Loki would admit to occasionally struggling to understand his son's train of thought, jumping from one topic to the next with very little connection. Loki wasn't sure how they had gone from talking about Thor and his partner to how it was not alright to be called ergi. Loki would also admit to enjoying the image of Thor arguing with some children over it. Although, if they were dropping to the children's level, Loki would have preferred to let the wolves loose on them. Vali was not keen on the idea, but Loki could work on that later.
It was late, Vali was yawning, and Loki forgot he had been absent for years. Loki's head was propped up by his hand, elbow digging into the pillow, as he watched his son speak from his cross-legged position, interrupted by increasing yawns. Loki's expression softened. “Why don't we go to sleep, hmm?”
Vali rubbed his eyes. “You're not leaving?”
“Never again,” Loki swore. It didn't depend on him.
Vali nodded and crawled across the bed to wrap his arms around Loki. He kissed Loki's cheek and said, “Goodnight, mommy.”
Loki squeezed his son and had a joke about Vali's bed being extra on the tip of his tongue when Vali pulled away and slipped his feet to the floor. Loki's face scrunched up in confusion. Where was his son going? Vali squinted at Loki over his shoulder and walked out of the room. Ah, right. Vali slept by himself now.
Loki pulled the quilt over himself, rolled to his side, and waved his hand to extinguish the witch lights. He stared at the wall. There was a humming in his ears and his breath was loud enough that he could concentrate on counting every inhale and exhale. Loki had pictured Vali sleeping with him when they entered his chamber hours earlier. Somehow, despite knowing Vali had grown out of it, Loki had expected to fall back into their old routine.
Loki had lost count of his breathing, eyes falling shut, when his door swung open. Loki struggled to sit up, sheets tangled around his legs, to squint at Vali standing in the doorway.
“The quilts are itchy,” Vali proclaimed.
Loki breathed out a laugh. “What?”
Vali shrugged before pushing the door closed. “I don't know. You should look into it.”
The mattress dipped next to Loki, and Loki chuckled as he reached out a hand to rub Vali's back. The only credit Loki would give his offspring was that he never thought of that excuse before.
By the next morning, Loki hoped that Vali was done with asking questions Loki wanted to keep well away from. From the first stages of his impersonation of Odin, Loki decided that it was a waste of time to fix himself if he was going to throw the illusion of an old man over himself. But how to explain that to Vali who was already scrunching up his nose at Loki? Well, Loki supposed that his nagging Vali about making himself presentable wasn't helping his case.
“Hey, mother? Where's grandpa?” Vali asked from where he had his knees up to his chest in a chair.
“Sleeping,” Loki replied as he picked Gungnir from the floor.
“Do you know for how long?”
“No.” Loki turned to face his son, expression dulled. “I need you to listen now, Vali, and listen well. No one can know I'm alive.” Vali frowned, mulling it over in his head. “I will take on your grandfather's guise, and you must refer to me as such.”
Vali screwed up his face, shaking his head. “That's weirder than usual.”
Loki blew out his cheeks. “Your grandfather needs his sleep, and your uncle abdicated. Who do you think must care for the realm?”
Vali wrapped his arms around his legs. “Well, you, but why can't you-"
“Vali, look at me.” Vali did so reluctantly. “I'm supposed to be imprisoned for many reasons you're too young to know.” Resting his chin on his knees, Vali huffed. “One day, darling, I promise. Back to the matter at hand, I assure you that the court won't be happy to know it's me on the throne.”
“What about my uncle? Can I at least tell him?”
Loki swallowed around a lump in his throat as he strode across his bedchamber in search of his boots. “No, especially not your uncle, Vali.”
“But, mommy, he misses you. And I miss spending time with both of you. Together.”
Loki stopped halfway through putting on the first boot. “Has he told you that?”
“Not exactly. Uncle doesn't speak about you, mainly because it's forbidden to speak of you in front of me, I think. But I know it's true!”
“Ah.” Loki slipped on his boot. “No, darling, you shouldn't assume that kind of things.”
“It's not assuming, mother. It's obvious.”
Loki clicked his tongue as he reached for the other boot. “Is it?”
“You're brothers, of course it is! I would miss my brother if I had one.”
Loki's chest constricted. Yes, brothers. For all intents and purposes.
“If you had a brother, you would want to get rid of him at every turn of the corner.”
“I don't think that's true.”
“You will never know, will you?”
“But mother!” Vali whined.
