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The Prince of the Grotto

Chapter Text

In the royal house of Laufey, it was generally understood that Loki would have been a disappointment to any family.

Laufey couldn’t be blamed for finding him too small. Farbauti couldn’t be blamed for despairing at his moods and backstabbing, capricious tricks. Helblindi and Byleistr, tall and strong and frank warrior types, couldn’t be blamed for warning their shieldbrothers away from Loki.

“One time,” Helblindi told the other giants, “we wouldn’t take him on a hunting trip. It couldn’t be helped, you see. He’s too small to hunt frigidwyrms. But he wouldn’t see reason. He transformed himself into a bilgesnipe—“

“He knows we love bilegsnipes,” Byleistr put in.

“—and snuck into my saddlebags, and when I pulled out the bilgesnipe in delight—“

“He turned back into himself and stabbed us both,” Byleistr said sadly.

“He stabbed us both!”

Loki hadn’t thought it was such a bad thing to do. They were both frost giants, weren’t they? So large and broad and ice-covered that a few nicks with a knife couldn’t do them any harm. And it was their just punishment for excluding him. And yet no one saw it his way — as a meaningless jape that was only meant to assert himself, to get him a place in the hunting party. No, the giants told each other frankly that this was something Loki would have done under any circumstances, to anyone, that even if Loki had been born to a family as powerful and rich as Odin Allfather’s, he would have been small and sneaky and bitter about it. So, really, his Loki-ness could not be blamed on the house of Laufey.

And there was some truth in this.

Loki was small, and far too slender besides. So small and slender that by his third century he’d captured no mates, drawn no eyes to himself. Helblindi and Byleistr, his younger brothers, had both sired and borne children by half that age, but Loki? Too small to bear a child safely, and too small, it was whispered, to bring a giant any pleasure.

And he was sneaky. He had no choice but to be. He was so much smaller than everyone else that mischief and tricks were often the only way to draw attention to himself. And though only the very uncharitable would have called him bitter, bitter was not too far off the mark. For Loki had been raised in the house of Laufey, where his icy, elegant brothers were apt to exclude him. Where his dam was apt to titter about how they would be burdened with him always, for no one wanted to relieve the family of one so small and useless. Where cousin Thrym was apt to make jokes at his expense.

“Runtling!” he called Loki jovially, and so often that within the first century of Loki's birth everyone was calling Loki that. And when Loki snapped that he preferred his proper name, all the frost giants only looked significantly at each other and commented on his unpleasant moods. Bad enough to be small and sneaky and unhandsome. Worse to be so unpleasant and contrary about it.

Truthfully, it was that whole combination -- lack of size and lack of looks and lack of a halfway decent personality -- which made the house of Laufey disclaim him as not quite theirs. And yet, in their eyes, they were not unkind to him. Into the house of Laufey he'd been born, and so he would be the trial of the house of Laufey until the end of his days. They would gladly clothe him and feed him and put up with him. And if they reminded him of this endlessly, well. They were only stating the facts.

"In Vanaheim, runtling," cousin Thrym said, at one of his great suppers, "the weak are abandoned at birth. But here we would never do such a thing!"

It was the anniversary of Loki's birth. This was why the supper was being held. But, rather than look grateful at this, Loki only looked long-suffering, as though he knew exactly where Thrym was going with this. In fact he did know. Thrym told the same story every year.

Now Thrym chortled, letting great chunks of frigidwyrm soup burble up behind his lips and stain his woven silver bib (all the house of Laufey wore silver and ice-white and pale blue, even Loki, who did not like those colors and felt they did not suit). And now Thrym's eyes twinkled. And now Thrym surveyed the great many brothers and cousins and uncles which surrounded Loki, all slurping their fine course of soup and listening with eager amusement.

"But we did not do this with you," Thrym said in a mock-whisper, leaning in. Loki leaned back, so as not to be sprayed with the soup.

"No," he recited to Thrym dully, "for though I was born in wartime--"

"Though you were born in wartime--"

"--to a dam already weakened by brave fighting--"

"So weak but so brave!" Thrym declared, and Farbauti, who enjoyed this story, here gave a theatrical half-sob to show how correct Thrym was.

"The whole family paused their fighting, begged of Odin Allfather to let them have a ceasefire, and conspired to send me to safety in the frost-marshes of Quirt," Loki said.

His voice was so reedy, bitter, and unhappy that it could have shattered the great blocks of blue stone that made up Thrym's magnificent hall.

"We played at being cowards in order to send you to safety in the frost-marshes of Quirt!" Thrym bellowed. He smacked the table. The house of Laufey erupted into titters and congratulatory clapping. They were not cowards, none of them. They were huge, strong, ice itself -- all but Loki. But they had pretended to capitulate to Odin Allfather briefly, ever so briefly, just to send the infant Loki to safety, and for this none could fault them. For the royal house of Laufey was a dutiful house, and no matter how much a disappointment Loki contrived to be, they had always done their duty by him.

"I still say he would have been perfectly safe holed up in the temple for a bit," muttered Laufey, into his soup, but no one paid him any heed. He had earned the right to grumble a bit, as their ruler. He had been the one to have to bend at the knee to Odin, that sneaky brute, and to apologize for using their own Casket -- their Casket! -- which was rightfully of the house of Laufey and which Odin should have had no interest in.

Loki, for his part, often thought privately that if he had been left in the temple, so much the better. Some other family might have come along and taken him. Some family without two sons as stunning and large as Helblindi and Byleistr, some family with less of a sense of duty. Some family which might have cheerfully abandoned him when he became too annoying, and then he could have just as cheerfully retaliated, burned their whole hall to the ground or something, and no one could have held it against him.

But the house of Laufey tolerated him so perfectly, extended so much duty to him, that he could never get away with that sort of thing, could never get away even with minor tricks. In the house of Laufey, he was expected to resign himself to being a dutiful disappointment.

And yet in his dreams, he was chaos itself. Mostly in his dreams. But still -- that was something. Now, as attention strayed from him to Helblindi and Byleistr's latest exploits (as it always did), he sank down beneath the great silver tablecloth. Being small, he could sink very low indeed. Once he was hidden from view, he pulled out a manuscript which he had bought, for quite a reasonable sum, from a peddler in Jotunheim's central square.

The Great Exile of the Thunderer, Strongest Avenger, and His Revengers

This was the spark to light Loki's dreams! This. The Thunderer, a being no bigger than a large Midgardian, which was to say smaller than a Frost Giant, which was to say about Loki's size, who was nothing less than ultimate power. Though his magic was one-note, it was great, for he was the God of Thunder. And though the author's spelling was inventive and his punctuation nonexistent, the tales he spun were very like those Loki had been spinning in his dreams all his life, tales of intrigue, ambition, and power.

In the foul halls of Sakaar, the vile Grandmaster projects a great, giant figure of himself before his abased people. 'Slaves!' he commands them. 'Come see my evil, wicked games!' And it was into this world that the Thunderer was brought as a lowly prisoner, and they did not believe him when he said his power would undo them. But lo, dear readers! He was to emerge from the games as nothing less than a CHAMPION!

In truth, all the Thunderer's stories ran the same way. He was banished to Midgard, for upsetting an older sister. And yet he emerged a champion. He was tricked by elves, and yet he emerged a champion. The thrust of it never wavered: always he was treated poorly, cast as buffoonish, seemingly smaller and more stupid than his opponents. And always, in the end, a champion.

And yet to one like Loki, could this be anything but a balm to his soul? At night, in his too-large, too-cold room in Laufey's halls, where everything was a dull frosty blue, he would sink into dreams, a veritable grotto of dreams. There, he would fight monsters of flame, would trick his way out of the death-games of Sakaar. He would not quite do it as the Thunderer did -- he did not delude himself into thinking he was anything so traditional. For all of the Thunderer's diminutive size, that being had to be close to Jotunheim's ideal: a fighter, a bruiser, a battle-raiser fit to take to bed. While Loki was all spindly legs and knobbly fingers, scraggly dark hair he had never shed in a warrior's rite, with the moon-eyed face that, on Jotunheim, made one no more intimidating than a child.

At best, Loki was a sneaky little house witch. Yet when he dreamed he was a witch far greater than that, a partner to the Thunderer, who would appreciate his magical gifts as Jotunheim did not. Who would agree that Loki, unleashed from Laufey's halls, could offer more than the house of Laufey knew, could bargain his way out of fire pits and Midgardian cities. That Loki was a power in his own right.

"Oh, Loki," breathed out Farbauti now. "Are you reading those dreadful tomes again? You will give me--"

"An attack of nerves," Loki muttered.

"An attack of nerves!"

And then Farbauti, great warrior, so brave he bore a child in battle, succumbed to an attack of nerves so horrible that Thrym said, "Bad form, runtling. Bad form!" and everyone felt truly sorry that Farbauti had suffered such a difficult labor three centuries ago just to give birth to one so ungrateful as Loki.

"He will bleach his skin again!" Farbauti moaned. "To be like those silly books he reads--"

"That was one time," Loki snapped, "and I was only wondering if it suited me better!"

"He thinks losing his heritage lines, our lines, the lines of the house of Laufey--"

Everyone tittered at this. Truly, it was perverse. Loki's lines were the best thing about him, for they marked him of the house of Laufey. For those lines, he should have prostrated himself with gratitude.

"It was one time!"

"And his eyes were so horrible," Farbauti moaned, "such a poisonous color--"

"Only red eyes suit you," Helblindi told Loki, in an aside. "Why, with red eyes you are almost normal, brother!"

"Oh, why does he torment us so?" Farbauti finished. "Why? And we who've done so much for him."

Everyone agreed with this, loudly. Laufey reached one powerful arm over the table and plucked the manuscript from Loki's hands and said, "Enough of that, you," very sternly.

So after this Loki had nothing to read.

Naturally, when the remaining frigidwyrms in the soup appeared to come back to life, all chopped up into pieces and leaking silver blood and upsetting everyone, the house of Laufey all should have known that it was their fault for making Loki bored. But the other frost giants refused to see reason on this. The end result was that Laufey loudly chastised Loki and Farbauti's nerves made a great comeback (had they ever left?). And Thrym informed everyone that Helblindi and Byleistr would never do such a thing, even though they had never been so lucky as to be sent to the frost-marshes of Quirt.

"I'm sorry," Loki bit out eventually. "You're all right, of course, and I'm wrong. To tell you the truth, I feel a bit piqued. I think it's my heart or something. It's a sort of pain in the chest."

"You don't have a pain in the chest, you are a pain in the chest," Farbauti cried bitterly, and even though this was a cruel thing to say, no one corrected him, because secretly everyone agreed with him.

Chapter Text

The royal house of Laufey couldn't be blamed for not believing Loki, for he was a consummate liar.

But this time he wasn't lying. He did have a pain in his chest. It was a creeping, sneaky pain that overwhelmed him at the oddest times. Sometimes it ebbed when he was enjoying dreams of chaotic adventure. But it always returned, especially when he was trapped at family suppers. When it came upon him, he would feel wild and stuck, unable to breathe properly. He thought he should get it looked at.

Generally, Thrym doctored the house of Laufey, for Thrym was like all their house, which was to say a decent, perfunctory sort of witch. He always had herbs and things he could offer. And he had what the house of Laufey considered the apex of modern medicine, which was a firm voice with which to say, "Buck up!" And if you were Helblindi or Byleistr and Thrym said that to you, why, then you'd be obliging enough to buck up right away and shake off whatever was ailing you.

But Loki was never obliging. So instead he went to Angrboda.

Angrboda lived in the aforementioned frost-marshes of Quirt, beyond the capitol city -- indeed, in the part of Jotunheim which was these days quite beneath the house of Laufey. While the frost-marshes had been a nice country escape three hundred years ago, now they were of that part of Jotunheim which, in deference to the peace treaty with Odin Allfather, was to be kept open to all manner of traveler at any time. Denizens of Muspelheim, of Alfheim, of Vanaheim, and even of Asgard traveled there freely. This meant that Angrboda was well-versed in treating smaller sorts, and that there was a logic to Loki's patronage of the healer-witch. But all attempts to explain this to his family had fallen on deaf ears, as they felt that if Loki would only stop being so dramatic, he might grow yet, and also learn to buck up already. And so Loki, when he visited Angrboda, always went in secret. This time was no exception. He chose a late hour, when much of the family was already abed. He traveled, as was his wont, by shadow and wormhole. It was a surprise even to Angrboda when Loki showed up at his door.

"Hello?" Angrboda called out.

"Down here," Loki snapped.

Angrboda peered down at him, until he picked out a small blue figure among the mists of the frost-marshes.

"Oh, the runtling of the house of Laufey," Angrboda said. "Come in, come in. Mind the other patients."

And there were indeed other patients -- an elderly frost giant moaning and clutching his horns, two dwarves with their arms in slings, and in the corner -- yes. An Aesir Valkyrie, sleeping and smelling of spirits, with a note pinned to her that said:

CAUGHT SLEEPING ON THE MARSHES AGAIN. PLEASE SOBER HER UP AND GIVE HER A TALKING TO.
SIGNED,
SERGEANT OGGY OF THE 99TH ICE BATTALION.

Loki regarded her with caution. The Valkyrie was well-known even to him, though he was always holed up in the house of Laufey, for who didn't know of her atrocious habits? No respectable frost giant would consort with her, but that did not seem to matter to the Valkyrie, who had arrived on Jotunheim shortly after the war and promptly declared that she wanted nothing to do with the house of Odin, and that the ice realm was as good a realm as any to drink and die on.

Now she was spread out among several seats. Loki had to shove her aside to sit and wait.

And wait.

And wait and wait.

It figured. He was of the house of Laufey, a royal, and yet even to a marsh witch that did not matter. Not when he was so small and scraggly, not when everyone knew he'd never mate and never fight and never have any offers to leave his father's house and go on campaign like a warrior. And when Angrboda finally did see him, though he was kind, he was very routine, poking and prodding and hemming and hawing and in general not terribly impressed by Loki's condition.

"Would you say a pain like an ice dragon piercing the belly, or a pain like a bilgesnipe weeing icy wee on the elbow?"

"Neither," Loki said flatly. "A pain like a frigidwyrm in my chest."

"Mmmmm," said Angrboda. "So like that wolf you gave me sort of biting you in the ear, or--"

Loki had once found the wolf pup on the marshes, and had thought to do it a kindness. As a child, he'd been that sort, and so Angrboda had taken in more than one small animal because Loki had begged him to. And yet right now, Loki could hardly remember conspiring with the healer-witch in this way. He was merely annoyed at Angrboda.

"No," he snapped at Angrboda. "More like the serpent I gave you, grown very large, squeezing around my heart."

Angrboda only blinked at him.

"Oh, yes, Jormagund is quite large now. Did I not show you the magnificent painting I had made of him? Why, he's--"

But now there came a knock on the door. Angrboda's assistant, a comely, enormous young frost giant who Loki privately felt was far too proud of those great handsome thighs and arms of his, poked his head in.

"It's Fenrir," he told Angrboda.

"No," Loki protested, "we weren't talking about the wolf. We were talking about the serpent--"

"No," said the comely assistant. "Fenrir was out training for the great Nine Realms beast show, the one to be judged by Princess Hela of Asgard herself, and was caught in a trap! You must come quickly, master!"

"Are you suggesting he abandon me for a glorified dog?" Loki proposed incredulously, but Angrboda was already reaching for his cloak.

"By the realms! Very sorry, of course, but he placed second last century, when he was not so big as he is now. Had high hopes he would place first this time around. Have to go attend to him, you understand--"

And, with that, Loki was indeed abandoned for a glorified dog.

His humiliation was great. He could hardly breathe, and there was that pain again. Oh, this never would have happened to Helblindi or Byleistr. Never. It was only him, only Loki, who did not merit royal treatment, who was overlooked and ignored, who even a marsh witch who consorted with anyone would dare to walk out on.

To be anyone else! To be that stupid wolf, to be one of those dwarves. Even to be that drunken Valkyrie.

She'd woken by the time he went back into the waiting room, and had somehow procured a bottle. The elderly frost giant was staring at her judgmentally.

"No need to drink yourself into a smelly stupor, lass," he muttered.

The Valkryie downed the last of her bottle and then threw it at his head, making him shriek.

"No need to pester," she snapped.

Although she was beastly and rude in the extreme, Loki suddenly liked her a great deal. He would have liked to throw a bottle at Angrboda's head.

"Valkyrie," he said, acknowledging her.

She dipped her chin at him. There was something relaxed and mischievous about her now. After a second, she discovered the note pinned to her and flicked it off.

"Prince Loki," she said.

At least she used his proper title.

-

Nothing of this minor adventure could be relayed to his family. Not simply because he hadn't gone to Thrym for his chest pain, but because he'd gone unaccompanied into the frost-marshes, and because, while there, he had acknowledged the Valkyrie. And it was well established that one of the house of Laufey could never, ever acknowledge a creature like the Valkyrie.

It might give her ideas.

After the war had petered out, thanks to that ceasefire that was largely held to be Loki's fault ("He so insisted on being born!" Farbauti often said. "Even though it was so inconvenient!") the royal house of Laufey had brokered a complicated treaty with Odin Allfather.

Odin, that warmonger, that father of the monstrous and monster-loving Hela, had wanted to demand the Casket, of course. But that could never do. And so the house of Laufey, with many lamentations, had given up all manner of other precious things. Not simply their closed borders, but also all of the laws which had kept Jotunheim's most beautiful frost giants pure and untouched by baser races. Odin himself was a halfling whose father was an Aesir, but whose dam had been of Jotunheim. And he'd wanted to make a point about that. So down went the prohibitions against mingling with the base half-men of the Aesir ("Nothing but cocks down there," Byleistr had whispered to Loki once. "Imagine!") and with the elves and dwarves besides. And in had poured all sorts of common types, of which the Valkyrie was only one of the most famous.

There were also dark elves, with, Laufey cautioned his children, extremely dark appetites ("Oh, not for you, Loki," Helblindi said scornfully. "Who'd want to sleep with you?"). There were hulking monsters that now made their homes out on the marshes. There were weak, randy little Midgardians, even. Not two moon-cycles ago, a little man named Stark had appeared with what he'd called a scientific delegation, and given Laufey a grave headache until he'd seen fit to return to Midgard with most of his men.

And there was Thor, who Loki saw in the marketplace the very next day.

There was little Jotunheim wasn't willing to say about Thor. Thor, the rare foreigner who ventured right into the capitol. Thor, who hunted bilgesnipes and frigidwyrms alike. Whose booming voice could be caught snarling out of the marsh taverns, telling tales of his journeys to other realms. Who tamed ice wolves far more frightening than Angrboda's Fenrir, and rode them around Jotunheim on a whim.

He was scarcely bigger than Loki, and had yellow hair the frost giants sneered at, and yet Loki did not think it was so unpleasant. Nor did he think, as Helblindi said, that Thor was both the lover and son of the Valkyrie. Nor did he think, as Farbauti said, that at night Thor turned into a great green monster that was terrorizing Quirt. Nor did he think, as Byleistr said, that Thor was secretly a Midgardian -- Thor was strong enough to survive hunting trips out on the ice wastes on his own, was he not?

"His pelts are always of fine quality, I'll say that for him," Thrym muttered, casting an eye over at Thor's stall. "But see that gaudy red cloak? By the world tree, that's an affront to the eyes. You boys had better better steer clear of him. I'll take charge of this purchase."

And so Loki had to watch with envy as Thrym was the one to approach Thor, as Thrym was the one Thor clapped on the arm.

Or, well, on the finger -- he couldn't reach Thrym's arm. But he would have easily reached Loki's. This, to Loki, almost made Thor endearing.

"I hear he would lay with the beasts of the marshes just to offend polite society," Helblindi whispered to Byleistr.

"He would not," hissed Loki. He cast an illusion to make Helblindi's cloak seem sentient, just to hear Helblindi's yells when it began to attack him.

Did he delude himself that Thor looked over at them, and was amused?

Loki often dreamed that he was off adventuring with the Thunderer. But, lately, the Thunderer had acquired yellow hair and a gaudy red cloak.

-

It was not so long after that that Angrboda sent a letter to the palace.

It came on the icy wind, as was the custom, and it came straight for Loki. Though Angrboda, being Angrboda, had managed to carelessly botch even Loki's name:

Lokki of the house of Lafey,

I regret having to send you this news. After your brief appointment, I had some time to mull over your symptoms and to consult the great books of healing in my back offices. It is with intense sadness that I must inform you that you have horn-plague. This condition is caused by under-development of the horns. The lack of horn development causes one's ice energies to abandon those noble appendages and turn instead on the heart, eventually consuming it. This is fatal. You must be very careful, as now any serious shock to your system will overwhelm your heart and bring you death in an instant.

You have, at most, one turn of the great Jotunheim moon to live.

May you spend it bringing glory to your name, treasured by all your house, and fulfilling every ambition of your life. And, as I've said, avoiding any shock, surprise, or sudden twist of fate.

With my great apologies,
Angrboda of the Marsh

Loki dropped the missive. Then, with trembling hands, he scrambled to pick it up again. It hardly seemed real. It couldn't be real.

But Angrboda, for all his faults, was a very good witch and generally knew what he was about. And it was true that Loki's horns had never developed. Loki had always believed that this was because, in order to call the ice energies, one had to shed one's hair, and one could only do that during a warrior's rite. Being small, he'd never qualified for a warrior's rite.

But oh, he was royal, wasn't he? Did his heart not beat in time to the Casket of Ancient Winters? Surely Angrboda was right, and the power of the ice had come upon him regardless. And because he was a runt, and had no horns, it had turned upon his heart and was slowly killing him.

Robbing him of a life in which he'd brought no glory to his name, was treasured by no one, and had fulfilled not even one ambition. Surely this was a life he should be glad to lose, and yet he found he wasn't glad. No.

