Actions

Work Header

What Once Was Lost Returned

Chapter Text

It should have come as no surprise that it all began with Laufey-king, whose eyes were the sharpest and mind most astute of them all.

 

The little invaders scrambled across the ice, chased to and fro by the defending soldiers. Though the Odinson put up a good fight, surely a retreat was imminent.

 

Amongst this chaos of battle the king stood high on his vantage point and beckoned one of his legions closer to him with the curving of a finger.

 

Of course they did not hesitate to answer his summons. “What is it, my king?” their leader asked, smooth and subservient.

 

“Keep an eye on that one.”

 

“Which one, my king?” he asked politely as he dared. For in truth, all Aesir looked alike to him. Puny strange things.

 

Laufey gave a low rumble, reaching out to palm the other’s head and turn it so his eyes faced the way he wanted. “That one.”

 

He indicated the thin one in the green and black coat. The guardsman nodded, and Laufey removed his hand.

 

“Follow it. Don’t hurt it, but keep watch and see what it does.”

 

They were very strange orders but it was hardly the place of a single soldier, or even an entire platoon, to question the will of the king. Together they bowed and then crept swiftly across the ice, trying to follow the Aesir without letting it know they were present.

 

Jotnar were not built for stealth. One supposed it was comical, a dozen or so giant soldiers walking in a line, crouching low as they could with weapons still in hand, keeping their heads ducked.

 

Despite their best efforts, the Aesir still spotted them. It tried to distract them with an illusion and then threw a flurry of knives at their heads.

 

“Ow,” a soldier complained, pulling one of the little pig-stickers out of his eyeball.

 

“We aren’t supposed to hurt him,” one of the others pointed out. “King’s orders.”

 

“Little gnat has teeth,” their leader growled, annoyed. “He wants to bite, he can take it when he gets swatted in return. I’m sure he can take a bit of a thumping.”

 

They rushed at the Aesir. It already had very pale skin, but somehow it blanched even more so at the sight of the many Frost Giants bearing down at it at once.

 

It stood its ground admirably, really, but the first hard backhand to its chest sent it flying several feet, senseless.

 

“I thought they could take a harder hit than that,” the one who had struck the blow remarked, surprised.

 

The Aesir was on its side, face buried in the snow, moaning. A spot of red blood stained its lips.

 

King’s orders,” the same soldier from earlier repeated, more shrilly this time.

 

One of his mates smacked him in the shoulder, annoyed, but they all couldn’t help exchanging worried looks, thinking about what would happen when Laufey found out.

 

“Maybe he’s faking,” another suggested hopefully. Their leader grunted, reaching down to prop the Aesir up for a better look.

 

“They bruise like fruit,” he groused, but then stopped with a noise of surprise as the darkening blue color spread past where his hand landed, across all of the Aesir’s skin.

 

The entire warrior band stared in amazement. “By Ymir’s frozen breath!” came one astonished whisper.

 

The now blue-skinned being’s lids fluttered as he came around, and when he opened them his eyes were scarlet.

 

“What…?” His gaze drifted to the hand that held him, and then he appeared shocked into full consciousness as he got a look at his own limbs. “What is this?” He wrenched himself free, bringing his palms before his eyes to stare at them in disbelief and horror.

 

“What have you done to me?”

 

“He’s a changeling,” one of the soldiers realized, almost reverently. “By the Crag, that’s no Aesir – he’s one of us.”

 

“What?” The changeling’s head shot up, alarmed. “No I’m not! You’re wrong!”

 

“Laufey must’ve seen something,” the same soldier continued, ignoring him. “That’s why…”

 

“You mean the Aesir kidnapped one of our own?” another warrior interrupted. He spat into the ice in disgust. “Bastards! Rip them all apart and be done with it.”

 

“Stop that,” their leader instructed, irritated. “Now‘s not the time.” He bent down as best he could without actually taking a knee, so that he could meet the much smaller Jotun in the eye.

 

“It’s all right now, little kindred,” he said kindly. “You’re safe.”

 

The only response at first from the smaller giant was to stare at him. Slowly he tried moving away from them, backward, on his hands.

 

“This…this is all wrong,” he began. “There must be some kind of mistake.”

 

“Wonder why the king didn’t just tell us to rescue him and be done with it?” one of the soldiers asked the others, frowning.


Rescue,” the boy on the ground stammered, appalled. “Oh no. No. You don’t understand. You mustn’t…my father…” He turned his head suddenly, calling out, “Thor-!

 

As soon as they realized he was yelling the Odinson’s name one of the band reached out, helpfully knocking him upside the head to return him to unconsciousness.

 

It was clear to all of them having spent who knew how much time trapped in Asgard must’ve addled the youngling’s brains.

 

“Take him back to Laufey,” their leader determined, making a decision. “He will know what to do.”

 

“Poor runt,” one of the giants remarked, gazing down at the limp figure sympathetically. “Wonder what those monsters did to him?”

 

*

 

To say that Laufey-king was aggravated by what his soldiers had done was to make a grave understatement.

 

And he made as much clear to them, with both his hissing words and how he had them each sent to the lowest chambers in his dungeons, where were kept devices one shuddered to think about, for their punishment.

 

But there was nothing to be done. The Aesir had left already by their Bifrost. His eldest, the foundling he did not even know still existed, was for better or worse brought home.

 

The tender mercies of his impatient warriors had left the boy with broken ribs and a bruised head but no other injury. The healers made short work of it, binding his chest and using sleeping draughts to keep him unconscious.

 

They’d removed most of his Aesir garments, stripping him naked to the waist. Laufey could not see whether he shivered in Jotunheim’s cold. He should not, but it was impossible to tell yet how much may have been altered about his nature.

 

To be on the safe side, he wrapped him in as many thick pelts as he could find.

 

“Go and empty out Helblindi’s room,” he ordered his nearest servant. “You have until I reach it. Leave the bed.”

 

Then with a grunt he lifted his son’s still-slumbering body, carrying him easily sideways in both arms.

 

As he passed by the outside of his throne room, two figures detached themselves where they had been lurking in the shadows, waiting, and followed him.

 

Helblindi trailed swiftly in his father’s footsteps, while Býleistr had to turn sideways to fit through the same narrow corridors.

 

“What is going on?” Helblindi demanded, only the lowness of his voice as he asked the question a concession to respect. He was almost as tall as his father, and probably would be eventually – Frost Giant warriors grew not unlike stalagmites, adding inches gradually over many years.

 

“What have you there, Father?” Býleistr asked with more genuine curiosity. He was shorter than both his father and brother, but had broad shoulders almost twice as wide, his long arms and large hands giving him an unsteady, almost top-sided gait.

 

“This,” Laufey told them, hard and inflectionless, “is your brother. Long missing, thought dead by all, save the enemies that stole him from me. Your departed mother’s firstborn.”

 

Helblindi faltered for a fraction of a second. Býleistr almost collided into him, craning his thick neck for a better look.

 

“We have an older brother? But he’s small,” the younger Jotun wondered. “How can he be both a big brother and a little one?”

 

“Consider it yet another riddle of your existence, Býleistr,” Jotunheim’s king told his child in response, in the voice that was the closest he ever came to being sarcastic.

 

Helblindi made a scalded sound as he realized where they were heading. “You are giving him my room?”

 

“It is his due as eldest,” Laufey replied without as much as a glance.

 

“But it is my room! Due or not, that isn’t right.”

 

“What does it matter, Helblindi?” Býleistr tried soothing him. “You never sleep there anyway. You always pass your nights in the barracks.”

 

“That doesn’t matter – it’s still mine,” his brother grated.  “I keep all of my things there.”

 

“Now you will be keeping them elsewhere,” Laufey stated, making it quite clear his word was final. “Do not argue with me.”

 

The tone was one both his children had been raised to recognize. Býleistr tensed nervously on instinct. Helblindi fell silent, drawing himself up as a soldier, and swallowing the rest of his protests.

 

“Yes, my lord father.”

 

Laufey gave an absent sound of approval. Having reached the room, he gently laid his son down, maneuvering the thick skins and blankets around him.

 

Býleistr lumbered close to the bed as he could. He crouched down and rested his chin on folded arms, watching his sleeping brother’s face with inquisitive scrutiny.

 

Satisfied, Laufey drew back. “This is Loki,” he pronounced.

 

Bitterly he wondered if he was supposed to be grateful that Asgard’s king had deigned to give his abducted child a name both suited for Aesir or Jotun.

 

“Loki,” Helblindi repeated. There was unmistakable suspicion in his tone. “That’s what they call one of the All-Father’s sons, isn’t it?”

 

“It is. Don’t pretend you have less sense than you were born with, Helblindi,” Laufey said thinly. “You’re hardly the lack-wit your younger sibling is.”

 

Býleistr showed no sign of having been insulted, humming a tune as he poked with one careful fingertip at Loki’s face and hair.

 

Laufey continued, “You’re old enough I think to remember the story your mother would have told, about her first child, taken from us by the ice in the days of the last great war.”

 

Helblindi nodded slowly. “So this is he? But then it wasn’t the ice, after all. The Aesir king took him, and raised him while claiming him as his own?”

 

“Exactly.” Laufey turned to give his newly-found heir a long considering glance. “He would probably be dead, if Odin hadn’t. But that makes keeping him all this time no less of an insult. This could start a war.”

 

Helblindi bared his teeth. “Good.”

 

His father did not pause before pushing him with one hand into the doorframe. Býleistr cowered at the resounding crack.

 

Helblindi bit back his pain with a hiss, grimacing where his shoulder struck the wall. He understood the chastisement perfectly – it was not his to seek war, deserved or not. Such decisions belonged only to the realm of his father.

 

“Forgive me, my king.” He bowed his head, stonily contrite.

 

“Mind your place as befits a prince and there will be nothing to forgive,” Laufey murmured.

 

He turned toward the door, poised to leave, and pointed down at the senseless figure in the bed. “Until then, both of you are to attend to your brother.”

 

Both his standing sons nodded, Býleistr eagerly and Helblindi merely resolute.

 

“Remain here,” Laufey emphasized. “I have things to manage, but one of you must come and find me if it looks as if he will wake.”

 

“And after that?” Helblindi muttered. But Laufey was already gone, not bothering to give his son an answer, and it was up to Býleistr to reply in his stead.

 

“Silly question!” Býleistr declared, almost cheerfully. “It will be our duty to do whatever our brother tells us to, after all!”

 

Helblindi scowled, a low sound grating the back of his throat.

 

*

 

Having limped back to the throne room at the king’s summons, the band of Jotun warriors knelt before their ruler, not daring to let their aches register in so much as a moan or a flinch in his presence.

 

Laufey showed the points of a cruel and unyielding smile. “How did your men find your tour of the dungeons, Thrym?”

 

The lead warrior set his teeth so as to fight a grimace, resisting the urge to shift trying to find a more comfortable position for his sore limbs. “Very educational, Laufey-king,” he offered tersely.

 

His soldiers backed up this statement with a group mutter.

 

If their king had been any but Laufey, he might have laughed. Instead the Jotun’s face relaxed and he leaned back in his throne, satisfied.

 

“Good,” he said, clear he was ready to return to business.

 

There was no patience in him, only the same grating, unhesitant march he had doled out matters of state in, since before the days of the war but most certainly all the more after.

 

“You and your band came very close to making a grave and unforgivable mistake, Thrym,” Laufey observed coldly. “As has since been revealed to you, the disguised Jotun you so carelessly attacked is my long-lost son…your prince and heir to the realm.”

 

“We are very sorry for the insult, my king,” Thrym apologized – again.

 

“Loki has been kept all this time as an Aesir, a part of their ruler’s get. It makes reclaiming him no simple matter. That was why I wished he be permitted to leave at first, fully intending to take audience with Odin and make my demand for his return after. But thanks to you,” Laufey paused just long enough for the weight of his inflection to sink in. The battle-hardened warriors stared at the floor, inwardly cringing. “Things have become…more complicated.”

 

“We deeply regret our mistaken actions, my king,” Thrym said.

 

“Jotunheim has not just taken back its own,” Laufey continued, unforgiving. “It has also kidnapped a prince. We have seized the All-Father’s son. Do you expect Odin to ignore that? Do you think it will be easy to still the war he would desire over this?”

 

“I…no, my king. Of course not, my king. Again, I am fully repentant for my band’s act, my king.”

 

Thrym’s tone was beginning to border on the desperate.

 

“It matters little now,” Laufey remarked, grimly dismissive. “The die has been cast. We will deal with things as they are, for we have no choice.” He sat straight in his throne again.

 

“As for you and your men, you are being reassigned. Your new orders are that from now on you are to serve as Loki’s personal guard.”

 

Thrym and the other Jotnar lifted their heads, a few of them coming close to making pleased exclamations of relief. To serve and protect the heir to the throne was anything but a punishment. Loki was firstborn, of the royal bloodline; being his guard was a position of honor.

 

“As you command, Laufey-king.” Thrym bowed his head, accepting.

 

“It will not be perhaps so easy a task as you imagine.” Laufey rested his chin on long fingers, gazing with a grave look of warning. “Remember my son has been raised by them of Asgard. He will know not of our ways. In addition to keeping the prince safe, it will also be your task to instruct him where necessary.”

 

“Yes. Of course,” Thrym declared, forearm across his chest. “We will do whatever is required to see to our prince’s happiness.”

 

Laufey’s mouth moved in the barest ghost of a smile.

 

“Happiness?” he said, almost musing. “A high commodity in our world. One whose hold can only be fleeting. Take care not to set up for more than you can deliver.”

 

*

 

Loki came around to consciousness slowly, mind endeavoring to shake off the cotton of sleep and make sense of what had happened.

 

Before he even opened his eyes he was aware he was in an unfamiliar bed. Wary and confused, he pushed himself to a sitting position, choking back a cry at the ripple of pain sent through him.

 

Looking down he saw strips of a white bandage across his midsection. That discovery however was pushed aside rapidly, paling in comparison to what else he saw. Someone had seen fit to remove most of his clothes, and all that he could see of his body was changed - his skin was an icy blue, marked with the thin raised lines of a Jotun.

 

Loki drew in a sharp breath, thickly, feeling himself start to panic.

 

A voice spoke, alerting him to the fact he was not alone. “Look! He wakes!”

 

Loki’s head shot up. The chamber he was in was not a small one, but it felt all too crowded, his stomach clenching as he looked around.

 

Two full-grown Jotun stood by the wall gazing at him intently. Worse even than that, Laufey himself sat by the door, his fiery eyes unblinking as he looked down at Loki.

 

There was nowhere to run. Weak and injured as he was, he knew he couldn’t summon all his magic. And surely even could he best one Frost Giant in strength, at his peak, he was no match for three.

 

He felt tiny and helpless where he sat in the massive bed, cowering.

 

“There you are,” Laufey murmured, his voice a low rumble. The Jotnar’s king stood, and Loki realized the chair that had held him was made of the living ice – it receded as soon as Laufey’s touch left it, disappearing back into the wall.

 

“What do you want with me?” Loki demanded, fighting not to let his voice tremble.

 

Ransom, he assumed…or something much worse. There was all sort of cruel pleasure they could take in the son of their sworn enemy. Distantly he thought that it wasn’t fair: it was Thor who had picked a battle with Jotunheim. Loki having goaded him into it notwithstanding. It was never supposed to go this far.

 

His voice rose as he added, “What has happened to me? What have you done?”

 

“Done?” Laufey repeated. He moved half a step closer, that being enough to send Loki pressing his back to the headboard. Laufey’s hand moved in a flicking gesture. “Nothing, but let the touch of your own people, your world, reclaim you.”

 

Loki’s mind refused to make sense of it, at first. “I don’t understand,” he said nervously, feeble.

 

Laufey made a sound that was somewhere between an impatient scoff and a sigh.

 

“You are not Odin’s son. You are mine, taken when you were an infant, disguised as something you were not, passed off as one of the Aesir. Do you understand now?”

 

Loki stared up at him. “That. That can’t be. It isn’t true.”

 

He thought to when that Jotun had seized him and his hand changed. When he had woken from a stupor to find the Frost Giants surrounding him, declaring him one of their own.

 

It can’t be.

 

He couldn’t be one of them. He was Loki Odinson, second born to the line of Asgard. He couldn’t be a monster.

 

“No?” Laufey pointed. “Look at yourself, princeling. How do you explain it?”

 

Loki folded his arms. Though in truth, he was hugging himself.

 

“This is a trick. You’ve placed a curse on me of some kind,” he insisted, his voice cracking. “I can’t be a…you’re lying.”

 

Laufey’s eyes narrowed. “You really think that is so? More likely than that you’ve been lied to all your life already?” he demanded, impatient. “Can you really tell me there has never been anything about yourself that hasn’t fit? That in all your time among the Aesir, you have never wondered, never questioned, never found anything that has made you thought you did not belong?”

 

Stop!” Loki pressed his hands over his ears. “Stop, please. Why can’t you leave me alone?” Dropping his hands he looked up again, pleadingly. “I want to leave. Can’t you please let me go home?”

 

“You are home,” Laufey stated, resolute. “You’re back where you belong.”

 

He gestured toward the other two Jotun in the room. “Meet your youngers; my other sons, Helblindi and Býleistr.”

 

Loki shrank in on himself, eyes wide. His “little” brothers were at least twice as tall as he was, and one of them looked like an ogre.

 

The craggy one waved, grinning with its horrible teeth at him. The other, a clear double for Laufey, merely bowed its head with a heated gaze.

 

“If you need anything,” Laufey continued, “they will see to you.”

 

Considering the matter settled he strode out of the room without another word.

 

There was silence for a moment in the wake of the king’s exit. Loki’s head was reeling. He barely noticed that the other two were still watching him.

 

The tall thin one muttered something.

 

“That isn’t kind, Helblindi,” the second said reprovingly. “I’m certain elder brother is just tired.” He turned to look at Loki, beaming cheerily. “Is there anything we can do for you, brother?”

 

Brother! To these monstrosities. Loki almost choked out a sob.

 

“Go away. Get away from me, the both of you!”

 

Grabbing the blankets he wrapped them around himself, covering his face. He curled up on his side in despair.

 

He whimpered, “Just leave me alone.”

 

*

 

Thrym and his soldiers sat around in a circle on the ground, doing something that was quite rare among the Jotnar: trying to put their heads together and think.

 

Their king had been right. Promising to keep their prince happy had been a mistake. It was a far from an easy task, and one that looked impossible to find a way to start.

 

But it was too late now. Thrym considered himself one who kept to his word, no matter how difficult. And his warriors were all men of honor, who followed where he led them without hesitation.

 

They would solve this riddle, no matter how much work, or thinking, it took. This was what determined warriors did.

 

Almost a week had passed. The prince had remained in a melancholy no force could seem to shake. He would not eat. He barely spoke to anyone, save to order them out of his sight. Most of the time he passed sleeping and when he woke he hardly left his bed. The furthest he ever got was the window of his room, where he sat wrapped in his furs and gazed out blearily at the frozen landscape.

 

Jotunheim too was in a state of depression. It worried and saddened the people, that their rescued prince would be so unhappy.

 

What they should be doing was celebrating. Considering how little cause they ever had for it, it was nothing less than a tragedy they could not.

 

“Maybe he’s ill,” one of the soldiers suggested. His brothers-at-arms groaned.

 

“We thought of that already, remember? Idiot,” another grumbled. “The healers insist he is fine.”

 

“It could be some disease we have never heard of before,” the same soldier insisted, muttering.

 

“Oh, come off it,” Thrym barked. He scratched at his head in frustration, long fingernails digging into his scalp. “We’re not wasting time going about in circles. Come up with something different.”

 

“Perhaps he is enchanted?” Considering by their understanding ‘enchanted’ was not much different from ‘sick’, the one who made this suggestion did so very quietly. “Some Aesir curse, designed to keep him in a state of misery?”

 

“But how would we break such a spell?” another questioned.

 

“Wouldn’t Laufey know if his heir was cursed?” yet another countered. “It seems the sort of thing he would mention.”

 

“Hmm.” Thrym rubbed his chin. “Probably,” he conceded. “So no, likely not an enchantment.”

 

“Well I don’t know! Does anyone even know anything about him?” one soldier demanded in frustration. “What does Prince Loki like?”

 

“Sighing, if experience is anything to go by,” the most wry of the group quipped.

 

Thrym was not in the mood, and smacked him upside the back of his head with the flat of one hand for his trouble.

 

“We should try bringing him things,” a warrior offered suddenly. “Presents. Until we figure out what it is that most pleases him.”

 

“In case you haven’t noticed, we’re a little short on tributes.” A fistful of snow was shaken at him.

 

“There are still the traders from Alfheim and Svartalfheim,” he insisted. “And I’m sure we could find a few items, if we looked around.”

 

His fellows slowly began to warm to the idea. After all, it was certainly better than nothing.

 

“Weapons. A boy always likes weapons, right?”

 

“There are probably some royal trinkets left in the treasury. No one will miss them. It’s not as if they’re doing any good where they are.”

 

“It’s said that Loki is a magician. That means he is a scholar, yes? What do scholars like?”

 

“Umm…books? Do you think we can find any books?”

 

“There must be a few hiding somewhere, if we ask around.”

 

“He did grow up among the Aesir. Maybe he prefers whatever sort of things they do.”

 

“Shiny things. I hear they like shiny things. I’ll bet if we dig deep there are still some gems in the ground.”

 

“Maybe some different type of food? At least until we discover his favorite.”

 

They went on like this, brainstorming for some time, and once they had what they considered a satisfactory list of possibilities for cheering up their prince, the group split apart and went to the tasks of their work.

 

*

 

In the days of before, when Jotunheim had been a world built up with cities far as the eye could see, an empire of towers and walls and fortresses, a grand citadel had stood at the edge of Laufey’s kingdom.

 

Now it was a relic not even fully worthy of the designation ‘building’. The roof was long gone. Left were the crumbling remains of perhaps two and a half walls.

 

It was here that Laufey stood in wait, alone. His hold rested upon the black and jagged blade Nál, mighty sword of all his line. Both hands were gripped around its hilt, the weapon balanced point first against the ground by his feet.

 

He heard the Bifrost’s roar and his eyes opened. Moments later the All-Father appeared, helmet gleaming and raiment fluttering in the icy wind, Gungnir at his side.

 

“You come armed to what I promised was a meeting of peace, Laufey,” Odin observed tersely.

 

“As do you. But we’re both alone, as we agreed. Isn’t that good enough?”

 

Nál was both a wide and a long blade, designed to be huge even in the hands of a Frost Giant. Easily Laufey hefted it up to balance against one shoulder.

 

“In some ways it is more symbol now, in truth,” Laufey mused, eyeing the craftsmanship. “The last great treasure of Jotunheim. All others have been taken from me – by force, or by deceit.”

 

“I have not come all this way to play games.” There was barely-restrained anger in Odin’s voice.

 

Laufey responded with a thin mirthless smile. “I was speaking to the heart of the matter. Or is wise Odin unable to divine at my meaning? But you have nerve to speak to me about games, child-thief.” The last word was spat out, Laufey’s features set with fury.

 

 “You took my son. My heir. Carried him off as if he were another spoil of your victory.”

 

“I found an abandoned child, exposed to the elements. I realized a short time later he was yours,” Odin stated, firm. “That much is true. But there was no theft. What you have done, however-”

 

“A temple is a poor place to abandon a child, don’t you think?” Laufey interrupted. His expression was positively disdainful. “Don’t waste my time with whatever tale you have built up in your head as justification over the years, of abandonment. You’ve more sense than that.”

 

Odin fell silent. He had the hard composure of a king, unreadable, but Laufey liked to imagine he saw a glimmer of indignity in that one remaining eye.

 

“All right then. So be it; we both know the truth.” Odin actually let out a brief sigh. “But you forget my mother’s people were of Jotunheim, and I understand more than you might expect. Loki was a frail child, too young for it to have been a good idea to test him with his Winter’s Right. You left him there knowing it would be the end of him – nay, I almost think, hoping for it. Do you honestly think he would’ve survived had I not intervened?”

 

“No,” Laufey replied. “I fully expected he would have died. Just like every weak male suckling, when it comes time.” He shook his head. “But those are our ways. It is far cry from disowning him; that much I am certain you understand. And you had no right to do what you did.”

 

“I came across a child, unclaimed, in the aftermath of a battle.” Odin’s voice rose. “It would have been within my right to do whatever I saw fit with him. I chose to raise him as my own.”

 

“So you expect my thanks, then, you did not let him grow up a slave, instead of the prince he is?” Laufey demanded. He sneered, continuing, “Did you hope if he rested his head against your Aesir queen’s soft breast, and drank of her sweet milk, it would somehow change what he was?”

 

“Do not speak of my wife in that way,” Odin commanded in clear warning.

 

“My words will be whatever I like,” Laufey hissed in return, venomous. “Your crushing terms of ‘surrender’ were the death of mine.”

 

“You can believe whatever you like about my objectives, Laufey. It doesn’t matter to me. But Asgard is all Loki has ever known. All these years he has been as my own. I am the only father he’s had.”

 

“And whose fault is that? Do you know what Loki is doing, right now? He makes himself sleep, because he would rather be detached from the world than live with the truth he is Jotnar.”

 

 Laufey snarled. “You’d claim to love him as if he was your blood, yet you raised him to despise and fear his own kind. You spit upon my people’s heritage.”

 

Odin looked visibly pained.

 

“That was never my intention. I hid the truth because I wanted him to belong, and because I worried what might happen if my less forgiving subjects knew. But his mother and I never spoke ill of the Jotnar to Loki or his brother. I always hoped to one day make him a bridge between our people, to form a more lasting peace – how could I do such a thing if Loki rejected his origins?”

 

“So much for your peace,” Laufey said mockingly. “That is exactly what he has done.”

 

“Then I am afraid he learned that view from the rest of Asgard, and I did not do enough to protect him from it,” Odin admitted sadly.

 

“Not that you could have said too much, could you?” Laufey was unforgiving. “Not when keeping secrets was so important to you. No, you had to be careful, else you raise suspicion.”

 

“What is it that you want, Laufey?” Odin demanded, losing his patience. “We both know that your entire kingdom hungers for vengeance, for war. Will this be the excuse you use to give it them?”

 

“Your heir brought war straight to my doorstep, just as he desired, with his impudence,” Laufey retorted harshly. “That would be all the reasoning I would require. But whether he intended it or not, he also returned my son to me. So I think I will call it even. But what of you, All-Father?” he added. “Will you deliver your people to war, all for your own personal cause? And how do you think they will react when they find out what race your adoptive son, the child you would risk their lives for, truly is?”

 

Odin shook with restrained emotion. “I want my son returned to me, Laufey. No counsel you speak, however wise, will change that.”

 

“You have nothing to barter with,” Laufey countered. “All the ache in your heart, and you still would not threaten war. Not over one prince. And you would not trade me back the Casket either – not that I would accept such terms. An heir is worth least as much as that.”

 

“Don’t posture for me,” Odin said, derisive. “You already had an heir before you knew Loki lived. You would not forfeit your entire people over one life either – if I did offer you the Casket, you’d take it and gladly too.”

 

“But you’ve no intention of giving it to me. And so we are at an impasse, I think,” Laufey decided.

 

Odin’s gaze was heavy. “So it seems we are.”

 

“I hold the trump card, though. For once.” Nál’s great blade lowered, making a harsh sound where it briefly scraped the ice beneath Laufey’s feet. “And I think after everything, it is the least I can do to make you suffer for it awhile.”

 

Satisfied with that conclusion he turned to leave, offering his adversary no term of farewell or even dismissal.

 

“You cannot just leave it there, Laufey,” Odin called to the other king’s retreating back, bitter but insistent. “You’re right to say I won’t send our races to war for this, but I will never leave you in peace so long as you hold my son captive.”

 

“He is not captive. He is home.”

 

Laufey twisted his head just enough to look at Odin with his harsh red gaze.

 

“Maybe when Loki is finally well enough to understand that, then I will be ready to negotiate with you further.”

 

*

 

Loki recalled it being said that in some ways, the body could be manipulated by the mind.

 

Stress or worry, fear or grief, in enough amounts could be suitable cause for one to sicken. Surely that was what happened to him now.

 

He felt constantly tired, vaguely feverish. His broken bones had mended but there was an ache in his chest that had nothing to do with the physical. His head was in a fog and he could barely focus on anything.

 

Not that he wished to even try.

 

No, better that he should just sleep. Give in to slumber the way the Aesir’s king did sometimes, allow himself to be cradled and hidden away from the world, unreachable, refusing to be a part of it.

 

And so Loki spent most of the time in bed, covers drawn up, eyes closed. He dreamed of nothing.

 

What had he left to dream about, to hope for? Even whatever fears he once had meant nothing to him now.

 

It had been a week, and Odin had not come to rescue him, nor even Thor, who’d once jumped at the slightest excuse to venture forth into Jotunheim. He had been abandoned – cast out, like the undesirable he always had been.

 

His Aesir family did not want him anymore, assuming they ever had. Everything he’d been raised to believe was false.

 

Even if he could get away, he’d nowhere to run to. He didn’t know the many winding ways of Jotunheim like he’d so thoroughly learned those of Asgard. The branch of Yggdrasil he showed to the Frost Giants, he only saw himself from the other side – he knew not where it lay in this realm.

 

Besides, he’d realized, he could not go back to Asgard. One look at his face now and they would chase him back the way he came.  Assuming he wasn’t struck down on sight.

 

The only home he had ever known, and it was his no longer. He could never return.

 

Yes. It was so much better to sleep.

 

He was still abed, in a listless state halfway between awareness and drifting slumber, when he heard the sound of heavy Jotun footsteps approaching. He did not bother opening his eyes. He remained where he was, on his side half-curled into a ball, and did not move.

 

Two Jotnar, he guessed from where he lay. One with stride much heavier and awkward than the other. His fingers curled into his pillow as he realized who that likely meant it was.

 

But he had nowhere to hide, and they didn’t bother knocking before entering the room.

 

“Little brother, little brother!” The slight chill across his back meant the Jotun was leaning over him. “And by little I mean in size of course, not in years!” There was a gentle nudge with a fingertip. “Do you sleep still?”

 

“I told you best just to leave off, Býleistr.” The second voice was hard, impatient. “You aren’t going to wake him. No more than all the other times you’ve tried.”

 

“I don’t think he should be sleeping so much.” In defeat the first moved away from him, Loki exhaling in relief. “Should he? It does not seem very healthy.”

 

“He can do whatever he likes,” came the indifferent response. “He’s the eldest, isn’t he?”

 

“I wonder what could be making him so tired. It isn’t as if he’s been doing anything. At least, I don’t think he has. Have you seen him doing anything, brother?”

 

“Not a thing.” From the sound of the voice Loki realized the giant must be standing right next to him, looking down into his face. He fought the prickling urge to twitch or open his eyes. If they knew he was awake they would never leave him alone. “Unless you count breathing.”

 

There was silence for a moment, which Loki hoped meant that his would-be “siblings” were leaving. Instead it only seemed to mean they were studying him.

 

“What is that on his lids, Helblindi?”

 

“They’re called ‘eyelashes’, you great doddering oaf.” The response was snapped out, exasperated. “It’s the same as his hair.”

 

“No, no,” the first insisted, oblivious to his brother’s anger. “Not those. I see something else. It looks almost like frost…”

 

“Hmmph.” There was a brief considering note. “Ice crystals. Frozen to his skin. Must’ve been crying in his sleep.”

 

Loki swallowed as gently as he dared around the lump that formed in his throat.

 

“Why is he so sad, Helblindi? I don’t understand.”

 

“There’s a terrible surprise.”

 

“I mean it.” The Jotun’s voice was bemused, and mournful. “He’s safe now. After all that time trapped by the Aesir, he’s finally here. He should be happy. I know that I would be. So why does he cry? I don’t understand,” it repeated.

 

“Who knows why, Býleistr. Leave it alone.” The second was already storming towards the door as it ordered, “Come. Enough of this wasting time. There are things I wish to do, and if you’ve nothing better than to moon over our elder sibling then certainly you can help me.”

 

Even after they were gone Loki remained mostly still, shaking with silent despair and rage.

 

After a few moments, he was crying again, more tears to join the ones already frozen to his cheeks.

 

*

 

Thrym and his band were bred and war-hardened soldiers, and so they went about their every action as if it were the same as battle.

 

Do whatever was necessary to make ready, swift but thorough. Make certain they were prepared. And once that was handled, without waiting a moment further, strike.

 

“I still think the basket is a bad idea,” one of the giants muttered at another, as they marched their way up the winding passages of the palace, their determined leader at the head.

 

I still think your parchment is a bad idea, but you don’t see me poking at you,” came the responding whisper, haughty. “Maybe you’re just frightened Prince Loki will like my gift the best. Now shut your gob and leave me alone.”

 

“You both shut up, and keep quiet,” Thrym said over his shoulder, growling. He raised a fist. “Or it’ll be your skulls.”

 

The rest of the band fell obediently silent, just as they reached the outside of their prince’s chambers.

 

Thrym hesitated. He should knock first, announce himself and his men, and wait for permission to enter. But experience at this point had taught him that a knock would likely be unanswered.

 

It was one thing to mind the boundaries of the prince he was sworn to serve – Laufey had commanded Thrym and his men to see to his heir’s safety and well-being. And the will of Laufey-king trumped that of his sons.

 

“Wait here,” he ordered his warriors, and then pushing through the carved slab that served as the chamber’s doorway, he went inside.

 

“My prince?”

 

At least Loki was not asleep this time. He sat on the floor halfway between the bed and the window, still bundled in a blanket, his arms wrapped around his knees.

 

Thrym kneeled a short distance away, weight resting on one fist, and bowed his head respectfully.

 

“Good morn, my lord.” He went through the obligatory niceties with a touch of the awkward in his speech. A soldier, even a high-ranking one, was unused to frequently addressing the royal line. “How fares you this day?”

 

Loki only stared at the floor, and did not bother lifting his head. “Go away,” he responded, sullen.

 

Thrym took a moment before clearing his throat. “I am afraid, my lord, that I cannot comply.”

 

He got to his feet, feeling strange that he should do so without being told to rise. But with this refugee prince, there could be no waiting. He seemed unaware or willfully ignorant of his role as master.

 

Thrym approached the prince, whose eyes remained fixed on the floor – but Thrym could see how his breath had hitched slightly. He drew further in on himself, arms tightening.

 

“Come, my prince,” Thrym said as gently as he could manage. “My band wishes to address you.”

 

Loki squeezed his eyes shut, though briefly. “I do not wish to be addressed.”

 

Thrym said nothing but he stayed exactly where he was. Hopefully making it clear by his posture that he had no intention of leaving.

 

After a moment Loki let out a small sigh – carrying a note of almost tearful surrender.

 

It was good enough for Thrym. He reached down and tugged the blanket out of Loki’s grasp, taking in the rumpled state of his dress, his uncombed hair.

 

“You are not presentable, my prince.” Thrym cast his eyes about and found a neatly folded tunic and furs on a shelf. Probably they’d been left there days before and Loki had ignored them. “Here. Put on these.”

 

It seemed best, he decided, if he should manage Prince Loki as if he were some sort of child. Certainly he had the size of one – it was all too easy for Thrym to lift him up, forcing him to his feet. He handed Loki the clothing and with both hands nudged him away from the window.

 

Thrym was not used to averting his eyes when it came to other males, as if despite like shape and fact they were ultimately all the same it were still possible to visually assault this thing called ‘dignity’. But taking into account the prince’s shyness, he turned his back and waited with something like patience, arms folded.

 

After what he felt was enough time had passed he stole a glance over his shoulder, and satisfied that Loki was changed, turned around again.

 

He looked down at the prince, wearing clean garments but still the same blank look of detached misery on his face. With fingertips Thrym reached to awkwardly comb his hair into a better state – playing the role of manservant did not fit easily on a warrior.

 

“There,” he pronounced, satisfied. “Now sit. I will bring in the others.”

 

Within moments he had his troop inside, assembled before Loki, who sat on the edge of his bed with hands laced absently in his lap as if he literally did not know what to do with them.

 

His expression changed however to one of surprise, as one by one by the giants walked up and each placed something before his feet.

 

“What…what is this?” Loki stared at the rapidly growing pile, baffled. “What are you doing?”

 

Thrym waited until the last present had been deposited, and he and his men were all back in their positions, kneeling, before he responded.

 

“Forgive our ignorance, my lord, but we were not sure what would please you,” he explained in a low rumble. “We thought it best to be thorough.”

 

Carefully Loki stood up, coming forward and crouching down to make a bemused, somewhat trepidation-filled examination of the items.

 

There were old books and scrolls, somewhat crumbling, and what smaller weapons they could gather from the training yard. A few gem-studded items from the royal treasury; a few actual gems they managed to harvest from the ice, uncut sapphires and diamonds. A pitcher of strong mead, a pile of the salt candy given to children, an entire boar’s carcass (carefully skinned, dried and gutted, of course). There were a whole slew of things they had managed to trade for: foreign goods not cheaply come by and completely worthless to them of Jotunheim, but who knew what they might mean to the prince? More books, fine clothing, all sorts of odds and ends, even a few toys.

 

Loki bent to pull a swatch of rough fabric where it covered the top of a basket, and found himself face to face with four blinking snow fox kits.

 

“Are these…?” He didn’t smile, exactly, but for a moment his face had a spasm that came very close. “They must have been hard to get a hold of,” he observed, wry. Snow foxes were a wriggly species maddening to chase after even in adulthood, never mind an entire litter of babes.

 

“I thought that you would like them, my prince,” the soldier that stumbled upon the nest couldn’t keep from saying proudly. A few of his fellows shot him aggravated looks.

 

Loki reached to pet one snow-white ear. “They certainly are very dainty,” he remarked.

 

“Aye,” the same soldier agreed cheerfully. “You’ll want to wait until they get just a bit older, so that they grow some more. But not too long. The meat is sweetest when they’re younglings.”

 

Loki froze. After a moment, he stiffly pulled his hand away from the kit. “I…see.”

 

The soldiers waited. He sat on the ground surrounded by his pile of tributes, taking them all in with an odd expression.

 

After another minute or so he looked up and noticed they were still attending on him. “Oh,” he realized, slowly. “Yes, I…thank you. For the,” a fraction of a pause as he glanced at a thick club with a knife carved into it, where it rested across the dead boar, “gifts. You may go.”

 

“As you wish, Prince.” Thrym bowed, the rest followed his example, and they all left.

 

Out in the hallway there was a comparing of notes and observations in a low murmur. They could not decide whether they were successful or not.

 

It was hard to say, but nothing they brought seemed to make Loki entirely happy. But at least, they all agreed, for a brief period of time he was displaying an emotion other than ‘sad’.

 

Certainly under the circumstances it could be considered only an improvement.

 

*

 

After the group of Jotun had left, Loki took stock of the things they had given him.

 

“Unbelievable,” he remarked with a shake of his head and a mutter, still in something of a confused daze.

 

Weapons – well, no surprise there; they were as much a fighting race as the Aesir, if not even more so.  Food – his stomach still rebelled, nauseous, at the thought of eating anything, and none of things they had brought looked remotely appetizing. Gems and treasures – what, did they imagine him some sort of dragon, preoccupied with hoarding shiny objects?

 

The books at least held some form of interest to him. Loki opened the faded covers carefully, checking what contents lay inside. Clearly chosen without any form of discretion, he found every topic from history to navigation to medicine broached within the volumes’ pages. But there were a few tomes on sorcery, and that was a subject he certainly could and would always read more of. Those he would peruse, later; perhaps some of the historical ones as well.

 

He supposed it went to the Jotnar’s credit they knew enough about him to realize he would get enjoyment from books. Even if it appeared they viewed a book more as a straightforward item, never thinking that perhaps one might be preferred over another. Still, there was some forethought in it.

 

Loki could not remember the last time he had been given a present that was not some formality, that he’d been presented with something merely backed by the desire that he may like it – let alone so many gifts at once.

 

He turned his attentions to the items obviously not from Jotunheim. He vaguely remembered hearing before that other races and worlds still traded with the Frost Giants, though only the more mercenary, callous ones: Dwarves and Dark Elves.

 

He wondered if these roving traders must be tinkers, collectors of the random and obscure, to go by what’d been brought him.  Certainly he could see no rhyme or reason behind the assortment. A battered tin flute, for example, lay right next to a beautiful and detailed model of a longboat.

 

The items of clothing amongst the loot had been mended in places, obviously secondhand, and the style was not at all for Aesir, but Vanir. Though he supposed to the eyes of the Jotnar there was no difference.

 

Loki sat back on his heels, feeling suddenly weary. He must be more homesick for Asgard than he thought, if all it took to stir pains of longing in him were a handful of poorly-fashioned castoffs.

 

But Asgard wasn’t his home anymore. They’d thrown him out.

 

The only “home” he had now was this barren and miserable place, surrounded by monsters too stupid to know the difference between a spell book and one on smelting metal, and who couldn’t understand why losing everything he’d ever known made him unhappy.

 

In a fit of pique that was far more fitting for Thor, Loki stood and viciously kicked the model ship into the wall, smashing it in half.

 

Well, he thought, looking down at the sad broken pieces, that didn’t make me feel any better. He’d even stubbed his toe in the process.

 

With dismissive frustration he decided to leave the rest of the pile exactly where it was. What few things he actually wanted he could always get later, and the foodstuffs were, thankfully, the kind that wouldn’t rot. He’d just leave the rest alone.

 

He almost forgot about the fox kits. But one had finally been brave or merely curious enough to venture from its basket, and Loki noticed the puff of white bounding past his feet.

 

After many unsuccessful attempts he managed to transfigure some water into very thin but hopefully acceptable milk. The kits couldn’t seem to understand the function of a bowl however and wouldn’t drink from it. Loki was forced to sit on the floor with arms outstretched as the four of them lapped from his hands.

 

Tired out from even that small bit of magic after how he’d been neglecting himself, and emotionally exhausted, Loki climbed back into bed and soon fell asleep.

 

When next he woke, in that first vague burst of consciousness, he found himself feeling rested and for that, at least minutely better.

 

That ended in a heartbeat as he rolled over and discovered someone had propped a large hand mirror beside his pillow, so that he found himself met with an undesirably clear view of his Jotun visage. His stomach churned as he absorbed the image of his familiar features altered by that awful blue, ridged skin and snake-like ruby eyes. Loki almost screamed.

 

He sat up quickly, eyes stinging and threatening to spill over, edging far away as he could. His hand shook uncontrollably as he reached over, turning the mirror down against the bedclothes so he would no longer have to look at such a horrid sight.

 

“Do you like it?”

 

Looking up sharply he saw the two Frost Giants – his brothers – looming, the elder leaning against the wall by the door with arms crossed, and the younger sitting on the floor next to the bed, uncomfortably close. It was the latter that had spoken.

 

Are you insane? Loki almost demanded in response to the question. But after a second he realized the giant couldn’t possibly be talking about his face; what he meant, more likely, was the mirror itself.

 

Loki gave the object another look, and discovered the back and handle of it were ornately carved and painted.

 

“It belonged to Mother,” the Jotun continued, explaining. “I thought you might like it. Isn’t it pretty?”

 

“It is,” Loki had to admit. The craftsmanship was so exquisite, in fact, he found it surprising it’d been evidently made for and by the Jotnar. He hadn’t thought of them as a species with any interest in finery.

 

He set the mirror back down again, more carefully this time. “What happened to her?” he asked, faintly curious. “How did she die?”

 

“Oh, I killed her,” the Jotun said, matter of fact. “Or, I mean, giving birth to me did. She was very tired, and sick, but she wanted to have another offspring anyway. As a way to encourage our people. It was too much for her and she died in the process. So it didn’t really work the way she hoped, I think.”

 

Loki stared at him in unchecked horror. “I’m sorry,” he finally managed.

 

The Jotun gave a lopsided shrug with his massive shoulders. “It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t really hers either.” He scratched the side of his cheek. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault. These things, they just happen.”

 

Loki found his eyes wandering over to meet those of the other giant, wide with questioning incredulity. Something about this was unaccountably…off.

 

The other Jotun met his gaze, silently deciphered the inquiry behind it, and then gave what was for a Frost Giant a passable eye roll. Simultaneously he gestured with two fingers at his own temple.

 

The unspoken but clearly expressed explanation: He isn’t quite right in the head.

 

So there was such a thing as slow-witted, even by Frost Giant standards. How charming. Between that, the same giant’s almost apelike shape, and his own unaccountable smallness, Loki was beginning to wonder if the royal family of Jotunheim was into habitual and gregarious inbreeding.

 

“Her name was Fárbauti.” The younger Jotun went on in a far-off, almost dreamy tone. “It means ‘lightning’. I wish I could have known her.”

 

“As if it makes a difference,” the other muttered, but he seemed to be addressing only himself. “As if that would have changed how you, or I, were raised. As if her hands, what strength she could marshal and fading beauty could make things any better in our world.”

 

Loki considered which of the two to ignore, and found the dullard marginally less disturbing. “Does Laufey ever speak to you about her,-?”

 

And he stopped, realizing he could not recall the giant’s name.

