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No Such Liberty

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They landed at the broken edge of the Bifrost, only feet from where the shattered crystal dropped off into the abyss. Thor moved without thinking, to place himself between Loki and the edge.

Loki glanced at him over the gag, his eyes, Thor thought, sardonic and mocking; but he let go his end of the Tesseract's container, and made no move toward Thor or the drop-off.

Heimdall had seen their departure from Earth; there was a phalanx of Einherjar guards waiting. The captain was Eirikur, a good solid soldier of staunch courage if limited humor. He saluted Thor and stepped forward, holding out his hands. "I was commanded to take the Tesseract from you, upon your arrival."

Thor placed the device in the captain's gauntleted hands. Their journey completed, its blue glow faded to a faint shimmer. Eirikur nodded acceptance of the burden, said, "The All-Father would speak with you, my lord Thor."

"Tell him I will be there, as soon I've seen to my bro—as soon as I've escorted the prisoner to his place," Thor replied, forcing his voice to boom to drown out the fault. Eirikur only nodded, crisp and certain, but Thor looked back expecting Loki's jeering eyes upon him, to see him smiling under the muzzle, as ever he smirked when Thor misspoke himself.

—"Oh, come now, Thor, can't you recite it clearer than that? You've been drilled in this lesson twice as many times as I, and know it not half as well—" and then Thor would repeat the phrases of the vassal lord's oath, loud and firmly correct, just to prove Loki wrong—

But Loki was silenced now, and when Thor tried to meet his eyes Loki looked down. Head down, chained hands down; submissive like a whipped dog, and it made Thor's stomach turn, the more sour because he thought Loki might be doing it only for that effect.

Thor raised his hand. "Come," he said, and obediently Loki walked with him, head still down. The phalanx split. Half the guard followed Eirikur with his most precious and dangerous burden to the throne room. The other half kept pace behind Thor and his most silent and dangerous prisoner, down the many, many stairs to the cell at the world's bottom that would now serve as Loki's chambers. There was a lift for the guards, but tradition held that new prisoners went to the dungeon on foot.

The Einherjar stood waiting in the corridor above, while Thor brought Loki down the lowest tunnel and opened the lock. His blood acted as key; only the royal family were able to open this cell, save those members imprisoned within it. At Thor's gesture the barred barricade set in the floor rearranged itself in a chime of metal on metal, like swords meeting on a battlefield, to make a stairway down into the bright daylit cell.

Loki took these last steps as willingly as he had the rest of his descent. Thor followed him down, too closely on his heels, so that when Loki stopped and turned at the bottom, his elbow almost bumped Thor's side. Thor jerked back hastily—his gut was still tender from where Loki had stuck his dagger—and Loki moved as quickly, retreating a step to make a safe distance between them. He angled his head in what might have been apology, then raised his bound hands before Thor could ask him to do so.

Thor undid the cuffs of the chains, watchful for Loki's quick hands to draw a weapon from some hidden place; but Loki only circled the wrist of one hand with the other, rubbing absently as if the braces had chafed, though his skin was unmarked. He turned away to look out the wide windows at the rocky crags of Asgard's underside. He did not reach up to his covered mouth.

Thor's new friends had questioned the gag. Bruce Banner especially had raised a critical brow as well as pointed questions, citing Midgardian conventions of courtesy due even enemy prisoners, and Steve Rogers had concurred. Thor had been forced to explain that the gag was intended as neither punishment nor humiliation, for all it might inflict both; that instead it was plain protection, same as the chains, against any spells Loki might cast.

"He needs to speak to do his magic?" Banner had asked skeptically, and Tony Stark put in, "Looked to me like he just needed to wave his pointy stick around."

Except the scepter was not Loki's magic—the scepter was not Loki's. Only Thor had found that difficult to say, as if it were a lie, denying what Loki had done with the weapon. And had not Loki wielded the scepter—taken it as his, for all he should not have? So maybe it had truthfully been his after all. A new tool, to match his new will.

But Loki no longer had the scepter. And bound and gagged his magic was sealed, and he'd made no effort to break that seal, either on Earth or now on Asgard.

This chamber—his prison cell—was warded against his arts, though Loki always could find the chinks in any defense. Still, Thor only hesitated a moment before offering, "Loki, do you give me your parole, that as a prisoner you'll not try to work any magic?"

Loki's head turned back sharply, eyes rising to search Thor's face; then he nodded. Thor reached behind his head, undid the clasps—easy for him, though they wouldn't have released for Loki—and slipped off the muzzle.

The first thing Loki said, after he had swiped his tongue over his lips to wet them, was, "You shouldn't trust me."

His voice was a little hoarse with the dryness of his mouth, and quiet; it held little of the malice he'd cursed Thor with on Midgard, though no other feeling to speak of, either.

Thor sighed heavily. "I know," he said, "but it will be more comfortable for you if you don't try to escape, or anything of the sort."

Loki turned away again to survey the small chamber, his dispassionate gaze drifting over the shielded windows, the narrow cot and the screened commode in the corner, without any flicker of opinion. His eyes had burned so fey and fierce on Midgard; their coolness now should comfort Thor, but he found it as disturbing. Calm acceptance suited Loki no better than madness.

"I know it's not much," Thor said, more awkward in the face of Loki's silence than he'd like to be, "but perhaps later, after the trial—"

"Trial?" Loki arched one black brow. "Why should there be any trial?"

"Because there was a crime," Thor said. "A great one—

"But a trial is to determine the guilt of the accused," Loki said, cool as ever, "and my guilt is certain. So deliberation can be forwent, and the king proceed directly to the sentence. This is not a jail; it's only the holding cell before the execution." He stretched his arms behind his back, subtly working out kinks, licked his lips and said with a single degree more animation, "I do wish that Iron Man had given me that drink; quite rude of him, to withdraw the offer after the fact. But then one can't expect mortals to have much time for courtesies, I suppose."

"I must go speak with Father now," Thor said, taking the gag and chains and climbing back up, the metal stairs ascending with him, leaving Loki standing in the center of his cell with no exit.

 


 

The Tesseract was set on a pedestal beside Odin's throne, burning with its deceptive blue light—its glow seemed dull, but looking into it for too long made the eyes ache, like staring right at the sun. Thor would rather look at it than his father's enraged face, however; the aching blue helped him keep his voice steady, rather than rising with his own fury. "He should have a trial—have the chance to speak for himself, for what he did!"

"Even his silver tongue could not find the words to excuse high treason!" Odin roared back. "He attacked a realm below, declared war on a people under our power, in collusion with a power hostile to us—and he did it in the name of Asgard!"

Thor squared his jaw rather than wince. "I am Loki of Asgard"—Thor should not have said that; should not have offered his entire testimony of what the humans had showed him of Loki's capture of the Tesseract. But his father had asked for the story as Thor had seen it, so Thor had given his account, honestly and complete, knowing that Heimdall would have seen all anyway. But even Heimdall only described a part of what he witnessed, since otherwise he could speak for all his life without pausing for breath and still not say all he saw. And Thor might too have left out a few inconsequential details, had he thought earlier to do so.

"The Chitauri are not hostile to us," Thor said instead. At least, as he recalled his history, there had never been open conflict between Asgard and the Chitauri empire, or domain, or whatever they called their worldless home beyond the realms.

"They attacked a lower realm, attempted to claim the Tesseract for their own," Odin said. "And whose idea was that, whispered to them in the depths of their dark hives—whose voice might have inspired them to such folly?"

"That, you don't know," Thor protested. "The Chitauri might've convinced Loki to attack. We don't know how it happened that he allied with them; Heimdall couldn't see him, after he fell." Not until Loki had been illuminated in the Tesseract's light.

"No hoard of insect-men could convince him!" Odin declared, and then his voice sank, even as he did, wearily dropping into his throne. "No one can convince Loki of anything he's not already decided to do," he said, weighted down with truth Thor could not deny. Loki had only ever appeared less stubborn than Thor himself because Loki's will went in so many more directions, and he would switch between them to suit himself; but all the many channels of his mind could not be changed.

Before, at least; but the Loki that Thor had faced on Earth had been changed, his branching streams of thoughts overflowing, submerged, their courses lost under the flood of his madness.

Thor looked from the pedestal to Odin on his throne. His father's face was pale, sweat-sheened and ill-looking, its right side cast in cold blue by the Tesseract's light. It had taken much from him to send Thor to Midgard without the Bifrost, and while the Tesseract had powered their return, Odin's will had guided them, over the vast distance between the worlds.

"We should discuss this later, Father," Thor said. "This evening, or tomorrow. For now you should rest. Loki is here now; his fate can be decided in the days to come."

Odin looked at Thor without replying immediately, a thoughtful look that Thor of late was growing accustomed to. It used to be that whenever he argued with his father there would be much shouting and storming, the raising of voices and weapons. But when Heimdall had witnessed the Tesseract's theft and Thor had suggested he be sent to Midgard, Odin had not denied him; instead he had looked at him thus and acquiesced. And now, too, he took Thor's measure, and then nodded.

"But it will have to be decided," Odin said, though he sounded no more eager for the decision than Thor, and from that Thor drew some portion of hope.

 


 

Thor's friends met him outside the throne room. Sif and the Three were eager for news. From Heimdall's terse reports they knew about the Tesseract and Loki's alliance with the Chitauri, but little else. Thor walked with them and related broadly his brief time on Earth and the new allies he'd made himself.

Volstagg envied his description of the shawarma's unique and delectable flavors. Hogun was impressed by Clint Barton's marksmanship, and Sif by the Lady Natasha Romanoff's prowess in battles of both body and mind; both expressed the wish to meet them, should circumstances allow. Fandral was less taken by Thor's account of Steve Rogers—"I believe women would see him as comely as you, and broader in the shoulders, for all he's mortal, though apparently long-lived"—and Tony Stark—"I cannot say if he's as handsome, but charming for certain, though most of his words are more inexplicable than an elvish curse..."

They all were surprised, if disbelieving, to hear of the strength of Bruce Banner's other self, though Thor exaggerated not the slightest, and perhaps underplayed it; it was hard to admit even to himself that Mjolnir swung with all his might had hardly slowed the being. They were interested, too, in the man who led these warriors—"Whether he could fight himself, I did not see," Thor said of Nick Fury, "but he directed our strength with authority and wisdom; perhaps he traded his eye for it as well. I would serve under his command again, should Earth request it."

Of their heroic deeds in battle aboard the airship and the city, Thor related with enthusiasm, if not as pretty words as a proper storyteller might manage. He omitted any mention of the general leading the invasion. How much of Loki's role had spread beyond Heimdall and Odin, Thor didn't know.

His friends could not return his tales with their own; little had happened in Asgard in the few days Thor had been absent, especially when Odin's attentions had all been on Midgard. So once Thor was finished with his recounting, it wasn't long before Fandral ended up saying, "So, Thor, what of—"

He stopped abruptly, either due to Sif or Hogun's glare, or Volstagg jostling his elbow as if by accident, or else he realized it himself. A moment of silence followed Fandral's mouth snapping shut, before Hogun broke it, speaking as he did because he had to. "What of the traitor?" he asked, not cold but steady, as grim Hogun ever was.

So they had heard Odin from outside the throne room after all; or else it was common knowledge in the palace. "Loki is imprisoned in the palace dungeon, and will remain so, until his exec...until a sentence is pronounced," Thor said. Which really only used more words to say the same thing. There was but one sentence for treason, and as Loki had said, there was no doubt of his guilt. Trial or no trial, the outcome would be the same. Even if Thor had not witnessed his crimes, Heimdall had, and Heimdall's testimony to the king was incontrovertible, as sacrosanct as what Odin witnessed with his own eye.

Though if Loki were tried, if he were given a chance to speak—there was no defense he could offer for his actions, but if he argued them as he had to Thor—if Odin could see for himself that Loki's crimes had been not an act of rational betrayal, not malevolent conspiracy but the unbalanced violence of a mind given way...

...Though Loki had not seemed unbalanced, not for all of it. On the cliffs, yes, and in the chaos of the city attack. But his eye and hand had been steady, when he had stabbed his glowing scepter into the back of the man Phil Coulson, friend of Thor's friends; when he had hit the button to send Thor in the glass cage plummeting—while it might not have killed him—probably would not have killed him—Loki had thought it might, and done it anyway.

But then, didn't Loki always have to do things, just to see if he could do them, just to see what would happen, forever curious of how far a limit might be pressed. Climbing trees as boys, and he would dare Thor to venture further out upon a branch to reach the ripest fruit, prodding Thor to inch out bit by bit as they'd been told not to do, until the narrowing limb cracked under him. And Loki lunged and caught his hand before he could fall, laughing even as he groaned and whined that Thor's weight would pull his arm from its socket, "Ooph, no wonder it broke, you eat too much!" but Thor knew even then that if he had been smaller, Loki only would have teased him to go out further.

And wasn't that a sort of madness in itself, to never be satisfied with following an elder's rule or guessing at the strength of a tree branch, but always having to test it to be sure?

The dark talk of their old comrade's crimes cast a pall of silence over their conversation; or perhaps it was that Thor's friends did not care to interrupt the musing quiet he'd fallen into. Thor saw them glancing at one another, searching for what to say, and spared them their gentle effort, offering a smile in thanks, with, "I'm sorry, but I must excuse myself, my friends; I've yet to visit my mother since returning."

His friends nodded to him in relief. "Give the Lady Frigga our respects," Sif said politely, and they let him continue on his way alone.

Chapter Text

Thor found his mother outside in the gardens, walking among the grove of fruit trees which led to Idunn's apple orchard. When Frigga saw him she hurried over at once, embraced him tightly and said his name as if it had been months or years since she had seen him, rather than only a few short days. "You are well?" she asked, looking him up and down. "The battle Heimdall saw—"

"I took no serious injury," Thor said, his hand stealing up to the bandaged wound in his side, where Loki's knife had slipped between his armor. It was still tender to the touch. He forced his hand down again. "It was a great battle; we were victorious with few casualties."

Frigga nodded, knowing this already. She took his hands in hers, looked up into his face to ask quietly, "And how is your brother?"

"My..." She was the first, Thor realized, the first to call Loki that, and not his name or the prisoner or the traitor. He did not know how to answer it. Whether he should deny it, as Loki had denied it—We never were!—or ignore it, or claim it as truth. It was hard to think what the right choice was, when his heart was squeezed so tight. He had to struggle not to shout as he said, "Loki is in the dungeon now. And he...Father says he's to have no trial. That he's a traitor, and will be punished for his treason, as traitors are punished."

Frigga briefly closed her eyes, but otherwise her serene face gave away nothing, for all her fingers tightened around Thor's. "Your father will do what is right for the realm. As he must."

"But what if this is wrong?" Thor asked. "To condemn someone—a prince of Asgard!—without even a hearing—"

"If Odin's in the wrong, you should tell him so," Frigga said. "But be careful, my son, that you find a real wrong, and not instead a truth you wish were false. You cannot always trust your heart—not your heart alone."

"But you can't think it right, that Father would—that he would see Loki..." Thor faltered under his mother's steady gaze, could not bring himself to say the words and risk seeing her composure break apart. She would talk to his father too, he was sure; but Odin would not bow to his wife's entreaties over the needs of Asgard. Nor his son's; but still, there must be something...

"Take me to the cells, Thor," Frigga said. "We will speak with Loki."

Thor started. "I...don't believe that would be a good idea. Not now, not yet..." His side throbbed dully with his pulse. Loki had no knife on his person now—not that Thor had found, at least—but he could conjure one to him, and the wards of the cell might not be enough to stop him; Thor wasn't positive how their magic worked. Loki had given his word that he'd cast no spells, but his word never had been especially binding.

His mother frowned at him, the corners of her mouth inclined but barely downwards. "Wait a little," Thor asked her, thinking of Loki's cool unreadable gaze, "once he's more settled; he hasn't been in Asgard in a while, and with all that's happened...you shouldn't go to him now."

"I would," Frigga said, the inexorable calm of a tree's roots growing through stone. "I would see my other son, after so long."

But you can't," Thor said helplessly, "Loki's not...he is not your son, Mother—" and then he stopped, upon seeing Frigga's pressed lips whitening. Remembering as he hadn't for ages one of the few times his mother had ever raised her hand to him.

He'd only been a boy, both he and Loki only boys, and fighting about...Thor could not precisely recall. Some silly childish thing: perhaps that Thor had entirely accidentally splashed mud on Loki's books, and then Loki had entirely deliberately put a garden snake in Thor's bed—there were many such incidents all through their childhood, and which one had been the particular offense he had long forgotten.

But whatever the cause, Thor had been in a rage, so very righteously annoyed, and when Frigga had tried to soothe him, urging him to make peace with his brother, he had retaliated, "He's no brother of mine—I'll have no kin like that—!"

Frigga had slapped him hard. Thor could clearly remember the sound of her hand on his cheek. The pain was nothing compared to the bruises of daily sparring lessons; but the unexpected shock had stung tears from his eyes. What had hurt far more than his reddened cheek, however, was looking into his mother's eyes, and seeing in them the same tears.

"He is your brother, Thor," his mother told him then. "You may rage and shout at Loki, and he may drive you as mad as you drive him; you may fight as brothers do. But never forget that you are family, and nothing will change that."

Thor hadn't forgotten; he'd never again said anything of the sort around their mother or father. And while he and Loki might've sometimes shouted such things to one another in more private arguments, they'd outgrown that custom long before they became men.

Not until this moment had it occurred to Thor that perhaps it hadn't been only for Loki's sake that they'd never told him of his true parentage. That it might have been as much because of Thor; because he'd spoken so thoughtlessly then, and given his parents reason to worry that he would reject his brother simply for sharing no blood.

It made Thor uneasy to consider—would he have cared, as a boy? Would something so meaningless have mattered? He'd never really thought Loki was not his brother, even if at times Thor might have fervently wished he wasn't—or at least wished he had a different brother, one less fond of books and putting pepper in Thor's milk...

But that was of no consequence now. Thor told Frigga, "I don't mean what world he was born on—but Loki now is not the son you knew, not the brother I grew up with. He's changed, Mother. Something has changed him. I don't know if it's something that broke inside him, or that something broke him—but it's like speaking with a stranger when he speaks, like being looked at by a stranger, when he looks at you..."

Except that wasn't quite true, was it, Thor thought miserably. It would be easier if it were, if when he looked at Loki he saw nothing he recognized. But Thor knew that acid tongue, even if its venom bit to the bone now. And the fury that had raged in Loki's eyes—Thor's own temper was legendary, but Loki's had always burned as fiercely; he just had been better at keeping it banked, so that it smoldered all the hotter. Until it seared him through his core—until it burned out? Thor wondered, thinking of the remote coldness of Loki's eyes now, as he stood in his cell.

"Oh, Thor," Frigga said, and slipped her hand free of his to reach up and cup Thor's cheek, as if to soothe away the sting of that long-ago slap with her cool fingers now. "Loki has been my son as long as he's been your brother; I would know him, no matter what he might have become."

"No, that isn't what I meant," Thor said. "It's just..." He could not think of a way to say it that would not be shameful somehow, so instead he put it as plainly as he could. "Loki has so much pride, you know; it might hurt him, for you to see him so—so—like that time with the fire-spell, when he locked himself in his room..."

Loki hadn't even been a boy half-grown, far too young to be taught more than the simplest cantrips. So of course he had snuck a book of magic spells out of the library to study in his room, teaching himself the secret languages late at night when he was supposed to be asleep. And with his new knowledge he had grown a candle-flame into a towering blaze that set his curtains alight. He'd managed to extinguish them before the palace caught fire as well, but had burned his hands badly in the doing, and his scream of pain had woken Thor in his adjacent bedroom.

Thor had sent a palace guard to get their parents, and tried to go to his brother, but Loki's door had been locked and Loki would not open it for them. "I'm fine, it was just a bad dream, I don't need anything!" he'd yelled through the door, even though they could hear him sniffling and sobbing.

Thor had known about the stolen spell-book, of course, and told his parents of it. Odin had forced his way into the chambers, and Frigga had knelt before Loki with a healing stone, but Loki had turned his teary face away from his mother and would not open his burned hands. "No," he'd kept saying, "No, I don't need to be healed; it should not have happened, I should not be hurt—!"

It had not been that he was ashamed of his pain or tears, or that he was fearful of being punished for charring half his room. Loki had been embarrassed that his magic had gone so wrongly, that he had failed to control the spell. He did not care when he was told that children couldn't be expected to master such power, and that was why they were not taught it; as always he saw no reason why such rules should apply to him.

Though Loki was no longer that crying boy, burned though he might be; and the magnitude of his failure now was on so much greater a scale that Thor thought to take back the comparison as soon as he'd spoken it. Before he could, however, Frigga said to him, "You always have known your brother well. All right; I'll quell my mother's heart, and give him a little time that he might compose himself. But you will tell him, Thor, that I cannot keep myself long from my son's side, not when I've already endured so many months thinking the worst."

"I'll tell him," Thor promised.

Frigga reached up above them, rising on her toes to pluck one of the peaches hanging from the tree boughs over their heads. It was halfway ripened, and as she folded her fingers over it the fruit's green skin softened to fuzzy pink. She placed the peach in Thor's hand, told him, "Give this to Loki, from Frigga his mother, with all my love."

Thor swallowed. "I will, Mother," he dutifully promised again.

Frigga nodded, thanked him and bid him good day, without ever asking that Thor convey back Loki's returned affection. He was grateful she did not; that vow he could not have made, for fear of not being able to fulfill it. He left her in the grove, and went to Loki's prison.

 


 

Loki was still standing in the center of the cell, hands clasped behind his back, as if he'd not moved since Thor had left him. Perhaps he hadn't. He was gazing out the shielded windows, and did not turn from them when the metal stairs clinked down beside him and Thor descended. Though when Thor reached the floor, he remarked, "Your friends on Midgard were probably expecting that I'd be tossed in the palace's deepest dungeon. The lack of dank stone walls and oppressive darkness would disappoint them, I suspect."

Thor frowned. "This is the deepest prison we have," he said. "And it will be dark enough, come nightfall." Underneath Asgard as they were, Loki's view of the stars would be limited, and the abyss below was forever lost in the mists of the waterfalls spilling off Asgard's edge.

The wide windows were intended as punishment, to show the prisoner the freedom of the universe that he had lost, and remind him of the dangers of falling should he try to escape. Though Loki had already fallen into that void, and he didn't look especially pained now by the reminder.

Or perhaps he was only containing it; perhaps he had not moved for fear of coming too close to the windows and the endless drop beneath them. Thor looked at his face sidelong, but in profile Loki was that much more impossible to read. Thor cleared his throat, said, "Ah, if you'd prefer one of the cells on the higher levels, within the mountain—"

"But this is the cell for royal prisoners," Loki said, "the highest-born enemies of the realm. Why should I be satisfied with less?" and he smiled, a narrow expression that did not reach his eyes, though Loki never had trouble lying with his eyes if he wished to.

As if guessing Thor's thoughts he strode forward, unhesitating, to the window, put one hand to the solid transparency dividing him from the emptiness beyond. "You know," he said conversationally, "there used to be no barrier here. A prisoner of sufficient nobility was expected to make restitution for their sins without a tawdry trial—make a clean offering to the void, and not leave the blight of a formal execution on the family tree. As I recall they shielded it after the sorcerer Skirnir was given the chance to so offer, and declined, instead turned himself into a swallow and flew to freedom."

Loki's mastery of shapeshifting wasn't so advanced as to manage a little bird—Thor didn't think, at least—and anyway there were the wards and the shield; but Thor still stepped forward to put his hand on Loki's shoulder, as if to hold him in place. Loki stiffened but did not shrug him off, and slightly encouraged Thor said, "Father has not yet decided..."

"About the trial, or is he only stymied about the method of execution?" Loki asked, without sounding as if he cared about the answer either way.

The method was a serious question; there were specific laws for traitors, and others for criminal royalty, and the two together—Thor blanched and put them from his mind. "You must have a trial; it's the only proper thing to do—"

"'Proper' weighs little in the gravity of expediency," Loki said. "And Odin will act for the good of the realm—the realm will be well-served, by having its royal line wiped free of the stain of Jotunn blood."

"That's not what this is about!" Thor shouted, pushing at Loki's shoulder to turn him about, to look at him directly.

Loki gave in without resistance, but did not raise his chin, so his gaze fell somewhere over Thor's shoulder, uncaring. "Isn't it?"

"It's not to do with what you are, but what you did," Thor said. "Attacking Midgard, stealing the Tesseract, murder and invasion and pillage—"

"Yes, yes, I was there," Loki said, one hand motioning idle boredom at the catalog. "Fun while it lasted, but—"

Thor let go of him, shoving Loki away hard enough that he stumbled and put his hand to the transparency to steady himself. "Whether your blood is Jotunn or Aesir or a mortal man's, whether you are royalty or the least serf, it makes no difference," Thor said. "You'll stand trial for your crimes regardless."

"I wonder," Loki remarked, in the same thoughtful tone as before, "if when Odin banished you, he suspected you'd return so shockingly egalitarian. A miscalculation on his part, perhaps. Or mine, I suppose, though I never expected him to actually go so far as to banish you."

"It was good he did," Thor said. "And that you did," for he'd never really thanked Loki for that unforeseen favor. "I've learned much from my human friends. Justice means little if it's not evenly dealt to all, and a prince deserves no more and no less than any subject of the realm."

"A prince, hmm," Loki remarked. "Am I really still a prince of Asgard? Does Odin All-Father still consider me his son?"

"Of course he does..." Thor began to say, and stopped. Odin had not called Loki such, at least not when speaking to Thor.

Loki's green eyes raised to Thor, gaze still remote but meeting his. "You claimed I was mourned for," he said. "Loki Odinson, fallen to his end. Am I to be grafted back onto the family tree, after being pruned from it? I have no royal Aesir blood to prove my lineage, no birthright. In spite of my splendid dungeon," and he gestured ironically at the cell's limited confines, "I don't know that I can legitimately claim the title of a presumed dead prince."

"But that's absurd," Thor said, "of course you are..." He stopped again at Loki's arched eyebrow, frowned as he considered it. "Though if you weren't... officially, I mean; obviously we all know who you truly are, but..." Beware of truths he only wished to be false, his mother had warned; but this was not quite a matter of true or false, but the shadows in between that Loki had always been so good at twisting about. The same way he made his illusions, bending the light this way and that until what looked real wasn't, and what was real was hidden.

His father had always been able to see through the mirages, but Thor even with two good eyes could not. But maybe if Odin looked through this to the truth underneath, it would be in Loki's favor. "I'll speak to Father," Thor said. "If you're not considered nobility, then your treason is less..."

"Is it treason at all, if I'm not of this realm?" Loki remarked, off-handed.

"But you—well, you weren't born here, that's true enough...yes, I must speak with Father." This felt right to Thor, and thought right, too; the logic of it satisfied him, at least. He could only hope it would as well with Odin. Thor's own standards of logic were somewhat less than his father's, he knew. But Loki's had always been high...

...If not on Earth. He hadn't sounded like he was thinking then, however, as much as acting and then talking to justify it; while the calm rationality he spoke with now was much more what Thor expected from him.

That Loki had no wish to speak about his crimes, was also reassuring, in its way. Loki never liked to dwell on his mistakes, but he'd not found shame in defeat quite like most warriors. On the training grounds as youths, Thor would fume and bluster after losing a match, and immediately challenge his opponent to another round, counting on his anger to give him the added strength to win. But Loki after losing would be inclined to wait, delay a second challenge so he might analyze the first duel. Sometimes he would unashamedly ask for Thor to describe his defeat—even if Thor had been the victorious fighter in question—to help him consider it from the outside, examining his opponent's moves and his own failed strikes, and thinking up new tactics.

He was sometimes called a coward for it; but the truth was Loki rarely lost twice to the same warrior, not unless they trained hard all while he thought. Thor himself always had trained. It wouldn't do for the elder prince to lose to his younger.

If Loki were considering another attack on Midgard, he would be contemplating the last battle; that he was not might be a sign that he had cast aside that ambition. Or maybe it was only that he no longer cared about Thor's observations...

Distracted as he was trying to untangle Loki's knotted purpose, Thor almost forgot his original reason for coming. He turned back from the steps, taking Frigga's peach from where he'd tucked it under his cape. "Here, for you. It's a bit bruised, but if you eat it now it will still be sweet."

The faint impression of a frown crossed Loki's brow as he accepted the proffered fruit. "Asgard does feed its prisoners," he said. "Royal or otherwise."

"It's a gift from our mother," Thor said.

"From your mother," Loki corrected, and his even tone was crueler than any wrath or scorn might have been. It made Thor want to grab him by the collar and shake him until his teeth rattled too hard to speak so steadily.

Instead he took a breath, pushed it out his nose and said, "Our mother. She's still the woman who raised us; she still calls you her son."

"As you still call me brother?" Loki said, supercilious. "Or have you finally given up on that? I don't recall you bleating it at me since our arrival here."

"Mother wants to see you," Thor said.

For a moment he thought Loki might have gone still, frozen; or maybe he was only taking a breath. His shrug was smooth, uncaring. "If Asgard's queen wishes to lower herself to the dungeon, I've no say over that."

"She misses you, Loki," Thor said. "She thought you dead, like we all did; she was overjoyed that you were alive." Frigga's full smiles were rare; she'd only allowed herself a single moment of beautiful warmth when Heimdall had first brought tidings, before showing the proper regretful decorum while listening to the rest of his news. Thor had watched her face wondering how she did it; he'd had such a hard a time not beaming himself, knowing that Loki lived. Even if he had been employing said life to stealing the Tesseract.

"Would you mind her visiting?" Thor asked. "I thought perhaps that you wouldn't like her to see you...thusly," he trailed off with an uncertain nod at the cell, at Loki's battered armor and bruised face.

Loki shrugged again. "What does it matter to me—"

"Stop it!" Thor rumbled, angry; he closed his hand into a fist that he might not summon Mjolnir to it. "She is your mother, and you'll respect her for it, even if you don't think of her the same—our mother, and she loves you; please, Loki, you know you've always been her..." 'Favorite' wasn't exactly true, for Frigga had always said she loved them both the best. But while Thor from an early age had trained under Odin as warrior and future king, Loki had spent long hours with Frigga, all growing up. She had been his first magic teacher, teaching him songs to call birds and make dust-motes dance, back when both Thor and Loki had been too young to realize such delights were a different magic than the simple joys of sugar or laughter.

But Loki now showed no delight for any sort of magic; his glee in the chaos and destruction he'd wreaked back on Earth had been gratification and the appeasement of vengeance, not happiness. And he'd yet to really smile since Thor had brought him back. Thor wondered how it would hurt his mother to see her son like this—Loki back from the dead, but so little of him truly returned. He'd already seen her weep for Loki once; it would hurt that much more, to see her cry again for him now.

"I'll tell her you don't care," Thor said. "That you don't care to see her..." It would not exactly be a lie, if not exactly true, either.

Something like a smile played around Loki's lips, as if Thor's prevarication amused him, though it still didn't reach his eyes. "Tell her what you wish," he said, then looked down at the peach in his hand. "As for this..."

"It's a good peach," Thor said encouragingly. "She just picked it from the tree for you. I doubt the other prison fare will be as fresh."

"Likely not," Loki said. He examined the peach, brushed an invisible speck of dust from its fuzz, then bit into it, fastidious and almost daintily. He swallowed, remarked, "It can't compare to Idunn's harvest, but it's ripe enough, I suppose," even as his tongue flicked out to lick the sticky juice off his knuckle. Loki always had liked sweet things more than he admitted.

"I'll tell Mother you said so," Thor said.

Loki took another bite, then turned the peach in his hand to appreciate its ripe pink flesh. "So it's summer, then."

"Still spring," Thor said. "Mother made it ripen for you."

Loki looked out the window, but the rocky, windswept mountainside and the foggy abyss gave no hint to Asgard's season above. "The third spring, since I fell?"

"The second," Thor said. "It's not been that long yet." It felt shorter, and longer at once: like both a day and a millennium since his brother had been at the palace. Since his brother had walked beside him on the way to Jotunheim. It did not seem like so much could have happened in so little time.

"Not longer on Midgard, either," Loki said, addressed to the window, musingly. "That was a surprise, to see Dr. Selvig; I thought for sure all your little mortal friends would've long been dead."

Thor frowned. "Mortal lifespans aren't so short as all that; more than a year or two, definitely."

"Only a year or two," Loki said, even more distant than before. His arms fell to his sides as he stared out the barrier, and his eyes seemed grayer and emptier than the clouded void beyond. "And I fell to Midgard before...so it could only have been a year at most, that I was..."

"That you were what?" Thor demanded, leaning in; and Loki blinked once, then turned back to Thor, eyebrows arching in surprise, the old familiar disbelieving look, How can you be so ignorant?

"That I was planning to steal the Tesseract," he said easy and malicious. "And familiarizing myself with those tragic creatures you took on as your allies."

"My allies who defeated you and your army?" Thor said.

"...Perhaps I should have studied the monster a little more in depth," Loki admitted, his free hand rising to his bruised forehead, though his wince was more for show than from real pain. He finished the peach in three more bites and held the pit between his fingers, idly twirled it as he said, "At least my throat's no longer parched. Please tell her thank you for her gift."

Thor started, then could not help but smile. "Aye, I'll do so anon," he happily agreed.

Loki looked at him, directly and brow slightly furrowed again, speculative. "And thank you," he said, "for bringing her fruit to me. As well as for speaking to Odin on my behalf. It's appreciated...brother," and Loki's cool gaze was steady, so only the briefest hesitation before he said it betrayed his uncertainty.

Thor's smile broadened, try as he might to contain it. He knew his joy was unreasonable, when Loki made no effort toward apology or explanation, when Loki's eyes were still so cold and distant, and there was no sentiment in the word. But neither was there any bitterness or resentment, that Thor could hear, and his heart rose, that for the first time since Odin had sent him back to Earth, it felt like they were at the beginning of something, instead of at an ending.

"You're welcome, brother," Thor said, reaching out to clasp Loki's arm, and if Loki did not return the grip neither did he pull away. "I'll work things out with Father, you'll see—it will all work out, if we but try."

"Then perhaps I shall consider trying," Loki said, and if his tone had a subtly sarcastic bent, Thor chose for the moment to ignore it.

Chapter Text

Thor made a point to waken with the dawn, that he might have a private conference first thing with his father; but by the time he arrived at the throne room Odin was already holding court. Heimdall was there, as well as Adalstienn the master builder and two scholars in their formal robes, towering over a couple of smaller individuals: the dwarven ambassador from Svartalfheim and his wife. All were in deep discussion, gathered around the Tesseract on its pedestal set at the base of the throne.

Odin, upon Thor's entrance, motioned him to join the meeting while attending to the dwarf lord, whose arms were crossed over his barrel chest as he pronounced, "Aye, it could be so used, but it'd make for an unstable platform; no dwarf would trust laying stone over a magic web—"

"But you wouldn't be laying stone," one of the scholars interjected.

"And if the dwarves have not the stomach for the work, there are plenty of strong-backed Aesir who'd not be so cowardly," Adalstienn said, tilting back his head, though the gesture was hardly needed for him to look down his nose at the much shorter dwarf. The builders' guild had always maintained a less-than-friendly rivalry with the dwarves, even if their work did not often intersect, dwarves not being overly fond of constructing above ground.

"And how many brave dwarves would you like to see tumble into yonder abyss?" the ambassador returned, his face reddening, what of it could be seen under his chestnut beard.

"Easy, my good Fjalar," Thor said, giving the dwarf a solid thump on the back in greeting. "You know none of us here would seriously call you or your people cowards." Certainly Thor would not; Fjalar was a fine drinking companion, and if plied with sufficient mead would tell exhilarating stories of his giant-slaying younger days. "Master Adalstienn was surely just speaking out of pride for his own men's work."

"Ah, welcome back, my lord Thor," the dwarf Fjalar said with a friendly nod up to Thor.

Not to be outdone, Adalstienn stiffly repeated the same with a sketched bow, and added, "As my lord says, I mean no disrespect to the dwarves. But such work as this is not their expertise—"

"Nor yours," Fjalar's wife was quick to point out, even before her husband; her cheeks were as red as his, beneath her own black beard.

Adalstienn's own complexion darkened. He was one of those old-fashioned sorts who did not think women should have opinions about men's business, even dwarf women who by their customs did the same work as their menfolk. Before the builder could take or cause further insult, Thor hastily asked, "So anyway, what is this work that you speak of? A new wing on the palace?"

Adalstienn shook his head; Fjalar and his wife snorted in harmony. "Nothing so trivial," the ambassador said.

"We discuss the reconstruction of the Bifrost," Odin said.

"The Bifrost?" Thor repeated in astonishment, looking to his father. Even after a night's rest, Odin still looked tired, the lines of age cutting deeper into his face; but he stood before them as regally assured a figure as ever. "But I thought the Bifrost had to be...regrown, or something like, with magic?" Thor asked. The crystal which comprised the Rainbow Bridge could not be mined or carved but only cultivated, and even with magical encouragement it would take over a century to be restored to its former glory. Or so Thor had understood. "How can this be done?"

Fjalar frowned and muttered something semi-intelligible about black magic. Odin waved at the pedestal between them. "Some of the Tesseract's energy may be directed to the Bifrost to stimulate its re-creation."

"How long would it take to rebuild, then?" Thor asked.

One of the robed scholars cleared his throat and timidly offered, "It seems a similar sorcery was attempted, successfully, in Bor's reign, after Surtur's second invasion. The Bifrost was only cracked then, but with the Tesseract's magic the damage was entirely repaired in—well, accounts are unclear, but even taking the highest estimate and extrapolating—"

"A year or less, conceivably," Odin said. "Possibly in as little as a couple of seasons, if it goes well—and if our noble builders and allies would see fit to cooperate," and he cast a gimlet eye on Adalsteinn and the dwarves, who all cringed and then attempted to act like they had not.

"Only seasons—!" Thor exclaimed, amazed. "And then we'd be able to travel between the realms as easily as before?" To think that by autumn he might be on Midgard again, able to see his new friends, to meet once more with the lady Jane Foster...

"It seems more than a bit reckless, but aye, it might be done," Fjalar said, and his wife took his hand in hers as she added, "And mayhaps worth the risk, for the chance to return before our children all are grown."

Which shamed Thor, that his first thought would be of Midgard, not his home; while the dwarven work-crews and other non-Aesir peoples on Asgard had been trapped far from their own realms and families, when Thor had shattered the Bifrost. There were other routes to Svartalfaheim and the other realms, but most of these were long and treacherous and like as not travelers would never make it home by them at all. Most visitors only came to Asgard because the Bifrost had made the journey reasonable.

"If we decide that employing the Tesseract is worth the risks," Odin proclaimed, "then this first council can be declared complete, and henceforth you can dedicate yourselves to the reconstruction of the Bifrost and its observatory. I support this endeavor; are all of you agreed?"

The scholars eagerly voted aye, no doubt interested in seeing how this new use for the cube would compare to the historical efforts; though Thor's own keen affirmation drowned out their less booming voices. Adalsteinn glanced at Odin before giving his assent with a nod, and Fjalar's wife spoke likewise, then elbowed her husband. Fjalar grumbled in a dwarvish way, but finally agreed, "I suppose the building of the Rainbow Bridge would be a star in our crown that even Ivaldi would respect—fine, then, you'll have our skills."

Thus decided, the crafters and scholars were dismissed from the court. Heimdall stayed after the others departed, to exchange private words with Odin over the Tesseract. Asgard's sentry had neither spoken nor cast a vote, but his opinions were always heard all the same. Thor courteously stayed far enough back not to eavesdrop, but he watched his father's face, Odin's features pale and serious in the cube's faint blue light.

After a brief discussion, Odin clapped Heimdall's shoulder in comradeship. Heimdall nodded to his king, then turned away and marched out, with another nod to Thor as he passed. No doubt he was returning to his position at the edge of the Bifrost where he had been standing guard for the past year, though there were no visitors now to review.

Once alone with his father in the throne room, Thor asked, "So I was not invited to decide on something as important as the Bifrost's reconstruction?"

Even retreated from the Tesseract's blue glow, Odin's face was wan. Rather than climbing the steps up to his throne, he sat himself down upon them, leaning heavily on Gungnir. Alarmed by this unexpected weakness, Thor quickly crossed to him, took him by the shoulder. "Father, are you—"

"I'm fine, boy," Odin said gruffly. "Just tired, even after sleeping too damn much—I owe the stable rooster for its crowing; your mother refused to wake me." He passed his hand over his brow, went on, "And I didn't resolve to exclude you from this, Thor, but I thought you might use the rest yourself, after your battles and the journey. I'm well aware how little interest you have in such dry affairs, and I knew already what your vote would be, so there was no reason to wait for you."

"But the Bifrost is a great boon to all of Asgard," Thor said. "I should have been here to argue its benefit. Regardless of my own feelings about the affair, or its dryness."

Odin's gray-blue eye fell on him, intent enough that Thor had to suppress a squirm, as if he was a small boy again, trying to deny that he had snuck into the armory to avail himself of a real bladed weapon. He had not said or done anything wrong that he could think of now, however, so he steeled himself and met his father's gaze.

Odin bowed his head, relieving Thor of the pressure of his regard. "You're right," he said. "I won't meet on this again without summoning you to it."

"Thank you," Thor said, in his surprise not knowing what else to say. He stumbled awkwardly on, "So we really might travel on the Bifrost again, so soon?"

"Possibly," Odin said. "If Adalsteinn and the dwarves cooperate, and I can manage the Tesseract's power—then hopefully within the year we'll be able to renew our ties with our allies. On Midgard as well as elsewhere," and the look he gave Thor proved he knew the reason for his son's enthusiasm.

Thor faced him with honor-bound candor. "Midgard may be a weaker realm, but they are strong allies. I couldn't have found Loki and brought him back without their help."

Odin exhaled heavily. "It may have been better if you'd not found or brought him back at all." He looked at his son, grim and brooding, and before Thor even could make his case said, "Even if I accede to the trial you argue for, the verdict's clear. And the punishments for a traitor to Asgard—"

Thor drew himself up, took a breath like he was readying to charge into battle. "But is he a traitor?"

Odin's eye pinned him like Gungnir through his gut. "You personally bore witness to his crimes to me. Would you take your testimony back, and brand yourself the second lying Odinson?"

"No! Loki's crimes are real; I don't deny what I saw. But were they treason against Asgard, if Loki is not of Asgard? He wasn't born here; he is not Aesir by blood. And after he fell, his funeral..." They had mourned; Thor had not lied to Loki about that. But it had not been a ceremony befitting of a prince—or of a king, though Loki had rightfully worn the crown, if but badly and briefly. As if they'd all wished to forget, more than memorialize.

At the time it had enraged and saddened Thor to see his brother so little regarded, for mistakes atoned with his own life. Now he thought it might have been in Loki's favor after all. "If we did not properly revere him as Asgard's prince in death, why should we hold him to be such in life?"

His father made no argument, so Thor pressed on his campaign, "And if he's not a prince, then what he did was...grievously wrong and unpardonably criminal, and I am not saying he shouldn't be held accountable for it, or be excused; though most of those crimes were against Earth, and not Asgard, so our law perhaps does not apply..." and somehow he'd wandered quite far from his intent. However did his father or Loki walk these paths? Thor gave his head a shake and attempted to reclaim his course, "...but anyway—if Loki's not royalty, then ought he receive the king's judgment after stating his case, like any ordinary prisoner of the realm?"

Odin's gaze was sharp but unreadable. Thor endured it staunchly, until Odin sighed and said, not questioning but a flat statement, "You talked of this with Loki."

"I did," Thor said. "I thought it only fair, that he might have some say in his own fate."

"Because fairness has always been a quality he honored above all else," Odin said, with at least as much irony as Loki himself could imbue in a tone. It occurred to Thor that their father might be where Loki had learned it, as much as from his own bitterness.

"We're the ones who should honor it," Thor said. "Should not a good king always strive to be fair?"

"So is this fair, Thor, to twist the laws for a prisoner, because he is known to you? To deny he is your brother because it helps him to do so, while you meet with Loki and tell him all I say, and bring him gifts from your mother?" Had Frigga told Odin of the peach, Thor wondered, or did his father have others observing Loki? Heimdall, maybe, or the dungeon guards.

Odin leaned on Gungnir to push himself up off the steps, slowly and stiff, and accepted Thor's hand to pull himself upright. Once standing, two steps above and looking down upon Thor, he pronounced, "A good king cannot simply choose to ignore established law, and go against all tradition before, on a whim. Loki was raised in Asgard, in this very palace, and bore my name; you cannot simply declare him to be not of Asgard, for no reason except that it suits your wishes."

"Father—" Thor protested, but Odin raised his hand to silence him.

"We are finished talking of this matter for now," he said, mounting the final steps to take his seat on the throne. "I have other business to attend."

Thor bowed his head, to keep his anger from showing in his eyes and provoking Odin's own. "Yes, Father."

As Thor strode away, Odin said, not in the king's voice but more quietly, so that it barely carried from the throne to Thor's ears, "And tell your brother to take care in what arguments he chooses."

Thor turned back, but his father was already calling for the guards to bring in the first of the day's supplicants, and did not look to him again.

 


 

"What exactly did the All-Father say?" Loki asked, his hand under his chin. He was seated on the low cot that was the only meager suggestion of comfort in the cell. Over the night he had removed his coat and armor; in only his black under-clothing he looked like a shadow, almost slender enough to slip between the metal barring the ceiling and escape. But he had not; instead he sat there on the cot, still and calm like black water pooled on the plain muslin blankets.

"I've told you," Thor said. He was managing neither calm nor stillness; in the face of Loki's dark peace his own fury had boiled over, and he threw himself into pacing now in lieu of putting his fist through the cell's stone wall. "Father—the king says you were of Asgard however we might have treated you, and so your crimes yet stand as treason—"

"Yes, yes," and Loki made an impatient circling motion with his free hand, otherwise remaining motionless. "So you told me already—but what precisely did he say? That a king cannot ignore established law, or break from tradition without reason?"

"Something like that, yes," Thor confirmed, then stopped in his tracks to look at his brother. Gaze abstract, chin in hand and one finger brushing his lips: a familiar pose of contemplation, that Thor recognized from a thousand and one incidents of their youth, when Loki was deep in the consideration of some complex mischief—or, as often, considering how to escape the consequences of mischief already done. Thor frowned, the old question coming easily to his lips. "What are you thinking, brother?"

"To break tradition without precedent is yet the king's prerogative," Loki said. "But not a right that he needs exercise, if precedent does exist."

"But Father has never—"

"Odin All-father—and I—are not Asgard's only kings," Loki said. "And I'm certainly not the first of the nobility to have been imprisoned down here."

"Yes," Thor said, "you mentioned that sorcerer...?"

"Skirnir—but no, there were others, after him, and one of those..." Loki frowned, shut his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose as if to ward off a headache. "Was it during the war with Alfheim? Or Niflheim, maybe—no, it's no good, too damn many wars!" His other hand clenched into a fist, and the fist was shaking. "But I must remember—those lessons with that addled old idiot Vidur, droning on and on until even I couldn't bear to listen—but it was there. Oh, if I could but go to the library, an hour with the books—"

"You can't," Thor said. "Odin won't grant you permission to leave this cell."

"No!" Loki snapped, and then quickly, his rising voice flattened down again, "No, I know." He set his fist on his thigh to stop its trembling, lowered his hand from his face. "I'll have to remember—it will come to me, with luck in time—"

"Or I could go in your stead," Thor said.

Loki's head jerked up, and for an instant something bare and clear showed in his widened eyes as he stared at Thor. Then his lids dropped, lashes shading that bright naked feeling. He snorted softly, said, "The noble prince Thor bravely steps into a strange new world? I wouldn't ask you to strain yourself so."

There was a lilting edge to his tone that Thor would have taken as teasing, a lifetime ago. Now it was likely meant as insult, but rather than rise to it Thor simply said, "I didn't spend any time there by choice, but I had as many lessons in the library as you. I can crack open a book as well as I can crack open a dragon's skull."

"Even so, it does no good; it's not as if you can bring the books down to the dungeon, or memorize them to recite them back to me."

"I don't need to memorize everything in them," Thor said. "Only what matters, an account of some one-time royal in your position, or similar, to offer Father a different tradition to follow. That's your purpose, yes?"

Loki was still again, a statue of shadows and ice, shaded eyes on Thor and his finger paused crossing his lip. Then he spoke, the motion breaking the illusion. "It is."

Thor nodded in determination. "Then I'll you find such an account."

 


 

The royal librarian, Kvasir, was a stooped old man whose gray beard would have done a dwarf proud. When Thor marched through the library's golden doors, he eased himself out from behind his desk and hobbled over to squint up at Thor in some confusion, asking, "My lord Thor...? May I, er, help you?"

"I need histories," Thor said. "Tales of the wars with Alfheim and Niflheim, especially those that tell of what happened here in Asgard during, with the nobles and their kin. ...Are there any texts like that?" he belatedly thought to ask. All the histories he recalled studying had concerned great deeds in combat with little mention of palace politics; but then he'd had little patience for other than war stories, and his tutors had picked their own battles.

Kvasir blinked his rheumy eyes. "There are many such texts, yes," he said. "Scholars and students always have enjoyed a juicy bit of gossip. Which Alfheim and Niflheim wars in particular have pricked my lord's interest?"

"...I'm not sure. Fetch me all you have on all of them!"

"All of them? Er, yes, my lord, right away..."

After Kvasir and his two scholar apprentices brought him their third armloads of books and went back for more, Thor revised his plan of attack. Kvasir, it turned out, knew the histories as well as their old tutors, and when Thor asked about imprisoned royalty and pardoned treason he happily listed a dozen historical figures and the books their biographies were found in.

By sundown when the apprentices lit the library lamps, Thor's eyes were dry and his head throbbing, and his neck and back ached worse than if he'd been sparring for twice as long without a break. Growing up, Loki had sometimes spent days at a time in the library; Thor had never understood it then, and even less so now, though he had greater respect for the sheer feat of endurance. His brother's strengths had always been as hidden and deceptive as everything else about him.

For his part, Thor profoundly wished that he could play to his own strengths and hit the books with Mjolnir to smash the knowledge out of them. As the lamps burned later into the night he was increasingly tempted to try, though he rather suspected Kvasir would not approve.

It was past midnight when Thor finally left the library. Kvasir had retired some hours before, and the apprentice he had bid tend to Thor had his head down on the table, his soft snores ruffling the pages of the open tome beside his head. Thor closed the golden doors quietly so as not to wake him, and went to the lift down to the dungeon.

The night-shift guards were awake and alert; they saluted him smartly and hid any surprise at the lateness of the hour. Not until Thor reached the lowest halls of the prison did it occur to him that he might have waited until morning. He stepped softly, and lowered the barricade into the cell as delicately as might be managed.

But when he descended he found Loki not on the cot but standing by the window, hand to the glass, gazing into the star-swallowing mist that shrouded the underside's night.

Thor cleared his throat, said, "Fritjof, son of Halvard, who was imprisoned during the fourth Alfheim war—"

"—In Bor's later reign," Loki completed. Turned from the mist's faint glow, his face was a pale blur in the shadows. "Yes, Fritjof..."

"He wasn't of the royal family, but one of the oldest noble lines," Thor said. "He was discovered conspiring with the Dokkalfar and accused of high treason. But his father Halvard went to the king and confessed that Fritjof was his bastard by a dark elf maid and not his barren wife, and so his seeming treason was in truth loyalty to his mother's family. He was disowned for it, but instead of execution he was banished—and maybe went and found a home with his dark elf kin; the records don't say—"

"Likely not," Loki said. "The Dokkalfar have never been accepting of half-breeds, and even less so back then. He'd likely have met a more peaceful end if his sentence hadn't been commuted—but no matter; it was commuted, successfully."

"Yes," Thor said. He rubbed his eyes; straining to see Loki's expression through the dark made them ache all the more. "Do you think it will be enough?"

"At least grounds for a hearing, I'd think," Loki said. "So what sorry scholar's career is to be ruined, when Odin learns you demanded their advice?"

"No one's," Thor growled back, stung, and irritated with his head still pounding. "I had Kvasir recommend a few books, but I told him nothing of my true aim. And I was the only one to read them, all day and night, and decide for myself what advice to take." He ground his knuckle into his brow to deaden the throbbing. "Fritjof seemed most similar, though there was also Valborg son of Bergelmir, back in Buri's time; and, oh, what was the name—Igorek the Thrice-Birthed..."

It seemed to Thor that Loki might have gone still again, but in the shadows he couldn't be sure. His voice through the dark was too low for Thor to hear any feeling in it, as he said, "Fritjof does seem the best choice, and Odin will prefer the decisive blow to randomly thrown stones."

Thor nodded. "Then Fritjof's the only stone I'll take."

Loki laughed, a half-voiced huff of breath. Thor frowned. "What amuses you, brother?"

"The All-Father amuses me," Loki said, so bitterly dry it was a wonder the words could be heard at all. "That here I am, the traitor imprisoned in Asgard's depths; and yet he uses me still."

"Uses you—how? Has Father spoken to you—"

"Nothing so direct; he's not had the need," Loki said. "As for how—how Odin has always used me, of course, as his tool to improve you. I the shadow brother, that your golden light might look the brighter against my darkness—but I became so dark I threatened to eclipse your luminance instead. So now he turns me into a whetstone, upon which he sharpens your wit."

Thor's frown deepened. "I don't think—"

"Would you ever have spent all day and night in the library if you didn't have to, for my sake?" Loki asked. "Under the influence of fraternal loyalty, you study as no tutor ever convinced you to do. Odin probably wishes he'd thought of this ploy centuries ago—he'll turn you into a scholar king yet."

"Even if I can study books, I don't love them like you do. And I'll never think like you...or like Father," Thor admitted, because what Loki said had a certain plausibility. "A ploy like this never would have occurred to me."

"No." Loki laughed that breathless, humorless laugh again. "No, it would not; and so you keep falling for them. Odin's tricks and mine; it's never even been a sport, you're so easy to manipulate."

"I suppose so," Thor said, not angry; Loki might be trying to provoke him, but his brother's truths never hurt as much as his lies. "Especially when what you want is what I do as well."

"Ah, so what do I want now, Thor?" Loki asked in the dark. His voice was teasing but not, and Thor strained again to see his brother's expression. His eyes had adjusted to the gloom, but Loki had turned away, the fall of black hair hiding his face.

"You want to live," Thor said. "To escape your execution—escape from here as well, and that I don't want; but the rest I do, as much as you want it."

"Do I want that, though," Loki said, not quite a question, musing. "Or maybe I was only lying, when I said I'd try...but you will try, regardless of what I do or say."

"Aye," Thor confirmed. "And whether or not you manipulate me to do it. You are my brother, and I'll fight you, stop you; but I will not stand by and let you be killed."

"Even if I wouldn't do the same for you?" and Loki looked back to him, his eyes glinting in the faint mist-veiled starlight. In the shadows they looked more black than green, and Thor did not know what to say to that gaze. At one time, not so long ago, he would have known Loki was only jesting; would have known his brother would fight for him as loyally as he would fight for his brother.

He no longer believed that, not of Loki now; but to admit it felt in its way as much a betrayal as anything Loki had done to him.

Before he could answer, Loki's silhouette against the window moved in a stretch; he made a show of yawning, said, "It's late. Your back won't thank you tomorrow, and worse if you get no rest. And you won't need the distraction, if you intend to match wits with Odin."

Thor nodded and started back up the metal steps. On the third he paused, said, "Loki, has it occurred to you that maybe I am the one Father is using? A king of Asgard cannot be seen giving succor to a possible traitor, even his own son. But he doesn't forbid me to come here, and lets me argue for you..."

Loki did not answer, but within the shadows his eyes glittered. Thor sighed. "I'll speak to Father tomorrow morning," he said. "Good night, brother."

"Sleep well," Loki replied, and stood framed by the window watching Thor depart, making no motion toward the cot.

 


 

Thor awoke the next morning with his back aching, as Loki had said. Odin was not yet hearing petitions in the throne room; Thor met him instead on the balcony adjacent the feast hall.

The day was rainy, thick clouds hanging overhead: a warm spring shower, not the thrill of a storm, but Thor still enjoyed the patter of raindrops on the stone tiling, and how the rain's curtain softened the city and the lands beyond. He breathed deeply of the fresh clean scent, walked out from under the roof and let its gentle fall soothe his knotted shoulders.

His father smiled to watch him in the rain, remarked, "You toiled mightily yesterday, I heard."

"And the librarians spend all their days bent over books—truly I underestimated the strength of scholars!" Thor said, then felt his spine stiffen again when he recalled Loki's question about ruined careers. Hastily he explained, "Kvasir was obliging of the demands I made upon him, but my research was my own, even I'm no great student."

"I heard that as well," Odin said. "What did your research reveal?"

Thor couldn't tell if his father were asking out of real curiosity, or if he already knew the answer; nor could he guess what answer Odin wanted to hear. He stepped under the balcony's roof, out of the rain, wiped the water from his face and pulled his shoulders back. "There was a nobleman, Fritjof Halvardson, of Asgard and of the Dokkalfar..."

He explained the history, as many details as he could remember of the betrayal and the banishment. Last night before falling asleep, he'd gone over the facts repeatedly, until their impressions remained mostly fixed in his mind. Odin doubtless knew much or all of it already, but he said nothing, simply listened, and his face was as impassive and inscrutable as Loki ever could achieve. Even as Thor reached the end of the account, drawing the parallels between Fritjof's situation and his brother's now, Odin did not nod or frown, neither encouraging nor discouraging.

Only when Thor finished his argument did the All-Father speak. "So Loki claims fealty to other than Asgard? He forsakes all his family ties here and renounces his former rights of inheritance?"

Thor swallowed, thinking of Loki wielding Gungnir, his short and terrible reign as Asgard's king. Loki fighting him on the Bifrost, telling him they were not brothers, that they never had been—as great a lie as ever he had told, but a lie that might save him now. And banishment was better than execution. "Yes," Thor said. "He renounces everything."

Odin exhaled, closing his eye for a moment. His hand wrapped around Gungnir beside him, as if he were a limping old man and the spear a cane propping him up.

Then he straightened again, spoke in the ringing tones of Asgard's ruler, "Then Loki will be tried. He will have a hearing before me, Odin All-Father, tomorrow at noon, to make his case before his sentence is pronounced. Since he makes no claim of family on Asgard, there will be no relations to plead leniency; and since his crimes were not in this realm, there will be no testimony but that of Heimdall and yourself. Do you accept this in the prisoner's stead, Thor Odinson?"

Thor bowed his head. "Yes, Odin-King."

Chapter Text

They shackled Loki's hands again, but did not gag him, at Thor's request. Captain Eirikur conceded when Thor gave his word that his brother would do no magic; but he summoned more guards, so a phalanx a full dozen men strong accompanied Loki from the cell, up the lift to the throne room.

Loki for his part looked passing amused at the attention, and murmured something to Eirikur about honor that Thor did not properly hear. It made the Einherjar captain redden with anger, however; Thor hastily maneuvered to walk between Eirikur and his brother, and Loki smirked in wicked satisfaction. He had donned his armored coat, and he strode through the palace with a prince's confidence, not really trying to outpace his escort, but neither bothering to match their march.

In the antechamber before the throne room, they stopped and waited for Eirikur to go in and announce the prisoner's arrival to the king. Thor stood beside Loki and tried not to think of the last time they had stood in this hall together, before Thor's failed coronation. Not much more than a year ago, and the memory was too vivid in Thor's mind. Loki, laughing with him—the last time his brother had smiled at him with anything but bitterness and ire. "Never doubt that I love you."

Had that been a lie? Or was he lying now? It occurred to Thor that even as Loki had been reassuring him then, he had already worked the spells to bring the Jotunn warriors into the palace; he had already plotted to ruin Thor's celebration. So maybe it had been a lie, a bit of insurance, that Thor might suspect nothing wrong.

Or maybe it had been an apology, of a sort. Loki always would do things he regretted. When they were small and Sif had first been fostered at the palace, he'd snuck into her room one night and chopped off her pigtails, jealous of how Thor and Frigga admired them. And then come the next morning Loki had been as hysterical as Sif, inconsolable that the golden curls he'd also loved could not grow back in a day like the plucked flowers in the enchanted gardens. The dwarves had fashioned Sif new locks at Frigga's request, and it was Loki's sobbing she was trying to quiet, more than Sif's. Though it never dissuaded Loki from further mischief, that the damage he did might hurt him worse than anyone.

Now Loki glanced over at Thor as they stood in the antechamber, and smiled, thin and without feeling, a parody of his calculated sincerity before. "We've come so far, haven't we, brother?" he said, lifting his manacled wrists, so the chains jangled. "Or I have, at least; you're still waiting for the crown..."

Thor felt his heart move, that Loki was recalling the same memories he had himself; though whether with joy or melancholy Thor couldn't say. "You're sure you know what to say?" he asked anxiously. "Once we're in court, Father won't allow me to speak for you—I said that you renounced us; I didn't know how else to convince him—"

"So you told me," Loki said, so composed he might be bored, as if it were someone else's future shortly being decided. "And yes, I know what I will say."

Thor knew better than to bother asking him what that was. He wished there were some clue of it in Loki's opaque eyes. Waiting here before the coronation, Thor had denied that he even could be nervous, but his hands now were cold and sweating at once.

Boots on the stone floor heralded Eirikur's return. The captain saluted Thor without glancing at Loki, and announced, "The prisoner may enter."

Loki's smile widened without gaining any more emotion. He brought up his manacled hands, blew across the palms with a whispered word—"Stop!" Eirikur barked, drawing his sword, "You were oathbound—"

But Loki had already worked his spell, a strange pallor stealing over his hands and rising up his face like a reversed flush. He closed his eyes, exhaled a breath that made a plume of white mist as if the warm air were freezing. And then he stood there, black-haired and blue-skinned, face marked with ridged Jotunn patterns, and when he opened his eyes they were red all through, like rubies set in a clear sky.

One of the guards behind them cursed, and Eirikur raised his sword, even as he drew back a cautious step. He was old enough to have fought in the war with Jotunheim; he'd slain his share of frost giants. "Sorcery was forbidden you," he said steadily.

Loki lowered his hands. "But this is not doing magic, so much as lifting a spell already cast," he said, his voice bizarrely unchanged, for all the bloody tincture to his gaze. "I would do the All-Father the honor of facing him in my true form," and his tone was so calm that Thor wondered if he was the only one to hear the derisive edge to those final words.

Loki was lying anyway; he'd cheated and used enough magic to change his armor as well as his skin, so that the burnished gold took on the ice-white shine of platinum, and the green accents were now crimson, still matching his eyes. Thor struggled not to stare; to hear the truth of his brother's ancestry was one thing, to see it for himself quite another. Even with the space between them Thor could feel Loki's cold, the winter chill off his blue skin.

Eirikur scowled but lowered his sword and stepped aside, allowing Thor and his Jotunn brother to enter the king's audience.

The throne room's tall windows were closed and shuttered, and the vast chamber was empty of any of the court. There was only Odin on the throne, with the Tesseract on its pedestal beside him, its blue light shimmering over his polished armor; and Heimdall at his right hand.

And on the steps beside Heimdall stood Frigga, Odin's wife, their mother, in her most formal robes. Thor had not known she was going to attend, though she had the queen's right to audit any of the king's affairs.

Thor heard Loki's steps falter when he saw her, one foot falling short; but he did not trip, and walked the rest of the distance to the throne at a measured and even pace. At the base of the dais he stopped, while Thor climbed the stairs to take his position at his father's left hand.

He turned back to see Loki bowing, neat and spare, without flourish but also without disrespect. "Greetings, Odin-King, All-Father," he said, raising his blue face and red eyes to his father, without a glance at his mother. "For your judgment I stand before you: I am Loki Laufeyson, born in Jotunheim, high general of the Chitauri Empire."

"So you claim to be a dog of the Chitauri," Odin said grimly.

Loki inclined his head, thoughtful. "I would rather call them my dogs; I command a goodly part of their army."

"The army that Thor and his allies soundly defeated in the Midgardian city of New York?" Odin asked.

Loki shrugged under his pauldron. "Or commanded, I should say. But a general is still a general, even without his soldiers."

"Perhaps," Odin said, "though not a very good one. But you do not deny you ordered the attack?"

"I do not deny it," Loki said, red eyes unblinking.

"And the rest?" Odin raised his hand, bade Heimdall to recite the charges. The keeper of Asgard's broken gate stepped forward and spoke them, the whole long litany he had observed: the Tesseract's theft and the subsequent destruction of the human base, claiming dominion and threatening mortals, the assault on the new city of York. All the crimes of Loki Laufeyson; no mention was made of those of Loki Odinson. The list was nonetheless grievously long, and Thor could barely bring himself to look at Loki as it was recounted.

When he glanced to his mother, however, Frigga was watching Loki, unflinching despite his Jotunn aspect. So Thor gritted his teeth and set his eyes on his brother as well.

Loki did not acknowledge them. He stood at a soldier's rest, shackled hands clasped before him, weight balanced between his spread feet. His ruby gaze remained on Odin throughout Heimdall's recitation, his face set like stone, or ice. It was even harder to read though the strange marked blue of his skin, and so little changing that he almost might not be listening at all.

When Heimdall stopped, Odin said, "Thor Odinson, do you corroborate this testimony with what you witnessed in person?"

Thor unclenched his jaw with effort. "I do."

"Loki Laufeyson," Odin said, "what do you plead to these accusations?"

"I deny none of them," Loki said, his voice pitched to carry throughout the hall, clear and firm as the All-Father's.

"So you confess to your treason?" Odin said, his voice like iron, unyielding but heavy.

"It wasn't treason," Loki said, "but open war, waged on Midgard by the Chitauri, who have never been its allies."

"But Midgard is under Asgard's protection," Odin said, "and the Chitauri have always respected our stewardship."

Loki's black eyebrows arched over his red eyes. "Apparently no longer."

"You claim they willfully trespassed against Asgard?" Odin demanded.

"We invaded a Midgardian city fully aware Asgard's prince himself was there," Loki said. "I would not say the Chitauri are invested in keeping the peace, no."

Odin set Gungnir down on the dais with the ringing of metal on stone, leaned forward on his throne. "But you announced yourself as of Asgard, when first you attacked the Midgardians and stole the Tesseract!"

Loki did not blink. "I lied," he said, white teeth showing behind his indigo lips. "That I might case aspersions upon Asgard Earth's ally, and instill discord between this realm and the people of Midgard. It was strategy, nothing more. The Chitauri recruited me for my tactician's skills, after all."

Odin's fist was tight around Gungnir's shaft; Thor could see his knuckles whitening. "How did they recruit you?" he asked, quieter than his previous demands.

Loki shrugged again. "It matters not. I was without nation or allies; they offered me an army. And with that army we invaded Midgard, knowing Asgard protected it. We stole the Tesseract, knowing Asgard's claim on it. The Chitauri have declared war on Midgard and Asgard both."

He shifted slightly, rocking his weight from heels to the balls of his feet, chin tilted up. Thor recognized the subtle defiance in that look. He remembered Loki standing before their father as a boy, cleverly justifying his latest mischief—"But you said I was to oil the saddles; you did not say I should wipe the oil off them afterwards"—and sometimes he would get a thrashing for it; but sometimes Odin would be forced to concede his cunning, hiding a smile behind his fist even as he chastised him.

Thor leaned forward, listening close, as Loki went on, "War has been declared, and I am a soldier of the Chitauri army. Now captured, so rightfully a prisoner of that war, and due the courtesies of an enemy officer taken from the battlefield." He angled his head, considering. "I might be traded back to them. Or else tried for war crimes, once peace has been restored."

"There will be no negotiations, nor peace talks, when we have no way of contacting the Chitauri without the Bifrost," Odin said, very levelly. Thor looked to his father, but could not tell if the king's calm was born of anger or something else. "Attempting to reach them with the Tesseract would open ourselves to potential invasion."

"Well then," and Loki spread his hands between the chains, platinum vambraces gleaming, "I see little choice but that you hold me here, in accordance with the rules of proper warfare."

