Late that evening, she and Loki retired to her study, for sherry and quiet tasks. Anna had excused herself to sleep, having run at least twice as far that day. Elsa had left the main door open as a sop to propriety, though anyone seeking to pry would have been quite disappointed at the quiet in the room. She was writing a letter at her desk by the window, while he read his new book. She sealed the letter and put it aside, rising to her feet. She was about to ask him how his book was, but held her tongue seeing that he wasn't reading.
He was in a dark mood this evening, as he gazed at the fire, his long legs stretched out before him on the footstool and his book abandoned on the side table. She perched on the edge of the footstool and he crossed his legs at the ankles to give her more room to sit. "What troubles you?" she asked softly.
He looked to her, smile coming to his lips but not touching his eyes. "Nothing, fair snow queen."
"Yet you are clearly in melancholy disposition," she countered. "Please, you have helped me so much with control, learning new things… if I can help you…"
"You do help me," he reassured her. "It has been a long time since I have felt… welcome."
"Tell me," she requested softly.
His fingers toyed with his cup. "I was born in a far distant realm, of another race. To them I was born too small, too frail, a runt of the litter to be thrown away. My blood father left me to die."
She made a soft sound of dismay, setting her hand around his and squeezing tight. "How terrible. I'm sorry."
He withdrew his hand and continued to watch the fire. "My parents - adoptive parents - found me, took me in, raised me as their own. They pretended I was theirs, and yet, I was always aware I was different. I look nothing like them, so there were always rumors, that I was a bastard or I was cursed. I was also nothing like my elder brother. He was a great warrior, beloved by everyone, and I - well, I was not. I thought there must be something wrong with me. My mother taught me magic to give me something of my own, where my brother would not overshadow me, and yet magic was, if not forbidden, not as valued as fighting. Then…" he hesitated and inhaled a deeper breath, "when they bestowed upon my brother a gift and announced he would be the future king, at the same time, they told me… I was not theirs. That it was all a lie. I grew furious at them, for lying to me, for telling me I was some monster they'd pitied. I saw I would never belong. My magic exploded in the great hall, with terrible, unforgivable result," he added more softly. "I fled. I traveled from place to place, using all my skill to hide, ending here."
"And became the Ice Demon," she murmured, now understanding better how this man before her had also once terrorized the villages below his mountain abode.
He let out a soft sigh, lowering his head so his black hair fell over his face. "I cared for nothing, lost in my rage."
"And solitude," she added. "None of us is at our best alone." He shook his head once in silent agreement.
"Have you ever gone back?" she asked, and was not surprised by the negative.
"No. They… have no need of me. Or me of them."
She frowned. "You speak as if they still live…"
"I expect so. They are long-lived as well."
That was curious. She'd assumed his sorcery kept him youthful. "Am I?" she asked.
His head lifted to look at her face, his own expression now sorrowful. His hand touched her face, and his fingers ghosted down her cheek like he touched something infinitely fragile. "No. I am sorry, but half-bloods are always purely mortal, Elsa."
It was nothing she was sorry about, since she hadn't expected anything else. "How old are you truly?" she asked, figuring something a little more than a century, when the stories of the Ice Demon had started.
"I was born during the Winter War, more than eight hundred years ago," he answered simply.
Her lips parted as she stared at him, unable to believe it. The Winter War was a myth, of gods and giants who had caused a deep winter to spread across the land. Her own unseasonable winter had stirred that story back into the halls and she'd heard a new song about it. Yet she'd never believed it had actually happened, or that anyone could possibly be that old. She managed to close her mouth. "And how - how long will you live?" she asked, and he shrugged.
"A long time." He swallowed the rest of his sherry and set the glass on the small table beside him.
"What are you?" she asked, shaking her head in confusion. "How can any human live so long?" As soon as the question came out, the flaw in it manifested: human. He wasn't human, couldn't be human. There had been a reason beside viciousness and magic they'd named him a demon. He'd said he'd been born of another race... that brought to mind stories of elves, demons, and angels... He was almost a thousand years old, from a different time, when there had been different gods. She raised her head, amazed again by the truth she now suspected. "Loki. You're the real Loki. You told me the truth."
Bemused, he didn't deny it. "You guessed before, surely?" She shook her head, because she had wondered it a few times, but it had always seemed ridiculous to think the old stories held any truth at all. "The Eddas are based on something true and real prophecy, but turned into Human stories with many fanciful additions. Not fact."
"So you're not a trickster?" she challenged. She'd seen his eyes light up at his prank in the market. He'd all but told her then, but she hadn't put it together.
"Well… " he trailed off and made a face, as if considering a giant lie, before admitting with a laugh, "that part they got right. I bore easily. At least here on Midgard I am ever so slowly nudging humanity toward scientific progress so the future might be a bit more interesting." He touched his new book, which was something about optics, and flashed a bright grin. "Keeps me out of trouble. Mostly."
