He concentrated until his eyes crossed and his forehead began to cramp, but the flame wouldn’t ignite.
He let his head drop as he sighed, releasing the tension and the breath he held. He pushed a hand through his hair and scratched.
He’d had it only a moment ago. He was certain he did.
Thor crossed his arms and let his chin drop onto them. He stared at the tiny stick that lay on the grass, so innocent in its stillness, yet its silence somehow felt mocking.
Around him lay the patched green and gold of the forest floor. Dew still clung to moss in the shade. Bright flashes of bugs darted among shafts of sunlight where it fell through the trees.
In the distance, a bird called.
Thor drummed his fingers against his arm. He looked over the small, black bursts of scorched grass and sticks where he’d managed to ignite a bit of fire in the mornings he had stolen out to the forest on his own.
He’d been so sure he was finally getting a grasp of it.
But that morning, the fire remained elusive.
Thor dragged an arm across his nose.
He wondered what Loki would have done.
Probably nothing, the thought came to him with a low chuckle. Loki would have had no trouble. He’d have moved on to full bonfires by now.
Perhaps if he drew a rune? Thor couldn’t remember what the proper associations for magic runes were. He’d never needed them before, but perhaps if he tried—
A pine cone dropped from the branches of a tree to land on his head.
Thor squawked, and sat up. He rubbed the top of his head and glared towards the canopy, a few choice words ready for whatever squirrel or bird thought it could pick a fight with him.
Loki sat with his legs swinging over a branch, grinning down at him.
“Good morning, brother!” he waved.
Thor went instantly pale.
“G-good morning,” he murmured. His eyes darted to his work space along the forest floor. He wondered how he might go about subtly covering it up without Loki noticing.
“What are you doing?”
It was too late. Loki had already seen.
“It doesn’t appear to be nothing.”
Loki hooked his knees over the branch and swung so that he hung upside down. It made his hair fall and his clothes sag.
Thor stood and shuffled around his spots of charred and blackened grass, smearing them into the dirt with his heel.
“I said, it is nothing,” he mumbled.
“Are you doing magic?”
Thor glared up to him. Loki was beyond his reach. There was no chance to pull him down, but Thor could still hurl a twig if he felt like it.
He hoped his look said so.
“What were you doing?” he pressed.
“I told you. It was nothing.” Thor glanced over his shoulder. Four or five spots of failed attempts at lighting fires remained. The rest had grown over from time. “I was practicing my survival skills.”
“Yes. Hogun showed me how to start a fire with sticks.”
“Where’s your kindling?”
Thor looked around again. His face felt hot, but a cold chill still swept up the back of his neck. Perhaps something in the undergrowth would present itself as a viable excuse…
Loki giggled again.
“You are a terrible liar.”
Thor’s eyes remained rooted to the ground. He kicked a small stone into the brush, and said nothing.
Loki swung on his branch and dropped down. He smoothed his clothes and hair back into place.
“Don’t pout,” he said, moving close. His eyes swept the scene and the tell-tale places of scorched grass.
When he spoke next, his voice was low.
“Can you really do it?”
Thor blinked up at him, for a moment wary. He followed Loki’s eyes over the ground.
“No,” he said, and adopted a sudden grin. He tossed his hair back over one shoulder and stood proud. “Magic is for girls.”
And instantly wished he hadn’t said it for the look Loki gave him.
Loki met his eyes with a glare, severe beyond the level of mere annoyance. Thor’s grin vanished in that instant, and he did not move as Loki reached out one hand, making a quick gesture in the air.
A hapless shrub off to one side burst into flame. And it was green.
Another gesture, and the fire just as quickly vanished.
“Well then,” Loki said airily, and turned to leave. “You are in a sad state indeed if you cannot do what even a mere girl—”
“No! Wait.” Thor grabbed his shoulder, far more afraid of Loki returning to the citadel and letting word slip of Thor’s attempts to use magic than he was of his teasing. “I’m…sorry! I did not mean…”
Loki looked at his hand, then to him, quietly expectant.
