It's not until four days after her funeral that Thor takes notice of the missing bottles.
He's been drinking. Gallons upon gallons of Midgardian alcohol in an effort to feel nothing. It's a difficult sensation to maintain, and so he compensates with quantity. But even as numb as his mind is, he still has enough wits to know that while he has been drinking heavily for days—all the while sitting and staring and blinking only when the whites of his eyes feel ready to split from dryness—there is no pile of bottles to show for it. So where are they?
Only one bottle sits before him—clear, unlabeled glass filled with amber liquid—and it hasn't run dry since he first brought it to his lips. It tastes strangely of home.
He's aware that something isn't right, but he's too drunk and grieved to care. And so he tilts the bottle upward and drains it down before stumbling to his feet. Leaving the satisfyingly empty bottle on the table, he turns his back on it and trudges out of the kitchen. He doesn't see the liquid inside refilling itself until it again kisses the rim.
Thor checks on Samantha, who is bundled up and asleep in her bed, and he kisses her little forehead goodnight and whispers that he loves her. He leaves her room quickly after that because she does not need to see her father in such a state. He's not the only one whose lost someone he loved.
He stumbles to his room—which used to be their room—and drops himself onto the bed he doesn't remember tidying. He imagines nightmares will soon claim him. Her screams. The feeling of running through mud. Too slow. It's his curse to always be too slow. He did not think to haul his little brother into his arms before he fell into an abyss. Why did he ever think he could protect Jane?
But surprisingly, he does not dream, nor has he dreamt of anything at all since she died. He wakes with the rising of the sun, expecting his head to pound from overindulgence, but it merely aches with the need to get out of bed and stretch. As he forces himself upright and into the bathroom, he doesn't see the bleary-eyed reflection of a drunk, grieving widower. The dark circles under his eyes are minimal, and strangely, his hair is clean and free of its normal morning tangles. Even his clothes smell clean and have no wrinkles.
He is remarkably unchanged. Unaffected by her loss on the outside, when inside he feels ravaged. It's as if his own body refuses to allow him to be miserable.
He imagines Jane watching him with a look of scorn belonging to another. Did you mourn? she might ask.
In the kitchen, the bottle of alcohol mocks him. It's full, of course, and he's sober enough to wonder if he's gone completely mad. Has he only been pretending to drink it?
"You're up," Samantha says.
Thor turns to see his daughter, who is fully dressed in her school clothes and staring up at him with her sharp, blue eyes. She is but six-years-old, in the first grade, but she acts much older. Closer to forty, these days.
"There's coffee in the pot," she adds. "I'll be home at two thirty."
Thor blinks at the steaming, half-full coffee pot. "Since when do you drink that?"
She huffs a sigh as she slings her backpack over her shoulder. "I don't."
"You have school today," Thor says. "I forgot. I, uh, I shall make you breakfast."
"I already ate. We're almost out of cereal."
Confused, Thor again turns his eyes to the kitchen. The counters are spotless, though he doesn't remember cleaning them, and there is no cereal bowl in the sink. His daughter cannot even reach the sink. Nor the cabinets where the bowls are kept. Nor the coffee maker. A nervous feeling fills the pit of this stomach. But he will have to deal with that as soon as his daughter is safe.
"I will get you more," Thor says, combing his fingers through his hair. "What about your lunch?"
Samantha holds up her lunchbox, and Thor takes it from her suspiciously. Inside is carefully sliced and packaged fruit, a sandwich, and a bottle of juice.
"Daddy, I'm going to miss my bus," Samantha says, holding out her hand expectantly. She seems ready to stomp a foot if he doesn't snap out of it.
"All right. I will come with you."
Thor keeps hold of her lunchbox as he walks her out to the street in front of the house. He stands there with her, his fingers stroking her baby-fine blonde hair, as the school bus comes into view. His shoulders are tense as he realizes how clean her hair is—freshly washed.
"Samantha, was anyone in the house while I was asleep?"
She looks up at him, and her expression tells him he's not very smart—and that he's supposed to be the grown up, not her. "Just Uncle Loki," she says, grabbing the lunchbox from his hands as the bus screeches to a halt before them.
After the bus leaves, his daughter tucked safely inside, Thor goes on a vengeful manhunt. He doesn't have to look very hard.
The little bastard sits on a boulder not ten feet from the back porch, elbows resting on his thighs with a steaming mug of coffee brought close to his lips. He does not drink from it, but merely holds it so that the scent adorns each breath that he inhales as he watches the sun rise over the desert. The morning air is frigid. Cold enough to freeze his breath so that it slips around his form like a misty cape.
