The hated moment, long expected, long dreaded, had arrived. Thor stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the parlor, and the force of his smile hit Loki squarely between the shoulder blades. Without looking, he could feel his brother's pride radiating through the kitchen.
"Well, how do I look?" asked Thor, once the silence had stretched on for some minutes and Loki showed no signs of turning around.
"I'm sure you look very smart," Loki answered. The water in the sink had gone cold and greasy against his skin, but he kept washing the breakfast dishes. He would not turn around until he had to.
"Loki," said Thor. He took a step into the kitchen and paused, barely an arm's length away from his brother. He could have reached out and put his hand on Loki's shoulder, but he kept his distance, waiting.
Over the morning-old smells of bacon fat and burned bread, Loki could smell the new wool and leather of Thor's uniform. This was inevitable, he thought. His hands stopped moving and clenched tight in the filmy water, where Thor could not see. I always knew this would happen. Thor was always going to go.
He could not remember a time when his brother – adopted brother, but what did that matter? – had not been there, a second sun beaming down on him. London was not a kind city, and it had no love for parentless boys searching for something to cling to, so the boys clung to each other, and never told when one of them cried. Twenty years and more had passed and the boys were young men – strong men, smart men, and against all odds, kind men. They were too young to remember the last war, the war that should have ended war forever and yet had failed to do so. It inspired more pain, more bloodshed, more brothers torn from brothers –
But Loki understood. He knew what ration books meant, what no more butter and meatless Sunday luncheons meant, what the sirens meant when they shrieked out through the city. Underneath it all, he understood that it meant death, and to go toward the sounds of gunshots was the way to madness and despair. And now Thor - brave Thor, bright-eyed Thor, laughing Thor, his Thor - was dressed in leather and wool, and Loki understood that too. Underneath those smells, under his brother's pride, was the smell of the grave.
Loki turned around.
Thor beamed at him. His hat was on, at a slightly more jaunty angle than regulation permitted, and his shoes were badly shined. Typical Thor, who considered caring about clothes to be beneath him, beyond the does-this-smell-too-bad-to-wear test.
"Your shoes need a shine," Loki choked. His voice sounded strangled and too loud. Thor's smile slipped.
"Are you offering?"
"Of course I am. You can't go out looking like that, you're a disgrace." It was so easy to slip into the old routine: Loki snapping at Thor, and Thor taking it with simple dignity. "Take off your shoes – no, don't put them on the table. Did you grow up under a rock, or in one?"
Thor handed the shoes to Loki and sat down. His socks were new, Loki noticed, without the holes at the big toe he was so used to seeing. Loki took his place across the table, avoiding Thor's gaze, which followed him as he rooted in a box for polish and a brush. The smell of the polish was sharp and oily, completely out of proportion with what was left in the tin. He would finish it off on Thor's shoes – not that it mattered. After this afternoon, there would be no more need for shoe polish.
Thor watched him in silence. He seemed to want to say something, but the words would not come. Loki saw the tightening in Thor's jaw from the edge of his vision and had to blink away the sting in his eyes.
Not while he's here. I won't give in while he's still with me.
Thor chuffed out a sigh and shifted in his chair. With a gesture almost natural enough to look unforced, he lifted his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. Loki looked up, the shoe forgotten in his hand.
"You cut your hair." His lips felt ashy. Thor ducked his head.
"Regulations and all that…can't have my hair all over the place, you know." Loki nodded and bent his head over his work.
"You look like you've been shorn," he said. He kept his voice light with an effort. Thor without his hair, in a soldier's uniform. It was like watching a robbery in his home.
Thor laughed, a warm wash of sound. Loki felt himself smiling in answer, unable to resist.
"It was quite a bit like shearing. All us sheep corralled in a room, and one by one we went under the clippers. It was very efficient."
"They're used to sending sheep to slaughter, I can't imagine organizing a few haircuts would be –" Loki cut himself off, horrified by what he was saying. The ruddy color in Thor's cheeks faded away; even his lips were white.
He had uncovered the truth behind Thor's good humor. All Thor's jokes, his brash disregard for danger, even his pride in the uniform – they all hid a simple, stark terror. Thor thought he was going to die. And Loki, unerringly, had opened that terror to the light.
Thor leaned forward, elbows on knees, and buried his face in his hands.
"God, you're awful sometimes, Loki." His voice was muffled and Loki felt a sick dread when he realized Thor might be crying. "Did you ever think that this is not what I wanted? You've been so bloody distraught about the very idea that I'd be drafted you couldn't see for one second that it was tearing me to bits inside." He raised his head and met Loki's eyes. Tears glinted on his lashes.
