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by Edmondia Dantes
Disclaimer: Neither the MCU nor Gargoyles belongs to me.
AN: The solo-authored prologue to a massive co-written WIP that may never be completed. Stands on its own.
All thanks and praise to the lovely and glorious rayemars for the beta, especially since she's fallen out of the Thor fandom and barely recalls that one time I forced her to watch one and a half seasons of Gargoyles in the span of a week.
Note: In this fic, Marvel Odin is called Odin, Gargoyles Odin is called Wotan. They are different people.
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They were in the gardens with Mother, sitting beneath the spreading branches of one of the younger of Idunn’s trees, when the messenger came. He ascended the hill quickly, just short of undue haste, and Mother frowned as she watched him. She put down the book she had been reading from and rose as the guard reached them, flush beneath his armor in the summertime heat.
Why would a messenger be here now? Loki wondered, displeased first at the interruption of his lessons, and second at his removal from Mother’s side. Carefully, he dusted off his tunic, then stood and frowned at the messenger as well. To his right, Thor ceased swinging from the lowest branch of the tree (why Thor couldn’t just sit still and listen to Mother’s lessons, Loki would never understand) and dangled there instead, staring as the messenger sketched a hasty bow to Mother, yet gave no greeting to the two of them.
“My Queen,” the messenger said unsteadily, even the most perfunctory of greetings set aside for the urgency of the news, “an ambassador from Avalon has arrived.”
For a moment, all was still, and in the perfect silence, Loki’s heartbeat roared in his ears.
An ambassador from Avalon.
Avalon, the mist-shrouded land of eternal summer, the mystical island home of Midgard’s immortal race, Asgard’s most reclusive and mysterious allies.
The Fae! Loki thought giddily, and turned at the thump that heralded Thor’s fall from the tree.
An ambassador from Avalon, here, in Asgard!
No wonder the messenger had run.
Loki met his brother’s wide-eyed gaze and saw scarce recognition there. Vexed, he sought to sign to him, only to realize that in their private language they had no sign for the Fae--there had never been a need, for Asgard had not been host to such a visitor in their lifetimes. Loki’s brow furrowed for a moment as he considered, and then, judging Mother and the guard too distracted to notice the impropriety, mouthed “Faeries!” at his still-staring brother.
Thor blinked stupidly at him. Was he so inattentive as to not realize...? Surely he had paid better attention to their lessons in statecraft than that!
--oh, but perhaps he should not judge his brother so harshly, for there was the realization, dawning in Thor’s eyes as he scrambled to his feet, a smile brightening his face as he rushed over to stand at Loki’s side.
Behind them, Mother inhaled once, sharply, too-loud, and Loki swung back to stare at her, his eyes wide.
Her gaze was far away, her lips pursed--why? Caution was always necessary when dealing with the Fae, all of their lessons had taught them that, but why would she be nervous? The Fae were their allies, had fought with Father against the Jotun threat, had granted healing and protection to those wounded in battle, had granted great gifts to the kingdom.
Unless--bad news? Trouble on Midgard? Asgard received word from the Fae only rarely; all Loki had heard of them he had learned from his parents, his tutors, and on rare occasions from the veterans of that long-ago war, so perhaps....
“I see,” Mother said, and her voice was calm and clear, but there was a fine tremble in her hands before she clenched them in her skirts, though the motion flowed smoothly into lifting them as she turned back towards the palace. “Come along, children. We must make haste.”
It was a strange afternoon. Mother hadn’t spoken as they’d returned to the palace, merely shuffled them off to their chambers in such a hurry that neither Thor nor Loki had dared pose a question to her.
Loki had entered his room to find the servants already been waiting for him, and they’d wasted no time in stripping him of his dayclothes and dunking him into the tub. He’d never been scrubbed so vigorously before in all his life. The servants had been efficient, yes, but he ached a little from the fierceness of their efforts, and when he met with Thor in the hallway, his brother looked equally pink-cheeked, if not somewhat dazed from his own experience.
The walk to the throne room was long, and their guards were close around them, the silence oppressive, but Thor stepped close and took his hand, and only Loki knew how fiercely he clasped their palms together.
“...could this be bad?” Thor whispered, and Loki eyed him carefully.
Perhaps his brother was more observant than he had previously supposed, but then, Mother had been tense. Though she’d hid it from the guards, they were her sons, and knew her better.
“Just be careful,” he murmured, “and don’t talk much. I’ve never met a faerie before, but you know the stories. Behave.”
“I’m not stupid,” Thor whispered back, fierce, “And I’m not scared, either. I want to see the faerie!”
“And we will,” Loki hissed, casting a sharp glance upwards--but the guards, well-trained as they were, were seemingly ignoring their princes. They weren’t, of course, but such selective obliviousness was the proper behavior for guardsmen. And they wouldn’t gossip. Tell their parents, perhaps, but not another soul would know.
Loki was not fool enough to think Mother and Father did not know about every nuance of the conversations which passed between he and Thor--but that and boredom was why they'd invented their secret language to begin with, the signs used in battle modified and turned to a less martial purpose. It was much easier to sneak sweets from the kitchens when the cooks--and, for that matter, the guards, to say nothing of their parents--didn't know what they'd been scheming.
“We will,” Loki repeated, softening his tone at the offense in his brother’s eyes, “But be polite. The treaty’s important, so we have to be on our best behavior for Father and the ambassador.”
“I’m always good for ambassadors,” Thor replied, and that was a lie, a poor one at that. It was just to their kingdom’s good fortune that most ambassadors found Thor’s boisterousness charming rather than obnoxious, or they’d have considerably more trouble with their allies. It was even more to their kingdom’s good fortune that those ambassadors who did find Thor unappealing were also apt to be charmed by Loki’s precocious intellect and wit.
“Of course you are, Thor,” Loki said with a sigh, and resolved to intervene as best he could at the first sign of potential trouble. Mother and Father were frequently hindered by propriety, but Loki was yet young enough that his political interventions oft went unnoticed for the machinations that they were.
Great allies they might have been, great allies they would always be, but everyone knew that the Fae were so easily offended.
The throne room had never felt so massive or so empty. The vast chamber had been cleared in deference to the eminence of their visitor, so that only the royal family and the guards would be there to greet the ambassador and welcome--him? Her? Them? It was a faerie, so whoever it was mightn’t be person-shaped at all--to the kingdom.
There would be time later, during the evening feast, for greater pleasantries with the court, with the warriors who had once battled with the Fae at their side, but for now, the hall was near-silent, the hush marred only by the subtle shift of clothing and the herald’s haste as he swept forward and bowed before them.
The great doors were closed far behind him, and no one strode in his wake, but neither Father nor Mother seemed perturbed, though the herald himself had a nervous look about his brow. Still, he straightened with grace, and though he took a breath or two before he spoke, when he did, his voice was clear and sure.
“Wotan of Avalon,” the herald proclaimed, and abruptly there stood a man, a warrior, clad in unfamiliar armor, where none had been before.
Loki did not gasp, though beside him, his brother’s breath caught--but Loki could not blame him for it, not when his own heart was racing.
A man, bearded and aged, tall and broad-shouldered, sturdy, like Father. Still handsome despite his apparent years, strong-featured, pale-skinned, his beard and hair a bright glossy white, like a snowdrift--but it was not a man, for his eyes were too clear a blue, and the great dark cloak about his shoulders swirled with the light of a thousand stars.
The ambassador strode to the throne without deference, but with a pleasant smile, and as he drew nearer, the bright biting scent of winter came with him.
“Odin Allfather,” the Fae said, inclining his head politely, and it was not the greeting of a vassal to his king, but the greeting of a comrade, a brother-in-arms, as Loki had seen before--a reunion between old allies after a long separation, when the war they had fought together was far behind them.
The ambassador turned to Mother, next, and his smile only widened. “And Queen Frigga, radiant as the dawn,” the Fae continued, voice a shade softer, now. It was strange to see Mother’s polite smile soften in turn, how she stepped forward and extended a hand to the warrior, who clasped it in good cheer.