Thor sighed, and let go.
“I cannot do it as well as you can,” he confessed.
Loki’s brow arched, interest returned.
“But you can do it?”
They knelt together on the grass. Thor crossed his arms and set his chin upon them on the ground as he had before, looking to his targeted stick.
He focused, brow furrowing deep in his concentration.
Several minutes passed, and nothing happened. Again.
“I’ve managed to at least get a spark before today,” he mumbled.
Loki tilted his head, eying the stick. He reached out and rotated it to a different angle, though Thor did not see what difference that could have made.
“You’re trying too hard,” he said. “Try asking the fire to come, instead of demanding.”
“Asking?” Thor looked to him.
“Oh yes.” Loki nodded. “Fire is a hungry thing. It doesn’t need much coaxing to appear, especially when you have food to offer.”
Thor frowned, but looked back to the stick. He settled into his concentrating posture – along the ground, close to the stick and the earth, it felt better that way – and took a breath.
“Fire, will you come out?” he said. Then added, hopefully: “Please?”
“You don’t have to do it out loud.”
Thor ventured again, wetting his lips. He reminded himself to breathe this time that he would not get a headache.
He looked to the stick, and wondered how fire might think of it as food. He was rather hungry, now that the thought occurred to him. He had taken only a light meal that morning before stealing away. Did fire feel the same way about twigs and tinder as he did when the smell of an evening feast reached him…?
A spark ignited on the twig.
Thor jerked back, caught off his guard, and it immediately went out.
“You did it!” Loki said excitedly. “Try again!”
Thor tried again, remembering that feeling. That…association…that linked himself with the flame.
He tried to remember if he’d been hungry the last few times he’d had successful attempts.
A small push, and then a coax, and a tiny flame bloomed to life on the stick. Barely a candle’s size, but it was enough.
Thor beamed, triumphant.
Then Loki leaned over and blew in his ear.
The flame erupted, bursting over the length of its meal. It devoured the stick quickly and went out, fading into a trail of smoke on the grass.
Thor rubbed the side of his head and glared Loki’s way.
Loki only grinned, triumphant and proud and ever mischievous.
“That was wonderful!” he praised.
Much to Thor’s surprise.
“Do it again.”
“Are you certain it will be alright?”
Loki nodded his head, emphatic in his confidence. In the dark the light from the small fire underlit his features, casting defined shadows along his brow and sharp cheekbones.
Thor remained doubtful.
“Here. It is simple.”
Loki moved his hand out to show. Without hesitation he plunged it into the core of the tiny fire. The fire was true flame: bright orange, and Thor could feel its heat radiant. Yet Loki did not so much as flinch.
He turned his hand over slowly to demonstrate. The fire appeared to move with him, shifting, flickering. It parted to allow his fingers passage or else slid across them with the grace of water, leaving his skin untouched.
Thor pursed his lips to one side, and kept his hand tucked into the crook of his arm, close to the cushions they lounged upon. Where it was safe.
His hand still stung from his last failed attempt.
“It cannot hurt you,” Loki said. He withdrew his hand and held it up, flexing his fingers in proof.
“Of course it can,” Thor answered, with childish simplicity. “It’s fire.”
“Ask it not to, the same way you ask it into existence.”
“I ask it into existence by promising food.” Thor made no effort to hide his pout. “Now I should ask it not to bite?”
“You’ve given it food elsewhere.” Loki made a gesture. The flames shifted, and a sliver of it broke away. It landed in the cupped palm of Loki’s hand and became the image of a horse running in place. Sparks fanned with every push of its hooves. “It has no reason to eat you.”
He closed his hand, and the fire vanished.
Thor blew out a breath. He pushed a stray lock of hair from his face.
Why they couldn’t have done this practice outside the citadel walls instead of on the open balcony of his chambers, Loki would not say. Any guard passing below could have spotted them.
But Loki did not seem worried.
