sleeping. Or was when I last saw him."

"If you wish, you can wait here until he wakes and says he wishes to see you," Odin said.

"If he wishes to see me?!" Lars asked, frowning.

"He seems frightened of you," Viva said.

"Like I told you, there is no reason for him to be frightened."

"Then you won't mind waiting," Frigga said. Odin noticed the anger flaring in Lars' eyes and Lars nodded.

Loki knew the other man was lying through his teeth. However, the lord was clever enough to pretend concern for his stepson. Somehow he needed to make Lars reveal his true colors.

Father, he's lying, Loki sent.

I know, but he is too clever to reveal his true nature just yet, Odin sent.

What do you suggest we do?

Odin thought for a moment. He knew that usually a man like Lars had a short fuse and hidden greed. The greed had motivated the lord to cast out his stepson so he could take over the estate, and his temper had led him to abuse the boy before doing so.

"You said earlier you had spanked your son. Will you explain why you did that?" Odin asked.

"He...," Lars said then he paused. "He had broken a vase. It had been in my family for centuries."

"Did he admit to breaking it?"

"No, he said it had been broken when he found it."

"I see. Was there some reason you did not believe him when he told you that?"

"His ball was sitting next to the remains of the vase."

"Did he say why the ball was there?"

"He said he had dropped it."

"But you didn't believe him?"

Viva could feel Lars was starting to panic as she glanced at Loki and he looked at her.

He is starting to panic, she sent.

"All children lie when they get in trouble," Lars blustered. "The boy was no different! His mother spoiled him-always keeping him by her, telling him stories about some knight on a white horse, even when I wished to spend time alone with her, he was there!" Resentment had begun to color his tone.

"He was always underfoot! Always talking about his father and how heroic his father was!"

"His father was a fine warrior," Odin said with a nod.

"His father died because he was careless and lost control over his ship!" Lars sneered. "Nothing heroic about that!"

"There was an inquiry after Bjorn's death and it was ruled accidental," Odin recalled. "There was nothing anyone could have done to prevent it."

"Do you want to know what the boy did at our wedding?! He pitched a fit! He was crying and screaming! His mother stopped the wedding so she could calm him down and held him through the rest of the ceremony!"

"That's understandable," Frigga said.

"She wanted to take him with us on our honeymoon!"

"How did you handle that?" Viva asked.

"She told him we would come back soon and she would bring him a present!"

"How old was he then?" Odin asked. "Two or three years old? Most small children are very attached to their parents at that age. Especially if one of them has died suddenly."

Lars snorted a breath of air as Loki arched his eyebrows up and he stood a little straighter.

"What happened when your wife became pregnant? Was he alright with being a big brother?" Loki asked.

"He asked a million and one questions. When was it going to be born, where was it, what did it look like, drove me up a wall! I swear, it's not natural for a boy to be so interested in such things!"

"It is only natural for a child to ask such questions. I remember asking questions while my mother was pregnant with my sister," Frigga said.

"I asked questions when Loki was a baby," Thor recalled. "And no one ever told me I was unnatural."

Viva felt the anger, fear and panic building in Lars and Lars made a soft growl.

"What about when your wife became ill while she was pregnant?" Frigga asked.

"I suggested she send the boy away to school so she could get rest. She didn't need the little pest by her all the time. But she wouldn't hear of it. Called me an insensitive beast! She said her son was staying here and that was that."

"Is that when you started telling him her illness was his fault?" Loki asked.

She got worse instead of better, and he was always watching with those huge blue eyes of his. Always wanting to know when she was going to get better and she was always so concerned with him. Look after Balder, she would tell me. Or why don't you spend some time with Balder? I told her I was too busy to bother with a boy's games and she asked me if I would say that when our baby was born."

"And what did you say?" Viva prompted.

"I told her that I would teach my son everything he needed to know about running an estate, but that was different."

"How so?"

"He was my blood."

"Which made him more important than Balder?" Loki asked.

"Yes, why would I care about someone else's brat?!"

Everyone in the room gasped.

"He is your son!" Odin said.

"No, he was her son! Mine is the one she died giving birth to!"

"Did you even care that she died?" Viva asked.

"No! She was weak! Just like her husband! Just like her brat!"

"So you never loved her?" Frigga queried.

"I married her because she was a rich widow and comely. I never wanted to be burdened with Bjorn's son." Lars pointed at Loki. "Oh don't look so shocked, Your Majesties! Can you honestly tell me that you love that freak Jotun more than your own true born son?"

"I beg your pardon?" Loki cried angrily.

"Oh, come now!" he sneered. "Everyone knows why they took you in-out of pity. And you have been a blot on the name of the family ever since! And to make matters worse, you are insane!"

"How dare you speak to my brother that way!" Thor said.

"It is true! I have heard the rumors! He is insane and dangerous! He should be destroyed like the monster he is!"

Viva looked at Loki, but she didn't sense any anger. Only calmness.

"The only monster I see is you, sir," Loki said with a calm tone. "Only a monster would abuse a child. Make him feel frightened, unwanted and unloved."

"Tell me, how long did you last before you spilled your guts, your traitorous coward? Five minutes?"

"You are out of line, my lord!" Frigga snapped wrathfully.

"He is a monster and a traitor!"

"Would you call General Tyr and his men monsters or traitors?" Viva asked.

"What do they have to do with this?!"

"They were captured like Prince Loki. They were beaten, tortured and went through other atrocities which we will never fully understand. So, I ask you again, are they traitors?!"

"No, they are heroes."

"So is my son," Odin said. "He endured months of torture and not once did he say anything."

"How can you be sure? He is the Lord of Lies, after all!"

"The only one who is lying is you! Now, tell me, when your wife died, who inherited her estate and money?"

"I did!"

"No, that is not true," Frigga said. "Yes, you are her husband, but her first concern would have been Balder. He would have inherited everything."

"And you would have been made his guardian until he came of age," Odin said.

"Unless something happened to him. Like he disappeared or met with an accident," Loki pointed out. "Then the estate and fortune would pass to your son."

Viva felt the panic rising in Lars as he glared at Loki.

"Or the throne would pass onto you if the Allfather, the Queen and Prince Thor died, am I right?!" Lars asked.

"I am warning you, Sir!" Odin growled.

Loki stiffened. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"When my wife died, her will stated she left everything to my son!"

"What about Balder?" Viva asked.

"She left him nothing."

"She would not have done that!" Frigga said.

"I demand you bring us the will so we can see for ourselves if this is true or not!" Odin demanded.

"It is in my vault," Lars declared. "I have no obligation to raise another man's brat."

"So you got rid of him?" Loki snapped.

"Aye! What use do I have for someone else's pup? It's what should have been done to you when you were brought here!"

"Are you saying that I am unworthy to be a son of the royal house?"

"You are a freak and a coward and unworthy to breathe the same air as me!"

Loki had had enough. He stepped forward and his palm cracked against the other's cheek like a pistol shot.

"You, sir, are a liar, a fraud, and a bullying coward! I demand satisfaction for your words!"

Lars gaped at him. "You can't be serious! You are challenging ME to a duel? With what weapon? Your insolent tongue?"

"No! We will use swords or blasters!"

Lars laughed. "Then we shall see you bleed yellow, cuckoo! My second will call on you tomorrow!"

"Alright!" Loki said. They watched the guards lead Lars out of the room when Loki puffed out a breath of air then he looked at Odin.

"Well done, My Son," Odin said.

"If it were me, I would have punched his face in," Thor said and Loki softly laughed.

"Yes, because you always think with your fists and not your head, Brother," Loki teased."

"What worries me is Balder's mother's will. I cannot believe she would leave everything to her youngest son and not leave anything to Balder," Frigga said.

"She wouldn't have, darling," Odin said.

"What should we do about it, Father?" Thor asked.

"I am going to petition the will be brought here while Lars prepares for the duel. If it is a forgery, then he has more to answer for than just banishing Balder."

"Be careful, Loki," Frigga said. "I trust not that forked tongued lizard. He has a reputation as a good swordsman."

"I will watch my back, Mother," Loki promised. "I have no intention of letting that cheating coward kill me."

"I shall pray to the Norns for your victory." The queen said.

"Don't worry, Mother. Loki will mop the floor with that braggart!" Thor told her.

"Now, if you will excuse me, I would like to go check on Balder," Loki said.

"Of course," Odin said, nodding. With a bow, Loki left the room with Viva behind him and she walked faster to walk beside him.

"Before you ask," Loki said, glancing at her. "No, I am not alright."

"I can sense you're upset. But I am surprised with how rude he was," Viva said.

"I'm used to it. You know there are people who know my true origins and think me nothing more than a monster, a traitor or a bastard."

"I thought your father was looking into who was spreading those rumors."

"He is," he said when they arrived at his chambers and Loki leaned against the door frame. "Should I tell Balder his step-father is here?"

"Yes, you should," she said and he opened the door.

They walked in the room as Viva looked at Balder sleeping on the couch and Axelle was curled up on the blanket. Loki softly walked to the couch when he knelt down and Axelle opened one eye.

"Hello, Girl," he said, scratching the kitten's ear. Balder yawned when he opened his eyes and Loki smiled at him. "How are you feeling?"

"Much better, sir," Balder said when he saw Viva he frowned. "Who is this?"

"This is Lady Viva. She's a friend."

"Hello, Balder," Viva said. She sensed his fear and worry as she sent comforting thoughts into his mind and he smiled.

"Balder, I need to tell you something," Loki said.

"What is it, sir?" Balder asked.

"King Odin sent for your step-father. He wanted to talk with him about what happened to you."

Viva felt the fear rushing toward her and Axelle jumped off him. Loki sat Balder up when he picked the boy up, sat down and he held Balder against him.

"He said I was lying, didn't he?" Balder asked. "He used to tell Mama I was lying all the time."

"He did?"

"Yeah," he said, sniffing. Loki handed him the handkerchief and he blew his nose.

"Well, King Odin didn't believe him."

"He didn't?"

"No, he didn't."

"Does that mean I don't have to go back with him?"

"No, you don't have to go with him if you don't want to."

"And you don't have to see him if you don't want to," Viva said.

"I don't want to see him ever again!" Balder said with a shake of his head. Loki held him a little tighter and Balder placed his head against Loki's chest. Loki's heartbeat was fast and loud. Balder looked up at him as Loki smiled and he gently rocked Balder back and forth.

"Was he mad when King Odin told him I wasn't lying?" Balder asked.

"Yes, he was," Loki said.

"He said some horrible things," Viva said.

"Most of them were about me."

"Why would he say bad things about you?" Balder asked.

"Because he believes the lies people have said about me."

"Did you get mad?"

"Yes, I did. in fact, I challenged him to a duel."

"No! You can't do that! He'll kill you!"

Balder started crying as Loki rocked him and Viva sent comforting thoughts into his mind.

"I promise I won't die," Loki said.

"But... But Mama told me he was an expert swordsman."

"So am I. I was trained by the best swordswoman in Asgard. Lady Brunhilde of the Valkyries."

Balder's eyes went wide. "Truly, Prince Loki?"

"I swear by the Nine," Loki said sincerely.

"Wow!"

"Do you feel like eating something?"

"Yes, sir."

Viva went to get the bell as Loki rang the bell and Ravn walked in the room.

"Do you need something, My Prince?" Ravn asked.

"Yes, we're hungry. Please bring us something," Loki said,

"At once," he said with a bow as he walked to the door, turned and he looked at Loki and Balder. "How are you feeling, Balder?"

"Much better. Thank you," Balder said. Nodding, Ravn left and Loki glanced at Balder. He knew he could win in the duel with Lars, but he also knew Lars would cheat to insure he would not be charged with abuse and neglect, but also robbing Balder of his inheritance.

I swear by the Nine I will not allow that to happen, Loki thought and held onto Balder while he tried to calm his mind and heart.

A/N: Hope you all liked! Thanks to everyone for R &Ring and have a Happy 4th of July for all my American readers!

Chapter Text

 

Loki woke the next morning to find Axelle sleeping next to his head and he slowly moved his hand up, scratching the kitten's ear. She purred contently in his ear as he yawned, sat up and he saw Balder was still sleeping. It took a long time to get the boy to go to sleep and he had woken Loki three times during the night with nightmares.

"Good morning, My Prince," Ravn said as Loki looked at him.

"Good morning," Loki replied.

"Did you sleep well?"

"No, not really," he said, glancing at Balder. "He woke me three times during the night. He had nightmares about Lars killing me or him."

Nodding, Ravn went to get Loki's robe and slippers and Loki yawned, rubbing his face with his hands. "Tell me something. Do you think I would make a good father?"

"What do you mean would? You are a good father. Well, a good guardian, anyway. Take a look at last night. You didn't have to tell him his step-father was here."

"I was worried he would see Lars and run off."

"What about the duel? Why did you tell him about it?"

"That just sort of slipped out."

"Or you didn't want him to hear his new friend had died at the hands of his step-father."

"Who says I'm going to die?" Loki asked, getting out of bed and Ravn helped him get the robe and slippers on."

"You're not," he said, adjusting the robe's collar. "Have you picked a second for the duel?"

"I was thinking of asking Thor."

"He will be thrilled to hear that."

"Or General Tyr. I'm not sure yet."

Balder yawned while he woke up and he opened his eyes. Loki and Ravn smiled as Balder sat up and he made a little cough.

"Good morning," Loki said, walking to the couch and he knelt down next to it.

"Good morning," Balder said.

"Are you feeling better today?" Loki asked.

Balder shrugged. "A little."

He allowed Loki to take his temperature, it was almost normal, and to give him the fever reducer and cough elixir again.

There came a knock on the door, and Loki called for the person to enter. It was Marissa, one of the kitchen maids, with a tray of breakfast for three people.

Loki eyed the tray and said, "Who is the third plate for?"

"Me," Thor answered, coming into the room. "I figured I would have breakfast with you and your ward this morning, Loki."

"We'd be happy to have you join us, Brother," Loki said, and then turned to Balder. "Come here and say hello to Prince Thor, Balder."

The boy scrambled from his bed and ran to greet Thor, bowing properly and then grinning up at the big warrior. "Hello, My Prince. Is it true you knocked a giant's head off with Mjolnir?"

"Umm . . . he was a small giant," Thor laughed. "Come and eat and I will tell you the story."

With Thor distracting Balder, Loki was free to eat his own breakfast and consider whether or not to ask his brother to be his second in the duel.

"Is there something wrong?" Thor asked.

"I was just thinking about the duel," Loki said. Thor growled as he took a long drink of coffee then he placed the mug on the table.

"No offense to your ward, but I hope you put Lars down like the cur he is," Thor said, looking at Balder then he looked at Loki. "Have you picked a second yet, Brother?"

"A second?" Balder asked.

"It's someone who fights the duel if I decide I don't want to fight," Loki explained as he looked at Thor. "I would like you to be my second."

Thor cleared his throat as he nodded and he blinked some tears out of his eyes.

"I am honored," Thor said, smiling. They ate in silence when a page entered the room and he had a note on a silver tray. He placed the silver tray on the table when he made a little bow then he left the room.

Loki picked up the piece of paper, opened it, and looked at the smooth handwriting.

"It's from Lars. He said the duel will be at noon in the sparring arena," Loki said, placing the piece of paper back on the silver tray.

"Do you want to go there early and do a little training?" Thor asked.

"Yes, I would like to do that," Loki said. They finished their breakfast then they left the room and Loki held onto Balder's hand as they walked down the hallway.

Lars' chamber:

Lars picked at the breakfast he had been served when the door opened and a page walked in the room. He had a dueling sword in his hands as he stood near the table and made a small bow.

"What do you want?" Lars growled.

"I am here to deliver your dueling sword, sir," the page said and Lars looked at the sword.

"You call this a sword?!" Lars demanded, standing up and he took the sword from the page. "This is nothing, but a child's toy! It's not even sharp!"

"The AllFather wishes it to be a fair duel."

"It's a duel to the death, you fool!"

The page shook his head. "No, sir. You know there's no such thing nowadays. The king only allows honor duels till first blood. Anyone caught breaking that rule ends up in the dungeon."

Lars cursed inwardly. He was well aware of the stricture, having fought plenty of duels before the laws changed. In the beginning of Odin's reign, the duels had been to the death unless the person was merciful, but that had all changed when Odin had married Frigga. The meddling queen had convinced the Allfather to make the duels only till first blood, so Asgardians did not slaughter each other needlessly.

Lars ground his teeth. But this time there was a need. Rid the royal family of the monster that ensorcelled him and rid his annoying stepson of the only person who would protect him. Balder would go back to the streets and hopefully die there, thus removing the last obstacle to Lars' fortune.

"I know that!" Lars snapped irritably. "Dismissed!"

The page bowed and then darted away, leaving the noble to finger the protective "button" on the sword point and ways to get around it.

Meanwhile. Odin had sent one of his guards and one of his team of attorneys to pick up the will Lars claimed was Rena's official one from the law firm who had the original document. They did so, returning to the palace by skimmer, and then closeted themselves with the king to examine it.

Forseti, Tyr's nephew, also known as the God of Law and Justice, read over the document and then glanced at the king.

"Well?" Odin said blandly. "What have you discovered?"

"This document appears to be legitimate on first examination," Forseti began. "However, I have noticed several discrepancies. The first is the fact that Lady Rena mentions Balder by name in the first half of the document, yet in the half that was changed, she mentions him not at all, only her son Leif by her second marriage. Very strange. The other things are the signature and witness match and the seal seems a little off—the wrong color sealing wax, the seal itself seems to have been pressed hastily leaving a bad imprint."

"Your conclusions?"

"Based upon what you have told me about the case, Sire, I would say that such a will is subject to fraud and could very well be a forgery." Forseti replied. "I would see if I can't investigate and find out where the original will was kept and obtain a copy of it."

"A copy would have been kept even after an alteration?"

"Oh yes. Asgardian law requires it," Forseti answered. "To prevent such things as this."

"Good. I want you to send someone to find out where Lady Rena might have kept her first will," Odin ordered.

"That is not hard to figure out," Forseti said. He pointed at the top of the forged document. "This is a subsidiary firm of the biggest law firm in the city, Bjornson and Tavi. I would start with them, Sire. Most nobles who live here record wills with them."

"Excellent!" Odin praised. "Send young Bors, Forseti, to obtain a copy."

"I shall, Your Grace. It should only take an hour or two."

Odin nodded. That would mean they would have the will in their possession before the duel began. This way they could compare the two. Then, after the duel was over, Odin could confront Lars about it.

The king went to eat breakfast with Frigga, telling her what he had found out, while Loki practiced in the arena with Thor, with Balder watching from the sidelines. Also there were Fandral, Sif, and Tyr.

The three older warriors approved of the way Loki was dueling, though Tyr called out, "Remember, My Prince, that Lars tends to lower his sword when he parries to the left. He's quick, but leaves loopholes if his opponent is clever enough to see them."

Loki nodded and smiled, then riposted and Thor backed away. His brother was less skilled with a sword than he was with Mjolnir or other crushing weapons like maces and morning stars. Loki was very skilled with a sword, especially the rapier he would duel with, as well as daggers, and blasters. He preferred weapons where it did not require brute strength to wield and had made himself a master in them.

Balder watched and cheered everytime Loki scored a hit, and the boy began to hope that his new friend and caretaker would stand a chance against his wicked stepfather, who was the epitome of everything evil in the child's young life.

Please, make Prince Loki win the duel, he prayed to the Norns fervently.

Ravn came and put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Don't worry, lad. I've seen Prince Loki fight before, you have naught to worry about."

"Are you sure?" Balder asked worriedly.

"As sure as I'm a baron," Ravn said softly.

Balder's eyes widened. "You're a lord and you serve the prince?"

Ravn chuckled. "Yes, because a noble always serves a royal as a personal servant. It is an honor to serve."

Balder smiled and nodded. "I would serve the prince if I could stay here with him."

Ravn tweaked his nose. "Well, we'd have to see about that. Are you sure you want to stay for the duel?"

"Yes, please. But . . . I don't want Lars to see me," the child said nervously.

"Then we can watch from here," Ravn said, and led the boy to some benches towards the back of the sparring arena. "I can put you on my shoulders so you can see."

"Thank you, Ravn," Balder said quietly, but for now he sat on the bench to see Loki.

Just before noon, Bors knocked on the door to Odin's study then opened it. Odin waved for him to enter. Forseti was standing next to the desk as Bors came forward with the document in his hands.

"Is that the original will?" Odin asked, taking the document from him.

"Yes, Sire," Bors said with a nod.

Odin opened the will and read it then he looked at the document sitting on his desk.

"Ah, see, Sire! Lady Rena mentions Balder in the first half of the document as it does here, yet she still mentions him on the second half as well. Also the signature and the witness are different. Finally, the seal is straight, the sealing wax is the right color and the seal is a full imprint," Forseti said and Odin nodded.

"Which means this will," Odin said, pointing to the first document. "Is a forgery."

"That is exactly what I am saying."

"Thank you, Bors," Odin said. Bors made a low bow as he turned and left the room and Odin looked down at the documents. His heart slammed in his chest as the anger he felt since the day before grew and he pounded his fist on the desk.

"Sire, are you alright?"

"I will be once Lars is secure in the dungeons," Odin said while the clock chimed and he looked at the clock. "We must hurry. The duel starts in a half an hour."

He placed both copies of the will in an envelope as they left the room and he slammed the door behind them.

Lars spent most of the morning trying to figure out how to remove the safety off the dueling sword when he finally figured it out and he smiled. The sunlight shimmered on the blade as he slid the sword into the scabbard and placed the belt with the scabbard on it around his waist. The clock chimed and he smiled. He left the room and he headed down the hallway.

Loki was sitting on a bench near the arena resting and listening to Tyr give him pointers on fighting Lars when his opponent entered the arena. Several people who were watching gave him hostile looks and hissed at him. Lars raised his head haughtily and sneered at the onlookers. Clearly their dislike did not seem to bother him.

Balder tensed next to Ravn on the back bench as Lars entered, fear lighting his small face. Ravn gently patted his shoulder and whispered, "No fear, boy. Loki will mop the floor with him."

A tall thin man that looked like a weasel approached Loki and Thor and said in a nasally voice, "I am Lord Sven Highgarden. I am Lord Lars second." He carried the case with Lars' rapier in it.

Thor rose and gave the other man a cordial nod. "You know who we are, my lord. Are you ready to meet on the field of honor?"

"Lord Lars is prepared," Sven replied. He headed over to where Lars was standing across the ring and handed him his rapier.

Thor did the same with Loki, and then Tyr rose and stood in the middle of the arena between the two combatants. "As each contestant has a sword that is blunted, this duel shall be fought according to the rules set forth in the Code Duello. This duel is fought till first blood in which case honor has been satisfied. You will both salute each other and can begin upon my signal."

Tyr stepped back and allowed the combatants to enter the ring. Loki saluted first and Lars returned it coldly.

"Ready, set, begin!"

Loki held his rapier in the ready position and watched Lars' eyes carefully. The eyes were how you could tell what an enemy was going to do in a duel, and Loki waited patiently for Lars to attack. He had taken the man's measure before stepping into the arena, and had sensed the other man was impatient and would try and seek a quick resolution to this duel.

Lar's muddy greenish-brown eyes blazed hatred at the prince, and as predicted, he lunged at Loki, bringing his sword up with a sharp snap.

The rapiers clashed together with a loud clang! Then Loki riposted, dancing backwards as gracefully as leaf upon the breeze. He avoided Lars' second attack and then sprang into an attack sequence of his own, using his greater height and swiftness to force Lars back on his heels, defending frantically.

"Getting a little slow in your old age?" Loki taunted, his blade moving like a flicker of light through the air.

"I will see you bleed, Monster!" Lars hissed. His blade slashed the air when Loki swore he heard a soft humming sound coming from Lars' sword and Loki blinked. Lars took his distraction as a moment to strike, but Loki dodged out of the way.

"Yes!" Thor cheered.

"Take him down!" Sif called out.

Loki lunged, quick as a cat on the hunt, and began a swift assault, one, two, three. Lars countered, but it was apparent he could not match the other's quickness and he panted harshly, sweat dripping into his eyes.

"No! I will not lose to the likes of you!" Lars growled.

"Come on, sir!" Ravn called. "Teach that larcenous lord a lesson!"

Loki grinned at his valet's alliteration and stepped up his attack.

Around and around they went, neither having the advantage, their swords blurs as they struck and beat back the other's blade.

Lars gritted his teeth, growing angrier as the duel progressed and he realized that Loki was not the pushover he had first thought.

He had thought he would be fighting a prince who barely knew how to fence and instead he was up against an opponent who knew both classic and freestyle fencing forms.

"Getting tired, Lars? Maybe you should have quit eating all those cakes and pies."

Lars went low and Loki spun away, his rapier going past his leg,

"The only things that will be eating well tonight is the worms once I finish you!" Lars growled.

"The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play poker on your snout!" Loki sang, reprising an old Midgardian children's rhyme.

Lars' glared at him and spat. "That's all you know! Silly songs and useless jokes."

Loki just laughed and danced away, knowing his insolent attitude w as getting to the other lord. "It's a part of my charm!" Loki said while Thor, Sif and the Warriors Three laughed.

"Just like old times, eh?!" Volstagg said, lightly shoving Hogun and the Grim One nodded.

Balder smiled slightly and whispered to Ravn, "Prince Loki's winning!"

Viva could sense the joy coming from Loki, but she also sensed something was wrong and she looked at Lars.

"Is there something wrong, Lady?" Thor asked.

"I'm not sure. I just have a feeling he is up to something," she said, looking at Lars.

"Well, if he cheats, he will forfeit the duel," Sif said.

Loki could sense his enemy was tiring, apparently Lars was not used to the duels lasting more than a few minutes. This duel had gone on for at least ten minutes, and Lars was forced on the defensive more than once.

"I need to end this now," Lars thought. He scanned Loki's body with his eyes when his eyes locked on the spot over Loki's liver and he slowly blinked. With a roar, Lars lunged at Loki, but Loki dodged, spun around and the blunt tip of his rapier jabbed into Lars' cheek, drawing a small amount of blood.

"First blood! Loki wins!" Thor shouted.

Lars lifted his hand to his cheek, his fingertips stained scarlet. Furious, he thrust under Loki's guard and his rapier's tip penetrated the guard, and the button fell off, allowing Lars to plunge the sword into Loki's stomach.

"Foul!" Thor shouted as Loki looked down and he saw the sword sticking out of him.

"No!" Balder shouted.

Thor, Sif and the Warriors Three ran at Lars when Sif roared and dived into the air. She tackled Lars to the ground and sat on his chest and Lars glared up at her.

Odin, Frigga, Viva, Ravn, and Balder ran to Loki as Loki lay on the ground, looking up at them.

He gave them a lopsided grin and his form flickered and vanished.

The real Loki appeared a few feet beyond his illusionary double, unharmed, frost radiating from him in waves. "I had a feeling this scoundrel would try and cheat."

"Sir!" Balder cried, getting up and he ran to Loki. Loki knelt down while Balder wrapped his arms around his neck and Loki slowly stood up, holding him tightly in his arms.

"You are the one who cheated!" Lars shouted.

"Be quiet, you thieving knave!" Sif snarled, and struck him across the face with her fist.

"I cheated?" Loki snorted. "I realized that you had removed the safety on the rapier early on in the match, which is grounds for forfeiting the duel. But I wanted you to betray yourself, so I continued despite the danger."

"You deserve to die, you monster!" Lars shouted.

"My son is no monster!" Odin said.

"Yes, he is! He is a changeling which was brought here to destroy us all! He deserves death!"

Lars grunted when Sif punched him in the face again.

Suddenly, Lars lifted his body up when he pushed Sif off him and he got to his feet. Roaring, Lars ran for the exit as the others chased after him. Suddenly, Lars doubled back and darted at Balder, who was standing beside Loki, his eyes crazed like a mad beast's.

Balder froze when he saw the object of his nightmares coming for him, unable to move a single muscle.

Loki lunged in front of him, meeting Lars' charge head on. He thrust Lars' blade aside, and then lunged, stabbing the other man twice, once in the thigh and again in the side.

Lars looked startled, and then crumpled to the ground, blood spurting from the injuries.

"Get a medic!" someone yelled. "Man down!"

"I . . . think you've killed me!" Lars gasped weakly.

"You aren't dead. Not yet." Loki said coldly. "But you ought to be for what you have done to Balder."

A medic arrived and began to staunch the other's wounds.

Two guards approached and stood over the injured lord. "In the name of the king, you are under arrest, Lord Lars of Ironwood. For cheating during a duel, attempting to harm a child, and for forgery."

"He is injured, Sire!" objected a medic.

"Once his injuries have been treated, he is to be placed in the dungeon until his trial." Odin declared.

"I've done nothing wrong!" Lars cried. He yelped in pain as the medic tightened a bandage over his wound.

The injured lord was placed on a hover stretcher and taken out of the arena.

"I declare this duel over and the winner is Prince Loki!" Tyr yelled and came over and raised Loki's arm above his head in victory.

Everyone applauded.

Balder looked up at Loki, hero-worship in his cobalt eyes. "Does this mean I don't need to go and live with him any more?"

Loki put an arm about him. "Yes, Balder. You are free of him. He cannot take care of you if he is in prison. Or if he is deemed too dangerous to properly care for a child."

Balder laughed in delight.

Frigga smiled at Loki. "Well done, darling. I will send one of my men around to Ironwood to tell the nanny what has occurred and ask her to continue to care for the baby. And if she cannot, then I will see if one of Lars' relatives can do so."

Loki nodded. "What of Balder?"

"Since he is an orphan he becomes a crown ward. However, I believe he would do well with you as his guardian, Loki." Frigga said.

Loki looked down at the boy who was hugging his leg. "Would you like that, Balder?"

The child frowned. "What's a guardian?"

"It's . . . well it's kind of like a father. Like what the king is to me," Loki explained. "We're not related by blood but by choice. Would you like me to be your guardian?"

Balder considered . . . for all of five seconds before he grinned and whispered, "Yes! Oh, yes!"

"Come to my study and we'll draw up the papers," Odin said, smiling happily.

Loki lifted his new son into his arms. "Father, there's one thing that puzzles me. One of the charges against Lars was forgery. How did you find that out?"

"I will explain everything." Odin said, and beckoned Loki to follow.

Loki handed his rapier to Thor. "You can keep that."

Thor made a face at him and Loki grinned. Then he and his new son followed Odin to the king's study.

Once inside, Odin dismissed his guards, and Frigga joined them a few moments later, her eyes shining proudly.

"You were wonderful, Loki," she praised. Then she gave Balder a kind smile. "And how are you doing, young man? Loki tells me that you are getting better."

Balder gave her a shy smile in return. "Yes, My Queen. I'm not coughing as much."

"I'm glad to hear it," she approved. "I would be worried to have a sick grandson."

Balder leaned against Loki, still rather in awe of what had just occurred. Loki kept an arm about him while Odin found the proper papers for a guardianship in his desk and gave them to Loki to sign.

Loki did so and stamped them with his seal ring in green wax. Frigga and Odin also signed and then it was finished and Balder Bjornson was now Loki's new ward and son.

"About the forgery . . . " Loki began.

Odin showed Loki the two wills and explained what Forseti and Bors had discovered, and then said, " As Balder's guardian, I hereby appoint you as his legal representative for his trust and his estate until he comes of age and can assume responsibility for them on his own."

"Thank you, Father," Loki said, looking over the will. "Will you keep these in your vault for me?"

"I shall," Odin agreed. Then he peered at Balder and said, "Welcome to the family, grandson. Frigga, we must have a small celebration for him, and give him his own room next to Loki's."

Balder's eyes widened. "Really, Sire? My own room?"

"Why, yes. Have you never had your own room?"

"Uh . . . when I was little. But when Leif was born, we shared a room," Balder said. "And he usta cry and wake me up!"

Odin laughed at the indignant tone. "Well, Balder, here you may have your own room and no one will wake you up except your papa and your nanny."

"Who's that?"

"We will have to choose one," Frigga said. "I think I may have one in mind."

"You usually do, Mother." Loki said fondly.

Balder hugged Loki. "Um . . . what do I call you, sir?"

"You may call me Loki at first. Then when you are more comfortable, you can call me Papa."

Balder nodded.

"And you may call me Farfar," Odin said softly. "And the queen can be Farmor."

"All right." Balder agreed.

Loki ruffled his hair. "I feel kind of tired. Balder, you probably need some more sleep. How about if you join me and we'll rest our eyes for a bit." He deliberately avoided the word nap, knowing that for some reason little children detested it.

Balder went to protest, but then he yawned and realized Loki was correct. "Um . . . all right . . . Prince—I mean Papa."

Loki felt his heart contract when he heard that word come out of Balder's mouth. He called me Papa! He felt a warm glow in the vicinity of his heart and it spread throughout his being until he felt suffused with joy.

"We will see you at supper," Frigga waved at them.

As Loki left, with Balder clinging to his hand, the child said, "Does this mean Thor is my uncle?"

"It does," Loki replied.

"Um . . . am I a prince now?"

"Since you are officially my son, then yes it does," Loki answered.

Balder looked surprised. "Norns!" Then he said, "What will happen to Lars? Will he be in prison forever?"

"He will be tried and if he is found guilty, which I am sure he will be, then yes, he will be in prison for a very long time."

"Good! Then he can't hurt me or you again," the boy declared in satisfaction.

"That is very true," Loki agreed. As they reached his chambers, Loki glanced down at his new son and said, "How would you like to sleep in my bed with me?"

"I'd like that fine, si—I mean, Papa . . ."

Loki waved to the guards on duty and introduced them to his new ward. They saluted Balder like they did Loki, and then the two went inside. Loki helped Balder take off his doublet and boots and the child swarmed up the bed and lay on the thick mattress, bouncing a little.

Loki took off his boots and went and lay down on the other side.

Balder giggled and bounced lightly, making the bed jiggle.

"Hey! What do you think this is?" Loki teased.

"Your bed is really bouncy!" Balder laughed, kneeling and bouncing harder.

"You are supposed to be sleeping," Loki mock-scolded.

"Not tired!" Balder singsonged, grinning impishly. He continued bouncing.

"No? I can make you tired," Loki smirked.

The prince rolled over and snaked a hand around the boy's middle and tickled his tummy.

Balder nearly fell over. Then he started laughing. "Hey! No fair!"

"All's fair in love and tickle wars!" Loki cried, and then attacked the backs of Balder's knees.

Soon the room echoed with the sunny laughter of a small child, accompanied by the deeper tone of the man playing beside him.

Outside the prince's chambers, Eirik and Magnis exchanged glances and smiled at hearing the delightful sound, a stark contrast to the sobs and screams that had been heard weeks before from this room.

"The Norns bless and keep Prince Loki!" whispered Magnus.

"Aye, and the new little prince also!" Eirik added piously.

Balder was laughing so hard he was practically gasping for breath.

"Do you yield?" Loki demanded, snickering.

Balder shook his head, his eyes dancing.

"Hey, can I play?" Thor asked, coming into the room.

Loki quit tickling his son and sat up, his green eyes alight with mischief. "Why, Brother, of course you can!" he began. Then he sent to Balder, Let's team up and tickle torture your Uncle Thor!

"What are you playing anyway?" Thor asked Loki.

"It's called . . . How the Mighty Thor Got Tickled To Death!" Loki chanted, and then he tackled his brother onto the bed. "Balder! Go for his knees!"

"Loki!" Thor yelped, giggling uncontrollably. "Ah-ha-ha-ha! You wretched sneak!"

He tried to roll over to protect his vulnerable ribs and middle but that left him open to Balder's small fingers tickling his knees.

Thor laughed so hard he rolled right off the bed!

There was a thud as he landed on the floor.

"Uncle Thor! Uncle Thor!" Balder cried, peering over the edge of the bed. "Are you all right?"

Thor sat up, scowling. "Loki, I oughta—" he began, pretending to be angry.

Balder shrank away.

Until the Thunder God cracked up, his laughter booming like the thunder he wielded throughout the room.

Loki winked at Balder. Then he blinked behind his brother and his slender fingers tickled the back of his brother's neck, making Thor squeal.

"And this little piggy went wee wee wee all the way home!" Loki sang.

"Loki!" Thor bellowed and jumped to his feet, then began chasing his brother around the bed.

He had just cornered the Mischief God by the balcony doors when suddenly a new voice was heard.

"What in Valhalla's name is going on here?"

Both brothers and Balder froze guiltily.

"Nothing, Mother!" her two sons chorused.

She put her hands on her hips. "Really?"

"We're playing a game, Farmor!" Balder told her.

"What sort of game, dear?" she asked her new grandson.

Balder jumped off the bed and ran to Frigga. Then he threw his arms about her, burying his face in her dress, which smelled like sunshine and rain. "Hugs and Tickles!"

Frigga beamed and held open her arms and suddenly both her tall sons surrounded her and hugged her.

"Group hug!" Loki grinned.

"That's my boys!" Frigga said, then felt little fingers tickle her. "Hey!"

"Got ya!" Balder cried, his eyes twinkling in merriment.

"Like father, like son!" she chuckled, then ruffled his hair.

Chapter Text

21

Chameleon

It was a few days after the duel, and Loki soon discovered that parenting an active five-year-old boy required much perseverance and patience. Balder rapidly recovered from his illness and was no longer required to stay in bed, and so the boy followed Loki all over, asking myriad questions about everything he saw. He had what a certain mortal writer called "insatiable curiosity" and some adults, like Lars, had no patience for the boy's inquisitive ways, and considered him an annoyance.

Luckily, as a mage Loki had learned patience at Frigga's knee, for magic required that discipline over all. The sorcerer prince also recognized a kindred spirit in the little boy, for he too had asked questions about things as a child, always wondering, always imagining.

Balder came with Loki to his session with Viva, and while he was discussing his past with her, Balder was painting.

The child was quite a good artist, and began painting a picture of himself, Loki, and his mother. He then added Leif in his basket.

Finishing up her conversation with Loki, Viva came over to see what the boy was painting. "That's very interesting, Balder. Who are you painting?"

"That's me and my new Papa and Mama and Leif." He told her quietly.

Viva sensed joy when he spoke of Loki, and sorrow with Rena and a kind of wistful longing when he said Leif's name.

"Do you miss your brother?"

"Sometimes. But I don't want to share a room with him again! He cries and wakes me up!"

"I remember Thor saying the same about me," Loki said, walking to the table and sat down one the chair next to him.

"Mama used to let me help change his diapers. Some of them were really stinky!"

Viva smiled as Loki softly laughed and Balder looked at the painting.

"Papa, can you be Leif's papa, too?"

"Um, I think we will have to talk to Farfar about that," Loki said as he pondered taking care of an infant as well as Balder.

"I don't know. i think you could handle it," Viva said with a grin.

"Maybe. But Leif still has a father, even if he is a no account bilgesnipe. And if Lars has family left they would have a say in who raised the baby."

"Oh," Balder said.

"But it doesn't mean he can't visit," Loki said and Balder smiled.

The child looked at his painting again and sighed. "Sometimes I miss my mama. I wish she didn't go live in Valhalla."

"I wish my mama hadn't gone to live in Valhalla, too," Viva said sympathetically and Balder looked at her.

"Your mama died?"

"Yes. In an accident on the mountain. But I miss her still."

"Do you dream of her? I do sometimes."

"Yes, but not as much as I used to."

Loki saw the sadness in her eyes as he took a blank piece of paper then he brushed some green paint over it.

"What are you doing?" Balder asked. Smiling, Loki moved his finger through the paint when he made a daisy and Balder's eyes went wide.

"It's called finger painting," Loki said.

"I want to try!"

Loki slid the pieces of paper to Balder and Viva and they poured blue and yellow paint on the pieces of paper. Laughter filled the room as they painted with their fingers, but most of the paint ended up on their faces.

"Now we look scary!" Balder giggled. "Grr! I'm a troll about to eat you all up!"

"Eeek!" Viva said.

"No, don't eat us!" Loki said, pretending to be afraid.

"What will you give me then?" Balder growled.

"How about some sapphire berries?" Loki suggested. "We can go pick them in the hills outside the palace. They make delicious pies."

He could remember going berry picking with Thor and his friends as children. They had always had fun.

"Yes! I would like that!" Balder said.

"We need to clean up first," Viva said.

Loki waved a hand and they were all clean from the paint. "See, sometimes it's handy to have magic."

Will I have magic too? Balder wondered.

Would you like me to teach you? Loki sent. He had accidentally heard his thoughts and Balder smiled.

"Yes!"

Loki smiled at the boy's eagerness. "Very well. I can test you to see what magic affinity you have tomorrow, For now, let's go pick some berries."

Viva found some baskets she had stored cat toys and blankets in and handed one to each of them. "I think we're all prepared now, Lead the way, Prince Loki."

Balder squealed and darted to the door. "C'mon!"

Sapphire berries were Asgard's version of a blueberry, but they were larger, sweeter, and were a deep jewel like blue in color.

They headed up the hill when Loki pointed at the large bushes and the berries shimmered in the sunlight.

Balder ran to the bushes and started picking the berries. Then he placed the berries in the basket.

Viva had given them gloves which would help protect their hands and fingers from turning blue and she placed some berries into the basket.

Loki was enjoying spending time with them as he filled his basket, but he also nibbled on some of the berries. His lips had turned blue from the juice as Viva looked at him and she smiled.

The sun was warm on their backs as they filled their baskets with the rich fruit, eating some as they picked. Overhead birds twittered and flew in spirals.

"I'm gonna eat a whole pie!" Balder boasted.

"You do, scamp, and you'll have an awful tummy ache," Loki warned. "Just ask your uncle. He did that once."

"Did you ever eat a whole pie, Papa?"

"No. Never."

Viva knew he was lying as she rolled her eyes, smiled and shook her head.

"Did you ever eat a whole pie, Lady Viva?"

"Yes, I did and I was sick for days," she said.

"Then I'll just eat one or two pieces," Balder said with a nod.

"Good idea," Loki said.

"I don't wanna be sick anymore," the boy declared. "I'm tired of it."

"You won't get sick once you come of age, son," Loki told him. "Then your immortality factor will have awakened." It was that Asgardian trait that prevented them from catching mortal illnesses and indeed almost any kind of illness, unless it was born of a magical curse or infection from a wound or a poison. Otherwise, they were nearly immortal and lived thousands of years, aging so slowly it was almost not apparent until one reached a great age.

"When I come of age? When's that?"

"Oh, not for a long time." Loki said.

"Awww...," he said, folding his arms over his chest and pouted. Loki laughed as he ruffled Balder's hair and Balder giggled.

"I think we have enough berries," Viva said, looking into her basket.

"You're right," Loki said.

Balder popped one into his mouth. "Mmm!"

A sun finch flew down and snatched a berry up and ate it.

"Hey!"

"You need to share, son," Loki reminded.

"But it took MY berry!" the child frowned.

"The berries belong to all of us," Viva said. "The birds like them too."

She picked a berry from the bush and held it up, whistling the same notes as the sun finch. Suddenly a small gold and white bird landed on her wrist and nibbled the fruit from her hand.

"Sweet Valhalla!" Balder gasped. "How did you do that?"

"My mama taught me when I was a little older than you."

"Wow! Can you teach me how to do that?!"

"Certainly. You need to know how to whistle though." She whistled the same four note call again.

Balder tried to whistle, but the sound he made sounded more like he was blowing raspberries and he frowned.

"Watch me," Loki said as he showed Balder how to whistle and Balder made a few small whistles. "Very good."

Balder tried the call again when a small gold and white bird settled on his wrist and he smiled.

"I did it, Papa!" he said.

"Excellent!" Loki praised. Then he gave the finch a berry.

A finch came and perched upon Loki's head, making the Mind Healer and his new son giggle at the sight. Loki fed it and it flew away.

"All right, let's go and give the cooks these berries so they can make them into pies," Loki said, and they started walking back to the castle with their bounty.

