Chapter 1: I'm the thorn that blinds the princess
Thor remembered the first time Loki was pregnant.
Or maybe it wasn't the first time. Likely it wasn't the first time. But it was the first time he knew about, the first time he was privileged to watch.
They had been at odds at the time. Over what, he couldn't remember. It had probably been important, then. He had chased the trickster halfway to the end of the earth, which was not nearly so far as he usually had to chase him, and found him flushed and panting beside an olive tree.
Tying their hands together so that Loki would not escape, Thor had prepared to lead them back to Asgard.
Halfway there, as they were camped beside a fast-flowing river, Loki had groaned, fallen to his knees and begun to claw at his stomach. Suspicious, Thor had asked if his brother had contracted body lice on their journey.
Loki had screamed, in a voice that echoed off the heavens, "GET ME A KNIFE, YOU GORMLESS HALFWIT!"
Against his better judgement, Thor had proffered the knife with which he had skinned the rabbits they had eaten that evening. Amazed, he had watched as Loki plunged the knife deep into his own gut, from which then seeped not blood, but light, white light. The knife had been pulled from one side of his brother's abdomen to the other, a grisly smile of a wound, and then Loki had reached in, deep in, and pulled from the mess of white light and organs something small and wriggling.
He had handed it to Thor, who had hesitantly taken it, and then collapsed backwards, gasping in pain as he pulled out the blade.
It was a baby bird. No feathers, the barest hint of a beak. When Thor had used his cape to clean it, it had snapped at his fingers, and then burst into flame.
"Brother," Thor had asked, frowning at the blazing fledging cupped in his hand, "did the world really need another one?"
"They were extinct," Loki had rasped, busy sewing himself back up.
"Aye. With good reason."
"I wanted one."
"How many did the last phoenix slay, brother? How many fields did it set ablaze before we brought it down?"
"There will always be fields. Give it here."
Thor had handed the baby bird to its parent, whose body was slowly coming together again, and sat in silence as Loki plucked off one of his fingernails with his teeth, and let the phoenix suckle on the bleeding tip of his finger.
In the centuries that follow, the bird became part of a menagerie.
"I like having children," Loki had said, matter-of-factly, when Thor had thrown up his hands and confronted him on the matter of Sleipnir. "There's nothing wrong with that."
"You're a man," Thor had growled. He knew his brother was a wild one, knew he had the makings of a fiend, but somehow he couldn't align the image of the quiet, composed, soft-spoken man before him with the eight-legged horror cantering about in the courtyard. The phoenix, at least, had been small.
Loki's eyes had flickered up to him, flickered away, and he had offered nothing in his defence but the tiniest of shrugs.
When the truth came out, it explained so many things.
"There is no such thing as a frost giant woman, just as there is no such thing as a frost giant man. They do not recognise either sex or gender as we do," said Father, whose knowledge of the subject seemed altogether too intimate for Thor's liking. "Their language has no pronoun equivalent to 'he.' And biologically speaking, your brother isn't a man anymore than you are a potplant."
"And you didn't think it was worth telling me this," Thor said, in a hollow voice. There was no anger. There was no room for anger.
"I don't tell you lots of things, Thor," Father said. He sounded tired.
"More," Thor said, "what more is there?"
Now that he had the truth in his hands, he was cursing himself for never having sought it before. It had, in all honesty, never occurred to him that Odin would keep such secrets from them.
In the aftermath of the hideous fruit those secrets had borne, Thor was beginning to realise that the least ruinously conniving member of their family was, in fact, himself. And in light of the cosmic war his duplicitous mission to Jotunheim had very nearly started, that fact became deeply depressing.
Odin sighed, and returned to the list of biological traits that distinguished Jotunn from Aesir. Thor concentrated, his brow furrowing. If his little brother truly was one of those... people, not things, vicious, ugly people but people... then the thunder god would make it his duty to learn everything there was to learn about them.
Several summers after the truth came out, and Thor had accumulated a wealth of knowledge regarding Asgard's ancient enemies. It had been enlightening, to a man who had assumed that music and astronomy were exclusively Asgardian occupations. Some of it was also horrifying, alien, and had done little to dissipate the tension that remained between Odin's sons.
All Asgard first knew something was amiss when Loki appeared out of thin air in front of Thor in the courtyard on a clear midsummer's day, smiled politely at the assembled gods and goddesses and then broke Thor's nose with one swing of an iron kettle he had concealed behind his back.
Before saying in a loud, clear voice, "I refuse to accept the blame for this," and disappearing in a flash of green light.
"How peculiar," said Thor to the world in general, as Balder rushed to his side and Idunn called for the healer. "My brother is usually so willing and eager to accept responsibility for his actions. A strange day it is, when Loki refuses to accept blame."
The sarcasm dripped from his voice even as the blood dripped off his chin.
Two days later, there were an inordinate number of wildfires blazing across the length and breadth of Asgard's forests.
Loki stood at the foot of a new one, having spent the better part of an hour fanning it, and seethed.
He hated him. Hatred sung in his veins, throbbed in his temples. Hate spread warmly down his torso to nourish his…
He hated him.
He left the fire and retreated to the dark and mouldy corners of the world, where he sat and snarled to himself.
Hate, chanted the sickness in his belly and the pain in his ankles. Hate. Hate. Hate.
Lightning danced across the sky. Thor was looking for him.
Loki folded his arms, and curled up on his side. He did not feel like being found just yet.
Once his nose was bandaged, Thor did not tarry.
He searched four hundred caves before he found the one his brother was hiding in.
When he demanded an explanation, he received an unsettling laugh, and then an unsettling diagram, drawn in the dirt with a stick. It took him a moment to work out what it was depicting, and when he did, he shot backwards as though the thing had launched itself from the dust and bitten him.
"You lie," he said, reflexively. At this, Loki turned himself into a squirrel, and went and hid up the tallest tree he could find. After spending a day finding him and another persuading him to come down, Thor skinned two rabbits and cooked them over a fire as a peace offering.
"I don't understand," Thor said, carefully, as he handed his brother the choice portion of meat. "All else aside, we have never lain together."
"Yes," said Loki, who, apart from the initial kettle-to-the-face, was being troublingly calm about the whole thing. "You'd think that would make a difference, wouldn't you?"
Chapter 2: I am the lock that steals the key
"Maybe he ate some part of you," Volstagg volunteered.
Thor didn't know how they'd found out. His friends were good at discovering the sources of his troubles. Sometimes too good.
"I've heard they can do that," Volstagg continued. "Frost giant magicians. They burn their enemies to death, then eat some part of their bodies- usually the heart- and then the children of their enemies grow in their bellies, and when they are born they kill them. Like giving their enemy a second death, you see?"
"From a tactical viewpoint," said Fandral, "that does not make a great deal of sense, friend Volstagg. Also, it sounds quite like one of the drunken stories Tyr likes to make up at the banquet table."
Thor loved his friends, but they were not soothing his spirits as he had hoped they might.
He went to Heimdal instead, and said, "Jormungand. Fenris. Lady Hel. Vali Halfling. Sleipnir. One phoenix. One human girl. I would know about all the others."
Heimdal sighed. "It will bring you little pleasure, my lord."
The recital lasted for nearly an hour, though Heimdal did not once stop for water or to catch his breath. When the list was done, he added, "And the latest, unborn, unknown. The mother of monsters bears your child. How do you feel, Thunderer?"
"Sick, I imagine," supplied Fandral. His friends felt obliged to follow him everywhere at the moment, as though they were worried he might be moved to take drastic action. Like throwing himself off Bifrost.
"Did you eat some piece of me?" Thor asked Loki, who stared at him.
"Do you ask because some piece of you has gone missing?" his brother ventured, running his eyes over him.
"No, I… never mind. How do you know that the child is mine, Liesmith? If copulation is not… required, then surely the child could have come from anywhere."
It occurred to Thor to wonder if his brother was susceptible to pollination.
"All children come from somewhere," Loki said, serenely. Thor considered taking hold of him by the neck and throttling sense out of him.
"But how can you be sure the child is mine?" he persisted, drawing himself up to his full height. He had been persisting all afternoon since finding Loki wafting about the library, but Loki had kept him at bay with evasive half-answers, and effortless ease. Enough. He would have truth and he would have it now.
"I don't know. Look at this," said Loki, standing up suddenly and undoing the clasps on his cape, then the buttons of his outer garments and vest.
Thor opened his mouth to continue badgering his brother, when his eyes fell on Loki's waist. A curve as gentle as that of a tulip petal, barely noticeable to anyone who hadn't known Loki all his life, slept beside him and bathed beside him and knew every line and inch of his body.
Thor found himself touching it without having asked.
"You wouldn't think they'd reproduce like mammals, would you?" said Fandral, stroking his chin. "Live young, all that. They look more reptilian."
"Are you suggesting that he's going to lay an egg, Fandral?" queried Sif, and Thor choked on his mead.
Contrary to popular belief, Thor was capable of extending his powers of foresight beyond the next brawl, border skirmish or tankard of ale. He didn't see the point in making long term plans- he had seen how often his brother had to adjust the complex long terms plan HE made, and it seemed to Thor that it would be far simpler to make only the vaguest, most malleable plans, so that one would not have to make too many alterations when the world inevitably got in the way.
But he had planned on having children. Never had he envisaged who he might have them with- although when he'd been a boy he'd had his heart set on bedding and wedding a mermaid, but that had fallen by the wayside when Loki had pointed out the anatomical impossibility of said interspecies coitus. But children… there would be a boy, and two girls. One girl would be strong of arm and cold of eye, like Sif. The boy would be slender, silent and wise, like his brother. The second girl was an amalgamation of Volstagg and his mother, able to drink each and every one of her peers under the table while maintaining an essentially regal aspect and an impeccably queenly bearing.
And of course, each of them would be able to lift Mjolnir. He'd even made plans for the manner in which he would decide which of them would inherit it when the time came- contests of wit, of strength, and, finally, of fortitude.
Visions swam before Thor's eyes now. Odin's first grandchild, born with snakes for hair or scales over her face.
"What will it look like?" he demanded, cornering Loki at the first opportunity.
"What will what look like?" Loki asked, lazily.
"The child, man."
"I'm sure I don't know, Thor. Did Frigga know what you would look like?"
Thor growled. "You know well what I mean. Will it have eight legs? Will it be a FISH?"
"You do have odd thoughts, brother," Loki said.
Thor seized him by the arm, intent on hauling him up and shaking him. Then he stopped, holding Loki's arm above his head.
