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Poetry for the Poisoned

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Then

Thor's first clear memory of his younger brother is of bath time. Thor's baths had long assumed a particular routine. The servants would undress him, at which time he went tearing around the bathing room while the bath tub was filled with hot water. Then he would be apprehended and would squeal with delight as he was unceremoniously dropped with a splash into the waiting water. Next, all dirt would be scourged from him.

This day was different – the predecessor of all the now-changed days which would follow. After Thor's capture and confinement, the servants more gently placed a second boy into the tub. It was not that Thor had never seen Loki before – he had, of course – but Loki had gone mostly disregarded. Once Loki had begun toddling, Thor's boisterous attempts at establishing a friendship sent a terrified Loki scurrying into their mother's lap, or into her skirts, where he hid. Thor knew Loki was his brother but could not determine what Loki was for. Not, that is, until he had grown big enough to be washed in a bathtub and was dropped into the same pot of hot water.

"You're my brother," Thor acknowledged as the servants began lathering his hair with soap.

Loki, at least a year younger, just blinked, bewildered, and remained shyly silent, his little mouth a pout.

Thor watched the servants dump water over Loki's head like they dumped water over his. After the two children were hauled out of the tub and toweled off, Thor said to the naked boy: "Come on!"

He snagged Loki by the hand and dragged him off to his chambers. Loki clung to Thor's arm like he otherwise clung to their mother. He listened at first shyly and then rapturously as Thor extolled the virtues of his treasure cache: the bits of regalia and armament collected over the course of his short life. He demonstrated particularly brash pride over his one dull, battered sword.

"It's nice," Loki said, voice a whisper and his eyes wide with hope for Thor's approval.

Thor beamed with pride and Loki brightened and smiled, too.

After that, Loki didn't run away when Thor engaged him anymore.


Now

Loki haunts the halls of Glaðsheim like a draugr. Thor will spy his brother sitting on a balcony, half-hidden amongst the columns, or pass him in the hallway, but Loki does not meet his eyes. Loki will even attend family dinners, though never those shared with guests. He makes for a wan, silent figure singularly preoccupied with his food.

"Did father not reconcile with him?" Thor roars to his mother in frustration. "—My sincere apologies," follows in a restrained tone and a chagrined look immediately after, for he wishes never to rail in his mother's presence and is instantly ashamed.

Frigga placates him.

"We must be strong, my darling. The Mad Titan has cast a shadow over our home, but in time it may pass."

Thor asks no more of her, bound as he is by past vow.

Then

Long weeks have passed since Loki fell into the depths of eternity. The house of Odin has spent them in private mourning, though the public spectacle of celebrating the cessation of war with Jötunheimr must be performed.

Thor is tormented with 'what-if's and with the gnawing fear that had he been less arrogant or less foolhardy he would have foreseen these events. Each time Thor imagines Loki alone in an Asgard on the verge of war, sick with the revelation of his origins, Thor's heart breaks anew.

At last, he seeks audience with his parents.

Thor falls to one knee before his progenitors.

"Has Loki perished?"

Odin and Frigga are not known to offer easy answers; Æsir and Vanir alike come from the ends of the realm to beg audience with Odin to receive naught but riddle and poem from the Allfather.

In this moment, Odin looks to his wife for answers. She stands resplendent, prouder and nobler than the jewel-encrusted gown that enrobes her.

"A burden you place upon me," Frigga says.

Thor stares at the ground.

"Has Loki perished, mother?"

Frigga remains silent. Thor sneaks a gaze at Frigga and Odin. Odin's eyes remain on Thor's mother, his brow furrowed. Frigga returns Odin's gaze. Her countenance is as expressionless as raw stone.

Time passes, these three deities paused at an impasse, waiting for one of them to relent.

"No law binds you to silence," Odin says, his voice rough and hoarse as Thor cannot ever remember hearing it.

"No law," Frigga concedes. "But should I answer this, what else would you ask me, my husband? My son?"

"I would ask you no more, Mother. I would never again question you of the future in all my years. I swear it to you," Thor vows, listening to his pulse pounding in his eardrums.

Thor watches his father kiss his mother's lips. Their love suffuses the room. When Odin parts from Frigga's, he turns from her and departs.

Frigga now has eyes only for her son. She comes to him and kneels, a mirror of his supplication. She smiles, but Thor sees no smile in her eyes – no sadness, either. They are not the eyes of one of the Æsir nor the Vanir; not the eyes of a human nor of a Jötunn. His mother's eyes are like nothing Thor has ever known. Frigga was born blessed with different, more perfect sight – sight to, in its own way, rival Heimdall's.

"Loki lives, my darling boy. He is distant from us, yet alive."

Thor is simultaneously relieved and afraid. The relief is natural, the fear he is unable to place. Perhaps he fears the reach of his mother's knowledge and all the things she's never told. It is said that Frigga knows the whole of Fate. What catastrophes could have been averted if his mother's knowledge is so sure? Or perhaps Thor fears for his brother lost in a faraway place, and fears for what may befall him.

"Loki lives," Thor reiterates. Emotion swells in him with those words and he smiles to his mother. "My heart is glad."

Frigga smiles, but if that smile has meaning then Thor cannot interpret it. His mother wraps him in her arms him and holds him to her.

When night falls on Asgard, Thor stares into the nebulas spanning the heavens above the Realm Eternal. Somewhere, Loki walks, even now – close to one of these distant stars or to some star far beyond Thor's sight.


Now

The same thrill of relief and worry which blooms afresh each time Thor comes across his brother takes him again when he comes across Loki in the meticulously manicured royal gardens.

Loki is doing the strangest thing: he's standing there staring at a flower bush. Thor can only guess him lost in thought. He has tired of giving Loki wide berth, waiting for his brother to show interest in his camaraderie. Brow furrowing, Thor approaches his spellbound younger sibling.

"Loki. Is all well?"

A perplexed look flickers across Loki's features. He comes into the present, his eyes sharper, although the bush remains the subject of his - now more intense - gaze.

"Even you must know the answer to that," Loki says. He loses interest in his subject of study and takes a step to turn and face Thor. Thor likes not what he sees. Loki has always been slim, but now he is gaunt. He has always been pale, but now his skin is like vellum, a tracery of veins visible beneath.

It pains Thor to see him so. He is heartsick from it. It must show on his face because Loki's posture becomes hostile and his brow drops into a scowl.

"You have a simple mind, brother. You'll never understand where I've walked or what I've suffered."

The words have bite, but Thor has suffered far worse pains since his brother's fall, both in mourning him and in combating him with the freedom of Midgard in the balance.

"How many nights did I pace the halls of Glaðsheim restless, wondering of your fate?" Thor says. "And now I have you with me, yet the distance between us seems greater than when you were gone."

Loki's voice is angry.

"We've been distant since childhood's close, but only I saw the breach. Don't expect me to share your surprise at the gaping chasm that rift became."

Thor searches his memories with adult eyes. Winning Loki's participation in any venture did so often require charming, coaxing and cajoling – but Loki always enjoyed the time he spent with Thor and their friends in the end, hadn't he?

Had he?

Thor has much to think on.

"Share it not," he says. "I ask you only to teach me the ways I've wronged you."

Loki's upset is visible. His eyes are rheumy and his skin flushed.

"Are you so stupid you do not know?" he demands, voice raw with emotion.

Thor struggles to put his own perception of his misdeeds into words.

"I am your elder brother. At a time when I should have afforded you the greatest protection I was absent from your side, nursing my ego a realm away," Thor says. "Loki, I love you and anything you ask of me now, I will strive to fulfill."

Thor finds Loki is more interested in picking a fight – in taking a piece of Thor – than in asking a boon.

"I've always wondered if you listen to yourself when you talk or if it just comes out despite you," Loki sneers venomously.

Thor's temper rankles. Leaning on hard won maturity and insight, he leaves the slight be. His anger ebbs into a yearning to take Loki into his arms. He acts on the impulse, bundling his brother against him despite Loki's startlement and indignant protest of "Thor!"

At first, the tall, slender body Thor cleaves to is rigid. Thor begins to despair that his accomplishment here will amount to nothing more than a yelling match after he releases Loki – but that is incentive to hold Loki longer. Finally, the resistance drains out of his brother and Loki slumps against him. Thor breathes a sigh of relief, hugging him closer and rubbing a comforting circle against his brother's back while Loki takes silent solace in their nearness. Face hidden against Thor's shoulder, Loki tentatively returns the hug, if only by loosely grasping at Thor's sides.

This time, no knife is buried in Thor's ribs.

The minutes pass. They disentangle by silent consensus.

"It didn't help," Loki says. "Nothing does."

"So the answer isn't hugging," Thor reasons, "and it isn't in that bush. What else have you tried?"

Thor happens to know many people find his earnest blue eyes disarming – sometimes even Loki. The sweetness of his stare works its charm. Loki is wan, exhausted, and every kind of miserable. He's also smiling a weak, tentative smile. Thor thinks that, if they're both very lucky, that might even be a gleam in his eye.

Then

"I'll be king," Thor decided, only a small boy. "And you'll be my queen."

Loki not only considered this marvelously fair, but had been delighted.

Thor did his very best to make Loki beautiful, with a dress he stole from Sif and a bridal crown he wrought from an arm ring and some dried flowers.

The crown was a little too big; the arm ring of a strapping warrior, but Loki giggled and preened under it. For months afterwards he would throw himself onto Thor and proclaim: "We're going to marry! I'm going to be queen."

"My dear sons," Frigga would laugh. Odin neither encouraged them nor saw any harm in it.

Fandral and Volstagg ruined Loki's childhood.

"You can't marry your brother," Fandral informed Thor with all the importance of a child bearing secret knowledge of adult ways. "You've got to find a girl, and then you kiss, and then you're married."

Volstagg's booming laughter rolled through the hall like stampeding horses. He was older than the other three of them combined.

"Don't you tell my sister that," he teased Fandral. "She must be married to half the men her age."

In retrospect, this was no doubt the moment Volstagg became the hero of Fandral's childhood. He was Thor's hero, too. He tolerated and entertained the younger boys' worship as they dogged his footsteps all about Asgard. Loki was dragged in their wake.

"Tell us again how you smote the bilchsteim!" Thor demanded of Volstagg upwards of sixteen times until Loki was nauseous of the story.


Now


Loki is certain if someone were to crack open his chest they would find not organs but a black, contorted morass – what was once a body now rotted like damp wood. He knows the air of Asgard is clean and healthful until it reaches his lungs and that he exhales miasma.

He is tormented at all hours. No company, no song, no work of artifice or marvel of nature provides relief from this plague soaked abyss.

It is worst in the morning. He awakes with dread each new day. He spends the early hours in the grips of baseless, senseless horror. He never escapes, but come evening he has usually achieved some meager degree of distraction before nightmare-racked sleep robs him of his peace and he must awake to endure it all again.

At times the most mundane of objects become strange to him. His senses warn him these items may have been replaced by things unreal or mayhap are only figments – hallucinations. He lives in paranoia that he will be discovered a lunatic.

Even the most ordinary of interactions flood him with fear. He second guesses every action he takes, watching for bewilderment in the faces of those around him.

Images glimpsed from the corners of his eyes are lies. Dark, distorted figures haunt the edges of his sight only to be chairs, or plants, or subtle discrepancies between bands of light on a wall.

His time is filled with stretches of nothing that seem somehow sharp and urgent though he does no more than sit undecided between tasks that will bring him no pleasure.

Innocuous phrases and actions move him to sudden rage. He fantasizes about wrecking great harm on a woman who sets his food before him at dinner. He seethes with murderous intent when he's greeted by a stranger in passing.

Thor's intrusions into Loki's solitude become a bright beacon amidst darkness, devilry and madness. Reckless, savage, uncultured, oafish Thor . . .

—when the anger isn't on him Loki can see Thor has matured and changed during their separation from each other. There is gentleness now, where before there was brutishness and an effort to establish understanding in place of the old egomania.

Thor comes out of his way to find Loki and sit in his company, not demanding they speak. Thor is not one for meditation and these long silences cause him obvious difficulty, expressed unconsciously through shifts in posture and sighs.

It's annoying and endearing in equal parts.

They sit side by side, and Thor's large, rough hand covers Loki's. Thor presses his thumb beneath Loki's palm. Or—Thor slumps dozing next to Loki and Loki's fingers stroke his brother's long hair and graze his powerful biceps in a soothing manner, like tucking him into bed. Or—Thor stalks the gardens while Loki broods, giving every bush a preposterous amount of close attention before, beaming, he secures the most flawless of blossoms and becomes intent upon tucking it behind a resistant, slightly embarrassed Loki's ear.

In the intermittent long periods of silence Loki imagines the contours of his brother's mind. Thor is repentant. Fine. Did Loki not spend his childhood in company not of his own choosing? Did Fandral, Volstagg and Hogun not love Thor dearly and Loki not at all? Was Loki not invisible in the eyes of Lady Sif, while she valued Thor's esteem above all others?

Thor's history of malfeasance and abuse seems so clear to Loki it would be charity to take his brother back into his good graces.

Fandral spoils Loki's seething mood much in the same manner as he long ago ruined Loki's life.

Here sits Loki, suffocating in black hate. Next sits Thor, squinting into space, thinking shallow Thor thoughts. On the other side of Loki sits Fandral, whose attire apparently requires thorough inspection.

"I need a date," Fandral suddenly announces. He becomes an easy target for Loki's ire.

"Did your entire bevy turn fickle on you again?"

Fandral smiles suavely, charming enough to disarm anyone but Loki, who sits hating him.

