One man in a thousand, Solomon says,
Will stick more close than a brother.
And it's worth while seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the Thousandth man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin' you.
- Rudyard Kipling
"If you will but listen to reason-"
Goblets went flying through the air, a spray of mead splashed against the walls. Thor Odinsson was enraged. His face flushed and his jaw set hard, his hands curled into fists to hit, or perhaps crush.
"A thousand years ago you bartered my life to those monsters, and you demand I listen to your reasons?" cried Thor, turning on his father. His mother, Frigga, ran forward and put her hands on his shoulders, trying to console him. "I am done with your reasons, old man! And this accursed alliance shall not stand!"
"In the name of my father and his father before him, no man ever suffered such contrariness in a son!" Odin slumped on his throne, rubbing his eye with the heel of his hand. "I swear it, Thor, before you are king you will learn what it is to make sacrifices for your kingdom."
"Sacrifices!" Thor said, almost pushing past his mother to yell at his father. "It is not your life you have sacrificed, but mine. You shackled me to some beast before I was even born!"
"Thor," said Frigga reproachfully. "Listen to your father."
"I-" Thor began, but bit off whatever he was to say next. On his throne, Odin stirred again, sitting up straight and facing his son.
"He is no beast, none of them are," Odin told his son. "They are foreign to you, yes, but they are beings of thought and feeling. And I've been told Laufey's son was chosen because he was thought to make a good match for you. He stands at the height of an Asgardian, and is said to have quite a talent for magicks..."
"So I got the runt of the litter," grumbled Thor.
Odin's eye flashed. "We have been entrusted with Laufey's greatest treasure," he said. "His son. You have been entrusted with him. A vow was made. We must stand by our word."
"Your word," said Thor. "I had no choice."
"We are royalty, our lives are never entirely our own. You have been taught that since birth," Frigga said.
"You could've done better for me!" Thor cried to Odin.
"I have chosen you an equal, one worthy of your stature. How could I have done better?"
"You could've chosen me a girl!" Thor said petulantly. "How are we to beget children?"
Odin sighed wearily. "The Frost Giants only have one gender, Thor. They are each male and female, and when the time comes, I am certain you and Loki will make as many princes and princesses as you wish. May you have a son as stubborn as yourself!"
Thor was aghast at this, and momentarily even forgot his own woes. "Only one gender - do you mean to say that King Laufey is a maiden?"
"King Laufey's maidenhood has been the stuff of legends since before your birth," said Odin in a dark and suspiciously bitter tone, and Thor, in a rare moment of wisdom, decided he did not wish to pursue this subject farther.
Thor crossed his arms over his chest and glowered crossly at his mother and father, and said, "I still cannot believe you are to put me through this with what's-his-name..."
"Loki," Frigga said helpfully. "It means 'air'."
"Enough!" Odin stood, brandishing Gungnir. "You shall marry him and love him as the air you breathe!"
A few days later, Thor, backed by the royal court of Asgard and his friends, met his intended on Bifröst, the rainbow bridge. He glowered from under his helm at the small contingent of Frost Giants, wondering which one was supposed to be Loki, the one he was to marry. Thor couldn't really tell one Frost Giant from another, and there were two or three of almost the same height as an Asgardian, but he'd be accursed before he'd lower himself to seeking the beast out. At his side, Frigga kept a firm grip on his arm, a silent warning to behave.
Odin stepped forward and greeted a craggy Frost Giant as "Laufey", so Thor knew that was his future... Good-father? Good-mother? Was Laufey even a 'he'? Blast these Frost Giants and their single, inadequate gender pronoun!
Thus did Odin and Laufey spake, and Odin turned and waved an arm majestically in Thor's direction. "I shall present to you my son, Thor!" After a moment passed, when Thor did not move or speak, Odin repeated his name through clenched teeth. "THOR!"
Thor grunted, "Hrrrmph," and raised a fist in greeting.
Laufey elbowed forward a smaller Frost Giant, who glared back at Laufey as though in betrayal. Thor knew at once this must be Loki. Loki and Thor stood an arm's reach apart, eyeing each other for several minutes. Everyone around them seemed to hold their breath.
