Epilogue: Still Swimming

. . .

There was a forest's edge in the lee of the snowy mountains of Alfheim, and it was often dark there, and its merchants and scholars kept it warm enough to be cozier than it looked. It was a good place for someone to work uninterrupted, and people minded their own business, which was typically running supplies and information to the icebound sorcerers up where the air grew thinner.

Leamhan had been there less than a week, and he'd finally started to relax again. He'd gotten a job with a messenger team that didn't ask questions, and they didn't bother him about seeming a bit older than their usual youthful applicants. His jovial mask was on straight, he made the right connections quickly, and he was already friends with the lead barkeep at the inn where he'd gotten a room. It would do for a while. Maybe in a few months he would even dare to send his Queen a letter. He would have to move on again after, of course, just to be safe.

He missed the smell of her perfume already. A touch, a smile, a whiff of her air. It was all he needed. For Leamhan, love was never about what was physical. Titania was something more, a bit of magic given life and shape, and he would have died for her if she asked. Aelsa always frightened him, but Titania was his gentle sun.

It made him rend himself with guilt that when he had faced consequence, he'd fled as if on some animal instinct. If he were braver, he would have stayed and faced Prince Loki. But the broken blade…

He wept a lot, and he regretted. Thor hadn't seemed like a bad sort. Maybe he would have even understood the joke under it all, in time. But his own anger at Oberon had made a fool of them all, and given him an enemy in the other prince, whose distractions Leamhan had underestimated severely.

It was a cold night, and he came down from the mountain with a new tome of mossy runes to send on to a city he'd left behind, and Leamhan had his sup and slept as well and as deep as he could. Not very, to be truthful, but at least he usually felt rested enough to continue wearing his friendly face in the day to come.

The next morning brought a knock to his door, not unusual. The innkeepers passed job notifications, sometimes, and the rent would be due soon. Leamhan got up, his eyes still blurry, and opened the door a crack. "Mail," said the old fat goblin that ran the place, and he shoved a rolled letter into his hand before tottering off again.

Leamhan stared dumbly at the letter. There was no return marque, but the seal on it was a deep royal green.

Oh gods.

It unrolled itself at the warmth of his hand, the tiny bit of magic pouring over his fingertips. He twitched, waiting for the poison to kick in, his breath shallow, his gaze unable to read the words for several minutes, the world gone narrow and hazy.

But time passed, and Leamhan kept breathing. He read the letter, his hands numb and shaking around the paper.

Watchman Leamhan. You'll forgive the magic, I felt it was likely you'd take one look at this letter and find the nearest bonfire, and that wouldn't help either of us.

It is now two weeks since I presented myself to Queen Titania, who was good enough to explain the entire foolish scenario to me. She spoke kindly of you though she admitted your actions, and a visit to Queen Aelsa shortly afterward cleared the entire matter up. I suppose we may be grateful that your plan came to such a neat, if unintended, finish. I credit this entirely to your queen's transparency.

I am not the best of men, Leamhan. You and I both know my reputation. You acted against me and my family knowing it. A bold move, and a stupid one. You knew that, too.

There have been times in my life where I would cherish my vendettas. I might have even yet felt callous joy, knowing you do not sleep well so long as you know that I am angry with you quite personally. I am still angry, Leamhan. But Titania cares about you, enough so that she asked - not demanded, but asked - for consideration. I have thought about this a great deal, and I am not the best of men, but I do consider change. And I have changed my mind. I have not forgiven you, not yet, but I am not going to hunt you.

Well. Beyond the scant little I did to have this note delivered.

You're not very good at this. I suppose it's for the best that you are being granted this moment of mercy. I do not want a thank you letter, and I absolutely don't want your groveling. I want your silence, unless and until you come up with something useful to say to me.

Go home, Leamhan. Your Queen already misses you, and the sorcerers up in the mountains think you're a tit. Go do what you're better at, and for gods' sakes, don't piss me off again.

My very best regards,

Loki, Prince of the Nine, who is looking at you right now from the bakery across Shadowfalc Lane, having a good cup of coffee and an even better laugh at your expense.

Leamhan dropped the letter, whirled, and stared out his window.

Across the way, in the common room of an extremely upscale Elvish kitchen, a shadow hoisted a mug at him.

Leamhan passed clean out.

But a few minutes later, he woke up alive and more than ready to go home.

. . .

