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The Still Point of the Turning World

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Prologue

This is the story you have heard -

Once, mankind accepted a simple truth: that they were not alone in this universe. Some worlds man believed home to their Gods. Others they knew to fear. From a land of cold and darkness came the Frost Giants, threatening to plunge the mortal world into a new ice age. But humanity would not face this threat alone. The armies of Asgard drove the Frost Giants back into the heart of their own world. The cost was great. In the end, their king fell, and the source of their power was taken from them. With the last great war ended, the Aesir withdrew from the other worlds and returned home to the realm eternal, Asgard, where they remain as a beacon of hope, shining out across the stars. Though they have fallen into man’s myths and legends, it was Asgard and its warriors that brought peace to the universe.

It is a true story. But so is this -

Once, there was a king, who found that his people had grown too numerous for their own land. So he gathered his armies and went in search of new territories, taking by right of conquest, as his people had always done. He did not expect, however, for his fellow king to envy so his success as to take the side of the mortals, to kill beings with centuries of wisdom for the sake of those who would scarcely see half of one. But Odin did envy, and he came with his armies until Laufey had no choice but to retreat from the realm of Midgard, bringing war and loss to the country he had tried to protect. By the time the war ended, Laufey’s people no longer needed new lands, and the people of Midgard worshipped Odin and his warriors as if they were gods.

Odin took his victory, and he took the Cask of Ancient Winters that powered Laufey’s rule, and he nearly took Laufey’s only heir. Only chance kept Odin from entering the temple where the heir to Jotunheim lay - chance, and one group of Jotun warriors who had chosen this moment to make their final, hopeless stand. Odin returned to the battle at a call from Heimdall, and he forgot that he was once curious about the temple of ice.

This is that story.

***

“Thor!” Frigga called as she stepped onto the practice yards. “Thor!”

She waited, but not even the hint of a giggle betrayed the presence of her only son. She sighed in exasperation. “How does such a little boy move so quickly?” she murmured to herself. Thor had only just learned to walk, and yet somehow managed to evade his personal guard with a regularity that drove Odin to fits. Luckily for the continued health of the guards, Thor was usually quite simple to find - staring at the warriors with wide eyes as they fought, captivated by their fast movement, gleaming swords and heroic words.

Today, though, the yards held no sparring warriors, nor was Thor examining the weapons racked along the edges of the ring. Frigga frowned. She would have to become more creative.

Hours later, Frigga had checked the kitchens, then the gardens, and in desperation, the library. Thor’s entire personal guard and half of Frigga’s flooded the palace, questioning every person that passed, checking behind every doorway and within every small space in which a boy might hide. They were still searching when Odin returned from running training drills for the army outside the palace, and Frigga had time only to look into her husband’s concerned face before she knew, the memory of Thor’s wide eyes as he listened to Odin’s plans for the day suddenly in sharp relief in her mind’s eye.

They searched for Thor for weeks - a few quick-witted servants noticed that several apples were missing from Idunn's store, that Thor's small spear and hammer had disappeared from the training yard, and once a guard even found golden peels discarded beneath a long branched willow just outside the palace walls - but aside from those small traces, they saw no sign of their beloved Prince. Heimdall stared into the abyss as far as he could, searching, always searching, but no matter how much Odin raged and Frigga wept he could not see the boy.

After a week, all of Asgard plunged into mourning, from which it would not fully emerge for years - and for some, not even then.

(But if Heimdall could have seen - one young Jotun, attempting to make a name for himself, sneaking into Asgard just to prove that he could - and oh, his spells were working, no one had come down to find him, no Heimdall dropping an army upon his head - when he heard a challenge and nearly lost control over his magic in fright.

But the voice was higher and smaller than an Aesir warrior's, and he stopped in surprise when he saw that it came from a plump toddler, hardly half the height of his knee, brandishing a toy hammer at him as if it were Mjolnir itself.

He laughed, then, low and rich and frightening, but the boy faltered only for a moment before raising his toy higher. The Jotun turned away - he had better things to do than speak with an Aesir brat, and no matter what the Aesir thought of them, he was no child-murderer - when the boy challenged him. "Stop! In the name of Thor Odinson!”

The Jotun stopped, slowed.

Thor Odinson.

That would be a prize beyond all reckoning, if Laufey were to receive it.

He turned.

"You want a fight, boy? Then you shall have it." The child had only half a moment to look triumphant and afraid before the Jotun was upon him, and a touch of his freezing hand was enough for the child to scream until he fell unconscious.

The Jotun hastened back to his own realm, glorying in the prize he had won for his king.)

***

Of course, Laufey did not kill the little prince either. As satisfying as it might feel to kill Odin’s only heir, to destroy his world as Odin had destroyed his, he was no child-murderer either - nor was he willing to draw the wrath of the Aesir upon his people again so soon. He looked down upon the subject who had brought him so great a prize and thought deeply.

“How long can you keep him hidden?” Laufey asked. That the mage was successful was self-evident, as Odin had not appeared by Bifrost to murder them all, but he did not like the strain in the corners of his mage’s eyes. “Your life depends on your honesty.”

The mage swallowed, and visibly reconsidered his words. “Two days, for certain. After that, I would need to rest.” Laufey scowled, and the man flinched. Two days was nothing. Laufey might as well send the boy back now, if he could keep him only two days.

“What would make your spell stronger?”

“My king? Ah - that would depend on how much stronger.”

“To hide him from all sight - indefinitely. For centuries, at the very least, and make him immune to our touch.”

The mage gaped at him. “Indefinite- impossible!” Laufey growled and stood, and the mage scrabbled backward. “My king, you would need every sorcerer in your palace to cast such a thing, and they would not all know the spell.”

Laufey stared coldly down at the man, who shivered but held his ground. “Then gather my sorcerers. You have two days to teach every being in this palace capable of magic your spell.” He waited only until the mage had managed some semblance of a nod before striding quickly from his throne room. “Keep him to a cell until he stops yelling,” he commanded to the approaching man who he had placed in charge of the young Aesir. The guard nodded and faded away, leaving Laufey to think.

His greatest enemy’s child, under his own roof. Laufey’s blood burned as he remembered that final battle, the humiliation of being forced to give up Jotunheim’s most precious resource. Oh, he would revenge himself upon Odin. The boy was young, so young that his memories of Asgard would soon fade to no better than a dream. It would be no trouble to break the boy to his will. He would teach the heir of Asgard to serve, until he was no longer fit to rule.

It would take time, however, to mold him. In a flash of insight he turned towards his cells and ordered the first guard he saw to bring the Aesir child to the nursery.

He arrived at his son’s bedside only minutes before his prisoner. His guards threw the Aesir to the ground, forced to his knees beside the low bed of ice that cradled Laufey’s son. At the unexpected noise, Loki opened his eyes.

For a moment, the two children stared at each other, stunned into silence at the sight of a face so foreign. Laufey tensed, ready to snatch Loki away should he react poorly.

Instead, Loki laughed. While Laufey stared, Loki smiled at the strange white-faced boy above his cradle, and then freed one small arm from the blankets and reached out to touch Thor’s cheek. Thor flinched instinctively at the touch - but instead of black frost, deep blue bloomed from Loki’s fingers.

Laufey stared. Impossible.

The dark hue spread down the Aesir’s face, startling him as it reached the skin he could see. Odin’s heir jumped back, staring at his hands. The blue bled out of them as if it had never been.

Loki frowned, then reached out. “Ba!” he demanded, and before Laufey’s astonished eyes, a spark of green played between his fingertips.

And Laufey understood why his child was so small, so unworthy of his house - he had magic, more magic perhaps than any his kingdom had ever seen. The Jotun had always understood that great power must come from somewhere. It ate away at the vitality and growth of a young life, sacrificing strength for power. For his son to create such an illusion at this age - for him to be so very small - Loki's power must be great indeed.

As Thor's face colored blue in the wake of Loki's tiny hand, a greater revenge than Laufey had ever dreamed bloomed within his mind, and he laughed and laughed and laughed.

Part One: Jotunheim

"Heimdall!"

Thor Aesirson woke up shouting. He gasped in the frigid air, letting the familiar chill drive the remnants of the dream from his memory.

When he had regained control of himself, he glanced through the open archway that served as his door. Through it he could just see the tall pile of furs that covered the crown prince's bed. Narrowing his eyes, Thor stared at the pile. It was completely motionless.

“Ymir’s tits!" Thor cursed, sitting up instantly. He swung his feet over the edge of his bed, unwrapping himself from the deep nest of furs, and thrust his socked feet directly into his fur-lined boots, never allowing his feet to touch the icy floor. Standing, he reached out and settled his cloak easily over the rest of his clothing, gloved fingers moving as quickly as he possible. The second he was fully dressed, he bolted for the door. Every second counted when Loki disappeared like this.

Thor did not bother to check his prince's bed. Loki’s simulacra were now near perfect in appearance, but he had yet to give them the kind of substance that allowed their simulated breath to move his blankets, their weight to press upon the furs. The utter stillness of his bed was a better test than any magical means of detecting Loki's clones.

Bursting into the corridor, Thor did not stop even to nod to the guards perpetually stationed near Loki's door before heading to the kitchens. If he were very lucky, he would find Loki there, using his royal status to indulge his sweet tooth. Thor, like all the servants, had never tasted sugar - none grew in Jotunheim - but Loki was allowed to have a sweet every day if he chose.

Thor ducked beneath another servant's arm and skidded into the kitchen. His heart sank as he met the red eyes of the head cook, who was already shaking her head at him. She had not seen Loki, then. Thor smiled in thanks and turned again.

For once, his small size was a major advantage as he dodged traffic along the icy tunnels of Laufey’s palace. He barely came up to the waist of most Jotun, even now that he, like Loki, had reached his third century and could begin an apprenticeship of his own - if he had been Jotun. Thor’s place, of course, would always be with Loki.

Turning a sharp corner, Thor skidded a bit on the ice, catching himself against a wall. For a moment the cold bit into his shoulder as if his cloak were not even there, and he shivered as the ice brought echoes of his dream back to the surface of his thoughts.

Thor rarely dreamed, but when he did, it was always the same. He remembered nothing except an unthinking terror, cold so deep it burned, and the absolute assurance that if he yelled loudly enough, Heimdall would come and find him. Thor did not even know who Heimdall was. He wondered sometimes if it had been his father, before his family died and the royal house of Jotunheim took him in, but he didn’t think he would call his father by his first name.

Shrugging off the unsettling fears of the morning, Thor started running once more. He needed to find Loki, not waste time thinking about a past he could never discover.

***

“Attention!” Thor watched eagerly from the sidelines as the enormous frost giant who trained Laufey’s army faced down the newest group of Jotun to choose to apprentice as warriors. The crown prince stood with them, glaring mutinously at the training master, but wisely keeping his mouth shut. In the training yard, even the prince wielded less authority than the master.

Thor had finally discovered Loki by doing the most mad thing he could think of: he looked where Loki was actually supposed to be. He found Loki lounging in a small training area adjacent to the yard where he was supposed to gather with the other new warriors, all but invisible between the wall and the weapons racks. Loki lay on his back, slowly consuming a small sugared ball. He looked prepared to stay there all day. When he saw Thor, he scowled ferociously and waved a hand.

“Your father sent me to get you,” Thor said quickly, as bits of Loki’s body began to melt and turn invisible. It was almost true, anyway - Laufey had at least made it very clear that he considered it Thor’s responsibility to ensure that Loki did not miss another training session, or arrive so late as to not have bothered.

Loki looked at Thor suspiciously, but he was already fading back into existence, and Thor knew he had won. Even Loki would not defy Laufey. “If my king insists,” Loki sighed, getting to his feet. He swept by Thor without another word, heading for the central training grounds. Thor followed, not trusting Loki to make even this short journey unaccompanied. If he allowed himself to be distracted even for a moment, Loki could replace himself with a clone that would only be discovered when someone attempted to strike him, and at that point he would be long gone.

Thor was following closely enough that he nearly bumped into Loki’s back when he hesitated, just for a moment, before entering the ring. He darted a quick glance at his prince’s face. Loki’s eyes were expressionless, but the tightness of his mouth revealed everything he felt about his warrior training. Thor faded into the wall as Loki gathered himself to walk arrogantly towards the rest of Laufey’s new-chosen warriors, all of which stood at least eighteen inches taller than the crown prince.

The training master began to call out instructions, and each apprentice took up a blunt blade, a substitute for the ice that all true Jotun fought with when they had learned the trick of it. Thor knew that this group was still easily a century away from creating their own blade’s to the master’s exacting instructions, though, and Laufey could not wait so long to increase his army. In the wake of Asgard’s near-destruction of their people, every warrior needed to be ready.

Thor was no expert, but even he could tell that the training session was not going well. Loki’s head barely came to the smallest of his opponent’s chest, and sometimes to their waists. Loki stretched to his utmost to block, and his opponent could not figure out how to use the block the instructor had demonstrated down by his waist instead of his chest. It was a disaster. Just as the previous two weeks had been.

Without warning, the training master shot out his arm in Thor’s direction. "You."

Thor stared, then looked around. "Yes, you," he said impatiently. "Aesirson. Come here."

Thor came forward slowly, until he stood opposite Loki. The master looked at him critically, then nodded. "You will learn to spar with Loki."

As Thor gaped at him, one of young warriors protested in the way Thor did not dare. "He is a servant. He can't be allowed to learn to fight!"

The training master glared, and the air suddenly filled with the promise of ice. "Did I ask your opinion?" No one dared reply.

He turned to Thor. "Pick up a weapon." Thor did so. He turned to face Loki, whose face was caught between horror, embarrassment, and rage. As if from a long way off, Thor noted that they were nearly of a height.

"Now. Defend."

***

Thor followed Loki from the practice courts in absolute silence. Not a single person dared speak to the prince when he looked like this - nearly vibrating with fury.

“You may go,” Loki snapped at the guards stationed outside his doorway. The one on the left looked as if he might argue, but the one on the right grabbed his arm and nodded. They retreated to the alcove halfway down the corridor, created specifically to give the royals privacy in these ice chambers with no doors. Loki did not even wait to see if they reached their destination before dragging Thor through the archway and shoving him up against the wall.

“How dare you fight against the prince of Jotunheim?” All traces of the lazy, indolent-looking sugar eater from that morning were gone.

“I was ordered,” Thor protested, even as he knew it would do no good.

“You have no right," Loki snarled, so angry his eyes seemed to glow. "No right to enter the ring with me."

“So I should defy the training master?”

“Shut up!” A thin ice blade appeared in Loki’s hand and he swung it towards Thor’s head. Thor ducked, and the blade shattered upon impact with the wall. Loki snarled at his failed blade, and Thor used the brief moment of distraction to slide away along the wall.

“Stop moving!” Loki ordered. “You will never dare fight with me again, do you understand? I command you!”

"It's not my fault I'm the only one who can spar with you!" Thor yelled.

"I am the crown prince of Jotunheim! You are Aesirson - you have no father, no house, no anything! You have no right to anything in this realm! You are nothing but mine, do you understand?"

Thor hit him.

Loki gaped, and Thor had time only for a moment of breathless horror before Loki’s eyes flared red, and instead of screaming for his guards, the prince threw a punch at Thor’s face. Thor’s head snapped back against the ice, his vision streaked with white, then red. Thor bared his teeth through a haze the exact color of Loki’s eyes and launched himself at his prince, taking savage pleasure in how his eyes widened with shock.

Loki fought viciously, cruelly, teeth and nails and dirty punches, and Thor gave him back the same. It was not only Loki who had needed to fight those bigger than him. Ymir, the crown prince - Laufey will have me killed, but the thought was distant, unimportant, blown into wisps by the far more important not my fault, none of this is my fault, I didn’t ask to be brought here and it isn’t fair -

Suddenly there was pounding on the ice wall outside the corridor. “My prince! Are you hurt? May we enter?”

Loki’s eyes met Thor’s. Loki’s teeth were millimeters from piercing Thor’s shoulder, and only Thor’s merciless grip on Loki’s hair kept them from reaching him. Blood dripped into Thor’s eye.

“You may not enter,” Loki said at last. “There is no need.”

“My prince?”

“Leave!” Loki roared, and even now Thor cringed a bit at the anger in his high voice. They waited as the footsteps retreated.

Thor stared at Loki. His normally perfect hair was snarled around his face, his jeweled ornaments hanging by a thread from one of his shoulders. Thor licked his lips and tasted blood.

Then Loki raised his head, and Thor released his hair, allowing him to step back. For a moment neither of them moved.

Loki spat blood to the side, and Thor flinched. Loki raised an eyebrow. “Tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow?” Thor repeated. He did not understand. His blood still hummed in his veins, despite or perhaps because of the growing assurance that he would be dead before the day was out. He stared at his hands, watching as the deep blue skin that bloomed wherever Loki had touched him, wherever he had ripped his clothes, faded back to pink, and longed sharply to strike Loki again.

