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“I was thinking,” Loki says, jerking Thor from his blissful doze. “We really ought to find you a wife.”

“No,” Thor replies immediately for he’s long learned that to be the safest reaction to any of Loki’s propositions. The words register a moment later and he blinks. “Wait, what?”

Loki rolls onto his side, carelessly tangling the sheets until Thor slaps at him in annoyance, fingers lingering where they find bare skin. Dawn paints their surroundings in muted shades, the lashing rain against the glass panes nearly drowning out Loki’s sound of amusement as he moves closer to peer at Thor.

“A wife, brother. Surely the concept is not too foreign?”

“You didn’t mind my grasp on the concept earlier.” Thor’s thumb traces the shape of Loki’s hipbone with just the slightest hint of pressure.

A glint of teeth, amusement there and gone in a flash. Loki’s fingers tap a quick rhythm against his chest. “I suppose there is something to be said for the fostering of acceptance through prolonged exposure.”

Silence stretches between them for a long moment, both regarding the other with absolute certainty of what’s about to come.

“Would you care to take that back?” Thor asks mildly.

Loki’s eyes appear as dark wells of ink in this light. He wets his lips, head cocked. “I would not.”

“Well, in that case.”

Thor has him on his back and buried beneath his own weight so quickly the bedframe groans in protest, metal bending beneath forces it was never designed for. Loki is ready for him when Thor moves in for a kiss, teeth nicking his bottom lip before relenting; always making things more difficult than they really have to be. Thor doesn’t mind.

Part of him still marvels that they can have this again, thought it dead and buried on the night of his coronation-that-never-was along with so many other things. But when Loki came to him in the wake of their battle with Thanos, pale, haunted, bruised and wondrously alive, any misgiving either of them may have had didn’t seem to matter. Not anymore. They slipped into their millennia-old habits like into a well-worn cloak and Loki moved into the chambers T’Challa had provided for Thor as soon as they arrived in Wakanda.

Thunder rumbles in the distance and Loki breaks their kiss, laughter warm against Thor’s jaw. “I’m flattered, brother.”

A lazy thrust with his hips in retaliation draws a satisfying hitch of breath, Loki baring his throat in a way that makes Thor want to do unspeakable things to him. He settles for another thrust. “This realm does receive seasonal storms, you know.”

Loki tips his head to one side. “I hardly see the need for deflection. If your quest for a bride requires it, I’ll be happy to provide similarly favorable references.”

Tendrils of alarm tighten Thor’s spine, faltering his movement. ”This jest has grown stale, Loki.”

“Asgard’s fate is not a matter I usually jest on.” The eerie morning light throws Loki’s features into even sharper relief than usual. Thor has to fight the urge to drag them both out and away to where the sun is shining and where this conversation might make even a little more sense.

Instead he moves until they’re lying side by side, turned towards each other like they used to do when they were mere children; huddled together in the dark. Loki doesn’t resist, simply observes him with a stillness that makes Thor’s neck prickle. “Do you truly believe my marriage status is the most pressing of our concerns at the moment? We haven’t even brought all of our people to safety yet.”

The Asgardians recovered from the dimension the soul stone had thrown them into, followed them to Wakanda in the aftermath of their victory over Thanos, but it took Thor weeks to establish contact with Brunnhilde. Tasked with the safety of the remainder of their people, she led them farther than even Thor’s new allies ever travelled and it was only with some of Rocket’s far stretching contacts that they finally discovered their whereabouts. The Valkyrie promised to begin the return journey immediately, but even so they still weren’t expected to reach Midgard for another fortnight.

“If anything, the situation is forcing our hand.” Loki says. “Had Thanos succeeded, your lineage would have ended then and there.”

“Our lineage,” Thor insists, earning a huff of exasperation.

“You’re missing the point, Thor. One misstep and a bloodline that has existed long before most of the creatures of this realm thought to climb out of their trees could be wiped out. As long as that holds true, Asgard’s fate remains uncertain.”

“Marriage won’t change that.”

“An heir will.” Loki’s voice betrays his barely tempered impatience in the face of his brother’s deliberate obtuseness. Thor bites back a smile he knows would earn him a bruise.

“I didn’t know you were that eager to become an uncle.”

Something changes in Loki’s face at those words, a shadow there and gone before Thor can truly examine it and a more familiar long suffering expression takes its place. “I can’t imagine any of your offspring will be as irritating to deal with as their predecessor. So yes, I’m awaiting the day with bated breath.”

Thor ignores the jab. “Father would agree with your premise, you know.”

Loki raises an eyebrow. “You spoke to him about this?”

Thor nods. “It was one of the last things he told me.”

Even now he’s perfectly able to recall that day in the courtyard, the air adrift with the sound of Hugin and Munin’s calls, the whir and clatter of weapons being put to use in a training bout. Sif’s hair shining in the bright light of Asgard’s sun. It feels like a lifetime ago.

He opens his eyes to discover Loki watching him. “I imagine if she were here I might not find you this reluctant on the matter.”

Thor doesn’t need to ask how his brother guessed at the subject of that conversation. Their father only ever favored one connection for his eldest son.

“Don’t.”

He can’t. Trying to explain would get them nowhere. Among all their losses, Sif isn’t one they share. Loki never even pretended to find her anything but a nuisance he tolerated merely for Thor’s sake. And Sif had returned that sentiment from the day the two had met with as much fervor if not more. It makes mourning her now feel lonely on top of everything else.

The hand on his cheek is hesitant but Loki doesn’t evade his gaze when Thor’s stinging eyes meet his, jaw stubbornly set. Accepting it for the peace offering it is, Thor takes it within his own, pressing a kiss to the bony knuckles before folding their fingers together and pulling them to rest against his chest. Dwelling on what lies behind them is no use to them now. They need to look ahead.

“I’ll call an assembly in a week’s time once Brunnhilde and the remainder of our people reach Midgard,” Thor says, wishing he felt as much resolve as the words make it seem. “Will you make the necessary arrangements?”

The corner of Loki’s mouth twitches. “Democracy, brother?”

“For now. Our people deserve their say in whatever future may lie ahead for Asgard.”

“I predict a fair amount of turmoil within Asgard’s future if you allow yourself to become subject to any ordinary cititzen’s counsel,” Loki says drily.

Thor can’t resist a grin, using the grasp on Loki’s wrist to pull him closer. “Afraid of the will of the people, brother? Don’t fret too much, you’ll always have your King’s ear.”

Loki follows the momentum, smirk forming as he straddles Thor’s hips. “Unfortunately I’ve become accustomed to quite a bit more than that.”

Watching his brother slink closer, Thor shivers at the nip to the jaw he receives. “But I suppose there is no harm in starting with an ear.”

*

They hold the assembly a day past midsummer, and Thor tries to put any thought of the festivities they would have had back on Asgard from his mind. No use in recalling golden halls and bright banners flying in every street of the city, the sea covered in flowers every Asgardian spent days picking for that very purpose as they raised their cups to bless the gifts bestowed upon them by the Norns. He spends the eve out on the small balcony their chambers provide, watching Birnin Zana’s lights until Loki physically drags him back to bed, claiming Thor’s brooding is giving him a headache. Thor allows himself to be pushed under the covers, yet sleep continues to elude him and he ends up counting the hours till dawn arises.

The remainder of their people arrived eleven days ago, led by a grimly drawn Brunnhilde who was more than glad to be relieved of her burden. It put their head count at a little over five thousand and complicated the matter of a venue dramatically until T’Challa offered them use of a cavernous underground theatre that would house a crowd of that size. Now, standing in what must usually serve as the changing rooms for the artists and listening to the thunderous hum outside, Thor can’t help but think it horribly fitting. A stage for the man playing at being a King.

Loki sweeps into the room in a resplendent swirl of green and gold, ceremonial armor shining brightly even in this artificial lighting. The sight makes Thor’s throat ache and for a moment he can actually see the silk banners rising high to the ceiling around them, past and present overlain like the slides of a kaleidoscope. Watching his brother approach, the sense grows so strong it’s disorientating, the certainty of what the next few words spoken between them will be growing with each step Loki takes.

Nervous brother?

Up close like this, it’s difficult not to compare his own appearance unfavorably to Loki’s, the armor he received on Sakaar and which he carried with him through every battle ever since, no match for the detailed regalia his brother has donned. Judging from the critical eye Loki has turned on him, Thor isn’t the sole arbitrator of this opinion. Already his brother’s fingers are running along the lines of the battered leather, eyebrows drawn tightly together.

“This won’t do at all. You look like you’re about to enter a tavern brawl, not rule the mightiest of Yggdrasil’s realms.”

Glowering, Thor attempts to take a step back in order to escape his brother’s scrutiny but Loki seizes him firmly by the collar before he can so much as shift.

“Loki!”

“Be still,” Loki says irritably, never relinquishing his hold on Thor. “I can’t fix this with you squirming about the place.”

“I don’t want you to-“

He’s cut off by the familiar feeling of Loki’s magic washing over him, green sparks leaving shining silver in their wake as they race along Thor’s limbs. Releasing him with a pat to the chest, Loki steps back, apparently satisfied.

“There. Much better.”

Even irritated as he is by his brother’s antics, Thor has to admit Loki did a fine job when he glances down to take in his appearance. The breastplate’s lines would make any Asgardian craftsman proud, molded perfectly to the shape of its wearer. The finest smiths on Asgard couldn’t have done a better job. As a matter of fact…

“Have I seen this before?”

Loki favors him with a look one might adopt in the presence of a small child. “Well, you have been wearing a variance on that theme for the better part of thirteen hundred years, so dare I say it should at least be familiar.”

“No,” Thor says, still regarding the vambraces as he turns his wrists from side to side. “It’s not that, it’s rather- wait.”

He frowns then looks up to find his brother’s face perfectly blank. “Loki. This is my armor. I lost it when we travelled to the Keep in Nornheim.”

“Did you really?” Loki asks, mouth twitching at the corner as he takes a small step back. “How curious.”

This time it’s Thor who catches him by the neck before he can retreat any further, thumb pressed into the tender hollow of Loki’s throat as he steps in close.

“Magpie.” Thor accuses, unable to keep the fondness from his voice.

Loki opens his mouth but Thor swallows whatever retort his brother has in mind, favoring him with a kiss so long and thorough they’re both breathless by the end of it. Pupils blown wide, Loki’s tongue darts out to wet his bottom lip, the muscles in Thor’s stomach tightening sweetly in response. It takes both of them too long to disentangle themselves as they remember where they are. Loki is still a little wide eyed once they’ve put a respectable distance between themselves, fussing with the fit of his gauntlets that need little fixing in the first place.

“It’s time,” Thor says, chest tightening as he turns towards the doors.