 

The elder giant noticed, and something slighted and irate flashed in his eyes. “Býleistr,” he barked. “He is called Býleistr. And, in case you have also neglected to remember, I am named Helblindi. Brother.”

 

Instead of feeling shamed by the accusation, Loki bristled under being snapped at. “I didn’t actually ask.”

 

Býleistr seemed entirely unaware of his two older siblings glowering at each other. “Some of the times,” he answered the initial question. “But not often. Usually I have to ask.” His voice quieted. “I don’t often ask.”

 

Then he looked at Loki again. “By the way. Did you know you have snow foxes hiding under your bed?”

 

 Loki almost laughed, though it would’ve been at the bizarreness of it all. “Yes, actually. They were a gift.”

 

Býleistr got down on his stomach, pressed flat with head turned sideways and rested atop his hands, trying to get a better look at the kits.

 

“Ah, worthy soldier Thrym,” Helblindi was saying, deprecatingly. “His brilliant scheme of present-giving to cheer you was what so inspired our younger brother.”

 

“I don’t think mine are as good as little foxlings, though,” Býleistr observed sadly. He had a thought and peered up at Loki, bright. “Are you going to keep them all to yourself? Or, could I maybe have a taste?”

 

Loki fought the urge to just vomit on him. “I don’t actually plan to eat them,” he stated, voice thin to keep from expressing his revulsion.

 

Býleistr only gazed at him blankly. As if there could be no other possible use for an animal.

 

“I believe our elder sibling intends to keep them as pets,” Helblindi translated. His voice was positively grating. “How sweet.”

 

“Yes, well.” Loki gazed back at him, eyes half-lidded, mouth curved in a partial sneer. “I wouldn’t expect you to be capable of appreciating a custom such as sentiment.”

 

Helblindi bared his teeth at him. “Stuck-up, Aesir-fed softhearted prig!” he snarled.

 

It occurred to Loki perhaps a fraction too late that Helblindi towered over him. That he could make a fist bigger than Loki’s head. He curled his fingers in front of him and, with a show of careless bravado he did not actually feel, conjured up a ball of dancing green balefire. Helblindi lurched back, understanding the warning.

 

“If you lay so much as a hand on me, you will regret it,” Loki informed him in an ominous tone, just to make certain there’d be no mistake.

 

“I think he already knows that,” Býleistr remarked, wide-eyed. He looked partially hypnotized by the magical flames. “Father would have him nailed to the ramparts for striking you. He does not tolerate dishonorable behavior among princes.”

 

Loki blinked. “Dishonor?” He considered Helblindi, who was looking defiant as he could, but keeping a respectfully far distance back. He dismissed the balefire. “It’s because I am eldest,” he realized. “You’re not allowed to touch me. Are you?”

 

Helblindi’s fingers curled tightly. “Not allowed does not mean ‘incapable’,” he advised. “Test me too much, and I would consider it worth our father’s punishment.”

 

Though he tried to keep his features aloof as possible, Loki couldn’t help swallowing. “So noted.”

 

Evidently considering that conversation over, Býleistr reached out and picked up the carved mirror. He ran fingers over the designs on the back.

 

“It was a gift, from our mother’s mother’s sire, to his bride,” he said softly. “He had it commissioned for her. To show how much he treasured her. How proud he was to wed her. In those days, I suppose, it was not hard to come by beautiful things.”

 

Býleistr held the mirror in both hands as if afraid of breaking it. “She passed it down through her line. All the way to Mother – it’s one of the very few things we have left of her.” He touched the carvings again.

 

“We don’t have much use for fine things, anymore. The artisans have other tasks, and what we have already, we usually trade away.”

 

“For things our people do need. Like weapons, and food,” Helblindi cut in brusquely. He glanced sidelong at Loki’s treasure pile with obvious distaste.

 

“Our stockpile must’ve been raided by Thrym and his cohorts brutally, for all of this.” He shook his head, frustrated. “I do not wish to know what this cost us. There was much I planned for that now we’ll have to do without. At least I know where a vase was hidden away, that I can use when next the traders come to get a bushel of cast-off dwarven steel.”

 

“Oh no, I already traded it,” Býleistr informed him. “Yesterday. I found a beggar-man from Alfheim sneaking around, and I gave it to him for a few skins of wine.” He gestured at where he’d added them to the things by Loki’s bed.

 

Helblindi did not say anything. He only whirled around and swatted Býleistr hard in the skull. The crack from where force met bone was piercing.

 

Instinctively Loki cowered in the face of such careless and brutal violence, pulling his legs closer, ready to hide, or fight if it came to that.

 

“Ouch.” Býleistr pressed a hand to his head, blinking. He reacted as though Helblindi had barely touched him. “That hurt,” he said in a meekly affronted voice, taking it like it was a scratch.

 

“The two of you wastrels deserve one another,” Helblindi declared, bellowing. He strode out, shoving Býleistr roughly as he passed.

 

Býleistr waited until he was gone before looking at Loki again, and shrugging. “He has been in a bad mood, lately,” he remarked.

 

It was all Loki could do to keep from gaping at him. The Jotun were even more vicious and barbaric than he’d thought, if this kind of thing was considered incidental. Who needed war, when they appeared so ready to murder one another over slights?

 

“I have something else for you,” Býleistr continued cheerfully. “Besides Mother’s mirror, and the wine.”

 

Reaching down, he held up a bowl full of what appeared to be fruit, and placed it on the bed.

 

Eagerly he nudged it closer to Loki with his hand. “Go on. They’re ripe, I promise. I made sure to pull the best ones out for you.”

 

Loki didn’t reach for it, and stiffly shook his head. “I’m not hungry.” Býleistr’s face fell.

 

“It’s been so long since you’ve eaten anything,” he protested, worried. “Are you sure? I don’t think that can be good for you, brother.”

 

Loki wanted so badly to object to the familial reference. He picked up a handful of the fruits, if only to place them in his mouth and keep words from dropping out.

 

They were berries of some kind, dark burgundy in color. Loki bit into one curiously, the juice exploding on his tongue. The texture was not unlike chilled grapes. The taste was actually quite pleasant, though not overtly sweet. More tangy and bitter.

 

Swallowing the first mouthful, he suddenly felt his hunger return with a vengeance. Býleistr smiled at him, relieved and pleased, as he continued eating.

 

“Good, aren’t they?” he asked. Chewing, Loki only nodded. “They’ve always been my favorite. Helblindi refuses to eat them anymore, because he says they are for children, but I’m more than happy to share them with you.”

 

Distantly Loki’s mind worked, considering what Býleistr told him. The rough climate of Jotunheim probably made it hard for plants to grow, let alone anything succulent as fruit. He was willing to bet none of the wild plants ran sweet.  Jotnar children likely never developed the taste for sweet things, in that case – their preferences would run towards the bitter, instead.

 

Although, as soon as the thought came to him, it occurred that he’d never been fond of sweets, either, even as a child; at least not compared to Thor or the others. Maybe it was genetic.

 

The berries suddenly felt sticky in Loki’s throat, and he almost choked on them. Roughly he pushed the bowl back.

 

“You’re only half finished,” Býleistr objected.

 

“Take them,” Loki managed, curtly. “I’ve lost my appetite.”

 

Býleistr clearly would have liked to stay and talked with him longer, but Loki sent him away.

 

*

 

Thrym left his men in the barracks in the hope they might actually practice their combat, instead of standing around and grousing as was the more usual, and went by himself through the palace.

 

A few corridors away from Prince Loki’s room, he came across Prince Býleistr climbing through a window, humming brightly.

 

The sight was not unusual. Jotnar, especially ones built like Býleistr, were excellent climbers in ice. It wasn’t rare for many to take shortcuts across the jagged walls and towers.

 

“My prince.” Thrym paused with a bow of his head.

 

“Oh, hello Thrym,” Býleistr returned, swinging from where he gripped the window frame.  “Have you been to see elder brother Loki yet today?”

 

“I was just on my way, my prince.”

 

“That’s good. Do you think you could try to get him to eat something?” The youngest prince frowned. “I’ve tried, but he won’t listen to me. But maybe he’ll listen to you.”

 

“I will do my best,” Thrym promised. He highly doubted he’d be any more successful and frankly, he was more concerned with Loki’s overall morose outlook than his stubborn refusal to eat, but he would make an attempt all the same.

 

“Thank you, Thrym!” Býleistr grinned, showing a mouth of jagged teeth. “You know, I think Loki may like you already. Because your men brought him the foxes. But do you want to know something strange?”

 

“What, my prince?” Thrym said in the tone of patience borne out of previous experience with Býleistr.

 

“I don’t believe my brother intends to eat them at all,” the prince confessed, eyes wide. “I think he is going to just…keep them.”

 

Thrym gazed back at him, perplexed. “That is strange,” he affirmed.

 

He made it the rest of the way to the heir’s chambers but this time, he paused at the threshold and knocked. Not certain he would get anything different, but it wouldn’t do to forget his duty, especially if Loki ever recovered his wits and started acting properly.

 

There was a pause, and then a distracted, dismissive voice called out, “Oh, you might as well come in.”

 

Not exactly right. But better than nothing.

 

Thrym entered and found Prince Loki sitting on the floor, studying the images on an unrolled parchment that the soldiers had brought him. The other books and scrolls, Thrym noted, had been carefully lined up and put away on a shelf. A few feet away from prince was a basin filled with a thin off-white liquid, and the fox kits were gathered around drinking from it. Other than that everything was the same when Thrym last had seen it, down to the unmade bed and objects piled on the floor in the otherwise bare room.

 

Loki glanced up. “Ah. You again. Of course,” he remarked. “What is it?”

 

Thrym inclined his head. “I only wished to see how you were doing, my prince. And if there was anything you needed.”

 

Loki shook his head, going back to looking at the parchment, chin rested in one hand. “Well, if someone could find some proper milk or the like, for the foxes, that would be helpful. But other than that, no.” His tone was incredibly brusque; he seemed in a hurry for Thrym to leave him alone.

 

“I will bring milk,” Thrym assured. “Is there anything that you would like, my prince? To eat?” he stressed.

 

Loki pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose, eyes closing. “No,” he snapped, harshly. “You can all stop trying to force your food down my throat. I’m fine.”

 

Thrym knew it was more than possible, from personal experience, for a full-grown Jotun to go a long time without anything to eat. But it was far from a desired situation. Normally it was one borne out of dire straits. He couldn’t fathom why the prince was refusing to touch so much as a crumb. In Thrym’s experience, you ate the food when you damn well had it, because tomorrow you might be starving again.

 

But he would not argue. It wasn’t his place. “All right.” He looked around again. “Are you certain there is nothing else we can bring you? For the room, perhaps?”

 

The walls and floors, free of so much as a single adornment, were a far from cheery sight. It was unbecoming for a royal chamber.

 

Loki gave an annoyed sigh, dropping the parchment again, but he did seem to think about it. “I suppose I could do with a desk. And a chair.” He exhaled. “Assuming anything can be found of the proper size, that is – and on that note, could something be done about the bed?”

 

Thrym gazed at him evenly, bewildered. “The bed,” he repeated.

 

“It’s not…most of it is fine. But in case you’ve failed to notice, I have to clamber over the edge to get in and out of it. The mattress comes practically past my shoulders while I’m standing on the floor. It’s problematic.”

 

Thrym only stared at him which, after a few awkward seconds, caused Loki to raise an eyebrow.

 

“Do you not understand what I’m asking?” he said, slowly enough the implication was he suspected Thrym might be thick-headed.

 

“The bed is too big for you, and you would like something to sit on,” Thrym responded, dutifully. He was still unable to hide his confusion. “But…forgive me, my prince,” he apologized hastily, “it’s just that I would’ve thought if you desired any other fixtures, you would have created them already yourself. I did wonder that you hadn’t.”

 

Loki blinked, frowning. “Created them? It’s true, I can make solid and permanent objects with my sorcery, but I prefer not to waste energy on things that can be achieved through mundane ways. I had thought, at the very least, there would still be access to furniture here.”

 

“Furniture,” Thrym echoed, blankly. Loki’s frown grew narrower, and Thrym felt nervous that he could tell he was angering him, but he honestly had no idea what to say. “But no, I didn’t mean with magic, my prince.”

 

“Well then how would you possibly-?” Loki began, exasperated, head turning in the direction of the bed. He stopped. “Oh. Ice. Now I see,” he exclaimed, realizing.

 

He looked back at Thrym, finally understanding. “You thought that I could alter and make whatever I wanted by reforming the ice.”

 

“You mean…you cannot?”

 

Thrym tried and utterly failed to keep his astonishment, perplexity, and dismay from showing on his face.

 

“What? No.” Loki blinked again. “Why would I?”

 

Apparently he found the expression Thrym was continuing to give him worrying. He pressed on, “I’ve seen Jotnar do such things before, but it isn’t as if I’ve ever learned.” He gave a small, strained chuckle. “Who would have taught me?”

 

“But. It isn’t something you learn,” Thrym said, flatly. “It’s something you just…do.”

 

No one had ever taught him, or his age-mates, or any of his soldiers, how to control the ice and call it to them. No Jotun, so far as he had ever known, had needed actual instruction in such things.

 

It was as if thinking you needed instruction on how to open up your eyes and see. It was instinctive.

 

Loki was staring up at him as he grasped what Thrym was saying, eyes wide. There was something very childlike about the look on his face. “Oh,” he said, his voice small.

 

Thrym forced what he hoped was a reassuring smile. Poor little prince – it only made him hate the Aesir all the more, raising him so ignorant of his own ways. Selfish tyrants, Thrym thought in harshest disgust.

 

“You’ll probably figure it out, eventually,” he offered. “After all, you’re very clever.”

 

Loki looked at the floor instead, lightly hugging himself. “I’m sure,” he replied in that same piteously small tone.

 

Thrym couldn’t resist giving him a brief pat on the head. Loki closed his eyes tight, inhaling sharply.

 

Before Thrym left he changed the bed around, lowering it so that it would be much easier for Loki to get into. It was the least he could do.

 

*

 

Eventually, Loki realized, he was going to have to make an experiment at shaping the ice around him. Considering that if he couldn’t, it was clear there was something horribly wrong with him, at least as far as the Frost Giants were concerned.

 

He had never tried, though. He hoped it was simple as that.

 

But for the present he had no desire to get further in touch with his…heritage. So he was more than content to let the matter go untested.

 

He was sick of staring at the same four walls and uninspiring view from the window, however. He may as well go for a walk.

 

There was no one lurking around outside the doorway, which was a relief. No soldiers, no servants, not even Býleistr, who Loki had half-expected to find camping in the hallway, the frequent way he’d been visiting.

 

The palace of Jotunheim was very much like a labyrinth. Grand in scale at least as that of Asgard, but that one had been laid out on a mostly straightforward grid. Not this place. Many of the halls were narrow, to the point where beings would be forced to walk single file, and the unknown architects seemed to have something against stairs. Instead the floors would rise or fall in gradual slopes, as if out of some bizarre necessity to mirror the natural landscape. And as far as his eye could see, there wasn’t a thing not constructed out of ice.

 

He supposed that made as much sense as anything. He’d yet to see even a single tree on Jotunheim. And it wasn’t as if their kind suffered any from the cold. Even his own mild discomfort he was willing to accept as psychological – he simply wasn’t used to being surrounded by so much snow, hearing a constant howling wind in his ears, and yet going about with not even the thinnest of jackets on.

 

Most of the surfaces he passed were solid, a severe white or almost blue in color. A few of them were more reflective. Those Loki hurried past as quickly as he was able, gaze averted.

 

He came at last to a grand but very empty hall. There was a raised step elevated from the rest of the room, but there was no throne or dais or anything on it.

 

Past that, so carefully set into the wall that Loki almost missed it, was a massive door. It would’ve towered over the head of any Frost Giant, and was broad enough at least three of them could pass through at once with plenty of room. Loki would have to go on tiptoe and even then probably jump to reach the doorknob – if there was one. There was no handle of any sort.

 

Loki frowned. He climbed up so he was standing in front of the door, giving it heavy scrutiny. It didn’t appear to be locked, but there was just no way of opening it.

 

“Curious,” he remarked, brushing fingers against his chin. This room, and the door itself, had an air of significance. There had to be something behind it – else, why bother?

 

And then he realized he knew a way he could try opening it after all.

 

Slowly Loki raised his hand, outstretching toward the door. Swallowing past the uneasy dryness in his throat he tried to concentrate. He focused on the shape and feel of the ice, willing it to change.

 

With a soft creak the surface broke apart like water, and a great curved ring formed a short distance from his fingertips. Exactly what he’d envisioned.

 

Loki felt a sick, strange mixture of triumph and fear. Placing that aside for the moment he grabbed hold of the ring and tugged, the door surprisingly light for its size.

 

As he pulled it open a chill air hissed past and Loki almost stopped, startled. It was leading to the outside?

 

It was only as the door swung back completely that his view was clear enough. He found himself facing a walkway that led to the outer surface of the palace, an area built on a precarious overlook. High above was a great craggy arch, walls and walls of ice. And before them was Laufey’s throne. Loki felt something inside go sour as he recognized the place now – it was where they travelled to when first he and the others had come to Jotunheim, and spoken to its king.

 

Had that really only been little more than a week ago?

 

Laufey sat in his great carved throne, alone and unattended. He rested his head on one hand, perfectly still, looking every bit the “sleeping giant” of stories. But Laufey did not sleep – Loki could see the red of his eyes from where he stood.

 

“Well now.” Laufey’s voice was a cool murmur. “What is this, then?” He peered at Loki with interest. “Did you come looking for me?”

 

Loki’s hands worked into fists, forcing himself to keep from visibly shaking. “No. I was only…it was a mistake,” he managed. “I apologize for disturbing you.”

 

Laufey heaved out a breath. “Disturbing me. What did you think I was doing? Does it look to you as if I am busy?” He gestured, fingers curving. “Come here.”

 

Loki hardly felt as if he had a choice. Feeling strangely detached from his legs, like some outside force compelled them, he walked forward until he stood directly in front of Laufey.

 

Was he supposed to bow? He was facing a king, after all. Though it seemed silly – even sitting, Laufey dwarfed him. He was starting to think he’d hate Jotunheim for reasons of scale if nothing else; the way everything was so out of proportion for him. It made him feel as if he’d been shrunk.

 

“How did you get in?” Laufey asked, bringing back Loki’s attentions. There was something in his tone that strongly hinted he already knew the answer.

 

Loki felt a surge of sudden anger. “I used the door,” he replied, hotly.

 

Laufey’s features twisted in the briefest of smirks. “So, you’ve learned how to use your birthright,” he noted. “Good. I was afraid that might have somehow been taken from you.”

 

Having been raised a respectful prince was the only thing that kept Loki from breaking eye contact. How was he supposed to accept this creature as his sire? As his father? “Evidently not,” he responded, voice hoarse.

 

Laufey gazed down at him with a disdainful frown, and Loki could’ve sworn he somehow knew exactly what he was thinking. The Jotun rose to his feet and Loki instinctively stepped back, head craning.

 

And then he bit back a squawk as Laufey actually bent forward and picked him up. He wrapped a hand around his midsection that wasn’t gripping him painfully, but far too tight to be called ‘gentle’.

 

“I wonder what I should be more insulted by,” Laufey remarked, raising him so their faces were level. “The fear that All-Father and his people instilled in you, or the hatred?”

 

Loki met his gaze defiantly even though he could feel his shoulders draw up in a defensive manner. “What would you expect? I was raised by your kingdom’s enemies!”

 

Laufey’s lips curled, sneering. “You were raised by oppressors, liars and thieves.”

 

“I’m not a child,” Loki objected, angry. “I know enough of politics to realize there are two sides to every war. And I could hardly be surprised that the Jotnar begrudge the Aesir, for what their world has been reduced to. But do you really expect me to ignore how this story began? You started the war! And then you would act as though it’s all Asgard’s fault that someone had to finish it.”

 

Laufey leaned in close enough it was truly staggering. “We started the war by invading Midgard. The Aesir had nothing to do with it. They chose to intervene.”

 

Loki couldn’t help that his voice shook a little, with Laufey’s furious eyes so near to him. “B-because it would have been wrong to stand idly by and let you destroy entire worlds simply because it suited you.”

 

“Because it suited us?” Laufey repeated, intense. He drew in a breath that hissed between his teeth.

 

And then he shifted to one knee, lowering Loki carefully to the ground. He released him, but then reached out to tap him, hard, in the middle of his forehead.

 

“Our world was not as it is, then. Our people were many, overflowing. We needed room to expand.”

 

“So by all means, kill everything that already lives on another planet, in order to make it hospitable for you,” Loki said tersely, blinking.

 

“The humans are like insects. Do they really matter?” Laufey demanded, annoyed. “Your beloved and self-righteous Aesir meddle in and disregard their lives whenever they see fit. But when another race chose to have a turn, then it was a step too far.”

 

Loki scowled, reaching to smooth back his hair in order for something to do. He had no reply to Laufey – it was obvious the Jotun king had his view, and nothing could be said or done to change that.

 

Laufey shook his head when Loki remained silent. He moved to stand again. “You can believe whatever you like, about how our war with Asgard began. But when we had already withdrawn from all the other realms, they pursued us, and brought bloodshed and devastation to our home. The ‘threat’ we posed, that they claimed to be defending from, was over. But the Aesir pride meant they would not stop there. Not until we were as you see now.”

 

Loki bit his tongue, uncertain. He’d had this explained to him when he was young – Odin said the Jotnar were a people unwilling to surrender, that if left alone would’ve only eventually tried again. There was no choice, if the conflict was ever to end, but to beat them until they had no remaining strength.

 

And from what Loki had seen of Jotunheim so far, he found it hard to argue with that leaving it half-defeated would have been a dangerous prospect. But it had also been turned into a crippled world by Asgard’s victory, with a race clinging to pride and old grudges. Without their Casket they could never invade another world again, true, but they also were powerless to rebuild their own.

 

Besides, after what Odin had done to him, how could he ever take anything the man had said as truth?

 

Laufey walked away from him, back towards the rest of the palace, and not certain what else to do Loki followed.

 

“How have you and your brothers been getting on?” the king asked, almost careless. Loki was momentarily taken aback by the relatively mundane question.

 

“Helblindi and I do not coexist well,” he answered honestly. “Býleistr, however, is more,” he faltered, “full of surprises.”

 

“Yes,” Laufey muttered. “He has his amiable nature going for him.”

 

Loki made a derisive sound. “And little more, besides,” he had to remark. “Honestly, I must admit I’m surprised you would still have him.”

 

Laufey gazed at him narrowly from the side. “Oh no. Býleistr is nothing. My own father had a brother that drooled icicles and could only speak in sentences long as a single word.” Loki shuddered at the mental image. “Býleistr has sense enough to take care of himself, and more importantly, the strength. No point wasting it.”

 

“So he isn’t entirely…aberrant, then?” Loki questioned, as delicately as he could. “There is some precedent for it?”

 

“Of course you would have never been taught our world’s history,” Laufey responded flatly. “In ancient times, Jotunheim was home to many tribes, each significantly unlike the rest. Eventually all were united under one throne.” He gestured to himself. “The ages have caused us to be mostly unified in appearance, but every now and then some of the old blood shows. Particularly among the royal line, which alone represents all the olden tribes.”

 

“So I’m a throwback, then? Is that what you’re telling me?” Loki remarked. He frowned, steps slowing as he thought. “I’ve seen some Jotnar that may have resembled Býleistr. I know I haven’t seen any that look like me.”

 

“There would not be any,” Laufey stated, glancing at him across one shoulder. “The small offspring rarely ever make it past Winter’s Right, let alone to adulthood. Especially now.”

 

Loki stopped. “Winter’s Right? What is that?”

 

Laufey stopped as well, turning fully to face him. “When a male child is somewhere in his first few months of life, he is taken to the temple at the heart of Jotunheim. It is always during the harshest part of our season, when the sky is darkest and the snow rises before the very eye. He is stripped of all layers that might protect him from the cold and the elements, and there, he is left.”

 

Loki stared at him, completely still. “For how long?”

 

“A single cycle. A night, and a day.” Laufey continued, “If he survives, then is some ways he is considered a man already, in that he’s proven he will be one day. A warrior, with the strength to live among our people.”

 

“And if he doesn’t?” Loki murmured.

 

Laufey gave a faint shrug. “Then he was not meant to be. He was not worthy. Or capable.”

 

“You did this to me,” Loki realized, exclaiming. “You left me out in the cold, when I was only an infant!”

 

“You are a son of Jotunheim,” Laufey intoned. “It is what is done.”

 

“Were you hoping I’d die? You must have. Didn’t you?” Loki demanded. “All you needed to do was get rid of me, and then you could have a son that wasn’t a runt, born from some trait that should’ve died out long ago.”  He looked away, blinking furiously. “Then you could have an heir that was…worthy.”

 

Not only did the Aesir not want him, neither did the Jotnar. He was trapped with a race of heartless savages that murdered its own children when they were still only babies.

 

“I hoped nothing,” Laufey retorted, so severely that Loki’s eyes snapped back to him in surprise. “Yes, it would be expected that a smaller child would die. Yes, it would in some ways be easier, to raise an heir whose appearance boasts obvious strength. But that is not why I did what I did. I planned nothing. I desired nothing.” He moved closer to Loki. “I did it because it is our way. Because you are my son, and you are Jotnar, and that is what we do.”

 

Loki’s eyes went downward, and then back to Laufey as a thought occurred to him.

 

“That’s when I was taken, wasn’t it?” he realized, breathing slowly. “The darkest coldest night: the worst possible time for the Aesir to try to take Jotunheim, and so when you would have expected an attack the least.” He wasn’t surprised he was fighting back tears – he just wasn’t sure why. There were far too many possible reasons. “That’s when Odin found me.”

 

“Yes,” Laufey answered, emotionless.

 

“I’d be dead if he hadn’t. Wouldn’t I?” He gazed up. “I’d have never survived.”

 

“Likely. But it matters not. You were left in the temple, and you lived to this day. It matters not there was intervention,” Laufey declared. “You still passed your initiation.”

 

He reached down to briefly cup Loki’s cheek, his fingers grazing the raised markings meaningfully. “You are a man of our people. My firstborn and rightful heir.”

 

“What do you want from me?” Loki demanded, completely overwhelmed. “You already had two sons. You didn’t need me. You weren’t even aware I was still alive, all these years, so it wasn’t as if you suffered my loss.”

 

“You were still taken from me, even if it was unknowingly,” Laufey said in a rumble. “I wanted you back because it was my right. They never should have held you. Let alone tried to pass you off as one of theirs.”

 

Loki shook his head again. “But…but you don’t have any sort of plan, or-?”

 

“I don’t need a plan. You are my eldest son, and so one day you will take my throne.” There was no hesitation, no doubt in Laufey’s visage. “Whatever happens between now and then…it comes as it will.”

 

Loki was all but speechless. “I…” he began, but his voice cracked. He drew a breath, swallowed and tried again. “I would like to go now. If I may.”

 

“If that is what you desire.” Laufey’s tone was unconcerned.

 

“Yes,” Loki murmured, not looking at him – he was lost in a thousand racing, half-formed fragments of thought.

 

Laufey, however, suddenly peered at him more closely. “Yes, what?” he asked, meaningful.

 

Loki’s eyes slid back to him. He knew what Laufey wanted.

 

“Yes, Laufey-king,” he said quietly, instead. A perfectly respectful reply, if still the incorrect one.

 

All was silence for a moment.

 

Laufey at last drew a breath, huffing. “I will allow you more impudence than I should, because of where you have been, and your circumstances.” His eyes flashed sharply. “But not too much.”

 

Loki nodded wordlessly, taking the dismissal for what it was, and left.

 

Chapter Text

Then next morning when Loki opened his eyes, he remained where he was for a few moments – arms outstretched, gazing blankly up at the ceiling.

 

When he moved to finally sit up he was astonished, fully awake in an instant at what he was seeing. Someone had strewn the entire surface of the bed and the floor with large white flowers.

 

“Do you like them?”

 

Loki blinked slowly at the voice. He couldn’t say he was terribly surprised.

 

“Did you do this?” He turned to where Býleistr was sitting next to the bed, in the same place he had been before.

 

No sign of Helblindi, Loki noted. That was more than fine by him.

 

“Yes!” Býleistr responded, all eagerness.  “I went down into the valley, and I picked them all, all by myself.” He repeated, “Do you like them? They’re ice lilies.”

 

“They are very pretty,” Loki mused. He reached for the nearest one. It was the familiar lily-shape, but larger than any he’d ever seen before, soft tapered petals forming a blossom that was bigger than his hand. The pale leaves shimmered with beaded ice crystals.

 

Loki almost hesitated before picking it up, afraid to damage the delicate petals with the warmth of his touch – and then he saw his hand with blue skin and black fingernails. He bit back a frustrated sigh. Oh well; at least he had nothing to worry about.

 

He turned the flower in his grasp, examining it. And then he pictured Býleistr climbing his way awkwardly down a mountainside, carefully bearing an armful of the lilies. It couldn’t have been very easy.

 

“So you do like them, then,” Býleistr concluded happily. “Good! I had thought you might. You seem to like pretty things. Like when I brought Mother’s mirror to you.”

 

“Wine, fruit, and now flowers?” Loki quipped, in a dry offhand murmur. “Are you courting me?”

 

Býleistr only gave him a blank look, confused.

 

“Never mind. Forget I said anything.” Loki sighed.

 

He rested his chin in his free hand. Maybe he would have to try teaching him what a joke was.

 

“I’m only trying to find ways to make you happy, older brother,” Býleistr told him, now with a hint of worry. “Is it not working? I thought that it was.”

 

“It’s…” Loki struggled with what to say, which was rare for him. Though it seemed to be happening with great frequency ever since having been spirited away to Jotunheim. “It’s been keeping things very interesting for me. I think I’ve lost count now of all the times I’ve woken to discover you unannounced inside my room.”

 

“I had to be very quiet while I set all the lilies down, because I didn’t want to wake you and ruin the surprise,” Býleistr informed him. “Oh, and the foxes are under your bed again. I thought if I was quiet I wouldn’t scare them either, but I guess not.”

 

Being quiet does nothing to change your being both huge and terrifying, Loki thought, but didn’t say.

 

“Yes,” he stressed aloud, “but you came in uninvited, without knocking first or asking for permission.”

 

He didn’t know what he was so startled for, frankly; it wasn’t as if Thor had ever respected his privacy very much, either. One of the first things Loki had learned when he started studying magic was how to strongly enchant a lock.

 

At the sudden intrusion of Thor into his thoughts, he found himself wondering what his Aesir brother was doing.

 

Probably, Loki decided, viciously, celebrating his having become an only child. Not that Thor had ever suffered for any want of attention, even with Loki along to crowd that tiny corner of his spotlight.

 

“What would you like for breakfast?” Býleistr asked, interrupting his thoughts.

 

Loki shot him a thin gaze. “Nothing. Just how many times do I have to say it? I don’t want any food.”

 

Instead of accepting this, however, or trying to argue with him about it, Býleistr sat back on his haunches and folded his arms heavily. Judging by the expression on his face, if he were an Aesir toddler it would be about the part where Loki would expect him to start holding his breath.

 

“I won’t listen to you saying that anymore,” Býleistr said in a great show of being determined. “I know you’re the eldest, and I should listen to you, but you need to eat. Father says we’re supposed to take care of you. And I never even knew I had another brother until now. I don’t want you to get sick.”

 

Loki pressed his palm to his face. He should be infuriated, that this meddlesome and obtuse Jotun wouldn’t just leave him alone. But for some reason he was finding it hard not to laugh.

 

“You know what?” he said, at last. “I will make a deal with you, Býleistr.” He lifted his head to look him in the eyes, going very seriously, “I’ll have breakfast, if you swear to me that from now on, you won’t visit my room without permission.”

 

“Oh,” Býleistr beamed, “all right! I can do that! I promise.”

 

Their deal settled, he eagerly trundled off to bring him something to eat.

 

While he was gone Loki got up and carefully gathered all of the ice lilies. There were far, far too many of them for him to conjure up a vase or even a bowl. In the end he just left them in a fairly neat pile on the bed.

 

He also checked on the fox kits, but didn’t bother attempting to coax them out. Not with Býleistr coming back.

 

And it was about the time that the Frost Giant returned, with a bowl of very thick but ultimately tasteless porridge, that Loki realized as of their conversation he had starting referring to the chamber he was staying in as “his” room.

 

The discovery perturbed him, but he was less than bothered than he would have thought.

 

In fact, as he absently forced the spoonfuls of porridge down, he found himself scowling for a completely different reason.

 

“What’s the matter, brother?”

 

“Oh, nothing.” Loki shook his head. “I was just thinking about all the things I’ve collected, that are still back in my room at Asgard. Spell books, talismans, and the like.” He sighed in vexation. “Some of them weren’t easy to come by. And others were flat-out irreplaceable.”

 

It would probably be pushing it incredibly too far if he even asked Laufey if it were possible to send for his things.

 

After a moment, Býleistr commented, “I didn’t think you would have had a room.”

 

“Of course I had a room. Where would I sleep, otherwise?”

 

Býleistr played awkwardly with the tips of his own fingers. “I thought the Aesir would have kept you in a cell. Or maybe a cage.”

 

Loki stared at him for a full ten seconds, trying to scrutinize whether or not he was kidding. He definitely did not appear to be.

 

“It’s all right,” Býleistr told him, helpfully. “You don’t have to talk about it, if you don’t want to. I don’t like talking about it either when bad things happen to me.”

 

“It wasn’t that bad,” Loki finally managed.

 

Býleistr made a face, trying to understand him. “But the Aesir had you. They do terrible things to Jotnar. Helblindi says they stab spears through your eyes to kill you, and then while you’re still dying they pull your teeth to make necklaces, and cut out your skull to make drinking goblets, and then they-”

 

“They didn’t know I was Jotnar, though,” Loki told him.

 

How was it that absolutely no one but Laufey seemed to grasp, he’d been taken when he was a baby. He didn’t remember anything before Asgard. And if he was a prisoner, he’d certainly lived his life blissfully unaware of that fact.

 

“How could they not know you were Jotnar?” Býleistr demanded.

 

“Because I…” Loki’s voice faltered, his mouth oddly dry. “Because I didn’t look like one.”

 

I used to have pale pink skin, and green eyes, and even though I didn’t look a thing like the people that were pretending to be my family, no one was ever the wiser. Not even me. Here, I’d show you, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how the changeling spell must have worked. It seems I’m destined to be stuck with this blue skin until the day I die, now.

 

Býleistr absorbed this latest piece of information with fascinated horror. “Were you under some sort of curse?”

 

Loki gave a small laugh, and he hoped that Býleistr couldn’t tell it was a sad one, because he doubted he could explain it to him.

 

“I suppose you could say so, yes.”

 

*

 

Thor the Thunderer made his way towards the Bifrost, the heaviness of his rapid stride and his overall mood clearly living up to the epithet.

 

“Heimdall!” he roared soon as he reached the watchman at his outpost.

 

Heimdall said nothing in reply. He merely waited, constant and upright as ever, hands on his sword and the point of his gaze shifting over to fix Thor in his steady golden eyes.

 

“Do you see him?”

 

“Yes,” Heimdall intoned. “Just as I have the last time you asked.” There was no disapprobation in his voice, but it was somehow all the more intimidating for its matter-of-factness. “And all the times before that.”

 

“He is well?” Thor demanded.

 

“As well as can be expected.”

 

“Do the Jotnar still hold him?”

 

“He is still with Laufey and his people, yes.”

 

With his questions answered, Thor seemed unable to hold onto his dark cloud of determination. His shoulders slumped, the intensity vanished from his features, and his gaze dropped to the surface of the bridge.

 

“I do not understand,” he exclaimed in despair. “It has been a fortnight! Why will Father not let us go and rescue him?”

 

“The King has his reasoning for what he does,” Heimdall responded, evenly. “Ours is not to question or uncover its meaning, but merely to trust in his will.”

 

Thor waved an arm. “How can I trust in anything, when said King would be willing to leave his own son in the hands of his enemy?” he expounded, frustrated. “Loki, my brother, abandoned to the mercies of the Frost Giants! Is not a king supposed to protect his people?”

 

Heimdall’s great head turned then, the better to face Thor.

 

“Loki is far more than a prisoner, where Laufey is concerned,” he reminded the prince meaningfully. “You know that now.”

 

Thor nodded. “I know.” He shook his head. “But that does not make leaving Loki to him any more right.”

 

Not knowing what else to do he threw himself down heavily, sitting near Heimdall’s feet. Peering over the edge to the abyss below, for a moment he tried to imagine he could see into Jotunheim for himself.

 

How had everything gone so wrong so quickly? The Jotnar’s attack, his ruined coronation. The disastrous expedition to Jotunheim. It’d seemed bad enough when his father had appeared to retrieve them and Thor could sense already his ire, but then Odin made them leave immediately…even though Loki had disappeared somewhere between there and Laufey, lost out in the snow.

 

The last any had seen of Loki, he’d been surrounded by Frost Giants. And Thor was horrified. His brother, likely captured, injured or even killed by the monsters! And Odin would do nothing?

 

Thor had demanded an explanation; Odin had sent the others away and given him, in Thor’s mind, no explanation at all.

 

It was a hard thing to accept. Loki, a Jotun? And not just any Jotun, but Laufey’s foundling son?

 

He was still wrapping his mind around it in truth, even this time later, but to him the facts didn’t matter. Had Loki not been raised his younger brother, both of them princes of Asgard? Had Loki not been given the name “Odinson”? The blood did not matter; where he stood it was still Odin’s duty to claim him. Laufey had no right.

 

But Odin insisted they could not go after Loki without risking threat of war.

 

“So you would just abandon him now, then, because it is convenient to you?” Thor had yelled. “Exactly as you said Laufey had done, before?”

 

“You are the reason Loki was in Jotunheim in the first place, Thor,” Odin had returned. “Consider that when you are looking for someone upon which to pin your anger.”

 

He had taken Thor’s hammer. He told him he was fortunate he didn’t do more, but Odin had “greater things to deal with than the actions of a selfish boy”.

 

Thor said many things to him then in the empty Bifrost chamber, and he was lucky Odin had been too distracted to listen.

 

And then, after all that, diplomacy had failed. Odin had spoken with the Jotun king, but Laufey would not give Loki back.

 

“I am sorry, Thor,” Odin tried reasoning with him. “For now, there’s nothing I can do. But I swear to you, by all I hold dear, that I will not stop trying.”

 

What reassurance could there be in his father’s words, when it still meant his brother was kept from him?

 

Thor let out a groan. “I cannot bear it, Heimdall,” he said. “To think what those beasts may be doing to him!”

 

A strange look came over Heimdall’s face. Thor was unsettled by it.

 

Heimdall never laughed…but there was the sense that if he did, he would at this moment.

 

“I would not worry on it too much, my prince. I believe they are not treating him badly as you may imagine.”

 

*

 

Outside the palace, a chill wind blew. A light dusting of snow fell onto the ground, to gradually but steadily coat the hard-packed layers of ice.

 

It was what in Jotunheim was considered a calm day.

 

Thrym and his soldiers were taking advantage by drilling their combat techniques. Some might consider it a waste, since they were already trained warriors, and it wasn’t as if their skills were anticipated to be in high demand at any point in the near future.

 

But if not by keeping themselves strong and sharp, then how else were they to pass the time? They did not exactly suffer in variety.

 

As the troop sparred and went through their paces Prince Loki lingered a short distance away, which certainly suited Thrym since it meant he could keep an eye on his royal charge without completely dismissing his other duties.

 

The prince had not asked for anything – indeed he seemed to be nearby almost entirely by coincidence.

 

Thrym could care less about that, either. At least the prince had finally left his room and was walking about. That could only be a good sign. Perhaps he’d at last recovered from his strange melancholy and was taking an interest in his duties as heir.

 

As the prince stood by the wall he focused almost absently on his arm before him, calling the living ice to form different shapes to it. A sickle, the straight blade of a sword, a club.

 

Announcing a rest for his men, Thrym went over to him.

 

“Practicing, my lord?”

 

Loki did not take his eyes away from what he was doing as he answered. “I suppose you could call it that. Or experimenting, more like.”

 

The ice he crafted mentally around his forearm swelled and took on the shape of a great war-hammer, and then almost as soon as he had it he dismissed it, changing it instead to a thin-spiked morning star.

 

Thrym smiled, and hoped his encouragement did not come off as condescending. Sometimes it was hard not to speak to the prince as if he were still little more than a child. “I knew that you could do it. It was only a matter of finding your inborn gifts.”

 

“My ‘inborn gifts’, yes,” Loki repeated flatly. Thrym could not tell if he was agreeing or not. Or if he approved. He flexed the fingers of his hand, releasing his hold on the ice, and changed his arm back to normal.

 

“In any case…I suppose I’m on even par with the rest of Jotunheim, now.”

 

“Never, my prince,” Thrym was quick to assure him. “You are far above.” He bowed his head. “Regardless how you were neglected in your youth, you are first Laufeyson.”

 

Prince Loki balked, though it was over so quickly Thrym had no time to ponder on it. Still, the Jotun warrior wished he could better reassure him about his understandable if unfortunate shortcomings resulting from the Aesir’s abuse. It seemed that Thrym’s words were never enough.

 

Loki changed the subject, tersely. “Have you any idea where Býleistr has gotten off to? It’s been a few days since I’ve seen him.”

 

“No. Been as long since I saw him myself.” Thrym frowned, considering. “Last I knew he left the palace. Maybe gone off on an adventure somewhere.”

 

“Does he do that often?” Both Loki’s eyebrows were raised.

 

“No,” Thrym admitted. “But I wouldn’t worry about your brother, Prince Loki. He does wander off from time to time. If there’s one thing he knows, it’s how to take care of himself.”

 

The youngest prince would never be a leader or very good at planning – but he had no weakness at all, to say the least, when it came to hitting something hard with his fist.

 

“If you say so.” Wryly, the prince remarked, “Perhaps he is finding me another present.”

 

“He does seem convinced your mood’s been improved by them,” Thrym had to agree, though in a murmur, so as to not seem he was informing the prince as to his own mind.

 

As to the gifts presented by Thrym’s own band; the books and parchments had been carefully studied and organized, the clothes, smaller weapons and some of the treasures had been put away, and just about everything else had been quietly redistributed or otherwise disposed of. Say what one would about the Aesir scum, they’d still given Loki enough manners to know returning any of the tributes would be demeaning, regardless of intention.

 

The fox kits had already grown a bit, and it was clear Loki indeed planned to keep them as pets. Odd choice, but his to make as he wished. Thrym had arranged a steady supply of meat and milk, hard as both could be to come by.

 

“My mood,” Loki echoed. “Everyone does appear to be highly concerned about it, I’ve noted.”

 

“No offense intended, my lord,” Thrym rasped, bowing his head again for good measure. “But your wellbeing is important to all of us.”

 

A warrior chimed in, “And you have been noticeably down in the dumps ever since, well…”

 

“Ever since I came here?” Loki finished, deliberately. He tilted his head, a small tight scowl appearing on his face. “And is it really so unexpected I would be in a less than amiable state, considering?”

 

“I’m sure you’ve been through a lot, Prince,” another soldier told him. “None doubt that. But that’s over now that you’re home.”

 

“Yeah,” a third agreed. “Guess you could say everyone expected you to cheer right up, once it set in you were free of the Aesir, and their horrors. It was…troubling, when you did not.”

 

Loki made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. His expression grew wearied. “I was not mistreated by the Aesir,” he said tiredly.

 

Thrym exchanged a glance with a few of his warriors. Sadly it wasn’t unheard of for the tortured to have to try and block it out, or justify the experience. It only disheartened them to think of it having happened to the heir. “I’m sure you did not think so, my lord,” he offered charitably.

 

Loki only sighed again. Briefly he pressed fingers to his forehead, palm to the bridge of his nose.

 

“I swear. Sometimes, it’s like no one listens when I speak.”

 

He stayed resignedly still as Thrym gave him a comforting touch on the head.

 

*

 

It made Loki almost frantic, but some odd little voice in the back of his mind could not stop thinking about sneaking away.

 

He could do it, surely. He would have no doubt about his ability to fool Jotun even if these were not so blindly trusting. They treated him like he was younger than he was – but that wasn’t just it. Here, he was not known as Wicked Loki. They underestimated greatly his propensity for trickery.

 

He’d been unable to stop himself, from hanging onto the Vanir garments, a set of knives, and a few other things he’d need if he were to run. Sneak away in the dead of night, use what he’d learned about the palace and his own newly-honed ability to manipulate the ice, and just flee.

 

Go home, this strange feverish voice pleaded with him. Go back, to Asgard, the place that you know inside your heart you still love, the only place that until now you ever wanted to be. Go while you still can, before the Jotnar fully corrupt you.

 

But no, he told that part of himself back, stubbornly, almost desperately. He could not…would not go back to Asgard. Asgard was “home” no longer, for all that knowledge stung him deeply.

 

He had no home, at present. Jotunheim was not his home either.

 

Yet.

 

It could be, and that frightened and confused him most of all. He could feel it, the way the Jotnar wanted it to be true; the way that a part of him had begun to want it also.

 

Here, he was not Wicked Loki.