He was furious.

Chapter Text

Oh, but the royal house of Laufey suffered!

But they dealt with it dutifully. Just as they'd dealt with Loki's minor tricks and illusions before. And, really, hadn't he always been a little cracked? But this was starting to feel like more than a little.

He took himself riding on the marshes, hunting wyrms and dragons, even though he was a runt and should have known better. When he was caught by a huge green monster, thrown hither and yon, he came back bruised but not cowed.

Laufey said, plainly, "Runtling, you know you're too small to--"

But Loki only bared his teeth and said, "Loki. Loki, dammit. My name is Loki."

And after that, no one could get him to answer to runtling.

No one could get him to put away his silly books, either. When the tomes of the Thunderer were taken from him, he'd only laugh and somehow contrive to produce more. But it was hard to take them from him. Illusory Lokis stalked the halls in great numbers, confusing his family and causing Farbauti ever-greater attacks of nerves.

"Like I care about your nerves!" the false Lokis were known to snap, and in this they were exactly like the real Loki.

Laufey, Farbauti, and Loki's brothers could have borne this, if only it stayed within the confines of the palace. If only they could keep it from their cousins and noble uncles, keep it from cousin Thrym especially.

"Oh, maybe we'll leave him at home," Laufey decided, when the next invitation to one of Thrym's great suppers came.

"They'll know something is wrong then!" said Farbauti. "And maybe seeing more family is just what he needs!"

For, in truth, being hemmed in on all sides by family had always controlled Loki before. He'd always been prone to mischief, but it had never been anything that a little family shaming hadn't subdued. And, indeed, by combining all of their ice energy and all of their magic, Loki's parents and brothers succeeded in pinning him down on supper day, forcing him into long formal ice-blue robes, slicking back that unsightly hair of his, and getting him all the way to Thrym's. There, beneath the pale silvery light of Thrym's palace, Loki looked like nothing so much as a very small, sulky icicle, which was to say, he looked as healthy and fit as he ever looked.

"Isn't ice blue his color?" Farbauti asked Thrym encouragingly.

Thrym threw back his head and laughed.

"You can't throw moonbeams on a frost-shrew and call it a beauty, my dear!" he said jovially. "Isn't that right, runtling?"

Loki ignored him, and made the pillars of Thrym's great hall look drenched in blood. This had no effect on Thrym, who only declared to the assembled company that Loki was in a mood, and otherwise invited them all in to supper.

Oh, but his nearest and dearest knew it was more of a mood than usual. They didn't know how they knew. It was only that something...wilder seemed to possess Loki these days. Perhaps he had always been waiting to go off, his whole life, just waiting for a switch to be hit so that he could simmer over from mischief into outright chaos. For these days he seemed so aggressively to decide his own mind: what he was to be called, where he wished to go. Whether he would spend nights out on the ice-wastes, like a vagabond, and return with frigidwyrm blood under his nails, looking like a satisfied, malevolent tundra cat.

"What if he just vanishes one day?" Byleistr had asked his dam worriedly. "Dies? Or flees for other realms? You know he's not very strong."

Farbauti had peered at his second son.

"Where would he go? Who would want Loki?"

No, death was the likelier option, and while no one in the house of Laufey exactly expected to mourn Loki when he died, neither did they want to have to face the indignity of dealing with his death. No, they wanted only to keep saying that they had done their best by him, although they'd never asked for a creature like him. So it was with some relief for Laufey and Farbauti, at least, when the conversation at Thrym's turned to Helblindi.

Thirdborn, but treated as first. Already a sure pick for Laufey's heir, for he had legs as wide and comely as the great trunk of Yggdrasil and an arm that could fell twenty Aesir with a single punch.

"Helblindi the stunner," Thrym told him affectionately. "What is this I hear? You'll formally take a mate at last?"

Then, because Thrym couldn't help himself:

"Not like our runtling! Helblindi is half your age, but gets forty times more attention, eh, runtling?"

Laufey, Farbauti, and Byleistr all looked nervously at Loki, but Loki was only looking up at the ceiling, still intent on ignoring the nickname. His nearest all let out sighs of relief, except for Helblindi, who had taken the flattery as his due and begun to speak of his betrothed.

"Lord Herleifr has some of the vastest holdings in the realms, next to ours and Odin Allfather's," he boasted. "Of course, I made him promise to double his keep in any case. I cannot live like a commoner, and Lord Elof, his nearest neighbor, really should be conquered. Atrocious manners. So we shall wage a campaign in three weeks' time, just after the wedding, Herleifr and I. I've already selected my men for it."

"Nothing like some mutual conquering to cement the marriage," Thrym nodded appreciatively. "Oldest and best tradition in the realms. Remember yours, Laufey and Farbauti? How you laid waste to Midgard?"

"Remember when Odin Allfather pledged affection to Frigga by laying waste to us?" Loki muttered.

Frigga, the second wife of Odin Allfather, was a bizarre, mysterious creature, who had born Odin bizarre, mysterious children, none of whom had reached the fame of the Princess Hela. This was to be expected, because Hela was a warrior, even if she was an Aesir, while Frigga was known to be softhearted and strange. When Laufey and Farbauti had ventured on a perfectly respectable Midgardian war campaign, it had been Frigga's tears and dramatics that had pushed Odin to involve himself, and begun the war. This, all of Jotunheim felt, had been deeply unsporting of her. And it was unsporting of Loki to mention her now. Thrym raised one frost-covered eyebrow at him.

"What? What's this?" he said, unused to backchat from this cousin who, as far as Thrym knew, spoke only in sulky illusions.

Loki straightened up. He plastered a smile on his face that seemed very odd to his family. Laufey stopped slurping his soup long enough to wonder if he'd ever actually seen Loki smile before.

When Loki spoke, it was polished and prim, belying his words.

"Oh, I was only commenting on the cleverness of Odin Allfather. We had thought to conquer Midgard. But, by threatening to take the Casket, he made us promise to open our doors to all the realms, and now it is the Midgardians who as good as conquer us. Odin must have a great sense of humor, do you think?"

Thrym blinked at him. While the frost giants held a healthy respect for Odin Allfather, who after all, had bested them in battle, they never praised him. And what Loki was proposing sounded less like the humor of a warrior, and more like the sly dealings of a trickster.

"Always said we should have just let him take the Casket," Thrym said darkly. "We never invited the Midgardians, after all. They came! Like snow-roaches. Brought in by these mongrel types, like that drunken Valkyrie, or that Thor--"

Loki stiffened.

"What proof do you have that Thor is a mongrel anything?" he demanded.

Helblindi began to laugh. So did many of the other younger giants. Loki was speaking as though he had affection for Thor, and if anything was funnier than a giant being attracted to Thor, it was the concept of Loki being romantic in any way. Loki!

"One is what one mingles with," Thrym said, wagging a huge finger at Loki. "Thor is -- mark my words -- some bastard get's bastard get. He must have giant in him, to be sure, for he never shivers at our frost, and his strength is, to give him credit, considerable. But no proper giant looks as he does. Bleached! No lines! Hair!"

Loki played with his own hair briefly, but Thrym hardly noticed.

"And no proper giant would linger in the halls of the Valkyrie's home, or attend to Banner, that weakling the Midgardians left here -- imagine! Something must be gravely wrong with that one, if even the Midgardians do not want him. And--"

Now Loki had had enough.

"Were you not almost left behind on Midgard, during my sire's campaign?" he sneered. "I wonder if the Midgardians thought the same of you. I'd say they were right--"

"Loki," Farbauti hissed, and Laufey shouted, "Whelp!" and dove for him, to clap a massive hand over his mouth. But his entire arm passed through Loki, who had somehow become only an illusion.

"I suppose one is what one mingles with," the Loki-illusion said. "Well, I'd better take my leave of you lot, then, don't you think?"

-

Loki had of course looked up the horn plague. It was just as Angrboda had said. Any serious shock would kill him. And yet he found that very little now seriously shocked him. Even being tossed around the marshes by that great green monster hadn't. Oh, it had been terrifying, and painful in the extreme. But he'd been grimly satisfied with it, not shocked.

Ow! But may I die on so great an adventure that all of these insects must praise my name, he'd thought, while being thrown about. May they admit that I have brought glory to our house, admit that they should have made me a warrior!

Ow.

But may they cry for me! And erect statues many times' anyone's height! I wish I could see their sobbing faces now!

Ow.

But he didn't die, and it was clear that chasing the sweet embrace of death was not enough to startle the horn plague into action. No, the royal library had a wealth of knowledge on the disease, and it seemed that all the sufferers, being frost giants, were very used to the normal shocks that came with battle, and so battle never felled them. Instead they died ignominiously. They discovered their mates had cheated on them with their brothers, or they tripped on their child's pet frost-shrew in the middle of the night, or they found a snow roach in their frigidwyrm soup.

So his end would be dull, as well as unpleasantly shocking. Well, if his end would be dull, there was no reason for his last days to be. And Thrym's mutterings about Midgardians had given him an idea. No one on Jotunheim would offer Loki succor if he left the house of Laufey and made his own way, no one wanted him. But there were people he could be useful to.

Specifically, that odd little Midgardian, Bruce Banner.

He'd come with the scientific delegation, but they had left him behind. In this, Thrym was correct. Banner, however, did not react like a man abandoned. He could be found wandering the wastes, distractedly recording the position of the stars in the sky and taking samples of rocks. Several times, it was reported, he'd almost been eaten by a bilgesnipe, but had managed to escape. He lived in the same rundown great hall the Valkyrie had commandeered upon her arrival. The frost giants assumed that he paid her rent in the form of liquor.

She was the one to open the door.

"You," was all she said.

Loki bristled a bit at the greeting, but soldiered through it.

"It is I," he said, giving her a bow. "Prince Loki Laufeyson of the royal house of Laufey. After our encounter the other day, I did think you wouldn't mind my dropping by--"

She took a swig of whatever she was drinking now, and shrugged.

"Mind? No. But I've got nothing to say to you, so you might as well leave, Prince Loki Laufeyson of the royal house of Laufey."

Now she contrived to shut the door. Loki contrived to wedge a leg in, so that she couldn't.

"Now, now," he said smoothly. "I wasn't being entirely honest--"

"I've heard it's not your strong suit," the Valkyrie allowed.

"--it's not you I want to see, or to speak to, but I think I have an offer your, er, tenant might like to hear--"

"My tenant?" the Valkyrie said, raising an eyebrow.

"Banner. The little Midgardian. Defenseless, weak, abandoned by his kin--"

"It's more of a self-exile, really," said the Valkyrie. "You've come to the house of the exiles." Then she let out a belch and shrugged again.

"Alright, come in," she said, and stepped aside.

Her hall was so ancient that the roof had nearly caved in, laden down as it was with snow, occupied as it was with drunkards and madmen who had clearly never thought to have the roof swept. Piles of armor littered the base of a great stair that was probably rotted through. The Valkyrie took him through a small door at the back, one she had carved out of a larger door fit for a giant, and then he was in a dirty, too-warm kitchen. It had none of the large blocks of ice that served to keep cold the fish, wyrms, and voles that were a staple of the giant diet. Instead, the Valkyrie had dragged in a squat, hideous iron contraption. Its innards were on fire. Bruce Banner sat before the fire, warming his hands and talking into one of those little recording boxes the Midgardians were so fond of.

"Interesting fact!" he told it. "In an effort to stave off total boredom, I've started to do some experiments. Turns out ice planet has weird gravity, and I mean weird--"

The Valkyrie hooked a leg around a sooty old crate and kicked it closer to Banner, then sat on it amiably. She pointed her bottle at Loki.

"He's here to see you, Banner."

"What?" said Banner, momentarily distracted. His eyes locked on her bottle. "Oh, no thank you, I don't want any. Anyway, as I was saying, ice planet has weird gravity. I'd guessed that it might, because of the unusual size of its inhabitants and the closeness of its moons, but--"

Loki cleared his throat.

Now Banner broke off, looking almost fearfully over his shoulder. When he caught sight of the prince, blue enough to be a giant, but nowhere near large enough, his fear became confusion.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

"That would be very kind of you," Loki said.

He managed to locate a chair -- giant-sized, of course, must have been left by the original inhabitants -- and this he dragged over to their warm little circle. Banner watched him do this politely, the Valkyrie disinterestedly. When Loki had climbed up onto it, he leaned over and said, "The truth is, Banner, I have a downright unmissable offer for you."

He'd hoped to provoke some interest by this. But Banner only made a face.

"That's the kind of thing people in infomercials say," he said, as though all those words made sense to Loki. "I don't get it. Are you selling something? All I have is earth money."

"I am selling protection," Loki hissed enticingly. "Look at yourself, Banner! Midgardian! Small! Weak!"

"I'm only a few inches smaller than you," Banner said doubtfully. For some reason, the Valkyrie had doubled over in silent laughter.

"That's one of the ice princes, by the way," she said.

"Really?" Banner asked. He squinted up at Loki.

"Indeed. Prince Loki Laufeyson," Loki managed, with dignity, "of the royal house of Laufey--"

"That's repetitive," noted Banner.

"And, as one of the rulers of this land, I tire of seeing one such as you so helpless! So defenseless in the face of our climate!"

"It is really cold here," Banner said.

"At the mercy of whatever frigidwyrm or bilgesnipe could do you harm. I may be small for a frost giant," Loki continued, undeterred. "But I could be a great asset to you, and to this household. My magics are uniquely suited to our terrain, and I am a great hunter, I assure you. Why, just two minor mooncycles ago, I fought the great green beast of the marshes and escaped with my life, which not many a giant can claim--"

Banner began to choke for some reason. The Valkyrie continued in her drunken laughter.

"Look, listen," Banner said, when he'd recovered. "I appreciate this, I really do. But I don't need to get tangled up in princes or hunting or anything like that. I'm just looking for a quiet eternity exiled on this ice planet, no shocks to my system--"

Perhaps it was the phrasing that triggered desperation in Loki. Or perhaps it was the thought of not being accepted even here, in the lowest and basest hold Jotunheim had to offer. There were so many reasons he wanted to take up residence here: the wild chaos of it, the chance to upset his family. The fact that here, finally, were people who could not see him as too-small or too-weak, for they were hardly large or strong themselves. And he could offer Banner more protection than Banner currently had. And the truth was: Loki wanted nothing so much as the heady, contrary freedom that the Thunderer had. Roaming outside polite society. Questing for those who would inevitably come to worship him. Striking out, though others might call him foolish, because to strike out with a band of ruffian heroes was to declare oneself heroic.

Not that Loki genuinely thought he was a hero. But it would be nice to have someone else fooled into thinking he was one.

So now he reached into a pocket of his robes and brandished Angrboda's letter.

"Read it!" he said dramatically, holding it out to Banner and letting it flutter down to him. Banner caught it like he thought it might turn into a fireball on contact, but he didn't want to rude or anything. Then he squinted at the writing.

"...I can't read this," he said, after a few minutes. "It's written in giant or something. I can't read giant."

"Oh, give it to me," said the Valkyrie, with an entirely unnecessary swear. "I've got the Allspeak. I can read anything."

She read it aloud, for Banner's benefit. Banner stared up at Loki in amazement. Loki contrived to look both strong and impossibly tragic, because, compared to Banner, he was both.

"You're going to die?" Banner stammered. "My god. I'm so sorry. I had no idea. I mean, of course I had no idea, because I've only just met you, but it's still sad--"

"I knew we were one and the same!" Loki told him, lying through his teeth. "You and I both! No shocks to the system, eh, Banner? I knew it--"

"And that's why you want to spend your last days with me?" Banner puzzled out.

"That's exactly why," Loki said. "That's exactly it. And because I want to be useful, Banner. I want my last days to be days spent in service to one who needs me, one who relies on my talents, my great hunting skill--"

The Valkyrie belched again.

"I mean, I would have to hunt less in that case, which is fine by me, as it's boring," she informed Banner.

"Right, and he's going to die," Banner said, pointing up at Loki. "I'd feel like such a bad person if I turned him away! Sure, touching him would give me frostbite, but--"

In the blink of an eye, Loki shapeshifted into his paler, more bleached form. His family thought it was an illusion. It was not an illusion. It was a brilliant bit of magic which, he reflected with a sniff, they had never properly appreciated.

Banner gaped at him.

"Did you see that!" he told the Valkyrie. "He looks normal!"

The Valkyrie rolled her eyes.

"Trust me," she said, "no one who comes into this household is normal."

-

Loki's letter came to the palace on the wind.

Dear sire, dam, Byleistr, Helblindi,

I have decided to move out. I, Loki the Unloved, will burden the house of Laufey no longer. As I am an eternal disappointment to you, I trust it will come as no surprise that I have decided to become a vagabond. I have returned to the place you always secretly longed to banish me to: the frost-marshes near Quirt. There, I have become the sole protector of Bruce Banner the Midgardian. Though my path is strange, let it never be called unheroic!

Your son,
Loki

Also, please send my things to the Hall of the Valkyrie. Thank you.

Farbauti had such an attack of nerves that he screamed for several hours.

Chapter Text

In the house of Laufey, all were expected to wake at first moonrise. There was breakfast to eat and then ice to shape (ice-shaping, Laufey believed, kept Loki's hands from being idle, and idle hands were known to be the Allfather's playthings). There was luncheon and then temple to attend, and dull frost-hymns to chant. There was jousting and battle training to watch, but never to partake in. There was the evening meal, and then there was a respectable bedtime (two chimes past the sinking of the fourth minor moon).

The dilapidated hall of the Valkyrie had no such structure.

For one thing, its master came and went as she pleased, after pounding on the door to Loki's bedchamber that first night and declaring him officially in charge of seeing Banner fed.

"I told Thor I wouldn't let Banner die," she said, "but now you're here, and you're going to tell me you won't let him die, and all's well that ends well, isn't it?"

Then she disappeared for a few days. She returned with several new bruises, a sack full of gold, and two casks of something foul-smelling that, she told Loki and Banner darkly, they were on no account to touch, as she intended to drink it all herself.

In her absence, Banner had mostly wandered around the marshes, collecting rocks and snowflowers, squinting at the ground and muttering about gravity, and talking into his recorder box.

"I know this sounds complicated," he'd told Loki. "See, it's science--"

"Your 'science' is merely an infantile form of our magic," Loki informed him.

Banner looked offended.

"Hey, buddy, I didn't work my butt off for seven PhDs just to have a little ice prince insult the name of science," he said, wagging a finger at Loki. "The mysteries and wonders of your planet may mean nothing to you, but when I die, Thor's gonna take all my research back to earth, so my people can learn. Bruce Banner isn't going to go without leaving more than destruction behind, you can bet that!"

And then he was stomping off deeper into the marshes, so that Loki had to circle him and cut off three bilgesnipes before they attacked him.

Trailing after Banner should have been tedious, but it wasn't. Loki had hardly ever left the grand house of Laufey, never been on campaign, never been on a great hunting expedition. Now every day was a campaign and hunting expedition. And if the actual fighting and hunting was dull, then at least he had the satisfaction of knowing he wasn't nearly so helpless as his family had always assumed he would be. True, he was not giant-sized. But he had magic, and quick wits, and several very sharp knives. And an illusion that could trick a frost giant was, in the end, also an illusion that could fell a dragon, wyrm, or bilgesnipe.

And best of all -- as long as he checked in on Banner periodically, he could go wherever he pleased. As a child, he had always envied Angrboda's command of real magic. More than illusion, it was the magic of the land itself, drawn from the vast, wild ice. The healer-witch would go on magical expeditions to strange corners and return with powerful herbs, with the blood of beasts that would let him see into his patients' bodies and minds. This savage witchery was something Loki had, until now, known only in theory, as the royal house of Laufey did not hold with anything so barbaric.

But now he could hold with it, and hold with it he did. Neither Banner nor the Valkyrie seemed to mind if he dragged home a dead ice demon and used its flesh to bolster his magical talents. In fact, Banner seemed to regard it as helpful to his own research and never complained, and as far as the Valkyrie was concerned, ice demons made a fine evening meal anyway.

News of him did trickle back to the capitol, where he was of course a scandal. A prince (now they remembered he was a prince) who bleached away his fine blue skin, his heritage lines! Who consorted with the baser races! Who gave in to the savage magic of the marshes!

But to Loki, it was the greatest fun he had ever had in all his three centuries. The thought of his impending death sat sourly in his chest, right where the pain had been, but no matter. If he was to go, then at least he would go doing what he wanted. Living where he wanted. Looking the way he wanted to. He was no great warrior or beauty, but out in the deepest recesses of the marshes, keeping company with a foulmouthed Valkyrie and a plain little Midgardian, it hardly seemed to matter. He was Loki, and he did what he wanted for once, everything he wanted for once, and that was enough.

Still, not six cycles of the minor moons had passed before Farbauti was marching up to the Valkyrie's hall, intent on bringing Loki home. None of the house of Laufey wanted to be seen begging Loki to return, of course. But Farbauti, ever the coolest head in the family once his nerves passed, determined that it was up to them to keep Loki from disgracing himself. So Farbauti pounded on the Valkyrie's door. She woke from a stupor and glared at Loki and Banner as though this were their fault, then stomped up and wrenched the door open.

"Loki," she said, when she saw the giant on her step. "Who is this?"

Loki didn't want to say it was his awful dam Farbauti, so he only shrugged.

"Honestly, I feel reborn, like my old life was many centuries ago, so I couldn't possibly tell you," he lied.

"Loki!" Farbauti bellowed, enraged.

"Right, shall I close the door?" the Valkryie said, examining her nails disinterestedly. "I'm closing the door."

"You should close the door," Loki told her encouragingly.