"I need a date to Freyja and Óðr's fortnightly feast at Sessrúmnir. Don't I remember someone who enjoys conspiratorial conversation with the Lady of the Slain; conversations about spells and charms and the deluding of the weaker minded which are lost upon most of us Æsir?"

Loki is staggered silent, his breathing quickened. Did Thor put Fandral up to this? Loki asks himself. His mind answers yes, yes, yes while he otherwise does his best to ignore Thor's amused surprise opposite Fandral.

He forces himself to his feet, mind still reeling with Thor's betrayal.

"I'm going," he snaps in a voice that forbids anyone to follow him. He retreats to his quarters to lie in agony in his bed despising everything for untold hours, the secrets Thanos spoke to him burning in his ears.

Thor finds him there later, taking a seat beside Loki on Loki's bed.

"He meant well," Thor confides.

Loki knows that Thor didn't coerce Fandral. He checks himself before he accuses his brother of that and is left embarrassed.

"I need no one's pity," he says, instead.

"Pity is quite beyond him in your case, and beyond Volstagg and Hogun, too. You tried to dispatch them to Valhalla, Loki. No one soon forgets that." Loki wishes Thor would shut up, but Thor goes on: "They haven't forgotten, either, the thousand other battles where you stood as their ally. Our friends care for you. You don't have to stay so damned alone, brother."

"They're your friends and they always were," Loki spits, daring Thor to contest him.

Thor's weight hits the bed beside Loki. Loki makes noises unbecoming of him while Thor wrestles him into a horizontal hug. He wishes he could strike the gloating grin off Thor's face.

He closes his eyes and presses his face to Thor's chest, instead.

He remains rotted and rotting inside. He can feel hungry, wriggling worms burrowing new and more holes through his damp recesses.

"Shall I tell Fandral you'll be attending Freyja's fête at his side?" Thor coaxes in a low, rumbling voice.

"No," Loki insists, still hating Fandral as intensely as before but with less reason and even less rationale.

Thor makes no further comment. He holds Loki for hours; during that time Loki slumbers restlessly and reawakens.

Thor leaves Loki with a kiss on Loki's forehead. When the door closes behind Thor Loki gives him time to put distance between them. Then Loki screams, and screams, and screams, and screams.

Then

"You have kept me in this hole for days."

"And spent sleepless days and nights in council with the wise to weigh your fate."

Loki averts his eyes. He spent those same days as restlessly as his father, mind awash in remembered terrors and new fears, but he spent them alone and imprisoned.

Loki's voice quavers.

"What is to be done with me?"

"That has yet to be determined," Odin says. He seats himself beside his youngest son. "I would not see you lost to the madness and depravity of Thanos."

"Yet he is greater than you, is he not? Have you truly the power to contest what he's wrought, Raven God?"

Odin shakes his gray head, eye narrowing as he searches the depths of his own knowledge, experience and power.

"Thanos is ancient, but limited by lack of vision."

"That isn't an answer," Loki says.

Odin rises, looking over his shoulder at his brooding son.

"Come."

Loki startles. He eyes his father warily before he chooses to stand. His prickling instincts tell him staying in prison in the clutches of nightmares and madness would be kinder on him than following where his father will lead him, but his heart rebels at the threat of prolonged captivity.

Each pair of guards stands silent and resolute as Odin and Loki pass. Loki's nervous thoughts swear they gawk at and mock him just out of his sight, but double and triple checking behind him reveals them stoic every time. They pass pair after pair. Loki begins to sweat.

They leave the great, golden palace. It is afternoon in Asgard.

They stop in a copse of ash trees. Loki searches his father for a hint of emotion, but Odin is stoic.

"I have the right to know where you're taking me, and to what doom," Loki says.

"To a place where secrets can be spoken," Odin says.

The Allfather calls upon dark energies, swiftly – strand by strand – weaving a portal of gloom around them. Loki attends him with interest, using this chance to witness his father's sorcerous prowess to deepen his own knowledge of the hidden ways of seiðr. Loki holds the shame of taboo at bay as he always must when turning his will to mastering this womanly art. These moments were once the ones that reminded Loki most keenly how foreign an animal he was from his peers, before he learned the worse ways in which that was true.

Loki never hid his aptitude for, or study of, charm spinning, but that was on account of Thor's ready defense of his honor. He'd never approached the Vanr - Freyja - from whom his father learned, either.

There have been moments in time when Loki stood naked and female before the mirror in her room, long raven locks tumbling over her shoulders, the curves of her body soft and sinuous. She would touch her breasts and slid her fingers into the soft depths of her cunt and think Today.

Then she would remember Freyja's peerless beauty, hair the gleaming gold of flax, necklace flaming with gemstones clutched about her aristocratic neck and remember, also, Freyja's terrific might in battle. Then she would feel ugly and fake and dismiss seeking Freyja's tutelage as a dream beyond her reach.

Ensnared in black tendrils, body entwined in shadow, Loki is robbed of breath. His vision goes black.

Next, he is somewhere else.

A perfectly clear but bottomless pool lies before him, surrounded by craggy rocks and exotic, pleasant greenery. The pool is the majority of what amounts to a timeless island suspended in the depths of space. Crumbled rock floats still and weightless at its boundaries.

"Do you know this place?" Odin asks.

Loki recalls stories his father has told him.

"The Well of Mimir – or it was, before the Vanir struck his head from his shoulders," he says. "And that places us not far from Jötunheimr. If you find me wanting will I be left here to make my way back to my ilk? Better that you kill me, if you have any love left for me, Allfather."

Odin smiles. Loki seethes with rage, tasting mockery, until his father speaks, voice gentle.

"Beloved boy, I would not give you to the Jötnar if their army at full might came to claim you."

Loki crumples at the edge of the spring, fight leaving him all at once and fatigue taking its place. He studies his reflection in its waters. He is no one thing. It is all at once the face he knows and the face of the monster and the face of a woman: a face of no race and androgynous. A crown rests upon his brow, encrusted in green patina. He is bound in chains. He hears their rattle when he reaches up to touch the empty air where the heavy iron yoke he sees upon him should sit.

Understanding dawns on him as his father takes his seat on a mossy rock away from the well's edge. He looks to his venerable father.

"You once drank deeply from these waters. This is the son you always see."

Odin nods, gaze stern.

"Your chains were wrought one by one. They were not of my devising."

"These waters…." Loki murmurs.

"They well from the remnants of Ginnungagap, from which all the worlds were created."

"And if I drink?" Loki challenges. The waters of Mimir's Well are within his reach. He could with but a gesture cup them within his palm and sip of them.

"Mimir lives no longer, and who am I, who drank myself, to stop you? But you are much younger than I was then, Loki, and doubtlessly madness will take you."

"Madness," Loki mutters. "Or, finally, wisdom."

"Two elements not far divorced."

"Your royal son, driven mad with wisdom!" Loki cackles. "Perhaps I am the more like you, and Thor the more estranged."

Odin does not answer and, suddenly overcome with awe and humility, Loki dares not look at him, closing his eyes, instead. He shudders. If his father and he are so alike . . .

"When I lived here in Asgard I thought I understood what power was. I imagined myself a force in battle," Loki says. "Compared to Thanos I am nothing. He could all but think me out of existence. If he attained the Tesseract, then even that -" He turns wide, wild frightened eyes to Odin. "He will come for it, Father. He asked me questions about our defenses, and I told him all I knew . . . Lying did no good. Thanos and the Other always knew."

Odin is grim.

"We cannot reclaim the words Thanos stole from you, but we can prepare Asgard. I have allies unknown to you. Tell me true, how far is Thanos from the Realm Eternal?"

Loki probes delirious, fear-wracked, madness tainted memories.

"We were among strange stars. Neither those of Asgard nor of Earth. In another galaxy. I think he has a long way to travel, father." Loki's voice isn't confident, but it's tinged with faint hope.

"I will prepare us. If this Cosmic Cube had not trusted me to defend her she would not have returned to Asgard's vaults after her long sojourn."

It's a truth Loki knew, but hearing it spoken still surprises him.

Loki remembers the elation of his successful passage through the Tessaract: blind, mad, wild joy to be free of Thanos and the Chitauri's tortures; heightened by the thrill of combat, bullets hammering his body like stinging needles. The Tessaract was in his mind, filling his head with visions of a future he had been charged to bring into fruition.

He second guesses her, today. So, she meant Selvig to close the portal. What does it mean if she willed herself to return to Asgard? Is she Asgard's ward and ally, as his father suspects, or the herald of Asgard's destruction? She had no qualms having lives taken to see her ends met.

Whatever her will, she has ceased to share her eerie and transcendent mind with Loki.

"What is this Cube, Allfather?" Loki asks.

"The throes of labor in the birth of a divinity of the highest order."

"And what does that mean?" Loki demands harshly. "I have been told such fables and had such horrors burned into my mind that parts of me I never knew existed have deformed. Soul-consumers that leave shambling husks in their wake, the dying scream of a planet scorched clean by a wave of living fire, solar systems overrun by monstrous spawn that devour them down to the hearts of their stars . . ."

Odin comes, now, to kneel beside his wide-eyed, half-panicked son and gathers the young god to his armored breast.

Loki chokes on hoarse sobs and fears of what is as his mind erodes.


Now


"The repairs to Bifrost are nearly complete. I suppose you'll be rushing to the side of your human, tomorrow," Loki speculates, words weighty with unspoken implications.

Thor shakes his head. Loki is sprawled in the grass, recumbent body dappled with leaf-filtered light. For the past three hours he has been staring at the same page of some volume of poetry given to him by their mother.

"I left Jane a long letter before we returned to Asgard. She's a grown woman busy with her research. She won't waste away pining for my love," Thor says. Although fantasies of courtship litter his thoughts, his conclusion is certain: "I can't take a sojourn on Earth with my beloved brother in this state."

"Because I'll waste away pining for your love," Loki says, voice dripping with sarcasm.

"Exactly," Thor beams. The withering look his younger brother turns on him pleases him greatly.

Loki's voice turns to steel.

"I want you to go to Earth. I'm sick of you."

Thor's pleasure evaporates. The words wound like they were intended to wound. Thor can't hear Loki say such a thing and not hurt as if stabbed with a hot iron.

The pristine sunlit day is marred by a sudden, vivid memory of a blood drenched scepter.

Loki's elegant fingers gesture to this proof of his perfidy; his lean shoulders shrug. He returns to the control console. They hold each other's gaze. Surely the collapsed SHIELD agent whose dying breaths gurgle with blood is proof enough that Loki is capable of dispatching with Thor.

Surely.

Perhaps.

So why do Loki's fingers hesitate above the fatal button?

The prison lurches and Thor plummets into free-fall with nerves raw with fear and a heart full of hope.

"With Bifrost repaired, we could sojourn in Álfheimr together," Thor says carefully.

"Did you not hear me? Did I fucking mumble?" Loki sneers.

Thor cringes, looking away. His breathing has quickened and his eyes are hot, but he resolves to honor Loki's request, though every instinct tells him not to.

His instincts about Loki serve him poorly.

"If I have been crowding you unwelcomingly I will travel to Earth and give you the space you desire," he concedes.

Loki says nothing and returns to staring at his unread poem.

----

Jane is more alive than any divinity Thor has known. She bubbles with theories and insights and enthusiasm for the lay and contortions of the spaces between realms. Jane is not impressed that Thor is heir apparent of Asgard if he cannot reconcile the lay of Yggdrasil with mathematical formulae that bring the ways between worlds into simpler, more elegant language than the language of the poems of the greatest skalds.

Thor has difficulty disentangling himself from his thoughts and reflections upon Loki's fugue, but there is much of the human world to see and he and Jane are no longer confined to the isolated desert town of Puente Antiguo. There are bistros and beer pong and cinema and "clubbing" (which involves a surprising lack of violence) but the times Thor best prizes are quiet and only-the-two-of-them.

The scent of Jane's arousal drives Thor wild in ways he thought only battle ever could. She is frail because she is human, but in personality powerful and commanding as a lover, courting his cock with clever lips and fingers and the hot, slippery caress of her eager cunt.

"Are you ever going to get around to telling me what's wrong?" Jane asks. She's curled against him in a state of undress on the hotel bed; Thor is perpetually stunned by how weightless and fragile Jane is in his arms.

"My troubles are not secret, I only hoped they might not interfere with what little time we are able to spend together," Thor says. "My brother - Loki - has been through I know not how many trials and now holds himself at a distance from me. That I could respect, and I try to, except he suffers day and night without relief and I cannot discern what plagues him."

"Erik and a SHIELD debriefing told me all about Loki. The rest I saw on the news, like everybody else," Jane says. She need not say what picture of Loki that painted. Thor is certain Jane has heard only the bad, but he lays no blame on Selvig and SHIELD if that be the case.

"You have never seen the good in him. I swear to you it is there. For two thousand years I have lived beside my brother . . . In the span of little more than one of your Earth years he has descended into madness." Thor is soothed by the kisses Jane lays on his chest. They are not meant to distract him. Indeed, her lucid brown eyes urge him to go on and he does. "He has learned Father and Mother were not the parents who conceived him. He is the child of Laufey, King of the Jötnar – the 'Devourers,' or 'Frost Giants' – by birth. This revelation has wreaked havoc on his mind. It's been made all the worse since he came under the influence of the damned and insane god Thanos in his time away from Asgard."

"What can we do?" Jane asks sincerely, fingertips brushing Thor's cheek.

Thor's heart grows heavier.

"Loki has only disrespect or contempt more vile for humans. I fear I'm on my own with him, however welcome to me your aid would be."

A forlorn cast comes over Jane's expression; Thor sees she hurts for him and wishes nothing of the kind for her. They kiss, the sunlight fading outside the apartment window.