Loki pinched the bridge of his nose, other hand reaching for the doorknob. “By Odin's beard, Vali. We reunited yesterday. What do you want a brother for?”
Vali squirmed. “A sister would be okay, too. I mean, didn't you want a girl?” Loki gave a stern look to Vali, who curled in on himself. “You can't leave if you have a baby, right?”
Loki sighed. “Darling, I love you. I don't need another child.”
“It's not about needing one…”
“Your uncle. We were talking about him. Are we on the same page there?”
Loki yanked the door open but paused after taking one step outside. “I'm sure I can clear my schedule in a couple of hours. I could call Ingrid in the meantime if you would like? She shouldn't take long. We'll have to continue our talk about your uncle when I return, but all you need to know is that we are not on speaking terms, alright? You are always free to wander around.”
Vali scowled at Loki as he closed the door. Once outside, Loki shivered. A baby. Vali had some peculiar ideas in that head of his.
Even if Loki agreed to think about having another child (even though he wouldn't know where to get it from) just so Vali would shut up about him leaving, and Vali agreed not to tell Thor about Loki nor ask Loki about his absence, there was still the problem of Thor and his two days. Two days that were at the brink of coming to an end as the sun sunk down in the horizon. It wouldn't be a problem if they left Asgard, but Vali would not consent to it. From one of the chairs in the sitting room, Loki had asked, “Wouldn't it be wonderful to go on a journey? I used to do so often with Thor and… my father when I was your age.”
Vali scrutinized Loki from his place in the carpet. “I don't have a brother… or a father.”
Loki threaded a hand through his hair. “Well, that is true, but why can't it be you and me?”
“What about the realm?”
“Oh, your uncle can take care of it, I'm sure. How long could it possibly take him to burn it to the ground?”
Vali frowned. “That isn't funny, mother.”
Loki huffed. “Maybe not. But don't you want to spend quality time with your mother?”
Vali wriggled. “But what about my uncle?”
“Your uncle will eventually have a family of his own, Vali. He will have children with the Midgardian woman, Jane, and will no longer be able to care for you as you're used to.”
Vali shook his head. “My uncle isn't having children.”
Loki tilted his head from right to left. “Are you sure about that?” he drawled.
“If you don't need more children, then neither does my uncle.”
“Darling, that's different. Just like you are my child, Thor needs children of his own.” Perhaps if Thor procreated, he would forget about wanting to keep Vali. That was what Loki needed. He needed Thor to procreate. Again. Just not with him.
“It really isn't,” Vali insisted. “It's the same thing. What does he need children for?”
“You said so yourself. It is not about needing them, it is about wanting them.”
“No, Vali, it is not. Pray tell, why can I have children but your uncle cannot?”
“Because it's wrong.”
Loki was about to reply that what Vali was saying was nonsensical when he realized what they were arguing about. Loki rubbed his temples. He must have hit a new low in his life if he was arguing about Thor needing children with their child of all people. Wonderful. By the Norns, why were they even discussing this?
“When's uncle coming back, anyway?” Vali asked while picking up the papers he had thrown across the carpet.
Loki screwed his eyes shut, trying to even out his breaths. “Tonight, probably.”
Loki pried one eye open to glance at Vali, whose expression clearly said, Just you wait. Loki threw an arm over his face and sighed. Why did his son have to be so difficult?
The rustle of hay and creaking boards coupled with a few whinnies and snorts were sounds that had not greeted Vali in over a year. It was difficult to picture his mother here, amidst the manure and urine assaulting their noses despite knowing that he knew about the same as his uncle about horses. The doors of the stable swung back and forth after his mother strode in, shedding his illusion as he walked.
“Happy, now?” he asked with an arched brow.
Not really, Vali thought. His uncle hadn't arrived the night before as promised. He was one day late so far. Could something have gone wrong with his mission?
“I haven't visited grandpa's horse without him before.”
“Me neither,” his mother admitted as he pulled his hair out of his face.
Vali watched him secure Sleipnir. In the confines of his mind, Vali would admit to pestering his mother about seeing his grandfather's horse due to some… disturbing stories he had come across in Midgard including his mother and the eight-legged horse. Distantly, Vali thought that Sleipnir could have never fitted in his mother's belly, no matter that shapeshifting had been involved.
Rubbing his shoulder, Vali called, “Mom?”
“Are you sure I don't have siblings?”
It was a valid question.
