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To Strengthen The Other

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“It’s not fair!” Thor said. “Why does Loki get to spend a year in Alfheim, and I do not? I am the eldest, I should be the one to go.”

“Loki is going,” Odin said patiently, his attention on feeding the raven perched on his wrist, “because he asked, and you did not.”

“But… but I did not know I must ask!” Thor sputtered.

“A king is not always told what he must do,” Odin said. “Sometimes a king must know when to make the first move.”

“Loki is still a child!” Thor said, a last-ditch effort. “He does not even have a beard!”

“Neither do you,” Odin said.

“I do so have a beard,” Thor protested, and pointed at the thin pale fuzz on the edge of his jaw. “See?”

“Indeed.” Odin hadn’t even looked away from the raven. Thor wasn’t sure whether it was Muninn or Huginn, and wouldn’t have cared except that he knew Loki would be able to tell. Furious, he raised a hand to slap the raven from Odin’s arm, to make his father pay attention to him – only to find his wrist caught in an iron grip, and his father’s single blue eye fixed on his face with a cold calm anger.

Thor felt a sinking in his stomach, knew immediately that he had gone too far, and he opened his mouth to apologize. But Odin cut him off. “You will go to your room, boy, and you will not eat dinner tonight, nor again until you have learned to behave like a prince.”

Thor scowled, but he knew better than to argue with his father, and retreated to his room as commanded. There, hidden from his father’s critical gaze, he crossed his arms and flung himself onto the bed in a sulk. It was utterly unfair that Loki was allowed to go to Alfheim by himself, and spend a year studying under the tutelage of Lord Guði Hálfdanarson, the most renowned knife-master in all the Nine Realms. Thor was older, Thor was taller, Thor was better at their sparring lessons. It should be he who went, not little Loki.

Frustrated, he flopped over backward, throwing his arms out to the sides. His stomach rumbled and he almost stood up to go to dinner, before remembering he’d been banned from the dining hall in addition to being relegated to his room like a child. He growled to himself, fists balling in the blankets, his mind full of all the ways Loki kept outdoing him.

Why can’t you be attentive like your brother, Thor?

Look, Thor, Loki knows how to sit still. Learn from his example.

Thor, your brother has been able to scribe a fair script for two years now. Why is your hand not half so good as his?

“Thor? I brought you dinner.”

Thor blinked and sat up. Loki stood just inside the door, holding a cloth-wrapped bundle under one arm and looking hesitant. Thor almost refused him on principle, but his stomach felt near to collapsing upon itself, so he held out a hand. “Give it here.”

Uncertainty gave way to a shy smile, and Loki crossed the room to hand Thor the bundle. Inside were a block of cheese, half a loaf of bread, and two small apples. Thor set to immediately.  Loki sat beside him on the bed and watched, in that strange silent way he had. When Thor had finished the bread and cheese, and was reaching for one of the apples, Loki said quietly, “Father said you’re being punished for a fit of temper. Because you want to go to Alfheim instead of me.”

“I do want to go to Alfheim,” Thor said.

“Why?” Loki asked. “You don’t even like knife-fighting, and that’s what I’m to learn.”

“That’s beside the point,” Thor said, and hesitated, rolling the apple between his hands. “Loki… You’ll be gone a whole year. I’ll forget what you look like.”

“Sif was gone a year when she fostered with Herleif Ketilsdóttir, and you didn’t forget what she looked like,” Loki said.

“Sif’s prettier than you,” Thor retorted.

“Sif’s a girl,” Loki said, and his nose wrinkled in disgust. Thor grinned, for he had felt the same not so long ago. But lately he’d begun to notice the elegant way Sif moved, her confidence on the training grounds with her shield, the ripples in her dark hair.

Loki was still watching him, his green eyes a little too knowing, so Thor thumped him on the arm. “Fine, I’ll try not to forget you. But you had better come back.”

“I’ll come back!” Loki said, indignant. “Alfheim’s little by way of libraries anyway, and Mother says I must keep up my studies.”

“Libraries,” Thor grumbled. “You and your libraries, Loki.”

