An Ocean Deep and Cold: A SHIELD Codex
A man's mind can't stay in time the way his body does - John Steinbeck, East of Eden
. . .
There were few things Loki loved quite as much as being outrageously, maddeningly, even cheekily out of tune with his surroundings, and ordinarily the uncomfortable glances the Einherjar were sneaking at him in his fading jeans and favorite black cotton hoodie would give him joy beyond measure, but he was simply not feeling it right now. He wished he could, because one of them looked like they were about to vomit from tension at the sight of the disreputable prince on one of his scant free hours of late.
That said, Asgard's throne room was still empty for some reason, save for himself and the four awkward guards, and he used the extra time to resume fixating himself on the hardened and magically tweaked Starkphone he always carried off-Earth to be sure he was still getting important calls from his job. A job, which he realized at some point, he genuinely cared for.
Said job was also currently being a bastard to him, which, well, was fairly normal in its way. After a full year of nonstop nonsense and godforsaken troubles spanning an absolutely fascinating swath of improbabilities, SHIELD's current, almost quaintly old-fashioned mission had the genial air of a slow-motion train crash.
With him stuck in the conductor's cab, watching the end approach dead ahead, while passenger cabs full of minion SHIELD agents just screamed helplessly.
To put it bluntly, as he deeply wanted to do when Odin finally deigned to show the Hel up for this meeting he'd himself requested, Loki was too goddamn busy for whatever intricate family disaster had cropped up now. Certainly he was, for once, fairly well assured that whatever it was about wasn't his fault.
That made him feel further annoyed.
Loki's thumb scrolled through a fresh batch of messages, absorbing the latest dry details of their collective impending doom with a distanced eye when a rush of fabric took him away from his thoughts. "Your Majesty," he said, looking up from his phone with a practiced and mild expression, that ingrained routine of a thousand years. Then he paused, looking again as the guards left them in privacy and actually seeing.
Odin looked unusually frazzled, which should not have been the first descriptive word to be associated with a grand old God-King of Asgard, but there it was. His one good eye kept flicking elsewhere as if his own thoughts were on something else, he brushed past Loki and the throne to a low bench drenched in the warm afternoon light, and he was wearing a simple brown and copper longtunic of the kind old men of Asgard liked to lounge in.
The screen of his phone kept lighting up to tell Loki he had more messages coming in. But none had the telltale ping of a real emergency, not at the moment, so he shoved it away into a pocket and continued to watch the silent king.
"Of a day, Loki," began Odin's greeting, still looking distracted. Then the old eye fixed on Loki, whose brows were knitting together with fresh tightness at the more casual than usual address. "I am aware Midgard is in the midst of certain difficulties, and you at the center of this current matter. I intend this to be brief, as a courtesy."
Loki decided against saying anything at first. That was usually his best option when he didn't want to start something. And then, sometimes even that started trouble anyway. It was still worth the try.
"You should be made aware that Thor has left Asgard. He has requested privacy and has lost even Heimdall's gaze for the time being. As such, I do not know currently where he is, nor what he's about."
Loki, still feeling the silent buzz from his phone through the thick cotton of his jacket, kept watching Odin.
Odin licked his lips, looking tense and tired and possibly a little hurt.
"There was a fight," Loki said, flatly, recognizing all the old signs. Then he sighed, a full and knowing one. "Fine, we have those. Regularly, even. Why is this fight notable enough that I'm being informed of it, and, please forgive my curtness, could the notification not have maybe been sent by text? I think Lady Sif has a spare phone from the last time she was on Earth."
"Such did not occur to me." That, in its softer tone, was typically going to be the closest Loki ever got to an apology. It would do. Then, to his absolute shock - "I'm sorry."
Loki blinked once, swiftly. "Um."
"Diplomatic issues. There are always such snarls when new kingdoms abrade against the old." Odin looked away while Loki tried to figure out what the hel that had to do with Thor before he realized the old king was talking about his current problem instead. Heimdall must have briefed the king. "It's wise that this particular assembly has chosen a third party to oversee its security. A remarkable responsibility for any organization."
"And a complicated one." Loki managed to not make it sound chiding, at the cost of severe understatement. "I… really don't have time for other issues right now."
"I know. But it occurs to me that in due course Thor may come to you, as he no doubt seeks some sort of understanding regarding what has come between us. He is yet your brother, and you his. I bring you into this with only one request, knowing that it might be difficult - try to give him a moment of your time, if he does. I ask this not as the King of the Nine Realms, but as a father who has made… a certain number of mistakes."