Loki’s voice halts him in his tracks. “You’ll need this.”

One precise movement of long fingered hands; another shimmer of green that dissolves into silver. Thor can’t help but stare as Loki hands him the familiar wings of his helmet. Except it’s not truly a helmet anymore. It’s been transformed, a circlet matching Loki’s own horns. Not armor. A crown.

“They’re waiting for you,” Loki says softly. “My King.”

*

Their people grow quiet at first as they enter the hall, Loki a few paces behind Thor as they make their way to the raised platform where Brunnhilde is waiting for them. Thor has spent his entire life with the feeling of an entire Kingdom’s eyes fixed on him but he’s never felt this exposed, every step making the armor on his back feel heavier than the last.

The cheer, when it comes, takes up slowly, a few voices here and there breaking the hush that has fallen over the assembled crowd, then more and more of them joining in, the sound of ten thousand stomping feet and clapping hands growing to a thunderous roar. By the time they’ve climbed the steps and taken their place, the mood has grown nearly frenetic, the adulation only slowly receding as Thor beckons for silence with raised hands to have his voice heard.

Words Thor spent weeks agonizing over turn out to matter little in the face of his people’s obvious good favor once he starts speaking. Nearly every sentence draws another cheer that settles slowly if at all. The feeling of grim relief in the face of what they’ve overcome makes them a grateful audience, taking in each of their King’s proclamations almost greedily, apparently starved for direction as much as familiarity. And when Thor invokes the ancient prayer, every single Asgardian goes to their knees, several thousand voices invoking the rite words to send their loved ones to Valhalla.

It makes Thor hopeful, steels his resolve, even knowing the most difficult part is yet to come. To his surprise, the announcement of his first decree to train every remaining Asgardian to the weapon regardless of gender or age is met with little resistance. Apparently having to face Hela and Fenris in the flesh made even the staunchest traditionalists rethink the wisdom of leaving the ability to defend themselves solely to one fraction of the population. Brunnhilde doesn’t seem fazed when Thor asks her to take up this task along with the handful of remaining Einherjar.

The reinstating of the Royal Council draws little reaction at first. A murmur takes up when Thor announces the thirty members will take their office by election rather than appointment by the King but it dies down fairly quickly. Suitable candidates are found more swiftly than Thor could have hoped for; their election by acclamation nevertheless takes up the better part of the next two hours. By the time he’s welcomed a woman he recognizes to be one of the formerly more prominent traders as the last council member, fatigue has set in among much of the crowd, more than one parent cradling their sleeping children in their arms.

It makes the next part just a little bit easier, for naming Loki as the Council’s magistrate and official ambassador to the throne is still a delicate matter even with the significant softening his brother’s reputation has undergone in the light of recent events. Some of the new council members aren’t able to hide their reticent reactions and Loki himself accepts the decree with iron composure, as if he’s unable to hear the murmurs that have taken up in the hall. All in all, it goes over significantly better than Thor feared. Perhaps he truly underestimated the wisdom his brother exercised when he put on those ridiculous theatre productions.

Relief still light in his chest, Thor raises his voice to be heard throughout the hall. “My friends, our losses are beyond the count of grief, there’s no denying it. But we are not without hope in this darkest of hours. We are not without allies. King T’Challa has expressed his will to provide permanent refuge and the resources needed to rebuild Asgard on Wakandan soil.”

Thor has saved this news for last deliberately, uncertain of how well his other announcements would be received. He still remembers his mother’s advice of never leaving an audience with a final bad impression. Revealing that their most immediate problem found its resolve should serve that need perfectly. The polite but reserved applause his words are met with therefore wrong foots him, leaves him with too little time to react as one of the council members steps forward.

“My liege,” the man begins, polished accent revealing him as a member of Odin’s court. Lord Sveittir, if Thor’s memory isn’t failing him. “I am certain I speak for every Asgardian when I express my gratitude for the immense generosity King T’Challas offer displays. However, might I suggest that we may not be pursuing the wisest course of action by remaining here.”

Thor narrows his eyes. “Explain.”

“There is a certain…disparity between us and the Midgardians, is there not?”

“A disparity,” Thor repeats flatly, his opinion of the man standing in front of him deteriorating rapidly.

“Your Majesty,” another council member speaks up, a stout woman with stunningly grey eyes Thor recognizes as one of their healers. “Your reign will outlast King T’Challas a thousand times over if the Norns will it. Any agreement undergone by him or the Princess Shuri may simply be revoked by their descendants.”

Thor shakes his head. “The same is true for nearly any species in the known galaxy. Asgardian life spans are far beyond the norm.”

“What about Vanaheimr?”

The call comes from far back in the crowd, turning heads and invoking another swell of murmurs that only slowly die down. Thor feels a prick of unease.

“Vanaheimr is at war with one another,” he says carefully. “None of the regions’ disputes in the wake of Queen Freya’s death have been settled.”

“Neither have Midgard’s,” Lord Sveittir says. “Even on the land mass we stand on the humans are warring with each over petty things like stones and oil!”

“Councilor.” Loki’s voice when it cuts through the air is pleasant, almost amused. It stays Thor’s own heated reply as his brother steps forward. “I think even you will have to agree that outright rejecting an offer made in good faith would be extremely unwise at this point in time. Based on your advocacy, might I suggest sending envoys to Vanaheimr? There’s little use in discussing our options without making sure they will even present themselves.”

They’re conciliatory words, intended to smooth ruffled feathers. Yet Loki infuses them with just enough reproach that no other objection is offered in their wake. Still, watching Lord Sveittir exchange glances with his fellow council members as he steps back with a stiff bow, Thor can’t shake the feeling that this may end up a battle they’ll be fighting for a while to come.

*

It’s long past midnight when Thor finally makes it back, the slowly dispersing Asgardians reluctant to leave without speaking to their King in person. He listens to numerous tales and offers assurance where he can and the toll it takes only fully hits him once the doors to his chambers slide shut behind him. His mechanical eye, usually functioning just as well as his remaining one, feels uncomfortable, a sure sign Thor has pushed himself harder than he ought to. He’s glad to strip the strain off along with his armor, leaving the pieces where they fall as he goes in search of his brother, padding barefoot through the darkened hallway. As expected, Loki hasn’t turned in for the night, sitting by the open doors to the balcony. Not as expectedly, he’s not by himself.

“Brunnhilde.” Thor is suddenly very glad to not have rid himself of his tunic and trousers along with the armor. He’s fairly certain she knows or at least suspects the true nature of his relationship with Loki, but a lifetime of surreptitious habits have become so ingrained it’s hard to calm the quickness of his pulse.

She bows her head, the gesture not quite hiding her amusement at his disheveled state. “Your Majesty. I’m sorry to still disturb you at this hour.”

“Not at all,” Thor says, although the part of him that was looking forward to crawling into bed with Loki is seriously warring with his good manners. “Especially since I’m guessing you’re here at my brother’s behest instead of your own.”

“I thought it best not to waste any time.” Loki says with a shrug, the delicate embroidery of the leathers he exchanged his armor with glinting at the movement. “We were just discussing the matter of an envoy to Vanaheimr.”

The frustration that built earlier rushes back with a vengeance and Thor doesn’t try to hide the ire in his voice as he joins them. “A fool’s errand.”

“Is the situation on Vanaheimr truly that out of hand? Sveittir is right about one thing, the Vanir have ever been our closest allies.” Brunnhilde pauses, a shadow falling over her expression. “At least they were in my day.”

“Freya’s death took them all by surprise,” Thor says, his heart growing heavy remembering the Vanir queen’s overwhelming kindness and wisdom that stayed the peace in their sister realm for over three thousand years. “She named no heir and the fighting over who would take her place started before they even held her rites. Virdar declared its independence and the other old Kingdom’s followed suit soon after. Their army was scattered and when the Bifrost fell they had no means to defend themselves from outside marauders. Even when Aesir help came it took months to beat them back. Each of the Kingdom’s named the others as the culprits for the grave losses afterwards.”

Brunnhilde grimaces. “Not the best place to seek out refuge then.”

“Even if they were inclined to entertain the notion, we have nothing to offer them in turn,” Thor says, rubbing at eyes that suddenly feel too dry. “Unlike Midgard, their technology is on par with our own. Any envoy we send will make the journey carrying nothing but entreaties with them.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Loki says, looking up from the careful examination of his own hands. “You’re forgetting our most valuable asset.”

“Which would be?”

Loki smiles, eyes quicksilver. “You.”

Brunnhilde snorts. “Do you intend to sell him as a gladiator again?”

“Tempting. But I was thinking of a more old fashioned approach to allegiance building. The oldest, one might even say. Marriage.”

Thor freezes.

Loki takes no notice as he continues. “Any of the noble houses would jump at the chance to marry one of their daughters or sisters to the King of Asgard, even if the price was to settle a few thousand Asgardians on their own land. They’ll provide a home for our people and secure the future of the royal line in one fell swoop. The Allfather’s marriage even sets a precedent. A rather elegant solution I should say.”

Thor stands so quickly he sends his chair flying, rage rising quick and hot until he feels it almost choking him. He can hear Brunnhilde say something but her words don’t make it through the whirling storm his thoughts have become. He only has eyes for Loki.

His brother tips his head to one side, a small smile forming as he holds Thor’s gaze. “I did warn you about the dangers of democracy, brother.”

“How much in that hall was your doing?” Thor’s knuckles are starting to ache he’s clenching his fists so tightly.

“Sveittir’s always been a self-important fool,” Loki says, clearly amused. “But he has his uses. Especially since he probably still thinks bringing up Vanaheimr was his own idea.”

“Brunnhilde,” Thor says, the calmness in his voice like the eye of a storm about to take root. “I think it best for you to take your leave now. Seeing as I’ll be quite busy throwing my brother through that wall.”

“Actually, I’d like to see that,” she says but gets up nevertheless, offering the two of them a bow just slightly on the wrong side of mocking. “Your Majesty. Your Highness.”

“Thank you for your counsel, Brunnhilde,” Loki says, pleasant as ever and oh, Thor is going to kill him this time, he truly is.

“Any last words?” Thor asks once they’re alone and Loki rolls his eyes.

“Cease your bellowing, brother, and try to look at this rationally. Regardless of how it came to pass, this situation does offer us a wealth of possibilities. As your counsel, I’d advise you not to let slighted feelings cloud your judgement on the matter.”

“I didn’t name you to the position, so you would go and do this!” Thor shouts. “Tonight was meant as an opportunity for our people to decide their own future, not be made to dance on your strings!”

“I merely offered them another choice,” Loki snaps. “The superior choice, even if your blind adulation for this realm and its creatures won’t let you see it clearly. Thor, we cannot remain on Midgard.”