It was over her hand that the faerie bowed, rather than to Father, but Father did not seem to mind the impunity, instead rising from his throne with a smile of his own--polite, diplomatic, and regal, yes, but Loki could see the edges of warmth there, tempered though they were by wariness.
“Wotan,” Father greeted, inclining his head in turn, “It has been some time since last we met. I wonder, what brings a Child of Avalon to our kingdom?”
Father’s voice was steady and sure, no worry there that Loki could tell, but still the Fae straightened from his bow, releasing Mother’s hand to cast them all a calming gaze. “A purely diplomatic visit, I assure you. My Lord Oberon sends you his greetings, and his congratulations on the birth of your sons.”
...but Thor and he were already over a century old. Why…?
Mother laughed then, polite and soft, though warmer than he’d ever heard her in front of an ambassador. “Has the time differential interfered once more?”
“Indeed, my lady,” the Fae said, turning his smile on her again. “It took some time for the message you sent to reach us, and I’m sad to say that the Child who retrieved it promptly forgot about the missive, only remembering to pass along the news some time later. And you must forgive us, as it is easy to forget how quickly Aesir children grow. If I may?”
“Of course,” Father said, and then his hands were on their shoulders, and he and Thor were being pushed in the direction of the stranger, whose smile only grew.
Up close, the scent of bright biting cold was stronger, the air around the faerie sharp and cool, as though he’d brought all the magic of his home across the stars just to meet them. Loki didn’t startle when the ambassador knelt to greet them, though Thor couldn’t help a slight flinch--and Father gave both of their shoulders a warning squeeze when he did.
“Thor and Loki, princes of Asgard,” the faerie said, and there was something in his tone, something warm and deep, that rang in Loki’s bones, that made him forget his nervousness and stretch out his palm to place it in one that was much larger than his own. “The little warrior and little mage. My friend,” he said, and Loki knew, Loki knew the faerie was talking to him, for all that he was smiling at them both, for all that he’d placed one strong hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Oh, my friend, I have been waiting a very long time to meet you.”
It was a broad hand, like his father’s, but softer to the touch than any warrior’s should be, soft and cool and that was it, that was the difference, an endless well of possibility in a form that was like an Aesir’s, but was not. Was not.
So much magic in him, Loki thought, dizzy, and stared up into eyes as endless as a winter sky.
“Wotan of Avalon,” Loki said, and he was distantly pleased that his voice came out smooth and soft, diplomatic, while all about him the world was spinning. “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am very pleased to meet you.”
A gift from the Fae for their name-days, long since past, and Thor took the clever little sword with shining eyes; stared, riveted, as the faerie explained its form, its function, how it would grow with him, how it would never wear nor rust, how he must train with it every day, that he might grow strong to defend their kingdom.
A goodly gift from a goodly kingdom for a goodly prince, but better by far was Loki’s prize.
Pure and perfect, it burned against his skin, tiny and endless, brighter than the gleam of any blade, bright enough to rival the stars.
Mother’s breath had caught when the ambassador had offered him the gift, Father’s hand had tightened on his shoulder, but he’d felt it only from a distance, already rapt even before the Will-O’-the-Wisp floated into his hands.
Pure magic, Loki thought, pure magic from the faerie kingdom, and held it close, breathed in its light, and felt that he could never be afraid.
“Be careful, my dears,” Mother said as she did the final checks over their clothing for dinner, a lavish feast for their faerie visitor, though Loki had heard it whispered among the servants that the Fae had no need of foodstuffs, sustained as they were by the very magic that had created them. It might be true, or it might be a lie, and Loki held very still as Mother bent down and pressed a kiss to his hair. “They are our very great allies, but the people of their own world know them as child-stealers, and you two are so very dear to us.”
Thor frowned. “But we’re princes,” he protested, “we can’t be stolen away.”
Not without starting a war, Loki thought, then wondered what it would be like, to try and wage a war against the Fae.
It would go badly, he knew. The warriors still murmured of how the Jotun had fled Midgard after that last great spell, escaping back to their homeworld to evade faerie wrath, still spoke of how Father had pursued the great army as they retreated across the stars, to strike the final blow that would end the war.
“But could you be charmed away, my dears?” Mother asked, catching Thor by the chin and forcing him to still. “When they are so lovely and kind to you?”
Loki bit his lip, fingers tightening around the gift in his hands. He hadn’t been willing to put it down, not even when he had been dressed--he’d made the servants work around it. It was too precious, too fascinating, too his to do anything less. “But they wouldn’t,” he said. “They need our alliance, so it doesn’t make sense for them to take us away.”
Mother looked away from Thor to raise an eyebrow at Loki. “But does it make sense for them to charm you from the start?”
Thor huffed, brows drawing down into a belligerent frown. “I like my gift,” he said mulishly, clutching the little sword closer to his side, and for once Loki agreed with his disgruntlement, as well as his insistence on wearing it to dinner, when ordinarily he would have mocked Thor for his rudeness--it would not do to dine with an ally while visibly armed, but surely when the weapon was a gift from said ally, it would only be polite to do so, to demonstrate how much it was appreciated. “I won’t give it back.”
Except… “It makes sense,” Loki said, and pressed his own gift closer to his heart. “But you said they liked children enough to steal them away. Aren’t we charming them in return?”
“My clever child,” Mother said, and stroked his hair. “For the benefit of our kingdom, I hope so.”
Thor released his grip on his sword to reach up and give Mother’s skirts an anxious tug. “Can we keep playing with Wotan?”
The faerie ambassador, once the pleasantries had been concluded, had been the greatest playmate they’d ever had, far better than the guards and nannies who usually minded them. A true shapeshifter, like all of his people, Wotan had transformed into a great white bear and played many games with them, chasing them around the great hall while the two of them shrieked with glee, until Thor had collapsed in a breathless heap and Loki’s sides had hurt with laughter.
It had made sense, then, that Father and Mother only greeted the faeries alone--such a thing would have been impossible with any audience other than the most loyal of guardsmen, but the alliance with Avalon was unlike any other, and though she urged caution now, then, Mother had been smiling.
Was it diplomacy, or was it… “And he won’t steal us away?”
“You can keep playing with Wotan, my loves, for I do not believe he or his people would ever purposefully harm a child,” Mother said, placing a hand atop both of their heads. “But you must be careful, and make him no promises.”
She said the words to Thor, but her eyes were on Loki, on the magic in his hands.
Loki swallowed, then nodded. For the good of Asgard.
The Will-O’-the-Wisp tickled where he clutched it, against his skin and underneath it, where the magic lay. He could feel where it curled into his own self, warm and alive and not-alive, a living breathing thing that neither breathed nor lived, sustained by his magic, his soul, his will.
The purest of magics in his hands, infinite potential, though only a small thing now. It would grow, Loki knew, as he did, shaped by his own strength, his own knowledge. Something for him alone, a promise of things yet to come--for none in all the realms would be so foolish as to question the Fae on matters of destiny.
Little mage, Wotan had said, his eyes lit with good humor, his voice soft with fondness, we shall be great friends, you and I.
Little mage. A sorcerer yet to be. Not a promise, no, but an acknowledgement of what was. Of what would be.
For the good of Asgard.
And for the good of Loki as well.
The hour was late, the feasting over, and their parents had granted them this rare gift, that they might linger in their Father’s chambers with their guest, sharing sweet wine and old stories. Father and Mother sat close together, Thor and Loki beside them, while across from them, their guest wove a tale with words and magic, for with the Fae, the two were one and the same.
His Will-O’-the-Wisp beat a gentle pulse against his chest, where he’d tucked it in his tunic, and Thor was close enough that Loki could feel the soft glow of his sword, a gentle, foreign pressure against his senses. Not even in the libraries did the scent of magic hang so thickly in the air, and unlike in the vaults, this magic was alive, breathing, singing softly as it flowed between all things, instead of a heavy, oppressive weight, meant to subdue and contain.