Once they had given Helga and her helpers the sapphire berries, Loki suggested Balder go and change since he had gotten berry juice on his clothes.

The boy scurried to do as he was told, and Loki followed more leisurely, wondering if the servants had prepared Balder's room for him.

"Loki!" Frigga called as he went by her solar. "Could you come here for a minute?"

Loki entered her solar, wondering what she wanted. To his surprise he saw Sigyn standing next to the queen. "Good day, my lady," he greeted her respectfully.

"Good day, My Prince," she said, curtsying. She gave him a slightly shy smile.

"Loki, I have been interviewing candidates for a nanny," Frigga began. "And I think Sigyn will do well with Balder. She is young enough to be able to keep up with him playing and old enough to assert her authority when necessary. She also is a green mage, which will be a help if Balder injures himself as children are wont to do."

"Do you like children, Sigyn?" Loki asked.

"I do. I used to look after my little nieces and nephews for my sisters," she replied frankly.

Good then at least one of us has experience Loki thought, relieved.

"That's good to know. I need someone from the time Balder wakes up until he goes to sleep. I believe there is a room next to his that you may have, and the weekends are free for you unless I need you to watch him because I am otherwise occupied."

"I understand, sir. That sounds reasonable."

"My greatest concern, however, is if my son is comfortable with you. He is a good boy, but very inquisitive."

"I think most children are at his age," Sigyn said.

"Yes, but I don't want that curiosity to be suppressed. I want him to feel comfortable asking questions. And if he happens to get into trouble, you may punish him with lectures and time in his room or taking away some privileges but I will not tolerate anyone hitting him. He's had too much of that kind of treatment from his stepfather. And I wish you to tell me how each day went also."

"Of course, My Prince. You don't have to worry about me striking him, I do not believe in that kind of punishment. My father never punished any of us that way, despite the fact he is a tough old army general. He said fear is a poor way to discipline."

"I happen to agree with him," Loki said, smiling. "Shall we go and meet my son? To see how you get on?"

"I would like that," Sigyn agreed.

Loki held out his arm for her to take, and escorted her to his room. "Let me fetch my son."

Sigyn sat on a chair in Loki's receiving room while he went into the bedroom to call Balder.

Balder ran to him as Loki smiled and he knelt down in front of his son.

"Balder, I have someone I wish you to meet," Loki said.

"Who is it?" Balder asked.

"Her name is Sigyn and she is to be your nanny."

"Is she nice?"

"Yes, she is very nice."

"She won't hurt me?"

"No, she won't. "

Balder held his hand out as Loki stood and he took Balder's hand. They walked to Loki's receiving room as Sigyn looked at them and she smiled

"Greetings, Prince Balder," Sigyn said as she rose and she made a little curtsy. He is adorable! Just like his papa, she thought and then flushed slightly at the surprising turn her thoughts had taken.

"Hello," Balder said with a small nod. She slowly walked toward them when he slid behind Loki and Loki looked down at him.

"It's alright. I told you she wasn't going to hurt you," Loki said.

Balder considered that for a moment, then because he trusted Loki, he came out from behind his father and slowly walked over to Sigyn, who smiled at him pleasantly.

"Do you like sapphire berry pie?" Balder asked.

"I love it!" she said and he smiled.

"We went and picked some berries today and Helga said the pies will be ready by dinnertime! I want to eat a whole pie, but Papa said it would give me a tummy ache. I don't want to be sick again, so I'll just have a piece or two."

Balder had spoken so fast that she only got parts of what he had said and she nodded.

Loki put his hands on his son's shoulders. "Easy there, cricket. Talk slowly, the words won't run away from you."

"Sorry," Balder said.

"It's fine. You were just excited," Sigyn said.

"Now, Sigyn will have the room next to yours and she doesn't mind if you ask her questions." Loki said and Balder frowned.

"You won't mind?" Balder asked.

"No, I believe it is fine for a child to ask questions," Sigyn said.

"And you'll play games with me?"

"Yes."

"And you will draw and paint with me?"

"Yes."

"And you'll read me stories at night?"

"Hey, I thought that was my job," Loki said with a grin.

"Oh yeah," he said, looking at Sigyn. "Papa tells the best stories! He does voices and he can make the character real."

"He can?" she asked, glancing at Loki. He wasn't sure, but a small quiver moved through him and he nodded.

"Uh...," Balder said as he looked down at his feet and she waited for him to say something. "If I'm bad, will you hurt me?"

"No, I do not harm children. Fear is a poor way to discipline. Do you know who told me that?"

"No."

"It was my father. He never raised a hand to me or my sisters when we got in trouble."

"What did he do?"

"He would talk with us, put us in the corner for a time or he took away privileges."

"That's a lot better than what Lars used to do," Balder said. "He used to beat me with a belt . . . or a riding crop." The boy shivered involuntarily.

"That is horrible!" Sigyn declared, her hazel eyes flashing. "No child deserves that, no matter what. I hope he is in prison now."

"He is, and awaiting trial," Loki informed her.

"Good! I hope he rots there!" she said fiercely.

Loki was pleased to find Sigyn was so adamant about not harming a child, so he knew he need not worry about her abusing Balder. He had not truly doubted her, but her display of righteous indignation warmed him to the core.

"I can draw up a contract now if you think you will suit," he said to Sigyn. He named a wage he thought was fair, and her eyes widened at the salary. "If you need more, I could—"

"Oh no, my lord! That is more than generous," she refuted.

"I will also give you time off for holidays and if you would like to have a vacation," he said.

"That would be acceptable, My Prince."

Loki found a form on his desk and signed it, after he let Sigyn read it, she signed it also.

"Oh, I forgot to ask, will I need a uniform?" Sigyn queried.

"Well, not a uniform like the palace maids wear but perhaps a green robe?" Loki suggested. In the hierarchy of servants, a nanny was somewhere between a personal servant and those hired belowstairs.

"I can do that, sir," Sigyn said, and waved a hand, changing her purple day dress to a simple green robe like she used to wear as a student at the Mage Academy. "How's this?"

"Perfect," Loki said approvingly. Then he added, "You may take meals either with Balder in the nursery or in the hall with the rest of the family. I will send a porter to help you move your things into your quarters. If you need anything, you have but to ask Ravn, he's my valet."

Loki summoned Ravn and introduced him to Sigyn, then sent a porter to go to Tyr's house with Sigyn to take her clothes and other personal effects back to the palace. While that was being done, he checked on the progress being made with Balder's new room and Sigyn's. Finding all was well, Loki sent a messenger to Ironwood with a letter explaining to the nanny what had occurred, requesting she continue to care for Leif, and also pack up Balder's clothes and toys and whatever else he might like and send them with the messenger to the palace.

By lunchtime, Balder's trunks were in his new room, and Maisy, a young maid, had put everything neatly away, leaving only a brown fuzzy stuffed bear on the bed.

"That's Bjorn," Balder told Loki and went to hug the bear. "I named him after my papa that died."

"He's a fine bear and will keep the monsters away at night," Loki said.

Balder grinned. "Yes, sir!" His stomach rumbled. "Uh oh! My tummy is talking!"

"I think it's saying it wants lunch," Loki chuckled. "Come on, let's go to the private dining hall."

In the hall they found Thor, Frigga, Viva, and Odin.

Balder happily chattered away to his uncle and grandparents, telling them about painting and picking sapphire berries. The three adult gods found the boy charming and sweet and informed him they would look forward to the pies at supper.

While the newest member of the royal family talked everyone's ears off, three servants were eating in the main hall discussing what they had learned that day about the rumors circulating about Prince Loki. They were the maids Dravina and Grezti and the personal groom Knut. They had been assigned to discover who was behind the awful stories by the king himself as a way to atone for their awful behavior towards Loki, but so far they had found nothing but more stories.

"It's been a month now since we started and still we are no closer to finding who began this," Knut said, frustrated.

"Aye. We're lucky the king has not thrown us in the dungeon." Grezti muttered.

"The king knows we're trying," Dravina sighed. "But whoever this is he or she's a clever one. Like a fox!"

What the older maid said was true. Each time they thought they had gotten close to finding the source, it turned out to be another dead end. The three sleuths felt woefully inadequate. But they dared not give up. What had begun as a means to restore their loyalty and reputation had now become a matter of pride.

They noted the rumors, which had at first targeted Loki as someone who was mad, had now changed somewhat as the prince recovered from his ordeal. Now the rumors stressed the fact that Loki was half-Jotun, a monster born of a monstrous liasion. They cited his injuring Lars as proof he was unstable and dangerous, despite the fact Lars had cheated during the duel

Now the rumors were substantiated by stories of the murdering Frost Giants, and all the old gory tales were brought to life again.

"Whoever it is reminds me of a phantom," Knut whispered. "The minute we get close it vanishes."

"I agree," Grezti said.

"So what should we do?" asked Dravina.

"We shouldn't give up," Knut said.

"Maybe we can ask Ravn for help?" Grezti suggested. "I know he don't like us much but he wants the rumors to stop too."

"Yes, we should ask him!" Dravina agreed.

"Who should ask him?" Knut asked.

"I'll go ask him," Grezti said, rising from her chair then she left the main hall.

Knut bit his lip. The young baron was not his favorite person but beggars couldn't be choosers. He hoped the young maid could get the prince's valet to assist them. He hated to admit it but Ravn was smarter than he was.

Grezti had asked one of the Einherjar where Ravn was as she stood outside the door to the royal dining hall and she saw Ravn standing behind Loki's chair. He glanced at her when he frowned and she signaled him to go out into the hallway. He excused himself while Loki frowned then Ravn left the room, following Grezti down the hallway.

"What do you want?" Ravn asked and she looked up and down the hallway.

"To speak with you, sir. But not here." She pointed to an empty conference room.

Against his better judgement, he followed her into the room and she walked to the table, leaning against it.

"Well?!" Ravn asked, folding his arms over his chest.

She told him of their mission from Odin and how they were struggling to find the person spreading the rumors. "Please, if you could help even a little, I would be very grateful. Not for me, but for Prince Loki."

The valet considered, tapping a boot on the floor.

"You are not lying to me?" Ravn asked.

"No, sir, I am not."

The valet thought for a few more seconds when he sighed and went to stand next to her.

"Very well then. I will meet you in the Servants Hall once I am off duty tonight."

"Thank you, sir! Thank you!"

Ravn nodded as she ran out of the room then she headed back to the main hall. Knut and Dravina were still sitting at the table as she sat down next to them.

"Well?!" Knut asked.

"He agreed to meet us in our Hall when his shift is done." Grezti smiled triumphantly.

"Yes!" Dravina said.

"Thank the Norns," Knut said.

Ravn was thinking all the while he was serving that evening. Finding the source of the rumors both intrigued and challenged him.

After his shift was over, he headed for the Servants Hall and he saw Knut, Dravina and Grezti standing at the center of the room.

The three shuffled their feet rather like nervous students seeing a strict schoolmaster. He fought to keep from rolling his eyes.

"Tell me what you have so far," Ravn said, walking over.

"Not much," Dravina murmured. She told him what they had noticed.

Sighing, Ravn started pacing. The rumors were growing worse and it was only a matter of time when Loki would hear about them.

Right now his master was occupied with Balder and his new nanny but Loki would eventually hear the whispers and Ravn did not want him to suffer a setback from the vicious gossip.

"Have you tried the marketplace in the city?" That was a popular gathering place for the nobles and commoners alike.

"No, we have not," Grezti said.

"We thought it would have started in the palace. Or the Hartshorn Tavern," Knut said, naming a popular drinking hole Thor and the Warriors favorited.

"We even checked the stables, but nothing," Dravina said.

Ravn shook his head. He had a feeling their quarry was clever enough to forgo those haunts. "Let's go down now to see what we can find."

"Right now?" Knut asked.

"Why not? The Night Market is open," Ravn pointed out. He knew several merchants did a brisk business at it and many people would be gathered there after leaving work.

Nodding, they followed him out of the room and they left the palace.

As predicted the Night Market was thriving, with merchants from all over Asgard and the Nine buying and selling and sharing gossip.

Ravn led them through the market as they chatted with merchants and customers and he prayed they would find someone who was talking about Loki.

Suddenly they heard Loki's name mentioned.

They moved closer when they saw two men beside one of the stands.

"Did you hear how Loki nearly went crazy and tore apart Lars?" one asked.

The other gasped. "Really? I heard Lars cheated and Loki almost skewered him."

"That's not what I heard!" said the first one. "I heard that after Lars cheated, Loki took his Frost Giant form and almost ripped Lars in half!"

"Sweet Valhalla on a ski sled! That Loki is dangerous! I always said you can't trust those Jotun. Not for a minute! Turn your back and they will kill you and use your bones for toothpicks!" He shuddered dramatically while his companion nodded like a marionette.

The listeners scowled but forced themselves to remain to see what else was being said.

"I never agreed with making peace with those animals," the first man continued. "I always said we should have exterminated them all. King Odin's gone soft in the head."

"Yes, and he should have left Loki to die in that temple. Who needs a half-breed Jotun bastard?"

The other man clapped his friend on the back. "Come on, let's go get another tankard of mead. My throat is dry. Then we can go and listen to the Storyteller in The Forked Beard. I hear he has a good story tonight!"

"All right, let's go!"

As they moved off, Ravn hissed angrily, "They have it all wrong! I was there at the duel and I saw what really happened. The only part they got right was Lars cheating."

"Never mind that now," Knut argued. "Let's follow them and see where this Storyteller is. That's the first I've heard of him."

The four crept after the drunken men and made their way into the tavern. It was dim and slightly smoky inside. Patrons sprawled about on stools and benches, the lighting was poor, except up near a raised wooden platform where a man dressed in gray and blue sat, tuning a lyre. He looked perfectly ordinary, with the kind of face that blended into a crowd. Ravn would have paid him no mind except for the fact that he was sitting on the platform.

"That must be the Storyteller," he whispered to Dravina.

"Go get us some drinks," Knut said, and handed her some coins.

Soon they were sipping mead and listening to the patrons, most of whom were drunk, discuss everything from someone's wife running off with someone's friend to failed crops, to a win at a horserace, to a new policy the Council had passed. But then the Storyteller strummed a few notes on the lyre and all the talk ceased.

The Storyteller began telling the tale of "The Mad Jotun" in a powerful mesmerizing tone.

The tale started with Odin bringing Loki home as an infant then how the infant terrorized his nanny by freezing her solid.

"Lies," Ravn growled,, but the audience seemed mesmerized by the tale.

"Odin should have killed him the moment he found him." someone said.

"I agree," said someone else.

"How long has this been going on?" Grezti hissed.

"He's been here for months," the woman next to her whispered then hushed her.

"Who is he? These stories are nothing but fiction," Ravn scowled. "And speaking slander against the royal family can get you thrown in prison."

"I don't know his name. He just showed up. Maybe Oztor will know. He's the bartender," the man next to him whispered and he pointed to the tall man with long red hair who was tending bar.

Ravn quickly made his way to the bar, ordering another drink. As he did so, he asked who the man telling stories was.

Oztor gazed at the Storyteller while he cleaned the glass then he turned to Ravn.

"He said his name was Lore. Thought it was a weird name, but who am I to judge? He came here a few months ago and asked if he could tell his stories. I didn't see no harm and said he could as long as he didn't cause trouble."

"He is slandering the royal family," Ravin said with a growl to his voice.

"It's just stories."

"Stories people are believing!"

"Can't help what people think. All I know is they spend coin after he's done and that's good for business."

"Do you know where this Lore is staying?"

"He has a room upstairs."

Ravn nodded, deciding he must find this room and see if this man had any sort of letters or correspondence from someone, like another noble with a grudge.

He returned to the table when he placed the drinks down then sat on the stool.

"Did you find out anything?" Grezti asked.

"Yes." He told them all the bartender had said. "We need to get inside that room and search it. Any ideas?"

"You and I could go upstairs. No one will care. They would think we're just going up for some fun," Dravina said and his eyes widened.

"I will not soil your reputations like that!" Ravn said.

"I am willing to be labeled something I am not in order to repay Prince Loki for what I have done."

Ravn heard the honesty in her voice and he felt whatever anger he had melt away.

"I think we should do that same," Grezti said, looking at Knut.

"I agree. We can cover more rooms that way," Knut said.

Sire, Ravn sent to Odin using the communication ring the king had given him when he learned Ravn was assisting his three sleuths, and he leaned back in the chair.

Is everything well? Odin sent and Ravn told him what was going on. No, I will not risk any of your reputations. I will send guards to the tavern and arrest this Lore.

He will vanish once he senses something is wrong.

I have an idea. Have Grezti and Dravina go up as maids. No one will notice and they will be able to go into the rooms without anyone saying anything, Odin sent.

Yes, that might work. Thank you, Sire.

Ravn told them what Odin said and the women agreed.

"What should we do?" Knut asked.

"We will keep an eye on Lore. If he heads upstairs, I will distract him while you go get them," Ravn said.

Grezti and Dravina stood as they headed for the stairs after Grezti picked up a pile of clean towels which were sitting on the table near the stairs and they headed up to the rooms.

Ravn and Knut listened to more of Lore's tale as Lore told how Loki betrayed Odin to Laufey and it was Loki not Laufey who nearly killed Odin while he was in Odinsleep.

"Another lie!" Ravn growled and took a deep drink of mead

Upstairs, Grezti and Dravina had checked several rooms, some which had couples enjoying private moments, when the came to a door, but the door was locked.

"Now what?" Grezti asked.

Dravina pulled out a hairpin.

"We pick the lock," she answered. Then she jimmied it open. "Cheap!" she snorted.

"Where did you learn that?"

"My father was a locksmith," she replied.

Smiling, Grezti shook her head and they slipped into the room.

The light from the hall lit the room as Grezti lit the candle in the stand on the table near the door and the room was lit in a soft glow.

"Now what?" Dravina asked.

"We do as Ravn said. We search the room and try to find anything suspicious," Grezti said.

Carefully, they searched the drawers, the trunk at the foot of the bed , the mattress, and the wardrobe when Dravina heard footsteps.

"Someone's coming," she said and Grezti closed the door. They stood against the door as the footsteps grew closer and Grezti swore she saw mist moving under the door.

The footsteps stopped in front of the door as they held their breath then the footsteps slowly walked away. Grezti slowly opened the door, but the hallway was empty and she sighed.

"They're gone," she whispered.

"Let's do one more look then go back to Ravn and Knut," Dravina whispered.

Dravina looked through the papers on the desk when she found a letter and she turned to show it to Grezti.

"Look at this," she said.

"We should show this to Ravn," Grezti said, peering at it.

Dravina straightened the desk as they walked to the door and Grezti looked into the hallway. Nodding, she walked out of the room and Dravina followed her. She had closed the door as they headed down the hallway and down the stairs.

Lore was telling his audience about Loki attacking Lars as the crowd grumbled and whispered to each other and the women quickly walked to the table were Ravn and Knut were sitting.

"Did you find anything?" Ravn whispered.

"Yes," Grezti whispered and Dravina slid the letter to him.

Ravn unfolded the letter and examined it. "This is written in elvish. I can't read it, but someone in the king's Secret Service can. He has people who are fluent in all the written languages of the Nine. I'm sure this is important."

He used his communication ring to send a message to Odin telling him what they found.

Odin instructed them to leave and bring the letter to the palace, where the spymasters could examine it and decode it if necessary. Ravn promised to do so, then he memorized the Storyteller's nondescript features so he could identify him again.

"Come on, let's go. I'm tired and want to rest," Ravn said loudly.

None of the patrons paid any attention to them and they left the tavern quickly, returning to the palace.

They reported to Odin in his study. The king had Lord Marple, one of his best agents, there with him. Marple was a tall skinny man with blonde hair and gray eyes, he looked like the kind of man you could pass on the street and not bat an eyelash at. But his eyes were penetrating and sharp.

"Show Marple the letter, Ravn," Odin ordered, and Ravn gratefully surrendered it to the spy.

"Can you tell us what it says?"

Marple rapidly scanned it and said, "I was a cryptographer before I was Chief Agent. So yes, I can translate this. It's written in Dark Elvish, in code, but give me an hour and I can break it. It doesn't look too difficult. Whoever wrote this didn't want to be too complicated."

The agent took the letter and retreated to a corner of the desk to decipher it. Odin dismissed Ravn and the others, saying he would let then know what the letter said as soon as Marple figured it out.

"You have done well," the king added as the four started to leave the study. "It seems like this Lore is the one who has been spreading all these rumors about Loki. Now we need to find out why. I hope the letter may shed some light upon it."

"As do we, Sire," Ravn said, giving his monarch one last bow before he returned to prepare Loki's chambers for the evening.

Less than an hour later, Marple looked up from the letter and smirked. "By Yggdrasil, I have it!"

Odin turned to his agent. "What does it say?"

"The letter is addressed to someone called Chameleon, obviously a code name," Marple explained. "It details instructions on what he is to do once he infiltrates Asgard. This is an undercover agent, my liege, who has been working to undermine your authority and the prince's reputation for months."

Odin's mouth tightened in a grim line. "Who does he report to?"

Marple coughed sharply. "He was given his assignment by none other than Malekith himself. Malekith has awakened, Sire, I know not how, and he has sent his agent here to sow the seeds of discord and hate upon our realm, so that we may fight each other and thus be divided when he comes to conquer us. At least that is his plan."

Odin scowled blackly. "How is it that bastard has awoken from his sleep? It must be because the Aether has been found!"

"But found where? By whom?" Marple asked shrewdly. "This is the first I have heard of it, and it is apparent the Dark Elves do not have it, or else they would have marched upon us already."

Odin sighed heavily. "We must find out what has happened with it. Long ago my father Bor stole it from Malekith and hid it somewhere without telling anyone. If it has been found, I hope it is not by one of our enemies."

"As do I. That would be an unmitigated disaster."

"Send some of your agents throughout the realms, Chief, to discover where the Aether might have been found," Odin ordered. "Meanwhile, I will send guards to capture this spy Chameleon. I'm sure he has information we can use against Malekith."

"Undoubtedly," the Chief said. "Under truth spell he will tell all."

The king nodded his agreement. Then he summoned a contingent of the King's Watch, which were the local police force in the city, and told them to arrest Chameleon, AKA Lore, and to question the owner of the tavern where he had been staying to determine if he had become a traitor to the crown.

The Forked Beard:

The man known by some as the Storyteller and others Lore, whose true name was Chameleon, sought his bed after telling one last tale which he hoped would stir up the crowd against the king and his adopted son. In his experience, people were only too willing to believe lies if couched in half-truths, especially if they centered about one who was different than they were. In another month he was sure he could foment riots in the city, and once that happened, he would tell his master that Asgard was ripe for invasion.

He climbed the stairs, making his way to his room, rubbing his eyes which were threatening to close. Because of that he was less aware than he normally was, and so missed the fact that he hardly needed to key to unlock his door. Once inside, he locked the door and went immediately to his desk to write out another report.

As he shuffled through the papers, most of which were decoys put there to fool anyone glancing at the desk, he noticed in alarm that the most recent letter from his master was missing.

At first he thought it was simply misplaced, but after a thorough search he concluded it was gone. He swore softly in his native tongue. The letter would appear innocuous enough if translated—as it was intended to be. However, if anyone like Chameleon came into possession of it, they would know that Lore was no simple bard who told stories for a living.

Fearing his cover had been blown. Chameleon began to pack, throwing everything of importance into a simple brown satchel. Everything else could stay behind, but he knew it was time to cut his losses.

Just as he descended the back stairs of the tavern and made his way to the stables, he heard the unfamiliar clatter of hooves in the yard and an authoritative voice order, "Open up in the name of the king!"

Hellfires! It's the Watch! Time to disappear! The spy mounted his horse and put his heels to its flanks, making the horse whinny and run along the cobbles of the alley.

Suddenly a hue and cry went up and Chameleon rode faster, trying to put distance between him and his pursuers. The way out of Asgard was further than he liked, and he worried he might not make it before he was caught.

"He's gone, sir!" a Watch member yelled to his Captain.

"Vali, release the hounds!' the Captain ordered after letting the dogs smell a shirt that they had found in Lore's room.

The dog handler knelt and unsnapped their leads. "Track!" he ordered.

The dogs put their noses to the ground and bayed.

Chameleon raced down the streets, hurling debris and a low stone wall before managing to get free of the city. Beneath him, his horse blew sharply, breathing hard for it was not used to running for so long. The spy ignored the horse's distress, intent only upon running as quickly as possible from the Watch.

He urged the horse up a small rise and into the woods, where branches smacked his face and tore at his long hair.

The Dark Elf could see perfectly fine in the darkness of the wood, but he neglected to recall that his mount did not have the same advantages. The baying of the hounds increased and Chameleon knew they had picked up his trail again.

He pushed the horse down a narrow winding trail. Almost there! Almost!

Suddenly his horse stumbled, unable to see in the gloom it had put a hoof into a badger hole.

Swearing, Chameleon was catapulted from his mount and landed on the ground, slightly bruised but otherwise unharmed. He grabbed his satchel and began to run, leaving the injured horse behind.

A few moments later, the hounds found the horse.

"We're getting close!" cried the Captain. "Go on, dogs! Seek!"

The hounds cast about, then tore off down the trail, the scent hot in their nostrils.

Chameleon staggered through the forest, panting, as the baying of the hounds grew louder.

Frantic, he stumbled into a clearing with three ash trees, and moved towards the last one in line.

His hand reached out to touch it, when two hounds burst into the clearing, ears flopping and teeth bared.

"Hold!" yelled a voice.

Chameleon gave the voice the finger then slammed his hand down upon the ash trunk and called out a word in Dark Elvish.

The tree shimmered and he fell through the portal just as the first hound leaped for him.

The dog yelped as its teeth closed upon empty air.

"Hel! He got away somehow!" the dog handler cried. "Must have used magic."

"Slippery bastard! The king won't be pleased," sighed the Captain.

The dog handler shrugged. "Nothing we can do. We didn't know he could use magic."

He whistled the dogs in and gave them treats, then put their leashes back on and they all headed back towards the city.

Bifrost:

Heimdall scanned the realms when he noticed something on Midgard which made his blood run cold. He had heard Bor had hidden the Aether on Midgard from his father, but he was assured no one would ever find it.

What he saw was Jane Foster and her team and Jane became very curious to what they had found.

"What is this?" Jane asked.

"Looks like a red rock," Darcy Lewis said.

"Careful, Jane," Doctor Erik Selvig said.

Heimdall watched in horror as she reached out and touched the Aether.

"My Prince, you must come to Bifrost immediately!" he sent to Thor.

"What is the matter? Are we under attack?" Thor sent.

"No, it has to do with the Aether!"

"What about it?"

"It has been found!"

"By who!?"

"By Jane Foster!"

"I'll be right there!"

Chapter Text

22

 

"Jane, are you ok?!" Darcy Lewis asked. Jane Foster had just touched the red stone she had found when a red light filled their eyes and Jane was sitting on the ground.

"Yeah, I'm...fine," Jane said, feeling a strange power moving through her.

"Are you sure?" Doctor Erik Selvig asked.

"Yeah."

Darcy helped Jane to her feet when a loud booming sound echoed around them and a bright flash of light flared.

"Jane!" Thor called out as he ran to her and Darcy smiled.

"Hey Big Guy!" Darcy said and he nodded at her.

"Greetings, Darcy Lewis. Doctor Selvig," he said, turning to Erik.

"What are you doing here?" Jane asked.

"Tell me you did not touch the red stone you found?!" Thor demanded and she moved back, glaring at him.

"What if I did?!"

"Odin's Good Eye, do you have any idea what you have done?!"

"What has she done?" Erik asked.

"She has just released the Aether."

"What's the Aether?" Darcy asked. Thor told them the story of the Aether, the Dark Elves and how Bor had stolen the Aether from them and Jane rolled her eyes.

"Come on. That is just a story," Jane said when she noticed the red swirling mist moving over her hand. "Uh..."

"Whoa!" Darcy said with wide eyes.

"See, this is what I am talking about. We need to get you to Asgard immediately!" Thor said.

"Uh, no, I am not going anywhere!" Jane said, backing up.

"Jane, be reasonable. If this Aether is as powerful as Thor is saying, the whole world might be in danger," Erik said.

"From Elves!"

"Who are real!" Thor said then he gave her a pleading look. "Please, Jane."

"Oh, he's doing the sad puppy look," Darcy said with a sigh.

Jane knew Thor wouldn't be there if he wasn't one hundred percent serious, but the idea of going to his world scared her. She also knew there was someone there who might try and take the power for himself.

Loki.

"How's Loki?" Jane suddenly asked and Thor frowned.

"Why do you want to know about Loki?" Thor asked.

"Well, the last time he was here, he nearly destroyed New York."

"And he took control of my mind," Erik added.

"Yeah. Erik's been acting really weird ever since," Darcy said and Erik glared at her.

"Thank you, Darcy."

"Is Loki in Asgard jail or, better yet, is he dead?" Jane asked.

"No, my brother is very much alive," Thor said.

"Then I am not going!"

"Jane..."

"How do we know this isn't some sort of trap? He tried to kill you before."

"Loki is..."

"A killer!"

Thor knew he wasn't getting anywhere with her when he walked to her then placed his arms around her.

"Hey! What are you...?!"

"Heimdall! Open Bifrost!" Thor called out and the sky opened up.

"Cool!" Darcy said.

"Thor, let me go!" Jane said, struggling to get free when a white light surrounded them then they vanished.

Bifrost:

Heimdall watched while Thor led Jane out of the portal when she fell to her knees and vomited.

"Easy," Thor said.

"Get away from me!" she said, getting to her feet then her eyes widened when she saw Heimdall. "Who is that?!"

"This is Heimdall," Thor said and Heimdall made a bow.

"Miss Foster," Heimdall said.

Jane looked around the room when she slowly walked to the end of Bifrost and Thor went to stand next to her.

"Is this...?" Jane asked, looking at him.

"This is Bifrost," Thor said, nodding. He watched her slowly walk across the bridge when she stopped and Thor walked to her. She looked down into the Void as she shivered and he gently placed his hand on her shoulder. "That is where Loki went after he fell."

"What?"

Thor explained what happened as she glanced down at the Void and the thought of Loki falling forever filled her mind. She could see his sad emerald eyes looking up at her and she sighed.

"How...? How did he survive?" she asked in the soft voice.

Thor told her about Thanos finding Loki and what Loki had been through and she frowned.

"So, he was working for this creep when he attacked New York and enslaved Erik?" she asked.

Before Thor could answer, the Einherjar walked over and bowed.

"My Prince, your father has ordered us to escort you and your...guest to the palace," one of the Einherjar said and Jane didn't like how he said "guest".

"Let's go," Thor said as he placed his hand on the small of her back and they headed across the bridge.

Loki's bedchamber:

Ravn turned the duvet down while Loki was washing up in the bathroom. Ravn wondered if he should tell Loki about what they had found out.

"Is there something bothering you?" Loki asked as he walked out of the bathroom and he tied the green silk robe closed.

"Yes, there is something wrong," Ravn sighed and Loki arched an eyebrow. He nodded for him to continue and Ravn told him. Loki felt a cold ball of ice building in his chest as he shivered and Ravn gave him a concerned look.

"My Prince?" he asked.

"I'm... I'm alright," Loki said with a nod as the doors opened and Balder and Sigyn entered the room. Balder was wearing his new pajamas, his new slippers and a green silk robe like Loki's and he held Bjorn in his arms.

"Papa, look, we have matching jammies!" Balder said.

"I see that. We're practically twins!" Loki teased then he looked at Sigyn. Suddenly, he felt a little awkward about her seeing him in his pajamas and robe and he swore she was blushing. "Has he brushed his teeth?"

"Yes, he has," she said, nodding.

"And I said my prayers," Balder said.

"Very good," Loki said.

"May I have a story before bed?"

"Yes," he said and Balder followed him to a chair. Loki sat down as Balder carefully got into his lap and he held Bjorn against his chest.

Before Loki could start the story, a knock came from the door and the door opened. One of the Einherjar entered the room and bowed. Loki wondered what was wrong. He still felt apprehensive when it came to the Einherjar and he nodded his head for the guard to speak.

"I am sorry, My Prince, but your father wishes me to bring you to see him," he said.

"Do you know why?" Loki asked, carefully standing up while holding onto Balder.

"No, only that he wishes to see you."

"Is Farfar angry at you?" Balder asked.

"Let's find out," Loki said when Ravn cleared his throat and pointed. Loki looked at their clothes when he waved his hands and they were dressed in the clothes they were just wearing. Loki adjusted his hold on his son as they followed the Einherjar out of the room and Loki wondered why Odin needed to see him.

Balder leaned his head on Loki's shoulder as they walked. He wanted to tell his papa he could walk like a big boy but he found he was slightly sleepy and he always felt safe when Loki held him. Loki was the first man he could remember that was kind to him and didn't yell or slap him.

The Einherjar led him to Odin's study, so Loki knew this meeting was private otherwise it would have been the throne room with courtiers present.

Loki thought perhaps the king wished to discuss the rumors and what had happened to the author of them. That was not something Odin would announce in public.

I hope they caught that slimy son of a bilgesnipe!

The Einherjar rapped on the door. "Sire, here are Prince Loki and Prince Balder." He held open the door for them to enter.

Loki saw Odin seated behind his desk. To one side in a chair was Frigga. Opposite her was Thor and a woman.

With a sudden blink he recognized Jane Foster, the woman his brother seemed to have developed feelings for. What in the Nine is SHE doing here?

"Father," Loki said with a nod then he turned to Thor. "Evening, Brother."

"Evening," Thor said and Jane looked at Loki. She had seen the photo of Loki Erik had gotten from SHIELD as she stood and she walked to him. Before Loki could move, she slapped his face as she growled and he lightly shook his head.

"That was for New York," Jane said and Odin rose to his feet.

"How dare you strike a member of the Royal Family!" he shouted and Balder sniffed, burying his face against Loki's neck. Loki felt the tears moving down his neck as he hushed his son and Thor stood, walking to Jane.

"Hello, Miss Foster," Loki said with a smug look and Jane glared at him.

"Why aren't you in jail?! Or, better yet, why aren't you dead?!" Jane asked.

"Jane, that will be enough," Thor said as he led her to the couch and they sat down. Loki paced as he calmed Balder down then he waved his hand, summoning a handkerchief. He wiped Balder's eyes and nose and Balder sniffed.

"Why did she slap you?" Balder whispered.

"I guess she doesn't like me," Loki whispered then he looked at Odin. "So, Father, why have you summoned me?"

"There has been a sudden development that you need to be aware of, Loki," the king began. "It is something that imperils all of Asgard."

"What has happened?" Loki asked.

"You have heard the tales of the Aether."

"Yes, I have. Asgard and the Dark Elves fought over it for centuries."

"When Bor defeated Malekith, Bors stole the Aether and hid it on Midgard. He believed the Aether would be safe there, but it appears he was wrong," Odin said as he looked at Jane.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Jane asked when a red mist moved over her hands and Loki's eyes widened.

"Papa, her hands are all shiny," Balder said, pointing.

"I see that," Loki said, placing Balder on the chair then Loki walked to Jane. He knelt down in front of her then he reached for her hands, but she pulled them away.

"Don't touch me!" Jane snapped.

"Loki will not harm you, dear," Frigga entreated. "He simply wishes to see what the Aether has done to you. It can be rather dangerous for a mortal to handle."

Loki reached for her hands as Jane watched what he was doing and Loki examined the swirling red mist.

Thanos had explained the powers of all the Infinity Stones to Loki and Loki recognized the power inside Jane was the Aether.

She has the power to convert matter into dark matter and maintain a reality where she controls everything that happens. She could create a reality where I don't exist, Loki thought as she noticed the look on his face.

"Well?" Jane asked.

"Tell me how you found the Aether," Loki asked.

Jane told him how she found the Aether as he nodded then anger filled him when she told him she had touched the Aether.

By the Nine, are all mortals this stupid or is it just her? he thought and Thor looked at him.

Brother, that was rude, Thor sent.

Sorry. I didn't know I sent that.

"Hey! Don't go spacing out on me!" Jane said and Loki rolled his eyes, shaking his head.

"She does have the Aether inside her," Loki said, standing up.

"How do we get it out of me?"

"That might prove difficult,' Loki said, rising to his feet. "You see, the Aether is just a container for the Reality Stone."

"What is an Infinity Stone?"

Loki explained as she listened and she nodded her head a few times.

"Unlike most of the Stones, the Reality Stone is more like a parasite."

"A parasite?"

"Yes. It latches onto a host and, in turn, the host can manipulate reality."

"I can control reality?!"

"Yes, but...," he said then paused. What he had to tell her was frightening and he didn't want Balder to hear. "Mother, will you please take Balder to his room and put him to bed?"

"Of course," Frigga said as she walked to the chair and Balder stood up. He walked to Loki, they hugged, and Loki smiled.

"Night, Papa," Balder said.

"Goodnight. Pleasant dreams."

Jane stared at them. Thor hadn't told her Loki had a son. Such a cute boy. She wondered how a man who was so loving towards his child could murder people.

Frigga led Balder out of the room as Loki looked at Jane and he noticed the surprise on her face.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Loki asked.

"I don't get it. How can you be so loving toward your son and yet you killed Thor..."

"He didn't kill me, but he came close," Thor said.

"He killed all those people in New York."

"Did you tell her about Thanos?" Loki asked.

"Yes, I did," Thor said.

"Being controlled or not, you killed people," Jane accused.

"And I regret every death."

Jane saw the truth in Loki's eyes as she sighed and he took her hands again.

"Now, as I was saying," Loki continued and he gazed at the red light shimmering around her hands. "You can control reality, but, like with any parasite, the power will eventually kill you."

"Ki-kill me!?"

"Once it does, the Reality Stone shall search out a new host. We can contain it if we retrieve the Aether, but, for now, you need to be careful."

"If she had been careful, the Aether would still be intact and the Dark Elves would not have awakened," Odin said disapprovingly.

"The...? The Dark Elves have woken up?!" Loki asked, standing up.

The king nodded gravely. "We found one here, trying to foment lies and unrest. He is gone but it's a sure bet he will tell Malekith all the weaknesses he has discovered. And Malekith will strike at us with his army."

"He has always wanted to conquer us," Thor remarked.

"Not just Asgard, he wants to conquer all the realms," Odin corrected. "That is why he wants the Aether. So he can make his own dark reality."

"And this will happen because I touched the Aether?" Jane asked.

"Yes." Loki replied.

"Meddling with that which you do not understand has always been the bane of your people," Odin scolded. "It was so when your race was young and it has not changed."

"Well, if you hadn't have left it on Earth, I wouldn't have messed with it," Jane said.

"Jane...," Thor warned.

Loki was impressed. Not that many stood up to Odin. Odin arched an eyebrow as he nodded then Jane lowered her head.

"Sorry. I'm just frustrated," Jane said.

"It was placed there millennia ago because the Dark Elves did not go to Midgard. They feared the sun and your people did not welcome them. They are why in some of your folklore they speak of dark fae. Perhaps my father should have found a better place to hide it-one out of reach of the hands of too curious impudent mortals." Odin said sharply. "However, what is done is done. And we must walk the path the Norns have given to us."

"What should we do, Father? I do not want Jane to die," Thor said.

"I don't want to die either," Jane grumbled.

Odin eyed Loki. "Loki, you are my premiere archmagus as well as one of the few living beings who knows about the Aether and its effects. What do you suggest?"

"The first thing I suggest we do is find the Aether. Once we get the Aether, we can try to remove the Reality Stone from Jane," Loki said.

"I can go back to Midgard and get it," Thor said.

"I'll go with you."

"We will leave in the morning."

"The next thing is we need to find a safe place to hide her. If Malekith learns she is in possession of the Aether, he will stop at nothing in order to get his hands on her."

"I am not afraid of some elf. What is he going to do? Make me into a cookie?" Jane asked. Loki waved his hands as he showed her an illusion of what Malekith looked like and she swallowed the lump in her throat.

"Finally, we need to post guards around the palace." Loki told them.

"Yes, his spy is still out there," Odin said, nodding.

Thor noticed how stressed and tired Jane looked as the red mist moved around her hands and he placed his hand on her shoulder.

"Father, maybe we should find a room for Jane. I believe this is becoming too much for her," Thor said.

"Yes. Have one of the maids make up the room across from yours and post a guard," Odin said. Nodding, Thor escorted Jane out of the room as Odin sat back in the chair and Loki looked at him.

"I knew that woman would cause trouble for your brother, but I never thought it would be this," Odin said after a few minutes.

"You can't place the blame solely on her, Father. You said it yourself. The people of Midgard tend to meddle in things they don't understand. If she hadn't found it, someone else might have."

"True," he said as he noticed the look on Loki's face. "And you should not let this bother you. Malekith has been a thorn in this kingdom's side for longer than either of us have been alive."

"It's not Malekith which bothers me. It's the rumors his spy has spread. Once we deal with him, things will hopefully return to normal. But rumors tend to grow and develop a life of their own. Even once the truth is known. There will always be doubts regarding if the rumors are true."

Odin walked to him when he patted Loki's shoulder and Loki placed his hand on top of his father's hand.

"The best way to combat rumors is by deeds and truth," the king said. "It's hard for lies to flourish once the truth can be seen or heard. Your family and friends and those here in the palace know what is true—and we shall help you clear your name. You just protect Asgard as best you can, and that will be enough."

I will, Father," Loki promised.

"Then you have nothing to fear," Odin said and smiled. "Let's get some sleep. I have a feeling we are going to need it."

Loki agreed with him.

~0000~

Balder woke up early to use the bathroom, which was across the hall from his room. He finished washing his hands and was going to head back to bed when he heard voices in the room just down the hall. He recognized Thor's deep voice, and it was accompanied by a woman's—the mean lady who had slapped his papa.

Balder paused with the door partially open, his lips drawn down in a frown. He wondered why the lady was yelling at Uncle Thor. Suddenly he didn't like her very much at all.

" . . .I trust Loki about as far as I can throw him. And I can't even lift him!" Jane sneered.

"Jane, you malign my brother wrongly," Thor defended. "He was captured and tortured before he was mind controlled to attack New York. Thanos was the one who wanted to take over Earth, not my brother! Put the blame where it belongs, woman! With him!"

"He's dead, Thor!"

"Aye, my father killed him for what he did to Loki. Who has spent the last two months or so recovering from what was done to him. He has nightmares and panic attacks. Do you understand, Jane?"

"Loki has PTSD?"

"I know not what that is, but he was deeply troubled about what he endured. He required a Mind Healer to help him recover."

"He's seeing a shrink?"

"She is not small. Her name is Lady Viva," Thor began.

"No, no! A shrink is a therapist. Someone who deals with head cases." Jane laughed.

"What happened to Loki is no laughing matter," Thor said.

"I can't believe you're defending him after everything he's done!"

"You know not what you speak of. I did worse to him."

"What do you mean?"

"It would take all night for me to explain, but trust me, Jane, I was not kind to my brother growing up—or even after we came of age—"

Thor was cut off by Jane screaming.

"A spider! Kill it!"

"It's just a bug."

"I hate them! Step on it!"

Thor stamped his foot then said, "Look, it's gone."

"Thank God! I can't stand them. I don't care if they eat dangerous bugs in the garden. They're disgusting!"

Balder slipped back into his room, a smirk gracing his little features.

Jane looked at Thor as she thought about what he told her when he sighed and gently cupped her face in his hands.

"Please. Give my brother a chance to show you who and what he really is," Thor said and she found it hard to stay angry with him giving her a pleading look.

"I have seen him with his son. He really loves him, doesn't he?"

"Aye, he does and Balder loves him just as much," Thor said then he explained about Lars and what happened to Balder.

"Oh, the poor little guy. No child deserves to be treated like that," Jane said.

"You are correct. And Loki isn't sure if he really can be a good parent."

"Seriously?!"

"Yes. So, are you going to give him another chance?"

