Offhand: a SHIELD Codex Holiday Short

. . .

Being born into a near-immortal life gives a person a different perspective on time than those born onto worlds with far briefer lifespans, yet boredom will always creep in at the fringes. Ennui can begin to color a world's philosophy; fatalism, mortality, and dark fascinations are all possible. Asgard and its kingdoms, having survived with this different and extremely long-term perspective for rather a long time, even as they reckoned time, had its own well-practiced ideas on how to deal with all this heavy thinking. Honorable combat, war, and brutal duals were one method that kept minds sharp and hands busy, and this tactic even managed to tickle away the darker urges while it was at it. War was useful to Asgard, and keeping it at least somewhat honorable was necessary.

The other big method used were the revels.

Asgard threw a lot of revels.

There were high feasts, grand feasts, festivals, weekly houseparties at some noble houses, hunts, competitions, neighborhood shindigs, fetes throw in someone's honor, and an ascending semi-mathematical scale of birthdays. The first year was critically important, then the child turned five, then ten, then twenty, fifty, a hundred, and then typically on the centennial from there for a while, until it became a once in a millennia thing. Every child in Asgard knew you got the best gifts at any revel before you turned fifty, then you saved up your coin and trades and treated your damn self during your birthday fest, because if anything was universal, it was that being able to buy a good gift for another adult was a rare talent.

And of course, gods bless, there were the weddings. A good noble wedding could distract people for a few years, depending on how close the assumptive guests were to the family.

The last good wedding had been several years ago. People were getting squirrelly. Thus, it was time for more revels, deemed the king of Asgard. The apple harvest had been a ridiculously good one, the city surrounding the golden palace near-drowning in high quality cider and mead barrels. A lady couldn't give a damn apple pie away in a two hundred league radius of the capital, unless she also threw in a keg and delivered it herself.

The Great Apple Harvest of the Century. It made for a nice excuse. The two princes had suggested to each other, in voices fearful of their breaking of adult taboo, that calling it the 'Fuck These Apples Party' would be more accurate. The suggestion went no further than their rooms. Which smelled like apples. Which they hated.

. . .

Loki was past twelve, and at that precocious stage where he thought it was, frankly, some high bullshit that he wasn't going to get another party of his own until he was twenty, which was a number so far in the future to him that it might as well be made up. He knew it wasn't, actually, he was quite good at his maths, but it still felt like a long ruddy way off.

It didn't help that someone found an excuse to shovel all sorts of boring gifts at his family about once a week, and he was supposed to pretend to be grateful for all of it. It's not that he didn't understand grace, it's that there isn't a child anywhere in the universe that's going to be happy when a stack of grandly illustrated paperwork presented to the King of Asgard and his family that says that some herd of cows or stack of silk or what-the-hel-ever is now resting in the royal warehouses somewhere.

He still smiled to be polite, and he held the vague hope that if he kept doing it right, he might get some sort of little treat or present from somebody for the effort. Because, and he told himself he wasn't bitter, every once in a while Thor looked disappointed or acted out and he still got a new shield with a new crest on it, or a visit to a good Dwarven smith, or something else neat.

It was also high bullshit to be rewarded for being a brat, when Loki behaving right became just an assumption and if he got out of line, he was absolutely going to be punished. Odin told him once, trying to be conciliatory, that Loki was far more mature and wise than his slightly older brother, and that he should be what Thor looked up to. In that regard.

High. Bullshit.

The mild curse was currently young Loki's favorite phrase, and he often said it under his breath when Odin was angry about something. He said it at weapons practice, and he said it, in his mind and heart, to his teachers when he knew damn well he'd gotten something controversial in the lesson researched to new and interesting conclusion and they were certain their copies of the history were correct and he was wrong.

Didn't matter if he could back himself up with sources. The issue would just abruptly go away and they'd be done with that particular segment of galactic history.

High. Ruddy. Bullshit.

Loki was twelve and the health classes bored him, so he didn't make the connection that he was at that stage where kids felt pissy and put upon pretty much all the time. He did know that the latest revel was starting tonight, and he was supposed to play nice at it, and at least Mother was going to be there so at least hopefully she would play with him a little and stave off some of chance of death-by-being-social, but he didn't hope for much else.

Cynicism came early to Loki. Its common side effect, a smart mouth, usually got him into trouble, but he liked the cynicism and refused to lighten up. It made him feel wiser, which was nice, since even before choosing to be a smart-aleck, the number of friends of his own could be counted on one hand. That had been amputated. Leaving a stump. So he was okay telling himself he didn't need anyone.

. . .