His mother finished tying Sleipnir and looked at Vali with a completely not amused expression, letting his arms fall to his side. “I would know if I had been pregnant more than once, don't you think? And I'm telling you it is highly unlikely that I've sired any children. Now, stop.”
Vali fidgeted. “But, mom, about you… and a horse…”
Realization dawned on his mother's face, soon turning into a glare. “I swear to you, Vali, I'm going to kill y-"
“It was a woman, actually. Her name's Darcy.”
His mother gaped. “You can't believe that story. I thought I taught you better.” Vali's cheeks turned pink, but he just had to check. “The horse is older than me!”
Vali's head snapped to where Sleipnir was stomping his hooves and back to his mother. Really? How does that work? “You're pretty old, though,” he said.
“Vali! I am not old,” his mother protested.
Vali shrugged, redirecting his attention to looking for the bucket with the brushes. “When do you think uncle's coming back?”
His mother grumbled to himself. “Look, darling, I don't know. Bring that bucket over.”
Vali swung the bucket in front of him as he walked. “Do you think something happened to him? Like something serious?”
His mother rummaged in the bucket and took out the hoof pick. “He is fine, Vali. He might have…” He bit his lip.
“Might what?” Vali asked, voice rising in pitch.
“Might have been held back by a few things. That's all.” He squeezed the back of Sleipnir's left foreleg. “Up.”
“His girlfriend, for once. She must be worried for him, too, no?”
Vali watched his mother pry out dirt and manure from Sleipnir's hoof. “So you're sure he isn't seriously hurt?”
His mother scoffed. “That's absurd.”
“But how can you be sure?”
His mother hummed. “He's Thor. What could happen to him?” Vali rustled a few mounds of hay with his foot. His mother dropped Sleipnir’s hoof and turned to face him. “Quite frankly, Vali, you're wasting your time by worrying about him.”
Vali froze. “Mother, what are you saying?”
He rolled his eyes. “Thor sometimes takes a few more weeks than expected, and this might be one such case. Take it from me, who spent centuries agonizing over it.”
“Why did you stop?”
“Vali, I told you. He's Thor. What could hurt him? Just give it time.” He licked his lip. “But why are you in a hurry to leave? Surely you have realized that we must part once Thor returns.”
Vali stared. He must have misunderstood, but…“Are you… making me choose?”
One day passed and another, and Thor had yet to return. Vali had refused to sleep with Loki the day before, and Loki feared it would be the same that day, but Vali had not stopped talking to him. That was good. Loki had even hoped that they would get another extra day together, but that was extinguished when Number Twenty-Seven rushed to ruin Loki's day once more. Or what remained of it, anyway. There was no going around it. Loki and Vali had been dining in the Great Hall at Vali's insistence. Everyone heard the announcement. Everyone rushed to the throne room to greet Thor. Vali was one of the first amongst them.
Soon, Loki and Vali were standing before the throne, surrounded by courtiers and Einherjar leaving a clear path for Thor to walk. Loki gulped as Thor's eyes darted across the room, searching for something Loki couldn't understand, before landing on Vali. Thor grinned, strained, and walked forward with open arms.
She was beautiful. There was no doubt about that. It was more than that, though. She was proud, curious, fierce. A wonder. She could have been a good leader, too, if there had been an interest in leading. Or ruling. She could have been a fine queen despite her mortality. But she had something missing. It was not something Thor liked to think about. Didn't like to think about it that way. Of something missing, as if she were not her own person.
She was beautiful. But the downward curl of her lips marring her face was a stain in that beauty. Her mortality, despite how much he wanted to deny it, obstructed their path. One month of hers could be a day of his despite there being no comparison. She understood, she said, that his presence was required, that he had not planned for this. Thor could imagine Vali's whining to stay for at least a month, and how much harm could there be in Thor granting his son's request?
“We'll see,” she replied in a clipped tone before shutting the door.
It wasn't like Thor didn't miss his home, too.
It didn't take long for Vali to drag his uncle to the Great Hall, sitting down at the high table with his mother on one side and his uncle on the other. Vali had thought his uncle would celebrate with the other people first, but instead he asked if Vali had already eaten, and since Vali had been doing just that, his uncle decided to go with Vali first. His mother seemed subdued, but it was more of a feeling than anything else. In Vali's opinion, it should be him, not his mother, who was acting this way. It was his mother who chose to hide, and his mother who was just plain wrong. Vali had heard him speaking with Ingrid the night before, and his thoughts were outrageous. His uncle was incapable of threatening to kill his mother. But Vali wasn't stupid. He might have dropped many things for his mother, but Vali knew his mother was no innocent.