Laufey coughed into his fist. Loki hissed at him, "He wouldn't change for me!" but Laufey's answering glare must've been convincing, because Loki sighed and a moment later he changed. His blue skin and those terrible red eyes shifted, and now an elegant, dark-haired young man stood before Thor. He wore a green cloak and a horned hat and a bored expression on his face.
Despite himself, Thor was impressed. Loki had magicked himself into the form of an Asgardian! At least he wouldn't have to bed a Frost Giant... Thor had been dreading Loki trying to put his cold feet on him in the night.
Loki cleared his throat and began to speak. "O, Lord Thor, Thor the Thunderer," he said in a resigned tone. "How many eons I have longed for this day. The day of our marriage. To bring peace to our people." This speech was so over-rehearsed that Thor suspected Laufey had been forcing Loki to recite it until ten minutes before they arrived in Asgard.
"And now I stand before you. To be joined to your side. Forever-"
"Enough of this!" shouted Thor. He unentwined Frigga's arm, and stomped up right in front of Loki. "Are we going to do this or not? I grow weary of this yammering and posturing. We should just get it over with!"
Loki's pale skin flushed a bit, but he leaned forward and growled into Thor's face. "As you wish!"
Thor had thought that Frost Giants would stink of sulfur, but Loki's breath was surprisingly and pleasanty minty. Like the smell of pine needles on a cold, cold night. "Ah..." he began, but before he could finish Loki stalked past him, cloak snapping as he went. Thor wheeled on his heel and ran after him.
Behind them, Laufey and Odin exchanged a meaningful glance. Frigga released a deep breath. "I think everything's going to be all right," she said.
Asgardian weddings were quick and simple enough; no fancy clothes, no flower girls, no cake. After exchanging swords, the couple sat and received blessings from All-Father Odin.
As Odin droned on, Thor kept an eye on Loki. It did not escape him that Loki looked through him and not at him, keeping his eyes fixed on something just over Thor's shoulder. This ate at Thor during the ceremony. Did Loki not find him handsome? All the maidens of Asgard thought him handsome, and had told him so many times (well, except for Sif who never had patience with silliness like that). But then, Loki was a Frost Giant, and who knew what they found desirable.
For the first time, it occured to Thor that his betrothed might find him as foreign and unappealing as Thor had found Loki's true form.
After the ceremony concluded, the other Frost Giants departed with indecent haste. Thor was shocked to see them standing and filing out even before the feast began. Loki did not rise to say goodbye nor did any of them approach him. When he saw King Laufey stand and begin to leave, Thor could bear it no longer. "King Laufey!" he bellowed, pushing his chair back and leaping to his feet. "Do you mean to depart Asgard without so much as a farewell to your own son?"
A hush fell over the guests. Odin glowered darkly from his throne, but Laufey just drew his lips back in a smirk that was more of a grimace. "He is not mine anymore, Odinsson," he said. "He belongs to your kind now. And he knows his purpose. I trust you will find him most satisfactory."
Thor glanced at Loki, who sat by his side. As his father spoke, Loki's breathing remained carefully even and he did not flinch or cower. Only the rapid blinking of his eyes gave him away. Thor began to protest again, only to feel the icy grip of Loki's hand closing around his wrist. "Please," Loki whispered. "Please. Just let them go. We are not a sentimental people."
And Thor looked back up to see King Laufey already leaving the Hall, flanked by his guards. Grumbling, he sat back down, and when Loki withdrew his hand, Thor could still feel the cool touch of Loki's fingers ringing his wrist.
Mayhap he was wearier than he felt, or mayhap more nervous than he thought, for Thor's appetite was ravenous. He greedily devoured half a boar and was soaking bread in a cup of stew when he looked to his side to see Loki picking at his plate, his food untouched. "Does not our fare please you?" Thor asked him.
"It is overcooked," Loki said. His face was pale and dark circles were beginning to form around his eyes.
Thor peered at the remains of his boar, cooked rare as he liked it, still pink on the inside. "Do your kind eat your food raw?"
Loki's knife clattered on his plate. "I don't suppose it matters to you, Thunderer," he said venomously, "but my kind are not beasts to gorge on raw flesh."
