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Laughing As I Pray

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A month had passed since the Dark Elf invasion of Asgard, but it felt like it had been so much longer than that. So much had happened in the past month - and, indeed, in the weeks leading up to it - that Thor had hardly known a moment to stop and catch his breath.

It had all started with Loki's appearance on Midgard, crazed and power-hungry and spearheading an assault by creatures from beyond the Nine Realms. Then, just when matters on Midgard were settled and Thor had sought to return to Asgard with Loki in tow, something had gone wrong - and Thor had been returned to Asgard, alone. Loki had been left behind.

There had been no time to go back and correct the mistake, because Thor had landed in the middle of a battle: the forces of Svartalfheim, led by the dark elf Malekith the Accursed, had laid siege to the golden realm. The lands surrounding the walled city had been laid to waste, their defenses crippled; worst of all, a strike team of dark elves had wormed their way into the very heart of the citadel and murdered Asgard's queen, Thor's mother.

Up until then his father Odin had been leading the defense, but after the death of Frigga, Odin had crumbled. In the hours following her death he had barely moved from her side, barely spoken, given no commands or orders - and that evening he had gone to his chamber and not emerged, slipping instead into the Odinsleep. All the burdens of command, of the defense and ruling of Asgard, had fallen to Thor.

In a desperate hour Thor had sought the aid of Loki, still held captive by the humans of Midgard, and in a desperate hour Loki had come in answer to his call. With his advice and spellpower they broke the siege, drawing Malekith away from Asgard and out into the dead plains of Svartalfheim, where he could be destroyed.

And Loki had fallen along with him.

Since then Thor had thrown himself into the aftermath of the terrible siege: clean-up, reconstruction, seeing to pensions for the wounded and the families of the dead, overseeing recruitment and training to fill the gaps - too many - left in the ranks of the Einherjar. Odin still had not awakened, and it was easier to bury himself in all the small details of recovery than to dwell on the deaths of his mother and brother.

It was hard enough to lose his mother, for she had been a cornerstone of his world - but she had died a glorious death in battle and been dispatched to Valhalla, her spirit rising to join with the stars. It was the proper way of things, Thor knew, that parents should lead and not follow their children into the next world. At her funeral Thor had lit the arrows for the pyre-boat, and wept in the reflection of the flames on the water, and said his farewells.

There had been no funeral for Loki, and that still bothered Thor. Everything about Loki - from his fall, to his unexpected re-emergence on Midgard, his betrayal, his reluctant return to fight back-to-back with Thor again - everything about Loki was wrong, everything out of its proper order. It gladdened Thor's heart that they had been reconciled at the end, Loki dying in a brave and glorious sacrifice, giving his life to protect his brother and avenge their mother - but.

But Loki's body had been lost to the collapsing of the dark world, and there had been no corpse to lay in a funeral ship for Loki. In his private heart Thor admitted to himself - though he felt guilty doing so - that he would rather Loki still lived, even mad and evil and Thor's sworn enemy, than that he should die bravely and well and be lost to Thor for ever.

Thor walked along the road towards the Bifrost observatory, enjoying the beauty of the starry causeway rebuilt. With the return of the Tesseract a month ago, they had finally been able to start repair on the great bridge; as of a week ago it had finally become usable once more, opening the pathways of the universe to travellers again.

"Hail, Heimdall," Thor called out as he stepped off the end of the bridge into the Observatory. Even while the bridge was broken Thor had visited often, asking Heimdall for news of Midgard, of the friends he had made and left behind there. "You sent for me?"

Not an hour gone, a messenger had come to the throne room - where Thor still sat on a camp stool on the dais beside the throne, refusing to take it for himself - with word from the Gatekeeper, that he had some news to impart to Thor.

"Aye, my prince," Heimdall said in his slow, sonorous way. It was at Thor's insistence that his subjects still refer to him as prince, and he had planned no coronation ceremony - for as far as he was concerned, Odin was still the king, and he was merely overseeing things in the meantime. "I have news."

Thor waited, but Heimdall did not seem to be in a hurry to impart his news. "Good news, or bad news?" Thor prompted him.