Thor shakes his head, feeling weary to the very bone. “Without the Midgardians we wouldn’t even be standing here. They’ve offered us nothing but friendship and yet you would disregard them all the same.”

“I’m not discounting their deeds, merely being realistic about how long we can expect to remain in their good favor. What happens two hundred years from now when your friends have passed, and the Panther’s successor decides that a powerful Kingdom right on their own doorstep is a threat instead of a blessing? Are you prepared to go to war then and slaughter your beloved Midgardians in order to keep Asgard safe?”

“And Vanaheimr is the solution.”

“It’s one solution.” Loki says, tone growing imploring as he continues. “Send me there in your stead and I promise you that I will find a home for our people.”

“And a wife for me, apparently.” Thor closes the distance between them, lays his hand on Loki’s neck until he can feel his brother’s rapid pulse. “Tell me truly, Loki, why is this so important to you?”

For a single moment Loki’s composure slips and hope lances painfully at Thor’s heart. But it’s gone in a blink as Loki’s affects a guileless expression even someone who didn’t know him as well as Thor would find suspicious.

“I’ve told you my reasons.”

Always, always the hard way. But two can play this particular game and Thor has had centuries of practice with the most challenging of adversaries. So instead of threatening or continuing to demand truths like he may have done in the past, Thor simply nods.

“Then so be it. But I can hardly leave this important matter in someone else’s hands. Make the arrangements for both of us, brother. I’ll accompany you to Vanaheimr.”

*

Since Thor’s decision enables them to make the journey by travelling the Bifrost, they delay their departure by another week. Leaving his newly elected Council and by extension Sveittir in charge during their absence rankles, but Brunnhilde was adamant about accompanying them. Seeing Loki’s peeved reaction, Thor was only too glad to grant her request. His brother’s continued irritation calms him so much he’s nearly at peace with the entire thing by the time they say their goodbyes. Loki may be up to no good but at least Thor can rest safely in the knowledge that whatever his brother intends on Vanaheimr, neither Thor’s nor Brunnhilde’s company is part of the plan.

Shuri and her brother are there to see them off and T’Challa clasps Thor’s arm, expression serious. “I wish you good fortune, my friend. You have my word that your people will be safe here until you return.”

“I have no doubt of it,” Thor tells him. “Thank you. Our people owe you a great debt.”

He turns to see Loki kiss Shuri’s hand which amazingly the girl doesn’t pull away from. How those two came to be as friendly as they are, Thor is certain he doesn’t want to know.

“Safe travels,” Shuri says and Loki gifts her a sly smile.

“If you can call it travelling. I’m afraid my brother hasn’t quite mastered the art of interdimensional flight yet. The result is rather akin to being keelhauled.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe, brother,” Thor promises sweetly as he gestures with the hand not holding onto Stormbreaker.

On his right side Brunnhilde has already taking hold of his shoulder and Thor smothers a grin as he watches Loki realize that this leaves him with being cradled to his brother’s side. And if Thor pulls him in a little firmer than safety truly warrants, well, Loki can’t really protest without drawing attention to it.

“Farewell, my friends,” Thor tells the King and his sister and as he calls on the power of the Bifrost, watches as their faces get lost within the familiar swirl of color and light.

*

“This is a waste of time.”

“So you’ve said. Six times now, by my count. You didn’t have to come, brother. I’m certain our hosts in Peryngrond would be delighted to receive you.”

“Since you insisted on making this journey with me, that would rather defeat the purpose, would it not?” Loki says archly, kicking a rock out of the way as he makes his way through the sloping forests alongside Thor. “They’re not throwing a banquet in my honor after all.”

“Perhaps we can arrange for that if it will cease your whining,” Thor says, neatly dodging the pine cone Loki lobs at his head.

“Quiet!” Brunnhilde’s hiss interrupts their bickering, halting Thor’s consideration of taking his brother into a headlock to pass the time. She catches both their gazes, eyes intent as she tilts her head to the woods surrounding them, mouthing the next words. “Something is following us.”

Thor pauses, feeling Loki do the same as they strain to listen. After a good minute has passed without incident, Thor leans closer to Brunnhilde. “Are you certain? I can’t hear-“

The arrow embeds itself into the soft bark of a birch tree behind him, missing his head by inches, its shaft covered in runes that shimmer faintly in the dim light of the forest. Thor freezes, well aware that anyone capable of disguising the sound and trajectory of their weapon with magic is unlikely to have foregone their target by anything but purpose.

“You should listen to your friend.” The cloaked figure stepping out from shadows is slight, but their grasp on the longbow is steady, arrow loosely nocked in a way that somehow looks more threatening than if it were fully drawn. “Weapons down.”

“Don’t,” Thor warns, sensing the flare of Loki’s seiðr. Taking a life before even making it to their destination is not how he plans to begin their visit to this realm. His brother shoots him a furious glance, fingers still sheened in sparks of green. Thor shakes his head minutely before glancing back to the intruder.

“We come in peace,” he calls. “I am Thor Odinson and these are my companions, Brunnhilde Wotandottir and Loki Odinson. We seek to find kin of Hogun of the Warriors Three. I have a message they need to hear.”

There’s a pause, long enough for Thor to briefly wonder whether this will end in a fight after all. Then the stranger lowers their bow. “Then fortune has smiled upon you, Asgardians, for you have found them.”

They throw back their hood, revealing a woman with sharp features and raven black hair. “My name is Daela. Tell me how my cousin died.”

*

Daela leads them on a winding path deeper into the forest at the end of which she steps through what at first glance appears to be solid rock. Long having grown familiar with illusionary magic, Thor follows her, neck prickling as he passes what he assumes must be wards against intruders. They find themselves within a neatly kept hide-out, Daela gesturing them to take a seat by the roaring fire which after hours of traipsing through the damp woods Thor is only too glad to take her up on.

Brunnhilde follows suit but Loki remains on his feet, examining the items on the shelves around them with so much casual interest that Thor is nearly certain he’s working some kind of unseen seiðr, perhaps testing the wards surrounding them. Always so suspicious, his brother.

Content to leave him to it for now, Thor turns toward the woman whose eyes look so much like the friend he knew, eyes which miss nothing as he starts to recount what he’s been told of Hogun’s death. It shames him to admit he wasn’t there when the man he fought so many battles with gave his life for the people Thor swore to protect. He pushes through nevertheless, telling her of Hela and the havoc she wreaked during her brief reign on Asgard.

Daela doesn’t interrupt him once, her face betraying nothing. She nods at Thor when he finishes his tale. “Thank you. For bringing me the news yourself. Not many would have done so.”

Thor’s eyes feel too hot and he stares into the fire, tells himself it’s the fierce glare of the flames. “He was a good friend. And a man of honor.”

“I always told him that would be his ruin.” She laughs and for the first time her features carry something like grief. “Did he suffer at the end?”

“Undoubtedly,” Loki says, not glancing up from the silver instrument he’s examining. “Though I’m sure your cousin didn’t mind. He was always a fool that way.”

“Loki,” Thor growls and his brother gives him a smile in return that lacks any warmth.

“I see, in this case the truth is not welcome for once. Very well then, Hogun died with honor. Nothing foolish about facing off with a creature capable of gutting you within the wink of an eye and leaving you staked to drown in your own blood. Well done, sound decision-making all around. Can we move this along now, brother? As much as I enjoy this charming little get together, we’ve wasted too much time already.”

It’s astonishingly cruel, even for Loki’s standards. Thor has grown tense all over at his words, sparing a glance at Brunnhilde who is watching their host, right hand shifting to the hilt of her sword. Readying herself.

Daela herself is completely still, her dark eyes fixed on Loki. Then she suddenly smiles. “You’d like me to give you a reason to use your seiðr on me, wouldn’t you, Silvertongue?”

Loki grins, a baring of teeth that makes him look almost feral. “Smarter than your cousin at least then. Yes, little archer, I should like that very much.”

He looks at Thor. “Ten minutes, brother, then I’m leaving without you.”

He disappears through the entrance to the forest and Thor gives a helpless sort of shrug when he feels the two women’s eyes on him. “He likes to hold grudges.”

An understatement if there ever was one. For someone as willing to put a knife into Thor’s side at a moment’s notice, Loki can be startlingly resentful when someone else takes similar liberties.

“Well, your brother is right about one thing. The three of you are very far from anywhere. And if the rumors are to be believed, you haven’t come to Vanaheimr for the hunting season.”

“Rumors?” Brunnhilde inquires.

Daela leans back in her chair. “Enough of them to reach even me. I doubt there is a single Vanir alive who does not know your purpose here, Odinson. Asgard is seeking a queen.”

“A home,” Thor corrects, unwilling to show how much her knowledge rattles him. They sent message to Vanaheimr less than a few days ago, could word of their coming truly have traveled that fast? It seems impossible.

“Call it whatever you like,” Daela tells him. “I call it putting your thumb on the scale.”

“How so?” Brunnhilde asks and Daela gives her a smile, though there is little humor in it.

“Whoever your King chooses as his bride will bring power to their House the likes of which Vanaheimr hasn’t seen in centuries. Something all of them have been striving for since Queen Freya’s death.”

“It is not my intention to cause strife among your people,” Thor says carefully.

“And strangely enough, I find myself believing you. But the people you’ll be dealing with won’t have any such qualms. How many of the Families have extended their hospitality to you?”

“Five,” Brunnhilde says after receiving a minute nod from Thor.

“Virdar and Fygrad among them I presume. Which others?”

“Mersborg, Kovanem and Peryngrond. They’re expecting our arrival tonight.”

“Peryngrond?” Daela asks, a thoughtful expression taking over her sharp features. “Interesting choice. I hope you have someone among your party who may advise you on the intricacies of Vanir relations.”

Thor and Brunnhilde exchange a glance.

Brunnhilde turns to Daela. “Funny you should mention that.”

 

*

Loki refuses to speak to or even look at Thor for the remainder of their journey, save for the daggers he shoots at the three of them as they emerge from Daela’s hide-out. By the time they make it to Peryngrond, late into the night, Thor’s amusement at the fact has frayed at the edges, given way to a hint of concern.

His worries are eased a little when Loki charms the steward of the city as only he can, offering assurances that no offense is taken at the lack of a reception crowd that’s due to their belated arrival. Thor hurries to chime in, declaring they’ll be more than glad to meet their hosts tomorrow when they’ve all had a night’s rest.

He lets himself be shown to the rooms prepared for their stay, taking a brief look at the lush furniture and wide double windows before nodding his thanks at the portly man, watching him scurry off in relief. Then he goes to find his brother.