"Hmm?" Loki murmured.
The tunics his brother wore from day to day were stern, formal things, yet also subdued in hue and fabric, not designed to flatter his body as much as to avoid attracting attention. Today, he wore a lighter design, one that exposed his wrists and elbows, and bore no ceremonial emblazonments- the type of thing Thor might wear during a casual meal with his friends when Father and Mother were not present.
When he drew up Loki's arm, it conformed to the line of his torso. The curve had not grown, not so much that Thor could tell, and he would scarcely have noticed at all if he hadn't been looking. If he hadn't known, he might have thought that his brother had spent too much time poring through his books and scrolls, and dragged him down to the sparring grounds for some exercise.
He realised he was staring. So had Loki, apparently, who looked… amused.
"Look," he said, and, with the hand Thor wasn't still holding, drew aside the cloth, so Thor could see the strangely darkened, slightly swollen flesh of his areola.
"Huh," said Thor, touching it before he knew what he was doing.
Abruptly, he dropped him, wincing when a small voice in his head that sounded like his mother's reminded him that you weren't supposed to do things like that to pregnant… people.
Loki adjusted his clothing and departed, murmuring as he left, "Very odd thoughts, indeed."
Had that dimmed nipple been a trait unique to frost giants, Thor was left wondering, or was it a common feature of all pregnancies?
He didn't know enough about any of this.
And he certainly wasn't going to ask Odin.
(Whose response, upon hearing the happy news, had been an arched eyebrow and a muttered, "Is he, indeed?". Which Thor had found spectacularly unhelpful.)
Chapter 3: I am standing on your threshold
Frigga was not Loki's mother, but Thor suspected that one of the reasons he had been wiling for so long to believe that she was had been their shared ability to maintain a placid, blank expression that gave nothing away through almost every bizarre or horrifying occurrence. Odin might bellow, might curse the day of one's birth, but Frigga would stare passively at him whenever he was found guilty of a misdemeanour until he volunteered an explanation out of sheer embarrassment. Thor had grown up privately believing that his mother and his brother were as stoical as Heimdal.
(Loki's face as the Bifrost had shattered flashed briefly into his mind, and he willed it away. All his convictions had been tested that day.)
Thor had seen his mother break bread with werewolves and greet monstrous, transdimensional foreign dignitaries with the same small, bland smile she used when offering Thor extra butter at the breakfast table.
If Frigga had feelings on the matter, there could be no telling what they were.
In a neutral voice, she taught him of embryos, and trimesters, and herbs that could alleviate pain and sickness. She discussed methods of childbirth and potential complications, some of which made him pale. She spoke of potions that could be given stop the seedling ever becoming a babe, and Thor wondered if his brother was aware that such things existed.
How much, or how little of it could be applied to frost giants, or wizards, she could not tell him. But she pushed several thick books into his hands before sending him on his way.
"Thor," she said, before he left. "I have not yet spoken to your brother. Tell me…"
She raised her lovely chin. "Did he say if it would be a boy or a girl?"
Thor blinked. "He did not say, Mother."
Once Thor had departed, Frigga wrapped her summer shawl around her shoulders and went in search of Loki. Failing to find him, she went to the charred remains of the last forest to fall victim to the unseasonable wildfire, and sat there, reading, until a red fox emerged from the burnt wood and became her younger son.
"Did you have to destroy this one?" she said, putting the book to one side. "It was one of my favourites."
"I am sorry, Mother."
"Do not lie to me," Frigga said tiredly.
Loki watched her, seeming uncertain. "You are angry?"
"I am saddened. You tell your brother before you tell me," she mumbled. "That is hurtful, child."
Loki dipped his head. "I apologise, Mother."
"A boy or a girl?"
"A girl, I think."
Loki magicced two goblets of wine into existence, one of which she took, daintily, and sipped, before replying, "And who will teach her to read? To ride? Who will clothe and feed and fend for her?"
If Thor had been in attendance, his jaw would have dropped to see the awkwardness that appeared on Loki's countenance. The Father of Lies, as a rule, was never awkward. Sometimes perturbed, never awkward. "My Lady, you are aware that I am… that is, I am significantly more skilled in the art of producing children than I am in the art of raising them."
"Mmm. That was what I always presumed. It explained why so many of them were four-legged. Or eight-legged, as the case may be. But to have children is not quite the same as to have young, Loki." Draining the glass to the dregs, she folded her pale hands in her lap. "Will you give her to the Norn Queen to raise? Or to Laufey? Or to Malekith, or one of your human bedmates? Or will you give her to me, who has loved you and cherished you more than you have ever been willing to admit?"
He knelt, took her right hand, and kissed it chastely. "To you, Mother."
Frigga dabbed her eyes with her shawl. "Then all will be well."
As she allowed him to escort her back to Asgard, she said, "You have made your brother very worried."
"Yes, yes, I know."
"Wicked creature," she scolded, lightly smacking his hand.
"Mmm," he agreed.
People were giving him odd looks when they passed him in corridors.
If he had been married, Thor thought gloomily, and his bride had not been his brother, or a man, news of his impending firstborn would have been reason to justify three nights of feasting and celebration. There would be chariot races, and jousts, and fire-dancers. Fandral would compose an awful poem and recite it many times to loud cheers, and Volstagg would draw him into a back-breaking hug and beg to be named the child's godparent.
Instead, this. Odd looks, whispers behind his back.
Thor pulled himself together. This self-pity was no way for a son of Odin to behave.
(Odin himself had not been seen at court for several days. It was rumoured that he had locked himself in the royal wine cellar, and was engaged in drinking most of it.)
Besides, Thor told himself, there were many ways in which this was all to the good.
None that he could think of at the moment.
How would he feel, Thor asked himself, if Loki were not Loki, but some of the many tavern wenches or nymphs he had bedded when he was still barely a man? Picturing the Lady Amora arriving at the place gates with a smirk permanently etched onto her face and a rightful claim to the throne rounding her belly, and suddenly the prospect of sharing parenthood with Loki was no longer so detestable.
If only because, a cold voice in his head- Odin's- told him, any child Loki brought forth would have no legitimate place in the royal family.
The thought made him feel malicious. Feeling his brother had earned a few malicious thoughts, Thor indulged himself further, swinging Mjolnir at his side as he passed yet more whisperers in the passage leading to the throne room.
The child was his. Loki wanted him to believe it, whether it was true or not. All of Asgard now believed it, thanks to Fandral's feckless tongue.
Thor's child, in the trickster's belly. Thor's scion, feeding off of his worst enemy's flesh.
The knowledge made him feel… powerful.
Just a bit.
After so many years of trying, he finally had an anchor in his brother. Weighing him down, preventing him from running away when justice came a-calling.
Thor reminded himself that there was no way Loki would have allowed the child into his body unless there had been something he could gain from it.
Nonetheless, whatever his brother may have planned in the future, for now, for the moment, there was a piece of him that belonged to Thor.
Winking at the next two whisperers he passed, Thor began to whistle a merry tune.
Loki was not pleased to discover that Thor's friends had found out.
Especially when Fandral dropped into a courteous bow before him, and said, "All know well what you are, and I know better than any not to trust you. But if 'tis true you bear Lord Thor's heir, then I shall honour you as though you were…"
He got no further, for a second later he found himself bound and gagged by three large roots that had broken through the marble tiles at his feet. They held him in midair, twisting and turning, while Loki stripped him of his sword, his armour, his clothing and his undergarments, and left him there until Hogun found him, and set about cutting him free.
So great was Loki's displeasure that all the rivers of Asgard turned to blood for a week. Thor cursed, took up Mjolnir and went hunting.
"Your hypocrisy astounds me," Thor told him when he found him, then ducked to avoid a thrown knife. When it thudded into an oak tree behind him, the leaves turned black and the bark disappeared beneath a layer of frost. The sight roused Thor to anger; it marked the first time Loki had attempted to use his uniquely Jotunn gifts against him. When he raised Mjolnir, he discovered that it, too, was encased in ice. Shaking it off, feeling storm clouds gathering overhead, he launched himself at his brother.
It would have been an epic battle between any other gods; between them, it was a scuffle, albeit one that left the ground below their feet alternately sodden, frozen, charred and pockmarked with lightning strikes.
Thor held off on landing the winning blow, instead pulling the smaller god up from the mud he had landed in when Mjolnir's last blow had hit home, and checked him.
"What are you doing?" said Loki, in the voice of a man who knew very well what Thor was doing, and did not appreciate it.
"You must not goad me again," Thor said, brushing him off. "Not until the child is born."
Loki made a sound that was almost a laugh.
"Leave off the tricks," said Thor, "and I will…"
"I will let you choose our child's name," he finished.
"You will let me," repeated Loki.
Loki chuckled and… Thor stiffened as two long arms wound around his neck.
Most people would have been surprised to learn that, throughout their childhoods, it had been Loki who initiated the majority of hugs. Thor displayed physical affection in backslaps, and arm punches, or, when he was feeling uncommonly affectionate, neck rubs. Loki had hated all of these, and, when Thor was on the verge of delivering a boisterous clout, would fling both arms around his brother and squeeze him, leaving Thor with nothing to do but stand their like a scarecrow, arms akimbo, until Loki drew back. In time, he had discovered the ulterior motive- marking the way Loki tensed whenever Father or one of their friends lay hands on him in some casual, friendly gesture- and had begun reserving the neck rubs and backslaps for his friends.
Being hugged by his brother used to feel like being hugged by an orangutan; arms too long, at once skinny and frighteningly strong, gripping too tight. Today, Thor was intensely aware of the softness pressing against him. Not simply Loki's stomach, which was slightly more rounded, as though he had stuffed a folded scarf beneath his shirt, bit also his upper torso, which felt…
"Loki," Thor said, breathing deep to steady himself. "Are you developing…?"
"Children need food, Thor," his brother whispered into his neck.
He moved to pull back, but Thor's hands landed on his hips (which flared a touch more than they had before?), keeping him in place. He wasn't quite done analysing the sensation yet.
"Behave," he muttered, when he at last released him. "Or I shall name our child. I shall name him after Fandral, or perhaps Hogun."
A ripple went through Loki's form, like watching the hackles rise on a wolf's back. "You shall do no such thing," he said, soft voice laced with the bare edges of a growl.
Thor smirked. "Change the rivers back," he instructed, before hoisting Mjolnir above his head and launching himself into the clear blue sky.
Chapter 4: I am hiding in your skin
Father was drinking. Mother was reconciled. Asgard was in uproar. Thor was conflicted.