"Your kind act like beasts," Thor grumbled around a bite of stew.
That got a reaction. Loki twisted in his seat and hissed, "Ah, Thunderer, I suppose I am not used to civilized Asgardian customs. Tell me, do all Asgardians eat with their hands? Or is that just you?"
Thor self-consciously wiped his fingers clean on a cloth. "You are infuriating," he told Loki.
Loki's lips pursed. "I know."
After the Asgardians had filled themselves on good meat and good mead, and the Hall had been cleared, it was time for the bedding. Thor actually groaned aloud when he remembered this part of the wedding. The custom was to carry the married couple to their bedchambers, stripping them of their clothing along the way and making stupid jokes.
Sure enough, the Warriors Three draped themselves over Thor's broad shoulders, stupid jokes a-ready.
"He's a shapeshifter, Thor!" Fandral said, waggling his brows. "D'you know what that means?"
"There's not been a kiss yet!" Volstagg bellowed, slamming his fist on the table and making the plates jump. "Thor, you must find out if it is true that they have forked tongues!"
Hogun started to say something, but Loki brandished his dinner knife is such a ferocious manner that he thought better of it. Thor stood, pushing his friends back and away from the table.
"That's enough, all of you," he said, half-laughing and half-glaring at them. "I'm to take Loki to bed, but it will not be some public mockery. So off with all of you!"
"So eager!" cried Fandral.
"To love!" Volstagg hefted a mug of ale aloft, and then gulped it down dramatically.
Loki buried his face in his hands.
Fortunately, Sif swept in and herded the Warriors Three away. Thor took the opportunity to pull Loki to his feet and drag him from the Hall. If they were going to avoid more public humiliation, they needed to flee now. The Asgardians clapped and cheered at the apparent eagerness of the 'young couple' to consummate the marriage.
From his vantage point on his throne, Odin leaned over to Frigga and murmured, "I told you this was a good idea."
Thor and Loki made it to Thor's bedchambers without incident, but it was not until Thor had the door shut and bolted that he took a moment to exhale deeply. "Is that an Asgardian custom as well?" Loki asked, leaning cross-armed and cross-legged against the wall. "To watch us mate in public, like animals?"
"Only on wedding nights," Thor tried to explain.
Loki sniffed. "Disgusting. My kind do not do this." He stared at the magnificent bed with a lip curled in distaste. "I cannot do this. I cannot."
It was the first crack in Loki's armor that Thor had been permitted to see. "So we shall not," he said. "But the others will be listening outside the door. They will expect us to consummate the marriage."
Loki looked at him wonderingly.
Thor quirked an eyebrow.
Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg shoved at each other for position by the door. The crush of the other Asgardians behind them was nearly unbearable. "Can you hear anything?" Hogun asked, pressing his ear to the door.
Volstagg braced a hand atop Fandral's head, who squirmed uncomfortably. Though he tried, Volstagg could see nothing through the small keyhole. "It is for naught!" he cried.
"Get off me!" Fandral pushed at Volstagg. "You big lummox - wait! D'you hear-?"
"Yes!" cried Hogun excitedly.
"YES!" cried Thor from inside the bedchambers.
The Asgardians began to murmur excitedly at the sound of a bedframe squeaking wildly. Volstagg's lips quivered with pride. "Give 'im hell, Thor!" he shouted through the keyhole.
"Oooooh!" came a moan from inside the bedchambers.
The bedframe squeaked so wildly that it was sure to topple to pieces at any moment.
"Nnnngh!" someone grunted.
Hogun and Fandral's voices joined Volstagg's in shouting encouragement. "Make us proud!" "Show 'im what you're made of!"
"LOKI!" wailed Thor.
"THOR!" wailed Loki.
Volstagg and Fandral slapped hands in triumph. Hogun clasped them both in his arms. The crush of Asgardians collapsed atop one another even as Thor and Loki's cries reached a crescendo. From his post at the Rainbow Bridge, Heimdall sighed deeply in dismay.
Inside the bedchambers, Loki was bouncing wildly on Thor's down-filled mattress. "Do you think that's enough?" he whispered.