----

It has become increasingly clear that all of this is Lady Sif's fault.

Had she not, in her impertinence, committed treason against Loki, Asgard would have been complete in her victory over Jötunnheimr, Thor and Loki wouldn't have fought and Loki would never have had to see the look of disappointment on his father's face that death was preferable to.

Loki can't stand how Sif looks at him now. Like she's only deigning to tolerate his presence in his own home – in his father's kingdom. Like he's beneath her esteem.

Every time their eyes meet, rage discolors Loki's mind. Their eyes meet every time they pass, or in steely, open challenges across banquet tables.

Today they are alone in a remote hallway of Glaðsheim when they come upon one other. Sif's gaze is as cold and disrespectful as ever. Loki grabs Sif by the shoulder, stopping her in her tracks.

"Do you have something to say to me?"

Sif is curt.

"I don't think it needs saying."

She's right. Loki can see it all written in plain words in the iron cast of her expression.

"You think I should be locked away. For good."

"Your words, not mine," Sif says.

Loki's pulse throbs in his ears. The hallways narrows to only Sif, her cruel defiance and her lack of remorse as the architect of Loki's downfall.

"You think Thor is wasting his time on me," Loki hisses, enraged. "What else would he be doing? Fucking you, you silly cunt? We can all see your lust when you look at him. I could be dead, or banished, or imprisoned, and nothing would turn his attention from his human woman to you."

Sif flinches with anger and holds her ground.

"Stay your tongue, Loki, or someone may cut it out."

Sif sees the blow coming, but it's only an illusion and Loki's real punch slams into her undefended gut. Her fist cracks across Loki's jaw and she hauls him forward into a headbutt – his deadliest weapon is clear thought, while Sif's battle-honed instincts are less impaired by a dizzy spell.

Time passes in flashes. Sif's brutal fists, Loki's doubles and his low blows, Sif's hair lashing as she turns, their bodies thrown against walls, the flash of a knife—

Loki is certain that if only Sif can be eliminated life might resume some humble semblance of normalcy. If Loki was in his right mind he would not escalate a fight with Lady Sif so. He isn't, and he isn't the only one with a knife. A gash across Sif's cheek; a stab wound in Loki's abdomen; a dagger buried in Sif's shoulder and a blade slicing deep through Loki's inner thigh . . .

Neither of them is willing to go further, then; staggering apart, bleeding freely and panting from their fight.

Loki believes he's never seen anything as ugly as Lady Sif disheveled from battle, bleeding and wary.

"Loki," Sif says, "you're insane." The mystified horror in her voice, the sound of truth slow-dawning from her lips, sends Loki into a fit of ecstatic laughter.

"I'm getting the guards," Sif tells him. Loki's in no position to stop her and no position to evade arrest, effectively lame.

He's escorted to the healing rooms by an armed detail of five. It occurs to him that many different little mobs of commoners have been making the time to escort him places in his recent history. He's not displeased – it's a hallmark of the fear he inspires.

Then

The night's fire has been banked and Odin's sons, the Lady Sif and the Warriors Three rest between their field blankets and the hard soil beneath them. Loki shifts restlessly against the unkind earth. Adventures are great fun and should be had as often as possible, he's sure: between the inhospitable accommodations and sudden outbursts of terrible violence.

"Restless?" Sif asks softly in the dark. It's her turn at watch.

"Could you be so kind as to have the servants bring me pillows and warm mead?" Loki asks dryly.

"You don't have to come on these escapades of Thor's," Sif assuages. She's being kind, but Loki doesn't think she understands his position.

"And if I stayed at Glaðsheim and Thor came to harm? No." Loki turns on the uncomfortable ground to grin at the warrior maiden. "Besides, without me you're just a gang of brutes. I bring finesse to this enterprise."

Sif laughs softly. Playfulness shines in her always-bright eyes.

"When I first took to the sword, my parents did everything they could think of to turn my interest to seiðr. I don't have the aptitude. I'm not sure if it's a lack of potential or if I'm just not patient enough to practice."

Loki is forced by discomfort to shift back into his former position with Sif just out of sight, but he scoffs.

"Surely your training in sword, knife, spear and shield, axe and bow took some measure of patience," he teases.

"It's not the same," Sif demurs, sounding amused. "I'm hitting something most of the time."

"Brutes," Loki reiterates wryly. "All of you."

"Go to sleep, Loki. All of a sudden it's occurred to me that you have next watch," Sif scolds, but her tone is light.

"Believe me. I'm trying," Loki says.

He closes his eyes. He hears Sif shuffling very quietly around their campsite. Next, she's beside him, touching the crown of his head. He blinks his eyes open to see she has folded her own field blanket into a sort of pillow. His expression rankles.

"I'm not a child," he says.

"No," Sif agrees, "your head's just uncomfortable."

Her logic is impeccable. Loki accepts her considerate gift and doesn't thank her, but Loki is a prince and only marginally more inclined to giving thanks to others than Thor.

Now


Thor returns from Midgard and Jane only to learn his brother has acted out in a violent and criminal way.

Thor goes first to Sif not because his concern for Loki isn't greater but because he feels the tug of responsibility. Loki will not make amends, and from the account of their fight as Thor understands it Sif deserves an apology.

The war goddess dodges Thor's gaze at every turn and betrays no emotion over Loki's slight. Thor has seldom found her as taciturn as today.

"Loki is the one with greater need of you," she says. "The healing rooms can't cure his ills."

Thor is dissatisfied with their exchange, but leaves Sif sitting by her fireplace staring into the unlit pit, studiously ignoring him.

Thor goes to Loki next. The guards outside the double doors to Loki's rooms allow him to pass without query.

Loki is not in his sitting room but further in, behind the closed door to his bedroom. Thor lets himself into that cloister and respectfully shuts the door behind him. Loki is female in form and reclined atop the disordered covers of her bed, hands folded on her stomach. She stares up at the golden ceiling shining in the light rising from the ever-burning lamps encircling the room at its floor.

Thor is accustomed to Loki adopting other forms – a hawk, a steed, another gender. She is breathtaking: raven hair spilling across the pillows, breasts full and firm in the cradle of her black dress and a girdle of dragon's scales shimmering against her waist, their gold reflected at her ears and neck.

"This is a far kinder cell than the first one," Loki says, voice bored and sultry.

"We have discerned you are no enemy of the state," Thor points out. "Although it seems you may be an enemy to Lady Sif."

"You shouldn't have left me," Loki says.

Even Thor, not as quick minded as Loki, can intuit it's moot to argue that Loki was the one who demanded he leave.

Loki's right. Thor should have remained in Asgard. Suddenly those golden days in Jane's arms turn brass.

"My most sincere apologies," Thor says, taking a seat on the edge of Loki's bed, his great weight depressing the mattress. "You have me now for as long as you desire."

Loki pushes herself up from her insouciant position, bangles strung around her hips jangling together. She studies Thor cautiously.

"I've taken you for many things, brother, among them a fool and blowhard, but never a masochist."

Thor cannot but brighten and laugh.

"Then you do your company no justice, for only at your very worst has it pained me."

"On earth," Loki qualifies.

"Even there, not always," Thor soothes. He remembers a sulky and exhausted Loki, sick of both Earth and fighting, who looked at him with pleading eyes when they took dinner together in a SHIELD cell in the end.

Loki seems satisfied, nodding assent, although still watching Thor with curiosity.

Thor's heart is uneasy.

"What brought you and Lady Sif to blows, Loki?" Thor asks, wanting to hear the other side of the conflict.

Loki purses her pert lips into a pout.

"It was wrong of me to revenge myself upon Sif for her betrayal during the time I ruled an Asgard on the brink of war with Jötunheimr by using her girlhood love for you as a weapon of insult. In her fury, she attacked."

Thor balks at the revelation, forgetting the discrepancies between Loki's version and the official report in his consternation.

"Surely you jest. If Lady Sif harbored love for me would I not know it? Nay, you but play at distracting me from the more serious matter of the fight."

Loki's eyes widen, the green in them brought out by her painted eyelids. Then, she laughs, a joyful girlish giggle.

"Oh, brother. Lady Sif has pined for you since her she blossomed into maidenhood. You couldn't be more obtuse if you had a rock in place of a brain. And for you to have fallen so suddenly and totally for a mortal woman . . . I can't imagine what's gone on in our lady's mind since then."

"Nor can I," Thor laments. Suddenly every memory of times shared in Lady Sif's good company take on the gloomy cast of uncertainty. How many ways has he slighted her?

Thor considers, too, that Loki could be playing him for a fool – except Loki's ecstasy at being the one to spring this little revelation appears unfeigned.

"You owe Sif nothing," Loki soothes, laying a delicate hand on Thor's broad back. "You've had two thousand years to fall for her. It's clear by now that you have no interest in leading her to your bed."

"Surely you understand the roots of my dilemma. The pain I have caused her, if your words are true . . ."

Loki slips off the bed, twirling gracefully on her bare feet, a swirl of skirts, weightless black hair and musically chiming adornments. She makes eyes at her older brother with a sneaky, playful smile on her lips Thor knows to distrust.

"It's no wonder you've never seen Lady Sif as a sex prospect. She always has that mannish scowl on her forehead—" Loki gravely knits her brows together. "—and her nose stuck in the air!" She lifts her own, sniffing disdainfully.

"Loki," Thor castigates, rising, too, and stepping up to face his still tall but currently more sinuous younger sibling. He places a hand on her hip to restrict her impersonations of Sif. "Such crass criticisms reflect poorly on you, not the lady."

"Have I somehow misrepresented our friend?" Loki asks coyly. "She's mighty in combat, worth any ten lesser warriors – we must give her that. But she's no lady. We'd fare better dubbing her 'Woman-at-Arms Sif' or 'Battlemaiden Sif.' No, leave gender out of it – 'Sif the Glorious.'" An indolent shrug. "You like dainty things, like your Jane. You and Sif are just incompatible."

"Our fit as paramours matters not," Thor says. "It is my neglect of her affections that pains me. How many times have I snubbed her unknowingly? When last we spoke, before I came to you, she would not meet my eyes. I have wounded her. And you – you owe her an apology. She did only what she thought was right, though she knew not why your behavior was erratic. There is no reason to punish her for a time best left in the past. Those times were hard on all of us."

"Apologize! I'd rather choke," Loki protests, pouting again. She becomes thoughtful. "Maybe I can repair our relationship some other way. Give her lessons in what it means to be a lady of Asgard."

Thor barks a laugh.

"And you are more adept in that area than Sif?"

A flirtatious smile spreads on Loki's green lips, colored with body paints like her eyelids.

"A lady should be . . . sensuous," she coos. "She should know from what angle the light compliments her best features and hold her smiles in reserve, but never look sour." She tilts her chin to the side just-so. Her long, elegant fingers rest upon Thor's breast. Her voice is low, husky and confidential. "It's a fragile balance between holding aloof what her suitors most desire and leaving the indelible impression there are no limbs more lithe nor kisses sweeter than her own."

Thor's hand flexes and relaxes against Loki's curvaceous hip. There is a heat on him. He imagines his touch must burn on her skin. That's surely an exaggeration. It's only embarrassment. Loki has her feminine wiles down to the familiar yet so unfamiliarly female scent of her body, but that's nothing new. Thor should be ashamed of himself.

"You've given much thought to this, brother," Thor says, throat sticking.

Loki winks impishly.

"I watch people. I watch what they do, and I learn. There are other tacks to take besides blundering through polite society with the brute force of your personality."

Thor drops his hand from her hip. His thoughts are muddled with misplaced arousal. Loki is being a bastard about it, green smile victorious.

"Not even remotely appropriate," Thor says, cheeks flushed. Loki's ego high is only amplified by his complaint, but Thor didn't expect it to find traction. It is imperative to establish his disapproval so that Loki doesn't take matters further and further to force a reaction.

"It is my constant endeavor and highest duty as your little brother never to pass up on discomforting you," Loki says. She's willing to drop the subject for other matters rather than continuing to torment Thor. She sighs a rueful sigh. "Take me out somewhere. I'm tired of creeping around Glaðsheim using magic."

Thor makes a face; he should reprimand Loki for leaving her rooms when her mental health is so poor that she's getting into knife fights in the halls. He offers his arm instead; Loki takes it, grasping his bicep. Thor nods to the guards as they exit.

"You are dismissed. I'll call on you again when we return," he says. Considering who they're guarding it is all formalities, but appearances matter to the royal family's public – that includes the Æsir that serve them.

Thor and Loki take a long stroll. Loki is barefoot, so Thor leads them over footpaths or soft grass. Day is turning to night and the stars, though visible by day, grow brighter as the light fades. The fiery orange and brilliant blue glows of the nearby nebulas – vast crucibles of nascent plasma spheres – show through the dissipating airy blue of Asgard's sky.

They come to the base of a waterfall, its turbulent waters plummeting from a hundred feet above into a black pool of deep water. This is a place alive with memories of their youth and of stolen peace in more recent centuries.

"Are you ever going to jump?" Thor asks, eying the height of the waterfall, smile mischievous and knowing.

"It's not that I'm scared of jumping, anymore," Loki says with indignation. "It's the spectacle the lot of you try to make it into."

"We're alone, tonight. I won't even tell the others," Thor says. "Or you can admit you're terrified of throwing yourself off a cliff."

Loki wrinkles her nose.

"The rest of you are never going to understand me. There's nothing fun about throwing myself off a cliff. If I want to go swimming, the sensible thing is to get in the water from the shore," Loki says. She is, however, undressing: decorative belt, corset, dress and silk panties one by one finding themselves cast aside on the ground.

