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Black trees rise up against the overcast sky like a shroud of dark limbs. The world is drained of its color, Thor thinks, much like how he is drained of his blood. The vargr, an immense wolf creature that prowls the mists of Niflheim, has died, but not before tearing Thor in half, or at least it feels like this is what it has done to him. He is sprawled on his back in a hollow of forest, too weary to even lift his head to look down at himself.

Footsteps scrabble in the dirt and his brother comes into his sight line, dropping to his knees in a fluid move. Loki kneels over him, placing his palms on his shoulders.

“Be still,” he commands, his voice tight.

“Loki...” Thor says and he tastes blood.

“Do not move,” Loki hisses. His eyes leave Thor’s, flitting to the wound that has split him open, spilling his insides across the dirt. It is the most brilliant pain Thor has ever felt. He trembles, an involuntary quiver shaking through his entire frame, but he does not scream.

When Loki’s gaze returns to his own, his pale face is impassive but his eyes betray his distress. It’s a fatal wound, of this Thor is certain.

He swallows thickly, the metallic twang of blood pinching his throat. “I know...” Thor says.

“You know nothing,” Loki sneers. The rage that toughens his voice, Thor understands, is grief.

“I am glad you are with me, brother,” Thor says, placing a clumsy hand over Loki’s. “I do not wish to die alone.”

Loki pulls back sharply as if struck. “What careless words,” he says. “You think I would let you die here?”

Thor feels darkness crowding his consciousness. “The choice is not yours to make,” he says. “Do not despair, brother mine. We shall meet again... in the sweet halls... of Valhalla...”

His world is dimming, but Thor keeps his eyes on Loki until the last, searing him into his memory which he hopes to keep with him into eternity.

“Thor!” Loki shouts, surging forward and grabbing his face between his hands. “Do not close your eyes.”

Loki’s quick action jolts him, a bolt of pain jarring him awake. “Look at me, look at me,” Loki says, his words jumbling in panic. “Stay with me! Thor?”

Thor swallows again. “Yes...”

Loki smooths his hands over Thor’s face, thumbing away the streaks of blood from his mouth, brushing back his damp hair.

“You listen to me, brother mine. If you die, Thor, I will be right behind you.”

Thor feels a tug of alarm in his chest. “What?” he asks.

“You think I will suffer the centuries without you?” Loki asks. “I am no fool, Thor. Even I cannot deny that we are two of a kind... one soul in two bodies. Only you have loved me despite what I am.”

His fingers tighten around Thor’s face and he leans in, giving Thor no opportunity to miss his intentions. “If you die, I will slit my own throat and let my blood flow with yours until nothing remains of your beloved brother save for a pallid corpse. They can bury our bodies together right here in these woods at the foot of Mjolnir.”

“No, no, Loki...” Thor implores. If Loki dies by his own hand then their separation will be for all time. This, Thor cannot abide. “You cannot! You... will not reach... Valhalla.”

“Then you mustn’t die, Thor. You must hold on to your life with the same strength with which you wield Mjolnir.”

“Loki...” Thor says and it is all he can manage. How can Loki expect this of him? He is beyond exhausted and the pain he feels is so staggering that he can scarcely breathe. Thor has never felt this way before and knows death is upon him despite any desire on his part to live.

Tears stream down the side of his face and though Loki brushes them away gently, he scoffs at him. Loki sits back slightly and sneers. “If you choose death, know you have likewise chosen death for me.”

Outrage surges up in Thor. He knows Loki means to do it, would take his own life over something which Thor has no control.

“There is not much time now, brother,” Loki says. He looks down at the wound across Thor’s middle. “I must work quickly.”

“Loki...” Thor tries again, desperate to make him understand reason, desperate not to lose him, desperate to have their last words not be spoken his way. He grasps blindly and catches his brother by the wrist. But Thor’s strength is gone and Loki easily twists and reverses the grip, his fingers tightening around Thor’s hand.

“If you lose your way, Thor,” Loki says, digging his fingers into his palm, “think of me.”