As expected, Loki’s rooms are right next to his own, a little less luxurious perhaps, but not by much. Loki is already sat by the vanity when Thor enters, sparing him no glance as he dips his hands into the wash basin, cloak discarded on the wide bed. Thor’s stomach flips lazily, a tendril of heat he knows all too well. Loki is never more dangerous than when he’s foregone his usual wordsmithing for silence. The fact that Thor finds him nigh irresistible in spite of it probably doesn’t say much for his self-preservation instinct.

Knowing better than to use anything but a circumvent approach, Thor takes a bout around the room, allowing his thoughts to spill out in idle chatter as he touches things, picks them up and regards them with feigned interest even as his attention is honed to his brother. It takes less than five minutes before Loki is visibly restraining himself, the long line of his back growing tense beneath the faded green of his tunic. Thor bites back a grin and continues his efforts, loudly fumbling with the window shutters until his brother snaps.

“Will you stop that! Norns, you are the most irritating person I’ve ever encountered in my life.”

“Anything for you, brother,” Thor says solicitously.

Loki gives him an arch look over his shoulder but doesn’t comment, picking up a comb and starting the arduous process of attempting to tame his curls. Something heated and tender unwinds in Thor’s chest at the sight and he steps closer until there’s nary room for a scroll of paper between them, digging his fingers into the soft mass of Loki’s hair, unable to help himself.

Loki stills and for a heartbeat Thor is certain he’s about to be stuck with something sharp but then his brother sinks back into the touch, spine arching as Thor runs his hands through the dark strands over and over again, patiently untangling them. Lifting his brother’s curls until the paleness of his nape is exposed, Thor lays a kiss there, smiling against the soft skin at the shudder Loki can’t quite suppress.

“Shouldn’t you be in your own chambers?” Loki asks, belying his words in the way he tips his head for Thor to kiss the hollow right below his ear. “You do have a potential spouse to meet in the morning.”

“The Lady Helen,” Thor murmurs, gently tugging on an errant curl.

Loki glares at him in the mirror. “Elén.”

“Ah, yes,” says Thor, who is fully aware what their host’s name is.

“Have you listened to a word I said in the past few days?”

“I always listen to you, brother,” Thor tells him truthfully.

“Then you know how important making a good first impression will be.”

“I’ll just be myself,” Thor says, unconcerned. “People tend to love me, I’m very charming.”

“You’re an insufferable fool,” Loki hisses, turning around to grab Thor by the neck and pulling him in for a kiss that’s more frustration than anything else. Thor reciprocates by hefting him into his arms and burying the triumphant smile in his brother’s neck as he carries him to the bed. It’s a perilous game to play indeed but very well worth the rewards.

Loki is the most enticing sight imaginable spread out beneath him, hair shockingly dark against the paleness of the sheets. Briefly, Thor considers asking his brother to magic their clothes away but thinks better of it. He wants to take his time. Pulling his tunic off elicits a gratifying response, Loki’s fingers sliding over Thor’s chest, pupils blown wide in obvious arousal. Thor will never tire of putting that expression on his brother’s face.

He rucks Loki’s own tunic up until it catches under his arms, bending until he can tease at soft nipples that pebble under his mouth, using his beard to draw a hitch of breath. His brother’s cock is a hard line against Thor’s stomach and he slides a hand down to press against its length, Loki’s hips jerking into the touch like they’re being pulled on strings.

Long fingers fumble to find the fastening of Thor’s trousers, impatiently pulling at the dampening fabric until his cock springs free. Thor bites down on Loki’s chest as his brother takes him in hand, palm suddenly coated with oil that certainly wasn’t there a second ago. It’s so easy to get lost in that grip, Loki stroking him the way he knows Thor likes best, fingers squeezing just a little shy of too painful as he slides his hand up to tease at the head.

But Thor knows where Loki will take this, knows he’ll be unable to resist if he doesn’t stop right now. With some regret he pulls himself to his elbows, putting his face above Loki’s as he presses a kiss to the flushed line of a cheekbone. “Wait.”

As usual, Loki doesn’t listen to him, hand twisting in a way that makes Thor’s thighs tremble, has him grasping blindly at his brother’s wrist as he groans. Loki’s smile is entirely too bright. “No.”

“Yes,” Thor insists, desire thickening his voice until it’s nearly a rumble. He holds out a hand, eyes imploring in the way he knows is usually hard for even Loki to resist.

Loki scoffs but relents, joining his own hand to Thor’s, the telltale prickle of his seiðr bright against their fingertips as oil drips between them. Never one to fail rewarding a gesture of conciliation when he encounters it, Thor makes short work of Loki’s trousers, pushing Loki’s knee over his shoulder as he slides two fingers into his brother.

The sharply indrawn breath makes him pause, turning his head to press a kiss against the tender inside of Loki’s knee. “Alright?”

“Please,” Loki says, which isn’t really an answer, but one Thor knows how to interpret nonetheless. He crooks his fingers, muscles in his lower abdomen tightening painfully at the sight of his brother so bereft of his easy composure, head tilted back and flushed with helpless desire. Thor wants him so badly it feels like a fire gnawing at his bones. If there was less selfish need within him he would take more time, but as always Thor’s control is blown to ashes in the face of Loki’s hunger and he rolls them both until he has his brother in his lap.

Had he ever been able to choose a favorite among the dozens of ways he’s had his brother, this would have been near the very top, Loki’s thighs spread across his own as Thor grips his ass, arms around Thor’s neck and sinking himself down on Thor’s cock until they’re both gasping for breath.

“Please,” Loki says again and Thor bucks into him nearly without his own volition, body reacting on instinct to the thread-bareness in his brother’s voice. After that he swallows every moan right from Loki’s mouth as he fucks him with abandon, foregoing carefulness in favor of sheer need. It doesn’t take long for them both to give themselves over, the tight clench of Loki’s climax pulling Thor along before he can even attempt to hold off a little longer.

They’re still wearing some of their clothes and Loki’s pliant state for once makes it easy to get the ruined tunic off him, Thor kicking off his own pants caught just below his hips before crawling under the sheets. He pulls his naked brother to his chest, burying his face in thick curls that smell so much like home it makes his throat ache. The unadulterated tenderness he feels for his brother in these moments is something he’ll forever keep to himself.

They drift towards sleep slowly and Loki is the first to be taken, breath slowing until Thor shifts to feel his heartbeat against his palm, quieting an irrational surge of anxiety. Having Loki so still in his arms, doesn’t sit well with him anymore. Another thing Thor prefers to keep to himself. Just one more secret between them. Gazing upon the for once peaceful lines of Loki’s profile makes Thor wish, not for the first time, that he might simply crack his brother’s skull, hold it in his palms until every last thought in that brilliant, maddening mind spilled to reveal themselves to him.

Why have you brought us here, brother?

 

*

Meeting their hosts is not quite the awkward affair Thor feared, ritual niceties and protocol doing their part to ease the initial tension among all parties as introductions are made. He quickly falls back on the centuries of training both he and Loki inadvertently received in these affairs, polite chatter infused with just the right amount of affability slowly easing some of the anxiousness the Vanir nobles display in their presence. And yet, Thor himself is unable to quite relax, the purpose for this visit never far from his mind as they’re shown around the city and its surrounding lands.

Lady Elén is striking, tall and fair with hair the color of spun gold. Kind eyes meet Thor’s without fear as they’re introduced, her hand soft and nearly disappearing in his own. Seated on a grey mare cantering alongside Thor’s own gelding, she appears every inch a queen as she gifts smiles to the people of Peryngrond who pause to wave at them as they pass by.

“Your home is beautiful, my Lady.”

“Thank you, your Majesty. I find it quite beautiful myself and I’ve spent my whole life here. But I am sure it pales in comparison to Asgard. All those who have traveled there say there is nothing like it in the entire universe.”

“There wasn’t,” Thor says after he finds his voice, fingers tightening on the reins, causing his horse to toss his head to the side unwillingly.

“Forgive me,” Elén says quietly and there’s genuine regret in her voice. “That was a foolish thing to say.”

“As my mother used to tell me, there can be no offense where none is taken.”

She smiles at that. “Tale of Queen Frigga’s wisdom spread far and wide to reach us even here. I’m certain she would be proud to see her son continue her legacy.”

Thor finds himself moved in the face of her kindness, offered so freely to a near stranger. It makes him relax, shoulders slumping as he huffs a quiet laugh. “My brother received more of her gifts than myself I’m afraid.”

Elén takes a glance over her shoulder at where Loki is riding among the rest of their party. “Gifts she brought with her from Vanaheimr. Although seiðr as powerful as your brother’s hasn’t been seen among our people in a very long time.”

She pauses. “Your lady mother hailed from Virdar, did she not?”

“She did. We used to visit there as children at Queen Freya’s behest.”

“We were all surprised it wasn’t your first destination. Flattered to be sure, but surprised. Most outsiders still think of it as the capital.”

The words give Thor pause, stirring something at the back of his mind. It takes him a few moments until he remembers Daela making a similar remark. Before he can inquire further, Elén tilts her chin, eyes shining mischievously all of a sudden.

“How about a race, your Majesty? This next stretch is quite nice for a gallop before we let the horses rest.”

Thor looks ahead to the river she’s pointed out, its tree shaded banks indeed the perfect spot for a quick respite from the sun. “And what stakes would you name for the victor?”

She smiles, bright and lovely. “A dance of your choosing at the banquet tonight.”

Thor tilts his head in acknowledgement. “And if you win?”

“You’ll have Prince Loki work some of his seiðr for us.” She raises an eyebrow. “Are we agreed?”

Thor is already spurring on his horse. “We are indeed.”

She beats him by a head length and her rosy cheeked laughter at the fact makes it easy to accept the loss. Their companions, having followed suit, arrive just as they’re about to dismount, Loki bringing his own mare to a stop along Thor’s gelding. “Defeated, brother?”

“And happily so,” Thor tells him. “Especially considering I wagered your gifts instead of my own.”

“Why am I not surprised.”

They slide from their saddles at the same time, Thor turning to offer a hand to Elén, only to find that another member of their party has already beat him to it. A young man with curling dark hair, clad in armor that places him as a soldier of the city guard, carefully helps her to dismount, hand lingering along her hip as she finds her balance on the ground. Elén’s face brightens painfully as their eyes meet, expression fading like the sun dipping behind a cloud as the soldier turns away.

Thor quickly averts his own gaze, busying himself with his horse’s bridle as he leads the gelding to the water. His heart is beating too fast in his chest, mind caught helplessly on the brief interaction. He’s been part of too many similar displays not to realize what he just witnessed. Unbidden, his gaze turns to Loki, who is already watering his horse, hand patting its neck absentmindedly in a way that makes Thor smile.

“Something the matter, brother?”

“Nothing,” Thor assures him, heart thudding painfully at the lie. He pushes the hand that wants to reach out to Loki into his gelding’s mane instead. “Nothing at all.”

