A heartfelt Merry Christmas to all of my dear readers—this is your reward for supporting my original work! I am nothing without you.

I incorporate certain concepts into this tale with the permission and blessing of Loki and Jane on Facebook:)

The lyrics at the beginning of each chapter are from the Sara Bareillis song "Christmas is Love." Have a listen—it's utterly beautiful.

For the THIRD and FOURTH sections, I listened to "Touch the Sky" from the Brave soundtrack.

Enjoy!

VVVVV

Even in an ancient realm like Asgard, reminders are needed as to the true heart of Christmas. And some reminders come in the form of gifts. Fallen Star Universe. Sequel to "Aurora."

GIFTS

Alydia Rackham

ONE

"I don't care if the house is packed

Or if the strings of light are broken.

I don't care if the gifts are wrapped,

Or there's nothing here to open.

Love is not a toy

And no paper will conceal it

Love is simply joy

That I'm home."

-Christmas is Love, Sara Bareillis

Jane slowly awoke to the sensation of movement—a smooth, onward rushing beneath her, surrounding her…

Warmth wrapped all around her body, her face. Warmth and softness. She took a deep breath, sighed, and opened her eyes.

Darkness. Darkness that smelled of the must of animal pelts, and—

Frost.

She blinked, and sat up slightly, taking another sleepy breath. Here and there, with the gentle rocking and swaying, a gap would open in the darkness, letting in a slice of pure white light. She slid her right hand out from beneath the settled heat of the furs and reached out to her left. Her fingers bumped into a shoulder, a chest, a collar of fur-lined leather.

"Loki," she said groggily, pulling her hand back to rub her face. "Is it morning?"

He sucked in a short breath, telling her that she'd woken him up.

"Erm…" He cleared his throat, and shifted next to her. "I believe so..."

Jane was suddenly awake.

"Well, open the top, then!"

"Jane, it is very cold outside—"

"I don't care," Jane declared, sitting up further and leaning back against the short wall. "I want to see!"

Loki cleared his throat again, sat up as well and scooted closer to her, then reached over her head to tug on a cord.

With three sharp tugs and three quick shinks, the low velvet ceiling above them split apart—

Jane flinched, shielding her eyes…

Then opened them with a gasp.

A tall, vividly-blue sky towered overhead, and a bright, light-yellow sun shot dazzling rays through the few clouds. And all around them, in smooth, rolling, utterly-smooth white hills, lay the snow-covered countryside of Asgard.

Four black horses, adorned in jingling silver bells, swiftly pulled Jane and Loki's light, sleek sledge across the rushing snow, its runners whispering and laughing like distant wind through icicles. The thick-haired horses needed no driver—they knew the way by heart. The nipping wind blustered twinkles of ice through the air, like minute fairies caught in sunbeams. Jane grinned, wrapping her furs closer around her throat, and sat up to see the rest of the procession.

"Thor!" she shouted. "How far?"

Thor, seated beside his gray-haired father in the broad, golden sledge ahead of them, turned, his white-fur-clad shoulders and beamed at her. His sunny hair blew across his face.

"Not far!" he called back over the jingle of the bells. "We should be able to see it soon!"

"I'm so excited," Jane shivered, snuggling back down closer to Loki. He wrapped his right arm around her and pulled her closer, curling the fingers of his left hand through her fingers. She sensed something, frowned, tilted her head back, and looked at him. He was smiling to himself—but looking at her.

"What?" she wondered. He gazed back at her, his infinite green eyes bright in the morning light, his raven hair dancing around his shoulders and framing his sharp, handsome face. His soft mouth quirked, and he turned toward the front again.

"What?" Jane pressed, fascinated as always by every movement of his eloquent features.

"I have been attending the Snow Festival for more years than anyone can count," he said thoughtfully. His black eyebrows drew together. "The last few were… unpleasant for me. But this year…" His smile returned—his glance sparked at her. Jane smiled back at him.

