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“Maybe it’s a quest,” Loki said, pulling Thor out of his own thoughts. The two stood side by side before the entrance to the main hall, waiting to be summoned inside. The instructions from their father, passed on through the head steward, had been vague. “Maybe there’s yet another monster to be slain for Asgard.”

“I hope so,” Thor rumbled, one hand nervously fingering Mjolnir at his side. Not that he would ever admit such nervousness to Loki. “I’m afraid it’s going to be some sort of dull ceremony. Or reciting an obscure saga that I didn’t manage to memorize.” The steward had said only that Odin wished Thor to demonstrate his patriotism to the people of Asgard.

“You mean like all the sagas?” Loki teased. “Don’t worry brother, I’ll prompt you if you get stuck.”

“Aye, with the wrong words, no doubt,” Thor teased back. Loki had only been trustworthy about half the time when Thor was stumbling for answers in front of their tutors. And half the time he’d gleefully whispered misleading hints.

“No, Thor, I promise,” Loki smiled, shaking his head. “Not today. Not in front of the whole kingdom. I’ll not humiliate our future king.”

“If it’s a ceremony, maybe you’re the one who’ll officiate. You’re better at that than I am, anyway,” Thor said hopefully. It would explain Loki’s attire. The steward had ordered Thor into his ceremonial armor, but
Loki had been given a set of fine white robes, embroidered with silver and gold.

“That would explain this dress,” Loki said, apparently reading Thor’s mind. “I feel like a bride at a wedding.”

“Maybe you are getting married.”

“What’s that got to do with your patriotism? Maybe you’re getting married and I’m performing the ceremony.”

“Maybe we’re marrying each other.” That got a chuckle out of both of them.

“It would be just like Father to spring a marriage on one of us, wouldn’t it?” Loki said after a moment, fingers picking at the sleeve of his robe. Thor recognized the motion as a sign that his brother was just as nervous as himself, even if neither would admit it.

“Yes…he does tend to announce these things rather suddenly,” Thor agreed. He suspected that his father probably took long nights brooding over his decisions, but he never bothered to tell his sons that there was even a decision to be made until he was handing his judgment down out of the blue. And then his decision was law.

“I probably will be married off at some point,” Loki went on. “What else can you do with a royal second son? Father’s never said much about what he wants from me after you’re crowned. I half expect him to throw a fiancée at me at your coronation feast.”

“Loki, I’m sure that when I’m King, you’ll be –“ Thor broke off as the doors opened. By my side, he was going to say. While he was navigating the dangerous waters of inter-realm politics, Loki was going to be his councilor. His most trusted advisor. He’d have no one else in that position. But the doors were being opened wide to show the throng assembled on either sides of the long aisle down to Odin’s throne. The steward was motioning them forward.

Oh well, I’ll tell him later.

Thor let some of his nervousness melt away as he strode confidently down the aisle. The crowd burst into cheers, as they always did, and Thor let it soak into his skin as he grinned and waved. It was silly of him to be nervous. He had fought wars in Niflheim, hunted beasts in Muspelheim. He’d successfully faced down every possible threat the realm had seen during his adult life (and his teenage life, when Loki had reluctantly helped him slip away on quests). Proving his patriotism to the realm would be easy. Thor loved Asgard and Asgard loved him. So he pushed his fear down as he and Loki knelt in front of the golden steps, their father high and distant on the throne. Odin rapped Gungnir against the floor, holding up his hand for silence.

“I have long had to play two roles in life, between public and private,” Odin began, his voice ringing out over the silenced crowd. “I have been Odin the man, and Odin the King. When I wed your Queen, I became Odin the husband, but still Odin the King. When she bore my son, I was overjoyed to become Odin the father, but still I was Odin the King. I am a king first, before all other ties and responsibilities in life. If I were no longer a husband, no longer a father, I would still be Odin the King. And soon Thor, that burden shall be yours.”

Now addressing Thor for the first time, Odin began the slow walk down to where the brothers knelt, his voice never faltering.

“When you are king, Thor, you must be king before all else. You will still be Thor the son, Thor the friend….Thor the brother….but first and foremost, you will be Thor the King. And you must do your duty as king, even if it means casting all those other roles aside.”

Thor swallowed, his throat becoming uncomfortably tight. His father was always formal when addressing his sons in front of the realm, but there was a coldness there he had not heard before. He glanced up as he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. Even right in front of him, Odin seemed strangely far away. The hand motioned for him to rise. Thor flicked a glance at Loki as he got to his feet; his brother remained on one knee, head bowed. Loki had made the mistake of rising with Thor once when they were both boys, assuming that Thor being given permission to stand meant that permission was granted to both of them. Odin had torn into him afterwards for ruining the ceremony with his “arrogant presumption.”

Thor pulled his attention back to the king, whose face seemed carved from stone. His single eye was a chip of ice, with no trace of warmth or affection – only a grim kind of challenge.

Very well. If his father was going to face him as Odin the King, Thor would do the same. He set his jaw and met Odin’s gaze the same way he might stare down a foe on the practice field. For a moment he hoped that Loki would not be subjected to this. Loki always wilted under the All-Father’s eyes, and Thor did not want him to shame the family by flinching away.

The steward approached with something laid across his outstretched hands, head bowed in reverence. Odin took it, and held it aloft for the crowd to see before offering it to Thor. It was an ornate dagger, handle studded with rubies, the blade a polished black. It did not look like metal, exactly – perhaps some kind of sharpened stone? It was clearly a ceremonial weapon. Even Asgard’s royal family, with all of their pomp and glamor, would not cover a war weapon with gemstones. It was too flashy and distracting. So it was to be a dull ceremony, then. And surely Loki would be officiating, in his embroidered robes. Maybe seidr would be involved.

