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Wild Ambition Fortune's Ice Prefers

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Thor wakes, and for the first time in decades, rather wishes he hadn’t. His head is pounding and there is a foul taste in his mouth; when he tries to stir, the room spins and his gorge rises. By the Norns, what is in the araka that it could give him such a hangover?

It takes a few false starts, but he manages to get himself up and something approximating dressed without being sick, and he dunks his whole head in the bowl of freezing cold water in the small bathroom to try and wake himself up properly. He is so consumed by his own misery that it is not until he is squeezing the excess water from his hair that he abruptly realises he is alone in the guestroom.

Loki must have given up on waking him, he guesses, and gone to breakfast alone. It seems a shame that they will not be eating together, for Thor is already fond of this private time together in the mornings, but he does not begrudge Loki for leaving him in his stupor. He is fairly confident that breakfast will be served in the same great hall as last night’s feast, for it is the only building of its size in the settlement, and so once he has pushed his hair from his face and managed to get his boots on, he sets out to find Loki and food, preferably in that order.

For once, he is very grateful for Jotunheim’s perpetual twilight, as it means he does not have to deal with the sun’s glare as he stumbles towards the hall. It feels like mid-morning, but there are not many signs of life within the settlement; it seems he is not the only one worse for wear after the celebration last night.

As luck would have it, just as he rounds the corner of the hall, he spots a familiar figure walking away, and he hurries over to him – well, for a certain value of ‘hurry’, anyway.

 “Good morning, Loki!” he says as cheerfully as he can as he catches up to him. “I trust you are feeling better than I am?”

“Define ‘better’,” Loki says, tone sharp, and Thor chuckles. So Loki too is feeling a little delicate today!

“I don’t suppose you have any tricks for curing self-inflicted ills?” he asks.

Loki freezes and, very slowly turns; Thor takes a step back as he sees the expression on his face. “Tricks?” Loki hisses. “I can assure you, Odinson, using my tricks to make you feel better is the very last thing on my mind this day.”

Thor stares at him, dumbfounded, mind working sluggishly through the fog of his hangover. What can have prompted this?

“Loki? Have I offended you?” he tries.

Loki throws his hands in the air. “What do you think?”

I think you are making my headache worse, Thor thinks irritably, but he is in no mood for an argument, and decides to tries mollification instead. “However I have offended you, I  -”

However you have offended me?” Loki snaps, eyes narrowing; somehow Thor’s choice of words have pushed him from irritation to fury. “How dare you - do you even know why I am angry?”

“Ah, well,” Thor hedges but it is too late.

“You are a brainless, witless, worthless oaf,” Loki spits, fingers flexing as thin filaments of ice creep over his hands and begin to coalesce into what looks suspiciously like a knife. “I cannot stand the sight of you!”

Thor is so surprised by Loki’s sudden insults that it takes a moment for his own anger to flare into life, but once it does his outrage burns brightly. How dare he speak to him so! Loki is acting like an insulted fishwife, when all Thor did was ask, quite reasonably, if he would consider alleviating his hangover – a small and easy spell the healers of Asgard have cast for him many times!

This is no way for a Prince of Asgard to be treated, not even by a fellow Prince, and Thor means to tell him so at once. But he is slowed by tiredness and his hangover, and by the time he finds the words to express his own anger, Loki has already turned on his heel and stalked away.

Well, fine. If Loki wants to stomp off and sulk over imagined slights, let him. Thor is in desperate need of a drink and, although his stomach roils at the thought, something to eat. Loki can come and apologise to him later, Thor thinks self-righteously. He is not going to chase him around the settlement!

Thor ignores Loki’s retreating silhouette and heads for the hall’s entrance. Mercifully, there are dozens of jugs of fresh water on the table as soon as he gets inside, and Thor grabs the closest one and drains it as fast as he can, then another, and then another. Feeling better already, he puts together a plate of meats – no eggs, no cheeses, not yet – and looks about for somewhere to sit. At the back of the room, he spies the unmistakable bulk of Thrymr, and makes his way over, stepping around the jötnar slumped over the table or crashed out in the corners, still sleeping off the night’s revelry.

“Ye look as shit as I feel,” Thrymr says by way of greeting as he takes a seat near the Jarl and four younger jötnar. “Get some of this down ye,” he says and shoves a large bone cup full of the whey-drink towards Thor. The milky smell has Thor heaving for a moment, but he grits his teeth and downs it, and in fairness, once he gets over the immediate urge to retch, having something warm in his belly does start to help.

They eat in silence after that, the younger jötnar noticeably pale-faced and trembling as they pick at their breakfast, but the delicious smoked meats and plentiful water soon does its work, and conversation has picked up by the time Thor clears his plate and sits back, sighing in relief.

“Ye met my barns last night,” Thrymr says when he notices Thor has finished eating, “but I don’t expect ye t’remember their names. This be Bergfinnr, Thrívaldi and Hrungnir – and this one ain’t mine, but I knew his bera well, if ye catch me drift, and I’m right fond of him.”

Thor nods at Thrymr’s children, whom he does vaguely remember talking to last night, and at Eivind, who he distinctly remembers arm wrestling at one point. They all have something of Thrymr’s looks, but his gaze lingers on the eldest, Bergfinnr, who despite having the same broad frame as Thrymr, has much more delicate features. Is there something of Loki in his face?

No, he decides after a moment, a little ashamed of the thought. But Thrymr has caught him looking and grins. “He’s a pretty one, isn’t he?” he says proudly slapping Bergfinnr on the back. “Much prettier than me! Takes after his geta, he does.”

Bergfinnr rolls his eyes. “As if ye even know who my geta be,” he says cheekily, and dodges as Thrymr aims a mock-punch at his arm.

“Aye, it were a good night!” Thrymr says with a bawdy laugh. “Whichever one he was, he were very pretty. I do like a pretty face,” he adds, winking at Thor in a most disconcerting way, and the whole table erupts into guffaws and wolf-whistles. After a moment, Thor laughs too; really, it is funny, and he can see no insult in being thought fine to look on.

“Urgh, bera, must ye?” Bergfinnr complains loudly, grinning just as widely as Thrymr before turning to Thor. “I don’t know yer preferences,” he says, voice heavy with innuendo, “but as for me, I find a good workout the best way t’chase away the demons of drink! I ain’t so great a warrior as my bera, but I would face ye in the sparring-ring, if you be up for it?”

“Aye, that is a sound plan,” Thor says, brightening: at last, a chance to spar with a Frost Giant! “Let me put on my practice tunic and I will meet you there.”

“Ye ‘ave clothing just t’practise in?” Hrungnir says curiously, and somehow Thor ends up explaining sweating to the confused looking younglings, who seem alternately repulsed and intrigued by the concept of one’s skin becoming wet during exertion.

Despite Thor’s offers to help, Thrymr’s younger children clear the table and head out to prepare the training ring, giving Thor a few moments alone with Thrymr before he will join them. Since the opportunity has fallen into his lap, he decides to appeal to the older hrimthurs for help, and recounts to him Loki’s inexplicable behaviour earlier.

“Ah,” Thrymr says, his sage expression spoilt by the twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “Ye’ve discovered our Silvertongue’s famous temper, then. Pay him no mind, Odinson. Just give him some space and he’ll come out of it.”

“So you do not know why he might be wroth with me?” Thor says, slightly disappointed.

Thrymr shrugs. “Who knows why the íviðja do anything?” he says, “and I’ve bedded one and birthed another! See t’yerself for a day, that’s my advice. He’ll tell ye what ye’ve done when he’s good and ready. Just weather his tantrum and nod along t’whatever he says. It’ll blow over.”

Thor makes a non-committal noise and thanks him for his advice. Thrymr has many duties to see to today, he says, and so Thor leaves him to it, picking up another flagon of water to take with him as he heads back to his room. Loki is still not there, and Thor has seen no further sign of him, so he quickly strips and redresses in an old pair of leggings and a well-worn sleeveless tunic. He is not at all convinced by Thrymr’s oddly dismissive advice concerning Loki, but since Loki has not made himself available to talk to, he might as well try following it, since Thrymr has known him so much longer.

***

The practice ground turns out to be a scrap of land near the kennels, with a rough circle raised from the ice to mark out a sparring ring. As Thor arrives, the small group of casual watchers parts to reveal that Bergfinnr and Thrívaldi are busy finishing off a fresh coat of ice to flatten the churned ground, while Hrungnir and Eivind have thoughtfully prepared a selection of metal weapons for Thor to use. He has brought his borrowed battle-axe, but seeing the effort they have gone to, decides to put it aside and try an old, battered sword, deliberately blunted, that looks to him to be dwarven in design.

“Swords first, then?” Bergfinnr says when he sees Thor with the dull blade in hand. “No edges, touch the tip t’score?”

Thor has not trained in such a playful way in a long time; he put aside the blunted youths’ weapons ages ago, and these days almost always uses Mjolnir – holding back with his strikes, of course, but fighting hard with either the Einherjar or his friends. It will be fun to play these training games again, he decides, and not too strenuous after last night.

After half an hour, he reconsiders this assessment.

