"Nothing happens nowadays," Thor said disconsolately to Sif, throwing rocks into the lake; he was amusing himself by seeing how often he could provoke one of the sea-monsters into lifting out its head, and then whether he could hit it with the next rock. "There is no glory in fighting monsters and barbarians on Midgard, or Rohenge, or Gardevalla, or any other world: that was well enough when I was a boy, but I am a man now. How am I ever to prove myself worthy of my father's throne when I have never had the chance to show that I can be not only a great warrior, but a great war-chief?"
Sif sighed agreement. "But your father has already conquered all who would oppose us," she said. "No one now dares oppose the might of Asgard."
Thor nodded bleakly. "Even a rebellion somewhere," he said, wistful, and threw his rock with so little enthusiasm that it bounced off a sea-monster's flank without even provoking it to twitch.
"Thor! Sif!" They looked over their shoulders: Fandral was racing towards them through the unmown grasses, panting, panting: he skidded to a stop before them, and leaned over on his knees to gasp for breath.
"What is it?" Sif said. "Have you offended yet another maiden, and come to shelter behind stronger arms?"
He waved his arm breathlessly in denial. "No! No, and for that, I ought to make you wait for the news — but I won't," he added hastily, when Thor would have grabbed him by the collar. "The treasury has been violated — "
"What? How?" Thor said, leaping up; Mjolnir flew from the bank into his hand. "Did the destroyer not stop them? We must return to the citadel at once — "
"Wait!" Fandral said, grabbing his arm. "It gets better."
"Well?" Sif said.
Fandral was grinning. "It was frost giants. And they've stolen the Casket of Ancient Winters."
Thor seized him by both shoulders and shook him. "Are you joking? Fandral, tell me you're not joking!"
"I swear it," Fandral said. "Two of them were slain, but the third got away with the casket. Thor, Heimdall was telling Odin he didn't see them! I didn't know that was even possible."
"How do you think they did it?" Sif said.
"What does it matter?" Thor said, laughing, and flung his hammer in the air for joy, Mjolnir humming as it flew up and circled back to his hand. "Come: we must get to Asgard quickly; I must persuade Father to give me the command. We will go to war with Jotunheim!"
"We will not go to war with Jotunheim," Odin said ponderously to his assembled council of greybeards and old toadies, who only nodded their heads like children's puppets, "save when all other measures have been exhausted."
"What measures are there to try!" Thor said. "Father, they have violated the peace — "
"We know not yet whether this was any organized stratagem," Odin said. "Three alone slipped into Asgard; they may have been bent only on personal glory, and not sent by King Laufey. In any case," he added, "that the frost giants should desire the return of their casket, the source of their power, is not itself alone an act of war: if they will yet have peace — "
"Of course they will say they want peace!" Thor said. "Let them keep the casket in peace, and you let them rebuild their army — "
"An army, my son, which we defeated not two centuries ago," Odin said. "I trust Laufey will not be so hungry for a renewal of our conflict as you imagine." He raised his hand when Thor would have continued. "Words shall come first," he said. "Deeds, after; and they will, I trust, be undiminished in courage by being so preceded."
He rose from the council table, and the assembled lords rose with him. "I go to Jotunheim immediately. Thor, you will accompany me; Heimdall, let none others travel the Bifrost until we have returned."
Thor muttered imprecations and curses all the way to the Bifrost. Quietly, because he didn't want to be left behind, but damn! He couldn't believe Odin would truly be so short-sighted: of course the frost giants wanted war. Probably the instant they reached Jotunheim, Laufey and his warriors would attack, taking the opportunity to try and strike Odin down.
Thor brightened. Of course, then he'd save his father, and when they got back to Asgard, Odin would surely appoint him war-leader.
"Thor," Odin said over his shoulder, "I know you are brave, but there are many kinds of courage; a king must be prepared to sacrifice more than just his blood for his people."
"I understand, Father," Thor said. "I swear I would do anything to serve Asgard."
"I hope you will not regret that oath," Odin said, and the Bifrost blazed wide before them.
Jotunheim was a strange place: an endless night hung overhead, stars shining on glaciers so deeply frozen they seemed like blue stone beneath; a thin powder of snow only clung to the ice and rock, and jagged peaks of glittering white speared out of the earth. Odin led the way towards a clustering of ice towers in the north, but Thor could not see any sense behind the choice of direction: there seemed no-one anywhere around.
"We ought not go so deep into their territory," Thor said as they walked, his hand flexing upon Mjolnir's handle: the silence was unnerving.
Odin was frowning, looking around him. "If they have the casket," he said, "why are there no signs of renewal? There ought to be rejoicing here; and all the light of Jotunheim restored: not this dark tomb."
"It could be a trap," Thor said.
Odin shook his head, and kept walking.
In the court of the ice towers, surrounded by the gleaming icicles on all sides, Odin called, "Laufey! Laufey, King of Jotunheim, Odin of Asgard would speak with you. Come forth from your hall, and answer for the crime of your people."
"Crime, Odin One-eye?"
Thor jumped: the voice, a low husky rumbling, had come from above. The shapes of giants began to separate out from the ice around them as if they had been there all the while: towering shapes of men and beasts and hulking creatures in between; and as the frost giant king continued speaking, Thor saw him at last, upon a throne in a niche above.
"What crime have we committed against you, here locked in the fastness of our halls, but to remain as we are: to prefer liberty in darkness, over light with subjugation at your hands? Or did you think perhaps that time would wear away our tenacity, and bring us at last cringing to your throne, to submit? But we go deep: deeper even than you of Asgard, and though you may have defeated us in battle, you will not bring us to heel. Is it our crime, then, to have tried your patience?"
"You know very well what crime has brought us here!" Thor said, glaring up at Laufey. "Father, this is but a trick — "
Odin waved him down and spoke to Laufey. "Is it possible, then, that a frost giant should act against your authority? Should have invaded Asgard without your command, and laid hands upon the casket which you yet desire?"
"What?" Laufey leaned forward as low hissing whispers sounded from among the giants, his red eyes gleaming out of the darkness, his voice a rumble that echoed off the ice and silenced all the others. "No Jotun warrior ever would dare defy me so, Odin of Asgard."
"Then I must conclude that the theft was at your will," Odin said, "and a gesture that you seek to renew our war: is it so?"
"And I must conclude," Laufey said, "that you have contrived this lie to give yourself an excuse for renewing our war if we do not at last bend the knee before you: and I say it is a lie."
Odin paused and said, "Will you then swear that no Jotun entered the treasury of Asgard at your command?"
Laufey leaned back in his throne frowning. "I do so swear."
"And that if you should find the warrior who has stolen the casket, you will return it, and surrender him to the justice of Asgard?" Odin said.
Thor seethed: Odin couldn't mean to take this monster at his word and believe his oaths, but he would. Laufey had only to say yes, and laugh behind their backs at the stupid gullibility of Odin as they rode back to Asgard, to wait until they were invaded by an army of frost giants. "The casket is probably hidden right behind his throne as we speak!" he hissed at Odin.
"And if I should so swear," Laufey said slowly, suspiciously, "will you swear you intend no renewal of war against Jotunheim? And that you will go back to Asgard, and be content with justice only against one thief?"
"I will," said Odin, making a sharp cutting gesture when Thor would have burst out in protest.
Laufey said "Then I — "
"Do not swear, Father," a voice said behind them, and Thor turned: a young frost giant no larger than a man stood behind them — slender, with a smooth face and dark hair swept back from his etched blue forehead.
Laufey's voice was tight and shuddering with anger. "Loki. What have you done?"
"What ought to have been done, long since," the young man answered proudly, and held out his hands: he swept them around one another. The casket took sudden shape between them, gleaming: a long drawn-out sigh rose from among the frost giants all around. "Too long have we lingered in darkness and in fear of an old man and his dwindled strength," he said, raising his voice. "Here is what I have done: brought back our birthright to Jotunheim, and led Odin of Asgard here to our gates."
He raised his burning gaze to Laufey. "Will you not see our world restored, Father? Our people restored? Give the command! Let us strike down Odin, and send his body back to Asgard as token that the Jotun will be subjugated no longer, and I swear to you, I will hang stars from every pillar of our world to illuminate our victory!"
A roar of approval went up as Loki held the casket out. Brilliant white fire limned his hands, ran in twining lines up his arms and down the column of his body and shot out across the floor: the sorcery sank into the dark icy pillars and glowed out, so that suddenly they became as lamps made of the clearest glass. "Loki, Loki!" voices called from many sides, and "Slay them! Kill Odin!"
Thor gripped Mjolnir, grinning: let them try. "Stay behind me, Father," he said over his shoulder. "I will make us a path back to the Bifrost."
"Hold," Odin said, and put a hand on Thor's shoulder. He looked back at Laufey. "Is this the honor of your court, then, King Laufey? That you should send a thief into my realm, and seek to slay me in your own hall when I have come seeking peace?"
"The only peace you seek with Jotunheim," Loki said from behind them, before Laufey could answer, "is the peace of snow trodden flat under your foot: a trampled enemy." He vanished away the casket once again between his hands and began to circle them slowly, with deliberate steps; warriors five times his size gave way to make a path for him. "By what right do you claim you come in peace? You walk under no ensign of truce, you speak in threats, and you have brought with you no councillors — only your son, whose fame in violence and in wrath has spread even among the stars: his deeds have watered the very roots of Yggdrasil with blood."
"They can have a little more watering any time you like, Jotun," Thor said. "Father, you waste your time trying to reason with these — "
"Monsters?" Loki said, with an arching of his brows. "Beasts?" He circled yet, and Thor turned to keep his eyes on him. "Tell me, Thor Odinson, red-handed Thor, Thunderer, what other names have you lurking in your heart for the people of Jotunheim?" He paused and tilted his head and said thoughtfully, "When you come to the throne of your father, will you leave us in peace?"
Odin's hand gripped his shoulder tightly in warning, but too late; Thor had already snorted his disdain.
"Ah," Loki said, stepping back. He looked up to Laufey's throne. "Do you hear, Father? Any peace you make today will not last. Do you hunger so for quiet that you will give away the great treasure of our people only to buy a little more of it?"
"Enough, whelp," Laufey growled, but there was murmuring and agreement among the Jotuns in the chamber.
"Forgive me." Loki bowed his head. "My words outran my thoughts: I know better than to think such a thing. They had to fight a war to take the casket from us before: let them fight another, if they want it back."
Laufey was still frowning, but the murmurs approving Loki's words had only grown louder. Thor tried to shrug his shoulder free, to make sure he had full range to swing, but Odin did not loosen his grip. He was looking at Loki, and then he turned his head up and said to Laufey, "Your son has cleverness in full measure, more than men older by far. But he has not lived through war between our people, as have you and I."
"No," Laufey said after a moment. "And I would not gladly lead my people down that path again, Odin of Asgard, but for this: neither has your son, and it is in my mind that Loki is not wrong, when he says war will come to Jotunheim again, soon or late."
Loki's eyes flashed in triumph; Thor scowled at him, and then remembered that he wanted the war, too. He frowned. Being on the same side as the Jotun didn't seem right.
"It is true," Odin said, "that a battlefield truce is not a path to lasting peace. In those dark days, I looked only for a chance for healing, a chance for rest; my sight did not stretch much further. But now we have not yet run down from the precipice, and there is another way. Will you treat with me, King Laufey, as equal, and make a true accord between our people?"