“This dagger was taken from Jotunheim eons ago, in the time of my father. Their world is home to a particular kind of rock that cannot be warped by extreme cold or heat, or any kind of magic. They use it to make their cruel weapons when they wage war on other realms.” There was an angry murmur through the hall at this, as there always was when the Jotnar were mentioned. It quickly died away as Odin held up a hand again.

“My father won this dagger from the Jotnar in fair combat, despite their frost and their magic and their trickery. It is a symbol of what we Aesir can achieve with strength and righteousness. I offer it to you, Thor, my heir. Our future king. Take it only if you are ready to do your duty.” Thor did not hesitate as he reached out to grasp the handle. Odin clapped him on the shoulder again, and Thor thought he saw a hint of affection buried somewhere in the depths of icy blue.

“Good, my son. You are strong, and you are brave. I know you can weather the trial ahead.” He took Thor’s hand that clutched the dagger and held it aloft, inspiring another cheer from the crowd. As that died away, Odin finally motioned for Loki to rise. Loki gave the briefest glance towards Thor as he did, green eyes nervous and uncertain. Thor made his face impassive, his eyes hard.

Just do whatever’s asked, Loki. Stand strong. Do not shame the family.

Loki did not have to stare down the All-Father after he got to his feet. The king immediately took him by the shoulder and spun him around to face the crowd. Loki looked surprised only for a moment, before steeling his face into the usual calm mask he always wore at court. Odin kept a possessive hand resting on his shoulder.

“This is Loki Odinson. Your second prince,” Odin announced to the crowd, who gave a less enthusiastic cheer before Odin held up his hand again. The people were always lukewarm where Loki was concerned, something Thor hoped to change when he took the throne. “He is my son, and I have loved him. But he is not my son by blood.”

Suddenly, it was very quiet. Not the polite, attentive silence that always accompanied Odin’s speeches. This was something heavy and oppressive that hung over the crowd and made the air thick. Thor realized his mouth had dropped open only when he snapped it shut. He felt as though he’d been punched. Loki looked at Thor again, his mask cracked open, and Thor could offer no comfort. As he looked back at the crowd, Thor could hear Loki breathing - in, out, in steady, slow, even breaths. It was the sound of Loki struggling to hang onto his composure. Thor had heard it before – standing together before the armies of Niflheim, at the training ring when the word ergi was shouted from the stands, during the long horrible moments with the dwarf and the thread.

It cannot be true.

But Odin was continuing to speak, his hand on Loki’s shoulder clenched tighter. “Years ago when we drove the Jotnar back to their homeworld and crippled their forces, I found something in a temple. A tiny Jotunn baby. His own savage parents abandoned him for being born too small. That is their way, letting their children die.”

Thor felt a heavy stone sink into his gut. Surely his father was not saying….no, he could not even think it. The idea burned his fingers at the barest touch. Loki seemed to be reaching out for the same thought. There was a slow dawning horror creeping across his face like a winter sunrise. Thor could see his lips move, and hear him whisper:

“No. No, no, no, no…”

The crowd had become a forest of statues, faces frozen in shock. They barely seemed to breathe.

“By all rights, I should have killed that baby,” Odin went on. “But I knew when I saw him, that fate had led me to this child for a purpose. And so I took him in my arms. I disguised him as one of us. And I brought him home for my wife to rear – to be a second son and a brother.”

“No!” Loki twisted out of Odin’s grasp, composure shattered, his breathing now harsh and ragged. “Father, no!” Odin grabbed Loki by the back of the neck with one hand, and laid the other across his cheek. It looked like a tender gesture until Thor saw the blue spreading out from Odin’s fingers and washing across his brother’s face. There was an odd crackling sound, and Thor could smell snow in the air, along with the sharp, acrid stench of magic. Loki brought up both hands and pushed futilely against Odin’s chest.

“Don’t fight this, Loki,” Odin commanded. “Compose yourself!” Even under the circumstances, the command of the All-Father brought Loki immediately to attention, and he froze, still breathing in sharp, frightened gasps. The blue spread up over Loki’s forehead, disappearing under his hairline, and his eyes welled with blood. Thor stood back, clutching the dagger and resting his other hand on Mjolnir, caressing the handle for reassurance.

Loki often accused Thor of being slow, and perhaps sometimes he was right. Thor couldn’t match Loki’s quick wit, and any attempts at flyting left a thoroughly embarrassed Thor wondering how Loki had come up with so many rhymes for “goakfucker.” But Thor was not stupid. He just thought things through in straight lines, slowly and methodically. He reached out again for the obvious conclusion, even though it froze something deep in his chest.

Loki is adopted. Loki is a Jotunn. Father brought Loki here for….what purpose?

The way forward was murky beyond that point. Thor glanced nervously at the dagger in his hand.
Odin stepped back, his work completed. The creature was trembling all over, one arm wrapped around himself as if to hold his body together, the other hand raised to his face, feeling out the raised lines and ridges. His eyes were not bleeding, Thor realized, they had just shifted to Jotunn crimson. The blue had engulfed Loki and swallowed him alive. Somewhere in the face were traces of Thor’s little brother, his prominent nose and sharp cheekbones were there, muted under the bizarre patterns etched into him. And the layers of horrible blue. Somewhere in the crowd, someone screamed.

“This is your second prince, Asgard. He is Jotunn. The child of the tyrant Laufey, and whatever poor female he managed to inflict his seed upon,” Odin announced. There was no cheer this time at the presentation of Asgard’s “prince.” Loki gave an audible gasp, one hand still rubbing at the lines in his face. From the crowd there were murmurs of shock and disgust.