It was all coming together nicely.
Few things were as viscerally stimulating as plans that came together nicely.
Loki let his hand fall down into his lap, and idly sought out the button on his trousers. He sighed as fresh air touched his cock, and gently teased the tip with his forefinger for a moment. As always, pride in his own capacity for restraint made him harder, and within minutes he was gasping, cock red and swollen, still suffering only the tender mercies of his forefinger.
When he judged he'd denied himself long enough, he gave himself into the warmth of his hand with a shudder, quickly establishing a rhythm to his strokes. The world at the edges of his vision turned pink and melted away.
Probing beneath his scrotum, he fingered the wet slit that had developed in recent weeks. Once or twice before he had speculated as to what wonders he might achieve if he could only contort his body sufficiently to allow him to fuck himself. The thought made him shiver; to be impregnated by his own seed, to bring forth a child free of all contamination but that with which he gifted it. How pure such a child would be. How infinitely wicked.
He allowed himself to imagine that he had made such a child, with his face and his tongue, and maybe once that child reached maturity they would copulate, and there would be another child, this one even purer than the last, and so it might go on forever, or until such time as Loki's line was entirely purged of anything but Loki.
He bit his tongue as he came, letting the taste of his own saltless blood flood his mouth, and used the brief magical surge ejaculation brought with it to see beneath the flesh of his stomach.
Matters appeared to be progressing nicely on that front.
"You will let me name the child," he purred to himself, and, removing his hand from his pants, snickered at length.
Thor's dream were uncommon violent, orbiting bleak and frightening themes.
He dreamed he walked through Hel, carrying a bucket of milk.
He dreamed he came upon his brother seated on a throne of dead men's toenails, wearing a crown of mistletoe and clasping a something wrapped in a blanket of spiderwebs to his chest.
He dreamed he stood upon the palace balcony, the whole of Asgard assembled beneath him. He held his child aloft before them, but when he brought the babe back down it dissolved into a dozen green serpents.
Shortly after midnight he stormed out of bed, stormed down Bifrost, glared at a bemused Heimdal until he stood aside and then stormed down to Earth, where he spent many hours drinking Jane's coffee, eating everything in Jane's fridge and expounding at length upon his brother's many, many character flaws.
Jane, who had elected the moment she had opened the door not to tell Thor that he had, yet again, forgotten to put pants on before visiting her house, nodded in sympathy, and took discrete photographs with her cellphone.
Despite it all, Loki's talent for slithering about unnoticed and blending into the background had never been so keen. Possibly he simply wished to avoid being accosted by Fandral again, who had been determinedly stalking the palace for several weeks now with gifts of good luck charms and supposedly magical roots which an imp he had bedded had told him would make a child musically inclined if ingested three weeks prior to his or her birth. Thor had tried gently to dissuade him, but had not had much success, until Hogun had rolled his eyes, and thrown the roots into the royal pond.
He had not, however, succeeded in foreseeing or forestalling Volstagg's intervention.
"Did we not swear, Hogun," said Volstagg, gesticulating wildly with a mostly empty jug of dwarf rum, "when Lord Thor was named heir to the throne, that we would defend to the death his person and his line, that we would fight beside the royal family at each and every new Ragnarok, and that we would honour and obey his progeny until such time as Hel came to claim us?"
Volstagg had in him a certain terrible propensity for logic unfettered by personal feelings or basic common sense. Fandral looked smug while Hogun made growling sounds about the letter versus the spirit of their oath, while the oldest of the Warriors Three slung his scabbard across his back and departed.
Another of Volstagg's many unsuspected talents- and perhaps his greatest- was his ability to notice what others overlooked. Which was why he was able to pluck Loki from the shadows in Idunn's orchard so quickly. Which was why, on that day, thirty court ladies and their attendant servants, were treated to the uncommon sight of Odin's adopted son gaping like a dead fish as Volstagg the Valiant dropped to his knees before him and offered up his sword.
"I… you…" said eloquent Loki Liesmith, his head snapping frantically this way and that, as if searching for an escape route, or a murder weapon.
"I solemnly swear," said Volstagg, loudly, a quiver of his moustache suggesting that he was deriving no small measure of enjoyment form this, "to defend at all costs and offer aide to the… erm… parent of Lord Thor's firstborn…"
"Go away!" Loki squawked, reeling back. "You… ALL of you, just GO AWAY!"
Volstagg broke off from the recitation of his oath and gave Loki a look of deepest and most utterly contrived concern. "Your highness, ye should not holler so. It's bad for the youngling's constitution. Fandral told me."
Hissing and spitting like a cat dropped in water, Loki stalked off. Congratulating himself, Volstagg dusted off his knees.
Thor had almost finished his morning meal- porridge, buttered bread, eight large slabs of ham, smoked fish, an apple and a mug of cold ale- when he realised that Loki was sitting opposite him.
They rarely shared meals these days, especially when they were alone. Occasionally Loki would appear at a feast, sliding in amidst the ebb and flow of conversation as though his presence at the table wasn't the exception more than it was the rule. But today Thor, feeling pensive, ate in his room, seated on the window sill, having had his personal attendant bring approximately one metric ton of food to his table.
On instinct now, Thor's eyes flicked to Loki's waistline.
"You should know that I find that rude," his brother murmured, taking an apple for himself.
Tony had embarked on a private campaign to enlighten Thor and, by extension, all of Asgard, to the ways of Midgardian culture. On one occasion, he had produced for Thor's perusal a series of etchings, which Thor had found to be pretty nothings until his brain had caught up with his eyes.
"Escher," Tony had called the artist, and, upon Thor's request, had given Thor several to hang in his private quarters. Thor liked to contemplate them at length. He found that, if one looked carefully enough, one could discern the point at which possibility slid into impossibility, smoothly as a watersnake sliding beneath the surface of a lake. Look here, and you would see the exact point at which the triangles resolved themselves into birds. Look here, and you would see the exact point at which the ascending staircase connected to the descending staircase, the point at which the background buildings became the foreground buildings and one's field of vision failed one.
It was Escher that his brother called to mind, at the end of his third month.
His shoulders had not narrowed, his features had not softened. He had… admit it, Thor told himself, there's no way of getting around it… breasts, but they were clearly a woman's breasts on a man's body. Thor eyes wanted to interpret it as an optical illusion, and kept roving over his body, looking for the giveaway. The part he might focus on and say, 'Ah-hah, now here, this is clearly impossible.' There was none.
"I think," said Loki suddenly, "that all manner of difficulties could have been avoided had we not been brothers."
"In truth?" said Thor, whose mind was occupied trying to measure the length and breadth of Loki's abdomen. According to Frigga, Thor had been an unusually large baby. If the child really was his, and did take after him, the cut would have to be wide enough to all but cleave Loki's body in two.
"Think how much easier this would be were we not related, even by the bonds of adoption," Loki said, spinning the apple on his fingertip. "So much less inconvenient."
"What would you be to me, then, if not my brother?" Thor asked, playing along. "My friend? My follower?"
"My enemy, or my…" Thor thought. "My teacher?"
"That's closer to the mark," Loki said, contemplatively, "but still you miss."
"My bedmate, then?" Thor asked, leaning back against the window ledge.
Loki was momentarily silent, then said, "I believe you have been studying Jotunn culture with Odin. Know this, then; there is a word for what I would be to you, but it is a Jotunn word, and has no match in your language."
"Then we are at an impasse," Thor said, folding his arms. "For I do not speak the Jotunn tongue and I do not trust you to teach it to me."
"Well said, thunder god."
Loki moved like water, crossing from his end of the window sill to Thor's, his shape temporarily blocking out the sunlight.
The kiss he pressed upon the corner of Thor's mouth was not chaste. Thor had not been expecting it to be.
Thor allowed it for the count of three, then swatted him away. He would give Loki his all, eventually, he knew it like he knew changes in atmospheric pressure, like he knew when it would rain. Wicked as it was, he knew it as though he had ALWAYS known it even though he hadn't-
(but, of course, they were gods)
- but a kiss was enough for one day. A soul was a weighty thing, after all; it should be sold off in slivers, not large chunks.
Loki shared the rest of his breakfast in silence, and slunk away without further comment.
Chapter 5: I am 'happy ever after' left to sour and turn to dust
To be fair, they were drunk.
True, the dwarf was far more drunk than they, and probably didn't know who they were- famed as the Warriors Three were throughout Asgard, it was Nornheim they drank in tonight. They had been sent as emissaries to appease the Norn queen, Karnilla, whose relationship with Asgard was rocky at best, and became tempestuous if Odin did not loan her his favourite warriors for a week or so every year to bring tribute and sort out minor fracases among her subjects, many of whom had not yet recognised the legitimacy of the woman of Asgardian heritage's claim to the throne.
The bar was one of their old favourites, and frequented predominately by trolls and travelling merchants, both of whom tended to be good for an evening's companionship, provided you didn't do anything silly.
Fandral would protest, later, that he had not done anything silly.
He could hardly have helped that they were seated next to a group of dwarfish artisans who had been in Asgard the previous month, and who, like most everyone in Asgard, had heard the increasingly wild and obscene rumours regarding Prince Thor and his infamous brother. They were exchanging these rumours with the rest of the tavern, in loud, carrying voices.
All Fandral had done, he would whine as Hogun glared stonily at him, was turn around and point out to these fellows that Prince Thor was a personal friend of his, and a better man than most, and that he did not appreciate aspersions being cast upon his character or personal choices.
To this, the dwarf had grinned nastily, to his many, many, well-armed friends, and, sizing up the swordsman, had dived into a detailed analysis of Thor and his progeny and likely descendants. He had used, Fandral declared, unnecessary language- dubbing Thor 'Bifrost Breaker', 'Kin Molester', a 'hedonistic bratling whose hammer had clearly been dipped into some very strange furnaces indeed', had claimed that the Odinson had a noted fetish for mortals (and 'mortals' was said in much the way one might say 'farm animals') and that his brother was even worse, a horse-fucking, back-biting, parasitic cur of a…
The dwarf had said other things, but Fandral couldn't remember all of them. He had listened, patiently, for five minutes, and then had swept the chair out from under him and used it to put four of his friends through a window. The situation had devolved from that point onward, and now Nornheim's relations with Asgard were, once again, tenuous.
"You heard what he was saying, Hogun," said Volstagg, firmly, binding his head, where a bottle had been shattered upon it. "Fandral had the right of it."
"He was only saying what everyone else was thinking," said Sif. "If this is the talk in Nornheim, how much worse is it in Asgard?"