"I had to make the best of it – for you. I can't bear the thought of going, of what I'm going to – but where I'm going, that's not as bad as leaving –" He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "I don't even know what I'm trying to say."
"Thor –" Loki said, and his voice broke. He took a deep breath and steadied himself. "Thor, I'm sorry. So sorry. I don't know why I said that, it was beastly and wrong."
"No, you're right," said Thor, and the quiet resignation in his voice twisted Loki's heart. "That's what we are. Sheep to the slaughter. You know, when I told Steve – Captain Steve Rogers now, the American wonderboy, the bastard – that I'd been drafted, he laughed and said I could finally put my pub-fighting to good use. He couldn't understand that I don't want to kill anyone. Now I'll be paid to do it."
"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," whispered Loki. Thor sighed.
"That's one of the few things I remember from Latin. 'It is sweet and right to die for your country.' Bunch of shit, that is."
Loki couldn't speak. He covered his mouth, closed his eyes, and tried to ignore the heavy weight of approaching grief. The brothers were silent for a long time. When Loki opened his eyes, Thor was staring at his hands, as if he were contemplating what they would be used for in the coming days. Loki looked away and tried to find some comfort in familiar surroundings, but whatever his eyes fell upon failed him.
The kitchen was small and badly lit, but before this moment, Loki had never been ashamed of it. It had always been the best room in the flat: warm in the winter, cool in the summer, overstuffed with bits of furniture they had scraped together over the years. They had stuffed up the holes in the chimney with old rags and bits of broken boxes, and wax paper covered a window pane Thor had broken three years ago. He looked to his left, to Thor's chair. The backing was sprung and leaking its stuffing and one of its legs was cracked, from Thor's bad habit of tilting the chair back and leaning against the wall. Loki's side of the table was covered in broken bits of pencil and graph paper, with graphite smudges on the tablecloth that refused to wash out. It was not a particularly clean room; dust lay on the picture frames and the floor badly needed sweeping. But it was the kitchen, not the parlor or their bedrooms, where the brothers spent most of their time. Now the kitchen seemed reduced to its bare elements by Thor's departure. It was cheap, dingy, and shabby.
Is this to be how I see the world, now that you're leaving? No brightness, no beauty, just trash and broken things? How do I live without you?
He did not realize he had spoken the last sentence aloud until Thor replied.
"You're a keen fellow, Loki, terribly keen. You'll work it out." Loki recognized the gruffness in his brother's voice and held himself back from looking until he was sure Thor had dashed away all his tears.
The half-broken clock on the mantle struck five. The sound banged and crashed in their ears.
"How long do you have?" asked Loki.
"Enough time for tea, then?"
Thor smiled. It was a weak, watery version, but it was still Thor, smiling and alive. Loki held Thor's gaze with his own.
"Just enough," said Thor. "I'll put the kettle on."
They stood up at the same time. The routine was almost two decades old: Thor put the kettle on, Loki gathered the mugs. They had lived together for so long they knew what the other would do even before he did it, their brother's body almost as familiar to them as their own. What secrets could there be between them?
Only one, now.
Loki felt it first, the hopeless need, and a sound broke from him before he could stop it. Not a sob, not a scream, but something broken and wounded. And for all his ease with words, there was nothing he could say to describe how he felt. He had had years to say it, he had known for so long, but he chose to wait – for what? For the perfect moment, for minimizing risk. He could afford to wait, he had told himself. We have time. Wait and see.
They had no time left. A lifetime together and now there was no time.
He stumbled against the counter. He could not think past the horrible thought that Thor might never return, might never come home, might never know -
It was a blessing – a small one, but a blessing nonetheless – that his mind was just as familiar to Thor as his hands or his face, because as soon as the noise left him Thor's hands were on his shoulders and he was being turned to face his brother.
"Don't – don't, please – I can't bear it –" Loki groaned. He felt Thor's sigh more than he heard it. Thor's hands moved to cradle his head and he felt Thor's kiss fall on his forehead, just under the sweep of his hair. He gripped Thor's arms, willing himself not to cry and just succeeding. Only just.
"I know," said Thor, his mouth still against Loki's skin. "I know, Loki." His arms slipped around Loki's shoulders and pulled him tight against his chest.
The light coming through the dirty window softened and began to fade before Loki spoke again.
"Don't do anything stupidly heroic, Thor." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Thor's arms tightened around him.
"I will return to you," Thor said. "I promise."
"How?" Loki whispered. "How can you promise?"
"I promise," Thor repeated, and lifted Loki's head so their eyes could meet, green to blue. "Do you believe me, Loki?"
"Yes," said Loki. "Yes, I believe you."