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Loki had never been in such a filthy, loud establishment before. It was the type of tavern he'd only read about in stories, a place situated near enough to the border to contain a cross-section of races and classes, all of them rowdy, all of them drunk. The sun hadn't even started to sink in the sky, yet the patrons in the crowded tavern already lined the worn wooden tables, swilling their ale from hefty tankards and crowing about this or that exploit of bloodshed or thievery. Mortals sat shoulder-to-shoulder with ancient dark elves; hulking beasts rubbed elbows with delicate waifs from Vanaheim.

It was oddly thrilling, although the smell, of course, could be improved. Loki lifted his sleeve (delicately scented with royal spiceroot) to his nose as he moved through the room, eyes darting along the faces at the tables. He was searching for one particular face; his spies had told him there would be no mistaking it.

"Well, you're a long way from home," said a voice from a shadow.

Loki whipped his head around and stared. There in the corner, seated alone and in an indecent sprawl, was the Frost Giant that Loki sought: the Mighty Thor. As the reports had mentioned, he wore a beard—already unusual among his people—of the same blond color as his long, braided hair—absolutely unheard of. But like the rest of the Giant race, he wore scant clothing, his muscled chest bare and only the briefest of furs clasped about his shoulders. An eyepatch covered one scarred socket, a roguish affectation that Loki found he liked. His horns curved up from his hairline and ended in two cruel points. Loki felt the absurd urge to touch his fingertip to them to test their sharpness.

So this was the banished runtling—the Jotunar had a word for it, though Loki couldn't wrap his tongue around the sounds. Half the usual size of his people, and living among other races besides. A strange specimen, to be sure, in more ways than his hair and height. Loki had never seen anyone quite like him—like a mix between a pirate from some adventure tale and a dashing knight of yore.  

Loki was staring much too long. He swallowed and forced his gaze back to Thor's dark red eye, which crinkled at the corner as if he might at any moment laugh in Loki's face.

"And you're observant," Loki said. He indicated the empty chair across the Giant's table where his booted foot was propped. "May I join you?"

Thor eyed him a bit more before making a show of removing his boot from the chair. "We find ourselves in free country here," he said, "so I suppose I can't stop you."

Free country? More like lawless. Loki sat down gracefully, taking care that the thick hood of his cloak stayed up, effectively hiding his face from the rest of the rabble.

"Are all Jotunar so gracious with their invitations?" he asked lightly. A barkeep approached and, despite Loki's gestures to the contrary, plunked a tankard in front of him before toddling away. The heavy scent of ale hung in the air. Loki scrunched his nose at the thing.

Thor did laugh then, and lifted his own tankard to his wet, blue lips. "As gracious as Aesir are as guests, apparently," he murmured into the echo of it before drinking.

Loki ignored the slight. He had more important things to tackle. "I come on urgent business. You are the one they call Thor, are you not? The mercenary from Jotunheim?"

"I call myself Thor," replied the Frost Giant. "The Mighty Thor. I like having the article there at the front. Gives me a sense of—" He rolled his massive shoulders. "Living legend."

Loki blinked. The blue fool might actually be insane. No matter. "Fine, the Mighty Thor." His voice dropped to a low whisper. "I have a job for you. They say you often venture into the frozen wastes to the north where few of my people have dared tread. If you agree to guide me into the mountains, I am in a position to pay a handsome fee."

"Really?" Thor drawled. He propped his chin on his thick fist. "More handsome than you?"

"Well, I—" Loki's brain caught up with his quick tongue, the meaning of the words coming to him in a flash. He paused, mouth open. Could the Jotun actually be flirting with him? His cheeks heated; such a display was forbidden in his homeland. To speak so boldly was bad enough, but for a Frost Giant, and a male besides—!  

"Hm." Thor grinned over the rim of his tankard. "More pretty than handsome when you blush."

Loki scrambled to recover his poise. "My natural beauty is not relevant to this discussion. Now do you want the job or not?"

"I might," Thor conceded, "but first I want to know something." He set his drink down with a thunk and leaned over the little table, closer to Loki than was strictly necessary. "Why does the Prince of Asgard—pretty or no—need to go to the frozen wastes?"

The flush left Loki's cheeks as the color drained away from his face completely. He'd thought himself unrecognizable this far from the palace, dressed as he was in plain leathers and his simplest cloak.

Thor continued, clearly delighting in Loki's unease. "To think that the only heir to the golden throne is sharing a drink with me, and an accomplished mage at that. Welcome, Loki-Prince." He lifted his cup.

"Was I really that obvious?" he said once he found his tongue. He affected nonchalance with a roll of one shoulder. "I thought my disguise would serve me better."

Thor snorted. "You can wrap yourself in whatever clothes you like, Prince, but you can't train that carriage out of a royal, even if you were to wear sackcloth." He tipped his head to the side, his many little braids jangling as their ornaments chimed. "Bet you walk like a prince even when you're stark naked, in fact. Am I right?"

"Keep your voice down," Loki hissed, glancing over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching him. "I thought mercenaries were supposed to be a tight-lipped lot. I don't exactly wish to announce my presence here."

"And the reason for all this secrecy?" Thor's single red eye roved the room like a ruby looking for its setting. "You didn't even bring guards, which makes me think that Odin-King does not know where you are or what you plan to do. Elsewise he would insist on protection for his sole heir—anyone with sense would."

A bristle of anger worked its way up Loki's spine. "Take care how you speak to me. I am not so senseless as to sit here and listen to some common criminal's insults."

"Don't take it as an insult," Thor said. He smiled wide. "I quite like someone with more brass than sense."

Loki stared for a moment before looking away with a huff. "Absolutely incorrigible. Do you talk this way with all your customers?"

The smile went wider. "Only the pretty ones." His tipped his blond head in the direction of the staircase, a rickety thing of wood and shadow. "If you'd rather not air your dirty laundry out here, we can continue this discussion in the room I've taken for the night. Up to you."

