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Two souls are sometimes created together and in love before they’re born.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned


Thor stretches lazily and blinks against the bright morning sun. His mind is quiet, his body relaxed, and the soothing rush of a nearby waterfall dares to lull him back to sleep. He had been dreaming of Earth. Thor can still remember the feel of Banner’s hand on his shoulder, Stark’s attempt at a reassuring smile, the viridescent glow that swirled around them in the darkness…

Not a dream, he thinks drowsily. The Time Stone.

Everything comes rushing back at once, a tidal wave of memories, and Thor sits up fast enough to make his head spin. Dizzily, he looks around his bedchamber in near-disbelief. His bedchamber. The sun is shining through the billowing sheer curtains, bathing the entire room in a soft, golden glow. The wardrobe is open and he can glimpse the pieces of armor and clothes that have either been neatly hung upon their hooks or carelessly tossed onto the floor. Near the entry to the bathing chamber, sitting alone atop an ornate bureau, is Mjølnir.

Thor is hesitant to climb out of bed, afraid that the moment his bare feet touch the marble floor, the spell will be broken and the scene will dissolve into mist around him. He closes his eyes—both of which are once again his own—and breathes deeply in an attempt to center himself and calm his nerves. This is what we wanted, he thinks, but a part of him never believed that it could actually work.

Drawn to the sight of Mjølnir, Thor finally clambers out of the enormous four-poster bed and lets the bedsheets fall into a heap on the floor. When he reaches out to run his fingertips over the hammer’s metallic grooves, he half-expects his hand to fall right through it, as if it were one of his brother’s illusions, but Mjølnir is cool and solid beneath his touch. Thor wraps his fingers around the handle, the worn leather soft and comforting, and lifts it with ease. He can’t help but smile as he tosses Mjølnir high into the air, reveling in the feel of its return down, the gravitational pull as familiar as breathing. We did it, he thinks. I’m back.

He dresses in a hurry, mindlessly reaching for whatever garments he first lays his eyes on—the sleeveless black tunic not one he remembers specifically, but it suits his style well enough—before taking a moment to inspect his appearance in the vanity mirror. It’s like peering through a window into the past.

Only twelve years into the past, if Stark had calculated correctly, but those few years had felt like a lifetime. Thor runs his fingers through his long, sleep-mussed hair. This is the length he had worn it throughout most of his adult life, but he had recently grown accustomed to the cut he received, rather unwillingly, on Sakaar. He finds an elastic in the vanity’s top drawer and ties his hair back loosely, just to get it out of his face.

Excitement and anxiety twist together in the pit of his stomach as he opens the door and steps out into the corridor. He’d watched as this palace, along with the entirety of Asgard, was engulfed in the flames of Surtur, but here it now stands, just as Thor remembers it—bright and golden and bustling with people. He recognizes most the faces he passes on his way to the throne room, and he returns their waves and smiles enthusiastically.

Asgard becomes more real with every step he takes, and he begins to feel almost delirious with anticipation. He is going to see his mother again. And his father. Heimdall. Lady Sif. Fandral and Hogun and Volstagg.

He is going to see his brother.

Thor had barely allowed himself to imagine being reunited with Loki, terrified of hoping for the near-impossible, but the plan worked and the Time Stone brought him home. Thor’s chest aches with how badly he needs to see him. He yearns to hear his voice, see his smile, pull him into a hug and feel him, real and warm and alive, in his arms. Loki won’t have any knowledge of those twelve years—no one, save the few that were there when the Stone was used, would know of the cataclysmic event that had come at just the snap of Thanos’ fingers—but it won’t matter.

He knows that Thanos was far from the only source of strife between himself and his brother—Loki had spent years grappling with the jealousy and resentment that eventually poisoned their relationship—but Thor refuses to lose Loki again. There will be other things to deal with as well, feelings far too complicated to put into words, but they’ve been given a second chance and Thor is confident in his ability to make everything right between them before it ever reaches a breaking point.

He wonders how the others are so far handling being hurled into the past. Thor imagines teary reunions between friends and covert conversations between should-be strangers. Some would have more difficult tasks in the coming months than others—Thor remembers Natasha’s solemn offer to help Rogers find the childhood friend that would once again be in Hydra’s clutches, after Rogers himself is rescued from the frozen arctic—but each of them will have to carry the knowledge of what they lived through. All the pain, hatred, love, and loss that never happened will remain real in their memories. It is a burden they will all share, and one that will bind them together for the rest of their lives.

Thor descends the palace’s serpentine staircase toward the throne room where Odin holds court every morning. Frigga can usually be found there as well, standing dutifully at her husband’s side. When they were young, Thor and Loki’s daily presence was also expected, but once they reached adolescence they often chose to only attend court for ceremonial services and other important announcements. Thor would typically spend his mornings sparring in the training yard, but Loki hardly ever joined him there. Truthfully, Thor has no idea where Loki should be during Asgard’s early hours, and he feels a pang of guilt at the lack of interest he had taken in his brother’s life during these years.

He decides to take his preferred shortcut—a royal family secret that loops around the outer edge of the palace and leads directly to the throne room. Thor ducks through a nondescript door and into the narrow passageway. The walk is still fairly long, but Thor remembers how he and Loki used to race each other down the corridor as children, breathlessly accusing one another of cheating once they finally reached the end of it.

Thor wonders if Hela would scurry through all of Asgard’s hidden passages the way he and Loki so often did. It is difficult to imagine her as a child. Did she play with dolls? Would she sneak into the kitchens to look for sweets? Did she ever slide down the terrace railing, knowing that it was against the rules? And when she overshot her landing, scraping her knobby little knees against the coarse concrete, would she cry? Thor can see her in his mind’s eye—a scrawny wisp of a girl, giggling as she darts between servants and soldiers, her long black hair streaming out behind her.

When Thor reaches the throne room, he takes a moment to ready himself at the door. Odin doesn’t miss much, and if Thor allows himself to be consumed with emotion, there will certainly be questions. The Avengers had unanimously agreed that no one else should know about the timeline reset. At least, not right away. Thor will probably tell Loki someday. Perhaps not everything, but there are things he wants his brother to know, things that Thor cannot bear to live with alone.

Some hurts cannot be undone, even with an Infinity Stone.

Thor takes a deep breath, pushes the door open, and steps inside. The morning’s proceedings have evidently ended—the hall is mostly empty, save for a few chambermaids and lingering courtiers. Odin is nowhere to be seen, but standing at the foot of the dais, merrily chatting with a small crowd of ladies, is Frigga.

Thor’s heart soars at the sight of his mother. She looks as regal as ever with her hair pinned up in a crown of golden ringlets and her pale blue gown spilling across the floor like water. She is accompanied by her usual coterie—Brana, who is Volstagg’s mother and Frigga’s closest friend, Mildri, a palace librarian, and the twins, Ingrid and Ygritte, so alike in both manner and appearance that Thor has never been able to tell them apart. When the heavy door bangs shut behind Thor, they all turn to look at him.

“Good morning,” says Frigga, and Thor rushes toward her, giving no regard to the other ladies who scuttle out of the way like a flock of disturbed sparrows. “If you’re looking for—oh!” Her words are cut off as Thor throws his arms around her waist and lifts her into the air.

Frigga laughs breathlessly as Thor gently lowers her back to the floor. He stoops down just enough to press his face into the crook of her neck, breathing in the familiar fragrance of her perfume and fighting back the tears that he feels welling in his eyes. He feels like a child again, for just a moment.

“Isn’t that sweet,” remarks Mildri, as Frigga disentangles herself from Thor’s embrace.

His mother’s expression flashes from surprised amusement to sober concern the moment she is free to look on his face. “Thor,” she says, laying a hand upon his cheek. “What’s wrong?”

“Come along, ladies,” says Brana, looping her arm through Mildri’s. “It seems that Thor would like a private word with his mother.”

Frigga gives Brana an appreciative nod, and the tiny congregation departs in a flurry of whispers.

“I’m all right,” says Thor, struggling to regain his composure. “It was only a dream. A nightmare.” But it was not a dream. It was real. He remembers all too well the sight of her body crumpled on the floor, his father stroking her lifeless face, the burial ship burning bright against the black horizon… Loki had not even been allowed to attend the funeral.

“What sort of nightmare?” she asks gravely. “Dreams can often be prophetic. Your father—”

“It was nothing like that,” says Thor. “I’m sorry for worrying you.” He rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. “Where is everyone?”

“Your father should be in the ravenry,” she says. “And your friends were by not too long ago. The Lady Sif said that you never made it to the training yard this morning.”

“And Loki?”

His mother’s brow furrows in confusion and Thor feels his heart sink. No, he thinks. He was here. He was alive. Twelve years ago, he was home and safe. Electricity pulses over Thor’s skin and Frigga takes a startled step back.

“Where is Loki?” Thor asks again, making no attempt to hide the desperation in his voice.

Frigga begins to reach out for him, but seems to change her mind when another crackle of lightning skitters across his closed fists.

“Thor,” she says gently. “Who is Loki?”

· · · · · · · · · ·

In the palace infirmary, confined within a glittering protective ward, Thor is a raging storm. Lightning currents ripple over his skin as he struggles to understand how everything could have gone so terribly wrong. He knew that changing the course of history would have consequences, but he never could have imagined a possibility quite like this.

Who is Loki?

Frigga’s words echo in his mind. Thor needs to fix this. He needs to go to Earth and find the others. How much else has been changed for the worse? Loki is not here. The universe has surely been tipped off balance.

First, he needs to calm down enough to convince Eir to let him leave. Thor understands the concern—his powers at this time in his life were still a bit unruly and difficult to wield without the aid of his hammer, but he hasn’t been truly dangerous since he was a child.

Thor can remember one disastrous sparring match in particular—he was on the cusp of adolescence, strong and quick, but not yet settled into his abilities—where he scorched half the training field. Fandral had recounted the chaotic scene over that night’s supper in the mead hall. Volstagg and Sif both seemed impressed, if a bit wary, but Loki had just silently stared at Thor with dark eyes before excusing himself for the evening. Sif had assured Thor that Loki was simply jealous, to the agreement of everyone else at the table. The following morning, Odin presented Thor with Mjølnir.

When Eir reappears, she unceremoniously drops the ward with a wave of her hand.

“I’m not getting back into the Soul Forge,” says Thor.

When Frigga first brought him to the infirmary, he was forced to lie awkwardly on his back for the better part of an hour while the palace physicians hovered over him. Satisfied that Thor was in no immediate danger, Frigga had gone to talk to Odin before the entire palace was buzzing with speculation and gossip.

“I can’t find anything wrong with you,” says Eir.

“You don’t need to sound so disappointed.”

Eir ignores him and places a finger beneath his chin, lifting his head and shining a beam of light into each of his eyes, one after the other, watching his pupils dilate. She had already done this. Twice.

“Do you still feel disoriented?” she asks.

“No,” Thor lies. “I feel fine.”

The light goes out and she sighs. “Are you at least going to tell me about this dream you had?”

“I’ve already forgotten it,” he says. “I really am feeling much better.”

“You do seem to have your powers back under control,” she admits.

Thor flashes her the most reassuring smile he can manage. It must not be very convincing—she still looks doubtful, but before she can make a decision on whether or not to free him, Lady Sif appears in the doorway.

“Sif!” Thor vaults off the bed and rushes right past Eir. “I’m so glad to see you.”

“What’s going on?” asks Sif. “Everyone is worried. Your mother said that you’re not feeling well. And your powers—”

“I’m fine,” he says. “Listen, I need to talk to you. It’s important.”

“Of course,” she says. “What is it?”

Thor glances pointedly toward Eir, who is now flipping through a physiology tome on the other side of the room. Sif nods in understanding, and strolls toward her.

“The Allfather wishes to speak with Thor in his chambers,” says Sif. Eir only lowers her book and frowns, looking between the two of them suspiciously. “As long as you deem it safe for him to leave, of course,” she quickly adds.

Sif is a brave warrior and a loyal friend, but she has always been a rather useless liar, which is why Loki was always Thor’s usual accomplice for such schemes.

Luckily, Eir doesn’t seem eager to press the issue. She lets them go, making Thor promise to return right away should he feel the slightest bit unwell.

Once they are out of the infirmary and down the hall, Thor grabs Sif by the arm and drags her into an empty alcove. “Sif, I need you to tell me everything you know about Jotunheim.”

“Jotunheim?” she asks, wrenching her arm free from Thor’s grip. “Is this about the stolen Casket?”

“The Casket of Ancient Winters? It’s been stolen from the vault?”

“I don’t know anything about a vault,” says Sif. “Although I’m sure Laufey kept it locked away—”

“Laufey?” asks Thor. “My father didn’t have it?”

“What would Odin want with a Frost Giant relic?”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” says Thor rubbing his temples. “What about the war?”

“Maybe taking you out of the infirmary wasn’t such a good idea after all.”

“I’m fine,” Thor insists. “Just tell me about the Casket again. Please. Start from the beginning.”

“You know more about all of this than I do,” she says. “Did you hit your head? Is that it?”

“Hit my—what? No. I’m all right, Sif, but this is important. I really need your help here.”

Sif stares at him for a long moment, as if she’s deciding whether or not to to entertain his apparent madness. Then she sighs, folds her arms over her chest, and leans back against the wall.

“The Casket of Ancient Winters was stolen from Jotunheim a few weeks ago,” she explains. “The Frost Giants are in a frenzy. Laufey is convinced that it was the Fire Demons, though how they could have managed to enter Utgardhall in the first place, let alone slip away with the Casket, remains a mystery. Everyone agrees that Jotunheim and Muspelheim are on the brink of war. Of course, without the source of their power, the Frost Giants don’t stand a chance.”

Thor stares at Sif, stunned. Their use of the Time Stone has clearly altered much more than he had prepared for. Odin never took the Casket during the war—if there even was a war—and it had remained on Jotunheim. As had Loki, evidently. Thor remembers the somber conversation he had with Frigga just after they’d lost him. The first time. When he fell into the abyss beneath the Rainbow Bridge, only to be plucked up by Thanos.

Your father found Loki after the battle, Frigga had said with tears in her eyes. Laufey left him to die, but Odin brought him home and placed him into my arms. He was so small and so alone. I fell in love with him instantly. As did you. Did I ever tell you how you and your brother shared a cradle? I had one made for Loki, of course, but you would both cry whenever we tried to separate you…

“So, Laufey is preparing for war,” says Thor. “A war that he is likely to lose. What of his army? Surely the Frost Giants do not solely rely on the power of the Casket.”

“Thor,” says Sif, clearly becoming exasperated. “Most of what I know of Jotunheim is what we learned from our tutors as children. The Frost Giants are fearsome warriors, to be sure, but they are also prideful, contentious, and prone to cruelty. They have no true allies, no friends who will come to their aid, and the delicate peace that exists between Jotunheim and Asgard hinges on a treaty that was forged a millennia ago.”

Thor leans back against the wall, trying to imagine a Jotunheim that never lost the source of its power. He remembers the dreary, barren world as he knew it. What would it look like now? And if Loki survived infancy—assuming he was born at all—he is no longer Thor’s brother, but the son of his father’s enemy. Loki probably wouldn’t even be called by the same name. As far as Thor knows, it is one that was chosen for him by Odin and Frigga. Thor knows that he must consider his next words carefully.

“What of Laufey’s… inner circle?”

“How would I know anything about that?” she asks, bewildered. “The King of Jotunheim is certainly not inviting me to his war councils.”

Thor is clearly going to have to abandon any pretense if he wants the information he is looking for. “Does he have any children?” he asks.

“Just the one, as far as I know,” replies Sif. “The crown prince.”

“What’s his name?” asks Thor. “How old is he?”

Sif shrugs. “I have no idea.”

“I need to find out more about him,” he says, more to himself than to Sif.

“You should talk to your father,” she says.

“I was actually hoping to avoid that.”

“Well,” she says, after a moment of consideration. “There’s always Heimdall. I can’t imagine he hasn’t been keeping an eye on Jotunheim.”

“Heimdall,” says Thor. “Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?” If anyone can tell him about this prince who may or may not be Loki, it’s him. Thor will also need to go through Heimdall if he wants to get back to Earth and regroup with the others.

“I should have gone to him right away,” says Thor. Sif raises an eyebrow and he hurries to add, “Not that you haven’t been helpful—because you have been. Very helpful. Indispensable, even. As always, Lady Sif.”

For a moment, Sif only gapes at Thor’s awkward declaration. Then she asks, “Are you finally going to tell me what’s going on?”

“Sure,” says Thor, and Sif’s eyes light up in anticipation. “The Casket of Ancient Winters has been stolen. Laufey blames the Fire Demons. Jotunheim and Muspelheim—”

“Fine,” says Sif, rolling her eyes and pushing off the wall. “Just try not to get yourself killed.”

“Sif,” he says, reaching out to stop her from leaving. “I can’t tell you. Not yet. But I may need your help soon, and when that time comes I promise that I will explain everything as best I can.”

Sif’s expression softens then. “You’d better hurry if you want to catch Heimdall in the Observatory,” she says. “It's getting late.”

· · · · · · · · · ·

It’s nearing dusk by the time Thor enters the Observatory. He finds Heimdall standing with his back to the entrance, leaning on his great-sword, with his boundless gaze turned upon the cosmos.

Thor is struck, not for the first time, by the magnitude of such abilities—ten trillion lives all within his view. If Heimdall had survived that first encounter with Thanos, he would have seen half that number snuffed out in a mere instant. Even Thor had been able to sense the sudden emptiness of the universe in that moment, he cannot imagine how such a thing would have felt from Heimdall’s perspective.

“Are you feeling better?” asks Heimdall.

“Not really.”

“Something is different,” says Heimdall. “You have everyone worried.”

It doesn’t feel right to lie, but what other choice does he have? “I had a vision,” says Thor.

“Premonitions, like prophecies, weigh heavily on the mind,” says Heimdall, finally turning to face him. “Your father knows that well. As do I.”

“You’ve had premonitions?” asks Thor.

“Dreams,” says Heimdall, letting his gaze drift back to the windowpane and the galaxy that lies beyond it. “You’ve come to ask about Jotunheim.”

“Yes,” says Thor. “Did you see who took the Casket of Ancient Winters?”

“I’m afraid not,” Heimdall admits. “The thieves were well concealed, even from me. The Casket was in Utgardhall one moment and gone the next. I have heard whispers from Muspelheim, but the Casket itself remains hidden from me.”

“Then, Laufey is right to suspect the Fire Demons.”

“Indeed,” says Heimdall. “What do your dreams tell you?”

“I am still trying to make sense of everything,” Thor says honestly. Heimdall is far beyond the reach of manipulation, but he has occasionally been persuaded to break Odin’s rules for a cause that he deems worthy. “Can you tell me about the Prince of Jotunheim?”

“Laufey’s son,” says Heimdall. “Loki.”

The sound of his brother’s name comes as a shock. “His name is Loki? Are you certain?”

Heimdall nods, and Thor marvels at how such a thing could be possible. By what odds would Laufey give him the same name? “What is he like?” asks Thor, struggling to ignore the hammering of his heart.

“The prince is the same age as you,” says Heimdall. “He is a capable spell-weaver and prone to mischief, but he is also far smaller than the other Frost Giants. Laufey keeps him close, but he does not seem to particularly value his son’s presence at court. The prince holds very little power in Utgard.”

Thor’s mind begins to conjure up images of a Jotun prince with his brother’s face. Loki, lithe and clever, violet lips curved in a devious smile, deft blue fingers gripping an ice-dagger behind his back, snowflakes melting in his long black hair…

“I have kept a cautionary eye on Laufey,” says Heimdall. “But the Nine Realms are vast and my sight is often spread thin. I may not have kept as close a watch on Jotunheim as I should have.”

Thor nods in understanding. One man cannot possibly be expected to catalogue every single event in the galaxy. Thor finds himself wondering if Heimdall—the other Heimdall—saw what Loki had done just after the shadow of Thanos’ ship fell upon them, before the Black Order boarded the Statesman and their world erupted into chaos. The memory makes Thor feel uneasy, as it always does, and he pushes it out of his mind.

“I need to use the Bifrost,” says Thor.

“Jotunheim is forbidden,” says Heimdall. “You know that.”

“Actually, I was hoping to go to Midgard.”

“Midgard?” Heimdall is not easily blindsided, but Thor’s words have clearly caught him off guard.

“I need to speak with a man named Tony Stark,” says Thor. “I’m not sure where he is, exactly. California, maybe. Or possibly New York.”

Heimdall arches an eyebrow. “This man was in your vision?”

“I know this doesn’t make any sense right now,” says Thor. “But I need you to trust me.”

“It is not a matter of trust,” Heimdall says gently. “I cannot allow you to go to Midgard without your father’s permission. If you have foreseen some danger—”

“We have protected humans for thousands of years,” says Thor. “It may be unprecedented, but there is no law prohibiting me from visiting Earth.”

“It is unlike you to want to keep something like this from Odin.”

“You don’t tell him everything you’ve seen either,” Thor points out. “Only you can know when discretion is necessary. Heimdall, I will be back before anyone even notices I’m gone.”

And upon my return, everything will be as it was. I can still fix this. I can still bring Loki home.

“You don’t have Mjølnir,” notes Heimdall.

“I’m not expecting a fight.” While this much is true, Thor also fails to mention that he no longer needs Mjølnir. Not really. Not anymore. “I told you—I only wish to speak with someone.”

Heimdall gazes at him—radiant amber eyes seeming to burn right down into to Thor’s soul. It reminds him of how, when he and Loki were children, his brother was convinced that Heimdall was clairvoyant.

He can read our minds, Loki had once whispered, glaring at Heimdall suspiciously from across the mead hall. He always knows exactly what we are planning.

That’s just because he hears us talking, replied Thor. He can see and hear everything in the whole entire universe.

Loki had scrunched up his nose and asked, Do you think he watches people kiss?

“I will not lie to my king,” says Heimdall, the words shaking Thor from his memories. He watches as Heimdall turns on his heel and approaches the Observatory platform with Hofund in hand. “I will tell him where you’ve gone if he asks, but I will say no more than that.”

Heimdall slides his sword into the Bifrost portal and Thor smiles at the small victory.

Chapter Text

Thor can tell that something is wrong the moment he arrives on the beach below Tony Stark’s mansion. Even with the Pacific waves crashing loudly against the rocks, he can hear music and voices drifting down from above. Thor finds it hard to believe that one of the first things Stark would do is throw a party, but when he bounds up over the cliffs in a flurry of lightning, he sees that is exactly what’s happening.

Thor circles the property, sticking to the shadows and ducking between the trees until he reaches the furthest part of the road. There, he steps out onto the pavement and strolls toward the mansion with as much nonchalance as he can muster. White and yellow lights pass over him as cars trickle down the street with their their tops down and their stereos blasting before pulling into the gravel driveway where the drivers hand their keys off to the waiting valets.

The front entrance is crowded with guests all waiting to be let inside. Thor feels slightly ridiculous as he gets in line—his sleeveless leather tunic doing very little to help him blend in. Luckily, no one seems to pay him much attention.

A young man—evidently the bouncer—stands at the front of the line just outside the doors to the mansion. He has a tiny plaque pinned to his jacket that reads Darius and he doesn’t so much as look up from his tablet when Thor approaches.

“Name?” he asks.


“Is that a last name?” asks Darius, swiping his finger across the screen.

“Thor Odinson.”

Darius taps his tablet a few more times before finally looking up at Thor with a frown. “You’re not on the list.”

“I need to talk to Tony Stark,” says Thor. “It’s important.”

Darius looks thoroughly unimpressed by Thor’s request. “Look, man,” he says. “If you’re not on the list, you’re not getting inside.”

“We work together,” says Thor. “Would you please just tell him that I’m here?”

Darius gives Thor a long, withering look before finally touching a finger to his earpiece. “Miss Potts? I’ve got someone out here claiming to work with Mister Stark. He’s not on the list.”

“Potts?” asks Thor with a smile. “Pepper Potts? She knows me.”

He suddenly remembers that Pepper doesn’t actually know him. Not anymore. She had been one of the losses that came after Thanos had used the Infinity Gauntlet. One night, Tony had guiltily confessed to Thor that that somehow had made it worse. Thor understood the sentiment, having had lost everything dear to him before Thanos even had all of the stones.

“He says you know him, Miss Potts.” says Darius. “Yeah, his name is Thor Odinson.”

“You know,” says a woman from behind Thor, “some of us actually are on the guest list and don’t feel like spending the entire night out here on this line.”

“I’ll ask him,” says Darius before looking pointedly at Thor. “Were you at the Rainforest Alliance Gala?”

“Um,” says Thor. “Yes?”

Darius looks skeptical, but he repeats Thor’s answer to Pepper anyway. Thor knew navigating the past wouldn’t be easy, but he didn’t expect to be so spectacularly bad at it. He knows that he is going to get inside one way or another, but he would prefer not to cause a scene.

“Okay,” says Darius, then he taps his earpiece one last time and tells Thor, “Miss Potts says that you can go in.”

“Thank you,” says Thor, smiling with relief.

Darius’ gaze travels down Thor’s body and back up again before he arches an eyebrow and asks, “Leather, huh?”

Thor feels the color rise in his cheeks as he quickly exits the line and makes his way toward the door. If he’d known what to expect upon his arrival, he would have taken the time to get his hands on a change of clothes.

Once inside, Thor focuses on his goal of finding Stark. He’s no stranger to Midgardian celebrations—he’s attended cocktail parties with Jane’s work friends, holiday celebrations at the Avengers Tower, and even a few wedding receptions—but despite all his experience, he’s slightly overwhelmed as he makes his way through the mansion. The music is so loud that the baseline pulses through Thor’s entire body as he weaves his way through the crowds in search of the host.

He wanders aimlessly for nearly twenty minutes, unable to find Stark—or anyone else he recognizes for that matter. Losing patience quickly, he eventually ends up on the patio near the pool. There, he grabs a cold beer from an ice bucket and pops the cap off on the edge of the table.

It was only yesterday that they were all together at the New Avengers Facility in New York. Of course, yesterday also happens to be twelve years from now. Thinking about that for too long is enough to make his head spin. He remembers sitting in the conference room, holding the bright green Time Stone for the first time, turning it over in his hands and watching the way it caught the light. It was the only Infinity Stone to survive. This is how we get everyone back, Stark had said. We return to the very beginning of all of this.

Nothing here on Earth seems particularly amiss. Thor cannot imagine that the others would be willing to reset time once again, especially considering how dangerous their first attempt was. Loki growing up on Jotunheim, a stranger, would seem like such a small sacrifice. Though, it doesn't feel small to Thor.

Can I truly justify rearranging the universe for just one man?

Thor downs his beer all at once before tossing the empty bottle into a nearby recycling bin. When there is a sudden uproar of cheers, Thor turns to face the commotion and is met with the sight of Tony Stark staggering onto the patio with a bottle of champagne raised high in the air. Thor has to push through the excited crowd to reach him.

“Stark,” says Thor, clasping him by the shoulder. “What the hell is all of this?”

“Easy there, pal,” says Stark, wrangling himself out of Thor’s grasp. “Let’s keep our hands to ourselves.”

“Where is everyone?” asks Thor in a harsh whisper. “Rogers? Banner?”

“Look, man, I have no idea who you’re talking about.” Stark snaps his fingers and points at Thor. “Can someone get this guy a drink?”

Thor stares at Stark, stunned. “You don’t remember me,” he says.

“It’s nothing personal,” says Stark, shrugging. “I meet hundreds of people a week.”

“You don’t remember,” repeats Thor. “But—where is the Stone?”

“What stone?” asks Stark. “Hey, are you all right? You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine,” he says, but he’s not fine at all. He feels dizzy. None of this makes any sense. They were all supposed to remember. “I’m sorry.”

“No hard feelings,” says Stark. “Have you met Clara?” He gestures toward one of the women in his entourage—a pretty brunette in a too-short dress and heels that look painful to walk in. “She’s a model.”

“I’m an actress,” she says, folding her arms over her chest.

“Why don’t you help my friend here find somewhere quiet to sit down?” he asks her. “Maybe get him a drink of water.”

“Do I look like one of your assistants?” asks Clara, but Stark’s attention is already elsewhere as he waves to someone across the patio.

“You two have fun,” says Stark, absently patting Thor on the back and walking away without so much as a last glance at either of them. Clara sighs and stalks off in the opposite direction while Thor can only stare after Stark in utter disbelief.

Feeling defeated, Thor grabs another beer and wanders back into the house. He finds an unoccupied couch and settles into it to consider his options.

If not with Stark, the Time Stone must surely be in the possession of Doctor Strange’s order of sorcerers. The only other Master of the Mystic Arts Thor has ever met was a man named Wong, and their acquaintance had been brief. Wong had come to the compound to counsel the Avengers against using the Stone—all but pleading with Stark not to disrupt what he called the natural law—but it went to a vote in the end. Wong refused to take part in the ritual, but he did leave behind the book that acted as their guide. They only discovered it sitting atop Stark's desk after Wong had already gone. It wasn't quite permission, but it was something.

“I’ve never seen anyone look so miserable at one of these.”

Thor looks up to see Clara standing in front of him, one hand on her hip and the other wrapped around a martini glass.

“I’m not miserable,” he lies.

Clara drops down onto the couch beside Thor. “Don’t let Tony get to you,” she says. “He’s always like that.”

No, he’s not, thinks Thor.

“He’s a good man,” she says. “Always hosting fundraisers and donating to charities. He cares about people, you know? Giving his money away to sick kids and refugees. What’s your name again?”


“Is that European?” she asks. “My personal trainer is German. He’s not half as fit as you, though. What do you do anyway?”

“Look miserable at parties,” says Thor, and Clara laughs. He knocks back the rest of his drink.

“Hey,” she says. “Do you want to go make out in one of the empty bedrooms?”

Thor blinks at her, taken aback by the sharp turn in their rather one-sided conversation. When he doesn’t reply, she simply shrugs and says, “That’s okay. I don’t really want to either. My boyfriend broke up with me last week, you know.”

“I’m—uh—sorry to hear that.”

“The day before an audition,” says Clara. “Would you believe that? I did all right anyway. Well, I didn’t get the part. But they said I did all right.”

Thor has no idea how to respond, so he says nothing. He knows that he should probably return home; he isn’t going to find any answers here and the longer he’s gone, the more likely Odin is to discover his absence. Stark has no idea who he is, and the same is likely true for the others as well. Thor needs to sleep. Maybe in the morning he’ll have some new ideas on how to deal with all of this.

“I’m not really into science fiction,” continues Clara. “That’s what the audition was for—a new sci-fi series. I like real stories about real people, you know? I mean, this script was weird—time travel and parallel universes and stuff like that.”

“Parallel universes?” asks Thor, remembering how Strange was supposedly able to use the Time Stone in order to glimpse thousands of possible futures. “Do you mean alternate timelines?”

“I guess,” she says. “I could hardly understand it. It's by J.J. Abrams, though, so I guess it'll do all right.”

The Avengers had extensively discussed the risks—temporal manipulation, after all, was not something to be toyed with on a whim. Banner was especially blunt regarding the dangers, saying, If we fuck this up, we may end up fracturing spacetime itself. Time loops, paradoxical dimensions, and alternate, branching timelines were only a few of the possibilities of what could go disastrously wrong.

“I like some sci-fi here and there,” admits Clara. “I chopped off all my hair after seeing The Astronaut’s Wife. I was fifteen and thought I’d look just like Charlize Theron, but my face is much too round to pull off that kind of—hey, where are you going?”

“I have to go,” says Thor. “It was nice to meet you.”

His thoughts are a whirlwind as he makes his way for the exit. Thor is well aware of the basic theories of the multiverse, but to the best of his knowledge, no one has ever actually traveled between concurrent timelines. The idea of there being other, slightly varying versions of himself always made him uncomfortable.

Even if their use of the Stone has indeed thrown them into some sort of parallel reality, it still wouldn’t explain why Stark has no memory of it. We do this together, Rogers had said. It’s the only way.

Thor is stopped by yet another familiar face just outside the front entrance. It takes him all of ten seconds to realize that Colonel Rhodes, who is dressed in civilian clothes and looking much younger than the last time he’d seen him, doesn’t know who Thor is any more than Stark does.

“Hey,” says Rhodes, only slightly out of breath from catching up to him. “Tony was looking for you.”

“For me?” Thor asks doubtfully. “Are you certain?”

“Well, I don’t see anyone else who looks like Patrick Swayze in a leather tank top,” says Rhodes. “He just wanted me to make sure you’re okay, that’s all.”

“Oh,” says Thor, oddly touched. “I’m fine.”

“You leaving?” asks Rhodes. “If you want, I can have a driver—”

“No,” says Thor. “Thank you, but I already have a ride home.”

As Thor makes his slow walk back down the gravel driveway, his thoughts wander back to Loki, as they so often do beneath the night sky. It always seems to remind him of their last moments alone together—when they had stood side by side in Thor’s quarters, staring out at the stars.

Only an hour later, Loki was dead.

We have to evacuate our people, Loki had said when Thanos’ ship appeared. I thought there would be more time to prepare for this.

Then, in one lightning-quick movement, Loki closed the distance between them, wrapped his hand around the back of Thor’s neck, and dragged him into a rough kiss. Thor had stood completely still, stunned at the feel of Loki’s mouth against his own. He had come to believe that nothing Loki did could shock him anymore. He was wrong.

It was true that his brother was never one for open displays of affection—but more bewildering than that was the distinct lack of anything particularly brotherly in the way Loki kissed him. It was so unlike the tender, gentler kisses that Thor had shared with others, but there was also no demand—or opportunity—for reciprocation. It was as though all he wanted was for Thor to feel it, even if that meant it had to hurt.

It did hurt. Loki’s lips were a bruising pressure against his own and there was a desperate sort of urgency to it. Loki’s blunt nails bit into the back of Thor’s neck hard enough to leave marks. It had lasted no more than a few seconds—before Thor’s mind could even comprehend that he was, in fact, being kissed, Loki wrenched away and fled the room without a word. Thor had watched him go, believing that it must have been a part of some twisted game, some way confuse or distract Thor from whatever mayhem Loki somehow managed to bring upon them.

It hadn’t occurred to Thor that there could have been some sincerity in Loki’s kiss until their confrontation with Thanos was well underway, and by then it was too late. Never had Thor felt such a sense of sickly terror as he did upon seeing Loki draw his dagger in a final, desperate act of defiance. In that moment, Thor understood. Loki had known that he was going to die. He had known it from the moment Thanos’ ship appeared. The kiss wasn’t a trick or distraction. It was a farewell.

Thor had struggled against his binds, screamed against his muzzle, and desperately tried to unleash the storm raging inside him, but it was all to no avail—he could do nothing but watch in abject horror as Loki was strangled to death right in front of him.

Hours later, aboard the Benatar, he had still been able to feel the indents that Loki’s nails had left in his skin. Thor had absently run his palm over the nape of his neck and discovered them there—tiny crescent moons that proved the kiss was real and not imagined. He’d held himself together just long enough to duck of sight of Rocket and Groot and into an empty storage room. Once there, he sank to the floor, hugged his knees to his chest, and wept.

It’s raining by the time Thor is back on the beach where he calls for Heimdall. He waits for the Bifrost and lets the sound of waves crashing against the rocky shore soothe him.

The memories twist together gruesomely in his mind and he turns his face up to the sky, allowing the rain to wash over him. He can feel Loki’s warm breath ghost against his lips, hear the sound of his lifeless body hitting the floor, feel the sudden expulsion of air as the ship is torn apart around them. I wanted to die there, he thinks, running his fingertips over the back of his neck and wishing he could still feel the marks Loki had left there, wishing that he’d been strong enough to save him, wishing that he had at least kissed back.

It isn’t long before the Bifrost takes him back to Asgard’s Observatory. Heimdall does not ask how it went—he only warns Thor that Odin is aware of his trip to Earth before hauling Hofund onto his back with a yawn and retiring to his private chambers.

Weary from the day’s events and disappointments, Thor wants nothing more than to crawl into his own bed and fall into a dreamless sleep, but first he makes a quick stop in the palace library. He finds it deserted—everyone having left for the night—but he manages to locate a few books on theoretical astronomy that may prove useful.

Upstairs, Lady Sif and Volstagg are waiting for him outside his bedchamber door. They’re side by side on the floor with their backs to the wall and a near-empty bottle of what looks like Contraxian rum sitting between them. When they see Thor, they quickly scramble to their feet.

The sight of Volstagg is a welcome one, and Thor greets him with a friendly embrace.

“Where have you been?” asks Sif. “We spent half the night looking for you.”

“And the other half drinking,” says Volstagg, his admission punctuated by a hiccup.

“Is everything okay?” asks Thor.

“I did some investigating after our conversation this morning,” says Sif. “You’re never going to believe what news just came from Jotunheim.”

“Has there been an attack?”

“No,” says Sif. “Laufey plans to send an emissary to Muspelheim.”

“Where did you hear that?” asks Thor.

“We may have snooped around the ravenry a bit,” says Volstagg. “What news travels through Asgard that does not travel by raven, after all?”

“The envoy is Laufey’s son,” says Sif. “The crown prince.”

“Is Laufey mad?” asks Thor, shocked. “Why would he send his own son to Muspelheim? He must know that Surtur has never been receptive to peace negotiations. My father has been trying for thousands of years.”

“I agree,” says Sif. “He’ll surely be taken captive.”

“If he’s not killed on sight,” adds Volstagg. “The Fire Demons have no reason to fear the Frost Giants now that they have the Casket of Ancient Winters in their possession.”

“When is this meeting?” asks Thor.

“Within the next few days,” says Sif. “There wasn’t much in the letter we found.”

“Jotunheim will be nothing more than ashes before the year is out,” says Volstagg, shaking his head sadly.

“I fear that Surtur won’t stop there,” says Sif. “A victory against Laufey will embolden him.”

“Any planet may be his next target,” agrees Volstagg. “Nidavellir. Midgard. Vanaheim.”

“Asgard,” adds Sif, gravely.

No one mentions Ragnarök by name, but they’re all certainly thinking it. The prophecy has hung over their world like a dark cloud for longer than Thor has been alive, and every man, woman, and child knows that Surtur has sworn to someday bring fire and destruction to Asgard.

“They must not be allowed to conquer Jotunheim,” says Thor.

Even if this happens to be some alternate timeline that Thor doesn’t belong in, he is here now, and there are people who need his help. Thor isn’t going to abandon them to their fate, nor allow his brother to risk his life confronting Surtur alone. He may not be the same Loki that Thor knows, but it is some version of him, and he is clearly in danger.

“But what can we do?” asks Volstagg.

“I will speak with my father in the morning,” says Thor. “In the meantime, we should all try to get a decent night’s sleep. I have the feeling we will want to be well rested for whatever tomorrow brings.”

· · · · · · · · · ·

Thor’s morning is mostly uneventful. Needing to speak with his father, but not quite willing to make an appearance in the throne room, he spends the early hours alone, only stepping out to grab some breakfast from the kitchens before retreating back to his chambers.

He sits at his desk, picking at a sweet roll and absently flipping through one of the books he had taken from the palace library the night before. There is, unsurprisingly, not much here of any use—only the familiar theories and speculation about the nature of the multiverse that Thor has read before. There is nothing to confirm the possibility of inter-dimensional travel, let alone instructions on how to achieve such a thing.

Thor is going to have to find Doctor Strange’s sorcerers. They were in possession of the Time Stone before Thanos, and will hopefully be able to help him figure out what exactly has gone wrong. He may need to recruit Heimdall for help in tracking them down.

In the meantime, there’s the impending conflict between Jotunheim and Muspelheim. Balancing his search for the Stone while preventing interplanetary warfare will be no easy task. Thor is going to need a plan. He rustles through the desk drawer for some parchment.

Despite his initial intention of only jotting down what he specifically remembers about the Time Stone, Thor soon finds himself cathartically writing down every thought as it comes—Thanos, the multiverse, the Masters of the Mystic Arts, The Casket of Ancient Winters, Asgard’s war with Jotunheim—the words spill out onto the parchment in an inky stream of consciousness that goes on and on until his hand begins to cramp.

When a palace guard finally knocks on the door to inform him that his presence is requested in Odin’s chambers, Thor is surprised to find that he has filled almost four pages. He stuffs the papers into the top drawer of the desk and heads out to see his father.

The king and queen’s chambers are the most extravagant in the palace by far. Odin has a study, a private council room, a dressing suite, a bathing chamber, and plenty of space for resting or entertaining guests. Frigga’s are mostly the same, and between both sets of rooms is their shared bedchamber.

Thor is unsurprised to find his father waiting for him in the council room. This is where Odin has always preferred to hold the discussions that are deemed too serious for the study, but not serious enough to warrant a meeting in the throne room. Growing up, Thor and Loki knew that being summoned here meant that they were sure to receive a scolding.

The massive gold table takes up most of the space in the sparsely decorated but well-lit room. Odin is seated in his usual chair, a book spread open on the table in front of him and a chalice in his hand. In the center of the table is a flagon of wine.

“How was your visit to Midgard?” asks Odin, closing his book.

“Enlightening,” says Thor, pulling out the chair opposite his father. “I went to a party.”

“You disappeared from the infirmary without a word to attend a party—on Earth—while half the palace is convinced that you have been put under some dark spell.”

Thor reaches across the table for the flagon and spare cup. “Asgard protects the Nine Realms,” he says. “If I am to rule someday, I should know these worlds as well as you do.”

“You will find no glory on Midgard,” says Odin. “They do not remember us. Once we were worshipped as gods—they prayed to us in temples, carved statues in our likeness, made sacrifices in our honor—but now, we are no more than legend. Myth. A story that parents tell their children.”

“They worshipped us because we protected them,” says Thor.

“That’s right,” says Odin.

“From the Frost Giants.” The wine is a too-sweet red. Thor has always preferred ale or mead. “Jotunheim attacked Earth with the Casket of Ancient Winters. The very relic that has now been stolen from Utgard.”

“Have you learned something about the Casket?” asks Odin. “Something you wish to share?”

“No,” says Thor. “I just can’t help but wonder why you didn’t take it for yourself when you defeated Laufey. It would have ensured their compliance in the treaty and made it impossible for them to attack Earth again—or us.”

“I did consider taking it,” he admits. “But ultimately, I decided not to. I knew that without it, the very foundation of Jotunheim’s civilization would crumble. I wanted peace, not submission.”

“That Casket is the source of their power. Without it, Muspelheim will easily overpower them.”

“And so?” asks Odin.

“And so, you showed them mercy once before. It's not merciful to let them be slaughtered now.”

“I seem to remember you suggesting we do just that. ‘Let the monsters destroy each other.’ I believe those were your words when we first discussed this. Why the sudden change of heart?”

“I’ve been… reading,” says Thor.

“Reading.” Odin’s gaze feels like a challenge.

He knows I am lying, thinks Thor. “I’ve learned a great deal about Jotunheim,” he says. “They are a formidable people, Father. If we offer them aid, perhaps we will then be able to forge an alliance—”

“You would send our people to fight a war that does not concern them?” asks Odin. “You would risk Asgardian lives for Jotunheim?”

“Muspelheim is a far greater threat to us than Jotunheim is. What if this is just the beginning? If the Frost Giants are conquered, which they will be, where will Surtur look to next? What if this all leads to Ragnarök?”

“Is that what this is about?” asks Odin. “Did you dream of Ragnarök?”

“I’ve seen it,” he says, remembering how Surtur emerged from the palace in a blaze of fire. Aboard the Statesman, he had watched as his home world was completely obliterated, hoping with all his heart that Loki had somehow made it out in time.

“I have seen it as well,” admits Odin. “But the Norns have assured me that it is not yet near.”

Thor stares at him, wondering if he knows that it is his own children who will cause Ragnarök. With so much now changed, perhaps it will be different this time.

“Underestimating Laufey would be a grave mistake,” continues Odin. “It is with good reason that one of the stipulations of our treaty is that no Frost Giant may enter Asgard. Our truce is a fragile one—it always has been. Laufey is arrogant, cruel, and hungry for power. If given the opportunity, he will not hesitate to tear us down.”

“Laufey is not the only life on Jotunheim,” says Thor. “If we don’t help them, millions will die.”

“Then they will die,” says Odin. “This is not our war.”

For just a moment, Thor hates him. He hates his secrets, hates his lies, hates the unaffected manner in which he resigns Jotunheim to its fate. He hates everything about him.

The moment passes.

“I am impressed with your newfound interest in diplomacy, Thor. Believe me, I am. One day you will be king, and ruling is far more complicated than swinging a hammer in battle. But you are young, and you do not know the Frost Giants as I do.”

“You’re right,” says Thor. “It would not be fair to ask our people to fight a war they have no part in.”

“I'm glad that we have reached an understanding.”

“And that is why I won’t ask them,” says Thor, pushing out his chair out and rising to his feet. “I am going to Jotunheim alone.”

“I have not given you leave to go anywhere,” says Odin. “You are the heir to Asgard. You will not throw your life away on a foolish quest to—”

“Then you will have to put me in chains and throw me into the dungeons!” shouts Thor. “I will not stand aside while an entire race is massacred.”

His father’s anger is palpable. Thor’s words hang in the silence for what feels like a very long time, but can be no more than a minute.

“Then, go,” Odin finally says. He takes a long drink from his chalice and re-opens his book.

Absurdly, Thor feels guilty as he turns to leave. He has led armies into battle, traveled to the far reaches of the galaxy, and even rearranged time itself, yet it still feels wrong to disobey the Allfather.

Thor lingers at the door, looking back at Odin. “Father—”

“You have made your intentions clear,” says Odin. “Now, get out of my sight.”

It is not how Thor wants to leave things, but he has no choice. I tried to convince him, he thinks. There's nothing more I can do. Loki needs me.

Chapter Text

The Bifrost takes Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three high into the mountains of Jotunheim, landing them onto a frozen plateau opposite Utgardhall. A long, snow-dusted stone bridge crosses the gap, connecting the twin peaks and leading right up to the great iron gates of the palace.

Far below, nestled between the two mountain summits, is the coastal city of Utgard. Standing at the precipice and gazing down, Thor can just barely see the steepled roofs and winding roads. In the mostly-frozen bay’s harbor are a number of colossal ships, each one at least thrice the size of a drakkar.

Aside from the scorched runes the Bifrost has left behind, every inch of ground is covered in thick blankets of white snow, undisturbed and glistening in the faint sunlight. Flurries drift down around them, and while the air is brisk, it's not the biting cold that Thor remembers from his last visit.

Everyone’s attention is drawn to the magnificent palace looming just across the chasm. What Utgardhall lacks in breadth, it makes up for in height. Silvery-blue and angular, it juts high into the sky, the tips of its spear-shaped towers disappearing into grey storm clouds.

This is where Loki grew up, thinks Thor. It’s a disconcerting thought. Thor may have slipped into this timeline only a few days ago, but the same cannot be said for his brother. For Loki, it’s been a lifetime. A life without Asgard, without their parents, without their friends.

A life without me. As selfish as it may be, that’s what hurts the most. What have I done?

“Well,” says Volstagg. “No use standing around waiting to get frostbite.”

“By all means, after you, then,” says Fandral. “I’m certainly in no rush to face a horde of Frost Giants.”

“We are not here for a fight,” Thor reminds them. “We are here to help.”

“We’re also trespassing,” says Sif. “They may take our presence as a threat.”

“Heimdall is watching,” replies Hogun. “If they overwhelm us, he can bring us back.”

“Let’s go,” says Thor, pulling his cloak tightly around him and starting toward Utgardhall.

The others quickly follow suit, the bridge wide enough to allow all five of them to walk abreast, with room yet to spare.

“You needn’t worry about the Frost Giants, my friends,” says Volstagg, tossing his axe from one hand to the other. “I’ll protect you.”

“If I recall correctly,” says Fandral, “it was I who protected you from that Rock Troll on Alfheim.”

“I would have had him,” says Volstagg. “Hogun will tell you. I was a moment away from taking the upper hand. Tell him, Hogun.”

“Alfheim was so long ago,” says Hogun, and Volstagg frowns. “Although… I do seem to remember seeing you pinned down and relieved of your axe.”

Fandral laughs and Volstagg’s indignant protest is quickly cut off by the blare of a horn from within the palace gates. The long and ominous note echoes off the mountains and shudders across the bridge.

“How kind of them to herald our arrival,” Fandral says dryly.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” says Sif. She wraps a gloved hand around the hilt of her sword, but does not remove it from the scabbard at her hip.

The iron gates creak open, allowing three Jotun guards, mounted upon monstrous white wolves, to come barreling through. Thor steps forward just enough to place himself in front of his friends.

“Halt!” shouts one of the riders—evidently the highest ranking, judging by his enormous silver helm and position ahead of the others. “Come no further!”