"There it is!" Thor called. Jane sat up again, and so did Loki. Thor and Odin's sledge achieved the height of a rise and slowed to a halt. Thor pointed. Loki and Jane's sledge drew up beside them…

And Jane let out her breath in a slow rush.

Below them, in a deep, gentle valley, enclosed by steep, gray mountains, stood two opposing fortresses entirely made of snow.

They towered, perhaps eight stories each, glistening and shining in the sun. Each bore sturdy battlements, thick walls, parapets and towers with windows, and staircases wrapped around and around their sides. The flawless no-man's–land between them was bisected by a broad trench filled with glassy-smooth frozen water. Beyond the two castles waited a huge redtent with a hole in the center of the peak, through which a welcoming plume of smoke issued.

"King's Beard! The servants have entirely outdone themselves!" Fandral declared as his sledge, hauled by eight crimson horses, pulled up next to Loki and Jane's. Fandral's wooden sledge was very large, so Volstaag, Hogun and Steve Rogers accompanied him—they all were also wrapped in dark brown furs, and held silver mugs of steaming drink. Fandral half stood up to see down into the valley. The other three eagerly twisted and stood so they could see, too. Jane hid a smirk—they reminded her of little boys.

"What are those for?" Steve asked, his handsome face a picture of concern and concentration, his bright blue eyes studying the valley below.

"We're going to fight to the death using only ice and snow," Loki replied coolly. "A slow and painful passage into the afterlife—but a glorious one."

Steve turned and stared at him. Loki casually glanced the other way. Jane covered her mouth and gagged back a giggle. Volstaag suddenly burst out laughing and shoved Steve's shoulder, nearly spilling his drink.

"Hahaha!" Volstaag bellowed. "Look at your face!"

Fandral joined the laughter, and Hogun almost thought about it.

"Brother!" Thor called back.

"Sister?" Loki mocked, lifting his chin. Thor ignored it, twisting around again to face them.

"Shall we command the southernmost castle again?"

"Why not?" Loki gestured carelessly. "I enjoy the view. And perhaps you and I should each tie one hand behind our backs—to make it fair."

Odin chuckled—Jane heard him.

"I resent that!" Fandral cried. "We held our own quite well last year! As surely as you did!"

"Oh, you did?" Loki feigned thoughtfulness. "I seem to recall a certain tower collapsing at the base and falling on top of—"

"I only pretended to be unconscious!" Volstaag huffed, shaking the furs around him. "A little snow and ice is nothing!"

Loki grinned wickedly while Thor crowed. The other men glared at Loki, and Jane buried her face in her furs to stifle her laughing.

"Don't listen to him," a female voice from behind ordered. Jane lifted her head and turned to see Sif's sledge pull up behind, drawn by sleek bays. The black-haired lady pointed warningly at Volstaag, her midnight gaze sharp. "He is playing mind games with you."

"Yes, those are excellent fun," Loki purred, wagging an eyebrow at her. She narrowed her eyes at him.

"I will kill you."

His grin only grew wickeder. The Queen Mother, who sat beside Sif, simply smiled in secret amusement and pulled her covering up closer to her chin. Frigg's dearest friend Eir, the fiery-haired chief healer; and Nanna, the young, pretty apprentice healer, sat with them—all but Sif wore white hooded cloaks. Sif was dressed and geared for battle—which Jane found very funny. But she kept that to herself.

"Good morning, Steven," Nanna turned her warm brown eyes to Steve Rogers and gave him a bright look, curls of her hair flickering around her face.

"Um, good…Good morning," Steve nodded to her, turning completely red. Nanna's look twinkled.

Jane straightened a little further, glanced back, and beamed at the shining sight of the long line of sledges carrying all the members of the royal court.

"Hang on, everyone!" Odin called. "Off we go!"

Jane obediently sat back down—and the next instant, the sledges took off, racing down the smooth track and into the chilly, shining valley.