Loki closed his eyes, swallowing down every annoyed or put-upon thing he could say with well-trained restraint chased down with a cocktail with growing confusion and concern. "What happened?"
"I think it would be better if it is spoken of between the two of you, if that should come about."
"Oh, gods." The words came with an air of weariness. Loki continued to complain, knowing it was mostly to himself. "See, this is one of our biggest issues as a family. No one just talks. We all do this… mythic dance around whatever's going on and hope no one turns into a cursed river or gets tied up in a tree or something else truly apocalyptic happens."
Odin wasn't listening to him again, staring out the window at who knew what. That figured, Loki thought. That much was normal, as far as the royal house of Asgard reckoned normal. "There are moments when apologies simply won't do," he said instead. "The only answers come from time, and from change."
Loki went back to not saying a single goddamn thing, because if he did, he would probably hit the roof doing so just out of earnest exasperation.
Then, to his shock renewed - "As you well know, of course."
All right, the emotional whiplash was starting to get on his nerves. To say nothing of the rare moment of full awareness and even, dear gods, actual empathy on the king's part. Whatever's happened, it's clearly serious. The phone continued to thrum in his pocket. He slid his hand over it, wondering what had gone wrong now. Thoughts tore around inside his head. He cared about whatever had happened, in some way, but…
The next buzz of his phone included a small but insistent chime. He swore under his breath, short but effective.
"You need to go."
He did. At any other time, he would have stayed and fought this out, but…
The Starkphone chimed again, seeming somehow louder. "My apologies, Your Majesty."
"None are needed. I only wanted to make my request, person to person." Odin watched him, that same small, strained expression on his face. "It is not the simplest thing I ask, but I believe it may become necessary."
It's a brotherly talk you ask patience for, All-Father, not exactly the end of the world all over again. But he said none of that, and let the phone continue to bleat in his pocket, and he bowed and slipped away with a final nod to see who was in charge of letting him know what dog of war had broken free this time.
Odin watched him leave, and when Loki was gone, he looked as tired as he felt, which went deep to the bone.
. . .
Farbauti, the shaman queen of Jotunheim, glanced over and down at Odin as he shuffled comfortably back into the private royal lounge not far beyond the throne room, weariness still etched deep on the wrinkling skin above his beard. "I overheard."
"Of course you did. I should be glad you confess it."
"Mm. He's right, you know. All you lot can never simply talk it out. Much over centuries would have gone differently for us all, had one knock-noggin'd Asgardian or another dared but say clearly what was on their mind. I remind you, I will not be made complicit to this part of your troubles." Farbauti yawned, in some way deliberately emphasizing her distance from the problem.
Odin looked at her askance, and refreshed their goblets of wine with hands that were old but didn't tremble. "It's not for me to make right, not this. They'll find their own way. I am too much a god of war even at this age. My way is the sundering, not the suturing."
"How simplistic of you," said Farbauti, otherwise content to be cheerfully acerbic, and knowing she could get away with that and more under the banner of their current truce.
Still, that one good eye stared back at her. "I have a singular question, Your fellow Majesty, of a type personal but also borne of a deep curiosity."
Farbauti scooped up the larger goblet and leaned back on her bench, delighted at the old king's vocal annoyance. "Oh, do ask."
Odin settled down in a cushioned seat of his own, the weariness giving way to a gleam of contentious friendliness. "Is it genetic, this sarcasm? Does it burn through the bloodline? It would explain a terrible amount about the man I raised as my second son."
Farbauti laughed, light and delighted. "Have I told you ever of my grandmother?"
"You have not."
"A grandiose woman, the beacon of our family. I loved her dearly. The more I see of the boy you and Frigga raised, the more I think of her." She gestured at him with her goblet. "Your kind feared our warriors among all others. How fortunate you never met my Ma'mah. She was ruthless and clever and wise. Her reputation lingers among my people to this day, and there was a time that reputation rippled quietly through other realms as well. The only tempering she had was her mate, a good and gentle old shaman who liked to dream with the sacred old mosses under our ice. Such was her only chosen bridle, for she loved him, and he trusted her with the moon, and they were good leaders, in our little district of frost before the new wars. He would meet with all who felt the need to arrive in our little court, and she would size them up and scare them off at need, for he was far too kind to ever do so himself.
"So it came about, then, when I was a little girl and serving my first high winter at her knee, that we had a little… problem with a delegation out of Alfheim." She sipped at her wine at Odin's sudden look.