Thor doesn’t have time to say another word because suddenly Loki’s hands are on his wound and he is in instant agony. Thor thrashes as Loki’s magic swells over him and the temptation to give into the blackness around the edge of his vision is strong, but Thor clings to the pain to keep himself awake.

He doesn’t know how he will survive this, but he realizes he has no other choice. It’s the toughest battle he has ever fought. Thor feels himself falling and he snaps his eyes open, keeping them fixed on his brother. Loki is chanting, green light surging around him, using all the powers at his command to shove Thor’s insides back into his body and restore his destroyed flesh.

The pain of tendon and bone and blood and muscle reforming, is outstanding, every vein running through him is on fire. His strength is failing, but Thor still has enough of his sense left to worry. When his strength fails he knows not whether he will fall into eternal oblivion or slumber. His eyes fall shut as Thor clings to the last vestiges of consciousness.

Thor thinks of Loki, working there beside him to save his life, wreaking havoc across Midgard, falling from the Bifrost, smiling impishly before his failed coronation, his blue eyes, his wit, his laugh, his hands, skin, scent, love--

And then just as suddenly as it began, it ends.

The white hot pain stops as abruptly as a cliff face. Confusion disorients his mind, his awareness spinning with vertigo. Thor lays there and thinks the sudden peace must be Valhalla. Everything is dim and he is waiting for the doors of the great hall to open.

But then his whole body is shaking and hands are on his stomach, on his chest, on his face, in his hair.

“Thor! Look at me, brother,” Loki implores. And Thor recognizes the hands as his brother’s, giving him a hard shake. “Open your eyes, damn you!”

He’s not yet passed into the afterlife. Thor wants to rejoice, to crush his brother in his arms and thank him for his life, but his fatigued body will not rise to his command.

“Damn you!” Loki’s voice trembles. Gasping, ragged breaths and a strangled noise of despair escape from Loki, the harsh sounds at odds with the silent forest. A weight sprawls against his chest-- Loki resting his head there. “Don’t leave me. Thor...”

Thor feels him shuddering and he struggles move, to let his brother know that he succeeded, but he’s too exhausted. Soon, Thor will even lose his consciousness. Loki, he thinks. I am with you, brother.

Loki draws in a shocked breath. “Your heart beats,” he says. The weight of his head lifts from Thor’s chest. Fingers push against the pulse point in his throat, lingering there for a full minute until Loki is certain that life still courses through him.

He puts his lips there and whispers, “Bastard,” against his skin, but Thor hears a smile in there, feels a soft kiss pressed into his neck. Loki sighs-- it’s both a laugh and a sob, and props his forehead in the crook of Thor’s neck.

His voice is soft in his ear, “Rest, now.” Loki holds a kiss to his cheek, then settles down against Thor.

Thor finds peace and he falls into slumber.

*****

When Thor wakes, he finds Loki curled against him, his head pillowed against his chest. He thinks his brother to be asleep but as Thor begins to move, Loki sits up like a flash of lightning and turns his gaze upon him.

Loki is covered in Thor’s blood, there’s dirt smudged across his cheek and dried leaves in his hair. Burnout draws his lids half way and rim his eyes red. For once his expression is unguarded and Thor clearly sees anxiety in his brother’s face.

“Are you alright?” Loki asks as Thor gingerly props himself up.

“I think so, yes,” Thor replies, running his hands over his middle not quite believing that he’s whole again. He’s sore and still feels he could sleep for another day and night but he feels no pain. Dried blood darkens his clothes, but his flesh is perfect without so much as a scar to mark the horrible trauma that had almost claimed his life.

“Good,” Loki says and then he shoves him hard, pushing Thor back down to the forest floor. “You idiot!” he seethes. “How could you be so reckless?”

“There was little choice, Loki,” Thor replies. “The vargr attacked me!”

“It was reckless to follow me to Niflheim in the first place,” Loki says.

“When I discovered your scheme--,” Thor begins angrily, pushing himself up.

His depraved brother had gotten it into his head to to drink from one of the sacred wells of Niflheim. It was said that the well water granted understanding to flow through the mind much like the rivers of Niflheim flowed through Yggdrasil, permitting the drinker to find his true purpose in the world tree. It was also said to bestow madness, that none had emerged with their right minds intact, save for the Allfather.