“We mean you no harm,” says Thor, letting Mjølnir drop to the ground and passively raising his hands into the air. “I am Thor, son of Odin. My companions and I have come to seek an audience with your king.”

The commander reins in his wolf once close enough to loom over Thor. “Odinson,” he says. “What are you doing on Jotunheim?”

Thor recognizes this man; they had met on his last and only trip to Jotunheim. Loki had fought and even killed him, if Thor remembers correctly. They had nearly started a war that day, and now Thor is here to prevent one.

The Jotun looks much the same, apart from his attire. All three guards are garbed far more elaborately than Thor would have expected—they wear leather shoulder guards, bracers embossed with runes, fur sashes, iron belts and boots and helms. The distinct lack of cuirasses or brigandines leaves much of their blue skin completely exposed to the elements. Still, it's proper armor, even if too sparse and revealing by Asgardian standards.

“With all due respect,” says Thor, “I would prefer to tell Laufey that myself.”

“We are not in the habit of allowing Asgardians free roam of our kingdom.”

The wolf stares down at Thor with piercing blue eyes. When it snarls, baring huge fangs that drip saliva, Thor cannot help but be reminded of Hela’s wolf. That beast had been black though, and these are all as white as the snowflakes ambling down to melt into their fur.

“It's in regards to the Casket of Ancient Winters,” says Thor.

“What do you know of that?” demands one of the Frost Giants in the rear. “Did you have something to do with this treachery, Odinson?”

“I did not steal from Laufey,” says Thor, his patience wearing thin. “I am here to help him.”

The commander considers him for a long moment. Thor cannot say that he is surprised by his skepticism. Thor himself would have once reacted in a similar manner, had a party of Frost Giants come unannounced to Asgard.

“I will take you to him,” the commander finally says. He spurs his wolf around in order to lead Thor and his companions toward Utgardhall while the other two riders reluctantly take up the rear.

Thor effortlessly calls Mjølnir back into his hand and smiles at Sif.

“I really hope you’re right about all of this,” she whispers, still tightly gripping the hilt of her sheathed sword.

Once they pass the gates into the courtyard, the three guards dismount and hand the reins of their wolves off to waiting kennel boys. The Frost Giants present—predominantly armored guards and servants—stare at Thor’s group, their expressions ranging from curiosity to open hostility.

“What are they doing here, Raze?” asks a kennel boy, giving his fussing wolf a scratch behind the ears.

“Odin’s son is here to see King Laufey,” the commander—Raze—explains. He then turns to one of his guards and says, “You’d better go in first and let him know.”

“You think it’s any warmer inside?” asks Fandral, staring up at the palace.

“I doubt it,” replies Volstagg, frowning.

Raze leads them up the massive steps and into Utgardhall—the heart of Jotunheim and home of the royal family.

The palace is impressive, and it’s difficult not to feel small inside of it. The corridors are vast, the ceilings impossibly high, and everything is wrought in crystal and silver. Surprisingly, it actually is warmer inside. Not by much, but enough so that Thor’s breath no longer steams in the air around him. The walls are lined in murals that depict everything from glorious battles to wintry landscapes.

Utgard is so far removed from the bleak and barren city that Thor remembers. This is the world that the Frost Giants lost in their war with Asgard, and it will once again be their future if the Casket is not returned to them.

They are instructed to wait in an empty corridor just outside the eastern entrance to Laufey’s throne room. Raze leaves them with a few of his underlings and slips through one of the doors. Thor cranes his neck to try to and steal a glimpse inside, but the door slams shut before he has the chance to do so.

“Remember to let me do the talking,” Thor tells the others in a hushed voice. “Laufey is in a vulnerable place right now, and he may lash out. We must not take any taunt or insult to heart. There is a great deal of animosity and distrust between our kingdoms, and this meeting could easily spiral out of control.”

It’s a long time before Raze reappears in the corridor. He looks between the five of them and says, “You’ll need to surrender your weapons.”

Sif, Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun all balk at the request, and Raze crosses his arms impatiently. “Do you want to be permitted entrance or not?”

“My companions will disarm,” says Thor. Sif opens her mouth to protest, but promptly shuts it once Hogun elbows her. “But my hammer stays with me.”

“Very well,” says Raze, conceding with very little reluctance. He must have already suspected that Thor would not be willing part with Mjølnir. “I’ll need each of your names as well.”

· · · · · · · · · ·

Once relieved of their weapons, they are quickly ushered through the doors and inside.

The throne room is massive, even by Frost Giant standards. There is another entrance opposite them, where the overwhelming number of attendants must have filed in from.

Though the floor is sparsely populated—save the armored soldiers who stand near the tapestried walls—the gallery above is packed. Men and women, pressed shoulder to shoulder, shift restlessly on their feet, while the younger children peer over the balcony railing to better see down below.

Thor is led to the front of the room by Raze, with Sif and the Warriors three a few paces behind.

The platform of the dais holds a smaller, seated gallery, presumably reserved for only the most honored members of the king’s household. The throne itself is a twelve-step climb from the lower platform, and there Laufey sits—regal, imposing, and as still as a sculpture made of ice. Thor searches the faces on the dais for Loki, but sees no sign of him. He does notice a few empty seats, however.

I am too late, Thor thinks, dismayed. Loki must have already left for Muspelheim.

“Your Majesty,” says Raze in a booming voice. “Thor, Son of Odin, God of Thunder and Crown Prince of Asgard, approaches the throne.”

At their last and only encounter—which Laufey now has no memory of—Thor hadn’t known that he was speaking to the man who had sired his brother. Thor scans the dais and allows his gaze to linger on the few women present. He wonders if one of them might be Loki’s birthmother.

What sort of parents would abandon their own child? And what stopped them from doing so this time?

Raze continues his introductions, reading the runes off a small slip of parchment. “Accompanying the prince is the Lady Sif, Volstagg the Valiant, Hogun the Grim, and Fandral the… Dashing.”

From behind Thor, Volstagg gives a quiet snort.

“Odinson,” says Laufey, leaning forward in his ornate throne. His crown—made of silver and what appears to be quartz crystal—catches the light as he moves. “To what do we owe this… unexpected visit?”

“King Laufey,” says Thor. “I understand you are having some trouble with Surtur.”

Laufey tilts his head, examining Thor with narrowed eyes. “What would you know about that?”

“I know that the Casket of Ancient Winters was stolen,” says Thor. “I’ve come to help you reclaim it.”

“What game is this, Odinson?” asks Laufey. “Do you take me for a fool?”

“Of course not,” says Thor, smiling. “Which is why you will accept my offer.”

Laufey bristles. “And what offer would that be?”

“The Fire Demons are a formidable foe,” replies Thor, just as the door behind the dais creaks open. “If you hope to defeat them—” Thor’s heart nearly stops and his words are caught in his throat the moment he glances at the latecomer.

The small Jotun, having just slipped inside, lets the door fall closed behind him with a gentle thud. He shrugs apologetically at someone on the dais, then climbs the few steps onto the platform and takes one of the vacant seats.

He's not only dwarfed by those around him, but by the furniture itself, though he seems completely unperturbed by this fact. He has his head bowed toward the woman on his left, who whispers something in his ear. Thor cannot make out what is said, but after receiving a curt nod, she leans back in her chair. Then Loki—for this can be no one else—finally turns his attention to Thor.

Their eyes meet and Loki is clearly startled to find the Asgardian prince has already been staring at him. When Thor does not avert his gaze, Loki frowns and his brow furrows in bemusement.

Thor, as breathless as he is speechless, is only dimly aware of how he must appear to the court as he all but gawks at their prince. He cannot quite bring himself to care.

Having never seen Loki in his Jotun form, Thor can only marvel at the way his brother looks so strikingly different while still, somehow, familiar. He is the same size Thor remembers him to be, and thus far smaller than any Frost Giant he has ever seen.

His skin is a lighter shade of blue than Laufey’s, and he lacks the prominent ridges on his head and face that are usual for his kind. Instead, Loki’s skin is graced with light markings. They form an elaborate pattern on his forehead, but cross his cheekbones and down his chin in simple strokes. Thor’s gaze traces the twin lines that start just below his bottom lip and trail all the way down his neck and chest before finally disappearing beneath the low neckline of his thin black tunic.

This is undoubtedly Loki, from the familiar shape of his features, to his posture, to the black curls that fall just past his shoulders. He looks strikingly dissimilar from the other Frost Giants—from anyone in the room—and the contrast somehow only makes him that much more comely.

It's so quiet that Thor almost fears the drumming of his heartbeat is loud enough for the entire room to hear. He struggles to rein in his emotions, forcing himself to stop remembering the last time he saw his brother, the last time he held him…

At least he’s alive, Thor thinks. If nothing else, he’s alive.

Thor finally tears his gaze away from Loki and back to the king, whose jaw is hard-set in what can only be disapproval. Thor cannot say whether his displeasure has been caused by his son’s late arrival or something else entirely.

“Do you mean to try my patience?” asks Laufey, after another moment of awkward silence on Thor’s part. “Or have you more to say?”

Thor clears his throat, giving himself a mental shake. “The Fire Demons pose a threat to all Nine Realms,” he says. “I will not idly stand by as they plot their conquest.”

“You command Asgard’s army?” asks Laufey.

“Well, no—”

“Odin must not be overly concerned if he deigns to send no more than his whelp and a pathetic straggle of four warriors.”

“I am not here on Odin’s order,” says Thor, ignoring the slight.

Laufey’s mouth curves into a mocking smile. “Have you defied your father, boy?”

“Of course not,” says Thor. “The King of Asgard is well aware of my intentions here. Surtur and I happen to have some history.”

“You have faced Surtur?” asks Laufey, failing to conceal his near-disbelief.

“Yes,” replies Thor, risking another glance at Loki, who is leaning forward in his seat and watching the scene unfold with interest.

Thor knows he’s been faltering, but he feels his confidence finally making its return. It's true, after all—he has fought the dreaded King of Fire Demons—though it would be more accurate to call it a future rather than a history. Still, Thor had proved himself a worthy match in Muspelheim, and the only reason Surtur was able to destroy Asgard was because Thor had allowed it.

“I know my way through Muspelheim,” continues Thor. “The Bifrost can bring me right to Surtur’s lair and provide an almost instantaneous escape if necessary.”

“You are scarcely more than a child,” scoffs Laufey.

“I am the same age as your son.”

There is a series of murmurs and whispers throughout the gallery above. Everyone on the dais turns to look at the startled prince.

“Prince Loki,” says Thor, finally addressing his brother directly. It’s unnerving, speaking to him as if they are meeting for the first time. He wants to say—

I know you think us strangers, but we’re not. You once knew me better than anyone ever has. We were raised together—our mother says we shared a cradle.

You’ve hated and loved me in equal measure. I’ve lost and mourned you—thrice.

You once stole a bottle of honeyed whiskey from Father’s personal stock. We snuck out to Iðunn’s orchard, sat beneath the largest apple tree, and got truly drunk for the first time in our lives. I had to practically carry you back to the palace. When I brought you to your chambers, you drunkenly dragged me into bed with you. We slept tangled together like we would sometimes do as children. Centuries have passed since that night. Still, I don’t think I’ve been able to fall sleep once these past few years without wishing you were somehow there beside me.

—but Thor does not dare.

“I have heard that you are planning a diplomatic mission to Muspelheim,” he says instead. “You are Jotunheim’s heir, as I am Asgard’s. In the hopes of strengthening the alliance between our great kingdoms, I humbly offer my assistance in your quest to recover the Casket of Ancient Winters.”

For a long moment, Loki’s astonishment is unmistakable—it’s in his wide-staring crimson eyes and the crease between his eyebrows, in his stiff posture and the way his lips are slightly parted—but then Loki is raising his head and schooling his expression into one of nothing more than mild curiosity.

“I accept,” says Loki.

The room erupts into whispers. The nobles on the dais look downright scandalized, but Loki expressly avoids their gaze. He does not appear concerned at all—in fact, he looks entirely self-satisfied at the sudden commotion he has caused. The woman that had first addressed him when he came in tugs furiously on his sleeve, but Loki only brushes her hand away dismissively. Staring at Thor, he leans back in his seat, crosses his arms over his chest, and smiles.

Thor feels something warm unfurl in his chest at the sight of it. Loki’s smile is not particularly friendly, but it's not cruel or mocking either. He simply seems… intrigued. Which is very Loki and about as much as Thor can hope for, given the circumstances. For the first time since learning that his use of the Time Stone had somehow resulted in Loki remaining on Jotunheim, Thor feels almost optimistic.

When Thor finally turns his attention away from his brother and back to the king, his triumphant smile is quickly extinguished under Laufey’s icy glare.

· · · · · · · · · ·

Once dismissed, they are instructed to wait outside the throne room for Raze, who will then escort them to the chambers they will be staying in pending their departure for Muspelheim. Laufey had suggested they take an extra day to prepare, which Thor saw no harm in doing.

“I think that went rather well,” says Thor.

“I’m not so sure,” replies Fandral. “Laufey certainly seems less than pleased.”

“Perhaps he did not expect the prince to accept Thor’s offer,” suggests Hogun.

“I didn’t expect him to either,” says Volstagg. “No one even asked how we knew of his plan.”

“It doesn’t matter what Laufey thinks,” says Thor. “We just need to worry about getting the Casket out of Muspelheim.”

“Muspelheim,” repeats Sif, who has been unusually quiet until now. “A dangerous place ruled by an even more dangerous foe. I suppose it’s a good thing we have you with us, considering you’ve faced Surtur once before.”

The others laugh, to Thor’s embarrassment, but Sif looks entirely unamused.

“What did possess you to make such an outrageous claim?” asks Fandral.

“It’s not that outrageous,” says Thor, remembering how easily Mjølnir brought Surtur and his horde of Demons to heel. It wasn’t until the dragon was released that he’d felt any real sense of danger in Muspelheim. Thor remembers hauling Surtur’s crown back to the Asgardian Palace only to find Loki there—alive, disguised as their father, lounging peacefully in the sun, and watching a fucking play.

Raze comes strolling out of the throne room, giving Thor a welcome reprieve from his thoughts. If he lingers too long on those few years between Loki’s supposed-death on Svartálfheim and their confrontation on Asgard, he finds himself angry at his brother all over again. The repeated emotional whiplash would have been bad enough, but even more infuriating was the fact that Loki knew the Mad Titan would come for him, and despite that, never thought to come to Thor for help.

It had taken the surviving Avengers some time to get their hands on the Infinity Gauntlet. In those months, Thor would often lie awake at night, uselessly thinking of all ways he could have possibly prevented Loki’s death, if he’d only known of the danger he was in. They could have planned for Thanos’ inevitable return together.

Thor had come to learn that spending hours inside his own head, arguing with his brother’s ghost, accomplishes nothing. It was the Time Stone that was supposed to make everything right.

Raze leads them down the corridor to a grand staircase, explaining that Utgardhall’s guest wing is in one of the upper floors of the eastern tower.

Climbing the steps proves to be a bit of a challenge, being tailored for Giants as they are. Thor would often bound up the staircase of the Asgardian Palace two steps at a time, but each step here must be the equivalent of three at home.

“You will have all of tomorrow to prepare for your journey,” says Raze. “The king would like me to assure you that you will be extended every courtesy for the length of your stay.”

By the time they reach their intended floor, the muscles in Thor’s thighs ache from the exertion and Volstagg, red-faced and clutching the banister, is clearly winded.

“You are free to come and go as you please,” says Raze as they turn a corner. “Only the royal wing is forbidden, as is—Loki?”

Thor comes to a skidding halt just behind Raze as they are both startled by the sight of Loki. He is standing alone in the corridor, seemingly having been awaiting their arrival.

There was no great distance between them in the throne room, but now his brother is but a few paces away, and Thor can take in every detail of him.

His clothes are all black, save the detailing of his nearly-sheer tunic, which has been done in gold. The stitching is cinched just a bit at the waist, showing off the subtle curves of his body, and it's hemmed just past his hips. The tunic’s neckline is low, though not immodest, and both his breeches and leather riding boots are slim-fitting.

Resting amidst dark curls and signifying his princely status is a golden circlet. So slender and delicate, it's more a suggestion of royalty than a statement, and the tiny rubies that have been wrought into the gold match the color of his eyes. There are other pieces of jewelry as well, sparse touches of elegance in the form of gold bracelets and rings, all even more delicate than the circlet.

“My father is wroth with one of your men,” Loki tells Raze. “You’d better go see to it.”

Raze frowns, looking between his prince and Thor. “The king instructed me—”

“I will escort them the rest of the way,” says Loki, not unkindly. “I do happen to know my way around the palace quite well.”

Raze does not seem to need further convincing; he bows his head, turns on his heel, and disappears back around the corner from which they had all just come.

Loki stares at Thor with that same curious look from the throne room, and Thor feels unable to speak, afraid that his words will come out wrong and clumsy.

“I have not yet been introduced to your companions,” says Loki, after a long moment.

“Oh,” says Thor. “Right. This is Sif, Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun.” Thor motions to each of them in turn, who all nod their heads respectfully. “They are worthy warriors and my most trusted friends.”

“Welcome to Utgard,” says Loki. “Shall we?”

Thor and Loki walk side by side down the long passageway, with the others following at a courteous distance. Thor hears them quietly converse amongst themselves, but he cannot be bothered to take much interest in whatever they are discussing with Loki so nearby.

“I thought I’d take the opportunity to properly meet you,” says Loki. “Your proposal certainly came as a surprise.”

“I assure you, I only wish to help. Surtur is a threat to all Nine Realms.”

“Yes,” says Loki. “He is.”

Thor can’t stop himself from repeatedly glancing at his brother as they walk. He hates this—pretending that Loki means nothing to him, that he’s never so much as met him—but neither can he deny his heightening curiosity.

Thor wonders what Loki would do—his Loki—if their situations had been reversed. If Loki had awakened in an altered timeline and Thor was the one who had no memory of their lives together.

“Tomorrow we will meet in the war tower to discuss our plans,” says Loki. “I’ve spent days poring over old tomes and scrolls in preparation for this already.”

“Books on Muspelheim?” asks Thor.

Loki nods. “I’ll admit, I did not learn a great deal from them, but I did get my hands on something else that may prove useful.”

Thor is charmed, despite himself, by the pride he hears in Loki’s voice.

“I have a map of Muspelheim,” says Loki. “It’s remarkably detailed and in splendid condition. I can assure you, it was not an easy find; Surtur keeps the secrets of his realm well guarded.”

Thor is impressed. Asgard’s library has no shortage of atlases concerning the Nine Realms and beyond, but information on Muspelheim has always remained scarce.

Loki frowns. “Though, I suppose if you are already familiar with Muspelheim…”

“It's a valuable find,” says Thor. “It will be good to have a plan. I tend to rush right into things and deal with the consequences later.”

“How does that usually work out?” asks Loki, smiling.

“It varies,” Thor says honestly.

“There will be a feast tomorrow night,” says Loki, after another short stretch of silence. “You will all be seated at the high table, along with myself and my family. We will leave for Muspelheim the following morning, at first light.”

His family. The words sting. Thor doesn’t think he will be able to get used to this any time soon. We are supposed to be family.

“This is it,” says Loki, stopping outside an enormous set of twin doors. He pushes them open with a bit of a flourish, and they step into a common room that is as large as everything else in Utgardhall, but cozy despite the fact.

Around the unlit hearth are two chaises and a few armchairs, and on the other side of the room is a modest banquet table surrounded by wooden benches. Hanging from the ceiling are chandeliers made of horns, and the walls have been carefully decorated with intricate tapestries. A small bookcase sits in the corner, and Thor even spots a tafl board on one of the shelves. There are other rooms as well, presumably the bedchambers, with their doors left ajar.

“It’s a sort of shared living space,” says Loki. “But you’ll have plenty of privacy.”

“There’s a hearth,” notes Hogun.

“Yes,” says Loki. “Each bedchamber has a small fireplace as well, so you’ll be quite warm at night.”

“I’m surprised to find a hearth in Utgardhall,” admits Fandral. “I always thought fire was just about the deadliest element to the Jotnar.”

“Is it not hazardous to you as well?” asks Loki. “If a flame touches Aesir flesh, does it not burn?”

There is a hint of embarrassment in Fandral’s flushed cheeks, but he recovers quickly. “As a child, I believed that Frost Giants would melt if left too long in the sun.”

“And I once believed that Aesir turn to icicles in the cold,” replies Loki. “Prone to shattering if knocked over.”

“Not so,” says Fandral, laughing. “We are more resilient to the cold than you give us credit for.”

“You would not have so much as made it to the palace if you’d come in the height of winter.”

“It takes more than a few snowflakes to thwart me,” Fandral replies with a grin.

Thor feels a ridiculous pang of jealousy at their banter, and he has to forcibly keep himself from staring daggers at Fandral.

“At the end of the corridor is the bathing chamber,” says Loki. “And the last door on the left is the master suite, which has its own entrance—the next door down in the corridor outside.”

“Do you receive guests very often?” Sif asks conversationally.

“Not from other realms,” admits Loki. “Many Jotuns travel to Utgardhall from other cities, though—jarls, nobles, distant cousins.”

Loki wrings his hands together, a nervous habit that Thor recognizes.

“You must be weary from your journey,” says Loki. “The servants will be here shortly with food and drink. They will have your weapons and traveling bags as well.”

“Someone will send for us in the morning?” asks Thor.

“Yes,” says Loki. “You’ll be invited to break fast with us in the dining hall. I can show you more of the palace before we go to the war tower as well. If you’d like to see it, that is.”

“I’d like that,” replies Thor. He does want to see more of Utgardhall, but more than that, he just wants to see more of his brother—whether he knows Thor or not.

“Well,” says Loki, looking between the five of them. “Enjoy your evening.”

“Thank you,” says Thor, then hurries to add, “Your Highness.”

“There’s no need for such formalities,” he says. “You may call me Loki.”

Before Thor gets the chance to respond, Fandral says, “Thank you, Loki.”

Not yet wanting to part from his brother, but unable to think of a plausible reason for their conversation to continue, Thor watches him leave.

The moment the door falls shut behind him, Thor whirls around and glares at Fandral. “You will do no more of that,” he snaps.

Fandral blinks in confusion. “No more of what?”

“I mean it, Fandral. Do not make me warn you again.”

“I didn’t—”

“Thor thinks you were flirting with the prince,” says Sif, rummaging through the tomes on the bookshelf. “I think he’s right.”

“Fandral is just friendly,” says Volstagg, climbing into an armchair. Volstagg is by no means a small man, but he certainly appears it amongst the Giants’ furniture. Thor supposes they all do. “Speaking of friendliness, I was certainly not expecting this level of hospitality.”

“Perhaps they want us to let our guard down,” says Hogun. “Laufey has no cause to love us, after all.”

“The prince seems agreeable enough,” says Sif. “What did you make of him, Thor?”

A sudden knock at the door saves him from having to answer her impossible question.

The servants are courteous and friendly as they go about their duties. A spread of bread, cheese and salted strips of fish is laid out onto the banquet table. There are also flagons of wine and water, as well as a cloudy blue beverage of dubious origin that Volstagg drinks down without hesitation.

The hearth is filled with wood and, once lit, provides a welcome reprieve from the cold. Firewood is is also brought into the bedchambers, as well as stacked into a small mountain against the wall by the door, should they need it.

Once the servants are gone, Thor and his friends settle around the hearth to eat. The conversation lingers on the curiosity of Jotunheim for awhile, before they move on to discuss how they might deal with Surtur. Thor is mostly quiet as he sits in the worn leather armchair, letting the fire melt the cold from his bones.

Thor is the first to retire. He bids everyone a good night, grabs Mjølnir and the travel bag that has been returned to him by the servants, and heads to the master bedchamber.

The fireplace has already been lit, and the room is warm and comfortable by the time Thor steps inside and closes the door. There's a large window adorned with thick, blue curtains. Although night has fallen in Utgard, Jotunheim’s moon provides just enough dim light for Thor to see the downfall of snow outside.

Lying in bed, snuggled comfortably beneath the furs, he can think of nothing but his brother. He imagines Loki in his own chambers—reading a book by the fire, combing out his long hair, stretching out lazily on an oversized four poster bed—and hopes that he is thinking of Thor as well. He wonders what sort of first impression he managed to make.

First impression. The thought makes him slightly nauseous. Nothing had ever been easy with Loki—especially in the last few years—but Thor never would have dreamed that he was taking the reality of simply knowing one another for granted.

Memories always come to Thor so easily when he is on the verge of sleep and too drowsy to effectively cast them away. They drift through his mind at random, as if the entirety of his life were a shattered pane of glass and his subconsciousness is aimlessly sorting through the fragmented shards.

Thor remembers picking wild daffodils and bringing them to his mother. He remembers the look of disdainful indifference on Loki’s face as he ejected Thor from a Helicarrier.

He remembers being presented with Mjølnir, how it seemed to fit perfectly in his hand as though it had been made just for him. He remembers his childhood visit to Alfheim, where Loki gave himself a stomachache by eating too many chocolates. He remembers Hela holding Mjølnir in the freshly uncovered mural of the throne room.

He remembers arguing with Jane in the backyard of her parents’ house. He remembers Loki falling asleep with his head on Thor’s shoulder as they watched the sunset on Vanaheim.

He remembers standing in his quarters on the Statesman and looking out at the stars. He remembers Loki kissing him and, this time, for the briefest moment, Thor even allows himself to imagine kissing back.

Chapter Text

Thor is dreaming. He knows this because he is with his brother, and his brother is dead.

Magic lingers in the air. The viridescent remnants of a recently cast spell shimmer faintly in the sunlight and dance over Thor’s skin. It is not an unpleasant sensation. It feels like a caress. Like a whisper. Like Loki.

Seidr is like that. It comes from within, and so there's always an echo of the spellweaver present, a trace of their aura that can that be found in the manifestations of their magic. It is subtle enough to go largely unnoticed; only those with the most intimate knowledge of the caster would be able to recognize it.

Thor recognizes it now, though it is dissipating rapidly. Through half-lidded eyes, he watches Loki pace the floor at the foot of the bed. His hair is shorter than Thor last remembers it to be, just barely reaching the collar of his tunic. In Loki’s hand is a book—its leather is worn, its spine a tatter, and the pages, once neatly bound, are frayed and loose.

Loki looks equal parts frustrated and exhausted. He sighs. Turns a page. Rubs the back of his neck. Sighs again. Thor wants to ask what troubles him so, but he finds himself as incapable of speech as he is of movement.

Even his sweetest dreams have these little touches of cruelty. Here is his brother—an illusion of his own mind’s making—living and lovely and just out of reach.

Thor is in bed, propped up slightly by a small heap of feathered pillows. He cannot so much as turn his head to inspect his surroundings. He can merely watch as Loki continues to walk back and forth, absorbed in his reading and completely unconcerned with Thor’s presence.

Look at me, Thor thinks. Talk to me. Hold me. Hit me. Kiss me. Anything. Please.

Loki does not so much as glance in Thor’s direction. It’s all terribly unfair.

The last glimmering vestiges of the spell finally disappear from the air. With a sigh, Loki slams his book shut and steps out of Thor’s field of vision.

From somewhere just out of sight comes a soft thud—surely the book being dropped onto a nearby table. Thor lets his eyes fall closed. How is it that he can feel so tired when he is already asleep?

Thor is close to drifting off—to the waking world or a deeper, dreamless sleep, he does not know—and finds himself unable to reopen his eyes even as Loki finally draws near.

The bed dips with Loki’s weight as he settles onto the edge of it. A moment later, fingertips are carding through Thor’s hair. The touch is so gentle, so achingly real, that his heart flutters in his chest. Loki smooths the hair away from his face, tucking a few wayward strands behind his ear.

“Brother,” Loki says softly. “I’m running out of spells.”

The world tilts back and Thor sinks into oblivion.

· · · · · · · · · ·

It’s midmorning by the time Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three enter the dining hall. Though given free roam of Utgardhall, with the exception of the royal wing, they’ve been escorted by a palace guard. It’s easy to lose your way, the guard had said, almost apologetically. The Asgardian Palace is no less grandeur, but the sheer magnitude of everything in Utgardhall can be slightly intimidating, so no one protested.

The dining hall is bustling with life. Families and friends break their fasts together, servants carrying large trays of food come and go, and children chase one another around the massive tables.

It’s not so different from mornings on Asgard.

At the end of the hall, upon a dais, is the high table. This is where Loki is already seated, surrounded by the few Frost Giants Thor recognizes from yesterday’s meeting in the throne room. Laufey is, thankfully, nowhere to be seen.

Loki waves them over to the table where they are bid to take the bench opposite him. He makes quick work of the introductions.

On one end is Grundroth, who is Laufey’s brother. Their resemblance is unmistakeable, and Grundroth looks about as pleased with Thor’s presence as Laufey himself has been. Between Grundroth and Loki is his son, Ignar. Portly and jovial, he greets Thor and his friends warmly.

On the other side of Loki is Grundroth’s daughter, Dagny. She’s polite enough—though far less friendly than her brother—and beside her sits Hailstrum, her husband, who is easily the largest Jotun Thor has ever laid eyes on.

Thor tries very hard to commit their names to memory as he helps himself to the generous spread of sweetcakes, honeyed porridge, boiled gull eggs, and fried fish.

“Did you sleep well?” Loki asks conversationally. “Were your chambers acceptable?”

“Everything was perfectly comfortable,” says Thor, neglecting to mention his disconcerting dreams, which were of no one in Utgardhall’s fault. “Will the king be joining us?”

“I’m afraid my father is rather busy this morning,” says Loki. “You'll see him later tonight at the feast.”

The feast. Thor finds it passing strange that Laufey wouldn’t rather save the celebrations until after they have successfully returned the Casket of Ancient Winters to Jotunheim.

“You must be anxious for tonight, Loki,” says Dagny as she peels the shell off a sizable egg. “I know the rest of us can hardly wait to see your fǫrþakka.

“What is a fǫrþakka?” asks Sif. The word is unfamiliar and evidently untranslatable.

“Our cousin is embarking on a noble quest,” says Ignar. “It is customary for the king to present such a warrior with a gift upon his departure.”

Hailstrum scoffs from his place at the end of the table, making his opinion on Loki’s classification as a warrior clear. Thor ignores him and asks, “What sort of gift?”

“A weapon,” Loki says with a shrug. “Sometimes armor.”

“I have already seen your fǫrþakka,” says Grundroth. “You are not worthy of such craftsmanship.”

Loki makes no response, but his stiffening posture and downcast eyes tell Thor that his uncle’s words have stung. Thor feels a prickling urge to say something in his defense, but he doubts Loki would thank him for it.

Ignar, frowning, looks between his father and Loki before awkwardly clearing his throat. “Odinson,” he says. “Will you and your companions be joining us in the training yard this afternoon?”

“You want to spar?” asks Thor. “With us?”

“Just a friendly sport between new acquaintances,” Ignar says with a grin.

“Aye,” roars Hailstrum, slamming his goblet hard onto the table and making Fandral jump. “I would see just how skilled you are with that hammer, Odinson.”

“You are more than welcome to try me,” says Thor.

“Hailstrum is our fiercest warrior,” says Grundroth. “I would not accept his challenge so lightly.”

There’s no surprise there. Hailstrum is fearsomely garbed in finely wrought—though chinked and battle-worn—armor. His bare chest proudly displays a twisting and jagged scar.

Hailstrum is indeed a hulking presence at the table, even amongst the other giants, but it is Grundroth himself whom Thor recognizes as the most dangerous and imposing of everyone in the room. Thor would have known Grundroth as Laufey’s kin even if Loki hadn’t introduced him as so. Severe of mien and demeanor, he seems to hold himself with the same humorless, icy pride that his brother, the king, does.

“I’ve bested Hailstrum on plenty of occasions,” Loki says airily.

“You cheat,” snarls Hailstrum. “You use tricks—”

“Spellweaving is not a trick,” replies Loki. “Just because you are capable of nothing more than clumsily hacking at your enemies—”

“You use magic?” asks Thor. Frigga had been the one to teach Loki how to wield Aesir magic. Thor remembers how, when they were children, Loki was always eager to show his brother whatever he had accomplished during his lessons with her.

Sometimes his demonstrations were sweet, like the time he conjured the perfect image of a butterfly. It had shimmered gold—like you, Loki had said—and the caress of its fluttering wings had made Thor giggle in delight.

Sometimes they were less sweet, like the time he transformed Thor into a frog.

“Does that surprise you?” asks Loki, gazing across the table at Thor expectantly.

“Not exactly,” admits Thor. “I only thought seidr was an uncommon practice amidst the Jotnar.”

“It is,” says Grundroth. “My nephew prides himself on his ability to use illusion and deceit in place of skill in battle.”

“Uncle—” starts Loki, but Grundroth is already rising from the table.

“If you make it back from this ill-fated journey alive,” says Grundroth, looming over Loki, “then, you will have my leave to defend your… craft.”

A tense silence falls over the table as Grundroth makes his way to the hall’s exit. Loki looks mildly annoyed rather than embarrassed, and Thor can’t help but admire his composure in the face of his uncle’s rather public insults.

“Magic is a respected skill on Asgard,” Thor offers. He wants to know where Loki learned it, which spells he’s proficient in. It’s a connection between this version of Loki and the one Thor knows so well—a sliver of comfortable familiarity amongst so much disparity. “It takes no small amount of talent and discipline. Very few people are able to master it.”

Volstagg nods his agreement—his mouth otherwise preoccupied as he shovels spoonful after spoonful of porridge into it—and Fandral adds, “Even our queen is a powerful spellweaver.”

“I know,” says Loki as he absently picks at a sweetcake, rolling the crumbs between his fingertips. His eyes remain fixed on Thor. “I’ve heard it said that Asgard is alive with magic.”

Thor laughs. “I wouldn’t go quite that far.”

A small smile graces Loki’s violet lips. Thor is beginning to grow accustomed to his Jotun appearance, if nothing else about this place. He does look rather much the same, despite the coloring and markings—both of which Thor is surprised to find suit him well.

Loki had always been comely, his charms markedly different from his brother’s, though surely no less appealing. If Thor is leonine of aspect, then Loki is serpentine—quick and clever, lean and graceful, green eyes sparkling with mischievous intent.

Those same eyes are now red, of course. Completely red, save the pupils. As a child, Thor would sometimes study from history books which sought to capture the Jotnar’s likeness through colorful drawings and diagrams. He always found the Frost Giants’ eyes to be their most unsettling feature, even more so than their colossal size.

Monsters, Thor had called them. Loki as well, unknowing that he was one himself.

How much grief could have been avoided if their father had never kept the truth hidden? The truth of Loki’s parentage. The truth of Hela’s birth and banishment. Brunnhilde had given voice to Asgard’s ills once. The throne, the secrets, the whole golden sham. She had been in self-imposed exile for centuries, and yet Odin had evidently learned nothing in that time.

Thor is distracted from his thoughts when he notices an old woman, hunched over a walking stick, slowly approaching the edge of the high table. She’s on Hailstrum and Fandral’s side, wearing thick black robes and a cowl that conceals the better part of her face. Thor hadn’t even noticed her climb upon the dais.

“You,” she says, extending a crooked and trembling finger towards Thor. He realizes with a start that she is smaller than all the other Frost Giants, save for maybe Loki. “You do not belong here.”

“And you do not belong in the dining hall,” snarls Hailstrum. “Begone, hag.”

The woman ignores Hailstrum’s words, creeping around the edge of the table toward Thor. “You are terribly far from home,” she croons.

“Thor is our guest,” Loki says carefully. “If you’re hungry, go to the kitchens. The cooks will—”

“He is not of this realm,” she says. Her voice is shrill, almost panicked. “He shouldn’t be here!”

The dining hall falls quiet as everyone’s attention is drawn to the scene unfolding upon the dais.

Ignar is already on his feet, circling the table. Once close enough, he takes her by the arm, not ungently. “Thor is of Asgard,” he says. “There is no cause for alarm, woman. Calm yourself.”

Thor can only stare at her, bewildered. Does she know? How is that possible? Who is she?

The crone seems to regain her composure, lowering her accusatory finger and taking a few deep, shaky breaths. Thor is startled to notice that her eyes are completely white, almost glowing in the shadow beneath her cowl.

Ignar releases her arm, looking at his sister, Dagny, questioningly, but she merely shrugs in response. Loki slowly rises from the table, his wary gaze flicking between the crone and Thor. No one present seems to understand the reason for her sudden outburst.

Then, everything happens all at once. The old woman darts forward with alarming speed, straight for Thor. Fandral is the first to leap to his feet in order to put himself between them, but he’s too slow, and she wraps her bony fingers around Thor’s wrist in a single, swift movement.

“I know who you are,” the crone rasps. “Why have you come here? You will ruin everything. Everything!”

Ignar and Fandral both pull at the old woman, but her grip on Thor remains vice-like. Sif draws her blade, infuriating Dagny who shrieks that bare steel is forbidden in the dining hall. Hailstrum guffaws through a mouthful of food, delighted by the mad scramble, as Loki shouts for the guards.

“I’m not—I didn’t,” stammers Thor, trying in vain to wrench his wrist out of her grasp. How does this frail old thing have such strength? “I’m not here to hurt anyone.”

“Unhand him,” orders Loki. “Sóma, let him go. Now.”

Loki’s command somehow does it, for the woman—Sóma—slackens her grip, allowing Ignar and Fandral to haul her backwards and away from Thor.

“Escort her out,” Loki tells the two palace guards who have arrived unnoticed to the dais during the fray of confusion. They nod, taking hold of Sóma and leading her away.

Thor rubs at his wrist, sore from her wicked grasp. Everyone, save for Hailstrum, is on their feet now, standing in a tense sort of half circle around the table. Volstagg and Hogun look around warily, their hands at their sword pommels, ready should a fight break out.

Ignar bends down to pick up Sóma's discarded walking stick and trails after the guards with it. When Thor follows Loki’s gaze to his own arm, and Sif’s protective hand that lingers there, he feels a prickling self-consciousness at the implication and shrugs away until Sif’s hand drops to her side.

“What the hell was that about?” asks Fandral, breathless.

“She’s just a mad old crone,” says Dagny, crossing her arms over her chest. “I have no idea why your father keeps her around, Loki.”

“Loki is fortunate that he did,” says Hailstrum, and Loki glares at him in a silent warning.

Hailstrum merely wipes a smear of fried-fish grease off his chin with the back of his hand, as unruffled by Loki’s pointed look as he is by Sóma’s outburst.

“Fortunate?” asks Thor. “How so?”

“The morning grows late,” says Loki, ignoring Thor’s question. “We need to prepare for tomorrow.”

“I think your new friends are frightened,” says Hailstrum, smiling darkly at Loki.

“You may have noticed that Thor was just attacked,” says Sif, her voice tight with barely-bridled rage.

“I can assure you it won’t happen again,” Loki says mildly. “You are more than welcome to return to Asgard if you’d like.”

“We’re not leaving,” says Thor. “That could hardly be considered an attack, Sif. I’m fine. We’re all fine.”

Fandral and Hogun exchange sidelong glances as Sif bites back a protestation.

Dagny slides back onto the bench. As she reaches for the flagon of sweetmilk, she whispers something to her husband, making him laugh. Her words are inaudible, but Thor would bet all the gold in Odin's vault that they’re about him.

“I’m not going anywhere,” insists Thor. He holds Loki’s gaze, willing him to hear the sincerity in his voice. It would take a great deal more than the mad ravings of an old crone to tear Thor from his brother’s side. “I vowed to help retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters and I have every intention of seeing that through.”

Thor’s assurance seems to be earnest enough for Loki—he visibly releases some of the tension he’d been holding and nods his head. “The war tower is on the southeastern side of the palace.”

“Let’s go,” says Thor, eager to get away from Hailstrum, Dagny, and the staring eyes of all the other Frost Giants present in the hall.

To think that everything had been going relatively well. For a fleeting moment, Thor wishes he could start the morning over again. Then, he remembers that line of thinking is precisely what got him into this situation in the first place.

As Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three follow Loki toward the doors, Hailstrum calls out after them, “I’ll see you in the training yard, Odinson!”

· · · · · · · · · ·

The war tower’s climb is long and tedious. Volstagg is not shy about his displeasure, to Loki’s amusement, but everyone else ascends the spiraling stone steps with as much insouciance as they can muster. Loki is clearly accustomed to the oversized stairs—accustomed to the oversized everything, really—and Thor shouldn’t be surprised by this fact; he has lived here all his life after all.

The war room is situated at the very top of the tower. Its ceilings are extraordinarily high, with stained-glass windows that reach three-quarters of the way to the top, and there are shelves upon shelves of books as well as ornate chests stacked against the walls, containing Norns-know-what. It’s certainly a sight to behold—magnificently decorated and lavishly functional—but no one has ever claimed that the Jotnar don’t know how to wage war.

Amongst the books, Thor notices more than a few empty spaces and can’t help but wonder if they were once occupied by literature on Asgard. Most the other realms seem to be accounted for, with only Thor’s world notably absent. Loki must have pulled them off the shelves sometime between Thor’s arrival and this meeting. He idly wonders where they might be tucked away, and what they might disclose.

In the center of the room is the war table. A cloth map of Muspelheim—the one Loki had made mention of procuring yesterday—is spread out across the better part of the table’s surface. Resin map markers, hewn in the shape of flames and painted red, indicate the places Loki expects Surtur’s forces to be.

Their placements are surprisingly precise from what Thor remembers, but Loki attributes the accuracy to nothing more than deductions based on the layout of Surtur’s lair.

Loki pales when Thor brings up the dragon, and the others all gaze at Thor quizzically—as far as they know, his boasting about facing off with Surtur had simply been a flight of fancy employed to convince Laufey that he was capable of escorting Loki to Muspelheim.

They don’t question him in front of Loki, which Thor is grateful for, but they surely will later. Sif especially doesn’t miss much, and she’s been suspicious about all of this since the day of Thor’s return.

That’s a problem for another time, though. Hopefully.

Amidst their planning, Thor asks why Laufey is set on sending Loki off on such a dangerous mission unaided. Loki stares at him with an arched brow and asks what makes him assume any of this was his father’s plan rather than his own.

“I am the Crown Prince of Jotunheim,” says Loki. “The heir to the throne of Utgard. Why shouldn’t I do whatever is in my power to protect my people?”

Thor finds his motivations admirable, but going to Muspelheim alone is recklessness bordering on madness. When Thor remembers Grundroth’s scathing insults and Heimdall’s assertion that Loki is accorded only the barest minimum of power under Laufey’s rule, he thinks he may understand why Loki is so desperate to prove himself.

Morning passes into midday as the six of them pore over the map, plotting their course of action.

· · · · · · · · · ·

Satisfied with tomorrow’s plan, they leave the war room and descend the stairs. Volstagg and Hogun head straight for the dining hall, but Sif and Fandral are both eager to get to the training yard. Thor sympathizes—his blood is still hot from Hailstrum’s mockery—and so Loki leads them outside.

The sky is grey and overcast, just as it was yesterday, with snow drifting down in flurries and dusting the ground white. It’s cold, but thanks to the castle walls which surround the courtyard and keep the worst of the winds at bay, it’s not unbearably so.

On the far side of the courtyard is the blacksmith’s forge, marked by the workbench, weapon racks, and grindstone. The forge itself burns low, no more than a flameless smolder, and behind the array of equipment is the open door to the smithy’s shop.

The barracks and armory each have their own courtyard entrances as well, and a small number of Frost Giants come and go through these doors. Loki accredits the relatively sparse activity to the late hour—most of the palace's occupants see to their training in the mornings and early afternoons.

The training pitch, barricaded off from the rest of the courtyard, is impressively spacious. There are coiled straw archery targets standing high on easels, as well as padded pells available for melee practice. Near the training field’s entrance, an array of weapons and bits of armor are scattered across a great stone table. This is where they find Ignar, Dagny, and Hailstrum.

“You made it,” Ignar says cheerfully. He holds a goblet in one hand, and the wine splashes out over the rim as he gives Fandral a friendly, albeit forceful, pat on the back. “My sister and her husband were beginning to think you’d changed your minds.”

“Aye,” grumbles Hailstrum, glaring at Thor. “You’ve kept us waiting long enough.”

“You might remember that we have more pressing concerns to attend to,” Loki says dryly. “Thor didn’t travel all the way from Asgard just to spar with the likes of you.”

“Don’t you want to see what he is capable of before your journey?” asks Dagny. “Surtur is a fearsome warrior, after all. It won’t do to bring someone inexperienced along.”

“I can’t promise to leave him in any condition to accompany you,” says Hailstrum. “But I will try my best not to kill him.”

“Hailstrum,” Loki says mildly, “I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from threatening my guests.”

“It’s all right,” says Thor. “I don’t feel threatened at all.”

Hailstrum all but snarls at that. A friendly sport indeed, thinks Thor. He’s not afraid of Hailstrum—not even close—and he is going to savor his impending victory after having suffered so much of Hailstrum’s misplaced bravado.

“Does your woman fight as well, Odinson?” asks Dagny, her voice dripping in feigned innocence.

Sif bristles at Thor’s side. “I’m not his woman,” she snaps, “and I certainly don’t wear this sword for decoration.”

Dagny laughs and turns to her husband to say, “I quite like this one.”

With that—as well as Loki’s assertion that he has no plans to join them in their recreation—there’s really only one option as far as pairs go. It will be Fandral and Ignar, Sif and Dagny, and, of course, Thor and Hailstrum.

“Do be careful,” Fandral whispers to Thor as they are preparing for their respective fights. “I’d rather not feel the Allfather’s wrath because I've brought you home maimed. Or dead.”

“You be careful as well,” Thor says with a laugh. “Ignar looks too drunk by half. Try not to let him vomit on your boots.”

“Give me your hand,” says Loki, coming up from behind Thor and Fandral. Turning around, Thor is startled to realize that, yes, Loki was indeed addressing him. He stares dumbly at Loki’s outstretched hand for longer than Loki seems to have the patience for. He sighs, steps even closer to Thor, and says, “I won’t harm you.”

Warily, Thor complies, though he knows not to what end. Loki takes gentle hold of his hand, keeping it still and palm-facing-up in his own. The stark contrast of Loki’s blue skin against Thor’s is strangely captivating.

With his free hand hovering over Thor’s, Loki casts a wordless enchantment that glimmers viridescent and snakes over Thor’s flesh. “The bare touch of a Jotun’s skin can cause ice-burn,” Loki explains. “Aesir are especially susceptible, but this will protect you.”

The tingling of Loki’s spell reminds Thor once again of last night’s dream. It had all seemed so vividly real. Thor could have sworn that he still felt the echo of Loki’s magic on his skin when he awoke, just as clearly as he can feel it right now.

Thor stares at the markings which grace the back of Loki’s hand—faint strokes made in arrowed patterns. This proximity allows Thor to see that they are ridges after all, though nothing like the ones of his kin. Loki’s are pin-thin and just barely raised above the surface of his skin, as subtle as the scar a healed cut would leave behind.

Thor has the absurd desire to trace the delicate marks with his fingertips.

He allows his gaze to travel away from their joined hands and up to his brother’s face. Loki’s brow is furrowed in concentration, his eyes fixed upon Thor’s hand and the spell he is in the process of casting.

Thor’s heart beats hard in his chest—likely from the seidr shivering over his flesh, but then again, perhaps not—and he dimly hopes that it goes unnoticed, despite the fact that Loki’s thumb is pressed dangerously close to his wrist’s pulse point.

Loki glances up at Thor, their eyes meeting for the first time since he began to cast the spell, and butterflies erupt in the pit of Thor’s stomach for reasons he can’t explain. Loki blinks, then offers Thor a small, uncertain smile, before letting go of Thor’s hand.

The intense tingling sensation of Loki’s magic fades, leaving a dull something in its wake. “Thank you,” says Thor, just on the other side of breathlessness.

Loki does the same for Sif and Fandral, neither of whom seem anywhere near as affected by the enchantment as Thor had been. Loki is quick and efficient, though it had seemed to Thor to take much longer when he was the one on the receiving end.

Thor reasons that the sudden sensory overload is due to the simple fact that this is the first time he’d felt his brother’s touch in years. The first time since Thanos stole Loki away from him with brutal and horrific finality.

Their last few instances of physical contact rush through Thor’s mind unbidden—Loki kissing him in the captain’s quarters, Loki throwing himself onto Thor protectively just as the Hulk had come barreling into the room, Thor cradling his brother’s lifeless body as the ship broke apart around them…

Stop, Thor tells himself, feeling the threat of tears behind his eyes. Loki is here now. He is different, but he is alive. Let that be enough.

After thanking Loki for the added protection, both Fandral and Sif unsheathe their swords, eager to get on with their training. Loki busies himself at the table, clearing away a section of equipment, all the while carefully avoiding the spot that Mjølnir currently occupies.

“Did you cast this spell on yourself as well?” asks Thor, once confident that he has successfully suppressed his heartache as best he can for the time being.