“We will fight again tomorrow,” said Loki. He smiled, and his teeth were stained with blood. “If we must train with each other, we shall have to be the best.”

***

After that day, Loki never attempted to avoid his training sessions. Thor walked with him each day to the courtyard, where the training master pushed them all hard, harder than they thought they could bear, to master the techniques that all but Thor would one day translate into ice. When the morning was over, they retreated to Loki’s rooms, where they fought each other even more mercilessly, pushing the limits of their endurance. Loki and Thor both arrived to Loki’s audiences with Laufey bleeding and bruised. Laufey commented only once.

“Is your training going well, my son?”

“Yes, Father,” Loki replied, and Laufey nodded. He never questioned his son twice.

After a year, the training master declared that Thor would no longer face Loki. Thor looked at him in shock. He had never dreamed of training as a warrior before, but now that he had - the idea of being cast out was unbearable. But the master simply ordered one half of each partnership to move down the line, and Thor found himself facing a Jotun with three decades and sixteen inches on him.

This created a whole new set of problems. Loki and Thor had trained each other as best they knew how, but they were no match for someone so much larger than themselves. The only thing that kept this new development from being as disastrous as the first attempt was now everyone in the yard had experience with weapons, and could now at least in theory more easily adjust to different opponents. Still, Thor left the ring that day more bruised than he had been since his first fight with Loki.

“This isn’t going to work,” Loki whispered in frustration as they walked back to his chambers. He looked as exhausted as Thor felt. “We need a new plan.” Then his eyes lit in a way that had Thor reflexively searching for weapons. “Helblindi!” he called out, and the huge young Jotun turned.

Helblindi was Laufey’s second son, and even at ninety years younger than Loki, he towered over even some of the current crop of warrior trainees. Thor looked up at him in trepidation. Even though he served Loki, he had very little interaction with the rest of the royal family, especially as Helblindi had still nearly a century before he entered warrior training of his own. The large youth lumbered over, and Loki smiled. “How would you like to get a jump on your yearmates?” Loki asked.

From then on, Helblindi joined their afternoon practices whenever he could get away from his own instruction in the history and politics Laufey insisted his sons learn. Although he had learned no swordplay, he was invaluable in teaching Thor and Loki how to physically fight someone much larger than themselves. He also picked up on Thor and Loki’s techniques frighteningly quickly. Thor did not envy the Jotun who would join Helblindi in training in a century’s time.

After spending nearly the entire day in combat, neither boy had the energy for any other pursuits, and retreated to Loki’s chambers. It was very strange for Thor. He had lived in the same suite of rooms as Loki for his entire life, serving him in any way Loki demanded, but never had they spent the evenings together like this. Loki did not like crowds, but he seemed to want company. For the first time in their lives, the day the training master broke up their partnership Loki followed him back into his own small room, and they argued about combat techniques against larger opponents until Loki fell asleep on Thor’s bed. Thor did not quite dare move him.

The next evening, Loki plopped himself down on the rich fur rug in front of his own bed, then looked pointedly everywhere except Thor until Thor settled down next to him. Then he began talking about the next day’s training as if nothing had happened. Thor listened quietly, feeling strangely both out of place and exactly where he wanted to be.

***

Thor slumped down against the wall, panting, as Loki did the same on the other. As he fought to regain his breath, he stared at his hands in morbid fascination, as the dark blue that marked everywhere he had touched Loki’s skin faded blotchily back to Aesir pale. Across from him, Loki lazily made small, complex shapes of green fire in the palm of his hand - his own version of winding down after a long and vicious sparring session.

The words came without conscious thought. “It would be easier if I could look like you all the time.”

“Oh, I could do that,” Loki said carelessly, and Thor’s shock at his own boldness turns into another emotion entirely.

“Truly?”

Loki stopped playing with his shapes and looked at Thor more closely. “Yes,” he replied slowly, his voice already taking on the edge of one of Loki’s most experimental research interests. “Yes, I could.”

Thor found he was standing, with no memory of getting to his feet. Loki stood to match him, and Thor held out his hand, which had already lost all traces of blue. Loki searched his eyes. “Would you like me to do it?”

Thor nodded, words lodged in his throat beneath a desire that had lain so quiet, so hidden within his heart, that he had not so much as dreamed of it before today. “Yes,” he managed, and his voice scraped raw with need.

Loki stared at him, seeming to look straight through his skin and into his bones. Then Loki’s hand began to glow, and with two quick steps forward he placed his palm against Thor’s cheek.

Thor gasped, but felt nothing - only the cool touch of Loki’s fingers. For a long time neither of them moved. Then Loki sucked in a breath and fell back, his hand falling away from Thor’s face. “There.”

Thor stared at him, disbelieving, then ran to the dark mirrored ice in the corner of the room. He drew up in shock. His skin shone with the deep richness of a Jotun, from which his newly red eyes glowed like an ember. But something was different.

"Loki, I still have my hair!" Where all other Jotun have smooth, shaved heads, Thor's blond hair remained firmly attached to his head.

"And? I have hair," Loki responded, and Thor could hear the scowl in his voice without turning around. "Unless you'd prefer not to look anything like me."

"No!" Thor cried without thinking, and looked at himself again. The blue in the mirror was shocking, after so long of seeing only pale sickly white. He looked stronger this way, he thought - stronger and more dangerous. He smiled, and his teeth looked sharp.

Thor looked over at Loki again, who was pretending rather badly not to stare. His prince lounged against the bed, his dark hair spilling over his shoulders, and suddenly Thor was glad that Loki had left him his blond locks. It looked strange, certainly - no Jotun had ever had hair this color - but to look more like Loki than anyone else was no bad thing.

"I like it," Thor said, and Loki smiled as if he heard everything else in Thor's voice that he could not say.

***

The next morning, Thor woke up to find his skin returned to Aesir pale. He entered Loki’s room immediately, unable to hide his devastation. Loki’s eyes narrowed, and with relief Thor watched as his pink skin disappeared. “I’ll find a way to make it permanent,” Loki said at last, and the glint of challenge in his eyes made Thor sag with relief. Loki never failed a challenge he had set himself.

When he entered the training yard that day, an intense stillness fell over the crowd. Thor could feel everyone’s eyes on him, staring at his skin, his eyes, his hair. An older Jotun, one Thor did not know on sight except by the sigils of his house carved into his left hand, summoned ice to his fingers and surged to his feet. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “How dare this Asgardian nothing masquerade as one of us?”

“I decided to affect a bit of cosmetic improvement on my servant.” Loki’s voice was low and smooth, confident in the way he sounded when he did not know what was going to happen. Thor clenched his fists and stepped closer to his prince. “I assume you are not questioning my actions, Svarthi?”

The older boy blanched slightly, then held his ground. “It isn’t right for one of the Aesir to look like us,” he said, attempting to regain his confidence.

“Well, he looks nothing like you, so I suppose we don’t have a problem.”

“Pairs! Attack now!” The training master’s voice boomed across Loki and Svarthi’s standoff. Thor relaxed slightly, then stiffened again as he met the eyes of his opponent. Somehow Svarthi had managed to maneuver so he faced Thor. The older Jotun glared at him. Thor glared back, enjoying the increased effect now that his eyes could glow properly red. Svarthi could disapprove all he liked, but Loki’s word was law.

The first day dragged on like no other, as each of Svarthi’s friends tried their best to bring Thor down. It took all of Thor’s long days practicing with Loki and Helblindi to keep from being beaten too badly. Even so, he had to hide a limp as he followed Loki from the courtyard. When Loki slowed his pace, Thor knew he had done a poor job. At their private lessons that afternoon, Thor lost badly, even when Loki stopped using his magic to increase his speed. Thor yelled at him when he finally noticed. “We can’t afford to be easy on ourselves!” Loki’s eyes flashed, but he did not deny it.

That day set a pattern for the weeks that followed. Thor woke up, found the illusion vanished, then reported to Loki so he could recast the glamour. Then they walked to the training yard together, where Svarthi and his companions did their best to beat Thor into the ground. Word spread quickly about Thor’s new appearance, and everywhere he went, the residents of the palace found excuses to stop by and stare at him.

Only Laufey himself seemed utterly unaffected by Thor’s transformation. In fact, Thor could almost swear that he had seen the king smile the first time he entered the court wearing a Jotun’s skin. With the king’s tacit approval, Thor’s greatest detractors had nowhere to turn.

Weeks passed, then months. The viciousness on the practice courts began to drop, and servants and nobles alike stopped finding excuses to come by the training yard early in the morning. Then one day Loki woke Thor in the dead of night, grinning madly and holding a Midgardian emerald on a cord in his hand.

“This will keep it,” he insisted, and nearly strangled Thor trying to fling it around his neck. Thor struggled to a seated position and settled the gem himself. As soon as the stone touched his skin, he transformed. It felt different this time, and Loki laughed as he danced around Thor, making inexplicable gestures to tug at the results of his own magic. “Keep it on, and the spell will never fade.” Thor tackled Loki, still laughing madly, and they rolled until they fetched up against a wall, where Thor gripped the emerald so tight that even his blue knuckles began to turn pale.

From that day forward, the emerald never left Thor’s neck. He spent each day wrapped in blue, different only in size from his king’s court, and gradually the attacks ceased, as did the petitions to Laufey to rein in his heir’s servant. As the years passed, both he and the court began to forget that he had ever been anything different.

***

Nearly twenty years after Loki perfected Thor’s transformation, Thor stood in the familiar training yard and glared hopelessly at the Jotun blocking his path. Svarthi was half a century older than Loki, farther advanced in his training than either the prince or Thor, and made sure to let neither of them forget it. Now Svarthi easily blocked Thor’s access to the weapon’s rack, on top of which he could see the blade Loki sent him to fetch shining like blood in the red light of the sun.

Casually, Svarthi summoned an ice blade, and made a show of examining it closely. With a smirk, he snapped the ice from his wrist at the hilt. His gesture drew approving murmurs from the rest of his friends, who surrounded Svarthi and Thor in a semicircle. Only very skilled ice crafters separated their blades from their bodies. Even knowing that Svarthi could only have learned this technique a decade ago at the very most did not help Thor’s humiliation.

Deliberately, looking Thor directly in the eye, Svarthi let his newly created blade fall to the ground. “Pick it up,” the older boy sneered. Thor glared at him. “I said, pick it up, servant.” Thor reached down and grabbed the ice blade, hiding a grimace as the cold bit through his gloves. He handed it to the boy, who instantly dropped it again. “Oops.”

Without waiting for another order, Thor stooped and took up the blade again. This time, he held on to it, until the heat from his hands began to melt an impression into the hilt. Scowling, Svarthi snatched it away.

“Look what you’ve done. You’ve ruined it, you Aesir freak.” Svarthi stepped closer to Thor and sneered. “You may look like a Jotun - if only a Jotun dwarf - but you’ll never be one of us. You can’t even fight with a decent weapon.”

“Stop.” Loki’s high voice seemed to fill the entire practice court. “What is taking so long? Why have you detained my servant?”

“Your servant has been...assisting me in my sword practice,” Svarthi replied. His friends laughed. Thor clenched his fists and avoided Loki’s eyes.

Loki looked at Thor, then at Svarthi. His eyes narrowed. “He is not yours, Svarthi. He is mine to command. You should not make me wait by keeping him.” He raised his chin, eyes flashing an even deeper crimson. “From now on, you will give Thor no orders.”

Svarthi laughed. Everyone else looked uneasy. “You can’t do that.”

Thor took a step back.

“I am the Crown Prince of Jotunheim. I can do whatever I want.” Loki’s eyes glittered, and the emeralds hanging around his neck began to glow. Even Svarthi looked nervous now. “You will never give my servant an order again. Any task I set him to, you are required to help him do it. Do you understand?”

Svarthi did not look like he understood. But neither did Thor. Loki turned to him. “Thor, I require my blade.” Thor moved instantly in response to the dangerous lightness in Loki’s voice. But Loki called him back. “No, Thor. I require my blade. I believe you may need some help in finding it.” He looked at Thor, then turned to stare meaningfully at Svarthi.

Thor shook his head, in disbelief rather than defiance. Loki’s eyes burned crimson at his refusal. “Must I ask you twice?”

“No, my prince,” Thor responded instantly. He turned to look at Svarthi, who was starting to turn purple as he understood what was about to happen. “Svarthi, help me find Loki’s blade.”

Someone standing behind Svarthi choked. Everyone was staring at Loki with horror now. “Better, Thor,” Loki purred, completely unmoved by the glares of his fellows. “But I think he needs a little more…command. He has proven himself most disobedient.”

Thor met Loki’s eyes, which were wild with mischief and defiance, and an answering wildness cut through his growing horror. His heart beat wildly as he bared his teeth in Svarthi’s direction, more challenge than smile. “Svarthi. Go fetch me Loki’s blade.” Loki’s savage grin of approval sent his heart soaring.

“You - you can’t -”

“Must he ask you twice?” Loki demanded.

Completely purple now, Svarthi looked to his companions for support, and found none. Thor knew that none of them would dare openly challenge Laufey’s heir. Svarthi was on his own. After an agonizing silence, he turned and stalked over to the weapons rack. Taking Loki’s blade from its place of honor at the top of the rack, he stomped back to the group and shoved it in Loki’s direction with as ill grace as he dared. Loki looked down his nose at it. “I believe it was my servant who asked you for it.”

Svarthi gaped, and ice began to form at his fingertips. Thor growled at him, and Loki called green fire into his hands. “I would be very careful if I were you,” Loki said softly.

Svarthi threw the sword at Thor, who managed to catch it by the hilt. He then turned and presented it to Loki. “Your blade, my prince.”

“Thank you, Thor,” Loki said. He looked up at Svarthi, standing alone as his companions tried to become one with the icy floor. “You may go now.” If the group had formerly been frozen, they moved now as quickly as ice shattered in summer. “And Svarthi - let everyone know about my new commands about my servant. I’m certain you will make them understand.”

The other Jotun fled. Thor stood next to Loki, stunned into silence. “Come, Thor. We need to practice.” Loki swept ahead of him into the deserted practice ring, quite as if he had not just done something impossible. Thor stared at his hands and breathed. Loki’s word was law, and none of Svarthi’s companions would possibly keep quiet. By this time tomorrow, Thor would in theory be able to command anyone in the entire palace, short of Laufey-king himself.

“Thor! Before summer comes!” Still gripping Loki’s blade, Thor ran after him.

“They won’t forgive you for that,” Thor said when he could managed to speak.

“It doesn't matter," Loki said loftily. "I am the Crown Prince of Jotunheim, and I say you command as I will. Nothing else matters."

Thor tried to take the words deep inside himself, where they could chase away the tight ball of anxiety and inexplicable hurt in the pit of his stomach. Loki had given him incredible power, and Thor should feel ecstatic. Instead, he felt almost sick.

No matter how much power Loki conferred upon him, he was still an impostor in a court of giants, and he would never be accepted as one of them. Loki’s commands were all that kept him breathing.

"Nothing else matters," he made himself reply, and Loki smiled at him so brilliantly that he almost believed it.

***

Thor thundered into the palace with the rest of Laufey's army, flushed high with victory from his very first campaign. Someone started a cheer, and Thor roared in response along with the rest of his company. It had been a successful campaign - four more tribes had sworn alliance to Laufey, and there had been relatively few losses within his ranks - and it thrilled Thor’s blood that after nearly a century of learning to fight in every way possible, he had earned his warrior’s adornments in time for Laufey’s first great campaign since his losses to the Aesir. Now he had been properly blooded, and he bore the scars to prove it. Laughing in his triumph, he gladly accepted the horn of wine passed to him and drank deeply.

Even Loki drank, against his custom, and by the time the welcoming feast ended his prince was nearly falling over the table. Thor laughed as Loki raised a hand to make a point and only succeeded in knocking over his glass and Thor's. "It is time for you to sleep, my prince," he laughed.

“I don’t need to sleep,” Loki protested. Contrary to his words, he allowed Thor to pry him up from the table and begin to lead him to the door. “I could cast a spell. No more sleep for anyone!”

"No magic for you tonight, Loki. You could end up taking down the entire palace."

"I would put it back," Loki insisted. He wiggled his fingers in protest as Thor dragged him through the long hallway.

Laughing, Thor ducked through the entrance to Loki's rooms, half-carrying Loki as he continued to insist that he could perform all the magic he wanted, thank you very much.

Clang!


Thor's sword met another in the dark entirely on instinct even as he threw Loki to the ground behind him. The attacker pressed his advantage, Thor still stumbling and half-blind from the light from the corridor. Thor felt the sword bite through his shoulder, then his chest. He roared in pain and held his ground. The swordsman would have to kill him to reach Loki.

