Thor is the only one who remembers the boy in the enchanted slumber, but one day he slips past the guards and brings Sif with him, to look.
"This is Loki. This is my brother," Thor insists. "You must remember Loki."
Sif was not expecting this, thought to see some weapon or treasure, finds herself playing nervously with her long black hair as she looks at the child on the bier, his lips parted gently, chest moving as he breathes.
She plays with her hair, and something about that reminds her. Her hair was golden, once. She remembers that, hesitantly voices it.
"Yes," Thor agrees. "Your hair was golden, until you teased him once too often, about having hair as black as a crow. He put a spell on yours, and you thrashed him for it."
"Little brat," Sif says, but without heat: the memory that surfaces is years old, no longer stings: he transformed her hair, and she thrashed him, and her friends and his laughed at both of them. Her anger has long since cooled, she now sees the humour in the prank, and her glossy jet hair has long been an accent to her beauty.
There was a time when Thor believed she hated his younger brother, was sure his brother hated her. Jealousy, mostly, especially on the part of the exasperating little boy who wanted his older brother to himself. Harmless, mostly, Thor believed then and believes now: it would have been outgrown. Now he watches her, the only person he is sure he can trust since his brother was lost. She is a child no longer, and Thor thinks she is beautiful as she stands looking down at the sleeping boy, something like fondness playing at the corners of her mouth as memories return to her.
"He really was a brat, wasn't he? Always up to some mischief or another." She smiles now, nearly a woman, thinking of the antics of a child. Then she looks at Thor, amber eyes grave. "What happened to him? Why has your father let him be forgotten like this?"
"Father put him here," Thor whispers, conscious that he speaks treason, knowing he can trust her with his secret, with his life. "I don't know why. Father had a plan for him, wanted him to do something, and it did not work out, or Loki wouldn't, or something, so father had no further use for him."
Sif looks at Thor and there is nothing childlike in her eyes. "He was a little boy."
He still is a little boy, silent and sleeping.
"I am going to rescue him," Thor whispers, and she is the only one he can tell.
Sif studies him, gravely, knowing-- though he does not-- that this is a test of her loyalty. "How?"
"I don't know."
Thor has tried before this to save his brother: when he was still a child himself he pleaded with his father to relent, until the one eye of the Allfather turned upon him with such coldness that Thor feared the enchanted boy might disappear, might one day be found dead and there would be an end of him. Thor has never been patient, but he sees that he can only save his brother by biding his time. Even if he was to smash the glass and release him, their father would only renew the curse.
And besides, they cannot just break the glass, Sif points out: it might be connected to the spell, might be the reason Loki still lives despite years without food or water or air. If the glass is broken and he does not awaken, he will probably die. So, first they must end the enchantment, and to do that, they must find out what manner of spell it is.
Thor has never been a student, has always been more interested in sparring than studying, but he makes the effort, pays attention to his tutors, visits the library every chance he gets. He is brighter at his lessons than he or anyone ever believed he could be, learns all he can of the magic of Asgard, learns of the other realms, in case that is where the magic comes from.
He pays attention to the words of his father's advisors, in case they might be of assistance in his plan. His father sees him taking the business of the realm seriously, as befits the heir, and one day, just before Thor comes of age, he shares the secret.
"Loki is not Aesir," Thor tells Sif, as she lies with her head on his chest. Another girl might think this a strange subject for pillow-conversation, but Sif is not another girl, and she knows the value of trust. "Father took him from Jotunheim, during the war. He is the son of Laufey, and Father expected to use him as part of a scheme for lasting peace between our realms."
"Power, he meant," Sif says, and Thor strokes her hair and says nothing, for father or no father he knows she is right. "What went wrong?"
"I don't know," Thor admits. "He did not tell me."
Sif is not Thor's only friend, but the others do not remember Loki, never speak of him. At least, that is the case until Volstagg, eldest of the group and first to marry, becomes a father for the first time. Thor and Sif and all of them come to admire the child, Alaric, a healthy little boy with the eyes of his mother. And, totally unexpectedly, as he holds his son, Volstagg says,
"I worry so about him-- I did not think it would be possible to worry about another creature as I do about him. I think of your little brother, Thor, who died so suddenly. Fever, wasn't it?"
Thor and Sif look at each other in astonishment, as Fandral and even Hogun blink as though emerging from an enchantment of their own.