Odin let go of Gungnir to fold his arms over his breastplate. "The Chitauri would not so accord one of our own warriors, were they captured."

"No," Loki said, "but Asgard is not home to barbarians. And I'll willingly submit to interrogation and confess what I know of the Chitauri forces. Though I admit my knowledge is limited beyond my own command, and that army was, as has been mentioned, quite thoroughly defeated. They had a Hulk, you see..."

He was not smiling as he said any of it, but that only emphasized his arrogant assurance, and Thor did not know whether he wanted to laugh out loud at the audacity, or brain his brother with Mjolnir. Which was, too, a familiar feeling with Loki, and thanks to long experience Thor managed to keep his expression relatively even, as his mother was managing so flawlessly.

Odin sat in silence as Loki spoke and let the silence rest after he quit speaking, the air becoming heavier with the weight of the king's deliberation, until Thor felt he could barely breathe it. Though Loki did not seem to care, standing at rest with his bound arms before him, waiting with a disinterest that might pass for patience.

At last Odin spoke, but his voice was not the pealing declaration of a king's judgment. Instead he asked quietly, "Loki—Loki Laufeyson, if you commanded the Chitauri army, then who commanded you?"

Loki blinked, blue lids and black lashes flickering over his ruby eyes. "The Chitauri elders," he answered readily.

"And who commanded the elders?" Odin stood up from his throne, put his hand on the Tesseract's pillar, bathed in the cube's blue glow. "Who charged you with the reckless slaughter of innocent mortals—who desired the Tesseract, that you were sent to claim it?"

"I took my orders from the elders," Loki said. "If there were a higher power in their chain of command, I had no part in it."

He said it diffidently, relaxed and tipped back on his heels, so Thor did not know why he thought him lying. Except that he knew his brother, and Loki's truths rarely came so easily. And Loki would never be content to be a soldier, whether the least grunt or the top general, and not know every link of that chain, up and down it. There was no knowledge anywhere that Loki did not care to know.

"Loki," Odin began to say, but Frigga interrupted him.

"Odin, my husband and king," she said, bowing her head regally, and climbed the dais up to the throne to confer with Odin. Thor strained to listen, but they kept their voices too low to carry.

His mother did not speak for long, but when she finished Odin exhaled, sat down again on the throne with a hint of the fatigue he had been concealing until now. Though his back was straight and strong as he raised Gungnir before him, set it down ringing and proclaimed in the resounding voice of a ruler, "Loki Laufeyson, general of the Chitauri, you will be Asgard's prisoner, until the Chitauri should reclaim you, or until hostilities between our peoples have ended."

Loki bowed his head, though whether in acceptance of the judgment, or to hide a triumphant smile, Thor could not say.

"Thor, take the prisoner back to his cell, until a time that we might question him again," Odin said, and the audience was ended.

Chapter Text

Captain Eirikur and the Einherjar guards were waiting outside the throne room. They fell into formation around Thor and Loki, still Jotunn-blue, walking beside him.

Once the great doors closed behind them, Loki's pace slowed with every step, dropping behind Thor. The other guards slowed with him, until the captain gave him a shove—on the shoulder, keeping cautiously clear of his frostbiting skin, and said, "You'll not win yourself any time outside the dungeon by dragging your heels."

"So shall you carry me back to my cell, then?" Loki asked, but his acerbity was diluted, such that Thor looked more closely at him. Loki was breathing out, mist before his lips, and it was as if that white were drawing the ice from him, red eyes returning to green, blue skin paling back to Aesir flesh.

Too pale, even for Loki—Thor thought it at first a trick of contrast, that the blue exaggerated his normal pallor; but then Loki stumbled as he walked. Thor moved to put a hand under his manacled arm, and Loki leaned against him, too heavily for a moment, not even making a pretense of pushing Thor away. His eyes glittered fever-bright and unfocused in his wan face, as he muttered, "So hot in there...too hot, as the..."

Even through Loki's leather and armor Thor could still feel the lingering chill of the Jotun. He supposed the comfortable spring afternoon must be sweltering to a frost giant. Without comment he remained supporting Loki, and Eirikur looked at Thor and dared say nothing, indicating the other guards to halt around them.

After a couple of breaths Loki recovered himself, pulled away and wiped his chained hands across the sweat beaded on his forehead. He did not look at Thor but instead stared ahead, pallid brow creased. "...What happens out there?"

"Where?" Thor followed his gaze out past the palace gates to the broken Bifrost. Ambassador Fjalar and a crew of his dwarves were gathered at the near edge, tying harnesses around themselves for their latest exploration. Dwarves vastly preferred solid earth to magic-imbued crystal, and none of them would venture out on the bridge without such precautions. "The dwarves are assisting in the Bifrost repairs," Thor explained, "preparing a scaffold or somesuch from the physical side, while Father and the scholars figure out how to direct the Tesseract's energy."

"The Tesseract?—ah, yes, of course," Loki murmured.

He took an unthinking step towards the gates and the Bifrost beyond, but Eirikur set himself before him, shoulders squared and hand on his sword hilt. "You will walk back to your cell now," the captain said, "or else you will be bound and dragged."

Loki angled his head and examined the man, as one might regard a barking dog, debating whether to silence it with a morsel of meat or a beating. Eirikur did not back down, for all Thor knew he had the fear of sorcery shared by most veteran soldiers, and the tension between them buzzed like a thunderhead before a lightning strike.

Then Loki dipped his head, said, "Your pardon, I will walk," and suited action to words, turning his feet down the hall back to the stairs. Eirikur and the rest of the escort moved with him, and Thor hurried to catch up beside them.

On the lower level Loki glanced out the windows as they walked, watching the dwarves inching out on the Bifrost, but he did not attempt to dawdle so he might look longer. Once in the tunnel, on the lift's descending platform, he leaned in and murmured to Thor over the hum of the machinery, "So how long is the reconstruction supposed to take?"

"Less than a year, if it goes well," Thor said, inevitably smiling to think of it, and the hope of Midgard's closeness. "Maybe only two or three seasons."

"Only seasons," Loki said, his mouth twisting with some uninterpretable feeling. "Ah, I'd wondered, that Odin relented so easily."

"So easily?" Thor repeated. "If our mother had not spoken for you—"

"Your mother," Loki corrected, almost absently, "and the All-Father would not allow himself swayed merely by maternal sentiment. So the Bifrost will be repaired—you must be glad to be able to see your little mortal friends again, before their brief candles are snuffed out."

"I am," Thor said, seeing no reason to lie, and one corner of Loki's mouth tilted upwards in a poorly concealed smile. It always amused Loki to have his offenses taken for straight meaning, though it might sometimes goad him to worse insults. But then his sharp tongue could cut however you tried to grasp it, and Thor found ignoring its sting easiest, oft enough.

His tolerance provoked Loki now, though. "And of course that mortal woman," Loki went on, his voice dropping low and insinuative. "Or does she no longer wait for you? A year is a long time, for a human—"

"Brother," Thor said, his tone steady, and his hand steady as he rested it on Mjolnir at his belt, "do not speak of her."

Loki's gaze slid to the guards standing fore and aft on the lift; he stepped back from Thor, lifted his chin and voice. "But you were there to hear the king's judgment, Thor; I am Laufeyson, no brother of yours."

"You are a liar," Thor said, not angrily, as the platform reached the tunnel's bottom and its gears clanked into place. They two and the Einherjar guards moved off in one body, turning into the wide corridor that led down to Loki's cell.

The walls hewn through the rock were becoming familiar to Thor, the patterned striations of layered stone, threaded with ores that glittered in the lamplight. It was completely unlike the rest of the palace, a relic of a much older time. Nowadays, Thor supposed, dwarves would be hired to carve such a passage, and engrave the walls with their own designs—they would be prettier for it, though Thor appreciated more their height and breadth now. Rare was the dwarf tunnel he could walk without needing to hunch over.

When they reached the lowest corridor, however, Thor stopped, seeing the metal barricade at its far end was already opened, letting the brighter daylight in Loki's cell illuminate the tunnel.

He glanced questioningly at Loki and found his brother looking back at him with the same confusion. Thor had closed the cell's exit when they had left, and no guard could have opened it again; it only responded to the royal family, excepting its prisoner.

Which should have made it apparent, and maybe it was to Loki; but Thor for his part was surprised when he followed Loki down the spiraled stairs and found Frigga waiting in the cell, still in her formal gown.

"Mother?" Thor asked. "But how did you arrive before us, from the throne room...?"

"The palace opens ways for its queen," Frigga said, not looking at him but only at Loki. Loki gazed back, smooth and level as he descended the last step.

"Whether or not you wished to see me," Frigga told him, "I warned Thor that I could only bear stay away for so long."

Loki walked up to her, and Thor tensed, not wanting to interfere, but if Loki raised his hand to her—but he would not, not to their mother—but Loki now might do anything—

But Loki did not raise his hand; instead he gracefully dropped to one knee before Frigga, lowering his head. "Lady Frigga, queen of Asgard," he said, "thank you for your clemency in King Odin's court today." He took a breath, continued before Frigga or Thor could speak, "It was mercy undeserved; I wronged you greatly, endangering you, when I allowed the frost giants entrance into Asgard and the All-Father's chamber. I cannot ask or accept forgiveness, but I would have you know that I wished you no harm."

Thor could barely hold himself from exclaiming out loud—it was the closest Loki had come to expressing any sort of apology or remorse for his deeds; and the first time, too, that he'd acknowledged what he had done on Asgard before he fell, when he was still Loki Odinson in name as well as truth. But it was not for Thor to answer; he bit his tongue and waited for his mother.

Frigga gazed down at her son's bowed head, her face tranquil, regally constrained, and her voice, too, when she spoke, soft but unwavering. "Then I will force no forgiveness on you; but you may have it from me freely, whenever you can accept it." She reached down to unbind his manacles and let them fall to the floor, then laid one hand on Loki's cheek, gently tilting his face up to hers. Loki's shoulders stiffened under his coat, but he did not resist.

Thor could not see Loki's face, but Frigga's eyes were sad as she looked down upon his brother. Then she let her hand fall from Loki's cheek, turned away to look about the cell, as if even she could not bear to face his madness for too long. "You are well here? There's nothing you want for?"

"Many things," Loki said, "but none to be afforded a prisoner of war." He smoothly rose back to his feet. "I am well enough."

Frigga crossed to the window to glance out into the abyss, then went to the cot and smoothed the neat muslin blankets under her hand. "You could be brought a few books. Or ink and paper, at least, that you might occupy yourself..."

"Asgard's queen is too kind, I fear," Loki said, dipping his shoulders in a half-bow.

Thor saw their mother's mouth tighten, lips pressed together, and furiously burst out, "Stop this, Loki! She's our mother, before she is the queen—"

"Thor," Frigga said, mildly, but Thor clapped his mouth shut as if she had shouted at him.

"I'm only concerned by how tongues may wag, if the Asgardians hear of their queen giving special consideration to a mere prisoner," Loki said. "Her compassion is legendary, but there are limits."

"Yet you show little concern for the reputation of the crown prince," Frigga said, passing the cot to inspect the water basin in the curtained corner, much as she might judge a new maid's polishing. "And Thor's daily visits to the dungeon have not gone unremarked by the court."

Thor turned in time to catch the edge of the look Loki shot him, more exasperation than real ire; then Loki said, "Thor's reputation as the court's fool is long-established."

"And who first made me the butt of his jokes, brother?" Thor retorted.

Loki turned wide wounded eyes on him. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean," he said, with no malice in his voice, and the innocence in his eyes was so obviously feigned as to be a harmless jest—as if for that moment, with their mother watching, Loki had forgotten how he meant his lies now to hurt.

"Of course, talking me into that dress was all for Asgard's greater good," Thor said, grinning; but it was too late, or too much, to invoke that old shared caper. Loki's eyes narrowed and he turned back to Frigga, said, "You're right; you should tell your son to keep a proper distance."

"I will not," Frigga said serenely, still moving about the cell. "Thor is a grown man, to make his own decisions. Besides, I would bid him come here, if he were not already, so I would know you are not alone." She stopped by the tray set aside on the windowsill, lifted the lid from it and for the first time frowned, brow set disapprovingly. "There's not a bite of this stew eaten." Indeed the bowl under the lid was filled with a cold congealing supper, and the spoon beside it still clean.

"This fare does not suit my palate," Loki said, his tone indifferent, but Thor thought he might be irritated by how quickly the response came.

Frigga sighed. "Your tongue always was sensitive as it was clever." She went to Loki, took his hands in hers in a motion so sure that he did not have a chance to pull away, before she had drawn them up and cupped them together. Putting her own hands over his, she worked a little calling, or perhaps only sleight of hand; either way, when she lifted her hands, Loki's were filled with little purple berries.

"There," Frigga said, nodding in satisfaction. "Do these suit you better? Blueberries for the blue Jotunn boy."

"Mother!" Thor said, shocked that she could joke about such a thing—not to mention, such a ridiculous joke—

But Loki coughed, too late to hide the laugh startled from him like a bird flushed from a seemingly lifeless bush. He set his jaw against another, asked sardonically, "And strawberries to match my eyes?"

"I thought this ruby more fitting," Frigga said, and invoked another piece of fruit, resting in her palm.

Loki shifted the blueberries to one hand, cupping his fingers so that none fell. "A pomegranate for my eyes? Shall I only eat two seeds, then?"

"That would make for a short winter," Frigga said, and Thor did not understand her meaning, but he thought Loki did. Loki did not smile, but the quick glance he exchanged with Frigga reminded Thor of his mother and brother's private jokes, from the many songs and stories she used to tell Loki as he helped her weave or tend the palace gardens.

It had once annoyed Thor greatly, those little secrets of magic and lore that he had no part in; but the ache in his heart watching them now was not anything so mean as envy.

Frigga dug her fingers into the pomegranate, cracked it open and offered one half. Loki did not take it from her, but deftly broke free a few seeds and nibbled them. "Yes, these are more to my taste," he said, and plucked a few more, staining his long fingers red like hers.

"I'm glad," Frigga said quietly, watching him eat—not with the gusto of a hungry man, but after Loki swallowed he still reached for more, and he held the blueberries safe in his other hand. "The apples of Idunn cannot be shared with a prisoner," she said, "but you may eat of any fruit in my gardens; you need only ask."

Loki did not reply—but then, Thor knew, Loki would not ask. So maybe no reply was kinder. And Loki ate both halves of the pomegranate and all the blueberries, and Frigga watching him smiled tenderly, as if that were answer enough for now.

 


 

"So are people talking?" Thor had occasion to ask his friends, some days later. "That I visit my brother in the dungeons?"

Sif and the Warriors Three looked at one another. None of them had raised the topic themselves—indeed, they'd been scrupulously avoiding any mention of Loki. Thor had heard mutters around the palace about the traitor and the prisoner, but never from his friends, and he was grateful to them for it. But a ruler could not remain in ignorant silence, even if it were the more agreeable position.

"Some insensitive dolts might make passing mention of it to us," Volstagg said at last, uncomfortably. "Whispering about special treatment, or that you're defying your father and plotting with him to overthrow the king..."

"Volstagg," Sif said, glaring.

"No," Thor said, "it's all right, I should know. What else?"

"The plotting rumor is the worst of it," Fandral said. "...Well, and the one about how Loki's put a binding spell on you and taken over your mind. But we tell them you're going down there to interrogate him," he hastened to assure.

"That's no more true than the rest," Thor said, frowning. They did talk, usually, but he did not go to the dungeon to question his brother. Sometimes Loki would not even speak to him at all, and Thor would just stand by his side, looking out the barrier into the misty abyss.

Loki did not seem to do much else these days. Frigga had seen to it that he was given paper and ink, that he might write a confession or anything else that struck him, but Loki had not used them, that Thor had seen. Nor did he opt to apply his body instead of his mind, though his cell was spacious enough for modest exercise. Even the simplest pleasures of eating and sleeping did not seem to interest him; Thor found his brother sitting on the cot on occasion, but never lying down on it, and his meals stayed mostly uneaten, when Thor thought to check the trays.

Frigga gave him more fruit to bring to Loki, apricots and tangerines, treats from the trees enchanted to bear fruit in any season, and these Loki willingly ate. Sometimes he thought to ask Thor to give his thanks to Frigga, sometimes not. Thor passed his gratitude on to their mother regardless of whether Loki said it aloud.

Sif laid her hand on Thor's arm. "We know that you still consider him family, whatever the king has said. But not everyone understands. Not when he's rejected that tie, and declared himself our enemy."

"—And that changes nothing, we know," Volstagg blathered. "To you he'll always be the clever little rotter you grew up with, eh? But after all he did—here, as well as on Midgard..."

"On Midgard, to us," Fandral said, then winced when Hogun elbowed him. He rubbed his ribs, went on, "Folks aren't likely to forget that for a good long while yet, even if he's gotten himself declared a prisoner of war now—not that anyone actually believes we're really at war with the Chitauri, or that it's not entirely his fault, if we are—hey!" and he dodged another elbow, this one Sif's. "I'm only relating what others have said!"

"No one's especially disposed to think well of Loki these days," Volstagg said apologetically. "And, well...you can't really blame them. So that you're spending so much time down in the dungeon with him..."

"He is my brother; I cannot just forget about him, prisoner or not," Thor said.

"You could visit less," Hogun said.

"He's grimly right," Fandral said. "He may be your brother, but surely you don't need to go every day?"

"You need not quit seeing him entirely," Sif agreed, "but if you weren't so obvious about visiting the dungeons, and did not go so regularly, there would be less to feed the gossip."

"If it bothers you to think of him in that cell, perhaps you could pretend he's locked himself in the library for an extended stay?" Volstagg suggested. "Or that he's gone off on one of his explorations?"

They were trying for his sake, Thor knew, even if they didn't understand. He could not think of how to explain it to them, when he did not entirely understand himself. Because it was true, that he and Loki had never been joined at the hip, for all Loki might claim himself stuck in Thor's shadow. They'd fought like brothers do, had arguments after which they wouldn't speak to one another for days, all growing up; and besides their pastimes had always been different.

It was true that Loki sometimes used to sequester himself in the library for days, lost in the inexplicable snare of books, while Thor learned fighting on the practice grounds. When he was older, Loki also began venturing out into the realms alone, traveling mysterious paths no one could follow him down, disappearing for weeks or months and coming back with secrets he would refuse to divulge but only smirk about. Meanwhile Thor himself undertook his own journeys, quests for prizes and battles for glory that Loki did not always agree with or accompany him on, though he had always been there for their most exciting adventures.

But it was different now, when Loki was not hiding himself among old stories or vanished off to unknown lands. Now Loki could not hide or wander but was confined to his cell, and knowing he was always there should have made it easier to leave him be; but it did not.

Thor could have blamed it on that year thinking his brother dead, that he needed the proof of his life to get over the grief; but that would have been a lie. As much a lie as saying he went to Loki out of suspicion of what he might be scheming, knowing his brother as he did, knowing Loki's mind could never stop spinning its webs. Either explanation was plausible; but neither was true.

What the truth was, Thor himself was not sure. Except that even when there was only one place his brother could be now, he did not feel like he really knew where Loki was. As if the prisoner in Asgard's lowest dungeon was not always his brother. Sometimes Thor recognized him, recognized the boy he had grown up with, the warrior of tricks and smoke who he had fought beside for centuries. And then sometimes Thor did not know him at all, and not because he could change his skin blue.

More than a year, they'd mourned for Loki, more than a year Loki had been separated from them; and when Thor found him again Loki had not been his brother anymore. Now Thor saw his brother sometimes when he went to the cell. But he could not help but fear that it was temporary; that if he looked away too long, Loki might vanish again. Might take wing and fly away, even if the prisoner remained imprisoned.

Thor didn't know how to explain this, so didn't try. Instead he thanked his friends for their good advice, then went to see his brother.

As usual Loki was standing by the window. Thor took position beside him, looking out into the misty sky and wondering what Loki was seeing, that he could spend so many hours contemplating it. After a moment's study that failed to illuminate any hint, Thor cleared his throat, asked, "So how fare you today, brother?"

Loki's answer came middling fast, and his calm "Well enough," marked his mood as good, or good enough; that he did not contradict the 'brother' was enough to make Thor smile.

"So are you up to anything?"

"Always." Loki glanced at him sidelong. "You know me."

That was a lie, Thor thought; two lies, maybe. But he tried to laugh regardless. "Have you thought of writing any of your plans down? It might help pass the time quicker..."

"Pass the time until when?" Loki asked, with a rise in tone that might be genuine curiosity, or at least enough interest to bother dissembling it.

"Until the Bifrost is repaired, I suppose," Thor said. "And we—you—can contact your...your army." He could not call the Chitauri Loki's people; Loki himself did not think of them as such, had not even mentioned them since Odin's sentence.

Loki looked back out the window. "How go the Bifrost repairs?"

"They proceed. The dwarves have nearly finished building a scaffold that satisfies them; once it's complete they'll be working on the new observatory." That work was going better than the study of the Tesseract; twice now Odin had attempted spells suggested by the scholars, to no effect on the Bifrost. But Thor did not think Loki needed discouraging news now.

"So that is the scaffold I've seen," Loki remarked.

"Eh? You can see it?" Thor craned his neck to peer up past the rocky crags of Asgard's under-land, but saw only the curtain of water dispelled into fog as it fell into the chill abyss.

"At times the waterfall parts enough to allow a glimpse."

"Is that what you're always looking at?"

Loki shrugged. "Sometimes. I supposed if they're about to start constructing the observatory, they've figured out the problem of the cross-harmonics of the winds and the Bifrost's frequency."

"Er, yes, I suppose so?"

"Interesting," Loki said. "I wonder what solution they stumbled into—I wouldn't have thought dwarves familiar with engineering for windflow."

"Master Adalstienn is working with them," Thor explained.

Though from what he'd observed, the master builder's cooperation with the dwarven crew mostly consisted of extended shouting matches and escalating curses. The last discussion had ended with the dwarven ambassador calling Adalstienn the quarter-witted progeny of a bilgesnipe and an ugly chunk of gneiss (which by the mutters of the other dwarves was an exceptionally insulting stone to be likened to.)

The meeting the next morning picked up where the previous had left off, and Thor was privately regretting that he had told his father he would attend the Bifrost consultations. By Odin's grimace, he had his own regrets about his royal responsibilities, and was on the verge of dismissing them all when Thor heard one of the dwarven crew mention something about cross-harmonics.

"Oh, the windflow, you mean?" Thor asked, which stopped the shouting more effectively than even Odin's commands. The dwarves and builders alike all turned to him as one, silenced mouths still open from being interrupted mid-holler.

Finally the ambassador Fjalar said, "Yes, we talk of the problem of oscillation..."

"What do you know of it? ...My lord Thor," Adalstienn hastily tacked on.

"Nothing of that," Thor said, "but I know there needs to be some trick of engineering with the wind. My, ah...I've been speaking to someone more knowledgeable of these matters."

"And what else is this more knowledgeable someone versed in?" Fjalar asked, a covetous gleam in his eye like he had spotted a rich vein of gold. "Would they answer a few passing questions?"

Thor did not look to his father, so he might honestly say he had not noticed the king's disapproval. "If you write your questions down, I will deliver them."

 


 

After a grudging council, Fjalar and Adalstienn and their respective crews gave Thor five pages' worth of diagrams and equations and other things as impenetrable as ancient runes, or dwarven handwriting. Thor didn't bother trying to understand the documents, though he rifled through them as he deliberated how best to present them to his brother. Certainly he could not claim to have written them himself; but Loki had little enough respect for dwarves or Aesir crafters...

Or, well, that was not entirely true; Loki had always admired a well-wrought piece, not only weapons but other devices as well. Better to say that crafters had little respect for him, after various tricks and mischiefs played upon them; and Loki as always had returned their disregard tenfold. Which Thor privately felt was somewhat unfair, since if Loki only had paid a fair price for the things he wanted, he wouldn't have earned such ire. Not that Loki was miserly, but he so enjoyed outwitting opponents on any battleground that he was the very devil of a bargainer. And crafters did not take kindly to getting silver words rather than silver pieces for their hard labor.

Thor had no polished tongue himself; he couldn't come up with any convincing way to explain the pages, save the truth. In the end he opted to wield that blunt weapon most directly, as befitted his usual fighting style. He marched down into Loki's cell, tossed the papers onto his cot and said, "The craftsmen ask for your help."

"My help?" Loki asked, arching an eyebrow at Thor.

Encouraged by the response, Thor said, "The Bifrost reconstruction is proving a challenge, and you've knowledge of it, it seems. They have questions, there," and he waved at the diagrams spread over the muslin sheets.

Loki picked up one of the pages to scrutinize. "The dwarves and Adalstienn himself all are stymied," Thor said, "and need someone more clever than them to figure out the puzzle."

Loki snorted. "Has anyone ever told you that you are wonderfully subtle, Thor?"

"Not and meaning it honestly," Thor replied, grinning.

"This isn't a particular interest of mine," Loki said, tapping his finger on the page, "and I have little enough learning in architecture; but I do have some thoughts as to the applicable magic theories, and a few examples they might study..."

"So you'll help?" Thor said, almost holding his breath, that this should be so easy a victory.

Loki gave him an odd look. "Of course I will," he said. "I agreed, did I not, to cooperate in my imprisonment. And besides, it's in my own interests to repair the Bifrost, such that my army can be contacted." He picked up another page to compare it with the first, then fetched one of the pens left on the windowsill.

Thor watched his brother seat himself on the cot and begin to write across the page, the quick sure marks of his slanted script that their tutors had always praised. Loki's hand was practiced from rune-writing, where one wrong stroke might ruin a spell; Thor had always felt it a bit unfair that his own penmanship had been compared to it, when his hand was more accustomed to the broad swings of weaponry.

"So shall I leave you to it?" Thor inquired.

"Hmm, yes, I'll have something for them by tomorrow," Loki said, waving at Thor absently without looking up. His other hand kept writing busily; otherwise he was motionless, but to Thor he seemed more animated than he had since they had first returned to Asgard.

Thor looked at the black-haired head bent over the papers, and his heart ached from the familiarity of it. If this were only the royal library or Loki's chambers, and he were at a desk rather than on a cot, it would be easy to forget the last couple of years, pretend them only a dream.

A nightmare, such as Loki used to have when they were very small and first sleeping apart, that would drive him in the dead of night to sneak back into Thor's bed. The nursemaid would scold them for it in the morning, but Loki always claimed he didn't remember doing it, would wake surprised and demanding to know why Thor was in his bed. Until the nursemaid would sigh and say he must have walked there in his sleep, to the old bed they used to share. Even though Thor always woke up when Loki came into his room—Loki always made just enough noise to wake him—and Loki's eyes would be open, glittering in the starlight. And sometime he would poke Thor, sniffling, "Move over, make room!" not like he was asleep at all. Thor never told the nursemaid, however.

Though he'd been glad enough when Loki's nightmares stopped—or at least he stopped coming to Thor if he had them. Loki was always cold, even when he'd just gotten out of his own bed, his toes like icicles; and Loki in turn would complain about Thor being too hot, and try to throw the blankets off even in the middle of winter. Their nightly squabbling was one reason Loki had been given his own chambers, even so young.

Jotunn and Aesir were not meant to share beds, Thor thought now, a little sadly. He'd slept better for Loki's absence and hadn't missed him; he'd never had reason to miss his brother, because Loki was always there, or else would be back soon. Thor watched him now, the intent curve of Loki's shoulders, the flash of long fingers rearranging the pages, and found it hard to look away. For all that he'd seen this sight a thousand times, it felt irrevocably changed now, after he'd believed he might not see it again. Believed he might not see his brother again, not like this, not the brother he knew so well.

"So Asgard's prince has nothing better to do but watch over a prisoner?" Loki remarked without looking up from his writing, in a casual tone which stung all the more for its artlessness. Thor winced and excused himself, though he could not help one last look back as he climbed the stairs, and nod with satisfaction, that his ploy had been so successful.

Chapter Text

Loki returned the builders' pages quite covered with ink and with three additional sheets besides. Thor passed these on to Adalsteinn and Fjalar, and promptly provoked a an argument that raged for some two hours loudly enough to be heard well outside the palace walls, and of which Thor did not understand half the words (the other half being curses). Clearly Loki had not lost his touch. Odin glared at Thor throughout it, not trying to get a word in edgewise. Nor did he allow Thor to excuse himself, but gestured sharply for his son to retake his seat when he attempted to rise from his stool at the drafting table.

By the quarrel's end, however, the master builder and the dwarven ambassador's heads were bent together over the pages as they busily added their own notes to Loki's. Fjalar's wife led several other dwarves and builders in the construction of a model bridge of folded paper, extending precariously out from the table, while all of them carried on noisy conversation about mechanical resonance and aerodynamic flutter and other sorcerous phrases.

It made Thor miss his friends on Midgard, a sudden unexpected stab of longing. Jane and Erik would no doubt understand some of this, versed as they were in the theories of the Bifrost's magic. And Tony Stark and Bruce Banner spoke in similarly obscured codes. Were they here, Thor thought they would be glad to help—though they'd be no more eager to work with Loki than the crafters would be, had they known the source of the notes they discussed.

But Fjalar and Adalsteinn did not care about those origins enough to press Thor about it; instead they gave him more papers to pass on, with a few questions particularly underlined. Thor dutifully delivered these to his brother, and thought he did not imagine Loki's eagerness reaching for them, though his tone was carefully aloof as he asked how his first messages had been received.

"They called your ideas overall intriguing," Thor reported, "though Fjalar thought some of them naive—too much theory, he said, and not enough consideration given to the limits of the metal and stone they work with..."

Loki's eyes narrowed. "Theory is better than no ideas at all, and how am I to know material properties? I'm no rough-handed builder, or a dirt-digging dwarf, raised in a rock and metal cradle." He flipped through the pages Thor had brought—a sheaf of a dozen this time—muttering over them as if casting a dire curse, "How could I research, when I have no books here; and anyway that's their job as engineers, to account for such details—"

"I will tell them you said so," Thor said, "and...I suppose I could go to the library again for you..."

He meant the offer honestly, but was grateful when Loki shook his head. "That would only waste both our time; I need too many details from too many different texts, and could not hazard a guess of titles for half of them. And Kvasir's erudition doesn't extend to such prosaic magic. No, I shall make do with what I remember, and the builders can correct me as they see fit," though his lip curled as he said it, at the thought of his ignorance on display.

Ignorant or not, Loki's next missive sparked an argument twice as long and loud as the first. Thor was prepared for it this time; he had brought a whetstone, and sharpened his blades, and then Fandral's and Volstagg's as well, while the crafters had it out. By the conclusion they were more excited than ever, and Adalsteinn triumphantly declared that they would resume the construction of the observatory that very afternoon.

"But would that be wise?" Fjalar asked. "I'd like to know how our theoretical friend here," and he tapped on one of the pages scattered across the table, "would feel about the matter of the bridge's physical structure being extended, before its magical underpinnings are pinned under, as it were; and as the Bifrost is still incomplete..."

He and Adalsteinn both eyed the Tesseract, quietly glowing on its pedestal. Then they looked to Odin, sitting at the head of the table and overviewing the proceedings with a regally imposing expression that to Thor's practiced eye indicated his mind was wandering. Possibly literally, since neither Hugin nor Munin were anywhere to be seen. "Odin-King," Adalsteinn asked respectfully, "what is the word on the study of the Tesseract? How soon might it be applied to the Bifrost's rebuilding?"

Odin's gaze snapped into focus on the builder. "It progresses," he said, "though not as swiftly as your work here, good master."

"Maybe our friend could help with the cube, too," Fjalar said. "They seem to be a fair hand with magic, from what they've written—"

"No," Odin said. "Do not consider it. Only the people of my choosing are allowed access to the Tesseract's mysteries."

"Have it your way," Fjalar said, shrugging with a dwarf's disdain for unphysical magics. "We can still ask them about the extension—"

"And delay more days, awaiting his reply?" Adalsteinn demanded.

Fjalar frowned under his beard. "It would be faster if we could speak with them upfront. Thor, can you invite them? They don't have anything against the king here, do they, that they've not come to the court already?"

Thor coughed awkwardly. "It's not...exactly for that, that he hasn't..."

"Then could you prevail upon him to come here, that we might confer with him?" Adalsteinn asked.

Thor noted the anger clouding Odin's brow, said, "I don't know how possible—"

"Come, you could try! My lord Thor can convince lightning to strike from a blue sky; surely you could arrange this," Fjalar cajoled, only to have his wife interrupt.

"He could, but mayhaps he should not," she said, her arms crossed under her beard. As her husband turned to her in betrayed surprise, she clucked her tongue, said, "What, have you not guessed the identity of our hidden adviser? Knowing as well as I do that Loki Silvertongue is a prisoner in Asgard's dungeon, and Thor is said to visit him daily, out of royal duty or brotherly affection?"

"Loki," one of the dwarf crew hissed, more like a prodded badger than a snake; and the faces of the other dwarves soured beneath their beards.

Most of the Aesir builders looked similarly put out, though Adalsteinn less so than some; having become the master relatively recently, and being too stolid a personality to afford a trickster much entertainment, he knew Loki more through stories than direct dealings. "So this is the work of the traitor prince?" he asked with a grimace, gesturing at the pages.

"Neither a traitor nor a prince," Odin rumbled. "Loki Laufeyson is a prisoner of the war with the Chitauri."

"And you're torturing this information out of him?" Fjalar inquired. Several of his dwarves looked hopeful.

"He offers his help willingly," Thor said.

"When he was the one to destroy the Bifrost to begin with?" Adalsteinn said.

"He was not!" Thor said. "It was due to his actions that it needed to be destroyed, but the one who—"

"Its destruction was not Loki's intent," Odin said over him, "if an unavoidable and regrettable consequence."

Thor was a little surprised that his father would so interrupt him; Thor and Mjolnir's part in the Bifrost's destruction was not a secret. Though perhaps it was neither something the crafters needed to be reminded of. Thor went on, "Besides, it's to Loki's advantage that we rebuild the Bifrost; without it he is trapped here, even as you good dwarves are."

"Is he, now?" Odin murmured.

Before Thor could question this, Fjalar said, "If that's so, it's worth asking him yet. Even a trickster can be relied upon when his own interests are at stake. And Loki's knowledge of sorcery is said to be great; I'd fain listen to what he knows of world-walking magics like the Bifrost."

"I'd listen to no words from that snake's forked tongue," Fjalar's wife said, echoing the grumblings of the other dwarves. "He cannot be trusted—!"

"But he can only lie so much, when it comes to the workings of the physical world," Adalsteinn said thoughtfully. "The truths of stone and structure, even a master of magic can't alter. We only need listen to what he says that's workable, and ignore the rest. And he's already proved himself to possess some truly useful knowledge."

Odin's face was unreadable, but the other Asgardian builders looked varying degrees of contemplative. Most of the dwarves still seemed mutinous, but Fjalar said, "You make a fair point, master builder."

"My friends," Thor said, "I cannot vouch for my—for Loki's honesty; but I can tell you that he's always taken great pride in his knowledge of anything, and in proving that knowledge." In particular in proving that knowledge better than anyone else's—though Thor decided not to clarify that point.

Fjalar barked a laugh. "What learned folk doesn't like to show off their learning? Lay on, Thor, and let's find out what cleverness Loki Liesmith will forge for us. I'd like to see if I can get better from him than Ivaldi's snotty sons managed."

"Or more likely be made a greater fool," his wife muttered, but nevertheless agreed to it, and at her glower the other dwarves acquiesced, stepping aside to let their ambassador follow Thor and Adalsteinn down to the dungeons.

 


 

When Thor climbed down the metal steps into the cell he found his brother awaiting him. "Who accompanied you?" Loki asked, coolly, but he was facing Thor rather than the window, green eyes searching his expression. "I counted two sets of footsteps besides yours, and neither guards I recognized."

"Yes, they have some questions for you."

Loki's shoulders stiffened under his black tunic. "So the All-Father at last has decided on an interrogation?"

"Not like that!" Thor denied. "It's Adalsteinn and Fjalar; they would talk to you about the Bifrost in person. Are you willing to speak to them?"

The relaxing of Loki's tense features could have been mistaken for a smile. "I'm willing," he said, "but give me a moment to prepare." He crossed to the corner where he'd placed his over-clothes, pulling on his coat and boots and buckling on his golden guards. Thor watched him in bemusement. As with most Asgardian warriors, Loki's armor was imbued with magic such to almost be a part of him, and seeing him don the pieces rather than just call them on was a peculiarly sentimental sight, like he was an untrained boy again.

Once he was properly outfitted, he nodded his readiness to Thor, who called Adalsteinn and Fjalar into the cell. Loki stood framed by the window with the abyss behind him, arms crossed over his polished armor, chin lifted and face composed. Though they were descending down into his prison cell, he yet had the air of a lord receiving his vassals, or a general conferring with common troops.

It had once been Loki's habit to make himself seem smaller and slighter than he was, so that his antagonists might be taken off-guard, and the shadows more easily contain him. Drawn up now straight, he was nearly of a height with Thor, his armor lending the breadth that his shoulders lacked; he was a hair taller than Adalsteinn, and of course towered over Fjalar.

The master builder was heavier, however, body thickened by centuries of lifting stones; and the dwarf was accustomed to Asgardian loftiness. Neither faltered when Loki met their eyes in turn and said, "Well met, Master Adalsteinn, Ambassador Fjalar. I trust my advice has proved helpful in your endeavors?"

Adalsteinn looked confused and suspicious, a combination Thor was quite used to seeing in those talking with his brother. But Fjalar simply said, "Helpful enough. We're hoping you have more to share with us."

"As Thor ought to have mentioned, construction is not a field I claim great experience or expertise with," Loki said, then spread his arms, went on, "but whatever I do know is at your disposal."

"Excellent! For what price, then?" the dwarf asked, rocking back on his heels and hooking his thumbs on his belt.

Loki arched an eyebrow. "A dwarf's treasured gold would do me little good here," he said, with a nod at the cell's limited accommodations.

"So what do you want?" Adalstienn rumbled.

"Other than the chance to exercise my mind, before it's worn uselessly dull from naught but staring out a window all day long?"

"Yes, other than that," Fjalar said agreeably.

Loki smiled, thin and sharp. "I would ask that you put in a good word for me with Odin All-Father. Tell him honestly all I do for you, and I'll consider the debt repaid in full."

Adalsteinn frowned, untrusting, but Fjalar chuckled. "Aye, I'll take that bargain: my vow on Svartalfaheim's deepest stones, I'll report true to the king however much a help or hindrance you prove to be." He spat on his ink-stained palm and held his hand up toward Loki, grinning behind his beard; as an ambassador he knew well the customs of both Asgard and royalty, and the uncouth gesture was a challenge, practically a dare.

Loki had never been able to back down from those, no more than Thor, though he often found more twisting ways to answer them. But now he accepted the dwarf's handshake without reluctance, and asked plainly, "So what are your questions?"

Fjalar took a few pages tucked under his belt, held them up to the Asgardians' eye-level. "First off, this frequency of oscillation—how do you suppose to guess it, without knowing the dimensions of the complete Bifrost? Since the bridge's length varies wherever it's opened to—"

"Beg pardon, but that's where you're mistaken," Loki replied, "to assume that the distance it crosses has any bearing on its span. The properties of resonance indeed vary, but that's more to do with the energy transported than its length—"

"—So the transference does affect the frequency, I said it should be so!" Adalsteinn said, suddenly interested, and slapping Fjalar upon the shoulder in his victory.

From there the conversation jumped far ahead of Thor's comprehension. Though while he could not grasp the meaning of the words, he could follow their tone, similar to the arguments that had arisen before, but different, too, never quite reaching such contentious pitches. Whenever the crafters' voices began to rise from considered dispute to belligerence, Loki would say something to draw their attention back to him; and as his own voice remained courteously even, theirs would eventually subside to match.

It was odd to witness. Thor remembered so many similar exchanges when Loki's cool manners would instead provoke hotter response, in an attempt to melt his icy disposition. The change now was subtle, the difference between a needle used to draw blood or else sew up a wound. Loki's tongue could soothe as well as scald, his rare kindnesses as unforgettable as his offenses. Though Thor thought sometimes he was the only one who recalled the former; or maybe he had received more of them than most.

Certainly Adalsteinn and Fjalar looked surprised, when after a couple hours' consultation they left the cell with Thor, and Thor asked them, "So is his advice useful?"

The master builder blinked, broke off his muttered discussion with Fjalar to answer, "Most definitely, my lord Thor."

"He's clever enough," Fjalar said, chuckling, "for a sorcerous liar who's never laid a stone in his life—no offense to you, Thor; at least you wield a hammer, even if you don't often build with it. But that one," and the dwarf nodded down the tunnel, back toward Loki's cell, "builds bridges—palaces, whole worlds—of air and fire, entirely with thought and never lifting a hand."

"Do not mistake Loki's love of thought for lack of strength," Thor warned; it was a mistake he had seen others make, and one his brother always saw was paid for dearly.

"No," Fjalar agreed. "Certainly it takes its own strength to master the currents of wind and magic, such that one can anticipate which way they'll flow. If not a strength much known to dwarves; give us earth and rock, which near always stays where we put it. But that one would never stay anywhere."

"As long as he stays cooperating with us long enough to complete this project," Adalsteinn said dourly.

Thor thought to say that he had rarely seen Loki cooperate to the extent he had these past hours, but suspected it might be taken other than in the encouraging spirit intended, so kept quiet. But Fjalar said cheerily, "Oh, I think it likely; whatever plot he's got, it's Odin's business more than ours. So we can use it to our advantage; and if he keeps being so helpful, whatever his reasons, I'll have no guilt telling the All-Father so."

 


 

Loki continued to cooperate with those Thor brought to his cell, Fjalar and Adalsteinn, and soon their crews as well. Sometimes, especially when bluntly told he was wrong, Thor would notice cracks in his brother's demeanor: fingers tapping an impatient staccato on his thigh, or lips pressing to a flat white-edged line. As ever he suffered neither fools nor his own ignorance gladly. But Loki always mastered himself before any blistering insult escaped his mouth, to answer politely.

Construction of the Bifrost observatory continued apace. The builders completed as much of the scaffold as was feasible, while the dwarves hew and cast the stone and metal dome. But the building could not be assembled in place until the physical aspect of the rainbow bridge existed to support it; no wood or iron frame was strong enough to cantilever the observatory's mass.

Much of these difficulties Thor heard from Loki. When they were alone his brother was far less patient explaining matters than he was with the crafters, and did not hold back on his belittling estimations of Thor's intelligence. But those were too old and blunt insults to hurt with anything more than the sting of nostalgia. And Thor had the notion it helped Loki, that he need not bite his tongue so hard around Thor.

It also gave Thor a somewhat better grasp of the situation when he joined Fjalar and Adalsteinn in private audience with Odin, to observe the All-Father trying the latest incantation the scholars had unearthed to manipulate the Tesseract. If the crafters dared not be as openly critical with the king as Loki was with Thor, there were yet marks of impatience in Adalsteinn's set jaw and Fjalar's shuffling feet, as they watched Odin whisper the final words of the spell over the cube.

Under the All-Father's spread hands, the Tesseract shone briefly brighter, then darkened to indigo. Odin fell back from the cube, his hands dropping to his sides. His face was drained of color, as if his own power had faded with the Tesseract's, and had they been alone Thor would have rushed to his father's side to support him.

But Odin would not show such weakness before his subjects. To allow his father to compose himself, Thor stepped before him to examine the dimmed Tesseract within its container, as its glow slowly returned. The uncertainty of its square corners was more evident when one could look at it directly. Its individual angles were perfect, and yet none of them quite seemed aligned with its facets, as if its edges all dropped off some hidden horizon. "So that enchantment was not an activation charm?" Thor asked.

"Not nearly," Odin said, drawing a steadying breath. Though his complexion was also returning, he looked drained yet. "Though if we required the Tesseract's energy to be plugged rather than tapped, the scholars' research would be exemplary."

"Have your scholars consulted with Loki, Odin-King?" Fjalar asked with the dwarf's usual boldness. "He's some ideas about opening the cube, that he's hinted at; and he successfully used it before back on Midgard, did he not?"

"I don't doubt that he has such ideas," Odin said sternly. "And that he used it before is why he will not be allowed to use it now. If all this required was to unleash the Tesseract's full power on the Bifrost, it could already be done; I have in my treasury the tool to employ it so. But harnessing the cube's energy within safe limits is a much subtler task."

"At least the scholars could talk to him?" Fjalar suggested. "It might give them a kick in the robes, having him show them up; seems to do wonders for my crew. I'd think about it, were I you. But either way, we're going to need him up here."

"Up where?" Odin asked.

Adalsteinn looked like he'd swallowed a cat and had it go down the wrong pipe, but overcame his chagrin to say, "All-Father, I've discussed this with Ambassador Fjalar and my lord Thor, and we need...that is, we can use Loki's advice on the site itself. There are too many changing variables in the matter of the resonance; for us to run back and forth reporting them to him would be, er, impractical..."

"If you don't want this observatory to crack off the Bifrost and follow its predecessor into the abyss, we need Loki to overview the present construction in person," Fjalar said plainly.

Before his father could respond, Thor came forward. "My king, Loki has given his parole, that he will neither sabotage this project, nor try to escape while working upon it."

"And we're to trust his word?" Odin asked, more jaded than angry.

"Trust my word," Thor said firmly. "I stake my honor that he will not escape his sentence."

Odin looked more weary still, but said, "On your honor, then."

Chapter Text

When Thor went to Loki's cell that afternoon, it was with the manacles, to bind his arms and bring him up to the courtyard where the observatory's first pieces were being shaped.

This limited freedom did not impress Loki overly much, to tell by his composure. He examined the crafters' work, tapped a knuckle on a few carved stones, inquired as to the purpose of other pieces. He did no evident damage nor any visible magic; come evening once Thor returned him to his cell, the stone and metal were all thoroughly examined, and nothing appeared altered.

After that, Thor brought Loki up to the courtyard nearly every day, and would sit and watch him work with the crafters. While Thor knew too little of building to determine if Loki were making mischief, he at least could prevent any mischief being done to him. There were those in Asgard who thought to give Loki a greater punishment than the king decreed; but Thor's glare and a significant grasp of Mjolnir's handle was enough to stop such cowards. When he had other duties he asked one of the Warriors Three or Sif to guard him; being the true friends they were, and Loki's friends as well once upon a time, Thor trusted them to let no harm befall his brother.

Loki for his part got into no obvious trouble. He did not work with his own hands, only with his voice, advising, though he told no one outright what to do, leaving the giving of commands to Adalsteinn and Fjalar and their foremen. Most often he simply walked around the site, observing the work being done and offering suggestions.

At first the dwarves and Aesir builders were reluctant to heed anything he said. As the days passed and none of the stones he touched cracked, and the only girder to buckle was that which the builder had ignored his criticism, they began to listen to Loki. Some of the crafters took to hailing him from across the courtyard to look over their labor; occasionally Thor would even hear them laughing as they spoke with him, not meanly but with genuine humor, and Loki would quietly smile back, shrugging modest denial of any praise.

It should have satisfied Thor, to see his brother's knowledge so respected; but watching Loki with the crafters left him uneasy, for reasons Thor could not identify. Not until Sif finally pointed it out, when one morning Thor returned from conference with his father to find her frowning.

"What troubles you, Sif?" Thor asked, immediately looking for his brother. Loki was kneeling beside a roughly hewn keystone to address a dwarf eye to eye—Fjalar's wife, Thor recognized; she remained suspicious of Loki, but by her nodding now was listening in earnest to his quiet conversation. "Did something happen?"

"Nothing, that I've witnessed," Sif said. "But Thor, does this not remind you of the season before that summer tournament?"

There had been very many summers and tournaments over the centuries; but Thor knew immediately to which one Sif referred.

He had been a youth, at that uncertain time when all one's will is bent on proving oneself to be the man that one's body has not quite grown into. Asgard had been enjoying an era of peace, such that a tournament had been arranged, to show off the prowess of young warriors who'd not had the opportunity to be tested in true battle. Thor had not yet been old enough to be called a warrior in truth, but in his eagerness to prove himself he insisted upon entering the tournament, and as the king's son he was not denied.

Odin privately had berated him for it, saying his loss would lessen his reputation among the real warriors; Thor, offended, had demanded whyever should he lose? It was long before he'd wielded Mjolnir, but his pride had been as great as ever. (If undeserved, he could admit now, from the comfortable distance of adulthood.) And withdrawing would've been seen as a greater cowardice, so his father did not demand it.

Loki had argued with Thor about it, too, that row public and loud enough to carry beyond the palace walls. Thor called his brother a coward for not daring to challenge him in the tournament; Loki in turn called Thor a fool for thinking himself a warrior merely because he could swing a practice sword. So bitter was their quarrel that afterwards the princes refused to speak to one another, or even sit together at the same feast table.

The rift lasted all the spring and summer before the tournament. While Thor practiced his swordwork with the Three and Sif, Loki made friends among the other young warriors. Many of them had little regard for the younger prince, with his tricks and general disinterest in swords or axes; but Loki's pranks nearly stopped for the season, and while he did not care much for dueling himself, his sharp eye could discern faults in strikes and defense.

Thor was used to heeding his brother's advice while training; over the season the other new warriors began to learn the advantage of doing so as well. Until it became no unexpected thing to arrive at the practice grounds and find Loki already there, insinuated with one group or another, offering guidance with the confidence of an experienced battle-master. At the dinner feasts he would be offered seats by young men who before would have denied knowing his face, eager to further pick his brains for strategy.

So it went until the week of the tournament, when Thor stepped onto the field and won his first victory in single combat, against an opponent impressively taller and older than himself. Then won the next fight, and the next fight after that, an admirable display of prowess from the prince, not even fully grown, but already so great a warrior.

Some remarked that Thor's skills did not to the practiced eye appear as great as his victories suggested—but then, some were always envious of royalty. Certainly none of his opponents behaved as if they had thrown their matches; on the contrary, most were livid and humiliated by their defeats.

Thor lost in the semi-finals to a brawny young farmboy recently come to the city from the outer lands. Still, it was a noble showing for the prince, reflecting well on Asgard's future king.

After the tournament's end there were rumors, but none so loud as to reach Odin's ears. Only beaten young warriors muttering in their cups, as the defeated do, about how they'd miscalculated their battles against Thor. The one who had heard that Thor was in truth left-handed and could be expected to betray his right side; or the one who'd been given a bespelled blade, only to have the curse rebound on him during their duel—dishonorable tactics and petty trickeries that no sober man would admit to having any part of.

If Loki mysteriously sported a black eye after the first day of the tournament, despite not battling himself—well, after the tournament was ended, he was back again at his brother's side, their schism mended as if it had never been at all, as is the way with boys. And no one would dare lay a hand on the younger prince when his warrior brother was there to defend him.

And Loki was uncommonly smug besides, having won a pretty sum from secret wagers placed on Thor. He split the rewards with Thor, not quite fifty-fifty—"To account for the losses, that you did not reach the finals!"

As far as Thor knew, Sif was the only one who had ever figured it out—or at least the only one who confronted Thor about it. By Odin's expression when Thor stood in the semi-finals, the king might have suspected; but he said nothing to Thor, and if he spoke to Loki, Thor never heard of it. But Sif had been as furious as the All-Father ever could be; she'd refused to spar with Thor for half a year afterwards, telling him bitingly that she only wanted a fair fight, so assumed he would have no interest. And did not care when Loki pointed out that the strategy only succeeded with those warriors willing to take an ignoble advantage to begin with.

"A lesson, to teach them a warrior's honor," Loki said, just as he had told Thor the season before; but Sif refused to listen to him. There had always been friction between her and Loki, but it was around then that their heated differences cooled to quieter but more bitter disagreements.

Now when Sif reminded him of the tournament, Thor could not help but see parallels in how Loki ingratiated himself among the builders now. Loki, who'd never had much interest in crafting, no more so than in battle. Thor always enjoyed getting to know people, understanding what they loved even if he did not share their interest; but Loki cared more for what he could learn than the people he learned it from. He liked solitude too much to gather many friends around him. Yet he had little time to himself now, but for the nights in his dark cell.

Perhaps that was why Loki looked so fatigued now. Thor had yet to find him sleeping; however early in the morning he arrived at the dungeon, Loki was always awake, bathed and dressed and waiting. His eyes were alert, but there were dark smudges under them that water could not wash away; he seemed thinner, too, high cheekbones more pronounced. The guards brought him food morning and night, but whenever Thor thought to check the dishes, they always were full.

Loki still ate the fruits Frigga gave to Thor for him, at least. Their mother did not visit the cell again, nor come to watch Loki work with the builders; but she never failed to ask Thor how he fared.

She met Thor today on the balcony when he took his lunch. He did not tell her anything of his and Sif's darker suspicions of his brother, but only mentioned again how Loki was earning the crafters' respect. Frigga thanked him with a kiss on his cheek, and gave him a bowl of cherries to bring to Loki.

Before returning to the courtyard, Thor stopped by the gatehouse where Heimdall stood, staring out at the skeletal frame of the scaffolding tied about the broken Bifrost, perhaps watching the crafters moving over it; or else simply anticipating where his new observatory would eventually be built.

"Good Heimdall," Thor greeted, a little awkwardly. Heimdall was his father's most loyal soldier, but the full force of his all-seeing gaze could unsettle anyone; and Thor was unused to speaking to him while holding a bowl of fruit. "I wished to ask...have you listened to Loki, in the past weeks?"

"I have listened to every word Loki Laufeyson says," Heimdall replied, "at the All-Father's command. Loki has been true to his parole; he's used no magic to obscure himself from me."

"That's good," Thor said, meaning it; his own honor rested on his brother's parole. "So as you've listened, you've heard nothing suspicious? No lies? Or, er, attempts to bribe or curry favor among the crafters or anyone else?"

"He's made no such attempts," Heimdall stated. "Whether all he's said is truthful, I cannot say for sure; there are words in a craftsman's vocabulary that have particular meaning to them, different from my own knowledge."

"You mean, you don't understand everything they're talking about, either," Thor said. Heimdall's golden eyes fell on him, and Thor hastily bit back his smile, said, "Thank you, Heimdall," and turned to be on his way.

"If you would bring that gift to your brother now," Heimdall said behind him, "you will find him on the Bifrost."

Thor looked out at the bridge, confused, but thanked Heimdall again and headed out the gates instead of to the courtyard. Asgard's watchman had spoken truly as he ever did; one of the tiny figures on the Bifrost was Loki. Sif was there as well, watching from a ways down the crystal bridge, while Loki paced out on the broken edge, among the wooden scaffolding.

Sif was surprised by Thor's surprise. "He's been out here before," she said, "most afternoons for the past few days, with Adalsteinn and Fjalar's permission. I thought you knew."

"I hadn't heard," Thor said, and stepped over the scaffolding to walk out to his brother.

The rainbow bridge rang softly under his footsteps, crystal glittering in the sunlight, though not shimmering with the Bifrost's former energies. The edge was perhaps a stride farther out than it had been when Thor and Loki had last stood upon it, when they had first arrived back on Asgard. The crystal was regrowing, but slowly; its full restoration would take decades, at this rate.

Loki crouched to tap a tiny crystal at the broken edge with his fingernail, head cocked to listen to its chiming song; then he stood and faced Thor, the chain on his wrists jangling.

"Father has denied you access to the Tesseract," Thor said.

"He has," Loki agreed, "but not the Bifrost. I only am checking its progress. The growth has slightly accelerated this last week, an encouraging sign; whatever spell the All-Father last tried with the cube must have had some success." His eyes fell on the bowl in Thor's hands, and his eyebrows went up. "Did you come to toss pits into the abyss?"

"For you," Thor said, "from Mother," and he passed Loki the bowl of cherries. Loki took it without bothering to correct his parentage. With the manacles it was a little clumsy for him to hold the bowl and pick out the cherries, but he managed. Then turned his head to spit the pits over the Bifrost's edge, at an angle to miss the scaffold's wooden beams.

Thor did not watch them fall into the nothing below; he carefully kept his eyes on Loki's face, closing his hands into fists to fight the urge to grab his brother by the arms and bodily drag him back from the bridge's edge. "Do you think you could make it grow faster, if you used the Tesseract?"

"I think," Loki said, pausing to spit another seed, "that Odin is being cautious. Whether overly cautious, I can't say. The mortals of Midgard might have had the more fruitful idea, to fashion apparatuses such as Asgard once had to harness the Tesseract's energy, rather than control it with mind and will. Few besides the All-Father have such will, even with the crutch of enchantments. And Odin cannot spare much of his to this project; and those sad excuses for sages who call themselves scholars offer no support but half-recorded spells and philosophical treatises on the purpose of power. You yourself would be more helpful; at least your utter ignorance on the matter would be obvious!"

Thor couldn't help but chuckle. "It's reassuring to know your estimation of my mind hasn't changed, even if you think differently of others."

Loki sighed. "Not so differently; Adalsteinn still has the artistic creativity of the lumps of rock he pushes about; and Fjalar loves too greatly the dirt under his feet to appreciate the sky above. But they are capable enough in their areas, and their crews as well. Aridva, now, shows actual promise..."

"The dwarven ambassador's wife?"

"She's be the ambassador herself, if Asgardian tradition were open to it," Loki said, eating another cherry.

"She doesn't like you," Thor said. Fjalar's wife would listen to Loki's advice, but glower as she did, and argue with him about it three or four times longer than anyone else bothered.

Loki smiled now, pointed but not cruel. "As I say, she's passing intelligent."

It occurred to Thor, as it had before, that should Loki ever meet Jane Foster, he might like her in spite of his lesser opinion of mortals. Her clever quick mind, at least, he could appreciate, better even than Thor.

Thor did not say this; while he might enjoy a little of Loki's sharp-edged tongue, he had no wish to have the full blade flay him. Though this did not stop him from asking, "Brother, what are you planning now?"

Loki ate another handful of cherries without answering, then said, "Must I always be planning something?"

"Yes," Thor said.

"I cannot be tired enough to stop?" Loki asked, so calm, like any strong feeling had been drained from him. "Quit for a little while, and only concentrate on a problem before me, thinking no further ahead than that? Perhaps find a little enjoyment in solving what others cannot. There are more ways to win a victory of mind than smashing one's opponent's skull."

"And once you have solved the problem," Thor asked, "once the Bifrost is repaired, what then? The Chitauri bargain to free you, so you might take up arms against us?"

"Or else they ignore me, after I failed them," Loki said. "Or else this war of theirs is already over, with so much of their army destroyed."

"Then you would be a prisoner of war no longer," Thor said, "but only a prisoner."

"And my sentence is hardly unbearable," Loki said. He ate the last cherry, his chains clinking against the bowl; then he gave this back to Thor. As he did he looked Thor in the face with his sunken and dark-rimmed green eyes, and said quietly, with no more feeling than before, "I cannot tell you everything you would want to hear from me, brother; nor do I have the right to ask you to believe me. But I swear on my liar's tongue that I speak honestly, when I say that I am so very tired."

With that he turned and walked back toward Asgard, his steps falling heavily on the Bifrost's bridge, and the crystal dark beneath them.

 


 

Thor did not try to convince Odin to allow Loki to use the Tesseract. But he did go to the library and talk with the scholars studying the cube, to mention what Loki had said about apparatuses, and heard at length about the ark of legend, long since destroyed, that had once contained the Tesseract and bent its fantastic powers to the realm's well-being.

The next day the scholars came to the courtyard to witness the work on the observatory, and speak with Fjalar and Adalsteinn—and Loki as well, though he deferred their questions, saying, "I am sorry, but the All-Father will not permit my assistance on this project."

The dwarves and the builders had plenty of thoughts themselves, however, with or without his assistance, that they were happy to share with the scholars and with Odin. Over the next week several dwarves with fine metal-working and lapidary skills came to the throne room, that they might examine the Tesseract on its pedestal, measure its uncertain dimensions and touch various metals to its glowing blue to observe the reactions.

The cradle they crafted was different from either the cylinder the Tesseract had been sealed in since Thor had returned it to Asgard, or the big complex machine Selvig had constructed for Loki back on Earth. It was a small and surprisingly pretty thing, a filigree cage finely wrought from gold and platinum alloys. "It's not meant to bottle up the cube, you see," Fjalar explained, "nor crack it open, but rather siphon off a bit of its energies, and direct them to the bridge—as you've been doing, All-Father, but this will be able to channel them continually, not only when you have the time and spells."

"If it works," Adalsteinn said dourly; he had opinions about jewelers doing the work of builders.

But Odin approved a test of the device, and the next morning even the master builder's stolid bearing held a hint of the anticipation obvious in all the crafters. The scholars also came, donning their official robes for the occasion and gathering with the builders and dwarves around the base of the Bifrost to observe. Odin himself was not attending, so his own magic did not unduly influence their trial, though Thor noticed one of the All-Father's ravens circling overhead, that he might oversee all from the throne.

Loki was permitted as well, though only at a distance, at the back of the crowd; he had not been allowed near the cage as it was built, even to look at it. Thor stood beside him, to make sure he did not try to get closer now.

Heimdall brought forth the Tesseract from the throne room to the cage set on the base of the Bifrost, carrying it in its container as solemnly as if he were a pall-bearer for a tiny coffin, its blue light too dim to reflect in his gold eyes. Thor glanced to Loki, who stood canted back on his heels with his arms folded, watching without any particular interest that Thor could see. Certainly not the barely suppressed eagerness of the crafters as they leaned forward, as if all yearned to touch Heimdall's burden, feel its power for themselves.

An unvoiced murmur rippled through them as Heimdall opened the cylinder and slid the Tesseract into the cradle. Fjalar and his wife closed the metal around it, fastening the various latches and adjusting the cage's spokes to touch the cube's corners, with a deftness defying their thick blunt fingers. The Tesseract's soft blue light flickered, flared a little brighter and faded again, only to brighten once more, throbbing like a pulse.

"Look!" one of the builders exclaimed, pointing to the rainbow bridge beneath the cage. It looked at first like a stray ray of sunlight—but no; that glimmer was the crystal itself, a glow flickering through its prism, pulsing like the Tesseract's light, and streaking away from them, toward the broken end.

The scholars turned to one another, muttering excitedly; a couple of the builders cheered, and louder when a second glimmer glowed within the broken Bifrost, and then a third, shedding colors as they rippled through the crystal. Cautiously the builders stepped onto the bridge to better watch the effect. When no harm came to them from the crystal glowing under their feet, they walked further along it to trace the glimmers. Emboldened by their safety, the dwarves ventured closer, daring to sidle onto the bridge even without their harnesses.

This sporadic twinkling was little like the brilliance Thor remembered of the unbroken Bifrost; but still, it was more than it had shown since he had shattered it. He grinned at Loki, asked, "So it's working?"

"Apparently," Loki said, watching coolly, without attempting to move towards the bridge or the Tesseract upon it. For all his indifferent stance, his brow was lined in thought, though whether out of hidden interest or late misgivings Thor could not tell.

The cube's pulsing light seemed to be brightening, and the bridge with it, more faint beams streaming through its rainbow crystal. Thor could almost hear it, even not walking upon it, a ringing felt as much as heard, vibrating his jaw, the Bifrost's familiar pitch. Perhaps it would be repaired by the year's end—or even the summer's—

"Wait," Adalsteinn said from where he stood on the bridge, his stentorian voice carrying over the Bifrost's chime, "is that supposed to—"

"Stop!" Heimdall bellowed over him. He stepped toward the Tesseract in its cage, which was glowing like a miniature star, its square shape obscured by its radiance, too blinding now to look upon. "Get off the—"

Without warning the Tesseract's brilliance exploded, a burst of light that whited out the world, as the Bifrost's song crescendoed into a piercing scream.

Assaulted by this fury of sound and sight, Thor barely realized that he had been knocked off his feet; that he was lying flattened on his back on the ground, and a heavy body flung over him—

Loki, he realized an instant later, when his brother's elbow caught him in the gut as Loki struggled to sit up. Thor blinked, seeing spots haloing Loki's face, his paleness cut to blue-white, but it was not Jotunn skin but from the Tesseract's glow. Thor raised his hand to shield his eyes, dazed. The sky itself seemed on azure fire with that light, and the Bifrost's continuing scream made his skull ache.

The Bifrost itself was burning, shining nearly as bright as the Tesseract. A torrent of colors poured over them, around them, flooding toward the palace and fringing Loki's figure and himself in a prismatic surf, like the momentary glimpses before the Bifrost carried one away. Through the deluge Thor could not see anyone on the bridge, not Heimdall nor any of the builders or dwarves. The palace behind them seemed ablaze; the gravel under Thor's boots flared with those rippling colors, as if all the road had become crystal like the bridge. The very ground trembled under him, or else he was himself shaking—

Loki's lips were moving; in the cacophony Thor could not make sense of this, until Loki grabbed his face in both his hands, wrenched Thor's head toward him. He was shouting to be heard, though really his voice carried clearly; the crystal's shriek was so wholly different from a voice as to not confound it. "The Bifrost," Loki was saying, "the Bifrost has been opened onto Asgard! We must stop it, Thor—you know what it will do, if it's not stopped—"

Thor shut his eyes to block out the colors, but the ground was still quaking beneath him. "But how do we stop it, without the observatory, or—Heimdall—Father—!"

"No good," Loki said, the words clear and direct in Thor's ears, annulling the Bifrost's chaotic cry. Loki's hand caught Thor's, pulled him to his feet on the rocking earth and yanked him stumbling along. "They're caught within the unsealed Tesseract, along with most the palace," Loki told him. "It should protect them, all of them, for a little while; but we must close it to stop this, and even Mjolnir cannot smash the cube—"

Thor fumbled to grab onto Loki's arm, hold him fast in place. He forced open his eyes—Loki had led them off the road, into the gutter ditch leading down to the watercourse. Sheltered by the earthen walls, the light was lessened, though still painfully bright. Thor squinted to look at his brother's white face through it, cried, "Is this your plan? To get the Tesseract?"

"The Tesseract's not my aim now!" Loki gasped back, not trying to break away from Thor. His eyes were wide with shock, reflecting the brilliance behind them. And he had been pulling Thor back toward the palace, not to the Tesseract. "I didn't build that device of theirs—later Odin can try me for whatever part I had in it; but now we must save Asgard, or there'll be no place to hold my trial!"

"How, then?" Thor asked, letting Loki go so they could sprint down the culvert. The ground kept shaking under their pounding boots. As they neared the lower gates he could hear shouting on the viaduct above, make out the blurred silhouettes of guards at arms. But the Bifrost was not a threat they could defend Asgard against.

"The royal treasury vault," Loki panted. "You can get us into it—there's an artifact with which I believe I can stop this. Will you take me to it, Thor, so I might save us?"

"I will," Thor said, and Loki's white face smiled, a death's-head grin as they ran for Asgard's only hope.

Chapter Text

The bowels of the palace were rumbling, shaking even as the ground above, caught in the Bifrost's grip. The palace guards assigned to the treasury vault looked as panicked as experienced warriors ever did, gripping their spears in both hands to bar Thor and Loki from the bridge. "My lord Thor," the lieutenant began, "what happens above—"

"Let us pass," Thor commanded, "my brother and I seek to avert disaster!" and the guards stepped aside. The spans to the vault were swaying as if rope bridges instead of stone; Loki stumbled on the unstable footing and Thor took him by the arm, pulled him along.

Thor could not guess what Loki's goal in the vault was; there were objects of great power among the many treasures, but none to control the Bifrost, that he knew of. If not Heimdall's sword, then Gungnir would be most suited to that task—not that Odin would have surrendered the spear to Loki's hands again, even with this peril...

Once they entered the treasury his aim became obvious, for the vault was lit with the same brilliant blue as shone from the Tesseract above. So bright was it that Thor could not immediately distinguish what artifact cast it; he racked his brain to remember which piece was in that alcove as Loki strode toward it. He moved surely now despite the rocking floor, undaunted by the near-blinding light.