Thor has seen his brother in dishabille and undress thousands, tens of thousands of times in the past two thousand years – just not always so full figured. Standing beside their swimming hole, Loki's nudity barely reminds Thor of his earlier embarrassing arousal. Instead, it reminds him starkly of how many times Sif has cast off her clothes on these shores and the second thoughts he's barely given it.

Loki ascends the slippery rocks beside the falls with grace and ease, her strong body bright amidst dark stone, grey lichens and soggy green hanging moss.

She carefully picks her way over the rock at the precipice of the falls – the wet boulders that cut a jagged outline against the twilight.

She pauses there, a tall, resplendent figure staring up into the diamond studded sky.

She falls.

She crumples like a foe struck dead by a blow from Mjölnir. She hits the rock she stood upon, rolls off it and is dragged into the torrent of falling water like a wet leaf. Thor screams her name, but it's lost in the tumultuous roar of the water. Loki hits rocks again, one– two times, body jerked in different directions, before the force of the plummeting water buries her in its foam.

Thor dives into the water at the same instant, cloak flung off, drawing a huge breath and going under, wishing it wasn't so damn dark as his strong arms pull him through the dimly lit liquid to its inky depths.

Loki is not difficult to find, although floating limp in deep water. Thor drags her to the surface and to the shore, laying her upon the moist soil, putting fingers to her wrist and an ear to her lips, fear wracked and heart aching, begging no one and anything for some sign of life.

Loki is breathing shallowly and her pulse beats. Thor suspects she was too stunned from the blows to her body to breathe in water. He is relieved – but not too relieved. The mystery of her sudden unconsciousness remains.

Thor wraps her in his cape and holds her near, both of them muddy, their hair drenched and clinging limply against them, water dripping from their bodies.

Loki's eyes fly open. She screams as if being murdered. Thor holds her tight in his powerful arms as she thrashes, entangled in his cape and incapable of gaining traction against him. He means not to cause her greater fear but is afraid she might do herself injury should she escape.

The screaming stops suddenly and Loki shudders as lucidity returns to eyes grey in the dim light. She looks exhausted, eyes haunted and hollow, skin sallow.

"I saw him," she whispers conspiratorially, leaning toward Thor. "I saw him between the stars. Thanos."

"How could he wound you from so far?" Thor asks.

"I am bound to him . . . He snared my astral body – only for a moment." Loki's sudden laughter unsettles Thor; it’s manic. Loki's eyes are wild and brim with tears. "The punishment for my failure will be much worse than that."

Thor grits his teeth.

"He will not lay a hand on you. This I vow. Not while I live to defend you."

"You're so . . ." Loki says, but declines to finish the sentence.

"Be I a fool, or a pawn, or a sacrifice, I would suffer all these insults to preserve you," the God of Thunder swears.

For a silent moment Loki is still.

"I can't promise you won't. All those, and worse," Loki whispers.

"You are worth them, little brother," Thor vows. "My beautiful sister," he appreciates, playing suave.

Loki smiles but her smile is exhausted. Thor helps her dress despite her castigation and despair at his poor attempts to navigate her corset. He won't hear of her walking back to Glaðsheim, carrying her in his arms instead. She falls asleep against his shoulder during the long walk, make-up water-smeared and an unhealthy pallor still clinging to her damp skin.

----

Loki awakens in his bed, corseted dress an uncomfortably snug fit on his body. His last memory is of the strength of Thor's arms supporting his weight and the smell of wet dirt and brackish water. The dress is ruined. The sheets and covers are crusted with dirt and plant debris, but a wash will rescue them. Loki loosens the strings of the corset to breathe but declines to move, warm, comfortable and drowsy.

. . . comfortable? He cannot count back to the last morning he awoke without a pall upon him. Today of all days should be worse. Loki's very soul is still smarting from the wrench Thanos gave it. Loki is terrified, veins thrilling with paranoia – the fear eats at him like starved rats – but Loki is not hopeless. The world is not an abyss with no end and no escape, and his bed is blessed with the promise of safe harbor.

The catalyst of this change is obvious: his brother. Thor's promises to him loop through his thoughts, every iteration a pleasure.

Be I a fool, or a pawn, or a sacrifice, I would suffer all these insults to preserve you.

Loki has enjoyed an abundance of Thor's attention in the past months, but enjoyed in the loosest possible sense. Finally, here at this moment, Thor's words have stuck and his presence made itself real. Loki doesn't believe it was any one thing of Thor's doing. Perhaps it lies instead in Thanos' total obliteration of Loki's defenses and the succor Thor afforded so gently, obediently and completely.

The comfort of Loki's lie-in slowly disintegrates as the fear grows. Finally Loki pushes aside his covers and sets bare, muddy feet to the floor. He regards his reflection in his mirror with a touch of – albeit panicked – amusement. Loki's insecurities are many (although he would admit to few) but none of them cast doubt on his ability to model any variety of clothing, no matter his form. Between the mud, and the green and black smears at the edges of his eyes and the bruises, and the ruined fabric and the exposed skin, anyone would mistake him for having just enjoyed a night of unutterable debauchery.

With Thor.

Loki conjures a remembered image of his brother with flushed skin, pupils dilated, Thor's jaw tense and his blue eyes burning with desire, his hand flexed as if grasping an invisible hip. Loki taps a finger to his lips and paces a sedate circle around the figment, studying it in detail.

His loins stir. It had been all play at the time. Now, with the carnal desire of the moment all that staves off encroaching madness, Loki wonders over the fine male specimen his older brother matured into.

Thor must be a spectacle to behold at lovemaking. He must bring the same power and ardor to his bed that he does to the battlefield.

Loki's stomach takes strange twists and turns as he contemplates his brother in this lurid light. He is on the verge of nausea. His heart races and his mouth is dry.

This is perversity, he thinks. He is not one to use the word lightly.

What if the easy, brotherly hugs he sometimes shares with Thor became something powerfully more intimate? What if the shared, knowing looks born of their close familiarity since the earliest days of their lives kept a hundred greater secrets of furtive touches in the dark of their rooms?

What would Loki do if Thor grasped his rigid cock in his hand?

His imagined transgressions overwhelm him and the fiction of Thor flickers from existence.

Loki takes a heavy seat at the foot of his bed, panic over Thanos tangled up with panicked, delirious thoughts of Thor's exposed skin, tan and taut. Loki pinches the bridge of his nose and regrets that this is the sanest he's felt in beyond a year – everything raw and more real.

And he told Thor of Sif's admiration.

Damn it.

He'd meant only to throw Thor into conflict over his time spent with Jane – revenge for Thor's abandonment. Now Thor will be looking at Sif through new eyes, sharing awkward moments fraught with sexual tension and, worse come to worst, begin to reciprocate with newfound desire of his own.

There's a vicious hatred of Sif inside Loki again, less likely to act upon it now though he is, for the punishment would this time surely be sterner.

----

Thor broods on one of the three broad couches surrounding the great fireplace in the common room known by most of Glaðsheim's staff and noble residents to be the popular refuge of the princes of Asgard, Lady Sif and the Warriors Three. Lady Sif and Prince Loki are absent from the present company. Volstagg is devouring half a goat and Hogun is polishing his equipment, but Fandral is attentive to Thor's stormy mood.

"What troubles you, my dear friend?" he asks.

Thor sits upright so suddenly Volstagg and Hogun attend to him, too.

"Did anyone here know Sif was in love with me?" he demands, accusative gaze searching their eyes.

There is a long silence.

"Yes," Hogun says, at last. "Everyone."

Thor is dumbfounded.

"And not one of you thought to tell me of this?"

"It would have been indelicate of us," Fandral says. "Even for Volstagg."

Volstagg nods in agreement with Fandral's assessment, although his mouth is full.

Thor doesn't grasp Fandral's meaning, but decides if there was a time for delicacy, it is now over.

"What do I do?" he puts to them.

Volstagg takes a pause from his eternal consumption.

"If you're a virgin we have a much longer discussion ahead of us, Thor."

"I am not a virgin," Thor clarifies with consternation.

"Still just Fandral, then," Volstagg says, laughing as Fandral shoots him a look; Fandral's success rate in his pursuit of passion is disproportionate to his propositions.

"The question is whether or not you want to do anything," Fandral says. "You should know that before you take your worries to Sif. Otherwise you put our comrade in the difficult position of loving you and being tasked with supporting you through your indecision."

"I have no wish to so discomfort Sif," Thor says, now with certainty.

"You love Jane," Hogun supplies.

"I do. Jane is a spectacular woman and my dearest wish is that I could spend more time beside her and she longer in my arms."

"There we have it, then," Fandral declares. "But Sif has been harder to find than a black cat in a dwarven mine, this week. I suspect your inquiry and the scarcity of her company are related."

"I regret to say that Loki used her feelings for me against her during their altercation," Thor says.

Volstagg grunts.

"That raises the question of just what we're going to do with Loki," he says. Thor hears no malice in his tone and placates his first impulse to come to the defense of Loki's honor.

"We stand by him, but we do not indulge his madness," Hogun says tonelessly, polishing his mace. "If his mind breaks beyond reclamation, it is we, as his counsel givers, who deliver him the sleep of the sword."

There is a heavy pause, but neither Fandral, nor Volstagg nor Thor can in their hearts disagree with Hogun's wisdom. They are warriors all and understand their responsibility to both the safety of Asgard and the honor of Loki, who deserves not the insult of an inglorious death.

Thor intends to do whatever it takes to restore the integrity of his brother's devastated mind, but at the same time it warms and touches his heart that all four of them are in agreement that what darkness plagues Loki now will never besmirch the thousands of years of his life led honorably.

Thor is only incrementally closer to solving his troubles than when he aired them among his best friends, but despite looming apprehensions of things his heart prays never occur, his heart is lighter for speaking his troubles aloud. The burden has been lessened by the sharing.

"I suspect that reconciliation with both Loki and Sif falls to me," he says, "but I am ever grateful for your insights."

----

Thor left Loki sleeping but he imagines his brother awake by now or, if not awake, in need of being roused and urged to eat. He finds himself again in Loki's guarded chambers. He again finds Loki on his bed, now masculine in aspect but still pale and wan. Thor sits again at the edge of Loki's bed. He offers his brother a smile.

It is not returned. Loki sighs, presses his thin lips together and looks away.

"Be not sorrowful, brother," Thor encourages. "We've ample time to prepare our defense against Thanos. I think many in the universe would oppose his gambit for power. We will find allies. Already Thanos will be confronted with an armed Midgard in support of Asgard."

Loki laughs ruefully and casts his brother a gloating smirk.

"You think because your little band of misfits devastated a single Chitauri fleet they somehow stand a chance against a despot over twenty thousand, mayhap even thirty thousand years their senior? Oh, Thor, you have much to learn of the cosmos and no time at all to learn it in."

"I tell you again, I welcome you to guide me," Thor implores, earnest in his entreaty, holding no emotion in reserve.

Loki's smirk fades. His expression is still and its intensity gives Thor pause. When Loki speaks his voice is infinitely soft.

"You told me in the garden some weeks past you would fulfill any request I made."

"And I meant those words," Thor says quietly, extending a hand in a gesture of welcome. Loki shifts across the space between them on the bed, a cagey look about him as he sits face to face with Thor with his knees folded beneath him.

"You should make your promises more carefully, brother, or someone may take advantage of you," Loki warns.

Thor reaches out and weaves his fingers through his brother's, giving Loki's hand a reassuring squeeze. They sit together in silence. Thor can't fathom the thoughts passing behind Loki's eyes. This face Thor knows better than any other, but the man, his beloved brother, has become a stranger and a mystery.

Loki sighs, melancholy overtaking his angular features. Thor allows Loki to shift closer on the bed . . .

He understands what's about to happen an instant before Loki kisses his lips, but Thor doesn't deny him.

Loki's lips are cool where Jane's were hot. Loki's kiss is infinitely firmer and more powerful, Jane's lips as gentle as a butterflies.

Thor didn't ask for this.

Loki implores him with a sad, lost, lonely, desperate moan. Emotion overwhelms all coherent thought. Physicality is Thor's home ground; he drapes an arm around Loki's waist and tentatively – so gently and so sweetly – his own, more plush lips caress Loki's – an act of acceptance and an act of adoration.

Thor feels Loki's hand sliding down his armored chest, fingertips hitching atop each steel circle. The intimate and familiar touch stokes the excitement of love in Thor.

Who does he love more dearly or more completely than Loki?

Love it is, but not arousal. Loki sits straddling his thigh, and Thor feels, too, only the first stirrings of arousal pressed against him. Thor pushes his hand through Loki's long hair, palm loosely resting against the nape his brother's neck, fingertips curling through his hair's fine roots.

Now they have begun to kiss in earnest, like a childhood game. Loki sucks on Thor's pouting lower lip; Thor strokes Loki's mouth with his tongue, Loki's teeth scraping its tip. Loki tilts his head and sweeps his slick tongue across the roof of Thor's mouth; Thor kisses Loki deeply and wetly, sucking at his whole open mouth. Saliva forms a glossy coat upon their mouths; who knows how much of it is the one's and how much the other's.

Thor's loins are blood hot. Loki's cock has stiffened against Thor's thigh. Thor feels it digging against his skin through his trousers, its promise undeniable.

They part at last, to breathe. Each holds the other's gaze; Loki's eyes are mottled, much of them a clear grey blooming with clouds of dark blue and a stain of brown greening their center. Thor's own eyes hold no such complexity, blue and bluer.

Why? is heavy on Thor's tongue, but unspoken. He will not cause Loki shame, although the spectre of shame enshrouds Thor himself. Is he taking advantage of Loki's madness? Will his brother later blame him for this as he blamed him for leaving his side?