Thor wondered for a brief moment if this was all a terrible dream. In one part of his mind there was a voice saying, “No, no, no, no,” but he pushed that aside. This was all real, and denying it would make no difference. Another part of his mind, the practical part, was wondering why their father had kept this secret for so long, and why he was revealing it now. He should have told Loki ahead of time, at least. Odin wasn’t one to sugarcoat harsh truths, but he could at least have offered them a hint of warning before dragging this out before the entire court. It was obvious that Loki was going to fall apart, and then the family would be shamed by his hysteria. Thor felt a little like falling apart himself, as his stomach roiled in horror and disgust, but he clenched his jaw and blinked away sudden tears.

There were voices audible in the crowd now, snatches of horrified conversation leaped out at Thor.

“Norns, look at his face-“

“-clutched a viper to his breast –"

“-monster so close to our Queen-“

Above the angry buzz of the crowd, though, Thor could hear another sound. It started low, but grew louder and higher pitched, until the mob was quiet again. It was laughter, bubbling up out of the creature – no, not the creature, Loki. It was not the pleasant laughter Thor heard when Loki was in a good mood, nor even the sharper, mocking laughter that came when Loki’s mood soured. This was weird, strained, desperate laughter, fraying at the edges with hysteria.

“I get it, I get it,” Loki was saying, his voice brittle. “I understand, Father. You are teaching me a lesson, are you not? For all the pranks? You are playing the biggest prank on me, so that I’ll understand how it feels. Well done! Very well done! I understand, now. I will stop, I will learn to behave myself-“

“No, Loki,” Odin said, and Loki paused for a moment, mouth working, before racing down another hopeful avenue.

“Then…then punishment, perhaps? I believe I’ve already suffered for my worst transgressions, but perhaps you felt additional correction was needed. Very well, I can accept this. I’m sure I deserve it, for whatever I...funny, I don’t remember any crimes recently, but whatever I’ve done, I’ll atone. I’ll wear this form as long as you think I must, just tell me when I can –“

Thor was starting forward, planning to take Loki by the shoulders and pull him aside, away from the public view until he could get ahold of himself and stop this embarrassing display. But Odin brought Gungnir down again, and the clang shocked Loki back into silence. Without even turning, the All-Father held a hand back towards Thor, silently warning him to stay in his place.

“This is not a punishment, Loki. This is the truth. The truth is painful sometimes, as you well know. But you cannot change it. You are a Jotunn, and the child of Laufey.” The murmuring started in the crowd again, even as the king continued speaking. For the first time, Thor stole a glance towards his friends, in their seats of honor at the very front of the audience. Volstagg looked pained, one hand twisting knots in his beard. Sif was clutching her javelin, eyes trained on Loki. Fandral was breathing heavily, looking nauseous. Hogun betrayed his shock with a single stress line crinkling between his eyebrows.

“I raised this Jotunn baby among the people of Asgard, I made him part of my family, for a purpose. I hoped to use him to help forge my son into the strong king that Asgard needs.”
Thor frowned at that. As distant as Odin sometimes seemed, surely he was not saying that he took Loki only to use him as a tool? His father loved Loki, Thor had always been sure of that, even when Loki wasn’t. But a king had to have a purpose for everything he did, one that went beyond sentiment. Perhaps Odin meant that he knew Thor needed a playmate, a baby brother to watch over and protect, to teach him responsibility and selflessness.

“And now Thor,” Odin turned to him, and Thor snapped to attention. “You will prove your loyalty and love to our kingdom. You will show that your role as king will override sentimental ties – that you can put the good of the realm above your own selfish feelings. You will take that dagger that your grandfather has passed down to you, and you will eliminate the enemy who stands in our midst.” Thor blinked. What enemy? But as always, Loki was quicker.

“What?” he cried, starting forward. Suddenly, there were guards on either side, pulling him back. They must have been told their roles ahead of time, because one came prepared with chains that he fastened around Loki’s wrists, too fast for the second prince to fight. Thor could see the runes engraved on the cuffs, and could easily guess their purpose, as Loki cried out, then sagged in pain, magic bound inside him.

“Father, I don’t understand,” Thor said. “What are you doing to him?”

“I’m making this easier on both of you,” Odin said. He nodded back at the guards, and one of them pulled out a metal contraption that he began fastening around Loki’s face.

“Father, no! Please! Please, Father!” Loki screamed, before the device was snapped into place and pulled tight. It was a muzzle, Thor realized, with a painful stab in his chest. Loki was being muzzled like a wild dog.

“You cannot call me Father any longer, Loki,” Odin said, looking back at the creature that he no longer claimed. “I’m afraid that time is over now.”

Thor bristled as he heard chuckling from the crowd, muttered comments growing bolder:

“That’ll shut him up. No more Silvertongue!”

“They should have done that years ago!”

“Be quiet, all of you!” Thor roared, and the audience in the closest rows flinched back. “Have some respect, he is your prince!”

“No, he isn’t,” Odin said. “Not anymore. Now he is Loki Laufeyson, and an enemy of Asgard. And enemies of Asgard must be put down.” There was another sharp pain in Thor’s chest as he realized exactly what his father was asking him to do. His hand clenched around the dagger, which was suddenly a hateful, evil-looking thing.

“Father…..no. Why would you ask me to do this?”

Behind Odin, Loki made a muffled noise, reaching out with his chained hands. Odin ignored it, walking towards Thor. The All-Father had never looked so grim – his features stern and unyielding, his one eye flinty.

“I have explained why. The king of Asgard must protect the realm from all enemies. The Jotnar are enemies of the realm. Now you must do your duty.”