 

Here he was not Loki Silvertongue, Loki Liesmith, Loki who was not to be trusted, but who ultimately could be easily ignored. Here, he was the firstborn son. Here he was Prince Loki, heir to the throne, forever the center of attention even when he honestly did not know what to do with it. Here, he was more than desired – he was loved, practically worshipped. And he did not have to strive for it, he did not have to struggle; always constantly losing this battle for approval, failing and trying and forced to go his own way and then rendered unworthy because of it.  He was weaker and more strange even than he’d been among the Aesir and still it did not matter.

 

In some ways Loki had always struggled with who he was. But for the first time in his life, he felt he truly didn’t know.

 

At night, in his dreams he reached for Thor, who was always far ahead of him, laughing and smiling but somehow failing to realize Loki was falling behind. And Loki called out, frightened, begging him not to leave him.

 

He cried out “Brother!”, but when he stretched out his hand Helblindi and Býleistr were standing there to take it, ready.

 

He would dream of Fárbauti, forever nothing more than the ghost of a mother, and because he was asleep he would know what she looked like, and she would smile down at him, but her arms and her lap where she held him would be his childhood memory of Frigga.

 

In his dreams, Laufey carried him across the expanse, and he felt safe in the Jotun king’s grasp. He called Laufey “Father” without hesitation. In some of his dreams, he had already forgotten Odin’s face.

 

And he would wake, red eyes opened wide, and lie in his massive bed, a true cold sweat clinging to his blue skin and blankets tangled all around his body, and think that he didn’t know what was happening to him.

 

He could not run, but he had to keep his mind off the fact he was changing, and so he anxiously threw himself into other things. He read his new collection of books, he explored the myriad ways of the palace, he practiced his magic, he taught himself how to master the ice in the way given to him by his blood.

 

He avoided Helblindi – he did not avoid Laufey but sought him out neither, behaving respectfully in the king’s audience when he found himself there. He tended to his foxes and watched Thrym and his soldiers, and he found himself spending more time than he would’ve expected in the company of Býleistr.

 

The misshapen and slow-witted Jotun did indeed have a way of growing on him.

 

Thanks to Býleistr, he was now eating at least one meal each day, and begrudgingly had to admit he felt much better for it. Býleistr would sit and watch him perform spells in awe, or follow him around like his odd over-large shadow, or would simply tell him stories.

 

Stories of both their family and their people, things Loki should have learned long ago, had he been raised where he was born. He always had a natural hunger for knowledge and this was no exception. He asked many questions, about custom, about history, about childhood fables. And sometimes he went to Thrym – but more often, he found himself going to Býleistr.

 

The soldier-servant and his men meant well, but they always came across as pitying whenever they explained things to him that every Frost Giant should’ve known. Never the case with Býleistr. At most, he was just earnestly confused that Loki was ignorant of such things. Usually he’d merely recite information in a dutiful clear voice and think nothing of it.

 

He was very useful and even somewhat dear to him, this being that Loki had slowly grown to accept as his brother.

 

Which was why it first bothered, and then truly annoyed, and then at last began to worry him when Býleistr vanished for nearly a week.

 

It was stupid. Býleistr may’ve technically been his little brother, but he was twice Loki’s height and more than twice his size. And maybe he was…dim, but he’d spent all his life on Jotunheim, so surely he knew his way around. If he hadn’t Laufey wouldn’t have let him go; just because he was youngest, and third, and ultimately useless, he was still Laufey’s son and he cared for his wellbeing.

 

Right?

 

When Loki found himself still sitting in bed one morning, and heard Býleistr’s distinctive loping steps approach, his ears perked and before he could catch himself he gave a sigh of relief.

 

He got up, throwing on clothes and shooing the foxes back to their hiding place. He didn’t wait for Býleistr to knock – pressing a hand to the wall his fingers sunk in the ice and he sent a fissure of energy over to the door, throwing it open.

 

Býleistr walked in, on his knuckles as was his occasional habit, humming with unmistakable cheerfulness. Loki recognized this sign, and more than that he could tell Býleistr was carrying something on his shoulder. He wondered what his sibling could’ve possibly found to bring him this time.

 

“Where have you been?” Loki asked instead, playing it cool for the moment. His curiosity would no doubt soon be satisfied.

 

“Oh, all over, brother,” Býleistr exclaimed. “Almost all the way to the Great Crag and back again! It was exhausting.” His face split wide as he beamed with glee. “But worth it. Wait until you see what I brought for you! You’ll be so pleased.”

 

“Doesn’t it only take a few days to get to the Crag?” Loki wondered absently aloud, even as he craned his head for a glimpse of whatever was up on Býleistr’s shoulder. Unfortunately he was on the wrong side, and his brother’s lumpy body naturally conspired to hide it from him.

 

“Yes, but I didn’t go straight to it,” Býleistr explained. “I searched every village between here and there. It took me a very long time. But just when I was starting to give up hope, I found what I was looking for!”

 

Loki smiled, gentle and indulgent. “Which was?”

 

Býleistr shifted his weight, leaning closer to the ground.

 

And something climbed down from his shoulder, sliding to the floor of Loki’s room gracefully.

 

Her,” Býleistr enthused.

 

Loki’s smile vanished, his face freezing in place as he stared at what his Frost Giant brother had brought him.

 

It was a Jotun female but like none he’d ever seen before. She was close to Loki’s size, perhaps even shorter, with slender limbs and neck and wide heavy hips. Her skin was pale, almost closer to gray than blue, and she had hair, a long soft curtain of purest white. She wore the standard outfit of most Jotnar, little more than a loincloth, a matching fabric barely concealing her bosom.

 

She gazed at Loki and she didn’t just bow to him, she prostrated herself, on her knees with forehead and arms pressed to the floor.

 

When she looked up again she stayed on hands and knees, and something about the coy, strange brightness in her eyes reminded Loki of deer and other dainty animals he’d seen in the forest.

 

“My prince,” she breathed, a warm and encouraging murmur.

 

“She’s an ice maiden,” Býleistr announced proudly. “A female of the small bloodline, like you! They’re very hard to find, because they either don’t survive or tend to get carried off.  Most don’t think there are any left, but I went looking anyway, because I knew if there was even a chance of there being one how happy she would make you.”

 

Loki stared at the creature. She was beautiful, yes, but in an exotic and shocking way, and she was very much Jotnar. In fact, it was all he could see.

 

This was what Býleistr gave to him? A female, of his size? This was what he was to be now, that the sight of Jotun flesh was supposed to please him? They expected him to mate with…?

 

A wail of rage and horror built up and then rose swiftly inside his chest, all the way to where it lodged itself in his throat, choking him. No, no, no!

 

“So I looked and I looked in every village I passed, seeing if the people there had given birth to any small daughters. And when I found one I hurried back for three days straight, because I was so excited to bring her to you,” Býleistr continued, oblivious. “Don’t you like her? Isn’t she pretty? Her name is Angrboda, and-”

 

“…No,” Loki gasped out, his voice breaking. His head shook. “Get her out of my sight.”

 

Býleistr stopped, caught off-guard.

 

The female met Loki’s eyes timidly. “My prince…?”

 

“I said, get out of here!” he screamed, raising an arm. “Go!” The giantess bolted through the still-open doorway.

 

Shaking with anger Loki turned to Býleistr, who was gaping at him in bewilderment.

 

“Don’t…don’t you like her?” he asked in a small voice, mystified. He shrank down. “What’s the matter? Why are you so angry? Did I do something wrong?” His speech turned to a whimper. “Brother…?”

 

“Get away from me.” Loki’s words were thick with his revulsion. “How dare you…” He stopped, swallowing. “Get out. I don’t ever want you to come near me, ever again.”

 

“But…but I don’t understand-”

 

Loki whirled around and grabbed the nearest object he could lay a hand on, and it shattered loudly where he hurled it into the wall right by Býleistr’s head. “Get out, now!” he roared.

 

Býleistr ran away, and Loki marched over to the door and slammed it shut tightly behind him.

 

Loki heard a crunch of broken glass as he stepped on it with his boot, and he looked down.

 

The object he’d thrown and smashed to pieces was Fárbauti’s mirror.

Chapter Text

Sleep did not come easily to Loki that night. When at last he drifted off it was in an angry, restless state, face pressed into the side of his pillow, body curled up small as he could.

 

He was awoken in the morning by his door being thrown forcefully open, the vibration strong enough to jar him all the way in his bed. With a start Loki’s head shot up, flailing in a daze, and he twisted around in his blankets to see the cause.

 

Helblindi glowered down at him, eyes almost ember-like in their intensity.

 

“Miserable wretch,” he growled, low. “Let’s go. You need to have some words with our brother.”

 

And even as Loki was still processing that, Helblindi reached down and pulled him from the bed, plucking him up roughly. Loki yelped in surprise as he was unceremoniously hoisted into the air, dragged along as the Jotun spun about and left the room, stomping along the hallway.

 

“Let go! Unhand me!” he demanded in a state of livid indignation. He tugged at where Helblindi kept him in his grasp, but was afraid to try too hard to free himself – Helblindi had grabbed onto him only by one shoulder and a handful of clothing. He dangled carelessly from the giant’s hand like an errant child’s toy; if he pulled the wrong way there was a chance of dislocating his arm in the process.

 

Loki glanced downward and then quickly looked away again as the floor and walls swung dizzily from their uneven process. “You have no right to treat me this way!” he insisted hotly. “Put me down!”

 

“No.” Helblindi did not turn to look at him as he answered, eyes fixed before him as he continued navigating the corridors towards an unknown destination. “I will not, though Father might thrash me for this until my head bounces against the wall. I will not release you. You owe an apology to Býleistr, and I will see you deliver it.”

 

“An apology? Me?” Loki balked. “What have I got to apologize for? Do you even know what he did?

 

“Do you?” Helblindi spat in retort. He did look at Loki, then. “Ice maidens are rare. They always have been, even in times of old, but especially now with our population gutted and our world so sparse. Býleistr went to terrible trouble to find you the girl. All because he thought it would please you, our brother.”

 

Helblindi’s teeth showed as his lips curled, glaring in fury and disgust. “But instead of thanking him, you’ve continued to behave like a thoughtless spoiled child. I’ve had enough. It will not stand any longer.”

 

Loki took great insult with the description – not least because it sounded uncomfortably like one that could be used for Thor.

 

He protested, “I have not-”

 

“Shut up,” Helblindi told him shortly. “Hold your tongue, because I’ve had all I can stand of your words of complaint and superiority. Býleistr was hurt greatly by what you did, and worse of all the lout blames himself. I would stomp on any cretin who dared less, but I am forced to treat you as kin.” Helblindi exhaled in a shuddering hiss. “It saves your neck, but if I can’t have the satisfaction of seeing your blood then I will at least know you did something to make it right.”

 

Loki had stopped trying to escape Helblindi’s grip. He felt humiliated, and he realized after a moment it wasn’t only because of how he was being physically handled.

 

He started, in a mutter, “I never meant-”

 

“You never cared,” Helblindi countered, interrupting him. “All the worry that is put into your wellbeing, and all you do is look down on us.”

 

They’d reached a door that looked very similar to the one in front of Loki’s chambers, though slightly different in design. Helblindi lowered his arm just enough to ensure Loki wouldn’t be broken by the fall and then released him, dropping him to land in graceless heap on the icy floor. With his other hand he shoved open the door, revealing the interior to a darkened room.

 

“By all means,” Helblindi concluded, voice grating and harsh, “behave as is suitable of a prince, and an heir, and a respectable male. Prove that the impression I’ve held since I first laid eyes on you is wrong.”

 

Loki gazed up at him. “What impression is that?” he had to ask softly.

 

Helblindi made a low sound. “That you are a Jotun in appearance only – inside, you are surely nothing but an arrogant, heartless, cowardly Aesir.”

 

Without another word he pulled away and marched off, going back the way they’d come.

 

Once he was alone Loki picked himself up slowly, brushing off and straightening his clothes with absent gestures, so he could spend at least a moment or two ignoring the hot prickle of shame he felt creeping up from the back of his neck.

 

He’d thought being homesick and confused was excuse enough, but to his dismay he had to admit Helblindi was right – he’d behaved, to say the least, ungraciously. Without any thought to his actions, or any consideration for the feelings or intentions of those he’d so carelessly dismissed. How often had he made the same complaints of the brother he’d been raised with on Asgard?

 

He’d been hurt and lost, but he’d also been unbelievably, even cruelly selfish. It was no way to act for the son of a king.

 

He turned toward what he’d realized must be Býleistr’s room – and it certainly was no point in his favor, that after all this time he’d never bothered learning where the Jotun’s room was. Loki swallowed his pride.

 

Inside the room was dark, and for a moment Loki stood blinking in confused trepidation, trying to get his bearings.

 

Once his eyes had a chance to adjust against the wall he could just make out a large, motionless shape. As he crept closer Loki could more clearly see it was indeed Býleistr. The Jotun sat hunched in on himself, head hanging, his hands resting upon his knees.

 

“Býleistr?” Loki called out softly. “Why does your room have no windows?”

 

“Brother?” Býleistr rubbed an eye distractedly, startled.  He spoke in a murmur. “Oh, I closed them all.”

 

Loki sighed in passing irritation. Waving a hand he opened one of the windows back up, reforming the frame out of the ice so that light poured in, enough that they could see one another.

 

Býleistr flinched back from meeting his eyes. “Please don’t be mad with me anymore. I’m sorry for whatever I did wrong.” His hands squeezed tighter on his kneecaps, voice tearful. “I didn’t mean to ruin everything. I was only trying to…” He trailed off on a mournful note, like he was too overcome to speak.

 

A lump formed in Loki’s throat. “I’m not angry,” he promised.

 

He came closer and Býleistr didn’t pull away. Loki sat down next to him by the wall and his younger brother shuffled back enough to make room. Loki noticed he was favoring one foot.

 

“What happened? Did you hurt yourself?”

 

“Only a little.” Býleistr glanced down at his limb. “I stumbled while I was bringing Angrboda to the palace. I probably should have stopped, and rested, but I was so excited to bring you her.”

 

“You weren’t limping yesterday,” Loki said in protest, though it was a feeble one. Likely the injury had only truly bothered him after, once his determination and spirit had faded away.

 

He reached out to touch Býleistr’s ankle gingerly with both hands. “Hold still. I can fix it for you.” He felt Býleistr tense under his grasp but he dutifully did not pull away.

 

A faint mist of green energy swum in the air above both their skins and then vanished, the healing spell having done its work. Loki removed his hands, and Býleistr moved his foot, testing it.

 

“Oh! It’s much better.” He gave a timid smile. “Thank you, brother.”

 

Loki didn’t smile back. He couldn’t. “It was nothing. The least I could do, considering you got injured in the first place undertaking a task for me.”

 

Býleistr looked away again. “I don’t understand,” he admitted. “I was so certain you would like Angrboda. I thought she was pretty. Don’t you think so?”

 

“She’s beautiful, Býleistr,” Loki told him carefully. “But she isn’t…I wasn’t sure what to think. Of being given such a…present.”

 

“She’s a woman,” Býleistr said flatly. “You do know what to do with women - don’t you?”

 

Loki had to give him a sideways look. “Do you?”

 

Býleistr huffed, visibly affronted. “I’m lacking in sense a little, I’m not a child,” he retorted. “Of course I do.”

 

Loki began, “And you thought that I would be want…?”

 

“Yes! Doesn’t every male?” Býleistr blinked, looking dejected and confused again. “I thought it would make you happy. That was all I wanted.”

 

“I know,” Loki sighed. “And…and I am sorry, my brother. Very sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that. It was unthinking of me.”

 

“You don’t have to apologize,” Býleistr mumbled.

 

“Yes,” Loki insisted. “I do. And what’s more, I promise I will try to never let that happen again.”

 

“Oh, you don’t have to say that. I know better,” Býleistr said, calmly. “Helblindi shouts at me all the time. Sometimes, I even shout back a little, if he’s being extra mean. It’s what brothers do.”

 

Loki couldn’t help the laughter that escaped at that. “I suppose you have a point.”

 

He reached up, laying a hand on Býleistr’s shoulder, and gave him a faint smile of reassurance. “But you have been a very good sibling to me so far, Býleistr. And I haven’t always returned the favor. I’ll do better from now on.”

 

Býleistr moved one of his large hands and patted his hair a little, before pulling away. “I like having you as a brother, Loki,” he said simply, happy.

 

The corner of Loki’s eyes stung a bit. “Thank you,” he murmured.

 

“So, you aren’t mad at me?”

 

“No. No I’m not,” Loki assured him again. “You didn’t do anything wrong. My offense was merely a misunderstanding, that’s all.”

 

Býleistr brightened up immensely. “So then that means you’ll keep her after all,” he concluded, beaming in an obviously thrilled way.

 

“What-?” Loki opened his mouth and then shut it again, swiftly.

 

He was violently torn at the look on Býleistr’s face. He didn’t want the Jotun woman, but there was no way to reject her that wouldn’t also reject Býleistr as well. His well-meaning brother simply didn’t understand: either Loki liked his present and wanted it, or he disapproved of it, and he didn’t. There didn’t appear to be any middle ground.

 

Loki fought back a sigh.

 

Oh well. He’d put up with worse he supposed. He could find a way to handle this, somehow.

 

“Yes,” he said, unable to feign any enthusiasm. “If it makes you happy, I’ll keep her.”

 

Býleistr didn’t notice his tone of resignation – he made a sound of pleasure, and Loki tried to smile and not think about what he’d have to deal with later, instead focusing on how pleased his mere agreement had made his brother.

 

*

 

Loki managed to find enough reasons to keep busy all day, so that he didn’t have to return to his chamber until nearly nightfall.

 

Eventually however he knew he would. Unless he planned to do something ridiculous, like stay up all night or sleep in a hallway.

 

But Loki was never one to run away from his problems. He turned and faced them, no matter how unpleasant.

 

Reaching his room he opened the door and entered, and his vague hopes sank, even though he was truly not at all surprised to find he was not alone.

 

The giantess reclined on his bed, waiting patiently, legs stretched to her side and upper body’s weight resting on her arms. She was wearing a different garment than he’d seen last, one-shouldered and perhaps thinner than was strictly necessary.

 

Notably, her dress was also adorned in several places with freshly-plucked ice lilies.

 

Loki restrained an aggravated groan. Confounded Býleistr. Even though the worst really had happened already, after this he was going to very firmly emphasize he needed no more ‘presents’.

 

The Jotun smiled at him in gentle welcome. “Good evening, my prince,” she greeted him, demurely.

 

“Good evening,” Loki returned in a polite if distant tone. “Angrboda, was it?”

 

She nodded, her smile growing with the perceived encouragement. “Yes, my prince.”

 

For a beat Loki stayed where he was, surveying her with almost academic curiosity.

 

The so-called ice maidens of Jotunheim: much smaller in stature than typical and said to be among the most beautiful women who ever lived. They appeared scattered in half-forgotten tales on Asgard, dating from the nearly mythical time before the war. It was even said that Frey, a king of the Vanir, had given up his most valuable sword and a fortune in gold to take one as his bride.

 

At one point when they were still in their youth, he and Thor and their other friends had a discussion about it. They’d come to the conclusion that ice maidens had to be made-up. The idea of a Jotun anything other than monstrous, let alone fair to behold, was far too improbable to be the result of anything but centuries of exaggeration.

 

The irony wasn’t lost on Loki. Not only was there one waiting for him, but all this time he’d been an ‘ice maiden’ of sorts, himself - the male counterpart to the same variation among the Jotnar.

 

“I am glad to see that you are in better spirits than you appeared yesterday, my lord,” Angrboda offered, carefully.

 

Loki sighed. “Yes, I…I am sorry about that.” He gave a brief grimace. “Something of a misunderstanding between my brother and I. I hope you weren’t too offended.”

 

“I was afraid that my prince did not find me satisfactory to look upon,” Angrboda said in controlled, almost prim apprehension.

 

Reading between the lines, the gist appeared to be that as he was firstborn Laufeyson and heir to the throne, she was not allowed to be offended, so that meant it was all her fault. Loki’s mouth twitched.

 

“Not at all, I assure you.”

 

Angrboda beamed. Swiftly she reached to unfasten the shoulder of her gown.

 

“No, no!” Loki raised a hand, hurried. He coughed slightly before he next spoke. “Please, don’t. That…that won’t be necessary.”

 

Angrboda frowned, her forehead creasing in genuine perplexity. “But…you just said-”

 

Loki went over to her. Reaching out, he placed a hand on top of hers, gently but firmly reinforcing his desire she remain clothed as he pulled her fingers away. “I realize that the situation being what it is, this is…unconventional,” he explained, mildly. “But I am not very interested in – that, tonight. I’d prefer it if, for now at least, we could instead keep things at a much more platonic level of companionship.”

 

Angrboda was still visibly confused, but she nodded. “If that is what you wish, my prince. Then, of course, yes.”

 

“Good.” Loki smiled faintly, certain there was relief palpable in every line of his face. For good measure he twisted the fabric between his fingers in an intricate knot, making it far more secure. “I’m glad that we can agree.”

 

Angrboda nodded again, responding to his smile with a similar one of her own. Loki resisted the urge to set his teeth in frustration – he was thankful that was settled, but now what was he supposed to do with her?

 

The idea of females being carted or even carried off to be claimed as tributes or gifted away was not entirely unheard of on Asgard. But it was generally considered an out-of-date practice, and a somewhat poor idea of a thing to do with one’s sisters and daughters. So too was the concept of a nobleman having the right to be given a dedicated consort – if he wanted one, he was certainly capable of finding her for himself.

 

But Loki had been very quickly figuring out that Jotnar society was more heavily…stratified in favor to the honors owed and paid to royalty. And with typical Frost Giant staunch practicality, their customs had not evolved any more than they needed to over time.

 

In the morning, he thought, he might just have to inquire with Laufey about this. Maybe the king could figure of some method for sending Angrboda away without embarrassing her or anyone else.

 

In the meantime though, he was stuck with her. Loki sighed, quietly as he could, and sat on the very edge of the bed a good distance away from Angrboda. All was dead silent – he could think of nothing to say, and she sat there sedately, her hands in her lap. She seemed content to remain in silence so long as it was his will.

 

Loki knew it was rude to ignore her, but he frankly didn’t want to have a conversation. So he gave in to the less noble impulse and pulled a spell book from where he’d left it within reach, page carefully marked. Shifting to a more comfortable position he started to read.

 

Within a moment Angrboda had moved beside him, her weight pressed against his, caressing his shoulders and the back of his neck.

 

Loki froze. Book still open in his hands his eyes slid over to meet hers. “What are you doing?”

 

Angrboda pulled her hand away. “My prince is displeased?” Something about her tone was baffled enough to strongly suggest that he was the one behaving in the unexpected manner.

 

Although. Loki considered it. There was the easy way Helblindi struck Býleistr, a touch-based form of communication, if not a very amiable one. Thrym’s band of soldiers were constantly shoving and pushing at one another. Býleistr gave him pokes with his fingertips all the time. And both Laufey and Thrym never seemed to hesitate to tug Loki along or even pick him up.

 

As soon as he thought about it, actually, it seemed incredibly obvious. The Jotnar were evidently a very tactile people.

 

He fidgeted, trying not to meet Angrboda’s earnest gaze in too awkward a manner. “I’m unused to being so casually handled by…well you’re very nice, I’m sure, but technically we are still strangers,” he managed.

 

Angrboda only blinked at him.

 

Loki gave in. “You may continue,” he said in nearly feeble surrender.

 

He didn’t need to tell her twice – with the blink of an eye she was back against him almost in relief.

 

Loki tried to walk the thin line between disregarding her presence and taking mild physical pleasure from her touch; admittedly, it did feel very nice.

 

It was very hard to focus on his studies, however, with Angrboda leaning into him all but purring like a contented cat. After several minutes of re-reading the same paragraph and finding he’d absorbed none of it, he gave up.

 

“You have no interest in saying anything?” he asked her, hoping he didn’t sound disapproving or irate. At least when he found himself interrupted at his reading by another being, he could usually count on them to behave in a predictable manner: a lot of maddening and impertinent questions.

 

Angrboda actually smiled in amusement, her eyes sparkling with brief unvoiced laughter. She ran the fingers of one hand through his hair, carding it as she stroked his scalp. Loki almost pulled away, discomfited by how good the intimate gesture felt.

 

“My prince is very used to his solitude, it appears,” she remarked in what sounded suspiciously like a teasing tone.

 

Loki bit his lower lip. She was exactly right, regrettably. Between his magic and his mischief, he was just so used to being alone that even finding himself around other people could chafe severely at times.

 

“It’s nothing personal,” he told her, having not a clue what else to say.

 

Angrboda’s smile became kinder. She leaned in so their noses almost touched. “I promise to do nothing to cause offense,” she murmured.

 

Loki pulled back, blinking at the sudden lack of distance. He was starting to feel lightheaded – and an unfortunate almost primal sense of arousal. He was still alive, after all, and he did have a shapely and eager woman draped over him.

 

He cleared his throat, trying to steer this back to someplace safer. “Did Býleistr really just carry you away from your home without any objection from your family?” he asked, genuinely curious.

 

“Oh no,” Angrboda corrected him, eyes widening. “Your brother did not seize me. When he explained what it was I was intended for, I was all too happy to come.” Tentatively she ran fingers along his neck upward to touch his jawline. “Who would not be honored, to be chosen to live in service for the heir? Besides I…I was thrilled, for my own personal reasons.” For a moment her smile became girl-like. “I had never thought I would actually find a male that was like me. They don’t tend to live to adulthood.”

 

“You didn’t expect you would eventually have to marry a Jotun of the regular size, did you?” Loki had to ask, bluntly, his mind struggling not to get into the implications.

 

Angrboda looked away, and only shrugged in reply.

 

“This isn’t merely about duty, is it?” Loki realized in distant astonishment. “You’re pleased to be here.”

 

Angrboda gazed into his eyes questioningly. Her hands were still cupping his face. “Why did you think I wouldn’t be?”

 

Loki had nothing to say to that, and so he remained speechless. Carefully he removed her hands from his face – though he realized he did so with no small amount of regret.

 

Trying to keep his mind off of things, he went and fed the fox kits. Angrboda laid on her front on the bed and watched the litter with curiosity and delight.

 

She stretched her fingers out to them, and when one came over, sniffing and licking her hand, she laughed and scooped it up to cuddle it in both arms.

 

Loki watched her fervently. There was something very childlike about her – not the same way Býleistr was, but something else. She was so…innocent. Unhesitant about everything.

 

When it finally came time for them to sleep, he considered his options with unease. He would never be so ungallant as to make a woman sleep on the floor. He could easily carve Angrboda a bed out of the living ice, but – his own was huge. There was no real way he could explain away them not sharing it without making it obvious he was trying to put space between them.

 

He let Angrboda have most of the blankets and then, on his side with back to her, pushed himself as close to the far edge of the bed as he dared. He removed all the illumination in the chamber but didn’t shut his eyes.

 

He felt no surprise at all when a short time later he felt the curves of her body against his back, a hand pressing to hold his shoulder. She nuzzled his neck with her cheek.

 

“I find you very desirable, my prince,” she promised, as if he needed the reassurance.

 

“That’s what worries me,” Loki muttered. But he did nothing to stop the two of them falling asleep together cuddling as if they were already practiced at fitting into one another’s arms.

 

*

 

Loki rose from his bed with care the next morning, making certain to leave Angrboda still sleeping.

 

He stopped without quite meaning to, glancing back at her body stretched out half on her back, the cloud of surreal white that was her hair spread out against the pillow.

 

Her face was serene, an absent smile on her lips. Loki tugged the blanket up to more fully cover her.

 

Uncertain what to do next he went for a walk, eventually finding himself outside in the barracks by Thrym and his soldiers.

 

He found them lazily grouped around a certain area, some of them leaning against their shields or sitting on the wall as they talked to one another in half mutters and distant remarks. Clearly, this was not an active moment.

 

At his approach, the majority of the group made an attempt at standing at attention.

 

“My prince.” Thrym started to get up, likely so that he could bow. “How are you today, my lord?”

 

Loki waved a hand in dismissal, indicating that he and the rest shouldn’t bother. For a moment they comically froze in half-respectful positions, before finally settling back down and relaxing as they were.

 

“I’m quite fine, Thrym.”

 

“Good.” There was a pause. Then the Jotun warrior began, in a more meaningful tone, “Did you sleep well last night, my lord?” He was trying to maintain a subservient and polite manner, but the interest was keen in his eyes.

 

There was the odd sound from behind Thrym of what it took Loki a few seconds to decipher as Frost Giants stifling sniggers.

 

Loki’s eyes went sky-ward in exasperation. Evidently the news of Angrboda’s presence had already made the rounds.

 

“Yes, as a matter of fact I did,” he said in a wry tone. Though my rest was slightly hampered by the clingy maiden in my bed. “And I mean that in the most literal sense, Thrym. It was not an active night.”

 

Thrym frowned in confusion.

 

Loki sighed, and got more explicit. “I have yet to actually do anything with Angrboda,” he stressed.

 

Well, at least there was no cultural barrier involved in the looks on the faces of the soldiers in response to that proclamation. It was exactly the same mixture of bemusement and mild horror he’d have expected on Asgard.

 

“You…didn’t?” Thrym questioned, brow knitting together quizzically above widened eyes.

 

Loki shook his head, trying hard not to scowl. “No. I didn’t want to. Is that truly so hard to understand?”

 

There was an awkward moment as Thrym said nothing, several of the other Jotnar exchanged sideways looks, and finally one of them coughed.

 

The soldier spoke in the tone of one who knew he was speaking out of turn, but still couldn’t help himself. “You’re not, eh…still a…?”

 

Loki no longer bothered concealing his irritation. “No,” he answered sharply. “No I am not!”

 

He crossed his arms. Honestly; it was like being in adolescence and pressured to exchange stories all over again. As if romantic conquests were the same as hits in battle, or kills on a hunt.

 

“As I’m sure you’ll all be greatly relieved to hear, I haven’t been chaste for a very long time.”

 

Thrym actually did give what sounded like a sigh of relief. Even as Loki felt his fingers itching to cast a hex, he tried to tell himself he shouldn’t hold it against him. There were practical reasons for being concerned at a royal heir’s lack of interest in the act of copulation, after all.

 

“So then, there’s nothing wrong with her?” Thrym inquired.

 

“She’s…fine. I merely am not one to leap headlong into somebody’s arms just because they happen to be conveniently placed nearby, that’s all,” Loki explained wearily. “At the very least, it takes a little more time than that.”

 

“Ah.” Thrym scratched the side of his face; he didn’t appear to understand, but seemed willing to let it go. “Alright. If that’s your way, my prince, then so be it.”

 

“Wait a minute,” one of the other warriors exclaimed. “You say you’ve been with women. But, before now you’ve never been on Jotunheim…so that means…”

 

The band of soldiers all eyed him again. Loki gave them a narrow smile.

 

“Oh yes. I’ve been with Aesir,” he replied. “And some females on Midgard, Vanaheim, Alfeim and Svartalfheim as well, for that matter.”

 

They clearly found that idea as repulsive and outlandish as most Aesir would bedding a Jotun. “Is it true that Aesir women bleed between their legs like stuck pigs?” one asked in a mutter.

 

Loki gave an odd chuckle. “Some of them. But that’s only usually at first. Why, Jotnar don’t?”

 

The men visibly shuddered. “No,” Thrym was quick to assure him. “Never.”

 

Loki frowned, pressing a thumb to his lips as he thought. “So, then you have no way of telling if your partner has been with another before you,” he realized.

 

“Could always ask her, Prince.” Thrym shrugged. “If that matters.”

 

“It normally doesn’t?” It didn’t to Loki, personally, but he was used to a preference for virgins being popular, especially among nobles, and now he was just curious.

 

Thrym shook his head. “So long as she hasn’t borne any children, or her first mate is dead already, why would it?”

 

“I…suppose it wouldn’t,” Loki said, not wanting to get into the complicated details. The Aesir were a far from prudish people, but they put a certain value in maintaining at least outward appearances. The Jotnar, on the other hand, seemed to be upfront about their promiscuity.

 

Thrym grinned in a friendly way that was distinctly masculine, and gave Loki a thumping pat on one shoulder.

 

“Well, my prince,” he said, “when you do get around to completing things with your ice maiden, believe me. I’m certain you’ll see at once why there’s no reason to go back to such strange dalliances ever again.”

 

There was an air of finality about that statement that put a strange, nervous twist in Loki’s stomach.

 

“If you say so, Thrym,” he replied in a murmur.

 

*

 

In the aftermath of the situation with Angrboda’s arrival, there were still two things to be taken care of.

 

The first was repairing Fárbauti’s mirror. Dedicatedly Loki gathered up every broken silver fragment, and then carefully took the time necessary to fit them all back into place. After that, it was simple enough to reform the glass together with his magic.

 

He looked it over afterwards and could find no trace of the cracks that’d once spider-webbed through. It was perfectly intact and whole, in the same condition it was when he first laid eyes on it.

 

Loki tried to give the mirror back to Býleistr, but his brother would have none of it.

 

“I gave it to you, Loki,” he insisted. “It’s yours now. Keep it.”

 

“But I think that it means far more to you,” Loki explained, pained. “You said it was one of the only things that remain of our mother.”

 

“And as eldest, that means you should get to keep it.” Býleistr was unswayable. “Besides, if I ever want to look at it, I can always come visit it in your room.”

 

His efforts defeated, Loki formed a low table out of the ice and left the mirror there in the best he could do for a place of honor. He caught Angrboda looking at it in curiosity.

 

“You may touch this if you like, but please be careful,” he firmly instructed her. “It belonged to a queen.”

 

Angrboda stood and came closer, reaching to touch the mirror’s carved handle with a fingertip. “Fárbauti?”

 

“Did you know of her?” Loki looked at her with mild interest.

 

“I never saw her during my lifetime – the royal house does not often travel far from the palace, anymore, and she died when I was but a child. But I’ve heard stories.” Angrboda considered it. “It’s said she was strong in will, but much less so in body. When Jotunheim was broken under the heel of the Aesir, so too went her life.”

 

Loki was silent for a moment, lost in thought. “I don’t suppose you ever heard anything about what she was like as a mother,” he said quietly, resigned.

 

Angrboda turned to meet his eyes. She took in his expression shrewdly. “She was willing to have three sons, one of them born after the fall,” she said at length. “To me that tells me she was a woman who loved children, and her family. I’m certain your brother’s admiration of her is well-placed.”

 

Loki looked up in surprise. “Býleistr spoke to you about that?”

 

“What does my prince think that I am doing all day, while he is elsewhere?” she said to him playfully. “I spend many of my hours with Býleistr. We get along well.” She wrapped her arms around herself lightly, her gaze drifting to the side for a moment. “When at first I thought my lord had rejected me, I hoped that I would then belong to his brother. He is very kind.”

 

“You would rather have been with Býleistr than with me?” Loki exclaimed, too surprised to even consider feeling jealous.

 

Angrboda giggled, shaking her head. “I only meant that Prince Býleistr is my second choice,” she replied, frankly. “I was a girl taken to the house of another, after all, and under no one’s protection. If my prince had not claimed me and the king had not chosen to place me under his authority, I could’ve fallen to anyone. From the lowest servant to the cruelest soldier.” She beamed at Loki, touching his face with her hand.

 

“But no, I would never place another over you in my eyes. You are beyond compare.”

 

Loki let her keep her hand there for a minute or two, before finally he gently brushed her touch away.

 

The second matter that had to be attended to was much less straightforward, and much less simple.

 

In the middle of the day Loki knew Helblindi would not be in his quarters. Býleistr had mentioned before that Helblindi never slept there, in fact used it as little more than a storage space. If he was not kept in the palace because of some duty that their father had ordered him to, or out leading a patrol with a group of warriors, than the second prince of Jotunheim would almost assuredly be in the barracks.

 

Loki’s understanding of the pattern did not prove wrong. He arrived to find Helblindi in the midst of drilling soldiers – or rather, ordering them to drill him.

 

One or two at a time, the Jotnar rushed at him, or used their affinity with the ice to attack the prince with some construct. They did not stop until they were successfully repelled.

 

Or, as was proving to be the case as Loki watched, until they’d been so severely pummeled they refused to get up any more.

 

Loki was used to watching warriors put through their paces on Asgard, but even the most dedicated went about it with a sense of exhilaration, a sporting mode to their behavior. But there was no playacting in how Helblindi moved or struck his blows. His every move was an act of war.

 

A Jotun swiped at Helblindi with an axe grown out of the ice at the end of his arm. Helblindi swung hard, shattering the weapon, and then barreled into the center of the soldier’s torso with one armored forearm. The other Jotun fell back, stunned.

 

Helblindi snarled, his every muscle tense with battle-fury. “Another!”

 

Loki didn’t think he imagined that the next two Jotnar trembled as they stepped up.

 

From the sidelines he watched as Helblindi battered and floored one attacker after another. As he smashed and slashed his way through pillars and weapons made of thickest Jotunheim ice.

 

Helblindi took after Laufey; he was tall and lean and pointed, but on what could be considered the slender side for a Frost Giant. More than a few of the soldiers he beat down were broader than he was, with thicker muscles. It never slowed him – he had the cold raging fire of fury and determination, and what looked to be years of intense training on his side.

 

Helblindi had on the thin skull-hugging helmet of a Jotun warrior and a light set of armor composed of a jerkin and plates that extended to cover his limbs. His sword was as long as Loki was tall, with a huge curved guard attached to the hilt that could be used as a bludgeon in a pinch. The very end of the blade ceased to be straight in design, the edge giving way to saw-like points. Both weapon and armor were finely made for all their ruthless simplicity, and both showed signs of having had a lot of use.

 

Being born a prince, even to a fighting race, did not guarantee that one would be a warrior. Helblindi had clearly taken it upon himself a long time ago to make it so.

 

He carved his way through an icy shield, hitting the soldier that’d been hiding behind it so hard he was hurled back several feet. No new one immediately went to take his place.

 

Helblindi was breathing heavily, but from his face it was clear he thought himself far from done. He kept his sword up, unflagging.

 

“Another!” he demanded, his voice a harsh roar, flecks of spittle flying out to freeze in midair. “Again!”

 

The Jotnar hung back where they were, eyeing their prince with wary fear. If he ordered them to keep fighting they could not refuse him, but to a man they were injured and exhausted. They wanted nothing more than to stop.

 

Loki took a step forward, making his presence known. “Actually brother, perhaps you should dismiss them for a little while,” he remarked. “I would have words with you.”

 

The soldiers sagged in relief. Helblindi eyed him from over squared soldiers, eyes blazing and mouth set in a line. But Loki was his elder and as a point of honor and duty, he was supposed to obey him.

 

Helblindi growled, and looked away again.

 

“Fine!” he barked in command. “All of you, out of my sight!”

 

The soldiers quickly scattered, leaving Loki alone with him.

 

Irritably, Helblindi unfastened the collar of his jerkin. He thrust his sword down and released it, sheathing the blade in the ground.

 

“Well, what is it?” he grated at Loki. “What do you want?”

 

Loki eyed the sword, frowning mildly. “Is there something I don’t know about?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“It’s just the way that you were carrying on right now. You’d think that Jotunheim was going into war tomorrow.”

 

Helblindi gave a harsh humorless laugh. “So easy for you to think of our conflict as ended, sitting up in your golden palaces on Asgard. Actually enjoying your ‘peace’. Knowing only the superiority of victory.” He scowled, shaking his head. “But for our people the war has never truly been over. Every day means we continue fighting – if not against actual Aesir warriors, then for our own sense of pride.”

 

“It’s always about the struggle, isn’t it?” Loki mused. Fighting meant glory and prowess on Asgard – on Jotunheim it was a way of life. Only the strong survived among the Jotnar; that wasn’t about vanity or authority, it was a fact of existence.

 

And Helblindi had been raised to be King of the Jotnar. Spent all his life with the awareness he was to ascend the throne of a barren and defeated world; that one day he would be counted on to lead his people, knowing that things would never get better, that it would be a constant struggle to keep them the same and it could be counted on to almost assuredly get worse.

 

He was beginning to understand how Helblindi could have formed so, growing up with such knowledge always in his mind - hardened and humorless and with no patience for anything.

 

Loki cleared his throat. “Actually, what I wanted to talk with you about was the other day, with Býleistr.” He lowered his gaze. “I…wanted to thank you, for intervening. You were right, but I might not have seen it without your…guidance.”

 

Helblindi made a dismissive sound. “Is that all?” he muttered. “It was nothing.”

 

“It was not ‘nothing’,” Loki argued, raising his head. “Especially not to Býleistr.”

 

His brother gave a half-shrug. “The oaf has few enough friends. I thought it was pointless to keep the two of you at odds for no reason.”

 

“If that’s so, then why do you have such a problem with me?” Loki stressed. Helblindi drew himself up and did not answer, but Loki kept going. “Is it because I’ve replaced you?”

 

Replaced me.” Helblindi glowered at him in withering disbelief. “You, a half-formed waif, a pampered pet raised and tended in an Aesir hothouse?” He scoffed. “Don’t ever think it for a moment.”

 

“You were first in line before I showed up,” Loki insisted. “All your life, you thought you’d be king. And then suddenly you’re no longer heir, no longer the eldest. I as good as stole the throne from you. You expect me to believe that doesn’t gall you in the slightest?”

 

Even after having watched him fight, the speed at which Helblindi moved closer was surprising. Loki struggled to stand his ground as the Jotun loomed over him then leaned in.

 

“What galls me is not the fact you exist,” Helblindi grated at him. He stuck a finger out and prodded Loki hard, in the chest. “What galls me is you.”

 

He pulled away again, as if his disgust was too great to allow him to remain near Loki for long. “Our father led our people through the great wars, and he held them together afterwards with his bare hands. And he would throw that all away…on you. You deserve and value not what you inherit.”

 

Loki blinked. “So, you don’t care that I have what used to be yours,” he said, slowly. “You just don’t want to see it go to me.”

 

Pulling his great sword free, Helblindi hefted the weapon in his hands. “I consider myself a soldier who serves Jotunheim. I would have no problem following you, bowing to you as my king – if I thought you were actually worthy.”

 

A younger brother who didn’t mind being subservient, but couldn’t stand watching his unfit older brother ascend to the throne.

 

Before he could help himself, Loki’s lips twitched: he let out a short hysterical laugh, and swiftly clapped a hand over his mouth to stop it.

 

“I’m sorry,” he managed, brokenly. “It’s just…the funny thing is, I know exactly how you feel.”

 

Helblindi only continued giving him a cold and unconvinced stare.

 

Loki sighed. It was so ironic. Helblindi who’d accepted him the least, was also the only one on Jotunheim who saw him the way that Loki had wanted, the way he originally identified himself: as a son of Asgard. But to Helblindi that was not a good thing. The Aesir were untrustworthy, cowardly and worthless.

 

“Let’s see.” Loki looked to the side and then back to his brother with an unwavering expression. “How was it that you put it?” He gave a mirthless smile. “You don’t think I’m really a Jotun.”

 

“No,” Helblindi returned, inflectionless. “I do not.”

 

Loki held out a hand. The ice sprung to his wordless command, a polearm forming in his grasp. He raised it in a two-handed grip across, ready.

 

“Then by all means, my brother,” he demanded. “Teach me.”

 

Helblindi looked down at him, dubiously. But Loki stared back at him and refused to blink.

 

“I mean it,” he said firmly. “If you don’t think I can be king but neither of us has any choice in the matter, the surely the only course of action is to teach me how.”

 

Drawing in a low breath, Helblindi raised his sword to his shoulder. “If you think that I’m going to go easy on you-”

 

“No,” Loki cut him off. “I wouldn’t have it that way, and besides, I know better. Now are you going to leave me standing here all day or not?”

 

Helblindi’s mouth twisted in a brief sneer. And then he brought his blade down with a roar, officially beginning their practice bout.

Chapter Text

It took far less than time than Loki would’ve expected, for him to give in.

 

Days passed, and Angrboda was always there. Watching him work his spells. Conversing with him and Býleistr. Lying on the floor playing with the fox kits. Sitting by the window, humming melodiously to herself.

 

By the third night, Loki no longer tried pulling away from her when she held him. He even started holding her back.

 

He might’ve expected her skin to be cold to his touch, like a fish, but in his Jotun form she didn’t feel cold to him at all. She wasn’t warm either, just a perfect moderate temperature, her skin soft beneath his hands, her hair sleek and fine and always smelling faintly like fresh snowfall.

 

She smiled gently whenever he touched her, something in her red eyes warming – encouragement, it could be supposed. Loki couldn’t sit down without her moving to be closer to him, laying a hand on his arm or pressing herself to his side. He’d come in at the end of a day and she would offer to rub his shoulders or his feet, or brush his hair.

 

He stopped being discomforted by her ever-present caresses. He got used to them, shook off the feeling like he wasn’t supposed enjoy it.

 

One night they were sitting on the bed, Loki silent and pensive as Angrboda pressed her face into his upper back, fingers running along the length of his arms.

 

He turned around, met her eyes silently for a moment, then reached to tug at her chin and kissed her.