Loki reaches for the clasps of Thor's cape. Thor covers Loki's hands with his own, shaking his head, but when Loki relents Thor concedes to undo them, himself, the cape falling into a pile of crumpled cloth at the edge of the bed.

Loki's throat bobs in a swallow. Is it only desire, or is it nerves? Thor wishes Loki afforded him greater transparency. He knows not and cannot know.

They each undress, removing pieces of the clothes and armor girding their upper bodies. Thor's stomach twists each time a discarded element of their attire reveals bare skin afresh. It does not turn his stomach so to see Loki piece by piece revealed. They have, after all, bathed together in that hidden spring, after battles and training; stripped down on hot days, thinking nothing of each other's nakedness because of long familiarity.

Now they are both bare-armed and bare-chested. Loki's skin is like fresh milk and Thor's a healthy tan. Loki has slipped a little further down Thor's thigh, toward his knee, but Thor feels his brother's erection full and fierce though unsurprisingly cool against his body.

Thor has never seen such an unguarded look upon Loki. Loki's eyes are wide and cautious, fearful and vulnerable. Despite this strangeness, despite Thor's fears and despite the apparition of shame hanging over him, Thor grins, reassuring in his confidence.

Master deceiver though Loki has proven himself, relief is visible in his eyes. A smile bursts onto his lips. Thor has rarely loved his brother so completely – loved him so wildly nothing but his passion for him has dominated his thoughts. Loki's smile reveals two perfect sets of teeth and delighted wrinkles crease the corners of his eyes.

Thor is lost to him. There is nothing he will not do to sustain this childish glee. No obstacle unconquerable.

"My brother, you are . . . magnificent," Thor avows. Loki startles, drawing back as if stung, but then his smile returns, more meager yet replete with silent hope.

"Show me," Loki implores sweetly, eyes adamantly on Thor's.

Recent memories of sex with Jane filter through Thor's thoughts. None of them will do. His fear that he might be abusing Loki is far too strong, sending a current of pure, deadly ice through his breast though his smile does not falter. He will not lie with him as he did with Jane. He will not do that. Loki might be agreeable to it now, but Loki is changeable as the tides. It will have to be something else entirely.

"Loosen your trousers," Thor says. "No—by all means, shed them."

Loki is obedient. It is his obedience that is the most frightening to Thor, but then Loki is usually docile when he's getting exactly what he wants. His trousers come off. He shifts his weight to one knee, pushing them down the opposite thigh, and then, again, alternating to the other. He takes his erect cock in one hand, easing it from his trousers to stand stiff, alone, as he maneuvers the fabric. He shifts back, knee by knee, free of Thor's thigh, now, and slides one lean leg out of his trousers and then the other.

Loki's cock stands rampant between them. The head is a soft, gleaming curve of pink and the rest is paler, veins thick beneath the far-retracted foreskin, giving life and texture to Loki's hard, softly upward-curved sex.

This is surprisingly less strange than the intermediate period of the two of them undressing. Thor breathes in, the air heady with the foreign scent of his brother's arousal. His calloused hand closes carefully around Loki's cock. Loki drops his gaze to where his sex lies in his brother's clasped hand, eyes wide and wild.

Thor marshals all fearful, hesitant, sick and insecure emotions and watches Loki's downturned face as his hand pumps his brother's cock as it would his own, the velvet, slightly-loose foreskin sliding against the cool core of Loki's turgid erection, the head revealed and then concealed by the circle of Thor's thumb and palm. Loki shivers delicately and gasps in awe. He shuts his eyes. His lips are parted in disbelief and arousal.

Thor is overcome. He sucks on his lips, which taste of his brother's kisses. He slowly but powerfully works Loki's cock in his grasp. Loki mewls and groans, brow wincing through a series of erotic exaltations, hips hesitantly moving in time.

Thor thinks of Jane and of other, earlier lovers he has taken to his bed. He softly releases Loki's cock, leaving it standing free, the head flushed deeper now and leaking precum.

Loki's eyes flutter open and he looks up at Thor in half-delirious wonder. His pupils are two black moons in his multi-faceted eyes.

"Lie back, brother. Lie down." Thor's voice is low and coaxing – the words thicker than Thor anticipated.

Calculations flicker across Loki's expression, but for once in his life he demonstrates obedience, sinking back onto the pillows amidst his rumpled, silken sheets. He heaves for breath, muscled stomach bright with the sheen of sweat rising and falling under shifting golden light.

Thor's loins are still girded by trousers that by now are painfully tight. Thor ignores his own need as he crawls across the give of the mattress to face up Loki's body. Loki's gaze is so exposed, so uncharacteristically enthralled, that Thor's smile is as protective as a father's. He focuses his sight on only Loki's cock, now. A bubble has slowly formed and grown at its small, deep, crying hole. Thor crawls forward on his elbows and puts his lips around the head, brushing the precum away with his tongue.

Loki's precum tastes sweet and pleasant. Thor's mouth is hotter than his brother's cock and Loki makes a sound like he's melting – a long, intensely eager groan. Sucking Loki's sex is easier than Thor anticipated. His lips cling to its girth and slide smoothly as if liquid over the taut flesh.

Loki's strong thighs clasp against Thor's head and relax again. Thor minds not, his world narrowed to Loki's pleasure. One hand slides beneath Loki's hips, fingernails scraping his brother's skin as his fingers flex with unspent desire. Thor's long, blonde hair lies upon Loki's naked skin and mingles with his dark curls. The little noises of Loki's pleasure are louder and more frequent and ever more imploring, the sheets underneath them shifting as Loki balls his hands in them. Thor's head bobs rhythmically with the glide of his lips; then Loki's cum is in his mouth and it tastes like sweet spring water – not at all like he expected. He gulps it down like a fountain until Loki is fully spent.

Thor grapples against dissociation as he pushes himself away from his brother's cock. Loki's dazed and dreamy eyes promise this was worth everything and anything Thor could give. Not all of Thor is so certain – but his mouth tastes of his brother's seed. It's too late for second guessing.

Loki's gaze flickers toward the prominent, angular bulge in Thor's too-tight trousers.

". . . not today," Thor insists, eyes flickering away a moment after they've followed Loki's. "There is nothing I need from you. Think of this as my gift."

Loki so easily acquiesces, pleased with Thor and brimming with entitlement.

Thor is crippled at heart and that he cannot reveal.

"So dear you are to me," Loki mutters so low it must be to himself, as if lost in a dream.

I love you has never been taboo between them. Their father has always shown their mother deep affection. Their upbringing raised them to be free and earnest in emotion.

"Do you wish to sleep, brother? For I will stay with you and hold you until sleep comes," Thor offers. This is his doing – his responsibility. He must see it through so that if harm has been done it is minimized by the care he takes with Loki.

"Please do," Loki says with a long, naked writhe of his powerful body against the rucked up covers, making his spent body more comfortable where they were stuck to his body with the sheen of sweat that rose upon him.

Thor's lips smile not, but his gaze rests long upon Loki's eyes, seeking but not attaining understanding. He gathers the covers and pulls them over Loki, lovingly tucking his drowsy brother in as he did only last night when she was exhausted from a different trial.

After Loki is sleeping soundly, Thor then dresses and parts from him. His erection has subsided but a little and he is undecided what to do with it. Masturbation to thoughts of Jane would be a welcome respite, but how could he sully his thoughts of that passionate, mercurial human woman with unspent lust for his brother? –and what can he ever say to her?

How, now, should he approach Sif, either?

In his chambers he collapses into a sitting chair and broods with his head resting against his fist.

----

Loki's mind drifts between consciousness and unconsciousness. Not all his dreaming is peaceful. Familiar terrors haunt his imaginings: dismembered, de-souled and burnt shriveled bodies scream from ruined throats. But Thor is in these imaginings, too, body bare, head between Loki's thighs, lips wrapped around Loki's cock, pride abandoned in his act of worship.

In his mind's eye Loki can still see Thor's brow creased in concentration and his blonde locks falling around his highly masculine face, the stubble of his beard catching the light as he nurses away at Loki's dick.

The raw flesh where Thor's fingernails scraped Loki's skin still stings.

That was no dream.

Nor did Loki only dream of Thor taking him in one great hand and coaxing precum from the depths of his cock.

Loki is roused to consciousness knowing he and his brother have crossed some remote and forbidden line of demarcation.

But why forbidden? Loki can fathom it not. If he wishes to have his older brother for a lover, whose right is it to stand in his way?

Except, he can already see that it isn't that simple.

Lying alone in his bed Loki is awash in genuine terror. His pulse races as if the Wild Hunt is on his trail. This fear is not of horrors past, but of next encountering his brother in the near future.

Loki's magic concealed them from Heimdall and from Odin – he does not know if his brother understood that or was as reckless as ever – but what misplaced words or laden glances could betray them to these and other Æsir or Vanir older and wiser than Loki and Thor? What a travesty it would become for their four closest companions to learn of their transgressions. How could they be asked to understand when Loki himself does not?

Worst and ugliest of all, what if Thor's act of sensuality was only the indulgence of a long-suffering older sibling and there is nothing else or more?

Loki's body burns with the thought of his brother's naked flesh hot against his own; of Thor in a passion; of sex unrestrained.

He is hard again, but with only his hand as a companion.

He masturbates pitifully, Thor's lips and touch his fantasies, wracked with insecurities that prey on the madness-fractured contours of his mind.

----

Thor suspects Sif is avoiding him. She is never where anyone sends him to seek her. He at last finds her at sword practice in the training yard. He takes a seat on a bench beyond the action and watches her at her work. Lesser warriors oppose her – they benefit more from these clashes than Sif. She dispatches them easily with her typical fierce glee but not so quickly they have no way to reflect on which steps were mistaken and what blows ill timed. Some are in need of healing stones in the aftermath.

"Sif!" Thor calls as she slights him by sheathing her weapon and shouldering her shield with every indication of heading back into Glaðsheim without greeting him.

She stops and allows Thor to overtake her, but she has grown dispirited since her final bout, joy gone out of her.

"My prince," she greets him stiffly.

Thor is not a man for conversational finesse and the dance of etiquette.

"I was a fool not to see it, and I am sorry if I have caused you pain," he says.

Sif's downcast gaze searches the paving stones.

"Loki caused the pain, not you, and my pride was his only victim. You have no reason to apologize."

Thor wishes to take her by the shoulders so that she cannot distance herself from him so. It would be far from appropriate and instead he pleads for her attention with words alone.

"Your worth to me is beyond measure. You are a trusted and beloved friend."

Sif at least raises her eyes to his.

"Thor, this is exactly the conversation I wished not to have."

"Yet we miss your company, and I know not how to make this right with you."

Sif's look is of pity. Thor fears he doesn't completely understand women.

"You love Jane Foster. I would not ask you to forgo your happiness to indulge an attraction you do not share," Sif says.

Thor falters, but it is not for love of Jane. There is no soul he can confide in. Certainly not Sif, who is beset with turmoil enough.

Sif misinterprets his silence.

"This is not the end of our friendship. The embarrassment I feel when you're near will pass with time," she says. Ruefully, she shakes her head. "Before, I had hope. Now I must reconcile my past desires with our shared reality."

Thor understands, but he cannot bring himself to speak for he is certain he will somehow betray himself, and that would be unthinkable.

Sif offers him a smile, and then she departs. Thor doubts she wears her smile long.

Then

Thor's impact with the living skin of the Earth has left dirt ground into his skin, littered in his hair and gritty beneath the shoulders of his armor. He treks through the tall grass after Mjölnir, his thoughts still with his brother upon the SHIELD helicarrier at cloud level.

Natasha Romanoff told him his brother had killed eighty people since his arrival on Earth from the far place their father's celestial raven, Huginn, had spied him among the Chitauri. It is not the same to hear deaths spoken of and to have seen his brother kill.

At his moments of greatest doubt, Thor has dared to wonder if Loki was ever truly a brother to him. Each time his mind has entertained such traitorous thoughts he has become ashamed of himself. Loki's voice from the moment before Loki committed foul murder plays on Thor's sympathies Are you ever not going to fall for that?

It was a deadly trap that Loki sprung, but his pleased amusement recalled the halcyon days of their long childhood.

Thor yearns for their father's counsel, but Odin is far beyond reach or contact. Thor carries the burden of the throne as the sole Asgardian on Earth: he is charged with passing and carrying out Loki's sentence.

Here is Mjölnir, standing in the grass.

Thor flexes his hand.

Will Mjölnir be the instrument of Loki's final repose?

Thor stands minutes in silence until at last he is reconciled with both the darkest and brightest of all possible futures.

Now


Thor flinches when Loki falls into step beside him as he travels Glaðsheim's halls.

"You haven't visited me, but they released me from my confinement on virtue of my good behavior."

Both brothers know Loki's behavior was nothing of the sort, going in and out of the room as he pleased with subtle manipulations of magic.

Loki is appalled by his own fragility. He is acutely nervous, palms moist, emotions as brittle as glass. A hard word from Thor would shatter him.

"I feared what boundaries we might transgress if I went to you," Thor murmurs, blue eyes fixed ahead. The small muscles of Thor's countenance stretched wire tight betray the depths of his apprehension, but it is not only apprehension writ there.

"You yearn for me— and me for you. You can deny it, but to what end?" Loki's words are breathless. He barely dares speak them, even with his magic shrouding the two of them in secrecy.

Thor stops, turning to face Loki. His eyes have narrowed. Thor can be quite the fool, but Loki suspects Thor just might trust his prowess at concealment as they hold this conversation in the hall – and, besides, no room would be any safer from Heimdall's or their father's sight.