“‘A king must be well-read, to know the history of his people and his kingdom’,” Loki recited, and the way he matched Odin’s tone and inflection so perfectly made Thor laugh.

Loki smiled back, the rare true smile he showed to few besides Thor, although it was gap-toothed now that he was losing his baby teeth. He put a hand on Thor’s knee and said, “You should apologize to Father tomorrow, when he’s calmed a little. If you’re sincere he’ll let you back to dinner, and if you’re good for a while after, you could ask to go to the dwarves, to train with their warriors.”

“You think so?” Thor asked, feeling a surge of hope.

Loki nodded. “He likes you better anyway. I think he was disappointed that you did not ask first.”

“Liar,” Thor said fondly. “You’re his favorite, Loki, you always have been. You’re clever, you read and write like a poet—”

“—And you fight better than half his guard,” Loki interrupted, eyes sparkling, “though you’re not yet half their size.”

“Have a care with your words, little brother,” Thor said menacingly, “for I’m still bigger than you.”

“Thor Odinson,” Loki teased, “more like Thor son of dwarves, for he’ll never be taller than—”

Thor tackled him, knocking him over and trying for a pin. Loki squirmed, managed to get a foot between them, and flipped Thor top over teakettle against the headboard. This led to a wrestling match, which turned into a pillow fight when Thor shoved Loki off the bed long enough to start a fort. By the time a servant came to find Loki and prepare him for his journey tomorrow, they were sprawled amid a heap of pillows and jumbled blankets and overturned furniture, exhausted and laughing too hard to move.

*             *             *

Loki was to travel as part of a caravan of elven merchants and ambassadors, who would safeguard him until he could be handed over to Lord Hálfdanarson. The caravan took the whole morning to make ready, so that it was not until well after lunch that Thor was permitted to leave his room to see his brother off.

They assembled at the near end of the Bifrost, Loki looking even smaller than usual among the elves. His retinue consisted of a single manservant to carry his bags, and that only – as Loki had confided to Thor last night, when he’d snuck back to Thor’s room after he was supposed to be in bed – because Frigga refused to send her son to another realm without at least one Aesir to attend him. Loki had been highly indignant about the whole thing, declaring that he was too old for a nursemaid, but he seemed to have forgotten his upset now.

He stood with his arms wrapped around a bag of possessions grabbed last-minute, practically vibrating with excitement. He endured Frigga’s embrace and her kiss on his cheek, and ducked his head when Odin ruffled his hair fondly and patted him on the shoulder. Finally it was Thor’s turn to say good-bye. He had planned no more than a very mature and grown-up clasping of hands, but Loki shoved his bag at the manservant and caught Thor in a hug.

Laughing, Thor gave in and hugged him back, bending his head to whisper in Loki’s ear, “Be safe, brother. Show those elves how a true son of Odin fights!”

Loki pulled away enough to give him a mischievous, gap-toothed grin. “I will, brother, and you had better kiss Sif before I get back, or I shall be very cross with you.” Thor sputtered, and Loki winked at him as he turned to the manservant to retrieve his bag.

Before Thor could think of a comeback, Odin’s hand on his shoulder drew him away. Standing between his parents, Thor watched the caravan begin its march along the Bifrost toward Heimdall’s observatory and, eventually, Alfheim. As Loki’s slim form disappeared among the jumble of adults and the riot of rainbow light, Thor felt a twinge in his heart that he told himself was jealousy. Still, seeing his mother discreetly dab at her eyes with a kerchief made him feel a little better.

On the way back to the palace, Thor mustered the courage to tap his father on the arm. When Odin looked at him, Thor said, “I’m sorry for my behavior yesterday, Father. I should not have shouted, nor struck at your raven.”

Odin studied his face for a moment, then nodded. “I accept your apology. You may join us at dinner tonight.”

Thor bowed his head in gratitude, and they walked a ways further before he dared ask, “Father?”

From the bemused quirk of Odin’s brow, the Allfather likely already knew what Thor was about to ask, but Thor plunged ahead anyway. “Father, if I am good for a month, and acquit myself well on the practice field, may I go to Svartalfheim and train with the dwarves?”