Growing up, both he and Loki had heard tales of Odin exchanging his eye for a drink from a magical well, but they both knew this to be a ridiculous legend. Odin had lost the eye to Laufey in the great war on Jotunheim.

Niflheim was dangerous, the ancient mist world guarded by dragons and vargrs and any number of wild beast. Niflheim was the closest world to the realm of the dead but some say to venture there is just as good as walking into Helheim. It was a fool’s errand to venture to Niflheim alone.

“--I could not leave you to be slaughtered,” Thor says.

“With my seidr? Apparently strong enough to rebuild a God? Unlikely. Seems you came here to be slaughtered instead,” Loki sneers, mocking him. “Well done, brother.”

“My concerns are valid,” Thor snaps, “Despite your claims, I did not rush in mindlessly like an inexperienced fool. I am a formidable warrior and to be felled by the vargr proves the dangers this world holds for us. Could you have rebuilt yourself while so wounded, brother?”

Thor claps his hand on Loki’s shoulder. “I have no want for you to be killed, Loki.”

“But your death is perfectly acceptable?” Loki asks, his voice rising with incredulity. He shrugs Thor’s hand away.

“I did not wish it and I am thankful you saved me, but it would have been tolerable,” Thor says. “I would have waited in Valhalla--.”

“You have the gall to speak to me of Valhalla!” Loki shouts. “You’ve labored your whole life to tether me to your side, to endear yourself to me, and you have the audacity to wonder why I might be upset that you would so easily march into Valhalla?”

“Easily?” Thor asks, sitting forward. “I was near ripped in two! There was nothing easy about it. Why is death so upsetting to you, Loki? Even we are not meant to live forever.”

“When I die I will not go to Valhalla, Thor!” Loki screams, his face a portrait of rage. “Even if I die in the greatest battle of all time, I will never be allowed into Valhalla. You think Odin would let me into his great hall? When death comes for us, it shall tear us apart permanently. I will not be permitted to join you in Valhalla’s hallowed halls.”

“No, Loki, you will--.”

Loki knocks him down again, his anger granting his tired body enough force. “And still you are too dim witted to realize! You wouldn’t have even fought for us. You would have left me for all time without so much as a token resistance.” Loki balls his hands into fists and strikes at Thor’s chest. Weakened, his hits do nothing except spend what little energy he has left.

“Stop it,” Thor says, catching Loki’s fists in each hand before he can land a punch to his jaw. With his strength returned, Thor effortlessly holds Loki in check. “You’ll only hurt yourself.”

Loki snarls in frustration. “Do you know your intestines were outside of your body? I had to-- I had to put you back together before I could attempt healing you-- I didn’t even know if I could-- I didn’t know if I had the strength-- I didn’t know-- and you were going to abandon me--.”

Thor yanks Loki forward against his chest and wraps his arms around him tightly. “I’m sorry, brother,” he says. “I’m sorry-- I’m sorry.” He whispers the words over and over in supplication.

Loki writhes in his hold, shouting at him until his screams become sobs. Thor holds him close, letting Loki release his distress in his strong embrace.

Thor imagines what it would have been like had their roles been reversed, if it had been he who stumbled upon Loki nearly torn in two and bleeding out on the forest floor. His heart constricts with just the thought. Loki has every right to be upset. Thor kisses the top of Loki’s head and lays his cheek against his hair.

Thor still can’t believe that Loki would be denied entrance to Valhalla. But Loki believes it so adamantly that he dares not contradict him right now. It was his belief that compelled Thor to rail against death, which won him his life back.

“I’m just tired,” Loki says quietly as Thor holds him. “I have not slept in days. My mind is... unwell.”

“You kept watch over me,” Thor says and Loki nods.

“I thought the vargr’s mate might come hunting for us,” he says. “It took much to heal you leaving me with no strength to move us afterwards.” He lifts his head from Thor’s chest to spare him a glance and says, “You slept for four days. I thought you might not wake up.” Several days worth of stress reflect in his pale eyes.

“Do not dwell on it, brother,” Thor says.