“On my world,” Wotan said, and in his hands there was a great flame, all light and heat--a firebird, strong and graceful, lofty wings outstretched in flight. “There lives a Phoenix, bright and beautiful. Some say it was born of our Mother, of Avalon, while others say it was kin to the Nameless Ones, a once-great race now lost. It is a being outside of time, guided and bound by destiny, and during the first war it was caught, caged, bound to magic, where it remained trapped for many years. In that time, mortals learned to use its power, and in time again, it will be freed. By destiny, it moves, and takes travelers where and when they need to be.”
“A Phoenix,” Loki breathed, and only realized that he’d raised a hand out as if to touch the flame when Mother shot him a gentle quelling look. He snuck a glance at Father, who looked back at him with an arched brow, then folded his hands back into his lap.
“Indeed, little mage,” Wotan said, and the firebird flew away from his hands to circle the room. Thor and Loki both giggled and ducked as it swooped low over their heads, a breath of warmth to tickle their skin, and at that, even Father smiled. “No need to be shy, little princes--you’re drawn to it for a reason.”
“A reason?” Thor echoed, bright and curious, eyes locked on the little flame as it wove complex patterns through the air--could there be another story there, subtly told, in a language Thor and Loki did not yet know? Loki knew better than to put such a thing beyond their visitor, for the old warriors sometimes spoke of the intricate, infinite meanings to be found in a faerie’s word or deed, and though Loki had known Wotan but an afternoon, already he had begun to see the truth in those tales.
It was with that thought in mind that Loki picked up the thread, continuing his brother’s question in a softer, more considering tone: “What reason?”
“Once upon a time,” the faerie said, his voice like a familiar roll of laughter, his voice like a promise about to be made, “the firebird will find a little prince far from his home, and sweep him away on a great adventure.”
Loki drew in a sharp breath, and Wotan smiled, clear and bright, like sunlight on a frozen lake, as the little firebird circled the room once more, then flew back to alight on his outstretched palm.
“Tell me, my friends,” Wotan said, and though his words were addressed to all of them, his eyes were on Loki alone. “What do your people know of timedancing?”
The great bear’s fur was soft as a cloud, the starry cloak woven as an ever-changing dream, and even in the heat of an Asgardian summer, it was always cool at Wotan’s side. To Mother and Father, Wotan was cordial, even friendly--after dinner, he would vanish into their chambers, though after that first night Thor and Loki were rarely allowed to accompany him. But during the day he passed long hours in the gardens with Thor and Loki, for their lessons with their tutors had been suspended--the better for them to learn from their great visitor instead.
(“The rarest of chances, my dears,” Mother said. “We cannot foster you out, but in this, you must learn what you can from him.”
To Thor: “Learn all you can from an older warrior, learn all you can from from a canny ally, endear yourself to him for the good of the kingdom and the future.”
To Loki: “Learn what you can from one who is magic itself, and not merely its wielder. Learn what you can of diplomacy, of stealth, from one who would teach you.”
And to Loki, unspoken: Endear yourself to him further, but do not let him charm you too far. Be on your guard, my son. Mind your brother. And learn of any weaknesses in our alliance, my child.
And Loki understood.
For the good of Asgard.)
It would be foolish to mistake kindness for altruism, especially from a military ally, and yet it was with this that Loki struggled--Wotan was a keen instructor, his tales engaging, his skill with both blade and magic astounding, and his patience with two little princes unending.
“Oh, I’m very used to the mischief of children,” he said when Loki pressed him, then scooped him off his feet and led him on a merry chase around the gardens.
Never had an ambassador lingered so long for so little reason, and it was strange to see how the court reacted to the faerie--was he a lord? Impossible to tell, and Wotan would only smile when Loki asked. “Avalon is not like other kingdoms,” he would say, voice bright with laughter, “And my Lord Oberon is not a king.”
He certainly sounded like a king to Loki, based on what little Wotan was willing to say about him, based on what Mother and Father knew and were willing to share. Any more than that, Loki knew, would be disclosed to him when he was older, and yet never before had silence and smiles thwarted him so--neither Father nor Mother nor Wotan himself could be charmed into disclosing more than they wished to, and all seemed to regard his attempts at inquiry with an amused indulgence that in unkind moods he thought verged on condescension.
“The warriors love you,” Loki said one warm morning, watching Thor train with his agemates, his little sword glowing like a bright moon in the dusty arena, a childish display which incidentally made for the perfect place to play the innocent (and if pressed, he would declare that he’d not had any such intentions when he’d suggested the morning’s entertainments, not that Wotan would believe him). “All who fought with your people on Midgard do, but the others are wary. Are we not allies to you and your people?”
“Little mage,” Wotan said, and his smile was fond. “Do not play the fool with me.”
“I can’t imagine what you mean,” Loki replied, and was rewarded with a low chuckle, like the rumble of distant thunder, and the press of a cool, heavy hand against his hair.
The summer was long and glorious, filled with magic and laughter, but Wotan left when the leaves began to shade to gold.
(”My Lord indulges his Children,” he said to the two of them, gentle, clasping their small hands in one of his own, “but when he Calls, we all must answer.”)
Loki did not weep at their parting, did not weep when Wotan pressed a hand against his heart and murmured “‘til will meet again, little mage,” did not weep when the Bifrost spun into impossible brightness and flung his friend far across the stars.
He did not weep that evening, when Thor, damp-eyed, shuffled through his door and clambered into his bed, and he did not weep even as slumber stole away his brother’s tears.
Loki did not sleep. Instead, he clutched the Will-O’-the-Wisp tight to his chest and stared down into its light.
Once upon a time, the firebird will find a little prince far from his home, and sweep him away on a great adventure.
Once upon a time.
But not yet.
There was no warning when it happened, just a sudden hush, a brief, incendiary moment when the air crackled with heat, when his Will-O’-the-Wisp flared in his heart, so bright that Loki thought his chest might split from the force of it--
A great flash of lightning, too blinding for even Thor to contain, the searing scent of foreign magic, and silence in its wake, all the courtiers and guards struck dumb, and Loki--
Loki did not move, did not breathe, did not blink.
In the stillness of the throne room, the faerie floated, beautiful and indifferent, cool blue eyes regarding the dias with casual disinterest. Clad in the rich colors of Avalon’s royal house, he shone, moon-pale hair a sweeping veil behind him, the gold of a proven warrior gleaming at his wrists and breast, his garments edged in the same glittering hue. His skin was pale, his stature slight, and his delicate features fixed in an expression of utter apathy.
A heartbeat or an eternity passed, first one, then another, and still none spoke, none moved.
A shift, a shimmer, and one slender arm reached out, slim fingers closing around naught but air, and then there was a man there, an Asgardian warrior, dangling from the faerie’s grip, rolling eyes wide with terror, the only part of him that moved--perhaps the only part of him that could. The man made no sound, no whimper nor plea nor gasp for breath--merely hung there, slowly suffocating, beneath the gentle, inexorable pressure of an immortal hand against his throat.
In the quiet, the sound of his father rising was louder than it should have been, louder than it had ever been before.
“We are honored,” Father said, striding forward from his throne with even, steady steps, “that the Voice of Avalon might visit our court and kingdom.”
The Voice of Avalon. Spoken of with fond, glowing tones by Wotan, and with cautious respect by Loki’s mother and father. A member of the ruling house in his own right, he was less an ambassador than an embodiment of his Lord’s will, for the Voice--and Hand, if the rumors were true--spoke and acted with all of the might and authority of the faerie kingdom.
A perfect second, clever and skillful, clad in the guise of a beautiful youth.
Loki inhaled sharply, a quiet gasp for air, and summer-bright magic scalded his mouth, burned through his lungs and sent his own magic reeling. The Puck.
“Odin Allfather,” the faerie said, drifting closer, unheeding of the way his captive’s boots dragged against the ground. The man’s face was suffused with a deep flush, but Loki thought it was asphyxiation rather than embarrassment that caused the rosy hue. “We’ve come to return something of yours. I’m afraid he rather overstayed his welcome.”