“But Loki has done nothing wrong!” Thor burst out. That wasn’t entirely true. Loki had committed numerous petty crimes in the form of tricks and pranks (and if Thor was honest with himself, he’d been a party to some of them). But he’d done nothing that deserved death.

“No, not yet.” Odin said calmly. “But he will, given enough time. Tell me, Thor, if you find a poisonous snake in the garden, do you kill it? Or do you let it slither away and wait for the inevitable?”

"Loki is not a snake!” Thor shouted, ignoring a few of the bolder courtiers who called back, “Yes, he is!” “Loki is my brother!”

“Loki is a Jotunn,” Odin said. “They are savage, vicious, conniving creatures. There is no love or goodness or loyalty in them.”

“How can you say that? Loki has fought for Asgard! He has been my loyal companion, all these years! He has saved my life, Father!”

“Yes, he played the part well,” Odin said, and Thor was horrified to see a cruel amusement in his father’s face. “We taught him the rules of our society, and he did his best to follow them. He watched us, and he mimicked us, and he pretended at love that he could not feel. But his true nature bled through, all along. His coldness, his dislike of being touched, his petty, cruel pranks. He has kept his savageness under control thus far, but he cannot fight it forever. Now that he knows, he will disregard our ways and revert to his own. And even if he never found out, nature would win in the end. He would betray you, Thor. It was only a matter of when.”

“You cannot possibly know that!” Thor snapped.

“I know it as I know Loki. He is a Jotunn. Jotunn cannot be trusted. Now, will you do your duty to our kingdom?"

“Father, please,” Thor begged, still not entirely believing the scene that unfolded before him. “This is too cruel.”

“Yes, perhaps it was cruel,” Odin agreed. “Raising one of them among us. He was always unhappy, wasn’t he? He couldn’t fight his nature. You tried, didn’t you, Loki? You tried very hard.” Odin walked over to Loki as he spoke. He put his hand on Loki’s head and ruffled his hair with the distant affection that he usually showed his hunting dogs. Thor felt his stomach twist. “But a Jotunn cannot be one of the Aesir, no matter how hard he tries. I’m sorry I put you through this. It would have been kinder to end you with a blade years ago, back in that temple. But Thor will end your suffering now. And your sacrifice will be for the greater good of our kingdom. So be at peace.”

Loki gave another muffled cry, and grasped at Odin’s forearm. The king hissed in pain for a moment, before the guards pulled Loki back. Odin whirled back towards Thor, brandishing his frostbitten arm.

“You see, Thor? Loki wounds me with his very touch. Even coming into contact with one of them causes pain. It is who he is, Thor.” The crowd had erupted at the sight of the king’s injury, and only the presence of the guards were keeping people in their seats.

“Kill him, Prince Thor!” came a voice.

“Give me the knife, and I’ll do it myself!” came another.

Thor flinched away from the wound, turning to his friends, clustered together in their seats.

“Please, help me,” Thor said, hands stretched out to them. “Loki has been your companion, too. He fought by our sides. He drank with us, and sang with us. You must see this is madness.”

“He fought by our sides,” Fandral repeated Thor’s words with disgust. “That….thing…fought beside us and drank with us and pretended to be our friend.”

“He is our friend!” Thor snapped. Fandral was shaking his head, lips pressed together.

“We slept next to it. We bathed with it. By the tree, we even shared cups with it.” And he suddenly retched, splashing vomit across his fine leather boots. Thor knew, as did the rest of them, what was at the heart of Fandral’s distress. What he was not saying – “I slept with it."

Volstagg had one hand over his mouth, tears trickling down his ruddy cheeks and dampening his beard.

“Oh, this is cruel,” he whispered. “He did try hard, didn’t he? Even for one of them, he tried very hard.”

“I knew it,” Hogun muttered. “I knew something was wrong with him.”

“You must be merciful, Thor,” Volstagg continued, putting a hand on Thor’s shoulder. “He was good to you. He acted the part of a brother, even if he couldn’t really be one. You must be kind, and end this quickly.” Thor stared at him, aghast.

“What?”

“The Jotunn heart is isn’t in quite the same place as ours,” Volstagg said. “It’s a little lower down, and the breastbone lies thick over it. It’s best if you stab him through the back, there’s less resistance there. If you aim true, you can probably do it with one stroke.”

“Or go for the throat,” Hogun suggested. “That’s a quick kill on any species.”

“Are you all mad?” Sif demanded, her eyes wide and angry. “Jotunn or not, Loki fought with us. He was one of our sworn shield-mates. He should not be butchered like an animal. He deserves better than this.”

“He is an animal,” Fandral hissed, still hunched over, while Thor was grabbing Sif by the shoulders and hugging her in gratitude.

“Thank the fates there’s one other sane person here,” Thor said, squeezing Sif against him. “You agree that this is wrong. We cannot let this happen.”

“Of course not.” Sif pushed back to gaze up at Thor intently. “Loki should be given a weapon. He should get his chance to die in a proper fight. That’s the respectful way to do it.” Thor felt his relief, slight as it was, drain back out of him. He starred at Sif, and saw only the strong warrior woman that he always regarded with such pride. Fierce, proud, Sif, who gave no mercy, and expected none.

“You think I should kill him, too,” Thor whispered. Sif looked at him as if he’d asked whether the sky was blue.

“Well, of course you must. He is one of the enemy, Thor.” Thor let his grip slip away, and stepped back from her. He could feel his heart hammering in his chest, stomach churning. Over the roar of the crowd, he could hear Loki screaming behind his muzzle, and he thought for just a moment what a mercy it would be to end that tortured sound. Then he had the tiniest kernel of an idea.

