Loki woke up in his own bed, the sheets almost ridiculously cool against his skin after the cheap ones he'd been sleeping on on Midgard, and sat up, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. Nothing had changed. His books were on a bookshelf covering the whole of one wall, shelves on the opposite wall contained ingredients, potions and half-made amulets. His desk and workbench were clear, but only because he never left anything out when he'd finished with it. A quill, slightly ragged at the end where he'd sucked it and enchanted to produce its own ink, was the only thing still on it.
Slightly to one side, in front of the window, were two tall saplings almost large enough to need planting outside. They were dark and ragged, speckled with beautiful flowers and the smell of snow drifted from them to fill the room. Loki frowned. 'Either I'm seeing double, or someone has been propagating my tree,' he said out loud to the empty room. He walked over and checked the soil, starting with Tree and moving on to Tree Junior. Both were moist, someone had watered them after bringing them here.
Outside he could hear the sounds of Asgard going about its daily business, quite different from the sounds of Midgard. Horses' hooves, laughter, the distant clash of weapons from the sparring grounds. He patted Tree and went into the shower room to clean off before going to find Lopt.
As he passed through the palace garden he noticed a young woman reading a book, and something was just off enough about her for him to take a second look. There were blotches of blue skin over her bare arms and he realised who she must be just as she looked up.
'Hello,' he said. 'I was looking for your father.'
Leikin smiled and Loki realised with a shock that she was pretty, her piebald appearance making it easy to miss. 'He's in Mother's room, and I wouldn't disturb either of them if I were you,' she said. A distant cheer made Loki glance quizzically towards the training grounds and Leikin, catching it, added, 'That would be our brothers having fun. Vali's such a show off when he gets the chance.'
'So is Thor,' said Loki, finding himself sharing a fondly exasperated smile over the foibles of older brothers.
'They're probably having a great time then,' said Leikin. She closed her book and stretched. 'Shall we go over and see if they're nearly done yet?'
Loki hesitated. Half of Asgard was probably over there, and they'd all know what he'd done. But he'd have to face them sometime. 'We might as well,' he said. As the two of them started towards the sparring ground, Leikin still holding the book absently with her index finger in it to mark her place, he asked, 'What were you reading?'
'Nine flowers for an easy childbirth,' said Leikin. 'Freya lent it to me.'
'It looks rather long for covering just nine of them,' Loki remarked.
Leikin laughed. 'It covers growing them as well as using them. Some of them take rather a lot of magic.'
'You can do fertility magic?' asked Loki, then felt foolish. She was half Asgardian. 'I'm sorry, I thought -'
'No, I can't,' said Leikin, waving her free hand. 'But Freya is convinced I should be able to if you can and it's easier to humour her. Besides, the theory is interesting.'
Loki laughed. 'It's usually easier to humour Freya,' he agreed. It was strange how at ease he felt with Leikin. Seeing Nari had made him feel jealous and displaced, but being around Leikin he just wanted to get to know her.
'It's not impossible that I can do fertility magic if I find the right way to approach it,' said Leikin. 'I can't say I've put that much time into trying after completely failing the standard exercises. Maybe you could tell me how you made it work?'
'I don't think I did anything that different, Freya's the one who taught me so I was using her technique. But Tree - the tree,' he corrected himself, slightly embarrassed, 'does show signs of having had ice magic used on it. I could go through the process in more detail if it won't bore you?'
'Please,' said Leikin. 'I am curious to see if I can make it work now.'
Which was why they reached the arena deep in a conversation about the technical aspects of fertility magic, and whether Loki was harnessing his natural talent for ice magic to bridge gaps in his ability with it.
Perhaps it was the conversation, or perhaps it was a desire to stay engaged with someone who seemed to like him for fear of looking up and finding other faces looking at him accusingly, but it wasn't until they reached the arena that Loki gave it more than a cursory glance. Which was the only explanation he had for how he could have missed a huge, golden dragon. It was rearing, curved around the edge of the arena, body as far out as it could get, head tilted inward and snapping at Thor. Mjolnir caught it under the chin and it coiled around, reversing its whole body impossibly fast and knocking Thor down with its tail before sweeping back in with its head, jaws open. Loki bit down on an oath and lifted his arm, ice magic already gathering in his palm.
Leikin grabbed his wrist, laughing. 'That's Vali,' she said. 'How did you get all the way here without noticing a dragon?'
