a bird might love a fish
He is nine when the frost first bites him, slithering over his flesh like snakeskin, swallowing him whole. The bathwater freezes where it brushes against his body, but the cold does not sting: he feels nourished, he feels it soft like silk against him, a welcoming, an embrace.
By the time his mother finds him, his flesh has returned to its normal pink color, the ice all melted into puddles on the floor. Loki trembles as she holds him. Loki looks into the mirror and thinks, for the first time: monster.
The Casket of Ancient Winters burns. Their father doesn’t see it, doesn’t understand—he thinks it is a relic, a container, an urn. But the icy fires that emanate from the metal are not echoes: they are open flame. Malekith burns within it, whispering. You are mine, he says the first time Loki and Thor sneak into the trophy room, and sounds surprised. We understand each other.
“No,” murmurs Loki, taking half a step toward Thor, seeking the heat of his golden skin. It is unbearable, sometimes, to stand beside his brother; it feels as though his flesh is running off in liquid tears. But he takes a step closer, because Malekith’s voice whispers we understand each other and Loki is afraid that he is right.
Thor turns to look at him. “No what?” he asks, slinging his arm around Loki’s shoulder and giving a light squeeze. His fingers leave bruises. You are mine, a thousand ancient winters whisper again, insistent. You belong in ice.
“No,” says Loki, and collects himself. He is learning to bear it, the pain of the Æsir, the daily agony of burning alive. “You can’t bring back a bigger trophy than the Ice Giant’s Casket of Ancient Winters.”
“Challenge accepted!” roars Thor, and Loki wants to know more and love him less, but can’t, but can’t, but can’t.
When they are at the door, the Casket whispers, you do not belong in sunshine, little King, and Loki thinks: I do not belong anywhere.
He burns alive in Asgard, his glamour running off in thick streaks of melted flesh, but he heals the scars and begins again. (Loki will never be king.)
Jötun are not just in the ice but of the ice. Jötun cannot survive in summer.
Loki loves his brother: Loki does it anyway.
Jötun love differently, murmurs Malekith, murmur more winters than memory can hold. Their voices sing through ice, through water; it is not a language but a song, the beautiful gasp of ice hardening. Loki wraps his fingers around the Casket’s side and Winter pours into him like balm. His glamour falls; the heat recedes. He can breathe.
“I am not Jötun,” he says, and knows that he is blue, and believes himself anyway.
The Æsir cannot love as we do, the ice sings to him and licks at his fingers, and slips up his arm. The Æsir can love only with their hearts.
“I love with my heart,” Loki says, but knows now that he is lying.
Hearts are weak, and Jötun do not have them, Malekith answers. Jötun love with everything else: with ice, with snow, with every bone and every inch of blue skin.
“I do not understand.”
The Casket’s song is sad. Loki can feel its longing, can feel its patience. Malekith sings, It is does not fade or die with a weak, blood-run heart: ice is water and water is ice, is gas, is never gone. It is longer than a hundred ancient winters, a thousand, all of living memory. It is not love. It is a form you cannot un-become.
Loki does not answer.
You burn alive, little King, sings the Casket’s whirling snow. Every day is agony. Yet still you touch the flame, let him pull your hair, and call him “brother.” You say you do not understand how Jötun love?
“Thor is,” begins Loki, and the Casket finishes, killing you.
It snows. Loki does not don winter armor or shield himself with coats. He stands in the dead gardens and lets the cold rub up against him. He feels its embrace like an old friend, relief sweeping over him in gentle waves.
He can hear the Casket: you do not belong to sunshine.
“You’ll freeze to death, brother,” laughs Thor, and he stands too close, his heat is unbearable.
Loki touches his brother’s arm and ignores the searing burn that sizzles on the palm of his hand. “No,” he disagrees, and tells a gentle lie: “I’ve my magic to protect me.”
This is what Loki knows: half-truths are the best not-truths. Loki relies on magic, yes, but it is not winter that is slowly killing him.
Thor shakes his head. “Was it all our rough-housing when we were boys that turned you so strange?” he asks teasingly, but the words are affection-laden. Thor has never been good at disguising his emotions; Thor has never had to.
Loki’s pink-colored flesh burns away in strips when he forgets to pay attention, so Loki is better at nothing else.
When I was nine, something came in through the bathwater and turned me into a monster, Loki does not say. He says, “You are my brother; you cannot hurt me.”
These are things that Loki knows:
He will never be given love as he gives it, will never know the soft return of water and ice, of love that becomes particles, becomes every atom, becomes every form and outlasts the body. It is not his family’s fault: the Æsir are not made of water, and cannot love as water does.
(He tries to forgive them this. He can’t.)
Loki’s love is a form that he cannot un-become; Thor’s is powered by a weak, Asgardian heart with an expiration date. Thor’s is dependent on Loki’s flesh-colored skin, his blue eyes, the way his mouth twitches and his fingers skid across counter-tops when he passes them.
He was born, perhaps, knowing these things; he has to learn to lie.
“You’re not like the rest of us,” says Sif, peering closely at him.
Loki raises an eyebrow. “Says the only woman warrior in Asgard.”
She shakes her head, punching his arm hard enough to hurt. “That is not what I meant, Odinson.”