"A true accord," Loki said, sneering. "Where we surrender again to you the treasure of our ancestors — "
"I will not ask for the casket's return," Odin said in mild tones, and Loki stopped, his face surprised for once.
"You won't leave it with them?" Thor said incredulously. "Father, if these Jotuns have any right to suspect me of starting a war between us, how much more right have we to suspect this Loki — Laufey's heir — who has already violated our truce?"
"I hold it no violation, Aesir, to have taken back the work of my forefathers, stolen by yours," Loki said. "The casket is ours, and belongs on Jotunheim."
"It is true," Odin said, and held up his hand. "Enough, Thor. I took the casket as surety of the truce, but gave no equal guaranty; and in keeping it, I have bereft the people of Jotunheim of much that was good and beautiful in their world. I make no apology," he added, "for I took it after hard-won victory, and paid for it with blood. But if we would have a true peace now, it must return where it belongs. Instead, Laufey, if you will agree, we will make a different exchange."
Loki had been eyeing Odin warily all this last speech, evidently as perplexed as Thor himself — what in the hells would Odin do, give them Gungnir in exchange for — Thor had no idea what. Then Loki's eyes widened. Quickly he said, "Father, all the worlds know the risk of listening over-long to Odin, whose words can twine around the heart of even the bravest warrior. If he wanted peace, he might have returned to us the casket any time in the last two hundred years; he seeks now only an opportunity for treachery, and a chance to steal it back — "
"And yet," Laufey said, dryly, "I will risk it and hear him out. What would you exchange with me, Odin of Asgard, to make a peace between our people?"
"In truth," Odin said, "I seek more than peace. I would have an alliance between us, Laufey, and if you agree, we will seal that alliance with your blood and with mine, and with our honor: my son is not yet wed."
Thor had been watching Loki's face all this while, trying to figure out why the Jotun princeling was staring at him so horrified; it took a moment before Odin's words reached him. "What does that have to do with anything?" he hissed to Odin. "I'm not going to marry a frost giant!"
"We have not daughters and sons, as do you Aesir," Laufey said.
"I know," Odin said, ignoring Thor's urgent hissing, "nor do I seek any lesser alliance than between your heir and mine: a true union of our thrones, and I hope of our people."
"Wait, you want me to marry him?" Thor said, jerking his head back to Loki. "Have you gone mad?"
"You will do what is necessary for the safety of Asgard," Odin said flatly, turning to him only for a moment, "if you would be my heir, and not forsworn."
Thor stared at him, betrayed.
"Father," Loki said, equally urgent, "I know you cannot desire to pollute our line so — "
"Perhaps if you were less certain you could see so clearly into my heart," Laufey growled down at Loki, "you would have consulted with your father and your king before you set out to bring me to war."
"Well, Laufey?" Odin said, turning back. "Will our sons rule in Asgard and in Jotunheim both; or will they reign apart, each over a war-torn and wasted land? Will we have peace?"
Laufey looked down at him and said, "Odin of Asgard, we will have peace."
"Oh, the hell we will," Thor said.
"So, er," Volstagg said, after several moments of silence. "Is — is — er, he — pretty?"
"He's a frost giant!" Thor shouted.
"Is that a no?" Volstagg asked.
"Yes, that's a no!" Thor said. Volstagg frowned and started muttering to himself as he worked on that; Thor whirled away from him and glared at Hogun and Fandral and Sif, all of whom were staring at him, stricken. "Stop just staring at me! I need help, not long faces!"
"Are you going to run away?" Fandral asked.
"No!" Thor said. "I'm going to get out of it! And all of you are going to help. Now, figure out how."
Several hours later, they were all sitting around staring at each other in silence. Except Volstagg, who was munching away on a roast chicken. He'd snuck away and sent to the kitchens for food a little while ago; when it had come and Thor had glared at him, he'd only shrugged. "I think better when I eat," he said.
It hadn't made any noticeable improvement in his suggestions. Thor finally stood up and flung Mjolnir down; the ground trembled. "I see if I have to wait for aid from any of you, I'll be waiting until my hundredth anniversary," he said bitterly.
"This really isn't our strength, Thor," Fandral said, spreading wide his hands. "Hopeless battles against all the odds, charging fearlessly into danger, risk and adventure — not really the same thing as plotting and scheming."
Thor sank back down into his seat, deflated. "I know," he said. "It's not mine, either."
They were all silent.
"You should ask him," Hogun said, out of nowhere.
"Ask who?" Thor said.
"The Jotun," Hogun said. "He plotted the theft. Maybe he can plot you out of the wedding."
"I'm not going to ask the Jotun for help!" Thor said. "Are you mad?"
"You could say you want to get to know him before the wedding," Sif said thoughtfully — so everyone around him was losing their mind. "You could suggest that the two of you meet — "
"I don't want to meet him!" Thor said. "Except to kill him."
"Would you rather meet him on your wedding day?" Sif said.
"Finally," Loki said, the instant the Bifrost left Thor on Jotunheim again; he was standing by the cliffside waiting, in a sleeveless overtunic of rich black fur that looked more for show than warmth. His red eyes were glittering with anger.
"I'm not late!" Thor said. "We only requested this meeting yesterday."
"That's what I mean," Loki said, cuttingly. "Now I only have a week left to get us out of this! I've been watched every minute. Now listen carefully — "
"I am not going to obey your orders, Jotun," Thor said.
"Oh," Loki said, his voice suddenly gone low and falsely sweet, "in that case, I suppose you're here to take a quiet and peaceful starlit stroll together with me through the ice canyons, and perhaps to hold hands in preparation for our joyous and eternal union — "
"Stop!" Thor shuddered. "This is all your fault, anyway. You're the one who stole the damn casket."
"It didn't occur to me that your father wanted peace so badly he was prepared to barter his own son away for it," Loki snapped. "Our history doesn't exactly describe him as peace-loving."
"No," Thor said, "instead you just wanted to murder him."
"That would only have been a bonus," Loki said. "All I really wanted was to get the casket back and start a war. Why couldn't you just have thrown that hammer at someone while you were here? I had nearly everyone in that room primed for slaughter."
"You would all have tried to kill us!" Thor said.
"Don't you want a war?" Loki demanded.
"Yes," Thor said grudgingly.
"So why didn't you do something about it!" Loki said.
"I — " Thor said, and then stopped, helplessly.
Loki rolled his eyes. "Splendid. If the idea of marrying an Aesir wasn't so utterly intolerable, I'd go through with the wedding and end up ruling two realms."
"Do you think so, Jotun?" Thor said, putting his hand on Mjolnir's haft.
"Oh, please," Loki said. "You'd be entirely happy as long as I made sure there was a war going on somewhere for you to fight."
Thor said angrily, "I am not some bloodthirsty barbarian who goes around — "
" — killing ryveks on Fredwal?" Loki said. "Hunting down the Verosian League and slaughtering them to the last man? Setting fire to the Lannervent?"
"How do you know of these things!" Thor said, with a guilty twitch; as far as he knew, not even Odin knew about the Lannervent. That had been an accident, anyway.
Loki leaned in towards him, red eyes glittering and cold as stone. "I've been expecting to go to war with you since I was four years old and realized why my people were starving and powerless," he hissed. "I knew one day I would face Odin's son. I studied Asgard over your shoulder, I taught myself scrying to watch you." He snorted, disdainfully. "I probably know more about you than you do."
Thor stared at him, horrified. He hadn't known Loki even existed. "I'll cut out my own entrails before I marry you."
"A master tactician. That would certainly solve the problem for me," Loki said. "But as I don't think you're sincere, do you suppose you might at least listen to my plan? And then if you can think of anything better, you're more than welcome to suggest it."
Thor wanted to refuse on principle, but after all he'd come to ask the Jotun for advice, even if he'd tried his best to pretend that wasn't so. "Fine," he said. "Tell me your plan."
Ten minutes later, he stopped Loki. "Wait," Thor said. "I'm supposed to say what to Heimdall? And is that before or after I speak to my mother, and where am I supposed to leave the — did you say flowers?"
"You're to — " Loki stopped and stared at him. "Never mind," he said, and sat down heavily on a frost-rimed rock, his shoulders slumping.
"What do you mean, never mind?" Thor said.
"It's not going to work," Loki said. "You're not going to be able to carry out the plan, and I can't do anything alone from here; my father knows me too well. Unless all of Jotunheim melts between now and next week, he'll march me to the altar."
"So what are we going to do, then?" Thor said, baffled.
Loki looked at him murderously. "We're going to get married."
"I am not marrying you!" Thor said.
"Splendid," Loki said. "When you defy your father openly and refuse at the altar, that will certainly start the war."
"I can't do that; Odin would disown me," Thor said, appalled.
"So. As the Jotun equivalent involves being flogged to death for filial disobedience, I won't be doing it either," Loki said. "Therefore, in a week's time, we'll be wed."
"We will not!" Thor said.
A week later, Thor sat down stunned in his bedchamber as a married man. Outside, down the hall, the roar of celebration was just getting started. "Well, that went marvelously," Loki said, sitting down beside him. "At least I'll have the chance to try these. I've often tried to work out a way to steal one." He picked up one of the apples: Idunn had given a whole basketful as wedding gift.
He bit into the apple, and Thor stared as Loki chewed and swallowed: the cold blue color was flushing out of the Jotun's skin, leaving him sitting there looking like — like almost any man: tall, and a little strange, with cheekbones sharp as blades and lashes long as a girl's. "What?" Loki said, and then noticed his hands: his eyes widened, and he rose and went to the mirror. "Ah; interesting."
"Interesting?" Thor said, incredulously.
"Our peoples are obviously sprung from the same stock," Loki said absently. Obviously? Thor wondered. Loki was poking and pulling at his own face and cheeks with his long fingers. "I've often speculated that our coloration and our size is the result of taking the power of the ice into ourselves, to heal ourselves and slow our aging as the apples do for you; having eaten of the apple, my body no longer requires that store of ice-strength — "
Thor stopped paying attention. Splendid: so not only had he been married off to a lying, two-faced Jotun magic-user, but the man was a prosing scholar as well. Thor groaned and let himself fall back onto the bed, staring up at the hangings.
"Yes, I suppose we'd better get it over with," Loki said — and began to take off his clothing.
"I am not going to lie with you!" Thor said.
"Your protestations aren't even interesting," Loki said. He had lain aside his cloak, and was already unbuttoning his long tunic. "Only you could possibly believe them even long enough to say them aloud. Do you have the slightest notion for how we might prevent the ritual inspection of the bed? Are you willing to lie under oath when you are asked if we have consummated the marriage? Will you openly refuse the consummation and see the wedding annulled — do keep in mind, you would thereby entitle me to claim the throne of Asgard as your dowry, for the insult."
"No," Thor said, sullenly.
"Then we're going to lie together," Loki said. "We can at least do it quickly."
"My father must have gone mad," Thor said, and sighed. He stood up and took off his clothing. Then he paused, looking at Loki stretching out on the bed, and said, "Wait. You're male."
Loki sighed. "Never mind, I know what to do. Just come to bed, and bring that jar over there by you."
"I'm not going to let you — "
"Didn't we just have this conversation?" Loki said.
"You can — "
"Do you know how to do it?" Loki said. "More specifically, do you know how to do it so as to avoid injury? or the getting of a child?"
" — a child?" Thor said faintly.
