In the weeks before Thor's coronation, Loki almost dies, not once, but twice.
There is a rite of passage among the warriors of the Aesir; the quest for the sword of Surtur. Loki has never understood the use of such things, and has told Thor as much, more than once. The quest is an empty gesture because no one ever actually finds the sword, and warriors only go looking for it in order to say that they had looked. Over the years it had become more symbolic than anything else, and therefore not a proper way to measure skill. Somehow Loki still ends up beside Thor as they walk past Heimdall to the Bifrost, with Thor set on going to Jotunheim.
Heimdall lets them go because Thor commands it, and for once Loki says nothing. Heimdall watches Loki carefully though, his eyes as impenetrable as stones, for all that he can see. Heimdall knows this is a mistake, and knows that Loki knows it too, but Heimdall will not speak against the son of the King.
Not the firstborn, in any case; and Loki will not speak because he is hoping they will be caught.
Honestly, he couldn't have planned it any better himself. He has been plotting for weeks to lead Thor into trouble, or rather, plotting to have Thor lead him into trouble—not from any malice, but because he can see the ruins that Asgard will become beneath Thor's rule. He loves his brother more than anything, but he does not let that love blind him; he knows Thor is not yet fit to be King.
Odin cannot see his brother's faults, and Loki knows better than to attempt to point them out directly. Now, it appears he will not have to. Thor is crashing headlong into enemy territory on a quest long since forbidden without any prompting from him, and whether Thor finds the sword or does not, Odin will not be able to let such a trespass go without some kind of punishment.
It seemed to be the perfect solution, Thor will not be made King before he is ready and Loki will not have to take any action he might have come to regret.
The problem, of course, with plans that appear perfect, is that it only means you will never be able to guess what will go wrong. As an illusionist, he should have known better.
Still, Loki finds the sword for Thor. He was already there, and it was a puzzle, so why not? He knows the stories, and so he takes those long-remembered words and lays them out across the landscape like a map.
"Brother, please, open your eyes!"
It does not take him long to find the mountain that Surtur had stood upon as he died—and the sword is there, beneath the ice, just where Loki had said it would be.
As are the frost giants that guard it.
* * * * *
Thor's hand is burning, his skin red and peeling, though he hardly notices. He should not have let Loki enter the cavern first, but Thor did not know the way himself. He had given up on his own quest almost before he began, the first moment that he looked out on the wasteland that was Jotunheim.
Ice covered everything, in every direction, white and cold and dead. He does not know how even those that live here can find their way through it.
Loki had merely rolled his eyes before pointing out a mountain that looked to Thor just as the same as all the rest.
They had made the long trek to the mountain, Loki absently-mindedly casting a spell to keep them warm. The sword is encased in ice when they find it, laid out like it is on display. Thor cannot tear his eyes from it; in appearance, it is not so different from any other sword, but the power thrums around it, ringing in his ears like some kind of warning bell.
He had wondered, at the time, how much more Loki must feel it, if even Thor could sense the magic it held within.
"It's dark magic," Loki had warned.
"And a strange place to find it," Thor had agreed. The sword was full of fire and power. "It's useless here with all this ice."
Loki had merely laughed, because he always understood these things far better than Thor. "Brother," he said, "why do you think father left it here?"
Loki still reaches out a hand when he approaches it, melting the ice around the sword with a spell until it rests atop the block of ice, just calling to be held. Thor sets his hammer on the ground, and reaches out to touch it.
Thor is so enthralled with that sword, that he does not notice the two tall blue figures, so entrenched in the ice they look like part of the wall. Their bright red eyes follow him and Loki both, and the sound of the cracking ice is all the warning that they have before they're free.
One of the giants grabs for Loki, just as Thor grabs Surtur's sword. Thor turns to strike at the giant, his mind full of all the stories of the damage that can be caused by a single touch of their skin—but what happens to Loki is not in any story he has ever heard.
Loki's skin does not blacken and burn, but colors to match the creature that holds him, a wash of blue traveling up his arm, to his neck, to his face, and finally to his familiar green eyes; staining them as red as the rest of him is blue.
Thor isn't sure who is more surprised; himself, Loki, or the frost giant that holds him—but they all start moving again, at the very same time.
Thor lets out a war cry and swings the sword at the giant, feeling its power surge up and out. Fire blazes out from the blade, striking the giant and razing across his back. The flames grow hot around the hilt of the sword, licking at Thor's hand and wrist, though he does not dare let it go.
In front of him, the giant holds onto Loki with just as much determination, his free arm covering quickly in ice though half of him is burning—he thrusts forward, piercing Loki straight through. Loki doesn't even cry out, just continues to stare at his own hand as though he believes the body he is in is no longer his.
