"And what of Jotunheim?" Thor asked of Gatekeeper Heimdall. "Does it still exist?"

"Yes," Heimdall answered slowly.

"Is something the matter?" Thor asked, noting the Gatekeeper's hesitance.

"Jotunheim yet exists," Heimdall answered, turning to Thor, "but I can see none of it."

"How do you know it still exists, then?" Thor asked, confused.

"I can sense its existence," Heimdall replied, turning back to the void below the edge of the broken bridge, "but that is all. A shadow has fallen over the realm, one through which I can perceive nothing."

Thor was puzzled. Heimdall's eyes could see everything, everywhere, and there was no power he knew of that could veil anything from him.

"Have you any idea what the cause might be?" Thor asked.

Heimdall shook his head slowly. "This is not a situation I've encountered before," he said. "My only thought is that perhaps a large portion of the realm was destroyed by the Bifrost before you stopped it, and the rubble has formed a cloud that covers the entire expanse of what remains."

This was not a pleasant thought for Thor. "Keep trying," he ordered. "Do not cease in your attempt to pierce this cloud you speak of. It is important, if not vital, that Jotunheim be monitored."

"Yes, My King," Heimdall replied formally.

Thor sighed, sadness overtaking him once more. "And my brother?" he asked softly. "Can you see what has become of him?"

"No," Heimdall replied, this time with confidence. "I am afraid your brother is lost forever."

Thor lowered his head, fighting back tears. In spite of everything that had happened, and everything Loki had done and tried to do, Thor still loved him, and his loss left an unexpected and very painful void in Thor's heart.

He looked into the void below the bridge's jagged edge. He could still see Loki fall, defeat and despair in his eyes. Thor knew he would never fully understand his brother's actions, but what he did understand made him feel that Loki hadn't deserved the fate he had suffered. From what Thor could make out, Loki had acted out in reaction to discovering that he was a Frost Giant by blood, and Thor could hardly blame him for reacting so drastically, though he still failed to understand Loki's specific actions…

He sighed. "Thank you, Gatekeeper Heimdall," he said after a moment, and he turned and walked back to his palace, leaving the Gatekeeper to watch the other realms, like a sentinel statue.

~o~

The first thing Loki noticed when he came to was that he was cold.

Slowly, he opened his eyes. His whole body ached, and for a moment, he couldn't remember what had happened.

Then the memory hit him, and he closed his eyes again. Banished. No longer the son of Odin. And for what? Trying to save Asgard? Trying to prove that he wasn't a Frost Giant, despite his blood? The injustice of it all nearly brought him to tears. All he'd ever wanted was a chance. Was that really so much to ask?

Mother. She would understand. She wouldn't have banished him. But he could never see her again, because he was no longer welcome on Asgard.

Wait…so where was he?

He forced his eyes open again. When he saw nothing but a cloudy sky, he pushed himself into a sitting position and looked around.

He appeared to be in the middle of an enormous crater. Everywhere he looked, rubble covered the landscape; nothing but shattered, icy boulders in every direction.

Suddenly, he realized where he was, and he collapsed onto his back again. Jotunheim. Of course. He couldn't be dead. No, that would be fair. Since when was life ever fair to him?

Oh, well. Maybe the Frost Giants would kill him.

The Frost Giants. Where were they? Were there any left? Obviously, a large part of Jotunheim had been destroyed…maybe enough to wipe them all out? And, if they still remained, what would they do without their king?

What would they do when they found out he had killed their king?

…What would they do if they found out that he was the son of their king?

Well, I will not find out by lying here, Loki thought to himself, and he forced himself up again, which was no easy task; he felt like he had been thrown bodily against the pile of rocks and boulders beneath him, which he probably had. Eventually, though, he managed to find his footing, and he looked around him, wondering which way he should go.

A gleam of metal caught his eye, a few yards away. He stumbled toward it, struggling to traverse the rough terrain.

He reached it. His helmet. The helmet that served both the function of a simple helmet and as a crown…the crown of the son of Odin.

"No, Loki…" His father's words rang in his head.

He realized his thought a second too late: his father.

No! he thought. Odin is not my father! He said so himself! That's what he meant! No longer am I to call him my father! No longer am I his son!

…I was never his son.

This last thought pained him, not least because he knew it was true; Odin had never thought of Loki as his son, even though he'd called him "son" all his life. Odin's son was all Loki had ever wanted to be…all he had ever tried to be…but he'd never had a chance at truly having the title, no matter what he might have done.

Angrily, Loki shoved his helmet onto his head. Why not? It was cold in Jotunheim, and his helmet was still a helmet, even if its meaning was void.

He struggled across the enormous crater the gate had left in the realm. Along the way, his thoughts turned to his brother. Thor. Not quite such a brat anymore, not since that woman had changed him, however she had done it. Loki could still see the look on Thor's face as he had allowed himself to fall into the vortex that the broken bridge had left behind. Thorwould miss him. He would be sorry; and even though Loki hated himself for it, the thought of Thor's grief over losing him made him smile…and he decided to make it worse. He paused, focusing his magic, and cast a shroud over Jotunheim. His spells had always been geared towards secrecy and trickery, and he had discovered, entirely on his own, how to cloak people, places, and things from the prying eyes of Gatekeeper Heimdall or Odin One-Eye. Or whomever sits upon the throne of Asgard, Loki thought with satisfaction. Surely, Thor had been pronounced king by now…and he now deserved the title, thanks to Loki's mischief.

Thanks to me, he thought, and his anger rose again as he thought of how he had been punished for doing Asgard a service. Odin had overlooked Thor's faults, because his other "son", Loki, had been a Frost Giant, and had thus been less worthy of the throne no matter what Thor turned out to be like…

Finally, Loki climbed out of the crater onto solid, ice-and-snow-covered ground. He looked around, but everything was still. Silent. There was no sign of any Frost Giants, anywhere…but Loki knew better than to be fooled.

Quickly, he conjured some shadow-sprites of himself and arranged them in an uneven pattern around him, so that if he was attacked, the attack would probably hit one of them. He then proceeded forward, having no idea where he was going but knowing that if he kept walking he would find something.

After a minute, though, he became too anxious to wait any longer. He stopped, and, with his shadow-sprites adding to his voice, he shouted, "Show yourselves! I know you are there!"

For a moment, everything was still. Then, Frost Giants started creeping out from behind boulders and within crevices in the sheer ice-and-stone walls that surrounded Loki. Soon, dozens, if not hundreds, of Frost giants stood around and above him, their glowing red eyes a sharp contrast to the gray skin that made them blend in with their surroundings. For some reason, though, they did not attack.

Loki, realizing that he didn't want to die, banished his shadow-sprites as a show of faith - having been raised as the son of Odin, he knew a great deal about politics. Alone and exposed, he turned around, acknowledging all of the pairs of red eyes that were on him, saying nothing.

Finally, an especially large Frost Giant stepped forward. His face was patterned with red lines that reminded Loki of cuts.

"Loki Odinsson," he said, his voice as slow and cold as creeping ice.