The first night of the revel, all things considered, felt like had gone pretty well so far, actually. Loki and Thor stood on either side of their mother, trying to figure out when they could shift their weight or make various necessary kid noises without getting the notice of whatever nobleman was currently parked in front of Odin. Thor behaved, even when some guy tried to pass off a stacked table of (golden) apples as a nice gift, which was amazing, because Loki could feel Frigga herself almost tense up at the notion of more goddamn apples in the palace.

They were using apples as candelabras at this point. Gilded apples loaded with candles, dotted all around the festival areas. The wax melted elegantly onto them, chaotic sculptures. Edible wax, naturally. So that the apples could be chucked into the stables later without any fuss.

Even the horses looked a little tired of apples, really, but at least they kept gamely eating them.

And everyone's patience was well rewarded. Thor was favored with a genuine smile from his father, and Loki caught a whiff that he would be getting another gift a little later on, and then Mother pulled him aside, kissed the top of his head, and pressed! A new! Book! into his arms.

His excitement could not be overstated, as he saw that it was in fact a grimoire on herbs and artifact magic written by some coven of long-ago old witches. A man at the edge of a desert, given not just water, but shown a fountain of dancing water and maybe offered a pony. His face lit up bright, his eyes lost their hooded and dour look, and his hands scrabbled over the cover in open delight. Later in his life, these would be the rare moments that shined like starlight in his memory.

"You can read it later," Frigga told him, ruffling his hair. "For now, you still have to attend the dinner, and be with your brother. But I thought you'd like having something to look forward to."

He did. The book was not going to leave his side until he was able to return to his rooms. He sat protectively on it, like a hen, as baskets of apple-bread and pie and spiced juicy pork and creamy apple sauce went around the table for what seemed like forever. He held it. He ran his fingers along the spine of it, feeling the old, worn leather. Like so many of his books, his treasures that were his real friends in all the galaxy.

And it was with him when shit went south, as things too often did for young Loki.

. . .

They were friends of Thor, in the sense that young boys often gained and lost packs of friends as years or even seasons changed, and they were a couple of years older, because Asgard didn't exactly have tons of kids at any one time for logistical reasons, and Thor had been pulled away to be fawned over by another group of adults wanting a moment with the crown prince of Asgard.

They were also, though Loki wouldn't learn the application of this common human term for many centuries, absolute dickheads. They were nice when adults were around, and they were sort of nice but mostly boisterously physical with Thor, and they had zero use for Thor's kid brother, who was currently lacking an escape route and was stuck with the usual 'you're more mature, you should be able to deal with this' mindset, matched neatly with his equally useless title of 'prince of the realm.' Bullies didn't care about titles. They cared about consequences, and they currently had no witnesses to their dickery.

"Let me see the damn book!" said Othor, trying to sound like a grown-up. Like any apex predator, he'd immediately zeroed in on the younger boy's weakness and was getting grabby about it.

"No," said Loki. His arms clutched protectively around his gift and despite himself, he backed up another step. They were in a room next to the main banquet. There wasn't much in here, except for a few set-aside sticky bowls of cider, napkins in need of a wash, and a table strewn with used goblets. A staging area for later cleanup, and a private fortress for kids being stupid.

"Gods. It's just a dumb book. Why are you hugging it like it's a toy? Do you still like toys?"

Loki bared his teeth and didn't answer. He had a full, almost physical vision of this jackass taking his book and chucking it into one of the wetter cider bowls. Sweat started to bead at the nape of his neck.

"Othor," said one of the other kids, looking at Loki and trying to paw at the bigger kid's arm. "Come on, his dad's the King, let him keep his stupid book, I don't want to get into trouble over this. Knock it off, it's a party."

"And I want to celebrate. Just us." Othor puffed up, looming over Loki. "You should read us a bedtime story. One of the ones for really little boys. Is that what's in that book? Maybe the one about the mouse knight and the baby wolf? I loved that story. When I was five."

The other kid groaned, but took his hand away. So much for any further help from that quarter. "Gods, Othor," he said, but he said it quiet, looking shiftily at one of the other boys. He'd tried, his conscience was clear on what was going to happen.

Loki backed up some more, pricklingly aware that there were barrels, a lump of linens, and two corners behind him. The idiot part of his brain suggested crawling into a barrel until the big kids went away, but while he'd angrily decided Othor was stupid, he wasn't going to be that stupid. "Fuck you," he said, trying to make it sound snarly and dangerous, and realizing by Othor's face and the squeaking in his own ears that it would have worked - if he was a one pound kitten.

"Fuck me, little prince? Fuck you." Othor lunged, annoyed by Loki's defiance and seeing a chance to get a hit in and still claim he was the wounded party if caught. Loki, already quicker than most, shoved himself backward and watched in slow-motion as the kid's fingertips traced the corner of the book.