"Sure," Jane said with a sign as the red mist floated around her wrists. "Besides, I really need his help getting rid of this stuff."

Smiling, Thor slid his arms around her as they hugged and she placed her head against his chest.

In the morning, Balder woke when he got out of bed and he held Bjorn against his chest. He knew he had to make the mean lady pay for slapping his papa, but where was he going to get spiders?

Then he recalled Jane saying spiders ate dangerous bugs in the garden. He would play outside today with Sigyn. Surely there would be plenty of spiders there.

He ran to his armoire and opened it, impatient to start the day. As he looked through his tunics, Sigyn entered the room. "Good morning, young prince."

"Good morning," Balder said.

"Do you need some help?"

"Yes."

She helped him pick a tan tunic with brown breeches and get dressed.

"What would you like to do after breakfast?" Sigyn asked.

"Can we go play in the garden?" he asked.

"Of course! It's good for you to be outside," she said. As a green mage, Sigyn loved the outdoors.

Smiling, Balder held her hand as they headed out of the room and he hoped he could find enough spiders to give the Mean Lady a proper scare.

The Feast Hall:

Thor noticed the looks the others were giving Jane as they walked to the table and sat down. Sif arched an eyebrow as she looked at Jane then went back to eating her breakfast.

"Jane Foster, you do remember Lady Sif, Hogun, Volstagg and Fandral, don't you?" Thor asked.

"I do remember, but I don't think we were formally introduced," Jane said.

They greeted her politely, then went back to eating. Thor noticed Loki sitting with his parents, Balder, Viva, and Sigyn. Balder was waving a piece of bacon about excitedly, making Loki smile.

"It is good to see a genuine smile on Loki's face again," Volstagg said, taking a long sip of coffee.

"Aye, I thought he would never smile again," Fandral said.

"He didn't have much to smile about after he came home. Seems he wasn't treated well while he was on Midgard," Sif said, glancing at Jane.

"We know that wasn't the reason," Thor said, giving her a warning look.

"He's right. It was that monster, Thanos, who caused his pain," Hogun said.

Jane nodded as she looked at the food spread out before her, but she only placed a few things on her plate.

"Aren't you hungry?" Sif asked.

"Not really," Jane said.

"Tell me, Dear Lady, why would you want to be with Thor? Surely, you could do better," Fandral said, giving her one of his charming grins.

"Like you?" Volstagg asked.

"What is wrong with me?!"

"Where do you want me to start?"

Sif and Thor laughed as Jane smiled and Fandral sat back, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Papa, Sigyn and I are going to play in the garden and-" Balder chattered, ignoring his breakfast.

"Seems like someone is more interested in talking than eating," Loki chuckled. "But maybe this will help."

He gestured and a pancake face appeared on the child's plate. It had sapphire berries for eyes, syrup for hair, and bacon for the mouth. The toast made triangle arms.

"Oooooo!" Balder said as he started eating and Loki reminded him to use a napkin to wipe the syrup off his mouth and chin.

Viva felt something was off with Loki as he looked at her then he sighed.

"Is there something wrong?" she sent.

Yes, but I would like to talk about it after breakfast, he sent and she nodded.

She ate her eggs and bacon, watching Loki out of the corner of her eye.

"Papa, is the Mean Lady still here?" Balder asked.

"Who?" Viva asked.

"He is talking about my brother's friend. Jane Foster," Loki said.

"Why is she mean?"

"She slapped Papa," Balder said, frowning.

"She slapped you?!" she sent to Loki instead of shouting.

"Yes. Apparently, she still blames me for my deeds while I was on Midgard," he sent and she glanced around the room. She saw a brunette woman sitting with Thor and Jane laughed at something Thor said.

Viva's mouth tightened but she simply asked, "Why is she here?"

"It appears she stumbled upon something she should not have tampered with," Odin said, sipping on some coffee.

"What sort of something?"

Odin explained as a shocked look appeared on her face and she glanced at Jane. She had read the stories about Bor and his battles with the Dark Elves and there were tales about what had really happened to the Aether.

That mortal is trouble, Viva thought silently. But I sense she has bothered Loki and Balder with her refusal to accept that Loki had no choice when he was controlled by the Mind Stone. Few people comprehend just how insidious it is to have a psychic or a powerful magical object controlling you. It's like you're a prisoner in your own body. Perhaps someone needs to explain that to her.

Viva thought the "someone" had better be her.

She would be damned if Loki had a flashback because of this unreasoning mortal. An urgent voice in the back of her mind was whispering that she needed to explain things to Jane Foster now.

Viva set her fork down and rose. "Excuse me, I will be right back."

Loki watched as she headed over to the table where Jane and Thor were.

"Ah, Lady Viva," Thor greeted her. "I would like you to meet Miss Jane Foster, a scientist from Midgard, and my girlfriend."

Viva smiled and held out her hand. "Greetings, Miss Foster."

Jane took the other woman's hand.

"Hello, Lady Viva."

"Just Viva if you wish. There is no need to be so formal. The king has spoken to me of your . . . accident," the Mind Healer said tactfully. "I may be able to help a bit. Would you come with me into the garden?"

Jane nodded and looked at Thor.

"Go with her, Jane. She is an excellent Healer and knows how to deal with mind magics." Thor encouraged.

Jane rose and followed Viva out into the garden.

Viva sensed Jane's wonderment over the garden as they walked when they came to a stone bench and Viva pointed towards it.

"Shall we sit?" she asked.

"Sure," Jane said.

Once seated, Jane asked, "Can you help me?"

"I can but first I wish to discuss something with you. Your anger towards Loki is misplaced. He is not to blame for what Ebony Maw and the scepter made him do."

"It goes back further than that. Did he tell you that he tried to kill Thor?"

"When was this?"

"It was when Thor was exiled. Loki sent this robot called the Destroyer after him."

"I have heard of the Destroyer."

"Well, Loki wanted to use it to destroy Thor. After Thor destroyed it, he didn't get back up. I'm still not sure what happened, but he finally did. That when he left and I never saw him again until I heard he was in New York."

This must have been right before Loki's fall. When he learned the truth about being Jotun, Viva thought. She wasn't sure if she should tell Jane about Loki being a Frost Giant and she closed her eyes.

Loki, Miss Foster told me about what happened with the Destroyer, she sent.

I wondered if that was the other reason why she hates me, Loki sent.

May I tell her about what happened and how you ended up falling off Bifrost?

If you think it will help, then, yes, tell her.

Viva opened her eyes and focused on Jane, who gave her a puzzled look.

"What I am about to tell you must be heard with an opened mind and an open heart," Viva said.

"Sounds serious," Jane said.

"It is and it is also the truth."

Jane listened while Viva told her, but she also used her influence to help Jane understand.

"Whoa," Jane whispered. She had no idea the amount of pain, loneliness and fear Loki had gone through.

"Now that you understand, you have to stop treating Loki like he's your enemy. It will only cause him more pain," Viva said. Then she added, "The magic required to remove the Stone and its influence is very delicate, and if you do not trust Loki then it will fail and it could harm both of you. He would not speak of this because he does not wish to frighten you, but I will because you must understand the consequences of your actions, especially when it comes to magic like this. There are no half measures with a spell like this. It is all or nothing."

Jane gaped at her. "But . . . Thor never told me that!"

"Thor would not know, for he is a warrior, not a mage. But I know."

Jane looked down at her hands as the red mist swirled in wild patterns and she could feel the power moving through her.

"Pull it back," Viva cautioned, her voice deceptively soft. "I can help you contain it, but only for a time."

Jane closed her eyes. She could picture the red mist. She saw it swirling around her. She could feel the power. She saw flashes of worlds, realities, where she had whatever she wanted. She felt tempted to give in when she saw something horrifying. She saw Thor...Loki...all of Asgard lying dead at her feet and Malekith was standing by her side.

"Well done, My Love," he said.

Viva sensed her fear as she sent comfort into her mind and Jane opened her eyes, looking at her in terror.

"Help me," Jane whispered.

Viva touched Jane's temples lightly with her fingertips. "This is but a false reality-a wish created by the Dark Elf. Do not be fooled." Then she used her own magic to pull the Aether back and cage it in a psychic web.

Jane felt a sense of relief flow through her. She smiled as Viva removed her hands and Jane stood up.

"I need to speak with Loki," Jane said, walking off. She returned to the hall and approached Loki and he looked at her. "We need to talk."

Something about her made him stand, then he held his hand out and they went to sit on the steps. She looked at her hands then at Loki and she sighed. "I owe you an apology."

"Yes, you do," he said.

"My mom used to say you can't judge a book by its cover and it's true. When I first met you and your brother, I believed you were the bad guy. I mean, come on, you sent a killer robot after him. But what I didn't know was why. I didn't know what occurred before Thor had been exiled. Nor did I know what happened afterwards. When I heard about New York, I believed I was right. You were nothing more than a villain. Now that I know the truth..."

"You pity me?"

"No," she said with a shake of her head. "I don't pity you. I respect you."

"You...respect me?"

"Yeah. You have been through hell, maybe you still are, but you are not giving up. You are fighting back."

Loki gave her a small grin as she lightly nudged him then he looked at her hands. The red mist swirled wildly as she sighed and he arched his eyebrows.

"Will you allow me to help you?" he asked.

"Yeah," she said, pulling the power back.

"Then Thor and I better go retrieve the Aether," he said when he stood then he walked to Thor. She watched him talk to Thor as Thor looked at her then he exchanged glances with Loki, nodded, stood and they left the room.

Balder had been watching them when he saw the sad look on his papa's face. He drank his milk, seething.

The Mean Lady hurt Papa again, he thought, placing the glass on the table.

"Sigyn, let's go play in the garden!" he called to his new nanny, and then he jumped out of his chair to run into the garden towards the back of the Feast Hall.

"Balder!" Sigyn called. "Shouldn't you wait to be excused?"

But the boy was already out the double doors leading into the garden and Sigyn shook her head. "I'm sorry, Your Graces," she began.

But Frigga just smiled. "He's a little boy, they're all like that. It's all right. He has plenty of time to learn manners."

"Yes, of course. I had better go and see what he's up to," Sigyn said excusing herself. She hurried after her charge.

Out in the garden, Balder hunted among the rose bushes and near the stone wall surrounding them. He soon found two long legged spiders, they were harmless, but frightening to people who were afraid of arachnids. He carefully pushed them into a little jar he had in his pocket and screwed the lid on.

"Balder! Where did you go?"

"Over here!" he called, running to the other side of the rose arbor.

He heard Sigyn coming towards him and scurried out the other side and after one guilty glance backwards, ran into the castle.

He glanced about, wondering where the Mean Lady was, then figured he would see if she were in her room and made his way to the royal wing.

He carefully opened the door when he entered Jane's room and he smiled.

He saw Jane taking a nap on her bed and slipped quietly up to her like a cat. Then he unscrewed the lid and put the spiders on top of her as she slept. Right in her hair.

He placed the lid back on the jar when he slid out of the room and closed the door.

Jane stirred and felt something tickling her ear. She went to brush it off and then opened her eyes . . . to see a spider crawling on her hand. Her scream could have woken the dead in Valhalla.

"Yes! Take that. Mean Lady!" Balder said, running down the hallway.

Thor ran into the room as Jane swatted the bed with a pillow and he had a confused look on his face.

"Jane, what's wrong?" Thor asked.

"Spiders! There are spiders in my bed! They were in my hair!" she shouted, swatting the bed.

Thor looked around, but he couldn't see the spiders, which had escaped through the small space under the balcony doors, and he gently took the pillow from her.

"They're gone," Thor said as he lifted her off the bed and set her down.

"I hate spiders!"

"I think we all know that now," he said, smiling, when he noticed the small muddy footprints. "What is this?"

Jane stared at the tracks when Thor noticed the footprints led into then out of the room. He held up his index finger. They followed the small footprints until they faded and Thor saw they led to the doors to Balder's room.

Brother, will you please come to Balder's room? Thor sent.

Has something happened to him? Loki sent.

No, but he might be in trouble.

"Thor?" Jane asked.

"I think I know how the spiders got into your room," he said, looking at the door.

Loki arrived as Thor held his hand up to silence him then Thor opened the door. Sigyn and Balder were playing with some blocks when she looked up and she was surprised to see them.

"Hello," she said, standing, and she made a small curtsy.

"Hello," Thor said, looking at Balder. Balder saw the anger in Thor's eyes and the boy gulped. Loki gave his brother a puzzled look.

"Thor, what is going on?" Loki asked.

"Jane found spiders in her bed."

"They were in my hair," Jane added.

"And you think Balder had something to do with it?" Loki asked.

"Come look at this," Thor beckoned Loki out of the room to show him the footprints.

Loki stared at the footprints then asked, "When did you notice these?"

"After I entered Jane's room when she screamed." Thor answered.

"How would Balder even know what room Jane was in? He was asleep when we all went to bed last night." Loki frowned.

"I don't know. Why don't you ask him?"

"Balder, were you in Miss Foster's room?" Loki asked. Sigyn looked at Balder when she thought back to his insisting on going to the garden and she placed her hand lightly on Balder's hand.

"Umm . . . I was playing," he said in a soft voice.

"What were you playing? How to Scare Somebody to Death?" Jane asked sarcastically.

"Jane, let Loki handle this," Thor said.

"Balder, did you place spiders in Miss Foster's bed?" Loki asked, his voice soft but firm. It was the way he recalled Odin questioning him and Thor as children, with that knowing tone in his voice that had always made Loki believe his father knew everything—even when he hadn't been there to see it. That tone worked as well now as it had then. Balder looked at them when he burst into tears and he glared at Jane.

"Yes, I did! She is mean! She slapped Papa and I heard her say mean things about him!" Balder accused.

"When did you hear her say bad things?"

"I woke up and had to go potty. I went down the hallway to use the bathroom and Uncle Thor's door was open. I listened to them talking and she said she trusted Papa as far as she could throw him!"

"Did you say that?" Loki asked Jane.

"Uh, yeah, I did, but that's before we talked," Jane said, gazing at Loki guiltily.

"Then she said Papa had peeteeeesdee!"

"What is that?" Loki asked.

"I said you have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," Jane said. She explained what it was and Loki nodded.

"She called Lady Viva a shrink!"

"A what?" Sigyn asked.

"I meant she was a therapist. Someone who deals with mental and emotional issues," Jane explained.

"Then she got scared when she saw a spider. I thought putting spiders in her bed would make her go away!" Balder sobbed and Loki looked at Jane.

"Oh boy," Jane sighed.

"She has to go away! She got that bad red stuff and she'll hurt us!"

"Balder," Loki said as he picked his son up and held him. "You know why Miss Foster can't go away. The bad red stuff will kill her if we don't get rid of it. Do you want her to die?"

"N-no," he said, shaking his head.

"Will it help if I tell Papa I'm sorry?" Jane asked and Balder nodded.

Loki gave her a small smile as she walked over and she smiled back.

"I am sorry for slapping you and saying those mean things about you."

"Apology accepted," Loki said then he looked at Balder. "Now, you have to apologize to Miss Foster."

"I'm sorry, Miss Foster for putting spiders in your bed. But they wouldn't hurt you. They just tickle." Balder informed her, sniffling.

"I forgive you. Just please do not do that again. I don't like tickling spiders," she said shuddering.

"Yes, ma'am."

Balder peered at Loki, hoping he wasn't going to get any further punishment for his prank.

Thor led Jane out of the room while Loki held his son and Balder wrapped his arms around Loki's shoulders. Once Balder calmed, Loki set him down and Balder gazed up at him.

Loki knew he had to say or do something, but he was in a quandary how to discipline when Balder walked to his trunk and brought out a long, dark leather belt with a large iron buckle. He walked back to Loki and held it out to him.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" Loki asked.

"You're supposed to beat me with it. Lars used it when he punished me," Balder told him, shivering. Loki swore his heart had stopped. Behind them, Sigyn gasped, her hazel eyes round in horror.

The thought of that monster hitting Balder with that belt made Loki feel ill and he just stared at it.

Balder held the belt out to Loki, his small chin quivering. He hated getting hit but he knew he deserved it. "Bad little boys get beaten so they learn to behave!" Lars' voice echoed in his head.

"Balder, no. Little boys don't get lessons with whips in this family." Loki took the belt and said, "There is only one thing a belt is used for in this house, son. And that's to hold your pants up." He threw the belt into the fire.

The flames quickly lit the leather ablaze as the leather made a loud pop and crackling sound and Balder looked up at his papa.

"Then . . . are you going to use something else?" the child wept, unable to believe the nightmare was over. He wondered if he would be told to fetch a shoe or a hairbrush instead.

"Balder, hands are for hugging, not hitting. Now," Loki said, kneeling down and he wiped away the tears rolling down Balder's cheeks. "What do you think is a fair punishment for scaring Miss Foster?"

"I said I was sorry," Balder said.

"Yes, you did, but what else?"

"I remember putting a dead mouse in my sister's shoes once," Sigyn recalled. "Father was furious. He didn't beat me, but he told me to apologize then I had to spend the rest of the week doing her chores."

"Miss Foster doesn't have any chores, but Balder could help keep her company while Thor and I are on Midgard and while we try to figure out how to get the Aether out of her," Loki said.

"I can do that, Papa," Balder said, nodding.

"But that's just the start. I'll have to think of another chore for you to do. Right now, I want you to go to bed."

"But it's not bedtime."

"No, but you're taking a nap."

"Yes, sir," Balder said. Loki hugged his son then he left the room, allowing Sigyn to put the boy to sleep, but the image of Lars beating Balder with the belt was still at the back of his mind.

It upset him so much that he began to pace up and down the hallway and soon his feet brought him to Viva's office.

Viva had been meditating when she sensed Loki's distress, Balder's guilt, and Jane's stress and she opened her eyes. She quickly walked to the door. Upon opening it, she found Loki on the other side.

"What's happened?" she asked as she stepped back and he walked by her.

"You promise you won't laugh at me?" he said, putting his hands behind his back to keep from clenching his fists. "I'm sorry I disturbed you . . ."

"No, you're not disturbing me."

"I just . . . needed someone to talk to." Loki sighed agitatedly. "Balder overheard Jane and Thor arguing last night and misinterpreted some things she said about me . . . and he got angry and decided to prank her and make her go away. . . so he put spiders in her bed."

"He put spiders in her bed?" Viva frowned.

"Yes. Jane woke up from a nap with spiders in her hair and she panicked. Thor went to see what was the matter and he discovered my son's muddy footprints in her room. We confronted Balder and he told us what he did."

"What happened after you confronted him?"

"He started crying. I told him to apologize after she apologized for saying means things about me and slapping me and he did. Thor and Jane left, but it was what happened next that I need to talk to you about."

"What happened?"

"Balder went to the trunk they had sent from his old home and he took out this long belt."

Loki waved his hands as an illusion of the belt appeared in his hands and she gasped.

"What were you supposed to do with that?" Viva asked.

"I was supposed to beat him with it."

Viva's throat constricted. "Oh, Norns! Loki, that poor boy!"

"I don't understand why he would think I would ever hurt him like that? Does he think I am a monster too?" he asked, anguish in his expressive emerald eyes.

"No, he doesn't. But you need to remember Lars had been beating him, belittling him, and treating him like he was dirt for who knows how long. It's all he knows. He expects it now from anyone in authority."

Loki started pacing as he imagined Lars standing over Balder with the belt raised to strike the small boy then he sank down on the couch and he placed his head in his hands. My poor son! How can I banish the specter of Lars from his mind?

Viva felt her heart ache and she said quietly, "You can't change the past, but you can make a new beginning, Loki. You can show Balder how to put the past behind him by giving him examples of how you can discipline without fear."

"I already talked with him. He has to help keep Jane company while Thor and I go to Midgard to find the Aether and we try to figure out how to get the Reality Stone out of her. I also had him take a nap until I figure out what other chore I can have him do."

"How did he react to that?"

"He said he will help her."

"That's a start," Viva said. "Perhaps he could also do another nice thing for her? Like paint her a picture. Once when I was rude to a guest, my mother made me pick flowers for her room and help bake sweet rolls for the woman."

"I will suggest that."

Viva gently rubbed Loki's back when he sat up and brushed the hair out of his eyes.

"My mama always said you learn best by doing. Now stop doubting yourself. You will make a good father, Loki. Because you know what NOT to do."

He gave her a small grin as he nodded and she went to pour him some tea.

He sipped the tea, and Axelle came sauntering in through the open window with Kiva to settle on his lap.

Loki stroked the soft fur while Axelle purred and Kiva settled on the back of the chair. Viva noticed the look on his face as she sat next to him with her own tea.

"Is there something else bothering you?"

"Thor and I have to go to Midgard, but there are people there who are not going to be happy to see me," Loki said, watching Axelle swat at his fingers while he wiggled them.

"Do they know about what Thanos did to you?"

"No, they don't."

"What would they do if they saw you?"

"I might get slapped by Jane's friend. Though her other friend might run. I sort of controlled his mind with the Mind Stone."

"Then he might understand what you went through if you told him what Thanos did."

"He might. He is very smart...for a mortal," he said, grinning.

"Is there anyone else who might not be happy to see you?"

"There are the Avengers. They are Thor's friends and they helped him stop me from destroying Midgard."

Loki waved his hands as an illusion of the Avengers surrounding him appeared. Viva looked at them when she saw the green creature she had seen in his mind and she frowned.

"Is that the creature who pounded you into the floor?" she asked, pointing to the Hulk.

"Yes."

Loki waved his hand as the illusion vanished and she placed her hand on his lower arm.

"You will do fine." Viva said firmly. "I know you will. I would go with you but my intuition tells me I should stay here."

"Do you have the Sight?"

"No, just flashes of intuition every now and again. That Gift skipped me." Viva shrugged.

"I have it."

"Have you Seen anything recently about this new turn of events?"

"No."

"You may want to scry in fire or water before you go down there. Just in case."

"I will," he said as he stood with Axelle in his arms, giving her a pleased look. "Thank you for listening to me."

"Anytime," she said, standing up. She waved as he left and headed down the hallway. He checked in on Balder before going to his own chambers. Balder was asleep. He was holding onto Bjorn as Loki quietly walked to the bed and he moved the blankets up. He softly carded the top of his son's head then he left the room, but he didn't notice Axelle had hopped out of his arms and settled down next to Balder.

He met Sigyn as he shut the door behind him. "Sigyn, I need you to tell Balder that his other chore is to paint a nice picture for Jane to make up for scaring her."

"I shall do that. Forgive me for being so forward before, but you looked . . ." she trailed off as she tried to think of how to describe how Loki appeared before.

"Lost? Uncertain? Clueless, as Jane would say?" Loki guessed, chuckling.

"Well . . ." Sigyn blushed softly.

"It's all right. I was all those things. I wasn't sure how to react after Balder showed me the belt and thought I would beat him. Thank you for your suggestion."

"Being a parent is never easy. My sisters say it's nine tenths guesswork to one tenth knowledge. And they would know." She looked thoughtful. "Perhaps you could speak with your parents about it? Or maybe Volstagg? Norns know he has experience!"

Loki nodded. "That is a wonderful idea. Thank you, my lady." He picked up her hand and his lips just brushed the back of it.

At his touch she felt a shock go through her like a lightning bolt and she sucked in a breath. Blessed Yggdrasil, what just happened to me?

An instant later he let go and then turned and entered his chambers, leaving Sigyn staring after him wondering why a simple kiss had made her feel like she had flown off the top of a mountain.

Chapter Text

Loki woke just as the sun peeked its head above the horizon. He quickly went to the balcony doors and threw them open, walking out into the gentle dawn heat of an Asgardian summer. He felt a sudden restlessness within him, an urging he hadn't felt in months, not since had been captured. He finally put a name to it-it was his shifter magic stirring.

Without conscious thought he blurred into the form of an ebony hawk with a white breast and took to the sky, screeching with pleasure. It had been too long since he had flown, and he had forgitten how invigorating it was.

He soared over the palace, his majestic wings carrying him high into the air. The hawk rules the sky. And I am the hawk.

He glided on an updraft, the wind ruffling his ebony feathers slightly. He passed one golden spire and then another, his keen eyes picking out the movement of people below as servants prepared for a new day.

With a flick of his wings, he rode the currents away from the palace and out into the fields beyond it. As he flew over them, he spotted a mouse on the ground between the sheaves. Quicker than thought, he honed in on it.

Then he dove, like a lightning bolt from above, his talons extended.

He struck the mouse full on and killed it, ending its life swiftly and mercifully before it knew what had happened.

Then he began to eat, his raptor heart delighting in the prey he had caught.

After he had eaten, he carefully wiped his talons and beak in the grass until he was clean, then preened his feathers as he sat upon a tree branch, surveying the wheat field.

The breeze rustled the leaves and riffled through his wings. It felt good to be flying again, he had missed it like a fish missed swimming, and had not realized it until now.

The sun danced across him, turning his ebony plumage iridescent. He thought, oddly enough of Sigyn, and recalled how soft and delicate her hand had felt in his.

He could see her smiling face in his mind and he ruffled his ebony plumage.

What is going on with you? he thought then he took flight. He soared over the trees as he returned to the palace then he saw Sigyn on the balcony outside Balder's room. She was dressed in her uniform and she leaned on the balcony railing. The sunlight sparkled on her hair and he wondered what she was looking at.

Slowly, he gilded down to the railing when he ruffled his wings and her eyes widened.

"Oh, aren't you handsome." she said with a smile.

And you are beautiful, he thought.

She carefully stepped closer as he watched and she lifted her hand toward his head.

"It's alright. I am not going to harm you," she said in a soft voice.

He allowed her to stroke his head, chirruping and he half closed his eyelids. She smiled as he tilted his head to one side then the other and he felt his heart thumping hard in his chest.

"Sigyn, what is that?" Balder asked, walking onto the balcony.

"It's a hawk," she said and he walked over.

"Is it yours?"

"No."

"Why is it here?"

"I guess he just came to say hello."

"Can we keep him?!"

Loki wished he could smile at his son's excitement of having a pet and he made a mental note to get him one.

"No, he is a wild creature. He needs to be free," Sigyn said and Loki tilted his head side to side.

"May I pet him?"

"If he will let you. Hawks can be a little shy."

Balder slowly raised his hand and Loki let him pat his head.

"He likes me!" Balder said with a wide grin.

"Yes, he does."

"I want to show him to Papa!" he said, running back into the room.

Now what do I do? Loki thought when he took wing and flew after him.

"Wait! No! Come back!" Sigyn said, running after him.

Loki was glad Balder had left the door open as the hawk flew down the hallway then he saw Balder standing in front of the doors to his bedchambers.

"Papa! Papa! Are you awake?!" Balder said, pounding on the door.

Loki called out as he landed on the floor and Balder turned, looking at him.

"Oh! You followed me! I guess you want to meet Papa, too!" he said.

Loki shook his head then he changed and Balder's eyes went wide.

"Papa! You were the hawk?!"

"Yes," Loki said as he knelt down and Sigyn stood behind him.

She had watched him shift as a blush moved over her cheeks and she gasped.

She had touched Loki's hair.

His soft, silky hair.

And she liked it.

Oh, sweet Valhalla! she thought and Loki turned to look at her.

"Surprise," he said with a grin.

"My Prince, I am so sorry. I knew you could shift, but...," she began awkwardly and he laughed softly.

"It's fine," he said, nodding.

"Papa, can you change into other animals?!" Balder asked.

"Yes, I can," Loki said as he stood. "Once, I changed into a snake. Uncle Thor loved snakes and I went to play a trick on him. He was so excited when he saw me, he picked me up."

"What happened next?"

"I changed back and stabbed him with my dagger."

"Papa. that was mean!"

"I know, but he wasn't injured that badly."

"Did you get punished?"

"Yes. I had to apologize and do his chores for four months."

Sigyn had tried not to smile, but she did and Loki noticed how cute she looked when she smiled.

"Well, let's go get dressed so we can have breakfast," she said then she led Balder down the hallway and Loki leaned against the door. He watched them go back into Balder's room then he turned and walked into the closed door.

"Norns," he sighed, shaking his head. He turned and eyed his guards sternly. "You saw nothing, understand?"

"Yes, My Prince," Eirik responded, deadpan.

"I didn't see anything," Magnus coughed.

Loki went inside his room and shut the door.

The two guards smirked and laughed into their hands and Magnus whispered, "I won't tell anyone, but he's got it bad for the General's daughter, aye?"

Eirik chuckled. "Aye, as bad as I did for my wife Nanna when I was courting her. I tripped over my own feet trying to impress her with how well I could dance once. Ah, well, love makes fools out of us all, even princes."

Loki arrived at the Feast Hall for breakfast, and saw that Thor had chosen to sit at the high table that morning with the rest of the family. Loki took his accustomed seat to the left of Odin and next to his son. Sigyn sat on Balder's other side, while Thor and Frigga sat across from them and Viva was next to Frigga. Odin was at the head of the table.

Balder was telling Odin and Frigga about seeing a hawk then the hawk turned into Loki and Frigga smiled sweetly at Loki, who nodded his head.

"Are you ready to go to Midgard, Brother?" Thor asked him.

'Yes. Where is Miss Foster?"

"She wished to sleep in this morning," answered his brother.

"Why?" Balder asked. To him sleeping was a chore and he only did it if he had to.

"She must be tired," Loki answered. He knew the Aether might be stressing the woman and making her tired.

"Oh," Balder shrugged, thinking how grown-ups were strange. "When will you be back?"

"As soon as I can," Loki promised.

"But when?"

"I'm not exactly sure of the time, but I promise as soon as we are finished with our mission on Midgard, I will be right back here," Loki said earnestly. "Now you be good for Sigyn and your grandparents, all right?"

Balder nodded. "I will, sir. And I will keep Miss Jane company and paint her a picture."

"You do that, scamp." Loki mussed his hair playfully and the boy giggled. Loki grinned back at him, thinking how he loved to hear Balder laugh. It was like hearing sunshine.

Thor inhaled his food while Loki ate neatly, not too fast or too slow.

Loki wondered how Thor's Midgard friends would react when they see him again and he sipped some coffee.

"What is Midgard like, Uncle Thor?" Balder asked.

"It's a lot different from here. Much noisier. With more people." Thor replied.

"Can they do magic like Papa?"

"Not usually. Most people over there don't even believe magic exists. And those that practice it do so secretly. I doubt if they have anyone that can match your father for sheer magical knowledge and power."

"Yeah, my papa's the best when it comes to magic," Balder said, grinning and Loki softly laughed.

"I think your grandfather and grandmother might disagree on that point, Son," Loki said.

"They're the best, too."

Odin gave his grandson a nod as Frigga lightly patted her husband's arm and he gave her a loving look.

After they finished eating, Thor and Loki approached Bifrost and Heimdall stood a little straighter at their coming.

"My Princes," he said with a nod.

"Have you seen any sign of the Aether?" Thor asked.

"Since Miss Foster found it?" Heimdall asked.

"Yes."

"It appears it has been taken."

"By who?" Loki asked.

"I believe it is the same people who took you into custody when you attacked New York."

"S.H.I.E.L.D," Thor whispered.

"Open Bifrost. We need to talk with Darcy Lewis and Erik Selvig," Thor ordered.

Heimdall opened the portal as Loki turned to look back at the kingdom and images of Viva, Sigyn, and Balder danced in his mind.

"Brother?" Thor asked.

"I'm fine," Loki said. They stepped into the portal as the colors swirled around them, then Heimdall closed it.

Earth:

Darcy looked at the computer screen which was filled with data, but her mind was on Jane. She didn't know why Thor had taken Jane, but it had to be important.

"Lucky," she whispered.

She wasn't surprised when the black vans and cars arrived shortly after they had left and Nick Fury had told them they were taking that red rock Jane had found.

"Find anything?" Erik asked, walking toward her.

"Not sure," Darcy said and he looked at the screen. She had been tracking what appeared to be some strange energy readings and Erik frowned.

"When did these readings start happening?"

"They happened shortly after Jane left with Thor," Darcy said.

"Hmm . . . perhaps we had better check them out."

"Yeah," she said when a crack of thunder caused them to jump and they turned, seeing Loki and Thor outside through the window of the van.

"Hello," Thor said.

"Hey, you're back!" Darcy said, getting out then running to Thor. She hugged him as Thor laughed and Erik walked toward them.

"Where's Jane?" Erik asked while looking at Loki. "And what is he doing here?"

Loki felt a sudden sense of anxiety surge through him as he stepped slightly behind Thor and Darcy moved to one side to look at him. She hadn't met Loki before and was curious. She walked over and held her hand out.

"Hi! I'm Darcy Lewis," she said.

"I am Loki," Loki said.

"Are all guys from Asgard hot?!"

"I beg your pardon?"

"She thinks you are good looking," Thor explained.

"Oh," he said as he smiled at Darcy. "Most of them are."

"Jane is so lucky," she said with a shake of her head.

"I asked what he is doing here," Erik repeated angrily.

"Selvig, there is no need to be hostile. Loki is here to help," Thor said.

"Help!? Did you forget what he did to me!? To Agents Romanoff and Barton?! What he did in New York?!"

Darcy saw the panic in Loki's eyes as he swallowed the lump in his throat and his hands were trembling.

"Hey, are you ok?" Darcy asked.

Not now Loki thought as the panic grew and he felt dizzy.

"Thor, I think he's sick," Darcy said and Thor turned to look at Loki.

"Loki, where is your diffuser?" Thor asked, recognizing the signs of an early panic attack. He knew his brother carried the diffuser on him all the time.

Loki reached into his pouch as he removed the diffuser, but his hands shook so badly he nearly dropped it.

"Here. Let me," Darcy said, taking the diffuser and she held it up to his nose. She watched him breathe in the fine mist for a few seconds as concern appeared in her eyes and he placed his hand on top of hers. "Does that feel better?"

"Yes. Thank you," Loki said, calming down.

"What just happened?" Erik asked.

"Can we put the questions on hold?" Darcy asked. "We need to take him inside."

She helped Loki sit on the couch then she went to get him a glass of water. She returned, then handed him the glass, and he took a few sips. Thor sat on one chair as Erik sat on the other and Darcy sat next to Loki.

"Thor, what is wrong with him?" Erik asked.

"He gets anxiety attacks since he was tortured and mind controlled by Thanos," Thor replied after glancing at Loki and seeing him nod slightly in return.

"My God, you were tortured?" Darcy gasped. "That's horrible!"

"When did that happen?" Erik asked.

"Before I ever came here," Loki replied hoarsely. "I fell into the Void and a powerful Mad Titan called Thanos captured me and tortured me to find out where some very powerful stones were hidden. I didn't know where they were but they tortured me anyway. And they used the Chitauri Scepter to mind control me."

"The same scepter you used on me?"

"Yes. The Mind Stone was in the scepter and I was told to use it to control you. All of you. Once I had, you were to help me find the Tesseract."

Erik was stunned. He had thought Loki a villain, but he was really a victim. He watched Darcy rub Loki's arm as Loki placed his head back and Erik sighed.

"Loki...," he said and Loki looked at him.

"There is no need to apologize. I would have reacted the same way," Loki said,

'Why are you here now?" Darcy asked. "Did something happen to Jane?"

"No, Jane is fine," Thor said. "She is being protected on Asgard. But we are here to find the Aether that Jane touched."

"That stone is very dangerous and we need to take it back." Loki told them. "Before other more dangerous beings do. If Malekith gets his hands on it . . . everyone in the realms will die."

"Who's Malekith?" Erik asked.

"He is the leader of the Dark Elves, an old enemy of my family and of Asgard. He wants the stone so he can alter reality and make everything dark matter and everyone in it slaves or worse. Trust me, you do not want to meet him." Loki warned.

"And he wants the Aether?" Darcy asked.

"Yes."

"Oh boy."

"Is there something wrong, Darcy?" Thor asked.

"Well, after you and Jane left, S.H.I.E.L.D. arrived. "

"What did they want?" Loki asked.

"They said they were here for the Aether," Erik said.

"And you let them take it?!"

"We didn't have any choice,' Darcy said.

Loki rolled his eyes as he thought about what Odin said about people of Midgard meddling with things they didn't understand and he sighed.

"You ok?" Darcy asked, making him glance at her.

"No, I'm not."

"Do you need your diffuser?"

"No."

"Maybe I can contact Fury and tell him you're here...," Erik said.

"I wouldn't recommend that. If he knew I was here, he would put me back in that cell."

"Or kill you. You did kill Phil Coulson."

"Who?"

"He was that agent you killed when you escaped from your cell," Thor said. Loki cleared his mind as the image of Phil Coulson standing in front of him with some sort of strange weapon appeared.

"Ah, yes, I remember now," Loki said, nodding.

"I still think we should tell Fury," Erik insisted

"I agree," Thor said and Loki gave his brother a stunned look. "But there is someone we need to speak to first."

"Who are you talking about?" Darcy asked.

"I am talking about the Avengers."

"Oh, wonderful. You really do want to get me killed," Loki said with a sigh.

"Stark did tell me I could call him if we need help," Erik said as he stood and Thor followed him out of the room.

Darcy looked at Loki as he sighed and he sat forward, placing his head in his hands. She wasn't sure what to say when he sat up and he looked at her.

"So, uh, what's it like? Being Thor's brother?" she asked.

"It's interesting," he said with a small laugh. "I spent most of my time in his shadow."

"Yeah, I know how that feels. Don't get me wrong. I like working with Jane, but, sometimes, it feels like everything I do is crap compared to her stuff."

"She takes credit for your work?"

"No, but she doesn't really credit me for my fair share of it."

"That doesn't seem fair."

"Tell me about it," she said with a sigh. She went silent for a few seconds when she changed her position on the couch and placed her hands on the couch. "You know, when you attacked us with that giant robot, I wondered what you looked like. I imagined you were this gross looking guy with stringy hair and spooky eyes."

"You thought I was a monster?"

"Yeah," she said, nodding. "But now? Now, I think you were just acting out."

"I was, but Thor and I have come to a turning point. We understand both of us had a hand in my lashing out and we are trying to rebuild our relationship." He said then paused. "May I give you some advice?"

"Sure."

"Maybe you should talk with Jane. I think she is willing to listen and it might help her understand how you feel about being ignored."

"I might just do that," she said while Erik and Thor walked back in the room and they looked at them.

"Stark said he'll help," Thor said.

"Are we going to New York?" Loki asked.

"No, he's coming here."

"Ah," Loki said, and panic stirred through him. He began to do some breathing exercises.

Asgard:

Jane looked out the window as she watched the clouds glide across the sky, leaning on the windowsill.

When Thor had become stranded, she had wondered what Asgard was like. She wondered if he had thought about her or missed her. Most of all, she wondered if she should have gone with him when he left Earth.

"Miss Jane?" made her turn to see Balder walk in the room and he had a piece of paper in his hands.

"Hello, Balder. What's that?" she asked, pointing to the piece of paper.

"It's the painting I told Papa I would make you," he said. His cobalt eyes looked sad and her anger over his prank faded. She walked to him, kneeling down.

"May I see it?" Jane asked. She took the paper and saw it was of four figures standing in a field of flowers, fluffy clouds overhead, and the figures were holding hands.

"That's Papa," he said, pointing to the figure in green and the figure had a gold crown with horns in his hands.

"This is me," he said, pointing to the small figure and she smiled.

"This is Uncle Thor," he said as he pointed to the tall figure with yellow hair and little yellow lines were arched over his head. "That's lightning."

"Is this me?" she asked, pointing to the last figure.

"Yeah, and we're all smiling."

"I see that."

"Do you like it?" he asked, giving her a shy look.

"I love it," she said, smiling.

"We can put it on the wall. Papa puts my paintings and drawing on the wall."

"Let's go see if we can find some tape."

"Papa has some in his desk."

Jane stood then walked over to the desk and she opened the drawer. She found a tape dispenser and they placed the painting on the wall near the bed.

"Thank you," she said.

"You're welcome." he said when Balder thought of something and he took hold of her hand. "Do you want to go to the kitchen and get some milk and cookies?"

"Sure," she laughed, and followed him from the room. Behind them, the sunlight shone on the painting, illuminating it and making it shimmer slightly.

Earth:

Loki tapped the keyboard on Darcy's phone as he played Pet Rescue, a fun game that made him chuckle softly. "This cat reminds me of my kitten, Axelle."

"You have a cat?" Darcy asked.

"Yes. She is a golden forest cat." He conjured an illusion of Axelle. "She originally was my therapist's, we call them Mind Healers, but she adopted me. She helps me with my anxiety."

"Really? That's so cool!" Darcy exclaimed. "How does she do that?"

"By purring and sitting in my lap so I can pet her. A cat is a wonderful stress reliever."

He thought of his kitten and hoped she wasn't looking for him and being distressed because he was gone. Perhaps Viva could explain where he was.

"Maybe I should get a cat," Darcy mused. "Yours is beautiful."

"Thank you." He rescued a puppy in the game and remarked, "I should get Balder a pet."

"Who's Balder?"

"He's my son."

"How old is he?"

"Five."

He expelled a soft breath. "I hope he's been behaving like he promised me and not putting spiders in Jane's bed again."

"He put spiders in her bed?!" Darcy's mouth opened in an O. "She hates them!"

"I know. I think the whole palace does." Amusement glinted for a moment in his eyes.

"Why did he do that?"

"He was angry at her for saying some rather mean things about me and slapping me. He thought she would go away if he did that. But he didn't know that we talked and I explained what happened to me and Jane understood."

"I guess if I was five and some stranger had slapped my dad I'd be mad too." Darcy said.

Loki gave a nod of agreement, then thought about how Stark might receive him after the events in New York. He hoped Thor would have taken a moment to explain why Loki was there and what had happened to him so Loki didn't have another anxiety attack.

Then he shook his head slightly, thinking that he should quit worrying over what some mortals thought of him when the important thing was to find the Aether and protect it before Malekith did.

The loud sound of engines filled the air. They went outside and saw the Quinjet landing. The ramp came down and Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton and Bruce Banner strode down it.

"He brought all of them?" Loki whispered, looking at Thor.

"He said something about not taking any chances," Thor whispered.

Tony and the others stopped in front of them when he looked from Thor to Loki then back and his jaw muscles twitched.

"Thor," Tony said with a nod.

"Stark," Thor said then he looked at Loki. "You remember my brother."

"Yeah, we remember," Clint said. Loki noticed Clint moving his fingers while Natasha had her hands on the handles of her guns and panic started rising in his chest.

"Shall we go inside?" Thor asked, pointing toward the door.

"No thanks. Whatever you want to say, you can say out here."

"Stark, I assure you there is no danger."

"Yeah. Right," Natasha snorted, glaring at Loki.

"I knew this was a mistake," Loki said with a sigh and he went back in the house.

"Where is he going?" Clint asked.

"He went inside because you are upsetting him," Thor frowned.

"We're upsetting him?!"

"If you all will come inside, I will explain."

The Avengers exchanged glances then Tony nodded and they went in the house. Loki was standing near the window, watching the birds in the yard and he had the diffuser in his hand.

"What is he holding?" Steve asked.

"That is his diffuser. He needs it if he has an anxiety attack," Thor explained what Thanos had done to Loki, stressing how his brother had been mind-controlled.

"Hello," Erik said while he and Darcy walked in the room and Darcy placed a tray with glasses of iced tea on the coffee table.

"Doctor Selvig," Tony said with a nod.

"Loki, you ok?" Darcy asked, walking to him, but Loki didn't answer. "Thor, I think he's getting sick again."

"No. I'm fine," Loki finally said and she placed her hand against his arm.

Bruce went and stood next to Loki and they looked out the window.

"Does that thing really work?" Bruce asked, indicating the diffuser.

"Yes, it does."

"Sorry about what happened at the Tower."

"What is he talking about?" Darcy asked.

"He changed into this big green creature and slammed me into the floor," Loki said and she gasped.

"Yeah, well, you sort of asked for it," Bruce said with a small grin and Loki nodded.

