Once oblivion was upon them, the agreement that they were both each other's downfall would be met. But before that time came, blame would be freely given. Whether they blamed themselves or the other… well, that depended on their mood.
It was customary for the father to choose the name of the child, but Loki had stood tall and immovable. Thor was not to be involved in his son's life, not to be involved with Vali, the name Loki had chosen for their son. What little precious memories Thor had of Vali's first years were whatever Thor could scavenge from his son's public appearances, but never something private, something including Thor. Waiting had gotten him nothing. As Loki had said, the exile from his son's life quickly spread to his brother's as Vali required more and more of Loki's care. His love, which perhaps had never been more than earthly desire in the first place, evolved into resentment. Ever since the first time his eyes fell upon the tiny, chubby, dark-haired creature nursing at his brother's breast was etched into Thor's brain, irremovable.
Loki had not deigned to spare Thor a glance.
“I would think I made it clear that I do not want you near us.”
He had made it crystal clear.
He had done what he needed to do.
A mother's love, they said, was innate, but as far as Loki was concerned, it was something one learnt. When the screaming infant was presented to him for the first time, Loki thought it was the ugliest thing he had ever seen. That opinion had lasted long into Vali's first year. His love for the creature he had nurtured with his body, Loki had feared, was nothing but a distorted reflection of his desire to tie Thor to him, to have control over the golden son for just a little, and there were times in which Loki thought he would end up going back to his brother, who was determined to claim Vali as his, just so Vali could have a chance to know a parent's love. But he had learnt. Loki had learnt that all those whispering maids claiming to have loved their children the moment they set eyes on them were all liars, that barely being able to look at Vali was not out of a lack of love.
It was guilt.
It was failure.
It had always been his mother and him. They only had each other, his mother used to tell Vali when he would ask why he didn't have a father even though both of them knew that wasn't an answer at all. But Vali had learnt early on not to push things with his mother if he wished to see his uncle. Vali had also learnt that asking too much questions lead to changes even though he was encouraged to ask questions.
One of Vali's earliest memories was of him hiding behind his mother's legs as he was forced to go through all the process of listening to boring people droning on and on about their boring problems while other children played in the gardens. One of the most important house rules was that Vali was absolutely forbidden from being on his own as his mother often said during his frenzied states after Vali managed to escape his sight. What his mother had neglected to say unless Vali made him really mad was that what that actually meant was that Vali was not allowed to go anywhere his mother couldn't see him. At all times. His uncle's supervision, or his grandparents' for that matter, did not count.
“You listen to me, Vali.” His mother gripped his shoulders. “You will not do that to me ever again.”
“But, mommy, I was just out in the gardens,” Vali complained, his mother shaking his head all the while.
“We've gone over this, darling. They'll take you away from me, and you'll never see me again. Is that what you want?”
Vali shook his head, throwing himself into his mother's arms, thinking his mother was making things too big.
His mother picked him up before continuing his scolding. “I want you to play with other children, Vali, but not unsupervised. I said you could not come outside today because-"
“Hi!” Vali greeted the guards with a wave of his hand as they passed through the palace’s entrance, interrupting his mother. One of the guards gave a small bow with a smile that Vali returned.
Vali widened his eyes at his mother. “What?”
“We do not greet the guards. They will think you're becoming familiar with them.”
Vali rolled his eyes and settled his head against his mother’s shoulder as he droned on and on like the boring people in the big room where his grandpa sat. Was he or was he not supposed to greet people? Was he or was he not supposed to ask questions? His mother didn't seem to make up his mind. Kind of like his uncle. There were days in which Vali would jump into his uncle's arms, and his uncle would raise him high in the air and spin him around, huge smiles on both of their faces. There were other days in which his uncle barely spared Vali a glance.
One early memory of his uncle went like this: Vali had been trotting beside his mother after his lessons on their way to their rooms, occasionally tugging at his mother's hand and waving his free hand at all the guards and maids they passed, waving more cheerfully after his mother said, “Please stop that,” with a sigh. Standing in front of their door was his uncle, and Vali didn't think twice before dislocation from his mother and throwing himself at his uncle, who smiled at Vali as they looked eye to eye, replicas of each other.
His mother pursed his lips. “Brother, I do believe I gave you an specific time range of when you could visit.”
“Yes, well, plans change,” his uncle replied. “The little mongrel is happy to see me, aren't you?”
Vali nodded vigorously.
Vali couldn't remember what he did that afternoon or why his uncle had been waiting for them. Vali's time with his uncle included animated recounts of his uncle's and mother's adventures, animated stories of Vali's own, demonstrations of what he had learnt recently, and whatever game crossed through his uncle's head that day. His mother's eyes tracking their interactions weren't all that unusual. But the times after his uncle and mother locked themselves in mother's room, Vali would watch his uncle storm out of their rooms or leave with hunched shoulders that could never be linked with defeat though Vali's idolizing eyes. The latter would sometimes be accompanied with a, “Come here, darling,” from his mother as Vali stared wide-eyed at his uncle's retreating back who left without saying goodbye.