Loki let the magic fade, feeling embarrassed. On the arena Thor had rolled away, one arm bleeding slightly, and swung Mjolnir into a huge shoulder. The crowd cheered. 'It was an interesting conversation!' he protested.
'It was a dragon!' retorted Leikin.
'I see what you mean about your brother showing off,' said Loki. 'Does he often do this?'
'Mostly wolves,' said Leikin. 'Or bears. Dragons are his most impressive form, though.'
'And do you change shape?' asked Loki.
'No. Do you?' asked Leikin.
Loki looked down at the duel, Thor was using Mjolnir as a distance weapon now, forcing Vali to stay on the opposite side of the arena, but it was clear the stand off was going to break soon. 'Am I not doing so now?' he asked quietly.
Leikin patted his arm. 'I suppose so,' she said.
'I never saw any of you in Asgard before,' Loki said, not sure whether he was changing the subject or not. 'I suppose you and Nari would have had difficulties, but does Vali just not like to visit?'
'He took Father's betrayal - what we thought was a betrayal - very hard,' said Leikin. 'And he's always preferred the wilderness to cities.'
Mjonir flew towards Vali, half warding half testing, and he snaked his head under it, taking it on his shoulders and being knocked off his feet even as his jaws closed on Thor's legs. There was a gasp from the crowd and then Thor called, 'Surrender,' and the crowd burst into cheers as the dragon gently laid him down. Thor was back on his feet almost at once, while Vali, now a man built along the same lines as Thor, needed Thor to help him to his. He slapped Thor on the back, grinning, and Loki saw Thor laugh.
'He seems happy enough now,' remarked Loki.
'He had it out with Mother while we were all on Jotunheim, I'm hoping that means he won't take it up with Father,' said Leikin. 'Knowing it wasn't what we thought it was is a weight off all our minds. And we're realising that things being awkward with Odin was never a good reason not to get to know our cousins.'
'You're not angry with Lopt?' said Loki.
'It's been a while since I heard him use that name,' said Leikin, and then was quiet for a moment. 'No. It's not his fault. He loves easily, but trust doesn't come naturally to him. He survived too long by being suspicious.'
Loki nodded. Lopt's life was disturbing to dwell on, mostly, selfishly, because it could easily have been his if Laufey had kept him. He didn't want to be grateful to Odin for raising him, less out of resentment than a strange feeling that it made a complicated situation more complicated still. Towards the front of the arena he could see Thor's friends talking together, Nari beside them. Thor waved at them before he and Vali disappeared to clean up, not seeing Loki at the back of the crowd. Loki hesitated, but decided he'd rather face them sooner than after avoiding them, and without Thor there.
'Would you like to go and join your brother?' he asked Leikin.
'We might as well,' said Leikin, looking at him searchingly. 'And your friends.'
'Yes,' said Loki, turning and walking down between the thinning crowd. Most people didn't notice him, to his surprise and relief, but it wasn't until he was nearly at the bottom that he realised he was sending out a mild command for them not to. He pulled himself together and put a stop to it. He would face this.
Sif, vigilant even under these conditions, saw him first. Her body language shifted, a subtle increase in alertness, readiness. Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg echoed it a heartbeat later, before they even looked around, in a way that spoke of many shared adventures and made it suddenly more obvious Nari wasn't really part of the group. Not because of any hostility, not because of the blue skin that Loki had nearly grown used to seeing on Lopt in the workshop, but because he didn't move with them.
It made him miss them and those adventures, the feeling sudden and sharp in his throat, and it made him want to look over his shoulder, and that was when he realized he'd done it too. As if he were with them instead of the reason to watch.
Leikin had just time to look at Loki with concern before Fandral, ever dramatic, clutched at his heart. 'Loki! I am out of practice with your habit of seeming to appear from nowhere.'
'And I see you've become no more vigilant in my absence,' said Loki. It wasn't much of a retort, and the faint uncertainty in his voice robbed it of bite completely.
Fandral let out an annoyed huff, but there was laughter in it, whether that was friendly or just habit. Leikin exchanged nods with the rest of the group - Loki supposed they must have met her sometime in the intervening months - and crossed behind him to hug Nari.
'You look well,' Volstagg offered, after a brief awkward pause. Then he shattered the brief awkward pretense of normality as well by adding, 'Not particularly maniacal.'