Feathers were floating in the air, catching in Thor's hair and sticking to his face, but Thor shook his head fiercely. "Come now, you can at least sound enthusiastic," he said, trying to keep his voice down. He felt a bit silly jumping on his bed like a boy, but it was neccesary to maintain the illusion of a vigorous consummation. And Thor would be accursed before he let anyone think their consummation was some whimpery, thirty second affair.
Loki began beating his hands on the wall in time to their bounces. Thor grabbed a pillow from the bed and flung it at Loki's head. "Gah!" yelled Loki as feathers exploded in his face.
An answering moan was heard from outside the door.
Loki, furious, caught Thor with a burst of magical frost in a very sensitive place, and Thor roared, "ARRRRRGH."
At that, the noise from outside was positively deafening.
Loki flopped onto the bed, arms and legs spread, panting. Thor leapt from the bed, tugging down his trousers to check where Loki had zapped him.
A dark chuckle, and then Loki said, "I told you, you were to keep those on tonight."
"I just wanted to be sure the damage wasn't permanent," Thor grumbled, tugging his trousers back up. He sat on the edge of the bed, only to see Loki push himself to the opposite corner. "After all that, you think I'm going to throw myself on your prone body?"
Loki pulled his knees up to his chest. "Sleep on the floor."
Thor looked at him like he was crazy. "No! It's MY bed. You sleep on the floor."
Loki pondered this for a moment. "All right, but stay on your side." He arranged a wall of pillows between them to be sure.
A soft whimpery sound slowly lured Thor from the realm of dreams. He stirred, opening his eyes to darkness. Propping himself up on an elbow, Thor looked around. He was laying in his own bed, in his chambers, the fire in the grate having died down to a few glowing embers. Beside him was a wall of pillows, and beyond that he could hear that same mournful sound. He pushed aside some of the pillows to see Loki, curled in on himself, his hands drawn up to his face.
In his sleep, Loki was sobbing.
Thor was selfish and Thor was willful, but Thor was not cruel. Instinctively he reached out, cupping the back of Loki's neck with one hand, his fingers threading through Loki's hair. Loki shuddered in his grasp.
"Ahhh," Loki said, lifting his head a little as he awoke. He breathed through his mouth, every breath long and shaking.
Thor searched for words. "You are safe," he said. Though he spoke as softly as he could, his voice seemed to reverberate through his immense bedchambers. It occured to him that this was the most alone, and intimate, he had ever been with Loki.
Loki shuddered again, as though just remembering where he was. "Will you mock me now, Thunderer?" he asked in a choked voice.
"No mockery," Thor said, and then after a moment he asked, "Do you miss Jotunheim so?" He stroked Loki's hair, as Frigga once stroked his when he was small.
A soft laugh. "If you were exiled from Asgard, would you not dream of it in your sleep? Would your longing for home not trouble your dreams, making your waking a nightmare and your dreaming a torment?" Loki asked him.
Thor swallowed hard but was unable to answer. Loki a-waited a reply, but receiving none, rolled towards Thor so that he lay across Thor's arm. His cheek was warm against Thor's skin. They laid this way, eye to eye for several minutes.
At last, Thor spoke. "If it is your wish to return home, then I swear it, when I become king of Asgard I will find a way to send you back."
Loki's mouth twisted half in mockery, half in a sad smile. "Thunderer, you have took from me my home forever. They will never have me back." And he closed his eyes and returned to sleep.
Thor lay awake and watched the sun rise.
If Thor thought what happened that night would change Loki, make him softer or simpler to handle, he soon found he was gravely mistaken. Loki seemed to think every day was another infernal opportunity to confound and humiliate Thor. He played pranks, magicking doors so they appeared and disappeared, or led to blank walls, or to stairs that went nowhere; he enchanted Sif's hair to change colors at random; and memorably transformed Thor himself into a frog. The Warriors Three had a good laugh at that, and called him "Thor, Frog of Thunder" for a solid week afterward.
But worst of all, Loki could not be silent.
If spoken to, he would respond silver-tongued, insulting someone in such a way that they would be five or six steps away from him before realizing they'd been insulted. And it proved impossible NOT to speak to Loki; everyone wanted to talk to him, to get a reaction from him. Thor most of all.