“We are grateful for Avalon’s timely intervention,” Father said, calm, serene, as if there were no man of his being gently strangled to death in the heart of his throne room. “Might he be returned to us?”
The Puck tilted his head to the side, considering, then gave a careless shrug. “As you wish.”
And with absolutely no ceremony, he threw the man at the dias.
The man crashed at the foot of the throne in a jangle of armor, and Loki did not wince at the force of the impact, though it was a near thing.
Instead, he stared.
He had known, of course, that the shape a faerie took meant very little. That they could be great or small; that they could be shaped like a man, or a woman, or both, or neither. He knew that they could assume the form of an Aesir, or the form of a mortal, or that of a monster; of a beast or a plant or anything in between. He had known not to judge by appearances.
It was one thing to know and understand this, and another thing entirely to see a creature scarce larger than himself hurl a fully-armored Asgardian warrior halfway across the hall with no visible expenditure of effort. Indeed, the faerie’s clothing and hair had barely rippled with the movement, fluid as it was, though the man he’d thrown was at least a head taller than he, and possessed of a much broader frame.
But Father hadn’t flinched, hadn’t blinked, didn’t even look down as the man at his feet took his first broken, gasping breath. “We thank you for the return of our warrior. Rest assured that he will face appropriate punishment for violating the terms of his stay in your realm.”
The Puck waved a negligent hand. “We scarce consider the actions of one wayward warrior a violation of the treaty. Indeed, had he made a plea to remain, perhaps we would have entertained it.” He cast a cutting look at the man still cowering at the base of the dias. “A poor decision that he did not.”
Father inclined his head, conceding the point. Would he have allowed such a desertion? If the faeries condoned it, perhaps--Midgard was their world, after all, and their Lord had been known to be lenient when the mood so struck him. “Regardless, we are grateful for his safe return.”
If someone half-dead could be said to be safe--but then, given what the Fae were capable of, a mere strangling and a drag through the Void was very likely a form of mercy. As Loki had grown older, the warriors and mages around him had grown less careful with their words, and Mother and Father more frank about their kingdom’s ties to Avalon, and more frank about their allies as a people.
Capricious, vicious, and impossible to predict, yet they could also be kind, as Wotan was, or noble, as their Lord was rumored to be.
In all the realms, they had no greater ally.
And in all the realms, there were none so disinclined to travel away from their own world.
Surely one such as the Puck had more pressing matters to attend than the mere return of an errant warrior to Asgard.
So why, then, was he here?
A question that would have to wait until the pleasantries had passed, that would have to wait through the panic of the kitchen staff as they hastened to assemble a royal feast for their noble visitor, a question that would have to wait until after he’d tracked down his brother in the training yard and warned him to be on his very best behavior for the night.
Wotan, for all his mystery, was a friend.
The Puck was something else entirely.
They were older now, and so the postprandial visit to Father’s chambers was less a treat and more of an expectation, and Thor couldn’t seem to stop staring.
It was an affliction that Loki shared.
The Puck wasn’t a friend to their parents in the same way that Wotan was, but he was gregarious, he was charming, and he was funny, quick and light and witty--he’d even made Father laugh.
And, of course, he was beautiful.
Utterly ruthless in carrying out his Lord’s will--he must be, he had to be, Loki had heard the stories--and still the lure was there, even as Loki tried to focus on whatever motives lay behind the visit. Merely checking up on their allies, or was something more sinister afoot? Asgardians alone were welcomed on Midgard, so long as Avalon approved of their presence… perhaps the rulers of Avalon doubted Father’s dedication to their alliance, when one of their own--a warrior who ought to know better--committed such a careless breach of etiquette?
Impossible to say. Perhaps this was simple diplomacy, an opportunity for allies to share information, though Loki had heard no rumors of discord as of late. Word from Midgard was rare, as it had always been, particularly given that the Fae cared little for the other races that called their world home.
“Or, little mage, perhaps I have come as a favor to my cousin.”
Loki jerked, startled, and stared up into shockingly blue eyes--a heartbeat ago, the Puck had been floating by the fireplace, illustrating a story with broad, sweeping gestures, but now he was only a breath away.
One fine eyebrow arched. “Perhaps he has asked me to come see you.”
Don’t blink. “I am honored,” Loki said, and tried not to inhale too deeply. This close, the weight of summer-bright magic was almost oppressive in its intensity, sweltering heat when Wotan had been coolness and calm.
Stars, it was hard to even breathe.
The Puck made a soft sound of amusement, and one delicate palm settled lightly atop his head, and Loki choked a little on the heat that flared in his chest; his Will-O’-the-Wisp reacting, reaching for too-potent magic that was not his own, magic pure and ancient and massive, an ocean of power in a form that was like an Aesir’s by design rather than nature, a great alien thing that would consume his little light, that would devour it and his magic and all that he was--
But the Puck was talking, and he must listen, he must listen--there was no time to be terrified when such an ally spoke only to him, when such an ally let his hand slip away and met his gaze with good humor (comforting humor, he’d noticed, he’d noticed Loki’s panic, damn and damn and damn again), when such an ally continued, “As you should be, little mage. It is indeed on his behalf that I am here--you’ve recently had some sort of natal celebration, have you not? You and your brother both.”
--what? Their fourth centuries had indeed passed recently, but not so recently as to warrant--the time differential. Of course. Avalon was already a step out of time with the rest of Midgard, to say nothing of the rest of the nine realms, making it almost impossible to contact the Fae in a timely manner--even Asgardian ambassadors rarely ventured to Midgard in search of them, since unless some horror or great embarrassment had occurred, the Fae tended not to notice when a hapless diplomat was trying to catch their attention.
“Indeed, my… lord?” Loki said, then winced, though he did his best not to let it show. The momentary distraction provided by the issue of the time differential had failed to shake the terror from his heart; still adrift, he was too obviously fishing for information. Such a clumsy attempt might work on another ambassador, but never one from Midgard, and especially not this one, who had already noted his unease and taken steps to soothe it.
But he must show himself capable of moving beyond that moment of soul-deep dread, must show himself a worthy ally, and so Loki continued on smoothly, plastering an innocent look upon his face (too obvious again, the Puck would be able to tell what he was doing, damn!), “Our birthdays occurred relatively recently, as your people reckon time.”
The glint in the faerie’s eyes suggested that Loki’s pitiful attempt at recovering the conversation, and his immediate self-recrimination at the clumsiness of the gesture, had both been noted and would be tactfully ignored. “Well, then. Should you,” and here the Puck inclined his head to Thor, who, oblivious to all that had passed between them, immediately flushed, “and your brother like to receive the gifts my cousin has sent to you?”
If sent by Wotan, any gift would be safe. If not, there would be a price to them--Loki knew that much, at least, of the Puck’s character, even given his current kindness.
But was it kindness? That moment of frozen horror had been unintentional, he was sure, and Mother had said no Fae would ever intentionally harm a child, but fear was not harm, not exactly, and it could have been a lesson, a warning to take care in dealing with what was both strange and familiar. Was that it? Surely there had to be some reason, and if it were a test, perhaps he hadn’t failed it too badly? Only the Puck had seen, after all, and he’d at least tried to recover from it, however poorly--Mother and Father and Thor hadn’t seemed to notice anything was amiss. He could only hope that the Puck would find it an acceptable reaction (did his kindness afterwards mean Loki had passed?), though it would be impossible to know or say for certain, for as Loki was beginning to understand, the Puck was both sweetness and threat in ways very different than Wotan.
Thor, pleasantly ignorant, beamed at their faerie visitor, pink-cheeked, and Loki offered the Fae a thin smile, his thoughts and breath still unsettled, his Will-O’-the-Wisp still a restless seeker in his heart, though soothed a little by the deliberate gentleness in the faerie’s expression. “We would be most honored.”