Loki dropped his gaze. 'No,' he said. 'I'm sorry. You weren't the ones I was angry with, even then.' He thought that was true. It had been Odin and Thor he'd wanted to hurt, Thor's friends had just been caught in the crossfire. Although he had been angry that they'd chosen to believe the worst of him — anger not much mitigated at the time by the fact that they'd been perfectly right. 'Mostly,' he added, feeling honesty was called for and then feeling ridiculous for the amendment.
'You did not exactly look maniacal then either,' said Volstagg. 'Mostly...' He trailed off.
'Smug,' Hogun said. 'If you can be smug without looking like you are enjoying yourself.'
'There are times it's not wise to show vulnerability,' said Loki. 'Or that it doesn't seem wise.' Now might be one of them. The stilted words that were an attempt to hold onto his dignity still. But what else could he do? His remorse might be genuine, but he couldn't think of an expression of it that wouldn't feel artificial in one way or another. The tears were already shed and gone.
'It's just as well,' said Sif. 'Had you seemed at all worried, you might have got away with it.' A pause. 'Whatever you were actually trying to do.'
'You know what I was trying to do,' said Loki. Attempting to destroy a planet was many things, but subtle wasn't one of them. 'Are you angry?'
'In retrospect it didn't seem very organised,' Sif muttered. 'And yes. But I think we've all grown rather tired of being angry with you, too.'
'Anger is rather hard to hold onto for months at a time,' said Loki. 'I don't really know how I can make amends where you are concerned.' He'd betrayed their trust, but done them no actual harm that could be undone.
'Stay where we can see you,' Fandral suggested.
Volstagg scoffed loudly and swatted him for it. 'He argued longest in your favour,' he explained, and Loki winced.
Fandral rubbed his arm where the blow had landed. 'Are you planning any more dramatic gestures we should know about?'
'My plans at present shouldn't require any,' said Loki dryly. 'If you want to keep an eye on me you might have to come to Midgard, though,' he added. 'I believe I'm still helping Muspelheim, and the mortals have the knowledge I need.'
'They do?' Volstagg asked in surprise. 'Do you think they'll tell you?'
'I think one of them will tell Thor, if he asks on my behalf,' said Loki. 'Possibly only Thor, since she's rather protective of her notes.'
That got a general laugh; even Sif chuckled. 'Ah, the scholar Jane,' said Volstagg. 'You need not seek her in another realm just now. Thor brought her here.'
'She is supposed to sleep most of the next few days, though,' Hogun put in.
'She is?' Loki couldn't help a glance behind him, in the direction of the palace, irrational as it was. 'I had rather a nice conversation with her. And then tried to steal her notes. So I suppose I'm on the same uncertain terms with her as with everyone else.'
'Have you had trouble making up your mind lately?' asked Fandral.
Loki actually laughed slightly, a laugh that was barely more than a breath. 'I suppose I have.' It was a relief not to be torn against himself. Nothing he intended to do now involved hurting, stealing from, or keeping imprisoned someone he liked. Or anyone at all.
Fandral studied him for a moment, serious this time. 'What about now?'
'I don't really know what I am going to do now, beyond helping the Muspel giants. I owe them that, I think.' Perhaps he had too few plans instead of too many now. He wasn't torn between impulses, but neither was he sure enough of who or what he was to decide on his future. 'If you mean am I still having trouble deciding whether people are friends or enemies, though, then no. I know whose side I'm on now.' Or something like that. The sides had altered lately, and he wasn't sure anyone was currently on the opposite side at all.
They nodded, though, and did not challenge him to be more specific about either the identity of the sides or which one he was, in fact, telling them he was on. He wasn't sure if they meant it as trust or futility until Sif said, 'If you've come back to us for good, then, will you try a match with me?'
Loki glanced at the arena, and then up at the seats, still sparsely occupied. 'Why not?'
After the duel Loki decided to follow up something he'd noticed that morning and left his friends to rejoin Thor, wandering alone through the guest wing set aside for visiting Vanir and into the enclosed garden it held. It was a wilder garden than the usual Asgardian style, given less to lawns and flowerbeds than a profusion of bushes that cast everything into dappled shade and nearly hid the paths. Loki gently pushed glossy leaves aside, and trod around a grove of bluebells nestled between two oaks, to find Freya sitting at the base of a silver birch and whittling rune staves. Two, already done, lay beside her. A little black kitten was pawing at one and Loki wondered whose it was. All cats tended to gravitate to Freya.
'Freya,' he said.