*

The banquet is a spirited affair, if not as grand as the ones Thor grew up with. Loki makes good on Thor’s promise to Elén and conjures a variety of fantastical creatures, griffons and dragons beating their shimmering wings to the amazement of the crowd before dissolving into smaller flocks of butterflies or birds, drawing much applause. To Thor, who has seen his brother work sorcery far beyond these flashy displays, the demonstration appears almost mocking, something to impress a child with.

Yet their Vanir hosts show themselves quite awed in the conjuring’s wake, many flocking to Loki’s side afterwards to pepper him with questions. It gives Thor the opportunity he needs as he heads to where Brunnhilde and Daela are conversing, pulling their latest companion aside in order to not be overheard as he states the favor he intends. Daela’s face has grown thoughtful by the time he’s finished, giving him a nod before disappearing into the lively crowd.

Dancing is beginning to take over the hall and Thor makes certain to bestow his attentions evenly among the assembled noblewomen. They reward the courtesy with boisterous cheer that makes it easy to lose himself in the proceedings for a while, taking each of the ladies for a turn on the floor before extracting himself with gracious promises to return as soon as he’s caught his breath.

Elén finds him just as he’s pocketing one of the dried dates from one of the server’s trays, smiling at his sheepish expression. “One for the road?”

Thor shakes his head. “My brother favors them.”

The line of her mouth softens at that. “The two of you are very close.”

Thor remains silent, uncertain what answer he could give that wouldn’t reveal too much entirely. They didn’t exactly grow careless over the years, but circumstances didn’t require him to practice this particular brand of secrecy much as of late.

“Would you like to dance?”

It’s not the most elegant way to turn the conversation but Elén doesn’t call him on it, taking Thor’s hand as he leads her back to the others. As they sweep across the floor, Thor isn’t surprised as the unmistakable prickle of being observed takes hold, his gaze quickly finding the soldier among the rank of the guards, silently standing watch. The anguish in his eyes tells its own story and Thor grows painfully certain that no matter how much information Daela is no doubt procuring for him at this very moment, he has his answer already.

*

Loki is waiting for him when he retires to his chambers hours later, the inviting sprawl of his limbs driving any thought of a bath from Thor’s mind as he crawls onto the bed to join him. His brother’s mouth is warm and needy against his own, the day of careful distance driving them both to linger in the kiss. Hours of careful tension seep from Thor’s shoulders like water in the wake of Loki’s caressing fingers, leaving a pleasant thrum of warmth that owes its inception to bone-deep comfort rather than outright arousal.

When Loki pushes him onto his back Thor goes easily enough, arms settling firmly around his brother’s waist as Loki slinks onto his chest. Chin propped onto folded hands, Loki regards him inquisitively.

“That went rather well I should say.”

“I told you. I’m very charming.”

Loki’s mouth twists and Thor lifts a hand to trace the curve of it with his thumb, unsurprised at the sharp glint of teeth and ensuing sting.

Taking a hold on his wrist, Loki soothes the bite with the tip of his tongue. He’s still studying the width of Thor’s palm when he speaks, expression bland.

“What do you think of her?”

“Elén?” Thor says, fingers curling into Loki’s as he folds their hands together. “She’s very kind. Our coming here first surprised her I believe.”

He pauses, choosing his next words with care. “Virdar seems perhaps the more obvious choice.”

“To them, of course,” Loki says. “Our case requires looking beyond the obvious however. Virdar may have been Vanaheimr’s prized jewel during Freya’s reign but it’s already struggling to sustain the population it does have without support from the other cities. Peryngrond may not be as grand but their lands are plentiful. And there’s only one lady with the suitable station to be considered as your wife instead of a few dozen. No chance of slighted feelings.”

It’s a good answer. The perfect answer, really. Sensible, well-reasoned and delivered with absolute ease.

Thor hums something that may be taken as agreement, heart starting to beat faster. One hand has slipped from Loki’s waist to his back, pushing under clinging fabric to stroke the curve of his spine. “Daela told me something interesting today.”

Loki’s expression darkens. “What use you see in bringing that would-be-witch along still escapes me.”

“She’s one of them,” Thor says. “Which makes her hear things that might otherwise stay unknown to us.”

Loki’s eyes narrow. “Such as?”

“Lady Elén has a lover,” Thor says, carefully watching Loki’s face. “One of the guards. Apparently, it’s been the talk of the city for years now.”

Loki snorts in disbelief. “Is this the great secret your spy has born to light? Vanir gossip, nothing more.”

“I saw them together,” Thor says quietly, still not taking his eyes off his brother.

He takes in the raised eyebrow at his words, the widening eyes, a perfect picture of surprise. Anyone witnessing Loki’s reaction would surely attest this to be the very first time Loki heard of the truth to this rumor.

Thor isn’t anyone.

He stays silent, waiting for his brother to speak. Loki’s voice is considering once he does. “Does it truly matter?”

Thor blinks. “Come again?”

“Does it matter?” Loki repeats, voice growing impatient. “This entire journey is a means to an end after all. You’re not Sigurd questing for your Kriemhild, brother, there’s no need for the hypocrisy.”

Again, Loki’s face betrays nothing but genuine puzzlement, eyes giving nothing away. It’s all the confirmation Thor really needs.

Swallowing the anger burning in his throat still doesn’t come easily, every fiber of his being screaming at Thor to grab Loki by the neck and simply shake the truth from him like dust. But Thor isn’t the same man he once was. And there is something to be said for the sweet surge of satisfaction at the flash of surprise in Loki’s eyes when Thor merely smiles.

“I’m sure you’re right, brother,” he says. “Even so, forging a union under these circumstances seems bad form at best. I think we should continue our journey. After all, that’s why you brought us here, is it not?”

*

The clash of swords rings clear like a bell through the small arena, weapons glinting in the mid-afternoon sun as Thor and Brunnhilde retreat from one another to the polite applause from the ranks. Thor wipes the sweat from his eyes, rolls bare shoulders that have grown sore with welcome exertion. The movement draws an audible sigh from their audience and he doesn’t work too hard to contain a smirk as Brunnhilde rolls her eyes at him before she charges.

He meets her blow for blow; reveling in the competition not many are able to give him in the sparring ring. The style she favors is too dissimilar from what has been taught to Thor for him to simply fall back on his wealth of experience, any feint a possible bloody strike he must guard against, twisting out of her swift reach. They circle each other once more, throwing up dust with their shifting steps.

“Show us the lightning, your Majesty!” An impertinent voice calls from the crowd, drawing stunned silence but then a growing wave of applause that doesn’t subside until Thor raises his hands in good-natured surrender.

Up in the ranks, Loki meets his gaze with barely contained mirth, leaving no doubt who Thor has to thank for being made to perform his gifts like a dancing bear in front of the assembled nobles of Mersborg. Revenge for his careless wager with the Lady Elén, or perhaps Loki is simply still expressing his displeasure at their abrupt departure from Peryngrond. With Loki it’s impossible to tell, his brother’s tendency to hoard slights like a dragon might its treasure obstructing any attempt to figure out what one is being punished for.

The temptation to summon the lightning onto his meddling brother’s head instead of the metal spear a breathless page carries into the arena is only tempered by Loki’s seat among their hosts who are not likely to survive such an attack. Judging from the smirk Loki gives him, he’s only too aware of it. Ah, but Loki never seems to learn. For he of all people should know lightning is not the only force of nature that bends to Thor’s will.

The rain is deafening when he calls it, scattering the noble men and women as they seek shelter from the force of the deluge, booming thunder and crackling bolts of lightning that Thor draws like a dome across the small arena doing their part to send even the staunchest onlookers running for cover. In less than a minute the area is completely bereft of their audience, save for a sole remaining figure in the gallery.

The dry earth of the training field turns to mud in what seems like heartbeats, soaking Thor’s ankles as he favors his brother with a gallant bow. Even through the sheeting rain, Loki’s ire is palpable. Thor grins and ducks through the entrance to the armory; following Brunnhilde. She’s wringing water from her braid, giving his own soaked state a rankled once over as catches up to her.

“A little warning next time?”

“You have my word,” Thor laughs, spirits lifted considerably by the power still thrumming close underneath his skin. “Do you know where Lady Daela might be?”

“Why should I?” Brunnhilde asks, a little too defensively.

“No reason,” says Thor, whose notice their constant companionship in the past few days certainly hasn’t escaped.

Brunnhilde shoots him a suspicious sidelong glance but lets it go as they wipe their swords clean and rack them with the remaining training weapons. “Are you truly in need of her services to figure out what’s wrong with this one? She’s got just about the same amount of wit the Norns might grant a rock.”

Thor, who spent the entire day listening to Lady Audhild’s chatter, isn’t inclined to disagree. He now possesses far more knowledge on the breeding requirements for exotic songbirds than he ever cared to have.

“Am I missing something here?”

“What do you mean?” Thor makes to pass Brunnhilde, surprised at the intent in her eyes as she stays him with a hand on his elbow.

“What’s the point to all these enquiries?” she asks. “Are you honestly considering taking Loki’s advice on this? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m fairly certain that choosing someone you actually like would result in your brother murdering the poor soul before either of you made your vows.”

“Yes,” says Thor. “I believe that’s rather the point.”

Brunnhilde stares at him. “Why do I get the feeling this still doesn’t mean we’ll return to Midgard?”

Thor gives her an innocent smile. “Since my brother went through all this trouble to arrange the journey, it would be remiss of me to deprive him of the opportunity.”

“Oh, that’s certainly going to end well,” Brunnhilde says, distinctly unimpressed. Still shaking her head, she starts striding down the hall. “I’ll find Daela for you.”

Stepping through the doorway she nearly collides with Loki, starting at his drenched appearance but wisely choosing not to comment, merely giving him a nod as she passes. “Your Highness.”

Thor knows no such qualms and grins openly at his brother as shrugs off his armor. “Bad weather?”

Loki looks like a bedraggled cat caught out in a storm, soaked to the fur and spitting mad at the fact. His leathers cling to him like a second skin and if Thor weren’t certain it would cost him a finger, he’d peel them from his collarbone to taste the rain there.

“It may have escaped your notice,” Loki says, following Thor through another doorway to the deserted bathing area, its deep stone pools shimmering undisturbed in the dim light of the mounted torches. “Especially since what little manners our tutors managed to install you with seem to have abandoned you. But inconveniencing the person whose favor one intends to gain is usually considered a non-winning strategy.”

“Really?” Thor asks, raising an eyebrow. “It always worked on you.”

He strips off his remaining clothes, jerks his chin towards one of the pools. “Get in the bath, Loki.”