He leans in. Their mouths are close. Sif has always loved his brother, but there is kindness in her eyes when she looks at Loki, and though ice cannot feel kindness, it can become water in its warmth. “And if I am?” he asks. “What of it?”
She shrugs. “Nothing,” she tells him. “Only: don’t think no one notices.”
“Your chambers are always so cold,” whines Thor, and Loki kicks his feet up onto the chaise.
“Get under the blankets, then,” he says, rolling his eyes. “You are to be king—does a little ice frighten you?”
Thor grins. “Nothing frightens me, little brother.”
Loki shifts, looks closer. He leans his elbows on his knees. “Nothing?” he questions, gentle, serious.
His brother pulls the blankets up to his chin. They are nineteen, too old to stay up until the candles burn out, but tomorrow will be their first battle and Thor, with his extinguishable Asgardian heart, is anxious. Loki has no such qualms; ice becomes water becomes gas. Forms are ever shifting, but water is eternal. What fear has he of axes?
“Nothing,” repeats Thor, and is lying.
If you but be willing to use, begins the Casket, and Loki says, “No.”
The song comes to a coda, and sighs. You are the last, little King, it sings, adagio, its key minor and lonely. There is a world that dies without you.
“This world would die without me.”
Is there not another Odinson?
“Thor’s an idiot.”
Thor will be king.
“That doesn’t make him not an idiot.”
We know of idiot kings, sings the Winter, the notes in a quarter-time that sound like laughter. Malekith prods at Loki’s fingers. We know of little kings that cannot see that their greatest weapon lies in ice.
Loki rests his forehead on the Casket’s lock and lets the cold run through him.
He means to keep to his scepter, to his magic, to his throwing knives. He has deadly aim with all three.
But you cannot weave a knife through a battlefield, nor cast a spell over the heads of two armies; you cannot fell the beast that is killing your brother from a distance.
Loki closes his eyes and reaches into the dirt, digs down through the worms and the rocks and roots of dead plants until he finds the teeming river beneath. It follows him, like recognizing like, and wraps its wet tendrils around the ankles of the beats as its jaws widen and aim to snap shut around Thor as his attention is caught elsewhere.
The beast looks down, startled by the puddles freezing into knives around him, howling in its sudden pain. Thor looks back and brings Mjolnir down onto its head. The beast shudders once, twice, and is still; Loki’s water recedes.
“We know of idiot kings,” Loki murmurs, trembling.
Now do you see? asks the Casket. Now do you understand?
“He is my brother,” answers Loki, and thinks of his mother, his father, of Sif. He thinks of apple orchards and Heimdall and the way the sun looks on grass. He loves Asgard, though he does not belong here; he loves the Odinkin, but he does not belong there, either.
Jötun do not love as the Æsir love, sighs the Casket mournfully. There is a world that would love you as you deserve.
“My father loves me as he knows how,” Loki says sharply, and the Casket agrees, but only as he knows how.
“Loki,” Odin begins carefully, “you are my son, and I—”
Loki holds up a hand. “You’ve chosen Thor,” he says, unsurprised. It is not anger, exactly, that boils beneath the words. It is the agony of burning for a kingdom that will not have you. Thor lives and breathes and fights as comes naturally to him, and is rewarded for having a weak Asgardian heart; Loki suffers every moment to be fed his brother’s scraps.
“It is not a matter of merit,” says Odin, and Loki laughs, bitter.
“No, Father,” he agrees. “No, it was never a question of that.”
You are a king! cries the Casket, cries the Winter, cries Malekith. There is a throne that waits for you!
Loki presses his mouth against the cold and breathes it in; it fills him and turns his eyes red. “Thor is not ready,” he breathes, and he wants it only to be this, wants it only to be his concern for Asgard, his love for his brother, but—
But Jötun love is a form that you cannot un-become, only shift, and Loki is too self-preserving to devote himself to a lifetime of never getting anything back.
Loki-King, sings the Casket, you are not a second son. Will you live your entire life unloved?
“I am not unloved,” Loki answers, but in the answering silence even he sees it for what it is: not a lie, but not the truth, either.
He hides himself from Heimdall and goes to Jotunheimr. The bone-deep and ever-present cold sings inside of him; it is the first moment of his life that he knows no physical pain.
The Ice Giants are all around him, frozen into stillness, connected by the snow and the icy air. He can hear them singing. In Asgard they speak of Jötun fury, of their claws and frosty teeth; in Asgard they speak of violence, but Loki hears them singing and falls to his knees.
I am sorry, he sings through the ice, and his glamour melts but he cannot be seen.
Who speaks? asks Jötunheimr, and Loki cannot answer, does not know.
The night before the coronation, Thor comes to his chambers. He leaves Mjolnir by the door and paces from the washroom to the bed, hands tangled in his own cape. He looks like a child. Loki loves him, reaches out with that love, begs—begs—begs to feel it returned, but. The Æsir do not love as the Jötun do.
After a moment, Thor stops, and drops to his knees before his brother. “You will always stay with me,” he half-begs, half-commands. “When I am king. You will—”
Loki puts his hand on his brother’s head, and feels now familiar the searing burn. His eyes sting with tears, and forces Thor to look at him. “You are my brother,” he promises, and nothing else.
And nothing else.
Welcome home, whispers the Casket the next time Loki puts his hands on it, and the both of them feel the blast of Jotenheimr as the portal opens and the Giants step through.