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The Meaning of Our Truth

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There were few pastimes in which Loki found true pleasure, but the two closest to his heart were playing his violin and practicing his magic. The latter he did sparingly, for using magic within Asgard’s borders was not an easy task and on the worst of days, left him abed with a fever that could only be soothed by a restorative specially made by the palace physician. On those days, only Thor was allowed access to his rooms, and they would lie in Loki’s bed, limbs tangled together, as they waited for the fever to ebb.

Loki’s music, however, was a privilege in which he indulged daily. He spent hours sometimes locked away in his rooms with only his violin for company. On the clearest of days, he allowed Thor to persuade him to the gardens, and his fingers would dance through the notes of every piece he knew, some learned from bards passing through, but many crafted by none other than him.

He had intended to play outside, but when he woke that morning, it was to the sound of a late summer rainfall pattering against his window. The sky was overcast, and he felt an instant lethargy settle over him. With a sigh, Loki rose from his bed and padded barefoot across the cold stone floor, warming the water in his washbasin before dipping his hands into it. He was just wiping the last traces of soap from his skin when a knock came, and Loki paused to stare at his door. It opened before he could grant entrance, but what annoyance he may have felt at the intrusion melted away at the sight of his mother, escorted by two pages bearing platters of food and drink.

“My Lady, that is too much.”

“Thor will wake soon enough and it is no secret he will come here before he thinks to call for his morning meal. A kingdom is not run by might alone. Odin and Thor have the strength, the fierce determination, to lead our people, but they depend on you and I to think ahead.” She smiled as he kissed her cheeks, waving the pages out before taking a seat. Then she continued, saying, “Hence, enough food for three.”

“And to what to I owe the pleasure of this visit?” Loki sat across from her, filling a small plate with fruits and cheese. He passed it to her, then filled his own.

“Must I have reason to visit my son? The castle sleeps yet. There are few who wake as early as we, and I wished to have a moment with you all to myself.”

Loki could not help the smile that curved over his lips, and he pressed a kiss to her hand when she reached for one of the goblets of water.

“It is my fortune then, mother, that I may break my fast with you.”

They ate in companionable silence, the sound of the rain no longer so severe. It was as he was standing that she spoke, her gazing landing somewhere just beyond his shoulder.

“Would you play for me?” she asked with a nod to his violin.

“Of course, Lady Mother.”

As Loki tuned his violin, Frigga moved her chair closer to the hearth, where the fire had died down to ash and glowing embers. It required no more than a thought from Loki to have it flaring to life, and though her expression was one of chastisement, he could see a trace of pride within her as well.

“And what does my lady desire to hear?”

“Something quiet, I should think.”

Loki nodded and brought the violin to his chest, resting it against his collarbone. Closing his eyes, he let his fingers find their strings, set his bow, and drew out a soft, wavering tone of longing and sadness. It rose high with hope, crashed low in desolation and hovered somewhere in between the two emotions as he struggled to separate his own mood from the music.

He moved to a happier piece next, an easy melody that he had played often enough for his mother to know. Loki could hear her humming along, and he smiled though his eyes remained closed. It was only when he opened them again that he discovered Thor had joined them. He was lying on Loki’s bed, empty plate balanced on his stomach, Frigga’s fingers combing through his hair. His eyes were shut, but he opened them when Loki’s bow stuttered across the strings, eliciting a sour note.

“I have missed this,” Thor said as Loki stowed away his battered instrument. He made room for Loki on the bed, curling his arm around his brother’s shoulders and drawing him in close. “I remember entire afternoons where we did nothing but lie around—”

“Being cosseted and praised?” Loki had meant to sound biting, had wished to end the foolish words of his brother, but they came out almost plaintive. In truth, he missed those days just as much, if not more so.

“Mother, you must do this always, every morning.”

“My poor darling boys,” Frigga said, only a note of teasing to her tone. “I would, had the day more hours. Now I must return to your father for he went to bed in the most frightful of moods last night. There are no council meetings, no other requirements of you two, so I do not see why you could not spend the day as you wish. Your father and I will take dinner in our rooms, but I should like all of us to eat supper together.”

“What of Ladies Jane and Darcy?” Loki asked, tipping his head back to meet his mother’s gaze.

Frigga stroked gentle fingers down his cheek, her smile sad. “I will see that you are not disturbed. Take care, my children.” She pressed a kiss to each of their brows in turn, then slipped from the room.

Loki meant to move, but Thor was warm and pliant beside him, and the night had been wrought with dreams of ice and pain. Closing his eyes once more, Loki turned his head and pressed his cheek to Thor’s arm. They drowsed there several hours, the rain outside whipping itself into a storm that howled against the window glass. Thor muttered a complaint against the noise, and Loki raised a hand, the curtains snapping closed around the bed and shrouding them in silence.