Then his boot heels got caught up in a tangle of linens, and he landed, softly but equally trapped, in a sticky pile. He kept the book in front of him, letting wine and food stain his good wool and gold-thread tunic instead of his prize. Othor started to laugh. "Oh my gods, you can't even walk right. You going to crawl next, baby? Crawl?"

Loki's face burned, and he wanted to scream that he was faster and smarter than any of them, he'd just gotten unlucky, but if he wanted to, he could kill all of them, right there, kill them with a big and powerful spell, just like the old witches in his book, all them stupid, boring bullies, and instead his throat hic'd a betrayal and he realized he was a good three seconds from full out bawling. Like a baby. With his favorite toy clutched in his arms.

Othor was about to lean in and laugh in his face, but a curled up fist swung in high from the side and laid the little asshole out.

Othor didn't even stagger, he flew to his left and dropped like a sack - of apples, whispered Loki's furious mind, like a bag of rotted apples, full of worms and dripping cyanide - and his jaw hung slackly open.

The other boys froze, looking at Thor, who was smaller and younger, but who could already hit like a Dwarf with anger management issues, and who was glowering at them with a terrible, almost lightning-glow gleam in his eye. Loki felt shame rush over him, but also gratitude, a brother's love, and confused, pissy annoyance at the sight of him.

Meanwhile, the other boys didn't know what a berserker was yet, but they knew they were up against something awful, and ye gods, was it pissed.

"I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I tried to stop him, I'm so sorry, I'm s-"

Thor's stare stopped the babbling. Loki didn't have to tell Thor what went down, he could hear it in the boy's voice. "Didn't try very damned hard, did you?"

"I should have done more, I should have, please don't hit me."

Thor raised his fist, content to not give the other boy what he wanted in favor of what Thor desperately wanted, and froze when the adult shout came from behind them.

Loki looked at the man, the noble father of one of the boys, and looked at the attendant girl that swept in next, her face stuck in horror at kids being shits, and he knew what was going to be yelled next.

"What in blazes is going on here?" is how it started, and it ended, predictably, with an "All of you should know better!"

Loki felt tired and sad and he didn't even want to go back to his room with his book now. He would, but no small amount of the light had gone out of him for the evening.

All this was going to be followed by a second refrain of 'you should know better, you two, and especially you, Loki,' by someone down the line. Loki had no real gift for prophecy, but he knew where this was heading.

. . .

Oh, it got worse.

The man in charge of 'you should know better, and especially you, Loki,' was their weaponsmaster at training the next day. That was the starter. The next kick in the teeth went about as bad.

"Prince Loki." The palace weaponsmaster stood in front of him, staring down. He was a large man, but not in the sense of weight alone. He was big, taller than almost anyone Loki had ever known, with a thick chest like a barrel of Dwarven steel. He didn't look muscular, but that was a ruse. Under the roundness of his belly was a stack of muscle that made him a master of huge swords, hammers, pikes that could be fastened to warships, and more. His power made him almost graceful. One of the most dangerous warriors in Asgard, and this role was his reward.

Loki hated him, because though the man remained as respectful as his princely title demanded, it was clear to him that that's all he had in his favor. The man had little use for Loki. Most sessions were awful, and Loki never helped himself, because the disdain he had for most of the weapons of Asgard were clear. They were too heavy for his liking. Bulky. Slow.

But he had to attend, because of that title. Because Father had said so, that it was the duty of princes. On the other side of the practice ring, Thor stole worried looks at him. He was favored here, a good student, and got a lot of leeway with the weaponsmaster because of it, but not enough to help his brother when the man was on a tear.

"Sir," said Loki.

"The fight." That sat in the air for a while. When it became clear Loki wasn't going to say anything, the weaponsmaster crossed his arms. "While both of you should have known better than to get into an altercation with other children-"

Loki prepared to die inside.

"I must address the situation as it was, not what it should have been. Why did you not fight back, young prince?"

Loki blinked, as rapid as his heartbeat.

"Where was your defense? It is unseemly for a warrior of Asgard, having found themselves in the fight despite what ought to be, to not defend themselves. To carry themselves with the honor and power of our great kings." The weaponsmaster's face pulled downward at him, disapproval all but dripping from the thick beard.

Thor tried to push forward, but their teacher, sensing him, put up a hand. "You alone, young Prince. I request an answer."

Shame turned Loki cold, then hot anger, acid nausea, back to the chills. All this in a second. High bullshit, screamed his mind, far and wee. The truth then, damn the man. "I was protecting what was mine."