Oh, it is fun – exhilarating, breath-taking fun, as he is forced to use every ounce of his skill to outwit and outmanoeuvre an opponent so much larger than himself, without using the sweeping blows and brute strength he usually employs – but it is not easy, by any stretch of the imagination. Only taps of the very point of the sword count, and while Bergfinnr does not have anything like Thrymr’s power, nor Thor’s, he has a strong defence, and Thor is finding it a real challenge to find weak spots for him to jab into, while dodging the thick point of Bergfinnr’s ice-blade.

He tries desperately to remember Sif and Fandral’s techniques, since this is much more their fighting style, and by the time an hour has passed, he is breathing heavily and his cheeks ache from grinning. When they break to drink and argue over the score, his loose training tunic ends up discarded on the ground; the enchanted pendant around his neck is so powerful that he feels as if he were training at the height of the summer, and he is far too hot to keep it on. There is a rush of whispering as he takes his place opposite Bergfinnr without it, and after the next round of blows, he is not surprised to see that the number of observers has doubled.

This is nothing new for Thor. In Asgard, he has trained publically with the Einherjar for a century or more, and always drawn a crowd while doing so. He should be more mindful of himself here, be careful to acquit himself well, and above all, try not to fall flat on his back as he dodges Bergfinnr’s sledgehammer blows, but all he can think of as he scans the fascinated crowd is that there is no black hair amidst the sleek and craggy heads, no slim and sparkling figure watching with that distinctive half-amused, half-contemplative gaze.

Loki is nowhere to be seen.

It sits at the back of his mind all through the exhilarating session with Bergfinnr, even as he focuses on adapting his usual techniques to meet a challenger taller and broader than himself without Mjolnir, and it continues to worry at him as he agrees to demonstrate some basic Asgardian techniques to a few interested warriors. The exercise has done him good, as it always does, and he feels clear-headed and restored as he makes his way to the baths.

His usual entourage do not follow him, apparently satisfied with ogling him in the ring, and so he has some peace and quiet to think as he scrubs away the sweat with handfuls of tingling snow and plenty of soap, making sure to sluice himself off properly before climbing in to the regretfully tepid bath water.

His anger has passed with his hangover, and now he begins to wonder what exactly had provoked Loki to such a surprising display of temper this morning. As far as last night goes, Thor remembers clearly the feast and Loki’s performance; remembers all too well watching, entranced, as Loki danced and sang in his rich ceremonial skirts, jewellery chiming softly as he moved, the perfect accompaniment to his velvet voice. Loki’s song had been more sound than words, liquid notes rippling from his throat, rising and falling in complex patterns.

It had been strange and wonderful to Thor, who though accustomed to the long stories sung by Asgard’s skalds, often with great passion and skill, has never seen a skald dance as they told the tale, never seen one gasping for breath as they re-enacted the great blows of the hunter, the thrashing and sinking of the prey. Silvertongue does not do justice to half of what Loki can do, and Thor had cheered him as loudly as he could and heaped him with praise when he returned to his seat.

Loki had been happy enough then, soaking up Thor’s sincere admiration, but beyond that? Thor remembers drinking, remembers the deceptively sweet flavour of the jötnar’s spirit drink and the fierce burning aftertaste; he remembers roaring with laughter at Thrivaldi’s long, meandering joke about a bear and a hunter, though the punchline eludes him. Otherwise, the evening is a blur, a black hole in his memory. He dimly remembers leaning on Loki and being surprised at his strength; he has an unpleasant memory of the floor of their room pitching beneath his feet and a sense of spinning as he hit the bed, Loki’s hands on his shoulders – but that is all.

Thor is not a fool.  It does not take much thought to see a link between him being blind drunk and being put to bed by Loki and Loki’s being angry with him this morning. Thor is not surprised he made some kind of advance while drunk, for he has always been over-affectionate and, he will admit privately, somewhat lustful when in drink, but he has never caused offence by it; and besides, Loki has been perfectly open about his interest in Thor’s body. He has learnt already that the jötnar attach no intimacy nor intention of courtship to sex, and certainly not to two friends finding pleasure together at such an event, so it is not as simple as assuming that he attempted a seduction and was rebuffed.

No, he must have done or said something truly vile in his intoxicated state – and it is likely, he is forced to realise, that it was something deeply offensive connected to the jötnar unique anatomy. He does not want to think so of himself, but really, what else could he have done to upset Loki so?

Thor forgets the unpleasant coolness of the bath and the lingering ache in his muscles as a creeping horror steals over him. If this is so, he has dishonoured himself and Loki, and proved himself no better than the vain, cruel boy his father had accused him of being. The fact that he cannot even remember what happened does not mitigate his sense of responsibility. Loki has been nothing but welcoming and kind, and this is how he repays him?

The fault is his, he decides, burning with shame, and he has only compounded it by reacting poorly again this morning. Whatever must Loki think of him, acting like a boor in bed and then spending the next morning joking with the other warriors, careless of Loki’s feelings? Just because he has no intention of marrying him does not mean he can treat him however he likes. Loki is due the proper respect, and beyond that, Thor promised him friendship; that means he owes Loki an apology – right now.

Thor scrambles from the bath and dries and dresses as speedily as he can. He should have pursued Loki first thing this morning, but there is nothing he can do about that now. Where is he likely to be?

Thor has no idea. He has grasped the layout of the settlement quickly enough; though it is large, it is nothing close to a city, and there are few places Loki could be hiding. But all around them is the open expanse of the plain, and as Loki demonstrated so beautifully yesterday, he also has the entirety of the sky to soar in if he wishes to avoid company.

Best to wait for him in their shared room, Thor decides, even though he was not there earlier. Better to be found waiting than to waste the afternoon wandering aimlessly around the settlement and be thought idling and indifferent.

As he walks the short distance from the bathhouse to the private rooms he is greeted warmly by the groups of hrimthursar he passes; it seems the Thrymkyn too have thrown off their hangovers and normal life is returning to the settlement. He politely declines the friendly invitations that come his way, but does ask in return if any have seen Loki. He is answered with grins and playful comments, but nothing useful, and so he resigns himself to a long wait as he sinks down into one of the chairs in their empty room.

***

In the event, it is only an hour before Loki returns, though with nothing to do and too many thoughts it feels much longer. Loki seems utterly unsurprised to find Thor waiting, and says nothing upon entering, taking his time in moving around the room and inspecting the various trinkets and belongings Thor has disturbed in his anxious fidgeting.

“Finished playing with the younglings, have we?” he says at last, lips curled in a sneer as he leans against the table, looking down his nose at Thor.

Prevarication is not Thor’s style. “Loki, I am sorry,” he says, looking up and directly into Loki’s eyes. “I have wronged you, and I regret it.”

This knocks some of the wind out of Loki’s sails and it takes him a moment to recover. “An apology means little when you do not know what it is for,” he observes icily. “Or are pretty words all an Asgardian will offer after offence has been given?”

Thor thinks on this. If he truly offended someone and they did not want his apology, he might face them in the holmgang, where both might prove their honour; were it a lesser matter, he might offer weregild or his time in repairing the damage – he had spent many days labouring after wrecking taverns in drunken brawls, as his furious father would not let such behaviour slide, even though the nervous owners had insisted they did not need reparation from the royal family. But this is completely different. What can he offer Loki?

And, just like that, he has it.

He has humiliated Loki. He will offer his own humiliation in return: a small, private one, a humbling, as payment for the hurt he has caused.

Thor stands and Loki stands his ground, head tilted slightly up: a challenge, since they are of a height. But Thor is not looking to fight, with words or blows, and so he drops, one knee flat to the ground, the other leg bent, and he drops too his head and places one palm on the floor; the other hand he places flat against his heart.

“I ask you for your forgiveness and I offer you my sincere apology and my hope for our continued friendship,” Thor says formally, looking up at Loki. “I will not disrespect you again. You have my word.”

Loki stares down at him, lips parting in surprise, and Thor hopes that he will understand the importance of this gesture, for he has knelt to no-one but his parents in well over a century, and the last time he did so was the swear his coronation oaths. It is no small thing for him to do so now, to bend the knee to another Prince and a jötunn, no less.

To kneel and pledge is a common practice in Asgard, and Thor has accepted such displays of respected and loyalty from just about everyone he knows. A warrior offers his allegiance in such a way, though with a clenched fist over his heart; a lover plights his troth in this position, though with one hand outstretched to the beloved; the lower-ranked acknowledges his superior by making this self-same pose, though they would drop their gaze to the floor.

He has not seen anything like this so far in Jotunheim, for the jötnar have little ceremony, and seem careless of formalities and titles. There is a hierarchy here, certainly, but it seems enforced more through small gestures and precedence than the ritual and careful respect he is used to. Nevertheless, surely Loki will take his meaning and see the sincerity of his words?

The moment drags out as Thor looks up into Loki’s eyes, and Thor begins to fear that his actions, though heavy with import to him, mean little to Loki. Loki looks quite stunned and cannot seem to stop staring at Thor, frozen in place as he wrestles with something beyond Thor’s comprehension.

Thor tries again. “Loki?” he prompts, eyeing the way Loki’s hands flutter and start towards his face and neck before falling back to his side. “Can you forgive me?”