“Your brother’s been giving you advice again, hasn’t he?” Odin said.

Thor scowled. “Must it always be Loki who’s credited for good ideas? I am capable of coming up with ideas myself.”

Odin stopped walking and turned to face Thor, though he signaled the rest of their retinue to continue without them. To Thor he said, “So you are, but just as Loki has his areas of expertise, you do, too. Matters of politics and bargaining are not among them, and that is why I am glad to see you listening to your brother’s advice.”

“I… don’t understand,” Thor said.

“You and Loki are both my sons,” Odin said, “but you are not the same person. Where one of you falls short, the other excels, so you can work together to be stronger than either alone.”

“But Loki’s better than me at everything,” Thor grumbled. “Except fighting, and even there Master Gunter says we’ll be evenly matched when Loki’s grown a little.”

“There will come a time, I suspect, when Loki feels the same way about you,” Odin said. He squeezed Thor’s shoulder. “It’s natural, between brothers, to have rivalry. The important thing is that you must never let your rivalry divide you. Instead, you must use your differences to make each other stronger.”

Thor nodded reluctantly. Although he doubted that Loki would ever feel as jealous of Thor as Thor felt of him, he still found his father’s words comforting. He looked up at Odin. “So… may I train with the dwarves?”

Odin laughed. “See, my son, you are persistent and focused. Loki would have already been distracted by another thought.” He patted Thor’s shoulder and turned to resume their walk toward the palace. “But we are not expecting a delegation from the dwarves until after the summer solstice—”

“What?!” Thor yelped. “But that’s almost a year from now! Loki will be back not long after.”

“Indeed,” Odin said. “Still, if you behave yourself until the dwarves arrive, I will request that they bring General Sigurd Ironbeard with them. And if you behave yourself for him, I will ask him to allow you to train with his army.”

“Truly?” Thor grinned, bouncing on his toes in excitement. “Then I shall definitely be good this year. To train with General Ironbeard…!” He started to run off, then remembered himself and turned back to bow to his father. “May I be excused? I want to tell Sif!”

Odin smiled fondly. “Go on with you.”

“Thank you, Father!” Thor said, and took off for the sparring grounds to find Sif and tell her he was to train with the famous General Ironbeard.

*             *             *

Thor had thought the year would pass slowly without Loki there to keep things interesting, and at first, it did. Now that Sif had begun her training as a shield maiden, she was not often available to go on adventures, leaving Thor to sit alone and bored. There were other children around the palace, of course, but Thor had always spent his time with Loki or Sif, and did not know how to go about approaching anyone else for companionship. It didn’t help that, because he was a prince, a son of the Allfather, many of the children were afraid of him, and would only bow and scrape when he tried to talk to them.

Attending lessons alone was boring, too, and Thor found that with Loki gone, he could no longer hide behind his brother’s cleverness, could not rely on Loki to whisper answers to him when the teachers weren’t looking. And without Loki there for them to praise, the teachers had nothing to do but criticize Thor. As time passed, though, he began to realize that having the teachers’ full attention also meant he could ask as many questions as he wanted, even the stupid ones that Loki would have laughed at. And it meant he could take his time to do the work properly, instead of racing to finish with his brother, or sitting idle while an impatient Loki did it for both of them. His teachers began to find less and less to criticize, and once he was surprised to overhear Master Unne saying to Odin, “The boy’s got a good head on his shoulders, when he cares to use it.”

On the sparring field, too, Thor found that he could monopolize the instructors. Now that they did not have to accommodate Loki’s small size, they could show Thor tricks to take advantage of his own sturdy build. Soon enough, he was sparring full-bore with grown men from Odin’s personal guard, and as Loki had said, he could beat many of them even when they did not hold back. When Master Gunter saw that Thor was growing too accustomed to fighting men twice his size, he added another youth to Thor’s lessons, a lean, dark-haired boy a little older than Thor but not much taller. Hogun spoke little but fought well, and when Thor asked him if he wanted to come to the palace for dinner, he nodded.