Was this merely an attempt to lure him into bed? Loki's lips twitched as he considered his options. Thor, seeing his hesitation, sighed and looked away.

"My overtures would not be so ham-fisted as that, Loki-Prince," he said. "You'll know them when you see them."

"When?" Loki parroted.

"Depending on whether I take this job of yours, I suppose."

A beat before Loki answered. "All right. Lead the way."

The Mighty Thor made to stand, his eye dancing in the light of the roaring fire in the grate and the tavern's flickering lanterns. Loki watched as he loomed taller and taller, finally reaching his full height. The top of his blond head nearly grazed the ceiling. He was small for a Frost Giant, yes, but at eight feet he dwarfed Loki with ease. Loki's mouth went dry as he stood too; he barely came up to the man's naked chest.

They climbed the staircase, Thor stooping so as not to hit his head, and arrived in a simple room. There seemed to be very little baggage belonging to Thor, only a satchel with a bedroll and a huge axe hewn of ice and bone as long as Loki was tall. It leaned in a corner, giving off wisps of cold frost though it did not melt. The bed was large by Aesir standards, Loki noticed, yet not large enough to fit the Giant's frame comfortably.

"I'm used to it," Thor said when he noticed Loki eyeing the mattress. "Don't worry. I can curl up very small." He held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart as if in demonstration.

Loki lowered his hood. "How you sleep is no concern of mine," he said. "I only care about whether you accept my employ."

Thor sat on the edge of the bed, gesturing expansively even as the bedframe creaked in alarm. "Of course. What's in the mountains that you need so badly, Loki-Prince? And why hide your intentions from the king?"

"Just 'Loki' if you'd please. I'd like to keep my title from being bandied about while I am traveling in secret."

"Fine. Just Loki." Thor smiled, slow and amused.

Seeing no chair and not wishing to join the Frost Giant on his bed, Loki stood and tossed his glossy dark hair. "I seek some ancient tomes relating to magical histories," he lied. "They are of no consequence to anyone but myself; I collect such things, you see. As for my father—" Here he felt he could afford to be a little more honest. "The less Odin knows of how I spend my time, the better. He thinks me quite frivolous, and I would prefer not to give him even more cause to harangue me at the dinner table."

Thor lounged back on his bed, thick fingers laced across his bare stomach, his boots hanging well off the end of the mattress. "So you just need a Jotun to walk you into the mountains where these fancy old books of yours are waiting?"

"Exactly." Loki removed a blue velvet purse, clinking with coin, from his belt and tossed it. Thor caught it easily before it had a chance to hit him in the face. "According to my sources, that's at least three times what you normally demand in your line of work, and it's only half of my fee. You'll get the other half when I'm safely delivered back to Asgard." He nodded, pleased with his forethought. "So do I have an agreement with the Mighty Thor?"

Thor quirked his lips, shook his head. He weighed the little pouch in his palm, tossing and catching it a couple of times. "No," he said, the threw the coin purse back at Loki.

Loki caught it against his chest with a shocked gasp. "No?" His jaw ticked. "If you wish to haggle over price—"

"I wish to hear the real reason you want to travel into the mountains," Thor drawled. "Books, even rare ones, are not worth a prince personally journeying into the frozen wastes. With this kind of gold, you could hire an army to troop in there and bring back your tomes. So I will ask you again: why must you go? And what do you hope to find?"

A moment passed where Loki's nostrils flared and his blood boiled. Damn him. Who did this creature think he was?

The Frost Giant watched him stew in silence with a laugh. "I don't take jobs that will have me rushing headlong into the dark. Either tell me what I'm being paid to do, or go. It's no skin off my back either way."

"Fine," Loki ground out between clenched teeth. In this, he would tell the truth. He swallowed, then said, "I seek the casket of ancient winters."

Thor folded his hands behind his head, looking for all the world as if he might soon take a nap. "Oh?" He affected a yawn. "Please, go on. I do so love this bedtime story. It was a favorite when I was very small."

"It's not a story!" Loki snapped. "The casket is real, and I have tracked down its last known location at great cost. Once I have it in my possession—" He clamped his mouth shut. Thor need not know what would happen once it was secured. He took a breath. "I need that casket. I cannot trust anyone else with the task. The path will be perilous, and I am not so foolish as to attempt it without an expert to show me the way." His jaw tightened. "Does that satisfy you? Or shall I go back downstairs and seek a more willing sellsword?"

The grin that spread across Thor's face was too warm to be a Frost Giant's. He swung his massive legs off the bed and stood. "You will not find one more willing," he said with a wink of his one good eye, and plucked the purse out of Loki's slack hands. "Your quest is insane. Let's do it."

Loki blinked at his suddenly empty hands. He folded them behind his back. "All right. We leave first thing in the morning, then."

"That suits me fine," Thor said. He raised one blond eyebrow and looked pointedly at his bed. "You're welcome to stay, of course, but I imagine a man of your means will want to pay for his own room."

"You imagine correctly," Loki said. Much too quickly. He headed to the door with a nod. "First light, the Mighty Thor. Don't be late."

Thor overtook him in less than two strides, holding the door open for him much to Loki's surprise. "Until tomorrow, Loki," he said as he bowed Loki through. "Sleep well."

"Yes, well— You too," Loki said as he ducked out.

That night, laying in bed and staring up at the shadowed ceiling, Loki wondered if he'd made a mistake in hiring the famed runtling. He wasn't at all what Loki had expected—no hulking, dim brute. Thor was sharp. Could see through Loki's practiced lies after knowing him only a few minutes. He possessed a cunning that Loki supposed was necessary if one found himself cut off from his homeland and his people, who famously prided themselves on their intricate society where every Giant had a place and a purpose. It must be a lonely life, he thought.

Perhaps as lonely as that of Asgard's only mage-prince….