“Sif is right, Father,” Thor said, turning back to the king. “It’s not honorable to kill Loki unarmed like this. He must be unchained and given a weapon.” And then Thor would lose. He’d whisper plans to Loki before the match started, and he’d let himself be defeated. And when Thor was at Loki’s mercy, Loki would spare him, proving that he was not a beast, and then his father would see, and this insane, horrible plan would be –

“He has a weapon, Thor,” Odin said, still calm, and that was the worst part. “His skin is a weapon. If you get too close, you will feel its bite.”

“Then he must be unchained!” Thor ventured. “Let it be a fair fight.” Odin shook his head, terrible and merciless.

“With his magic unbound, do you think Loki would fight fair? More likely he’ll run the first chance he gets. And then he’ll rejoin his people and tell them all the secrets he knows of Asgard – all of our treasure and defenses. He is a danger to the realm, Thor. Now do what you must.” The crowd was getting louder.

“Thor,” Odin spoke quietly, coming in close. “Now the secret is out, do you really think Loki will leave this room alive? If you do not kill him, the crowd will tear him to pieces, and that will be a death far worse than your knife. Look at him, Thor,” Odin gestured, and Thor looked to where Loki now hung by his arms between the two guards, taking long gasping breaths, tears trickling down his cheeks.

“So Jotunn can cry,” Thor thought distantly. And some part of him was genuinely disgusted, the same part that recoiled from Loki’s blue skin.

“Look at that pathetic creature,” Odin continued. “Do you see a prince of Asgard? He was never a prince, Thor. He was a monster wearing a mask. Now that the mask is gone, death is really the only option. He probably longs for it right now, even if he is too cowardly to face it.”

“You never loved him,” Thor growled. And suddenly, he was thinking back to conversations long ago, huddled together under the covers, or alone on their balcony. Loki had always been so insecure about their father’s love – the slightest hint of favor towards Thor and Loki would be tearful and bitter. As a child Thor had hugged him and reassured him, and in later years he had scornfully told him not to be such a baby. But Loki had been right all along.

“I did love him,” Odin said. “I love him still, as much as one can love such a creature. But duty is more important than love. Thor, I know this is hard, but it is a test you must pass. What will you do if you are betrayed by one of your dear friends? Your wife? Your own son? Will you let a loved one destroy the realm because you are too weak?”

“Loki has not betrayed me!”

“He will! He cannot help himself! Let him die now, before he breaks your heart.” Odin reached down to grab Thor’s hand that still clutched the dagger, and draw it upward. “Do your duty. Do not disappoint me.”

Thor took a faltering step forward, facing his brother. Loki could not plead through the muzzle, but he could plead with his eyes. The ugly crimson could still reflect grief, shock, hurt and terror. Loki reached for Thor like a drowning man. Thor pressed a fist up against his mouth, then look up at his mother, sitting at her place by Odin’s throne. She had not moved or spoken a word during this whole ordeal, just stared down at her lap, hands pressed together.

“Mother!” Thor called. “Are you going to let this happen? He is your son, too!” And suddenly Odin was in front of him, gripping his arms in fury.

“Don’t you dare appeal to her! This is difficult enough for your mother! Do not hide behind her like a sniveling child! Do your duty before you shame this house!” He shouted. The noise of the crowd had turned jeering:

“Don’t you have the guts, Prince Thor? Give me the knife, I’ll do it for you!” The voice sounded like a young girl.

Thor felt a sudden wave of shame. Never before had he faltered in striking down an enemy.

But by the Norns, they cannot expect me to do this, they cannot possibly expect it.

Thor felt a hand on his back as Odin pushed him forward, speaking fiercely in his ear.

“If you falter in this task, they will never trust you, Thor. And without trust the realm will crumble. There are mothers, sons, fathers and daughters all counting on you to lead them, and they will fall if you cannot kill that miserable creature. That sad excuse for a brother.” Still Thor pushed back, hand shaking, blinking back tears. It wasn’t just the horrible task they had set out for him. It was the shame of being judged by Asgard, and found wanting.

I wonder if Loki feels this way all the time. Maybe it’s better for him to die.

“Thor, if you make me do this, I will make it much worse,” Odin hissed. “Loki is going to die today, no matter what you do. Your hand will be the most merciful one."

Thor stepped forward again, eyes locked on his brother. On the creature that was his brother. Chained and hemmed in by guards, Loki seemed to have given up struggling. He starred at Thor with a mixture of fear, longing and hope. Thor could hear his voice in his head.

You’re not really going to do it, are you, brother?

Please.

Brother, please.

Thor thought of his options has he shuffled forward slowly. If he grabbed Loki and ran, would they make it down the aisle before the mob set upon them? He could use Mjolnir to fly, but Odin could strike them down, and then the crowd would engulf them. And even if he escaped, where would they go? Two disgraced princes, a coward and a monster, eking out a miserable existence together for the rest of their long lives. Thor would rather die.

Perhaps he should die, Thor thought. What would Odin do if he turned the knife on himself? Having lost one son, would he suddenly discover love for the other?

No, it would never work. Loki had never really been Odin’s son, no matter what the All-Father claimed. And if Thor was dead, he could not protect Loki from the rest of Asgard. They’d both come to a bloody end.

As Thor drew nearly, a nasty little voice suggested that maybe Odin was right. The closer he got, the more Loki’s form repulsed him. It would have been better if Loki had looked completely different – huge and bald, like the frost giants they’d both seen in picture books. It was worse that this blue skinned thing held the ghost of his brother’s face. He felt a sudden urge to smash it, until the creature resembled Loki no longer.

What if Odin was right? What if Loki was incapable of love? Thor already thought his mysterious, fickle brother incapable of sincerity. What if their affection had all been an act by an alien creature mimicking emotions he could not feel? What if Loki was just waiting for the right moment to betray him?