Perhaps it dimmed a little at Loki's approach, or perhaps Thor's eyes were adjusting to the radiance. Squinting, he could see Loki's silhouette as he reached within the alcove, could see Loki's shoulders relax, falling slightly under his coat. There seemed a sudden hush come over the vault, and in the bright-lit silence Thor heard his brother exhale, like a builder setting down a heavy burden of stone.

Then Loki turned back around. His right hand was raised, and on it he wore a heavy gauntlet, wrought of hammered and burnished gold. Though the sockets in its knuckles were empty, a large cobalt stone was set on the gauntlet's back, dazzling with the same pulsing, eerie power as the Tesseract, and Thor lifted his hand to shield his eyes from it.

Bathed in this luminance, Loki's face was colorlessly pale, the vivid green of his eyes washed out to gray. Even in the light they were sunken, dark cavities in his face, so that his smile under them seemed yet more like a skull's.

The vault was still, Thor realized, the floor solid under his feet, and the Bifrost's jangling scream no longer ached in his bones. "Is it stopping?"

"Let us go see," Loki said, and laid his other hand on Thor's arm. The vault wavered around them, folded into nothingness and then unfolded again, and they were standing before the palace gates.

The broken Bifrost extended before them, still streaming rainbow light, but not so loud or blinding now. Loki raised his gauntleted hand and that light faded, until the bridge once more stood dull and quiescent, trapped in the wooden frame of the scaffold and no longer afire. The Tesseract in its cage was as dimmed, its pulsing shimmer muted, no brighter than the blue stone on the golden gauntlet's back.

Across the Bifrost and beside it lay scattered bodies, the builders and the guards, prone and motionless—but all breathing, when Thor looked closer. "How...?" he asked, then glanced down at his brother's hand still on his arm. "You swore to do no magic," he said, more a remark than a chastisement. The danger had been grave, and no one else had been aware to witness their transportation.

"I did," Loki said, and laughed, a strange jarring sound, as if he had forgotten how properly to make it. "I did; but I told you, too, not to trust me. Did I not?"

He gestured with his gauntleted hand, and Thor realized his arms were no longer bound, the manacles vanished from his wrists. "Brother," Thor said, "your chains—"

"Chains are for a prisoner," Loki said, strange like his laugh, "and I no longer require that role." His eyes were not on Thor but on the gauntlet on his hand, the glow of its cobalt stone reflecting in his hollowed eyes.

"What are you saying?" Thor asked. "If the Bifrost is successfully closed, you must return the Infinity Gauntlet to the treasury, and—"

"No," Loki said, clenching the gauntlet's golden fingers into a fist and opening them again, "there is nothing I must do, now that I wield this—only that I will do, and first is to take the Tesseract," and he turned toward where the dormant Tesseract's cage stood on the Bifrost's base, with Heimdall unconscious beside it.

"Loki," Thor said, "brother, please." He grabbed Loki's shoulder with one hand, with the other took hold of Mjolnir at his belt. "Do not force me to stop you—"

"I won't," Loki said, and if his laugh was a forgotten sound, his smile was something broken. "I won't force you to do anything, brother," and he whirled back toward Thor, so sudden and unexpectedly that Thor had not the time to leap away, or to swing Mjolnir.

Then Loki pressed the gauntlet to Thor's chest, fingers spread over his heart, and the cobalt stone flared with its brilliant light.

The blinding blue poured into Thor, filled him—strength filled him, energy coursing through his veins, like the heady rush of adrenaline but a hundred times as potent. Thor could not remember feeling its like before, not during the most pitched battles or his most incredible victories. Power that would never falter, that could not be doubted or questioned. With this power he knew he could defeat anyone, protect anything; nothing could be as strong as he was now. He wanted to laugh with it, shout with it: bellow his defiance to the universe and dare it to try to contest him now.

Loki was smiling with him, a grin too tight for pleasure, only triumph. "Yes," he said. "So this is great enough a conduit to show even you." He took his armored hand from Thor's chest as the blue stone's light faded. His hand was shaking, the gauntlet's gold plates rattling, and his face more wan; but when Loki's legs would have given way Thor caught his brother, bore him up easily with his now-limitless strength.

It took only a breath for Loki to regain his balance. "The Tesseract," he told Thor, straightening and drawing away. "Get it."

That only made sense, that they should bear the source of this power. "All right," Thor said, and went to the cage, wrenched the delicate latches open with one hand and took the cube from within. It burned like a coal against his bare skin; its blue glow pulsed in time with his heart beating in his ears, with the strength coursing through his blood.

On the ground beside the cage, Heimdall lay supine; his golden eyes were open, glazed and unseeing; but his mouth moved, shaping Thor's name. Thor ignored him, returned to Loki's side with the Tesseract.

Loki nodded, pleased, then turned back toward the palace gates and said, "Come, Thor, we have one more errand, before I depart."

Thor started to follow him, only to stop when he saw Mjolnir. The hammer was on the ground at his feet, head half-buried in the earth. Thor did not remember dropping it. He bent now to take it up again, only it would not budge, when he put his hand around the handle. Thor frowned and tugged harder, but for all his new strength it strangely did not move—

"Thor!" Loki rapped out. "Leave the hammer; you're not worthy of it like this. Besides, why should you have need of its strength, when you have the Tesseract's?"

He was correct, of course; the Tesseract in his hand confirmed it. Yet leaving Mjolnir behind seemed somehow wrong to Thor, though he could not think of why. But Loki said, "Follow me," so Thor did, carrying the Tesseract past the gates where the groaning guards were still regaining their senses, and up the palace steps.

As they reached the throne room, a dozen of the royal Einherjar guards appeared to block their way. Thor stepped forth and ordered, "Let us pass," but unlike the men at the treasury, they did not move aside.

Instead Captain Eirikur stood before his men, sword drawn, and implored, "Please, my lord Thor, don't—"

Why he would bother pleading, Thor did not understand. Loki told him, "Clear him from our path," and so Thor did so. Limbs strengthened with the Tesseract's power, he indeed did not need the hammer; he moved so swiftly as to to avoid Eirikur's stabbing sword, then swung his own fist in return. He felt Eirikur's ribs crack under his punch, through the man's armor, and momentarily regretted that he had hit so hard, versus a weaker opponent. But it was necessary, when the captain would not otherwise step aside; and that small shame was forgotten in the thrill of victory, that even a formidable Einherjar officer was so little to Thor's strength now.

The other guards Loki swept aside with a wave of his gauntleted hand. He did not even touch them, but they screamed as if in agony and fell to the ground clutching their heads. Loki and Thor walked between the fallen men, and Thor pushed open the golden doors so they could enter the throne room.

They only made it a few steps inside when a bolt of energy struck Thor in the chest, knocking the Tesseract from his hands and throwing him back against the wall. Dazed, he clambered back to his feet, to see Odin charging Loki with Gungnir, bellowing a battle-cry as if the throne room were a field of war.

Loki did not move to dodge or parry; instead he raised the gauntlet, and its cobalt gem burned like a contained sun. The fallen Tesseract brightened to match it, a star going nova, so brilliant that the floor and ceiling and pillars all gleamed like mirrors, polished gold bleached to blinding white.

Odin faltered in his charge, stumbling to a halt, slowly lowering Gungnir. His mouth was open, interrupted in his shout; he swayed where he stood, his eye glimmering blue, as if the Tesseract's light shone from within his skull.

Loki lurched as well, staggering to find his feet, but when Thor would have gone to him, he shook his head, panted, "No—get the Tesseract," and waved to where the cube had fallen.

Thor moved to obey him, but slowly. He was dizzy from Gungnir's blast, the wind knocked from his lungs; and it felt as if he could not take more than a single step towards the Tesseract with each wheezed breath. As if the blinding blue light pushed at him like a tangible flood, and even his strength now barely enough to fight that current.

Behind him Loki remarked, words coming more evenly as he caught his breath, "Such a shame, that we cannot keep the Odinson as thrall. But it would be too great a risk, when he might tear loose at any time. Thor never was one to appreciate peace or clarity."

Loki's boots rang on the tile as he approached their father. "As for you, Odin-King," he said, "don't think me such a fool, that I believe you biddable; I know only your strength is dominated, not your will. But holding you helpless is enough for my purposes." Gungnir clanked on the tiled floor as Loki tore the spear from Odin's hand and flung it aside. "Oh, your pride, All-Father, that of all the powers, it would be the gem of Mind that you saw fit to keep—did you think yourself the only one in the nine realms wise enough to wield it?"

"How?" Odin gasped, and Thor looked to see his father fall to his knees, single eye pouring blue as he stared up at Loki.

Loki laughed his forgotten laugh. "How? How did I master an Infinity Gem? Or how did I overload the Tesseract to open the Bifrost, so that Thor might grant me this power in order to save the realm?" He raised his gauntleted hand. "You should have traded both your eyes for wisdom, Odin All-Fool. Did you think the Tesseract would be satisfied to sit unused in your vault, or be employed as a beast of burden to rebuild your bridge? No more than it would be content to be broken under Thanos's cruel desires—"

"Thanos?" Odin choked out.

"He'll never have it, nor the gauntlet," Loki cried, voice rising in a shout that became a scream. "They are mine both—the Tesseract would have me. That is what it showed me, that it would choose me over the Chitauri or Asgard, over Thanos or you, All-Father. I of all the universe most worthy to bear it, to wield its full powers!"

He drew a shaking breath, went on, "But for that the gauntlet must be complete. So tell me, Odin, tell one wiser and more powerful than yourself—where are the other Infinity Gems hidden?" Loki grabbed Odin's chin with the gauntlet, golden fingers clenched around his jaw. "Who did you give them to, to conceal them?"

Thor heard his father groan, as if in greater pain than the fallen guards. It troubled Thor, but not so much that he could go to him, not when he still had to reach the Tesseract. He took another step.

"Tell me!" Loki demanded, and Thor felt his need—the Tesseract's need—pull at him like a riptide. He longed to ask the question himself, to force the answer from his father's lips; how could Odin not reply, if he knew? How could anyone refuse?

Another step, and Thor had finally reached the Tesseract, bent down to pick it up. It shone, and Thor had never seen anything so perfect. He thought that he might be satisfied to do naught but stand here and hold it in his hands, feel its power coursing through him and know he had won a greater prize than any victory before or since; know he would never lose another battle, never fail to protect—

"No, Thor," a voice told him, not Loki's strained orders, soft but certain. "Put it down."

Thor turned, the Tesseract glowing in his hands, so its blue light washed over Frigga as she stepped out from behind the pillar beside him. His mother did not look down at the cube; her eyes were on Thor's face as she moved to him, laid a light hand on his arm. "Thor, stop," she said. Meaningless words, in the face of Loki's command.

As if realizing the impossibility, she turned from Thor, to her husband and the man standing over him, and said, as steady and sure, "Loki, stop this."

Odin was crying blue light. Loki gazed with ruthless calm down at the kneeling king, gripping his chin in the gauntlet's golden fingers; without looking to Frigga he said, "Leave here now, my lady queen, if you don't care to see your husband and your son broken."

"I already see my son broken," Frigga said. "Loki, please, do not force me to this," and her voice stayed even, but her face was wet with tears, shining silvery tracks in the Tesseract's light.

Loki's laugh was like the dry crackle of a wildfire. "Watch, then, as I rip your king's mind asunder. Thor, keep her there," and he raised his gauntleted hand, set its golden palm against Odin's forehead, the cobalt gem and Odin's eye both blazing.

Thor gripped Frigga's arm with his free hand to hold her in place, not tightly, because she did not fight to free herself and go to Odin, even when the king moaned in agony. Instead she stood quietly, looking past Thor to Loki, the tears falling freely from her eyes and yet her gaze was clear, unwavering.

When she opened her mouth, it was not to reply to Loki or admonish Thor again, but only to sing, hardly louder than a hum, a quiet sad melody. The words were unfamiliar to Thor, not any tongue he knew; but her soft voice reminded him of when she would sing to him and Loki on cold winter nights, back when they were still small enough to share a bed—lullabies they'd fallen asleep to, the first music they ever knew.

At first Frigga's song was so soft that Thor wouldn't think Loki could hear at all, over Odin's groaning; but as she sang it became a little louder. And Loki stiffened when her voice reached his ears, let go of Odin to spin around. Odin slumped, head drooping, as Loki snapped, "Stop it—cease that wailing!"

Frigga did not; she only opened her mouth wider to raise up her voice, not struggling against Thor's hold, and her sorrowful eyes on Loki still.

"I said," Loki snarled, the words like a drumbeat Thor could march to, "stop it!" He strode toward them, gauntlet raised, and in its gem's light his eyes burned blue and cold.

Frigga drew a breath and sang on, though Loki was almost near enough to put the gauntlet to her heart, and open it to the Tesseract—only before he touched her he faltered, lurching on unsteady legs. His gauntleted hand fell to his side as if the gold were too heavy for him to lift; he passed his bare hand over his brow as he blinked, eyes unfocused. "No...what...how can you..."

Thor felt as dazed; he suddenly did not know why he should be holding his mother, and let her go, as she continued to sing. In his other hand the Tesseract burned; its light was searing, his palm throbbing from the pain of it, and he threw the cube aside as well, backed away from it as if it might scald him even from its distance across the floor.

"No," Loki said to see it fall, not commanding but confused. He blinked again, hand pressed to his head as he tried to straighten up, lopsided and off-balanced, as if the gauntlet's weight were dragging him down. "No, do not—you cannot—NO!" Loki howled, the howl of wind through an empty cavern. He turned to stagger for the Tesseract, reeling like a man so drunk the floor spins under him.

Frigga stepped forward, singing still, and Thor shook his head. Everything that had been so clear was now muddled. Loki had the Tesseract, but he should not have it; Thor had brought it to him, when instead he should have stopped Loki from taking it—none of it made any sense. But Loki was trying to take the Tesseract once more, dropped to his knees with his golden gauntleted hand stretched out toward the cube—

Thor extended his own hand, summoned Mjolnir to him. For a moment it seemed like it would not come; Thor closed his eyes, flexed his fingers and his will alike and called again. This time the hammer responded, flinging itself through the air to smack solidly into his open palm, cool metal soothing against his blistered skin. He wrapped his fingers about the short handle, opened his eyes.

But there was no one to fight, not anymore. Loki had fallen; he lay sprawled across the floor on his side, limbs loosely curled in and limp in the abandon of sleep, and his head cradled in Frigga's lap, with her skirts pooled around them. His eyes were closed, fluttering lashes dark against his pallid cheeks, and his slack mouth was neither smiling nor scowling, but set in the pout of a soundly slumbering child.

Frigga, humming softly, stroked the hair back from his brow, gentle fingers combing through the black strands to untangle their errant curls. "Oh, my son, my beautiful dark boy," she murmured, grieving sad as her lullaby. "What has happened to you?"

With the greatest care she lifted Loki's arm, drew the golden gauntlet off his lax hand and set it aside on the floor. Its cobalt gem was dark now, and the Tesseract on her other side dulled as well, its blue faded to only a water-faint shadow, lost in the throne room's golden ambience.

Odin knelt on the floor, stooped and bent over on hands and knees and breathing in harsh gasps. Thor went to him to help him up, and his father grabbed his arm, bruising tight, as his eye raked over Thor from under brows set with pain and dread. As he met Thor's eyes, the fear fell away, his fingers loosening their iron band around Thor's bicep. He reached up to pat Thor's cheek, said hoarsely, "There you are, boy, yourself again."

"I think so," Thor said, unsure. He could not bring himself to look at the Tesseract; the thought of losing himself in its horrible blue made his stomach twist. He could not bring himself to look at his mother, either, or Loki with her.

The golden doors burst open and four of the Einherjar guards rushed inside, spears ready and faces ashen. Captain Eirikur was not among them, and Thor's stomach knotted tighter.

Odin put his hand on Thor's shoulder, pushed himself to his feet. "Is the Bifrost closed and inactive?"

The guards all snapped to face him, as their lieutenant bowed and said, "Yes, my king."

Odin breathed out, long and rattling in his throat. "Then all is well here," he said, his hand still resting heavy on Thor's shoulder, and Thor did not know if he had ever heard a greater lie.

Chapter Text

Loki slept peacefully for the day and the night and late into the next day; past noon he at last awoke, screaming.

Thor did not witness this himself. He did not take Loki back to the dungeon; two of the Einherjar guards bore the prisoner's sleeping body on a pallet, with Frigga accompanying them to open the cell's metal barricade. Another brace of Einherjar carried the Infinity Gauntlet back to the treasury, wrapped and shrouded in silk, to blot out the faint gleam of its cobalt gem, and that none of them might touch it.

While they did this, Thor went out the gates to the Bifrost, where the builders and dwarf crafters were slowly reviving. Healers came to administer to them; it did not seem anyone was severely injured, but they were unsteady on their feet, shaken and prone to reaching out to the walls, to the scaffolding, to one another, making sure all they saw was real and solid.

Heimdall stood watch over them and the Bifrost. His complexion looked more gray than brown, and he stood braced against his sword; but his golden eyes were as piercing as always. He nodded to Thor, said, "So the spell is broken."

"Yes," Thor said, "and the Tesseract contained, and the gauntlet returned to the vault, and Loki—" He broke off; he did not need to say it, when Heimdall had been awake to see and hear for himself. Instead he said, bowing his head, "I am sorry, Heimdall, that I took the cube from your guardianship."

He could not say that he had not meant to do it. He had meant to, at the time; it had not even occurred to him that he should not.

Thor had been enchanted before. He'd had illusions cast upon him, and the odd love and lust spells that most adolescents try sooner or later. He had been cursed, with classic ill-fortune jinxes as well as more dangerous banes; he'd even been possessed by a wayward spirit on one terrible occasion. And more than a few of these incidents were related to Loki, one way or another.

But Thor could not remember anything like this. This had not been his body being controlled, forced to act against his will. He had done as he willed; but that will had been changed. His mind had still been his own, his thoughts still his thoughts—but not thoughts he ever should have had. His self had not been replaced, but rather transformed, like a shapeshift of the mind rather than the body: made into the self that Loki wanted, so that he willingly did what Loki wanted.

Or was that so different after all, when for the past day—the past weeks, the past season—he had already been doing as Loki had wanted? Thor had brought the builders and scholars to Loki, so that he might arrange the Bifrost's opening; he had brought Loki to the vault, allowed him to take up the gauntlet.

He had been a tool, the liar's duped ally. From the first day of their return, when he had taken off Loki's muzzle and listened to him.

Listened to everything he had said, but the very first words—"You shouldn't trust me."

Loki had known from the start what he was going to do. Had told Thor so, that it would be Thor's fault for letting anything happen, Thor to blame for not listening to that warning.

Thor should never have removed the gag.

He went to the healing hall. Eirikur had been placed under a curative enchantment, to mend three broken ribs and a badly sprained shoulder. Thor returned the next morning to find the captain awake, arguing with the healer that with his arm bandaged and in a sling he might return to his duties.

When he saw Thor, he stiffly got up from the pallet, bowed low and said before Thor could speak, "My lord Thor, I offer my greatest apologies, that I was unable to stop you yesterday."

Thor shook his head. "I was—you should not be the one to—"

"You were bespelled," Eirikur said. "And we all know the power of Loki's sorcery. Had I the chance, I would've summoned twice as many men—"

"It wouldn't have mattered," Thor said, thinking of Loki raising the gauntlet, and how the guards had collapsed—though they were already recovered, unlike Eirikur, hurt at Thor's hand.

The captain clenched his jaw, and Thor realized how his denial might be taken. "I mean no disregard the Einherjar, Eirikur," he said quickly. "Only that the Tesseract's power isn't something a warrior can easily fight against."

Eirikur's expression softened. "Aye, my lord," he said. "You should remember so as well."

Only Thor had not fought against that power, but with it. He remembered the strength infusing him, the conviction of it, like the undeserved confidence of youthful arrogance magnified a hundredfold. But strength was not the same as righteousness; that he might have been undefeatable did not make him worthy of victory. How could he have forgotten that, even enthralled?

Odin held an audience that morning, but retired to his chambers come afternoon. Thor went there and found the All-Father already taken to his bed, looking more exhausted than when he and Loki had first returned from Midgard, when Odin was recovering from channeling the dark energies. In his drawn face his eye looked more gray than blue, and Thor was grateful for the dullness, that it might not be mistaken for unearthly light.

"Father," Thor said, approaching the bed, "are you well? Do you...would the Odinsleep—"

But Odin shook his head. "Not yet," he said. "Regular sleep will do, for now," and Thor felt shamed by the lifting of his heart, that he escaped the burden of the crown. But he did not feel as if he could honor it, not now.

Odin's gray eye was on his face and Thor knew his father saw his feelings, relief and shame alike; but Odin did not rebuke him for them. Instead the king asked, "And how did you sleep last night, my son?"

"I..." Thor hesitated, finally admitted, "I did not." He could not, was more the truth; he could not trust his body, that he might leave it to do anything, while his consciousness and conscience were fled. He could not trust his dreams, either; he did not know what they would be now, and did not want them.

Odin sighed. "Your brother slept well and long under your mother's spell, but woke poorly, only an hour hence, screaming as if he were being torn apart."

Thor stiffened, every muscle in him knotted tight, and his fists closed at his sides. He didn't ask whether his father had learned this from a guard, or through some other means; it did not matter to him. "I hadn't heard; I hadn't the time to go to the dungeon," he said, as evenly as he could manage. "Maybe he was rewarded with the nightmares he deserved."

"Maybe, but such are an evil thing to wish on anyone."

Even on an evil thing? Thor wondered, but did not say it aloud; his father looked so weary, and Thor did not wish to upset him with argument. Odin closed his eye, leaned back upon his pillows. "Try to rest tonight, Thor," he said, a request rather than a command. "Ply yourself food and mead, if you must. You need your strength. I'll send Munin to guard your dreams," and he made a subtle movement of his fingers at the single raven perched above his bed, which croaked a dutiful reply. Hugin was absent, that the king might watch over his kingdom even while he slept.

"I will try," Thor promised his father.

He stayed true to his word, feasting and drinking with the Warriors Three late into the night, that he might tire himself too much to recall his dread of sleep. Thor's friends were happy to assist him, without knowing the reasons for it. Besides the king and queen, no one but Heimdall and the Einherjar guards had witnessed Loki's attempt to claim the Tesseract, and by royal decree they were sworn to secrecy.

That Loki had made such an attempt and broken his parole, that was already known by everyone in the palace, spread on the falcon-quick wings of rumor. But not how close Loki had come to succeeding, nor that he had nearly conquered Asgard's king. And not Thor's part in it, not even that he had been the one to let Loki into the vault. The Bifrost's opening had been a grave crisis, Odin declared; whatever drastic and imprudent measures Thor took were excused by reason of necessity.

So Thor did not tell his friends the truth, though the lie weighed in his gut like a stone. His friends in turn saw his distress, and kindly did not ask for explanation, but simply helped him fill his belly with meat and bread and mead and spirits until that stone was buried and drowned. Not until late in the night did Volstagg happen say, "It's a damn shame about Loki, that he couldn't have been honestly trying to—urgh, I mean to say, that is—"

His drunken tongue fumbled until Hogun was forced to step in, raising his latest glass to say firmly, "It is a damn shame," and they all drank to that (save Fandral, who was under the table and not quite asleep, but neither quite awake enough to lift another stein.)

Well past midnight they lurched off to their chambers. Sif helped Thor's stumbling feet find their proper way; she had been on guard duty for most of the evening, and only joined them at the end. So she had not seen much of Thor's mood save for boisterous drinking songs; but still she thought to tell him, "I am sorry, Thor."

"I'm sorry, too," Thor said, too drunk not to. "I should have taken the Tesseract and left him on Midgard, for their justice; he's not Aesir anyway, so it would only have been fair."

Sif did not answer, and in the shadows Thor could not see her fuzzy face well enough to see if she agreed or not. She should, he thought; she had never liked Loki. Or perhaps she might have liked him—there were times that most anyone did, in spite of everything—but she had never trusted him. Sif was always the cleverest of them, save for Loki himself.

Thor might have told her so, and other things besides, but presently he realized he was lying on his bed alone in his chambers. His father's raven Munin was perched on the headboard, watching as promised. Thor rolled over onto his back to peer up at the bird. Its dark eyes seemed reproachful in the gloom, glittering against its pitch feathers.

"I'm only doing what Father told me," Thor told it belligerently. "As I should." Though was that right? A would-be king should not do as he was told. Or did it depend on who advised him?

At least, he should not obey if what he were told was a lie; should not obey a prisoner and a traitor who wanted only power, even if once they had been brothers. That, he was sure of.

But doing as his father had told him proved right now; Thor managed to fall asleep. If it was a restless doze, with much tossing and turning and displacement of blankets, it was also without dreams, nothing when he closed his eyes but empty blameless darkness.

 


 

Thor awoke the next morning with his head muzzy and throbbing. The mid-morning sunlight was at just the angle to pierce his eyes when he opened them, and he immediately regretted doing so. He shut them again, but the damage was already done; a gentle voice said his name, and he felt the bed move as someone sat upon it.

Realizing the voice was female, Thor forced open his eyes again, thinking somewhat frantically that he'd been sure Sif had not been in his bed when he had fallen asleep—but it was not Sif sitting beside him. "Mother?" Thor asked, rubbing his eyes and sitting up. Then he hastily pulled his blankets up around his bare chest, grateful that he'd failed to strip out of his breeches before falling asleep.

Frigga might have smiled at his modesty—very slightly, such that it might have been for some other reason entirely. "I brought tea," she said, indicating the table beside the bed.

Thor took the cup there and drained it gladly, though it was hot enough to burn his tongue. His mother rarely offered such succor, preferring that his suffering teach him temperance. The minor charm in the brew restored him immediately, dispelling the aching to leave him clear-headed and refreshed even after the uneasy night.

Frigga watched him finish the tea and nodded to see its effect. She waited until he returned the cup to the table before she asked, "How are you feeling, Thor?"

"Better," Thor said. His friends' companionship the previous night had been as much a restorative as her tea; if he still did not feel entirely himself, he was closer, at least.

"I am glad to hear it," his mother said, resting her hand on his forearm. "I have a request to make of you, Thor. Which I know will be difficult for you; but I know too how strong you are, your heart as well as your arm."

Not strong enough, Thor could not help but think; but in the warm morning sunlight the guilt was more a passing chill than a blow. "Of course, Mother, whatever you need, I'll do what I can." He would have said so regardless; but he owed her all the more now—all the realm owed her, even if only he and his father knew the truth of it.

Frigga bowed her head. "Thank you, Thor," she said. "Then for me, will you go down to the dungeon and visit your brother?"

"What?" Thor yanked away from her, rougher than he meant to in his shock. Frigga folded her hands in her lap, watching him with composed eyes, as Thor demanded, "Why? What reason would I have to see Loki—to consort with a prisoner and a traitor to the realm? He broke his parole and his word, opened the Bifrost's fury on Asgard and sought to take the Tesseract, to torture Father, to—to... What should I possibly say to him, after that?"

"Nothing," Frigga said. "I don't ask you to speak with him. Only that you go to his cell, and allow him to speak with you, if he will."

"And what would he say to me? Apologies he doesn't mean, excuses that are not true—reasons with no reason to them? None of his lies can change the truth of what he did."

"I do not know if he'll try to explain himself," his mother said quietly. "And if he does, I don't ask you to believe him. I do not make this request for your sake, Thor. Or for Loki's, in truth; it is for myself. Your brother refuses to talk to me, or even look at me; he has not said a word since awakening. I would have him speak to someone, whatever he would say, to know for sure he can still speak—that his silence is because he wishes to keep it, and not that I harmed him more, when I forced my lullaby over him..."

Frigga's voice trembled at the end. Her hands resting in her lap clenched around the folds of her gown, until the knuckles whitened. Thor put his own big hands over his mother's and found them cold like ice, even in the spring morning. He clasped them to warm them, said pleadingly, "Mother, please, do not—your magic cannot hurt; your spells heal." That Loki was a thing beyond healing he did not suggest. "You only put him to sleep; the healers often do the same, and for longer—"

"That was no curing spell I cast on him," Frigga said. "A healer's charms cannot be forced on someone, else they become a curse instead. My spell only succeeded because Loki had accepted my magic, willingly took it into himself, when he ate of the fruit I enchanted for him. It would not work again; he's shielded himself against me now, shored up his sorcery, that my own small magic has no more sway over his. He may refuse to speak to me for the same reason, to give me no chance to gain power over him. As much as out of bitterness that I betrayed him so."

"Betrayed him?" Thor said. "You only sought to save us all—even Loki, from his own folly—!"

Frigga's eyes were dry, as if the sorrow in them were too great for tears. "I gave him gifts, then used them against him. What would you call that, if not the worst betrayal of a freely received kindness?"

"But you wouldn't have needed to, if he hadn't betrayed us first!"

Steel hardened his mother's tone. "Would you claim that two wrongs make a right?"

"No, of course not," Thor said, "but do you not think that this is how Loki wants it? For us to doubt ourselves, doubt our judgment of him—make this our fault as much as his, for ever trusting him. When he is the one who lies; he is the one who acts against us, for no reason but that it suits him. These last weeks, I visited him, talked with him, tried as best I could to help him—I would yet call him my brother, even while he was branded a prisoner and a traitor to Asgard. And in turn he—he would seize my own self from me; he would ignore everything freely given to him, to instead take what he wanted—!"

"Thor," his mother said, softly, but her mouth was set, pinched at the corners.

Thor looked down to see his hands were squeezed tight, crushing hers. He forced his grip open, saw the red prints his fingers left on her tender skin and shuddered. "Mother, I'm so sorry—"

"It's all right; it hardly hurts. My heart hurts so much more, for you," and Frigga reached up to cup his cheeks, guiding his head down so she could press her forehead to his. "Oh, my beloved son, if only I could cure this pain as simply as I eased your sore head. Your father was wounded in mind, but what was done to you was so much worse..."

"What Loki did to me," Thor said, angrily, a satisfyingly honest anger that flared hotter than either his guilt or his heartache.

But his mother stayed cool in the face of it, her hands still on his cheeks. He felt her sigh. "Yes," she said plainly, not trying to deny it. "It was a terrible thing he did, and all the more terrible that it was he who did it, to you."

"This isn't like when we were little," Thor said, pulling away from her to rise, to pace across the floor and let the rage surge through him. "This is not like Loki hiding my clothes while I bathed, or scoring my wooden sword so it would break in my next training duel. This is not even like bringing the Jotunn into Asgard, that my coronation would be ruined—"

"No," Frigga agreed, so calm it almost made Thor angrier, "it is not."

"You would always tell me to forgive him. Tell me that we were brothers, and so we must put aside our differences; tell me that whatever Loki did to me, he had his reasons, even as I had my reasons for what I did to him. And often enough the only reason was that we were brothers. But this—I have faced enemies, have fought many foes in many battles; but none have ever done to me what Loki did. And you would have me go to him, speak to him, let him speak to me—I think I've done that enough; I think I've given him all I need to, even if I once thought him my brother."

Thor stopped before his mother, standing over her. He almost expected her to slap him, as she had when he was a boy, denying that Loki could be kin; he was braced for it. But Frigga only said, "You have given him that much, and more besides," serene in her grief. "And I don't ask that you forgive him now, or try to understand his reasons."

"But," Thor said, "you would still ask me to go to him."

His mother nodded. "I would."

"Why?"

"Because he is my son," Frigga said. "My heart hurts for him, as much as it does for you; and I would do anything I can, to relieve either of your pain."

"What pain does Loki have?! His scheme failed—he'll be plotting again. If he's gone quiet now, it's only because he's working out his next lie to tell. Even if your spell was forced upon him, what injury could it have done? Nightmares he might have had when sleeping—but he made all his nightmares himself. You may mourn, Mother, that someone you call son has done such things; but Loki deserves no pity—"

"Does he not?" Frigga asked quietly. "Thor, you were under the Tesseract's power for less than an hour, and found it as terrible a thing as ever you have endured. How many days—how many weeks, or months, was Loki bound to it, in the time he was gone from us?"

Thor stared at her, that she could be so mistaken. "Loki commanded the Tesseract; he wasn't commanded by it!"

Frigga looked at him. "Do you think there is much difference, with power such as that? You felt yourself stolen from you; while Loki's self...did you not tell me the first day you returned from Midgard with him, that he was no longer the boy I knew as my son, no longer the man you knew as your brother. That he was changed, lost to us—stolen."

"No." Thor shook his head. "If that were true—he was free of the Tesseract, yet he wanted it back; willingly took it back, and took the gauntlet besides. He wanted that power—we took it from him, and all he did afterwards was in order to get it back!"

"Yes," Frigga said, level though her eyes brightened with tears. "And how great a pain must he suffer under, that he would want something so terrible in its stead?"

Thor could not imagine it; he could not imagine any horror or torment that he would choose the Tesseract's blue light over. And Loki had not been injured, had not suffered in his peaceful cell; yet when he had his chance he had not hesitated a moment, even to put Asgard itself at risk. Thor remembered him in the vault, how his stride had steadied on the shaking floor as he reached for the Infinity Gauntlet. He had wanted it at any cost. The help he gave them with the Bifrost, everything he said to Thor, that Thor might fondly recall the brother he'd once had—all only in service of his want for that power.

No, he could not pity Loki for choosing to take up the gauntlet and the Tesseract; he could only hate Loki for that, as much as for what he had done with them.

But Frigga's compassion was a mother's, eternal and indissoluble, and Thor loved her for it, more even than he could hate Loki. He could not stand his mother's hurting, even if the one she hurt for did not deserve it. Not when he was strong enough to do this for her. Thor bowed his head, took his mother's hands in his—so carefully, not daring even to fold his fingers around hers, though their reddening had faded. "I will go to the dungeon," he promised her, "and see Loki in his cell. And if he speaks to me, I'll tell you what he says."

"Thank you, Thor," Frigga said, and embraced him, holding him close, so that her silent weeping wet his shoulder. "Thank you."

Chapter Text

Thor did not go to the dungeon that day. No sooner had his mother left his chambers when Odin summoned him to the throne room to attend the morning audiences. Thor stood on the dais beside the throne and listened to the petitions, careful always to keep his eyes averted from the Tesseract, again contained and set on its pedestal, opposite him on the dais.

Thor wondered at the danger, continuing to keep the cube so close. If Loki escaped again, he would know immediately where to find it, Thor pointed out to his father when in private. But Odin replied that the Tesseract would be no safer anywhere else in the realm, than here under the Einherjar's guard and his and Heimdall's watchful eyes. Besides, being in the vault had not protected the gauntlet.

In the afternoon, the king retired to his bed, and had Thor sit on the throne, to hear applicants from Asgard's furthest farms after their long journey to the palace. By the time this business was finished, the dinner feast was served; then evening had fallen, and Thor did not dare speak to Loki in darkness, when he might do anything. Instead he passed another night with the Warriors Three and Sif. They drank no more mead than usual (Fandral was still not quite recovered from the previous night) but played dice games for low stakes, with a little friendly brawling when rolls went badly.

Come morning Thor jerked awake from a deep but uneasy slumber, disturbed by forgotten dreams and some slight pricking guilt. Before his mother might appear to press him on his promise, Thor quickly bathed and dressed, donning his armor as if he were going to war, then proceeded down to the dungeons.

Descending the stairs into the cell, he found its inmate standing by the window, a silhouette in stripped-down black; his armor had been taken from him. Loki glanced to Thor and then back outside, unconcerned.

As if nothing had changed, and this grated on Thor. He thought Loki should appear differently now that he had revealed his real self, even to Thor. He should look like a monster, a fiend, a traitorous scheming villain; no longer like Thor's brother. But here he was as he had always been, pale and dark, quick-fingered hands clasped behind his back, head inclined back to gaze down upon the abyss with aloof, refined poise. Loki had always been as good at lying with his visage as with his tongue.

His eyes were sunken still, set in dark shadows, the hollows of his cheeks almost gaunt. But the apparent exhaustion did not show in the straightness of his back, in his smooth sneering voice—that too unaltered, for all Frigga's concerns. "So the noble Thor would yet come to the prisoner's cell. And here I hoped myself finally rid of your cloying company."

Thor crossed his arms over his chest, stared at Loki and said nothing. All the better, if Loki would speak to him anyway; Thor could keep his promise to his mother and to himself as well. Words were ever Loki's weapons and Loki's battlefield; Thor would not fight him on that treacherous ground.

"No answer?" Loki turned from the barrier to look at Thor, tilting his head as if genuinely curious. "Ah, have I at last provoked Odinson's famous temper? So this was what it took—you claim Midgard as ally, but in the end you care not what happens there, how many mortals might be slaughtered. But risk Asgard..."

He took a step forward, watching Thor's face, though Thor set his lips tight and did not meet Loki's eyes, staring over his shoulder into the mists beyond the windows.

"Oh, but it was not Asgard," Loki said, soft as a snake rustling through grass. "Not the realm; not even what I did to your beloved father. It was the gauntlet, wasn't it. That I touched you with it, and opened wide your soul—tell me, Thor, how much did you enjoy it? Is it not glorious, the certain reality of power? You who've always loved being the strongest—did you not love that?

"Or," and Loki paused, one contemplative finger brushing down his lip, "or was it not enough, when within that power you knew the truth as well, that I was your better? Does it sicken you now, to recall how you bowed and scraped to me? I could have bade you lick my boots clean, and you contentedly would have knelt. Tell me, prince, in your deepest heart did you not enjoy it, the secret gratification of obeying one superior to you?"

Thor breathed in and out through his nose, focusing himself as he would before a battle, ignoring the baiting taunts of his foes. He listened to Loki's words because he had vowed to his mother he would; but he did not need to acknowledge them. Besides, to try to parry would only be to open himself to greater attack, if Loki realized how close his feints had come.

Loki leaned back, hip casually cocked, arms spread in contrast to Thor's crossed closed stance. "I should bring you with me after all—worth the risk, that I might share that joy with you. Next time I shall. We'll go to Midgard, you and I, and you can lead me to your allies, your mortal friends—"

"Stop it," Thor rumbled before he could help himself; lies or not, he did not wish to hear this.

Loki's eyes opened slightly larger, catching the light in a gleam of triumph. His lips curled in a wicked smirk. "Oh, but haven't you looked forward to that reunion?" he asked. "If no more than I. To bring the gauntlet there—that clever man of iron, his heart might be shielded, but not so his mind; and it would be great fun to play with his demons. And to have the little hawk back at my side, where he belongs—at least for long enough to kill his pretty spider whore, as I promised her.

"The soldier, now, bores me; I would leave him to your hammer, and have you bring me his heart afterwards, as a trophy. And the monstrous beast...ahh, his fantastic body rules over his mind; but the gauntlet would dominate his mind first. It would trap him in that weak human shell, and then there would be no end to what I could do to him. Or, well, I suppose an end eventually; they are called mortals for a reason..."

Thor said nothing, gritting his teeth, not allowing Loki another victory. Loki's smile widened; he licked his lips, went on, "Then it would be time to seek her out, your clever human lover. Dr. Foster would be thrilled to see you again, don't you think? Running into your arms, overjoyed—until she looked into your eyes and realized they were no longer hers; but by then it would be too late for her—"

"How?" Thor interrupted. "How do you intend to do any of this, from here?" and he nodded at the cell.

Loki barked a laugh, shrill and gleeful. "You think this will hold me? How long do you think I'll stay safely imprisoned this time? Know this, Thor, when I escape, when once more I take up the gauntlet and the cube—you will be the second one I come for, the second thrall I take.

"And can you guess the first?" He leaned close, as if they were brothers once more, Loki at Thor's shoulder, murmuring advice into his ear. "The first will be the bitch queen who so deviously tricked me, when like a fool I took her cunning for maternal affection. Not a mistake I'll make again. No, I'll let her live to witness all your crimes, so that she may know her son by blood is no less a monster than her son by lies. Then at the end, while she still begs denial, I will have you take her—"

"STOP!" Thor roared, and Loki did, his poisonous words choked short by Thor's hand around his throat, by the rattling clang as Thor slammed him back against the metal bars that outlined the transparent barrier.

Loki gagged at the impact, body jerking; but he was grinning still. He brought up his hands, coiled his arms around Thor's and wrenched. Thor released him before his forearm could be snapped between Loki's, and Loki ducked and threw himself forward, ramming his shoulder into Thor's solar plexus, knocking him back.

Instead of following up this blow, Loki dodged past him—going for the staircase, Thor realized, and lunged for him. He caught at Loki's sleeve, only for his hand to pass through nothingness—

"Every time!" Loki gloated in Thor's ear, his duplicate image vanishing as he wrapped his arm around Thor's neck. Thor kicked backwards, tried to elbow him, but Loki twisted like an eel to avoid the blows. Hand-to-hand, they knew each other too well, strengths and weaknesses alike; when wrestling Loki's speed could match Thor's strength, or close enough not to matter.

Loki's arm dug in until Thor saw spots over his vision. He did not know if Loki might use him to escape the cell, or whether his unconsciousness would keep the barricade from opening—did not dare to find out. They might be matched in unarmed combat, but Thor was never weaponless.

He summoned Mjolnir to his hand and released lightning over them both. The current surged through them, invigorating Thor, throwing Loki back.

He slammed into the barrier and fell on his back on the floor of the cell, heaved himself up on his elbows, wheezing, to glare up at Thor standing over him. As he had been on the rainbow bridge, that year and more ago.

Thor could have ended it then, and none of this would have happened. Should have ended it then—but he could do so now. He raised Mjolnir over his head.

Loki was staring—not at Thor but at the hammer, eyes wide. His tongue worked behind his parted lips, a trail of blood leaking from the corner of his mouth as he sought words, some lie to escape this—

No, Thor thought—no, not escape. The wild wideness of Loki's eyes was not fear, not terror despite his pale cheeks—it was hunger. The avarice that he had so carefully hidden whenever he saw or spoke of the Tesseract, now showed naked on his face as he stared up at Mjolnir. The words his tongue struggled to find were not those that would stop the hammer, but those that would bring it down on him.

Thor froze, suspended by shock. Loki panted, found the breath to speak, lips cracking into a joyless, taunting smile, "So Thor Odinson is that much a coward—"

"Stop this," Thor said, one more time, as slowly he lowered Mjolnir to his side, "Loki, stop."

"Coward," Loki hissed again, struggling to sit the rest of the way up. His mouth was still stretched into the grin, his teeth bloody behind his bloody lips. Backed up against the wall, he dragged himself to his feet with its assistance. "He told me my conviction was lacking, but yours no less so—oh, but you didn't hear that part, did you? The little man with the big gun—the agent whose heart I ran through, while you watched helpless from my cage. His dying words to me were that your allies would defeat me—but it was only my army you defeated; I am here yet, while he is dead. I will be here still, when all your human friends are gone. I will find it—I will take the Tesseract, from wherever you have hidden it—"

"Hidden it?" Thor asked, realizing too late that this was most certainly another trick to get him to talk.

Loki laughed like a broken thing. "I know, you fool! Even if I couldn't see or touch or channel the Tesseract, I still could feel the beat of its distant pulse as it sat before Odin's throne, waiting for me. Wherever the cube has been sealed away now, whatever miserable world it's been buried in, if you let me live I will find it; I will take back what is mine, my right and destiny—"

Thor frowned. "The Tesseract is where it has been, in the throne room."

Loki's eyes narrowed to green slits. "You lie."

"Why would I?" Thor asked. "Without the gauntlet—without me—you'd have no chance of taking it from the All-Father's guardianship, wherever it's put."

Loki stepped forward, scrutinizing Thor's face, reading every feature as he would a magic scroll. "No," he said, shaking his head. His smile became a grimace, red-stained teeth clenched behind it. "No," he forced through them, "no, no—!"

Without warning he whirled around to hammer his fists on the window behind him, screaming, "No!—I am still here! I will—I will endure, I will live, so that I may reclaim you—reclaim the gauntlet—I will take up your power, I will bear it! I will rule, as I promised you, as you promised me—do not forsake me—I will be your sword and your shield, your voice and your emissary—I am still here—!"

The clear barrier did not crack under his blows, did not even quiver, accepting every impact with a dull muffled thud. Loki's fists were leaving red smudges on its transparency. "Loki!" Thor said. When Loki did not stop, he stepped closer, grabbed Loki's wrists to halt his next assault.

Loki struggled, but not his calculated attack before; instead he thrashed wildly to free himself, wrenching against Thor's hold until Thor thought he might yank his shoulders from their sockets. He leaned in with all his weight, shoving Loki against the barrier to restrain him as he forced his arms back, cried again, "Loki!"

Loki's head twisted around, his eyes flashing across Thor's, gaze skipping like a stone over water and then locking on, searing green. He stilled in Thor's grip, drew himself up under Thor's gaze. "Thor," he said, throat working, stuttering with his lower lip catching between his teeth, bitten red and bleeding again. "Thor, brother, you must—you must—take me to the throne room; I will build the Bifrost again, I will remake it anew, perfect. Just let me—with the Tesseract—I promise, I promise, I promise you, brother, I will do it truly. You'll be back on Midgard in a fortnight, back with your friends, your love. An hour would be all I need, an hour with the cube, and then I'll stay in this cell, I will stay and not leave, I promise, just let me—just let me, Thor—"

This was a lie, Thor thought; it was a trick, Loki saying outright what he claimed to want, to distract from his real goal. It was a lie, the water dripping from Loki's wide bruised eyes, coursing down his hollowed cheeks; a lie, though Loki stared like he did not even realize he was crying, not trying to blink the tears away.

When Thor let go of Loki's wrists, Loki's arms fell limp at his sides. He slumped back against the barrier, next to the blood his broken knuckles had smeared across it. His eyes were still fixed on Thor's face, and his mouth kept moving, but his voice had cracked, died away, and his unvoiced whisper hitched with his uneven rasping breaths, "—Let me, just let me—"

Thor said his name, but Loki did not seem to hear him, even staring at him so intently. Thor was not sure Loki understood the words he himself was speaking, if he even realized he was still speaking them. Slowly Loki slid down, until he sat on the floor, arms over his drawn-up knees, like a child would sit. His lips stopped shaping the whispers, but stayed parted, so his breath whistled softly between them. The tears dried on his face; he did not wipe them off, still staring, now at nothing, the empty space in the cell behind Thor and before the stairs.

Thor crouched beside him, slowly, as warily as one might move around a cornered animal; though Loki did not flinch back, did not even seem to notice him. Not until Thor cautiously laid a hand on his arm; then his head jerked up. He stared at Thor, his eyes red-rimmed, but clearer; the red made the green seem brighter. "Thor," he said, brow furrowing, as if puzzled that Thor were there at all; then he gave his head a quick shake, said, "No—no. You cannot, can you. I would not be allowed near it. Nor in the All-Father's throne room again."

"No," Thor said, pronouncing the words carefully so they could not be misunderstood, "you would not be."

Loki's tongue flicked out, dabbed at the blood crusting at the corner of his mouth. His voice was eerily even, would have been smooth had his throat not been hoarsened by his screaming before. "I would—I would find a way, a way to convince you," he said. "If I were not so tired now, and if it were not so loud in here..."

It was nearly silent in the cell, but for Loki's unsteady breathing, and the faint howl of the wind through the stone crags and the abyss's depths, barely audible through the windows. Another lie, Thor thought, though he did not understand its meaning. He did not understand, either, what Loki thought he might convince him to do; take him to the Tesseract, or else...

"If you are tired," Thor told him, "you should sleep."

Loki's head tilted to the side, eyes distanced with thought, before he agreed, "Yes. Yes, if I could."

"You can try," Thor said. He pushed himself to his feet, took Loki's arm and drew him standing as well. Loki leaned against him, so heavily Thor thought if he moved away Loki would collapse back where he sat, like one of the badly made top-heavy figures Fandral would sometimes whittle.

He tugged on Loki's elbow, and Loki walked with him, one step at a time to the cot. He laid down on it, one leg dangling off, as if he had not the strength to pull it up with the other; he closed his eyes, and his breathing evened, slowed.

Another lie, Thor thought, a sham. Loki could not have fallen asleep so quickly. Loki would not have listened to Thor's counsel at all. He was only pretending, that he might take Thor by surprise, try again to escape.

Thor put his hand out and was almost surprised to touch not an illusion but Loki's solid shoulder, rising and falling with his sleeping breaths.

Thor watched the cot as he climbed the steps out of the cell, ducking down to keep his eye on it until the barricade was set. Loki did not open his eyes, did not stir, even at the clang of the metal sliding back into place, locking the prisoner within his cell.

Thor felt as if he could not breathe, as if the tunnel were caved in on him, all of Asgard's weight bearing down on his chest. He marched through the dungeon's corridors, all but running, and the lift was too grinding slow bringing him to the surface. Even in the open sunlight he felt that pressure closing in around him, until he gasped from it.

He went to Frigga as he had vowed to do, found her in her weaving room, at her spinning wheel. She rose when he entered, hurried to him.

"Mother," Thor said, "he..." and then he could not go on; he could not find the words himself, nor the heart to repeat any of Loki's.

Frigga looked up at his face and without a question opened her arms, and Thor bent down into her embrace. This time he was the one who soaked her dress's shoulder, while she stroked his hair, murmuring soft comforts, as if he were a little boy again, sobbing in her lap.

Chapter Text

Thor had not gone outside the gates to the Bifrost or attended the crafters' conferences, after Loki's attempt to take the Tesseract. He did not want to know what damage had been wreaked upon the bridge, or how far the repairs had been set back. And though it was not honorable, he was reluctant to face the builders and dwarves, when he had been the one to bring them to Loki, and so saw their work sabotaged. Had they been warriors he would have offered them a fair shot at him as recompense for their grievances; but he did not know what apology to make to crafters for destroying their hard-made craft.

So he was not surprised but somewhat troubled, when sparring with Sif two days later, to see Ambassador Fjalar appear at the edge of the training grounds. The dwarf beckoned to him, bouncing on his toes, clearly eager to speak. As it was only early afternoon and Thor and Sif's practice duels could last for hours, Thor called a break and adjourned to Fjalar.

"Here you are, Thor!" Fjalar greeted with no hint of antipathy, reaching up as far as he could to give Thor a friendly slap on the lower back. "Why have you not come to see the Bifrost?"

Sif promptly stepped in to say, "I'm afraid I am responsible for distracting him today, Ambassador—we none of us have seen much of Thor of late, with all his duties."

"Heavy is the burden of the crown," Fjalar agreed, nodding.

"Besides," Thor confessed, "I doubted I would be welcome among your crews, after my ill counsel before."

"Whatever do you mean?" Fjalar said. "Oh, come with me, you must see it!" and he hustled them off to the palace gates.

The Bifrost extending beyond the gates and over the sea looked much as it had before Loki's ill-fated endeavor. Its rainbow was again dull, dark under the cloudy sunless sky, and encased in the skeletal wooden net of the scaffold, still intact after the Tesseract's opening. Builders and a few carefully harnessed dwarves walked along the bridge, venturing past the furthest pair of reconstructed pylons, all the way to the Bifrost's broken end.

Thor frowned to watch them. The framework was shorter than he remembered it reaching; it must have been damaged after all. "How much of the scaffold broke off when the Bifrost opened?" he asked, guilt souring his gut as he wondered how many might have been on it when it collapsed, to drown in the sea or be washed over the edge.

But Fjalar shook his head. "None of it; the Bifrost's opening didn't affect the scaffold, any more than it did any of us on the bridge. The scholars have been arguing about whether it was the cube that saved it, or that the Bifrost itself opened under, or behind—behind in all ways and every direction in space—but either way, that's as long as the scaffold's ever been."

But the rainbow bridge's crystal, which before extended only partway along the scaffolding, now came almost to the end of the wooden framework. "How does the Bifrost reach that far?"

Fjalar beamed behind his beard. "See for yourself! The ropes are over here..."

He strapped himself into a harness and offered others to Thor and Sif, who refused them, having been traveling on the Bifrost for all their lives. Fjalar rolled his eyes at their incaution, but led them out onto the bridge, between the scaffolding's beams. The crafters who saw them waved, as cheerful as Fjalar; Thor waved back, bemused.

The bridge's edge was jagged, unlike the smooth surface under their feet, made up of faceted crystals varying from smaller than Sif's pinky to as broad as Thor's thigh, all pointing out into the nothingness before them. Crouching on the very brink, Fjalar said, "Look here, watch this," and laid his hand down flat on the smooth facet of a crystal as thick around as his wrist. His blunt fingers covered the pointed end, as they leaned in to watch.

Bent close to the bridge, one could hear the crystal chiming, only a faint ringing in the ears. But Thor listened hard and decided that rising and falling song was more than his imagination. And in a moment he saw the glittering point of the crystal appear ahead of Fjalar's finger, as if he were slowly sliding his hand back; as they stared, a little more of it emerged.

"You can watch them growing," Fjalar said. "The first couple of days you could see it with the naked eye! It's slowing now, but if the growth could be provoked again, the Bifrost might be completed before we're done constructing the observatory, by the summer's end."

Sif murmured in surprise, putting down her own hand to watch another crystal grow beneath it. "Within the season?" Thor asked. "You would truly guess so?" "

Fjalar made an affronted huff. "We took care with our measurements, and calculating a growth curve's simple enough; no guessing is required!"

"I don't doubt your figures, good Fjalar," Thor appeased. "It's only I have no head for them myself, so that they seem inscrutable to me." He stood to look back along the bridge, much further from the gates since last time he had come out to this edge, if still some distance from where Heimdall's observatory once had been. "But how is this possible, how is it made to grow?"

"Why, it was the Tesseract, of course, and that clever bastard's too-clever device," Fjalar said, then chuckled at Thor and Sif's shocked looks. "Obviously it was a mite over-effective; the Bifrost shouldn't have actually opened, and we're damned lucky it didn't fully initialize. Loki rather neglected to mention the feedback loop between the cube and the bridge could so quickly bring the thaumaturgic energies to climax.

"But the basic theory was sound: the cage directed the Tesseract's power in a more stable channel than the scholars' spells. We've some ideas how to refine it now, though the tinkering would be easier with the cube itself to test, and the All-Father's been disinclined to let us have another go at it. If you could talk with him, Thor..."

"I can tell him you wish to try," Thor said, too surprised to mention that his father was unlikely to listen to his advice, not on this matter.

Fjalar gladly thanked him, then was hailed by a dwarf halfway down the bridge. He bustled off, leaving Sif and Thor standing at the Bifrost's edge, watching the slowly growing crystal and the sky beyond. Past that cloudy gray infinity lay the other realms—too distant to be seen with any eyes but Heimdall's, but it did not stop one from looking.

Presently Sif said, "So when the Bifrost is repaired, you'll be able to return to Midgard—reunite with your mortal friends, and the Lady Jane..."

"Perhaps," Thor said, and though Sif sometimes seemed oddly melancholy when he spoke of Jane, she smiled back at him now.

"I'm glad, Thor," she said. "It's good to see you happy. These past few days, you've been so troubled, ever since..."

Thor tried to keep his smile, but failed, by how Sif's own fell away. "I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't—"

"No," Thor said, "it's all right," but Sif frowned.

"I wish you would tell us," she said, "what happened here," and she stamped her foot on the rainbow bridge, so that the crystal rang under it, a briefly louder song. "Loki managed to open the Bifrost and tried to steal the Tesseract, that we all know—but he must have done more than what rumor claims."

Thor opened his mouth, but Sif shook her head and spoke over his weak denial. "Thor, ever since your banishment and Loki's fall, you've been changed. We've all realized it—you are calmer, quieter, more prone to contemplation and not so swift to anger. Some of that change was good to see, though I wish it had been less painfully won; but sometimes we missed our friend of before. Since you came back from Midgard this second time, you've seemed more yourself—big and bright as once you were, though more patient and wiser still. We've been glad to see it; you've grown up, Volstagg says, and I think I like the man you've grown into even better than the boy I loved to play with.

"Only now, these past few days..." Sif waved at the cloudy sky around them. "We've hardly seen the sun or stars, though no rain's fallen. It's as if you're in mourning again, only there's been no loss. Your father took injury but is recovering, and you are yourself unhurt. And Loki himself lives—Hogun asked his friend among the dungeon guards, who told us Loki is in his cell, as before. Except that you no longer go to visit him, and I can't guess why that would be. You always knew Loki better than any of us. That he would plot even in the dungeon, that he would try to take back what was taken from him, though it wasn't rightfully his—you ought to have expected that, even as all of us did; it would grieve you, of course, but not shock you.

"But I know you, Thor; I remember how it was when we were children, how morose you would get after you and your brother fought. Anyone could anger you—but only Loki could upset you like this, could wound you so while leaving no mark. So there must be more he did than any of us know."

"There was," Thor said, and then, looking out over the darkening clouds, he told Sif. Not all of it; not what it had felt like, the Tesseract's terrible gift of strength. But haltingly he explained what he had done, if not the why. How Loki had come to take up the gauntlet, and why Captain Eirikur's arm was in a sling; what happened to Odin while Thor did not try to stop it, and how his mother's lullaby had saved them all.

At his side Sif listened quietly, lips pressing ever tighter, but betraying no other feeling in her face. Sif had long ago learned to keep her heart to herself, lest she be accused of feminine softness. Where Volstagg or Fandral might have had questions, she asked none, but let Thor tell the story uninterrupted.

When he finished, she took a long moment before saying, "I am sorry, Thor. I did not think...no wonder there have been no rumors; no one would believe them. That you were enthralled..."

"No," Thor agreed. It sounded no more plausible to his own ears, telling it. "I wouldn't have believed it myself, that I could be used so easily."

"Easily, I doubt," Sif said, "but more than that, that it was by Loki—for all his tricks and sorcery, I never thought he'd be so craven. To turn on one's friends is wrong, and on one's brother is worse; and to turn on one's kingdom is treason. But Loki after didn't claim to be our friend again; he at least had the courage to face you as an enemy, battled you openly. This, though—to turn your own heart, to make you a traitor as he is, and grant you no choice, no chance to oppose him—that is not the offense of a sworn foe; that is evil, the blackest of magic." Sif's beautiful face hardened, strong as marble, though her voice trembled. "He may have been your brother and my friend once; but he should be slain for it, as a dragon or a troll or any evil creature should be slain."

Thor's hand closed into a fist; he felt as if he could feel Mjolnir's handle in it, though the hammer was still at his belt. "I could have slain him."

"You were bespelled; you couldn't have moved against him."

"Not then," Thor said. He had been unable to tell Frigga, and she had not pressed him; but it was as if telling Sif the rest had loosened his tongue like strong wine; the confession came unbidden. "I did go to Loki's cell, two days ago, because Mother asked me to. I spoke with Loki, and he taunted me—you say I am not so quick to anger now; but he provoked me to take up Mjolnir, while he was himself unarmed and without defense, and I—I might have—"

"Of course you could not!" Sif 's hands cupped over his, strong and calloused, gripping as surely as she would her sword's hilt in battle. "You were raised as brothers, Thor; you have too great a heart to be able to set that aside. Do not berate yourself for being unable—

"I do not," Thor said. "I more dread that I nearly did it. My mother bade me go to Loki, out of fear for him; but when I did, I—Sif, I think Loki wanted me to do it. He goaded me into nearly a murderous rage, and I—no matter how I consider it, I cannot understand why—"

Sif shuddered, shut her eyes and bowed her head, until her forehead rested on hers and Thor's clasped hands. "Thor," she said, "I cannot pretend to understand Loki; the paths of his mind are too dark and warped to follow. But if he failed in his plot to escape, failed to hold you spellbound—what if this was his final strike against you? To die at your hand—make you kin-slayer, and destroy you with it, destroy your mother..."

For a moment Thor wondered. Loki could conceive of such a scheme; and Loki perhaps hated him enough for it, more than he loved his own life.

Except—except that Thor could remember standing before the Destroyer, the desert air dry in his lungs and every breath aching with the awareness of his mortality. Looking up at the silver armor, knowing Loki watched him through it, feeling Loki's rage and rancor beat down on him like the hot Midgard sun. Thor had not even understood why, not then; he had not the knowledge of Loki's discovered heritage, nor the perspective on his own follies. But he had known that he was his brother's target.

And they had fought on the Bifrost, Loki screaming at him, lashing out that Thor would fight back, so Loki could prove himself stronger. He remembered Loki glaring at him, trapped under Mjolnir, impotent and furious.

But not when Loki fell, not when he let go of Gungnir and let the abyss take him; his face had been so calm then. As calm as when Thor had first brought him back from Midgard, and he had believed his execution imminent.

And in the cell, Mjolnir raised above him—he had the same calmness, for that moment, the eye of his viciously spiteful storm. Not cruel, not at that instant; and not triumphant. If he had aimed to destroy Thor, he should have been looking at Thor, to enjoy his final victory. But his eyes had been on Mjolnir, as if he did not care or had forgotten that Thor was even the one holding it.

"Thor, you cannot go to him again," Sif said. "If Loki failed in that attempt, he'll try another. Even imprisoned, he'll not give up—"

"No," Thor said, cold with horror, realizing the truth of what she said. "No, I have to go back, now—!" Two days—he should not have left for two hours. The guards would be watching, but they did not know Loki, did not know how devious he could be. And Loki had some little magic left to him, even trapped behind the cell's wards; he had cast that illusion, only a single short-lasting form, but if he could gather more of his power...

Thor's feet were carrying him down the Bifrost before he had consciously consider his next course. "Thor, wait!" Sif called, left behind by his longer strides. "Don't let him bend you to his whims; you owe Loki nothing—"

Thor knew he did not; he had told his mother so, and she had agreed. But Frigga would weep, if something happened to the one she still called her son. Thor had seen his mother mourn for Loki too much already; he would not see it again. He would not mourn again himself; he would not let Loki force him to that.

The first raindrops were falling as Thor passed through the gates, faintly chiming on the Bifrost's growing crystal; by the time he reached the lift it was pouring, drips through the latticework wetting his hair as he bade the guard take him down to the dungeons.

Chapter Text

No rain reached Asgard's underlands, only the waters endlessly falling from the topside. But the clouds were as thick here as above, no sunlight breaking through the fog, casting Loki's cell in gray shadows. So that when Thor first entered, he did not see Loki at all. He was not standing framed before the window; nor was he on the cot where Thor had last left him, its muslin sheets disturbed but cold.

Thor stared around the cell, his pulse pounding in his ears. The shields were unbroken, yet as he looked out them into the clouds he could only think of Loki all those weeks before, telling him of the sorcerer who became a bird and flew away; of the princes and lords before that, falling to their end for honor's sake—perhaps that too had been one of Loki's rare truths, that Thor had ignored—

Then he heard a soft sound, a whisper of breath, and turned. Between the staircase's floating metal slats, he saw Loki seated cross-legged on the floor, leaning against the cell's far wall. His black garments camouflaged him against the dark stone, though his face seemed all the paler against it.

His eyes were open and he tilted up his head to watch Thor approach, but made no effort to rise. His arms stayed resting in his lap, hands dangling idly over his knees, like the limbs of an unstrung puppet.

"Loki," Thor said, when Loki did not speak, standing over him.

In the cell's gloom Loki's eyes were dark, green shaded almost to black as they lifted to Thor's face. "So you've come back," Loki said, light and preternaturally calm. "I thought you might." His gaze passed over Thor, up and down. "You do not have Mjolnir," he noted.

"No," Thor said. He had left the hammer in the tunnel above. Of course he could call it to his hand in a trice, and Loki knew so as well as he did.

But Loki only said, "Strange," without any real feeling. "I would have thought you'd have it."

"Not again," Thor said. His throat was thick; he swallowed around it. "I will not do you that favor."

"No, I suppose you wouldn't," Loki said. His shoulders rose and fell in a careless shrug. "I am worthy of neither defeat nor mercy."

"Killing you would be neither," Thor said.

"Nor is letting me live."

"If you wanted death," Thor asked, "then why did you argue your case with Odin?"

Loki's mouth twisted, neither a frown nor a smile, but pursed in deliberation, undecided. "I had a plan then, didn't I? I believed I might yet escape."

"You might still," Thor said. "You said so yourself, before—you will find a way out of here, sooner or later."

"Sooner," Loki said. "It would have to be sooner; there will be no later, will there? It was opened; he will have seen it. He will be coming for it now, and me with it. But sooner is too soon, not when I am here alone, and every chance denied me. Even you—you did not appreciate my gift, what I would show you, share with you," and he rocked his head further back, so his eyes caught the gray light as he gazed up at Thor. "You finally have seen what I am; my lies at last revealed to you the truth. You would not come here again, will you, Thor? You would not speak to me again."

"I am here," Thor said. "I'm speaking to you now, am I not?"

"Aren't you not?"

"Yes...no?" Thor frowned. "I am?—I am. Speaking to you."

Loki's breath stuck and stuttered, hissed between his teeth. It took a moment for Thor to recognize the sound, Loki's near-silent chuckle, as he used to make during their long-ago lessons, when Thor would flub some recitation or other, or when their tutor was flustered enough by Loki's questions to misspeak himself. Not quite loud enough to recognize as a laugh, so it would only earn him a glare, rather than a rap across the knuckles. "So you would call this speaking? I suppose it will have to do." His breath caught again, but it was not a chuckle this time. Loki swallowed, the sound harsher than it should be for his quietness otherwise. "Though it is cruel. I deserve cruelty, maybe; but still it is a cruel lie, to have you here."

When Loki's head tilted Thor saw the light gleam off his wet cheeks, more tears traced down them, though whether they were falling fresh from Loki's open eyes, or whether they were tracks drying from before he could not tell. It made Loki's voice all the more detached, that it stayed so clear and calm—was it the lie, or were his tear-streaked cheeks? Or maybe both, or maybe neither. Maybe Loki's mind wandered so far now that his face had no relation to it.

"What is a cruel lie, Loki?" Thor asked. Last time in this cell Thor had been so furious he had struggled to breathe around the wrath and dread choking him. Now he felt exhausted, as if he were walking through a bog, not sure if his next step would land on ground or water or sucking mud, pulling him down into Loki's madness. "How do I lie, merely by being here?"

"Merely by not being here," Loki said, blinking at him, a slow closing and unclosing of his heavy-lidded eyes.

"Except that I am here," Thor said, too weary for impatience. Exhaling, he sat down on the floor, next to Loki, so he might also prop his back against the wall.

He did not mean for their shoulders to bump; it was just that he leaned in a little out of habit, his body slower than the rest of him to understand that this was not his brother now, that they were not to sit shoulder to shoulder the way they always had. And Loki did not shove him off or sidle away, but leaned back, his loose elbow knocking into Thor's side.

—As they once nudged each other at the fancy feasts with emissaries from the other realms, Loki slyly pointing under the table at the elf lord mumbling drunk on mead, or Thor calling attention to the Vanir surreptitiously checking whether dwarf women truly had bosoms under their beards; grinning at one another until their mother glared a warning at them across the table—Thor did not know why the memory came so sudden and clear to mind, but in that instant he thought he understood the cruel lie of his presence after all.

Then Loki jerked and flinched back, confusingly belated. He pushed back from the wall to look at Thor, face strange, the vague distant eyes unfitting with his deeply furrowed brow. "You're wet," Loki said.

"It was raining when I came down here," Thor said.

Loki's arm raised, his hand clutching his shoulder as if wounded, as if the moisture soaked into his tunic from Thor's damp clothes were blood instead of rain. "Why would you be wet?" he asked.

"I just told you, it was raining—"

Loki's breaths caught, fast and uneven as he stared at Thor. "No," he said. "No, it makes no sense; why would you really be here? You would not. You were angry—almost angry enough—you would not come again. Only in dreams, nightmare visions—why would you come again?"

Thor sighed. "Because Mother asked me to," he said. Then, because even half-lies could be dangerous in the hands of a liar, he added, "And because I worried that you might...might harm yourself."

"Kill myself," Loki corrected, and Thor nearly winced, that Loki's voice strengthened a little as he said it, became more solid, as if he were more certain of that than most else he said. "But this cell has been shielded for eons—it's no longer in fashion, to call for that sacrifice. The wards here would prevent it. Did the queen not tell you that?"