 “I - hmm,” Loki says, but it has none of his usual thoughtfulness, nor does he seem to be as composed as he usually is. “You are – either Asgard’s ways are very different, or -” He stops, still staring at Thor and Thor does not know what to make of his silence nor his scrutiny. Why is this so fraught for them?

After another long pause, some of the stiffness goes out of Loki’s frame and he cocks his head to side and gives Thor something of his more usual assessing look. “Tell me: what would one of your friends do, in Asgard, if you insulted them?”

“Box my ears,” he says wryly, thinking of Sif.

“Ah,” Loki says, and now his eyes sparkle as some new mischief occurs to him. Thor reigns in his relief; he is willing to forgive him then, so long as he can extract some price for it. Loki regards him, turning possibilities over in his mind, and as he reaches a conclusion he straightens up and lets Thor’s hand fall away.

“Then you must take your rightful punishment, Thor Odinson,” Loki says, as imperious as his father, but the corner of his mouth twitches slightly, and that makes it more a game than a surrender. Thor can live with that. And so Thor remains kneeling, keeping his expression as solemn as he can, though a grin is hiding just behind his lips. Loki is a challenge, yes – but Thor has never run from a fight yet.

Loki looms over him, and abruptly delivers two light punches to the side of his head. Thor barely feels a thing. “Be grateful I am willing to forgive you so easily,” Loki decrees, and though he is being playful, Thor can sense a warning lurking behind his smile.

“I am,” Thor says, meaning it absolutely.

“You are welcome,” Loki says, a beautiful smile blooming across his face, and he leans down and presses a soft, chaste kiss to Thor’s forehead, his long hair sweeping forward to brush against Thor’s cheeks. He is making a low, rumbling sound; it takes Thor a minute to recognise it, but it is the same sound of approval Agmundr made for Býleistr back in the Konungsgarðr.

Loki releases him and Thor stands. That should be the end of their strange little spat, anger averted with humour and silliness, and yet it doesn’t seem enough; Loki is looking at him with an air of faint puzzlement, as if he is not quite sure how they have reached this point, and Thor has a sudden, powerful need to touch him, to also give a physical reassurance of their renewed friendship.

“Thank you,” he says, and almost without thinking, he slides his palm over Loki’s cheek to cup the back of his neck and Loki stares at him, wide-eyed, as he leans forward and rests his forehead against Loki’s own. “Friends?” he asks, trying not to focus on the coolness of Loki’s skin nor the intriguing feeling of his raised Kynlines against Thor’s own. He does not quite know what has possessed him to do this; it just feels…natural.

“Yes,” Loki says, voice thick, and Thor wishes, with all his heart, than he were not a Prince of Asgard, nor Loki a child of Laufey, that there was not so much riding upon what they are to each other, that he could be careless and free and –

But if he were not a Prince of Asgard and Loki not a child of Laufey then they would never had met. A lover is a fine thing, and Thor has cherished all he has brought to his bed, but he values his friends far more highly, and the likelihood of having Loki as a companion and honoured guest in Asgard one day is far greater if he builds a firm foundation of respect and trust between them than if he tumbles into bed with him. For bedding may mean nothing between two jötnar, but between two Princes all but betrothed? It would mean something, and for all Thor’s growing fondness for Loki, he still has no intention of being forced into marriage.

“I am glad,” he says, and pulls away, doing his best not to let his gaze linger on Loki, hoping his own face is not so openly painted with hunger and want. “Did you have any plans for this afternoon?”

It is an awkward segue, and for a long moment Loki simply looks at him, and Thor fears he may well start another fight. But then Loki drops his gaze, and the blatant desire in his face is muted, shuttered away and replaced by relative calm.

“Nothing too exciting,” he says, once again perfectly controlled. “I had thought perhaps we could play a game or two? Of cards or dice or halatafl?”

A quiet evening of simple gaming sounds ideal, as does the prospect of a table between them, and Thor is happy to agree to it. When Loki returns with the playing boards and pieces, halatafl turns out to be a Fox game, which is a something Thor fancies he plays well, and they while away the time before dinner with increasingly aggressive gameplay as Thor marshals his defenders and does his best to pin Loki’s sly, slippery Foxes down. It is a good distraction, and as they bicker and banter and accuse each other of cheating, the tension between them eases, and as the night draws in and they eat their evening meal together, swapping ever more outlandish stories, Thor can at last relax in Loki’s company again.

It is not until he is once again lying in bed and staring up at the high ceiling that he pauses to marvel at what the last few days have wrought. Six days ago he stormed into Jotunheim for the first time, intent on bringing the Frost Giants to justice for wreaking his coronation; today, he has apologised wholeheartedly to their eldest Prince after spending the morning sparring with one of their warriors with no malice, only good spirits and a burgeoning friendship. It is a startling transformation for him, and as sprawls out amidst the plus, luxurious furs, he wonders what more strange and unexpected things await him in his time here.

***

All is well between them the next morning, and over breakfast Loki talks animatedly, outlining his plans for the two of them for the next few weeks. Thor is a little surprised at the news that they will be moving on in just two weeks, and to Utgard, rather than visiting the other northern Jarls; still, he supposes, it would be a great inconvenience for all the lords of Jotunheim to play host to him, and he suspects more than one would be happier not to see him here at all.

Loki is enthusiastic in describing Utgard to him, and it is obvious that where they will go and what they will do is solely in his hands. It is most peculiar: this is not the first diplomatic tour Thor had endured, but it is the first one where his itinerary has not been planned and organised by either the realm’s ruler or their council. It genuinely seems that he is here solely as a companion to Loki, and his activities are at Loki’s discretion. It is the most informal kind of exile-cum-matchmaking Thor can imagine.

Yet this is not a bad thing. Without any formal duties or events, his time will be spent living alongside Loki, sharing his life and actually getting to see something of what Jotunheim is like beyond the careful formalities of the Royal Court. If he were truly looking to see if Loki would make a good husband for him, and for Loki to also take the measure of him, it would be ideal indeed. As it is, it is looking to be something unique and exciting for him: a chance to be a young Prince again, with no responsibilities, with nothing expected of him except that he enjoy himself, and all in the most intriguing and entertaining new company he has found in centuries.

It is a hard thing for him to admit, but he was wrong in thinking that this season in Jotunheim would be a hellish penance to endure, and as the next two weeks pass swiftly, he sees over and over that he has indeed been wrong about many, many things.

He was wrong in thinking that Jotunheim was a dead and deserted wasteland. He and Loki have ranged widely over the frozen icefields and he has seen more game than he would ever have imagined, from the tiny, scurrying lemmings that Loki had plucked from their tunnels in the form of a hljóðvængjar, a great, grey owl, to the massive snærgrisnir that menace the great hjörth herds, and which Loki tells him are the ancestors to Thrymr’s warhounds. They have hunted huge, plush-footed snarinna that raced across the plains like the wind, and Thor has had the unrivalled pleasure of launching Loki at them, of watching the sickle-winged gyrfalcon fall like a star from the heavens and seize the swift running hare with a brutal elegance that calls to Thor as thrillingly as battle-fervour.

He and Loki have helped Thrívaldi and Hrungnir in running Thrymr’s hounds, the two hrimthursar struggling to control the surging beasts as they practised calls and commands and strove to impose their will on the unruly creatures. He has seen vast clouds of birds swirling overhead, their honking calls echoing across the settlement; on their way to and from the sea and the mountains, Loki says, glancing up, and pointing out the differences between circling raptors and sure-winged seabirds and the tiny, darting snow petrels that carry messages back and forth between the Jarls and elders and so on.

He was wrong in thinking all the jötnar were cold, brutish killers. Thrymr laughs more than anyone Thor has ever met besides Volstagg; his gaggle of children have all inherited his easy humour, and Thor has become fast friends with Bergfinnr and Thrívaldi. They, in turn, have welcomed him into their home and they and their friends have been only too happy to train with him, pushing him harder than any Asgardian has in decades, and cheerfully slapping him on the back afterwards without a hint of rancour.

The Thrymkyn are great lovers of games, and play far rougher sports than those most popular in Asgard. This suits Thor fine: sparring is well and good, but he can see it is not the most diplomatic of pastimes, given how he came to be here. Wrestling, throwing and weight-lifting contests and tugs of war are just as good for training, and give him ample opportunity to pit his strength against the giants. And in truth, it is great fun to throw off the dignity of royalty, which he has been trying to adopt in preparation for his coronation, and laugh and whoop like a child, charging across the playing field in a game of knattleikr, something like hockey, but where the curved stick is for hitting the other players rather than the ball. Everyone plays it, even Thrymr and Loki, and so Thor is free to join in too, swinging his broad bat just like Mjolnir, bulldozing a path through the opposing team until he scores, unless he is forcibly halted by a sheer mass of bodies; at which point, he slips the ball to Loki, who invariably finds his way to Thor’s side at just the right moment in the crush, and who then races away, hair streaming in the wind, dancing around the huge hrimthursar with ease to score himself.

