31. Grace

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He swung up into the saddle, letting his cloak fall open as he reached down for Jane's forearm to pull her up in front of him. Her wet hair was plastered to her skull and she shivered even in the Asgardian tunic Frigga had provided for her, looking uncannily like a half-drowned kitten. He tucked her close against him and wrapped the fur-lined cloak around them both.

"Thanks," Jane muttered through chattering teeth, pressing herself towards him as if to burrow into his body. The cold had seemed to encompass her suddenly as they waited for their escort to return and he wondered at the human ability to shut out the suffering of their mortal form so long as the mind was occupied. Jane's ability, at any rate.

"Enough?" he asked, concerned by her pallor. Even her fragile human nature was surely hardier than to succumb to lasting damage from a little cold water?

Jane saluted him sarcastically, some of her humour apparently returning as she leached warmth from his skin. Her icy little fingers found the space between his buttonholes and slipped inside his shirt while she glared up at him, daring him to protest the liberty. He would have if her touch were not so chill.

"Sure, I'm awesome," she said, only a trifle peevishly. "Shipshape and Bristol fashion. Just as soon as the feeling comes back." She pulled the fur over her head, disappearing into a cocoon of pelts and fabric.

He smiled to himself, her queer human expression seeming oddly apt. Feeling coming back.

He turned his head to look at his mother as the einherjar captain politely handed her up onto her mount, side-saddled to accommodate her court dress. Frigga settled herself and trotted up beside him, reading his face with her customary ease.

"I've walked these paths nearly without ceasing since Thor's return. I hoped."

Walking on her own feet so she would not miss any subtle disturbances of magic worked or otherworldly doors opened. So he would not slip through and meet someone else first upon arrival. He had underestimated his mother in failing to anticipate her stubbornness, but he did not hold himself accountable, how could he have known she would care to be stubborn on such a course? For what purpose? It occurred to him she was likely accompanied because Odin had forbidden her to make such rounds unguarded.

"Does Father know why you walk?"

She didn't answer immediately, but looked away.

Loki's heart turned over, a phantom sensation of vast claws clutching at his ribs so it seemed difficult to draw breath. He steadied himself, counting the stars above him and the strides of his horse. The heat which was still in his blood had shocked him, his own lack of control in the face of his mother standing before him- there in the flesh where he had once been quite certain of never seeing her again- almost completely unexpected.

He had thought his anger run out, at last boiled dry and leaving only dessicated ashes of bitterness where passion and madness had been, but in that self-assessment he was much mistaken. He saw her wilted disappointment and the dark thing had him again within its grip, his lips spitting the first poison he could reach for before he had consciously decided to speak.

"Your Father knows everything," she finally said. "He must know this."

The most terrible thing- far more terrible than being clapped in irons and thrown in the dungeons never to be thought of again- was how absolutely nothing had changed.

He had torn himself limb from limb, he'd thrashed and wailed and shamed himself past all shred of recognition- he had broken himself in the useless attempt to reforge his bones, reform his wretchedness into a shape they could accept. Every horror and dishonour and betrayal had been permitted in pursuit of this goal, until he was a stranger to himself, and it had changed nothing. His significance was as small as ever.

He pretended to lean forward to adjust the halter, to untangle his already perfect reins, so he could nose through the bulk of cloth which was Jane and find the scent of her hair. It was faint, she smelled of seawater more than her ordinary mortal perfumes, but she was warm and snoring softly and terribly familiar. He wished he could learn her way. To care and not to care, to be faithful to the truth with upright courage. He suspected that much of her strength of character lay in her ability to be forthright within her own mind; he was certain that failure in this was a source of the weakness in his.

"It will bring your brother peace to see her well," Frigga said, an undertone to her voice it pleased him to ignore.

"And the subject turns to Thor again, as it inevitably must." As it had throughout his life, as it had even in the midst of his most singular, most devastating crisis. For all their fine words, they could not pretend to concern themselves with his petty creature fears for even the span of a few moments longer than decency demanded. Why must everyone he encountered lie to him? It couldn't be a judgement on him- how else had he learnt his own contrivances if not at home?- it must be his fate. It must be his secret repulsive nature drawing out the disease in all who ventured close.

Frigga looked weary, even frail, and his thoughts melted away before a rush of panic. If she should fall into a swoon because of him and his needling provocations...