How long they lay in the dark, Loki did not know. Thor stirred twice, the first time to settle them closer together and the second time after Loki rolled to his stomach, Thor shifting into a sprawl across his back. Oppressive as it was, the weight of Thor pinning him to the bed, it was also comforting. They remained like that until a servant came with lunch, the muffled sound of footsteps rousing them from their sleep. Neither moved until the door shut with a click, and then Thor was tugging Loki along toward the table.

“How fare your hands, brother?” Thor asked as they shifted to sit closer to one another.

Loki frowned down at his fingers. “They are fine, as well you can see.”

Thor wet his lips with a sip of mulled wine and said, “Would you play for me again?”

“With pleasure,” Loki replied, words all but lost in his own goblet. “And what would my dearest brother wish to hear?”

Their gazes moved to the window as one, and Thor drummed his fingers on the table. Outside, a true storm had picked up, and the summer rain lashed angrily at the castle.

“Something to match the mood, I should think.”

“A tempest. It is fitting.”

Loki played until his fingers ached and his neck grew stiff. Awareness was slow in returning, and when it did, he was surprised to find that Thor was still seated at the table. Loki had assumed his brother would migrate over to the bed once more, as was his usual tendency. When he made to stand, Thor moved, taking the violin from Loki’s hands and settling it into its case with care. The bow followed next, and by the time Loki was sliding beneath the bed covers, Thor had deposited the platters outside the bedroom door.

Thor paused at the side of the bed, a note of hesitancy in his manner that Loki found bewildering. It was usually he who doubted his welcome, not his brother, and he wondered what he should say in that moment. With a careless flip of his wrist, Loki lifted away the sheet and blanket.

“If you do not hurry, I shall grow cold and die.”

Thor huffed out a laugh, but he did as told. “If there is one thing we need not fear right now, even in the midst of a summer storm, it is catching our death of cold.”

“And yet,” Loki murmured into the curve of Thor’s shoulder, “here you are, hastened at the very thought of your brother wasting away from cold sickness.”

Thor’s reply was lost in another roll of thunder, and by the next, both were asleep once more.

. . .

The next morning greeted them with an overabundance of sunshine. They had not drawn the curtain before bed the night before, too tired from an evening spent in the dining hall, entertaining. Loki would have preferred to stay in his rooms, but Thor had insisted. At their mother’s request, Loki had brought along his violin to fill the hours before the group parted ways.

Now, he wanted nothing more than to burrow beneath his blankets, to spend another day abed shirking all responsibility, but no sooner had the thought passed through his mind when an attendant came to pound on the door.

“Your Highness, your father the King has asked that I remind you and your brother that there is a council meeting in two hours time.”

“Consider your task complete,” Loki ground out. “And do not bother Thor. I shall see him awakened myself.”

“Yes, Your Highness. A page will be by shortly with your breakfast.”

From beside him, Thor grumbled and tugged a pillow over his head. Loki considered shoving his brother off the bed, but thought better of it when a broad, strong hand wrapped about his wrist. With a long-suffering sigh, he said, “If you are quick, I will join you in the meeting. Otherwise, a new shipment of books arrived two days ago, and I should like to see them before they are relegated to the royal library.”

“How dull,” Thor replied, but he did as he was bade.

As Thor stretched, uncaring that he was in naught more than a pair of sleep hose, Loki focused on dressing, rather than the smooth expanse of his brother’s back. A full day spent sharing the same space with no reprieve had only reminded him of the curl of shame festering within him. Loki did not doubt that Thor would be less than pleased to learn his brother harbored affection for him that went beyond that of familial love.

Pushing such thoughts away, Loki took at a seat at his table, his timing deliberate as another knock came. The corner of Thor’s mouth curved up, his smile fond and indulgent as he crossed the room to let in the page. From where he was sitting, Loki could see the exchange, the way the boy fidgeted as he waited for Thor to take the heavy platter. There was another boy just behind him, a few years older with the same dark hair and light eyes, and he waited patiently as Thor brought the first platter to the table before turning to retrieve the next.

The boys were gone even before the door swung shut, and Loki found himself the sole focus of Thor’s attention. There was a moment, just as he was reaching out to place a generous portion of food in front of Loki, where it looked as though Thor might do something strange. A tense second, where his fingers hovered level with Loki’s mouth, a section of cheese grasped between them. Then that moment passed, and they were seated across from one another, the silence stretched thin but comfortable between them.

They parted company long enough to get dressed, though Thor stalled twice as Loki attempted to see him out the door. When he went, it was grudgingly, and Loki frowned at the pout Thor wore.