Thor introduced him to Sif, who immediately took a liking to him, and the three of them began to spend their free hours together reenacting legendary wars and trying to find ways to change the outcomes. One day Sif brought along the brother of one of her fellow shield maidens, who had expressed an interest in the Siege of Snowfell Keep. Volstagg was redheaded and portly and jovial, and could wrestle Thor to the ground in less than a minute. He, too, became a regular in their adventures.

On Midwinter’s Eve, Thor managed to kiss Sif, though she agreed only if he would in return teach her a particularly tricky move her own sparring instructor had deemed too difficult for girls. When she mastered it and used it to defeat her instructor, she kissed Thor again. They would have kissed more, except they spotted a gangly blond boy spying on them and giggling, and had to chase him off. But he came back, first to compliment Sif on her beauty and then, when Thor challenged him on Sif’s behalf, to fight. Sif punched them both and told them she could fight for herself, thank you very much, and after that it was only natural for Fandral to turn up at their next war and join in.

In all the excitement, Thor nearly forgot about his deal with his father, but when summer arrived and the palace began to prepare for the dwarven delegation’s arrival, he remembered all in a rush. He had to work hard to make up for the spring, during which he and Sif and the three other boys had got rather wild on a few occasions, but Odin had not yet scolded him too badly. When he heard that General Sigurd Ironbeard was to be among the delegates, Sif told him that if he floated any higher in his delight, they would need to send Vanir flying horses after him.

*             *             *

On the day of the dwarves’ arrival, Thor dressed in the new red and silver jerkin and blue hose which had been made especially for this welcome. He debated for an hour whether to attach his knife to his belt – as prince, he was allowed to wear one, but the dwarves were here on an ambassadorial function during peacetime, but he wanted to make sure General Ironbeard recognized him as a warrior, but it could also be seen as a sign of vanity, but… Finally Hogun marched up to him, took the knife away, and shoved Thor toward the main hall where the royal court was beginning to gather. “You are a warrior,” Hogun said. “He will know that whether or not you wear the blade.”

Thor nodded. “Right. Yes, you’re right.” He took a deep breath, straightened his jerkin, tugged at his sleeves (and ignored Sif’s eyeroll), and said, “Wish me luck!”

“Luck!” they chorused, and Thor left to take his place at his father’s side in the hall.

It was the nature of official functions to involve a lot of standing around and waiting. Loki had mastered the trick of being still and unobtrusive, but Thor had never got the hang of it, and now, knowing that his entire future hung in the balance, it was even harder to wait. He shifted from foot to foot, bouncing occasionally, and once when his feet got tired he sat down on the steps to the dais. But a nobleman in a hurry tripped over him and nearly boxed his ears, before realizing who he was. After that, Thor made himself stay standing so as not to cause any more trouble.

Finally, though, the entire Aesir Court had assembled, and the heralds began to sound the trumpets marking the dwarves’ arrival. The great doors swung open to reveal the procession, and Thor stood on his toes to try to see the general. But there were a lot of dwarves, and a lot of tall Aesir between him and them, and eventually Thor gave up and resigned himself to standing as still as possible while his father talked a lot, and then some of the dwarves talked a lot, and then his father talked some more, and so did a wholly unnecessary number of Aesir noblemen. He thought he did well in the end, though; his mother only glared at him twice, and only once did someone standing behind him grab the back of his tunic to stop his bouncing.

After the formal welcome was a reception in the dining hall, and Thor did not have to stand at attention any more – but neither was he wholly sure what he was supposed to do. Always before, he had had Loki to keep him occupied during such events; this got them into trouble as often as not but at least it wasn’t boring. Now, though, Thor had to settle for finding a spot by a pillar where he wouldn’t be tripped over, and watching as a bewildering number of Aesir and dwarves milled about and spoke of incomprehensible things like treaties and markets and alliances.

He was on the verge of giving up and escaping the hall to find Sif and the three boys, when Odin emerged from the crowd and strode over to him. Beside him was a heavily-armored dwarf, who was no taller than Thor but whose legs were each thicker than Thor’s whole body. His beard was bright red and braided with strips of metal, and then Thor spotted the mark of a general on his chestplate, and his heart leapt.