She looked up at him and smiled. 'Hello, Loki. How are you feeling?'
'Better,' he said, walking over and sitting down across from her. The kitten pounced on the edge of his cloak and he decided not to bother removing it. 'I have a question though.'
'Oh yes?' Freya put her half finished stave aside, carefully sliding the sheath back onto the knife blade before putting it down as well.
'There are two trees in my room,' he said. 'I know I only grew one.'
'And you think I must have something to do with it?'
'Don't you?' asked Loki. She wasn't the only one it could have been - Idunn for instance - and he wasn't sure how even she could have done it.
'Well, yes,' Freya admitted, looking slightly embarrassed about it. 'It was something of an accident.'
Loki raised an eyebrow. The tugging on his cloak continued and he reached back, picking up the little bundle of black fluff and setting it to one side, giving it a slight stroke as if to settle it in place. It rolled onto its back and purred at him. 'I don't see how you could do it at all, let alone by accident,' he said. 'Maybe you could reverse engineer it, guess at how someone with frost magic might create a tree that could produce sap for a falcon skin. But you'd have to know that was what I was doing.'
'And you can't guess how we knew?' asked Freya, sounding slightly amused.
'Lopt told you, of course,' said Loki. 'I'm not a fool. But he was bound.'
'He gave Sigyn a spray of blossom. If you want to know how he managed that, take it up with him.' Freya's lips twitched. 'You're lucky he likes you. People have forced Loki into oaths before, and it often goes badly for him and far worse for them in the end.'
'I'll bear that in mind, but it's unlikely to come up again,' said Loki.
'You're also lucky you weren't here when I found out. You and the elder Loki both,' she said. 'I'm thinking of suggesting patent laws.'
'Do you really think that legal sanctions would be a more effective deterrent to reverse engineering than attempts at setting fire to people?' asked Loki.
'I wasn't thinking of choosing one or the other,' Freya muttered, smile going rather sharp. Loki eyed her warily until she laughed at him. 'I'll forgive you this time. But don't try reverse engineering any other Vanir technology. We've improved our safeguards.'
'Now that's a worrying thought,' said Loki. He stood up and bowed to her. 'Thank you for your time,' he said formally.
'It's always a pleasure,' she answered.
It was after lunch that Loki caught sight of Sigyn on the other side of the dining hall. He approached her a little tentatively, it was embarrassing to remember just how thoroughly he'd dismissed her at their first meeting. She smiled at him, though. 'Were you looking for my husband?' she asked.
'Yes,' said Loki. 'I was, ah, told not to disturb either of you earlier. But if you're around then does that mean he is?'
'He's out on the balcony,' said Sigyn, pointing to a door from the dining hall that led onto one. 'Go and talk to him.'
Loki followed her directions, walking out to find Lopt looking up at the sky, looking Asgardian rather than Jotun. There were birds circling above, so high he couldn't make out what they were. 'You told them about Muspelheim,' he said flatly, walking over to lean on the railing beside Lopt.
Lopt shook his head. 'They guessed.'
'Because you gave them one of Tree's blossoms.' Oddly Loki felt angrier about that than the betrayal. The betrayal had been deserved, but Tree was his.
'I gave the blossom to Sigyn because it was beautiful. I never thought about what they might deduce from it,' said Lopt.
Loki caught his shoulder and pulled him around to face him, searching his eyes for a lie. 'You believe that,' he said. 'You made yourself believe it.'
Lopt nodded, mouth twisting in a wry smile. 'It's not the first time I've needed to get around magical bonds.'
Loki let go of him and moved away, looking up at the birds himself as Lopt resumed his previous position beside him. 'When was the first?'
'A long time ago,' said Lopt, voice distant. 'I'd been spying on a Jotun called Geirrod and he caught me…I was careless, I knew I'd been spotted and was playing around with his guards instead of getting out of there. He starved me until I would have done anything for a bite to eat and then told me to bring Thor to him unarmed. I accepted the bond.'
Loki bit down on his response. He had betrayed his own Thor, his brother, although not for cowardice. Who was he to say Lopt's actions had been worse than his own? 'What did you do?' he asked instead.