"No," Thor said, "but it was not your life she feared for." What she had feared—Thor only now thought to wonder if this could be the damage his mother had dreaded, that it was due to her spell that Loki's unbalanced mind was now entirely unmoored. He felt sick, but glad too, that he had not told her of this—though she might know after all; Odin might have told her what he had heard of Loki.

For her, Thor tried, "Loki, are you...is this..." But he did not know how to say it, how to ask a madman how they had gone mad.

Loki looked at him, and briefly his eyes sharpened, coming into stronger focus as his voice had. Mad he might be; but he was clever yet, and he could still see into Thor's head, as if Thor's thoughts were a book written in the first simple runes he'd ever memorized. "No," he said, "no, it wasn't her spell—you can tell her so, if it would ease her mind. I was broken—I was broken before I tasted the first fruit she gave me; I was broken before you brought me to this cell. I was broken when the scepter was broken, when it shattered the portal—oh, he was too smart, that Erik Selvig; his heart was too strong. Of course he was; he is your friend. I should have known better than to keep him. The portal broke and the scepter broke and I broke—"

"Loki," Thor said, taking Loki by the shoulders.

Loki shook his head without trying to pull away. "I was broken but I had a plan—I realized there was a plan, when you took off my gag. I told you, Thor, did I not tell you, that you shouldn't trust me? But you only listen when I want you to listen—though you shouldn't listen to me now; now I cannot—I cannot—"

"Then don't," Thor said, and somehow that blind step fell on solid ground; Loki stopped, closed his mouth and stared at Thor in silence.

His tongue licked at his lips; they were dry almost to cracking, and his cheeks chapped too, from the saltwater dried on them. "Thor," Loki said, and his voice sounded as broken as everything else, "you are—are you—"

Loki could read Thor's mind; but once in a while Loki's own book opened, and Thor had learned those runes before anything in the library's texts. "I am here," he answered, "I swear I'm no dream or vision, Loki; I am really here, with you now," and he tightened his grip on Loki's shoulders, almost firm enough to bruise, that his presence would not be doubted.

Loki did not answer, but he did not struggle, either; instead he sank down, going slack, so that he swayed where he sat. When Thor tugged at him, he slumped forward, until his head butted up against Thor's shoulder, and Thor put his arms around Loki and pulled him closer. Loki was cool, as ever he was cool, not cold as a corpse but never as warm as Thor. He did not complain about Thor's heat now, however; he only sighed, and tucked his arms into the circle of Thor's.

He did not feel broken, Thor thought; but light, maybe too light, as if his flesh and bones were as fragile as a mortal man's. Reluctantly he wondered what Loki was eating now, when he would also refuse Frigga's fruit. Starvation could not kill a god, but hunger pangs were uncomfortable to endure; Thor did not know why Loki would choose them over food, even if the plain prisoner's fare were not to his taste.

But then, he did not know why Loki did anything; he might be able to guess the what sometimes, but never the reasons. And now he was beyond reason anyway. "Loki," Thor said.

Loki didn't reply; his breathing had slowed as if he were asleep, except that Thor knew he was not; he could feel the slight tensing of Loki's shoulders under his arms, when he spoke. "Loki," Thor repeated, "if there were not the wards on the cell, or if you were not in this cell—would you? Would you take your own life, as you tried to make me take it?"

Loki only continued to breathe soft and steady. Annoyed, Thor jostled his shoulder, said, "I know you're still awake, and you could never fake sleeping for very long." Sometimes such fakery had been necessary to lull the nursemaid, so they might sneak out at the most interesting hours of the night. "You always had to move, so I would have to hold you down and pretend for both of us."

"...'Pretend'?" Loki muttered. "As I recall it, you'd just fall asleep on top of me, until I had to kick you awake." He lifted his head from Thor's shoulder to look up at him. In the gray cloudy light his face looked oddly soft, as if he were not so much older after all than when they had been creeping out of the nursery on their childhood adventures.

When Loki drew back, Thor let him, making himself lower his arms. Loki leaned against the wall next to him, rocked his head back against the stone and closed his eyes.

"So would you?" Thor asked again.

"If the cell were unwarded, then I would have my full magic," Loki murmured, eyes staying closed, "and I could escape with it."

"That isn't what I'm asking."

Loki's shoulders rose and fell, too deep an exhalation to pass for sleep. "Would you have me lie?"

"Of course not! I would know the truth."

"Then I cannot answer."

"Loki!"

Loki's eyes opened, looking past the stairs to the window. "I do not know the truth, Thor. I might tell you it, if I did; but I do not. If I had all my magic, if I were not a prisoner...it wouldn't be as it is now."

"But as it is now—Loki, those who kill themselves for cowardice are never allowed into Valhalla—"

Loki's breath stuttered with his soft chuckle. "Do you think I would ever be allowed in the hero's hall? Even if I weren't a frost giant?"

"You cannot!" Thor gripped Loki's arm, gave him a shake to rouse him from that too-quiet, too-distant humor. "Swear to me, that you will not—"

"And what could I swear on, that you would possibly believe it?" Loki asked, idly and candidly curious, glancing sidelong to Thor. "I do not think even you that naive."

"If you will not, then—then I'll have to keep coming here to watch over you," Thor threatened.

"Will you?" The way Loki said it, Thor could not tell if it were a question or a request.

Either way, Thor said firmly, "I will." His mother had asked it of him; he needed no other reason.

Loki shut his eyes again. "I could sleep," he said. "For truth—strange, that it would be easier to fall asleep when dreaming; I would not think I could be sleepy at all, but my lids feel so heavy now..."

"Loki," Thor asked carefully, "do you still think yourself dreaming now? Because you are not; you are awake."

Loki breathed another chuckle. "I think a madman should not be told whether he is awake or dreaming; there's not so much difference from one to the other. Or will you try to tell me that I am not mad?"

Thor could not honestly say that, so instead said only, "Then I will stay, whether you're awake or asleep."

Loki did not answer, and kept his eyes closed. He was still for long enough, head drooping to the side and folded hands quiescent in his lap, that Thor thought he could not be faking it.

As he had said he would, Thor stayed, sitting against the wall. Presently Loki's head sank a little further, tipping him over until he fetched up against Thor. He did not stir, and Thor did not either, as behind the clouds the sun traveled away and night fell, bringing its calm darkness. The guards brought supper, but neither the clink of the tray being lowered into the cell nor the flicker of the lanterns overhead disturbed Loki. He slept on, breathing soft and slow with his head heavy on Thor's shoulder, as if he had been enchanted again.

As the night wore on Thor's eyes began to feel gritty from straining through the darkness, peering into the endless gloom outside the window. He did not close them for fear of falling asleep, and he dared not fall asleep. Not when Loki might awaken—might be awake already, waiting for Thor to start snoring, for all he knew.

Thor did not know what should concern him more, that Loki might do some harm to him, or to himself. He knew better than to believe Loki harmless, even imprisoned in the cell, even sleeping soundly—seeming to sleep soundly—though what would he gain by pretending? This was not their old nursery; Loki could not sneak out of the cell, even if Thor dozed off. But there might be something else he could do. Loki ever could find something to do; and Loki could not be trusted. Thor could not forget that, could never forget that again.

Such notions chased around Thor's head, endless circles going nowhere. And behind them other thoughts flowed, memories drifting like dreams through his mind's eye. He and Loki had snuck down to the dungeon once as boys, not daring to try the lift and risk being seen by the guards, instead climbing down all the stairs. The same as they had walked when he had brought Loki back to Asgard, though at the time Thor had not really thought of it, displaced by later visits to the dungeons in his duties as prince.

Now, Thor remembered that first illicit journey, holding the lantern high to light the way for both of them, Loki's footsteps falling softly on the stone steps behind him as they descended. Had it been his idea to venture down that forbidden path, or Loki's? Or maybe both of them together, daring one another until for honor's sake they both had to go. They had made it to the dungeons, but the guards had found them before they could talk to any prisoners, hauled the pair of them back up the lift to the palace for a scolding. How disappointed they had been, never guessing that one of them might someday be a prisoner himself...

When Loki first groaned, Thor jerked up, starting from the halfway doze he had slipped into. The soft sound seemed loud in the cell's uninterrupted, silent dark. "Loki?" Thor asked, his throat dried from his long wait, so it came out as only a hoarse whisper.

Loki groaned again, wordless and eerie, more like the creak of an opening door than anything from a living throat. He shifted so that his head slipped from Thor's shoulder, and Thor reached for his shadowy form.

Only when he caught Loki's arm, it was as if he had struck him with Mjolnir's lightning again. Under his hand Loki froze rigid, in an instant gone from loose lax sleep to so tense he trembled. Thor felt that tension shiver through him, and then Loki ripped away, gasping out, "No—"

"Loki?" Thor said. "Loki, what were you—"

"No—no—stop it—stay back—please—stop it—I will—I will kill you—stop it—please stop it stop STOP—" Loki's strangled cry climbed to a howling shriek so fast that Thor could scarce discern the words in it. Woke poorly, screaming, his father had said; but Thor had not thought it would be like this—had not thought any thinking being could make a sound like this.

Loki was awake; Thor saw the gleam of his open eyes, behind his arms thrown up before his face, not to block a blow or cast a spell, but only to hide himself behind them. He huddled back against the wall, bare feet digging and kicking against the floor as if trying to push himself further back, as if he could burrow into the stone, away from Thor's looming shadow.

Thor stumbled back, torn between the impulses to go to Loki and to flee from him, from the screams tearing from his throat, ragged now and wordless.

His stumble betrayed him, showed a weakness Thor did not realize the danger of until too late—until Loki was upon him, springing off the wall to hurtle into him. Thor was knocked to the floor with Loki on top of him, silent now as he had been loud before, long fingers grasping for his throat, nails digging into his flesh and burning like acid—

But Loki was too light, weakened by sleep and hunger. Weak enough for Thor to grab his wrists and pull Loki's hands from his throat, light enough that Thor could roll them over to sit on Loki, hold him down and force his arms to the floor.

Thor's hands were burning, like his throat; he did not realize why until he saw Loki twisting his head away as he struggled under Thor's weight. His eyes caught the faint moonglow through the clouds outside the windows—not green but red, the Jotunn's blood-ruby glare.

Thor kept holding down Loki's blue-skinned wrists, the Jotunn's frost biting into his skin, numbing his fingers until the bones ached, as he plead, "Loki, cease this—stop fighting, I'll stop, I won't hurt you again, I swear it, brother—"

Loki froze again, vibrating tense; then he asked, rasping and feeble, "Thor?" and suddenly relaxed under Thor, gone limp as if he had been struck upon the head. Thor was wary of another trick, but his hands were in agony; he prised them from Loki's wrists, the fingers stiff to move.

Loki did not lash out at him again; he lay stock-still as Thor sat back and moved off to kneel next to him, not daring to touch his shadowed form. The cloudy gloom washed out the blue of his complexion, left it dark gray instead of pale. He was breathing in short pants as he stared up at the ceiling, his arms staying pressed to the floor as if Thor still held them there.

A rattling clang above made Thor start, then blink into the sudden blinding yellow of a lantern shone from overhead. "My lord Thor?" a guard called down into the cell. "We heard shouting, are you—"

"I'm all right," Thor said. The lantern swept over him, and Thor stood to put his shadow between it and Loki, before the light could reveal Loki's blue. He shaded his eyes with his arm, injured hand turned away from the light, and called back up to the pair of guards, "We're both fine, you can leave us. It was—only a nightmare."

"Aye, my lord," the guards said, and their footsteps obediently tramped away, one of them mumbling, "Much more of that horndrake howling and I might go moon-touched myself..." before it faded to unintelligible.

Thor looked down and saw Loki staring back up at him, wide eyes green-gray in the gray dimness, face pale instead of blue. Loki sat up, a graceless jerky motion, shuddering as he wrapped his arms around his knees. "You—you are here, when you should not have been," he muttered under his breath, "you should not, and I should not have—I would not have..."

"Loki?" Thor crouched again beside him, letting his frostbitten hands hang loosely between his knees, not trying to close the fingers; they were more numb than aching if he did not move them. Loki closed his mouth, angling his head to gaze askance at Thor. "What was that?" Thor asked him. "What happened?"

"...A nightmare." Loki coughed, throat working as if the words did not quite fit within it. "Only a nightmare, as you said."

"You had nightmares when you were young," Thor said, "and sometimes you would fight in them, kick me or roll out of bed—but never like that—"

"No," Loki said, "not like that—not like that, if I do not sleep; they cannot reach me if I do not sleep, and I should not have, but I thought—" He broke off; then suddenly his hand lashed out, grabbed Thor's nearer wrist and turned over his hand to expose the cold-blackened palm and fingers. Loki leaned in to peer at Thor's neck, which Thor guessed from the throbbing looked much the same, hissed between his teeth and said, "You must get this attended."

"It's fine; a healing stone will set it aright," Thor said, pulling his arm away gently from Loki's cool but unfreezing fingers.

"And how are you to crush the stone, with no good hand?" Loki asked, his acerbity chiding; it would nearly have been convincing, if his voice had not wavered on the last words.

"Tell me, Loki," Thor said, his voice going sharper than he meant it, but he was in pain and tired, so tired of Loki's lies, and tired of losing Loki under them. "What dream was that—what nightmares are so horrible?"

"Do you find it so surprising?" Loki asked, eying him through the shadows. "Haven't I caused such trouble that I should be troubled by it?"

That was too close to what Thor had told his father before, about Loki deserving his dreams. Thor flinched from it, but said, "That your conscience is troubled, I'd believe"—if Loki indeed had a conscience to be pricked at all—"but that was something more, I think. What did you want stopped? Who did you cry out to in your dreams—you stopped when you recognized me; was it me you saw when you attacked, or did you imagine I was someone else? What did you dream of?"

Loki shuddered again; Thor did not think he meant to do it, by the way he wrapped his arms tighter about his knees, dropping his head to hide his face from Thor. "Go and get yourself healed, fool," he muttered, "it hurts me just to look at your throat."

"Loki—"

"I cannot tell you, Thor," Loki said, clipped as if each word had to be forced separately from his mouth. "I will not tell you."

"Then who will you tell?"

Loki's head came up; he frowned at Thor, an oddly familiar expression, the same off-guarded look he used to get when Thor answered a tutor's question before Loki could himself. Then his mouth folded into a different shape, not quite as curved as a grin, but with a smirking hint to it. "Odin," he said.

"What?"

"Odin All-Father, if he will grant me the audience."

"You want to speak with Fa—with the king?"

"Yes," Loki said.

"And you will talk to him, tell him what you'll not tell me? Truthfully?"

Loki's voice was hoarse still from his screaming before, but steady. "As much truth as he wants to hear."

"Then I will ask him for it," Thor said. If he had to he would beg his father to allow the audience, that Odin might fold back some of Loki's lies to find the truth beneath. Because there must be some truth here—some reason to his madness, too large even for Loki's lies to cover.

Unless he were only pretending, refusing to tell Thor what could not be told, because there was nothing to tell, in order to catch his interest—to catch Odin's interest? Could he be planning some trap for the All-Father? Or was the trap simply to make Thor go, leave Loki in his cell—but he had been alone before and failed to escape, and besides Thor must leave anyway to see to his injuries; what purpose would the further impetus serve?

It briefly occurred to Thor that it was not so unbelievable that Loki had gone mad; perhaps the greater surprise was how long he had seemed sane. Trying to untie this single knot tasked Thor's wits half to breaking; to always live within such a tangle...

"Stop gawking at me," Loki said from where he sat against the wall, making a dismissive gesture. "Go to the healers. I will be here, whatever Odin decides..." He turned his head to survey the cell, "...and that you don't need trust me to believe, as where else can I go?"

The trace irony in Loki's voice was a poor substitute for its usual silver edge, but even that hint of mettle reassured Thor. "I will talk to Father, and return with his answer forthwith," Thor vowed, then wondered what other knots he had missed, that this simple pledge made Loki partway smile.

Chapter Text

Thor left Mjolnir in the dungeon corridor, unable to lift it with his frostbitten hands. Once topside he deliberated on the path between the healers' hall and the barracks. This late, he would likely have to wake a healer, while one of his friends might still be up, and their ministrations were all he needed, for this minor injury.

But his friends would be quick to guess how he had come to be so injured, while a healer might not, and anyway Thor could refuse to answer their questions, as he could not his friends'. Hogun, perhaps, would not ask anything...

Before Thor decided on his direction, light footsteps approached, and a voice asked, "Thor? Ah, here you are."

Thor turned, thinking belatedly that he should have stepped out of the lantern light, to make his injuries less apparent. "Mother?"

Frigga's eyes went first to his throat, but her expression did not flicker; she merely took his arm in hers, saying, "It's past time I should retire; please walk me to my chambers."

Once to her rooms, she sat him on her couch, then went to her chest and took a small healing stone from a gilt box. Crushing the stone in her fist, she gently blew its powder from her cupped hands over Thor's injuries. He watched the swelling of his fingers subside as the cold-blackened skin was restored to healthy flesh, flexed his renewed hands as she did the same for his throat.

"Thank you," Thor said, much relieved as the throbbing abated. Pain was part of a warrior's life, but never one he'd enjoyed.

Frigga touched his neck, spreading the last of the stone's dust over the scratches under the frostbite. "Loki did this to you."

Thor did not know if it was a question; he answered it anyway. "Yes—no...not intentionally, I don't believe, not to me. He was half-asleep, having a nightmare; he didn't seem to recognize me."

Frigga smiled a little, soft but leavened with sorrow. "So you would again defend him."

Thor shifted, discomfited. "I do not try to excuse him, Mother, but it's the truth. And I don't know how else to deal with Loki, other than with honesty."

"You may have the only way of it," Frigga said. "And I wasn't accusing you, regardless. You have long outgrown the days when you would lie to shield your brother—not that you were ever very convincing at it."

"I am sorry for when I did." Thor almost blushed to think of all the scoldings he had taken, trying to cover for Loki. Even with his brother's coaching, he'd never been able to look his mother in the eye when he claimed that he'd just seen Loki in the library and not rearranging the salt and sugar canisters in the kitchen, or that neither he nor Loki had dreamed that adding elder berries to the metal polish would turn the cavalry's breastplates purple.

By the ripple of his mother's lips, she was recalling similar memories. "Truth be told, often the most trying part was maintaining the proper composure," Frigga admitted. "At times your father and I could barely hold in our laughter long enough for you two to leave the room. As much at Loki's indignation at your tongue-tiedness...on occasion I've wondered if it was in practicing to make up for you that he gained such skill in lying."

Thor could not hide his reaction to that, but Frigga said gently, "You are not responsible for who Loki is, Thor. But you grew up together, and inevitably shaped one another in the doing; Loki helped make you, as well."

"Loki said something similar to me, weeks ago," Thor recalled. "He thought that Father used him, to..." He searched for Loki's scathing words, "...to make me look brighter against his shadow, or something of the sort."

Frigga sighed. "That's not true of course; at least it was never your father's intent, nor mine. But it is the way of brothers, that they will be compared, and that they will compete—or else deliberately choose not to, and become all the more determined to seek their own excellence. You would not be the man you are, without Loki; nor would he be, without you."

"Then he did the better job," Thor said bitterly; only at Frigga's wry look did he realize that his statement could be taken as pride as much as regret. "I don't mean to say I am the better man, just...if I could have influenced Loki better, if I'd been different, so he would be, too..." If Loki had always bested him on the practice grounds, might Thor have passed over wooden swords and shields for books and charms? If Thor had been able to lie better, would Loki not have needed to learn to lie so well?

If Loki had not been there at all, what pastimes would Thor have taken up alone? Or what if Thor had not been there, and Loki had grown up Odin and Frigga's only son, groomed from the first to take the throne, no matter what race he had been born to?

It made Thor's head ache to try to imagine it. Though he couldn't help but think that for his part, it would have been a dull and lonely childhood, without Loki and his mischief and curiosity and all the adventures that drove them to.

Frigga sat at her nightstand, began to undo her hair. Thor glanced over at the private door which led to Odin's chambers. "My father is asleep now?" he asked.

His mother nodded. "He is mostly recovered, but taking care to rest himself that he might stay healthy, on my advice." Her tone was firm; even the All-Father would hesitate to ignore such advice. Thor would have to wait until the morning to tell him of Loki's request.

"And what of you, Thor?" Frigga asked, looking at him in her mirror. "Have you been resting yourself? It seems I've seen you awake later than usual, these past few days, and tonight..."

"I was with Loki," Thor said. "I've been sleeping otherwise, a few hours a night, anyway." If uneasy hours; he didn't recall his dreams, but they kept waking him regardless. "More than Loki, I think, if he's been having nightmares like that..."

Frigga came back to sit beside Thor on the couch, handed him her hairbrush. While her handmaid attended the queen's accouterment in the mornings, at night she would ready herself for bed alone. Thor and Loki used to help her when they were small; now Thor automatically took the brush and applied it to her loose honey tresses, as Frigga unbraided the other side. "Did he say what he dreams about?" she asked.

"He wouldn't tell me," Thor said. "He said he would tell Father, but...I don't know if he really will. Or if it would make sense, if he did. He has not been making much sense, and not just his lying."

His mother's deft fingers stilled for a moment, and Thor feared she might ask him more, press him to describe Loki's madness; but Frigga after a moment said only, "I'm glad you go to him, even so."

"I can't...I haven't forgiven him," Thor said, feeling guilty, as if this were a lie itself.

"Has he asked you to?"

"No, but..."

"Forgiveness may not be what Loki needs or wants now," Frigga said.

"What he wants—what he wants, what he's wanted all along, is to escape, and take the Tesseract again," Thor said. Loki's other and final wish he kept to himself. "He cares about nothing else—he does not eat, he does not want to sleep..."

"But he talks to you, when you visit him."

"Because he can get me to help him, or thinks he can." He thought right; even now, confused as Loki was, he'd still managed to convince Thor to bring his petition to Odin.

"Perhaps," his mother said quietly. "But Loki often has more than one reason for whatever he does. And if he didn't want to talk with you, he would find another way. It comforts me that he'll still speak to you."

Thor wondered if he could believe that, that Loki might honestly wish for his company, whatever else he wanted. He couldn't help but feel cheered to think it, same as he could not help the part of him that still missed his brother, that gladdened at whatever little glimpses he thought he saw of him in Loki now. Neither his anger nor regret could stop that gladness, though Thor knew he probably was a fool for it.

Frigga hummed softly as Thor passed the brush over her hair. Presently she took it from him for the final smoothing strokes, and Thor leaned back on the couch, shut his tired eyes and let himself relax into the cushions, buoyed by his mother's soothing voice, like he used to curl up on her lap and fall asleep to, as a small boy...

He recognized the melody then, and sat up out of his doze. "That was the song—the spell you cast on Loki!"

Frigga looked over at him in surprise, lowering her brush. "Yes, it's a lullaby charm, to grant an easy sleep with pleasant dreams. I often sang it to you as babes."

"I remember," Thor said. "Only it was different when you sang it in the throne room, the words you used, and the tone..."

"It's not meant to force sleep," his mother said sadly, "only to help you welcome it. But Loki long ago learned to guard himself from fiercer sorcery; bending this spell around my magic in him was the best I could do."

"Does Loki know it?" Thor asked.

"The lullaby? Of course; it was one of the first charms he learned." A small smile crossed Frigga's lips. "He was terribly disappointed to find he could not make either you or the maids fall asleep at will with it."

Thor rubbed his hands over his face, as if he could wipe away his aching fatigue. He missed the charm's kind warmth. "Mother, when you gave Loki the fruit...did you think that you would have to use such magic on him?"

Frigga looked down at her lap, clasping the brush's handle in both hands. "I hoped I would not have to. But I know better than to underestimate my son." She raised her head back up to Thor, smiled a little at him as she reached up to pat his cheek. "Either of them."

 


 

Thor fell asleep in his mother's chambers, to her song. While her couch was too short for him to stretch out upon without his feet dangling off the edge, he yet slept better than he had for nights, awaking shortly after dawn feeling refreshed. He was alone; his mother was in his father's rooms, he guessed.

Upon breaking his fast, Thor went promptly to speak to his father, only to be stopped by Eirikur, standing guard in the antechamber of the throne room, his arm still bandaged in its sling. "The All-Father is not taking audience now, my lord," the Einherjar captain stated, "and he has commanded that none be allowed before the Tesseract unless the throne is occupied."

"Where is my father now, then?" Thor asked, a nameless apprehension curdling his gut.

"He has gone to the dungeon," Eirikur said, "to interrogate the prisoner Loki."

Chapter Text

Two of the Einherjar stood in the tunnel leading to Loki's cell, along with a pair of the dungeon guards, standing at stiffly formal attention beside the royal soldiers. They all stepped aside for Thor to hurry past, nodding respectfully, as if he were expected.

Had Frigga told Odin that Loki wished to speak with him, Thor wondered. Or had the All-Father already intended this questioning, and Loki somehow anticipated it? Either way, Thor could not shake the unease that had driven him here so hastily. His father would not harm Loki, not when he was already punished by his imprisonment; and of course Loki had not the power to seriously harm the All-Father, even if he were not imprisoned, not without a weapon like the Infinity Gauntlet—but all the same Thor's heart was pounding, as if before a battle.

As he set foot on the first stair descending into the cell, Thor heard Odin's voice, the resonating, undeniable force of a king's decree. "You will tell me what you know, as you agreed to do when you were declared prisoner of this war."

"I agreed to tell you of the Chitauri forces I commanded," Loki replied, softer but no more yielding.

Odin stood in the center of the cell with Gungnir at his side, wearing a scowl that Hogun might have envied the grimness of. Loki paced the cell's perimeter, hands behind his back, head swiveling to keep his gaze on the All-Father as he moved. He spared a glance at Thor but his tight smirk did not change. "And I have told you of them—they were soundly defeated, all their number. How many more hiveships might be in the Chitauri fleet, I cannot say; I had no reason then to believe there were more, but no reason, either, to suppose there were not."

"Then, perhaps; how many do you suppose there are now?" Odin asked, his eye narrowed at Loki.

Loki's steps faltered under the pressure of that stare; then he turned on his heel, flung himself striding the other direction with the barely leashed constraint of a trapped panther. "How would I know? I am only a prisoner, denied magic and communication both. Ask Heimdall what his sentry's eyes see of their army now."

"Heimdall sees nothing," Odin said. "The Chitauri forces are invisible to him, even when they venture within the realms."

"Are they?" Loki stilled a moment, studying Odin with mirrored intensity. "He sees nothing of them?"

"Neither where they are nor what they do," Odin said. "This wasn't the case when before we've encountered their race, but now they are shielded by a great power. Even as you were hidden to us when you were with them, so that we doubted you still lived. Later we suspected yours was the spell that concealed them; but it was not." The king's voice lowered as he spoke, though his scrutiny became no less intent.

Loki shook his head as if he could cast off Odin's gaze like water; he spun to resume his restless caged pacing. "Should I be flattered, that the All-Father and the guardian of the gods thought so highly of my sorcery? Or rather insulted, that you believe so little of it now?"

Odin's voice fell quieter still. "What was concealed from us, Loki? What happened, when you were so hidden?"

Loki's head jerked up; his green stare skimmed past Thor to meet Odin's sole blue, accusing. "You know," he said, a hiss like his voice could not be trusted to it; then he repeated, louder and surer, "You know—the Chitauri recruited me, gave me their army, that I might lead them in glorious battle against Midgard."

"Only it was not the Chitauri alone who sought the Tesseract," Odin said, raising Gungnir and bringing the spear's haft crashing down on the cell's flagstone. "You confessed it when holding the cube; it is Thanos who desires it!"

Loki twitched at Gungnir's clang, his eyes widening, white showing all around the green. Then he threw back his head to laugh aloud. "How clever of you to figure it out, when your only clue was my naming him to you! Truly your wisdom is astounding, All-Father. No doubt your subjects are also amazed when you reveal to them that the sky is blue and fire is hot."

"The sky has been gray, for this week past," Odin said calmly. "And just last night you burned Thor with frost's cold fire. So Thanos leads the Chitauri now, and it was he who made you his supposed general to claim the Tesseract—his dog to fetch the cube for him, and he gave you the fangs for that fight."

Loki stood in place, his hands moving at his sides, fists slowly opening and closing like the wings of an alit butterfly. "Yes," he said, his smile drawing his lips back from his teeth like a snarl. "Yes, it was Thanos, who gave me the scepter to channel a sliver of the Tesseract's power. He deigned share that much with me, thinking I was like his Chitauri, bowed and crushed under his heel—but I am more worthy of that power than he!" Loki's voice was rising, loud and terrible. He spread his arms, proclaimed, "The Tesseract would take me over him—I would have seen his worthless insect army smashed, and Thanos trampled under my own boot! But I am prisoner now, and he will come to crush Asgard instead—"

"So he does come," Odin said.

Loki laughed again, strained breathless by his proclamation. "Did you doubt it? When you hold the cube, and the gauntlet, and his disobedient dog as well?"

"Who is coming?" Thor demanded, unable to hold his peace any longer. He remembered hearing Loki say the name when he had been under the gauntlet's enthrallment; he might have heard it before, but not well enough to place it. "Who is this Thanos?"

Odin and Loki both turned to look at him, and for a moment their expressions were bizarrely matched in raised-eyebrow consternation. Then Loki said, "The Mad Titan, Thor—he who the Infinity Gauntlet was won from, those centuries ago." He smirked. "Or have you scrubbed all memories of the gauntlet from your mind, to better pretend that it never touched you?"

"Speak no more of that!" Thor growled. Odin raised his hand, but could not staunch Thor's rising rage, that Loki would mention that horror so casually. "Do not presume—"

Odin spoke over him, "Where are Thanos and the Chitauri now, Loki? Have they located the Tesseract—have they found a way to Asgard across the realms?"

"I should know?" Loki tilted his head in mocking curiosity, folding his arms over his chest. "How, pray tell, when even Heimdall's golden eyeballs cannot see it?"

"What do you know, then?" Thor demanded. "You said you would tell Father, if he spoke with you."

"I did," Loki agreed, "but not that I would tell him for nothing."

"That wasn't—"

"Thor," Odin admonished, gesturing again to silence him. To Loki he said, "What price do you ask for what you know?"

"What do you think?" Loki's smile stretched his mouth, out of shape and twisted; as he had smiled wearing the gauntlet, and that reminder stoked Thor's anger, though he bit his tongue on it. "Show me the Tesseract," Loki said, "bring me to its pedestal in the throne room, where Thor claims it still is now."

"It is there, under guard," Odin confirmed, "and you cannot have it again."

"I don't ask to take it—not even to touch it." Loki's fingers dug into his biceps. His eyes were pale, gray and sunken and glinting like those of a starving man looking through a window at a feast. "Only to stand before it, look upon it, just for a moment—"

"No," Odin said. His jaw was set.

"Then what will you offer me, Odin King?" Loki snarled, slashing his hands down savagely. "What price for the protection, for the very future of your realm? Thanos is coming, that I tell you freely; but how, or where from, or what force he brings—I do not swear to know all of it, but more than you know. But Asgard is not my home; why should I care if the golden city falls? Why should I not laugh to see your kingdom taken from you, even as it was taken from me?"

"I offer you a chance. You will tell us willingly what you know," Odin said, his voice steel. "Or you will tell us unwillingly." He took a step towards Loki, Gungnir in hand.

Loki grinned, licked his lips as he looked from the spear to Odin's face. "You would threaten me with—what? Say it clearly, All-Father. You would torture me, a prisoner of Asgard, and one you once claimed as your own kin?"

Thor felt a fresh surge of rage at such an implication, clenching his fists, longing to strike that grin off Loki's face. But Odin said, "I raised you as my son, but I am king, sworn to safeguard all the people of this realm, and I will do what I must," and it was all the more threatening that he said it without wrath or vindictiveness, but rather a weighted, mournful certainty.

Loki rocked a step back from that pressure, but he was smiling viciously still. "So how will you break my body? Beat me, burn me? Crush me under stones, or flay the skin from my flesh? Or perhaps call upon the dark elves, if any are stranded here; they have their specialties, poisons to part sense from the mind, and secrets with it. Try any of them, if you think they'll shock me into submission—"

Before Thor could dispute these terrible and baseless propositions, Odin shook his head. "I do not think you could be so shocked anymore," he said. "But the worst pain sometimes is not to inflict new injury, but to press on one unhealed, rub salt and vinegar in a raw wound."

Loki cackled, a high wild noise. "Salt and vinegar, like a poultice—you would play at being a surgeon? You mistake a torturer for a healer—"

"Healers must know how to injure, to know how to heal," Odin said, implacable as he took another step forward, and Loki took another back from him. "Just as a builder knows how to break apart a stone, by finding the fractures in it and widening them."

"And you can see the fractures?" Loki was pale, breathing hard, too fast. His gaze darted past Odin and Thor to the window behind them. "You can see everything—you have seen everything, haven't you. Not just Heimdall's eyes on me, is there? I've spotted your raven perched outside this cell, day and night. Did you think I would not notice, old man? How much do you really think Hugin has seen, that I did not intend to be seen?" The words were defiant but Loki's voice was thready, strained almost cracking. He backed up another step and then could go no further, his shoulders hitting the wall behind him.

Odin advanced another stride. His voice was firm, strong where Loki's wavered. "How much do you think I missed seeing? Would you try me? I am an old man, as you say—even older than Thanos, born from darker times. That I learned mercy does not mean I always knew it."

"Father—" Thor said, disturbed through his own temper.

"You would not," Loki rasped. "You wouldn't, not to—"

Odin did not turn away, taking another step toward Loki, forcing him further back against the wall. "You are no longer of Asgard, Loki Laufeyson; you cast yourself out, and threw yourself in with our enemies. Enemies that may be the ruin of Asgard and all her people—enemies that will show us no compassion, so we may neither afford it ourselves."

He raised Gungnir, the staff shimmering with the All-Father's power. Loki stared up at it, the magic reflecting white in his eyes, casting harsh shadows across his face. He shook his head, his spiteful words run dry, hands scrabbling against the wall behind him as if he could push himself into the stone—like he had last night, in the grip of his nightmare, and that recognition shocked the last anger out of Thor.

"So you will tell us all you know," Odin declared, with the grim certainty of pronouncing an execution. He brought the spear down as Loki shook his head again, an unvoiced plea shaped on his lips, Stop—

"Stop!" Thor spoke it for him. "Father, cease this!" He did not take up Mjolnir, but the hammer's thunder sounded in his voice as he stepped between Odin and Loki. With one hand he shoved aside Gungnir; with the other he reached back to grab Loki's arm. Loki was not Jotunn-cold to the touch; but he was frozen, rigid yet trembling under Thor's hand.

"Loki, it's all right; he will not hurt you," Thor told him, but Loki's wide eyes stared past him, past Odin, blankly unseeing as if he were dreaming again.

Odin fell back a step. Gungnir's glow faded as he set its haft on the floor, clutching at the spear, his face as pallid gray as Loki's.

"This is not the way, Father," Thor said, feeling rage rise in him again, but not at Loki now. "No matter the danger to Asgard—this is wrong!"

"Even after all he did—all he did to you, Thor," Odin said, "you would still defend him?"

Thor felt Loki flinch. He squeezed his arm before he let go to face his father, blocking Loki from his gaze with the breadth of his squared shoulders. "Whatever Loki did, he's still our prisoner. And moreover already wounded in spirit—he doesn't always speak in his right mind now—"

"Or else he shams confusion, to win your pity," Odin said, not an enraged accusation but wearily.

Thor wondered briefly if even Loki could feign madness this completely. But it made no difference if he was, not in this. Conviction burned like acid on his tongue. "What matter if he's faking it, he's still unarmed and defenseless. Mercy should not only be given to those deserving; compassion is the charge of the victor, not the defeated, so you taught me—did you not?"

Odin passed his hand over his face. "Aye," he said through it.

His agreement did not cool Thor's fury; if anything it made it flare fiercer. "Go," he said through gritted teeth, "leave this cell," without hesitating, though he was commanding the All-Father himself.

Odin did not object; instead he turned and climbed up the stairs out of the cell without another word. He leaned on Gungnir to ascend, one step at a time, as if scaling a mountain.

Thor looked back. Loki had slid down to the floor, his arms over his knees and his head buried between them. His shoulders were quivering, though when Thor crouched next to him, his rattling breaths did not sound like weeping.

"Loki?" Thor asked, uncertain about touching him, after Loki's reaction to being woken the night before.

Loki gulped back what sounded almost like a giggle—not harsh mockery but something less deliberate, less pointed. He lifted his head to look at Thor, eyes glittering under the black hair fallen across his forehead, and remarked, "Odin taught you—too well, he might think now."

"He should not have forgotten his own lessons," Thor growled. His anger sat on his shoulders like a living thing; they ached bearing it, drawn tense and tight, and his hands were in fists he could not uncurl. That his father would suggest such a thing—make such threats—

"But do you really think me defenseless?" Loki asked, too lightly, his eyes too bright. "My most dangerous blade has always been my tongue, and that I'm still armed with."

Thor pressed his fist to his temple and stared at Loki in dismay. "Your tongue is what provoked him—it plays you false now, Loki, as ever it played the rest of us false."

Loki's closed-mouthed smile was needle-sharp, but somehow lacking the malice he'd shown Odin. "Or else I had my own reason for provoking him."

"Your reason may play you false now, too," Thor said. "That was dangerous, whatever you were trying to do."

"Ah, but not if I knew you would protect me, in my pitiful weakness."

Thor narrowed his eyes at Loki, reached out and clasped his shoulder. Loki tensed but did not pull away, and Thor studied his face, his pointed smirk, then shook his head. "No. You wouldn't tell me, if that were it—if you were doing this on purpose to get my sympathy, then why stop? You must know I'm still angry with you. But you're jesting now, as if your fear was a lie."

Loki snorted. "And you're so sure it wasn't?"

Thor shifted up his grip to cup Loki's neck, not to pull him closer but only resting his hand there. "You're still shaking," he said gently.

Loki snarled inarticulately, shoved off Thor's hand and pushed to his feet. Thor got back to his as well as Loki paced a few steps, then stopped, facing the window. "I lie, Thor," he said, addressing the abyss. "I always lie, I always lie to you as much as to anyone, and you should not trust me."

Thor sighed. "I know. I'm getting better about remembering."

"You're not!" Loki made a sound that was halfway a cruel laugh and halfway a whimper. "You wouldn't come here, if you were, you wouldn't speak to me—that's the only way not to hear me lie to you, you know, to never listen to me at all—"

"Yes," Thor said, "I know that, too. Loki, what are you afraid of?"

Loki turned back to stare at him, astonished. "What am I—I fear your monstrous stupidity!"

"I'm serious."

"I'm serious as well. Such incredible imbecility may be catching, and there's precious little of my mind remaining to risk it—"

"Loki." Loki was breathing too fast again, was too pale again, his green eyes enormous and gleaming dark in his ashen face. Any anger left smoldering in Thor was snuffed out, plunged into those cold terrified pools. "Tell me, please," Thor said, lowering his head, begging and not ashamed of it. " If you wouldn't tell Odin after all, then tell me. What do you fear? How powerful is Thanos, that he frightens you so—what can he do?"

A shudder went through Loki. Then he said, too quickly, throwing the words like he would throw his daggers, "There was no need to tell Odin; he's fought Thanos before, and already knows the titan's strength. And Thanos will come here. He'll follow the Tesseract, now that it was opened—opened enough for him to get his foot in its door, and now he'll be seeking it, to claim it for his own—claim the cube, and the gauntlet, and he will tear down Asgard to reach them—"

"And you," Thor said. "You said he'd want you, for disobeying him?"

"And me," Loki agreed, grinning mirthlessly. "Though I'm an afterthought, one he'll pass up without hesitation to get the real prizes. I'm worthless as a bargaining chip in this war. A general of the Chitauri, I was—only that was a lie, of course, because they have no generals; their hives have no leaders, only spokesmen. And Thanos."

"So Thanos would actually dare attack Asgard?" Thor asked. The titan had not come to Asgard before; the battle that won the Infinity Gauntlet had taken place in a distant realm. Thor had not often heard that story, it not being a victory Odin or the other older warriors cared to boast of. He and Loki had not yet been out of the nursery; he had only vague memories of the aftermath, his mother crying at his father's bedside for long months, for all they had returned triumphant.

As well, the Chitauri had been a formidable force; there was good reason to be wary of one strong enough to dominate them. One whose power Odin respected and Loki feared. "If the titan comes, how would we best defend against him?"

Loki grinned wider, wild-eyed. "Give me the Tesseract," he said. "Let me take it and flee, across the realms and further. Beyond Thanos's reach, and he'll come searching for it and me, leaving Asgard be. And once I've completely mastered the cube, I'll easily defeat him—"

"Would you master it?" Thor asked. "Or would it master you?"

Loki laughed. "Both? Neither? What matters which? Asgard will be safe—I swear not to attack this realm, nor your beloved Midgard again. Nor any of the other worlds under Asgard's aegis, if only you grant me the Tesseract—"

"And how are we to believe your promise?" Thor asked softly, then shook his head. "Loki, why? Why do you want the cube so badly?"

"You would ask me that?" The cloudy light across Loki's eyes made them too translucent, more gray than green. "You experienced the Tesseract's power, Thor; have you ever felt its like?"

"No!" Thor shook his head. "No, and it was the most terrible thing I've ever borne! To be altered, to be made into someone...something else. Yourself, but not yourself. Doing and feeling only what it wants you to do or feel; and not caring about any of it, so that nothing, no one, matters to you, but what it tells you matters..."

"Yes." Loki's gray eyes were so wide they were glassy; his lips were parted, dry from the shallow breaths forced between them. "Yes—that is the Tesseract's gift."

"That is no gift!" Thor grabbed Loki by the shoulders and shook him, hard enough to snap his mouth shut, to change the angle of the light so that his eyes showed green again. "That is a curse, that is—that is a nightmare—!"

"No!" Loki denied, twisting to free himself. "I know nightmares; I lived one, for so many long—" and then he clapped his mouth shut again.

Thor caught him again, holding tighter, curving his thumbs into the hollows between shoulder and collarbone so Loki wouldn't break away. "Lived one for how long? When? Where, Loki?"

"It doesn't matter—"

"It matters, if that's what broke you!"

"No." Loki shook his head, tangled black hair whipping his cheeks. "No, I was whole—with the Tesseract, I was whole; I was only broken when I was broken from it, when it was taken from me. You are wrong, Thor, it is no curse; it only seems so to you, because I forced it on you. But I chose it. This is how you master the Tesseract: to let yourself want what it wants, so that it need not control you; then you can control it."

"How is that any different?" Thor asked. "If you change yourself to fit it—how is that any different from it changing you?"

"You're a fool," Loki said, "a blind, ignorant, small-minded oaf—"

"So you've told me on many occasions," Thor said; he would have smiled at the familiarity of it, had Loki's eyes not been so staring wide and wild. Not like Loki should look at all, however habitual his insults. "But I'm not wrong in this. And you know it—you didn't truly want the Tesseract."

"Not truly?" Loki made a half-laugh, a sound fractured down the middle. "If I don't truly want it—then bring it to me, Thor; bring me the cube now, and I'll show you how little I want it—"

"You wanted to take it," Thor said, gripping his shoulders. "But maybe you didn't want to keep it—why did you eat Mother's fruit, Loki?"

"What?" Loki went still, motionless and unresisting in Thor's hold.

"You knew she had enchanted them—the first peach I brought you, I told you she'd ripened it. You knew the fruit had her magic in them, but you ate them anyway, every time. And then, in the throne room, with the Tesseract—you knew that lullaby charm; you must have known what she was trying to do. Even before she started to sing, you should have guessed; but you didn't stop her, or order me to silence her—"

"Shut up," Loki said, but soft, dulled, his chin lifted so he stared fixedly forward over Thor's shoulder. "You understand nothing, be silent—"

"If I don't understand, why do you want me silenced?" Thor asked. "Liars don't mind lies, do they? It's truth that's hard to hear. You wanted the Tesseract—that's not a lie, except it is, because you also wanted it taken from you. Wanted to be stopped, though you would never say it."

"You are a fool," Loki said again, barely even a whisper, too soft for anger or any other feeling.

"Yes," Thor said, "and you are a liar."

Loki closed his eyes, the black lashes collecting water like dew. His throat worked as he swallowed, said, as softly, "It is...it was quiet, Thor. It was so quiet, when all I could hear was the Tesseract's blue..."

The cell was quiet, Thor thought; even when he strained he could barely hear the wind, or the distant footsteps of the guards marching on their rounds in tunnels above. But still he brought up his hands, cupped his palms around Loki's ears, brushing back his hair to seal them firmly closed.

As when they were small, and a thunderstorm was blowing over the palace. Thor had always loved storms; even as a babe in his cradle he would clap and giggle at the sky's splendid displays. But Loki, when very young, had liked the bright illuminating flashes of lightning, but hated the thunder that followed; he would cry from fear even when he had his fingers jammed in his ears, and could not stop unless their mother or father or Thor held him.

There was no storm raging outside now, but Loki was shivering yet. "There," Thor said, tipping his head down to rest his forehead against Loki's, so close that Loki could hear him through his covered ears. "Listen to your heart beating, Loki, and not anything else."

Loki sank to his knees, and Thor knelt with him, their foreheads still touching. He closed his eyes, listening as Loki's too-fast breaths slowed, feeling his trembling subside. Loki's hands came up, but not to push Thor's away; instead he set them over Thor's hands, to hold them in place over his ears. His fingers were cool at first, but slowly warmed against Thor's.

After a while Loki shuddered; Thor felt it shake him, opened his eyes and pulled back a little to look at Loki. Loki's eyes were still closed, but he dropped his hands, let Thor take his from his ears. Then Loki leaned in, pressed his ear to Thor's chest as if to listen to Thor's heart instead, and Thor carefully wrapped his arms around him, put his hand over Loki's free ear again.

Loki exhaled again, more a sigh this time, gentler. "Thank you, brother," he said, only a whisper, maybe too softly to hear it himself.

But Thor's ears were uncovered, and he smiled, said back just as quietly, "You're welcome, brother."

Chapter Text

Two days hence, Thor was napping on Loki's cot (Loki was not inclined to use it himself, or sleep at all, and given his nightmares Thor thought that decision one of his more rational, in the balance) when he felt as much as heard Loki start out of the latest reverie he had fallen into. Thor sat up, rubbing his eyes clear as he asked, "What is it—"

"Shh," Loki motioned for silence, standing beneath the metal barricading the cell's exit with his head cocked. Thor listened as well and heard footsteps coming down the corridor, not as evenly matched as the guards marching on their usual rounds.

Over the approaching footsteps, muttered voices were growing louder, "—yes, I'm sure this is it; what dwarf would forget his way through a tunnel? The very idea!"

Thor frowned; that voice sounded familiar. Though not as well-known as the softer reply, "...sure you are right, but please, lower your voice, before we're over—"

"Sif?" Thor called, raising his own voice to carry through the ceiling's barrier. "Is that you?"

"Thor?" The footsteps sped up, then stopped overhead, and two faces appeared behind the barricade: Sif, and next to her the dwarf Fjalar, peering down at them.

"So you are here, Thor!" Fjalar said, triumphant. "And Loki, too, excellent! May we come down?"

Thor looked to Loki, who looked back at him, bemused, but made no indication of protest. So Thor gestured to lower the metal stairs into the cell, and Fjalar bustled down, with Sif following behind him in full armor, her sword sheathed at her side. She stood at Fjalar's shoulder like a bodyguard as the dwarf swiveled between Thor and Loki as if unsure who to address, saying, "So, excuse us for barging in like this—"

"If you'll excuse me for having no food or drink to offer my guests," Loki said in turn. It would have been all right if he'd stopped there, but he had to add a properly courteous nod, and Thor snorted before he could stop himself.

"Quit that, brother," he said. "It's ridiculous to make a better host as a prisoner than you would have in your own rooms. Besides, it's not true; there's food and drink both," and Thor waved at the breakfast the guards had brought an hour ago, the bread and milk untouched as usual. That argument Thor had not given up on, and Loki grimaced slightly at Thor's look.

"Oh," Fjalar said cheerfully, "do you mind?" so Thor tossed the dwarf the heel of the fresh-baked loaf, which he tore into readily.

Thor hoped that show of appetite might encourage Loki's own, but Loki was watching Sif instead. He had drawn himself up, straight-backed and pale, his black-clothed figure taller than Sif's shining silver. Sif stared back at him, watchful; her hand was on her sword's hilt.

"So," Thor said, jovially loud as he thumped Fjalar and Sif on the shoulders in greeting, "what brings you down here?"

Fjalar swallowed the last bit of bread and grinned back up at him, remarking, "Well, at least he's not acting bespelled, eh, Lady Sif?"

Sif's nostrils flared, one of the few signs of infuriation she'd yet to conquer; her eyes darted to Thor and immediately back to Loki. "Bespelled?" Thor asked, frowning.

"He is not," Loki said, burning cold as his blue Jotunn form. "My magic is greatly limited by this cell's wards; it's why I'm kept here still."

"We knew that you were under no enchantment, Thor, else we would have come sooner," Sif said stiffly.

"But there's those at the court who'll be most relieved to hear it!" Fjalar said. "What with their prince having entirely disappeared for the last two days."

Thor could feel Loki's sidelong glower upon him; this had been an argument, too. "I've been at the dinner feasts—"

"Only long enough to eat," Sif said, "and then you're gone again, with scarcely a word to any of us—"

"You can have them," Loki interrupted. "He's had far too many words for me; it's quite exhausting."

Sif's still face did not reflect a glimmer of Loki's sardonic smirk. "I will not bandy words with you as if we are friends. Thor may call you brother and treat you like one; but you are not my kin, and you tried to kill me and those I hold dear, as well as moved against Asgard."

"Oh, but who moved against Asgard first?" Loki asked, smirk falling as his voice sharpened like an icy blade. "Who defied their rightful king, committed treason against the throne—"

"You did," Sif said, evenly, though her neck flushed, "when you brought the Jotunn into Asgard—for the first time—"

"Sif," Thor said, "Loki, stop this," and he stepped between them, tall enough to block both their glares. He looked back first at Loki, said, "Brother, please do not hone your tongue's dagger on my friends. You've no need to provoke them to further ire; they hate you too much already." Then he turned back to Sif, asked her, "Sif, Loki is my brother still, and for that, I entreat you as my friend to bend your honor and ignore him."

Sif looked at him long, then nodded. "For you, Thor; as long as it's understood that I'm only setting aside his offenses, not relinquishing them."

"It's understood," Thor said, not knowing how to tell her that Loki would not want her to relinquish his crimes: that Loki had not the strength now to take up that burden, if she dropped it.

Thor did not exactly understand it himself. He only knew that in the past two days, whenever their conversation approached what Loki had done on Asgard or on Midgard, it would bring a wildness to Loki's eyes, a coldness to his voice—a brittle cold, like walking on thin ice. And sometimes that ice cracked and the words that came bubbling and rushing from Loki seemed out of his control, too fast and raging a flood to channel. Thor did not assume their unruliness made them true—they could not all be true; Loki would contradict himself from one sentence to the next, claim he hated the Tesseract and then beg for it, laugh at the Chitauri's annihilation even as he cursed his defeat.

But lies or truths, Loki would drown in them, until he stopped—until he was stopped, Thor cutting him off. One time he had to put his hand over Loki's mouth to silence him, because he would not otherwise.

Afterwards Loki would be left wan and trembling, gasping for breath as if he had drowned for real; and ashamed, avoiding Thor's eyes and turning from him. It was that shame more than anything that made Thor believe it was not an act. Loki had his pride still, but it was so tentatively balanced on his unstable mind, on his unsteady heart. Sometimes Thor thought he desired the Tesseract for the sake of that pride more than anything else, thinking its fearful strength better than his weakness now.

Except that Loki was not weak—Thor had never thought his brother so, and not now either. Thor remembered too well the Tesseract's power, his inability to resist it, but this was more than that dark magic. Loki's words had always been his weapon and his shield at once; but now his words were not always his to wield.

Mjolnir had been taken from Thor before, with he unworthy to lift it, but this—Thor could not imagine going into battle and being unsure of his weapon, not knowing if the hammer would strike foe as he intended or friend instead, or himself. With such uncertainty he did not know if he'd have the courage to swing it at all. That Loki still spoke anyway, still tried to weave his lies around the gaps of his madness—it was foolish, Thor thought; but terribly brave, too.

No, Loki was not weak; but he was wounded now, as badly hurt in mind and spirit as ever Thor had seen men maimed in body on the battlefield. Thor was no healer anyway, and knew even less how to tend injuries such as his brother suffered. But he knew from hard experience that going into combat not yet healed would only reopen the wounds, infect and worsen them.

So before Loki could engage Sif again, Thor said to her and Fjalar, "My friends, what brings you here? Was there some reason you wished to see me?"

"Not you, in fact," Fjalar said, "that's just happy coincidence; it's your brother we were wanting," and he beamed up at Loki as if Loki's cool glare were a welcoming smile. "We're refining the cage for the cube, you see, and there's been a few arguments—look, here," and from his tunic the dwarf pulled a sheaf of papers, dropped to his knees to arrange them across the floor as he talked, "this leftmost spiral curls inwardly, and I naturally assumed it was to feed the ley line back into itself, but a few noisy types—my wife among them—are insisting it's projecting to the opposite—"

Loki stared down at the dwarf and his papers, brow knitted. "You realize," he said, carefully measured, as if he were talking to someone slow-witted, "that any advice I gave you was ultimately for the purpose of activating the Bifrost, so I might take advantage and escape."

Fjalar rocked back on his haunches to peer up at Loki's looming shadow, tugging his beard thoughtfully. "Obviously," he said, "but just as obviously, to pull that off, you needed to know as much about both the Tesseract and the Rainbow Bridge as any of us crafters. That none of us figured out in time what you were doing lends credence to the supposition that you know more than us. And it would be a shame to let such knowledge go to waste, when you're still here to have your brain picked."

Loki blinked. Thor thought his face looked like nothing so much as a cat who'd cornered a mouse, then had its intended prey present it with a perfectly smelt fish. "You mean to say," Loki said finally, "you'd collaborate with me again, knowing my intent?"

Fjalar shrugged. "Master Adalsteinn's against it, and I wouldn't say all my crew are jumping to work with you—though the way the Bifrost grew after that mess did smooth a flock's worth of ruffled feathers. Besides, you're a prisoner; it's only expected that you'd try to escape. This time, though," and he grinned, white teeth showing behind his bushy beard, "it's a matter of pride that we don't get fooled again. So do your worst, trickster, and let's see if our wits measure up."

Loki studied him, mouth flattening in a manner that Thor had not often seen: Loki gave his respect rarely, and begrudged it. But he knelt before Fjalar's pages, picked one from the spread and said, "Aridva had it right; this curve projects rather than contains..."

Having no understanding of the magic or engineering, Thor stopped listening, and went to sit on the unused cot. Sif was watching Loki and the dwarf, her hand still on her sword's hilt. Thor did not try to dissuade her to release it, but motioned for her to join him, and Sif took a seat beside him on the cot, her scabbard hanging off the side in easy reach.

Thor nodded at her, asked, "So did you come to see me, Sif? Since you're not here for Loki."

"I came to escort Ambassador Fjalar in the dungeon," Sif said. "In case of trouble, if the guards happened across us. He petitioned to speak with Loki, but the All-Father refused—not wrongly, I thought. But Fjalar..."

"He's very...insistent, when he thinks he has the right of something," Thor said. "Even for a dwarf."

"And I wanted to see you besides," Sif said. "While I knew the rumors of your enchantment now could not be true," though from the penetrating look she gave Thor, she perhaps had not entirely disbelieved them, either, "I wanted to know if you really were here, with Loki."

"For the last couple of days, mostly, yes."

"Your mother thought you've not been back to your chambers, even."

"I've slept here," Thor said. "Loki has been making little use of his cot, and it's comfortable enough, you see."

Sif patted the muslin sheets. "Far better than a bedroll on the ground," she agreed, though by the downturn of her mouth she doubted Loki worthy of that luxury. She did not say so, however, instead asked, "What have you been doing these past days, besides sleeping?"

"Talking," Thor said. "Or not talking," because sometimes Loki would have enough, would stop and turn away and Thor would give him the silence he needed, until Loki broke it. He did not leave, however, to be there when his brother chose to speak again.

Sif looked skeptical. "Only talking?"

"Loki has no wish to spar," Thor said, discounting their fight after his nightmare—that had been no practice fight, and Thor wondered if it was the fear of another such struggle, that Loki refused his offers. "And he's not been interested in writing—until now," because Loki had found a pen and was presently scrawling runes across Fjalar's papers.

Sif with Thor watched them work, the builder and the sorcerer, absorbed in discussion of some esoteric working of magic power and molded metal. Loki was not smiling, but his eyes were intent and his face calm in his concentration. Thor smiled himself to see it; that calmness was too rare a thing in Loki now.

"How dare he."

Thor looked to Sif in surprise. Her hand was closed into a fist, set on her knee as if she had to plant it there, or else would swing it; her jaw was clenched. "How dare he be this way," she said again, so soft a hiss it barely carried to Thor's ears.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"As if nothing's changed," Sif said, a hoarsely harsh whisper. "He looks no different. All he did, to Asgard and Midgard, to us, to you—and there Loki is, showing off his magic and his cleverness. Joking with you, as if he never tried to kill you, and worse. He lives in a cell as pleasant as a farmer's cottage, protected from any vengeance he should have brought upon himself; and you attend him, smile at him—"

"Sif—"

"Oh, Thor, I am sorry," and Sif took Thor's hand, wove her fingers through his. "To you he is your brother still, I understand that. You would not be so dear to me, if you could not love Loki like this, even after all he's done. But Thor, in all your talking, has he once offered any apology or amends?"

Thor did not answer her; he could not, not honestly.

Sif curled her fingers around his tightly, allowing herself to comfort him no more than that, as she murmured, "You've mourned Loki, wept for him; my heart broke with yours, and I'm more happy than I can say, that it's mended for now. But if I could change anything about you, it would be that you did not give your heart away so freely—did not give it to those who will not value it. For all Loki's done—for what he did to you—has he shown any sign of remorse? That he regrets anything but that he failed?"

"And how am I to make this apology, that it would be believed?"

Thor looked up with a start, and Sif, too. Loki had raised his head from Fjalar's discussion, his green eyes sharp on them, and his voice even sharper, an edge to draw blood. He rose smoothly to his feet, looking down at them across the cell.

Sif clasped Thor's hand in hers, not pulling away, and lifted her chin to meet Loki's eyes. "I didn't speak to you, but if you must eavesdrop, then I'm not embarrassed. Truth is truth, however loudly it's spoken, or who listens to it."

"But bellowing can't make something truth," Loki said. "Nor the prettiest of words. What apology can I give for whatever I've done, that would be taken as anything but the Liesmith's craft?"

"Loki," Thor said. Loki's voice was too cold, his eyes glittering.

"A posturing lie would yet be better than nothing," Sif said, defiant.

"Would it?" Loki smiled in a way that made Fjalar hastily duck back over his papers, muttering urgently. "Well, then, Lady Sif," and Loki set one foot before the other, swept his arm down in a faultlessly formal bow, "I am most extremely sorry for setting the Destroyer upon you and your hapless comrades, as well as my dear brother, and that unfortunate Midgard village as well. If there is any way I might make it up to you—"

"Shut your mouth!" Sif cried, her face marble-white with fury as she shot to her feet, hand clapped over her sword's hilt.

"Was that not posturing enough?" Loki inquired. "How about this, then," and he placed a hand over his heart, lowered himself to one knee and said, "Sweet Sif, my bosom friend, I cannot express how deep my regret runs, that ever I sought to harm you; I would sooner rend mine own hair from my scalp, ere I lift this hand against yours again—"

"Do not mock this," Sif growled, low with warning as she advanced toward Loki. "You will not make a joke of the friendship I once held for you; no matter if you never truly felt it yourself, it was real for me, and I will not have it maligned."

Loki stood again, grinning at her, and spread his arms. "A hug, then, and we'll be made up—let bygones be bygones, as friends do?"

Thor moved as Sif did, and faster, grabbing her arm before her punch met Loki's face. The blow would have landed, had he not caught it; Loki did not move to duck or block, but only continued to smirk. He kept his arms at his sides, hands restlessly opening and closing—grasping for something he would not reach out for.

Thor shouldered between them, swung around to Sif and implored, "Sif, please, let this go."

"Yes, go, we definitely should go—great thanks for your help—" Fjalar had gathered up the papers Sif and Thor were not trampling on, clutching them to his chest as he backed away, eyes on the Asgardians as he felt with his foot behind him for the first stair. Finding it, he hurried up and out of the cell.

Sif looked up at the departing dwarf and then at Thor, and very deliberately not at Loki. "You ask much," she said to Thor, pulling her arm away, jaw clenched so tightly a muscle in her cheek twitched. "Why? You never coddled him before, not when he'd brought it on himself—why now, Thor?"

Thor knew Loki was readying a reply, spoke quickly before his brother could, "I know, it seems unjust; I'm sorry, Sif—"

"Don't!" Sif said. "Do not make apologies for him."

"Then I'm sorry for denying you your rightful satisfaction," Thor said. "I can only beg your forgiveness."

"As if fair Sif would deny you that," Loki murmured behind him, soft and poisonous as an assassin's blade. "Or anything..."

Sif ignored him, met Thor's eyes and said, "You have it now, Thor; but next time you won't stop me."

"Next time I won't try," Thor promised her.

Sif nodded to him, clasped his hand again then climbed the steps, as Loki said, maliciously light, "Farewell, Sif, and thanks for your visit; how good to know I'm not forgotten—"

"Peace, brother," Thor said, as the barricade closed behind Sif.

"Shouldn't you follow them?" Loki said. "See them out like a proper host—accompany them back to the palace and finally leave me in peace!"

Thor turned to look at Loki, Loki with his face too pale and his shoulders rising and falling with too deep breaths. "Why would you say such things to her?" Thor asked him.

Loki's teeth were gritted behind his grin. "What would you have me say, Thor? How shall the liar honestly apologize? Prostrate myself before her and you and all your friends, and beg for forgiveness for unforgivable crimes, so you can prove your benevolence by granting me absolution anyway?" Loki spread his arms again, now not to feign a wanted embrace but baring his heart, offering it as if Thor had a dagger and he were a sacrificial goat. "Shall I beseech your pardon for all the times I tried to kill you—the Destroyer, and on the Bifrost, on the airship and on the tower, and oh, I am sure there are others slipping my mind; but you are Thor the mighty of heart and small of wit, and can hold no grudge even against your false brother—"

"Loki, do not—"

"Or what of the rest—all the Midgard mortals slain by my hand and my deeds and the army I brought, that you failed to protect—or have you forgotten them by now?" Loki stepped closer and Thor held in place, near enough to see the white showing all round Loki's green irises, as he raved, "Do they only matter when you are standing on Earth and wishing to be considered one of their heroes, wanting their devotion—did you even admit to them I was your brother, or did you claim me only Odin's mistake—"

Another step and Loki was close enough. Thor put his arms around him like a snare snapping shut, holding Loki's arms to his sides as he struggled, saying in his ear, "Stop it, brother; I won't do it."

Loki snarled back, "Do what? Forgive me?—"

"Strike you," Thor said. "If I wouldn't allow Sif to, why would I now? She'd only punish me later for stealing her own satisfaction; Sif's never wanted for any man to defend her honor."

"Then why stop her? Or do you think me too frail—would you shield me like the woman you do not take Sif for?"

"I stopped her," Thor said, impatiently in spite of his better efforts, "because she was taking offense where there was none to take, for all you tried to convince her otherwise; because she mistakenly thought she was hearing a lie."

Thor said it with all his confidence, but was still relieved to feel his brother momentarily tense under his arms, feel the confirmation in Loki's unexpected gasp of breath, before he hissed, "A lie?" He tried to pull away again and Thor let him go, as Loki raucously laughed, "Are you such a fool to think a word I said to her was sincerely meant—"

"If you want to, you can sound sincere," Thor said calmly. "So sincere it will bluff anyone. Before my arranged coronation, you told me to never doubt that you loved me, such that I could only believe it—even while as you said it, you'd already brought the Jotunn to Asgard to ruin me. If you'd wanted, you could have convinced Sif now, could have wrung sympathy from her, if not yet forgiveness. And it would've served you better to do so, wouldn't it, to have another ally in the palace besides myself."

Loki, about to laugh again, fell quiet at that point.

"You and Sif used to squabble when younger," Thor went on, "almost like you and I used to. As we grew up she became your friend, but didn't trust you, wisely—and you admired her wisdom, even as you strove to trick her anyway. You never disliked Sif; I don't think you hate her now, when you never did before. But you would rather she hate you for your lies than for your truths."

Loki folded his arms around himself, tucked close to his chest to hide the heart offered before. "And what about you, Thor? Do you hate me for my lies, or for my truths?"

"I don't hate you, brother," Thor said.

"'Brother', of course—so it is the lies, then."

"Father lied when he first told us we were brothers," Thor replied, "but the truth is we grew up together. So either by lies or by truth, we are family, and nothing can change that."

"And you have such faith in that bond that you dare not leave me be for a moment," Loki said bitingly. "Tormenting me day and night with your watchful eye and endless prattle; even when you sleep I must suffer through your snoring, so that I can hardly hear myself think—"

"Yes, and that's the point, isn't it?" Thor said. "Little good comes from your thinking now; if I let you be, what would you put your mind to? Trying to reclaim the Tesseract, or convincing yourself of still worse things. If I weren't here, you'd only have yourself to lie to; and you believe your lies, all too easily."

"This is how you hope to manage me?" Loki's lip curled. "Make up a pretty story to justify my wickedness—tell yourself the lies, before I even can?"

"You can tell me all the lies you like," Thor said. "But I don't have to listen to them. Not when I know you. I cannot always tell your honesty from your deceptions, Loki—but I know my brother. Whatever you have done, whatever has been done to you, you are him still, and I will believe in that, no matter how you try to make me forget it."

"So you'd rather place your trust in someone who no longer exists—who never existed, except in your fool heart and head—rather than hate me as any just man should?"

"Yes," Thor said firmly.

Loki shut his mouth, swallowing back whatever acid he'd been about to spit as he stared at Thor. Then he turned away, keeping his lips sealed to dam back his words instead of drowning in them, and crouched to collect the fallen papers that Fjalar had left behind.

Thor waited, watching his bowed back; when Loki's silence continued, he yawned, said himself, "I'm still tired." He'd not slept the night before; Loki had seemed to want the company to keep himself awake, however he might complain about it now. Thor lay back down on the cot, said, "I'll bother you again with my snoring, if you don't mind."

"I do mind," Loki muttered.

Thor grinned as he tucked his arms behind his head and shut his eyes. "All the better!" They were, after all, brothers.

Though for all his fatigue, sleep proved elusive. In the dark behind his eyelids Thor could not help but see Sif's face, her painful anger, the ache of having an enemy where once she'd had a friend. And what she had said of the rumors around the court, that Thor had banished himself to the dungeon—strange that his father had not come himself to scold Thor for it; unless he were ashamed to return to Loki's cell...

Around him Thor heard the papers rustling, and then the soft padding tread of Loki's feet on the stone floor. "Thor?" Loki said, somewhere above him; but Thor was finally halfway to sleep and unwilling to risk that fragile repose by answering.

He felt the cot shift a little as Loki seated himself on the floor and leaned against it. "It was not a lie," Loki said, softly, as if to not wake Thor. "And at any rate I didn't bring the Jotunn to ruin you, only your crowning, which we all knew was a mistake save you. That, I won't apologize for. But what I told you before the ceremony was not a lie."

Thor lay quietly, breathed evenly in and out.

After another moment, Loki said, somewhat more sharply, "You would snore louder if you were actually asleep."

Thor opened his eyes and saw black hair, the back of Loki's head as he bent over the wrinkled pages, smoothing them over his knees.

"You are not the only one who knows his brother," Loki said with some asperity, not looking up from the papers. "Now really nap, if you can; we'll be entertaining more visitors soon, I expect, and I would have my dupe of a defender rested for it."