Vali also remembered having once asked his mother, “Why don't you love uncle?” as he sat in front of the hearth, working. His mother had not wasted a second in turning his attention to Vali.
“Is that what he said?” Vali frowned, shaking his head. “Of course I love your uncle.” Vali gave his mother a look. “If you had a brother, you would understand.”
“Why don't I have a brother? Everyone seems to have one.”
“Because I don't have any more children.”
“So why don't you have more?”
“It doesn't work like that, Vali.”
His mother offered Vali a smile. “Do you want a brother?”
Vali shrugged. “A sister would be okay, too, I guess.”
His mother chuckled and shook his head before returning to his boring papers. Vali hoped on a chair, rested his head upon his arms, and sighed. “Why are you my mother?”
His mother jolted upright. “I'm sorry?”
Vali tilted his head. “You look more like a dad to me.”
His mother opened and closed his mouth before replying. “I bore you, Vali. That makes me your mother.”
“Shouldn't that also make you a she?”
His mother's face contorted. “Some of us are built… differently.”
“Why don't you go see if any of the maids’ children are free, hmm?” his mother asked after ruining his hands through his hair. “And please be more careful with your words.”
Vali jumped out of his chair and ran as fast as his legs would allow him with the promise of going outside, ignoring his mother's final comment. His grandpa didn't like it when Vali played with the children of maids and guards but the children that, according to his grandpa, were of his station called Vali names that Vali wasn't so sure he understood. Their favorite was “bastard.” Vali had never gotten the hang of that word and his mother's answer, “Just an old word. It means nothing,” didn't sound quite right. Mother always ignored grandpa, which was another thing Vali didn't understand. Grandpa was nice. Always had a lecture on the tip of his tongue, but he was nice. It was grandpa and uncle who took Vali to see the horses, and grandma always had sweets with her that she would sneak to Vali behind his mother's back, bringing a finger to her lips when Vali giggled. His family was nice, Vali decided, and they loved him.
… didn't they?
Mother loved him, so where was he? Where was his mother? Vali's grandparents had no answer for Vali apart from a simple, “Loki will be back soon,” as his mother's most trusted maid, Ingrid, took his hand in hers, steering Vali away from his home. As he entered the unknown house, Vali repeated to himself over and over that his mother would come for him soon, that this was just a scare for having run off from his mother again. But days turned into weeks and he knew. Vali knew his mother wasn't coming in search of him this time.
Things were supposed to have been getting better. Although Thor kept believing in their father despite his brother's scoffs, Thor had stopped pushing Loki to talk to their father. Their new agreement, after years of shouting at each other with only a wooden door between them and Vali, was that Thor could see Vali whenever he wanted under the condition that he stopped his nonsense about claiming Vali as his heir. There had been no way to make Loki see that their father would follow his word. Thor now knew it was because his brother had not known they didn't share the same blood, something that had never occurred to Thor before. In any case, it was Loki himself who had sparked hope in Thor. Just to stomp on it minutes later, Thor admitted begrudgingly.
It happened at a feast. Voices growing ever louder assaulted Thor from every direction and countless cups of mead sent a pleasant hum through his body. Thor leaned against a wall, arms crossed over his chest, the message that he wasn't in search of a bed warmer clear to everyone around him, when Loki appeared at his side and mirrored his position.
“I think Vali wants a sibling,” Loki said.
Thor swallowed. “Indeed?”
“He asked me why I don't give him one.” Thor shifted from one feet to the other and Loki held up a hand. “No, we are not making that mistake again.” Loki took his own time to swallow before continuing. “When I was deciding whether or not to keep Vali, I think I told myself so many times that it was what I wanted that I actually believed it.”
Thor wanted to scream at Loki. Why in the Nine Realms were they going over this?
“I don't think this is an appropriate conversation for us,” Thor said.
Loki shook his head. “Even under different circumstances, I would not go through a pregnancy again. Towards the end… and after Vali's birth… gods, when I had to nurse him…” Loki shoved his hair out of his face. “I realized that perhaps keeping Vali was a mistake after all.”
“Loki, please, I do not want to hear this.”
“I have never felt so disgusting.” Thor met Loki's gaze, pleading him to stop whatever this was. “But I do love Vali, Thor. Truly, I do.”
“You never told me what changed your mind.” Thor's gaze turned curious. “About Vali's parentage?”
Thor sighed, glad that the conversation seemed to be taking another route. “After I left your chambers and you had your talk with father, I realized you wouldn't lie to me about that.”
Loki smirked. It was hollow, as every token between them seemed to be. “If that soothes your mind."
Loki pushed himself of the wall and Thor watched him disappear into the crowd.
Disappear into nothingness.
The courtiers’ calls for Vali to be taken far from the palace had made Loki paranoid to the point that he could not trust their parents lest he be separated from their son. Thor had known that. Loki forcing Vali to stand through the petitions of the citizens instead of letting him in the care of their mother when none of his trusted maids, lately occupied with coronation preparations, were available was proof enough. Earlier attempts to dissuade Loki had only strengthened his brother's belief that they wanted to send Vali away. But Thor hadn't realized how desperate Loki was becoming. Thor would not hear a word said against Loki for he knew it all had be done for Vali. It was the only explanation. There could be no other reason why his brother had chosen to betray him, to leave their son behind.