"As I was saying," Loki said. "Bring the jar."
Defeated, Thor brought him the jar and lay down with his face buried in the pillows. He didn't have to look, at least.
"At least you're not ill-formed, even if you are stunted," Loki said, above him.
"I'm as tall as you aa-aah-re!" Thor said; Loki's fingers, slick with unguent, were easing between his legs.
"Half the reason I first studied magicks was to find a way to make myself grow," Loki said. "I didn't yet realize — "
He was going on, but his words were melting into one another even as they reached Thor's ears; Loki's long fingers were delving deeper, curling inside him, stroking, and there was a strange and trembling heat building in Thor's belly. He panted for breath, and then he gasped for breath, and then he had to prop his head on his arms instead of keeping it smothered in the pillow; and then he was pushing Loki away and rolling over onto his back, just so he could breathe.
"Ready, then?" Loki said — his voice was also half out of breath, wavering, and then he was pressing in. Thor groaned long and low and deep.
"Oh," Loki said. "You're hot."
"Nng," Thor said, and bucked against him urgently.
"Patience," Loki said; he closed his hand around Thor's cock, and stroked it a few times with an experimental air; and then he rolled his hips.
"That's it," Thor said, and seized him and rolled them over, so Loki's cock pressed all into him at once. Pleasure fired up his spine, shivers chasing one after another; he could feel sparks of cold like miniature bursts inside him. He rose and plunged again, and again, and gloried in Loki's moans and shudders beneath him.
Loki was clutching at his thighs with sharp nails and saying, "Wait — wait — "
"You — said — quickly — " Thor said, fucking himself blissfully; the Jotun could damn well just lie there and bear it.
"I don't want to — " Loki said, his voice rising to a frantic pitch until it broke into a cry, and an ice-cold rush flooded between Thor's thighs, so cold it burned with heat, darting everywhere in him like quicksilver, and his own cock jerked and spilled over Loki's chest and belly, marking him.
"Aaahhh," Thor said, sighing with relief and satisfaction, and he slid off and let himself fall back against the pillows. At least something had finally gone right. Then he stared up at the bed hangings and realized he'd just had that thought about the consummation of his abhorrent marriage.
Loki was lying shoulder to shoulder next to him, panting feebly and also staring up at the hangings. "You idiot," he said, in heartfelt tones.
"Shut up," Thor said. "You liked it just as well as I did."
"Of course I liked it," Loki said. "Now what are we to do?"
"Do it again," Thor said.
"That's — that's — " Loki stopped.
"A good idea," Thor said.
"Yes," Loki said, grudgingly, finally.
Thor sat up and reached for the jar. "Now show me how I do it without getting you with child."
"It would take at least a dozen spells for one of us to get with child," Loki said.
"You said — " Thor reddened with fury.
"I did not," Loki said. "I only asked you if you knew how to avoid — you liked it!" he yelped, skittering back. "You said so!"
Thor caught hold of Loki by the ankles and drew him back, flung himself down on top of him, and kissed him while he pulled Loki's leg up over his hip. His cock was hard again, full of excitement and heat, and Loki's mouth was as splendidly bitter cold as a spring fed from mountain glaciers. "I'll like this, too," Thor said, and then he gasped as Loki bit his ear and clawed his back; their bodies were sliding together again, perfect, and oh, he did like it.
The revelry outside began to die away sometime in the early hours of the morning. Thor was only vaguely aware of the failing noise: they were still busy. Loki had proposed that turn and turn about was the most efficient method, so one might recover while the other labored. Thor could not disagree. Also, Idunn's apples had remarkable restorative powers. They had eaten nearly the entire basket.
"Here," Loki said, "take hold of the railing." Thor gripped it, and Loki put his hands around his wrists and murmured some strange incantation: cords of light wound themselves around Thor's wrists and looped through the railings, over and under his fingers. "Are the bindings strong enough?"
"Yes." Thor tugged and then said, "Wait, strong enough for what?"
"To keep you tied up while I murder you, of course," Loki said. "If you were going to doubt me, it would have been better to do so before you let me bind you."
"Oh, shut up," Thor said. "I don't fear you murdering me, I only want to know what you intend."
"What I intend?" Loki said softly, and smiled: thin-lipped and slight and sly, not the kind of smile Thor had ever liked; there was nothing frank and inviting in it, nothing of warmth, only a promise of secret designs. A shiver of eager desire clenched tight Thor's arms, and he pulled on the bindings again half-involuntary, testing; they were strong. He might not even be able to break them.
Loki bent and set his teeth to Thor's throat, his tongue soothing the scrape of their edge; his fingers dragged faintly over his thigh. "I intend," Loki said, in whispers, "to make you weep for pleasure." He kissed behind Thor's ear, and suckled the lobe into his cold mouth. "I intend to make you cry out my name." He was coiling his long lean body about Thor's, fingers trailing sparks of cold over his thighs. "I intend to keep you bound to this bed until I have taken you a dozen times, with my mouth, with my hands — " His fingers were suddenly pressing in deep, without warning, and Thor arched off the bed shuddering.
Some time later, he was gasping, "Loki — damn you, Loki — " and struggling to force Loki deeper: not a dozen times yet perhaps but at least seven — or nine — and Loki hadn't let him come. Thor had so very nearly crested, over and over again, and each time — "Loki!" he roared, as Loki eased away yet again, slippery as an bright-sided salmon in a stream, laughing at him softly. Thor bellowed wordlessly and surged up from the bed, every muscle straining, the bindings cold as ice upon his skin, holding, holding —
— and the bed shattered beneath them, the great ironwork railing breaking free from the wood and falling into pieces. It nearly brained them both, flying overhead, but Thor paid no attention either to that or to Loki's yelp: he was loose, and he was going to —
"Thor!" The great double doors to the bedchamber slammed open, and Sif and Fandral and Hogun were springing through it, staggering only a little from drink, with their weapons out. Volstagg was right behind them, his axe in one hand and a tankard in the other, and behind him the curious and reddened eyes of what seemed half the court peering in. Thor stared at them, frozen. Loki's cock was curving in his hand and his own was jutting out urgent and flushed, his thighs shining wet and the bed in ruins around them, bits of iron still hanging from his wrists by the glowing bindings.
"Is this some charming Asgardian custom I've never heard of?" Loki inquired, propping himself up on one elbow, undisturbed. "I did think we had until morning before we were due for inspection."
Sif stared at him and then at Thor, wide-eyed; Fandral was openly staring at their cocks, and Hogun was looking fixedly at the far corner of the room. "We thought — " Sif said, in a slightly choked voice, and then trailed off.
"Why isn't he blue anymore?" Volstagg said suddenly.
"Why are you still in the doorway?" Loki asked.
"Oh," Volstagg said, looking around himself as though he'd just noticed. "Well — "
"By which I mean, get out," Loki said. He raised his hand and spoke an incantation that raised a great wind, which swept all four of them up and several paces back, and slammed the door shut in their faces. They all looked vastly relieved as the doors closed on them.
"Ah," Thor said, after a moment. "Sorry?"
"I don't suppose there's anything we can do to prevent this traveling the entire city in the next hour?" Loki said.
"Er. No," Thor said. The hall outside had fallen as silent as though it were already dawn and everyone had gone to sleep. The gossips were probably whispering it the whole length of the tables already.
"In that case, you may as well go back to what you were doing," Loki said, and stretched himself back against the sheets, a thin sleek smile on his face and his eyes half-lidded. And Thor couldn't think of anything else to do, so —
Several hours later, as morning light crept under the window sill, he finally let his head fall back limp against the pillows. Loki was sprawled beside him already fast asleep and breathing almost silently. It only occurred to Thor then, in the last few fading moments before sleep took him, that Loki had almost seemed pleased at being caught.
In the morning — the next morning, that was; they and nearly all of Asgard had slept the clock around to recover, which meant it had been a glorious party — Thor stirred and groped for the waiting tankard: he'd ordered ale to be brought to his chambers first-thing after the celebration, as he'd expected to need it. As it happened, he hadn't had a chance to drink a thing; but he was thirsty enough to want the ale anyway, gone-flat or not.
He put down the empty tankard and wiped his mouth, and then stared dismally at the frost giant in his bedchamber. That he was married to. Loki had already bathed and dressed: he was looking through the handful of old books, layered with dust, that Thor had gladly abandoned after his schoolboy days. "What I would have given for any of these, as a child," Loki said softly, turning the stained and dog-eared pages carefully with his long fingers. His long, exquisitely talented — Thor shook his head hard.
"There's a library here," he said — and had a sudden hopeful thought: if the Jotun could be packed off there without complaint, if he really were mad after studying, then maybe Thor could forget about him most of the time. Except when they were in bed together. "I can have one of the servants take you there," he added.
"Later, perhaps," Loki said, putting the book down. "Hadn't you better be getting dressed? It's almost time."
"For what?" Thor said blankly.
"The council meeting," Loki said. "We ought to put in an appearance."
"What? Why?" Thor said. "I never go to council meetings unless my father commands it: they're deadly dull."
"That's the nature of council meetings," Loki said, "until the thirty seconds when they're merely deadly. You'd better make an exception this time, unless you want your father's councillors thinking you're ashamed of your wedding."
Thor opened his mouth to say he was ashamed, then realized just in time that perhaps that wasn't particularly diplomatic. Or perhaps not quite in time, judging by the disdainful flick of Loki's eyebrows.
He reluctantly followed Loki into the council meeting and slouched into a chair at the back of the chamber. At least most of the councillors looked exhausted and pale, except for a few of the old sticks who had been too prudish to drink like men. Odin looked at them both, his face unreadable, and then called the meeting to order with the truly fascinating topic of taxation forgiveness for some villagers on Welgard whose fields had been flooded.
Thor couldn't even nod off comfortably; Loki kept jabbing him with an elbow at regular intervals. Meanwhile all the councillors kept throwing surreptitious prurient glances at him and at his Jotun, obviously with the gossip from last night in mind.
The meeting dragged and dragged the way they usually did, with men offering one idea after another to his father, who listened in silence and very occasionally nodded in agreement; more often he only heard all men out, and then issued an entirely different order. Thor finally bunched up his cloak against his side nearest Loki and was just settling in for a decent nap when Loki leaned forward next to him and said, "If I may — "
The councillors all stopped talking, and Thor jerked up wide-awake in alarm. But Loki had already taken the silence as an opportunity to speak. "If I have understood correctly, the men on Sathelheim are still too ill to work their fields, and the men on Welgard have no fields to work. Why not send the latter to the former? Divide what harvest can be produced among them, and both will prosper better than otherwise."
No one spoke a moment, the councillors looking uneasily among themselves, and Thor winced and made ready to drag the Jotun out of the chamber before he could make any more brilliant suggestions. He was reaching for Loki's arm when Odin said simply, "Let it be done."
Thor gawked at his father, as did virtually all the council. Loki merely inclined his head, as cool and regal as if his voice was heard in the high council of Asgard every day, and sat back in his seat.
By the time the meeting was adjourned, Loki had spoken twice more, and each time Odin had listened and said, "Let it be done." Thor hadn't the faintest idea what was happening. His father had never followed any of his suggestions. Actually, Thor couldn't recall his father ever following three of anyone's suggestions in council before. He caught Odin aside after the meeting and said, "Father, what are you doing? You needn't have encouraged him so, now he'll be speaking in every council meeting — "
"And so I hope he does," Odin said, "if his advice remains as sage." Thor stared from him over to Loki, who was now moving about the councillors: they were warily inclining their heads and speaking with him. Thor looked back incredulous at Odin, who sighed. "My son, well do I know you have no taste for councils and administration, and yet they are the more necessary labor of a king, if less glorious. If you will not undertake them, you would be fortunate to have a partner who will."