Chapter Text

Thor did not know how Loki had guessed it, but when the clouds outside showed the first pinks of sunset, footsteps again sounded in the tunnel above. Not sneaking this time, but escorted by a pair of guards—a lighter tread, that Thor did not identify until the barricade's metal chimed and rearranged into the stairs, without Thor activating it.

Thor looked to Loki, who rose from the corner where he had been making notes on Fjalar's pages to face the steps, as Frigga descended them.

"Mother," Thor said, "er, good evening..." He trailed off. His first impulse was to go to her, but whether in greeting, or to intercept her encounter with Loki—he was not sure, and neither was he sure whether he meant to protect her from Loki, or the opposite. The uncertainty left him paused in place.

"Good evening, Thor," Frigga replied, nodding to him with regal formality but a kind smile. With the same poise she said, "Loki," bowing her head again, hands clasped decorously before her dress's long skirt.

Loki gazed at her for a long still moment, then mirrored her bowed head, saying, "My lady queen."

Frigga closed her eyes, opened them again bright with water, though she smiled. "I hope I find you well."

"Well enough," Loki said, his voice not chill, precisely, but so controlled as to be remote. Thor moved toward him, as unobtrusively as he could manage, to see Loki's eyes and better judge his mood. "Unrepentantly so, as Sif no doubt told you."

"She did," Frigga agreed, "though I wanted to see for myself."

"Then see," and Loki waved a careless hand at Thor, who automatically froze, as if they were playing a childhood game and his motionlessness might render him unnoticed. "I still hold sway over your son; you carved your lessons of brotherhood too deep into his bones to cut them out now."

"I see," Frigga said, smiling still at both of them. "And am glad to see it."

"It was Mother who asked me to come speak with you, when I would not have," Thor reminded Loki.

"And her wish, too, that you incessantly bother me now?"

"Not by my request," Frigga said, "but with my approval. I don't care to think of you down here alone, with naught for company but stone walls and the abyss."

"And the All-Father's faithful raven, of course," Loki said. "I've seen it flitting in the sky outside the window yet, these past few days. Your husband tells you what Thor does not, I presume."

"He does."

"Does Odin wonder at your interest in a prisoner, a criminal allied with Asgard's foes?"

"No more than I wonder at him," Frigga said quietly, "for weeping to see our son's pain."

Thor was near enough to see Loki's shoulders twitch, too tightly set for a flinch; to hear the quaver in Loki's voice, before he schooled it flat, "So does the All-Father cry from only one eye, or does the empty socket leak as well?"

"Loki," Thor protested.

"What? It's something I've long wondered about. Though I suppose I saw the answer already, when he wept magic, kneeling before me—"

"Don't," Thor said in dismay, shaking his head at that awful reminder.

Loki cocked his own, raised his hand as if the golden gauntlet was once more upon it. "Did you see it, Thor? Or you, Lady Frigga; surely you remember your husband's agony at my hand—"

"I remember, and thank you for being willing to speak of it," Frigga said, serene as a lake of glass, and Loki's mouth clapped shut in surprise. She went on smoothly, "It allows me to tell you what I could not before—I am sorry, Loki," and she lowered her head, hands clasped below her chin in penitence. "I bespelled you against your will, turned a charm to a curse and twisted magics accepted for their healing into an enchantment forced over you. I beg your forgiveness for that trespass."

"But you only did it to stop him," Thor said, "you had no choice—"

"A reason is not an excuse," Frigga replied, her head still down. "That I saw no other way, and would do it again, does not change that I did a great wrong."

Loki gave a single jagged laugh. "A great wrong—done to me, after all my wrongs? You would ask for my forgiveness—as if I've not done so much as to deserve whatever befalls me—"

"That you have done wrong to others does not make right whatever is done to you," Frigga said, raising her face up to Loki's. "No more than having a wrong done to you forgives any later transgressions. Did I not teach you that lesson well enough, my son?"

"I—I am not your son," Loki said, as uneven as his laugh.

"If you are not, then why do I clearly remember sitting you on my knee and explaining that just because Thor stuck out his leg and tripped you at breakfast, you are not free from the blame of putting tree sap in his hair at dinner? Or was that some other green-eyed child I lectured?"

Loki exhaled, silent but so deeply that Thor saw his shoulders rise and fall. His voice was steady as a dropped stone. "Your husband brought me to you, a changeling child, and you did raise me, even knowing these green eyes are as great a lie as any I've told. I am the one beholden for that generosity; any maternal responsibility has long since been met, many times over. Whatever forgiveness you ask of me, I grant you completely, to free you from this unwanted bond of parenthood."

He did not say it cruelly; his careful words held neither irony nor overwrought sincerity. Thor could not guess Loki's purpose, unless it was honesty. But Frigga said, lips pressed to white and with a quietness that carried further than an enraged shout, "Please do not insult me so, Loki. That bond is not to be broken."

Loki drew himself up. "I am not of your blood—I am not even your race—"

"A bloodline is only a thread," Frigga said. "It may be snapped; but I raised you, and that forged a chain that cannot be severed, no matter how sharp your tongue."

Loki's spine was straight like a pole; it might have been aligned with Gungnir. He gazed past Frigga instead of to her, as he said, "Then I am sorry to so chain you."

Frigga sighed long, then said, soft but no longer angry, "There is a story I wished to tell you, Loki—that I wished to tell both of you together, though I feared I might never be able to." She glanced at Thor, then back to Loki. "Will you do me the kindness of listening to it?"

"...A story?" Loki crossed his arms, relaxing as he leaned back, hip cocked at an insolent angle. "Does it begin with once upon a time?"

"It can, if you wish it," Frigga said. She smoothed out her skirts and sat upon the metal stairs, a high enough step that her head was level with theirs standing, and began, "Once upon a time, there was a king and queen, rulers over the most beautiful land of all nine realms."

Her voice lilted as if she were reciting an old time-honored tale. Thor was struck with the urge to sit before her, lean his head against her knee and listen as if he were again a little boy, hanging on every exciting word. And Loki was looking at her instead of past, unwilling; as a child he never could resist a story, no matter how deep his sulk, and in this he was unchanged.

"But the king and queen were sad," Frigga continued, "as so often they are in stories, because they had no child, for all they wished for one. For long centuries they tried, until at last, with great difficulty, the queen bore a son."

"Let me guess," Loki said, his gaze shifting sidelong to Thor then back to the queen, and his voice took on the same lilting cadence, mocking hers. "A golden prince, strong and brave and the most beautiful in all the land that was the most beautiful of all."

"He was strong and beautiful, yes," Frigga agreed, and Thor frowned to keep from blushing, as she went on, "though perhaps not so brave; he cried all the night long, only happy in his mother's or his father's arms. Not even a nursemaid's would content him, so the king and queen could scarce sleep at all, and it's a trying task to rule when so fatigued you can hardly see straight."

Loki snorted; Thor felt his ears burn red, however he grimaced.

"The little prince was lonely, you see," Frigga said. "His parents understood his pain, for the king had grown up with loyal brothers, and the queen had many beloved siblings. And the queen too had always dreamed of a large family; she had foreseen another son. So they tried again, and finally it seemed they had been blessed once more—but that child came too early, born still.

"It broke the queen's heart, that she the avatar of motherhood had lost her child," Frigga said, her voice unwavering but her eyes tearful, for all the thousand years between her story and her present self. "So great was her grief that she could scarcely bear to look upon her first son, however he wailed. And her husband mourned, but could not comfort them. For cruel ice was spreading over the realms, and he had to ride out to fight the frost giants.

"For long seasons did the king and his armies war to save their land and all the rest. Finally they were victorious over the giants, and came home. And when the king returned, he brought—"

"We all know what he brought," Loki said, his voice as low as Frigga's had fallen before, and more furious. "So you are saying I was not even a prize of battle, a plan for a future alliance, but merely a gift—a bauble of a babe, to cheer his moping wife?"

For all his efforts for patience, Thor could not help but clench his fists, growl, "Brother, don't speak so, to our—!"

But Frigga raised her hand to silence him. Her eyes did not leave Loki's face, even as his own fell, as she told him, "Your father has many reasons for whatever he does; and what he told you of how you came to us was only one. It's true that he wished for a lasting truce, and thought you might be key to it. But just as much, he couldn't bear to see a child unwanted, when back in Asgard I was sobbing for a child I wanted and could not have.

"The truth is, I do not know if Odin was right that you had been abandoned in that broken temple. The giant who fathered you was leading his armies and could not have tended a baby; and the mother who bore you might have been slain, or worse torn from you in the tides of battle. She might have sought you yet, and I realized all that could be so when I was told your origin—but then you were in my arms, and I would not have let you go for anything in all the realms. It was wrong to claim you as my own, when your birth father lived and your birth mother might have—but it's a sin I accepted, would ever and again accept, since I have a son for it."

Frigga rose from the stairs, walked down them one by one, footsteps and gaze both as steady as her voice as she faced Loki. "What I am saying is that this chain you would divest me of is one of my greatest treasures, worth more to me than my own heart and soul. I am saying that you were always, always wanted, Loki, and now no less than the first time your father put you in my arms."

Loki did not move. Thor thought that he wanted to, from his wide-eyed paleness, the same hunted look he got when he would put his back to Thor. But it was as if he had been enchanted again, for all the shields he'd raised against the queen's magic. Thor could see the cracking open of his face, but Loki did not speak; he kept his mouth closed, jaw clamped tightly shut over whatever might escape.

He did not want to hurt their mother with his wayward words, Thor realized. Nor did he lift his hand to her when Frigga reached up to cup his cheek. He only shook his head to deny that too-gentle touch, but Frigga said, so softly, "No, Loki."

Loki shuddered and then embraced her, as abrupt and short a motion as an attack, so that Thor almost jumped to stop him, before he realized Loki had no blade of steel or magic. Frigga did not start, or hesitate to put her arms back around him, drawing his head down to her shoulder. Loki fell to his knees with his arms clutching around his mother as if to hold himself up, and she stroked his hair, kissed the crown of his head, murmuring words too soft for Thor to hear.

Though it would soon be time for the dinner feast, Thor was unwilling to leave his mother and brother. And Frigga would have dismissed him if she wished him gone. Thor did not try to listen to what they talked of, but he heard their mother's whispering more than Loki, and thought that a good sign.

He went to the window on the cell's far side and looked up at the mist-draped cliffs, watching the clouds darken from pink to purple. For a moment he thought he glimpsed a black shadow against the stone, the flutter of a raven's wings; but it was gone when he looked more closely.

Presently the guards sent down the supper tray, and Frigga managed as Thor had not to coax Loki to eat a few bites of the stew, though he complained about its saltiness. Thor didn't find it so bad himself, when Frigga called him over; the broth was thick and hearty, if not generously spiced. Frigga smiled herself to taste it, though from the way she watched them her enjoyment was more the simple pleasure of sitting around a meal with her sons, even if there was only one bowl to share from, and Loki spoke little, keeping his face averted from them, hidden in the growing shadows.

After the tray was cleared, Frigga stood, graceful as if rising from a feast table instead of the floor, and Thor and Loki both rose with her in automatic trained courtesy. "Dinner will be served above," she said, "and I must make an appearance, lest certain tongues wag even more. I'll tell them you're ill, Thor, and have taken your meal in your chambers."

"Which will be believed by no one," Loki muttered, to which Frigga calmly replied, "But they won't dare say so while I sit with them, and if poured enough wine will forget it by the evening's end anyway."

Loki halfway smirked, a reluctant twisting of his lips. When Frigga embraced him he held her back, not letting go until her arms lowered first . She smiled up at him, and while he did not quite return it, he bowed his head to let her kiss his cheek.

She hugged Thor as tightly, told him, "Thank you, Thor."

"You're welcome?" Thor replied, confused; he'd done little but eat most of Loki's dinner, which in past ages would have earned him a scolding.

His mother only smiled at him, and with a final farewell to them both lifted her dress's skirts and climbed the steps up out of the cell.

"You should go with her," Loki said softly. "Forgetting the feast, I think there are things she would talk about with you."

Thor looked from the stairs back to his brother. Loki sat down on the cot. His face in the cloudy twilight looked soft, raw, like layers had been stripped and peeled off. There were drying tracks on his face that he'd only half-heartedly wiped away. "Go, only for now," he said, adding with a teasing cant that had no malice, "I swear not to talk to myself while you're away; she's given me enough truth to chew on that I have no room to swallow lies."

"Loki," Thor asked, "what are you planning?"

"Planning? Nothing; I am too weary now for scheming." Loki fell back supine on the cot, arms and legs hanging off the edge, limp like a wrung-out rag. He shut his eyes, cast an arm over them as if to block out the dim light.

Or to cover his face, and things showing in it that he lacked the fortitude now to hide. "Except you're always scheming something, whatever else you're doing," Thor said, stepping closer to the cot to stare down at Loki. "Brother, please. I'll go, if you tell me the truth now."

Loki pulled his arm up to his forehead, from under it peered up at Thor leaning over him. "I'm only planning to sleep, Thor. Truly."

His gaze was clear, and though Loki could make it be so, Thor thought that might not be where the lie was. "You've not slept at all, these past few days."

"And am exhausted for it." Loki yawned elaborately. Under the shadow of his arm, the bruised swathes ringing his eyes seemed even darker. "Please, just let me sleep, and you can come back to bother me when I wake."

"But if you sleep, what of the nightmares?"

Thor was looking at Loki's unwavering eyes; he nearly missed the tightening of his jaw. "I'll risk them for some honest rest," Loki said, too lightly. "Besides, whatever bad dreams come, you know I deserve them—"

"I know no such thing!"

"So will you keep me awake, then?" Loki asked around another yawn, this one not so rehearsed. "Tired as I am—or do you think that's the more deserved punishment?"

"I won't," Thor said, stepping back and crossing his arms. "But I'll stay to guard your sleep."

Loki dropped his arm, sat up on the cot to glare at Thor. "You said you would go, if I were truthful—"

"I lied," Thor said flatly.

Loki gritted his teeth. "So what truth will win truth from you?"

"None," Thor said. "I'm staying, if you're going to court those dreams."

Loki dropped his head. "Brother, I do not...I have no wish to hurt you," he told the floor, the mutter unwillingly dragged from him. "As I did before."

"You won't; I'll be ready now."

"Promise me," Loki said, glaring back up at him. "Promise that you won't try to wake me, if my dreams turn bad—that you'll let me sleep, whatever I do in it. Swear it on your damn hammer, or I won't close my eyes again; I'd rather not sleep at all, than suffer another half-rested night for your idiocy—"

"All right, I swear it," Thor vowed, putting his hand on Mjolnir. "I won't disturb you until you awaken on your own." Loki nodded, satisfied, and Thor told him, "Sleep well, brother, and may your dreams be pleasant."

Loki, lying back on the cot, exhaled a stuttered silent chuckle. "Pleasant...now that would be a trick indeed..."

Chapter Text

After all his jabs at Thor's snoring, Loki slept vexingly quiet, still and calm. Thor passed the hours standing by the window, watching the mists outside shift like gray ghosts in the obscured moonlight. He had always found solace in a changing sky.

Past midnight Loki groaned, a low whine pulled from his throat, drawing Thor's attention back inside the cell. His brother lay on the cot, quiet and motionless again, and after a moment Thor let go his held breath—too soon. Loki's head turned on the pillow; he groaned again, a harrowing, hair-raising sound that rose and fell like some terrible music, resolving into words, "No—stop—no—"

Thor automatically started toward the cot, only to lurch to a halt, his hand on Mjolnir reminding him of his oath not to disturb his brother. Loki's eyes were still closed, the distress in his voice not showing in his sleeping countenance, but for how his head twisted back and forth.

He spoke again, "I would not, if I were you," the unconscious words eerily distinct, pitch climbing. "Stop—I am Loki—I am Loki of Asgard—no—kill you—stop—I will—come and I will see the rest of you killed—I will—I—!" and then he screamed, a piercingly agonized shriek as if he were being stabbed, or burned alive. Thor flinched, staring as Loki's body on the cot convulsed, spine arching, hands clawing blindly at the sheets—pale white hands in the moonlight, then Jotunn blue, then white again but limned in uncanny green, magic flickering over his skin. Thor felt the pressure of the cell's wards stifling that power, like the building tension before a lightning strike, throbbing behind his eyes.

His hand tightened on Mjolnir's leather-wrapped shaft as if he were trying to squeeze the solid metal into a new shape. It took all his will to keep his feet planted, to stay in place as Loki screamed, and screamed again, then gulped it back and repeated, "Will kill—every one of you—!" and he laughed, a worse and more painful sound than his screaming, a wild lunatic howling that resonated and echoed as if his very throat were hollow.

Then the mad laughter cut off as abruptly as if his neck had been slit, and Loki collapsed back on the cot, panting in harsh gasps.. The magic's unearthly glow faded, leaving him too dark in the shadows—he was Jotunn again, frost-skinned, the ridged markings inscribed on his face.

His eyes were still closed, but Thor asked softly—too softly to count as oath breaking—"Loki?"

Loki did not answer, mumbling nonsense syllables, meaningless dreaming words like some strange language from before the All-Tongue, a stream of babble as overflowing and desperate as anything uttered in his waking madness. Every breath he managed to draw between them sounded like a struggle, as he were choking on the air itself.

Thor was about to damn his vow and shake him awake when without warning Loki gagged, then retched—then jerked up so fast he appeared to go from lying down to sitting up without any motion in between, nearly tumbling off the cot.

His hacking coughs shook him fit to rattle the cot as he curled around his chest. "Loki?" Thor said again, drawing a few paces closer. Loki's head came up, his eyes gleaming crimson. He smothered the next cough, forced air into his lungs and out again in a faint freezing mist that stole with it the blue of his skin and the red of his eyes, leaving him his Aesir self.

"Are you awake?" Thor asked, and Loki swallowed roughly, rasped, "Yes," which was all Thor needed, fairly leaping to his brother's side. Loki did not resist Thor's arm around his shoulders; he was shivering as if his Jotunn flesh had frozen him, wheezing as if he had been strangled. His hands balled into fists, one bunching the sheets and the other clutching Thor's tunic, though Thor didn't think Loki realized it.

It took too long for Loki to catch his breath, for his shivers to subside to more erratic tremors. Gradually his rigid body uncurled; he listed against Thor as they sat side by side on the cot, head drooping heavily on his shoulder.

"Don't," Thor said in concern, jostling him. "I don't think you should fall asleep again."

"I'd rather not," Loki hoarsely agreed, and coughed again, his shoulders racking under Thor's arm.

Thor held him tightly through it, as if he could stop the paroxysms by main force. "So," he ventured when the fit passed, "not pleasant dreams, then."

"No." Loki laughed, a grating echo of his howl in the nightmare's grip, and not appreciably saner; it nearly could be mistaken for a sob.

He was trembling again, as if chilled by the mere reminder of his nightmares. "Loki," Thor asked, not a little desperately, "what can I—we—do? How do we stop this, that you might sleep? Healing magic, or a warding—there must be something—"

"Yes," Loki hissed between his chattering teeth, "yes, there's something, you know there is; but none of you will allow me to have it."

Thor jolted in dismay. "The Tesseract can't heal, brother; it's no answer to anything."

"It is the answer to everything—"

"Then that's too much!" Thor gripped Loki's shoulder, not letting him yank away. "You'd be lost in that everything—and we won't lose you again, neither I nor Mother—

"But it is the answer," Loki said, not even angrily but with the forthright senseless stubbornness of a small child. He sighed when his token effort to push free failed, did not try to fight further but slumped back against Thor, resigned.

"Not the right one—we'll find a better way. You will," Thor insisted. "You've never been content with a simple answer, when there's one more complicated and interesting..."

His brother did not reply for a time. Finally Loki drew a new breath, straightened up from Thor and brushed his hair back from his face, asked in a more collected tone, "How close is it to dawn? I have to talk to Father, once he's awake—"

"'Father'?" Thor repeated.

"—Odin," Loki corrected himself, irritated, shoulders stiffening. "I must speak with the All-Father; the threat to Asgard looms nearer than he might suppose—"

"What threat?" Thor demanded, also tensing.

"You know; we talked of it already," Loki said impatiently. "Thanos and his Chitauri army—and he has one still, a hive twice the strength of that I brought to Earth—"

"Twice—and that force is aimed at Asgard?" Thor launched to his feet. "We must warn Father, prepare—!"

"Calm yourself, it's not so immediate as that," Loki said, slouching back on the cot, as if Thor's motivation sapped his own urgency. "The space around Asgard can only be warped so far; the Tesseract gives them a beacon to follow, but does not grant them passage. They must take the long way here, and it will be weeks yet before they arrive. A few hours' delay will make no difference."

Thor glared down at his brother. "You knew of this danger, but said nothing to me for these past days?"

Loki ducked his head, hiding his face from Thor. "Did you think Odin would interrogate me, unless I knew something worth knowing?"

"But why confess it now?" Thor asked, his anger giving way to confusion.

Loki kept his head down, so all Thor could see was his tangled black hair. He swallowed, his voice thickened to a mumble, "Perhaps I do not wish to see Asgard fall, when my mother...when one who loves me lives here."

"More than one," Thor said, a little angry again, until Loki looked up, startled to tell by the suddenness of the motion, his eyes on Thor wide and open, too clear even in the dim shadows. Thor frowned at him. "Could you doubt that, brother?"

"I..." Loki's gaze dropped, as if it hurt him to look at Thor so clearly. "I feared, after all I'd done, that though you called me brother, it was out of obligation. Another responsibility among all those you've now taken on, in proving yourself worthy of the throne..."

"I do hope to prove that," Thor said, "but I'm not here now out of obligation. Even if the throne would better served with me up in the palace now, I'm not so worthy that I could bear it, knowing you were down here and in pain, when there was something I could do about it...if there is anything I can do," he finished, unconfident. His fingers ached yet from clutching Mjolnir's handle as Loki dreamed, and he sworn not to stop it, helpless and useless.

Loki opened his mouth; before he could speak, Thor cut him off, "Besides give you the Tesseract! You lived a thousand years without the damned cube, Loki, became a warrior and a sorcerer without its power; you don't need it now!"

"What do you know of what I need?" Loki snapped, only for the brief flare of rage to as quickly gutter out. His head sank down again, fingers digging into the cot and twisting the sheets to knots, as he murmured, "You make it hard—so hard to remember that blue song, when you keep blustering... But I should know better than to hope to find peace anywhere; it's more than I deserve."

"That is not real peace, brother..." Thor hesitated. "Though, these nightmares...the cube's power could put a stop to them?"

"It could."

Thor frowned. "Then they're not only dreams? What are they, then—a curse? Some sort of spell the Tesseract has the power to break?"

"—Yes," Loki said, a little too surely, a little too quick. "A curse laid upon me, to haunt my sleep—"

"—But then why'd you not allow me to wake you from it?" Thor demanded, and Loki's shoulders twitched, almost a flinch. Thor knelt before him, took his arms so Loki could only turn so far from him. "Brother, please—there's more to these dreams than you're telling me, I know. That you dreamed, and woke thinking of the threat to Asgard—"

"—More than I can tell," Loki said, "more than I can bear to speak of, or remember—" and then he snapped his mouth shut, his eyes gone wide.

"—Remember?" Thor repeated. "What do you remember?"

Loki shook his head hard, twisting to loose himself from Thor's hold, but Thor did not release him—could not release him; he could not make his hands let go, even if his grip might bruise. "It doesn't matter," Loki said, breathless and gasping through it, "you heard Mother; it doesn't matter, what I did or what was done to me, one has no bearing on the other—"

"What was done to you? What did they do? This is no mere curse!" A spell could be lifted, broken. But memories could not be so easily undone. Thor thought with cold horror of Loki begging, threatening, pleading for it to stop—screaming, like he was being stabbed, burned, torn apart—"Who did such things to you?"

"Who do you think?" and Loki's voice struck like a blade, a sudden wild fury almost sharp enough to draw blood, as if he could cut himself free from Thor with his words. "What else would remind me of the coming threat? Thanos and his Chitauri dragged me from the horrors of the void—saved me, when no one else in all the realms could or would have—and showed me how powerless I was, showed me true power, in all its terror and madness..."

Thor's gut was churning. He wanted this to be a lie. Loki lying, as he always did, because if this were the truth...

The truth was, sorcerer or not, Loki had always fought alongside Thor, terrible battles against monsters and worse things. On one of their first campaigns, some veteran soldiers had taunted Loki for not having the stomach for violence, accusing him of casting spells because he was too dainty to get blood on his polished armor. Thor had given them a drubbing, but it was Loki who had silenced their gibes in the next engagement, by proving he could wield daggers in his hands as adroitly as he did the blade in his mouth.

That Loki had finished that battle, and more than a few afterwards, by emptying his stomach on the ground between the corpses he had carved, was something Thor never mentioned to the other warriors, reserved for private jeers. But Loki had overcome that in time. He had suffered nightmares of battle sometimes, as many warriors do, as Thor did himself; but not like this. Loki had witnessed horrors throughout the realms, had been afflicted with evil magics and cast black spells himself, had on occasion been wounded close to death; but his dreams afterwards had never woken the palace with his screaming. Their chambers had always been adjacent; Thor would have heard him, as he'd heard his brother yelling when his magic burned him as a boy. No, Loki had never dreamed like this before.

But then, Thor had never seen such fear in Loki's eyes before—the same fear as when Odin had threatened him, Loki viciously grinning even as he trembled at the mention of Asgard's old torturers. They'd read those forbidden accounts as boys, at first thrilled and then sickened, the meticulously catalogued details too much for a child's simple cruelty. In more barbaric times it had been considered a great art, especially when practiced on the canvas of a god's body, that would heal and heal again, and the new wounds never any less excruciating.

So was Loki's terror when he spoke of the Mad Titan and his Chitauri army. What they might have done, must have done, to inspire that fear... "But why?" Thor demanded. "Why, when Thanos wanted you to lead his army, when they gave you that scepter, all that power—they sent you to the Tesseract..." The Tesseract, which was the answer, Loki had said: the answer to everything.

Loki said nothing now, no longer struggling; barely breathing, as if Thor clutched at a statue, at a shadow, offering no more answers. There was too much truth here for him to voice it aloud.

"Was it because of the Tesseract?" Thor forced himself to think of the cube, as hard as he had tried before to make himself forget it. His brother had put the Infinity Gauntlet to his chest and its blue had power flooded him, filled him with treacherous, poisonous strength. The Tesseract's strength, channeled by the gauntlet just as Loki's glowing scepter had channeled it.

What had Loki said when he had bespelled Thor? That the gauntlet was great enough to show even Thor: greater than a god's will, at least for a while.

But the scepter had not been that strong, not strong enough for Loki to try to take Thor with it. And Thor's arms might be stronger than Loki's, but not his will. If the scepter could not have dominated him, then it could not have dominated Loki; the Tesseract could not have controlled him, not for long.

Not unless Loki needed it, accepted it—made himself want as the Tesseract wanted, for need of its power. Because he was an Asgardian prince and a master of magic, but it had not been enough, not enough to stop whatever Thanos and the Chitauri had wreaked upon him...

"Brother," Loki said, softly, rage and terror both stripped away to leave his voice tender like a bruise. His face was blurred, a pale smear—Thor blinked back the water in his eyes, let go of Loki's arm to wipe them with the heel of his palm.

"You should not," Loki whispered, one hand lifted, hovering halfway to touching Thor's face, as if to confirm his tears were really wet; then he put it down again, in his lap and folded into a white-knuckled fist.

"Loki, I am sorry," Thor said, and now he was the one fighting to steady his voice, when it would tremble. "That I could not stop them, that I didn't know—that I did not know now—"

"I knew. I knew, and it was my choice," Loki said, his own voice clear and almost unwavering. "I let go of Gungnir and fell, knowing the endless depths of the abyss I fell into—I didn't know Thanos would catch me, but I would have let go anyway, even knowing. It was my choice to take up the scepter, and the Tesseract; it was not forced upon me like it was with you. All I did on Midgard, all I did here—I could have chosen not to do it, but I decided otherwise, for the sake of the Tesseract's power. Why I desired that power doesn't change what I did for it—what I would do for it again—"

"But you don't need it now," Thor said. "Thanos and the Chitauri, they'll never hurt you again."

Loki shook his head. "They are coming, Thor," he said. "Coming for the cube and the gauntlet and also for me, for failing them, betraying them—I led the Chitauri army to slaughter, and did not bring Thanos the Tesseract. Before they had a purpose to bend me to; now...now all they'll want of me is vengeance. And Thanos values death far too highly to grant it to a disobedient dog—"

"They will not touch you," Thor said, not loudly, but with the conviction to silence Loki, to silence the wailing anguish of his own thoughts. He put one hand over Mjolnir, the other over Loki's heart, and repeated it, "They will never lay a hand on you again, Loki, I swear it, as your brother and as Asgard's prince."

Loki pushed his hand off. "A prince of Asgard should know better than to make vows he cannot keep."

"Do you doubt my strength? Or my word?"

"I doubt you truly understand your words! You know not what is coming—the Chitauri's full force hadn't emerged on Earth, and Thanos never showed himself—"

"Thanos without his gauntlet, without the Tesseract!" Thor countered. "Father conquered the Mad Titan before, and now we fight alongside him, and all the host of Asgard—we shall defeat Thanos again. Believe this, Loki, and do not fear what comes."

Loki folded his arms over his chest, curled fingers biting into his biceps, nails whitening with the pressure of his grip. "If you knew how badly I want to believe you—"

"More than you want the Tesseract?" Thor asked.

Loki's shoulders hunched further, his head down; he remarked, voice taut, on the knife's edge between calm and frenzy, "Your vaunted new maturity has not lessened your stubbornness."

"The cube holds no salvation, Loki," Thor said fiercely. "You know this. The Tesseract's power is great, but it cannot help you. It was Thanos's lie that ever it could."

Loki breathed in and out again, behind the black curtain of his hair. "Even so, that doesn't stop me from wanting it."

"—So you don't believe you need it now?"

Loki froze, at last said, very slowly, "I suppose...I do not. Not as I did."

Thor's grin might have been too wide; he could not help it, and did not care. "Good," he said, putting his hand on his brother's shoulder. "That's good enough, for now."

Loki studied Thor, narrow-eyed. "I am supposed to be the clever-tongued trickster."

"And I always your favorite to trick—I had to pick up at least a few silver words in the doing." Thor squeezed the back of Loki's neck, advised, "Blame it on exhaustion. And I'll let go what you so want to hide, for the moment."

Loki smothered a yawn behind his fist. "Whatever are you talking about?"

Thor frowned at him. "Would you have given up your secrets now, told me about the Chitauri and Thanos, if there weren't something else you wished to talk about even less?"

Loki stared at Thor for a long silent moment. Then he began to laugh—not his silent stuttered chuckle nor the lunatic howling from his nightmares, but a real laugh, low but voiced, his shoulders shaking with it.

Thor watched him, bemused but smiling helplessly. He had not known if he would ever hear Loki laugh like this again; had not realized how much he missed it, until hearing it now. If there was a little madness in it yet—well, Loki's humor always had been slightly wild. Loathe to disturb it, Thor waited until Loki had partly caught his breath before remarking, "I don't begrudge you the jest, brother, but can you share it?"

Which only set Loki laughing harder, fist pounding the cot and curling his back until his head almost rested on his knees. "You," he finally gasped out in a muffled hiccough, "only you, brother—only you could be so utterly honest in your duplicity. That you can be shrewd enough to realize I'm hiding something, and then simple enough to simply tell me so—! I despair of ever understanding you."

"No more than I do of understanding you," Thor replied.

Loki pushed himself up sitting again, dragged his wrist over his eyes to clear them. "Would that that were true." He leaned back on his braced arms, let go a long trembling exhalation. "If you persist in bothering me like this, you'll eventually have every last secret out of me."

"Yes, and half of them will be lies."

Loki arched an eyebrow. "Only half? You think so little of me?"

"If you told me all of them now, I'd have less reason to bother you," Thor pointed out.

Loki snorted without replying, leaning back to look past him to the window, the darkness outside. "How long until dawn, do you think?"

"A few hours yet. But I could go bring Father now—"

"No, he'll come when he decides it's right. The king's right." Loki drew a breath, not quite steady; nor was the hand he passed over his face again. "If I cannot sleep, at least I can gather myself together somewhat. When looking Odin in the eye, I'd sooner show him strength."

Thor could understand that feeling as well as any who had faced their father. But all the same... "Loki, it's not weak, to laugh when you're amused," he said, resting a hand on his brother's back. "No more than it is to cry when sad."

Loki did not move, breathed only enough to say, "And what about being afraid—but no, I forget; the mighty Thor knows nothing of fear—"

"If ever I said so, I was lying," Thor said. "Or else foolish," because he had thought so once, that to be afraid was to be cowardly, shameful—he had been the shamefully stupid one, believing that fear was a flaw because he'd never had real reason to be afraid. That ignorance was painful now—now, after he had seen the Destroyer come for him and his friends, and he without the power to stop it; after he had seen his brother hanging over the abyss, and his arm not long enough to reach him.

After he had listened to Loki screaming in the night and could neither reach him or stop who had hurt him, with no sure way to bring him back. "It's weaker not to dare fear anything—it takes strength to care enough, for others or for yourself, to be afraid."

Loki's snort was shorter, harsher, but still amused. "If that's strength, then I should be strong enough to lift Asgard on my shoulders."

"You are a prince of Asgard," Thor said. "You may be expected to bear her yet.—And do not deny it," he added when Loki's mouth opened, "you are my brother still, and the queen's son. So Father's, too."

Loki raked his fingers through his hair, white against black, almost as alien as his blue skin would be. "Do you really think the All-Father would ever accept back a Jotunn traitor as Odinson? Or will you take up that battle on my behalf as well?"

"I would," Thor said, "but I don't need to—do you think our mother would stand for anything less?"

He was not as surprised by Loki's laugh this time, but just as glad to hear it.

Chapter Text

Odin did not come until after sunrise, though only just after. From inside the cell they heard the tramp of boots above, more than the regular guards, and Thor rose to place himself before the circle where the stairway would lower, in front of Loki.

Loki stretched lazily, seemingly unconcerned, though his eyes were hooded, dark and hard to read under the heavy lids. Thor studied him, said quietly, "If there is anything you cannot bring yourself to talk about—if Father demands too much, if you feel your thoughts coming ungathered—"

"I'm not so fragile a creature as that, Thor," Loki said, curt but calm. "No moreso than I ever was; I've not dried up and split open overnight."

No, Thor thought, not overnight. It was just that he'd not properly seen the fractures before, had not realized how many there were, how deep they ran. He looked at his brother and could not help but think that one tap might shatter him.

"Stop it!" Loki answered that look, now with real irritation. "Must I remind you why Odin comes—the danger looming over Asgard, that I concealed—"

"But not anymore," Thor countered. "And you'll be better able to face that danger if you're not overstrained now."

Loki snorted; Thor thought if he weren't trying so hard for poise that he would have rolled his eyes. "You need not worry," his brother said. "If the All-Father aimed to crack me open like a breakfast egg, he would have arrived here quietly, for the shock of it. He brings an entourage to give us fair warning, that we'd have time to ready ourselves."

"You think so?" Thor asked hopefully.

Loki shrugged. "That, or he's assembled a team of torturers to try to rip the truth from me. We shall see."

Thor stared at him, looking for some hint of a joke in Loki's equanimity, but he failed to find it before the metal barricade clanged and lowered into the cell. Odin descended the steps—alone, Thor was relieved to see; as before he left the Einherjar guards guarding the tunnel above.

"Good morning, Thor," Odin said as he entered the cell. The king had not brought Gungnir, and as he climbed down he dismissed his royal armor, to wear only a brocaded vest over his tunic. His bearing and the breadth of his shoulders assured that no one could mistake him for anything but Asgard's ruler. But the vest's warm bronzes reminded Thor of many centuries ago, when their father would occasionally set aside the business of the realm to spend an afternoon with his sons, taking Thor and Loki to the places in the palace that they were not allowed to go alone, telling them tales of great battles and noble quests and wild magic, always more exciting than the tutors' dry histories, because their father had seen it all with his own eye.

"Good morning, Father," Thor replied, glancing back to Loki to see if he shared such memories. But Loki's expression was so still it might have been painted on his face, revealing nothing.

Odin's own countenance was as composed, as he met Loki's eyes across the cell. "You wished to speak with me," he said, forgoing any greeting.

Loki offered none in turn, saying only, "Yes." He stepped out from behind Thor, drawing up his chin. Spine straightened, he was taller than Odin, if slighter in his simple black. "To confirm as you suspected—Thanos leads the Chitauri here, meaning to claim the Tesseract and the Infinity Gauntlet both. His army follows the Tesseract's power along Yggdrasil's branches to Asgard; they will reach the realm's outer borders in a fortnight."

Odin's expression did not change; he might have been listening to the agricultural minister reporting the year's yield of cabbages. "You believe that Thanos is tracing the Tesseract here."

"He would have sensed the cube's presence through the opened Bifrost," Loki said. "And once he caught that scent, you could not reseal it so tightly that he couldn't detect it. The Tesseract's energy now runs like Yggdrasil's sap through the very veins of the world tree, and Thanos follows it as a bee to nectar." He looked from Odin to Thor, face smooth and hard as ice. "And as I was the one who conspired to open the Bifrost, it's my fault that Thanos threatens Asgard now."

"Your fault, but not your intent," Thor said certainly. "You planned to take the Tesseract and the gauntlet from here, so that Thanos would never have come."

Loki spread his arms as he turned back to Odin. "My defender," he said with mocking arrogance. "I need not have bothered to command his heart with the gauntlet; he's sworn himself to me anyway. Shall you test his loyalty, All-Father? To you and Asgard, or to me his avowed brother?"

"Loki," Thor said, sighing.

"It's all right; the king already heard your oath, did you not, All-Father? You must have been watching over us last night, to know to come here now." Loki's gaze stayed fixed on Odin, even as he stepped forward to stand by Thor's shoulder. That too might have been mockery, a parody of all the times they had stood as brothers before the king. Or maybe Loki placed himself there unthinking, falling instinctively into that familiarity just as Thor did.

"That's not the point," Thor said. "I'll protect you as I protect Asgard; one is not set against the other."

"Indeed," Odin said. His thoughtful regard made Thor feel like a boy once more, he and his brother called before their father not knowing if their latest mischief had yet been discovered, nor knowing if he knew all his brother's tricks himself. "Thanos threatens all of us now."

"But me especially," Loki said. "He'll tear this very mountain asunder to get his prizes, go through stone and wards and guards the same; you cannot hide the cube from him, nor me—"

"Loki," Thor murmured, hearing Loki's breathing quicken like a man sprinting for his life, for all he was standing motionless. "Do not—"

"No," Loki said, not denying but agreeing, forcing his breathing even. "I should not—oath-bound fool that you are, you would stand before Thanos to protect me, wouldn't you? Even if he felled the rest."

"I would," Thor said, nodding.

"Thor," Odin said.

"Yes, Father?" Thor said, turning back to the king, ready for a reprimand he was resolved not to accept. It was his own choice to safeguard his brother; that Loki might have manipulated him into the oath was of no consequence.

But Odin only took his measure of Thor, then said, "Your loyalty to your brother does you proud." Thor blinked as his father went on, "I'll not dishonor you by demanding you relinquish it, or quit his side. Besides, your strength is key to Asgard's defense; you must be privy to this discussion. Is that not right, Loki?"

Thor looked back to his brother in time to see a moment of narrow-eyed rage fleet across his face; then Loki answered calmly, "As you say, All-Father."

"So then," Odin said, "cease trying to persuade me to dismiss Thor, and tell us both what you know of what we're facing. How great is Thanos's force?"

Loki squared his narrow shoulders, replied surely, "His Chitauri number perhaps twice that of the army I summoned to Earth, taking into account that not all of that came through the portal, before they were defeated. At least one hiveship, and a dozen behemoths in addition to the soldiers."

Thor raised his eyebrows, impressed if not intimidated. "The Chitauri may come like locusts, but they can be beaten back," he said. "Even with their weapons, they're weaker than frost—er, than fire giants; and they will face the host of Asgard."

"But Thanos will be coming with them," Loki added, soft in a way that made Thor want to take up Mjolnir. Loki should not sound so—so plainly straightforward, as if he could see no way around or under or behind this truth.

Odin perhaps also heard that unwanted truth; he did not question Loki's report, but only said, "I faced the Mad Titan before. He is an awesome foe, but not invincible. And if he dares bring war to Asgard, the disadvantage will be his. You claimed a fortnight for them to reach the outer borders; do you know on what bearing they approach?"

Loki hesitated an instant, glancing at Thor, then nodded. "I have a hunch."

"I cannot arrange Asgard's defense around a mere guess."

"Call it a suspicion, then," Loki returned, shrugging. "Or a prediction."

"Not a scrying?" Odin asked.

Loki's brow only briefly furrowed, and his pause was briefer still; Thor almost missed both, before Loki said coolly, "The wards on my prison prevent me from seeing out it, save with my eyes."

"Yes, so they ought to." Odin looked around the cell speculatively, mused, "Though they didn't keep you from sensing the Tesseract's energies."

"I was only able to perceive what was extended to me, and that but faintly," Loki said, "and no more now besides. The Tesseract no longer sings to me, nor do I strain to hear it," and try as he might, Thor could not tell whether he was lying. "The cube calls for another now."

"You speak as if the Tesseract is summoning Thanos," Thor said uneasily. "As if it chooses to bring him upon us."

Loki's lip curled in derision, but Odin just said, "That may be so. It's always been a willful power, and Thanos offers up the universe, should he take it."

"But it's only an artifact—"

"You felt it, Thor," Loki said, soft but scathing. "You heard its blue song, had its wishes made your own. Or did you think that was only my madness, when I told you how to master it, by wanting as it wants—"

"That was madness," Odin said sharply. "The Tesseract's will is not that of any living thing, and no living thing should choose it over their own...no living thing should be convinced to choose it. There is a reason Thanos is called the Mad Titan."

"So am I to be named the Mad Jotunn?" Loki inquired, and the feverish glittering of his eyes made it less a jest than his flippant tone suggested.

"You are not!" Thor said hotly. When Loki arched an eyebrow at him, he amended, "You're a Jotunn, true—but not mad. Not anymore—or else why would the Tesseract have stopped calling for you?"

Loki laughed with more an edge of lunacy than Thor thought was really called for, even to make his point. "Or else I went too mad even for the cube!"

"I wonder," Odin said.

"Father!" Thor protested in dismay.

Odin's gaze was fixed on Loki, inescapable as his strict voice. "I wonder at the reason of any who would risk that reason, for the sake of a little knowledge."

Thor didn't take his meaning, but Loki did, by his tensing. He kept his back straight, shoulders rigid as he faced Odin; yet by the hunted look in his eyes he might have been cringing against the wall. But his voice was searingly caustic. "Better to trade your own eye for it, then? But I forget, it's only a legend that you gave up your eye for wisdom. What did you really lose it for? A magic casket, and a stolen changeling child—"

"In truth, I doubt my wisdom," Odin spoke over these barbs, still watching Loki intently, "that I didn't think you would take such a risk. For all your mother warned me not to question your resolve, I didn't believe you would willingly put yourself in Thanos's grasp again."

"Do what?" Thor asked, confused. "In Thanos's grasp—?"

"Am I really the insane one here?" Loki sneered. "How do you fancy I offered myself to the titan, when he's lightyears distant yet, and me a prisoner in a warded cage?"

"But you did not need to meet him in the flesh," Odin said, calm and yet something in his voice made Thor's heart tremble. "Nor leave your cage at all. The Tesseract's song reached you through the wards—and Thanos, too, if he willed it, could touch your unconscious mind. If you allowed that vulnerability."

Thor was frozen with shock, staring at his brother. "Allowed—when you let yourself sleep?" he demanded. "Is that why you wouldn't let me wake you—those weren't dreams at all but visions, communing with Thanos in your mind—"

"Communing?" The edge to Loki's voice was sharp enough to flay flesh from bone. "So I'm so mad as to ally with one who would claim for himself what I most desire—"

"Not an alliance, and not for the Tesseract," Thor said, understanding now, however he wished he did not. His promise of protection had already been broken, even before he'd made it. "But for knowledge—for what you could learn from Thanos. You courted those nightmares to discover what you could of him and his army, so you might warn us—"

Loki smiled, all teeth and spite. "You honestly believe Loki Laufeyson would submit to such torment, merely for Asgard's sake?"

"Yes," Thor said, undoubting. Loki's smirk stayed fixed but his eyes were wild as he stared at Thor, trapped and terrified. Thor took a step back from him, mindful of that barely conquered panic, though it hurt that Loki might fear him. "Brother, they're your enemies as much as ours; it's only reasonable, that you'd ally with us."

"Am I really allied?" Loki asked, manically fast. "An ally to be trusted? Or am I lying, making up stories to distract you from the true attack—"

"Then tell us," Odin said evenly. "Tell us where Thanos and his army claim to come from, that we might waste our time looking for them there."

Thor thought that suspicion a poor thanks for knowledge so hard-won, but it seemed to calm Loki. He answered with curt directness, "From the direction of the Dragons-breath Nebula, the starchild creche. Though not through space—Thanos has the way of guiding the Chitauri hiveship along Yggdrasil's branches, so they will enter the realm at Radsvinn's Point."

"Radsvinn's Folly?" Thor asked. "But there's nothing there..." The point was but a watering hole, more than three days from the golden city even on a fast ship. A little clot of rocky land long since mined of anything valuable and too barren for farming, it had no guard's outpost, or even an inn to house passing traders.

Odin was nodding. "Nothing there, indeed—we'd hardly notice if no travelers happened from it for a few days. With an army veiled from Heimdall's eyes, we would have little warning of an attack hailing from the Point, until the force was nearly at our walls. It's a cunning place to plot a strike from—I wouldn't have suspected it; I didn't realize Thanos knew Asgard so well."

The last was so casually spoken that Thor was surprised when Loki lashed out in reply, "Why mince words? You've not hesitated to accuse me already. Thanos never reached Asgard before, and the Chitauri scarcely could name the worlds—how else would they know the realm's vulnerabilities, if not from a traitor's information?"

Odin's blue eye was piercing on Loki, though his voice stayed quiet. "So you confess it?"

"Why should I not?" Loki's tone was scornfully defiant, even as he fell back from Odin's sharp gaze. "What matters how many crimes I committed? My head can only be taken from my shoulders once—"

"Not for that!" Thor declared, stepping before Loki to block him from their father's eye. "Whatever Loki told Thanos and the Chitauri of Asgard, it wasn't willingly—you know they tortured him, Father, far past any reason, and anyone may be forced to betrayal under such cruelty." Odin had to know; he would have been listening through his raven, must have heard Loki's screaming in the dream that hadn't been a dream at all.

Odin looked past Thor to Loki. "What say you, Loki? Is your brother right; were you Thanos's collaborator under duress?"

Loki's exhalation was harsh enough to be a gasp, his voice rough for all its pointed derision. "Who am I, to contradict the Odinson's heartfelt testimony?"

"And last night, too?" Odin asked. "Were you forced to it, when in your vision you instructed Thanos to invade by Radsvinn's Point?"

"What?" Thor turned around, to see his brother smiling, his lips stretched out of shape, terrible and joyless.

"So I did speak in my dreaming...I wondered if you might be able to understand it, even if Thor could not," Loki said to Odin. "When you were born the old tongues were still spoken."

Thor stared at his brother. "You told Thanos to come to the Point—you gave him this plan to attack the city? Why?"

Loki laughed, loud but with no more mirth than his smile. "I told you not to trust me, Thor; you should know by now that I lie, I always lie—"

"Who were you lying to, Loki?" Odin roared over Loki's laughter. While the All-Father still wore only his simple robe, he yet loomed with the overwhelming bearing of Asgard's warrior king. "To us—or to Thanos, when you told him how to invade, knowing that you would tell us the same plan, and we might take him unawares, even as he intended to ambush us?"

"Ask Thor!" Loki said, still laughing, an awful noise. "Ask Thor whose side I fall upon—he calls me brother, even knowing what I am; he believes in me—out of pity or compassion or perhaps mere desperation, that ever he was fooled into loving a thing like me—"

"Father," Thor said, cutting off his brother as he faced the king, "now that we know where Thanos will come, we can prepare our defense—and if we only have a fortnight, we should begin now."

"Yes," Odin agreed, more quickly than Thor was expecting. "I'll summon Tyr and the generals anon; the war council will meet at noon." He clasped Thor's shoulder, then nodded to Loki, now fallen silent, and told him gravely, "I am glad...grateful for your help. Asgard will not forget this," but though he spoke for Asgard, his voice was not now a king's.

"Asgard will not survive to remember, if you don't ready the defenses," Loki replied, eyes flashing with the restrained frenzy of a cornered animal, for all he stood in the open center of the cell.

Odin trapped Loki in his gaze for a moment longer, then turned from them back to the stairs. For a moment his shoulders fell, the bent curved back of an old man. Then he straightened them, and took up his armor once more, the king's rigid silver replacing his vest as he climbed from the cell.

As his heavy footsteps echoed in the tunnel above, Loki stepped to Thor's side, said, sharp and pointed as a dagger, "The All-Father grows too old for war—you should be the one to lead this battle."

"I will," Thor said surely, "and I'll attend the war council; but I need not summon the warriors personally."

"But you should be there to greet them, to reassure them of your strength, and Mjolnir's, in light of the coming threat."

"The generals know me well enough; I've faced all of them on the training grounds." Thor turned to Loki. "Why do you still want me gone, brother? By now haven't I heard everything you would wish I hadn't?"

Loki curled his lips back from his teeth like some rabid hound, though his snarl was no beast's but articulately, viciously precise, "What matters what you hear, when you listen to none of it?"

"I could not have listened closer! Thanos reached to you in your dreams, and you went to sleep knowing he would—so you could tell him where to strike, and thus set him up, as cleverly as ever you set me up. All that, I understand—what I do not is why you wouldn't want me to know it." Thor frowned at his brother. "You should have known I'd put as much stock in it as Father might. And wouldn't it have been worse for you and Asgard both, if I could not support what you said, and Father disbelieved your information? The realm would be vulnerable, and you would have endangered yourself last night to no purpose—"

"There was no danger." Loki made a chopped gesture of dismissal.

"You put yourself into Thanos's grasp!" Thor exclaimed. "He hurt you grievously, while I stood by, doing nothing—if he had slain you while I merely watched—"

"Ease your conscience," Loki said. "I didn't ask you to watch me risk my life. Thanos could no more have slain me last night than you could be killed by dreaming about an old battle. The titan is powerful, but so are this cell's wards; he cannot truly touch me through them, only communicate with me."

"He did more than talk! I saw you become Jotunn—I heard you scream," and Thor shuddered; he would not soon forget that screaming, nor Loki's shaking afterwards.

Loki was near to trembling now, shoulders hunched and hands balled into fists as he fought to collect himself. "That was dreaming, nothing more!" he snapped. "He could not injure me, only evoke some imagery, stir up a few memories. He might inspire nightmares, but he couldn't truly hurt me with them—"

"They did hurt you!" Thor took Loki's arms, as if to steady him by force. "Even if you took no bodily injury—you of anyone know what pain a lie can inflict, and dream or not your agony was real—"

"How real, do you think?" Loki asked, a slight smile twisting his lips. "Thanos and the Chitauri like the screaming; do you think I would stoically refuse them their amusement, when a little loud lie would serve me well?"

"Even you could not lie that well—"

In answer Loki threw back his head and released an unearthly, throat-tearing shriek, so piercing strident as to make Thor jump back. His brother closed his mouth, grinning as he brought up his hand to rub his throat. "It strains the vocal chords, but in the balance I find it a preferable trade..."

Thor stared at him, then slowly shook his head. "I wish it were only an act. That your pain was but another lie."

"What—of all I tell you, this you won't accept?" Loki scowled at him, brow crossly furrowed. Almost as he used to glower when Thor came to him insisting they go on a treasure hunt or monster slaying, matters of greatest urgency, lest the treasure be found or the monster killed by another hero, while as Loki's books would still be on the library shelves when they got back.

So very close to that old familiar irritation, that Thor yearned to believe it, wished that he could not see in the terror in the back of his brother's eyes, in spite of all his efforts to hide it. "You would not be so frightened of Thanos, if he were so easy to trick," Thor said.

Loki barked something maybe intended to be a laugh. "Yet you would believe I did trick him—even Odin All-Father believed it—"

"That was no easy trick!" Loki had sold his lie to Thanos with his own pain—allowed himself to crack, so Thanos would think him broken.

"Or else I am colluding with Thanos against Asgard—against you," Loki hissed. His eyes were too bright green in his pale face, his breathing too fast. "How do you know? Lying to Thanos or lying to you, or both—I always lie, and you should know better by now than to trust me—"

"So you keep telling me," Thor said, "but if you always lie, then why should I believe you when you tell me not to trust you?"

"Logic is a game of wits; you're ill-equipped to play it," Loki snapped, but for all the derision in the words his voice was strained, his face white with fury, or else fear. Even as he glared at Thor he stumbled back a step, shoulders pressed back against the wall behind him.

Thor retreated a step himself, held up his empty hands to show there was no threat. "Do not be frightened; I will not hurt you, brother, I swear it. You are safe here—

"Safe," Loki spat, as if the word were poison in his mouth, "as if I could be safe anywhere—and you, you would not hurt me? No more than ever you did—it was my fault, wasn't it, if I were bruised sparring with you, for not knowing better than to yield to my elder brother the warrior prince. I brought it on myself, do I always not? Sending the Destroyer after you, stealing the Tesseract, giving you no choice but to bring me to heel—to bind me and bar me in this cell, and now you will not hurt me. Because now I am defenseless, helpless, harmless—because I am a pathetic broken thing, too weak and fearful to do more harm to anyone. You'll come and listen to the lies I pour in your ear, and foolishly believe them; but I cannot hurt you with them—"

"I will not hurt you because you are my brother," Thor said, calm in the face of Loki's frenzy, though his heart ached. "However angry I ever was with you, or whatever harm I did you, either to stop your crimes, or else inflicted unthinking in my arrogance—I never wished to see you hurt, or afraid of me."

"—I do not fear you," Loki said; it burst out of him as if against his own volition, and then he clapped his lips tight shut. But the wideness of his eyes as he stared at Thor seemed to contradict that unintended confession.

"If not me, then what frightens you so?" Thor demanded, then forced his booming voice soft again, forced himself to keep a painful distance from his brother. "You lie to anger me, you try to drive me away—tell me not to listen to you, decry me for believing anything you say, even when it's truth—"

"Even when you think it's truth," Loki muttered. "Wish for it to be truth, and your brother not a liar—"

"...Is it my wishing that scares you?" Thor asked. "Why would you not tell me Thanos touched your mind in your seeming dreams? Was it because you were afraid I wouldn't believe you? Or because you were afraid I would?"

"I..." Loki swallowed, wet his lips with his tongue. He could not keep his eyes and voice both steady; his gaze roved around the cell, crossing over Thor, over the window and the mists outside it and the raven probably hidden within them. When he spoke on it was as if he had no choice, as if some force were pulling each precise word from his mouth. "I am reaching the end—I study and think and reconsider, but there is so little space left, no more that I can offer—"

"No more what?"

"Lies," Loki said, almost gagging on it. "Lies, Thor—an over-tapped well runs dry, and I, I have given you too many words; the liar runs out of lies, and nothing will be left—"

"Loki," Thor said, interrupting before Loki's rising voice overflowed into babbling madness, "you cannot—you cannot run dry, of words or of lies. If you have your tongue you can always lie with it, can you not? There is only one truth to tell, but an infinity of falsehoods—"

"There are not," Loki denied, shaking his head. "Do you think I could tell you your hair is blue, and that would be a lie? That Mjolnir is made of sugar, that frost giants live in a tropical jungle—a fiction that is not believed is only a story, a joke, a metaphor; not a lie. And I am not the god of legends or god of fireside tales; but you do not believe in my lies anymore—even in my lying truths—and what else will I have left to say to you—"

"Nothing," Thor said. "Or the truth, of course—but you don't have to say anything, if you don't want to."

"If I don't want to...?" Loki slumped back against the wall, sagging as if his legs were failing him as badly as he feared his words were.

Thor nodded. "For now you've done enough; you've laid the trap for Thanos, and we'll muster Asgard against him. You need not speak again, if it pains you to."

Loki dragged his hand over his face, breathed in and out again without answering.

"Besides, I'm hardly the only one you can lie to," Thor said. "Once I used to be the one to help you invent your tales—though you were so good telling them that sometimes I would almost believe them anyway. Remember when that bully Oleg was looking to whip his manservant, and you told him the boy was hiding in the pigsty, so he spent hours in the mud searching? Or that time with the flowers and the—"

"—Thor," Loki asked, softly, but Thor quickly shut his mouth to listen, "do you mean to fill up my drained words with this prattle?"

"...I might?" Thor looked at his brother, as if he could peer through Loki's hand to see his face beneath. "Since you wanted quiet, but this silence seems to...disquiet you."

Loki's exhalation rattled almost like a chuckle. "And if you cannot hit it with your hammer, you'll lash it with your tongue instead, until it cries for mercy."

"I can stop talking, if you'd prefer it," Thor offered.

Loki leaned against the wall, tipped his head back and closed his eyes, as Thor might in a storm, to feel the rain pour down on him. "...No," he said finally, almost an inaudible whisper, scarcely speaking the words. "No, this is all right..."

Chapter Text

"In two weeks we can muster three thousand, even without the Bifrost to bring them," the war god Tyr said, his confident bellow carrying throughout the throne room, to all the soldiers present for the war council. "More if we conscript from the local crafters and farmers, but I wouldn't give the awl and hoe men fair odds against these Chitauri beasts. But Aesir warriors will be more than a match for them, eh, Thor?"

"Assuredly so," Thor said. "We'll rout their soldiers easily—though bringing down the behemoths will be somewhat greater a task..."

"It's not a real battle, without a challenge for heroes to prove their mettle against," Tyr said. "A great armored flying turtle can be no worse than a dragon, and minus the fiery breath besides. I look forward to notching my sword's sheath on their carcasses!"

"The Mad Titan, though, is worse than any dragon," General Haakon said in his aged, cracking voice. He had already been a general back when the Infinity Gauntlet was claimed from Thanos, and had a scarred cheek to remember that battle by.

"Thanos," Thor growled, "is mine," and he hefted Mjolnir in his fist, shook it at the throne room's ceiling. Thunder boomed with the heavens' reply, echoed by the observing warriors' cheers. Thor heard his friends' voices amidst the others, at least Volstagg's and Fandral's.

Tyr laughed and thumped him on the back. "That'll be a mighty fight—we must bring a bard along to memorialize it! The Odinson remaking his father's victory, it has a poetry to it. Don't you think, my king?" and he nodded with informal arrogance up at Odin on his throne.

"I think it will be a terrible fight indeed," Odin said, looking at Thor unsmiling. "Thanos will have grown in power in the centuries since he lost the gauntlet."

Haakon and other older soldiers muttered uneasily. Thor straightened his back to meet his father's gaze, evenly asked, "Do you doubt my resolve?"

To his surprise Odin broke their locked gaze first, shaking his head. "No," the king said. "You know all that's at stake. But you know now, too, that strength of arms is not the only or greatest power."

"Aye," Tyr said brazenly, "but having been under Thor's hammer on the training grounds and seen it on the battlefield, I'll take it over any craven sorcery, no matter how mad the titan wielding it!" He pumped his fist, to more cheers from the gathered council.

Odin brought Gungnir down, the ringing report of the spear on the flagstone silencing the great hall. "Fleetmaster Njord, employing the fastest ships of the fleet, how long will it take to ferry an army three thousand strong to Radsvinn's Point?"

Njord rubbed the crease in his forehead between his bushy orange brows, said in his careful rumble, "Three days to the point in a fast ship, five in a middling...if the Drekar ships go at all haste and return to carry another platoon...nine days, to ferry the entire force."

Thor was not the only one to sigh in dismay—over a week, to cover the distance the Bifrost could cross in the blink of an eye. But Tyr said, undaunted, "That gives us a week yet to muster—more than enough time! We'll catch Thanos off-guard and bottle-necked at the Point before his wretched army can lay siege on our lands."

"But the city's defenders will be stranded nine days away, should danger threaten," Haakon said.

"Its best defender will still be here," Thor reminded, nodding to his father on the throne.

"Besides, what other threat looms?" Tyr scoffed. "Jotunheim is far out of range, even if they seek vengeance for their king—"

"What if Thanos strikes from other than Radsvinn's Point?—Of course I ever trust the All-Father's wisdom," Haakon hastily assured, "but when even Heimdall's all-seeing eyes cannot see our foe..."

"The cube can," Tyr said, stabbing a gloved finger toward the Tesseract, glowing on its pedestal by the king's throne. "The jewel of Odin's treasury, restored; it will once more lead us to victory."

Thor glanced at his father. Odin had never claimed his intelligence came from the Tesseract, but somehow the generals had come to assume that source anyway, through some mysterious mechanism of confidence that Thor could not discern. But the assumption was to their advantage. The warriors did not all respect the cube or its power; but they yet believed in it quicker than they would his brother's testimony.

So Thor made no mention of Loki when describing Thanos's plans, even as he stayed quiet when he overheard the officers muttering about Thor's own recent absences in court. Though he struggled to bite his tongue against those rumors that implied he went down to the dungeon to punish the traitor. Even if it were true that Loki was a traitor, Thor did not care for how they hissed about Jotunn scum, questioning that Loki was held in a cell for royal prisoners.

But he did not contradict them, even to remind them that the cell was also the strongest warded against sorcery. Instead, once the war council ended and Thor joined the others on the training grounds, he turned the talk to the Chitauri and their titan commander. As Thor was the first Aesir to have crossed swords with the Chitauri in centuries, the soldiers were eager to hear his account of the fighting on Midgard; and Thor in turn wanted to know better the warriors with whom he would soon march into battle.

Fandral and Volstagg remembered Thor's tales of Midgard well enough to add enthusiastic embellishment. Within half an hour everyone was crying lively vengeance on the Chitauri as they sparred and taking bets who would fell the most, and Thor was satisfied with the strength of his fellow fighters, and their determination. Thanos and his army would never make it to the palace's shining walls, with this host between them.

Thor enjoyed this emboldened company until late into the afternoon. He finally escaped when Sif took up the challenge of a foolish captain who looked at the shield-maiden and saw more maiden than shield. Once they entered the dueling ring, no eyes were on Thor anymore—save Sif's, her gaze briefly meeting his as he retreated from the practice grounds. She nodded to him, then raised her sword to her opponent with a smile any close acquaintance would have recognized as more ominous than comely.

Thor made his way down to the dungeon, only to stop short when he arrived at the lower corridor and heard voices further down the tunnels, rather than the expected silence. If Odin had come to question Loki further—

He hurried down the steps into the lowest tunnel—and almost tripped over the dwarf Fjalar and his wife Aridva, sitting cross-legged on the stone floor and peering down into the metal barricade over Loki's cell. "So you claim any energy surge will be naturally redistributed among the crystals?" Aridva was saying as Thor stumbled next to her.

"The Bifrost's entire purpose is to control and direct power," Loki's voice returned from the cell below, "and even if the Tesseract's energy is of a different nature, its fundamental properties should be preserved."

"Fundamental properties—one might as well call a freshwater river fundamentally the same as a lava flow—!"

"Though it's true they're both liquid—ah, Thor!" Fjalar belatedly glanced up at the interruption, then jumped to his feet. His wife stood more leisurely, brushing rock dust off her hands, as Fjalar said, "This makes it much the easier—the ceiling's too high for him to pass papers up to us, you see, though we can drop them down on him, through the bars..."

Thor stepped over to the barrier, gazed down into it to see Loki looking back up at him. "Brother...?"

"My callers arrived not long after you left for the council," Loki said. "I was unable to let them in, of course, but they determined to converse anyway. I thought you might have sent them to bother me in your stead?"

Thor shook his head and glanced back at Fjalar, who grinned at him, thumbs hooked under his belt. "It was Odin-King, in fact, who bade us consult with whoever might help with the Bifrost," the dwarf said. "Seems the situation's become a touch more urgent..."

Thor opened the barricade. "The Bifrost—will you be able to repair it more quickly, then?"

"Not in the brief time the All-Father demands," Aridva said as they followed Thor down into the cell. "To complete not only the bridge but the observatory in a mere fortnight—he like mistook us for black sorcerers!"

"—No offense," Fjalar said, nodding genially at Loki. "Though we might manage the original span. Not that going to Midgard will be much use—"

"Midgard?" Thor repeated.

"If you recall your history of Asgard's founding," and from Loki's tone, he did not especially believe Thor did, "the rainbow bridge originally crossed from this realm to Midgard. Later, with the construction of Heimdall's observatory, it was redirected to other worlds; but aspects of that original path remain. Especially with the Tesseract recently traveled along it."

"The point is," Fjalar said, "as it's rebuilt, the Bifrost's span will reach Midgard for sure, the first realm to be open to us." He and his wife both looked briefly disappointed, but he soon brightened as he went on, "But the observatory may be completed by the solstice, and if the Bifrost can be as well—we may return to Svartalfheim by the new year!"

"That's excellent news!" Thor said, truly glad, for them and for himself, to know that Earth was so close.

"But the Bifrost can only be completed if Asgard itself is still here," Loki said, with a smile as much wicked as joking.

"Don't fear for Asgard, brother," Thor said cheerfully. "The war host is being mustered now; we go to battle at Radsvinn's Point, by ship."

Both dwarves shuddered at the prospect of such a voyage. "The All-Father will lead the fleet to battle at the Point?" Loki asked, frowning.

"Not Father," Thor said. "Tyr and I will command, while the king remains in Asgard, to guard against other threats, and keep watch over the Tesseract." Loki looked thoughtful at that, no doubt more aware of the dangers the cube posed—or else his thoughts turned toward the Tesseract itself, and Thor said quickly, "But Fjalar, Lady Aridva, you had papers to share with my brother?"

"Right, yes," Fjalar said, and both he and his wife pulled out sheaves of pages from seeming nowhere to stack them in Loki's hands. The explanations for these started brief but soon expanded; when Loki knelt to address Aridva after an especially trenchant description, Thor went and sat on the cot to wait.

It took the better part of an hour for them to finish, or at least declare a temporary truce in their mutual war on the problem. The dwarves headed back up the stairs, while Loki ordered the papers in stacks along the window sill, fussy as a matron arranging flowers on a feast table.

Thor watched him, pleased and dismayed at once. It was good to see Loki so engaged in such a mundane, harmless interest; but at the same time it gave testimony to how very unoccupied his life was now, his world reduced to just this small unadorned cell.

As Asgard's future ruler, Thor appreciated the need for justice. But as Loki's brother, he could not help but regret seeing him so trapped. Thor was more aware than ever of the punishment of imprisonment; after spending several days in the cell, just standing under the sky out on the wide training fields had felt like a treat. Sparring with the mustered warriors would have been a pleasure anyway, but even more so when that boisterous camaraderie was contrasted with the close walls and secluded silence of Loki's cell.

Even if Loki always had enjoyed the quiet of the library more than training duels, he'd there had all the books to study, and magic to learn; more interesting at least than his circumstances now. And while this punishment might be just, Thor wondered how much service it really did the realm, to so limit one of its great sorcerers and scholars.

Limited, to say nothing of bored—and boredom had always been one of the most dangerous of Loki's many dangerous moods...

"You should have a desk," Thor remarked. "Maybe I could borrow your old table from the library? The big oak one with the dragon's feet, that was always your favorite, wasn't it?"

"Five secret drawers..." Loki said reminiscently, then shook his head. "The flagstone is smooth enough to serve; it wouldn't do for a prisoner to be too comfortable."

"Then a lantern at least, that you might study into the night." Loki's curtailed magic could conjure up enough cool foxfire for him to read by; Thor had seen Loki use it so. But the warm glow of a lantern might better keep him from falling to dangerous sleep. "Besides, war prisoners are traditionally rewarded for their cooperation, are they not?"