“No,” says Loki, hoisting himself up onto the stone table. Once he’s settled onto the edge of it, with his feet dangling high above the ground, he helps himself to the flagon of wine.

“Why doesn’t your touch burn us, then?”

“You shouldn’t dally,” Loki responds, ignoring Thor’s query. “Hailstrum looks impatient.”

Thor effortlessly calls Mjølnir from where it sits beside Loki on the table, not missing the way his brother’s eyes follow the hammer’s movement.

“Hailstrum is strong,” says Loki, “but he’s slow and stupid. If you circle him between blows, he’s like to trip over his own feet before catching you.”

“Thanks for the advice,” says Thor.

“You’ll be of no help to me tomorrow if you let that brute pummel you into the dirt.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Thor says with a laugh.

“Who’s worried?” The look in Loki’s eyes as he smirks over his goblet of wine is familiar—so much so that Thor feels his sorrowful mood begin to fade.

“Odinson!” bellows Hailstrum. “Enough of this idle chatter.”

Thor makes his way across the field towards his waiting opponent. The ground is muddy and slippery from the day’s snowfall; it would be all too easy to lose one’s footing here.

“Good luck,” Loki calls out after Thor. He doesn’t need it, of course, but appreciates the sentiment nonetheless.

Thor surveys the area he has to work with. The field is spacious, encircled by a fence. This is where a small number of other Frost Giants have begun to gather round, leaning against it from the outside, their expressions ranging from amusement to excitement.

Congregating around the table, as to stay out of the way, is Dagny, Ignar, Sif, and Fandral. The whetstone Fandral and Sif had just been passing between them only a moment ago now lies forgotten on the table beside Loki as they nervously watch Thor approach Hailstrum.

Leaning back on one arm and swirling the wine in his chalice, Loki is the picture of perfect repose. For all his insistence that this sparring match is a useless waste of time, he’s clearly enjoying the prospect of Thor and Hailstrum’s fight.

Mjølnir’s weight is comfortably familiar Thor’s hand as he twirls it in his grasp. It will feel good to swing his hammer with purpose once again, so long as he does not think too much about the fact it had once belonged to Hela.

Hailstrum’s chosen weapon is a single handed short-sword, comically small in the Jotun’s massive hand. It is shorter even than the wooden practice swords children are wont to train with on Asgard. But as Thor draws near, the blade suddenly comes to life.

The steel freezes over, transforming the undersized sword into a massive blade of thick ice. It’s a familiar sight—the Jotnar fought with similar weapons during Thor’s misguided attack all those years ago—but he hadn’t known that deep beneath the ice was blacksmith-forged steel.

“Asgardian,” roars Hailstrum, “come and strike me if you can!”

That’s all the invitation Thor needs. He rushes forward, the ground soft and uneven beneath his boots. Mjølnir hums in his hand, ready to strike, and Hailstrum meets his charge just as Thor expects him to—with a powerful downward stroke.

Prepared for the blow, Thor easily sidesteps it, allowing Hailstrum’s blade to come crashing hard against the ground, sending a spray of mud and ice crystals into the air.

It takes Hailstrum a good moment to haul his sword back up for another attack, and Thor uses the opportunity to execute a perfect overhead throw that sends Mjølnir hurling right for the Jotun’s chest.

Hailstrum blocks the hit with an armored shoulder just in time, roaring and stumbling backwards with the force of the hammer’s sudden impact. Thor calls Mjølnir back to him just as Hailstrum lifts his sword into the air in order to deliver another mighty slash.

It goes on like this, blow after blow. Hailstrum, as slow as Loki promised he would be, grows increasingly frustrated as Thor dodges more often than he parries.

Thor lands precious few strikes himself, none of which do any significant damage, but Thor doesn’t want them to. This is all for sport after all.

“Coward!” shouts Hailstrum, when Thor ducks beneath another swing of the sword. Then, unexpectedly, Hailstrum’s subsequent strike comes with his free hand instead of his blade, and this time, he doesn’t miss.

Stumbling from the closed-fist punch, Thor swings Mjølnir aimlessly, but Hailstrum’s next attack is already underway. In a single, brutal motion, he hacks at Thor with his enormous ice-sword.

Thor stumbles in his effort to dodge it, and it just barely catches him in the back of the leg—a blunt blow with the flat side of the blade which sends a flare of white-hot pain through Thor’s entire calf. If he hadn’t moved, the sword would have struck much higher.

That could have killed me, he thinks, spinning around in a fury just in time to see another vicious swing coming right for him. He manages to dodge this one before sprinting a circle around Hailstrum, putting as much distance as he can between himself and the raging Giant.

Thor feels electricity pulsing over his skin, lighting up Mjølnir as well as himself, but before he can initiate his counterattack, the ground shakes.

Ice comes rushing forward, a frozen torrent headed straight for him. Thor swings Mjølnir with all his might, shattering the wall of ice just before it can strike, and the impact creates a hailstorm all around him.

He shields his eyes from the spray and, in his blindness, is struck by a consecutive blast of ice, knocking the wind from his lungs and sending him sprawling to the ground.

“Behold the Mighty Thor!” Hailstrum shouts. “See how weak the Aesir have grown in their complacency?”

Thor spits a mouthful of blood into the mud. He had not even noticed biting his tongue when struck. He risks a glance at Loki, who is now leaning forward anxiously, his gaze darting between Thor and Hailstrum.

Thor decides that he’s held back quite enough. His left calf is throbbing with pain, his tongue is sore, and Hailstrum is already bowing before the cheering spectators in premature victory. Thor drops Mjølnir into the mud, closes his eyes, and draws in a deep breath.

Then, he calls the storm forth.

Letting his rage electrify, waves of currents begin to crackle over his skin. Thor rises anew, his eyes fixed upon his target. The already overcast sky further darkens, and the unmistakable rumble of thunder fills the air.

A sudden strike of lightning sends a wave of gasps through the crowd of onlookers.

Hailstrum falters for only a moment, but it is time enough for Thor to launch himself forward in a powerful flurry of lightning. He rises into the air, right up to the Giant’s level, and his fist connects directly with Hailstrum’s jaw.

They go down in a tangle of frost and electricity. Hailstrum flails, swinging bare fists wildly, but Thor is quicker. He lands every hit upon his target, not letting up until Hailstrum’s lip is cracked and bleeding and one eye is swollen-closed. Finally, with one knee pinning Hailstrum down by the shoulder, Thor presses his forearm against the Jotun’s thick neck.

“Yield!” shouts Thor. Hailstrum hurls his head forward, attempting to slam it into Thor’s, but Thor dodges it with ease and applies slightly more pressure against Hailstrum’s throat. “Yield!”

“Fuck you,” rasps Hailstrum. “I yield.”

Thor lets go all at once, sliding off Hailstrum’s massive body and down into the mud. Breathless and aching, he closes his eyes and lets the storm—both outside and inside—dissipate.

Sif and Fandral are beside him a moment later, hauling him up from his knees. “How the hell did you do that?” asks Sif, while at the same time Fandral cries, “That was incredible!”

Fandral shrinks back a bit when Thor’s opponent finally rises to his feet with help from Dagny, but Hailstrum simply says, “You fight well, Odinson.”

Defeated, he heads out of the enclosed training field toward the palace, his wife trailing close behind.

Thor must look frightful—limping, covered head to toe in mud, and surely bleeding from numerous places—as he approaches the table that Loki and Ignar lean against.

“Loki,” says Ignar, “I believe this Aesir warrior will suit you just fine on your quest to Muspelheim.”

“That was impressive,” says Loki, ignoring his cousin’s remarks. Thor must have taken one too many hits in his fight because his heart positively soars at the compliment. “I suppose I now know why you’re called the God of Thunder.”

Loki passes him a damp towel, which Thor accepts gratefully. He wipes the grime and mud off his face, all the while acutely aware of Loki’s gaze fixed upon him.

Ignar offers Thor a chalice of wine, half-frozen from it’s time out in the cold. It’s reminiscent of the Midgardian blended drinks that Jane was always fond of, and Thor drinks it down despite the fact he’s already shivering.

“It’s almost dusk,” says Loki. “Though I’d love to see the look on my father’s face if you were to attend tonight’s feast in your current state, you should probably go wash up.”

“The rest of us never got the chance to spar,” complains Ignar, looking between Loki and Fandral regretfully. “I was looking forward to it.”

“Another time perhaps,” Fandral says amiably.

The crowd that had gathered to watch Thor and Hailstrum’s match has already dispersed, but a figure lingering near the door to the barracks catches Thor’s eye.

It’s difficult to see through the falling snow and fading daylight, but Thor recognizes the onlooker as none other than Laufey’s brother, Grundroth, whom Thor had only just met this morning.

Thor idly wonders how long he’s been there, and how much of the fight he had been witness to. Something about the way he is standing so far off, still as a statue and completely alone, is unnerving, and Thor thinks the sudden chill he feels run down his spine is not due to the cold.

· · · · · · · · · ·

When Thor, Fandral, and Sif finally return to their guest chambers, Hogun and Volstagg are already there, preparing for the night’s feast.

Thor—sore and freezing and utterly filthy—heads straight for the bath, while Fandral and Sif excitedly recount the sparring match they had just witnessed.

“Thor’s eyes were actually glowing,” says Fandral. “It was unbelievable.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” adds Sif, though she sounds more concerned than impressed. He and Sif have fought side by side many times, and as far as she knows, he has never been able to use his powers to such an extent.

Thor closes the door to the bathing chamber, carefully leaning Mjølnir against it. He’s desperate for just a few minutes of peaceful solitude after the chaos of the day—the day which is, unfortunately, far from over. Thor is still expected to attend Laufey’s damnable feast.

At least he’ll be with Loki. Though, with Laufey and Grundroth both present, he doubts there will be an opportunity for any meaningful conversation.

As Thor sinks into the gloriously hot water, his thoughts drift back to the morning’s events—specifically, the crone’s ominous warning. He is not of this realm, Sóma had said. He will ruin everything.

Could she have somehow sensed that Thor traveled not only though space, but through time? And what of Hailstrum’s insistence that her presence at court was to Loki’s fortune?

Thor sighs, sliding deeper into the water and running a wet hand over his face. It’s all just another thread in the tangled web of mysteries which Thor has unwittingly found himself caught in. He wonders why, for the thousandth time, he is the only one of the Avengers to have retained his memories.

Well, truth be told, Thor is not entirely certain of that fact. He’d only reunited with Stark and Rhodes, after all. There were plenty of others present when they used the Stone. Thor turns over all the possibilities in his mind once again—branching timelines, alternate dimensions, parallel universes.

After the Casket is once again safe in Utgardhall, I will return to Earth, he thinks. I’ll track down Strange’s order of wizards if there is truly no one who still remembers what we did.

What a relief it would be to finally talk to someone who understands. Thor has felt horribly lonely—even amongst the friends he’d thought he lost forever—while forced to shoulder the knowledge of these last few years alone.

The future Thor experienced will never come to pass, but Thor still remembers it. He lived it. The senseless slaughter of his people. The long and terrible war against Thanos which resulted in losses beyond measure. The Avengers’ uncertain use of the Time Stone—the success of which became overshadowed by the heartbreaking revelation that, in his effort to reshape history, Thor had managed to create a timeline in which he and Loki were never raised as brothers.

Thor wants to be counseled. More than that, he wants to be comforted. He wants to be held. He thinks back to last night’s dream, to the feel of Loki’s fingers soothingly carding through his hair. How sweet it had been, how deceptively real…

Thor lets his eyes fall closed. He fills his mind with thoughts of his brother and lets the steaming bathwater melt the aches from his tired body.

Chapter Text

On the eve of their prince’s departure to Muspelheim, Utgard’s highborn residents flock to the the palace above their coastal city to be feasted by the king. The Jotun custom of coming together before battle is meant to unite the Frost Giants as one people. During the course of these feasts, veterans will exchange tales of glorious battle, the king will give a speech meant to inspire pride and loyalty in his subjects, and neighbors spend the evening eating and drinking and dancing together. The following day, when the warriors depart the city to face their opposition on the battlefield, they will remember what it is they fight to protect.

Loki is not exactly marching into battle—his task being diplomatic in nature—but Muspelheim is a dangerous place, and he is Laufey’s heir, so the tradition extends to him tonight as well.

The benches surrounding the high table at breakfast have since been removed from the dais and replaced with twelve cushioned chairs. Neatly aligned on one side of the table, they allow the royal family and their guests to see and be seen by everyone in the hall.

The king and his son occupy the two middle seats, with Grundroth and his family to Laufey’s right, and Thor and his companions to Loki’s left. On the floor just below the dais, a bard plucks at his lute and sings a wartime ballad, but most of his words are drowned out by the din of voices and clangor of cutlery that fill the hall.

Not a single bench remains empty, and although everyone gathered appears in high spirits as they feast and drink and converse amongst themselves, the unmistakable air of ceremonious formality hangs in the air.

Thor had little appetite to speak of when they first arrived to the dining hall some hours ago, and now, during the fourth course, he can do no more than idly push the portions around his plate. Loki appears as uninterested in the spread as Thor, and he does not so much as pretend to partake in anything save the wine.

Thor, equipped with centuries of experience in reading the subtle cues of his brother’s moods, can see that Loki is anxious—he chews his lower lip, strums neatly trimmed nails upon the table, and shifts restlessly in his seat. He wonders if Loki’s discomfort is as obvious to Laufey as it is to Thor. Surely it must be.

Despite his nervousness, Loki looks every part the crown prince tonight. His hair is loosely gathered to the side where it cascades over a bare, blue shoulder. Thor notes the few rogue braids buried within the lazy tumble of waves, all interwoven with delicate threads of gold.

The sleeves of his black tunic hang off his shoulders, and the garment is no less elegant than the gowns often worn by Asgardian ladies. It's not so long as that though, and his slim-fitting breeches and supple leather boots work to counteract the semblance. At his hip, cinching the pleats of wispy fabric and saving the tunic from being completely shapeless, is a golden brooch wrought into the shape of a serpent.

The snake’s eyes—just two small rubies worked into the gold—glimmer in the dim candlelight. They match the stones of Loki’s princely circlet. They match the haunting red of Loki’s eyes.

He looks rather lovely tonight, for want of a better word. He would have told him as much were they not now strangers. Thor was never one to shower Loki in compliments, though he would sometimes make some idle remark on a new outfit or the way his hair fell. It always seemed to please his brother to hear such things, though it embarrassed him as well—something Thor couldn’t help but find curiously endearing.

Thor never made mention of Loki’s embarrassment. They would tease each other over just about anything, as brothers are wont to do, but even so, Thor would always pretend not to notice the blush rising in Loki’s fair cheeks. For some reason, it would have seemed cruel to jest about such a thing.

Thor gazes at the Loki beside him and wonders what a blush would look like matched with his blue complexion. He imagines a violet tint gracing Loki’s cheekbones. Violet, like his lips—

Hailstrum’s sudden howl of laughter from the other end of the table shakes Thor from his musings.

He finds himself grateful once again that there's so much distance between himself and the blustering Giant, even here upon the dais. Their earlier sparring match—which became a deadly scramble with worrying ease—had left Thor pained and exhausted.

At least he was spared the humiliation of losing, which is more than anyone can say for Hailstrum.

Thor’s minor injuries are now healed thanks to his long bath and subsequent nap. Though he had only intended to steal a few more moments of solitude after relinquishing the bathing chamber to Sif, no sooner than when his aching body landed amongst the warm furs of his guest bed was he asleep.

An hour or so later, Hogun knocked on his door to rouse him for the feast. Upon waking, Thor had the strangest notion that Loki had been beside him as he slept. It was surely no more than the remnants of some forgotten dream, but a disconcerting sensation nonetheless.

Here, at the feast, time passes slowly. Servants flurry about the high table, ensuring every cup is filled to the brim and carrying out trays upon trays of food, even as the previous spreads fail to dwindle. It’s Thor’s second night in Utgard, and he’s shared enough meals with the Jotnar by now to be familiar with the scope and staples of their diet.

Thor had been surprised to learn that Utgardhall boasts a heated loafing shed, and the ancestry of its flock traces all the way back to a pair of goats once gifted to Laufey by Odin as a gesture of goodwill. The greater population of Jotunheim have likely never had dairy—goats and cows being unable to thrive naturally in Jotunheim’s frigid climate—but the king’s private flock ensures there is no shortage of cheese, cream, or butter in the palace.

Protein is largely provided by the planet’s oceans—fish as large as horses, colossal crustaceans that creep along the arctic seafloor, cockles and mussels and oysters, and even translucent jellyfish are only a fraction of the biodiversity off Utgard’s coast—whilst trade agreements supplement the rest of their fare.

Honey, apples, and grapes are imported from Asgard, and Jotunheim’s stores of flour, oats, and sugar come from Vanaheim. Although the Aesir and Vanir reentered trade negotiations shortly after the war’s end, Alfheim has remained firm in their embargo against the Frost Giants for centuries.

Alfheim’s reluctance to associate with Jotunheim comes as no surprise. The Light Elves are a notoriously cautious people with little interest in interplanetary collaboration or commerce. Their tariffs are high, their tourism restrictions excessive, and their visits to Asgard have always been few and far between. With little need for Jotunheim’s major exports—petroleum, iron ore, and scandium—Alfheim has no cause to open trade with the Frost Giants and share with them their wealth of chocolate, cinnamon, and saffron.

When the servants finally come sweeping onto the dais to clear the high table, leaving only the flagons of wine and tankards of ale untouched, Thor can’t help but sigh in relief. He’s eager for the evening’s end and the morrow’s mission to begin.

If it were up to him, they’d have left for Muspelheim as soon as Loki accepted Thor’s offer of aid. The Casket would by now be safely returned, the threat of intergalactic war hindered, and, with the knowledge that Loki is no longer in immediate danger of succumbing to a fiery death at Surtur’s hand, Thor would be free to focus on remedying his botched attempt at altering time.

“I hope that’s the last of it,” whispers Sif once the table is thoroughly cleared of food. “I don’t think I can possibly sit through another course.”

“At least Volstagg is enjoying himself,” replies Thor. He’d always suspected that Volstagg’s appetite could rival that of a Giant’s.

When the king bangs his tankard upon the table, the bard ceases his playing and a silence falls across the great hall. Between Laufey and Thor, Loki keeps a white-knuckled grip on his wine chalice, though, to his credit, he manages to maintain a passive expression as his father prepares to address the room’s occupants.

“As you all know,” says Laufey, “the Casket of Ancient Winters has been stolen. Loki has requested permission to journey to Muspelheim in the hopes of retrieving it. I have granted him leave to do so, but I have also taken certain measures to ensure our readiness if this diplomatic endeavor should fail. Every jarl in every city is prepared to send forth their warriors to Utgardhall at my command. If Surtur strikes, rest assured that we will meet him with the full might of Jotunheim.”

The hall erupts into cheers of assent—cups slam down against tabletops, boots stomp on the floor, and roars of Jotunheim and Laufey King reverberate through the room.

“At daybreak, Loki will embark on his quest,” continues Laufey. “He will be accompanied by the Aesir prince, Thor Odinson, who hopes to strengthen the alliance between our kingdoms.”

Thor, knowing as well as anyone the extent of the bad blood between the Aesir and Jotnar, has no misguided notions regarding Laufey’s interest in entering an alliance with Odin’s family. He can’t help but wonder what the other Frost Giants think of it, with many of them surely having fought in the war.

Laufey had only agreed to the treaty that put an end to their long and bloody conflict because he was left with few other options. By the time the forces of Asgard and Vanaheim were finally able to drive the Frost Giants back to Jotunheim all those centuries ago, they had already suffered more devastating losses than they could afford, and their numbers were dwindling.

In the end, it was here, in Utgard, where the Frost Giants were finally forced to admit defeat and surrender. Odin may not have deigned to take the Casket of Ancient Winters this time around, but the two realms could hardly be considered friends.

With a wordless gesture from his king, a servant scurries up onto the dais to hand Laufey a small but finely decorated wooden box. Thor thinks it must surely be Loki’s fǫrþakka, the gift a Jotun warrior customarily receives before some significant quest or battle. It looks positively tiny in Laufey’s hands as he places it on the table before his son.

Thor watches as Loki carefully lifts the lid to reveal twin daggers nestled in a bed of purple satin. He selects one, gingerly lifting it from its cushioning by the hilt, and immediately, as though responding to his touch, the runes which have been neatly engraved into the blade’s fuller groove begin to glow blue.

Hailstrum’s sword had come to life at his command, transforming blunt steel into a sturdy weapon of unyielding ice, but Loki’s daggers are quite different. They are not made of steel, for one thing, but a crystalline material as clear as glass. Loki deftly twirls the selected dagger by its black hilt, allowing the light to catch the streaks of gold that have been wrought into the grip and pommel. With what looks like no more than a subtle touch of concentration on Loki’s part, a thin sheen of ice crystals suffuse over the entirety of the blade like frost on a windowpane.

“Thank you, Father,” says Loki, returning the dagger to the box from whence it came. He either ignores or fails to notice the way his cousins are craning their necks to try and catch a better glimpse of the weapons. Thor risks a glance at Laufey’s brother, remembering how he’d insisted Loki was undeserving of the gift made for him, but Grundroth’s sober expression betrays nothing.

Loki closes the lid and pulls the box closer to himself with both hands in an almost possessive gesture, as though he half-expects someone to snatch it away. Laufey clears his throat, staring pointedly at his son, and it takes half a heartbeat for Loki to remember himself and reach for his chalice to raise it high in the air.

“Glory to Jotunheim!” Loki shouts loudly enough to be heard even in the far reaches of the enormous dining hall.

His words are echoed back by the feast’s attendees as they raise their own cups. Thor hurries to join in, amusedly wondering what his father would make of him toasting to Jotunheim’s prosperity.

Laufey’s speech and the presentation of Loki’s fǫrþakka have evidently fulfilled the ceremonious obligations of the evening. The bard lifts his lute once again, but this time he forgoes the crooning ballads in favor of a livelier song, which a dozen or so Frost Giants add their voices to.

Hailstrum and Dagny descend the dais to join the company of a group of warriors on the floor of the dining hall. Ignar departs the high table as well, pausing only to compliment Loki’s gift before he strolls across the room and slides onto a bench near the hearth where he’s handed a horn of ale.

Sif and the Warriors Three fall into quiet conversation amongst themselves, but Loki is quiet and contemplative beside Thor as he absently traces the grooves of the wooden box with his fingertips.

“Those are very fine daggers,” says Thor, “though I hope you won’t have need of them tomorrow.”

“Yes,” Loki says distractedly. “Thank you.”

Thor tries to think of some remark to further the conversation, but before he has the chance to do so, Loki waves his hand over his fǫrþakka, vanishing it from sight. He excuses himself from the table, easily climbing down from the oversized chair with a gracefulness that Thor is certain he wouldn’t be able to himself match.

Feeling dejected, Thor watches as Loki makes his way through the hall, stopping every so often to exchange words with acquaintances. Most ignore him, carrying on with their revelry as he passes by, but there are a few Giants who greet Loki cordially. One Giantess even sinks down on bended knee before Loki, smiling warmly as he shows her his new daggers. It takes Thor a moment to realize that he recognizes this woman—she’d been seated beside Loki on the dais of the throne room yesterday.

Could this be Loki’s mother? It's difficult to imagine Loki with a mother who is not the one they have always shared. He remembers the way Frigga grieved for Loki, and the way he grieved for her in turn. The few years that Thor lived without his mother had been difficult, but the idea of never knowing her love at all is unfathomable.

Growing up, Thor and Loki often found themselves competing for their father’s approval, but their mother was always generous with her own. Frigga’s affections came freely and plentifully, and some of Thor’s fondest childhood memories are of late afternoons spent in the peaceful company of his mother and brother.

Whenever Odin was preoccupied with some kingly duty or another, Frigga would steal the young princes away from the commotion of the palace. They would picnic in Iðunn’s orchard, wade in the Tanakvísl river, or gather wildflowers in the meadows of Fólkvangr. It would feel as though the world belonged only to them.

Sometimes they wouldn’t even leave the palace grounds, only going so far as Frigga’s private garden. Thor thinks he may have loved it there best of all. They would laze about in the shade amidst Frigga’s carefully tended flowers and she’d read to them from one of her many books.

Thor still remembers all the heroes of Frigga’s stories. There was Sigurd, who slew Fáfnir the Dragon. The Valkyrie, who were strong and beautiful and unparalleled in battle. The Vanir king who drank the sea to save his only daughter from drowning. The Hero of Heorot and his legendary weapons. The prince who journeyed into Hel to bring his lover back from death.

That last story had always been Loki’s favorite.

An uncomfortable sensation suddenly creeps over Thor, and he turns to find Laufey’s piercing eyes set upon him from the opposite side of Loki’s now vacant chair.

“I expect Loki to return from this endeavor alive,” Laufey says quietly, “with or without the Casket.”

Thor stares back at Laufey, refusing to shrink under the weight of his crimson gaze. He takes in the king’s countenance—the prominent ridges, the sharp cheekbones, the dramatic curve of his nose, the jut of his jaw—and is once again struck by how little Loki resembles him.

“Do you understand me, Odinson?”

Thor nods, Laufey’s interest in Loki’s survival coming as more of a surprise than his lack of faith in their chances of success.

“If you bring any harm upon my son—by malice or by folly—I will carve out your heart and deliver it to Odin myself.”

Thor feels a rush of indignation, not only at the threat, but at the implication Loki needs to be protected from Thor of all people. And the warning to come from Laufey, the very man who left his infant son to die—

Not here, Thor reminds himself. Here, in this timeline, Loki was never abandoned to be found by Odin. For some reason, in this version of their lives, Laufey had kept Loki, raising him as his son and heir.

“Loki will be safe with me,” Thor says carefully. “You have my word.”

Laufey narrows his eyes suspiciously. “Your word?”

“On my honor as the son of Odin.”

Laufey throws his head back and roars with laughter, drawing everyone’s attention to the high table. Thor feels the heat rise in his cheeks, but he refrains from making some response that might escalate tensions even further.

One more day, he thinks. One more day and I’ll be free of this wretched place.

Thor turns his attention back to the floor of the crowded dining hall, and to Loki, whose apprehensive gaze now flicks between Thor and Laufey, no doubt wondering as to what had just transpired there.

· · · · · · · · · ·

Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three abandon the dais shortly after Laufey and Grundroth depart the hall. They settle around the warm hearth in the back of the room, accompanied by a few Frost Giants, Ignar and Raze among them. Volstagg and Fandral gladly exchange tales of perilous battles, bawdy conquests, and rewarding hunts with the Jotnar.

Sitting around a fire, drinking and laughing, they almost look like friends. Thor thinks that alone can be considered a remarkable feat. Ignar seems endlessly delighted with the recent Asgardian presence in Utgard—a stark contrast to his father—and even Raze’s disposition seem to have thawed. Still, it comes as a surprise when Ignar extends an invitation for the five of them to return to Utgard and accompany him deep into the wilderness of Jotunheim once the Casket has been successfully returned.

“The beast has been terrorizing a small village outside Glæsisvellir for weeks,” says Ignar. “It will surely be the last hunt before winter is upon us.”

“What manner of beast is it?” asks Fandral.

“A monstrous bitch from the darkest corner of Hel,” Ignar says gravely. “She has a thirst for Jotun blood and prowls the unhallowed darkness for her prey. She’s ravenous and cunning, as likely to pluck a swaddled babe from his cradle as she is to tear out a lumberer’s throat. Her claws are as sharp as Vanir steel and her bite as powerful as—”

Ignar’s grisly tale is interrupted by a sudden, short laugh. Thor turns to see Loki, having arrived unnoticed to the hearth, wearing an expression of amused skepticism.

“This beast of yours grows more fearsome with every recount,” says Loki, sliding onto the bench beside Thor. “Some wolf or leopard makes off with a fishmonger’s yield and it sends you all into a frenzy.”

“This was no leopard,” insists Raze. “My cousin wrote me from Glæsisvellir and he says that sightings of the beast grow ever more frequent.”

“Sightings,” says Loki, “but no attacks. In a fortnight she will slink back to her to lair to wait out the winter.”

“Don’t listen to Loki,” says Ignar. “He’s just never come to appreciate the art of the hunt.”

“I fail to see the appeal in sleeping on the hard ground in a cloth tent, tracking some pitiful creature through the snow for days on end, just to mount its head on the wall.”

Thor remembers how Loki—the other Loki—was never overly fond of hunting either, though he’d endure it to please their father who sometimes liked to take them into the Asgardian forests after wild boar.

“You needn’t come, Loki,” says Ignar. “I will take our new Asgardian friends myself so that they may see more of Jotunheim before autumn’s end.”

“If we fail to retrieve your Casket,” says Sif, “you’ll be too busy preparing for war to hunt for sport.”

Loki all but glares at her, but Ignar cheerfully raises his horn of ale and says, “Then we shall hunt Fire Demons! What better sport than that?”

“Loki will surely succeed,” says Raze. “Especially with your help, Odinson. I heard all about your triumph over Hailstrum in the training yard today.”

“We were well-matched,” offers Thor. He won’t deny his victory, but neither will he offend the Frost Giants by belittling one of their most famed warriors.

“Aye,” Ignar says with a smile. “Well-matched indeed.”

The conversation around the hearth drifts back to the Beast of Glæsisvellir, but Hogun and Sif quietly excuse themselves, eager to retire back to the guest chambers despite the still-early hour. The rest of the hall continues their merrymaking, drinking and singing and dancing, seemingly unconcerned with the threat of interplanetary war that hangs over Jotunheim like a storm cloud.

Raze eventually abandons the hearth to shyly approach a young Giantess and ask her to dance with him. She accepts—to the encouragement of the women around her—and arm in arm they move about the floor with a gracefulness that Thor would have once believed Frost Giants incapable of.

Feasts and celebrations were commonplace on Asgard, but the last few miserable years of Thor’s life had left no room for such affairs. The last time he’d danced was with Jane at Darcy’s wedding.

Their relationship had already been on its last breath—they both knew as much—but nevertheless they attended the reception together, bringing a joint-gift, posing for pictures and, toward the end of the night, taking to the dance floor.

Even their slow dance had been awkward. Jane hardly looked at him the entire time, and the space between their bodies spoke more to the state of their relationship than even their false smiles could.

Thor has sweeter memories of dancing on Asgard, and it had been Loki who taught him how.

They were young, barely into their adolescence, and Thor wanted to ask Gná to dance at the upcoming Yuletide festival. Their friends had assured Thor that Gná would accept, and he often noticed her eyes linger upon him whenever they were together, but his inexperience made him afraid of making a fool of himself in front of the entire court.

Thor pleaded with his brother to practice with him, promising to do Loki’s chores for a month in exchange. Loki eventually agreed, and every night leading up to the festival, Thor would visit Loki’s chambers to lead him around the room in an awkward waltz.

Thor soon began to grow more confident in his practice, and on the third night he made the disastrous mistake of trying to dip Loki.

Even now, Thor can remember his brother’s wide-eyed stare as Thor’s hand slipped off his back. Loki had let out a startled yelp as he began to fall, and Thor’s attempt at catching him only made matters worse; their feet got tangled up together, and when Loki hit the floor with a loud thump, Thor immediately followed, landing heavily on top of him.

Less than a minute later, Loki angrily shoved him out the door, swearing that he would never again dance with a clumsy oaf such as Thor.

The following night, Thor brought Loki a bottle of his favorite wine as an apology, and he reluctantly agreed to continue their practice, so long as Thor promised to never again try and dip him.

Fandral, Volstagg, and Ignar are deep in conversation, but Loki has fallen quiet beside him, gazing into the hearth, and Thor feels his own curiosity piquing.

“Not in the mood for dancing?” asks Thor.

His question seems to startle Loki, who stares at Thor for a long moment before answering. “I think that would look rather ridiculous, don’t you?”

Thor isn’t sure what he means by that at first, but then understanding dawns on him. “Because you’re smaller than they are?”

“You’ve noticed?" asks Loki, sounding more amused than offended by the mention of his stature.

“You’re not small to me,” says Thor. It’s true that Loki is slimmer than Thor—made of lean muscle and long limbs—but their difference in height can be no more than an inch or two.

Loki arches an eyebrow. “You’re not suggesting yourself as my dancing partner, are you?”

“What?” asks Thor, spluttering. “No, of course not. I only meant—”

“I know,” Loki says with a laugh. “A jest.”

Thor forces a laugh before draining his tankard. He’d always been able to tell when Loki was teasing him, but here, everything feels awkward and misplaced. Even what is familiar is slightly wrong, and Thor often feels as though he’s standing on the bank of a murky river, seeing the world only through the water’s warped and dark reflection.

“I’m a shape-shifter, you know,” Loki says quietly. “I can make myself appear larger with minimal effort and blend right in with everyone else, but I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of thinking it bothers me.”

“Does it?” asks Thor, aware that he’s pushing past some invisible boundary, but nevertheless unable to stop himself from posing the question.

Loki searches his face, as if deciding whether or not he’s willing to have this conversation with a man he met only yesterday, before he drops his gaze back to the hearth’s fire, sighing.

“Of course it bothers me,” he says, “but what does it matter? The throne is my birthright. Once I’m king, no one will dare mock me.”

Thor knows not what to say, so he remains quiet, watching the firelight dance over his brother’s profile and remembering all the times Odin told them that they were both born to be kings. How utterly confusing such assertions must have been for Loki growing up, who knew no home but Asgard. Would Loki still have grown to resent Thor so much if they’d been raised with the truth?

Would that the Time Stone brought me someplace like that, he thinks. It’s a useless wish. For better or worse, Thor knows that he would rather have his brother as he remembers him. Their life together may have been complicated, their relationship even more so, but it was theirs.

With a small smile playing at his lips, Loki leans in conspiratorially close and whispers. “I once transformed Hailstrum to stand no taller than a child. He deserved it, mind you, after attempting to humiliate me in front of half the court. Dagny went crying to my uncle, so I had no choice but to return him to his natural height, but for a few precious hours, he stood even smaller than we are.”

“I’d have liked to see that,” says Thor, laughing.

Loki moves away, but just barely. They’re still close, their knees brushing together every so often and the aroma of bath oils that cling to Loki's skin and hair—notes of orris root and lavender—fill the air between them.

Thor gazes at him, feeling such a startling rush of affection that it’s all he can do not to reach out and touch him. It feels unfair, having to resist something that had come naturally to Thor all his life. He’d taken for granted all the times he could wrap an arm around Loki’s shoulders, pull him into an embrace, cradle his head by the back of his neck and look into his eyes…

Quite without his permission, the memory of their kiss forces itself to the forefront of Thor’s mind. He wonders if this Loki would also kiss him with such ungentle force. He wonders if his mouth would be warm against Thor’s, or if his lips would feel as cool as his hands did this afternoon.

Thor tears his gaze away from his brother, inching away from him until there is a respectable distance between their knees, and feels a flush creep up his neck. He stares into the hearth and tries to still the erratic beating of his heart.

What would their father have to say about the way Loki had kissed him? Would it enrage him? Embarrass him? The thought of Odin or Frigga witnessing such a thing makes shame twist in the pit of Thor’s stomach. Loki should not have done that, he thinks. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t brotherly.

It was their last moment alone together, and the memory is clouded with guilt and confusion. Thor will never know why his brother had done it, had chosen that particular form of farewell, and even if Thor manages to return to his familiar life and reunite with the person his brother was twelve years ago, the Loki that had grabbed the back of Thor’s neck to drag him into a rough kiss is gone forever.

· · · · · · · · · ·

Once Loki retires for the evening, Thor sees no reason to linger. The older guests and those with children have long since departed, and the remaining revelers are well in their cups, laughing and singing along to the bawdy songs the bard has begun to play.

Thor bids everyone a good night, leaving Volstagg and Fandral to continue drinking with Ignar, and exits the hall to make his way back up to the guest chambers.

It doesn’t take long for Thor to realize he may have underestimated the size and layout of Utgardhall. Passing an unfamiliar painting of Laufey, looking regal upon his throne, Thor is sure that he made a wrong turn somewhere. Rather than turn back, he presses forward, remembering that the eastern tower has two stairwells.

The corridors are entirely empty, the servants likely preoccupied with the feast and the mess it had made, while the palace residents not still in the dining hall have surely retired to bed by now.

Thor finds the staircase quickly enough. At least, he thinks it’s the other eastern staircase. There’s no one around to ask for directions, but he’s certain that he couldn’t have yet gone far enough to reach another one of the towers.

As he makes the tedious climb, he lets his thoughts once again wander back to the nights he’d danced with Loki.

They’re fond memories. On Asgard, he and Loki often grew apart then back together. During the months leading up the Yuletide festival, they’d been spending more time apart. Loki was focused on his magic, taking frequent trips to Vanaheim in order to study at its impressive athenaeum, and Thor, when he wasn’t busy with combat training, was often in the company of Volstagg, Fandral, and Sif.

As the night of the festival drew close, Thor had come to realize that he would miss the time spent with his brother. Even all these centuries later, the memory of their last night of practice remains clear in his mind.

The room was bathed in moonlight and candle-glow, and Loki had charmed a harp to play upon itself, the strings dancing as though plucked by invisible hands. Loki’s cheeks were flushed and his lips were stained red from the wine they’d shared.

Thor remembers thinking that Loki grew handsomer with each passing year. He was sure then that many of the Asgardian maidens would soon begin to notice him they way they noticed Thor. He had been right about that much at least, but at the time Thor had no way of knowing how little interest Loki would take in their attentions.

You’re lucky you didn’t drop me again, Loki had said after Thor risked his brother’s wrath by attempting another dip. I would have stabbed you.

I know, said Thor, grinning. But I didn’t drop you.

Thor had been reluctant to leave that night, knowing it would be the last time they'd share this, but the flagon of wine was empty, the moon was high in the night sky, and his feet were tired from dancing. He tried to think of some way to express his gratitude, not only for Loki’s help in teaching him to dance, but for the time spent in his company. He had been unable to come up with anything that didn’t sound embarrassingly sentimental, so he simply hugged him before leaving, hoping it would convey what words could not.

Loki made no appearance at the festival the following evening. According to Frigga, he’d fallen under the weather and wasn’t feeling up to attending. Thor left the celebration early to find Loki in his own chambers, lying on his bed in soft cotton pajamas, reading a book.

Thor shucked off his boots and plopped down onto the bed beside his brother. When asked why he’d left the festival so early, Thor said the evening had been incredibly dull without Loki there to make mischief.

Did you dance with Gná?

No, answered Thor.

Why not?

I didn’t feel like it, said Thor. Perhaps I’m coming down with whatever ailment you’ve been struck with.

I doubt that, said Loki, sounding almost remorseful.

Thor comes to a skidding halt in the corridor when he hears the unmistakable sound of Laufey’s voice coming from a nearby room. Lost in distant memories, he'd paid too little attention to where he was going, and now, scanning his unfamiliar surroundings, he realizes that he’s nowhere near the guest wing.

“—seems eager to strike up some sort of friendship with you. The timing is not ideal, but what else can you expect from these Aesir? You may as well not squander the opportunity to win his trust.”

“Yes, Father.”

Thor’s heartbeat increases as he presses himself against the wall and creeps closer to the door in order to better hear Laufey and Loki’s conversation. He knows getting caught could have dire consequences, but they're talking about Thor, and what he hears may very well prove useful. He envies his brother’s magic at times like this. Thor may be considerably smaller than everyone—and everything—in Utgardhall, but he’s far from invisible. Anybody could turn down the corridor to find him eavesdropping on the king.

“If you fail to retrieve my Casket,” says Laufey, “the shame will be yours alone to bear. I would have denied your ill-advised request to go alone to Muspelheim had you not implored me publicly, but we are well past that now. I do not expect you to succeed, but I do expect you to return with your life intact. Your destiny far exceeds this mission. You’d do well to remember that.”

“I’m not likely to forget it,” says Loki, “with how often you remind me.”

“Mind your tongue, boy,” snaps Laufey. “Were it not for the prophecy you so loathe, I would have no cause to suffer such insolence. You should be grateful to have purpose in life. You should be grateful to even be alive.”

A drawn out silence is followed by a reluctant, “Yes, Father.”

“If you do somehow manage to retrieve my Casket,” continues Laufey, “do not allow your Asgardian companions to so much as touch it. It’s possible Odin sent his son here as part of some ploy to seize the Casket for himself.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Go,” says Laufey. “Upon your return we will discuss—”

Laufey’s voice fades out of hearing as Thor hurries down the corridor, putting as much distance between himself and the royal family as he can before he's caught in his clandestinity.

Turning a corner, Thor breaks into a sprint. He needs to get back to the guest wing—or at least back to the staircase he had just come up—but he’s even more lost now than he was before he stumbled upon Laufey and Loki’s private conference.

Thor only managed to catch the end of their conversation, but what he heard was enough to set his mind whirring. The notion that Odin sent Thor on some covert mission to steal the Casket of Ancient Winters couldn't be further from the truth, but Thor can't fault Laufey for questioning his motives. The suspicion regarding Thor's willingness to help the Jotnar is a testament to just how fragile the peace between Asgard and Jotunheim truly is.

Far more troubling than Laufey's distrust, though, is the allusion to a prophecy. A prophecy regarding Loki. As far as Thor knows, neither himself nor his brother have ever been named in a völva's prediction. Whatever this fated purpose Laufey spoke of is, it's something new.

Thor rounds another corner, then slows his pace, thinking he may very well be going in circles, bound to end up right back where he was. If he keeps going this way, he’s likely to run directly into—


He comes to a stuttering stop at the sound of his brother’s voice, desperately trying to school his expression into something that doesn’t betray his guilt as he turns around to greet him.

Loki’s red eyes are narrowed in suspicion as he approaches. “What are you doing up here?”

“I’m not quite sure where here is,” Thor admits with a sheepish smile. “I must have gone up the wrong staircase.”

Despite his rapid pulse, Thor thinks he’s done a decent job at playing innocent. Unlike Loki, subtlety was never Thor’s strong suit.

“There should have been a guard at the tower landing,” Loki says in a hushed voice. “This is the royal wing. No one is allowed here.”

“I didn’t mean to intrude,” says Thor. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right." Loki grabs Thor’s arm to hastily lead him down the remaining length of the corridor. “Let’s get out of here before someone sees you and makes a report to my father.”

It turns out that Thor had gone up the western tower staircase and strolled right into what is supposed to be one of the most guarded parts of the castle's keep. Loki escorts him back downstairs, through a series of winding corridors, and to the bottom of the eastern tower.

Thor expects Loki to take leave of him there, but instead he’s accompanied all the way up to the guest wing. Whether this is just a courtesy or an effort to ensure he doesn’t once again go sneaking around someplace he doesn’t belong, Thor isn’t sure.

Bypassing the door to the common room, they stop outside the one that leads directly into the master bedchamber that Thor has occupied since arriving in Utgardhall.

Before Thor has the opportunity to once again apologize for his intrusion, Loki asks, “Do you think we have any chance tomorrow?”

“Of course,” says Thor, struck by the vulnerability he hears in the question. “It’s all right to be nervous, but I’m sure everything will be fine.”

“My father says nervousness is but a softer word for fear.”

“Well, my father says that a touch of fear is necessary in battle,” says Thor. “He says that it keeps you from acting recklessly.”

Loki smiles. “I suppose there’s truth in that too.”

“We’ll get the Casket back from Surtur,” Thor says reassuringly. “I’m sure of it.”

“Why are you helping us?” asks Loki. “You said that Surtur would pose a greater threat if left to conquer Jotunheim, but I don't see how that's true. Surely it would be better to wait out a war and let Muspelheim's forces dwindle.”

“An invasion of Fire Demons would be devastating,” says Thor. “I promise to do whatever I can to prevent Surtur from scorching Jotunheim.”

“The Jotnar are nothing to you,” says Loki. “Why would you risk your life for us?”

“Because,” says Thor, “thats what heroes do.”

Loki blinks, staring at Thor as though he’d told some joke that Loki failed to catch the meaning behind. Then he bursts into laughter, making Thor blush despite himself.

“A hero?” he asks. “You’re certainly not what I expected. I always thought you hated us as much as your father does.”

“I don’t hate you,” says Thor. I could never hate you. I love you more than anyone. “Just because our fathers were enemies doesn’t mean we must be as well.”

“I suppose not,” says Loki. “It’s no secret that an alliance would benefit Jotunheim. Asgard has a great deal of influence in the Nine Realms, and there are still planets that refuse to do trade with us.”

“A lot can change with a new king.”

“A new king on Jotunheim or Asgard?” asks Loki.

“Both,” says Thor, and Loki smiles.

Loki had once insisted that all he ever wanted was to be considered Thor's equal. They’re equals now, if nothing else. Thor wonders what sort of king Loki would make here on Jotunheim, and if the prophecy that Laufey made mention of—the prophecy Loki evidently despises—has anything to do with his future rule.

After Loki bids him goodnight, Thor lights a fire in the bedchamber’s small hearth, strips out of his clothes, and climbs into the warm comfort of the fur-clad bed.

Sleepy as he is, his thoughts nevertheless linger on Loki. He thinks that, for perhaps the first time since his arrival in Utgardhall, he’s beginning to see this version of Loki for who he is, rather than who he is not.

Despite the subtle differences in Loki’s disposition and appearance, Thor finds himself more intrigued by him after their impromptu conversation about the futures of their realms. Loki may not inspire the same sort of loyalty in his subjects that Laufey does, but his intentions for Jotunheim’s prosperity are noble.

Thor mulls over the interactions he’s witnessed between Loki and his kin. His relationship with Laufey leaves much to be desired, but Thor hadn’t expected any less. Grundroth has made his dislike of his nephew plainly known, but his son, Ignar, seems fond of Loki in his own way, even if Dagny and Hailstrum are not.

Apart from his family, the only friend Loki seems to have is Raze. Thor can’t help but wonder if Loki’s stance on the physical incompatibility between himself and the other Frost Giants extends beyond the realm of dancing.

Loki—the other Loki—had surely known his fair share of lovers, though none seemed to hold his attention for very long. His liaisons were discreet, few and far between, and, as far as Thor knows, lacked any significant attachment on Loki’s part.

Thor remembers the first time he’d even heard of Loki sharing a bed with someone. A friend of Hogun’s had come to visit Asgard from Vanaheim one summer; Thor found him agreeable enough at first, and evidently so did his brother.

Thor had been in Siggi’s tavern when he overheard the Vanir warrior crudely boasting of how he’d bedded Loki the night before. The ribaldry infuriated Thor—who is this stranger to dishonor my brother, a prince of Asgard, by speaking of him with such vulgarity?—and he had made his displeasure known by connecting his fist with the Vanir’s face.

Drunk as he was, Hogun’s friend still proved a troublesome opponent, and a table had been smashed to pieces in their scuffle by the time Thor finally managed to best him. He was gone the next morning—back to Vanaheim a fortnight earlier than planned—and Loki, despite surely hearing all about the altercation, never once mentioned it, or him, to Thor.

Uncomfortable with the direction of his thoughts, Thor quiets his mind using a meditation technique he once learned from Tyr on Asgard. He counts the seconds between breaths and focuses his attention on the gentle thud of his heartbeat.

Once asleep, Thor dreams of Asgard. He dreams of a whispered spell and sunlight pouring through an open window. He dreams of a familiar hand in his own, and Loki’s voice, quiet and sad, asking a somehow-familiar question.

“Where are you, brother?”

Chapter Text

The people of Earth have a flawed perception of the afterlife. Over the centuries, stories of Hel and Muspelheim have coalesced to create the underworld of tempestuous fire they call hell.

Thor knows very little of the actual Hel, though it’s said to exist somewhere near Niflheim in an extra-dimensional plane. Just like Valhalla, it is hidden from, and inaccessible to, the living.

When Thor was a child, Hel had been explained to him as the place where all the nothingness of Ginnungagap went after the creation of the Nine Realms. The Aesir and Vanir, in their art and literature, tend to depict Hel as a ghostly landscape devoid of all things that inspire life.

There is said to be no sunlight in Hel—nor trees, nor rivers, nor mountains—and the dead wander aimlessly through an endless, spectral fog. It had always seemed to Thor and Loki a rather grim alternative to the promised halls of Valhalla.

Still, it’s little wonder why Muspelheim had helped inspire the place of eternal damnation in so many human mythologies. A scorched and smoldering planet of ever-erupting volcanoes inhabited by grisly Fire Demons is undoubtedly terrifying.

Thor had familiarized himself with the various human religions during his time spent amongst them. At first, he had simply sought to amuse himself with the Nordic Eddas, delighted by their outrageous inaccuracies, but he soon found himself drawn to their other theologies.

The real Hel may not be a particularly comforting prospect, but it’s still greatly preferable to its Earthly namesake. The notion of a torturous afterlife in a place like Muspelheim both unnerved and fascinated Thor, and he’d spent many a quiet night reading from the books he’d found in Jane’s study on the topic.