Across the room, Mother inclined her head in approval, though Father remained watchful, wary. He would be calm like Mother, observant like Father, sweet like Thor. Loki drew in a deep, slow breath--like standing in the waters of an active caldera, with the Fae so close--and forced himself to be still. He did not cringe back as the Puck reached out again, yet could not help but bite his lip to stifle a small cry when the Puck reached into his chest and set a second flame to match the first.
This new brightness burned, and Loki burned with it, a Will-O’-the-Wisp cradled in each palm and thrumming through his core, sparkling down his veins to settle in his heart, while across the room Thor laughed, delighted, at the moon-bright shield shimmering in his arms.
Like Wotan before him, the Puck too, lingered, whiling away long hours at play and training with two little princes, but he spent his evenings abroad, out amongst the people of Asgard.
Loki rather thought his parents preferred it that way. It left the evenings free--time to reflect on what he and Thor had learned, at least according to their noble visitor, and a time that inevitably left his brother full of questions and chatter.
“You fuss over them like they’re your children,” Thor teased one night after dinner, as Loki cupped the little flames of his Will-O’-the-Wisps to his chest carefully, teaching the newest one to feed from him before it starved. Whatever fear Loki had briefly held towards their visitor had begun to melt away into fascination with the introduction of his second gift, a wonder to match his first, and had vanished completely with the Puck’s gentle guidance on how to shape them-- someday, when the time was right, it would fall to Loki to name the his little gifts, to show them how to be.
He shrugged one careful shoulder, mindful of what he held in his hands. “No more than you over your own gifts; are not the tools of a warrior more precious than their own children?” The line was paraphrased from one of the books on military tactics--Loki could not recall the name--that they’d been forced to read when they first entered training. It went on to say that if a parent treated their children ill, those children would leave them, but if a warrior treated their weapons and armor ill, those weapons and armor would leave that warrior dead.
“Not more important than brothers,” Thor said, gripping his shoulder, and Loki looked up into his brother’s brilliant grin and smiled back, transferring his gifts to one palm so he could fling his arm around Thor’s back.
“No,” he agreed happily, “not more important than that.”
The next evening, Thor again followed him into his chambers, as was his wont now that their visitor had made the customary departure for his nocturnal wanderings. (The spymasters had bemoaned not being permitted to follow the Puck as he traversed the city, but Mother had raised one fine eyebrow and pointed out the inherent futility of attempting to tail a noble visitor who could fly, shapeshift, and also transform his pursuers into decorative topiaries should he so desire.)
“What do you think they’re trying to do?” Thor wondered aloud, languidly flopped across Loki’s bed and staring at him upside-down. “Do you really think they’d try and steal us?”
“They’re trying to make us like them,” Loki said, skimming his fingers along the shimmering edges of the Will-O-the-Wisp in his hand. The first one had not grown, as he had thought it might in his youth. Instead, Loki had grown as it fed from him, a burning ember beneath his skin, kindling to a pyre, and he thought that the second might do the same--or could he merge the two, to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts? “So that when we’re older we’ll be more likely to do what the faeries want us to do. It makes sense--they live forever, so all they have to do is wait, and eventually you’ll be king.”
“I do like them,” Thor said, and flushed a little. “Wotan and this one both. He doesn’t fight like any of the warriors here,” and Loki had noticed that too, when the Puck had deigned to train with them, moving quick and light across the field, faster than any Asgardian warrior could dream of--mock-battles became infinitely more complex when one’s tutor could fly. All of his kind could, of course, but Wotan had never been particularly inclined to it, and from what the Puck had passingly mentioned when they’d inquired, only a few of his kin preferred it.
Loki rolled his eyes. “Of course you like them. I like them too, anyone would. They’re good at this.”
Thor’s brow creased. “Do you think they did this for father, too?”
Loki thought about Mother’s words, about Father’s watchful eyes. Thought about how strangely agreeable they both were when it came to their rare visitors, how unusually amenable they both seemed to the faerie presence in their lives, even when cautioning Thor and Loki both about them.
“Yes,” he said, “Yes, I think they did.”
The Puck left as swiftly and suddenly as he came, a swirl of laughter and blazing light, the taste of scorching summer fading in his wake.
And in Loki’s chest, the Will-O’-the-Wisps burned just the same. Not a firebird, but a promise, a hint, just a touch of destiny, waiting to be born.
But not yet.
Time passed, and they grew.
Time passed, and rare it was that another faerie came, rarer still that they brought gifts for the young princes.
Few and far between were the visits, but Wotan came and found him just the same, even as Thor’s interest turned more strongly to the young warriors who had become his friends, even as Loki fell more into his own studies and his magics, even as his thoughts turned to Mastery.
Loki was five hundred and fifty-two when he swore Wotan of Avalon as his blood brother, five hundred and sixty-six when he first stepped foot on Midgard without his father’s permission, five hundred and eighty-three when he first laid with a faerie and thereby made Thor unspeakably jealous. (He may have been bragging, just slightly, but it was only fair--Thor had done much the same during his own flirtations with the sons and daughters of the nobles of the court.)
On his six-hundredth birthday, Wotan offered him immortality, like unto his own.
But it would not do for a prince of Asgard to forsake Valhalla.
And Mother had warned him to be cautious.
(For the good of Asgard, always.)
Midgard, 1652 CE, Autumn
A tickle on his senses, sweet and unfamiliar, and it was easy enough to suggest that he should scout the jungle ahead, easy enough to slip away and leave Thor and his friends behind. He followed that strange feeling until he came to a glade, deeply-shadowed, and waited until the air changed, thickened, waited until the world began to glow.
The glow brightened, in light and in magic, and Loki watched, rapt, as it burst into flame, massive wings sweeping wide, a small sun in the dark of the night.
At last, he thought, and closed his eyes as the Phoenix swept him away.
He landed in a plume of flame, first staggering in the snow, then falling to his knees. The sky was dark, and all around him the snow turned the world to a glittering wasteland, but he felt neither cold nor fear.
Midgard, still. An unknown place, an unknown time. Cautiously, he pushed himself to his feet, raising a hand to call his Will-O’-the-Wisp, Eisa. A tiny bright flare in the darkness, brighter still in the brilliance of Midgard’s magic--it would be strongest here, his little light, his Gift, here in the place that had birthed it--
“A pretty trick, traveler,” came a familiar voice, and Loki whirled, a dagger forming in his hand even as realization dawned. A smile curled his lips as he straightened, banishing the dagger whence it came, for destiny made no mistakes, and this had always been meant to be.
There was his brother-by-choice, clad in his cloak of stars, leaning on a walking stick, an expression on his face that was neither welcoming nor hostile. Diplomatic as always, though perhaps moreso for one so newly dragged through the mists of time.
Wotan inclined his head in greeting, then spoke. “A Phoenix Flight for a mortal mage? Or are you a halfling child, on a quest to seek your lost parent?”
“Neither,” Loki said, and bowed in the traditional way of Asgard, one lord to another, as he let Einmyria, who was always weaker than her elder, out from under his skin to bask in the magic of the world that had birthed her. “Wotan of Avalon,” he began formally, and smiled as Wotan started. He made the traditional greetings--palms forward, fingers down--and watched as Wotan’s eyes widened, as he leaned forward, curiosity piqued. “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am delighted to meet you at last.”
The Fae called it a Phoenix Flight, while to the mortals, it was Timedancing--or it would be, for the one who had named it was yet to be, or rather, already was, but had not yet become--Wotan wasn’t entirely clear on the matter, when Loki asked, and in truth his brother-by-choice cared little about mortal travelers, as was his people’s wont.
But there were tales, among the humans, among the gargoyles, and Loki walked with them, talked with them, involved himself in their affairs when appropriate, and learned their stories. It might be interesting to meet the one--ones? Surely there were more than just a few, over the millennia, who wandered through time as he did--who had preceded him, or those who would follow.
Unlikely, it seemed--but not even Wotan knew the true secrets of the Phoenix, unbound as it was in space and time.