"If you ladies are done, we have things to talk about," Tony reminded and Bruce turned, walking to the couch. After everyone was seated and had some iced tea, Tony asked, "So, what is this about needing our help?"

Thor explained while the Avengers looked at Loki, who was still standing at the window, watching warily. Suddenly, Tony rose and approached the Asgardian. Loki glanced at him.

"Look, you might not believe me, but I am sorry," Tony told him honestly

"You are?" Loki asked, astonished.

"Yeah, out of all of us, I should know what you're going through. See, a few years ago, I was kidnapped, tortured and made to do something I didn't want to do. Once I was freed, it took a long time for me to fully get my head back in the game."

"Did you have panic attacks and night terrors?"

"Yeah," he said with a nod.

"How did you get past them?"

"Like you, I had someone to talk to."

"Maybe that's why you talked to me instead of just battling. You sensed a kindred spirit."

"I think you're right," Tony said, nodding.

"You owe me a drink," he said and Tony laughed. They went to sit down. Tony glanced at Thor and he leaned his forearms on his thighs.

"So, what's the plan?" Tony asked.

"Well, we know Fury has the Aether," Erik said.

"He's not going to just up and give it to us," Steve said.

"If he won't give it, we will have to take it," Thor said firmly. "It belongs to Asgard anyway. My grandfather simply hid it here from Malekith."

"How do you suggest we do that?" Steve queried, raising an eyebrow.

"We infiltrate his base and steal it back," Loki replied softly.

"That's not as easy as it sounds," Clint replied.

"No? It is if you have magic," Loki stated.

"What do you mean?" the archer asked.

"I mean that I can turn myself invisible or change myself into someone Fury knows and trusts, who can ask where the Aether is without rousing suspicion. Once he tells me that, I can open whatever he had it in and take it."

"And when he knows it's missing he'll come after you with everything he's got," Natasha pointed out.

"Not if he doesn't know it's gone," Loki countered. "I can put a decoy in its place, it will look, feel, and seem to be the original but it won't have the magic of the Aether."

"Can you really do that?" she said skeptically.

"Easily. Watch." Loki picked up a glass that was half empty. "See this?"

Natasha nodded.

Loki made the glass vanish. Then he put a new glass in its place. It looked identical to the old one.

They all gaped at him.

"Holy crow!" Steve sputtered. He picked up the fake glass. "This looks and feels real."

"It is real—but it's not this one." Loki made the original glass reappear. "Do you see now what I mean?"

"That's amazing!" Darcy cried.

Loki was amused that mortals found a simple replicate spell awe inspiring when any apprentice could cast that during their second year of study.

"Can all of you do magic?" she asked, awe tinging her voice.

"No. But all of the royal family can." Loki replied. He indicated Thor. "As you can guess, my brother has weather magic."

"Is that what you were talking about on the Quinjet when you said you weren't fond of what came next after the clap of thunder? You knew Thor was coming for you?" Steve asked.

"Yes."

"What about your mom and dad? What kind of magic do they have?" Darcy asked curiously. She wished she had hours so she could talk to Loki about magic and Asgard.

"My mother is a mistress of magic, and can do many things with it, like I can. She taught me. My father has the magic of Asgard at his command, which he calls the Odinforce."

"Wow!"

"So, which one of Fury's aides should we have Loki use to get intel on where the Aether is?" Steve asked.

"The only one I can think of is Maria Hill. She was the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. before Fury came along," Tony said.

"Wait. How is he going to impersonate Hill?! She's a woman!" Clint pointed out.

Loki gave them a sly smile when he changed into Darcy and their eyes widened.

"I'm a shapeshifter. I can become anything living."

Darcy poked Loki. "You even sound like me."

"Yes, I can mimic anyone's voice if I have seen or heard them before."

"You would make an excellent undercover agent," Natasha mused.

"Right. We need a video of Hill so he can study her mannerisms and facial expressions and a recording of her voice," Tony said.

"I might be able to help you with that," Erik said as he went to get his laptop. "I recorded everything that went on in my old lab at S.H.I.E..D. I think she was in the lab with Fury a few times."

Erik typed on the keyboard until he found the right videos, turned the laptop around and Loki looked at the screen. He watched the videos then he shifted into Maria Hill and he grinned.

"What do you think?" Loki asked in Hill's voice.

Darcy whistled. "If I didn't know better. . ."

"Perfect," Tony said.

"Now all we have to do is get Loki on board the Helicarrier and detain Hill so he can talk with Fury," Clint said.

"Uh... I don't know. This all seems so wrong. Lying to Fury. Holding Maria Hill hostage. It's breaking all rules of protocol," Steve protested.

"If we asked nicely, we wouldn't get anywhere, Stars and Stripes," Tony pointed out. "You know that."

"And the longer we wait, the greater the chance of Malekith finding the Aether," Thor said.

"Time is of the essence." Loki agreed. "We need the Aether to protect it and others from Malekith. It's far too dangerous to leave here."

"Fine," Steve sighed.

"I do have to go to the Helicarrier to check on an experiment I was working on. So that could be our excuse," Bruce suggested.

"Very well, Friend Banner. Let us depart." Thor said impatiently.

Tony led the way to the Quinjet. Darcy gave Thor and Loki a hug, then the brothers went up the ramp. Loki turned and waved to her. A few moments later, the Quinjet rose into the sky.

S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier:

Nick Fury stood at the command post with his arms crossed. Maria Hill stood next to him and they looked at the screens. Scanners had picked up some unidentified energy readings and she wondered what was causing them.

"Sir, Tony Stark wishes to speak to you," one of the agents said and he sighed.

"Put him on speaker," Fury said. The speakers crackled as he sighed and placed his hands behind his back. "This is Fury. What do you want, Stark?"

"Just dropping Doctor Banner off. He needs to check on one of his experiment," Tony's voice said over the speaker.

"Fine. Come aboard."

They watched on one of the screens while the Quinjet landed and the ramp came down. Loki had used a spell to make him and the others invisible, except for Bruce, and the ramp rose back into the Quinjet. Tony used the remote control setting in his suit to make the Quinjet leave and they followed Bruce across the deck.

Loki could sense the presence of the Reality Stone, it quivered through him like lightning.

"It's here," he whispered to Thor.

"Do you know where?" Thor whispered.

"No, not yet. But I can sense it."

Bruce used his identification badge to gain access to the elevator and the elevator moved down into the depths of the Helicarrier.

"How are we going to get hold of Hill?" Tony whispered.

"I might ask her to join me in the lab. She seemed interested in what I was doing the last time I was here," Bruce replied.

The elevator doors opened and Loki felt a sense of déjà vu as they walked down the hallway. His mind replayed the day he was led down the same hallway and he had gone past Bruce's lab. Thanos had shown him who he had to find in order to create a diversion so he could find the Tesseract and he remembered giving Bruce a smile while he walked by.

They stopped at the door to Bruce's lab and the doors shushed open. Bruce headed for his computer while the others looked around. Loki could feel the Reality Stone's presence in his head, beckoning him.

It's close, he sent to Thor.

How close? Thor asked.

"It might be somewhere on this floor."

On the bridge, Maria was watching Bruce on the monitors, frowning. Something seemed off.

What is he up to? she thought. She started for the elevator when Fury called her name. Maria spun on her heel to look at her commander.

"Where are you going?" Fury asked.

"Just going to check on Banner," she said and he nodded.

She went in the elevator as the doors closed and she pushed the button. She thought back to what she saw on the screens then she realized Bruce seemed to be talking to himself.

"Doesn't he talk to the Hulk?" a part of her mind asked.

"Yeah, but not like that," she muttered as the elevator stopped. She arrived at Bruce's lab and the doors hissed open. "Dr. Banner."

"Ah, I was just going to call you," Bruce said, acting a little flustered.

"Yeah. About that. You said everything was fine the last time you were here," Hill remarked, sounding slightly suspicious. She didn't notice Tony standing next to Bruce as Tony typed on the keyboard while he got into the security feed nor did she notice Natasha standing behind her. Natasha pinched a nerve in Hill's neck. Maria's eyes rolled into her head and she slid to the floor. All anyone on the bridge saw was Bruce and Hill talking, Loki had shifted into her and turned the real Maria invisible.

"What did you do?" Loki asked Natasha.

"I just pinched a cluster of nerves and she fell asleep," Natasha explained.

"Will she be alright?" Thor asked.

"Yeah. She'll be fine."

"Well, looks like it's time for me to find exactly where Fury hid the Aether," Loki said as Tony typed on the keyboard and the security system resumed normal operations.

Loki began walking down the hallway, feeling as if the Reality Stone was calling to him, like a siren luring a sailor. He went around the corner when the com system clicked on and he stopped.

"Hill, get back to the bridge!" Fury ordered.

"Yes, sir," Loki said in Hill's voice and he walked to the elevator.

Chapter Text

24

Fooling Fury

The Ark:

Malekith paced the length of the bridge of the spaceship Ark, where he and his remaining people lived since Svartalfheim had nearly been laid waste and they had been put into a magical sleep millennia ago. The lights on board the ship were dimmed because the Dark Elves could see in near darkness and it did not hurt their eyes. Nor did it bother the eyes and bodies of their new allies, the trolls, led by one enterprising troll-wife, Ragnilda, who was short and squat like a toad with stringy black locks braided with pieces of bones and rocks. She gave new meaning to the old Midgardian children's taunt "yo mama is so ugly".

Next to Malekith was his right-hand elf, Algrim the Strong, now known as Kurst, he was huge for an elf at over six feet, and muscles bulged through his black vest.

"How long before we arrive?" Malekith asked.

"Two more days, Sire," Algrim said.

"That is too long! We need to find the Aether now!" Ragnilda growled

"Quiet, you meddling old witch! We will arrive when we arrive, and all you need concern yourself with is how to disguise us and create your army." Malekith pointed out chillingly.

Ragnilda snorted. "Fear not, Nightstalker! My army can be ready in moments given the material I work with is plentiful. As for a disguise, without the Trickster there, no other eye can penetrate my seemings!" She chuckled wickedly.

"Do you forget the Watcher, hag?" Malekith inquired snippily. He grew irritated with the troll-wife's claims to magic far greater than any Asgardian knew. Save for one.

"There are ways, O Dark Prince, around even that one's vaunted magic Sight. Ways that I know and he does not!" she chuckled again, the sound like rocks grinding and then began to sing an old trollish chant-filled with death and blood and grinding up victims in a stew.

Malekith noticed Algrim pressing his hands to his ears and wished he could do the same, for the troll-wife's voice grated upon his sensitive eardrums. He then wished he could shove the damned old hag out the airlock, but that was not an option either. He needed her and her dark seidr and the army she could command too badly.

The trolls had long been enemies of Asgard, they claimed to have been so before even the Dark Elves and the Jotun. They claimed they had once been Asgard's native population and had been driven forth by the Asgardians after several long wars. Malekith was never sure how much were stories and how much were truth. The trolls lied as easily as they breathed.

Malekith stared out the viewport and thought about conquering Asgard. He had dreamed of it nightly in his cold bed under the enchantment that Bor had woven about him and his people once he had stolen the Aether away. Soon, he thought, rubbing his hands together. Soon he would reclaim what was lost, and make the Asgardians pay in blood! Especially the family of Odin. That one-eyed sly bastard was going to regret ever being born-or siring any more of his kind.

He would kill both of One-Eye's sons, as his sons had been killed, and watch the old fool wee over their graves.

Asgard:

Jane ate breakfast with Frigga, Odin, and Balder as Balder told them about the painting and Frigga smiled.

"Do you want me to paint you something too?" he asked, his cobalt eyes sparkling.

"Yes, that would be wonderful," Frigga said, delighted.

Odin smiled at the engaging little imp, thinking that if not for Balder's golden hair, he could be mistaken for Loki's actual son, so closely did he resemble the prince in his mannerisms and hobbies. The young Loki had also enjoyed drawing pictures.

"Papa, look! I drew something for you!" Little Loki's voice said in his memory and Odin saw the drawing of what must have been him standing on a hill.

"Is this me?" Odin has asked.

"Yeah! You're going into battle! See, there's your sword!"

He had placed the drawing in his desk and he would look at it from time to time.

But he looked so sad when you put it in the drawer. He must have thought you hated it, a voice said in his head and Odin sighed.

Sigyn was talking with Balder about a family of white deer she had seen while walking in the garden at dusk the other day. Balder immediately peppered her with questions.

"How many were there? Did you get to pet one? Did they eat the flowers?"

"There were three of them, a fawn, a doe, and a stag," she told him, smiling. "I waited until they were feeding on the grass before I threw some cut-up apples to them. They quite enjoyed them and the mother eventually ate from my hand."

"I wanna feed them too!" Balder cried excitedly.

"If they return this afternoon, you must be very quiet," Sigyn cautioned. "Deer are shy and don't like people who yell or move quickly."

"I will. I don't want to scare them!"

"Is it all right if I go with you?" Jane asked.

"Of course," Sigyn said. "I will ask Skybolt to tell me if they return so we can go and feed them."

Jane nodded. She was impressed with how easily she was being accepted by the others. The servants talked with her. The warriors nodded at her. And Frigga and Odin were helping her adjust.

"No wonder Thor loves this place so much," she thought and took a sip of coffee.

"Who's Skybolt?" Balder wanted to know.

"She is my familiar. A white peregrine falcon," Sigyn answered. "You can meet her after breakfast, young prince."

"Yay!" he said, clapping his hands.

Suddenly, Huginn and Muninn flew in the room as Jane looked at the large ravens and they landed on the top of Odin's chair.

"Morning," Huginn cawed.

"Morning," Muninn cawed.

"Good morning," Odin said and Balder gasped.

"Wow! Those ravens are huge!" Balder said and Odin smiled.

"This is Huginn and Muninn."

"Hello, Little Prince," Huginn said, bowing.

"Good day, Prince Balder," Muninn said, nodding its head.

"Talking ravens?" Jane whispered and the ravens looked at her.

"Yes, we talk, Mortal," Huginn said with a smug look.

"I told you mortals were stupid," Muninn whispered.

"Do not be rude to our guest," Odin said and the ravens lowered their heads.

"Sorry," the ravens said at the same time.

"Some familiars can speak just like people," Sigyn told her. "Or can mindspeak their mage and others if they wish."

Nodding, Jane went back to eating her breakfast, wondering how Thor and Loki were doing with finding the Aether and she hoped they were okay.

Earth:

The doors hissed open. Loki walked out and went towards the main control panel, trying to act casual. He had nodded to some of the other agents when they said hello to him or he would return a salute from someone.

"Hill, get your butt over here," Fury said and Loki fought the urge to roll his eyes.

Fury gazed at Loki and there was a suspicious look in his eye. "Did Banner tell you why he's here?"

"Yes. He's checking his experiment. Just like Stark said," Loki said.

The way Fury was looking at him made his stomach fall slightly as Fury nodded then he looked at the screens.

"Those mysterious energy readings are increasing," Fury remarked. "We're also getting reports of strange activity in some areas."

"Strange activity?"

"Someone reported they saw a little boy on the back of a small triceratops going down their street. We sent an agent to investigate and his mother said he always wanted to ride one. She also said she was shocked when the dang thing suddenly appeared in their back yard."

So he made a reality where he did have one, Loki thought. The Aether has already begun influencing mortals. Luckily its effects will fade without the Stone nearby.

"Could that be tied to what we found at Doctor Foster's?"

"It might."

"Maybe someone should go check on it."

"Already sent someone."

Hel, Loki thought, looking at the screens.

He could sense the Reality Stone calling to him. He knew he didn't have time to waste, and felt he could track it better himself than try and ask Fury, who already seemed suspicious. He shook his head and started towards the elevator.

"Hill, where are you going?" Fury asked.

"I have to go to the bathroom," Loki said then went into the elevator. Fury frowned as he crossed his arms over his chest and he arched an eyebrow.

After the doors had opened, Loki walked down the hallway and he nodded to one or two agents. He had been tracking the agents who Fury sent to check on the Reality Stone and he followed the pull of the Stone. He saw agents standing in front of a door when one of the agents pushed some buttons on the keyboard and the door hissed open. He followed them into the room and saw red light shimmering behind the glass and smirked.

Thor, I have found the Aether, Loki sent.

Well done, Loki, Thor replied.

Now I have to figure out how to get hold of it.

Loki walked to the agents examining the computer monitor and he placed his hands behind his back.

"Director Hill, what are you doing here?" one asked, glancing at Loki.

"Fury sent me to make sure everything's alright," Loki said.

"All the readings seem normal," the other agent said.

"Humor me." He instructed and they looked at him. "If we had to dispose of it or move it, what would we use?"

"We would place it in that container," the agent said, pointing to the small container sitting near the wall. Loki recognized the container as the same one in which they had brought the Tesseract to Asgard and Loki nodded.

"Carry on," Loki ordered and strode out of the room. He hurried to the elevator when the doors suddenly opened and Fury glared at him.

"I don't know who you are, but you are not Hill," Fury snapped.

Brother, Fury knows, Loki sent.

Get out of there! Thor cried. They couldn't risk Loki being captured.

Wait. Maybe we can use this to our advantage. Loki counseled.

"What are you talking about?" Loki asked Nick, puzzled.

"No, you're not. Hill wouldn't have wanted someone to check on what we found at Doctor Foster's," Fury said.

Hel. For someone who is so smart, you are an idiot Loki thought and he sighed.

"Who are you?"

"If you follow me, you'll find out," Loki answered. Fury thought for a few seconds. At last he nodded and followed Loki into the elevator.

After they arrived at Bruce's lab, Bruce smiled at them and the others wondered what Loki was doing.

"Colonel Fury, nice to see you," Bruce said.

"Knock off the act, Banner," Fury ordered. He pointed at Loki. "Well?"

Loki waved his hand as the Avengers and Thor appeared, but he kept Hill invisible.

"What are you doing?" Tony asked.

"He figured out I wasn't Hill," Loki said.

"How?" Steve asked.

"I accidentally asked him to send someone to check on the Aether. It appears that is something Hill wouldn't do."

"Will someone tell me what is going on and who this is?" Fury asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

"We need the Aether," Thor said.

"Why?"

"That's classified," Tony said.

"Humor me."

Thor explained as Fury listened. Then the Director glanced at Loki again. Loki shifted back to his Asgardian form and Firy scowled.

"Where is Hill?" Fury asked.

"Here," the sorcerer replied and gestured. Hill appeared on the floor. Fury rushed to her and checked her vitals, muttering a swear word.

"She's alive," Natasha said and he stood.

"How do I know this isn't a trick? He tried to kill us just a few months ago."

"He was being controlled," Thor said.

"Controlled? By who?"

"His name is Thanos," Loki said and he told Fury about Thanos and what he did to Loki.

"Are you sure this Thanos guy isn't going to come after us again?"

"Thanos is dead," Thor said then he told Fury about Odin killing Thanos.

"And you think that will make me just turn over the Aether?"

"If you don't then Asgard and this planet are doomed. Malekith wants to control everything," Loki said.

Fury stared at them and then began pacing. Up and down, up and down until he came to a decision.

"Follow me," Fury beckoned. They followed him to the room Loki had previously been in.

The agents inside snapped to attention upon seeing Fury and the Avengers.

"At ease," Fury said, and picked up the container and typed in the code. A small hatch opened in the glass cylinder and he slid the container in the slot. He typed on the control panel while mechanical hands appeared behind the glass and lifted the Reality Stone off the pedestal. The hands put the stone into the container then closed the lid and the small hatch opened.

Fury took the container, which glowed slightly and handed it to Thor. Thor took it and then all of them left while Fury stared after them, a slightly resigned look upon his face.

"That could have gone better," Tony said while they walked down the hallway.

"I am sorry," Loki apologized. 'I guess I am not as healed as I thought. Normally, he wouldn't have figured out so quickly that I wasn't Maria Hill."

"You did better than any of us could have," Thor consoled him.

Tony had signaled for the Quinjet as they entered the elevator. They quickly departed the Helicarrier and boarded the Quinjet. Thor secured the container in a seat while Natasha punched the controls and the plane soared into the air.

She flew silently back to Jane's house, the mission had been a success, but no one was celebrating yet. They all had the feeling this was only the beginning of the conflict.

Asgard:

Sigyn placed a hand upon her overeager charge's shoulder as she, Balder, and Jane watched the white deer feeding on the strawberries and cloudberries they had left out for the deer to snack upon. The green mage smiled serenely as the deer ate, content to simply observe them.

Balder was so excited he kept bouncing on his toes until Sigyn made him stop, afraid the deer would startle. Jane was so amazed she nearly forgot to snap a few photos on her phone.

"I'm gonna paint the deer with Viva," Balder whispered to Sigyn, who grinned silently down at him.

"That's a lovely idea," she told him, then refocused upon the deer, who were munching the fruit happily.

Sigyn had been alerted to the deer's return by Skybolt when the falcon had flown over the garden and the forest in the afternoon. She had sent to her mage mistress and Sigyn had brought Jane and Balder with her to see them.

Overhead, Skybolt soared, a white dot against the azure sky.

Balder couldn't wait to paint the deer and show his grandparents and Viva, and also Loki and Thor when they returned to Asgard. He wished suddenly his father were there to see the deer daintily eating the fruit they had placed on the grass for them. He missed Loki, even though his parent had only been away for a day and a night and part of the next day. Frigga had tucked him into bed last night and told him a story, but he still missed Loki. Still, being with Sigyn was fun, and he was keeping his promise to his father also. Farfar had told him that a man must always keep his word, for a man without honor was nothing.

He squeezed Sigyn's hand and continued watching until finally at some silent signal from the stag, the doe and spotted fawn ceased feeding and picked their way across the grass, entering the woods in a few moments.

"Aww!" Balder groaned. "Why'd they leave?"

"They probably wanted to go lie in the shade," Sigyn reasoned. "It's getting hot out here."

"You can say that again!" Jane agreed,putting her phone away and wiping her brow. "Feels like New York in August."

"Why don't I get some lemonade and cookies and we can eat them on the veranda?" suggested the generals daughter. The veranda was a covered patio near the rose arbor.

Balder cheered and Sigyn hurried inside to fetch the treat while the little boy showed Jane a nest he'd found lying on the ground. "I didn't wanna touch it cause the birds might come back," he told her.

"That's very sensible of you," Jane said approvingly.

Balder's forehead crinkled. "What's sensible mean?"

"It means you're smart and you think before you act."

Balder was pleased and started to move away and show Jane his favorite spot in the garden when he heard a low whimpering sound.

The boy froze. "What's that?"

"What's what?" She asked. Jane had discovered that Asgardians possessed heightened senses compared to mortals and frequently heard or smelled things she missed.

"That sound. It sounded like something crying."

"Where?"

"Over here." Balder whispered and pushed his way through two rhododendrons.

"Oh!"

There on the ground lay a floppy eared golden puppy with muddy paws, whimpering.

"Jane! Look it's a puppy! And I think she's hurt!"

"Where? Let me see!" Jane cried. "Don't get too close, she may bite." The scientist warned.

Jane knelt and soon saw the puppy lying beneath the bush. "Aww you poor thing!" she crooned.

The puppy panted and her feathery tail thumped the ground.

Balder held his hand out for the dog to sniff. The puppy did so and then licked all his fingers. He giggled.

"She likes me."

"I'm not surprised." Jane laughed. She had not been around the child long before she realized he was a real charmer.

She peered at the dog, who seemed to be similar to a Golden retriever. "It looks like she cut her leg."

"Uh huh. Told ya she was hurt."

Jane wondered if the puppy would let her pick it up.

Just then she heard Sigyn calling Balder.

"Over here! We found a hurt puppy!" Balder called out.

Soon Sigyn approached them. "Where? The poor thing." She knelt and saw the little dog under the bush. She made soothing noises and said,"She is hungry too."

"Can we keep her?" Balder asked.

"Well, that's really not up to me. But your papa. But let's get her out of here so I can see to her leg."

Jane watched in amazement as Sigyn seemed to communicate with the canine. Then she slid her arms beneath the dog and lifted it gently. "Are you some kind of vet?"

"No, I was never a soldier. I'm a green mage." Sigyn replied, standing up with the dog in her arms. The puppy licked her.

"Um no, I mean a veterinarian. An animal doctor."

"I guess you could say I watch over the animals in the wild. A green mage has an affinity with the earth and growing things and animals. I also know a fair bit about healing with herbs."

"Can you fix her?" Balder pleaded.

"Yes. Will you fetch my green bag? It's in my room on the chair."

Balder ran off to get it while Sigyn carried the puppy to the veranda and put her down on a cushion.

"Hmm. The cut looks like it is a bite of some kind. I need hot water and clean cloths."

"I can ask the kitchen staff," Jane said, then hurried to do so.

Sigyn stroked the puppy.

The puppy whimpered a little and Sigyn made soft hushing sounds.

"Is this it?!" Balder asked as he ran back with the green bag.

"Good job!" she praised and took the bag from him.

The puppy wagged her tail as he gently patted her head and Jane returned with the hot water and clean cloths.

"Thank you, Jane." Sigyn said and began to lay out the items she needed. "This doesn't need stitches but it needs to be cleaned and bandaged."

She took a brown vial from her bag and put several drops into the water. "That's oil of garlic and yarrow. Helps prevent infection."

Then she met the puppy's eyes. I need to clean your cut. It may hurt a bit but don't bite or try to run away.

I will stay still, the puppy sent.

Sigyn dipped the cloth in the water and gently cleaned the cut, which ran from the thigh to nearly the paw. But it was shallow. She was careful to remove all the dirt.

Ow, the puppy whimpered and she nodded.

"She deserves a treat for being so good," Balder said, gently patting the puppy's head.

"Yes and she will have one soon." Sigyn said. "You're a brave dog." She finished cleaning the cut and then took a jar of salve from the bag. "This is a salve made with honey and marigold and has disinfecting and analgesic properties. It will help with pain and prevent infection." She used a clean cloth to apply it.

Next she found a roll of gauze and bandaged the leg. Jane saw that she moistened the end of it and it stuck to the other end. "Done. Now don't chew it."

The puppy wagged her tail.

"Maybe we should put the Cone of Shame on her," Jane said.

"Why? She didn't do anything wrong," Balder said.

"I know. It's just what we call the cone animal healers place on the injured dog so they don't chew on their casts or stitches," Jane explained.

"That is a horrible thing to call it," Sigyn said, frowning.

I will not chew on it, the puppy sent and she patted the puppy's head.

"She will leave it be. I will put salve on it again twice a day until it heals." Sigyn said and reached into a pocket of the bag for some oatmeal molasses and chicken basted dog treats. "Here sweet thing." She gave the treats to Balder. "You can give her those."

Balder held out the treats as the puppy sniffed them then she started eating. Balder giggled as her tongue licked his hand clean and Jane smiled.

"She sure is hungry," Jane observed.

"We need to take her inside then get her something to eat," Sigyn said, gently picking up the puppy.

"What can she eat?" Balder asked.

"An egg scrambled and meat that is ground with some goat cheese." Sigyn replied.

"I'll go back to the kitchen and get some," Jane said, running off. They headed into the palace as they went into Balder's room and Balder tried to find a place to place the puppy.

Sigyn summoned a large straw basket. "Put a towel in here," she said. "That will make a good bed."

Balder ran into the bathroom when he picked up one of the softest and fluffiest towels he could find and he ran back in the room, placing the towel in the basket.

Sigyn placed the puppy in the basket as the puppy sniffed the towel then she settled down, being careful of her injured leg.

"What should we call her?" The boy asked, gazing at the fluffy golden dog.

Sigyn remembered something. "When I was growing up I had a dog similar to this one. My sisters and I named her Sunflower. Sunny for short."

"I like that!" Balder said then he looked at the puppy. "Do you want to be called Sunflower?"

The puppy barked softly.

"I think that was a yes," Sigyn said while Jane walked in the room with a bowl.

"Gee, someone looks comfortable," Jane teased. She knelt down as the puppy sniffed the air and her tail wagged. "So, do we feed her in here or take her out of the basket so she can feed herself?"

"She can come out," Sigyn said. She clapped her hands. "Sunny, dinner time!"

Sunny carefully got out of the basket and limped toward the bowl and she looked at the food. Balder had gone to get a bowl of water for her as he placed the bowl down and Sunny started eating.

"Why did you call her Sunny?" Jane asked.

"It's short for Sunflower," Balder said.

"That's a cute name. But you know what that means, right? It means she belongs to you now." Jane stated. She hoped Loki would let him keep the dog.

"Yay!" Balder said and Sunny barked.

They all laughed and once Sunny had eaten, they played with her with a small blue ball of Balder's. The puppy liked to fetch, even if she had to limp after the ball.

They didn't notice Frigga walking in the room until Sunny barked and she went into play position.

"My, where did that puppy come from?!" Frigga asked.

"Farmor, we found her under a bush, Jane and I did!" Balder told her. "She was hurt but Sigyn fixed her."

"I see."

"Her name is Sunflower, but we call her Sunny. She is really nice and she likes to play fetch."

The ball rolled by Frigga and she tossed it gently for Sunny to fetch. "It looks like you made a new friend, grandson."

"So I can keep her?!"

"I told him his father would have to say yes," Sigyn said.

"I am sure Loki will allow him to keep her,' Frigga said while Sunny brought her the ball.

"When will Papa and Uncle Thor be back?" Balder asked.

"I'm not sure. Soon I hope." The queen said. She stroked Sunny. "Such a sweet puppy! You know, your father had a dog when he was your age. He was black with white paws. Your father called him Phantom."

"Does he still have him?"

"No. I am afraid Phantom went to Valhalla."

"Why?"

"He was old and it was his time. Farfar told your father all dogs walk across a small version of the Rainbow Bridge to get there."

"Does that mean Papa will see him again someday?"

"Yes."

Sunny frisked over to Balder and licked his hand.

"Fetch," he said, tossing the ball and Sunny limped after it.

"That is a retriever for certain. You can always tell because they will fetch everything." Frigga laughed. "Ask your grandfather to tell you about Misty someday."

"Was Misty his dog?"

"Yes, she was. A fine bird dog. But she fetched everything! Once she . ..," Frigga burst into giggles.

"Tell, My Queen!" Sigyn cried.

"Please!" Balder begged.

Frigga smiled. "Once an Alfar lord came to visit and he spent half his time hunting and the other half bragging about how his dogs and horses were better than any other animal on Asgard."

"Sounds really full of himself."

"He was. Well he claimed his dog could fetch a chick without hurting it he was so tender mouthed. So Odin told Misty to fetch an egg. She did, and she didn't even break it!"

"What did he say to that?" Asked Jane.

"He got all red and shouted, My dog will bring me things before I even ask! Like my slippers."

Odin said Misty could do that. The lord wanted to see it and Odin turned to tell her to do it when he saw she was not there.

A few minutes later Misty trotted into the room with the Alfar's underwear in her mouth! And the king looks at it and says, "Looks like Misty thinks you might need this." Then everyone bursts out laughing."

Balder and Jane began giggling, while Sunny yipped and ran in circles chasing her tail. Then she fell over and Balder laughed harder. "Silly dog!"

"But adorable!" Viva exclaimed, coming into the room. "Who's your new friend?" The Healer's bi-colored eyes sparkled.

"Hi, Viva! Her name's Sunflower but I call her Sunny for short!" Balder cried. He told her about finding Sunny while Viva patted the little dog.

Suddenly Axelle entered the room and upon seeing the dog there, arched her back and hissed.

Viva looked up and said to the kitten, "Easy, there's no need to be frightened. This puppy is injured and can't harm you."

The kitten approached cautiously, her fur bristling. Then she touched noses with Sunny.

Sunny sniffed and then licked Axelle, who shook her head and promptly sat down to wash her face.

"Wow! I thought they were going to start fighting," remarked Jane in astonishment.

"Cats and dogs can be friends, if you introduce them correctly," Viva said. "Look," she pointed to Axelle, who was now sitting beside Sunny and washing the puppy's ear with her tongue.

The women all laughed and Jane took a picture on her phone.

Sigyn looked at Balder then began to say something about getting changed for dinner when suddenly a loud klaxon rang out.

Axelle ran and hid in the basket and Sunny howled.

Balder ran to comfort the terrified puppy and yelled, "It's too loud!"

Jane covered her ears. "What is that?"

"Trouble. It means the palace defenses have been breached," Frigga said, her face stern as she summoned her sword to her.

"We're under attack?" Sigyn cried, summoning her bow and quiver of arrows.

"By whom?" Viva asked, drawing her sword Frost Reaver. Then she shifted into her Jotun form, mirroring the frost-blue knight she became in the dreamscape.

Frigga tilted her head. "Odin is unsure yet. But he says for us to stay here in this room until the all clear sounds. She gestured and the doors were bolted shut. "Balder, you and Sunny go and hide under the bed. Jane, get in the closet. Sigyn and Viva, you'll take positions here . . ."

Chapter Text

 

Low lying clouds hid the sun, providing the perfect cover for the forces now attacking Asgard, removing that most deadly threat. Using the secret ways into Asgard, the invaders had managed to infiltrate Odin's Golden Palace and now made to strike at its very heart.

With Ragnilda's magic from above, soon Asgard would know again the tramp of draugr marching. For the troll-wife knew the forbidden art of necromancy, and she would bring all of her knowledge into play now.

Chanting in the troll's Old Tongue, she used her dark magic to summon the dead from their graves and unquiet souls from Helheim itself. Draugr-the undead-now rose and walked the streets of Asgard and the Golden Palace, over two hundred strong and more to come.

One of the draugr looked around in confusion when it started following the others and a sense of dread filled it.

People screamed and ran inside the buildings and homes as the draugr slowly moved by and the one who was confused frowned.

Above on the Ark, Ragnilda cackled and danced for joy. Her army would do its grisly work and then Malekith would send his soldiers down to kill whoever remained. She watched as the leader of the Dark Elves and his henchmen flew down to Asgard to fight, and she sent a silent signal to her army to attack.

The draugr attacked as people screamed and ran for their lives. The undead ransacked the homes and buildings and fires broke out. In the chaos they continued marching towards the palace. The confused draugr looked at the palace when a hint of recognition appeared in her eyes and she stopped. Another draugr slammed into her as the draugr started moving again and the sound of alarm bells filled the air.

I know this place . . . I know . . . Thoughts tumbled through her head like rocks rolling down a mountainside . . . Rocks . . . rocks that crushed . . . she shook her head to clear it. She did not know why she recalled that . . . or why she knew the Golden Palace . . .

The others surged forward, their only motivation to do as their mistress commanded. To slay and to destroy.

No...I do not...I do not want to kill...

The others moved closer to the palace as they attacked the guards who were sent out to destroy them and the draugr roared.

Bifrost:

The portal opened while Thor and Loki led the Avengers out of the portal and Thor noticed the ill look on Steve, Bruce, and Clint's faces.

"Whoa, what a rush," Tony said as he landed and the face plate moved back.

"This is Asgard?" Natasha asked.

"Yes," Thor said when he saw Heimdall and the Watcher half-ran to them.

"My Princes, you arrived just in time," he said.

"What has happened?" Loki asked.

"We are under attack . . . by draugr! They were summoned by an old enemy-Ragnilda the troll-wife!"

"By the Nine!" Loki swore. He recalled reading tales of Ragnilda, the dark mage who had summoned legions of undead, when he was a boy. The tales had always chilled his blood.

Mother! Father! Are you alright? Loki sent.

Yes, Son, we are alright, Frigga sent.

Where are Viva, Sigyn, and Balder?!

They are here with me in Balder's room. Along with Jane.

Loki breathed a sigh of relief.

"What the heck are draugr?" Steve asked.

"They are the walking dead," Loki answered.

"Zombies?"

"Yes, in a way. You can only kill them with fire or magical weapons. Otherwise they regenerate. Or holy water or blessed weapons."

"Then bullets or arrows won't kill them?" Clint asked.

"No unless you have fire arrows."

"Or some kind of incendiary bullet," Heimdall said. "Or a blaster."

Clint and Natasha checked their ammunition while Tony checked the charge on his gloves and he activated his boots.

"Let's go kick zombie butt," Tony said.

Thor spun Mjolnir and rose into the air, and Loki shifted into his Jotun form and drew Laevateinn and a dagger. "Follow me!" he called, running off the Bifrost in two large bounds.

"Holy Toledo!" Steve gasped. "He's a-"

"Frost Giant," Thor replied. "Half anyway. Forward, my friends! For Asgard!"

The Avengers thundered off the bridge.

Bruce flew into a rage when he saw a draugr menacing a small child holding a stuffed dragon. He roared and changed into the Hulk, springing forward to smash the draugr into the ground.

"Hulk smash!"

Luckily, Loki was already running into the courtyard and did not see Bruce transform, or he might have ended up being triggered right there. But the prince was focused on the knot of draugr attacking the guards, and smashed into their flank like a wrecking ball, using a bold of magic and his sword to send the draugr tumbling to the earth—dying as they fell.

One of the guards jerked up in horror. "Norns! 'Tis a Jotun!" He made as if to attack Loki.

"No, you fool!" cried his companion. "Leave be! He's Prince Loki shifted!"

"The princes have returned!" cried another guard.

"Less talking, more fighting!" ordered their commander.

Thor slammed a draugr with Mjolnir—and the draugr did not rise again. "For Asgard!" he bellowed.

Behind him, Clint used his incendiary arrows to pick off the draugr who were scaling the walls, and Nastasha fired a blaster given to her by Heimdall. A draugr fell, its head in flames.

Above, Iron Man used his flame projectiles to burn a swath through the draugr trying to break down the door of a house.

Steve threw his shield into more draugr who were trying to grab a mother and her two children on top of the palace steps. "Run inside, lady!"

As the battle raged outside, Malekith and his vanguard, which included Algrim, made their way through the palace dungeons, battling the guards who attempted to stop them.

While Malekith engaged a few guards, Algrim paused to regard a prisoner behind his glass wall. This prisoner was better dressed than the others and seemed uncaring of the carnage that was taking place outside the wall. Algrim looked at him and smirked.

Lars blinked at the Dark Elf, realizing this must be some kind of covert attack, and he saw the big Elf looked unsure of where to go next. The traitorous Asgardian pointed towards the staircase half hidden by some drapes, which led to the upper stories of the palace. It was a servant's stair and therefore not well known.

Algrim, who was sometimes known as Kurse, was shocked at the other's evident betrayal. Such a thing was inconceivable to him. Yet this Asgardian, who looked of noble birth, had just committed treason without batting an eyelash. Kurse curled his lip in disgust.

Lars rolled his eyes and figured this Dark Elf must be slow or something. He pointed again towards the staircase. Hurry up, you fool!

Algrim slammed his fist into the control panel as the force screen fell and Lars smiled.

"Thank you for freeing me," Lars said, hoping the brute understood what he was saying.

"You are a noble?" Algrim asked.

"Yes. Yes, I am."

"Did you just point to where I should go?"

"Yes. Just take the staircase on the left and you will get into the palace."

"Why would you betray your people in such a manner?"

"Heh! Like I care for Odin. He is weak. He harbors a Jotun bastard and calls him his son. He and the rest of this place can rot, for all I care."

Lars gasped as Algrim reached in and he pulled Lars out by his neck.

"What...? What are you doing?!" Lars gurgled.

"I do not abide by traitors. They have no honor. A Dark Elf worth his soul defends his leader and king to the death and would never betray them."

Lars clawed at the large Dark Elf's hand as he tried to kick him when Algrim squeezed and Lars gasped. Darkness filled his eyes while Algrim dropped Lars body to the floor then he headed for the staircase on the left.

Malekith dispatched the last guard and sprang up the stairs beside Algrim. "Those fools will never know what hit them. While the draugr distract the main contingent of guards, we will go for the throat. I sense the Aether is here also."

"Where, my lord?"

"This way," Malekith answered, leading the way down a long winding hallway, the Aether sounding a siren call in his blood.

In Balder's room, Balder, Jane, Frigga and Sigyn stood on the balcony as they watched the battle and Balder wondered where his papa was.

Papa, where are you? Balder sent.

"I'm here Imp," Loki said.

"Papa's here!" Balder shouted.

Where are you, Son? Frigga sent.

Thor and I are just outside the palace. Mother, I need you to keep Balder and Jane Foster safe, Loki sent.

Of course, Loki. Sigyn and Viva and I have it all worked out.

Good.

The sound of screams came from the hallway as they ran into the room and Viva opened the door, go inside.

"Lady Viva, what is going on?" Sigyn asked.

"Dark Elves. They have invaded the palace," Viva said.

"Lady Viva, Papa and Uncle Thor are back!" Balder said with a grin.

"I know. I felt Loki return," Viva replied. She knelt and took Balder's hands. "Remember what we discussed? You hide under the bed with Sunny and Axelle till we tell you to come out."

He led Sunny and Axelle to the bed as they crawled underneath it and Viva looked at Sigyn and Frigga.

They could hear the sounds of battle growing closer, and Frigga said, "Let us take our positions again, ladies. Remember, no hesitation. Or else your lives will be forfeit."

Jane looked frightened. "This . . . this is all my fault."

"No. This is Malekith's fault," Frigga corrected. "He will use any excuse to fight us."

Jane nodded as the sounds of battle grew closer when the doors slammed open and several Dark Elves entered the room.

Sigyn loosed an arrow, it flew into one Elf's neck and he crumpled to the floor.

Viva shifted into her Jotun form and a few Dark Elves' eyes widened.

"They have a Jotun! Kill her!" one of the Dark Elves shouted.

"Don't be too eager to die," Viva snarled and thrust with her sword while simultaneously fearcasting.

Waves of terror battered her opponent, and the Elf facing Viva screamed and turned to run. Viva swung Frost Reaver and the Elf died a moment later.

Frigga called up a shield to protect Jane as Jane looked around and Jane picked up the iron poker.

"Elves hate iron, don't they?" Jane whispered.

"Some do," Frigga whispered and Jane held onto the poker.

"Where is the Aether?!" a loud voice demanded when the Dark Elves parted and Malekith appeared in the doorway with Algrim standing behind him.

"It is safe from the likes of you!" Frigga snapped, drawing herself up to her full height. "You are not welcome here, Malekith!"

"Ah, the noble Queen Frigga. It is an honor," he said with a bow.

Frigga snorted. "You should have stayed asleep. There is nothing here for you but death, my lord."

"I believe there is."

"Then you would be wrong." she said coldly.

Sigyn drew back her bow, aiming for the Dark Elf leader's heart. But Malekith just waved a hand and the arrow went wide.

Balder had to cover Sunny's muzzle so she wouldn't growl and Axelle fought the urge to hiss while they watched Malekith walk closer to Jane and Jane glared at him.

Malekith could feel the Aether coming from her and he grinned.

"Well, well, it appears I have found what I was looking for," Malekith said.

"What you have found is death!" Viva said, swinging Frost Reaver, but he got out of the way.

Another Dark Elf lunged at Viva, and she met his sword and then fearcaat at him, dropping him to the floor in a curled-up ball.

"Stay away from her!" Frigga demanded.

"Algrim, please take care of the queen," Malekith ordered and the large Dark Elf moved toward Frigga.

Sigyn tossed some seeds at the huge Elf and they sprouted in moments into a large curling vine that wrapped about Algrim and held him fast.

Algrim's muscles bulged as he struggled to break free of the vine.

"Free me!" Algrim demanded.

"Enough!" Malekith said, reaching out for Jane when a ball of fire hit his hand and he screamed.

"Touch either of them and I will aim for your head next!" Loki said as he walked in from the balcony and they looked at him. He had changed into his hawk form and flew as quickly as he could to Balder's room.

Power haloed him from head to foot, blazing blue and green and shimmering in his eyes.

Whoa, Papa, you look neat, Balder sent.

Thank you, Imp, Loki sent then he glared at Malekith.

"You dare challenge me, you bastard half-breed?" Malekith snarled. He lunged at Loki with his rapier.

But Loki conjured a wind that blew the other off his feet, sending him crashing into the wall.