Suddenly light flared behind him, blinding his attacker even as it threw light upon his face. Thor cut his throat before he had time to blink the tears from his eyes.

Gasping, he turned to look at Loki, who looked much more sober glowing with power. “Check his hands,” Loki ordered, and his voice was nearly steady.

Thor reached over and blinked in confusion, thinking for a moment that his eyesight was still failing him. Then he understood what he was seeing. “Look,” Thor said grimly. He held up the man's hands. The sigils of his house and rank were gone: they had been burned off.

"Whoever sent him took no chances that he would be recognized," Loki murmured. "Which explains the blade."

This was too much for Thor, still half caught up in bloodlust to comprehend. "What?"

“He used no ice,” Loki explained, his voice absent as he worked it out. He pointed. "The marks are burned, but only master crafters have adornments in precisely those positions. He should have fought us with crafted weapons, but instead he used this." Loki examined the weapon carefully. "An Aesir blade."

Thor jerked in shock. Loki's voice grew very cold. "How much would you care to wager this attack was meant to suggest we killed each other in drunken anger?"

That got Thor's attention. "Both of us?"

"You are the only one who would come to my rooms so late at night," Loki responded. "Anyone could know that."

"So we have no way of knowing who sent him."

"I will find out," Loki said grimly, and it was both a threat and a promise.

***

Three days later, Thor strode into Laufey's court, curiosity burning within him like a brand. Loki had disappeared early that morning, and even Thor’s immense experience in the matter had failed to track him down. The guard who had been sent to fetch him had either not known or pretended very well not to know anything of Thor's summons, and they passed no one else in the long hallways. That in itself was very unusual, but more important, it meant Thor had no one else to ask.

The guard stopped before the great doors that led out to Laufey's court. Without speaking, he motioned for Thor to walk through them.

Thor opened the doors and only just managed not to freeze. All of Laufey's court gathered there - more representatives of the noble tribes than he had ever seen in one place. Laufey sat on his throne, cold and still as marble. And before him stood Loki - dressed in such finery as Thor has never seen him, and radiating power in such a way that no one doubted for a moment that this gathering was his doing.

"Thor," Loki said. "Approach the throne."

Thor walked through the staring crowd as quickly as he dared. When he reached Loki, he bowed, then waited for more instructions. Loki's face gave him nothing, nor could he hear his brother's voice whispering in his mind.

"As you all know," Loki announced, sounding cool and arrogant, the very picture of the prince, "Three days ago an unknown assailant attempted to assassinate us in an attempt to take the throne. They failed. In fact, you, Thor were instrumental in this failure. Without you, we might have been killed.”

Thor nodded, unsure of himself. Where was Loki going with this?

"You have proven yourself utterly loyal to the House of Laufey. You have laid your life out in protection of mine. Such loyalty deserves a reward." Thor barely stopped himself from raising an eyebrow. A reward? What could Loki possibly give him that would be of any use? He had enough of food and ale, money would be useless, and lands worse than that, as he could not leave to attend him. But Loki was all but trembling above him, and Thor's heart began to beat more quickly in anticipation of some unknown thing.

"Thor." Loki's face burned above him, proud and terrible. "You have proven yourself beyond all question of doubt. We wish you to continue that service always." Loki took a deep breath, and then seemed to abandon all his fine words at once. "Will you be my Hand?"

Thor was on his knees before he realized he had moved, bowed before Loki as if a supplicant before some foreign idol. "Yes," he said, "Yes, I will," and he hardly recognized his own voice. Without conscious thought on his part, both his hands raised, and he could hardly credit that they did not tremble.

Loki examined Thor’s hands from a distance, and perhaps to an outsider he seemed deliberate, thoughtful. Thor knew better. Even as he kept his head bowed, he could see how the hems of Loki's robes trembled. Thor waited, anticipation coiled within him until he thought he might burst with it.

Then Loki grabbed his right hand, and Thor's heart rose in a roar of pride that nearly drowned out the shouts of the surrounding court. Even if Loki later chose another Hand, that man could only be his left, and Thor would be forever his right.

He could not help but look up at Loki. He could not stop himself, and did not regret it as Loki's eyes met him, red and burning and echoing his own pride back at him. We will make them see, he willed into his eyes, we will destroy them all and no one will ever challenge us again. Together we are invincible. Together we will rule the world.

Loki stared back at him and his eyes said only yes, yes, yes.

***

For the next several weeks, Thor could not even begin to count how many hours he spent staring at the marks on the backs of his hands. Before they had borne only the mark of the House of Laufey, and when Thor had finally received that badge of service he had believed that he would never surpass the pride of that moment. Becoming Loki's Hand had thrown that memory into the dust.

His whole life, he had known his position at court was a tenuous one. His continued existence depended entirely on Loki's pleasure, and while Loki had proved remarkably constant where Thor was concerned, his sphere of influence was still limited. Anyone who wished to cause Thor trouble only had to catch him somewhere Loki was not. But as Loki’s Hand?

His left hand was still adorned with the royal crest, but his right had changed. Holding his right hand so tightly that it would have hurt if Thor had been capable of feeling anything but fierce joy, Loki had spoken words that burned into Thor's skin, adding the runes for disguise and deception above the royal crown - Loki’s personal crest. Thor had borne the pain without flinching, trembling in every limb, as he swore the oaths that bound him to Loki's service forever. He now served as Loki's right hand - dispenser of the prince's justice, defender of his law, chief among the prince's bodyguards. He could represent the prince on any occasion, and his word must be taken as if from the royal mouth. He now held more power in the Jotunheim court than many nobles, and certainly every slave. No one could ever question his word again. No one would ever dare challenge him.

It was more power than he had ever dared dream, more than he had ever believed possible. It was also incontrovertible proof that Loki meant to keep him- that he trusted Thor as much as Thor trusted him, that their lives were bound to each other forever. The man he called brother in his mind was now bound to him as closely as blood could ever tie. So for weeks, Thor stared at his hands, and he nearly lost a finger to frostbite for refusing to cover his adornments with gloves before Loki took him aside and presented him with specially made ones that protected his sensitive fingers but left a circle of fabric open so the marks were clear. Even though Loki pretended to laugh at him when he handed over the gloves, Thor knew he had not mistaken the look in Loki's eyes. Loki rejoiced at Thor's pride as much as he did.

“Thank you, brother,” he said, clapping Loki on the shoulder. He froze as Loki’s muscles stiffened beneath his touch. For all Thor thought of Loki as a brother, he had never dared say so out loud to the son of his king. He braced himself for Loki’s anger, or worse, his laughter.

Loki did neither. “Yes,” he said oddly. “You are welcome, my Hand.” Thor nearly collapsed in relief when Loki did not mock him. Then Loki continued, still in that odd, detached voice, “My brother.”

Thor’s heart skipped in its steady rhythm, and his hand tightened inexorably on Loki’s shoulder. “Loki?” he asked, hardly crediting his own ears.

“I will not repeat myself,” Loki replied haughtily, and Thor could not have kept himself from embracing him if he tried. Loki allowed it for a moment before forcibly removing himself. “If you are quite finished, we have a sword ring waiting for us, now that you will no longer get frostbite from your own stupidity.” He turned away quickly, but not so quickly that Thor could not see the emotion in his eyes.

Heart full to bursting, Thor followed his brother out of the room.

***

“Still lazing about, Thor? I would expect better of a newly made captain.”

Thor looked up in surprise at the feminine voice in his chambers, then rolled his eyes in recognition. “Do you truly plan to hear audiences like that today?” he asked, taking in Loki’s long white hair and rounded chest - the perfect copy of a snow maiden. Loki had entered the throne room in a different shape every day for the last month, but just last night he had resumed his most familiar shape before going to bed. Since the last of the tribal delegations had gone, Thor had hoped this was the end of it. He understood the tactical advantage of Loki’s show of power, but having to look twice to recognize his brother had left a deep ache in his chest that Thor had no interest in probing.

“And why should I not?” Loki answered him idly, not looking in his direction, which instantly set off all of Thor’s alarms. “Surely the point of power is to use it.” Thor threw himself to the side, but Loki anticipated him, casting off the spell from his fingertips directly in Thor’s path. His body tingled, and he found himself looking up at Loki at a much greater distance than usual. “Do you think Svartálfaheim would be fooled, Thor?” he smirked.

“Only for as long as it took for them to realize your head was back in their realm, brother.” Loki scowled as Thor laughed. Another flick of Loki’s fingers, and Thor found himself tall again, slender, glowing with the ethereal light of the surface-dwellers of Aelfheim. Another flick, and he darkened black as pitch like the ones below.

His skin itched. “Loki.”

“Yes, Thor? Do you have something to say?” Thor became a snow maiden, an Aesir old crone, and a fire giant in quick succession.

“Loki!” Thor stared at his hands as they shifted colors, textures, patterns right before his eyes, barely pausing to take shape before casting off into something new.

“What was that?”

“Loki, stop!” Abruptly his skin stopped changing. Loki stared at him, eyes wide with shock, the force of Thor’s yell still echoing around them.

Thor looked down at himself, at the foreign pale fingers clenched tight into fists, and felt sick. He closed his eyes. “Change me back.” He did not open his eyes again until the tingling sensation had faded. When he opened them, his skin was restored to a deep blue, whorled with the marks of his rank and house.

Loki was staring at him, an expression Thor had never seen before on his face. “Thor, I-”

“Thank you, Loki,” Thor interrupted. Loki’s mouth closed in shock. “I have business to attend to with my unit.”

“Of course,” Loki said. “I will accompany you.”

Thor’s fists tightened, but he did not voice useless protests. “As you wish.”

Loki followed him to the barracks, to the training yards, to the court. He watched as Thor inspected his men, played with shapes in heatless fire when Thor took them to task, and ignored him completely once they entered the throne room.

Not once did he change shape.

By the time all the audiences of the day were over, Thor dutifully standing in his place behind Loki’s right shoulder, the sick, lost feeling had begun to disappear. When Loki’s shoulder brushed against his as they walked towards their chambers, it faded to a small, unimportant ache.

Loki did not change shape in Thor’s presence for a fortnight, and Thor’s glamour never wavered. By the end of the fortnight, he had nearly stopped looking for it.

***

The next summer, Laufey announced a second campaign, this time ranging farther than any of his forefathers had ever dared travel. In order to manage such distance, he split his army into two parts. He gave command of the second part to Loki and his Hand. Thor had never seen such pride on his brother’s face.

Out on campaign, the sun glittered from every surface, and Thor shielded his eyes as he reached the top of small cliff. Laufey’s army streamed across the ice below him, blue skin nearly invisible in the shadows thrown by the ice cliffs, so that when they emerged into the sun they seemed to materialize out of nothing, like one of Loki’s greatest tricks. The air thrummed with the beat of their feet, pierced by the sharp cracks of ice giving way beneath them, and Thor could feel his heart racing to meet them, beating in time with one great rhythm.

He breathed deep in the icy air, and for a moment the world seemed to stop, spread beneath their feet, cold and beautiful and theirs to command.

He met Loki’s eyes.

Loki’s savage smile met the wildness in his own, and Thor knew what it was to be invincible.

With a roar, Thor turned to his army, warhammer raised high above his head. “Laufey!” he shouted, and the world broke again as every throat echoed him, before he threw himself down into the teeth of the charging enemy, Loki burning with power at his side.

***

Laufey’s court buzzed with nervous energy, and everywhere Thor walked, he nearly tripped over the countless servants ferrying furs and extra blankets to the guest wing that Laufey’s crafters had raised nearly overnight. The rooms of ice would otherwise be far too cold for their unexpected visitors.

No one knew why Odin Allfather had suddenly insisted upon a delegation to Jotunheim. No Aesir (except for Thor) had entered Jotunheim for nearly nine hundred years - not since Odin defeated Laufey among the ruins of his former palace. Rumors ran wild among the servants and nobility alike, and the looming Asgardian visit seemed the only thing anyone was capable of talking about. Thor made a valiant attempt to avoid everyone. He rubbed his emerald anxiously as he entered the throne room, taking up his place at Loki’s side.

Thor waited one half-step behind Loki for the Aesir delegation to arrive. He and Loki were dressed to match, something that filled him with pride. Thor alone of the court was privileged to wear the colors of the royal family, and that knowledge made him stand taller, conscious of the heavy weight of the furs on his back.

Loki did not move, but a moment later he heard his brother's voice. Stop that. You're preening again; it's embarrassing.

I am not, Thor thought back as hard as he could, grinning to himself as Loki winced. Loki managed to cast him a reproving look without seeming to move his face at all. Thor still had little skill in communicating this way, and it had never really seemed worth the effort to try, no matter how much Loki tried to involve him in his latest magic trick. Besides, Loki was more than good enough for the both of them. All Thor had to do was think clearly for Loki to hear him. Even if it was, as Loki continued to inform him, very, very loud.

You are, Loki replied at last, and now his voice sounded more distant, projected through a shield. You keep running your fingers along the crest of House Laufey. You couldn't be more obvious if you tried.

Chagrined, Thor attempted his best mental glare at Loki. This time, though, Loki was too well shielded to react visibly. I did not say I minded, he offered after a short beat. You're making Svarthi fairly green with envy. It's highly entertaining.

Really? Thor tried to look around without being obvious about it. When he caught the other courtier's eye, the man looked away quickly, scowling. Thor grinned slowly. He made a show of looking straight ahead, then waited for movement in his peripheral vision. He then raised his hand to deliberately caress Loki’s royal crest burned into the back of his hand.

Loki snorted with mental laughter. Well done, brother. He'll begrudge you that insult for days.

What insult? Thor thought back innocently. I have done nothing but my duty for the royal house.

The house that he can't enter, no matter how hard he tries. Loki's mental voice was limned with cruel amusement. It must grate at him, knowing how much less he is valued than the runts of Laufey's house.

Thor did shift then, ignoring Loki's mental hiss to remain still. He moved just enough that he could brush Loki's hand with his. He did not like the edge of bitter anger in Loki's voice when he spoke of their small stature. Loki had always taken such insults far more personally than Thor. Of course, Loki was actually of Laufey's blood, whereas Thor had no rightful claim to frost giant stature. Thor knew it bothered Loki far more than he ever admitted.

I think that the Aesir could use a true Jotunheim welcome, Thor thought instead. Loki clearly saw through Thor's attempt at distraction, but it was nevertheless rather effective. Loki did smile then, sharing in Thor’s vision of greeting the Aesir with ice blades drawn. They drew the attention of Helblindi, standing quietly on Loki’s left, who frowned warningly at them. The Aesir party was nearly at the steps of the temple now. Thor looked more closely, then nearly forgot himself to grab Loki on the arm. Loki! His brother winced even through his shielding, but Thor was in no mood to modulate his voice. Odin is with them!

What!

Loki narrowed his eyes, and Thor felt his shock reverberate through his own mind. Although Loki did not speak, at times like this Thor could nearly always feel something of what his brother was thinking. He shared Loki's shock. None of Laufey’s advisors had indicated that Odin himself would be arriving, which could only mean that they had not known. It was an incredibly daring act - one that spoke of great sincerity, or great confidence. Thor was certainly not about to trust the first.

A murmur was spreading through the gathered Jotun, and Thor knew that more had recognized the hated Odin. Ugly whispers filled the air in the icy court. Loki, he whispered, do something.

Loki paused for a moment, then took a step forward and raised his hand.

Immediately a loud gong sounded, and a second later large, fat flakes began to fall from the sky, glittering as they fell. It quickly became clear as they touched down that they were no ordinary snowflakes. Instead of melting, they held their crystalline shapes like jewels, until the entire Aesir party lay covered in sparkling white.

The effect both reminded the grumbling courtiers of their prince’s presence and helped anonymize their approaching visitors. Thor could only approve.

As Odin approached, it seemed for a moment that Laufey would refuse to stand. At the last possible moment for courtesy, he rose from his throne. “Allfather.” His voice passed as respectful, but only just.

“Laufey,” Odin replied in much the same tone. “I see your sons have grown.”

Loki bristled, and Thor thought a warning at him, hard. Loki subsided, but he could still feel Loki’s anger at the perceived slight. “Please,” Laufey gestured, sitting back on his throne. “You should meet properly.”

Odin stepped forward and held out his hand. Looking as cool and untouchable as Thor had ever seen him, Loki clasped his hand in return, without giving any indication either of offense or of any desire to be in contact with Odin at all. It was an admirable performance.

Odin greeted Helblindi next, then turned to Thor. Before Thor could step back as etiquette demanded, Odin took Thor's hand. Instantly, warm pink swept up his fingers and hand up to his chest.