“You are like a child being sent to the corner. Hurry, before father sends another attendant. I have already promised to sit through the meeting with you.”

“I would rather remain here, away from everyone else.”

Loki sighed. “Of course you would, and I would as well. However, we were granted that freedom yesterday, and if we are late, our father will not be so kind again.”

Thor grimaced. “In that, you are correct. I will meet you in the hall, brother.”

Loki would have liked a few minutes alone, but he knew that if he did not hurry, his brother would come to forcibly drag him from the room. And while it was a tempting prospect, to put a fierce scowl upon Thor’s face, Loki did not relish the idea of being carried over Thor’s shoulder all the way to the council room. With a sigh, he pushed himself away from the table and began to dress.

He was still tugging on his boots when he stumbled into the hall minutes later, and he looked up to find his brother standing there, hair in disarray, tunic bunched about his belt and his hose twisted unbecomingly. It took only a few seconds work to set him to rights, Loki ever aware of the attendant’s watchful gaze. When he was certain they would not be turned away upon appearance alone, Loki conceded to the tense attendant’s to be under way.

The walk was not too long, but Thor was silent for the duration, sulky at being forced from his morning of laziness. Though it would do no good to let it be known, Loki was pleased to see his company was still favored, even if the competition was something as dull as a council meeting. Today they would be discussing the harvests, their own as well as those of the outlying towns and villages. Representatives would be chosen to ride out and assess the crops and, upon their return, another meeting would commence to deliberate over which lands required the most assistance. For all that Loki felt stilted in the reception of his father’s affection, the kingdom was not, the people well cared for.

Outside the main doors, they paused; Loki to gather his wits about him, to bring up the cool exterior that kept him shielded from much of his father’s indifference and Thor to once more undergo inspection before presentation. The doors opened to revel only half the members already in attendance, their father standing off to the side with his chief advisor. He glanced up as they approached, the lines about his face tightening when his gaze met Loki’s.

To Thor, King Odin said, “You have arrived, and none too soon.”

He looked to Loki, objection writ clear across his features, but voiced nothing. For now, he would not refuse, perhaps aware that Thor was on time only because Loki encouraged him so. It would have been just as easy to keep Thor to himself, to convince him to claim illness and remain abed. Only duty had Loki doing otherwise, and a small curl of satisfaction warmed his belly at the knowledge that this was not unknown to their father.

“If you would take your seats, the last of the councilmembers arriving, and I would like to begin without delay.”

“Of course, Father,” Loki replied when Thor only stared mutinously back.

He pulled his brother along, claiming their seats just as the last man came through the doors. There was a great shuffling of parchment, during which Loki surreptitiously gazed about the room. A few members were missing, two down with a summer cold and one away on a family emergency, if Loki recalled correctly. He would see to it that those out ill received copies of the assembly notes.

The meeting itself held little appeal to Loki. He was familiar enough with the lands and the villages, but until there was a report back of the standings of the crops, there was not much he could offer his brother by way of assistance. For now, they had only inquisitive suggestions, estimations based on the previous three years’ harvests. Loki refrained from yawning as the conversation turned towards the dull: how study the livestock look this year, how tall the wheat has grown already in their own fields, some thankfully harvested before the rain could soil it.

By the time the meeting was called to an end, Loki was fatigued with hunger. They had not breakfasted, late as they were in rising, and he had eaten lightly at supper the night before. His fingers trembled as he dusted his parchment to dry the ink, and he was only too grateful to allow his brother to test and roll it. The copies would have to wait until after their midday meal.

“You were quiet all throughout,” Thor commented as they headed to their rooms.

Loki shrugged. “There was little for me to say. Until we know how the season has begun for the outlying villages, I have not much to offer. As it is, there are only two inclined to hear my suggestions. You and the gentleman to my other side, absent in the face of his father’s untimely passing. It would serve you well to send a messenger tonight to wish his family well in the face of their sudden loss. Perhaps send along some of the fine cloth recently brought over from India. It will arrive too late to be turned into a funeral gown, but perhaps a mourning dress for the lady of the house?”

“For all that you protest, you show great care for our people, brother,” Thor said, voice fond.

“I care for those who give me reason,” Loki argued.

It was true, to an extent. Though he would urge Thor to offer condolences to even the least favored among the councilmembers, Loki saved courtesies such as the one proposed for those he felt more deserving. Anything more he wished to say on the matter was cut short by the appearance of Volstagg and Fandral, their eyes alight with merriment that could only lead to Loki’s suffering.

“Your friends arrive, Thor. Pray, give them your time and let me rest.”