Hell. Hades. Gehenna. The Lake of Fire. The Inferno. Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

Thor watches Loki wrap his hands around the twisted iron bars and peer out between them. There’s nothing to be seen out there in the darkness; apart from the torch fixed to the top of the suspended cage, the only visible light source is in the flickering flames far below, and even they are barely visible through the thin haze of smoke hanging in the air.

“This seems rather counterproductive,” says Loki.

It’s quiet up here, where they sway on their chainlink tether amidst the igneous stalactites. The gentle back-and-forth is deceptively lulling, and Thor, who’s been seated on the floor of the cage since their capture, tilts his head back to rest it against the unforgiving metal.

“You wanted an audience with Surtur,” says Thor. “This is the best way to get one.”

Loki turns and stares down at him skeptically. “It rather seems like the best way to get killed.”

On Jotunheim, Loki had been the picture of courtly elegance, but he’s dressed far more plainly now. His black leather armor is mostly unadorned, save for the dark blue cape fixed to his shoulders, and his hair is pulled back in a simple braid. He wears no princely circlet—no jewelry at all—and his newly-gifted daggers are nowhere in sight.

“How long were you kept prisoner the last time?”

“I’m not sure,” replies Thor. “No longer than a few days.”

Days? But couldn’t you have escaped?”

“Probably,” Thor says with a shrug. “I didn’t try.”

Loki chews his lip thoughtfully, sighs, then slides down onto the floor opposite Thor. There’s barely enough room for the two of them here, so he’s is forced to stretch his long legs out alongside Thor’s own.

“Surtur must know what we’ve come for,” Thor says gently. “It shouldn’t be so long this time.”

“You came alone?” asks Loki. “The last time you were here?”

Thor nods, remembering how he’d been chained up in a cage even smaller than this one. “My cellmate was a skeleton.”

“Not the best conversationalist, I imagine.”

“No,” says Thor, smiling despite the current circumstances. “I much prefer you.”

“I would certainly hope so.”

Thor flexes his fingers, feeling for Mjølnir across a considerable distance. When he and Loki allowed themselves to be taken by Surtur’s forces, Thor had disarmed obediently. As they were led away at the point of a blazing sword, he had watched with amusement as one of the Fire Demons struggled in vain to lift the hammer from the patch of black dirt that Thor had deposited it into.

He feels Mjølnir stir now at his touch, but he does no more than nudge at it, assuring himself it’s still there, undisturbed and within reach.

He knows he doesn’t need it, having developed a new control over his powers, but he’d fought off Surtur’s horde with his hammer once before with relative ease, and he’s confident that he will do so again today before seeing Loki and the Casket of Ancient Winters safely back to Jotunheim.

Truthfully, having Mjølnir in his possession has been an undeniable comfort to him—especially now that so much has changed. It had felt good to use it again in his fight against Hailstrum, and so long as he ignores the knowledge that it had once belonged to his murderous sister, he can revel in the familiarity of its weight in his hand.

Mjølnir is mine, he thinks stubbornly. It has been mine for centuries. What does it matter who wielded it before me?

He’d fought with it most his life, the worn leather grip and metallic grooves as familiar to him as any other thing that reminds him of home—a crisp golden apple, the notes of a high harp, a strong mead, the green of Loki’s eyes.

They are green no longer, he thinks, glancing at Loki. It has been but a few days since he found himself in this altered timeline, and every so often Thor finds himself marveling at how different this version of his brother looks.

Thor sometimes catches himself staring at him, studying his crimson eyes and violet lips and pale blue skin. Now, his gaze once again traces the faint markings that grace his face and neck for what must be the thousandth time. He wonders what patterns they make elsewhere, in the places hidden by Loki’s clothes.

Thor cannot imagine what Loki—the other Loki—must have thought when he first saw himself like this. Frigga had said he discovered the truth after encountering the Frost Giants on Jotunheim. One of them had grabbed Loki’s arm, and not only had the touch failed to burn him, but it had begun to reveal his true Jotun form as well.

In his mind’s eye, Thor can see Loki in his own chambers, sometime after Thor’s banishment, using his magic to tug at Odin’s spell-work. He imagines his brother, standing in front of the full-length mirror beside his wardrobe, gazing into the glass as an unfamiliar reflection stares back at him.

He must have been terrified.

“I saw you talking to my father last night,” says Loki, breaking the silence and interrupting Thor’s wandering thoughts. “Is there anything I should be worried about?”

“He was only concerned for your safety,” Thor says carefully. “He wanted me to know that the Casket isn’t worth more to him than your life.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to Loki; during the private conversation Thor had managed to stumble upon, Laufey had expressed as much to him as well. Your destiny far exceeds this mission, the king had said, alluding to some unknown prophecy regarding Loki’s future.

“He doesn’t think I can do this,” says Loki, adjusting his bracers and avoiding Thor’s gaze. “No one does.”

“I think there are a few in Utgard who would disagree,” says Thor. “Raze, for one.”

“Raze is the Captain of the Guards, sworn to serve the royal family. At the very least, he must appear to have some faith in the competence of the crown prince.”

“What about Ignar?” asks Thor. “He doesn’t seem too concerned about the prospect of war. He was planning a hunt to celebrate your return before we’d even left.”

“That’s just how Ignar is,” Loki says with a shrug. “But I suppose you’re right. My cousin has always stood up for me, often against the other members of our family. He’s the only one to ever do so, and for that I owe him a great deal.”

From what Thor has seen of Loki’s father, uncle, and other cousins, he believes it. Even before he’d traveled to Jotunheim, Heimdall had warned him that Loki isn’t very well-regarded amongst his people.

But then recalls the Giantess he’d seen Loki in the company of last night, remembering the way she had smiled warmly at Loki as he showed her his fǫrþakka.

“What about your mother?” he asks. “Is she supportive?”

Loki lifts his gaze, seemingly surprised by the question. He makes no immediate response, only searches Thor’s face for a long moment.

“I didn’t mean to pry,” says Thor, wondering if he’d broken some unspoken cultural rule by asking about her. “I only—”

“My mother is dead.”

Thor’s heart drops at the admission. It’s unexpected, though it really shouldn’t be; he’d spent two nights in Utgardhall and no one had so much as mentioned her. Thor finds himself at a loss for words.

Had she died in the timeline Thor had come from as well? Had the other Loki known whether or not she was alive? Had he even known who his mother was?

Surely his brother had researched his own lineage; he had, after all, come to the conclusion that he was the rightful King of Jotunheim at some point during their estrangement.

Loki certainly hadn’t been confiding in Thor during those last few years—when he wasn’t trying to kill him, he was tricking him into believing he was dead—but Thor thinks now that he shouldn’t be left to guess at a thing so important.

He feels so much regret all at once that it’s all he can do not to cry. If he’s honest with himself, he knows that he’s hardly given Loki’s birthmother a passing thought. As far as Thor had been concerned, his brother was as much Odin and Frigga’s son as he himself was.

“I didn’t know,” Thor says helplessly. “I thought maybe the woman you were with during the feast—”

“Beyla is just a nursemaid,” says Loki. “A tutor and caretaker to noble children in Utgardhall. I’ve known her all my life, but she’s not my mother.”

“I’m so sorry, Loki.”

“There’s no need to apologize,” says Loki, waving his hand dismissively. “You couldn’t have known.”

I should have. “Then, I am sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” Loki’s says after a short stretch of silence. “I never knew her, though. You can’t miss what you don’t know.”

I suppose not, Thor thinks sadly. Just like you don’t miss Asgard, or our parents, or me.

The chain they’re suspended from suddenly rattles loudly, and the cage tilts to send Loki sprawling half across Thor’s legs.

Loki curses under his breath, hoisting himself up onto his knees to look out between the bars of the cage. “I think they’re pulling us down,” he says.

“Don’t expect a graceful descent,” replies Thor as the cage tilts again.

Thor watches Loki take hold of the iron bars to keep his balance before following suit. He reaches behind himself for purchase and bends his knees until his feet are firmly planted on the floor.

The next time the cage swings, the force of their movement extinguishes the torch, leaving them in complete darkness.

Thor is just about to tell Loki to hold on tightly when the pulley below is abruptly released and the cage drops through the air in a dizzying free-fall.

· · · · · · · · · ·

Thor watches as Loki, disheveled and furious, clambers out of the twisted wreckage of their cage. His armor is torn at the collar, the edge of his cape is singed, and there’s a streak of black soot on his cheek, but he looks otherwise unharmed.

“Are you all right?”

“Fine,” Loki says dryly, grabbing hold of Thor’s offered hand and climbing to his feet.

To call this cavern a throne room would be generous; Surtur may be a king, but his lair is by no means a castle. Nevertheless, this is where court on Muspelheim is held, and it is here that Thor fought and defeated Surtur upon his last visit.

The throne—enormous slabs of blackened stone crudely pushed together—stands a short distance from Thor and Loki, and upon it sits the infamous King of Fire Demons.

Surtur is as gruesome a sight as Thor remembers. The flames of his body lick at the massive crown fixed to his head and, from the cracks of his charred flesh, tendrils of smoke rise into the air alongside burning embers. The legendary Twilight Sword is held like a scepter at Surtur’s side.

If Loki is at all intimidated by the sight of him, he shows no evidence of it. He merely brushes the ash from his hands onto his leather breeches, lifts his chin, and marches toward the throne. Thor follows closely behind, gingerly stepping over the thin streams of lava that trickle through the cracks of the cave floor.

“I am Loki, Son of Laufey and Crown Prince of Jotunheim.” They come to a standstill a few paces in front of Surtur, who gazes down at them expectantly. “I believe you already know my companion, Thor Odinson.”

Thor winces, hoping that the likelihood of Surtur having had at least heard of Thor will be enough to prevent him from questioning their supposed acquaintance.

“Laufeyson and Odinson.” The deep and gravelly timbre of Surtur’s voice echoes through the cavern as he repeats their names. “Why have the princes of two warring realms invaded my kingdom?”

“Warring realms?” asks Loki. “Jotunheim and Asgard haven’t been at war in centuries.”

“I don’t think he gets out much,” says Thor, making Loki smile and Surtur scowl.

It’s even hotter down here on the ground. Thor’s skin is dappled with beads of sweat and his armor feels uncomfortably restrictive. He can only imagine how Loki must feel, accustomed as he is to the frigid climate of Jotunheim. He must be sweltering.

“The Nine Realms are at peace,” explains Loki. “A peace that Muspelheim has disturbed.”

“There will never be peace,” says Surtur. “Not until I place my crown into the eternal flame and plunge my sword into the heart of Asgard.”

Movement on the nearest stalagmite catches Thor’s attention. In the dim light, he can see only an indiscernible writhing mass, but he knows that Surtur’s thralls are stirring. They cling to the igneous pillars like gargoyles, cloaked in shadow and lying in the deepest fathoms of sleep until their king has need of them.

Thor also knows that somewhere, lurking in one of the dark alcoves of the cavern, is a dragon.

“You have the Casket of Ancient Winters,” Loki says plainly. “I have come to ask for it back.”

“That is a bold assumption,” replies Surtur, “and an even bolder request. Even if this artifact were in my possession, what would make me want to return it?”

“You cannot use it,” says Loki. “It would destroy you if you tried, as you well know. Fire Giants cannot harness ice power, nor can you safely wield it.”

“Do you think that makes it valueless to me?”

“No,” answers Loki. “Its value lies in Jotunheim’s necessity for it.”

“And yet you leave it unattended.”

“You cannot mean to conquer Jotunheim,” says Loki. “None of you can survive in a realm of snow and ice. You wouldn’t have taken the Casket for any reason other than to ransom it, so name your price.”

“Very well, Laufeyson. I will return your Casket of Ancient Winters—on one condition.”

Thor hadn’t expected that they might actually manage to settle the matter diplomatically, despite it being Loki’s intention here. Odin had always insisted that Surtur is beyond reason, and all attempts to come to a peaceful arrangement with Muspelheim had ended in fire and bloodshed.

“What condition would that be?” asks Loki.

“The Jotnar will fight alongside the Muspellssynir come Ragnarök.”

Surtur’s words are met with a silence that seems to stretch on and on. Tiny flames flicker all around the cavern like fireflies in a dusky meadow as the Demons begin to awaken.

“Jotunheim and Asgard have a peace treaty,” Loki says carefully.

“Forsake it,” says Surtur. “It would not be the first time Jotunheim has broken accord with Asgard. I remember the war your father started. I remember the war of his father’s father. For millennia, I have watched, time and time again, as Jotunheim rose against Asgard—only to fail.”

Loki glances sidelong at Thor, but his expression is unreadable. All around them, Demons crawl down the stalagmite pillars to the ground, where they slowly make their way to the center of the cavern, forming a half circle around Thor and Loki.

“Ragnarök is the oldest living prophecy in the Nine Realms,” continues Surtur. “Asgard’s doom is certain.”

“If I accept your terms,” says Loki, “you will return the Casket to me?”

“I will return it once you prove that you are prepared to join me in destroying the Aesir.” Surtur slowly raises his flaming sword and points it directly at Thor. “Beginning with him.”

Surtur’s thralls draw nearer, blocking any means of escape, and one breaks rank from the rest to approach Thor from behind. He can feel the heat radiating off its body.

An eternity passes before Loki finally turns to face him. He almost looks remorseful.

“Loki,” Thor says softly, but a dagger is already materializing in his brother’s hand, the blade’s engraved runes glowing faintly beneath a shimmering layer of frost.

It shouldn’t hurt so much. As far as this version of Loki is concerned, Thor is no more than the son of his father’s adversary. They’ve known each other but a few days. The memories of their life together belong to Thor alone now; why should Loki feel any sense of loyalty towards him? They are not brothers. Not anymore. It shouldn’t hurt.

But it does. For a moment, he’s no longer standing in the sweltering heat of Surtur’s lair surrounded by Fire Demons. Instead, he’s seated in a SHIELD interrogation room in New Mexico while Loki tells him that their father is dead; he’s plunging through the open air after being jettisoned from a Helicarrier; he’s atop Stark Tower, a knife buried in his abdomen, still pleading for Loki to come home with him.

As all of the lies and fights and betrayals come rushing back, Thor can do no more than stare at Loki sadly. Is there no reality where we don’t hurt one another? The thrall at Thor’s back who had been charged with apprehending him places a smoking hand on his shoulder. Perhaps we are doomed by Fate to always be at odds.

Thor reaches for Mjølnir as Loki, determination etched across the fine features of his face, approaches him slowly. Thor senses the distance between himself and his hammer, estimating how long it will take to have it in his hand, while a thousand possibilities of how he might escape play out in his mind.

“I’m terribly sorry,” Loki says as he wraps his free hand around Thor’s wrist, the cool touch a sharp contrast to the Fire Demon’s scorching hold on his shoulder, “but I’m afraid I’ll have to decline your offer, Surtur.”

Loki wrenches Thor towards himself with surprising strength and speed. The Demon still clinging to Thor’s shoulder moves with him, stumbling forward on Thor’s heels and grunting in confusion. Pressed against Loki, who keeps a vice-like grip around his wrist, Thor hears, rather than sees, Loki thrust his dagger into the Demon’s skull.

Loki releases Thor just in time for him to spin around and watch as the Demon—steaming and hissing as its life-flame is extinguished by ice magic—crumples to the ground. A moment later, Mjølnir’s handle slams into Thor’s waiting palm.

He reflexively wraps his fingers around the soft leather grip as he turns back to Loki, his relief in not being betrayed as overwhelming as it is invigorating.

He wants to pull Loki into an embrace—thank him for burying his blade in the Demon rather than Thor and apologize for so readily doubting him—but with Surtur angrily rising from his throne and his thralls closing in all around them, Thor settles for a smile that he hopes conveys the gratitude he feels.

Loki has just enough time to give him a small smile in return before he turning on his heel to deflect the impact of a charging Fire Demon.

· · · · · · · · · ·

Thor deals with Surtur’s thralls as easily as he had the last time he was on Muspelheim. Every swing of his hammer connects with charred flesh and smoking bone as the Demons fall to the ground one by one.

Sometimes they charge together, forming a tight circle around him, but Thor simply spins Mjølnir from its leather strap, creating a cyclone of metal and electricity that knocks them backwards and off their feet.

Loki often appears as nothing more than a blue blur in a burning sea of red and orange, but from the glimpses Thor catches of him, he seems to be handling himself well enough, using the Demons’ vulnerability to frost to his advantage.

As for Surtur himself, Thor spends more time dodging or deflecting the Twilight Sword’s strikes than actually engaging him; every time Thor gets near enough to the king, another lot of Fire Demons advance upon him and demand his attention.

Eventually, Thor manages to separate himself from the horde long enough to rise up in a flurry of electricity to Surtur’s level.

With one nearly useless arm—a parting gift from Odin upon their last encounter—and the slowness that comes with his size, there is little challenge in parrying the strokes of Surtur’s fiery sword.

It’s no time at all before equal parts surprise and fury flash in Surtur’s blazing eyes as he realizes the extent of Thor’s strength, but the understanding of his underestimation comes too late. Mjølnir strikes a particularly hard hit against the oversized crown, and the force of the collision proves enough to knock the ridiculous thing clear off Surtur’s head.

Thor shields his eyes from the spray of burning embers that kick up into the air as both sword and crown drop heavily into a smoldering pile of ash and cinders—all that remains of Surtur’s bodily form.

Thor doesn’t have the luxury of reveling in his victory for long; as soon as his boots touch the ground, he’s met with the sight of a rather large Demon—armed with a branding iron war-scythe—charging straight for him.

Not nearly as tall as Surtur, but at least twice the size of the other Demons, it lunges forward, slashing wildly with its glowing-orange scythe. Thor parries each stroke with a moderate amount of difficulty, but finds himself caught off guard when the Demon uses his free hand to deliver an unexpected closed-fist punch to the side of Thor’s head.

Thor stumbles backward, tripping over the body of another one of Surtur’s thralls and crashing to the ground. His assailant is on him in the span of a heartbeat, swinging his weapon in a brutal downward stroke aimed to sever the hand that holds Mjølnir from Thor’s wrist.

The tip of the scythe pierces the tuff ground, failing to meet Thor’s flesh but effectively trapping his arm beneath the curve of the smoldering blade. The Demon smiles a monstrous and bone-chilling grin as it leans over its pinned adversary.

As it moves to wrap its smoking fingers around Thor’s throat, the Demon is suddenly struck in the back of the head. Thor can’t see his rescuer from where he is sprawled on the ground, but as the Demon slouches forward, dazed from the blow it received, Thor uses the opportunity to call Mjølnir away from his right hand and into his left, ensuring it bashes hard against the attacker’s skull between them.

Thor expects to see Loki standing over him when he shoves the lifeless Demon off himself, and is thus surprised to find Sif there instead, adjusting the shield fixed to her forearm, which is now slightly dented from the crushing blow it delivered to the Demon.

“Thanks,” Thor says as Sif sinks down onto one knee to dislodge the scythe from the ground and free Thor’s arm from where it’s pinned.

Once unconfined, Thor grasps Sif’s outstretched hand and rises to his feet. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he surveys the carnage. A few hundred Demons lie scattered across the cavern floor, but Thor knows better than to assume that they were the last of Surtur’s forces.

Loki approaches Thor and Sif from the other side of the throne, with Fandral, Volstagg, and Hogun following close behind. They’re all in filthy disarray, but otherwise unscathed from the skirmish.

Loki smiles as he passes the smoking pile of ash that is Surtur, and Thor can’t help but feel a tiny bit proud in the face of his brother’s approval. It has been a very long time since he’d last felt it, after all.

“Do you have it?” asks Loki.

Sif produces an iron-wrought skeleton key from somewhere inside the folds of her armor, but when Loki reaches for it, she draws it back towards her chest, her gaze flicking uncertainly to Thor.

He can’t really blame Sif for distrusting Loki—they had been taught all their lives that Laufey and his ilk are treacherous barbarians with an indiscriminate hatred for all Aesir—but they really don’t have the time for this now.

Thor nods, prompting Sif to give Loki the key, which she offers to him hesitantly, letting it drop from her grasp to dangle freely from the chain looped around her finger. Loki gives her an icy glare as he snatches the key from her outstretched hand.

Just as Loki slips the chain over his neck and tucks it into the collar of his armor, a deep-bellied roar shudders through the cavern and the ground beneath their feet trembles violently.

“What was that?” asks Fandral, looking around warily.

“That,” replies Thor, “would be the dragon.”

“We have to get to the vault,” says Loki. “Now.”

“You two go ahead,” says Volstagg, twirling his battle axe in hand. “We will keep the monster busy.”

“No,” says Thor. “It’s too dangerous.”

“Volstagg is right,” says Hogun. “You’ll have a better chance of slipping into the vault unnoticed if we split up.”

“We can lure the dragon to the surface,” says Sif. “Get to the vault, retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters, and meet us up there.”

“We’ll make our way back to where we landed,” adds Fandral. “Once we are all together, we can call for Heimdall and get off this forsaken planet.”

The beast roars again, and Thor can tell by the sound of it that its much closer now than it was only a moment ago. He knows that his companions are battle-proven warriors—he has no doubts regarding their competence—but he’s still hesitant to leave them.

“Retreat if you have to,” says Thor, clasping Sif by the shoulder. “You need not wait for us.”

“Go,” she says. “We will be fine.”

Loki looks between Thor and Sif impatiently. He holds the cloth map of Muspelheim that he’d kept in the war room of Utgardhall in one hand now, and a dagger in the other.

“Do you know the way?” asks Thor.

Loki points to a nearby tunnel, as nondescript as the rest of the lava tubes and alcoves that make up Surtur’s lair.

· · · · · · · · · ·

The door to Surtur’s vault is carved from a great slab of blackened stone. Built into the slab is a series of concentric turnstones—five rings in all—and each one has its own collection of symbols which have been etched deep into the surface of it.

The etchings are of solitary creatures, objects, and elements, with each one greatly set apart from the next. In the center of the radial turnstones, at the very middle of the door, is a keyhole.

The skeleton key fits perfectly into the slot, but the lock refuses to turn. Loki tries first, followed by Thor, but neither are successful in opening the door.

“It must be some sort of puzzle,” Loki muses, running his palm over the carved image of a serpent. Further along the same ring is a flame, and beyond that a squirrel.

Thor stares at the door, unable to recognize a pattern amidst the seemingly random etchings. He’s certain that Loki is right—this is a puzzle of some kind—but he doesn’t have the vaguest idea of how to go about solving it.

“This ring has a swan, a snowflake, and a sickle,” says Thor, pointing to one of the turnstones. “They’re not exactly related to one another.”

“No,” agrees Loki. “They’re not.”

With both hands flat against the stone, Loki begins to turn the ring that Thor had pointed out. The sound of grinding stone echoes loudly through the tunnel, and Thor hopes no nearby Fire Demons will be alerted to their presence.

“Can you make sense of it?” asks Thor.

“Not yet.”

The stone clicks into place when the snowflake is positioned at the top.

Loki takes a step back and stares at the door with his eyebrows knit together in concentration. Thor wants to tell him that they don’t have much time, but immediately thinks better of it. He can already hear Loki’s frustrated response—

Shut up and let me think, Thor.

This version of Loki tends to speak to Thor more gently, though. He has yet to snap at him, but that may have less to do with a difference in Loki’s personality than the fact that they are, at least on Loki’s part, newly-acquainted.

Thor feels an unsurprising twinge of sadness. It may be ridiculous given their history, but over the last few years Thor had even begun to miss their senseless bickering.

“Of course,” whispers Loki, interrupting Thor’s thoughts as he presses his palms against the outermost ring. This one has six symbols: a hawk, a skull, and four stags. Loki turns it downwards until the hawk is placed at the top of the door and the skull is at the very bottom. “It’s Yggdrasil.”

Thor steps back and gazes at the door, reaching back to now-distant memories. On Asgard, the anthropomorphized representation of the Nine Realms is mostly reserved for art, music, and children’s fairy tales. It has been a long time since Thor last thought of the world tree in such terms, but everything he knows of it begins to come back to him.

“The hawk is Veðrfölnir,” Thor says with a wistful smile. “He’s always perched at the top.”

“That’s right,” says Loki, brushing his fingertips over the skull at the bottom of the turnstone, “and this must be Hel.”

Now that he knows what he’s looking at, Thor easily recognizes the meaning behind the rest of the symbols. The stags are Dain, Dvalin, Duneyr, and Dyathor, who eat from the branches of Yggdrasil. The swan represents Nornheim, the flame: Muspelheim, and the snowflake: Jotunheim.

They make quick work of the remaining turnstones, with only Ratatoskr giving them pause, as the squirrel could be on any branch of the world tree at any given moment. They leave that stone for last, and when the other carvings along the same ring fall into their respective places, Ratatoskr is positioned between Asgard and Vanaheim.

Once they’re satisfied with the alignment, Loki tries the key again. This time, it turns inside the keyhole easily and the door unlocks with an audible click.

They push the vault door open together, straining against the heavy weight of the solid stone, until it’s cracked open just enough for them to slip inside.

Lit braziers line the walls, saving the vault from being as dark as the outer tunnels, but the quiet emptiness and stale air make the grotto feel more like a crypt than a treasure trove.

And as far as treasure goes, there isn’t much here. Haphazardly distributed across the room are bits of battered and chipped pottery, a few dusty crates of wine, and a solitary broken chest half-filled with riches. Only the altar, which stands on the far side of the vault, promises anything of value.

They’re just inside the doorway—not nearly close enough to see the altar’s modest collection—but there’s one item whose identity is unmistakable even in the dim lighting. It glows blueish-white, illuminating its surroundings with hues entirely of place in the dark and fiery realm of Muspelheim.

Loki’s eyes light up as he starts towards the Casket of Ancient Winters—no doubt eager to be done with this mission—but breaking into the vault had been far too easy for Thor. Sif and the Warriors Three stole the key with little trouble, and any Aesir, Vanir, or Jotun would know enough of Yggdrasil to work out the door’s puzzle.

That, and Thor feels as though he’s being watched.

He looks around warily, but before he has the chance to voice his concerns the stone around them begins to shake as camouflaged panels fall away from the grotto walls to reveal casket-sized alcoves. Eight Fire Demons, armored cap-à-pie and brandishing brightly burning swords, emerge from their hiding places.

Loki curses as he turns away from the altar—and from the Casket he’d come to close to finally having in his possession—whilst summoning his daggers. He stalks toward the sentinel closest to him, glaring at it as though it were more a nuisance than a threat.

Thor watches Loki lunge at the sentinel, but he misses their ensuing scuffle when he’s forced to deal with his own charging assailant. These Demons may be fewer in number, but they’re more skilled than the ones they’d previously encountered in the throne room.

By the time the fighting takes Thor near the altar, and near Loki, the bodies of six sentinels are scattered across the grotto floor. By the looks of it, Loki is close to finishing off the seventh.

Thor focuses on the other two that remain, sending bolts of lightning down upon them whenever he’s not parrying the swings of their flaming swords with Mjølnir. It’s tiring work, but he’s fought worse battles, and by the time he manages to defeat both Demons, Loki’s opponent already lies dead.

Thor takes a knee in order to catch his breath, watching Loki—who had started for the altar while Thor was still engaged with the last two sentinels—begin to finally close the distance between himself and the Casket of Ancient Winters.

From his position, Thor has a unique view of the floor around the altar, which allows him to notice the nearly-invisible row of holes drilled into a half-circle around the platform.

“Wait!” he shouts, understanding at once what he’s looking at. “Loki—”

Thor rises to his feet in such a hurry he stumbles on his way towards his brother, but Loki—his back to Thor—doesn’t so much as slow his pace despite Thor’s urgent shouting.

The moment Loki’s boot passes over the trap, flames erupt through the row of holes in the ground, encircling the altar in a ring of fire and engulfing Loki in the blaze.

But Thor is there too, reaching desperately for Loki but grabbing hold of nothing but flames. At the same time, Thor hears his name called from someplace else.

As the image of Loki in the fire vanishes, Thor wrenches his own arm out of the flames. Confusion dwarfs the pain for a moment, but as realization dawns on him, Thor can’t help but laugh at his own folly.

Distantly, he’s aware of how delirious he must look, but before he can dwell on the thought, the sudden onslaught of pain brings him to his knees and his laugh turns into a cry of agony.

Loki—the real Loki—is at his side not a moment later.

“I’m sorry,” he says breathlessly, dropping down in front of Thor. “I assumed there’d be some sort of fail-safe in case someone got past the guards—”

“Someday I’ll stop falling for that,” says Thor, clutching his burnt left hand to his chest.

Loki’s illusion had been enough to trigger whatever mechanism the trap worked on, and now the fire diminishes, the ring of licking flames shrinking down to nothing.

“It wasn’t meant for you,” says Loki. “I should have warned you.”

“It’s okay,” Thor says through gritted teeth. “I’m okay.”

“You’re not,” Loki replies with a frown. “You’re badly burned.”

Thor winces as he lifts his hand away from his body to see the extent of the damage. Loki is right—it’s a bad burn. His forearm—from just below his elbow down to the bracer around his wrist—is bloody and blistered, while his hand is in no better state.

It’s as though everything is still on fire, and Thor can feel the white-hot throbbing pain down in his very bones. “I’ve survived worse,” he says.

“I’m sure you have, but that doesn’t lessen the severity of your present injury.” Loki takes gentle hold of Thor’s protected wrist to inspect the burn. “I know a bit of healing magic.”

Thor forces himself still under Loki’s attentions. His brother is careful in removing the leather bracer, but the pain is too great for his cool touch to come as any relief. Looking at the gruesome sight of his own scorched flesh somehow makes it feel worse, so he looks upon Loki’s face instead.

Eyebrows knit together and thin lower lip drawn between his teeth, his brother is the perfect image of worried concentration. The dark smudge of soot that he’d acquired on their crash landing into Surtur’s throne room still lingers on his left cheekbone.

“You could have accepted his offer,” says Thor, desperate to occupy his mind with anything other than the blazing pain. “Ragnarök is inevitable, after all.”

Seidr spills over Thor’s burn, cool as water. It alleviates some of the pain, but not much.

“How do you know it’s inevitable?” asks Loki.

I’ve seen it, he thinks. “It has been prophesied.”

“I didn’t take you for the kind of man who concerns himself with the ravings of völvas.”

“It’s not only völvas,” says Thor, wincing as Loki turns his hand over in his own. “The Norns have foreseen it as well.”

“The Norns,” scoffs Loki. “Prophecy is more trouble than it’s worth. For all we know, trying to prevent some foreseen disaster is the very thing that triggers it.”

“Do you not believe in Fate?” asks Thor.

“I like to think that I have some control over my own life.”

Thor looks at Loki curiously, unable to remember ever hearing his brother speak of Fate in such a way before. He wonders once again at the nature of the prophecy Laufey had made mention of last night. Whatever it is, Loki evidently wants no part of it.

Were it not for the prophecy you so loathe, I would have no cause to suffer such insolence, Laufey had told his son. You should be grateful to have a purpose in life. 

“I can close the wound for now,” says Loki, “but it must be healed properly soon or it’ll corrupt.”

Loki raises his head and Thor finds himself riveted by the intensity of his gaze. They’re so close that he can see the different shades of red in his eyes—the scleras a fainter hue than the deep crimson of his irises—and he wonders how he could have ever thought the Jotnar were monsters.

Loki isn’t monstrous. He’s beautiful. Even like this.

With his uninjured hand, Thor unthinkingly reaches for his brother’s face. Loki’s eyes widen, but he doesn’t flinch as Thor gently rubs his thumb over his cheekbone.

“You had some ash there,” Thor says quietly, showing Loki the blackened pad of his thumb.

“I’m surely covered in it,” Loki says with a laugh that sounds almost nervous.

Thor thinks he can see a faint lilac blush rising in his cheeks, but it’s hard to tell in the dim light of the vault. They hold each other’s gaze long enough for Thor to almost forget the horrid state he’s in, but then Loki’s expression grows sober.

“This is going to hurt,” says Loki.

“I know.” If Thor were in Eir’s infirmary, he’d have already been given a sleeping draught. “It’s all right.”

“It’s going to hurt a lot.”

Thor braces himself with his right hand on Loki’s knee. If Loki is startled by the gesture, he makes no show of it, but simply begins to work his magic upon Thor’s skin.

Just as promised, the pain of Thor’s flesh knitting back together is excruciating.

After it’s done, Loki tears the dark blue cape fixed to the collar of his armor off. Using one of his daggers, he cuts the fabric into strips that he uses to fashion bandages for Thor’s hand and arm, as well as a sling to keep the injury out of the way and protectively close to his own chest.

Loki only leaves Thor’s side long enough to retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters from beyond the now-spent fire trap. He vanishes it away in that hidden place of his that Thor has never quite been able to understand before returning to Thor and helping him to his feet.

· · · · · · · · · ·

Loki, map in hand, leads them down a winding lava tube. Thor walks alongside him, wincing with every step. Although Loki had done what he could with his magic, Thor’s burn still throbs with white-hot pain.

He needs an infirmary. Specifically, he needs the Asgardian Palace’s infirmary and Eir’s healing hands. But first, they need to regroup with the others and get off this planet.

Unfortunately, finding a route to the surface is more difficult than they had anticipated, and Loki seems to grow more frustrated with every turn that fails to reveal a way out. Thor is fairly certain that they’re lost, but he sees no point in stating the obvious.

It’s not long until they hear a clamber somewhere down the tunnel behind them. For a moment, Thor dares to hope it’s Sif and the Warriors Three, but as the footsteps grow louder with their approach, he can tell that it’s a horde of Fire Demons following their trail.

They break into a run, but Thor struggles to keep up with Loki, who’s forced to slow his pace.

The tunnel eventually opens into an abandoned cavern. There are no steps here either, but high above them, past the twisted peaks of the stalactites, the cave’s igneous ceiling is cracked. Loki takes no notice, absorbed as he is in the map, but Thor can see sunlight trickling in.

“I can fly us to the surface with this,” says Thor, raising his hammer. “The ceiling is already cracked, so the force of Mjølnir should break through it easily.”

“We don’t know what’s up there.”

“We could always wait for the Fire Demons and ask them,” suggests Thor. “It sounds like they’ll be here at any moment.”

Loki gives Thor a wry look, then glances behind them in the direction of their pursuers. “All right,” he says. “I think we’re otherwise out of options.”

“Put your arms around me,” says Thor.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I can’t hold both you and my hammer,” Thor explains, punctuating his point by fractionally lifting his left arm, useless in its sling.

Loki vanishes the map from his hands and hesitantly steps closer to Thor, shy in the way he loops one arm around Thor’s neck and the other about his waist.

“We’re going to be moving very fast,” Thor says quietly, worried that Loki may fall when they take to the air with how gently a hold he has on him.

Loki gives an almost-silent sigh of resolve as he closes the marginal distance that remains between them. He tightens his embrace, minding Thor’s injury, until they’re flush against one another.

Their sudden proximity floods Thor’s senses and his pulse quickens unexpectedly.

Smoke clings to Loki’s hair, which has been mostly loosed from its braid, but beneath the ashen aroma is something else—something pleasant and familiar—and Loki’s touch is cool on the nape of Thor’s neck, a welcome reprieve from the oppressive heat of Surtur’s lair.

Thor lifts Mjølnir and thrusts it high over their heads. As they ascend, Loki tightens his grip and the press of his blunt nails against the back of Thor’s shoulder reminds him of the kiss they’d shared on the Statesman—or, rather, the rough and urgent kiss Loki had given a stunned Thor moments before Thanos and the Black Order boarded the ship.

As Mjølnir bursts through the ceiling, Loki hides his face in the crook of Thor’s neck to protect himself from the sudden explosion of crumbling lava rock.

Once they’re soaring above the red surface of Muspelheim with Loki clinging to him for dear life, Thor searches the torrid landscape for any sign of Sif and the others. He knows that spotting his friends amidst the volcanic peaks and thick haze of smoke will prove no easy task, but just as he’s about to say as much, Thor hears a mighty roar in the nearby distance.

Thor propels Mjølnir forward with increasing speed, flying over a cluster of volcanoes and toward the sound of Surtur’s dragon.

· · · · · · · · · ·

High in the volcanic belt, pacing in front of a vertical chasm that cuts through one of the ridges, the dragon huffs and roars in frustration. It hasn’t yet noticed Thor and Loki, who had recently landed on the nearby cragged ground.

Sif, Fandral, Volstagg, and Hogun must have taken refuge inside the narrow crevice, out of the dragon’s reach. Thor can’t imagine what else it would be hunting up here with such focused dedication.

“What do we do?” whispers Loki.

Crouched behind a nearby boulder, Thor and Loki watch the dragon claw at the crack in the rock face. Each sway of its long tail sends a gust of hot air in their direction. Thor bested this very dragon once before, but he also had use of both his hands when he’d done so.

“We lure it away from the chasm,” says Thor. “Then we kill it.”

Loki looks at Thor skeptically before glancing at his injured arm, bound up in the sling made from Loki’s cloak.

Thor has been in many fights at his brother’s side—and a few on the opposing side—so it’s easy to forget just how relatively inexperienced this version of Loki, who grew up in relative isolation, happens to be.

Thor frees his right hand by gently dropped Mjølnir to the ground before clasping Loki’s shoulder and meeting his gaze. “You’ve been hunting before, haven’t you?” he asks quietly. “On Jotunheim?”

“Yes,” answers Loki. “Of course, but—”

“This is the same,” says Thor. “That dragon is just another wild beast. A massive, fire-breathing beast, but a beast all the same.”

Loki nods slowly, looking over Thor’s shoulder at the dragon.

“We are faster, stronger, and more intelligent,” continues Thor. “In a few minutes, we will outnumber it six to one.”

“Okay.” A green shimmer of magic petals around Loki as a spear of solid ice materializes in his hand. “I’m ready.”

Thor smiles encouragingly as he releases Loki and lifts his hammer once again.

They creep around the boulder until they’re behind the dragon. It has its snout pressed against the crag, sniffing at its prey aggressively enough to send clouds of dust up into the air alongside grey tendrils of smoke.

The spear is already melting in Muspelheim’s unforgiving heat and rivulets of water trickle down Loki’s wrist to wet his sleeve. He keeps his gaze fixed on the dragon, appearing to Thor both determined and unafraid.

When Thor gives him the go-ahead, he throws the spear, which soars through the air at an impressive speed before impaling itself just above the dragon’s rear leg.

The beast screeches in surprised pain and fury, turning on its tail to catch sight of Thor and Loki. It spits fire at them, which Thor manages to deflect with Mjølnir.

Beating its leathery wings, the dragon clumsily takes to the air. Loki’s next ice-spear barely skims the beast’s shoulder before shattering against the rock behind it.

Fandral is the first one out of the cave, followed closely by Sif, then Volstagg. When the dragon sees them, it breathes fire down upon them, which they barely manage to dodge by taking off in separate directions.

Thor uses the distraction to his advantage; with what remains of his strength, he calls the storm forth, rising through the air that crackles all around him.

He hurls Mjølnir at the dragon’s head, and the hammer hits its mark with violent precision.

The force of impact knocks the beast backwards, and it crashes hard against the side of the volcano. As Mjølnir returns to Thor’s hand, an avalanche of crumbling rock and boulders come rushing down the slope, struck loose from the dragon’s impact.

“Watch out!” shouts Thor, but his warning likely goes unheard over both the rumble of the rockslide and the bellowing dragon.

Disoriented, the dragon is unsteady in its retreat to the sky, beating its wings wildly and swaying through the air on its ascension.

The first of the avalanche’s rubble—a large boulder accompanied by a considerable number of smaller rocks—makes its landfall, blocking the entrance of the chasm Sif and the others had taken refuge in.

A cloud of volcanic dust rises in the air, but through it Thor glimpses Sif as she rushes to the obstructed chasm with Loki close behind her.

Hogun must still be trapped inside.

More rock falls down the slope of the volcano, masking Thor’s view of the surface with thick clouds of dust. He has just begun to descend with the help of Mjølnir when the dragon suddenly reappears from above, diving towards him in a blaze of fire.

Thor veers clumsily to avoid it, but deflecting the flames while staying in the air is made all the more difficult by Thor’s injured state. Although he manages to evade the blaze, he finds himself falling, rather than flying, towards the clouded ground.

Thor lands roughly, stumbling a few steps across the tuff. Someone is at his side a moment later, steadying him on his feet, but there’s so much dust in the air that he can barely see a thing.

Thor squints through the billowing clouds, blindly groping at the figure in front of him and recognizing it to be Volstagg. “Where is Loki?” he asks, his heart beating frantically as he fears the worst. “And Sif?”

“They’re this way,” replies Volstagg, his voice raspy from the ash and dust. “Hurry.”

He leads them to the a cleft in the rock face that opens beneath a small, inactive volcanic mound. There, Loki, Sif, and Fandral have already taken shelter from the rockslide’s dust cloud.

Fandral and Sif have their weapons sheathed while leaning against the andesite walls to catch their breath, but Loki is stood at the mouth of the tunnel when Thor and Volstagg arrive.

Loki sighs in relief as Thor and Volstagg emerge from the dust storm. Thor stops beside him as Volstagg goes on to regroup with the others.

“Where’s the dragon?” asks Loki.

“It flew away,” says Thor, “but I don’t think it went very far.”

As the rush of adrenaline ebbs, the pain in Thor’s hand and arm returns with a vengeance. They move further into the fissure to join the others, but before Thor can utter a word in greeting, Sif turns on Loki in a fury.

“Why would you do that?” she snaps. “There was time enough for me to move the rubble and get Hogun out.”

“There was not,” Loki replies calmly. “You’d have been crushed alive.”

“He’s right,” says Thor. “I saw the rockslide from the air; you’re both lucky to not have been buried beneath it.”

Sif faces Thor to argue, but the words die on her tongue and her eyes widen when she notices his bandaged arm. “You’re hurt.”

“There was a fire-trap in Surtur’s vault,” he explains. “Loki was able to heal it enough so that—”

“Perhaps we can discuss the details of this later,” interrupts Fandral. “Preferably over a strong drink.”

“Siggi’s Tavern?” asks Volstagg.

“Aye,” replies Fandral, pushing off the cave wall. “I’m sure the mead in Valhalla is wonderful, but I’m in no rush to taste it today.”

“First round is on Hogun,” Volstagg says with a laugh. “He shouldn’t have any objections after our daring rescue.”

With that, they start down the narrow, horseshoe-shaped tunnel in single file. Whenever the dragon outside roars its rage, the walls tremble and bits of crumbling rock descend down onto their heads. It would take very little for everything to collapse in on itself and entomb them all in volcanic rock.

When they once again emerge from the tunnel, the dust has, for the most part, settled. The rockslide, though ended, has left a towering pile of rubble in its wake.

The sky shows no sign of the dragon at least, and Thor hopes its curled up in some distant crater, sulking in its failure and nursing the headache Mjølnir’s blow surely gave it.

First they try to climb the mound of rubble towards the highest reach of the chasm not yet blocked off, but the rocks keep loosing beneath their feet and hands, so they’re forced to try a different route to the other side.

Thor smashes through what he can with his hammer while Sif, Fandral, and Volstagg use their hands, pushing the debris away one rock at a time. Loki focuses his telekinetic magic on preventing another mini-avalanche as the rubble is slowly cleared away.

It’s a slow process, but they eventually have enough moved so that when Sif calls to Hogun on the other side, they can hear his reply.

They make quick work of the remaining rubble until Hogun is able to climb out of the chasm. Once he’s out, Sif is on him in an instant, pulling him into a tight embrace.

“Thank you,” Hogun says breathlessly.

“Are you hurt?” Volstagg asks as he wraps an arm around Hogun’s shoulders.

“No,” says Hogun, “but I lost Hridgandr when the rocks came down.”

“We’ll have a new mace made for you,” says Fandral. “A better one.”

Hogun looks at him skeptically before sighing and nodding his head. He’d had Hridgandr since he moved to Asgard from Vanaheim all those years ago, and Thor has never seen him in battle without it.

Thor tightens his grip on Mjølnir, remembering how it felt to watch it crumble in Hela’s grasp.

A sudden roar from above announces the dragon’s return. Sif, Fandral, and Volstagg fumble to unsheathe their weapons while Hogun, defenseless, ducks behind a nearby boulder.

Thor presses forward—putting himself between the dragon that swoops toward them in a fiery blaze and his friends—but Loki unexpectedly shoves past him, the Casket of Ancient Winters materializing in his outstretched hands.

It takes Thor a moment to understand what Loki means to do, but once he does he turns around and shouts at the others, “Get down!”

Thor has just enough time to look back to Loki and see the roaring blizzard as it’s unleashed from the Casket all at once before he’s knocked off his feet.

The tempest of howling wind and freezing rain rushes forth, and the dragon’s triumphant roar turns into a deafening screech as ice meets fire. Thor watches from the ground, right arm half-heartedly shielding his face.

The dragon proves no match for the raw power contained within the Casket of Ancient Winters, and it reels in the air whilst struggling in vain against the snowstorm. The beast lasts no more than a minute before its thrown back against the wind, its fire extinguished.

The dragon falls out of sight behind a nearby volcanic ridge as the storm settles and Loki vanishes the Casket from his hands.

Volstagg and Hogun emerge from where they’d been ducked behind a jagged boulder, and Fandral and Sif rise from where they’d fallen to hide behind Sif’s shield.

“Is it dead?” asks Volstagg.

“I’m not sure,” says Loki. “I think so.”

Looking between his filthy and exhausted companions—and taking into account his own injured condition—Thor cannot help but think that this entire expedition would have gone a lot smoother had he simply come alone. His last trip to Muspelheim had not, after all, gone nearly as terribly as this one.

“I won’t deny that the Casket’s power is impressive,” says Fandral, “but I’m still not quite sure it was worth nearly dying three times for.”

“Not many Asgardians can say they’ve been to Muspelheim,” replies Volstagg. “Even fewer can say they’ve fought off both Surtur’s horde and a fire-breathing dragon.”

“I suppose it will make quite the story back home,” says Fandral.

“Speaking of home,” says Thor, “I think it’s past time we call Heimdall.”

“Yes,” agrees Sif. “Let’s get out of here before anything else tries to kill us.”

“I would not be surprised if a volcano decided to erupt upon us all,” Hogun says gravely.

Volstagg hushes Hogun, glancing around warily as if the peaks around them could hear the challenge.

They gather together—Thor, Sif, Fandral, Volstagg, and Hogun—pressing in close to one another in preparation for their return journey, but Loki makes no move to join them. Instead, he takes a few steps back, putting more distance between them and himself.

“Loki?” asks Thor.

“Thank you,” says Loki, looking between the five of them. “You have risked your lives today to come to Jotunheim’s aid, and I will never forget that. Thor, you came to Utgardhall claiming a desire to strengthen the alliance between our kingdoms. You have done so, and I am in your debt.”

“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” says Fandral, “but is there any way we might continue this conversation elsewhere? Perhaps in a realm that is not on fire?”

Thor ignores Fandral’s quip, breaking away from the group to approach his brother. “You’re coming with us.”

Loki shakes his head. “There’s another way back to Utgard,” he says. “A passage between worlds.”

“But the Bifrost—”

“I can’t leave by Bifrost,” says Loki. “I must take a different route home.”

“Do you still not trust us?” Thor asks quietly. Do you still not trust me?

“It has naught to do with trust, Thor. My father would be furious if the Casket of Ancient Winters went anywhere near Asgard or the Bifrost.”

A passage between worlds. It suddenly occurs to Thor that he had never stopped to wonder how the Fire Demons made it to Jotunheim in the first place—how they knew where the Casket of Ancient Winters was kept and how they were able to steal it away.

Once, in what is now another lifetime, Loki had used a secret pathway to sneak the Frost Giants into Odin’s vault as part of a ploy to disrupt Thor’s coronation and prompt him to seek revenge on Jotunheim.

That had been the first betrayal—the very first thing that set them apart and irrevocably damaged them. Before then, Thor had never thought Loki capable of forsaking him.

Maybe the reason Thor never questioned how the Fire Demons stole into Utgardhall is because he knew, somehow, that Loki had been involved.

I’m such a fool, he thinks miserably. But what would Loki stand to gain from giving the Casket of Ancient Winters to Surtur in the first place? And why all the the trouble to steal it back?

“I’ll come with you,” offers Thor.

“Thor,” says Sif. “You are injured. You need medical treatment. On Asgard.

“I’ll come with you,” he repeats, ignoring Sif’s protests and holding Loki’s gaze.

Loki makes no immediate response, but he seems taken aback by Thor’s offer. “I have healing salves in Utgardhall,” he finally says. “I can see to your burns there.”

He’s come this far—he’s not going to leave Loki to make it back to Jotunheim alone. Besides, he has too many questions that need answering to walk away now.