“How can I not?” Loki asks with a shiver. “You were in such a bad way, Thor. There was precious little time to spellcast and there wouldn’t have been enough unless you helped me. You had to fend off death while I healed you. It was clear you had given up on yourself, but I knew you would fight death for my life.”

“Yes,” Thor says at once. He would do anything asked of him to save Loki.

“I knew you would,” Loki remarks. “Your greatest flaw is that you love me.”

“It is not a flaw!” he insists.

Loki laughs at him. “You’ve stubbornly devoted yourself to someone who has done more harm to you and your friends than any other person in all the nine realms. That’s pathological, Thor, it really is--.”

Thor tightens his grip and leans in, brushing his unshaven cheek against Loki’s. “Yes, I must be mad,” he says before silencing him with a kiss.

He truly does love Loki and will for the rest of his days. Thor knows no better way to prove it than sealing his everlasting promise with a kiss. He’s known Loki and loved him too long to be bashful about his affections any longer. The taste of death is still sour in his mouth and does not want to squander another moment to pretense and propriety.

Loki pulls away, stunned. “Thor, I...”

“Come, brother,” Thor says. “We cannot deny that we have been circling this for the last hundred years.”

“Have we?” Loki asks.

Thor smiles and leans forward to close the gap between them, resting his forehead against his brother’s. “You said it yourself, Loki,” Thor replies. “I love you. I see no reason not to show it.” He leans in to kiss him again, but Loki shies away.

“Perhaps, I am not in love with you, Thor,” Loki says. “Had you thought of that?” He lifts his chin haughtily, but Thor recognizes fear in his eyes and wonders what he really means.

His brother is always pushing him away, always testing their bond as if he doesn’t trust its strength to support him should he choose to lean upon it. This is the one matter where Thor finds he has infinite patience. Thor has never given reason to make Loki mistrust his devotion and hopes he never will. How wounded Loki must be inside to never allow himself to accept this fact.

“Your actions speak far louder than your words, dear brother,” Thor says. “You feel no love for me yet you gave of yourself to restore me, would have acted violence upon yourself for the pain of my death would be more than you could withstand.”

With Loki’s mask of disdain stripped away by exhaustion his emotions are laid bare across his face. Thor sees fear but he sees hope and longing, too. It is far too late for Loki to deny his feelings for him. But then, Thor has misread his brother in the past.

“If these are not the actions of a man in love, then I do not know what love is,” Thor continues. “But perhaps I am the fool you claim me to be. Perhaps I have misunderstood.” He leans back as if to withdraw, but Loki’s fingers catch in his hair, keeping him in place. And then Loki pushes forward, capturing Thor’s mouth with his.

His kiss is insistent and Thor meets his passion in kind. Thor draws up him up, strong arms cradling his back, hauling him into his lap. When they break away, Loki is breathless, mouth red, his body trembling. He closes his eyes wearily and lays his head against Thor’s forehead.

“You are beyond tired, my brother,” Thor says. “I can stay my desires until you are ready to receive them,” Thor whispers. “For they will be great.”

Loki leans in slowly, his lips hovering above Thor’s mouth. “Is that a promise, dear brother?” he breathes. His eyes flicker to Thor’s as he moves back without kissing him, a smile curving his lips.

“Tease!” Thor says but he smiles back. He takes Loki’s face between his hands, thumbs away a smudge of dirt on his cheekbone. “If the time we have in life is all we will have together,” Thor says, “then I do not want to waste any more of it.”

His fatigue evident, Loki leans heavily against his hold, but he shifts enough in his grasp to kiss the palm cradling his cheek, a tacit agreement. A rush of love and warmth and happiness swells inside Thor.

“Come, brother,” he says, rising to his feet. He calls Mjolnir to him with one hand and with the other, he pulls Loki up, clutching him to his side. “I would like to leave these woods behind.”

There are still dangers lurking in the mists of this planet, but they are together now. Thor will move them away from the vargr burrows and watch over his brother while he rests. What happens after that he will leave for Loki to decide.

Wrapping his arm around Loki’s waist he says, “Hold tight to me.” And Loki does, enfolding his arms about his neck as Thor takes them away from the hollow.