The flames that swept him to and fro produced no physical heat, only a swell of light, but to his mage’s senses, they danced, flaring in brilliance and trembling with probability, a melody of infinitely changeable harmony and steady certainty, a lodestone ever-fixed to destiny.
He could stay like this forever, swept up in Phoenix song, and the thought was as terrifying as it was alluring--but his mother’s voice was always in his ear, a warning he could not ignore even as the Phoenix spun him through the mists of time, and deposited him, as always, at his chosen brother’s side.
It felt like being burned alive.
“Are you all right?” Wotan asked, cool and familiar, a hand on his shoulder to remind him of his frame, of his mortality, that he was more than the light in his breast and the pulse of his magic, that he was flesh and blood and bone, unlike the ones that dwelled here.
“I think I need to sit down,” Loki managed, when he remembered what it was to speak, and his brother-by-choice kindly did not laugh at him as he slid to his knees and, wondering, grazed his fingertips against the soft golden sands of Avalon’s shore.
Avalon was, and the Fae--the Children of Avalon--were, in ways he had known of from the tales, but never experienced before.
The land shaped itself to its Lord’s will, to the whims of the Children, and Loki let Eisa and Einmyria dance in his wake, the Will-O’-the-Wisps humming sweet and certain in magic so thick and vibrant he thought he might be devoured by it.
Wotan’s people were a wonder to behold, here in the land that had birthed them, flitting freely between the mortal world and their own. While Loki had long been accustomed to peoples of varying form, had thought himself comfortable in the presence of shapeshifters, it was still slightly strange to see members of the same species wearing so many different shapes and sizes, from the greatest of beasts to the tiniest of pixies. It was pleasant despite the strangeness, for to a one, no matter their shape or temperament, all were indifferent but not unfriendly to the stranger in their midst.
Loki remembered his lessons in statecraft well, of course, and so played up his cleverness, his loyalty and that of his kingdom, his knowledge of the realms beyond Midgard, but it was difficult to remember his duty when the Puck laughed and ruffled his hair in passing, a sultry summer breeze in faerie form. That had been the scent of him all along, of this island of the purest magics, and he, its Voice, drenched in the same.
So much magic, that one might be consumed by it, or go mad, and yet always Wotan’s hand was on his shoulder, always was he at his chosen brother’s side.
It was difficult. Avalon’s Queen--how he had flushed to meet her, as though he were a child still! Skin the color of new leaves, eyes the perfect blue of a summer sky, her hair the rich hue of strange flowers in bloom--Titania, great and beautiful. She knew of him from Wotan’s tales, or so she said, regarded him with a sly smile, and called him “child” with sweetness in her tone and calculation in her eyes.
Child-stealers, his mother’s voice whispered in his mind, Be on your guard, my son.
But oh, it was difficult, here among the Fae, here in this land of magics too great to reckon, where he was greeted not as a foreign prince, but as a friend of one of their own. Even their Lord looked upon him not as an heir to an allied throne, but with a sort of benign detachment that reflected his treatment of the ones he called Children, the ones who claimed that name for their own.
Their Lord, a wonder all his own, dazzling to the senses and to Loki’s eyes, blue-skinned and blue-eyed, a sweep of pale hair against gleaming armor, a hint of too-sharp teeth in his smile. Loki’s heart, treacherous thing that it was, had all but skipped a beat to meet him.
So much power in one being, enough to rule this world and any other--how had Asgard been so blessed, to have won this kingdom for an ally?
(And not a king his arse, though Loki had never met a ruler so inclined to let his subjects do as they would--but in a kingdom where there was no hunger, no need of possessions nor land, why would the Lord Oberon be any different?)
Do not let them charm you too far. On your guard, my son.
He must remain diplomatic, he must remember his lessons, he must be gracious to his hosts, he must never forget that he was in a foreign land among foreign people; allies, yes, but foreign all the same. He was a prince of Asgard, and he dared not forget it, dared not relax too completely into the warmth, the hypnotic hum of the magic all around--for the good of his kingdom, he could do nothing less than his best.
But oh, how difficult it was.
The Phoenix tossed him through the timeline, careless, and he could never be sure if he landed in the future or the past, at least as one such as he reckoned time.
It had taken a good deal of fruitless searching to find Wotan again, after the Phoenix had flung him far afield, and oh, how his brother-by-choice had laughed to see him!
“I’m not proud of this,” Loki said primly, folding his arms and letting the glamor he’d been wearing for what had felt like a small eternity fade away to nothingness. He ignored the heavy scent of broiling horse even as Wotan peered curiously into the cooking pit and poked at the meat with a finger. “But unfortunately, you left me with no other way to contact you.”
“Ah, yes, there is that.” Wotan looked up again, a slight smile curling his lips. “Flattered though I am that you decided to hold a blót for me, I suppose it is a fairly inconvenient way to catch my attention.”
“Yes,” Loki said pointedly, “It is.” He’d had to ingratiate himself with the local humans in order to learn the appropriate ritual, playing the part of a mortal mystic with enough care to earn their confidence, and what time that had taken! Even now he suspected that his brother-by-choice had only been curious enough to investigate because he’d conducted the ritual during the wrong time of year.
“Well then, my brother,” Wotan said, and his eyes were shining, “Shall I show you how to reach Avalon on your own, then?”
A prince of Asgard could not gape, and Loki certainly could not let his glee show openly, but he smiled brilliantly just the same.
“I would like that,” he said, and oh, what it was to be taken in such confidence…! His brother-by-choice knew this game well.
And truly, it was all for the best that he learned such a spell. If ever their people needed Fae assistance in an emergency, rather than a message or a messenger, the first of which could be lost to the mists and the second simply be lost--or just go unnoticed, a peril all its own--it would be Loki who was sent instead.
And if ever Asgard needed a spy in the faerie court…
Ridiculous, of course. Wotan might have been his blood brother, but all that meant was that the killing blow might be painless, were he in a merciful mood.
Midgard, January 12, 965 CE
Another twist of flame, and he was again on Avalon, this time on the eve of war. The Jotun invasion of Midgard was imminent, their earliest scouts already slaughtered at the gates of the world, and finally, his time had come.
“Please, my Lord, I can fight with you,” he said, palms raised in supplication.
The Lord of Avalon looked down at him, stately, considering, not unkind. “You are very young still, child,” he said, and Loki knew better than to take offense. Though he was newly of age on Asgard, compared to this Lord, he was but a babe.
“I am a prince of Asgard,” he said. “And as bound by the treaty as my father is. It is only right that I fight with you in Midgard’s defense.” He inhaled deeply, straightened his stance and lifted his chin, looked into the Lord’s eyes without fear. “I would be honored if you would allow it.”
“We are willing to entertain this notion,” the Lord said, and waved an imperious hand--acknowledgement, consideration. “You may make your case, child.”
It was more than his father would have allowed. Loki caught Wotan’s eye, and, smiling, drew breath to speak.
The first battle with the Jotnar was nigh, their forces just beginning to open the portal that would open above the vast frozen wastelands of Midgard, and yet the world brightened around him too swiftly for any spell, and Loki barely managed a cry of protest before the Phoenix swept him away.
Midgard, 1652 CE, Late Autumn
The Phoenix dumped him in a familiar jungle and left him there, and though Loki’s eyes stung with tears, he did not let them fall.
A great adventure indeed, and lucky he had been to be so chosen, lucky he had been to chase across Midgard so freely, lucky he had been to have Wotan always at his side.
And Loki had always known it would end eventually. There was no choice in it--a prince of Asgard could not abandon his post, not for long, not even a second son.
There could be time again, perhaps in the future, when he might persuade Father to let him play as ambassador to Avalon, when he might be the one to welcome a faerie delegation to Thor’s coronation--for Thor, he thought, the faeries might condescend to attend. Certainly Wotan could be so persuaded, fond as he was of the two of them.
This was an ending, but it was not the end. Loki would not allow it to be so.
It was a simple matter of tracing the scent and song of Asgardian magic to find his brother and their friends again, and yet their response to Loki's return was more underwhelming than anything else.