Thor turns back to his companions. “Return to Asgard,” he says. “The Allfather will surely want to hear all about what’s transpired since we left, and I’ll be sure to send word from Utgardhall once we’ve arrived.”

“Thor—” starts Sif, but Fandral places a hand on her shoulder and says, “He will be fine.”

A few minutes later, Thor and Loki stand side by side, watching the Bifrost open around Sif and the Warriors Three to take them home.

“You’ve been here before,” Thor says as he gazes at the barely-visible runes the Bifrost left behind. “Haven’t you?”

Loki tilts his head, glancing at Thor sidelong. “What makes you think that?”

“You know where the passage between worlds is,” says Thor. “You knew the Casket would be in Surtur’s vault. You knew where the key to the vault would be.”

“I had a map.”

Thor turns to look at Loki doubtfully. His burnt hand and arm throb painfully beneath the bandages, and every muscle in his body is sore and tired. He needs a bath, and a cool drink of water, and a soft bed. He needs to have his wound properly healed.

Loki sighs. “Can we at least get off this horrid planet before you start interrogating me?” he asks. “I’m beginning to suspect that your friend’s remark about Jotnar melting in the heat was more than a jest.”

“Will you first tell me what you plan to do with the Casket?”

Loki arches an eyebrow and searches Thor’s face for a long moment. “I’m going to return it to Utgardhall’s temple,” he eventually says. “What else would I do with it?”

Thor lifts his gaze to the horizon. It seems to be nearing dusk, with Muspelheim’s twin suns set aloft low in the sky, but it’s hard to tell. He wonders what Odin thinks of Thor’s sudden interest in Jotunheim’s fate. He wonders if Heimdall knows the nature of the prophecy Loki seems to be running from. He glances at Loki—the stranger that used to be his brother—and wonders how many secrets lie between them.

Chapter Text

The throne room of Utgardhall is nearly empty, creating an entirely different atmosphere from the last time Thor was here. After Loki’s send-off, Thor had expected some sort of celebratory welcome home, but there are no crowds of cheering Jotnar in the gallery, no children excitedly peering over the balcony railing, and no armored soldiers waiting to escort Loki beneath a waving banner.

A few guards linger by the foot of the mostly-vacant dais—Raze among them—but the only filled seats on the platform are the ones occupied by Hailstrum, Dagny, and Ignar. The throne itself casts a long shadow across the marble floor. Seated upon it, regal and stoic, is Grundroth.

Loki pauses in the doorway, frowning at the sight of his uncle, but he recovers quickly to march down the hall towards the throne. Thor trails a few steps behind, struggling to ignore the worsening pain of his injury.

As they approach the dais, Hailstrum’s gaze flicks to Thor’s hastily-bandaged arm, making no attempt to repress a satisfied smirk. Thor would scowl at him if he had the energy. Right now, it’s taking all he has just to stand upright and keep his eyes open.

“Nephew,” says Grundroth. “How fared you on Muspelheim?”

“Where is my father?” asks Loki.

“The king rode out to Thrymheim this afternoon,” Grundroth says impatiently. “He is expected back in Utgard on the morrow.”

“Thrymheim?” asks Loki. “What is he doing there?”

“I think we have more important matters to discuss,” says Grundroth. “The Aesir prince is wounded and your party is significantly smaller than it was upon your departure. I must admit, Loki, that these things fail to inspire confidence in your success.”

“The Asgardian warriors have returned home.”

“And yet this one has not,” replies Grundroth, gesturing to Thor. “If you think your father will allow a second attempt at this foolish plan—”

“What part of trying to avoid conflict with the Fire Demons is foolish?” demands Loki. “Have you forgotten what happened the last time war came to Jotunheim?”

“Enough,” snaps Grundroth. “We have allowed you to play your games, Loki. We can only hope you have not further endangered our chances at retrieving the Casket. I will send word to the king in Thrymheim.”

“Please do,” Loki says dryly. “I’m sure my father has been sick with worry. Be sure to tell him of my safe return to Utgardhall.” He holds his hands out and, with a shimmer of viridescent seidr, the Casket of Ancient Winters materializes there. “As well as the safe return of this.”

The revelation sends a ripple of reactions across the dais. Dagny gasps audibly, Grundroth’s eyes widen in disbelief, and Hailstrum frowns and leans forward in his seat to get a better look at the Casket. Even the guards on the floor look shocked. Ignar’s is the only surprised expression to quickly turn into a smile.

Raze inches closer to Loki, his gaze fixed on the Casket. “How did you retrieve it?” he asks quietly.

“With great effort,” Loki says as he thrusts it into Raze’s hands, “and with the help of the Aesir.”

Raze slowly turns the Casket over in his hands, inspecting it. Inside, the blue and white whirlwind of energy glows fiercely. He looks up to Grundroth and nods.

“You have done your duty, nephew.” Grundroth’s words are spoken begrudgingly, and neither his glare nor his demeanor thaw. “Raze, take the Casket of Ancient Winters back to the temple.”

He should be pleased, thinks Thor. The source of their power is returned. War with Surtur has been avoided. Why is he not pleased?

“Thor Odinson,” says Grundroth, “Jotunheim extends its deepest gratitude for your assistance in this matter. If the king were here, he would grant you a boon for your service. Since I am left in command of Utgardhall in his absence, you may ask it of me instead.”

“I seek no reward,” replies Thor. “I came to Jotunheim’s aid in the hopes of strengthening the alliance between our kingdoms.”

“You have done so,” says Grundroth. “The Jotnar will not soon forget what you have done. Now, I have important matters to discuss with my nephew and you must be eager to return home.”

“I brought him here so I can see to his injury,” says Loki.

Grundroth arches his brow. “Do they not have healers on Asgard?”

Loki ignores the question, turning to address Thor instead. “You should go wash up,” he says softly. “I’ll come see to your wound shortly. Try to avoid touching it too much while you bathe.”

Thor knows it would probably be best to return to Asgard and let Eir tend to his burn in the palace infirmary. What Loki had already done was adequate enough for escaping Muspelheim, but Thor doesn’t know how far past rudimentary restorative spells and makeshift slings his healing skills extend to.

The other Loki had been proficient in a number of useful healing spells, but it was never his primary domain. Like their mother, he was always more interested in illusion and transformation. Besides minor cuts and bruises, Loki only ever saw to Thor’s injuries on the battlefield, when none of Asgard’s healers were present.

Although the pain in Thor’s arm tells him to go home, he’s not yet ready to part from Loki. He still has far too many questions. How did Surtur end up in possession of the Casket of Ancient Winters? What was the extent of Loki’s involvement in its theft? What is the nature of the prophecy concerning Loki?

Laufey’s mention of it the prophecy last night had aroused Thor’s curiosity, but what Loki said in Surtur’s vault about Fate and free will had been troubling.

One more day on Jotunheim surely won’t kill him.

Thor, who wouldn’t bow for Grundroth any more than he would for Laufey, nods respectfully before turning on his heel and making for doors. Once outside the throne room, he hears Grundroth resume his conversation with Loki. His tone is soft, but his voice nonetheless carries when he says, “This newfound friendship concerns me, nephew.”

The door clicks shut behind Thor before he can hear Loki’s response.

· · · · · · · · · ·

Washed and dressed, Thor collapses into one of the common room’s enormous armchairs. The hearth burns low, providing just enough warmth to chase the chill out of the guest chambers while still being a welcome relief from the sweltering heat of Muspelheim.

The pain worsens with each passing hour. While bathing, he’d done as instructed, gingerly removing the torn remnants of Loki’s cape and letting his arm soak in the water undisturbed. The sight of his scorched flesh had been enough to make him dizzy, so he avoided looking at the blackened, blistered burn for any extended amount of time.

Thor re-bandaged himself with a towel as best he could once he was out of the bath. As luck would have it, he found a pair of his own breeches hanging over the side of the tub. He had left them there to dry after washing them in the basin the night before and must have mistakenly left them behind this morning.

Apart from the filthy armor he’d stripped out of, the breeches were the extent of his own clothing. He did, however, find a clean pair of socks buried in one of the bedchambers’ wardrobes. They were surely intended for a younger Jotun, perhaps even a child, but they fit Thor well enough.

Now, slumped in front of the hearth with a fur blanket draped over his shoulders, Thor lets his eyes fall closed and thinks of Asgard. I should be in my own bed with a full belly and a healed arm, he thinks. I should be home.

The thought of Asgard is less comforting than it should be, but the horrible truth is that it doesn’t feel quite like home anymore. It hasn’t felt like home since the day his brother fell from the Rainbow Bridge all those years ago. Now, with Loki having never even been there at all, it feels even less so.

I must find a way to fix the timeline, he thinks drowsily. It’s rather unlikely that I’d be invited to take up residence in Utgardhall.

It’s the last coherent thought Thor has before he slips into an uneasy sleep.

Even unconsciousness provides little reprieve from the pain, and his recurring dream—warm sunlight spilling across a soft bed as Loki watches over him sadly—is this time more a frustration than a comfort. No matter how hard he tries, he is unable to move or speak in these dreams. His brother, though nothing more than a creation of his own mind, ever remains just out of reach.

Sometime later, Thor is gently awoken by a gloved hand on his uninjured shoulder. He blinks up at Raze, tired and a bit disoriented.

“Sorry to wake you,” says Raze. “The prince sent me.”

“Loki?” Thor asks in a voice still thick with sleep. “Is everything all right?”

“All is well,” he says. “Loki apologizes for being unable to send for you sooner, but he’s ready to tend to your injury now.”

Thor rises from the comfort of the leather armchair and onto unsteady legs. He runs a hand over his face, willing himself awake, but his eyelids remain heavy and his mind fuzzy. “Lead the way.”

It’s colder out in the corridors. Lacking a shirt, Thor keeps the fur blanket tightly wrapped around himself. Ornate oil lanterns burn along the walls, but the darkness beyond the frosted windowpanes tells Thor that night has fallen over Utgard. He had slept for hours, though it hadn’t feel nearly so long that.

“How are your companions?” Raze asks conversationally as they descend the stairs. “Did they return to Asgard unharmed?”

“They’re fine,” answers Thor, feeling slightly embarrassed about being the only one to leave Muspelheim wounded. “I stumbled into a fire trap.”

“Lucky you,” says Raze. He smiles down at Thor good-naturedly, but then his expression grows serious. “I’ll admit that I was distrustful when you first arrived on Jotunheim to offer us aid. The Jotnar and Aesir have a long and bloody history.”

Thor wonders, not for the first time, if Raze is old enough to remember the war. Thor had been born in the midst of it, and Loki as well, but surely many of those here in Utgard experienced first-hand the devastation that Laufey’s ambitions had brought upon them.

“You have since changed my opinion,” continues Raze. “The Casket of Ancient Winters in once again where it belongs and, more importantly, our prince is safely returned from the dangers of Muspelheim. Had I been permitted to, I would have accompanied Loki myself. As it were, I am grateful that you were with him.”

“Thank you,” says Thor. He wants to ask why he had not been allowed to escort Loki, but he doesn’t think questioning Laufey’s rule would be a good idea, regardless of Raze’s apparent friendliness. “I’m glad to have been able to help.”

Once they reach the bottom of the eastern tower, Raze leads him past a familiar portrait of Laufey and down a long and winding corridor until they come upon another staircase. Thor, pained and aching, silently curses the magnitude of Utgardhall and wonders what sort of lunatic first thought that placing an infirmary in a high tower was a good idea.

It’s a long walk up the stairs. Thor, wanting to fill the silence and occupy his mind with something other than the pain he’s in, asks about the Beast of Glæsisvellir. During the previous night’s feast, the creature that has reportedly been stalking the local fishing villages outside the city had been a much-discussed topic.

“I haven’t heard any news,” says Raze, “but Ignar is planning a hunting excursion. With the Casket returned and Surtur dealt with, it shouldn’t be difficult to round up a few willing warriors.”

“Is it a long journey to Glæsisvellir?”

“Not by ship,” replies Raze. “I have cousins there, so I make the trip fairly often. The city isn’t nearly the size of Utgard but it’s pleasant and lively nonetheless, and the coastal plains are magnificent even in the winter.”

Thor finds his surroundings at the top of the stairs vaguely familiar. It’s not until they start down the corridor and pass an embroidered tapestry that Thor realizes where they are.

It’s the very tapestry that he had raced past last night as he tried to find his way back downstairs after listening in on Laufey and Loki’s private conversation.

“This is the royal wing,” Thor says as he comes to a halt. “This part of the palace is forbidden.”

“The crown prince sent for you himself,” says Raze. “If you’re here on royal invitation, then it is not forbidden.”

“What about Grundroth?”

“The king is journeying back to Utgard from Thyrmheim,” explains Raze. “Grundroth has ridden out to meet and accompany him the rest of the way home. They are not expected back until morning.”

Thor continues down the corridor alongside Raze, feeling uneasy. The prince holds very little power in Utgard, Heimdall had said when Thor first went to him asking about Loki. Thor cannot help but feel as though this royal invitation wouldn’t count for much in the eyes of Laufey or Grundroth.

They pass no other Giants on their walk through the royal wing of Utgardhall’s western tower, and Thor wonders where all the palace guards have gone. He knows from his conversation with Loki last night that there should be a number of them on duty here, yet there are none to be seen.

After leading Thor down a dimly-lit corridor, Raze finally stops in front of its only set of doors. Whatever their destination is—and Thor is almost certain now that it’s not an infirmary—they’ve arrived.

“Don’t look so nervous,” Raze says as he knocks on the door. “The prince is very skilled in the healing arts.”

“I’m not nervous. I just don’t know where—” The door swings open and, at the sight of Loki, Thor completely forgets what he had been about to say.

Standing in the doorway, with bare feet and hair still damp from his bath, Loki is as welcome a sight as Thor has ever seen. Dressed comfortably in thin cotton pants and a finespun tunic, he looks refreshed and awake—a far cry from Thor’s current condition.

Standing awkwardly in the corridor, unshod and wearing a blanket as if it were a cloak, Thor can’t help but feel self-conscious in the face of Loki’s effortless grace. He pulls the blanket more tightly around himself, half-expecting Loki to balk at the state he’s arrived in, but he only smiles.

The smile is warm and familiar, reminding Thor of the days when they were young and innocent and would find comfort in each other whenever they were hurt or afraid. Tired and pained, Thor wants nothing more than to feel his brother’s embrace. He wants to wrap his arms around his waist and bury his face in the crook of Loki’s neck. He remembers the last time he had—aboard the Statesman, just after Ragnarök.

I’m here.

It had been slightly awkward at first, with Loki tentatively raising his arms to return the hug, but when Thor sighed—practically melting into his brother’s arms—Loki tightened his embrace, letting one hand travel up the back of Thor’s neck until his fingers were carding through his shorn hair.

This haircut is positively dreadful, brother.

Thor had laughed then, relief flooding through him. He’d lost so much, but not everything. Not Loki. He had finally come back to Thor. What he hadn’t known at the time was that Loki would soon be taken away from him once again, this time with agonizing finality. They never even had the chance to talk through everything that had transpired between them. Thor believed they’d have more time together.

“How are you feeling?” asks Loki, his voice bringing Thor back to the present.


“Well, you’d better come in.”

Loki steps aside to make room for Thor, holding the door open for him. Despite already discerning that he wasn’t being led to an infirmary, Thor’s mind had yet to make the final leap of logic to where they must have been headed.

Loki and Raze exchange a few words—something about palace guards and a staircase—but Thor finds himself too distracted to listen as he steps past the threshold and into Loki’s chambers.

The room is spacious but the furnishings, suited as they are to Loki’s stature, are smaller than anything else Thor has thus far seen in Utgardhall. The windowpane’s curtains—pleated velvet drapes that have been dyed a deep emerald green—are drawn, revealing the ambling downfall of snow in the moonlit night. Sconces burn along the walls and bathe the room in a soft golden glow while the lit hearth keeps the room comfortably warm.

The hearth itself is made of dark slated stone and flanked by two leather armchairs. Draped across the floor in front of it is a large pelt of speckled brown fur. An impressive bookcase curves across the southmost wall, taking up almost the entirety of it. It boasts a considerable collection of tomes, all neatly arranged upon the shelves.

Beside the bookcase is a writing desk, and lined across the back edge of its wooden surface is a tidy assemblage of quills, letter openers, and sticks of red sealing wax. Thor wonders if Loki uses his own personal sigil or a standard royal seal, but the brass stamp stands imprint-side down on the desk.

On the far side of the room, the door to the bathing chamber has been left ajar. Further along the same wall is an archway that partially secludes what Thor can only assume is Loki’s private bedchamber.

Loki’s chambers are not incredibly different from the ones he’d had in the Asgardian Palace. Thor supposes a great deal of the dissimilarity can be ascribed to the lack of Aesir influence, but Loki had always had his own definition of refinement, as well as a certain fondness of the opulent, and it seems that hasn’t changed even with this immensely different life.

Luxurious, elegant, and dark, his chambers are undoubtedly attractive. Everything from the reflective black marble floors to the dark polished wooden furniture is a testament to the purposeful sophistication that went into crafting a living space to befit the crown prince.

Even the air is decadent. From the bathing chamber drifts the newly-familiar scents of orris root and lavender that always cling to Loki’s skin and hair. They mingle with the room’s dominant aroma of fine leather and rich mahogany, creating a heady fusion—a fragrance that’s almost sensual in its complexity.

Thor turns and watches Loki bid Raze a good night before letting the door fall closed. When he slides the latch-bolt over the doorknob, the click of the lock rings loud in the otherwise quiet room.

Suddenly Thor is nervous, though he knows not why.

“My uncle kept me in counsel far longer than I’d anticipated,” says Loki. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”

“It’s all right,” says Thor. “I spent the last few hours sleeping, anyway.”

Loki nods, his gaze drifting to Thor’s crudely bandaged arm. “Come this way.”

As he’s led to the bathing chamber, Thor sneaks a covert peek through the adjacent archway. It’s mostly dark inside Loki’s bedchamber, but he does glimpse a four-poster bed curtained by a pleated canopy.

The bathing chamber is no less splendid than the rest of Loki’s apartments. Beneath the rounded windows sits a tub elegantly carved from glossy black marble and large enough to fit a fully-grown Frost Giant with room to spare. A smooth granite vanity stretches across one mirrored wall and an upholstered bench is tucked into the kneehole. Steam still lingers in the air from Loki’s recent bath, fogging the windowpanes and the mirror, while the floor is dry but cool beneath Thor’s socked feet.

It’s still difficult to accept that Loki has lived an entire life within the walls of this palace. Thor tries to imagine Loki lounging about his chambers in the quiet mundaneness of his everyday life.

In his mind’s eye, he can see Loki soaking in a hot bath after a long day, his head tilted back against the lip of the tub and his eyes closed; or sitting at the vanity in a silk robe as he plaits his damp hair into a simple braid; or lying on his belly in front of the hearth, a book laid open in front of him and the firelight dancing over the pale blue features of his face.

Loki pulls the cushioned bench away from the vanity and gestures for Thor to take a seat there. He does so, letting the fur blanket fall from his shoulders to pool around his hips, leaving his torso bare.

Thor can feel the weight of Loki’s gaze as it lingers on his body, sending a shiver of uncharacteristic shyness through him. He feels the color rise in his cheeks just as Loki finally turns away to busy himself at a nearby cupboard.

When he returns, it’s with a wooden apothecary’s chest cradled in his arms. He gently places it beside Thor on the bench and asks, “Do you have a fever?”

“I’m not sure,” replies Thor. “I don’t think so.”

Loki’s touch is cool and soothing as he lays the back of his hand across Thor’s forehead. “You feel warm to me, but I don’t know if you’re more so than usual.”

Loki sinks to his knees on the floor in front of the bench. He unlatches the top of the chest and uses the tiny brass knobs to pull open its doors, revealing a surprisingly sophisticated pharmacopoeia.

It contains everything a healer could need—stoppered potion bottles, wax-sealed clay jars, glass vials filled with shimmering powders, sachets of dried medicinal herbs—all neatly labeled in Loki’s familiar script. Among the medicines, Thor also notes a folding knife, a tiny pair of surgical scissors, and some cloth bandages.

“I think you’re a more experienced physician than you’ve let on,” says Thor. “That’s an impressive collection.”

“It’s useful.” The glass bottles and jars clink together as Loki rummages through the chest’s contents. “My father may not approve of my magic, but even he cannot deny the value of medicinal alchemy.”

There are two larger drawers at the very bottom of the chest. Loki removes a stone mortar and pestle from one drawer and a small clay teacup from the other.

“Where did you learn?” asks Thor.

“Magic or medicine?”

“Either,” says Thor. “Both.”

It had been Frigga who first shared the secrets of seidr and spell-weaving with Loki—but that was in a life that no longer exists for either of them. It makes Thor sad not only for Loki, but for their mother as well.

“I learned a bit of both from Sóma,” says Loki, “and more still from an apprentice of hers that came to live here in Utgard. She didn’t stay very long before returning home to Vanaheim, but whenever she came back to visit—which she’d do every few years—she’d have books for me. Most the ones I own were gifts from her.”

Thor had forgotten all about Sóma, the old crone who had assailed him in the dining hall. Had that truly only been yesterday morning? he wonders. It feels like so long ago.

But that’s the truth of it—three days have not yet passed since he woke up in Asgard to find that his meddling with time had caused more unforeseen consequences than could have anticipated.

He remembers the way Sóma had approached the high table at breakfast with one accusatory finger pointed directly at Thor. He is not of this realm, she’d said. He does not belong here.

When she wrapped those bony fingers around Thor’s wrist in a fierce grip, the white eyes beneath her cowl seemed to bore down into his very soul.

I know who you are. Why have you come here? You will ruin everything.

Half a hundred questions race through Thor’s mind at once. Dagny had dismissed Sóma as no more than a mad old crone, but if a völva had truly come all the way from Vanaheim—the fulcrum of sorcery in the Nine Realms—just to be apprenticed to her…

“Does Sóma live in the palace?”

“No,” says Loki, crushing what looks like willow-bark in the mortar. “She has a cottage just outside the city.”

“Who was her apprentice?”

“Her name is Astrid.” The pestle in Loki’s hand grinds the taupe strips of bark into a fine powder. “She’s older than us, but far younger than Sóma. I haven’t seen her in quite some time, but I somewhat idolized her as a child.”

Thor doesn’t know anyone on Vanaheim named Astrid, but he hasn’t spent nearly as much time there as his brother. It’s little wonder why Loki—the other Loki—liked it there so much. There is no shortage of resources for those who practice magic, and one could wander the athenaeum for days and still not see the whole of it.

“Have you ever been to Vanaheim?” asks Thor.

“No.” Loki dumps the contents of the mortar into the small clay teacup, then plucks a glass bottle from the chest, uncorks it, and pours out a splash of the pale blue elixir. “I’ve only ever been to Muspelheim.”

“How many times?” asks Thor. When Loki lifts his gaze and raises an eyebrow, he adds, “You did say that you would tell me the truth once we were back on Jotunheim.”

“That’s not quite what I said,” says Loki, “but yes—I will tell you how Surtur had possession of the Casket of Ancient Winters, though I suspect you’ve already figured out the crux of it.”

Loki lifts the clay teacup and offers it to Thor. The powdered willow-bark has mostly dissolved, but Thor can see a few specks of it floating around in the shimmery blue liquid. “This will ease the pain while I work.”

“Thank you,” says Thor, “but I can handle the pain.” He knows how such elixirs can fog the mind, and would rather keep his wits about him. Especially for this particular conversation.

“Very well,” says Loki, placing the cup on the floor beside himself. “It’s right here if you change your mind.”

Thor holds his arm out for Loki, who carefully unwraps the towel Thor had used as a makeshift bandage. The skin is raw, blistered, and dotted with flecks of dried blood that Thor didn’t dare scrub at in the bathtub. The pain of letting warm water run over the burn had been agonizing enough.

Loki rummages through the apothecary’s chest before selecting a glass flask, then pours a generous amount of the pungent liquid out onto a washcloth until it’s thoroughly soaked.

“Autumns are short on Jotunheim,” Loki says as he gently dabs Thor’s arm with the cloth. “Summers are even shorter. My father likes to get away from the palace this time of year, as it’s near impossible to travel during winter. A few weeks ago, he left for Gastropnir to attend a seasonal festival there, leaving Grundroth in command as he always does.”

Loki is gentle, but the touch stings nonetheless. Thor tries to focus on Loki’s words, keeping his eyes trained on his brother’s face rather than look at what’s being done to his arm.

“It’s customary for the crown prince to reign in the king’s absence,” continues Loki. “Not the king’s brother. I thought nothing of it when I was a child and my uncle would be left in command, but these duties should have long ago fallen to me.”

Loki pauses, narrowing his eyes and inspecting Thor’s arm more closely. He dabs at a few more places before discarding the cloth and beginning to once again rifle through the chest.

“As if that weren’t humiliating enough, Hailstrum began to play at ruling whenever my father was away from Utgard. It started about a year ago; I’d hear him giving commands to the palace servants or barking orders at the guards. It would rouse my suspicions, but I always managed to convince myself that it was nothing more than Hailstrum’s arrogance. It wasn’t until a fortnight ago that I realized the extent of his ambition.”

Thor hasn’t spent much time around Hailstrum, but he can easily envision the Giant boldly strutting about Utgardhall as if he were the Prince of Jotunheim instead of Loki. He remembers the thinly-veiled animosity that Hailstrum and Loki showed each other in both the dining hall and sparring yard yesterday.

Loki, having found what he needed from the chest, peels the wax off a jar of ointment. It has a brownish-green tint and an earthy smell to it. When Loki begins to carefully apply it to the burn, Thor winces.

“As I said, my father was in Gastropnir. Having some matter to discuss with my uncle one evening, I went looking for him. I wandered the palace until finally coming upon him in the throne room. Court is normally held in the mornings—unless some incident arises which demands royal attention—and so it was unusual for him to be there at all. Nonetheless, there my uncle was. He was not, however, the one seated on the throne.”

“Hailstrum was,” says Thor.

“That’s right.” Loki’s mouth twists bitterly. “Hailstrum was.”

His anger is palpable, but he treats Thor’s wound with the same careful gentleness that he’s shown since the start. Thor can feel the stinging ointment seeping deep into his skin. Once his arm is completely coated, Loki leaves it to dry.

“I found my cousin’s husband seated upon the throne of Jotunheim. My father’s throne. The throne that is my birthright.” Loki removes two vials and a sachet of dried herbs from the chest, combining some of each into the mortar. “I only caught the very end of what Grundroth had been saying as he paced the floor at the foot of the dais, but the topic of his lecture was quite clear. He had been giving Hailstrum instruction on how to address one’s subjects in a kingly manner.”

“Surely, your father wouldn’t approve of that,” says Thor. “You are his son and heir. Hailstrum is—”

“Hailstrum is the son that any king would want,” says Loki. “He’s the most renowned Jotun warrior of our generation. He’s strong and formidable; he’s proven himself on the battlefield as both a combatant and a strategist; and he’s from a noble family. In a word—he’s perfect.”

“Hailstrum isn’t Grundroth’s son either,” Thor points out. “Why would your uncle want him on the throne and not Ignar?”

“My uncle is nearly as dissatisfied with his own son as he is with me. Ignar has no ambition to speak of. He lives to drink, feast, and hunt. I suspect part of the reason Ignar is so fond of me is because I cast a more forgiving light upon him. Hailstrum is married to Grundroth’s daughter, however. If he were to become king—”

“Then Dagny would be queen.”

“Precisely,” says Loki, “and Grundroth’s grandchild would someday inherit the throne.”

Thor can understand why Grundroth would prefer to see his daughter rise to power instead of his nephew, but surely Laufey would not feel the same way. Even if he were disappointed in Loki, he remains his only son and direct heir.

Your destiny far exceeds this mission, Laufey had told him last night. You should be grateful to have a purpose in life. What purpose would he have been referring to, if not Loki’s future rule of Jotunheim?

“What happened when you confronted them?” asks Thor.

“I didn’t confront them,” Loki says as he takes Thor’s arm in his hands once again. Seidr spills over the burn, evaporating the sticky ointment which had dried there. “I snuck out of the throne room without their seeing me.”

“Did you tell your father?”

“No,” he says, taking hold of Thor by his uninjured wrist—the only place that had been spared from the fire thanks to Thor’s leather bracer. “I thought to take matters into my own hands and prove myself the worthy heir to my father’s throne. Flex your fingers.”

Thor obeys, surprised by the tingling numbness the ointment had provided. It looks much the same as it had a few minutes ago, but the pain has dulled considerably.

“The Fire Demons were never meant to make it out of the temple,” says Loki. “Alongside a drunk and therefore useless Hailstrum, I would have intercepted the invaders, overpowering them and saving the Casket of Ancient Winters. My father and uncle would have been forced to acknowledge my capability in protecting Jotunheim even when Hailstrum could not. Needless to say, it failed work out that way.”

Thor involuntarily recoils when Loki takes the knife from the apothecary chest. When Loki notices, he places a reassuring hand on Thor’s knee. “I have to cut away the eschar,” he says gently. “There isn’t much of it, but your hand and arm won’t heal unless it’s removed.”

Despite the dull numbness which has spread over his skin, Thor knows it’s going to hurt. He glances at the elixir Loki had made earlier and reconsiders his refusal of it.

“I’ll work quickly. Once it’s removed, I won’t have much else to do.” Loki lifts the mortar, showing Thor the shimmery concoction he’d made. “I’ll only need to cast a simple healing spell and apply this salve.”

Thor does not fear pain—not after what he’s already survived—but he doesn’t look forward to the prospect of it after the day he’s already had. After a moment, he nods in acquiescence and offers his arm to Loki, telling himself that he can always elect to drink the elixir should to pain prove too much.

“I’m going to need you to stay very still.”

Loki keeps his word, working quickly as he carefully cuts away the eschar and uses magic to stitch the newly-made lacerations as he goes. By the time he’s finished, Thor is dizzy and slumped against the back of the vanity.

Loki cleans the wound with another wet cloth before beginning to work his seidr into Thor’s skin. The relief that Loki’s numbing ointment had provided has since faded, and the deep, throbbing pain gradually worsens with each passing second.

“How did the Fire Demons get away with the Casket?” asks Thor, eager to hear the rest of Loki’s account and desperate for a distraction.

“They failed to make the journey to Utgard after being shown the way. A week passed without a stir and I came to the conclusion that Surtur sensed my trap and decided not to pursue the path I laid out for them. I eventually lifted my spell. I still don’t know how they were able to enter the temple, concealed as they were. No one saw them enter and no one saw them leave. The Casket of Ancient Winters was there one moment, and gone the next.”

Thor briefly wonders if anyone in the palace suspected Loki’s involvement, but thinks it rather unlikely. The Jotnar don’t seem to be a very subtle people; if Laufey or Grundroth had doubts regarding Loki, they would have surely made them known by now.

“Soon, the prospect of war was all anyone could talk about,” he continues. “My father wrote to his jarls, urging them to prepare their men for battle. The smiths were working day and night to forge weapons. The servants were stockpiling food and supplies in the palace storehouses. I made the suggestion of sending an envoy to Muspelheim in the hopes of settling the matter without conflict, volunteering myself for the endeavor. I put the notion forth in the throne room and my father, in view of the entire court, was compelled to accept my proposal.”

“Were you hoping for another chance to prove yourself?”

“I’ll admit that it was still on my mind,” says Loki, “but it was far from being my primary motivation by that point. You know as well as I do that the other realms have little love for Jotunheim. The Casket of Ancient Winters is the source of our power. Without it, we are vulnerable to any attack. What kind of king would I make if I allowed my people to suffer due to my own folly?”

He could have made some other excuse, thinks Thor. He could have betrayed me to Surtur. He could have refused to bring me back to Utgardhall. He could have left me behind in Muspelheim’s vault.

Thor decides to trust Loki’s confession as the truth. It is, after all, fairly similar to what his brother had done when he let the Frost Giants into Asgard all those years ago. He had a similar purpose then as well—to prove to their father that he was better suited for the throne.

“You’re the only person who knows this,” Loki says softly. “I’m not sure what my father would do with me if he were to find out, but it wouldn’t be good.”

“He won’t find out,” says Thor. “Not from me, anyway.”

Thor glances at his arm and notices that the blisters there have begun to shrink. A few have even vanished. The pain lingers, but the wound has at least begun to look better.

“You must think me a terrible person.”

“I don’t think that at all,” says Thor, surprised by the vulnerability he hears in his brother’s voice. “I’ve made mistakes too, Loki. I have more regrets than I can even count.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“It’s the truth,” says Thor. “My most recent regret would be the refusal of that pain reliever, actually.”

He means it to lighten the mood a bit, but the glowing evidence of Loki’s magic abruptly dissolves into the air as he looks up at Thor and frowns. “It hurts?”


“I’m almost finished,” Loki says apologetically, offering Thor the clay teacup once again. “I think I may even be able to prevent any significant scarring.”

The elixir is thick and bitter, but Thor drinks it down without complaint. It goes to work immediately—no sooner than when he hands the cup back to Loki does he begin to feel relief where he needs it the most. Then, within the span of a few heartbeats, a gentle calmness begins to wash over his entire body.

Thor sighs contentedly.

“Better?” asks Loki.

“Much,” replies Thor. “I should have taken it when you first offered it to me.”

Loki resumes his task of casting the healing spell. Focusing on Thor’s hand, he carefully bends his fingers one by one, working magic deep into the skin. Meanwhile, Thor thinks about all Loki has told him.

It seems that, despite all the differences between his life here on Jotunheim and the one he’d once led on Asgard, there are some things that have remained the same. Only now, instead of a brother, Loki has found himself competing against a cousin-through-marriage for his father’s throne.

I remember a shadow, Loki had once said, living in the shade of your greatness.

Thor always knew that his brother envied him, but he had failed to realize just how deep his resentment went until it was too late. Odin’s favoritism, coupled with the revelation of Loki’s true parentage, had sent Loki down a path of destruction and despair.

Thor had barely allowed himself to hope that his use of the Time Stone would reunite him with his brother. He did know that, if by some miracle it did, he would do everything in his power to reconcile with Loki before things could ever again go so far.

He hadn’t lied when he said he has regrets. As the war against Thanos raged on, he spent more nights than he’d care to admit going over everything that had transpired between himself and Loki through the recent years, all the while thinking of how he could have handled things differently.

All of Thor’s planning, it would seem, had been for naught. Instead of trying to remedy a rift between himself and his brother, he’s found himself in a timeline where they don’t know each other at all.

It’s not quite the fresh start he had hoped for.

“You don’t really believe that your father would prefer Hailstrum, do you?”

“I’m not sure how he feels about Hailstrum,” says Loki, “but I know how he feels about me. Everything, from my title to the circlet I wear, is nothing more than a pretense. No one intends to see me on the throne of Jotunheim—least of all my father.”

“I don’t see why not,” says Thor. “I’ve seen you fight and you can handle yourself better than most. I know that you’ve bested Hailstrum in the sparring yard, and by all accounts he's the best warrior in Utgard. You care about your people. You’re open to democracy. You’re intelligent and—”

“I’m a burden my father never asked for,” interrupts Loki. “Magic and deception may be seen as useful on Asgard and Vanaheim, but not amongst the Jotnar. Even my appearance is an offense to my father.”

“What’s wrong with your appearance?”

“Have you met anyone else in Utgard that looks as I do?” asks Loki. “I’m too small by half. I have long hair where I should have horns or ridges. The markings on my skin make unusual patterns and I’m not—”

“I think you’re beautiful.”

The hand Loki had been using to smear the salve over Thor’s arm suddenly stills. When Loki lifts his gaze to stare up at Thor with wide-eyed surprise, there's a blush rising in his cheeks—a pretty lilac hue tinting Loki’s blue complexion.

I wish you remembered me, Thor thinks sadly. If he were a hero in one of Frigga’s stories, he’d lean down and catch Loki’s lips in a gentle kiss, breaking the spell that made them strangers. In the stories, it was always that simple.

“I think I may have given you too much of that elixir.” Despite the laughter in his voice, Loki sounds flustered. “I’m not quite familiar with Asgardian physiology, so I approximated the dosage.”

Once Loki finishes applying the salve, he begins to bandage Thor’s hand and arm. He does so slowly and meticulously, smoothing the cloth down against Thor’s skin with his fingertips as he works. Loki’s hair is mostly dry now, and Thor’s gaze lingers on one wayward curl that hangs over his eyes. Thor has to keep himself from reaching out and tucking it back behind Loki’s ear.

He blinks drowsily, suddenly feeling like he could doze off at any second. He doesn’t even notice himself sliding down the bench until Loki places a steadying hand on his shoulder.

“I’m nearly done,” Loki says as he forces him upright. “You need only stay awake long enough for me to finish bandaging your arm.”

Through half-lidded eyes, Thor watches Loki carefully wrap the bandage over his hand before winding it back around his wrist and fastening it with a small, silver pin.

“You can remove that in the morning,” says Loki. “It should feel much better by then.”

Loki replaces the bottles and vials he’d removed from the chest before closing it up and rising to his feet. He leaves the chest on the bench beside Thor, but brings the mortar, pestle, and teacup to the basin. As he rinses them out with running water, Thor flexes his bandaged hand.

It doesn’t hurt at all.

When Loki returns, Thor’s eyes have fallen closed and he’s once again slumped back against the vanity behind him. Loki helps him up, but Thor immediately goes stumbling backwards and falls back onto the bench.

The next time Loki pulls him to his feet, he wraps an arm about Thor’s waist.

With one arm slung over Loki’s shoulders, Thor lets himself be led out of the bathing chamber. His drowsiness is now bordering on drunkenness, which is something he hasn’t felt in quite some time. He nearly trips over his own feet twice, and after the second time he glances at Loki to see him biting back a smile.

“Not funny, Loki.”

“It’s a little funny.”

“It’s not.” Thor’s voice sounds sounds slow and slurred to his own ears. “What was in that potion?”

“I assure you, it’s completely nontoxic. You just need to sleep it off.”

They pass beneath the archway and into Loki’s bedchamber.

The solitary burning lantern does little to illuminate the room, and the darkness prevents Thor from being able to see much of anything apart from the oversized, four-poster bed. It sits in the center of the room, canopied by dark green curtains, and as Thor is led to it, he feels a fluttering in the pit of his stomach.

Because of the potion, surely.

Loki pulls the drapes open with one hand, barely managing to support Thor’s weight as he does so. Then he shoves the bedcovers to the far side of the mattress before gently depositing Thor onto the bed. “You’ll be fine in the morning,” he says, “although you may feel like you have a slight hangover.”

Thor shifts atop the satin bedsheets until he’s mostly vertical. Everything smells like Loki—familiar and different all at once—and he immediately finds himself on the brink of sleep. Loki slides a pillow beneath Thor’s head and pulls the warm covers up over his body.

“Thank you, brother.”

Loki’s eyebrows knit together in puzzled amusement. “Brother?”

But the dim lighting and soft bedding has already begun to lull Thor to sleep. He feels safe and comfortable under Loki’s care despite being slightly disoriented and very far from home. The sound of receding footsteps is the last thing he hears before consciousness slips away from him.

Chapter Text

“I’ve been thinking about our first visit to Alfheim,” says Loki. “Do you remember how excited we were when Father said he’d take us? We’d been to Vanaheim half a hundred times by then, but Alfheim was so often the imagined backdrop of our games.”

His voice is endearingly wistful and Thor, who can do no more than listen in silence, hangs on every softly spoken word. He’s lying in bed, propped up against a pile of feather pillows, and although his eyes remain closed, he thinks he can feel the sun shining warmly on his face.

“Too eager to sleep, I snuck into your chambers the night before we were to leave and found you in a similar state. We built a fortress out of your bedcovers and stayed awake until dawn, whispering excitedly about all we would see and do there.”

Thor would smile if he could; Loki is not usually so talkative in these dreams of his, and it lessens the frustration of being unable to move or speak. He knows that the real Loki would scoff at the sentimentality of it all, but Thor finds it comforting to hear him reminisce about their childhood.

“Mother was none too happy to discover us together in the morning. She was sure that we’d be too tired to enjoy ourselves after so little sleep. We weren’t though, were we?”

No, thinks Thor. We weren’t too tired.

Queen Aelsa had given them free roam of Ljosalfgard, assuring Odin and Frigga that the young princes would be perfectly safe within the capital, and Thor and Loki spent their first afternoon on Alfheim exploring the enchanted kingdom with stars in their eyes.

“I was as happy as I’d ever been during those few weeks,” Loki says softly. “Apart from the one evening I spent curled up in bed with a stomach ache.”

Mother did warn you not to eat so many chocolates.

Loki falls silent, but Thor doesn’t need to hear his voice to know that he is still there beside him. He can feel his presence, and not only in the traces of seidr that linger in the air.

“Even the happiest memories leave a bitter taste after learning the foundation your life was built on is a lie.” Loki’s words are spoken without usual indignation. “After meeting Hela, I thought you might begin to understand.”

It’s a conversation that Loki had tried to initiate on Sakaar, but Thor, hurt and frustrated at the time, was unwilling to discuss it. Perhaps that’s why I’m unable to reach out to him now, he thinks. Perhaps these dreams are my punishment for failing to reconcile with Loki while I still had the chance.

A window must be open somewhere, allowing the rush of a nearby waterfall, the rustling of leaves, and the quiet melody of songbirds to create a familiar chorus—the sound of home.

Loki unexpectedly brings his hand to Thor’s face. Although he can barely feel it, butterflies erupt in the pit of his stomach as Loki beings to lightly run his fingertips through the bristles of Thor’s beard.

“I suppose I should trim this for you.”

Everything feels hazy and dreamlike—even more-so than it had just a few moments ago—and Thor knows that the contents of his dream will soon begin to dissolve like morning mist. He finds it passing strange how, as these dreams reach their untimely conclusions, he always feels as though he is falling asleep rather than waking up.

“On second thought, perhaps I won’t.” There’s a hint of amusement in Loki’s voice, a familiar teasing tone. “How long do you think it will take for you to overtake Volstagg? I’d quite like to see your face upon discovering that you’ve grown a beard halfway down to your navel. I can even plait it into braids adorned with silver rings. What say you, brother?”

Thor, of course, can say nothing.

“Oh, very well.” Loki sighs in mock exasperation, dropping his hand and letting it rest idly on Thor’s own. “I’ll trim your beard, but only because you asked so nicely.”

· · · · · · · · · ·

Thor rolls onto his stomach and presses his face into the pillows. He’s still half-asleep—has every intention of falling back asleep—and the bedchamber’s comfortable silence allows him to slip into languorous reverie. Along with the lingering sensations of his dream, fragments and echoes of the previous night drift through his semiconscious mind.

Viridescent seidr soothing his pain. Dark red eyes. A voice that’s sad and wistful one moment, but light and teasing the next. Ambling snowflakes. Gentle fingers brushing through his beard.

Thor shifts against the cool satin sheets, feeling a warm flush creep up his neck. It had been so very long since he last felt such tender touches, and it takes no effort at all to imagine those attentive hands traveling elsewhere.

The next time Thor moves, it’s with purpose. He rocks his hips forward, letting his half-hard cock slide against the mattress. Thor feels it even through the fabric of his breeches, and the soft groan that escapes his lips is muffled by the pillows.

The sheets smell like freshly-cut irises, like wild plum blossoms, like lavenders in bloom. He envisions himself in a field of blue and purple flowers, tangled up in the long limbs of some faceless lover. Blunt nails press into the back of his neck to draw him impossibly close, while cool breath ghosts over his jaw, tickling the short bristles of his beard…

He imagines a kiss, a languid brushing of lips and touching of tongues that sets his nerves alight. It’s sweet and slow and so unlike the one they’d shared on the Statesman

All at once, the vague details of his daydream crystallize in his mind, shattering the somnolent fantasy and bringing Thor to complete and immediate wakefulness.

Thor scrambles to sit upright in bed, blinking against the morning light. He looks around the bedchamber—Loki’s bedchamber—and sighs in relief to find it otherwise empty.

The drapes curtaining both the four-poster bed and the room’s frosty windowpanes have been drawn, and silvery sunlight spills across the dark green bedcovers. It’s morning, and Thor is alone in Loki’s bed.

The memories of the previous night return to him gradually. Loki had healed his arm, given him something to relieve the pain, and, when the potion made Thor drowsily inebriated, brought Thor into his own bedchamber to sleep.

Shame and guilt roil in the pit of Thor’s stomach. There’s little doubt as to the identity of the ambiguous figure of his waking fantasy. Thor presses the heel of his palm against the evidence of his arousal, willing it to disappear.

Loki was the one to kiss me, he thinks stubbornly. I would never have done that—not in twenty thousand years—and now it’s all I can ever think about.

The current state of their relation—or, lack thereof—doesn’t make things any easier. It’s little wonder Thor’s mind is playing tricks on him.

He needs to get off Jotunheim, and soon. The Casket of Ancient Winters is once again safe in Utgard’s temple, interplanetary war has been averted, and Thor still has an Infinity Stone to track down. He has lingered far too long already.

Only after shoving the bedcovers aside and climbing out of bed does he catch sight of his armor. It lies on the far edge of the bed along with the other garments he’d stripped out of yesterday. Thor had left them in the guest chambers’ linen basket to be washed by the servants, and Loki must have fetched them this morning while Thor was still asleep.

It had been too dark to see much of anything last night, so Thor looks around Loki’s bedchamber as he dresses. The canopied bed Thor had slept in sits against the eastern wall, flanked by two nightstands. There’s a large wardrobe with its doors shuttered closed, a small vanity where Loki’s circlet rests amongst other scattered pieces of jewelry, and, in the corner, an elegantly-carved wooden chest adorned with a heavy brass lock.

Once dressed, Thor passes beneath the archway and into the main chamber of Loki’s apartments. Although Loki is nowhere to be found, the lit hearth tells Thor that he was here not too long ago.

In the bathing chamber, Thor carefully removes the cloth bandaging to find his hand and arm completely healed. There’s some light scarring—faint pink lines where the worst of the eschar was cut away—but the pain is entirely gone, just as Loki promised it would be.

You’ll be fine in the morning, he had said, though you may feel like you have a slight hangover.

Apart from a dry mouth and a slightly unsettled stomach, he feels mostly fine. He’s no stranger to waking up ill after a night of heavy drinking. In fact, the last time he had given himself a proper hangover was rather recently, when he’d drunk himself into a stupor aboard the Arcadia—the ship that Brunnhilde acquired sometime before arriving on Earth—whilst on a mission to Ria.

After the Decimation, the universe had been plunged into anarchic chaos. The Chitauri and the Outriders ravaged the Nine Realms and beyond. Civilizations fell to anarchy and pandemonium. Dubious factions sought a rise to power from the ashes of ruined monarchies and governments. The Avengers already had their work cut out for them before rumors of a new legion to rival the defunct Black Order began to spread throughout the galaxy.

Thanos’ genocide had managed to garner a frightening amount of support from fervent followers. No one could precisely say what motivated these individuals to join the Mad Titan’s ranks—Thor suspected it was some strange combination of fear and admiration—but they were the only lead the Avengers had in tracking down Thanos.

They followed every whisper, desperate to find him and the Infinity Stones he kept in his possession. Most of their leads presented themselves at the same time, scattering the Avengers and their allies to the far reaches of the universe in small squadrons.

The mission to Ria had been one of the last ones, and Thor, Brunnhilde, Rocket, and Korg’s trek through space was a frustratingly slow one. One night, Thor stumbled upon a bottle of Sakaaran liquor stashed in one of the storage bays of the Arcadia. By the time Brunnhilde found him, he had finished half the bottle.

I was saving that for a special occasion, she said, sitting down beside him on the metal storage container and plucking the bottle from his hand. She stared at it pensively for a brief moment before taking a swig. Do you want to talk about it?

Not really, said Thor. What is there to talk about?

I know this hasn’t been easy for you, said Brunnhilde. You’ve lost a lot—your parents, your friends, your brother. Sometimes, talking about it helps.

Loki might still be alive, Thor pointed out. It wouldn’t be the first time he faked his death. He could be out there somewhere, hiding from Thanos. I sometimes turn around and half-expect to see him standing there.

Loki’s possible survival had been a sliver of hope that Thor tried to hold onto for as long as he could. Other than the desire for vengeance, it was the only thing that kept him going.

But beside him, Brunnhilde had begun worrying her bottom lip between her teeth and staring intently at the floor. He had to ask her three times what was wrong before she finally answered.

When we went back to the wreckage in search of survivors, I found his body among the dead. I’m so sorry, Thor. I should have told you sooner, but I couldn’t find the right moment. I thought it would only upset you. Everyone said that you saw him die. If I had any idea that you were still holding out hope, I would have come to you right away.