It is an easy game to learn, and provided one is not fussy about bruises and a few fractures, easy enough to play; Thor has high hopes of introducing it to the Einherjar and his friends. There is no distinction between ability or strength – the younglings are in there too, often bowled over by the bulk of their elders and left half-trampled, which is a source of great amusement to those who choose to watch. Players leap in and limp off as they please every time a point is scored and the teams line up again for possession of the ball, and it is just the kind of wild high-spirits that Thor has always loved and his father has been so keen to wean him off of late. Thrymr tells him there are mass contests at the festivals, and even occasional competitions between Staðr – at least, in the good times.

Aside from all this entertainment, Thrymr has been quite insistent in taking Thor and Loki with him as he tours the scattered Clans of Thrymstaðr, and while Loki grumbled at being put to work, Thor has quite enjoyed meeting with the herders and listening to their variety of filthy stories and long, rambling jokes.

The Clans are on the move, as Loki had pointed out when they first arrived in Thrymstaðr, meandering from the coast towards the mountains, following the drífablōmi. Thrymr has not taken them south, claiming that there was no need, as the Clans already at the summer feeding grounds had Skadi, his íviðja child, to see to them; intrigued, Thor had asked more about Skadi and learnt swiftly that he was not a topic to be mentioned when Thrymr and Loki were together. There is some old disagreement there, and Thor hopes to have the story of it, at some point; but for now he lets it lie.

He is fascinated by the nomadic lifestyle of the Clans. Like the farmsteads of Asgard, each Clan is in essence a large family, of parents and siblings and children, headed by an Elder. But whereas Asgard’s farmers tend to group into loose villages, or a cluster of related homesteads around a shared grazing ground, the Clans move with their semi-domesticated herds across the great plains, forming sturdy huts of ice each night for the family to gather in, surrounded by brightly-coloured tents for those who wish a little more privacy.

Still, it has been a great adventure for Thor: sleeping out on the plains in an ice-hut, surrounded by the best furnishings the Clan could offer the visiting Princes, marvelling at the vast spread of the hjörth milling all around them and happy to join Thrymr and the family for kumis and storytelling, or curling up with Loki in their nest of furs, building on their mutual peace by talking in low murmurs through the night.

Some of the older jötnar are wary of him, true, but their children were fascinated by his hair and eyes and skin, and all too keen to meet him. Thor has sat and listened to Thrymr’s justice, which seemed to mostly involve listening to people’s complaints and then telling them off for complaining, and patiently ignored the stares and whispers until small hands abruptly yanked on his braids and he had whirled round to see a group of wide-eyed little ones – well, wide-eyed children, definitely, most were more than half his height already – who had scattered, screaming with laughter, when he growled and flung himself after them.

He will admit that he had found it disconcerting at first, seeing a huge and heavily muscled jötunn reach over their shoulder to pluck a babe from the sling across their back and put them to the breast, but he is not so rude as to comment on it, and after a while, it no longer seemed strange for a tough, grizzled hrimthurs to break off from his discussion of the state of Thrymstaðr to see to see to the needs of the newborn in his arms, nor to share a ribald joke with a heavily pregnant warrior as another rubs his back and calls commentary on Thor’s technique.

Yet he had still been shocked the first time he stumbled across Thrívaldi and a youngling Thor did not know rutting in a shadowy corner between the huts. He had swiftly turned to leave, cursing his own stupidity, for shadowy corners are just as well used for the same purpose in Asgard, and he should have made more noise when approaching late at night. It was not the sight of the two entwined that had disturbed him, for why should it, but more that Thrívaldi had looked up from where he was riding the youngling and shouted a greeting.

Thor had awkwardly replied, trying not to look at where the youngling’s cock was buried inside Thrívaldi, nor where Thrívaldi’s own erection was bobbing against his belly, but he had not felt truly embarrassed until Thrívaldi had casually extended an invitation for him to join them, followed by an enthusiastic plea from the youngling.  He’d declined, more bluntly than politely in his surprise, only for Thrívaldi to shrug ruefully and assure him he was still welcome to stay and watch, if he liked, and then start moving again, wrenching a moan from the youngling. Thor had gaped for a few moments more than he should have before hastily bidding them goodnight and all but fleeing back to the safety of his own rooms.

It had taken him a while to unravel his confused response to what was, after all, nothing particularly remarkable. Thor is no youth to blush at the sight of a pair of lovers, and it is not the first time he has accidentally stumbled across a private moment. He has, of course, had plenty of his own, and has been stumbled upon himself; so why was this small thing so troublesome for him?

It is, he decides at last, only that the arrangement is unusual to him. He has heard enough gossip to work out that the jötnar do not share Asgardian views on romancing and lying with one’s partner, and while he had accepted it in theory, it was still new and shocking to see the more powerful Thrívaldi astride the youngling, clearly dominant in the coupling but still taking the other into his body. It is…jarring for him, and in truth, makes him uneasy; but he has the sense to know this is a problem only in his own mind, and he chooses not to dwell on it when Thrívaldi cheerfully greets him the next day.

Bergfinnr and Thrívaldi accompany Thrymr on most of his visits, acting as his aides and learning how to govern what is more a loose-knit group of independent families than a unified province. Loki explains to him, in the evenings, that one of them will become the next Jarl, in time: the Ellri of the Clans will come together after Thrymr’s eventual death and vote for who should succeed him. It seems peculiar to choose a lord in such a way, especially as there is not even a guarantee that one of Thrymr’s children will be voted in – any hrimthurs can stand to be Jarl, Loki tells him, though it tends to run in the family, simply because the children of a Jarl are raised to know his business, and serve a long apprenticeship at his side, just as Bergfinnr and Thrívaldi are doing now.

“Will it then become Bergfinnr-Staðr?” Thor asks curiously and Loki laughs.

“No, rather he will become Thrymr-Jarl, and after a while all will forget he ever had another name. Our Thrymr is not the first of his name, nor was he always Thrymr. It is a tradition, of way of showing that once you become Jarl, you put aside your loyalty to your blood-Kyn in favour of being bera to all the people of the Staðr.”

“But Thrymr loves his children,” Thor points out; no-one could miss how he dotes on them.

“Of course he does,” Loki says, as if this is a stupid thing to say. “You do not understand. For us, there is no greater loyalty than to your Kyn. Barn, bera and sibb; Clan, Staðr and Jötunheimr. This is the order of our ties, of who we cherish and who we cleave to in times of strife. By giving up his name, the Jarl gives up his Clan, his family, in favour of the Staðr. It is no small thing, Thor. Only a handful stand for the vote when the new Jarl is chosen. Most do not want the responsibility, nor the consequences.”

This seems a little extreme to Thor. Why should one have to publically and symbolically give up one’s family just to wield power? “And what of your sváss?” he asks, the word now tripping easily off his tongue. “And where does the King come into it?”

“The King is Jötunheimr,” Loki answers, “and the ultimate authority. He is bera to all the jötnar, and that makes my brothers and I sibb to all jötnar – hence the respect we are shown, even by the Jarls and Ellri.”

“And your sváss?” Thor prompts again, noting how Loki turns his face aside before he answers.

“Your sváss is…your everything,” Loki says. “Perhaps even more than your children. But they have no place in talk of duty and responsibility. It is a private thing, a personal thing. We have many stories of loss and grief and sadness, where one’s love for one’s sváss must be weighed against the love of Kyn and one’s duty to Jötunheimr.”

Stories of forbidden or disastrous love are nothing new to Thor; Asgard has plenty, usually told late in the evening when the audience are in their cups and ready to sigh and sob over star-crossed lovers. But the way Loki says it, he can sense there is something deeper, something more that he is not quite grasping. The jötnar do not marry, do not formalise romance between two individuals, something that Thor is still struggling to fully understand. But they obviously do love, and it must mean much to them, for so far all he has heard of sváss is, as Loki said, stories of loss and grief. In fact, though he has been introduced to scores of parents and children, siblings and nephews, grandparents and grandchildren, he has yet to meet a pair of sváss at all.

“Is it so different in Asgard?” Loki asks, and now all his attention is focused on Thor. “Is love worth more than honour or ambition or duty?”

“It is…not a simple thing to decide,” Thor says after a moment. How can he possibly answer such a question? “Few must face such a choice. For most, you just have to find someone you love, marry them, and build a life with them. There is no conflict with that and fulfilling your duties to Asgard.” At least, that is what Volstagg says, and he is the happiest married man Thor knows.

“It can be no small thing, finding someone to love,” Loki points out, and he is only teasing, tone light and friendly, and yet Thor feels a chasm beneath his feet, can sense how this conversation is skating over depths he does not wish to know. He pauses, looking for a neutral reply, but Loki picks up on his hesitation in a heartbeat.

“Tell me more of Asgard,” Loki says as Thor’s gaze slides away from him. “You have not Staðr, but provinces, yes? How are your Lords chosen?”

“They are hereditary, for the most part,” Thor answers, grateful for Loki’s escape route. “But Lords can be raised and broken by the King, and it is with my father that all authority finally lies.”

“Does this not cause discontent with those of high birth not given their own province?” Loki asks, and the conversation moves on, Loki asking more and more perceptive questions, forcing Thor to think back on his old lessons and words of advice from his father. But the image of Loki turning his face aside as he said sváss stays with Thor, and he cannot help but be aware that he turned aside a perfect opportunity for them to discuss the marriage all but he seem to assume will be going ahead.

