After some time had passed, Loki was forced to admit: he was sulking.
He could have wound up anywhere when he let go of the spear. He had been flung through space and possibly time, traveled through entire galaxies in the blink of an eye, courted death and light and eventuality, only to wind up on some ass-backwards planet where they actually considered basic mastery of an element to be impressive. Also, as far as he could tell, the world was run by children. The "Fire Lord", one of the most influential people in the world, was a mere seventeen, whereas the "Avatar" (mastery of four elements, how inspiring!) was barely into puberty.
It could have been worse, he supposed. Knowing what he did about all the horrors and glories of the universe, he supposed he should have simply been grateful that he hadn't been utterly destroyed, and he ignored the nagging little voice in the back of his head that kept saying but isn't that what you wanted while he watched Zuko attempt, for the fortieth time that day, to convince the Avatar that no, really, he did not want to hear the joke that the Earth King had told him about porcupine bears. What in all of Hel and Valhalla was a porcupine bear, anyway?
With a scowl that would have been fearsome to Loki, had he never met Hogun, Zuko finally turned away and snapped, "Forget it! I'm going out for a while." He paused halfway out of the courtyard and said, "You come too," with an abrupt gesture at Loki, the kind of gesture used by someone who was obviously used to having their commands obeyed. Loki found himself getting to his feet without second thought, realized he was on the verge of obeying a seventeen-year-old, and wavered. Then he realized the alternative was staying in the courtyard with Aang, who was clearly going to explode if he didn't get to tell somebody the joke. Leaving with Zuko was obviously the preferable option.
In the weeks since he had landed there, he had managed to schmooze his way through the lower ranks of the Fire Nation's political structure. Seeing his clothes, they had taken him for a member of the Earth King's delegation, and some quick magic had 'confirmed' this for them. He had no real plan or notion of what he might do once he had befriended, subverted, and eventually enslaved the young Fire Lord, but that was typical of Loki as of late: act first, plan later, pretend everything went according to plan for the finale.
Zuko, unfortunately, had been quite resistant to schmooze. In fact, he seemed to abhor it. Loki had shifted strategies, instead trying to befriend the Avatar. The problem there was that he was almost always accompanied by a water witch named Katara who seemed to be suspicious of everyone. Loki supposed that, given that they had just lived through a war, this was a healthy impulse, but it made his job annoyingly difficult. Loki had then gone back to Zuko, but shifted tactics, mimicking the attitudes he saw from people Zuko actually seemed to like – as few of them as they were – and gradually worming his way into the Fire Lord's confidence.
For now, Zuko seemed content to stalk the palace's corridors in silence. Loki was happy to allow this. Even he, who had been known for talking, found the quiet a breath of fresh air after weeks of Aang, Sokka, and Ty Lee. Loki followed along with reluctant obeisance as they left the grounds entirely, heading down a winding dirt road that went up a hill.
Finally, they wound up at a large building constructed of white stone, with only small windows. Zuko paused outside the main door, as if deciding whether or not he wanted to go inside. Finally, he scuffed the ground with his foot and said, "Sorry to drag you all the way out here. I guess . . . I don't really like coming here by myself."
"It's no bother," Loki said, keeping his tone quiet, congenial. He was pleased to see this new evidence that he was becoming a confidant for Zuko.
"Mai would come with me, but, well . . . Azula's here, too, and Mai would never admit it, but I think she's happy to stay as far away from Azula as possible."
Ah, context. That helped him with an idea of what to say. Azula was Zuko's sister, the war criminal. That meant this was a prison. Zuko must have come here to visit his sister or father or both, which would explain why he was loath to come alone – and equally loath to admit it. "An understandable impulse," Loki said. "It surprises me that you come to see her."
Zuko couldn't help but squirm. "I don't see Azula. I know I should, but I always get to the hallway and then duck out. We just . . . we don't have anything to say to each other."
"A feeling I know well," Loki murmured. At Zuko's questioning look, he decided that a little self-disclosure might help his ongoing friendship. "I have a brother with whom I have never seen eye-to-eye. He was always my father's favorite, of course."
"Boy, do I hear that," Zuko said. He heaved a sigh and then said, "You can come in if you want. It won't be really exciting, though."
Partly out of curiosity, and partly to further cement the growing bond between them, Loki followed Zuko into the prison. It was an unpleasant place, reminiscent of Asgard's dungeon: all stone and bars and dank, stale air. Zuko nodded to a few of the prison guards, who obviously knew him, and made his way to his father's cell. Loki studied the fallen Fire Lord with frank interest, but saw quickly that there was no alliance to be gained with this man. Proud, arrogant even to the last, he would never accept aid, even in regaining his former glory. Loki knew his type.
Zuko folded his arms over his chest, looked at the man in the cell, and demanded: "Well?"
Thus began one of the stranger standoffs that Loki had seen. Zuko glared. Ozai looked at the ceiling in haughty disdain. Zuko growled. Ozai gave a dry cough. Nothing was said, and neither of them moved. Finally, Zuko gave a curt nod and said, "I'll be back next week. Hopefully I'll receive a different answer."
His business concluded, he turned and marched out the way he had come, leaving a very confused Loki trailing along behind him, wondering what had just happened. Once they were out of the prison, he said, "If you don't mind me asking . . ."
Zuko gave a dry smile. "Any of the others would be down my throat by now, demanding to know what all that was about. You're different, you know that? I feel like you actually listen when I talk, instead of just hearing whatever you want to."
This unexpected compliment made Loki feel a startling warmth in his chest. He wondered if he was becoming ill.