'I told Thor that Geirrod was a friend of mine I wanted him to meet and we should go unarmed for courtesy's sake. We both had friends in Jotunheim and Thor believed me, more easily than he should have done, perhaps. On the way it occurred to me that we were going close to the house of a Jotun we were both friends with already, Grid, and that we might as well stay the night since we'd started quite late and go on to Geirrod's in the morning. I fell asleep quickly but Thor stayed up talking to her. He happened to mention where we were going and she told him Geirrod hated Asgardians and armed him without me knowing.'
'And Thor won,' said Loki.
Lopt smiled. 'Naturally.'
'Do you know who you are?' It wasn't the right question, Loki thought after he'd said it. Not quite.
'Yes,' said Lopt. 'Do you?'
'…No. Not really. When I saw Leikin I felt like I should look like that.' Loki looked at his own hands. They were his, long pale fingers without a trace of blue. Like they'd been nearly all his life.
'That would surprise people,' said Lopt, and Loki frowned at him for the note of amusement in his voice. 'You're not half and half,' Lopt continued. 'You're fully both. Like me.'
'You're not Asgardian,' said Loki.
Lopt's hands clenched briefly on the rail. 'By mingled blood and oath,' he said. 'I'm Odin's brother. As fully as if I'd been born of his parents.'
Lopt turned around to face Loki more fully, leaning his hip against the balcony. Eyes a deeper, brighter green than Loki's own. 'It's fine. You're not the only one to think like that.'
'I'm the last person who should, though,' said Loki.
Lopt smiled. 'Not really. Coming from you it's not an insult, at least.' He frowned suddenly and grabbed Loki's hand, peeling his cuff back to reveal a bruise on his arm, then his eyes darted up, flicking back and forth across Loki rapidly, pausing at his collar where the edge of a bruise showed. 'What happened?'
'Nothing. Just Sif,' said Loki, pulling his hand away and folding his cuff back down.
'She hurt you?' The alarm in Lopt's voice brought Loki up short, and he looked up from his cuff to find fear in Lopt's eyes.
'No,' said Loki quickly, a little embarrassed. 'Sparring.'
'Oh,' said Lopt, sounding embarrassed as well. 'Isn't that still a little rough?'
'If she'd been angry she would have been gentler. Sif wouldn't let loose if she couldn't trust her emotions,' said Loki, hearing the satisfaction in his own voice.
Lopt rolled his eyes, looking reassured. 'Warrior friendships,' he muttered.
'I would have thought you'd be used to it, raising Vali. He took Mjolnir to the shoulders to win his bout, fortunately he was a dragon at the time,' said Loki.
'I forget you're a warrior as well as a magician,' said Lopt. 'It's quite rare.'
'Isn't Vali?' Loki asked, thinking of the shapeshifting.
'Not quite. He has a knack for one type of magic, but he never studied to try to extend his range.'
'Like Thor, then,' said Loki.
Lopt nodded and there was silence for a moment, Lopt's gaze wandering back to the birds as he frowned in thought. Loki turned his own gaze upward as well, grateful to not be looking at Lopt as he broached the other reason he was here.
'Will you come and talk to Odin with me?' he asked.
'Yes,' said Lopt, very quickly. He laughed when Loki looked at him inquiringly. 'I was just wondering how to ask you whether I could be present when you two spoke.'
Loki followed the boy into Odin's throne room and wandered off to one side to sit down with his back against a pillar, one knee hitched up slightly with his arm resting on it. Odin raised an eyebrow at him.
'Don't mind me, I just here to make sure people say what they mean,' he said. The boy gave him a look that said winding Odin up wasn't meant to be part of what he was there for, and Loki grinned at him.
'You think we're hopeless, don't you,' said Odin.
'At this point I wouldn't blame him,' said the boy. 'I asked him to come.'
There was a slight movement from Odin, an almost hidden flinch, and Loki wondered whether he should start his job by saying the barb hadn't been deliberate. He had a feeling Odin could work that out for himself, though.
'Considering our last few conversations, perhaps you have a point. Guards,' Odin added, 'you are dismissed.' The throne room guards - mostly ceremonial, when Asgard wasn't at war - bowed and departed, although one of them looked uncertainly at the boy first.
The boy stood with his head slightly bowed, looking unsure of himself. He licked his lips. 'What did you do to me?' he asked. 'Magically.'
'When I first picked you up, you changed your appearance on your own,' said Odin. 'When I brought you to Frigga, we infused you with our magic and caused you to shapeshift to an Asgardian child.'
The boy glanced at Lopt who said, 'Instinctive magic can be used right from birth. It's rare, but it happens.'