“I do not think fire to be that reasonable,” Thor grumbled. “It will eat anything.”
Like father’s goats, he wanted to add.
“Try it again.”
Thor set his jaw firmly. He drew in a breath, and focused on the fire between them. It was not large. A little bigger than his fist. Loki had made him conjure it, which Thor had managed without too much trouble, and kept it fed in a small brazier of kindling.
He braced himself, and lifted his hand, curled tight into a protective fist.
“It’s alright,” Loki whispered, “to be afraid.”
“I am not afraid!”
It was all the goading Thor needed to thrust out his hand, plunging it to the wrist in the fire.
He yelped immediately and yanked it back, shaking embers and lighted kindling that clung to his skin, burning where they touched.
Thor was not burned too badly – other than the hair on his arm being scorched away to nothing – but still he stuck a knuckle in his mouth and sucked until the sting faded.
Loki frowned, confused.
“It should not be so hard,” he said, considerate.
Thor shook feeling back into his hand, his look one of reproach.
“I have told you. I can only manage if you’re with me.”
Loki set his chin in one hand. He thought for several moments, tapping one finger in time.
“Yet it is still your doing.”
Thor reached around the small brazier to take Loki’s hand in his own. Then, and without hesitation, he pushed both their palms down into the fire.
He felt nothing. The flames were little more than a flutter of warm breeze against his skin. He rotated his wrist this way and that, making sure to keep his and Loki’s fingers entwined.
Loki took the opportunity to experiment. He let Thor first hold his wrist, then only hook their fingers. He drew his touch further and further away until only a fingertip maintained their contact.
Until that was broken, the fire remained ineffective.
“Very odd,” Loki said again when Thor yanked his hand back and shook it out.
Thor glared, mildly irritated at the renewed sting.
“I suppose if we’re ever lost in Muspelheim, we’ll simply have to hold hands.” Loki smirked.
“And then what will people say?”
“Oh? Do they say things now?”
Thor felt his face flush red.
Loki put out the fire with a sweep of his hand. Darkness took over the balcony, save for that light which shone down on them from the spread of stars overhead.
The colorful glows of nebula.
“That’s enough practice for now,” he said. “We’ll try more tomorrow night.”
“Mother is going to get suspicious if she keeps finding me with singed hair,” Thor pouted.
“Not to worry, brother. We’ll find a nice goatskin to wrap you in. She shouldn’t know the difference.”
Thor threw a cushion at him.
Another cool evening in the shaded forest, damp from a recent rain.
Another afternoon Thor spent setting things on fire.
Loki insisted they practice after heavy rains. It made Thor’s fires less likely to spread, and the damp fuel required more effort to ignite.
“Could you not put the fires out, should they grow beyond control?” Thor asked him once.
Loki replied as he usually did: by not looking up, making a dismissive hand gesture.
“I will not always be there to look after you.”
Thor did not know why this bothered him.
The off-hand remark proved upsetting enough to throw his concentration during that day’s session.
Thor sighed – not for the first time – and let his shoulders sag as he turned to see his aim had missed by several strides’ worth.
Loki didn’t glance up from where he lounged in the crook of a tree, open book in one hand. He only turned the page.
“Try again,” he said.
Thor blew a lock of loose hair from his face, tucked it back behind one ear as he glared.
Loki’s patience and talent for slave-driving went beyond even that of the Einherjar instructors.
“Why can I not at least see my target?” Thor grumbled. A gesture smothered the small, smoking fire he’d started.
“You may not always be able to see your target in battle,” Loki answered easily.
“If I am in battle, I will be armed.” Thor smirked. “I will need no fire spells.”
Loki’s eyes flickered up. He arched a single imperious eyebrow.
“And if your weapon is taken from you?” he said. “Or your hands restrained? Or a hundred other situations arise?”
“I shall still be able to see.”
“And if the enemy kicks dirt in your eyes?”