LJLJLJLJL

"Attention, attention! Ladies and gentlemen of the court—may I present to you your king!"

"LONG LIVE THE KING!"

The great shout echoed against the mountains and rose up to the sky. Loki, standing on the side steps of the wooden dais in front of the scarlet tent, watched the gold-clad herald move away, and then Loki himself stepped back to let Thor, garbed in a long white cloak trimmed in fur, stride past him. Thor slapped a hand down on Loki's shoulder as he passed, and they exchanged a grin. Thor swept to the center of the dais, his heavy boots loud on the wood. He stopped, spread out his arms, his aspect as warm as summer sun, and raised his voice to the two hundred expectant, fur-and-wool-clad courtiers standing before him in the snow.

"Good morning!" he greeted them, his deep voice resounding. "And Happy Snow Festival!"

"HAPPY SNOW FESTIVAL!" Loki, and all the rest of them, answered at the top of their voices. Loki glanced past Thor at their mother and father, seated in padded and fur-lined wooden thrones, listening fondly as Thor spoke. Loki's hand closed around Jane's mitten—he turned down to the right and met her gaze. Her long hair fell down across the shoulders of her deep green, form-fitting coat. The light on the snow lit up her eyes. She shivered again in excitement, grinning, and shuffled closer to him. Loki turned back to his brother.

"On this, a day when we who have grown may once again play as children," Thor went on. "We are grateful for our lives, for our freedom, and for those precious ones near us who keep our homes bright, and our hearts safe. Today is a day of harmless fun and games of skill! Let us conduct ourselves with good humor and kindness—even as we try with all our might to bring each others' fortresses to the ground!"

Everyone roared with laughter and cheering. Odin and Frigg clapped. Thor chuckled deeply, then held up a hand.

"But first," he said. "I shall remind you of our code of conduct: No hardened ice shall be thrown purposefully into the face of any opponent, for any reason. No child may participate without the consent of his or her parents. No woman soon to bear a child may enter into any combat. All weapons and ammunition must be built from snow and ice and nothing more. And herein lies the challenge:" Thor gave them all a daring look and raised one finger. "Absolutely no magic of any kind may be wielded upon this field of battle. We shall fight until one castle falls, or evening falls—whichever happens first. The winning army shall be the first to taste the feast this night. The losers shall serve them!"

The courtiers all groaned and cheered simultaneously.

"As you stand," Thor shouted over them, then leveled his arm and pointed down the middle of the crowd. "Those of you to my left shall occupy the northernmost castle, commanded by Fandral the Dashing and his lieutenants Lady Sif, Hogun the Grim, and Volstaag the Valiant! Those to my right shall occupy the southernmost castle, to be commanded by the sons of Asgard!"

The crowd immediately rustled, separating into two armies, and shooting taunting looks and gestures to each other. Thor reached up and unclasped his cloak, took it off and handed it to their mother, revealing a leather jerkin and thick woolen trousers and shirt beneath, along with knee-high boots.

Thor stood still then, poised, sparkling eyes roving over the two armies. Everyone watched him, every breath held.

"To war!" Thor burst out, and leaped off the dais.

"Raaahhh!" the armies of men, women and children roared, turning and pelting with all their might toward their respective castles, leaving a stampede of footprints behind. Loki whirled, his long black coat swirling, grasped Jane's hands and pressed them melodramatically to his chest.

"My dearest, sweetest lady," he said, his voice dripping with overdone sentiment. Jane's delighted laugh rang out, but Loki mightily restrained his expression to one of heartbreak and longing.

"There is much to say—too much for this short time left to us—"

"Loki!" Jane giggled.

Loki sighed mightily and raised his eyes to the sky.

"Would I had told you how much you mean to me—"

"You already have."

Loki frowned down at her. She raised her eyebrows.

"I have?" he said in surprise.

