Thor served himself off the meat platter, and instead of turning to the left to offer some to Loki, turned right toward Fandral, who accepted with a cheerful grin. Not long after, Loki nudged his left side, leaning out of the way for the kitchen boy presenting his dinner.
The whining voice down the table was familiar to Thor. "Oh, look, there's the cow's plate."
If Thor could hear it, Loki could too, but he ignored them to thank the kitchen staff as they lifted off the lids.
Loki's main course appeared to be flatbreads rolled around different fillings with sauce to dip them in. They looked strange, like nothing everyone else was eating. Thor tried not to wrinkle his nose in disgust; he'd tried Loki's food once, and that once had been enough.
"Lettuce soup and grass on toast!" another boy teased. "What makes him so special?"
Thor had occasionally wondered the same, why Loki got a special plate and Thor didn't. He knew why but it still seemed silly to Thor, that his brother was so adamant about not eating stuff from animals. It was a ridiculous stance, but their parents let him, even though it was a tremendous annoyance to everyone else.
"Oh he's so delicate," Hogarth, the first boy, mocked.
Finally tiring of the comments, Loki's head snapped up and he shot back, "I am not!"
"Oh, big talk from the cow!" Hogarth taunted. "You want to prove it on the training yard, Cow?"
"Well, you certainly couldn't prove anything with your brain, could you?" Loki returned.
"Could you both be quiet so we can all eat?" Thor said, knowing if he didn't shut it down, Loki would graduate from mild retorts to truly offensive insults that would become actual challenges.
Loki glared at him for interrupting, but returned to his food with a sullen glower. Down the way, Hogarth didn't exactly shut up but since he and his friend didn't say anything else loud enough to be heard, Thor let it go to talk to Fandral about the day's matches.
But the usual pattern of the feast broke as Loki let out a strangely strangled gasp. "Thor." He overturned his wine goblet, and Thor shoved his chair back to avoid the red wine stream. Loki was usually quite adept with his hands, so for him to spill at all was strange, but then Thor was alarmed since Loki's hands were clutching his stomach, not trying to get out of the way of the spill. His eyes met Thor's. "Something--" he managed to say, before he jerked and vomited all over his supper dish.
At first everyone at the table stared, and most laughed. Even Thor started to smile, since it was very strange and oddly funny.
But Loki wasn't stopping, with violent heaves shaking his whole body, and he slid off his chair to retch on the floor.
Something was wrong. Thor knocked his chair over as he stood up and shouted, "Father! Mother!"
Both were at the high table and the queen had already noticed Loki was ill. At Thor's call she hurried her steps to join them. "Fetch the healers!" she ordered loudly, seeing Loki kneeling on the floor, and threw herself down to Loki's side.
Loki looked up at her, hair hanging down, his chin dripping and stained with wine that looked like blood. "What's wrong with me?" he whispered. "It hurts." He grimaced in pain and folded over to retch again helplessly.
Frigga patted his back and lifted her head as Odin approached. "He's been poisoned," she told him.
The king's expression had been mildly annoyed by the interruption, but at that news he lifted his head, fury streaming from him. "Poisoned! Who takes the coward's way to poison my son? Einherjar, the feast is ended. No one leaves the grounds before the culprit is found. And nobody touches his plate."
The guards snapped into action, as the feast abruptly ended and all fell more quiet, broken only by whispers and commands. Frigga tried to give Loki a little water, but he lost it immediately and continued to retch helplessly, long after he had nothing left to vomit up. When he finally stopped, he collapsed and curled up on the floor, moaning as he clutched his abdomen as if something was burning inside him. Frigga wiped his face with one of the table linens. "It will be well, my darling. Try to relax."
Thor found himself pushed out of the way as the healers hurried in and put Loki on a gurney. "To his room," Frigga commanded. "Have Eir meet me there."
She rushed off with them, leaving Thor confused and worried behind her. He thought about going to the king, but he was busy with the Einherjar and Heimdall and would send Thor away. So Thor lingered, not sure where he was supposed to go or what he should do.
Fandral moved beside him. "I'm sure he'll be fine, Thor."
"You don't know that," Thor snapped. "He was poisoned in a dishonorable attack on him." He glared at Hogarth. "Probably that baseborn bilgesnipe did it. He's always after Loki."
"Hush," Fandral warned him urgently. "Let the king deal with it. Don't accuse people of murder without some proof."
Thor subsided, but still narrowed his eyes at his suspected perpetrators. "I'm going to see how he is."
The Einherjar let him out of the feast hall, when the king gave permission, but at Loki's door, he was turned away no matter how he tried to convince them that he should go in. Finally, groaning and wanting to hit something, he went down to the training yard. It felt strange, so deserted, with most people were still held in the feast hall, but he found it satisfying to smash practice staves against the dummy fighters as much as he wanted.