It is not cowardice, for he is not afraid, but he is not yet ready for that conversation, and he has no desire to have it here, where they are surrounded by hrimthursar and have no way to avoid each other without it becoming fodder for gossip the very same day. No, he will wait for Utgard, where he may find more privacy and fewer distractions. After all, Loki has made no attempt to draw on him the subject either; it will be better for them to know each other more thoroughly before discussing their respective futures.

At least, that is what he tells himself as Loki’s gaze, curious but shuttered, moves over his body and lingers longest on his face as they prepare for bed and lie down, side by side but not touching, separated by a barrier of soft pelts so thick that only their eyes can meet.

***

The days continue to pass swiftly and seeing Loki amidst the whirl of the Clans is…interesting. He seems so out of place, not just because of his smaller stature and shock of dark hair, but because there is always a space between him and the others, always a pause, a hesitation, a sense of otherness. The hrimthursar jostle and backslap and elbow, in just the same way the warriors of Asgard do, and after their initial wariness, most enfold Thor into their banter and casual physicality, and he gives as good as he gets.

But Loki walks alone, head held high and eyes always moving, always watching, always with a quick word or pointed look, and he cuts through the easy familiarity of the Clans like a hawk through a flock of birds, the conversation scattering and reforming around him. Thor had thought, bluntly, that they would be delicate with him, offer him the same polished courtesy that Fandral is so fond of, for he cannot help but think that Loki is more like an elegant lady of Asgard than the rough and ready warriors.

But it is not so. It takes him a while to decipher what he is seeing, but it slowly sharpens into focus as he sees hrimthurs after hrimthurs ask Thrymr, tentatively, confidently, or with great reluctance, would he ask the Silvertongue to do this? Would the Silvertongue help me with this? Might he speak to the Silvertongue on my behalf?

They fear Loki, Thor realises belatedly, for all they honour and desire and value him; some cover it with bluster and some with suspicion, but all look to him as you might look at a lion at your fireplace: a glorious and novel wonder, so long as its claws are sheathed and jaws tight shut.

And Loki knows it.

Thor does not yet know what he thinks of it. Loki is different, so why should they not treat him as such? He has been told, and he well knows, that Loki is a rare and precious jewel; after all, that is exactly why he is being offered to Thor, as something equal in value and worth to the Casket of Ancient Winters itself. But as he watches Loki, sees him hold himself apart, as aloof and proud as a palace cat, it rankles him, though he could not say why, and he finds himself cleaving closer to him, favouring his company over the other warriors, eager to show that he, at least, does not fear him.

He can see though, why Loki might be keen to return to Utgard, the home of his fellow íviðja.

Yet all this is but an undercurrent, the kind of strange new thoughts he has only at night, as he lies weary but not yet sleepy, and listens to Loki’s quiet breathing as he slumbers next to him in the nest of furs.

He is thinking many new things during the long nights in Jotunheim.

***

During the day, as they circle further and further from Thrymr’s Hall, it becomes more and more obvious that the Clans bringing up the rear of the seasonal procession are in a far sorrier state than the first throng Thor had encountered. These stragglers are the families from the furthest edges of Thrymstaðr, and it quickly becomes obvious to Thor that they are also the poorest. Their hjörth are few and many were ill, or underweight; the Clans themselves are not much better, usually being only a few individuals – a parent and a child or two, perhaps an elderly sibb struggling to keep up.

These are the Clans Thrymr spends the most time with, asking after relatives and the state of the drífablōmi in the coastal frontiers, and the same story is told each time: of how the drífablōmi was failing, as was the health and fertility of the hjörth; how it was becoming harder and harder for the jötnar themselves to successfully conceive and bring a healthy babe to bear; that the poor summer last year had led to a harder winter this year, and that many of the elderly and frail had died, leaving the families depleted and struggling to survive.

It comes to a head as a group of only three jötnar approach today’s temporary camp, leading a thin and limping hjörth whose every breath rattles ominously. A hundred yards out, the hjörth makes a shrill bleating sound and just crumples – one moment it is on its feet, the next it has crashed to its side, legs held stiffly out from its body, head thumping as it tries unsuccessfully to rise.

“Silvertongue,” Thrymr says quietly, and though Loki sighs in displeasure, he rises swiftly enough and follows Thrymr out to where the tallest hrimthurs is kneeling beside the downed hjörth, removing the halter and crooning softly to try and calm it.

“Ellri,” Thrymr greets him, and the jötnar stands and inclines his head in respect.

“Thrymr-Jarl,” he responds, stepping  away from the hjörth. “I had hoped t’seek yer aid, but I fear it be too late.”

“We’ll see,” is all Thrymr says in return, and all fall silent as Loki kneels beside the hjörth and runs his hands over the wounded animal, eyes closed, face twisted in a frown. The hjörth pants heavily, froth bubbling from its slack mouth, clearly in pain, and kicks feebly as Loki’s hands ghost over its abdomen.

“It is dying,” Loki says bluntly as he opens his eyes and moves away from the distressed hjörth. “Kill it and be done with it.”

 “I thought as much,” the Ellri says, looking down at the stricken beast. “But I wanted t’be sure.” The ice coalesces around his hand as he speaks, forming a sharp, curved blade; in one swift movement he cuts the hjörth’s throat and the animal is dead in seconds.

The Ellri looks at the carcass and exhales slowly. “She were our last breeding female,” he says, voice devoid of emotion. “We ‘ave a few immature cows, but they won’t come int’ season for two year or more.”

“Yer last?” Thrymr says. “Why have ye waited so long t’ask for aid?”

“We ‘ave done well enough wi’ just her for t’past year,” the Ellri replies stiffly, “since it be just me and the two little ‘uns. We ‘ave bred good bulls and have traded wi’ t’others whose herds be shrinking. She were young and strong and we should ‘ave had a good decade left wi’ her -”

“But now ye don’t,” Thrymr says bluntly. “How many Clans do ye trade with, who struggle so?”

“There be eight or nine of us, out by the coast,” the Ellri says. “We ‘ave given our word t’treat each other as bloodkyn.”

“I see,” Thrymr says, thoughtful. “Are ye bringing yer herds together then?”

“We may have t’, now.”

“Then I’ll ‘ave my Skadi bring ye a dozen breeding cows,” Thrymr says, and he just keeps talking as the Ellri splutters and tries to protest. “Ye calves will be too inbred t’survive wi’out new blood. There’ll be a trade, aye, for hjörth be too precious t’simply give. But I’ll not ‘ave another Clan fail. Not when the worst be nearly behind us.”

“Then…the rumours be true?” the Ellri says hopefully, glancing at Thor and Loki. “The Vetrformen be coming back?”

“Aye,” Thrymr says. “So put aside yer pride. Things will be better, soon.”

The Ellri subsides at that, and he and Thrymr begin a loud and vigorous discussion of the struggling Clans, and how many of them might need, as Thrymr puts it, some fresh younglings along with the hjörth.

Thor looks at the dead animal and then to Loki, puzzled. The hjörth was clearly in a bad way, but it was not sick, nor old, simply underfed and exhausted. “Could you not have healed it?” he asks Loki in a low voice and Loki glares at him.

“I am not a healer,” Loki says, obviously annoyed. “And if I were, I would do better to save my strength for my people, rather than their beasts.”

This seems strange: every sorceress in Asgard starts out as a healer, and it is where most of them choose to stay, studying under Eir and either staying within the palace or moving out to the farmsteads to provide aid and assistance to the outlying communities. Thor has had every manner of injury healed under their talented hands, and in their absence, has a box full of healing stones, which he has used for headaches, hangovers and all varieties of bruises and training aches. Restoring strength to a weak animal would be the work of a moment for them.

Do they not have such things in Jotunheim? Is healing so difficult for them? It would explain the heavy scarring on most of the adult jötnar, Thor realises. They must save their magic for otherwise fatal wounds, and leave all else to heal with time. No-one in Asgard bears such scars and the only permanently injured men are his father, who lost his eye, and Tyr, who lost his hand, and the battles that caused those injuries are the stuff of legend.

Is this because the Casket was taken, or is it just the nature of jötnar magic? Thor has no idea, and is not about to ask. It is clearly a sore point with Loki. But he continues to think on it as Thrymr finalises the agreements and the Ellri and his tiny Clan move on. The next day, so do Thor and his party, and it is just another judgement as Thrymr looks after his people and Thor and Loki help where they can. But now Thor has noticed it, he sees the herds and the herders differently, and sees, time after time, the signs of stress and loss, the battle-scars and sickly animals, the gaunt frames and hollow eyes.

Jotunheim is dying, his mother had said. They need the Casket to ensure their survival.

All his life, Thor has dreamed of fighting a second war with Jotunheim, of finding honour and glory in defeating the brutal, powerful monsters that lurked in the darkness. He grew up listening to stories which extolled his father’s greatness in winning the war, his great mercy in leaving Laufey, the despotic invader-king, alive, and his magnanimousness in taking only the Casket of Ancient Winters as a trophy. He was told, over and over, in his lessons, that there was more to that Great War than this; that Jotunheim had been crippled and exiled both as punishment for attacking Midgard, that most vulnerable and helpless Realm, and as a warning to the other Realms, that such behaviour would not be tolerated even outside Asgard’s own dominions.