"No longer," Loki replied. "I have been banished from Asgard, and the name Odinsson has been stripped from me."

"Hmm…" the Frost Giant said ponderously. "What am I to call you, then?"

"Loki Silvertongue," Loki answered, coming up with his new name on the spot. "I am Loki Silvertongue." He smiled inwardly, proud of the name he had invented for himself; after all, it was fitting.

"Loki Silvertongue," the Frost Giant said; "what news do you have for us? Where is our king? Why has half of Jotunheim been destroyed?"

Loki took a breath to steady himself. Then, looking the Frost Giant in the eye, he said, "Your king is dead. I killed him." The crowd of Frost Giants rippled angrily, and incomprehensible mutters and whispers sounded all around Loki like rain. "As for the destruction of Jotunheim, that was also my doing," he continued strongly. "My intent was to destroy this realm, and all of you, once and for all, which is why I have been banished."

"That is why you have been banished, you say?" the Frost Giant asked ponderously.

Loki nodded silently.

The Frost Giant slowly tilted his head. "Why did you do this?" he asked.

"To prove to the All-Father that I was not one of you," Loki answered.

Again, a ripple ran through the crowd.

"And why would you need to prove this?" asked the Frost Giant.

"I do not know you, nor what name I am to call you by, my good sir," Loki told the Frost Giant formally, "and, likewise, I do not know why I should be answering to you."

"My name is Yardaff Laufeysson," the Frost Giant said.

Laufeysson. Laufey had been the name of the king of the Frost Giants…which meant that this Frost Giant was the prince of Jotunheim…the king of Jotunheim…

…and, by blood, Loki's brother.

"Son of Laufey," Loki said, bowing slightly, "forgive me, I did not know of you. As for why I felt the need to prove to the All-Father that I was not one of you…" He paused for effect. "It was because, by blood…I am one of you," he said at last.

Another angry ripple ran through the crowd of onlookers, but before Yardaff could say anything, Loki added, "In fact, o son of Laufey, by blood, I am your brother."

"What proof have you of this?" asked Yardaff.

Loki held out his bare hand. "Your touch does not burn me, as it does the people of Asgard," he answered; "see for yourself."

Yardaff stepped forward and took hold of Loki's bare hand, and once again, Loki felt the strange sensation of cold spreading through his flesh, but from the inside out, as though ice was buried in his marrow and was suddenly spreading. It was not a painful sensation, merely a peculiar one, and he watched with Yardaff as the gray color of Frost Giants' skin spread across his hand and wrist.

Everyone who could see this phenomenon, including Yardaff, gasped.

"What is the meaning of this, Silvertongue?" Yardaff asked, astonished, releasing his hold on Loki's hand.

Loki silently watched the gray color fade away from his skin, and felt the equally odd sensation of heat spreading through his flesh from the outside in, before answering.

"You all know of how I, along with Thor Odinsson, Lady Sif, and the Warriors Three, came here to Jotunheim just days ago," Loki began, "am I correct?"

The crowd in general responded that yes, he was correct.

"My - er, pardon me - Thor came here, seeking battle," Loki continued. "Your king offered us a chance to leave, and we nearly did, but one of you threw a petty insult at my…at Thor, and he attacked, forcing the rest of us to join him in battle. During this battle, one of the Warriors Three was burned by the frost touch of one of you, and he called to the rest of us not to allow ourselves to be touched. A moment later, another one of you grabbed my wrist, and I experienced the same phenomenon you all just witnessed, though I didn't have time to wonder at it then. A day later, however, when my colleague was still being treated for his frost burn, and I was still unharmed, I had a thought, and, to see if I was right, I went down to the armory, to where the Ice Casket is being kept." Loki paused, turning his head left and right to look at all the Frost Giants around him. "I held it in my grasp, and I picked it up, and I felt its power flow through me," he told them. "It felt as though it was a part of me, and I knew exactly how to wield it." He turned back to Yardaff. "It was then that Odin came to me," he went on, "and that was when, and how, I learned that I was not the son of Odin by blood, but a Frost Giant, the son of Laufey. The All-Father told me that after the war, he had come across a Frost Giant babe in the temple, small for a Frost Giant, abandoned to die, or so he claimed, and took him in as his own: me."

Loki's rage at his mistreatment rose in his chest as he went on, "Suddenly, everything made sense to me; why Odin had always favored Thor over me, why no matter what error Thor made, no matter what I did to try to win Odin's favor, I was always passed over, and Thor was always the one who was praised. It had nothing to do with who I was, with my relative faults or merits; Odin just didn't want a Frost Giant on the throne!" He clenched his fists. "What was more, when I asked him why he took me instead of just killing me, he said that he had hoped that I would be able to one day bring about peace between our two races. I was nothing but a tool to him! An ancient relic, locked away on Asgard until he had a use for me!" He was shouting by the end of this rant, and he took a moment to steady himself and breathe.

The Frost Giants were transfixed, and, based on the way they were looking at Loki, enraged.

"I shouted as much at him when he told me this," Loki said at last, his voice low, "and between my rage and Thor's banishment…it was too much for him. He collapsed into the Odin Sleep." Loki sighed. "Because it was brought on by stress, and hadn't been expected, Mother - the queen - refused to leave his side. So, with Thor banished, Odin incapacitated, and the queen…otherwise engaged, the duty of ruling Asgard fell to me." He looked up at Yardaff and the rest of the Frost Giants. "But I knew it was temporary," he told them. "I knew that as soon as one of them was available to take control, I would be pushed aside. I knew that, unless I did something big, something that would make Odin proud to call me his son, in what little time I had, I would never have a chance to prove myself." He chuckled humorlessly. "Of course, I never had a chance to begin with. I was only fooling myself by thinking I could prove myself under any circumstances.

"At any rate, I decided that if I could kill Laufey, and destroy all of Jotunheim, Father - Odin - would finally see that I was just as worthy of the name Odinsson as Thor was." Loki lowered his head. "I was wrong. It is true that I did some…distasteful things, out of desperation, but I believe that I would have been forgiven for that, had I not tried to destroy all of you." Loki's tone grew angry and spiteful as he said, "Father - Odin - respects you all as people, but not me…Not the one he called his son."

For a moment, there was silence.

"I was raised being told that the Frost Giants of Jotunheim were monsters, one and all, which is why I thought I might gain favor with the All-Father if I destroyed this realm and everyone in it," Loki added after a moment. "Clearly, however, this is not the case…as I would be dead already, if you were indeed the monsters I was raised to believe you to be." He took a breath. "I apologize, for my crimes against you," he said, and he tried not to let his shame in saying the words show.

The Frost Giants were all speechless. Finally, Yardaff spoke.

"Brother," he said, his tone a strange mixture of grief, astonishment, and respect, "I believe I speak for us all when I say that you are forgiven for what little blame you hold for your actions against us."

"Brother?" Loki queried.

Yardaff nodded. "You are my brother, Loki Laufeysson," he said.