Thor at least smiled to see him, however briefly, but as for the others...
“You look terrible,” was the first thing Loki said after their initial salutations drew to a close, but then his brow furrowed as he looked to his brother’s aggravated expression, the weariness of the Warriors Three, and Sif’s clear and utter exasperation with the lot of them. What could have happened to cause such consternation? And rather more importantly… “Why do you all smell like Spider?”
So many tales he had to tell, so many stories, and though Mother and Father would listen, he knew their intent, and it was not to hear of his joy. Thor could be persuaded to sit and stay, was pleased to settle at his side and listen--recent encounters with the Spider aside, he’d always been very fond of their Fae visitors, and happy to hear more news of their allies. But he could only stay and listen if Loki caught him alone--his friends, it seemed, still held a grudge against Loki for “abandoning” them on Midgard, and Thor felt too guilty about keeping secrets from them to push them aside when they came calling.
But it would not do for others to know of his Phoenix Flight, and it would certainly not do to spread tales of the Fae to those unworthy of the knowledge--even Thor recognized the nightmare that would ensue should word of the Phoenix Gate spread, and unwise warriors think an unauthorized visit to Midgard worth the risk to try and win it as a prize.
It was frustrating, to bite his tongue when his fellows inquired about a new spell or potion, frustrating that few seemed to recognize how his travels had changed him, frustrating that Thor had little time for him, each of them wrapped up in their own studies and Masteries as they were.
And now this…! To be forbidden from returning to Midgard? It was foolishness, it was nonsense! Thor’s errors were not Loki’s own, and Anansi had shown mercy--a kindness from an elder who knew what it was to err!
“Father, I do not think it wise to keep me from Midgard. Surely I am the best ambassador to the Fae, now--I have known them more closely than any could have dreamed!”
“Of course you are, my son,” Father said, “but you might lose a lifetime to the Fae, should you linger on Avalon’s shores, and Asgard would not fare so well without both of her princes.”
“That’s hardly a concern,” Loki protested, though if Avalon had chosen to bind him so--if one of the Children had--but they had not. “The Phoenix has freed me, surely--”
“And glad we are that you have returned to us, stronger and greater than before,” Father said sharply, “but now that destiny has run its course, it is time to turn your eyes to the kingdom, my son. You and your brother are old enough, now, to take some of this burden…”
Father sighed, then, leaned close and clasped a hand to Loki’s shoulder. “I know you think it trying to stay here, Loki, but I must ask it of you. Thor will need a guiding hand in the coming years, and I trust that you will advise him with all the wisdom you have won.” It was said in a gentle tone, but Father’s gaze was stern, and his grip unyielding.
And perhaps… perhaps he had some small point, but surely…!
But protesting would be futile. Perhaps he had grown too complacent among the Fae, whose Lord would at least let arguments be heard before making his judgement.
“Of course. I understand, Father,” Loki said, turning his gaze to the floor, that his father might not see the rage in his eyes. “I will do as you have bid.”
“My clever son,” Father said, “I know you will.”
And so he would.
A prince of Asgard could do nothing less.
He bowed and took his leave, and in the weeks after, smiled at his father, at his brother, at Mother, told stories when he was pressed for them, but ceased offering them for free.
And inside, he seethed.
Time passed, and Loki grew, Thor grew, winning accolades from their brethren and Masteries from their Guilds.
In was in the aftermath of one such celebration (conducted in the traditional fashion, the Guildmasters encouraging the newly-dubbed Masters to become fantastically inebriated and then unleashing the drunken scholars out into the streets, to do as they would to the unsuspecting populace; a practice that had resulted in several unplanned bridges and a number of perilously-balanced statues, fountains from which flowed things far more potent than water, and one magically-enhanced arboretum that posed some small peril to unsuspecting passers-by) that Loki was rudely awoken by an unexpected weight thumping down in his bed.
He was on his feet with a dagger in hand, hoping the world would stop spinning long enough for him to stab the intruder, before realization dawned.
“You bastard,” he said with feeling, glaring down into Wotan’s unrepentant grin.
“Good morning, brother!” Wotan said sunnily, and Loki wobbled to the left, made an exceedingly rude hand gesture, and excused himself to vomit.
When he staggered back from his morning ablutions, cleaner but no less hungover, Wotan was lounging back on the daybed, idly leafing through the pages of the treatise that comprised the theoretical portion of the project responsible for the granting of Loki’s most recent Mastery.
The appropriate thing to do would be to greet Wotan formally, observing full protocol, as a prince of Asgard to a visiting ally. Instead, Loki shuffled over to the daybed and flopped ingloriously against his chosen brother’s side.
“I will hold at least six blóts for you if you hide the sun,” he mumbled into Wotan’s arm. It was armored, and therefore uncomfortable, but also pleasantly cool, and when he closed his eyes, it served to block the light.
“Would you now?” Wotan said mildly, raising one hand to pat Loki gently on the head in mock-sympathy. “I’d have thought last night’s revels would have created a level of panic in the streets to satisfy even your tastes, my brother.”
Loki leaned back just enough to look both pathetic and imploring. “One little storm is all I ask. Thor’s too hungover to make one right now.” If Thor were even awake, which was unlikely. Thor had still been going strong--either in pursuit of a new bedmate or in pursuit of more ale, or most likely in pursuit of a new tavern which might provide him with both--when Loki had made his excuses and stumbled away from the rowdiness of the crowd in the vague direction of the palace.
“I can do you one better than that,” Wotan said, and clapped him heartily on the back.
The world imploded.
Or possibly that was just Loki’s head. Or stomach. Did he still have limbs? Also, why was he on the floor?
Wotan leaned over and poked him with a foot. He was wearing very heavy boots. It hurt.
“That hurts,” he complained, and Wotan rolled his eyes and ignored Loki’s halfhearted protests as he hauled him to his feet. Much to his own surprise, Loki didn’t fall when Wotan let go, didn’t so much as sway.
“...I don’t suppose you’d like to share that spell with me,” Loki said after a long moment, reveling in the newfound clarity of both thought and vision, “though I’ll admit the immediate effects are most unpleasant.”
“You don’t suppose correctly,” Wotan said primly, “mortals aren’t meant to experience the full effects of their hangovers within the span of a few moments.”
“Damn,” Loki said without heat, then turned and headed for the sideboard, though mostly for the pitcher of water upon it. It seemed that after last night he was down to a single remaining glass, as he vaguely recalled slamming into said sideboard with his hip as he was making his meandering way towards the bed--oh yes, he’d managed to smash it into approximately a thousand pieces, judging by the sheer number of shards scattered across the floor. How lovely.
This presented a small conundrum: it would be the height of impropriety to fetch a glass of water for himself and not offer any to his visitor, however, he only had a single glass to offer, and Loki needed the water in ways that his chosen brother physically did not. On the other hand, he also knew that Wotan wouldn’t care, and Loki therefore felt no shame in pouring and immediately downing first one cup of clear, cool water, and then another.
Feeling the weight of observation pressed against him, Loki glanced up to meet his brother’s amused gaze as he refilled the glass for a third time. “What brings you here, my friend?” Loki asked archly. “Surely you have better things to do with your time than awaken drunken princes from their well-deserved slumber.”
Wotan chuckled. “I am here to see my wayward brother, who has not seen fit to grace Midgard with his presence in many long years.”
Loki shot Wotan an incredulous look over the rim of his glass. “I’ve scarce been gone a decade; that phrase is beyond absurd coming from you. And as far as my absence is concerned, you’ll have to take the matter up with my father. He’s forbidden Thor and I from venturing down to Midgard at all.”
Wotan raised a very eloquent eyebrow. “And you’re heeding him?”
Loki hesitated. In front of another Fae, he wouldn’t, but this was Wotan, as close to him as Thor, and in many ways, kinder and more canny than his trueborn sibling.