She closed it in Farbauti's face. It was a great, ancient slab of black ice, like all of the doors of all of the once-great houses of the frost-marshes, and though Farbauti pounded on it for several more hours, he made hardly a dent. The Valkyrie, for her part, stumbled back to the kitchen and cracked open a new bottle. She began to sing bawdy songs in praise of her fellow Aesir women. Banner was by now making copious notes about all of his gravity discoveries. Loki cracked open a tale of the Thunderer's and leaned back in his over-large, over-stuffed chair.

"Shall I read aloud?" he called down to the Valkyrie.

"Odin's eye," moaned the Valkyrie, "not another one about-- about--"

"The Thunderer, and his new companions the Incredible Hulk--"

"You know what?" Banner muttered. "I'm going to excuse myself. I'm going to my chamber. I can do this better in my chamber."

"--and the powerful, stunningly beautiful woman warrior, Brunnhilde."

The Valkyrie snorted.

"Why not," she said. "It won't be anything I haven't heard before."

And in this way they passed a very pleasant evening.

-

The second time Farbauti came, it was with far less bluster.

He came upon Loki magicking the hall so that it appeared presentable. Of course, Loki hadn't intended to clean the place. Certainly, such a task was far beneath a prince of the house of Laufey. But he had his reasons for wanting the ceiling fixed and the stairs rebuilt, the flagstones sparkling and the sconces bursting with lovely mage-flame.

One of those reasons was simply that he preferred not to live in utter filth. It was this one that he'd presented to the Valkyrie, who'd only rolled her eyes and stomped away and told him to do as he pleased, but if he tried to enter her chamber she'd beat him back to his original blue.

This bothered Loki not at all. He had no intention of cleaning her chamber or Banner's. They could live in filth for all he cared. No, he began with his own room, then the guest rooms, then the kitchen, then the great entrance. It was here that Farbauti found him, on his knees, using a bit of dragonhide he'd enchanted to scrub away at a mysteriously sooty spot.

"My child," Farbauti intoned, staggering over the flagstones like he couldn't believe his eyes. "My child, what have they done to you?"

"Who left that door open?" Loki demanded crossly.

It had probably been Banner. Banner wandered in now after Farbauti, confirming this.

"Oh, should I go?" he asked Loki. "Is this private?"

"No," Loki said.

"Yes!" said Farbauti. "Loki, you wayward trickster. You have made your point! Whatever your point was! Now you must come home. These horrible marshes are no place for a child of Laufey's house, especially one as weak and small as you. You could be killed. The green monster that has been terrorizing these lands could eat you--"

Banner began to look green himself, probably over fear of the monster. Loki could hardly blame him. The thing was the vilest beast to walk Jotunheim, an abomination, all ungodly strength and terrible cruelty.

"Nobody wants that to happen," Banner said now, holding up his hands like he wanted to defend himself for some reason. "Nobody, okay? And that guy -- he hasn't even been out in ages! Nothing's been startling him, or bothering him --"

Now the Valkyrie stalked in, deliberately tracking mud over the flagstones, because of course.

“This one’s back?” she said, when she saw Farbauti in her hall. “Again? What does he want?”

Farbauti stood his ground, looming over the Valkyrie with that special, icy menace that made Laufey's house such a vaunted one.

“I want my child, who is too foolish to know what is good for him," Farbauti hissed. "Who owes fealty to the house of Laufey and the house of Laufey alone, and who should go where his dam commands him--"

The Valkyrie cracked her neck, squared her shoulders, and charged him. She picked up Farbauti like he weighed nothing, as though he were not five times her size, and carried him to the steps of her hall. Without any great fanfare, she drop-kicked him soundly into the mists of the frost-marshes.

His enraged yell could be heard growing fainter and fainter as he sped away in the direction of the town of Quirt.

"Oh, wow," said Banner. "That was a little. Uh. Well."

"I don't like talk of noble houses, or commanding," the Valkyrie said dangerously. "In my halls, no one spouts off about the royal house of anything, and no one commands, you all hear? I've had quite enough of that in my lifetime."

Then she turned to stalk back to her chambers. Before she made it out of the hall, though, a handsomely broad, golden arm appeared, tapping against the black ice door and casting a shadow across the flagstones. It was attached to a handsomely broad, golden person -- Thor, in fact. He was smiling broadly.

"Valkyrie!" he said joyfully. "Did you just almost brain me with a frost giant?"

Then he was embracing Banner like an old friend, chuckling at the Valkyrie's eye roll, and then--

Then he turned to Loki.

"Oh, you must be Thor," Loki said, as he'd rehearsed in his mind several times already. "How embarrassing. They didn't tell me you were coming."

He'd used a spell to eavesdrop, of course. And promptly decided that -- well. He was no great beauty, and would never be, but it couldn't hurt to make himself appear sweetly useful, could it? And how beautifully the hall sparkled at Thor, and Thor beamed around at it! And here was Loki, running a hand self-consciously over his hair and patting down his new green tunic -- oh, this old thing? -- and offering to get Thor's cloak.

Had Loki planned this? Only in his dreams. And yet since leaving the house of Laufey, his dreams had seemed to flower into strange, perverse reality.

There was something to be said for that.

Chapter Text

Thor, though he was one of those vagabond adventurer types who was most at home roaming the ice wastes, visited the halls of the Valkyrie often. This was, after all, where his friends were. And Loki had conspired so that where Thor's friends were, so too was Loki, and so Thor's visits here passed very pleasantly for the both of them.

All the time in the hall of the Valkyrie was pleasant, because everyone more or less did as they pleased. Banner had his science, and Loki his magic, and the Valkyrie her drinks and boisterous occasional fights with the local ice battalion. Thor was always discovering and felling new monsters out on the wastes, bringing their carcasses back to skin before the fire. Most nights, they all collected before the fire. There they supped and taught each other songs and told stories. Banner spoke of Midgard; Thor of his travels beyond the nine realms; the Valkyrie of the occasional opponent she'd had, long ago; and Loki of opponents he had entirely made up, as Loki had not, until this year, ever had the chance to do much of anything. Through this Loki learned that Banner and Thor had fought together on Midgard, and deduced that Thor likely was part Midgardian.

It was a disgraceful fact, one that did not speak highly of Thor's bloodline.

But Loki found he didn't care. Thor's hair, Loki learned, was really more golden than yellow, and was not in the least bit objectionable to Loki's eye. Nothing about Thor was objectionable to Loki. Loki was a frost giant, and so he favored broad shoulders, massively powerful legs, and arms that conveyed a delicious threat. Thor had all of this, and if none of of a size inconvenient to Loki's size. He also did not seem the least bit put off when Loki openly admired him -- in fact, he took the admiration with nothing more than a vaguely puzzled smile.

And, really, Thor had clearly fought to overcome his baser ancestry, had rejected his savage people and chosen to roam the realms in search of his fortune. This was something not even the God of Thunder could look down on. Indeed, even the Valkyrie probably admired Thor, beneath all her eye-rolling and bluster. This caused Loki some consternation for a time, for the Valkyrie was herself not unattractive, and Thor plainly admired her back. And, for that matter, Thor's friendship with Banner was also of a strength Loki had never encountered before. Some nights, Loki retired to his chamber early to dream up schemes that might separate all three of them. But then he'd remember that he had only a short time to win Thor's admiration for himself, and would think of how disastrous it would be to botch the attempt. And so he would revise his plans to sow discord among the other three.

Better not, he would think. Or, at least, better to get more information first.

More information was key. The Valkyrie and Banner knew his worst secret. And yet he knew none of theirs. This did not suit Loki, for he was one of those selfish beings who delights in unearthing the secrets of others and giving nothing in return. Among his family, he never could have admitted this, but it did not matter to admit it among people who would not care. Only the trouble was: he had no secrets to keep from these people, and as he would die within the year, he would hardly have time to develop any, either.

"Tell me," he told the others, on a night when all these facts felt particularly irksome, "you all call this the hall of the exiles--"

"Self exiles," Valkyrie asserted, as though this were significant.

"Yes, well," Loki said. "You know why I've exiled myself. And yet I know nothing about what brings any of you here."

"Science," Banner said quickly. "Just science for me. Definitely not -- not anything else. Ha, ha. Ha, ha, ha."

"I don't know what brought you to us, Loki," Thor put in. He'd been lounging before the stove and drawing a map of the realms for Banner -- all the planets, all the moons, all to surprisingly accurate scale -- but now he put this down and folded his fingers over the hard planes of his stomach, regarding Loki with a grin. He was burnished gold in the firelight and one strand of his hair had roguishly escaped the tail he'd bound it in. Loki, who had fully intended to ply all his companions mercilessly for their secrets, promptly abandoned this plan in the face of Thor's undivided attention.

"Oh, it's a very sad story," he said, breathing out dramatically and then launching into it, not merely describing the contents of Angrboda's letter, but discovering that he couldn't help but unburden the worst of his frustrations to Thor: how he had never lived! Him! Small, yes. Cunning, yes. More suited to magic than brute force. But still. Loki had always been certain that he had much to offer if only he'd ever fallen into circumstances that permitted him to prove the full depths of his power and ambition. Only those circumstances had never arisen. He was three centuries old, and in that time had not even left the house of Laufey.

Thor listened (and such careful attentiveness from Thor was a high) until that last part, whereupon he began to choke on his mead.

"You're Loki-Loki?" he said, looking now to Banner and the Valkyrie for confirmation. "The runt? The prince of mischief and tricks?"

Loki felt crossness descend on him at hearing his old nicknames, but Thor only waved when he saw Loki's glower.

"You were right to leave your house," he said sagely. "Loki, look at yourself. You've not done a single bit of mischief in all the time I've come to know you--"

As far as you know, Loki allowed, privately.

"--and you've taken up defending a guest to your realm, a guest you believe to be weak and in need of your aid. I can think of no more noble goal for one of your rank and position--"

"I'm very noble," Loki admitted. "I've always thought so. My impulses are just...sort of naturally heroic, really."

"Oh, Norns," said the Valkyrie, and made a coarse retching sound.

"You're alright," Banner said simply.

But Thor beamed at Loki as though he agreed, and so Loki decided that he'd fooled who he needed to fool, really.

-

And yet -- it had to be said that Thor's admiration was not entirely misplaced.

Loki had changed since leaving the house of Laufey. Notably, he hadn't stabbed anyone who did not deserve it, he hadn't used his illusions to shock and horrify hapless people at dinner, and he'd never once fallen into the kind of sulks that made him snappish and unpleasant to be around. If his chest pained him, he hardly noticed it, for he spent most of his time distractedly keeping Banner from being accosted by monsters, or else chasing monsters himself for the pleasure of harvesting their more magical properties.

Some, however, were so cute that he did no such thing. Those he deposited on Angrboda's doorstep, and more than once the healer-witch of Quirt opened his door in the mornings to find a wolf-pup, helpless six-legged mutant horse, or baby snake blinking up at him. Indeed, people began to spread rumors that prince Loki was off copulating with the beasts of the marshes, rumors which made the prince's family despair. None of them visited Loki now, except for Byleistr, who regarded Loki with a sort of loving pity.

Despite this filial disdain, freedom suited Loki. Perhaps it did not suit the people around Loki, as it had to be said that at times both Banner and the Valkyrie privately found him more preening and slick than they liked their acquaintances to be. But everyone has flaws, and these days Loki's were less pronounced than they once had been. And all the minor adventures the frost-marshes offered him made him, if not too much taller or broader, certainly more firmly muscled in his own slender way, possibly somewhat attractive, even.

This was to be significant, for one day the Valkyrie announced that she was leaving them for a few cycles of the minor moons, to visit Sakaar.

"Sakaar?" Loki asked disbelievingly. "Sakaar the vile? The doorways of the worlds, where the Thunderer won the great death games--"

"Was he really the winner, though?" Banner muttered, for no reason Loki could discern.

"Yes, Sakaar," the Valkyrie said impatiently. "I have dealings with that awful Grandmaster, if you must know--"

"A more evil and perverse being the universe never produced," Loki breathed out, not without admiration. Indeed, he liked best the tales of the Thunderer on Sakaar, where everyone was excitingly evil except for the Thunderer and his allies. Privately, Loki had always thought that evil must have its charms. Certainly, being evil was preferable to being dully overlooked, because anything was preferable to that.

"The Grandmaster pays well," said the Valkyrie now, in the tones of a woman who respected gold and gold alone. "So I've got no complaints, honestly."

Then, like she could tell Loki was already scheming to try and get himself invited: "You can come along if you want, just don't get in my way."

"This is a bad idea," Banner interjected suddenly. "If Thor were here, he'd agree with me--"

But Thor was not there, having taken himself off to the wastes just that morning. And Banner probably only wanted Loki to play protective escort for him again today, but as far as Loki was concerned, he could just stay inside until they'd returned from Sakaar, because Loki was going to Sakaar. He would not pass up a chance to see the malevolent, chaotic place that had figured in his dreams!

He dressed in his finest leathers, the ones that made him look (he thought) sleek and dangerous, and which he'd spent great quantities of Laufey's money on until Laufey had realized and cut him off. When it was time to go, the Valkyrie showed him their two ships: a lightweight, small one that was hers and a slightly larger one, of Midgardian make, that was Thor's and Banner's. Loki made note of them. All this time, and he'd had no idea that his companions could so easily leave Jotunheim. He would have to find ways to force them to bring him along more often. He only had so much time among the living, after all, and before he went, he intended to see as much of the realms and galaxy beyond as he possibly could.

It was this impulse which really propelled him to Sakaar, and truly his first few hours there were marvelous.

Such a terrible, wretched, exciting place! Gaudy celebrations in the streets! Hologram visions announcing the latest bloodshed in the death games! A great tower, all gold and red and purple and green, where odd-looking beings pitted their lives in minor games of chance, or lounged on couches, supping mysterious drinks! The Valkyrie said they were here for business, not pleasure, and yet could Loki truly be blamed for wanting to explore the pleasures? Soon enough, he cut loose from her and drifted into the crowds inside the Grandmaster's hall, wanting to take at least some time to explore on his own.

Then things went wrong. And, truly, it wasn't even Loki's fault. He'd only accepted a steaming drink someone pressed on him and taken his place on a long, low couch, when suddenly he realized that a man was staring at him. The man was of indeterminate age, as slender as Loki and only a bit taller, all dressed in fine robes of gold.

He said to Loki, "Um, ahhhh, you're kind of new, aren't you? Yes. Ah, you're just, uh, sitting here quietly, all sort of sneakily seductive, yes. Yes, I see you, you know. Um, I bet you think people don't see you, but you have your little something-something, yes you do. I find you new, which is to say I find you beguiling, which is to say that I'd like to collect you, ahh, yes I will--"

He captured Loki's hand. Loki found that he could not pull it away. He struggled to do so, but only ended up forced against the side of the couch while the man loomed over him. All around them, the tinkling, strange music of Sakaar played, and Loki had the sudden impression that every single carousing, bargain-making person around them was studiously ignoring what was happening.

"What is your name?" purred the man. "Tell me, tell me, my green-eyed treasure. Green? Oh? Yes. they're green. I'm fond of that color. Ha, ha, ha! Are you a fighter? Or a lover? Or my favorite: both? Ahhhh, what a coup, to find you delivering yourself to me. I so like when I don't have to work for it. I'm, mmm hmmm, older than I seem -- time passes strangely here. Why, we could have an eternity of pleasures--"

"You're mad," Loki managed.

After a lifetime of inattention, he supposed he should have been enjoying this, but he wasn't. This man produced a feeling of unease in him that he simply couldn't ignore. Mainly because he was still pressing Loki into the couch, with that astonishing strength of his.

"Why, yes?" the man said, as though he thought Loki was only just catching up to something everyone ought to know. "Yes, I have been, ah, accused of that, but it's rude, you know. I can't think of the last person who said it. Topaz! Topaz, who was the last person--"

A wizened woman appeared at their side. She cast Loki a snarling glance, then pointed at him.

"That one."

"No, Topaz, the one before that one--"

"Ted," Topaz barked out.

"Was it Ted? Then, uh, melt him," said the slender man blithely.

Topaz grinned and produced a long wand from behind her back. Loki watched in horror as the crowd around them screamed and tried to flee the area. The slender man appeared unaffected by this, picking one squat little figure out of the crowd with ease.

"There he is! There's Ted! Ah, yes, my old friend--"

Topaz pointed the wand at Ted, and with a burst of screaming and pleading Ted promptly melted. This naturally caused everyone else, including Loki, to erupt into screaming and pleading.

In the middle of this the Grandmaster -- for it was him, it had to be -- straightened up off of Loki. He put a painted fingernail to his chin and said, calmly, "Uh, was that Ted?"

"Dunno," Topaz reported.

"No, no, no," said the Grandmaster, wagging the fingernail at her. "Um, we can't just, uh, melt willy-nilly. I thought that was Ted. I mean, I wouldn't have told you otherwise. The melting is, ah, for special occasions, and, um, for making a point. I was trying to make a point. For my green-eyed new capture, yes! For my, ah--"

Of course, by this time Loki had been trying to quietly sneak away from the couch. This was easily done by leaving an illusion in his place, to occupy the Grandmaster and Topaz, but now the Grandmaster whirled on the illusion. When his hands passed through it, he did not seem at all bothered by Loki's trickery. He only said, placidly, "Oho, a mirage! How provocative, how enticing. He flirts with me, Topaz!"

Then he pointed a finger at the real Loki (despite the multiple Loki illusions Loki had produced in a flash, to try and draw him off), and said, "Ahhh, I think I will play the game, my green-eyes! Yes, I will! Guards!"

It was at this point that Loki had to admit that coming to Sakaar was not his best idea. And it was at this point that, miraculously, his salvation caught him by the arm. Actually, his salvation had been shouldering through the edges of the crowd, trying to grab the illusion-Lokis, or he would have hit on the right one sooner.

"Thor?" Loki said.

He was more grateful for Thor's handsome, golden face right now than he had ever been for anything before.

"You!" howled the Grandmaster. "Topaz, my melting stick! It's that criminal--"

Whatever the Grandmaster thought of Thor, it was lost amid the screams of the crowd. Thor's hand on Loki's arm was a welcome brand, pulling him down the halls of Sakaar and away from what was suddenly far too much chaos, chaos which, it must be said, Loki was somewhat adding to by creating various monstrous illusions to draw off the guards.

"Stop that!" Thor bellowed at him. "We must escape to the quinjet!"

"I am helping us escape to the quinjet!" Loki hissed back.

Whatever the quinjet was.

But Thor only shook his head and kept dragging him through the melee, as though his priority was not throwing off the Grandmaster as much as it was getting Loki out of here, and quickly.

Chapter Text

The quinjet was the second ship, the Midgardian one, and Thor spent much of their ride back to Jotunheim glowering at Loki over its controls.

"You are lucky, Loki, that since my first time on the Grandmaster's planet, I have learned many ways to escape that wretched place," he growled, "or we would have had to --"

"Use the Devil's Anus, as the Thunderer once did?" Loki guessed.

Thor sent him a complicated, very specific sort of glare, the kind meant to shame Loki to his very bones. But the joke was on Thor. Loki was by now basking in the glow of having escaped. He was pleased that he'd managed to survive an adventure, made it out by the skin of his own teeth, thanks to cunning and a well-chosen ally. That was the sort of thing that made life worth living.

Also, Thor had come for him. Banner had tipped him off, and Thor had rushed to Loki's side, worried. For Loki.

It made Loki's heart beat too fast. That same heart that would succumb to the ice energy and kill him, now finally doing something thrilling and useful for once.

"I'm terribly glad that you didn't want to see me made a sick man's pleasure slave," he tried now, hoping to turn the conversation more romantic.

"How do you know about the Thunderer and the Devil's Anus?" was all Thor said in return.

"I like the way you say that word," Loki tried, flatteringly. "Devil, I mean. Also the other one--"

Thor hit the side of the quinjet's controls.

"This seductive talk is exactly what made you so appealing to the Grandmaster, Loki!"

The thought that Thor might find him seductive or appealing to anyone quite sent his heart into overdrive. He could see his bleached skin reflected in the glass of the quinjet, slowly tinting pink. In a fit of embarrassed joy he turned it back to blue because no one needed to see him like that. This only served to make Thor bristle more.

"Did you do that in front of him?" he demanded. "He would have loved that--"

"Do you like me like this?" Loki said, gesturing at himself. "Really? Me?" The words slipped out without him thinking. No one -- no one on Jotunheim found him appealing. And so he had resolved to win Thor's respect and admiration by appearing perfect in other ways: selfless with Banner, a great helpmeet to tend to the Valkyrie's halls, a cunning mage, a powerful hunter.

But now Thor only turned to him, exasperated.

"Loki, you are no goddess Freya, it is true, but you do have your charms. Whatever color you choose."

Well, now Loki was embarrassingly blushing purple. He switched back to pale to stave off that blush. But he thought Thor must have caught it, because now Thor was smiling and shaking his head.

"Just promise me you won't go back there," he said, as they caught sight of Jotunheim hanging listlessly beneath its many moons. Thor slowed them down as they reached the ice realm.

After a few moments, Loki nodded. He didn't quite know if he was lying or not, but perhaps he wasn't. Sakaar still seemed, in retrospect, terribly exciting, and he did not like cutting himself off from the prospect of further visits. But neither did he like the thought of lying to Thor. This came as a surprise. Loki was very comfortable with lying, but Thor was earnest and protective, and he thought Loki had charms.

Well, no wonder he seems so precious to me, Loki decided, and tried hard not to be flustered by the thought. He'd avoided facing his own admiration for Thor head-on. It never helped to admire others too much, when no one had ever admired him back. But now Thor was saying kind things about him, and, well. Loki was not immune to that.

By now they were skimming the surface of Jotunheim, cutting through the wastes in the direction of the marshes. It was here that the poor Midgardian construction of the quinjet gave way, with a groan and the ship toppled sadly onto the ice, as though it could take them no further. Thor gave a swear and began madly hitting controls.