'Did you bring me back because I'd looked like an Asgardian child when you held me?' asked the boy, turning back to Odin.
'No.' The single word was sharp and offended. The boy tensed; Loki sighed, and Odin glanced at him and added, 'I recognised my brother in you. Although I could not have left you behind even had I not.'
The boy relaxed slightly, looking at Loki curiously as if searching for the family resemblance Odin had seen. 'You established a shapeshift,' he said slowly. 'But I can use fertility magic even while I'm in a Jotun form.'
'That... may be because of the infusion.'
The boy looked up, sharply. 'You don't know what you did to me?'
'I told you what we did,' Odin said, sounding so nettled that Loki nearly started laughing at him. 'I cannot necessarily be sure of everything that changed.'
'I'm rather disturbed that you...experimented on me, without any way to be sure of the results,' the boy snapped back.
'Be fair,' said Loki. 'He didn't have a whole lot of options. A baby Jotun would be at risk from Asgard's climate, it wasn't just a matter of hiding you.'
The boy looked at him, startled and almost betrayed, and Loki wondered whether it had been unwise of him to speak on Odin's behalf instead of sticking closely to his self-appointed role as mediator.
'You lived,' Odin said, drawing the boy's attention again. 'We were not sure you would at first. Aside from the climate, you were badly dehydrated... and you objected to being put down, which made keeping you cool slightly more of a challenge.'
'You could have shapeshifted yourself,' Loki pointed out, amused.
'...I tried that. He screamed so hard he vomited.'
'I'm not sure I needed to know that,' the boy muttered.
Loki considered that, rather surprised by the new information, if a little amused by the boy's reaction to it. People usually didn't remember their experiences as newborns, but that didn't mean they didn't affect them, and if the boy had learnt right from birth to associate Jotuns with pain and anger...well, maybe he'd been overcoming more than he knew in persuading the boy to accept his Jotun form.
The boy looked down, considering what he wanted to say next carefully. 'Do all Jotuns hate runts?' he asked, putting a bit too much emphasis on the last word, clearly not intending to but trying too hard not to falter on it. Loki could guess at the unspoken question there, 'What do they think when they see me now?'
Odin let out a long sigh. 'No. Actually, I would guess that very few, strictly speaking, are actively malicious - but it's broadly regarded as a sort of disability. And it is not rare to regard it as too burdensome to live with, for the family and for the child itself.' Wryly, 'The attitude did become substantially less common while Jotunheim was in regular contact with people roughly the size of a small-born Jotun.'
The boy looked relieved and then rueful. 'They have plenty of good reasons to hate me. It shouldn't matter to me if they hate me for a bad one.'
'...Perhaps not,' said Odin. 'But it is natural to want to know.'
Loki leant forward slightly, thinking that it did matter to be hated for what you'd done rather than what you were, but unwilling to interrupt right now just to offer his opinion. The boy was looking down at his hands again, still, thoughtful. 'What...' he began softly, and then trailed off. It was a moment before he started again. 'What did you intend me to be? I know...not a relic, but...an advisor to Thor? You always have plans for everyone and Thor was always going to be the King. So what was I meant to be?'
'My son.' As Loki raised his eyebrows and the boy's eyes flicked up, Odin huffed low in his throat. 'I wasn't finished.'
The boy glanced over at Loki and then, with maybe the barest hint of humour, said, 'Please go on then.'
'I loved you as my child,' Odin said quietly, 'and as kin to the brother I... sorely missed.' A glance over at Loki, in his turn, very nearly the same motion, before he returned his eye to the boy. 'Not that I was particularly fond of the rest of them. I admit also to taking some satisfaction in the thought of how Laufey would rage if he knew. When I said I had hoped to bring about peace through you, it was more symbolic than practical. You had a claim to Laufey's throne, but not one that could ever have been readily defended. Here... yes, most likely Thor's advisor, although I considered you as king longer than I did any of my own brothers. I am still hoping you'll both learn to think ahead more.'
The boy winced and said, 'I see,' very softly. Loki could almost see him wanting to say more, and holding back.
'I would not have given Byleist the casket, for instance,' added Odin, and Loki debated shaking him until he went on, 'but perhaps it is as well that you did.'
'Oh.' The boy looked at Odin, less wary than before, then glanced almost pleadingly at Loki.
'I don't know what you want to say to him,' said Loki. 'So I can't say it for you.' He shot a look at Odin, willing him to say something reassuring. The last thing they needed was anything more left unsaid festering between them.