"You wished to speak to me, Father?"
Thor closed the door to the trophy room behind him.
Not the main trophy room; Asgard had eight, in the largest and most well-guarded of which the Jotunn casket was housed. This was one of this father's two, personal trophy rooms, in which he kept his smaller, most private and most fondly remembered treasures.
Three frost giant heads were mounted on the left wall, four on the right. Thor had tactfully suggested that they be taken down, burned honourably and replaced with cloth replicas, or mayhap even not replaced at all, to which his father had nodded, made vague promises, and done nothing.
Often, these days, Thor was lead to wonder if he too was another of Odin's foundlings, for it seemed as though he had less and less in common with the man each time he looked. Where might Odin have found him? Midgard, perhaps? That would explain a few things.
"Thor," Odon greeted him. He was standing by the stained glass windows that depicted the battle in which he had lost his eye. "Come here. We have matters to discuss."
Thor hoped they were matters of state.
"I speak of the child, Thor."
Not willing to reveal to his father the dread those words had conjured in him, Thor attempted to emulate the perfect blankness which leapt so naturally to his mother's and brother's faces. He suspected he wasn't doing it properly.
"Are you aware, my son, of the term 'absolute monarchy'?"
"They were two of the first words you had the scholars teach me."
"And you are aware of not only their meaning, but also of their ramifications?"
"…Aye. I am."
"Good. Good. Another term, then; do you know what 'hereditary monarchy' means?"
Thor began to grasp the direction in which the conversation was heading.
"And do you know, my son," Odin continued, "what 'primogeniture' means?"
"If my almighty father requires a dictionary," Thor intoned, "I could call a servant to furnish him with one."
This, this was why he wasn't as good as his mother at being blank. Odin's eye flashed at him, and he, despite feeling bull-headed and childish, kept his chin level. A lifetime of arrogance did not dissolve with one gaunt on Midgard.
"My son is trying to be clever," Odin said, his voice thin and biting, like a cobra. "And it pleases me not, for he is not very good at it. As he has proven, in recent months."
"How have I proven this, you stubborn old fool?" Thor growled.
Two years ago, it would have taken more than one reprimand to goad Thor into speaking back to his father. But two years ago, Odin had not yet destroyed their family or been revealed to be a liar. Thor granted forgiveness easily to those he loved, but the sound of his mother's tears, every night since his brother had fallen from the Bifrost, every night until the night he reappeared, colder and more spiteful than ever, still rang in the Thunder God's ears.
"Let me be brief, then, if the mighty Thor is in no mood for games," said Odin, dripping sarcasm, and turned back to the window, his hands clasped behind his back. "I want to make it very clear; there is no world, no world anywhere, in which I will allow your brother's latest get to sit on the throne of Asgard. I don't care that the child is your own, or if its heart is as pure as the morning dew. To recognise it as part of my line would be to make a mockery of my throne, of my kingdom and of myself."
Thor let out a bark of laughter and slapped his thigh. "So that's what this is about! You're embarrassed. Really, father, considering some of the rumours they tell of your youth…"
He trailed off in the face of Odin's glare, which was a fearsome thing indeed.
"My embarrassment," said the Allfather, testily, "however monumental it may be, is not the main point here. The point, my witless child, is POLITICS. A subject upon which I have ever endeavoured to instruct you and in which you remain, despite my best efforts, ludicrously inept."
"Father," said Thor, his patience on the decline, "what are you talking…"
"Frost giants are matrilineal," Odin hissed. "You fool."
Perplexed, Thor began, "You told me they had no genders."
"They don't, stupid boy, but when a pair of frost giants mate, whichever one of them agrees to bear the child immediately succeeds the other in social and legal status. Birthing is a difficult business for Jotunn, many of them die from it. For this reason, any who will undergo child birth automatically gain authority over the other."
Thor's eyes widened. "Then you think…"
"I don't know how your brother's mind works, Thor. But I know how mine does, and if I was under any impression that…"
"You speak madness!" Thor protested. "Loki was raised in your court, he would be under no illusion that I would bow to the weight of frost giant customs…"
"You've shown yourself very willing to tolerate his presence even after he impregnated himself without your consent," Odin growled. "And with all the studying you've been doing on the history and culture of Jotunnheim, half of Asgard likely thinks…"
"YOU TOLD ME you wanted PEACE with Jotunnheim!" Thor roared. "How do you expect me to make PEACE with them if I know nothing of them save that they are our enemies?"
"You miss the point," Odin sighed, "as ever. If you take naught else from this conversation, take this; your brother does nothing without a reason."
"Mother once told me that," said Thor, glaring, "about someone else."
Odin continued as though he hadn't heard him. "If he is truly bearing your… child, then there will be an ulterior motive. There WILL BE something to be gained from it. You know this, Thor."
Nothing to be shouted at that, because he did know.
"The child will not be formally recognised as part of the House of Odin," said the Allfather. "Send it to Midgard, or keep it here and raise it to be a warrior, or give it to Loki to raise it to be a goat, whatever you will. But remember that you will, in the very near future if I am to be subjected to these trials much longer, be crowned king, and the child- if it is a child- will be a threat to you. Be careful."
As Thor left, he paused by one of the heads, hefted Mjolnir to hook over its horns, and yanked it down. The clatter was terrific, and by the window, his father shook his head, and said nothing.
Rolling his eyes, Thor muttered, "The days when your silence intimidated me were over not long after the days when I trusted your judgement implicitly, father."
The words made him feel guilty as soon as the door shut behind him, but he could not deny their truth.
The Warriors Three and the Lady Sif returned from Nornheim that evening. A feast was held in their honour; even though they made the journey annually, Asgardians, as a rule, enjoyed any excuse for a feast. Thor was, on this night, not in attendance. Neither was Odin, although his absence from feasts was far more common.
(In truth, both of them were avoiding the gathering for fear of having to confront the other. Frigga's husband's temper was that of Frigga's son; it burned hot, bright, and faded quickly.)
All was merry until the second hog was brought out and Tyr set to his third retelling of a bawdy joke that all assembled could now recite from memory, when Loki appeared from out of nowhere, and took his seat. His usual seat, the one to the left of Odin's seat, to the far left of Thor's seat, to the right of Frigga's seat. The seat that was reserved specifically for the second son of Odin, which, despite his departure from Asgard all those months ago, and his many exiles since, no one had ever had the courage to try to sit in.
He pickled up an orange from the bowl before him, and started to peal it, as though he had not noticed that half of those gathered had turned to stare at him, and a quarter of those gathered had fallen dangerously silent.
Hogun placed a finger against Sif's arm. Sif's eyes flickered; she nodded, and swallowed the rest of her ale in one gulp.
It unfolded predictably, like clockwork. One of the men seated nearest to the trickster- Belor, a bowman of inimitable fortitude and unwavering accuracy- wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and stood, and crossed the floor to Loki's seat.
His voice was a base rumble. "Leave."
Loki bisected his orange, and turned just a few degrees to the right, to face Belor. At the same time, making the rounded curve of his belly absolutely unmistakeable to anyone, even beneath his formal robes. (Bizarre, Sif thought, that the rest of him was still weed-slim and sharp-edged, making the curve even more prominent; like an apple stuck upon a dagger.) "Why?"
Two ham-sized fists clenched. "You've dishonoured our lord. You bring shame to our king."
Whatever snide remark rested upon Loki's lips as he raised the orange slice to touch them, no one ever knew, for Belor's patience was not his greatest attribute; nor was it his skill for choosing his battles. In a show of what was, Sif thought, extraordinary bravery, considering that all knew of Loki's unparalleled magical skill, he seized him by the scruff and wrenched him from his chair.
And as his fist drew back, Sif, in a sudden flash of divine insight, realised what was going to happen. She thought: He's not going to duck, or teleport away, or do any of the innumerable things he could do to escape. He's going to allow Belor to hit him, bruise him, maybe even scar him, and then he will go to Thor and Thor will not think first that his brother was causing trouble at dinner, nor will Thor think first that Belor is a skilled warrior and, if he wanted, could deal far worse damage than a black eye to an enemy he was seriously trying to wound.
What Thor will think FIRST is that someone has endangered his child.
The blow never landed, for Sif launched herself at both of them, tackling Belor at the waist and sending all three into a sprawling heap.
"Off me, woman-…" Belor snarled, turning on her in fury.
"Belor," she said, rising from the crouch she had landed in. "I know your feelings; I share them. But this creature bears Thor's heir. To raise a hand against him is to raise a hand against Lord Thor's line, which is to raise a hand against Lord Thor. To raise a hand against Thor is to incur the wrath of Sif."
He looked at her for a long moment, and then growled, "Then, Lady, I say to you that I hope the rogering he's giving you is worth…"
They sang songs of the hammer of Thor and whispered legends of the tongue of Loki but they spoke not of the fist of Sif, for they were too afraid to. Plates scattered, beer was spilt, and the subsequent mealtime riot was the second Sif had had to endure in as many weeks. She dragged Loki from the room by the arm as Volstagg covered their retreat.
They fled into the hallway, and down the corridor, and down the stairs that led to the stables, where they stopped and caught their breath. Sif released her hold on Loki's arm and shoved him against the wall- ensuring that she did so in such a way that the impact would be on his back, not his belly.
"Arriving in the great hall looking like that," Sif muttered, casting him an imperious eye. "What were you thinking?"
"You're presuming that thought went into it," Fandral told her. "He was likely just bored."
Sif glanced at the sullen set of Loki's mouth, and the dark furrows of his trimmed eyebrows, and deduced that this was the case.
"You'd think you'd have enough to keep yourself occupied," she said. "Be gone now, wretch. You've ruined my dinner and my friendship with Belor."
"You had no friendship with Belor," he retorted.
He probably knows that for a fact, she thought. He probably keeps long, intricate records of who we eat and drink with and who we spar with and where we go to clean ourselves. Ugh.
"You have ruined any prospects I had of becoming friends with Belor in the future," she scowled. "And…"
He was smiling and… fading.
"Damn you," she snarled, and kicked it in the face. It was like kicking air; a green shimmer later and it was gone.
Chapter 6: I am the crime that has no pardon
The golden apples of Idunn were ripe all year round, and in the sunlight they sparkled like jewels.
This, Loki had learned, made them remarkably difficult to steal, for their gleam was such that it could be spotted through even thick cloth. If you wanted to steal but one apple, it was best to eat it the moment you plucked it from the branch. If, however, you needed more than one, you needed to make off with them on a moonless night.