Days later ~

Loki felt the rush of the Bifrost disappearing behind him, leaving him to the mercy of a sudden blizzard, but he kept his eye on his phone despite all that. He was no longer central to the issue of the threats agains the UN council session, as he'd missed a fair amount while he was trying to resolve the latest family drama. It hadn't magically all ended here in Jotunheim. He ended up staying an extra few days in Asgard, mediating the familiar shoutfest that was the other part of sorting out the issues and the hurt around good old family secrecy. It meant, in its backwards way, that things were slowly getting better.

And at night, like old times, he and Thor talked. Mostly about the thing they hadn't wanted to at day, when they looked at Odin, and at Asgard, and at the past.

Odin was dying. He'd been fighting it for a long time, and he'd begun to let go after Frigga's death. They spoke in hushed tones about how he was still holding on, if a little, for their sakes. For the truths he'd been struggling to admit, for Thor's sake, still fond of being part of Midgard, for the chance to see Loki continue to change. To prepare Asgard and to keep it safe. They were not easy conversations, but they were necessary ones. It might not be this year, that final rest, but it was going to be soon, and no matter what, they weren't going to be ready.

But together, Loki supposed, they were going to try.

Meanwhile, Coulson and the team had figured out who was trying to pin Latveria as a terrorist influence against the now in-progress UN meeting. In the end, the mundane truths had come out - Lucia von Bardas, Doom's former attache, gave SHIELD a handful of trackcodes related to old technology that seeped out of the country, and those trackcodes had finally led, with a little old-fashioned spycraft and some dedicated internet scraping, to a Russian troll-factory with just enough deniability that now everyone in DC was fighting over whether or not to sanction the Russian government again.

On the whole, maybe it had been for the best that Loki had missed the culmination of the mess. He had offered a few quick but not very politic solutions, anyway. Like the one that would involve a Dwarven flame-spigot and a particular horse-riding asshole strapped to a pile of his embezzled money.

He'd mentioned that idea to Coulson in front of Talbot. Talbot nearly threw up. Well, at least that part had been worth showing up for.

Loki put his phone away, content that things were finally moving smoothly for a change, and he smiled up at Gymir, who met him at the palace gate. Loki sent a request earlier in the day to visit, and had been surprised at how quickly permission had been given.

On Gymir's face was no hint of any old scars, just that content and happy smile. He was a good man, and a good shaman, and he hummed a little through his belly to keep them both company as he walked the small prince in towards the Queen's personal hall, where she stayed and did her work when she didn't need the throne room for appearances.

A wolf pup the size of a small bus lifted his head and uttered a funny little 'bork' at him, waving its grey tail with shivery intensity, and Loki patted its muzzle as he passed into the room. It smelled like dog in there, and warm spices, and mulling wine. Good smells, and comforting ones. He felt not entirely out of place for once, and that new strangeness made him almost change his mind and flee with a polite word.

Queen Farbauti was seated at what was for her a small table overloaded with decorated drop spindles, parchments, a spilling pile of fabrics, and at least six precariously leaning candles. Her private space was a mess, frankly, and she looked comfortable at it. "It's so nice to have room in which to spread my toys around," she said without looking up from a letter she was reading. Her long black hair was bound up in braids and ribbons, more for comfort than presentation, and she was wrapped in thick blankets. "And yet I keep cramming everything close to me."

She sighed and put the letter down, looking at Loki with lidded, wry eyes. "It's what happens when you fit a prison too long. Perhaps in time I'll actually get used to the open sky again, and grow to fit that, too. Hmm. So, Odinson, what brings you to Jotunheim this day? There was no notice of intent, so I'm making no assumptions."

Loki glanced to his side as Gymir left them, pressing his hands together and wondering why he felt suddenly so nervous. "Why do you still call me that?"

"It's not untrue. He has been your father, a better one than you might have had otherwise." She leaned back, resting an elbow on the headrest of her tall chair. "Does it bother you so much?"

He frowned, not sure of the answer, exactly.

Farbauti studied his expression, and he saw her brows furrow together, tight and black, and it looked much like him in the mirror on stressful mornings. "All right, now you've really got my curiosity. Is it the old king? Is he sick?"

That surprised Loki, too. Farbauti was excellent at reading people, often even him - but this was a sudden slip of perception. He thought he might have been obvious, and yet he was not. "I…" His voice cracked, and that bothered him.

Concern creased Farbauti's face, deep and azure.