Thor looked at Loki’s tear-filled eyes, and he thought of the crocodile tears he’d shed when Thor beat him for a particularly cruel prank. He’d begged Thor to stop, then slunk off snickering into his sleeve.

Thor thought of Loki teaching him how to dance right before their first winter ball, guiding Thor through the difficult steps that he was too embarrassed to practice with any other partner.

He thought of Loki smirking and unrepentant after cutting off Sif’s beautiful hair.

He thought of Loki laughing with joy as the two of them splashed around in the stream chasing frogs together.

He thought of Loki laughing harsh and cruel after causing cockroaches to spill out of Fandral’s mouth.

He thought of Loki sitting on the balcony with him, holding hands as they looked at the stars.

Thor looked at the blue monster before him that every instinct screamed at him to slay, and he could still see Loki buried beneath it.

I can’t. I can’t. He is still my brother. But if I don’t, someone else will. And it will be worse.

Thor stood in front of Loki with the knife in his hand, and still did not know what to do. Then Loki reached out and grabbed ahold of him, making a muffled sound. Thor jerked away, repulsed by the chill, scaly touch, and felt the burn of frostbite spreading across his arms. His hand moved almost of its own accord, centuries of warrior training cancelling out Thor’s dilemma. It recognized danger, and acted, and before Thor could think, the knife was buried in Loki’s side.

Someone screamed, but he wasn’t sure if it was Loki or himself. Loki moaned and dropped to his knees as Thor yanked the knife out, eyes wide in horror and disbelief. Asgard cheered. Thor could hear his own heartbeat pounding in his ears as he looked at the knife blade, soaked in a foul-smelling blue oil. Then he leapt upon Loki with the knife held high, panic and rage driving him forward.

It’s too late now. I’ve started it, I can’t stop.

Why did he touch me like that, it’s his own fault, I have to do it know.

End it. He’s already dying, just make it quick just do it now.

His thrusts with the weapon were erratic and poorly aimed. He could not make himself strike with the proper force, and Loki kept moving, grabbing at the knife, raising his arms to block. Thor was butchering his brother – no not even that, because a cow or chicken was dispatched with greater mercy. The knife would go in, and Loki would scream and twist, and Thor would yank it out, half-blind with tears, and strike again, just praying, please, please, please, let this end soon. His hands were slick with foul oil, and he could feel the blade glance off bone, twisting aside as he stabbed at the chest.
Through the haze and the screaming, Thor could hear a familiar voice.

“No, Thor, no!” Thor looked up, and through his tears could barely make out Volstagg motioning in the crowd. “Through the back, Thor! Please, just end it now!” He sounded like he was sobbing, or maybe that was Thor himself. The crowd seemed to think this was a cue to make suggestions.

“Show him his guts, Prince Thor!”

“Cut out his black heart!”

“Jotunn don’t have hearts! Twist his head off, Prince Thor!”

“Listen to the coward screaming like a pig. Slaughter him, Prince Thor!”

“Shut up, all of you, shut up!” Thor screamed at them all, including Loki, who was moaning and thrashing beneath him. As he paused for a moment, he could see the damage he’d done. The robe was soaked in the oily blue blood, with shallow stab wounds dotting Loki’s abdomen, chest and shoulders. His arms were slashed where he’d tried to knock the blade aside. There was a deep cut running across his cheek down to his ear from one of Thor’s incompetent attempts to slice his throat. For a moment, Thor forgot everything, and only thought how the wound would scar, and Loki would be furious with him because he was so vain. Then the weight of his task crashed down on him again, and Thor leaned away to throw up. When he looked back, Loki was staring blankly upward, not even appearing to see him, eyes wide and terrified.

I cannot stop now. Just end it.

Thor grabbed Loki by the shoulders and flipped him over, then plunged the knife into his back. Loki screamed, jerking like a fish on a hook.

“I’m sorry,” Thor muttered through gritted teeth. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry.” Loki continued to writhe, his cry trailing off into sharp ragged gasps that indicated Thor had struck a lung.

But he doesn’t die. Why doesn’t he die?

Thor realized that he must have missed the heart, as Loki thrashed and the crowd called for him to finish it. Bile rising in his throat again, he jerked the knife back out, and had to hear Loki scream again. He grabbed his brother by the hair and pulled his head back, then jammed the knife into his throat. He gave himself no time to think or feel, he just cut across, the oily spray coating his hand. The blood pumped out onto the floor, staining Thor’s sleeve, his pants where he knelt. Loki stopped thrashing, and just twitched weakly.

That’s it. It’s done.

Thor flung the knife away and heard it skitter across the floor. He never wanted to touch or see it again. He gathered Loki into his arms, as the blue blood gushed over them both. Loki was making a horrible gurgling noise that was a mockery of breath, choking on the blood that dripped out of the front of the muzzle.

“I’m sorry,” Thor whispered. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for it to be so hard. I didn’t want to do it, please believe me, I didn’t.” He pried the muzzle off and tossed it aside. Loki’s lips moved weakly as the blue oil dripped down his chin. Thor wondered if he could even hear or understand him. His eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. Thor tried to meet his gaze, but found nothing but dull terror that was slowly fading.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Thor repeated over and over, breath hitching as he started to sob.

Thor wasn’t certain when Loki died. He hugged him tightly to his chest for a long moment, patting at his hair, rubbing his back the way he had once when they were brothers. When he laid him down on the floor again, the trembling had stopped, and the red eyes were glazed over. Thor gingerly took two fingers and pressed his eyelids down, hiding the crimson forever.