"Father," Thor said, "you can't seriously mean to let a Jotun have a say in ruling Asgard."
Odin looked at him. "Have you already forgotten your vows?"
"I was too busy trying not to vomit to pay much attention," Thor snapped. "In case you didn't notice, you were marrying me to a Jotun."
"And yet you appear to have survived the experience," Odin said, with a glint of amusement in his eye. Thor clenched his jaw shut on the several remarks that occurred to him. "My son," Odin said, putting his hand on Thor's shoulder. "I would far rather have left your choice of partner to your heart, but this alliance brings too much hope to both Asgard and Jotunheim — and indeed to all the Nine Realms, if our ancient enmity may thereby be healed. If only you and Loki can find a path to trust between yourselves, that same path may be followed by both our peoples."
"The only thing I can trust him with is my — " Thor began in heat, and had to end in an awkward cough when he remembered he was talking to his father.
"I suppose that is a beginning," Odin said, dryly.
"That went better than I had expected," Loki said, as they left the chambers. "A good beginning: if things go half as well on Jotunheim, I will be pleased. How long do you need to pack?"
"Pack?" Thor said. "Wait, what do you mean, on Jotunheim?"
"Did you miss the fact that there were no Jotuns at the ceremony here, besides my honor guard?" Loki said.
"Er," Thor said, since yes, actually, he had.
"My father agreed to let Asgard hold the first ceremony, not the only one," Loki said. "We have it all to do over on Jotunheim tomorrow."
"Tell me you're joking," Thor said.
"If it's any consolation," Loki said, "we'll be expected to consummate the marriage again."
"It's not," Thor said, which was a lie he did not even believe himself, and the amused twist of Loki's mouth said he knew it.
Thor spent the rest of the afternoon unwillingly thinking about the second consummation, even as his things were packed. Loki did something to make himself blue again before they crossed the Bifrost to his world, which helped Thor cease to find him desirable. Helped a little. Well. No. It didn't help. Thor wondered dismally if Fandral might have any suggestions.
Fandral only stared at him helplessly.
But at least he and Hogun and Volstagg and Sif were coming as Thor's honor guard — apparently they had all known about the second ceremony, and hadn't seen fit to mention it.
"You were in the room when they told us," Sif said.
"I was trying not to listen!" Thor said.
Jotunheim was no less cold and dark than the last time he'd visited, but the frost giants weren't hiding this time: their towering ranks lined the road from the Bifrost to the palace like immense and silent statues, bowing their heads to Loki as he passed. A hulking beast thrice an elephant's size flanked the palace doors, and pushed its jagged-rock head beneath his hands, as though for petting. "We'll run together soon," Loki murmured to it, and went inside: Laufey was sitting on his throne, watching with his cold red eyes in the dark as Loki bowed before him.
The wedding ceremony on Jotunheim was blessedly short, at least: they clasped hands over the casket, some priest asked them if they pledged to one another for all their lives, and it was done and they could get on with the fucking. Since they were already married under Asgardian law, Thor couldn't even feel too downcast over the whole thing.
At least until they got to Loki's bedchamber, and he discovered that frost giants slept on slabs of ice. "I'm not taking off a damned stitch until I have at least thirty furs to lie in," Thor said flatly. His breath was like a cloud in the air: it was even colder inside the palace than without.
"There's no need for histrionics," Loki said; he had brought the casket in with them and was working on some sort of potion on a table that ran the length of the wall of his chamber; when he turned, he was holding a goblet that was smoking white steam.
"I'm not drinking that," Thor said, eyeing it warily.
"If I were going to poison you, I'd do it after the sex," Loki said. "Drink: it will stop you feeling the cold. And I'm afraid it does taste foul, so you'd better drink it as quickly as you can."
Thor muttered under his breath, but took the cup and drank it off in a pull. Then his eyes widened. "Valhalla Niflheim and the Norns!" he gasped. "What — oh." His skin was coming alight all over his body, waves of warmth cascading through him, and he tore the clothes from his body desperately. Loki was helping him, and drawing him to the bed, which felt spectacularly good: cool and firm and somehow resonating beneath him as Loki pressed him onto his back.
Thor scrabbled at Loki's clothes and stared at his own hands: blue color was flowing steadily down his arms. "You thrice-damned bastard, what have you done to me?" Thor groaned, dragging Loki's tunic off over his head.
"I — mrmmph — I've brought the ice into you," Loki said, panting. "Stop fretting, it won't last anymore than the effect of the apple lasted on me."
"Next time," Thor said, pulling Loki with him and sliding them onto their sides, "you will damned well ask me before you start putting enchantments on — on — " Their hips had slotted together, and Thor was having a hard time remembering what he was angry about.
It was recalled to his memory the next morning, when he came out of the bedroom yawning in search of food — Loki was still sleeping like the dead — and Sif, who was huddled on watch under the thirty furs Thor had wanted himself last night, actually shrieked in horror.
"He swore it would wear off!" Thor said, looking down at himself in alarm: he was blue everywhere.
"And so it will," Loki said peevishly, after Thor had violently shaken him awake and been magically flung across the room for his pains, "as soon as you eat one of the apples of Asgard; I have one for you to eat before we cross the Bifrost again. Stop complaining: you're comfortable, aren't you?"
"I don't want to be comfortable if it means being a Jotun!" Thor said.
"It's really almost astounding, the perfection of your insensibility," Loki said. "Try not to repeat that sentiment in front of the courtiers: I'd greatly dislike having to execute any of them for returning your disrespect." He paused and said, "What am I even saying? I can't possibly leave you alone at court all day. You'll have to come riding with me."
"I have to do nothing," Thor growled. Loki looked at him. "Besides all those things I had to do!" Thor said, irritably. "Oh — be silent. Very well, let's go riding."
Thor stared up at the giant monstrous saw-toothed ice beast with its pathetically inadequate bridle. The ice beast stared back down at him.
"It's all right," Loki said. "He won't hurt you."
"I do not fear any creature of Jotunheim," Thor said.
"I'm talking to her," Loki said. "Get up, and hold on to the spines."
Thor climbed on gingerly behind him. It still felt wrong to be half-naked in the midst of ice fields, but he didn't want anything between his skin and the blustering wind that whispered a kind of music, the snow that prickled down upon his shoulders. Then the great beast beneath him shook itself and roared, enough to bring down slabs of icicles in glassy crash. It launched itself into motion; and Thor found himself shouting for joy as they raced over the ice.
The speed stole his breath. He wrapped his arm around Loki's waist to cling on, laughing, and was desperately hard by the time they drew to a halt. He didn't even wait until the ice beast had fully stopped before he tumbled Loki down onto thick piled snow, soft as a quilt. They coupled in wild urgency another half-dozen times before they collapsed again, gasping side by side as snow blew tenderly over them. "Damn you," Loki groaned. "I need my strength."
"Let's go running again," Thor said dreamily. The last time he'd felt this way, he'd just fought and won a dozen battles, drunk a tavern dry, bedded five beautiful women, and slept it all off for a week. The ice beast had come over to snuffle at them; he raised a hand and petted its snout. Good ice beast.
Loki staggered up to his feet, weaving drunkenly. "I have work to do, first," he said, and Thor pushed himself up on his elbows.
"What are you doing?" he said, and looked around for the first time: the run had brought them to a strange and isolated place, where snow fields lay flat all around in all directions, but for one small raised pedestal. Loki stood before it and held out his hands, and the casket appeared shimmering between them.
"Healing my world," Loki said, his red eyes reflecting the casket's light, and he brought it down onto the pedestal and held it as a scalding-white blaze built, his voice chanting an incantation in a tongue Thor didn't recognize. He had to shield his eyes and look away, and then there was a low rumbling beneath the earth that grew louder and louder, until all at once the light and the roaring both exploded outward in rings chasing each other away from the pedestal, traveling blinding-fast and vanishing out of sight.
"What the hell was — " Thor began, and then jumped to his feet to catch Loki as he toppled off the pedestal, head lolling and limp.
It wasn't until they reached the outskirts of the capital again, and the snow on the ground thinned, that Thor began to realize what Loki had done: the ice was shining. There was light glimmering deep, even underfoot, and as he rode into the city the walls were filled with clear light. The Jotuns came out as the ice beast rode by, with Loki lying in Thor's arms, and watched them: they showed no visible delight in their expressions, but their solemnity made a very ceremony of the passage.
Thor carried Loki into the palace, and the bedchamber, and laid him down to sleep upon the slab. The walls of his room were full of a particular coruscating light, in colors of deepest violet and blue-green, and when Thor set him down, the ice seemed to flow and shape itself about his limbs, cradling him. Loki murmured something too low to hear, and settled deeply into sleep.
Thor stared down at him and realized he had no idea what to do on Jotunheim without Loki, and also he was hungry. He went out to find Volstagg, who was sure to have tracked down the food, and found him sitting with the others at a banqueting table in the innards of the palace. They were directly outside what Thor supposed was a kitchen: there were no fires or hot coals, only great slabs of meat and baskets full of odd tangled vegetation hanging from the ceiling, and immense cutting boards laid with enormous and sharp-looking knives.
"Er," Volstagg said, staring at him, as Thor sat down.
"I told you," Sif said, also still staring.
"I know," Thor said. "I'll make him change it back before we leave. Give that here." He stole a thick slice of the dark pink thing that Volstagg was eating, whatever it was, and tore into it: deliciously rich and warm on the tongue, deeply salty; damn, he was hungry.
"And you're really not cold?" Fandral said. He was huddled under a pile of furs that made him look like a fluffed-up pigeon.
"Not at all," Thor said, pulling the platter over and eating more of it. "What is this stuff?"
"Some kind of fish, I think," Volstagg said. "I hope. I haven't asked too many questions, it was hard enough to get fed at all. You'd think they'd do a proper feast for the wedding of their prince."
"Do you, er," Fandral said, "do you suppose he'd share it?"
"What, the fish?" Thor said, eating. "If anyone minded I think they'd have said by now."
"The — whatever it was," Fandral said. "That he gave you, to make you — " Everyone turned to stare at him. "What?" Fandral said defensively. "It seems to me only a courteous gesture — "
"You're that afraid of a little cold?" Hogun said, amused.
"I am not!" Fandral said. "And I would prove it upon your body, sirrah, if I could feel my fingers well enough to hold a blade."
"In that case, I can insult you with impunity," Hogun said, and they all laughed.
"At least this spell of his has improved the place," Fandral said, when Thor had told them of Loki's morning's work. "I wouldn't call it attractive, exactly, but it's not quite so tomblike anymore. Talented fellow you've, er, married."
"Too talented, if you ask me," Hogun said.
"What do you mean?" Volstagg said. "Would you rather be sitting in pitch?"
"I do not speak of the illumination of Jotunheim," Hogun said. "There is not so much beauty in the Nine Realms that I regret seeing more, but it is in my mind that Thor's — " he paused, looked for a word.
"Husband?" Sif said doubtfully.
"Wife?" Volstagg suggested.
"Not unless you want him to freeze your balls off, I imagine," Fandral said.