Thor frowned. “Make haste to eat, brother, for I can see you wilting even now and would not have you sick again.” He held up a hand to cut off Loki’s argument. “Nay, go to your room and I will have a servant bring you food. I will see at supper.”

As they parted ways, Loki could hear the deep rumble of Volstagg’s voice, his words carrying throughout the hall.

“Thor! Come, it is almost time to train and I would speak with you over dinner concerning matters of great importance.”

“He means,” Fandral said, his words harder to hear, “that we thought perhaps a day at the river come tomorrow?”

Loki hurried his steps, aware as he made the long climb to his room that the proposed outing would happen only with his own presence. He was of a mind to decline, eager to see to the library’s latest acquirements, but knew not even his most grave protestations would spare him. Resigned, Loki promised himself he would spend the evening in the library, and if nothing else, would find a book to occupy his time and thoughts at the riverside.

. . .

The sun rose with damnable reliability, just barely cresting the horizon, her light still faint as it slipped through the window, and she brought with her the muffled thump of Thor’s arrival at Loki’s door. Unwilling to be roused so early, Loki rolled to his stomach and pulled his pillow to cover his head. It was a futile hope, indeed, that Thor’s exuberance at spending the day out of doors should be so easy to shut out, but Loki was careful nonetheless not to let his ill-will dampen his brother’s spirits.

“How are still abed at this hour?” Thor’s voice rang out through the room, booming and too cheerful for someone predisposed to dislike morning on a normal day. “Come, we ride out in just an hour’s time, and I know how you like to take your time.”

“Thor, would you not find this trip more amiable without me? Your friends, surely, would enjoy time with you only.” Loki could hear the plaintive edge to his words and inwardly cringed that he should sound so childish.

The bed dipped beneath Thor’s weight, and a moment later, he was pressed against Loki’s side, his body too warm and heavy, yet absolutely perfect all the same. It was hard to resist Thor’s tone this close, and at last, Loki sighed.

“I have yet to eat,” he began, only to be cut off by Thor once more.

“There is food on the table and more being packed as we speak. Eat and I will ready your clothing.”

The offer was not an innocent one. Thor would choose that which suited his own tastes, leaving Loki dressed far more casually than he preferred. The genuine smile lit across Thor’s face was reward enough when Loki consented, and he kept his dissatisfaction to himself at the sleeveless tunic and light trousers laid out for him. Soon enough, Thor would come to the age where he no longer found pleasure in dressing Loki to his liking.

When they arrived in the courtyard, it was to find the horses ready, Thor’s friends already astride, and their packs bulging ominously. No doubt the cook would be after them later, wares set aside for the dessert of a visiting nobleman vengefully missed. Loki would eat only the most basic to keep himself free of a guilty conscience, and remain in the head cook’s good graces. If ever there was a woman with a nose for a lie, it was she.

As expected, Thor, Volstagg, Fandral and Lady Sif took off at a gallop the moment they passed through the gates, whooping loud enough to startle the cart pony passing into through the lower city street. There were small thanks to be paid the group waited until the cobblestone road gave way to dirt. In that, Thor was always careful, memories still fresh of a horse gone lame from misuse and then killed.

Beside him, Hogun stayed abreast, quiet, but not out of rudeness. Of the terrible foursome, Loki found Hogun to be least offensive, and took comfort that no conversation would be required of him. His mare had a good head about her, and he dropped her reins in favor of his book, certain she would not startle even at the appearance of a snake. He caught Hogun’s look of surprise, and offered only the barest of explanations.

“I have trained her quite vigorously. Not even Thor has complaints of her ability to keep me seated.”

Hogun nodded. “She is of a rare quality, then. Were I to give my own horse his head, I would just as likely wind up lying on the road as to find myself in whole other kingdom.”

He lapsed into blessed silence again, and it was not until they neared the river that a thought occurred to Loki. Strapped at Hogun’s sides were twin blades, at his thighs and ankles, knives to be thrown. Whether he chose to remain behind of his own volition or not, he had been entrusted with Loki’s safety, unnecessary as the effort was. He wanted to be annoyed by Thor’s over-protective tendencies, but there was pleasure to be found in them as well.

Thor was already waist-deep in the cold river when they arrived, Volstagg and Fandral arguing heartily over who would jump from the rocky outcropping first. Lady Sif was laid out on the sand, hair plaited and pinned up with a blanket folded beneath her head. She wore only her underclothes, unashamed even the presence of men, but Loki was not of a mind to find her attractive.

Having found a shaded spot to retreat, Loki spread himself out to his own leisure and withdrew his book once more. It was a fascinating volume on the inhabitants of China and the creatures that resided there, both cherished and feared in turn. He wondered if the passages on the great drakes, with their fire-breath and ability to fly, were in truth or the fanciful exaggeration of a poet.