Loki, face wavering between disbelief and outrage, takes a covert look around. His eyes, so very dark all of a sudden, keep flickering to Thor’s chest. “Are you out of your mind?”

“Possibly,” Thor agrees, taking a step forward and watching Loki retreat the same distance with dawning apprehension. He grins.

“Thor,” his brother hisses. “Thor, don’t you dare-“

The tidal wave as Thor tackles him into the pool spreads nearly all the way to the entrance way, water violently slopping over the basin’s edges and rushing across the floor to drip into the remaining baths. They both surface spluttering, Thor with laughter and Loki with indignation.

“I may actually end up killing you this time,” Loki says almost wonderingly and then he flings himself at Thor.

They grapple in the water like children, all the usual trappings of skill or honor left by the wayside in the attempt to gain the upper hand. Thor takes advantage of his brother’s still remaining clothes to grip and hold him underneath the surface while Loki bites and scraps at every inch of bare skin he can get his hands on.

When Thor finally manages to pin his wily, slippery brother into one of the basin’s corners, the water line has sunk dramatically, leaving the marble benches and floor around them dripping. Loki, almost pliant now that he can’t do much more than squirm in the grip Thor has on him, lolls his head against the stone ledge behind him and critically surveys the damage.

“We’re being terrible guests.”

“That’s only fair, they’re being terrible hosts,” Thor replies, happily giving into the earlier urge to drag his brother’s drenched collar from his throat and lay a kiss there. “I’m still surprised I didn’t expire during that meal with the Grand Vizier.”

Loki tips his head further back and hums. “Am I to take this as another failed attempt at a bargain then?”

It’s said lightly enough but now that Thor knows what he’s looking for, the slight strain in Loki’s voice is unmistakable.

“Take heart, brother,” Thor reassures him amiably. “Our next destination is bound to be an improvement.”

*

Fygrad is the first true change of scenery since they arrived on Vanaheimr. The ancient city fortress rises high above barren plains, its thick walls a burnished red that somehow looks frightening in the late afternoon, like a forest fire. The air is shimmering with heat and they only see a few Vanir as they make their way deeper into the city.

There is no receiving crowd to wave and throw flowers this time, the city’s ruler awaiting them alone on the steps to the stronghold. Idonea Gretadottir cuts a tall, imposing figure, clad in simple armor with her greying hair pulled back into a waist-long braid. Thor takes a liking to her immediately and the feeling intensifies when after few words of greeting she leads them right to what from the looks of it was once a war room, waving them to take their seats without ceremony.

“I am glad to finally speak with you,” she says, hoarse voice echoing in the cavernous room.

“We are grateful for your hospitality,” Thor replies and is surprised to see her grimace.

“Do not be too quick to speak these words, your Majesty. For what I must tell you now may yet sway your opinion.”

Loki laughs. “You have a gift for understatement, my Lady.”

Thor blinks at him in surprise but Loki doesn’t meet his gaze, cold eyes fixed on Idonea. She meets the stare without hesitation, jaw set in a grim line. “When your news reached us, I saw an opportunity. My advisors were worried you might not make the journey if you knew the direness of our situation.”

Loki gives her a sharp smile. “Don’t mistake my words for anything but admiration. I’m the first to applaud a deceit if it’s this well executed.”

Thor frowns. “Loki, what’s the meaning of this?”

“These lands are cursed,” Loki says. “I felt it as soon as we crossed the river. Old spell craft, if not executed very long ago. There won’t be so much as a blade of wheat growing in Fygrad for the next few thousand years. They are no more likely to shelter our people than a beggar is to crown himself in gold.”

Idonea flinches but doesn’t protest the words. Brunnhilde is the first to break the stunned silence. “If this is true, why would you call us here?”

“To save them of course,” Loki says. His smile could cut glass. “Even with Asgard brought to ruin and ash, you still seek to cower behind my brother’s power like a child beneath its mother’s skirts.”

Idonea has grown flush with anger but she somehow keeps her composure. “Not his power, Asgardian. And given the rumors of your whereabouts after the Bifrost fell, I would not have chosen you as our savior. But there are few who match your skill in seiðr, fewer still after your parents’ demise. I was outvoted.”

Thor leans forward. “If my brother can help you-“

“I can’t,” Loki interrupts, still looking a little stunned in the wake of Idonea’s words. “The very nature of a curse dictates the inability for its parameters to be altered afterwards. It’s beyond me to undo, even if I were inclined to risk the attempt.”

Idonea’s sits back heavily in her chair. “Then we are lost,” she says softly.

“How did this happen?” Thor says.

“Fygrad has always had its share of enemies among our people,” Idonea says. “Queen Freya electing our city to station the Vanir legions bred resentment long before this came to pass. And after her death there were few who spoke on our behalf. Most of the other cities withdrew the soldiers they had sent to be trained. When we made their departure conditional on the surrender of the weapons that were crafted within these very walls, many swore revenge.”

She sighed. “We never found out who laid the curse. I suppose it matters little now.”

“Yet you stayed.” Daela says. Of all of them she looks the one most shaken by the news and Thor is beset by sympathy. He knows too well what it is to see one’s people suffer.

“Those of us left remain to guard the armories. In the wrong hands the weapons within would wreak havoc among our people, perhaps even beyond this realm. We thought to bring them to Asgard before…well, before.”

The ensuing silence is long, broken only when Loki claps his hands together, rising briskly from the table. “Well, this is a fascinating tale. Good luck with all that. Thor, let’s go. With a bit of haste, we may make it to Virdar before nightfall.”

“Brother,” Thor begins but Loki has already swept from the room, long-legged stride forcing Thor into a near run as he hurries after him.

“Don’t,” Loki warns when Thor finally catches him by the arm. “Don’t say what you’re about to say.”

“They need our help.” Thor turns him until he can lay his hands on Loki’s shoulders.

We need help,” Loki hisses. “In case you had forgotten, that’s the entire reason we’re in this Norn forsaken realm. What’s your plan here exactly? Just bring them along with us? I’m certain the nobles in Virdar will be thrilled to hear that a possible bargain now includes a few hundred of their enemies along with five thousand Asgardians. That will surely make negotiations easier.”

“I swore to protect the Nine Realms when I took the throne,” Thor states, squeezing the bony shoulders in his grip. “I don’t intend to forsake that oath.”

Loki violently shrugs him off, eyes flashing green fire. “Yet you would forsake our own people in your stubborn adherence to oaths only a madman would expect you to uphold. Your allegiance isn’t to them, it’s to Asgard.”

Thor shakes his head sadly. “You’re wrong, brother. If we don’t uphold these oaths, all that Asgard truly was will fall along with them.”

*

Later, as dusk settles over the ancient walls of the city, bringing much needed relief from the heat, Brunnhilde finds him sitting on one of the outer ramparts, gazing out across the fields. She joins him, feet swinging freely as she takes a look around. The air is unnaturally quiet, no sound of the animals that would normally stir at this hour, not even the chirp of insects.

“Eerie, isn’t it?” Brunnhilde says. “I don’t know how they survived this long.”

“Idonea had them implement a strict rationing regime. They used the reserves they held when they still had an army to feed.”

“She’s really something, isn’t she?” Brunnhilde shakes her head. “Their allegiance would solve a lot of our defense issues.”

“If we had a home to defend,” Thor says grimly. “Or a place to safely guard the Vanir weapons.”

“That takes Midgard out of the equation. I trust your judgement of the Wakandans, but if those weapons were to fall into the wrong human hands-“ She shakes her head. “Where do we go from here?”

Thor considers it. “To Virdar, for now.”

Brunnhilde raises an eyebrow. “Do you have a plan?”

Thor thinks of Idonea’s words, the way her eyes turned imploringly to Loki. “Maybe.”

*

They leave Fygrad with a promise to Idonea to return with aid, much to Loki’s displeasure. His brother’s ill-tempered mood lasts all the way to Virdar, though few but Thor would be able to tell with the careful façade of courteous charm Loki maintains. He’s all smiles and compliments as they pay their respects to the numerous noble families in Virdar, betraying nothing but the civility expected of a visiting royal dignitary. He’s also observing Thor’s behavior with a raptness that would serve as a source of endless entertainment to Thor, if his mind weren’t otherwise occupied.

Virdar is as beautiful as he remembers it, a sprawling arrangement of towering silver spires and numerous rivers and waterways that stretch throughout the city like a spiderweb. Colorful markets and plentiful gardens give way to shaded courtyards and winding alleys, filled with music and laughter by people that have known few difficulties in their lives. It reminds him so much of Asgard it makes Thor’s throat close, dampens the good cheer he affects for the sake of their Vanir hosts.

Loki evades actual conversation with a skillfulness bordering on artistry considering most of the festivities they attend require both their presence. Thor finally manages to corner him at a firework display, using the milling crowd on the wide set terrace to mask his approach. Stealing the cup in Loki’s hand to take a long drink, Thor suppresses a grin at the glare it earns him. It’s a reaction at least.

“Have a drink with me, brother.”

Loki pointedly looks at the empty cup Thor’s still holding. “Your execution leaves something to be desired.”

Waving over one of the servers, Thor has them refill it, Loki raising an eyebrow when he hands it over. “The easier solution would have been to get another cup.”

“I like this better,” Thor says sincerely, watching the corner of Loki’s mouth twitch as he takes a drink.

“You would.”

They did this countless times when they were much younger. Sneaking some unattended wine or even mead from the feasting hall and carrying their treasure to enjoy it somewhere safe, just the two of them passing the cup back and forth, alone in their own little world. It’s among the happiest memories Thor possesses and it softens something at the very core of him, has him smiling at Loki unabashedly.

“I missed you, brother.”

“I’m right here,” Loki says irritably but doesn’t move as Thor slings an arm around his shoulders, pulling him close in what he hopes will pass for a brotherly display of affection.

The scent hits him just as Loki is starting to relax against his side and Thor recoils before he can stop himself, words startled from his mouth. “What’s wrong with your hair?”

Loki’s hand flies up to smooth at the slicked back curls, scowling at Thor when he finds them all in order. “What are you on about?”

“It smells different,” Thor says in what he really wishes was a less distraught tone.

Loki blinks, expression smoothing as his hand drops. “It’s the oil. I ran out a few days ago.”

Thor frowns. “Replace it then.”

“I can’t.” Loki gives him an impatient look. “One of the ingredients came from the wych trees. They only grow on Asgard.”

“Oh,” Thor says. “That- right. Right.”

“Thor-“

“It’s nothing,” Thor says, blinking with eyes that have grown stupidly hot for some reason.

He can’t stand to see the alarm on his brother’s face, tries to alleviate it with another smile that seems to get stuck in his throat. Something in Loki’s eyes hardens at the sight and he grasps Thor’s wrist, the static prickle of one of his illusion settling over them as soon as his fingertips brush against bare skin.