She thought about that revelation and the stories she knew. Most of the tales had been buried and neglected by her Christian faith, but she knew a little. "So when you talk of your home you mean Asgard. It exists."
The smile faded away and he turned his eyes back toward the fire. "Yes, it's real," he answered. "As this world orbits your star, so Asgard is another world. There are magical ways to move between."
She had the feeling he was greatly simplifying for her benefit, but that wasn't important. "And you can't go back?"
Elsa saw a woman's face in the flames. She had proud and beautiful features, her hair braided into a crown, and kind eyes. There was something wistful and sad about the image, as though Loki crafted it not just from sight, but from emotion. The image vanished as Loki answered softly, "I said and did terrible things, Elsa. They… don't want me back."
"Are you sure?" she asked. "I thought the same, that they would hate me because of my powers and how I had frightened them, but it turned out to not be true…."
"Ah, Snow Queen, you belong here," he told her. "You were no foundling picked up in a snowdrift, and there were no lies to break trust. Your sister and your people love you, but I -- I ruined all I had, and there's no going back."
Elsa's eyes filled with tears and she flung her arms around his neck. "You belong here, too," she told him fiercely. "With me."
He seemed caught by surprise. First he was very still beneath her embrace, then his arms slowly came up to encircle her back, and one hand smoothed her hair. He tilted his head against hers, and they rested with her head on his shoulder.
The following day, Elsa carried in the heavy book and let it down carefully on the desk in front of him. "This is very old."
Loki eyed the thick bundle of parchment, bound in worn leather and wood with tarnished metal hinges, and then lifted a brow at her. "Very old?" he repeated drily.
"Not as old as some," she retorted, "but old. My father told me it was about the Winter War, and when I was young, I wanted to find out if there was anything about people with my powers in it. But… no one can read it. It's written in runes, but the language is strange. Can you read it?"
Intrigued, he opened the cover to expose the frontispiece of art. A drawing of blue-skinned people with red eyes stared out of the paper and Loki's hand hesitated. "Frost Giants."
He turned to the next page to see the writing, and then a smile grew on his face. "Oh yes, I can read it. It's in Asgardian."
She pulled the stool over to wait impatiently while he scanned the pages. "Well?" she prompted.
"It was written after the Winter War. After the giants and the gods had gone home, the Realm was safe and long winter finally ended…" he murmured, voice falling into a storytelling cadence. "Spring had come at last, and the waters flowed swift and sure. In the melt, two children found a brightly glowing jewel…."
His voice faded away and he read silently, turning the next page, with his eyes growing wide in shock. "Oh… can it be?" he breathed, and flipped pages urgently.
"What?" she asked. "Loki, what is it?"
"It must be. They call it the Eye of Jormungandr, but it must be.… The tesseract, it's here," he whispered. "It was lost in the war, and then found again at war's end…"
"What's the tesseract?" she asked, repeating the strange word.
"A dark energy artifact of ancient days," he answered absently, still reading.
"Which means?" she insisted.
He glanced up, making a frustrated grimace as he thought of how to put it in words she could understand. "It's…. Imagine the power of the sun, a star, compressed into a crystal." He held out his hand and the image of a cube, glowing with blue power, appeared above his palm. "Like this, but… stronger."
She reached out to touch it, but her fingers passed through, as if the picture was smoke and it vanished. She prodded at the space it had been curiously but felt nothing.
He frowned at her hand and then at her face, with dawning comprehension. "That's why your powers are so strong in this place. You draw on the tesseract."
"How could I? I didn't even know it was here," she objected.
"No, neither did I. But now I know. And you likely began to use it in childhood, knowing no better." He closed his hand into a fist. "It must be here somewhere. Those children gave it to the king, who swore to protect it until the gods returned for it."
"Meaning you?" she asked.
He hesitated, and she saw the hunger for it in his face, a terrible aching need to possess it, which made her understand its power far more than any words he'd said. He stood up and crossed to the fireplace, where the kindling sparked and burst into flames though all he did was flick his fingers at it. It seemed unfair that he could make fire, too. "If I could take it to Asgard, perhaps, but here? No. If I use it… Every time anyone uses it, it sends out a … flash. A signal of sorts."
"So…" He drew in a breath and turned to explain. "Midgard - this world - is a dark house in the middle of a vast plain of snow at night. But if it lights a fire too brightly, it shines a beacon for all the wolves in the forest beyond to come to the fire. Midgard is not ready to fight those wolves, Elsa."
"But you're here to defend us."
He smiled at her, affectionately pleased with her faith in him. "I'm still only one person, and though there is little that can kill me, 'little' is not the same as nothing. There are armies out there, filled with creatures like nothing you can even dream. We need to find the tesseract, and I can show you how to distinguish its threads so you don't pull on them again."