"A book, I'm told." Loyalty to the palace kept the contempt out of his voice. It was in his eyes, anyway. "My prince, no great warrior has given ground to protect a -"

It fell out him, humiliation making him scream back in anger. "Maybe they should! Knowledge outlasts us! That book will outlast me, if I take care of it!"

Cold, that face. He didn't blink at the boy's screams, he didn't twitch. Thor was white. "That it will, at this rate. Young prince. That it very likely will."

Loki took a ragged breath, hurt and unable to call out the insult. He'd set the trap for it all by himself. He stole looks at other practicing warriors, all of whom didn't look at the ring with the princes in it. All of whom knew clearly what was happening anyway, listening close. Something snapped, bitterness making him strike again, all the things he'd wanted to yell at the man for the last four years. An eight year old trying to hold a wooden greatsword bigger than him, a twelve year old still trying. Failing.

It was too much. Something about last night had been the last straw, or now. He didn't know. The contempt meant he didn't have anything left to fear. "Damn right I will under your training! These weapons don't suit me, your methods don't suit me. There's other styles besides being a heavy brute. There's sword-dancers out there, I've read about them, short sw-"

"Sword dancers. Are women."

The tone stopped Loki, something worse than contempt in the voice. All his shame, seeming to be reflected in the big man. The weaponsmaster looked away, as if realizing there was no further point in brutalizing the corpse of a little boy. No honor in his destruction. Thor looked like he was going to cry.

Can't stop this fight, can you, brother?

Loki couldn't keep the thought from sounding bitter, echoing in his mind, hollow as bird bone. He put his hands up, as if he thought to shove at the weaponsmaster. Enough unfairness, enough of being the one picked on, enough of everything. A part of him hoped that if he did strike out, the man would actually hurt him in retribution. Maybe kill him. At least he could feel it then, in his skin.

"Enough." Before he could do anything, the big man grabbed his shoulder. It didn't hurt. It was almost gentle - the shame meaning he didn't want to hurt the lost lamb. "Enough, prince. I am like to lose my temper at your disobedience today, so we must look to another."

Loki waited for it to get worse, surrendering. He was empty.

"We're going to see your mother."

For once, that sounded like no promise or comfort.

. . .

The man laid out what was said and done as he knelt before the queen, and Loki supposed, to his credit, he told it true. What was the point to adding anything else? Loki had talked back to one of Odin's personally chosen tutors, disobeyed all his training, behaved in a manner no grown warrior would ever allow, and suggested the man, thousands of years a hero, was somehow unfit.

Loki watched Frigga's hands wring and twist against each other, the fingers picking at nails and knuckle folds as her face gave away nothing. He couldn't read the hands alone, it was a constant, nervous action that either meant something or absolutely nothing. He'd already picked it up, but his temperament was, so far, always plain to see. A thumb bled where he'd picked it edge of it raw, standing still behind the weaponsmaster as his faults were laid out.

"Thank you, Thane Alvid."

The weaponsmaster bowed his head. Loki wondered if that was the first time he'd ever heard the man's name. "I regret any disappointments I have caused your great house."

"No need for apologies, sir. If you would, I would like to speak to my son, and consider our next course of action."

"Of course, Your Majesty."

They both waited until he left, Loki standing with his head bowed, Frigga sinking into her nearby chair with regal weight. He heard her breathe, and he couldn't lift his head even when the door to her private salon shut again.

"All right, Loki. I want to hear what happened in your words." It sounded gentle enough.

He didn't trust his voice to not rattle. "The weaponsmaster's story is true."

"I believe it is, my son, but I want to hear it from you, equally truthfully. I would like to know why you behaved as you did."

It took him a minute to start, and he began the tale from where he stood in the practice ring, as if that had been the only part that mattered, because he thought that's all anyone would care about. But when he got to the bits about what it had been about, he found himself rolling the story back around, retelling bits, and finding himself at the last night's revel all over again.

The words came out of him, rushed, as he found the details that hurt the most, his tongue falling all over them. "You gave me that book, and it meant everything to me, the revels are so boring and we're supposed to behave and we only get noticed if we don't, I screw up and everyone gets on me about it, because I'm supposed to be the mature one. I'm supposed to stand there, and be good, and do it right, every time, because if I don't I'm a failure. But I was good and you noticed, and I wanted to be happy, was happy, so nothing was going to happen to that book, and-and-an—"

"And then Alvid made you feel even more like a little boy. Because you don't want to fight like Thor."

Loki dragged in a sniffle. Baby, whispered his mind. Big baby.

"Sweetheart, you are still a little boy, and I know that's going to hurt you for a second. Don't take that to heart. It's a frustration, being tired of being small, so all children try to feel bigger and older, and it's easier when one grows up faster than his peers. Or is stronger. Or feels more like part of a group."