Odin, for all his other talents, had never been that good at reassurance. The oath and the cool assumption that his kin at home would welcome whom he welcomed had worked on Loki, those thousands of years ago, but the boy's worries were different in kind. But at last Odin said into the silence, 'You have reminded me of myself, often. Magician and warrior. Explorer. Less lonely than I was in Asgard - in retrospect, that may have been more fault in me than in my potential companions - but less sure. Or perhaps I should say less arrogant. Sometimes more prudent. I tended to calculate the risks and then ignore them.'
The boy looked a little stunned. 'Thank you,' he said, then, in a rush, 'I don't know that I want to be Thor's advisor. I don't want the responsibilities of a king without the rights and unless Thor has changed more than it seems that is what it would be. The responsibility belongs to the one who truly has the last word, not the one who seems to, and he is trusting. Easily manipulated. The power behind the throne is either a thankless role or a sinister one and I don't want that.'
Loki could see the boy tense up afterwards, expecting - what? Not a blow, certainly, that had never been Odin's style. Criticism?
'I am not sure you can avoid advising him,' Odin said bluntly. 'I doubt you will break contact with him altogether, or refrain from giving your opinion. That said - those are valid concerns.' Loki rather thought he could have started with that. 'Thor does need to learn not only to think ahead, but to think for himself and to recognise when someone is trying to manipulate him, or even simply giving poor advice. This is one of several reasons I wanted to keep an eye on the beginning of his reign.' A wry look. 'He has had a number of lessons on the subject lately. And you might do well to distinguish argument from manipulation.'
'Thor can be somewhat stubborn when argued with directly. Although I can believe that's changed more easily than that he's stopped trusting too freely,' said the boy. He was frowning slightly, not as if he was upset by Odin's answer but as if he needed to turn it over. 'You are right I wouldn't refuse to give him my opinion if he wanted it. Or even if he didn't,' he added with a glimmer of humour.
'He is supposed to be able to trust you,' Odin pointed out.
'That's a fairly optimistic assessment,' said the boy.
'It was a statement of ideal, not of present fact,' Odin said ruefully.
'I'll see what I can do,' said the boy. He shifted on his feet slightly, as if thinking of finding a way to take his leave.
Then Odin drew a breath and said, 'You have not asked what I thought you would.' Loki shut his eyes for a moment. Of course. The big question, the one he'd asked already but the boy hadn't, the lie of omission that they needed to confront and probably didn't want to. It was something, anyway, that Odin had finally brought it up.
The boy's shoulders went back, his hands folded into fists, and he went still and pale. After all the time watching him with the casket, Loki found himself translating the current pallor into what it would be if the boy looked Jotun now. The bloodless shade of a hazed sky at noon, maybe. 'Why didn't you tell me?'
Odin bowed his head for a moment. As if he needed to think, even though he'd prompted it. 'Because for all my wordcraft, I did not know how. Because when you were a child, I told myself I did not want to burden you before time with the secret. Because when I saw you set apart, I feared you would feel more so if you knew you had been born to those our people now thought of as enemies. Because I did not want to explain that Laufey had not wanted you, nor tell how I knew and the tales of your namesake. And so I waited for you to ask, though I had left you no reason to guess it.' He sighed, raising his head to meet the boy's heated green eyes. 'If you hoped for a good reason, I cannot offer one.'
'Maybe I would have felt more set apart, then. But what am I meant to feel now, when I thought I knew who I was and now find I'm someone else entirely?' The boy's skin turned blue, red eyes fixed on Odin, and then he slid back into his Asgardian form. 'Which of these looks like me to you, father?' There was venom on the honorific, but his voice was shaking slightly too.
'I have grown used to this one,' said Odin. Loki wasn't sure how helpful that was, but he supposed at least it was honest. 'It is how I call your appearance to mind. But you do realise you look nearly the same in Jotun shape.'
'I do?' The boy looked so startled by that revelation that Loki was having a hard time not laughing. What did he think he looked like?
Odin blinked. 'That's usually the case in shapeshifting, unless you choose a form with drastically different facial anatomy, and even then people are often surprisingly recognisable.' He glanced at Loki. 'Your uncle can choose to shapeshift with an alternative face. I have to use a glamour for a real disguise.'
'But you can shapeshift into a Jotun,' said the boy. 'Do you look like yourself then?'