It was nonsensical. Just like Loki himself.
It took Thor a week to realize Vali was gone from the palace. Loki would be hysterical if he knew it took Thor another week to get Vali back. It was not something Thor was proud of and the week spent in a haze did not mean Thor wished Vali gone. On the contrary, the fact that Vali was Loki's son gave Thor all the more reasons to want Vali back.
The formalities and procedure to get Vali recognized as his heir gave Thor a headache as he was buried under old laws and decrees, making Loki's absence all the more noticeable in the royal household. His father had opposed Thor at first, but a shouting match made Thor's position clear. Thor was Vali's father and although it was late to make that claim, it was Thor's right and duty to care for Vali in the eventuality that Loki were… absent. Even if Loki had left clear instructions of what was to happen to Vali in his absence, they meant nothing to Thor. It was Vali's right to exploit all the luxuries Thor had grown with, and despite the scandal it naturally caused, Vali was legally recognized by Thor's father as Thor's heir.
After the paperwork was done and opposing parties subdued, which unfortunately had included Thor's friends, Thor did not take an hour longer than what was strictly necessary before marching down to the citadel and threatening to break down doors if his son was not handed over to him at once. The thought that this might have been excessive did not occur to Thor until he was presented with his son's scared face. Thor apologized to the cowering maid and her family before making his way back to the palace with Vali alongside him.
Thor placed a heavy hand on Vali's shoulder as the child made to walk in the direction of Loki's chambers and Vali turned to look at Thor with a frown.
“We are not going that way,” Thor said.
“But that's where mommy's rooms are,” Vali said with a pointing finger.
Thor's hand twitched. “You'll be staying with me for awhile. Won't that be fun?” Thor attempted a smile.
“But…” Vali fidgeted and looked hesitantly towards where he had been headed. “Doesn't mommy want to see me?”
All pretends of a smile collapsed at the doubts in Vali's voice.
“Oh, I'm sure mommy wants to see you very much, but he is not here at the moment.” Thor patted his son's bony shoulder and found that, in a rare moment, the lie came easily to his tongue. “He'll be back soon.”
“That's what grandma said but mommy never came. Even though I was a good boy. You can ask.”
“I know you are a good boy, Vali, but you must wait a little longer.”
A little longer, Thor reminded himself. A little longer and Thor would learn that that's not how Loki tucked Vali into bed, not how Loki read bedtime stories, not how Loki dressed Vali, not what Loki made Vali eat, not what Loki made Vali do, and not who Loki wanted Vali to play with. Everything was wrong. Nothing was how Loki did it. Everything made Vali sniffle and tear up. Nothing made Vali forget that Loki left him behind.
It was bedtime again, and about a year since everything went wrong. All of Vali's possessions had long since being moved to Thor's chambers, and Thor was sure he had finally gotten the art of tucking Vali into bed right. Yes, it was finally right.
“You did it wrong again.” Thor huffed. He had done it exactly as he had done it the night before. “The soft side has to look up.”
Thor gave a strained smile in the dim light of the room. “Mongrel, both sides are soft.”
Vali scowled and brushed his hand over the side of the quilt looking down. “This side is softer.”
Thor imitated Vali's actions. “They are equally soft.”
“They're not.” Vali fixed his eyes on a spot over Thor's shoulders. “Mommy would know the difference.”
Thor hung his head in his hands. He suspected they would need new training dummies by tomorrow's afternoon.
“Uncle?” Thor raised his head with apprehension, ready for the usual questionnaire of Loki's whereabouts. “Did mommy left because of me?”
Thor stiffened. “What?”
“Mommy doesn't love me anymore, does he? He left because I didn't listen to him.”
“What are you talking about, mongrel?”
“He told me to stay in my room, but I didn't listen. I went out to play anyway, and then a maid took me away.” Vali sniffled. “Mommy said that if that happened, I wouldn't see him again.”
“No, that's not what happened.” Thor ran a hand over his son's hair. “Sometimes, people have to leave because… because they are busy.” Thor nodded to himself. Yes, that was it. “But Loki will be back as soon as he is done.”
“But that's what you always say! Soon, Vali, soon. But I don't want soon. I want my mommy now!”
Thor sighed. Years ago, when Thor had rushed his brother to the Healing Rooms as Loki was assaulted by the early pains of labor during the night, Thor had not thought that Loki was serious about keeping him away from Vali, and as the years progressed, Thor had no reason to suspect that one day he would be Vali's sole parent, evading the truth that was Loki's death. Vali's questions, Thor's replies, Vali crying for his mother to come back. It was all part of their routine. As much a routine as were Thor's trips to the rebuilding Bifröst, questions about a certain mortal woman masking his relieving of his brother's last moments. All because Loki had never understood. All Thor had wanted was for Loki to be his as much as he was Loki's.