Loki rolled onto his side, tugging the thin blankets tighter around his shoulders. The Mighty Thor did not need his pity, only his gold. And it didn't matter how clever he thought himself; Thor could never dream of what Loki planned to do once he had the casket in his hands.

With that thought as small comfort, Loki fell into a fitful sleep.

The next morning, they began their journey into the mountains. On foot, as it happened.

"Why can we not take horses?" Loki demanded as Thor strapped his axe to his broad back.

"The paths are too narrow and too steep for a horse to climb. Besides, you won't be able to find one large enough to carry me anyway." Thor glanced at him meaningfully. "Unless you have some magic horse of fantastical size tucked away somewhere?"

"I do not," Loki grumbled.

"Then we travel light and walk," Thor said cheerily. "Don't fret. If you falter, I will carry you. No extra charge."

"You will do no such thing!"

"Cradled in my arms like a bride," Thor crooned, holding his hands palm-up for his invisible burden. "I swear I won't drop you. You'd be light as a feather to me."

Loki was already stalking down the road toward the mountains. "If you're finished spouting nonsense, we should really be going," he called.

Thor caught up to him easily. "I could wrap you in furs—"

"Please stop." The tips of Loki's ears burned. He lifted his hood to cover them. "You're embarrassing yourself."

"I'm not the one who's embarrassed," Thor said. With his longer stride, he passed Loki and spun to walk backwards while facing him. "Look at how pink you get. Are all Aesir as prudish as you?"

"I am not a prude." Loki stared straight ahead as if the eight-foot blue Giant was transparent. He was glad the road was so empty this early in the day; they were the only travelers for miles, from the look of it. "I only have some sense of decorum which you, sadly, seem to lack."

Thor hummed and spun again, once more at Loki's side. "Ah yes, I have heard of this decorum. Your people do not entertain the notion of a man carrying another man into the bedchamber, do they?" His voice, while still a light rumble, took on a more serious tone. "Where I come from, personal freedoms are few and far between, it is true, but at least Jotunar do not sneer at such harmless things."

"Do you see me sneer?" Loki said, and he hated how his voice quailed with emotion, a thin tremor of fear at even saying the words aloud.

"No," Thor said, strangely gentle. Then, "Are you different, then?"

"I—" Loki stopped on the beaten dirt of the road, his boots not even touched by trail dust yet. Their journey would take days, perhaps weeks. If he was to spend that much time in the Mighty Thor's company, he felt they should have this out now. Any later and the awkwardness would threaten to undo him.

Thor stopped as well and waited.

"It's not the done thing in Asgard," Loki finally said. He kept his gaze on the distant mountains, a hazy, distant line in the early morning light. "Two men might meet in secret once or twice, yes, but it is considered horribly degenerate to—to care for that lover. Satisfying a base instinct is one thing; allowing your heart to eat away at your carefully ordered life is another. It would be a dereliction of duty," Loki spat, "or at least, that is what my father always says." He shifted his eyes to Thor, watching his blue face crumple in sympathy. "After all, I can only get an heir off a woman, can't I? Even hoping for anything else would be cause for disinheritance."

"I did not realize it was as dire as that." Thor tipped his head to the side, his horns catching the sunlight. "I am sorry I teased you so. Say the word and I will bother you no longer."

"Oh, come." Loki gave a dismissive wave of his hand. "It is, as you said, a free country." He desperately ignored the tug in his chest at the thought that Thor's little flirtations, as annoying as they were, might cease. "Just know I am unpracticed at being the subject of such...flattery."

"I do not flatter when I say you are pretty. It is merely a fact," Thor said, not looking away as Loki wished he would. He sounded so serious. "You know you are very pretty, don't you?" At Loki's tongue-tied silence, Thor whistled. "A crime, that you have not been informed at the very least, and further reminded at appropriate intervals. Not often enough to give you a big head, mind, but monthly. Something."

Loki marched past Thor and continued down the road. He did not wish to explain to the brute that Loki's willowy frame and delicate features were not so prized among his fellow countrymen. Not for a prince, at least. Not for a man.  

No, a man, according to every Aesir taste, was supposed to be broad. Tall. Thickly made. Well-muscled. A warrior's warrior, Loki's father called them. His eyes drifted to Thor, to his massive shape, to the way he held himself like he was prepared for statues to one day be shaped in his image. Give or take a couple of feet, he was the ideal.

The ideal body that Loki could never aspire to himself, but could aspire to be pressed against in the dead of night.

Loki looked away. Very unfair, the entire thing. "Enough dawdling. I want to reach the base of the mountains by nightfall," he said.

"An aggressive pace. That bodes well for me." Thor fell in at Loki's side once more, his grin back in full force.

Loki tried his best to hide his pleased smile, but Thor's one good eye found it anyway.

They made good time, even if Loki's legs were sadly short (Thor's words) and the terrain was increasingly rough. Thor suggested once or twice that they stop to examine a bed of wildflowers, their heavy pink heads bobbing in the chill breeze, but Loki scoffed at the idea.

"A Frost Giant? Picking flowers?" He adjusted the strap of his pack on his shoulder. As light as they were traveling, Loki was unused to carrying his own bags. The small satchel filled with only the essentials became a heavy weight after so many hours of walking with it. "You're a disgrace to your race, I'm sure."

"Oh, I'm a disgrace to the Jotunar for many reasons," Thor said easily as they walked. "A flower or two won't make much difference, not when I am already malformed in body and spirit." His words were at odds with his cheery face, and Loki could not decide whether or not the mercenary was pained by his banishment or treated the whole thing like a very silly joke.

Loki couldn't imagine losing everything like that.

Perhaps Thor sensed the heaviness of his thoughts, for he sought to dissipate them with further antics. He stooped to pluck a fat flower from the ground, inhaled its scent deeply, and then tucked the stem behind Loki's ear, smoothing away a lock of black hair as he did so.