The giant continues to try and cover himself in ice, but it cannot save him from burning. The flames grow unnaturally hot, burning the giant into ash. Thor pulls his own sword from its sheath and replaces it with Surtur's. The moment it is sheathed its power calms and sleeps again.
Thor reaches out and pulls his hammer to his hand, before grabbing Loki's arm to drag him away from the burning giant. He does not chase the second frost giant when he runs, instead he carefully lowers his brother to the ground. "Loki!"
Loki gasps, pressing his eyes shut, and Thor clenches down on that small feeling of relief to be spared that accusing crimson gaze.
"Brother, what's happening?" Thor pleads, hesitantly reaching out. Loki's flesh does not burn him when he finally touches his brother's cool skin, and the blue fades once more, as though Loki were a looking glass—taking his cues from whoever touched him last.
"Loki? Loki, what did you do? Was that your magic?"
Loki has always been a gifted sorcerer, and had long ago surpassed his teachers. He has been known to change his shape before, though no one had ever gotten him to admit to it. But Thor can't imagine why he would choose to be a Jotun, of all things.
Loki's eyes open halfway, and he frowns at the ice lodged in his side. With a wave of his hand, it dissolves into mist. Thor curses and pushes down on the wound as the blood begins to flow faster. "You should not have done that," Thor protests, trying to remember what he had learned of treating battle wounds.
"I can't heal it," Loki says, frowning. "Did you get the sword?"
"Forget about the sword," Thor snaps. "We need to get you out of here."
Loki's eyes search until he finds the sword at Thor's hip, and then he closes them again. "Thor, you need to go home," he said.
"What are you talking about?" Thor demands, moving to pick him up.
Loki shoves at him weakly. "I can't go back!" he screams. "Don't you understand what this means?"
"It does not matter," Thor says. "Whatever happened, at least you were not burned. We need to get to the Bifrost site and get you to the healers."
Loki stares at his now pale hand, his mind spinning around the possibilities so quickly that his wound has practically gone numb. He has little doubt that Thor will be true to his word—Thor is many things, but unlike him, Thor is no liar. He will not leave Loki, he will stay and fight, and he will lose.
He had wanted Thor to be chastised for once, for Odin to punish him for being foolish, but he doesn't want Thor to end up dead. Loki has his suspicions that there is nothing that can save him now, whether he recovers from his wounds or not, but he might have just enough strength left to make sure he doesn't take Thor with him.
Loki pictures the Bifrost site, and he reaches out and to grab Thor's wrist. The universe pulls them inside out and then tosses them out again, tumbling out onto the freezing snow beneath the Bifrost.
Thor gasps behind him. "Loki, what—?" he asks. "I didn't know you could do that."
Loki tries to push himself to his feet. He has only teleported short-range in the past, and never with someone else along for the ride. "I didn't either," he says. "You'd better call for Heimdall."
Loki forces himself to his feet as Thor starts shouting behind him. He presses a hand to his side, whispering a quick spell to slow the bleeding, though he is too weak to attempt anything more delicate. He looks across the ice and he can see the landscape is moving; thousands of frost giants approach, appearing like specks of swirling snow from this distance.
But frost giants have speed if nothing else, and that will not be the case for long.
"What is taking so long?" Loki demands, turning to look at Thor.
"He does not answer!" Thor growls.
Loki looks back to the approaching giants. "You can stop shouting then," he says. "He has decided the risk is too great. We are on our own."
"He would not abandon us," Thor insists, moving to support Loki as he sways on his feet.
"Do you never listen to his parting speech, brother?" Loki asks. "It is not merely ceremonial, Heimdall means every word he says. He will not risk Asgard by opening the Bifrost to us now."
Thor turns to glare at the approaching giants. "Then I will kill them all, and he will open it," Thor says, spinning his hammer in one hand and moving in front of his brother.
"Have you still learned nothing?" Loki asks, watching calmly as the giants grow closer. "That is how you start a war, it is not how you win one."
"You sound like father," Thor scoffs.
"Thor, this is not a battle we can win," Loki tells him softly.
Something in Loki's tone draws Thor's attention back to him, and he rushes forward just in time to halt his brother's collapse. "Loki!" Thor says, trying to keep one eye on the giants, and one on Loki. "Just stay behind me, I will take care of them soon enough."
"You plan to single-handedly take on an army?" Loki asks, leaning against Thor, despite wishing he was able to pull away.