"It's no use," Loki pointed out. "We're lucky this Midgardian child's toy even got us here. I'm surprised that you deign to use it. You are half-giant, are you not? I'm sure we could find a smith willing to make you something finer, even if you are part-Midgardian--"

Thor stopped hitting controls long enough to stare at Loki from the corner of his eye. There was something charged and odd in that stare.

"Yes," he said slowly, after a moment. "I am...a quarter-giant, in fact. Though I learned only late in life of the connection. Tell, me, Loki, you never answered how you came to know of the Thunderer."

"Why, I read his novels, of course," Loki explained.

It was Thor's turn to go red, although why, Loki couldn't guess.

"That silly trash?" he groused. "Loki, you are far too intelligent to waste time with that--"

"It is not trash!" Loki said hotly. "The Thunderer, who possesses the great Mjolnir, does as he pleases, takes what he pleases--"

Thor looked sour.

"Oh, you admire that, do you?" he bit out. "And I suppose those worthless tomes tell you who he has turned his back on, to do all this? What people he has abandoned--"

Loki blinked at him.

"What on earth are you talking about?" he said. "The Thunderer has no people. There's no mention of where he comes from--"

Which, to someone who came from the house of Laufey, had always seemed perversely appealing: to be born instead of nothing, of the air, of the universe itself. But Thor only gave a grunt and banged his way out of the quinjet very suddenly. Through the glass, Loki could see him begin to tear off panels and start fiddling with wires, as though hoping to fix things through the power of his bad mood alone.

While Loki had to admire the ripple of muscles beneath his thin tunic, he couldn't help but be miffed. They'd been getting along. But somehow things had turned, and he couldn't tell why or how.

It was in this state that a pack of frost giants found them. And not just any pack, but Helblindi and his new mate, Herleifr, jovially marching with their men, for they were at this very moment embarking on their wedding campaign to conquer the crude Elof. It was clear that they had been recently feted by Loki's family, had perhaps even gone through with their temple marriage ceremony, for they wore loincloths of fine snow-white and great helms designed to make their horns seem longer and more comely.

Helblindi stopped in his tracks when he saw the quinjet.

"Why, it's that creature, Thor," he sneered, loud enough for his words to carry back to the quinjet.

Now it was Loki's turn to march out into the ice.

"Don't call him that!" he called out.

"Er, darling," said Herleifr. "Don't look now, but I think that's your brother."

Loki couldn't quite see Helblindi's expression, through the ever-present wind and mist and snow of their home realm. But he had the satisfaction of imagining that Helblindi's mouth had dropped open. For Loki was out on the wastes, clad very improperly, and caught alone with Thor.

I hope you put an official promise ring on Herleifr before he saw this, he thought with satisfaction. Because right now, I'm afraid I'm muddying our family name most terribly.

And in fact, Helblindi sounded extremely strained when he next spoke.

"Yes. Er. Just give me a moment. I should -- I should talk to him."

Helblindi stomped up to the quinjet. He was the picture of affront, which, as he was a frost giant, rather meant that he looked like he wanted to swallow Loki whole. Loki stared him down blithely, but Thor stopped banging the quinjet long enough to put himself between them, cutting a heroic figure in the face of Helblindi's ire.

"Herleifr," Helblindi called back through gritted teeth, "come help Thor fix this sad heap he and my brother are carting around, will you?"

Sighing, Herleifr obliged. This was enough to draw Thor off and leave Helblindi alone with his brother. Now Helblindi's voice was a hiss, and Loki had to strain to hear it over the bitter wind.

"You look a sorry sight, Loki!"

"Yes, well, I just had to escape an over-amorous suitor, so I'm not having a good day, I'm afraid," Loki snapped.

Helblindi's gaze slid to Thor, alarmed.

"A suitor? Is he taking liberties--"

"That's my business," Loki said loftily, enjoying the panic in Helblindi's eyes as his brother tried, and failed, to contemplate a romance between Prince Loki Laufeyson and Thor, mongrel vagabond of the wastes.

"Of course you said no, though!"

"To Thor? Hmmm. Maybe I didn't. Thor does have his charms."

"Loki!"

"He's my size," Loki put in gleefully. "Why, more than small enough to mount me, I should think. It's a wonder I never considered him before, actually."

"You'll bring shame upon our house!"

"Naturally, but I'll have such a lovely time."

"Loki," Helblindi said desperately, "Lord Savdilfari, you remember him? His official mate has just died quite suddenly. And I'm very sure he would happily take any other, he's so lonely. Why, if you just come home, we can set up a meeting. I seem to recall he always liked the set of your eyes--"

"No, thank you," Loki said coolly, just to watch his brother shake with rage. "Too old."

"Do you think a beggar like you can be a chooser?" Helblindi hissed.

"I'm beginning to suspect I'm not quite the beggar you all think I am," Loki said, and meant it.

-

Still, if he was to win Thor before his heart gave out, he supposed he would have to be quick about it, as his heart might give out at any time.

Thankfully, one day luck seemed to come his way. He was home with the Valkyrie, who was dozing off a hangover; and Banner, who was musing into his recorder about the strangeness of Jotunheim days which were actually nights, how the five moons of the realm divided time into such puzzling segments, and other dull talk of this nature. Loki was ignoring him and perusing the local broadsheet from Quirt.

ICE BATTALION OFFERS PRIZE TO WHOEVER KILLS THE GREAT GREEN BEAST, said the broadsheet.

Loki perked up.

He owed that beast a reckoning. Though it hadn't been seen in some time, not since before Loki had moved into the Hall of the Valkyrie. But he and all the rest of Jotunheim were convinced it was still out there. Loki in fact long maintained a healthy fear of it, because being smacked around by it had hurt.

But that was before he'd begun to grow all his magical skill. Before he'd had much experience with fighting.

And it would be so, so sweet to present Thor with its head.

Nothing is more romantic than conquering an enemy, Loki reasoned, and went off into flights of fancy involving Thor rapturously falling to his knees before him, overcome by lust at the sight of a Loki so powerful that he had felled the green beast.

Banner, however, abruptly destroyed those fancies.

"Uh, what are you reading?" he said. "And, um, why does it have that -- that little cartoon drawing of a large green man?"

Loki put the broadsheet down.

"Cartoon drawing?" he asked witheringly. "That is a copy of a painting by the finest artist on Jotunheim."

"Right, but you guys aren't exactly known for your artistic skills," Banner said.

Loki glared at him.

"If you must know, the 99th ice battalion has finally decreed that whoever kills the great green beast which was spotted stalking the ice-marshes shall gain a reward."

Banner dropped his recording box.

"What?" he said.

"Whoever kills the beast," Loki repeated slowly, "shall gain -- oh, that's nice. A trophy."

"A trophy?" Banner yelped, sounding scandalized.

"It looks like quite a nice one," Loki said. "And I think they carve your name into it."

Banner was looking green now, for some reason. Loki squinted at him.

"Are you alright?" he asked.

"Fine," Banner forced out. Now he stumbled and almost fell into the Valkyrie's stove. Loki watched as he clutched his head and moaned.

"What is wrong with you?" Loki demanded.

At this point, the Valkyrie roused herself.

"He is the beast!" she snapped. "By the Norns, I thought you'd have figured it out by now! I exiled myself because I won't serve the throne of Odin, and you exiled yourself because you're going to die, and Banner exiled himself because he turns into a huge green beast that terrorizes Midgard!"

"So he decided to come terrorize Jotunheim instead?" Loki shrieked.

"No, no, no," Banner was moaning, still clutching his head. "It's more complicated than that--"

The Valkyrie swore, and pointed her bottle at Loki.

"Alright, you're just riling him up. You'd better get out of here before he turns--"

"Before he turns?" Loki yelped.

"Into the beast!" said the Valkyrie. "So go! I'll calm him down! Or fight him or something. I haven't decided yet. Probably the fighting, though."

Banner was looking grotesque, his weedy arms bulging, his back so distorted that his shirt was ripping at the seams. Hurriedly, Loki packed up his broadsheet and sped from the kitchen, his heart pounding. Banner was the beast? Loki had been trailing the beast this whole time? But that meant that Banner wasn't weak at all, that Banner--

On the steps of the Valkyrie's hall, he ran into Thor.

"Banner doesn't need me," Loki blurted out.

It was humiliating. He'd thought to play the hero, but this whole time, he'd been just as useless here as he was in Laufey's house. And apparently they all knew it, because even Thor seemed unsurprised to learn that Banner was a horrifying, powerful monster. Thor asked no questions, expressed no disbelief. He only crossed his broad arms and stared at Loki, a careful look on his handsome face.

"Loki," he began.

"Marry me," Loki abruptly commanded.

He hadn't meant to come out with it like that. He'd meant to build to it. But he didn't have time. He was going to die, by the realms! And suddenly it was intolerable to think of dying here, where he was as dispensable as he always was. If he was going to die, let him die at least pretending to be loved and appreciated, with a place somewhere designated as Loki's. And right now, a place by Thor's side was the most appealing place he could think of. He found himself desperately bargaining for it.

"It won't be an imposition," he said quickly. "Why, I'll be dead before you know it! I have barely half of a major moon-cycle left, at most. And I'm quite good at magic. And I'm of very high status, the highest you'll find on Jotunheim, in any case, so that doesn't count against me."

Oh, he was sounding depressingly abject now. He dug his nails into his palms and powered through it.

"I know you don't love me--" he continued.

"I don't know you, Loki," Thor put in. He sounded sad, and that made Loki feel wild and furious. More pity was not what he wanted.

"That doesn't matter though, does it?" he told Thor, with a wild laugh. "Like I said, you won't have to put up with me for very long before I snuff it. And, and--"

Now he could hardly look Thor in the face. Not because he was lying. If he were lying, it would be easy to capture those blue eyes and try to beguile them. Thor thought Loki had charms -- surely this would make Thor quite easy to ensnare with lies. Unfortunately, all Loki had to offer right now were pathetic truths.

"I would very much like to have a romance," he finished haltingly, "before I go."

Thor regarded him for a few moments, the weight of his gaze painful to Loki.

But finally he said, his voice soft:

"I can do that."

Chapter Text

No temple on Jotunheim would have consented to marry them, but Thor pointed out that this would be no trouble at all.

"All of the Valkyries were ordained to perform marriage rites," he explained to Loki.

"What?" Loki said, wondering how Thor knew this. "They were? She is?"

She agreed that she was.

"It's so if you think you're going to die in an upcoming battle," she said crossly, "you can marry another Valkyrie, pool your resources with theirs, and ensure that your family and theirs are well-cared for. The system makes some sense."

"The system forces you to accept that you could die at any moment," said Loki, who already lived like that and so did not think too highly of the system.

"Yes, well, Odin Allfather and his hag of a daughter designed it, so you'll have to take that up with them," the Valkyrie bit out.

She agreed to marry them nevertheless, although she did look Thor over like she couldn't believe he had consented to it. Loki couldn't believe Thor had consented either, but he still felt that this was rude of her.

"He's said yes! Let's get it over with!" he hissed.

"One small problem, though," said the Valkyrie, still looking at Thor. "Any marriage performed by a Valkyrie is only legally binding for Asgardians."

So it wouldn't even bind Thor to him. Well, Loki didn't think he could ask for any more than this, so he didn't.

"Loki will just have to...pretend," Thor managed, after a few seconds. "Won't you, Loki?"

"Gladly," Loki bit out.

"And we need a witness," the Valkyrie said, "so we'll have to wait for Banner to come to, since I've knocked him out. But don't worry. It'll give me time to dig up some drinks. At least then we can have a toast after."

Of course, if the Valkyrie was bothering to give them an official toast, then it seemed silly that Loki only wear his old house-tunic like this.

"Ah, let me just get changed, then," he began, just as Thor reached back and tugged off his own hair tie.

"We can use this as your promise ring," he offered, winding it around Loki's smallest finger. "That's part of the custom here, isn't it?"

Loki hardly bothered to look at the makeshift ring. Thor's touch was hot and alarming, and now his hair tumbled around his shoulders. It was still that glorious, enticing gold, winking at Loki. Oh, what did it matter if the marriage was a sham? At least he'd managed to secure a marriage from Thor, period.

"I'll get my cloak, as well," Thor was saying. "And perhaps I can trim my beard a bit--"

Loki reached out and trailed a hand over the darker gold of that beard, feeling the hard jaw beneath. Thor didn't pull away, which felt like a victory.

"No need to go through such trouble," Loki managed.

But as this was the only wedding he was likely to get, soon Loki was rifling through all of the trunks in his chambers, desperate to find the black and green leathers that had apparently been so enticing back on Sakaar. He located them with relief, and then found some gold bracers he'd bought on a whim during a trip to Quirt. The result was almost regal, he thought, if in a rather showy way.

When he arrived back in the main hall, he discovered that Thor had thrown on his red cloak and covered the floor and walls with blue and gold dragon pelts.

"Behold!" he said, beaming at Loki. "The wedding hall!"

By now, Banner had awoken and stumbled to the foot of the grand staircase. There he sat, shaking his head and muttering.

"You're getting married? I'm being hunted, and your response is to get married?"

"I will let no one hunt you, Banner," Thor assured him grandly. "You are, as ever, under my protection--"

"As you were under mine, but now I feel I have to move out, thanks to that time you brutally attacked me," Loki put in.

Truthfully, he was starting to feel annoyed, because it turned out that Banner had once brutally attacked him.

Banner only kept shaking his head.

"No, no, no. That wasn't me. That was the big green guy--"

"I thought you were the big green guy!" Loki said hotly.

"Oh, no," Thor said, turning to him. "Banner insists that he and the big green guy are very separate--"

"We are separate," Banner said. "Oh, can we just get this over with? Can I just witness this wedding already? I got punched in the jaw, like, less than an hour ago, and now I just want to go to bed, guys."

As if on cue, a figure appeared at the top of the stairs. It was the Valkyrie. Apparently determined to show them up at their own wedding, she had changed into gleaming silver armor and a long blue cloak. She looked like -- well. A proper Valkyrie. Even Loki had to admit that the result was impressive.

"Are you two ready to be wedded?" she called down at them.

Both Thor and Loki gaped at her. Banner turned and looked over his shoulder at her, said, "oh, wow," and then, "I think that awed silence is a yes."

The Valkyrie stepped deliberately down the stairs until she stood just a few steps above them, peering down into their eyes.

"Approach," she commanded.

It gave the occasion a sense of grandeur that Loki hadn't even realized he wanted it to have. Both he and Thor approached rather nervously, as though they really were signing their lives away in marriage.

"As witnessed by Dr. Bruce Banner of Midgard--" the Valkyrie said, gesturing at Banner.

"Uh, sure, this is witnessed," Banner put in, raising a hand.

"And conducted by a Valkyrie who has rather foolishly sworn service to Asgard," the Valkyrie continued, "so begins the marriage rite. We gather to wed Thor and Loki. Their houses I'll not name, for it is not houses that make marriages--"

Here, Loki had to admit she had a point. The house of Laufey would never have agreed to this. Thor, too, was looking relieved, as though he knew and understood this fact.

"--but consent and commitment. So I ask you, Thor, shall you take Loki as your bride? Shall you hunt for him when he asks, make war for him when he asks, destroy enemies for him when he asks? Bring him gold from Vanaheim when he asks? Subjugate Alfheim, Jotunheim, Niflheim, Svartalfheim, Helheim, and Muspelheim when he asks? Defend Midgard for him when he asks--"

"I'm, ah, unlikely to ask for that last thing," Loki told Thor, in case this rather ridiculous set of expectations led him to get cold feet.

"Quiet, this is Thor's turn," snapped the Valkyrie. "Thor, will you shed blood for Loki when he asks? Will you tear your heart from its chest to keep him safe? Will the vision of his face be the last sight you see, when you are felled in battle and your soul destined for glorious Valhalla?"

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes," Thor said, counting off his answer to each of her questions in turn, like he took them seriously.

"Good," said the Valkyrie. "You are bound, then. And you, Loki. Shall you take Thor as your husband? Shall you weave for Thor, and bring Thor his meals, and keep house for Thor? Shall you bear his children, and keep his cup ever full of mead? Shall you draw him gentle baths when he comes in at the end of the day and is feeling tired and dirty, and--"

"These are the Asgardian marriage rites?" Loki whispered to Thor. "Seriously?"

"I know, right?" Banner said, grinning.

"Loki," said the Valkyrie sternly. "Shall you defend your home and children and purity for Thor? Shall you see to it that the crops are tended to and the servants kept in line, when Thor must go to war? Shall you wail the lamentations of the abandoned should Thor leave you for the joys of Valhalla? Shall you take up the widow's rites and avenge his death most brutally, swearing to die in battle so that you can join him?"

She and Thor looked at Loki expectantly. Loki paused for a moment. He had the odd thought that he would actually like his family to be here. Not because he wanted to see them, but because they would fall into fits if they learned he was going through with an Aesir wedding ceremony, instead of a proper giant temple ritual. All to marry Thor.

It was enough to get him into the swing of all this nonsense.

"Yes," he said, with feeling.

Thor and the Valkyrie only continued to look at him.

"I think you also have to say yes to all the questions," Banner said.

"What?" Loki said, aghast. "How many was that? Ten questions?"

"Eleven," snapped the Valkyrie, looking strained.

"Yeah. He had ten promises to make. You have eleven," Banner pointed out.

"That's not fair!" Loki said.

"Loki," Thor gritted out.

Right. No. Thor was doing this as a favor to him. Of course. Loki counted out the remaining yeses on his fingers, as Thor had done, so as not to miss one.

"It is done, then," the Valkyrie said. "You are wedded. You may commence a campaign of war together."

"They may what?" Banner said now, as though this were the strangest part of the ceremony. Until now he'd been sitting placidly on the step, hands locked around one leg, but now he drew back from them, like they'd offended him. Which was ridiculous, because he was practically a one-man campaign of war himself.

"Now we get to conquer something," Loki explained, like he was talking to a child.

"Or they can interrupt somebody else's conquering, and conquer the would-be conquerors," the Valkyrie said, shrugging. "It's standard. Bit of a higher realms thing."

Banner was shaking his head, and oddly, so was Thor.

"I agree with Banner," he said. "I suppose I have one condition for this marriage, and it is that we not do the whole conquering thing."

"Well, then what are we supposed to do?" Loki demanded. "One of those extreme vacations to Muspelheim? Be serious. We were just married! We have to cement the marriage somehow."

Although the conquering wasn't what made one married, marriage without a campaign of war to cap it off still seemed a bit like a half-marriage. And yes, he knew he couldn't ask for more. But still.

"You guys could just do the normal thing and kiss," Banner suggested, like he thought this should be obvious.

"Kiss?" said the Valkyrie, confused.

"What does the kiss do?" Loki demanded. "Does it mean he pledges a thousand servants and a hoard of gold to me?"

"Or does it create a magical bond, to make them stronger in battle?" asked the Valkyrie, squinting down at Banner.

"Maybe it is a metaphor?" Thor tried. He worked the next bit out slowly, as though he was making it up, "We kiss to show our willingness to rule the realms, by engaging in a -- a dominance of tongues, which--"

"No!" Banner said, waving his arms about like they were all being preposterous. "A dominance of tongues? What? That sounds terrible. No, you lunatics. You kiss because you're married and you love each other!"

That, to Loki, sounded even more ridiculous than anything they had yet come up with. After all, they had established, him and Thor, that Thor did not, could not love him. That this was a marriage borne more of his desperation and Thor's compassion than any real affection.

But Thor only said, "That makes sense, Banner. Thank you."

Then he tipped back Loki's chin and kissed him. The soft press of his lips, the gentle way he deepened it, and the earthy smell of him overwhelmed Loki. When Thor pulled back, Loki almost felt giddy. He felt as though he hardly needed a war campaign, or a proper temple wedding, to believe that this could be real.

"See?" Banner grumbled, from his place on the stair. "Honestly."

-

Loki had assumed that Thor lived out on the ice wastes. He wasn't entirely sure why he'd assumed this. Perhaps it was because that was the kind of thing the Thunderer did: sleep out beneath the stars or in ships in the void of space, endlessly camping and hunting and traveling with his various warrior-friends. And in his mind, Thor was rather like the Thunderer: direct, handsome, smarter than he seemed.

But after the wedding, after they rode two great wolves across the windy, snowy wastes for what seemed like hours, they came upon a massive, ancient wall, the foundations of a keep even older than the Valkyrie's.

"This," Thor shouted back at Loki, loud enough to be heard over the howling wind, "was my grandmother's!"

His giant ancestor, he must mean. Evidently Thor was descended from Jotunheim through a dam's line, not a sire's. Loki filed away that bit of information. He still knew so little about Thor.

He only had to hope that there would be time enough to pry.

Now Thor was pulling open a heavy stone door in the wall. Loki watched him do it. He was tired from his travels across the wastes, and it didn't escape him that the Valkyrie had cast him as the dainty Asgardian bride in this marriage. Such brides, Loki was certain, did not have to break their backs moving enormous stone slabs on their wedding days.

Also, Thor seemed proud to do it himself. Even through the wind and snow, Loki could make out his grin when he finally succeeded in dragging the door open. He beckoned Loki inside, shouting at him to leave their steeds, and so Loki dropped into the snow and made his way in.

There was no snow inside. There was nothing save an invisible ceiling. No, a ceiling of ice. It was plainly enchanted so that no snow fell onto it, and so they had a clear view of the stars in the vast dark sky. It was warm enough beneath the ice-ceiling that a dense thicket of dark green trees grew, forming the walls of a central room. Through their leafy boughs, Loki could see signs of other, smaller chambers. He picked one at random and crossed into it. There, he discovered a pool of gently steaming water -- a natural spring.