That did sting, and for much longer than a second. He dragged in another sniffle, staring at the ground.

"Please look at me, Loki."

He tried to. She was hazy, a mess of gold and blue, and he could barely make out her face through the tears that were betraying him.

"This is also going to hurt for a moment. I know this is not what you want to hear. Loki, Thane Alvid is a good man, and I doubt it was his intent to make you feel too small."

He opened his mouth to protest.

"I know. He hurt you anyway." His vision was clearing, he saw her bite her lip as she considered her words. "He was one of Odin's lieutenants, a long time ago. A man that gladly bent the knee to my King after spending his youth serving Bor. A great warrior, a good but imperfect man, as all of us are. And I have seen him weep, when he lost warriors under his responsibility. Some of them terribly young.

"When Alvid grew older and wearier of constant fight, Odin offered him a place in his household to train more warriors for our realm. And Alvid came to his work naturally, because he knows something that is critical to every trainer like him: That he cannot be gentle with his students, that he must drive them to be better every session. Lest he feel the weight of their death, and must weep at another wake for another young man. And he has done magnificently in this task, so much so that more time passes, and now he is a selective tutor to royal and noble men.

"It is a proud role he has, and a difficult one. A gift from Odin that is also a burden. Sometimes he makes mistakes, and he feels anger, because he is afraid of losing something precious to our house. Sometimes it feels like cruelty, because the fear of loss hurts him so much." Frigga reached out to Loki, asking wordlessly for his hand. He gave it, feeling the warmth as it folded around his smaller one. "This is not the first time he's come to talk to me, Loki."

Loki swallowed hard, and then the world blurred again. "I'm that awful?"

She pulled him in, tight. "Sweetness, no. He blames himself for not being a better teacher. As I began, he knows he is imperfect. He trains men like him, big and strong. He is at a loss with other types of combat, and he has tactfully asked questions where I might hear. As you boys grow older, he tells me the years come where such training is less play and more critical for you."

Loki's mind was still whirling. "The sword-dancers, I told him, and he-"

"He told you the truth, and harshly, as befits him in the ring. I won't apologize for him, Loki. He does not want you to like him."

"He hates me, he-"

"No, he doesn't. I understand it is easy to look at a man like him and think that's what you see. And worse, he would accept that from you and never fight it." She leaned back and took him by the shoulders, studying him. "Some months ago, I went to him with a suggestion of my own. I have needed time to make the arrangements, and he had been hoping to build your strength meanwhile. I was going to tell you come winter, and make it a small gift between us. But I think you need it now."

A gift? Loki didn't know what to make of that.

"I need a couple of days to finalize a schedule, my son. I would like you to go to your quarters for now and rest. Your next few days will be much the same, and yes, you will still attend Alvid's lessons. Wait for a message from me, Loki. Know this will get better for you."

His lips bunched and bent downward, doubting but hoping and still shaky all over.

Frigga pulled him in for another hug. "Go. And know that you are not a disappointment. I love you, my son."

He hugged back, feeling her warmth and smelling her hair, and he felt a slight bit better.

. . .

It took four days until Frigga's message was left in his room after morning lessons. On the next day, he would not attend Alvid's lesson, but he would take his practice gear to a field instead, just on the other side of the palace, to meet someone.

Loki didn't know what to expect. He wore the leathers Alvid demanded at the ring, a thick suit of boarhide, with armored boots to match. Heavy gear. He didn't like it, he never liked feeling trapped in one place, or slowed down. Feet clomping as he passed into one of the little paddocks along the walls, where sometimes sheep came to graze to keep the grass neat.

A man was there, waiting for him. He was seated on a boulder at first, but at the sight of the prince he was on his feet, the speed of the motion almost seeming like one of Frigga's illusions. Loki blinked and took him in - a lithe figure, with thinner leathers on his arms and legs, and a padded tunic. All of this was layered in browns and blacks, and his chest was strapped with a thin leather belt that held at least a dozen tiny daggers. Longer ones rested at his hips, matched and hilted with sharp blued steel pommels. His hair was grey and there were crinkles all along his face, but he moved like a young man.

"Are you an assassin?" Loki blurted, his imagination trying to come up with a scenario where his mother had secretly worked with Arvid to get him killed for being a drag on the palace. His heart thumped.

"If I were, I'd be a terrible one, young prince. There are others that are better at that work than I." The man sounded amused. "My name is Sture of Vanaheim, and I'm knifrmen, as they used to call it. A daggerman, if you prefer. I do. I think it sounds better over a mug of ale."