Thor scowled, but readopted his position. He stood tall, his hands eased at his sides. He tilted his chin and took a breath, shut his eyes, and thought to call a spark of fire into life on a spot of grass far behind him. No guide aimed his strike save for his memory of where the target lay.
He felt the fire – felt it come easily now, after several years’ worth of practice and Loki’s tutelage – ignite, but…no.
He turned to look, sighed, and put it out.
Again, he had missed.
Loki lifted his head and set his chin in one hand, frowning at him.
“You’ve done so well these last few sessions,” he said. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” Thor mumbled. He hid from Loki’s eyes, knowing his brother would hear his lie.
“Perhaps you’re only tired.” Loki closed his book. “You do your best when your emotions are riled.”
“Oh yes. Do you remember setting the kitchen on fire when you and Volstagg fought over the last pastry?”
Thor did remember, and winced.
“It was only the oven,” he murmured in his defense. And he had been rather drunk at the time.
Loki smiled. He set his book aside and slid down from the tree. He hung his cloak over a branch, and selected a few others to break into approximate sword lengths.
He tossed one to Thor.
“We should fight.”
Thor caught it, automatic, and held the branch somewhat awkwardly as he looked to him.
“You are always emotional when you fight.”
Thor could not rightly argue.
Even if he had attempted, Loki attacked before he could utter a word.
Thor only had time to raise his branch to block. Even so he felt the strength behind Loki’s rush send a reverberation through the sticks all the way up to his shoulders.
Loki was not holding back.
Thor set his jaw.
Loki leaned his shoulder in, continuing the momentum of his first strike to knock Thor off his feet. It would have worked had Thor maintained resistance, instead of turning in countermeasure, grabbing the back of Loki’s tunic and yanking it over his head to send him sprawling with a trip at his ankles.
Loki landed with a rather undignified ‘whumpf’ on his stomach.
He rolled over, and pushed his tunic from his face to look up.
Thor tapped his branch over one shoulder, grinning.
Loki answered in kind, and rose to attack again.
They sparred largely for the sake of sparring. It was a cool evening. The sun had set below the treeline, though the sky still shone a waning blue before succumbing fully to night.
The air smelled fresh from the recent rain.
It was the perfect weather to warm one’s blood with a good fight.
Loki made it to Thor’s back, their branches around his front locked together in such a way as Thor could not release his grip without sacrificing his own defense.
Loki leaned in close to his ear, whispering: “No hands. What will you do, brother?”
Thor smiled despite himself. Ever did he love the rush and freedom of battle. That there was less chance of losing his life in this one made no difference.
The right to boast was just as important.
He suspected Loki loved the chaos and spontaneity of it, as well, melded with strategy and the need for quick planning.
Suspicion turned to belief, if Loki’s heavy breathing proved any indication.
“I am not bound yet,” Thor growled, and promptly bent double. He threw his weight low enough to send Loki with it if he did not release – he did, graceful as his brother was – and came up again, their holds reversed.
Thor grinned triumphant, but then Loki vanished.
He reappeared behind and above him, striking his back with enough force to knock him down.
Thor landed hard, on his side.
Loki promptly had him on his chest, both arms twisted behind his back in a hold that could easily break them should Loki apply the slightest pressure more.
Thor fell instantly still.
“You cheated!” he gasped.
Loki laughed, short and breathless.
“There is no cheating in war.”
He leaned down close to him, breath falling on the back of Thor’s neck.
“There is only winning, and losing.”
For a moment, Thor was silent.
Then the whole of a tree erupted off to one side.
Loki released him with a start, and sat up. Thor pushed himself to follow, face turned toward the blaze with a similar wide-eyed wonder.
They looked at each other.
Loki pretended to laugh, smoothing his hair.
“Your aim is still wrong.”
Thor laughed as well, much less convincing, and let himself rest upon the grass as he put the fire out.
“Still, it’s an improvement. What went through your mind?”
Thor’s eyes fixed on a patch of moss near his hand. He brushed it with his fingertips, found it to be soft.
“You did,” he said, very quietly.
Loki slid a glance his way.