"An ice grotto," he realized. "This is an ice grotto. I had thought there were no ice grottoes left."

Not after those disastrous centuries in which the giants over-farmed their planet. They'd so tampered with the climate of their realm that they had lost most of Jotunheim's vegetation, and all of the summer (or Least-Winter, as it was known on Jotunheim). As a result, all of the ice grottoes had eventually frozen into plain old blocks of ice. But now Thor was saying, "There's still one grotto. This one. This is the warmest corner of Jotunheim, and so this place has survived."

Loki reflected that it was warm. Why, in the rest of Jotunheim, it was the stormiest, coldest season (Most-Winter), while here it was plainly the balmiest (Less-Winter).

"What a marvelous place," he managed, and meant it sincerely.

Thor leaned against one great tree and casually reached up a hand to pluck a strange, bright red orb that grew from it (a fruit, Loki's mind supplied). He bit into it, smiling. After a few seconds of chewing and swallowing, he said, "This is your home now."

He pointed a finger at Loki, the gesture somehow simultaneously decisive and teasing.

"You did promise to tend and defend this place as your own. Though I'll grant you, Loki, that those vows aren't binding for giants."

Loki stared at the warm spring, the lacy canopies of leaves that served as walls, the star-ceiling above. After a moment, he strode to Thor, wound his arms around those broad shoulders, and pulled him in.

"I said I could be made to pretend," he said, and felt Thor smile against him.

Chapter Text

The grotto was not large, only five rooms, one of which was Thor's office and off-limits to Loki. Loki imagined that he skinned carcasses in there, and did not feel too cheated. Aside from that, there was the spring room; a proper Jotunheim kitchen which Thor, like the Valkyrie, had ruined with an iron stove; the great hall; and a bedchamber that had soft moss carpet and a vast bed. Thor did not seem to think it strange if Loki claimed half of the bed for himself. It was certainly large enough, built for two full-sized frost giants.

That first night, Loki wondered if Thor would be opposed to waking up with Loki in his arms. The bed, being so large, didn't strictly call for such closeness. But a life of cold, isolated frustration made Loki call for it. He spent the night bringing himself closer and closer by increments, half-wondering if Thor would wake up. Thor did not. He did, however, reach out in his sleep and wrap his arms around Loki.

Oh. What a surprisingly delightful discovery. Thor was a cuddler.

He was much warmer than Loki thought persons ought to be, but the sensation was not unpleasant. And to feel so much of him -- the hard strength of his arms, the flat planes of his stomach -- made Loki's thighs and cunt tingle. His cock, too, was not immune. By the rising of the first moon, he was both hard and wet. And while he could take care of it himself, as indeed he'd been doing so all his life, he chose instead to wait expectantly.

There was nothing in those Asgardian marriage vows that spoke of sexually satisfying each other. Probably, Loki reflected, because the people of Asgard were fools.

Or, more probably, because they are all small, and so they have not spent their lives being denied, he amended, rather bitterly.

Thankfully, by the time the first two minor moons blazed above them and the silver light of morning intruded on the bedchamber, Thor was just as hard as he was. The evidence was hot and promising, nestled into Loki from behind. As Loki couldn't see it, he spent the moments before Thor awoke marveling that in this, Thor perhaps took after his giant granddam. Well. Good. Loki didn't want to spend his last days cheated of the full experience.

He knew when Thor awoke by the way Thor's breath skipped, just once, to signal his bleary confusion. Loki said, as evenly as he could, "We're in a compromising position, aren't we?"

It came out more hopeful than he'd wanted it to. Oh well. There was nothing for it. He was hopeful.

Thor only gave a snort of amusement in response.

"I'm married to you, Loki. It doesn't compromise me at all."

An encouraging answer. Loki let out a relieved breath to hear it. Really, when one reached the age of three hundred and was still untouched, one tended to look forward to being a little compromised. Loki said as much.

"You're a virgin?" Thor said.

He sounded surprised.

"It won't be an obstacle," Loki said quickly. "Since I've never been mounted before, technically we don't know that I couldn't withstand a good, hard fucking--"

Hard. Loki had not been kidding when he'd told Helblindi he might want Thor to mount him. He had so little time, so why not get to the good stuff? The stuff of his dreams, and in his dreams he was the deliciously satisfied, willing victim of a lover who could flip him onto his stomach and make up for years of frustration with gusto. He wanted a lover the way the Thunderer was said to be a lover: voracious, ferocious, practically a fertility god. Nothing staid and boring, no lying back and thinking of Jotunheim as though being rutted by one's mate was only an act intended to produce fat, humongous babies.

No, Loki wouldn't have time to make babies and was quite sure he'd be terrible with them in any case. So he wanted to fuck, dammit. He wanted to stumble out of bed so well-used that even his noble ancestors, lying dead in their ice coffins, would turn over and shudder at the wild roughness with which he permitted Thor to use him.

But Thor did not seem to follow his line of thought.

"Loki," he said gently, "if you're a virgin, then I could never use you in such a way. Not for your first time."

Loki was prepared to snap that Thor had better use him like he'd never used anyone before, but then he felt the press of Thor's fingers between his legs. Thor's other hand hiked up his nightshirt. Thor had strong hands, firm on Loki's skin. Intrigued, Loki parted his legs to better give him access.

Just the first rubs against his folds had him pressing down, eager for more. The sad truth was that nowhere on Jotunheim was there a cunt more neglected than Loki's, and now that Thor was willing to dip his fingers inside, Loki entirely abandoned his pride and settled for this. He'd rubbed himself off before, but when Thor was doing it it was more deliciously nerve-wracking, every touch a surprise and an elation. When Loki's cock began leaking, eager for the same attention his cunt was getting, he groaned and reached for Thor's hand. He closed his own over it to ensure Thor didn't stray from his ministrations. Then he turned so that he could fuck his cock into the sheets. Thor's only answer was a chuckle.

"I think we can do better than that," Loki heard him say.

He flipped Loki back over with ease. Loki gave a whine of displeasure -- where had Thor's fingers gone? But Thor brought his face between Loki's legs. His hand closed on Loki's cock while his tongue probed Loki's cunt. It was so much slicker, so much better than his fingers. It worked Loki wet and soft, while the buzz of Thor's beard on his thighs confused his brain, while the firm strokes of Thor's fingers on his cock dizzied him. Loki had never felt so many sensations at once.

He was running his mouth now, spouting obscenities and nonsense. But when he came, it was so intense, simultaneous in his cock and cunt, that all he could do was offer a satisfied shout. Thor pulled back and laughed at him again. He stroked Loki's cock until Loki was done coming, then came up next to him on the bed.

"Careful with that tongue of yours, lest it get you in trouble, Loki."

"I could say the same to you," Loki managed.

Thor only grinned at him. Oh, Thor had a nice grin. What a stupid thought, but there it was. And Thor only wore the flimsiest sleeping tunic, stretched wonderfully over his broad chest. When he leaned down to kiss Loki, Loki tugged at the tunic, eager to get it off of him.

"Don't worry," Thor promised, breaking the kiss momentarily. "We're not done yet."

When he finally entered Loki, Loki was glad Thor had pledged himself to gentleness. The stretch was nearly painful, the fullness so complete it made Loki cry out. Never had he felt something so hot and heavy inside him, breaching him like this. Now he understood why he'd always been passed over. Any larger than Thor, and, truly, he might not have been able to take it. But Thor was just the right size for him, just as Loki had always thought he might be. Getting him fully sheathed was a challenge, but not a trial, and then when he began to move--

Loki had never felt such pleasure. Now he did want Thor to go faster, use him more roughly, for the slow strokes were not enough. But Thor, though a wild vagabond of no family, would not give in to Loki's desperate commands.

"Hush," he told Loki, capturing his lips again. After robbing Loki of breath, kissing him carefully while fucking him slow, he said, "Let me make it sweet for you, Loki."

And so Loki had no choice but to surrender himself to the torment of being fucked open so slowly, so tenderly, until he fell apart more than once in Thor's arms.

-

For a marriage that had not merited war victories and that was doomed to end in his death, Loki thought that start was auspicious.

He was determined not to destroy their luck in any way. Their vows had been pretend, but from such silliness he'd reaped more pleasure than he'd ever even dreamed of, and so he would uphold those vows.

Or most of them. He could keep the grotto looking presentable, for it was not very big, for all that. And there had been that odd vow about baths that was also easily answered. They had a spring right there. When Thor wanted to bathe (and, being part-Midgardian, Thor apparently preferred baths to the more sensible frost giant method of simply scrubbing with snow until clean), Loki only had to direct him there. There were no crops they needed to worry about, for the very walls of the grotto gave them sustenance. Keeping Thor in mead was tricky, until Loki wrote to the Valkyrie and set up a scheme where he paid her for a cask to be sent over to them periodically. But the weaving and sewing was easy, at least. It was so warm here that they hardly needed many clothes. Loki went bare-armed more often than not, and Thor was frequently clad only in trousers. Loki did not complain about this. It was no burden to look upon Thor.

Still, there were certain vows Loki had to write off. Bearing Thor's children would not be possible. Even if he were to become pregnant, he would never live to see the child to term. He would also never wail when Thor abandoned him for Valhalla. He was the one fated to die, not Thor. Rather than spoil the mood with pointing these things out, Loki simply avoided mentioning them.

One especially difficult vow, however, was playing Asgardian bride and cooking for Thor. Loki simply did not like cooking. It was servants' work and he was a prince, albeit a prince who had disgraced himself by marrying the local tramp.

Loki solved this dilemma by serving all food in the custom of Jotunheim, letting it rot partially on slabs of ice until it was both fragrant and frozen.

"Er, when we hunted these bilgesnipes," Thor said, at their first formal supper together, "I didn't think you would--"

"Make a soup?" Loki suggested.

"Is that what this is?"

"It's a good soup," Loki insisted. "Why -- it's already freezing into a perfect solid mass of ice! You could cut your tongue slurping those shards of bilgesnipe!"

"And we want that?" Thor said.

Loki contrived to look hurt.

"You know what? Why don't I just prepare my own food from now on?" Thor said.

And that solved that. And if it was a bit underhanded of Loki, well. At least in the end they both ate what they pleased, and were happier for it.

For they were happy. Jotunheim's silver, moonlight-drenched days dragged into weeks, but Loki hardly felt the passage of time. In the grotto, he and Thor did as they pleased. They hunted together. Loki received packages of mead and broadsheets and novels, and read aloud from the tomes of the Thunderer while Thor made faces. Thor retreated into his workshop to skin things or bang around, while Loki practiced magic in the main hall, which had largely become his space. Visitors were few, but never unwelcome: the Valkyrie, bearing drinks and songs, sometimes even patient enough to teach Loki some Allspeak. Or Banner, come to talk science with a friendly and indulging Thor. Occasionally even a very polite and dutiful Byleistr, bearing news of the family. Sometimes Thor wrestled the wolves for fun and Loki watched. Sometimes Loki dissected a dragon to discover its new magical properties and Thor kindly pretended to be interested. Sometimes they ventured into Quirt or the Capitol to sell dragonskins and pelts. More than once, Loki's relatives cut him in the central square. Cousin Thrym, in particular, refused to acknowledge him. But Loki found that he didn't care.

And the truth was: more than once cousin Thrym didn't recognize him. For Loki had changed. Happiness agreed with him, and had transformed his sour countenance into a satisfied one. He would never be large and handsome in the manner of a frost giant, but now there really was something elegant to his trim size. He would never be attractively bald and wondrously be-horned, but now his dark hair fairly shone. And those eyes of his, be they poison-green or blood-red to suit his whims, seemed less sulky and bitter, and now more genuinely amused by life.

In fact, the talk around the capitol was these days not that Thor was off rutting with beasts, but that Thor had contrived to seduce the little prince and done such a fine job of it that he'd almost made Loki pretty.

There were realer marriages that were not so happy. And if this marriage was only a lie, then at least they were so eager to have fun with the lie that Thor never pointed out the obvious: that he did not love Loki. When he discovered, for Thor was not stupid, that Loki was as mischievous and occasionally duplicitous as people had always said, he took it in stride. He had pledged himself to marry a trickster, Loki thought, and Thor was not the sort to go back on a pledge.

As for Loki, it must be said that he admired Thor and enjoyed everything about him, but Thor was not perfect. Midgardians were half-beings, like the Aesir, and so Thor did not have a cunt they could enjoy. But that was no matter. Loki was determined to be a good spouse and enjoy Thor anyway. And, really, the first time he took that heavy cock into his mouth, he was grateful that there was no cunt to also try and pleasure. Thor was so large that this was quite enough work.

In this act Loki was woefully inexperienced. In all his eagerness, he tried to take it too deep until he was choking and had tears in his eyes. Thor stroked his hair and tugged him off, letting him catch his breath.

"Slow," he chastised. "You don't know your limits, Loki. Here, let me take control."

Thor was good at control. How strange, that the realm's wildest, least cultured soul should be so suited to taking command! Sometimes Loki chafed at the easy way Thor might order him about, but the truth was: he adored it as much as he hated it. Thor did not ever demand things out of malice, and the rather regal way he took charge was merely an offshoot of his care for things. He did not love Loki, no. But now Loki counted among those Thor considered his people, like the Valkyrie, who Thor chastised for her fights and carousing, or Banner, who he insisted was ever under his protection.

Loki had so little felt cared for that he hardly cared for anyone, save Thor. But Thor took to caring for things easily, no matter how peculiar or troublesome. Now he kept a firm hand on Loki's head and guided him so that he did not choke, encouraging Loki all the while. When Loki managed to make him break off and groan in pleasure, he counted it a solid victory. He blinked up at Thor in satisfaction.

"Careful, you'll make me come!" Thor managed, as though this could be anything but a compliment to Loki's skills. He pulled Loki off again, the action rougher than normal. Loki kneeled between his legs and breathed out hard, feeling how wet he was already, how the decisive treatment enflamed him. It seemed there was nothing to be done but to kick off his leggings, and this he did. Then Thor's strong arms were helping him up, situating Loki in his lap. Thor's cock now pressed hotly against the bare flesh of Loki's cock, already straining against Loki's belly.

"Go on," Thor said roughly. "Fuck yourself, Loki."

He was looking at Loki as though he were Loki's for the taking. It was a magnificent reversal. Loki reached for Thor's cloak, ignoring Thor's enraged surprise when he moved away, and used it to tie Thor's hands above his head.

"I will fuck myself when I'm good and ready," he told Thor haughtily. "I know I don't have all the time in the world, but if I want to spend it tormenting you a little longer, then I'll do that."

And then, because Thor dared to look as though he was merely humoring Loki, Loki sank back onto his knees and made good on his word.

Chapter Text

One day the local broadsheet announced that Fandral, the writer of the Thunderer novels, was to visit the capitol.

Loki was beside himself with joy. Thor, however, took the news as though Loki had announced he was pregnant with a desiccated frigidwyrm.

"That trash again, Loki?" he said. Thor was hardly ever in a mood, and yet from his tone Loki could tell that this was decidedly a mood. There was a strange humor that was not remotely humorous in Thor's voice.

"I would bet you six dragonskins these novels are not what you think they are," Thor continued. "Fandral is probably one of the races you most despise. Perhaps he is from Vanaheim. Or maybe--" A gleam appeared in Thor's eye. "Maybe even from Asgard."

He turned out to be depressingly correct in this prediction. Fandral was a foppish Aesir type. He gave a talk at a tavern in the capitol and opened it with so many grand proclamations of fealty to Odin Allfather that Loki was almost embarrassed for him. Of course, they all knew that Odin was the most powerful being in the realms, that his holdings were the vastest, and that his riches were untold. But only Odin's people seemed to care half so much about it. And in any case, it never escaped Loki that the too-proud Asgardians had little love for Odin's heir, the princess Hela, so they couldn't be so joyously pleased with their royal house as they pretended to be.

Despite all this, Loki did enjoy the question-and-answer session that followed. He knew that, in the past, discovering that he'd idolized the works of an Asgardian would have depressed him. Would have consumed him with bitter anger at what his sire and dam and brothers might say. Now he didn't care. Fandral was a competent storyteller and he nimbly explained several plotholes that had always bothered Loki. It also transpired that he'd written other novels -- romances, tales of Odin, more romances. All were for sale at very reasonable prices. Loki was perusing these after the talk when Fandral sidled up to him and executed a very proper bow.

"Pardon me, your highness," Fandral said. "But I couldn't help but overhear some of your countrymen mentioning who you are. Can it be, despite how very un-blue you are? Is one of King Laufey's children truly a fan of my humble work?"

When Loki assented that he was, Fandral pressed copies of all his books on him for free, a turn of events that Loki wasn't at all going to argue against. Then Fandral offered to buy him a drink and before long Loki was explaining just what had brought him to shed his color and heritage lines and leave Laufey's house. He left out the particulars, the names and the dire monster secrets and his more embarrassing emotions. Instead, he rather chatted up the heroic end of things. He thought Fandral would appreciate that.

"Did you ever tell your family that you're on the very brink of death?" Fandral asked, fascinated.

"Well, no," Loki admitted. "But I don't think they would care. They would only be depressingly dutiful about it."

"Just as well, then," said Fandral. "And to use your last days to befriend a Valkyrie and help a defenseless Midgardian, and then to pledge your love to a derelict that all others look down on! The romance, your highness! It astounds me! And has it, er, paid off?"

"Oh, I have absolutely no complaints in the bedroom," Loki assured him, to which Fandral said, with a very gratifying look of admiration, "Indeed, Prince Loki. That is the way to go."

They would have talked further, but now the door to the tavern banged open. There stood the Valkyrie, silhouetted in thunder and storm. Loki blinked, not expecting to see her here. Fandral only hurriedly excused himself.

"Ah, yes," he said. "Good old 'Hildy--"

"Hildy?" Loki said.

"I have to ask her about, er, a mutual friend of ours," Fandral said. "Excuse me, your highness."

He pulled the grumpy-looking Valkyrie off to one of the tavern's private backrooms, and that was that. No more did Loki see or hear of him. But he'd received a free copy of Fandral's entire catalogue, so he wasn't sure he needed to see or hear more of Fandral. He took himself off for home and spent the night curled up happily in bed, devouring several romances, waiting for Thor to show up.

Thor had continued in his sour mood all day and eventually vanished off into the wastes with Banner, which Loki supposed was preferable to hearing him grouse about how very much he hated Loki's tastes in literature. Still, by the time a full night had passed, Loki had begun to miss him. He was pathetically worried when Thor returned, and it made him snappish.

"There you are!" he said, when Thor stalked in and threw himself into an armchair at the foot of the bed.

"Here I am," Thor agreed. He was still glowering handsomely. His red cloak he'd thrown over the armchair, letting it pool magnificently around his solid arms and at his feet. He looked like an angry king. Why, though, Loki had no idea.

"What has you in such a state?" Loki said.

"Valkyrie tells me you have charmed none other than your favorite author," said Thor.

"Is that it?" Loki said, rolling his eyes. "And why should that concern you? I'm not married to Fandral. I'm married to you."

He almost shuddered at the thought of being married to Fandral. Fandral was so...Asgardian! That well-trimmed mustache, those soft silks and leathers, that affected, pompous attitude. At least Thor was every bit the quarter-giant he claimed to be, a being of presence and power, whose stormy anger made Loki's own ire perk up, and his cock and cunt, too.

"You still do not know your charms, Loki!" Thor bit out. "Valkyrie says Fandral now proposes to write about you!"

Loki blinked.

Well, alright. That was flattering. That endeared Fandral to him somewhat.

Thor was still speaking. Now his anger was giving way to something else, a glint of satisfied mischief. It put Loki on edge. Satisfied mischief was his thing, not Thor's.

"Fandral famously only writes about those who are heroic, noble, and attractive, and so this means that you, my bride, are more than capable of being all those things," Thor said.

"Does that displease you?" Loki snapped.

Thor gave him a wolfish grin.

"Why should it displease me, when I've always known it? Even when you've been at your worst, Loki. But no. What displeases me is the thought of Fandral bandying your name about. You pledged to be mine, not to belong to all the realms. Perhaps I shall have Valkyrie tell Fandral what I intend to do to him, if he makes my bride into something as tawdry and infamous as that Thunderer of his."

"Tawdry? Infamous?" Loki said. "What could possibly make the Thunderer seem tawdry and infamous to you?"

The Thunderer was properly famous. Only terrible villains were infamous, and the Thunderer was no villain. Not that Loki would have minded if he were.

Now Thor pulled off his armor and shucked his trousers, then came to bed.

"Enough talk of the Thunderer," he told Loki, and his next words were a clever echo of Loki's just moments before. "Did you marry the Thunderer, Loki? No. You were content to marry only Thor, a nameless nothing."

"Oh, don't be dramatic, Thor. You're not nothing to me," Loki protested, but Thor was already pinning him to the bed.

-

Loki was not above taking advantage of Thor's mood to goad him a bit. Not too much. Not, Loki reasoned, in a cruel way. But this wilder Thor, powerful and furious, had a certain allure. It was a Thor that had fascinated Loki ever since he'd found a clipping of some broadsheet from Svartalfheim among Thor's things. Thanks to the Valkyrie's occasional Allspeak lessons, he'd been able to make out some of the language. He'd discovered that it concerned certain criminal dealings which had angered Odin Allfather. That Thor had kept it suggested it had some meaning to him. Loki, thinking it over, mulling on the way the Grandmaster had reacted to Thor and how Thor had appeared on Jotunheim out of nowhere, decided it was entirely possible that Thor had been involved in these criminal dealings. Perhaps Thor was no mere Midgardian tramp. Perhaps he was also a fugitive from the Allfather.

The thought did not upset Loki. On the contrary, it seemed to have no effect whatsoever on his feelings for Thor. Loki by now knew he loved Thor unreservedly, though Thor was merely humoring him with their marriage. The difference between his feelings for Thor and Thor's for him was a secret, ugly little pain he avoided at all costs.