Startled, Thor took a step back, forcing Odin to release his hand. How had his brother’s glamour failed? He shook his arm out and saw the familiar blue resettle over his skin with a sense of relief. Then he looked up into madness.

Odin stared at him as if he had personally caused sun to come in winter, his single eye burning with such terrible emotion that Thor actually took a step back. Around them, the entire delegation had gone still.

“Remove your glamour,” Odin said. He did not even pretend it was a request. Thor frowned, stiffening his shoulders under Odin’s burning gaze. He did not reply.

“Remove it!”

“Loki, honor our guest’s request,” came Laufey’s unexpected voice, and Thor glanced behind him to see Laufey leaning forward in his throne, anticipation glittering in his eyes. His stomach tightened. That was a dangerous expression.

“As my lord and father commands,” Loki said smoothly, and Thor thought he was the only one who would hear the slight hitch of confusion in Loki’s voice. He waved a hand theatrically, and Thor shivered as Loki’s magic slithered from him, leaving him pale and exposed before the Asgardian court.

Odin stared at him for another second, then tightened his mouth as his face grew intensely red.

"What madness is this?" Odin said. "How is he here? What have you done with my son?"

Thor’s entire soul lunged backwards in denial and he rocked back on his feet as both courts gasped in shock. Beside him, Thor could feel Loki trembling with the effort to remain still and unmoved, energy nearly bursting from his skin. He stepped minutely closer to his brother.

“Whatever do you mean, Odin Spear-Breaker?”

"Do not play games with me! You have stolen my heir from me, Laufey!" Odin roared, pointing directly at Thor. "For centuries we believed him dead! Asgard will answer this with war!"

Thor stood completely still, stunned, as the meeting exploded around him. The Aesir were all brandishing their weapons, dividing their attention between threatening the guards around them and staring wide-eyed with disbelief at Thor himself. Loki was trying to say something, although whether to Laufey or Odin was anyone's guess - it did not matter; neither king was paying anyone any mind except his rival. Thor doubted even Loki's silver tongue could work its magic here - especially with Loki's own eyes gone wide and almost frightened, even as he schooled his face into its usual smoothness. Thor could feel his brother's utter shock within his own mind, and he could not decide if it was a comfort or further terror. Loki was never shocked, never unsure, because his spies made sure there was nothing in the court he did not know. But his brother had not known this.

Thor's hands began to ache, and he realized with surprise that he was gripping his ceremonial spear with both hands, so tightly that pain had begun to radiate up and down his arms. Neither did his weapon remain steady in his hands - it shook, trembling, the way Thor's body and heart trembled.

No more.

Loki! He demanded within his mind. He felt the sharp pinch that was Loki joining to his mind. Make me louder. I must be heard.

It was a testament to how terrible the situation was that Loki hesitated only a moment before obeying. Thor could not remember the last time Loki had allowed him to address the court without first questioning him closely on what he meant to say. A moment passed, and the tingle of magic settled over Thor's throat.

Lunging forward, Thor threw himself bodily between his king and Asgard's, brandishing the spear in such a way that it threatened no one directly but clearly delivered a message. “Enough!” he roared.

The chaos on the edges was shocked into silence, but Odin still burned with rage, especially as Laufey laughed at him. Thor slammed the spear into the ground once more, and the ice webbed out in a mosaic from its base. In the distance, thunder burst across the scene, echoing Thor's words.

"Enough," he repeated, and this time, both kings were silent, although neither willingly. He had only moments to speak before they overwhelmed each other once more.

"For what purpose will Asgard go to war?" Thor demanded.

"Because Laufey has kidnapped the heir to the throne of Asgard!" Odin replied, fury in every syllable.

"Ah, but that is not what he asked," said Loki, and Thor felt intense relief at his brother's voice. Loki's plans were always far more successful than his own. "The deed has been done, and cannot be undone. What does Asgard hope to accomplish in war? And is it willing to do so against its newly-discovered heir?"

That caused Odin pause, and all the warriors with him. Most gazed at Thor with a mixture of awe and deep suspicion. Thor did not like it.

"I see no reason to believe what you have said is true," Thor said firmly into the silence. "You have offered me no proof."

"And if it is true," Loki continued smoothly, breaking over the cries from both sides of the court, "what is it you expect? For Thor to leave here and become your heir once more? To place a member of Laufey's royal house on the throne of Asgard?"

Thor jolted at this, staring at Loki. It had not once occurred to him that Odin might expect him to leave Jotunheim. Refusal instantly rose within him. Odin could not think to demand this.

"I demand that my heir be returned to me."

But it seemed he could.

"I refuse." Thor responded instantly. The Aesir registered their shock, but Thor had eyes only for Odin. "I am no parcel to be returned at your whim."

Odin's one remaining eye blazed with fury. He opened his mouth to speak, but Loki once more cut him off. "Will you truly declare war against your son's home, just to convince him to return? Truly you have strange ways of earning trust."

The Aesir murmured again, louder now and angrier, and Thor had never been so grateful for his brother's quick tongue. He could feel Loki's presence in his mind, and the dull shock had faded, replaced by the lightning quicksilver of his most daring plans. Loki would not allow Odin to take him.

Odin broke the silence. "The Cask of Ancient Winters," he said.

Both groups froze. Laufey leaned forward, seemingly in spite of himself. Loki's mental presence went cold and still.

"If my son returns with me to Asgard, and if he remains there for one century, I will return the Cask of Ancient Winters to your lands."

The chaos that exploded then was more than anyone could hope to contain. Thor did not even try. As the diplomats of both parties surged forward, attempting to gain the ear of their respective kings, and the warriors snarled at each other, Thor stepped backward, and fled the throne room.

He paced the high balcony above his and Loki's rooms, allowing his restless movement to follow his thoughts. It was not long before Loki came to him.

"What do they say, brother?" Thor asked, and the affectionate word stuck in his throat as it had not for centuries.

"The Aesir insist Odin cannot act with such rashness. They demand time to consult, to negotiate, and to draw up a treaty that both sides can accept."

Thor nodded, but that was as he expected. He waited for the rest, fire burning in the pit of his stomach. Loki finally continued. "Father's counselors advise that any price is worth the return of the cask. Especially if it avoids war."

Thor turned from Loki and drove his fist into the narrow ice balustrade, shattering it to pieces. Then Laufey had known - of course he had known. Any hope he had that Odin might be mistaken died. He found his voice, and for once he understood his brother's habitual bitterness. "And to sacrifice one who is not even Jotun - it must seem a royal coup. Laufey must be delighted, that his gambit has paid off so well."

Loki did not reply, and his silence was more damning than words could have been.

Thor contemplated hitting something else, but he truly did not want to lose his balance and fall from the balcony, which seemed likely if he kept destroying the railings. "When does Odin wish me to leave?"

At that, Loki started, and stepped forward to grip Thor by both arms. Thor's eyes widened. Loki never initiated touch except in battle, even with Thor. "Thor," Loki began, then pressed his lips together. When he continued, his voice was harsher than Thor had ever heard it. “I can find a way to hide you. Odin will search, but I can make copies of you, and it might take him centuries to discover the right one. I can-” There Loki's words seemed to fail him, and as he closed his eyes pictures began to play on the inside of Thor's mind instead - hazy, half-complete images of escape, of deception, of any of a thousand ways he could leave Jotunheim and Asgard behind and start anew.

With Loki.

Something that had been hurt, so deeply that Thor had hardly been aware of it, warmed and solidified beneath him. Loki did not want him to leave. Even as Odin's son - and Thor could still hardly wrap his mind around the horror of it, to be the son of the most hated creature in all the court - his brother did not wish him gone.

He could endure almost anything, knowing that.

Loki was still in his mind, and he felt Loki's surprise at Thor's involuntary reaction.

Loki shook his shoulders, almost gently. "Fool," he said aloud. "I see you can still be hardly trusted out on your own."

Thor laughed, and if that laugh sounded more broken than his wont, his brother did not say a word.

When he thought he could bear it, Thor returned to Laufey’s throne room. All of the nobles had vanished save for the few each king trusted in creating a new treaty. All eyes turned to him when he entered, and Thor looked away from the triumph in Laufey’s face.

"I will go to Asgard," he said, and did not fail to notice that while Odin smiled, the rest of the delegation from Asgard looked not at all pleased.

Part Two: Asgard

Thor could hardly move, wrapped up in so many layers of formal garments as the Aesir seemed to require. His hair had been trimmed and styled with some sweet-smelling oil, which even now made him want to sneeze. He had caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror on the way to the great hall and did not recognize his own reflection. Who was this shining, pale Aesir? Where had he come from?

Odin stepped up beside him and laid a hand on his shoulder. Manfully, Thor did not flinch. Odin turned to address the hall and spread his hands wide. "People of Asgard," Odin announced. "My son has returned!"

Ever obedient to the cue of their king, the gathered court cheered, but Thor was not so foolish as to believe in their sincerity. Even under Odin's watchful eye, the cheers sounded false and ended quickly.

As the evening dragged on, it became very clear to Thor that even though he thought he looked very different in his Aesir finery, to the Asgardian court he still seemed little more than a barbarian. He wore almost no jewelry, for example, unlike the courtier next to him. Even well-dressed, his scars marked him out as notably different than any other Aesir. As for Thor, the men of the Aesir looked hopelessly young with their flawless skin. Ironically, only Odin looked respectable to Thor's eyes, because at least his one missing eye bore testimony to his prowess in battle. These fresh-faced Aesir warriors looked as if they had never wielded a sword in battle.

Even more disconcerting than the lack of battle scars, though, was the lack of adornments. Thor had not realized how thoroughly he depended on adornments for cues to social interaction until they had disappeared. On Jotunheim, one could know instantly one's conversation partner's house, status, and occupation within that house, as well as their level of skill. Thor supposed there were similar cues here among the Aesir, but he did not know what they were, or how to tell them apart. Men wore different styles of dress, yes, but not in any discernible pattern that Thor could see - and yet, there were definite patterns in the way the court moved, which circles spoke to each other and which did not. There must be some way to tell - but how to know what it was?

He had tried to meet the eyes of a young maiden as he walked across the room, only to have her flinch and stare determinedly in the other direction. When she glanced back at him, Thor realized all at once that she was staring at his scars. With a sudden jolt, he realized that they were ugly to her. It was as if someone had told him that the sun rose in the west or that summer had come to Jotunheim.

Later that night, he removed all of his uncomfortable Aesir clothing and returned to the loincloth that he was most comfortable in. In the mirror that stood atop a small table, he could see all of his adornments clearly.

First, of course, was the circular mark on his forehead that marked him as a warrior. He had gained that when he entered training. It was surrounded by five short diagonal marks on each side, sloping inwards towards the part of his hair - proof of how many warriors he had defeated when he came of age. None other than Helblindi had ever defeated so many.

Next, on his cheeks - the marks of his first campaign, and his second. Later these would be moved to his back, but the first were important, as they revealed when he had begun defending Jotunheim with his life. It also proved that he had not sat at home while his people fought. These marks were less symmetrical, it was true, but they still represented considerable skill.

His arms next - his rank was proudly proclaimed on his biceps, one more mark added for each rank risen. Although Thor himself was only a captain, the star on his right bicep marked him as an honorary general, capable of assuming command in an emergency, at the prince's command. Few had the honor of bearing that particular mark.

And finally, of course - the patterns that marked him as part of Laufey's royal house. The crest on his left hand, and Loki's royal sign on his right. Loki's Hand.

He stared at that one in particular. Never since his childhood had he gone so long without seeing his brother. He felt lost here without him - lost without the sure knowledge that he was respected, loved even, with all the power of Laufey's house behind him. He was the prince's Hand. How could he be here, so far away from him, when Loki still needed him? He wondered if Loki felt as alone as he did, and felt guilty when he could not decide whether he wished more that he did or did not.

The rest of his body bore the marks of blades, edged as opposed to the Jotun ice, which did not mark his skin. To Thor's eyes, they spoke still of strength, prowess, and proof of his worth. Apparently to an Aesir maiden, they were simply ugly.

Thor abruptly turned away from the mirror, then turned back and cast it down on the floor. It broke, but Thor could not bring himself to care.

***

Thor rubbed his thumb over Laufey’s crest as he walked purposelessly through the shining corridors of Odin’s palace. Earlier that morning, Odin had attempted to magically remove Thor’s adornments, starting with Laufey’s royal sign. Thor had nearly destroyed the small antechamber in protest before Odin backed down.

Thor pressed down hard on Laufey’s mark and walked faster. Thor had fought and bled for his king, so proud to be counted one of Laufey’s captains. He had served the house of Laufey gladly, knowing that it was the king’s great kindness that saved him from a life lived alone with no family to protect him, and his service had given him a brother he loved more than anything. But now he knew that Laufey had not taken in a childless Aesir, but instead stolen him from his family - his family who had mourned, who had searched for him, who had loved him. He had only to take one look at Odin’s queen Frigga, who could hardly stand to leave Thor alone in his room for the night, to know that. His stomach twisted.

He could hardly blame Laufey’s political brilliance in having the Cask of Ancient Winters returned to him. Thor had seen how devastated Jotunheim remained, even after centuries of recovery. His capture and return to Asgard would help restore Laufey’s realm to glory, and that made him feel -

He felt -

Thor turned abruptly and headed for the practice courts, remembering just in time not to smash one of the walls in anger. Here, walls were not made of ice, and therefore not easily rebuilt by anyone. He must relieve his feelings in other ways.

Without Loki, he never seemed to know what he felt anymore.

The Aesir did not trust him, and he did not trust them in turn. Odin demanded everyone treat him with respect, but even pale as he was without the glamour he still looked too different. Hardened by Jotun winters, Asgard seemed always too hot, and Thor found himself wearing far less than the heavily armored Aesir to keep from boiling. His lack of clothing gained him a few admirers, but more foes, as it exposed his adornments even further to view. The few women who did seem to admire his form only created more animosity among the warriors, who glared at him as they stepped between him and their ladies.

Thor had hoped to find familiarity at least on the practice grounds, and he had, in a fashion - here, just as in Jotunheim, everyone wished to see him fail. But the standards for failure were so incredibly different here. The first time Thor played dead and rose up to take his opponent off guard, several of the spectators cried foul. That made no sense whatsoever - if an opponent would fall for such a basic trick, then they deserved to be defeated. But it seemed that any kind of "trickery" earned censure here - and their word "trickery" seemed to contain most of what Thor thought of as basic battle strategy, and certainly anything that could nearly assure him victory. He also could not injure anyone deliberately in the ring, a fact that Thor could scarcely credit even after weeks of watching each group of warriors leave their training whole, without so much as a cut to teach them swiftness. Most incomprehensible was that the Aesir truly used no magic whatsoever in the practice ring, which, after spending a lifetime fighting with Loki, made his bouts embarrassingly straightforward. He had nearly lost a few matches in his first few days for spinning around, waiting for his opponent to appear out of nowhere or produce a doppelganger for him to waste his energy upon. Discovering that the Aesir would always be exactly where they looked like they were made Thor feel seriously wrong-footed, and then utterly baffled at how easy it made them to defeat.

It was almost as if the Aesir were not trying to fight for their lives. And that made no sense at all.

The only warrior who did make sense to Thor was Sif, who treated each practice bout as seriously as if it were a trial by combat. After days of bouts with warriors who refused to fight him at full strength for fear of injuring him - a step up from those who refused to spar with him at all - Thor itched for a real challenge.

Longing for a real fight to distract him from his thoughts, Thor entered the practice yard of Odin’s army and looked around. He smiled. Ymir was with him today, because Sif had only just entered the ring. If he moved quickly, no one else would challenge her first.

“Sif,” he called. “Would you honor me with a bout?”

Sif looked up at him with narrowed eyes, and behind her, three very different men glared at him. Another group of men laughed, and one of them said something Thor could not hear. Sif turned her icy stare on him instead, then walked towards Thor. “Of course, my prince.” Thor flinched inwardly at hearing Loki’s title applied to himself, but made himself smile at her as he took up a defensive stance along the edge of the ring.

She had him flat on his back in fewer than ten blows.

From where Thor lay stunned in the dirt, he could hear jeers echoing over the ringing in his ears. Sif’s hand swam into view, and as Thor focused he saw her lips tighten.

Thor looked from her hand to her face and laughed. Reaching up, he took her hand and came easily to his feet. “That was incredible,” he said, smiling hugely and thoroughly distracted from his unpleasant thoughts. He clapped her hard on the shoulder, noting with pride that she barely stumbled. “You must teach me that last strike.”

Sif raised a brow, and while Thor was not familiar with female Aesir expressions, he thought she looked skeptical. At last she shrugged. “I would not have thought it would surprise you. I’ve seen you attack much like it.”

