19.

. . .

Queen Farbauti adjusted a stray fold of her dress, not interested in the old king's stricken look. "I'm simply not going to be bound up in your nonsense. You've tried this trick on your family too many times, and here you are, about to pay for it at last. Yes, partially of my doing. Should have thought of that before you asked for my assistance." She glanced up at Thor and Loki. "So. I had a few nudges arranged to get you lot to wander back either homeward, where sooner or later you would get someone to give up where the old bastard got off to, or be in a position to have one of my assistants use a few potential bits of information to have you come this way. Which, or who, was it?"

"Ambassador Imda," said Loki. He'd gone temporarily numb from brain to bone.

"Alfheim, how by a frozen tuttle's tits did you end up in Alfheim?" Farbauti grimaced and then immediately waved it off. "No, don't tell me, you'll try and a minute in I'll ask if Aelsa is still a manipulative but good-natured psychopath and give up on the whole thing. Poor Imda. She's a hard-skinned dear, she can take that lot. I can't."

Loki didn't say anything to that. Instead he kept standing there on the ice, wavering slightly, wondering if life was ever going to make sense again, and remembering that it hadn't in a decade so why would it start now?

"Alfheim. Oh, gods. The libraries, wasn't it? Had something you two thought might be useful. Even worse. They had a perfectly good system long ago, now look at it. Infested with bureaucracy." Farbauti sniffed. "All right, enough whinging from me. Have at the old man. He's defenseless and surrounded by frost giants. A thousand years ago my useless mate would have danced naked in an icestorm for this chance."

"Your Majesty!" Odin snapped it at her, still more startled than furious.

"You're absolutely right, a naked Laufey is a disgusting mental visual. I'm off dessert. Tell you boys what, we'll throw him in with the wolf pups. They won't eat him. The tickling of their tongues will drive a man mad in an hour, though. It's better than torture."

"Farbauti!" Louder. Now a little angry.

"There, that's better. He gets all stodgy and tries to use the rules for his foolishness. Of course you two know that better than I." Farbauti still didn't bother to look at him. "Poke him a little bit till he gets angry, there's the vulnerability. If you can withstand the bluster. So ordinary, really."

"Okay." Loki broke in with a hand up, trying to ignore the headache freshly growing behind his eyes. Whatever he had expected coming to Jotunheim, it hadn't been watching this strange verbal throwdown between royals. "Right. I got the part where you arranged to have us show up here in time for… whatever this is."

"You had plenty of time. He's only been at this for a week or so, got good use out of one of his sons haring off angrily. He's not as good at magic as he could be, though he's not bad. He's got what he learned from Frigga and he's got my help and-"

"And you've been foot-dragging." Odin shifted on the ice, Gungnir staying firm as he let go of it. "Haven't you?"

Now she looked at him, seeing the stocky old man with his hands on his hips, and she wasn't impressed. "I have not. One thing I won't do is sully the art, you brute. It's a Great Work we're re-imagining all over again, and I'm nursemaiding you through it. It was going to take till High Feast as it is, and now it's going to take eternity unless you tell your beleaguered family what you're up to and why."

"As you've apparently decreed to the King of the Nine Realms."

Farbauti got up, towering over Odin, looming, in fact, very specifically, and while she remained serene and amused, there was a steel glint in her eye. "You brought me into this scenario, old one, when you took blood for your own with a thought to the future of the realms. You bring me into it again when you ask for my help with a work that is beyond your hands. Now, I don't much care for families that manipulate each other with silence or violence when a clear word would be better help. I've lived that, Odin All-Father, and I've been in a cell for it, and I'm not going to take it from you or anyone else, ever again. You wanted a better future for your throne? Well, I will drag you into it when you don't realize you yet balk at the hard parts. For that future's sake."

Odin blinked.

"I really did like your wife better. You're not bad, exactly, but gods, you're a stubborn one to deal with. She would at least pause and consider. Families. Gods bother." Farbauti snapped a hand at him with a sigh and then sat back down again. "I've got him doubly cornered, get to it before he struggles loose again."