I must be content, he often told himself.

No. I am content.

And, more than that, most days he was wildly happy. Only he wanted more, wanted everything Thor could give him, even Thor's worst sides. Loki was not measured in his appetites, and so if he could not have Thor's heart, he would settle for stoking Thor's black mood into a passion.

That night, after some well-placed barbs and teases, he was mounted from behind. Rutted. Fucked as roughly as he'd fantasized about. Only the reality far exceeded the fantasy. He had always known Thor was strong, but such strength put even the house of Laufey to shame. This sort of fucking involved grabbing, and being grabbed. Pushing, and taking hold. It left bruises on Loki's hips and on Thor's shoulders. Every kiss stole Loki's breath, and every thrust tested his strength until he broke, sobbing for the intensity of it. He forgot the Thunderer, the grotto, their friends, their vows, his disappointing life, his certain death. He knew only that when he keened, Thor rewarded him with strokes so filling they made him moan, that when he tightened his legs around Thor, Thor growled and fucked him so hard it wiped him clean of any protests or mischief. When Thor slipped in a finger next to his cock, the fullness was so perfect he shrieked. When Thor pulled out, he was so empty his head spun.

There could be no tricks or lies with Thor when they fucked like this. It was like the moment he'd begged Thor to marry him. Loki was undone, honest again.

And, oddly, he had the sense that Thor was honest too. It was a peculiar thought. He caught hold of it only after he'd come in Thor's arms, with Thor buried inside him. Now, as Thor finished himself off in Loki's sore, satisfied cunt, Loki realized that this, this astonishing strength, was something Thor had never shown him before. Had concealed from him.

It was brutal, exacting, and yet as suited to Thor as his careless command was, as his gentle attention was.

Oh, how had Loki succeeded in capturing Thor? Yes, Loki was noble-born, of a fine house, and yet he knew he was inadequate next to Thor. That, had he not come armed with the pitiable fact of his looming death, he never could have convinced Thor to marry him.

Such a marriage was enough for this half-life. Loki would not have time to demand more. But were the world his, were he to have time and power enough to make his dreams come true, he would have commanded that Thor love him, because Loki was a selfish being.

What a web I would make of your life, Loki thought sleepily, curling into Thor's arms. Already Thor was regretful, guilty for the nature of their coupling. Loki waved off his halting apologies, his thoughts turning in a different direction.

If you were truly mine, I would want make you feel it every second of every century we spent together. I would demand your attention by any means. I would grow jealous of everything you had that you could not share with me. I would sooner kill you than lose you, than lose to how you do not love me half so much as I love you. Oh, I would be a beast.

Just as well, then, that there isn't any time for it.

-

And, really, the affair of Fandral was to be the only time they ever came close to a genuine fight.

Mostly they had petty little arguments that Loki rather enjoyed and that Thor forgot as soon as they happened. Spats over who had been the one to finish off that bilgesnipe, or whose turn it was to go invite Banner and the Valkyrie to supper. One day Thor, annoyed by how Loki never deigned to jump into the bath with him, dragged Loki off in the middle of Loki scrubbing himself clean with snow and tossed him right into the spring. Sputtering, Loki discovered that he could swim (of course he could; he was a frost giant, and were they not descended from the great serpents of the ice oceans?), and exacted revenge by pulling Thor in after him. That was something like a fight, or at least it started that way, but it ended far too pleasurably to be a fight.

This time, Thor again insisted on being maddeningly gentle. For of course he was not at all repentant for throwing Loki into the spring, but he still felt guilt over their earlier wild night. So now he was thoughtful and attentive, pressing kisses to Loki's nipples and rubbing the lips of Loki's cunt until Loki gasped. That Loki had gone blue to escape the heat of the water did not seem to bother Thor. If anything, he chased the places where Loki was now flushing purple with his mouth, hoisting Loki up onto the edge of the spring to better access his cock, his swollen cunt.

When he had Loki panting, he pulled him back into the water and helped line them up. Loki was unsure how this would work. Thor was part Midgardian. They, unlike the other races, generally couldn't bear the cold of a frost giant's true touch. But Thor didn't seem at all perturbed by it, and when he thrust into Loki he showed no signs of being hurt. Quite the opposite. This coupling seemed as enjoyable as all their others, and even Loki had to concede, in the end, that Thor had known what he was about when he suggested they bathe together.

Not that he wanted to tell Thor that. He affected annoyance until they were out of the bath, just to have Thor go to the door and fetch him the weekly broadsheet, which Loki intended to spend the evening reading.

Thor came back squinting down at the news. Loki, who wasn't entirely sure Thor could read giant, hoped that there wasn't another announcement calling for Banner's head.

"What is it?" he asked sharply. "Is it Banner?"

"Loki," Thor said. "You did not tell me it was your birthday."

Oh, drat. Was it his three-hundred-and-first already? Of course they'd published the fact, as Loki was a royal, but he'd been hoping to keep it a secret and spring it on Thor at some opportune time. The next time they went hunting, for example. It would make a decent rebuttal, saying, "Of course you weren't the one to fell that frigidwyrm. I'm the one who felled that frigidwyrm. And I can't believe you'd fight with me, over this, on my birthday!"

Well. Too late for that now. This was still the birthday he'd most enjoyed, in all his three-hundred-and-one Jotunheim years. Which Banner told him translated to about five hundred Asgardian years and nearly a thousand Midgardian ones, thanks to something to do with time distortions and wormholes. Time distortions and wormholes aside, it was a depressingly long time to spend hating one's birthdays.

"You must make it up to me," Loki announced, knowing that Thor thought he was only making up for not knowing about the birthday. Thor had no idea he was being used to make up for three hundred years of misery.

"How?" was all Thor said.

Loki enjoyed the way he said it. Immediate. Selfless. As though fully prepared to go questing for Loki's sake, to fell great monsters, to destroy kingdoms and keeps and return with such fun heaps of gold, jewels, and slaves.

But Loki had another idea.

"I've never been able to fuck you, for you Midgardian men are only half-formed," he said mournfully. "But, well. You do have another hole, don't you? Though naturally we don't have to use it if you don't wish to, darling. But I'm going to die. And it's my birthday."

Thor did not look like this argument held much sway with him.

"You could have asked for that any time," he said, unimpressed. "There is no need to be whining and devious about it, Loki."

Still, he came to bed. And then Loki passed a very pleasant birthday indeed.

Chapter Text

Loki would have been content with bedding his glorious husband and leaving it at that, but not a week later they were invited to the hall of the Valkyrie for supper. This was itself a strange development because the Valkyrie did not host suppers and because she’d been off-planet for most of that week, returning only recently. It became stranger still when they arrived and Banner, hauling open the door, said, “Surprise!”

“What surprise?” Loki asked, as he and Thor stepped inside. “I already know you live here.”

“No,” Banner said. “Surprise. Surprise like: ‘Surprise! It’s your birthday!’”

“My birthday was a week ago,” Loki said. "Over twenty moons have risen and sunk since then."

“We know,” said the Valkyrie, rolling her eyes. “But Banner and Thor have still decided to throw you a Midgardian birthday party."

It was now that Loki noticed that the hall was festooned with pelts cut into strange strips, hanging from the ceiling. More pelts had been artfully arranged on the floors. Banner or possibly the Valkyrie, but probably not the Valkyrie, had made a round little lump of marsh-wheat cake and scrawled something on it in some Midgardian tongue.

"It's a sort of pastry to commemorate you. It says 'Happy Birthday, Loki,'" said Thor, apparently well-versed in this Midgardian language.

And Loki said, "Yes, I gathered," in the tones of a giant who, like all modern giants, was largely a carnivore and had never in his life contemplated eating anything made of marsh-wheat.

He ended up patting the cake several times and saying, "Mmmm. Yes. This is certainly. Yes."

The marsh-wheat cake also came with a song he mostly did not understand, and which the Valkyrie said was too repetitive and boring to bother translating fully. Banner still performed a rousing rendition of it until Thor cut in and mentioned that really they should have candles, which necessitated an explanation of what candles were (small sticks designed for the express purpose of being melted onto cakes). There were no candles to be found on Jotunheim, so Loki used his magic to set the marsh-wheat cake on fire. Then Banner sang the song again and Thor instructed Loki to blow out the flame and make a wish.

He did this, wishing not to have to eat the marsh-wheat cake. Happily his wish came true. Within a few seconds, it became clear that his mage flame had completely eviscerated the cake.

"Aw," said Banner, sounding disappointed.

"Well, this was certainly something," said Loki.

"We're not through," the Valkyrie informed him. "Midgardians also give gifts, same as the other races."

"And I have something for you, Loki," Thor said gently.

As he left the room to fetch it, Loki perked up. He'd never had a proper birthday gift, not really. It was not that his family forgot, oh no, it was simply that the house of Laufey would have considered it rather a waste to lose shieldbrothers and war steeds all for Loki. So instead of properly questing to bring him something suitable, like a million rune frogs or the carcass of one of the dragons that lived on the great fifth moon, or the severed heads of tender baby ice demons (as many ice demons as years, plus one for good luck), they'd merely mention several times that questing against magic frogs and mother ice demons and moon dragons was a great expense for one so small, and wouldn't Loki prefer a nice vole head or something instead? Voles were more suited to his size, anyway.

But now Loki would have a true birthday. Perhaps even three hundred and two demon baby heads. Just for him.

"Three hundred and two what?" Banner said, in a choked voice.

Thor kicked his way back in from the kitchen. His hands were full with something wrapped in regal red cloth, something bulky and strangely-shaped. Loki squinted at it.

"Er, Val," Thor said, looking stormy for some reason. "A word?"

The Valkyrie went to the alcove by the kitchen to talk to him, leaving Loki and Banner sitting on the hall steps with the remains of the marsh-wheat cake. Loki strained to eavesdrop on their conversation, but it was difficult because they were talking low.

"--this?" Loki heard Thor muttering. "--even if it is gold."

"--just said to grab the nearest--" the Valkyrie retorted. "--first thing I saw."

"Like a cow," Thor said, puzzlingly.

"--doesn't even want--" the Valkyrie replied. "--wants baby heads."

"What?" Thor said.

"Right, see, exactly," Banner told Loki now. Apparently he was also eavesdropping. Loki felt offended on Thor's behalf, but now Thor was bringing his gift out into the light.

"It wasn't easy to wrap that thing," said the Valkyrie stubbornly, on his heels. "Or to fetch it all the way from--"

"Yes, thank you for delivering it," Thor said quickly. "Loki, as I have not Banner's way with celebration--"

"Was that what this was?" Loki said.

"Hey!" Banner said. "You should be glad we threw you a party."

"--I have asked Valkyrie to help me procure this gift for you. I hope it will suit," Thor finished determinedly, like they hadn't spoken.

He held out his gift. Loki took it by one end and felt how strange the shape was. Was it a hoop and a set of staves, for playing snow croquet? A bowl on curved legs? He had to assume that the result would not be what he wanted (too small for a dragon, not nearly squishy enough to be frogs or demon heads), but there was a sense of thrill in this moment, in simply not knowing. He unwrapped the fabric slowly, so as to prolong the thrilling feeling, and then--

Oh.

Oh.

Those silly Aesir marriage vows had forced Thor to promise him gold. He remembered now. And not just any gold, but gold from Vanaheim: shinier, glossier, prettier than all other gold. Of course, these days it was sold anywhere, even in the market stalls of Quirt, but still. Thor must have given the Valkyrie four or five dragon pelts to trade for this helm. For it was a Jotunn helm, a proper one, designed to elongate the appearance of the horns. And that Loki had no horns hardly mattered to Thor! In the house of Laufey it had of course mattered. "Why waste your time enhancing assets you don't have, runtling?" cousin Thrym had always chided, whenever Loki had asked for a helm. "You'd look silly, like you were only pretending to have horns," Helblindi had always jeered.

But to Thor it didn't matter. Thor had brought him a proper horned helm.

"It's a bit much--" Thor was saying, with a grimace, but Loki cut him off.

"It's perfect. I love it."

"You do?" Thor said.

"Of course!" said Loki, who had never before had anything so fashionably frightful, so attractively fearsome. "I'll wear it always."

"You will?" Banner put in, with a puzzled look. Thor began to look uneasy for some reason. Perhaps he thought the opinion of his fellow Midgardian counted for something. But what did Banner know of style?

"He likes it, so what's the big deal?" the Valkyrie was saying now, coming to Loki's rescue and throwing up her hands. "Let him wear it."

"It's the loveliest thing I've ever owned," Loki told Thor sincerely.

"I deeply wish that were not true," Thor choked out, ever a sympathetic husband.

-

Most-Winter subsided, bringing on Much-Winter and then Many-Winter. As this was Jotunheim, all of the seasons were appropriately terrible, with great blanketing snow and harsh gusts of wind. But for once Loki enjoyed them. The grotto was a welcome retreat when he and Thor tired of the frost, and when they wished, they could always travel to the great ice-waterfalls in the North or the keeps of the snow birds in the South. Loki taught Thor how to slide down the waterfalls, and Thor taught Loki how to lasso the snow birds and fly on their backs. Sometimes they invited Banner and the Valkyrie along on their journeys, including on a few trips to the moons. On the absurdly hot first moon, Thor and the Valkyrie gleefully hunted moon imps while Loki and Banner lagged behind, panting with heat. It was here that Loki learned of Banner's greatest secret.

"Back on earth, the other guy started to take over," Banner confessed, wiping at his brow. "It was like -- I would turn into him, and that would be it. No more me. Just him. I didn't have control anymore. So Thor and our friend Tony, they started trying to find ways to force him back. Turns out, extremes do it. Extreme cold. Extreme heat."

"Banner's great green counterpart is at times like a large baby. He can weather the worst of battle, but detests certain minor discomforts," Thor said now, circling back to them and plying Loki with gruesome little moon imps. Loki picked them up and admired them, as a spouse should, avoiding all the teeth. Then he dropped them and watched them scamper away.

"While me, I'm not so delicate about the cold," Banner said. "I'm a scientist! You know how many research trips I've been on? I can handle being uncomfortable. So I mean, if you think about it, I'm probably more useful to have around than he is."

"Are you, though?" said Thor.

"Yes, are you?" Loki said.

Banner scowled, and they had a hard time, later that week, coaxing him into journeying with them to the second moon. They took that trip alone together, but this turned out to be for the best. The romance of bathing together in the moon's oceans was, to say the least, rather overwhelming, and Banner probably would not have appreciated it.

On the third moon, the moon made entirely of salt, they had no excuse for their coupling. There was nothing romantic about a salt moon covered in salt desert and packed with salt-monsters, only Loki had privately decided that before he left the mortal coil he wanted to join the moon-high club, and they had already rutted on the other two moons, so why not this one? Soon enough he and Thor found a nice little salt cave and got down to it, despite the fact that both Banner and the Valkyrie had tagged along on this trip.

Banner did not discover them. The Valkyrie did. She leaned against the cave entrance and surveyed them, entirely unperturbed but for one thing.

"Oh look, he's wearing the helm."

By now Loki and Thor had sprung apart and were trying to cover each other. The Valkyrie regarded this like they didn't have anything she hadn't seen before and also didn't have anything that particularly impressed her.

"Would you give us some privacy?" Thor demanded.

"Sure," the Valkyrie said. She gave Thor a roguish grin. "It's just nice to see that you've become used to the helm. The oh no-not-that-he'll-look-like-a-cow, he'll-hate-it-I-hate-it, I'd-rather-you-have-brought-him-a-tesseract helm--"

"They have tesseracts in the markets of Quirt?" Loki cut in. "No. Wait. Did you travel all the way to the capitol to get me this?"

The Valkyrie looked him up and down once, still revealing no admiration whatsoever.

"Oh, your husband paid me to travel farther than that," was all she said, mysteriously. "But I'll leave you to it. Give a shout when you're done. Banner and I just found a hundred-foot salt beast and I need some help to kill it. Honestly, I'd leave it alone, but it would be nice to be able to season dinner every once in a while."

-

Loki almost felt bad after that. Thor, after all, was not a wealthy person. He had his ice grotto and his red cloak, and they never hungered or wanted for anything, but they hardly lived in the lap of luxury. For Thor had no family, no house to claim. He survived by selling pelts, and if he had any money, it seemed to go to buying Loki the green tunics and black leather baubles Loki liked. Thor, for his part, was content with his battered old armor, his thin shirts and worn breeches. Wealth was something Thor neither possessed nor courted.

One event illustrated this perfectly.

On the night Loki had gone to see Fandral speak, he'd paid the ten-snowpenny entrance fee and received an Aesir coin in change, made of shiny gold and stamped with the Allfather's profile on one side and the princess Hela's on the other. Thor had later found the coin in the grotto and, in a fit of uncharacteristic annoyance, opened the door and hurled the coin out into the snow. This had only told Loki what he already knew: that Thor was smart enough to discern that Loki had received the coin from his favorite Aesir author, and that Thor had no high opinion of Fandral's writing.

But it also spoke to the fact that Thor never hoarded or gloated after gold. He gave it up when necessary to make a point. So what did it matter that he had likely paid the Valkyrie as much as thirty snowpennies for the helm? Ten for the ferry to Vanaheim, ten to cover the costs of the helm, ten for her trouble, Loki reasoned. All told, it would have been no great expense in the house of Laufey, but for Thor to have spent it all to uphold a silly marriage vow that did not even bind him, well. That meant a great deal to Loki. It made the helm even more precious, for now the helm was not simply the loveliest thing he owned, but proof that Thor had affection for him.

Not love, though. They never spoke of love. And Thor was the type, Loki privately felt, to say if he loved one. Thor did not trick, lie, or wheedle. He was straightforward. And so the terms of their marriage were always clear to Loki. From Thor he would receive care, compassion, even enjoyment. But not love.

This only made simple kindnesses like the helm even more precious. Loki did indeed wear it everywhere he could, even when it was rather ill-advised to wear it. The fourth moon was packed with dense trees and the helm's horns were likely to become caught in the vines and branches. Loki wore it there anyway.

This was how he came to learn how swiftly things could change, how happiness could turn in an instant.

For the fourth moon was also the moon of the vine-snakes. Loki knew this. All giants knew this. The snakes were devious, lazy creatures who slept coiled around in the moon's great trees. One snake was as long as fifty giants, which would have made them dangerous had they not been so prone to sloth. They never attacked anything that moved too much, that seemed to squirm. They liked their prey to be close to sedentary, and so they were no trouble at all as long as you kept moving.

All the more reason for him to fuck me rough, or for me to fuck him rough, Loki reasoned, once they landed on the fourth moon. Or both.

But they never made it to that stage. When they were passing through the forest, searching for a sleeping snake to skin, Loki discovered that his helm was tangled in the trees. At first he tried to wrench himself out of it. Then he realized that he was only muddling things, entangling the helm deeper in the vines. He called for Thor, who was several paces ahead. Then he stilled for a few minutes, trying to work out how to free himself.

That was all the snake needed.

Loki hardly processed what happened next. The snake uncoiled itself, so fast it was a blur, and made straight for him. Thor gave a shout and then Loki saw -- shockingly enough -- a look of naked fear on Thor's face, a look Thor had never worn before. Thor collided with him, all strong arms and brute force, and then they were off tumbling through the trees as the snake's jaws closed on the golden helm, still hanging there.

If the Valkyrie had been with them, she would have attacked it. If it had been Banner, he would have said something inane into his recorder box, like, "Huh. These snakes are perfectly adapted to their environment."

Thor only said, "Loki, you could have been killed."

His voice was rough, wild. He still had that ashen look on his face. On their way back to Jotunheim, he was clipped and removed, not himself at all. Though Loki tried to engage him in conversation, tried to say thanks, to apologize for the loss of the helm, Thor would not be drawn out. He deposited Loki back in the grotto before saying, wildly, "I need to go. There are -- there are things I must mull over, Loki. Alone."

And then he was gone, off in the wastes. Loki stared after him, trying to understand his upset.

And then it hit him.

Loki, you could have been killed.

Loki should have been killed. He'd been shocked by the snake attack. Really, genuinely shocked. The kind of shock that should have ended his life. But then, he'd been shocked too on Sakaar, and when he had discovered that Banner was the great green beast. He'd been shocked when he'd learned that Thor lived in an ice grotto, that an ice grotto still existed, and when he'd learned that the Thunderer novels had been written by an Aesir. He'd even been shocked by the gift of the helm, and, though that had been a pleasant shock, Angrboda had never said that he needed a malevolent shock to die -- just a shock.

And yet he lived. He lived, though he should have died many times.

And Thor, who knew Loki had a propensity for trickery, who knew Loki was the prince of mischief and lies, was clearly was thinking the same.

Chapter Text

He believes that I have tricked him, Loki thought, as he pounded on Angrboda's door. Thor thinks I have lied about my death. I never showed him Angrboda's letter, as I did with the others.

And if he'd been able to find that letter, perhaps he would have held off on visiting Angrboda. For clarifying whether he would in fact die came second. Ensuring that Thor did not hate him came first, and if he'd been able to explain Angrboda's diagnosis he would have waited for Thor to return before ever attempting to contact Angrboda.

But he didn't have any means of explaining. And when Angrboda opened the door Loki realized that he could hardly fall upon the marsh-witch to save his marriage. His marriage had always been a sham, and anyway it was the middle of the night and Angrboda was saying, "Prince Loki of the house of Laufey? I hope this is urgent. Otherwise I've a mind to tell you to come back tomorrow."

"You told me I was going to die," Loki blurted out. "The last time I came to visit you. You wrote me a letter and everything."

Angrboda squinted down at him. It seemed to take him a few seconds to recall what Loki was talking about.