"Anyway," Zuko said, "it's kind of a complicated story, but the long and the short of it is that I'm trying to get him to tell me where my mother is. She left when I was young, and I'd really like to find her."
"Why?" Loki asked, even now stinging from the memory of Frigga's indifference to Odin's favoritism all those years.
Zuko looked at him like he had sprouted another head and said, "She's my mother."
"Of course," Loki said, reminding himself that allowing his own issues to cloud his judgment would not further his cause. Since Zuko was still looking at him strangely, he hastily added, "I fear I didn't have the best relationship with my own mother, so when you said she left you, I assumed . . ."
"No, she didn't want to leave," Zuko said. "My father forced her to." He hand-waved this away and said, "Like I said: complicated story."
"Oh, I see," Loki said. "Well, I wish you the best of luck of course, but if you may permit me to offer you some advice . . . I don't think just staring at your father is going to incite him to speak about it."
Zuko gave him a look that was mostly a glare, and Loki wondered if he should have kept his mouth shut. Then the Fire Lord's shoulders slumped. "No, I guess not," he said. "I was sure that he would tell me if I just let him think about it, but he won't. I don't know what I can do to make him tell me, so I've been trying to track her down other ways, but so far no luck."
"Perhaps if you offered him something . . ." Loki suggested. Zuko didn't seem to be the type to torture his own father, no matter what he had done.
"Like what? He's in prison for the rest of his life, and he knows that politically speaking, there's no way I can let him out, and even if I could, I wouldn't."
Loki had to admit that this led them to something of an impasse. His suggestion that they free Ozai in secret, get the information, and then quietly do away with him didn't seem like something that Zuko would jump for. He was sentimental in that sort of way. "I will think on this matter," he told the teenager, "and let you know if I have any ideas."
"Yeah," Zuko said, starting down the hill. "So, you and your father didn't get along either?"
Loki gave him a wary look. "I think it's safe to say that is the case."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "My father was always so proud of Azula. His little warrior. I was just an embarrassment to him." He scowled and kicked a rock. "It seems stupid now to still be so pissed off about it, but I am, you know? Half the time we were there, he wouldn't even look at me. He didn't even seem to notice that she was totally psychotic."
"It is amazing how blind people can be," Loki said, and without meaning to, continued. "My father was much the same way. My brother was so strong, he could wield lightning – "
"Really?" Zuko looked interested. "There aren't many fire benders who can use lightning. And . . . I thought you were an earth bender."
Loki realized, too late, that he was trapped. But the truth would serve as an explanation. "Yes, I'm getting to that," he said. "I tried to explain to my father that my brother was brash and arrogant and not suited for – for – well, he wasn't an adult yet, let's put it that way – and when he wouldn't listen I tried to show him, and even after my brother proved me right, my father still wouldn't look at me." The words were coming faster now, thick and bitter. "And then I find out oh, by the way, I'm adopted – taken prisoner when I was a baby – and they just never bothered to tell me!"
"That's rough, buddy," Zuko said.
Warming to his subject, unable to stop, Loki blurted out, "It finally explained everything – why they never looked at me the same way, why I was always less. I was just the child of their enemies, they were forced to raise me to preserve their little slice of peace, and undoubtedly had plans to force my real parents to make concessions, allow for the taking of their land. All the while never saying a word to me."
Zuko looked away. "Some despicable things happened in the war," he said, clearly thinking of Loki's "firebender parents" who had taken him from some earthbending official as a hostage. "I truly apologize, on behalf of the Fire Nation," he added, the words awkward and stilted.
"What? Don't be ridiculous, it was hardly your fault," Loki responded automatically.
"I guess not," Zuko said, with no conviction. "But, you know, I think maybe you shouldn't be so angry at the people who raised you. I mean, at least not for not telling you. They probably meant the best. Knowing you were adopted and a prisoner only would have made your childhood more miserable. At least they did raise you like a son instead of simply throwing you in a prison somewhere."
Loki's eyes narrowed. "I suppose," he said.
"And they must have actually cared about you," Zuko added, "because, well, you came in with the Earth Kingdom's delegation, right? So you must have made it home at some point. My father still don't tell me where my mother is – at least you were reunited with your real family."
There seemed to be no point in telling Zuko he was mistaken, since there was no way to explain. Still, the teenager's words had struck something of a chord with him. Would it have helped if Odin had told him the truth when he was young? Made the truth known to all the Asgardians who feared and despised the Jotun? He had been Odin's lesser son, but he had been Odin's son. A prince of Asgard. The brother of Thor. They hadn't loved him for his mischief, but at least they had tolerated it. His punishments had never been harsh beyond reason. They had even put him on the throne.
Of course, in retrospect that only made the past few months of his life look somewhat more insane than they already had.
Loki brushed this aside without wanting to think on it too deeply. Thor had learned his lessons, after all, so he would probably make a good king. Odin would come out of the Odinsleep and make everything right with the Jotun, somehow, because that was what he did. And in the meantime, well, Loki could certainly say he had had a grand adventure, and those suited him. In a life of "let's do something ridiculous just to see how everyone will react", his recent escapades had certainly taken the cake.
"You got awfully quiet," Zuko said.
"Ah, yes," Loki said, remembering that the teenager was waiting for a response. "I was just thinking of my adoptive family. You're probably right in that they didn't mean to do me any harm. And my brother, certainly, was never aware of any of it. I suppose he was a good brother, despite his shortcomings." He found himself feeling more at peace with himself than he had since Thor's banishment. All thanks to this wondrous, exciting new world he had found himself on. How could he ever have doubted its charm? And if control over elements was exciting to them, wait until they found out he was a shapeshifter. "About your mother," he said, with a devilish grin. "I have an idea . . ."