Thor stepped forward, his foot crunching softly on a layer of ice. His voice was just as quiet, and he didn't sound angry. Disappointed, perhaps, and a little sad. "What wouldn't you tell me about my birth when I asked? What are you hiding?"

Odin looked away.

"You didn't update the royal genealogies at all, did you?" Loki chimed in with the conclusion he'd been sitting on since talking to Ayelah. "After your marriage, you simply… let them sit. The one in Alfheim for certain, but even if I had arranged a way to get to the palace original, we'd have found the same, wouldn't we?"

"Yes," said Odin, defeated. "Yes, Loki, I sent away the chroniclers with a promise to write the words in a time when we could look back on those days and find them better." He looked up, saw Thor looking back at him. "I answer the easier question first. I suppose you want an apology for that."

"I just want the truth. Father."

"I need to sit. The work is difficult, and the pace is… well." Odin sighed, then realized another pile of snow was forming itself at the lip of their space. Farbauti's hand wavered gently at her side, and from somewhere, a soft red cushion appeared atop that new seat. "I hadn't meant to ask, but thank you."

"You're welcome," said Farbauti, quiet and kindly now.

Odin went and settled himself, and the copper robe he wore bunched around him. He looked old and weary, and Loki remembered how easily he had fallen into the Sleep before, and how there had been a chance, even then, that he wouldn't come back. Grief weighed Odin down now, and his old secrets were coming back to roost, and Loki realized that whatever was happening in Jotunheim was part of preparing for something else. Something far more final. He glanced at Thor's face, and saw that his brother knew the same.

"The tales you two know about your childhood are true. But there are pieces missing," said Odin at last. "Stories that start in different places, and different times. I suppose… well." He sighed, a heavy one, and his lone eye roamed the ice at his feet. "You should know, Thor, that you are not my firstborn son."

Thor didn't move, and he didn't look surprised. He only waited, with weary eyes watching his father.

"Frigga bore a child shortly after our marriage, yes. There were conflicts abound, issues from Bor's passing that took public attention and so we decided there would be time before we announced a prince. Wait for a moment when the realm would be glad for glad news. It was a bitter gift, as it happens, that we waited.

"His name was Baldur, my first son. He was a small baby, and he'd come early. Eir and Frigga were not worried about this, and they tended to him day and night, and taught me how to hold him gently. I remem…." Odin trailed off, and by the movement of his throat it was obvious it was hard for him to speak. "I remember looking at him in his cradle once, and he looked up at me, and there seemed like there was nothing but light in his eyes. I had such hopes for him."

Neither brother said anything.

"There was a morning where he didn't wake up. I have no drama for you, my sons. There is no dark secret here. No underlying tragedy. Only grief. I heard… I heard my Frigga make a noise I never wanted to hear again. The sundering of her heart.

"It is a thing that happens, sometimes. Even to ours, in Asgard. To kings and queens. It simply… happens." Odin shifted on his cushion, and the ice stared dumbly back at him. "We didn't write it down in the chronicles. We couldn't bear to. I haven't looked back to them in a long time."

"Father…" Gentler now.

Odin put up a hand to stop Thor. "Frigga wanted to try again. Her family had been a large one. She wanted the same. A few years later, we were… the news came from Eir that she would give birth in the winter. A hard birth, this time. The healers suggested it might be from the anxiety, from the fear and loss we felt over Baldur. But our daughter came one night, a cold night with bright stars. I remember that so clear. She was a quiet baby, and she seemed to see everything from her first moment. They say babies are born blind, but to my end, I will say she was not."

Loki mouthed his question instead of screaming it, the simple 'what' shaped by a gawping oval, this second secret so fast after the first. Daughter? And what more? How much is hidden? But he said none of this, frozen, waiting, feeling like he was trapped elsewhere entirely.

"We named her Hela, to honor the secret of Baldur's loss. To remember the dead." Odin paused. "Eir told Frigga, and Frigga later told me, that Hela would be the last child she could have. Because of that… difficulty. Our healers are powerful ones. There are certain things that are still difficult to do safely."