How much time passed, Loki did not know. He was enraptured with the idea of magic shared between human and beast, and kept in his heart a great wistfulness that he should never meet one, given the great distance between his land and China. Even the merchants that traveled had yet to meet one from China; the trade they received was passed through many different hands, the price as outlandish as the items themselves.

Just as Loki reached a section on the Chinese wells of magic, a shadow fell over him, darkening the page just enough to cause irritation. He scowled down at the pages even as his brother spoke.

“You are wasting a beautiful day, keeping your nose stuck in that book!”

Loki spared Thor only the briefest of glances before returning to his reading. It was true, the day was fair with not a breeze to be felt and the sun beating down warm and strong upon them. In the river, Hogun and Volstagg wrestled, attempting to pin the other beneath the surface as Fandral looked on, coming to the aid of whomever he deemed most in need. The Lady Sif lay on the shore sunning herself with bold carelessness, for already her skin had taken on a pink tinge. He felt no small measure of smug pleasure at the knowledge that later that evening, she would be cursing her thoughtlessness.

“I am in the sun, am I not? And, at your request, I have even dressed for the occasion,” he said, waving one bare arm in Thor’s direction. It had taken quite a bit of wheedling on Thor’s part for Loki to part ways with his shirt, though he refused to remove his trousers, instead rolling them up to expose the lower portions of his legs to the sun. “Now leave me be and—” Loki broke off with a curse as Thor loomed over him, showering him with droplets of water.

“Loki,” Thor said, tone chiding. “Why must you be so severe even now?”

“Thor, whatever idea it is in that head of yours, I suggest you—”

He sucked in a sharp breath as Thor snatched away his book, though he was mollified by the care with which it was set aside. Loki sighed and allowed his brother pull him up from the ground, but he was unprepared for the shoulder that met with his stomach, and could only grunt in surprise as he was hoisted into the air. It only occurred to him to struggle when he realized where Thor was carrying him, but he ceased his fruitless pounding upon Thor’s back when a strong hand came down hard on his arse.

Loki was spared the shame of his blush being discovered a second later when he was plunged into the water. He stayed under long enough to calm his racing heart, then pushed up toward the surface. Thor was wise enough not be within reach when Loki turned to glare at him, casually swimming back toward the shore. Loki’s annoyance spiked into true anger as Fandral and Volstagg jeered in loud voices.

Volstagg clapped Hogun on the shoulder, saying, “If not for the short hair, he could be a havsfrun!”

“Quick, Thor, silence the creature before she lures us to our watery graves!” Fandral feigned horror at the very idea, and beside him, Volstagg doubled over with laughter.

Careful to keep his hand under water so as not to give himself away, Loki twisted his fingers in a circle, then jerked up at the wrist. He smirked at the aggrieved shout as Volstagg was lifted into the air by invisible hands. Loki allowed Fandral a moment to believe he had escaped the same fate, only to do the same to him, this time eliciting a high, girlish shriek from the man.

“Brother, let them down before you do their brains harm.”

Thor’s appearance at Loki’s side startled him into ending the spell abruptly. Volstagg and Fandral dropped into the water, spluttering as they resurfaced. He arched a single brow at them, but let his revenge end there. It was enough that Lady Sif heard Fandral’s shameful cry of surprise, and he contented himself to listening to her berate them both.

He floated on the river, letting the current carry him further from the shore, aware the entire time of Thor keeping pace with him. It was as they ventured toward the bend that Thor broke the silence between them, one of his hands coming to wrap about Loki’s wrist.

“There is a place, not far from here.”

“You mean the meadow, where you would drag me whenever you were bored and wished me to perform magic tricks to entertain you?”

Thor smiled at the memory, but shook his head. “No, it is along the river. Further than any of the others will wander.”

Loki studied Thor’s face, but could see no ill-will in the strong features. With a shrug, he nodded. “All right, though it will be upon your shoulders to which I shall cling, should I become too tired to make the swim back.”

“I would carry you from one end of the kingdom to the next if you required it, brother. Come.”

Their leisurely pace gave way to a strained one as Thor made to outstrip Loki. Much rejoiced as his strength was when it came to fighting, however, in the water it was almost a curse. Loki, lithe and graceful, cut through the water and took the lead, only stopping when he was a good distance ahead.

“You are outmatched here, brother,” he laughed. He waited for Thor to catch up, and took his dunking with a smile, for the fingers curved along his shoulder were tender in their touch.

“It is just there,” Thor said, pointing to the next curve. “The current is stronger here, for we are closer to the sea, and it still moves quickly to meet the lake.” He did not offer aid, for which Loki was thankful, but Thor stayed close as they began to swim again.