"You know." Loki looked up at the ceiling, and he fought himself free. "This matter with Thor, so fraught over his parentage. Turned out fine in the end, in a way, but what I wanted to agree with Thor about, should have, was that in the end it wouldn't have mattered what the truth was. Whether a goddess interfered, whether it had been someone else entirely that Odin had courted for the purpose of a royal heir, Frigga was his mother. And mine, of course. She was there for us all her life, and she did her best. With kindness in her heart."

Farbauti said nothing.

"But that's… that's not everything a family is sometimes, is it? And we lost her, in tragedy. That… it still hurts." Loki faltered, and old pieces of himself were screaming, reminding him that denial was better. Safer. He fought them, too. "But. Despite everything. Despite Odin's secrets and all the pain, and everything that went wrong. I. Well." The words squirmed in his mouth, because they were true and they hurt and he needed them. "I still have a mother, don't I?"

Still, Farbauti said nothing. She only looked at him, and either he couldn't read the expression on her face, or he wouldn't let himself.

Loki's voice was soft now, because it was all he had the courage for. "I was hoping to learn a little more about our family. If you'll tell me."

Farbauti shifted in her chair, pushing it back a few inches. She leaned out of it, towards him without looming, and she said, just as softly, "I think you would enjoy hearing about my Ma'mah, Loki. She would have liked you rather a lot."

. . .

There is a place on Earth that is a part of everywhere, and is yet an entirely hidden secret. In this place is a cave where time and space doesn't matter, because in this cave is the wellspring of this world's life, and life is eternal.

The cave has a keeper, a gardener, and She forever keeps it thriving no matter what the people living around it do, and it's not so much what or who the people are but that they try to survive that matters to Her. There is Life, and it fights to be itself, and She does her best to mother it. She is not life itself, but She is its keeper here.

She's left her cave a few times, but only a few. Always because She saw a chance to tend life elsewhere, in the hopes that it would continue to nurture and grow, and because it makes Her happy to do so. It's what She does. Sometimes She sees a piece of that greater Power that made her in passing, and Her name is Death, and Gaia thinks of her kindly, like a sister, because life and death are part of the same eternal tapestry and there's nothing to fear about any of it.

She remembers that distant Queen of that just as distant realm, grieving for life, for death, and for love. She remembers seeing a chance to give a life back and taking it, because it made them both happy to have it.

And sometimes, She sees the baby She helped bless into being walk on Her world, and it makes Her happy, because She hadn't intended to give Her world another protector, or avenger, but Thor is a good man, and he's learned to fight on behalf of kindness.

It is all She could have asked for, and She is content.

Gaia smiles from Her secret cave, and the dawning sun gleams ever brighter when She does.

. . .

And later yet, in a possible slip of future ~

It became a little harder every day to move the way he wanted to, but Odin did so if for no other reason to try and redeem his mistakes with the time he had left. One of those mistakes, a distant sort of old relationship that had been made out of anger and blame, was waiting for him in a private solar at his request. The guards didn't know about his guest, and his family certainly did not, and he supposed they would be eventually angry with him that here he was, building yet another secret behind their backs.

It was a habit, honestly. And habits, bad ones, should be broken. Odin knew that. And yet…

This secret had a very particular purpose, however, and when it became revealed, he hoped that the clarity of his choices would soothe that annoyance more quickly this time.

Family safety. It was better to talk to the family, yes. He understood that now. But he also knew how stubborn his sons could be, and how much they might put themselves in danger out of spite. So, fully knowing the consequences, Odin had sent word and built the outline of a plan. If his guest agreed to what he had to say, it would be in her hands from here. He would offer her his support as she needed.

The solar was just ahead. He reached out with a shaking hand - age and failing muscles and bone deep pain, and he looked at it as if it was a betrayer, and let himself in, looking at the sunlight where it outlined the shape of his guest. She rose, and gave him the proper curtsy, speaking with her head bowed. "I was very surprised at your letter, Your Majesty."

"Surprised enough that you came without a fight."

"You wrote it and invoked her name, sire. You know that's enough to bring me back to the palace."

Odin smiled, rueful. "Lady Kara, I won't waste your time since you have been kind enough to give it. I have a request for you, in the name of the family, and in the name of Frigga, who I believe to my soul would ask this of you should she be alive."