Jotunheim paid a heavy price for her defiance, his tutors had said, shaking their heads sadly, but Thor could not have cared less; who could follow the dry and dusty version of history the librarians tried to teach him, and who would even been interested when they could instead listen to the rousing songs of battle and victory sung in the taverns and training yards, where the warriors bellowed their version of how Jotunheim tried to fuck Asgard over and got right royally fucked instead? Who cared if their Realm was dying – they were still a threat, and one Thor had had high hopes of wiping out for good.

He no longer thinks such things; he sees now how wrong he was, and he is sorry for what he has thought and done in the past. And while he is not so naive as to think that all welcome him here, he has the sense to see that Jotunheim itself is not his enemy, and that for the most part, her people want what most of Asgard wants, namely peace and prosperity and the freedom and security to enjoy both.

But Jotunheim is dying.

A thousand years of slow, incremental decay; a thousand years of resources slowly running out, of magic fading and the health of both people and animals with it; a thousand years where each harvest is a little more meagre, each winter a little harsher, each loss felt more keenly. One thousand years of suffering as he grew and played and laughed in the sun of Asgard, and yet when he came here, full of foolish vanity and bloodlust, Laufey-King had put aside his pride and the bitterness he must surely feel, and instead of striking out against him, had offered him his greatest treasure, all for the good of his people.

Thor fancied himself ready for kingship that day, but looking around at the price Jotunheim has paid for its King’s fondness for battle, and the sacrifices that self-same King must now make to save his world, Thor thinks in truth he still has much to learn. Thor can see now why Laufey and his father leapt at the chance to force him and Loki together. Had he come to the throne of Asgard without ever knowing Jotunheim, he would have moved to war from arrogance and foolishness, and would have found in Helblindi a foe equally blind and ignorant, with an even greater hunger for battle. The proposed marriage is an elegant solution, and this brief exile is indeed for his own good, just as his mother had said.

Asgard must return the Casket. Now Thor has been here and seen the state of Jotunheim for himself, he knows it must be so. Yes, they need assurances of peace and yes, the threat of another war must be contained, but they cannot simply hold on to it, leave it just another trophy amidst the vast treasures of Asgard’s Vault, when to do so means misery and suffering and death for the jötnar.

But Thor still does not wish to marry Loki.

This simple fact weighs heavy on his mind the longer he stays in Jotunheim, even as the friendship between them grows and he finds himself fonder and fonder of the firebrand Prince. He wakes every day glad to have Loki at his side and yet even as he smiles and jokes and laughs with him, he does so with a growing sense of unease, for he feels that he does so under false pretences.

All of Jotunheim believes the marriage will go ahead. He hears the whispers, sees the nudges and grins, and does not begrudge them, for they see in Thor and Loki’s burgeoning affection the peace and prosperity the Realm so desperately needs. Loki is harder to read, but he has made no secret of his desire for Thor, and as he has been more than welcoming to Thor from the very start, it seems certain that he too wants the marriage to go ahead – or that he sees it as his duty, Thor assumes, after that tentative discussion of love and responsibility.

Thor knows it is his duty too. He is Asgard’s only Prince and holds the future of two Realms in his hands: he should accept Loki and agree to the marriage and so usher in a bright new future for both their peoples. It is the selfish act of a spoilt child to refuse such a fine and diplomatic match, simply because there is no love in it.

And yet…how can he marry without love? Is love worth more than honour or ambition or duty? Loki asked him, and he cannot say it always is, but then, is honour and ambition and duty always worth more than love? Thor grew up secure in the knowledge that for all they were King and Queen of Asgard, the Allfather and the mother of the realm, his parents were also husband and wife, and ever since he was old enough to understand it he has seen the love they bear each other shining from their eyes and threading through their voices, shared and sought in every brush of their hands, every time he stumbled across them sitting and talking, of nothing in particular, their bodies tilted towards each other as if love was like gravity, an irresistible force pulling them into each other’s orbits.

He never doubted that one day he would know love like that; never paused to think that his future could be any different. Thor knows he is a Prince, and that as far as royal marriages of convenience go, this would be a good one: after all, he likes Loki well enough and he is would be more than happy to have him in his bed and at his side, at least for a time.

But he does not love him. And he cannot sell his heart so cheaply, not even for the sake of two Realms and all their peoples.

Thor wrestles with this dilemma, quietly and alone, after he and Loki retire to bed each night. For the first time in his life, what he is supposed to do and what he truly wants to do are not in alignment. He is no longer a child, choosing to flee from his lessons in favour of playing with his friends, though he knows he should not; this is a momentous decision, and one with a lifetime’s worth of consequences, and so he thinks on it, over and over, looking for a middle path between the extremes.

It takes him nearly all of the two weeks spent roaming Thrymstaðr to come up with a solution, but after watching Thrymr and Loki navigate the complex web of feuds and fears of the Clans, he at last hits upon a way out of his difficulties.

He will ask his father to adopt Loki.

It is perfect: Thor has always wanted a brother, and a formal adoption by Odin, alongside a vow of blood-brotherhood between Loki and Thor would ensure Loki retained his Princely status and would be just as high an honour for both him and Laufey as a marriage with Thor. Loki would come with Thor to Asgard and there reside, and so the Casket could be safely returned, and Helblindi’s aggression tempered by the bonds of kinship. Loki seems interested in the other realms and seems perfectly comfortable with the idea of becoming part of the Royal family of Asgard; surely he too would prefer to be a brother rather than a consort, for it would give him the freedom to find his own partner outside of marriage, as the jötnar prefer?

Loki has mentioned, once or twice, that before the marriage was proposed, he was preparing to become the Āsegas, a sort of advisor and counsellor, to whichever of his sibja became King; well, he can still have that role, only he will be Thor’s right-hand man instead. Thor can already see how Loki’s quick mind and multitude of skills would be a boon to any King, and he is certain they would work well together. And in truth, after the past few weeks realising how little he truly understand about both the other Realms and the nature of kingship, he would be grateful indeed to have Loki at his side when he becomes King of Asgard, for the Silvertongue seems well suited to the intricacies of royal rule.

The more he thinks on it, the more he likes the idea. He would dearly like to discuss it with Loki, but it seems wiser to wait and see what his father makes of the idea first, for it would be disastrous for him to turn down the marriage, promising brotherhood instead, and then have to renege on that offer too.

But it is a plan, at least, of his own devising, and the first one Thor has had since being left here by his father. With a clear goal in mind, he finds his good spirits rising, and now, quite unexpectedly, he finds himself looking forward to the next two months in Jotunheim. A season is not a long time after all, and there is plenty of adventure to be had and new sights to be seen, and so, against all the odds, Thor rises on his last morning in Thrymstaðr happy and excited and entirely at peace with himself.

***

At last, the two weeks are up, and Thor is back where he began this part of his tour: Thrymr’s Hall, now a place of fond memories and good friends. The farewells were said last night, during dinner, and as the jötnar do not dwell on such things, there is no-one to see him off as he walks through the settlement for the last time. The lack of ceremony and complete disinterest in his comings and goings is peculiar; while he does not expect to be feted and fawned over, in all his previous tours of the realms there had always been a contingent of officials and lords with him and his father, and in Asgard, he is constantly aware of the scrutiny of the people when he moves about the city.

To walk alone, carrying his own pack, all but ignored by the handful of hrimthursar busy with their work, would have seemed an unimaginable insult two weeks ago. But now, he knows it is just the way the jötnar are – for they pay no more attention to their own Prince, and as he leaves the Hall behind he sees Loki waiting for him, equally alone and unremarked. Loki is again wearing his travelling outfit, and Thor is confident enough now to comment on it, to tell Loki that the green velvet skirt suits him well, and to offer a smile when Loki praises his own casual outfit. He has carefully packed his armour away, in favour of his more comfortable sleeveless tunics and leggings; the jötnar wear little clothing and, outside of the hirðverr, no armour in their day to day lives, unlike the warriors of Asgard, and after the hunt his usual breastplate and greaves and so on seemed rather unnecessary.

“Will we be taking Snarfari?” Thor asks, eyeing the huge block of ice and snow now so shapeless you would never guess it housed a living creature, much less a sleeping Íssdyr. They have ranged widely over the plains of Thrymstaðr but now they will be heading north-east, towards the sea and the Ironwood. The Uplands stretch out to the horizon, with no hint of trees or shore, and it is impossible to guess how far away Utgard might be.

“No need,” Loki says, fussing with their packs. “Útgarðar is less than a day’s run away, at my pace; we will be there by this afternoon.”

“We are running there?”

Loki just laughs and leaves off rummaging through their belongings. “Are you ready to leave?”

“Yes,” Thor answers, resigning himself to a long slog through the wilderness. Perhaps Loki will call up the ice-skates like he did for the hunt? Loki gives him a sly look as he sketches the angular shapes in the air that Thor recognises now as a prelude to his shapeshifting, and Thor’s heart sinks: surely Loki does not intend to fly there and leave Thor to trudge through the snow beneath him, alone and exhausted?

