Once, Loki had nightmares, where dragons made of frost wove through his dreams and threatened to freeze him to death. So young that he was still trapped in a cradle, he could not even cry for comfort when those dreams came; he could only gasp and shiver under blankets that felt far too thin. And somehow, Thor would hear him, would crawl into Loki's tiny bed and curl up with him, his warmth driving the nightmares away. Through the eyes on an infant, Loki could only see an impression of shining, golden hair, but he knew the smell of comfort.
Before he understood the concept, knew the word, Thor was his hero.
It all begins to change, on his sixth birthday. It's supposed to be a proud day for him; he exchanges his baby's clothes for those of a boy, receives his first practice weapon, gets his hair cut like that of a warrior. For that one day, he is the king of his little world, his father's favorite, the focus of his mother's smile. And his brother is there, passing him plates and clumsily filling his too-large goblet, grinning and proud that his baby brother has taken one step closer to being a man.
But something isn't right. Perhaps it's the clothes, the way his hair tickles at his neck now. His new practice sword feels too heavy, strange in his hand, and he can't imagine getting near enough to anything dangerous to ever use it, not like Thor.
There are toasts, at the feast. And once, Father turns to him and asks him what he will be, when he is a man. The answer should be obvious to his quick mind - a warrior, even a king. But his tongue stumbles over the words and instead he says, "A scholar, Father."
Everyone laughs, as if he's just told a great joke.
Thor laughs as well, slapping him roughly on the back.
And that night, for the first time in years, he dreams of the dragons, the frost, and Thor does not come.
Loki doesn't like the weaponsmaster. The man is a brute, stinks like sour mead, and thinks the best way to teach is to shout or strike his students with the flat of his blade. Loki is on the receiving end of the most shouts, the most slaps, because he does not want to be there.
Loki is clumsy. He drops his sword, which still feels far too slow and heavy for his liking. The other boys find it funny. Even Sif, a girl who has made herself part of their classes through sheer stubborness, doesn't bother to hide her amusement. Because there is nothing ladylike about Sif.
Cheeks burning, he picks up his sword again, only to have it slapped from his hand. Sif elbows Thor in the side, whispers to him. He laughs.
And suddenly Loki feels lightheaded, shame turning into anger in an instant. He wields that anger like a weapon, with far more finesse than he has ever held a sword. A nearby tree bursts into flame with a loud pop.
In the instant all eyes turn to that spectacle, he escapes. He runs until he can no longer breathe, until he's in an unfamiliar corner of the gardens. And there, purely by accident, he finds the girls that Sif has deserted in favor of learning to fight. They have a place at their little tea table, and he takes it.
Word travels fast. By evening, servants are calling him 'Lady Loki.' And so is Thor, laughing and grinning at him as if it's some sort of innocent jest.
"They think you're a coward, brother," Thor says.
Loki shrugs, not looking up from the book spread across his lap. "I care little for what anyone thinks of me these days."
And suddenly the book is gone, slapped away by Thor. It slides across the floor in a spray of pages, spine breaking with a snap. He can do nothing but look reproachfully at his brother, anger becoming magic that itches at his fingers. But no, he cannot do that; his brother is no innocent tree or stupid bully. He loves Thor.
"What you do reflects on me, on Father," Thor says.
"And what would you have me do?" Loki asks. "Allow myself to be beaten to a pulp by warriors twice my size? Will that satisfy your honor somehow?"
"I would have you fight like a man!" Thor shouts.
Loki stares at him, blinking his eyes rapidly to fight the burn of tears, frustration and sadness and anger making a lump in the back of his throat. "There is more than one kind of man," he finally says.
"Really? That's the first I've heard of that. Perhaps you ought to prove it to me."
"Oh, I will. Soon enough."
Thor says nothing else, just turns to go. But there is a twist to his lip when he smiles, an edge of contempt. As he walks away into the garden, something breaks in Loki's heart, a stab of pain running out through his fingertips. He clenches his teeth. Near his brother, a large branch almost leaps from a tree, slapping down into the pond beneath and sending out a wave of muddy water that soaks Thor.
Thor curses and rages, but doesn't know to turn back to his brother and accuse him. Not yet.
Loki returns to the practice ring in his own time, when he is ready and secure in his knowledge. The armsmaster shouts at him to take up his sword, and he refuses, simply stepping out into the soft dirt and waiting. He glances at his brother; Thor does not smile or cheer, a suspicious light in his eyes.