 

Angrboda didn’t pause for a breath of surprise. She returned the kiss, mouth giving way against his.

 

Hand still against her cheek, mouths still locked together, he guided her onto her back.

 

After that, it was all a mix of familiar motions and exploring new territory.

 

Afterward, though, when he was certain she’d fallen asleep, Loki sat up and pressed a hand to her stomach, casting a spell to ensure she wouldn’t conceive from the union.

 

He was beginning to feel shame from how he reacted to their race, but old habits were hard to break. He still couldn’t bear the thought of fathering a Jotun. It was too much.

 

The sorcery was halfway completed, magic hanging in the air, when Angrboda stirred, her eyes fluttering open.

 

She couldn’t know what he was doing, but it was obvious it was something. She frowned, puzzled, eyes wide and questioning. “My prince?” she whispered.

 

He managed a faint smile. “It’s alright. Nothing that will do you any lasting harm. It’s just – well, I think it’s soon for us to be having children, don’t you?” He gave a chuckle he didn’t feel. “I only wanted to be certain.”

 

Angrboda’s confusion didn’t fade. “Children? But…of course not. I wasn’t planning on it.”

 

Loki had the strong feeling he was missing something. He withdrew his hand, the uncast energy fading. “What precisely do you mean by ‘planning’?”

 

She pushed herself up onto her elbows, gaze still widely fixed on him.

 

“It’s impossible to have a child without both parents’ desiring it,” she said. “The same way our bodies are kept alive by will though we once formed from the ice, so too does it take the will of mother and father both to bring new life into being.”

 

“So there’s no such thing among the Jotnar, as an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy?” Loki asked.

 

She shook her head, befuddled. “No. Nothing can ever be done by accident.” Taking in the look on his face, she gently reached for his elbow. “You didn’t know?”

 

He shook his head. But from an evolutionary perspective it made sense – Jotunheim was too hard a world, the Jotnar too resilient a people. Ensuring they could only carry children when they wanted it, when they knew such children could live, had probably gone a long way to aiding their survival.

 

He pressed a hand over his face, humiliated. He felt like an ignorant boy, who had assumed his mother was having a baby simply because he’d seen a stork.

 

Angrboda tugged at him. “This is not how things happen for the Aesir, I take it,” she inferred, tentatively.

 

Loki almost laughed. “No. It isn’t.” He dropped his hand, meeting her eyes. “I’m sorry. I should’ve asked, I just…I thought…everything else is the same, so why not-”

 

Angrboda reached out, pressing fingers over his lips, effectively coaxing him into silence.

 

“It’s fine.” She smiled at him. “You didn’t offend me.  And you haven’t embarrassed yourself, either, at least not as thoroughly as you seem to think.”

 

Loki smiled back at her faintly, reaching to stroke through her hair. “Do me a favor, though. Don’t tell anyone.”

 

She promised sweetly, “Of course not, my prince.”

 

*

 

Odin stood on the rainbow path and gazed up at the Bifrost.

 

Heimdall, as always, stood at his watch. They were close enough for Odin and the guardian to see each other - especially for two such beings as they, who rarely missed anything in their sights.

 

But Heimdall wouldn’t acknowledge his king until Odin chose to greet him. For now he stood in stony silence as they both respectfully feigned ignorance of one another.

 

Odin dropped his head, and for a moment he almost sighed. He was weary.

 

The Odinsleep would soon be upon him. He should’ve let it happen already, but he’d put it off, perhaps longer than he should. There was business to attend to with Thor’s planned coronation. And after that had fallen apart he couldn’t allow himself to enter his trance, not with his other son still in Jotunheim.

 

But his efforts to negotiate with Laufey had failed. For now there was nothing that could be done about Loki, much as it pained him – and no more reason then, for him to stay.

 

Preparations were already being made. With no obvious threat looming, Frigga and his advisors would handle the kingdom in his stead.

 

Thor he made swear on his honor that he would not leave Asgard while the Odinsleep still held him. With things already uneasy it could start outright chaos if his heir was to disappear. As little as he could rely on his son to stay even-tempered these days, he knew he could trust in him to keep such a promise.

 

But he feared what might happen, once he awakened. Assuming that he awoke at all - maybe this would be the time the sleep finally held him for good. He felt so tired…

 

But, no. Odin shook off such thoughts. He could not fail to return, not now. Not with his first son in a state of enragement, his wife worried and grieving, and his second son taken from him. No.

 

He would come back from the Odinsleep, soon as he could. And he would somehow set things right.

 

Still, his steps were undeniably heavy as he approached the Bifrost.

 

“Heimdall.”

 

“All-Father.” The armored watchman inclined his head ever so slightly in acknowledgement. “You grow tired, my king,” he observed, not unsympathetic.

 

“I am.” Odin saw no point in denying it. “But there is nothing that can be done about it now.” He met the other warrior’s gaze with his one eye. “Thor comes to visit you?”

 

“He does, my king. He has many times.”

 

“He inquires after his brother?”

 

“Yes.” There was an unspoken addition hanging in Heimdall’s words, and Odin nodded his head, indicating he should continue. “But he does not ask me the right questions.”

 

Odin sighed. “He does not understand,” he stated. “He thinks he does, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

 

Shaking his head, he dismissed all thoughts of Thor for the moment. “Tell me,” he asked Heimdall, “how fares Loki?”

 

“Better than he has been. He no longer wars so with what has been revealed about himself. He no longer fights his own blood, his own people.”

 

“That is good,” Odin said absently, quiet. “I would rather he not be in any pain over that which he has no control.”

 

All was silence for a short space. Heimdall offered, “What else would you like to know, my king?”

 

Everything, Odin thought, fiercely, but he restrained himself. He wished to know all that happened with his child; every moment, every word, every action. But it was not his to know. If he spied on his son so directly the consequences could be disastrous; if Laufey found out, or if Loki did, for that matter.

 

When Loki returned (and Odin still insisted it was only a matter of ‘when’) he could tell all himself. Until then, his father would have to content himself with what was truly important.

 

He inhaled. “Is he happy?”

 

“That is hard to say, my king,” Heimdall said honestly. “A part of him grieves for Asgard, and there are still circumstances he does not understand. But he has begun to open himself to his blood-kin of Jotunheim.  And I think there are things that he never felt fully welcomed for on Asgard, that are more accepted there.”

 

Odin nodded to this, but did not make any reply. He was torn. He knew that for a long time, things had been hard for Loki. That he had struggled to fit in and even questioned whether he belonged.

 

And maybe Odin had not always done what he could to assure him. Of course it was only now in the grips of the fear he could lose him, that he clearly saw how strong the chances of that loss were.

 

He would find a way to make it possible to bring Loki back from Jotunheim. Odin had sworn it.

 

But what if by the time that it finally happened, Loki no longer wished to go?

 

*

 

Thrym had explained to Loki in passing, that while a male Jotun was in some ways thought an adult ever since surviving his Winter’s Right, the same did not hold true for females.

 

Daughters of Jotunheim did not undergo Winter’s Right. They had no act of official initiation. For a woman of their people, the line between childhood and adulthood fell at the bearing of offspring. Once she was a mother she would become a warrior, expected to defend her children from all that threatened them and teach them how to be strong.

 

Until she successfully survived the act of childbirth however she was technically not a woman, still commonly viewed as a girl, a maiden.

 

That cultural sentiment explained Angrboda. Her playful and unguarded behavior was to be expected of a Jotun her age.

 

Like a child, she was forthright and merry. But that didn’t mean everything about her was childish. She was sharply observant, and clever - even cunning, at times.

 

She had the pluck and cheerfulness of a girl, and the guile of a woman. It proved to be a combination Loki’s resolve was powerless against.

 

The dam had broken. He’d claimed Angrboda as his – and in doing so, had made him hers.

 

They made love more nights than they did not. But despite the frequency of the act, the constant of the other’s presence, they had yet to begin growing bored with each other.

 

Loki sat in the middle of his bed, Angrboda pressed against his back, caressing him, the blankets and sheets pooled around both their waists.

 

The afterglow had already faded, but it was the middle of the day. Hardly a time for sleeping. Still there didn’t seem to be much inclination to get up and do something – neither of them was in a hurry to go anywhere.

 

Angrboda trailed lazy fingers down the front of Loki’s chest. He liked the feeling, until he looked down and realized she was tracing the raised lines of his skin.

 

He swallowed tightly, and reached to pry her hands away, relocating them to his shoulders.

 

Angrboda pulled back enough to meet his eyes, surprised. “Were you not enjoying that, my prince?”

 

The answer was yes, but he couldn’t do so knowingly without a sour feeling in his stomach. Loki wouldn’t try to explain that – he merely shook his head in what passed for a dismissive manner.

 

“It’s fine. I just…for the moment I’d rather you rubbed my shoulders instead.”

 

Angrboda wasn’t willing to accept that. She pressed a slow kiss right below the nape of his neck.

 

“Is it any wonder I find it hard to keep my hands off of you, my prince,” she murmured, smiling, “as marvelous as you are?”

 

She couldn’t realize it but she was only making it worse. Loki shifted, flinching uncomfortably all over. It was impossible to return her smile.

 

Angrboda stopped. She moved further away, giving him no choice but to turn and look her in eye. Her sultry expression was gone.

 

With obvious concern she reached to cup his face. “Loki,” she said softly. “What’s wrong? Tell me. Please.”

 

He breathed out. “I wish that you wouldn’t go on about me like that, that’s all.” Lowering his head he avoided her gaze, brooding.

 

Angrboda smiled again, though it was a confused one. “My prince does not think he is handsome?”

 

Loki stared at his own hands. He had moved past fear, past that instinctive revulsion, but no…he still found it impossible to find approval with his Frost Giant body, to think of it as something to be desired.

 

He was no longer put off by the others, but it seemed he was still hardest on himself.

 

Angrboda took his silence for the assent it was. She seemed to find his reluctance senseless, even amusing. “Well to me you very much are,” she reassured him, brushing fingers against his hair.

 

“You wouldn’t think so if I was Aesir,” Loki muttered, fists clenching.

 

Angrboda giggled lightly at that statement, finding it pointlessly outlandish. “What does that matter?”

 

Loki set his jaw, considering.

 

In secret he’d been practicing at changing to his other form. Not out of any desire to escape or regain what he’d lost, but mainly to see if he could. It was difficult magic, not like a glamor or even shape-shifting, but a complete transformation from one thing to another. It’d been slow going, and he’d had to be incredibly careful, not wanting anyone to stumble on what he was up to – knowing what reaction he’d get at being seen. He shuddered to think how Laufey or Helblindi would take it.

 

Angrboda reached for him again, and in a split second Loki made up his mind. He turned bodily around to face her and willed himself to change. The air grew so shockingly cold it almost stole his breath away as his blue skin faded to shades of palest peach.

 

Angrboda froze, hand inches away from him. Her smile vanished and she pulled back, eyes wide.

 

Any triumph Loki might’ve felt at pulling off such a trick was quickly squashed by the look on her face.

 

He’d heard the way Jotnar spoke about Aesir, and so he’d anticipated disgust, shock…maybe for her to cavalierly protest it didn’t matter, as all the while the truth showed beneath a forced expression. She wouldn’t be the first noble consort resigned to lying with a man she found physically unappealing, after all.

 

But that wasn’t what he saw in Angrboda’s face. She shrunk back from him, shaking like a leaf.

 

“Angrboda?” Loki questioned, surprised and worried at such a reaction. “What is it?”

 

Her voice had grown so small it was almost shrill. “What…?” she stammered. “Why would you…?”

 

Her eyes gleamed with terror. She looked like a wild animal face to face with a hunter, too paralyzed with dread to bolt.

 

Loki stared at her, astonished, as he realized what he was seeing. “Are you afraid of me?”

 

Angrboda was too overcome to speak. When he started to stretch a hand towards her, unthinking, she crossed her arms over her body, trying to shield herself.

 

Loki was horrified: he hadn’t wanted to scare her. Quickly he willed himself to change again, returning to his Jotun form.

 

Reaching out he pulled her to him, trying to comfort her in his arms. She let him, holding to his restored body in unshielded relief.

 

“Why would you do such a thing?” Angrboda clung to him, practically sobbing.

 

“I’m sorry,” Loki murmured in contrition. “I had no idea you’d react in such a way. I wasn’t trying to frighten you.”

 

Pressing her hands flat to his chest, Angrboda lifted up her head.

 

“Ever since I was old enough that I could be expected to hear and understand, I was told what terrible things would happen if an Aesir man ever found me,” she told him, stilted. “That they would seize me and violate my body. I’d be carried off by their kind, to die a broken thing in some dry and barren hell –my luckiest fate would be forced to marry some Aesir, to live shackled to him and made to bear children that looked nothing like my people.”

 

Loki all but gaped at her. The Jotnar and the Aesir had been raised to hate one another, but despite all the horrible stories he’d been told about Frost Giants, it’d never even occurred to him to think…

 

On Jotunheim, the stories told to frighten children were about the Aesir.

 

“I’m sorry,” he said, again. Gingerly he reached to run a strand of her silver hair between his fingers. “They have tales about ice maidens and men too, on Asgard, but I never thought how different they might be from the other perspective.”

 

Angrboda stared at him fiercely. “What?” she demanded. “Do those savages glorify the act of capturing women as if they were no more than beasts?”

 

Loki opened his mouth to object – and then realized, actually, they did. All the tales of bold warriors of Asgard who ventured into Jotunheim and were rewarded with a beautiful woman: they were about the men, how blessed they were, how strong. It was never mentioned how the ice maidens felt about things, if they even went willingly – or if they were carted off by force, weeping for the home they would never again see.

 

“The legend of Frey said he paid for Gerd with a handsome bride-price,” Loki protested weakly. “He gifted her father a mountain of gold, and even gave up his sword.”

 

“He offered gold,” Angrboda retorted. “And when Gerd still rejected him, Frey threatened her instead, saying he would slander her and curse her, and bring bloodshed upon her line by killing her relatives. She went with him because she had no choice. Just like any Jotnar woman who’s gone with the Aesir has no choice – they prize our beauty, and so they steal us away.”

 

Loki gazed at the dark, sullen expression on her face. No wonder the sight of him as an Aesir terrified her. All her life she’d been warned what special threat the Aesir posed to her because of how she was formed. She’d had fear drilled into her since she was a child.

 

“What do your tales say about Bestla?” he asked, curious.

 

Loki knew almost nothing about his Jotun grandmother. She was dead before Odin even ascended the throne, and she was rarely spoken of on Asgard since the war; the people uncertain how to treat the knowledge their king was technically half the blood of their enemy, and so finding it easier to pretend she never existed.

 

Even Loki forgot, from time to time. Now it was mostly ironic that he had automatically assumed Odin must despise his adopted son, when Odin was half-Jotnar himself.

 

Angrboda scowled. “She’s viewed as a traitor to our people. She alone went willingly, and wed herself to an Aesir king. She turned her back on her own kind and forgot them. Bor was unfaithful to her over a hundred times – we never treat our vows so lightly. But Bestla remained with him. She even gave him a son.”

 

Loki cringed at the description, but could find no quarrel with it. Even as a boy, he’d noticed the stories about Bor focused on what a mighty king and warrior he was. Once he was old enough to listen to palace whispers, he had the whole truth.

 

Bor was a good king, yes, but he was not a good father – and what’s more when he wasn’t leading his men into glorious battles, he was prone to drinking, openly taking mistresses, and starting fights at the slightest impulse.

 

In a way he embodied all the worst qualities the Jotnar saw in their enemies. And for him, Bestla had abandoned her home-world. No wonder they were inclined to view her with disfavor.

 

Loki sat aside from Angrboda and gazed off into the middle distance, not sure what to say.

 

After a moment Angrboda pressed her palm to his cheek. “My prince?” she questioned gently.

 

Loki shook his head. “You have to understand,” he began, haltingly. “I wasn’t treated like a captive on Asgard the way that everyone seems to think. I didn’t even know – I thought I was one of them.”

 

He lifted a hand before his eyes and looked at it.

 

“I was raised a prince on Asgard; Thor’s brother, Odin’s son. And though there were always things that didn’t seem right to me, still I never thought I was anything but.” He let his hand fall to his lap again. “After a lifetime of that, it’s…it’s very hard for me to change my mind around to something different.”

 

Angrboda hesitated a moment, but then she grasped his arm in both hands, leaning in so she spoke close by his face.

 

“How could they claim to love you, when they lied to you so?” she asked pointedly.

 

Loki gave a weak chuckle. Wrapping an arm around her body he embraced her, burying his face in the crown of her head.

 

Absently, he replied, “That really is the question, isn’t it?”

 

*

 

A dream he couldn’t remember woke Loki in the middle of the night. Angrboda still slept soundly beside him, but try as he might he couldn’t fall back into slumber, staring up at the high ceiling of his chamber.

 

He gave up and carefully extracted himself from the bed, slipping on his lightest layer of clothing and a cloak. Leaving the room he padded across the smooth floors of the palace with bare feet.

 

It might’ve been no fit time for servants or even guards to be about, but Loki was well aware there could still be any number of people awake and lurking in one place or another. He wasn’t in the mood to be pestered even by well-meaning inquiries, so he cast a spell to render himself invisible.

 

For the longest time he walked in almost eerie silence the long halls and empty corridors. What few souls he passed he brushed right by; they unaware of him and he not giving them a second glance.

 

It could get extremely dark on Jotunheim at night. He was to understand the season was close to changing, the sun beginning to move even further away than usual.

 

The icy walls gleamed faintly with reflected illumination, and every few spaces there was an enchanted torch set into the wall casting light from heatless flame. Other than that all was left to gray dusk.

 

So quiet, empty and cold as it was, it was easy to momentarily imagine the palace as abandoned.

 

Not sure where else to go, what else he could find to occupy his time since he felt no closer to tiring than when he’d left his room, Loki decided he may as well head down to the barracks. If Thrym was awake he could probably think of more questions for him. If Helblindi was up – not unlikely, given his sibling’s restless nature – he could always favor his younger brother by giving him a moving target to swipe at for a while.

 

Considering, he went to the nearest window and climbed onto the frame, perched on the edge and gazing upward, cloak billowing in the brisk wind.

 

Býleistr had showed him the shortcut; the swiftest way to the barracks was over the top, but at the time his brother had carried him. Going alone and at night was a slightly different prospect.

 

Still Loki marshaled his courage, and grabbing hold of the window’s ledge boosted himself up to grab onto the nearest craggy outcrop. Once underway he found it was mostly easy, so long as he didn’t look down or stop to think – he kept moving steadily, holding tight to the natural spaces to put his feet and hands, or making his own where necessary.

 

Eventually he was at the stalagmite-like towers that made the roof, and the ice evened out enough he was able to stand. Instead of continuing his journey he lingered, walking across to the other side and looking over to take in the view.

 

The white and constantly shifting landscape of Jotunheim spread out before him, ice and snow glittering like gems. It no longer seemed as foreign and oppressive to Loki as it once had, though it still looked very bleak. He tried imagining it as it might’ve been once, with more buildings, more people moving about.

 

His musings were interrupted however, as something odd caught his eye.

 

The side of the palace he faced over was the part that contained Laufey’s outdoor throne, and though it was hard to see at that distance from what he could make out, Loki thought it was occupied.

 

Was Laufey still awake, lingering in his throne room for some unknown reason at that hour? The idea was so curious Loki decided to forget the barracks and head there instead.

 

Still concealed from view by sorcery, he skirted along the towers and clambered over the sloping ledge that would take him to the half-walls surrounding the throne below. Once he was a safe distance he leapt, trusting the snow to help cushion his fall.

 

He saw at once he’d been right – Laufey was indeed sitting there. Quietly as he could Loki walked forward, meaning to observe the Jotun king unnoticed.

 

A few paces away he stilled, his feet stopping of their own accord.

 

Laufey was slumped forward at an angle, his eyes closed, the upper half of his face concealed by where he rested it heavily against the fingers of one hand. His breathing was slow and weary, almost labored. Every now and then a tremor went through his shoulders, either from some great emotion, or physical pain.

 

Loki inhaled sharply, so caught off-guard and unsettled. The sound carried in the otherwise silent space.

 

Laufey instantly rose up, eyes open and bright in the gloom as he peered keenly about for the source of the intrusion. “Who goes there?” he demanded.

 

Swallowing, Loki immediately dropped the enchantment around himself. He pulled his hood back, revealing his face.

 

Before he could say anything Laufey relaxed, giving a humorless chuckle. He put his head back into his hand. “Oh, it’s only you. Of course,” he remarked. “I’d heard tell of the tricks you were known for playing on Asgard – it was only a matter of time before you began here as well.”

 

Loki gazed up at him, not sure what to think of the way Laufey was acting. “Are you all right, my king?” he asked anxiously. “If you’re feeling ill, perhaps there is something I can do to help.”

 

Laufey gave a low snort. “I am old,” he told Loki in response, blunt. “I know perhaps I don’t look it to you, child, but while I still have a ways to go compared to your All-Father, I’ve lived quite the score for a man of our kind.” He lifted his head again, hands going to grip the arms of his throne.

 

“And I am burdened by the weight of a crown with little power and many responsibilities.” His voice was empty. “Is it any wonder I should feel tired from time to time?”

 

Loki didn’t know what to say. He’d never thought of it that way before. But he saw frequently what the ruling of Asgard did to Odin: how even with all his powers, he still needed to rest at times in the Odinsleep.

 

And Jotunheim…was a different matter entirely. It was easy to imagine how alone the weight of watching its people struggle, powerless to do anything, could vex a weaker ruler to death.

 

He wondered if Laufey ever admitted as much to anyone else, or if it was a closely-guarded secret, hidden away all times by a strictly maintained façade of unbending strength and ruthlessness. If he only waited until he was entirely alone and the night was quiet to let it out and lie awash in the open feeling of his own futility.

 

Was he telling Loki this now because he was there and it was convenient…or because he was his son?

 

Laufey was looking down at him unblinkingly, his face unreadable. After a moment Loki came and sat by his feet.

 

Once he was settled, Laufey met his eyes, gesturing to the throne.

 

“It will be yours one day,” he reminded him. Shifting slightly the king moved so that Loki could see something he had never noticed before: a massive black sword sheathed through the center of the icy chair’s back. “That will be, as well.”

 

“What…what is that?” Loki gawked openly at the weapon. Even the deadliest implements in the armories at Asgard would be put to shame by it.

 

“It is called Nál.” Laufey’s voice was fierce as he pronounced it. “It is the sword of our line – the needle-sharp blade of kings.”

 

Loki felt his eyes go wide. He was expected to be able to wield that, eventually? It was absurd. The blade alone was taller than he was. “I can’t possibly…” he objected, flabbergasted. “I won’t be able to lift it.”

 

“You’ll find a way.” Briefly Laufey rubbed the space between his eyes, dismissive. “Nál was made to be resistant to most sorcery, but perhaps with powerful enough enchantment you may counter that.”

 

Loki could feel his stomach sinking lower and lower into a pit.

 

It wasn’t just the idea of having to try and manage Nál – it was the way Laufey was talking about such things, as if they were an eventuality. Which it was finally sinking in, that it was. He was Laufey’s heir. One day Jotunheim’s throne was supposed to be his.

 

Bad enough to think of it happening, ever. The Jotnar did not value honor the way Aesir did; they put it second to practicality. Laufey would only pass the crown to his eldest with his death…but if he truly were old and wearied, that might be far sooner than Loki could’ve realized.

 

He stared up at his sire. “I was not raised to be a king,” he said, desperate. The situation he belatedly found himself in felt overwhelming to him.

 

He tried to press home to Laufey just how utterly unprepared he was. “I was but a second son on Asgard. I was taught to behave with all the responsibilities of a noble, but the throne was never intended to fall to me.”

 

Something tightened in Laufey’s expression. “I would not assume that entirely,” he stated, grim.

 

“I don’t understand,” Loki responded.

 

Laufey’s nails dug into the ice of his throne. “Odin said that he had intended to use you to force a connection, a permanent ceasefire between our two worlds,” he muttered through sneering teeth. “Perhaps the idea was to wait until some ‘accident’ befell me, then march into Jotunheim and instill my firstborn as ruler, backed by an Aesir army.”

 

Loki gazed at him numbly, speechless. His mind spun. “You think that he meant to make me a puppet-king, and control Jotunheim that way?” he finally managed.

 

His thoughts flew back to words uttered so long ago: “…but you were both born to be kings.” Had that been the plan all along?

 

Was that really all he had ever been to Odin: another tool, a means to an end?

 

Laufey waved a hand, uncaring. “It makes no difference now, what was intended. You are here, where the All-Father has no power over you. And the line of ascent is still yours.”

 

Loki slumped where he knelt on the floor, his shoulders drawn up, his hands clenched tightly.

 

“I never wanted to be king,” he said softly. Not on Asgard, and certainly not on Jotunheim, where too many things were still strange and unknown to him.

 

Laufey leaned forward in his seat, frowning severely. He reached down and with one pointed finger prodded Loki, hard, in the shoulder.

 

“We are royals born, my son,” he said, sharply. “Much about the state of our lives is not entirely by our choice.”

 

At that reminder, Loki gave a thin unhappy smile. “I know.”

 

He drew a steadying breath, trying to force it home with grave acceptance.

 

He was Loki Laufeyson, first born of the line, Prince of the Jotnar – heir to Jotunheim’s throne.

 

*

 

The change of seasons had begun in earnest. It was always winter on Jotunheim, but at different times of the year it was a different kind of winter. Soon it would be the harshest, coldest kind.

 

For now the snow fell with such heavy regularity it was necessary to extend the roof over the barracks and any part of the courtyard that actually had use, lest they become entirely buried in drifts.

 

The snow foxes were kits no more but fully grown, though Loki was down to only three. Býleistr had played a bit too roughly one day and broken one’s leg by accident. It walked afterwards with a limp, and not much later on it sickened and died.

 

Býleistr was devastated, though his brother had doubts the events were necessarily directly related – and even if they were, privately Loki couldn’t help feeling Býleistr might’ve done him a favor. He was almost certain the dead fox was female while the other three were males. The last thing they needed was more kits running around.

 

Still, Býleistr had been borderline inconsolable, so to show there was no ill will, when time came Loki felt he could no longer manage all three foxes by himself, he gave one to his younger brother.

 

The amount of care Býleistr took whenever he handled his pet, forever wary to be gentle, was somewhere between endearing and comical.

 

The white of the foxes’ fur had darkened to gray marked with black and silver. In size they were closer to wolves or boarhounds, Loki able to rest his hand on one’s back easily as it stood at his side, though their slender bodies, bushy tails and pointed faces still showed them clearly as foxes.

 

Loki and Angrboda cared for the remaining two together, feeding them from their own plates and letting them sleep at night curled beside them in the bed. Whenever they were seated the pair would be next to them like overgrown lap dogs, happy to be hugged and petted, and Loki rarely went for a walk without at least one fox following, trotting at his feet.

 

Loki had traded for three finely jeweled collars – and a very different story was their business with the travelling merchants now, the oldest prince having taken it over for himself. The traders were unaccustomed to dealing with such a clever-tongued bargainer, and one familiar enough with other worlds to have an idea what their goods were really worth.

 

He and Angrboda named their pets Váli and Narfi, and in his thoughts Loki often referred to them as ‘their children’. He never said it out loud however, uncertain if Angrboda would appreciate the joke.

 

Býleistr simply called his ‘Fox’.

 

The creature sat next to him passively by the wall, as Býleistr watched his two siblings spar with one another.

 

“Behind you, Loki!” he cried out in warning.

 

It was unnecessary; Loki had been on the verge of dodging the behindhand strike anyway. But Býleistr’s yell made it all the easier, if only because the unexpected noise startled Helblindi causing him to slightly falter.

 

Loki forced back his brother’s sword with a clang, a few shards of ice flying off the spear-like staff he’d summoned as his weapon, and they broke apart to stand a few paces away from each other.

 

Helblindi never took his eyes off his quarry, but he growled, striking the ground with his free fist.

 

A tremor went through the ice at his touch, sending up a spray of broken crystals in Býleistr’s face. The younger Jotun leaned back, shielding himself with his hands and coughing.

 

“Keep your mouth shut, oaf!” Helblindi ordered in frustration. “This is not your affair!”

 

“Thank you for your concern Býleistr, but our brother is right,” Loki put in more diplomatically. “This match is between the two of us.”

 

Shifting the weight of his staff back and forth in his hands so to make it harder to read if he was about to strike, or where, he faced Helblindi’s direction again with a smirk.

 

“Besides, don’t you think I can handle this myself?”

 

Helblindi gave a low growl. “Don’t think that you’ve yet earned the right to display with such bravado.”

 

And with that warning he charged, crouching, intending to ram into his smaller brother and barrel him right over. Loki leapt to one side and rolled forward, out of the way – and in the process was out of Helblindi’s sight long enough to replace himself with a simulacra.

 

The illusion completed the roll and got its feet, turning with staff readied and giving Helblindi a target. The real Loki, meanwhile, stayed low and crept in the other direction, getting behind his opponent.

 

Býleistr could see all from his vantage point, and was doing such a good job of staying quiet he appeared to be actually holding his breath.

 

Helblindi lifted his sword overhead, bringing it down for a blow, and passed right through empty air as the simulacra vanished.

 

While Helblindi was still dazed Loki swiftly extended his staff to prod upwards, jarring a section of icy overhang he’d noticed earlier. A mountain of snow was knocked loose and piled on Helblindi, knocking him flat and burying him in a heap.

 

Býleistr laughed, surprised and delighted by the unexpected manner of defeat.

 

It took Helblindi a moment to dig his way out again, fuming as he sat up.

 

“Magic and trickery,” he groused. “That’s all it ever is with you!”

 

Loki spun his staff around in one hand, surveying him calmly. “You never said that I was not to use sorcery,” he pointed out.

 

“Bah!” Helblindi pushed to his feet, dismissive as he brushed off the rest of the snow. “If you didn’t use sorcery, it would be no fight at all. I’d swat you down in a blinking. What use is that?

 

Loki made no reply, but smirked again as he dropped his weapon and let it return to the ice.

 

The Jotnar were not commonly disposed to learning magic. The way they could will the ice was magical, of course, but it was magic the same way dragons breathed fire, or gorgons turned their enemies to stone: an inherent gift born to them, and that couldn’t be taught or expanded upon like true sorcery. A Jotun spell-caster was rare – but unlike the Aesir, they weren’t a race that reacted to what was different with immediate disapproval. If it was not dangerous, if it was useful, then it functioned and was tolerable.

 

With his smaller size and unremarkable strength compared to his giant kin, Loki couldn’t be expected to do what other Jotun did, but he still made himself a worthy warrior with his magic. Being able to fight was far more important to them than the how.

 

And so despite his differences, on Jotunheim Loki found his sorcery not shunned but accepted with little comment, even praised from time to time for his notable prowess.

 

While Loki stood there, Helblindi stalked over to Býleistr. Their younger brother anxiously got up at his approach.

 

The older Jotun reached out with a backhand, thwacking Býleistr roughly in the shoulder. “That is for interrupting me in the midst of a fight!” Helblindi declared.

 

Loki didn’t bat an eye at the exchange. After witnessing similar moments enough times, he’d come to understand the seemingly brutal treatment for what it was.

 

He’d failed to realize at first just how hard a hit a Jotun could take – but they were built for sturdiness, their flesh far more durable. What looked like needless cruelty was nothing more than the equivalent to Thor and his comrades shoving or punching one another in the arm.

 

Býleistr rubbed the spot where he’d been hit, frowning unhappily. “I am sorry, Helblindi.”

 

“Just don’t do it again!” Helblindi pointed his sword at him, irate. “You should know better!”

 

Narfi came over to his master now that he was unoccupied, snuffling wet nose into Loki’s hand curiously and bumping into his side. Loki reached to absently rub his knuckles into the fur atop his head.

 

“Brother, could you do me a favor and go fetch Angrboda?” he asked. “It’s almost lunchtime, and I think I’ve left her unattended long enough.”

 

“As you wish, brother.” Býleistr cheerfully turned to do as bid. “Come along, Fox.” Reaching down he scooped the animal up in one hand, carrying him that way with ease as he walked off.

 

After watching his youngest sibling leave, Loki turned around to find the older one eyeing him sideways with odd scrutiny.

 

“What?”

 

Helblindi reached out to pass a hand above Loki’s head, still giving him that calculating look. “I think you might be growing,” he finally remarked. “You look taller. Hard to tell, of course, since you’re such a runt.”

 

“I’m too old for a growth spurt, surely,” Loki protested, astonished.

 

“The climate on Asgard probably stunted you.” Helblindi scoffed sharply. “Of course, it likely doesn’t hurt any you’ve finally deigned to regularly eat our food.”

 

Loki didn’t say anything, and at the look on his brother’s face Helblindi gave one of his rare barking laughs.

 

“I highly doubt you’ll come anywhere close to resembling a normal Jotun in size,” he reassured him. “Most you’ll get out of it is a finger-length or so.”

 

Your fingers, or mine?” Loki mumbled, giving his hands a considering look.

 

Helblindi only rolled his eyes, scowling. “Maybe it’ll be more noticeable by the time I get back.”

 

Loki looked up at that, forgetting the previous thread of conversation. “Father is sending you out on another tour, is he?”

 

He honestly couldn’t even remember the first time he’d finally referred to Laufey as ‘Father’. Strange to think after all his initial resistance, but the more time had passed the less unsettling the idea had been, until the moment had come that the term passed his lips and he didn’t even realize. He didn’t think twice on it, now.

 

“Yes.” Helblindi’s distaste for the errand was evident. He brought his sword up, blade facing him, impatiently polishing the flat of it with the back of his wrist. “Two day’s march to some broken hovel of a city,” he complained. “As if he has no one else to take care of such a task. But Laufey-king thinks it important one of the royal house be there in representation. And who am I to argue?”

 

“Someone who knows his place, and has learned the wisdom of minding his tongue,” Loki observed shrewdly. He considered it a moment. “Why not let me go instead?”

 

Helblindi eyed him in wary surprise. “You?”

 

“Why not?” Loki shrugged. “I imagine it would be considered one of my duties. Honestly I’m a bit surprised I haven’t been already asked.”

 

“You have not exactly been mindful of your other responsibilities,” Helblindi pointed out, with his typical acerbic bluntness. “Father no doubt thought it best not to press you.”

 

Loki grimaced briefly, annoyed. “Well…that’s no longer the case. I’ve been much better about it, don’t you think?” At least Helblindi didn’t argue. “That settles it. I’ll ask him to send me in your place.”

 

If Laufey was surprised by his heir’s request he made no sign to show it, and he was all too glad to consent to the change.

 

The “broken hovel” Helblindi described turned out to be what remained of what had in a very different day been one of Jotunheim’s great cities, and Laufey made a point to send someone every year to reassure its people though they’d lost their glory they were still important to their king and see if there was anything they needed to prepare for the coming season of hard days and nights. It would be an even greater honor than was usually paid to them, to be visited by the sorcerer-prince rescued from the Aesir.

 

Despite the supposed inanity of the trip, Loki found himself looking forward to it with curiosity, even excitement. He’d never left the palace despite all his time on Jotunheim. Never seen how Jotnar lived besides servants and guards and his own family. He was woefully ignorant what the rest of their world was like.

 

He would be escorted by Thrym and his band, of course. And even if he’d wanted to, it was unthinkable he try persuading Angrboda to be left behind. Býleistr had never been sent as Laufey’s representative in such matters before, being that he was understandably not up to the task – and so this time he burned with eagerness to go as well.

 

Quite the procession they ended up making, when at last they journeyed forth – Thrym and his fifteen soldiers leading in two lines, Loki and Angrboda close behind with three snow foxes wandering about them, Býleistr happily bringing up the rear walking on his knuckles with the luggage strapped to his back, having no objection to being made pack mule.

 

As they walked, Loki’s eyes drifted to make an interested examination of the soldiers.

 

Being they were immune to cold and valued economy, he was used to seeing Jotnar go about with next to nothing for clothing. But for more formal occasions clothes were evidently vaunted decoration, for Thrym and his men were more fully-attired now. They’d switched to tunics instead of loincloths, leather bands wrapped around their legs and forearms, and Thrym and his highest-ranking warriors had half-capes on their shoulders.

 

To the eyes of one used only to the layered finery of Asgard, they’d likely still appear as barbarians. But Loki thought they made a good impression.

 

The soldiers marched at first in perfect silence, their steps falling into natural unison. After a few minutes, Thrym suddenly began pounding a fist on the shield he carried in a slow purposeful rhythm.

 

Loki almost asked what he was doing. But as he opened his mouth he felt Angrboda touch his arm, and at the look in her eyes he decided instead to wait and see.

 

A few seconds, and one of the warriors began clapping hands together in counterpoint to the thuds. Another pause, and once the pattern was settled, two Jotun near the end of the line were beating clubs purposefully against their palms. After that each soldier began to chime in, one after another – everything from rattling a spear to grunting to stomping feet.

 

Between all their contributions they formed a more than serviceable melody. It was infectiously heartening without becoming tedious, and encouraged their feet not to tarry but keep up a regular pace.

 

Loki and his party continued their trek over the hills, listening to what served as the marching song of a Jotunheim war band.

 

Váli and Fox tussled with one another playfully, nipping at ears and tails. Then something caught Váli’s eye in the distance and he bounded off in rush.

 

“Váli!” Loki called. He whistled, not wanting him to wander too far.

 

He glanced over at Angrboda. She merely returned his gaze with a peaceable smile, reaching to pet Narfi, obediently at her side.

 

Fox meanwhile had looped back to run in playful circles around his master’s feet.

 

Býleistr laughed, entertained by his pet’s antics and oblivious to the concerns of the others, and Loki fought the urge to scowl.

 

He was considering if he should stop their march to go after the mischievous animal, when of course Váli decided to reappear, padding over to Loki’s feet with happy pants, acting as innocent of any wrongdoing as was possible for an allegedly guileless creature.

 

Loki tugged at one of his ears. “Then again,” he remarked aloud, “after all, you are a fox.”

 

By then the music provided by the soldiers had faded to the background of their perception, and the three others cast about for an idea how to entertain themselves.

 

Eventually they settled on the telling of Jotnar fables, or rather Býleistr and Angrboda taking it in turns to do so, while Loki listened.

 

“Is it said that once, when our people were still split into tribes, the Jotnar were a horned race,” Angrboda began. “To have a grand pair of horns was a sign of enviable pride and prowess, for they were understandably useful in battle, and often the largest-horned were also the best warriors.”

 

“When at last the great peace came, all the tribes finally united under the leadership of one ruler,” Býleistr picked up. “And the leader of this victorious tribe had the most majestic horns of all, possibly that’d ever been seen. They were black and curling like a ram’s, thick and wide like an elk’s. One only had to look at his horns to know he was a strong warrior and a leader worthy to be king.”

 

Angrboda kept going. “And this first king of Jotunheim, before an assembly of all the soldiers and noblemen he sought to forge into one band, for his very first act, reached up to his beautiful horns,” she gestured to either side of her own skull, “and with his two hands he broke them, right off of his head.”

 

“And he said that he did so, because he no longer needed them,” Býleistr said lyrically. “The Jotnar would forever more be a people united by one world and one blood, and so there was no use for horns to war with one another.”

 

“And so all the others there followed his example,” Angrboda concluded, “and when word spread, all their people did too. And when their children were born, they would cut the horns off right away, until eventually no one was born with horns altogether.”

 

A story of the sacrifice of a noble ruler, and a people dedicated to unity and peace. Loki tried, and utterly failed, not to think of how the Aesir’s horned helmets must appear to any Jotun raised on such a tale.

 

“Oh look.” Býleistr lifted his neck, peering ahead. “We’re almost to Mother’s grave.”

 

On Jotunheim, Loki had learned, the dead were honored and mourned but not buried. Bodies were taken away and left, to be returned to the world from which they formed. They normally didn’t abide gravestones – the departed should be loved enough to be remembered, valued enough to be spoken of, and if not, then why waste effort on a monument?

 

But the important occasionally had something built in their honor. Fárbauti was a queen – and in some ways, her death had been the last tragedy of an already beaten Jotunheim, the one that cemented their defeat.

 

As tribute to both her and the pain of his people, Laufey had erected a spire of purest white ice, topped with a blue gem the size of a giant’s head. It was simply but beautifully decorated.

 

It marked the halfway point of their journey, and they paused there for rest. Loki stood at the base and tilted his head back far as it would go, thinking of the mother he’d never know, and all the other things he’d missed out on by being taken when he was.

 

He eyed what was carved into it, glyphic symbols that served as writing for the Jotnar he was still in the process of mastering.

 

Angrboda came by his side, leaning gently into him. “It’s a love poem,” she explained, softly. “Or an ode, I guess you would call it. It’s very old, traditional.”

 

He turned to face her, and she lifted a hand, fingers brushing Loki’s forehead. “We never speak the words aloud – only sing the melody. The words remain in our hearts.”

 

Loki reached for her other hand. “Teach it to me.”

 

“Gladly, my prince.” Angrboda started to hum.

 

They travelled a short distance away from Fárbauti’s spire, for it was a sacred site, and made camp for the night there. Loki fell asleep with Angrboda cradled in his arms, the snow foxes nuzzled around him, his brother close enough he could hear his steady breathing and Thrym’s soldiers huddled in a protective ring.

 

They woke early the next day, and it didn’t seem like much time at all before they reached their destination.

 

Loki took in the state of what once had been a grand and bustling city. Almost all the buildings had been knocked down to a single story – the few that still towered were hollowed out and stood as ruins, unused. There was a lump of rubble in the square that might’ve once been a fountain. Most of the living quarters were recently erected, and hastily, shanties with three walls and often slanted roofs.

 

It took strength and commitment to move the ice, but more than that, it took spirit. These people had little left. What they had went to the arduous task of keeping themselves and their families living.

 

As they walked through the streets, however, Loki noticed that in every building they passed the Jotnar came to stand at the doors and windows, watching them. He heard murmurs of ‘Prince Loki’ and ‘lost’ and ‘brought home’.

 

The people who met his inquisitive gaze when he turned to look at them stared back with haggard faces, full of exhaustion and fruitless anger he could see clearly in every pair of eyes.

 

But there was something else there, too. Something that brightened as each one saw him.

 

And eventually Loki noticed something else – something quite startling. Many of the females of this group were pregnant. It was hard to tell, their bellies only just barely swollen, but that made it all the more evident they must’ve conceived around the same time.

 

Once he knew that Jotnar could only have children by choice, it no longer puzzled Loki why since coming there he’d yet to see a single child. It was a depressing thought, but could any parent be blamed for not wanting to bring offspring into a world that was struggling, practically dying? He’d no doubt in the years since the war the birth rate had dwindled until it was almost nothing.

 

Yet all of a sudden, a massive outbreak had occurred of those who felt optimistic enough to have babies again.

 

And if he was doing his math right, it had to have happened almost simultaneously with his arrival. Or to be more exact: immediately after, when word of the “rescued heir” had begun to spread.

 

That was it, he suddenly realized. The thing he saw shining in these Jotnar’s eyes. The thing that gleamed.

 

Hope.

 

How long had it been, since they had anything resembling a victory? How long since they felt like they could get anything back from the Aesir that so thoroughly defeated them?

 

But Loki was a stolen treasure; a prince and a powerful sorcerer, their strong king’s heir, their lost queen’s son. The Aesir had taken him, and against all odds, he was returned to Jotunheim.

 

A miracle. The first thing, after centuries of darkness and apathy, that gave them any cause to celebrate. The first thing their people could rally around.

 

Loki went numb, and if not for Angrboda standing beside him to lean on, his legs might’ve buckled right there in the street. It was one thing to be honored as a king’s son – that, he felt, was a generic right earned solely by the lottery of birth.

 

But it never occurred to him at all how…important he was.

 

He had to deliver a speech to their town’s leader – a scripted thing, full of dictated formalities and dull vernacular. Laufey had given it to him before they left and Loki dutifully memorized it, realizing very early this was probably the same message delivered to this group routinely year after year.

 

He said the words, and their leader made all the correct equally expected and rehearsed replies.

 

But in his heart, Loki made a promise, one that burned inside him with a heat he’d never before known:

You believed in me. Somehow, some way, no matter what it takes, I will find a way to help you. This I swear.

 

*

 

Another month had come and gone.

 

The hard season was fully open them. Outside was a near-constant state of torrential blizzard, and even the Jotnar did not venture past the refuge of the palace’s walls without a layer of furs.

 

Loki found it necessary to be awake at dawn and on the move during the hours immediately after the sun rose, if he wanted to make best use of the light while they had it.

 

“Come on.” Loki kept walking up the mountainside, forming a thin layer of ice beneath his feet lest he sink past his knees in the snow. “We should hurry. Otherwise we might not be able to find our way back again.”

 

“Doubtful, my prince,” Thrym assured him, though he and his soldiers stayed close behind and moved quickly as bid. “Even in this wind, it will take more than a snowstorm to get us lost.”

 

Loki said nothing. He only continued his pace.

 

No doubt his personal guard would have preferred to be still asleep, or at least inside, instead of dragged out on this errand. But not one word of complaint or any sign of tiredness did Loki notice from them. They merely followed his command faithfully, as was their duty.