'See for yourself,' Odin replied. He changed as he spoke - all of a piece, not like the casket's ice magic flowing over the boy; his skin blossomed blue, his height nearly doubled, and his voice gained an ice-rock timbre mid-word as his larynx and ribcage both expanded. He rose from the throne, hands spread.
The boy took a hurried step back. From his expression he hadn't been expecting Odin to turn into a full-sized frost giant.
'Oh, stop looming,' said Loki. 'There was no need for you to stand up for us to see how big you were.'
'I beg your pardon. My sense of drama overcame me.' Odin did sit back down, though.
Loki snorted. 'It usually does.'
The boy had a derailed sort of look, as if he was having trouble remembering how this was meant to have gone. Since he probably hadn't expected it to go well that might actually be a good thing.
Odin touched the eyepatch briefly. It had altered to fit along with his clothing - that sort of adaptation was the second major thing you learned when shapeshifting, if you didn't want to spend a lot of extra time either naked or tangled in fabric - but Loki suspected he hadn't taken this form since losing the eye. 'Well?'
'You still look like yourself,' said the boy. 'Only much bigger. And bluer. Neither of which you needed me to tell you.'
Odin laughed - sort of; only a huff through his nose, still a bit grim. 'True.' He changed back, just as suddenly.
'I am still not happy about being lied to,' said the boy. 'At least you don't pretend you were right to do it.'
'I am still not sure when I should have told you,' replied Odin, 'but almost anything would have been an improvement.'
'Not falling asleep in the middle of it would have been an improvement too,' said the boy. 'But I don't actually believe you intended to do that.'
Odin grimaced slightly. 'Certainly not.'
Loki managed to keep the facepalm internal. The Odinsleep wasn't always very convenient, but that had to be the worst possible timing.
'What would you have told me if you'd managed to stay awake?' the boy asked. 'Would anything have actually made finding out like that better?'
'I hope I would at least have explained myself more coherently,' said Odin. 'I would have told you - again - that you are my son. That you are not a monster, however the war has poisoned our memories of Jotunheim. And very likely a great deal more history than you really wanted to hear at the time.' That was certainly plausible. 'Whether it helped or not, at least staying awake would have removed a few complications.'
'Like my brief reign,' suggested the boy drily.
'And your friends blaming you for my actions.'
'I didn't realise you'd noticed that.'
'I could hear you.'
'How? I knew you were aware of things during the Odinsleep but I thought they had to be in your bedroom.' Possibly the boy was rethinking the plan that had led to him luring Laufey into Odin's room there. At any rate he sounded rather dismayed.
'Ah. No. My awareness during it is somewhat broadened, although not at Heimdall's level.'
'In other words,' said Loki. 'He only sleeps once a year, and even then he can't let go.'
Odin rolled his eye, but let Loki's description stand. 'Something like that.'
'That is something else you could maybe have told us about,' said the boy. Then, looking rather pale. 'Did you watch over Thor? When I - when he was in SHIELD custody?'
'When you told him I was dead?'
'Yes.' The boy looked rather sheepish now.
'Your concealment was actually very effective, but the aftermath was revealing.'
'I don't think giving him advice on how to be sneaky is the right response here,' said Loki.
The boy gave him a look. 'Are you taking this seriously?'
'Yes,' said Loki. 'Well, mostly. But you're clearly not going to be in trouble for it. So I think I can tease Odin a bit without ruining the mood, such as it is.'
'I'm not?' asked the boy, looking at Odin. Considering the other things he wasn't getting in trouble for Loki wasn't sure why he was singling this one out to be worried about. Maybe because it had been motivated by spite.
Odin rubbed a hand over his face, possibly quelling the urge to laugh. 'Would there be any point to it? It is a lesser offense than the plans you made with Muspelheim, or bringing raiders into the vault. Although I would like to ask what you were thinking.'
The boy looked down. 'I was thinking it would stop Thor from trying to return...but mostly that it would hurt him.'
'Anything more I could say about it, I think you already know.'
'Yes,' said the boy. 'Thank you, for explaining. And for listening. Father.'
Odin smiled. It was slight, especially compared to the fierce laughter that had grown rarer outside of battle since Bor died, but it was there. And the boy was probably more used to that. 'I am glad to have you with us again, my son.'
There was a moment where Loki felt like there ought to have been a hug, but instead there was just a look and a shared smile. Oh well, at least they were getting along.