"To go with your pretty cheeks," he laughed.

Loki reached up to touch the flower gently. He could have tossed it away to wither beside the road; it was only a jape after all. Yet he dropped his hand and allowed the bloom to stay where Thor had placed it. They walked on.

"Do you miss your homeland?" Loki asked as softly as he was able. "Your people? Your old life?"

A shrug. "It wasn't much of a life. Jotunar have a place for everyone, and everyone in their assigned place. I was too small to be useful in battle or labor, so I was placed as a—" And here he formed a guttural word that Loki could not hope to repeat with any success. His eyes went wide at the noise, and Thor, catching his look, smiled. "It means 'child-minder.' I was put in charge of raising little ones. "

"You?" Loki could not picture the Mighty Thor rearing a brood of Frost Giants. The fearsome mercenary wiping spittle away from tiny mouths and kissing scraped knees, a babe perched on his hip? "I can't imagine it would suit you."

"Oh no, I was very good at it," Thor protested. "I raised over a hundred children. They all grew into strong, upright members of Jotun society. I didn't lose a single one, which is something of a miracle in that line of work."

"Then why did you lose your place?" Loki asked.

Thor looked at him with his single eye hooded and heavy. "I doted on my charges. Loved them, even. Can't have that." He made a fist with one hand and beat it against his chest with a harsh thump. "A Jotun must be hard as winter," he growled in a mocking cadence, "and as cold as ice." He grinned, gave a sad shake of his head. "They took the remaining children away from me before I could infect them with my softness."

"I'm sorry." Loki hesitated. The sentiment seemed so insufficient. "I had no idea."

"Not your doing. Leaving Jotun life behind and becoming skógarmaðr was my only option after that, and it's all worked out, hasn't it?"

There was that word, the one Loki couldn't fit his lips around, the one that meant 'banished one'  in the language of the Giants. "How do you say that? Skoog…?"

"Skógarmaðr. It translates to 'man in the wilds.'" Thor smiled, full and soft, and repeated the word again and again, encouraging Loki to keep trying until he, too, managed to say it nearly correctly.

They walked along, taking care to step clear of the gnarled roots that choked this part of the road. Thor held out one huge chapped hand, and Loki found himself taking it for a moment, just for a bit of support until he found his footing. In this way they made their way through the foothills and arrived at the base of the mountain just as the sun began to set.

Loki surveyed the cold and desolate place. Plants were few and far between, and even then were wedged in the cracks between boulders and huge slabs of rock. A light dusting of frost covered the ground in patches. Perhaps another snowstorm was on the horizon.

"We'll stop here for the night," Thor said, unhitching his bedroll and spreading it across the rocky ground.

Loki looked at him askance. "Here? Without cover? There's not even a flat piece of grass to be had."

"And there will not be, not for much of this journey." Thor gestured to the landscape about them. "This is the most comfortable spot we could hope for. I promise you." A rustle in the scrub brush arrested his attention, a hare nibbling at the scant greenery. Thor pulled a knife from his boot. "If you will excuse me, I believe that is our dinner."

Loki watched as Thor stalked away. A shiver passed through his frame as a gust of wind whipped by him, and he turned from the scene of the mild carnage to busy himself with making a fire so that they could cook their little meal and sleep without freezing overly much. A swirl of green magic swelled around his palms as he crouched low to the ground. By the time Thor returned with the hare skinned and bled dry, Loki had managed to build a nicely crackling fire.

"The perks of keeping a mage about," Thor declared. "It would have taken me twice as long to make a firepit half the size."

Loki did not dare preen, but he did allow himself a moment to bask. Appreciation for his magical skills was not so profuse in his homeland, where talents with sword and shield were viewed as more fitting for a man.

"Will that be enough for the both of us?" Loki asked, tipping his chin at the hare. "You must eat quite a lot compared to me."

"I can always hunt for more." Thor worked the hare onto a makeshift spit of pointed sticks. "You will not starve while under my protection, Loki-Prince. My price covers all efforts to ensure your good health." He shot Loki a small smile. Flirting again.

Loki ignored the look and the feeling it produced in his chest, seating himself instead on a flat rock near the fire to warm his hands.

They shared their simple dinner of roasted hare, dried fruits from Thor's pack, and a skin of wine. By the time they'd eaten their fill, the night sky was ablaze with stars and the chill had grown to a fearsome cold wind.

Loki tugged his cloak tighter about his shoulders. "I don't suppose you have a tent in that bag of yours?"

Thor made a distressed noise. "Tents do not hold up in these winds."

"Sleeping under the stars it is, then." Loki set out his bedroll as close to the fire as he dared, fixing the flames with an enchantment to keep them roaring through the night.

On the other side of the fire, Thor stretched out on his own bedroll, his red bead of an eye trained on Loki. "Will you be warm enough?" he asked.

"I suppose I'll have to be," Loki murmured as he bedded down himself. Too late, he remembered the flower tucked behind his ear. The blossom was half-crushed, but for reasons he did not intend to examine, Loki placed the thing gently in his satchel when he was sure Thor was not watching. Then he lay back down and closed his eyes.

"Loki." The Frost Giant's voice was so low, so soft, Loki nearly believed it had been his imagination. It was only when Thor repeated his name that he turned his head and saw Thor laying on the other side of the licking flames, staring back. As Loki watched, he flipped back the top layer of his bedroll to reveal his bare, blue chest and beside him, a thin empty spot. "Sleep beside me," he said. "I have heat enough for the both of us."

Thor had been right. The overture, once made, could not be mistaken.

Oh, how every fiber of Loki wished to fold itself into that space beside the Mighty Thor! To find warmth snug against that broad chest—how strange to have the chance now when he cruelly could not take it.

It was not that Loki was given to self-denial; on the contrary, he was a creature of indulgence. But in this instance, such a thing would be the height of folly, for he knew that soon—as soon as the casket was in his hands—Thor would know him for what he truly was.