"He was most agitated as to her welfare when he arrived," she said, her patience infinite. "I thought to broach the subject gently."

What had happened on Midgard, that was what she wanted to know, and she would allow him the opportunity to give his account in private before the accusations began to fly. There wasn't room in his heart to trust that this was all of her motive when the jab seemed so sharp.

"I have enchanted no one," he muttered.

"Of course not, don't be childish," she admonished. His mother knew better than to believe such nursery hogswallop, she seemed offended he would imply otherwise. "But why have you brought a mortal here? Loki, please do confide in me a little, as you used to. Why did you not… Why would you permit me to think you dead?"

Diplomacy. He recognised its sickly taste in an appeal to past confidence. She was the only one who would bother to be delicate with him. "Will I be arrested when we reach the palace?"

"No." Her voice was reedy, brittle. He had wounded her pride.

"No?"

"You are our son, Loki," she said again, the lie stinging in his ears.

"Oh, I see. The people do not know the truth. What an embarrassment it would be, how fatal to the All-father's legacy if he were known to have nursed a viper in his bosom. Why did he do it? What were his true plans for me? What did he say to convince you not to dash my skull against the stones when he presented you with an infant monster?"

Frigga of the soft heart looked down at the reins in her hands, the only sounds the horses' hooves clacking softly as they walked and the distant crash of the falls. Loki's own heart seemed to beat too quickly, to stutter and painfully skip.

"He had to tell me what you were. You were already changed. But then I could feel it for myself, the winter in the heart of you had not yet faded completely."

Loki shuddered, his stomach churning. He wanted to rush on away from her words, to cover her mouth and silence the damning truth.

"Your eyes were so wide, so clear. I'd never seen such knowing in the eyes of a child. I would not have you in my arms at first, but that gaze…" She touched each of her cheeks in turn, as if she were feverish, pushing back some emotion. "Your father conjured ice to sooth your throat. You'd cried so desperately before he found you that you could hardly make a further sound. And… it pierced my heart. You whimpered and took suck from an icicle and it wounded me for all of my days. You were a baby. Just a baby."

He felt in danger of cracking all his teeth from clenching his jaws, the bones aching under the pressure, even his equilibrium suspect. If he fell from the saddle, it would be the final indignity.

"A baby," he repeated.

She waited, holding the edge of her sleeve below her watery eyes, the strain to keep composure twisting her mouth.

Ancestors preserve him in the face of this. "You cannot have believed that. If I were just a baby, Mother, then my kin were men. If that is even one fraction true, that I am anything but- and if that is so, how could… how could you teach us…?"

Frigga was helpless, he saw it very clearly, she could make no more sense of this than he had. She was in possession of no answer which would render any of his life into something he could fathom, she could bring him no peace. It was cruelty to press her for what she could not give.

"What were his plans?" he asked again.

"At first he hoped you might succeed Laufey and bring the peace of Asgard to Jotunheim."

Loki swallowed bile and hated that he'd guessed this from the beginning, hated that his own mind worked so much in kind with Odin's. "How could he expect to put me on a throne he had drenched with blood, how could he expect me to rule a land and a people I thought of as waste and devils? How could he imagine ever telling me what I was after a childhood in which-"

"Oh, my son," Frigga moaned, "we hadn't thought of those plans in so long, it seemed they never existed. You became only our second child, a helpmate and companion for your brother, we began to see your future as one here among us, in this life. I fell to your charms before you took your first steps, I could not bear to part with you."

"You bore it when you banished me to Álfheimr when I was hardly grown out of swaddling clothes. You bore it when I begged to stay and you dismissed me. You bore it well enough to see nothing of me for years."

She was aghast. "Begged! Loki, you didn't-"

"I thought you would protect me," he whispered, instantly ashamed to have said it. The tattered remnants of his pride bristled with the impulse to lash out, but he was too tired to truly care. He wanted this prolonged, torturous emotion to be extinguished. "Forgive me. These things no longer matter, and I stray from the point. Odin cannot hope to have use of me now- nor can anyone. I wanted to spare you, Mother. I have always wished to spare you, and it seemed I was myself the thing I most needed to spare you from."

His mother sobbed and the guilt cut through his weary lethargy with brutal sharpness. He bit his cheek until it bled.