"No!" Loki exclaimed. Then, catching himself, he added, "I do not believe I am deserving of the name Laufeysson, as his death came by my hand. Please, call me Loki Silvertongue."

Yardaff nodded, oblivious to Loki's disgust at being given the name Laufeysson. "Loki Silvertongue, then," he said. "Whatever your name may be, you are my brother, and I wish Father could be here to witness your return."

"It is because of me that he is not," Loki pointed out.

"That is no fault of your own," Yardaff replied. "You have been corrupted by the All-Father's influence, and your perception of the universe has been twisted by your unjust upbringing. But you are my elder brother nonetheless, and now, at last, you have returned to us." Then, Yardaff made a strange gesture that vaguely resembled the traditional Asgardian gesture of respect and loyalty: he used his command of ice to sheathe his entire right hand in it, clenched his right hand so that the ice shattered and sprayed in all directions as he brought the fist hard to his chest, and got down on one knee. His words, however, surprised and confused Loki even more.

"All hail King Loki!" Yardaff called.

Before Loki could respond, all of the other Frost Giants made the exact same gesture at the exact same time. "All hail King Loki!" they called back.

Loki looked around at them, bewildered. "King?" he managed to ask.

"You are my elder brother, the first-born son of our late king, Laufey," Yardaff told Loki, still bowing down. "As such, the duty of ruling Jotunheim falls to you."

"Only one of you can ascend to the throne, but both of you were born to be kings…" Odin's words, from Loki's childhood, echoed in Loki's mind. This was what he meant, he realized.

But he didn't want to be king of Jotunheim! He didn't want to have anything to do with Jotunheim at all! Blood or no, he was not a Frost Giant, and he didn't want to be!

"I…I…" Loki stammered. "I…Forgive me, but I do not think I can be your king. For one thing, I know nothing of your people, or your culture. For another, I know little of the realm of Jotunheim itself! Besides, I killed your king; surely I cannot rise to the throne that I myself emptied?" Good. Give logical reasons. Don't sound too opposed to the idea; sound humble, regretful. Loki's expertise in the art of manipulation guided his words and tone thus; he recognized that he could not antagonize the Frost Giants in his current situation, even though he had no intention of staying in Jotunheim any longer than was absolutely necessary.

"You were not to blame for our father's death," Yardaff replied, oblivious to the horror that internally shook Loki at the words "our father", "and as his first-born son, the throne is rightfully yours."

Relax, Loki told himself. Breathe. Don't give any sign that what he's saying is your worst nightmare come true… "Your words hearten me," Loki lied, "but I simply cannot be king of Jotunheim, for the simple reason that I do not know how. I know nothing of your kind, of your culture or civilization. Besides," he added as he realized something on the spot, "I know what it is like to believe that you might rise to the throne one day, only to have that dream stripped away. I will not do to you what the All-Father did to me."

"Brother, your kindness gladdens me, for it shows that the All-Father, despite corrupting your body and mind, has failed to corrupt your heart," Yardaff replied, "but I cannot be king, for the simple reason that I cannot be your superior. You are my elder brother, and our ancestors would be outraged if I were to rule over you."

Loki processed this for a moment; Yardaff's words told Loki that the honor system among Frost Giants was held to out of respect for their ancestors, and he knew that that bit of information would be useful, especially if, as it was looking like it would turn out to be, he would have to stay in Jotunheim for a while and live among the Frost Giants.

Then, he held out his hand.

"Then let us rule together," he proposed to Yardaff. "You know our people and our world, and I have the superiority that makes the throne rightfully mine. Together, we can rule Jotunheim better than either one of us acting alone."

Yardaff looked up at him but did not rise.

Loki forced himself to smile. "Come now, Brother, surely you realize that this is the way it should be."

"There has never been more than one king," Yardaff replied.

"There has never been a Frost Giant prince who was stolen from Jotunheim and made to be a member of another race, either," Loki pointed out.

Yardaff was silent for a moment. Then, he stood and said, "Brother, I would be honored to rule our people by your side, and I am happy to hear that you have not been made selfish and arrogant, like the Asgardians. I happily accept your offer." He reached out to take Loki's hand.

"Stop!" came a voice, the word like a shard of ice hurled through the air.

Loki, Yardaff, and the other Frost Giants all turned to see what appeared to be a ramp of ice extend through the air toward the two princes. A moment later, Loki realized that the trail of ice was being left behind by a single Frost Giant who appeared to be sliding down the ramp as it appeared in front of…her?

"Lady Enchessa!" Yardaff exclaimed, bowing slightly to the female Frost Giant as she reached the two royal Frost Giants.

"Prince Yardaff," Lady Enchessa replied coolly.

Loki stared. He had never seen a female Frost Giant before, and he had never imagined there being such a thing at that. Seeing one now made the Frost Giants seem more like people, and less like monsters. What surprised him even more, though, was that, in a way, she was actually rather attractive. She had long, black hair that fell down to her knees, a lean figure that was perfectly proportioned, and an angular, almost catlike face that was both elegant and fierce - it completely lacked the facial ridges that covered the faces of male Frost Giants, instead bearing only a black pattern. Were it not for that and her red eyes and gray skin, and if she had been just a bit smaller…

Lady Enchessa's glowing eyes glinted dangerously as she met Loki's gaze.

Loki cleared his throat. "My lady," he said formally.

"Be silent, Silvertongue," she hissed at him.

Loki blinked and obeyed, more out of bewilderment than respect.

Lady Enchessa turned on Yardaff. "Shame on you," she said scathingly, each syllable like a dagger of ice thrown at the Frost Giant prince. "Shame, for being so easily taken in, by one who flaunts his untrustworthiness in your face. Shame, for being so easily fooled by one who calls himself 'Silvertongue'."

"My Lady, pardon me, but I do not understand what it is you are objecting to," Yardaff said, his tone surprisingly submissive. "Loki Silvertongue is my elder brother, returned to us at last; surely you know what custom dictates to be the proper course of action."

"Your elder brother, indeed," Lady Enchessa sneered. "A powerful sorcerer with pretty words, spinning a yarn of abduction and mistreatment. Does it not strike you, o son of Laufey, that his story is perfectly portrayed to enrage all of us, to make us sympathize with him and take his side?" She whipped her hand through the air, causing a small chunk of ice to be hurled against the ground, and Loki took the gesture to be akin to spitting in disgust.

"We all know the power of our frost touch," Yardaff protested, still sounding oddly submissive, "and we all see that it does not harm him as it does the people of Asgard."

"We all also know what the people of Earth call Loki Odinsson," Lady Enchessa hissed back: "Loki the Trickster. We all know of his propensity for mischief, and his adeptness at trickery and illusion."

"My lady, I understand your concern, but there is no spell that would allow him to feign such resistance," Yardaff replied. "Even if there were, how could he know to make his story match so well the story we all know of the first-born son of Laufey?"

"We have always suspected that the crown prince of Jotunheim was slain by Odin One-Eye," Lady Enchessa shot back. "Why is it unlikely that his sons would know of it from him? As for the spell you say is impossible, it would not be the first trick that Loki Odinsson invented entirely on his own."