“But never from such an angle,” Thor replied, still grinning. “I have never needed to block someone so much smaller than I before.”

“The great warrior of the Jotun, defeated by a woman?” called the man who had whispered to Sif earlier. He laughed, and the sound was entirely unlike Thor’s.

Thor stared at him. Sif turned and glared. “And I defeated you yesterday, Otarr. Do you think yourself shamed?” The man subsided, skin flushing red, and Sif deliberately turned her back on him. “Another?” she said to Thor. Thor smiled with all his teeth and nodded.

Later, as the warriors left the ring, Thor caught Sif by the arm. “May I speak with you?”

Sif looked at him in what even Thor could recognize as extreme suspicion. “What about?” she said shortly.

Thor gestured at the retreating backs of the men. “The man earlier thought that I might be shamed by the fact that you are a woman. Why would he think so?”

Sif stared at him. “What?” Thor asked, suddenly uncomfortable. He had seen that look many times before from Odin’s courtiers, when he said something that was in their eyes incredibly wrong. He did not like seeing it on Sif.

“They insult you because you have been defeated by a woman rather than a man,” said Sif.

Thor frowned deeply. “But that is senseless.”

“Do you not feel that women are unsuited for battle on Jotunheim?”

“Jotunheim values strength, in all its forms. You have defeated these men time and again – I have seen it. Why should I be ashamed of defeat at the hands of a superior warrior?”

Sif stared at him, and Thor shifted, but this was something different than the look he had seen before. If he didn’t know better, he might have thought that Sif looked impressed. But he did know better. Even the few short weeks he had known her were enough to let him know that Sif was never impressed with anyone.

Sif turned away from him abruptly. “You surprise me as well,” she said shortly. “I never thought I would envy the Jotun anything.”

Sif walked away, leaving Thor feeling only confused.

***

Following their first series of bouts on the practice courts, Thor found himself seeking out Sif more often. Their first battle had had long lasting consequences: now that Sif had dropped him to the ground, the other warriors were far more willing to challenge their newly discovered crown prince. Thor now received multiple challenges daily. He had yet to lose to anyone but Sif.

Fighting Sif still challenged him. After centuries of adapting his fighting style to defeat opponents up to two feet taller than himself, he had quite a bit of trouble adjusting to her low, lightning quick strikes. After a week of losing as often as he won, he asked if she would help him learn to fight in this new way. Sif agreed, with one condition - that he teach her the best way to fight a much taller opponent.

One day, after a long and particularly strenuous session, Thor threw himself to the ground in the shade of the courtyard wall and simply panted for a while. Sif joined him, sitting down and leaning back against the wall itself. Thor stripped off his tunic, feeling like he might die of heat in the merciless Aesir sun. After a few moments, he became aware of eyes on his body.

He opened them with considerable alarm - he had not meant to express availability, but he had no idea what social customs expressed romance here - but he quickly understood that it was not his lack of shirt that fascinated Sif, but his adornments.

Sif nodded at him in recognition of his awareness. "You would be better accepted if you hid your scars," she said neutrally. Thor glared at her, but Sif had earned better from him with her friendship than his explosion at Odin for the same mistake. Still, he could not help putting a bite in his response.

"And you would be better accepted if you wore skirts," he said. "But I do not suggest you do so."

"It is not the same."

"It is exactly the same. This is who I am." Thor was absolutely certain on this point. "If I must deny my past, deny what has made me what I am, just to gain the acceptance of a people who do not want me as their own? I refuse. I have earned these scars. They are to my credit. I will not be ashamed of them simply because the Aesir think that warriors should remain smooth-skinned. What does it matter, if my face does not please?"

Sif nodded at last, and Thor relaxed fractionally. "Besides," he said, "I already put on this ridiculous clothing for the comfort of the Aesir. I rather think that is enough concession for anyone."

As he had expected, Sif laughed. "And would you prefer to dress as a Jotun warrior?"

"Infinitely more so!" Thor insisted. "It is so hot here, and you all insist on wearing so many layers. A Jotun loincloth would be most welcome on the practice yard.”

Sif snorted. "Well, that would be one way of getting the people of the court to forget about the scars on your face. And the court ladies might take a better liking to you as well, for all they would pretend to be scandalized."

"Truly?" He had not considered the advantages to be had there.

"I do not suggest you try it!" Sif exclaimed, and Thor pretended to consider it just to watch the horror rise on her face. When he could take it no longer he smirked, and then laughed and jumped to his feet as she attacked him with her spear. He was more than ready for another bout.

Sometimes Sif reminded him so much of his brother that it nearly drove him to his knees with homesickness. He wondered how they would get along, if they met without the strangling presence of a formal diplomatic visit. The thought was entirely amusing. His brother would either hate her on sight or fall desperately in love with her and pretend that he hadn't, and either way, he would like to watch.

***

Three weeks after Sif questioned his scars, Thor arrived in the practice ring and knew instantly that today was the day.

Deliberately, he did not break his stride towards the weapons rack. The gathered Aesir warriors, far more than he usually saw at this hour, bristled as he ignored their presence. Several shifted into more balanced postures, ready to move into battle. Thor could only approve.

He held out his weapon as if to check its balance and waited.

The man near the back of the practice ring, one of the largest present, spoke first, drawing Thor's attention. "Do they teach you how to use that in Jotunheim?"

Thor smiled at him, making sure to show all of his teeth. "All members of the King's guard learn the sword." The mention of Laufey caused several of the warriors to mutter angrily, and more to get to their feet.

Another man spoke, one that Thor had not let leave his sight since entering the ring. This man was not the largest in the circle, but from the way the other warriors took up stances around him, he was the most dangerous. "You speak of Laufey with pride."

Instantly Thor's estimation of his danger level went up. This man spoke like his brother, deceptively calm and simple, but meant to incite anger. Already the men around him looked more aggressive, riled up just at the very mention of their hated enemy's name.

Thor shrugged, even as his own hackles rose. He must not make them too angry - angry men fight less skillfully, but men roused into battle fever might forget the honor of the Aesir and attack him all at once. He did not care for his chances against fifteen warriors at once - he would certainly have to kill many of them to win, and he knew Odin would not approve no matter what the circumstances. Laufey had been the same. No sense in killing a perfectly good soldier, no matter the insult. They would not want to kill him either, for fear of their king's wrath - but enough anger might make them forget.

"I see no reason why I should not," Thor said pleasantly, and shifted the grip on his sword.

"No reason! To be proud of serving that disgusting traitor!"

In spite of himself, Thor growled. If Loki were here, he would be able to defuse this situation, make fools of them all with his silver tongue, or talk himself out of the fight. Loki would be able to look past this insult.

"If you wish to insult me, I will take it out on your hide," he snarled. "But to insult one as traitor who has sworn you no loyalty is madness and slander. Face me for your lies, if you are not a coward."

Thor was far better suited to fighting, anyway.

"You’ll pay for your words, Jotun bastard!" the man who insulted Laufey snarled at him. Thor simply raised his weapon, and the Aesir charged.

Thor met the Aesir's charge head on, as he clearly expected. Then he dropped away, drawing the Aesir's lunge so that he nearly fell, and cut back in to neatly cuff the man over the head with the hilt of his sword. The man went down without a sound.

In the silence Thor asked, "Who's next?"

The next hour saw some of the toughest fighting of Thor's life. Each Aesir took it in turns to fight him, each with his own chosen weapon. As a point of pride, every time his opponent switched weapons, Thor responded in kind. No one here would ever claim that the house of Laufey bore cowards and weaklings ever again. His training had been easily as thorough as any of Odin's guard, and he intended to prove it.

He had seen this coming many weeks ago, and trained himself long into the night to prepare, taking every opportunity he could to watch his fellow warriors for their weaknesses. The Aesir did not appreciate having so visible a symbol of their enemy within their palace. If they could shame him here, he would lose status and authority before the people of Asgard, and perhaps convince Odin that he did not deserve the position of heir. He had fought and watched Loki fight many such battles for the same reason.

He wondered what the Aesir would think if they realized how like the Jotun court they truly were.

He worked as quickly as he could to dispatch each opponent, uncaring of their sense of pride, leaving no room for fancy skills that took time and space to accomplish. That in itself was enough to throw off his first few opponents who were used to treating practice bouts almost like exhibitions, the ones whose pride insisted they attack first. Soon, though, the wiser warriors who had taken the time to watch him attack did not make the same mistakes. They came in fast and hard, leaving him with no other response but to be faster.

Thor grinned viciously through the sweat pouring down his face. He had not enjoyed himself so much since he won his warrior's stripes nearly a century ago. He beckoned his next opponent forward.

"It isn't right!" someone burst out. Thor did not so much as glance in his direction until he saw that his opponent had as well, but even when he chanced a look backwards he kept all his sense attuned to movement. Not all of the Aesir took honor as seriously as the Warriors Three. It was the man he had beaten first, apparently now recovered from the blow to the head.

Seeing that he had gained an audience, the man continued. "There's no way anyone can still be moving that fast after all this time. He's using some kind of magic to make fools of us all."

Thor barked out a laugh at the man's foolishness, but then saw how some of the warriors looked at each other, drawing themselves up in anger. At first he could scarcely credit it. How could any of these men mistake him for a magic weaver? He bore none of the runes that marked the profession, nor had he spoken any words of power nor attempted any movement that was not in the sight of all. If he had been wearing a charm, it would have been obvious - he had long stripped to nothing but his tight breeches. How could the Aesir be so thoughtless?

"How can you be so foolish?" Thor asked, the question emerging without approval from his mouth. Instantly he heard Loki's voice in his head, chastising. Thor, you idiot. For once, he thoroughly agreed with Loki's assessment.

"Foolish? You dare insult the warriors of Asgard while you use your magic tricks against us?" There was general agreement, and Thor could no longer count the number of his enemies.

Setting his feet, Thor shut his mouth and clutched his weapon grimly. Unlike his brother, he could always tell when things had progressed too far for words to have any effect. Loki would always try to talk, always finesse their way out of a situation – but sometimes their opponents would not be reasoned with. Then they proved to them all just why the Prince and his Hand were feared throughout Jotunheim.

I have gotten myself into a mess without you, Loki, Thor thought before the Aesir descended upon him.

This was no longer a joy, no longer an excuse to stretch his muscles and get the kind of workout he had missed since leaving Jotunheim. The Aesir were no longer waiting to attack him one on one – instead they mobbed him, weapons coming at all sides, and it was all Thor could do to stay ahead of their blades.

His teeth set in a snarl, and Thor could feel that particular state of mind settle upon him, the one that always took him in the campaigns on Jotunheim. Fighting for one’s life was far different than fighting in the practice ring. Thor knew that intimately, and at least some of these Aesir did as well.

He fought it, knowing what disaster would come if he managed to kill the Aesir. But there were so many, and he could hear his brother in his head, better them than you, Thor, take them down or die, and we both know that second isn’t an option, and for a moment was convinced he could almost see his brother at his side, clearing the way for him to take the higher ground with his back to the wall.

In fact, the way was clearing. Thor stared, feeling that mad rush retreat slightly, as he noticed for the first time that someone was fighting against his enemies.

In fact, several someones.

Thor managed to get his back to the wall of the practice ring as Sif and her three companions crashed through the ring of fighters, brandishing real weapons rather than wooden ones. Fandral and Volstagg were yelling incomprehensible things about honor and fealty, while Sif and Hogun remained deadly and mostly silent, their battle cries the only thing passing their lips. They laid about them with their swords so fiercely that they managed to beat the crowd back.

Thor straightened out of his crouch as the four warriors met him. All of their opponents had fallen away. There was no one left to fight.

“Who began this madness?” Sif demanded. “Who dares to attack the prince of Asgard?”

Someone hidden from Sif’s gaze shouted, “He was using magic against us!”

Volstagg shifted a little, but did not move from Thor’s side. Hogun spoke. “How do you know?”

Such a simple question seemed to stump the warriors for a moment, as Hogun folded his arms and looked sternly at all of them. The way he caressed his sword might also have had something to do with their silence.

“No man could defeat so many naturally,” someone said at last. Thor looked at him. This man was near the front of the crowd and met Thor’s eyes squarely. Thor revised his opinion of the man’s courage. “He uses Jotun magic to defeat us, which Odin has forbidden in this ring.”

Fandral frowned. “He said no words? He made no gestures of magic?”

The silence spoke for itself.

Sif laughed harshly. “So he has beaten you? And that is all? I have defeated you twice a day here and you have not cried magic. Or have you?” She sneered at them all. “You should be ashamed to call yourselves warriors of Asgard. Defeated in the ring, and instead of training to become better you snivel like cowards and make excuses about magic? And then decide to attack your better with an unfair advantage of numbers? You have no honor.”

Thor watched in astonishment as the men shrank under Sif’s harsh words. Those few who looked as if they would shout back at her were nudged to silence by their comrades.

“You are warriors of Asgard. Remember your oaths. Respect your king –or answer to the Warriors Three.” Volstagg’s voice rumbled deeply through the air, and the other men straightened at the reference to their king.

Then Sif glanced back at him meaningfully, and Thor realized he was still clutching his practice sword as if waiting for attack. With even more surprised, he realized such an attack was not coming. He relaxed, lowering his weapon, and after a moment more thought racked it firmly.

All four of them were looking at him meaningfully now, and Thor realized they expected him to speak. The other Aesir were shifting nervously on their feet. Apparently the reference to Odin had brought many of them back to their senses.

But what could he say? He was no wordsmith like Loki. His brother depended upon him for strength, not diplomacy.

Yielding to their increasingly pointed looks, Thor finally said the only thing he could think of: “Well fought.” The four warriors looked at him incredulously, but none of them or their comrades looked murderous, so Thor took that as a good sign. “Warriors of Asgard, you have given me a true challenge on this day,” Thor continued, warming to his subject, “and for that I thank you.”

Seeing their stunned faces and deciding that now would be the best time to exit quickly, Thor nodded sharply at all of them and turned for the palace.

His back prickled the entire way, but neither word nor weapon followed him. Thor was willing to count that as a victory.

A few weeks later, Thor looked around the practice fields utterly bemused.

Somehow, the attitudes of nearly all of the Asgardian warriors had softened towards him since their attack on him in the training grounds. He no longer felt helplessly exposed when he could not put a wall at his back, and he nearly stopped looking for edged weapons hidden among the practice swords of his opponents. The men were no more talkative (in this they had much in common with the Jotun), but they moved around him with an ease that had previously been sorely lacking.

Thor could not understand it. He had not won. He had not defeated his opponents alone. And yet somehow that day changed his relationship with the other warriors of Asgard. Sif, Volstagg, Fandral or Hogun now joined him at all his practices, and his bouts with other warriors were always carefully observed. It should have felt stifling. It should have felt emasculating, that they did not trust him to take care of himself.

Thor could not understand why it did not. And each day, the warriors relaxed around him a little more.

His days fell into a pattern not too dissimilar from Jotunheim, as he practiced in the mornings, bathed, and took counsel with Odin and the court in the afternoons, when he was accustomed to studying along with Loki. Every night he ate at the high table with Odin and Frigga and marveled at how different it was to sit at the highest seat as a royal and not a servant.

He missed Loki so much that it was like breathing, a constant awareness in his body. Of all things that became easier on Asgard, that was not one.

***

Thor turned, swung, and blocked without thinking, allowing his mind to wander as his body moved as he had trained it. The young warrior he faced today, barely old enough to join Odin’s army, certainly did not require his full attention.

He easily blocked an off-center blow, then took advantage of the Aesir’s over-balancing to lunge forward and -

Stop!

Thor wrenched back his arm, heart pounding with fear and rage -

- the Aesir, distracted by a conversation happening along the sidelines, had not raised his sword to block, and Thor had nearly taken off his arm.

“You fool!” The instant Thor regained his balance he lunged at the younger man, furious, and opened up a shallow cut along his shoulder. Instantly, the wound began to bleed, and the other warrior gasped in shock. Thor did not care. He stepped forward again.

Then there were hands at his back, at his arms, trying to relieve him of his weapon. He resisted until he recognized Fandral and Sif, then released his sword into their hands. Meanwhile, other warriors had gathered around the wounded man, gauging the depth of his injury, trying to hustle him away from Thor’s sight.

Thor would not allow that. Now unarmed, he tore himself away from his comrades. “You cannot allow distractions to affect your training!” he shouted. “You brainless, hopeless idiot; do you think you can fight in Odin’s army if a conversation weakens your sword arm? You will be dead in the first hour!”

There were other people talking, but Thor did not care. He forced himself forward through the crowd, even as other Aesir hurried the young fool in the direction of the palace healers. His blood boiled.