Thor is absolutely dazed by the sight of him. Relief, anger, bitterness, gratefulness. It all tangles together in his chest, leaving him breathless.
As he approaches, Loki does not look up, but the tiny smirk on his face says all. He wears Midgardian clothing—a high-necked sweater the color of sage to ward off the morning chill. He's cut his hair recently, and it's shorter than Thor has seen it since before his brother's fall. All in all, he looks freakishly normal.
"It's so amusing to watch you work out a problem," Loki says. "Rather like watching an infant defecate in his pants."
Thor's hands ball into fists. His little brother is here at last, and he wants to beat the snot out of him and then haul him to his chest and never let go. Instead, Thor settles for shoving the little shit forcefully off of the boulder and sitting down on it himself. Loki laughs as he lands but looks a little sorry that his coffee spilled.
Thor rests his arms on his legs, breathing hard. It pleases him to see his brother beneath him in the dirt. He deserves no better. "Why are you here?" he bites out.
Loki's eyes narrow with purpose, and the boulder explodes into sand beneath Thor. He cries out and is soon sprawling on the ground beside his brother.
"No reason," Loki says, laughing breathlessly. "But I'm sure we'll find some way to pass the time."
He's lying, of course. There is always a reason. And though Thor wants to wrap his fingers around his brother's neck and squeeze, he suddenly finds words difficult to form because of the lump in his throat. Because he knows exactly why his brother is here, even though Loki will never admit it.
"How long have you been here?" Thor asks, eyeing a cut on his wrist left from his fall.
Loki rises to his feet and claps the dust from his hands. "Whatever do you mean? I've only just arrived."
Which means: Since I heard, you imbecile. Who do you think has been taking care of you?
"You have a funny notion of caring for someone," Thor says, as if Loki had spoken the words aloud. "Refilling my bottle until I drink myself sick."
If Loki's serene smile is unsettling, his silence is impossibly worse.
"What was I drinking?"
"Water." His smile spreads. "More or less."
"Well, I might have embellished it a bit."
"I mean, what is a 'bit,' anyway? Such a vague word. How I love the ambiguous ones."
When Thor rises to lunge at him, Loki holds out his palms in defense. "It was water, Thor. I swear it. And a simple spell to add flavor and a mind-numbing sedative. It's alcohol without the negative side effects. And as an added bonus, you're magnificently hydrated."
Thor flinches. "Have you touched her?"
Loki's eyebrows lift with a silent question, though he knows damn well who Thor means.
"My daughter," Thor says. "You have been in my house. Her hair is clean, her belly full, her lunch prepared. Did you touch her, Loki?"
Loki's lips press together. "Oh, Thor. You really think that little of me."
"I don't know what to think. I don't know who you are anymore."
"She looks like our mother," Loki says lightly. "So fear not. She will find no harm at my hands. I merely extracted the oil and potato chip crumbs from her hair with a spell and made sure she was adequately nourished. My deepest apologies for living."
Thor's pulse begins to slow. "That is the last thing you should ever apologize to me for. Loki, please—I beg you. Leave her be. Play your tricks on me all you want, but not her. I cannot lose anyone else. Not after mother. And Jane. And you."
Loki rolls his eyes. "Yes, yes. I promise to behave. At least in regard to her." He flashes a wicked grin.
"You mean to stay then?"
Thor isn't certain what he wants his brother's answer to be. He watches with mixed emotions as Loki leans down to pluck the coffee mug from the dirt. His hair is like the boldest ink smeared against the washed-out backdrop of the desert. No eyes have ever been so piercingly green or unapologetic. No mouth so eager to taunt. Thor's fingers twitch as he tries to swallow down his anger. It's all he can do not to lunge at him again. Though for what purpose, he doesn't know.
"I haven't decided," Loki says, his eyes looking his brother up and down. He takes a step backwards and lifts his chin with a smirk. "I suppose I'll know when it's time to leave. Speaking of which."
He folds his hands behind his back and inclines his upper body in a bow. And then he's gone. But even as Thor's heart aches with sudden loneliness and anger, he knows Loki is still close. His scent is in the air, and Thor fills his lungs with it several times before he finds the will to return to the house.
Back in the kitchen, Thor glares at the bottle, and it almost seems to glare mockingly back. Kicking the chair aside, Thor grasps the bottle at the neck and drops himself on the ground with his back resting against the cabinets.
Bringing the bottle to his lips, he sips at regular intervals until the numbness again comes to comfort him.
To be continued.
A/N – Hope you enjoyed. If you have a moment, please leave a review. They make me squeak in a most undignified manner. Thanks for reading!