A villain bent on ruling over all the kingdoms for himself.

Loki sought the casket not for glory or fame, but to use its power to both cripple the Jotun empire and usurp his own father the Odin-King in one fell swoop. For the casket, it was said, was the source of the Frost Giants' strength, and once Loki possessed that strength, all would fall before him.

Yet here was this runtling. This man of the wilds. Offering Loki a place at his side. How foolish to welcome one such as he. Loki felt tears prick at his eyes. He looked away.

"Thank you," he said, his voice surprisingly steady as he turned on his side, facing away from the fire, from Thor, from the promise of comfort. "But I will be fine."

The sound of Thor's blankets shifting came soft and light. "If you say so," said the Jotun. "Sleep well, Loki-just Loki."

Loki did not sleep well. Not at all.

Their journey continued apace. In the morning, they pored over the map Loki had drawn indicating the approximate location of the cave he sought. Thor outlined the best route, a spiral up the mountain that would take them a week at least, but had the benefit of keeping them safe from marauders and cutthroats.

"No one ventures this far into the wastes," Thor explained, "not even my Jotunar brethren."

"Brilliant." Loki nodded. "Then we will be alone." At Thor's leer, he hastened to add, "To travel unmolested! Argh, wipe that look from your face."

"You put it there." But Thor demurred with that lopsided smile of his, and the topic was dropped.

The topic was dropped so thoroughly, in fact, that Loki felt its lack. As they traveled, Thor was polite, even friendly, sharing stories of his boyhood under Jotun rule and some of his more interesting jobs—but he never again asked Loki to join him in his thin bedroll.

Oh, sure, there was the passing remark touching on Loki's apparent comeliness. "How lovely you look in the morning light," Thor would boom as Loki, hair mussed and face drawn, broke camp and glared.

But the offer was not made again.

Not that it should be, Loki thought as they trekked through unforgiving passes of ice and stone. Not that he could accept even if it were. Not that— Not even—

Oh, but it was devilishly unfair.

Loki contemplated the unfairness as he squinted into the freezing wind. A fur muffler was wound around his mouth and nose, leaving him to breathe in the wet scent of animal. Thor was a warm, huge presence at his side, ready to catch him by the arm should he slip in the snow as he had many times already that day. This part of the journey was particularly grueling, and Loki was loathe to complain to Thor, who seemed untouched by the cold. The blue fool smiled into the wind and let the hoarfrost collect in his beard like a Giant of legend, completely happy with his lot.

Loki detested him. And wanted him desperately.

"Tonight may be lean in terms of supper," Thor announced at some point. "I have not seen more than a thrush or sparrow these last few hours. I wonder if our friends the squirrels have thought it best to stay at a lower altitude."

"They are more intelligent than us, it would seem," Loki grunted.

"Don't fret. I have vittles we might share this evening. Dried beef and some brandied berries to keep us warm."

"Warm?" Loki snapped. He bustled ahead, hoping to avoid Thor's meaningful gaze. "I have forgotten the meaning of the word. I haven't been warm since we—"

A thin crack sounded beneath his boot.

Loki stopped. Did not move. Did not breathe.

"The river," Thor whispered. "It must run through here. Loki—" He sounded so far away.

Loki wanted to turn, to look at his traveling companion, to ask what would happen next, but he didn't dare.

A trickle of sweat beaded down his spine. Loki whimpered.

"Don't—" Thor warned even as the ice snapped beneath Loki's feet, and he plunged down into the cold, dark water.

The world was different beneath the ice.

What did rank matter here? What did shape or size or semblance of love? All Loki knew was pitch black loneliness—and the icy water rushing to fill his lungs.

He fought to keep his wits about him. Up and down had no meaning here with no light to guide him, and so Loki swam and hoped it was in the direction he sought. His gloved hands, sodden and slow, met a sheet of thick ice. Success, up to a point. He pressed and pounded on the unforgiving block between him and the world of air, looking for the hole he had fallen through, but nothing gave. He was trapped.

His lungs took on more water. He was drowning. He would die. He choked on the truth of this. Thor, where was Thor? He had promised safe haven. Loki had paid good coin—! He would die. He would die alone.

He beat weakly against the ice, each strike of his fist sounding less and less like anything in the echo of the water. His magic flared but he could not direct it. He felt his head growing heavy, his limbs limp.

Thor….

A hand, huge and blue and strong, thrust through the ice inches from Loki's head and grabbed him by the hood of his cloak. The world tilted as Loki was pulled free of the water. Air burned into his body, his lungs gasping for it. The entire length of his skin was on fire with the freeze of water and air meeting. Shivers passed mercilessly through him.

Thick arms encompassed him entirely. A hot body against his. He clung blindly, soaked and panting.

"Loki! Oh Gods, you're freezing." Thor's warm mouth was next to his ear, dripping promises. "Hang on, I've got you. I'll get you somewhere safe, I'll—"

Then Loki knew no more. He slipped into the thick blackness of unwaking. Only snatches of sense came to him: Thor's large shape, his voice hurried and soft. Being carried (like a bride, Loki's traitorous mind supplied). The wind picking up, and then stopping with only a distant groan to announce it.

There was nothing else for a long while.

Loki awoke to unending warmth. For a moment, he thought perhaps he had died after all—that he'd succumbed to the deadly cold and had breathed his last in Thor's arms. The mercenary wouldn't receive the other half of his fee, he mused distantly. Pity. At least the afterlife seemed very comfortable. For the first time in the last week, Loki had a bed to sleep upon, large and warm and—

And breathing.

He lifted his head, eyes blinking open and adjusting to the dark. He was in a cave, he realized. By the low light of some dying embers, Loki could just make out the stone walls and the narrow mouth where the wind howled by. Every fur and blanket and bedroll they had seemed to be heaped atop him. And beneath him lay Thor, his single eye closed in sleep.   