He had never before needed more than one; they were a potent fruit, and one would be more than enough to preserve youth and vitality for up to a year. But the child would need at least three a year if it was to grow strong, and Loki wanted this child strong.
Climbing trees while heavily pregnant was troublesome. He made less noise than any other common thief might have, but more noise than he had made on other excursions into Idunn's orchard, and he was sorely afraid she would stalk into view beneath the trees and beat him. Loki suspected she had come to relish his ventures into her domain, for they gave the sedate apple-grower an opportunity to laugh wildly, and reach for her crossbow. The last time he had been caught, she had unleashed three hounds upon him to maul his flesh. He had escaped by turning into a piece of dead fish, and repelled them with his smell.
It was not Idunn who came upon him this night.
"Stealing apples under cover of darkness, trickster? How petty."
If I did not love you so, Loki thought, I would curse your teeth so that they'd grow out of your scrotum.
Not possible, at the moment; as a high god, Thor had innate defences against most curses that his low-born friends lacked. And even elementary spells were beyond Loki's reach at the moment, what with the parasitic growth that was currently hindering his tree-climbing efforts.
I am trying to procure food for YOU, he thought, as it kicked hard and his fingers trembled on the branch. Stop being so DAMNED UNGRATEFUL!
He felt an strong hand close around his ankle. Magic spilled across his tongue and he tensed for the transformation to a smaller, more agile body- a rat, perhaps- when he recalled vividly what had happened the last time he had tried to shapeshift while this heavily with child. He had lived; the child, a lion cub less than a month from birth, had not. Foolish, careless mistake.
Nothing to do then but sigh, and let go.
Thor was waiting, and caught him easily.
"My hero," cooed Loki, calculatedly obnoxious, tickling the bristles under his chin.
Disgruntled, Thor put him down, and then approached the tree with Mjolnir. He tapped the trunk with the war hammer once, lightly, and there was a hail of apples.
Loki collected them greedily, snatching up more than he needed- the golden apples of immortality were known throughout the nine realms, and fetched a hefty price in certain quarters.
Not that he needed money. But it was good to have people owe you favours.
Standing up again, mortifyingly, made him wince, and naturally Thor put both hands on his shoulders to haul him upright and steady him- not the most gentlemanly of gestures at all, but the earnestness was sweet.
"Expectant mothers shouldn't be out apple-picking," Thor said into his ear. "You smell peculiar. Why?"
"I lathered my skin in cream," he replied. "Stretch marks are unseemly."
Best that Thor never, ever discover what ingredients had gone into that cream, or what Loki had done to purchase it.
"It smells as though you've let that kitchen cat with the bladder infection piss on you."
The words were right, but the tone was not. Had Loki been in the shape of a mouse, his ears would have twitched.
Thor's eyes were gleaming, as they did in the moments prior to a skirmish that promised to be bloody.
Glancing upwards, as though he were examining the few apples still dangling from the overhanging branch, Loki checked the constellations. No, it wasn't supposed to be tonight, by his reckoning.
Ah, well. Timelines were fluid things. A month or so wouldn't make a difference, in the long run.
"Pick me up again," Loki ordered, letting his bag full of apples drop to the ground. "Against that tree."
His back ached and his feet ached and if it was to be tonight, he wasn't going to be doing any of the heavy lifting.
Thor's hands on his face were hesitant.
"This is a great evil we are committing," he sighed, a hand sliding under his shirt and over his skin.
With much less reverence, Loki's hand snaked into his trousers and seized him. "Or stop being boring and take what you want."
Their first coupling wasn't what he'd originally pictured. His body was too tired to match Thor's fervor, though his mind was intensely focused, capturing every detail to be relived later. Their first real kiss, stubble scratching Loki's chin, nose-tip bumping his cheekbone. Large, murderous hands, unable to decide what parts of him they were allowed to touch. Loki realized that they were lingering over the swollen flesh of his stomach, and he grinned. Kissed his forehead.
Thor's strength was such that he could slump back against the tree trunk and let Thor support them both, short, coarse nails digging into his thighs. Thor, mercifully, seemed to know that his brother was in no state to entertain him with uncanny sexual wonders and exotic contortions; he seemed happy to nuzzle, paw, and press their cocks together in one hand. Which was… indescribable.
"I wish you had not been absent so frequently," Thor said, breathily, trailing lips over his cheeks and chin. "I had been looking forward to… nng… taking care of you. Until the birth."
Unlike the proud thunder god to admit such a thing.
"I do not like being taken care of," Loki hissed.
He had seen his brother's hands on woman and on throats, on swords and maces and clubs. His brother was a killer born; he didn't derive the same, visceral pleasure Loki did from the act of murder, but his skill was unparalleled.
Thor's fingers pressed against his lips, all romantic and warm. Loki imagined them pressing in, over his sharp teeth and passed his traitor tongue, down his throat and into his chest, where they might close around his heart and rip it from him. And then his brother would see what a noxious thing it was, and he would take his sword and drive it into Loki's gut, into the child's own heart.
One day, he might coax Thor into killing him. Messily, with any luck.
He hoped that it felt as good as this.
Thor didn't try to fuck him, thank each of Odin's ancestors. Loki would have been wiling to try- it was Thor, he would have been willing to fellate a farm animal if Thor would have derived pleasure from watching- but instead there was Thor's strong, broad knee between his legs, rocking him maddeningly slow. And Thor's finger, wet with saliva from his own mouth, playing over his nipples, which were exquisitely tender.
Loki had had many millions of years training in the art of keeping silence and admit nothing. By the time Thor brought him to climax, he's whimpering like a dying animal.
"As of this moment," Thor said, gasping for breath, "Thor is a man who has mated with his kin."
"Yes, I've ruined you properly," Loki snapped, suddenly irritable. A sense of dirtiness prickled him, as it always had when he'd spied on his older brother bathing or getting dressed.
Thor chuckled and pressed a kiss to the hollow of his ear. "Not at all; you ruined me long before this. I was merely reflecting that, as it has been done, it would have made scarce difference if it had been done sooner."
"I wish we had done this when we were younger and better."
Loki cried often and easily- it made him feel childish, spiteful and clean- but always in private for the main virtue they had attributed to him while growing up (alongside Thor) was that he had a talent for composure. It was an atypical compliment to give a child, not one of the seven High Virtues their tutors had extolled (Courage, Fortitude, Compassion, Loyalty, Thankfulness, Mercy and Generosity) but it was his unique, special quality, and he had guarded it jealously.
When his eyes stung at that remark, Thor was kind enough to lick them dry.
Later, they dropped back onto the grass, wetting it with sweat as they cooled. Apples lay scattered far and wide.
Thor's hand rested on Loki's hip. When the child kicked, he broke into a wide grin that moved Loki to shuffle up and rasp into his ear, "We just conceived your child, thunderer."
Thor's mind was humming with pleasure, like sitting with his brother in the meadows on a warm spring day, listening to the sound of bees from a nearby hive. But the sentence left a tiny hook in him.
"'Just'?" he repeated, not yet drawing his face from Loki's neck.
"But you've been with child for months."
"Aye. And that child was conceived this night."
"Magic, then," Thor hazarded a guess.
"Of course. A high-level temporal spell, actually. Quite a feat, if I do say so myself. The academics will write many books about this."
Slowly, Thor's mind emerged from the place of spring and sunshine. "Then… you knew. That we would do this. That you would beget…"
Loki's voice held that special note of smug pleasure it always did when Thor was putting together the pieces of one of his more brilliant schemes. Thor lifted his head, squinting at the younger god.
"If you knew… why the kettle?"
"It was funny."
That, and the fact that he hadn't been aware of what he'd done at the time. Temporal spells were so difficult that way.
Thor closed his eyes. "Trickster. A moment. This is not my field of expertise."
Opening them after a moment, he said, carefully, weighing each word, "You used a spell to get with child prior to any actual copulation."
"Copulation is often performed in the hopes of making a child. In this case, you… oh, no."
"Tell me what terrible suspicions have entered you mind, fair one," Loki purred.
"You used a spell to switch the two events around. Made yourself pregnant in the hopes of…" Thor stopped, gazed into the middle distance, and felt his eyes narrow. "You made yourself pregnant so that we would FUCK, brother?"
"It seemed the most viable way of getting your attention," Loki said. "Although I had hoped you might wait until after I'd had the child. Your fetishes are intriguing."
"You are a horror."
"It worked, didn't it?"
"I know you," said Thor, placing his hands on his hips, "as I know myself. You are lying. At the least, you are yet concealing something."
Pleasure shone in Loki's eyes. "Yes, my clever brother."
Abruptly, Thor rolled onto him and pressed him into the dark grass. "I am not a creature of intellect, Liesmith. Know this; I will hunt the secrets from your skin if it takes me ten years or ten million."
"Yes," Loki snarled, arms splayed and neck twisting as Thor took him into his mouth. "Yes, you WILL."
When Idunn came to tend to her orchard in the morning, she found that more than half of her harvest was rotten to the core.
Loki had flown Asgard by the following evening.
"Will you chase him, Thor?" Odin enquired from his seat by the fireplace.
The tone of his voice sparked defiance in Thor's heart. "Nay."
He had spent the day considering the future.
If the child would not be of the house of Odin, what then? Could he give it a minor fiefdom, or ask the Norn queen to adopt it into her budding dynasty? Suppose he had other children, proper children, with a loving wife; what would they make of his bastard, who would not be allowed to sit by their father at feasts, to whom Thor might give a sword, a horse, a castle, but never the title that should rightfully be his or hers. What treatment could such a child expect to receive at the hands of Asgard; with the child's heritage never acknowledged, what slanders might the youth face? Who would they marry or apprentice themselves to, with such an origin?
What sort of man or woman would such a child become?
Thor had seen, firsthand, what unseen, unspoken hurts and grievances could blossom into. Would the child follow in his brother's footsteps, self-imposed exile or worse? How could he protect such a child, that he could not even publicly lay claim to?
"Nay?" said Odin. On his shoulder, Hugin cawed.
"He will come back," Thor said. "If he desires privacy at this time, I shall grant it."
"You are not concerned."
"He doesn't need to be taken care of."
"That wasn't exactly what I meant, my son," Odin muttered, and fed Hugin a piece of cheese.
Chapter 7: I am ashes on the wind
"Thor's heart is clearly broken," Fandral proclaimed. He spoke out the open windows of the foyer where they had gathered, as though he was not addressing them, but the world at large.
Sif arched an eyebrow. "You think so? His appetite at breakfast was as hearty as ever."