Jane swung the poker down on the Elf's side as he screamed and he rolled away from her.

"Run! She has the Death Metal!" he screamed. Some of the Dark Elves ran out of the room as Malekith growled and he thrust his rapier at Loki, who dodged.

Viva came from behind and fearcast at the Elf Lord, almost paralyzing him with terror.

Only through immense effort did Malekith overcome the Empath's strike and he staggered to one knee. "Ragnilda!" he yelled into his comm link. "Take us out of here. Regroup!"

Kurse finally broke free of the strangling kudzu vine and grabbed his lord, snarling, "Another time, Trickster! We shall meet again!"

"I look forward to it," Loki said, watching the Dark Elves teleport out of the room.

Sigyn looked at Loki's Jotun form as she approached him and he looked at her. He felt nervous as she eyed the raised markings and the blue coloring and the light shimmered in his red eyes.

"Are you hurt, My Prince?" she asked.

Loki shook his head. "I'm fine."

Viva, Jane and Frigga noticed the looks he was giving Sigyn and they smiled.

"Papa!" Balder said as he, Sunny and Axelle came out from under the bed and Loki shifted.

The child ran and threw his arms about Loki's leg.

"Hello," he said as Sunny sniffed his foot and Loki looked down at the puppy. "And who is this?"

"Her name is Sunflower, but we call her Sunny. Sigyn, Lady Jane and I found her under a bush. She was hungry and hurt. Sigyn healed her and put on that bandage. She is really neat, Papa! Please let me keep her," Balder said quickly and Loki knelt down to look at the puppy.

Sunny wagged her tail and licked his hand, giving him a pleading look from her big brown eyes.

Axelle walked over when she sat next to her new friend and she looked at him with sad eyes.

Smiling, Loki scratched the puppy's ear when he stood and looked down at his son.

"Of course you can keep her, but you need to feed her, brush her and make sure she has fresh water. You also need to take her out for walks," Loki said.

"I can do all that!" Balder said.

"Then she is yours, scamp. Now quit looking at me like that,' he coughed, feeling his heart melt into a puddle.

Jane hid a smirk behind her hand. "Some big bad sorcerer you are!"

Loki turned and arched an eyebrow. "Except when it comes to my son."

"Brother?!" came from the hallway when Thor and the Avengers ran into the room, but the Hulk stayed in the hallway. Thor had explained about Balder and Bruce didn't want to scare the boy.

"Thor!" Jane said, running to him and she wrapped her arms around his neck. He lifted her off the floor in a hug and Tony smiled at Steve, who shrugged.

"Is everything alright in here?" Tony asked.

Frigga nodded. "It is now. Who are you?"

"Mother, Lady Viva, Sigyn, these are my mortal friends. This is Anthony Stark, Steven Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton and Bruce Banner is out in the hallway," Thor said.

"Why is he in the hallway?"

A sudden cry of alarm made them run out into the hallway and the guards had the Hulk surrounded.

"Stand back, My Princes! We will handle this beast!" one of the guards said. Bruce looked at Loki, who had a shocked look on his face, and Bruce sighed.

"No! He's a friend!" Thor said. He had gone to get a blanket off the bed as Bruce shifted and Bruce wrapped the blanket around his body.

"Wow!" Balder said with a grin. "You can shift like Papa!"

Speaking of Papa, Viva thought as she looked at Loki, but Loki only saw Bruce pounding him over and over again into the floor.

"Brother?" Thor asked as he walked closer and Loki was shaking.

Loki, whatever you are seeing isn't real. Come back to us, Viva sent.

Loki took a few deep breaths as he calmed down and he blinked his eyes a few times.

"Did he have another panic attack?" Tony asked.

"You know about them?" Viva asked.

"Yeah."

"It wasn't a panic attack," Loki said. He sounded a little breathless and Thor placed an arm around his little brother's shoulders. "More like a memory."

Viva's eyes narrowed. "A memory?" Suddenly she recalled Loki telling her about a green creature who had attacked him on Midgard and beaten him into the ground. "YOU!" she cried, glaring at Bruce. Her bi-colored eyes flashed.

"Easy, Lady," Bruce said, holding his hands out in surrender.

"He pounded Loki into the floor!"

"You hurt my papa!?" Balder asked, glaring at Bruce.

"I knew I should have stayed at the Tower," Bruce whispered as he sighed.

Frigga was scowling too. "Is this true, shifter? Did you hurt my son?"

"Y-yes," Bruce said with a nod.

"Mother, please, if you will let me explain," Loki said. He knew Bruce would end up in the dungeon for harming him and Bruce held tighter onto the blanket.

"Well?" Frigga asked. She had been informed about the battle in New York, but she never imagined one of Thor's new friends harming her youngest son.

Loki explained how Bruce came to harm Loki and Bruce confirmed parts of the story. They waited to see her reaction and Frigga sighed, shaking her head.

Viva had sensed the regret coming from Bruce, as well as other strong feelings, and Bruce gave her an apologetic look.

"Not that I approve of anyone harming my sons, but I understand why you did it," Frigga said and Bruce started breathing again.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Bruce said with a bow.

Balder still wore a scowl. "That was mean!"

"Would it help if I said sorry?"

"Yeah."

Bruce walked to Loki while he held onto the blanket and Loki waved his hand. Bruce was now wearing tan pants and brown boots, a white tunic and a brown vest.

"They'll expand in case you have to shift again," Loki said and Bruce nodded.

"Uh... Look, I am really sorry for pounding you into the floor and calling you a puny god. After what we've just seen, you definitely are not puny. Forgive me?" Bruce asked.

"Yes," Loki said and they shook hands.

"Now that's over. I think we better go talk with your dad," Tony said, looking at Thor. "I don't think we saw the last of those guys."

"I agree," Thor said.

"Are there still more draugr roaming around?" Viva asked suddenly. "I sense distress coming from the street nearby."

Tony frowned. "What do you mean, you sense distress?"

"I am a Mind Healer and an Empath. I feel others emotions," Viva explained.

Tony whistled. "Mother of God! A sexy shrink with psi powers. Lady, you can have a session with me anytime!"

"Stark!" Thor warned and Tony shrugged.

"If you feel you would benefit from a session with me, we can make an appointment," Viva said calmly.

"I just might," Tony said and Steve rolled his eyes.

"Let us go speak with Father," Thor said.

Loki watched them walk down the hallway when he looked at Sigyn and Balder and she saw the worry in his eyes.

"My Prince, please, stop looking so worried," she said, taking his hands.

"I cannot help it. If anything had happened...," Loki said then he sighed.

"But you arrived in time to make sure nothing did," Viva counseled. "Still, if it would make you feel better, we can finish assisting the guards in the east wing. I can sense that they are feeling a little overwhelmed."

Loki considered. "Yes. Let's go and do that, Viva. Unless you would prefer I go myself."

"Two are always better than one," she grinned.

"Both of you go. I'll take Balder and Sigyn to see if the servants are alright," Frigga said.

"Can we bring Sunny? I want them to meet her," Balder said.

"Of course."

"Listen to your grandmother, scamp," Loki ordered. "We'll be back soon." Then he and Viva slipped from the room and ran down the corridor, following the sounds of fighting towards the east wing.

As they drew near, they could see five guards battling four draugr. Three of them were crazed, their eyes glowing with reddish light, and attacking the guards with their long crooked claw like hands and sharp teeth.

"There are too many of them!"

"Keep fighting!"

But one, a female in a tattered blue tunic and white pants, did not seem to be as enraged as the rest. She hung back, looking confused.

Loki rounded the corner and conjured a fireball, sending it flying into the three draugr attacking the palace guards. "Duck!" he yelled.

As the guards hit the floor, the fireball slammed into the undead.

The draugr screamed as they died and only ash remained.

The guards rose as they started for the female, but Viva sensed something.

Confusion.

Fear.

"Wait!" Viva said and the guards stopped. She slowly headed for the female when Loki gently grabbed onto Viva's arm and she looked at him.

"What are you doing?" Loki whispered.

"I don't think she's dangerous," Viva whispered. Loki followed as she slowly approached and the female gazed at her.

"Please... No hurt me," the female said.

Viva stopped, staring at the draugr. There was something oddly familiar about her . . .the voice . . . it was hoarse but . . . she knew it . . .Suddenly it came to her. "No! It can't be!" she cried. "How can this be?"

"Viva, what are you talking about?" Loki cried.

"Viva?" the draugr cried, and suddenly her desiccated form shimmered. Her form altered slightly and she looked almost like she did when alive, with dark hair and green eyes. "Daughter, is that you?"

"Mother!" Viva gasped. "Loki, it's my mother!"

"Mother?" Loki asked and the draugr looked at him.

Suddenly, memories long forgotten moved through her mind. A little face with wide eyes looking up at her. A tiny hand reaching up to her.

A little smile.

She looked at him when she moved closer and Loki wondered what she was going to do.

"Loki?" she asked.

"Yes, I am Loki," he said, nodding.

She reached up a hand to cup his cheek.

"I know your face," she murmured. Her unearthly eyes glittered with sorrow. "All those years . . . he lied to me!"

"Mother, why are you here? You are supposed to be in Valhalla." Viva began.

"I could not go to Valhalla, my daughter." Vanadis answered.

"Name of Yggdrasil, why?"

"Because I was murdered," the draugr answered. "Killed untimely and lied to since you were born."

"I . . . I don't understand."

"Come, we need to talk. All of us do," she said, including Loki in her assessment.

"We do?" Loki said, puzzled.

"Yes. Come," the draugr beckoned them to a wooden bench nearby in an alcove. "All things are clear to me now that I know Laufey lied to me . . . listen and I will explain . . ."

A/N: So who can't wait for the next chapter? Viva's mother has some surprising revelations!

Draugr-the Norse word for a spirit or unquiet dead

Chapter Text

 

Loki and Viva followed the draugr who had once been Viva's mother to the wooden bench in the alcove, waving off the guards who had been prepared to defend their prince and his friend. "Give us a moment, if you will." Loki told them, and the guards saluted and then took up positions at the end of the alcove.

He sat on the bench with the draugr between him and Viva and looked at her expectantly. "What did you wish to discuss with us?"

"Many things. But first, let me tell you who I am," the draugr said softly. "Viva, you knew me as Vanadis, but that was not my whole name. I was, in life, Freya Vanadis of the House of Brightflame, Princess of the Vanir and later Queen of Jotunheim."

The two sat stunned at this revelation. "You were Jotunheim's queen?" Viva sputtered. "Then that means that . . . Laufey was my father, not a cousin as you told me."

"Yes," Freya announced. "I was forced to hide who I really was and who you were, Daughter. It was part of the agreement between me and Laufey. But I will explain all of that later." She looked at Loki. "Laufey forced me to deceive my daughter, but that was not the least of his crimes. The worst was what he did to you, Loki."

"He cast me out to die," Loki said bitterly.

"Yes, but worse he took you from your real mother in a most disgusting deception." Freya said heatedly.

"Then you know who my mother is?" Loki gasped. It suddenly occurred to him that he was speaking to the dead shade of his aunt, Frigga's younger sister.

"Yes, for I am your mother, Loki." Freya asserted. "I gave birth to twins, you and Vivienne, a prince and princess of Jotunheim, but that was not enough for Laufey. He stole you from me-my precious baby boy-because he wished an heir of pure Jotun blood!" There was anger in her tone, but also sorrow deep enough to drown in, and suddenly she hugged him, holding him tightly for a long moment before she released him.

For the first time in his life, Loki was speechless. He remained with his mouth open. He felt shock running through him like a spring freshet, but also a strange warmth, which he would later recognize as the unconditional love of a mother for her child, even though she was dead and he had never known her.

Freya smiled at him and patted his arm and then Viva's arm, who looked nearly as shocked as her twin. "I know . . . it's a lot to absorb. But let me tell you the rest of my tale. Laufey and I were contracted in marriage for the purpose of uniting our realms in peace. Much the same as my older sister Frigga was contracted with Odin. But unlike her marriage, we never grew to love each other. I tried, in the beginning, but Laufey refused to look upon me as more than a woman to get heirs on, and indeed he regarded me as inferior even with that. For his heart belonged to another, a Jotun lady named Farbouti. Once he had performed his husbandly duty on the wedding night, he went to seek solace with her. And there was no magic I could perform that would make him love me, or even treat me with respect."

"Bastard!" Loki snarled and Viva agreed.

"I told you, my father was cold and cruel," she said. "Our father, rather."

"Aye, he was that," Freya said. "The whole court knew of my disgrace, and the fact that the king sought comfort with a Jotun and not his Vanir wife. I knew from the beginning the marriage could not last . . . but I could not be the one to end it. Neither of us could without starting a war. So I endured as best I could, and eventually I won some of the people and courtiers to me side, for not all the Jotun thought Laufey's behavior acceptable. But then I became pregnant . . . and suddenly Laufey realized that I was now a threat. If I bore him an heir, he would be forced to treat me with courtesy according to Jotun law, and his dalliance with Farbouti would end. He refused to contemplate that. So he made plans to ensure that never happened. Plans that I knew nothing about."

"What did he do, Mother?" Viva asked, her fingers clenching.

"When you two were born, he decided to deceive everyone. First he deceived me. You were smaller than a Jotun baby, and born early, like most twins, Loki. When Laufey found that out he paid the nurse to tell me that you died of some illness a week after you were born. I was so grief stricken they drugged me senseless. That was so I would not learn the truth—that Laufey took you from me and paid a priest to bring you to the temple as a sacrifice to the Frost Lady. It was during that time that Odin and his army attacked, and then he found you and took you to Asgard. By the time I woke, the battle was over and I mourned you as dead, my son."

Her hand rose to cup his face again. "If I had only known . . . I would have come for you . . ." She shook her head sadly. "But I did not. While my heart broke and I bonded with the only baby I had left, Laufey plotted. I was deceived . . . and so were my family. For while I slept, Laufey sent letters to my sister Frigga and my brother Frey, who was King of Vanaheim, telling them that I had died after giving birth to my baby and it had died too. He told me that if I ever attempted to contact them, he would kill you, Viva. I knew he meant it too. To a Jotun, a girl child was worth only her price in marriage."

"Blackguard!" Viva spat. "Now I am glad I never met him."

"What happened next?" Loki queried, leaning forward.

"It was then that Laufey made his agreement with me. He promised that I would be allowed to keep my daughter if I agreed to never tell her who she really was and who I was, and we could go and live in a remote place in the Snowfall Mountains, just us alone. He would divorce me on the grounds that I could not give him an heir. This was so he could marry Farboutifor the throne must have an heir. I was so distraught I did not dream of fighting against him. I just wanted to leave my cold loveless marriage behind and start fresh with my one remaining child. So I agreed to his terms. That was why I never told you the truth, Viva. I hope that someday you can forgive me."

Freya smiled at her wistfully.

"Mother . . . there is nothing to forgive. If anything, my sire needs to beg both our pardons on his knees! If he could even stand and do so!" Viva spat, fire in her eyes.

Loki cocked his head. "Wait . . . what do you mean?"

"Do you not know that when you fought your father with Gungnir, you very nearly killed him?" Freya asked.

"Yes, but I thought he recovered."

"He did . . . but not completely. He is paralyzed from the neck down." Freya said.

"Then . . . who is running his kingdom?" Loki frowned. He had to admit, he felt some small amount of satisfaction knowing that his sire was paying the price for his machinations.

"Farbouti . . . and their son, Byleist. He is your younger half-brother."

Loki felt his head swim. First he had a twin sister he never knew and now a brother also.

"Byleist . . . I heard stories of him," Viva said. "Before your accident . . . they said he would be a good king. . . but then they said so of Laufey too . . ."

"I do not know if he is or not . . . but hopefully he is more like his mother than his father," Freya said pragmatically.

"Humph!" Loki snorted. "He is lucky that I do not want to rule that frozen wasteland. For he is a usurper."

"Jotunheim is not all a wasteland," Viva murmured. "Some of it is very beautiful. But I know that I can never go back there. Not after . . ." she gazed at Freya questioningly. "Mother, before you said you were murdered. How?"

"The avalanche which ended my life was no accident, Viva. But I only learned that after I died. When my spirit was brought to Helheim, in the place reserved for souls that have died untimely, it was revealed to me that I had been murdered. And until my murderer was brought to justice then I could never go to Valhalla. But since no one alive knew I was murdered I feared I would remain there for all eternity."

"Do you know who killed you?" Loki asked.

"No. But now that you know . . . perhaps you could find out for me," their mother said.

"I bet Laufey or Byleist would know," Viva declared, her eyes hard. "Was that the reason you told me to leave and live in Asgard? Because you feared Laufey or Byleist would harm me?"

"I feared that Laufey would try and use you as a pawn in his game of Houses, to marry you off to the highest bidder, as they say in Jotunheim. I did not want that for you, Viva, I wanted you to be free to choose your own path. Which could only happen if you were not in Jotunheim and out from the long arm of your father, the king."

"Which means we need to go to Jotunheim after we deal with Malekith," Loki said, balling his hands into fists.

"I will help you defeat him." Freya said.

"Mother...," Viva said.

"They believe I am one of them. I can spy on Malekith and report back on what is he doing."

Loki sighed. "Will you be safe doing that?"

"Yes."

"It's just we don't know what Malekith will do if he finds out," Viva said.

"There is very little he can do to harm me directly," Freya told them. "And Ragnilda, the troll-wife who summoned me, can only banish me back to Helheim, since I am a soul that she summoned and not a true draugr with a body. In life I was one of the greatest mages in the realms. You both inherited your magical gifts from me, except for the frost magic of the Jotun. Even your shifter power is Vanir." She grasped each of her children's hands. "I still possess my skill in the Art. And I will do what I can to help you fight."

"We appreciate any help you can give us," Loki said. "May I tell your sister about you?"

Freya smiled. "Of course. It was the Norns who put Odin in your path that day, Loki. Since I could not raise you myself, I am glad that Frigga did. Out of my siblings, she would have been the one I chose to do so."

"She loves me like her own," Loki stated. How strange were the workings of Fate! The mother he had known all his life was really his aunt! And he also had an uncle he had never met, who was the King of Vanaheim.

"I am happy for that, Loki. I would tell her myself, but my time here is short. I can feel the pull of the Underworld. The troll-wife's summoning is wearing off."

"You mean it has a finite limit when she summons draugr?" Viva wanted to know.

"Yes, it does. And when the time is up, we shall go back from whence we came."

Freya looked thoughtful. "Unless I ask permission to remain and guard her. Then I will be able to be privy to her and Malekith's plans."

Loki felt conflicted. He felt she could do it, but a part of him still wanted her to be safe.

Freya tilted her head, as if listening to a far away voice. Reluctantly, she stood. "It is time for me to go, my children. But you shall see me again." She hugged both the twins and then let them go. There was an ocean of regret and sorrow in her expressive eyes. "My love will be with you wherever you go. Tell Frigga if she doubts that you saw me that 'after the storm there is always sunlight and shadow." She will recognize me then. It was a saying of our grandmother's."

"Mother...," Loki said in a soft voice and she gave him a little smile.

"I'll be fine, Snowfire," she said, using the nickname she gave him as a baby.

They watched her fade away as the guards returned and Viva slid her arm around her brother's waist.

Loki wrapped his arms around her, and held her close, tears glittering in his eyes. "The lost has now been found." He whispered, and felt the bond they had shared as infants suddenly spring to life once more, and it bound them closer than their own heartbeat, never to be parted again.

It was you . . . he sent suddenly recalling the dream he had of himself as a baby holding another's hand. . . . that was YOUR hand I held in my dream, not Thor's . . .

Yes. Yes, it was... she sent back. But it shouldn't change how you feel about Thor. He is still your brother.

I know that. I just wonder how he's going to react when he learns he has a sister.

But I am not...

Yes, you are. Well, you will be if we can convince Odin to adopt you.

Viva smiled at the idea as he held her head against him and tears of joy rolled down their cheeks.

"My Prince, where did the draugr go?" the guard asked.

"It went back to where it came from," Loki said as he led Viva down the passageway and she smiled at him.

The Ark:

Malekith growled as he looked out of the window and his hands were behind his back. Ragnilda was on the floor as she whimpered from the injuries he had inflicted on her after he had returned and she glared at him.

"How?! How could they have defeated us so easily?!" Malekith demanded.

"It was your fault! You Elves are weak! Not like trolls!" she growled.

"Watch your tongue, Witch! It was your army who failed!"

"My army was perfect! I picked them myself!"

"No wonder they failed."

Ragnilda growled when Algrim entered the room and he saluted Malekith.

"He! He is the reason we failed!" she screamed and Malekith walked to Algrim.

"She is right. You did fail me," Malekith said.

"I agree," Algrim said. "How may I atone for my failure?"

"If you had been stronger, we would have won," Malekith said, waving his hand. Algrim roared in pain as his form changed and Malekith smiled. "Now. Now you really are a curse."

Kurse walked to the full-length mirror as he looked at his new form and he slammed his fist into the glass.

"We need to attack them again! We need to slaughter them!" Ragnilda said then she cackled. "We will attack at night. I will send my draugr and trolls. They will tire them out then, in the morning, you can send your army."

"My army fights better in the dark."

"Then let me lead them into battle," Kurse said and Malekith smiled.

Asgard:

Loki and Viva found Frigga, Odin, Thor, and Sigyn in the infirmary, visiting the wounded guards and some of the palace staff who had gotten injured during the battle. Tony was playing with Balder and Sunny in the small courtyard off the main waiting room of the hospital.

Sigyn was giving a drink of water to a young soldier, graceful as always, giving the young man a soothing smile as she did so.

In the next bed, Thor was telling a guard with a bandaged head a silly story, making the man smile despite his aching wound.

Across from them, Frigga was writing a letter for a guard who had a broken arm, her pen making neat strokes across the paper as she leaned on a portable writing desk.

Odin was listening as another man told him of his comrade's heroism in defending the wing of the palace that was filled with servant's children from the draugr. Sadly, the guard had died of his wounds, but he would always be remembered.

Just as the newly found brother and sister entered the infirmary, the all clear alarm sounded.

"Brother! There you are!" Thor exclaimed. "What kept you?"

"We had to make sure the draugr were gone," Loki said.

"We also found out something," Viva said.

"What did you find out?" Frigga asked, walking closer.

"One of the draugr was...,my mother."

"Your mother?!"

Viva nodded then she turned to Loki. "I think you should tell her."

"Tell me what?" the queen queried.

"Viva's mother . . . was also my birth mother," Loki began. Frigga's jaw hung open. "And there's more. She was also your sister, Freya."

"But . . . how can that be? We were told that she died . . . that she and her baby died!" Frigga cried in astonishment and anguish.

Loki came and took her hands in his. "Mother, Laufey lied . . . to you and to her. She said . . . if you had trouble believing her for me to tell you this—"after the storm there is always sunlight and shadow."

Frigga squeezed his hands tightly, her eyes luminescent with tears. "Oh, sweet Valhalla! Freya always said that. It was something our grandmother used to say to us when we were grumpy. My little sister lived . . . and so did you . . ." She gazed at Loki and Viva in wonder. "My niece . . . and my nephew-son. It's like a miracle!" She sniffed and Odin came and handed her a handkerchief.

"Tell us everything," the king ordered. "Leave nothing out."

"Yes, Loki. Please tell us how I came to have a little sister as well as a brother," Thor smiled, his cerulean eyes misty.

So Loki did, and in the middle of that telling, his son came running into the room, wearing what looked like one of Tony's gloves on his hand. "Papa, look what Mr. Tony gave me!"

Loki turned and grinned at Balder. "Hush, son. You mustn't yell, this is a hospital and there are sick people here. But that's a very nice glove."

Balder hung his head. "Sorry. I forgot."

"It's all right." Loki ruffled his hair. "Come here, Balder, and listen to what I have to tell you about your grandmother Freya and your Aunt Viva . . ."

Balder's eyes widened like saucers as he listened to Loki explain that Viva was his papa's twin sister and they had been separated as babies by the wicked King Laufey . . .

The Avengers had joined Thor and the Warriors in the ward and so had Sif.

Everyone else in the ward was listening as well, held spellbound by their prince's tale of sisters lost and found and a mother who had returned from the grave to reveal the truth to her children.

Once he had finished, there was not a dry eye in the room. But after the initial shock wore off, Thor said, "Brother, you know that Malekith might have been outflanked, but he is not beaten. He and his allies will be back, to continue what he began today."

"I know," Loki said affirmatively. "But forewarned is forearmed. And I have no doubt that when they decide to attack, my mother will let us know. So we can be ready."

Frigga nodded briskly. "My sister was always brave and resourceful. So she was in life, and I doubt death has changed that about her. If she has given her word, she will keep it."

"And after we have driven Malekith away, we need to find out who murdered her," Loki declared insistently.

"Then she will be able to go to Valhalla." Viva murmured. Her heart felt torn to pieces at the fact that after all those years her mother's spirit had not been resting in peace, but wandering among the lost and broken because she had been murdered. And I will make whoever is responsible pay in blood for what he or she has done!

Loki glanced at his twin out of the corner of his eye. He could feel Viva's anger as clearly as if it were his own, because of reforged twinbond between them. Now he understood why he had seemed to recognize her when he first met her. And the reason why their blankets were so similar. She is my twin, my heart's companion and now I am finally whole. He sent soothing thoughts to her, reassuring her that they would hunt the killer and bring the miscreant to justice.

Odin cleared his throat suddenly, a broad smile upon his face. "I would like to welcome Viva to our family," he announced. "The Norns weave as they will, but I must say that they have answered an unspoken prayer I had for a long time."

"What is that, Sire?" Viva asked.

"I have always wished for a daughter," the old king admitted. "And now my wish has been granted. That is—if you will consent to being adopted by me and Frigga."

Viva froze, not knowing what to say she was so astonished.

"You don't have to—" Odin said, mistaking her silence for a refusal.

"No, no you misunderstand. I would be honored to be your daughter, as my brother is your son." She smiled at the old king, and her bi-colored eyes were momentarily filled with tears. Until she blinked, controlling her emotions, and they vanished.

"You took the words right out of my mouth, you rogue!" Frigga scolded her husband, laughing. "I was going to offer to adopt her myself."

"Great minds think alike, dear," Odin smirked.

"I'd say this calls for a drink," Tony declared. He smiled at Viva. "How about it, Princess?"

Thor scowled. "Stark, you better mind your manners. That's my sister you're flirting with."

"Easy, Point Break." Tony chuckled. "Don't go all Neanderthal on me yet. It's just a drink, not a proposal of marriage. And even so, I doubt she needs your permission to do anything, right Lady Viva?"

"That's right, Mr. Stark," Viva said smoothly. "While I appreciate my brother's concern, I am perfectly capable of handling any man who tries to take liberties he shouldn't with me. I am, after all, an Empath and a warrior maiden."

"See?" Tony gestured to Viva. "If I get out of line she can kick my ass."

"That's assuming there is anything left of your ass when I am finished with you," Loki interjected.

His sister rolled her eyes. "Oh, brother!"

Loki winked at Thor. Then they both came and hugged their new sister between them and chanted, "We love you, Viva!"

"So, which one of you is the oldest?" Clint asked.

"I am," Thor said.

"No, I mean Viva and Loki. Who's the oldest?"

"I am," Viva said.

"You are?!" Loki asked.

"At least I think I am."

"Wait. I have an idea."

Loki closed his eyes as he concentrated and he felt his mother's mind moving toward his.

Mother, Viva and I need to know something. Which one of us is the oldest? he sent.

Viva is the oldest. She was born ten minutes before you were, Freya sent.

Thank you, Mother.

Loki looked a little hurt but he didn't mind being the youngest. Not with older siblings like Thor and Viva.

"Mother says you are the oldest," Loki said.

"That would explain why I am so protective of you," Viva said.

"Are you sure you want to be their sister?" Tony teased and Viva nodded.

"You know what they say, Tony," Clint began. "You can pick your friends but not your relatives."

"Yeah and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friend's nose," Tony replied.

"Gross!" Jane and Natasha and Sigyn said at once.

"That sounds like something one of my sons would say," Frigga remarked.

"Loki would!" Thor insisted.

"Thor, don't lie! You and your friends used to talk about all those things when you were boys," Loki objected.

"How would you know?" Thor demanded.

"Because I spied on you," Loki replied casually.

"Which he wouldn't have had to do if you had allowed him to hang out with you," Viva said, defending her twin.

"She's right," Frigga agreed.

"I allowed him to play with us . . ." Thor protested, looking guilty. "Sometimes."

Then he winced as Viva, Frigga, and Odin all gave him the stink eye.

Viva walked to her older brother and hugged him then held her hand out to Loki. Seeing her hand reaching out to him made an old memory resurface and Loki took her hand. She pulled him into the hug as Frigga saw a tear roll down Odin's cheek and she placed her head against his shoulder.

"I believe a feast is in order to welcome our new daughter," he whispered.

"I believe you are right," she whispered.

"Gee, makes me wish I had a sister or a brother," Steve said.

"Trust me. Having brothers are a pain," Clint said. His brother, Barney Barton, was trained in the art of using the bow as he was, but his criminal name was Trickshot. Clint had run-ins with him from time to time and, the last he had heard, Trickshot was in prison.

"I think it depends on your sibling," Natasha said.

"It does, lady," spoke up a soldier lying in the bed nearby.

"Aye," agreed another soldier.

"My little brother is a pain in the arse," Balder announced. "'Cause he wakes me up at night crying."

"Balder, we do not use that kind of language," Loki said.

"Sorry, Papa. But he is a pain."

"One day when he's older, he can play with you, and then you can teach him things," Loki told his son.

"Like how to put his tunic on and lace up his boots and comb his hair and not tell some lady that her dress was the ugliest thing you ever saw even though it's true?" Balder chattered.

"Yes."

"I can't believe he said that," Tony said in a soft voice and Steve nodded.

"Out of the mouth of babes," Steve whispered.

"Well, I believe we should go so these men can rest," Odin said and he led them out of the infirmary. Loki held his twin's hand the whole way back to the palace and he gently swung their hands back and forth.

Balder skipped alongside them, singing an old Asgardian nursery rhyme. "Nine Ravens went a flying across the ocean blue, they saw a land of rainbows,

With colors of different hue,- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet too . . "

Loki smiled at his son as they arrived at the palace and he saw Odin speaking with one of the kitchen maids. She nodded then ran off as Loki wondered what was going on and he frowned.

Father, what are you up to? he sent.

I am planning a feast to formally welcome Viva into our family, Odin sent.

Oh, Sire...uh...Father, you don't have to, Viva sent.

I don't have to but I wish to. Because you deserve it, my dear. His eye twinkled merrily as he continued into his Council chamber to brief his Privy Council on the attack and what was being done to counter another one.

Viva glanced at her twin and chuckled. "Will wonders never cease? My blood father ignored me my whole life, acting as though I barely existed, and now my adopted father throws me a banquet."

"It's good to be wanted, isn't it?" Loki murmured.

"It's the very best thing . . .Brother," she grinned.

"You will always have a home here."

"My home is with you, twin."

"Always."

They continued walking down the hall to prepare for the banquet, and the servants who passed them couldn't help but notice they wore identical smiles, bright as the sun, and once you saw them you could not resist smiling also.

For what once was lost had now been found, and they were whole once more, as the Norns intended.

A/N: Hope you all liked . . . and didn't guess everything which was revealed here! Much love! The story continues . . .

Chapter Text

The dining hall was filled with the sound of conversation and laughter as Viva walked in the room with her twin by her side. Loki was dressed in his battle armor, with his helmet tucked under his arm, and she was dressed in a beautiful green gown with three quarter length sleeves with gold trim, a jade belt, and green slippers. Her hair was swept up into a pile of curls and little diamond and emerald pins held her hair in place. Sigyn looked at them and thought how they mirrored one another in some of their mannerisms.

Loki led Viva to the Royal Table as Odin nodded in approval. Loki escorted Viva to the empty chair next to his.

Odin slowly rose as the room became silent and he looked at those gathered.

"As you all know, Lady Viva is here to aide my son recover from his experience with the monster known as Thanos. But it had come to my attention that she and my son share a history," Odin said.

"A history?" a lady next to Sigyn whispered, her eyes alight with excitement. "Did they have an affair?"

Sigyn glared at the gossipy woman.

"It turns out the lady and my son are long lost siblings."

Murmurs echoed through the room as he held his hand up to silence them and Frigga stood.

"Viva's mother, my sister, Freya, was sent to marry King Laufey of Jotunheim. Their marriage was not as happy as my marriage to Odin. During her marriage, she found Laufey had a mistress and he wanted this woman to be his queen. When my sister was pregnant, she discovered she was with twins. Laufey, being fearful of having an heir with her, decided it was time to rid himself of her and her children. When she gave birth, Laufey told her the son she had given birth to was dead. That child was Loki," Frigga said, looking at Loki.

The murmurs turned to shocked whispers as Sigyn looked at Loki then at Viva and he gave her a reassuring nod.

"Freya was heartbroken. But what she didn't know was her son was alive and had been taken to a temple to be sacrificed. If it wasn't for Odin, he would have been," Frigga said and she placed her hand in Odin's. "Fearing for the life of her daughter, she offered Laufey a deal. She and her daughter would go into exile and would never return on agreement that Laufey would allow her daughter to live. He agreed and Lady Viva spent her life ignorant of the existence of her brother, and the same was true of Loki."

"But now that the knowledge has been made known, I offer Lady Viva a place in our family as Princess of the Realms," Odin said as he looked at Viva. "What say you, Lady?"

"I am honored, Sire," Viva said and he walked to her.

"Then rise, Daughter."

Viva stood, and the king embraced her, then he set a gold and emerald diadem upon her ebony locks. "To Princess Viva!"

"Princess Viva!" Loki echoed, and raised his goblet in a toast.

Everyone in the hall followed suit, toasting their new princess.

Loki and Viva smiled at each other when Balder walked to Viva and he had a piece of paper in her hands.

"Is this for me?" Viva asked.

"Yes," Balder said. She opened the piece of paper and saw the drawing of two people dressed in green holding hands with the sun shining upon them. "That's you and Papa."

"Thank you," she said, kneeling to hug her nephew.

"I love you, Auntie Viva."

"I love you, too." She said, her blue and green eyes sparkling with joy. She could feel the innocent love of the child and it warmed her to the core of her being.

He's such a sweet boy, Sigyn thought. Loki is lucky that he is adjusting well to his new home. Then she thought about his brother, Leif, and wondered who would take care of the baby now that Lars had been killed. They had discovered the man's body in his cell with it open and figured the Dark Elves had killed him, perhaps for trying to double cross them. Sigyn felt bad for the baby though. Her father had told her that he didn't think Lars had any relatives left alive, which was why Balder had run off and ended up on Loki's balcony instead of running to a relative. The young noblewoman hoped that Leif would become a royal ward, so Loki could adopt him also. She thought Loki would do well with both brothers and it was a sin to separate siblings. She was certain Loki would agree with her.

Looking over at her, Loki saw the worried look on Sigyn's face and he placed the goblet down. He approached her and gave her a questioning look.

"Is there anything wrong?" Loki asked.

"Well, if it is no trouble, I wish to speak with you in private," she said.

"Alright."

He took her hand and they walked up the stairs which led to the balcony. She peered out at the view while he waited for her to speak then she turned to look at him.

"Did you hear about Lars?" she asked.

"Yes, they found his body in his cell."

"Well, Father told me he thinks Lars does not have any family left and that made me wonder who is taking care of Balder's baby brother," she said.

"I can ask Father to send someone to see how the boy is."

"I thought, if he is not being cared by family, that... That..."

"That I would take him as my son as well?"

"Yes."

Loki looked at her with a slightly shocked look.

"If I didn't know better, I swear you read my mind," he teased and she smiled.

"Then you would like to adopt him?"

"Yes, I would. But, first, I need to find out if he is being cared for by relatives."

"Would you mind if I went to ask about him?"

"If you wish. I will send a letter of inquiry with you."

"If he is being cared by relatives?"

"I wish to know by who and will have Father investigate them. I don't want the boy harmed or used as some sort of pawn."

"If he is not being cared by relatives?"

"Then I will have Father send a letter saying the boy is to be given into your care and you will bring him back here."

Nodding, she smiled as she went back to sit with her father and Loki went to speak with Odin.

The king looked up at his tall son and asked, "Is there something you wished to ask me, Loki?"

"There is, Father." Loki explained the situation with Leif to him and his feelings on the matter.

"I will have my secretary write up a note and I will sign it so Sigyn may go and inquire about the child." The king agreed.

"Thank you. Father."

After the feast, Odin's page delivered a note to her as Sigyn packed for her journey and she hoped Leif was not only safe, but she could reunite him with Balder.

Meanwhile, Loki helped Balder prepare for bed.

"Papa, why are you putting me to bed? Where is Sigyn?" Balder asked.

"She is getting ready for a trip," Loki said.

"She's leaving?!"

"There is no need to panic. She is going to check on your baby brother."

"Why?"

"Well, we need to know if he is being taken care of properly."

Loki wasn't sure if he should tell Balder about Lars when he sighed and Loki sat down on the edge of the bed. Balder sat on his papa's lap as Loki looked at him then he explained what happened.

"The Elves killed him?" Balder asked.

"Yes. We think he was the one who told them how to get into palace and they killed him."

"And he won't try and hurt me anymore?"

"No, he won't be able to do that."

"But that means Leif is all alone."

"That is what Sigyn is going to find out. Do you know if Lars has any family?"

"No, he told Mama he was all alone. That's why he wanted to have a baby with her."

"If that's true, then Sigyn is going to bring Leif here. Would you like that?"

"Yeah! He may cry a lot, but I miss him."

"And you wouldn't mind if I adopt him like I adopted you?"

"Nope," he said with a shake of his head and Loki smiled. "Leif needs a good papa. Lars was mean."

"He was, but he will never hurt anyone again," Loki promised.

Balder hugged his papa and Loki picked him up as he stood. After tucking his son under the covers and tucking Bjorn under his arm, Loki left the nursery and sent a little prayer of thanks to the Norns.

The Ark:

Malekith stared out the window as he balled his hands into fists and Kurse stood next to him.

"It is time," Malekith said. "Have the troops stand ready."

"Yes, Sire," Kurse said and he lumbered away.

 

Loki had decided to visit his twin to discuss Leif as he knocked on the door to her bedchambers and he waited. Odin had her moved into the Family Wing of the palace and she was surprised by the elegance of the room. The door opened as he smiled and she smiled back.

"Evening, Sister," he said.

"Evening, Brother. What's the matter?" she asked and he heard the concern in her voice.

"I wish to speak to you about Balder's baby brother."

"I see," she said then moved back so he could enter. She hadn't gotten ready for bed yet and she went to make him some tea.

Loki came and sat at her receiving room table. A folding printed screen door led into the bedroom, it was drawn so he could see the pretty scene painted on it of a garden with birds and a cat under a bush.

Viva brought over the cups of tea as she sat and he picked up the teacup, sipping on the tea. He placed the teacup down when he explained about what happened to Lars and how Sigyn was going to check on Leif.

"I hope you can adopt Leif. Being separated from a sibling is heartbreaking," she said and he knew she meant them instead of Balder and Leif.

Suddenly, the air turned ice cold as they saw a white figure appearing in the room and the figure changed into Freya.

"Mother!" Viva exclaimed.

"Hello, my children," she greeted them. "I have come to warn you that Malekith is sending Kurse with an army of trolls down to Asgard to attack the city and the palace. He plans to overpower you with a sneak attack at midnight."

"Thank you for the warning, Mother," Loki replied. "I will inform the king and the palace guard captain about the attack. Thor and the Avengers will help fight also."

"As will I," Viva said.

Father, Freya has returned. She told me Maleklith has sent Kurse and an army of trolls to attack the city and the palace at midnight, Loki sent.

Thank you for the warning, My Son. I will warn the guards and the army.

Have Thor and the Avengers stand ready as well.

I will.

Loki turned to Viva. "I have informed Father of the situation. Now all that remains is for us to prepare." He rose to his feet in one graceful motion. "I must see to Balder's safety."

He went down the hallway to Balder's room. His son was still sleeping soundly, and Loki cast protective rune wards all over the room, starting with the door and windows. He enspelled his son to sleep through the night so he would not be frightened, and bid Sunny and Axelle to stay with him and guard him.

He went and pulled Magnus and Eirik from guard duty at his door and told them to guard Balder instead, explaining why.

"We shall guard him with our lives, My Prince," Magnus said, saluting respectfully.

"Aye I know you shall," Loki said approvingly, then went to don his armor.

Once he had his armor on again and had strapped his daggers and Laevateinn about his waist, he removed his Scepter of Wondrous Power from the case on the wall hidden behind a tapestry of his room. The scepter was a powerful magical item, but unlike the one he had on Earth, it held no Mind Stone to control him. He had enchanted this one to hold many spells of war and also illusion, thus releasing him from using his own magical power for a time. Holding the scepter, he met Viva in the hall.

His twin was wearing her frost-blue armor and carrying Frost Reaver on her back. But she was not in her Jotun form. Flickering beside her was Freya, her ghostly face calm despite the impending doom approaching.

"Are you ready, Viva?" Loki asked his twin.

"I am, Loki. Shall we go and find Thor and the others?"

Nodding, Loki carried his helmet under his arm and led the way to the game room, which was where he figured Thor would be with Jane and the other Avengers, playing cards and billiards or darts.

They entered the game room to find Thor and the Avengers preparing for combat, and Thor was briefing his friends on how to battle the trolls.

" . . . remember that trolls can regenerate lost limbs, so the only sure ways to kill them are by lighting them on fire, exposing them to sunlight—they become stone then, or using magical weapons to harm them."

"Or by using magic," Loki added, coming to stand beside his brother.

"Aye. Loki, can you enchant Natasha and Clint's weapons for them? Cap already has his weapon enchanted."

"And I can use my rockets to blow up the enemy, so no worries there, Master Mischief," Tony stated.

"I think the Hulk can handle a few trolls," Bruce declared.

"You are probably right," Loki agreed, suppressing a shudder. "However, do carry this." He handed Bruce what looked like a thin steel stick. "It's a fire rod." Simply press the button there and it will heat up at the end and light whatever you touch on fire. You may need it to keep the trolls from regenerating."

"Thanks, Loki." Bruce said sincerely.

The master mage went and enchanted Clint's bow and arrows so they would slay trolls and elves alike.

He also gave Natasha a blaster and another fire stick.

Tony looked Viva up and down, admiring her trim figure in her bright armor. "Lady, you look very fierce . . . and very fine." He flirted.

"That is our sister and a royal princess of Asgard, Stark," Thor said with a growl and Tony held his hands up in surrender.

"Sorry!"

Loki smiled as he rolled his eyes and they headed out of the room. Viva walked next to her twin as they saw Odin standing in the hallway and he was dressed in his battle armor.

"Where is Mother?" Thor asked.

"She and her handmaidens are in her chambers. I have warded the room to prevent any harm to them," Odin said and Thor nodded. Odin was proud to see his children ready for battle. but he was also worried about them getting hurt or killed.

"I did the same with Balder's room and cast a spell to keep him asleep," Loki said.

"That was smart of you, Loki." Odin said approvingly.

Loki just looked pleased and said nothing.

"That doesn't surprise me," Tony remarked. "From what I've seen, Loki is smarter than almost anyone I know."

"Almost anyone meaning you?" Clint teased.

"Naturally."

"I beg to differ," Thor put in. "My brother is the smartest one out of all of you."

"We can argue that later," Viva put in diplomatically, before Tony could argue. "Because first we need to worry about chasing some trolls out of the kingdom."

"Now that's smart," Sif smirked as she joined them.

"Common sense," Viva chuckled.

"With men it's the same thing," the other warrior grinned.

The men all glared at her and Sif just smirked.

When the midnight hour struck, the portals opened and the trolls and Dark Elves started their attack.