"You have some other suggestion?" Thor asks. "Can you take us somewhere else? I do not wish to hide, but if we can hold our ground somewhere until you are well enough—"
"I do not have the strength to attempt it again," Loki says. "We could end up in the ice."
"Then I have no choice," Thor says. "I must fight."
"Let me speak to them," Loki says.
Thor laughs lightly. "You plan to talk them into submission?" he asks. "Well, I suppose if anyone could do it, it would be you."
"You must let me attempt it," Loki insists.
Thor is about to answer, but another voice reaches them from across the ice, delicately phrased but sharp enough to slice through the distance like an arrow.
"You have come a long way to die, Asgardians."
Loki straightens, looking up to meet King Laufey's eyes, but Thor holds him back when he goes to step forward.
Laufey watches them carefully, his own gaze moving towards Loki's blood-stained side. "You have taken that which is not yours," Laufey says, turning to Thor.
"We will, of course, return the sword," Loki says at once.
"Loki," Thor growls.
Loki does not look at him. "Give it back," he says simply.
Thor reluctantly unsheathes the sword, before angrily tossing it at Laufey's feet. The King's army tenses, moving a few steps forward, their red gazes all on Thor.
Except for Laufey, who keeps his gaze on Loki.
"You have trespassed on our world and killed one of my guards," Laufey says evenly. "For any normal Asgardian, this would mean death. But to kill two princes, that would mean war."
"And if you were to kill only one?" Loki asks.
"What do you suggest?" Laufey asks curiously.
"If you kill Thor you will have war, there will be no stopping that," Loki says. "But I understand your need for retribution, and I offer myself."
Thor tightens his grip on Loki's arm, angrily tugging him back a step to glare up at Laufey. "Asgard will hold to no such bargain," he shouts. "If any further harm comes to my brother, I assure you I will see to the destruction of this forsaken world myself."
"Then I see no reason to spare you, son of Odin," Laufey says to Thor.
"You may spare him because Thor does not rule Asgard, and Odin will not allow him to do any such thing, not on account of me," Loki says.
Laufey pauses, watching Loki intently. "You know then, what you are?" he asks.
"I know that Asgard will not go to war over me," Loki says. "And neither, I think, will you."
"You are speaking madness, Loki," Thor hisses, holding him tightly.
Loki casts one last spell, sending Thor crashing a few feet behind him. He turns back to the King, determined to stay on his feet. "It is a good deal," Loki says. "You get to kill a prince, and avoid a war. You will not get a better offer."
Loki is instantly surrounded by Laufey's army, and he can hear Thor shouting in rage. He hopes he will hold his temper, and not undo all of his work.
"You are so eager to die?" Laufey asks, kneeling down until he and Loki are eye to eye.
"I am beginning to suspect it is the purpose for which I was intended," Loki says calmly. "And to be quite honest, I am not sure I will survive my wounds as it is."
Laufey laughs. "So it is a deal in which you offer nothing you were not already going to lose, but gain much you would not otherwise have. What is in it for me?"
"Your people are desolate, and you have never recovered from the last war," Loki says. "Whatever I truly am, in name I am still a prince of your enemy. Do not pretend that you do not want revenge. I offer you a way to get some semblance of it without entering into another war that you know you cannot win."
"You speak well, little prince," Laufey says. "I will have your life, but I see no reason to spare him his. Kill the Thunderer!"
"No," Loki says, power building up in his hands as he uses up the last of his strength. He turns to strike at Laufey, but the King strikes him first. Loki falls back against the ice, going still.
"Loki!" Thor shouts, but before he can move the Bifrost opens above them—light crashes down around them, sending the giants scuttling out of it back to the snow, and leaving Loki and Thor alone in the spotlight, until Odin appears before them on Sleipnir.
"Laufey!" Odin shouts. "Let's end this."
"Your boy came here to steal from me, All-Father," Laufey says, standing up straight to meet Odin's eyes where he sits upon his horse. "I suspect it is a trait that he learned from you."
"The Casket was taken as a spoil of war," Odin says calmly. "I was within my rights."
"But that was not all you took," Laufey shouts.
"Father," Thor says, kneeling beside Loki to pull him in his arms. "We must stop them!"
"Silence, boy!" Odin yells, keeping his eyes on Laufey. "You may have already killed one of my sons. Your sword has been returned, let no more blood spill over this."
"If you leave now we will hold to the truce," Laufey says. "But the injured princeling stays with us."
"So be it," Odin says. "You leave me no choice."
"Father!" Thor protests at once.
Odin does not look at Thor. "We will go to war," he states firmly. Then he slams his spear down upon the ground, and is pulled back up into the Bifrost.
Along with both of his sons.