Odin glanced at Gungnir, still driven into the ice at the center of the runic circle. "Hela was everything an Asgardian could be. She was powerful, driven, intelligent. By the time she left childhood she was touring with our outriders, looking for jotun and kronan warbands to slay. There was never any question of letting her take the warrior ways, she boldly presented herself to weaponsmasters and swordkin alike. She was… well. We were at wars, many of them, and she, young but intent, was at my side from the moment she could keep up."

Farbauti didn't stir where she sat, but she glanced at the brothers, and her eyes were half-lidded in thought.

"We have buried time, my sons. I buried the knowledge of her. Just a couple of centuries worth of life, but they are black enough."

"If she was so grand then-"

"You know part of this," said Loki, and his voice was cold. "We were raised with the story. Just… from another point of view. That different perspective."

Thor looked at him. "I don't understand."

"The dark forests beyond the palace. Where the veil between realms could be thin. I was nearly killed there once, remember? By things from Hel. By-"

"Oh gods." Thor wavered as he remembered. Children at play, running away from their rooms at night to pretend they were at war. He'd only known a little of the story. Loki had gone out alone one night to prove he wasn't afraid of his nightmares, or the rumors of ghosts in the woods. But it had been a mistake, and some awful power had nearly strangled the young prince to death. Thor knew, but he hadn't felt that clawing power around his throat the way Loki had. "Oh gods, Loki, oh gods."

"Frigga stopped her. But she spoke to me, Hela. And she hated. She seemed made of it. We've known her as the ghost queen of the dead all our lives. An old myth given a name but stripped of her real lineage." Loki bit his lip hard but didn't feel it. "The forest. That's where you bound her away the first time, why it was always meant to be off limits to us as children. That's what you're doing now, remaking that seal. She's alive. Why? What did you do?" His voice cracked, slightly.

"Hela… Hela was born with great power, and even greater ambition." Odin never looked at them. "As time went on, I wanted the wars to fade. I already grew weary of them. I had fought since I was a child, and my thoughts had begun, at last, to turn to peace. Hela… she was young, but she wanted more of what she had tasted. She styled herself as a part of Death Herself, and felt fated to it, for she warred so well for Asgard. There are realms now that are still cowed, that bid to us, because the fear of her - and me - is burned deep into their soil. And I… I do regret that, now. But the past cannot be changed. Hela would not change."

"So you sealed her away?" Thor roared the question.

"I…" Odin's voice began to creak.

. . .

Frigga dipped the cloth into a bowl of herbed water, a quick poultice as the halls of healing were on the other side of the rampaging princess. She dabbed it at the side of Odin's face, and her eyes were damp. "She'll never stop. She knows better than we do what our realm is built on, and she has dedicated herself to feeding it."

"It's my mistake. It's a mistake built on my blood." Odin coughed and it rattled in his chest. The attack wasn't unexpected, but it still hurt where the armor dented against his ribs.

"She doesn't see it that way. No mistakes for our Hela." Frigga dipped the cloth again, shaking her head. "Is she even wrong? Conquest is what we are. What we've made."

"I don't want it to be what Asgard always is, Frigga. You taught me that peace has value. That it can create new growth. Conquest - we'll stagnate in time. We'll end. We'll talk to her again, this rebellion will stop. We'll talk-"

Frigga looked troubled enough that Odin interrupted himself. She reached up and stroked his face. "She killed her own guards to make them her immortal dead. To stand them by her day and night, their loyalties chained forever. I love her, Odin. She is my daughter, my only child, and she no longer listens to me." Frigga took a breath. "Gods, I wish it were that to speak solved all things, but it does not. She killed her guards, even sweet old Jhor who used to stand by her crib, and she thinks that made them better warriors. I've seen what she's made of them, with those horrifying eyes. Odin, I don't know what she's become."

"She's a Queen born to a kingdom." Odin shifted where he lay. "Like the ancient story of the goddess of the damned. Perhaps Ragnarok is true. Perhaps we come to the beginning of the end and she is, truly a handmaiden of Death."