"Which serves to back his story!" Yardaff replied. "The people of Asgard have always been warriors, not spellcasters! Loki has always seemed unusual for his kind!"

"Regardless of whether or not he is, in fact, your long-lost brother, shame on you, for not seeing that his blood disgusts him if he is!" Lady Enchessa snapped. "He does not wish to be one of us! The All-Father's influence has corrupted his mind, turning him completely against our people! Can you truly say that you do not see how much he hates the thought of being one of us? Did you truly not see his disgust and horror upon being called 'Laufeysson'? Do you truly not understand his objection to being our king?"

"Lady…Enchessa, was it?" Loki interrupted, unable to remain silent. "I beg your pardon, but your boldness puzzles me. I've never heard of a woman who would dare speak to her king in such a manner."

Lady Enchessa stared at Loki for a moment, then turned back on Yardaff. "You see?" she exclaimed. "He knows nothing of our kind! He has been twisted and corrupted to hold to Asgardian beliefs and standards! He will never be able to live among us, not even if he wanted to!"

"Which is precisely why I object to being your king," Loki replied before Yardaff could say anything. "I am perfectly well aware of the fact that I know nothing of Jotun society or culture. How could I even begin to rule you?"

"How indeed?" Lady Enchessa snarled back. She turned back to Yardaff. "Shame on you; shame!" she hissed again. "He killed our king, your father, and you would welcome him with open arms? Look at him! The All-Father has transformed him so that he is no longer one of our race! You think our ancestors would smile upon us if we allow an Asgardian to take the throne, and one who killed our king at that? For shame, Prince Yardaff - shame!"

"He was denied the throne of Asgard because he was one of us!" Yardaff protested. "If we deny him the throne of Jotunheim for being one of them, we are no different from the All-Father! What's more, he has no aim of ruling us without knowing us! He would have me share the throne, for that very reason!"

"If your objection, Lady Enchessa, is caused by the fear that you cannot be queen, I would like to relieve you of that fear however I can," Loki said, surprising everyone.

Yardaff and Enchessa turned to Loki, wide-eyed.

"Brother, here, lend me your hand," Loki said to Yardaff, extending his left hand to him. "I think I may know how to alleviate this issue."

Hesitantly, Yardaff reached out and took Loki's bare hand. Once more, the peculiar icy sensation spread through Loki's hand and up his wrist, but this time, he held on. As he had expected, the curious sensation spread up his arm, across his chest, down his torso, through his legs and feet, across to his right arm and hand, up his neck, and through his face and head, until it permeated his entire body.

Everyone gasped.

"Does this relieve your concerns?" Loki asked Enchessa, his voice slow and cold like that of any male Frost Giant.

Enchessa was speechless for a moment. "It certainly…convinces me that you are our long-lost crown prince," she said after a moment, "but…I still feel that you are deceiving us by pretending that you feel anything but repugnance at the thought of being one of us." She shook her head slightly and regained her superior demeanor. "And my concerns are not born of any desire to be queen," she added, condescending once more; "I have no such desire."

Loki didn't miss the brief flash of pain that flickered through Yardaff's eyes at her words, but he said nothing. He let go of Yardaff's hand, who let go of Loki's in turn, and slowly, the strange heating sensation spread across Loki's body, and he knew his appearance was changing back to that of an Asgardian.

"The All-Father's curse is powerful," Yardaff observed softly. He turned to Enchessa. "Perhaps you can find a way to break it permanently?" he asked her.

"It seems to me that exposure to our essence is what combats this curse," Enchessa replied icily. "Perhaps prolonged exposure will eventually wear it away."

Prolonged exposure…meaning I cannot stay here indefinitely, Loki thought. "I've nowhere else to go," he said out loud, "so I doubt it will be long before your theory is proven or disproven."

"Have you truly nowhere else to go?" Enchessa asked, narrowing her eyes.

Loki took off his helmet and tossed it aside, doing his best not to show the pain it caused him. "The All-Father has cast me out, for the very same reasons he took me in," he told Enchessa, raising his voice so everyone else could hear. "I have no place on Asgard, and though it is true that I can travel between the realms using secret passages that no one else I know of can find, where would I go? I have no claim to a home in any other realm. No; Jotunheim is the only realm in which I can claim to belong, and so it is the only home I have."

"Would you rather have a home on Asgard?" asked Enchessa, her eyes still narrow.

Amateurs manipulate people with lies; it is the sign of a true master of manipulation that he manipulates people using the truth whenever possible. "Yes," Loki answered immediately, another lesson he had learned in the art of manipulation coming to him. "Yes, I would much rather live on Asgard, for it has been my home all my life. My preferences, however, do not matter; I have been banished, and that is that. This is the only place I have left that I can call home, and so it shall be my home, if you will allow me to stay here."

"Of course we shall!" declared Yardaff.

Enchessa was silent for a moment.

"Very well," she hissed at last. "But know this, Silvertongue: I will not trust you so readily as His Highness Yardaff."

"Lady Enchessa, you are wise to be so wary of me," Loki replied with a smile. "I happily accept the necessity of earning your trust."

Enchessa nodded. Then, without a word or a bow, she turned around and sprinted away, and Loki observed how she used her powers over ice to boost her steps by making push-offs rise under her feet as she took each step.

When she was gone, Loki turned back to Yardaff. "Well then, Brother," he said, "let us go home; I've much to learn from you." He held out his hand once more.

"Welcome home, Brother," Yardaff said, and he took Loki's hand and smiled. As Loki felt the icy sensation spread through his body once more, he heard the shattering of ice as all the Frost Giants in attendance made their strange gesture again, followed by the chant that they all said at once.

"All hail King Loki! All hail King Yardaff!"

~o~

The ice palace had narrowly escaped being damaged by the Bifrost, so Loki was able to see all of it in its full, icy glory. As luck would have it, night was falling as he and Yardaff approached the enormous building, so Loki was immediately showed to his chambers.

"It is right and fitting that you have Father's place, as you are the heir of our legacy," Yardaff told Loki as he guided him to the king's chambers.

Loki had picked up his helmet, and was carrying it under his arm. Discarding it had been a symbolic gesture, but he intended to keep it for practical uses. Now, he set it down on a table near the door.

"Thank you, Brother," he said to Yardaff, and was pleased at how easily he was able to call Yardaff "Brother".

"You are quite welcome, Brother," Yardaff replied. "Good night."

"Good night to you," Loki answered.

Just before Yardaff left, he said, "I am happy that you have returned."

"As am I," Loki lied, knowing he had no choice.

Yardaff nodded and left, closing the stone door behind him with a boom.

At last, Loki was able to hug himself against the cold. He did not like the cold, even though he was a Frost Giant.

He did not like being a Frost Giant.

I have to get out of here, he thought, Enchessa's theory about how to break the spell Odin had cast on him to make him an Asgardian fresh in his mind. But how? I cannot simply run off…

Or can I?