Loki smiled halfway. "So I'm giving intelligence for bribes? And the All-Father chooses to listen to that intelligence..."

"He does," Thor said. "He seeks to verify it now, by what means, he didn't tell me."

"Mostly likely by sending a speedy messenger down Yggdrasil's branches, along the route I designated," Loki said. "If they encounter Thanos's army, they'll report it to Heimdall's all-hearing ears—or else they'll vanish and not return, which will be as telling confirmation."

"Father would not send someone into such danger!" Thor protested.

"He might send a construct, then, or some other means; I won't presume to guess the All-Father's cunning, of course." Loki offered the other, crueler half of his smile. "Or else I was lying about Thanos's position, and they'll be upon the city by the next sunrise."

"Or that," Thor said, shaking his head. "Though if his army does arrive tomorrow, they'll face half our mustered host. I wouldn't give them fair odds."

"...I would not give any warrior fair odds against Thanos," Loki murmured.

"Not any warrior," Thor agreed. "I've claimed Thanos for my own contest."

At that Loki looked genuinely startled. "Your own—?"

"He did harm an Odinson; an Odinson will take justice for it," Thor said darkly, putting his hand to Mjolnir.

By the wideness of Loki's eyes, this pledge failed to hearten him. "Thor, this isn't some duel for honor among warriors—Thanos is no Aesir. Nor Jotunn, nor Chitauri, nor troll or dragon or anything you've fought before. The strength of the titans equals our own, but Thanos is something more—"

"As my own strength is more than other Aesir?" Thor said. He grasped Loki's arm in reassurance. "Do not fear, brother; I'll guard you as I promised. The Mad Titan won't ever reach the city's walls, or you within them; I'll conquer him at the Point."

"I am not a child!" Loki snarled, wrenching away from Thor to fling himself into pacing the cell. "Though I might seem as fearful as one—Thanos is no monster imagined under my bed. His is an ancient and immense and terrible power. Do you know why he wants the Tesseract? Because it is one of the few things in this universe that is a match for his own strength—and you experienced for yourself the cube's power. Ask Father—the All-Father, if you doubt me; he fought Thanos before—"

"I did talk to Father," Thor said, "and he impressed upon me Thanos's might; but I have the anger and will to face him—"

"—To say nothing of the lack of wit—"

"—And I will not let you do so, with or without the Tesseract!" Thor thundered over him, launching to his feet. Loki lurched to a halt as if he'd run headlong into Thor's shout, and Thor went on, somewhat more calmly, "That is your purpose, isn't it—to suggest that you take up the cube against him?"

Loki drew himself up, tall and strained. "If not me, then Odin. But this is not a battle you can win, Thor. I am not calling you weak; but I know Thanos's strength, as you do not—"

"So tell me," Thor said. "Explain his strengths, so that I might also know his weaknesses—because I will fight him, Loki; I cannot do otherwise. You know me well enough to know this is true."

Loki studied him, a long green-eyed stare with his jaw clenched. Then his shoulders slumped and he said, resignedly, "Yes, I know you. Asgardian to the core, more fools the lot of you—I imagine the warriors were stirred to hear there'd be behemoths to battle?"

Thor grinned. "They were!"

Loki sighed, a familiarly long-suffering sound. "Has Hnikar yet answered the muster?"

"Still claiming his spear to be a match to Gungnir," Thor confirmed. "But a good man to fight beside, all the same."

"What of Reginleif?"

"Already in the city, so duels on the training grounds now."

"Which will be fine, as long as no man challenges her to a drinking contest." Loki arched a teasing brow at Thor. "As you may not clearly remember..."

Even a century later Thor's stomach roiled at the reminder. "All too clearly, to my regret...brother, do you not have Fjalar's plans to review?"

"Aren't you supposed to be the one harassing me with talk of battle preparations, while I try my best to quietly study?" But Loki was smirking as he said it, ironic amusement rich in his voice, and if Thor closed his eyes to the dungeon cell walls, then this might be he and his brother discussing strategy before a campaign as they had a hundred times before, with nothing ever changed between them.

 


 

Three days hence, Thanos had yet to arrive, and the crafters, with Loki's assistance, were ready to test their new cage for the Tesseract. This trial was nowhere near as spectacular as the previous, from what Thor saw. In its modified filigree cage the cube only glowed a dim indigo, hardly coloring Heimdall's armor as he stood cautious guard over it, sword raised above the cage to bring it down should anything go wrong. (The dwarves insisted that their safeguards would absolutely prevent another overload; Heimdall nodded seriously and kept his sword lifted high.)

The Bifrost stayed equally muted, showing no more of a shimmer than could be mistaken for sunlight refracting in the crystal. Except that glow remained steady, even when clouds crossed the sun. After an hour, Heimdall dared lower his sword, and the Aesir builders ventured out onto the bridge with their knotted measuring cords. Their noisy cheers confirmed that the crystal was growing, noticeably swifter than before.

The builders consulted with the dwarves (none of whom would dare step foot onto the bridge for another day at least), compared and calculated. At last they reported to the waiting All-Father that the Bifrost should be ready to cross in less than a month's time, should the Tesseract's augmentation be successfully sustained.

Loki could not quite hide the interest lighting his eyes when he asked about the test. He steepled his fingers as he listened to Thor's account of the morning, looking out the window, where the end of the Bifrost would soon be visible through the waterfall mist. "I suppose with that accomplished, they'll have no more reason to consult me."

"On the contrary," Thor said, "the observatory is still being built, and Fjalar much desires your advice. Heimdall himself has entreated for a way to construct it such that no one could again fix the bridge open, as you did with the Casket of Ancient Winters..." He trailed off.

For all Loki's help rebuilding the Bifrost, they never spoke of how it had been broken. Loki remembered what he'd attempted, Thor knew; but he did not know if Loki could bear that memory and not be unbalanced by its burden.

But Loki, still facing the window, said only, "All right; I have no good solution, but they may ask, and I can explain what I know of those magics."

"I will tell Fjalar," Thor said. "He'll be grateful for it...." He studied his brother, as Loki studied the mists, his face in profile smoothly unreadable. At last Thor said awkwardly, "I am sorry, brother, that you could not witness the Bifrost's reconstruction, after all you did to assist with it—"

"Don't," Loki said, soft but short. His green eyes flashed to Thor and then away again as he added, in the diffident, uncaring tone that sometimes meant he was saying what he needed to say but did not want to, "You should not apologize—you of anyone should bear no more guilt, nor have any obligation to me."

"I told you before, I'm not here out of obligation," Thor said.

He said nothing about what guilt he might feel. It was an older pain, dulling with time, to know that he did not regret destroying the Bifrost—to know that he would do it again, to save Jotunheim, to keep his brother from genocide. And it was not his fault that Loki had fallen from the broken bridge, that Loki had let go of Gungnir—"I remember you tossing me into an abyss," Loki had said on Midgard; but he had been lying then, or else misremembering in his madness, remaking his story to better fit himself to the Tesseract.

Fresher and sharper was the pain of knowing that even if Thor could not have stopped Loki from falling, he might afterwards have saved him from Thanos's cruelty—if he had known Loki had survived; if instead of mourning he had determined to find his brother, had rescued him, before it was too late...

But Loki was saved now, safe now, and healing, if slowly. And the Bifrost would soon be rebuilt, the damage they had together wrought unmade, set right. "With the Tesseract's power," Thor asked, taking effort to lighten his voice, "will the Bifrost really be able to reach Midgard within the month?"

"The rainbow bridge should be regrown to that span within two weeks, if their estimates are correct," Loki said.

"That's wonderful news indeed!" Thor beamed, his forced cheer becoming honest. "I greatly look forward to visiting Earth. And to see Jane again..." He momentarily trailed off in happy contemplation of that reunion, then gave his head a shake to recall himself to the present concerns. "I hope to ask about her magic science; she might have ideas herself of how to restore the Bifrost to its former glory." Jane had continued her studies of the bridge, Thor knew; Heimdall had told him so.

He expected Loki to have a snide comment on the limited state of Midgardian magic, if not some worse remark on Jane Foster; but his brother only said dryly, "It's possible she might."

"You think so?" Thor asked, greatly pleased. The truth was, he thought Loki and Jane might find common ground, if ever they had occasion to talk. Providing that Loki could put aside his disregard for humans, and that Jane could put aside how Loki had nearly killed her and her friends, as well as tried to invade her planet...well, it was not the best-thought plan; but still, Jane appreciated cleverness as much as Loki did. And not knowing Loki from before, she did not feel Asgard's betrayal; nor had she faced him outright as a foe like most of his other Midgardian friends.

"Your lover's work might help the bridge connect," Loki explained. "In seeking to make her own bridge, she creates an anchor for the Bifrost to stabilize upon, or so I hypothesize. Once the span's completed, it may be tested—when Asgard is no longer imperiled, of course."

"The way should be tested before that," Thor said. "Even if we can only open the bridge to Midgard, it offers evacuation, should..." He stopped, too late.

Loki's smirk became dryer still, like a mud flat baking and cracking in the desert's heat. "Should Thanos come, and Asgard's citizens need a quick escape," he said.

Thor shifted uncomfortably. "It's only a contingency plan; you know Father must consider all possibilities."

"Including the possibility that I am lying, and all I said a ruse to leave the golden city defenseless."

"Or that Thanos was lying to you, when he seemed to listen to your plan," Thor said. "You are not the only liar in the universe, brother."

"Do you really think the humans will welcome their old gods descending on their destroyed city?"

"One city among thousands, damaged, not razed; and mostly repaired by now," Thor said. He had asked Heimdall about this, too. "And the humans of Earth are our allies. My friends would give us sanctuary for a time, were we in need."

"Give Asgard sanctuary," Loki murmured. "I doubt they'd so happily shelter me."

Considering the outcome of his last incarceration with SHIELD, Thor tended to agree. Still, he said, "If I asked them, they would allow it."

"You are so sure of them." Loki folded his arms broodingly over his chest. "It's not only your lady fair that you want to return to, is it? It's as much the rest of them—what did that absurd tin-hearted man call them? The Avengers. You wish to meet them again."

"I do," Thor said.

"I understand your urgency," Loki said slowly, not derisory but pensive, "as their lives are not so long that you can squander much time apart. But why them, Thor? They seemed...they were not uninteresting; but so different from any of your Asgardian warrior friends, and only human besides..."

"Only humans, who defeated you and the Chitauri," Thor pointed out, and allowed a slightly wicked smile at Loki's scowl of irritation before he said, more seriously, "And their differences are in part why I befriended them—though as much that they are alike; they are courageous, and have their own honor and law and loyalty, as important to them as our own.

"But more than that...I feel that I have more to learn from them. In the recent brief times I spent on Earth, I learned lessons that a thousand years in Asgard failed to teach me." Thor stared down at his hands, measuring his open palm against his closed fist. "My human friends are all strong, but their strengths are not my strengths. And I must understand better all the different strengths there are. Like your own," and Thor raised his head again to his brother. "I never thought you weak; but I did not respect how strong you had become. Not until I fought against you—but it'd be a poor king who had to battle his own subjects to realize their worth."

Loki snorted. "True."

"Better to learn by fighting alongside them," Thor said. "As I will, if ever I go back to Midgard."

"So you would use them to improve yourself," Loki said, perhaps jeeringly, though his voice was too soft to be sure.

Thor answered him sincerely nonetheless. "Not using them, but growing with them. The people close to you inevitably change you. I would change them, too, if I were with them—for the better, I'd hope."

"As if you could do anything else," Loki sneered. "The golden prince cannot help but warm and brighten everything around him." That, now, was definitely mocking; but Loki's green eyes on him were oddly more intent than scornful. Thor returned his focus in kind, until his brother turned away. "Thanos is coming," Loki said. "Your fellow Aesir warriors would benefit more from your improving now than the Earth folk."

"I'll return to the practice grounds shortly," Thor said. "I only came to tell you of the Bifrost, so you needn't wait for that news until nightfall." Thor still spent the nights in Loki's cell, more sleeping than talking—his snoring was loud enough to keep anyone awake, Loki assured him; and so Loki was kept from dreaming, kept from Thanos's too-long grasp.

For the most part Loki had given up on arguing this habit. But now he remarked, "You would be more rested for the training if you slept in your own chambers—and give the dungeon guards less gossip besides."

"This cot is comfortable enough," Thor said, "and the guards have little enough else to talk about; I can afford them that diversion."

Loki shrugged artlessly. "Could I swear to you not to sleep? I know my word cannot be trusted, but you must believe that I have no desire to endure Thanos's projected nightmares. And I have the lantern now, so I might research through the night, and that more easily in quiet."

When Thor did not reply, Loki continued, still not looking at him and even more carefully careless, "Thor, do not think I say this to drive you from my company; but whether it's guilt or the obligation you deny, or some other cause that brings you here—this is not your prison. It's absurd for you to suffer my sentence, when you committed none of my crimes."

"This is hardly suffering," Thor said, surprised. "It's not as if I visit you to punish myself."

His brother now turned back to him, frowning. "Then why, if not for punishment nor duty nor remorse?"

Thor glowered. "Because I miss you! I sorely missed talking with you; so many times when you were lost, did I think of things I wished to tell you, or keenly wished to hear your thoughts, knowing they would be different from my own or anyone else's, though I could not imagine myself what they would be. And now," he admitted, since he had resolved honesty with Loki, "I would have your opinions on my fellow warriors, and whatever more you can tell me of Thanos and the Chitauri. But even if you knew nothing of that, or were lying about all of it, I'd still come talk with you, to hear what you would say to me that no one else would."

"What I would say...?" Loki echoed, incredulous; then he shook his head. "I've told you no lies about Thanos or the Chitauri."

"I know," Thor said. "You'd be telling me more, if you were making it up. It's all right; battle will teach me all I need know of them." Loki did not reply to that, so Thor started up the stairs. "Now I have to get back to the drills. I'll see you tonight, brother."

"If you must," Loki sighed. Though as the barricade rattled closed over the cell, Thor almost imagined that he heard his brother murmur, "Though perhaps I missed it, too..."

 


 

The next morning Odin told Thor in private confidence that it was confirmed: the Chitauri hiveship moved through Yggdrasil's branches toward Asgard, along the bearing Loki had claimed. The first warships were dispatched that afternoon, eight dragon-prowed Drekar vessels, the fastest of Asgard's fleet, capable of crossing the vast space between the golden city and Radsvinn's Point in only three days. They carried a vanguard of five hundred of Asgard's greatest warriors, led by Tyr, to set up a camp and watch at the Point, while the ships returned to the city.

Two days after their departure, the slower Skei longships set sail, holding two thousand soldiers, including archers and three hundred of the pegasus cavalry, Aesir as well as dwarf and elf warriors who volunteered to defend their borrowed homeland. Thor stood with his father on the throne room's balcony to watch the fleet disappear into the blue sky. He would be in the rearguard on the second voyage of the dragon-ships, to assure their journey had clear weather all the way to the point.

The training grounds felt empty now. While five hundred warriors were more than usually occupied the palace barracks, they seemed only a handful compared to the three thousand pairs of boots that had stamped down the field the week before.

Thor missed their zealous thunder, but had the space now to call his own when he trained, summoning clouds and lightning from the clear skies. Most of it was deliberate. His friends knew him well enough to keep their distance except when he requested a spar, otherwise drilling and dueling among themselves and the other warriors on the other end of the field. Though occasionally after a particular loud and brilliant strike Thor would find everyone stopped in their own exercise to observe his. He was not bothered by it. As a prince he was long accustomed to being watched, and had more confidence in his performance on a battlefield than anywhere else.

Though nor was he merely showing off his skill. If Thor did not bring the lightning now, he would struggle to keep the clouds from them when they sailed. The tide of the coming battle was rising in his blood; he felt it with every beat of his heart and flex of his muscles. Occasionally he was reminded of the surging power of the Tesseract, but that ugly memory was burnt out by the pure white fire of the lightning he called down. This was no spell or possession, but simple, satisfying battle-lust. His strength always had a purpose, and was now awakening to it.

Loki recognized it as well as Sif and the Warriors Three, even not seeing him on the training fields; he winced when Thor spoke, bade him lower his voice to a dull roar as he bent over his papers. "You're not in battle yet, you know; constrain your thunder to places broad enough to hold it."

Thor just grinned at him, idly swinging Mjolnir by the handle. For the sake of becoming a worthy king he was learning better the battlegrounds of court and law and even the library, and found more satisfaction there than he might have guessed. But he did not think he would ever feel as sure in those fields as he did out in the open air, with the charge of an incoming storm buzzing over his skin and thrumming in his arms, knowing that strength would soon be tested.

It felt all the better now to know he would be against a foe of Asgard. His last two battles—discounting a few skirmishes with drunken warriors and rampaging trolls—had been against Loki, on the Bifrost and then on Earth. And Loki had always been a worthy opponent; but that it had been true and deadly combat had taken all joy from it for Thor, to raise his arm against his brother instead of with him, as he was supposed to. Those victories were scarcely more gratifying than defeat. That he fought for Loki now was not as good as fighting alongside him, but so much better than he once had feared that Thor could not help but smile, anticipating the retribution he would take from Thanos.

The night before the Drekar vessels returned, Thor stayed on the practice grounds past sunset, past the farewell feast. There would be plenty of time for eating and sleeping in the next three days shipboard. He worked his muscles until they were strained and singing with adrenaline, and the dirt under his boots was charred black by lightning.

The Warriors Three retired from the field eventually, seeking those things they would be deprived of on their voyage: fresh pastries and his wife and children's embrace for Volstagg, more delicate feminine company for Fandral, and solitude for Hogun. Sif stayed with Thor and a few other warriors feeling the restlessness of the coming battle, dueling among the torches, his lightning occasionally brightening the shadows between.

Until one strike illuminated a deeper darkness, black wings cutting through the golden torchlight. Hugin's harsh raven cry interrupted their sparring, long beak stabbing at Thor in warning. Sif lowered her sword, frowning at the bird. "Does the All-Father summon us...?"

"No," Thor said, going cold for all he had just been sweating in the warm summer night. He had not realized how late it had become. The crafters would have gone to bed by now.

But Loki had sworn to him—no, Thor realized, too late; even if Loki's word were good, he had said he could swear, not that he had actually done so—

Sif followed Thor off the field, though Thor did not realize it until he found her joining him on the dungeon's lift. She gave Thor a long questioning look as he paced the platform, willing it to descend faster, asked him as the lift touched down, "Thor, why are you so hurried—what do you think he's doing?"

Thor had no breath to answer her, saving it to sprint through the tunnels—he was lucky they were not as short as dwarf tunnels, else he surely would've cracked his skull open on them. The screams echoing through the lower passages cut Sif's questions short. Thor recognized them by now, but Sif did not, could hardly identify them as from a living thing's throat. "What in the name of the Norns is that?"

There was no lantern light coming up through the barricade of Loki's cell, as Thor opened the lock. Loki below had stopped screaming, was muttering now in his dreaming vision, his voice hoarse and cracked and the unknown ancient language but babble to Thor's ears.

"Was that—is that Loki?" Sif demanded, her face drawn white as she stared down into the shadows in Loki's cell, trying to push past Thor. "What is he doing—what makes him do this? What's wrong with him, that he would scream so—"

"Please," Thor implored, blocking her way, "I cannot explain it now, but I must help him, alone—there would be too much danger—"

"For me, or for him?"

"For both of you," Thor said, "and do not make me choose between you, I beg it, as your friend!"

Sif looked both stricken and afraid, but she nodded, clasped his arm in support and then let go, so Thor could alone descend into the cell to face his brother's nightmares.

Chapter Text

Once in the cell, Thor raised the steps to close the barricade, standing braced and ready as his eyes adjusted to the dimness, until he could see Loki. His brother was lying on the cot, not sprawled over his papers. He hadn't dozed off by mistake but had gone to sleep deliberately, and Thor would have been angry with him for it, had Loki not been gasping through clenched teeth, his spine curved back like a drawn bow, agony contorting his body.

His screaming was a lie, he had claimed; but he had not the breath to scream now. Against the muslin sheets his face was too dark and then too pale, fading between blue ice and pallid flesh.

"Loki!" Thor shouted, because if Loki had not sworn not to sleep, then neither had Thor sworn not to wake him this time. But Loki did not rouse, staying trapped in Thanos's vision, even when Thor took him by the shoulder and shook him. His eyes stayed closed and his head lolled as he mumbled something Thor was not sure were words in any tongue.

Thor drew back his arm and slapped his brother's cheek hard enough to snap his head back. Even that briefest touch was enough to numb Thor's fingers with cold; but Loki coughed and his eyes shot open. They were bloody dark red, staring blankly up at Thor, who stood his ground, braced for an attack as he said rapidly, "Brother, it's me—you're safe, you're awoken from the nightmare. Can you hear me—"

Loki blinked, blue lids shuttering over crimson red; then he hissed, "Y-yes—yes, I hear you, though I should not." The crimson contracted to white all around as his frozen skin melted back to pale. "You should not be here," Loki muttered, "for one night, I thought..." and he shuddered, rolled over to curl around himself, putting his back to Thor, hands over his face. But when Thor grasped his stone-rigid shoulder, he did not shrug away.

"What did you dream about—what memory did Thanos inflict upon you?" Thor finally asked, after a minute of listening to Loki's painful gasps subside to a whining wheeze.

"Fire," Loki said, quavering and muffled behind his hands, "back in the fire, stoked to hot enough to burn even the—" and then he shut his mouth hard enough that his teeth clicked, as if he'd not meant to let that much escape.

"Is that why you turn to your Jotunn form?" Thor asked. The frost giants were not immune to burns, but their ice could freeze over all but the hottest ashes.

Loki choked on his laughter, a coughing jag racking his shoulders. "No," he rasped, "I turn Jotunn because Thanos wants—wanted it. He'd never had the chance to fight a frost giant, and was curious—and I—I thought the Chitauri had neither seen one before, so I might use that ice against them, even if my other magic was bound. But Thanos knew; he was expecting it—I thought to free myself, but only did as he intended—"

He cut himself off again. Thor did not ask another question; he had none he could put into words. That Loki had tried to escape—of course he had, it was only reasonable that he would have; but it reassured something deep within Thor to hear it. "I am sorry," he said at last, when he could manage it, "that I was not there to free you—"

Loki drew a breath so sharply he gagged on it. "Don't," he said, his hands still pressed over his face and the words rushing out between his fingers before he could catch them, "I told you, you should not—it was after I tried to kill you, you know; on the Bifrost I might have only wounded you, but with the Destroyer—and you were mortal then—though I could not believe you were mortal—I think maybe that is why—"

"Loki, don't," Thor said softly. "You don't need to; I..." He stopped. For the Destroyer and the Bifrost he forgave Loki, had seasons ago, when mourning his lost brother, and had never taken it back. But he was not sure Loki could hear that reconciliation, even now.

Perhaps later, when Thanos was defeated, when Loki no longer had reason to be so afraid, he might have the courage for this, too. For now, Thor sat beside his brother, hand resting on his shoulder, until Loki finally uncoiled and pushed himself up sitting. Thor moved back to give him room on the cot, and asked, with effort muting the anger threatening to thunder in his voice, "Why did you go to sleep?"

Loki shrugged. "Why should anyone sleep? I was tired, after so long with barely even naps."

"Loki," Thor said, rumbling a little in spite of his efforts. "You invited Thanos to your nightmares, to your mind—why? What devil's bargain were you seeking this time?"

"No bargain," Loki said, shoving back the hair that would fall over his eyes. "I only sought to confirm...you leave tomorrow, do you not?"

"Yes," Thor said.

"I needed to know it is not a fool's errand I'm sending Asgard's brave guardians on," Loki said. "I needed to know there was not a trap laid for you."

"So is there?"

"I would know better if I'd been allowed to talk longer!" Loki snapped.

"If you'd told me what you were planning—"

"You would've let me meet those nightmares undisturbed?"

"...No," Thor admitted.

"It seems to be a successful gambit," Loki admitted in turn. "The titan still believed me his cur."

"You are not," Thor said, and this time he let his voice thunder. "You never were his." The Tesseract's, perhaps; but not Thanos's. "And you need not do such things as this to prove it."

Loki's green gaze slanted to him again. "You think that was my purpose?"

"One of them, I think," Thor said. He was sure there were others he'd not thought of, that Loki was not saying. But none would make Loki conspire with Thanos against Asgard, and that was all he needed to know, for now.

Loki rubbed his lip in thought, but in the end said only, "Shall I return to my papers, and give you the cot so you might sleep before the voyage? I could ease your slumber with Mother's charm; the wards would allow me that much."

"So you can return to Thanos's torments while I peacefully sleep?" Thor returned, then shook his head. "Excuse me, brother. But I'll be able to rest for three days on the ship, and doubt I'd sleep well anywhere tonight, even charmed."

Loki studied Thor for a moment, then got up from the cot to light the lantern on the windowsill, its warm glow softening the cell's stone. Putting his back to the light, he positioned himself in the center of the chamber, canted on his hips with his legs bent and his arms raised before him. With one hand he beckoned Thor. "Come at me."

Thor stared at him. "Come on," Loki said impatiently. "If you won't be resting anyway, what else do you ever do on a battle's eve but spar?"

"Brother—"

"What?" Loki smiled through the shadows, tone sharpening as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, subtle and unpredictable. "Has all your recent exercise left you too tired to face one starved and suppressed prisoner?"

"That's hardly fair; you've been offered food enough—"

"—Or do you think me too weak to bother with, after defeating me before—"

"I do not want to defeat you, Loki—"

"—Do not want to, or cannot, without your precious mallet?"

Thor looked down at Mjolnir on his belt, then unhooked the hammer and set it down beside the cot, clanking on the flagstone, as he pushed himself to his feet. Loki's eyes narrowed as his smirk widened. "Ah, you've always been so exceedingly sensitive about your tool—"

"—And you've always been so uncreative insulting it," Thor said. "I'd expect more than adolescent gibes from a silver tongue, or have you fallen out of practice in flyting as well as fighting?"

Naturally Loki drew himself up at that, tipping back his chin with irritated pride, and opening himself most imprudently for Thor to tackle him around the middle before he got out another taunting word.

They both went tumbling over. Loki squirmed out from Thor's grapple before they hit the floor, quick as ever even if out of practice. But Thor managed to hook his leg around Loki's ankle as he went down, off-balancing his brother long enough to roll back to his own feet and meet him fairly.

They traded a few punches, Thor blocking Loki's weaker blows while Loki bobbed and flowed between Thor's hits like water. When Thor did finally score a strike to his chest, Loki gasped and winced, more than should be expected from such a glancing blow, and Thor pulled his next punch, started to ask, "Bro—"

Then Loki straightened up, his pained grimace stretching into an unholy grin, and Thor could have laughed at himself—it had been so long since his brother had been enough smaller to make that trick convincing. Before he could recover, Loki weaved past Thor's hesitating arm to box Thor's ears hard enough to make them ring. Thor shook his head, dizzily rocking back a step, and Loki moved in for a choke hold.

Which brought Loki close enough for Thor to elbow him in the gut, winding him, as he went in for his own hold. Loki retaliated with a kick in the shins, twisting out of the clutch, but Thor changed his grip and pulled him back into the hold.

They wrestled for some minutes more, but in such close combat Thor's mass and strength gave him the advantage, and Loki was, if not feeble, then not as strong as he once had been. Thor finally got him into a bear hug—not the safest position with Loki, who when pushed too hard was inclined to bite, and his teeth could be as sharp as his tongue. But he left Thor's ear unworried, instead slapped his hand on the floor to surrender.

Thor let go immediately, and moved back to get a good look at his brother as he sat up on the floor, legs sprawled out before him and leaning back on Mjolnir behind him. Loki was breathing too hard for such mild exercise, but his flushed face in the lantern's light gave him a healthier color than his usual pallor, and he looked winded but not otherwise pained.

"Well met, brother," Thor said, grinning at him, then wincing as he bent his knees to sit. The knocking they'd taken on the floor with his first tackle was his worst injury.

"Hardly well, and scarcely any meeting besides," Loki said, wiping his forearm over his brow to clear the beading sweat. "I used to have a chance, brawling with you unarmed."

"You'd have more of one, if you were practiced and rested and well-fed," Thor said. "And besides, what matters if I'm stronger than you in a friendly scrap? You've always valued mind and magic over muscle anyway, and you can trounce me soundly in both."

At that Loki jerked up his head to stare at Thor, so intense a look that Thor frowned under it, confused. "What is it?"

Loki's green eyes slid away. "How often did I plot to trick such an admission out of you," he muttered, "and now you simply give it away..."

"I would have given it before, if you'd just asked for it," Thor said, then sighed and admitted, "Well, perhaps when I was younger, my pride wouldn't have allowed it. But I knew it, all the same."

Loki did not reply, his face soft and still in the gentle lamplight, looking down at the empty space between his hands. After a moment his gaze drifted back up to Thor. "Are you feeling calmer now, at least?"

"I am," Thor said, smiling again. He stretched carefully, feeling out the strains and bruises from the day's earlier sparring. This brief match had not been enough to properly tire him, but he yet felt soothed. He knew that Loki did not enjoy such physical contest as he did; that Loki had offered it all the same was more warming than the adrenaline of combat. "Thank you, brother."

"It's in my best interest, that you be ready for this battle," Loki pointed out.

"True," Thor said, "but it was fun, all the same."

Loki snorted. "How many times have you been hit upon the head, that such war seems like fun?"

"Not war," Thor denied. "I wouldn't say there is no pleasure in battle; but friendly sport is a wholly different enjoyment." Loki looked skeptical, so Thor asked, "Did you think I enjoyed fighting you seriously, knowing I might do you real harm, or else you would do so to me or those I protected?"

"At least you could enjoy proving your strength over mine," Loki said, not quite softly enough to hide the bitterness.

"I took no enjoyment from that!"

"Did you not?"

"Why would I?" Thor demanded. "Why would I want to prove myself your better?"

"I suppose you wouldn't bother to wish for it," Loki murmured. "You never have needed to prove it; it has simply always been so. And all I do, all my lies, only makes it more true..."

"Loki, what are you talking about—"

Loki closed his eyes, then opened them and looked direct at Thor, his gaze a clear and steady green in the lantern's light. "I'm sorry; pay it no heed," he said, and if he had been smiling it would have seemed like false courtesy, but not this quiet somber tone. "I'm more tired than you can guess—sleep isn't restful, with these dreams—and you know my tongue gets away from me, more now than once it did."

"Loki, what is wrong?" Thor asked, now truly concerned. "If you are angry with me, if you've a grievance against me, then speak it fairly—"

"You would expect me to act fairly?" Loki asked, more wry than cynical. "And I don't want to do this anyway—not now, not when you leave tomorrow to take up my own battle for me. I would not fight you tonight, Thor—unless you want another match?" and he cocked an inquiring eyebrow.

Thor shook his head, not really placated; he could not help but feel that there was a trap in Loki's calmness. But he said slowly, "If you don't want to discuss it now...then after I get back?"

Loki's shoulders relaxed; Thor had not realized they had been tensed, until he saw them fall. "Yes, all right," Loki said. "When you return."

"It shouldn't be more than a week," Thor said. "Three days there and three days back."

Loki arched his other brow. "Giving yourself an entire day to defeat Thanos."

"An hour," Thor said surely, "but I'm allowing time for the Chitauri to be delayed; they seemed like slower sorts to me."

Loki shook his head, but his mouth was twisting.

"It would be faster if you could come as well," Thor remarked. "Your magic would make short work of their army."

Loki breathed a chuckle. "I suspect any advantage would be outweighed by the distraction I'd cause among the Asgardian forces, who'd all be watching me more than our foes."

Thor shrugged. "In the heat of battle one's true foes become clear; they'd soon remember how to fight alongside you again. And neither I nor Mjolnir have forgotten," and he nodded at his hammer behind Loki.

Loki looked down at Mjolnir, as if only just realizing what he so casually slouched against. He wrapped his fingers around the short haft, not to lift it but loosely, as if only to confirm its solidity. "You want me to come with you to this war."

"I know you cannot," Thor said. "Even if you were not a prisoner, you should stay far from Thanos's reach. But yes, of course I wish you could come—I always want my brother beside me in battle; it feels like I'm fighting with only one arm, when you're not there."

Loki was silent a moment, his fist closing tighter around Mjolnir. Then he let go of the hammer, clasped his hands before him and asked with a light, teasing lilt, "So I can cripple you, simply by staying out of a fray?"

"Crippled—if you would call Tyr crippled, for losing his hand," Thor returned. "The fifty-score wolves he's slain since might disagree."

"Poor wolves, to be punished for the crime of a monstrous cousin," Loki murmured.

"More punished for feasting on livestock and children," Thor said, the usual counter in a debate they'd not taken up for decades. Loki's sympathies always had fallen a little oddly; in stories he sometimes seemed to care more for the slain dragon than the rescued princess. Perhaps he simply enjoyed the paradox of defending the indefensible. Or else he felt some kindred with the monsters—but Thor had little time to dwell on this, when Loki's quick tongue was engaged.

The old argument soon turned to other reminiscing, which led to a bout of flyting that Thor hardly realized was begun until it was near over and well lost. He suspected he had brought it on himself, for questioning Loki's silver tongue before. His brother, even wounded, had mastery enough over his words to handily trump Thor, who could barely manage rhyme and meter not at all. It did not help that Loki applied more wit than malice to his outrageous insults, so that Thor, as had often happened in their matches, finally ended up laughing too hard to reply. And Loki grinned smugly, looking as if he wished he had a stein to raise and mark his victory.

So the night passed, and Thor found himself disappointed when the sky outside the windows began to lighten—a day closer to the battle, but he did not look forward to the voyage before. "Ah, I wish you could join us for this—three days crammed on a longship!"

"I'm not sorry to miss that journey," Loki said. Then he stretched, looked around his cell and allowed, "Though I suppose this isn't much less confining than a ship's cabin. And you'll get changing scenery, at least."

"But we'll all be missing your company sorely by the end of it," Thor said. One advantage to Loki's overly keen sense of tedium was that he felt it before most, and then would arrange things such that no one else had the chance to become bored. A host of other things, many disconcerting or disagreeable; but not bored. "So what will you be doing while we're away?"

"The builders have yet to complete the observatory," Loki said. "And Mother can assist, should we need to discuss matters face-to-face."

"But at night..."

"I have the lantern."

"—Do not sleep." Thor took his brother by the arms. "Promise me that you won't invite Thanos again—"

"You know the worth of my promises—"

"I don't care if I can trust it, promise me anyway!"

Loki blinked at him, then smiled, a small smile with hardly any edges. "All right, I promise."

"That you won't go to sleep."

"That I won't sleep," Loki dutifully repeated, and Thor let him go. But Loki remained watching him with that strange quiet thoughtfulness.

"Loki, what is it?" Thor asked. Loki's eyebrows went up curiously, and Thor waved at his face, said, "You keep looking at me like that, sometimes—what are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking..." Loki ran his thumb over his lip as he considered, at last said, "I've been thinking how you'll make Asgard a good king."

"What?" Thor laughed, incredulous. But Loki only looked at him steadily, until Thor had to say, "Of all the things to mock me about..."

"It's not a joke," Loki said.

"A lie, then," Thor said, no longer smiling.

But Loki said, "No, not now."

"A good king—though I am arrogant, reckless, and dangerous?"

Loki did not deny or make a jest of it, only nodded and asked calmly, "Who told you? Sif?"

"Yes," Thor said, then, "It didn't anger me, though. You were not lying then."

"Oh, I was."

"But not about that. You weren't wrong to stop my coronation—you've always known me well, brother."

Loki's lips quirked, as if Thor had made a joke too amusing to resist. "Everyone knows you, Thor; you make it difficult not to."

"But you would say what you know. Even though you call yourself a liar—not many would tell that truth. Even if you wouldn't say it to my face." Thor crossed his arms, faced his brother. "And it is true. I've always been arrogant, and more reckless than a king ought to be. And I'll show anyone who claims I am not dangerous in battle how greatly mistaken they are."

Loki nodded again. "Yes," he said, "but even so, I think that as you are now, you will rule well."

If there was laughter underneath his even voice or hidden in his steady eyes, if Loki were making a private jeer, Thor could discern no sign of it. Or maybe the joke was in how Thor could not think how to respond to it. He could not say in turn that he thought Loki would be a good ruler, not without lying, not with Loki as he was now. Nor was Thor sure he agreed with his brother. Someday perhaps, he might be worthy of Asgard's crown. But now...he could not have borne sitting on the throne like Odin while others went to fight Thanos, and that was arrogant and reckless and dangerous all at once, but he could not help it.

Finally he said, carefully, "Thank you, brother."

Loki inclined his head, only halfway accepting the thanks, as if he'd not said it for Thor anyway. He glanced to the brightening window, asked, "The ships arrive this morning?"

"Before dawn—they should be here by now. And we'll set out as soon as they're loaded again. I should get to the barracks now, before they send someone to summon me."

Loki nodded and stepped aside for the staircase to be lowered into the cell. Thor clapped him on the shoulder in farewell, only to have Loki turn and pull him into a hug, tight and not as quick as Loki might have liked, because Thor grabbed his brother and squeezed him back fit to crack his ribs. Loki allowed it for a couple of moments before he pushed away, saying, "Come now, there's no time for another wrestling match—"

Thor gave Loki a final thump on the back and let go, grinning. "I'll see you in a week, brother."

"Happy hunting," Loki said, only sardonic enough for his voice to be recognizable. "Enjoy your battle."

Thor nodded and started up the steps. Behind him Loki added, "And good luck, brother."

Thor looked back down to meet Loki's green eyes. "You, too," he said. "With the Bifrost..." He was lying; he did not mean the Bifrost, or not mainly.

Loki made his silent chuckle. "Goodbye, Thor," he said.

"Goodbye," Thor said, and waved farewell through the barricade's rising metal stairs.

Chapter Text

Asgard's queen gave a benediction to the final five hundred of the war host, the last warriors and half the Einherjar guards, as they departed the city aboard the Drekar ships. Frigga also privately wished Thor luck in battle before he boarded the flagship. In turn Thor asked of his mother another grace, that she would keep Loki company in his absence. Frigga, smiling, kissed his cheek and agreed.

While not the Bifrost, the Drekar fleet was swift indeed; the queen's banner and the golden city's shining walls soon disappeared into the ether behind them. But Thor stood on the bow for a long while after they vanished from sight, gazing out into the nothingness as they sailed for Radsvinn's Point.

The next afternoon the fleet passed through air currents from Muspelheim, a particularly muggy bit of tropical atmosphere, more sweltering than the city's worst summers. By midday, at the height of the heat, the warriors and the longships' crews alike were stretched out on the decks or in the holds below, napping. Thor claimed the space on the flagship's forecastle before the dragon-headed prow, getting what breeze he could from the ship's movement through the abyss's thin air.

There was not much room on the ship's narrow bow, but when Sif climbed up to join him, Thor shifted to give her space to sit beside him, asking, "Volstagg got too loud for you?" While Sif could have had a space on the shieldmaiden's ship, she'd chosen to bunk with him and the Three in the captain's cabin, granted to Thor as prince. It was well-accoutered, but with five the quarters were close. "And Loki claims my snoring's thunderous...!"

Sif's heat-sleepy smile fell away. She straightened up, said, "Thor, about Loki..."

Thor winced; he'd not meant to raise the issue of his brother. "What of him?"

"You know what I'd ask," Sif said. "The night before last, when I followed you down to the dungeon—I didn't eavesdrop upon you in the cell, but can you not tell me now, why did he cry out like that? What was he doing—"

"Not what he was doing, but what was done to him," Thor said grimly. "Loki was...dreaming. Or remembering, morelike."

Even in the feverish heat, Sif blanched. "Remembering what, to make him scream so?" When Thor hesitated, she pressed, "Was it Thanos? Is that why you've claimed that combat—why Thanos enrages you? Did he...harm Loki?"

"Grievously." Thor looked down at his hands, closed one fist over the other. "My brother will not tell me much of what occurred when Thanos found him in the void between the worlds, but...he was not wounded in battle; there was no honorable defeat. Thanos and the Chitauri, they hurt him, tried to break him to their will..."

"Lady Frigga alluded to me a little," Sif said, hushed and pained, "but I did not imagine...when I heard him scream..." She touched Thor's shoulder, lightly in the heat, her fingers only brushing his tunic. "Is that why? All Loki's crimes on Midgard—was he compelled to such violence, against his will?"

Thor tightened his hands around one another, sweat sticking between the pressed skin.
It would be such an easy justification, so simple even Thor could see it—Sif's pity winning her forgiveness, and Loki needed more friends in Asgard.

But Thor was not his brother; he could not lie, even for him. "No, not exactly...not truly. Thanos was why Loki did it, perhaps; but he was not forced to it..." Thanos and the Chitauri had let Loki from their grasp, thinking him tamed; he could have gone far further than Midgard. He could have abandoned the scepter and fled—even returned to Asgard, by his secret paths along Yggdrasil's branches, and begged for protection.

Loki had wanted the scepter, however, wanted Tesseract for his own; he had wanted its power, and wanted to see Earth bow to it and him, to affirm the strength Thanos and the void had tried to rip from him. Would Loki have wanted the cube so badly, had Thanos not driven him to it? Would he have wanted the humans kneeling before him, if the Tesseract had not...but Loki had said it himself, that he wanted the same as the Tesseract wanted.

But Thanos had given Loki the Chitauri army; Thanos had given him the scepter, and the source of his nightmares now. And these were not the sole cause of all Loki had done on Earth; but without them, he could not have done such evil things. He would not have had the choice—but granted that choice, he had chosen to do so...

For the past days such thoughts had been circling Thor's head like wingless drakes surrounding a dying bull, their fangs all the sharper and more venomous that he had no one to share them with. Even now he did not know how to explain to Sif all his brother was and wasn't, all he wanted and didn't want and maybe didn't want to want.

"Thanos found Loki in the void," Sif said, not accusing but careful, uncertainly feeling her way. "So all Loki did on Asgard before he fell, and with the Destroyer on Midgard—that had nothing to do with the Mad Titan."

"No," Thor said. "Though that was not...Loki might have decided himself to do those things; but it was not a rational decision. I do not think my brother was sane even before he fell, or else he wouldn't have fallen, wouldn't have let go..."

"Let go?" Sif repeated.

Thor blinked at her, confused; understanding came slowly, through the oppressive heat and the gathered drake-thoughts. After Loki's fall Thor had been in mourning, unwilling to talk of how his brother had been lost or what led to it; and his friends as ever had respected him and his grief and asked him no questions.

How the Bifrost had been destroyed, what Loki had been attempting, they knew from Heimdall and his father. Thor had assumed they had learned this, too. He forced open his fists, said, "When I shattered the Bifrost, when the void opened, Father grabbed me before I could be drawn into it—"

"As Loki was," Sif said.

"Only he was not," Thor said. "Not by accident. I grabbed Gungnir, and Loki caught on the other end—we could have pulled him up; but then Loki let go. And I—it was too far, I could not reach him..." He stared down at his open, empty hands.

"He did not simply lose his grip?" Sif asked. Thor shook his head, and Sif murmured an oath that most of the warriors on the ship would have blushed to hear, even if not from a maiden's lips. "I wouldn't have guessed...that Loki would..." She brushed a strand of sweat-curled hair out of her eyes, futilely tried to smooth it back in an atypically anxious gesture. "Thor, do you think that he regretted...does Loki regret what he did?"

"He does, I think," Thor said. "But...I don't know why he let go then, but it wasn't for atonement. " He could remember his brother's face so clearly, the anguish and then the perfect blank peace. Loki for once not thinking, not scheming—no more lies to tell, no more decisions to make, because somehow there was only one thing he could do. "More like he believed he had no other choice..."

Thor stopped, chilled despite the sweltering heat. He felt the realization more than thought it, like acid teeth closing around his heart—realized he had seen that calmness again. When Thor had raised Mjolnir over Loki in the cell...and then the last time, the last time Thor had seen his brother—

"Good luck, brother," Loki had told him, and, "Goodbye," and Thor had supposed that Loki had been trying to hide his fear, that Loki had been frightened for him, frightened that Thor would not be strong enough to defeat Thanos.

But Loki had not been afraid, but calm. His ever-turning mind stilled, stopped; all decisions already made.

—But Loki was in the warded cell. Thanos could not reach him, and he had not enough magic to do himself harm. And the dwarves and crafters would be occupying him, and he had Frigga's company as well.

All the same Thor wanted to grab Mjolnir and fling the hammer as hard as he could, let it carry him back to Asgard, faster than any ship could sail. If he threw hard enough, he might return and still get back to the fleet in time for the battle...

"Thor?" Sif asked, staring up at him. "What's the matter?"

Thor realized he had launched to his feet, with his hand on Mjolnir. He shook his head, forced himself to let go of the hammer with a rueful sigh. "It's nothing. I worry for my brother. Imprisoned as he is now, he is safe even from himself; yet I worry. I know he's not a child, but..."

"But he is Loki. And he is your brother," Sif said, rising to stand beside him. "Thor, do you remember when we were little, when Loki was bitten by the muck-gob? He got so sick, and you heard the healers saying that a rare flower on Alfheim could help, so you determined to get one. And convinced me to try to sneak across the Bifrost with you, though I didn't want to go."

"You were still angry with Loki about your hair," Thor recalled.

"I thought he deserved it anyway—he only got bitten because he was trying to collect gob scales to make itching powder," Sif said. "But I went with you. And of course Heimdall caught us, and we got such a drubbing—I'd never seen Lady Frigga so angry; she was already so worried about Loki..."

"And the healers had already gotten the flower from the elven ambassador," Thor said, "so it was trouble caused for nothing."

"But you had to do something," Sif said. "Though you were only a child, you still had to try, because Loki was your little brother, and you wanted to protect him, save him. Even though there was nothing you could really do."

Thor closed his hands again into fists, studied them. How much larger they were than when he'd been that boy, how much stronger he was—yet maybe not enough, even now. "Are you saying I should know by now when there's nothing I can do for my brother?"

"No!" Sif leaned forward to meet his eyes with her steady, earnest gaze. "I'm saying that by now you should be used to worrying about him. Whether or not you need to be; whether or not there is anything you can do. And now you might have reason. Even if nothing so simple as nectar can cure whatever poison is in Loki now—maybe you can yet find a way to help him."

"It's different now, though," Thor said after a moment.

"Obviously—"

Thor shook his head. "No, I mean, all those years ago, with the muck-gob—Loki got bitten because I'd dared him; that was why I was so determined to help him. He found the recipe for the powder in a book, and I said he'd never be able to make it, because he'd never let himself get all muddy collecting gob scales..."

Sif stared at Thor a moment. Then made her own fist and punched him hard in the arm, smiling. "Even if you couldn't get that flower, I think you've made it up to him by now."

Thor could not bring himself to return her smile. "This isn't because I believe I owe him anything, you know, Sif."

Sif's smile didn't waver, but softened a little. "I know."

The breeze was picking up, the air over the bow markedly cooler. They'd finally passed through the tropical current to a chillier climate. Thor leaned over the prow to let the wind dry the sweat on his face. Mjolnir on his belt bumped his thigh, a reminder to heat his cooling blood. One more day until the battle.

Sif faced the wind beside him, said into it, "I hope you can save him, Thor."

"I will," Thor swore.

 


 

Radsvinn's Point was not large enough a spur of land to support a camp of three thousand; half the warriors bunked on the ships. The entire host was out in force now, standing in formation on the ground or on the decks, weapons ready, all eyes watching. All had taken position when the Thor and the Drekar fleet had arrived mid-morning; for an hour now they had been standing ready, since the keenest-eyed watchman had called out warning of a disturbance in the surrounding void.

Here on the border of the realm, the sun was so distant that the day never got brighter than a foggy bluish twilight. They were closer to Muspelheim's fire than Jotunheim's ice, so the climate was still summer-hot; but even at noon one needed a lantern to read by. Thor had ordered all lights doused, to keep everyone's eyes ready with the dimness. He strained his own now, standing on the Drekar flagship's bow with Mjolnir in hand, peering into the void's deeper dark.

On the deck behind him, Sif and the Warriors Three stood alongside the archers and other warriors, trying to see what the sentry had seen. "Are we sure the chap didn't just have a speck of dust in his eye?" Fandral muttered, loud enough to earn him glares from Volstagg and a few archers.

Thor kept his eyes on the void. "Stay ready," he said, and his comrades straightened their backs and faced the darkness.

In the sky Yggdrasil's branches were barely visible to Aesir vision, best glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, shimmering strands of power winding through the emptiness, weaving between the rock and dirt of the spur. Thanos and the Chitauri were following one of those twisted paths, which led to Radsvinn's Point; they could not avoid it, not without losing their way, and so losing themselves in the greater void between the realms.

Still, Thor was privately beginning to wonder if Thanos somehow had found another route, perhaps via the Tesseract—

"There!" came a shout from the Skei fleet below, and Thor saw it, a speck in the darkness like a twinkling mote of dust—or a buzzing fly—or a hovering beetle—like looking at something through the wrong end of a telescope and then pulling it down, so the object suddenly expanded. So it appeared to the naked eye, the Chitauri army's approach over the world tree's branches—not something moving closer, but simply growing, from too small to be seen, to big enough to reach out and grasp in one's hand, to larger and larger still—

"They come!" Thor bellowed, lifting his hammer. "Warriors, have at them!" The signalmen sounded their trumpets, and the voices and arms of three thousand Asgardian warriors raised to greet their coming foes.

 


 

The Chitauri came in waves, but even from his vantage point upon the Drekar flagship, Thor could discern little more order to their attacks than they'd shown in the chaos on Midgard. But Aesir warriors were not so easy targets as human civilians. They did not break ranks when the Chitauri flyers screamed down on them, but blocked the staffs' blue bolts with their shields, as the archers on the ships rained enchanted fire on the flyers, and the pegasus cavalry took to the air to meet them directly.

The second wave of flyers split between harassing the grounded soldiers and the Asgard fleets, dodging arrows to board the ships. Thor's friends and the other warriors shipboard sprang to defend the artillery, mowing down Chitauri with sword and knife. Thor on the forecastle deck grasped the carved dragon-head with one hand, Mjolnir in the other, and swung himself out onto the prow to call down his lightning from the gathering clouds, scattering the next incoming flyers.

The thunder-crack had not faded from his ears when it was drowned out by a hideous roar. Thor looked to see the first of the behemoths emerging from the dark, great armored bulk roiling and curling like it was being born from the womb of the void.

On the deck behind Thor, Fandral and Volstagg both cursed, and the archers gasped, though their fingers on the bowstrings did not slip. But on the Drekar longship opposite the flagship, the war god Tyr hollered, with exhilaration, not fear, "Archers, save your arrows for the common beasts; this one's mine!"

Grinning, he set his massive battle-axe on his shoulder and his boot on the ship's railing, and jumped from the ship's deck, down onto the behemoth moving below.

"God of war—god of lunacy, more like!" Fandral cried over the cacophony of swords and staff blasts, half incredulous and half admiring.

Sif dispatched the three Chitauri before her, then looked to Thor, eyes flashing. He brandished Mjolnir to show he would protect the ship, and she grinned fiercely, threw back her head and shouted, "Friends, shall we let Tyr claim all the glory?"

Sword in hand, she leapt off the ship's deck, and the Warriors Three with a defiant cry followed suit. They landed on the behemoth's giant spine beside Tyr, like four fleas hopping onto a dog's back. Then the behemoth rolled to the side in the air, and Thor lost sight of them behind its bulk.

Sure of their skills, Thor cast his eyes back over the battlefield. Few of Asgard's warriors had faltered, even upon seeing the behemoth. The rock of the point was carpeted in the churn of clashing armies, lit by the blue blasts of the Chitauri staff weapons reflecting off polished armor and shields. Some combatants toppled off the edge, mostly Chitauri thrown from their flyers, to be lost in the abyss below. The pegasus cavalry were swift to rescue any Asgardian warriors, but few Aesir fell, off the land or in battle; the Chitauri were numerous, but no match in strength.

And there was no titan giant supporting them; Thanos had not yet joined his war.

A howl arose from the Chitauri soldiers when three more behemoths swam from the void. But their triumph changed its tune when the behemoth already in the battle suddenly bent at an unnatural angle, bellowing as it contorted along its plated spine. Thor ordered the signalmen to give warning, and warriors sprinted clear as the beast's enormous carcass crashed to the limited earth, flattening a few tents but no soldiers. For a moment the battle was paused, as Asgardians and Chitauri alike watched the creature writhe in its death throes, shattering boulders to powder.

Then suddenly it stilled, then heaved over, tumbling off the edge into the abyss. As it fell, five seemingly tiny figures jumped from its back to safety on the land, and Tyr raised his ichor-coated axe to the dark sky, shouted as loud as the behemoth's death cry, "That's one!"

The watching Aesir warriors screamed in shared victory, and once more surged to meet the Chitauri.

At Tyr's command, the fleet of Drekar and Skei ships dropped to engage the other behemoths, with the war god directing fire to their weakest points. Thor called for the strikes and brought down thunderbolts, but stayed on the flagship rather than confront the beasts or soldiers on the ground below. He still did not see his chosen enemy; the Mad Titan had not appeared. Nor had the Chitauri hiveship entered the realm, staying in the void among Yggdrasil's branches as it sent its army forth.

When the fourth behemoth was felled, Thor finally could bear it no longer. He plunged off the flagship to smash down on the center of the rocky point, bringing his lightning with him in a bolt that cleaved the sky. It flung aside and dazed Asgardian and Chitauri both, and momentarily turned the darkening twilight brighter than the golden city at noon.

Standing in the war-storm's eye, Thor shouted over the shock-stilled battlefield, "Thanos! If you don't wish all your army annihilated here, come forth and face me now!"

At first there was no response. Then, moving as one, all the still-standing Chitauri turned and fled. They dodged between the Aesir as they ran for the flyers, as they swooped away from the spears and arrows, retreating from the battlefield, leaving Thor's challenge unanswered.

 


 

"We should go after them now," Tyr shouted, loud enough to rattle the closed cabin door. "Rout the insect bastards and keep them running, 'til they're all lost in the void!"

"It may not be so simple, not knowing how many foes we will face, or where the hiveship or Thanos is," Thor argued back. Outside the cabin's porthole, the bulk of the Chitauri army was a floating shadow, blotting out the star-spattered midnight sky of the void. In the last hours more behemoths had appeared—perhaps the other eight of the dozen Loki had mentioned, or more or less; in the dark it was difficult to determine. They stayed back with the rest of Chitauri forces, circling at Asgard's border as they regrouped.

The Asgardian fleets had arranged in formation to bar their passage into the realm, and the Chitauri had yet to attempt to breach this blockade. Tyr was not the only warrior in favor of making a preemptive attack, grabbing glory and a quick victory, but Thor was reluctant. Not for the fight; he craved that more than any, having been denied his satisfaction all day. But he was wary of a trap. That Thanos had not joined the battle when his army was being beaten, that after coming so far for the Tesseract, he would stop now—it seemed wrong to Thor. Perhaps Thanos was lying in ambush beyond the edge of the void, lurking among the world tree's branches like a panther, waiting to spring on them.

Or else he had a more devious plot. Thor had little chance of anticipating a mind that even Loki feared. But attacking when they were unsure of their enemies' numbers or exact position, Thor knew was unwise, however brave a charge it might be.

Heimdall would be observing the battle, and had Odin had any strong opinion, he would have sent Hugin or Munin to convey it; the ravens could cross the void in hours, on wings sped by the All-Father's magic. But no messenger appeared, and after some debate Tyr and the other generals grudgingly bowed to Thor's ruling as prince; the fleet would hold position, at least until morning.

The war council disbanded, the Asgardians bunked down for what rest they could manage until dim daylight returned, or else the Chitauri made a move. Thor had the flagship cabin to himself; Sif and the Three were down on the Point. Hogun had been wounded taking down the last behemoth, and the others were convincing him to let a healer look at his leg before it crippled him. Knowing Hogun's stubbornness when it came to battle medicine—he always would insist others needed attention more—they would be there all night.

Thor missed their company; he wished to discuss the situation with his friends in private, know if they would agree with his caution, or if they would prefer to attack now, too. But talking of the dispute in front of other warriors would not encourage their trust.

Arms crossed, Thor stared out the cabin's porthole into the shadows of the massed Chitauri army, trying to see for himself what that black silhouette concealed. The hiveship might by now be arrived in the realm, and Thanos aboard it.

The Asgardian fleet could not risk a foray now, not in the uncertain darkness. But if Thor took up Mjolnir and attacked by himself, seeking Thanos—the Chitauri could not stop him, however many there were. Thor's fingers itched with the urge to strike them down, crush them like the insects they resembled, stoking his berserker rage to take on Thanos. On the battlefield today he'd smelled Chitauri blood, the odor he remembered from Midgard, bitter and rancid even when flowing fresh. Those misbegotten half-rotten creatures had captured his brother, had tried to twist him into their slave, into Thanos's dog—

"...Thor?"

For a second Thor assumed that thinking about Loki had led to imagining his voice. Then he saw the pale reflection in the porthole's glass.

He whirled around, Mjolnir smacking solidly into his hand. Loki hastily stepped back, hands raised as he said, "Peace, brother, I mean you no harm!"

"Loki?" Thor gaped, hammer raised to this unlikely specter. "What are you—how are you here?"

Loki wore his coat again, if not his full armor; the layered leather accentuated his sallow fragility, the hollows of his cheeks and the thinness of his wrists. He did not look so different from when Thor last had seen him, but that look was more sickly than Thor had realized. It was all the more pronounced by the feverish gleam in Loki's green eyes now, as he shook his head at Thor. "Not here, not exactly," he said, panting shallowly, as if he'd run across the void to get here. "A projection was the simplest way to contact you, as when I spoke to you on Midgard, during your banishment—but that's of no consequence. Thor, you must return to the palace, immediately!"

"What?" Thor demanded. "Why—what's happened? Are you threatened?"

"Not me, not for me—for Asgard!" Loki gasped, his eyes wide, hands clutching into fists as if he would grab Thor, were he entirely present. "For all the realm, and those beyond—Thanos comes for the Tesseract!"

"Thanos?! But we've stopped him—we met his Chitauri army as they entered the realm, successfully fought them back—"

"The Chitauri, yes," Loki said, "or most of them—but not Thanos. That was his plan, for his army to distract you, while he slipped past your barricade. He cloaked the hiveship in magic and passed over your fleet; you broke formation long enough to allow it—"

"Fighting the behemoths," Thor realized; Tyr had ordered all the fleet down to strike them.

"Yes," Loki confirmed. "Heimdall saw it—some of the battle was obscured to him, but for Thanos to hide himself from the eyes of so many warriors, the magic expended opened him to Heimdall's eye, if only briefly. So he saw Thanos aim for the golden city, in the hiveship as fast as the Drekar vessels. Only a fraction of the Chitauri accompany him, with most deployed here; but Thanos himself will lay siege to a city barely armed, when he arrives—"

Thor's head was spinning. "Thanos comes to the palace now—"

"At all due haste, and no way for the warriors to catch up with him," Loki said. "Save you, Thor—Mjolnir can carry you back here in time, if I assist with a spell—"

"How?" Thor said. "How are you doing this at all? The wards on your cell should keep you from casting any spells, much less magic that reaches so far—!"

Loki gave his head a shake, as if Thor's bewilderment were a fly distracting him. "Obviously I'm not in the cell now. Mother let me from it, for this; we had to reach you—"

"Why you?" Thor asked, his stomach twisting with dread and misgivings. "Why not Father? Hugin or Munin should have come to warn us..."

"Fa...the All-Father..." For the first time Loki faltered in his wild rushing account, face paling to bone white. "He could not—likely he did send a raven; but they've both returned to him now, when he needs Thought and Memory close—"

"Why—has he fallen into the Odinsleep?" That was the only time Thor knew of when his father did not send his ravens flying over the realm, but rather watching over his body, while he saw with other magics.

But Loki shook his head again. "Not that; it's—" He cut himself off, rushed on with little of his silver smoothness, "—you will see when you arrive; there's no time to explain. You must come back, immediately, if we—if Asgard is to have a chance. The golden city needs her golden prince. Now I must ready the spell to bring you; come to the forecastle deck in one hour's time—"

"Loki!" Thor exclaimed, reaching out to grab him, but Loki's shoulder sifted through his fingers like smoke. "I cannot do this—I cannot abandon all the warriors here—"

"They fought well enough with little of your assistance today," Loki said, "so Heimdall said—and besides, did you not swear to fight Thanos? So you must come to meet him here!"

"—And I cannot trust you!" Thor cried. "If this is a trap, a scheme of yours—if you are even Loki at all, and not an illusion sent by Thanos to drive me away, or bring me to ruin—"

Loki gave a bark of half-hysterical but not humorless laughter. "And now, now finally you try to think cunningly. I'm not Thanos, that I can assure you simply enough; ask me what only Loki could answer—but quickly."

"Fine, then," Thor said. "What's in the fifth secret drawer of your favorite desk?"

Loki's forehead furrowed, but he answered readily, "A phoenix feather, sealed in glass."

Thor nodded, then said reluctantly, "But even if you are Loki..."

"Then you cannot trust me," his brother said. "You should not trust me—I know, I know this, and if I had all night to spin a lie to convince you—but I have not even a minute; it's already too dangerous for me to reach so far. And there is nothing I can say to win your trust, no reason I can give for you to believe me—but I beg it anyway, Thor, as you love me and Asgard both." Loki did not bow his head in supplication but looked right at Thor, not hiding the fervid terror glittering in his eyes. "Do as I say now, trust me this once, and I will never ask it of you again. Be on the forecastle deck in one hour. Please, brother."

Then Loki was gone, vanished as suddenly as if an invisible door had slammed shut over him, leaving Thor again alone in the flagship's cabin.

Chapter Text

"It must be a trap," Hogun said.

For once the others made no comment about his dourness. But Sif said, "Thor will go anyway."

"Yes," Thor agreed.

The Warriors Three exchanged glances across the healer's tent where the injured Hogun had been unwillingly tended. "But Loki did try to kill you before..." Volstagg said reluctantly.

"Or else he's trying to distract you from the battlefield," Fandral said, "so Thanos can strike the rest of us down—"

"Whether or not I'm here, the Mad Titan will not find a host of Asgard warriors so easily conquered," Thor said. "But the city has few protectors now, and if my father cannot guard it, as Loki implied—"

"But if he was lying...how can you be sure he was being honest about any of it?" Volstagg asked.

"I can't," Thor said. The fear in Loki's eyes had looked real; but then, his grief had been as convincing, the last time Loki had so visited him, during his banishment on Midgard, to tell him falsely that their father was dead, that Thor could never return. Thor had not thought to doubt it then; he'd not known then how cruel his brother could be to him, that Loki could meet his tearful eyes and not flinch or hesitate.

Thor knew better now. But he also knew that he could not turn his back on Loki, lies and cruelty and all. If Thanos were coming for his brother, Thor had to protect him, as much as he had to protect Asgard. And that Thanos was not here now seemed to be truth, at least. "My friends," Thor said, "I must return to the palace. I count on you to assure the next confrontation with the Chitauri is victorious without me; can I rely on you for that?"

The Warriors Three and Sif again met one another's eyes; then Volstagg huffed, "Of course!" drawing up his considerable frame, and Fandral lent his arm for Hogun to stand on his bandaged leg, so they could together offer their salute.

"You need not tell us so," Sif said, her grin small but fierce, "as if we'd lose, with or without you!"

Thor thanked them, then flew up to the second ship of the Drekar fleet to tell Tyr of his summons back to Asgard, omitting only that it had been Loki who had brought the message. The war god was duly shocked, but told him, "Gods-speed, Thor. We'll hasten to defeat this army and return the fleet to the city in all haste—I'll be sorry to miss the Mad Titan's downfall, but trust the ballads will be great!" And Thor answered with as confident a smile as he could manage.

By then Loki's hour was nearly up, but when Thor arrived at the flagship's forecastle deck, he found his friends waiting for him. "We've discussed this further," Volstagg said, and Thor was briefly concerned that they might try to stop him. But instead Volstagg went on, "Whether it's Loki's trap, or whether you will face Thanos, you cannot do so alone."

"My friends, you know I like best to fight with you at my side," Thor said. "But I cannot bear us all back to the palace, and your defense may be needed here—"

"Not all of us," Sif said, stepping forward. "Just me."

At Thor's surprised look, Fandral explained, "We drew lots."

"Volstagg won," Hogun put in.

"But I was convinced my mightiness would better serve Asgard here," Volstagg added, eying the others.

Thor took measure of Volstagg's indeed vast mightiness and nodded. Haste was important, and Sif was the smallest of them. And whatever situation he was about to enter, he felt better for knowing he would have her sword and her comradeship in it.

"So," Sif said, "how are we to make this journey?"

"By Mjolnir, I believe," Thor said, taking Mjolnir in hand, "though I'm not sure—"

Before he could finish, the night sky was lit by a faint silvery stream of light, arcing from the direction of Asgard's core to pierce the hammer's head and continue down to pool at the deck at their feet. Thor felt it swirl around Mjolnir, tugging like the currents of a rising storm, cooling the solid metal under the leather-wrapped handle.

Fandral gulped and sidled out of the magical luminosity lapping at his boots. "I guess that's your summons..."

"Good luck," Volstagg told Thor and Sif, and Hogun nodded, his gaze darker than ever, leaning on Volstagg's arm as they too stepped back to the edge of the deck.

"Ready?" Thor asked Sif, and at her fearless agreement put his arm about her waist, wrapped his red cape around them both and let Mjolnir's handle slip from his hand to swing the hammer by its loop. Around and around it went, until the silver-touched air was whistling.

Then Thor let the hammer fly, and grabbed the haft as it did, so it dragged him and Sif with it, up into the glimmering, howling air.

 


 

Flying with Mjolnir was nothing like traveling the Bifrost. The rainbow bridge carried one so far and fast that by the time you realized you had embarked upon it, you were already arriving. It was convenient, but Thor preferred Mjolnir's flight, when he could see the land passing beneath him and better appreciate how far he had come.

But this was a different sort of flight. The screaming wind whipped Thor's eyes so that he could only see a teary blur, and besides they were moving too fast to clearly glimpse anything passing by before it had already vanished over the horizon, no way to determine their direction.

Still, there was time enough in that smear of air and light for Thor to dread what manner of plight awaited him and Sif at the journey's end. They might find themselves stranded on some barren moon or banished to Jotunheim's snowy peaks or Muspelheim's fiery caverns, surrounded by hostile giants. Or else on the Chitauri hiveship, delivered into Thanos's hands—Thor almost hoped for that; though if it were where Loki's silver path led, he would wish his brother had just told him so.

Thor's arm was starting to throb, as it only rarely did when wielding Mjolnir, but it was wearied from the day's battle, and his fingers ached as they clutched the handle. If he pulled them from this flight now, where would they be? Was Loki was leading him into danger—and Sif, too, and while Thor might willingly put his own life in his brother's untrustworthy hands, if Loki risked Sif's as well, even by her choice—

Then suddenly the blurred silver light turned to bright gold, and the roaring wind abruptly was silenced. Something slammed hard against the soles of Thor's boots—solid ground; they had landed.

He staggered on unready legs, blinked the water from his eyes as he brought up Mjolnir. Sif leaned against him to find her own balance, and through the ringing in his ears Thor heard her sword sing as she drew it from its scabbard.

"You don't need those now," Loki said, "Thanos hasn't yet arrived."

Thor blinked again, focusing until the black and pale smudges before them resolved into his brother. Loki stared back at him, wide-eyed in the moonlit night. For all his sardonic tone, he looked hardly more sure on his feet than Thor; he had one hand outstretched toward them and Thor could not tell if it was to steady Thor, or himself.

Either way, Thor took his arm, and found Loki solid, not an illusory projection. For a moment Loki clasped him back, as if to assure himself of Thor's own reality; then he let go and pulled back, said with the same satiric courtesy, "So how was the trip? As you were expecting, Lady Sif?"