But instead of leaping into the air and abandoning Thor, Loki drops to all fours, and as he does so he shimmers, shape flickering and growing, before coalescing into the smuggest looking wolf Thor has ever seen. He’s smaller than Thrymr’s hounds, but big enough to look Thor in the eye, and he grins as he does so, revealing frankly huge, sharp teeth.

Thor grins back. Loki is gorgeous, as ever, with utterly immaculate thick white fur and a pleasingly fluffy tail. He’s not as heavily built as the wolves Thor has hunted in Asgard, but is far sleeker, with a thinner, shorter muzzle and small ears, presumably adaptations for the cold.

Thor reaches out and scratches gently at the base of Loki’s ear, marvelling at the plushness of his fur. “You never cease to surprise me,” he says and Loki lolls his tongue out and squints at him in pleasure. Thor gives him one final pat and moves away to pick up their bags. It will be difficult to carry them both and travel on foot, but he’s not sure how Loki will react if he tries to strap them to him. He shoulders them with a grunt and turns.

Loki huffs a loud sigh and drops to the ground, pressing his muzzle to the floor just as Snarfari did. Thor grins again, even wider, and quickly climbs on to his back, looping the straps of the bags around himself so they are secure and settling himself so that he can grip the scruff of Loki’s neck. Loki is far more comfortable to sit on than Snarfari, and he is looking forward to this immensely.

“Ready when you are,” Thor says, leaning forward, and Loki slowly gets to his feet, shifting his weight to compensate for Thor. He starts off at a brisk walk, getting a feel for Thor just as Thor is getting used to riding him – it is entirely unlike riding a horse or even Snarfari, for Loki moves with a smoother gait, his shoulders bunching as he moves up to a trotting speed, and even given that Loki is a large wolf, Thor is much closer to the ground than he is accustomed to being. Without a saddle, Thor must grip Loki’s flanks tightly with his knees, and since there is no question of Thor guiding him, he is free to hang on to Loki’s fur with his hands, staying low and flat along his back rather than sitting up as he would on a horse.

It is almost intimate, especially as this is Loki and not just a wolf, and Thor takes a moment to rest his chin against Loki’s flat head, to feel his velvety ears flick against his cheek. “Go on,” he murmurs, “show me what you can really do.”

Loki yips and Thor feels his muscles bunch as he leaps forward, accelerating into the easy wolf-lope that eats up the miles, his body rippling like a wave under Thor’s hands, and if Snarfari was raw power in Thor’s hands then Loki is pure grace, racing across the snowy plains like light over water. Loki’s fur is soft against his skin and he can feel him breathing, feel his sides expanding and contracting with every breath even before he hears his panting, sees his breath steaming in the frigid air.

It is exhilarating and Thor laughs for joy as Loki runs on, faster and faster, his speed surely augmented with more magic, and Thor would not be anywhere else but here, pressed close against Loki as the endless vista of Thrymstaðr stretches out before them, the snow and ice glowing faintly in Jotunheim’s endless night, the sapphire luminescence scattering under each crunching footfall as they race on towards the Ironwood.

***

After the monotonous flatness of the great northern plain it is something of a relief when the land begins to undulate, rising into low hills with the shadows of higher peaks shrouded in mist and fog. Soon, they reach what looks like the treeline, and a dark, shadowy forest appears, blanketing the foothills and presumably the mountains too, though a bare peak or two gleaming with snow looms in the misty distance. Even here, the ground remains carpeted with snow and ice, though there are patches of black rock about the base of the trees.

Loki comes to a halt before they enter the wood, panting heavily, and Thor dismounts quickly, taking the packs with him. He rummages through them to find a flask and some dried meat, a parting gift from Thrymr, and by the time he turns to offer them to Loki he is once again in his jötnar form, and greedily reaches for the food and drink. For a few brief moments they eat together in companionable silence, and Thor takes the opportunity to get a better look at this new landscape.

Stooped, shrouded figures stand like sentinels, their heads bowed by the weight of the snow clumped on their branches. There is something strange and wrong about the trees, though at this distance Thor cannot quite put his finger on what it is. They are a mixture of twisted, branching trunks and branches, reminiscent of pine trees but entirely leafless, and what might be fir trees under the blanketing snow, their streamlined silhouettes rising tall but peculiarly conical. It is not what Thor would consider a welcoming vista, as a greyish mist swirls between the contorted black trees, but it is a different one, and is quite unlike what he has seen of Jotunheim so far.

 “So this is Utgard?” he asks once they have finished eating, thinking a conversation will give Loki a chance to rest before they press on.

“No,” Loki says, licking his fingers clean. “As I told you, Útgarðar is a castle. This is Járnviðr, the Ironwood.”

“I did not think to see trees in Jotunheim,” Thor remarks.

 “They are not living, growing trees,” Loki says, keen as always to explain. “They are metal and mineral, formed from volcanic fire in the ages before the ice. They are like vents, and they bring some of the heat of the planet’s core to the surface. The hrimthursar find the Ironwood too warm – though to your kind, it would still be bitterly cold.”

“And this is where you grew up?” Thor says, striving to sound anything but horrified. It is dim and grey and unpleasant, and nowhere he would want to raise a child.

“Útgarðar is where I studied seidr,” Loki corrects. “The castle lies deep within the wood, on a lakeshore, with easy access down to the sea. It is less grim than it first appears,” he adds, smirking at Thor’s face. “There is plenty of life in the wood. In fact, there is more small game here than on the plains, for there is both lichen on the trees and the drífablōmi in the ice, and without the hjörth, the smaller creatures flourish. The hjörth do not linger in these woods.” Loki grins nastily. “They are not safe here. This is the home of the hoarfen, the icewolves, and this is where I first learnt to change my shape and stalk my prey.”

Well, it still doesn’t look like much to Thor, who grew up riding through the sunlit forests of Asgard, a world of oak and ash and hazel, of green and gold and trilling birdsong. But if this is home to Loki, then Thor will not speak against it.

It is difficult to imagine Loki as a child. Was he bookish and serious, or precocious and demanding? He was sent away from his father and brothers young, Thor recalls, and mentioned finding friends here. It is hard work trying to picture a group of small blue boys at play in this dank wood, but presumably at some point there was. What kind of games might they have played, here on the edge of the forest and the plains?

Thor eyes Loki and grins to himself. Time for a little fun.

“Of course, not all of the Ironwood looks like this,” Loki is saying, looking away from Thor and into the gloom. “The borders are not supposed to be enticing -”

The snowball explodes against Loki’s chest, covering him in a fine dusting of white powder. A hit, a good, solid hit. Loki gapes at him, looking totally shocked, and a laugh bubbles out of Thor.

What do you think you are doing?” Loki says, outraged.

“You cannot tell me you have never had a snowball fight?” Thor says, still laughing, his head still full of a tiny Loki playing with equally tiny friends.

“Oh, you have no idea,” Loki snarls, and for a heartbeat, Thor thinks he has miscalculated, that Loki is angry again; but no, Loki’s face splits in a feral grin and he spreads his arms wide, like a dancer, and then drops to a crouch, spinning as he does so, palms gliding over the snow, and then, faster than Thor can follow, he flicks his hands forward, like he’s throwing knives, and before Thor can even raise his hands in his own defence, he’s peppered with a furious barrage of snow pellets.

He’s blinded, battered and choking on snow, and all he can hear is Loki saying smugly, “Never challenge an íviðja, Asgardian.”

Perfect.

Thor doesn’t stop to wipe the snow from his eyes, but instead drops to his knees and grabs great handfuls of snow, packing it together as fast as he can and then flinging it at the direction Loki’s voice is coming from. He rolls to the side immediately, now scrubbing his face, and his vision clears just as another snowball – a perfect sphere, obviously magically-shaped – flies past his face.

Loki is laughing more freely than Thor even thought possible, gleeful and silly as a child, and as Thor chokes on snow he is glad of it, delighted to see Loki so carefree and happy. They screech and flail around like idiots, a riot of noise in the silence of the treeline, and surely no-one who saw them would believe they were the foremost princes in the Nine Realms.

It’s an act of idiocy to have a snowball fight with a jötunn sorcerer in the middle of an icefield but Thor goes for it anyway, and in fairness, Loki is gracious enough not to simply turn all of Thor’s projectiles against him. He doesn’t bother raising any defences either, and restrains himself to using his natural affinity for ice to create perfectly balanced snowballs, and this makes it a contest indeed, Thor doing his best to dodge and failing miserably, while Loki dances between Thor’s cruder missiles, crowing triumphantly.

Thor soaks up his punishment manfully, concentrating on working his way closer and closer to the flickering shape in his vision that has to be Loki, until he is finally within striking distance: gathering himself, he waits for a pause in the snow barrage and then throws himself forward, exploding upwards in what is almost a leap, his entire body momentarily airborne before he slams into Loki, arms locking tight around his knees and thighs.

It’s an old trick from when he was a young boy play-fighting with the much older and bigger Volstagg, and it works just as well now as it did then, as Loki crashes down under the sudden impact of Thor’s entire bodyweight.