"Poor little devil," Fandral says. "I haven't thought of him in years." He smiles, remembering. "Always up to something, wasn't he?"
" It frightened me," Hogun contributes, "the thought of a child, only a little younger than we were, just dying like that."
"It is hard to imagine," Volstagg says, gazing down at his own child.
Thor and Sif look at each other, and know they can tell them.
Thor no longer visits the vault as often as he used to, no longer openly pays attention to the enchanted child: what was indulged in the boy prince might seem sinister in one who is now a man. He does, however, make excuses to go there every few weeks, and the guards think nothing of it, because in addition to his studies, Thor will become a general of Asgard, and has a right to be interested in the weapons held in the vault.
No one thinks anything of it, when he brings his lieutenants to the vault to look at those weapons. The guards know better than to eavesdrop on the prince and his friends, and so they do not hear what is said:
"Why would he do this?" Volstagg asks.
"I don't know," admits Thor. "Loki was no longer of use to him."
Volstagg's eyes harden, as do Hogun's and Fandral's. Once they had little patience for Thor's brother: too young to be a real friend to them as children, but too old to be a mascot, he was tolerated more than liked. But now it is different: they have grown to adulthood and he is still a child, vulnerable, robbed. They are warriors who protect the weak and the innocent, and there is none weaker or more innocent than a child under a spell.
Thor and Sif know they can trust their friends, but they do not know what to do next. The Warriors join them in their studies, seeking the secret of the enchantment. It is Hogun, patient and silent, who finds the clue that leads them to the answer: an incantation that must be performed by one who wields a staff of power.
"The staff must be Gungnir," Thor reasons. "That is how Father placed the curse upon him, and that is how it must be lifted."
"How will you do it?" Fandral asks.
I will steal Gungnir, Thor nearly says. And then he looks at Sif and knows that will not work: not only would Father simply renew the curse and punish him-- and the punishment might take any form, might bring irreversible disaster upon his defenseless brother-- Gungnir is not his to command. The results would be catastrophic.
"I will wait until I become king," Thor says simply. Everyone knows this is the answer, is the only way to ensure the safety of their charge. Everyone thinks of him, silent and still-- Loki was always in motion, like a little fish, eyes bright with mischief. As grown men and woman they can see his naughtiness for what it was, the antics of a child trying to be noticed, trying to be loved.
None of them want to wait, to leave him like this, but it is the only way he will be safe. Thor has been playing the long game for years now, the dutiful son, the worthy heir. His friends have played it too, faithful, honourable warriors of Asgard, beloved and revered. And it is all true, though also a disguise. The prince and his friends can play this game for as long as they need to, to bring about the end of the curse and the rescue of the innocent.
Thor is more than prince or a scholar, he is also now a general of Asgard. A time comes when a small party of Jotun, traveling by forgotten pathways between worlds, invade. The Allfather is deep in the Odinsleep when the invaders come, seeking the Casket of Eternal Winters that reposes in the vault, at a distance from the boy on the bier.
They are caught, of course they are, Heimdall sees them immediately and they are captured by Thor and Sif and the Warriors. They should be executed out of hand, but Thor is regent, and Thor is never hasty. It is hard to tell, with Jotun, how old they are, but he thinks their leader is younger than himself, his handful of friends about the same age. These are not hardened warriors, but boys. This is a prank, more than an invasion.
"Who are you?" he asks the leader.
"Byleistr," comes the answer. "Second son of Laufey-King."
Thor has him returned to the cells with his companions, and is deciding on his course of action, when a message arrives from Heimdall: another Jotun has arrived, traveling by the Bifrost, openly, petitioning to see the King to request the release of his brother. Thor is regent, and Thor agrees to see him.
Helblindi is older than Thor, though not by much, and he carries himself as the heir to the throne, even one so diminished as that of Jotunheim. Thor has taken an interest in that sad, frozen land since he learned the truth about his brother, but the Jotun are secretive and relations between the realms non-existent. Thor knows more about their history than about their current affairs, and he did not know Laufey had other sons.
Helblindi does not kneel, nor does Thor ask him to. The Jotun's eyes are steady as he says,
"My brother is young and rash, but this foolishness should not be allowed to affect the peace between our people." He says it as though it was not a hated and enforced helplessness, for he has more important business than quarreling with the son of Odin. "Release him to me, and I will ensure he does nothing like this again."
Thor has learned to listen, and what he hears now is: Please, give me back my brother. Please.