Wotan would not be surprised by any of the political games that the Allfather played, that Loki played, for Wotan was playing his own, much longer game. And Loki’s duties were changing as he aged, as he and Thor grew closer to what they would inevitably become, though given the nature of life on Avalon, perhaps that would be something that Wotan would find difficult to understand. In the end, Loki shrugged lightly, feigning more resignation than he felt. “Father has his reasons.”
“I see.” But it was said gently, and there was sympathy in the tilt of Wotan’s head, consideration in the lay of his hands.
For a moment, there was silence, and Loki could feel his own carefully polite smile begin to fracture at the edges--but then Wotan smiled at him again, bright and keen-edged, a winter sun against the brilliance of unending snowfields, a glare so sharp it stung the eyes. “So we’ll simply have to begin our adventuring from Asgard instead, won’t we, little brother?”
It was true that Father had only forbidden him from stepping foot on Midgard, and Wotan? Wotan wandered freely between the realms by the grace of his Lord’s benevolent apathy towards his Children’s travels. As Loki had learned from his own sojourn on Midgard, the Children went where they would, when they would, and only their Lord’s word and will could recall them.
Midgard and Avalon might be beyond his reach, at least for now, but there were other realms to wander.
“As a prince of Asgard,” Loki said, his smile deepening, “it is my duty to heed the wise words of the gracious ambassador of our most trusted allies.”
“Avalon is pleased that you, young prince, are growing in both Mastery and wisdom,” Wotan said, eyes gleaming, and it where it could be both promise and threat coming from another, here in this place, with his brother-by-choice, there was nothing to fear.
The greatest threat of all was Fae indifference, and Loki would do whatever it took to maintain that alliance, even when he was forbidden from their realm entirely--he was not the heir, and so no price would be too high to pay to ensure the safety of their treaty.
“Hail and well met, little mage,” a voice greeted him as he swept into his chambers, and Loki did not startle as he once would have, for Wotan had made it a habit in the last few centuries to simply arrive in his chambers without warning, so as to avoid the required niceties of a formal visit.
Loki dropped the tomes he had been carrying in an untidy pile on the desk, then turned and stalked across the room towards his faerie visitor, pausing only to unfasten his cloak and lay it on the daybed before stepping forward into a welcome embrace.
“I am glad to see you again, my friend,” he murmured into the soft darkness of his chosen brother’s star-spun cloak, “forgive me my absence these past few years, I’ve much on my mind as of late.”
Wotan placed a broad, steadying hand against his back. “And here I’d thought you’d finished all of your Masteries by now, and all the stress that accompanied them.” A pause, and he continued, voice lightened in gentleness, “What has caused you such distress, my friend?”
Loki drew in a deep breath and pulled back from the embrace to gaze up at his chosen sibling--brother first, friend second, ally always. Of all the Fae, Wotan had his trust. And their people--strange and wild though they were, their people were canny to a fault, willing and able to provoke challenge to engender change, willing and able to take extraordinary action when the need arose.
(Loki had heard the stories.)
He was staring too much. Though Loki didn’t know quite what showed in his eyes, whatever it was caused Wotan to raise a bushy brow. “Surely it cannot be so bad as all that?”
Loki clenched his fingers in his brother’s cloak, lips pulled back in a grimace, and spoke what he’d been reluctant to admit out loud to anyone other than those who already knew. “Father is planning to crown Thor.”
In any other circumstance, the look on Wotan’s face would have made Loki laugh. Now, it only made dread curdle in his stomach. “...oh. That’s an interesting choice,” Wotan said diplomatically, though Loki could practically hear him beginning to question the sanity of the Allfather, and possibly that of the rest of the royal family and all of their advisors as well.
Loki drew in a sharp breath through his teeth, and for the first time in his life, spoke what a fool might consider treason. “I can’t let that happen.”
Wotan sighed, drawing back from their embrace to give Loki a long considering look. “I’ll admit it seems ill-advised, by why not give your brother a chance to prove himself?”
Was Wotan playing the patient elder again, advising him to simply wait and see? Were the situation less dire, Loki might have rolled his eyes, made a joke at Thor’s expense, but this was not the time for jest, not when Asgard might pay the price for his own inaction.
“He’s not ready! Father’s been putting off the Odinsleep, trying to get him prepared, but Thor is too reckless--he hardly heeds my advice, much less Mother’s, and I know Father thinks that putting him in command will help him to settle, but--!” He was cut off by an admonishing finger pressed against his lips.
That was unspeakably rude, but faerie manners were not Aesir manners, and Wotan was his elder, his brother, and his friend, and Loki would allow him things that he would no other.
“All right,” Wotan said calmingly, “You don’t want your brother to be crowned. You are to be his advisor, and though he may not heed you now, I trust your judgment. So the question is, my friend, if your crown prince is not ready for the throne, then what are you going to do about it? Have you talked to the Allfather about your concerns?”
Loki shook his head, drawing back from his brother and beginning to pace. “Father won’t listen to me. I’ve talked with Mother, and she thinks we should give Thor a chance, but she and Father don’t know Thor the way that I do! Perhaps in another few years, he’ll be ready, but as of right now the biggest danger to Asgard is Thor himself! I hate saying it, I wish he were ready and I know he’s been trying, but it’s too soon--he’s careless; I know he loves Asgard and our people but that’s not enough to keep them safe!”
“Loki,” Wotan said, and there was something in his voice that made Loki still, something that echoed heavy and solemn, the weight of deep snow and eternity. His brother’s eyes were clear and cold, ancient and inevitable, and when he spoke, the words settled into Loki’s spine, deep as the magic that flowed within him. “It is the duty of a prince to intervene as he must when his parent makes an ill-advised decision.”
Loki’s breath caught in his throat, and he stared, transfixed, at the calm certainty in his brother’s gaze.
Everyone knew that Avalon’s Lord was not its first.
Very few knew what that Lord had done to win his throne.
But Loki knew.
It was not the same, the situation was not the same, he would never let it be the same--
But his brother-by-choice spoke wisdom, as he always did, and so Loki drew first one breath, than another, the air on his tongue much cooler than it should be, here in the comfort of his rooms.
“We thank Avalon’s ambassador for his valuable counsel,” Loki said, hearing the distance in his own voice, feeling the soft shimmer in his chest as Eisa and Einmyria stirred. “I am--grateful for your support, my brother.”
Wotan’s hand felt steadying and massive when it settled on his shoulder, as it hadn’t since he was a very young boy, and Loki met his eyes with a tremulous smile.
“Do what you must, my brother,” Wotan said, and Loki knew it for the blessing that it was.
For the good of Asgard, always.
Loki fell, and there was no one there to catch him.
Loki fell, and in the screaming void, Eisa and Einmyria were torn from him, ripped from his chest and his magic, wrenched from his self while he keened for their loss, clawed after them with what little voice and magic was left to him--they could not survive without him, wretch that he was, such bright fragile things would shrivel in the void, no magic left to sustain them--!
He reached for them.
He failed, for his weakness, for the foulness of his magic, all that was left to him now, the paradise of Avalon lost to him, the comfort of Asgard a gilded lie--!
And when Loki finally stirred once more, body and magic rent asunder, slowly dying on a desolate rock somewhere in the void, Thanos was there.
Thanos was there, and Loki did not care, could not care--
There was pain.
There was pain, there was a mad Titan with plans to win what did not belong to him, and in his own wretchedness, Loki schemed.
Let them think him cowed, or lost, or mad, a pretty puppet, a figurehead to lead and be slaughtered for the Titan’s will.
Over the centuries, the nine realms had forgotten much of Avalon’s wrath.
But Loki remembered, and Loki knew.
An infinity gem sang sweetly in the staff that they gave to him, and Loki drew bloodied lips back over his teeth in a smile--let them think it madness, battle-lust, ignorance of what it was he held. It mattered not.
When all was over, when Loki and his puppet army fell before the might of the faerie kingdom, with his last breath, he would gift the gem to its Lord.
And in that moment, all the worlds would tremble.
---* * *
- Prologue End -
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