 

Though he didn’t pause, Loki stole a glance back at the palace over his shoulder. He could just barely make out the outline at their distance and through the whirling snow.

 

He wondered idly what the others were up to at this hour.

 

His father he’d no doubt was already awake, advisers and courtiers pressing him with their business, an occupied schedule the only defense against the futility of his position. Býleistr might still be asleep, or if not he was probably scrambling over the walls. Helblindi was assuredly awake as well – already in the barracks, pleased to beat his sword against the enchanted targets Loki had made for him.

 

Angrboda was likely still in a deep and restful slumber –the night before had been strenuous. A faint smile came to Loki’s face just recollecting. He was sure she was exactly where he’d left her, curled up in their bed with Váli and Narfi on either side. He would like nothing more than to be still there with her, but what he was doing couldn’t wait.

 

Reaching top of the slope they’d travelled up, Loki stopped. He faced where he could make out the mouth of a cavern, concealed behind snow drifts.

 

“I need this cleared away,” he stated.

 

“As you wish, my prince.” Thrym nodded, turning to his men and putting them right to the task of digging.

 

As his guards worked, Loki stood surveying them evenly, hands tucked beneath folded arms.

 

Helblindi had been right: Loki had gone through a growth spurt. No great one, but bringer of a few significant changes all the same.

 

He’d gained a few inches in height. His face was slightly narrower, the bones even more sharp and prominent. He was broader in the shoulders, and he’d put on some muscle as well.

 

His build still ran toward slender and subtle, especially compared to the Aesir, or some of his boulder-like Jotun servants. But he no longer looked like a creature that would slip away into the shadows. His was the body of a warrior; of a man who would one day be a king.

 

His hair had grown as well, long enough he wore it tied back. His clothes were still predominantly green but a much darker shade, nearly black and instead of gold, accented with gray, often trimmed with furs. He’d taken inspiration from the soldiers: leather bands over his trousers helped keep his boots in place, and his gloves only covered some of his fingers, the better to sense and manipulate both magic and ice.

 

Loki couldn’t be sure but he thought the markings on his skin might’ve darkened. They seemed more evident now. Maybe he’d just never noticed before, when every time he looked into a mirror his eyes immediately wanted to slide away.

 

Now he faced his reflection without any hesitation.

 

Thrym and the rest of the Jotnar finished moving the snow for him, and shuffled back out of the way. Loki stepped forward. He reached out his arm, his hand held palm flat and fingers spread.

 

Concentrating he narrowed his eyes, sensing for the Yggdrasil pathway he knew that his magic had pointed to.

 

After a moment he could see it, in flashes inside his mind. Loki lowered his hand again.

 

“My lord?” Thrym questioned.

 

“Svartalfheim,” Loki concluded, his face set in an absent frown. He’d been hoping for Nidavellir or Vanaheim, personally. Another good route to one of those would be far more useful.

 

 But Svartalfheim wasn’t bad – there were still things to be gained from it. He remembered when what he’d thought was a promising path had turned out to lead straight into Muspell. Now that was truly worthless. One foot there and any of his people would be dead in an instant, their bodies unable to take the blistering heat.

 

“Good hunting on Svartalfheim,” Thrym remarked, possibly reading his mind. Loki nodded, drawing his cape tighter as he turned away.

 

“Yes. But not at this time of year. We’ll have to come back later, for a better look.”

 

Thrym bowed in acquiescence, fist clasped to his shoulder. The troop fell in behind Loki as they began the return trek to the palace.

 

Loki had made it his goal to find as many of the hidden routes between realms as he could. With his help the Frost Giants could travel directly which would be greatly to their benefit: they could trade more openly without having to rely on scattered travellers, hunt and gather from more robust lands.

 

So far he only knew of two ways to get straight from Jotunheim to Asgard; one of them, from the Armory break-in, he was certain Odin was already aware of. The other led to nowhere convenient.

 

Loki’s feelings on this were mixed. He made a point to think little about the land he’d been raised in, but it still made something tighten in his stomach, to think of Asgard and Jotunheim returned to war. It was probably for the best he’d found nothing to offer tempting plans for an invasion.

 

Pausing, Loki took a disapproving look at the weather, wrapping his layers more tightly around himself.

 

Over three months on Jotunheim, and all he knew was the worst possible season. He wondered what it would be like when the thaw finally came – would it seem like spring, after this?

 

“Prince Loki! Look!”

 

One of the soldiers pointed in alarm, and Loki’s head shot up. The rest of the Jotnar murmured exclamations to one another. There was a rumble under their feet, prominent for all that it was brief.

 

The sky was on fire – no, wait. He recognized that pattern of rainbow shimmering.

 

The Bifrost.

 

Loki’s eyes widened. It couldn’t be…but there was no other explanation. But, why?

 

The Bifrost disappeared again with a resounding crackle, depositing a sole figure on a nearby hilltop. One single Aesir warrior – a bearded male garbed in silver and blue armor, his red cloak and fair locks blowing in the wind.

 

Thrym and his men let out a roar in one voice of disbelief and rage: “The Odinson!”

 

The soldiers rushed forward, leaving Loki standing dazedly behind them, bearing down with their fists and weapons at the ready.

 

Thor turned to the onslaught haughtily. He faced his attackers with teeth bared and fingers curled. The first Jotun to reach him was clocked right in the jaw, tossed back with a berserker yell.

 

Evidently, Thor was already angry.

 

Loki felt paralyzed where he was. He looked at the being he’d once called “Brother”, taking him in with a curious numbness.

 

It’d been so long since he’d thought of Thor’s face. Did it look how he remembered? Or had time and distance already managed to play tricks? What was he doing there?

 

Loki supposed he must’ve slipped his minders, and decided he’d head back to Jotunheim in search of more monsters to boldly slay.

 

He didn’t have Mjolnir, Loki soon realized. Bizarre. But even without his signature weapon, the Aesir prince was strong, not to mention completely determined to show his foes no mercy. In fact he seemed all too happy to take out his aggressions on them.

 

As he pummeled the Jotnar, he was yelling something about “those who would be so foolish as to get between him and”…Loki couldn’t catch the rest of it. His voice was lost to the wind.

 

“Defend the prince!” Thrym bellowed, sending his men forward as he formed his fist into an icy sword. His warriors were brave and skilled, but at the rate things were going Thor was going to break at least a few of them.

 

This will not stand, Loki thought, fiercely.

 

 He wasn’t about to wait there and watch his servants, his people, get beaten to death. He ran up the hill.

 

“No, Thrym!” he ordered. “Stop! Pull your men back. I will handle this myself.”

 

Thrym grimaced coldly in a manner that made it clear he’d like to object, but he was far too disciplined for that. He obeyed, and the Jotnar warriors stopped attacking.

 

Once he was close enough, once the giants were clear, Loki moved his hands forming a spell.

 

Both ice and magic moved as one, wrapping around Thor, who gave an irate yell but was powerless to do anything to free himself. Within seconds he was restrained from his shoulders all the way to his calves, in an icy cocoon too thick to be broken from the inside but enchanted not to actually freeze or kill him, and knocked to the ground.

 

Loki stopped a single pace away, watching as Thor struggled futilely, his face about level with Loki’s boots.

 

“How dare you even attempt to contain the son of Odin!” Thor shouted, incensed. “Release me at once from this trickery, you foul-”

 

The words died in his throat as he looked up at the one who’d captured him, and recognition finally hit home.

 

Thor’s eyes widened immensely, his voice growing small and breathless. “…Loki?”

 

Loki felt an odd smile form on his face.

 

“Hello, Thor,” he remarked. “Well. It’s been quite a long time, hasn’t it?”

Chapter Text

Loki surveyed the scene with a strangely distant sense of triumph.

 

The Mighty Thor, pinned so that he could move hardly a muscle, forced to his belly on the ground; captured easily by what used to be his scrawny, subservient younger brother. Quite the image.

 

Thor gazed up at him, unblinking, apparently rendered speechless. Despite the ring of actual giant-sized Jotnar around them, the only being he looked at was Loki.

 

And for a moment Loki basked in the cruel thrill of, for once, having Thor’s full and undivided attention.

 

Until he felt the presence of Thrym and the others moving in. Their shadows fell across Thor ominously.

 

“Look at the little worm,” one of the soldiers said in a threatening growl, teeth bared in a sneer. “Finally brought down where he belongs.”

 

Another snarled, low, “Why don’t we just roll him back to the palace like that – see if he’ll make it with all his fingers and toes.”

 

The fetid hate in their voices - the reminder of what they could and would gladly do.

 

Loki’s satisfaction faded to be replaced by swift uncertainty.

 

A captive Aesir, especially the son of Odin himself, should be taken to the dungeons, or directly to Laufey. And what would happen after that…even the most sanguine of outcomes, that assumed Laufey valued Thor more alive as a potential bargaining chip, could be imagined as anything but pleasant.

 

Loki’s throat tightened.

 

No. He would not let that happen. For all that he had been overlooked and forgotten by him, he still owed his Asgard-brother far more than that.

 

He’d done the best he could to cut his old life out of his heart to spare himself the ache, but he hadn’t turned around and learned to hate what he’d once foolishly, blindly loved. The thought of Thor actually hurt was nothing but abhorrent to him.

 

“Stay your hands,” he commanded, keeping the shudder out of his voice. “The Odinson is my prisoner. And I will take charge of him.”

 

Thrym was not happy. No more so were his men. And certainly they were at a loss, when their prince had them carry the Odinson back to the palace, and deposit him in an empty and secluded hallway.

 

Loki nodded, dismissing them. “I can handle it from here.”

 

Thrym gave him a burning, questioning look. It was easy to read – as much fueled by loathing as it was concern for his prince’s welfare. The idea of leaving the heir alone and unguarded with the enemy was unthinkable.  “My lord,” he began, “I’m not entirely sure-”

 

“Please, Thrym.” The cool steady tone of command, but he put special emphasis on the ‘please’. “Do as I bid. I know what I’m doing.”

 

There was a tense pause, and then Thrym bowed, lowering his face to the floor.

 

“We will not be far,” he vowed. “You must only call for us if we are needed.”

 

And then he and the rest of the soldiers tramped away, and Loki and Thor were alone.

 

Loki breathed out, and then with a wave, he formed himself an ornate high-backed chair from the ice. He sat down in it, slouching lower than was strictly necessarily, his legs stretched out in the very picture of self-assured carelessness.

 

He gestured, releasing Thor from his bonds. Thor rolled over to a sitting position, drawing his body closer as if readying to fight or run.

 

“Alright,” Loki said. “This should be interesting. Just what exactly do you think you’re doing here?”

 

Thor scrambled to his feet at last. “Loki?” he repeated, disbelief evident. “Is it…can it really be you?”

 

“Were you mistaking me for someone else?” Loki asked acidly.

 

Thor gave a breathless laugh. “Almost,” he exclaimed. “I mean, you…” he waved a hand, and then trailed off at the look on Loki’s face. His expression fell.

 

“This was not what I had expected.” Thor’s eyes lowered, as if looking at Loki discomfited him.

 

“Oh no. I imagine not,” Loki responded. “Here you thought you’d find the same cowering, inferior brother so content to live in your shadow.” He pushed himself to his feet in one fluid movement and stalked toward Thor. “It must be very disappointing for you.”

 

Thor looked up again, eyes growing wider, becoming more shaken as Loki spoke. As Loki got closer, he took an automatic step back.

 

“…Have you gotten taller?” Thor asked, incredulous as he discovered they were eye to eye.

 

Small wonder he was unsettled, Loki thought. There hadn’t been a time Loki didn’t have to look slightly up to meet his gaze since they were both small boys. How disheartening for him, to have lost that advantage.

 

“Perhaps.” Loki smiled thinly. He could feel by the tautness of his face there was nothing at all nice about his expression. “A lot has happened, after all, since you left me behind to freeze.”

 

“I…what?” Thor’s mouth dropped, stunned. “How could you even think that I would – Loki, I am here to rescue you!”

 

Loki gave a short and bitter laugh. “Rescue? Please. Don’t insult me, by presuming even for a moment I could be so easily fooled.”

 

“It’s true,” Thor insisted stubbornly. “I’m here to save you from this wretched place. It’s the reason I came.”

 

Loki met his eyes, cynical. “Got lost, did you? Took the scenic route?” He turned downright mocking. “Three months, Thor…it seems you weren’t in any great hurry.”

 

Thor’s head shook. “I wanted to come and find you ages ago,” he swore. “I was prepared to turn back the very instant I saw you were missing, but Father insisted you had to remain on Jotunheim.” He stumbled over his words, having difficulty maintaining eye contact in his turmoil. “He said, that if I tried to take you back, it could start the war all over again; because you…because you are Laufey’s…”

 

“Go on,” Loki said, sharp. “Say it.”

 

Either Thor refused or his voice failed him. He opened his mouth and then closed it again, with a wounded and lost look.

 

“It must have come as such a relief to you,” Loki hissed, “to learn the truth. To at long last have a reason, why I was so pathetic in comparison to the rest of you, why I never belonged on your golden shining world.”

 

“What’s happened to you?” Thor broke in, stunned. “Why are you saying this?”

 

But Loki would not stop. All that anger and rejection from when he’d first been left finally had a target, and it turned to deadly venom that stretched his voice thin to a razor-sharp point.

 

“It’s not as if it was any great loss, anyway. Was it?” he continued, brutal. “You had already figured out on your own that I was undesirable. None of you truly cared for, or loved me.”

 

But before it could build any further, his tirade was met with sudden swift action by Thor – he reached out, seizing Loki by the upper arms just below his shoulders.

 

Even as the chill from Loki’s body started to turn his fingers pale with impending frostbite, Thor held him so tight he was partially shaking him, staring right into his eyes.

 

“Brother,” Thor cried, overwhelmed with horror. “What have they done to you? That you could say such things. That you could think them. Have you forgotten us completely?”

 

He didn’t quite literally shake sense into Loki, but the gambit had the same result. The look on Thor’s face, the stricken desperation in his voice, struck Loki like a blow, and just like that his conviction that he’d been cheerfully and pragmatically disposed of crumbled into almost nothing.

 

Thor was so genuinely upset…and he didn’t know how to lie. Not like this. And even if he’d spent the entire time learning, what possible reason could he have?

 

Uneasy, Loki reached out and pushed Thor off him, but he did so gently as possible, putting his hands on Thor’s armor so he didn’t do him injury in the process.

 

“No,” Loki told him quietly. “I haven’t forgotten. Not any of it.”

 

For a moment he came dangerously close to bittersweet longing again. He clamped down on the emotion fiercely.

 

“But can you really blame me for being confused?” he continued, tightly. “You left me. You left me behind.”

 

“Not even remotely by choice,” Thor intoned.

 

“Three months, Thor. And then some,” Loki stressed. “Without as much as a single sign.”

 

“I would have turned around before the bridge had even settled,” Thor said, grimly. “But Father refused to listen. I pleaded with him for days on end, and still he wouldn’t hear reason. He took Mjolnir from me, and he made me swear an oath that I would not attempt rescue of you while he was in Odinsleep.”

 

Thor inhaled, drawing himself up, head fixed proudly high. “For over a month, he lingered. And I was forced to remain on Asgard. But then word reached me he was waking – and the instant I heard that, before he could summon me to his side or give me any other command, I made straight for the Bifrost.” He smirked. “I came to retrieve you, at long last.”

 

“Alone,” Loki said, woodenly. “And unarmed. In the middle of Jotunheim.”

 

Thor’s self-satisfied look faltered at that, but Loki had already pressed a hand to his own forehead.

 

He gave a small chuckle. “Actually,” he noted. “That does sound about right, considering.” He dropped his hand, meeting Thor’s eyes with an annoyed shake of his head. “After all, it’s you.”

 

Thor gave a somewhat timid smile, his returning gaze to Loki warm. “What did you expect?” he said lightly. “You weren’t there to talk me out if it.”

 

They stood facing one another, and Thor began reaching an arm out to him.

 

The next thing they heard was a terrible roar. They spun around – Býleistr bore down on them on all fours, so furious he was practically frothing.

 

“Stay away!” he yelled – at Thor, Loki realized instantly. “Don’t you touch him!”

 

Loki quickly took stock of the situation: what his younger brother saw was a dangerous Aesir foe, armored and there for a fight, within inches of grabbing hold of Loki.

 

“Brother, no-” Loki began in alarm, not even sure who he was talking to. But it was already too late. Thor saw a Frost Giant charging at them, and probably assumed it was trying to guard Loki.

 

He shoved Loki to one side - out of “danger” - and ran to meet Býleistr.

 

The next thing Loki knew, Býleistr had picked Thor up in both hands, a layer of frost coating Thor’s armor as Býleistr snarled at him. Thor still had both arms free and was swinging at Býleistr’s face, cursing at him all the while.

 

Both of them were yelling at the other about trying to hurt their brother.

 

Loki was strongly tempted to laugh. They were both trying to protect him, with the same reasoning. It would’ve been much funnier if not for how they might kill one other in the process.

 

He ran over. “Thor, stop! Stop hitting him!” he ordered sternly. More gently, but no less firm, he went, “Býleistr, set him down. It’s all right, I promise.”

 

Both reluctantly followed his instructions, Býleistr obedient but confused and Thor just plain bewildered. As soon as they parted Loki immediately put himself between them.

 

“Loki, what’s going on?” Býleistr demanded. “Why is there an Aesir here? He was attacking you, and I-”

 

“No,” Loki interrupted him. “No, he wasn’t.” He gave his brother a reassuring pat on the arm. “I know you were just trying to help me. But Thor meant me no harm.” He shot Thor a look. “And I’m sure he’s very sorry for any he did to you. Yes?”

 

Thor folded his arms and gave an indignant scoff. “The troll came at me first!”

 

Loki whirled around and slapped him.

 

Pulling back, Thor clasped a hand to his cheek, shocked. The blow had been too quick to burn his skin with cold but it certainly must have hurt. “What was that?”

 

“Oh, don’t even act like that,” Loki retorted. “That was rude, and assuredly even you know it. First of all, that’s no way to speak of a prince.” He scowled, eyes narrowed meaningfully. “And I will have you know, Býleistr here is my little brother, and I won’t stand for you insulting him. So guard your tongue.”

 

Thor gaped for several moments. Eventually he turned his head, looking slowly back and forth between Loki and Býleistr – down at one, and then up at the other.

 

Little brother?” he finally repeated, agog.

 

Býleistr sat down heavily, his hands folded in his lap. There was a resounding thud from the impact of his body meeting the floor.

 

Without pause Loki went, simply, “He’s somewhat big for his age.”

 

Thor stared at him with a look that seemed to imply he thought, or perhaps hoped, that Loki was playing a joke on him.

 

Loki fought the urge to sigh. “Býleistr,” he went, in a tone of introduction, “this is Thor.”

 

“I know who he is.” Býleistr tugged at the necklace of animal fangs that hung around his neck in an impatient, absent gesture, scowling.

 

Loki wondered if he should read something into that – he’d helped his brother weave that necklace himself. But Býleistr was not exactly known for subtly; if he meant something, he’d just say it.

 

“Even someone like me recognizes the Odinson. What is he doing here?”

 

“Don’t trouble yourself too much on my account,” Thor went brusquely, dropping the hand from his face. “I have no intention of staying long.”

 

“Good!” Býleistr declared. “You can go away now. And never come back!”

 

Thor narrowed eyes up at him, frowning haughtily. “As soon as I have what I came for.”

 

Speaking of unsubtle brothers. It was readily apparent to Loki what, or rather who, he meant by that.

 

Loki shut his eyes tight, and shook his head slowly from side to side. “Thor. I am not going anywhere with you,” he stated, in a careful but hard tone of voice. “I do appreciate what you were trying to do, truly. But it seems to have escaped your notice I do not need to be ‘rescued’. I’m staying where I am.”

 

“What? You cannot be serious,” Thor exclaimed. “Loki, this…this is Jotunheim.”

 

“This is my home,” Loki returned, simply. His voice didn’t waver, and inwardly he was almost surprised by the level of his own confidence. But no; how could he be anything but certain? He’d made up his mind long ago. “I have a place here. More, perhaps, than I ever did on Asgard.”

 

Thor opened his mouth to speak, to form some argument or protest, but he never got his chance. Before he could make a sound, all three of them became aware of the floor vibrating to the pattern of footsteps – forceful ones heading swiftly in their direction. Another Jotun was coming.

 

Loki’s stomach sank. Helblindi. It had to be – whoever it was moved far too purposefully not to be aware an Aesir was there, and anyone else would’ve come in an army of soldiers.

 

But Helblindi understood what Thor had been to him. And he’d know Loki was far more likely to protect Thor than turn him over.

 

“What is that?” Thor asked warily.

 

“Unless I miss my guess, it is my other brother,” Loki responded, setting his teeth. “And he is not so understanding as Býleistr. Thor, come.” Quickly he grabbed onto him and herded him behind Býleistr. Thor was too startled to resist. “Býleistr, please, I beg of you – stay quiet.”

 

He’d just hidden Thor behind Býleistr’s large frame in the nick of time. Loki stepped back and turned around to instantly find his wrathful younger sibling storming in a direct line towards him.

 

“Where is he?” Helblindi demanded, with no form of preamble. He wasn’t wearing his armor but his sword was held tight in one hand. Loki didn’t dare steal a glance to see how Thor was reacting. He only hoped he had the sense to stay out of sight.

 

Loki tilted his chin up, eyes half-lidded. “I don’t know what you mean. Forgive me. Perhaps if you were a little clearer-”

 

Helblindi gave an aggravated roar, stomping with one foot. The ice floor let out a warning creak, threatening to crack.

 

“The Aesir prince was spotted outside the palace.” Helblindi leaned forward, bending so that his furious face was inches away from Loki’s. Loki stood his ground and gazed back, meeting his eyes, unblinking. “I know you’re hiding him. Tell me where he is, right now!”

 

“Why?” Loki folded his arms disdainfully. “So you can slay him for yourself? This is none of your concern.”

 

Býleistr had shut his mouth tight, lips curling in awkwardly. Fortunately Helblindi only glanced at him and failed to notice his expression.

 

“An Aesir pest skulking around here is all our concern.” Helblindi pointed at Býleistr, a violent jab of his finger. “I’m not like him, brother. You won’t order me to keep this from Father.”

 

“He came by the Bifrost,” Loki objected, scoffing. “You think Laufey doesn’t already know?”

 

That gave Helblindi pause. His face shifted as he realized Loki was right – it was impossible the Bifrost could’ve come and gone, and Laufey-king been left unawares.

 

“Then why hasn’t he done anything?” Helblindi questioned.

 

Loki shrugged. “I don’t know,” he admitted.

 

Býleistr raised a hand.

 

“Can the Aesir come out now?” he asked, voice rising. “I don’t like having it at my back.”

 

Loki wasn’t sure who he wanted to hit in the forehead more – Býleistr, or himself. Though the look on Helblindi’s face as he realized how close Thor had been to him the entire time was almost worth it.

 

Loki stole a sideways look at his first brother, sharp and meaningful. “As long as we can all act civilly to one another.”

 

Helblindi breathed out between his teeth. But he nodded. He shoved the point of his sword into the ice at his feet, clenching the hilt in both hands. “Don’t expect me to do anything to help you, with whatever it is you are planning,” he warned.

 

“I never would’ve expected it,” Loki retorted. He gestured. “Thor, you may show yourself.”

 

Thor shuffled out, a conflicted look on his face as he chose between remaining close by Býleistr or getting nearer to Helblindi. Eventually he settled on halfway between them, though he also took a few steps backward for good measure.

 

He looked searchingly between the two, looking mildly overwhelmed. “These are – they are both Laufey’s sons?”

 

“Yes,” Loki responded – he made a point to stress: “And they are both my brothers.”

 

Thor’s frown intensified. But Loki refused to say anything to make it easier on him; he was just going to have to accept the truth. He stood between his two siblings, back straight and head held high.

 

Býleistr shifted nearer to Loki, though whether it was to give protection or seek it was uncertain. He glared silently at Thor. Helblindi gave no obvious outward sign of solidarity, but the way he kept Loki to the side of him in favor of facing his would-be enemy was somewhat telling.

 

Slowly Thor shook his head. “It did not occur to me there would be an entire…family,” he said, stilted.

 

Loki wondered what bothered him more: Loki’s willing association with the Jotnar and claim of their bloodline, or the fact that he’d been replaced.

 

“What did you expect, Thor?” Loki’s mouth set into a thin line. “You may have still cared for me, but the rest…”

 

“The rest, what?” Thor demanded, affronted. “What are you trying to say? Don’t tell me you have hardened your heart to our entire household.”

 

“Would that not be fair return, after they did the same to me?” Loki answered rapidly. “Odin stole me, he lied to me, and then he left me. He abandoned me once his shameful secret could no longer be hid.”

 

“Father did not abandon you,” Thor said in protest. “It’s true that he forbade any attempt to rescue you directly, but he never gave up hope. He even came here to try and negotiate your return!”

 

“Don’t lie to me, Thor,” Loki said, tiredly. “You aren’t very good at it.”

 

“Oh no,” Býleistr put in suddenly. “That’s true. The All-Father was here.”

 

Loki felt a chill of shock to his very core. Slowly he turned to stare at Býleistr, wide-eyed.

 

“What? When?” he gasped. “I didn’t hear anything about this. Why was I never told?”

 

Býleistr cringed – his expression that of one who’d forgotten he wasn’t supposed to say something and only remembered too late.

 

“Father didn’t want you to know,” he admitted, a mixture of sheepish and timid.

 

Loki’s head was spinning. Odin had come for him – Odin had come for him and Laufey had hid it. All the rejection Loki had tortured himself with, sleepless nights and miserable days, and the Aesir father that raised him had wanted him back after all.

 

His eyes glazed over, blindly staring. Without realizing it his hands clutched the sides of his head, as if in some futile attempt to drown out the cacophony of confused discordant voices within his mind.

 

He’d been so sure he was unwanted. How could he have been wrong?

 

“Loki?” Thor began, in a worried tone – the exact same tone, at the exact same moment, Býleistr went “Brother?”

 

They glowered at each other.

 

Loki shook himself back to awareness. “I must go,” he said, tersely. “I…I have to ask Father about this.”

 

Whether he wanted to or not, Laufey would explain. Loki didn’t intend to give him a choice.

 

He hesitated long enough to eye each of his – well, he supposed he had three siblings now, didn’t he?

 

“Does everyone promise to behave until I return?”

 

Helblindi bristled. “I make no promise,” he declared. “If the Aesir attacks me, then I will defend myself.”

 

“As long as you don’t attack him first I’m sure Thor will do the same,” Loki concluded resignedly. “Is that right?”

 

Thor didn’t agree, but he didn’t argue either. It’d have to do.

 

Leaving them, Loki strode off in search of the Jotun king and answers.

 

*

 

For once, Laufey was not to be found in his throne room.

 

Instead after some searching, Loki found him outside by the great walls of the palace. The king faced outward, looking up through an opening carved between bricks at the gray sky. One hand rested absently on the sill of the window, fingers curled.

 

Loki made no effort to disguise his approach, boots crunching against the fallen snow. But Laufey kept him at his back, giving no acknowledgement of his heir’s presence.

 

His nerves, the heated tension whittled through Loki’s patience. He cleared his throat. “I must speak with you,” he announced.

 

At first Laufey still did not turn. “Where have you put him?” he asked Loki slowly, voice somehow both careless and harsh. “In the dungeons, in the pit, where he belongs?”

 

Loki’s mouth curled. Despite the chill of the wind against his body he felt coldest within, in a great hollow that’d formed in his chest. “No.”

 

“I had thought not.” Finally Laufey shifted, pulling away from the window, straightening his full and massive height as he rounded on his son.

 

“But you must know I cannot abide that.” His eyes were half-lidded as he took Loki in inquiringly.  “So then, now what will you do?”

 

Even with all his self-righteous anger it took Loki a moment to gather his resolve. He ignored his father’s - his king’s question and drew up to stare heatedly into Laufey’s eyes.

 

“Thor says that Odin has been to Jotunheim,” he stated. His tone was a clear challenge, revealing he knew the facts, daring Laufey to contradict him. “He claims that he came ages ago, right after I’d first arrived. That he was trying to get me back. Is this true?”

 

Laufey did not flinch. He did not even blink. “Yes,” he returned. “It is so.” His lips thinned in intense disdain. “He tried to negotiate for you, as if you were a thing to be bartered over in a treaty. As if there were anything to discuss.”

 

“But he did want me, then,” Loki said, insistent. “He was willing to do – if not whatever it took, then at least something to have me back.”

 

The selfish child within him wanted Odin to have stopped at nothing; to go to war with Jotunheim gladly if it only meant he had his youngest home, to move heaven and earth. But Loki was not a child. Odin had his responsibilities as a king that would always come first – much as it pained him, he understood this.

 

“Yes. It did not matter.” Laufey gave a brief shake of his head, dismissive. “It was my right to retrieve you, to keep you. Both of us knew that.”

 

Loki drew in a breath almost as a gasp. He could feel his eyes stinging. He kept them fiercely wide.

 

“But you lied to me. If not directly, then by omission.” He gazed into Laufey’s face, not sure exactly what he was looking for – guilt? Denial? Contrition? He wanted a reaction; Laufey to show awareness he’d done him a great wrong.

 

“All this time I thought I had been cast out by all of Asgard. That my former family rejected me.” Loki gestured in hopeless futility, unable to express himself another way. “You knew that; that I felt that way, and yet you said nothing.”

 

“No. Why should it matter what I knew, what I did or didn’t say?” Laufey said in return without hesitation, indifferent. “It was not my affair, my responsibility to have anything to do with relations between you and them. You reached your conclusions on your own.”

 

Loki glared at him darkly. “You let me remain ignorant of the truth and form a poisoned hatred – the very thing you so railed against the All-Father and his people for!”

 

If he’d thought that would anger Laufey, goad him into reaction, he was disappointed. All the king did was level his eyes at him, coolly.

 

“What you would refer to as hypocrisy – however veiled your accusation,” Laufey stated, a touch sardonic, “I would merely think of as a form of justice. A blow struck to me I paid in kind.”

 

Loki had nothing to say to that. He stood there staring at the floor, shoulders heaving as he breathed heavily.

 

Now everything was conflicted in his heart again. He still hated Odin for what had happened, but from his new knowledge at least some of that hatred melted away, allowing itself again to be transmuted to love – even as part of the love that had formed for his birth father twisted in and darkened to hate, for having been so roughly deceived.

 

His affections were torn between Aesir family and Jotnar kin, unable to keep himself from feeling as if he should belong to both. But how could he? They were opposite ends to one pole.

 

He could feel Laufey still watching him. After a long moment Loki lifted his head again. He had to force his voice to rise above a whisper.

 

“As to your inquiry, my king,” Loki answered, “I will not give Thor to you. Nor to any other.” He exhaled, folding his hands. “He stays with me, as my guest – or as my captive, if you prefer. Either way he is under my protection.”

 

Laufey scowled, the lines of his face drawing together as his brow furrowed. His teeth showed slightly when he spoke.

 

“If I ordered you to give him to me,” he demanded, “would you disobey me?”

 

Loki met his eyes.

 

“Order me, Father, if you will,” he dared him in reply, sharp. “And find out.”

 

He waited tensely. But Laufey did not give a command. Closing his eyes for a moment the king took a step back, shaking his head again.

 

“So be it,” he muttered. He moved a hand in an irate gesture of dismissal. “Keep him out of my sight. And do not let him harm any of our people. Keep him leashed. Whatever else you do with him, it’s your own affair.”

 

Loki probably should’ve thanked him. But circumstances being as they were, he didn’t want to. Instead he merely gave a curt bow of his head and left.

 

As he passed the barracks on his way back inside, he did a double-take as he spotted Helblindi hacking away at a target formed from the ice with furious malice. Loki hurried over to him.

 

“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Where’s our brother? What did you do with the Odinson?”

 

Helblindi only paused long enough to sneer. Then he went straight back to splitting the ice with his sword, not looking at his elder brother.

 

“Býleistr got tired of trying to hide him in the hallway. He said he was taking him to your room.”

 

“My room-?” Loki’s heart jumped in horrified realization. “Oh…oh no.”

 

His room where, far as he knew, Angrboda had still been abed. And Býleistr unwittingly about to bring an Aesir straight to her.

 

He didn’t tarry with Helblindi any further. Picking up his heels he ran off fast as he possibly could.

 

Reaching the door to his chamber he burst in, only to find he was too late.

 

Thor stood by one wall far away from the bed, a look of complete bemusement on his face.

 

Váli and Narfi sat among the sheets, blinking, the set of their ears indicating they were unhappy about whatever was going on, even though they didn’t understand it. The bedclothes were rumpled in a way indicative of a sleeping body that upon waking had taken a very sudden flight.

 

Býleistr crouched down next to the bed, speaking in soothing plaintive tones to underneath it.

 

Loki came over, and Býleistr looked up at him in concern.

 

“I didn’t know Angrboda was still sleeping,” he explained. “We startled her. Before I could say anything she saw the Aesir. Now she’s hiding under your bed the way the foxes used to.”

 

Loki let out a heavy sigh. “Yes, Býleistr, I had a feeling that might happen.” He gave his brother a pat on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it – I’ll sort this out. You may go now.”

 

“What about him?” Býleistr glanced at Thor, speaking a hushed tone that wasn’t actually very quiet. “Will you be safe by yourself?”

 

“Don’t worry, brother. I won’t let him hurt me,” Loki said woodenly.

 

Býleistr didn’t seem to note his tone but went on his way, reassured by Loki’s words. Once the Jotun had gone Thor cleared his throat. Loki turned to him.

 

There was a pressing question in Thor’s eyes.

 

“Brother,” he began, haltingly. He sounded highly confused, and for a moment he hesitated before continuing. “In the bed, I saw…was that a woman?”

 

Loki wondered idly if he should be grateful Thor had actually identified Angrboda as something feminine, instead of simply calling her ‘monster’.

 

Yes, Thor, it was,” he snapped. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to coax her out, before she likely has a heart attack.”

 

From the look on his face, Thor no doubt would have liked to keep speaking, but Loki was in no mood to indulge him, besides being sorely out of practice. He made his way over to the bed and crossed to the other side, kneeling down so that he could have this private conversation out of sight.

 

“Angrboda?”

 

He was not encouraged or pleased by what he saw. She sat on her legs on the floor, pressed to the very corner against the bedpost. Huddled in on herself the strands of her white hair hung in limp disarray over her face. One strap of the garment she’d slept in had slipped from her shoulder, perilously close to exposing her.

 

She was trembling visibly, her breath coming in tiny forced bursts. Her hands were raised close by her chin and between them she grasped a long thin spike she’d formed from the ice – to defend herself.

 

Anxious and remorseful, Loki crept close to her as he could with the bed’s frame in the way. “Angrboda,” he repeated. Her eyes darted over to him – he stretched out a reassuring hand to her. “It’s alright. I’m here.”

 

“My prince?” Her voice was timid, so very timid – he hadn’t heard that note of tremulous uncertainty from her since they’d first been introduced. Her eyes slid over to meet his, searching. She stared at his hand, seeming as if she wanted to take it but momentarily still too frightened to move. “What is the meaning of this?”

 

The inquiry trailed off in almost a hiss; she gave an unsteady, perfunctory jerk of her head, indicating Thor’s general direction.

 

“Do not worry about him.” Loki gazed deep into her eyes. His voice was low and clear with intensity, an order. “Forget him, for the moment. Right now the only concern I have is you.”

 

He angled himself forward, managing to reach out for her even further. Angrboda breathed out, slowly, and the ice spike turned to frost between her fingers, and then nothing.

 

She took his hand, gripping him strongly. Loki pulled her to him. For the moment he made no attempt to rise, instead holding her where they both knelt on the floor.

 

Angrboda pressed bodily to his chest, tucking her head beneath his chin, hands going to rest on his shoulders. Carefully Loki took her face between his hands, one brushing her hair behind her ear, the other cupping part of one cheek and her chin.

 

He turned her so that she was looking up to meet his eyes, examining her expression; needing to see proof that she’d come back to herself.

 

“Are you better, now?” he asked her, gentle.

 

Angrboda moved one hand to curl around the back of his head. “My prince,” she insisted, “please tell me.” Her teeth were clenched as if to steel her resolve. “Why is…that here?”

 

Loki breathed in through his nose before he trusted himself to reply sensibly. “He is not here to harm you. I would never let him,” he promised her. “You do know that, don’t you? I would let a thousand terrible things happen to me, before I ever let anyone lay so much as one finger on you that was unwanted.”

 

Angrboda nodded, dutifully. She trusted him. “But-”

 

Loki shushed her. He pressed a kiss to her forehead, both hands smoothing back her hair. “I will explain. All in a moment. For now, please, calm yourself.” He murmured to her, eyes closed, “Let me see that you are going to be fine.”

 

As Angrboda gathered herself as best she could, Loki put her dress back to rights, smoothing the fabric and sliding the errant strap back to where it belonged.

 

Once he was satisfied he nodded, and stood, bringing Angrboda to her feet with him, still half-wrapped in his embrace.

 

As much as he was capable, Loki turned them both to face Thor. “Angrboda,” he began stoically, “this is Thor, Son of Odin. He is the brother I was raised together with on Asgard – remember? I spoke to you of it in passing.”

 

Angrboda said nothing, her eyes narrowed, her expression far more relaxed than it had been but unfriendly. From her position inside Loki’s arms she kept her face pressed to him, one arm around his back, her other hand curled where it rested against his breast.

 

Undeterred, Loki continued.

 

“Thor, this is Angrboda.” He gave no explanation as to her position. What she was didn’t have a title.

 

Thor’s eyes had widened, his nostrils flaring – he looked to the sight of him entwined with Angrboda, seeming staggered and profoundly uncomfortable.

 

In the decorous environment of Asgard’s palace, lovers saved all but the lightest displays of physical affection for when they were out of sight. It must’ve been doubly astonishing to observe such behavior in Loki – who last his brother had known him, was in the habit of keeping his trysts always brief, impersonal, and very, very private.

 

As if she knew Thor’s distress, Angrboda twisted her fingers tighter in the front of Loki’s clothing.

 

“Forgive me, my prince. But…your guest.” She met Loki’s eyes demandingly. “Will he be staying long?”

 

“I don’t know,” Loki said honestly. “That may not be entirely under my control.”

 

His voice as he admitted this was pained. Thor may have walked mostly of his own free will into Jotunheim, but despite what he may have thought, he could not leave with anything like such ease. In the heart of Laufey’s palace, he was a prisoner now, not going anywhere unless he intended to fight his way through an army of Frost Giants without Mjolnir – and Loki was his jailor.

 

Loki touched Angrboda’s face again. “You should go, find Býleistr,” he offered. Hopefully she and his brother could help keep each other’s’ minds off of Aesir-related worries. “You don’t have to stay.”

 

After a moment she nodded, carefully extracting herself from him. She caressed his face and he leaned in to kiss her briefly before she left.

 

Angrboda walked past Thor and out in a whirl of pale hair and tight shoulders held high. Váli and Narfi leapt to the floor to trot after her, tails wagging.

 

In the uneasy silence after the door slammed, Thor looked to Loki, opened his mouth to say something and then halted again, frowning deeply.

 

Loki gave him no invitation to speak. Shaking his head more at the general situation than anything Thor had done, he crossed his arms and strolled sideways across the floor of his chamber, the bed no longer between him and his brother but still keeping a goodly distance.

 

Thor followed his movements with his eyes, doing a mixture of watching and just plain staring.

 

Eventually Loki paused, leaning back against his desk, hands rested on the carved edge for balance. “Must you gawk at me so?” he remarked coldly. “It’s disconcerting.”

 

Thor’s expression was dark. “I do not like seeing you this way,” he said, treating honesty like a blunt object, as always. “It distresses me, to see you looking like-”

 

“Like?” Loki repeated, not sure why he even attempted to check his anger. Did Thor really not consider how insulting to speak so was to him?

 

Thor swallowed bitterly, pained. “Like one of them,” he finished.

 

Loki drew himself up, looking at Thor thinly. “I am one of them.”

 

Thor started to shake his head. “No; it isn’t your fault,” he began, earnestly. “You may have been born to Laufey and his kind, but you had no choice in that.”

 

“And so, what? You think that I should fight against my blood? That I should abhor and show condescension to my own people – my kind, as you call them?” Loki spat. He curled his fingers, forming a layer of frost so thin it emerged like a cloud puffing in the air.

 

He stepped toward Thor, who did not move away, but tensed as if he might like to.

 

“I only meant-”

 

“I do not feel shame at what I am, Thor,” Loki cut him off mercilessly, incensed. “You have no idea how long it took me to get to this point - but I won’t turn back on it for you, and your thickheaded, self-righteous ways.”

 

Stopping a few paces away from Thor he tilted his head back, fixing him with a powerful gaze.

 

“You may have come here seeking an Aesir prince, but I am Loki Laufeyson,” he declared stridently. “Firstborn heir to the throne of Jotunheim. And long as you are on Jotunheim, you will not speak ill of my family, or my race, if you expect me to treat you with anything like favor! Do you understand me?”

 

Thor’s face had gone pale beneath his beard. Meeting Loki in his intense red eyes, he only wordlessly nodded.

 

*

 

It was an awkward night. Angrboda hadn’t come back, and Loki would not send for her – he wouldn’t force her to pass the evening in a circumstance that would make her so profoundly uncomfortable. But he found it hard to sleep, alone in his bed without her and their foxes, nothing to curl his fingers into or hold close but his pillows.

 

He had blankets brought in for Thor, but Loki would not form him a bed – not that it occurred to his brother to ask for one. He could sleep on the floor. Certainly he was used to making do from his frequent adventuring and the floor of a palace, even an icy one, had to be better than the ground.

 

They’d said next to nothing to each other for the rest of the day. Loki was still angry at him, and Thor seemed almost intimidated.

 

And so it’d been a long, silent morning that had stretched on to a similar afternoon, which stretched on into a similar evening. Loki had been able to more or less occupy himself with his books – what thoughts kept Thor busy as he sat in a corner, arms folded and brooding look upon his face, Loki couldn’t guess.

 

Even with what little fitful sleep he eventually had, on the second day Loki still automatically woke early. He lay there in his cold and depressingly empty bed, hands clutching the air.

 

Getting up, he glanced over at the lump of piled blankets on the floor atop a bearskin rug. A familiar low rumbling snore came from beneath it.

 

Loki sighed.

 

Leaving Thor to his slumber he rose and dressed himself. He had just finished, and was standing there silently contemplating what next to do, when there came a knock on his bedchamber door.

 

He glanced at Thor, but of course he hadn’t so much as stirred at the sound. “Enter,” Loki called.

 

The door opened to reveal not just Thrym but Angrboda. A surprised and gladdened smile spread across Loki’s face as she walked towards him, his arms out to her.

 

Hugging him lightly she greeted him with a kiss. “Good morning, my prince,” she said softly, but there was a gentle smile upon her face. Whether her fears had faded or she’d just managed to gather her resolve over the course of a day, she seemed much less shaken now.

 

“How did you pass the night?” Loki asked her politely, fingers stroking the side of her face, briefly touching her lips with his thumb.

 

She ran a hand through his hair. “Not well,” she admitted in a murmur, leaning into him. “I am never at ease, when I’m forced to try and sleep without you near to me.”

 

“Myself neither,” Loki confessed. “But I am glad to have you back, now.” Pulling slightly apart, he turned to look at Thrym, who had waited patiently all the while with his head bowed.

 

“Rise, Thrym,” Loki ordered. He stole another glance at Thor. “Has the…situation regarding the Aesir been explained to you?”

 

Thrym had set his visage into the hardened mask of a soldier, impossible to read. “Yes, Prince Loki.”

 

Loki was tempted to ask exactly who explained it – if it was Laufey, he wondered precisely what had been said. But he didn’t pry further. He nodded slowly, thinking.

 

“If you would, then, be so kind as to bring us all some breakfast.” He paused, and then stressed, “A lot of breakfast, Thrym.” 

 

Loki had been so vexed and irritated the day previous he’d neglected to eat anything, but now that he’d slept his hunger had returned with a vengeance. And Thor was anything but a delicate eater.

 

“Yes, my prince. I will see to it right away.” Thrym bowed respectfully and departed.

 

Uncertain, Loki frowned in his wake. “I hope he isn’t angry with me,” he mused out loud. Thrym had become a close and frequent companion throughout the time of his service, almost a friend - but it wasn’t hard to see how Loki protecting the son of their enemy’s king could rankle the soldier.

 

“He isn’t happy,” Angrboda informed him, meeting his eyes. “But his displeasure lies not with you.”

 

Not entirely reassuring, but it’d have to do. Perhaps somehow, at some later point, Loki would think of a way to make it up to him.

 

By the time Thor finally got around to rousing himself, a long low table had been lifted out of the ice and cushions had been brought in for the three of them to sit. The food Thrym had obtained was rolls, small hard cheeses, cold meat, and a whole variety of fruits – a sumptuous breakfast suitably fitting for Jotnar royalty and guests, though of course it paled compared to the feasts of Asgard.