___________________________________________________________________

Thor wouldn’t let them burn the body. Odin was willing give Loki a proper Aesir funeral. He offered in a gentle, apologetic tone that made Thor’s stomach churn, because his father was willing to grant Loki this small token of respect after ordering him to be slaughtered in front of a crowd. Thor refused. It wasn’t that Loki didn’t deserve the honor of a funeral ship. Asgard did not deserve the honor of “mourning” the prince they had betrayed. It was just one more way they would justify it to each other – that at least they had done things properly, at least they had given him all due ceremony. Thor would not allow them that small comfort. Besides, he did not think the Jotnar burned their dead.

Instead, Thor wrapped the body in his own cloak, and carried it on his back to the top of a nearby mountain, where he and Loki had once spent long summer days hawking. It was normally two days walk to reach the base and another day climbing up, but Thor walked on through the night, so evening on the second day found him scratching at the rocky soil at the peak. The moon had risen by the time it was deep enough to be a respectable grave, but Thor kept digging, until the edges of the pit were high above his head and he had to jump to pull himself out.

The bitter mountain wind cut through Thor’s layers, but he didn’t think Loki would mind. Loki had always liked the cold.

“You’ll be safe up here,” he said to the shrouded form after he placed it gently in the pit. “No one will hurt you. They’re all back at the palace, and you’re up here, and the air is clean and the stars are beautiful. You can….you can rest up here.” The rest of the night was spent layering soil over the body with quiet reverence. When the pit was filled, Thor took up his hammer and smashed boulders out of the rock face. He piled them atop the grave. No one would hurt Loki after this. He would be safe under stone and earth.

“I hope you understand,” Thor said to the heaps of rock. “I hope you can forgive me some day.”

Later at the tavern, Thor’s friends (and once he’d thought they were Loki’s friends too, but that illusion was well shattered) gave a reluctant toast to the dead prince. Mostly out of respect to his older brother.

Fandral said nothing, just raised his glass and drained it.

“He was good with knives,” Hogun offered. “And he could walk quietly.”

“He died like a coward,” Sif muttered, starring into her mug. “I always knew he would.” Hogun elbowed her, and she sighed. “He was clever,” she added, although the word sounded distasteful on her lips. Only
Volstagg seemed honestly sad.

“Such a shame,” he said, shaking his head and dabbing at his eyes. “I will miss his jokes. He tried hard, didn’t he? He was almost like one of us.”

“Almost,” Hogun conceded.

“It had to be done, Thor,” Sif said, reaching across the table to take his hand. “Asgard would not stand to see a Jotunn living among us, much less as a prince. And he knew all of our secrets. He would have run off to Jotunheim to tell his people Asgard’s weak points.”

“You really think so?” Thor said. “Loki loved Asgard, with all of his heart.” Even though that love was unrequited.

“Loki didn’t know what he was,” Hogun said. “After he was told, what was to stop him from turning on us?”

“He would have betrayed us sooner or later,” Fandral said, pushing aside his empty glass and reaching for another.

“I suppose it had to be done,” Volstagg sighed, in the same regretful tone he’d use to discuss drowning an unwanted kitten. “Maybe it was for the best. Living among us, then finding out what a monster he really was…I’m surprised he didn’t throw himself onto your knife. By the Norns, I’d want a quick death if I found out I was a Jotunn."

“I’m sorry, Thor. I know it was hard,” Sif said, squeezing his hand. “You were fond of him.”

“We were all a bit fond of him,” Volstagg murmured. Fandral grimaced and took another long swallow of ale.

“A king has to make hard decisions,” Sif insisted. Thor raised his head to meet her eyes, and nodded.

“Yes,” he agreed. “A king has to make hard decisions.”
_________________________________________________________________________

The chill that had settled into Thor’s bones never seemed to leave him. After the burial on the mountain, after drinking with his friends, Thor soaked in a hot bath and wrapped himself in furs before a roaring fire. Still he could not stop shivering. Even as spring turned to the heat of summer, Thor wore thick shirts and fur-trimmed boots. The cold wrapped around his spine and dug hooks into his chest.
It was the frost, Thor realized, although no one else seemed to notice it. It spread from the faint blue stain that lingered on the throne room floor, no matter how many times the servants scrubbed. (They said it wasn’t there anymore, but they were lazy and they lied to avoid work. Thor could see it. It was quite clear). The frost crept slowly through the throne room, snaking up the pillars, edging out into the hall. Over time Thor learned to ignore it. He had more important things to worry about as a king.

Thor made hard decisions. Such as his decision to take the throne. His father thought it was not the right time yet, but Thor could see through his mask to the tired, frail old man hiding behind his position. Thor was better at seeing through masks now, his father had taught him that. It was a hard decision, but Thor knew he was right when the guards led his parents away. His mother was moved to a pleasant, spacious tower with a view of the garden. He filled the rooms with her weaving tools, and her books, and musical instruments to keep her well entertained, and a generous supply of provisions that would last for centuries if she rationed well. Then he locked the door. His father was in the basement. The room was not quite as comfortable, but then Odin was no longer a king. His provisions would not last nearly as long as Frigga’s, but Thor could only spare so much, and he had to think about the good of the realm. Odin would understand.

As the years passed, Thor kept making hard decisions, all for the sake of the realm. When his spy network heard rumors of Laufey pulling together his troops, Thor brought the war to him. He poured Asgardian soldiers onto that frozen nightmare world of monsters, and they killed every living creature they found. But it wasn’t enough. Thor realized that the planet must be scoured clean, and so he unleashed the power of the Bifrost until Jotunheim crumbled into nothing. It was clever plan, not like Thor’s usual way of thinking. He was proud of the idea. He was learning to be clever, now that Loki was gone. He thought Loki would have approved of the plan. It was a shame about the Asgardian troops still on Jotunheim when Thor had made his decision, but a king had to be willing to make sacrifices. His friends agreed. A teary-eyed Volstagg, tight-lipped Sif and ashen-faced Fandral agreed that of course Thor had made the right decision, as they toasted Hogun, who had been caught on the wrong side of the beam. It was a fitting death, the kind of death that the grim warrior would want. He’d no doubt flown up to Valhalla with brilliant stories to tell. In a way, Thor had done him a favor.