A moment’s quiet passed in which Thor did not look up.
Loki rose first, laughing again as he brushed crushed grass and imaginary dirt from his clothing.
“Well. That’s something, I suppose.”
He offered a hand to help Thor up.
Thor took it after a moment’s consideration, hesitating, and said little else as they gathered their belongings to head back to the citadel.
Thor could not sleep.
The night was warm. Warmer than it felt it had been since evening fell over the forest where he and Loki held their practice.
There the air had been cool. Washed with rain.
Now it seemed Asgard lay under a blanket of humidity from which Thor could find no reprieve. He had opened the windows of his bedchamber wide to the night, but there was no breeze to stir the stifling oppression.
He lay sprawled in his bed on top of the blankets, unclothed and miserable.
Why could he not conjure air instead of fire?
Or water, for that matter.
He had already bathed once before retiring. It had served well to wash away the dirt and sweat and clinging ash of his trials in the woods.
But for the heat that burned within, it had only worsened.
Thor could not take his brother from his mind. He turned over and over again through his thoughts that moment when they had fought, when Loki pinned him to the ground and spoke such soft words close to the back of his neck.
Thor had made no mention of it, but the fire that erupted in the tree beside he was certain stemmed from the heat which had hurtled through his blood in that moment. It had pooled low in his gut, strained between his thighs, but found nowhere else to go.
It had to catch fire to something.
Thor felt the uncoiling of a tendril of warmth inside him even as he thought of it now.
To his shame, and to his agony.
The heat of the night was not bettered for it.
Thor rolled onto his side, and let a hand brush the formidable bruise marking just below his shoulder. It was a place Loki had struck him in their fight.
Not terribly painful, but if Thor pressed his fingertips to it, he could close his eyes and remember.
There were those who thought Loki not an accomplished fighter. They were wrong. Loki preferred to fight his battles at a distance – never allowing an enemy the privilege of approaching him – but by no means was he a bumbling coward when it came to face to face combat.
Thor remembered how Loki kept his arms close when he’d struck, the better to retain their strength and defensiveness. He’d twisted his body into it, letting momentum and his weapon’s natural weight carry the blow through. So expertly done, and Thor could remember the long line his brother’s image had formed in that moment: from calf to hip to turning shoulder. Seamless.
What would it be like to trace that line with his hand?
Thor’s heart sped, both from the knowledge of the dangerous path his thoughts dared to walk, and from the spike of pain that shot to his groin as he pressed his touch hard against the bruise.
The memory of battle made his blood sing.
Perhaps here, in the dark, where his thoughts were unknown, there could be no harm done. Even Heimdall could not see into the hearts and minds of men. It would be Thor’s secret, and once the urge passed, he would think on it no more.
Thor slipped his hand between his thighs. He took himself in a gentle grasp, and thought of his brother’s smile. Of the sound of his labored breathing. He thought of the glint of sweat on his brow and what it would be like to taste it…
He gasped, breath staggered.
The night’s heat became unbearable.
Thor felt himself gripped all at once in quivering tension. Every nerve and muscle in his body contracted, held suspended for a timeless moment, then eased, leaving him a spent and trembling mess. He half buried his face into a pillow to stifle his groan.
When he blinked his vision back into focus, the canopy was on fire.
Thor scrambled from the bed, taking half the blankets with him. His feet tangled and he very nearly tripped over the side. He kicked free and made for the window, where he stood, watching the flames greedily devour Asgardian cloth.
Thor caught and held his breath. He focused, and reached out his hand, willing the fire to calm.
To some degree, it obeyed.
But its appetite was not entirely sated.
Thor’s heart leaped in panic. He could not call for help. Guards would require an explanation. A cold chill gripped him at the thought, let alone what justification he would be forced to give his mother and father…
As though sensing his apprehension, the fire spread, quick to engulf whatever lay nearest.
Loki was beside him in an instant.