“Go to your healers!” Thor shouted. He could hardly recognize his own voice. “Go to them and erase your failure, erase your memories of your stupidity, erase all you might have learned. And when you enter battle, your name will be erased from song as well!”

He turned and stalked from the arena, near-running in his haste to leave the Aesir and their stupidity far behind him. But everywhere he went, he saw only golden archways, red tapestries, and the relentless sun of Asgard making everything gleam.

“Is there anywhere in this realm that is not made of gold?” he demanded. His voice broke, and behind him he felt Sif startle. He turned on her, sick with anger, but Sif held her ground. She met his eyes, then nodded.

“Follow me.”

Sif led him through the palace, out one of the eastern doors into a neatly tended garden. Thor had entered the gardens only once, overwhelmed by the sheer riches of lush green, horrified by how tightly controlled and manicured each bed preserved the fragile life. She led him back farther, to a gate that Thor had not entered, and they entered the first garden Thor has seen that was not contained by walls.

After twenty minutes of walking, Sif stopped in front of a fountain. Thor could no longer hear the hum of the palace, nor see the walls behind the trees. The fountain was made of stone, although a gold statue of an archer shooting water from his bow topped the otherwise simple structure. Thor could not bring himself to be surprised that even here, the Aesir need for extravagance found its place.

But it was more quiet and less golden than anyplace Thor had been in weeks. He sat down and closed his eyes.

He could not pretend he was on Jotunheim. He had never possessed much imagination, and the sounds of wind rustling through giant trees accompanied by strange birdsong made any such illusion impossible. He missed the red star of Jotunheim, the deep blue of the ice, the way his people could disappear in shadow if you did not look carefully. He missed the glittering snow, so different from the shining gold of Asgard. The heat of the Aesir sun made everything glow, including his hair and too-pale skin. It beat down upon him without mercy, until Thor wanted nothing more but to claw away his own skin, if only he could escape the oppressive heat.

He did not know how long he sat in silence before Sif spoke. “You have been in Asgard for one year,” she said.

Thor knew exactly how long he had been in Asgard. If Sif had sounded judgmental or pitying, Thor would have challenged her, regardless of her kindness in leading him away from the palace. Instead, her voice contained no emotion at all, as if her observation were not at all interesting. Thor breathed in sharply. It was exactly how Loki would have challenged him.

“Laufey’s palace is nothing like Odin’s,” he said, without quite giving his mouth permission. Sif remained perfectly still. “Jotunheim has no trees, only a little stone. When the last stone palace fell in the war, Laufey ordered a new one made of ice. He has one hundred master crafters in his palace, and they create new rooms for him when he chooses, and destroy the ones he no longer needs. Each Jotun can craft a little on their own, but most do not make more than cosmetic changes. The crafters create new worlds. When Loki -” he stopped, his knuckles turning white on his fisted hands. “When Laufey proclaimed him heir, he gave Loki control over the palace’s appearance. On his orders, the crafters destroyed and rebuilt the entire palace in a day.”

He took a deep breath. “It is my home,” he insisted, as if Sif had argued with him.

“So was this, once,” Sif replied, after a long silence. Thor’s lips and fists tightened. “Perhaps someday it will be so again.”

***

Six weeks later, Thor stood near the royal table at yet another banquet, his eyes narrowed as he took in a sight that made no sense. The young warrior he had threatened and humiliated the day of his breakdown now bore a scar on his right bicep. More than that, several other of the youngest warriors now wore scars of their own, which Thor could see specifically because they had artfully torn their garments in order to display them.

"You will have to speak with them." Thor stiffened in shock, still unused to how Odin could appear behind him without warning. It did not seem possible that a man covered with sparkling gold could move inconspicuously, but Odin could appear and disappear like smoke. Uncomfortably, Thor remembered Odin's many bynames among the Jotun. Spear-breaker, deceiver, war-bringer - it seemed the man who called himself his father had come by those names honestly.

"I am not sure what you mean," Thor responded when Odin made no other sound.

"The young warriors," Odin said, gesturing at the same group Thor had been watching. "You have quite a following, but they have started to become reckless in their training. There have never been so many "accidents" before."

Thor stared. "You cannot mean they scar themselves deliberately."

Odin raised an eyebrow. "As the Jotun do, you mean?"

Thor shifted uncomfortably. "The Aesir do not scar."

"It would seem that they do."

Thor stood next to Odin for a long silent moment, both intent upon the group of young warriors. "Make sure they clean the wounds, at least. Frigga will never forgive me if we lose our newest warriors to infection," Odin said, then abruptly turned away. Thor tried to think of something to say to call him back, but instead watched him walk back to the golden dais.

The next morning, he gave a pointed lecture about the difference between scars earned in combat and scars earned by foolishness, and pretended not to see any of the blushing faces before him.

***

Thor entered the throne room with more eagerness than he had felt in quite some time. At long last, Odin had agreed to receive a delegation from Jotunheim, on the condition that no one of the royal house accompany the party. Thor had raged at this decision, but Odin stood firm and refused to explain. Thor did not need an explanation, anyway - it was quite clear that Odin did not want to give Loki or Laufey the chance to snatch him away again.

Still, any messenger from home was better than nothing, and Thor knew Loki would find a way to give him a private message. In return, Thor hoped to propose something that would give Jotunheim greater influence in the Nine Realms than they had enjoyed for centuries. Neither realm had visited Midgard in nearly a millennium, not since the last war between Jotunheim and Asgard – and Thor thought it was more than time for that to change. If Loki agreed, he would plan a joint delegation between Jotunheim and Asgard to treat with the Midgardian leaders, and perhaps at last join all the realms of Yggdrasil in treaty and trade. Thor thought it was lucky that the Midgardians had short memories, and would not remember the last war so dearly.

Thor stifled a yawn as another petitioner approached Odin’s throne, distracting him from his plans for Loki. He wondered how the Allfather could remain so unaffected by the long list of supplicants. Was it true interest, or merely practice?

Odin gave over one full day each week to hearing the requests of his subjects. Thor could not decide how he felt about such a practice. In Jotunheim, anyone wishing to petition would go to his tribal chief, who would present his requests on behalf of his people once in a lunar month. Perhaps the Aesir felt it fairer to represent their desires directly, even if Thor still privately thought it madness. At least if a man had needed to consult his clan chief, that chief could filter out the most senseless of the requests, or better yet, solve the problem himself. That was what a clan chief was for. Having each person present his own request seemed an unconscionable waste of time. Some of these Aesir seemed to not be able to tell a serious request from their own petty desires.

Thor shifted as unobtrusively as possible in his seat next to Odin, but still Odin glanced his way with a slight glare. Chastened, Thor went still, even though his backside ached. He stared over the petitioner’s head in false interest, instead using the angle to check the position of the sun. At least three more hours of this, he judged. He would never make it.

If only something interesting would happen, he thought. These Aesir with their endless disputes over property and precedence made the day seem to drag on forever.

As if drawn by his thought, the door slammed open. A page hurtled into the room. “Allfather!” he panted. “Word from Heimdall!”

Odin rose, no longer paying any attention to the supplicant at his feet, who looked outraged. Thor spared no pity for him. Could the useless man not understand that something far more important than his horse breeding program had happened?

“Speak,” Odin commanded, but before the page could continue, the air in front of the throne began to shimmer.

Everyone in the court stared in confusion, and Thor stepped forwards in shock. He would recognize his brother’s teleportation spell anywhere. What was he doing here?

“Back!” Odin roared, and Thor realized that Odin must recognize the spell as well – or at least knew it was powerful magic. As a shape began to take place, the page forgot himself and yelled without waiting for permission, “Jotun, my lord! Heimdall says a Jotun party is coming!”

Within seconds, Thor knew that the person appearing was not his brother. It was far too tall, and did not bear Loki’s distinctive dark hair. But it was unquestionably his brother’s magic – it could be nothing else.

Odin roared for his guards as the Jotun came into focus and the magic faded. The room sprang into action, supplicants alternately falling back against the walls or taking up their largely ceremonial weapons to join the guards in surrounding the frost giant, who towered over even the tallest Aesir. The frost giant, not one Thor recognized, raised his hands and turned slowly, showing the Aesir that he was unarmed.

“How dare you appear with uninvited magic into my court!” Odin roared. “Explain the meaning of this!”

“I come unarmed as messenger of Loki, King of Jotunheim,” the man replied impossibly. “He apologizes that he could not wait for the official time for the delegation, but time is of the essence.”

“King of Jotunheim?” Thor demanded, joining Odin in front of the stranger. His heart beat wildly at the messenger’s impossible words. “What has happened to Laufey King?”

“Laufey Once King is dead,” the man replied, and Thor nearly staggered. It was not possible. Laufey should have lived for centuries – surely it was not possible for him to be dead! But the incredible grief he heard in the visitor’s voice could mean nothing else.

“How has this happened?” Odin asked, and Thor barely stopped himself from leaping from the dais and confronting the man himself. Even now, he was not fully accepted in this court – it was unquestionably Odin’s right to question the messenger, no matter how much Thor himself might want to know. Even if he knew he would ask far more of the right questions than Odin himself.

“By foul treachery,” the man spat, “Laufey was murdered within his own house. Svarthi came to Laufey’s court in the name of peace, bringing his petitions before the king. When he was alone with the king, his guards attacked. Laufey is no more.”

“And how did these enemies manage to escape your palace?”

“They had a sorcerer with them, who managed to hide their passage from the throne room,” the man growled. “We killed as many as we could, but it is hard to fight an enemy one cannot see.”

Thor could contain himself no longer. “And what of his heirs? What of Loki?”

Odin looked sideways at him, but Thor ignored him, all his being bent on the messenger’s answer. “The traitors attempted to kill Loki King with his father, but Loki killed his attackers and escaped to the treasury. He took possession of the Cask of Ancient Winters and left the palace. Loki and his brothers have fled the palace, which is overrun with Svarthi’s men. I have been sent to you from those loyal to Loki and the house of Laufey. All those loyal to the royal house are gathering in Grimthorpe to take back his throne from those who have stolen it.”

Then the man looked straight at Thor. “Loki sends me specifically to you, Lord Thor of Asgard.”

Thor felt dread and anticipation rise in equal measure in his throat, and he did not question the origin of either. “Tell me my brother’s message,” he demanded.

"Loki Laufeyson says only this: once you swore to uphold his rights until the end of time. Once all of Jotunheim knew that the Prince and his Hand could never be defeated. So, Thor Odinson - will you honor your oaths and come to support your prince once more?"

Thor surged forward, ignoring the way Hogun and his mother attempted to check his steps. He could not look at Odin. There could only be one answer to this summons, and Thor would give it, no matter what the cost.

Before he could open his mouth, however, a messenger burst into the room, shouting without any regard for the etiquette of Odin's audience chamber. "Allfather! Heimdall sends me to tell you - a second Jotun party comes this way!"

The hall burst into noise, but Odin struck the butt of his spear against the floor three times. The room fell into almost instant silence. "Armed?" he barked into the sudden silence.

"No, Allfather. They come dressed to negotiate."

That was all the time they had. In the next moment, the guards were swinging open the doors to admit five Jotun.

Thor could see instantly the difference between these Jotun and the first. These were far better dressed, although no Aesir was likely to understand the difference between them. The one in the lead was clearly the negotiator, with four warriors behind him. The page had said they were not armed, and to Aesir eyes, Thor supposed they were not. He, on the other hand, recognized the adornments surrounding all four of their biceps that marked them as some of the most skilled ice shapers in all Jotunheim. These four would never truly be unarmed, and were all the more dangerous for it.

"What is the meaning of this? Why have you come unannounced into my court?" Odin demanded.

"Allfather." The lead Jotun bowed, barely enough for respect. "We come in the name of Svarthi, King of Jotunheim."

Thor snarled at that, and before he even though he found himself on the floor on front of the dais, brandishing his war hammer in a way that even he recognized might not be the appropriate response to an ambassador. Even one as treacherous as this.

Checking himself, Thor lowered the hammer, although his fingers still held it so tightly that they turned white. "King of Jotunheim, you say?" he said. He was rather proud of how he managed to keep his voice level, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sif wince, and the Warriors Three shifted behind him, leaving the dais as well to flank him. From the Jotun perspective, it probably seemed a show of strength. From Thor's, it clearly meant that they thought they needed to make sure he would not lose control.

Taking a deep breath, Thor forced his muscles to relax before speaking again. "You do not bear the royal crest. Nor do any of your warriors. And yet you claim to represent the King of Jotunheim?"

"The once-royal house of Jotunheim has fallen," the ambassador said, and Thor wanted to kill him for how pleased he sounded at those words. "Laufey-king is no more, and his heirs have fled. Rule now belongs to the victors, as is their right. The house of Svarthi now rules in Jotunheim, and the tribes will swear allegiance to him within a fortnight."

Odin stepped forward then, saving Thor from the need to kill this so called ambassador. "As long as Laufey has heirs, you may find that the tribes will not be so easy to sway their allegiance." His voice was so measured, so even, that one might believe he felt nothing. And perhaps, Thor realized with a shock, he did not. What did the rule of Jotunheim matter to the Aesir? What did Loki matter?

The ambassador shrugged, and Thor hated his casual movement. "Laufey's heir has always been weak," he said. "We all know it. His other sons are rash, easily guided. Once they swear to us, the tribes will follow. And if they will not...well, Svarthi cannot tolerate disloyalty in his kingdom."

A pit of despair opened in Thor's stomach, forming a sickening counterpoint to his rage, and he could hardly help the way he gripped his hammer like it was a child's comforting toy. This man meant to kill Loki, for only a fool would think that Loki or Helblindi or Byleistr would ever bow to Svarthi. Odin did not know this, however. More than that, he had no reason to care. If Odin did not care, he would never approve Thor leaving. But there was only one thing Thor could do here. He could never leave his brother to suffer death and dishonor. He had sworn an oath to protect Loki, and now both the Aesir honor that Sif had tried to pound into his head and his Jotun instincts that demanded revenge for his family pointed to the same goal - he would go into Jotunheim and kill for Loki until he had established his rule or died trying. If Odin did not agree to let him ago, he would lose all the goodwill he had gained as Odin's heir in the last few months - the Aesir would see him as hopelessly Jotun, not to be trusted, kin to their enemy. And perhaps they would not be entirely wrong. There was nothing Thor would not do for his brother.

Desperately, Thor looked over at Odin, and after a minute, something of his agony must have reached Odin's consciousness. The king (his father, his mind whispered, even though he had never seemed less like one) met his eyes, and Thor tried to put everything he was feeling into his eyes.

Odin looked at him for what seemed like an endless age, and then looked away. Thor staggered on his feet, caught only by Volstagg's quick movement forward, and Thor was grateful for their presence at his back, even if it was to control him rather than protect him. Suddenly breathless, he turned back to the ambassador.

Odin looked down at the ambassador, and so did the rest of the court. "And what does the representative of Svarthi want of Asgard?"

"Svarthi says this: that Asgard need pay no attention to the machinations of a kingdom far from its own. That Jotunheim will pass to new rule under its own strength, as it has from time immemorial. Svarthi himself will come to discuss terms of a new treaty between Asgard and Jotunheim once his rule is secure - but only if Asgard does not interfere in his rightful taking his place." The ambassador smiled, and Thor felt his heart drop to the bottoms of his feet. "What is Asgard's answer?"

Thor wished once more that he could simply kill this man - as if that might make any difference to the way this meeting would turn out. If it could change anything, it would only be in how Thor looked to the Aesir - more bloodthirsty, more unreasonable, more Jotun. Thor could win nothing by attacking him. So he must stand and watch this worm disgrace his brother and his entire house and do nothing - because that is what Aesir honor demanded of him. He had never understood it less than in this moment - but he also could not bring himself to attack.

Odin tilted his head, considering. Even while he waited, the man looked smug, sure of himself, utterly confident in his answer. Thor could not feel any hope of finding fault with his confidence.

"I see," Odin said at last. "Well then. Here is my message to both of you, then."

"To Svarthi of Jotunheim - tell him that Asgard recognizes only one royal house in Jotunheim, and it is the line of the House of Laufey. We do not recognize his claim to the throne. We do not approve his usurpation. We await Laufey's heir to approach us once again."

"To Loki of Jotunheim - " Odin here had to raise his voice above the rising chaos in his great hall - "Know that Asgard recognizes his claim. We will be sending our son and heir, along with a company of Aesir soldiers, to support his claim to the throne. That is our word. It is final."

The ambassador to Svarthi looked almost pale with anger and shock beneath the deep blue of his skin, and Loki's ambassador looked nearly as bad - faint with shock and relief. Frigga was trying to get Odin's attention, the courtroom guards had picked up their weapons as if considering starting the war with Jotunheim with the six in their hall, and the Warriors Three had ringed together around Thor more in shock and solidarity than in subtle threat. Under cover of all this noise, Thor strode towards Loki's ambassador and knelt beside him.