"Your mother the queen is quite beautiful to look upon," Loki told Thor one evening as they feasted.
"Aye," agreed Thor, smiling.
"You take after your father," Loki said, taking a drink of mead.
Thor paused, thinking it over, then turned to give Loki a baleful glare.
But the worst was keeping Loki seperate from the Warriors Three and Sif. However much they tormented him, Loki paid them back in kind.
"Hoo-ah!" Sif cried as she swung a sword at Fandral's head. Thor, Volstagg, and Hogun stood nearby, watching them spar, while Loki stood a little apart, observing through half-lidded eyes.
"Lovely form, Sif!" said Fandral admiringly.
"Fandral, you flirt!" Sif narrowed her eyes at him, then blocked an answering blow from his sword.
Thor cheered as Sif and Fandral countered one another's strikes. Volstagg leaned towards Loki and said, "Not enjoying the sparring, Giant's Child? We Asgardians are a martial race, you know." He patted his substantial belly as he said this. "You must think us so brutal."
"Oh, I would never say that aloud," Loki replied.
Thor frowned at them over his shoulder. "Loki, enough!"
Pausing the sparring, Sif took a drink of water before turning to Loki. "Did not your father have you trained as a warrior on Jotunheim?" she asked. "Perhaps one day you would like to challenge me at the sword - or the spear, or the poleaxe."
"Alas," said Loki in a tone that made it clear he thought it no great loss, "I was not thought to make much of a warrior. By training and by inclination I am a sorcerer..."
"A trickster," muttered Hogun.
"...and my power is no middling thing," Loki continued, and as he spoke his form changed, and that which stood before them now was a lovely black-haired woman in a green gown. Her lips curled upwards at the corners at their obvious amazement. "I have so many skills," Loki said, twirling a strand of hair about her finger.
Fandral swaggered towards Loki, eyeing her up and down. "Lady Loki, are you trying to tempt me?" he joked.
"Fandral," growled Thor.
"If that was all I wanted," Loki said, tapping a finger against her cheek, "I wouldn't have to try."
"LOKI!" roared Thor, and Loki flinched back, returning to his male form. Fandral took a step back as well, surprised by his friend's outburst.
Thor flung his hammer at the floor at Loki's feet, and thunder shook them all, and cracks radiating out across the floor from where Mjolnir struck. "How dare you, you brazen troublemaker," Thor said, gritting his teeth. "How dare you make a mockery of me in front of my friends? I am-"
"FINISHED!" And Odin grasped him by the nape of the neck, and cast Thor to the floor. Loki actually cried aloud in shock, and Sif and the Warriors Three huddled together fearfully. Odin cast his eye upon them all, and it was terrible to behold.
"You!" he said, pointing to Sif, Volstagg, Hogun, and Fandral. "Begone from my sight, all of you." As they scattered, he fixed Loki with his terrible, furious eye and said, "But not you. Stay right where you are, Loki."
Thor lept to his feet, even angrier than before, if such a thing were possible. He had been infuriated by Fandral and Loki's flirting, but he was near to choking on the humiliation of Odin casting him to the ground like a naughty boy. "Father!" he bellowed. "What is the meaning of this-"
But Odin had reached down and picked up Mjolnir from where it lay, surrounded by deep cracks as jagged as lightning. "What did you mean by this?" Odin asked, hefting Mjolnir aloft.
Thor flushed. "It was meant only to frighten him."
"You would rule Loki by fear?" Odin said, his hands shaking with emotion. "You are more foolish and more destructive than I ever believed, to think you can intimidate him into obeying and loving you. And you..." here Odin looked at Loki, who remained rooted to the spot, barely daring to breathe. "You are the best your father could find for us? A vicious little trickster who would incite fights between my son and his friends just to feel some small thrill of power over them."
The color drained from Loki's face.
Odin brandished Mjolnir and cried, "I see now that you both are unworthy of the responsibility given you! Never would I leave Asgard in the hands of two such as yourselves! I cast you both out - and may you not return until you learn to respect and protect one another!"
"Father," said Thor, but the world around them went white, and a moment later he knew not where he was, or when.