Thor returned with the rest of his father's men late in the night. Two of the twelve were carried to the healing room; the rest only suffered from minor cuts, sore muscles, and exhaustion. Muspelheim was a terrible place. Thor hadn't slept a single hour in all the weeks they'd been there. The very air filled them with pain, fear, and despair.
Feeling half-dead, Thor bade his company goodnight and climbed the stairs to his bedchamber. He dropped his bag of spoils as soon as he stepped into the room, and let Mjolnir fall with a clang beside it. The older men had divided up the gold, and though Thor couldn't even remember what he'd taken from the sorcerer's keep, it had weighed as much as a mountain.
Sloughing his armour like a snake shedding skin, he stripped bare and filled his bedside basin with water. After he'd rinsed his hair and wiped the stench of sulphur from his skin, he pulled on a clean nightshirt. There was someone he was desperate to see, and he didn't want to be turned away because of his smell.
Thor slipped across the hall to Loki's room.
Moonlight painted long stripes on the bed where his brother lay in slumber. Thor knelt at his bedside to watch Loki sleep and reached a hand out to brush away a lock of raven- coloured hair from his face.
Even as a child, Thor had been called "the Golden Prince" because of his flaxen hair and sun-kissed skin. Loki, with his ink-black hair and his skin milk white from sitting in the library all day long, had earned no nickname in praise of his looks.
Thor fervently believed that Loki was the most beautiful creature in the world. Especially now, with his skin glowing in the moonlight like new-fallen snow. He often felt that there was a meaningful reason for their being so different. Where Thor was broad-shouldered, Loki was slender. Where Thor was loud and brash, Loki was quiet and thoughtful. Though Thor was often straightforward to the point of being blunt, Loki could weave words with his clever tongue like a spider weaving a silken web. Thor loved that they were exact opposites. They were perfectly complimentary, and there was something beautiful about that in his mind. Deep in his heart, he felt surely they belonged together.
"Loki," he whispered. "Loki."
Watching Loki's eyes flutter open gave Thor delight that he had not felt in weeks.
"Thor?" Loki murmured sleepily."You're back."
Thor grinned at his brother. "You should have seen, Loki. I killed ten fire trolls and the head of a dragon!"
"Not the whole dragon?" Loki asked with a yawn.
"Well, it was a three-headed dragon. Tyr killed the other two heads. I brought back one of its fangs!" It would make their father proud to hear that he'd made as many kills as the most seasoned warrior in their party. Tyr had told him he'd be leading his own battle missions soon. He was nearly a man now.
"You should have brought back some of its scales. They're much more useful," chided Loki, though his eyes were heavy with sleep and he was obviously struggling to keep them open.
"Of course I brought scales. I knew you'd want them for your magic."
"Oh. Thank you," replied Loki with a soft smile. Then he closed his eyes, his breath evened out, and he slipped quietly back into slumber.
"I really, really missed you," Thor whispered.
It had been a handful of years since they'd been given separate rooms, but Thor still missed his brother's presence at night. When they were children he would have thought nothing of climbing into Loki's bed to sleep curled up beside him.
But Thor knew his feelings for Loki weren't so innocent anymore.
In truth, he wanted to slip under the covers with Loki and kiss him over and over. He wanted to hold him, and touch him the way lovers touched. He knew it was wrong to desire Loki in the way he did, but he couldn't extinguish the feeling.
Thor was in love with his brother. What's more, he was in lust with him. As youthful as he was, his feelings for Loki were so strong and tangled he could barely tell the difference.
Despite his exhaustion, Thor wanted Loki so much he dared not get into bed beside him, for fear that Loki would feel his desire made apparent.
Instead, Thor leaned over to kiss Loki's forehead, then retreated to his own room to sleep.
Thor slept through the night and all through the following day. When next he awoke it was dusk, and he opened his eyes to find Loki ransacking his bag of spoils.
"Loki!" Thor rubbed his eyes. "It's good to see you. Have I been asleep long?"
Loki barely glanced over at him. "Only all day. You really managed to drag home some useless junk here. Didn't you say you took some dragon scales?" He picked something out of the bag that looked like an inkwell carved in the shape of a rat.
"First of all, is that anyway to greet your brother, newly returned from a life-threatening mission?" Thor got up, went to Loki, and hauled him up by the arm for a hug.
"Yes, welcome home, oh great returning hero," Loki responded, rolling his eyes.