The armsmaster attacks with a battle cry, charging at Loki and bringing the flat of his sword around for what would be a humiliating, bone-breaking slap to the arm. The sword passes through Loki's form, and the man stumbles. The gathered students mutter as Loki steps into the ring again, behind the man now.
A second time, the armsmaster charges, and his sword passes through an illusion. "Trickery!" the man spits.
This time there are four of Loki, one from each of the cardinal directions. The man doesn't know which to face, jerking back and forth, but favoring his left side, as Loki has long observed him doing. Loki takes his opening, leaps lightly onto the man's back, knife flashing from his sleeve to rest against his throat.
"Yield," he whispers into the man's ear. And wisely, he does.
There are no shouts, no applause as the three illusions fade and Loki drops back to his feet. Loki looks at his brother again, hoping for just one note of approval, but there is nothing; Thor's face has gone doughy with shock.
Later, in the room they still share, Thor is more animated, red-faced and angry. "What was that?"
Loki looks up calmly from another book; the last one served him quite well. "I told you there is more than one kind of man."
"That was not a fight, that was a... a..."
"A humiliation? It was. I've become so familiar with that feeling, I thought I'd share it." Loki looks up from his book. "So am I still a coward, brother?"
Thor doesn't answer. He doesn't have to; his eyes say it all.
Their last night sharing a room; Thor will be a full-blooded man in the morning, and he will need his own chambers. For all their differences, for all the dark looks Thor gives him at times, they are still brothers. They still share most of their secrets, plot their little plans about what they shall do when Thor is king and Loki his most trusted advisor.
Though sometimes, Loki wonders at the wisdom of that future, when he sees his brother fly into rages, when he sees Thor charge into fights without thinking. It is dangerous enough, when the worst result might be a bloody nose or a broken bone. With an entire army at his back, it could be so much worse that even Loki's fertile imagination fails.
Tonight, those worries are exiled to the back of his mind. Thor is too excited to sleep, and Loki as well. In the dark, they sit up on their beds and talk, laugh, plan.
"I think, when I am King, I will marry Sif," Thor says.
"If she would have you." Loki adds an extra measure of scorn to his laugh.
"Of course she will. No one else could be a match for her."
In the darkness, Loki shrugs. He has spent more time with Sif than he will admit - and with her remaining female friends - and doubts that she is interested in such things as marriage. But he hates to think what his brother would say, knowing he was still spending so much social time with the ladies. "We shall see."
"You say that so often, brother." Thor laughs. "Such patience."
"One of us has to have some."
Again, a hearty laugh. "And what of you? What fair maiden will you have at your side?"
"I would rather not."
"Rather not? What do you even mean?"
Loki's mouth is dry, his tongue thick and sticky. He has long dreaded this moment, but has perversely hoped for it as well. "I have no interest in the company of maidens."
"You certainly spend enough time with them to fool me and everyone else."
There is an answer to that, but he can't bring himself to say it. "It matters not."
"You'll be a man soon enough," Thor says, as if that will solve everything.
Loki laughs, then, though he can't quite understand why. It hurts too much to do anything but laugh. "There are many kinds of man, brother."
Thor falls silent, shifting uncomfortably on his bed.
Loki calms his laughter slowly, but can't stop himself from asking, "If you could change me, brother, would you?"
And Thor says nothing.
Loki looks at his mother from across Father's bed, unable to breathe at the tenderness she shows the man that he loves, that he hates. And he asks her the question that he wanted Odin to answer, that Father ran away from with his damn Odinsleep: "So why did he lie?"
Mother smiles sadly. "He kept the truth from you so that you would never feel different."
But he has felt different, he wants to scream. Every waking moment, every dreaming moment, every day when Thor has looked at him as if he's a foreign curiosity, every time one of Father's court has whispered behind his back. Because he knew he was strange; he just didn't know how strange.
It is the ultimate destruction, knowing that Thor was right every time he turned his back. Because as much as Loki has felt different, Thor has plainly known he is different as well.
Mother says other things, about Odin always having a purpose, about there being hope for him, for Thor. And Loki fights down a laugh, because it hurts, it hurts too much to not laugh out loud. Because if there is no hope for him, he will be damned if there will be hope for Thor.