"Please…" he said. Perhaps she had truly believed, perhaps Odin allowed her to believe he had become nothing more than a child. He wanted to think so, but the norns so seldom gave him the things he wanted and Frigga was not naive.

She made an aborted reach for him, abandoning the gesture when he did not reciprocate to span the distance. "I wanted for you every advantage, to give you anything you needed. I did not think I alone could provide what your education did not."

He burned with humiliation, wishing fervently that he had governed his tongue. "It doesn't matter."

"It does. It does matter, tell me."

Nothing matters. "It did me little service to become even more a stranger in my home than I already was."

She stared at him, looking struck and chastened, as if a long war within her heart was now over. "Your father counselled against it, but I convinced him to allow a long boarding. I convinced him Thor would ensure a place was kept for you upon your return."

He wondered whether Odin had wanted him close at hand for reasons of his own which Frigga did not know, or if he simply feared losing direct control of his creature's education, his upbringing the key to shaping a useful tool. Of course he knew the effect it might have, his father had always understood him more readily than anyone else.

"I thought it was the right course for both of you, so you might complement. I fear I was short-sighted."

He brushed this aside, suddenly seeing only absurdity in his battering of supposed grievances, meaningless hurts stored up from the past. "Would it have made any difference? Would anything? My covetous grip has only injured those I clutch to me… it is precisely this from which I would spare you."

"My darling child, your love is not a burden. It is meet to care for us, to long to make us proud. That was not the crime."

Loki yanked the reins, pulling his horse up short, and shut his eyes tight. The beast huffed in protest and pawed the ground, tonguing his bit.

Frigga's hand touched his thigh and he looked down to see her standing at the horse's flank, watching him with worried eyes.

"Mother," he said painfully, searching for the words he wanted, "why torment me? Why coddle me and reprove me, always both? I cannot be both the child and the monster. I cannot learn both wisdom and cunning at my father's feet and understand the difference. I betrayed you because I love you. Lies are inseparable from my nature, that is how your pity wrought me. If that pity was not a crime itself, then I have stained your mercy with blood."

Her pale white fingers clutched at him, he didn't dare to look on her face.

"A better man than I would be grateful to Thor. Even he, with all his blindness and all his cradle thoughts and all his selfishness, he would give his cherished life to prevent the catastrophes my love would wreak. My most selfless impulse is expressed all in vanity, and I scatter wounds like carrion crows- and in this meanness I spoke of the good of Asgard, as if the commonweal were my concern. I slithered twice towards a cowardly slaughter and only Thor's pigheadedness saved me from it, borrowed luck from his favoured stars. If it is your wish to see the crack in my character made whole as his was, the facts will ever be otherwise."

"Birth didn't teach him better," she said softly, an edge of hardness in her voice which had been absent. "We, his parents, did not teach him better, we failed him as we failed you- I had no stomach for discipline and your father... It was his time on Midgard which changed your brother's heart, Loki, not the stars under which he was born. I think you know something more than I about how and why."

The bundle in front of him was very still, he realised. Too still and quiet to be obliviously asleep.

"Then he told you of my visit?" he asked baldly. From Jane, no more secrets were hid, and games of discretion had lost their appeal.

Frigga's eyes dropped and he knew she could not conceal her disappointment in him.

"Yes, of course he did. He would have wanted to discover if there was any truth to what I'd said."

"It was you who reached him in the end. I am sorry I could not see more my sons more clearly."

Loki grit his teeth. "Don't forgive me, Mother, not for the sake of that. I didn't do it to help him."

"Forgiveness is not earned, my son. It is a gift. For my part, I had already forgiven you whatever was in my power to forgive. I might ask that you try also to forgive me, but… if you cannot..."

He gnawed on his lip, fighting the urge to weep. "I want no further pity."

"I have none." His mother's expression was profoundly sad and he hated that he had seen it.

Damn it. He ignored the tear which escaped him and swallowed thickly. He must push on with the only mission he had left. "On the subject of Midgard, Jane Foster must be provided for. I have offered her hospitality and safe passage. She will receive it. Whatever is necessary."

Frigga pursed her lips and shook her head, disapproving of him and his evasion. "A mortal in the house of Odin. I have lived to witness exceptional times. Of course, she will be accommodated with every dignity as the guest of an Odinson. For your sake and for Thor's."

"And where are you taking me, if not..."

"Where you must go, Loki. To see your father."