Frigga's face crumpled. "How did we do this? What did I do wrong?"

Odin clutched at her, pulled her to his chest and held her as she sobbed. "Hela believes we did nothing wrong, love. She is full of the rightness of her work - and it is a work that I did my part in teaching her. I believe you did nothing but love your child."

Frigga continued to cry. In the distance, a wolf howled, hungry and full of deadlight power. Hela had brought the pup back from one of the raids against Jotunheim years ago. It had been a charming touch for the cold girl… until the giant wolf began to change into something far more feral under her care.

Now Fenris hungered all the time, and his fur was like steel bristles. Men bled when they approached him, and yet he was one of the few things that still made Hela smile. Her smiles were terrifying.

"This isn't her usual lashing out, Odin. She meant that blow to kill you."

"I know."

"I called the Valkyries. They're gathering on the shore, and Heimdall has hidden them from all sight."

Odin shook his head, hurt to the bone by the knowledge that Frigga, again, had out-thought him. "What do you mean to do?"

"I mean you to go to them, husband, to lead them. She has to be stopped. She…" Frigga trailed off. "If we give her the throne of Asgard, we make this realm a new Hel itself. Her power will grow rich on blood. I can't let that happen." She pulled away from his chest, cupping his face again with her hands. "It has to be stopped."

"With a charge by that ancient force."

"She's never faced them. There's a reason they're one of the last lines, why we hide them until we've no choice." Frigga inhaled. "Gods grant me forgiveness. If we can bear it, Odin, we kill her."

"No!" It came out in a roar, and Frigga seemed to shrink inward. "Bitter and full of war, but she's all we have! Given time-"

"Given time she'll grow stronger yet. We'll never stop her then." She looked away, taut and pale. "There is… one other option I've had to consider." Then back to him, and her eyes were dark and full of pain. "But it may in time cost even more than the hurt of such a loss. Whatever we do, we have to hurry."

. . .

"At her suggestion, we sent the Valkyries to distract her, to wound her. And Frigga, my poor Frigga, arranged this other plan. A dangerous work, done quickly. Too quickly. She used the Force that binds us to the throne. The same undercurrent of kingship that grants the gift of our magic sleep. It was the only thing she could reach that had that much lasting power - and so, our daughter is alive, and she is bound by my life force. My life is the chain that consigns her to rule in Hel and there alone." Odin was beyond exhausted, and his face was grey.

"The Great Work." Loki still felt numb.

Farbauti spoke up. "He wants to reshape it. The binding must remain, of course, but we can use Gungnir as its focal point instead of an aesir's life. Artifact work is more stable, if vastly harder to initially create. It's no wonder Frigga's solution was a risky one. Blood works fast. Now. The spear has always been a mark of office, but we're to make it more than a symbol. He wanted that, instead of making a horrorshow of the next king's ascension."

"Of course?" Thor threw her a sharp look. "We hold a royal prisoner!"

"Hela has been bound for centuries, and in that time she holds close her rage and her righteousness." Odin seemed to crumble under Thor's anger. "This is a burden of my make that cannot be repaired with her freedom and my apology. Loki, I feel your stare. You are a better man today because you believed, at last, in change - for yourself, for others, for situations that otherwise seemed bleak. Because you accepted that sometimes the things we do are not right and we should seek another way to live. Hela doesn't have that. She believes to her core that what she is is what she must be. She might never change."

Odin took a breath, the air around him showing no warmth. "I beg you, try to understand. Frigga felt first that our best chance was to end her only child. Understand this in the context of your own lives - Thor, that she cherished you so much that she would fight me to protect you. Loki, that she never gave up on you. Never. You have her gifts, and they grow beyond what she taught you. Even when it was darkest, she believed in your hope.

"But Hela. My sons, Hela is my scar, and I do not want you to carry her when I am gone. I made her what she is. Let her be the queen of the damned - but if you cannot bear to let my rough justice hold, think long on your quest to redeem her. Perhaps you can. You are now both better men than I. But before you try - gods, I beg thee, think hard. If she is free with her power and her rage, I believe she will destroy Asgard and all the realms." Odin lifted his head and looked at them with the plea plain on his face. "Do not compound my mistakes. But please know that this is something more than you have faced. She was born in the shadow of a prince's death, and I think that changed her from the start."