As they neared the bend, Thor moved closer to the shore and Loki followed suit. He was so intent upon keeping his head above water that he almost missed the inlet, his gaze sweeping right over it before he realized that that was their goal. A dense line of trees shaded the inlet, their branches swaying in the gentle breeze. The ground beneath them was littered with leaves, most of them dead, but some still with color.

Thor was halfway to shore, rising up out of the water and into the sunlight filtering through the boughs. He glanced back at Loki, a challenge in his eyes as he continued his trek, unashamed of his nakedness. Loki hesitated, feeling all the more aware of their differences just then. At Thor’s beckoning, he sighed and trudged his way out of the river, conscious of how his trousers clung to his slender legs and the paleness of his skin from so many hours spent covered from neck to wrist to ankle. When he drew up alongside Thor, he shivered. He blamed the sudden chill in the air for his weakness as he allowed Thor to line their bodies together, his arm a solid warm weight along Loki’s shoulders.

“I should think that while the summer season lasts, this would be a fine place to read.”

“You can read?” Loki enquired with a mock frown.

Thor rolled his eyes and nudged him hard in the ribs with an elbow far pointier than it looked. “You, not I. I’ve little care for books, but I could swim, sleep—”

“And laze about in the sun, and otherwise shirk all responsibility,” Loki said. He wanted to be annoyed, but the sincere gaze of his brother made it all but impossible. “It is quite pretty. I should think it would only take your friends a moment to ruin such a peaceful place.”

Bumping their shoulders together, Thor nudged him further inland, and the leaves crackled beneath their feet. “I meant only you and I, brother. I should think they would not enjoy the swim.”

“They could just as easily ride,” Loki countered.

“Nay, they will not be bothered. It is too close to our border with Alfheim. Though not enemies of Asgard, Volstagg and the others do not share our ease with Alfheim’s people. No, this would be a place for only you and I, Loki. I should like to see you leave the castle’s walls more often. The sun’s color suits you.”

Loki hummed in agreement. He enjoyed spending time outside, and trips such as these were few and far between. Without Lady Sif and the Warriors Three taunting him, it was easy to relax, to let nature’s calm settle over him. He would have liked nothing more than to remain there, sheltered away from their lives of responsibility, but the sun was beginning to descend, and too soon their presence would be required before their father, or they would risk his anger.

“I should like to return, when the season changes again, but for now it is time to return to the others.”

“It is early afternoon yet! Why leave now? It is not even the peak of the day.” Thor’s scowl was fierce, but Loki only turned away, picking his way back to the water.

“Because you are required to attend the council meeting this afternoon, and if we are late, father will blame me. I have no desire to gain his ire so soon after the last time, brother. Now come, before one of those fools you call friends drowns himself.”

The return trip was far more tiresome, and by the time they dragged themselves ashore, Loki wanted nothing more than to crawl into his bed. Though still warm, the breeze had picked up a noticeable chill, and it cut through Loki’s soaked clothing, leaving him shivering. The others had left their clothes out to dry, and he could see the cold mirth in Lady Sif’s eyes as she watched him struggle into his shirt. He snarled twice when he could not get his fingers to cooperate long enough to untangle his ties, and his mood blackened.

Thor chose then to appear before him, ignoring Loki’s rough words to straighten the laces of his shirt. He leaned in, voice pitched low, and said in a whisper,”It would be an easy thing for you, should you decide to dry your clothes sooner rather than later.” He straightened, stepping back only far enough to allow Loki room to cast his spell. “Good. Fandral,” he called over his shoulder. “Take my brother’s horse. You four ride ahead. Loki shall ride with me.”

“Treats the bastard like a lady, too weak to ride on her own,” Fandral muttered as he grabbed the reins to Loki’s mare.

The words stirred something within Loki, and he swung around to respond, only to find an arm restraining him. Thor’s laugh rumbled through them.

“If it were a swooning maid I was after, do not worry Fandral for I would look no further than yourself. Now enough with your insults. You do my brother grievance whenever that mouth of yours opens, and I should like not to lose one of my best knights because he has been bewitched into some woodland creature. Now go, and let my brother and I ride in peace.”

Volstagg wasted no time vaulting up into the saddle of his horse, and Hogun followed suit. Lady Sif lagged behind, eyes moving from Loki to Thor and back again. At last she mounted her horse, but it was clear in the stiff set of her shoulders that she was not pleased at the turn of events.

“It is not safe for you two to ride alone. There are many who would see harm done to you.”

“Between my brother’s sorcery and my sword, I believe we are well taken care of, though your concern is heartening.”