They were the both of them completely naked. Loki felt every inch of his skin where it met the Mighty Thor's. His solid body, hard with muscle, was at the same time strangely comfortable. He indeed did have heat enough, for curled together in their little cocoon, Loki was at last warm.

Thor had fallen asleep with his hands wrapped around Loki, one huge palm spanning nearly the entire length of his bare back, the other cradling his hip. The man was so large that there was not a part of Loki that touched the stone floor of the cave; he was completely engulfed by Thor.

This close, Loki could see the faint lines that ran across the planes of Thor's face. They came down the sides of his neck to decorate the rest of his body, all graceful curves and sharp angles. Jotunar were born with them, Loki remembered faintly. As a child he'd thought they were a sort of self-inflicted mark done with the most delicate of knives. He lifted his fingertips to the pattern on Thor's collarbone, tracing the little furrow an inch or two before stopping. It wasn't his line to follow.

Loki lowered his head to rest once more on Thor's gently breathing chest. The Frost Giant had saved his life. Had he even hesitated when he'd brought Loki to this cave and stripped them both of their clothes? Had he thought nothing of holding Loki's freezing body as tightly as he could? Loki thought of all he knew of Thor after so many days in his company. Of course the runtling with the biggest heart in any kingdom had warmed him back to life. That was the kind of fool Thor was.

Loki burrowed his nose deeper into the hot skin of Thor's chest. He didn't deserve this. Didn't deserve to enjoy it. Not when the casket was so close, and his father's voice was practically shouting in his ear. Odin would be incandescent if he knew: his prancing mage of a son, using a Jotun for a bed.

A sound escaped Loki at the thought. Thor's breathing paused. One big hand left his hip and came up to cradle the back of his head. A thumb twice the size of Loki's hooked along the line of his jaw.

"Awake?" Thor croaked. His chin tipped to his chest as he looked down at Loki.

Loki met his gaze, feeling very small. "Yes," he whispered. His voice was hoarse. Probably from nearly drowning. "Thank you," he added, though it pained him.

Thor shifted beneath him, legs as thick as tree trunks moving carefully so as not to upset Loki from his perch. "Wasn't sure you'd thank me, waking up like this," he said. His shrug was felt through Loki's entire body. "Your clothes were frozen stiff. I had to cut you out of them."

"Oh," Loki murmured. "Well, I have others."

"You scared me." Thor's eye did not blink or look away. "I thought you would bite your tongue off, you were shivering so hard. If I hadn't found this cave—" His hand tightened in Loki's damp hair. "I don't want to think about it."

"I'm sorry." Loki's eye drifted shut. When was the last time someone had worried for him? Really worried for him, his health and his happiness and not how much he was disappointing his ancestors. His heart lurched. He didn't want to ever leave this cave.

"Don't be sorry," Thor said. "You did nothing wrong."

Loki shivered. Not yet, perhaps. But he would.

"Are you still chilled?" Thor pulled their blankets over the nape of Loki's neck. "Here, stay close to me."

"I don't think we can get much closer," Loki said, resting his cheek against Thor's chest again. When Thor did not make the expected bawdy comment in return, Loki looked up at him again. "Are you feeling all right? I made that one very easy for you."

A watery smile touched Thor's lips. His thick fingers combed a strand of hair from Loki's brow. "I'm not about to pester you while you recover from your ordeal. Even I am not so crass as that."

Maybe I am, Loki thought wildly.

"I'm sure this is not how you envisioned getting me naked," Loki teased. "Yet here we are." He felt bold where Thor was now shy. He breathed and breathed and was alive—wasn't that a miracle? Shouldn't miracles be celebrated?

His hand drifted, light and unsure, down the large expanse of Thor's muscled chest.

Thor did not move, only stared at him, his breath hitching under Loki's body.

Some of Loki's courage deserted him, and his hand faltered. "Do you not—?" Loki swallowed, looked down at the swath of blue skin that had been his pillow. His father's voice was getting louder. "I'm being very foolish, aren't I? These jests of yours, they didn't mean—" He shook his head. "You weren't serious. Of course you weren't serious."

"Loki." Just Loki. Thor's voice was a quiet echo in their little cave. His big hand reached for Loki's chin, tipped it up so they could look at each other. "I am as serious as you are pretty."

"I thought you were going to limit that reminder to once a month," Loki said, but his words came out too breathless to be flip.

"I'm going to kiss you now," Thor said.

Loki softened against him. "I wish you would."

A sweet press of mouths—Loki had never experienced such a thing. His heretofore limited dalliances had been swift, furtive things. A kiss was rare, more akin to a snarling bite than this. His breath stopped as Thor moved away, mouths parting a scant inch. A sound left him, pained, wanting.

"That's it," Thor whispered against his brow. "Melt for me."

Loki surged forward, kissing Thor with all the pent-up fervor he'd never been allowed to unleash. Strong arms wrapped around him, holding him fast to Thor's chest. Loki felt his body stir. Sweat built under their protective layer of blankets. Loki was dappled with it.

"Come on, then." He pressed himself, wanton and desperate, into Thor. "Fuck me."

"Shouldn't you be recovering?" Thor said in the heated space between their mouths. "I am serious; I won't hurt you."

"I'm recovered. Except for this." Loki reached down, his hand snaking between their bodies, catching the huge head of the Jotun's thick cock. His breath caught in his throat; he'd known intellectually that Thor would be large, but holding the evidence in his hand was something else. "I've been denying myself this ever since we set out from that tavern, but tonight I—" He stopped, kissed Thor again, moaning into the scratch of his beard. "Please," he said when they parted. "Fuck me."

"How lovely you are," Thor murmured. His big thumb came up to trace the wet shape of Loki's lips, and Loki chased it, nipping at the calloused tip. The sound Thor made when he sucked it into his mouth was sinful. "You muddle my mind so easily. Loki, do you really want this?"