"I am your older brother, and you are out of your right mind. What we shared was tantamount to my abuse of you," Thor insists.

Loki is dizzy with the thought of Thor recriminating himself so – or is it that he's dizzy with the scent of Thor's body so near?

Desperation drives like a spear through his breast. The memories of dark day after dark day are all too fresh, like open sores.

"I need this!"

--Loki has yelled it. It was, perhaps, indelicate of him, and he is not sure it was utterly masked.

The fear of discovery, of shame, the castigation of their parents, the discomforting of their friends – all these things are preferable to losing ever more of himself to the darkness without end, those remote and abandoned reaches of space wherein were the worst and most terrible secrets of existence.

Thor stands still as stone, scrutinizing him, brow knotted up in that idiot expression that comes over him when he has to think hard about something.

Thor is a beast of gut instinct and intuition – both so often serve him well – but this is a matter more difficult.

"My little brother," Thor says quietly, at last. "So dearly I prize you. So very dear you are to me. And so deeply have we shown ourselves able to wound one another. Were it a matter of our physical pleasure then, yes, forever yes. We could share a bed and there would be no secret and no shame. You my Freyja and I your Freyr, if those rumors be true."

Thor is, mayhap, not as dense as Loki has habitually, since childhood, assumed.

Loki takes one step closer, bringing them toe to toe, chest to chest and face to face, scant space between them.

"I am not well. We know this. I do not know if I will ever be well again. Do you prize me less because I am a madman? You might equally prize me less because I am of the blood of the ancient enemy of our people."

The proximity has the anticipated effect upon Thor. Thor's breath quickens, and no doubt his heart, too.

"A hallway is not a place for this talk," Thor evades, his voice rich with emotion.

"My chambers?" Loki begs sweetly. "Yours?"

". . . No, brother. I need time to think. There is little in all nine realms of Yggdrasil that I fear, and little, either I fear farther afield. But this . . ."

Pain wrenches Loki's heart. Anger boils in him. His expression snarls.

"Then go have your think without me. Decide our fate as you will, crown prince."

Loki stalks away, thoughts roiling with fury. He cares little for what state he has left Thor in.

----

Earth is in peril.

This cannot stand.

The whole planet is infested with beings alien to Earth who call themselves Skrulls. The entire fight for Earth's future is a mess. Is that Captain America? No, it is not, it is a Skrull. Is that Maria Hill? No. No, a Skrull again. Innocent bystander? No. Skrull. How damned many Skrulls can there be? (Many, many Skrulls, actually.)

Thor is weary of the entire business by the time Earth is ostensibly Skrull-free. (SHIELD suspects sleeper agents but SHIELD's job is long-term maintenance; the Avengers' is immediate threats.) It is to the Avengers' benefit that an empire with holdings in the same quadrant of the so-called 'Milky Way,' the Shi'ar, are already furious with the Skrulls and their Imperial Guard join Earth in the fight due to a recent slight to their Empress. Thor finds himself at the center of the treaty brokered between representatives of Earth and the Shi'ar Empress Lilandra Neramani as a relatively neutral third party.

Asgard has its own long-standing treaty with the Shi'ar and Midgard is an Asgardian protectorate. Thor's neutrality is not perfect, his allegiance is weighted toward Earth, but the Shi'ar see little to gain from politicking to incorporate Earth as a Shi'ar suzerainty and would have much to lose in crossing Asgard – and with it Asgard's allied realms of Vanaheimr and Álfheimr. Neither would Niðavellir and its dwarves idly entertain such a pronounced shift of power.

Thor all but collapses in Jane's apartment, on Jane's couch, when this whole conflagration of nonsense has been sorted out.

Jane sits on the edge of the couch beside him. Thor is massive and takes up most of the available space. She is smiling and brushes Thor's hair clear of his face. Thor adores her. She is a fine, clever, practical woman with bright eyes; who books no nonsense from anyone – and definitely not a whit of nonsense from Skrulls.

"How progresses the cultivation of the Foster theory?" Thor wonders, genuinely curious. Jane takes mathematics into high art. Thor will stay with simple arithmetic and multiplication.

"Slowly," Jane says. "With difficulty." A shake of her head. "Even with two scientists on loan from Asgard, pragmatism is the name of the game the Æsir have been playing."

"You just lost me," Thor confesses with a most charming grin.

"—okay. So, there's two ways to do science. There's pragmatism, and when you're a pragmatist you care if what you're doing works in practice. So, for example, the Æsir have constructed and reconstructed Bifrost. And Bifrost works. But nobody's super concerned with how Bifrost works, at least not exactly. Then there's positivism. Positivism rejects intuition. Positivism is when you ask 'Exactly how does this work and why does this work?' and the only acceptable answer is the correct one – or as close to correct as anybody can get. You can't fudge it and say 'Every time we turn on Bifrost we're able access Yggdrasil and that's all we need to know.' Positivism means you get down into the mathematical details and find out what it means to access Yggdrasil."

"Right now, Jane Foster, I am willing to believe you are an alien neither from Earth nor Asgard, speaking in a foreign tongue never before spoken by either god or man," Thor says, but his tone is flirtatious and Jane kisses him.

Guilt rises thick, like cream to the top of churned milk.

Jane feels him go still.

"Thor…?"

Thor's gaze darkens but is riveted to Jane's and his voice is a whisper.

"I have lain with another."

"Oh," Jane says. She sits back. Her discomfort is clear. She looks at him edgewise and then looks away. Her expression is as critical as when she's lost in math.

"Okay . . ." she draws out slowly. "We didn't say this was exclusive," she rationalizes aloud, but Thor can tell from her tone that she is wounded at heart.

Thor studies the refined features of the woman he adores, hating the distress upon them.

"It is . . . I know not what you think of me, now, Jane, but the reality is worse than you know," he further confesses.

Jane stands. She paces away from him, folded arms wrapped around her slim waist. He sees only her back.

"You are so awkward, sometimes," she says. Her voice laughs; she hunches over a little with it, but her laughter is of sorrow.

Thor presses the palm of one strong hand to his forehead, squeezing shut his eyes.

"You have my deepest and most sincere apologies, Jane Foster. All of my regrets. Could I but make this up to you . . . and yet there is no one in Asgard I could speak of my folly to."

"I'm going to make a martini. I have vodka in the freezer. For martinis. Martini vodka," Jane says, words rote. Thor does not interrupt her while she does that. She returns with a shallow glass of clear alcohol with a wide rim and sits not upon the couch but in a nearby chair.

She takes a long drink, half emptying it.

"This is kind of weird for me," she confesses. "You weren't using the 'we're breaking up' tone. So I don't know if . . ."

The sentence lies unfinished in the silence.

"It is strange for me, also," Thor apologizes. "I trust no one further in all the realms than I trust you. Not even, I assure you, the one I shared relations with."

"I'm honored," Jane says, with another empty laugh. "To be the 'one' and not the girl on the side."

Thor cannot believe how clear or how beautiful her brown eyes are. They are without flaw. No hint of another color. Light, though, and golden from certain angles. She has a mole on each cheek and lips ripe for kissing.

"It was Loki," Thor blurts out. He has no idea how the words will be received, but lying on Jane's couch he is exposed and cannot take them back.

Jane's perfect eyes are extraordinarily wide. She drops her martini glass. It shatters. She stares down at it – at the colorless liquid leaking across her floor. She stares back up at Thor.

"Wow."

That's the only sound in Jane's apartment for the next few minutes. She gets up and retrieves paper towels and blots up the spilled vodka. She sets the remaining body of the martini glass on a glass table in front of the couch and meticulously gathers the scattered, glinting remnants of it into the soggy, alcohol-smelling paper. She puts that and the body of the glass into the trash.

She stands there staring into her trashcan for a minute, brow wrinkled up. Finally she turns around and fixes her concerned gaze on Thor.

"When you say Loki you mean your brother Loki, right? Not like . . . that's a name like 'Joe' in Asgard, and there's seventy-nine other guys named Loki you could have slept with?"

"I mean my brother, Loki," Thor replies very softly.

Jane returns to her chair. She rests her elbows on her knees and folds her hands together and squints at him.

He feels like one of her experiments.

"The last time we were talking about Loki you were talking about how he's actually pretty great, except a little bit crazy recently. I'm not completely sure that incest makes people less crazy. See: the Hapsburgs." Jane pauses, and she goes on before Thor can interject. "—on the other hand royal families kind of do that a lot."

Jane doesn't sound like she's condoning Thor's time in his brother's arms, only talking to fill space.

"I should not have . . ." Thor begins, but his words fall off. "I think it better we end our courtship, lest you be tainted by my perversity."

Jane sits in utter silence. Thor can hear the passing of cars behind the walls of the apartment and six stories down. The roar of a jet plane passes overhead. Thor never looks away from her, but Jane never looks to him until her mind is made up. Her eyes are dewy, but she presses her lips together until she can speak without crying.

"You should go. Thank you. For all the help you've . . . with my research."

She wipes at her eyes, inhaling steeply in another commendable effort not to cry in his presence.

Thor wishes desperately to comfort her, but he is the cause of her distress. He removes himself from her couch, heading toward the door with a heavy heart. Her enthusiasm and brilliance, her laughing eyes and her touch are all he can think of. He knows beyond doubt that he loves her.

He stops, turning his head to the side to speak to her, but not turning around because he can hear her damp sniffles and knows she's given in to the tears she does not want him to see.

"Thank you, Jane Foster. For once rescuing me, and for the love we have shared."

Thor picks up Mjölnir from where it was left on her entrance hall table. There had been a moment, a fraction of a moment, in which he had feared the geas his father had laid upon it would forbid him from lifting it. Its weight is familiar and comfortable in his hand.

----

Thor is in a foul temper upon his return to Asgard. He has broken the heart of a noble and beautiful woman who deserved fidelity and respect.

Loki is there to meet him at the foot of Bifrost and they walk the bridge together, although Thor is in no mood for his company, grim and silent.

"Earth is, ah, safe once again, thanks to the heroic efforts of the charming company you keep?" Loki asks, pretending to be interested in something along the distant shoreline.

Thor fails to answer him, his gaze fixed upon Glaðsheim, ahead. Nonetheless, he is intimately aware of Loki's pace at his side. Indeed, they have a certain, synchronized manner of walking taken to an art over two thousand years of near-constant communion. They are both bold in stride, together an imposing pair.

Thor is now aware of Loki in new ways. It's not that something has changed about Thor or about Loki, but that the old and the everyday and the long taken for granted are pregnant with new potentials. The twitch of Loki's lips at the corner of Thor's vision is kissable. The flexion of his thighs could as easily take place with Loki on his back, or on hands and knees. There are too many novelties to count caught up with any little motion of his hands.

"And how about Jane? How is Jane?" Loki purrs, oozing curiosity.

Thor's temper flares but passes unspent. Still, his words are terse.

"She and I are paramours no longer. She suffers great sorrow . . . as do I."

"All for the best in the end," Loki says, sounding well pleased.

"I refuse to court you, brother. You must put all ideas of illicit relations between us out of your mind," Thor says without either looking to Loki or faltering in stride. His brow narrows, and a part of his mind spins calculations of the time it will take to reach Bifrost's end.

Loki is surprisingly quiet. Thor expected an exclamation, or a fight. Quiet is worse. Quiet means Loki is planning and plotting, two activities Thor is hopelessly poorer at than his younger sibling.

"I understand," Loki assuages, fairly and easily. "You fear intimate relations with me will be the ruin of my fragile mind."

"Then we are agreed," Thor says, looking to Loki now. He tries his best to uncover what's passing behind those complexly-hued eyes, but Loki is a pleasant-seeming blank slate.

"Entirely," Loki says, gaze even with Thor's.

Thor's mind is not put at ease. He's never known Loki to give up on something he wants without at least a spat. However, the alternative to letting the matter rest is picking a fight with his brother in the middle of Bifrost which Loki will win because Loki will play it cool headed and Thor will be baited into yelling. Instead they share the walk back to Glaðsheim in peaceable silence.

----

The banquet is laid. Roasted boars and filleted fish steam on their vegetable-decked golden platters. Fruits are piled perilously high in sweet, delicious towers. Fresh-baked breads lie in loaves next to soups and sauces. Decanters of wine gleam on the table and the servants bring around the mead.

It's hideous in a way Loki can't articulate. Here he sits among his peers and elders. Conversations bubble between partners seated near and far from one another, a din of happy voices. His parents are here, and so is his damned brother, their friends, too, and the important this-and-thats of state. Next to him is the Lawspeaker, with a beard as long as Bifrost.

Not one Æsir or Vanr is speaking to him. Not to Loki. No one pays any attention to the fact that he hasn't taken any food, either because they're purposefully ignoring him or, far more likely despite his paranoid suspicions, because they're overlooking him.

He'll change all that.

He pours himself a goblet of wine and rises from his seat.

"Everyone!" He stands poise-perfect and waits for their conversations to one by one fall silent. All eyes on Loki Odinson, now. Oh, but he loves that. "Everyone. I thank you for your attention," he congratulates them. "I wish to give a toast." Look at them all light up. The stupid pigs love toasts. They love any and every excuse to pour liquor down their gullets. "A toast to my brother," Loki says, "Defender of Earth!" –a few applaud, but Loki keeps going, "—and the meek, and women and small children and defenseless baby birds." They're starting to catch on. Good on them, the bovine dolts. "My dear brother, who was good enough to suck my cock, but far too proud to be my lover."

Even Heimdall wouldn't hear a peep from this lot, now. Loki beams them all a smile: his parents, Lady Sif, Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun – all of them but Thor, who's frozen in place anyway, and not looking.