"Yes. Frequently," she said, giving him a frank, sideways look.

"Ah. In that case…" He regathered her hands, took another breath, and resumed his melodrama. "Would that we had more time, so I could tell you again and again—"

"You're just stalling now," Jane accused.

Loki blinked, then grinned at her wolfishly.

"You're right, I am," he admitted, then bent and kissed her sharply on the cheek.

"Get going!" Jane chuckled, shoving him. With a purposefully-evil laugh, he turned and raced toward the castle.

LTLTLTL

"Thor!" Loki cried, grabbed his brother's collar and yanked. Thor crashed to the floor—

Just as a massive snowball exploded against the tower near where Thor's head had just been. Ice showered them, stinging Loki's cheek. Loki scrabbled back to his feet, hauling Thor with him. Panting, the two rested their hands on the frozen battlement and leaned out, searching the opposite castle—

Only for Volstaag's laughter to assault their hearing.

"Volstaag, you bearded dwarf!" Thor hollered, swiping at his face. "When I find you I'll—"

He didn't need to finish. Loki had snatched up a single snowball from the ammunition pile beside him, spun and hurled it with arrow-like precision. It screamed through the air, past the second-level enemy ramparts, and crushed Volstaag square in the broad forehead. He toppled.

"HA!" Loki exulted, then swiped up another ball and threw it right on the heels of the first. "Watch where you are throwing!"—and he hit Fandral directly in the side of the head as he bent to help Volstaag. Fandral yelped, slipped and fell with a spectacular flail. Thor nearly started crying in an attack of bellowing laughter—he could hardly stand.

Loki, swiping the dewy snow off of his own face, allowed himself a satisfied smile, then sucked in a breath and slapped a hand down on Thor's shoulder. The two of them ducked down behind the wall as a torrent of misaimed snowballs suddenly pounded the walls all around them.

"We're running out of daylight," Loki noticed. "Time for drastic action."

Thor suppressed his chuckling, wiping his eyes.

"What do you advise?"

"We have to move out."

"Suppose they're not finished?" Thor said, clearing his throat. Loki gave a sideways glance at the other castle through an arrow hole.

"I haven't seen Sif in quite some time—and none of them have made a play for the middle ground for an hour," he said. "She's planning something—we have to catch that plan in the middle. It's now or never."

"Whatever you say," Thor grabbed Loki's collar and shook him firmly, then turned and hurried along the narrow rampart, Loki at his heels, snowballs striking the ice-white wall just behind him with vicious rapidity. Thor hopped down to a landing, then let out a thrilled howl as he grabbed an ice-beam, swung, and sat down on a plunging slide. He took off like a shot—his howl battered around the inside of the snow castle as he hurtled down and inside. Loki, not hesitating even an instant, leaped down after him, laying smoothly down on his back and folding his arms over his chest. He rocketed after Thor, watching the flickering view above him turn from bright white to vivid blue—the temperature dropped at least a dozen degrees as he swept inside the castle walls.

The end of the slide came suddenly—Thor lay at the bottom of it, trying to sit up—

Loki shoved off of the slick with both hands, righted himself, and leaped nimbly over his brother's head, landing like a cat. He spun, held out a hand, and Thor grasped it. Loki helped him up, and the two immediately strode forward through a small, dark corridor, in step.

They turned left and emerged into a large room with a broad hole in the center of the floor, and high bright windows in the north wall. The room bustled loudly with children, all ruddy-faced and eager, all covered in a dusting of snow. In hurried, laughing lines, they charged down into the tunnel, while others hurried out—the ones exiting all carried full buckets of snow, which they dumped into a huge pile. More children used that snow to quickly pack and pile snowballs, which they then hoisted with creaking wooden pullies to the upper battlements for ammunition. Steve Rogers, hunched over, clambered out of the shadowy tunnel just as Loki and Thor arrived.

"Hey, fellas," he greeted them happily, smiling and brushing the snow out of his hair and off of his blue woolen coat.