"Fie, woman! The mother of his child has fled in the night, into Hela knows what peril…"
"Loki flies in the night all the time," grunted Hogun.
Lost in fevered imaginings, clenched fist pressed tight against his chest, Fandral went on, "And who knows when Thor might lay eyes upon his coveted heir?"
"Loki's brat won't be Thor's heir," Volstagg said, patiently. 'We've already explained this to you."
"Ah, but it is a cruel and an unfeeling world for any unwed mother to be lost in," said Fandral, leaning so far out the window as to be in serious danger of falling out.
"Oh, Bor," said Sif, her head dropping into her hands, "he's twirling his moustache."
"And WE, my fellows," shouted Fandral, drawing his sword and pointing it toward the sky, "WE shall go forth into the black beyond and retrieve Thor's child, for are we not the Warriors Three (and Sif), heroes most glorious of the anointed realm?"
"Oh, come on, you lot," he said, when they all stared at him listlessly.
"Fandral, in all likelihood, Loki simply slithered off to birth the brat in private," Sif said, "and will return within a fortnight to plague us once more."
"Fandral does make one good point, though" said Volstagg, scratching his chin. "There can be no predicting Loki's' movements. He may be gone for years. Thor may not see the child until its twentieth birthday. And in that time, Loki may have raised it to hate its father. Or trained it in the ways of magic, so as to make it a powerful enemy of Asgard."
"Then it is settled," said Fandral. "It is our duty to set forth and locate the trickster, and the child, and return them both to Thor safe and…"
Ever the voice of reason, grim Hogun said, "How are you proposing we find him?"
Fandral bent into a low, obsequious bow.
"You won't achieve anything, even if you find him," said Heimdal, before Fandral had even opened his mouth. "I can see where he is. Given that he has successfully concealed himself from my gaze before, I fear this is because he wants me to see him."
"Mighty Heimdal," Hogun said. "You are the wisest of us. Do you foresee evil springing from the trickster's latest game?"
"Will the infant be an abomination?" added blunt Sif.
Heimdal heaved a deep, long sigh. "I foresee nothing. As you are all wont to forget, mine is not the power to read the future. I see all. Every spider. Every rock. Every great evil. Countless billions of events- imagine a swarm of bees, a massive swarm, the size of a planet. Could you look at that swarm and predict the manner in which two bees' paths may cross? That is the level of difficulty involved in predicting the future. It is a skill I do not yet possess."
"Yet you are old, Heimdal," said Sif. "And thus you are wise. If you can track the actions of Loki and you can track the actions of those around him, surely you can predict the nature or shape of the trickster's plans?"
"Even Loki cannot fully predict Loki's plans, sister. And I am old, it is true. I am older than Odin. I am older than any of you. And, old as I am, I have yet to accumulate sufficient evidence to convince me that age is directly correlated to wisdom. From what I can glean of Loki's movements in amidst the cosmic chaos, I can tell you that events have been set in motion that it is not in your power to change."
"Will these events be for good or for ill?" Sif asked, persisting where others would have long given up.
If you looked directly into Heimdal's eyes- no one did, except by accident- you could see, beyond the golden rings, clusters of tiny galaxies dancing in his pupils. Legend had it that they were real galaxies that had faced extinction, and had stuck themselves into the Watchman's eyes to preserve themselves forever. Difficult eyes to meet. Not the eyes of a man, or a god.
"Good and ill mean very little to me," said Heimdal. "I concern myself with what is good for Asgard; what will preserve her, what will make her enemies fear her. Does this make me a good man? No. Asgard is no better than her enemies, in terms of total good. But this is the task I have taken for myself, and I endeavour to do it well. And even this, small role that I have appointed myself to, fails me as routinely as I fail it, for what is Asgard? Is Asgard its people, or the sum of its achievements? I am set and sworn to defend a nebulous concept, the iron of my soul before air and vapour. I am false. Why do I stand upon Bifrost, to benefit a world I do not believe to be any better than any other?"
The warriors shifted in uneasy silence, until he continued, in more perfunctory tones, "Asgard faces no immediate threat. Any threat that exists in the future will not be affected by your finding Loki or not finding Loki."
"You lose me, gatekeeper," Sif admitted. "Will you tell us where he is?"
"Yes. And do you know why, sister?"
"I am bored. You will find your quarry on Muspelheim. Go now."
"Any idea what he was going on about?" Fandral whispered to Sif as the Bifrost was activated.
"It is for the philosophers, not I," she whispered back.
Higher ground, wily Loki thought. Once I am higher, I will be safe.
Muspelheim. Home to the cousins of Laufey's jotunn; their flesh not icy, but searing hot; standing ten feet from one was like standing next to a banked fire. Holding a man by the neck, they could reduce him to cinders in five seconds. Had Asgard and Muspelheim ever gone to war, the causalities would have been enormous. But fire giants were shy, wary people, having witnessed the breaking of Laufey's empire. Their world existed in a grey area, not formally allied with either Laufey or Odin. Neither king was inclined to change that, for there was nothing on Muspelheim anyone besides the fire giants wanted; no trees, no water, no arable land. The giants ate lizards and made their nests in the bowels of volcanoes.
No one, Loki thought, pleased with himself, would follow him here. He'd kept himself visible to Heimdal's eyes as a gesture of goodwill- as long as Thor could see what he was doing, he wouldn't feel the need to hunt him down.
Higher still. Not long now.
He reached a flat plateau just below the peak, where perched the small stone house he had spent months building just for this purpose. It had fours doors, one on each side, so that he may see enemies approaching. The next few hours would be painful and may leave him incapacitated. He laid down the few tools he had brought with him; a small cutting knife, needle and thread, a small woolen blanket and a small rabbit in a light wooden cage, to be sacrificed.
Here, at last, high above a burning world, he would be safe.
And not a moment too soon, as the first contraction gripped him. Barely a tremor, yet. There was still time to…
"By all the gods, what is this? A house! I say, did you BUILD this?"
Pretending they were not there would not make them go away. He had to turn round. He had to deal with this. And QUICKLY, because there went the second contraction, this one fiercer.
They were all here. Of course. Sif was pulling Volstagg up over the ledge- the fat fool had got himself wedged between two rocks- and Fandral was inspecting the masonry.
Did you do this, Father?, he thought, bleakly. Would you do this to one who was your son?
They wouldn't go away.
And, sadly, he was in no condition to force them.
Sweat dripped from his brow, hindering vision that was already clouded by a pink haze of pure, utter rage.
He hated them. He hated Thor. He hated EVERYTHING, everything that EXISTED, and when the brat was free of his body the first thing he was going to do would be to instigate the bloodiest, most fearsome Ragnarok ever yet witnessed by…
"There's no need to worry," Volstagg said, and a cool, wet cloth was slapped across his face. "My Gunnhilde has had six already, and has made plans for more, despite my misgivings. I've midwifed every one. You get the knack quickly enough."
"Get… away… from… me…" Loki gasped, and clenched his teeth as another spasm hit. Bite, he needed something to BITE.
A block of wood was thrust in front of his mouth and he seized it between his teeth.
The others, predictably, were being as useful as a goat in a wedding bed.
"I must boil some water!" Fandral yelped.
"Fandral, we are on Muspelheim," sighed Hogun. "There IS no water."
Such is the fate of poor Loki, he thought to himself, most miserably. Ever to be the plaything of the Norns, made mockery of by destiny itself and…
"Alright," said Volstagg, sitting back. "Now, perhaps you can help me… I'm presuming you cut the babe out?"
"Yes," he whispered, squelching that part of himself that would have liked to lie for the sake of it. No time for games now.
"Good. And you have a knife?"
He jerked his head towards the bag he had carried up the cliffside with him, and Volstagg fetched forth the small knife.
"It is clean?" he asked, turning it this way and that. "Or do I need to heat it?"
"It will make no difference," he rasped. "I am not susceptible to…hnn… such bacteria. Give it here."
"You can hold it steady?" Volstagg said, looking doubtful.
"Give it HERE, you simpletonnNNNAAAARGH!"
Snatching the knife, he spun it between his fingers, selecting the angle carefully as he could, and plunged it into his heart.
The incision was made from sternum to navel; when the scar healed, it would form the shape of a tapering spear.
Blood straight from a parent's heart was powerfully magical, and the child took its first breath soaked in it.
A first breath that came with a clout from Volstagg's hand; Loki was not able to gift it himself, for he was lost in sporadic bursts of ice shooting through his veins (he would later notice that Volstagg's fingers were frostbitten for some months afterwards) and fire, erupting from his skin and mouth and nostrils (he would later notice that half of Sif's dark hair had been burnt off).
When it was over, the quiet seemed unnatural. Save for one shrill, piercing cry.
"Sif," said Fandral, collapsing back against the third door, green about the gills. "My sister in all but blood. You must never wed. Or lie with anyone. Or kiss anyone. Or…"
Hogun was mopping up the blood, with sharp, mechanical movements.
"Honestly," huffed Volstagg. "You'd think they'd never seen a birthing before."
"That was not a birthing," Sif said. "I do not know what it was, but I know what it was not."
"Where are my kidneys?" Loki croaked.
It had been the hardest birth he had ever endured. The cut had been clean and true, but the cord had twisted around its neck, and, in trying to cut it free, things had… spilled. It wasn't the first time Loki returned from a haze of shrieking agony to find his liver trailing in the dirt, but it was the first time he'd had witnesses.
Idiots. They probably thought he didn't know how to do this at all. It had been a mistake, that was all. Anyone could have made it, even someone with millions of years of experience.
By Surtur's wounds, there was a lot of blood. He hadn't expected the wretched thing to be so damned big.
Had he lacked for a second pair of hands…
Which was not to say that Volstagg and his cursed midwifery had been at all helpful.
Of course not.
A trained ape could have done what he'd done, and would probably have done it with less ribald comments and, in the case of Fandral, quiet retching noises.
"Who's a beautiful girl?" Volstagg cooed. "Yes you are! Yes you are!"
Where was the damned rabbit? Loki looked around for it futilely, as he tied a knot in the black thread that now held his insides inside.
"And look," said Fandral, coming over to coo at the baby, nausea forgotten in the wake of her (atrociously ugly, in Loki's opinion) chubby features. "She's got a tiny pet to play with!"
He held up the rabbit, and the child laughed as its nose twitched, reaching out a tiny hand to bat its velvety ears.
The whelp shouldn't even be able to see yet, Loki thought. Although it gave him a degree of pleasure to note that she was clearly a fast learner. She'd have his mind, even if she did have Thor's bulk.