Thor has the prisoners brought out, and he watches Helblindi closely, sees the relief that swiftly passes through crimson eyes at the sight of his younger brother, unharmed.
"I did not know Laufey had so many sons," Thor says calmly. "Are there others?" He sees Helblindi suppress a look almost of panic, knows what the Jotun prince is thinking, knows Helblindi has heard this as a threat, expects to be told he can afford to lose one, and adds, "I merely wish to know."
"There was one other," Helblindi admits. "The baby. He was… lost, during the war, when we were sent to hide in the temple. We were separated from him and his nursemaid in an attack. She was killed, and his body was never recovered. I suppose he was taken by a scavenger. He was… very small."
And now Thor sees it, now Thor understands: Odin stole the wrong child. The Jotun are secretive, and Odin thought the child he took was the only child of Laufey, a son who could be proclaimed heir to the throne on Laufey's death, and made to rule Jotunheim for the benefit of Asgard. Instead, the stolen child was third-born, and a runt besides. None would ever rally to his banner. He was useless to Odin.
Looking at Helblindi, however, Thor sees something, sees he is still missed, still regretted, at least by the eldest brother who probably swore to protect him. The eldest brother who will not lose another, not if he can help it.
"I, too, know what it is to lose a brother," Thor tells the Jotun. "This… escapade… can be forgiven. Once," he adds, turning to Byleistr, who looks… mischievous, for a Frost Giant. Thor does not trust the boy, but finds he rather likes him, find something about him appealing. He turns back to Helblindi, who will be king, but who will still come to Asgard alone to plead for his brother. "Mercy will not be extended again. You understand?"
"I do," Helblindi replies, stiffly, and gestures to his brother and the rest of the band. His look at his younger brother promises retribution and embraces in equal magnitude, and Thor has to suppress a smile until the Bifrost opens and they are gone.
Years pass. The child still sleeps his enchanted sleep. Volstagg's brood of children grows. Thor and Sif marry, have their first child, and Sif must almost be restrained, as she holds Magni, her baby son, from screaming at Frigga, demanding to know why she did nothing, how could she do nothing. Thor also wants to know, but he has been playing the long game for years now, and he holds his tongue.
Odin remains king, remains distant, rules with a hand of iron. Thor wonders, sometimes, what he knows or has heard of the plans of his son, but nothing is said, not ever.
Odin grows old, tires more easily, enters the Odinsleep more often. The weight of Asgard is heavy upon his shoulders, and one day a proclamation is made: Odin will pass the throne to his son, to Thor.
All Asgard, indeed all the Nine Realms, rejoice to hear this, for Thor is well known as a warrior, a scholar, a man of courage and patience, strength and mercy. All know that Asgard could not be in safer hands.
The coronation is an affair of solemnity and joy, rather like a marriage, as Thor tells his queen. With more drinking, Sif replies.
And after the festivities, when the court has scattered to private celebrations or to rest their weary, and perhaps slightly addled, heads-- after all this, in the quiet of the night, Thor and Sif and their friends go to the vault. Thor carries Gungnir, his badge of office, which is now his to wield. He knows the incantation, has practiced it every day of the years that have passed.
He says it now, touching the glass with the head of the spear, and the glass… disappears. Thor has spent so many years imagining what will happen next that he has no idea what to expect. Will his brother wake immediately, will the lost years catch up so that he grows into a man before their eyes?
The child's little hands, folded upon his breast, stir and flex, and he sighs in his sleep. Thor passes Gungnir to Volstagg and gathers the little boy into his arms, cradles him, feels him nestle against his heart, small and helpless and his to protect. Sif reaches out to smooth the black hair from his forehead, and Thor presses a kiss to his exposed brow.
And feels the child stir, and wake, eyes blurry and unfocused as he looks around, looks at the faces of the men and woman gazing at him, and they frighten him, he clutches at Thor's shirt, as if he knows, can feel, that this is safety.
In a voice weakened by disuse, the child whispers, "It was Sif's hair, wasn't it? I can… I can fix it, I promise. Please, I can fix it, give me a chance to-- "
"Hush," Sif tells him, stroking his cheek, and Thor's arms tighten, still gentle but stronger yet, as they both realize the child's sleep was not peaceful, it was spent dreaming of how to make amends, to fix what he did wrong and end his disgrace. He has dreamed of fear and punishment, and does not know he has awakened to love. Loki looks around, eyes so green and wide with anxiety, with fear, ready to promise anything, to agree to anything. He would probably run if he had the strength.