 

Loki had judiciously seated himself and Angrboda at one end of the table, leaving Thor’s intended spot at the other. Not waiting on ceremony they’d already made themselves comfortable and tucked in.

 

Váli was curled on the edge of Angrboda’s cushion, practically in her lap, and she smiled indulgently as he ate an entire cheese from her hand. Narfi slinked up against Loki’s side, slipping his head under his arm to try helping himself to the meat from his plate. Loki pushed the fox away with a scolding sound, but then tore off a hunk and fed it to him anyway, chuckling.

 

Thor eyed the spread of food distrustfully where he stood off to the side, arms folded. His clothes were rumbled from sleeping, having been convinced to remove his armor when it was time to retire. He looked sideways at the shelf the pieces sat on, seeming to already long for them back again.

 

Loki gazed at him narrowly, noting his reluctance to partake of their offerings. “Honestly, Thor,” he remarked, arch. “It hasn’t been poisoned.”

 

In his neglecting to eat the day previous he also hadn’t thought to offer any food to his brother, and Thor had never requested any. And considering his brother was always hungrier than he under normal circumstances, Loki knew he had to be starving.

 

Thor remained where he was, frowning. “I considered it might not – agree with me,” he said slowly.

 

Loki’s eyes flashed. “Well it’s never given me any trouble,” he went in a tone of half-feigned carelessness. “Oh – but I suppose that wouldn’t give you as much cause for reassurance, now would it?”

 

He bit deliberately into one of the large burgundy berries Býleistr had first introduced him to, slow, sucking the juice from between his teeth.

 

From the spasm across his face, it looked as though Thor was repressing a grimace.

 

He sat down at last, however, making himself easy as he could. He sampled the meal at first slowly, then in a more relaxed manner after he deduced nothing offended his taste buds or seemed likely to make him ill.

 

Loki gave a brief sigh, rubbing at the space between his eyes. “Angrboda, do we have any more of that wine from Alfheim?”

 

It was nowhere near finely-made as wine on Asgard, but Loki had no taste for Jotunheim mead. It was too thick, too bitter, and so strongly-brewed it gave him a headache almost immediately, skipping right past the initial pleasant flush of intoxication. It tended to be served piping hot as well, the better to make for a long drunken revelry without it freezing.

 

Angrboda nodded, and went to fetch the wine. She declined any herself, and then poured a cup for Loki.

 

Thor, unthinking, automatically held out a chalice toward her. Angrboda flinched back so violently she almost spilled the pitcher.

 

Loki quickly pried it from her fingers, laying a brief reassuring touch on her arm. “It’s alright, brother – if it’s the same to you, I’ll wait on you myself.”

 

As Loki filled his drink for him, Thor stared past to where Angrboda had retreated to the farthest point of the table, holding both foxes to her and hugging their fur as if for security.

 

“She’s afraid of me,” Thor noted in astonishment, wide-eyed. “Why?”

 

“I would have thought Thor the Thunderer would be pleased to observe he strikes terror into the hearts of every Frost Giant,” Loki returned, sharp.

 

Thor shook his head, making a bemused sound of dismissal. “Not into one who certainly could never expect to face me in battle. So why does she cower?”

 

Loki set the pitcher down with an irate thud, causing the flatware to shake. “Because she thinks you’ll defile her flesh and carry her off on your back as your prisoner,” he told Thor bluntly, his words even.

 

Thor stared at him, outraged and appalled. “What? Why? I…she may still be a Jotun, but I would never-”

 

“But it is because she is a Jotun,” Loki stressed, interrupting. “Or rather, an ice maiden, like in the tales of old. Even our own stories remark on the fancy Aesir men have, for a finely-formed helpless Jotnar body.” He paused, but Thor said nothing, still staring in confused horror. “Don’t you see, Thor? We grew up on Asgard with stories of monstrous Frost Giants that would creep into our rooms at night…but what do you think the Jotnar grew up with?”

 

He paused again, this time for effect, before concluding meaningfully, “Among the ‘monsters’, the Aesir are the thing spoken of in all the frightening stories.”

 

Thor could give no reply to this, but slumped where he was, rendered completely speechless. Under different circumstances Loki would have laughed at the broken, childlike look of consternation on his face.

 

After they all satisfied themselves with their meal, the awkward question arose just what they were to do to pass the time. Much as he could enjoy finding time for his studies, Loki would go mad if he spent another twenty-four hours locked in a room with nothing but his scrolls and his sullen brother staring holes in his back.

 

A tour of the palace was out of the question. Loki felt very strongly the fewer Jotnar that saw with their own eyes the Odinson walking freely among them, the better.  And it’d probably be taken by his people as a…bad idea to reveal the intimate details of one of their last strongholds to the enemy.

 

Going for a walk outside certainly wasn’t going to happen, either.

 

Finally, Loki summoned Thrym back. “Gather your men and meet us out in the yard,” he instructed. “If the guard has nothing better to do, they may as well practice while I examine them.”

 

Thrym was surprised at the command and his expression showed it, but he nodded and quickly assented. The warriors had no qualms at all about drilling in front of their prince, and they certainly would relish an opportunity to show off their martial prowess before an Aesir.

 

Loki turned his head to see how Thor was doing - Váli and Narfi, he discovered, apparently didn’t have any reservations about approaching him. They’d wandered over and were sniffing at him curiously.

 

With a relieved-looking smile and a faint chuckle, Thor patted Narfi on the head while Váli licked his knuckles.

 

“Well, at least somebody around here likes you,” Loki remarked, dryly.

 

Thor looked up at that, the momentary happiness vanishing from his expression all at once.

 

He met Loki’s gaze with a look of immediate concern. “Why?” he asked with care. “Don’t you?”

 

The worry likely would have never crossed his mind before. But after the greeting he’d got…after how he’d been treated…the prospect must’ve looked all too bleakly possible to him.

 

Loki took in a breath, his eyes fluttering briefly closed. He hoped he could find more sleep the coming night, because it wasn’t even noon yet and he already felt drained. “Oh no, Thor – I don’t mind you. Too much. But in case you haven’t noticed, your presence has caused no small amount of trouble for me.”

 

“I…” Thor lingered a moment, mouth half-opened as he had a problem with his words. “I am sorry, Loki,” he said in a tone of genuine remorse. “That was the last thing I wished for, in coming here. I hope you can see that.”

 

But you should’ve anticipated it - you’re always causing me problems, Loki would’ve griped in another time. But things as they were, the normally light-hearted jibe might not be taken the way it was intended.

 

Instead the only response he favored Thor with was a weak, slightly sad smile.

 

“Come,” he said, gesturing. “It’s about time we got some fresh air. Oh; and leave the armor behind.”

 

*

 

Thor’s dreams gave him no rest; shapeless heavy things that writhed around, making him feel as if he was being smothered in the coils of a great serpent.

 

He awoke, aware that it had to be the middle of the night, the chamber all but pitch-black. For a few minutes Thor simply lay in his nest of blankets, blinking slowly as his eyes adjusted.

 

Jotunheim was still cold to him – not unbearably so, but a persistent level of discomfort that permeated his skin, no matter how he tried to ignore it. When he breathed out, it was a cloud of fog. Outside was worse: it hadn’t occurred until too late he was visiting Jotunheim in the midst of winter. The wind howled, tearing at his skin and clothes, and he had to stamp his feet or rub his hands constantly as he struggled to keep his teeth from chattering.

 

The Jotnar, of course, shrugged it off like almost nothing. But this was their world, not his.

 

He’d never before suffered this awkward indignity, of feeling so out of place.

 

Even though he could barely see, Thor recalled the details of the room as he turned his head, looking. It was big, even by giant standards, with enough hung tapestries and pelts on the floor suitable of nobility. Shelves set into the icy walls stacked with books and scrolls. Ledges carried an assortment of neatly organized items. A fireplace that during the day had been filled with a heatless decorative flame. A massive wardrobe with plenty of room for clothes. Beside one wall was a desk for reading and writing, a long table next to it covered in scribbled pieces of parchment and the remains of half-formed projects.

 

His gaze came to rest on the centerpiece of the room: a frame made of ice and covered in rich bedclothes, where the sleeping form of his brother lay at perfect ease.

 

Even in the dark he could make out the blue of Loki’s skin.

 

It truly discomfited Thor, to see his younger brother with a Jotun appearance. To watch him move the same, and speak the same, while occupying that form.

 

But he hadn’t realized what he might find when he reached Loki at last. He’d thought he would see the same brother he’d always known - when first he beheld Loki with Frost Giant attributes and changed physique, he truly had not recognized him.

 

Three months. And he’d thought Loki would be waiting for him, no different from last Thor had seen him; no different at all, except maybe a little worse for wear.

 

Loki was as much a man as he was. He was cunning and skilled in magic and proficient in battle as any raised on Asgard, even if his talents lay in other directions than standard brute force. But Thor tended to forget that, in moments of crisis – in his mind Loki always reverted back to the baby brother, helpless. Needing his protection.

 

All this time Thor had been picturing Loki imprisoned in a cell, tortured. It’d been agony beyond bearing, picturing what horrible things might be done to him. The cruelty of the Jotnar with their captive.

 

But Loki was a Jotun himself, and Laufey’s son: Laufey’s first son, his heir. He was no prisoner – he was a highly valued prince.

 

Loki had what was probably the best room, the free run of an entire palace. He spoke Laufey’s name without fear. He had two younger brothers who listened to his words with deference. An entire company of Jotnar warriors served as his personal guard, and were visibly honored to do so. He shared his bed with a woman so fair even Thor could see it beneath her frost-colored skin.

 

Loki had everything he ever could’ve wanted. And Thor had thought he needed to be rescued.

 

Thor was a fool.

 

His heart heavy, he pushed himself up to get a better look at his brother. Loki was on his back, cushioned by many pillows, the blankets drawn halfway up the bodies of him and his courtesan, her head pillowed on his naked chest. The large foxes nuzzled up between them, all four comfortably entwined in a dreaming pile.

 

He’d wanted to save Loki, but there was nothing Loki needed saving from. In fact, he was happy there.

 

It was without a doubt what hurt the most.

 

But as much as it pained him, Thor wanted his brother to have happiness. He would not interfere with that.

 

No. He would leave. Quit Jotunheim at once, sneak away and never come back.

 

And leave his brother, who he would never see again, to live happily ever after.

 

*

 

The slight clink of metal on metal disturbed Loki’s sleep enough that it caused him to stir.

 

He turned his head, groggily. Thor had gotten up and was standing over the shelf holding his surrendered armor, some of the pieces already in his hands.

 

As if sensing he was watched, Thor looked back in his direction. Their eyes met.

 

By steady increments Loki began to feel more aware, more awake.

 

“Couldn’t sleep?” he mused wryly. He tried to sit up as best he could without disturbing Angrboda or the foxes.

 

“No,” Thor answered honestly. “I’m afraid I wasn’t able to make myself very comfortable.” He shook his head, smiling in an oddly detached way – at least for Thor. “Not any more so than I was during the day. Clearly I do not belong on this world.”

 

Loki felt traces of that cruel sense of triumph returning. On Jotunheim, Thor was the one who was disregarded, pushed aside and stared at. While Loki held all the attention and honor.

 

“Yes, it’s very difficult, isn’t it,” he remarked coolly. “Feeling so completely out of place at all times. Not knowing what it is you have to do to fit in; being looked down upon, for things you have no control of.”

 

Thor gave him a surprised, wounded look.

 

A nagging voice in Loki’s head told him he wasn’t being fair – Thor was an enemy prisoner who slept on the floor, while Loki had the bed. As unbalanced and envy-inducing as things could’ve felt at times on Asgard, they’d never been quite that bad.

 

And even as he was trying to battle the vague sense of guilt for his spitefulness, it hit him Thor was gathering up his armor. Just like that, he was wide awake completely.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“I’m leaving,” Thor replied flatly. He shook his head. “Coming here was a mistake. I realize that now.”

 

Loki stared at him, startled. “What? But-”

 

Thor gave a strained laugh, completely without mirth. The kind of a sound someone made when they were trying to hide how broken they were feeling. It stopped Loki dead.

 

“I thought that you needed me. Do you realize that?” Thor looked away and then slowly back again. His feeble smile disappeared in favor of a look of pained intensity. “I thought they were hurting you. That they…” He trailed off, his fingers curling into fists. “It haunted my every waking moment. The thought of my only brother, in trouble, and there was nothing I could do. At times I felt it would surely drive me to madness.”

 

Loki’s could feel his heart sinking lower. It’d never occurred to him. “Oh, Thor…”

 

“I came here meaning to rescue you.” Thor gave that broken laugh again. “But clearly, there’s nothing that you need to be rescued from.” He nodded, resolute, and forced a smile. “I wish you all the best, Loki. It is a good life that you have found here for yourself. You deserve no less.”

 

And he turned away, lifting up his breastplate.

 

Swift as he could without actually kicking Narfi off of him, Loki bolted out of bed, tugging loose a sheet to drape around his shoulders so he wasn’t standing there in his undergarments.

 

“Thor…no. Stop!” he hissed. He took a few steps closer, the better to raise his voice without waking anyone. “What are you thinking? You can’t just leave.”

 

“I don’t really see that I have the alternative,” Thor replied, bemused.

 

Loki scoffed, gaping at him in anxiety and disbelief. “Are you insane? What’s going to happen once you walk out there? You have to go past who knows how many soldiers before you get far enough away to summon the Bifrost.” His gaze drifted to the side, mind racing. “Even if by some miracle you make it back to Asgard, do you think Odin’s just going to let this go? He’ll banish you for sure, or worse!”

 

“I will…suffer that if I have to,” Thor said, trying to show great reserve. “It was worth it, just to see you one more time.”

 

Loki felt like he was going to be sick. He made a tight fist with one hand – the living ice crept up, encasing Thor’s armor to where the pieces rested so he couldn’t lift them away. Thor took a step back, staring, and then rounded on Loki.

 

“I can’t let you do this, Thor.” Loki stared his brother down, resolute. “That would be the mistake.”

 

Thor’s eyes were wide, his mouth set in a thin line, speechless.

 

For a moment all was still. They merely stood there and looked at one another.

 

It was Loki who finally broke the silence.

 

“I did miss Asgard, you know. At first,” he murmured. “How could I not? It was the only home I’d ever had. I missed it so much it ached.” He gave a jerky shrug. “But eventually I made myself stop. Otherwise I was going to die from it.”

 

He took a breath, tilting his chin so he could fight the way his eyes were threatening to water. “And I thought…that you didn’t want me. That none of you did. Of course I know now that was wrong, but then?” He shook his head. “So, better to try and forget.”

 

It took Thor a second or two to gather himself enough to reply. “But…you did want to come home, then. At first.”

 

“It didn’t matter what I wanted.” Loki smiled wanly. “I already knew that I never could.”

 

Thor actually looked at him as if he was confused. Loki felt the urge to laugh, if it hadn’t been so exasperating.

 

“I don’t belong on Asgard anymore! I’m…” He trailed off, making a frustrated gesture. “Look at me. What do you see?”

 

“A Frost Giant,” Thor said, softly. “And, also my brother.”

 

Loki was touched in spite of himself. But his point still stood: “Which did you mention first?”

 

Thor’s eyes closed, hanging his head as he nodded in defeated acknowledgement.

 

And then, without warning, a voice spoke up from behind Loki: “But you can take on an Aesir’s appearance.”

 

He froze, startled. Turning to look back at the bed he saw Angrboda was wide awake and rolled over onto her side, watching the two of them. There was no way of telling how long she’d been laying there like that, silently listening to their conversation.

 

She gazed up at him, meeting his eyes with a mixture of trepidation and certainty.

 

“I know that you can,” she continued after a beat, once it was evident Loki wasn’t going to say anything. “I’ve seen you do it.”

 

What?” Thor demanded, astonished. “You can?” He turned toward Loki. “But why did you never say anything? If you can change back, then that means-”

 

“It means nothing,” Loki exclaimed, cutting him off. He looked at Angrboda in confusion. “Why are you doing this? Why would you-?”

 

“He never lied to you,” she answered without hesitation. “Only the others did that.”

 

Smoothly Angrboda stood and walked past him, their shoulders brushing. Their gazes locked meaningfully, her eyes filled with both a determined heat and a softness of emotion.

 

“Do whatever you like, my prince. But you owe him the same courtesy.”

 

She didn’t look at Thor as she let herself out – discreetly leaving the two of them to be alone.

 

Thor waited until Angrboda was gone, visibly unsettled by her intrusion into the conversation. But when it was certain she wasn’t coming back, he glowered at his brother, crossing his arms over his chest.

 

Loki made a disbelieving sound, pressing one hand to his face.

 

“It doesn’t matter if I can alter my appearance or not – that doesn’t actually change what I am. Nor do I want it to!”

 

“You don’t want to return,” Thor determined, voice thick.

 

“It doesn’t matter that I do.” Loki sighed. “I don’t want to leave here. That’s the part that matters. Even if it weren’t for my family, for Angrboda, the life that I have…I can’t leave.” His words came tumbling out as he tried to explain it Thor, everything he had seen, everything he’d become.

 

“My people need me. They look to me, as some sort of symbol, for guidance, and whether I really deserve it or not, it doesn’t change that I cannot walk away from that. From them. I have responsibilities.”

 

He met his brother’s gaze, somber. “I am sorry it has to be this way, Thor. Truly I am. But that’s just how it is.”

 

Thor’s face fell. He spread his arms, at a loss. “But then, what am I to do?”

 

Loki’s eyes lowered. “I don’t…I don’t know,” he confessed.

 

In the quiet that followed Thor’s brow furrowed, mouth beset with deep lines – his version of a “thoughtful” look made Loki at times want to tell him he was trying too hard. Eventually he moved in, closer to Loki, until there were only a few inches between them.

 

But those inches were as obvious a barrier as if they’d somehow been inked in the air; there was a palpable tension, a sense of a border. An invisible line Thor could not reach across unless he was willing to sacrifice a fingertip or two in the process.

 

Loki suddenly recalled that in his old life on Asgard, Thor had been the only individual to still be regularly tactile with him. Everyone else had long drawn away, assuming they had even started to begin with, sensing something in the dark second prince that preferred to be left alone.

 

But Thor was willfully oblivious. He was always clasping the back of Loki’s head or clapping an arm around his shoulders, sometimes even going so far as to pull him into a one-armed bear hug.

 

It’d been a constant annoyance, grating really, and he’d always wished his overly-affectionate brother would just catch on and stop.

 

But now – standing there, taking in the stricken look on Thor’s face, he realized like so many other things it’d been something he only thought bothered him. Now that the possibility was gone, he missed his brother’s touch terribly. He felt an ache of longing.

 

Thor half-raised a hand. “So this is it from now on.” It sounded like he was referring to just about anything, the situation as a whole, but the focus of his gaze made it clear he meant Loki’s Jotun body.

 

“Yes.” Loki glanced down at himself. “You get used to it,” he offered, in a weak attempt at flippancy.

 

Thor’s mouth gave up a spasm of a smile. It didn’t last very long.

 

He asked with quiet intensity, “Did it hurt?”

 

Loki blinked. The sheer earnestness of the question caught him off-guard. “No.” Absently he traced a line along the edge of his cheek, following it towards where it went to meet the almost circular pattern on his forehead. “In a way that made it worse, initially.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I was raised as you were, remember? I thought of Frost Giants the same way. I could hardly be expected to be thrilled that I was a Jotun.”

 

Loki’s wry smile fell at the memory of how miserable and horrified he’d been.

 

“I fell unconscious a son of Asgard.” He passed a hand by his own face. “I woke up like this.”

 

Thor stared at him in sympathetic dismay. No doubt he was imagining how he’d have felt under the same circumstances. “I am so sorry, brother.”

 

Loki meant to say ‘never mind’. Instead he found himself murmuring, “It would’ve been another story…if only I’d been told…”

 

“Father never explained why he kept it a secret from you,” Thor said. Loki had a strong feeling Thor never asked, either, never even thought of it, but oh well. “He shouldn’t have. We both should’ve known; things would’ve turned out so different if only-”

 

“Peace, Thor,” Loki cut in, mildly. “What does it matter now?”

 

He was getting tired of standing there in nothing but a sheet. With a gesture he cast a quick spell, causing it to be swapped out for a long tunic hung in his closet. He brushed himself off. Then he stepped back, sitting on the edge of his bed, trying to relax.

 

The foxes had been displaced in the wake of Angrboda’s sudden exit. Narfi was curled up under the bed, whimpering, while Váli merely stood nearby giving his master a baleful look.

 

Loki frowned at them. “I’ve no idea how the two of you got to be so demanding.” He patted the mattress, pointed. “Well?”

 

They needed no further invitation – Váli leapt up first, Narfi scrambling out and following shortly after. The latter began nudging Loki for affection happily, while the former rolled over among the pillows.

 

Thor had his head craned over his shoulder, eye on the door. “I don’t think your woman is coming back,” he observed.

 

Loki couldn’t repress the urge to roll his eyes. “She is not ‘my woman’. At least not like that. You’re unbelievable.” Thor ignored the statement, and after a moment Loki was forced to continue, sighing, “But no, I think you’re right. Probably she’ll find somewhere else to spend the rest of the night.”

 

He moved over so he was lying down on the farther side. Then he glanced at Thor. “Well? You might as well make yourself comfortable.”

 

Thor was taken aback at that, but Loki merely stretched out, looking towards the ceiling. Maybe it hadn’t been since they were children but they had slept in one bed before – and this was large enough to fit not only them but the Warriors Three and Sif with the only the most minimal of elbow nudging, besides. He saw no reason for any offense.

 

Just as he considered making some dry remark about propriety, he felt the mattress shudder with the addition of Thor’s weight as he flopped down. Loki turned with a faint smirk to find him fluffing up a pillow.

 

It took Váli and Narfi only a few seconds of curious nudging to determine that Thor body’s was much warmer and therefore they’d like to be next to him better.

 

Thor gave an amused splutter as he suddenly had two snow foxes determinedly trying to sit on him. “Ho! Down, you pests!” he roared with laughter, patting them and rubbing their ears. “Are they always like this?”

 

“Perhaps they’re just pleased to be around another excitable beast.”

 

Loki half-expected to get a pillow thrown at his head, but Thor only gave a dismissive scoff. “Very amusing.”

 

He watched Thor tussle with the foxes awhile before he spoke. “How are things, back on Asgard?”

 

Thor stopped as he considered how to answer that. “Fine,” he admitted with great reluctance – as if the fact most of the world had somehow gone on in his brother’s absence was something to resent. “Much quieter, without you around.”

 

“Oh, I’m sure you can create and find plenty of trouble on your own without me,” Loki mused. “Or is this the part where you attempt to convince me I’ve been greatly missed?”

 

“You have.” Thor met his openly skeptical look with a determined stare of his own. “Have we not been through this?”

 

“I meant by people other than you, and Odin, and…” He stilled as he thought of Frigga.

 

“And Mother,” Thor stressed, finishing his thought for him, meaningful. “You have no idea, Loki. She has taken this all so very hard.”

 

Loki laced his fingers together atop his stomach, eyeing them in favor of meeting Thor’s gaze. If anyone had remained dear to him with almost no alteration throughout, it was the Aesir queen who held him in her arms and dried his tears when he was small. Something tightened in his chest at the very memory.

 

“She’s a mother,” he managed; “It’s to be expected. But you can’t truly think to make me believe all the court has gone into mourning at my disappearance from their gilded halls.”

 

“Since when did you care for what the court thought?” Thor retorted. “The people that matter feel your loss. Our friends-”

 

“You mean your friends,” Loki interrupted him, harsh. “Your friends; never mine. They were always your chosen companions, and I the younger sibling they tolerated.”

 

“Not so. I warrant there may’ve been times they treated you dismissively, even unkindly, because of your trickery and way with magic, but nothing truly hurtful was ever meant by it.” Thor met his gaze, unhesitant and unyielding.

 

“They do miss you, Loki. I’ve heard them say as much. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” His mouth puckered. “I think for all you are adept at reading others, sometimes you overlook the real depth of feeling they have for you.”

 

“Oh, come off it.” Loki exclaimed, beginning to grow irritated, “If I left it to you, it seems you would rewrite my entire history: every slight I ever felt, the imagined product of an overactive and paranoid soul!”

 

“Was it really so bad for you?” The troubled, inquisitive note to Thor’s tone effectively took all the wind out of his sails. Loki rolled over to face him, and found Thor frowning with pensive uncertainty. “What you said earlier…about feeling as if you were looked down on, and out of place…”

 

“I will not say that my every waking moment was a torment,” Loki answered him carefully. “But yes, I did feel out of place, almost constantly. And I suffered for it. The last few years especially so.” He gave a thin, unhappy smile. “Things were so much easier when we were children, and the differences between us were just that – differences. But once I grew older, ‘different’ became like a curse.”

 

Thor’s expression was wounded, but edging on accusatory. “I wish that you would’ve said something, then. That you would’ve-”

 

“What?” Loki eyed him disparagingly. “Complained to you? Oh yes – that would’ve made everything better, wouldn’t it.”

 

Thor gave an exasperated sound. “But then how is it things are so much better for you on Jotunheim? It can hardly be missed you don’t exactly blend in here, either!”

 

Loki shut his eyes, letting his head drop back to his pillow with a sigh. “They just are, Thor. I don’t expect you to understand, but at least accept it.” He paused before opening his eyes again, though not to look at his brother.

 

“I’m happy with what I am. That’s never been the case with me before. At least not completely.”

 

Thor looked away as well, conflicted. “Well I am glad for you having that, at least.”

 

There was no mistaking, though, the sadness in his tone. No doubt he thought whatever it was he and Loki had had – and it’d occurred to Loki, that Thor had clearly viewed their relationship as more wholly positive than he had – it was lost forever.

 

He wasn’t sure there was any way to entirely convince him he was wrong. But still he had to try.

 

Sitting up again, Loki drew in a breath, and thinking quickly he cast a very thin layer of magic over himself. It glinted briefly, and then receded into being invisible to the naked eye.

 

Thor tensed instinctively. His expression was baffled as he searched for what’d been effected by Loki’s sorcery and couldn’t see anything. “What did you just do?”

 

Loki reached out and rested the tips of his fingers against Thor’s exposed collarbone – with absolutely no ill effect. He smiled.

 

“Shielding enchantment,” he explained, almost sweetly. “A very small one. But effective.”

 

Thor gazed at the hand that was touching him and then, lifted one of his own to grip Loki by the wrist. “Ah! But your skin is still cold,” he complained.

 

Loki pulled out of his grasp. “Don’t be so picky, brother.” He gave Thor a quick teasing tap on the end of his nose. “Lest you’ll never be satisfied.”

 

Thor blinked. “When did you get to be so…?” He trailed off, forehead crinkling, unable to name exactly what had changed. Loki laughed.

 

“You can thank the Jotnar for that, actually,” he noted, shrewd. “It turns out they’re raised to be a very physically demonstrative race.”

 

For a moment Thor said nothing. And then, with sudden decisiveness, he stretched out his arms and pulled Loki in close for a deep hug.

 

Loki was very taken by surprise. But even in his confusion, he returned the embrace automatically.

 

“What was this for?” he questioned as they still held one another.

 

“Nothing.” Thor’s voice was a soft, low mutter into his hair. “It’s just it has been so long since you’ve let me do this.”

 

“…Oh.”

 

Maybe he had underestimated, just how much Thor noticed about him when it came to certain things.

 

Slowly, Loki leaned his head in to rest more against his brother’s shoulder.

 

“It doesn’t matter where you are, or whose house you were born to, or what you choose to do,” Thor said strongly. “I will always love you as if you were my own blood. Nothing will ever change that.”

 

Loki shut his eyes tight as an unaccountable lump formed in his throat. “Me too, Thor,” he promised. “I’ll always love you, too.”

 

*

 

On the next morning Loki awoke feeling far more rested than he had the one previous. Blinking sleep from his eyes he shifted, finding Narfi curled up in the corner of his arm. Petting the fox absently he turned his head.

 

Thor was asleep at the other side of the mattress, face concealed on one end by a pillow and the other by tousled blond locks. Váli was clutched lightly between thick forearms the way a child would hold a favored toy. Both seemed immune to the grumbling sound of Thor’s snoring.

 

Loki gave an amused smile, chuckling to himself.

 

He gently pushed Narfi away. Blowing out a quick puff of air, he landed a patch of cold on Thor’s face. His brother awoke with a start at the feel of ice against his cheek.

 

“Get up,” Loki told him. “It’s morning.”

 

He pushed the blankets and pillows back into some sense of order but did not bother making the bed completely. Some servant would be by later to put it to rights, as one always did.

 

Finished, he looked back over at Thor.

 

On his feet, the Aesir rubbed at one eye with his fist.

 

“I still may not have my armor?” he guessed unhappily, mumbling.

 

No,” Loki returned, firm. “As much as I try not to treat you like one, brother, you must remember you are a captive here.” He frowned, reproachful. “Would a Jotun prisoner be permitted to remain armed on Asgard?”

 

Thor sighed. “No,” he agreed begrudgingly. He tugged at his wrinkled clothes, light garments meant to be worn under armor that offered no form of defense.

 

They had breakfast, Angrboda once again joining them, but this time she brought along Býleistr.

 

For the most part the giantess continued to ignore Thor’s presence, but Loki hoped it was not just his imagination that she was grower bolder, less timid and unsettled the more she got used to having him around.

 

Býleistr didn’t seem to know how to react to Thor. He often glared at him, the way one would expect in reaction to an enemy presence. But he also stole the occasional inquisitive glance as well – curious as a child would be, about the foreign creatures he’d heard so much of but rarely ever seen.

 

“Is it true,” he asked all of a sudden, watching with riveted fascination the way Thor tore apart his meat, “that Aesir males spend so much time fighting that they have to be reminded at times to stop and bed their wives to produce offspring?”

 

At his end of the table, Loki managed to conceal a snort inside of his wine goblet.

 

Thor stared at Býleistr in response, agape. “No!” he bellowed with indignation. “That is not even remotely so! Why, if anything, I’ve known warriors who suffer from the opposite problem.”

 

Býleistr picked at his teeth with one nail as he slowly digested this information.

 

“Is it true,” he asked again, in the same earnestly thoughtful tone, “that an Aesir must kill a boar with his bare hands, before he can be accepted as a warrior?”

 

“Not officially. And certainly not bare-handed.” Thor held his head up proudly, straightening in his seat. “But it is often considered that a youth’s first hunt is his rite of passage, at least among his peers. On mine, I did bring down a boar. Only two arrows,” he bragged. “Then I finished it in close combat with one thrust from my knife.”

 

Loki gazed idly into his wine as Angrboda rubbed her fingers against the exposed side of his throat, caressing him, her head rested on his shoulder.

 

On his first hunt on Asgard, Loki had killed a deer. He’d done it by luring it into a carefully-made snare. And then afterwards in the midst of roaring congratulations from his brother and his friends, he’d struggled to hide how ill he felt, when he realized the creature’s carcass was belly-full with what would’ve been a spotted fawn.

 

Býleistr was speaking again brightly. “And then afterwards, did you have to eat its entire heart raw?”

 

“What is the source of these tales you’ve heard on ways of the Aesir, brother? Do they all come from Helblindi?” Loki had to ask dryly, in the wake of Thor’s pale-faced speechlessness. “I never thought of him as having so much flair for the imagination.”

 

It took Thor a moment to recover, but once he did he managed to spend the remainder of the meal entertaining Býleistr with further details on how he’d killed the boar.

 

Afterwards, when the Jotun had stumbled off to help clear the table, Thor snuck over to Loki’s side, getting him alone.

 

“Your brother,” Thor began, and then paused, visibly struggling with an attempt at delicacy. “When you say that he is your younger sibling, how…young, precisely, is he?”

 

Loki sighed, though he supposed he understood the reason for Thor’s confusion. No doubt he was beginning to doubt his own abilities to know what he was looking at among Jotnar.

 

“His mind is stunted,” he informed Thor, bluntly, matter of fact. “He isn’t a complete simpleton; for the most part he is quite capable of taking care of himself, but…it is fortunate, that he was born the youngest. He’d never be able to ascend the throne.”

 

“Oh.” Thor’s expression cleared in understanding. “I see.” It seemed to occur to him what he was saying could be taken as offensive, and so he hurried to continue speaking. “That’s all perfectly fine, of course. I just suppose it never would’ve occurred to me such infirmity would be permitted among the Frost Giants.”

 

Loki turned to regard him coolly. “You expected that a child who was born weak, or otherwise disabled, would be abandoned to die of exposure and thus not waste any further resources,” he concluded.

 

Thor drew back slightly, eyes briefly widening, before his features clouded with shame. “Yes. I did,” he confessed. “That is what I thought at first.”

 

Loki smiled at him thinly. “Me too,” he admitted.

 

He said no more on the subject.

 

The rest of the day passed with relative lack of incident. Thor, Loki observed, was no longer the source of immediate cause for alarm and wariness among the Jotnar that he had been on the first two. With his slept-in clothes and unwashed untidy hair and beard, he seemed far less threatening, and more like some small exotic animal brought in as a source of fascination – still potentially dangerous, but more comical and amusing, almost endearing even, for how he was so odd and out of place.

 

Býleistr certainly was filled with more questions about the Aesir, which Thor was mostly glad to answer.  Helblindi reacted to his presence by staying far out of it, and baring his teeth in a silent growl whenever he discovered the Aesir was near to him. But he didn’t threaten any active harm to him, and seemed content to follow Angrboda’s example and ignore the unwanted intrusion. All considered Loki was more than happy to settle for such behavior.

 

Thrym and his men, even, had much more acceptance to Thor’s presence, now that they no longer considered him a danger. They’d seen the way their prince treated the Aesir as his brother, and if they were not entirely comfortable with bowing to Thor as foreign royalty then they at least referred to him with a decent amount of respect.

 

Thor, for his part, had observed how Thrym and the others deferred to Loki, the way they were so attentive of his needs and ready to defend him. He reacted to this “concern” for his brother warmly. The soldiers met with his approval – indeed, he seemed more than ready to consider them his friends.

 

Loki would’ve doubted such a thing would be possible. But that very night, Thor disappeared from his sight for a few hours, and when he went looking he found him holed up in a room with Thrym and the rest.

 

They were passing around bowls full of mead, having somehow found what was to them a thimble-sized one for Thor. He was sitting on a table so as to be mostly level with the Jotnar warriors, and as Loki watched quietly from the doorway, Thor and the guards hooted and hollered at one another, swapping stories of battle both amusing and boast-worthy. Thor even taught them what drinking songs he knew that didn’t revolve around killing Frost Giants.

 

His Aesir brother appeared right at home. Loki pulled back into the hallway, shaking his head, as he retreated to his thoughts.

 

Three days and no rescue party from Asgard, or any word from the All-Father - but no matter what disapproval Odin may’ve held for his actions, he couldn’t let his heir remain prisoner. It was impossible their luck would hold out.

 

Thor needed to go back. If he didn’t, war would come surely to Jotunheim’s doorstep. And Loki refused to let that happen.

 

Not just because he wanted to protect his new home, but because in the presence of his oldest brother he could no longer deny his attachment to the old.

 

Aesir and Jotnar: they were both his people. Loki would die himself before any of their blood was spilled.

Chapter Text

It was still technically night when Loki came back to rouse the Jotnar guard and his brother.

 

Thor was still atop the table, curled up, dead to the world – someone had absently thrown a blanket over him. The soldiers were not exactly sprawled out the entire length of the room’s floor, for even in the midst of their carousing, training and instinct had taken over. Instead they were more grouped together, limbs atop other limbs, bodies brushing against other bodies. In enemy territory a band would form a closely-linked ring when they bedded down for the night; in safety, they tended to come close to piling on one another.

 

Loki nudged a few hands and sleeping faces with the toe of his boot, eliciting some half-formed snores, a few moans, and a few more mutters.

 

He pulled back, his arms folded, cloak falling across his shoulders.

 

“I trust you are all well-rested,” he observed somewhat sardonically.

 

Thrym pried his eyes open. As soon as he beheld the sight of his prince standing there looking down on him, dressed in full travelling regalia, the Jotun soldier was immediately on his feet, barking orders and waking the rest of his men.

 

Considering they’d spent most the night drinking, they all snapped to with impressive speed. Within a minute all were up, putting themselves to rights and standing at attention. Loki made a calculating appraisal of their faces, but didn’t see a bleary eye among the bunch. Evidently no one was nursing a hangover.

 

No one among the Frost Giants, anyway. Loki tilted his head back, looking towards the motionless form of his Aesir sibling atop the table.

 

“Thor,” he called, and when that failed to produce a response he went more loudly, “Thor!”, which garnered the response of a start and a drowsy, confused mumble.

 

Loki glanced over at his guard. “Do you mind, Thrym?” he requested with a sigh.

 

Thrym nodded. “Not at all, my lord.” Reaching over he plucked Thor up delicately but efficiently, ignoring the Aesir’s startled cry as he deposited him on the floor. Loki strode over.

 

“Quickly, brother,” he said in a firm, hurried manner. “We need to be on the move before the rest of the palace stirs.”

 

Thor frowned at him, trying to understand what was going on. He rubbed at his head distractedly and didn’t seem entirely awake yet, but for the most part, thankfully, he seemed undamaged by his night with the guard. Loki honestly couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Thor actually drink more than he could handle – but Jotunheim mead was a little different than what he was used to.

 

As Thor took in the sight of Loki standing there, dressed in the same attire he’d had on when he arrived three days earlier, his frown only intensified as his eyes grew more focused.

 

“What is this?” Thor asked. “What’s happening?”

 

“What’s happening,” Loki answered, his words still brisk, “is you’re leaving. Now come. On your feet.” He reached down to grab Thor by one bicep and pull, and his brother automatically moved with him, helping himself up. “We still have to get you cleaned up and in your armor, and we don’t have a lot of time.”

 

“You’re helping me escape?” Thor remarked, at last catching on. “But-”

 

“Silence.” Loki held up one finger, stopping him. “It is barely an escape at all. You were more guest than prisoner.”

 

He drew a breath as he tried not thinking of how his father would react to this. But his stomach still felt uneasy even as he kept the thoughts from his mind. He was no traitor to his people, his family; he only hoped the king would understand.

 

“And since I kept Laufey from using you as a bargaining chip as he would’ve liked, it’s not as if I’m robbing him of anything useful. All I’m doing now is saving Jotunheim from another war.”

 

And Asgard,” Thor added, softly.

 

Reaching out he clasped Loki’s forearm firmly in his hand. “Will you…come with me?” he pleaded. “At least part of the way?”

 

“No,” Loki replied.

 

Thor’s face fell.

 

But Loki only smiled at him, albeit it was a strained one. “Oh, Thor,” he said. “I won’t come with you part of the way, because I’m coming for all of it. All the way back to Asgard.”

 

Loki paused. There was a strange tightness in his chest as he finished, “Back home.”

 

It took Thor far longer than it really should have for him to grasp what was being said to him.

 

And once the elation sunk in, he was too overcome with giddiness to ask any questions. Loki tried not to be completely frustrated with him – he mostly succeeded.

 

“Go on,” Loki repeated tersely. He planted both hands in the center of his back and did his best to shove him out the door. “The armor is where you’ve left it, in my bedchamber. My younger brother waits not far from here. He will show you where you may go to wash.”

 

Thor froze at that, hesitating mid-step. “Which brother?” he asked.

 

There was something nervous and uncertain in his expression. No doubt picturing the unforgiving hardened lines and pointed limbs that made up the face and body of the second prince of Jotunheim.

 

In spite of himself Loki smiled. “Býleistr, of course,” he reassured him. “He does anything I say with hardly any question.”

 

And the thought of Helblindi being willing to involve himself in the scheme, of even listening to the idea of doing something that would directly help the Aesir…it was somewhere between comical and disquieting.

 

“Now go,” Loki said yet again, this time as an order in a tone of undisguised irritation.

 

Thor nodded, stopped dawdling and finally made his exit.

 

Loki watched him leave in vexation; why was it Thor was forever in a hurry when what he really needed to do was slow down, constantly plunging headfirst into things without ever pausing to reflect, but the very moment Loki needed him to act for once without thinking suddenly he was all delay?

 

He turned to face Thrym. “We will need only half of your band to accompany us,” Loki instructed. “Choose the best from among them before we set out.”

 

My prince,” Thrym objected, his expression unspeakably grim.

 

Loki gazed at him evenly and tried to marshal patience. They may have been in a hurry, but he owed the decency of hearing him out. “Yes?”

 

“With all due respect,” Thrym ground out; “where should I even begin?” He wasn’t bowing, now. His back was straight, his shoulders stiff with tension, both hands curled into thick fists. “You truly intend to march straight into Asgard with only eight soldiers?”

 

“How warmly do you think we’ll be received if we arrive with much more?” Loki responded, soft. “And on their lands, in the heart of their world, do you think twice as many men would make a difference?”

 

Thrym couldn’t argue with that and they both knew it. There was a second’s pause, and then he raised one fist as if making an oath. His red eyes bore into Loki’s.

 

“I will follow you wherever you order me to go, my prince. I will do whatever you ask. It is only my pleasure, as well as my duty.” There was a restrained note of desperation low in Thrym’s voice. “But I would like to understand just what it is that you are doing.”

 

Loki faltered. He dropped his head for a moment, eyes closing as he forced himself to breathe out, slow.

 

What he meant to do – it was madness, really. Especially from the perspective of the Jotnar. He was their prince, their future ruler, and he intended to walk straight to the enemy’s doorstep and deliver himself calmly to the waiting jaws.

 

But Loki would not be received as a Jotun enemy – he would be received as a returning son.

 

Or so he hoped.

 

“I have said to you before, that I was not treated as a prisoner when I was on Asgard,” Loki finally said, careful, subdued. “You never did quite understand me. Though I suppose I can’t blame you for that.” His eyes narrowed. “I don’t know if I can really explain, Thrym; not the way you deserve. But we haven’t the time. You’re just going to have to trust me when I say that this is going to go differently than you expect.”

 

Very slowly, Thrym nodded his head.

 

“Alright, my lord,” he stated. “I trust your judgment.”

 

Loki was awash with relief and gratitude, but there was nothing to be said. He merely gave a single nod back in acknowledgement.

 

Leaving Thrym and the others, he made his way to his chamber. Hopefully Thor would be ready, and waiting – but those thoughts left him and his steps slowed as he discovered Angrboda outside the door.

 

Her hands were folded and clasped in front of her. Váli and Narfi sat curled by her feet. Her gaze lingered on the floor, but at Loki’s approach she raised her chin, eyes meeting his.

 

Loki reached for her, feeling a stab of regret so poignant he momentarily couldn’t think of a thing to say. His hand rested on the side of her face, the curve of her cheekbone just below her eye. He stroked the firmness of her skin.

 

Angrboda’s arms went to his chest, fingers curling as they dug into the fabric of his clothes. Her muscles tensed as if she longed to pull him to him. As if she wanted nothing more than to close the distance between them, until by some magic their two became one.

 

“You are leaving,” she determined, her voice subdued and mournful.

 

“Only for a little while,” Loki promised her. He lifted his hand further, cupping her brow, his fingers between strands of her pale hair. “I fully intend to come back.”

 

“Many of our people went off to meet the Aesir once, intending to come back,” Angrboda retorted with quiet intensity.

 

Loki stared into her face, studying the contours of features he had come to know so well. He waited until she was looking at him again.

 

“This is not the same,” he explained gently. “I go not to Asgard to fight. This is a mission of peace, or as much as can be expected between our two worlds. No harm will come to me.”

 

“My prince cannot promise me that,” Angrboda said, flat.

 

“Yes. Yes I can,” Loki insisted. “For I will let nothing keep me from returning to you.” He pulled her into his embrace, almost forcefully, all the while staring deep into her eyes. “I’ll fight through anything that would keep me from making that true. I swear it.”

 

Angrboda wordlessly caressed his face with one palm, and then leaned in to match her lips with his.

 

Thor chose that moment to appear from behind the door, his cheerful grin vanishing as he beheld the two of them locked in a passionate kiss.

 

“Oh! I – forgive me,” he blustered. “I didn’t mean to interrupt, I…I’ll just-”

 

“Never mind,” Loki cut him off smoothly. He pulled back from Angrboda, though he didn’t completely separate from her. His hands still clung tight to her shoulders as if of their own accord. “We were just saying goodbye.”

 

He looked back at Angrboda – already feeling a sense of longing, even though they had yet to be parted. He could barely imagine there’d been a time he found the sight of her repulsive and frightening. Now he felt something was broken inside of him whenever their bodies weren’t intertwined, as if it was the only way he was meant to exist.

 

She spoke not a word, but he realized she was humming. The ode of love etched deep into Fárbauti’s gravestone. All the while she gazed into his eyes almost fiercely, unblinking.

 

Loki nodded to her. “I know,” he said, and he hummed a set of notes back to her, brief.

 

There was a reproachful whine from the foxes as he started to walk away, and Loki almost laughed. Dropping to one knee he let them nuzzle into him, stroking their sides and rubbing them behind the ears.

 

“Don’t worry,” he whispered with a small reassuring smile. “I’ll be back for you, too.”