"Is it ready?" Loki asked. Steve tried to catch his breath as he raised his eyebrows.

"Well we've…We've got at least three branches for ya," he said, gesturing to the opening. "They go almost all the way to the moat-thing, or whatever that is."

"How far is 'almost'?" Thor asked. Steve shrugged.

"About ten meters from it."

"Good enough," Loki nodded, and looked to Thor. "Let's go."

Thor put his fingers between his teeth and whistled—the sound shrieked through the whole castle. Loki ducked, winced and covered his ear. Thor lowered his hand.

"All right, now that you've shattered my skull…" Loki muttered.

"You are such an infant," Thor shoved him.

Footsteps thundered overhead. Then, all the men and women—those who had just come of age to those who were on the edge of being crippled by age—hurtled down the stairs and began piling earnestly into the room. Then, all the children came out of the tunnel, and stood in alert lines, panting and wet.

"We're to make the final play now!" Thor shouted. "Enter the tunnels, then split yourselves evenly into the three of them! Prince Loki and Prince Steven will lead you! Our aim is the keep of their fortress—strike it hard enough in unison and it will fall! And I…" Thor stopped, and frowned at Loki. "What do I do, again?"

"You are the distraction," Loki answered. Thor grinned.

"Yes, I am."

"Ready?" Loki looked around. Everyone raucously called out that he was.

"For the Southern Castle!" Loki yelled, and grabbed Steve's forearm. The two of them raced forward and dove down into the tunnel, Thor on their heels—and all the court barreling after.

LJLJLJLJL

Jane, bundled up and sitting in a tall wooden chair on the dais between Frigg and Nanna, leaned over to the other young woman.

"Why didn't you want to play?" Jane asked her. "I'm so jealous—I can't wait to be able to do it next year."

Nanna flashed a smile at her.

"Oh, I'm terrible at it," she admitted. "I played some when I was younger, but I cannot throw to save my life, and I got tired of just building snowballs for other people. I actually think it is much more fun to watch!"

Jane laughed, then faced the front again—then sobered. She sat up, gazing out at the space between the two snow castles.

"Is it just me, or did it get quiet over there?" she asked Nanna, pointing toward the southern castle. Nanna narrowed her eyes. Then she nodded.

"Yes. I wonder what they're up to."

Jane watched some more—and realized that the battlements and towers of that castle now stood empty. Those manning the northern castle hesitated, listening and watching as well.

"Things are about to get interesting," Odin commented from the other side of Frigg.

Just then, a shout went up. Lady Sif charged out the front door of the northern castle, followed by Volstaag, Fandral and Hogun. Sif bore a shoulder bag filled with snowballs—so did the rest of them. Hogun even carried a shield of ice. The rest of the northern army spilled out of the castle as well, in hot pursuit. They all lined up on the edge of the moat, snowballs gripped in their hands, held at the ready.

Jane covered her mouth with her fingers, a thrill running through her as everything fell into deadly silence. Nobody moved for a moment.

Then another moment.

Another.

And then—

The snow on the other side of the moat directly in front of Sif exploded.

Sif leaped backward—

And Thor, drenched in snow, literally burst out of the ground. He threw the ice off himself, shaking like a lion's mane—

Leaped across the moat with one step, wrapped his arms around Sif and kissed her.

His embrace overpowered her—Sif's knees went limp and her head laid back and Thor pressed in deeper—she weakly wrapped her arms around his neck. Hogun, Volstaag and Fandral just gaped.

Jane let out a startled laugh—

And then the whole earth on the southern side of the moat ruptured.

The southern army surged out of the ground, Loki's black form and Steve's blue form at the head of the charge as they easily hopped over the frozen moat, barreled through the enemy lines and ran pell-mell toward the other castle.

"No!" Volstaag yelled. "No, no, no!" and he turned and hurried to pursue—but of course he was not fast enough.

