"I could have done it, Father! For you! For all of us!" Thor stared down at his little brother who in turn was staring up at Odin, and felt his heart break inside his chest. This individual clinging petulantly to the other end of the staff he himself clung to seemed an entirely different being from the raging, power-crazed madman that had been trying to kill him just minutes before. When was the last time he had seen Loki's expression so open, so vulnerable? He couldn't remember. Thor wanted more than anything to draw his brother into his arms like he used to when they were younger. Loki's and his grip on the staff were secure—it would be hardly any effort to merely—

"No, Loki." Thor felt the blood drain from his face; an interesting sensation when one was hanging upside-down off the Bifrost. Surely he had just misheard his father. Of all possible things for the Allfather to say just then, that was probably the absolute worst. Thor saw the small flickering hope that glimmered in his brother's eyes extinguish, like a candle flame after one opens a window in a blizzard. His openness and vulnerability closed down instantly, his face becoming blank and cold as ice. In that awful second, Thor read Loki's resolve in his face as though his gaze were an open book.

"Loki, no!" He felt more than heard his voice tear from his throat, the raw sound slicing through the air with all the passion that Odin's quiet pronouncement had lacked. The brothers locked gazes for an agonizing moment, and then Loki gently released his hold on the staff. Thor watched him fall with horror. His little brother—the second son of Odin—Loki—

Loki scowled coldly, fishing pages of his notes out of the manger where the straw for the horses was kept. At least they all seemed to be together, this time. He was glad his tormentors were too daft for creativity, but digging his notes and books out of various inconvenient locations time and time again was tedious at best. He heard footsteps entering the stable, and he didn't even have to look over his shoulder to know who it was. Thor sounded like a herd of elephants even when he was trying to be stealthy, and the return from a hardy training exercise with their father's soldiers was hardly a time when he would be attempting stealth. But even besides that, Loki somehow always knew when his brother entered the room. The room seemed somehow…complete, now. A faint smile ghosted across his thin lips as he shook straw and dirt off yet another sheet of parchment. Although he had noticed Thor immediately, Thor had nearly stridden past him before he realized that one of the shadows by the wall of the stable was indeed a bit more solid than the others.

"Loki!" he said cheerfully, "So you are able to drag yourself away from that dusty desk of yours now and again! Going out for a ride, brother?" His joviality abruptly ceased when he realized what his brother was doing. "Not again," he said, anger dancing dangerously on the edge of his voice. He stamped to Loki's side and gazed down at the manger where Loki's notes and books had unceremoniously been dumped and thoroughly mingled with the straw and feed that was there. "Why do you let them get away with that, brother? Surely you have some spell that could stop this once and for all!" Loki smiled darkly. If only Thor knew how often his own thoughts had tempted him in that direction!

"It's just the senseless pranks of foolish boys," Loki replied mildly. "Responding in kind would accomplish nothing but provoking them further. Don't trouble yourself about it, brother." But Thor's stormy visage and flashing eyes told him that his thunderous older brother was indeed very troubled by it. "Thor," he said sharply. His brother fixed on him a glare that surprised him in its intensity.

"This might not trouble you, brother, for nothing seems to, but this shall not go unpunished. I swear this to you. They have tormented you long enough." Loki wouldn't argue the last point. Just because his taste tended towards learning and magic as opposed to their peers' taste for battle and brawn, Loki had no end of trouble. The nail that sticks up is hammered down, after all. That didn't surprise him. What did surprise him was that Thor, who could hold his own with the brawniest of them, was concerned about this. He hadn't even thought his belligerent elder brother had noticed.

"No, really, that won't be necessary. I'm telling you…"

"No, I'm telling you. No pigeon-livered son of an ice troll messes with a son of Odin and gets by unscathed. Especially when that son of Odin happens to be my little brother." Thor's hand went instinctively to Mjolnir, which swung languidly at his hip. Loki's mouth hung slightly open, his silver-tongue experiencing a rare moment where he was at a total lost for words.

"Thor!" he managed to spit out at last, "I know it's hard for you, but try thinking for a moment." Thor either totally missed the jibe, or chose to ignore it. "What could you possibly have to gain from seeking vengeance for this? It's not your battle. These aren't your enemies." Thor snorted.

"Of course they're my enemies. No, they're worse than that, because they're your enemies. I'm nowhere near as clever as you are, Silvertongue, but even I know that you can never best them physically on your own, and they know that too." Loki fell silent, for there was no denying it. "But by Valhalla, they aren't going to get away with it any longer!" Loki almost reflexively grabbed his brother's wrist, his usually nigh emotionless demeanor cracking slightly, rising to Thor's intensity.

"But Thor—why?" Thor stared down at the slighter youth as if the question surprised him.

"Why? Because you're my brother. And I'm going to protect you. Always."

The three youths known especially for their disdain of Loki came to class the next day with bruises, black eyes, and smashed noses. Loki never found his notes in a manger again, though he often felt black looks shot in his direction. No matter, black looks were of no consequence to him, especially since they cleared up the instant the offender was pinned beneath Thor's piercing gaze. The other boys may have had no compunctions about irritating the trickster Loki, but no one was brave enough to cross the mighty Thor.

"LOKI!" The memory of their teenaged schooldays together sprang unbidden to Thor's mind. He had promised so nobly to protect his brother always, and where was that empty promise now, now that his brother was falling away from him into the darkness of space? Thor felt hot tears etch their way down his face. His brother, so powerful now with all his magic, had still never learned how to defend himself. Resolve latched cold and hard into his heart and brain. He had promised to defend his brother then. He wasn't about to break that promise now, not now when he was most needed. He craned his neck around to fix his father beneath a gaze that burned. "Allfather! Let me go! Release me NOW!" The final syllable was emphasized by a sudden crack of thunder that allowed for no refusal. Although Odin felt like his heart was going to shatter, he understood that Thor was right. Perhaps in this way he could partially atone for the wrongs that fell on his own weary shoulders. As slowly and fluidly as Loki had done just seconds earlier, Odin let go.