 

And then, when he stood up, he found Býleistr standing there, his own snow fox perched on one shoulder.

 

“I’m coming with you,” Býleistr insisted stubbornly.

 

“Oh no, my brother,” Loki was quick to disagree. His heart sank at the thought of his misshapen and easily-overwhelmed sibling on Asgard – he would need to be protected, and Loki couldn’t spare the focus. “You have to stay here.”

 

When the other Jotun started to object, Loki continued, persuasively, “You have to. I’m counting on you. It’ll be your responsibility to look after Angrboda while I’m gone.”

 

Býleistr’s look of reproach dropped to a frown. He glanced sideways at Angrboda, and seemed to accept that reasoning.

 

“All right,” he said begrudgingly. He reached to wrap one hand carefully around Fox, feeling the soft fur as a source of comfort. He bit at his jutting lower lip. “But I’ll miss you. I’ll miss you a lot.”

 

Loki patted his arm. “I will miss you too. We’ll be reunited before too long. You’ll see.”

 

His farewells made, Loki set off down the hall with Thor, the two of them walking side by side. Even after meeting up with Thrym and the soldiers he’d picked to make their escort, they made their journey for a while in silence.

 

Finally Thor said, softly, “You could have brought her with us, you know.”

 

Loki stilled at first. After a moment to collect himself, he spoke back in an emotionless purposeful tone. “Let me make something very clear to you. What I said back there, it wasn’t just to placate them. I am returning to Jotunheim.”

 

Thor tensed in surprise and alarm, and started to protest, but Loki gave him no chance. He turned to meet his brother’s eyes, sharp.

 

“Yes, I’m coming with you back to Asgard. But it’s only for a brief time. I need to…I won’t leave our mother and father, on such a note. Without any sense of closure.”

 

Though it wasn’t only their sensibilities Loki was concerned about – he’d left Asgard abruptly, as good as kidnapped, even if it’d been ultimately to return him to the land of his birth. For his own emotional well-being, he deserved a chance to properly say goodbye. Among other things.

 

“But as I’ve said before, Jotunheim is my home now,” he finished. “I’ve no intention of abandoning it.”

 

Thor considered that, his expression sad. “No,” he admitted. “No, I – I suppose that makes sense.”

 

There were probably other things he wanted to ask. How long Loki would stay, how exactly they would stay in touch after, if he ever planned to visit Asgard again.

 

Thankfully, he didn’t ask any of that. Loki wouldn’t have known how to answer him. He had not the slightest idea what the future held for him any more; so much could change, depending on what happened to him among the Aesir.

 

They’d left the palace behind, staying so close together their shoulders practically touched as they trudged forward through the snow and furious wind. Only the sound of heavy giants’ footsteps behind them was the reminder they weren’t alone.

 

A thought occurred to Loki. He gathered his cloak more tightly about him, as much to compose his mental state as his physical one.

 

“Thor, there are two things that I must know, before we reach the Bifrost.”

 

Thor blinked at him, surprised by the sudden steel in his voice. “Yes?”

 

“Do the others know the truth about me?” Loki demanded first of all, even.

 

He had the feeling he already knew the answer – and it solidified in his mind at the way Thor tensed, his steps faltering so they almost stopped completely.

 

“Yes,” Thor said. His tone was regretful, almost one of confession. As if it shamed him that it should be known what Loki truly was. “Father tried to continue with concealing it, but after the first month, when it became clear he had no intention of marching on Jotunheim…he had to reveal the whole story. It was the only way.”

 

Yes, Loki mused to himself, it would have been. It made no sense the Aesir’s king would’ve let his child be taken hostage by their most hated enemy, even a second son. They would’ve demanded a reprisal to fill their sense of justice and honor. Odin would have been forced to admit Laufey had a rightful claim on Loki of his own, in order to save face in front of his people.

 

“So it is no secret, then,” Loki remarked. His voice was strained flat. “All of Asgard knows that I am a Jotun.” He felt a stinging sensation in his palm and looked down to realize he had curled his hand into a fist, unthinkingly, so tight his nails were digging into his skin. “Everyone knows that I’m not really part of your family. That I’m not one of you.”

 

Thor gazed at him fixedly. “I will not say the reaction was entirely…positive,” he admitted. “But I believe that Father did a good job of making it clear that no matter what, he still considers you his own. Of reminding all that you were raised as one of us.”

 

Loki looked away. But I’m not one of you, he thought.

 

The bonds he had been raised with were one thing. It couldn’t change the truth, the simple facts: he was not an Aesir. He was an entirely different species. There was no need to try and be anything else.

 

He didn’t try telling any of this to Thor, though. His well-meaning if often thickheaded brother just wouldn’t understand.

 

Thor cleared his throat. “You said you had two questions,” he reminded him, prodding gingerly.

 

Loki blinked. “Oh. Well, the second one isn’t truly important,” he noted, offhand. “More for my own curiosity. It concerns your arrival on Jotunheim. However did you manage to get past Heimdall and to the Bifrost in the first place?”

 

“Ah, that! It is no complex matter,” Thor replied, somewhat boastfully. “I merely snuck past.”

 

Loki stared at him in disbelief, not knowing what to make of such an explanation. “No one just ‘sneaks past’ Heimdall,” he stated bluntly. “That’s entirely impossible.”

 

Thor shrugged. “Well I certainly did.”

 

“No, you didn’t,” Loki refuted, unable to accept it. Thor may’ve been willing to swallow the notion that the all-seeing watcher and guardian had a blind spot, or a moment of failure. But Loki had studied too much, taken careful measure of the sentinel. He knew so much better. “You couldn’t have.”

 

“Are you calling me a liar?” Thor said, his tone indignant, edging into anger.

 

Loki shook his head. “No, I’m not calling you a liar. I don’t doubt at least that you believe what you’re saying is the truth, brother. I’m only saying that I know the span of Heimdall’s limitations, or lack thereof. Believe me when I say you could never have simply walked right past him.”

 

“If that’s so, then how did I do it, then?”

 

“How indeed.” Loki frowned. Could Heimdall have just…let Thor through? Pretended not to notice him as he entered the Bifrost?

 

But that was absurd, surely. What reason for doing so could there possibly be?

 

They were far from the palace now, well out into the expanse of the barren wilderness, uninhabitable even to Jotnar. Loki stood for a moment, looking around, reminding himself once more that this was not how his homeland was supposed to be. I’m doing this for you, he thought with determination.

 

Thor tilted his head back, seeming to consider the sky, almost invisible behind gray clouds and flurries of ice and snow.

 

Thrym and the seven other guards clustered in around them, and suddenly Loki felt an unsettling twinge of doubt. What if this didn’t work after all?

 

It was entirely at Heimdall’s discretion, whether what he was now constituted a threat to Asgard. He was a sorcerer, a Laufeyson, surrounded by his own set of Jotnar warriors. It could hardly be blamed if the Bifrost’s guardian balked at the idea of letting them through.

 

“Loki,” Thor said, stirring him out of his troubled thoughts. “Please, I do not mean to offend you. But since we are going to Asgard…” He hesitated, his eyes raking across Loki’s Jotun body. “Perhaps you should alter your form, since you say you are able to do so. It might make things – easier,” he offered, only slightly faltering.

 

Loki bristled. But Thor was right. If he intended to walk through the palace unmolested it probably would be a good idea to take on his Aesir appearance. It being known he was Jotnar was one thing, seeing him as one was something else entirely.

 

Silently Loki nodded. He drew in on himself, willing his body to change. He could feel it as his blue skin melted away – Jotunheim suddenly felt so cold to him, and he nearly shuddered. He blinked and knew without seeing it that his eyes had become green.

 

Thor was unabashedly beaming. It must have felt like such a relief to him, to be able to see his brother once more the way he had always known him.

 

Loki said nothing to rebuke him. But he pressed a hand to his own cheek; his skin felt strange and foreign now, soft and unlined as it was.

 

He stole a glance at his guard. A few of the soldiers muttered to one another, troubled, no doubt taking their prince being forced into an Aesir body as an insult. Thrym as always remained perfectly composed, his expression blank and subservient.

 

“Let’s get this over with,” Loki said decisively, facing Thor once again.

 

Thor nodded. He yelled up into the sky, commanding, “Heimdall, open the Bifrost!” He threw up one arm as if gesturing with the hammer he didn’t have.

 

For a split second, nothing happened.

 

And then Loki felt the familiar prickle along his skin. He could see the sky start to shift and brighten.

 

No turning back, then. His brother at his side, the Jotnar soldiers in a protective stance around him, Loki drew a breath and held it the moment before the Bifrost hit. He felt himself seized by its familiar power, picked up and carried along on the waves of time and space.

 

When everything settled, Loki found himself blinking for a moment at the golden interior of the Bifrost chamber. It felt like a lifetime since he’d stood there to go on what was supposed to be just another mishap-laden journey with Thor and the rest.

 

After three months on Jotunheim, Asgard was dazzling to his eyes, almost overwhelming.

 

When the fog lifted he looked around. Heimdall stood at the center of the room, great sword in his hands, watching them evenly.

 

Thor grinned, nodding towards him. “Thank you, Heimdall, for being so good to retrieve us.”

 

“It is my sworn duty, my prince,” Heimdall returned, brushing off the gratitude as though it were unnecessary. He turned his head so that his gaze included Loki as well as he continued, “It is good to see both of you returned.”

 

“I suppose I didn’t have much of a choice, really,” Loki murmured. From the edge of his vision he caught Thor frowning, but he ignored him in favor of addressing Heimdall. “But you did. Thank you, for letting me pass.”

 

The weight of those ancient golden eyes was heavy as they rested on him. “You are Odin’s son. Unless my king says otherwise, you have every right to the Bifrost. It is simple as that.”

 

As if anticipating further protest from Loki and meaning to prevent him, Heimdall shifted to face Thor again, bowing his head.

 

“I have already sent my messenger to ride to the palace and inform the king of both your arrivals. I thought it best he be not caught unawares.”

 

“Excellent!” Thor exclaimed. He reached out, clapping Loki on the shoulder with his hand. “He will be so pleased to hear of this.”

 

Loki did not return his brother’s smile – instead he turned wordlessly to glance at the Jotnar behind them.

 

The eight Frost Giants craned their heads, blinking rapidly in the bright light. They looked at the construction of the room with a puzzled sort of awe. How out of place they were only seemed to emphasize their largeness, the harshness of their icy features, the brute-like formation to their bodies.

 

One of the soldiers stretched out a curious, tentative hand to touch the rounded cogs of the wall, and Thrym stopped him sharply with a smack on the arm, frowning in annoyance.

 

Thor cleared his throat. “Well. Maybe he won’t be pleased by all of it,” he admitted with far less certainty.

 

“Did you mention them in your message to the All-Father as well, Heimdall?” Loki asked.

 

“Of course.” Heimdall’s gaze was as always, unblinking. As if aware of the question Loki hadn’t given, he added, “A visiting noble has the right to be escorted by his own guardsmen. It would reflect poorly on Asgard’s sense of hospitality and honor, to deny him that.”

 

A thin smile forced itself into being on Loki’s face before he could help it. “Well spoken, Heimdall,” he remarked airily. “We can’t have anything reflecting badly on Asgard, now can we.”

 

He gestured to Thrym. “Come,” he commanded, shortly. “We’re moving out.”

 

The road to Asgard proper was a very long one. He used a teleportation spell to take them exactly halfway, ensuring they wouldn’t be exhausted by the time they arrived, but giving him time to think.

 

Thor led the way across the rainbow bridge, Loki falling in two steps behind him to one side.

 

Thrym’s soldiers positioned themselves behind him, both emphasizing their prince’s place of honor and putting themselves into defensive points if necessary. Hoping it wouldn’t be, Loki resisted the urge to tell them to stand down, slightly concerned that the formation might read as hostile to the guards stationed outside the palace.

 

Everything was going to be like this, he realized – as long as he stood before Asgard in representation of Jotunheim’s interest, his every move would be part of an exhausting balancing act. Doing what he could to make sure every word or action on either side didn’t read to Aesir of threat, to Jotnar of arrogance. Paying enough respect to Asgard and their ways without betraying Jotunheim and theirs in the process.

 

What am I doing, Loki questioned himself wearily. He had spent his whole life creating trouble. How had it fallen to him to play the role of diplomat?

 

But he knew the answer to that: because there was no one else. Because he was possibly the only being in existence that cared if his two worlds tried to destroy one another – Jotunheim and Asgard hungered for each other’s blood, and Loki alone wanted them to try and coexist.

 

Nay; he needed them to coexist. It was the only outcome that didn’t lead to his heart being torn asunder.

 

Despite the small eternity it felt like he had inside his head for his thoughts to race around and grow entangled in, all too soon Loki saw they were coming closer to the front gates of the palace.

 

There was a small flurry of activity between the guards positioned there; they were near enough that the Aesir could no doubt clearly make out the forms of the Frost Giants. Loki braced himself for a fight but none came.

 

By the time they reached their destination, the doors had already been pulled back, open wide. The guards flanked the lines on either side, only the tight fists around their weapons and grim faces betraying they were unhappy to follow what must have been orders.

 

“What is this?” Thor asked inquisitively, as surprised by the open and unexpectedly easy welcome as Loki was.

 

A single guard stepped forward, discipline battling against a sour frown.

 

“We have been instructed to escort you directly to the audience chamber, your highness,” he explained. “The All-Father is waiting.”

 

Along with no doubt half of Asgard – the nobility and the servants were always curious about the presentation of new visitors, and probably they would trample each other in their haste as soon as they heard the word ‘Jotunheim’.

 

Thor turned his head at the same time Loki did, their eyes meeting with one another’s.

 

“My goodness,” Loki commented woodenly. “I had no idea I would garner such an impressive welcome straight away.”

 

“This is a good sign,” Thor argued, cheerily. But Loki only gazed back at him with the same blank expression. Thor quickly gave up.

 

“Lead the way,” he ordered the Aesir soldier, impatiently, and the man was quick to do just that.

 

Everything started to take on a distant surrealism to Loki. This was the palace he’d grown up in, the halls he had run as a child and walked as a youth and strode as a man, every day for hundreds of years. The place he’d called ‘home’ for so long, still bitingly familiar, now he was escorted through as a foreigner with all due pomp and no small amount of haste.

 

It was a good sign that his escort hadn’t been slaughtered on the spot, himself placed in chains and thrown into a dungeon.

 

A small part of him almost wished he had been, if only to avoid what was coming.

 

His mind raced, thoughts unpredictable and meandering. He thought of his room on Jotunheim, with stacks of carefully collected books on decorated shelves he’d carved from the ice himself. He thought of Váli and Narfi, who would no doubt be missing him, not understanding where he’d gone. He thought about Býleistr, who probably only understood slightly better. He hoped his little brother would not make himself too miserable in his absence.

 

He thought about Angrboda – how much more confident he would feel if only she could’ve come with him, reassured by her presence at his side and her touch on his arm.

 

But no; as pleasant a fantasy as it was, Loki knew better. If Angrboda had been there it would’ve been her that needed the reassuring. Feeling as if she had been captured, surrounded on all sides by Aesir – Loki would never do that to her.

 

His thoughts drifted to Laufey, and he forced them away, but then they settled on Helblindi.

 

He shouldn’t have left without saying goodbye, Loki realized, heart sinking. It would’ve been difficult to try and explain, let alone ensure his cooperation, but he could’ve made the effort – now what would his brother think? Laufey would not be pleased, but he would at least understand what Loki was trying to do – Helblindi would not. He would think Loki had abandoned them, turning his back on their ways in favor of his life as an Aesir.

 

But it was too late to change anything, now.

 

They stood at the threshold of the great hall where the All-Father received those who would speak to him as King. Odin stood on the dais in front of his throne. Frigga was at his side.

 

It was a long carpeted walk between one end of the room and the other, and the way was lined with Aesir, every last one of them staring at the arrivals. The air was heavy with the tense, muted sound of a hundred whispers and mutters. Loki could feel their gazes digging into him.

 

He glanced down at himself, his dull green cloth with its layers of leather braces and buckles, his thick boots and gloves and the fur that trimmed his shoulders atop a cape meant to enfold him like a cloak. Long hair tied pristinely but simply back; no helmet, no crown, no adornment to speak of gracing his head. He may have adjusted his appearance to be that of an Aesir, but he certainly wasn’t dressed like one.

 

What must they think of him, the prince they never fully welcomed when they thought he was one of them, now that they knew different? When they looked at him what did they see? Were they staring searchingly at his pale skin, trying to find some trace of blue?

 

Thor was smiling as he walked forward with measured steps, but it was the faintly nervous smile of a child not certain if he had done well or poorly. Loki had no choice but to walk forward with him, their steps matching so they remained side by side. Without hesitation his guards followed, and there was a restrained gasp behind them as the Jotnar entered the hall.

 

And then Odin raised one fist, as he spoke in a booming voice that caused instant silence to fall everywhere else in the room.

 

“My sons,” he declared. “My sons have returned to me! Asgard, your princes, lost for separate reasons, have come home!”

 

It was a pronouncement spoken in a manner that demanded a hail.

 

There was a fraction of an instant, a flicker of hesitation, and then the people delivered it. The air split with a thunderous cheer. It was a wordless sound of joy, though one could hear a few voices chanting, some Thor’s name, and a few Loki’s.

 

That easy, is it? Loki thought to himself wryly. You tell them they should be happy, and so they are? If only it were so simple, to banish a generation-long grudge.

 

But he still felt as though part of the weight had been lifted from his chest.

 

Thor was beaming ear to ear, doubts banished at their father’s warm welcome. He made his way a few paces closer – Loki remained where he was. It was Thor’s time to seek audience.

 

Odin lifted his arm, commanding silence.

 

“Thor,” he spoke heavily, voice both stately and filled with pride, “first Odinson, heir to the throne – call Mjolnir to your hand.”

 

Thor stared at him a moment, not understanding at first, and then taken aback, seeming to doubt it could be true. But Odin merely nodded at him, a faint smile splitting his aged features.

 

Thor held one hand in front of him, brow creasing as he focused. There was a sound of something far off that grew closer, and then with a flash, a burst of a sonic boom, the hammer delivered itself to him, Mjolnir returning faithfully to its wielder’s grasp as if it had never been taken from him.

 

Laughing in triumph and happiness Thor held the hammer high over his head. The crowd roared with approval.

 

When Thor turned to look back at him, Loki smiled lightly, giving him a nod of congratulations.

 

“By your actions,” Odin continued, once more lulling those present to silence, “you have proven that you understand the importance of putting the well-being of others before one’s self, and that courage is meaningless if accompanied only by brute strength.” He paused. “It is a good lesson to have learned, for a future king.”

 

“Thank you, Father,” Thor said softly in acknowledgement.

 

He bowed his head and stepped back, and Loki realized that meant it was his turn. He drew a breath and came forward.

 

The tension in the air was palpable. Not a single individual in the crowd so much as whispered, though Loki was certain they’d like to. Everyone was wondering what he’d do.

 

They weren’t the only ones – though a plan had formed in his mind, as soon as he’d begun seeing the confirmation they intended to welcome him.

 

Now it was only a matter of having the nerve.

 

But when had he ever let a thing like that stop him?

 

As he moved to stand in front of the throne and the center of the room, he watched Odin’s face, and it was instantly clear the All-Father was waiting. He would not speak first; it was up to Loki to break the silence.

 

Perfect. That worked with his plan succinctly. And for a moment, he even wondered if that might be exactly what Odin intended.

 

Loki lifted his head and evenly met the ancient king’s one-eyed gaze.

 

“Greetings and honor to the All-Father, and father to me in name and deeds, if not by blood.” His voice was crisp with formality. “I give you much gratitude for receiving us here, and for your hospitality.”

 

And then he dropped to one knee, bowing his head. Behind him he heard his guard reacting – the soldiers followed his example, kneeling down more fully than he and bowing to the king as well.

 

“I come before you today not to speak for myself, but on behalf of Jotunheim,” Loki finished, smoothly.

 

The quiet did break apart then. The audience seemed to ripple in indignation, fervently murmuring.

 

No doubt they found his actions galling, audacious in the extreme: Loki had returned in the guise of a lost prince, and then after already having been allowed in, revealed himself in truth to be an unexpected and unwanted ambassador. How insolent! How dare he!

 

Loki kept his head lowered in order to conceal the sly smirk that threatened to bloom. He could feel his eyes glittering.

 

It was perhaps the greatest and most significant trick he had ever played.

 

There was no reacting emotion on Odin’s face. He maintained the composure of a ruler before his people. But he nodded – giving assent.

 

“You are welcomed here, Loki. As you always have been.” For an instant his voice softened. “If that is how it is to be, we will hear through you that which Jotunheim has to offer.”

 

Loki got back to his feet, nodding in acknowledgement. The Jotnar behind him remained as they were, intending to hold that position until he released them.

 

Idly he thought he should’ve brought something. A present to pay respect from one kingdom to another. But there hadn’t been time – such a gift would’ve had to be significant, and there’d been no warning. The only thing Loki could’ve gotten his hands on in such short notice would’ve been Fárbauti’s hand-mirror, and he would never give that away, certainly not to Asgard. Not even to its queen.

 

It was for the best, he abruptly decided. Proper form or not, Jotunheim had paid more than enough fealty to Asgard. Even one more thing would have been like groveling. No; as long as it was under his control, Jotunheim would keep its dignity, not surrendering itself any more.

 

Loki laced his fingers together. “If I may - I think perhaps it would be preferable to the both of us, if we continued actual negotiations in a more private arena,” he offered.

 

“Agreed. We shall meet later, and have words then,” Odin returned without hesitation.

 

Loki bowed again, sweeping his cloak back, one hand to his chest with fingers splayed. “Thank you, your highness.”

 

But he kept his eyes raised just enough to keep contact with Odin, and he put the same tentative warmth of inflection into “your highness” as he would’ve said “father”.

 

He was already stepping back again, Thrym and the others following, as he spared a glance at Frigga. She was watching him, of that there was no doubt, and she had her hands clasped together to her chest as if she needed succor.

 

But there was nothing she could do, not there: in making himself ambassador, Loki had set forth what role he meant to play. So long as Odin intended to hold up that bargain, they were hosts and Loki their guest – she could not speak to him or embrace him as her son. Not publicly.

 

The king struck the floor with Gungnir and announced there would be a great feast held that night, in honor of his sons’ return, and in celebration of their guests.

 

And like that, it was over.

 

As the audience trickled slowly out of the room, Loki managed to break away before the crowd and find an empty balcony nearby to lead his escort to.

 

Unsurprisingly, no one seemed in much hurry to get in their way.

 

Now that there was no longer a roomful of judging, weighing eyes on him, Loki allowed his tensed muscles to relax, all but collapsing on himself as he exhaled heavily.

 

It wasn’t so much he was surprised it had worked. But it was mildly shocking it had gone so…easily.

 

Though, Loki snorted at the thought. Easily. As if anything about this was truly “easy”.

 

He could play his part outwardly to perfection, manipulating the situation without much trouble: that was true. But being caught in the middle, pulled at from both sides, feeling two different kinds of homesickness – no, it wasn’t easy.

 

The balcony he’d secluded them on was large, shaded, offering an excellent view over part of the palace gardens. He saw the Jotnar taking in the sight with inquisitiveness, some distaste. No doubt they knew not what to make of so much lush greenery.

 

Thrym had his back to the overlook, instead eyeing Loki carefully. Waiting to be acknowledged with a steady look on his face.

 

Loki met his gaze. “What, Thrym? Is something on your mind?”

 

Thrym was quiet a moment before he spoke matter-of-factly, succinct, “Your father is going to crucify you.”

 

Loki set his teeth in order to keep from wincing at Thrym’s blunt but probably accurate summation. “I know that he isn’t going to be pleased.”

 

That was probably an understatement so vast it was borderline hysterical. It wasn’t just that he’d left without giving any notice, it wasn’t just that he’d gone to Asgard, or returned the All-Father’s son in doing so. Loki was acting as emissary without any approval from Laufey – negotiating with the enemy, effectively putting words in the king’s mouth by claiming to represent him. Making deals without his input. The amount of presumption and disrespect implied by his actions was staggering.

 

He leaned his forehead into one palm, rubbing it as he closed his eyes, trying to both think and not think about what would happen when he eventually went back to Jotunheim. “I doubt he’ll actually do me physical harm – at least, nothing too severe.”

 

Thrym said nothing to either confirm or deny this belief, a fact of which Loki was shrewdly glad.

 

“I’m not a fool, I know whatever I bring back to him is going to be a hard sell,” he murmured with a frown, eyes unfixed as he thought.

 

Anything that implied a true peace would be. Even the truce formed at the end of the war was a stranglehold, forced on Laufey-king under circumstances he’d no choice but to begrudgingly swallow. His already-offended pride would make even the most enticing of offers from Asgard bitter.

 

Loki stiffly shrugged. “I’ll get him to listen to me. Somehow.” He looked up to meet the warrior’s eyes. “I’ve no intention of leaving here with anything but the most I can get for Jotunheim – he won’t like it, but I will make him see that. That for the sake of our world, the right and reasonable thing is to accept.”

 

Oh, that didn’t sound like a tall order at all, surely.

 

There was something unmistakably wry about Thrym’s expression as he remarked, “This is why I am glad to have nothing to do with politics, my prince.”

 

Loki gave him a reserved look, uncertain whether or not he wanted to laugh. “Yes, well. We are all of us not so fortunate.”

 

Even in their isolated location, they could hear the sounds of activity as the palace bustled to and fro, making haste to get everything ready in accordance with the Aesir king’s pronouncement.

 

There was a feast just about every night on Asgard – which meant when there was something to celebrate, the lavishness had to reach staggering levels.

 

And that night was no small occasion. The heir to the throne had been rescued from the enemy’s clutches. The second prince, disappeared for over a season, had returned. Their halls were graced by a foreign ambassador, a noble representative of another kingdom. Any one of these would have guaranteed an epic fete. To have all happening at once made it momentous.

 

They had the better part of an afternoon until the meal began. Loki passed the entirety of the time giving his guard explicit and labored instructions over what they could expect to happen, and several situations they might encounter. He wracked his brain for every possible thing that an Aesir at the feast might do, explained what was intended by it, and what it was considered an appropriate response from the Jotnar would be.

 

It wasn’t he feared any of them would pick a fight. But after this trouble, the last thing he needed was for everything to be ruined over a mistaken slight on one side.

 

“Bear in mind, all this great show they’re making; it isn’t out of the desire to shame us,” he emphasized. “It’s the way Aesir treat all guests. To show they honor them with an abundance of hospitality.”

 

“Yeah, I’ve felt real honored so far,” one of the warriors grunted.

 

“They haven’t tried to stick or spear us yet,” another one countered. “I consider that real hospitable of them, all considered. Best you can get out of an Aesir, anyway – got to keep your expectations low.”

 

Loki got about halfway through an attempt at explaining flyting, before giving it up. He figured anyone imbecilic enough to try picking an insult fight with a Frost Giant, anyway, really got what they deserved.

 

“I’m over-preparing you all, really,” he admitted, at last. “The odds of anything I’ve told you about actually happening are incredibly low.” He shook his head. “I fully anticipate no one is even going to try talking to you all night. They’ll probably just stay where they’re seated, and stare.”

 

“Are we allowed to stare back?” a soldier demanded in a grumble.

 

“Oh yes. By all means, feel free.” Loki gave a thin smile. Somewhere in the middle of his explanations on Aesir decorum, a manservant had appeared at the edge of the balcony and motioned to Loki he wished to speak to him aside.

 

Once they were safely away from Jotnar ears, the servant had inquired of Loki, on behalf of the kitchen staff, if it was true Frost Giants preferred their meat prepared only raw and bloody.

 

Loki had been incredibly tempted to ask if anyone working in the kitchen could recall that he had ever eaten raw meat. He managed to hold his tongue, however, and settled for responding with a curt, “No.”

 

“Is there anything else, my prince?” Thrym inquired heavily.

 

“No – oh, wait. There is one thing.” Loki braced himself, knowing it probably wouldn’t go over well. “In all likelihood, they are not going to seat you in the same area I am.”

 

That brought a downright mutinous outpouring of dismay from his Jotnar bodyguards.

 

“Do they think we will find no offense in separating you from our protection?” Thrym complained, his voice low and angry.

 

“That isn’t it. It’s about hierarchy.” As both prince and ambassador, Loki would be seated at the same table as the royal family. The rest of the giants, as common servants and warriors, would go elsewhere. “There’ll probably be enough room for you to accompany me, Thrym. But no one else.”

 

Loki gave a somewhat apologetic smile. “There’s an unspoken understanding, anyway, that no one could be expected to be attacked while he was eating and defenseless. It would be dishonorable.”

 

Thrym shook his head, only half restraining a scowl. “What could one expect of an Aesir to know of honor,” he retorted darkly.

 

Loki couldn’t think of anything to say in response to that.

 

Perhaps half an hour before the feast began there was another visitor to the balcony. This time it was Thor.

 

His brother was beaming cheerfully as he beckoned Loki to join him outside the doorway. Stealing a look at the Jotnar soldiers, wordless instruction for them to wait, Loki followed.

 

“It’s a shame that you have to hide yourself away like this – but, oh well, I understand,” Thor groused lightly, offhand. “I’ve had a chance to speak with our friends…did you see them, in the audience chamber?”

 

“No. I didn’t notice.” Loki had no idea the Warriors Three and Sif had been present, though he supposed belatedly he should’ve expected it.

 

He was glad he hadn’t known.  That the thought hadn’t been weighing on him at the time that they were among those witnessing his entrance as Loki Laufeyson of Jotunheim.

 

“Oh.” Thor’s face almost fell, but it inevitably remained buoyed up by his exuberance. “They are most excited to see you again, of course, although they are of like mind with me in that it’s unfortunate the arrangement cannot be more…permanent.”

 

“Of course,” Loki responded, completely toneless.

 

Thor kept speaking of how much their friends had missed him, obviously trying to convince him on the point. And it wasn’t that Loki did not wish to think so. But he wouldn’t let himself hope until seeing it with his own eyes. He couldn’t bear it otherwise.

 

“There’s no time now, but perhaps at the feast we can contrive of some way to get them together with us,” Thor suggested, bright. Loki’s stomach tightened with sudden uncertainty.

 

“I do not think that would be wise, brother,” he returned. He wasn’t lying, he argued internally, even as he found himself making the excuses. “This is a precarious situation, surely even you must understand. I don’t think I’ll be able to spare a moment.”

 

“Later then, afterwards?” Thor’s expression was starting to fade around the edges with disappointment and confusion.

 

“I fully expect that to be when Odin will wish to speak with me,” Loki said. “Which will almost definitely run late. After that, I intend to retire straight to bed.”

 

Again, not a word was untrue. But mostly Loki was delaying, wanting to put off another stressful reunion.

 

He’d been through so much already that day, and would have to do even more. It couldn’t be held against him he wanted to put this off a little while, surely.

 

“Tomorrow morn, then.” Thor nodded firmly, in a manner permitting no room for argument. “I will come and find you, first thing.”

 

“No need,” Loki replied, hoping the dryness in his mouth was concealed by how soft he kept his voice. “I’ll meet all of you by the training grounds, in the hour before breakfast.”

 

“Excellent!” Thor clapped him on the back, smile returning. “In the meantime, I’ve brought you something.”

 

He lifted up his hands, and Loki realized Thor had been standing there the whole time holding his golden helmet.

 

“I was able to slip into your room and retrieve a set of your armor,” Thor explained. “It might be a tighter fit now in a few places, since you’ve grown, but I thought perhaps, if you were interested…”

 

Silently Loki reached out, the tips of his fingers resting on the center plate of his helm between the great curving horns.

 

He gazed at the familiar mantle, awash with stirrings of old emotions. How proud he had been, the day it was gifted to him, presented by his father when he’d achieved full status as a warrior: a symbol not just of his entrance into manhood but of belonging.

 

But like so many things given to him by Odin, it was tainted with a lie. The helmet was still Loki’s; he still felt desire of it. But despite everything he’d hoped at the time, having it had not made him more of an Aesir.

 

It hadn’t fixed what was wrong.

 

Loki drew his hand back, shaking his head with a bittersweet smile.

 

“We do not wear horns among the Jotnar. They’re a sign of aggression, of immodest pride. It would be seen as crass.”

 

Thor was astounded. “But you are not-”

 

Loki scowled, eyes narrowing, but Thor caught on and quickly stopped himself. He frowned almost petulantly as his arms lowered.

 

“I was only trying to help. I wanted-”

 

“I am not who I was, Thor,” Loki said to him in a hard tone, but not a cruel one. “I know it’s hard to accept that, but sometimes change is for the better. Can’t you understand? I don’t have to fight it anymore. I don’t have to prove anything.” He blinked, fighting the way his eyes suddenly prickled. “I am…I’m just me.”

 

“I never thought you were anyone else,” Thor replied, somberly.

 

“That isn’t true,” Loki said with a distant smile. “But I wouldn’t expect you to be able to recognize that.”

 

Thor shook his head in surrender and went away again.

 

Growing up as he did on Asgard meant Loki was an old hand at the ceremony and tedium of their feasts. He was on his guard because of how things had shifted, but for the most part he believed the evening wouldn’t hold many surprises.

 

As guessed, his seat was at the high table, only a few advisors between him and the royal family. And a very large space had been cleared directly across from his, anticipating his accompaniment by one of his full-sized Jotun servants.

 

The rest of the band was given space close enough that hopefully he’d be able to intervene if there was any trouble. The rest was out of his hands.

 

As he walked to the table Loki met eyes with the All-Father, and was greeted with a formal nod. Continuing with role of host and king to the ambassador.

 

Now that the rules had been set, it was a careful game they’d have to play as long as they were in view of Odin’s subjects. A display of favor that treated him as son rather than diplomat could be taken as weakness, or worse as giving in without resistance to Jotunheim. But it seemed the old king had considered it already and was more than prepared to do what he must.

 

Taking this all in at a glance, Loki had a sudden new-felt appreciation for just how skilled Odin was at managing these situations – how deft and practiced his hand, when it came to subtle manipulation. “Wise Odin” was a title that Loki never gave much thought, and he realized that’d been careless of him. The All-Father was not a devious man, but certainly he could be called cunning.

 

All he had ever seen in his envy was Thor’s resemblance to their father in his strength and prowess in battle. But maybe they’d each inherited a different part of Odin’s legacy.

 

Loki reached for his chair, hesitating for a moment. Thor looked over and smiled at him warmly. Frigga said nothing – she rose smoothly to her feet.

 

As Loki stared in surprise she came over, wrapping her arms around to pull him into an embrace.

 

Loki blinked, unable to do much more besides automatically place an arm around her, too startled to even properly enjoy it.

 

“My child,” she breathed, cheek rested on his shoulder, “my son – how much I have missed you.” She pulled away again to gaze up into his eyes, smiling with heartfelt emotion, one hand lingering to lightly squeeze his arm.

 

There was whispering and muttering, but Frigga continued to smile unabashedly, as if daring all to say what they would.

 

She was queen; if the people wanted to protest she was too soft, let them. The only thing it mattered to was her reputation, and clearly she could care less about that. If she wanted to embrace her son as a mother then she would. Nothing would stop her.

 

Loki smiled back at her, managing to disguise an unwanted sniffle as an inhale of breath. “It’s good to see you again, Mother.”

 

She reached to cup his face briefly. “It’s good to see that you are well,” she countered, soft. “There is much that we have to discuss. Later.” He nodded and she went away again, returning to her place at her husband’s side.

 

Loki sat down, for if he tried to remain up his legs might’ve collapsed under him. He kept his head low, silent, needing to recompose himself.

 

Thrym had settled himself at the table, shifting a bit and managing to not look too awkward, considering he towered above all who sat alongside him. The Aesir nobility closest to the Frost Giant’s forearms leaned out of the way as much they could with wary glances.

 

The Jotun soldier’s eyes slid to one side, taking in the royal house with a calculating glance.

 

“Asgard’s queen is very beautiful,” he offered at last, a somewhat begrudging compliment.

 

Frigga accepted it with a polite and gracious smile. “Thank you, sir. You are very kind.”

 

Thrym nodded. “There was, of course,” he continued gruffly, “none fairer than our late mistress Fárbauti.”

 

Loki restrained himself from smacking his own face into his palm. It was the type of boastful comment that could be expected of any foreign visitor, a showing of national pride. But it wasn’t the best thing to say in an exchange between two people who’d spent a generation trying to destroy one another.

 

Frigga however, barely needed a moment to recover. “I’m certain that is so.” There was a note approaching shrewdness in her tone as she added, “No women of any grace or wisdom would consider herself as surpassing to a departed queen.”

 

Odin turned his head away briefly, as if needing to conceal a grin.

 

Thrym blinked, but seemed to consider that reply acceptable. He said nothing more.

 

“What was your name?” Frigga asked him curiously.

 

“Oh, how lax of me,” Loki remarked. “This is Thrym, a respected and decorated warrior of Jotunheim, and the head of my personal guard. He’s been, well, serving me ever since I arrived there.” Somewhat wryly, he recalled, “In fact it was his men who first ‘retrieved’ me.”

 

Thrym only nodded his agreement with that explanation, giving a grunt as he took a drink from his wine, served inside a repurposed silver pot with the handle carefully bent into a curve.

 

Sitting there as they were, Loki found himself strongly aware of all that’d changed, because of that single moment. What if he’d been able to escape from Thrym’s men after all? Or what if Laufey had never sent them?

 

Perhaps things would still be as they were before that – he the second prince of Asgard, trapped in the place he’d made for himself in his older brother’s shadow.

 

Or maybe it wasn’t that simple. Would he have been able to return home and forget what happened on Jotunheim? Or would the way his hand changed in the giant’s grasp have lingered in his mind; haunting him, digging at him, filling him full of doubt, until it drove him over the edge?

 

Jealousy and desperation had already been threatening to push him to the breaking point; that much was evident even to him, in how he’d sabotaged Thor’s coronation. Could his fragile sense of place on Asgard have weathered even one more blow?

 

But it was all beside the point, Loki thought as he picked at his food. There was no sense in dwelling on shades of what might have been.

 

The feast continued without incident. Thrym listened sharply to everything but spoke only when addressed directly, his replies concise and straightforward. At a few points someone asked Loki about life on Jotunheim, sometimes tentative and sometimes bold, and he answered as tactfully as he could. Occasionally Thor would ‘helpfully’ chime in with information.

 

“How fares your father, Prince?” one warrior further down called about midway through the night, in a manner that passed as polite only barely. There was a sound as if several gasped and held their breaths at once.

 

Loki twisted his head to see who addressed him. Tyr – of course. The old soldier had never liked Loki, even when he was a boy who still honestly thought he’d one day learn to be an excellent swordsman. And Tyr made no secret how he felt about Frost Giants.

 

Loki gazed back at him. “Laufey-king is well,” he replied composedly. “Despite his age, he remains in excellent health.”

 

Tyr sneered over his glass of mead. The stub where his arm ended in a missing hand thudded on the table. “Too bad.”

 

Thrym’s fingers curled in tight fists, and it was easy to see he was seconds away from standing. A layer of ice formed on his wine as the temperature around him dropped.

 

Loki spoke swiftly, still managing to keep his words calm, “Oh yes, I agree. It is most unfortunate.” He sighed, “Maybe if he’d only come down with a mild ailment, it would be possible to convince him to rest for a little while. He pushes himself far too hard.”

 

It took Tyr too long to realize he’d been deflected. By the time he was opening his mouth, he was drowned out by the nervous chuckles of relief from those around him, the situation effectively defused.

 

At the next lull in the conversation Odin made a comment, phrased casually but spoken very sharply, to the effect that perhaps Tyr had too much to drink as he seemed in danger of forgetting his manners in a way most unbecoming to a respected warrior. The hint delivered, Tyr had no choice but to stew the rest of the evening in silence, darkly nursing his drink.

 

Somehow that was the closest call all night. The Aesir were too polite, or perhaps too intimidated, to give their guests much cause for umbrage, regardless of how wanted or not their presence might’ve been. Even the most disapproving restrained themselves to little more than heated glares.

 

As for the Jotnar, they behaved decently as well. They kept to themselves and mostly fixed their attentions on their food – a whole roast boar for each of them was quite the treat. A few of them didn’t seem to have much use for cutlery; but then, neither did many Aesir males Loki had acquaintance with.

 

As the evening dragged on, to the point where most had long stopped eating in favor of drinking, the usual chorus of songs began.

 

When the hall filled with the slightly off-key variation of one of the ballads Thor had taught them, the Jotnar’s ears perked up. Before long they chimed in heartily, to the general bemusement of all.

 

Sadly, Thor wasn’t there to witness it. Just moments beforehand Odin had given his son a meaningful glance, and then stood to excuse himself from the assembly. He left, his wife going with them.

 

Thor waited a short amount of time – not enough to count as inconspicuous, but that was never his specialty – and then got up from the table also. He vanished from the room.

 

So, Loki determined, the eldest was getting debriefed first. That was fitting enough, he supposed. Thor had been gone only a matter of days. While there was certainly much that Odin could have to say to him, it concerned a king and his heir.

 

The conversation that would take place between the All-Father and Loki, however, would have the fate of entire worlds hanging in the balance.

 

Loki gave a repressed sigh, leaning forward enough so as to place his chin in both hands, his elbows rested on the table. Considering it was at the point in the feast where the room more resembled a mead hall, he wasn’t so mindful of his manners.

 

“They seem nice enough,” Thrym said in a mutter. Loki blinked at him, distracted.

 

“Who?”

 

The Jotun gestured towards the now-empty head of the table. “Them. The Aesir royals.” His face crinkled with distaste as he finally went, “My lord’s other family.”

 

“You really hate that, don’t you?” Loki remarked. He wasn’t sure if it was the late hour or just his fraying nerves that made him suddenly inclined to bluntness. “That I have that relationship with them.”

 

Thrym gazed at him with hardened eyes. “Nothing should belong to the Aesir that they got by taking from Jotunheim,” he stated brusquely.

 

Loki shook his head. “It isn’t that I ‘belong’ to them, though. I’m not a horse, or a sack of treasures, or a thrall. They raised me.”

 

He turned, looking around at the glittering hall, the people that surrounded them.

 

“This is where I grew up.” Loki pointed to himself. “This isn’t so much a disguise as my other face.” His voice softened. “The one that I wore for centuries, before I met you.”

 

Thrym was silent, taking that in, his expression unreadable. Then he reached across the table to seize Loki’s wrist.

 

The blue spread from his fingers to Loki’s skin, changing it – quickly Loki pulled back, heart thudding in alarm, waving a hand as he willed the transformation to reverse itself. The Jotnar skin faded away again, his Aesir form intact. He stole a look around but no one seemed to have noticed what’d happened to him. No one was sitting close anymore, and everyone was too distracted by their carousing.

 

He stared at Thrym in disapproval. “What was that?” he hissed.

 

“You would rather look like them, then us?” Thrym returned in harsh demand.

 

“No! But this makes things easier,” Loki said, exasperated. “It’s difficult enough for me here. They aren’t ready to see me as I truly am.”

 

Thrym straightened at the last sentence, his look turning meaningful. “As my prince says – as you truly are,” he stressed. “Hundreds of years on Asgard could not make you Aesir. You were always Jotnar underneath.”

 

He pointed one thick finger, red eyes narrowing. “So how can you call that mask you need to hold in place through sorcery, anything but a disguise.”

 

“Is it truly so hard for you to accept I can belong to both people?” Loki asked, pained.

 

Thrym set his mouth in a manner that showed teeth. “That would imply we are to share you. You ask too much, that we’d share anything with Asgard. Especially our heir.”

 

Loki stood, pushing away. “Well I would advise you to grow used to the idea,” he snapped in retort.

 

Thrym wasn’t about to argue with his prince and so remained stonily silent. That was more than fine, since Loki didn’t give him a chance to respond.

 

He stalked away from the table, shoving through the wide doors at the end of the feasting hall as he exited.

 

As he paced back and forth in the empty antechamber outside, hands clasped behind his back, he realized he was even angrier than he’d first thought. There was a pounding in his head, his skin flushed with heat as if his blood was literally boiling. Loki stopped, checking himself with a huff.

 

He wasn’t sure what it was about Thrym’s words that had so bothered him – perhaps it was the reminder that everyone even down to the common man fully expected him to choose. He could play at peacemaker, fine, but at the end of the day, they wanted him to side with one over the other.

 

Well, Loki would not. He refused. And no matter what, none would make him do otherwise.

 

No one had ever been able to force Loki Laufeyson or Loki Odinson to do anything that he was set fully against.

 

There was the sound of footsteps behind him and Loki turned, to find one of the palace guards waiting.

 

“You have been summoned to the presence of the All-Father,” the guard announced.

 

Loki nodded. So the king was finished with Thor, and now it was his turn. “You may lead the way.”

 

As if he didn’t know exactly where they were going. But ceremony would stand, as it always did.

 

The guard brought him to a small round drawing room, one that was commonly used for private meeting with representatives of other nations. Having only been in it once or twice before Loki looked around with faint curiosity as he entered. There was a pattern of constellations forming a mosaic along the curved walls, looking shadowed and dramatic in the low lamplight. The centerpiece of the room was a large ovoid table with high-backed chairs on two ends, hard-carved dark wood made into a map of the nine realms.