~o~

Loki did not sleep well that night. His bed was an ice-covered slab of stone, and the fire from the torches, he discovered, radiated cold instead of heat. To make matters worse, despite not being a man, he could not go on without sleep indefinitely, so even though it wasn't too much of a strain for him not to sleep that one night, he worried that it would quickly take a toll.

Regardless, when he greeted Yardaff in the morning, he was able to perfectly pretend to have enjoyed the night, and greeted him warmly…though he wasn't sure if "warmly" was the right word to use among Frost Giants.

"Good morning, Brother," he said, initiating the greeting.

"Good morning to you as well, Brother," Yardaff replied. "I trust you slept well?"

"Very," Loki lied, and he quickly changed the subject. "Now, Brother, I was hoping you could begin to teach me the ways of our kind?"

"It would be my honor," Yardaff replied with a slight, informal bow.

Ten minutes later, they were seated next to each other on stone benches that surrounded a fire pit, in a room full of elaborate stone pillars.

"From what you told me yesterday, I gather that the honor system among our kind is held to out of respect for our ancestors?" Loki prompted.

"Indeed, Brother," Yardaff answered. "Our ancestors watch over us, and we must work to make ourselves worthy of their heritage."

Loki nodded, restraining the part of him that wanted to laugh at the absurdity. "Worthy of their heritage"? Who would want to be "worthy" of inheriting the legacies of a bunch of lowly Frost Giants? Despite his attempts to control himself, he couldn't completely hide a smile.

Quickly, he changed the subject to cover it up. "About Lady Enchessa," he said; "I realized when I met her that, before I met her, I had never even heard of a female Frost Giant. To be honest, it never even occurred to me that such a thing existed."

"In that case, your education regarding us was severely lacking," Yardaff said.

Loki nodded. "Honestly, the only thing the All-Father ever told anyone about your - I mean, our - kind was how you - we - started a war against the other eight realms, and how the Asgardians were the only ones strong enough to fight back and put a stop to it."

"Lies!" spat Yardaff. "It was the Asgardians who tried to take over the nine realms with brute force, not us!"

Loki blinked. "What…is the traditional story of the war here?" he asked slowly.

Yardaff took a breath, and Loki noticed that the icy vapor that surrounded him as his body temperature froze the water in the air around them had gotten thicker. Frost Giants getcolder when they're angry? he thought.

"Eons ago, a king rose to the throne of Asgard," Yardaff began; "not Odin, but his father. This king was…especially ambitious, and took great pleasure in victories over opponents in combat. As king, he was, as I'm sure you know, the one with the power to declare war and direct the people of Asgard in battle. So greedy and battle-hungry was he that he decided to wage war upon the realms, and take over those realms who did not have the strength to overpower the Asgardians.

"He went through the realms, one by one, leaving nothing but desolation in his wake. After four conquests, however, he came to Jotunheim, and found that we Frost Giants were much more formidable adversaries than any other race in the universe.

"This king fought with all his strength, wielding the war hammer, Mjolnir, with great skill, but it was not enough to overpower us. Instead of being disheartened by our strength, he grew ever more enthusiastic about conquering Jotunheim, as it posed a challenge he considered worthy of his power and skills in battle. His enthusiasm became an obsession, and he poured all his resources into the battle with our one realm.

"By this time, our people had realized what he had done, and what he was intending to do, and we knew that if we did not stop him, he would destroy every race in existence. We found our ways to the conquered realms, and we battled the Asgardians both here and there, glad to lend aid to the realms that had fallen.

"Our two races were very evenly matched, and this king's life ended long before the war was resolved.

"Then Odin came to power, and things changed. By then, most of the people of Asgard, and most notably Odin's father, had forgotten about the quest to conquer the realms, and knew only the war against our kind; many had even forgotten what had started the battle in the first place. If what you say is true, Brother, then it confirms what we concluded long ago: Odin was raised being told that our kind were enemies, nothing more. So, of course, when he came to power, the war continued. Unlike his father, however, Odin, being of a more rational mind and purer heart, was able to unite the people of Asgard into a strong, cohesive group, and the tide of battle turned in their favor.

"Led by their new king, the Asgardians drove us back to the very heart of Jotunheim. Our father, King Laufey, had also come to power in the middle of the war, and when the Asgardians cornered us, he felt great shame at having failed to complete the task his father had begun. However, instead of wiping us out, Odin offered us a truce, to the great surprise of each and every one of us. Realizing that Odin would not attempt to conquer and destroy the other realms, our father realized that he had not failed, after all, and accepted.

"As the victors, the Asgardians were the ones who dictated the terms of the truce, and those terms were that we were to stay in Jotunheim, never traveling to any other realms, and that our sacred relic, the Ice Casket, was to be locked away from us on Asgard. As there was no real need for the Ice Casket in times of peace, Father readily accepted these terms, and for a brief moment, there was hope that our races might one day reconcile."

Yardaff clenched his fists and jaw, and the icy vapor around him grew thicker once more. "After Odin One-Eye left, however, Father discovered that his newborn son, his first-born, was nowhere to be found in Jotunheim. Realizing that Odin must have taken him, Father made a binding pledge to one day avenge his son and kill Odin One-Eye." Yardaff's expression softened. "Father thought you were dead," he said, and Loki was surprised to recognize a trace of sadness in Yardaff's voice. "He thought that Odin had found you and slaughtered you - an innocent babe!" Yardaff sighed. "On its own, this action would have been understandable, if not forgivable," he said, "but to add unbearable insult to this atrocity, Odin had taken your body away, so that Father would not even be able to lay you to rest."

"The All-Father said that I had been abandoned to die," Loki said softly.

"That is untrue, though perhaps it was an honest mistake," Yardaff said. "Father left you in the temple so that you would not be in harm's way during the battles."

Loki closed his eyes, stunned by all he had just been told, and took a minute to process all of it.

"So…are you telling me that the tension between Asgard and Jotunheim today is because of…me?" Loki finally asked, opening his eyes again.

Yardaff nodded.

"So Odin never told any of you about me?" Loki asked, though it was more of a statement than a question.

Yardaff shook his head.

"Well," Loki said, "it seems that I was not the only one he should not have kept the truth from."

Yardaff laughed, though there was no humor in the sound. Still, Loki was once again surprised at how person-like Frost Giants seemed to be.

"Brother, if Father had known the truth - all of it - he would have thrown caution to the flames and restarted the war," Yardaff told Loki.

Loki blinked. "Why?" he asked, puzzled. "The All-Father didn't kill me."

"No," Yardaff said, baring his teeth as his voice became harsh with anger once more, "he didn't…he did something far, far worse." Yardaff's fists clenched again, and the icy vapor around him once again became a thick cloud. "Had the All-Father killed you, it would have been understandable - no doubt Father would have done the same. We would have killedOdin's son quickly and mercifully, had we been in his position…but we would not have sunk so low as to kidnap his son, make him believe himself to be one of us, and force him to grow up as you did, ignored and down-trodden, without even letting him know why." Yardaff closed his eyes in cold fury. "Brother, what Odin One-Eye did to you was despicable and unforgivable," he told Loki. "Your mistreatment is an insult, not only to you and our father, but to all of our race, and Odin will never be forgiven by any of us for what he did to you."