He could feel his strength returning to him. Plucking the baby from Volstagg's arms without ceremony, he wrapped her in the extra woollen blanket and took her outside, shutting the door firmly behind him.
Taking her to the cliff, he raised her up, and drew aside the light, airy tunic he was wearing. His body did not give forth milk, but a stranger substance that looked like blood but tasted, on the one occasion he had tried it, like honey. Singing softly as she suckled, he inspected her. Brown eyes, when she looked up at him, brown tufts of hair; good, that was a good compromise. Button nose that promised to conform more to his features than Thor's as she matured. She'd have Thor's square jaw and powerful shoulders. Frigga will do all she can, he thought, but you will never be a beautiful girl. But you will have my tongue and Thor's resilience, and they should serve you well enough.
"Ahem," Fandral's voice came from behind him, interrupting his song. Glaring, he looked back; unable to smooth his features into placid temperateness in time.
"We, er… that is, we brought wine," said the swordsman, shifting from foot to foot. Hela's cunt, was the man blushing? "To celebrate the child's birth. As, er… as her mother, you really should… that is, you're welcome to partake…erm…"
Readjusting his clothing, Loki, without looking up, said "That would be delightful."
The brew was a vile one. He pursed his lips as the cup was raised to touch them.
"What will its name be?" Sif asked, her mug already empty.
He ran his thumb along his lower lip to cleanse it of the residue. "I don't know. I may not name it at all."
"Oh, come now," Fandral scoffed, already slurring. "You can't refuse a child a name. 'Twould be unthinkable. If you shan't give it one, I shall. Let me see. Irpa? Syn? Gná, after the queen's sweet-faced messenger?"
"I must return to Asgard," Loki said, letting the child wrap its fat fingers around his thumb.
"Are you sure you're fit to travel?" Hogun queried, eyeing the stitches visible through a gap in his tunic.
"Then, we shall leave immediately," said Volstagg. "The sooner Thor meets his firstborn the better. It is not lucky for a child to go too long without seeing its father's face. I shall call for Heimdal, and we…"
"I will be returning to Asgard," interrupted Loki, "alone. You must stay here for a little while longer."
Volstagg looked confused; he opened his mouth to speak, then closed it, and looked at the cup he had drained only a minute ago. Then, his eyes rolling back in his head, he fell to the floor.
"Hmm," said Loki, satisfied with the speed of the powder he had sprinkled in the flask before pouring it out.
Fandral was on his feet, sword drawn. "Traitor! You think we would let you get away with…"
"No, I don't," said Loki, as the swordsman swayed on his feet. "That's why I drugged all your cups as well."
Sif was the last to fall, and scratched at him as he stepped over her, the babe on his shoulder. "In my defense, Lady, you should have seen that coming."
"B'st'd," she mumbled, before her lovely head sank to the ground.
"To Asgard we go, daughter," Loki said to the baby as he sought out those secrets passageways between the worlds that Heimdal had yet to uncover. "Volstagg was right; you need to meet your father."
His eyes tinged wine-red, he added, "And won't he be surprised, child?"
"Won't he be surprised."
Chapter 8: You are the king, but I'm the land
They were in the orchard again; first they were playing hiding games, as they had as children, then they were clasping one another, Loki's hands clawing Thor's back. Now Loki drew Thor's head against him, and allowed him to drink sweet honey. The taste still clinging to his tongue, Thor lay on the grass- as he had not many nights ago- while Loki cut his hair with a pair of silver shears. "I always wanted to rule Asgard alongside you," he said, cutting off a fat lock and placing it to one side.
Thor laughed, hollowly. "Liar."
"Not this time, actually," said Loki. A cold wind set the trees to rustling and they were both nine and ten years old again. "I had it all mapped out. I would tend to the business of governance while you headed up the army and kept our borders safe. You would be the icon of the people, always in the limelight, and I'd sneak around behind your back, cleaning up your messes. Like Frigga does for Odin."
It was a nice picture, but it was a lie.
"You'd have to be my wife, then," Thor muttered, eyes closing as his brother's hands stroked his jaw, and the cool metal of the shears touched his throat.
He awoke from this dream, stared at the ceiling for a second, then leapt from his bed bellowing in rage.
Charging out of bed, entirely naked, he flung open the door to his bedroom and barked at a nearby squire to saddle his horse, ready to set out at first light and track down…
Then he stopped, turned back and retraced his steps, for at some point in the last ten seconds his eyes had registered an anomaly that his brain had not.
In his bedroom lay his boots, his favoured sword, and Mjolnir, who was never more than two feet from him as he slept. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
Except he was certain that the untidy wads of parchment, bound together with black thread, that peaked out from underneath Mjolnir had not been there when he'd fallen asleep six hours ago.
He debated with himself whether it was wise to touch them. Throwing caution to the wind- if they were coated in poison, Mother would be able to administer an antidote swiftly enough, if they were cursed, one of Father's advisors would know the counter-curse- he lifted Mjolnir, picked them up, and was in the process of removing the thread when it clicked.
Underneath. The papers had been left underneath Mjolnir.
His brother's voice echoed in his ears.
"It was so cruel to put the hammer in your reach, knowing you could never lift it."
Thor stood there, not moving to unbind the stack of paper further, while he thought. Inspiration struck five minutes later.
"He didn't raise the hammer," Thor said to himself. "He lowered the floor."
He got down on his hands and knees to check and, indeed, the carpet beneath Mjolnir's core dipped at least two inches. "He actually crept into my room, cut away at the floor beneath the hammer, put the paper beneath it and then rebuilt the floor. HAH! Excellent wretch!"
Feeling inordinately proud of himself, he took out the first paper, only to find that they were all part of one large, folded piece of parchment, with ragged edges suggesting that it had been messily cut from a scroll.
"At least you're alive," he said to his absent sibling.
He read. It was a list of instructions for a spell, in a language Thor did not recognise, with neat translations written adjacent to each sentence. The purpose of the spell, as Thor could divine it, was to grant one the power of levitation.
No, wait, that was wrong. Loki had showed him levitation spells when they were younger, during one of those short-lived periods in which he desired nothing more than to show off by opening his stupid brother's eyes to the many wonders of magic and the ways in which they could aide one on the battlefield. Thor had shrugged off the lesson, saying that he would soon be able to fly with Mjolnir's aide, and that he could foresee no tactical advantage to be gained from making an enemy hover above one's head.
This wasn't a levitation spell, though it bore similar hallmarks. This was different this… that word, he knew what that meant, where had he heard it before…
Damn Loki. He must have known Thor would struggle with this one.
It took him ten minutes of reading, moving his lips silently, to interpret the purpose of the spell. It was a spell to grant strength. Unlimited strength, although… very strange, it granted unlimited strength, but only when that strength was put to a certain, specific purpose. One could not use the spell to punch through mountains or throw a stone through the crust of the planet. One could only use it to lift things. One might be unable to push aside a boulder, but one would be able to lift…
Thor's eyes flickered to Mjolnir.
…anything one wanted to.
One mystery solved. Why would Loki have left this for him to find? To make the next game more fun, his brain supplied.
Thor's eyes ran down the page, seeking out possible methods of counteracting the spell, imagining waking to find Mjolnir spirited away in the night. There were the necessary incantations, and here were the special ingredients required. And here were the rites one had to perform.
And down there, in the left-hand corner, was the word 'sacrifice' and here were the words 'a being pure of heart, of [underlined three times] royal blood'.
At the very bottom of the page there was a painstakingly detailed diagram.
Beneath it, written in Loki's own handwriting; MEET YOU IN THE MARKET.
The commercial heart of Asgard was a sprawling, open-air market, where denizens of the Nine Worlds (or at least, of those worlds who currently enjoyed a friendly relationship with Asgard) came to barter, to trade, to auction, to find sponsors, to learn and offer their services. The market was vast in the way that only structures built by gods could be, so vast that, standing in the middle of it, one could not see where the city began again. It could accommodate up to ten million people at once.
At the heart of the market hung an iron bell. It had been forged from the same metal as Mjolnir, although not in the heart of a dying star, but in the belly of a dragon, who had been chained and peppered with a million spears, kept alive only so long as it took the forgers to complete the clapper and the crown.
The bell had hung there for longer than most of Asgard had existed. If it had a name, no one knew it. It had no part in formal ceremonies; it had last been rung before the market itself had even formed, by Frigga's great, great grandmother (a drunken Valkyrie who felt that her great, great granddaughter's birth had not yet been marked by sufficient pomp and pageantry.)
Today, it rung. It rung loud and it rung long, shaking cobblestones loose and making teeth itch.
It did not take long to draw a crowd; the market was already the most densely populated segment of Asgard at any one time, and the clanging drew men and women away from the gladiator ring and in from the fields, abandoning work and play to inspect this new phenomenon.
When an estimated million people had gathered, Loki let the nameless bell go with a final, resounding 'gong.'
Then he smiled at all of them, crocodile-wide, and set to work.
The sun was high in the sky as Thor reached the market, Mjolnir screaming as it flew.
His eyes barely noted the throng, which by now must have been three million strong at least. Nor did they remark upon the curious absence of his friends, who would normally have been at the forefront of any such gathering, inquisitive bloodhounds that they were.
For once, no one hailed him as he touched down, for all attention was otherwise engaged at the very centre of the market, where the hung the great bell he had climbed up and played upon as a child.
The crowd was pressed tightly together, filling every nook and cranny of the marketplace, whispering amongst themselves. The only open area was a wide circle, perhaps twenty metres in diameter, around the bell itself; here, the press of the crowd was pushed back by a white circle of scattered salt that none were willing to step over.
In front of the bell, a makeshift altar had been set up, one broad, flat piece of stone set atop a wider, squat piece of stone, with dozens of runes hastily etched into its sides.
Loki stood behind it, noticeably flatter than he had been when last they met. In his hand, held upright so that the sunlight may glint off it, and that all may know immediately what it was, was a curving blade.
On the altar was a squalling baby girl.
"You could not," Thor whispered to himself, fully aware that his brother would be able to hear him even if the whispers of the crowd were as loud as the roar of the ocean.
"Hail, thunderer," Loki greeted him, in a loud, carrying voice.
Thor was certain that he had been struck speechless with horror, but he couldn't have been, because the voice that answered sounded like his.
It boomed off distant mountains. Those who were present that day towards the back of the crowd swore they heard it echoing back off of Jotunheim.