"I can't… I can't believe this," said Thor, and the words sounded mushy against his lips. Shock marked his face.

"I remember the raids against this realm," said Farbauti. "I saw their results. I will give you no opinion of my own, but I offer a brief testimony, so that you might understand a little of why I agreed to the All-Father's request, even knowing the responsibility for these memories goes back to him. And why I felt you should know, despite him."

Loki looked at her, found she was looking back at him and not the other two, as if that were easier somehow. Farbauti was not one to show pain, but she looked muted now, and her voice was quiet. "Hela made no distinction between combatant and civilian within a realm that was at war with hers. The war marked all for death, and I know of a time when her warband made prisoners of a group of shaman. These shaman were forced to heal Laufey's warriors at his command, good men and women who chose to obey the old wolf rather than see their temple turned to ash and their families made hostages. I know that this did not matter to Hela. I know that she and her men killed most of those shaman when they would not tell her where other field healers were keeping the wounded, and the ones that lived were left so as a warning. They would not speak? She marked them with that bravery, to shame them. One returned to the palace missing most of his lower jaw. Another's throat was mangled. We are hardy. One of my maidens passed out at the sight of his wound. Another… he lost his tongue, torn from him and fed to that demon wolf to mock his vows."

Loki jerked, realizing the unsaid.

"These shaman are still alive, and they mean a great deal to me. Their kindness saved their lives, strengthened them to withstand all for the chance of better days. I believe in this. I will fight with my own kin to honor that." Farbauti frowned. "I find I want to lie. I want to give you an opinion, and it is a dark one - but, well. I have also seen that change is possible. Nonetheless. I agreed to help, if by my terms, and I must concur with the All-Father's plea. Consider, before you act. Hela does not value such kindness as we have learned to."

Loki licked his lips and glanced aside to Thor, who seemed almost translucent. He looked done, as if he could take no more. And yet, there was still the question.

It occurred to Loki that he was taking this all rather well, in comparison, but then, he'd already faced his worst and come out the other side. Eventually. Loki spoke, because Thor was unable to. "If Frigga could bear no more children, then how is it we're both here?"

Odin grunted, tired but wry. "Because there is such kindness left in the universe."

Loki searched his bowed face, looking for a joke.

Odin lifted his head, showing his seriousness. "Several years after we sacrificed most of the Valkyrie to seal Hela away, I thought to hold a feast. To mark a change of season, to try and start building peace, even knowing that I would begin a hypocrite. I sent word to a certain few among the realms and among our merchant allies, to kings and queens and foreign gods - and so did Frigga. To friends, to kin. Not a grand gala, but a fine and subdued moot. To remember, to talk, to dine. We even invited Laufey, to try and ease a war that would not end for some time yet."

"He sent his fat old friend, Beli, in his stead. By friend, I mean that if he'd been poisoned by the aesir, Laufey would have had a mean laugh over it." Farbauti snorted. "Beli liked to talk, incidentally. Even to caged queens. Especially if that queen offers him food."

Odin sighed. "Undone over and over by you, am I?"

"Mmhmm. Didn't think having that bit of information I got from him was ever going to become relevant. I assume my Imda realized I held that, made it her goad. You look weary, old one. Do you want me to tell them?" She was teasing Odin, if gently.

He waggled a hand at her, then continued to speak.

. . .

There were no ribbons or draperies or an overabundance of gold. There was an older structure out behind the palace, a longhouse built out of ancient woods that predated any of Odin's kin, and he and Frigga decided to hold their moot there. Frigga's ivy gave it life and color, and Odin summoned the hunters and the farmers, and it was a fragment of a simpler time.