After that, he tried Loki's room again and was still barred. Fed up with the lack of news, he pulled a page from Loki's book of tricks. He set up a trip wire across the main corridor, around the corner out of sight from the guards on Loki's door, moved the statue of some ancient Aesir in armor to the edge of the pedestal, and went around the long way to get to his quarters. Then he waited on the other side of his door.
There was a fantastic crash of old stone and a shriek, and as he peered through the crack with a grin, he saw the two Einherjar exchange a glance and rush off to check it out.
Thor ran to Loki's door as swiftly and silently as he could, and pushed it enough to slip inside. For a moment he was flush with his success, and eager to tell Loki all about it.
But when he heard his mother and Eir talking in low voices, he abruptly remembered why he had wanted to come in so badly in the first place. He tiptoed to the edge of the foyer and eased his head around the column to look for them. They were in the bathing chamber, doing something with the water. Careful to stay on the farther side of the room, out of direct view if they glanced toward the bedchamber, he hurried across the bare floor through the connecting archway to the bed.
Thor stared at his brother. Loki had collapsed in the hall only hours ago. How could he look so terrible so quickly?
Loki was wearing only loose shortpants, and he lay curled up on his side. His eyes were closed, though Thor had no idea how he could possibly be sleeping, shaking like that. His skin looked bone white, even his lips were pale and trembling, as he drew shallow, wheezing breaths.
"Loki?" Thor whispered and reached out to his shoulder. He expected to find that Loki was cold -- he looked as if he were shivering, and Thor thought they were getting a warm bath ready -- but instead his fingers found heat. Loki's skin felt as if his blood was boiling beneath the hot, dry skin. It felt wrong, and Thor snatched his fingers away.
Loki's eyes opened at the touch, but their look was glazed and he didn't seem to see Thor at all. He drew back, making a noise in his throat, as if he saw something terrible. His shoulders shook in more violent shivers, and that whimpering noise emerged again. The fear on his face reminded Thor of when they'd been younger and Loki had nightmares. He laid his hand over Loki's, gripping it despite the unnatural warmth of it, and whispered, "It's not real, Brother. It is but a dream. Loki, wake up and it will pass."
He tried to keep his voice down, but the noise drew Frigga's attention. "Thor! You are not supposed to be in here."
Thor looked up at her as she hurried to him. "Is he-- is he going to die?" he whispered. Thor had never seen anyone this sick before, which had to mean Loki was going to die.
Frigga paused and she gripped Thor's shoulder gently, drawing him against her body to embrace him. He wouldn't have let anyone else do that, but her arms were comforting when he was worried that his brother was dying. "No, darling, Loki's not going to die. He's very sick, though. Someone put something from an animal into his supper."
"All this is because of his food?" Thor asked, horrified. That seemed impossible. "I thought he was poisoned."
Frigga nodded. "He was. Your father sent word that someone in the kitchen was careless. But whether it was accidental or deliberate, he was poisoned. Animal products are a toxin to him, Thor. His body rejects them, violently."
As often as he'd been told about Loki's problem, this was the first time he'd understood it how serious it was. "But…why?" Thor asked.
She hesitated and shook her head. "No one knows. It's just how he is, love." Her head lifted and her eyes went distant with memory. "When he was a baby we had a terrible time finding what he could eat. He nearly starved before we understood what was wrong."
Thor turned his eyes back to his brother, shocked and horrified by this. He and Loki were too close in age for him to remember Loki as a baby, but he had never heard this before. "He could have died?"
"Yes. You would never have known him, if we'd lost him back then." Her voice was sad, and Thor was sad, too, at the idea that he'd almost never had a brother at all.
He thought he had an idea to make everything better. "Can we fix him?" Thor asked. "So he can eat normal food? It's so unfair he doesn't get to take part in the feast with everyone else."
"He is not broken, Thor. He needs to be protected against people who are careless or malicious and do this to him, but he doesn't need to be fixed." Her voice was reproving and Thor felt bad about his suggestion, even if he didn't really understand what was wrong about it.
"I'll protect him, Mother," Thor promised.
Her hand smoothed his hair again. "Thank you, darling. Now go outside, and let Eir and I tend your brother."
Reluctantly, he turned to go, looking over his shoulder as he dragged his feet toward the door. Frigga scooped Loki up in her arms, one arm around his back and the other beneath his thighs. He resisted at first, fighting her weakly before he stopped and let his head loll against her shoulder. His long legs dangled, but she carried him with an ease that surprised Thor, who hadn't seen her carry Loki in years. Though it had to help that Loki was so thin -- it was a little shocking to see how skinny he was without his clothes.
"Amma? Amma?" Loki sounded frightened and lost, as if he wasn't sure she was there even though she was holding him.
"Shhh, little one, I've got you," she murmured. "We need to get the fever down and you'll be all right. You're safe."