The southern army coalesced into one long line, like a battering ram, and they hurtled through the main gate, lowering their heads and shoulders as they went. Fandral, Volstaag and Hogun's forces pelted them with snowballs, but to no avail.

Thud.

Jane gasped. The main tower, the Keep, of the northern castle shivered. And then it began to tilt forward.

"It's going to fall!" Jane cried, starting to her feet in alarm.

"That is the idea," Frigg explained. Jane's heart started to pound as the tower listed even further toward the southern castle, its great shadow falling down across her friends and family.

The southern army retreated hastily out from the castle. The battlements and walls crumbled—huge pieces of snow and ice tumbled and splintered. But Thor and Sif stayed where they were—bound together and completely oblivious.

Both armies scattered, darting out of the shadow of the leaning tower and toward the safety of the late afternoon sunshine. The shadow crossed over and covered Thor and Sif…

The base broke. The tower gave way and fell.

"Thor!" Jane choked, making hardly any sound. But her husband's voice shouted the same word, far louder—and Loki ran with all his speed straight at the two of them, a streak of black against the white.

Thor and Sif's mouths parted. Thor looked up—stared at the tower. Sif twisted to see and grabbed fistfuls of his shirt, eyes wide.

Loki hit them. They staggered backward—

Their feet landed on the ice. They all skidded, yelped, tangled—

And collapsed into a flailing mass of arms and legs.

"Watch—" Jane called—

Just as the tower smashed down on top of them.

Everyone shouted in dismay. The icy dust settled.

Jane was already running.

She threw off her pelts, leaped off the dais and pounded over the snow, leaving deep footprints behind her. Both armies converged on the huge pile of snow and began digging through it, yelling to each other. Jane clambered between them, teetering on the edge of panic—

The center of the pile heaved once. Twice. A shimmering green flashed beneath the surface—

"Back up!" Fandral warned, waving people off.

The snow burst open. It shot up into the air, then cascaded in a glimmering rain down on the crowd. Jane raised her hands to shield her head…

Loki, tall and dark against the brilliant white, his black hair covered in snow, his clothes coated, rose up, half staggering. Both hands grasped Thor's shirt—Thor stumbled up with him, stunned and shaking himself off. His arms automatically pulled Sif up as well. All three of them stood half-leaning, off balance and puffing, trying to catch their breath and see straight. Loki brushed the ice out of his eyes, turned and focused on Thor—

Then bared his teeth, reached out with both hands and wildly scrubbed Thor's snowy hair.

"You idiot!" he scolded, finishing off by shoving his brother. "You were supposed to distract her!"

Thor laughed so hard Jane thought he would fall over. Sif, her face crimson, tried not to giggle foolishly as she wiped the melted snow from her face. Thor raked a hand through his hair to straighten it, then dashed a large chunk of ice off Loki's shoulder.

Jane stood still, fighting to calm her breathing, shivers racing all over her skin. Loki halfway turned, then caught sight of her. He paused, smirked, stepped smoothly through the deep snow toward her. He towered over her—his hair and shoulders and the skin of his face sparkled with a sheen of frost. He lifted an eyebrow and appraised her expression, his green eyes vivid in the light.

"What?" he said.

"Nothing," Jane said, quickly shaking her head.

"You were worried," he accused.

"Nope."

He gave her an indignant look.

"You thought that I couldn't manage a little snow?"

"I wasn't thinking about that at all," Jane lied lightly. Loki sneered and leaned his head down closer to hers. Jane ignored him, looking elsewhere.

"I actually wanted to get to throw at least one snowball at you before—"

He caught her mouth with his—kissed her so deep that she forgot her entire sentence. She lost her balance and fell backward—he caught her, wrapped her up in his arms and pulled her against his snowy coat. Jane took a deep breath—frost, bitter wind, evening fires—and his soft lips tasted sweet as snow melted on her tongue.

To be continued…

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