"Thor's prince," Hogun said, "is a master of sorcery, and of dark arts, and cunning plans deep-laid. And he is now very near the throne of Asgard."
Thor snorted. "Nearer than you think. My father as much as told me I ought to let him govern, when I am king; as though I would not have patience enough to hold councils, and administer the realm." He paused, and glared at his friends' doubtful glances. "I would!" He dragged over the other platter, filled with thin slices of some raw meat layered with some sort of cold greenery: he began to devour all of that also.
"Er, yes, anyway," Fandral said hastily.
"What are you doing?" Thor looked up, surprised: Loki was standing at the foot of the table with an appalled and furious expression. "Who seated you here?"
"A fellow out of your father's guards, when I asked where we might eat," Volstagg said. "We needed sustenance! I must say I don't think much of the hospitality of your hall — "
"There is a three-day-fast decreed after any formal ceremony of great significance, you gluttonous fool," Loki said, eyes glittering, "and only beggars eat at the kitchen door: it is an insult to my kadin that you've been put here, and therefore an insult to me. Describe the one who sent you here."
"Er." Volstagg gaped at Loki. "He was — a frost giant?"
"He wore a band of yellow and green about his arm, here," Hogun said, touching his upper arm, "and was two handspans short of the height of the pillars at the north of the entry chamber."
Loki's lips pressed together. "Splendid," he said. "My brother Drikjall. Now get up from the table and stop eating," he added with a snap.
He whirled himself out of the hall, cloak billowing, and Thor regretfully put down the plate and went after him. "Your younger brother?" he said, catching Loki in the hall.
"One of my elder brothers," Loki said.
"What?" Thor said. "I thought you were Laufey's heir!"
"I am," Loki said, with a brief and irritated look. "At least, I was, until your idiot friends let my brother insult me with a trick a five-year-old could see past: now I'll have to work out some way to avenge it, or lose status. You don't know anything of us, do you?"
Thor, about to protest he knew a great deal about frost giants when it came to how to fight them, which was what mattered, realized belatedly that he did know a few things besides: he vaguely remembered one of his weary-eyed and sad tutors droning on about the Jotun hierarchy, and how they made their sons compete to establish their standing. He followed Loki out into a walled courtyard, full of shining ice, where a couple of frost giants were wrestling furiously in front of an interested audience.
They were both at least twelve feet tall, built on the lines of the ice beast; and one of them was wearing a large jeweled arm-band enameled in yellow and green. As they approached, he threw over his opponent and turned to meet Loki's approach with a grin full of teeth filed to points. "Well, littlest brother," he said, "enjoying your new kadinhrala?" He looked Thor up and down with an insolent expression.
Loki's eyes narrowed. Thor nudged him with an elbow. "What does that mean?"
"A cheap whore," Loki said coldly, never looking away from Drikjall.
"I thought it would be something like that," Thor said, letting Mjolnir slide down easily into his grip, and threw.
Drikjall sailed across the courtyard, through the wall, and collapsed in a heap of crashing icicles in the corridor beyond. He lay still. Thor caught Mjolnir returning to his hand, looked around at the watching frost giants, and smiled. "Anyone else have an insult to offer?"
The giants glanced at each other and then one by one retreated back into the blue shadows of the ice. A little disappointed, Thor looked over at Loki, who was standing with a pursed mouth still looking at Drikjall's limp body. "Is that all?"
"You do have uses," Loki said. "Come."
Thor glared at him and folded his arms; he wasn't going to trail around being useful to the Jotun. "Where?"
"My chambers," Loki said. "I suddenly have the irresistible urge to suck your cock."
"Oh," Thor said, and followed him.
There were six more insults of various sorts in the two days left before the feast. Thor dealt with all of them as summarily as he had the first. Loki was equally appreciative each time, so Thor found himself rather hoping for more, but the Jotuns began to be grudgingly polite after he knocked down Loki's eldest brother, who was roughly the size of the ice beast and had growths like spikes bristling from his shoulders and back.
"I don't understand," he said happily, his hand in Loki's hair while Loki's tongue slid delightfully over the head of his cock and made him shudder, "how did you overcome them all in the first place? You couldn't have fought any of them."
"Mmm," Loki said, distractingly.
When he'd done, he slid off and stretched beside Thor, wiping his mouth with the side of his thumb. "The quality of an insult matters," Loki said. "I spent ten years toadying each one of them into thinking I wished only to be his faithful servant, and then arranged a great feast to honor the bravest of my brothers, the most worthy to be heir, and persuaded them all that I meant them to be the honored one. My father and his nobles came in just as the whole feast devolved into an open melee and found all my brothers dripping food and hitting each other drunkenly. They all lost so much status that I became the heir."
"Ten years," Thor said, horrified.
"A small price to pay for a throne," Loki said. "My father certainly wouldn't have named me to it otherwise."
"But you're a great mage!" Thor said. "You restored magic to the very world — "
Loki looked at him strangely. "Do we seem a very cerebral people to you, then?" He gave a harsh laugh. "Your own father seems glad enough to have a great warrior for an heir, even if you haven't the least inclination towards statecraft."
"They might still be grateful," Thor said, trying not to be pleased by great warrior — he was, of course, but it seemed something of more meaning to be called so by someone who hated him.
"The nobility don't need to care," Loki said. "Oh, they miss the glory of their youth, but they haven't been starving in darkness the way our people have been. Besides," he shrugged one thin shoulder, "so long as I am the heir, it's only my duty."
The feast, when it finally came, was expansive enough to meet even Volstagg's dearest hopes. The guests regarded the Asgardians with mingled loathing and wariness, but no one offered another insult. Thor ate with pleasure of every dish placed before him, even the one extremely peculiar one with a pulsating red bulb like a tulip surrounded by waving leafy tendrils, which Loki informed him with a sidelong look was a particular delicacy. "There's rarely more than five found in a year," Loki said, laying the small bowl on Thor's plate with his own hands; no one else at the table was being offered the dish. "You're meant to eat it whole, in a single swallow, if you're willing."
Thor had drunk several large flagons of the Jotun icewine by then, and was willing to meet any challenge whatsoever. He picked up the bulb and tipped his head back and dropped it down his throat: a burst of sweet and salt brine together, like the fragrance of the wind come off the ocean, and a pleasant almost alcoholic heat in his belly afterwards. The table applauded all around as he belched enormously. "Excellent."
"I'm glad you enjoyed it," Loki said, and passed him another goblet of wine.
Thor had worked out, with his friends' help, a subtle plan to propose their return to Asgard; he had meant to tempt Loki with the promise of the citadel's library, and more council meetings — well, Loki was a strange one, after all — but on their way back to the bedchamber, he forgot the plan and blurted out, "We will return to Asgard on the morrow, now the feast is done!"
But Loki made no argument. "Yes, it will be just as well," he said, guiding Thor down to the bed. Perhaps he thought better to avoid the chance of his brothers trying some new scheme; in any case, Thor was relieved not to have to quarrel over it. Not that he cared for Loki's feelings, of course, but it would have wasted energy better spent on — other pursuits. He stripped off his tunic and dragged Loki down atop him to begin them.
Loki was especially inventive that night with his magicks. It had never previously occurred to Thor that spellcasting would have any use in bedplay, but he was grown to like it immensely. "Aaah," he said, lolling back with satisfaction in the shimmering cloud which had raised him into the air, that Loki might take him standing with all the improvement that position offered in the strength of the fucking.
"Again?" Loki said, panting, when he had spent.
"Yes!" Thor said emphatically. He was still drunk and glowingly warm, an intoxicated heat in his belly which had only kept building since the feast. Ordinarily he liked to have at Loki somewhat more than the reverse, even if only as a matter of principle, but tonight there was a great pleasure in lying back cradled in bliss while Loki worked upon him. And after all, Loki had yielded to him very thoroughly that morning.
He regretted his indulgence a little the next morning, when his head spun and his stomach overturned itself every time he tried to rise from the bed. But only a little, and after Loki had brought him another steaming potion of some sort, Thor felt a good deal recovered. They went together to make their formal farewells to Laufey, who looked narrowly at Loki as he asked permission to go. "My kadin wishes to be at home with his kin," Loki said, bowing, "and under the circumstances I feel it my duty to oblige him, Father."
"Very well," Laufey said, and grudgingly added, "I am pleased with you, my heir," which made Loki's eyes flash with satisfaction.
"That's a good way to leave," he said to Thor as they left the throne room. "It means none of my brothers can try to take my place while I'm gone. Come: you'd better have that apple now."
The apple finished settling Thor's aching head, and although the warmth in his belly lingered, it did so now pleasantly. He was still glad to return to Asgard, and to his own bedchamber; perhaps the change back and forth from Jotun shape was more wearying than he had realized, for he fell straightaway into his bed and slept nearly two days.
Loki was lying beside him when Thor awoke, asleep himself and looking Asgardian again. Thor looked at him with a more critical, proprietary eye this time: really, the Jotun wasn't half-bad-looking. And he did have certain gifts. Loki was not proving nearly so hard to manage as Thor might have expected, either: this marriage might not be the disastrous prelude to a war that Thor had imagined.
Then he sighed, realizing that meant he was back where he had begun: he still needed a chance to prove himself as war-leader. And if Jotunheim were now out of the running, where else was he to find an enemy ready to do battle with Asgard? If only one of Loki's brothers should usurp the throne, while they were gone, and then it would be splendid excuse to make war on them after all! But that seemed unlikely.
He left Loki sleeping and disconsolately sought out his mother, for her advice had ever been sage. "At least," he added, pacing her chambers, "Father cannot ever again make peace with a marriage-alliance, now I am wed: and Loki is not so dreadful, after all." He paused, turning: his mother was regarding him with a frowning, puzzled look. "What?" he said. "I do not mean to say I am glad for the marriage!"
"Come here, dear," she said, beckoning, and put her hands on his sides when he stepped to her.
Thor looked down, perplexed, and then she sat back, worrying her lip between her teeth, as she did when she had met some difficulty. "What is it?" he said.
"Well," she said, "I am glad you're so happy with your — prince."
"I am not happy," Thor said, indignant. "I am only doing my duty for Asgard as best I can."
"Hm," she said. "In that case, this is more self-sacrificing than you really needed to be, dear one. I think it's always best to have a few years of marriage first, at least, and even your father would never have demanded this of you."
"Demanded what?" Thor said. "What are you speaking of?"
"The child," Frigga said, and patted his belly.
"I am going to kill that forked-tongue blue-skinned weasel-bellied sniveller," Thor said.
"It's not my fault!" Loki said, diving for the floor as Mjolnir shot once again just past his skull. "I expect it must have had something to do with my using the casket, the mystical — "
"Enough of your lies!" Thor roared, as Mjolnir flew back to his hand. "You have done this to me deliberately!"
"Well, yes," Loki said, standing up from behind the bed.
Thor gawked, frozen with the hammer tipped back and poised for another throw. "You admit it!"
"Yes, fine," Loki said in bitter tones. "I've fallen in love with you, is that what you want to hear?"
"...what?" Thor said, even more horrified.
Loki flung back his head. "I knew you'd find a way to end the marriage, sooner or later," he said. "I was desperate. I knew I only had a short chance to bind you to my side. I took it."
Thor dropped his arms. He had no idea what to say. No one had ever fallen in love with him before. At least, not to the point of complete insanity, like the Jotun evidently had. He opened and shut his mouth several times. Then he said suspiciously, "Are you inventing that?"
