Snowflakes curl dreamily from the heavens and float to earth.
Loki remembers their first hunt in the snow.
They were children then, not really hunters, but boys playing at being men. Back at that time it was just he and Thor, his beloved bright-haired, bright-eyed and somewhat dim-headed older brother.
That morning, he was pulled out of bed by Thor, who proclaimed with all the pompousness of a prince that it was time for them to prove themselves to Father.
"But I'm hungry," Loki whined.
"That's the best time to hunt!" declared Thor with the natural self-assuredness of the older brother. "Then you'll really want to find your quarry, because then you can cook and eat it."
"But Thor, it's cold out. The snows have just fallen last night. Could this not wait until Father returns from his hunt?"
Thor looked affronted. "If Father comes with us, then we won't be able to show him how good we are with our weapons now! Come, Loki, join me. You are astoundingly accurate with your knives, and I'm sure I can hold off a boar should one appear! I was able to lift three stone blocks at the last lesson, after all."
Given that each block was twice Loki's weight, Loki knew that Thor was indeed the stronger of the two, and Thor, though in some small measure was seeking praise, would protect Loki properly also.
Loki was about to demur further when he saw that Thor was about to put on his Disappointed-but-Brave Look. Loki's heart softened and he said, "I shall get my coat and my knives. You should bring along some more weapons also, and put on a furred cloak instead of the one you're wearing."
Sometimes Loki thought that he was the older brother, because Thor needed reminding of small things every so often.
It was cold, bitingly so, but the furred cloaks that Loki insisted Thor bring along and his own deep green-and-gold one were doing a good job of keeping them warm. Thor, on the other hand, was not doing a good job of finding them quarry despite his insistence that he knew how to track animals.
After five false leads, Loki decided to wait on a fallen log while Thor puzzled out the tracks just off the side of the hillock where they had gone to. Loki wondered how long it would be before Thor realized that it was their own tracks that the blond prince was looking at; the younger decided to keep it secret, and maybe tease Thor later when they were in the hot waters of Mother's baths. Besides, it was fun coming out here, pretending to be great hunters when they were in actual fact no more than children. It was somewhat like their games when they were younger, bounding and yelling around in Mother's garden, climbing up the ash tree and hiding in the deep bushes, seeking out the first berries before Mother or the maids got to them.
A growling from the region of Loki's middle reminded the young prince that he had yet to break fast, and the sun was well up its path to midday.
"Thor! Let's go home," he called out. Then he discovered that he could not see his older brother. "Thor? Thor, where are you?"
There was no reply.
Loki suddenly felt very alone and small. With shaking fingers he pulled out a knife and called out again, his voice trying to sound brave and bold despite his nervous shaking, "Thor, this does not amuse. When I find you I shall be quite cross, and not play with you for the rest of the week." He swallowed and swiveled around, his feet scattering snow. "Or... or maybe for two weeks. I'll leave you alone for two weeks. I won't even - I won't even talk to you."
A crackle of something wooden alerted Loki and the boy swung around, ready to berate his older brother for scaring him, when he realized that he was staring at a tall, angry she-bear. She reared up and her forelimbs pawed at the air warningly.
Loki knew that he had to run; he had to, because a she-bear out at this time meant that she had not fed enough, and she would need one last sustaining meal before the winter sleep. But the snow seemed to have frozen Loki's feet, because he could not move at all.
The she-bear growled and suddenly broke into a roar. Loki, startled and terrified, sat down on the wintry ground and tried calling for help. His voice could not come out and he knew he was going to die, going to be mauled to death by terribly sharp claws and teeth and hot stinking breath-
"Stay away from my brother!"
Loki looked to his left where Thor had emerged. The older boy had a rabbit clutched in his left fist; in his right was a sword. It wasn't a very sharp blade, but it would do the job.
Thor looked positively thunderous as he glowered at the bear. "Leave my brother alone!" he shouted again, his boyish voice not robbing the prince of his authority.
The she-bear growled again and came back on all fours, but instead of backing away it lumbered over the log where Loki had been sitting and prowled towards the prone boy.
"Thor!" Loki screamed, feet scrabbling as he tried to get to his feet. The bear lunged forward and almost caught Loki, except the young prince kicked out and twisted away. The she-bear only got the furred cloak for her troubles.
"Loki, come here!" Thor commanded, and something flew past Loki as the younger boy finally found his legs and ran to his older brother at full tilt. Loki crashed into Thor, but Thor barely stumbled, and once Loki was stabilized Thor took his brother's hand and ran as fast as he could lead Loki, away from the bear.
When they were a safe distance from the hillock and halfway back to their home, Loki thanked Thor shyly and asked, "What did you throw just now?"
"The rabbit," said Thor.
"But... your hunt! That was your prize, was it not?" Loki was upset, and to think that he had been the cause of Thor losing his first legitimate kill...
Thor hugged Loki tightly. "It's less important than you, brother. I do not think Mother or Father would be pleased that I had brought home a rabbit instead of my younger brother." He pulled away and grinned widely at Loki. "If you had been following me closely, this would never have happened."
Loki felt the small tease and scowled. "You were the one who kept following the wrong tracks. Why would I trust you to find and track an animal properly after so many failed attempts?"
Thor was about to retort, but he noted something in Loki's small, white face, and his own smile faded. Gently he reached up and brushed over his younger brother's cheeks with his two hands, one slightly bloodied from his kill, the other still warm from holding Loki's hand.
The tender contact brought a lump to Loki's throat and he swallowed roughly, hoping to force it down. He was a boy, correct, but he was a big boy and he mustn't cry. Especially not in front of Thor, who would make fun of him for his tears. Still, despite Loki's best efforts, the tears came and the younger boy started bawling with shock and fright.
But Thor did not tease or mock; he tugged Loki into a hug again and kept his brother close, patting his thin shoulders, and murmuring, "I have you now, brother. I have you. You're safe, you're safe, I'm here."
And by the time Loki collected himself and regained his composure, he finally noticed small red drops on the snowy white ground, little red gems starkly brilliant against dead white winter.
"Are you bleeding?" asked Loki, extricating himself from Thor and looking him over.
"It's nothing," Thor said.
"Then it's something. Let me see." Loki had to force Thor by twisting the older boy's arm until Thor allowed Loki to look at the scratches up Thor's left hand. "What happened?" asked Loki. He shivered slightly with the cold and huddled closer to Thor.
Thor seemed oblivious to the chill. "The rabbit fought when I tried to grab it. These are from its hind legs."
"I didn't know rabbits would fight."
"Neither did I," said Thor with some abashment.
Loki fell silent. They started walking back to the palace and Thor kept an arm about Loki at all times, sharing the one remaining cloak with Loki. When they were about to enter the gates, Loki said, "I will repay you for all you did today, brother."
"There is no need for that," said Thor with a broad smile.
Loki smiled back. "I will learn how to fight properly. If a harmless rabbit would fight for its life, I would learn to do so too. And I will protect you, Thor, because I think you will always be wounded by the rabbits of the world while you fight off the big bad bears."
Thor frowned quizzically and smiled, the way he always did when he wasn't sure if Loki was being serious or when he was puzzled. Then he hugged Loki again and said, "I believe you will, brother mine, and I will always protect you from the big bad bears."
Loki remembers all this as the snowflakes continue their dizzying waltzes all down the heavens and onto the roads.
And his fingers curl, as if to recall the feel of a larger hand holding his, their shared warmth holding his icy Jotunn blood at bay.