Wishing fervently that Loki had hidden him from his sight as well as that of whoever might gaze upon them here, Thor shakes his head, tells himself it’s the motion blurring his vision. “Really, I’m fine, Loki.”

Loki doesn’t grace that with a reply, long fingers sliding to the back of Thor’s neck to draw him close until his forehead is resting against Loki’s shoulder. Somehow Thor’s arms have found their way around Loki’s waist, pressing them together until all he can feel is the achingly familiar line of his brother’s body, the one solid reality in a world that seems to be made of dust and ash.

“I’m here,” Loki says and in the end that’s all it takes.

Thor weeps for their mother, for their father. He weeps for Volstagg, Hogun and Fandral. He weeps for Sif. He weeps for his people, slain at Hela’s feet without their King to protect them. He weeps for Heimdall. He weeps for Asgard, its palace, the rainbow bridge and the Bifrost and the sea. The endless stars that never shone more brightly than in the sky he grew up under. And yes, even the wych trees, lost in fire and ruin just like everything else. He weeps for the home he doesn’t know how to replace.

*

“How much longer are you going to do this to him?”

Thor follows Brunnhilde’s gaze to where Loki is seemingly engaged in fascinating conversation with a group of Vanir, using expansive gestures as he regales them with a tale that draws much laughter. He’s not even glancing in the direction of Thor and his own little following, which at this point during the night mostly consists of slightly intoxicated banquet guests trying to get a feel of his arms.

“He’s doing it to himself,” Thor points out, which. Is very much the truth, far more so than Brunnhilde, who has known them such a short period of time could possibly know.

Thor has lost count of the number of times his brother’s schemes ended up costing Loki instead of the people he targeted; yet he never seems to learn, laying traps and snaring himself, leaving it to Thor to untangle them both. Always relying on the soft underbelly Thor has never learned to fully guard, not when it comes to Loki. Never when it comes to Loki. Leaving him to further ruminate on the consequences of his latest plot would be entirely justified. The smart thing in the long run.

Norns be damned. Thor puts his cup down with a sigh. Noticing Brunnhilde’s smirk he points a finger at her as he rises from the table. “Not a word.”

She leans back with her hands raised, looking entirely too satisfied. It gives him an idea and Thor corrects his course through the hall until he arrives at Daela’s side, their Vanir guide turning from her conversation to incline her head at him.

“Your Majesty.”

“Lady Daela,” Thor says, ignoring the whispers taking up around them as he offers her his hand. “Would I be able to convince you to gift me this next dance?”

Her eyes narrow, mouth tugging upward as her eyes shift to a point somewhere behind him. “Is that wise, your Majesty?”

“Probably not,” Thor says honestly. He tilts his head towards the dance floor. “Shall we?”

In the next hour, Thor lavishes Daela with more attention than the other ladies combined, twirling her around the room to the music, kissing her hand and generally acting the part of smitten suitor until the entire hall is in a tizzy, eddies of hushed astonishment rippling through the assembled crowd at the display. Daela, eyes dark with barely held back laughter, plays along beautifully, rewarding each of Thor’s beaming smiles with one of her own, the very picture of a woman flattered by the advances she’s receiving.

Thor is almost certain the next time sparring with Brunnhilde will leave him bruised, but it’s entirely worth it when a hand descends onto his shoulder, Thor turning to find Loki incandescent with contained fury and a smile that promises blood. “A word, brother?”

“Do you mind?” Thor asks Daela and she shakes her head.

“Far be it from me to stand in the way of family matters,” she says innocently and oh, Thor could grow to like her, he really could.

Loki looks ready to draw daggers right there and then and Thor grabs him by the arm, steering them out of the hall and into a smaller receiving room away from most of the commotion, careful to let the wide set doors fall shut behind them. Loki’s back is taut like a strung bow, fists curled at his side as he stands in the middle of the room, the glinting crest on his leathers rising and falling quickly with the harsh breaths he’s taking.

“What,” his brother says, voice eerily devoid of inflection. “Do you think you’re doing?”

They’re in dangerous waters now and like any good captain Thor knows the best way to weather a storm is to meet it head on. His words are placid, close to curious as he replies. “What do you mean, brother?”

“Don’t play at being a fool,” Loki hisses, two high spots of color staining his cheeks. “You could have chosen any of these fawning halfwits and ensured Asgard an alliance, as long as you stuck with one that had even an ounce of Vanir noble blood flowing in their veins. Instead you let that common bog witch put her hands all over you with half of Virdar watching!”

“I like Daela,” Thor says, even as his heart gives a twist at the half-step back Loki takes in reply.

“That’s not the point!” Loki snaps and his voice has grown strained, a hint of fear creeping in. “Any marriage you enter into has to be of strategic value, Thor, we’ve talked about this.”

“Of course,” Thor says, waving a hand. “But I think you underestimate the Vanir’s love for a good story to be told. Foreign king makes a commoner his queen, it has all the trappings of the great tales of old. Certainly it would earn us enough good will to bargain for refuge regardless of Daela’s station.”

“You can’t,” Loki whispers, stumbling back wild-eyed as Thor follows, only faltering in his retreat when his back comes up against the glass panes of the terrace doors, rattling them with the violence of the impact.

Closing in on Loki, Thor keeps his voice mild, almost admonishing. “Don’t be ridiculous, brother, of course I can. I’m the King of Asgard, I can marry whomever I wish. Noble or commoner, it hardly makes a difference. I could marry one of the ladies of Virdar. I could marry Daela.”

“I could even,” and here he pauses, laying a hand on Loki’s neck until he can feel the rapid thrum of his pulse against his fingertips. “Marry my lying, manipulative wretch of a brother, if I so chose.”

Loki grows very still. Thor waits, forever patient, thumb stroking tenderly at the hollow just below his ear, watching his brother’s face flicker with a variety of emotions, as if he himself doesn’t know which one to settle on. Astonishment. Confusion. Hope. Rage.

Because Loki is nothing if not predictable, he holds on to that last one. “Cruelty doesn’t become you, Thor.”

“No,” Thor agrees. “That’s a gift you laid claim to long ago. Dragging us here, forcing me and everyone else through this charade, trying to trap me in a loveless marriage. As usual, you can’t see the forest for the trees, brother mine. Do you truly think me capable of abandoning you for another?”

“Yes, how silly of me,” Loki says, quiet and vicious, eyes like shards of broken ice. “Because that’s never happened before.”

The words are honed like a weapon and they strike true just as intended, the wrench of guilt forcing Thor backwards, hand slipping from Loki’s neck as his brother watches him retreat with what anyone else would take for impassiveness. Thor knows better. It’s taken him nearly a lifetime’s worth of betrayal and misery, but he finally knows better. He thinks of Loki in the observatory, eyes spilling over, voice cracking with anguished fury as the Bifrost grew destruction all around them. Don’t tell me it was that woman.

He needs to get this right. If he doesn’t, Loki might slip from his grasp like water and Thor is certain they’d both end up mad or dead if they tried that again. So he needs to get this right. The idea scares him more than facing Malekith, or Hela or Thanos ever did, drives terror into his throat until it’s hard to breathe, making his voice hoarse as he sits down heavily onto the edge of one of the settees, looking at his hands as he speaks.

“Did I ever tell you what happened with Jane?”

“The common consensus seems to be that she dumped you,” Loki says from his place by the doors and Thor huffs a laugh.

“She did. But most people don’t know why. I doubt she ever shared it with anyone.”

“Of course not,” Loki says coldly. “That would be in poor taste after all. Very unlike the gracious Dr. Foster.”

Thor ignores the barb. “I stayed with her when I went to Midgard. Helped with some of her and Erik’s research. They had a young man working for them, Ian. His mother died when he was just a boy.”

“Oh good, another pet for your menagerie.”

Thor pretends he didn’t hear him. “The Midgardians have an art he was very familiar with. They use needles to ink permanent designs into their skin. Ian had quite a few.”

Loki frowns. “Like those fools from Skornheim who worship the rocks and sands around them?”

“Given that you had one of them take Heimdall’s post, I don’t think you should cast aspersions,” Thor says. “But yes. They’re rather beautiful actually. Ian took me to one of his own artists.”

Eyes widening imperceptibly, Loki flicks his gaze over Thor, like he hasn’t seen him bare hundreds of times in the past few months.

“It faded within weeks,” Thor answers the silent question. “Something to do with the more rapid cell reproduction.”

“You’d have to spell the needle to have it remain,” Loki says, crossing his arms. “Far be it from me to interrupt your riveting narration but is there a point to this tale?”

“There’s a custom on Midgard,” Thor says quietly. “They ink their skin with the names of their loved ones. People they lost. To carry them with them, always. The idea appealed to me at the time. Jane did say she understood, but. Well.”

Silence stretches long and taut between them, as if the very galaxy were holding its breath.

“Brother,” Loki finally says, eyes glittering darkly. “Are you telling me you tried to have my name permanently traced onto your body?”

“The horns, too,” says Thor, seeing no reason to withhold any part of the truth now. Not even the strain in his voice as he continues quietly. “I told you I mourned.”

Loki makes a noise that’s halfway between laughter and a sob and Thor suddenly finds himself with a lapful of his brother, Loki running greedy fingers over every part of Thor he can reach.

“Where,” he breathes, and Thor grasps his hand to slide it to his heart, resting their palms there as Loki stares down between them, forehead pressed to Thor’s. For once he appears speechless, and Thor is grateful for that much because he needs Loki to understand.

“I couldn’t let you go. Jane knew it, too. Every time you leave you take part of me with you. I can’t do it anymore. Loki, my only wish for as long as I can remember was to have you by my side forever. I meant what I said earlier. I’ll marry you before the whole of Asgard if you let me.”

Loki draws back at that, eyes becoming guarded as he regards Thor, considering. “You still need an heir.”

And this. Is a delicate matter, Thor knows. He’s had time to ponder this very question, time to come to terms with the possible solution. Time to get used to how much the idea appeals to him, a bone-deep ache for something he’s never even allowed himself to consider before. Loki may not share his enthusiasm for the concept, especially considering his role in it.

Careful not to reveal what he’s learned of Jotun heritage in the wake of Loki’s fall from the Bifrost, Thor braces himself. “Are you telling me the task would be beyond the capabilities of Asgard’s greatest sorcerer?”

Loki lunges for him, the strength of the impact forcing Thor backwards as his brother devours his mouth, pouring declarations he will never give voice to out loud into his hands, his lips, his tongue. Thor drinks them all in, gifts them back in kind and more as he takes them to the ground, lays Loki out like a feast to be savored, relief and joy making his mind spin. Magic rushes over them, leaves them bare and still clawing at each other in desperation that only subsides once Thor is buried deep inside his brother. Loki is barely able to finish drawing the sigils before Thor takes his hands, pushes them above his head and holds them there with his own as he kisses and kisses and kisses his brother.