"I told you you had a rather common and very easily treated case of heartfreeze," he said slowly. "I suggested antacids."

"No, you didn't!" Loki said, shouldering his way inside Angrboda's shabby waiting room and planting himself firmly in the center of it. "You told me I had the horn-plague, that any sudden shock would kill me, and that I had only so much time to live."

Angrboda stared at him.

"No," he said, "No, no, no. There was a case of horn-plague that day, but it wasn't you. It was Lokki of the house of Lafey. You know, Svadilfari's late mate, a seasoned warrior of well over nine thousand years when he passed--"

"You sent me his letter!" Loki realized. "That's why I thought I had the horn-plague!"

Angrboda was so stunned that he didn't even bother to close his door. He only dropped into the nearest chair suitable for his size, letting snow snarl into the room and pile on the carpet. The next few moments were moments of utter silence, as the gravity of the situation hit the marsh witch.

"I did think it was strange," he said, in a strained voice, "when, soon after I sent Lokki a letter instructing him to avoid any sudden shocks, he and Svadilfari decided on one of those extreme vacations to Muspelheim. I mean, I didn't think it was exactly my place to tell others how to celebrate over eight thousand years of marriage, but, well--"

"He had no idea he would die, just as I had no idea that I would live," Loki forced out.

Angrboda peered down at him again now.

"Loki," he said, "surely this is good news for you? And while I cannot apologize enough for the stress, you look as though the last year has agreed with you."

"It has," Loki said. "That's the problem."

Now he was coming out with it in a rush. How Angrboda's letter had prompted him to leave his home and family and former life, how it had made him pursue Thor of all people. How Thor had agreed to marry him because Thor thought him doomed to die, and how happy they had been in spite of that. How Thor now knew, as Loki did, that their sham marriage was founded on a lie of even greater proportions than Loki had ever known.

"He will think I knew," Loki said, "and that I was tricking him, and--"

Angrboda came and kneeled beside him. He patted Loki gingerly a few times, as though attempting to comfort him.

"I will write him a letter, clarifying things," he told Loki. "All will be well--"

Oh, but it wouldn't be. How could his marriage to Thor go on, when it was clear that Loki would live after all? No, the most Loki could hope for was that Thor wouldn't hate him, or believe himself ill-used. And how stupid he'd been, desiring Thor's love. Love? Now all he wished for was to happily stay married.

Angrboda, meanwhile, was bustling about, locating ink and parchment and writing out an explanation. He showed it to Loki, who could only nod his assent. It was fine. All was fine. Not joyful, not blissful -- merely fine. He could explain things to Thor and then they could break off the marriage, for it had never meant anything real anyway. And then?

Perhaps he will suggest that we be friends, Loki thought, with gritted teeth. It seemed like the sort of thing Thor, so normally kindhearted, would suggest. But it would not be enough. His feelings for Thor were greater and stronger than any mere friendship, and always would be. And though he hadn't felt that pain in his heart in months, now Loki almost wished it back, for the thought of being merely friendly with Thor hurt worse.

I cannot do it, he thought wildly, on the long journey back to the grotto. I cannot. I must, but I cannot. Oh, if only I could beg him or trick him or impress him terribly somehow!

But Thor was not home when he arrived at the grotto. Instead, there was another man waiting by the door, too small to be a giant and not so broad as Loki's husband. Even from the back, Loki could tell that he was past his prime, white-haired and well into his thousands, but though he was old, he did not seem weak. In fact, everything about the man, from his gaudy but undeniably fine armor to the firm set of his back, radiated power.

Not that any of this mattered. Loki did not want to see guests today.

"Whatever you want, I'm afraid you'll have to come back later--" he began, but then the old man turned to face him.

It was hard to mistake that profile, the famously cunning set of the lips, the missing eye. This was the face plastered on Aesir coins, the face of the wealthiest, most powerful being in the nine realms. Odin Allfather.

Loki took a step back.

"I must see Thor," Odin told him plainly.

"Why?" Loki blurted out. "Surely you can have no business with him."

But hadn't he suspected that Thor was a fugitive from the Allfather? That Thor, so wild and well-traveled, had made powerful enemies, among them Odin himself? No, no, Loki would have to take a new tack.

"The one you seek is my mate and husband," he said, for even though the marriage wasn't binding on either of them, Odin didn't know that. "And I should introduce myself. I am Prince Loki Laufeyson of the royal house of Laufey. So if you intend to press a grievance against Thor, know now that it is the very crown of Jotunheim you are challenging--"

Not that Odin had ever had any trouble doing that, and as Loki's words slipped out of him he was well-aware that he was dangling war before the finest warmonger the realms had ever known. It surprised him how little he cared. Perhaps his family would be upset, but then he didn't care about that, either.

Odin's eyes narrowed for a moment.

"Thor has settled down?" he said. "And with the son of Laufey?"

Loki was about to retort that Thor was not so far below Loki's station that he didn't make a perfectly fine husband, not that it was any of the Allfather's business, but Odin suddenly broke into a grin. It was just as wily and rascally a grin as Loki had always been told Odin Allfather possessed, and yet it lent a strange lightness to the old man's countenance, all the same.

"How fitting," Odin said. "When Thor was born, to celebrate, I waged war on you giants. But you, your birth ended that war--"

"Yes, because my parents begged you to let them send me to the frost-marshes of Quirt, I know," Loki said irritably. Then Odin's words caught up with him. "Wait. Why the Allfa--why the devil should you have had any cause to celebrate Thor's birth?"

The Allfather stared at Loki as though Loki was being very stupid indeed.

"Why, because he is my son, of course," Odin said.

-

Naturally, after this Loki had no choice but to let Odin inside. He tried to be hospitable despite the near-hysteria that was consuming him, but it was hard. It was made harder by how Odin kept murmuring things like, "ah, yes, I was conceived in that spring," and "oh look, wyrm soup hard enough to bloody the tongue, just like mother used to make."

"I should have known Thor would come here," he told Loki when they were settled before the stove, each awkwardly tapping their soup.

Loki hardly had it in him to offer a response. He was too busy thinking, rather pathetically, Thor is a prince of Asgard? Thor?

Thankfully, the Allfather was rather like Loki's family, in that he did not need to hear other people respond in order to enjoy the pleasures of his own voice.

"I have searched for that boy for eons, it seems," he confided in Loki. "His sister, the princess, finally fell in battle with Surtur of Muspelheim--"

Finally? Loki wondered, the thought intruding on his musings about Thor.

"--it was a relief," Odin continued. "She wasn't very popular with the people. I was going to banish her to Helheim, in fact -- named the damn place after her, so it's not like it would have been such a surprise for her -- but I realized I could just propose one of those extreme vacation things, and, well, long story short, Surtur very obligingly sent her there for me--"

"When?" Loki managed.

He hadn't heard about the death of the princess Hela.

"Ah, well. Months ago," Odin admitted. "That was why it became so critical to find Thor! We could not let anyone know of his sister's death until we secured him, for without him we have no crown prince--"

"Crown prince?" Loki said, hearing how high and unnatural his own voice sounded.

"My secondborn," Odin assented. "And so now my heir. Thankfully. Thor has always been less power-hungry than his sister, not so much of a trial as Hela is. But he is wayward, in his way. And I am an old man with great pride, and so the last time I saw him we quarreled."

"Over what?" Loki managed, unable to contain his curiosity.

Odin waved a hand, as though it was of no consequence.

"This and that. There is nothing that boy will not take into his mind as an offense. 'Father, you banished me to Midgard.' 'Father, you sequestered me and mother away from from my bloodthirsty sister and lied for years about the state of our family and who was your preferred heir.' 'Father, your web of mistruth has caused spite and hatred between myself and Hela.' Nonsense, most of it. This time it was that I would not let him invite that comely giant, Jarnsaxa--"

"Who?" Loki said. For all that Angrboda had assured him did not have the horn plague, ice really did seem to be piercing his heart.

Odin looked at him sternly.

"You must understand," he said, irritable about it. "Thor had such appetites! First there were those flirtations with the lady Sif, and then that little Midgardian doctor. For a time, I thought he had even found himself a beautiful Valkyrie. I permitted those dalliances, hoping they would lead him to settle down. But he didn't. When the Midgardian showed him the door, in he ushered Jarnsaxa--"

"Did Thor love Jarnsaxa?" Loki asked, dreading the answer.

"Hard not to, with arms and thighs like that," was all Odin said, like it hardly mattered that Jarnsaxa was apparently a giant of tremendous size and beauty, unlike Loki. He continued, as though the important thing was being allowed to say his piece. "But still. Stability. Strength of mind. That was what I wanted from Thor, and when instead he flitted like lightning from adventure to adventure, from lover to lover, we argued and he left Asgard. And so when his sister fell, I could not find him!"

Odin paused here and helped himself to some soup. Then he leaned in, looking pleased as an old dragon.

"But then, not more than a few weeks ago," he told Loki conspiratorially, "Thor sent that Valkyrie of his back to Asgard, to the treasury. I imagine he thought he was being clever. Brunnhilde still has friends in Asgard, and he and she both know those wily traitors would not reveal her presence to me unless I knew to ask. But I did know. For Thor had directed her to take the helm of my mother--"

"Oh," said Loki, who had thought the helm was worth no more than thirty snowpennies. "Oh, so that is the priceless helm of Bestla. Oh."

He felt very faint.

"I sensed its departure," Odin informed him. "It is one of the most valued items in my treasury, so it is laced with powerful magic to enable me to track it. I was able to trace it to Jotunheim's fourth moon not a few hours ago. When I found it there, I realized right away that Thor must be hiding himself in his grandmother's keep!"

The Allfather now surveyed the keep, looking satisfied. He appeared not to notice how very miserable Loki was, so pleased was he with the fact that he had hunted his son down successfully.

"Jarnsaxa," Loki tried. "He is--he is still alive? And unwed?"

Odin waved a hand again.

"Oh, yes. On the market still, and lovely in just the way you frost giants are--"

He squinted at Loki and gave another shrewd grin.

"But it doesn't matter, does it? Thor has finally settled down. Now he can take his place as crown prince, with you as his queen consort. Yes, I must send word back to Asgard! Thank you for the soup, my dear, but I must step out momentarily and shout for Heimdall to announce the joyous news! Tell Thor I will return upon the hour!"

With that, Odin Allfather departed, leaving behind a more devastated Loki than he had found. Loki had always heard that the Allfather had that effect on people, but was unprepared to experience it for himself. Now he was left alone to stew in his misery.

Thor, a prince! Crown prince of Asgard, no less. Which meant that, for Thor, their marriage had indeed been binding, that Thor had sworn vows tying him to Loki forever, although it had to be this Jarnsaxa he truly loved. For a moment, Loki was bitterly glad. He, not the beautiful Jarnsaxa, had ensnared Thor. Not that Jarnsaxa who was sure to have lovely horns, broad shoulders, a great warrior's physique.

But.

I cannot insist on the marriage, Loki realized, his heart sinking. I cannot.

All his plans to beguile Thor had evaporated the moment he had learned who Thor truly was. What Thor truly was. When Thor had been, as Thor had claimed, a nameless nothing, it was easy to treat this as nothing more than a bit of mischief. Why not try to wheedle his way into staying married? Loki was a prince and Thor a tramp, and the marriage would benefit Loki while doing no harm at all to Thor.

But he is to be the king of Asgard, the most powerful position in all the nine realms, and it helps him not at all to be tied to me. Particularly when he loves another and has the power to have them, Loki realized.

The truth of this made him feel sick. Before he knew it he was lurching up, nearly upsetting the bowls of soup, and heading for the bedchamber to pack his things. He was frantic about gathering together what he could see, for he had to leave, leave now. He could not spend another minute in the grotto, knowing that from here on his marriage to Thor would likely be annulled. Indeed, he knew he was missing things -- his bracers were somewhere, but he could not find them; and his sleeping tunic -- but he could simply ask that Thor send all that to him. In fact, he would leave Thor a note alongside Angrboda's note, explaining everything.

This was his state of mind when he pratically fell into Thor's office. That it was off-limits to him hardly occurred to Loki. He only wanted to find some ink with which to pen the note to Thor. But here he faced yet another painful shock.

Thor kept very little in this room. Only some very well-made armor, suitable for a prince, as well as the shattered remains of what looked like a once-fine hammer. And, on a table in the corner, right next to some ink and parchment, a pile of letters.

Loki had progressed enough in his Allspeak lessons that he was easily able to read the top letter. It was from Fandral, it entreated Thor to come home, and it threatened to keep publishing tales of Thor's adventures, spreading the news of his glory, if Thor did not think of the many friends who missed him desperately.

Loki blinked at this. Then he blinked at the shattered hammer.

Thor was the Thunderer. Thor was not only Asgardian, not only a prince. He was also the being Loki most admired, the lover and brother-at-arms of Loki's fantasies. Though Thor's parentage had been a surprise, this was not. This was almost a relief with how right it felt.

And it changed nothing. Loki still pulled out a fresh sheaf of parchment, laid it next to Angrboda's letter on the table, and composed his note.

Thor,

Your father has been here. He has told me everything. While I will think on our time together, always, with affection and love, I have realized that I cannot hold you to your marriage vows. They were a mistake on my part, as this letter from my healer will explain. For this reason, I have decided to return to the house of Laufey. Accordingly, please send the papers of annulment, as well as any of my things you may find, to the Jotunheim palace keep.

Gratefully yours,
Loki

Chapter Text

Loki had peered in through the palace windows, once, on a day he and Thor been visiting the capitol.

Laufey had been slurping his soup, plainly enjoying the shards. Farbauti had been shaping ice and complaining about his nerves. Byleistr had been polishing his helm in the corner, nodding along amiably to a droning cousin Thrym. Everyone had seemed perfectly content with these activities, because despite Farbauti and Helblindi each attempting to force Loki back, the house of Laufey did not particularly need Loki there in order to be the house of Laufey. They were all as happy as ever without him present.

Now, they might not even have noticed him slinking back in if he hadn't let the palace door slam loudly behind him. Laufey looked up from his soup. Farbauti paused in his ice shaping. Byleistr put down his helm, and Thrym momentarily stopped droning.

"Loki?" Byleistr said. The others said it as well, but Byleistr was the only one who said it like he was happy to see Loki.

"You haven't brought that mongrel mate of yours?" Farbauti hissed. "Not here, Loki! Not to our home!"

Loki let his sack of belongings drop right there in the front hall. He brought a hand to his temple, pained somehow.

"He will be my mate no longer," he said bitterly. "I have given him permission to annul our marriage."

This was a bridge too far for Laufey.

"Permission to annul?" he said. "If anyone should be annulling, it is you, not that Thor! You may not be much of a catch, but on no account should he be be permitted to reject one of Jotunheim's royal house. Have you no shame, Loki?"

"I'll take you to the temple to process the annulment," put in Farbauti, dutifully considering his role as dam now. "Your sire is right. No need to be tied to that low person anymore."

Loki only sent his parents a withering look.

"Thor is not low," he forced out. "Quite the opposite. Thor is the son of Odin Allfather. He was only living here because he had an argument with his father. But now princess Hela is dead, and Thor is to return to Asgard to be hailed as Odin's new heir."

For a few moments, a perfect silence reigned. Then Laufey dropped his spoon and the sound seemed to shatter all of the family into action.

"The son of Odin?" Laufey asked wildly. "Why -- why then Thor must be rich beyond our wildest imaginings--"

"And the heir to Asgard?" stammered Byleistr.

"What do you mean by claiming this and then declaring that you're letting him annul the marriage, you horrible child?" shrieked Farbauti. "Are these more tricks of yours? Is any of this even true?"

Cousin Thrym alone seemed to keep his head, looking Loki over in a penetrating way. After a moment, he stood and led Loki to a couch, helping him onto it. Loki let himself be helped, moving as though he were in a trance. When this was done, Thrym made a harsh gesture at all the others to quiet them.

"Loki," he said, when the rest had fallen silent again. "Tell us what has happened, so that we can understand."

Loki haltingly told them, beginning with Angrboda's diagnosis (Laufey muttered that Loki should have known better than to go to the march witch, but Thrym shushed him); explaining how he had gone to the hall of the Valkyrie to try and meet Thor; confessing that he had asked Thor to marry him outright; and finishing with a description of his encounter with Odin, who had revealed to him that Thor was his son and heir, and therefore very lawfully married to Loki in an Aesir ceremony.

"An Aesir ceremony!" Farbauti tittered, but then Thrym shushed Farbauti as well.

"Loki," Thrym said again. "Why should you think, simply because Thor is Thor Odinson, that he does not love you?"

"He only married me because we thought I was going to die!" Loki said wildly. "Oh, I wish I were dead--"

"Ssshhh," said Thrym, rather more kindly than he'd said it to anyone else. "Loki, my boy, you are distraught. You have had a trying day. It is making you far less clever than you would normally be. Here, let's have the servants help you to your chamber--" he waved for the servants, then helped Loki down from the chair, "--where you can rest and feel better. Off you go, my dear boy."

He snapped his fingers for the servants to take Loki's things, solicitously insisting that they ensure Loki had a nice, relaxing snow rubdown and perhaps a long nap. All the rest of the house of Laufey watched this in amazement until Loki had been ushered away.

Then Farbauti said, "Thrym! Thrym, you do not believe him?"

"What's the harm in believing him?" Thrym chortled. "If Thor is not so vaunted as Loki claims, then there's no harm in it. Loki has come home and we can annul the marriage. And if he is an Odinson, well..."

He trailed off, considering. Loki was not quite the Loki Thrym remembered from a year ago, and not merely because he had bleached his skin. Then, Thrym would not have believed Loki could hold anyone's attention, but now things were different. Now Loki was stronger, not so peaky-looking. Now Loki had spent a year with Thor, hunting with him, living with him, in what by all accounts had been a perfectly happy marriage. Now Loki appeared to have rather more of a backbone, if only he could be counted on to use it.

And as for the skin, well. The Aesir didn't have any use for heritage lines, anyway.

Laufey spoke up, sounding half-fearful.

"What if Thor is heir to all Asgard, and Loki, like a fool, insists on letting him go?"

Thrym held up a hand.

"Now, you just leave that up to me, cousin," he said evenly. "Remain calm. All will be well."

-

Loki, however, did not believe that anything would be well ever again.

In his cold, too-large bedchamber, the hours dragged on. Life in the grotto seemed painfully distant. Memories of that other life, life with Thor, would be all he had now.

Perhaps this was better than having no memories at all. He had, after all, chosen selflessly. No one could say he hadn't. He hoped Thor and the others, and in fact all of the nine realms, took note of how noble he was in letting Thor go. This was not like pretending to protect Banner, this was not merely playing at heroism. Loki had, for Thor, for once, truly done the right thing.

And I hate it, he realized.

What would happen now? Would he be expected to watch as Thor married Jarnsaxa? Would he be invited to the wedding? Would Loki merely be an afterthought once Thor left him, the former spouse Thor had married out of pity, awkwardly existing in the corners of things?

Just like his life had been before.

He couldn't do it. Oh, he would not hold Thor to their marriage. He would give Thor up. But it was not in Loki's nature to be so selfless. If he had to sacrifice his legal claim to Thor, then he would, but that was all he had in him to give. He had told himself, once, that if he'd had only the time, he could have grown jealous. What a little fool he'd been! He had time, and he was jealous.

I hope he does not invite me to the wedding, he thought, with perfect clarity, I might ruin the celebration with tricks and mischief! Those are my tools, and did I not love him so much, I would use them against him. I would. Because it was easy, when I was about to die, to know he does not love me the way I do him. But now that I must live with this, I cannot. Perhaps I will spend my whole life erupting with rage over it.

These were heady, ugly thoughts, coiling horribly inside him for hours. He did not know just how long he laid there on his bed, letting them poison him, but when the silvery light of the moons had slipped away and the room had sunk into total darkness, there came a rap on his door.

"Runtl--Loki!" came Thrym's voice. "My boy! Have you thought of what you will say to Thor?"

Loki started, gazing at the door blearily.

"Say to him?" he muttered, after a few seconds. "What is there to say, when he does not want me, when I'm to become a villain for wanting him?"

"What?" Thrym said, like he thought he had misheard. "You're to become a what?"

"Oh, I could torment him," Loki said wildly, turning over the sham promise ring Thor had given him so many months ago. "I don't want to, but it's not in me to be measured! The way I feel, why -- I could help him as a friend, only to betray him as an enemy. I could gain his trust, only to turn against him again and again, just to capture his attention. If he doesn't love me, well, neither will he ever forget me--"

Thrym opened the door and regarded Loki with puzzled red eyes.

"I thought you loved that damn Thor!" Thrym said.

"I do," Loki snapped. "That's the problem!"

Thrym brightened.

"Good! Good," he said, smiling wide. "Hold that thought, then, Loki, because he's downstairs and it's time for you two to talk all this out."

-

For Thor had only a few moments before arrived at the house of Laufey. It was several hours after Loki had arrived, but, unlike with Loki, the house of Laufey had tripped over themselves to let Thor in.

Odin Allfather had always had a way of making them behave uncharacteristically. So as a snow-covered, storm-faced Thor had glowered at them all from the front step, Farbauti had breathed out, "Is it true? Are you really the son of Odin?"

Thor had grunted his assent, like the fact didn't impress him. But it didn't need to impress him. It so plainly impressed the frost giants that for a few seconds after his arrival a kind of over-helpful chaos reigned. Laufey shouted for the servants to bring Thor into their best parlor, Farbauti called for him to have a small but fine chair. Byleistr rather kindly brought him a warm mug of mead.

Thor only stared around at them as though they were wasting his time.

"I must see Loki," he'd forced out, among all the hubbub of frost giant welcome. This had drawn cousin Thrym out from the corner where he'd been quietly regarding Thor, comparing Thor's profile to a coin he had in his hand.