There weren't many invited, though they came from strange places. Queen Aelsa, eternally youthful and dangerous. The new King Eitri in stardust-glint armor, as grandly stout as befit the dwarven ancients. The hall filled quick. A Shi'ar merchant, the jotun man, Beli, a sour-faced and shivery fire elemental from Surtur's court that had no name, a lapis rainbow of a Kree priestess, Vanir family and friends, sorceresses, a couple old war gods from dead planets that the All-Father used to know, and, much to Odin's surprise, an ancient human woman in a stiff robe of brown moss. He had sent word to the last few roaming priests of Atlantis and looked for a few other advocates from Midgard, but it was Frigga that chose to offer hospitality to some strange deity of that young world.

This was Gaia, and she spoke little to the other guests. She liked to watch them with a smile on her wizened face, and she would not eat the meat. She drank the mead instead, like a bee at a rose's nectar, and her feet were bare on the grass. It was Frigga that introduced her, and Frigga who mostly stayed at her side, and spoke kindly to her as if she were much younger and needed guidance.

Odin passed close, gave her a look not long after the moot was in full swing. Midgard was their protectorate, but there was really little there yet, and its few gods were alien to him. Frigga looked back at him, steady, and grabbed his arm with her hand. "We were the young races once, Aesir and Vanir, and I think we would have been different if we began with kindness," she murmured into his ear. "I want something different for the humans. I want to see what they become."

He watched Gaia beyond, turn her head to stare at him as if she'd somehow heard, and her eyes were full black - and strangely warm. "Who is she?"

"Gaia is the secret heart of Midgard. A mirror of the planet's life. She is its gardener. Eir met her once long ago, seeking new flowers. I've sent a few messages since."

"And you think she is a better advocate to have here than that sorceress in the yellow robes?"

"That one's bound to strange gods that I don't understand yet, I don't like to interfere. And those norsemen that worship you are not ready for the sight of us like this." She let him go, and there was something tired and bitter in her voice. "I want something to hope for, Odin. You want peace - I want life to thrive. Is that so much?"

"Humans."

"They're still so new. They're struggling to their feet, like foals. Gaia thinks a small new renaissance will come in a few centuries, another burst of art as societies intersect. I want to see that." She studied his face and for a moment young Frigga returned, curious and alive despite her hurts. "In a thousand years, any miracle can happen."

"Or curse."

She frowned at him. "No pessimism. Not tonight. Just hope, my love. All right?"

All right. He found a smile inside of himself, gave it to her freely.

. . .

The last toast came after midnight, done in the old ways and the old tongue, Odin rattling a poem to the future, and to Frigga's hope, and that was to be the end of the moot. A pleasant moment in a pleasant space, and little more. The candles dimmed, Aelsa clapped for him, and it might have been done. The other guests laid their little gifts on the table. Icons, a bolt of fine cloth. Eitri left an ingot of starheart steel, and nodded his head in promise.

Gaia stepped forward without looking for attention, her hands empty. She moved onto the carpet that had been laid under the long table, and she smiled, and suddenly she looked youthful and bright. "I'm not much for things that we keep, I'm sorry. Good Queen, may I take your hand a moment?"

Frigga smiled and rose and went to her, ever the consummate hostess.

Gaia bowed to her, and took the hand, and then clutched Frigga tightly to her, and her face changed into something… else. Something living, and writhing, like roots scrambling in deep soil.

Odin scrambled out of his seat and charged towards the pair as the other guests gasped and turned at the sudden motion. By the time he'd moved three steps, Frigga was let go, her face bright red, and he was close enough to hear the goddess whisper. A quick chant, a speech, a spell, all in a split second, materializing in an instant. The strangeness of it, the way it teased through the ether and across his skin. He froze. This Gaia was indeed a Power.

You give kindness for the sake of hope, and you ask for nothing. I see your pain, Queen, and you do not ask for salve. You do not beg, you do not fight what you could not change. So I give it to you, because I can, because it is free and kindness should be. I give you life back, but once. Treasure it - and when kindness has need, you clutch it. I am not a seer, but I see shadows, and I see two small ones at your feet. I give you this one chance - but watch Fate. Fate may grant another.