"Tell Loki I come to him immediately. Tell him -" Thor broke off, then steeled himself for the words that blossomed up from his throat, pure and beautiful. "Tell my brother that his Hand will defend him against all comers."

The messenger stared, then nodded. "I did not -" he stopped, then plunged on - "I did not dare to think it might be so. You have not lost yourself here among the Aesir, Lord Thor."

Thor nodded, although he could not speak. He clapped his hand on the man's shoulder, grateful that Loki's protection against the frost giant cold still held true. "Go. Tell him," he managed. The man nodded, and began pushing through the crowd behind him, slipping behind the larger party as they continued to yell in Odin's direction. Hopefully he would get to the Bifrost before they did. Or perhaps Loki would catch him up as easily as he had set him down.

The guards were now ringing closer around the larger Jotun party, and the warriors’ arms were beginning to gleam in that tell-tale way that suggested that ice blades lurked just beneath the surface. Thor readied himself for the battle.

Perhaps the fighting would be enough to drive Loki's messenger's words from his head. Thor no longer felt lost among the Aesir. And that frightened him more than the original prospect of losing himself ever had.

Part Three: Midgard

Thor yelled mostly useless commands as his men swarmed around him, making last minute adjustments to their gear, their armor, their weapons. He stamped his feet in frustration, glaring at everyone who met his eyes. The Aesir were so slow to get ready for battle! Laufey’s people wore no armor, and most needed no more weapons than their own icy blades. His people scavenged, drinking melted snow, and no campaign ever lasted longer than the army could live off the land. After several centuries as a captain in Laufey’s army, having to wait for supply wagons, armorers, and foodstuffs felt like an unbearable delay.

Sif appeared at his side just as he turned to stalk off to the palace kitchens, intent upon shaking his missing supplies out of whoever he could find. She stopped him with only a raised eyebrow. “We can’t all live on snow,” she said mildly.

Thor growled at her. “Every minute we wait here, Svarthi’s army destroys more of Loki’s people. I won’t leave my brother a broken kingdom!”

To his surprise, Sif looked shaken by his words. “Thor -”

“My Lord Thor!” Thor and Sif both turned to see one of Odin’s pages approaching at a run. “Urgent message from the Allfather!”

“Well?” Thor demanded, when it looked like the boy would simply gasp.

“Heimdall reports that King Loki and a Jotun army have entered Midgard.”

For a moment Thor just stared at him. Despite his panting for breath, the page’s message had been perfectly clear. It just made no sense.

“My brother has no business in Midgard.”

“The Allfather commands -” the page gulped as Thor snarled. “The Allfather commands that you redirect your forces and mitigate the conflict between Jotunheim and Midgard.”

“Conflict?” Thor barked, as a growing void took up residence below his heart.

“Heimdall reports that a Midgardian army is approaching the Jotun force now.”

For the first time since arriving in Asgard, Thor felt very cold. It did not comfort him. He turned away from the page and faced his army. “We move now,” he shouted, heedless of the remaining protests. He raised Mjolnir. “To the Bifrost!”

Sif remained close by his side as he led the charge towards Heimdall’s chamber. “What will you do?” she asked him.

Thor bared his teeth, but did not answer.

***

As the haze of the Bifrost cleared, Thor sized up the field with the speed that had given him command of half of Jotunheim’s armies. On his left, the Midgardians. Thor did not recognize the large metal crafts that led the Midgardian forces, but the men who surrounded and commanded them moved like warriors, hands steady on the unknown weapons in their grasps. Of more importance, however, was the short line of warriors in front of the vehicles. Thor quickly took in a red and gold man who floated above the earth, a blue man carrying a white-starred shield, an oversized green man, and a man and a woman in black who moved so much like Loki that it put Thor instantly on guard. All the other Midgardians hid behind the metal crafts. That these did not told Thor that they were the most dangerous. He had not believed that the Midgardians knew magic, but the floating man and the green man told a different story. Thor felt his pulse accelerate as he reevaluated the danger of this battlefield.

On his right -

Part of Thor’s mind effortlessly evaluated the strength of Loki’s force (so few, he thought, how could Loki’s army be so few?), but most of it could do nothing but stare as he met the gaze of his brother for the first time in over a year.

Loki looked terrible, although Thor doubted the Midgardians could tell as much. His hair snarled down his back, and half of his gems were missing or cracked, drained of the magic stored within. Thor could easily read the exhaustion in his brother’s red eyes.

“Thor. You have come.” Loki took a half-step forward, and even that slight breach of decorum spoke of such desperation that Thor’s heart ached.

He hated what he must say next. “Odin has sent me to mediate this conflict,” he said, and watched as his words sunk in.

“So you are here for them?” Loki snarled, and oh, Thor would have given anything never to see such betrayal on Loki’s face.

The closest Jotun, Loki’s generals, stepped forward to protect him, but they could not protect him from the muttering that rose within his ranks. They all knew him as Loki’s Hand, and if Loki’s own Hand had betrayed him -

Thor could not bear it. “No! I am here for you, brother,” he answered recklessly, loud enough that he knew his voice would carry back into the Jotun ranks. Now his own forces muttered their dissatisfaction behind him.

“Brother? Oh, that’s just what we need, that’s great.” Both Thor and Loki turned as one toward the unexpected voice, Thor raising his warhammer high with his right hand as Loki conjured green fire with his left. For a precious moment they stood together, and it could have been any campaign, any battle with Thor as Loki’s right Hand. Then Loki stepped away, and the illusion was broken.

The red and gold Midgardian had flown over from the front ranks to hover at what he must have considered a prudent distance, although it was nowhere near out of Loki’s range. Even stranger, the blue man with the shield was actually riding on his back.

“Look, if this is some really messed up version of Family Feud, do you think you could handle it on someone else’s planet?” said the man of metal. Thor did not understand his words, but before he could respond, the man he was carrying interrupted.

“Iron Man, now is not the time. Put me down.”

“Whatever you say, Cap.” The Man of Iron obeyed, although Thor did not miss how he stayed within inches of his commander, ready to snatch him back up if necessary. It was a caution Thor approved of, even if it would be hopeless for either of them to attempt escape.

“My name is Captain America,” said the blue man with the shield. “We have come here in response to what we saw as an attack on our planet. We do not want to fight either of you, but we will to keep our people safe.”

Loki sneered at him. “You think yourself a threat, mortal? When Jotunheim goes to war, it does not ask permission from the people it conquers!”

“Loki!” Thor snapped, appalled. His estimation of his brother’s exhaustion shot skywards. Loki’s silver tongue would never have failed him so badly in diplomacy if he were anywhere near his right mind.

“You’re crazier than you look if you think that “conquering” us is actually in the cards here,” said the metal man, and Loki snarled as his generals signaled to their men.

“Loki, stop this!” Thor leaped in front of his brother’s outstretched arm, and the explosion held in Loki’s hands died on his fingertips.

“Oh, I see,” Loki said, his words nearly slurring in haste and exhaustion. “You say you are here for me, but instead you protect them, the precious pets of your precious murderer of a father-”

“I was coming to help you!” Thor roared. “All of these men are for you, to help you retake Jotunheim, and I find you on Midgard? Why did you come here?”

“Where else was I to go?” Loki hissed.

“Wait, hold it!” The man with the shield raised his hands. “It sounds like you two have a lot to talk about. Could we all agree to stand down a moment and figure this all out?”

Thor nodded. “I will speak with you, mortal.”

“Great.” They both turned to look at Loki, who was now trembling slightly.

“Loki.” Thor lowered his warhammer and let his muscles go slack, knowing his brother would see it as the surrender it was. He offered his other hand.

For a long moment no one said anything. Loki’s eyes had never seemed so blank before, and fear that he had lost the ability to read his brother entirely clenched tightly in Thor’s throat. He could hear the faint sound of metal scraping against itself as the red and gold Midgardian shifted positions, and the profound silence from the black clad warriors that had suddenly appeared on his other side spoke no less of imminent battle. He kept his outstretched hand steady, his left arm completely relaxed, only by an intense focus of will.

Then Loki moved, and the entire Midgardian army tensed into readiness. “Very well. We will talk,” he said, his sentences clipped, and his blue hand met Thor’s pale one.

***

The Midgardians attempted to convince Thor and Loki to join them within one of their metal crafts - which apparently flew in the air - but neither prince would consent to negotiate so deep in Midgardian territory, nor to abandon their armies. Just when Thor believed that negotiations would break down for lack of anywhere to discuss them, one of the warriors in black approached and sat down deliberately between the two armies. She settled into a lotus position, then lifted one eyebrow at her commander.

The man who called himself Captain America shook his head. “Widow-”

“Works for me,” came another voice, and the second black-clad warrior slouched to the ground beside her, his loose sprawl a deliberate contrast to Widow’s straight backed pose. The two of them looked at their commander without challenge, as if he had ordered them to move himself.

The Man of Iron threw up his hands. “Fine. Fine! It’s not like we have a perfectly good jet fifty feet away, with comfortable chairs and drinks and heat - no, let’s all sit on the ground and have a picnic!” Even as he spoke, he lowered himself to the ground.

Thor glanced quickly at Loki, who still looked contentious. He made a snap decision.

“Your earth will suit us well,” he said to Captain America, and sat down. He deliberately did not look at Loki as he did so.

A tense breath later, and then Loki gestured dismissively. A low dais of ice appeared below him as the Midgardians tensed. “I trust you will not object to my comfort,” he said, as if the matter were trivial. He sat down upon the ice and crossed one leg over the other. Captain America quickly joined the others on the ground.

“Good. This works for everyone,” he said, quite as if it had been his idea. Thor thought he must be a very good commander. He met everyone’s eyes in turn, then focused on Loki. “The first thing we need to know is why you came to Earth in the first place, and what you plan to do here.”

“Yeah, and did you really need to bring three hundred of your closest pals?” the Man of Iron asked.

Thor growled before Loki could respond. “If you truly mean to negotiate, you will treat us both with respect.” Beside him, Loki settled back slightly, sending a sharp wave of relief through Thor’s body.

“I am Loki Laufeyson, King of Jotunheim,” Loki said at last, raising his chin. “My realm has been temporarily overrun by traitors to the crown.”

“Uh huh. And the other guy?”

“Thor Aes- Odinson,” Thor responded. The name still felt foreign on his tongue. “Loki is my brother, and I have been sent to help him retake his throne.”

“No offense, but you two really don’t look related,” said the male warrior in black.

Thor bared his teeth at him. “Appearances mean very little to my brother.”

“Let’s not get off track here,” said Captain America, sending a quelling glance to his subordinates. “If you’ve come to help King Loki regain his throne, then how did you both end up here?”

“I came for Loki.” Thor turned. “Brother, why did you come to Midgard? Why did you not wait for me?”

Loki’s face remained frustratingly blank, but his grip tightened on the edge of his icy seat. “My messenger never returned from Asgard,” he said, challenge tucked away in the corners of his words. “As I had no way of knowing if Odin or Svarthi was responsible for his death, it seemed prudent to retreat to more defensible ground.”

“A planet with seven billion people is more defensible ground?” the Man of Iron demanded, seemingly unable to remain silent.

Loki cast him a look of disdain. “Than my realm where my enemies are entrenched, perfectly suited for the terrain? You mortals are nothing compared with an army of my people.”

“Oh, I’ll bet we can surprise you.”

“Iron Man, stand down!” This time, Captain America spoke with real steel in his voice. When everyone had fallen silent, he continued. “So let's see if I understand. It sounds like you have no real desire to conquer our people. You just need a place from which to make a stand.”

Loki inclined his head a fraction of an inch. Wisely, the captain took this as agreement. “We can't allow you to invade indiscriminately. But what if we could help you?”

The scorn in Loki’s voice could have melted the palace of Jotunheim. "And what, exactly, could you do to help me?"

"Asylum, for one," Captain America replied. "If you needed a place to stay to remain safe from this Svarthi, we could host you here."

Loki snarled. "I will not hide in this realm and allow my kingdom to be taken from me."

“I understand.” The Captain raised his chin and met Loki’s eyes directly. "We could also offer an alliance."

"An alliance?" Thor asked for the explanation he knew Loki would not.

"We won't send our human soldiers in; we don’t know the terrain or the enemy we’ll be facing. But we can guarantee that we will never allow Svarthi or any of his men to take refuge here, and that we will allow you and your men to stay if you agree to stay peacefully. If he did bring the battle here, we would support you unconditionally."

Seeing his chance, Thor leaned forward. "How would the outlying tribes react, brother, if they knew you had made alliances with both Asgard and Midgard? Svarthi has no one except his own tribe. Might it be enough to sway them to your side?"

Loki stared at him, then at the humans. He blinked once, eyes completely blank, but Thor could feel his interest in the revitalized line of his back. "It is possible," Loki allowed.

"Then we have a place to start," the Captain replied, and for the first time in all the long afternoon, Thor allowed himself to hope.

***

When at last the three parties agreed to stop for the night, Thor waited only to see his army begin to settle into a camp before following Loki back to his own forces. All around him, Jotun were settling down on beds of ice, and for the first time Thor allowed himself to appreciate how much this part of Midgard resembled Jotunheim. He could see why Loki had chosen it.

He found Loki in the very center of his camp, where he had created an ice cave as his command post. From here he could see more easily the state of Loki’s army, and it shocked him. There were not half so many warriors as he had expected. Could Svarthi really have gathered so many? Was there no one in Jotunheim loyal to Laufey’s house?

As soon as Thor entered the cave, Loki turned and barked three sharp words. Thor recognized them as his brother’s favorite concealment spell. Now no one outside these walls could see or hear them.

Instantly, Loki seemed to collapse in on himself, the confidence in his stance falling away. “Brother,” Thor said helplessly. He reached towards Loki, then let his hand fall.

“It is less dire than it seems,” Loki replied, in a voice far less convincing than he had likely planned. “Svarthi has far fewer soldiers than he claims. Most clans have not spoken for one side or the other – they are waiting, I suppose, to see if one of us kills the other first. No one wants to declare for the loser at this stage.”

“Surely the chiefs of Jotunheim are not so cowardly,” Thor replied, frowning. This did not sound like the Jotunheim he remembered. “What of their oaths?”

Loki laughed, and Thor winced at the sound. “Their oaths were to the house of Laufey,” he said. “And who can say that Loki is truly of the house of Laufey, when he shames Jotunheim with his small and weakly frame?”

Thor reeled back, as much in anger as in shock. “Impossible. No one could believe such slander!”

“Of course they don’t believe it,” Loki snapped, suddenly furious. “After the campaigns you and I fought together, no one believes it. But that is what Svarthi is claiming, and any clan chief can pretend to doubt me just long enough for the battle to be over first.”

Thor sputtered in pure rage, completely unable to speak. Loki continued, his voice so bitter that it flayed Thor’s nerves. “And besides – those campaigns were fought by the Prince and his Hand. Now that his Hand has left him, what is the Prince to Jotunheim?”

Thor could feel ice growing in the pit of his stomach, in his heart. “Loki, I came as soon as you called. I would have come sooner if -”

But Loki was already looking to the ground, a sure sign that he believed himself in the wrong but would refuse to admit it. “At the very least, we have the Cask of Ancient Winters,” he said, which was closer than Thor expected to get to forgiveness for leaving Jotunheim.

“The Cask,” Thor said, caught up with sudden hope. “Can you wield it?”

Loki hesitated, and Thor’s heart dropped into his feet. “Perhaps,” Loki said carefully. “I have studied it since you returned it to Jotunheim. There are some things I know I can do. Everything else I know in theory.”

“You theory is better than most people’s practice,” said Thor, attempting to be reassuring. Loki grimaced.

“But not good enough to win a war,” Loki replied. Thor did not answer for a moment.

“We will win, brother,” he said at last.

“I wish I shared your confidence,” Loki replied.

Thor stared at him. “What? What is it?” Loki asked him. He frowned. “No, Thor, I know that look. Nothing good ever comes from that look.”

“You said that you wished you shared my confidence,” Thor said. “Yes,” Loki replied, drawing out the word slowly. “You said also that when the Prince and his Hand fought together, all knew that we could never be defeated.”

“Yes?” Loki still sounded skeptical, but far more willing to listen. Thor grinned with all his teeth.

“Then let us go meet these clan chiefs,” Thor said, “and remind them just why the Prince and his Hand can never be defeated.”

Loki stared at him and began to smile.

***

The following day’s negotiations took quite a different tone.

“I’m not sure I understand,” said Captain America carefully. “You want to leave?”

“We are leaving, mortal,” Loki replied. “I far prefer my realm to yours.”