“What have you been doing, mongrel?”
Vali snapped back to attention, eyes focusing on his uncle's smiling face. A look from the corner of his eyes told Vali that his mother was trying to stay out of the conversation. It was disturbing to see the image of his grandfather and yet know it was his mother. Even more disturbing that when Vali discovered his mother wasn't supposed to be a he.
“I slept, drew some, visited Sleipnir… the usual.”
“No visits to the library yet?”
Vali shook his head. “Will you tell me about your mission?”
“I'm afraid not this time, Vali. It is confidential.” His uncle frowned. “The humans sure like that word.”
“What held you up? Can I know that?”
“Hmm, some new threats appeared along the way.”
Vali peeked at his mother. He seemed increasingly interested in their conversation despite himself. This was Vali's opportunity to show his mother that his uncle didn't want children, as he had promised himself he would do.
“What about Jane, uncle?”
“Jane? Jane is fine.”
How to ask, though?
“Have you thought about having children?”
Bluntly. That's how.
Squinting, his uncle looked between Vali and his mother, who was now invested in their conversation. “Yes. Now that you have abdicated, have you perhaps thought about leading a family life?”
Shifting in his chair, his uncle grunted. “What would I want children for?”
Vali hid his face from his uncle's view and mouthed Told you so to his mother, who rolled his eyes, an uncanny look in his grandfather's face. His mother pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. “I wish to retire for the night.” People began rising from their chairs, and he waved at them to sit back down.
Vali tilted his head with a frown. What did he do now?
His uncle squeezed Vali's shoulder. “What's gotten into him?”
Vali lifted his free shoulder in a half-shrug in response. Some lady inclined toward his uncle, one hand in front of her mouth, and said, “Your father no longer attends feasts, my lord.”
His uncle cleared his throat. “Well, I suppose I will be taking my leave then.”
Vali watched them leave in different directions, eyes darting between them. Who to follow? Between his mother and uncle, there was no question.
Loki sighed, one hand picking at loose threads on the chair, the other resting under his chin. The only illumination in the room was that one offered by the crackling flames of the hearth. Vali had turned in for the night awhile ago and refused to sleep with Loki once more, no matter that it was their last night together. He had insisted that he was too old for that, which Loki supposed was true, but what did it matter?
What did it matter?
Thor had no interest in having more children, after all. Why did it matter? There went Loki's hopes, flushed down the drain. Considering Jane's short lifespan, Loki had hoped that she would soon bear Thor a child, preferably a son. Then, Thor would have doted on that child, pushing Vali aside. It would break Vali. Loki suspected that he would be broken too, somehow, but they would have pulled through. The throne would continue to be Vali's, for once. If the people preferred Loki over a mortal woman, then surely they would also prefer his son over any children Thor produced with said mortal. Vali should have learnt years ago that Thor's life was separate from theirs. Vali wouldn't suffer as much. But if this was what Loki needed to regain custody of his son, then so be it.
Why did it matter?
Thor did not want more children.
“Where are you going?” Loki asked, voice barely above a whisper, but it made Vali jump.
“What are you doing?” Vali countered.
Loki looked at him from the corner of his eyes. “Making sure you don't run off into the night, apparently.”
Vali's face blushed. “I'm going to my uncle's chambers.”
Loki raised an eyebrow. “Are you aware that he must be snoring in his sleep by now?”
Vali nodded, rubbing his shoulder. Loki averted his gaze. “Well, can I go?”
“Tsk, I don't think you had any plans to ask me. ”
Footsteps. A door clicking shut. Not Vali's. Tears prickled at Loki's eyes. Where had he gone wrong? Loki bit his lip, hand pulling at the thread with renewed insistence. He imagined Vali walking through the path he had taken so many times before, body pressed against the wall, taking a few corners, the hissing wind.
Loki raced after his son.
The palace corridors were just like Loki remembered. Cold, desolate, windy, in a way. Thor's door even creaked like it had done all those centuries ago. Strange thoughts for someone who was risking everything by asking his son to at least move over. So difficult.
Vali grunted, moving closer to Thor. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
Dumbly, Loki mumbled, “I was cold.” Loki slapped his forehead. What kind of answer was that?
“What happens if he sees you?”
“I'll leave before he wakes,” Loki whispered. Soon, hands were reaching out to drag him down into the bed.