For the first time in his life, Loki was completely at a loss for words. Between Yardaff's story and what Yardaff was saying now, and everything else surprising that Loki had come across regarding Frost Giants during his brief stay in Jotunheim, Loki was forced to come to terms with the fact that Frost Giants weren't monsters at all; they were people, just like the people of Asgard. This epiphany shattered one of Loki's core beliefs, and the shock was stupefying.

"Thank you, Brother," Loki said at last. "I've never before been given the welcome and…kindness, that you and all of our kind have shown me since I came here."

Yardaff nodded. "Brother, the mistreatment you have unfortunately grown accustomed to is the opposite of the way you will be treated here. You are my brother, crown prince of Jotunheim, and I know I speak for all of our people when I say that we are all very happy to witness your return home."

"Well…most of our kind," Loki commented. "The Lady Enchessa is not so easily impressed."

Yardaff smiled, his expression almost wistful. "The Lady Enchessa is the finest spellcaster to have ever graced our realm," he said. "Being such a powerful sorcerer yourself, I cannot help but think that she may fear that her renown might be at stake."

"'The finest spellcaster to have ever graced our realm'…" Loki repeated with a smile.

"While us males tend to be more battle-oriented, the female members of our race tend to be more magically adept," Yardaff explained. "That is why you've not seen one before yesterday; females have a different area of expertise than us warriors, and very few of them have ever desired to take part in battle over the course of our history. Of course, there are exceptions to both generalities; I believe it is safe to say that you are, at the very least, the finest male spellcaster to have ever graced our realm."

Loki tilted his head and nodded, accepting this. Then he asked, "Are you in love with Lady Enchessa?"

The question held more significance than it appeared to on the surface. If Frost Giants are people, they can love, thought Loki. If they can't, then they're monsters.

Wait…can I love?

"Lady Enchessa…is…" Yardaff smiled. "Yes. Yes, I suppose I am."

Loki smiled back, deciding to figure out his own issues later. "I knew that there was some issue with that," he told Yardaff. "At first, I thought it was with her…My apologies for my mistake."

"There is no need to apologize, Brother," Yardaff assured Loki.

Loki nodded pensively. Already, he had learned a great deal about Frost Giants. His gaze turned to the fire.

"Brother, can you explain something to me?" he asked Yardaff.

"What do you wish to know?" Yardaff asked in reply.

Loki gestured to the fire. "I have noticed that fire here in Jotunheim behaves differently than it does elsewhere. It is cold."

Yardaff nodded. "Such is the nature of fire in this realm," he told Loki. "Frost Fire, it is called. It is simply the way fire works here in Jotunheim."

"So there is no warm fire in Jotunheim?" Loki asked.

Yardaff shook his head.

Damn. Loki tried to hide his panic in response to this piece of news. How will I stay warm? he wondered frantically.

Deciding to get his questions about Frost Giants answered before he tried to figure out any solutions for his own issues, he asked Yardaff, "Is it normal for the common folk here to challenge their king? I realize now that Lady Enchessa is not simply a commoner, but her boldness was unlike anything I've ever experienced before."

Yardaff tilted his head. "Tell me," he said, "what does etiquette dictate on Asgard?"

"Well, no one confronts the king as she did," Loki said, "especially not women. Women do not question the king, and if a male has some objection, they…well, they generally go about making it with a great deal of bowing and groveling and whatnot. The king is beyond reproach, and it is a gross breach of etiquette to treat him with anything short of reverence."

"What is the king's purpose, if no one is allowed to challenge him?" asked Yardaff, sounding puzzled.

"The king makes the rules," Loki answered with a shrug. "He dictates who does what, and who is allowed to do or have anything, and whether or not we go to war against another realm, and…essentially, everything."

"But if your king is beyond reproach, what gives him the right to make the rules?" Yardaff asked, still apparently puzzled. "No individual should have that much power."

"Well, what are the powers of the king here in Jotunheim?" asked Loki.

"Here, the king is an arbitrator," answered Yardaff. "The king is the one who is looked to for guidance in the most serious matters - guidance, nothing more. The king is the first one into battle, and the last one out, and he is responsible for the safety and well-being of all Frost Giants. The only thing that is entirely in the king's power to decide is war. Other than that, if the majority of the people object to a proposal by the king, he must concede. Furthermore, the king of Jotunheim is not superior to any other Frost Giant in terms of social interaction. Any one of the 'commoners', as you call them, may address the king in the same manner in which they would address anyone else."

It was Loki's turn to be puzzled. "In the same manner in which they would anyone else, you say?" he repeated. When Yardaff nodded, Loki asked, "You mean, in the way they would normally address other males?"

"Males and females are equals, and may speak to each other however they see fit," Yardaff replied, his expression implying raised eyebrows.

"That is not the way it is on Asgard," Loki told Yardaff, shaking his head. "Females may not challenge males. They are of an inferior class."

"And why is that?" asked Yardaff, still displaying the "raised-eyebrows" expression.

"Well, females are generally weaker than males," Loki replied, raising his own eyebrows in turn. "There are a few, such as Lady Sif, who break this stereotype, but for the most part, females are inferior, both in body and mind."

"Here, females are just as worthy of respect as males," said Yardaff. "As I said, they tend to be more magic-oriented than battle-oriented, but they also tend to be intellectually superior, if only slightly. It is typical for them to be physically weaker than males, but they are just as deserving of respect in their own right."

Loki blinked and shook his head in wonder. Things here were so different than they were on Asgard…and yet, things here were somehow also strangely more just than what Loki had grown up with, and not only in regards to his own personal treatment. The more Loki thought about it, the more he realized to his complete surprise that he actually preferred the way the Frost Giant community operated. Women raised up from inferiority, and royalty brought down from superiority… he marveled. What a wonderful system of society. No one is looked down on here. Having been looked down on all his life for reasons far beyond his control, Loki was able to fully appreciate the beauty of this system. "I…I do not know what to say, Brother," he said at last. "The society you describe is…so much more perfect and just than that on Asgard, and so very different from what I have grown accustomed to. I wish-" He stopped himself before he said something that betrayed his intention to leave.

"You wish…?" Yardaff pressed.

"I wish the All-Father saw things this way," Loki said, recovering quickly, true to his name. "He always goes on about being a just and fair king, but compared to the…people of Jotunheim, he's little more than a bully." It took Loki a moment for the words "people of Jotunheim" to come, as opposed to "Frost Giants".

Yardaff nodded. "Unity is what finally gave the Asgardians the power to overcome us," he said. "Strange, that the king who was better able to unite his people should be the one to not support a system of equality in society."

"Strange indeed," Loki agreed.