"Hush," Thor repeats. "You are safe, and you have done nothing wrong. " He lifts his little brother to his shoulder, feels the child's arms, hesitantly, around his neck. "You have done nothing, and you are safe now."
"I'm sorry about Sif's hair," the child entreats. "I know it was wrong of me, I know she is angry-- "
"Don’t be silly," Sif tells him, stroking his own hair. "How could I possibly be angry?" Loki stares at her, no understanding in his expression, and Thor murmurs to him,
"You have been asleep for a long time. I am your brother, and here are Sif and our friends. We have come to bring you home."
"Father isn’t angry anymore?" Loki asks, his voice tiny.
"Father was never angry," Thor replies, patting him, and it is true, Father was never angry, Father did not care enough to be angry, and that is the worst thing of all. "Father is not angry, and we all love you. Come with us."
Loki hides his face in his older brother's neck, and cries, tears of weakness and sorrow and relief.
It is soon clear that time really did stand still for Loki: time passed him by, leaving him dreaming his dreams, still the same age as he was when placed under the enchantment. He is very weak at first, has to be fed like a baby, and even when his strength returns he is inclined to cling. No one discourages him. Sif is more than gentle with him, lets him nestle against her as she feeds Magni, talking and singing to both of them. Thor spends as much time with him as he can, though his days are long and full. Hogun, Fandral, and especially Volstagg make their presence constantly known, and Volstagg's sons-- Alaric a little older than Loki was when he was enchanted, Rolfe a little younger-- immediately welcome him as a playmate. It is then that he begins to really be a child again.
Odin chooses not to see him, and Thor is not entirely sorry, is afraid of what he might say to his father in front of his brother. Frigga does come, looks at the child as she would at a ghost, and Loki clutches Sif's hand through their meeting, nearly hides behind her. He looks to Thor for reassurance until the mother he clearly does not remember departs.
The court remembers him, now that the king says so: Thor is matter-of-fact about it, makes a proclamation that his lost brother, Prince Loki, has been freed from an enchantment and returned to his family. Nothing more is ever said, and Thor knows the court wonders, makes up stories to explain what happened, but none of the stories could possibly be worse than the truth and so he lets them stand.
Loki is alarmed by the fuss, at first, but warms to the affection shown by one and all. Thor is quite aware that some of it is merely to curry favour with the king, but as long as it does his brother no harm he does not mind. There is ample true affection surrounding the child.
He and Sif sit with their friends and watch the children: Alaric and Rolfe with their red heads bent over some game or toy, Loki's black and shining as though Sif is his mother instead of his sister by marriage. Magni is held as firmly on Loki's lap as Alaric and Rolfe's little sisters are on theirs, as Alaric demonstrates whatever wonder the older boys have found to show them.
"Will you tell him of his Jotun heritage?" Fandral asks, and Thor nods.
"I will, when Helblindi comes to the throne. I think… I believe I will also tell Helblindi, what became of his youngest brother."
"It may lead to war," Hogun says.
"I do not think so," Thor replies. "Helblindi is not rash, and he deserves to know…" Thor pauses, then says, "He was only a stolen relic to my father, of no use to him and so discarded. He knows that already, and someday he will have to know all the details. But he will also know of his brother Thor, who never stopped loving him, and his brother Helblindi and perhaps also Byleistr, who never stopped missing him, of the friends of his brother who sought to protect him. That should help."
Sif laughs suddenly, and all of them look at her. "You said he was of no use to Odin. Think of how hasty and rash you were as a child, quick to anger, slow to think. And over these years, when you were making your plans to save your brother-- what has become of you? You have learned to value knowledge, learned patience, learned mercy, and to be faithful to your vows. It was because of that child that you learned to be a king."
Sif speaks the truth and they all recognize it. There is silence in the group, and Thor wonders-- wonders whether his father could have planned it this way, could have used his younger son as a tool to teach his elder the lessons he needed to become a man. Could have used such cold and callous means to teach his son warmth and compassion.
It is possible, Thor realizes, for anything is possible with Odin, and though he has little kindness in his own heart he may recognize the value of it in another's.
And then the children are all laughing at something, Magni waving his hands and wriggling in Loki's arms, and Thor forgets his father, rises and goes to join his son and his brother and the friends of his brother.