The dismissal was clear in his tone, and with a frown, Lady Sif obeyed. As Thor’s friends rode off, Thor turned to Loki once more, tugging him close to touch their foreheads together.

“You take his words too seriously, brother. Ignore them, for mine are the only ones that should matter. I know you are not some wilting damsel—”

“And yet you treat me thus,” Loki said. He pulled away roughly, reaching for the saddle horn and mounting with careless grace. He had half a mind to leave Thor there, but then a hand, warm and strong and sure, settled over his own.

Thor’s gaze was sincere, his words doubly so when he said, “It is never my intention, for you are dearest to—”

“Do not!” Loki said, sharp. He softened his tone at the flash of hurt in his brother’s eyes. “Do not. My resolve is ever wavering when you speak thus. You are forgiven, Thor. Now get up here, for I should like to change my clothes before I am to stand before our father and his council.”

It was only as Thor was settling in behind him that Loki realized the saddle was one made to carry two people. His stomach twisted and clenched at the thought of Thor planning this closeness, and as Thor’s broad, thick thighs bracketed his own, Loki felt his face heat. He was spared the indignity of being found out when a blanket was draped across his shoulders, the folds falling neatly over his lap.

Thor’s arms came around him then, and Loki found it hard to tear his gaze away from the hands that gripped the reins. Unwilling to shame himself further, he closed his eyes and leaned back into the welcome warmth of Thor’s chest. It did not take long for the steady beat of the horse’s hooves against the road to lull him into sleep, and when he opened his eyes again, they were stopped just out of sight of the castle walls.

“I did not think you would want anyone to see you...”

Under normal circumstances, Loki was inclined to agree, but he was tired from his day spent in the sun. He yawned wide enough that his jaw cracked, and shook his head.

“Let them talk. I do not wish to walk further than necessary.”

Thor made no audible response, but Loki could sense his approval in the looseness of his grip as Thor slung an arm about Loki’s waist. He clucked his tongue and his mare began to move again, her gait tired. Loki would need to make certain she received an extra blanket and fresh straw for her bed that night, if not also a treat from the stable boys who doted upon her.

The city was bustling as they made their way through the gates and up to the castle. The Midsummer festivities were still a few weeks away, but already preparations were underway. Every year, an invitation was sent out to the ally kingdoms, and with the royal entourage would arrive some of the lower class citizens. They would feast in the great hall with the court, then disperse into the night to join in the revelry of the common folk.

Often, Loki and Thor would slip away as well, donning more simple clothing before accompanying their people in celebration. It was one of Loki’s favorite holidays, and he looked forward to the coming weeks, as Odin’s focus shifted from his sons to his people. A rare and much beloved break from the scrutiny of court life.

They reached the courtyard far sooner than Loki would have liked, and he waited for Thor to dismount before doing the same. Two stable boys appeared at his elbow, a mischievous twinkle in the eye of the youngest lad as he slipped a sugared treat into the horse’s mouth. Loki smiled, and bent low to whisper in his ear.

“A copper for you each if you see that her stall is freshly cleaned before she is put away for the evening.”

The boy’s eyes went wide, and he nodded once, just enough for Loki to take note. “Thank ‘e, your Highness.”

Loki straightened, then stiffened when he saw his father striding toward them. He cast a wary glance at the sky and frowned to see that it was darker than should be. Beside him, Thor twitched, and when Loki glanced at him, he bore the guiltiest of expressions.

“You were sleeping so soundly, I thought it would matter little if our return trip was extended.”

“And now we are late for the council meeting. It will be my head father will have for this, you realize?”

Thor opened his mouth, but Odin’s arrival put to end whatever reply he meant to give. Staring them each down in turn, Odin looked to Thor first.

“You were to be home two hours previous. Your friends returned, said that you were just behind them, and yet here you are now.”

“The fault is mine, Father,” Thor said. He was silenced by a single glare.

“Which I take to mean that it was Loki who chose to delay your return. Thor, your mother awaits you in her chambers. You will escort her to the great hall. Loki, you will go directly to your rooms. Perhaps a night and a day without food will remind you of your responsibilities to your people and to your King.”

Loki refused to meet his gaze, and he pulled away when Thor reached for him. Always it was thus, the blame laid heavily upon his shoulders, never those of his brother. Long ago, resentment toward Thor had brewed deep within his heart, but he saw now the fault was not Thor’s but that of their father. Mute in his fury, Loki stalked into the castle. He crossed paths with Volstagg and Hogun, and had to fight the urge to curse the men when they blocked the way.

“King Odin looks for you.”