"You heard the man!" Thrym had said. "Off you go, Laufey! And you, Farbauti-- Let us give the happy couple some time to themselves! For shame!"

In this manner, he'd soon chased everyone out of the parlor but himself and Thor.

"I won't beat around the icicle: the boy's distraught," he'd told Thor loftily, and watched with satisfaction as Thor's expression became wild.

"I did not mean to lie to him!"

"Oh, but you did," Thrym had said, taking on a look of pensive sadness. "You did. And Loki, well. People say he lies, and perhaps he does, but only because the truth is so precious to him that he doesn't bandy it about, you know."

"I must see him!" Thor demanded, rising from his chair. "I must make it up to him! If I could explain--"

Thrym patted Thor on the arm and carefully forced him back to his seat.

"And you shall! You shall. Now, the boy is likely to send down an illusion to meet with you, I won't lie. That's his chief flaw: he always produces these illusions, and then you think he's there and he's not. It's his innate queenly modesty, I think--"

Here came a snort from Thor.

"Modesty does not count among Loki's virtues," he said, for he knew his spouse.

But Thrym could tell that he was still agitated and desperate to see Loki, and so Thrym was satisfied. When Loki did try to send down an illusion, Thrym promptly set him to rights about this. So the Loki that now presented himself in the parlor was wholly Loki, albeit a more drawn, white-faced one than the one Thor had last seen. Now Loki was in his old dull ice-blue house tunic, and his hair was wild.

Thor didn't look like he minded.

"Loki, you fool!" he said, rising and crossing the room to catch Loki in his arms. "What are you thinking? When I came home and saw your letter, I was beside myself. I would have chased you down right away, but then father came back and I had to get rid of him--"

"Your father, the Allfather," Loki put in. He said it quietly. Even though he had met the Allfather, he still could not quite believe it.

Thor looked pained.

"Surely that doesn't matter, doesn't merit an annulment--" he began, but Loki cut him off.

"You married me out of pity," he forced out. "I know you don't love me. Your father told me who you love. That Jarnsaxa! And before that another, an Aesir, it sounded like, and a Midgardian doctor--"

Something occurred to Loki. They knew a Midgardian doctor. One who turned into a great green beast, like the Hulk in the tales of the Thunderer. The very Thunderer who was so criminally seductive that he'd managed to lure the Hulk away from the Grandmaster. Loki's hands flew to his mouth and he almost shuddered in shock, but Thor seemed to follow his thought process and began shaking his head very firmly.

"No," he said, holding up a finger. "Loki. No. My father didn't tell you anything accurate, because the great Odin can't be counted on for that, trust me. So just let me explain, please."

He drew Loki to the chair Farbauti had brought out and made Loki sit in it, then began to pace the length of the parlor. Loki, for his part, did not quite trust these signs that Thor might not want to annul. Thor was a silly, honor-obsessed Aesir. And he was the noble Thunderer. And he was Thor. So naturally he would want to do anything to uphold vows he had taken, even if those vows did not reflect any true affection for Loki.

"You know who I am now," Thor was saying, in the meantime, while shooting frequent looks at Loki's grim expression. "Odinson, prince of Asgard, your Thunderer--"

"Never mine," Loki said, not without bitterness.

Thor whirled on him. With a few paces he was kneeling before Loki's chair, his hands locked on Loki's forearms.

"Little fool! If not yours, then whose?" he demanded. "Jarnsaxa's? Loki, Jarnsaxa was not my lover. And Banner certainly wasn't. Whatever my father told you about my lovers is nonsense--"

"Why did you leave Asgard, then?" Loki asked challengingly.

Thor brought two fingers up to the bridge of his nose and made a face.

"For that, you need to let me tell you the whole story," he told Loki. "And I will. It wasn't Jarnsaxa that drove me away, Loki, but Hela. Father did not tell her when I was born, for she is -- was -- a jealous creature. Waging war at the slightest provocation, slaughtering Valkyries when they challenged her dominion. Her bloodlust was so great and her passions so furious that, to protect me, father at first insisted that mother and I live apart from the Aesir court. Happy days, I suppose. Until Hela's conquering grew too much even for father. Then, to reel her in, he finally revealed to her that she had a brother who might supplant her at any moment."

He exhaled hard, shaking his head. Loki reached for his free hand despite himself. He could tell that this story was not easy for Thor. There could be no harm in twining their fingers together for a moment, if only to offer some comfort.

"They say Hela was...difficult," he suggested to Thor now.

Thor gave a bitter chuckle.

"That is putting it mildly," he said. "Hela was not stable at the best of times, with all my father's appetite for power and none of his restraint. Although I was eager to have a sibling, from the moment she learned of my existence she hated me. She entreated him to invite me to live in Asgard, and from then on she made my life a torment. Those stories you so love --"

"Your adventures," Loki put in.

"My trials," Thor corrected. "If a monster was terrorizing a village, Hela was there in father's ear, hissing about how I needed to learn responsibility and the proper way to do battle. And so I would be sent to fight it, only to later learn that Hela had been the one to set it on our people, to make a fool of me.

"Jarnsaxa, you see, was an agent of hers, one she sent to break into the treasury. When I became enraged and sought to pursue Jarnsaxa to Jotunheim to fight him, Hela turned to father and painted me as the greater warmonger between us. And," here he looked a bit shamefaced, "at that time perhaps she was not wrong. But when father banished me to Midgard, I will confess that it improved me. The warriors I met on Midgard helped me stop being Hela's pawn. On my return, I was instead her open challenger. Of course, that only meant she set me more challenges."

"Sakaar," Loki said, recalling the many novels he had read. "The dark elves, and--"

"She had a hand in all, though it wasn't always clear at the time just how," said Thor, with a weary nod. "Until I tired of even those games of hers. Around that time, I found Jarnsaxa again on my travels. I managed to gain some of his sympathy, seeking to bring him back to Asgard to testify against Hela for her role in the treasury break-in. But I was foolish. Hela turned father against him and me--"

"Your father seems very easily turned against you, more fool him," Loki said, meaning it.

"He saw most of her tricks and wiles as useful," Thor admitted. "Because they toughened me up. But I was tired of being toughened."

"So you left home," Loki said.

Although he had only Thor's word for any of this, he found himself entirely on Thor's side. Not simply because this was Thor and Loki loved him, but because Loki, too, knew what it was seek a reprieve from one's family. Even if his situation had never been so bad as Thor's. He was playing with Thor's fingers now, hoping to remind him that he was long-past the point of being Hela's pawn, that this was not Asgard but Jotunheim, that all was well for Thor--

Thor was only shaking his head again.

"I wish I had been so wise," he said. "It was not an argument with father that drove me away, Loki, but a bargain with Hela. Like a fool, I sought to fight her head-on, telling her that if I won, she would have to leave me be. Well, in return she said that if she won, I would have to leave Asgard, period. And then she made clear that every day I would spend in Asgard beyond that would be a day she would use to kill at least one of my countrymen, my friends, my people. I should never have agreed to such a bargain, but I was such a prideful thing that I did. And then she won. She shattered my hammer--"

"That brute!" Loki cried out, hating Hela fiercely for Thor's sake. Now he was outright clutching Thor's hand, and he did not care.

"Perhaps," Thor said simply. "She was a brute, but I was an imbecile in how I handled her. Having potentially bargained away the lives of my friends was so shameful that I only told a few people about it -- Banner and Valkyrie -- and rather than appeal to my father, who I no longer trusted much, I instead left for Jotunheim. Here, I trained with Banner's other self until I could summon thunder without my hammer. But some pain or shame still kept me from going back. I spent an eternity hating myself for the bargain I made, and then -- then I met you, Loki."

"And I made you marry me for the stupidest of reasons," Loki said. Behind the door to the parlor, his family, all eavesdropping, were making faces at each other over this comment -- trust Loki to ruin the moment! But Loki did not see anything except for how pathetic he was. Thor had suffered so much! While Loki had only been dealing with the silly horn-plague, and not even the horn-plague, because the diagnosis had been wrong.

Thor reached up and caressed his hair, making Loki start.

"You made me marry you because you liked me," Thor said, his eyes bright. "You used your silly tricks and your pretend heroism with Banner to try to make me like you more, not to destroy my life or get me killed--"

"Well, you should know that I was having very dark thoughts a few moments ago in my room, in which I used my mischief for exactly that," Loki said, because he felt he had to say it.

Thor did not seem terribly frightened by this. But Loki was frightened, a bit. Loki was not Hela, but it was possible that the intensity of his feelings for Thor could make him something poisonous, regardless.

"Really, it was the thought of not being married to you that pushed me to it," he added, a bit ashamed.

"I don't doubt that you have the capacity to make my life a hell," Thor said, sounding more amused than anything else, "but let it be a married hell. Why should we break it off now?"

"Because you don't love me!" Loki said.

At this Thor laughed outright. Then he surged up and, winding his hands around Loki's neck, pulled Loki in for a kiss. The action was so swift, decided, and affectionate that it robbed Loki of thought.

"I won't deny that I married you out of pity," Thor said, when he had pulled back. "But then I began to love seeing you there in bed next to me. I began to enjoy you tricking me into eating that horrible soup. I started to love traveling with you, and watching you perform magic, and even listening to you read those awful stories and wear that ugly helm. You became the best, truest companion I have ever had, Loki. And it wasn't even clear to me how much I needed you until I almost lost you. When you were nearly killed, all I could think about was how someday I might come back to the grotto and you wouldn't be there. I had to face the fact that you would die--"

"I thought you were angry because you'd realized I wouldn't die," Loki protested.

Now Thor actually shook him.

"I was angry because I had been sitting around for months, like an idiot, accepting that you would! I was angry at myself! That was why I was such a bilgesnipe about the whole thing. I ran off to get my head back. And when I came back, I'd decided hang Hela. I would fight her again, if only to get you to a proper healer like Eir, back in Asgard. So when I read that you were fine, I was overjoyed, but you've gone and ruined the joy with all this nonsense about annulling the marriage!"

Loki was beginning to see that perhaps Thor had a point, a small one. Still, he couldn't quite make himself believe that Thor was serious, that Thor intended to stay married to him. Thor was noble and heroic, was he not? Perhaps he saw how empty Loki's life had been until now. Perhaps he was only sacrificing his own happiness in order to fill that void for Loki.

"I suppose you're saying this because you're sorry for me," Loki began, and at this the indulgent laughter drained out of Thor's eyes. He took Loki by the arms and actually pulled him up now, out of the chair, his face hard and his manner electric with rage.

"Is this a ploy?" Thor demanded. "Do you not wish to stay married, Loki? Was it fine to be my husband when I was a nameless nothing, but now that I'm the Allfather's son, entangled in the bitter politics of Asgard, you want nothing to do with me?"

He was furious and intense, as furious and intense as Loki felt when Loki thought of losing him.

"Oh," Loki realized, suddenly delighted. "You do love me."

Thor's only response was to kiss him again, more forcefully than before. When Loki began to tug at his clothes, Thor let him, grinning triumphantly down at his now-eager husband.

Outside the room, Loki's family relaxed and pulled their ears away from the door.

"Good old runtling," Thrym said, chuckling.

"Hang on, Thrym," said Laufey. "You know, I've never liked hearing you call him that. That boy's my heir, you know."

Chapter Text

They did not, in the end, rut forcefully in the best parlor. Though Loki had had many gleeful, vengeful fantasies that ran exactly like this, this was still the house of Laufey, and realizing that swiftly dimmed his passion.

"Let's go home," he told Thor, breaking off their kiss and breathing hard. "There we can--"

Thor practically growled at him.

"There I hope we do," he said. He buried his face in Loki's neck. For a moment, the feel of his mouth overwhelmed Loki, seeming to connect directly to Loki's cock and cunt. Loki pushed him off with shaking, reluctant hands.

"Thor, I'm quite sure my family is listening at the door."

There came the awkward, loud sounds of several giants rearranging themselves hastily in the corridor, confirming this.

Thor pulled off, grimacing.

"Do you have your own chambers?" he demanded.

At this Farbauti nearly fell into the room.

"Yes, and very comfortable and proper ones, more than large enough for the both of you!" he cried.

This succeeded in ruining the mood. They broke off from each other, Thor now muttering about how they planned to return to the grotto, despite loud protestations from Loki's family. Laufey entreated Thor to come back and join them on a hunting party, Farbauti pressed an invitation to a temple luncheon on him, and Byleistr said happily that Thor was a good old egg, wasn't he? And Thrym called both Thor and Loki 'my dear boy' several times in the span of about four minutes. When Thor and Loki finally made out of the palace keep, it was hard for either of them to keep from laughing. Loki in particular felt a smile playing at the edges of his mouth, threatening to blossom fully if he even stopped for a second to consider how happy he was.

"You can see why I'm glad to be going home," he told Thor, as Thor helped him onto their massive wolf-steed.

Thor paused, his brow furrowed.

"Loki," he said, "What would you say to traveling? We can go home. But perhaps we could also leave Jotunheim, for a time--"

"I am not taking one of those extreme vacations to Muspelheim," Loki told him, almost on a reflex.

"Yes, those are a bad idea," Thor said. "That's not what I meant."

"Asgard, then," Loki said, not without eagerness. It was the logical conclusion. Hadn't Odin Allfather himself said it? Thor was to be crown prince. Loki was to be his spouse--

And fellow ruler? he wondered. The thought felt so preposterous that it left him a little giddy.

But Thor only furrowed his brow.

"For a time, we must go to Asgard, yes," he said, short about it. "My father will accept no other resolution--"

"Nevertheless, he should be grateful you're agreeing," Loki put in. He only really knew the little Thor had told him about Odin, for the rest was conjecture and rumor. But even so. He knew Thor had likely deserved a better parent than the one he'd received.

"I'm agreeing to go back," Thor said. "I'm not agreeing to stay. Not right away. Not unless you want to."

Then he ducked his chin, a decidedly un-Thor gesture, and said, softly, "I'd like to show you the realms, Loki."

Oh. A strange warmth caught hold of Loki. And Thor was still speaking.

"Valkyrie tells me there are Vanir cousins who seek Asgard's aid to defeat several dragons, Alfheim lords who wish to broker peace between my land and theirs, new communities on Svartalfheim that wish to put war with Asgard behind them. Going to these places would serve my people, so I shall, but--"

Here Thor gave Loki a steady, even look, one that left Loki's heart pounding.

"I can think of no better companion to go with than you," he said. He pulled himself up behind Loki and directed the wolf to start its trek across the snow. "Will you go with me?"

Loki nodded. Thor appeared to take this as more than enough confirmation, but Loki's mind was awhirl as they made their way through the wastes to the grotto. Had he not wanted to travel? Had he not been desperate to leave Jotunheim? He'd forgotten he had, for he'd been so happy in the grotto. Now Thor seemed to pluck his old desire from nowhere, dust it off, and hold it out to him like a gift.

As soon as they were home, with the grotto's door creaking shut behind them, he reached for Thor. His fingers caught the edge of Thor's cloak, trailing over his shoulder. Though it was not a forceful touch, it was enough. He could feel Thor's warmth coming off of him. It was usually an annoyance. Now, for some reason, it was an intoxicant.

"I never married you," Loki blurted out.

Thor blinked at him.

"I know a Valkyrie and a Midgardian doctor who would say otherwise."

"No," Loki said. "You married me. I never married you. I've been playing pretend, remember?"

Thor's vows had been sincere, however they had been worded. He was Loki's, now and always. By contrast, Loki's vows had not been binding. And Loki now realized, with no small amount of wonder despite how very obvious this was, that he wanted to be bound in this way to Thor. Of course, he'd been bound his whole life, but not to Thor. To his family, to the sense that he was faulty and disappointing. It had been a sickening, claustrophobic pall over him, a far worse diagnosis than horn-plague. The only cure for it had been to spend a year doing as he pleased.

Now, true union with Thor was what he pleased.

"You were married to me here on Jotunheim, in the Aesir manner. Perhaps I can use our visit to Asgard to marry you as a frost giant does," Loki proposed.

Thor broke into a grin, infectious and powerful. Loki's lips quirked up again in response. It seemed he had to smile, he was so happy.

"And if we do the proper temple wedding on Asgard somehow," he added. "It will be difficult for most of my family to get to it. In fact, they might not come at all!"

Laughing, Thor pulled him in. His touch was more firm and certain than Loki's had been, his kisses bold. He made short work of Loki's clothes, and, when Loki hooked his legs around him, carried them both to bed. Though Loki was hardly a virgin at this point, the ensuing coupling felt wondrously new. It was the first time Thor had inched into him, steady and hard and hot, and Loki had not felt as though they were using borrowed time. And when Thor had come inside him and made him come, wetly and messily, with his cunt, they switched. Then he pressed into Thor, groaning at the overwhelming heat of his spouse, and knew that there would be more time for this. For this, and for their travels, and for hours spent whiling away together, and hours in silly spats over Loki's taste in reading, and hours bathing and kissing and laughing and living.

There would be more time.

-

Several weeks later -- for a proper frost giant marriage took several weeks to prepare -- Loki was wed to Thor.

The marriage was in Asgard, with the Allfather presiding. The Allfather, being half-giant, was ordained to perform frost giant weddings. He had not been entirely pleased that it was a frost giant wedding Thor wanted. But his wife, the Queen Frigga, had not given him a moment's rest until he agreed to celebrate in the frost giant style, for Queen Frigga was a famous soft touch (and, all the giants thought, really a wonderful woman).

Now Odin addressed his new son-in-law.

"Do you, Loki, promise to fill Thor's home with the frigid cold of darkest winter? Do you promise to unleash hateful, unforgiving ice on his enemies and also anyone who is so much as carelessly unkind to him? Do you promise to revere him as long as he is powerful and deadly, to be powerful and deadly with him, to never tarnish your love with unnecessary warmth or softness?"

"Yes," Loki declared loudly, and then, for the assembled Asgardians, who were looking confused, added, "Just one 'yes' covers all the questions. That's a more sensible way to do it, if you think about it."

Fandral, in the third row, turned to his companions and whispered, "These are Jotunheim's marriage vows?"

But Queen Frigga was crying happily and Farbauti, in the aisle across from her, had likewise burst into tears. Laufey patted his shoulder comfortingly. Although the trip to Asgard had been long, Loki's family had insisted that they would not miss the marriage for worlds. They were therefore all present: a beaming Byleistr, a proud Thrym, even Helblindi, who was irritated at being passed over for both Best Giant and Guardian of the Marital Honor. Instead, the role of Best Giant was given to Midgardian Bruce Banner, not a giant at all, and the Guardian of the Marital Honor was an Aesir Valkyrie who had loudly told most of the other guests that she was only here for the free drinks.

Helblindi turned to Herleifr and whispered, "You know, I think it's shameful that they waited this long to do this."

Herleifr sighed.

"Just think!" Helblindi hissed. "They lived together for months without Loki being properly wed! Months! And if a child had been born then? Out of wedlock? Not that any child of Loki's will be lucky in any way, what with how small they both are, but you'd think that would mean he would be more of a stickler for the right way of doing things. And it does make me despair that his crazed nonsense should have turned out like this for him. How is one to trust in tradition and respect for the family and all that? Well, I'll tell you this. Thor may be an Asgardian prince, but that hair of his is still a frightfully gaudy color--"

Herleifr sighed again.

"--not that Loki will admit that, oh no. Oh no, it's all, 'I just adore my golden-haired husband, who brings me heaps of gold.' Do you know, he has four horned helms now? Four horned helms! For a giant with no horns! I think it's ridiculous, that's what I think it is, but try telling that to sire or dam. They're a scream these days, with how they fuss over Loki. Neither of them the least bit aware of how Loki laughs at us all in secret! No, they insist he's just the dearest little thing now. You know, maybe I should go rut with the first tramp I find out on the wastes--"

"You may now commence a campaign of war together!" the Allfather boomed at this point, and Herleifr straightened up, interested. But then it came out that the grooms had elected to swap the best bit of the ceremony for a series of puzzling Midgardian traditions: a kiss, a ceremonial cutting of some marsh-wheat cake, and the tossing of a bouquet. Bruce Banner clapped for them enthusiastically. The bouquet bounced off of Fandral and hit Byleistr in the head.

-

Before embarking on their trip to Vanaheim, they went back to the grotto to set things in order. There, the starlight ceiling seemed to wink at them, the bough-walls rustled gently with fruit, and the spring bubbled up enticingly. Loki, though happier than he'd ever been in his life, now felt a pang of sadness. He would miss it.

Thor seemed to know this. He wound one broad arm around Loki from behind, clasping his shoulder and pressing a kiss to the back of his neck.

"All will be well, Loki," he promised. "We will have more years here, I swear it."

Then they left it to Byleistr, who would be looking after it for them in the interim. Outside, Banner and the Valkyrie waited for them. Banner now had a shard of the casket of Ancient Winters, gifted to him by Loki to calm the beast inside him in a moment of, Loki thought, rather selfless friendship on his part.

"Oh wow. This is big. Thanks," Banner had said simply, clearly meaning it.

The Valkyrie had also been convinced to come along when it became clear that she among them knew the most about the worlds beyond Jotunheim, being the oldest and best-traveled. Loki had assumed that Thor was the oldest and best-traveled, but Fandral, quite drunk at the wedding, had clarified that no, no, old Hildy was, old Hildy was perhaps the most romantic and dashing figure in all the universe, and actually now that the Allfather had lifted the ban on discussing the ancient tragedy of the Valkyries (a wedding gift Thor had demanded of him), maybe it was time Hildy got her own book series.

Loki had an advance copy of the first book. It was very good.

"Let's go!" the Valkyrie said now. "There'll be time enough to moon over each other after we've called the Bifrost."

So Loki and Thor stepped forward together, into the glory and grandeur of their travels and the simple, supreme happiness of their marriage.