Loki stalked across the room to him and caught his face with both hands and said, "Does this feel like invention?" and kissed him wildly and passionately, a fever of urgency behind the press of his lips. Mjolnir slid from Thor's grip and thumped to the floor. The windows shivered in their panes, and Thor feebly clutched at Loki's shoulders. What was he to do? He couldn't slay the Jotun for being in hopeless one-sided love with him.
Loki began to wrench away their clothing, providing an immediate course of action, which Thor took gratefully, falling into bed with him. "Have me," Loki said, lying back with heavy-lidded eyes, his whole body spread wide and yielding. "Please, if it will satisfy you, anything — " Thor flung himself on Loki at once to stop him making any more dreadful protestations of love.
Afterwards, they lay side by side in the bed, and Loki curled up against him and snuggled. Thor lay staring at the canopy, wide-eyed and appalled. "Do you feel unwell?" Loki asked, in a low husky voice.
"No!" Thor said. "I feel perfectly well. Stop asking."
"All right," Loki said, and then put his hand on Thor's abdomen. "He's sleeping, too."
"You can — wait, he?" Thor said.
"Yes," Loki said. "It's a boy."
"A son!" Thor said, pleased, and then remembered that he was the one carrying it. He scowled at Loki again. "If you ever again use your witchcraft on me — "
"I promise," Loki said submissively. "Are you sure you wouldn't like something to drink? Or eat? I could see if I could find another apple — "
"I need nothing!" Thor said.
"It's worse than that!" Thor said.
"Er," Fandral said. "Worse than being pregnant with his child?"
"Yes!" Thor said. "He's in love with me!"
They all stared as Thor quickly laid out the dreadful details before them. "Ah," Hogun said, after a moment, doubtfully.
"I too thought it might be a contrived excuse," Thor said. "But no! After he confessed, he flung himself upon me like a madman, and ever since he has been as solicitous as though I were a sickly maiden. He yields to my every wish! He thinks of nothing but my comfort! He must be made to stop!"
They had no suggestions. "Something must be done," Thor said. "I cannot keep hiding from him." But any time he was in Loki's presence, Loki would instantly spring to attention — to bring him a cup of water chilled just short of freezing, or a plate of tidbits, or a shade against the sun's heat, or offer to read to him —
"Ahhh," Volstagg said, reminiscently. "I was just so with my darling Gudrun's first." Thor glared at him. Volstagg coughed. "Until she hurled a pitcher at my head and threw me out of the house?" he offered.
"I put him out of the bedroom one night after he tried to rub my feet," Thor said. "He slept on the floor outside the door until I woke, then brought me a tisane he assured me would improve my temper. And I can't throw him out of Asgard: Odin won't allow it."
"Perhaps you must make clear to him that your strength is undiminished by your, er, condition," Fandral said.
"I thought of that, also," Thor said disconsolately. "But when I tried beating him, he only lay there and let me. I cannot strike someone who defends himself not and gazes at me besottedly."
"Perhaps it is for the best," Hogun said, wincing a little, "for if you had succeeded, I fear Odin would frown upon that as well. But if Loki were to witness you in battle against another foe — "
"There are those reports of storm giants preying upon travelers in the Withny Passes of Vanaheim," Sif said.
Loki protested mightily their leaving Asgard, even with the excuse — splendidly clever, if Thor did say so himself — of going to Vanaheim to commission a sword from the dwarves for the coming child. Thor at last stopped trying to convince him and merely dragged Loki out to the Bifrost bodily.
From there everything went exactly as planned, until the storm giants launched their assault, and Thor discovered to his horror that his balance was off. Of course, he was still a greater warrior by far than any of the giants, and he recovered swiftly from his first stumbling stroke to knock down two of them. But then another five of them came rushing down the mountain, hurling stones that knocked Sif and Fandral down. And when Thor tried to call lightning to his hand, Mjolnir balked, was the only way he could describe it: he felt the refusal as the shock of a warhorse planting its hooves and standing against the reins.
One of the giants bellowing leaped upon him, and Thor hastily swung instead, knocking the giant tumbling down the slope; but in doing so he overbalanced again and fell to hands and knees as three more reached him, Mjolnir sliding away over the stones of the road.
"Thor!" he heard Loki shout, and a thin narrow shaft of light went blazing by overhead: the nearest giant toppled with a hole in its throat still pumping out the last of his life's blood. Loki dived over Thor's back and rolled, coming up before the other three giants. They grinned down at him and then blinked as Loki's form blurred into a dozen copies of himself. As they swung their baffled enormous heads from side to side, he appeared from nowhere behind them and hamstrung them all, whirling between and among their legs with long wicked knives.
They collapsed yelling until Loki finished them off with more flung blades, viciously, and rounded back as Thor seized Mjolnir again. "Have you lost all sense?" Loki snarled at him, grabbing his arm to help him rise. Thor heaved to his feet and found the field empty: his friends were getting to their feet groaning, and Thor realized, in slow surprise, that Loki had slain more of the giants than any of them.
Of course Thor had been taken unsuspecting, and that would never happen again, but still — "Why," he said to Loki, "you are a warrior!"
"Yes, I can slaughter lumbering cows when the occasion calls for it," Loki said, unhanding him with a sneer. "Bad enough when that's a failure of creativity, and not the consequence of what was an utterly idiotic scheme to begin with. You fool, you might have been killed — "
He cut off abruptly, and Thor eyed him warily: Loki was staring at him with a sudden appalled expression. "What?" Thor said.
"This is not happening to me," Loki said through clenched teeth, and turned his back on Thor and stalked away, without explanation.
Thor blinked, and then turned to help Sif rise: her breastplate was badly dented by several of the rocks, and she gingerly pressed at her ribcage. "Three broken," she said mournfully. "And not even a kill to show for it." She looked after Loki, who was standing over the storm giants' bodies and doing something to them. "Thor, he can fight!"
"Yes!" Thor said. "Although it seems to put him in a wretched mood, I cannot think why."
"What is he doing over there?" Volstagg said, limping over to join them. A loud squelching noise sounded, and the chests of the storm giants all exploded: their hearts floated out of the standing ribcages, and Loki waved them into a box he had magicked out of somewhere.
Thor stared at the grisly shattered chests, and felt a sudden horrible sensation. "Oh, no," he said, fighting desperately, but it overcame him: he was abruptly leaning over and vomiting queasily upon the dirt of the road. "Augh," he groaned. He hadn't vomited since he was a boy of thirty-seven. Well, not for anything less than twelve bowls of mead, anyway.
"Oh, please," Loki said, stalking back past them: his box had been magicked away again. "It's only a little blood." He walked to his steed and pulled himself up. "Well? As long as we're here, we might as well finish this supposed plan of yours and go speak with the dwarves. They owe us for clearing out this nest, at any rate."
He jerked his steed around and started it going down the road. "Well," Hogun said after a moment, as they all stood watching him, "at least he doesn't seem to be being over-solicitous anymore?"
"No," Thor said, privately feeling that he would not have minded someone bringing him a cup of water at the moment. He hauled himself laboriously back aboard his steed, and they caught up with Loki down the road. Thor wiped a little clammy sweat from his brow as they rode onward and sighed. He would have beaten Loki far more soundly for his mischief if he'd known this child would take his power from him.
"Here," Loki said shortly, after a quarter-mile, and pushed a skin full of ginger-water into Thor's hand. Thor rinsed his mouth and spat twice, gratefully, and drained the rest of the skin dry. He looked over to say a grudging thanks, but Loki was almost hunched in his saddle with glowering mien, brooding as an angry cloud.
Thereafter, Loki became as eager to avoid Thor as he had been to haunt him, and as prickly as he had been accomodating. It was wretchedly inconvenient: Thor had suddenly been inspired with a nearly feverish hunger for bed-sport. At least on those occasions when he did manage to find Loki and drag him back to their chambers, Loki more than met his desires. Often they did not emerge from the bedchamber for a week at a time, after which Loki would once again vanish off into dark corners, leaving Thor to hunt for him as though stalking a white roe deer on Alfheim.
It was all the more disheartening that with his girth rapidly increasing, he could take no satisfaction in sparring to console himself for the lack of other pleasures. Mjolnir now more often than not refused even to be lifted in the battle-ring, and somehow managed to weight his arms so that even if he put down the hammer, he felt deeply wearied and disinclined to take up some other weapon.
"Have you enchanted it somehow?" he demanded suspiciously of Loki, the next time he had tracked him down: in a small tower room over the libraries, surrounded by piled books. They lay now among the spilled stacks, catching their breath.
"Of course not," Loki said, still panting. "The hammer is bound to your protection, and the child is presently a part of you, so it's not letting you do anything that would harm the babe. Stop fighting with it. There's only a short while more."
"Too long a while, if it was an hour!" Thor said, disconsolately. "And you keep skulking off like a troll for days at a time. As you have inflicted this upon me, you ought to stay and help me pass the tedium of it."
Loki paused and then said, stiffly, " — if you wish."
"I certainly do not wish to endure it alone!" Thor said.
"You have your dear companions, don't you?" Loki said. "When they aren't helping you devise delightful schemes for your entertainment that are likely to end in your death."
"That is different," Thor said. Then frowned: he was not sure why it was different. Of course Loki was not better company than his friends, but — but — well, his friends were warriors first, as was Thor, ordinarily. They had little to offer a man confined as he was. Not that Loki had more, except perhaps his magicks, or — "In any case, it is your fault!" Thor added. "So you have a duty to stay."
"Oh, very well," Loki said. "I'll think of some way to entertain you. Is there anyone at court you don't like?"
"What?" Thor said doubtfully.
"Someone who annoys you," Loki said. "Someone who grates upon your temper — what about that lout Dorthan?"
"Dorthan is perhaps not the best drinking-companion, but he is a good tracker," Thor said.
"Fine, what about Grethina?" Loki said. "Don't tell me you don't want to see that shrill harpy silenced."
"Ah, well," Thor said tolerantly, "she brews a fine jar of mead."
Loki grew annoyed after naming another dozen courtiers. "Enough," he said, "there must be someone you dislike at court. Think."
Thor thought on it a while, as Loki seemed so intent upon it, but shrugged at the last. "I can think of no one." He looked at Loki, who was sitting up and glaring down at him. "I am sure you will grow to be fonder of the court as you spend more time here in Asgard among them."
"No," Loki said. "I won't. You are utterly impossible."
"What would you even do if there were someone I disliked?" Thor said, with belated wariness. "What scheme are you planning?"
"There would be a dozen ways to make mock any one of them," Loki said, a flick of impatience in his tone. "But there's no point if it wouldn't make you laugh." He stopped, having said it, and scowled suddenly at nothing at all.
"Oh, ho!" Thor said. "Like the time Fandral put beet-root juice in old Borin's dark ale, so his beard turned pink when he drank, ha!"
Loki looked at him with a flat, unamused expression. "The last time I arranged to humiliate someone," he said, "the two of them woke up naked, suspended from a bell-tower by their ankles, covered head to foot in morel-honey and wrapped in bridal sheeting, being serenaded by a chorus of all their servants, who had been temporarily turned into large pink bullfrogs and were therefore unable to help them down. It drew quite an audience over the seven hours it took them to get loose."
Thor stared at Loki. "What had they done to you?"
"One of them seduced me," Loki said.