They went on talking for a while, as Yardaff initiated Loki in the cultures, customs, and history of Jotunheim. Loki took it all in half-heartedly, and knew he had one more reason to hate the All-Father: Because he had grown up with Odin as his father, Loki would never be able to accept a place in a society that was, in his eyes, flawless.

~o~

~Four Days Later~

"Are you going out again, Brother?"

Yardaff's voice stopped Loki as he left the palace. It had been almost a week since he had arrived in Jotunheim.

Loki turned back to look at Yardaff. "Indeed, Brother," he said; "I cannot rule a realm if I do not know it."

Yardaff walked up to Loki, a solemn expression on his face.

"Brother, what concerns you?" Loki asked.

"There are some who are questioning your motives for going out every day," Yardaff replied gravely.

"Some…meaning Lady Enchessa?" Loki asked.

Yardaff nodded. "And others. There is…some concern that you may be going on scouting missions."

"Scouting missions?" Loki repeated with a laugh. "Whatever would I be scouting for?"

Yardaff sighed. "Brother, no one in Jotunheim contests that you are the long-lost crown prince of our realm," he said, "but some do contest that you are, in fact, an outcast from Asgard. Some fear that the All-Father is using your blood as a means of infiltrating us, so that he may wipe us out."

"Brother, that is absurd," Loki stated. "The All-Father banished me for trying to wipe you out; he has no intentions of doing so himself. Besides, my-" He caught himself. "Thor probably sits on the throne now, and he is the one who saved Jotunheim from me."

"I know, Brother," Yardaff said, "but there are some who are concerned…"

"What do you suggest?" Loki asked.

"Brother…" Yardaff hesitated. "Must you really go out every day?"

"Brother, if I am to be even half of the ruling force here in Jotunheim, I must at least know what this realm looks like," Loki said.

"Brother…" Yardaff hesitated again. "Has the Bifrost truly been destroyed?"

"Yes," answered Loki. Then, deciding that a show of faith would go over well, he added, "But that makes little difference. I am able to travel between the realms without the aid of the Bifrost."

Yardaff gasped.

"It is true," Loki assured him before he could say anything; "and yes, I am able to return to Asgard by this means."

"Loki…" Yardaff was dumbstruck. "How can this be? And why did you not mention this?"

"I did mention this," answered Loki, "though I didn't make a point of it because I felt that there was no need. As for how it is that I am able to do this…" He shrugged. "I know not. Perhaps it has something to do with my propensity for secrecy and deception, but I have always been able to sense the secret gates between the realms."

Yardaff said nothing.

"Come," Loki said, gesturing to him. "Let me show you the secret gate to Asgard."

Silent with awe, Yardaff followed Loki to a spot not too far out of sight of the palace. It was a rather unremarkable location, little more than a gap in the boulders that littered the landscape, not that such gaps were uncommon.

"Here we are," said Loki.

"Here?" asked Yardaff.

"Do you not sense it?" asked Loki.

"Brother, I sense nothing out of the ordinary," Yardaff replied.

Loki stared at Yardaff for a moment, then turned to the sky. "Look closely," he said.

Yardaff followed Loki's gaze silently for a minute. "Brother, I see nothing," he said at last.

Loki looked back at Yardaff, then extended his hand wordlessly, which Yardaff took. Loki felt the ice in his marrow expand and spread throughout his body and looked back to the sky. "And now?" he asked.

Yardaff looked again. For a moment, he saw nothing. Then, he began to sense, more than see, a strange vortex of energy radiating from the ground beneath him to the sky. He looked more closely, and after a minute, he thought he could make out the realm of Asgard just behind the clouds. All of a sudden, he felt the tunnel he was standing in the middle of, and instinctively knew how to use it.

He looked back at Loki, who had transformed. Loki smiled back. "And now?" he asked, his voice slow and ice-cold.

"Yes, Brother, I see it!" Yardaff said, astonished.

Loki and Yardaff let go of each others' hands, and Odin's change reasserted itself in Loki's body and appearance. Despite no longer being in physical contact with Loki, however, Yardaff could still feel, and sense how to use, the gate he was standing in.

Then, to Yardaff's surprise, Loki took off his helmet and set it down in the center of the invisible gate. "I will leave this here," he said, "so that anyone who wishes to use it may; but I myself will not be using this gate. I will not deny that I want to, but I am not welcome there." He thought for a minute, then added, "And furthermore, tell our people that I will only explore our realm for one more year. After that, I will remain here, where I ought to be. In the meantime, whenever I am gone, I leave you in full command of our people." He smiled. "Will that satisfy our people's doubts?"

"If not, I've no idea what will," Yardaff replied, awestruck.

"Good," Loki replied. "Now, you should return; a realm should not be left without a king."

"Agreed," said Yardaff. "I am…I am pleased to be able to give our people your news."

Loki smiled. "Then do so," he replied. "Make haste!"

Yardaff covered his hand in ice, clenched his fist over his heart - causing ice shards to fly everywhere - and got down on one knee. Loki returned most of the gesture, though he wasn't yet able to conjure ice; he had learned that it was a sign of respect, though its precise meaning differed depending on the relationship between the one who made the gesture and the one for whom it was intended, and the circumstances under which it was made. In their case, it was a respectful farewell, and with that, Yardaff walked back to the palace.

Loki waited a minute, until he was sure Yardaff was gone. Then, he silently activated the gate.

The force of the wormhole pulled Loki to Asgard with incredible force, and he hadn't realized just how strong the force was before he tried to resist it. He couldn't go back to Asgard, he knew, but he wanted to get away from Jotunheim, if only for a minute. Finally, with a great effort, he managed to stop himself so that he was floating between the realms.

He looked at Asgard. His home, for so long. It shone beautifully, and from where he was, it looked like a palace of gold on a floating island of crystal. He could almost feel its warmth, rejuvenating him after his five days in Jotunheim.

Tears welled in his eyes - tears he would never allow himself to shed. Why him? Why had he been born to such a cursed fate? His family by upbringing had rejected him, and his family by blood disgusted him. Who was he? Was there anywhere that he could belong? Such were his thoughts, as he gazed mournfully at Asgard. All he really wanted was to go home…but he had no home…He had never had a home, not really…

Asgard. The realm of the gods. Loki smiled as he thought of what the people of Earth believed about him and the people of Asgard. If only I was a god, he thought. If only there weregods…

Suddenly, a thought struck him, one he had never bothered to consider before: Were there gods?

Loki didn't want to think so. What gods could be so cruel, as to have given him his wretched lot in life?

Still…

"Dear gods, if gods there be, I ask that you hear my humble plea," he said softly. "Please. I do not wish to live in Jotunheim. I would…I would rather make my way in a realm which I have no right whatsoever to claim as my own. I shall…I shall spend one year searching for a gate from Jotunheim to another realm, and I shall take the first one I find, and live wherever it may lead me. If I do not find a gate within that time…I will…concede, to my blood, and live as king of Jotunheim, though I would rather die. Please, gods, if there be any who can hear me, grant my one, humble request: please, guide me home."