Sif straightened under Loki's green eyes, though the tip of her sword wavered a little as she lowered it. But her voice was steady as she replied, "I had no expectations for the journey. The destination, though...how came we to arrive here?" and she made a puzzled gesture at the golden wall before them.

Thor looked at that familiar wall, only now recognizing it: they were in the palace, on the balcony outside his own bedroom.

Loki made a shallow bow. "Forgive the intrusion to your chambers, but I needed a place to cast my spell unobserved, and it was best anchored somewhere that Mjolnir didn't have to smash through a wall to reach."

"How are you out of your cell?" Sif asked him. "And not even shackled..."

Loki spread his conspicuously free hands, though he was not in his coat as he had been in his illusion, still wearing the usual simple black. "As I told Thor, the Lady Frigga freed me for this errand. She takes my place in the dungeon, so the guards won't raise a fuss."

"What did you do to the queen?" Sif said sharply, lifting her sword again.

Loki took a cautious step back, looking like he was trying to smirk and not quite succeeding, or else not quite succeeding in hiding a smirk. "You think I would harm my lady mother? She's there willingly—there was no other way, since the queen cannot countermand the king's orders."

"Why wouldn't Father give that order, if you were needed to bring me here?" Thor asked.

Loki's mouth twisted, erasing the half-made smile. "The All-Father's dilemma is better shown than told. I'll bring you there," and he reached out to put one hand on Thor's arm and the other on Sif's before she could duck away, whispered the tongue-twisting syllables of a spell.

The balcony and starlit sky wavered around them, folded up like a flower and then unfurled again. They were flooded in a brilliant azure light, blinding after the nighttime dimness. Sif swore an oath, wrenching away from Loki with her sword ready, even as she blinked.

Loki ducked her wild swing. "I told you, sheathe your blade—if I meant you harm I would have brought you to a worse place than the throne room!"

"The throne room?" Thor raised his hand to shield his eyes, turned toward the light.

As his vision adjusted, he saw they were indeed in the throne room, surrounded by the forest of pillars and standing before the dais. There the Tesseract was on its pedestal, shining like an azure sun in the empty hall.

Over the cube stood his father. Odin's arms were raised, his hands spread above the Tesseract, cupped as if he were warming them over its magic fire. His ravens were perched one on each shoulder, their long narrow shadows cutting through the brilliance as the All-Father stared into the cube's glowing depths, his eye burning as blue as its power.

"Father?" Thor asked, stumbling on the steps. "What are you doing with the Tesseract?"

Hugin and Munin cocked their heads, sharp bird eyes glittering, but Odin did not reply, did not raise his head to Thor. Magic shimmered around him like a globe, prickling against Thor's skin.

"He cannot hear you," Loki said. "Or rather he cannot answer, whether or not he hears."

Thor whirled back around. Loki's face was almost Jotunn-blue in the Tesseract's light, and Thor moved to step between him and the cube, shading his brother from that glowing power.

Sif stared openly at the Tesseract, limned in that same blue. "Why does it do that? Does the All-Father make it shine so?"

In Thor's shadow Loki's eyes were green, not washed out with that preternatural light. His voice was strained with the effort to keep it level. "Not Odin, but Thanos. The moment the Mad Titan entered this realm, he reached for the cube, tried to force his way through to claim it—but the All-Father stopped him. Even now he exerts his will to hold the Tesseract closed against Thanos's coming. If he wavers but a moment, Thanos may break through."

"So let him break through!" Thor growled, turning back toward his motionless father and the cube. "Let the titan come, Father, and I'll take him down here—!"

"And take down the palace with you?" Loki inquired waspishly. "You think a battle in the heart of Asgard will have no casualties, regardless of who wins it? Besides, here or the Point or anywhere between, you will be overcome; there is no battleground that will see you victorious."

"Did you summon Thor back here just to insult him?" Sif demanded before Thor could.

Loki's eyes flashed. "No, but nor I did I bring him back to fight Thanos himself. I do not want that; and you shouldn't want it either, if you love him, Sif."

Sif snarled, "Do not tell me who I love—"

"Then should I instead call you as great a fool as Thor? And here I thought wit was one of your few charms!" Loki gestured vehemently at Odin. "Look there! The All-Father himself is barely a match for Thanos's power, and that's with the titan still across the void! How does it serve Asgard, for its prince to throw himself headlong to his end, however courageous a death it will be?"

"How does it serve Asgard, for our prince to follow the advice of a liar and a traitor?" Sif retorted. She again brought up her sword, polished blade reflecting the azure light. "We've only your deceitful word that it's Thanos who did this, and not one of your tricks ensnaring the All-Father—did you not wield the Tesseract against him before?"

Loki paled, his face becoming all the bluer in the cube's glow as his lips pulled back from his teeth in a sneer.

"Enough!" Thor said, before his brother could reply. He put his hand on Sif's arm so she lowered her sword, as he looked to Loki, said, "Loki, you claimed to bring me back here for the city's sake; are you sincere in your wish to save Asgard from Thanos?"

"I am," Loki said, drawing himself up to meet Thor's eyes. If this was a lie, it was one he was dedicated to.

How dedicated, however? "Then you will need Sif's cooperation," Thor said. Her trust was too much to ask even of Loki's silver tongue, but for now this must be enough.

Loki's eyes narrowed, either in anger or calculation; but at last he turned to Sif, bowed his head, not so deeply as to be insulting. "Lady Sif," he said, not smooth but sure, "I did you a great wrong, as much as I did Asgard. For that I can offer no excuse; but I would make amends to you, even as I make amends to the realm. I ask that you allow me to try, in the name of the friendship we once shared and I trespassed against."

Sif looked at him long and hard, nostrils flaring, but after a glance at Thor she managed to swallow her anger. Sheathing her sword, she nodded stiffly and said, "Fine, then; you can try."

She said it challengingly but Loki did not rise to it, said only, "Thank you."

"So," Sif said, a little awkwardly, "if you do not seek to use the Tesseract against us, could you help the All-Father to guard against it..."

But even as she spoke, the Tesseract's brilliant glow brightened, pulsing with a white-hot splendor, and Loki twisted toward it, staring with eyes grown wider still—with fear? Or desire? Thor could not guess. But Loki did not reach for the cube; instead he only stared at it, the last color draining from his ashen face.

"Loki, what's the matter—?" Thor asked, as Loki shuddered. His white-rimmed eyes were fixed on the Tesseract, the cube's cyan brilliance reflecting in the black mirrors of his blown pupils. He swayed; Thor lunged to grab him before he could collapse. Loki's arms under his tunic were as rigid and cold as ice—that blue tinge to his complexion was more than anemic pallor.

"Brother!" Thor gave him a shake and Loki gasped, a choked strangled whine. He tried to wrench free, but Thor did not release him, bodily dragging him away from the cube, past the dais and behind the nearest column.

Out of the Tesseract's blinding glow, Loki shuddered again, then blinked rapidly, clearing away the scarlet cast to his eyes as he focused on Thor. He was pallid again, not Jotunn-blue.

"What ails him?" Sif asked, gone pale herself. She had followed them to the shelter of the pillar's shadow, one hand outstretched as if to offer Loki her own support.

Loki's eyes flicked to her. "Nothing," he wheezed unconvincingly, leaning against the pillar. "I am unharmed."

Sif lowered her hand, her face still drawn and anxious. "You look as if you were to face a dragon unarmed and unaided."

"And would I be less a coward in your eyes, fearing a mere reptile?" Loki sneered, but Sif only frowned at him, not answering that venom. Loki turned to Thor, said, "I should return to the cell; it's ill manners to leave our mother stranded down in the dungeon—"

His sardonic tone was a poor cover for how his shoulder under Thor's hand was trembling. But even a dragon could not terrify Loki, not as much as—"Thanos?" Thor realized, looking past the pillar back at the Tesseract.

The cube's glow had lessened, fading from blinding to only bright. What was it that Loki had said, that the titan was trying yet to reach through it—as he reached for Loki when he dreamed, and it was only the wards on his cell that kept Thanos from exerting more force than those nightmare visions. "Does Thanos reach for you?" Thor demanded. "Why did you come to the throne room, with that danger?!"

"It's hardly more dangerous than elsewhere in the palace," Loki said. "The Tesseract's power extends far beyond its visible light."

"But the dungeon's wards protect you," Thor said, clasping Loki's arm tighter. "Take us to your cell, now!"

"Those same wards bar any transportation spell."

"Then turn yourself invisible, and I can take you there unseen—"

Loki gritted his teeth. "I...cannot. I haven't the strength to shield my mind and hold an illusion spell at once—I was hoping I would go unnoticed long enough..."

Thor stared at his brother in dismay. "But if you're seen escaped from your cell, you'll be punished, whatever your purpose for defying the All-Father was—"

"There's another way," Sif said. "More than magic can conceal—here," and she unfastened her white cloak, folded it around Loki's shoulders and drew the hood over his head. "If you hunch to make yourself shorter the dungeon guards may not realize, if you pass quickly. I'll distract the Einherjar guarding the throne room, so you can exit unnoticed."

"Sif, thank you," Thor said, smiling at her.

Sif did not return his cheer, instead said only, "Bring him to safety."

"Mine, or the city's?" Loki asked ironically. Sif neither answered that, but turned on her heel and strode from the hall.

 


 

Sif's unexpected presence in the palace diverted the throne room guards such that Thor and Loki easily passed by them. The dungeon guards were equally surprised to see Thor and the white-hooded figure with him, but seeing the urgency in Thor's face they asked no questions, and at Thor's command did not follow them to the lowest passageway.

Thor led Loki down the steps into his cell. Upon entering he got a confusing glimpse below of his brother's face, doubled and gazing up at him with an open, gentle concern most unusual on Loki's sharp features--and then that face became his mother's, as the illusion was dispelled. Frigga hurried forward as they reached the cell floor, to give Thor a welcoming hug and then clasp Loki's hands in hers.

"You're well, Mother?" Thor asked. "Loki claimed you were here willingly—"

"I was," Frigga said, "as it was the only way he could be free to bring you back—though at no small risk," and she peered up into Loki's face. "Loki, are you well?"

"Well enough; it was not that great a risk," Loki said, belied by how tightly his hands closed over his Frigga's. But he shrugged off Thor's steadying hand. "No greater danger than what all of Asgard faces now; and I'm its cause. Did you tell Sif so, that Thanos wouldn't be coming here now if not for my machinations before?"

"And if I hadn't brought the cube back to Asgard, then he wouldn't be able to find it here," Thor returned.

"And if Odin had never claimed the cube as his treasure, then none of this might have happened at all," Frigga said with some asperity. "Recriminations can wait until after the threat to the realm has been dealt with. Thor, with your return, you are Asgard's ruler in Odin's stead."

"May you fare better at it than me," Loki murmured, his eyes glinting.

Thor ignored him. "It will take more than a single ruler to defend us," he said. "Mother, is it too late to summon the Einherjar captain and the guildmasters? I need a clearer idea of what defense we can mount."

Frigga looked out the dark window, said, "Perhaps too late, but not too early; I can convene them three hours' hence."

Thor wondered how they would take his command, rather than his father's. Odin would neither be able to lead nor address them now. "The war council cannot meet in the throne room," Thor said, thinking of Odin standing frozen over the Tesseract. "Father's state would not be reassuring..."

"Hold it in the feast hall," Loki suggested. "Position yourself at the table's head, and you'll have authority without seizing the king's place."

"And bad news is better taken with good food," Frigga agreed.

"In the meanwhile, three hours gives me time to confer with Heimdall," Thor said, looking at Loki as he said it.

Loki did not look surprised or frustrated, however, but only nodded. "Prudent; you can hear how the stand-off with the Chitauri proceeds, as well as confirm the happenings here."

"Should I be concerned, that you think a choice of mine something more than foolish?" Thor asked, only half in jest. "Or was that sarcasm too advanced for my ears?"

Loki did not smile back, but returned his gaze steadily. "I was not lying, what I told you before you left," he said, and his calmness made Thor uneasy. But no, Loki had yet to reach the end of his scheming now; there was more in his eyes than what he said to Thor.

Thor asked Frigga to gather the council. Before leaving the cell she embraced Loki, who returned it, eyes closed and breath held, like a man appreciating a meal when he had not thought he would eat again.

Thor waited until her footsteps through the tunnel had faded before he asked, "Brother, what are you planning?"

Loki snorted. "Escaping my cell to bring you here was not conspiracy enough?"

"If Thanos comes as you say, then this is no time for games—"

"If he comes...so you don't entirely believe me." Loki cocked his head, eying Thor with an odd, puzzled look. "Yet you came anyway."

"If you'd laid a trap for me, I trusted that Sif's and my own strength could break out of it," Thor said. "That Thanos is coming for the Tesseract is fact, not belief; and I trust Asgard's warriors are strong enough to fight the Chitauri without me."

"So," Loki said, "if you can put your trust in everyone else, you need not trust me, but still can do as I ask."

"Yes," Thor said, and did not understand why that made Loki laugh out loud, shaking his head as if to deny his mirth. Thor frowned at him, said, "I wouldn't do what you ask if I didn't know that sometimes it is truth. That sometimes I can trust you, even if not always."

That stopped Loki's laughter. He looked away, said, "Go, speak to Heimdall—you've many questions and little time."

Thor nodded. As he started up the steps, Loki below him quietly remarked, "You realize that only makes it harder for you—how much easier would it be, if you could always merely disbelieve me?"

"Not so," Thor replied, "it would be much more difficult to have no hope."

 


 

Sif was waiting for him when he exited the lift. When Thor told her of his intent to speak with Heimdall, she nodded without speaking, turned on her heel and marched with him toward the Bifrost where Asgard's sentry watched.

Her strides were so quick that she soon drew ahead. Thor lengthened his own to catch up with her at the palace gates, stopping her with a hand on her shoulder, but she would not turn to face him. "Are you angry with me, Sif?" Thor asked, studying her profile in the moonlight, her clenched jaw. "Whatever I did, I am sorry—"

"—Why did you ask Loki to cooperate, but not me?" Sif demanded. "You bade him reach out, but didn't demand the same of me—did you think he would make the first effort for Asgard, but I would not?"

"Nay," Thor said in astonishment. "I never thought I needed to ask you—I trust you, as I cannot trust my brother."

"...Oh," Sif said.

They started down the road again. After a moment Sif said, "I owe you an apology, Thor."

"What for?"

"I thought you were too credulous, believing what Loki told you; I had not thought that of course Heimdall could confirm it."

Only if Loki had let him see everything, Thor thought; but aloud he said, smiling jovially, "Did you think I'd forgotten all the lessons of our youth? I haven't blindly followed Loki's instruction since at least that time with Thrym!"

Sif did not smile at that memory, however hard she had laughed at the time. "Not his instruction, maybe; but his advice..."

"He advised me against going to Jotunheim," Thor pointed out. "We'd all have fared better had I done as he said then. Even if his intent was that I would not do so."

Sif frowned. "Do you think that's the case now—that Loki intended you not to do as he said, and so you throw him off-guard by listening to him?"

Thor shook his head, his smile growing rueful. "I don't try to outthink my brother; that's not a battle I've the gifts to win. But whatever his intent, I don't believe he acts for Thanos or against Asgard now."

"You're sure of this?" Sif sounded almost hopeful; it pained Thor that he had to shake his head, admit, "Not sure. But there is too much at stake now not to listen to him..."

"And he will use that to his advantage, as ever Loki does," Sif said, though her tone was less bitter than resigned. "Though...he is different now, isn't he. He no longer feigns innocence, or pretends his malice is unintended..."

"It often was," Thor said, though was compelled to admit, "Before," as Loki's spite now was entirely intentional.

Sif sighed. "Before, sometimes—though maybe not as often as you would like to believe. Either way I don't know if it's better now, that he's more honestly a wicked liar..."

"It's not only wickedness. Truth is...difficult, for Loki."

"Would it be so difficult, if he were not so wicked?"

"I don't know," Thor said. "Are there no truths that you find difficult to speak aloud, Sif?"

Sif opened her mouth, then closed it abruptly, saying nothing

"And not all lies are cruel or wicked," Thor said. "Before we left for the point, Loki told me that he thought I would make a good king. It was a way to see me off, I think—a kind farewell, if we wouldn't speak again. Because he didn't believe I can defeat Thanos, or else..."

"Thor," Sif told him, "whatever lies Loki tells—that was true. I will be proud to call you king, when you take the throne."

"As will I," a deeper voice cut in, before Thor could reply. Heimdall stood at solid rest at the base of the Bifrost, his eyes gleaming gold in the moonlight as he looked over the bridge into the starry night; but his voice carried to them surely.

"Good Heimdall," Thor said as he and Sif approached, "we've come to consult with you—"

"Yes," Heimdall said, without elucidating.

Thor cleared his throat and drew himself up. Someday it would stop disconcerting him that he had grown tall enough to look Heimdall in the eye, but probably not for another few centuries. "So you know the matters we would ask you of?"

Heimdall nodded his helmeted head, still gazing with his far-seeing eyes to the realm's border. "The Chitauri have not yet made another foray," he reported. "Asgard's warriors hold their place. Tyr and the generals plan an attack come daybreak; it should go well. Their strategy is apt, and our forces outnumber the Chitauri remaining there, but for the behemoths."

"What about those coming here?" Thor asked. "The Chitauri hiveship, and Thanos—have you seen any more of them?"

Heimdall did not frown more than he ever did, but his jaw was set. "I have not," he said. "The Mad Titan cloaks his ship from me. From the glimpse I got when they crossed over, and the All-Father's scrying, he brings with him only a fraction of his army, employing the rest as distraction at the Point. Perhaps half of what you fought on Midgard. The hiveship moves at a speed to arrive here in two days' time."

"And Thanos is with them," Thor said.

"Yes," Heimdall said. Though they'd defeated the Chitauri force on Earth, it had not been an easy battle, and they hadn't faced a hiveship. Thor would deal with Thanos, but the golden city was poorly protected against the rest, even with Sif and Heimdall and the remaining Einherjar.

"Heimdall," Thor asked, "what happened here in the palace, while we were battling on the Point? The All-Father, the Tesseract, my brother..."

He braced himself, but still was not ready when Heimdall said, "All happened as Loki told you."

"You're sure you were not fooled?" Sif asked, then when Heimdall's golden gaze fell upon her, hastily amended, "That is, he's always been good with illusions..."

"The magic that fools most eyes shows clear to mine," Heimdall said, not boasting but stating flat fact. "Loki can veil himself from my sight, but not change what I see."

Thor wondered what Heimdall saw when he looked at Loki—was the frost giant apparent to his absolute vision? Even if Loki's shape-change was real all through his being, Heimdall would have seen when Odin had first taken him from Jotunheim; he must have always known what Loki was. Though Thor could not recall Heimdall ever looking at Loki any differently than he looked at any of them, piercing yet unreadably, unreachably far-sighted.

"Heimdall," Thor asked, "what did Loki not tell us?"

Heimdall's gaze turned back to Thor, the crushing pressure of the noon sun in a desert. "How Thanos can be defeated."

"I know how Thanos will be defeated," Thor said. "You've heard my oath."

"Yes," Heimdall said, "but the trickster knows another way. Shortly before the Chitauri army entered the realm, Odin went to the dungeon, and there Loki told the king that he feared Thanos's scheming. It was too late for Odin to send warning to you; but Loki suggested a way to stop the titan before he could take the Tesseract."

"Loki has a plan?" Sif demanded. "A way to bring down Thanos, without risk to Thor?"

"Do even you doubt me, Sif?" Thor said, aggrieved after the belief she had just professed to have in him. "With your faith or without, I'll take vengeance on Thanos, for his attacks on my allies and my kin!"

"I know," Sif said, glaring at him, though the clear-eyed brightness of her anger seemed to screen some other, deeper feeling. "I would never doubt your will, Thor, or your strength. But the Mad Titan is strong enough to challenge Odin-King, and I fear the cost you'd pay to defeat him. If Loki knows another way..."

"If Loki knows another way, why didn't he tell it to us?" Thor said. "Why has he not tried it already, why does Thanos still threaten the Tesseract?"

"Because the All-Father did not allow Loki to act," Heimdall said. "So when Thanos entered the realm, Odin had no choice but to dedicate himself to shielding the Tesseract from him."

"So he did not trust Loki?" Sif asked.

"I cannot speak for the All-Father," Heimdall said. "Loki's plan is devious and dangerous, and not as honorable a victory as I would wish for Asgard; that may be why Odin-King refused it. Or it may be that he wanted to personally triumph over Thanos. But as he is now, he cannot. And my eyes have seen the horrors that Thanos brings, the worlds he has ruined. I would see the Mad Titan stopped by any means, before I watched him fall on this realm."

"So what is Loki's plan?" Thor demanded.

 


 

Loki seemed surprised to see Thor returned to his cell, paced around him impatiently. "The sun's already up—should you not be with the guildmasters now, whipping the crafters into a warrior's berserker frenzy?"

"Fear may prove a sufficient lash for that," Thor said grimly. Even if the crafters were armed and enraged, they would stand little enough chance against the danger bearing down on them. But Asgard needed whatever protection could be mustered—whatever protection it could afford, at least—"But do you care anyway how the city will fare, if its peril gives you the chance to take up the Infinity Gauntlet again?"

Loki stopped midstep to stare at him intently. "So Heimdall told you."

"He did," Thor said. "And I wished I could disbelieve him." He wished that he could have laughed, as Sif had, incredulously, thinking it one of Loki's most ill-timed pranks. Heimdall had not smiled, however, and Thor knew that Loki wouldn't have dared goad their father by requesting the gauntlet in jest. But that he had asked for it in seriousness made it worse. "Why, brother? I thought you'd finally abandoned that terrible wish—you stood before the Tesseract in the throne room and didn't reach for it; I thought—"

"It's the Infinity Gauntlet I ask for, not the cube—did not Heimdall tell you my true intent in taking up?"

"He said you wished to fight Thanos with the gauntlet's power! As you asked before—"

"Not fight him with it! No, I mean to bring the gauntlet to him. Fetch it for him, as a good cur should," and Loki smiled, vicious as a mad dog, lips drawn back from sharp teeth. "As he would expect of me—come crawling to him begging for mercy, with the gauntlet as a bribe. Then, when he takes it," Loki stretched out his own hand in example, extended toward the empty space, "I destroy the damned thing, and Thanos with it!" and he snapped his fingers closed.

"You mean to destroy it?" Thor said.

"I do." Loki looked past his closed fist to Thor, lips drawn back in a grin like a snarl. "Even wielding the gauntlet I wouldn't be equal to Thanos in combat, not without years to master its power; and we have scarcely days. But that power may be employed yet. When the Infinity Gem is destroyed, the energies released will rip asunder the very fabric of the universe, even as it was rent by the Bifrost's shattering. If Thanos isn't torn apart by those forces, he'll be pulled into the void beyond, far deeper than I fell, never to trouble us again."

"If all that's required is the gauntlet's destruction, then Mjolnir will be equal to that task," Thor said. "I could bring it—"

"Impossible," Loki said. "Even if you managed to destroy the gem, you don't possess the power to shield yourself from that destruction; you would be ripped apart along with your foe. Besides, Thanos would never believe you would give the gauntlet to him; he is too cautious. He would never get so close as to be vulnerable. No, I must be the one to bring it to him."

"But to do so you'll need to take up the gauntlet," Thor said. "And the last time you did..." He remembered Loki's eyes in the Infinity Gem's light, gray and drained of all color, all will, all life but for the Tesseract's power. That terrible gift he'd forced on Thor, but Loki had wanted it, craved it, been desperate for it. Still desperate for it, perhaps...how many times had Loki begged for this boon in his madness?

But Loki shook his head, and his eyes meeting Thor's were green, vivid with Loki's wits and will. "Not this time, Thor. However I yet want it—as Heimdall should have told you, the Tesseract is quite beyond my reach now; with the All-Father shielding the cube, the Infinity Gem cannot draw on or manipulate its energies. And if I attempted to steal the gauntlet for its own power, Odin could use the Tesseract to find me, wherever I would flee with it."

"Or else Thanos," Thor said slowly, "if he defeats Asgard and takes the Tesseract."

Loki's sallow complexion became a shade paler, but he nodded, said with careful evenness, "Yes, with the cube Thanos could find the gauntlet, and claim me once more. So it wouldn't serve me either way to take it for myself."

"If that is so, then why did Father refuse this plan?"

"I cannot fathom!" A frown drew up Loki's brow. "Perhaps the All-Father's pride trumped his wisdom, or he was unwilling to sacrifice the gauntlet. Or else he didn't think me worthy of the honor of saving Asgard," and the pain in Loki's eyes vanished too quickly for Thor to be sure he saw it at all. "Or maybe he feared I'm still secretly Thanos's dog, and this all a scheme to bring him the gauntlet..."

"No." Thor shook his head. "Not that."

"You're so certain of me?" Loki asked, too lightly to be anything but absolutely serious.

"Did you think I wouldn't be? Is that why you said nothing of this plan when we first arrived?"

"I intended to," but Loki looked down, looked along the floor to the window. "Only when I called you back here—I said I would not ask you to trust me again. I did not want to break that promise so quickly."

"I don't need to trust you to know you don't do this for Thanos," Thor said. "You are no one's dog—not Thanos's, not the Chitauri's, not the cursed Tesseract's. I don't know exactly what they did to you, but I know how much you hate them, and what vengeance they deserve."

Loki's gaze snapped back up to Thor's. "So you agree to my plan? You'll give me the gauntlet to take down Thanos?"

"I must think upon it," Thor said. "Asgard's peril is grave, but so too are the perils of acting in unconsidered haste, I've come to learn. And my mind is slower than yours to realize all aspects of a problem."

"On my honor, whatever tattered scraps I have left, I've told you everything important," Loki said.

Thor regarded him steadily. "So what unimportant thing have you not told me?" he asked, and was not surprised by his brother's half-chuckle.

"There are a few details," Loki allowed, "how I am to find Thanos, and the power of an Infinity Gem, whether or not it draws upon the Tesseract; and even I cannot lie well enough to say I no longer desire such power," and for a moment his face tightened with that wrong mad hunger; but Loki swallowed and overcame it, opened his clenched fists and went on, "But I would rather that power be used against Thanos than taken by him, and Asgard with it. If you agree, then bring me the gauntlet now and let me do this; or else put your efforts to the city's defense. But either way decide quickly, before Thanos is upon us, and all plans are moot..."

Chapter Text

The guildmasters pledged all their remaining members to the militia, and of course the aged masters and young apprentices alike would readily take up arms to protect their homes and families. But that force would be more inspirational than effective, when the most able-bodied fighters had already been sent with the fleet. Courage alone could not fend off the Chitauri.

Thor found it difficult, too, to impress upon the citizens the true danger they faced. Even Thanos's coming did not overly frighten them; Odin had defeated the Mad Titan before, and they were sure the All-Father and his heir could do so again. "You conquered these wretches on Midgard with naught but the aid of a few mortals, did you not, my lord Thor?" Volund the blacksmith said. "This will be but an afternoon's diversion for such a warrior as yourself!"

Which faith Thor found flattering to an extent; but as he watched the aged masters, arguing among themselves about which guild had the most journeymen to offer, he could not help but imagine them bloody and broken, fallen in battle—or worse taken by Thanos for his own ends, screaming as Loki screamed. He thought of Asgard in flames, as the Midgard city had burned, and felt afraid, as he never felt for his own life on the battlefield.

When their fast was satisfactorily broken and the meeting concluded, the guildmasters left to convoke their people, while Thor headed down to the royal treasury.

The vault guards silently allowed him to enter, though they would prevent even a prince from taking a treasure from the vault without the king's permission. Not unless Thor held Gungnir, and then they would obey any command as if it were the All-Father's.

The gem set in the Infinity Gauntlet glowed faintly blue, a dim reflection of the Tesseract shining in the hall far above. Thor could not bring himself to look directly at it, even as he stood before it. He remembered too well how the crystal had shone when Loki had put it to his chest, the blue power surging through him, filling him with its certain invincibility. On the battlefield holding Mjolnir, ready to face Thanos, he had been sure of his righteousness; but the Tesseract's senseless confidence was something wholly different.

Even if Loki truly meant to destroy the gauntlet, would that resolution hold if he took it up again, if that azure glow washed out his green eyes to gray, feeding the madness still smoldering under his labored calm? Or was Loki's will and hatred strong enough to bear that test, strong enough to destroy his enemy? If it was not, if his plan failed...

"I see no reason why it should not succeed," said a low bass voice. Thor spun round to see Heimdall enter the treasury, moving more quietly than his armor should allow, as if to avoid deafening his own too-keen ears.

Thor watched Asgard's watchman, trying to read the burnished gold eyes behind his helmet. Heimdall was far from his post, and rarely left it unless commanded. But he was not unwelcome; Thor had few others with which to discuss a ruler's decision, and Odin always valued Heimdall's counsel. "So you think I should let Loki take up the gauntlet? Take it to Thanos?"

"It is not without risk," Heimdall stated. "But Thanos would not anticipate such an attack. Not from Loki."

"If Loki actually does attack him..." Thor's gaze returned to the gem's blue glimmer. "Heimdall, I do not know if I cannot trust my brother in this. Even if he's truly willing now...it changes him, to hold the gauntlet, to wield that power, limited or not. And he admitted that he wants it still, did you hear him say so?"

"I did," Heimdall said.

"But you would yet have me entrust the gauntlet to Loki."

"Thor," Heimdall said, and Thor looked again to him, startled. Heimdall of course knew every name that anyone had ever been called, but rarely addressed anyone by them. "You are Odinson, the All-Father's heir, and rule now in his stead. You will act as you deem right, even as the All-Father does. I would not have you do anything but what you decide to do."

"But you'd advise me to do this," Thor said. "Even though my father refused the plan, and Sif who knows Loki better than most is against it. I'm surprised; I hadn't thought you had such faith in my brother."

"I do not trust Loki," Heimdall said plainly, "nor do I love him. But he is a powerful sorcerer, the only one I know of in Asgard save the All-Father himself with the magic to break an Infinity Gem."

"And you believe he will break it," Thor said. "To defeat Thanos."

"I think he will to save Asgard."

That Thor had not expected to hear. Before he could question it, Heimdall continued, measured, "I watched Loki when he was king, except when he cloaked himself from me. And though I mistrusted his motives and deplored most of his actions, all that I saw him do, he did either out of personal vendettas, or for Asgard's sake. That he dedicated the crown's authority to such vendettas made him unsuitable to rule; but he also sought to protect Asgard from her enemies. For all his treasons, he was not a traitor to this realm then, and I do not think he will be a traitor now."

"Even if he no longer considers himself of this realm?" Thor asked.

"Regardless of whether Loki claims to be Asgardian now, he calls himself your brother," Heimdall said. "He calls the queen his mother."

"He could be lying."

"He could be. I only can hear the words he speaks; I cannot vouch for their truth. But that he lies does not render those words meaningless."

"You heard my brother and I talking," Thor said. "Was there anything that Loki kept from me?"

"Yes," Heimdall said.

Thor waited, at last asked, "What secrets, then?"

"They are not mine to tell," Heimdall said. "Loki wishes to keep them, and I do not relay gossip. They would not affect the plan's success; nor do they endanger Asgard."

"If I ordered you to tell me what you know, would you?"

"Yes," Heimdall said.

Thor hesitated but did not so order him. His brother would always have secrets; he would not be Loki if he did not. And Thor had never thought to know them all, having not room enough in his head.

When Thor turned back to the gauntlet, Heimdall did not speak again, but departed from the treasury on nearly silent footsteps, leaving Thor to his contemplation.

Loki wanted this fight, and had more right to it than Thor, as Asgard's prince and as Thanos's quarry. For Asgard, and for his own vendettas, Heimdall had said; and defeating Thanos would be in service of both. And the gem's power might be strong, but so to was Loki. Stronger than Thanos, who had sought to share his lunacy, make Loki a pawn in his own mad image, but he had failed. Loki had made himself instead—into something terrible; but now he was changing again, just as he shifted his skin from Aesir flesh to Jotunn frost and back. Once more becoming Thor's brother, once more Asgard's prince, striving to save their realm.

Or so Thor might hope; but how foolish was he to do so? Or was it wise to grasp for what hope there was, when all else was dire?

At last Thor went to the throne room, still flooded in the Tesseract's brilliant light. The All-Father remained hunched over the cube, as if he had not moved a muscle in the last half a day. Frigga stood beside her husband, patting the sweat off his brow with an embroidered cloth. "Thor," she greeted him, "you look relieved; have you a strategy for our defense?"

"I have," Thor said. "I've come for Gungnir." He went around to his father's other side where the spear stood, then hesitated.

Frigga nodded in silent permission, and Thor inhaled and grasped Gungnir's haft. The metal, shining blue in the cube's light, was cool under his hand. It was narrower than Mjolnir's solid handle, but he could feel the flow of magic within it, more controlled a current than his hammer's wild lightning.

"What will you command, my king?" his mother asked. "Do you fly out to fight Thanos, or prepare the defense here?"

"Neither," Thor said. Were she Sif he would have hesitated to explain, but Frigga knew Loki as he did, knew his strength and as well what Thanos had done to earn Loki's hate. Odin's gaze was yet fixed on the Tesseract but he might also be listening—but this was Thor's decision to make, whatever the All-Father had chosen. "I'm going to give the Infinity Gauntlet to Loki, so he can bring it to Thanos, and destroy it and the Mad Titan with it. With Thanos gone, the Chitauri ship won't be hidden from Heimdall's sight, and Mjolnir will make short work—"

He stopped, because his mother was staring at him—not in confusion but shock, which turned to a wrath that paled her face, made her eyes burn brighter even than the Tesseract. She slapped Thor hard across the cheek; he was so shocked himself that he did not think to duck or even react to the stinging blow, only stammered, "M-mother? What—"

"How could you?" Frigga demanded. The water brightening her eyes trembled in her voice. Behind her Odin's Tesseract-blue eye blazed in his pale face; he did not move or lift his gaze from the cube, but Thor somehow felt the pressure of his stare, as his wife choked out, "How could you contemplate such an idea, when your own father would not, not even for Asgard's sake? How can you so calmly accept your brother's sacrifice—and smile when speaking of it—"

"Sacrifice?" Thor repeated. "What sacrifice? The gauntlet isn't Loki's to give up, and far better to destroy it than risk it falling into Thanos's hands—"

"Not the gauntlet!" Frigga cried. "Damn the gauntlet to Hel, damn this cube with it—as your brother will be damned—"

Thor caught his mother's wrists before her wild gesturing knocked the Tesseract off its pedestal. "What do you mean, as he'll be damned? His magic will protect him—"

Frigga looked up at him, and what she saw in his face calmed her. "When Loki destroys the gauntlet," she said, quietly, though her voice was still unsteady, "and unleashes the potential of its Infinity Gem—did you not understand, Thor? Thanos is a terrible power; the power required to defeat him is far too great for any spell to shield against. Loki will be destroyed, even as the gauntlet and Thanos are, ripped apart by forces to tear reality itself asunder..."

 


 

"Did you know?" Thor demanded. "Do you intend this end? Or do you have some other plan?"

"What do you mean?" Loki said, frowning, and had his eyes had been slightly less wide or his voice a fraction less perplexed Thor might have believed him.

He grabbed Loki by the tunic's collar, hauled him up to stare his brother in the too-innocent eyes. "You knew—you know what it means to destroy the gauntlet!"

"Of course there's a risk," Loki snapped, shoving at Thor. Thor held on, not relenting, and Loki stilled, said, "There's danger going into any battle, especially against so powerful a foe; you know that as well as any warrior—"

"This is not merely dangerous!" Thor roared. "This is death—destruction you'll bring upon yourself, with no way to escape it! You said I could not go, because I have not the power to protect myself—but neither have you—!" Only Loki was more clever than that, always more clever—"Or do you have a way? Have you figured out how to evade that annihilation?"

Loki smiled his sharp secretive smirk, head tipped back with arrogant assurance. "What do you think, Thor—that I would go willingly to my end for precious Asgard's sake, when I might as soon escape this cursed prison, and claim power besides?"

And Thor wanted to believe him, so badly wanted to think they had all been tricked, his mother and father, and Heimdall as well with those secrets he would not tell. That this was all more of Loki's scheming, a new plan to win his freedom—except that he saw it in the instant before Loki conjured that smirk, saw the calm in his brother's eyes, utter and accepting of the one course he would follow to its end. To his own end.

Thor's hands were cold as they clutched Loki's tunic, as if his skin were the frost giant's. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I think you would go willingly, even with no escape, if you decided to."

Loki's smirk dropped away. He twisted out of Thor's grasp, slashing his arms down to cast his hands aside. "And why should I not decide to? Even a prisoner should be free to make the one choice left to any living thing, to live on or to die."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Thor demanded. "You would have let me bring you the gauntlet—let me send you to your death, unknowing—!"

"What matter if you knew?" Loki said. "It changes nothing, save now I must endure you fretting and weeping before you relent."

"I'll do neither," Thor said, "because I won't bring you the gauntlet."

"But you must," and Loki smiled again, tightly and once more surely calm. "Thanos comes in less than two days, and Asgard has no defense to speak of. And if the Mad Titan breaches the palace and claims the Tesseract, then it won't only be this realm that falls. As Asgard's ruler, as steward of the Nine Worlds, you have no choice—"

"But I do," Thor said. "I'll stop Thanos before he can lay a hand on the Tesseract, as I've intended all along."

"You will not," and Loki's eyes flashed, gleaming with rage or else with magic. Now he was the one to grab Thor, swinging him around against the wall with his sharp elbow thrust under Thor's throat, to leverage him with his lesser mass. With Thor so pinned he snarled, "You are king now, in duty if not in name—do you mean to leave your kingdom helpless and unguided, when Thanos cuts you down?"

"I mean to cut Thanos down, and save all the realms!" Thor thundered.

"Only you cannot!" Loki shouted back, pressing in his arm to cut Thor's voice and breath short. "For once, look past your pride. You are the mighty Thor, one of the greatest warriors in all the realm, and I know better than almost anyone your strength—have I not fought beside you and against you both, for centuries? If ever you valued my advice on the practice grounds, then listen to me now when I tell you that Thanos is more powerful than you. Even if you're enraged to fighting fury, even with your righteousness and courage and determination to protect all the realms—it will not be enough to defeat him. You may manage to stop him, but only at the cost of your life——"

"Then I'll die to defeat him," Thor choked out around the pressure on his throat, "gladly and honorably, to save the realm—"

"Then let me have that honor," Loki said, trembling, but his voice cracked like a whip. He released Thor and fell back, shoulders heaving with gasping breaths and his eyes green fire in his white face. "Let me do this, Thor—let me end this threat that I myself brought to Asgard; let me take my vengeance on the one who already destroyed me."

Thor stared at him. This was not suicide but sacrifice—not Loki letting go of Gungnir and surrendering to the void, but instead willingly offering his life for Asgard's protection. And Loki's life was his own to offer, and this was his battle, his vendetta and his right, after all Thanos had done to him...and yet...

"Would you deny me this victory?" Loki asked, and his words fell quiet now, weighted with grief. "Do you have so little respect for me, so little love, that you cannot allow me this much?"

"Would it be love to let you be broken with Thanos, when you've not had the chance to heal yourself, nor any of the wounds you inflicted?" Thor took Loki's shoulders, gentling his grip when Loki did not try to pull away. "To right one wrong, and no more—would you leave such a debt on us? You owe our mother and father more—and me—"

"More than I can ever give," Loki said, hardly even a whisper. His black hair shaded his face from Thor. "What is this but the only healing I'm able to offer? What could I do for Asgard besides this? A good king must look to the realm, over his own heart. If Volstagg was injured but chose to fight for Asgard at risk to his own life, would you disallow him that glory? Or Fandral, or Hogun—or Sif?"

"I would allow it," Thor said. "I would let them go knowing that however hurt they were, they would fight with all their strength and hearts to live, to return to my side; and knowing that if they fell, I would someday meet them again in the halls of Valhalla."

"But you have not that faith in me," Loki said.

"I have faith that if you were so determined, you could find a better way," Thor said, giving his brother a gentle shake. "A more clever way, a ploy to trick us all, Thanos and Asgard and the fates themselves. But you are hurt now and suffering—not destroyed, but damaged, that you cannot see past your vendetta and your pain, that you believe vanquishing Thanos is worth any price."

A low rattle sounded hoarsely in Loki's throat, only recognizable as a laugh because it was too dry to be a sob. "Is that what you believe?" Loki asked. "That it's only for vengeance?"

"Vengeance," Thor said, "and surcease from your pain."

"That," Loki said, his head still down, turned away from Thor, "—and yet not that at all. You see past all my lies, tear them open one by one, but this you cannot see... It would be so honorable for you to fight Thanos to your death, knowing that you put all your strength into winning. You would fall all the same—but you would bring down the Mad Titan with your dying blow, and so with your last breath you would save Asgard. And after you would be feted as one of the mightiest heroes of the Nine Realms, celebrated in ballad and legend for millennia; you would be welcomed in Valhalla, to be toasted until the roosters crow for Ragnarok.

"But I will never go to Valhalla," Loki went on, his voice so relentlessly even that it allowed neither interruption nor denial. "I will never be given a place at the table of the chosen dead. I would linger here, traitor and prisoner, and everyone would happily overlook that ever I was called brother by their golden martyr, their fallen hero. I would disclaim it myself, because it would be too painful to recall. Instead I would lie: that always I had hated you, that I had plotted your death, that from the first I had never been anything but your enemy. Until eventually, over the centuries, those lies would become the only thing anyone knew, and even I would forget the truth, that we were ever brothers.

"That is how it would happen, Thor—and that I cannot abide, I cannot, I will not, whatever price I have to pay. Whether you think me honest or a liar; whether I am lying now, to you or to myself—this is as it is, how I knew it was, from the moment you told me that you would fight Thanos."

"From that moment..." Thor thought he should have known this already. Loki's kindness the night before Thor left for the Point, his peace as he said farewell—Thor should have realized it, but he had not, not until this moment. His fingers dug into Loki's biceps, a bruising grip but Thor could not release him, could not let go his anger, so that his voice came out a growl, "You knew what ruse Thanos planned . You saw it in your last dreaming, didn't you; you knew he would steal past the fleet, ignoring my challenge, and come to threaten Asgard—"

"I did," Loki said, not haughty or heated but softly, and that gentleness in the face of Thor's fury might have been apology. "I thought that when Father realized the risk, realized there was no other choice—I believed he would allow me to do this much, for Asgard's sake. But he refused; he would not give me such a chance at restitution—"

"He could not so sacrifice you," Thor said, his hands heavy on Loki's arms, as if to weight him down should he try to fly away. "Not his son, not even for the realm. And you are my brother—did you think I willingly would, when he would not?"

"...No," Loki said, sighing. "But I thought you could be tricked into it—more likely that, than I could convince Mother to bring me the gauntlet. Besides, if you were here, I could better prevent you from flinging yourself into Thanos's path. You should have understood that much, Thor—if you would not allow your brother to make such a sacrifice for this realm, how could you believe that I would allow my brother to, if I had any way to stop it? And I will always find a way, you know this of me."

"If you are determined," Thor said.

Loki coughed another rattling laugh. "I am," he said.

Still gripping Loki's arms, Thor let his head fall forward, until his forehead met the crown of Loki's lowered head, making of them an archway, a bridge joining him and his brother. "So what do we do?" he asked into the space between them. "If I will not allow you to face Thanos, and you will not allow me; but he comes all the same..."

"Steal away to Midgard in the night?" Loki suggested, his light tone a poor cover for great weariness. "Let Thanos have the cursed cube, and the realms fend for themselves."

"I cannot abandon Asgard, or the other realms," Thor said. "And neither could you, not so easily."

"Do not think me better than I am, brother," Loki sighed, leaning against him. "It would be all too easy, and safe enough. Earth proved itself too puissant a threat for Thanos to risk another incursion so soon, and a simple cantrip would disguise my criminal self from accusing mortal eyes. With Gungnir you could open the Bifrost for us—"

"The Bifrost?" Thor repeated. "The Bifrost can be opened?"

"Only to Midgard," Loki said, pulling up his head to give Thor a chiding frown. "The rainbow bridge's original span is regrown, as calculated; the crafters now labor on the observatory so it can be directed to the other realms."

"But we can travel to and from Earth?" Thor asked, smiling with sudden hope.

"Only within narrow limits," Loki said. "The bridge is still too fragile to evacuate the city; it would likely shatter again, if so many tried to cross it. And even if we sent the Tesseract back to Midgard, Thanos would still attack the palace in order to take the bridge and follow the cube—"

"We won't need to send the Tesseract anywhere," Thor said. "The city's thousands may be too many to leave by the Bifrost, but is the bridge sturdy enough to bring six back here?"

Loki stared at him. "You're not saying—"

Thor grinned, clapping Loki's shoulders in triumph. "We—that is, Asgard—has allies, brother! I helped them save their world; they would gladly do the same for us, if I asked, and there's more than a day until Thanos arrives."

"You would call upon those mortals—"

"Those mortals who fought the Chitauri and won; and fought you, too!"

Loki raised his hand to his forehead—the bruise there had long since faded, but the memory less so, by how Loki's eyes narrowed. His lips twisted as he said, only a bit grudgingly, "The creature was indeed strong."

"Not 'the creature', if we wish his help—but yes, even stronger than me, I believe," Thor said. The admittance was easy under these circumstances, and with Loki, who had lost to Bruce Banner's other self. "Stronger than Thanos, do you think?"

Loki's frown deepened. "Perhaps..."

"Then he and I together will for certain be strong enough," Thor declared, throwing his fist up in the air and steadfastly ignoring Loki's most doubtful look. "It is decided—I go forthwith to bring the Avengers to Asgard!"

Chapter Text

Thor arrived as twilight was setting over the park, the sun already vanished behind the angular cliffs of the city's glass and steel towers.

He had been warned that the journey through the hitherto untested restored Bifrost might be rough, but it was mild compared to his previous journey, when he and Loki had been brought by the Tesseract back to Asgard. The Bifrost's jarring step across the universe was familiar, at least.

As the rushing song of the Bifrost faded from his ears, Thor heard murmurs and mutters, looked around to see a gathering crowd of humans. Some braver souls were sidling up to the edge of the mooring circle the rainbow bridge had imprinted on the false stone ground. Others stood frozen in place, unsure whether to watch or flee; and all were staring at him.

Thor hoped the Bifrost's landing had not caused undue distress. Without the observatory, control over the bridge was limited, and it had been most expedient to direct it to where the Tesseract had last been active before—something about a weakening the local fabric of space, or else time, in the vicinity of the centrally placed park. Thor had not followed all the details, but the crafters and scholars had concurred with Loki on the matter, and Heimdall besides.

To the watching crowd, Thor raised his hand, open and empty of threat, and said, "Greetings, people of Earth—that is, people of the New City of York," he corrected, recalling the Man of Iron Tony Stark's account of the pride of York's fair citizens—"Yeah, anywhere else people would be going, 'Oh my god, aliens are invading the planet!' but here it's just, 'Screw you, get the hell out of my city!'"

No one immediately replied to the greeting, though there were some titters, quickly muffled. A few bright white pinpricks of light flashed among the crowd, vivid through the evening's growing shadows. Thor wondered if they were some sort of welcoming gesture; otherwise, if they were weapons they were so ineffectual as to be unnoticeable. "I am Thor of Asgard," he continued. "I apologize for my unannounced intrusion, but I come with urgent—"

He was interrupted by the growing whine of engines, a sound he recognized from the battle lately fought in this city, and gladly looked up to see a figure in red and gold descending toward him, balanced between flaring rockets. A wave of excitement passed through the crowd as all faces turned from Thor to the sky, along with another flurry of flashing lights.

"Okay, everybody get back," commanded an artificially emphasized voice, and the crowd obediently retreated to give the armored figure a wide berth to land. "So what do we have here?" he asked as he touched down. "Didn't your mama ever tell you it's rude to open a Schwarzschild wormhole in a superhero's backyard?"

"Man of Iron!" Thor said. "I am sorry for the rudeness, I had little choice—"

"Hamlet?" The Iron Man's tinny voice sounded surprised. "Is that really you?"

"No, it is I, Thor," Thor corrected.

The armored helm's glowing eyes studied him intently. "Got any proof of that?" he asked. "I mean, the wormhole's a sweet convincer, but unless you've got an Asgardian passport or two forms of photo ID—you're not the first guy we've had drop by claiming they can be the god of thunder, and that's not even counting my spam inbox..."

For all the dire circumstances Thor could not help but smile to hear this speech, as incomprehensible as an elven sonnet but vastly more entertaining. Truly he had missed these unique people. "Will this serve as a passport?" he asked, and taking Mjolnir from his belt he raised it to the sky to call down a lightning bolt—only a little one, hardly enough to singe the Bifrost-marked ground under his feet.

The crowd shrieked at the crack of thunder, and Iron Man rocked back on his armored heels. "Yeah, that'll do," he said. His helmet folded aside to reveal Tony Stark's bearded face, split by a grin. "Hey, guys," he said, not loud enough to carry, so Thor assumed he was speaking into his radio, "looks like we've got our god back!"

 


 

"—And this is your room," Stark said, leading Thor through a door that slid aside at a wave of his hand, much like the barricade over Loki's cell.

"My room?" Thor repeated, stepping inside. The door's lintel was high enough that he did not have to consider ducking, and the chamber's ceiling even taller, arching more than twice his height overhead. It was roofed in clear glass, so Thor could see the city's velvet-gray night sky above. The floor below was smooth gray stone, solid under his feet and so different from the white and chrome corridor outside the door.

"I went with kind of a medieval castle theme, which, okay, stereotyping, but I figured a guy who throws around a big boomerang hammer wants sturdy walls," Stark said. "The weather motif was Pepper's idea, she was talking with your friend Dr. Fos—there you are! About time!"

This was addressed not to Thor but to the two men entering the room, the square-jawed and stalwart captain Steve Rogers and the hawkeyed archer Clint Barton. "What took you?" Stark demanded of them. "Didn't you hear me say that Thor was here on important business?"

"Would've saved time if someone remembered that neither of us can fly," Barton said, tone aggrieved, but he was grinning. "You didn't have to flit up here to show off his digs right away—"

Steve Rogers was also smiling. "Thor," he said, extending his hand, "good to see you again."

"And you, Captain Rogers," Thor agreed, taking the soldier's hand to shake in the Midgardian fashion, then changing his grip to clasp forearms in a more traditional warrior's welcome.

He happily repeated this with Barton, as Stark thumped him on the shoulder with a fist, saying, "Hey, watch the manly—excuse me, godly—grip there, Barton needs his wrist for shooting."

"Shove it, Stark," Barton returned amicably. "Seriously, big guy, great to have you back."

"I am not returned for long," Thor said solemnly, regretting having to mar this cheerful reunion. "I come with a purpose other than to meet you again, my friends."

"Figured as much," Stark said. "It can't be an easy trip, with your E-R bridge out of commission?"

"In fact the rainbow bridge is nearly repaired," Thor said, "so the journey itself was not so difficult; but I made it out of great need."

"So what's up?" Rogers asked. "Did you come here looking for someone? Or is something else headed for Earth?"

Thor shook his head. "There's no danger to Midgard, at least not immediately. I came here to call upon your strength, if you would give it—Asgard is imperiled, and needs her allies."

"The Viking space gods are asking for our help? This I've got to hear," Stark said.

"Tony," Rogers said, in the tone of one who had said something many, many times and expected to say it many more, before looking back up at Thor to say, "Thor, you helped us save our world last time—the Avengers are here for you, whatever we can do for you."

"Thank you; I am glad to hear it," Thor said. "There is indeed much you can do, if you're willing—though before I explain, where are our other two comrades? Do Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner still fight alongside you?"

He was apprehensive both that something might have befallen his friends, and that the alliance would be absent their strengths; but to his relief Barton said immediately, "No worries, they're still on the team. They're on a training mission right now."

"You mean, 'training mission'," Stark said, making an obscure gesture with two pairs of fingers. "And since said mission's accomplished—I'm guessing, after that last CNN update from the Latverian border—I've already let them know that we need their butts back here, pronto. The jet's waiting on the tarmac in Szeged now; if they move it they should be getting in," he checked the device on his wrist, "by 6 AM, our time."

"A bit over eight hours," Rogers translated for Thor's benefit. "Can you wait that long?"

"It should be possible," Thor said reluctantly. Thanos was still more than a day away from the palace, and Heimdall would be watching Earth now; he would explain the delay to all awaiting their return. But still it was longer than Thor had hoped. Especially as the longer he was gone, the more ideas Loki might have for escaping his cell and facing Thanos himself, with or without the gauntlet or the Tesseract. Any of which could likely be successful, given Loki's cunning; but Thor had little faith that they would benefit his brother any more than Thanos...

"Thor," Steve Rogers said, pulling him from his grim speculation, "what do you need us for?"

"To take arms against the foe you faced before, and more," Thor said, and explained.

 


 

"So let's see if I've got this," Stark said, finishing off his drink and setting the glass down on the low table before the couch. "This cosmic big bad, Thanos, one syllable off from being the personification of death, is coming for the Tesseract. Your dad is fending him off from taking a teleportation shortcut, but he's only a couple days away from your capital in real-time. And most of your Asgardian army is further away than that, so won't make it to the party until after the last call, which is why you need us to pinch hit. And Thanos is bringing a Chitauri mothership and a bunch of Chitauri with him."

"A hiveship," Thor said, "but otherwise, yes, I believe that is the way of it."

"Great!" Stark said, clapping his hands and rubbing them together, then stopped at the stares being leveled his way and hastily corrected, "—I mean, not great, that's terrible, completely sucks to be Asgard—"

"Sucks to be all of us, it sounds like, if this Thanos guy gets hold of the cube," Barton said darkly. He'd quit smiling the moment Thor had mentioned the Tesseract.

"—but it's a stroke of luck that it's the Chitauri," Stark went on. "Since I've pretty much finalized my defense system against them, but you can only do so much testing on dead aliens—and SHIELD won't let me have many of those anyway—and I could use a field trial."

"You've crafted new weapons of defense?" Thor asked.

Stark looked momentarily discomforted, but his glib tongue kept wagging, "Yeah, I'm out of the arms business, but I figured a threat against the planet is worth mucking up my shiny new ethics. Besides, what I've got cooked up won't be much good against humans anyway—not until we start remote-controlling our soldiers, which admittedly might not be too far off, but—"

"These weapons are particular to fighting the Chitauri?" Thor was not sure if he should be impressed at such ingenuity, or dismayed by the waste of effort, to have a weapon that could only vanquish one foe.

"Will we be able to take your prototypes to Asgard?" Steve Rogers asked. "Thor, didn't you say your Bifrost was limited now?"

"The main set-up isn't that big," Stark said. "If I strip it down and don't take my heavy suit, it'll be a couple crates—under a ton, that's it."

"I believe that could be managed," Thor said.

"You should go box that up now, then," Rogers told Stark.

Stark arched his eyebrows at the captain as he got up from the couch. "While you ring up the man in black and explain to him why his team's about to gallivant off to another dimension?"

Rogers grimaced. "Yes, I guess it's better to do that sooner than later. Clint, any guesses how Fury is going to take this?"

"Getting a call at midnight? Not well," Barton said. "Hearing that we're all skipping town tomorrow morning? Even worse. That the lightning man's back in the house?" and he aimed his thumb at Thor, "That might get you enough brownie points to survive the call. But I'd fudge how soon he's going back home."

"Right." Rogers rubbed his temples. "This will be...interesting."

"This is why they pay you the big bucks, fearless leader," Stark said. "Oh wait, you still haven't asked for that raise—"

"Tony," Rogers sighed.

"Off to box up stuff, sir," Stark said, tossing off a salute which Thor could recognize as sloppy despite his unfamiliarity with the proper Midgardian forms, and headed out the door. Barton had also vanished, by what exit Thor was not sure, leaving him alone with the captain.

"Should I join you in speaking with Director Fury?" Thor inquired.

Rogers shook his head. "No, better for me to take that hit. If he actually sees you he might come over here in person, and that could get complicated."

Thor stood. "I will leave you to it, then."

"Wait, Thor, before you go..."

Thor sat down again, carefully, the couch's wooden frame creaking riskily under him. Rogers hesitated a moment, uncharacteristically for such a steadfast warrior; then he said, "Sorry if I'm putting my foot in this, but since I don't see how it won't come up eventually—where is Loki now? What's been...how is he?"

"Loki is...sound of body," Thor said. "He is presently imprisoned in Asgard."

Rogers's shoulders dipped in relief. "Good," he said, without a hint of gloating over a vanquished foe, only acceptance. "The way you were talking—you got through that whole story without hardly mentioning him, I was wondering if...anyway, glad to hear he's doing okay."

He did not sound any less sincere than he ever did, but Thor felt the need to reassure him, "It wouldn't offend me, were you not glad; I understand that Loki made himself an enemy of your people and your world."

"Oh." Rogers looked surprised. "That wasn't—I'm not saying I'd like to meet him again anytime soon, or that I wouldn't want to sock him one if I did. As far as I'm concerned he deserves what's coming to him. But I also understand that for you..." He looked down broodingly at the empty glass Tony Stark had left on the table, his hands clasped over his knees. "I never had a brother. But I had a friend who was as close as you could get. I lost him...a really long time ago, I guess, though it isn't for me. And if by some miracle I could get him back—I wouldn't care what he'd done or who he'd become; he'd still be my friend. So I get it. When I said I was glad, I meant glad for you. That you still have him."

"Thank you." Thor did not smile, respecting his friend's own grief, but he nodded in gratitude. "I am glad for it myself." He found himself hesitating, but in the face of Rogers's resolve had to continue. "Regarding my brother...I must confess, it is possible you will meet him. While Loki is imprisoned as I said, he is helping in Asgard's defense against Thanos."

Rogers blinked, then frowned. "Is that a good idea? If I was reading between the right lines, this Thanos is who sent Loki to Earth to begin with—you're sure Loki isn't working for him on the sly?"

"He is not," Thor said, and though he tried to keep his voice even, he was somewhat betrayed by the flash and boom of thunder outside the window. Earth's weather was fickle, and the lightning he had called in the park had charged the air more than he'd expected.

Rogers raised his hands, said hastily, "Sorry, I didn't mean to imply—"

"No, the apology should be mine," Thor said as quickly. "You could not know...I did not myself. In truth I still do not know entirely—and my brother is sly, that I cannot refute. But I do not believe it was willingly that Loki allied with Thanos; and he now has as great a grudge against him as we."

Rogers thought this over. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend?"

"Even so," Thor said. "In truth, I couldn't have come to Earth now, were it not for Loki's assistance. I'm sorry that I did not tell you so straightaway, but we have little time, and I know you have no reason to trust my brother..."

"Yeah," Rogers said, "but we've got plenty of reasons to trust you, Thor. I'll give the others the heads' up about Loki; it'll be okay."

"Thank you, Steve Rogers," Thor said.

Rogers nodded, then exhaled and passed his hands over his face. "Now I better ring up the director. It's not getting any earlier...how about you go help Tony, while I deal with that? His lab's three floors down, the elevator's on the...wait, maybe I should show you—"

"No sweat, I'll take him," Clint Barton said, suddenly materializing in the doorway, almost as if he had mastered the same illusions as Loki, though Thor did not think the man had any gifts of sorcery. "You can go and call up Fury," and Barton grinned at the captain, more wickedly than his sensible suggestion would warrant.

Thor left Rogers with a bolstering clap on the shoulder and followed Barton into the halls. He was grateful for the direction; while the rooms here were comfortable—if somewhat delicately furnished—the windowless corridors were similar enough in appearance to confuse.

Barton led him without speaking, and Thor let the silence rest. Though he respected the archer's skill, and liked his poise, the self-assurance of a man skilled enough that he has no need to prove it, Thor had had little opportunity before to speak with him. And of all the humans, Barton had perhaps the greatest reason to abhor his brother.

Though Barton's welcome had seemed heartfelt, which moved Thor. He was glad again for his experiences on Earth; he had not previously realized that humans could forge the same ties of camaraderie as Aesir warriors, and in his ignorance he might have overlooked many chances for friendship.

As they stood waiting for the lift, Barton finally broke their quiet to say, "So Loki will be working with us, back at your place?"

When Thor looked to him, the man was gazing up at the lit numbers over the closed doors, arms crossed and his expression unreadable. "Yes," Thor said. "I...apologize if that troubles you. I can see to it that you will not encounter him yourself." In truth he was not sure it would be any better for Loki, to meet again his one-time thrall.

Barton shrugged one shoulder. "If it happens, it happens. You know what they say, fights against intergalactic bad guys make for strange bedfellows."

Thor had not in fact realized anyone said any such thing, but he allowed, "It is a difficult situation."

The lift arrived with a small chime, and Thor entered the small box with Barton to endure the disquieting yet exhilarating sensation of the floor dropping under his feet, and he falling after it. The Midgard lifts were quieter than Asgard's, without the reassuring clank of iron gears, and lacked the spells besides to cancel the sensation of motion. Thor found he enjoyed the odd contrast of sophisticated machinery and unsecure forces. Humans were so clever and yet so disregardful of their own mortal fragility; for all their terror of unexpected threats such as the Chitauri, they had endless courage when facing dangers of their own construction.

They were, Thor could not help but think, rather like his brother in that. If Loki could come to learn, as Thor had, that the short lives and extraordinary numbers of the humans made them no less worthy of esteem or admiration, he might find better understanding on Midgard than ever he had on Asgard. Besides, there was so much variety among all Earth's lands and peoples, even Loki would take many a century to bore of it—and by then the humans were bound to have made so many new things to interest him.

The journey on the lift was brief, but Thor's thoughts outpaced it; he was speaking before it landed, or he could reconsider. "Clint Barton, I would talk with you, if you are willing."

Barton glanced up at him. "Sure, what's on your mind?"

"It concerns before, when you were bespelled..."

Barton's eyes widened; without looking he hit a button on the lift's panel. The box halted and the doors slid open, and Barton grabbed Thor's elbow to pull him out into the hallway. When Thor would have spoken again, the archer raised a sharp hand to silence him, tugging Thor over to a door set almost invisibly in the wall.

The chamber within was scarcely large enough to call a room, being no deeper than Thor was tall and almost too narrow for his shoulders. It had a faintly astringent odor, seeping from the shelves of colored bottles lining the walls. Barton reached behind Thor to close the door, trapping them in the limited space between several brooms and a large bucket on wheels.

"Okay," Barton said, "pretty sure there's no cameras in here—or else only Stark's private system, wouldn't put it past him to have some weird janitor's kink—but anyway, what's this about the spell?"

Thor took a breath of the caustic air, said, "When you were under the scepter's spell—"

"Your crazy brother's spell," Barton said, then, "Sorry...yeah, when Loki had me brainwashed, what about it? Has he told you something? Was there a sleeper program, or—"

"Sleeper?" Thor said, recalling with unease his own dreams. "Has your sleep been affected?"

Barton shifted uncomfortably, almost stepping on Thor's toes. He looked cornered, for all he was the one who had shut them into these confines. "Had my share of nightmares. They're mostly over, and I've had worse...but no, what I meant was, are there aftereffects? Like, could he take me over again, if he sees me, even without the damn scepter? Post-hypnotic suggestion, Loki snaps his fingers and I cluck like a chicken and then try to kill everybody—"

"No," Thor said. "That wouldn't be possible." Not unless Loki wielded the gauntlet...but he would not. Not for that, not again. "The spell was broken, and the scepter's power ebbed—you still have it here, do you not?"

"SHIELD does, yeah. ...So you're sure it won't happen again?"

"It will not," Thor said assuredly.

Barton leaned back, elbow on the shelf beside him as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "Thank God—not you guys, I mean, the other one." He looked back up at Thor. "So what did you want to ask me, if it wasn't about aftereffects?"

"I would ask about the effects," Thor said. "How it felt for you to be under the enchantment. Whether you found the experience to be at all... pleasing?"

"Pleasing?" Barton's face hardened and he drew back a step, the better to swing the fists his hands were balling into. "The hell do you mean—you think I liked getting my brain turned inside out and becoming that psycho's evil minion?"

"No! Forgive me, I meant no implication that you had," Thor said, not bringing up his own hands in defense; if Barton chose to strike him, it was his right after such insult, however unintended. "It's just that I've had nothing with which to compare my own trial, to know that what I felt when bespelled was like or unlike anyone else's experience—"

"Your own...?" Barton frowned. "When were you brainwashed?"

"There was...an incident, on Asgard, some weeks ago," Thor said. "Loki...my brother came into the possession of a device with powers akin to the scepter's."

"Shit." Barton's fists lowered. "You mean he put you under the...that bastard put his own...shit. I'm so sorry, man."

"I am deeply sorry as well," Thor said honestly. "I only endured it for a short period, before I was freed; that you were under it for days...I cannot imagine it."

"Don't care to myself," Barton said frankly. "Mostly I try not to think about it at all. But, uh...so when you were, whatsit, bespelled...did you like it?"

"No!" Thor shuddered. "It was among the most horrifying ordeals I have ever endured."

"Amen to that," Barton said. "—No offense...do Norse gods even say 'amen'?"

"Not generally."

"But if it was that bad for you—why'd you ever think I might've liked it?"

"Because...it seems my brother did, in some way I cannot understand."

Barton's face twisted, his mouth ugly. "How would Loki have any idea what it was like? He was the one in our minds' driver's seat!"

"Loki wielded the tools to bespell us," Thor said slowly, "but he was not...is not immune to the Tesseract's influence himself. And it was not entirely his decision to take it up."

"...Thanos," Barton said. "That Thanos guy was pulling his strings like Loki was pulling ours, is that what you're saying?"

"Not exactly," Thor said. "He was not enthralled, not forced in the same way...but in the end, I do not know if he had much more choice in what he did."

"Guess that explains who he was talking to..."

"Who was talking?"

"Loki." Barton scrubbed his hands through his cropped hair, making it stand spikily on end. "When he had me under his control, he zoned out a few time, came back with plans. Getting orders, I thought—okay, didn't think, I wasn't really thinking. He didn't want me to, so I didn't. But yeah, when I was under, I thought we were in it together, all serving some higher cause—the perfect cause, something so important you couldn't question it..." Barton gave his head a hard shake, frowning. "And now Loki's out for Thanos's blood, to get revenge for being under his thumb? Aw, hell. That makes it harder to hate the guy."

"I am sorry," Thor said again.

Barton shot him a look as piercing as one of his arrows. "Sorry I don't hate your little brother quite so much?"

"It can be easier, I think, to hate, than to understand," Thor said frankly. "And whatever his reasons, my brother did you a grievous wrong; I do not wish you to suffer more for it."

"Don't worry about me, I've still got way more hate than understanding. But it sounds like I can take some of that out on Thanos. Loki, though...if he was being strong-armed, and now he's pissed at Thanos—what makes you think he liked it, any more than we did?"

"Not what Thanos did," Thor said, "but the Tesseract, its power—when Loki enthralled me, he had deliberately taken up the artifact; it was his plot to try to steal the Tesseract, not for Thanos but for himself. Some of it was out of fear of Thanos; but Loki craved more that power for its own ends. Even now, he no longer tries to claim the cube, but wants it still. Though he knows he would be lost to it—he would let it manipulate him, unmake him, and I cannot understand why."

"Right..." Barton ran a hand through his hair again, throwing it into greater disarray. "Okay, I'm out of my depth here; the shrink shtick's not my deal. But I know who you should talk to, and since we were going anyway—come on." He squeezed around Thor to open the door and push him back into the hall. "Let's see what Tony has to say about your brother."

Chapter Text

The room Barton brought Thor to was as big as the chamber designated as Thor's. It was filled with all manner of machinery, much of which Thor would not have identified as Midgardian, though neither did it resemble any other world's that he was familiar with. In the midst of this technological jungle, Tony Stark stood over a polished steel table, fiddling with a disassembled contraption spread out before him like a half-eaten feast. While he worked he simultaneously shouted orders at several whirring motorized limbs, like the disembodied arms of a giant, which were moving various pieces of equipment into a metal crate as tall as he.