“The door,” Loki gasps as soon as Thor gives him a brief respite, rubbing his beard against the bare curve of Loki’s shoulder. “Thor, my hands, spell-“

“Why?” Thor asks, giving a first lazy thrust that draws a groan from them both. “Let them come. Soon they’ll all find out anyway. There will be no creature alive in the Nine Realms that won’t know you belong to me. I’ll make sure of it.”

Brother,” Loki breathes, curse and reverence wound into the word like flowers rising from the same stem.

After that, things get a little hazy. They tear into each other like they haven’t in years and years, not since they were very young and so desperate for each other any risk was deemed acceptable. The violence of their clashing leaves them bruised and scratched; purpling fingerprints on Loki’s hips where Thor holds onto him, blood drawn against Thor’s chest where Loki’s nails leave their mark. They come at each other over and over until neither of them has any breath left to move. Every coupling is a question, a frenzied flurry of will you, are you, could you?

And for the first time in fifteen centuries, the answer is yes, yes, yes.

Epilogue

“This may have been a mistake.”

Loki looks back over his shoulder, the wind whipping his curls up and around his face like a frenzied halo. His face looks very pale in the shaded blue light emanating all around them. “I’m so glad you waited until we were halfway up this mountain to tell me.”

But he halts his climb, stays right where he is until Thor has trudged through the knee-deep snow to close the distance between them, laying a hand to Thor’s cheek. Warmth spreads from Loki’s fingertips, thawing the frost in Thor’s beard and leaving trickling water running down his jaw into his collar, making him shiver with something besides cold. Around them the wind strokes howling fingers through the ice, Jotunheim’s haunting song that’s followed them since the beginning of their trek.

It’s not the only thing making Thor uneasy. Looking at Loki, perfectly comfortable in a cold that shoves needles into Thor’s ribs with every breath, it’s hard to deny the truth of his heritage, something Thor thought he long made his peace with. Yet seeing him here, the realm their father plucked him from so long ago, tugs painfully at something in Thor’s chest, the fear that Loki might somehow vanish among the ice and snow as nonsensical as it is real.

“How much further?” he asks, words muffled as he brushes a kiss into Loki’s palm still resting on his jaw.

His brother jerks his head towards a cresting ridge a few hundred yards above their impromptu resting place. “Up there.”

Thor frowns. “How do you know? We’ve been walking for hours. I’m starting to think Býleistr may have taken us for fools.”

Something shifts in Loki’s eyes, leaving a fondness that makes Thor want to duck his head. “Unlikely. Without my support his claim to the throne is null and void. Sending us to our death would serve no purpose. Besides. I can feel it now. Come on, brother.”

Feel what Thor wants to ask but to what end? There are old forces at work here, strong enough for even Thor to feel their pull. And they’re all reaching for his brother. For the umpteenth time since the light of the Bifrost faded around them, Thor feels the bitter gnaw of doubt.

It was his idea. Grown and nurtured from Idonea’s words in Fygrad, the way her eyes turned to Loki as she sought a way to save her people. There was a lot of that going around these days. Jotunheim lay abandoned to darkness and ruin, the Casket of Ancient Winters lost to Surtur’s wrath like everything else. Its only hope were skills the Jotun turned their back on long ago, seiðr powerful enough to awaken the ancient magic within these lands.

Loki called him mad the first time Thor brought it up. The Council did, too. Only when Thor made it clear he wouldn’t be swayed on the matter, was his insistence to send word to Jotunheim heeded.

Býleistr’s answer arrived within three days, carrying not just an invitation but an offer that exceeded even Thor’s wildest hopes. Refuge, for as many Asgardians as was needed. Land, as much as they desired. All for the low price of Loki backing Býleistr’s claim over Helblindi’s. The bargain was unspeakably stacked in their favor and Loki noted with no small amount of satisfaction that the Jotuns must be very desperate to even think of extending it. After that, resistance to Thor’s proposal lessened significantly. Accepting the invitation seemed like the only right thing to do.

They were received politely enough even by Asgardian standards, Býleistr waiting for them at the Bifrost site with a handful of his warriors. At the sight of his towering stature, Thor wanted to snatch Loki to his side, raise Stormbreaker and whisk them back to Midgard, Vanaheimr, anywhere as long as it was away from the red-eyed stare of the creature awaiting them.

“Loki Laufeyson,” Býleistr said in greeting and Thor was ready to slaughter him where he stood, sick jealousy bringing his blood to a boil, the thought of this creature laying a claim to his brother enough to drive him to murder.

“Odinson,” Loki corrected and his hand was like a vice around Thor’s wrist, staying them both.

Now, watching his brother climb nimbly over the ice and snow, Thor isn’t so certain either of them were right exactly. Something within this realm speaks to Loki’s powers, keeps his path unfaltering as he leads them up and around another bend through the rising terrain, slowing to a halt as he reaches the crest. Thor joins him seconds later, words dying in his throat at the sight before them.

They’re standing on the edge of a crater, its walls rising higher than anything Thor has ever seen, the snow-covered plains at the bottom looking undisturbed from this distance even as the wind drives up flurries all around them. Walking around the crest in its entirety might take even a determined man a day or two and the drop appears to be almost vertical at each point of such a journey.

“It has no name,” Loki says when Thor finally tears his gaze from the brutal beauty at their feet. “There are taller summits across the plains to the East and the path through the mountains is treacherous. I suppose no one ever bothered.”

“Where’s the river?” Thor asks, remembering something Býleistr told them.

“Underneath.” Loki says, pointing towards the plains below. “A good thing, too. We’ll need a source for artificial irrigation.”

“Brother,” Thor says, trying to hide his bafflement. “Býleistr promised us help with our supplies for two years at the most. It will take much longer than that to build a city for our people in this place.”

If it could be done at all. Their path up here took the two of them the better part of three hours and they carried nothing with them. Perhaps they could dig away at the crater walls for some of the building material but much of it would have to come from elsewhere. Convincing the Council to consider Jotunheim instead of Vanaheimr as the realm to rebuild Asgard was a difficult task by itself. Thor doesn’t really want to imagine the reaction if they were to see them now.

“It’s easily defended,” Loki says, like he hasn’t even heard Thor. His eyes are closed, as if he’s using senses beyond sight to feel out their surroundings. “Our Vanir allies will be pleased.”

Idonea accepted Thor’s offer to follow them immediately, the news that their path would take them away from Vanaheimr only steeling her resolve. It brought their number of trained warriors from a handful to a few hundred, easing some of Thor’s worry about the state of their defensive capabilities. In another ten years’ time the daily weapon training for each Asgardian would put them in a better position but for now, the alliance with the Vanir was a sorely needed solution. Yet, even with their help, they would need some sort of reinforcement to guard every point of entry.

Thor frowns, trying to gauge the distances. “I suppose in a few years’ time, if we concentrate on building ramparts where an opposing force might make their stand-“

“No,” Loki interrupts quietly and his eyes gleam like silver when he finally opens them. “I don’t think it should take that long. Call the storm, brother.”

There’s something in his voice that stays every question Thor has, keeps him silent as the thick cloud cover darkens above them, approaching thunder rumbling ominously in the distance. Hair rising at the back of his neck, Thor draws on the power that never feels far away these days, thrumming to life beneath his skin as soon as he concentrates, vision shifting as the lightning grasps for him with loving fingers.

Dark curls floating in the newly charged air surrounding them, Loki smiles at him and then he changes in front of Thor’s very eyes. The paleness recedes from his face like the ebbing sea, leaving blue skin and crimson eyes that should guard the fear in them better, but don’t. Thor reaches out before he can think better of it, unable to stand the emotion on his brother’s face. To his shock Loki grasps for him in return, presses his palm against Thor’s until everything shifts.

Seiðr, different than anything Thor ever felt coming from his brother, rushes to meet his own power, entangling and twisting and transforming it in a burst of light so bright Thor is forced to close his eyes, waiting for the worst of it to abate. When he opens them again, his breath catches in his throat.

The structure can’t measure more than thirty steps, its walls forming a perfect circle, just tall enough for a man to comfortably stand in, its entrance marked by sigils Thor isn’t familiar with. There would be nothing extraordinary about it, a simple retreat one might use to get a night’s rest on a prolonged hunting trip, if it weren’t made entirely from ice. Ice shining a bright silver, lightning caught and contained within its walls. Stepping close, Thor raises a hand in wonder, breathing a surprised laugh as his fingers make contact with the ethereal glow of the structure. It’s warm.

“Is this what you’ve been working on?” Thor asks, thinking of Loki’s absent manner in the past few weeks. Bent over books Thor thought lost to Surtur’s wrath, scribbling notes furiously, muttering under his breath all the while. A sight so familiar from their youth Thor didn’t waste another thought on it.

“Finding a way to have the transference remain stable took a while. Your powers are rather volatile,” Loki says as he comes to stand next to Thor. There’s uncertainty in his voice as he continues. “What do you think?”

Thor shakes his head, still unable to tear his gaze from Loki’s creation. In his mind he sees a city built from ice and lightning, towering spires reaching high into the sky and shining from a thousand leagues away. Their powers entwined to give their people a new home. He turns and takes his brother’s face into his hands, vision blurring as he smiles so wide his frost-bitten cheeks are starting to sting.

“I think fate smiled upon Asgard on the day you became its son. And upon myself.”

Loki scoffs but can’t quell the smile tugging at his mouth. “Sentiment, brother?”

“It’s a driving force for most people,” Thor says. “As a matter of fact, they base entire ceremonies on it.”

Loki rolls his eyes, ducking from Thor’s grasp. “Not this again. I’m not marrying you, Thor. The entire purpose of such a ritual is to elevate your partner’s status. I’m already your brother and a Prince of Asgard, there’s nowhere for me to be elevated to!”

They had this argument many times since their return from Vanaheimr. To Thor’s shock and delight the Council came down firmly on the King’s side in the matter, arguing an official ceremony would serve to legitimize the union and foster acceptance among their people. Leaving aside that the unconcerned reaction to their announcement didn’t suggest much fostering to be necessary in the first place; the entire affair did its part to endear the errant Lord Sveittir to Thor. Loki still wouldn’t budge.

“Would you have our children be born as bastards?” Thor asks beseechingly, Loki snorting in reply as he steps around him and through the warded entrance of the ice structure.

“I was born one, it only seems appropriate. And if you remain out there, the point will become moot soon. There won’t be any children to legitimize if you die of exposure.”

“I’ll wear you down yet, brother,” Thor promises and follows Loki inside.