Loki downs his wine in one long draught. Then, brimming with cheer enough for five hosts of gods, picks up the nearly-full decanter from the table.

"If you will all excuse me, I intend to enjoy this fine beverage in my room, out of the sight of the rabble."

And now he's on his merry way. Truly merry. He hasn't felt this wonderful in . . . Not since Thor was hot and hungry between his legs.

Maybe he doesn't need Thor. That seems as possible as anything in his present euphoria. Maybe Thor can be left to live down his shame and Loki can move on to the grander endeavors his mind has yet to conjure up.

But, Loki's no idiot. What he has to do right now is prepare himself to weather his brother's wrath. He doesn't need a barometer to know a storm's coming – whenever Thor gets his wits together, anyway. That could be as short as ten minutes or as long as two hours.

----

The hall remains silent. Thor cannot bear to meet the eyes of his company, and least of all those of his friends and his parents. He stares uncomprehending into nothing at all. He is in such a fury he can't even recall exactly what Loki said.

Thoughts fall together.

The hall is silent because everyone is either terrified of him or plotting how best to subdue his rage.

He rises, staring down at his half-eaten plate.

"You will excuse me," he says, voice loud and rough. With that, he leaves, yet meeting no one's eyes. He thinks of hunting Loki down. Hunting Loki down and beating his face in until blood gushes from his little brother's nose and the younger god is one ugly bruise.

—it's because he realizes he's in a truly violent temper that he stops, suddenly, on his way to Loki's room. He stands heaving for air in the hallway. When he can see clearly, he changes course for his own chambers where it will be safe to rage alone.

Naturally, Loki has set himself up in Thor's sitting room, upon the couch, decanter of wine beside him on the seat and partially full goblet in his hand.

"People will be talking about us for years," Loki says, his smile so self-satisfied.

"Be gone before I do harm to you!" Thor bellows. Loki sits unmoved, legs stretched before him, crossed at the ankles.

"Did you see your face? –of course you didn't. It was magnificent."

Thor quivers with barely-suppressed rage.

"How could you?"

Loki's whole demeanor changes, suddenly seething with venom. He sets down his goblet, his eyes narrow and his voice hisses.

"How could I not? The people deserve to know their future king is a cocksucker."

"This was not the way to win my attention!" Thor rebukes with equal pique but greater volume.

Loki is given pause. The pause gives way to gloating laughter.

"Here you are. So, actually, it was."

"You have shamed us," Thor rails on at the same volume, voice rattling the rafters. "You have shamed our family. You have made fools of us in front of our comrades. You have made us naught but grist for the mills of gossips – targets for the chatter of giggling maidens and laughing boys."

"If not us, someone else," Loki dismisses idly. "It was your reaction, not my speech, which cemented it as reality." Loki's voice grows colder and sharper. "And I owed you. For saying I had a 'fragile' mind."

"I never—" Thor starts, but the familiarity of the phrase stalls him.

"You agreed, and you meant to agree," Loki says hotly. "But I think I'll bear up a good deal more easily than you under public scrutiny, brother."

Thor stiffly takes a seat on the couch with his brother, decanter and forgotten goblet between them. He reflects in silence on the horror of exposure and the sudden change in regard suffered by all. One slight foregrounds itself as the most grievous.

"How could you do that to mother?"

Loki idly waves Thor's concern away.

"Don't be stupid. Mother is the strongest of all precognitives."

"Which is no excuse to be childish and selfish and hurtful," Thor snaps.

Loki's gaze is sharp and intent as he looks down the couch at his older brother.

"Is it selfish to want you for myself?" Loki hisses. "All lovers are selfish. What upsets you about losing Jane? It's that you wanted to possess her, exclusively. What torments Lady Sif? Want of you. I am no more selfish than any jilted lover."

Thor's stomach goes through familiar, discomforting contortions and Loki's smooth voice speaks seductive sense – even as Loki uses the word "lover" so casually yet like a weapon. There is excitement, and it is sexual, but it wars with apprehension, a sense of responsibility and fear of wrongdoing, all of it boiling in anger and indignation.

"What if we did sojourn together, as you once suggested?" Loki purrs with a voice like velvet, pursuing his advantage. "To Álfheimr, perhaps, or to your beloved Earth? To a place we can be alone together. Escape our new publicity. Make love for hours . . . until we lie exhausted and spent."

"I am still furious at what just happened at dinner," Thor barks.

"Oh," Loki says, frowning. "That."

They sit in silence. Thor fumes. Loki takes his goblet back up and sedately sips at its contents.

"Go," Thor demands.

"I'm fine here, thank you," Loki says and smiles. He pours himself more wine.

Thor gets up without another word and retires to his bedchamber, stripping himself of his clothes and warring against memories of Loki's genuine delight when they shared their sexuality; of his awe, pleasure and delirium. Thor surely wants those things for Loki. He wants all the happiness in the world for his brother. To what lengths would he not go to secure Loki a happy future after the torments his brother has suffered so recently?

That can all be true while Thor can still be angry about the cruel trick Loki pulled at dinner. Thor's mood remains dark and angry as he climbs beneath the sheets of his great bed.

Loki comes in a little later, undressing quietly. Thor stirs, but does not turn to look at him – even if he doesn't send him off.

His brother slips under the covers without a sound. He presses himself against Thor's broad back in the dark, arms folded between them, palms, fingertips and forehead resting against Thor's titanic muscles. The skin of their bodies touches in other places: the barest contact of Loki's abdomen and his semi-aroused cock, the tops of Loki's thighs brushing the backs of Thor's.

Thor lapses back into slumber. His dreams are haunted by starved kisses and cool caresses and the wonderful sound that is his little brother's laughter, so rarely heard of these past years.

----

Loki is gone before Thor awakens. Morning is everything Thor feared it would be. He does not attend family breakfast but goes to the kitchen, later, and awkwardly requests food from the cooks; a conversation that involves minimized eye contact among all parties (he catches two cooks sharing a knowing glance). Thor eats what he can – which despite mild nausea born of nerves is nonetheless a considerable amount.

He must give an account of himself and his actions to his father and king. Of this he is both certain and terrified. He is never one to shy away from a challenge. Thor's pride goads him to go to him directly, although breakfast he could not share. He did not feel that he deserved to sit at the same table as Asgard's king or his unimpeachable mother.

He knows not if Loki went. Loki might very well be able to endure a meal of silent censure or circuitous conversation, or might even be able to broach the subject itself in so casual and familiar a setting. The blows to Thor's pride and self-esteem are too great for that on Thor's part.

Thor finds his father taking air on a balcony overlooking the great expanse of the Realm Eternal. Now that he stands beside him, Thor can't imagine what he meant to say. He is all but physically ill, stomach clenched by nerves.

Frustratingly, it seems his father is waiting on him to speak. Or, far worse, ignoring him, although Thor can't quite convince himself that is the case. His father is many thousands of years old and has no doubt encountered all manner of indecency.

"I have comported myself in a manner unbecoming of the crown prince of the Realm Eternal and, I fear, led my little brother astray. There are . . . I have not the words, Father. I know not what recompense could make this right, or restore the tarnished honor of our family."

Thor's words leave him dizzy from speaking them. His eyes smart with tears. His throat is thick with emotion. He is paralyzed with his fear of what his father may next say.

"Time," his father says, sounding old and weary. He turns his eye to his shamefaced eldest son. "Time is the only salve. You and Loki will be the ones to decide what to make of your transgressions and what will become of this family. Time, for me, grows late."

Tears, salty and hot, are spilling down Thor's cheeks, caught in the blonde hairs of his beard where they slowly soak in. His father's disappointment is all too obvious, both in his tone and in the sad look about him. Thor has no power to discern what aspect of these events disturbs the king most.

"I am sorry, father," Thor swears.

Odin's wizened countenance is affectionless. The distance between father and son seems to Thor a distance spanning realms. He does not look away in shame, although it's shame he burns with.

"I fear for Loki," Odin confides. "I have always feared for Loki. He is brilliant and . . . sensitive, and I have done all in my power to impart wisdom to him and provide firm guidance as he has grown in his gifts. But a tragedy befell this house. We are a house asunder. It is on you, my eldest son, that the burden of rebuilding from our ruin falls heaviest – for we must soon be a fortress against which the evil of Thanos breaks, or the Realm Eternal may be forever lost." Odin lets those words sit, and then concludes: "My heir places great strain upon the bonds of family at such a perilous time. Your relationship with your brother is already volatile."

Thor now drops his eyes to the polished deck of the balcony, eyes clouded with the tears that still fall despite his futile attempts to blink them away.

"And Loki," Odin says, looking beside them. "What say you?"

Loki appears by magic beside a nearby column, looking sullen at being caught although Thor knows not how Loki would expect to pass magic beneath their father's notice in such close quarters.

On second thought Thor doubts Loki ever intended to keep himself from Odin's notice, more likely only Thor's – at which he was obviously successful.

"How kind of you to ask, father." Loki smiles so pleasantly at the two of them. "Thor knows what I have to say, but it's beneath his consideration."

Odin holds up a hand to silence him. It is clear to Thor that their father is deeply uncomfortable with his children's conduct.

"Go. Both of you. You are grown men and know your own minds. It is not my place to offer you counsel."

Thor's heart is nigh as heavy as when he suffered banishment to Earth, stripped of his strength, his title and his place in their family. Loki is quiet beside him, sneaking curious but measured glances at Thor as they take leave of their father and travel deeper into Glaðsheim.

When they have achieved a reasonable distance Loki stops Thor with a hand on his brother's arm and turns Thor to face him. Thor looks upon him through bleary eyes.

"Is it so very terrible to love me?" Loki asks, studying Thor narrowly and with a certain caution.

"I have always loved you," Thor rebukes, frustration burning strong. "What you ask is that I love none but you."

Thor sees he's fallen for a snare, because Loki's eyes brighten and a mischievous, flirtatious smile plays along his lips.

"Is it so very terrible to love none but me?"

Thor has ever fallen victim to his brother's sweet eyes, to Loki's effervescent smile and his always-one-step-ahead cleverness. Loki is a mature and devastatingly handsome man, now, but his charms are as effective as when he was but an innocent boy. It is difficult for Thor to breathe around the groundswell of adoration that fills his breast. Overcome with emotion, Thor loosely takes his brother's slender hand, which until now rested at Loki's side. It is a permissive gesture. The inches between them disappear, their heads tilting, Odin's sons plying at one another's eager lips.

Thor's whole body thrills with electricity not born from magic.

Loving only Loki doesn't sound like so terrible a thing at all.

----

Loki finds himself once again in his brother's chambers. Last night Thor was in a rage. Today he is subdued, eyes still a sore red from the tears he shed before their father.

Loki's heart is awash with contentious emotions. The measured disapproval of their father is what he expected, yet doubtlessly masks greater, guarded disappointment, and this pains him. He prizes his father's regard highly. Neither he nor Thor has gone to their mother – Loki knows this because he's been shadowing Thor since morning. Flippant though he may have been last night, Loki detests the thought of causing their mother despair. He has no means of divining her reaction and is afraid to approach her, afraid to hear, perhaps, that this was a day she'd long dreaded. Thor is probably equally at odds over her.

And then there is the quivering excitement tying itself in knots inside Loki as he undresses Thor in his imagination, eyes following the contours of the powerful body hidden under armor and cloth. Thor is more hesitant in his regard, intermittently studying his younger brother with unmasked yearning and then glancing away toward nothing.

They begin to lose clothing piece by piece, casually, leaving it on Thor's couch or on the floor. The tension between them is running high, but there isn't a plan or a clear destination.

They are naked, and Loki goes to Thor, understanding the problem. Thor's quickened breathing is evident in the flexion of muscles across his robust body. Thor's blue eyes are worry beneath his proud brow.

"You're allowed to take pleasure in me. You have my permission. –No, my encouragement," Loki says. He watches Thor's expression change from worry to confusion, then to comprehension.

Loki lays a kiss upon Thor's neck, then another one inch down. Thor exhales his tension in a sigh and clasps Loki against him in a brief, fleeting hug.

Then, Thor is all action. Hard, calloused hands glide over Loki's cool skin, Thor's touch molten. They sway together on their feet, palms mapping each other's bodies and mouths busy and hungry on each other's skin. Heat radiates from Thor's larger body, warming Loki through.

Thor's hand rounds the curve of Loki's buttock and he gives his ass a squeeze in that powerful grip; Loki makes a startled sound – suddenly they're both laughing. Laughing while still kissing.

"You're, um, you're actually quite strong. Did you know?" Loki says, giddy with the exact ridiculousness of their situation. Thor's grinning ear to ear and his eyes are glad. Loki recognizes the spark of inspiration in them but is, as usual, overwhelmed in the middle of raising his voice to protest "No."

Thor has picked him up from beneath his thighs. Loki clasps his legs around his brother with a huff of exasperation, draping his arms over Thor's shoulders and fixing his older brother with a glare. He is doomed to be taken where Thor pleases – which is deeper into his quarters, into his bed chamber. Loki's indignation is out of habit and on principle, since this is exactly where he wants to go.

"That face," Thor teases. "Like a cat that's had water dumped over it."

Loki leans in, licking his brother's lips in a feline stroke. The stiff hairs of Thor's moustache tickle his tongue. There's a sharp inhalation through Thor's nostrils. Loki preens with accomplishment. Thor laughs in pleasure.

Now Thor's standing beside his bed, with Loki sensuously twined around his upper body. Their cocks are stiff and attentive, if not fully erect; their breathing is heated; they study one another in sudden fascination.