Odin said, “General Ironbeard, allow me to introduce my elder son, Thor.”

Thor bowed deeply. “It’s my pleasure,” he said.

“Stand up straight,” General Ironbeard snapped. His voice was gruff and deep and not to be disobeyed. “Let me have a look at you.” Thor straightened hurriedly, trying to stand as tall and broad as possible without actually puffing out his chest. (He had done that while telling Fandral and Volstagg how he would introduce himself to the general, and they had near fallen over from laughing.) The general looked him over, dark eyes narrowing under thick red brows, and finally he looked up at Odin. “You say he’s a warrior? Looks like he’s barely out of the nursery.”

“I am a warrior!” Thor protested before Odin could answer. “I can defeat many of the Einherjar in open combat.”

“Oh?” the general said. “If you’re so great a fighter already, why would you want to come train with my men?”

Thor swallowed, but, thinking about it, the question was an easy one to answer. “Because there are many ways to fight, and Master Gunter does not know them all. But I will, someday, and I would like to learn the dwarven way from the best dwarven warrior in the history of the Realms.”

General Ironbeard laughed at that, a deep belly laugh that rocked him back on his heels and showed white teeth behind his beard. He said to Odin, “I thought your other boy was called Silvertongue.”

Odin smiled fondly at Thor. “My son will surprise you with more than just his words,” he said. “You’ll not regret training him.”

“I’d better not,” the general muttered. “And if he grows too tall for the barracks he’s on his own.”

Thor bit his tongue to stop a squeal of delight, and bowed again. “Thank you, sir!”

General Ironbeard harrumphed and turned to go, saying over his shoulder to Odin, “Now, about that grains deal—”

Thor managed to stay still until they had disappeared into the crowd, then bolted out of the hall and through the palace, to find Sif and the three boys and tell them the good news.

*             *             *

Despite his excitement, it was four weeks yet before Thor would leave for Svartalfheim. He spent the time either in special tutoring sessions, learning how to comport himself among the dwarves, or on the training field. Sometimes General Ironbeard would come to watch; the first time this happened Thor got so nervous he tripped over his own feet and nearly impaled himself on Hogun’s wooden practice sword. Hogun pulled him upright and hissed at him, “Forget the general – focus only on me.” It was easier said than done, but at least Thor did not trip again, and gradually he became accustomed to the general’s presence.

He was in the middle of a match when a servant arrived to whisk him away to the baths. Distracted by his lessons, Thor had forgotten that today was the day of Loki’s return. He bathed and dressed hurriedly, eager to see his little brother again and tell him of his upcoming trip. The servant led him out to the Bifrost, where Odin and Frigga and a handful of noblemen and servants stood waiting. Far away, Thor could see the Bifrost flare and spark, and bounced impatiently on his toes. For once, no one made him settle down.

The elven caravan seemed to travel with deliberate slowness across the rainbow bridge, and Thor’s eyes began to hurt from squinting into the bright lights looking for his brother. The caravan was nearly at the end of the bridge when Frigga gave a cry of delight and rushed forward. Thor frowned, then his eyes widened as he realized the tall slim youth sliding down from the back of a bay mare was Loki.

He’d grown in the last year, some six inches or more, and was all thin gangly limbs and awkward movements like a newborn colt. His dark hair was longer, too, slicked back in the style of the elves, and when he smiled at his mother there were no longer childish gaps in his teeth. Frigga hugged him, hard, and said, “My son, look at you! How you’ve grown!”

Loki laughed. “I had to have all new clothes made. But I’m tall enough now to ride a proper horse, see?” and he pointed to the mare behind him.

“Well done,” Odin said, coming up from behind Thor. He clapped Loki on the shoulder, making him sway a little, then ruffled his hair. Loki ducked away from his hand and turned to Thor, his smile widening with delight.

“Thor!” he exclaimed. “You must truly have forgotten my face, with how you’re staring!”