Loki stared. It seemed obvious possible, a fast man with daggers, and yet it felt like something in his universe had abruptly shifted.

"It's archaic to Asgard, but no few of the Vanir keep the art of the short blade alive. And aye, quite a number of them are women." Sture cocked his head at the young prince. "Can you guess why?"

"Because…" He frowned. "I don't know. Everyone tells me some weapons are for girls."

Sture laughed, and here he showed his age. It was a cawing sound, bony and harsh. "And they say that, lad, because the secret of our Nine Realms is that the girls are smarter than the boys. Gods forbid the day they wake and figure that, a whole industry'll die when they figure out that so many of their lasses can cut their knickers off and bleed them dry from the thigh with a twitch of the hand."

Sture took a gliding, light step towards Loki. "Assassins are oft girls where I came from, aye. Politically useful marriages always start with a girl who knows where her knife is. A few others out there pick different disciplines. I'm told you know of the sword dancer lasses, and no doubt you know the old brigade of Valkyries Asgard used to keep in reserve. It's a shame that we men turned their gifts into something 'unmanly.'" His head tweaked, like a bird. "May I speak plain, your highness, as we discuss?"

"Of course." Gods, yes please. Sometimes he hated his title.

"Sometimes men are right dumb shits, lad." Sture gave off another of those huge, cawing laughs. "My wife reminds me of this regularly. I can still take her in a fight, mostly, so I suppose I learned something off her and her family." A hand flicked, quick and light. A dagger appeared, danced along his fingers, then slipped away again. Loki had quick eyes, but he couldn't catch how it was done. "My lady knows your Queen Mum rather well, as it be. So it takes a little time as I'm off on jobs, doing work for our Jarls, but come to pass I hear they've got a lad might be better suit for a quick blade than a heavy arm. That you, then?"

Loki's eyes began to gleam. Here was a new future he'd never predicted. "I hope so, sir."

"I guess we'll see." The dagger appeared again, and this time Loki saw it long enough to see it was small and light, and not very sharp. It flipped high through the air, and Loki gawked at it for a second before realizing it was coming towards him in a smooth arc.

He caught it by the handle, fumbling only a little. It was heavy in his hand, but not like the broadswords Alvid tried to teach him with. He curled his fingers along the handle, shifting it in his palm, and the presence of it was still there - but the blade seemed to go featherweight as he found its balance.

"You've got a good eye and a good hand." Sture pointed at him with another dagger that had appeared at the tips of his fingers. "Now, I expect you've seen a seax like that before. In the offhand of a man with a bigger sword in his other, no doubt, and that's all men here know. Daggers are the desperate option, too quick and light for their kind. It takes finesse to work a dagger as a main. It takes being smart."

Loki looked from the dagger to Sture, his eyes now hurting from how wide they were. This was as interesting as any book he'd read!

"The trick is making being unnoticed into your own weapon. The trick is to make them think of you as that disregarded offhand, until your blade's too close to be countered. The armor you need best for this is learned when you stop letting them hurt you by thinking such a weapon is only for girls. You seen big cats at hunt?"

"Aye." They were magnificent. Loki had a whole 'chanted book that showed how various species of the galaxy hunted and stalked, the lineart in beautiful motion when he passed his hand over the images. The panthers especially were in his dreams sometimes.

"Then you know the girls are the executioners. Frank again, fuck our own for thinking the lioness is lesser, that it is unmanly to kill so fluidly."

Loki was grinning like an absolute idiot, a boy at the gilded gates of some new and previously undiscovered heaven.

"Aye, you hear me." Sture looked at him, his eyes narrowing critically. "Alvid's a good fighter in his own right, I seen him at work and he'll still be doing strength training with you. Play along, lad. He's in on it, I promise, though it like won't seem that way. But meanwhile, that armor suits you 'bout as well as a bonnet on a boar. Unstrap the chest and waist, keep the gauntlets and leg armor for now. We'll get you fitted for something lighter at end of session. We're going to practice stance and balance first, and when we begin, you need to understand one thing."

"Yes, sir?"

"Good manners on you, boy. The understanding is this." Sture's face turned serious. "I cannot be your friend either. This is a good talk, and I think we're going to train you well. But from here, kind words will be earned, and you'll hurt as much when I'm done as you would with Arvid."

That stilled Loki, thinking of what Mother had said. "Because you don't want to feel like it's your fault if I get killed."

"Aye, lad. It is a true thing, and there's going to be days ahead you think I'm as much a shit as you ever did Arvid. Deal with it. Aye?"

Loki swallowed. "Yes, sir."

"All right." Sture turned on a graceful swivel of his hip. The blade in his hand flew towards an old stone wall, slipping into the gapped mortar between bricks as if by magnet. An example of grace. It could have been a ribcage. "Let's get started."