The alarm claxon sounded and Loki waved a hand and teleported Jane into Frigga's chambers upon Thor's signal. The scientist had tried to argue with the Thunder God over remaining behind, and rather than argue with her, Thor craftily enlisted Loki to help him.

"Hey!" Jane yelped. "What the-," she looked about and saw where she was. "Thor, I swear . . .!"

"Relax, dear," Frigga soothed. "My son just wants you to be safe."

Frowning, Jane sat down and she thought of some choice words she will have with Thor about how she wasn't someone who needed a knight in shining armor to keep her safe.

Loki and the others ran out of the palace as the sounds of battle surrounded them and Tony activated his jet boots, sailing into the air.

Loki was thankful that Sigyn was away from this chaos, because he had a feeling this was going to get bloody rather quickly, given the enemy they faced. He cast an illusion over the defenders to make it look like all was calm and bright, because the advantage of surprise was never to be given up in battle.

Within moments the first Dark Elf scout ships darkened the sky and then the trolls began appearing in chaotic ranks, rushing forward to rend and tear the Asgardians to shreds.

They rushed right into a hail of fire arrows unaware, which proved devastating as the front ranks were falling down from their wounds and being trampled on by their companions in the rear.

There was a crackling boom as Thor conjured lightning and thunder to confuse and frighten the trolls, who even though they could not be killed by such pyrotechnics were nevertheless vulnerable to the sonic booms-it hurt their sensitive ears and blinded them so another Asgardian could finish them off. Loki took full advantage of this, blinking here, there, and everywhere and dealing killing strikes with Laevateinn and his daggers.

As trolls fell, never to rise again, the ground became soaked with troll blood, and slippery. Loki also used fire to burn some to ash, but those he needed to target carefully so he didn't harm his fellow soldiers.

Viva used her empathic Gift to make a troll change allegiance. "Fight for me!" she ordered, using her Gift to convince the creature he adored her so he would fight for her.

"Yes, Mistress." the troll cried, and then attacked his fellow, ripping off an arm.

Then she spun and used Frost Reaver to turn one to ice and shattered it. It fell in tinkling shards at her boots.

Suddenly the shards began to stir and try and grow back together, until Loki slammed them with a blast of fire and they melted.

"Always use fire just to make sure they're dead," he told his twin, then he blinked away to help Steve who was fighting off two at once.

Tony, Natasha, and Clint covered the Hulk as he smashed several trolls into the dirt, burning them to ash after they had fallen.

"Hulk smash!" he roared.

A knot of trolls rushed a unit of palace guards, tearing into them with terrifying ferocity. They fought back, but trolls were notoriously hard to defeat without magic and they killed anyone within reach of their massive claws and iron axes and morning stars.

Troll hide was almost impervious to normal weapons, only magical ones or those laced with fire could penetrate it. Soon the courtyard and the grounds were littered with the bodies of the slain and the air echoed with the din of sword on shield, battle cries, and the screams of the dying. Here and there in the darkness the night was lit by flaming arrows, blaster fire, or lighting.

"I can't see!" wailed a soldier, as he ducked frantically from a troll.

"We need light over here!" one yelled as his comrade was plucked out of his position and a troll killed him.

"Did someone say light?" Freya called, then she tossed a handful of dust into the air, which spread and glowed, illuminating the darkness and making the Asgardians able to see their enemies.

Without the cover of darkness, the trolls howled and scrambled backwards.

Kurse spearheaded an assault on the Asgardian left flank and it began to crumble.

"Hold the line! Hold the line!" Odin bellowed, spurring Sleipner  intothe breach as his soldiers fell back under the onslaught.

As the king exchanged blows with Kurse, on the opposite side of the field, Thor was challenged by a hulking brute named Viksli, who had just slaughtered twenty guards in two minutes.

"COME AND FIGHT! VIKSLI KILL YOU!"

Viksli rushed toward Thor as the brute raised his arms over his head and swung his axe down at the Thunder God. Thor dodged left, but Viksli's right arm slammed into him and Thor felt searing pain erupt in his head.

Slowly, the Mighty Thor began to topple towards the earth, until he landed upon the ground with a thud and lay still, his cape spread about him in a crimson swath.

"Thor!" Loki yelled in horror as he watched his brother fall and Mjolnir slid out of Thor's hand to lie gleaming in the dirt.

"NO!"

With a roar, Loki ran toward them, flinging his dagger, but it barely slowed Viksli down. The troll raised his axe, intending to decapitate the fallen god, when Loki interposed himself inbetween the murderous troll and his brother. The axe smashed down onto Laevateinn and the sword went flying from his grip.

Viksli laughed in amusement. "Puny Trickster God!"

Without conscious thought, Loki groped for another weapon. His seeking fingers closed over Mjolnir's hilt and he snatched it up just in time to block another blow from the axe.

Mjolnir blazed white skyfire, and Loki felt the power of the hammer surging through him, unlike anything he had felt before. The storm magic of the sky hammer merged with his own and lighting crackled from his eyes as he felt wrath explode through him—the righteous wrath of a warrior defending his home and family.

KA-BOOM!

Viksli stared at Loki uncomprehending. "Huh?"

"I am Loki Odinson! Prepare to die, troll spit!"

Loki swathed the mystical hammer in fire then he tossed Mjolnir at the large brute. Mjolnir slammed into Viksli's head. Viksli staggered backwards, his hands pawing at his head as his black flesh began to burn. The smell of roasting meat filled the air as the troll howled, the fire consuming his greasy flesh. Mjolnir returned to Loki's hand as the prince watched his enemy going up like an oil-soaked torch, becoming a pillar of fire in moments.

Loki slowly lowered the hammer, elation mingling with worry and fear for his brother lying not two feet away by his boots. Small tendrils of lighting still crackled about the ends of his horned helmet and sparks were glittering in his hair. Loki concentrated, and the power of the storm receded into Mjolnir.

"Loki," Thor said weakly. Loki looked down at him then knelt beside him. The side of his brother's head was crusted with blood and there was a large lump upon it.

"I'm here, Brother," Loki said then sent word to Odin that Thor was hurt.

"You... You used Mjolnir."

Loki looked at the hammer in his hand when he realized what he had done. I lifted Mjolnir! I am worthy! He nearly dropped the weapon in shock.

"But I shouldn't be able to do that." The magician prince protested.

The other trolls milled about uncertainly after seeing their massive leader destroyed, not wishing to engage the tall prince.

Loki stood as he lifted Mjolnir over his head and roared. The trolls, fearing for their lives, turned and they ran into the darkness. The Dark Elves had stopped fighting, staring at Loki, sweat rolling down their faces as they watched the lightning dance in circles above his head and around the hammer's.

"Look! Prince Loki wields Mjolnir!" Tyr bellowed from atop his steed, Heartbreaker. His men all cheered.

Odin's eye widened then he smiled and Tony's jaw dropped behind his face plate.

"I didn't know he could do that," Clint gasped, wide-eyed and Natasha nodded.

"Loki smash!" the Hulk called out and Loki glanced at him.

"Yeah! Smash them, Reindeer... Loki!" Tony called out.

Loki roared as he released the lightning and the Dark Elves screamed as they were all electrocuted. Their blackened bodies fell to the earth, never to rise again, while Loki floated triumphant above them, his face hard as a glacier.

"It's hammer time!" Clint yelled.

"Yes!" Steve shouted.

Suddenly, the ground shook as Kurse appeared and Loki glared at him.

Loki twirled Mjolnir, summoning a storm, but instead of rain, a blizzard spawned.

Huge chunks of hail fell from the sky and pelted Kurse. But the elf seemed to shrug the hits off as if they were nothing.

"Do you think that will harm me?" the large Dark Elf growled.

"No, but this might," Viva growled as she fearcast. Kurse felt his bowels turn to water and he wailed in terror, then hurled his sword at her. It missed, burying itself in the dirt by her boot.

"Mistress, I kill him!" the besotted troll cried and rushed to attack the elf, fangs bared.

Kurse turned to fight off the troll just as Loki spun Mjolnir and flung it at the elf's head.

Mjolnir seemed to hum with power as the mighty hammer slammed into Kurse's head and the troll landed on Kurse's back then slashed his back with its claws.

Loki glanced at Viva, his emerald eyes shooting sparks, and fireballs appeared in his hands, dancing on the edge of his fingers.

"Fire and ice!" he called out as she shot blasts of ice at the elf and Loki launched his fireballs.

Filled with fear, Kurse struggled to stand up and run away, but his legs were like jelly beneath him.

Loki had watched the troll jump off of Kurse just before the fire and ice hit and the Dark Elf howled.

"See you in Hel, Monster," Loki whispered and the elf exploded.

At the same moment, Mjolnir came winging back to his hand. Loki caught it on the fly, easily, for the hammer seemed almost as light as one of his daggers.

The rest of the Dark Elves stood still as they wondered what to do next and Loki glared at them.

None of those assembled wished to do battle with the Mjolnir-wielding sorcerer, who had now combined his own magic with that of the Thunder God. They cringed away from him, scared to pieces.

"Where is Malekith?!" Odin demanded.

"Here," a voice said and Malekith appeared with the troll-wife next to him.

Ragnilda hissed, showing all her fangs. Malekith wore an air of fatalism, though hatred still gleamed in his dark eyes, the fires were banked.

"Do you agree to surrender and come to terms with us before we destroy what remains of your people?" the AllFather demanded.

Malekith hesitated for several long moments, glancing about at his army. They had been decimated, and his plan to catch the Asgardians unaware had failed miserably. Half of the troll force was dead, the other half were cringing in fear and some were wounded and not healing. Most of his soldiers lay dead, losses he could ill afford. His best fighter and friend was now dead, killed by twin sorcerers, one of whom wielded a hammer that none could touch. The fires of vengeance were dying to embers and he realized that if he continued on his present course, more of his people would be killed . . . and that was not something he could afford. It was a bitter pill to swallow.

The troll wife looked up at him as Malekith huffed, giving him a deadly glare.

"No! No surrender!" she screeched.

"Silence, Ragnilda!" Malekith ordered.

Odin watched as Malekith walked toward him and Slepiner snorted. The mighty stallion pawed at the ground with his hooves. Malekith went down on one knee as he lowered his head in surrender and Odin frowned pointedly at Ragnilda.

"Coward!" Ragnilda shouted when the troll Viva was controlling jumped on her and she screamed. She spun, pointing at Viva. "A curse upon thee, thou white witch! A curse upon—ahhhh!"

"Bad!" the troll shouted and roared into her face before snapping her neck.

With the death of the matriarch, the trolls remaining scattered. Some followed the troll Viva had enspelled, tunneling away into the earth while others sought sanctuary in the forest.

Odin surveyed the battlefield, thought it was a familiar sight, his heart ached at the wounded and the dead. Tyr walked over to him, looking at Malekith.

"What do you wish us to do with him?" Tyr asked.

Odin thought for a moment. He knew that if he killed Malekith his people might one day rebel against him and a new despot would rise. He thought of the old Midgardian saying, "Better the devil you know than the one you don't." Finally he said, "Bind him with chains forged of steel and light, Loki. Then we shall draw up a treaty ratifying that hostilities shall end between our people so long as Malekith remains our prisoner. He is hostage to the elves good behavior."

"As my king commands," Loki said, conjuring shackles made of steel and magical light and they fastened around Malekith's neck and wrists.

The Dark Elf moaned and slumped to the ground as the chains drew part of his energy from him, preventing escape.

Across the battlefield, Viva had run to Thor, who blinked blearily at her as she knelt beside him.

"Easy, Brother. Lay still until the healers arrive," she said and she sent comfort into his mind.

"Did I dream it or did Loki use Mjolnir?" Thor asked.

"He used it."

"How fares my son?" Odin called out.

"He lives, Father," she called out.

Loki blinked over to them. "Don't try and get up," he told Thor. "You took a nasty blow to the head."

Thor grimaced. "I know. My head is spinning like a top."

Loki considered. "I can teleport you to the infirmary, Brother."

"If you don't mind," Thor teased and Loki laughed. He knelt beside his brother and placed Mjolnir on Thor's belt.

"This belongs to you," Loki told him.

His brother closed his fingers about Loki's bracer. "And you, Brother. If ever I need a successor, I know whom I shall choose."

Thor attempted to sit up, but his head spun and he paled.

"Easy," Loki murmured, a small smile gracing his lips at Thor's words.

"You're gonna pick him up?" Tony gasped, hovering overhead.

Loki shifted into his Jotun form and gently lifted Thor in his arms. Then he smirked and said "He ain't heavy. He's my brother."

"I got that reference," Steve said and Natasha gently nudged him.

A blue smoke surrounded Loki and Thor as he teleported Thor off the battlefield and Odin eyed the others sternly.

"Disperse back to your ships! After the terms have been discussed, you may return to Svartalfheim. We will help you restore it so you may live there again. So long as you keep the peace."

The Dark Elves activated their transporters as they left the battlefield and the trolls scattered into the shadows.

"What about the trolls?" Tyr asked.

"If they do not find shelter from the sun, they will turn to stone come the dawn."

Tyr watched Odin ride off then the general went to check on the dead and the wounded.

"Well, that was fun," Tony said as he landed and Viva walked to them. "How's Thor?"

"We won't know until the healers examine him," Viva said.

"Then we better get back to the palace."

She watched them leaving when Freya appeared and Viva gave her mother a puzzled look.

"Mother, how was Loki able to lift Mjolnir?" she asked.

"Because Loki's heart was worthy of Mjolnir's power." Freya replied. "The enchantment Odin cast does not measure a person's worth by feats of arms, or prowess in battle, or even leadership or self-sacrifice. But by that most elusive of things-love. The love of a prince for his people, a man for his brother, a father for his children, a love of life over destruction, of freedom over enslavement. But you not only must prove yourself capable of love for others but love of yourself as well. Not arrogant self-love, mind, but self-worth. You must accept yourself for all that you are-and all you are not. Only then will you be worthy to wield mighty Mjolnir."

Freya held up a finger. "But heed, Daughter! If there is the tiniest sliver of doubt, the hammer will not allow itself to be lifted. You must have harmony in heart and soul."

"I understand now," Viva said, beaming happily. Then she bit her lip. "Mother, why are you still here and not in Valhalla? You fought well tonight."

"Because I cannot rest until my murderer is caught."

Viva's mouth tightened. "Loki and I will find your murderer, Mother. We shall search all of the Nine if we must!"

"My blessing go with you both, child," Freya murmured and her cold lips grazed Viva's cheek. "I shall see you anon."

Freya faded as Viva blinked back tears and sniffed. They were not tears of sorrow, but those of anger.

"I swear I will make them pay for what was done to you," she whispered harshly, revenge lodging like a lump of ice in her stomach. Then she went to help take care of the wounded.

Chapter Text

Loki sat in the waiting area in the infirmary, cupping his chin in one hand. After bringing Thor in and setting him on a diagnostic bed, Loki had retreated to the waiting room so the staff of nurses and Healers could do their jobs. Eir had promised to come tell him the Thunder God's condition as soon as possible. An orderly had been sent to inform Queen Frigga also.

Loki could feel the aftereffects of the battle sweeping over him and he fought to stay awake.

He slid down onto the bench as he closed his eyes and he drifted off to sleep.

Another orderly had left a cup of water on the table next to the chair, tiptoeing away when he saw the prince had dozed off.

Loki found himself on a battlefield with Mjolnir in his right hand and he looked across at the Frost Giants facing him. The snow fell into his hair as he wondered why he was there then he watched the Frost Giants part to allow him to see what was behind them.

"Laufey," Loki whispered. His father looked at him as Laufey started laughing and Loki frowned.

"You?! Holding the Hammer of Thor?! You aren't even worthy to shine his boots, Half Blood!" Laufey said.

"Mjolnir says otherwise," Loki replied stiffly. "'Tis you who are not worthy . . . Father," he sneered the title.

"I will show you worthy, you Vanir weakling!" Laufey challenged, hefting Bloodsong, his war axe.

Roaring, Laufey ran toward Loki as the ice crunched under his feet and he raised Bloodsong over his head.

Loki swung Mjolnir high over his head as he rose off the ground and lightning crackled around him. He added some fire to the lightning then he bellowed and the lightning streaked toward Laufey. Laufey screamed as the lightning hit him and his body exploded. Loki caught Mjolnir as he lowered himself to the ground and he looked at the Frost Giants.

"Anyone else want to become a snow cone?" Loki asked. Suddenly, the ground shook as Laufey's body reformed and Loki's eyes widened. Roaring, Laufey charged at him and Loki watched as Bloodsong headed for his head. . .

"My Prince?!" Eir called as she gently shook him and Loki's eyes snapped open. His heart was slamming in his chest as he started to feel a panic attack beginning and he found it hard to breathe.

Loki, what's wrong? Viva sent after she felt his panic.

I had... I had a nightmare and now... Now, I am panicking! Loki sent.

Breathe! It's just a dream. Calm yourself. She sent reassurance through the link.

Loki took a few deep breaths, beginning to calm. Eir gave him a concerned look.

"Sorry," Loki said as she knelt down in front of him and he gave her a small smile. "I had a nightmare then a panic attack."

"I understand," she said and quickly checked his vitals.

"How fares my brother?"

"He is being monitored for the severe concussion he took after that blow to the head. We stitched it closed and he is sleepy from the anesthetic and pain medication, Your Highness."

"I expected that. Any head trauma?"

"Some swelling and bruising, and he has bruised ribs and we have put a cold gel pack on them. Other than that, he should recover within a week with rest and time."

Just then Frigga and Jane rushed into the infirmary.

"Healer Eir? How is my son?" The queen asked, concerned.

The spare woman in the green and blue robe told her of Thor's condition while Jane stood behind Frigga biting her nails with anxiety.

"He's going to be fine," Loki reassured her. "He's had worse, trust me."

Jane glanced at the younger prince, noting his blood-and-mud spattered armor and his face smudged slightly from smoke. "Are you sure?"

Loki nodded. "Yes. I carried him here. I saw what the troll did to him before I killed it. It was a serious blow, but not critical."

Jane swallowed. "I've never . . . I mean . . . I've never seen anyone in combat before . . ." She eyed him in concern. "Are you okay?"

"Yes. I'm not hurt. This—" he gestured to himself. "—is from enemies and not mine. I'm just this side of exhausted is all."

"Was anyone else hurt? Tony, Nat-?"

"Everyone else is well. Only my brother was fool enough to put his head in front of a troll's fist," Loki joked lightly.

Jane felt a corner of her mouth twitch upward. "How—how can you joke about that?"

"Because it's better to laugh than to cry," Loki answered. "Besides, there will be plenty for us to cry over later. Not all of us will come home, you know."

Jane lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry."

"It's the nature of war," Loki told her quietly. "But we will remember those who gave their lives for Asgard and her people.

"But you sacrifice too," she said. "You and Thor, Viva, Odin-you all could have died out there."

"We are aware of that. But the rulers of Asgard, unlike those of other realms, will never ask of their people what we ourselves are not willing to do. It is our way."

Loki accepted a basin of warm water with citrus soap in it and a soft cloth to wash the grime from his face and hands from an orderly. As he did so, Frigga turned to Jane and said, "Healer Eir says we may visit him briefly. You go first, dear."

Jane hesitated, then nodded and followed Eir up the passage to Thor's room. Then Frigga turned to Loki and hugged him. "Loki, I'm glad you are unhurt." She noticed Mjolnir resting beside the chair and her eyebrows rose into her hair. "Then the rumors I heard are true then? You can lift Mjolnir?"

"I can. I used it to defeat Viksli, the troll who hurt Thor, and Kurse too." Loki said proudly.

His mother beamed. "I always knew you were as worthy as your brother to use the hammer. You simply had to realize it for yourself."

"I'd say you were right," her son acknowledged. "I will keep Mjolnir until Thor is well again."

"Good. Your father has told me that Malekith surrendered, so we should have no more trouble from the Dark Elves."

"True. Now we have to remove the Aether from Jane and we can place the Stone in a safe place." Loki remarked.

"I'm sure you will figure a way to do it, Loki." she said encouragingly. "But first you must rest and see to your son. Or sons, as the case may be."

"Yes. If the Fates are kind, they will allow me to reunite Leif with Balder," the magician prince murmured. "Because siblings should never be separated if there is a choice."

"Wise words, my son," the queen smiled. "I believe you will gain what you wish. Now, let me see what your brother has done to himself now," she said with a rueful laugh.

Loki watched her leave and was reminded of several other times when she had come to the infirmary to visit his brother, who seemed to delight in harebrained stunts as a boy. Loki counted it fortunate that Thor had survived to adulthood and it was even more of a miracle that the queen had survived also and not needed to be committed to an asylum from incessant worrying.

I need a bath and clean clothes right now. And about two days worth of sleep, Loki thought. The toll of casting so much battle magic was catching up to him.

Even so, he knew they had been extremely lucky to have defeated Malekith and the trolls so handily, and that was due in no small part to Freya and her warning. Or else this battle might have had an entirely different outcome.

Loki, are you well now? Viva sent to him. He could feel her concern through the bond they shared.

I am fine, twin, he replied easily. Thor will recover in about a week, Healer Eir says.

Thank the Norns! I am returning with the wounded, she sent. I will inform Father.

Loki figured he might as well return to his quarters and wash off the stink of battle and get some rest before he ended up asleep in this chair. He rose and picked up Mjolnir, clipping the hammer to his belt. He would see his brother after they both had rested.

"If my mother asks, tell her I have gone to my chambers," Loki instructed the receptionist at the desk nearby.

"Of course, My Prince," the lady said, and gave him an approving glance.

Loki blinked away, returning to his chambers.

He found his valet already there, running a bath and laying out some sleepwear.

"My Prince," Ravn said with a bow.

"Ravn,'" Loki said, nodding. Ravin looked at Mjolnir hanging from Loki's belt and his eyes widened.

"So it is true. You can use your brother's hammer."

"Aye, it is true," Loki said as he removed Mjolnir from his belt and Ravn looked at the hammer. Loki held the hammer out to his valet as Ravn smiled and he took hold of the handle. Knowing what was going to happen, Ravn laughed after Loki let go and Mjolnir landed on the carpet with a soft thud.

"Let me put that by my weapons wall so we don't trip over it," Loki smirked, and put the hammer against the wall where he usually hung his daggers and Laevateinn. He unbuckled his belt and hung his daggers and his sword up.

"I have taken the liberty of running a bath for you, sir," said Ravn.

"Thank you,"

Loki walked behind the dressing screen as Ravn waited on the other side and Loki handed him his armor then his boots. Ravn left the room as Loki put his robe on then walked out from behind the dressing screen and headed for the tub.

After a long soak, Loki washed off the grime, blood, and sweat of battle. Then he got out of the tub, dried himself off, applied some salve to the scrapes and small cuts he had acquired and got into his sleepwear and slippers. He wanted to check on Balder before he went to sleep. He and opened the door enough to look inside. Balder, Sunny and Axelle were sleeping soundly as Loki closed the door, returning to his chambers. He fell asleep shortly after getting under the covers and he sent out a silent prayer for those wounded or who had died in battle.

The next morning:

Jane hurried through breakfast so she could go and visit Thor in the infirmary. Though normal visiting hours weren't for another hour, the staff made an exception for Thor's mortal as they referred to her.

"Hello. How are you feeling?" she asked as she entered his room.

Thor was sitting up in bed, looking bored to death.

His head still throbbed but not as bad as it had last night, and he was quite ready to get out of this infernal bed. He had always hated to be confined and this was akin to torture for the active god.

"Hello, Jane." he greeted her. "I feel fine. I am ready to leave here."

"Leave? But-but you can't! Not until the doctor says."

"Nonsense!" Thor blustered. "I will say when I can leave and I am leaving." He pulled the covers back and swung his legs off the bed.

"Thor, you were told not to get up," Jane reminded her stubborn boyfriend.

"But Jane, I feel fine," he argued. "I'm only a bit fuzzy headed and it will fade." He started to stand up.

"Thor!" Jane objected.

"Listen to her, Brother," Loki said, coming into the hospital room. "You heard what Healer Eir said."

"She's not the boss of me," his brother retorted.

"Well, now I'M saying it," Loki scowled. "Put your arse in that bed and stay there!"

"YOU aren't the boss of me, Little Brother!"

Thor put both hands on the mattress and prepared to stand up despite the sudden pounding in his temples.

Loki wriggled two fingers discretely.

Thor found himself stuck to the bed as if by superglue unable to move.

"Loki!" he shouted.

"Who's the boss now, Thor?"

"What-what did you do?" Jane giggled.

"I stuck him to the bed," Loki smirked.

"Loki! I'm going to kill you!" yelped his brother.

"Now, now," the Mischief God shook a finger at him. "Behave and maybe I'll let you out . . .but only if you agree to follow orders."

"Fine," Thor sighed.

"Promise me," Loki insisted.

"Loki!"

"Your word, Brother. Or you can learn to pee sitting down."

"LOKI!" Thor bellowed, turning red. "I'm telling Mother!"

Jane was nearly prostrate with laughter. "Oh-oh-my God! I wanna record this on my phone!"

"You what?" Thor demanded. "You wish to record this-this humiliation?"

"Hell, yeah!"

"By the Nine!"

"So, Brother, do you promise?" Loki asked as he laughed.

Thor remained silent.

Loki crossed his arms over his chest.

Thor scowled at him with a face like a mutinous toddler. "You're going to regret this, Loki."

"Not as much as you will," Loki predicted. "Think about it."

He made as if to leave the room.

"Wait!" Thor said and Loki turned to look at him. "I promise."

Loki gestured and the spell was lifted.

"Thank you, Brother," Thor said and Jane helped him get back under the covers.

"Next time, don't be a stubborn goat," Loki scolded.

"Look who's talking," Thor grumbled.

"Is he always like this when he's hurt?" queried Jane.

"Sometimes he's worse," Loki smirked. "Oh, the stories I could tell-"

"Shut up, Loki! Or when I get out of this bed ..."

Loki just rolled his eyes. "Come, Miss Foster. let's leave the Mighty Prince to his rest . . ."

" . . .going to beat your arse . . ." Thor muttered as they strolled away and his eyes closed.

Snores soon filled the air, and Jane and Loki burst out laughing.

They met Tony and Clint coming down the corridor. "Hey, Loki, how's Thor?" asked Clint.

Tony arched an eyebrow. "Barton you deaf? He's snoring loud enough to cut wood in there."

"I know THAT!" Hawkeye snorted. "I meant how long is he gonna be out of commission for?"

"About a week, as long as he follows the healer's orders," Loki answered. "I think that knock on the head might have killed a few brain cells because he keeps trying to get out of bed too soon."

"Yeah, I drive Pepper crazy after I get hurt. She threatens to strap me to the bed if I try to get up too soon,." Tony said, smiling.

"Loki stuck Thor to the bed!" Jane hooted. "It was the funniest thing I ever saw."

"How did you do that?" Clint asked.

"It was just a simple spell," Loki said, wiggling his fingers and Clint couldn't move his feet.

"Hey!"

Tony howled with laughter. "Is there a spell to do everything?"

"Mostly everything, yes. And if there isn't I can always invent one," Loki stated.

"Papa!" made Loki turn as Balder ran to him and Loki knelt down. He scooped Balder up into his arms then he stood and Loki saw the worry in his son's eyes. "Papa, Aunt Viva sent that Uncle Thor got hurt! Is he all right?!"

"Yes, he's fine. He just got hit in the head," Loki said.

"Can we go see him?!"

"No, he's sleeping. But you can draw him tons of pictures for his room."

"I can do that!"

"What I want to know is how you were able to pick up Thor's hammer," Clint said.

"You picked up Uncle Thor's hammer?!" Balder said.

"Yes, I did," Loki said then he explained how he was able to pick it up.

"Wow!"

The boy looked very impressed, but then he asked, "When's Sigyn coming back with my baby brother?"

"I don't know. She only left last night."

"Oh," Balder said as he looked down.

"You really miss him, huh, Kid?" Tony asked.

"Yeah."

Sigyn, Loki sent to the young woman. How are you doing over at the estate? Did you find Leif there with his nanny?

Yes, I did, Sigyn sent. He's fine.

Did you speak with the nanny? Does Lars have any family?

I did speak with her. It turns out Balder was right. Lars had no other family.

I see. Are you bringing him back to the palace?

Yes, but the nanny wants to know if she should accompany me. I told her I was the new nanny and she seemed glad that he was going to be reunited with his brother.

Are you on your way back to the palace?

Yes, we will be home by suppertime.

I will tell Balder.

"Papa, are you okay?" Balder asked, using a new word he had learned from his new mortal friend, Clint.

"Sigyn told me she has Leif and they will be here by suppertime," Loki said.

"Yay!"

Loki grinned at his son's enthusiasm. Then he sent to Ravn, asking him to have some servants prepare a small room next to Sigyn's for the baby to use. He knew they still had the crib and furniture from when he and Thor were babies, they were made to last forever with preserving magic.

Mother? Father? Sigyn found Lars does not have any family and is bringing Balder's brother back to the palace, Loki sent.

That is wonderful news! Frigga sent.

We will have a feast to welcome him, Odin sent.

Father, I was wondering... Loki sent then paused.

My son, do you really think I would not allow you to adopt the child?! Odin sent and Loki heard the chuckle in his head.

Thank you, Father.

"Loki, are you ok?" Tony asked.

"Yes. I was just informing my parents about Sigyn and Leif," Loki said.

"Loki with kids. Who would believe it?"

"And what is wrong with having kids?" Clint asked. He didn't want them to know about his wife and kids as he smiled and Tony arched an eyebrow.

"Well, Pepper and I haven't talked about having them. Then again, I haven't asked her to marry me yet."

"You should," Loki said when he adjusted his hold on his son, left the infirmary and walked back to the palace.

The sun was setting as the carriage arrived and Loki and Balder waited impatiently as it drew to a halt. The small room next to Sigyn's room was ready for the new arrival and Loki noticed he was excited to see her again. The door opened as the footman helped Sigyn out of the carriage and she held a little boy in her arms. He looked like Balder, with light gold hair and large cerulean eyes, and Loki guessed he was around seven months old.

"Leif!" Balder called out as the baby looked at his big brother and smiled. He reached out for Balder as Sigyn knelt down and Balder gave his little brother a hug. 'I missed you so much!"

"Did you have a smooth journey?" Loki asked as she stood and Leif gave him a puzzled look.

"Yes, it was a pleasant trip," Sigyn said.

"Sigyn, the trolls and the bad elves attacked last night!" Balder said and she gasped.

"Is everyone alright?!"

"We had a few casualties," Loki said.

"Uncle Thor got hit by a troll," Balder informed her.

"He was?!" she asked, looking at Loki.

"He was hit in the head, but he's alive. He just needs to stay in bed for a week or so," Loki explained and she nodded.

Leif blinked his eyes a few times when he reached out for Loki and Loki took the baby in his arms. He weighed more than Vanora had, but Loki soon grew accustomed to the baby's solid feel in his arms.

"Leif, Papa can use Uncle Thor's hammer!" Balder said with a grin and Sigyn frowned.

"You can use Mjolnir?!" she asked. Loki told her what happened and she imagined Loki using the mighty hammer in battle and she smiled tentatively.

"Shall we go inside?" Loki queried.

Leif babbled in his new father's arms as Loki entered the palace. The little baby had huge blue eyes and he gazed curiously about as one chubby fist latched onto Loki's hair.

"Ow!" the prince yelped. "My hair!"

"No, Leif!" Balder frowned.

The baby whimpered.

"No, darling," Sigyn murmured. She disentangled Leif's fingers from Loki's hair. "We don't pull hair. Here." she gave the baby a stuffed carrot with a face on it. "Play with Zee."

"Zee!" Leif crowed and waved the toy about.

"Thank the Norns!" Loki sighed.

"All babies like to pull hair," Sigyn told him.

"I didn't know that," Loki admitted. "The only baby I have ever held is Vanora, Ravn's little niece."

"You may want to put your hair back, My Prince," she suggested. "I had to do that. Otherwise you end up getting your hair yanked out." She gestured to her long strawberry-blond curls which were pulled back with a pretty silver ribbon. She was wearing a simple blue gown with a soft white apron over it, but even dressed so simply, she was elegant and refined. Or so Loki thought.

He led the way to the room next to Sigyn's and Loki opened the door. The room was a soft cream color with gold trim and at the center of the room was a circular playpen. Inside the playpen was a variety of toys for a baby and a soft mat was placed at the bottom. A changing table was to the right of the room with a shelf with baby supplies next to it and a light wooden rocking chair was near the window seat. The oak wood crib was at the back of the room and runes and charms were etched in the wood to prevent any harm to the baby. A mobile with cloth stars and moons was connected to one end of the crib and it played a soft lullaby when the stars and moons were moved.

Sigyn walked to the dresser as she opened the drawers and saw little outfits, socks and sleepers and she picked up a little green sleeper with white snowflakes printed on it.

"Uh... That was one of mine," Loki said and she swore he was blushing. She placed the sleeper over the crib railing as she checked the rest of the furniture and Loki smiled at Leif.

"Is he going to have a nap before dinner, Papa?" Balder asked.

"That does sound like a good idea," Sigyn said, walking to Loki. "May I take him?"

Loki tried to give Leif to her, but Leif refused to let go, clinging to Loki's tunic and whining.

"Let me try something," Loki said and he walked to the rocking chair. He sat down, cradling Leif against his shoulder and started singing a lullaby Frigga used to sing to him, long and long ago.

His voice was soft and melodic, it struck a chord deep within the baby in his arms and also Sigyn, who found she was as captivated as Leif was. She leaned against the changing table and listened to Loki's velvet voice with a dreamy look upon her face.

In Loki's arms, the fair-haired baby yawned. But he stubbornly refused to sleep, lifting his head.

Loki recalled something he had seen Astrid do with her daughter, and he began patting his stubborn son's back, rubbing slow circles over the blue-clad baby. He continued to sing and rock, hoping the combination would soothe the excited child to sleep.

Leif gummed his carrot and then finally lay his head down upon Loki's shoulder. The prince breathed in the sweet scent of the baby, he smelled like milk and honey, and was soft and warm. Loki gently stroked one petal-soft cheek, which was round like a chipmunk's. A feeling of vast contentment and pure unconditional love flowed through the sorcerer prince, followed by a surge of protectiveness. Loki knew then that even though he had known the two brothers for a short time, he would willingly die to defend them. And he would love them forever.

"Go to sleep, little star streamer . . . dream on, baby of mine . . ." he sang, a tender smile upon his face.

He felt more than saw the baby's eyes close and Leif's breathing hushed as he drifted off into dreamland.

The general's daughter watched as her prince and the orphan bonded, tears prickling her hazel eyes at the heartwarming sight.

A pleased gleam lit Loki's eyes as he realized he had actually gotten the baby to sleep. He rocked for a few more minutes to make certain, then rose to put him in the crib.

"Place him on his stomach," Sigyn said in a soft voice and he placed Leif down on the mattress. He put the fleece blanket over Leif's waist and legs then he hushed Sigyn and Balder as they slipped from the room. He closed the door silently, then he looked down at Balder, who yawned.

"Looks like someone else needs a nap before dinner," Loki teased.

"No, Papa. I wanna draw pictures for Uncle Thor," Balder protested.

"Very well, son," Loki said then he gazed at Sigyn. She saw both gentleness and protectiveness in his eyes when he moved closer and he gently kissed her cheek. "Thank you for your help."

"You're... You're welcome," Sigyn stammered. She watched Loki walk away as she lightly placed her hand against her cheek and she still felt his lips against her skin, like the kiss of the sun, it warmed her all the way to her toes.

He kissed me! she thought, desire fluttering through her like the delicate brush of butterfly wings. She wanted to laugh out loud, but restrained herself, though deep inside she longed for him to kiss her again . . . and not stop. Shaking her head at her own whimsy, she took Balder's hand, heading for his chambers. She smiled, making her face light up from within with incandescent delight.

Chapter Text

Loki entered his chambers to find Ravn setting out his fancy tunic, jacket, and leather pants for the feast that night. The valet had managed to transform his boots to a mirror bright shine again, using the magic only he possessed to turn battle-worn clothing into presentable items once more.

"Hello, sir. How was the meeting with your new son?"

Loki grinned. "I think he liked me, Ravn. He didn't want to let go of me."

"That is a good sign," he said when he noticed some of Loki's hair was sticking out. "I see he pulled on your hair."

"Yes, he tends to do that."

"So does Vanora," Ravn said ruefully. "I count hair ties a blessing now."

Loki softly laughed as Ravn helped him dress and Ravn used a leather hair tie to pull Loki's hair into a ponytail.

"Oh, did you thank Lady Sigyn for going to get him?" Ravn queried.

"Yes, I did thank her."

Loki's mind replayed the look on Sigyn's face when he kissed her cheek and he swore she was blushing.

"Are you all right?" Ravn asked.

"Yes, I was just thinking."

"Thinking about Sigyn?" he smirked and Loki arched an eyebrow.

"Maybe."

"Pardon, but it appears to me that she might have feelings for you."

Loki looked startled. "For me? Surely you jest."

"Why is that so hard to believe?"

"There are a lot of reasons."

"Well, it was just an observation." The valet shrugged.

Loki nodded shortly then slipped from his chambers, going to fetch his sons for the feast.

Could it be true? Could Sigyn have feelings for me? No. That's impossible, Loki thought and he walked a little faster.

The general's pretty daughter could have her pick of eligible nobles at court. She needn't settle for one emotionally scarred prince with two young boys.

He headed for the doorway to Balder's chambers when he saw Sigyn with the boys and he stopped.

Sigyn was dressed in a pale blue gown with white leather sandals and her hair was pulled up in a small bun. She barely had on any makeup and her hair was shimmering in the light from the mage globes. She gave him a small smile as he swallowed the lump in his throat and he smiled back.

"Good evening," Sigyn said with a small curtsy and he made a small bow.

"Good evening," he replied warmly.

"Papa, Leif and I are twins!" Balder said excitedly as he pointed to the matching outfits they were wearing. Both were wearing white shirts with tan tunics, brown breeches, white socks and brown leather house shoes. Loki smiled as he reached for Leif and Leif held his arms out. He took the little boy from Sigyn as they entered the Feast Hall and those gathered rose to their feet.

Odin gestured and said, "Good people, let us welcome Prince Loki and his two sons, Prince Balder and Leif!"

Everyone applauded and several ladies cooed and smiled at Leif, who waved and babbled happily.

Sigyn went to sit with her father as Loki led the boys to the Royal Table and looked at Odin and Frigga.

My son, he is so adorable, Frigga sent.

Thank you, Mother, Loki sent and Odin nodded in agreement.

Viva beamed at her twin and his children from her seat beside Loki's. A special highchair was at the corner next to his seat and Loki recalled that Leif could eat some soft solid foods like bananas, oatmeal, rice cereal, sweet potatoes, and applesauce or pureed meat in addition to drinking his usual bottle of goat's milk.

"Aunt Viva! See my little brother?" Balder chattered excitedly. "He's come to live with me!"

"That's wonderful," she said and Frigga handed Loki a bib for Leif. It had a green trim with a green snake cross stitched on the front and Loki glanced at it, thinking it looked sort of familiar.

"That was your favorite bib," she whispered and he laughed, rolling his eyes. He placed the bib on Leif as the baby looked at the snake and Leif giggled.

"You may need a bib, Brother. I hear babies tend to toss their food," Viva teased.

"I put a spell on my clothes. If I do get food on them, the food will slide right off," Loki declared as he sat down and Leif reached out for him.

"Uh! Uh!" Leif said.

"No, you have to sit there," Loki said and Leif pouted.

"Here, sweet boy," Frigga cooed and handed Leif a tiny silver spoon to play with.

Leif looked at the silver spoon then he tapped it on the tray and Loki sighed.

I am going to go deaf if he keeps this up, he thought. Who would have thought such a small tot could be so loud?

"Nake!" The baby cried, patting the snake on the bib.

"Yes, that is a snake. It's a nice snake," Viva told her nephew.

"M'nake!" he said.

"Right. It's your snake," Loki said.

"Bal!" Leif pointed to Balder, who was next to Frigga across from him. He then babbled something incomprehensible.

"Yes, that's Balder."

"Da!" he said, pointing at Loki and Loki's heart jumped in his chest.

"Say that again."

"Da!"

"Yes, I'm your dada."

Viva saw the tears in her twin's eyes as he sniffed and she placed her hand on top of his.

"Why is Papa crying?" Balder asked.

"He's happy that Leif called him "dada"," Frigga said.

"Oh."

"M'da," Leif said as he pointed to himself then Loki and Loki nodded.

"Aww! He's really smart!" Jane remarked. She hadn't been around many babies, but she could tell that Leif was more advanced than a mortal baby of the same age. She supposed that was because he was Asgardian.

"Yes, he is," Loki said proudly. The servants served the meal as Leif looked at his plate with three separate compartments and he looked at Loki. "Go on." Loki encouraged, wondering if Leif knew how to feed himself.

Leif held out the spoon as Loki saw the others watching him and he turned his chair to face the highchair. Loki used the spoon to scoop up some pureed chicken and Leif opened his mouth.

"Don't forget to eat as well, Son," Odin reminded and Loki nodded.

Loki took turns feeding his son and eating his own dinner and Leif used a blue sippy cup with white fish on it to drink some apple juice.

"Mmmmm...!" Leif said and he held the cup out to Loki.

Odin and Frigga grinned at each other as Loki pretended to drink the juice then handed the cup back to his son.

"Remind you of something?" Frigga whispered.

"Yes, but it was you he would do that with," Odin said with a small frown. Frigga saw the sadness in Odin's eye as he thought about all the things he missed out on and she placed her hand on top of his.

"Papa, can we take Leif to see Uncle Thor after dinner?" Balder asked.

"We can, but he might be sleeping," Loki said.

"So we'll just wake him up," his son said with his child's logic.

He'll love that, Loki thought as he rolled his eyes, imagining Thor being woken up by a little boy bouncing on his tummy and yelling "Uncle Thor, it's morning time!"

Brother, are you awake? Loki sent.

Aye, I am, Thor sent.

Then you wouldn't mind meeting your new nephew?

Sigyn has returned with Leif?

Yes.

Yes, I would like to meet him.

Good. We'll come see you after dinner.

Fine.

"Uncle Thor is awake and he wants to meet Leif," Loki informed his son.

"Yay!" Balder said, clapping his hands.

"'ay!" Leif repeated as he clapped his hands and some of the baby food on his hands landed in Loki's hair.

Mashed sweet potatoes dripped off Loki's head and onto his tunic.

"Looks like you forgot to place a cleaning spell on your hair, Brother," Viva teased then she laughed.

Frigga chuckled. "That reminds me of the time you got mashed peas in your father's beard. It was very colorful!"

"Mother, please!" Loki groaned. He used a napkin to clean his hair.

"Me me me!" Leif sang while he ate some sweet potatoes.

"You are a mess!" his father chuckled, for the baby had food all over his face, the bib, and his hands.

"Then there was the time he wouldn't eat noodles because Thor told him it was worms," Odin recalled, his eye gleaming, and she nodded.

Jane put a hand over her mouth.

"Oh, please, someone shoot me," Loki whispered.

"Now Thor, he ate everything. Including dirt," Frigga recalled. "Nanny Alyce taught him how to make mud pies and I turned around from planting some flowers and he was eating it!"

Jane started laughing into her napkin. "Dirt! Like a Marine!"

Viva was trying hard not to choke on her wine as she listened to the stories and Balder was giggling.

I guess I missed out on a lot, Viva sent as she glanced over at Loki.

Oh, like you never made a pig out of yourself when you were small? Loki sent.

No, I was a proper little angel.

Mother, was Viva a good girl when she ate as a child?

No. I cannot count the number of shirts and dresses she spilled food on, Freya sent wryly and Viva's mouth fell open.

Mother! Viva sent and Loki softly laughed. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Freya smirking as she floated in the air.