Thor shot him a mock glare. “I’d not forgotten your face,” he said haughtily. “Just you’ve gone and changed it.” Loki laughed and hugged him, and Thor hugged him back. “Welcome home, little brother,” he said.

“Not ‘little’ any more,” Loki said. “I’m taller than you.”

“Are not!” Thor protested, but when he pulled back enough to look, sure enough his own eyes were level with Loki’s nose. “Augh!”

Frigga smiled and patted them both on the head. To Loki she said, “Grown you have, but did those elves not feed you? You’re but skin and bones!”

“They fed me lots,” Loki said. “Master Hálfdanarson said I was like to eat him out of house and home. But he says I put it all in my magic.”

“In your magic?” Thor said. “That’s stupid. What good will that do you in combat?”

“More than you might think,” Loki said, and his grin turned wicked. Suddenly he moved, a long knife appearing from nowhere in his hands and plunging toward Thor’s chest. Thor yelped and stumbled backward, only to run into something solid. An arm snaked around his neck from behind and he felt pressure on the big vein there, even as the Loki in front of him disappeared in a glitter of gold. From behind him, Loki said, “Your defeat, brother.”

Thor pushed him away. “That’s cheating!” he declared, and looked up at his parents for help. “He cheated!”

But Odin and Frigga did not look particularly upset; in fact, Odin looked impressed. He said, “Cheating it might be, but had you been fighting in earnest, Loki would still have his head and you would not. And that is all that really matters, in the end.”

Thor scowled. “Well, I’ll not fall for silly magic tricks again,” he said.

Loki grinned at him. “Take heart, brother. I’m sure you’ve learned a lot in my absence, as well.”

That reminded Thor of his upcoming trip to Svartalfheim, and he brightened. “I have,” he said. “And I’ve a lot to tell you, too. And you’ve got to meet my new friends, you’ll like them.” He caught Loki’s hand and tugged him forward. Loki tried to turn around and wave to their parents, but his long legs tangled beneath him and he fell against Thor, who laughed and set him upright. “Seems you still need me around,” he said.

“I’ll always need you around,” Loki said. “You’re my brother.”

“Aye,” Thor said. “You’d better not forget it.”

“Don’t worry,” Loki said. He gave him that small shared smile, and Thor’s chest ached for how much he’d missed him. “I’ll never forget it.”

*             *             *

Loki was shy at first around the three boys, especially after Fandral got into a heated argument with Volstagg about whether the Vanir foot soldiers at the Battle of Seven Princes had been in the right to call upon the Norns for a magic spell to distract the dark elves’ scouts. But Thor shouted them both to silence, and persuaded Loki to show them how such a spell might have worked, and when they were suitably impressed Loki seemed more at ease.

Thor was glad for it, because he was to leave in less than a week for Svartalfheim, and he wanted to make sure his brother was taken care of in his absence. He said as much to Sif while they sat side by side on a bench in the palace gardens, sharing a private moment and a stolen sweetcake. She promised him that they would watch out for little Loki, who was not so little anymore but prone to tangling his newly long limbs, and Thor felt better.

The night before Thor’s departure with the dwarves, Loki slipped into Thor’s room after they’d been put to bed, and they stayed up for hours talking about everything and nothing. Thor told him about kissing Sif, and Loki told him how there’d been an elven girl, the daughter of Lord Hálfdanarson’s nephew, who’d made eyes at him for months until one day, when he’d woken up with sore legs from growing pains, he’d slipped on his way down the stairs to breakfast and she’d laughed until he thought he would melt into the floor and die. Thor almost laughed, too, until he saw the way Loki hunched his shoulders, then he put an arm around his brother and told him about falling in front of General Ironbeard. Loki brightened, and went on to tell another story about going on a hunt with Lord Hálfdanarson and his men. Halfway through, his words began to slur and he sank against Thor’s side. Thor pulled the blanket closer around them both, closed his eyes, and fell asleep to the steady rhythm of his brother’s breathing.