. . .

Loki took to it all like a man in perfect, fated love.

. . .

Much later ~

Loki stirred in the old Chesterfield chair, coming out of his memories as the sounds of mild bickering started nearby. He looked over at the knot of SHIELD agents, most of whom were not ones he knew well. They were shit-talking each other, one agent telling a story of a situation gone a little awry, and a fellow agent who'd gotten the brunt of it. But the bickering changed in tone, becoming cheerful as the second agent, no victim, clapped the storyteller on the back and retold details until they both looked like assholes. The story ended with the situation resolved, and all was well.

Loki looked at their faces and saw nothing but warmth for each other, and not a little reddishness creeping in from some high-octane eggnog supplied by another agent with some curious tales about a moonshiner in the family, and he looked up when the shadow passed over him. "Hey," he said, greeting the arrival with a casualness he allowed for a rare few.

"Yo," said Phil Coulson, with the self-aware gormless dorkiness of most white men over thirty. He dropped onto the couch next to Loki, staring up at the decorated tree. "I think we could have gone a few sizes down for that sucker."

Loki studied the gloriously flaring thing. There had to be thousands of blinky LEDs on it, catching so much tinsel that it looked like a disco rave. It was also consuming a good third of a large room in the borrowed house and poked up through the high open ceiling to torment people on the second floor. It had taken Daisy, Jemma, and Mack days to get it this obnoxious. Someone had managed to find several blown glass ornaments that resembled the Helicarrier, and the topper was a cheap plastic doll of Captain America holding his shield. "Where's the fun in that?"

"Thanks for teleporting it in here last week."

He chuckled and sipped the glass of sherry he'd been mostly ignoring. "Of course."

"I still think about the first time you deigned to show up at one of these things."

"Tell me, Coulson, that thoughtfulness means this borrowed lair of festivity has a damned dishwasher this year."

Phil laughed. "Yeah, it does, and Fitz threw up a spreadsheet so the kitchen isn't a mess. The team's bigger, I guess it was pretty necessary to start working shifts to get the food out."

"And yet I await being summoned to carve the various platters of bird."

"You're still the best with a knife."

A smile filtered across Loki's face, the memories drifting by again. "I suppose I am." He looked away from his friend and past the tree, up at the mantle of the fireplace with its array of holiday art, joke stockings, and that godsawful elf. "It took a lot of practice."


Loki shook his head. "Nothing important."

He sensed Coulson shift next to him, getting more cozy on the chair. He could smell things baking a couple rooms away, stuffing kept close to fragrant bundles of rosemary, a half dozen pies warming, the butter and seasoning crisping on the skins of two turkeys. Sweet honeyed ham, and several potato meals, including latkes, and even hearty cheese bakes and veggie dishes, for those trying to skip meat. Good smells. Like the better revels of his youth.

Apple pie drifted its scent after the others, and he grimaced by reflex, then laughed. "Gods."

He heard Coulson sniff, clearly enjoying the ghost of desserts yet to come. "Did you ever tell me why you hate apple pie so much?"

"No." Loki laughed again. "It's not that interesting. There was a harvest year with too many godsdamned apples, and I was a child, and I'll eat one of the damned things if it's that or starve. But all these centuries later, I can't say I'm thrilled by them."

He looked at Coulson, saw the amused puzzlement. "I can never tell if it's actually not that interesting, or you're just being cagey about it. Anyway."

"Yes. Anyway." Loki lapsed into silence, looking at the tree again. Finding it oddly pleasant, if not exactly his thing. He remembered that first year, too. Awkward and out of place, attending mostly as a quiet joke. He didn't feel like he was out of place any longer, and that was still strange, too. But not uncomfortably so.

Change often hurt by nature, yet not always. Sometimes it led to better things.

Coulson broke into these scattering thoughts. "You've been in your own head a lot lately. Ever since you had to dip out to handle that thing with Thor. Anything going on?"

"Mm," he said neutrally, by way of diversion.

"Don't be like this again."

A smile crept into his face, a faint curve of lip where Coulson could see. "Despite all wisdom and sanity, do you yet trust me?"

"Despite all that, yes I do. Since you took a badge, you haven't let me down yet."

"Which is, let's face it, so damned odd." Loki sniffed, always enjoying his own deprecating sarcasm. "Then you still can. If I've got something on my mind, Coulson, I'll bring it up. If I'm ready to. And no sooner. If."

"That sounds like a big If pronounced sort of like a When."