Brunnhilde’s words were a knife twisting in an unhealed wound. The mental image of his brother’s lifeless body drifting through open space made Thor sick with grief and guilt. He turned away from her, blinking back stinging tears.

He was given a proper funeral, Brunnhilde added quietly. Everyone was.

He took the bottle back, hoping she couldn’t see the way his fingers were trembling. It could have been an illusion, he said. On Svartalfheim, I watched him die in my arms. It was just a trick, though. It could have been a trick this time as well.

The look Brunnhilde gave him was full of doubt and pity. Loki could have used the Space Stone to run from the Black Order, she said, but he didn’t. He chose to stay with you. He died a glorious death.

Nothing about the way he died was glorious, said Thor. It was horrible.

It often is, but rest assured that your brother is in Valhalla with the rest of your family. He’s at peace, Thor. He wouldn’t want to see you like this.

You hardly knew Loki, Thor said bitterly. How do you know what he would want?

You’re right, she said calmly. I hardly knew him. I hardly know you either, if we’re being honest. I do, however, know what it’s like to feel as you do now. Despair will swallow you like a black hole if you let it. You have a responsibility to your people, just as I do. You reminded me of that once, and now I’m reminding you.

Thor immediately felt ashamed for snapping at her, but talking about Loki always seemed to put him on edge. It was impossible for anyone to understand. No one knew him the way Thor did, and even Brunnhilde did little to hide her dislike of him.

The secret of the kiss they’d shared weighed heavily on his mind as well. Thor almost considered telling Brunnhilde about it once, thinking that maybe someone else could make sense of what he himself could not. He thought better of it in the end—Brunnhilde was Asgardian, and such a confession would have surely been met with repulsion.

You are still Asgard’s king, she said after a while. I wish you had more time to grieve, but you don’t. After we find and kill Thanos, you can mourn for what you’ve lost and find a way to move on.

I don’t want to move on, Thor said as he rose from the storage container. I want my brother back.

Back in his quarters, Thor sat on the edge of his bunk and finished off the bottle. Drunk and heartbroken, he ruminated on what Brunnhilde had told him. He did not want to believe that Loki was truly gone—not so soon after finally having him back—but it seemed the likely truth. Svartalfheim had been terrible enough, but Loki’s death by Thanos’ hand was one of the most agonizingly brutal things Thor had ever been forced to witness.

He could feel his loss everyday—it was as though something had been carved out of his very soul—but he still sometimes thought he could somehow sense Loki’s presence. It’s what made him start to believe that maybe he was still alive after all. The sensation only arose when it was very quiet, or when he was completely alone, but it felt like more than a manifestation of grief. It felt real.

Even that night, drunk as he was, he could feel it.

Brother, whispered Thor. If you are alive, now would be as good a time as any to reveal yourself. I won’t be angry with you. I promise. I won’t be angry at all. Just come back. I can’t do this without you. Come back. Please. I need you more than I’ve ever needed you before.

The only reply was the gentle hum of the ship’s engine. Thor wondered if the presence he so often felt was simply Loki’s ghost, watching him from beyond the veil.

He did not so much as bother to strip out of his clothes or shuck off his boots before curling up on his bunk. He lay there in the darkness and wept for a long while, finding it not at all cathartic.

Just before finally slipping into a broken and nightmarish sleep, a horrible thought occurred to him—If Valhalla is the eternal resting place of the Aesir and Vanir, would a Jotun’s soul even find its way there?

The subsequent recovery of the Infinity Stones—namely, the Time Stone—is what had given Thor hope of being reunited with his brother again. It did, in a way, but now Loki has no memory of him or their life together. Meanwhile, Thor’s feelings seem to grow more complicated by the hour.

Thor stares into the vanity mirror of Loki’s bathing chamber and frowns at his own reflection. It’s hard to believe that he has looked this way throughout most of his adult life. His hair—the color of sun-kissed wheat—is slightly tangled from sleep. His eyes—bright and glacier-blue—are the two that he was born with. His complexion—smooth and tanned—is unmarred by scars or dark circles.

He doesn’t look like a man who has lived through what he has, but he feels the wear of recent years. The evidence of it may have been swept away, but it’s still there inside him. His reflection reminds him of one of Loki’s illusions—dishonest and misleading.

He’s sure that he could have become accustomed to living in the past with time, just as he could have become accustomed to living alone with the knowledge of everything that had happened. It wouldn’t be easy, but he never expected it to be. Loki being rendered a stranger, however, is not something Thor had not been prepared for. That, he could never be expected to become accustomed to.

I’ve made a mess of everything, he thinks miserably. Now, the time has come to fix it.

· · · · · · · · · ·

Thor grows restless while waiting for Loki to return, but he does not dare leave Loki’s chambers and risk running into Laufey or Grundroth, who are both due back in Utgardhall this morning.

After making the bed, he tries to sit patiently in one of the armchairs by the hearth, but he’s on his feet again a few minutes later, wandering Loki’s chambers anxiously.

He wonders what Loki thinks of everything that transpired between them last night. He had confessed so much to Thor—where he learned magic, why he’d let the Fire Demons into Utgard, how he’d seen Hailstrum seated on his father’s throne—in what had been a surprising display of trust.

The Loki that Thor grew up with would have never dreamed of confiding so much in a relative stranger.

It’s because he’s lonely here, reasons Thor. Half his family works against him and the other half ignores him. He’s different from everyone else on Jotunheim—an outcast—and I’m someone new.

There’s another possibility as well, however unlikely. It could be that some unconscious part of Loki does somehow remember Thor. It might just be wishful thinking, but he wants to believe that they’re still connected somehow in a way that Loki can sense.

Thor may not grasp the subtle nuances of spell-weaving, but he knows that those who practice seidr have a sensitivity to matters of the soul that others do not possess.

If some small part of Loki does remember Thor, is it as his brother? They share no blood, after all, making the prospect of some deep-seeded genetic recognition impossible. He wonders what Loki makes of him—the Asgardian prince who appeared in Utgardhall with an unexpected offer of aid—and if he finds Thor’s friendliness at all peculiar.

Remembering how he’d called Loki beautiful last night makes him flush with embarrassment. He wonders what Loki made of that. Thor himself doesn't even know what to make of it—it wasn’t a particularly brotherly thing to say.

It’s not as if Thor had never noticed his brother’s objective attractiveness before, but he can’t help but find Loki’s Jotun form strikingly alluring. To Thor, the sight of Loki had always been a source of comfort and familiarity, like a constellation so well-known that it could be mapped with closed eyes, or a sunset that’s been seen half a million times.

Now, however, that same sunset has been painted over with an all new palette of colors.

When Thor looks at Loki, it’s as though he’s seeing him—really seeing him—for the very first time. He rediscovers the fine features of Loki’s face each time his gaze traces over the ridged patterns there. He regards the shape of Loki’s lips each time the captivating shade of violet draws his attention to them. He notices the subtle curves of Loki’s body beneath those delicate tunics in a way he never had before.

The dark eyelashes that frame his red eyes, the cascade of black curls against his pale blue skin, the lilac blush that graces his cheeks when he’s flustered—they all suit Loki well, as does his apparent proclivity for ice magic.

In an attempt to distract himself from his thoughts, Thor begins to browse through the bookcase that curves along the southern wall of the chamber. There are no less than two hundred tomes here—mostly works on the subject of seidr—but the collection pales in comparison to the great libraries of Asgard and Vanaheim, which Loki once had unlimited access to.

As he absently runs his fingertips over a row of cloth and leather spines, his gaze falls upon one titled, Legendary Heroes of the Nine Realms. Thor gently pulls it off the shelf, careful of the the worn and frayed binding as he turns it over in his hands.

He doesn't recognize this particular volume, but many of the old, familiar stories are included. Frigga would often read to him and his brother from a book not unlike this one, and when Thor and Loki would play, they’d imagine themselves as these very heroes.

Thor smiles fondly as he reads the table of contents. It hardly matters that these are some of the most popular tales of the Nine Realms. This is something that connects Thor and Loki—a tangible link between their childhoods—even now, when so much else has changed.

He leafs through the pages, looking for the story of the prince who rescued his beloved from Hel, but doesn’t see it included in this particular book. It had always been Loki’s favorite. He would request it to be read to them every night, and as soon as Frigga finished, he’d beg to hear it once again from the beginning.

Disappointed by its absence, Thor lets the book fall closed. When he goes to set it back on the shelf, however, he glimpses another hardcover behind the now-vacant spot. It’s pressed flat against the back panel of the bookcase and, had Thor not removed Legendary Heroes, it would have remained completely out of sight.

Thor extracts the hidden book, feeling as sly as he had the other night, when he eavesdropped on Laufey and Loki. As he reads the title blazoned across the front cover, his heart skips a beat.

The Aesir Gods: Being the Eleventh Installment of the Recorded History of the Asgardian Royal Family.

A ribbon has been sewn into the leather binding, and when Thor lets the book fall open to the page it marks, he’s immediately met with an illuminated portrait of himself. Although the miniature doesn’t look very much like him, it’s not ungenerous in its depiction. His hair is even burnished with the same gold leafing as the page’s title, which reads, Thor: God of Thunder and Heir to the Throne of Asgard.

Before Thor can wrap his head around the fact that Loki has been reading about him, he hears the lock on the outside door click open.

Thor scrambles to replace the two books he’d removed, managing to knock down another three on the shelf in his haste. He has just enough time to stand them all upright and take a few quick steps away from the bookcase and towards the hearth before the door is pushed open.

Loki comes in carrying a large silver tray piled high with food. Unlike last night, he’s dressed in his courtly attire—the sheer black tunic leaving little to the imagination—and his hair is neatly gathered to the side, a gold hairpin keeping the mass of curls in place.

“Good morning,” he says, crossing the room and placing the tray atop his desk. “I thought to be back before you woke.”

“I haven’t been awake very long,” says Thor, risking a glance at the bookcase which has very obviously been disturbed. “Did you get any sleep?”

“A few hours,” says Loki, gesturing to one of the armchairs. “Are you hungry?”

“Starving, actually.”

“Well, there’s plenty here,” says Loki. “I wasn’t sure what you like, so I just brought some of everything.”

Thor wonders if anyone saw him carrying a small feast upstairs. If they had, it would certainly spark all sorts of rumors. Thor had made no secret of returning to Utgardhall yesterday. Norns only know what they would they think of the son of Odin spending the night in Loki’s private bedchamber.

“How is your arm?”

“Much better,” says Thor, flexing his hand to punctuate his point and feeling not so much as a tingle in his fingers. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

“May I see?”

He offers his hand, and Loki takes it into his own with careful gentleness, looking over his arm with approval. When he lightly trails his fingertips over the pale pink scars, a pleasant shiver races up Thor’s spine.

“These scars should fade in time,” says Loki. “I have a salve that should help vanish them.”

“Thank you,” says Thor. “For healing me… for letting me sleep here.”

“There’s no need to thank me,” says Loki. “Were it not for me, you would have never been injured in the first place. You should not have been dragged into the mess I created.”

“It wasn’t all bad,” says Thor, smiling. “It allowed me to meet you, after all.”

Loki blinks—visibly startled by Thor’s words—before offering him a small, uncertain smile. “You should eat before it gets cold.”

They break their fast on poached gull eggs, honeyed porridge, and berry jam spread over warm bread. As they eat, Thor learns that Laufey and Grundroth have not yet returned to Utgardhall, but are due to arrive within the next few hours. When he jests that they’ll be glad to find him gone upon their return, Loki falls quiet.

After breakfast, Loki leaves Thor alone for a few short minutes. He does not give a reason for slipping out of his chambers, but Thor assumes it’s to dismiss the guards just as he did last night. While he’s gone, Thor uses the opportunity to straighten out the books he’d made a mess of earlier, hoping that Loki will fail to notice that they’d been disturbed.

On their subsequent walk through the palace, Thor and Loki are mostly quiet. The only familiar face they pass is Raze, who bids Thor farewell from his post and asks him to send along his gratitude to Sif and the Warriors Three for their help in retrieving the Casket.

Outside, the morning sun glows silver in the overcast sky. Snow falls heavily as they cross the great stone bridge, and by the time they reach the other side of the chasm, Thor’s hair is damp and he’s shivering from the cold.

“My cousin has planned his hunting excursion for the day after tomorrow,” Loki says once they are a safe distance from the bridge in the plateau's clearing. “I have a mind to see this beast myself rather than hear Ignar’s own exaggerated account.”

“I thought you didn’t like hunting.”

“I normally don’t,” admits Loki, “but this will likely be my last chance to visit Glæsisvellir before the season’s end. We’ll be taking a ship and spending the night in a comfortable inn at the outskirts of the city. There’s much to see of Jotunheim outside the capital.”

Loki holds Thor’s gaze while wringing his hands together in a nervous gesture that Thor remembers well.

“I’m sure it would please Ignar if you were to accompany us,” he adds quietly, a lilac blush creeping into his complexion. “I think he’s grown quite fond of you.”

“Has he?” asks Thor, and Loki’s blush only deepens.

The knowledge that Loki wants to see Thor again—wants to show him more of his home world and take him hunting in the wilderness of Jotunheim—makes his heart soar.

On Asgard, Loki would begrudgingly accompany Odin and Thor on wild boar hunts, though he never showed any enthusiasm for the sport. He’d complain about the tedious trek, curl his lip in distaste at their bloody yields, and resolutely refuse to handle a spear in place of a bow.

During one hunting excursion, it began to rain fiercely—a storm that had naught to do with Thor—and Loki’s bemoaning had set Thor on edge. He whirled around and yelled at Loki, accusing him of spoiling the afternoon and suggesting that Loki just stay home in the future.

Loki, scowling, had said he would. In fact, he swore that he would never again go anywhere with Thor, whom he declared the most insufferable and unpleasant person to spend time with.

Odin had silenced them after that, and they did not speak to each other for the rest of the trip. Despite Loki’s own insults, it didn’t take long for Thor to start feeling guilty about what he’d said. Loki hated feeling left out or unwelcome, and Thor knew that his words had stung. Once they finally returned to the palace, Loki had stalked off to his chambers without so much as a glance in Thor’s direction.

They didn’t speak for three days, which always felt like an eternity when they were fighting.

This would be different though. There would be no unspoken competition between them, no cause to argue. They could simply enjoy each others company—sail across an icy sea, share a drink by an inn’s warm hearth, and pursue a giant beast through the dangerous woodlands—without the friction and rivalry of recent years.

Thor’s smile fades at once upon remembering that he can do no such thing. He needs to find the Stone and restore the timeline, not go on some leisurely hunt through the forests of Jotunheim.

“I would very much like that,” he says gently, “but there are urgent matters that need my attention on Asgard.”

“Oh,” says Loki, drawing backwards and away from Thor. “Of course. I have taken enough of your time.”

“You haven’t—” starts Thor, but Loki quickly cuts him off.

“Thank you again for your help in retrieving the Casket of Ancient Winters,” he says. “Jotunheim is in your debt.”

Were Thor anyone else, he might fail to notice the change in Loki’s demeanor—his stiff posture, the crease between his eyebrows, the sudden formality of his tone—but he’s had centuries to learn the subtleties of his brother’s moods.

“Farewell, Thor Odinson.”

Thor feels a horrible pang of regret for refusing Loki’s invitation, but he finds himself at a complete loss for words. He can’t stay here. He needs to find a way to repair the timeline and return things to normal, but leaving is proving harder than he’d anticipated.

Loki looks disappointed and embarrassed, and Thor wants nothing more than to pull him into his arms and assure him that he’s done nothing wrong. I’m sorry, he thinks sadly. I wish I knew how to explain everything to you.

“Goodbye, Loki.”

Thor watches his brother turn on his heel and start back towards the palace amidst swirls of falling snow. Once Loki is across the bridge, appearing as nothing more than a speck of color amidst the greys and whites, Thor tilts his head up to the sky and calls for Heimdall.

· · · · · · · · · ·

It’s nearing dusk on Asgard. As Thor makes his way to the palace from Heimdall’s Observatory, he spots an approaching caravan comprised of farmers, hunters, and oxen-drawn wagons which remind him of the impending harvest festival.

The Asgardian royal family annually hosts eight official festivals—two for each season. In spring and summer, they are always held in the lush palace gardens. Tiny paper lanterns are set aloft between the tree branches where they glow and twinkle upon their strings in the evening air while attendees drink and feast amongst the blooming flowers or take to the terrace for a moonlit dance.

In winter, they are always held inside the palace walls. Asgardian winters are not so harsh as the ones on Midgard or Vanaheim, but it does get cold enough for light snows and brisk winds. The Jotnar would surely laugh to see them all bundled up in their cloaks and scarves—Jotun summers are not even half so warm—but the Aesir are accustomed to their mostly-aestival climate. As winter draws near, they shutter up their windows, light their hearths, and unpack their warmest furs, all the while anticipating the upcoming Yuletide celebrations.

Harvest festivals are unique, and they have always been Thor’s favorite. Autumn afternoons remain warm enough for the usual outdoor spectacles and activities, but sunset brings a chill that drives the noble attendees into the palace for an evening banquet.

Utgard's winters are twice as long as Asgard’s, but every so often their seasons happen to align—just as they have now. The final harvest festival is but a few days away, and as Thor enters the palace, he sees that the staff has already begun to decorate for the occasion. Atop a ladder mostly-blocking the entrance, two servants attempt to hang an oversized herb and statice wreath over the door.

Upon his return, Thor had asked Heimdall to search Earth for the Masters of the Mystic Arts. He described their New York residence and gave Heimdall the names of Doctor Strange and Master Wong. Heimdall had agreed to track them down without much convincing, but he did warn Thor that it might take awhile.

Now, Thor has time to kill. Although he won’t be able to avoid his father for long, he hopes to remain inconspicuous until supper is served in a few hours. Odin is always slightly more amenable when in Frigga’s company, so a conversation in the mead hall is preferable to one in Odin’s council room.

While climbing the staircase towards his chambers, Thor comes upon Volstagg, Hildegund, and their flock of children who are on their way down at the same time. Their youngest—a boy not yet four months old—is bundled up tightly and cradled against Hildegund’s chest in a carrying-sling, but the other six rush right down to Thor, calling out his name and bounding down the steps two at a time.

“We heard you defeated Surtur,” Rolfe says excitedly. “Papa said you hit him right in the head with your hammer.”

“Is your burn all better now?” asks Gunnhild, while at the same time Einar asks, “Did you take the Twilight Sword?”

Volstagg has clearly filled them in on the details of their journey since his arrival home. It’s little surprise—he has always been a good storyteller and the children have always enjoyed hearing about his many adventures.

Before Thor gets the chance to answer either Gunnhild and Einar’s questions, Arngrim asks, “Did you and Papa really fight a dragon?”

“They all did,” says Alaric. “Papa, Thor, Fandral, Hogun, and the Lady Sif fought the dragon together.”

“Don’t forget the Frost Giant,” says Flosi. “The prince killed the dragon in the end. Didn’t he, Thor?”

“You weren’t scared of the monsters?” Leif asks shyly.

Thor flinches at the word monsters, ashamed that he had once called the Jotnar that as well. Leif is the second-youngest of Volstagg’s children, and he stares up at Thor with wide-eyed wonder. Thor leans down and brushes his hand through the boy’s fiery red hair. “The Jotnar are not so scary once you get to know them,” he says gently.

“Thor’s not scared of anything,” says Einar, beaming up at Thor proudly.

“I’m not scared of the monsters either,” huffs Rolfe, folding his arms over his chest. “Not even the really big ones.”

“Papa said not to call them monsters,” says Flosi, glaring at her brother. “They’re friends with the prince now, remember?”

“What are the Frost Giants like?” asks Gunnhild. “Do they really have red eyes like in the pictures?”

“Papa already told you that they do,” Flosi answers impatiently. “Besides, I want to hear more about the dragon. Won’t you please tell us, Thor? Papa said that the prince used ice magic to kill it.”

Flosi is the only one of Volstagg and Hildegund’s children to show any proclivity for magic. As a result, she idolizes Frigga, often begging to sit beside her in the mead hall. Flosi once adored Loki as well, back when she knew him as a Prince of Asgard instead of a mysterious figure in one of her father’s stories.

“That’s right,” says Thor, and Flosi’s face lights up. “He used ice magic. He’s a very skilled sorcerer, just like the queen.”

Hildegund flashes Thor an apologetic smile once she reaches the landing alongside her husband. Leif returns to her side at once, burying himself in the folds of her gown.

“Well, look who’s finally decided to come home,” Volstagg says as he clasps Thor’s shoulder. “Sif will be relieved to see you back in one piece. How’s the arm?”

“Much better,” says Thor, raising his hand and flexing his fingers.

“I knew you’d be well taken care of,” Volstagg says with a grin. “Laufey must have been pleased to have the Casket back in his possession.”

“He wasn’t even there,” admits Thor. “Grundroth was left in charge of Utgard, though I can’t say he seemed especially pleased. The Casket is back where it belongs though, and that’s all that matters.”

“We were just on our way to the market,” says Hildegund. “Hogun was there this morning hoping to find a Dwarven mace to replace Hridgandr. According to him, there’s already twice as many vendors as there were during the last festival.”

Asgardian festivals always draw merchants from the other realms, and none do so more than harvests. Days before the celebrations begin, merchant stalls are erected in the marketplace just outside the palace grounds. Although Asgard does trade with the Dwarves, Light Elves, and Vanir regularly, the festival markets are an opportunity for merchants to peddle their nonessential, luxury wares.

Anyone could easily spend an entire afternoon browsing the marketplace stalls. Thor has done so enough times himself. Once, he purchased a delicate gold bracelet wrought in the shape of a serpent biting its own tail from a Vanir jeweler. He gifted it to Loki come Yuletide, and his brother had been pleasantly surprised by the gesture.

Even now, Thor can remember the way Loki had smiled as he extracted it from the velvet drawstring pouch. After Thor clasped the bracelet around his slender wrist, Loki unexpectedly leaned forward and pressed a chaste kiss on Thor’s cheek in a preciously rare show of affection.

It’s lovely, Loki had whispered, still close enough that Thor could smell the mulled cider on his breath. Thank you, brother.

The memory makes Thor’s pulse quicken, and he gives himself a mental shake. “Well, don’t let me keep you,” he says to Hildegund. “It’ll be dark soon.”

“You’re always welcome to join us,” she says, “but I’m sure you’re eager to see the king.”

“Yes,” lies Thor. “Some other time, perhaps.”

Thor bids them farewell and continues up the spiral staircase. Once he finally reaches his chamber door, something makes him pause. With his hand frozen on the doorknob, he gazes down the length of the corridor.

The interior of his chambers has changed many times over the centuries, but the location has always remained the same.

The same can be said of Loki’s chambers as well, which lie just around the corner at the other end of the corridor.

Thor drops his hand from the doorknob and continues walking. It’s a journey he’s made countless times—the short walk from his bedchamber to Loki’s—and each step makes him feel more anxious.

There’s really no point in looking, he tells himself. I already know what will be there—or, rather, what won’t be there. I shouldn’t go. It’s not going to make me feel any better.

Nevertheless, his feet carry him down the corridor and around the corner until he’s stood just outside Loki’s door.

Loki’s chambers were left untouched after he fell from the Rainbow Bridge, and Thor often sought comfort there amongst his belongings. He would lie in Loki’s bed—sometimes even falling asleep there—or sort through his clothes and books. The depth of his grief was so great that he often feared he would surely drown in it.

Once, he’d gone to Loki’s chambers only to discover Frigga already there, seated at his desk. It was the middle of the night, and she was dressed in only her robe and nightclothes. Even in the dim lamplight, Thor could see how red her eyes were.

Thor felt like a child that night, soothed by his mother as he cried in her arms. It hurts so much, he would manage between sobs. It hurts so much.

Thor pushes the unlocked door open and steps inside.

It’s still a bedchamber—seemingly one reserved for guests—though it clearly hasn’t been used in some time. The large windows have been covered, the bedding has been stripped away from the mattress, and a thin film of dust covers every visible surface. Even the air is stale from the room’s disuse.

Evidently, the palace staff has been using the space for storage. Crates and boxes are stacked against the walls and a grand piano is crammed into a corner beneath a dusty linen sheet.

Thor lets the door fall closed and leans against it, sighing. Restoring the timeline won’t be the end of his troubles, but it will at least put Loki back where he belongs. Loki may be Laufey’s son, but he deserves a better life than the one he now has on Jotunheim.

The Jotnar may value physical strength and stamina over magic and politics, but what sets Loki apart from them are the very things that make him so remarkable. Rather than find value in Loki’s uniqueness, they belittle him for failing to meet their own rigorous standards. Loki is their prince, yet he is consistently overlooked and under-appreciated amongst his own people.

The prickly realization that Loki had felt much the same way on Asgard makes something twist in Thor’s stomach. It couldn’t have been as bad then as it is now, could it? Surely, it couldn’t have been as bad…

Maybe it was, he thinks. He was lied to all his life. He felt so lost that he wanted to die. He meant to, when he fell into that abyss. He came back so broken that he was almost unrecognizable. Then, he was locked away in the dungeons and forgotten. He was not even allowed to attend Mother’s funeral. After Svartalfheim, he hid from me for years rather than come to me for help.

Blinking back tears, Thor opens the door and steps out into the empty corridor.

I’m going to bring Loki home, he thinks as he makes his way back to his own chambers. Once I restore the timeline, everything will be different. I will not make the same mistakes. I will not lose him again.

He lets himself think about their reunion, imagines what he might say to Loki once they are brothers again. Perhaps nothing will ever quite be like it was when they were young, but their relationship isn’t beyond repair. Besides, Thor’s foreknowledge and Thanos’ nonexistence ensure a drastically less disastrous outcome no matter how much Loki already resents him.

By the time Thor reaches his own chambers, he’s begun to feel fiercely determined and even a little bit hopeful.

Chapter Text

Summer is the monsoon season in Nepal and Thor’s arrival is heralded by a thunderstorm. The Bifrost deposits him into the Nagarjun Forest, and from there he embarks upon his journey to Kathmandu.

Heimdall had found the Masters of the Mystic Arts far sooner than either of them expected. Kamar-Taj, their sanctuary, is well hidden, but they are not entirely reclusive. Heimdall discovered Master Wong in a nearby marketplace alongside another sorcerer and watched their journey home. He was unable to see inside Kamar-Taj, the perimeter being protected by magical wards, but he showed Thor precisely where it could be found.

Following the path that Heimdall laid out for him, Thor trudges through the mud towards the city.

He still feels a bit guilty about failing to see his parents before leaving again, but a lecture from Odin is the last thing he wants to deal with right now. Besides that, being home with the knowledge that Loki had never grown up there is almost unbearable. Loki was such a fundamental part of their lives. Even when he was gone—believed dead or imprisoned—his absence was as tangible as his presence had once been.

By the time Thor reaches the outskirts of the capital, the rain has finally begun to taper off.

Beads of sweat dapple Thor’s forehead soon after the clouds part for the sun. Too hot for his cloak, he unclasps and removes it, continuing his walk with it draped over one shoulder. Unlike the dry heat of Muspelheim, the air here is sultry and thick with humidity. It’s almost uncomfortable enough to make him miss the chill of Utgard.

Navigating the narrow, store-front lined streets of Kathmandu proves to be more of a challenge than the forest had been. He moves with traffic, passing retail chains, textile shops, flower stands, street food vendors, and holy shrines as locals weave through the bustling crowds on motorbikes. Overhead, thousands of colorful prayer flags flutter on their strings and cords of electrical wire form what look like massive rat nests atop telephone poles.

The savory aroma of curbside cooking hangs in the air, making Thor’s stomach rumble with hunger. When he comes upon a particularly tempting stand, he unfastens the gold fibula of his cloak and trades it for a heaping bowl of steamed momos and a bottle of barley beer to wash them down with. The same vendor helpfully points him in the direction of Kamar-Taj.

Thor walks and eats simultaneously, letting his thoughts wander back to Loki, as they so often do. His dream—or, rather, the daydream he had conjured upon waking—has been in the back of his mind all day. He knows it’s not right to have these sorts of thoughts about his brother, but it wasn’t right for Loki to kiss him either.

Thor brings his fingertips to the back of his neck, remembering the feel of Loki’s nails biting into the skin there. Had it been some sudden impulse on Loki’s part, or something he had wanted to do for some time? The idea of Loki harboring some secret desire for Thor is almost too absurd to consider.


It’s true that Loki was fiercely jealous—especially when they were young—but he was jealous of anyone that captured Thor’s attention. They were inseparable as children and, as they grew older, Loki became intensely protective of their companionship. Thor suspected that Loki feared replacement or worried that, as they pursued different skills and interests, he would no longer be the most important person in Thor’s life.

Frigga and Odin have always insisted upon a weekly family supper in their chambers. Once, Thor had brought a girl he was spending time with along so his parents might get to know her. Loki had done a poor job of hiding his displeasure, and Thor spent the better part of the evening worrying that his brother would magic her hair on fire or transform her into some small animal.

Thor still considers it a miracle that she made it through the night unscathed, though it surely had more to do with their parents’ presence than any restraint on Loki’s part.

While it’s true that Loki’s jealousy was never solely reserved for Thor’s romantic interests, they did have a tendency of bringing out the worst of it. He tries to only consider Loki’s reactions to the women Thor spent time with, isolating those interactions to see if anything stands out to him.

While doing so, a memory strikes Thor so suddenly that he stops in his tracks, almost getting run down by a motorbike from behind. It’s something he hasn’t thought of in centuries, a memory from the early years of his adolescence.

One of Fandral’s many cousins, a girl named Karsi, had come to stay at the palace one summer. Thor had taken a liking to her and one morning, as he passed her in the corridor, she unexpectedly invited him to accompany her on a walk around the grounds.

Thor had gladly accepted her invitation, and the hours quickly slipped away from them. That afternoon, he found himself having his first kiss—his first real kiss—out in Iðunn’s orchard beneath a golden apple tree. Only after returning to the palace sometime after sunset did Thor remember that he had completely forgotten about his promise to accompany Loki to Glitnir that afternoon.

Loki was always more receptive to apologies when they were accompanied by sweets, so Thor had a blackberry pastry in his hand when he finally knocked on Loki’s door that evening. He was reluctantly admitted entrance, but Loki did no more than take the offered pastry and sit down at his desk with his back to Thor.

I’m sorry, said Thor, watching his brother absently pick at the pastry while reading from the book which lay flat on the desk in front of him. I completely forgot about our plans because—

I already know why you forgot, said Loki. I saw you with that girl.

We did not intend to be gone so long, explained Thor. She merely wanted to see Iðunn’s orchard, but we lost track of time.

I saw you kissing her.

Thor felt himself blush at once. Loki must have come looking for Thor when he failed to meet him at the arranged time. The thought of Loki witnessing their kiss made Thor feel embarrassed and, for some unknown reason, guilty. I like Karsi, he said.

I can’t imagine why, said Loki. Her voice is irritatingly shrill and her eyebrows don’t match.

Loki, said Thor, frowning. Now you’re just being mean.

I’m only being honest, brother.

Since when? You’re never honest.

That’s not true. Loki kept his gaze fixed on his book as he rolled a blackberry between his thumb and forefinger. I’m honest with you.

Thor scoffed at that, turning away from Loki and crossing his arms over his chest. An awkward silence fell between them, but just as Thor was about to leave the room, Loki suddenly rose from the desk.

His brother was unpredictable and often dangerous while in a foul mood, and never more so than when Thor was cause of said mood. Thor watched Loki warily, although he didn’t look angry anymore.

He stood in front of Thor, looking up at him with an unreadable expression etched across his face before finally asking, What was it like?

The question surprised Thor. Truthfully, he had been too preoccupied with wondering if he was doing it right to know whether or not he actually enjoyed it. Not that he had any intention of confessing as much to Loki. It was nice, he said.

Loki tilted his head, gazing at Thor curiously. Thor took a cautionary step back, pressing his back to the wall and thinking that perhaps he’d prefer it if Loki did look angry.

Will you show me?

Thor blinked in confusion. For a moment, he thought Loki was asking Thor to show him the orchard, but that made no sense. Loki had been in Iðunn’s orchard at least a thousand times before, as had Thor.

Show you what?

Kiss me like you did her, said Loki, his casual tone a stark contrast to the nature of his request. I want to know what it’s like.

Thor gaped at Loki dumbly for what felt like a long time. Then, he sighed in exasperation. You have a perverse sense of humor, brother.

A crease formed between Loki’s eyebrows, then vanished.

Maybe if you spent less time studying and more time making friends, continued Thor, you’d find a girl of your own to kiss.

Loki scrunched up his nose at that, turning away from Thor and marching back to his desk. You’re forgiven, he said mildly. We will go to Glitnir tomorrow after breakfast.

Remembering the exchange now has Thor feeling uneasy, yet strangely anticipative. While it’s true that the version of Loki that kissed him aboard the Statesman is gone, all hope of getting answers to his motivations for doing so may not be lost after all.

Thor asks for directions twice more before an elderly woman offers to lead him the rest of the way to Kamar-Taj. He gives her the rest of his momos in exchange.

As they turn down an even narrower street, it begins to rain once again. It’s scarcely more than a drizzle, but the sky is darkening rapidly. Pedestrians hurry down the pavement, racing the storm, but a few passersby still pause at the street’s shrine to leave a quick offering before continuing on their way.

The elderly woman brings them to a stop outside a pair of nondescript doors. He looks between her and the brick building, wondering if perhaps she had mistaken his intended destination. After meeting Strange, he had expected something a bit more ostentatious.

The woman hastily wishes him good luck in Hindi and hurries back the way they’d come, holding the brim of her hat to keep it from taking off in the rainy breeze. Thor turns back to the door and braces himself, remembering the way he’d been unceremoniously teleported all around Strange’s New York home.

The door suddenly swings open just as he raises his fist to knock upon it. He takes a startled step back, almost slipping in the puddle beneath his boots. The unfamiliar man facing him stares at him blankly.

“Hello,” Thor says uncertainly. “Is this… Kamar-Taj?”

“It is,” the man says, opening the door wider. He’s dressed in dark green robes cut in a similar fashion to Strange’s blue ones, telling Thor that he’s come to the right place. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“I’m looking for a man named Wong,” says Thor. “We sort of know each other.”

The man’s dark eyes search Thor’s face for a long moment. Then, he moves aside and holds the door open for Thor to step out of the rain and into the sanctuary of Earth’s most powerful sorcerers.

· · · · · · · · · ·

The cup of tea that Thor accepted out of politeness has long since gone cold. He never drank from the small clay cup, but he did keep it cradled in his hands as he told his story to the the Masters of the Mystic Arts.

Beginning with the Chitauri Invasion, he recounted all the major events that eventually led to the Decimation. Master Wong and Master Mordo seemed to grow more unnerved with every word, but their leader—the woman they refer to as the Ancient One—had remained calm and composed throughout the entire narration.

Thor only spoke briefly about how Thanos was torn from the fabric of existence. It was something he could still barely understand himself. All he knows is that it took the strength and willpower of every remaining Avenger as well as the combined use of all six Infinity Stones.

The Time Stone was the only one to survive the process. The others were all completely destroyed, leaving not even a single, glowing particle behind.

That final, savage fight against the Mad Titan had been driven purely by instinct, and only after it was over did they realize that their hopes of using the Gauntlet to undo what Thanos had accomplished with the snap of his fingers had been dashed.

To the others, resetting the timeline was a disappointing second choice—a compromise due to the lack of any other option—but not to Thor. His losses had all come even before the Decimation.

This is how we get everyone back, Stark had said, pointing to the glowing stone in Thor’s hand. We return to the very beginning of all of this.

That part of his story seemed to dismay Wong and Mordo the most. They exchanged nervous glances as Thor described the ritual that he and the others had performed, and shifted uncomfortably in their seats as Thor recounted waking in a restored Asgard.

Now, Wong, Mordo, and the Ancient One sit across from Thor and quietly absorb all that he has told them. The room they took him up to is spacious and private, with meshed walls that fill the space with natural light. White sage and cedar incense burns nearby, leaving an earthy aroma in the air, and on the wooden table between Thor and the Masters sits a tea platter and a small stack of leather-bound books.

Thor can’t help but wonder what Loki would make of this place.

“I hope you did not come here seeking approval for your actions,” says Mordo, finally breaking the silence. “Do you have any idea the danger you put the entire universe in by so drastically altering time? If what you have told us is true—”

“It is true.”

“—then it is a miracle any of us even exist to have this conversation.”

“I’m not here for approval,” says Thor, placing the cup of tea on the table. “I’m here for the Time Stone.”

“The Time Stone has been under our protection since Agamotto first founded the Masters of the Mystic Arts,” says Wong. “You may have used it once, but that does not make you the keeper of it.”

“He does not wish to keep it safe,” says Mordo. Although his voice remains deceptively calm, Thor can see the outraged disbelief brewing in his dark gaze. “He wishes to use it again.”

“Even if we could begin to understand why you chose to use it once,” says Wong, “what could possibly make you want to do so again?”

“Is it because of this Thanos?” asks Mordo. “Has he returned from whichever dimension you cast him into?”

“He’s not trapped in another dimension,” says Thor. “He’s just gone.”

“Then it would seem your endeavor was successful,” says the Ancient One. It’s the first time she’s spoken since politely greeting him by name and leading him to this room. “Tell us why you wish to alter time again.”

“There have been… unexpected changes,” explains Thor. “Earth is mostly the same from what I can tell, as is Asgard, but Jotunheim is drastically different from the world it once was. Many centuries ago, the Aesir and the Jotnar fought a war which resulted in the decline of Jotunheim’s civilization. In this timeline, their realm did not suffer the same fate.”

“Jotunheim attacked Earth once before,” says Wong, glancing at the Ancient One. “Long ago.”

“That was a bit before my time,” she says with a smile.

Thor gazes at her curiously. She’s human, as far as he can tell, but he’s never heard of one living long enough to be considered ancient. “Just how old are you?” he asks.

“Not quite as old as you.”

Before Thor can question her further, Mordo asks, “Is Jotunheim a threat to us now?”

“No,” says Thor. “There is a peace treaty between our realms and Midgard remains under Asgard’s protection.”

This seems to amuse the Ancient One, who undoubtedly sees the Masters of the Mystic Arts as Earth’s primary protectors. She leans back in her seat, taking a sip of tea and studying Thor over the brim of her cup.

“If you only set time back twelve years, then how have these events from centuries ago been altered?” asks Wong. “Only what occurred after this point in time should be changed.”

“Something must have gone wrong,” says Thor. “The Time Stone didn’t work as it was intended to. I thought—hoped—that perhaps it brought me into some alternate timeline. The others who were present have no memory of what happened, either. I seem to be the only one who does.”

He’s not entirely certain of that fact, but after Stark, Rhodes, and Wong failed to recognize him, he can only assume the same would be true of the others as well.

“I don’t think the Time Stone is capable of that,” says Wong. “You said that there were other Infinity Stones in your possession as well?”

“They were destroyed with Thanos,” says Thor. “We only had the Time Stone left.”

The three masters consider that for a moment, each one appearing deep in thought. Thor shifts uncomfortably in his seat and wonders where the Time Stone is now. Perhaps hidden away under lock and key, or else rendered invisible by their magic.

“Is there another Thor here?” asks Mordo. “When you awoke on Asgard, were there two of you?”

“No,” says Thor, not understanding why he would ask such a thing. “There is only me.”

“Your friends and family do not think you have miraculously returned from the dead?”

“No,” says Thor, frustrated with this line of questioning. “I’ve already told you—almost everything is the same as it was twelve years ago. The only difference is in Jotunheim’s history.”

“Then it is unlikely that you are not in an another timeline,” Mordo says simply. “If you had been transported to a parallel dimension of the multiverse, then there would theoretically be two of you—the one who has existed here all his life, and you, the traveler.”

It’s a reasonable assertion, but not one that Thor wants to hear.

“You must have altered the past before you used the Time Stone,” says Wong. “Perhaps it occurred when you used it in conjunction with the other Stones and you only failed to notice at the time.”

Thor rubs his temples in an effort to soothe his oncoming headache. Time travel, parallel universes, branching timelines—these are all things that Loki would have been better equipped to deal with. He always had a more analytical mind than Thor, as well as a deeper understanding of the workings the multiverse.

“I need to fix it,” says Thor, “and I need the Time Stone in order to do so.”

“I don’t think you understand the risks associated with temporal manipulation,” says Mordo. “Natural law has never been broken on a scale as large as this. You endangered every life-form in the universe by tampering with the order of time.”

“Master Mordo is right,” says Wong. “It sounds as if Jotunheim has been improved with your meddling. There must be something else you’re not telling us.”

Mordo watches him warily, no doubt poised to defend the Time Stone should Thor make a move to take it by force, and although Wong appears troubled, there’s no anger in his expression.

The Ancient One’s gaze is almost sympathetic, as though she has already discerned what Thor might say.

“It’s my brother,” he eventually says, knowing how insignificant his reasoning must sound to them. “He was adopted from Jotunheim as an infant and raised alongside me as a Prince of Asgard. Except, not anymore. Somehow, what we did changed that. He no longer remembers me at all.”

“Was he there when you used the Time Stone?” asks the Ancient One.

“No,” says Thor. “Thanos murdered him long before that.”

“Your brother,” Mordo says in a deadpan tone. “You would doom us all for the chance to change your brother’s past?”

They don’t understand, but how could they? Loki is just one person—one of ten trillion—and his growing up on another planet is such a small sacrifice in comparison to what has been lost to Thanos.

But it’s not a small sacrifice, he thinks. Not to me. To me, it’s everything.

He thinks of Jotunheim and how different Utgard is now compared the bleak tundra he remembers. He thinks of Ignar, jovial and friendly, standing up for his cousin against the rest of their family. He thinks of Raze, dutiful and protective of his prince, unknowing that Loki had killed him without a second thought in another life.

He thinks of Loki, slated to inherit Jotunheim’s throne and eager for an alliance with Asgard. He thinks of the prophecy regarding Loki’s future, and how Loki wants no part of it. He thinks of the daggers Laufey gifted his son during the feast, remembering how the blades’ engraved runes had glowed blue beneath a thin sheen of ice crystals.

What would become of everyone he’s met in Utgard if Thor were to restore the timeline to what it was? And what about Loki? He’s lived an entire life as the Prince of Jotunheim. If given the choice, would he even want to be a son of Odin?

Outside, the rain has begins to fall more fiercely. Flashes of lightning illuminate the cloud-darkened sky and rumbles of thunder shake the sanctuary, though Thor hardly notices.

What if using the Time Stone again only makes things worse? He had heard all about the dangers of temporal manipulation from Stark, Banner, and Wong once before. Time loops, paradoxical dimensions, pockets in spacetime. What if he only manages to create a universe in which Loki was never born at all?

Currents suddenly begin to pulse over Thor’s skin, causing Wong and Mordo to scramble out of their seats. Mordo constructs some sort of magical ward—a fiery barrier held like a shield in front of himself—while Wong conjures orbs made of similar magic in each of his hands. Only the Ancient One remains seated, calmly watching Thor as he struggles to rein in the storm he’d unwittingly called forth.

Although Thor had hoped to be able to convince them of his need without force, he had been prepared for a fight if that’s what it took to get the Time Stone. Now, however, he’s not so sure taking it would be in anyone’s best interest.

Using the same technique Tyr had taught him for controlling his emotions during battle, Thor focuses on steadying his breathing. It’s no easy task, but eventually the sanctuary stops shaking and the crackles of lightning skittering over his skin begin to fade away.

Once satisfied that Thor is no longer an immediate threat, Wong drops his hands and lets the blazing orbs he’d conjured vanish into the air.

“There are always consequences for breaking natural law,” says Mordo as he lowers his shield. “You should be grateful that your brother exists at all. Every alteration to the past—no matter how seemingly insignificant—creates a ripple through the fabric of spacetime.”

“Even if you managed to successfully travel back through time and ensure your brother’s adoption,” says Wong, “who can say what other consequences such an act would bring? It may seem to you as if this universe just sprang into being when you awoke here a few days ago, but the rest of us do not share your reality.”

“Your people have had the Time Stone for centuries,” says Thor. “You have books on how to use it. If you could teach me how to travel safely—”

“There is no safe way to use the Time Stone,” Mordo says angrily. “There is no safe way to tamper with natural law.”

Thor wishes that the other Avengers were here. The choice had been easier when it was one they made together. What would they say now? He wants to believe that they would understand Thor’s need, but it’s unlikely.

He wonders what Loki would do if their places were reversed, but the truth is that Loki would probably just do whatever he wanted, consequences be damned.

The Ancient One rises from her seat, turning to the others. “Thank you, Masters.”

Wong and Mordo hesitate at her polite dismissal, looking between her and Thor. Then, they gracefully bow their heads and turn towards the door. Even with the rain outside, the room is quiet enough for Thor to hear the whispering fabric of their robes as they leave the room.

“Many people have made pilgrimages to Kamar-Taj over the centuries,” the Ancient One says. “They come here with broken bodies, broken spirits, broken hearts. Sometimes, I am able to heal their injuries and ailments. More often, I am able to guide them towards acceptance and inner peace.”

When Thor makes no response, she slowly approaches him to drop her hand to his shoulder. “Come with me,” she says softly. “I will take you to the library.”

“Why?” asks Thor. “What’s in the library?”

“The thing you came here for,” she says simply. “The Time Stone.”

· · · · · · · · · ·

The Time Stone, safely secured inside the Eye of Agamotto, rests on a pedestal in the center of the library. The pedestal stands atop a platform just beneath a massive, glowing globe wrought in the shape Earth.

The Masters call it the Orb of Agamotto.

Thor looks at the Ancient One uncertainly, wondering if this is some sort of trap. They clearly object to the idea of allowing Thor to use the Stone, so why would she bring him here?

“Everything you would need is in this chamber,” she says, gesturing around the dimly-lit library. “The Time Stone is here and the Book of Cagliostro is chained upon that top shelf over there.”

“How do I know that you won’t just try to kill me the moment I take the Stone?”

“You don’t,” she says. “I do expect you to take it, Thor. My concern is what you will do with it once it’s in your possession.”

Thor carefully removes the Eye of Agamotto from the pedestal, and the Stone inside begins to emit a soft, green light. He finds himself once again amazed at how such a small bit of cold mineral could hold so much power.

“You would go back on your vow to protect this world?” the Ancient one asks, breaking Thor’s concentration. “You would break natural law, disrupt the flow of time, and rearrange the universe for just one man?”

“I’ve done so once already,” answers Thor, the viridescent Stone glowing fiercely in the palm of his hand.

He had sought to make things right with it, but nothing has ever been more wrong. Loki—his beloved brother and sometimes rival—no longer knows him. In this timeline, Loki was raised as the Crown Prince of Jotunheim instead of being brought to Asgard. In this timeline, Loki and Thor are nothing more than strangers. How could he ever accept such a reality?

In Surtur’s vault, Loki had spoke briefly about Fate and free will. I like to think that I have some control over my own life, he’d said. These last few days have been proof of just how accidental the course of Fate truly is, and although such a revelation might please Loki, Thor has never felt more directionless.

Thor gazes at the stone, remembering how full of hope he’d been when he awoke on Asgard with the belief he would be reunited with his brother once again.

While the last years of Loki’s life had made him withdrawn, vulnerable, and haunted, Thor was often still able to catch glimmers of his former self during their time together. He had always been clever, mischievous, and proud. He was quick to laugh but, like Thor, also quick to anger. He could be surprisingly affectionate at times, and irritable at others. He could make Thor laugh like no one else, or hurt him with no more than a single, barbed insult.

Thor had loved him more than anything.

Unshed tears prick Thor’s eyes. How could he possibly let him go? Memories come unbidden, each one more painful than the last. Loki falling asleep on Thor as they watch the sunset on Vanaheim. Loki releasing Gungnir and falling from the Rainbow Bridge. Loki kissing him aboard the Statesman, a thousand years too late. Loki writhing in Thanos’ grasp while struggling to breathe. Loki teaching Thor to dance, gazing up at him with bright green eyes, looking like everything anyone could ever want and fitting perfectly in Thor’s arms.

I should have kissed him, he thinks sadly. I should have kissed him that last night we danced together. I should have kissed him when he asked me to show him what it was like. I should have kissed him on Vanaheim, on Alfheim, on Midgard. It’s too late. Why do I only want this now, when it’s too late?

If this were just some parallel universe—an alternate timeline he could slip right out of to return home—it wouldn’t be. As it stands, there are ten trillion lives on the line. The risks are too great to justify, even to himself.

Thor’s hands tremble as he returns the Eye of Agamotto to the pedestal. The viridescent glow immediately begins to dim before finally fading away.

“I knew that you would make the right choice,” the Ancient One says gently. “It is the right choice.”

Then why does it hurt so much?