“And I have been found. Now if you do not mind, I have business to attend.” He side-stepped Volstagg and continued on his way, but when he rounded the corner, he stopped to listen to their exchange.

“No doubt the king has punished him for their late return.”

Volstagg made a low noise in his throat. “More like it was Thor, though Odin would never admit as much. Ah well, his company will not be missed, nor his tricks.”

“Perhaps, but he is hard on Loki. It cannot be easy for him. You forget, I think, how long it took for you and I to become friends when first I arrived to Asgard. My mother, a Midgardian taken as wife by a half-breed Svartalfheim. For near a year, all thought me an enemy, planted within Asgard’s walls to spy on your king. And yet here I am.”

“It is not the same! He is a son of Odin—”

“Who bears no Asgardian traits, but has powers none here understand and many fear. He is an oddity and is treated as such. Perhaps you are too hard on him, my friend.”

The sound of their voices faded as they retreated down the corridor and into the stairwell. Loki remained where he was, pondering Hogun’s words. Always he had been aware of his differences, but when laid out so plainly…. With a shake of his head, Loki pushed away from the wall, walking the last few feet that separated him from his room. There was a page waiting in the alcove across the hall, and while he did not doubt the boy had been warned not to fetch him food or drink, he knew that a bath would not be refused.

It took only a short time for the basin to be brought in, the water cold to the touch. He found it more convenient to simply heat the water with magic than to wait, and in short order he was neck-deep in hot water, his wet hair dripping onto the stone floor as he tipped his head back. It was an easy thing, then, to pretend that he was in his rooms of his own volition and not out of punishment fit more for a child. Easy to recall the shift of muscle in Thor’s thighs as they rode together, the hand that laid flat against Loki’s body as he began to grow lax with sleep.

The longing he kept locked away when outside his rooms grew then, coiling low in his belly. There was an itch to answer it, to slip his hand beneath the water and take hold of himself and stroke his way to completion, but he refused. His limbs felt heavy, his mind fogged with exhaustion that stemmed not from the day's activities, but from appearing unmoved by his father’s open disdain. Closing his eyes, Loki shoved away all thoughts but those of his magic and his music. He hummed, his fingers drumming out a sad counterpoint against the copper basin.

He was unaware of falling asleep, but woke to find the water had gone cold and a fire blazing in his hearth. Thor was asleep in a chair he dragged over, his long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankle. It was a miracle the giant oaf had not slipped from his seat.

The water splashed as Loki stood, and the sound roused Thor, who climbed to his feet as well, holding a linen towel. Rather than relinquish it, he batted aside Loki’s outstretched hand and moved in, wrapping the cloth around him as Loki stepped out of the tub. On the table behind Thor sat a platter piled high with cheese, bread, fruit and meat; a hearty fare that Odin had forbidden his younger son.

“You should not go against father,” Loki murmured, but he did not hesitate to reach for the food, his stomach growling. “It will only strengthen his anger with me.”

Thor waited for Loki to take a seat at the table before dragging over his own chair. When he sat, it was so close that Loki could feel Thor’s very breath upon his shoulder.

“He would have stopped me, but mother bade him to see reason. Our people do not starve, because we care for them; how then would he force upon you what he will not see even the most common man suffer?”

Loki took a bit of cheese, breaking it in half to share with Thor. “She is poetic with her words and father is weak to them.”

“Your punishment is to spend tomorrow training with me and my friends.” He smirked. “He has forgotten that tomorrow we spend only half the day on the field and the rest at our leisure, but I did not see a reason to burden him with such knowledge.”

“A pity. I should think it would have been well worth it for his expression alone.”

The smile on Thor’s face slid away, his brows slanting down. “You would be mistaken. He would only find some new means of reprimand, and I would not see you bear it alone. Nay, I prefer it this way. He will be in meetings all day, from which we have both been excused. We can spend the afternoon in the garden, and you can enchant us all with your music. You have not played in two days by my counting.”

“No, I have not.” Having eaten his fill, Loki stood and crossed to his wardrobe. He withdrew a simple night shift, choosing to forgo sleep hose. As he dressed, Thor cleared away the food, handing the empty platter to the page in the hall before returning.

“Would you sleep alone tonight?” he asked after a long pause.

Loki peered back at Thor as he climbed into his bed. “We are not children, brother. Bad enough you defied father to bring me food, but to stay here….”

“Would you then send me away?”

Just the thought left Loki aching, and he shook his head in mute reply.

“Good.”

Thor undressed, kicking aside his boots and shirt but leaving on his trousers. In the bed, they drew together the curtains, shutting out the light of the fire. An arm settled low over Loki’s hips, but he did not shrug it off. The silence stretched on, and between one breath and the next, Loki lost his battle with sleep.