He accepted a wet towel from a server to clean his son's little hands and Leif fussed. "Ah ah! You need to wash your hands, scamp." Leif pouted and shook his head.

"No!"

Loki conjured some floating colored lights to distract him while he wiped one hand clean.

Leif reached for them, cooing.

"Now, why didn't I think of that?" Frigga asked as she thought of all the times Thor fought her when she tried to clean his hands and face when he was a baby.

When Loki was done cleaning his son's hands, he picked Leif out of the highchair and the baby took the wet cloth from the table.

"Me!" Leif said and Loki held his hand out so he could clean his hand off. Leif cleaned Loki's other hand off then he placed the cloth down and Loki gave his son a hug.

"Good job, Leif."

"Can we go see Uncle Thor now?" Balder asked.

"Yes, we can," Loki said, reaching his hand out and Balder placed his small hand in Loki's larger one.

He had removed the bib from Leif and set it on the table. Balder looked up at Loki. Smiling, Loki led his sons out of the hall to the infirmary.

Behind him, several nobles whispered at how the prince seemed to have a knack with children, and some recalled that Loki had always liked playing games with the children at the festivals and reading to them at the Royal Library.

"He will make a good father and husband," some of the mothers murmured to prospective daughters.

The infirmary:

Thor was propped up with pillows behind his head, trying not to die of boredom. A book on battle tactics lay on the nightstand, but he had read it a thousand times before. Jane had left her phone but he had forgotten the password to open it so he couldn't play any games. And he was grouchy because his head was hurting.

He heard little footsteps running toward his room when Balder appeared in the doorway and Thor smiled.

"Uncle Thor! Look what I made you!" He held a bunch of papers in one fist.

"What are they?!" Thor asked, looking excited. Balder ran to the bed, carefully climbed up and he sat next to the big warrior.

"I drew you pictures," he said and he placed the papers on Thor's chest. Smiling, Thor looked through the drawings and Balder explained what each of them were. Loki stood in the doorway as he watched his son and brother and Leif looked at the two on the bed.

"Bal!" Leif said, pointing to Balder.

"Ah, Brother, there you are," Thor said.

"Hello, Brother," Loki said, walking to the bed and Thor smiled at Leif.

"Leif, this is Uncle Thor." Loki introduced his son to his brother.

"Unca!" Leif said. His brow wrinkled for a moment, then he held out his arms to Thor.

"Hello, Leif." Thor took the baby from Loki. "He weighs as much as a good-sized pullet, Brother." He set Leif on his lap.

Leif reached for Thor's hair, but Loki gently moved his hand away and shook his head.

"Sorry. He likes to pull hair," Loki apologized.

"No?" Leif looked questioningly at Loki.

"No."

"He sure knows that word," Thor chuckled.

"I think it's the first one they all learn," Loki laughed.

Leif nodded when he took hold of Thor's finger and Thor looked at Balder.

"Do you like that your brother's here?" Thor asked.

"Yeah!" Balder said.

"Bal! Da! Unca!" Leif said, pointing to them.

"Boy is smart as a whip," Thor observed. "Like you, Loki."

"I'm afraid I can't take much of the credit for that," his brother said modestly.

"I'm smart, too," Balder said.

"Yes, you are, scamp," Loki said as he picked Balder off the bed and he hugged him.

"Uncle Thor is smart, too."

Thor gave Loki a look as Loki wiggled his eyebrows up and down and Thor laughed.

"Yeah! I'm very smart," Thor agreed.

Leif was touching Thor's beard. Suddenly he leaned forward and went, "Mmmaa!" Then he kissed Thor's cheek with a wet sloppy kiss.

"Aww!" the Thunder God blushed.

"He likes to kiss," Loki said.

"Gonna kiss all the girls when he gets older," Thor laughed.

"Yuck!" Balder cried.

"Kissing isn't yuck."

"Yeah, it is. Bleh!"

"Wait till you're older. You will like it then." Thor told him.

Balder made a face. His uncle might be smart about most things but not about kissing! Kissing was for girls!

They visited for a while when Leif fell asleep on Thor and Balder was yawning. A healer entered the room, eyed the princes and then cleared her throat regretfully.

"I am sorry, but Prince Thor needs his sleep. I am afraid you have to leave," the healer said. Secretly she thought they were adorable and it was too bad they couldn't stay. But rules were rules.

"He's not the only one," Loki said, and picked up Leif. "Good night, Brother."

"Sleep tight and don't let the trolls bite!" Balder sang. "Sigyn told me that."

Thor laughed as he waved goodbye to them, allowing the healer to give him some medicine.

Balder staggered a bit as he walked next to Loki and Loki knew he couldn't carry both boys safely, He stopped when he saw Sigyn approaching. She had changed into her normal uniform and the green robe accented her hazel eyes.

"I thought you might need some help," Sigyn said, taking Leif from Loki and Loki picked up Balder.

"Thank you," Loki said, and together they walked to the palace. He noticed her glancing at him from time to time, but he didn't say anything and she led Balder to his room without comment.

Loki walked into Leif's room, made his way to the crib and picked up the sleeper. It smelled like fresh linen despite being in a trunk for all those years. After getting Leif ready for bed, Loki slid down onto the rocking chair, held his son against his chest, then rocked back and forth. He started humming a lullaby. The soothing motion made his eyelids droop and suddenly he yawned and drifted off to sleep, the baby held securely in his arms.

"My Prince," Sigyn began, walking into the room. Her eyes widened as she saw Loki and Leif sleeping on the rocking chair and the moonlight was shimmering off Loki's hair, making the ebony locks gleam like a raven's wing. Hiding a grin, she walked to the small cupboard and removed a fleece blanket, then walked to the rocking chair and gently covered them. Loki sighed softly as she brushed a stray hair out of his face, thinking how peaceful he looked in repose, and how natural he was with the baby, who slept blissfully in his arms.

Sigyn crept from the room, grinning like a fool, but unable to help herself.

In the days that followed, Thor recovered from his wounds, and Loki soon learned that Leif was a proficient crawler, scuttling rapidly across the rug in the nursery, or anywhere he was allowed to crawl. The little imp reminded Loki of a water bug, and he invented a nickname for the child one day as Leif crawled about on his play mat.

"Hey, scuttlebug!" Loki called as Leif went to pick up Zee.

Leif glanced over his shoulder. "Buh! Buh!"

"Yes, that's you. You crawl like a water bug," Loki laughed.

Just then Leif spied Sunny lying by the window and army crawled over to her. The golden puppy was napping and didn't see Leif approach.

The curious baby went and grabbed a soft ear, and Sunny yelped loudly.

Balder dropped the picture book he was looking at and ran over to where his brother was with the puppy. "No, Leif! No! Let my puppy go!" he yelled.

"Pup!"

"Let her go, you bad baby!" Balder cried, his blue eyes stormy. He went to pull Leif away.

The baby burst into loud sobs.

Sunny howled right along with him.

Loki cringed. It sounded like someone was being murdered.

"Enough!" he cried, firmly but not shouting. He rose and went over to the two brothers and the whimpering puppy. "Leif, you don't pull Sunny's ear. That hurts!"

He gently removed the baby's chubby fingers from the dog's ear.

"Pup!" Leif said, reaching for Sunny.

"If you want to play with Sunny, you have to be nice," Loki said, sitting on the floor. Sunny scooted away from them as she whimpered and Loki sighed. "Come here, girl."

"No," Sunny barked with a shake of her head.

"He didn't mean to hurt you."

Sunny slowly moved toward Loki when she laid down next to him. Loki looked at Leif.

"Watch," Loki instructed and he gently rubbed Sunny's sore ear. He then gently patted the soft fur. "See? Nice puppy."

Leif reached out his hand. Loki moved so he could pat the soft fur and Sunny's tail started wagging.

"See? Pet her nicely."

"Nii!" Leif repeated, running his hand along her back.

Sunny looked to see what he was doing and Loki placed Leif on the floor next to Sunny. Lief gently placed his head against Sunny's side as he smiled and he patted the soft fur.

"M'pup," Leif said.

"No, she's mine," Balder argued.

"You have to share her," Loki reminded his oldest son and Balder nodded. "She is our family dog."

He smiled and though it was lucky Sunny was such a good natured dog because another breed might have snapped at the baby for pulling her ear.

Axelle, wondering why her friend was yelling, ran into the room as Leif sat up and his eyes widened.

"Kitty!" he said.

Axelle moved cautiously toward Loki as Loki picked the kitten up and Axelle eyed Leif warily.

"You have to be nice to Axelle, too," Loki said. Leif reached out a chubby hand as he gently patted her head and Axelle started purring.

"Nii," Leif said and Loki nodded.

"Very good!" Loki praised. "How does he know about kittens?" Loki asked Balder. "Did you have one at your other home?"

"The cook did. So she could keep away the mice. Lavender liked to sleep on my bed," Balder told him.

Balder got up and went to the box where they kept some of the pet toys and he got the wooden stick with a feather tied to a string. He brought the stick over while Loki placed Axelle on the floor and Axelle looked at the feather.

"Leif! Watch!" Balder said as he moved the stick and Axelle sprang after the feather. Leif laughed and clapped his hands when Balder handed him the wooden stick and Leif waved the wooden stick wildly.

"No no no. Not like that," Loki said, showing him the right way to move the stick.

Axelle rolled on the floor as she tried to get the feather and Loki loved the sound of his son giggling.

Sunny sat up as Balder went to get her favorite ball and he rolled the ball on the floor. Sunny ran after the ball then picked it up and ran to Leif. She placed the ball on the floor as Loki handed the ball to Leif and Leif tossed the ball. It bounced as Sunny chased after the ball, picked it up, and ran back to Leif again.

"Loki, what was all that screaming about?" Odin asked as he and Frigga walked in the room. "Was someone hurt?" They saw the boys playing with Sunny and Axelle and Frigga smiled.

"Leif pulled on Sunny's ear and I was showing him the correct way to play with her and Axelle," Loki explained, as he stood up and walked to them.

"Amazing. I remember all the times Thor would pull on one of the dogs' ears," Odin said.

"That's mean," Balder said.

"Yes, I used to get very cross with him."

"Did you make him stand in the corner?"

"Yes."

"Did Papa pull on the dogs' ears?"

"No, he never did that. Your papa knew that would hurt them and treated them nicely," Frigga said.

"Though there is that one time he rode on the back of one of guards' dogs," Odin said and Loki rolled his eyes.

"I was three and that dog was the size of a small pony," Loki recalled with a sigh and Odin and Frigga laughed.

"Rii! Rii!" Leif yelled as he held his arms out. Loki thought for a few seconds then went down on his hands and knees and Frigga picked up Leif and placed him on Loki's back. Loki moved around the room while Axelle and Sunny followed them and Leif giggled.

"I want a ride, too!" Balder said.

Odin lifted Balder and placed him behind Leif.

"Giddup!" Balder cried and thumped Loki with his feet.

"Hey! No kicking!" the magician ordered.

"Oops! Sorry!"

Loki sighed and then went around the room again, the two boys clinging to his back and shrieking with laughter.

After a few minutes, Loki's back, arms and knees started hurting and he went to lay down on his stomach.

"That's enough," Loki panted and Frigga and Odin smiled.

"Mo'! Mo'!" Leif cried.

"No more right now, scuttlebug," Loki protested. "This old wolf is tired." He buried his face in his arms.

"Wuff!"

"What does the wolf say?" Balder asked his brother.

"Oooo!" the baby responded and Sunny barked.

Everyone laughed.

"I taught him that!" Balder said proudly.

"You're a good big brother, Balder," Odin told him.

Leif went to rest on his papa's back as Loki looked up at Odin and Frigga and he wondered how they had had the energy to take care of two rambunctious boys that were almost the same age.

"Having fun, Brother?" Thor asked as he and Tony walked in the room and Tony put his phone in his pocket.

"Just wait until I show this video to Pepper. She's going to love it," Tony teased.

"You didn't?!" Loki gasped. His dignity was now shot to pieces.

"Yeah, I did," Tony said gleefully then he looked at Odin. "Uh, sorry to have to say this, but my friends and I need to go."

"So soon?" Frigga asked. She had enjoyed talking with Thor's friends and Tony gave her a sad look.

"I'm afraid so. We have some avenging to do."

"Well, you and your friends are welcome to return any time you wish," Odin said.

"Thank you, Sire."

"Uncle Tony, do you really have to go?" Balder pleaded running to him and wrapping his arms around Tony's leg.

"Yeah, kid, we have to."

Tony picked him up for a hug then he set Balder down and Loki handed Leif to him after he had gotten off the floor.

"Thank you for your help, Stark," Loki said, shaking hands with him.

"No problem," Tony said then moved closer. "Tell that amazingly beautiful sister of yours goodbye for me, ok?"

"I will." Loki said with a warning look and Tony nodded.

Tony left the room after he handed Leif to Thor and Balder pulled on Thor's finger.

"Uncle Thor, Papa is too tired to play pony ride. Can you play with us?" Balder asked. "Please?" He gave the Thunder God puppy eyes.

"Of course I will," Thor said and Loki smiled.

"Be careful, Brother. He kicks," Loki said, ruffling Balder's hair.

"I think I can handle it. I feel strong enough to wrestle a bilgesnipe," Thor boasted.

"One day I want a real pony to ride," his nephew said.

"Maybe in a few months," Loki said. "When you grow a bit taller so you can groom the pony yourself."

"Yay!" Balder turned to Leif. "Leif, what does the horsie say?"

"Nay!" the baby squealed, and then burst into giggles.

As Thor galloped about the nursery, Loki walked over to the king and asked, "Father, has Malekith agreed to cooperate?"

"Not yet," Odin shook his head.

They were speaking of several attempts they had made to question the Dark Elf about how to remove the Aether from Jane and place it back into the Reality Stone. Loki knew of one method that could be tried, but it was dangerous and he was certain Malekith knew a better way, since the Dark Elf knew the Aether and its properties better than anyone now living.

Loki scowled. "Perhaps I'd better pay a visit to him."

"Maybe you should. But be cautious."

"I will."

Loki strode towards the door then turned and watched Thor playing with his sons. Clearly his children were enjoying their time with their uncle, and Loki gave a pleased grin before he left, walking quickly down the corridor.

Viva had gone to talk with some of the soldiers in the infirmary when she saw Loki walking down the hallway and she could sense the tension in her twin's mind.

"Loki," she called out and he grinned. "Are you all right?"

"Yes," he said as he walked closer and he stood in front of her.

"How is Leif adjusting to being here?"

"He's adjusting nicely. Though I had to teach him not to pull on Sunny's ear and how to be nice to Axelle."

"That is a good idea. I don't like the idea of anyone harming animals. But that isn't why you're troubled. What's wrong?"

"Father told me Malekith isn't cooperating. We need him to start talking before Jane becomes ill. I was just about to go interrogate him."

"Mind if I tag along?"

"No, I don't mind. Maybe you can help me get information out of him."

Viva nodded and followed him, letting him lead her towards the stairwell to the dungeons. Loki turned to her.

"Tell me the truth. Do you think I am cut out to be a father?"

"Yes, I do. Why do you think you aren't?"

"Because I just spent the last few minutes giving my sons horsie rides and I am exhausted."

Laughter echoed down the hallway as she gently nudged him and Loki slid his arm around her as they took the stairs down to the prison. He had a feeling that Malekith was going to prove a hard nut to crack, but he was determined not to fail. Not with a life of an innocent at stake.

A/N: Thanks to everyone who is still reading, favoriting, and reviewing this! You all rock!

Next up: The confrontation with Malekith . . .

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

The air was fetid and rank the further Loki and Viva traversed the stairs deep below the golden palace. Night's gloom hung over the passageway, shrouding the walls in shadow and muffling their footsteps.

There was an icy chill to the air but neither paid it heed. Their Jotun blood rendered them immune to the cold.

Viva could feel a sense of dread and anger emanating from the prisoners below and it made her shudder. But she shielded herself and continued.

They came to the bottom of the stairs of the left staircase as they walked by the cells and the prisoners glared at them.

Loki ignored them, his eyes fixed upon the cell at the end of the row where two guards stood.

The guards came to attention as Loki nodded and they looked at Malekith.

"We are here to speak with the prisoner, Gundar. Remove the force field so we may enter." Loki ordered.

"Yes, My Prince," Gundar said as he pushed the buttons and the force field lowered.

Malekith growled as Loki and Viva entered the cell and Gundar and his friend stood behind them.

"Come to gloat?" Malekith asked.

"No, we have come to talk," Loki said.

"I have naught to say to you, Prince Half-breed!" The elf sneered.

"Watch your tongue, Elf!" Gundar said.

"Better to be half of two races than a pureblooded asshole," Viva declared coldly. "Your defiance is but a mask."

Malekith spat at her. "Mind witch! Do not seek to work your foul magic on me!"

"My sister's magic is not foul.  It has helped not only me, but others," Loki said.

"Which only proves how weak all of you are."

"You are the one locked away and defeated' Loki pointed out. "Now, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Your choice."

Malekith growled while his amber eyes darted between them and Loki waited for his answer.

The Dark Elf remained stubbornly silent testing their resolve.

"Answer Prince Loki now!" Gundar demanded.

Viva could sense his hatred and reluctance. She sent forth a probe of compliance, urging Malekith to cooperate.

Malekith tried to fight back, but he felt wisdom in what she was showing him and he sighed.

"If I talk to you, what will happen to me?  My people?  We have known nothing, but war, violence and destruction at the hands of the like of Bors," he said.

"King Odin does not wish hostilities to continue. Your people will be safe if you agree to the terms I dictate." Loki said softly.

Malekith regarded them suspiciously. "What trick do you play?"

"No tricks" Viva replied.

Malekith thought for a few moments before he sighed and he rose from the bed.

"Ask your questions," he said and Loki smiled quietly.

"I am glad you picked the easy way," Loki said.

"Ask before I change my mind.”

"First, how do we remove the Aether from the mortal, Jane Foster, without killing her?"

The Dark Elf leader placed his chin in his hand, looking crafty. "That . . . is not an easy thing to do, Your Grace," he replied, using the mode of address that the elves used for their monarchs. The one they used to use for him, until his kingdom was no more.

"But there is a way," Viva said.

"Easy or not, I will see it done," Loki declared firmly. "Now--speak!" His tone held the edge of command that Odin's often did, sharp and hard as diamond.

Malkith looked deep into the other's emerald eyes, and saw that here was an opponent to be reckoned with. One who possessed intelligence, resilience, and an uncanny magic that he could not comprehend.

Much like himself.

"I believe you will," Malekith said with a nod.

Indeed, there was something compelling about the prince's gaze, and Malekith found himself slowly falling under the spell of those mesmerizing eyes.

"Fine.  I will tell you what you need to know.”

Loki nodded, pleased, "Then do so, my lord." He snapped his fingers and said, "That is so none shall hear what you reveal to me. This is for our ears alone."

"Not likely that they would understand anyway," the Dark Elf snorted, waving at the cell door where the guards stood outside it. "Even so . . . you are wise, Your Grace." Swallowing, Malekith said, "Know this--in the beginning times there was no separation of dark and light--all was one and light emerged from the darkness. The magic too emerged thus, and split into two sides. The Aether is of the dark."

"And the light?" Viva asked.

"The light is in the Stone of Space."

"The Stone of...?  You mean the Tesseract?" Loki asked.

"Yes."

Loki thought about the glowing blue cube which he had held briefly during his time on Earth. Which Thanos had been desperate to possess. When he had held it, even for those few moments, he had almost managed to shake the control of the Scepter. He had felt nearly himself again.

"But no one knows where the Tesseract is," Malekith said with a shake of his head.

"I know," Loki said.

The Dark Elf raised an eyebrow. "Then you may use it to negate what the Aether has done to the mortal. That is one of the properties of the Tesseract. It can mend what another Stone has done."

"Thank you, Sire," Loki said with a bow.  Malekith was surprised with this show of respect and returned the bow.

"Is there anything else you wish to know?"

"Yes. Will there be any . . . lasting effects upon Miss Foster from the Aether?"

"There may be. It is impossible to know what exactly. Understand--none of the Stones were ever meant to be wielded by mortals. They have not the strength to withstand such power for long. Eventually it will slay them."

"Then we must hope the effects are not that bad," Loki said quietly. He feared, however, that the Aether might have shortened Jane's lifespan, though he had no concrete way of knowing for sure. It was simply something he felt viscerally. He knew better than most how powerful magical relics drew strength from those that wielded them, and if the wielder did not have strength to spare, then it drew upon the wielder's lifeforce instead.

Viva eyed him, concerned. Do you believe Jane's lifeforce has been taken? she sent through their bond. She knew as well as he did what price a relic demanded--dark or light.

I do not know for sure. But we can only pray it has not been too great. It may have only taken a year or two. Loki sent back.

I shall pray it is so, Viva agreed. But she knew the price for handling such a relic was always more than one would ever wish to pay--even if doing so unknowing. The magic had always been a harsh taskmistress. It was how it kept itself from being wielded for the most part by fools. The foolish and clueless died. Rather like Nature itself.

"We will deal with that if and when it becomes necessary," Loki said aloud to Malekith. "I will see to it that your people are treated fairly, and can return to your realm once it has been made fit to live in again by our stone and green mages."

"I thank you for your mercy, Your Grace." Malekith replied, and though a trace of bitterness was in his tone, there was also something more--reluctant respect.

"No thanks are necessary. Your people should not be made to suffer any longer. In order to make peace, the enmity between our peoples must end." Loki said evenly.

"You surprise me, Your Grace. Most Jotun are not given to a quality of mercy."

"Well, my lord, I am not--as my birth father would tell you--a true Jotun. I am half-Vanir and raised an Asgardian. My honor is my own and so are my principals."

Malekith inclined his head. "Then I am lucky indeed. Perhaps more than I deserve."

The twins rose then, and bid the prisoner farewell. The guard undid the force field and they passed through. Silently, they climbed back up the stairs to the palace proper.

Once in familiar halls again, Viva turned to Loki and said, "We must tell Father and Thor what we have learned. Can you use the Tesseract the way Malekith said?"

"I can," Loki affirmed.

The Mind Healer grinned at him, and they made their way to the Royal Solar, where they found Odin playing chess with Thor while Frigga tossed a ball for Sunny to fetch and Balder lay on the rug, writing the alphabet on a slate with chalk.

Jane was seated on a settee, playing a game on her phone, but she looked up when Loki and Viva entered the room.

"Papa!' Balder waved at Loki from the rug. "Sigyn's teaching me my letters."

"That's wonderful, son," Loki said, his eyes sparkling. "Soon you'll be reading your own books."

"Uh huh." His son nodded eagerly. "But I always like when you read stories best."

The boy's sincere praise warmed Loki's heart, and he felt his love for the blonde child grow even stronger than before.

Thor looked up from moving a pawn. "Brother, what did you find out? Did you convince the old snake to reveal his secrets?"

"I did, with Viva's help," Loki replied. "Malekith told me there is one way to remove the Aether successfully. I need to use the Tesseract to do so, Thor. The Stone of Light to neutralize the Stone of Dark."

"Then what are we waiting for?" Thor asked impatiently. "Let's do it!"

Loki held up a hand. "Don't be so impatient, Thor. I need to eat something first. That's one of the first rules of magic--never work it on an empty stomach."

"Why?" Jane queried.

"Because magic is like exercise, it burns up energy like nothing you've ever done. And practicing a Great Work on an empty stomach might mean the magic takes more of your energy and causes you to pass out. So in order to prevent that, you need to eat something."

"Is that why you're so skinny?" she observed.

Loki shrugged. "My metabolism works differently than a mortal's. But partially yes."

"I will have dinner brought for all of us here," Frigga said, and rang the bell for her personal maid.

"Where's Leif?" was Loki's next question.

"Taking a nap," Thor answered. "I tired him out," he said sounding very pleased with himself. "Sigyn is with him."

"Good." Loki glanced sidelong at Balder. "I'm surprised Balder isn't taking a nap too."

"He was, but he woke up sooner," Frigga said. "And wanted to practice his letters in here."

Soon servants came with a light repast, and they all sat down to eat it, informally wither on the small tables or with plates on their laps.

Loki ate more than he usually did in one sitting, knowing full well the Tesseract would burn through the energy he accrued. Once they were all finished, Odin gave Loki the key to the Vault, and Loki teleported there to remove the Tesseract from its place inside.

Once he had retrieved the glowing blue stone, Loki blinked back to the solar and said, "Jane, will you come with me, please? I need to do this in my workroom. It's shielded so the magic won't escape and cause anything untoward."

"Of course."

"May I come, Brother?" Thor asked.

"Yes, and Viva also," Loki said.

They all walked down to Loki's workroom, which was a round stone room with magical sigils upon the floor and ceiling.

Loki unlocked the door by placing his palm against it and they filed inside. Mageglobes lit as soon as he entered and the door swung shut.

Jane looked about, and exclaimed, "This looks almost like a lab!"

"In a way it is similar. I make potions here," Loki explained. "Now, if you will stand there, Jane," he pointed to a rune etched on the floor.

"That is the Web of Wyrd--or Destiny." Loki informed her. "I need you to stand upon it."

Jane went and stood upon the rune which was formed of nine staves interlocking and sort of resembled a bow tie on its side.

Loki then traced a circle about her, using his magic, it glowed icy blue. "Do not stray from that, Miss Foster."

He then went and stood upon Vegvasir--the Runic Compass--it was traditionally a symbol etched upon ships or carriages for protection and luck and blessings and to help guide one on the right path. Loki hoped it would guide his magic in the right way to use the Tesseract.

The rune glowed green when he stood on it.

"Now, I am going to use the Tesseract on you, Jane. You may feel a little odd. Maybe cold or hot or slightly dizzy but you must not move while I do this. Stay within the circle."

"I understand." Jane said, looking nervous.

"'Twill be all right, Jane," Thor said encouragingly. "Loki knows what he is doing."

I hope, the sorcerer thought. Then he took the Tesseract and held it out towards Jane. He could feel the stone pulling at him, vibrating slightly in his palm as it awakened,

Suddenly a red mist started to rise from Jane's hands. She started. "Loki, what's happening?" 

"I think the Aether is reacting to the Tesseract," Loki answered.

The Tesseract began to glow stridently.

Then brilliant blue light shot out from the stone and struck the red mist surrounding Jane.

For a moment it seemed like the two forces battled each other, mingling in the air with a loud crackle.

Jane yelped in surprise.

"Jane!" Thor yelled, and Viva laid her hand on his shoulder to prevent him from interfering.

"I'm . . . okay," she told him. "Just a bit shocked."

The two forces, dark and light, intermingled, until the blue light overcame the red mist and then sucked it into itself.

Jane felt oddly cold, like she had just rolled in snow.

She shivered slightly, but recalled what Loki had said and made sure her feet remained planted upon the rune and inside the circle.

Loki felt the Tesseract heat up in his palm and he began to sweat as the Stone drew the Aether into itself, using part of his magical energy to do so.

The Tesseract flickered and then pulsed once more, surrounding Jane with blue light.

An instant later all of the Aether had been captured and neutralized by the Tesseract.

The stone flickered and then dimmed. "Is it done?" Jane asked.

Loki lowered the Tesseract. "Yes, Miss Foster. How do you feel?"

"I feel . . . a little tired," she said. "Like I want to take a nap."

"That's normal," Loki smiled, and set about erasing the circle. "You can step out now."

Jane took two steps forward before she felt her knees wobble. Thor caught her before she crumpled to the floor. "Whoa! Guess that took more out of me than I thought."

"It usually does," Loki nodded. "You should rest now."

"You too, Brother," Viva reminded him.

"I shall. As soon as I return this," Loki said.

After they had all left the workroom, he blinked back to the Vault and placed the Tesseract inside on its pedestal.

Then he blinked back to the solar to inform Odin and Frigga that he had been successful and to bring Balder back to take a nap.

"I'm proud of you, Loki," Odin told him, and Loki felt delight surge through him at his father's words.

"As am I," Frigga agreed. "What you did was something only a master could do--and then only one who had the will necessary to wield the relic."

Loki felt about the size of a real Jotun and allowed himself to bask in their approval for a few moments before saying, "Thank you. I think I will go to bed now."

"Me too, Papa," Balder said, yawning. He ran to his father and took his hand.

 

'Good night, My Son," Frigga said, coming and kissing Loki lightly on the cheek. She hugged and kissed Balder too, giving him the ball for Sunny.

Sunny trotted to her master and followed them from the room.

Loki led Balder to his chamber and met Sigyn there. "Hello," he greeted her, smiling.

"Hello, Prince Loki. I was just coming to fetch Prince Balder."

"I saved you a trip," Loki chuckled. Then he covered his mouth to stifle a yawn. "Pray excuse me, but I am wearier than I thought."

"Is it true then that you freed Lady Foster from the Aether?" she queried.

"Gossip travels faster than thought around here," he murmured, but he wasn't truly angry. "Yes, which is why I feel like I am asleep on my feet."

"Go and rest, sir. I will tend to Balder tonight." she urged him. She wanted to brush the lock of hair from his eyes but didn't dare.

"I'll take you up on that, my lady," he said, and then knelt to give his son a hug. "Good night, Balder. I'll see you in the morning."

"Night, Papa," Balder murmured and kissed his father on the cheek.

 

Loki returned to his chambers, so tired he barely had the energy to undress before falling onto his bed, and in two minutes he was asleep. He didn't even notice when Viva came in and tucked a blanket around him, or when his kitten came to sleep upon his pillow, purring loudly.

As night drifted down over Asgard, Thor carried Jane to her bed. "How are you, love?"

"I feel . . . okay now," she muttered. "Just tired. Like I've run up a mountain and back. But it's a good kinda feeling." She gave him a sweet smile.

His answering smile made her feel safe and even as lassitude swept over her, she knew that she could sleep soundly without fear of harm.

Thor helped her undress, but no sooner had he laid her back in bed, she had fallen asleep, her dark hair a sharp contrast against the white pillow. "Sleep well, sweet Jane," Thor whispered, then leaned over and kissed her softly.

After one final glance at her, he slipped away to his own bed, sleeping peacefully till the sunrise, which dawned bright and clear . . . until Thor learned of Jane's plans to return to Midgard. Then clouds blotted out the sun and lightning crackled through the sky, setting birds and small animals scurrying for cover and scaring Leif into terrified wailing.

Loki jerked up from a sound sleep, his hair sticking up and all his nerves ajangle. Then thunder boomed and Axelle hissed and ran beneath the bed. From the hallway, he could hear the baby crying. Loki sensed instinctively that the sudden thunderstorm was not naturally occurring and he scowled and leaped from his bed.

"By the Nine, Brother! What in Hel is wrong now?" he snapped to the air, then suppressed a shudder as lightning lit up the room even through the balcony door.

He spoke a word and his green robe flowed onto him. Then he stalked away to confront his storm-calling sibling, irritation riding his brow.

As he strode down the hallway, his guards exchanged glances and Eirik muttered to Magnus, “Sweet Valhalla on a ski sled but I sure wouldn’t be in whoever ticked him off’s boots, not for all the gold in Fafnir’s hoard!”

Chapter Text

Loki stalked down the hallway towards the source of the storm brewing outside, anger riding his features. He supposed it would have been more impressive had he stormed his way to Thor's chambers wearing his boots, but he had sprang from his bed in such a rush after being woken up by both the storm and his son crying that he had barely remembered to put on his soft-soled slippers. Thus, he stalked upon silent feet, like his cat, and if he had a tail in this form it would have been lashing.

He did not know what had caused Thor to conjure up this thunderstorm, but whatever the reason it had woken his seven-month-old son and frightened him. If he had not been sure that Sigyn could calm Leif down, Loki would not have gone to confront Thor first. But he trusted the lass to soothe his son, Sigyn had a way with wounded animals and children that was almost mystical. He cocked an ear, listening, and found he could barely hear Leif now, even though he was only five feet from the baby's room.

Loki sucked in a breath and continued until he reached Thor's chamber. "Is he there?" he demanded of his brother's guards.

"No, My Prince," answered one.

"I think he is on the terrace by the garden," the other said helpfully.

"My thanks," Loki said shortly, and then continued on towards the terrace that led out into the gardens. Rain lashed the windows and lighting crackled through the air, lighting up the sky as if it were daylight. It was immediately followed by a huge clap of thunder that seemed to shake the palace.

Loki gritted his teeth. Thor, you bloody overdramatic fool!

As he approached the terrace, moving silently through the dining hall, which was empty, he saw Thor standing just in front of the open double doors, unmindful of the tempest. Tiny sparks of lightning crackled about him, and the wind blew his hair into a nest of tangles, but the God of Thunder paid no heed to the chaos he had called with his powers.

Clenching his jaw, Loki strode forward and clasped Thor's shoulder, spinning him around. "Thor! Yggdrasil's Roots, will you quit having a damned tantrum? You woke the baby—and me—out of a sound sleep!"

Thor blinked, his cerulean eyes glowing with eldritch power. An instant later the rain slowed and his eyes took on a near normal cast. "Loki? Why aren't you in bed?"

Loki fought to keep from gaping. "Excuse me? Your blasted storm woke me up! Not to mention my son!" His tone was sharp as one of his daggers.

"It did? I didn't think . . ." his brother began.

"That's your whole problem, Brother!" Loki snapped. "You never think—you just react! Then you think!"

Thor glared at him angrily. "Don't be so high and mighty, Loki! You don't understand!"

"What don't I understand?" Loki asked, crossing his arms over his chest and giving Thor a stern look.

"Anything," Thor declared petulantly.

Loki rolled his eyes. "Are you drunk again?"

"No! I wish I was though," the Thunder God said despondently. In the distance, thunder boomed.

"Are you sure? Because you act like it."

"Shut up!" his brother cried. "Just go back to sleep, you damned cranky pain in the arse!"

"Don't tell me what to do, Thor," Loki warned icily. "Now control yourself before one of those lightning strikes hits the palace. Mother will be furious if you damage the roof like you did when we were children."

Thor scowled, but began to reign in his power. "Why do you have to remember everything?"

"It's one of the curses of being intelligent," Loki snorted. As the storm began to calm, Loki asked, "What's got your cape in a twist, Brother?"

Thor remained silent for awhile, as the wind slowly died down and the rain became a slow drizzle. Finally he answered, "Jane."

The Trickster Prince lofted an eyebrow. "You two have a fight? She kick you out of your bedchamber?"

"No. She's gone," Thor replied, a trifle sulkily.

"Gone where?"

"Back to Midgard. I brought her there myself."

"I take it you didn't think she should leave."

"She shouldn't have! You just finished removing the Aether from her. She should have waited. But she told me she was better and she needed to get back to work. She insisted that I bring her home."

"Did you ask her to stay?"

"Yes I asked her to stay!" Thor roared. "Hel, I asked her to marry me!"

Loki nearly fell over. "You proposed? Seriously?"

"Yes," Thor's jaw clenched.

"And . . .?"

"She turned me down." His brother growled.

"Oh. I can see why that would upset you," Loki murmured. He patted his brother's shoulder. "Did she say why?"

"She said that she wasn't ready for commitment. That she valued her independence and she wasn't ready to become a princess. That she just needed to go home and pick up where she left off."

Loki gave him a sympathetic glance.

The big warrior sighed. "I don't understand, Loki. She seemed happy here. She liked being with Mother and even Viva. She wanted to learn about our technology too. I thought . . . I thought we would have more time together . . . and instead I go to fetch her to breakfast and find her packing!"

"Packing? What did she have to pack?"

"One small suitcase," Thor said through gritted teeth.

"Did she say she was sorry?"

"She apologized for not wanting to marry me," he grunted.

Loki nodded, his clever brain thinking. "Thor, I know you don't want to hear this but—maybe this was for the best. I think Jane needed to go home and clear her head. You ever stop and think that she might be a bit afraid after everything that's happened to her? I mean she is possessed by some alien magic, goes through a battle where certain people are trying to kill her, and has to try and adjust to a world that is so far advanced technologically and magically that it's mindboggling. Maybe she was feeling overwhelmed and just wanted some peace and quiet. After all, it's not everyday that someone attempts to kill you for a tiny red rock."

Thor clenched a fist. "She would have adjusted."

"Brother, she is mortal. And you have to admit our family is strange. We're not your typical Asgardians."

"No, we're royals."

"Yes, and that comes with a whole set of responsibilities that Jane may think she is unsuited for. Her country has no kings," Loki reminded.

"She could learn! I could teach her!" his brother protested.

"What if she has no desire to be a ruler, Thor? Have you ever asked her? Or did you just assume she would go along with whatever you wanted?" Loki frowned.

"That's unfair, Loki! I . . . we talked a bit. Once. In bed." Thor admitted with a cough.

Loki facepalmed himself. "Blessed Yggdrasil! I meant a real conversation, Brother, not some pillow talk!"

"You're a fine one to talk, Brother! You can't even get up the nerve to kiss Sigyn like a real man, much less talk to her about anything save the weather!" Thor sneered.

Loki's eyes flashed. "She's a lady and General Tyr's daughter, not some serving wench!"

"Ha! You don't even kiss the serving girls!"

"Unlike you, I don't assume every woman wants me!" Loki shot back. "I show them respect."

"Respect? Is that what you call it? I call it fear."

"And I'm calling you an idiot! Mind your own business!"

"Why don't you?" Thor challenged.

"Because your little tantrum woke up half the palace! Fifteen hundred years old and you still haven't learned to control your emotions."

"Well excuse me all to blazes, Brother, but we can't all be frigid bastards like you!" Thor yelled. "Now shut your mouth!" He swung at Loki.

Only Loki was no longer there. Having seen Thor's anger building out of control, Loki simply teleported away. Then he stretched forth a hand and slammed his brother with a fist made of ice.

Thor flew through the air to land on his backside in the mud. He shook his head, dazed, and Loki hoped that one punch might have knocked sense back into his head.

But no such luck. Roaring, Thor surged to his feet, his hair plastered to his head, his eyes blazing and rushed at Loki.

Who simply blinked out of the way again, and Thor trampled a topiary giraffe.

Spitting green bits of foliage, Thor spun about. "Why don't you stand and fight like a man?"

Loki snorted. "And get pulverized? All that proves is I'm stupid, Brother. Like a brick wall."

Thor lashed out with a fist, Loki ducked, and the Thunderer's fist knocked the head off the statue behind him.

Loki popped up beside it and remarked, "Well done, Brother. You just decapitated our grandfather."

Thor panted, though some of the rage drained out of him. "Why don't you fight me?"

"Wrong question. Why don't you listen to me?" Loki scowled, indicating the smashed statue, crushed topiary, and trampled flowers. "Mother will not be pleased."

Thor looked somewhat shamefaced. "I know. She wouldn't want us to fight."

"Well, she wouldn't exactly be shocked," Loki said with a rueful chuckle. Water dripped off his ebony locks and into his emerald eyes. His robe was soaked and his slippers were ruined.

Thor looked down at himself. He was covered in mud from the waist down, his tunic was sopping wet, his hair had bits of greenery in it and his cape had thorns stuck in it from the rose bushes. He rubbed his jaw absently, which had begun to swell slightly.

"You should put some ice on that." Loki said, deadpan.

"I'll live." His brother snorted.

"Here." Loki conjured a snow pack and held it out to his brother. "Put that on there. It'll bring down the swelling."

Thor looked at it, prompting Loki to walk over and press it to Thor's jaw, which had now started to turn a garish greenish purple.

"Oww! Loki, that's cold!" the other god yelped.

"Hush, you big baby!" the sorcerer ordered. "It's barely frozen."

"Maybe to you!" he grumbled but then allowed the pack to stay there. At last Thor muttered, "I apologize, Loki. Sometimes my mouth runs away with me."

"Very true." He gave Thor a sidelong glance. "Do you really think that I'm afraid of women?"

"No. I didn't mean it like that. But I think you're afraid to let a lady get close to you, because you think you're a monster."

Loki shook his head. 'No, I don't think like that. Not anymore. I know my true heritage. I just don't want to move too fast. Sigyn's a lady and I respect her too much to treat her as anything less."

"I see," Thor sighed. "And do you look at her with a lover's eyes?"

"I wouldn't call it lover's eyes, but I do... I like her company. She is bright and laughs a lot. She also is Gifted with magic, as I am. She loves animals and children as well."

"So, if the opportunity presented itself, you could see her as the mother of your children?"

"Don't get so far ahead, Brother. I don't even know if she likes me. And how did this go to being about me? You're the one who is upset."

"And I have calmed myself. I will take your advice and let Jane have her time to think things through. If we are meant to be together then it is meant to be. If not, I will cherish her friendship."

"That is very mature of you," Loki said with a sly smile.

"I can be mature when I need to," Thor said with a proud look.

"Tell that to the garden." Loki smirked.

"You started it!"

"I beg your pardon?!"

For a moment it appeared that the quarrel would continue until Thor said sneakily, "You must be getting slow, Brother, to fall for that one!"

"Why you-!" Loki sputtered.

Thor laughed and slung his arm about his brother. "Let's go inside before we end up drowned."

"I'd better dry us off first. Mother will have our hides if we drip all over the rugs," Loki chuckled.

"Aye. Remember the time my goats and your wolfhounds ran through the hall after that rainstorm . . .?"

Meanwhile, Sigyn was trying to calm a terrified Leif down. The baby was redfaced and howling, tears trickling down his chubby cheeks as she held and rocked him.

"Hush, sweet boy!" she crooned. "It's just a little thunder." Outside, thunder crashed and Sigyn winced as Leif screamed even louder. "It's all right. Your uncle is just blowing off steam." She then heard Sunny howling in Balder's room and groaned. "By the Nine! The poor puppy must be scared too.' She knew that animals often were petrified of thunder since the loud noise hurt their ears.

However, right then the green mage couldn't spare a moment to go comfort the dog because Leif was still howling like a banshee.

Suddenly the door opened and Viva stood there in her nightgown, holding a whimpering Sunny in her arms. "Do you need help?"

"He's starting to calm down. Did the storm wake you too?" Sigyn asked, patting the baby's back.

"That and I felt Loki's anger with Thor," Viva said. She stroked the golden dog, who licked her hand.

"Is Thor the reason why this storm came up?" Sigyn asked.

"From what I can tell from my twin's emotional state, yes."

"Where's Balder?"

"Asleep. He didn't even stir when I came in to get Sunny," Viva answered.

"That child could sleep through an earthquake!" Sigyn giggled. She relaxed as Viva projected warmth and calm at her and Leif.

Soon the baby was yawning and began to fall asleep on the young woman's shoulder.

Gradually the thunder and lighting ceased, and Sunny also calmed, falling asleep on Viva's lap. "I think the worst is over with," the Mind Healer said, yawning. "Loki has most likely calmed Thor down."

Sigyn nodded, stroking Leif's flyaway blonde hair. "Thank the Norns! Thor's temper can be frightening."

"Aye, but luckily Loki seems to know what to say or do to make him forget his anger," Viva pointed out. She could feel her twin was no longer angry and she smiled.

"Loki is very clever and resourceful," Sigyn praised, rocking Leif a bit more before she went and settled him in the crib again. She covered him with a light blanket, her eyes full of love.

"That he is," his twin agreed. "A good thing for a man to be." She cast the other woman a speculative glance.

Sigyn colored a becoming rose, and Viva could feel that the general's daughter was attracted to Loki, but was slightly shy when it came to making her feelings known to him. "He also has a kind heart. But sometimes he hides it because he has been hurt so much in the past."

"Very true," Viva nodded. "Loki has his problems, but he is working hard on overcoming them."

'I know about the nightmares and panic attacks," the nanny muttered. "My father suffers from them also."

"And they do not bother you?" Viva queried.

"No. It takes more courage to admit to your fears and face them than it does to fight foes on the battlefield."

'It is so, but unfortunately many of those who suffer do so in silence, believing they should be ashamed of themselves."

Sigyn nodded as she looked down at Leif, smiling.