"All realms were sanctioned away from Jotunheim in those days, I thought. Bor saw to it."
"Yes, but it was a silly piece of paper and the Elves liked our ice better than theirs for their wines, and further they thought they could use us politically. Moreso if they created diplomatic wedges through our gentler lords and warlords - which is how one of their fluttery little noblemen decided they were going to arrive in our court and push for some agreement or another. I don't recall the details, they don't matter. The point was, the moment they arrived and were made welcome in the court would be the moment they won their cause - and we would be in the dip. My grandfather was just too good-natured. Once they had their in, the sanctions and a few other criminal wrinkles would mean they would win their way at our cost.
"My grandmother knew all that, and made her case before our small council - with me seated far at the end, watching her, rapt - that the delegation not be met in the grand hall. They agreed with her, but my grandfather, bound to his soft tradition, held firm that they would be welcomed. It would be a disaster to do so, but his values meant he could not bear to do otherwise. This was the crux the Elven envoy was relying on, of course."
Farbauti shrugged, her voice still lilting cheerfully through the story. "So the family scouts watched the Elves approach through a gentler streak of winter, and one morning they came to court. I walked with the welcoming delegation, I held the soft little hand of a fey-winged nobleman, and we brought them before the grand court of my district. And there I watched this spritely fellow go gray and old, for on the high chair sat my grandmother, not my grandfather.
"'Er,' said this little man. I will remember his tiny, awkward squeak forever. It gave me delight in my prison, some nights. 'Oh my.' And then he muttered an absolutely terrible word to himself, for he and the Elves knew very well what my grandmother could be like.
"'Welcome, Lord such-and-such,' says my grandmother, low and gentle. I don't remember the little fop's name. I only met him the once. 'I am afraid my husband is ill. You came to parlay?'
"She kept a blade at hand at all times, of course. As we do. Not a little knife. She favored bone broadswords, and her best sat at her side, and she smiled, perfect and courtly, while this little elf began to die by degrees next to me. 'Will he recover shortly?' blurted the elf lord in a moment of foolishness and desperation, all his plans gone awry at the sight of her slender, wily face.
"She looked horrified, my grandmother, an absolute art of dismay and fury at the accidental breach of courtesy, and that well-trained grimace masking her glee at a most simple plan gone to perfection. Her look alone was enough to give him every answer he deserved. All the while, the broadsword sat there. She never even glanced at it, but it was enough to see that it was there.
"And the little elf rushed through his kindnesses before she flew into a murder that she had no intention of actually needing to commit, and they piled up the gifts they brought, and they took off within ten minutes, never stopping to bivouac, just got right the merry hel out of Jotunheim and never came back. Thus, her mere reputation as a bastard saved us all from that moment of ruin." Farbauti stopped to laugh. "Oh, Grandfather was all right, of course. That particular tincture of domberry and rotwine settles well with no one."
Odin blinked at the sudden turn. "Your grandmother poisoned your grandfather to ensure the outcome of a political ploy."
"Well, he knew she would. If he were well, he would have had no choice but to hold the meet. He trusted in her to do it smartly, knowing that pretty much everyone else in the galaxy would rather die than try to bargain with her in his place. Which is its own story entire to wholly explain, of course, but I thought the bit with the poisoning was rather more poignant, in current context."
"Dear gods." Odin slouched, visibly contemplating the anecdote. "That does sound like something Loki would do."
"Oh, they would have got on like a house on fire, I think." Farbauti looked distant. "She was the one who warned my mother about my coming marriage, and sent my aunt far away to ensure our children and our families would be well-supplied during the war. I still have not seen that aunt again, not for centuries. My grandmother's sometimes cold wisdom saved the family, however, in the end." She looked down at the old king. "But those are other tales, for other times." She smiled, a little sadly. "When times are not such bastards as we make of them."
With casual grace, she leaned out and patted the old king on the shoulder, a thing no one else would have the daring or cheek to do. But she was Farbauti, and she gave few damns about what others might do. "Your children will forgive you again in time. They were raised with enough kindness to do that. But first, you'll just have to suck it in and let them be hurt on their own terms."
"It is unpleasant."
"That, old king, is being a father." She sighed. "Would it make you feel any better if I told you that you at least did better with this one than Laufey might have?"
"You murder me with cold praise."
"Yes, well." She chuckled, warm and friendly, as she took up her goblet for one more good drink. "At least, in this new era, we've all grown past the part where I might have done it with a cold knife instead."