Love, my friend Queen. Love, because when hate came, you chose to try again for hope.

Odin reached out for his wife, and the goddess was suddenly gone.

Frigga looked at him, stricken, but alive, and her fingers tangled with his.

. . .

"I…" Thor trailed off, thinking.

"You are our son, and you are so because a goddess of Earth gave Frigga a gift beyond recompense. You were born almost a year later, and Eir hid her records because she was trying to understand how that strange magic had… influenced Frigga. It's never happened before, and there are certain politics to a royal birth. The idea that we had been bribed by Midgard, or changed by them, could be dangerous to you. It's a small thing, but small things have power. In truth, we are your parents. I still don't understand why Gaia did it. I tell you her words, but I don't know all of the meaning within. I think, sometimes, she simply loved how Frigga was so curious about the realm under her care. I think she saw hope for her realm within ours. It's paid off, I suppose, tenfold or more. Whether it was her goal or not, you are as much Midgard's protector as ours. And Loki… you were also our son, because Frigga believed, to her very end, in kindness."

Thor lowered his head and nodded, and he looked satisfied. Troubled and still hurt, but the ground under him was firmer now.

Odin then lifted his head to speak to Farbauti. "Though I should, at last, apolog-"

"Don't." Farbauti was looking across the ice, not at him, not at anyone. Her voice was gruff, but it gave away nothing else. "Worked out all right."

"Your Maj-"

"Laufey was a shit entire. With the time you have left, old man, keep fighting to be better than he was." She got up and dusted the snow from her skirt. A moment later she squinted up at the sky and the stars darkening against a deeper black. "We've ice coming in and my kitchen's got a good, fat boar on. Let's get into my home and you can keep apologizing to these two. Figure you've got a few hours worth ahead."

"Farbauti."

She whirled on him, not unkindly, and with a distinct flair for the dramatic. "I'm not going to sit around here and listen to you lot get all emotional with each other when I can at least get wine inside. I did my part in getting you idiots to talk when you could have merely given up the truth a week ago, if not ages, and now I'm done with it for the day. Spare me the intricacies of your melodrama, old king, if you would do me any kindness."

Odin rolled his eye over to Loki, as if to say if you didn't know you two were related, there's some hard proof.

Loki stared back, dry and sarcastic, and absolutely not taking sides on this one.

"I brought dwarven mead," said Odin instead, as a peace offering.

"Oh thank gods, he's useful for something," muttered Farbauti, still visibly annoyed. She flung her cloak over her shoulder, beckoning at them with snapping fingers. "Come on, you three. Eccentric family dinner at the frost giant homestead. It'll cheer you up, Prince Thor. You can listen to the new pups whine for scraps, the brats."

"How big are they when born?" Curiosity ate through the shocks.

"Come up to your hip, I'd say. I don't let them 'round the tables when they get much bigger, they'll snatch the whole damn meal when you glance off. But they're good company, they keep the hall warm for guests, and they don't talk politics. I'd say we're all done with that for now." Farbauti glanced back at the three men. "Or is there something else we've got to get off our chests?"

"I think I'm good, actually," said Thor.

"Right. You?" She jutted her chin towards Loki.

"I've been jerked around by three different Queens this week and I'm really very tired," Loki said with a small smile.

"Not my fault, I didn't have the grand idea to go to bloody Alfheim." Farbauti sniffed. "Odin?"

He was quiet. Then he said, "I tried to repair my mistakes, and didn't realize for centuries that in so doing, I made countless more. I am sorry. I did what I did because I believed I was right, and because I loved my family."

"You could try listening to it more," said Thor. "There were a lot of times when you could have."

"I know." Odin nodded. "I know, Thor. It doesn't change the past, but I know now."

"It's a start," said Loki, feeling the first patter of ice against his shoulders and smelling its crispness. He reached out to grab Odin's arm when he began to move with the group towards the palace, to support the tired old man. "It matters. Even this late, it matters."

Thor took his other arm, and they went on to a warm meal and good company. They knew that things were not healed, but at least now they had a chance to begin.