"Prince Loki has nothing to be ashamed of. He should be proud of what he has accomplished. Any woman would count her lucky stars if he chose her as his betrothed." The general's daughter declared. "I would-' she broke off abruptly, recalling who she was speaking to.

"Don't let me being Loki's sister stop you from talking about him," Viva said as she felt her embarrassment. "You do like him, don't you?"

'Yes . . . I do. Very much," she admitted shyly. "I have never been . . .attracted to any man the way I am with him. He is witty and funny, and so handsome he could make a wood nymph blush. But he is also generous and kind. I know of no other man who would have willingly adopted two young children without being married. That is just one of the remarkable things about him."

Viva smiled and Sigyn moved the blanket over Leif's legs.

"But I am not sure if he has feelings for me."

"Well, you never know," Viva said with a sly grin. "Now, I think we should go back to bed."

"Yes, I just hope whatever was bothering Prince Thor will resolve itself soon. I don't like either of them being upset."

"Neither do I."

Viva and Sigyn left the room while Leif sighed and he placed his thumb in his mouth. Viva returned Sunny to Balder's room before seeking her own bed again, gently moving Kiva off her pillow.

Loki and Thor walked down the hallway as the guards looked at them and some of the guards smiled at the twigs which were still sticking out of Thor's hair.

"Thor, I need to tell you something," Loki finally said.

"What is it?" Thor asked.

"Viva and I are thinking about going to Jotunheim."

"Why would you want to go there?"

"We need to find out the truth about what happened to our mother."

"Are you talking about her murder?"

"Yes, I believe Laufey had a hand in it."

"I wouldn't put it past him."

"And I would like to see if I can find the temple where Father found me."

"Why would you like to go there?"

"That is where my new life started."

Thor nodded as Loki sighed and he placed his hands behind his back.

"I do admit I am a little apprehensive about seeing Laufey again," Loki said while looking straight ahead. "The last time I saw him, I had led the Frost Giants into the palace."

"That was a lifetime ago, Brother."

"But it still doesn't erase what I did. If I hadn't have followed him into Father's room, he would have killed him."

They walked in silence when Loki brushed some hair out of his face and Thor glanced at him.

"Would you, Sif and the Warriors like to accompany us?"

"Safety in numbers?"

"Yes," he said with a nod.

"Brother," Thor said as they stopped and he placed a hand on Loki's shoulder. "You need to remember something. No matter what happens. I will always be there to cover your back."

Loki felt tears in his eyes as Thor pulled him into an embrace and Loki softly laughed. They moved back as they headed down the hall then they stopped at Thor's room. Loki watched Thor open the door when he turned and looked back at his little brother.

"I will do as you say and I pray Jane will one day agree to marry me," Thor said.

"You never know," Loki teased.

"As you will never know unless you open yourself to Sigyn. She might surprise you," he said with a grin.

"Good night."

"Good night," Thor said as he closed the door and Loki walked down the hallway. His mind brought up images of Sigyn as he smiled and he walked a little faster.

As Loki approached his chambers, Eirik and Magnus saluted him. "My Prince, did you figure out the cause of the disturbance?" Magnus asked.

"I was wondering the same thing, sir," Eirik agreed. "It would seem you put a stop to it."

"I did. I kicked its arse," Loki said smugly. Then he went on into his chamber.

"Told you so," Eirik grinned, and the two laughed like a couple of schoolboys as the doors shut behind them.

Loki heard the laughing coming from behind the doors as he smiled then he shook his head. He went to change out of his damp pajamas and ruined slippers then got into clean pajamas and took a potion to prevent him from getting sick. Axelle crawled out from under the bed. He picked up the kitten and held her to his chest.

"He scared you, too, eh?" he asked and Axelle growled. "Well, it's all over now. Let's go back to bed."

He placed Axelle down, watching the kitten run to the bed and hop up onto the mattress. Loki got into bed, pulling the blanket up. He snuggled into his pillow. Sighing, he closed his eyes as Axelle settled on the pillow, purring comfortingly, and both of them soon drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

The sun's first rays crept in through the gauzy green drapes and woke Loki. He felt Axelle sleeping on his chest and his right hand reached up, scratching the kitten's head.

"Morning," he muttered and the kitten purred loudly.

"Ah, you're awake," Ravn said, walking in the room and he went to set out Loki's clothes.

"Yes, I am."

"That was some storm last night. Was something wrong with your brother?"

Ravn had seen Thor when he got upset and Loki slightly smiled.

"Yes, he and Jane Foster have decided to put a hold on their relationship."

"She's gone then?"

"Yes."

"Well, I hope he can fix things with her. I rather liked her."

"Me, too."

Loki carefully lifted Axelle off his chest as he got out of bed and he held the kitten in his arms.

"I've heard rumors that you are planning a journey to Jotunheim, My Prince." Ravn asked with a questioning look.

"The rumors are true. My twin and I are going to investigate the death of our mother. Thor, the Warriors Three and Lady Sif will accompany us."

"How long will you stay?"

"Say at least two weeks. Could be more or less depending on the situation."

Loki set Axelle down by her food dish and turned to wash up in the bathroom. Ravn busied himself selecting a wardrobe for Loki and packing it neatly in Loki's duffle, which was enchanted to hold many things while remaining light enough to carry easily.

After he had dressed, Loki left to visit his sons and Sigyn. He hated leaving them but it could not be helped. He knew Sigyn would take good care of them along with their grandparents. Still, he wished it were otherwise. He loved his children and didn't want to miss a moment of them growing up.

Mother, you should be here, Loki sent and he hoped she heard him.

I wish I could be there as well, Freya sent, her mind-voice tinged with regret.

Loki knocked on the door just as Sigyn pulled it open.

"Good morning," she said with a curtsy and she opened the door wider so he could walk by her.

"Good morning," he said.

"Papa!" Balder cried, his little face lighting up.

"Da! Da!" Leif grinned with his two teeth, reaching his arms out for Loki.

Sunny barked and gamboled up to him, frisking about his boots.

Loki laughed, kneeling to pet the puppy's head. He walked over to the table, picking Leif from his high chair and hugging the baby. He inhaled the sweet aroma of baby powder and the milky scent of the baby, his heart contracting with love.

"Papa, Sigyn said there was a bad storm last night," Balder said.

"Yes, there was."

"I woke up, too, but I didn't want to get up and crawl in bed with you. Lars... He would yell at me and told me to go back to bed."

"He did?"

"Yeah. Once, he told me if I didn't I would have to stand outside and let Thor deal with me."

Loki scowled angrily even know he knew Lars was dead and he placed Leif back in the highchair.

"Balder," he said as he knelt beside Balder's chair and the child looked at him. "If you do get scared at night, it's alright if you want to go and sleep in my bed, I did that with my father and mother when I got scared."

"Ok, Papa," Balder said and Loki stood up.

"Now, I have something I need to speak to you about."

"Is there something wrong?" Sigyn asked and he saw the worry in her eyes.

"Nothing is wrong, I simply needed to tell you that I am going away for a time." Loki answered.

"Where, Papa?" Balder asked curiously.

"To Jotunheim. Your Aunt Viva and Uncle Thor will be coming with me."

"Can we go, too?"

"Not this time, scamp."

"Oh," he said with a pout and Loki smiled.

"How long will you be gone?" Sigyn asked.

"About two weeks. It could be more or less. Depends on how things go," Loki said.

"What do you wish me to do?"

"Just look after my sons."

"Can we go ride the ponies?" Balder asked.

"Yes, but I think Leif is a little too young to go riding."

"I'll hold onto him so he won't fall off."

Loki softly laughed imagining the sight of them riding together on the wee chestnut pony Odin had given to Balder, and he felt a sharp pang of sadness for not being able to see it.

"When will you be leaving?" Sigyn asked.

"After breakfast if possible."

"Papa, will you bring me a present from Jotunheim?" Balder asked artlessly. "And Leif too?"

"Yes, I will. As long as you behave."

"Yay!"

"'ay!" Leif said, clapping his hands.

"Will you like to join us for breakfast?" Sigyn offered and he nodded. He sat down next to Balder while Sigyn sat across from him next to Leif.

Sigyn set a plate in front of him and he helped himself to eggs, maple pancakes, and bacon.

He listened to Balder chatter while he ate and Sigyn fed Leif some rice gruel with applesauce.

"Papa, what is Jotunheim like?" Balder asked then he took a drink of milk.

"It's a realm of ice and snow, with vast forests and high mountains." Loki explained. "It is beautiful, but different from Asgard."

"Ooooo!"

"The people look like us, but they have blue skin and red eyes."

Loki made an illusion to show them what a Jotun looks like and he noticed how Sigyn looked at the illusion. She didn't seem angry or repulsed. She looked amazed.

Could she really like a Frost Giant? Loki thought.

"What kind of animals do they have?" she asked.

"Some are similar to those we have here. Mountain goats, wildcats, birds, yaks, reindeer, and dire wolves. Snow geese, sturgeon, and lake perch. Walruses, seals, ice bears, and white whales." He thought for a moment more, then added, "They also have magical animals like winter foxes, frost Phoenixes, and ice dragons."

"Wow!" Balder said.

"Ooooo!" Leif said.

"Can you bring home a winter fox for Sunny? She would like a friend."

"I don't think that would be a good idea. It's too warm here," Loki pointed out.

"Ah..."

"What does a Frost Phoenix look like?" Sigyn asked. He showed them an illusion of what it looked like, a large bird with a long delicate neck and snow and ice blue plumage that darkened to deeper blue on the wing tips and it had eyes that glowed a brilliant sapphire. It emitted a veil of frost and the feathers sparkled iridescently. Sigyn's eyes widened as she smiled.

"How beautiful!"

"Do they have good things to eat?" Balder asked

"I've never eaten there. But your Aunt Viva has." Loki mused.

"Do they eat snow?"

Loki nearly choked on his juice as Sigyn covered her mouth to hide her smile and Loki rolled his eyes.

"No, I don't think so."

Where does he come up with these questions? Loki thought.

After they ate, Loki hugged his sons and reminded them to be good for Sigyn and their grandparents and she followed Loki out of the room. She slightly closed the door as she looked at Loki and he tilted his head to one side.

"Thank you for looking after them," he said.

"Thank you for allowing me to do so," she replied.

"Well, I have to go."

"Uh, My Prince..."

"Yes?"

"May I have a hug?"

He was a little shocked as he nodded then he hugged her. She placed her head against his chest as she barely heard the beating of his heart, reveling in his touch, feeling loved and safe within his embrace. But then she recalled it would be improper if anyone saw them this way, and she did not want to start rumors about some sordid affair. So she reluctantly drew away.

"Safe journey," she whispered and he nodded. She watched him walk down the hallway then she sighed and she went back into the nursery.

Loki could still feel her in his arms, all soft curves, she fit to him like a key to a lock, and he could still smell her lemongrass and mint soap, it lingered like a sweet memory in his nostrils.

He made a silent vow to come home not only to his sons, but to her and he prayed the Norns would keep them safe.

He walked quickly into the main courtyard and he saw Thor, Viva, Sif and the Warriors waiting for him.

Are you alright, Brother? Viva sent as she sensed his nervousness.

Yes, I'm fine, he sent, walking to her.

Then why do I sense conflicted emotions coming from you?

I'll tell you later.

She nodded as he looked at Thor and the others and he stood a little straighter.

"Are we ready to go?" Loki asked.

Their bags were all waiting for them, and all of them were armed.

Suddenly Frigga and Odin entered the courtyard. Three guards walked a few paces behind them.

They walked toward Loki, Thor, and Viva as they stood together and Odin looked from one to the other with a slightly longing look upon his face.

"Thor, Loki, and Viva, we have come to wish you well upon your journey. Know that you have my blessing in this endeavor, and I pray you return soon, for the palace will be empty without you. May the Norns cast their favor upon you." He then came and embraced both his sons and daughter.

Viva kissed his cheek affectionately, then she stepped back to allow Frigga to give them hugs also and her own well wishes. "Be careful. Sometimes when you search for answers to the past, you find more than you bargain for. But I will take care of Balder and Leif for you, Loki, until you return."

"Just don't spoil them too much, Mother," Loki laughed.

"Now where would the fun be if I didn't?" his mother giggled. "That's what grandparents do." Her eyes twinkled.

"Just as long as I don't come home to Balder riding an elephant," Loki teased.

"Loki! Where by the Nine would I find an elephant?"

"Knowing you, Mother, if Balder wanted one, you would find it," her son smirked. He hugged her hard before letting her go.

He picked up his duffle and slung it over his shoulder. "Is everyone ready?"

At the chorus of "Ayes" Loki nodded, then he called, "Heimdall, open the Bifrost! To Jotunheim we go!"

Then the mulitcolred dancing lights of the Rainbow Bridge swept them up and deposited them in a realm far far away, the land of ice and snow from whence he came.

As the glare of the Bifrost faded, Loki shifted into his Jotun form, and the prickling tendrils of cold he had felt vanished now that he was in his birth form. Beside him, Viva had also shifted, and for the first time since their birth, they stood together as they had come into the world.

Volstagg, Hogun, and Fandral stood in awe of their prince and princess as Sif smiled and Thor gave Loki and Viva a proud look.

"Which way do we go?" Volstagg asked as snow and ice crystals blew around them.

"As long as it leads to a lodge with a roaring fire, I don't care," Fandral said, shivering. Loki waved his hand and a heat spell moved over the Asgardians, removing the chill from them. Fandral sighed in relief. "Thank you."

"Where are we?" Thor asked.

"This is Whistle Ridge," Viva answered. "I told Heimdall to drop us off here. This is about ten miles from the house I grew up in on Snowfall Mountain." She waved a hand at the dark forest of conifers, yew, and black oak trees. "That's Skagmir Forest. I used to help my mother bring travelers from the cities and traders from other realms there to hunt."

"Has it changed much since you left?" Loki queried.

Viva glanced about. "No, not that I can tell. Come, we need to take the trail that leads west about the ridge and along the forest verge. Then after about four miles, it will slop upwards towards the mountain."

Viva took point, inhaling deeply of the pristine air, which was clear with a hint of snow. Snow lay thickly along the ridge, but the Asgardians took out their skis and they all skied behind her, making soft shushing noises through the snow.

Jotunheim's twin suns, Varn and Solvar, hung high in the sky, but they did little to warm the frozen landscape. Viva used them to get her bearings, then settled down to ski, the wind whipping in her hair.

Loki was close behind her as he looked at the landscape and he thought how lonely she and her mother must have been, living here in exile.

It wasn't so bad, Brother, she sent and she gave him a hint of a smile.

How did you know what I was thinking?

I saw the sad look on your face.

I must be losing my touch, he sent ruefully.

You can play inscrutable magician to everyone else, Loki, but never to me. I'm your twin, she reminded him.

Did you have playmates your age? he sent, admiring the way the sun glittered off the snow as he skied past a drift.

Not really. There were neighbors a mile or so away, but they were adults, trappers and woods guides, Skrymir and Aldi. But they taught me how to hunt and fish.

Even though you were a girl? I thought Jotun were restrictive when it came to what was considered proper for a girl to learn.

If I was raised as a noble lady, then yes. But I was raised in the mountains, and the mountain folk are different from the nobles in Vashti, she explained. On the mountain, it doesn't matter if you are male or female, so long as you can do what needs doing.

She skied adriotly around a sapling, snow flicking up from her poles.

He followed her when he noticed a large elk covered in snow prancing by some trees.

"Remarkable," he whispered.

"Yes, we will see more of them as we go deeper into the forest," she said.

"By the Nine!" caused them to stop when they saw Fandral lying on his back and he tossed some snow into the air. "Blasted things!" He indicated his skis.

"Are you hurt?" Viva asked.

"No, he is just clumsy," Volstagg teased and his hearty laugh echoed around them.

He and Hogun helped the Dashing Warrior to his feet and Fandral wiped the snow off his face and bottom.

"Now I am wet," Fandral grumbled. Waving his hand, Loki dried him off and they headed off into the forest.

"Thank you."

Viva saw the sly grin on her twin's face as Loki shrugged and she rolled her eyes.

None of them had noticed they were being watched. A pair of amber eyes and a pair of green eyes watched them warily, then two shadowy shapes darted into the trees, merging with the firs.

A short time later, Viva led them to a cave entrance. It was half hidden by a snowbank. They went inside and she placed her pack on the ground. She formed a glowing ball of light and sent it winging into the cavern, illuminating the stone walls shimmering with ice melt.

"We will rest here for a while," she said and the others placed their packs on the ground.

"Finally," Fandral sighed and Sif rolled her eyes.

"And here I thought you were a warrior," Sif teased and he glared daggers at her.

Viva gave him an amused look. "If you thought this was hard, wait till we start skiing up mountain."

Fandral's mouth fell open while she removed some sticks from her pack and Loki made a fire circle. Loki used some fire magic to light the sticks and they gathered around the blaze, warming their hands and feet.

"Perhaps I should make some tea?" Viva suggested

"I could use some tea," Thor said.

"Me, too," Volstagg said.

While Viva started making the tea after removing the teapot from her pack, Sif looked around the cave. Her warrior danger senses were on alert and she sat a little straighter.

The stones walls shimmered as Sif noticed the stalagmites and the stalactites seemed to be glowing.

"How do they do that?" Sif queried.

"They are self-illuminating," Viva answered as she poured the tea in the cups and she passed the cups around.

Nodding, Hogun sipped on the tea as his eyes darted around and he scanned the shadows for trouble. He had felt like they were being followed and he looked grimmer than usual.

"What troubles you, Friend?" Volstagg asked.

"We're being followed," the Grim One said.

"Nonsense," Fandral snorted, blowing on his tea. "No one knows we're here."

"Doesn't mean no one spotted us."

Is he always this jolly? Viva sent.

He isn't known as Hogun the Grim for nothing, Loki sent. And, if he senses something is wrong, I would believe him.

Two pairs of eyes watched from the shadows as Viva removed some beef jerky and some bread from her pack and a soft sniffing sound filled the air. The shadows concealed them as the figures slowly inched closer, never taking their eyes off of the others.

Loki removed a small container of cloudberry jam from his bag with a mini spreader and put jam on his bread and bit into it. He sighed in bliss. "I'd forgotten how much I love this jam."

"What is that?" Volstagg asked.

"It's cloudberry jam," the Mischief God replied. "Made from cloudberries grown here. Would you like some?"

"Please," Volstagg said eagerly, and Loki handed him the jam pot and the spreader.

"Now don't eat it all," Fandral commented. "The rest of us want some too."

The sweet smell of the jam made the unseen watchers lick their lips and drool in longing, especially the smaller one.

The smaller figure stopped when the larger one pulled it back and a low growl filled the air.

"What was that?!" Hogun asked, standing up.

"It sounds like a wolf growling," Sif said, rising, and she removed her sword from the scabbard.

They started looking around as the figures slid out of the cave and raced into the trees.

"I believe we should leave," Viva said as they packed things away and Loki placed the jar and spreader in his pack. Thor put the fire out when they left the cave and Hogun took the rear.

"Look! Wolf tracks!" Viva pointed to the huge prints left in the snow.

"Dire wolf," Loki muttered.

"Are they all that big?" Fandral gulped. "Those paws look like the size of small plates!"

"Aye, dire wolves can grow to be as large as a pony. Some Jotun have tamed them somewhat and use them as mounts in the northern tundra," Viva told him.

"Odin's Good Eye, not me!" Fandral shivered. "I'd rather not become breakfast when it gets hungry!"

Hours later, the sun started setting as Viva led them to another cave, this one further up the mountain. Unlike the last one, there were no illuminating stalactites but the dim glow from the fire lit up the cave. The night sky was black with a purple edge and the stars twinkled brightly overhead. Loki stood outside as he looked at the stars and Viva walked to him.

"Where are you?" Viva asked and he glanced at her.

"I'm here," Loki said.

"Your body is here, but your mind...your heart...isn't."

"Is it that obvious?"

"To them, no. To me, yes."

"I'm... I'm back at the palace."

"Do you miss your sons that much?"

"Yes, but that's not who is distracting me."

"Is it the youngest daughter of General Tyr?"

"Yes."

"Do you love her?"

"I believe I do, but how can she love me?"

"Why wouldn't she?"

"I am a monster." The old excuse leaped off his tongue, despite all the progress he had made.

"Not this again," she said with a sigh. "You are not a monster."

"Maybe not, but I am broken."

"So was her father and she never stopped loving him."

"True."

"Now, tell me, what is it about her that you like?"

"She is like a fire on the hearth, that warms the cold and lonely spaces of my heart." He replied without really thinking about what he was saying. "She is the breath of fresh air which moves through the halls of my soul. The light which cuts through the darkness in my mind."

Viva smiled at her twin. "That's beautiful, Loki. What else?"

"She listens when I talk, not just to my words but on some deeper level. I cannot describe it any better. And when she looks at me, she sees me-Loki-not the prince of Asgard, or Thor's little brother, or the broken magician to be pitied."

"She is wise and canny, despite her youth," Viva stated. Sigyn was about five years their junior.

Loki nodded. "I trust her with my sons and know she will always protect them and never harm them."

"Do you trust her with your heart?" Viva asked shrewdly.

"That . . . I'm not so sure of," he confessed. "My heart does not trust the way it once did, but . . . I would like to think that I could trust her with it."

"I think once you get to know her better, you will find you can."

Loki sighed. "Perhaps. She is also quite fair to look upon, though her beauty is quiet, like a meadow flower or a wildcat, not obvious at first unless you know how to see it. I overheard her once talking to Selwyn the kitchen maid and she said her sisters were roses while she was ragweed. But I disagree. She is no weed, but a brilliant fire blossom that blooms in the heart of the desert."

"Then may the Norns give both of you the love you deserve."

"Thank you, Sister."

They stood in silence as the stars twinkled overhead and a light dusting of snow fell to the ground.

They watched the stars together, Viva silently pointing out the constellations of the Mage, the Wolf, and the Archer, their breath curling in the air in misty plumes.

Loki nodded as he pictured showing Sigyn and the boys the same constellations in the future and he blinked the snow from his eyelashes.

In the shadows, the unseen wanderers watched them and one of the figures tilted their head to one side. They watched Loki and Viva go in the cave and the snow swirled around in small circles on the ground.

The two crouched outside the entrance, listening, until all the noise ceased and the only sound was hushed breathing and the slight crackle of the fire.

The cave was silent as Loki, Viva and the others slept and the fire flickered in the darkness. The amber eyes and green eyes shimmered in the firelight while the figures slowly crept into the cave and the figure with the green eyes moved to Loki. Small fingers untied the laces of his pack, rummaging through his things until slender fingers removed the jar of jam. Smiling, the figure opened the lid and scooped some jam onto a finger and licked it off happily. Suddenly the green eyes darted a glance at Loki and froze. The prince's eyes were open. His acute shifter senses alerted him to someone being next to him and he arched an eyebrow.

"You must be really desperate to come to me and help yourself to my jam," he whispered, sitting up in one swift motion.

He was surprised to see his would-be thief was a little girl. Her long black hair hung in her dirty face and she wore a fur cloak made of rabbit hide, a tattered deerskin tunic and breeches and rabbit fur boots. The girl growled at him as she held the jar of jam to her chest and something else growled in the shadows. Loki looked to see a dire wolf stalking toward him and he magically summoned one of his daggers.

The girl looked toward the dire wolf as she made some growling and barking sounds and Loki blinked his eyes a few times.

"Who are you, Cubling?" he asked in the tongue of wolves and she was surprised he could speak her language.

"No one!" she hissed and then bolted for the entrance. "Fenris, run!"

She raced through the opening, the great wolf right on her heels, and Loki threw back the covers and concentrated, blinking out of the cave, hoping to intercept the wild girl and her wolf companion, who appeared to be starving and in desperate need of a bath and clean clothing.

Moments later he reappeared outside the cave upon the mountain trail, and stood with his arms outstretched. "Easy, child. I'm not going to hurt you."

She skidded to a stop in the snow, her wolf companion halting protectively beside her. The child barely came up to the huge animal's black shoulder. "Liar!" she shouted, her green eyes glinting with distrust. "Men always hurt us!"

A/N: so who do you think this wild child is? You get a kiss from Loki if you get it right. (smirk)

Chapter Text

 

"Who hurt you?" Loki asked softly in Jotun.

The child glared at him for a few moments, then replied in the same tongue, her voice rusty with disuse, "The king's men."

"Why? What possible harm could you be to them?"

She snorted. "I was born."

"I don't understand. Explain please." For a horrifying moment he feared this dark-haired waif with the grass green eyes might be his half-sibling, a bastard child of Laufey.

"I'm a half-blood. My mother Angrboda was Jotun, and my father Wolfhere Asgardian. According to the king's new law that makes me an outcast." Her small face twisted.

Loki scowled. Inwardly he cursed Laufey. Aloud, he asked, "Where are your parents?" He had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

She stiffened, as if bracing for a blow. Then she replied softly, "Dead, sir. They wanted my father to sign a paper . . . to divorce my mother and register me so . . .they said I was unfit to marry . . .or have babies . . .Father . . . he refused . . .told them to go rot in Hel . . "

Her fingers tightened upon the black wolf's ruff and Fenris turned his great head and licked her cheek.

"Then what happened?" Loki asked, though he knew already. He sank to the snow, kneeling upon the ground.

Her throat worked, her emerald eyes pools of desolation. "The soldier . . . called Father a miserable niding and they fought . . .then Mother came and she fought too . . . Father saw me watching with Fenris . . ."

The girl shut her eyes and heard again her father's voice in her mind.

"Run! Take Fenris and go!"

But she had been unable to make her feet move and had just stood there, clutching the wolf cub, watching in stunned terror as the soldiers cut down her parents.

" . . .I couldn't leave . . . not until . . . there was blood all over the snow . . .The soldiers laughed . . . they laughed and laughed while my parents died . . . and then when I turned to run, one of them came after me . . ."

Loki felt sympathy well up within him. "What happened next?"

"I got mad . . .then I just . . . wished he was dead and . . . something happened . . .some energy flowed out of me and . . . he died . . . Then I ran into the forest . . ."

Loki felt his heart crack. "And then?"

The rest of the tale tumbled from her like rapids over rocks.

"They hunted me . . . but I knew the forest and I hid . . . then night fell and the wild wolf pack came . . . and Fenris and I asked the Leader if we could join . . . and so we did . . . until this spring, when Fenris became old enough to star his own pack . . .and we left . . ."

Loki nodded. "How long have you been with the wolves?"

She shrugged one thin shoulder. "I don't know. A year. Maybe longer. I had seven winters when the king's men came . . ." She studied him suspiciously. "Who are you?"

"My name is Loki . . . and like you once I too was an outcast."

"Prove it," she challenged.

Loki shifted into his Asgardian form, wincing at the bite of the wind and the chill of the snow. "See? Like you, I am a half-blood. Now whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with"

She hesitated a moment, then replied, "I'm Hela, Wolfheresdottir. "

"Who's your friend?"

"This is Fenris, my wolf brother," she answered. "He is the last of my father's breeding program. The king's men-may they rot in darkness-killed the rest . . . even Atalanta and her cubs." Two tears trickled down her cheeks. She dashed them away, not wanting to show weakness. She did not know why but her instincts told her she could trust this man . . . at least for now. But she did not want him to think she was a sniveling whiny coward.

Once more Loki cursed the soldiers for their brutality. He knew that some would say they were merely following orders, but the prince knew too that one makes a choice what orders they can follow, or will follow, and choosing to murder a man and wife for naught but Laufey's twisted prejudice, and hunt a child to kill her was disgusting.

He heaved a sigh. "I am sorry for your loss." He noticed her licking her lips and saw she cradled the jam pot as if it were gold.

"Are you hungry, Hela?" he queried.

Before the girl could reply, her stomach growled.

"Guess that answers my question," Loki chuckled. "Come inside and I will give you something to eat."

The girl followed him, glancing about warily at the others still sleeping. Loki put a finger to his lips and they tiptoed past the slumbering warriors.

Loki rummaged in his pack and retrieved some flatbread, cheese, and beef jerky. "Put some jam on the bread if you like," he urged.

She did so, then fell upon the food like a starving wolf, devouring it down to the last crumb and then licking her fingers, as if afraid that it would disappear.

The poor girl is starving, he thought in dismay.

"How long has it been since you've eaten?"

"Two days ago, Fenris and I caught some rabbits."

She ate them raw, he thought and watched Fenris sniffing Viva. A low growl came from the dire wolf and Hela looked at her.

"Who is she?"

"This is my twin sister, Viva."

"So, she is a half-blood like you?"

"Yes."

Viva, sensing fear and anger, opened her eyes as she looked into the dire wolf's amber eyes and she felt the anger coming from him.

Sister, do not worry. It's alright, Loki sent and she looked at him.

Loki, where did this wolf come from? she sent.

He belongs to Hela.

Viva looked at Hela then slowly sat up and Hela crept closer to Loki.

"Greetings" Viva said.

"Greetings, milady," Hela said in a soft voice.

"Where did she come from?" she asked, looking at her twin. Loki told Viva Hela's story and Viva sighed, shaking her head. 'I have heard rumors, but I didn't think he would actually do it."

"Do you think Laufey made those rules because of his marriage to our mother?" Loki asked.

"Yes, I believe so."

"Who is your mother?" Hela asked.

"Her name was Freya, but she had another name," Loki said.

"What was it?"

"It was Vanadis."

Hela's mouth dropped open and her eyes widened.

"I remember my papa talking about a woman by that name! He said she used to be married to the King!"

"She was married to him, but she wasn't anything like him," Viva said. "She believed in equality for all. It didn't matter if they came from Jotunheim or Asgard."

"What happened to her? Papa said she had died in an avalanche."

"She did."

"Oh," Hela said when Thor stirred in his sleep then he woke and sat up.

"Who is this?" Thor asked, looking at Hela then he spotted Fenris. "Odin's Good Eye! It's a dire wolf!"

"Where!?" Sif asked as she and the Warriors Three woke and they drew their weapons. Fenris came between them and Hela as Loki stood and he held his hands out.

"Wait! Put your weapons away!" Loki said.

"Brother, move!" Thor ordered.

"I knew it! I knew you would hurt me!" Hela cried when Loki noticed a black light forming around her hands and her eyes turned black.

"Hela! No! Calm down!"

"I won't let you hurt us!"

The black light grew thicker as Viva felt the panic and fear moving through Hela and a cold sense of death filled the air.

Calm yourself, Little One, she sent as she sent calming thoughts into Hela's head and Hela lowered her arms. Hela slowly slid onto the furs where Loki had been sleeping as Fenris gently nudged her with his snout and whimpered.

"She's just sleeping," Loki said in dire wolf and Fenris settled down next to her.

"Will someone please tell us what is going on?!" Fandral asked, placing his sword back in the scabbard.

Loki told them while Viva covered Hela with a blanket and Hela sighed.

"By the Norns," Volstagg said, looking down at Hela. Having several children of his own, the Vast One knew he would soon die then let anyone do anything to one of his children and he felt anger bubbling up in his chest.

"He will pay for this," Sif vowed, placing her sword away and Hogun nodded, lowering his mace.

"No offense, but I agree. Laufey needs to be dealt with," Fandral said, placing his sword away.

"He will be. I assure you," Loki said.

"Until then, what do we do with her?" Thor asked.

"We will take her with us."

"If we can get her to trust us," Sif said.

"Aye, but she doesn't seem to like us," Volstagg said.

"She seems to like Loki and Viva," Sif said.

"Which means she will be your responsibility, Brother," Thor said and Loki nodded.

A few minutes later, they went back to sleep and Loki had slid down on the bedding next to Hela. He smiled when she had snuggled closer then she placed her head on his chest and he carefully placed his right arm around her.

She wields chaos magic, he thought before he drifted off. And she must be taught to use it properly, so unscrupulous people don't try and make her become a magical assassin.

Ordinary folk often made the mistake of assuming that chaos magic was evil, when in fact it was merely the opposite of healing magic and green magic. Death and life were two sides of the same coin, like chaos and order, and you needed both kinds of magic to balance each other out.

Magic, in and of itself, was not evil, it was the practitioner who made it so, by choosing how they used it. Used selfishly, for gain, or cruelly to harm, or for power, to rule and subjugate others, made a dark mage. Magic that coerced and tortured was dark, but though chaos magic killed, it was not hateful or prejudiced. It simply was the opposite of life magic, such as Sigyn wielded.

Loki drifted off to sleep and when he woke, the sun's rays were peeking into the cave entrance.

Loki sat up and saw Thor and Volstagg drinking some mead from their cups beside the fire. He saw that Hela was no longer beside him. "Where's Hela?"

"Viva and Sif took her back into the cave to have a bath in some hot springs Viva knew about." Thor replied.

"Where is Fenris?"

"He is guarding the entrance to the tunnel. Hogun and Fandral went hunting," Volstagg said as he took a sip of mead then sighed. "By the Nine, as a father, I cannot express how angry I am at the moment. To have a child watch their parents being killed and laughing about it,"

"They also hunted her like a beast," Loki recalled hotly.

"Aye, it was only through the grace of the Norns that she found a way to survive."

"True. Those wolves could have rejected her and Fenris," Thor said with a nod.

"Yes, but it's an odd thing. Despite their fierceness, dire wolves protect the young. Fenris was a cub and so was Hela to them. Thus they became Pack." Loki explained.

Fenris, Hogun and Fandral walked to the fire as the two warriors dropped the dead rabbits on the ground and Fenris sniffed the furs where Hela was sleeping.

"She is taking a bath," Loki said in dire wolf and Fenris sniffed the air then ran off.

"So, which one of you is going to skin and cook these?" Fandral asked.

"You caught them. You skin and cook them," Volstagg teased and Fandral gasped.

"And ruin my hands?!"

"Dandy! You whine worse than a little girl!" Thor snorted.

Hogun picked up one of the rabbits as he lightly slammed it against Fandral's chest and the Dashing One sighed, sitting down near the fire.

Loki rolled his eyes and pulled a slender knife from his pouch and began skinning the second rabbit neatly. When he was finished he rubbed salt and herbs upon it and spitted it on a long stick to roast over the fire.

Fandral removed his knife as he skinned the rabbit Hogun had given him and Loki showed him how to season the rabbit before he placed the rabbit on the stick then placed it over the fire.

"Ah, you're awake!" Viva said as Loki saw her, Sif and a now clean Hela walking towards them and Hela ran to him. He held her on her lap as she looked at the rabbit roasting on the spit and she smiled.

"Are you hungry, Little Wolf?" Loki asked.

"Yes!" Hela said with a nod. Hogun had tossed one of the rabbits to Fenris as she watched her friend eat and Loki noticed the look in her eyes.

"She hasn't eaten cooked food in so long," he thought and he sighed.

"I remember Father cooking like that when we took the sled team out for a run."

"So you would eat roast rabbit?"

"Yes!"

After the rabbits were cooked, they started eating and Loki helped Hela put some of the jam on some bread. The girl bit into the sweet bread with relish. "Mother used to make this every summer. I would help pick the berries."

"I used to do that too," Viva smiled. "Only sometimes I would eat more than I picked."

"What did your father do?" Volstagg asked.

"He raised sled wolves. To sell and train to race."

"Did any of his wolves win races?" Sif asked.

"Yes. Fenris' father...," she said then paused as tears appeared in her eyes. "He was a champion."

"What was the wolf's name?" Fandral asked.

"It was Winter Wind."

"By the Nine! I remember seeing him race! It was like watching the wind!"

Hela recalled those long ago days with startling clarity. "They were the Days of Sunshine. We were happy then. Before THEY came." She could still hear Angrboda's laugh as Wulfhere wrapped his arms about her and kissed her.

"Do not let anger destroy those memories," Viva said, sending comforting thoughts into Hela's mind.

Nodding, Hela ate some more rabbit as she sipped on the warm goat milk Loki had poured into a cup then she looked questioningly at Loki.

"Do you know how I killed that man?" She had a feeling he would know if anyone did.

Loki nodded gravely. "Yes. You used a form of magic, darling. Chaos magic."

"Chaos...magic?"

"That's right. It's the opposite of green magic. Green magic gives life and makes things grow. Chaos magic takes it away."

"Why do I have it?"

"Well, you were born with it. The same as any mage. Just like Viva and I have the Gift too."

"You use Chaos magic?"

"No. Yours is a rare Gift. I can use fire and ice magic though as well as illusions and transformation magic and enchantments. And Viva is an Empath and Mind Healer as well as being able to use frost magic like me."

"My brother is a master magician," Thor informed the child.

"But why does my magic kill people?" Hela asked.

"It is the nature of your Gift to end life. But you don't have to use it to kill people," Loki told her. "If you know how, you can use it to knock someone unconscious instead."

"Will you teach me?"

"I shall. But you must promise me to never use your magic without my permission unless you are defending yourself or ones you love. Can you do that?"

"Yes," she said with a nod.

"Then I will teach you," Loki agreed and he ruffled her now clean hair.

Uh, Brother, we need to discuss what we're going to do with her once we get to Laufey's castle, Thor sent and Loki looked at him.

Yes, I am aware of that. But first we have to find the mountain pass where Mother was killed. Try and see if anything remains of an evil influence that I can pick up on to trace the killer.

Nodding, Thor sipped on the mead and they finished their meals.

"I think we should be going," Thor said, standing and Hela looked at Loki.

"Where are we going?" Hela asked.

"We're going to the mountain pass where our mother died," Loki said.

"Why?"

"We need to see if it truly was an accident."

They put out the fire and strapped on their skis. Sif looked at Hela and frowned. "Loki, she has no skis. How will she keep up with us?"

"That's easy!" the girl giggled. "I'll ride!" They stared as the eight-year-old nimbly sprang onto Fenris' back and clung like a leech.

"Yggdrasil's Roots! You're a wolf rider!" Volstagg laughed.

"Yeah! It's fun!"

Viva led the way outside and back up the mountain, with everyone following her and Fenris and Hela loping alongside.

The snow blew around them as they headed deeper into the forest when they came to the trail which lead up the side of the mountain and Fandral sighed.

"Wonderful," he whispered. They started up the trail as the wind whipped around them and Fenris sniffed the ground, finding them safe places to ski.

"How do you know where you are going?" The blonde warrior asked Viva. "It all looks the same."

"Not to me. I know my way around the mountain blindfolded. The same as you know all the streets of the Golden City."

There was a slight catch to her voice and Loki sensed sorrow and nostalgia coming from her.

Loki skied closer as she gave him a sad grin and he brushed his fingers against hers.

She focused on the trail and thought that some memories not even time could erase.

Finally, they came to the pass where the accident happened and large chunks of ice and snow were piled on the ground.

Loki slowly skied to the large chunks of ice and snow and his heart felt heavy in his chest.

"Mother," he whispered and he placed his hand on a chunk of ice.

Viva came to stand next to him, her hand closing over his. "I ever came back here after it happened. I couldn't . . . and I didn't knew back then she was murdered. A week after I had the funeral I left for Asgard. She left instructions in her will for me to sell the house and do so so my father didn't try to force me into an arranged marriage or take my inheritance she left me." She exuded a cold rage as she spoke.

Abruptly she shifted her form into a white and silver snow falcon and flew high overhead the scene of the "accident", trying to spot any kind of clue from the air.

Her keen raptor gaze searched the snowy landscape, looking for anything odd or out of place but she could see nothing save ice and snow and rocks, which lay as they had fallen from their tumble down the mountainside.

Viva tried to imagine her mother's terror as she saw the avalanche sliding towards her and then the pain afterwards, as she lay broken and buried in the snow before losing consciousness. She felt fury flame in her breast and she vowed silently to find Freya's murderer and make whoever it had been pay.

But how would she do that when the trail was centuries old? She gave a low cry of frustration and spiraled around the mountain.

Meanwhile, Hela was staring with uncanny concentration at the spot where Freya had been buried. Even though she had never known her in life,, she could feel uneasiness and a sense of death about this spot. Something told her the death had not been a natural one. Following her instincts, she climbed easily on top of a snowy caked boulder and stared upwards towards a ledge far above. The ledge was not noticeable from where Loki was standing but the rock gave Hela height and she could tell the ledge was one that ran about the mountain, just wide enough for someone to crouch upon.

Someone could have stood there and caused the snow to fall, she thought. No sooner had she focused on the ledge then she felt a stirring in the air and a sense of malevolence and violence, almost like an echo of the person who had last been upon the ledge, looking down at the pass where Freya had been skiing. The sense of hate and violence was so strong that she trembled, making Fenris growl up at her.

"I'm all right," she called back in dire wolf.

"Why is the wolf growling?" Fandral asked nervously.

"Maybe he sees a ghost!" Hogun teased.

"Or he's hungry," Volstagg added, grinning.

Fandral shuddered and glared at him. "Very funny. If he is, he'll start with you, O Vast One. You have the most meat on your bones."

"Hush! I'm trying to think!" Loki snapped. He was trying to concentrate and see if he could feel any influences of anger or other emotion around the crime scene, but the others had broken his concentration.

Suddenly a small hand tugged on his sleeve. He looked down to see Hela giving him a nervous look. "What's wrong?" he asked, sensing something amiss.

"I . . . felt something on that ledge up above." She pointed.

"What ledge?" Loki asked then he followed where she indicated and saw it.

"Up there. I feel . . .a shadow . . . all dark and cold and dangerous . . ."

"What else?" Loki whispered.

"It was angry . . . and it hated . . .I think it killed whatever or whoever it saw . . ." Hela hissed, trembling harder. "I don't know how I know that, but I do."

"It's all right, Little Wolf," Loki crooned and gave her a gentle hug. "Whatever you feel is gone . . . you just feel the imprint of that person's dark deeds. It can't hurt you." He supposed the child could sense where death had taken place, it must be one of the chaos abilities. He thought for a moment. "Hela, can you recognize this aura again if you felt it?"

She considered, finally she nodded. "Yes. I don't like the way it makes me feel, all dark and hateful, but I would know it again if I felt it."

Loki looked pleased. "Good." He sent to Viva, telling her what Hela had learned.

Soon his twin joined him, shifting back into her Jotun form. "Can you tell what this shadow person looked like?" she queried.

Hela shook her head. "No, I'm sorry. It doesn't show me who he was, just the way he felt when he . . . killed. He liked it."

Loki's mouth tightened. "An assassin most likely," he muttered to Viva. Then he looked down at the child beside him. He disliked what he was about to do but he had no choice. "Hela, do you think you can follow the shadow feelings this person left?"

"You mean track them like prey?"

"Yes, exactly like that, but with your mind," he said approvingly.

"I can try, Loki."

"Are you sure this is wise, Brother?" Viva asked.

"Wise? No. But what else do we have to go on?" Loki sighed and spread his hands.

"Whatever happens we will protect the child," Thor said stoutly.

The others agreed.

"So be it," Viva acquiesced.

"Can you tell us where the evil shadow went?" Hogun asked.

Hela nodded. "I can, milord. It went-thataway." She pointed to the opposite side of the mountain.

"What lies there?" Volstagg asked Viva.

"Klicktikat Pass," Viva responded. "It also leads to the main road to the capital."

"Then if that's where we are headed, let's go," Loki said impatiently, and they followed Viva as she showed them a way to get to the pass and from there on they followed Hela on Fenris as the child tracked the evil influence northwest towards the capital of Vashti.

They had been skiing for only twenty minutes when both of the twins and Hela all stopped and stared up at the sky. It was a leaden gray color and thick clouds blotted out the suns. "There's a storm coming," Viva announced, just as the wind picked up and blew across the frozen tundra with a howl.

Fenris howled in warning.

"We'd better find shelter," Loki said, tugging his cape tighter about him. He looked about, scanning for any kind of place they could be away from the wind and the snow that had begun to fall in silent flakes.

"I know where we are," Viva stated. "Come, we can ask to use Skrymir and Aldi's guest house or even the barn."

She began to ski rapidly downhill through a copse of silver birch, while the snow started to fall swiftly about her, her companions trailing her like lost souls.