Loki's cheeks heated. "Must I spell it out for you?" He rolled his hand down the slick head of Thor's horse-like cock. "I want this."

There was a little fumbling, some re-orientation needed to align their bodies, for Loki was so small compared to the smallest of Giants. Thor hauled him up the length of his body to better lick into his mouth again, but Loki was determined to squirm downward to better acquaint himself with that monstrous prick. In the end, Thor's strength won out. He manhandled Loki with no trouble despite Loki's mewled protests.

"So eager," Thor said. "And here I thought you would rebuff me at every turn. My sweet little toy." He pressed two thick fingers into Loki's mouth, and Loki, wide eyed, accepted them to suck. "Oh, I'm going to take such good care of you."

Loki suckled on the two huge fingers, eyes drifting shut. Combined they were as big as the biggest cock Loki had ever taken, and his hole clenched as he thought of the size he would take soon.

Thor was more than just big—he had a presence that arrested Loki entirely. His hand left Loki's mouth and trailed down to his ass, where it played idly. His mouth was so much wider than Loki's when they kissed, his tongue so much longer. Loki rutted his own hard prick into the muscled groove of Thor's belly and hoped this feeling of safety did not dissipate with Thor's ardor.

Those questing fingers did not delve past the rim of Loki's hole, and Loki whined at the delay.

"What are you waiting for?" he demanded. "I already told you I want it."

Thor's brow raised. "I'm waiting for you to relax. Then perhaps I will drag you atop my face so I may lick you. Then oil. Then more of my fingers— Don't you know how this is supposed to go? Who are these knaves who have not prepared you properly for their disappointing cocks?"

A new flush colored Loki's face and ran down to his chest. "Why? Do you plan to hunt them all down and have words with them?"

"Give me names and I will," Thor said. The way he growled it out, it didn't sound like a joke.

Loki looked away, unable to hold his red gaze.

Thor pressed a kiss to his loose hair, gentle as anything. "Up with you." And true to his word, he hauled Loki up to sit on his face, shaking thighs bracketing his bearded cheeks. Loki groaned at the first press of long tongue against his entrance. His arms folded demurely against his chest, having nowhere else to go—Thor held his hips so securely he did not need to steady himself. He rocked in his new seat, luxuriating in the attention.

No one had ever tasted him like this. He almost said so out loud, but clapped a hand over his mouth before he could let loose such a foolish secret.

Thor lifted him about a foot off his face as if he weighed nothing more than a sack of potatoes. "You all right up there?" he asked.

"Mmmm." Loki nodded furiously, his mouth still muzzled.

It was a smug wide grin that pressed between Loki's legs.

A strangled noise spilled from Loki's lips as he rode Thor's face. "No more," he begged. "I'll come off if you keep that up."

Again Thor lifted him so he could speak, this time very concerned indeed. "That's the idea," he said. "I planned to bring you off at least twice."

"Oh." Loki blinked, feeling very foolish and exposed, spread open over Thor's mouth. "Ambitious," he added, hoping to sound as insouciant as he wished he could be.

Thor's growl rumbled against Loki's cock where Thor nuzzled it. "Names," he said. "I'll need the names of these shits who made you think twice is too much work." And he swallowed down Loki's cockstand, his powerful hands keeping Loki aloft as he sucked.

Loki came down Thor's throat with a cry that echoed through their little cave. The embers of their fire flared bright for a moment, then dwindled back down to coals. Loki slumped in Thor's hold, only distantly aware that the Giant was re-arranging him against that broad chest.

"I could stay here forever," Loki murmured into that warm blue skin. He didn't care if he sounded like the most soppy of fairytale maidens; he was aglow with aftershocks and goodwill.

Thor's laugh rumbled through him. "Satisfied, then?"

"Mm, not the word I'm looking for." Loki groped for Thor's cock again, a thick and pulsing line between his quaking thighs. "Maybe soon, though."

"Not too soon. There are steps to be taken first, remember?" Thor reached one long arm out and rummaged in his pack, which sat on the cave floor nearby. He retrieved a vial and uncorked it one-handed.

"Do you always travel with slick? Just in case you find a quick fuck?" Loki asked.

"There will be nothing quick about this," Thor promised with a grin. "I intend to make it last for you, little toy."

Thick fingers playing at his hole again, this time with a purpose. Loki bit into the meat of Thor's chest as one huge fingertip breached him, smooth with oil. Thor groaned in appreciation at Loki's teeth, his free hand clamping over his back and pinning him against Thor. As much as he squirmed, as much as he tried to fuck himself down on Thor's patient finger, Loki could not move. Truly a doll made for Thor's own pleasure. The thought made him weak and feverish.

"Just— Put it in me, I can take it, just do it!" Loki whined as he was stretched.

"No one is saying you can't," Thor said. "Now stop trying to impale yourself and let me do this for you."

The agony of being tended to. Like he mattered. Loki's eyes fluttered shut. A second finger entered him, but his body was already so pliant from orgasm that it hardly burned. Loki felt his cock awaken again, trapped between their bodies. Twice at least, Thor had said. Did that mean...perhaps more than twice? Loki could not fathom such things lasting so long, but he dearly wished to find out if it was possible.

At last Thor seemed pleased with the state of him, flushed and whimpering and trapped against that broad body. His fingers retreated and the incredible head of his violet cock nudged at Loki's hole.

Loki spread his legs wide. Whore, his father's voice whispered in his ear. Yes, he thought in return. And so?

"Look at you," Thor said against the crown of Loki's head. His big hands encircled Loki's waist, his fingers overlapping at the small of Loki's back. "So perfect for me."

"Please." Loki shook against him, no longer caring how he sounded or looked. "Please, Thor—"

"Easy. Let me just guide you down. No rush." True to his word, Thor worked Loki onto his thick cock so slowly, he could feel Thor's heartbeat inside him.