Loki took one last, long look at Asgard, then turned around and went back to Jotunheim, to search for his way home.

~o~

~363 Days Later~

Thor sat on the throne of Asgard, watching Jane, as he always did in his spare time.

He missed her so much. It was strange, really, how closely they had bonded, considering how brief the time had been that they had spent together. But somehow, in that brief time, they had fallen in love.

She still searched for him. She spent every day in her lab, on her computers, searching for the next time a gate would open between the realms, manipulating numbers in ways he couldn't even begin to understand.

Sometimes he wondered if he had made the right decision by destroying the Bifrost. The Frost Giants were enemies of Asgard, after all, and had Thor not smashed it with all his strength, using all the power in his great war-hammer, Mjolnir, he wouldn't be separated from Jane like this…

…And his brother would still be alive.

No matter how many times Thor tried to tell himself that the Frost Giants were a race, like humans and Asgardians, and therefore had a right to live, it ate away at him, day and night, that he had been forced to break his word for their sake, and that his brother had been sacrificed likewise. Sometimes he told himself that Loki was better off dead, that their father would have banished him to some strange realm to fend for himself, and that perhaps, in death, he was at peace…but whether that was true or not, it wasn't enough. Thor missed him, just as he missed Jane. Loki had always been his brother, and he would always love him as such, whether they shared blood or not, and though just three days more than a year had passed since Loki's death, the pain was no less…nor was his pain at being separated from Jane.

Only one thing kept a spark of hope alive in him: Jane had known that Thor was coming to Earth days before Odin himself had known what he was going to do. If Jane could just find another opening…Maybe such events were unavoidable…

So far, though, Jane had nothing. Thor knew he didn't really have any reason to expect things to change, but he just couldn't bring himself to look away from her for more than a few seconds, not even to try to descry Jotunheim, which remained veiled to him, Heimdall, and his father, though he also desperately wished to see…

"Darcy! Erik! Come here!"

Jane had looked up from her calculations and was calling to her friends. Thor sat up in his throne.

"What is it, Jane?" asked Darcy.

"Look, look!" Jane exclaimed, pointing at one of the screens in front of her excitedly.

Erik and Darcy squinted where she was pointing.

"Is that-?"

"Yes!" exclaimed Jane, nearly jumping for joy. "It's the beginning of a wormhole!" She grinned at what constituted her family. "He's coming back, just like he said he would!"

"Jane…are you sure?" asked Darcy, unconvinced.

"Yes!" exclaimed Jane. "See?" She pointed to something that Thor couldn't make any sense of. "Right there. A funnel is starting to twist the space-time continuum, just like last time." She smiled. "At the rate it's forming, I'd say he'll be here in two days."

"That's a few miles northeast of us," said Erik. "If we only have two days, we'd better pack up."

Wordlessly, Jane tore out of her lab and started frantically packing.

Two days…Was it true? Was he really going to be able to be with her again?

~o~

~Two Days Later~

A year and five days in Jotunheim…or forever, thought Loki.

It was his last day. If he didn't find a way out of Jotunheim by sunset…

"Be well on your way, Brother!"

Loki turned to Yardaff's call.

"Thank you, Brother," he answered with a smile.

Yardaff took a long, absorbing look at Loki and smiled. "The curse is almost broken," he said.

"Indeed," replied Loki, forcing a smile in return. "In fact, I believe I shall be able to break it completely by the time I return tonight."

"For the last time," Yardaff added.

Loki nodded. His skin had lost any hint of pink long ago, and had recently gone from being a waxy whitish color to a bluish white. His eyes had gone from blue to purple, getting redder every day, and they glowed slightly. What was more, the facial markings that were the mark of royal blood were starting to show on his face. Soon, the change worked upon him by Odin would be undone completely.

"We eagerly await your return, Brother," Yardaff told Loki.

Loki smiled. "Because of my coronation?" he asked slyly.

Yardaff blinked, then smiled. "You were listening?"

"The shadows are my ears," Loki replied; yes, he had overheard Yardaff talking with Lady Enchessa about preparations for his coronation, so that he could officially be king…and he had heard something that concerned him. "What was that I heard about choosing a mate?" he asked.

"It is custom for the king to choose his queen at his coronation," Yardaff replied, and Loki could see a hint of sadness in his face. "It is the only time a male may have complete say in what female he marries, whether his mate desires him or not."

Meaning Yardaff could have chosen Enchessa whether she liked it or not, thought Loki, understanding Yardaff's sadness. But since I'm supposed to be king…

"Brother, I hope you do not misunderstand me, but I do not know the female members of our race," Loki told Yardaff truthfully. "Apart from Lady Enchessa, I've had little to no interaction with any of them. I do not think I can choose a mate so quickly. Perhaps that particular matter could be postponed, on account of the circumstances?"

"Perhaps," Yardaff replied, and Loki knew that the only reason he was considering it was because he wanted the extra time to try to woo Lady Enchessa, before his chance was gone forever. Loki really hadn't spent much time with the other Frost Giants, but the idea that Lady Enchessa was to be the queen of Jotunheim seemed to be commonly accepted as fact, due to her unprecedented magical skill and her remarkable beauty and intellect. True, she did seem rather close to perfect for most intents and purposes, and Loki supposed that he would have no choice but to choose her, if he had to rise to the throne, but the fact was that he felt nothing for her. In truth, he had never had feelings for any woman of any race; he occasionally wondered if he would ever even know what it felt like. Not that that matters much, if I am to spend the rest of my days as a Frost Giant, he thought.

Loki made a slight bow with his head. "I shall return before the sun sets," he vowed, hoping with all his might that it was a lie.

"We eagerly await your return, Loki Silvertongue," Yardaff said in reply, and, as always, he made the traditional Jotun gesture of respect, which Loki returned.

As soon as Yardaff was out of sight, Loki fled as quickly as he could.

I do not wish to live here! he thought desperately. Please, please, let me find a way out today!

The day passed, and Loki's panic started to rise as he frantically searched for a passage between Jotunheim and another realm. But alas, sunset came, and Loki knew it was over.

"Gods, if ye exist, it seems your will is that I live here," he said aloud. "There is no longer any reason for me to veil my existence from the people of Asgard; seeing me on the throne will cause them at least as much pain as it will cause me." He closed his eyes, and with a sigh of bittersweet relief, he banished the veil over Jotunheim that he had been maintaining since he had arrived there. "And…I concede…to my-" He stopped. He had been about to completely break Odin's transformation - the only reason it was still in place was because Loki had been fighting to hold on to it - but something about the air around him made him pause.

He closed his eyes, and opened himself to his immediate surroundings, and found to his surprise that he was standing in the middle of a trans-realm gateway.

The veil! Of course! It had been blocking his ability to sense gateways he didn't already know of!

"Dear gods, I thank you; you have answered my prayer!" he cried joyously to the sky, and he activated the gate he stood in, not opening his eyes; it didn't matter what realm he was going to, he just wanted to leave. As the vortex opened and Loki was sucked through space to another world, he cried,

"Take me home!"