“My brother sacrificed his life for mine,” says Thor, unsure why he’s confessing this to a stranger, but unable to stop himself. “It’s the only explanation I can think of for why he attacked Thanos with nothing but a dagger. He must have believed that one of us would be spared. He died horribly. It seemed to go on forever, and I could do nothing to stop it.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she says. “I truly am. But as you said, he is not gone. He is on Jotunheim. We are not just random arrangements of particles drifting aimlessly through the universe, Thor. He may be different now, but his soul is the same.”

Thor wipes the tears from his eyes, considering her words. “If the person he once was and the person he now is are one and the same, then why do they seem like two separate people?”

The Ancient One frowns, seemingly at a loss for words.

“I don’t know where to go from here,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

“You should go to him,” the Ancient One says. “Perhaps, in time, you will learn to love him as he is now, just as you did once before.”

He nods, thinking of how Loki had tenderly healed his arm and confessed to him his secrets, thinking of how he shyly asked Thor to accompany him on their hunt, thinking of how he'd looked embarrassed and disappointment when Thor refused the invitation.

Thor doesn’t believe that he will ever find himself preferring this version of Loki over the one he grew up with, but the Masters were right in their insistence that at least there is still some incarnation of Loki that remains to him.

· · · · · · · · · ·

When Thor walked away from Kamar-Taj, the sun had only just begun to set over Nepal. Here on Asgard, however, the sky is dark and the world is peacefully asleep.

Thor, still wet from the rain, watches as Heimdall removes Hofund from the Bifrost portal. The tip of the great-sword clinks loudly against the gilded floor as he places it down to lean upon its hilt.

“Welcome home.”

It doesn’t feel much like a homecoming to Thor. Hopes dashed and heart broken, he wants only to go to Jotunheim where he can be with Loki—even if it's not quite the Loki he longs for.

“Can you see Utgardhall?” asks Thor. “I was invited to accompany the Jotnar on a hunt. I mean to join them if they haven’t yet left.”

Rather than answer Thor’s question, Heimdall arches an eyebrow and glances to his left. Thor follows his gaze to see Frigga stepping out from the shadows, her gold dress shimmering in the low light of the Observatory.

“Mother,” says Thor, surprised to find her here so late at night. “Are you—is everything all right?”

“I only wished to see my son,” she says, drawing near. “He comes and goes so quickly as of late; by the time I hear that he’s been spotted in the palace, he has already left Asgard once again.”

Thor flushes with shame even as she pulls him into a hug. It’s not as though he doesn’t want to see his mother—he’s missed her terribly for so long—but he feels guilty indulging in her company when his brother cannot. Frigga and Loki had been so close and shared so much, and now they are strangers.

“I’m sorry, Mother.”

Her embrace is comforting and familiar, as is the scent of her perfume, and he lets his eyes fall closed for just a moment.

“The harvest festivals have always been your favorite,” Frigga says as she pulls away, “and yet you would miss it to go hunting on Jotunheim?”

“Some beast has been terrorizing the residents of Glæsisvellir,” explains Thor. “I thought I’d join them on their hunting excursion in order to see more of their realm and learn more about their culture.”

While both these things are true, he neglects to add that spending time with Loki is his primary motivation for returning to Jotunheim.

“Won’t you walk with me to the palace at least?” asks Frigga. “Jotunheim can surely wait that long.”

“It’s early evening in Utgard,” says Heimdall, as though he can already hear Thor’s protest. “The prince has just retired to his bedchamber, and it seems they won’t be leaving until the morning.”

“Thank you, Heimdall,” says Frigga before turning to Thor with a soft smile. “It seems you have enough time to change out of these wet clothes and get some rest before you need leave us again.”

Thor reluctantly nods his agreement before they exchange farewells with Heimdall, who lifts his great-sword onto his shoulder and strides toward the door to his private chambers.

There is so much Thor wants to ask Heimdall—he may even have some inkling as to what the prophecy regarding Loki entails—but he doesn’t dare make mention of it now.

He has always hated the thought of lying to Frigga, even as a child, and whatever he were to ask Heimdall here would surely inspire her own impossible questions.

There’s a slight chill in the air as they step out into the autumn night. The rainbow bridge stretches out before them, glimmering bright and colorful in the darkness.

“The Lady Sif told me about your success on Muspelheim,” Frigga says as they walk together. “I am glad to see that your injury has been taken care of, but I do wish you came home to let Eir tend to you.”

“Loki healed me,” says Thor. “He’s a skilled healer and a practiced spellweaver. He learned from a Vanir woman as a child and has been mastering his craft ever since.”

“Loki Laufeyson,” says Frigga, glancing at Thor curiously. “You asked for him the morning you lost control of your powers.”

Thor remembers well. It had only been a few days ago, and it was her confusion that let Thor know that something had gone terribly wrong when he used the Time Stone.

When Thor offers no explanation as to why he asked for Loki, Frigga sighs. “Your father thinks it unwise to ally yourself so closely with the Jotnar,” she says.

“Do you think it unwise as well?”

“Your father and Laufey have their history, just as their own fathers did. Someday, you will be king, and the relationship between Asgard and Jotunheim will be what you and Laufey’s son make it.”

“Loki is nothing like his father,” says Thor. “He will make a good king.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” she says with an uncertain smile. “I would only caution you to be careful, Thor.”

A silence falls between them. Thor looks up to the night sky—at the swirls of twinkling stars and glowing nebulae—and lets himself marvel at the beauty of it all.

Asgard truly is the most splendid place in the Nine Realms, he thinks. It’s not right that Loki has never seen this.

“What do you make of the Jotnar?” asks Thor. “I have never heard you speak much about them.”

“What is there to say?” asks Frigga. “They have kept to themselves since the war ended. I cannot claim to love them, if that’s what you’re asking, but neither do I hate them.”

He wonders what Frigga would say now if he told her that, in another life, she adopted a Jotun infant to raise as her own son. He remembers how she once told Thor about the day Odin brought Loki home, about how she had loved him at once.

“You would like Loki,” he says, recognizing the absurdity of his understatement. “I’m certain of it.”

“It seems that you’ve become quite preoccupied with this Jotun prince,” she says, her voice light with amusement. “Some might be inclined to think that he’s cast a spell over you.”

Thor laughs to hide his embarrassment, and Frigga thankfully doesn’t press the issue any further.

Once they reach the palace and begin to climb the serpentine staircase, Thor realizes just how tired and uncomfortable he is from his trip on Earth. He may not have had to do anything particularly strenuous, but his conversation with the Masters of the Mystic Arts—as well as his ultimate refusal of the Time Stone—has left him emotionally drained.

Frigga was right to suggest Thor get a few hours sleep before racing off to Jotunheim. Then again, Frigga usually is right. Thor may even have time to visit the marketplace in the morning, as the merchants usually set up just after sunrise, eager to do as much business as they can during their brief stay on Asgard.

I can find something for Loki there, he thinks. Maybe something from Alfheim, since they still refuse to do trade with Jotunheim.

The palace is silent as Thor walks his mother to her chambers. The only occupants they pass are the guards, who stand still and quiet at their posts. Once outside her chamber door, Thor gives Frigga a kiss on the cheek and a promise to return safely from Jotunheim.

“You may want to take some of your friends with you,” she says. “It would certainly make me worry less, and I know that Fandral has been particularly enthusiastic about this newfound alliance of yours.”

Thor nods, though the tension between Sif and Loki makes him wary to bring them. He very well can’t blame Sif for being distrustful of the Jotnar’s intentions, but it’s certainly not something he wants to deal with right now.

Perhaps he will only bring Fandral. He seemed to get along well with Ignar and Raze during their stay in Utgardhall, and he’s also the least likely to cast any judgement or suspicion upon Thor and Loki’s friendship.

After Thor bids Frigga goodnight, he drowsily makes his way to his own chambers. There, he strips out of his damp clothes and climbs into a hot bath. While soaking in the steaming water, his thoughts travel back to Loki—drifting back and forth between the Loki that’s currently in Utgardhall and the one that had been Thor’s brother.

There are about as many similarities between the two as there are differences, and Thor cannot seem to reconcile them as the same person. Not even after the Ancient One’s insistence that Loki’s soul is the same as it once was. Thor isn’t quite sure what it is, but he knows that there’s something—something indescribable yet tangible—that is different between the two of them.

Dawn’s early light begins to shine through the windows as Thor finally crawls into bed. Sad and weary, he closes his eyes and hopes to see Loki in his dreams. He wants to awaken in the Asgard of his mind’s creation, lying comfortably amongst the soft feather pillows while Loki sits on the edge of the bed and cards his fingers through his hair or reminisces about their childhood.

It hardly matters that it’s not real. It's the only way that Thor will ever again be with his brother as he remembers him, so it hardly matters at all.

Chapter Text

Thor and Fandral step out from the smoking circle of runes and into ankle-deep snow. Ahead, the stone bridge that leads to the opposite plateau is completely covered in undisturbed white blankets, and the palace beyond the chasm glistens with crystalline frost.

Flakes amble down lazily to swirl in the gentle breeze, and it’s quiet enough for the sound of freshly-fallen snow crunching beneath their boots to seem loud. Far below them, beneath the mountains and past the capital city of Utgard, the grey seas are calm and peaceful.

Despite the picturesque atmosphere, it’s a bitter cold morning in Utgard and Thor’s breath steams in the air around him. Pulling his cloak tightly about his shoulders, he silently curses himself for forgetting to replace the fibula he’d traded away on Midgard.

“Norns,” murmurs Fandral. “It’s even colder than I remember.”

“It’s early yet,” says Thor. “The afternoon sun will chase away some of the chill.”

They had both taken care to dress warmly before leaving Asgard. Thor had rifled through the wardrobe of his bedchamber, pulling out layers of thick wool, supple leather, and soft furs. He’d changed three times before finally settling on an outfit that was both practical and becoming.

“It’s a shame the Jotnar are forbidden from visiting Asgard,” Fandral says as they begin to cross the snow-covered bridge. “I quite like our new friends, but this frigid climate suits me ill.”

“I thought it takes more than a few snowflakes to thwart you?” asks Thor, remembering how Fandral had spoken to Loki when they first met. Their banter had sparked a smoldering jealousy in Thor, and remembering it now only manages to stoke the flame.

“Ah,” says Fandral, having the grace to blush. “I suppose I underestimated just how cold it can get.”

“The terms of the peace treaty were set by my father at the end of the war,” says Thor, moving the conversation elsewhere. “Laufey agreed to them.”

“Our king does what he can to protect Asgard,” Fandral says solemnly. “Still, the treaty was drafted so long ago. The Jotnar have always abided by the terms. Now, with you and the Jotun prince growing so close, perhaps the Allfather would be willing to reconsider that single condition.”

“Fandral,” says Thor, slowing to a stop halfway across the bridge. “You should know that things with Loki are… complicated.”

“I’m sure they are,” replies Fandral, the hint of a smile playing at his lips. “You need not worry about me making them more so.”

Thor frowns, unsure of his meaning and having little patience for wordplay. “Speak plainly, my friend.”

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten the way you scolded me when we first came to Jotunheim,” Fandral says with a laugh. “As I said, you need not worry. I wouldn’t dare interfere in the love affair of two royal princes.”

Thor feels the heat rise in his cheeks. “There’s no—we’re not—”

“Come now,” say Fandral, watching Thor trip over his own words with barely-concealed amusement. “That’s why we’re on Jotunheim, is it not?”

“We are here to hunt the Beast of Glæsisvellir,” says Thor, turning away to hide his embarrassment and starting for palace once again. “Ignar tried to recruit us during the feast long before Loki even mentioned it.”

“I’m sure the Frost Giants are capable of managing one wayward animal without our assistance,” says Fandral, picking up his pace to fall in beside Thor. “Loki invited you along because he wants to spend time with you. We all caught on to that much quickly enough.”

“He wants to forge an alliance between our realms.”

“There must be more to it than that,” says Fandral. “We Aesir are not exactly held in high esteem on Jotunheim, and Laufey loves us the least of any of them. A political alliance is one thing, but a leisurely hunting expedition is quite another.”

Thor remembers the night Loki had healed his arm, confessed his secrets, and put him to sleep in his own bed. He certainly had no reason to do all that, especially not for a man he’d only just met. There was also the way Loki reacted when Thor refused his invitation to return. He’d seemed both embarrassed and disappointed at the perceived rejection, and Thor had fumbled the opportunity to reassure him that his leaving had naught to do with Loki—at least, not in the way Loki likely believed it did.

Still, it’s possible that Thor is placing too much significance on their interactions. Loki is lonely here—that much is clear—and Thor’s presence may simply be a welcome distraction from the monotony of life in Utgardhall.

Thor hasn’t forgotten Laufey’s suggestion that earning Thor’s trust might prove advantageous either, even after Grundroth expressed concern for their companionship. There are too many factors at play, and it’s difficult to determine what Loki truly makes of Thor. Norns only know what everyone else thinks of their unlikely camaraderie.

The thought makes Thor come to a halt and he turns to Fandral with narrowed eyes. “What did you mean when you said that you all caught on?”

Fandral offers Thor a sheepish smile. “The budding friendship between you and Loki has come up in conversation once or twice in recent days.”

“My mother?” asks Thor, remembering how Frigga had met him in Observatory last night. “Did she come to you?”

“Norns, no,” says Fandral with a shake of his head. “We traveled home from Muspelheim without you, Thor. You chose to return to Jotunheim, even though you were injured. Volstagg, Hogun, and I simply assumed that you had grown fond of the Jotun prince, and were not yet ready to leave him.”

“As I said, it’s complicated.” Thor glances up at the palace—the only home Loki remembers—and has the absurd urge to laugh at the understatement. “You mentioned Volstagg and Hogun, but not Sif.”

“The Lady Sif has her own suspicions,” says Fandral. “Her concerns are for the wellbeing of her prince and the safety of our realm.”

“She doesn’t trust Loki.”

“She doesn’t trust any of them,” Fandral replies with a shrug. “A few weeks ago, I would have been sure you felt the same. You must admit that it is a rather sudden—”

His remark is interrupted by the blare of a horn, startlingly loud amidst the otherwise quiet mountaintops.

The heavy iron gates are thrown open a moment later, but no one rides out to meet them as they had the last time. Instead, an armored guard stands idly by the entrance, watching Thor and Fandral make their approach.

“Back so soon, Odinson?”

Thor recognizes him. He had been part of the guard that met them on the bridge when they first came to Utgard, though he was accompanied by another rider and their commander at the time. Thor searches for Raze amongst the armored Giants in the courtyard beyond the open gates, but sees no sign of him.

“I’m here on Prince Loki’s invitation,” says Thor. “I was asked to accompany him on his journey to Glæsisvellir today.”

“This is the first time I’m hearing of it,” the guard says gruffly. “He’s expecting you?”

“Not exactly,” admits Thor. “He extended his invitation upon my departure, when I was still unsure if I would be able to take him up on his offer.”

The guard stares down at Thor for a long moment, seemingly deciding whether or not to believe him. It’s sometimes far too easy to forget just how deep the distrust between the Jotnar and the Aesir runs.

The Giant turns around to call to another one of the guards, and Thor sees Fandral reflexively wrap a gloved hand around the pommel of his sheathed sword. “Bari!” he shouts. “Get down here!”

Save for the bone-hilt seax in the travel pack on his shoulder, Thor is unarmed. He hadn’t expected to meet any hostility today, though he now hopes that Heimdall is still watching in case they need to make an escape. Tensions are brewing within Laufey’s royal household even now, and any changes in leadership here have the potential to jeopardize the delicate peace between Jotunheim and Asgard.

When the guard turns back to face them, his expression devoid of any animosity, Thor all but sags in relief.

“The party should be leaving within the next few hours,” the guard says. “I’d like to hunt this bitch down myself, but Raze left me command of the watch in his absence. Bari will escort you into the palace and notify the prince of your arrival.”

· · · · · · · · · ·

Thor and Fandral are brought into the entrance hall of Utgardhall, where Ignar, Raze, Dagny, and Hailstrum are gathered. They all have their weapons and traveling bags, and they’re suitably dressed for the journey ahead.

Loki isn’t present, but Ignar hurriedly sends a servant to go and fetch him after greeting Thor and Fandral. Hailstrum comments that Loki can likely be found sulking in his chambers, which earns him a pointed glare from Ignar.

The statement makes Thor feel uneasy, and he wonders what could have possibly transpired here between his departure and return. Whatever it may be, it’s clearly information that Ignar doesn’t want shared, so Thor doesn’t dare press the issue.

Unlike Ignar, Hailstrum looks none too pleased to see Thor. The feeling is mutual. If their fight in the sparring yard hadn’t been enough to ensure Thor’s dislike of the Giant, the fact that he’s been secretly plotting to usurp Loki’s position at court certainly would be.

The conversation in the entrance hall drifts towards Muspelheim, with Ignar wanting to know more about how they defeated Surtur and managed to steal back the Casket of Ancient Winters. Fandral indulges him with the details, but Thor is too distracted with anticipation to pay much attention to the recount.

According to the Ancient One, this is the only version of Loki that remains to Thor. The knowledge has made Thor desperate to see him again. If they can never again have the relationship they once had, he is at least determined to forge something new.

Ignar plops down on a nearby bench and uncorks a wineskin, seemingly content to wait on his cousin and listen raptly to Fandral’s story. Thor keeps his eyes fixed on the arching entryway, growing ever more impatient with each passing moment.

Thor hears Loki before he sees him.

“Ignar,” says Loki, rounding the corner into the entrance hall, “how many times must I tell you that I have no interest in—” When his gaze lands on Thor, he falls instantly silent and comes to a skidding halt.

Loki is dressed for court in soft leather boots, thin cotton leggings, and a finespun tunic. His usual gold-and-ruby circlet sits atop his head, and his hair is loosely gathered to the side where it drapes over his shoulder. He looks effortlessly attractive, and entirely unprepared for a hunting expedition.

“Thor?” he asks. “Why are you—What are you doing here?”

They had only been apart for two days, but the events of those days have taken an toll on Thor’s emotions. Simply being in Loki’s presence once again is enough to soothe some of the pain, and he finds himself smiling for the first time since arriving in Nepal yesterday.

“We came to accompany you to Glæsisvellir,” says Thor. “If your invitation still stands.”

“I—yes.” Loki’s uncertain gaze flicks between Thor and Ignar. “Of course. We were—”

“Just getting ready to leave,” Raze helpfully finishes. He turns to Thor and adds, “Loki had some last minute courtly matters to attend to this morning.”

“Right,” says Loki. “Well, that’s all taken care of now.”

The exchange is a façade—it’s clear that Loki had no plans to join the hunting party until a few moments ago—but Thor has no intention of making his conviction known. The knowledge that Loki only wants to accompany them because of Thor sends something aflutter in his stomach.

When Loki excuses himself to quickly change his clothes and grab his bow, there’s nothing else to do but wait. Hailstrum grumbles about losing daylight, but Raze insists that they have plenty of time.

Ignar warns Thor and Fandral that it’s a long way to Glæsisvellir, though not a difficult journey. They will be spending the night at the Shattered Spear, a popular inn located just outside the city proper, and at daybreak on the morrow, they will make for the wilds of Glæsisvellir to hunt their prey.

Truthfully, Thor couldn’t care less about where they go or what they do. He’s does not mind visiting Glæsisvellir—especially after Loki confessed his fondness for the coastal city—but Thor would sooner whisk his brother away to some remote place where they might be alone together.

If these next few days go well, then perhaps Loki will be willing to do just that.

It’s almost winter in Utgard, but with the Bifrost they can travel to any part of Jotunheim with ease. Thor might even be able to persuade the Allfather to allow Loki into Asgard. He thought the prospect rather unlikely given their recent conversation about Jotunheim, but Fandral’s words have some truth to them.

The treaty was drafted just after a long and difficult war, but the Jotnar have abided by the terms all this time. Thor and Loki’s tentative plans for a stronger alliance may be enough for Odin to reconsider the restrictions against them.

It’s at least worth a try.

Loki makes good on his promise to be quick, returning to the entrance hall no more than ten minutes after his departure. He’s dressed for traveling now, wearing black supple leather breeches, black riding boots, and a dark green sleeved tunic. His circlet is gone—as are the other scatterings of gold jewelry he’d been wearing only minutes ago—and the sections of hair that would usually frame his face are pulled back in a half-knot with the rest left loose to cascade down his back in a tumble of curls.

There’s no traveling bag or bow on Loki’s person, but Thor knows that whatever he needs for their journey is surely tucked away in that secret, magical place of his. Thor remembers when Loki first learned that trick from their mother. He wonders who was the one to teach it to him this time.

Ignar corks his wineskin and rises from the bench. “The time has come to embark upon our quest,” he says, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “The Giants of Glæsisvellir have been living in fear of this wretched creature for weeks, but no more. We seven are the Beast of Glæsisvellir’s doom.”

The Giants respond with a resounding cheer, with even Fandral adding his voice in the chorus after a brief moment’s hesitation. The corner of Loki’s mouth is quirked up in a half-smile, and when he meets Thor’s gaze he lifts an eyebrow, apparently finding Ignar’s theatrical proclamation as amusing Thor does.

Loki falls in beside Thor as they pass beneath the archway and down the wide corridor. The hunting expedition has seemingly garnered a fair amount of attention in Utgardhall, for every Giant they pass wishes them good fortune.

Just as they reach the palace doors, Hailstrum turns to Thor with a leering smile and says, “I hope you’re not afraid of heights, Odinson.”

· · · · · · · · · ·

In Utgard’s harbor, a moored ship waits to take the hunting party to Glæsisvellir. After departing the palace, they briefly stop by the kennels in the courtyard before crossing the stone bridge to the summit opposite Utgardhall where the path to the city lies. The winding mountain road is steep but well-traveled, and the wolves make their descent with practiced ease.

Thor’s steed, a sable-colored she-wolf named Nál, lopes down the path alongside Loki’s own silvery-grey one. Vánagandr had been gifted to Loki as a pup, and although he is slightly larger than the wolves Thor and Fandral now ride, he is not even half the size of Hailstrum’s own black beast.

Loki rides his wolf as gracefully as he once rode his Asgardian mare, and Vánagandr responds to his softly-spoken commands and gentle touches without hesitation. Thor finds himself looking at Loki more often than the path ahead, captivated by how lovely he looks beneath the brumal silver sun.

He need not even steal glances with how often Loki engages him in conversation. When the road allows them to see the valley beneath the yawning chasm, Loki tell Thor about the city’s history and geography. When Hailstrum boasts about how he will be the one to slay the Beast of Glæsisvellir, Loki looks at Thor and rolls his eyes. When Vánagandr playfully nips at Nál’s ear, Loki jests that the palace kennel master may find himself with a new litter of pups come spring.

Thor finds that the longer he’s in Loki’s company, the easier and more often his smiles come.

When they stop halfway down the mountain to give the wolves rest and water, Thor and Loki share a skin of wine. It’s sweeter than Thor likes, but it chases the chill from his bones well enough. It’s cold up here, and it will likely be even colder out at sea.

“It’s near impossible to descend the mountain during winter,” Loki says as he and Thor watch Vánagandr tussle with Nál in the snow. “Even if you could find the road beneath the snowbanks, the blizzard winds are often strong enough to carry you right over the precipice.”

Although the palace storehouses are always stocked with enough supplies to last them the season, Loki admits to growing restless as the months go on. There’s not all that much to do in the palace, according to Loki, and even the courtyards become inaccessible at the height of winter.

Thor would hate to be trapped inside for an entire season. Asgardian winters are too mild to even allow for moderate snow accumulations, and the Bifrost has always given Thor the freedom to travel anyplace he’d like. He imagines what it must be like for Loki every winter—watching the heavy snowfall through the windowpane of his tower bedchamber, as idle and lonely as a caged songbird.

When it’s time to swing up into their saddles and finish their descent, Thor and Loki bring up the rear once again. They ride side by side, exchanging stories to pass the time. More than once, Thor finds himself recounting some memory of his youth involving is brother, and he clumsily omits Loki’s role in whatever adventure he describes.

It’s midday by the time they finally reach the foot of the mountain. The road into the city is interrupted by a towering gatehouse, complete with an armory and kennel, and although the portcullis remains down during the day, royal guards pace the battlements to monitor the sparse comings and goings of Utgardhall.

It’s little wonder the Asgardian and Vanir armies were unable to take the palace during the war, although they did manage to sever Utgardhall’s supply line during the month-long siege. With no access to vital resources, Laufey had no choice but to admit defeat and surrender to Odin and Njord.

The party dismounts the wolves at the gatehouse entrance, handing the reins over to the kennel girl one by one. Before Vánagandr is led away, Loki gives him a scratch behind the ears and a whispered word of praise. Thor finds it hopelessly endearing, though unsurprising—Loki always did have a soft spot for animals.

Thor can smell the sea as soon as they pass beneath the portcullis. He says as much to Loki, who smiles and tells him that they still have a long walk until they reach the harbor. Their route loops around the edge of Utgard, and although it covers more distance, Loki and Ignar say that they will make better time than if they were to navigate through the crowded city streets.

From what Thor can see and hear on the road, Utgard as lively as any Asgardian or Vanir city. He’d like to walk through it—explore the streets and markets and neighborhoods—but he supposes there will be time for that some other day.

As they make their way down the snow-covered cobbles, Ignar explains how he arranged passage aboard Winter’s Glory, a trading galley out of Thrymheim. They will have to take a different ship home from Glæsisvellir, but Ignar insists that there will be no shortage of Utgard-bound vessels at port there.

When the harbor finally comes into view, Thor finds himself taken aback by the enormity of it all. He’d only glimpsed it from up in the mountains, where its size had been distorted by distance, but now he can see just how vast the half-frozen bay is and how colossal the ships berthed in its waters are.

Galleys, cogs, longships, carracks, and whalers fill the principal quay, but the largest ships are anchored out where the bay is deeper. On the far side of the harbor, sectioned off by the great stone pier that juts out into the bay, is yet another quay of ships. The market does not stretch near this one, and it is deserted, unlike the nearby docks which are crowded with throngs of Jotnar. When Thor asks Loki about the secondary quay and the lonely ships berthed there, he learns that the area is solely reserved for Laufey’s royal fleet of warships.

Dockworkers, sailors, oarsmen, and porters busy themselves ship-side—working the ropes, inspecting cargo ledgers, loading and unloading crates of goods—while the marketplace itself is a bustling hub of commerce.

Fishmongers haggle with customers from behind their stalls while their prentices flay and salt the day’s catch. Thor sees eels hanging from wooden racks, snappers laid out on beds of crushed ice, and barrels brimming with scrabbling crabs and lobsters. Fishwives push carts teeming with cockles and oysters and clams, their rickety wheels clacking over the wooden boards of the dock.

The best of Utgard’s establishments are located further inside the city, but there are plenty of weathered inns and shoddy taverns here for the poorer sailors to take refuge in. The hunting party goes largely unnoticed as they move through the crowds, but a few Giants allow their downcast gazes to linger upon Thor and Fandral as they pass by. Aesir are a rare sight on Jotunheim, after all.

Their ship—a two-masted, black-hulled galley with indigo sails—is berthed at the end of the quay. Rocking and swaying in her moorings, Winter’s Glory is undoubtedly larger than any seafaring vessel Thor has ever sailed upon. With two expansive decks and over three hundred oars, it’s a marvel that she even manages to stay afloat.

A longshoreman informs Ignar that Winter’s Glory will set sail on the evening tide, giving them little more than an hour to spare. Loki offers to take Thor to the other side of the harbor so he might see the royal fleet in the meantime. He gladly accepts, grateful that no one else cares to join them. Ignar, Raze, and Fandral head straight for the nearest tavern, while Hailstrum and Dagny make small talk with the sailors on the docks.

“I did not expect to see you again so soon,” Loki admits as they make their way to the other end of the harbor. “I trust all is well on Asgard?”

“When news of the Casket’s theft and your planned journey to Muspelheim reached Asgard, I set aside another matter in order to come here and offer my assistance. I returned home with the intention of completing my mission, though it didn’t turn out quite the way I had hoped.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” says Loki, frowning. “If there’s anything I can do to help—”

“Thank you, but what’s done is done. I would prefer not to dwell on it now.”

How could Thor ever begin to explain what he means to this version of Loki? He would surely think Thor either mad or a liar. Even if he were to believe it, Thor would be doing him no favors by telling him the truth. What good would the knowledge of that other life bring? Loki had killed his father, nearly destroyed Jotunheim, and attempted suicide. He had been lost in an abyss, only to be plucked up and tormented by a genocidal madman. He had been deceived, imprisoned, and murdered.

“I don’t mean to be vague,” he adds softly. “It’s complicated, Loki, but know that I’m glad to be here now.”

Loki’s answering smile is uncertain, and Thor feels a pang of guilt.

The stone pier, though somewhat eroded, is capable of withstanding even the roughest storms. It’s now otherwise deserted as Thor and Loki cross the length of it. Below them, waves beat against the rock-face where clusters of massive barnacles grow.

They stop at the edge, out in the bay, and from their vantage point they have an unobstructed view of the royal fleet. Loki names the ships in turn—Kraken’s Bane, Moonchaser, Foam Dragon, Giant’s Fury, Laufey King—and each is more formidable than the last. The largest of the fleet—Crimson Serpent—rocks at anchor in the center of the quay, her red sails billowing in the breeze. Fixed to the prow, threateningly rising up from the grey waters, is a gilded sea serpent bearing its fearsome fangs.

“There was a longship named for me in this harbor once,” Loki says as he leans back against the pillar. “I imagine the young shipwright thought it would please my father, but he was as unimpressed by the name as he was by the craftsmanship. Prince Loki sank on her maiden voyage.”

Loki’s humorless tone pricks at Thor, inspiring the absurd desire to gift Loki a ship even more splendid than any berthed here—a lean and fast galley with pale blue sails and a silver wolf’s head carved into the prow to be the envy of every captain from Gastropnir to Thrymheim.

Thor doesn’t even know a shipwright who could make such a thing. Asgard’s seas are ridden by longships, merchant vessels, and pleasure barges. The notion lingers nonetheless, and he knows that he would have an entire fleet built for Loki if he thought it would make him happy.

The courtship customs amongst the Jotnar remain a mystery to Thor, but he suspects that a ship may be a bit much, even for a crown prince.

He glances at Loki, feeling a flush creep up the back of his neck. Courtship. Fandral may very well believe that those are Thor’s intentions here, but it’s not something he has given much thought to himself.

Since walking away from the Time Stone, he’s been driven by the simple desire to be near Loki. Now that he is in his company once again, he’s unsure of what to do next.

The gentle breeze tousles Loki’s hair and the light spray of seawater clings to the mass of curls like morning dew. Thor wants to loose it from its half-knot, run his fingers through it, bury his face in it.

Loki turns his attention from Laufey’s ships to catch Thor staring at him. Their eyes meet, and Loki smiles. It’s soft and sweet and shy, piercing Thor’s heart and making something ache inside of him.

Does he know? Loki shifts against the pillar beneath the weight of Thor’s gaze, but does not look away. Does he know that I want him?

And he does want him. He’s past denying it to himself. The only question that remains is what he plans to do about it. Each time he tries to imagine what it might be like, his conscience is there to remind him of the wrongness of it all.

What would his family—his family as it once was—think of such desires? He imagines his father’s stern face glaring at him in disapproval. He imagines his mother looking away from him in shame. He tries to imagine Loki—the other Loki—but can only see him lying dead on the floor of the Statesman.

“You aren’t cold with your cloak open?”

The question startles Thor from his thoughts. It is cold, especially here by the water, but he’s been distracted enough to hardly notice it.

“I gave away my fibula,” says Thor. “I meant to replace it, but forgot to do so before leaving Asgard.”

Loki pushes off the pillar. A flash of seidr glimmers in his open palm as something gold materializes there. Loki holds the object up, allowing it to catch the sunlight, and Thor recognizes the serpent-shaped brooch at once. It’s the same one Loki wore during Laufey’s feast.

“You can use this,” he offers, closing the distance between them to gather the fabric of Thor’s cloak in his hands. “It should work well enough.”

With Loki’s gaze fixed on the cloak’s collar, Thor is suddenly hyperaware of the slight difference in their heights. He wants to tilt Loki’s chin up until their eyes meet, wrap his hand around the nape of Loki’s neck, allow his thumb to brush over the hinge of his jaw, ever so gently—

The brooch’s clasp snaps closed and Loki takes a step back. Thor brings his hand to the cool metal, tracing the serpentine shape of it with his fingertips.

“It suits you,” says Loki.

The familiarity of his words makes something unravel in Thor’s chest, and suddenly these fleeting moments of closeness are insufficient for what Thor needs. He finds himself moving towards Loki unthinkingly, wanting just to touch him, to feel him solid and real and alive in his hands.

A bell begins to toll on the dock—a solemn ringing that signals the boarding of a ship—and Thor stops in his tracks. He clenches his fists at his sides, looking away in embarrassment. What was he thinking? That he could just march up to Loki and throw his arms around him? They’ve known each other for less than a week.

Do the Jotnar even hug?

“That must be for Winter’s Glory,” Loki says softly. “Ignar will be waiting for us on the docks.” He watches Thor curiously, with the corners of his lips turned down in a slight frown.

“Right,” says Thor, looking back across the harbor to where their transport awaits. “We’d better get back.”

· · · · · · · · · ·

The captain of Winter’s Glory—a lean Giantess with a jagged purple scar beneath her left eye—is perched on the edge of the gunwale as Ignar’s hunting party climbs the gangway. “It should be calm seas and smooth sailing to Glæsisvellir,” she says, “so long as this one doesn’t summon any storms.”

The captain’s words are spoken without malice, and Thor assures her that he will do no such thing.

Once they’ve set sail, there’s naught to do but wait. Crewmen work the sails and oarsmen row at their banks, but the ship’s other passengers—merchants, supply clerks, and travelers—take to the belly of the ship where they drink and dice to pass the time.

That’s where Thor finds himself—down in the main cabin and sat at one of the bolted-down tables—after two hours of sailing. He’s between Loki and Fandral, cradling a mug of pale ale in his hands and listening to Raze and Ignar, both seated at the other side of the table, discuss the Beast of Glæsisvellir.

“I received a letter from my cousin just this morning,” says Raze. “This creature grows bolder by the day. A child was drawing water from a well two nights ago when the beast came upon him. The boy survived, but nearly lost his arm in the frenzy.”

“Is this the first time she’s actually attacked someone?” asks Fandral.

“Aye,” replies Ignar. “She tore the sleeve right off this boy’s tunic. He’s lucky his father was nearby to scare her off before she was able to do any significant damage.”

“It’s unusual,” says Loki, strumming his fingers on the table’s wooden surface and gazing through the nearby porthole. On the other side of the glass, grey waves splash against the hull. “These predators are rarely spotted in the wilderness, let alone stalking through a village.”

“There is something unnatural about her,” says Ignar. “She’s tasted Jotun blood and now no forest prey can satisfy her.”

“She has yet to make a single kill,” says Loki. “If she’s as ferocious as the villagers say she is, then it should be no difficult feat. Perhaps she’s not hunting, after all.”

“Perhaps she’s rabid,” suggests Fandral. “Mad animals oft behave strangely.”

“I don’t think she’s rabid,” says Loki. “I think she’s looking for something.”

“What could a wild beast possibly be looking for in Glæsisvellir?” asks Raze. “She’s been terrorizing this village for weeks, and even those inside the city are growing restless. It’s only a matter of time before she does kill someone.”

A low, rumbling laugh comes from behind Thor. He turns to see Hailstrum standing behind their bench, looming over them with his arms folded over his chest.

“She won’t be killing anyone,” says Hailstrum. “I’ll have the bitch’s head mounted above my hearth by tomorrow evening.”

Loki rolls his eyes before lifting the mug of ale to his lips and drinking deeply. Thor wishes Hailstrum hadn’t come along—he always has a way of souring the mood.

“Where did you leave my sister?” asks Ignar.

“Dagny’s playing at dice with a wine merchant,” says Hailstrum, circling the table to slide onto the bench beside Raze. “She claimed my presence was distracting her, so she sent me away.”

“Unlikely,” Ignar says with a snort. “This ship could be halfway to sinking and she’d still have her eyes set on her opponents purse.”

Thor watches Hailstrum—the hulking rival to Loki’s birthright—and wonders what Laufey would make of such conspiracies taking place in his own household. Loki may be right to believe that his father has little regard for him, but surely he would prefer to see his own son crowned king over his niece’s husband.

But then again, perhaps not. It’s possible that his plans for Loki lie elsewhere—related somehow to that secret prophecy—but what those plans might be remain a mystery to Thor.

“I see you left your hammer home, Odinson,” notes Hailstrum. “I’m not sure that was wise.”

“Mjølnir is effective in battle,” says Thor, “but unnecessary in a hunt.”

“The wilds of Jotunheim are dangerous,” argues Hailstrum. “You may yet encounter creatures even more dangerous than the beast we hunt.”

“I have no trouble holding my own in a fight,” says Thor, alluding to the sparring match he’d won only after he dropped Mjølnir into the mud. “I’d be happy to give you a second demonstration of that fact.”

Hailstrum holds Thor’s gaze for a long moment, then guffaws loudly enough the draw the attention of those at a nearby table. “I will give you that first victory, Odinson, but should you ever want a rematch—”

“Thor has already humiliated you once,” interrupts Loki. “He took on an entire horde of Fire Demons on Muspelheim. He brought down Surtur with a single blow. You are no match for him.”

“You seem all too boastful of the Aesir’s skill,” says Hailstrum, his face darkening. “Some may begin to question where your loyalties lie, cousin.”

“I am the Prince of Jotunheim,” hisses Loki. “It is you who should be loyal to me.”

“You are one of Jotunheim’s finest warriors, Hailstrum, but we must still give credit where it is due,” Raze says in an obvious attempt to diffuse the tension at the table. “Thor Odinson aided us in retrieving the Casket of Ancient Winters. He defeated Surtur and brought down a dragon. These are impressive feats.”

“Loki was the one to kill the dragon,” says Thor. “He solved the door to Surtur’s vault as well, which I would never have been able to break into without him. The mission would have failed were it not for Loki. He is a cunning warrior and a skilled spell-weaver. I’m sure he will make a fine king someday.”

Thor glances at Loki, surprised to see him staring back at Thor in quiet disbelief. Thor looks away and lifts the mug of ale to his lips, worried that he’s embarrassed himself by showering Loki in too much praise.

“It’s true,” adds Fandral, leaning over the table to address Loki directly. “Lady Sif would have been crushed beneath that rockslide if it were not for your intervention, as well. We were all honored to fight alongside you, Loki.”

“Thank you,” says Loki, his voice wavering only slightly. “The honor was mine.”

An uncomfortable silence falls over the table. Thor sees Ignar and Raze exchange a meaningful glance before turning their attention to their cups. Thor follows suit, draining the rest of his ale in a single gulp. Nearby, a group of gambling Giants erupt into cheers as someone wins their wager in dice.

“Your hammer is a mighty weapon,” Hailstrum says after a while, returning the conversation to where it had started. “I had hoped to see it once again. Would that I had Dwarven-made armament such as that. Nidavellir still refuses to do trade with Jotunheim, as does Alfheim.”

“Trade agreements can prove difficult,” Thor says carefully, hoping to avoid the topic of the Aesir-Jotun war. “I’m sure that new treaties and accords will be made across the realms in time.”

“We grow impatient while the Elves and Dwarves hold fast to their grudges,” says Hailstrum. “Grundroth has been working to arrange a meeting with King Njord so we might renegotiate the parameters of our trade agreements with Vanaheim. In the throne room, when you first came to Utgard, I heard you speak of strengthening the alliance between Jotunheim and Asgard. Such an alliance would certainly sway the Vanir to reason.”

“What do you know of Jotunheim’s treaties with Vanaheim?” asks Loki, his voice dangerously low and his fierce crimson gaze leveled at Hailstrum. “What could you possibly know?”

“Only what Grundroth tells me,” Hailstrum replies airily. “Such matters often fall to him, as you well know.”

Thor uselessly wishes once again that Hailstrum had never come along on this journey, noticing how Loki’s knuckles are almost white as he tightens his grip around the cup in his hands. Fandral shifts nervously at Thor’s side while Ignar and Raze are all but wincing at the direction of the conversation.

“My father would have spoken to me about this,” says Loki, looking between Hailstrum and Ignar. “I have friends on Vanaheim. I know their language, their culture, their magic. He would have sought my counsel.”

“It must have slipped his mind,” says Hailstrum, a vile smirk playing at the corner of his mouth. “Surely, he would not have purposely left you out of such plans. We all know how often the king defers to your counsel, my prince.”

Each of Hailstrum’s words are dripping with sarcasm and mockery, and Thor feels a flash of anger of on his brother’s behalf.

Loki wordlessly rises from the table—rage written across every feature of his face—and stalks off without so much as a second glance at any of the table’s occupants. Thor watches helplessly, unsure if he should follow him or leave him in peace.

“Well done,” Ignar says dryly, glaring at Hailstrum. “Loki has been imploring Laufey to assign him diplomatic responsibilities for years.”

“It’s hardly my fault,” grumbles Hailstrum. “Take it up with your father. He’s the one who insisted I ask the Aesir about our treaty with Vanaheim.”

Thor is not surprised to learn that Grundroth instructed his son-in-law to attempt negotiations—it’s clear that he aspires to see Hailstrum on the throne with Dagny ruling alongside him—but the notion that Thor would betray Loki and conspire with this would-be-usurper is laughable.

There’s no way for Grundroth to have guessed the extent of Thor’s fidelity, however. As far as the royal household is concerned, Thor and Loki have spent but a few days in each other’s company.

“The only person I intend to discuss treaty negotiations with is Loki,” says Thor. “He is heir to the throne of Jotunheim, as I am heir to Asgard.”

“Your loyalty is misplaced, Odinson.” Hailstrum leans across the table and drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Loki holds no power in court. It’s an unfortunate truth, but a truth nonetheless. You stand nothing to gain from seeking his favor. Grundroth is Laufey’s advisor, and I have Grundroth’s trust.”

“Laufey will not rule Jotunheim forever,” says Thor. “Loki will one day inherit his father’s throne.”

Thor doesn’t wait for a response. He simply glances at Fandral, who nods in understanding, then rises from the table in order to follow Loki out of the cabin.

· · · · · · · · · ·

It’s cold out on the open sea. Thor walks the deck of Winter’s Glory for what feels like a long time, finding himself just about ready to give up his search and return to the warmth of the cabin below when he finally comes upon Loki.

He’s mostly hidden amidst the casks, barrels, and crates stacked against the port gunwale, and Thor would have walked right on past him had his shimmering gold hairpin not caught his eye. Loki has his back to Thor, his arms folded over the rail, and his gaze set on the dusky horizon.

There’s no small amount of activity on this part of the deck, but none of the sailors pay Thor any mind. He approaches Loki slowly, wary of disturbing his solitude, and watches the salty breeze stir his long black hair, mussing what had been perfectly set when they left Utgardhall.

Loki’s hair had always been prone to tangling when worn long. He would often slick it down in an attempt to keep the unruly locks in place, but Thor always liked it well enough when Loki simply left it alone.

He liked how it looked in the mornings too, on the rare occasions where he was lucky enough to catch Loki right upon waking. Loki’s sleep-tousled hair made him look like some wild thing—a far cry from his usual graceful composure—though he was no less lovely for it.

A not-too-distant memory of Loki sitting up in bed, his features soft from sleep and his hair in pretty disarray, stirs something in Thor now. It’s a yearning not at all brotherly.

“You’re welcome to join me,” Loki says without turning around. “I promise not to push you overboard.”

Thor has never quite understood how Loki can sense his presence without ever needing look at him, but he’s long ago accepted that sneaking up on his brother is near-impossible. “I thought you might want to be left alone.”

“I don’t.”

Perched on the mast yard overhead is a white raven—likely escaped from one of the wicker cages in the cabin—and it caws noisily as Thor approaches the gunwale to take his place beside Loki.

He leans his forearms on the rail, mirroring Loki’s stance, and looks out over the edge of Winter’s Glory and across the sea.

The overcast sky makes for a dull and blurry sunset, but it’s a nice enough view nonetheless. The galley cuts through the tide, turning the grey waves around the hull white with foam. There are glacial landscapes in the nearby distance, barely visible through the settling fog, with smaller floes and icebergs strewn across the open waters.

“I’m sure it pales in comparison to Asgard,” says Loki, “but I’ve always liked watching the sun set over the sea.”

Thor studies Loki’s profile—the familiar shape of his nose, the violet tint of his thin lips, the delicate ridges marking his pale blue skin—for a long moment, then returns his gaze to the horizon. “Our worlds are rather different,” says Thor, “but Jotunheim has its own sort of beauty.”

Loki hums his agreement, absently picking at a wooden splinter on the rail. Thor thinks about bringing Loki to Asgard once again, realizing now how much he wants to do so.

There’s so much Thor wants to show him—the clear blue waters of the Fensalir springs, the colorful wildflowers of the Fólkvangr meadows, the starry sky beneath the Rainbow Bridge, the vibrant woodlands of Thrúðvangr—though it still stings to know that it will be the first time for him. Thor’s happiest memories are of days spent on Asgard with his brother, and now those memories belong to Thor alone.

I must stop comparing him to the other Loki, he thinks. There is no other Loki. This is all that is left. I must come to know him for who he now is, rather than who he once was.

“I’m not nearly as ambitious as you might believe me to be,” says Loki. “I do not lust after power for power’s sake. I have spoken with my father about renegotiating our peace treaties and trade agreements countless times over the centuries—all to no avail. The thought that he and Grundroth would allow a witless oaf such as Hailstrum to speak on behalf of Jotunheim is unconscionable.”

Loki’s voice is tight with anger, but he falls quiet upon glancing sidelong at Thor. Their eyes meet for only a moment, but it’s long enough for Thor to see that there’s sadness stirring beneath the fury there. Thor recognizes the look in his eyes easily enough, though he’s only ever seen it in shades of green before.

When Loki continues, his voice is once again steady and calm. “They have deemed me unworthy of the throne without ever allowing me the chance to prove myself. Not even retrieving the Casket of Ancient Winters could change their opinion of me.”

Thor wishes he knew the words to temper his rage and soothe his hurt. Guilt roils within him as he remembers how his brother had found himself in a similar position in another life on Asgard. Despite all that happened in their other life, Thor thinks that this Loki would make a good king if given the chance to grow into the role.

“I don’t expect you to understand,” Loki says with a sigh. “You don’t know what it’s like to have your claim challenged, to learn that your birthright is nothing more than a lie.”

Thor thinks about the history of his own kingship, feeling suddenly smothered by memories of events that will never come to pass. Odin banishing him, Loki striking him with Gungnir, Hela slaughtering their people without mercy, Brunnhilde hosting what passed for a coronation aboard the Statesman.

Loki had been standing beside the command chair that day, and when their eyes met, he gave Thor a private, reassuring smile.

“I will support your claim to the throne,” says Thor. “I cannot promise you the Einherjar—as they are under my father’s command—but you will have me, at the least.”

“That’s quite a lot more than you bargained for when you suggested an alliance between us,” says Loki, turning back to Thor once again. “That’s more than I would ask of you.”

“You didn’t ask,” says Thor. “Besides, isn’t this the very point of an alliance between the two of us?”

“As you just heard, my influence at court is negligible at best. You’d be better off striking some arrangement with Hailstrum. Forging an alliance with me would just be a waste of your time.”

“It’s not a waste of time. This alliance is important to me, but it’s not the only reason I’m here.” A crease forms between Loki’s eyebrows as he awaits an explanation and, remembering Fandral’s words, Thor presses forward with as much boldness as he can muster. “I’m here to spend time with you, Loki. I’m here because I want to come to know you.”

A faint lilac blush creeps into Loki’s complexion as he drops his gaze, running a hand through his wind-swept curls. Loki blushes so prettily—he always has—and Thor’s fingers tingle with the urge to reach out and touch him.

“You are ever surprising, Thor Odinson.”

Thor smiles, pleased to see that his words are able to have such an effect on Loki. His mood seems to have improved since the altercation with Hailstrum as well, and Thor thinks that the less time they spend in his company, the happier they will both be for it.

“Let’s return to the cabin,” Loki says after a moment. “You must be freezing up here.”

The white raven caws lowly once again as Thor and Loki leave their spot to make for the center of the ship. They walk side by side, salt crunching beneath their boots and and wind kicking up their hair. It’s a long walk, and Thor wonders how much time it would take them to cross the entire length of Winter’s Glory from bow to stern.

A horn sounds down ship before they reach the cabin ladder. It’s a long, bellowing note that slows both Thor and Loki’s pace, and it’s quickly followed by two subsequent blares.