"You did that to a — another giant — for seducing you?" Thor said.
"Well, he didn't actually desire me," Loki said. "The other was his real lover. It was all a scheme to overthrow my eventual reign: they'd cuckold me and reveal it after I came to the throne." He waved a dismissive hand. "A little transparent, really."
"You could have just refused him," Thor said faintly.
"I didn't want to," Loki said. "I'd only just become the heir, no one had ever wanted to share a bed with Laufey's stunted shame before then." He shrugged. "So I took Pethas to my bed, and then took my revenge when I tired of him."
Thor lay looking at Loki and said after a moment, "You are never to make mock of anyone in Asgard ever."
"Ever," Thor said, with emphasis.
"Someone is sure to insult me eventually," Loki said. "I imagine they would have already, if they'd been able to think up an insult yet. I don't mean to be unkind to your countrymen, but they seem rather lacking in imagination."
"No one will insult you!" Thor said. "You are my — my — prince. And if someone should offend you, you will tell me, and I will avenge it in the ring."
"How boringly direct you Aesir are," Loki said, although his expression wavered half-pleased and unwillingly so. "That leaves me bereft of my usual resources for providing circuses. What else does one do in this realm for pleasure?"
"Fight," Thor said.
"Besides fight," Loki said.
So they ended up going for a quiet and peaceful stroll together, through the great forest of Serenalin.
It was Frigga's suggestion. Thor was prepared for crushing boredom, as he could no longer even draw an arrow properly to do a little hunting, but Loki somehow managed to keep him from despondency. He had a great many tales which Thor had never heard, and some which Thor had heard told wholly differently. And when tale-telling at last grew tiresome, there seemed to be no end to Loki's quick malicious wit, endlessly amusing even when the only subject for it was the small liquid-eyed brown rabbits and the chattering squirrels.
And then as night fell, Loki found them a way to a hidden grotto which Thor had never before seen. Beneath the stars and moon they swam in the deep warm water, buoyant, and Thor hung on to a ledge and groaned with pleasure as Loki's cock slid deep and satisfying into him, the small waterfall dappling their skin with spray as enormous pale green moths flitted about their heads.
Loki pillowed them upon the grass with his magicks, and Thor slept better than he had in two months, wakening only due to a hideous and agonizing stab of pain like being gutted with a hot claw-fork. He howled unashamedly, sending Loki instantly standing with hands encased in blades of ice before his eyes had even opened. "What — " Loki said.
"Auuwwghhh!" Thor yelled again furiously. "I am dying!"
Loki stared at him wildly, and then had the insufferable temerity to look annoyed, waving the ice from his arms. "You're only giving birth," he said. "Here, I'll help you up and we'll go back to the citadel — "
"I am not — aaaugh! — moving anywhere!" Thor said, groping feverishly for a fallen log and swinging it at Loki's head. "Stay away from me you thrice-cursed Jotun devilspawn, you did this to me!" He yowled again as a fresh pain seized his body.
"At the citadel there are healers who can numb the pain," Loki said, the cunning bastard.
"Then go and bring them hence!" Thor bellowed.
"Do you really want to give birth lying in the dirt?" Loki said.
"Yaarghrrrarg!!" Thor yelled and flung a rock.
"All right, all right!" Loki said, ducking: the rock managed only to clip his shoulder a little. "Stay here and — "
"What?" Thor said. "You are not leaving me!"
"I can't go to the citadel and stay here!" Loki said.
"Yes you can!" Thor said. "Do that — " he waved at Loki. "Aarugh!"
Loki looked doubtful. "I've never tried to split myself across so great a distance — "
"Neither have I!" Thor said savagely, through his teeth: it felt as though the child were trying to claw its way out. What if it were? Perhaps Jotuns were born with ice-claws on their hands! "And give me something to bite upon!"
Loki shut his eyes and a second shade of himself stepped away, looked at them both, and turning vanished into the forest: running, so at least the foul wretch was taking this a little seriously. Loki who remained brought him a cup of water, which Thor took great pleasure in drinking and then flinging the rest into his face, and then some fresh supple willow bark to gnaw, which helped not a great deal.
It took enough time for Loki to recite him one of the great eddas before Frigga arrived with several of the healers in tow, and the blessed magic settled upon him with their first hasty chanting. "Aahhh," Thor said, sighing with relief as the pain vanished. "Very well, now we may go to the citadel."
"I don't think there will be time," Frigga said, reaching for his clothing. "You seem to have slept through most of the labor, the child is very near coming."
"Coming from where?" Thor said belatedly, catching his tunic back from her in horror.
"Well," Frigga said mildly.
"No!" Thor said, and reaching out seized Loki by the throat. "Do something!"
Loki scrabbled at his hand and moved his mouth in a faint croaking that Thor interpreted to mean What?
"Anything!" Thor said. "Before your damned spawn carves its own orifice to come out of!"
Loki waved placating arms, and Thor grudgingly let him go, glaring as Loki put hands on his belly. "Hm," Loki said, a little hoarsely, coughing.
"Hurry!" Thor said.
"All right!" Loki said, and then frowning — pushed his hands inside Thor's belly.
Thor yelled before he realized it hadn't hurt, and indeed he could not feel Loki's hands at all: as though some insubstantial shade had floated through him. "What are you — " he said, not encouraged by the appalled looks on the faces of the healers.
And then Loki lifted out the child, as insubstantial as his own arms, then he and it became once more solid: he pulled away the thick slime of the caul and afterbirth, and the baby opened its mouth and shrieked in fury.
"There," Loki said, raising his voice to be heard over the indignant wails, and put the baby into Thor's arms, wet and slippery with blood and flailing its arms and legs in jerky movements.
Thor struggled to keep it from simply sliding through his grasp: it was so small it scarcely filled both his hands. "What is wrong with it!" he demanded of the healers.
"Nothing," Frigga said, like a madwoman: could she not see? She was trying to take the babe; Thor pulled it back indignantly. He was not giving the child to anyone who did not mean to help it at once. "Thor, we must clean him, and the wet-nurse should give him suck."
"He must be healed, not merely wiped with some rag!" Thor said. "Look how small he is, and red." He made the mistake of holding the babe out too far, and one of the healers swooped down and snatched it before Thor could react.
"Fourteen and a half pounds," she said, weighing the child in her hands, and turning to her fellows they began working upon it busily while Thor struggled up and discovered to his vast gladness that he felt already nearer himself: there was a strange hollow feeling in his belly, which sagged like an emptied pouch, but that was nothing. He cinched up his slack belt tightly and had his balance back, and there was strength returning to his limbs.
Steadying himself, he took a threatening step towards the healers, but they were already turning back to him with the baby wiped clean and laid on a swaddling cloth of white samite. Grudgingly he allowed them to persuade him the child was well: he could see now its fingers and toes were of the proper number, and the limbs well-formed, even though it yet squalled miserably.
"Very well," he said, "let the nurse have him, if you are certain he is not ill," and was further reassured that the nurse yelped when the child first seized upon her breast, and had to shift him to the other side after ten minutes.
"Well, I am glad I already meant to wean my twins this week," she said dubiously, "but I hope I will have enough milk: both of them together did not drink so much."
The baby indeed cried furiously when he had finished all she had, and had to be given a bottle of goat's milk, with a little fresh cider pressed from one of the golden apples, before he would at last be appeased.
Thor was immensely relieved to find himself almost at once back in form and still more when his mother delicately inquired whether Thor preferred to stand as the child's mother — Thor shuddered in horror — or with Loki as a father. "Of course you will be welcome to see him any time you wish," Frigga assured him, "but we'll find him a foster-mother, who will take charge of his education until he is seven and ready to begin training in arms."
"Yes," Thor said thankfully, and was able to hold the babe with a glad heart at his naming: Magni Thorson — a good name and a strong one. Thor beamed when he held Mjolnir out above the baby's head, and Magni stretched out a tiny hand and gripped the handle as best his fingers could manage. "He will be a great warrior," he said to Loki exultantly.
"He shows a little promise," Loki said, aloof, though he watched the child with a hungry look. He stepped forward and took Magni into his own arms without hesitation, when it was his turn, and when Magni complained amused him with small enchanted butterflies in colors of black and white and red, which Magni gurgled after and delighted sought to snatch out of the air.
Thor resigned himself to enduring their marriage henceforth as a settled thing. He could scarce cast off Magni's — other progenitor; his son needed a — a — second parent; another to hold his name foremost in his heart. So Loki was a Jotun: one could not ask all things in a marriage of state. For the sake of his son, and for Asgard, Thor would have to bear it, and find what consolation he could.
"And you will bear the next child," Thor added to Loki, that evening, after several rounds of consolation.
"nngnh," Loki said drowsily.
Thor lay back with a sigh of satisfaction and folded his arm beneath his head, having gathered Loki in against him with the other, and pillowed his dark head upon his shoulder.
They would go to Jotunheim on the morrow, and present Magni for his naming there as well; Thor did not anticipate it with any pleasure, of course, but there would be the ice beast to be ridden — he was certain Magni would shriek with joy at the speed — and fishing beneath the ice in the northern ocean, which Loki had promised him would be sport such as he had never seen; perhaps Loki's brothers would try and challenge him again, and together they might go and look at the ice canyons after all —
How quickly all his idle imaginings had turned to ruin — how quickly all had ended.
The door of the cell clanged brutally as it came down. Thor felt the impact as a blow to his chest, and it ached there even as the echoes carried down the hallway. On the other side of the cell, Loki righted himself from the back where he had stumbled from the ungentle hands of the guards and whirled to face Thor and Odin through the enchanted glass and steel, his eyes wide and blazing with fury over the cold black metalwork of the muzzle. He flung himself at the door and pressed his hands against it as though to try and find some weakness that was not there to be found.
"Here you will do no more harm," Odin said to him, grim, "until there is time to make you answer for what you have done." Turning away, he gripped Thor's shoulder. "We have little time. I go to summon the Valkyries. Gather our armies upon the Bifrost, and make ready to go. You shall lead us."
"Yes, father," Thor said. Odin walked away.
Thor did not at once follow him. War lay before him at last — and not just any war, but a shining and noble war in the defense of helpless Midgard, against a truly vile and monstrous foe who deserved all that he could do. The Chitauri were not even true warriors; they cared for nothing but to wreak destruction and leave slaughter in their wake. The command of Asgard's forces had been given into his hands. And his heart was dull and clenched with misery.
He slammed both his fists against the door, setting it trembling; Loki jerked back a step from it. "How could you do this?" Thor roared at him. "How could you betray all your oaths — betray even our own son!" He was panting fiercely as though he had come from a long footrace, over mountains. "How could you — " He stopped and stood back from the door, letting his bruised hands fall.
Loki glared at him, as though he were the one with a right to anger, and clawed at the muzzle which held him silent and powerless. His efforts availed him naught, and he let his own hands drop to clench at his sides. Thor half wished to smash down the wall, to rip the muzzle from him and squeeze excuses from his throat.
But there could be none. Heimdall himself had seen Loki speaking with the monstrous death-loving lord of the Chitauri, pointing him the way to Midgard.
Thor heaved a breath. "Nothing more than I ought have expected," he said bitterly, "from a Jotun."