“Really? After coming down with an army, followed by your brother with another army, you just want to walk away?” The man called Hawkeye did not look as if he believed them.

“I came with no intention to harm you,” Thor repeated. “I came only to find my brother and offer my assistance. Now that I have done so, we can go regain his throne.”

“And what do you want from us, in exchange for simply...leaving?” the Black Widow asked.

“Only what you have already promised us,” Thor answered. “Your word that you will not support the traitor Svarthi, nor give him refuge in your lands, and if the need should come, you will help defend your planet from his treachery.”

“We might also ask,” Loki broke in, “for one of your men to accompany us, to prove to the outlying clans that this alliance has taken place.” Thor shook his head minutely. Loki never could leave well enough alone.

“Accompany you into battle? To another planet?”

“Not in battle,” Loki replied. “Simply to visit the clan chiefs I hope to draw to my banner.”

“I’m in,” said the Man of Iron instantly.

“Iron Man!”

“What? Seriously, another planet? Are you expecting me to pass this up?”

“Can you excuse us for a moment?” The Captain smiled tightly, then drew the Man of Iron to the side.

Thor looked at Loki, who snapped his fingers. The voices of the two Midgardians were suddenly clear as day. The Man of Iron was speaking.

“Clearly, I am the best choice to go. According to the overgrown Smurfs over there, their planet is one giant ice floe. That means Hawkeye and Black Widow are out - they won’t be able to handle it without a lot more specialized gear. Hulk would be great, except we are facing a civil war here - I don’t know that the big guy can handle that kind of fine differentiation between blue giant you punch and blue giant you help out.”

Loki scowled at that, but long practice kept either of them from reacting more visibly.

“And me?” The Captain demanded. “The serum increased my resistance to extreme temperatures. Why should I not go?”

“You really have to ask me that, Cap?”

“Tony-”

Look, you just got out of the ice,” the Man of Iron interrupted. “So sue me for not thinking you’d want to jump right back in. Besides, the serum doesn’t make you entirely immune to the cold, whereas my suit does, because unlike Obie, I have fixed the icing problem. Which is why I should be the one to go.”

Beside him, Loki tensed suddenly. Thor did not recognize the look on his face. “What is it?”

Loki ignored him and stood. “Captain!”

“We just need a minute, your majesty.”

“What you need is irrelevant. Did you mean what you promised me today? That you would fight for me if Svarthi were to turn to Midgard?”

“I keep my word,” Captain America replied, frown firmly fixed on his face.

“Then now is your time to prove it,” said Loki. “Because I can sense his sorcerers, and he will be here in minutes.”

For a moment everyone froze. Then all three leaders sprang into action at once.

Thor raced for his people, calling them to arm up and form ranks. Loki did the same, magically projecting his voice to reach all his people who had scattered across the icy plain. Behind him, he could hear Captain America shouting orders. “Get the civilians out, bring the helicopters and tanks forward, Hawkeye, get eyes above -”

Then Svarthi’s army landed in their midst, and the peaceful Midgardian plain descended into chaos.

***

All around him, a battle unlike any other Thor had ever seen raged. To his left stood Loki, as usual, taking down his opponents with a vicious blend of pike and magic. To his right, however, stood Captain America, whose only weapon appeared to be a shield, and the Black Widow, who moved as if she had no bones. The Man of Iron soared above their heads, firing beams of light from his hands, while Hawkeye’s arrows unerringly found their targets. The giant green Hulk roared his rage and tore Svarthi’s warriors apart.

But perhaps more shocking even than this was what Thor could see happening all around him. Jotun and Aesir fought side by side and back to back, hacking through Svarthi’s defenses from above and below. As he spun to take out another attacker, he saw Sif plunge her double-headed pike through one of Svarthi’s warriors to save Helblindi, who immediately turned and backhanded an attacker who approached her from the side.

It should never have worked. And yet Svarthi’s army, unable to respond to three very different forces at once, was slowly but surely losing ground.

“Loki, there!” At last, Thor could see Svarthi, at the very rear of his forces. They redoubled their efforts, fighting their way through the battlefield towards the would-be king. They made very little progress, however, until the Man of Iron came out of the sky and strafed the enemy ahead of him with his light beams. While it was not enough to kill them, it knocked them out of the way for a few crucial seconds.

“Way’s clear, your majesties, now move!”

Thor barreled through the now open corridor between himself and Svarthi, Loki close on his heels. When Svarthi saw them, his eyes widened momentarily in entirely gratifying fear.

But Svarthi was also a warrior of Jotunheim. Recovering quickly, he summoned twin blades and charged to meet them.

Thor continue to charge until the very last second, then threw himself to the side and rolled. Svarthi jerked towards him in surprise, and then Loki was upon him, his own ice blades flashing.

A second later, the Man of Iron had returned. “I can take the man down right now,” he declared, and raised his hand.

“No!” Thor leaped upon his outstretched hand, forcing the beam down into the earth. The metal man swore at him.

“What the hell? Do you have any idea how dangerous that was?”

“Loki must defeat his challenger alone. It is the only way to secure his rule.”

“Are you serious?” the Man of Iron groaned. “Of course you are, you’re practically living in the dark ages here, of course you believe in single combat and stupid ideas like that -”

Thor turned and slammed his hammer into the face of an approaching enemy. “If you wish to help, keep their battle clear!”

“All right, fine. You’re crazy, you know that, right?” Despite his words, the mortal began to turn his attention outwards, keeping all who would interfere from reaching Loki and Svarthi, still locked in combat.

Turning swiftly, Thor cried out. Loki was on the ground beneath Svarthi, who raised his sword high. Forgetting all concept of honor, Thor ran toward them, even as he knew it would be too late.

As Thor ran, Svarthi struck. His sword passed straight through Loki’s body, which instantly dissolved into smoke.

Thor went nearly faint with relief as Svarthi stumbled and overbalanced, lurched to the side, and found Loki’s blade at his throat.

“Do you yield?” Loki asked coldly. Svarthi bared his teeth. Loki pressed his advantage, and bent the ice blade further into Svarthi’s neck. “I asked you a question.”

So quietly that Thor could hardly hear it, Svarthi growled, “I yield.”

“What was that?” Loki asked.

“I yield!” Svarthi repeated, and this time his voice echoed across the battlefield as Loki magnified it a hundred times louder.

“Then am I, Loki, King in Jotunheim?” Loki asked, his own voice ringing so loud that all the fighting stopped.

Svarthi looked like he would cheerfully have slaughtered all of Loki’s children where they stood, but he answered. “You are King.”

“Good,” Loki replied. “Then as King, I declare you traitor to the throne of Jotunheim. Your punishment is death.” With one swift push, he drove his blade through Svarthi’s throat, and his head rolled to the ground at Loki’s feet.

Thor stared as everything sank in. Svarthi was dead. It was all over. “People of Jotunheim, Asgard, and Midgard,” he called out, his voice likewise picked up by Loki’s spell. “Hail the king!”

And to a man, friend and foe alike, the gathered warriors did.

***

In the aftermath of the battle, Thor swayed a little, trying desperately to keep to his feet. Below them on the plain, Loki’s people tended to the cleanup, tending to the dead and wounded and accepting the surrender of the remainder of Svarthi’s men. “You have done well, brother,” he managed. “I do not think anyone else will succeed where Svarthi failed.”

Loki nodded, looking as exhausted as Thor felt. “Now that you have returned, I cannot imagine anyone will try again.”

Loki’s words penetrated past the fog that was clouding Thor’s mind. “Loki - I cannot.”

“You cannot what?” Loki asked, for once sounding utterly confused.

"I cannot allow the people of Asgard to suffer in my absence," he said slowly. It was hard, so hard, like fighting through hip deep snow. "I must go back, brother."

Loki stared at him, and Thor saw the complete lack of comprehension in his face. His stomach felt like ice as he realized how much this must seem a betrayal. "Loki," he began.

But Loki was closing off, closing down, and Thor had never been able to reach him when he looked this way. "Of course," he said, and Thor winced at the brittle nature of his voice. "Of course, the Aesir prince must return to his people. What would the son of a royal house want with the court of his enemy? To serve in that court, no less? It must be dreadful for you."

"Loki!" His brother turned away from him, retreating toward his command post. "Loki!"

When Loki did not turn around, Thor felt more helpless than he ever had in his life. Must it end this way? Must he choose to lose one life to gain another?

No.

No, he would not allow it.

"Loki!" He lunged after his brother, and caught up his wrists in a tight grasp.

Thor howled, as for the first time in his life Loki's touch burned his skin, but even as he reeled with that betrayal he held on, determined. “Listen to me!” he demanded. “Listen to me!” Loki's voice was screaming in his mind and ears both, “Let go, Thor, you idiot, let go, you'll hurt yourself, let go!”, but Thor only held on and screamed with everything in him that Loki listen.

He would never remember later exactly what he had said. The battle had exhausted him, wrung his body dry until there was nothing left for his mind, and all he knew was that he must not let Loki go. His mind and his mouth worked simultaneously, sometimes in unison, sometimes opposed. You are my brother, please, always love you, this is my family too, I can't lose you, not either one of you, not now. Not ever. Please, brother. Please.

"All right, Thor. All right," and Thor could feel Loki’s arms prying his hands away from his wrists, feel the cool touch of Loki's magic soothing the frostbite away from his damaged hands. "I believe you. Stop being such an idiot."

And that was all Thor needed to hear. He smiled, then did exactly as he had wanted to do since the end of the long battle, and passed out.

Part Four: Jotunheim

Once again Thor stood in the familiar court of Jotunheim, but this time on the opposite side.

It was strange to stand opposite the dais instead of upon it, Loki at his side. Instead, Thor stood with the visiting Aesir delegation, dressed in their many-layered clothing rather than the Jotun ceremonial breastplates. Next to him stood the delegation from Midgard, the five mortals looking even stranger in their tight clothes and bright colors. Loki stood on the dais alone, with only Helblindi and Byleistr near him, one level down. Not even a guard stood with him, and it made Thor itch to see the empty space at his brother’s side where he should have stood.

Loki had never looked more resplendent than he did now. His hair was bound up in gemstones that glittered with his magic, and he wore furs of the most deadly creatures of Jotunheim, that Thor knew he had hunted with his own hands. Such was the royal garb of all kings of Jotunheim – created by their own hands, won by their skill.

“You are gathered here to witness the throne of Jotunheim,” Loki intoned, and the entire room, already silent, somehow became even more still. “Be still and hear the words of your king.”

No one crowned a king in Jotunheim. There was no ceremony beyond this, beyond the chosen heir addressing his people. Thor stood and listened as his brother’s familiar voice filled the air, caressing the ears of his people. His brother had never been more eloquent than now.

When he had finished, he stopped for a moment and bowed his head. The whole room waited in tangible anticipation.

Then Loki raised his hands, and the crown of Jotunheim burst into being between his fingers. Thor roared his approval above the raucous cheers as Loki shaped his own crown out of the ice and lowered it upon his forehead.

“People of Jotunheim!” he called. “Behold your king!”

The ice rang with cheering, and Thor’s were loudest of all.

Before the echoes had faded, Loki raised a hand. “Thor, come forward.”

Thor had always obeyed Loki when he spoke in that voice, and that was the only thing that got him moving over the shock coursing through his system. On muscle memory alone he paced the long walk to the throne and dropped reflexively to one knee.

“Rise, Thor, Right Hand of Jotunheim.”

Thor rose with trepidation. Loki had not addressed him as such since their first meeting in the height of the battle against Svarthi. He thought they had sorted such issues when the war had ended, but if Loki decided to make an issue of his loyalty now – he did not look behind him, but he fancied he could sense the uneasiness of the Asgardians dozens of yards behind him.

Loki watched him rise, and try as he might Thor could not make out the expression in his brother’s eyes. Never before had he felt so cut off from his brother’s mind.

“Once you swore loyalty to me above all others in the Nine Realms,” Loki intoned. “You, my brother, my most trusted guard and servant. My Right Hand.”

Thor nodded. He could not speak.

“Now you have come to know your true family, related by blood. You have been claimed as Odinson, heir of all Asgard. Is this so?”

Thor nodded once again, his heart beating faster with dread.

“Then hear me, Thor, and people of Jotunheim.” Loki raised his head and seemed to meet the eyes of everyone in the room. “By my authority as king of Jotunheim, I recognize you Thor Odinson, rightful heir of Asgard. By the power of my magic and blood, I release you, Thor, from your vows as my Hand. You are no longer bound to the throne.”

Thor stared at his brother, stunned, as Loki took his right hand and pulled him to his feet. He raised his other arm above his head, and green fire sprung to light around both of their hands. “I release you of your promise,” Loki repeated. “I release you of your duty.”

Suddenly Thor knew what Loki was about to do. He ripped his hand away from his brother’s and fell to one knee in front of him. “No.”

“What?” Loki managed to keep his face even, his voice calm, but his eyes clearly expressed the fact that Thor was being an absolute idiot.

“Brother, I accept that as I no longer dwell in Jotunheim, I can no longer serve as your Hand,” said Thor, even as the words felt ripped out of his own chest. Somehow he must have known he would have to lose the position, but he had not expected it to hurt this much. “But I refuse to renounce my duty to my brother. Even as heir of Asgard, I recognize you, Loki, King of Jotunheim, as my brother, and as such I pledge you my loyalty.”

The shocked voices swelling behind him made any more words impossible. He lowered his voice anyway. “I would prefer to keep my markings, brother. If you would allow it.”

Loki stared at him, and for the first time in centuries Thor saw that he had managed to genuinely shock his brother. It was a surprisingly good feeling.

At last he shook his head. “Thor,” he said. “You idiot.”

Thor grinned as relief coursed through his veins. “You could have warned me,” Loki said, hardly moving his lips.

“As you warned me, brother?” Thor said. Heedless of Loki’s centuries-long advice to control his expression in court, he beamed at his brother with all his teeth. Loki said nothing, but Thor laughed as he saw the consternation in his face and knew that his brother had not told him deliberately for his own amusement.

“Idiot,” Loki said again, and tugged at his arm. Thor rose willingly, and Loki guided him to stand at his right, on the same level of the dais. He raised his hand once more, and lightning crackled across the heads of the gathered court.

“People of Jotunheim. Visitors of Asgard,” Loki called. “Hear us.”

The noise took longer to die down this time, but eventually, Loki once again held the attention of the court. “Hear our words,” Loki said, and even knowing his brother as well as he did, Thor felt a thrill run through him at the ancient words of ceremony. Loki was about to make a royal proclamation, and in this formula he could not be questioned.

“From this day forward, we recognize Thor Odinson, heir of Asgard, as our brother,” Loki announced. “As he is loyal to us, we are loyal to him, and all he calls his own.”

The din at this pronouncement made all previous reactions seem like nothing. Loki raised his voice, invoking his magic so he could be heard above the crowd, finishing the formula. “This we swear as King of Jotunheim!”

Loki held his hand out to Thor, and Thor took it. Then as Thor stared, his brother knelt to him.

Horrified, Thor pulled Loki up immediately, but it was far too late – the entire court had seen Loki submit to him, and there was no hope that any person in either realm would not hear the tale – that each ruler had knelt to each other and called the other brother. That Loki had knelt to his rival in his own court, and Thor had refused to give up the position as his brother’s right Hand.

Thor at last found his voice. “Brother,” he said, and found his voice magnified several times its normal volume, courtesy of Loki’s tricks. He raised his eyebrows briefly. Did Loki truly trust him to speak at this crucial a moment without coaching? But Loki merely stared back at him guilelessly, and Thor realized with a rush of pride that his brother would allow him to say anything he wanted. “Never should you kneel to me. Never should you kneel to Asgard.”

The thought came to him so suddenly that he could not stop his mouth. “As I am your Hand, brother,” he said. “Would you do me the honor of becoming mine?”

Loki’s jaw dropped, ever so slightly, and for an instant Thor thought he would curse the moment he allowed Thor free reign over his coronation. But then he saw the hunger flare hot in his brother’s red eyes, and he knew he had made the right choice.

“My brother,” Loki replied, and though they stood before the courts of both Jotunheim and Asgard, Thor felt as if no others existed in the world. “It would be my honor.” Then he drew a fine pointed blade from his sleeve.

Controlling his breath so his hand would not tremble, Thor carefully cut his one seal into the back of his brother’s palm – the royal seal of Asgard, surmounted by his mighty hammer. Loki allowed it to bleed for a few moments, then blew softly over it with his magic. The cuts healed as if they had always been there. Thor held his own hand out to his brother and admired the crests that adorned them both.

Without even trying to control the reactions of the crowd, Loki thrust his right fist into the air. Without any prompting, Thor did the same. “People of Jotunheim! People of Asgard!” Thor roared. “Behold your kings!”

He rode the wall of sound into the night.