Thor had no time to question, not even to speak, before Loki pressed himself close. His hand touched Thor’s neck. He pressed his chest to Thor’s shoulder that they may align their arms, hands reaching out, and intertwined their fingers to show defiant palms to the flame’s heat.
“Help me,” Loki whispered.
Thor’s breath caught in his throat. He felt Loki’s guidance, felt their magic mix, and watched as the flames slowly but surely died.
Thor was certain the stirring inside him at Loki’s touch did nothing to help calm the fire or his concentration.
Black char coated half the chamber, trailing pale smoke in its last ghostly whispers of life.
Thor let his arm drop, and could breathe again.
A moment’s weighty silence reigned.
When Loki did not ask what happened, Thor took it upon himself to explain.
“I-It was an accident,” he stammered. “I did not mean—”
Thor stumbled to gather up what remained of his blankets. He shook them free of ash and began a pile.
“The guards will have seen. I should—I will have to tell father, and mother…explain—”
“The guards have seen nothing,” said Loki.
Thor paused, and looked to him. Loki stood with his arms folded, his posture one of calm and measured confidence.
“They will not come until you summon them.”
“He has not seen, either.” Loki looked amused. “I cloaked this place with illusion before the fire began.”
Thor frowned. He stood, holding a portion of ruined blanket. In part to cover himself and in part because he knew not what else to do with it.
“How did you know?” He heard his own voice sound distant.
“You called for me.”
For a longer moment, Thor stood, a complete and utter lack of comprehension written across his expression.
“I did not…” he began to say.
Loki moved closer to him. The ashes and char of the fire did not rise from his steps. He moved apart, remaining untouched by the whole of his environment.
“You did,” he said, low as a whisper. “You called my name, and I heard you.”
Heat swept up and over Thor’s cheeks. He felt his heart all but cease in his chest. His throat strained tight.
“I…” He looked down to the corner of blanket he held, turned it in his hands. “I am sorry, brother. I did not…mean…I will never…”
Loki reached, and brought his chin up with one finger. His palm turned soft as it brushed along Thor’s cheek, teasing over the rough scrape of the beginnings of his beard.
“Is it such an unthinkable trespass?” he hummed.
Thor’s confusion knew no bounds.
Loki at once put his fears to rest and set his nerves on end with a kiss. It was light, fleeting, the barest brush at the corner of his mouth.
“Come now, brother,” Loki teased as he lingered close, fingering a lock of Thor’s hair. “You will make me think you find me repugnant.”
“I think nothing of the sort,” Thor blurted.
Loki laughed, and let his hand rest on Thor’s chest as he turned his gaze over their surroundings. Thor watched him, struck by the way light from the open window complimented Loki’s cheek and jawline, before he remembered the state of his chambers.
He did not move from Loki’s touch.
“What will we tell father?” he murmured.
“That his firstborn can use a bit of magic.” Loki shrugged. “And not well. It is hardly the end of existence.”
Thor made a face so dour Loki felt the need to comfort it from him. He linked his arms around Thor’s neck, held him that way.
“Or we could heap all blame upon me.”
Thor let the blanket he clung to fall at last. He lifted his hands with the briefest hesitation, touching Loki’s sides just above his waist. He had forgotten the state of his undress until he did so.
“I do not relish that idea, either,” he murmured.
Loki smiled and played with his hair.
“My reputation will hardly suffer.”
He kissed him again, and it was no chaste invitation. Thor closed his eyes and felt himself respond in body and heart, drawing Loki in tighter against him.
A fire erupted on the drawers against the wall.
Loki laughed as Thor extinguished it, quickly this time.
“We shall have to break me of that habit,” said Thor. He had found his smile again.
“Yes.” Loki hummed, and draped against him lazily. Luxuriously. “Practice, I think. Lots and lots of practice.”
They entwined again. This time when fire erupted, it was all around them. It started at the floor and climbed its way up over hands and shoulders. It lifted their hair in its heat, wrapped them in blue-hot flames like the coils of some living thing.
So long as they touched, they did not burn.