"Men in these situations tend to require some kind of . . . lubrication," Loki poses delicately. Thor, he thinks, has courted only the fairer sex. He draws closer to his brother, arms sliding possessively around his shoulders as he brings his lips to Thor's ear and sweetly whispers: "I think it better that tonight you love me as a man. I have nothing on hand to deter your lust from creating life inside me."

Loki enjoys the sudden silence laden only with their panting.

"We could draw a bath," Thor says hoarsely, at last.

"It has a brain after all!" Loki teases gleefully.

He's rewarded by being summarily tossed upon the bed, air whuffing out of him. Thor stands over him, stark naked except for a gloating grin. Loki is exhilarated and feeling daring; he slides his hand down his stomach, long fingers slipping over and slowly curling around his cock. He savors Thor's stunned and mystified expression as he pleasures himself with long strokes, arousal a cold burn under his practiced hand.

"You were going to draw a bath?" he prompts. Thor spends a moment with a bewildered look on his face before his cheeks start to burn.

"Yes. I intend to," he says. He stalks off into the adjoining bathing chamber. Loki spends an idle minute on the bed, teasing and toying with himself until his erection could not be fuller or firmer. He slips off the bed, then, and follows Thor. His mind is gloriously free of all concerns but how best to physically enjoy his brother's powerfully massive body, though the world outside these rooms be dangerous and unwelcoming.

----

When Loki and Thor last shared a bathtub together they were over a millennia younger and considerably smaller. The private baths of Glaðsheim are free-standing affairs, rounded like great golden bowls; scarcely oblong, their sides a gentle gradient.

"It's not too hot for you?" Thor worries as Loki tests the water with his fingertips.

Loki presses his lips together and shoots him a look of annoyance. Thor's expression pleads innocence.

"I am certain I would be equally concerned whether or not the temperature of the water was to your preference had we not spent all our years together since we were but boys."

"The water is fine," Loki says, and makes a display of its suitability by climbing into the bath, sinking into the water up to his shoulders. His moment's bad mood has passed and there's a sneaky, flirty smile on his lips that has Thor joining him on the opposite side of the tub, with due eagerness. Thor's bulk displaces a great deal more liquid than Loki's body and Loki squirms a little higher against the back of the tub to keep his neck above water, only mildly inconvenienced.

"This is so . . ." Loki muses, letting the words hang.

"Ordinary," Thor agrees, and they both grin.

It's with the same kind of consensus that they push off from the sides of the tub, coming together in the middle of it.

Loki's lips are on Thor's again. They kiss like drowning men, as if the other's mouth holds the only hope for air. Skin glides freely against skin in the water. Loki takes Thor by the cock and Thor grunts a rough noise of approval. Guilt and fear flare again, but Loki sooths them away, drawing seductive patterns around the head of Thor's cock with his clever thumb, intermittent with sweeping strokes. Beyond freely consenting, Loki is eager, and Thor can no longer sustain the worry he's exerting undue influence. Sustaining any thought at all is a trial with fresh, hot pleasure in his cock and Loki's kisses, slow and salacious, now.

"An impressive hammer if ever there was one," Loki says, drawing back and releasing his grasp on Thor's cock. "You'll just have to make it fit."

Loki grins a wicked grin and then turns in the water to face away from his older, bigger brother. Thor understands what Loki wants, but it isn't something he's ever done. He's never given the act much consideration, but with Loki in front of him, soaked black hair clinging to his finely muscled shoulders, a powerful urge comes over Thor to drive his cock inside him – a physical need that floods his body with heat.

Loki grasps the edges of the tub. Thor's brow narrows and he traces his fingertips down his brother's spine beneath the water, to the crevice where his body softly parts. For a moment, Thor is overcome, air scarce and head spinning, but three deep breaths ground him. Loki shifts beneath his touch, an anticipatory squirm. Thor parts the cheeks of Loki's ass and frowns. Quite frankly it doesn't seem physically feasible.

"Did you get lost?" Loki asks, looking over his shoulder. "Do you need assistance? Should we call for aid?"

"I'm not convinced I will do other than injure you attempting . . . what you desire," Thor says, deeply embarrassed. Putting words to it makes the possibility all the more real. It is a trial to breathe, again.

"Place your finger against me and press into my body. I assure you it will give way." Thor cannot see Loki's face, but his brother's voice is as breathless as his own and uneven for it.

Thor does as Loki bid. His eyes widen and he swallows, mouth dry, as Loki's body parts around that single digit, clinging tightly but not resisting.

"Now," Loki whispers fiercely, patience spent, incapable of waiting the time to be stretched out.

Thor takes his cock in one large hand, pressing its head to that small aperture, then he takes Loki's hips in both hands. Nature takes command as his weight bears forward and his cock drives in. Thor reaches out to grasp the rim of the tub beside Loki's hand. Loki shifts and grinds to make the stretch as Thor buries his cock deep. They are both making sounds more beast than god; then Thor is above his brother and inside him, both hands resting to the outside of Loki's, and he pumps into him, hard and heavy. The water churns with the collisions of their bodies, muffling the slaps of skin against skin.

Thor is lost to bliss, ensorcelled by the plunge of his cock, by his arms against Loki's and the flexure of both their muscles, by the nape of the neck he's kissing and perfect curve of the ear he licks. Loki's groans and hisses of breath urge him to more powerful efforts.

It takes all the strength in Loki's body to brace himself as Thor fucks toward his climax. Loki is muttering Yes and You brute and words Thor is too lust addled to comprehend. His orgasm rages through him like pure, searing white light. He is intimately aware of Loki at the same time, his senses possessed by the hundred places their bath heated skin touches.

"I love you. I will always, always love you," Thor vows against Loki's ear, kissing him three times just behind it.

Loki's answer is a pleased groan.

Thor slips free from him, falling back in the tub, but pulling Loki with him with an arm hooked around his little brother's waist. Loki sprawls over Thor's colossal form, their legs tangled together. He turns his head to kiss and bite Thor's jaw while Thor coaxes a climax from Loki's cock. Loki goes still with a whine in his throat as his cock pumps under Thor's fist, a white milky trail rising in the water.

"I do love you," Loki murmurs by way of approval.

They lie together exhausted in the water, Loki dozing. Thor does not doze but watches his brother instead. Loki has a healthy look about him; his expression is one of tired contentment. There is no spectre of black secrets and sadistic fantasy upon him. Thor is not fool enough to imagine those parts of Loki exorcised, but he is satisfied, for now, that Loki will sleep safe in his arms when night comes. There is a hollow place in Thor’s heart, once the refuge of the love ripe with possibilities that he shared with Jane. In time, perhaps, the new ways he’s learning to love Loki may fill it.

The future promises to be difficult and uncertain, but Thor does not intend to fail in his vigil over his beloved little brother again.

----

Sessrúmnir is a palace not gold but white. Everywhere plants grow. Leafy vines cascade down its walls, dripping with bright blossoms. Lively bushes overhang the boundaries of their planters. Sunlight falls through ceilings open to the sky. Birds flitter from branch to vine and nest on statues and in the crevices of carvings.

Freyja is called the Lady of the Slain, but her promise to mortal dead is to usher them to life eternal and, like all Vanir, she adores creatures of soil and seed and the furred and the feathered.

Loki walks the halls of Sessrúmnir unescorted. She is dressed in bright, lively greens and adorned in gold, raised with the Æsir's tastes.

She has been a guest here many times, but kept to the public parts of the Freyja's palace. She has never been much for nature, but the atmosphere is so exquisitely pleasant that while dark and devious thoughts rise to mind they fail to gain traction.

Freyja's bower is as alive as the rest of the building. A white stag rests among pillows upon the floor. Loki gives the sight only a glance, and she can't be sure if it's a stag, properly, or Freyja's husband or brother – all seem equally likely. Loki's attention is utterly commanded by the lady seated in a chair carved of white stone.

The goddess is resplendent. No flaw could be found in Freyja's face if it was searched for hours – but such a pleasure it would be to search it. Her flaxen hair gleams as if spun from gold, falling around her in gentle waves ending in soft curls. Where her hair has fallen over the arms of the chair they brush the stone floor. A glorious necklace is clasped around her neck, perfect gemstones flaming in the light. It would distract all attention if its mistress was any less a wonder than she is.

A smile lights Freyja's fair face and she gestures for Loki to approach. Loki crosses the bower to her. She stands proud before her elder, heart rebelling at the thought of supplication – but Freyja is not an abuser of authority, and Loki masters herself to kneel in respect, her dark hair falling forward as she bows her head in recognition of Freyja's dominion.

"You've grown into such a beautiful woman, and handsome man," Freyja says. Loki is moved by a rush of emotion, and lifts her green eyes to the goddess. "I wish we saw more of you and your brother at Sessrúmnir," Freyja laments. "You are both ever welcome in my home."

"I wish to sojourn here, Freyja. And if I am so allowed, and my brother were welcome, both would be glad tidings. I wish to deepen my understanding of seiðr, and you are its mistress. My plight is dire, for the Titan Thanos has laid claim upon my soul. Great though his power is, my father believes only I can undo what I permitted, and I have not yet the prowess to contest Thanos." The words come out of Loki in a torrent. She is feeling uncommonly shy, and wishes desperately for Freyja to understand her – and rescue her, though she has done nothing to earn such favor.

She would have brought a gift to tithe to the lady, but nothing seemed equal to the event. Freyja detests cut flowers, and animals come to the goddess of their own will – she would not have them taken from their homes. And what need has Freyja of Æsir gold? None whatsoever. Her necklace, Brísingamen, is considered by all a dwarven masterwork the equal of Mjölnir.

Freyja considers Loki's request in silence.

"Dear girl, I will teach you the deeper ways of seiðr," Freyja vows. Loki is overcome with relief, and her smile is giddy. Freyja offers her hand, and Loki kisses her knuckles. Freyja does not share in Loki's joy, her eyes sad. Loki sees it and her high spirits are clouded with sudden concern. Freyja shakes her head. "I am only thinking to our near future," Freyja says. "We will stand side by side in battle – Vanir and Æsir and the last man of Skornheim—" She speaks of Hogun. "—How many will fall to sate Thanos' nihilism? It will be a dark day for the Nine Realms. And Surtur and the Jötnar, who should cast their lot with us, I fear will let hate guide their allegiance and try to take advantage while oblivion comes to our very doorstep."

Loki is silent and shudders. She knows the horrible thing which Thanos is and has seen the unutterable destruction of matter and soul that brings Thanos pleasure. Her mind is suddenly overcome with remembered terrors. She hears only her own last scream when Freyja takes her by the shoulders and soothes her with whispers in the eldritch tongue. The lady of the Vanir is on her knees before her. Loki sees the greatest compassion she's yet known in Freyja's eyes, and understanding that rivals her father's. Freyja takes Loki into her arms and allows the younger goddess to cry – to sob – tears soaking into Frejya's soft and lovely hair.


In the Days Later

Volstagg's mighty holler reverberates through the valley despite the nigh equally mighty roar of the waterfall. Sif has disappeared beneath the water like a diving bird on the coast. She comes up moments later, although without a captured fish, only a refreshed smile.

"There is nothing commendable about throwing yourself off a cliff," Loki complains from where he sits, loudly enough for everyone to hear.

"You simply haven't grasped the joy, friend. The moment that you and gravity become allies against the wind that streams in symphony against your naked body," Fandral tries to explain while failing to impress.

"Whenever gravity and I get better acquainted, gravity's only ambition seems to be to brutalize me," Loki says. "Although it hasn't won, yet."

Sif wades out of the lake, grabbing Loki by both hands – his arms were draped across his knees – and hauling him to his feet, dragging him toward the water, walking backward with a grin.

"You and water aren't enemies. I demand you have fun," the warrior tells Loki's annoyed face, but he relents and gives her a smile, instead, so she lets go with one hand and turns to the water, running into the lake, dragging a vocally startled Loki behind.

Thor and the Warriors three laugh at him – well, Hogun cracks a smile, which is the same thing. Loki is viciously annoyed at being mocked, and then pulled under by Sif. They wrestle, a pleasant diversion with the lead determined by who has gasped the most air. They are both breathless after two minutes of this, and in the pleasurable swoon of oxygen deprivation that leaves them both floating addled in the shallows.

Loki is surprised to feel strong arms lifting him from behind as Thor wraps his arms around his chest, holding him in a possessive and romantic hug, nuzzling and sighing against his ear. A sense of relief suffuses the God of Mischief as he sinks into that embrace. Even now when Thor is long out of contact or sight the doubts creep back into Loki’s mind: that he is too broken and too lost and unworthy of Thor’s admiration.

"No, no, no, no," Fandral rails with an exaggerated cringe, waving his hands to deny the sight from where he's relaxed on the shore. "Never getting used to it." (Lady Sif and the Warriors Three are the only four in Asgard who have truly begun to get used to 'it.')

"If you wanted Loki you should have wooed him when you had the chance," Thor retorts. Loki can see his brother's cocky grin from the corner of his eye and rather fancies it.

"I could never afford to woo Loki," Fandral says. "You're only given so many rings and boons and so on for valor. I would have to be six or seven times as valorous. Loki has damned expensive tastes."

"I make him work for it," Loki promises. Fandral is equal parts repulsed and intrigued. Volstagg and Sif sputter into laughter at Fandral's failure to cover up that sudden, keen interest.

Thor releases Loki, who makes a lazy turn in the water to rise enough to kiss him, an arm draped over his shoulder for leverage.

Their discomforted and groaning friends (even Hogun is groaning), the lake, the waterfall, the Realm Eternal and the dark and rapidly oncoming future all fade away. It is Loki and Thor alone in a cherished, shared internal world two thousand years in the making, and it is a world of love alone, free of the monstrosities that stalk the cosmos and the castigation of propriety.