 

Loki’s eyes lingered on the part representing Jotunheim, half-expecting it to read “Here Be Dragons”.

 

He was only surprised at first to see Odin wasn’t waiting for him alone. Frigga was there also. They both rose to their feet as Loki entered, and the king waved a hand at the guard in dismissal.

 

Bowing, the guard left, shutting the door firmly behind him.

 

Before the sound had finished echoing Frigga was making her way over to her son again.

 

“Oh, Loki.” She pressed a hand to his cheek. Her eyes glittered with unshed tears, no doubt an equal mixture of joy and sorrow. She brushed at Loki’s hair as she took in how long it’d gotten. “Look at you. It feels like it’s been an age since we saw you last.”

 

There was a lump in his throat as he responded, murmuring; “A lifetime lived in a little over three months.”

 

She broke then, concealing her sob in part by pressing her face to his chest, hugging him once more. Loki held her tightly, fingers cradling the back of her head.

 

The familiar perfume of her hair, the feel of the fabric of her gown – how many times had he tugged at its hem when he was small, or buried his face in it when she held him close and whispered words of encouragement? Something in him that had scabbed and scarred over opened up again, weeping freely with longing and love for his mother.

 

Frigga was lucky, he distantly thought. He’d had new brothers, a new father, but there’d been no one on Jotunheim to wrap their arms around him and embrace him with a mother’s affection.

 

Fárbauti was highly spoken of, but she would always be someone else’s memory. A woman who’d probably loved him dearly but Loki would never know her. There was only one face in his heart when he thought ‘Mother’.

 

His gaze drifted over to Odin. When the guard left the room, a level of composure seemed to have fallen from the king’s face, released in an instant. He looked tired and sorrowed in a way that Loki had never seen before.

 

“It is good to see you again,” Odin said, softly. “I knew that you would not be mistreated on Jotunheim, but still it is a relief to see it.”

 

Loki nodded. He didn’t know what to say. Thank you for letting me come back? Thank you for having loved me after all? There was anger and bitterness in him still, but mostly there was hurt, and confusion.

 

Frigga pulled herself away, gingerly, as if to draw out the moment long as she could. She remained near to Loki’s side. Her eyes met Odin’s, and she nodded – as if agreeing to something they’d already discussed.

 

Odin cleared his throat. “It is just us here, Loki,” he remarked, gently. “There’s no need to maintain appearances. You may do whatever is comfortable.”

 

It was so unexpected that it took Loki a second to understand him. He drew in a breath, surprised; words of gratitude stuck in his throat, too much to be said. Silently he shifted to his Jotun form.

 

It was the cold season on Asgard, but the heat was staggering, especially after living on a world of ice and snow. He managed to keep from gasping out loud but some of his composure failed him. His shoulders slumped, eyes widening as he hugged arms to his chest.

 

It was somewhat easier to see how the Jotnar had been so willing to freeze other worlds, if this was what they felt like otherwise. It wasn’t going to kill him, but it was very unpleasant.

 

Frigga reached to lay a hand on his shoulder, careful not to come into direct contact with his skin. “Are you alright?” She gazed into his red eyes without hesitation, concerned.

 

Loki straightened up again. “Yes. I’m fine. I just…I wasn’t quite expecting that.”

 

Then he turned to face Odin, expressing hardening. “Of course, that’s been common enough lately,” he stated, sharp and accusatory. “It’s an adjustment to spend all your life thinking you’re one thing, and then come to find out that you’re another.”

 

Frigga folded her hands together, fingers clutched tight. “We should have told you from the beginning,” she said, and it was impossible to miss how her gaze drifted to her husband as she frowned.

 

Well, that settled one thing for certain. It hadn’t been her idea.

 

Loki stared at his father, demandingly, almost pleading. “Why did you hide this from me?”

 

“I thought that it was better this way,” Odin insisted, but not in the unyielding resonance of command. There were flickers of doubt and emotion. “Truly, that is what I decided, what I believed.”

 

“Better for whom?” Loki scoffed, almost laughing mirthlessly. “You raised me to think of my own people as monsters.”

 

“I did not,” Odin denied. There was no hesitation on that, his voice like a thunderclap. He moved forward as the words poured from him with insistence. “You may think differently, but search your memory if you can. I know that never, not even once, did I describe them to you as monsters.” He stopped when he was close enough that if he wanted Loki could’ve reached out and touched him. “Even if he was and is my enemy, I have more respect for the father that sired you than that. I have more respect for you than that.”

 

Loki set his mouth grimly but he couldn’t argue, at least not with that. “You did nothing to shield me from the prejudices of the rest of Asgard, then.”

 

Odin’s face turned pained. “That I will allow,” he admitted. “It was careless of me, and obviously I was blind to how much it had affected you.” He gazed at Loki beseechingly. “But could you ever really think, my son, that as your father I would’ve wanted you to hate yourself?”

 

Loki drew back, bristling at this sudden outpouring, not liking what it was doing to him. He folded his arms and dropped his gaze. “What did you want from me?” he demanded. “It must’ve been something. Laufey thinks you wanted to use me to rule Jotunheim.”

 

“Is that what you think?” Odin asked. “I thought that somehow, eventually, you could help open the lines of communication between us, it is true.”

 

Loki smiled at him thinly. “It seems that everything has turned out the best for you, hasn’t it.”

 

But Odin shook his head. “Whatever plans I may have made, once, long ago they become secondary to my desire that you should have happiness.”

 

‘Happiness?’ Loki almost cried. ‘Did you think that I was happy on Asgard, and nothing else? Did you truly miss so much?’

 

But he couldn’t say it. Not now. He couldn’t make himself be that cruel.

 

“Well. It’s no matter now,” he said instead, restrained. “What’s done is done.”

 

“Aye. That it is,” Odin said with measured agreement. Loki belonged to Jotunheim now. The father that had raised him knew better than to argue that, much as he may’ve wanted to. His voice shifted as he added, “Your king doesn’t know that you are here, does he?”

 

Loki blinked, unsettled. “Is it that obvious? I’m certain he knows now. But no, I’m not here with his blessing, if that’s what you mean.” He shook his head. “It matters not – Jotunheim will be mine, one day, and as such I’ve no doubt of my competency to speak on its behalf. Whatever deal I broker I will make Laufey agree to.”

 

“I’m certain you will.” There was a note of amusement in Odin’s tone. “I know you can be very persuasive.”

 

“Politics can wait for a moment,” Frigga interrupted, delicately. “Tell us about these past few months, Loki. I will not be kept ignorant as to the life my own child.”

 

“There…” Loki hesitated, stymied. “There isn’t much to tell.”

 

“Don’t be absurd.” Frigga frowned insistently. “I know nothing could be further from the truth.”

 

“Laufey has two other sons, I believe?” Odin remarked, fingers brushing his beard as he thought. “Both would be younger than you.”

 

“Yes. Helblindi, and Býleistr.” Loki smiled wryly. “It was strange, to suddenly be the eldest brother, but they’re both dear to me now.” He searched for how best to describe his siblings. “Helblindi is warlike, impatient, but he understands reason and has a warrior’s sense of pride. Býleistr…you would like him, Mother. He has a gentle soul.”

 

Frigga nodded, but there was something distracted about her manner, a weight on her mind. “Thor told us…he mentioned…there is a woman?” she questioned, curious. There was an odd warm glow in her eyes.

 

Loki opened his mouth to protest it was nothing serious – but he stopped himself, realizing nothing could be further from the truth.

 

He loved Angrboda, and it was clear she cared as much for him. He saw no reason that would change. One day he would have to marry, when he was king and it became his duty to show the solidity of the royal house and produce heirs to continue his line. It made perfect sense he’d take her as his queen. They were well-matched, both emotionally and for considerations more practical.

 

“Nothing is official, yet,” he began. “But-”

 

Frigga was beaming. “What is her name?”

 

“Angrboda.” He smiled softly. “She stands about this tall, with hair the color of new snow. But, I do not know if you’ll be able to meet her.” He hesitated, pained. “She has a terrible fear of Aesir. I don’t know if I could ever bring her to Asgard. That I could ever ask that of her.”

 

“Someday, then,” Frigga said in response, firmly. “You will have to build her comfort up over time. But I would like to know the face of my daughter-in-law. Surely that isn’t too much to ask.”

 

Loki knew better than to argue with her when she took that tone. He had the vague, uneasy sense she was already counting hypothetical grandchildren.

 

“I think that’s enough, for now,” Odin stepped in, light but pointed. “Loki will be here for at least another day yet, yes? You can speak further in the morning. Now we have other matters to discuss.”

 

Frigga nodded, curtly. She raised her hand as if to touch Loki one more time, stopping halfway.

 

Loki cast the shielding charm over his skin again, and leaned in to kiss her cheek. “Sleep well, Mother.”

 

“You as well, my son,” she murmured back in reply. Odin reached for her hand and she gave his a brief squeeze before departing to leave them alone.

 

After Frigga was gone and the room had lingered in a somewhat uneasy silence, Odin made his way back to the table. Loki followed his lead, sitting down in the chair opposite to the king.

 

“So then,” the All-Father stated, “to business. You called for this, Loki – what is it that you think needs to be discussed?”

 

Loki nodded. “What I want is a true peace with Asgard,” he said bluntly, straight to the heart of the matter. “Not the unbalanced treaty that now exists. It is ‘truce’ in name only, both sides kept from each other’s throats by lack of resources and reluctance to levy the toll of another war. There is no communication, no openness – nothing but mistrust and hatred.”

 

“What you propose is noble, and not undesired,” Odin said carefully. “But it would not be easy to do. And it would take much more than a few seasons of goodwill. It will be generations before Aesir and Jotnar learn to trust one another. Until then, bringing the two sides together will always bear the threat of inciting war anew. It is a situational powder-keg.”

 

“Avoidance may seem safer in the short term, but it only allows hostility to breed unbridled,” Loki argued. “The people involved never even see one another, and so they imagine all sorts of horrid tales.”

 

He reached out, palm settling heavily on the carved shape of Asgard on the map, fingers spread so as to blanket as much of its surface as he could. Ice formed from his touch and thawed instantly in the heat of the dark room.

 

“Asgard has everything – and my world, nothing. My people are dying a slow extinction as their broken confidence and misery eats at them from the inside.” Sharply, he continued, “Whether or not what happened at the end of the war was necessary, that no longer matters – what does is it isn’t right to leave it this way. If you consider yourself a just king, then you already know that.”

 

“A just king,” Odin returned heavily, frowning, “knows it is his duty to always put his people first. Even if it means he must leave others to suffer indignities.”

 

“I do not ask for much. I don’t even ask for your aide, at least not directly.” Loki’s voice was quiet, intense. “All I ask is that you give Jotunheim the chance to turn from enemy to ally. All I ask, is you be willing to try.”

 

Odin’s face shifted, his frown softening.

 

“I have always been willing. But what is it precisely that you want of me?”

 

“I’ve three conditions,” Loki told him. He lifted his hand, resting his chin on the back of curved fingers.

 

“The first is that I be accepted to the court of Asgard as Jotunheim’s official ambassador – while still being recognized as prince of the royal family. If you think it necessary I officially renounce my claim to your throne, I will; that part doesn’t matter. But I need to be respected from both corners. I will come and go frequently and personally ensure that negotiations remain fair.”

 

“What will happen when you take your throne?” Odin questioned. “It would be unthinkable you act as your own ambassador then.”

 

“I wasn’t just posturing for Tyr, you know,” Loki returned dryly. “My father isn’t going anywhere, at least for a while. Hopefully by then there will be a few more open minds, and I will find someone else suitable.”

 

“I have no quarrel with this condition,” Odin said, carefully. “What is the second one?”

 

“That, when the time comes, my marriage to Angrboda be respected on Asgard.”

 

“That will not be as easy. My advisors and the nobility will strongly object.”

 

“I know.” Loki’s lips curled in mild distaste. “Everyone will be concerned that I care more for Jotunheim, and they’ll want me to take an Aesir wife as proof of my fealty. But as you’ve already pointed out, I will be Jotunheim’s king one day – I need to marry one of my own people. The Jotnar will never accept an Aesir as their queen, or children birthed by her as the royal heirs.”

 

Odin rested his arms on the very edge of the table, hands carefully folded. “And the third condition?”

 

There was a sharpness to his manner; no doubt he had already guessed what it was likely to be.

 

Loki let his hand drop. “The return of the Casket of Ancient Winters.”

 

Immediately Odin leaned away, one eye dark, his head shaking swiftly. “That is not possible. It is unthinkable that-”

 

“It’s the only thing that’s big enough to make Laufey believe your sincerity!” Loki interrupted, raising his voice to speak over him. “Restoring what was taken is the sign of good faith, to show things will be different from how they were at the end of the war. And it isn’t just about Laufey.” He stood then, pushing himself smoothly to his feet. “I will not accept anything less from you, either. My people need the Casket back. With it I can help them begin to repair their world.”

 

His chest heaved slightly as he trembled with emotion. He tried to picture a Jotunheim restored. Its seasons less harsh, its cities and monuments rebuilt, civilization flourishing as they could travel freely and interact with other worlds again. It would be so much easier to get them to not hate the Aesir, if everywhere they turned was not a constant reminder of their crippling, brutal defeat.

 

For some reason Odin chose to remain seated, tilting his head back as he gazed up to meet his son’s eyes.

 

“You speak of faith,” he noted. “But you ask for much on my end, to hand back the very weapon that the Frost Giants once used to invade and destroy others. How am I to know that history will not repeat itself?”

 

“Because I will not let it,” was Loki’s instant reply, his voice low and heated with an oath. “As heir to the royal line I can keep an eye on the Casket constantly. I will see how it is used.” He swallowed. “I swear to you, on both my names, if ever there is sign that Laufey or anyone else will use it to make war again, I will bring it back to you myself.”

 

Odin watched his face unblinkingly, considering. “That is quite the promise.”

 

“I know. But I won’t see Asgard injured – and I won’t see Jotunheim toppled, either.” Loki shook his head. “There is much to be repaired. No matter how the people may feel on account of their grudges, declaring war on anyone would be the worst possible thing in this condition. We haven’t the strength. Even with the Casket, we need to see to our own affairs first.”

 

The king seemed to weigh his words for one long, silent moment. Then another. In a manner that had an air of weariness to it, he let the lid of his eye flutter closed.

 

“My people will never allow me to give it back. Can you imagine the reaction, when they heard that was what I intended to do? The very best they would accuse me of is madness. Even a king who’s sat on his throne as long as I have can suffer a coup.”

 

“Then don’t tell them,” Loki said.

 

Odin’s eye flew black open. “What?”

 

“Do not tell anyone. Give the Casket to me, in secret. I will carry it concealed with me back to Jotunheim and present it to Laufey.”

 

Loki stretched out his arm across the table - with a single finger he sketched a line over the table’s map between the two realms, and a strand of ice followed. Forming a tether connecting between the heart of Asgard and the heart of Jotunheim.

 

“With our world’s salvation in my hands, he will have little choice but to see reason and assent to a new treaty.” Loki moved his hand and the ice wavered, leaving the table and allowing itself to be drawn into his palm. He kept it there, making a fist. “If I recall, in a little more than a fortnight is the anniversary of the day the war ended.”

 

Odin met his eyes, watching him. “Yes. That it is.”

 

“I can wheedle an accord out of my father in half that time,” Loki remarked, almost careless. “So, imagine, at the height of Asgard’s celebrations of its glorious victory, you making the announcement that on that day you’ve finished what you started so many years ago, by bringing the Jotunheim’s threat fully to heel – that you’ve forged a new and permanent peace. In the midst of all that cheering, who will care that in order to ensure the sanctity of their world you had to trade away the Casket?”

 

He turned his hand so that when opened his fingers his palm faced upward, and revealed an intricately formed, many-pointed star. It glinted silver in the lamplight.

 

There was another pause, and then Odin chuckled to himself.

 

“You have no idea how glad I am to see that you have finally decided to use your gifts for ruses and words for a positive outcome, my son.” The white-haired king shook his head, smirking. “Otherwise I fear you would be a dangerous force to be reckoned with.”

 

I still am, Loki thought. But he only smiled at his father, breaking the star apart in his hand and allowing it to melt back into nothing.

Chapter Text

The discussion may not have run as late as he’d implied to Thor earlier, but it mattered little. Loki was still exhausted when he bid the All-Father good night.

 

However much as he longed to go to his chamber and rest, good sense would not let him, until he checked in on his guard.

 

He found Thrym and the others with little searching, thankfully. They’d retreated to the same balcony Loki had concealed them on earlier that day. A glance told him they planned to bed down for the night there, with bedrolls formed from the living ice and what looked like rations that’d hopefully been retrieved with permission from the dining hall leftovers.

 

They likely felt safer at least partially out in the open. And no doubt their taking matters into their own hands was quite the relief for the palace’s servants, who would’ve had to try and find some way of accommodating more than half a dozen Frost Giants with beds otherwise.

 

As Loki put in an appearance Thrym wordlessly gave a look to his men, ordering them to continue making their preparations. He marched over to Loki, standing at attention with a stiff bow of his head.

 

The heated exchange between them at the end of the feast hung in the air, thickening it. But the soldier of course was determined to do his duty no matter what; regardless of how he may be feeling about his prince at present.

 

Loki drew himself up, hands clasped behind his back. “I’m turning in for the night. I wanted to make sure that everything was in order with the band.”

 

“Yes, my prince,” Thrym replied. “As you can no doubt see we’re planning to rest ourselves – though half of us will remain awake throughout the night on rotation, should there be any need of us.”

 

“Of course,” Loki stated, tired. The Jotnar would feel it necessary to post a watch when they were in the heart of what they considered enemy territory. “My chamber is not directly nearby, but if anything happens during the night you may get one of the palace guards to come and wake me.”

 

“Certainly my prince,” Thrym said stiffly.

 

In the case of an attack from the Aesir or an assassination attempt on Loki, no doubt what Thrym feared the most and considered the most pressing possibility, it would make no sense at all to run to the servants or soldiers of Asgard. Loki was well aware what he was thinking – and by giving the instructions he did, made it quietly clear how absurd he considered such suppositions.

 

Thrym had to disagree with him, but instead of arguing he deferentially held his tongue.

 

For a moment they both stood in their places as Loki eyed him, frowning. If obedience was all he was worried about, he would just let the matter stand – Thrym would follow his orders even if he was internally seething all the while.

 

But considering how he’d come to rely on the warrior for more than simple servitude, for Loki that was not good enough.

 

“If you are waiting for an opening in which to apologize for how you spoke to me earlier, I am offering it to you now,” Loki told him coldly, head tipped to look him in the eye.

 

Thrym shifted. There was a brief sour look on his face, but he nodded. “Yes, my lord. I should not have voiced a disagreement with you in such a manner,” he muttered, honestly. “It was out of turn. I plead with my lord for forgiveness.”

 

There was nothing at all ‘pleading’ about his manner, but then Loki was not his father. He couldn’t snatch Thrym up by the back of his neck and hurl him out of a window with anything like ease.

 

“I do forgive you,” Loki said, “in the intention that it will not linger festering between us.” He paused. Thrym did seem notably less tense with that out of the way. But Loki was not finished.

 

“Be honest with me, Thrym. Have you changed your mind about anything you said?”

 

Thrym stiffened. But he answered, evenly, “No, my prince.”

 

“I thought not.” Loki smiled thinly. “And I still stand by what I said to you. So it seems we’ll have to agree to disagree on this. I can abide by that if you can.”

 

“Yes, Prince,” Thrym said a hair more softly.

 

Loki’s fingers clenched tightly behind his back. “I fully believe it’s possible for there to be a true cooperative peace between our world and theirs. Obviously, you and many others do not share that belief - I certainly understand where it’s coming from, and would not order you to feel otherwise.”

 

Loki drew a breath, earnest but pained. Letting show just how weary this dedication to his cause was making him, but how determined he was to keep going anyway. “I only ask that you give me the chance to prove you wrong.”

 

Thrym was stubbornly silent for a moment or two. At last he went, “I do not think such a thing is at all possible.” He gave a slight nod of acquiescence: “But it would be better for everyone, if it was.”

 

Loki gave a small smile. “Yes. Exactly.”

 

With the air cleared, he took his leave of Thrym and the soldiers and headed off to bed.

 

After the time he’d spent away and everything that happened during it, it was so strange to be back in his old room on Asgard. As he undressed himself Loki looked around.

 

Everything was exactly as he had left it. He’d cast a handful of charms on the space to ensure dust wouldn’t build up too swiftly, to save himself the trouble of cleaning, but there still was something static and empty about the air, as if it were a tomb. The only thing notably out of place was the set of armor Thor had tried to bring him, which had been piled somewhat carelessly again on top of the chest meant to contain it. His books, his sheathes of notes, his other clothes, all the various items he had collected both decorative and useful – all had been left untouched.

 

As if even after more than three months, they had not given up on his eventual return.

 

A small lump formed in Loki’s throat and he swallowed to clear it. All the time he’d spent in his life, suffering alone from feelings of neglect – now he had not one but two families, two peoples trying to love him. He honestly couldn’t say which situation hurt the most.

 

He’d maintained his Jotun form while speaking with Thrym, but changed back afterwards so as not to alarm anyone while he walked through the palace.

 

But Loki swiftly found that he wasn’t able to sleep in his Aesir bed, his Aesir body. It spite of what he would’ve argued was little difference, nothing felt quite right to him, and he couldn’t get comfortable.

 

He couldn’t tell which was too soft – his skin or his bed. He shifted from one side to another, wrapping the blankets tightly around himself even though he didn’t feel cold. He was seeking comfort. He hugged a pillow to his chest and pretended it had a heartbeat and soft fox fur.

 

Angrboda. Of course his thoughts drifted to her. Save for the times she left him alone with Thor, since Býleistr had first introduced him to her, they hadn’t spent a single night apart.

 

His chest ached within as he pictured her face. Remembering the feel of her hair and lips, the shape of her hand within his, how whole and safe he felt lying with their two bodies pressed together, resting.

 

In the dark Loki started to hum the love song to himself, but that stopped as he realized his eyes were stinging – hot salty tears sliding down pale, warm cheeks.

 

He gave up. Fingers curling into the sheets he willed a change back into a Jotun. The room felt stuffy and stifling against his thick icy skin, as if it had been shuttered during a hot muggy summer. But even in the face of such discomfort as he felt the mattress beneath his black-tipped fingertips, something about him felt much better, much more right.

 

Carefully so as to not damage anything he built a cocoon around the bed out of ice, enveloping himself in its soothing familiar embrace, and lying there pretending it was Jotunheim he drifted off into a peaceful slumber.

 

*

 

Despite his exhaustion and the depth of his sleep, if Loki was one thing it was a creature of habit.

 

As if his body recalled he had an early appointment to keep while his slumbering mind had forgotten, he found himself waking in the hours of morning when pale daylight was just beginning to slip in between the curtains.

 

Blinking eyes slowly as he roused, Loki gave a faint sigh. He broke himself free of the ice around his bed and willed it away again, using his other magic to ensure there would not be a puddle on the floor.

 

He was to meet Thor and the others, he reminded himself, trying not to feel as if he was off to an execution. He had promised.

 

There was really no sense in dawdling. Loki already resumed Aesir appearance, but he hesitated as he decided which clothes to wear. At last he reached for one of the outfits put aside in his wardrobe, very the style of Asgard, more casual attire meant for when he planned to do nothing but relax around the palace.

 

The cut was already loose enough it had no trouble accommodating his frame. But he found his fingers fumbling slightly with the buttons, feeling detached as if he was watching someone else.

 

Whose life was he living now? His own, or was he playing at what belonged to another? He couldn’t begin to sort it all out.

 

When he turned for the door he found himself halting in his footsteps, head turning to look into the mirror before he could stop the instinctive gesture. He couldn’t control this morbid sense of curiosity – what would he see in his reflection? Would it be Prince Loki Odinson of Asgard?

 

But, no. To his immediate relief, that wasn’t the case. There was no mistaking him. He had changed too much.

 

It wasn’t just the longer hair, the narrower face and broader shoulders – it was something about his eyes, the way he carried himself, that permeated from some place within him. He was a different creature now.

 

He could slip back into his old life with relative ease, but he could not hide himself behind it. For that Loki was glad.

 

The question now remained however, what his so-called friends would think of it.

 

Loki made his way to the training grounds through the quieter winding corridors within the palace, feet treading old ground with comfortable familiarity. Asgard was quiet this early in the day, most of her citizens still resting, and those that weren’t going about their necessities dedicatedly. No one saw him that he didn’t want, which meant that nobody saw him at all.

 

He arrived first. Not that it surprised him. He found a shadowy corner where he had the others had been accustomed to linger before and after routs of practice, swapping both boasts and insults.

 

He settled himself on a low stone wall and he waited.

 

Time seemed to trickle by, as he fought the unease in his stomach that he tried to convince himself had no purpose. He’d survived the stares of the court, an awkward and emotional reunion with his adoptive parents – what new challenge could this encounter bring to him?

 

The warriors would either accept or reject him. And if it was the latter…he didn’t care. He didn’t care what they thought, how could he; when long ago he’d bitterly accepted that they only tolerated him for the sake of his brother.

 

Their approval and love meant nothing to him at all.

 

Nothing.

 

Loki’s head shot up, muscles in his throat tightening as he heard the approaching hum of voices.

 

Thor was leading the way, as usual, the rest of the pack grouped around him as if to draw their own glory from the proximity, the very act of brushing against his shoulders. It was such a familiar sight.

 

“There he is!” Thor waved, and Loki’s eyes focused only on his face, as it to put off seeing the others for a few moments longer. The Aesir prince beamed brightly. “Brother!”

 

Loki pushed himself off the wall to his feet, and started to walk forward to close the distance between him and the rest.

 

He never made it that far.

 

All the air was knocked out of him as he found himself literally lifted off his feet, surrounded in the exuberant embrace of Volstagg, the warrior’s arms wrapped tight around the circumference of Loki’s midsection.

 

“At last!” Volstagg proclaimed, overjoyed. He gave a boisterous laugh – if he hugged any tighter Loki feared his ribs might suffer for it. “Here you are, my friend! Oh, how we’ve all missed you!”

 

Loki was speechless for multiple reasons. But by some wriggling and flailing, he managed to entice the broader warrior to set him back properly on the ground.

 

“…Thank you,” he breathed, recovering. Before he could say anything else Fandral was next in line, jostling Volstagg good-naturedly out of the way.

 

“Show some restraint in your enthusiasm, good man,” he chided Volstagg with a chuckle. “Can’t have you killing him when we just got him returned to us.” Turning to Loki, Fandral reached to give him a hearty clap on the shoulder.

 

“You cad!” he enthused. “How dare you deprive us so long of your company?” He drew back with some indignation: “What, all this time and you couldn’t even send a letter? We’ve had to let Thor compose all the witty after-battle odes. It’s been awful.”

 

“Mostly the odes,” Volstagg put in, cheeky.

 

“It’s been far, far too quiet,” Fandral continued. “At times I’ve actually been able to hear myself think. You’ve no idea how disconcerting that was.”

 

Sif moved to Loki’s other side. “Your hair’s gotten almost as long as mine is,” she remarked shrewdly. She gave his tail a tug, her grin fierce. “Perhaps I’ll cut it off when you aren’t looking, so you can know how that feels.”

 

But behind the determined set of her features, the light in her eyes was glad and welcoming.

 

Hogun the Grim stepped forward, manner living up to his name. But his expression was his usual stoic one with no trace of disapproval or mistrust.

 

“Welcome back,” he said to Loki, nodding. “It is good to see you again.”

 

Loki nodded back, silent, overwhelmed by the presence and reactions of the four surrounding him. Without seeming to realize they’d moved around him in a huddle, as if after having so much distance between them they couldn’t bear to be separated by more than inches.

 

“Well don’t gush all over him, Hogun,” Fandral remarked sardonically, with a roll of his eyes. “You’re embarrassing yourself.”

 

Volstagg was still gazing at Loki, voice momentarily breaking as if he was fighting back tears. “We were afraid we might never see you again.”

 

Loki wasn’t sure what unsettled him more – the possibility the man might burst out sobbing, or that he might try hugging him again. He held up a hand in a preemptive gesture, speaking quickly as he tried to reassure him.

 

“It’s alright, Volstagg; I’m here now.” He took on a note of his old self, trying to make it sound like it was all a jest: “Your trying crisis is over.”

 

He smiled, the expression feeling almost strange for how effortlessly it came to his face. “You didn’t really think you could get rid of me so easily, did you?”

 

“Because ‘easy’ is the word one uses when describing an ill-conceived journey to Jotunheim,” Sif retorted. But her three male companions were chortling and smiling with an air of relief, so glad were they to have Loki back and speaking to them as he would once more.

 

Standing behind them, holding back a step, Thor’s expression was smug. “I told you,” he said to Loki.

 

“Told him what?” Fandral asked, distracted. Then he immediately seemed to forget the subject as he put a hand to Loki’s arm, feeling the thickness of his bicep. “Look at you,” he marveled, laughing in astonishment. He shifted back, tilting his head to better take in Loki’s height. “Here we were all afraid you must be suffering! But it seems Jotunheim’s climate agreed with you.”

 

Loki felt the edges to his smile grow less carefree, more hard. “Is that much of a surprise?” he replied. “After all, it is my true home world.”

 

Thor frowned at him, starting to shake his head, either telling Loki to stop or perhaps just questioning why he felt it necessary to push things this way. But Loki had to – he had to know once and for all if they were truly his friends, if they had actually accepted the truth and still gave him their affections.

 

He took in the sight of the four’s faces. As soon as he brought up the fact of his revealed heritage, their expressions shifted somewhat, joy stilling as some uncertainty and misgiving moved in.

 

But they didn’t instantly pull away from him. Loki would give them that much.

 

“Well, yes,” Fandral began slowly. He coughed awkwardly into his fist. “And that was…quite the surprise to all of us, when we found out.”

 

“Imagine how I felt,” Loki responded, acerbically deadpan and unsmiling.

 

Sif’s expression which had been bordering on a scowl softened at that note, as she took that in. But her and the others remained silent, conflicted. It fell to Fandral to attempt speaking again.

 

“You must admit, it certainly came out of nowhere.” He gave a weak smile, trying his best to make a joke out of it. “I mean – you don’t look like a Frost Giant.”

 

The instant he said it Thor winced, already knowing what was coming.

 

Loki forced a calm if humorless expression, shifting back to make certain no one would accidentally touch him, and then reverted to his Jotun form. He felt the chill thick skin sweep across his body, marked lines appearing and his eyes turning to a burning bright shade of red.

 

The color drained from Fandral’s face. Sif gasped. Hogun’s shoulders tightened instinctively. Volstagg pressed a hand over his mouth.

 

None of them went for their weapons – but at least Hogun and Sif looked as if on some level they might like to.

 

Fiercely keeping his emotions at bay, hidden, Loki spread his arms in a careless gesture. “Is the resemblance perhaps a little clearer now?”

 

“…Oh.” The sound seemed to drop from Volstagg’s lips without much if any thought on his part; he even flinched, as if surprised by his own voice. “So that’s what…well, it isn’t that bad,” he said gamely. “At least you aren’t twelve feet tall!”

 

Then he rethought that, visibly alarmed by the prospect. “You’re not going to eventually be twelve feet tall, are you?”

 

Loki had to smirk a little. “No, no. My growing is over and done with,” he assured them. “As contrary as it may seem, apparently there is a bloodline for runts among the race of giants.”

 

Thor moved forward so that he was against his friends’ backs.

 

“Come now,” he declared, his voice not as bold and confident as he probably would have liked it to be. “You are among the best of noble warriors of Asgard – is your oath of friendship so easily lost?”

 

The four turned their heads to give him aside glances of mixed skepticism. Thor set his jaw, waving a fist in Loki’s direction. “This changes nothing!”

 

“I am what I always have been,” Loki murmured, coolly.

 

Underneath whatever he had outwardly appeared to be, he had been and always would be a Jotun. The fact that despite years of desperate effort he had never been able to fit in spoke testament to that.

 

But of course that wasn’t how the warriors took it. They interpreted his words differently. They could never think of the Jotnar as coming first, after all – what they heard was that he was still the prince, the person they had already known.

 

Not entirely true. But Loki wouldn’t begrudge them the sentiment.

 

“Yes, of course; I mean, it’s not as if we ever really doubted-” Mercifully Fandral cut his words off, or else he would have made himself a liar. But he had noticeably relaxed in his posture and expression. He gave a distracted beseeching gesture to Loki. “Come a little closer, it’s not as if we’re going to bite you.”

 

As if he didn’t know it was the very opposite that had stopped him and others in their tracks.

 

“You need to tell us about what you’ve been up, you know,” Fandral scolded. “After three months, I’d say you owe us a couple of tales. And don’t try to act as if you haven’t up to nothing at all.”

 

“Oh, I would never try convincing you of that,” Loki said to him, amused and begrudgingly heartened by his relatively quick recovery.

 

“What do they even eat on Jotunheim?” Volstagg wondered out loud, a bemused look on his face to suggest this was a mystery of deepest fascination and importance. “It didn’t exactly strike one as a land easily suited to agriculture.”

 

“I’ve certain you’ve witnessed a good fight or two, while you were there,” Sif put in, still a little stiff and restrained. “The Jotnar are, after all, a martial race as ours is.”

 

“All of you have absolutely no idea,” Thor cut in, grinning eagerly, sounding like a child in his enthusiasm to share what he considered interesting news.

 

Loki found the distance between him and the others lessened further as Thor slung an arm about his shoulders, bodily dragging him in with a manly air of conspiracy.

 

Loki,” he said, in a superior pitch, “has found himself a sweetheart. A giantess named Angrboda. Isn’t that right?”

 

Thor turned to face him at the mostly rhetorical question. Loki shoved him off, annoyed, but answered anyway with a sharp, “Yes.”

 

“You have? But wait – a giantess…” Fandral trailed off with a look of concerned contemplation, as he pictured the difficulties that would arise as only one as experienced in matters as he was possibly could.

 

“Relax, Fandral,” Loki informed him wryly. “She is an ice maiden. She’s even shorter than I am.”

 

“An ice maiden?” Fandral repeated in a meaningful tone, eyebrows rising. At Loki’s confirming nod, the Aesir warrior reached out to give him a playful smack on the shoulder. “You scoundrel. You have been holding out on us, haven’t you?”

 

“Press him for all the ribald details later, Fandral,” Volstagg interrupted. “I’ll bet his brother has completely neglected to tell him of what happened to us just two weeks past. It’s a marvelous tale-”

 

“That will take you twice as long in the telling of it,” Hogun cut in, deprecatingly.

 

“Just because you have no gift for the poetic soul, friend,” Volstagg retorted with great indignation, “doesn’t mean that the rest of us should suffer.”

 

Sif gave a pronounced sigh and rolled her eyes heavily.

 

As the others clucked at each other, Loki could feel himself smiling. He had nothing to worry about after all, he realized. For once Thor had actually been right in his observation of something.

 

In this one place, at least, it was like he had never left at all.

 

*

 

Loki remained in Asgard for three days. Then he was given a nobleman’s farewell and left by the Bifrost, escorted by his guards, the Casket of Ancient Winters given to him by the All-Father in secret and concealed by magic upon his person. Just as he had planned.

 

He considered telling Thrym and the others about the Casket once they were clear of the palace, but he decided to wait. Laufey, he thought, should be the first to see. The first to know.

 

The snow was still falling on Jotunheim. The wind howled.

 

For a moment after they landed Loki stood where he was, the squall tugging at his hair and his cloak, as he closed his eyes and tilted his head up, feeling the embrace of his home-world against his true skin.

 

Asgard, he knew, would always be important to him – and he would cherish his better memories of there.

 

But this was where he belonged.

 

Drawing his cape back around he nodded to the soldiers and as one they began to walk. Through the flurries of snow Loki could see the palace in front of them. He thought he saw movement on the walls.

 

Of course; the Bifrost was no subtle means of transport. Laufey would’ve felt their arrival. Probably he had ordered his servants to begin preparing a suitable welcome for his wayward son and heir.

 

Whether it would be a prince’s welcome or something far less pleasant, well, Loki figured he would soon find out.

 

Close to his body in the pocket of space he had set it aside in, he thought he could feel the Casket humming. As if it could sense that it too had been brought home again, and was resonating once more to a familiar force.

 

Loki could feel the power it held, almost just by looking at it, never mind when he had actually held it in his hands. He had no doubt that the heart of their world was everything it was said to be and more. Powerful enough to send armies hurtling across space, powerful enough to freeze any born not of Jotunheim in their tracks - powerful enough to save a dying world.

 

As they drew closer to home Loki realized there was a line of three figures waiting outside the gate. Býleistr’s shape he recognized instantly, and just as easily Angrboda’s, but the third was at first a mystery to him.

 

It was only as they got closer to start making out details that he understood what he saw with astonishment: Helblindi.

 

His eldest Jotun sibling stood behind the other two, hands rested on his sword and a grim, almost uncomfortable look on his face.

 

“Brother!” Býleistr exclaimed as they drew near, overjoyed. “You’re back! Welcome home!” He shuffled forward to meet Loki and leaned forward to wrap one arm around him in an embrace.

 

“Thank you, Býleistr.” Loki slipped his own arms around his little brother’s neck to return the gesture. “I’m glad to be back. Has all been well in my absence?”

 

“Father is very angry with you,” was Býleistr’s response, blunt, as they pulled apart. Loki half-grimaced, half-smirked, and he nodded.

 

“Yes, I expected to hear as much. I suppose I deserve it.” Turning he looked towards where Helblindi still waited, looming. “So, what of it, brother? Are you here to be my executioner?”

 

At that Helblindi huffed. “No,” he grated out. “I am here for the same reason as these two – you may be a disgraceful example but you are still family.” That said, he lowered his gaze, leveling his eyes to stare fixedly down at Loki.

 

“So,” Helblindi noted, sharp, “the prodigal son returns.”

 

“Very nice,” Loki remarked offhand. “But you must have realized that the very fact I have returned means I never intended to leave Jotunheim for long.”

 

“Yes,” Helblindi admitted. He drew his body up stiffly, but then shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose that you do the best you can, for a runt raised by Asgard. I forgive you.”

 

Loki smiled. “Thank you, Helblindi.”

 

“There is still Father,” his brother pointed out in return.

 

“I know…and I’m certain he has much to say, for how I’ve disrespected him.” Loki stood resolute. “But when he hears what I have done while on Asgard, hopefully he will find it in his heart to forgive me.”

 

Helblindi laughed. “If anyone could convince him of that, it would be you,” he said. Then turning he grabbed Býleistr by the shoulder and started to drag the both of them towards the courtyard. “Come along, oaf.”

 

“But Loki has been gone for three nights and three days,” Býleistr protested, squirming. “I want to see him!”

 

“You’ll have plenty of time to catch up later,” Helblindi returned, unmoved. “Leave the sweethearts to have their reunion.”

 

Once his brothers had gone, Loki turned at last to face Angrboda, who’d been standing there waiting patiently all the while, watching him intently and smiling.

 

She stepped forward as Loki did – as one they moved towards each other. Angrboda pressed her hand to Loki’s cheek, her lips to his as they kissed deep. When a moment had passed Loki pulled away from her so that he could gaze into her eyes.

 

“It wasn’t that long, but I missed you so, my love,” he told her in a murmur.

 

Angrboda’s face grew brighter, her eyes even warmer as her smile spread across her face wide. She reached to place her hands on Loki’s arms, caressing him. “And I you, my prince,” she replied.

 

He cupped the back of her head, fingers threading gently between the strands of her hair. “I have a few things to tell you.”

 

“Oh?” Angrboda asked, with curious interest.

 

Loki twisted his head to face the soldiers, and nodded. Thrym and his men shuffled apart – revealing the figure of a single Aesir wrapped in furs, who had accompanied them all this way.

 

Angrboda’s face fell. She stiffened in Loki’s grasp, as if instinctively trying to pull back and flee. “…Oh.”

 

“The All-Father insisted that so long as I wished to also remain recognized on Asgard, I kept one of his warriors in my retinue to see to my protection,” Loki explained softly. He had given in to this demand because he suspected it was not one Odin had made as a king, but as a father.

 

The revolted fear was palpable on the giantess’ face as she realized that meant the Aesir was going to be living with them. That she would be seeing them every single day.

 

But even in the midst of making his demand of Loki, Odin had also permitted him to pick the warrior of his choice for the task. Loki gestured and they came forward.

 

Angrboda relaxed instantly in surprise as the cloak was drawn back, revealing Sif’s face.

 

“This is Sif, one of my oldest friends from Asgard and a warrior of high renown,” Loki made the introductions. “Sif, this is my consort, Angrboda.”

 

Sif lowered her head in a respectful bow. “My lady.”

 

Angrboda gave a timid nod, a gesture that seemed mostly only for herself. “All…all right,” she began, musingly. “That is…not so bad.” Loki touched her face, getting her to return her attentions to him.

 

“Will you please accompany Thrym and the soldiers in showing her around the palace?” he requested. “It would be fitting, after all, for her to get both a female’s and warrior’s perspective.”

 

“Yes, my prince,” Angrboda agreed after a few seconds of silent consideration. “I can do that.”

 

“Thank you.” Loki’s hand lingered against her as long as he was capable of it, as she kissed him goodbye and then nodded for Sif and the other Jotnar to follow her.

 

As they passed shoulders Sif flashed a wry smirk at Loki, raising an eyebrow, but did not stop to say anything.

 

Once he was alone, Loki let out a slow breath.

 

The rest was taken care of. Now it was time to see his father.

 

Laufey was on his throne, alone, sitting silently. Loki had little doubt the king was waiting for him.

 

“You have the sense not to hide from me. I will give you that much,” Laufey remarked in his harsh cool voice, the sound echoing as Loki walked the path towards him.

 

When he reached the space by the king’s feet he submissively bowed his head. Laufey glared down at him, not needing a frown to express the severity of his disapproval.

 

“You know what you have done. I will not waste my time by explaining the disobedience of your own actions to you. Well?” Laufey demanded. “I am interested to hear what you have to say to explain yourself.”

 

“With all due respect, Laufey-king,” Loki began humbly, “I have nothing to say.” Laufey’s brow knit together but before he could speak Loki finished: “I only have something to show you.”

 

He lifted both his hands, summoning a small dais to be raised out of the ice. And then to his grasp he called the Casket, placing it on the platform before the king.

 

Once this was done he lowered himself to the ground behind his offering, kneeling.

 

Laufey slid forward in his throne, half-rising, his eyes wide. He took in what had been pried from his grasp, stolen from his kingdom so long ago.

 

“The Casket,” he breathed.

 

Loki dared to raise his head to look at him. “Yes,” he affirmed. “In exchange for my serving both realms as a bridge, in exchange for keeping communications open…our Casket has been returned to us.”

 

Laufey moved to his feet, and never taking his eyes away from the pulsating blue surface of the object, he lifted a hand to press it to the Casket’s side. At the feel of its power, he sighed in something like pleasure and relief.

 

His gaze drifted sideways, to Loki. “You must still be punished,” he stated. “For leaving as you did, for speaking to Odin as if on my behalf. This is a matter of principle.” His fingertips stroked the edges of the mystic artifact.

 

“But,” he told Loki softly, heavy, “you are a good son.”

 

Loki could feel something warm grip his heart tight within his chest, his eyes threaten to start stinging.

 

“Thank you, Father,” he said in reply.

 

Laufey finally removed his hand from the Casket, moving back a step. He grinned with faint humor, lips curving above his teeth. “And if you continue to sway and manipulate the Aesir with half so much ease, though you might not be what was expected, you will be a very good king for Jotunheim.”

 

At that Loki allowed himself a smirk. “Thank you, Laufey-king.”

 

Though he had no gift for prophecy, in that moment Loki could have sworn he could see the future spread before him, clear and as solid as anything he could see with his own eyes.

 

The anniversary of the war’s ending would come in short time. And for once it would not be celebrated just on Asgard but on Jotunheim as well, both sides hailing the formation of a new truce.

 

Jotunheim would rebuild to its former glory. The people would thrive, trading with other worlds and living in cities and having families once more. The Jotnar would have so much more to think about than some bitter grudge forged out of defeat ages past. Loki would continue visiting Asgard’s court – maybe in time, Thor or someone else serving as ambassador would also pay regular visits to that of Jotunheim. Perhaps, eventually, groups of both Aesir and Jotnar would feel comfortable and interested enough to travel to the realms of the other.

 

Maybe in another century or two, Thor would be truly ready and Odin would step down. Or Laufey would finally give in to his exhaustion and let the ice take him. Eventually, both Loki and Thor would sit opposite each other on the thrones of their respective worlds.

 

But even if they would never be able to see each other with frequency or have the same relationship they once did, Loki knew now that no matter what, Thor would always be his brother. So how could their kingdoms with them at the reins be at anything but peace?

 

Perhaps things would never be perfect. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, Loki was happy.

 

Life was good.