"Whether it is good or bad is not for me to judge," Heimdall said thoughtfully. His golden eyes slid over to Thor, pinning him in place. "Last night as I was watching over the Realms, something out of place on Midgard caught my eye. I looked more closely and in the wooded slopes far from any city I saw Loki, locked in combat with warriors of Midgard."

"What -" Thor broke off as the rest of Heimdall's words sunk in. "You mean, Loki is alive?" he said hoarsely.

"He did seem to be, yes," Heimdall replied. "My window of sight was brief; he quickly hid himself again. But I have no reason to believe he has left the planet."

A wave of feelings crashed over Thor, momentarily overwhelming him far beyond his capacity to immediately respond. His first and strongest reaction was relief, an unutterable joy. Loki was alive. Loki was not dead. Not all of Thor's family had been lost to him; not all his loved ones had passed beyond his grasp. He had another chance, one more chance to finally make things right between them, make things whole. Loki was alive.

Right on the heels of that joy, mixing with inextricably, was fury. It was a firestorm inside his head, a hurricane lit red with rage. Loki had tricked him. Loki had lied!How dare he, after everything that had passed between them - how dare he take the trust Thor had extended to him again and again, long past his deserving of it, and trample it so? How dare he run off and vanish now, leaving Thor alone in what should have been their shared hour of grief?

The third thought that passed through his head, quenching the red blaze of fury as it passed, was a certain rueful resignation. I probably ought to have seen this coming.

He knew, none better, what Loki was like; how rarely with him was anything as it seemed. He had already thought Loki dead once, and been wrong; he knew that Loki's position in Asgard was fraught and tenuous, and that his brother was less than enthusiastic about returning. He knew there had been no body, no proof of the death aside from what his own eyes had seen.

But he had swallowed the lie because it was the lie he wanted to believe; Loki remorseful, Loki brave and honorable and self-sacrificing, exchanging words of forgiveness and reconciliation with him before dying honorably in combat. And no doubt Loki had known that of him, and had counted on it to make his escape clean.

And now this. Loki on Midgard, again? Loki battling with the warriors of that realm? It boded ill, and worse than ill, if Loki was up to his own tricks again. And yet - and yet. Up until now there had been no ill rumors of his brother's return. Perhaps there was some harmless explanation for this.

It was a long time before he was able to speak again, and Heimdall waited patiently while he struggled with his wayward emotions. "What will you do, my prince?" the Gatekeeper asked him.

Thor frowned deeply, gnawing absently on the side of his thumbnail. "I know what I want to do," he said reluctantly, "but I also know what it is my duty to do, and the two are not in accord. I cannot leave the throne of Asgard unattended, merely to traipse off to Midgard on a quest that may prove fruitless -"

Heimdall chuckled, breaking into Thor's indecisiveness. "Prince Thor, sometimes I forget that you are yet young by the measure of our realm," he said, "and you do not remember the early days of your father's kingship. In more recent years, aye, he has settled down and spent most of his time in Asgard; but in the days of old he wandered far and wide, throne or no throne. He was out of Asgard as often as he was in it, and the Realm Eternal was able to cope with his absence for a few weeks or months at a time."

Thor stared at Heimdall, his hopes rising. "You mean to say -"

"That Asgard is recovering well," Heimdall replied, "and not in need of babysitting. If you wish to go to Midgard - if you think yourself the best person to unravel the latest schemes of your brother - then go. If there is any urgent matters that cannot wait for your attention, I will send word."

Thor smiled, his heart lightening as he took Heimdall's words to heart. "Then I will do so," he said. Already his mind was racing over plans and contingencies - with the time difference between Midgard and home, he need not worry about hurrying back. He would have time to go see Lady Jane, and his shield-brothers as well - indeed, it would be wise to see them first. They would need to know the news about Loki, if they had not already heard from their own sources, and perhaps he could coordinate their knowledge with his own.

There was no time now to enjoy the sights on the walk back from the Bifrost. Thor lifted his hammer and flew like an arrow back towards the palace, already making preparations in his heart and mind to see Loki again.