"That's better." Thor chuckled. "And secondly," he continued, pointing to the open burlap sack. "That Orcish sorcerer had a lot of strange things in his keep. The whole place was going to pieces after we killed him, so we all just took what we could grab and ran." Thor shrugged sheepishly at the inkwell and sat down to help dig through the loot. "Your scales should be in here somewhere."
Loki joined him on the floor, and together they pulled out some very odd, very useless things indeed.
After they had a good laugh over an item that looked extremely suggestive and filthy, Thor leaned back to look at Loki.
"You should have been there, Loki."
Loki looked down. "I can't fight, remember?"
"You can use magic, and that's even better. Someday when I lead a mission, I'll bring you along. You can share in the glory and the spoils just like any warrior."
"Magic isn't for fighting, you dolt," Loki snorted, eyes still lowered. "Besides, if the spoils are anything like this, you can keep them."
They continued sorting.
Loki pulled out something that looked like it might have been a book when Yggdrasil had been a sapling, but now it was only a pile of thick, dirt-stained pages pressed together between two slightly less ancient flats of wood bound by a leather thong. Loki untied the thong and removed the top flat to reveal its pages.
Thor heard Loki take in a sharp breath, and lifted his attention from an assortment of strange pens to see his brother staring with wide eyes at the first page of the tattered book. He could have slapped himself—he'd forgotten all about that.
"Hey, that's mine!" Seizing it from Loki's hands, he put the top flat back in place and held it against his chest. Thor had intended to save the book as a gift for Loki's name-day celebration. Loki was a terrible person to find a suitable gift for—his only interest was magic, and Thor didn't know anything about that.
"Do you know whose mark that is?" Loki pointed a slightly shaking finger to the tangled sigil of lines and dots at the corner of the back flat.
"Well no, obviously. I'm no sorcerer. But I thought Father might like to gift it to the King of Alfheim, to see if his mages can decipher it." The surprise might not be totally ruined if he could convince Loki he wasn't going to give it to him.
Loki snorted. "The mages of Alfheim can barely tell a cantrip from a cantaloupe. They don't deserve that book." He licked his lips in a way that sent a shiver of desire racing through Thor's body. "Give it to me."
It took all of Thor's self-discipline to say, "No."
"Well then let me read it before you give it to Father." Loki reached his greedily-twitching fingers out for the book.
"No! It's too delicate to lend around like that—it's about ready to crumble into dust." Thor drew back and put the book behind him on the floor, placing Mjolnir on top of it.
Loki narrowed his eyes. "Give me that book," he said. "And I'll give you whatever you want in return."
Thor shivered. A nasty idea planted itself in his mind. He shook his head to be free of it.
"No, no, no! If you're going to be so pushy, I'll sort my spoils by myself, thanks. You can collect your scales tomorrow." Thor got up and lifted his brother by the arm to hustle him out the door.
Once Loki was out of the room, Thor leaned against the door, hoping his brother hadn't noticed his sudden, embarrassing arousal.
The All-Father threw a celebratory feast for the returned men that night, and Thor barely had time to bathe and dress.
Loki wasn't allowed to sit at the warriors' table. Between the toasts, the stories, and the presentation of the spoils, Thor didn't get to talk to him again all night long. As the evening wore on, Thor drank his first tankard of mead in one long draught, to the hooting and hollering of his fellow warriors. It tasted foul, but he was grateful for it, for it gave him the courage to finally look over to where his brother sat.
Though Loki was dressed in the same finery as everyone else, he somehow managed to be the only one in the entire room who looked bored. Even the servants were drinking and laughing as they attended their duties.
When Loki noticed that Thor was looking at him, he crossed his arms and glared at him. How he managed to look so fetching while doing it, Thor had no idea. Thor looked way before he could be accused of staring.
When his fellow warriors were drunk enough, Thor managed to slip away. A servant girl accosted him with a kiss just outside of the banquet hall. She was beautiful in the generous way Asgardian girls tended to be. The way she pressed herself to him made it clear that she would be pleased to follow him to his bedchamber, if he only asked.
Thor was tempted, but gently rebuffed her, trying not to embarrass her too much for throwing herself at him.
There was only one person he wanted to follow him to his bedchamber, and he didn't like the thought of throwing himself into the arms of another when the only one he'd be thinking about was Loki. He wasn't that desperate. Not yet, anyway.
And when Thor returned to his chamber, lo and behold, Loki was waiting for him.