Lady Kara sat back down in her chair, and he saw the hidden blade under the sleeve of her silken blue dress, where one always was. He felt no threat from her, and that was nice, he decided. She was looking at him, doubtful and distrusting, and he didn't blame her, for he had often made her the scapegoat back when Frigga's plans were the real culprit. She said nothing, and she waited for him to speak.

"For the strife between us, I apologize."

Kara blinked, the only glimmer of surprise she gave.

"I am asking you, as a Lady of Asgard and as the… private contractor I know you are from time to time, to undertake what will undoubtedly be a difficult security assignment. With full financial support and information from this throne."

A single tweak, near her lip's corner. "On whose behalf?"

"Loki." Odin placed both his hands on his desk, using them to settle himself into his seat and trying to ignore the jolting ache in his hips. "My son is currently in a greater danger than he knows."

Lady Kara's lips pursed as she considered this. She folded her hands on the desk across from his and leaned towards him, a conspirator agreeing to his terms. "Tell me more."

~Fin

A lion among ladies, is a most dreadful thing ~ A Midsummer Night's Dream

Notes:

There's one other time that a fic underwent a major change when I was already in progress, and that was writing out Bruce Banner from The Janus Paradox after Age of Ultron released in theaters. It was a thing at the time, trying to sort of remain current with the MCU. We've let that slide more lately, and that's not what changed here.

The original outline for this fic had Thor remaining on Earth with Loki as SHIELD fought against the clock to figure out this knot with the UN. And being good natured and wanting to help, Thor makes a few missteps, creating further tensions with Loki even as they're also both trying to riddle out Odin's latest asshole mystery and what Gaia had to do with it.

All that shit went out the window once I sent the two on what was supposed to be a quick sidetrip to Alfheim. Aelsa and her Shakespearean-themed tangled affair became instantly way more interesting than what was mostly going to be another round of me being mad at the real world, and I realized eventually meeting Oberon and Titania was going to be lots more fun to write, too.

So about 80% of the outline got rewritten overnight, when I was already several chapters in. Interestingly, the final two chapters remained the same as that first outline. All that changed is how we got there. And of that… yeah, everything. Yikes.

Leamhan is Shakespeare's 'Moth,' one of Titania's servants in the play. His name is an old Irish word that means exactly that. Titania's servants are typically written as female fae, but since we can argue for unreliable narration to put English butts in seats, he's male now, an Elf who loves his Queen enough to conspire for her peace, not for cruelty's sake. Mooar the glashytn is a reference to Hom Mooar, a mythical fairy fiddler in Manx lore, where the glashytn seem to originate. Oberon and Titania need little clarification, although their physical depictions here are made up.

Aelsa is a comics importation, given a little more screentime here than she usually gets, and a little more grey complexity, too. She's fun. She's not at all evil, really, but she's fifteen steps ahead of everyone in her realm and loving it.

Baldur's painfully human crib death is my invention, although he is being mentioned here as a way to address the MCU ignoring that he exists in both myth and comics, while Hela, obviously, is me trying to thread the needle between her version in Ragnarok and her previous references in my fic, such as in 'We Lived in Castles,' which informs the incident where a young Loki very nearly dies.

It's not easy stuff. If you want to argue that I should be clearer about disagreeing with Odin's decisions here and that the brothers may have a chance at redeeming her, it's a good argument. Might be we'll get back to it. But I think of parents who don't understand how they wound up with a school shooter for a son, or lose them to drugs, and it's just… not easy stuff. Loki found his path towards redemption because it was the only way he was going to survive. Hela, as seen in Ragnarok, is utterly secure in herself. She may not want redemption.

I love all the fanart of the siblings hanging out being silly teens.

Gaia, in comics, is Thor's real mother. It was done to give him a closer bond to Midgard, though Frigga raised him. I'm skipping a lot. From the first outline, I wrestled with making her Thor's mother outright here, but I'm… mostly content with the path I took. There's some ambiguity if Frigga is left pregnant by Her touch, or if she and Odin had a good few nights after the shindig. It was unintentional on first draft, but I've also left it there, so hey. Her cave in the epilogue is a vague reference to a previous fandom of mine - in my head, it's the secret cave from LOST's final seasons.

I don't know when you'll see more Codex. I'm taking some time for a while, and there's a lot on my mind. So we'll see what the future has. I'll be around, and I'm always up to chat if you want to.

Try to be good to each other. Sometimes kindness really is the best we've got to give each other.

8/8/2018. All rights to Marvel.