Thor looks to Loki questioningly, but his brother only shrugs. “An iceberg, perhaps. We’ll be approaching Glæsisvellir rather soon, so there should be no concern for—”

A large group of sailors come bounding towards them before Loki can finish his statement, and he grabs Thor’s arm to pull him out of the way of the Giants’ stampede. Each of the sailors are armed, and the two bringing up the rear cart a ballista between them.

Loki calls out to them, but no one pays him any mind. The horn sounds again—low, shuddering, ominous—and Thor feels currents of electricity pulsing just below his skin. Something is happening, something dangerous, and even Loki looks worried.

A cabin boy comes trailing after the group of sailors, panting with the weight of the long harpoon he carries in both arms. “What’s happened?” asks Loki, intersecting the boy’s path and making him come to a stuttering halt, nearly dropping the harpoon onto the deck in surprise.

“Kraken sighted off the starboard quarter,” he replies breathlessly.

Loki steps out of the way, allowing the boy to race after the others. A wordless agreement passes between Thor and Loki before they break into a run after the boy and towards the quarterdeck.

· · · · · · · · · ·

Loki hoists himself up onto the rail, holding onto the ropes with one hand for purchase as the captain hands him a bronze spyglass. The quarterdeck is crowded with sailors, many of them armed with harpoons. There’s no sign of Ignar and the others up here, but they may not have heard the horn sound from belowdecks.

“I don’t see anything,” Loki says as he lowers the spyglass. “There’s not even a disturbance in the surf.”

“How certain are you that what you saw was a kraken?” the captain asks the barrelman who had just climbed down from the crow’s nest. “Is there any chance that it could have been something else? A whale, perhaps?”

“I know what a whale looks like,” he huffs, “and this was no whale.”

The captain frowns at his response. “How far out at sea was it?”

“It was close enough for me to sound the horn six times, Captain.”

The captain’s frown deepens. She looks around at the armed Giants gathered on the quarterdeck, presumably taking a mental inventory of their manpower and weaponry.

“We have passed by krakens unnoticed before,” she says. “We will hopefully do so again today. We are but an hour out from Glæsisvellir, and our oarsmen are rowing hard. Keep your eyes on the sea and stay vigilant.”

Thor takes a few steps closer to the gunwale until he’s beside Loki and able to look up at him. “How often do krakens attack your ships?”

“A few harpoons are usually enough to scare them off,” says Loki, “but it’s near impossible to see their approach at night. They are cunning creatures. When they strike unawares, the ship usually goes down within a matter of minutes.”

“I take it you haven’t had the misfortune of being aboard a ship wrecked by a kraken?”

“Luckily for me, I have not. My father has, though he managed to slay the beast as it began to tear apart the ship. It sunk all the same, but no men died that day.”

Thor hates to admit it, but Laufey battling such a monstrous creature—and winning—is undoubtedly impressive. Thor has faced off against Surtur’s dragon twice and lived to tell the tale, but fighting a sea monster from the deck of a ship seems an especially difficult challenge. Thor has never seen a kraken with his own eyes, but he knows that they are notoriously deadly.

Loki makes no move to drop down from the gunwale, keeping his hand tightly wrapped around the forestay rope and his eyes fixed on the open sea. To Thor’s right, a scattering of armed crewmen keep watch, and down the length of the ship, sailors pace the decks with their harpoons at the ready.

The ballista is set up in the center of the quarterdeck, a heap of iron bolts piled beside it.

“Have you ever seen one?” asks Thor. “Even at a distance?”

Loki looks just about to answer when the entire ship tilts back suddenly, causing a sickly flip in the pit of Thor’s stomach as the starboard gunwale lifts high into the air. He clutches at the rail tightly as the few Giants that had been standing beside him go toppling backwards, sliding down the deck towards the port side of the quarterdeck.

Loki yelps as he loses his balance, boots slipping clear off the rail. He tries in vain to grasp at the ropes with his free hand, but gravity wins and he drops through the air. Thor keeps one hand tightly wrapped around the rail as he reaches for Loki, just barely managing to catch him with one arm.

“I’ve got you,” he says as Loki scrambles to wrap his arms around Thor. “I’ve got you.”

The ship’s starboard side begins to drop down once again, and Loki tightens his hold around Thor as the hull hits the sea’s surface. A great splash floods up over the gunwale from the force of contact, covering Thor and Loki in numbingly-cold saltwater.

The ship’s rocking slows, but Thor remains hesitant to release either the rail or Loki. His eyes stinging from the salt, he looks down-ship to see the mad frenzy. Thor hears the captain’s voice somewhere amidst the shouting, but he fails to glimpse her in the crowd of scrambling Giants.

What he does see is an enormous maroon-colored tentacle reaching over the port gunwale to wrap around the foremast.

The kraken must have sunk back beneath the waves and swam underneath the ship’s hull to attack their flank. Loki had said they were cunning, but its ability to plot such a strategic maneuver is undoubtedly frightening.

Loki releases Thor, taking hold of the rail and staring wide-eyed at the thick tentacle as it winds around the mast. The wood cracks and splinters loudly beneath its grasp, and the flurry of harpoon strikes launched by the crewmen fails to deter the kraken from its goal.

A shiver of electricity pulses over Thor’s skin. He releases the rail and starts towards the mast—ready for the fight—but Loki grabs his arm to stop him. “You can’t summon the storm,” he says. “Not here.”

Thor meets Loki’s frantic gaze and nods in understanding. He knows that a storm at sea could prove just as disastrous as a kraken attack, so he struggles to quell that which comes as second-nature to him.

With Loki still gripping his arm tightly, he scans the deserted quarterdeck for a stray harpoon that he might take up, but something else catches his attention first.

The ballista.

It lies on its side, having toppled over and slid outboard until it crashed into the railing of the quarterdeck. Despite the collision, it looks otherwise intact. Thor wonders what happened to the two Giants that were manning it. Perhaps they were thrown overboard when the kraken first grabbed hold of Winter’s Glory.

Loki follows Thor’s gaze to the ballista, and understanding dawns on his face at once. “Do you think you can manage to stand it upright on your own?” he asks. “I’ll gather as many bolts as I can find in the meantime.”

Another one of the kraken’s tentacles rises from the water ahead of them, veering up over the port side and sending the ship to rocking once again. “We must hurry,” says Thor.

After they part ways, Thor carefully crosses the flooded quarterdeck, ice-cold seawater sloshing up over his boots.

Rightening the ballista while the ship rocks and sways in the kraken’s grasp is no easy feat. Thor struggles to maintain his balance—slipping in the ankle-deep water and sprawling to the deck more than once—but by the time Loki makes his way to him with three bolts cradled in his arms, the ballista is finally upright and turned towards commotion.

The mast is broken—its sail tattered and its lines tangled—but the kraken keeps a firm hold on it. Harpoons cover the tentacle like needles in a pincushion. Meanwhile, the other tentacle flails wildly, slamming against the deck and sending Giants scattering as it searches for a second object to grasp.

Thor and Loki load the bolt into the ballista together, a task made difficult by the size of it. Once it’s loaded, Thor takes careful hold of its handles, tilting the weapon upwards. “Not too high,” says Loki. “You want to strike the part of the tentacle that’s closest to the kraken’s body.”

“Got it,” says Thor, trusting Loki’s directions. He steadies his aim, takes a deep breath, and releases the trigger.

The bolt pierces the tentacle where it’s wrapped around the lowest part of the mast. Droplets of blood spray across the deck and the ship shakes violently in the water, but the kraken does not release its grip.

Loki helps Thor reload and urges him to strike the same place again, but when Thor aims and fires, he misses his shot entirely.

He half-expects Loki to yell at him for it, but he does no such thing. After the last bolt is set into the ballista, Loki simply places a gentle hand on Thor’s shoulder and says, “You’ve got this.”

Thor pulls the handles forward, gaze flitting between the two visible tentacles—the one wrapped around the mast and the one rising and falling through the air as it searches for purchase.

Thor steadies his aim, tightens his hold on the trigger, and waits.

When the second tentacle finally passes through the window of his aim, Thor releases the trigger. The bolt soars through the air, first piercing the freely-moving appendage—passing through it completely—before striking the one still wrapped around the splintered mast.

The kraken thrashes, shaking the ship and sending Thor, Loki, and the ballista sliding across the deck. The mast is released at once, however, and the tentacles begin to recoil back towards the port gunwale.

The nearby Giants strike the retreating kraken with their harpoons, cheering and shouting as they secure their victory.

Loki helps Thor to his feet, steadying him as Winter’s Glory ceases its rocking. They make their way to the port rail just in time to lean over the edge and see the tentacles sink below the foaming water’s blood-tinted surface.

There are at least six Giants overboard, but the crewmen down-ship are already tossing rescue lines into the water. Thor wraps his arms around himself, shivering as he surveys the disarray. “Will we make it to Glæsisvellir with only two sails?”

“Two sails and three hundred oars,” says Loki, reaching out to touch Thor’s trembling hand. “I’m more concerned about you than the ship.”

Thor’s clothes are thoroughly soaked, and his wet hair is already frozen stiff in the frigid air. The rush of adrenaline had kept him from noticing how utterly-fucking-cold he’s been, but now that the kraken has retreated and the fighting has ceased, the intensity is startling.

“I’m okay,” he says, though the chattering of his teeth betrays him. “I’ll be fine.”

Loki closes the marginal distance between them, releasing Thor’s hand only to raise it to his face. He cups his cheek gently, making Thor’s heart beat wildly in his chest. Unthinkingly, Thor covers Loki’s hand with his own and lets his eyes flutter closed.

A shimmer of seidr, accompanied by a blissful warmth, begins to bloom where Loki touches him. Ever so slowly, it spreads through Thor’s entire body, chasing away the chill as it dries his skin, hair, and clothing.

When Thor opens his eyes, he finds Loki watching him with an impossibly tender expression. It sends a shiver up Thor’s spine despite the warmth of Loki’s spell.

Belatedly, Thor realizes that he’s still pressing Loki’s hand to his cheek. He releases it at once, dropping his arm and letting it dangle uselessly at his side. “I didn’t know you could do that,” he says.

“I know a great many spells.” Loki’s fingertips brush through the bristles of Thor’s beard as he pulls his hand away, and the touch reminds Thor of the dream he’d had the night he slept in Loki’s bed. “You’ve hardly seen the extent of my magic. We’ve only known each other a few days, after all.”

“It doesn’t feel that way,” Thor says before he can stop himself. “It feels like I’ve known you forever.”

He knows that he shouldn’t say such things, but Loki’s reaction is enough to make the risk seem worth it. He smiles, ducking his head to hide the lilac blush rising in his cheeks, and looks up at Thor through dark eyelashes.

Thor wants so badly to kiss him that the weight of his desire makes his knees weak.

A loud crash from down-ship startles them both. The top of the broken foremast now lies on the deck, a crowd of Giants surrounding the torn and tangled indigo sail. Judging from the lack of chaos on the deck, the sailors brought the mast down themselves rather than let it come falling down upon on them later.

“I’d like to have a word with the captain,” Loki says as he runs a hand through the tangled mess of his hair. “We’d better find Ignar and the others as well, lest they think something disastrous has befallen us. I wouldn’t want to give Hailstrum any cause for premature celebration.”

Thor nods his agreement, futilely wishing that they were anywhere else. He wants nothing more than to take Loki into his arms and kiss him breathless. Something about the way Loki was looking at him just a moment ago makes Thor think that he’d even allow it.

As they descend the steps of the quarterdeck, a loud caw draws Thor’s gaze upwards.

Preening and chattering on the swaying ratline is the same white raven from before, only it's now flanked by two silent black ones. Thor can feel their gaze on him, and it makes dread coil in the pit of his stomach.

Chapter Text

The common room of the Shattered Spear is warm and welcoming. Chairs and benches surround the mismatched tables, wooden casks line the smooth stone walls, and candles flicker serenely in the iron-wrought chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

Young Giantesses flutter about the room carrying flagons of wine, tankards of ale, and platters of food. Behind the bar, a door opens to a noisy kitchen where savory-smelling meals are prepared by the inn’s resident cooks.

There’s one large hearth in the center of the room as well as a few smaller ones for the townsfolk and travelers present to warm themselves beside. One such fireplace is located at the very back of the common room, in a somewhat secluded sitting area nestled beneath the stairs.

This is where the innkeep leads the hunting party. She waves a dirty dishrag at the guests gathered around the table or in front of the fire there, ordering them to make room for the prince and his companions.

Once seated, they sup on hearty fish stew and freshly-baked bread, the conversation at the table dwindling down to nothing as they eat their fill. The journey—including the kraken attack on Winter’s Glory—had left Thor hungry enough to rival even Hailstrum’s appetite.

As he finishes his third trencher—dunking a heel of bread into what remains of the stew and drowning it in the thick broth—he watches Loki absently twirl his spoon and strum his fingertips against the table’s surface. He looks deep in thought. Thor wants to ask what’s on his mind, but he suspects that Loki will not be very forthcoming in Hailstrum’s presence.

Thor washes down his meal with a dark ale. Rich and autumnal, it’s the best drink he’s yet had on Jotunheim. He drains the oversized mug quickly in his eagerness to take the hot bath that the innkeep promised would be made ready for him in his room.

The serving girl that eventually comes to escort Thor upstairs informs him that his own princely status has awarded him one of the best rooms in the house. It’s second only to the one reserved for Loki, which is located directly below Thor’s on the first floor.

The room is elegant and spacious, with high ceilings and large windows. Horned sconces line the tapestried walls, thick fur blankets cover the four-poster bed, and the hearth burns low, keeping the air comfortably warm. The bathtub stands in the corner, and Thor can smell the fragrant oils scenting the steaming water from the doorway.

He thanks the Giantess with a gold coin, which she accepts hesitantly, holding it up to the light to better see the Allfather’s impression. Thor belatedly wonders if the Jotnar might have some moral objection to accepting Asgardian capital, but after she bites the edge of the coin and notes the marks her teeth make in the metal, she smiles. Gold is gold, after all, and it can always be melted down and shaped anew. She gives Thor a quick curtsey before slipping the coin into the pocket of her apron and vacating the room.

Once the door is closed and locked, Thor strips out of his clothes, climbs into the oversized tub, and sinks into the blissfully hot water. The sun had set by the time they reached Glæsisvellir’s harbor, and the curtained wolf-drawn carriages that brought them to the inn had provided little in the way of warmth.

Thor tilts his head back to rest it against the rim of the tub, sighing as the water melts the tension from his muscles. While his body begins to relax, his mind remains troubled.

Huginn and Muninn had been aboard Winter’s Glory.

Odin’s ravens had watched Loki use his magic on Thor from the ratline, but they haven’t made an appearance since. It would have been impossible to spot them beneath the cover of night during the ride to Glæsisvellir, so there’s no way to know if they’ve yet returned to their master.

Thor hadn’t been surprised to learn that Odin sent his spies to Jotunheim. The Allfather was unlikely to forget their argument so soon—nor forgive Thor for his defiance. Laufey and Odin’s animosity runs deep, and Norns only know what they now make of the unlikely friendship blossoming between their sons.

It’s difficult enough to accept the fact that Loki is no longer a part of his family, but the prospect of having to defend their companionship to Odin strikes him as particularly absurd. Regardless of how strained Loki’s relationship with Odin had been in their final years, he was still his father.

Your father, Loki had once corrected him. He did tell you my true parentage, did he not?

He had, though not at any great length. Frigga was the one to tell Thor the details of how Loki came to be part of their family. Thinking on it now, Thor realizes that although Odin and Frigga mourned Loki after he fell from the Rainbow Bridge, they never seemed to express any remorse for what their lies had wrought.

Loki had called himself Odinson in his final moments—had looked right at Thor as he said it—but he’d also called himself the rightful king of Jotunheim. How, exactly, he came to reconcile those two facets of his identity will forever remain a mystery to Thor. Loki’s parentage had only ever come up between them in passing, and Thor never tried to understand the depth of betrayal his brother must have felt after he learned the truth.

Thor doesn’t want to think about this. What good does it do? Nothing of that life exists anymore. He holds his breath and sinks further into the tub, completely submerging himself in the water where he can listen to the steady rhythm of his heartbeat.

Closing his eyes, he fills his mind with thoughts of Loki—not the brother he lost, but the Jotun prince in the room just below his, soaking in a bath of his own and completely oblivious to the life they once shared.

By the time Thor comes up for air, the storm in his heart has all but dissipated. He grabs the soap off the little silver tray beside the tub and lathers himself in sudsy bubbles, scrubbing away the dirt from beneath his fingernails and detangling his long hair.

Thor only climbs out of the bath once the water has gone cold. He wraps himself in a towel that might as well be a blanket for how large it is and plops down onto the floor in front of the fireplace. He doesn’t dare go to the bed, knowing that he’d easily fall asleep the moment his head were to touch the pillows. There will be time for rest later—right now, he wants to get dressed and meet Loki back downstairs.

The others will be there as well, but Thor can’t bring himself to mind. He refuses to let even Hailstrum’s unwelcome presence spoil the evening. Not after the way Loki had been looking at Thor aboard the ship just a few hours ago.

Thor rises from his spot by the fireplace, leaving the damp towel to lie in a heap on the floor, and goes to the bed where his traveling bag sits. He didn’t bring any finery upon this trip, but he did pack a few handsome garments that will suit the evening well enough.

He pulls on a dark red tunic and black cotton breeches before sliding into a pair of soft-soled doeskin slippers. Once dressed, he combs his hair until it shines like spun gold, neatly tying half of it back with a leather band and leaving a few strands loose to frame his face.

He has always liked his hair—mostly because of how similar it is to Frigga’s—and as he plaits a small section of it into a braid, he remembers how Loki used to like to do this for him.

Once satisfied with how he looks, Thor returns to the bed where his belongings have been haphazardly strewn across the mattress. Amidst the articles of clothing is a small box wrapped in black paper and tied with a satin ribbon of shimmering gold.

It’s warm enough inside the Shattered Spear for Thor to forego his hooded shawl, but he decides to carry it with him downstairs anyway so that he might keep the box tucked into its folds until he finds the right moment to give it to Loki.

Thor looks at the box wistfully, remembering all the other gifts he’s given his brother over the centuries. Jewels and trinkets. Sweets and wines. Books and daggers. Now, this small thing is the first gift Loki will ever receive from him. It will hopefully be the first of many, but the bittersweetness of the gesture makes something ache inside him nonetheless.

· · · · · · · · · ·

Birchwood logs crackle softly in the small hearth beneath the stairs of the common room. The hunting party makes good use of the armchairs and sofas that have been arranged around the fire as they drink and converse amongst themselves. Ignar and Dagny have been recounting some adventure from their childhood—arguing over the details as they do so—but Thor had stopped paying attention to their story some time ago.

He leans back against the worn leather cushions of the sofa he shares with Loki and drinks deeply from his mug of ale. Beside him, Loki sips wine from a silver chalice as his eyes flick between Ignar and Dagny, a small smile playing at his lips as he listens to their story.

Loki had kicked his slippers off at some point, and he now sits with one bare foot tucked beneath him and the other dangling over the edge of the sofa. He’s dressed in maddeningly little—thin black leggings that only reach halfway down his calves and a nearly-sheer tunic with sleeves that hang off his shoulders—while his hair falls in a lazy tumble of curls, still damp at the ends from his recent bath.

Thor can hardly keep his eyes off him.

Everything from the scent of his bath oils to the delicate gold bangle around his ankle is distracting, and Thor is helpless to deny to himself how utterly alluring he finds Loki tonight. It should shame him more than it does—the depravity of lusting after his own brother—but what does it matter if no one else knows what they once were to each other?

There are a hundred reasons why courting the male heir of a rival kingdom is a dangerous prospect, but each one pales in comparison to what it would have meant in their past life. While such things are commonplace on Vanaheim—where even the king took his sister to wife—Asgardian laws are explicit in their forbiddance of incestuous relationships.

It’s a concern that exists no longer; not a soul in the galaxy is even aware that they were once brothers. Odin would certainly have plenty of objections if he were to learn the extent of Thor’s affections, but any misgivings would be rooted in politics and prejudice rather than official ordinances.

Ignar rises from his seat to show off a silvery-purple scar that runs along his ribcage. “A parting gift from the witch’s fylgja,” he says with a laugh, “but we made off with the treasure all the same.”

Thor frowns, a bit sorry to have missed the climax of what sounds like an exciting tale. A serving girl crouches down beside him to refill his cup as he listens to Dagny lament the fact she had to carry Ignar down the mountain on her back after he sustained his injury.

“That was a good story,” says Hailstrum, wiping foam from his upper lip and holding his mug out for a refill, “but it’s one I have heard before. I think it’s the Asgardians’ turn to entertain us.”

To Thor’s relief, Fandral volunteers himself for the role, and begins to tell the story of a post-battle victory celebration on Nidavellir some centuries ago. It’s a battle that Thor remembers well, but not quite the way that Fandral does.

Soon after Thor had come of age, an army of raiders from outside the Nine Realms invaded Nidavellir. While the Dwarves are the most skilled blacksmiths in the galaxy, they have never been known for their own prowess in battle; thus, when the raiders came to plunder their reserves of armor and weaponry, it was the Einherjar of Asgard that came to their defense.

Odin often saw interplanetary crises as learning opportunities for his sons—the invasion of Nidavellir being no exception—and Thor was given command of the Asgardian host dispatched to the Dwarven home-world.

These events were, evidently, more or less the same in both the present timeline and the one that Thor lived through himself. The discrepancies only lie in what happened after the Asgardians arrived on Nidavellir.

According to Fandral, the campaign was over in a single afternoon and the victory celebrations lasted a fortnight, but what Thor remembers is an arduous three-day conflict that was only won once Odin sent reinforcements to join Thor’s host.

Loki had not been present for the battle in either instance.

While this Loki—son of Laufey and Prince of Jotunheim—was characteristically isolated from the interplanetary affairs of the other realms, the other Loki—son of Odin and Prince of Asgard—was in Vanaheim’s athenaeum studying seidr alongside Vanir and Asgardian sorcerers.

It was something he did often, and Thor always missed him while he was gone. Loki had already been on Vanaheim for nearly three months when the raiders came to Nidavellir, but when Thor sent word to his brother asking him to join him in battle, his message went unanswered.

His three subsequent messages—each more insistent than the last—were ignored as well.

Thor was still inexperienced when it came to leading warriors into battle on his own, and the campaign was made all the more difficult without his brother there to counsel him and fight at his side. He second-guessed himself at every turn, resulting in a series of tactical blunders. Even Mjølnir felt heavy and clumsy in his hand when he fought.

The fact that Loki did not so much as deign to provide some excuse as to why he would not come when Thor needed him stung like salt in a wound.

After three days of combat, the Bifrost finally opened and the remainder of Asgard’s forces came pouring onto the steel battlefield of Nidavellir’s orbital ring. Although the opposition was swiftly defeated, there were no victory celebrations that night. The raiders were put in chains, the dead were laid to rest, and talks of reconstruction began.

No one would say as much, but Thor knew that he had failed. Odin had kept back his reinforcements in the hopes that his son would prevail and prove himself a worthy warrior-king, but in the end, Thor couldn’t do it on his own. He still had too much to learn.

That night in camp, as Thor lay awake nursing his wounds and sulking in self-pity, Loki finally appeared at the entrance of his tent.

His hair was longer than it was the last time Thor had seen it and he was dressed in Vanir-style armor instead of his usual Asgardian regalia, but he looked otherwise the same as he always did. For a moment, Thor was so glad to see him that he forgot how angry he was about his refusal to come to Thor’s aid.

What are you doing here?

Thor nearly winced at the bitterness in his own voice, but Loki only closed the flap to the tent and strolled towards the cot, his boots whispering through the rushes on the floor.

I heard that my foolhardy brother was injured in battle, said Loki. I came to check on him.

You could have come three days ago.

I could have, admitted Loki, but it would have been in defiance of our father.

Thor closed his eyes, the revelation that Loki hadn’t simply abandoned him in favor of whatever—or whoever—preoccupied him on Vanaheim making him breathe a sigh relief. It never occurred to him that Loki’s absence might have been by Odin’s design.

As you can see, said Thor, your foolhardy brother is still very much alive. Are you relieved?

What a stupid question, said Loki. Where is the healer?

I sent her away to treat the rest of the wounded, said Thor. There are many warriors with far worse injuries than mine, and the prisoners we took need tending to as well.

Loki used his magic to brighten the tent’s solitary lantern as he settled onto the edge of Thor’s cot. Then, he gingerly lifted the poulticed bandage off Thor’s abdomen to inspect the gash there. You’re a terrible liar, brother. It would have taken no more than a few minutes to heal this.

I’m not lying, huffed Thor. It hardly hurts at all, anyway.

Loki lifted an eyebrow. It looks like it hurts quite a bit, he said. This is the work of a Sivian blade, is it not?

Thor felt the childish urge to tell Loki that the strike had cost his Sivian attacker his life, but he held his tongue at the last second. It was not at all the time for boasting. Thor turned his head away from the light—away from Loki—and felt the shame of the last few days reach a crescendo.

Healing magic spilled over Thor’s flesh without warning as Loki began working his seidr into the wound. You shouldn’t be punishing yourself for one campaign gone awry, said Loki. Failures are lessons learned, as Mother would say.

Thor scoffed. Tell that to the warriors who went to their deaths.

They would not hear me over the merry din of Valhalla’s feasting halls, said Loki. You did your best. Next time, you will do better.

Once he was finished, Loki applied a clean bandage to the wound. It wasn’t completely healed—restorative magic was never one of Loki’s primary interests, and so he only developed his skills so far—but it already felt much better than it had before he saw to it.

Will you be returning to Vanaheim now, brother?

Not anytime soon, said Loki. I’ll be staying on Nidavellir to assist with the reconstruction efforts until the Dwarves decide they no longer have need of us.

Where is your tent?

I don’t have one yet, said Loki. I’m sure I’ll find something here in camp.

You can stay in mine.

Loki looked around the tent, pointedly addressing the lack of a second cot or bedroll, but Thor simply scooted to the edge of his own to make room for his brother.

After a brief moment of consideration, Loki discarded his intricate armor in favor of soft cotton breeches with nothing more than a wave of his hand and a flash of green. From that secret place of his, he drew forth an overstuffed canvas rucksack, which he slid under the cot before lying down beside Thor.

What’s in there?

Books, answered Loki, extinguishing the flickering lantern and pulling the wool blanket up over them both.

Loki didn’t seem eager to elaborate, but the rucksack piqued Thor’s curiosity and provided a welcome distraction from his numerous failures. What sort of books?

Very old books, said Loki, rolling onto his side with a yawn. Go to sleep, brother.

They were already pressed together ankle to shoulder when Thor slung an arm over Loki’s waist. The two of them had shared a bed more times than Thor could count, but it had been a very long time since they shared one so small, and it was more comfortable to lie with his arm around him this way.

I missed you, Loki.

There was no response, but Thor couldn’t tell if Loki had already fallen asleep or was simply faking it. He let his eyes fall closed and tried to focus on his brother’s calming presence.

The warmth of his body beneath the blanket. The sound of his quiet, even breaths. The flowery scent of bath oils clinging to his hair.

Loki’s reply finally came just as Thor began to drift off to sleep. I missed you too, he whispered softly. I’m sorry that I wasn’t here.

Hailstrum’s roar of laughter draws Thor back to the present, where Fandral has just finished recounting his own version of the events that followed the battle—to the amusement of the Giants gathered around the fire.

“You should have brought Sif along on this hunt,” says Hailstrum. “There will certainly be a great celebration tomorrow, once the Beast of Glæsisvellir has been slain.”

“I can hardly imagine her having so much fun,” says Dagny. “She seemed to me entirely humorless.”

Although Thor has given plenty of consideration to Loki’s new life, he has barely thought about how different his own history must be due to his brother’s absence in it. Why does Thor alone carry the knowledge of the timeline he came from? Shouldn’t his memories have been replaced along with everyone else’s? Even those who were present when the Time Stone was used seem to have no recollection of recent years.

It’s like he slipped into someone else’s life.

He drinks deeply from his frothing mug of ale, eyeing Fandral over the rim and wondering if he finds Thor at all changed. He may have been raised in the same realm by the same parents, but surely growing up without his brother—his constant companion and closest confidant—would have affected the development of his personality in some way or another.

How could he have been the one to celebrate with Sif and the Warriors Three on Nidavellir all those years ago if he has no memory of it? He thinks of falling asleep curled around Loki beneath a threadbare blanket, a canvas rucksack filled with ancient books—books, he later learned, that dealt with souls and the afterlife—tucked beneath their shared cot.

Thor glances at Loki only to find him already staring back at him with a frown. Thor’s unease must be written all over his face. He forces himself to smile despite feeling now more than ever that he doesn’t belong here.

“Sif is a noble lady and an honorable warrior,” says Thor, “but she enjoys the excitement and entertainment of a good victory as much as the next Asgardian. Fandral, what do you remember of the Battle of Harokin?”

· · · · · · · · · ·

The hour grows late, and one by one the members of the hunting party retire for the evening until only Thor and Loki are left seated by the hearth. There still remains a scattering of other travelers dispersed throughout the common room, but they are far enough away for Thor to feel that he and Loki have some small amount of privacy on their shared sofa.

Fandral had been the last to leave them, waggling his eyebrows suggestively at Thor before making for the stairs. Loki—who had been helping himself to the flagon of red wine left on the side table—had failed to notice both Fandral’s gesture and Thor’s resulting flush of embarrassment.

That was some minutes ago, and Thor and Loki now sit in a silence that grows more awkward the longer it goes on.

They had once been able to comfortably pass the time in each other’s company without so much as a word spoken between them. How many afternoons did Thor spend in Loki’s chambers, sprawled out across the bed, listening to Loki practice the harp as warm sunlight poured in through the open windows? And how many evenings found Loki in Thor’s chambers, curled up with a book in the worn leather armchair beside the fireplace while Thor sat on the floor and polished Mjølnir with a lightly-oiled rag?

Thor takes a long drink to wash down the memories.

“I’m not going to have to carry you to your room tonight, am I?” Loki asks as he watches Thor drain his mug. “The stairs may prove problematic.”

“It would take much more than this to get me drunk, unless you’ve somehow slipped more of that elixir into my ale.”

“I meant only to lessen the severity of your pain,” says Loki. “As I’ve said before, I had no choice but to approximate the dosage for an Asgardian.”

“You approximated wrong.”

“I assure you, I had no intentions of relieving you of your faculties.” He pauses, smiling mischievously over the rim of his goblet. “It was rather amusing, though.”

“Amusing for you,” says Thor, but he can’t help but smile too. Despite all of his teasing, Loki had taken gentle care of him that night, even bringing Thor into his own bedchamber to sleep off the effects of the potion. He feels a warm flush creep up his neck when he remembers the aroused state he’d found himself in upon waking there.

“That reminds me—I have something for you.” Loki summons a small clay jar into the palm of his free hand with a flourish and a shimmer of green. “I meant to give this to you before you left the other day, but it slipped my mind.”

Thor takes the wax-sealed jar, squinting at the shimmery paste contained within it.

“It’s a healing salve,” continues Loki. “It will vanish all traces of the burn you sustained on Muspelheim.”

Although his hand and forearm still sport a number of faint scars from the incident in Surtur’s vault, they go mostly unnoticed—even by Thor. After losing an eye, a few silvery-pink lines seem inconsequential. Still, Thor is touched that Loki would care enough to think of it.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” Loki says with a dismissive wave of his hand, “I still feel awful about letting you fall for the illusion I cast. I’m not used to fighting alongside someone else, and I didn’t even think to warn you of my plan. I certainly didn’t think you would try to go after me.”

“It’s all right, Loki,” he says, remembering how terrified he’d been to see Loki’s image engulfed in flames. “It all worked out fine, didn’t it? Anyway, I actually have something for you as well.”

“You do?” Loki places his wine goblet on the wooden end table as Thor reaches for the shawl he’d left tucked against the sofa’s armrest. “What is it?”

“A gift,” says Thor, shifting through the folds of fabric until his fingers close around the wrapped box. “A small gift, but one I hope you will like.”

He hands it to Loki, who accepts it hesitantly, the corners of his mouth turned down and his eyebrows drawn together. “You brought me a gift?”

“A small gift,” repeats Thor, trying desperately to ignore the nervous flutter in the pit of his stomach. “Just open it.”

At Thor’s prompting, Loki carefully tugs one end of the satin ribbon until the bow comes undone. Thor’s gaze anxiously flicks between Loki’s face and hands as the wrapping paper is torn away to reveal the carved cherrywood box underneath.

Loki traces the imprinted rune with a fingertip and asks, “Alfheim?”

Thor nods, and Loki finally flips open the tiny brass latch at the front of the box and lifts the lid, revealing an arrangement of artisan chocolate truffles nestled on a bed of gilded parchment.

Thor has never known anyone to love sweets more than his brother, and chocolate has always been his utmost favorite. He can’t be completely sure that Loki has the same affinity for it now—with so much else changed—but it’s a safe enough bet that he at least likes it.

Each individual truffle is unique—drizzled with syrupy caramel or sprinkled with crushed hazelnuts or dusted with powdered sugar—but they were all decadently handcrafted by Alfheim’s premier chocolatiers with the same amount of care. The box had cost Thor a small fortune, but Elven confectionaries have always been as costly as they are luxurious.


“Yes,” says Thor. “Do you like chocolate?”

“Of course I like chocolate,” Loki says with a laugh. “Who doesn’t? But I haven’t had it in decades, and I’ve certainly never had any that looks quite like this.”

“These are the best truffles Alfheim has to offer,” says Thor. “At least, that’s what the Light Elf who sold them to me this morning said.”

“You were on Alfheim?” asks Loki, raising his eyebrows. “Today?”

“No,” says Thor. “I actually haven’t been there in quite some time, but there’s to be a harvest festival on Asgard and merchants from Vanaheim, Nidavellir, and Alfheim have come to set up a market outside the palace.”

“It must be quite the celebration to draw those from so many realms,” says Loki. “You’re not missing the festival by being here, are you?”

“It hasn’t quite started yet,” says Thor. “I’m not obligated to attend, anyway.”

“Don’t you want to attend?”

“I want to be here,” says Thor, wondering how many times he will have to assure Loki of that fact. “Festivals are commonplace on Asgard. There will be another two before the year is out.”

“It must be nice to spend so much time with so many different people,” says Loki. “Jotunheim rarely sees visitors from the other realms. I’ve never so much as seen an Elf or a Dwarf. As I’m sure you’re aware, we are not even permitted to attend interplanetary summits, but must instead send along trade proposals with Vanir intermediaries.”

Jotunheim may have kept the Casket of Ancient Winters this time around—resulting in the cultural and architectural preservation of their civilization—but their isolation does them no favors. Thor intends to see that all changed in time.

“Needless to say,” continues Loki, “chocolate doesn’t make its way here very often.”

“I assumed as much.”

Loki turns his attention back to the box in his lap. “Astrid would sometimes bring me pieces of chocolate bark on her visits to Jotunheim, but these are quite different. They look almost too good to eat.”

Thor smiles fondly, watching Loki’s gaze flit over the collection of truffles. “Well, you must eat them,” he says. “How else will you know if they taste as good as they look?”

Loki chooses the truffle that’s covered in drizzles of white fudge, the paper around it crinkling as he gently draws it from the box. Rather than simply bite into the truffle, however, he breaks it in two to reveal the fluffy buttercream filling. Then, he offers one of the halves to Thor.

“They’re for you, Loki.”

“And I wish to share them.”

Thor has never been overly fond of sweets, but he accepts the offered morsel nonetheless. There’s a smear of white buttercream left behind on the pad of Loki’s thumb, and Thor feels a twinge low his belly when Loki purses his lips against the digit to clean it off.

Popping the truffle into his mouth, Thor allows himself to indulge in the simple pleasure of tasting it. The bittersweet chocolate shell and the rich buttercream filling are lusciously familiar, reminding him of childhood trips to Alfheim.

I’ve been thinking about our first visit to Alfheim, Loki had said in his dream the other night. I was as happy as I’d ever been during those few weeks.

Thor had been, too.

The Kingdom of Light Elves is a realm of beauty, enchantment, and decadence, with visits there made all the sweeter by their infrequency. Thor knows that his childhood memories of chasing pixies in the Enchanted Forest, attending plays at Ljosalfgard’s theatre, and diving deep into the crystal blue lagoons in search of mermaids would not be half so precious were it not for his brother’s company.

“That might be the best thing I’ve ever tasted,” says Loki, smiling as he closes the lid to the box of chocolates. Thor isn’t sure when Loki had scooted closer to him on the sofa, but there’s hardly any space between them now.

“I’m glad you liked it.”

“I did,” says Loki, dropping his hand to Thor’s thigh, just above his knee. “Very much. Thank you.”

Thor covers Loki’s hand with his own. “You’re welcome,” he says softly.

Loki drops his gaze to where they’re touching, a faint blush creeping into his complexion. Emboldened by the lack of retreat, Thor runs his thumb along one of the sagittate ridges on the back of Loki’s hand. His skin is cool and petal-soft beneath Thor’s fingertips.

The touch of any other Jotun would cause ice-burn were it not for the protection spells Loki continues to cast. Strangely enough, Loki has always been able to touch Thor himself even before casting such a spell. “Why doesn’t your touch hurt me?” Thor asks softly.

It’s a question he’s asked once before—back when he first came to Jotunheim with the intention of helping Loki retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters—but he received no answer then. He hopes that they have grown close enough during their time together to make him want to provide one now.

“There are many differences between myself and my kin,” says Loki, shifting uncomfortably beside Thor. “My stature and appearance are only the most notable.” He pauses, glancing up at Thor with eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Can you truly not tell what it is that sets me apart?”

Thor searches his face—finding him as uniquely beautiful as he always does—and wonders what sort of answer Loki is searching for. “You look unlike anyone I have ever met,” he says carefully. “I’m not sure what more than that I’m supposed to know.”

“I am only half-Jotun.”

Thor stares at him, dumbstruck, as the words hang in the air between them. He really shouldn’t be surprised—aside from his blue skin and red eyes, Loki barely resembles his father—but it’s never occurred to Thor that his mother might be of a completely different race. His shock at the revelation is a testament to how little he knew of his brother.

He wonders how little his brother knew of himself.

Loki gently extracts his hand, frowning as Thor continues to wordlessly gape at him. For some reason, all Thor can think of is Loki’s other life—Loki strolling through the palace corridors clad in Asgardian armor, Loki entertaining dignitaries at royal functions in the feasting hall, Loki fighting alongside the Einherjar in battle—and the question is on his lips before he even gives himself the time to consider the implications of it.

“Are you Asgardian?”

Loki raises his eyebrows. “No,” he says slowly. “I’m almost certain that I’m not Asgardian.”

The response is unexpectedly disappointing. “Where was your mother from?”

“I know precious little about my mother. I know that her name was Farbauti. I know that she was a shapeshifter, a spell-weaver, and an arbitrator. I know that she claimed to be descended from Vanir nobility, though she only came to the Nine Realms during the Aesir-Jotun war. I know that she acted as a neutral conciliator during the conflict, which is what brought her to Jotunheim.” He pauses, chewing on his lower lip and staring into the hearth. “I know that she died in Thrymheim on the day of my birth.”

Thor wants to reach out and comfort him, but he’s not sure such a gesture would be welcomed. “Loki—”

“We have never had a half-Jotun on the throne,” continues Loki. “It’s an uncommon thing here, especially amongst the nobility. My claim has been disputed for as long as I can remember, even if only in murmurs and whispers.”

Thor suspects that Loki might be guiding the conversation away from his mother purposely. He tries to imagine her—a shapeshifting sorceress with black hair and green eyes—but his thoughts keep returning to Frigga. He wonders if the two women had ever crossed paths.

“I am the rightful heir to the throne of Jotunheim,” says Loki, hardly above a whisper. “I intend to claim those rights upon my father’s death, even if it means warring against my uncle and cousins.”

“I will stand beside you when that day comes,” says Thor, reaffirming what he’d told him this afternoon. “You have my word.”

Loki smiles uncertainly before waving his hand over the box of truffles and vanishing it from sight. “It’s not that I don’t believe you,” he says. “I just don’t understand why you would risk so much for so little in return.”

“You will be a good king,” says Thor. “We can help each other. We can ensure peace between our worlds.”

Kingship is not something that Thor desires for himself—not the way he once did—but the position would certainly make preparations for Ragnarök easier. Thanos may be gone forever, but Hela still poses a threat to the entire galaxy. Thor and Loki were able to defeat her once before, but at great personal cost. Perhaps this time they can find some way to deal with Hela without destroying Asgard in the process.

“This morning, you said that I don’t know what it’s like to have my birthright challenged, but that’s not entirely true. There is another claimant to the throne of Asgard.”

“Another claimant?” asks Loki. “Who?”

“My sister.”

“You have a sister?” he asks, blinking in surprise. “I did not think that Odin had any other children.”

“My father cast her out long before we were born,” explains Thor. “She’s locked away somewhere near Niflheim—perhaps in Hel—but I don’t know the specific details of her imprisonment. I do know that she will be released upon Odin’s death, and that is when she will attempt to seize the throne.”

“Would she have the support of your people?”

“She is as cruel as she is ambitious,” says Thor. “The people of Asgard would never accept her as their queen. I do not think they remember her now, though. My father doesn’t even know that I’m aware of her existence. I’m not entirely sure how he managed to erase every trace of her from the galaxy, but I have never heard someone so much as mention her.”

“How do you know of her, then?”

“I would prefer not to delve into the details of how I came to learn of Hela right now,” Thor says solemnly. “It is a story that is long, complicated, and sad. You’re the only person to whom I have ever even spoken of her.”

Loki gazes at Thor thoughtfully, the hearth’s flickering flames casting shadows across his face. “I suppose we each know one of each other’s secrets now.”

“I trust you,” says Thor.

Loki frowns. “Trust can be a dangerous thing.”

“I know,” says Thor, remembering all the times Loki had betrayed him. But that was another life, he thinks, and I betrayed him as well, didn’t I? Thor wonders if this Loki once trusted Grundroth and Hailstrum, who even now are plotting to seize the throne from him. “I’ll never betray you, Loki.”

Loki’s frown deepens and his eyebrows knit together. For the briefest moment, he looks almost remorseful. Thor turns on the sofa, mirroring Loki’s position by tucking one leg underneath himself.

“You can trust me,” says Thor, reaching for Loki’s hand once again. “I promise.”

Loki lifts his hand beneath Thor’s, tilting it back until their palms and fingertips brush together. The caress sends a pleasant little shiver down Thor’s spine, and he slots his fingers between Loki’s without a second thought.

Thor’s heartbeat quickens as he searches Loki’s face for any sign of displeasure, but finds nothing of the sort. If anything, Loki just looks nervous. “Thor, I—”

“You two are still up?” calls a booming voice from the other side of the common room. Startled, Loki disentangles his hand from Thor’s and turns on the sofa to scowl at Hailstrum, who stands in the doorway of one of the nearby guest rooms. “We leave at daybreak, you know.”

“I know,” hisses Loki. “Do you want to wake half the inn?”

Hailstrum only laughs before disappearing back into his room and closing the door. Thor flexes his fingers, disliking Hailstrum just a little bit more than he did a minute ago.

“I hate to agree with him,” says Loki, “but sunrise is only a few hours off. The forests of Jotunheim host all manner of dangerous beasts. A decent night’s sleep will serve us well.”

Forget the hunt, Thor wants to say. You didn’t even want to come on this trip, and I’d sooner be alone with you someplace else. The Bifrost can take us anywhere in the Nine Realms. We can go to Midgard, where no one knows us, and spend time together in peace.

He can’t bring himself to say such things, though. Not yet. He doesn’t want to come on too strong and risk pushing Loki away. They are only recently acquainted, after all, and Loki still seems rather guarded in Thor’s presence.

So, instead of offering to whisk Loki away to some remote wintry village on Earth, Thor wishes him a good night and climbs the stairs to his room.

· · · · · · · · · ·

Cocooned in a fur blanket as wood crackles softly in the nearby hearth, Thor stares into the darkness and waits for sleep to come. His thoughts linger on Loki and how they’d been holding hands downstairs not half an hour ago. Hailstrum’s untimely interruption had thwarted Thor’s attempts at courtship, leaving him disappointed and frustrated as he retired for the evening.

Now, with little else to do, he allows his imagination to wander freely. The fantasies his mind conjures up begin innocently enough—tucking a wayward curl behind Loki’s ear, bringing Loki’s hand to his lips for a chaste kiss, affectionately wrapping his arm around Loki’s shoulders—but they delve into the erotic with startling ease.

He imagines peppering feather-light kisses over Loki’s jaw, down his throat, across his collarbone; divesting Loki of his tunic and breeches before pushing him down onto the bed; wrapping his hand around Loki’s slender wrist and pinning it above his head.

Thor has never slept with another man before but that fact fails to hinder the course of his fantasy, and he’s familiar enough with his brother’s body for the images to come easily. He knows the fall of his hair, the shape of his hands, the dip of his waist. He knows the white scar on his left knee, the smattering of sun-freckles on his shoulders, the twin dimples on his lower back.

He imagines Loki’s pretty hair spilling out across the pillow; Loki’s back arching off the bed as Thor gets a hand around his cock; Loki’s breaths coming in trembling pants and moans as Thor pleasures him with his hands and mouth.

This is the furthest his imagination has ever carried him, and it both thrills and terrifies him. His cock stirs just from thinking about it, but he keeps his fists clenched in the blanket rather than take himself in hand. He should be sleeping, not getting off on thoughts of bedding his brother.

But now that he’s started, he can’t stop himself from imagining it. For all Thor knows about Loki, there’s still so much else he has yet to learn. He doesn’t know how he likes to be held, how he likes to be kissed, how he likes to be made love to. He doesn’t know what he looks like flushed with arousal, what he sounds like on the brink of climax, what he feels like inside.

That there have been others to know such things makes Thor ache with jealousy. The idea that anyone could get closer to his brother than he could somehow seems wrong to him now. He wonders if Loki ever felt the same way.

Thor comes to the startling realization that all this time he’s been envisioning the Loki he grew up with rather than the Jotun prince he just spent the day with. He sits up, letting the furs petal around his waist as he reaches for the flagon of water on the bedside table. Despite everything he’s learned over the past few days, it remains difficult to reconcile the two as the same person.

What I wouldn’t give for him to remember me, Thor thinks sadly. What I wouldn’t give to hear him call me brother once again.

A soft knock at the door shakes Thor from his pitiful musings, and he rises from the bed in a fluster. He uses one of the blankets to cover his nakedness, wrapping it around his waist before going to the door.

He cracks it open halfway to find Loki standing in the dimly-lit corridor, nervously wringing his hands together. “Did I wake you?” he asks softly.

“No,” says Thor, pushing the heavy wooden door the rest of the way open. “Is everything okay?”

Loki drops his gaze to Thor’s bare torso. “Hmm? Oh. Yes. Everything is fine.”

Thor tilts his head, wondering what drew Loki to him after they had already bid each other goodnight. He can feel the weight of Loki’s lingering stare, and he lets the blanket slip half an inch lower on his hips.

“I only wanted to tell you that your trust in me is not misplaced. I should have said as much when you first told me about your sister.” Loki meets his gaze once again. In the near-darkness, his red eyes gleam like two polished rubies. “You have my word that I will not betray your confidence.”

“Thank you, Loki.”

“I’m not sure what help I could provide when it comes to matters of Asgardian succession,” he continues, “but if it comes to war, I would gladly stand beside you and help defend your throne.”

Thor goes to lay an appreciative hand on his shoulder, but aborts the gesture when a nearby door creaks open and a Giant steps out into the corridor. He casts a lingering glance at them before making his way to the staircase. Each stair groans beneath the Giant’s weight, and Thor and Loki remain silent until he reaches the bottom.

“Do you want to come inside?” asks Thor.

Loki looks past Thor and into the room, a dark blush rising in his cheeks as his gaze settles on the bed. “It’s late,” he says softly. “I should let you get to sleep.”

“Right,” says Thor, rubbing the back of his neck with a sheepish smile. “I’ll see you in the morning, then.”

“Goodnight, Thor.”

Thor leans against the doorjamb and watches Loki walk down the corridor, listens to his bare feet padding softly across the floorboards as he disappears into the shadows. Thor smiles to himself as he closes the door and returns to the oversized bed, reveling in the high of hearing Loki’s faithful assurances.

The troubles of just a few minutes ago have already begun to fade to the back of his mind.

Loki is just as strong and clever and beautiful as Thor has always known him to be. He has the same qualities and mannerisms, the same subtleties and talents. He’s still Loki. This may not be the second chance that Thor wanted, but it’s the second chance that Fate decided to grant him.

We are not just random arrangements of particles drifting aimlessly through the universe, the Ancient One had said. He may be different now, but his soul is the same.

Thor falls asleep thinking about softly spoken promises and lilacs blooming against a pale blue sky.