"Do you think I already signaled them?" she asked in a halting voice, now worried by the possible consequences.
But he did her the favor of considering her question, not brushing it off with empty reassurances. "No, I think not. Most of your use will have been small and local, and only the winterland was a bright burst. Some might have sensed it, but without more they won't be able to locate the source. Fortunately space is quite large and empty. But the more often it shines, the brighter it will become."
She nodded. "I understand."
"And after you learn how to distinguish it, we'll hide it again. It's here in the palace, I believe." He returned to the book, and still standing, flipped the pages. "The author of the book was wary of the new faith and feared the old ways would be forgotten. A wariness justified when High King Olaf ordered all the temples burned and their faithful put to the sword." Loki glowered at the page and folded his arms. "That seems exceptionally ungrateful, when Odin Allfather had saved this place from the Frost Giants not long before. Such short memories mortals have."
She put a hand on his shoulder. "That was why Arendelle became independent - we resisted the new faith longer and believed in the old ways. Even in trickster gods who did bizarre and unholy things." It was difficult to look disapproving, when she had to tilt her head back to look up at him, but she tried.
He knew exactly what she was talking about and laughed, protesting, "All slanderous lies, written by my enemies!"
She squinted at him suspiciously, but his face was total innocence. She decided to believe him, as the alternative was something she didn't want to know. "We should bring Anna into the search. She explored the castle far more than I did, when we were growing up. If anyone's seen it, she has."
He nodded agreement. "I'll read the rest of the book."
Elsa left him to it, and went to find Anna. Her sister was curled up in the window seat of the west hall, sketching the harbor with a charcoal stick that had left black smudges on her cheek and across her chin. "Anna, Loki and I could use your help."
"Sure." Anna bounced to her feet then excitedly gripped Elsa's hand. "Do you have news? Something you want to share with me first?"
"Well… yes," Elsa started, confused, especially when Anna let out a little shriek before clapping a hand over her own mouth.
"Oh, that's so exciting!" she said in a barely lower tones. "So, next summer?"
"Anna, what are you talking about?" Elsa asked.
"You -- you're going to tell me you two are engaged. Aren't you?" Anna asked, now confused herself by Elsa's lack of excitement.
"No! No, not that!"
Anna's shoulders fell in disappointment, but she recovered in a flash. "But why not?" Anna demanded. "You two are always in each other's company these days, he has your kind of magic, and he's great looking, if kind of ridiculously tall. So you're not engaged? You know you have to propose right? You outrank him, he can't ask you, so you need to ask him."
Elsa wondered whether a pagan god outranked a queen, though she was quite sure he thought he would, but either way it didn't matter. She chuckled. "No, silly, I'm not asking him to marry me. I can't." She glanced up and down the long hallway to check for anyone around, then added in a softer voice, "He's my father."
"He's your -- what? What? Elsa, that's not possible. Mother would never! And he couldn't father you when he was a child himself, for heaven's sake."
Elsa grimaced, lifted a hand to quiet Anna, and kept the explanation simple. "He's a sorcerer, Anna. He's a lot older than he looks. Mother never knew he wasn't Father. Loki had no idea that I was his, either, until the snow made it obvious."
Anna flopped back into the seat, big eyes even wider than usual at this news. "Oh. Wow. Your father. Is he mine, too?"
"No. That's why you don't have my power."
"Oh." Anna glanced out the window, brow knitting. "So we're half-sisters."
Elsa seized her hands, so glad she could do this without gloves. "Sisters. Always sisters." She embraced Anna tightly, relieved when Anna hugged her back.
"Good, I'm glad. He seems nice, except I hope you put a snowball down his breeches for doing… that… with our mother," Anna said with a frown, and Elsa chuckled. "I guess it would be pretty awkward to marry your own father. Good thing you told me. I had already started to plan the wedding," she confessed with a sheepish grin, and Elsa laughed.
But she grew more somber as she considered what Anna had said. "Is that what people believe? That he's a suitor?"
"Well, what else should they believe?" Anna asked with a shrug. "I mean, 'scholar' is just another word for poor nobility or rich merchant's son, right? And since he's sometimes arrogant enough to be the Tsar of Russia in disguise, I don't think anybody believes he's just a merchant. Plus it's way more romantic to imagine he's a prince of some lost kingdom, penniless but clever, here to woo you with his devastating charm and handsome face, and--" She stopped abruptly and wrinkled her nose with a sideways grimace. "Father. Right. I need to remember that."
"Yes, apparently he did all the queenly wooing with devastating charm twenty years ago," Elsa said drily. "Come on, we need your help to find something."
Arms linked together, they started back toward the queen's study.
Crossposted from DW There are comments over there. Feel free to comment wherever.