Loki lunged forward and slammed his own fist against the glass wall, a terrible savagery in his eyes and his face twisting with passionate rage. Thor looked on him and could not help but remember him in other moments of passion: the sweet fierce struggle of their coupling; the glittering coils of Loki's deadly sorcery twining about him; wrestling with Loki in sunlight upon the green sward of the high meadows, only last week, as Magni slept upon the blanket beside them, and they both laughed as at last they came together. A sob burst his throat, and the hot tears slid from his eyes: had he been such a fool, to love a Jotun?
"I have been," he said, wretchedly, "— I have been such a fool, to love you; and I would have loved you all my days."
Loki stopped pounding upon the glass; his hands flattened out and he stared at Thor. Then suddenly his eyes went wide, and he waved a frantic arm, both arms, and though suspecting a trick, Thor turned, only just in time, to take the ice blade through his belly and not through his back into his heart.
Loki's brother Drikjall stood above him, wrenching back the bloody blade; two other frost giants stood behind him. Thor clapped a hand over the blood spilling from his side, and with a roar smashed Mjolnir to the ground before them: the shuddering wave took them from their feet, and even as Thor sank to his knees the alarm sounded.
"Leave him!" one of the other giants said, getting back upon his feet. "The Destroyer will be on us in a moment." He brought out the Casket of Ancient Winters and blasted the door with it. Thor heard the heavy distant clang of the Destroyer's feet approaching as they smashed open the cell and Loki, still muzzled, flung himself out past their hands towards him.
Thor swung Mjolnir at Loki, trying to take his legs from under him, heedless of the blood that gushed from between his fingers. "We must go now!" Drikjall said, seizing Loki by the shoulder as Loki leapt back from Thor's swing, barely evading. The clanging was near now, and shouting came from above: the guards were racing back. Loki turning seized the Casket from Drikjall's hands: he opened it on Thor, and ice swept like a cold wave over his body, sealing him away.
But Loki closed the Casket too soon; the flesh of Thor's body was numbed, and his heart beat slowly as a long roll of thunder, but he was not slain. From within the sheath of ice, he watched helpless and unmoving as Drikjall dragged Loki away into the dark corner of the hallway: a shadow deepened, and then they were gone; the guards came running too late.
Thor roared to Sif, "Draw the left flank nearer in!" as he led another party against the next of the machine-toothed serpents: there seemed no end to their numbers.
He bled from a dozen wounds, none grave; battle-rage numbed whatever pain they might have given him, that and cold. Three days and nights had they striven upon the field with the Chitauri, here in the bitterly icy regions of the southernmost part of the world; Thor did not know why they had launched their assault here, but he was glad; there were no mortals here to be slain.
The ice of the Casket had kept in his blood, so despite Drikjall's treacherous wound, Thor had been strong enough, when the healers had taken him out and swiftly worked upon the cut, to take up the command. But he could take no joy in it.
He understood now the dreadful plot which Loki had unfolded, all beneath his foolish blind eyes. When the Chitauri were defeated — if the Chitauri were defeated — Asgard's warriors would be worn down to the quick. They would be easy prey, then, for the strong and rested army of Jotunheim, and Loki would himself lead the way. He would sweep conquest over Asgard, and from there come here to Midgard, and take all the other realms as well in turn.
Thor could only hope that they would meet once more, upon the field; that he would have one final chance to make answer to Loki for what he had done and repay his treason. Thor hoped for the chance, and hoped he would have the strength to do it, though his heart shied like a terrified horse if he tried to envision striking Loki down.
He did not need to think of it now. Perhaps he would fall here, to the iron blades of the Chitauri. "Thor!" Fandral shouted, and pointed to where Volstagg had carved him an opening in the defenders: Thor summoned lightnings to follow him and with Mjolnir leading smashed through the great serpent's teeth and into its belly, burning his path outward and seeing the enormous bulk of it falling away beneath him.
The blue-limned portal shuddered once more and opened even wider: to his dread Thor saw a new kind of foe, a many-tentacled beast each limb the size of one of the serpents, escorted and surrounded by twice the number of Chitauri than they had already felled. This, then, was their final cast: he thought he saw upon the creature's head the vile lord who commanded them — the one to whom Loki had betrayed them all.
Their final cast, but Thor looked back at his own ranks, thinned already of so many noble warriors, and he knew they had not the strength to meet it. He raised up his eyes to where Odin stood overlooking the field, on Sleipnir, with the Valkyrie his final guard, and when their gazes met saw that Odin knew it also.
Thor drew a breath. So: they were warriors of Asgard, and they would make a song of their dying, to be a light after them: he lifted Mjolnir in the air and roared his defiance, crying to them, "For Asgard and the Nine Realms!"
"For Asgard!" they cried back to him in one voice. "For Asgard!"
He turned to meet the monstrous thing as it came forth and put its hideous twisting limbs upon the ice, hordes of Chitauri streaming from its back and accompanying its landing. It came through all the way even as the front ranks came pouring to meet them, and the portal at last shut behind it; the final massive army and the monstrous towering beast of iron, like a city given life and roused to slaughter.
And then a sudden gleam of white shone out from the air, behind the Chitauri; even as the first ranks came and Thor began to smash them apart, he saw that shining light grow and spread and take on all the coruscating shades of ice, and from the dazzle suddenly came marching rows on rows of the warriors of Jotunheim, towering over even the Chitauri and armed with great mauls and blades. A dozen massive ice beasts sprang forward roaring and hurled themselves upon the back of the tentacled fortress, and began to rip at it with stabbing claws.
Thor stared, his mouth open, as the Chitauri began slowly to turn to meet the threat come all unsuspected upon them from behind. But they moved too slow, and the legions of Asgard had not vanished; they were pinned between two great armies now, and even their numbers could not suffice to let them overcome so great a disadvantage of ground.
Thor shook off his astonishment and flung himself up and onto the great fortress, smashing away all the weapons which blazed from its back one after another as he climbed towards the summit. More formidable warriors met him, and now sorcerers too, their hands wreathed in enchantments. Thor dodged one blast after another, and struck them down with Mjolnir; but at last one well-aimed fireball took his leg from beneath him, and shaking his head he found himself looking up at one Chitauri sorcerer bearing a great staff of power, its face swathed deep within a hood.
"Your death will be a great gift to my master's lady," the creature said to him, hollowly, and raised the staff; then it stiffened, and fell after a moment forward before him, a thin-bladed knife rising from the base of its skull — and Loki was behind it.
Thor lunged up, heedless of the pain in his leg, and seized Loki by the arm. "You!" he roared with rage. "Loki, you — " he stopped, battle-fever clearing a little, and then he said with sudden half-broken hope, "Loki, you changed your mind."
Loki struck him in the face and knocked him to the ground. "I didn't change my mind, you idiot!" he howled at Thor. "This was the plan!"
"What?" Thor said, staring up at him.
"You wanted a war, didn't you?" Loki said. "You wanted to prove yourself a war-leader! So I found you an evil army of monsters to fight!"
"Loki!" Thor said, in dawning wonder, "Loki — you did this for me?"
Loki glared down at him. "And then you threw me in a cell! With a muzzle!"
Thor ignored that and leapt to his feet and seized Loki in his arms. "You love me!"
"You didn't even ask!" Loki said. "You just shoved the thing in my mouth and — mmrmph," he said, and "mmrph!" again, and then "Mrrrmghr!" and "Grrmrmaphr!" but Thor paid none of them any mind, and kept kissing him until at last Loki buried his hands in Thor's hair and kissed him back ferociously.
"I have not forgiven you," Loki added, panting, when they broke.
Thor kissed him once more and said, "Come, beloved," his heart swelling with joy, "we will slay this dark lord together, and win this day a great triumph for Asgard and Jotunheim both!"
Later, when the day was won, Odin met them on the ruin of the many-legged fortress. The red severed hand of the Chitauri overlord yet twitched upon the floor at their feet, though the coward had fled their wrath at the end. Thor sat upon his seat, and Loki's hands were cool as they bound his wounds with healing ice and magic. Thor leaned over and nuzzled at the side of Loki's neck a little as he worked, though Loki batted at him impatiently. "Loki," Thor murmured, low and lovingly; he was eager to get him to bed.
Odin cleared his throat; Thor looked up and saw him. "Father!" he said, joyfully. "Father, the day is ours, and all is made well: Loki intended this, all along. Ow! What?" He looked at Loki, who had kicked him in the ankle.
Odin looked at them both. "Did he," he said, in the dry tones which generally meant Thor had fallen asleep for some portion of a lesson. Odin turned and looked down at the field.
Thor followed his gaze. The battlefield lay spread with corpses in every direction as far as the eye could see, dark upon the snow. The limbs of the fortress and the enormous dead hulks of the serpents were encircled with the gold-armored bodies of Asgardian warriors and the blue of frost giants, and the ice everywhere, which the giants had used for weapons, stood in glittering pillars around them like tomb-monuments. Not a single Chitauri stirred living: they had destroyed their army entirely.
"Yes?" Thor said, uncertainly. He did not understand. It had been a glorious battle, and they were victorious.
Loki muttered something under his breath, then turning said to Odin, "Thanos had been hunting the Tesseract a thousand years. He was coming for Midgard, sooner or later."
"And now it was sooner," Odin said.
"Well — " Loki said, "did you really expect to unite Asgard and Jotunheim without a shared battle?" He gestured to the field, where all together now were laboring to gather their dead.
"Ah," Odin said mildly. "Well, now that you have brought us all together in the unity of shared loss, I am sure the two of you will be only too glad to take upon yourselves the guardianship of those children orphaned this day."
"What?" Thor said, eyes widening. "Father, we already have Magni!"
"And our daughter who will be," Loki added with equal urgency.
"And our — what?" Thor said. He stood. "Loki!"
Odin said, even more mildly, "I am sure the two of you will somehow contrive."
"But, Father, there are ten thousand warriors fallen this day!" Thor said. "We will scarce have the time to turn round — "
"Yes," Odin said. He turned and descended from the fortress without another word.
Thor slumped back into the high seat and sighed. He had always envisioned the aftermath of his first victorious war as a great celebration, his father granting him the laurel wreath of the conqueror before the assembled throngs of Asgard. He didn't understand why his father was so annoyed. Very well, so Loki had brought the Chitauri upon them; but his arguments had been entirely sensible.
Loki slumped beside him. "What by the Grey Sisters are we going to do with ten thousand squalling brats?" he said.
"I suppose we might make of them a special training corps," Thor said, after a moment. "The elder may guide the younger; and we will take them with us in a troop from Jotunheim to Asgard, when we go from one to the next — it will let them practice marching." He paused. "What?" he said.
Loki was staring at him. "That's — quite clever," he said.
"Ah," Thor said, striving not to be pleased. Then he remembered that he loved Loki, and beamed at him freely instead. "I am glad you think so."
"We'll call it the Princes' Corps," Loki said thoughtfully. "I imagine they'll be fanatically loyal when they grow up."
Thor sighed; loving Loki did not, it seemed, make him any more comprehensible. He added, remembering, "But why did you not tell me of the child! I would not have handled you so ungently if only I had known."
Loki rolled his eyes. "I haven't conceived her yet," he said. "I thought telling Odin might get us out of the guardianship."
"Oh," Thor said, a little sadly; he had begun already to imagine a little girl with Loki's dark hair, running after Magni and squealing with delight as he flung her into the air.
Then he stopped and looked at Loki. "Yet?" he said, hopefully.
Loki stared back at him. Then after a moment he said, "Oh, all right. Let's go find a tent somewhere."