He sobbed as the flared cockhead at last pushed past his rim. "You're so big."

A kiss on his temple. "And you're so good. You were born for it. Made for sitting on my cock, Loki."

Loki could feel every inch, every vein, every throb in that amazing length. More and more and more, he took it all until at long last Thor bottomed out, the last two or three inches sliding home all at once. They both cried out, Thor's oversized balls slapping against the back of Loki's thighs. Loki stared up at his new lover, this Giant who had taken him so sweetly. He drank in the sight of Thor's red eye rolling in pleasure, his handsome blue face a sinful map of his intentions.

Loki's gaze wandered to those curved horns. His fingers itched.

"Grab them." Thor beamed down at Loki. "I saw you eyeing them days ago. Go ahead. I like it."

Gingerly, Loki wrapped a hand around the curve of one horn. It was cool and hard, no different from a ram's, he thought. His grip tightened. He tugged. Thor's head lowered with it, gifting Loki with a kiss. Loki's free hand found the other horn in turn.

"Good," Thor breathed. "Now hold on."

"What—?" Loki barely had time to understand the command before Thor was fucking him in earnest, powerful hips snapping up to slam into his hole before retreating and repeating the motion. Loki shouted, jolted with it. He clung to Thor's horns, using them as anchors to keep him in place as he was pounded to within an inch of his life.

He called Thor's name. He dropped the article, but surely Thor did not have to prove his legendary status any longer.

Thor's arm cradled him close while his free hand wedged between their bellies, seeking and finding Loki's bobbing prick.

"Come on my cock, sweetness," he whispered against Loki's cheek. "Let me feel you."

How could Loki ignore an order such as that? He spent into Thor's huge hand, whimpering as he clenched around the massive length inside his body.

Loki was a crumpled mess upon Thor's chest when he regained his senses. He was sticky and out of breath and still speared on that huge cock. His own twitched to remember Thor's promise—twice at least. Loki feared he wouldn't be able to come again, but he wouldn't let that stop him from trying. He whined and sat up, still full of cock, and held Thor's gaze with his.

"How are you feeling?" Thor asked, his big, slick hands petting Loki's flanks. "Shall we stop here?"

Loki let his slow grin be his answer. He commanded his shaky legs to support him as he sat taller astride Thor. And, staring down at his large lover, Loki bounced.  

Thor's surprised gasp was treasure enough, Loki decided. The way his hands flew to grip Loki by the hips, his devilish grin.

"Oh, you perfect creature," he said. Loki bounced again. And again. And on and on until Thor gave a growl and flipped Loki beneath him, still stuffed full of his cock. "You want more of me?" Thor asked. "I can give you that."

"Give it all to me," Loki panted. He felt so small under Thor's huge bulk, but warm and safe and filled. "Please, give it all."

Loki had never been manhandled with such ease and care. Thor grabbed him bodily and thrust him down on his cock, but he also made sure Loki's leg was not pinched between his hip and the stone floor, instead flinging it wide, stroking it possessively. Loki felt like nothing less than a ragdoll, a sheath for a Giant's pleasure, boneless in his strong hold.

"Oh," he sighed as Thor laved at his neck, scraping beard along his nipple. "Oh, yes, more, please."

Thor held him fast and, in a show of ridiculous strength, stood to his full height with Loki laid out before him in his arms, his back finding a bed in his hold. He roared as he dragged Loki up and down the length of his cock, and Loki could do nothing but be used as a Giant's toy.

The thought made his prick, hard again and untouched, dribble weakly as he came again, milked dry. His body clamped around Thor's cock even as his heavy limbs hung and swayed in the air.

"Do you want my seed, you greedy little thing?" Thor snarled, and Loki moaned as he felt the first wave of it inside him. "Take it, sweetness. Oh, you take it so well."

Pulse after pulse of Thor's cock filled Loki's body until he felt it overflowing to drip onto the stone below him. He looked down the length of his belly and imagined he could feel the heat of all that come flowing into him. Then he looked up at Thor, who was still coming, his cock and hips flexing with it. He was smiling, and he blew Loki a kiss.

Loki grinned, suddenly bashful, and turned his head aside, content to be filled.

After Thor had drained his balls, after he pulled his cock from Loki's hole, after he had lowered Loki to the nest of furs and blankets, after he had mopped up the trickles of white seed on the insides of Loki's thighs—

"I've changed my mind," Loki said into the quiet of their cave. He spoke into the skin of Thor's chest, having found his preferred spot on it once more. "I don't want to continue up the mountain."

Thor's hand paused in its mapping of Loki's shoulder. "No? What of the casket?"

Fuck the casket, Loki thought, and snuggled closer. "I don't think it can do what I wanted after all," he said. Why overthrow kings and claim thrones when nothing close to this awaited him at the end? "Don't worry," he added, "you can keep the gold."

"Loki." Thor sat up, holding Loki close, tipping his chin up with a gentle touch so their gazes could meet. "I don't care about the gold. You must know—I didn't ever care about that."

"Oh," Loki said, feeling his cheeks turn pink. Damn, he hated how easy Thor could trigger that reaction in him.

"What about you?" Thor asked. "Will you go home, then? Journey over?"

"I—" The answer was yes. Loki would go back to the palace. Would bide his time. Would come up with some other plan to change things in Asgard.

The answer was written in stone. It was his duty.

"I don't know," Loki finally said. "I'm not sure of anything these days."

Thor smiled. "You know," he said, "a good mage is hard to find in my business. Most mercenaries keep one around, but I've had no such luck."

"Is that right?" Loki hummed.

"Something to consider." Thor kissed his ear. "You don't have to give me an answer tonight. We have the whole walk back down the mountain for you to think it over. For now, just sleep."

Loki lowered his head to Thor's chest, a bright spark in his eyes before he shut them for the night.