In the morning, a servant woke them up, sent Loki back to his own room, chivvied Thor through a quick but thorough bath, and got him dressed in a plain, sturdy leather jerkin and pants. Dwarves were not much for fripperies, so Thor was permitted to take only one small bag of clothes and belongings. He’d packed it the night before, and went through it again now while eating breakfast. Loki returned, his hair still damp from his own bath, and studied the contents with a critical eye, pointing out that Thor would not likely need both a hairbrush and a comb, and that he’d forgotten to pack a fruit knife. Thor, in return, pretended not to notice him stealing half Thor’s breakfast. He was too excited to be very hungry, anyway.

Finally another servant came to fetch them to the great hall, where the dwarves would take formal leave from the Aesir throne. Standing on the steps of the dais beside Loki in his green and gold royal tunic, surrounded by adults in rich court wear, Thor felt grubby and poor; but then he spotted General Ironbeard giving him an approving look, and felt better. As the ceremony wound down, Frigga nudged Thor toward the dwarves, murmuring in his ear, “Go with them now. We’ll say farewell at the Bifrost.”

It took effort not to race down the steps, but Thor thought he managed to look grown-up as he joined the dwarves for the procession out of the hall. He wasn’t quite sure where he was supposed to walk, so he fell into step near the general, and no one scolded him. The procession wound through the streets of the capital, and finally came to a stop at the near end of the Bifrost. There was a brief period of shuffling and regrouping as the dwarves sorted themselves for travel over the rainbow bridge instead of official display, and Thor stuck to General Ironbeard’s side like glue.

By the time Odin and Frigga and Loki – and, Thor was glad to note, Sif and the three boys – arrived to see them off, the dwarves stood in formation once more. Odin came forward to speak a few private words with one of the ambassadors, and Frigga caught Thor up in her embrace. “Stay safe, son,” she said. “I’ll miss you.”

“I will,” Thor promised. Frigga stepped back, and Thor took the opportunity to wave at Sif and the three. They waved back, calling to him to be bold and fight well, and – in Volstagg’s case – to try the famed dwarven meatbread and report on its taste. Thor laughed and promised he would, and then Odin was in front of him.

He ruffled Thor’s hair and cupped his neck, and said, “You have made me proud this year, my son. Now you must make General Ironbeard just as proud.”

Thor nodded, feeling unexpectedly tight in the throat. He traded grips with his father, and finally turned to Loki, who had appeared quiet and shy beside him. Borrowing from Loki’s example a year ago, Thor pulled him into a tight hug. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he told him. “Sif and the others will take care of you.”

Loki drew back a bit and rested his forehead against Thor’s. “It’s not me needs taking care of, I fear,” he said.

Thor frowned at him. “Do you think I can’t handle the training?”

“I asked one of the dwarves,” Loki said, his expression worried. “He told me that the general sends all new trainees into the dark elves’ domain for three months with naught but a dull knife, and if you survive, he’ll teach you how to fight.”

Thor shoved Loki back in horror. “What?!

Loki regarded him with big, solemn green eyes. “I’m sorry, brother. I should never have suggested you train with the dwarves.”

Thor stared at him gape-mouthed, sudden fear coiling in his gut. The caves of the dark elves were so dangerous even Odin would not dare venture into them without a full squad of Einherjar. He looked around for his father, but just then the dwarven marching horn sounded. Odin turned from speaking to the general and put a hand on Loki’s shoulder to draw him away. General Ironbeard, in turn, thumped Thor on the back and said, “Come, boy! You’re about to learn how dwarves earn their beards.”

Thor could not but let the general steer him toward the Bifrost, though his steps were suddenly heavy and slowed with dread. He twisted to look over his shoulder as he walked, hoping that perhaps Odin would reconsider, but his father was watching his departure proudly. Loki stood beside him, worrying at his lip with his teeth. Thor’s stomach knotted and he rather wished he hadn’t eaten any breakfast at all. Three months in the caves of the dark elves! Surely Odin wouldn’t allow it… would he? In the moment before Thor lost sight of his brother in the distance and the light of the bridge, he met Loki’s eyes in one last, desperate silent plea.

Loki grinned impishly and winked.