The curl deepened, becoming a grin complete with a tiny flash of fang. "And it sounds that way because, and here we have one of those things I'm going to say once, I happen to trust you as well. So if something must be said, it will. Before anything changes, or grows into any sort of risk. Do you understand? But for now, all I'm doing is thinking."

"My god, he drops the Christmas miracle." Loki looked over in time to see Coulson grab dramatically at his chest. "Are you dying?"

"I am not." Loki shook his head. Then one of the things he had been planning to sit on for much longer fell out, despite himself. Small and quiet, and a little hurt. "But Odin is."

Coulson didn't say anything. He seemed to lean, not touching Loki, but being a comfortable presence. A friend.

"Not yet. Not soon." He considered that. "Or… well, I don't know. I don't know, Coulson, it depends on a lot that I have no control over. I think he's got a year at least. Maybe as many as five, but I can't say that with firmness." He looked at the tree again, watching the lights blur for a second before sharpening again. "I expect he will try to hang on for as long as it takes for Thor to feel comfortable in the great golden seat. They will begin this work in the next year, Phil. A decade ago, my brother almost was king, but he became your hero instead. Now it will start in earnest. He will begin to sit the throne as representative-heir of Asgard, while the All-Father, still under this title, remains the highest council of the realm. A slower transition than what was once going to happen, but kings of old have done it this way before. It'll be better for the people like this. And for the Nine."

"I'm sorry," said Coulson. He patted Loki's arm once, knowing the boundaries.

Loki didn't mind. "He'll still come to Earth, to protect and help. I expect he will even when the crown is wholly his."

Loki then purposefully left a lot unsaid, things he wasn't ready for. Wondering about those days when he might need more time in Asgard, to help a new king fumble through those things that Loki might be better at, but no longer wanted the seat for himself to accomplish. He looked at Coulson, saw a glimmer of understanding that said he wasn't going to have to. "But all this is a not yet." He looked away again, his lips pursing together. "There's much to come," he said, and that was purposefully vague, too.

"Well. When you're ready to talk about any of that, or the other stuff, or heck, football, you know where I am."

"I hate football, Coulson. Gods, do I ever hate football." The laugh came back, startling him out of the gloom that had tried to take him over.

Coulson laughed, too. "Hey, let's go raid the kitchen. Eat those emotions. I know where they hid some spare cookies for the table later, and I'm hungry, too."

"You don't want to spoil your dinner, Coulson." He made it as mock-chiding as possible, dipping his head to really give it the full sing-song obnoxiousness.

"Loki, we are gonna to have leftovers for days. If I get full tonight, it's round two for breakfast, three for lunch, four for dinner, and snacks are just going to be handfuls of turkey shoved in my mouth. I'm not worried about dinner, I'm worried about starving to death before dinner."

"Maybe if you lot ate normally on holidays, you wouldn't be like this."

"Hey, man, every family knows you starve and scavenge till the hour of the bird, and I'm not changing the world because you guys got a 24 hour meat buffet out there in the magic depths of space." Coulson got up and tugged at his arm. "I'm gonna need you to use some illusion, though, because Yo-Yo and May are in there right now, and they're going to give us a world of crap if we get caught."

"And here I thought I worked with a bunch of superspies," Loki drawled as he poured out of his chair. He tugged once at the bottom of his black suit jacket, straightening it neatly.

"You do, I just like to cheat. I'm lazy sometimes," said Coulson, heading for the hallway that led to their goal. Then he stopped to look back at Loki. "Seriously, though. I know you know, but I'm going to say it again. You need to talk, we're all here."

"Coulson." Loki tried to go for his usual act of disdain, then gave it up, softening slightly. "I know. Thank you."

"I think they made a ton of apple spice cookies, too."

"Gods, I will vomit."

"Okay, and the chocolate minties."

"Acceptable," said Loki with another small smile. "Get behind me, Coulson, unless you suddenly learned how to magic yourself invisible."

. . .

The elf on the shelf watched the two men slip into the hallway, shimmer, and presumptively slip towards the hidden goodies. And it judged the shit out of them, because that elf is a little rat and not to be trusted by anyone. It would never tell anyone what it saw, however, because one, it was actually just an over-commercialized product without any real consciousness to do so, and two, because shortly before the party ended, Loki pulled it off the shelf and burned it to plastic slag and ash in the front yard to cheers so raucous that a few people in other homes came out on the porch to see what was going on.

This led to the police being called for a public disturbance and possible fire.

Coulson handled it. The cops were sympathetic to dead holiday elves, as it happened. And with that, everyone slipped into the night, full and comfortable, ready to wait for the next year to come.


. . .

We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he's gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse.

~ National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Nov, 2018. Thank you for coming! All rights to Marvel and to this dagger-happy jerk