“You selfish brute!” Loki shouts, struggling in vain to get enough legroom to kick Thor. “You are only doing this because I’m winning!”

“You were winning,” Thor shouts back cheerfully, and proceeds to drag himself up Loki’s body, using his greater size and weight to keep Loki pinned, until he can simply flatten out, crushing Loki beneath him. The stream of curses and insults make it abundantly clear that Loki’s breathing is not impended, and Thor boxes in Loki’s thrashing limbs as best he can and balances himself on his elbows so he can catch Loki’s face in his hands.

“I win,” he says proudly, flushed with victory.

“This battle, perhaps,” Loki says as he stops struggling, panting heavily, cheekbones dusted with an intriguing lavender flush Thor has not been close enough to notice before. “But the war is not over yet.”

“I will rise to any challenge you set,” Thor brags.

“Oh, really,” Loki purrs, rolling the word deep and low, and heat prickles over Thor’s skin.

“Will you ever stop teasing me?” Thor asks in mock-exasperation and Loki smirks at him, unrepentant as always.

“Never,” he says, and then he arches up so he can purse his lips and press a quick kiss to the tip of Thor’s nose.

“Stop that,” Thor warns, tone skittering on the edge of playfulness, acutely aware that his entire body is pressing Loki down into the snow.

“Make me,” Loki counters, just as poised between play and passion, and Thor’s breath catches at how their bodies are entwined, faces only inches apart, and how Loki is gazing up at him, daring him to do something, and oh, he can’t keep doing this, can’t keep holding back, when all that prevents him from taking what Loki is whole heartedly offering is his own rapidly fraying sense of what the consequences might be –

 “Well, well, well,” comes a dry voice to his left, faintly burred with the accent Thor now thinks of as northern, and Thor freezes, dragging his attention from Loki to finally realise they have an audience. Two íviðjur are sitting in the snow a few feet away, cross-legged and entirely too comfortable, both of them grinning widely.

They are the first íviðjur Thor has seen apart from Loki, and even in his surprise he is struck again by how Aesir they look compared to the rugged hrimthursar he is now familiar with. One is lean and fine-boned, not too dissimilar to Loki, with the same deep blue skin but with a mass of fiery red hair, sporting only a handful of thick braids tipped with silver. He is wearing far less jewellery than Loki usually does as well, with only plain wrist cuffs and a single pendant, a strange, angular shape that mimics his Kynlines, and his kjalta is plain brown leather.

The other is quite different, with silvery-blue skin and ash blonde hair pulled back and arranged in a complicated knot on top of his head; instead of jewels and metal, dark leather strips have been woven through the strands, with a multitude of white and black feathers sprouting forth. He is noticeably shorter than the redhead, perhaps five and a half foot, which is small indeed for a jötnar, and next to the redhead and Loki, looks much more like the voluptuous women of Asgard. He is dressed more flamboyantly too, with white fur wrapped around his legs and arms, and a jewelled, fringed shawl draped around his shoulders. His kjalta is also heavily embroidered and again fringed, and falls to his calves, though it is slit all the way up his thighs.

The redhead is unarmed, but blonde is carrying a spear tipped with a long blade, as long as he is tall, in the crook of his arm. However, the point is resting lightly on the ground in what Thor takes to be a sign of peaceful intentions.

“Oh, do not stop now,” the blonde one says, his sharply accented words rising and falling in a sing-song pattern, his grin sharper than his spear. “We can wait – what, five minutes?”

“Twenty at least,” Loki says, voice suddenly twice as breathy, and Thor gapes at him. He sounds – wait, they weren’t actually - “You could have announced yourselves, you know.”

“You were clearly occupied,” says the northern íviðja, and while it is impossible to tell if he is disapproving or teasing, it is entirely obvious what he is assuming.

“And it is not often we can sneak up on you,” the other says, rising to his feet. “Greetings, Thor Odinson, and welcome to the Ironwood. I am Járnsaxa, and this is Angrboða.”

“I am honoured to meet you,” Thor says, belatedly pushing himself away from Loki, doing his best to ignore both Loki’s overt pouting and the way he remains sprawled in the snow, legs spread carelessly wide, his velvet skirt pushed up almost to his waist.

“No, really, you can carry on,” Járnsaxa says, waving his hand languidly, utterly unembarrassed. “We will head back to Útgarðar and meet you there, if you prefer. We only came because we were out hunting and heard the screeching.”

Thor represses a wince. While their seemingly-interrupted intimacy might not be cause for interest here, being caught romping like an overexcited child cannot have given a good first impression of him to the íviðjur. He turns to Angrboða, meaning to exchange formal greetings with him too, but Angrboða is already speaking solely to Loki.

“We do not have a formal welcome planned for the Odinson,” Angrboða says, and Thor does not miss the way his eyes are fixed on Loki, now rolled on to his side but still flushed and bright-eyed and altogether too appealing. “My bera is away; we did not expect you for a month, at least.”

“Plans change,” Loki says idly. “I wanted to show Thor something more than warriors and herders. We have had our fill of feasts and formality. I want him to see my home.”

That does not quite ring true for Thor, but it clearly means something to Angrboða, for a tangle of complicated emotions flit across his features before settling back into perfect blankness. “I see,” he says, utterly flat. “We shall leave you to it then, and await your arrival at the castle. It is only I and Járnsaxa in residence at the moment, so dinner will be whenever you want it.”

“Thank you,” Loki says, and Thor echoes him, feeling all at once the stranger he is here. Angrboða gives them both a long, cool look and then, entirely without fuss, rolls his shoulders and in the blink of an eye is an enormous silver wolf, the transformation swift and fluid, much less showy than Loki’s.

“See you later!” Járnsaxa calls, relaxed and casual, leaping onto the wolf’s back and waving farewell. The wolf dips his head and then they are gone, loping away towards the shadows of the trees.

“My apologies,” Loki says as they disappear into the distance, though he sounds anything but sorry. “I should have thought. Sound carries in strange ways in the wood, and we íviðjur hear more than most.”

Thor is not entirely sure what to make of this, nor Loki’s little…performance in front of the two íviðjur. It is almost like…Loki was staking his claim, or warning them off, and for all Thor knows such a thing is entirely unnecessary, he cannot help a flicker of smug pleasure at the thought of being fought over so.

“I think we will be seeing rather a lot of Angrboða and Járnsaxa over the next few days,” Loki continues as he stands and adjusts his rumpled skirt. “Járnsaxa in particular has always been keen to meet an Aesir, and it is rare for us to receive visitors at Útgarðar. No hrimthurs has ever set foot in the place.”

“They are…your friends?” Thor asks, to be sure: no other jötnar have been anything like as informal around the two of them, not even Thrymr. It seems the ways of the íviðjur are different indeed, and he is not yet sure if he likes their complete disregard of his status as a Prince of Asgard. It is one thing to be solely himself around Loki, but he does not yet have the measure of the two sorcerers.

“We were raised together,” Loki answers. “When I first came to Útgarðar, Angrboða and Járnsaxa were the only other children here. They are both some decades older than I, but I soon caught up in my studies, and so we spent most of our time together, in lessons and in play. Angrboða’s bera, Skrýmir, has always been keen for us to be close – you see, my geta, Fárbauti, was Skrýmir’s sibb, and he likes to think of me as kyn, since Fárbauti bore no children of his own.”

A cousin, Thor thinks, and a childhood friend too, with a father who sees Loki as family even if no-one in Jotunheim acknowledges the relationship. Well, he can see why Angrboða would be less than impressed to find them apparently rutting in the snow, but still, he had not actually bothered to speak a single word directly to Thor, and Thor cannot help but see that as an insult. Is it that Angrboða resents him because he is an Aesir and Odin’s son? Or, given the way his gaze lingered on Loki, is this a more personal grudge?

Well, this is going to be an interesting visit.

“Come,” Loki says, turning to Thor with bright eyes and a rich smile. “Let me show you Útgarðar, the castle of the íviðjur. Neither Aesir nor hrimthurs has ever walked within its walls, not even Laufey-King. We are a mystery even to your Gatekeeper; and this is the one stronghold your father’s forces could not overcome. ”

“I did not realise,” Thor says, the enormity of the honour sinking in, alongside the belated remembrance that this is the one place in Jotunheim hidden from Heimdall’s sight.

“It is a place of many secrets,” Loki says, voice dropping as he moves closer, and Thor leans towards him, barely aware that he’s doing it. “And I cannot wait to show them to you.”

“I look forward to it,” Thor murmurs, barely thinking, hyper-aware of Loki’s crisp, cool scent and the knowing humour in his smile.

“Good,” Loki says, stepping away, fingers crooking as he sketches his shapeshifting runes, and the white wolf sits and laughs with his long, lupine tongue as Thor must go scrambling back for their packs before returning to his side.

Thor scratches gently at the base of Loki’s velvety ears, and receives a pleased whine as they set off, a ghostly white shape amidst the shadows of the Ironwood; within moments the only sound is the patter of Loki’s paws and his soft panting as the grey mist swallows them whole.

They are in Loki’s lands now, and Thor can only twist his fingers deeper into Loki’s plush fur and wonder what awaits him within the towering walls of Utgard.