Thor had to continue making hard decisions after the war, as the costs racked up and crops failed. Alflheim cut off trade with Asgard entirely after the war with Jotunheim, but Thor was not surprised. The elves were weak-willed, shallow creatures. They had no idea what it meant to be a king. As the poor harvest continued, Thor found enemies of the realm hiding in his own kingdom, in the guise peasants and merchants. They claimed they could not afford his taxes, but Thor knew that they were lying, out of greed or wicked spite. He punished them the way traitors should be punished.

Whispers started around the kingdom. Murmurs of discontent that threatened to rot his people from the inside, like an infection. Thor sent out his spies to track the murmurs to their source, and then he cut them out. The execution grounds grew busy and crowded, while Thor chased down rumor, libel, scandal, all threatening the peace of his realm. But the whispers continued, even as heads filled the grounds. Death was not enough to silence them. Thor could hear their whispers echoing up their hall, over the silent creeping frost.

One night Loki forgave him, and he came back. Thor awoke from a troubled sleep, and Loki was there at his bedside, grinning down at him, his eyes sparkling with mischief. The second mouth that Thor had carved into his throat was grinning too, drooling blood down his chest.

“I must look a fright,” Loki murmured, smiling as he tried to smooth down his tangled hair.

“No,” Thor breathed. “No, Loki, you are beautiful. I’m so glad you’ve returned. I’ve had such a hard time without you.” Loki’s grin showed his blue-stained teeth as he slid into bed with Thor. Shuddering in the cold, Thor breathed in the scent of snow and mountain pine.

“I’m so sorry,” Thor murmured.

“A king has to make hard decisions,” Loki soothed, rocking Thor in his frozen arms.

The servants tried to pretend that Loki was not there. They tried to ignore him, but Thor had seen Loki ignored for far too long before. He would not stand it a moment longer. And so the servants learned very quickly to set a plate at the chair next to the king. To bring two goblets when the king called for wine in his chambers. To bow to Thor All-Father, and then to bow to the space beside him. They learned through the examples of others, who died for their mistakes. Thor would not let his brother be disrespected.

The people blamed Loki for all their trouble. They had always blamed Loki, and death did not change that. It was a curse, left on the kingdom by a dying monster. It was an evil spirit haunting the palace, twisting the mind of their king.

They were all wrong. Loki was an angel of mercy. He was kind and gentle, even when he stood next to Thor streaked with the gory evidence of the realm’s crimes against him. It was he who spoke of pity for every law-breaking, treasonous thug who was hauled before the king.

“Have mercy, brother,” Loki would wheeze, grasping the wound in his neck as he stared down at the gambler, the thief, the tax fraud who sat trembling before the throne. “Make it quick. Put him out of his misery.” Thor was always merciful. He made it quick.

Over time, even Thor’s old friends found their way onto the spikes. It was just like his father had predicted. His loved ones all betrayed him. Jolly Volstagg, witty Fandral, fierce, beautiful Sif. Her betrayal had hurt the most, she had always seemed so loyal.

“She was always willing to die for you, brother,” Loki had whispered in his ear while Sif knelt chained before him. “Now is her chance. You’ll be doing her a favor.”

Thor tried to be kind about it. He dipped the heads in bronze to spare them the indignity of rotting away. He arranged them together on the execution grounds, so that they could speak to each other in the cold night. They had all been such good friends; he would not see them separated in death.

They forgave him. They understood, after it was all over. At night Thor would slip down to the grounds with a bottle of wine to share and Loki’s cold arm linked in his, and the heads would turn towards him and smile.

“So nice of you to visit us, Thor,” Fandral would say. “And Loki, too. You both look so well.”

“Why not, “ Thor would say, poring a drink into their gaping mouths. “We are all friends, even after everything. I’m sorry about all the unpleasantness. You know I had to do it, don’t you? A king must make hard decisions."

“It’s all right,” Volstagg joked. “I always needed to lose some weight.” His booming laugh echoed through the grounds, and some of the heads laughed in response, a dry, chittering sound. Loki put a hand up to his mouth, as he always did when he wanted to hide a grin. He forgot to cover the wound in his throat and it gave his true feelings away, stretching into a blue-lined smile.

“Yes,” Fandral agreed. “I must appreciate that you left my face intact. Now it is preserved for future generations to admire, untouched by age. Really, you’ve done me a good turn.”

“It was our fault, anyway, Thor,” Sif soothed, her lovely eyes sealed shut under the bronze. “We turned against you. We’re so sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Thor said, grinning at them all. “You tried to serve me well, didn’t you? You tried very hard.”

Everyone tried hard, but everyone seemed to fail Thor in the end. Courtiers betrayed him, generals waging war in Vanaheim suffered ridiculous losses due to their incompetence. Tyr couldn’t even take Midgard, a weak, backward little realm that would fare much better under Asgard’s benevolent jurisdiction. Thor himself went down to force the mortals to their knees. Thor’s own people betrayed him, fleeing the kingdom in droves despite all he’d down for their well-being. Thor ordered the Bifrost closed, but still people found ways to slip away. The harvest dwindled, the apples rotted on the ground ungathered, and the towns grew silent.

The golden king sat on the golden throne, and the frost crept over him, and the realm withered at his feet.