His mother carried Loki through the archway into the bathing chamber. She toed off her shoes and walked down the steps into the pool, headless of her skirts. With Eir's help, they lowered him into the shallow water.
As soon as he touched it, he cried out and struggled, as if they were putting him into boiling water. In his flailing, he managed to free himself and fell in, nearly striking his head on the marble edge, except for Eir's quick lunge to catch him. He shrieked as if he was being burned alive, and water splashed all around as he tried to escape.
Thor ran back. "Stop it! Stop it, you're hurting him!" He threw himself at Frigga, meaning to force her to stop or pull Loki from the water.
She caught him, and with rather embarrassing ease, immobilized him around the chest with one arm. "Thor, stop."
"It's hurting him! It's too hot, it's--"
Thor's complaint lodged in his throat, as abruptly Loki fell limp and silent in the water, as if he was dead. The whole universe stopped in that moment and Thor stared at Loki, denying in his mind that this was happening. This couldn't be happening. This couldn't be true.
Eir held a hand to his neck to check his pulse. "Unconscious," she told Frigga, "but his heart remains strong."
Alive. Loki was alive.
"Good." She nodded and reassured Thor, "The water's fine. Feel it. His mind interpreted it as burning, but that is because his fever is so high his senses are confused. We would never hurt him."
He still wondered if she was lying to him and bent to put his hand in the water. The water was tepid, though Loki was now shivering as if the bath was filled with ice.
Calmly, Eir said, "The fever will not pass for a least another day, but he will recover more quickly afterward if we can keep it from rising too high. He needs rest and whatever fluids he can ingest, and he will be well, Thor."
Loki's hair floated like streams of ink around his head, and he was lying with his body submerged in the shallow water. Eir put his head on one of the steps to keep his face in the air, and he lay so still Thor thought he looked dead -- give him a boat and that was what he would look like, floating over the edge of the world. They kept telling him that Loki wasn't dying, but Thor wondered if they were trying to protect him from the truth.
But even if it was true and he wasn't dying, Loki was still unwell, and Thor had promised to protect him. What else could he do, though?
He looked up at his mother. "Can I hold his hand?" he asked. "So he knows I'm here?"
Frigga smiled. "Of course. I think that's a kind thought, Thor."
Thor stripped off his boots to sit on the ledge and dangle his bare feet in the water, and took Loki's hand. It didn't grip Thor's in return, and his fingers felt strangely hot, but Thor hoped Loki could feel Thor's hand and feel reassured that he wasn't alone. Loki's nightmares had often included being lost in the darkness, and he'd always wanted to be reassured he wasn't alone. He'd stopped coming into Thor's room after Thor had teased him about being a baby - something Thor had wanted to take back the minute the words had passed his lips - but Thor suspected Loki still had bad dreams. He'd never been a sound sleeper, and Thor doubted that had changed just because he'd decided it was too embarrassing to seek Thor's company.
So Thor thought that proof, even in his delirium, that someone was there, had to help. Thor talked to him, telling him that both Fandral and Sif had asked after him, the king had put Heimdall in charge of finding out who had poisoned him, and then, at a loss for other important news, told him about the small bird that had decided to pester the Allfather's ravens early this morning for no apparent reason, dive-bombing them and chirping at them. So far the ravens were proudly ignoring the annoyance, but Thor was waiting to see what would happen.
He got no response from Loki, but that was all right, since he didn't expect one. He hoped the sound of his voice helped Loki know Thor was with him.
Loki stirred, his eyes flickering open. He seemed confused, but aware, as his gaze flicked around, trying to place himself. His gaze alighted on Thor's face, expression calming as he recognized his brother, and his fingers tightened on Thor's.
Thor smiled, glad to see him awake. "Loki? How do you fare?"
"Thor?" Loki's voice was soft and hoarse, and he clenched his jaw in evident pain. "I feel… awful."
"You look awful," Thor teased him. Loki's lips flickered in a smile, though he couldn't find a good retort before his eyelids started to sink. More genuinely, Thor reassured him, "You will be well soon, brother. You need only endure and it will pass."
Loki nodded, the slight motion turning into his eyes closing, as he fell back into sleep.
Eir came close and pointed the hand scanner at Loki, giving an approving nod at the results. "Yes, still fevered, but better."
Frigga tousled Thor's hair with an affectionate smile and relief in her eyes. "You should go to your room to rest, Thor."
How she thought he would sleep when Loki was so ill, he didn't know. But saying it that way would not get him what he wanted. "Please, Mother, might I stay? I'm helping him."
"Yes, you are, sweetling." She kissed the top of his head and then bent lower to do the same to Loki's wet forehead. "Very well, you may stay."
He knew she expected him to fall asleep, but he wouldn't. He would keep awake to watch over Loki until Loki was better again.
As he counted Loki's shallow breaths, he vowed silently that he would protect his brother and he would never let this happen again.