"Her name," Loki said, "is Lífþrasir. Isn't she ugly? I'm sorry about that, it wasn't intentional."
Already Mjolnir was in his hand. Dizzy, Thor realised that a part of his mind was already calculating the exact trajectory required to knock his brother's head clear of his shoulders before he could bring the knife down.
Perhaps the baby wasn't his, Thor thought, and this was a foolish, cruel game. It wouldn't have been difficult for Loki to hide HIS child away, and steal someone's else's baby to murder.
What an evil thought; that to watch another person's child die might cause him so much less pain.
"Release her." It should have been an order. It was a plea.
Loki giggled, giddy. Utterly malicious. "Tell me why I should."
He brought the knife so it hovered, rock-steady, fifteen inches above the girl's tiny throat. "Tell me QUICKLY."
He was crying, openly, feeling his fingers flex on Mjolnir for the killing throw.
"She is my daughter. Our daughter. You… you could not be so wicked."
"She is not your daughter, Odinson," Loki said, in the same raucous, carrying tones.
Terror gave way to rage. Mjolnir's handle creaked under the strength of his grip.
"For nine months!" Thor bellowed. "NINE MONTHS you have told me and told me that the child is mine! And I look to her face and I know that she IS mine! There is my mother's brow! There are my father's eyes! There is YOUR CHILD, Laufeyson, and you would offer her up as a piece of MEAT! Of all the indignities you have wrought upon the House of Odin NOT LEAST OF WHICH was your own CURSED EXISTENCE, this is by FAR AND AWAY the most VILE and DESPICABLE OF…"
Loki held up a hand for silence, and Thor wasn't sure why it worked. He felt as though he could scream forever. (He noticed only peripherally the scorched cobblestones surrounding him, and the fact that all sturdy warriors present had backed as far away from him as was possible in the crush.)
"The House of Odin," Loki repeated. "Most venerable of dynasties, most ancient and pure of lines."
As he said this, he touched the tip of his finger to the child's brow, and ripples of gasps spread through the crowd as the peachy-pinkness melted from her flesh, leaving corpsy blue in its place. "Is she still yours, Thor? Does your firstborn really carry Jotun blood in her veins? Surely not. To be your child is to be your heir; to be your heir is to be a future king or queen. Would you have a frost giant seated upon the Hliðskjálf?"
"Upon the Hliðskjálf and upon the throne of the universe itself!" he hollered back. "I would love her were she a fish or a tree or a scale on the back of the Midgard serpent! I would conquer galaxies in her name! I would give her riches unmatched and loyalty unrivalled and if ANY tried to stop me I would send them to Hela's realm!"
"Even you," he said, no calmer but more controlled. "It would pain me to slay you, brother. But the child is as much my kin as you. And I would protect her at all costs."
"As much your kin as I am," Loki said slowly, every syllable falling like a leaden brick into the ears of the silent crowd. "Are you absolutely sure of that?"
Most of those who were in attendance that day did not here what Loki said in reply to that, but those standing closest to him said they thought it sounded like; "…Heh."
Loki brought the knife up… and, opening his mouth, nicked the tip of his tongue. A rosy bead swelled and then dripped into the child's open, bawling mouth.
"Then all will be well," he said, and put the knife down upon the altar.
Raised his face again, features suddenly placid, and extremely smug.
"She is yours, Odinson," he said, and took a step back from the altar. "And now she has been properly baptised. Come and get her, if she's truly yours."
And then Thor noticed his father, standing at the very farthest edge of the crowd, shaking his head sadly.
The next few moments were dreamlike. Gingerly picking up his child as Loki shushed her, watching her tiny red eyes blink up at him. Holding her aloft before the crowd, who had never once missed an opportunity to cheer the Odinson in two thousand years, and who had been moved by his proclamation, and who started to cheer and holler at the top of their lungs. Watching the salt ring dissolve into thin air as they rushed forward, patting him on the back and begging a chance to touch the royal infant, and telling him how pretty she was, such tiny toes and such a strong grip, a warrior born without a doubt.
Someone had started ringing the bell again, and a song had broken out.
In the middle of it all, Thor had the feeling he'd just been tricked.
He never saw the look exchanged between Loki and the Allfather, both of whom were in the process of slipping back into the shadows, having no place at festive occasions.
There were legalities to be observed.
"The fact is, your majesty," said Odin's most trusted advisor, nervously, "that your son laid claim to the child in front of five million witnesses. Unless you would like me to order all of them summarily executed it will be very difficult, in a purely LEGAL sense, to deny it a legitimate claim to a position in your family… and, eventually, on your throne."
"I know who I would like to have executed," Odin said, flatly, giving his older son a chilly look. To the younger, he said, "You will pay for this."
"Aye, but I suspect it shall prove well worth the price," said Loki, the confidence of his words belied by the shrinking of his shoulders under the All-Father's withering glare. Somewhat meeker, her added, "If it pleases you, I shall remove myself from Asgard entirely, and thus will never be able to incline her against you."
"You will remain where I can see you," Thor rumbled.
"Forgive me, sire," said the advisor, "but I feel we must return to the issue of, erm…"
"Don't say it," said Odin, sinking back into his chair with an aura of infinite defeat.
"What are you all talking about?" said Thor, who sat with his arms folded across his chest. Trying not to stare at Lífþrasir, who was bouncing on Loki's knee and making happy gurgling sounds.
Odin grunted and hiked a thumb in Loki's direction, not deigning to look upon him. "Is that your brother, Thor?"
"No, it is not," Odin replied.
"I cannot be your brother, Thor," Loki said, as though speaking to the infant who sat in his lap. "Because that would make of Odin's House a nest of incest, would it not? No, no, I do not think I can be your brother."
The argument continued for the early hours of the evening, while Frigga offered short, measured contributions from the sidelines. A full moon was high in the sky by the time Odin Allfather formally disowned his youngest son.
There was a feast- of course there was a feast- and the Warriors Three joined in when they returned from Muspelheim, tattered and smelling of sulphur. Everyone wanted to see the child, or to present her with elaborate presents. Many bemoaned the fact that there had been no prior announcement, and now they had no gifts to offer of acceptable quality and expense, until Frigga proclaimed a week of games in her honour, with an official gifting ceremony on the seventh day.
When they were in private for the first time that day or night, the first thing Loki said was, "I have promised her to Frigga. To rear. I didn't think you'd have cultivated the necessary skill to raise a child yet, and I have no interest in doing so."
The second thing he said was, "Ow. Are we to have a marriage based on spousal abuse then, my lord?"
"Scum," Thor hissed, seizing him up by the scruff and slamming him against a wall, glad that he no longer had to be careful of damaging his body. "You have stolen all my choices from me."
Squinting from the eye that wasn't blackened, Loki replied, "We're gods, Thor. We do not have choices."
Thor dealt him a punch that broke three of his teeth, and then threw him down, stalking over to the table to pour himself a pitcher of wine.
"You warriors have already sworn themselves to me," Loki said. "Publicly. You may cast me out, but you have to make them rescind their oaths. That, I think, they would not thank you for."
"Also, there will never be a better time to try for lasting peace between Jotunheim and Asgard," he said, tentatively edging forward as Thor continued drinking. "Laufey will not be much longer on the throne, and proclaiming a half-giant to be a princess of Asgard will win us much favour among his subjects."
"There is far more of you in her than there is of me," he said, standing at Thor's shoulder now, hesitant as a moth. "I made sure of that. She will bring you no Ragnaroks. Unless you do something to deserve them. Either way, she will receive no active encouragement from my end."
"You think of everything, my sweet," Thor spat, wine dripping down his chin. "Tell me, was stranding our friends on the side of a volcano really necessary? And don't you DARE to whine to me that they are not your friends, after the boon they granted you. Volstagg tells me the child would have died."
"Volstagg does like to exaggerate," Loki muttered, sourly.
"Or mayhap your faith in your abilities is unwarranted. Careless, thoughtless… did you say you'd given her to FRIGGA?"
He wasn't any less angry the next day.
Or the next.
Ten months later, he was still angry.
Even in Frigga's expert hands, the child required so much of his time and attention. He pledged to spend five hours of every day training her in the noble art of battle, until his mother told him that she wouldn't be ready for that for a few years yet. But there was still so much to teach, so many places in the Nine Realms he wanted to show her.
It was difficult to remain angry all the time, particularly given that the source of his anger had to constantly remind him to support her head.
"Don't hold her like that," Loki said, correcting his grip for the third time. His tongue had never healed; the nick at the tip left it with a permanent fork.
The anger never went away, but it was joined by other things.
The sound of Loki's broken moans as he pressed into him. The visceral satisfaction of leaving purple bruises all over the skin of his not-brother.
When the anger began to retreat, they found their way to trying it on a bed. It was a relief to find that, even without fury driving him, the wonder at the gentle grunts that pushed their way out of Loki's throat remained.
This, Thor thought, was the first time he had been permitted to caress Loki's body when it actually looked like Loki's body to his eyes. All, despite the many years and the many different shapes, all was exactly as he had left it. The scar on his side where he'd fallen from his horse when they were children. The dark mole that Thor had always teased him looked exactly like a tick, and the light smattering of freckles over his shoulder blades that Thor had once linked together with ink while he slept, in retribution for a prank long forgotten.
"Sooner or later we will have to get legally married," Loki said, unable to keep his mouth shut even when he was balls deep and keening. "People will call her a bastard."
"We are not getting married, you perverse…"
"I will let you take other wives," Loki said, rolling his hips agonisingly slow. "I won't even be cruel to them. As long as it is understood that my child's needs and wishes take precedence over theirs."
"And it will ALWAYS be understood," Thor replied, curtly, pushing back hard as Loki bit his shoulder, "that my daughter's needs and wishes take precedence over any of those of your other children?"
"Naturally." And how easy it was to make out the noise of turning gears as Loki thought of a way to twist those words to suit his own purposes.
"You think you can win everything," Thor grumbled, as Loki's hand snuck beneath him to tease his head. "That is what I find infuriating."
"I believe in having high goals."
"If we are wed you would have to be my queen. Queen Loki. Hah! Can you imagine it?"
"I'd make a good queen. I could curb your…" he broke off with a gasp as Thor seized his hand and chewed on it; he'd found that chewing on Loki was good for allaying his stress. ".. your excesses, you brute. Aah!"
"You shall have no more children," said Thor, worrying the soft part where thumb met index finger. "Is that understood? And you shall adopt a life of piety and repentance, and…"
"Of course I shall," Loki soothed, and thrust forward again. "I promise."