He waved at Thor and Barton without looking up from his table, saying, "Hey, guys, don't worry about the mess, this is what working prototypes look like. And Bruce and Natasha send their love—okay, Bruce does—they're on the plane already, so we're on schedule, as long as Steve can talk Fury into okaying this jaunt. And if he can't, well, that's what you've got that hammer for..."

Thor frowned. "I am not going to strike down the man Fury; he is my ally, and a worthy leader."

"That's what you say now, but wait 'til he's been leading you for a few months," Stark said.

"Or fifteen minutes, in your case," Barton said. "Can you take a break from whatever you're messing with? Thor wants to talk."

Stark looked up from the tangle of wires before him. "What about?"

"Do you got cameras in the maintenance closets?" Barton asked.

"What? No—okay, not all of them...and even if I did I wouldn't have had the time to listen in on your private powwow, I've been busy—"

"All right," Barton said, "then long story short and minus the faux-Shakespeare: You-know-who-junior is going to be helping us out in the fight against Thanos, because Thanos screwed with him and maybe got into his head with the Tesseract, or got the Tesseract into his head. Kind of like Loki did with me, only Loki is batshit enough to like what the cube did to him, and now he's jonesing for another taste. And Thor is looking for some insight on why his little brother is into messed-up stuff that's bad for him—"

"—so of course you thought of me. Thanks a lot," Stark said, shooting Barton a wry look. "I'm so flattered to be able to offer advice from my own dissipated lifestyle."

"Hey, I don't judge. But someone should benefit from all the crap you put Pepper through," Barton said. "Besides, trying to sympathize with that S.O.B. makes my head hurt and I'm kind of nervous about putting my foot in it and getting, you know..."

"Crispified by the colonel's secret Norse recipe?" Stark said, with a nod toward Mjolnir that Thor felt was significant without quite understanding the context. Barton grimaced at Stark but nodded back, and Stark said, with a put-upon sigh, "Okay, how about you go see how Stars 'n Stripes is doing with Fury, and Thor and I will talk, demi-god to demi-god."

"You wish," Barton said, rolling his eyes, but he slipped out the door, silent as a shadow.

Thor remained where he stood beside Stark's steel table. Stark picked up the mug beside his wires and waved it at him. "I need a refill, you want some?"

"Drink?"

"Coffee," Stark said. "Do you have that up in space Viking land? It's like tea only infinitely better—"

"We do not," Thor said, "but I have had it before; I would like some, thank you."

"None, huh? Better add that to the crate. Dummy, throw in a few bags—that dark Columbian roast, include a can of pre-ground just in case, and if any de-caf sneaks in I'll replace your motherboard with an Atari's," Stark said, as he crossed over to a corner table with his mug. While most of his body was free of devices other than the glowing circle in his chest, he wore his armor's gauntlet on one arm, and now used those metal fingers to dexterously grab a second mug beside the first. With his other hand he poured the black liquid from a steaming carafe into both vessels. "How do you take it? Milk? Cream? Sugar?"

"Milk," Thor requested, accepting the offered mug and adding enough milk to make a satiating brown. Stark quaffed his own unaltered, watching Thor with what might have been amusement. Thor was not sure; in his experience Stark nearly always seemed amused by something, but perhaps that was simply the natural settling of his expressive face.

"So," Stark said, as Thor sipped his drink—it was quite satisfying, a richer flavor than he recalled from that served in the Arizonian cafe—"You had time to hit up a Starbucks the last time you were on Earth? Or the time before—Jane Foster's a brilliant scientist, she must go through coffee by the bucket-full."

"Indeed," Thor confirmed, smiling to think of Jane.

"Sorry you won't have time to see her this trip," Stark said. "If you like I could get her on the phone for you now—it's not even midnight out there, she's probably still up—"

"No," Thor said, shaking his head. "Thank you, but I would rather my next meeting with her be in the body, rather than only voice or image."

"Yeah, I bet, with that body," Stark said, leering with such juvenile abandon that it was difficult to take offense. Thor believed Stark was one of the older of his human friends, but it could not be told from his actions. "And you should be able to come back soon to see her, since your bridge is fixed, right?"

"Yes," Thor said, "provided that it or I survives the coming battle, of course."

"Of course," Stark said. "So this Thanos guy...must be a piece of work, if he's got you nervous."

"I am not—!" Stark's eyes widened slightly, that was all; but notice enough. Thor forced his hand to uncurl around his mug before he shattered the fragile ceramic, and said, more calmly, "He is a formidable opponent, yes. Though I am sure that we together with those on Asgard will be victorious over him; I wouldn't have come to you otherwise."

"Oh, I know that," Stark said. "But sounds like he's gotten pretty deep under your skin...is it because of whatever he did to your brother? Turning him into a Tesseraddict, like Clint was saying?"

Thor frowned. "A Tesser...?"

"I'm guessing that Asgard doesn't have much in the way of Twelve Step programs, either. Well, how could you, without coffee..." Stark took a gulp from his mug, thoughtfully watching Thor over its brim. "So what exactly did Thanos do to Loki? From what you told Steve, your brother's got it in for him now, but weren't they allies before?"

"Theirs was an alliance of circumstance, more than preference. And I do not entirely know what Thanos did to him within it," Thor said, looking down into the brown depths of his own drink.

"Did he make Loki attack Earth?"

"I do not know," Thor said again. "But I have doubts my brother would have come here otherwise. At least, not as he did..."

"You mean totally off the rails?" Stark asked. "Out of his gourd? Not rowing with all oars in the water? However you put it in Asgard. But is Thanos the one who drove your brother around the bend, or was it the Tesseract?"

"I do not know that it was either," Thor said slowly. He thought of their battle that broke the Bifrost—Loki screaming at him, laughing and crying at once. "Even before he fell, and fell into Thanos's hands, Loki was already... His reason was marred. My brother was—is—has always been most brilliant in mind, but..."

"But smart doesn't mean stable," Stark said, nodding. "The opposite, sometimes."

"Now, though—when he attacked Earth, and since his being returned to Asgard...his mind and heart are more damaged than before. And I would wish to lay that all on Thanos, but in truth, knowing my brother..."

"You're wondering if Loki brought it on himself."

"Yes!" Thor said, surprised; he had not realized his thoughts turned so, until he heard them spoken aloud. Sorrow was quick to follow the surprise, and remorse to think so of his brother. Whatever Loki's crimes before or hence, he did not deserve what Thanos and the Chitauri had done to him, did not deserve to scream as he did in his nightmare visions.

But at the same time..."The Tesseract did not control Loki, not as it did Clint Barton or Erik Selvig or me—" Stark's eyebrows shot up at that, though he didn't interrupt—"but it had a hold over him. I cannot say that it forced him to attack your world or kill your people; but I do not know that he would have done so, without its influence.

"Yet when he was freed from that influence, he schemed for long weeks to reclaim the cube, bending his own will to its, of his own accord. Even now, were he given the chance, Loki would take it up again, give himself over to it. I fear Loki would even again do what Thanos bade him, if he thought Thanos would give him the cube for it. The only reason I'm sure he will not is because Thanos would never surrender it to Loki, and Loki knows this. But I don't know why my brother wants the Tesseract so. If it were just its strength of magic that Loki craved—but it is more. Barton hated it as much as I, to be bound under that awful power; but Loki...he endured it longer and one would think he'd appreciate his salvation from it all the more; but instead he desires it still. And nearly as much does he seem to want—"

Thor stopped himself abruptly. It was one thing to speak of Loki's madness to these people, who had already witnessed it and suffered under it. But they were not Sif, not Loki's old comrades who might once have been sympathetic to him, and to betray to Stark that Loki might wish for death, whether honorably in battle or dishonorably at his own hand...

Stark was eying him intently. Thor shook his head, said, "Excuse me; I didn't mean to say so much. My worries are my own; I asked Barton because I wished to compare his own experience, but I shouldn't trouble you with the private matters of me and mine."

"Hey, what are friends for?" Stark said, giving Thor's arm an affable slap with the back of his hand. "Besides, hate to remind you, but your brother is kind of our business, too. It's in our best interests to see he gets straightened out and doesn't show up here with a brand new army next year."

"Loki will not!" Thor denied. "Trust me that I would not allow that."

"Yeah, well, you wouldn't have allowed last time, either, if you'd had any say over it," Stark said. "You're not your brother's keeper, you know."

Thor frowned. "How am I not? Loki is my brother; who else should keep him?"

"Good point..." Stark tapped his finger, the armored glove chiming against the metal tabletop. "Okay, then, in the name of fraternal relations. Even though Loki never got me with his magic stick, Clint wasn't off the mark telling you to talk to me—he never is, part of his archer's charm, I guess. Just don't tell him I said so. But yeah...I won't claim to be counselor to the gods, and I'm not saying I actually know what's going on inside your brother's head; frankly I wouldn't want to. But though I've never had any one-on-one time with the Tesseract...let's just say I can see the appeal of losing control, letting something else take the reins. Or at least telling yourself that something else has them..."

"What could be the appeal in that?" Thor asked. His hand of its own volition dropped to Mjolnir on his belt, reassuring himself of the hammer's solid mass, his to wield as he saw fit, and no one could pry it from him.

"Let me see." Stark considered. "Okay, at the parties you guys throw, the feasts—you get plastered sometimes, right? Totally intoxicated, falling-down drunk?"

"Yes?" Thor warily agreed.

"So while you were tanked, did you ever do anything you regretted the next morning? Slept with someone you shouldn't have, drove your chariot off a cliff, whatever?"

"No," Thor said. "I've done many things while drinking that I wouldn't have thought to do sober, but none I seriously regretted, else why would I keep drinking?"

"Why indeed..." Stark frowned, drumming his fingers on the table, then slapped his hand down flat with a crack. "All right, what about in battle? Asgard's chock full of warriors, you've got to go to war sometimes, against the elves, dwarves, giants, whoever—"

"We've not fought against the elves or dwarves since before my birth."

"Giants, then."

"And trolls," Thor said

"Okay, so when fighting these trolls and giants, have you ever got so caught up that you lost track of what you were doing? Went into berserker mode and started hammering things that didn't need hammering, maybe clocked a buddy by mistake?"

Thor frowned. "Most warriors have been pulled into the tide of battle-lust, at one time or another."

"Battle-lust, sure." Stark leaned forward, dark eyes paradoxically bright. "But you keep battling anyway, right? Even if you've gotten hurt, or hurt someone else you shouldn't. You keep fighting—you look forward to it, even, getting swept up in the glory and whatever. I've seen you, you like to fight the good fight."

"There's no dishonor in desiring to prove oneself in battle."

"Did I say there was? Fighting with honor, it's heroic as all get-out. And we're sure as hell grateful we had you on our side before; there's been a few times since we really could've used you and your hammer here. Nothing wrong with liking a righteous fight. But what do you like about it? The honor, sure, showing off your guns, obviously—but do you enjoy the battle-lust, too? Throwing yourself into it, not thinking, just kicking ass."

Thor could summon memories of a thousand different battles, against so many foes in so many places, from Muspelheim's fire to Jotunheim's ice and everywhere between—but the stirring heat of battle was a constant, the taste of blood and the thrill of thunder. "There is pleasure in it," he admitted. "Not only in victory, but in the exhilaration of the contest."

"And the freedom of it?" Stark asked, oddly quiet, more oddly still not smiling. "Losing yourself in the fight, not worrying about what you should be thinking or feeling or doing, just letting the survival instinct take over."

It was not how Thor would have phrased it; but neither was it inaccurate. He nodded slowly, unsure of Stark's aim.

"Adrenaline's awesome," Stark said. "We call it a runner's high—when you get it from jogging, rather than mowing down trolls. And usually it's considered a good thing, but it can be addictive as any other high. How easy would it be for you to give up that hammer, even if it was getting you into trouble?"

Thor realized his hand was once more grasping Mjolnir's haft; he let it go with effort, confessed, "I do not quite take your meaning, Stark. Loki is an able warrior, but he enjoys the strategy of a fight more than the effort; I've never seen him lost to battle-lust. And he has a taste for sweet wines, but does not indulge so far as for it to be called a vice."

"No," Stark said, "he just wants to give his soul up to a cosmic cube. Everyone has their vice of choice, but some are worse than others. And your brother's got a doozy, sounds like. Then again there's a lot of people who'd find absolute power a turn-on, whatever the cost..."

"But what can I do?" Thor demanded—not of Stark, although he was the only one to hear it; but his frustration was with more than his friend, or his brother, or even the Tesseract. "How can I make Loki not want to have this, when for him to have it will destroy him?"

Stark shook his head. His smile had not returned, and he looked aged for it, older than Thor for all he had lived many less centuries. "There's not much you can do—not as much as you want to. You can't stop Loki from wanting it—you can't even stop him from having it; if he's really determined, he'll find a way. In the end it's his decision. Wanting it isn't, he's going to want the Tesseract no matter what. But whether he takes it or whether he refuses it, whether he decides he wants more out of life than a shiny blue cosmic cube—that's his choice.

"All you can do is help your brother realize what more he could have. And if he makes the right choice, if he decides to take the hard road and walk away, you can go along with him. That can help a lot, having someone there telling you to keep going forward, yelling at you if you try to look back. And it does get easier, the further you go. But in the end, you're the only one who can put one foot after the other; no one can carry you away..."

Stark's voice stayed steady as he spoke, but his dark eyes dropped from Thor's to stare out, far past the laboratory's walls, looking to some invisible and distant destination. How many steps had he taken, Thor wondered; how far had he gotten, and what was he walking from?

He did not ask, not now; someday perhaps, when he had given Stark as much as Stark had given him, when he had the valor to bare his own heart so. For now Thor only said, "Thank you, Stark, my friend, for this insight."

Stark gave his head a shake, focused back on Thor with his lips again curling up into a smile—a smirk, really, and what it lacked in malice it made up for in brass. "Hey, like I said, helping you help him is in my planet's best interests. If it was any help..."

"It was," Thor said. "I feel that I understand more than I did, at least; and my brother has never been an easy being to understand."

Stark chuckled, a surprisingly kind sound. "I bet."

"I wish you might speak with Loki," Thor admitted. "I think you would understand him better than I, for all he is my brother."

"Whoa, okay, no," Stark said, throwing up armored and unarmored hands alike in a gesture of surrender. "Disclaimer, Iron Man is not qualified to provide mental health advice to Norse deities. I make an exception for you because we bonded over saving the world and because I like being friends with awesome people; but I have to draw the line at your little brother, sorry."

"No, I realize this," Thor said. "I would not ask it of you. And in honesty I doubt Loki would be much inclined to speak with you again."

"Not without a window to throw me out of," Stark muttered, rubbing his neck. "So he still doesn't think humans are worth listening to, even after we kicked his horny butt?"

"I did not think the Hulk smashed his...but no. We were raised to think of mortals as lesser," Thor said, apologetically and ashamed. "To be protected, but not respected...but I know better now, and it's my hope that someday Loki will as well."

"Hope you're not holding your breath on that," Stark said, and the sardonic twist of his mouth reminded Thor of his brother. Loki would realize, if he could be induced to talk with them, how truly great humans could be. With such short lives, they had to be quick-witted to have time to think at all; in their brief decades they could live as much as Aesir did in centuries, and learn much, from seeing everything all at once rather than spread out and faded by time. And they were happy to teach, too, eager to share their understanding rather than have it lost with their deaths. Thor had learned so much from them in only a few days on Earth. If he could spend more time here, how much more could he understand?

Behind Stark, the mechanical arm stacking the crate turned and folded to the side, its motor's hum quieting. "Sir," an even voice spoke from the seeming empty space above them, "this crate is filled."

Stark looked over. "Including the coffee?"

"Yes, sir."

"Can you do a favor?" Stark asked, indicating Thor with an iron finger. "Help Dummy—the robot on wheels there—take the crate to the elevator and down to the truck in the garage. That equipment's about half a ton, but you can help stabilize it on the—"

Thor picked up the crate and heaved it onto one shoulder. The mass was somewhat uneven, but everything within seemed firmly seated when he shifted to balance it. Stark blinked at him. "—Or you can just carry it there yourself," he said. "That works, too. Dummy, show him the way—and try not to get stepped on, because I don't think you'd survive that combined mass..."

 


 

When Thor returned to the lab upon delivering the crate, Steve Rogers and Clint Barton had joined Stark. Fury was not happy, the captain reported—Barton corroborated this with a few obscure metaphors—but was allowing the Avengers to go, or else saw he had no means to stop them.

Rogers suggested that they sleep for the few hours until their final allies arrived; Stark countered that this was the purpose of coffee. In the end Rogers and Barton napped on the couch in Stark's laboratory, while Stark continued laboring on his device. He chatted with Thor as he worked, or else his robots; Thor was not always clear which of them he addressed, and only comprehended perhaps a third of what he spoke of either way. Though there was something peculiarly calming in Stark's very excitement, as if Thor need not spend time thinking himself, when Stark had enough thoughts for two or three others at least.

As Stark prated, Thor looked out the windows set high in the wall, watching the gray Midgard sky gradually lighten with the coming dawn. It was half again as bright when something loudly beeped; Stark touched the piece affixed over his ear, muttered into it and then called out, "Okay, guys, Bruce and Natasha will be touching down in twenty, gear up!"

Rogers and Barton, though they had slept soundly through Stark's monologue, both awoke at that, fairly leaping to their feet and hurrying from the room. Stark stretched his spine, cocked an eyebrow at Thor and asked, "So how long is the trip back to Asgard? I've never actually crossed through a wormhole, trans-dimensional or otherwise..."

"It in fact takes a few minutes," Thor explains, "but feels instantaneous," and Stark's eyes sparkled like a small child's about to ride his first full-sized horse.

They met Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner downstairs at the building's base. Thor shook hands with both and thanked them for their willingness to help in Asgard's time of need. The Lady Natasha shrugged and said, "I didn't have anything better planned for this weekend," and Banner told Thor seriously, "Don't listen to her—we owe you." Then he added with slight discomfiture, "Plus I think the Other Guy is looking forward to fighting with you again."

"Does 'with him' mean 'alongside him' or 'against him'?" Stark inquired.

Banner looked still less comfortable. "I'm really not sure..."

They rode the short ways to the park in the back of the motorized vehicle, along with the crates. An even larger crowd was gathered around the Bifrost's mooring imprint, held back by people in the navy uniforms of the city's guard. Stark, fully armored, waved to the throngs and was enthusiastically cheered; the others paid their audience less attention.

Thor, Stark, and Rogers placed the two crates of Stark's equipment in the imprint; then the six of them took position between the chests. "Heimdall," Thor pronounced clearly, looking up at the sky so none of his companions mistook his command, "we are assembled; open the Bifrost."

For a moment nothing happened. "Maybe he's in the john," Barton muttered, "we could try again in a—"

Then he was drowned out by the Bifrost's roaring song, as the rainbow bridge lowered around them and swept them from the Earth.

Chapter Text

They arrived on the far end of the Bifrost, standing on the tip of rainbow crystal jutting out over the abyss. Half the bridge was still strung up in the scaffolding's wood and rope; to Thor's eye it made the Bifrost look unkempt, like cobwebs over a jeweled crown.

His human friends nevertheless were impressed, gazing about Asgard with widened eyes. "Wow," Steve Rogers murmured, and Tony Stark muttered back, "I'll see your wow and raise you a 'holy guacamole."

"With a side-order of beans," Clint Barton put in, leaning out over the bridge's edge to peer down into the bottomless mists below. "So, uh, where does it go? If you fell off?"

"Into the void between the worlds," Thor said, "eventually."

Barton whistled, the void failing to echo back the piercing sound. "Learn to fly later," Natasha Romanoff said, grabbing Barton's arm and none too gently hauling him back from the brink.

"Do not worry," Thor assured her. "I would catch him, if he fell; there would be plenty of time before he was in danger of being lost."

Bruce Banner was frowning. "How can you fall—what's the source of the gravitational pull?"

"Better question," Stark said, "given that there's obviously some sort of gravity keeping us from floating away—what the heck is keeping that up?" and he pointed toward the peaks of Asgard rising up at the other end of the Bifrost. "Does rock here come filled with helium or what? How is the land levitating?"

The last seemed addressed to Thor, so he made an effort to answer. "It is not floating; rather it's supported by Yggdrasil's branches."

"Igg-whatsit?"

"Oh, yes, Erik Selvig told me something about this," Banner said. "That's the world tree, right?" He smiled when Thor nodded, went on, "So what is Yggdrasil exactly, a poetic representation of one of the higher dimensions, or is it a physical manifestation of quantum—"

"Hark, our ride approaches," Thor said, relieved to hear the drumming of hoofbeats on the Bifrost.

Sif and two Einherjar guards rode up, leading six other horses, reined and saddled. Sif dismounted to greet them with a quick bow. "Well met, noble allies of Thor."

"Um, well met, gorgeous—uh, beautiful warrior maiden," Stark said, imitating her bow a little stiffly in his armor.

"This is the Lady Sif," Thor said, "shield maiden and my trusted companion in countless battles. Sif, these are the Avengers of Earth."

Stark murmured an aside to Banner, "Remind me to come back here sometime when we're not busy saving the world?"

"As my friends, you would always be welcome," Thor said.

"But now we better get to that world-saving," Rogers said, stepping forward and making his own bow, a little clumsily for all his strength. "Very glad to meet you, Miss—uh, Lady Sif. These horses are for us?"

"You guys can teleport across the universe, but you ride around on horses?" Barton asked. "Not even flying horses?"

"The pegasus cavalry was battling the Chitauri on Asgard's border," Sif said. "They return now, but not in time to face Thanos."

For some reason this simple explanation made Barton gawp. "Uh...right. Sure."

"On horseback it's but a few minutes to the palace gates; Asgard's horses are fleet of foot," Thor explained, mounting his stallion. "The guards can transport the crates there while we make our introductions."

"Okay, enough dilly-dallying," Roger said, taking the reins of the largest gelding and swinging himself up. "Avengers, saddle up."

 


 

Frigga met them in the courtyard inside the palace gates. The queen graciously stepped back to give Stark room to land—he had opted to fly with his rockets rather than ride, and had carried one of his crates with him, along with Banner; Thor assumed the Other Guy did not care for animals. Once the Iron Man had set himself and Banner down and flipped up his helmet's visor, Frigga granted them all a mannered nod and said to the Avengers, "Welcome to Asgard, humans of Earth. I am Frigga, wife of Odin All-Father and queen of the golden city."

Rogers stepped forward. "Thank you, ma'am, and greetings from Earth. I'm Captain Steve Rogers of the Avengers—"

"—Bow!" Stark hissed behind him. "She's the queen!"

"Ack, sorry, ma'am!" Rogers hastily doubled over—a deeper bow than courtesy demanded, but his awkwardness made it obviously more gallantry than insult, and Thor caught the twinkle in his mother's eyes, though her face stayed trained and polite. The other Avengers followed suit to varying degrees: Romanoff also bowing instead of curtseying, just as Sif did; and Banner ducking his head in a curt gesture appropriate to a warrior of his strength, though his expression lacked the expected pride.

Stark dared come forward to take Frigga's hand, gently in his armored one, and raise it to his lips for a kiss. The queen allowed this shockingly forward gesture with only a subtle lift of her brows. "You are the Man of Iron, Tony Stark," she said.

"Guilty as charged," Stark said, grinning cheekily as if he knew exactly what he'd done. "So you're Thor's mom? Pleased to make your acquaintance—but since we're getting short on time, can we skip the rest of the meet-and-greet and get straight to your husband and the Tesseract?"

"You aren't here to deal with the cube," Thor said, frowning. "It's Thanos we've come to fight."

"Except that to fight Thanos, we need to know where he is, and last I checked you didn't," Stark said, raising one metal finger in the air. "Bruce and I have a few theories about seeing through his magic cloaking device, but for that we need the cube. So lay on, McDuff, and take us to your leader."

 


 

The sight of the Tesseract with Odin standing over it, bathed in shining blue and sweat beading on his forehead from his motionless effort, quieted even the spirited humans. They lowered their voices in the throne room, spoke with their heads down and eyes averted; if it was not the usual deference showed Asgard's king, it was yet respectful. From the glances they shot Thor's way, Thor thought it was out of respect for him as much as his father. He was grateful either way.

That respect naturally did not stop Tony Stark from striding up the dais to the Tesseract's pedestal before Thor could stop him, reaching out for the sphere of magic surrounding the All-Father as he said, "Okay, let's get this bad boy out of the box and see how—"

White-hot power flared and a burst of energy tossed the Man of Iron aside like a locust in a windstorm. He slammed into a pillar with a crack that would have broken an ordinary mortal's bones.

Fortunately Stark was armored; as the others rushed to him he picked himself up off the floor, shaking his head. "Ow! What the hell—" He glanced up at Odin, "—heck was that?"

"You finally learning to look and not touch?" Barton suggested.

"I am sorry," Thor said, reaching down to pull Stark to his feet. "Had I the chance to warn you—the spell my father casts is to safeguard the cube from any who seek to reach it, within or without."

"You mean that forcefield's not the Tesseract—that's your dad's magic?"

"Usually it's more controlled," Thor said. "He primarily wields his power through the spear Gungnir; but now with all his focus on the cube, his direction is not so precise."

"Seemed pretty precise to me," Stark said, rubbing his armored shoulder with a mutter that might have been, "What is it about your family tossing me around?" though perhaps Thor misheard.

"Thor," Banner asked, "is there any way to get around your father's shield? We need to be able to scan the Tesseract, and the readings will be more accurate in proximity..."

"I can aid you, Lord Banner," Frigga said, gliding forward to the dais. "My husband's magic will not harm his family; he knows to trust us. He would allow you as well, if he'd the chance earlier to meet you," she added with composed apology.

"That would be great, thank you, Ms—er, Lady—er, your majesty," Banner said, ducking his head. "And it's not 'Lord'; Dr. Banner will do. Or Bruce."

"So how would you have me assist, Dr. Bruce?" Frigga asked, and Banner, with a cautious glance at the Tesseract, dared climb up the dais beside her to explain. Stark began to comment something about Banner's "way with the—" but was interrupted by Rogers kicking him in the shin. The captain's boot clanged on his armor, but Stark closed his mouth and, warily, joined Banner and Thor's mother before the Tesseract, extracting from his armor a piece of equipment which beeped as he passed it over the cube.

He and Banner then fell into rapid conversation concerning waves and shifts and triangles. While Thor was familiar with most of the words, their context rendered them opaque, and he was puzzling over their meaning when a hand fell on his arm.

"Don't even try," Barton advised. "We don't know what the heck they're talking about, either, when they get like this."

Sif had accompanied them to the throne room, but now, after a nod from Frigga, departed. Thor excused himself and followed, catching up with her outside the throne room doors.

Sif stopped and waited; before he could address her, she told him, "Loki is well, last I heard." At Thor's surprised expression she said, "That is what you would ask me, is it not? If not before the humans."

"It would be," Thor admitted.

"My lady queen was with him for most of the night," Sif said, "and he suffered no nightmares, that she mentioned. She bade me to go to him now, since you have your allies to attend."

"Tell him that we may soon have located Thanos," Thor requested. "Though assure him that I will not go to that battle without first taking my leave of him."

Sif nodded, and Thor told her sincerely, "My thanks, that you'll keep his company."

Sif gave him a measured look, then a light punch on the arm. "We've made up now, haven't we? At your behest. A shame you cannot ask the same of these mortals..."

"I cannot fairly," Thor said. "Not after Loki's assault on their world, and our battle...their antipathy is only just."

"And mine was not?" Sif said, but her smile made it teasing.

"What do you think of them, Sif?"

"The mortals? They seem very...human," Sif said, not deprecating or with forced civility, but considering. "I would see them in battle, before I judged them properly. Knowing how you trust them, I believe they must be stronger than they appear. But Captain Rogers is chivalrous. And the flying iron armor is impressive..."

"Stark forged the armor himself," Thor said.

Sif was as surprised by this as Thor had been. "So is he a smith or a warrior?"

"Some are both, my lady," remarked a voice from the vicinity of their waists; Thor looked down to see Fjalar hurrying over in haste. "My lord Thor," he panted as he reached them, "I'm sorry I missed your return, I hadn't yet awoken—we had much both to research and celebrate last night, after Heimdall told us your journey to Midgard was successful." He rubbed his bloodshot eyes, continued, "How was the voyage? And the return, did the bridge bring the mortals over properly intact?"

"Intact, and with some mass of cargo as well," Thor gladly reported. "But you can ask them yourself—one of my friends is a smith himself, as I was saying; he and another are also scholars of science, and both most interested themselves in the Bifrost's workings—"

The throne room door opened and Natasha Romanoff's distinctly red head emerged. "Thor," she said, "Stark and Bruce want to know if you have some maps of your world—or land, or universe—that they could check out?"

"There are charts of all the realms in the royal library," Thor said. "I can take you now."

Sif went to the dungeons, but Fjalar accompanied them to the library. Thor introduced him to the humans as they walked, the dwarf not minding the haste, valuing as he did expediency over courtesy—"It's fine; I'd rather you save us now so that we all might be alive to discuss other matters later."

"Ah-hah, so they do teach logic on Asgard!" Stark said.

Fjalar chuckled. "Mayhaps, but I'm from Svartalfheim myself."

"Fjalar is ambassador from the dwarves," Thor explained, "so naturally a crafter of great skill."

"You're a dwarf?" Barton said. "Wow, Disney and Peter Jackson both totally dropped the ball on that one..."

"The library has solid gold doors?" Rogers asked, staring at them in something like awe.

"Steve, if you haven't noticed, everything here has gold doors," Stark muttered, poking the captain's ribs to prod him off his path. "And gold walls, gold floors, gold pillars—you know what else I bet is gold—"

"So where are these charts?" Banner asked, raising his voice such that Thor looked to him in trepidation; but the man did not appear angry, only mildly irritated. Then fascinated, as he passed through the doors and saw all the shelves of books reaching up to the library's ceiling.

The royal librarian Kvasir hobbled over to assist them, sending his apprentices to fetch charts of Asgard's lands while he examined the humans with interest. "It's been so long since we've had any from Midgard here—we have a few texts hailing from your realm; perhaps you could help source them?"

"Maybe later," Banner said, still looking about himself. Rogers too was goggling. The look in their eyes was familiar to Thor; it was very like Loki used to get upon discovering some hidden book of magic or long-lost scroll, a sort of hunger of the mind.

There was a different kind of eagerness in Stark, as he helped Kvasir unroll several charts out upon the table. Banner and Rogers leaned over on either side of him, equally curious. Both Barton and Natasha vanished between the stacks, losing themselves in those shadows as quickly as Loki might.

Thor hesitated between seeking them out—not that he feared they would do any harm, but some of the wards on the library's more exotic collections might do them such—and helping the apprentices fetch more maps. Stark did not seem content with those he had—"No dice, none of these are any good! Putting aside the 3-D to 2-D problem, we need something with actual scale to triangulate, not a metaphorical representation—you guys must have working navigation systems, or do you just use magic sextants—"

"These have scale," Fjalar interrupted, climbing up on a stool to better overlook the table. "Well, not that one, that's a world-tree forking diagram. But this one here, see, it's marked clear enough; the colors indicate which order of magnitude—"

"Order of—Tony," Banner said, squinting at the map, "he's right, it's a combined cosmologic and geographic—"

"—Oh," Stark said, "Okay, in that case, this is—"

"Better get ready," Barton said, materializing beside Thor to watch as their comrades bent over the charts with renewed purpose. "They've almost got it."

"You understand what they speak of now?"

"No," Natasha said, appearing on his other side, "but once you get used to reading Stark's tones, you don't actually have to listen to a word he says."

"It's pretty convenient," Barton confirmed, grinning, but his eyes were sharp with a warrior's fierce focus, and Thor felt his own fighting blood rise in answer.

With Kvasir's reluctant permission, Stark and Banner took the chart outside to the courtyard, where the Man of Iron flew up towards the high noon sun, until he was merely a speck in the sky, conversing with Banner via the radio. Upon Stark's return to ground, he and Banner embarked on an intense discussion that put Thor in mind of Fjalar and Adalsteinn's arguments, though resolved faster, when Steve Rogers stood over them and asked, "Okay, guys, what do you have for us?"

"Good news and bad news," Stark said. "The good news is that the Tesseract's gamma radiation trail flows both ways, so with a properly calibrated spectograph—well, long story short, we're pretty sure we know where Thanos is right now."

"That is excellent news indeed!" Thor declared, taking up Mjolnir in his excitement. "Then we may confront him now—"

"Slow down there, Sparky," Stark said, stepping back out of the hammer's immediate range, as if he suspected Thor was about to start swinging. "The bad news is, I don't know how we're going to get there. You never mentioned that your hometown is half a light-minute across!"

"That's exaggerating," Banner said weakly. "Hardly more than a quarter, I don't think..."

By Rogers's and Barton's frowns, this accusation made no more sense to them. "A minute isn't that long..." Barton remarked.

"Except when you remember that from the Earth to the moon takes one light-second!" Stark said. He waved at the sky overhead. "You know why you don't see any other floating islands up there? There's lands, they're just too far away to see! Even if I'd brought my rocket booster suit it'd take me days to get to Thanos's present location, and that's if I didn't mind getting pancaked by g-force. To get here tomorrow, that ship must be moving—gotta have some serious inertial dampeners, would love to get my hands on those—"

"So what do we do?" Rogers asked. "Try to evacuate the city? We know what kind of havoc the Chitauri can wreak..."

"Especially if we end up nuking this ship as well," Natasha remarked, then returned her friends' stares unperturbed, arms crossed over her chest. "What? I assumed sending Stark in with another missile was our backup plan."

"Except wouldn't you know, I forgot to pack an ICBM," Stark said. "Figured in the name of good inter-dimension relations to go easy on the nukes. But I've got something even better for the Chitauri; we just need to get it on board that mothership."

"If we wish to board Thanos's ship," Thor said, "there may be a way, if you know exactly where it is in the realm."

"How exact is exact?" Stark asked. "General ballpark or down to the micron? We can place it within a few hundred klicks, give or take."

Thor frowned. "I do not know how precisely, but perhaps that would be enough...I would have to ask."

"Ask who?" Natasha inquired, calmly, but something in her even tone made Thor suspect she had already guessed the answer, before any of the others thought to ask it. Truly she was as clever as her namesake spider.

"Sorcery may bend Yggdrasil's branches," Thor explained, "so we can travel more swiftly along them than on any ship. Such was how I returned here from the Point, and also how my father sent me to Earth without the Bifrost or the Tesseract. The energy for that journey was staggering; to travel within Asgard takes less power, but greater control, for it's easier to aim at an entire planet."

"The difference between throwing a dart to the moon or straight into a bulls-eye," Banner said.

Thor nodded. "Even so. But a learned sorcerer may make that bulls-eye, if they know its exact location."

"You got any sorcerers stashed around here?" Stark asked. "Other than your dad, since he's a little occupied at the moment."

"I know of only one sorcerer in Asgard now who has such skill," Thor admitted.

Barton growled something too low to be intelligible, silenced when Natasha took a step closer, brushing her shoulder to his. Banner grimaced and Rogers frowned.

Stark, naturally, was the first to speak. "This sorcerer—let me guess. Six-two—seven-plus with the horns—black hair, green eyes? Last seen trying to take over planet Earth?" He grinned, a wild contrast to his comrades' grimness. "All right, now things are getting interesting..."

 


 

There was room in Loki's cell for all six of them, though it was crowded, even with five of those being mortal presences. Especially when most of the humans wished to keep a distance between Loki and themselves. Not out of fear, Thor believed. Barton wanted space to draw an arrow, and Stark preferred a wider angle to study Loki in entirety. Banner was the only one who showed any overt nervousness, and Thor guessed his holding back was more apprehension of what his alternate self might do, should Loki come too close.

Rogers stood before his comrades beside Thor, stalwartly facing their one-time foe. On Thor's other side Natasha seemed almost unconcerned, arms crossed and head casually tilted as she watched Loki unblinking; but she was standing between him and Barton and Thor did not think that a coincidence.

Loki for his part looked to none of them; he stood with his arms at his side, defenseless in his simple black tunic, and kept his own gaze steady on Thor. "Yes," he said. "If you've deduced the hiveship's location with great enough precision, I could open a way to it along the world tree's branches."

Behind Thor, Stark cleared his throat. "Okay, I don't know what units of measurement you're used to—miles? Leagues? Cubits?—but we know where he's coming from, and with his ETA that gives us his speed, so..." He fiddled with his armor's vambrace, then raised his arm to project a web of light into the space before him, reaching up to the ceiling. Thor stepped back to more clearly see the glowing lines, recognizing the shapes they formed. Stark's map differed from the charts Thor was used to, with the dots marking the lands smaller and more spread out, but the general shape of the realm was familiar.

"Here's us in the palace," Stark said, and one of the centrally placed dots began blinking blue, "and this is Thanos's ship," and a red dot appeared, several handspans from the blue one, suspended in the empty sky between lands. "Precise enough for you?"

Loki stepped forward. Banner and Barton both moved back, in lockstep with him; but Loki paid them no mind, scrutinizing Stark's projected chart. "Perhaps..." he murmured, tone abstract with thought, and lifted one hand.

"Watch it," Barton warned. In that split second of motion he had an arrow drawn on his bow and aimed at Loki's head.

"Thor," Loki said, so mildly, "did you explain this cell is warded? I am unarmed, and my magics here are limited, to no more than this." He moved his fingers, and new lines of pale, pure light spread within Stark's chart, dividing into a net crossing and winding among the specks of lands. "It's easier to understand when you can see Yggdrasil's greater branches. Of course there is nearly an infinity of smaller twigs; but see, Thanos's route follows a main bough," and with his finger Loki indicated one thread of silver light, upon which the scarlet dot of the ship was strung like a single bead.

Stark was staring at the illusion of threads cast onto his map. "Wow," he said, "so that's the world tree—seriously, wow..." He glanced down at his vambrace, then frowned and tapped it with his other hand. "Damn it, why isn't this recording—"

"My apologies," Loki said, the faintest of smiles curling his lips. "Magic is not so easily captured as light or sound."

"So can you do it?" Rogers asked. "Can you get us out there, to the ship?"

"I can," Loki said. He dropped his hand so that his illusion of light vanished, turned his head to the captain, a steady slow motion, calculatedly non-threatening. "Which leaves you the question of whether or not you trust me to do so."

"So what are the dangers if you betray us?" Banner asked, as calm.

"You mean, how badly could I screw you over?" Loki said, inflecting the final phrase in the flattened accent of their region of Midgard. "That depends," and he looked back to Thor. "How many humans could you carry through the air, along with Mjolnir?"

"At least three with relatively little trouble," Thor said. "Provided the Man of Iron were not armored."

"And if I am, I can carry two, maybe three myself," Stark put in.

"So all of us could be supported," Thor said.

Loki shrugged. "Then there's little peril of you dropping into the void. Nowhere in the realm would be that great a threat to warriors of your skills; and I have not the magic now to send so many of you outside Asgard. The danger then is minimal."

"Says you," Stark muttered. "Who's convinced? I know I'm convinced, that was so convincing..."

"That's why it's all right not to trust you," Natasha told Loki. "We haven't heard yet why we should trust you. Why would you help us?"

Loki inclined his head in her direction. "Did Thor neither explain that? I have as much cause as any of you to hate Thanos. I regret I can show you no scars as proof; flesh such as ours heals faster and more completely than that of mortals."

Barton still had an arrow strung on his bow. "So why were you trying to take over the world for him?"

"I did nothing for him!" Loki hissed. "All I did to your world, to you, was for my own ends. I made you my thrall, not his—"

He might have moved toward Barton, but before he took a step Natasha raised the Midgardian firearm concealed in her hand and leveled it between Loki's eyes. "Stay back," she said, her voice as rock-steady as her gun.

Loki's green glare snapped back to her. "And don't smile," Natasha said, "or my finger might slip on the trigger."

Loki didn't smile. He stepped back, toward the window so he was retreating from all of them, keeping his hands at his sides.

Thor shouldered forwards, setting himself between his brother and the others. Neither the gun nor the arrow was likely to do Loki much lasting harm, even in the warded cell. But nor would a fight accomplish much but waste time, when they had little. "My friends," Thor said, "your grievances against my family are justified; but I entreat you to set them aside for now."

"Yeah, guys," Stark said, "even gods probably have trouble doing magic with a hole in their head. So can the vengeance shtick be back-burnered until after we've taken down the big bad?"

"From where I'm standing, taking down a bad guy's the point," Natasha said. Her gun was still trained on Loki, now aimed past Thor's head.

But Barton lowered his bow. "'Tasha," he said quietly, "his eye's mine to take, right?"

Natasha's eyes flashed to the side to him, then back to Loki; then she brought down her arm and vanished the weapon in her hand, as neat as a magic spell. "Right."

"I am not one for honesty," Loki said, moving out from behind Thor. His head was lowered, so that Thor could not see his eyes; but his tone was cautious, not disgracefully subservient, no more so than Thor's own plea. "But in honesty, I owe you all thanks. You defeated my enemies on Earth, even as you have come to do so again now."

"They didn't so much look like your enemies when you were ordering them to invade New York," Stark said. His own tone was challenging, but his gaze was thoughtful; testing, not vindictive.

"Think you that attacking a single city, under the protection of Earth's strongest warriors, was my strategy to conquer?" Loki scoffed, lifting his chin in stung pride. "Even as I ordered the Chitauri, so did their commander command me to. As they harmed and destroyed your city and its people, so too was I harmed and destroyed. As ore and wood is destroyed to make a blade's steel, and then in turn that blade is chipped and blunted striking bone and shield, until at last it shatters—and I wanted to see the blade over me shattered."

"What are you trying to sell?" Stark asked, skepticism thick in his voice. "That you invaded hoping we'd take out the Chitauri for you?"

Loki did not reply. Thor, studying his brother's face, could see neither confirmation nor denial.

"We didn't come here now to save you," Banner said, neither kind nor cruel, balanced in his nearly perfect calm. "Any more than we fought off the Chitauri on Earth to get them off your back."

"I know," Loki said, returning that purposeful calm measure for measure. "But you will help me all the same, in helping my brother and this realm. So allow me in return to help you as I can, that you might defeat Thanos for all of us."

"You said you have reasons to hate Thanos," Rogers spoke up suddenly from where he had been quietly watching. "So—do you hate him?"

Loki met the captain's true blue gaze, dropped his control for a moment and let all his rage and fear and madness glitter in his green eyes. "Yes."

Thor clasped Loki's shoulder, bracing him against those tides of feeling. Loki shivered once, not shrugging him off, but turning a little, as if to hide their contact from the humans.

None of Thor's allies remarked upon this. Instead Rogers said, "Okay, you've told us why you want to help, and why we can afford to trust you, and even thanked us for coming. And you've acknowledged what you did, if under duress. What I haven't heard you say is that you're sorry for any of it—for what you did to Clint, for all the people you and your army killed."

Loki frowned but barely, a single almost unnoticeable furrow in his brow. "What matter if I did?" he asked, and the coldness of his voice might have been to conceal confusion. "What apology could I make to you for the harm I did your world? You have noble hearts; but I would not strain them by begging for forgiveness beyond your capacity to give."

Rogers's own frown was obvious, as scrupulously open as every feeling in his honest heart. "What's that got to do with it? Whether you're sorry has nothing to do with whether we forgive you. Seeking vengeance or turning the other cheek, that's always your own choice; nobody else can make you do it. I don't know what kinds of gods you guys follow up here, other than yourselves; but that's how our god taught us.—My god, I mean," he added, with an inexplicably apologetic glance at the others, including Thor. "We can still forgive you even if you don't give a damn; and you can be sorry even if all of us refuse to listen to it."

"That...is so," Loki said.

Thor recognized his quiet surprise. "As I told you, brother," he said, "they have much to teach us," and he smiled thanks to his friends and their uncommon wisdom.

Loki drew himself upright, taller than any of the humans, but the curve of his shoulders under the austere black made him shadow-slender, unintimidating and almost fragile before their bold mortal strength. "Then I am sorry," he said, plain lead instead of spun silver. "For all I did to your world, to your people and your comrades, and to you yourselves—I am sorry for it."

There was silence in the cell, all the humans struck momentarily mute. Even Stark scowled dumbly, mouth opening and then closing before a word escaped.

Finally it opened again. "Show of hands, who saw that coming? Because I didn't, I'll admit it."

Rogers didn't answer him, his gaze fixed on Loki. "Okay," he said at last. "We'll do it—let you send us to Thanos." He turned to the others. "Are we all on board with this? The way I see it, either he's actually sorry, so on our side; or else he's scared enough of Thanos to say he is to get us onto his side."

"Or," Stark said, eyes narrowing at Loki, "he's got a trap so awesome that he's willing to say anything to convince us to walk into it."

"I'm in," Natasha said. "If he's that determined to trap us, might as well spring it when we've got an idea something's coming."

"Okay, count me in, too," Barton said.

"I am in as well," Thor put in, for the sake of consensus.

"Tony? Bruce?" Rogers looked at them.

"I've never been magically teleported before," Stark said. "Today's the day for new travel experiences. Sure, let's go."

"There isn't much chance I could actually get hurt," Banner said, eying Loki, "and he knows what the Other Guy can do if he tries. So all right."

Loki listened in impassive silence without attempting to sway their decision; only after Banner had spoken did he say, "I can ready the transportation spell within the hour, but I cannot cast it from within this cell's wards."

"Would my chambers suffice?" Thor asked, and Loki nodded, but without meeting Thor's eyes. "Go back up," Thor told his friends. "Sif will lead you to my chambers. I'll bring Loki there in a few moments."

The humans, with final cautious glances at Loki, filed up the steps and down the dungeon's tunnels. Thor waited until their footsteps had faded before turning to his brother. Loki's head was down, studying his hands; by the abstract expression on his face and the mute movement of his lips, he was considering his spell.

"Will it be safe?" Thor asked him. "Leaving the cell's wards will open you to Thanos—"

"I can shield myself, if I have the strength," Loki said. "As I managed before. Besides, you and your allies will be occupying him, is that not your intent?"

Thor grinned fiercely. "It is."

Loki's gaze flicked up to him. "Though you'll let Banner's monstrous side take the brunt of his attack."

"A fair share," Thor allowed. "But the Hulk cannot have all the glory!" He hesitated, said at last, "You could claim some yourself, if you joined us..."

Loki snorted. "You'd waste the few hours we have left trying to convince the humans to fight alongside me?"

"You might persuade them," Thor said. "You've already made this much peace with them—and thank you for that, brother."

Loki shrugged, a stiffer motion than his usual grace, as if an invisible blow had bruised him. "As they said, I have all manner of reasons to help you—to want you to accept my help."

"I know," Thor said, "but still, you dealt with them fairly, for all they're humans."

"I thought you considered them to be no more or less than us, even if mortal," Loki said, throwing him a sidelong look, half taunt and half question.

"I do," Thor agreed, "but you do not. I'm glad that you might be learning otherwise."

"Don't tell me you believed all I said to them," Loki said, turning away. "I hardly can believe such soft beings can survive, let alone fight; their simple hearts are so easily swayed to sympathy."

"Not that much sympathy," Thor said. "But understanding. We share a common foe. Even on Earth, if you had allied with us in that final battle—"

"And how much did you understand? Do you believe that secretly I thought myself aligned with you and these humans? You were my foes as much as the Chitauri; whichever was defeated, I was to be the victor. If you fell, Earth could have been mine, and with it I would have raised an army to stand up to Thanos, and take the Tesseract for my own—"

"I understand: neither we nor the Chitauri were truly your enemy," Thor said. "And we're now your allies against the titan who is—and the cube as well. Whatever the case before, we're aligned now. We fight on the same side, as brothers should," and he smiled.

His brother shook his head, as if he could not believe Thor's naiveté. "Then take me from this cell, so you may go to that fight. There's scant time left, and I need to walk a little ways, get a feel for how Yggdrasil's branches sway today, before I send you down them. A detour through the orchards should suffice."

"And you might pick some fruit as we go, to aid your strength?" Thor asked, and Loki shot him a narrow-eyed look for that perception. Thor grinned more broadly at him, and started up the stairs.

He stopped, however, when Loki's hand fell on his shoulder and as quickly was removed, stood waiting on the first step as Loki behind him said, quietly, "Thor—all I did to you, with the gauntlet, and on Midgard, and on the Bifrost, when you broke it...I am sorry for all of it."

Thor wanted to see his brother's expression, whether his eyes were on Thor or averted—but he thought that Loki did not want him to see, that Loki could only speak so unwatched, unwatching. Besides, Loki's face could lie as well as his tongue; neither would prove his honesty.

Instead of turning back, Thor said only, "I am sorry, too, brother, for all I did myself that led you to such things."

"I was not led—I do not follow, neither you nor Thanos nor any other," Loki said. "If they are my acts to regret, then you cannot claim them from me. Even if you are my brother."

Thor thought of what Tony Stark had said, that Loki must choose himself which path to walk. What Steve Rogers had said, that apology and forgiveness were not predicated on one another. Nor was regret; if Loki bore his, then Thor too could have his own. "Then I am sorry such things were done," he said, not looking back but up at the metal barricade opened above, "and sorry I failed to stop them, and save those lives that were taken. And I am sorry I couldn't catch you, when you let go of Gungnir—even if you wouldn't have wanted me to, still I am sorry that my arm wasn't long enough."

Loki did not answer; Thor could not even hear him breathing when he strained to listen. "Loki," he began.

"—I know," Loki said abruptly, rapid as if he could only force it out quickly or else not at all. "I know that you reached for me as I fell, that you never would have pushed me into that abyss. It was easier sometimes to tell myself you had; but I always knew you hadn't, even when I lied to accuse you of it."

Thor felt as if Jormungand had been lifted from his shoulders, without him realizing the burden until it was gone. "I am glad to know it," he said. "Now, brother, let us join the others, so you can send us to defeat Thanos and win victory for us all!"

Chapter Text

Journeying over Yggdrasil's branches was nothing like traveling by the Bifrost or the Tesseract, and different even from the magic with which Loki had drawn Mjolnir and Thor and Sif with it back to the palace. While Mjolnir helped carry them to Thanos's vessel as well, it was not by pulling, as much as—so Loki explained it—guiding their way, lighting the path for them.

However the sorcery worked, the voyage was dizzying, not imperceptibly instantaneous like the Bifrost but with a sense of rushing motion that they moved counter to. Like trying to swim against a current, or squeeze through too small a gap, or—

Before Thor identified exactly what the sensation resembled, it ended. Where a moment before he had been in the antechamber of his bedroom, his comrades crowded close around him to fit in the circle Loki had drawn in ash on the floor, now he stood in darkness. Briefly Thor saw the circle's arc, a glimmering green afterimage at his feet; then the magic faded, leaving the blackness deep as pitch.

Through the dark there was a throbbing sound, so deep it was felt more than heard, the rumble of vast engines. The air was warm and musty, and thin when Thor breathed it in, foul with strange odors. He heard harsh coughing around him, the humans gagging, gasping for breath. "My friends, are you well?" Thor asked, wondering if the air was too dilute for them.

"I am," Sif said beside him, "but the humans—"

Stark's voice interrupted, "Yeah—we'll be fine, suit says the air's breathable, just nasty—and that trip was worse—" Thor could see the blue glow of Stark's heart and his armor's eyes in the dark, faintly revealing the contours of his armor as he kneeled. The squat barrel half his height beside him was his equipment; from what Thor could make out of its silhouette, it had arrived intact.

"Just a second," Natasha said hoarsely, "Here," and she clicked on a small portable light. Thor also raised Mjolnir, releasing enough charge for the hammer to glow, matching her illumination. The dark walls surrounding them gleamed back slickly, not like polished metal but as if coated with some viscous fluid. They were sloped and slanted at strange angles, tunnels forking right and left and overhead as well.

Between the uncanny shadows the humans shakily climbed to their feet, wan-faced. "Okay," Stark said, "according to my radar readings of the size of this place, either we're in the restroom of the universe's grossest stadium or we're on the Chitauri hiveship."

"But no Chitauri?" Clint asked. He had his bow raised, arrow strung on it as he scanned their surroundings. Natasha moved to guard his back, light in one hand and one of her firearms in the other.

"Yes Chitauri," Stark said, his voice tinny through his helm. "Or some kind of lifeforms, by these heat signals. That way, that way, that way," and he pointed up, down, over. "Everywhere but here—I'm guessing this area is shut down? Since the ship's not at full capacity—or else we're in a garbage chute, Star Wars-style. Either way we're lucky there was any atmosphere here." He tapped his foot on the ground experimentally. "Guess we're lucky to get here at all—two points for Loki?"

"One point," Natasha said, stifling another cough. "He could've warned us about the rough ride."

"He might not have known how bad it would be for us," Banner said. He was the only one still on the ground, crouched with his arms wrapped over his stomach. "Since Thor and Ms, uh, Lady Sif don't seem too badly off."

Rogers went and helped Banner stand, keeping a steadying hand on his arm. He set his other hand on top of Stark's barrel. "All right, what's the situation? Tony, Bruce, is this a good spot to set up the jammer?"

"Not great," the Iron Man said. "It looks like we're on the edge of the ship, and it'd be better centrally located; otherwise we might miss some of the bastards. Half a point off for Loki's aim."

"My brother did warn us he could not be certain where on the ship we would arrive," Thor reminded.

"And he got us inside it, and not in the middle of a Chitauri party, either—all right, one point even."

"If you need to get the jammer deeper in the ship," Captain Rogers said, "that means plan B."

Thor was not entirely familiar with the human alphabet, but he believed that was the second letter. "The plan in which most of us provide distraction, whilst Stark and Lady Natasha see to arranging the jam device?"

"That's the one," Rogers confirmed.

And distracting Thanos was a crucial part of that scheme. Thor hefted Mjolnir in one hand. "I approve of this plan."

"I'm up for a little alien ass-kicking myself," Barton agreed.

"Iron Man, Widow, you're covert, minimal radio contact starting now," Rogers said. "The rest of us can make as much noise as we want. Hawkeye, you're with me—and Lady Sif?"

"As we agreed," Sif affirmed, drawing her longsword. Barton, moving to flank her, took a step back out of range of the blade, looking impressed.

"We'll raise some hell, see if we can disable this rust-bucket," Rogers said. "Bruce, Thor, that leaves you to handle Thanos—Tony, any ideas where to look?"

Stark shook his head. "The suit isn't a tricorder; I don't have life-signs, just heat signatures. Can't rightly tell which are aliens and which are engines, much less which aliens. The hottest stuff is over there, and there," and he pointed in two directions, neither of which corresponded to the tunnels around them.

"All right," Rogers said, "Then you guys take on whatever troops you come across, and make a big deal of it, try to draw him out. ...Bruce, are you going to be—"

"I'll be fine," Banner said, more curtly than he usually spoke.

Rogers studied him a second longer, than nodded. "Everyone, remember what Loki said about anchoring—we have to be in this circle for him to teleport us back. So keep track of which way you go, make sure you can retrace your steps, if we need to retreat."

"Remember where we parked, kids," Stark said in a forced nasal voice.

"Like the man says," Rogers said. "Okay, you all know what you're doing—Avengers, move out!"

The humans moved to obey, coordinated as drilled soldiers. Sif looked to Thor.

"Protect them, Sif," Thor said, leaning close so that the others would not overhear and be insulted. She nodded, clasped his forearm and then followed the captain and the archer down the left-most passage. Stark and Natasha had already vanished into the tunnel overhead, the Iron Man flying on low-level rockets with his barrel of equipment in one arm and Natasha perched on the other like a red-haired raven.

Thor looked to Bruce Banner. The human had raised his hand to his face to pinch the bridge of his nose, though not, Thor believed, to wall off the pervasive odor of the Chitauri vessel. "Banner," Thor said, "if it would be easier for you, I would not be opposed to seeking out Thanos with your Other Guy."

"It's not easier," Banner said. "It's never easier." He brought down his hand, straightened up. "And I'm not sure if the other guy would be into Thanos-seeking, if he has you here. Though I guess a match would be a heck of a distraction...let's make that Plan C."

"As you wish," Thor said, and did not know why Banner shot him an odd glance and then snorted, though he took the man's half-smile for a positive sign. He looked between the tunnels about them, idly swinging Mjolnir. "Do you have a preference as to the route?"

Banner shook his head. "My luck's not exactly stellar; why don't you pick?"

"That way, then," Thor decided, pointing to the opposite tunnel from that which the captain and the others had taken.

The tunnel's slope steepened as they continued down it, and Banner was lagging and short of breath after a mere hundred paces. Thor halted to examine him in concern, but the man shook his head, waving him off. "Yeah, yeah, I need a better fitness routine," he said, hunched to catch his breath with his hands on his thighs. "Though why there's an incline in a ship with artificial gravity—unless this is the realm's gravity? But that would mean the vessel's speeding at a decent fraction of light speed in a gravity well—ahh, sorry," he broke off. "Don't mean to drive you nuts, I babble when I'm...trying to be nervous. As opposed to pissed off..."

"I understand," Thor said. "Talk as you will; we are intended to draw attention to ourselves."

"Right, yes." Banner nodded, but did not speak for a number of more steps. When he fell behind again, Thor slowed his pace to match him, walking as near to his side as the narrow tunnel allowed.

"So," Banner said after a bit. "Loki—your brother. He's looking better."

Thor thought of Loki's pale thinness in his cell, how he seemed slighter than the mortals he once had menaced. "Does he?"

"I meant, more settled," Banner clarified. "Not quite so likely to fly off the handle or start raving about ruling the world."

"Is that why you trusted him to bring us here?"

Banner chuckled with little humor. "No, that was like I said—he can't hurt me anyway, so what's the harm? I don't really trust anyone—how can I, when I can't even trust myself?"

Thor began to say that he trusted Banner—that it was not so difficult to do so, once one understood the straightforward drives of his other self—when the tiny listening device the captain had bade Thor to place in his ear hissed. Over the static Barton's voice muttered, "Heads' up, fire in the hole!"

This cryptic missive was followed by a muffled thud louder than the engines' rumble, a thumping Thor felt in his chest, for all its distance away.

Banner twisted to look behind them, as if he could see through the walls to their teammates. "They must've found something interesting, if they're planting explosives—"

Thor cocked his head, listening. The strange surfaces of the tunnel carried noise in misleading ways, but there was a new sound, different than that suppressed boom, louder and growing moreso. "Banner," he said, sliding up his grip on Mjolnir, "it may now be time to get 'pissed off'—I believe enemies approach."

"Makes sense," Banner said, "now that they know there's a saboteur aboard, they'll be looking for—"

He had not the time to finish his thought before he was interrupted by a bright bolt of energy streaking toward them. Thor only just registered the silhouettes appearing at the other end of the tunnel in time to push his companion from its path. The staff bolt sizzled past his arm, sparking on his mail.

His companion pushed back with a bellowing roar, great and green, plowing Thor aside to charge at the approaching Chitauri soldiers. Thor laughed at this reckless courage, raised Mjolnir and gladly plunged into the fray.

 


 

The Chitauri were as they had been: powerful fighters, stronger than ordinary humans; but not especially cunning or quick. They kept sending forth soldiers into the Hulk's way, and kept getting bowled aside. Any which thought to rise after him, Thor swiftly dispatched with a swing of Mjolnir in passing. He had not the time to engage them further, not if he wished to keep up with his comrade. While he had slowed his pace to Banner's before, the Hulk showed no such inclination; if he knew Thor followed him, he surely did not care.

Thor did not know if Banner had a destination in his enraged mind, or did he move purely on antagonism, attacking any who challenged his path. Either way he soon crashed through a metal grating to emerge into a great cavernous hall, of a size with Asgard's throne room. Angled struts crisscrossed from ceiling to floor like half-fallen trees. Clear shields between the black struts and coils of the ship's walls showed the foggy gray sky outside the vessel, casting the vast chamber in watery light. The floor was rocky instead of slick, a pocked and gritty surface, like a moon—the ship's core was evidently an asteroid, around which the Chitauri had wrapped their gruesome technology.

The hall appeared empty, but for a fresh platoon of Chitauri rallied in its center. But when the Hulk roared a threat and rushed them, a fleet of alien soldiers on flyers swooped down from the levels above to converge on the massive man.

Evidently they had thought to lure Banner here to ambush him from above. Equally evidently they had failed to learn from their comrades' failed invasion; that the Hulk could not fly did not limit him to ground combat.

"ALIENS FIGHT HULK DOWN HERE!" Banner bellowed, and sprang into the air some fifty feet, whereupon he took hold of a strut halfway between ceiling and floor and used it to vault himself the rest of the way to the top. Kicking off the ceiling, he smashed down into the center of the flyers with the speed and power of a half-ton green cannon ball. As he fell he grabbed one of the broken flyers, swinging it like a giant mace to knock more Chitauri from the sky.

Thor hastened into the chamber before there were no enemies left to smite. The Chitauri platoon scattered so as not to be crushed by the Hulk's landing—a regimented maneuver, not simply panicked escape; even as they retreated, they regrouped. But their goal was Banner, and that made them deplorably easy targets for Thor. Mjolnir had cleared a swathe through a third of them before the others even realized his presence.

Thor grinned when he felt a staff bolt sear his thigh—the first such blow he'd received since Banner had transformed, and he was viciously elated that they would threaten him, even with the Hulk claiming the greater part of the glory. He threw Mjolnir to splinter the offending staff, while spinning to punch the Chitauri bearing down on him from behind. His fist slammed the soldier back into two of his companions, felling all of them, as Thor turned back to catch Mjolnir on its returning arc, ready for the next aliens moving in.

For some minutes the brawl was gratifying. These were the Chitauri closest to Thanos; the disjointed hands raised to him now might be the same that Loki had suffered under. After so long with no worthy target for his rage and anguish, Thor had nearly as much as Banner to expend.

But knowing his true foe was close, on board this vessel, perhaps only a tunnel's length away, gnawed at Thor, cut the heart out of his satisfaction. The frustration built with every foe he felled. Banner too was discontented, by his less frequent bellowing, and Thor felt, distantly under the hot-blooded tide of battle, a growing apprehension. He and the Hulk both were greatly stronger than these foes; but they came in such numbers, every soldier felled replaced by two more, three. Thor brought his lightning down upon them, but in the ship's confines he had not the full power of the storm at his call, and each Chitauri came a little closer. If Banner's anger ebbed, if Thor's arm faltered—if Thanos meant to weaken them before finally showing himself—

"Hey, guys, ready for a breather?" an unexpected voice muttered in Thor's ear. The Hulk roared with renewed rage as Stark said, "We're in place, the jammer's ready to deploy—"

"Do it!" Rogers said from wherever he was, sounding breathless.

Thor brought Mjolnir down, splayed fingers of white-hot electricity coursing over the Chitauri surrounding him. As the lightning struck there was a faint high whining noise, akin to the radio's hiss, somewhat too akin to the crackle of Mjolnir's current—

Then it was silent—all silent, the half-forgotten thrum of the ship's engines suddenly muted. And all the Chitauri around them at once fell, without making a sound themselves. Their flyers tumbled from the air to skid along the ground, throwing aside the soldiers riding them; staff weapons dropped from nerveless fingers as the entire army crumpled like paper thrown into a fire.

The aliens were breathing still; Thor could see their chests move. But they made no other cries, no more motion, lying still upon the ground. He stared around at this bloodless carnage.

"So? Did it work?" Stark's disembodied voice asked, eager.

"Yeah," Rogers replied, and Barton added, "Looks like you jammed them good!"

"This is fearsome sorcery," Sif said, her voice strange and strained over the thin-sounding radio. Thor could not tell if she were impressed or horrified; he was not sure which he more felt himself. He had generally understood the meaning of Stark's weapon; but understanding was different from witnessing its damage.

"Not sorcery," Stark corrected, "just the weakness of a hive-mind connected via electromagnetic brainwaves—I figured that since the nuke's EMP pulse seemed to disable them back on Earth, a properly tuned jammer could—"

The Hulk's grunt interrupted Stark's patter. Banner turned in place, huge feet crushing stone to dust, as he surveyed the paralyzed battlefield. Then he stomped towards Thor, hollering, "GOD SMASHED HULK'S TOYS!"

"Hold, Banner," Thor said, raising his hand. "There'll soon be another fight for you!"

He lifted Mjolnir, concentrating as he had not been able under the Chitauri's endless onslaught. The dankness in the air gathered to the hammer's charge, invisible mists coalescing into a black thunderhead in miniature, roiling in the center of the vast chamber. Then Thor released its power in a lightning bolt that struck at his feet, singeing the very air around him.

Touched by the electric surge, the Hulk growled, "OW!" pawing at his skin as if to brush the lightning from it. "STINGS!"

"Thanos!" Thor raised his voice over the thunder-crack, casting his gaze around the vast room as he brandished his hammer. "Your army lies in ruin, and Thor Odinson challenges you once more! Will you again try to escape past me like a coward? Shall I be forced to cleave your skull from behind as you flee, or will you face me?"

"You think to fight me, Asgardian?" came a rumble behind him, where there had been naught but fallen Chitauri before—a voice that was hardly a voice but a tectonic grinding; a voice that was an earthquake or an avalanche, disaster articulating its contempt for the life that strove to overcome it. "You know not what you challenge."

Thor began to turn, but before he glimpsed what moved at his back, a blow broke across his face like a tidal wave and tossed him tumbling aside. The wall hit nearly as hard as the punch, rattling his brains within his helmet; Thor was momentarily dizzied, stumbling as he tried to find his feet.

In the center of the chamber where he had lately stood now loomed a figure, a massive, bulky form. The Mad Titan was nearly of both height and breadth with the Hulk, stone-gray and solid as a cliff-face, armored in gloom and gold, and his mouth a jagged chasm as he smiled.

Thor grinned back, battle-thirst throbbing hotly in his veins. This was the being who had found his brother in the abyss, the monster who had broken Loki, who made him scream in nightmares still. "At last you show yourself, titan!" Mjolnir had been knocked from his hand; Thor called the hammer back, and the wind sang as it flew to him.

Then Thanos without looking behind himself brought his arm down, and struck Mjolnir from the whistling air. The hammer spun round without direction, flipping end-over-end to bloody the fallen Chitauri soldier it smashed against.

Thor was already charging in, arm outstretched as he summoned Mjolnir once more from where it had landed. The hammer scraped along the ground, carving a long trench in the stone, then flung itself into his hand. Thor did not try to halt it, but used the heavy hammer-head's momentum along with his own to carry it forward and drive it into Thanos's cragged chin.

But the titan did not fall back under the blow; he barely staggered, jerking his head forward again, as his great hand came up, fast as Thor's own lightning, to wrap around Thor's neck, thick fingers digging in to crush his throat.

Thor did not bother trying to twist free; instead he tightened his grip on Mjolnir and called down what new lightning had collected in the small stormcloud still churning above. Thanos grunted, shuddering under the jolt, but his hold did not loosen.

"GOD FIGHT HULK!" Banner demanded, folding his fists together in a brutal knot to club Thanos's back. The blow knocked the Mad Titan to the ground, loosening his hold enough for Thor to tear free, escaping barely in time before the Hulk leapt onto Thanos, feet first.

But Thanos rolled away from his attack and back onto his own feet in time to meet the Hulk's next charge. "Not a god," he said in his grating landslide voice, "no more than you; we are those that are above them."

The Hulk paid no heed to the titan's mad ranting; he threw his giant fist forward in a punch that could knock the roof off a building.

Thanos did not duck or block. Instead he raised his hand to catch the blow; the green knuckles slammed into his broad palm, and stopped, like a log crashed into a boulder.

The titan was driven back in the doing, but only a single step; then he forced forward again, grasping the Hulk's massive fist to hold him in place. Banner bellowed in outrage as he tried to wrench himself loose, wildly swinging his other fist to clout Thanos across the stony brow.

Thanos took this hit unflinching, red eyes glaring at the Hulk as he ground out, "You are strong." Still grasping the Hulk's fist, he raised his other hand—but not to deliver an answering blow. "Too strong; I cannot have your interference."

His left hand was armored in gold. Set in the gauntlet's back, dwarfed by the titan's massive hand, was a small cobalt gem, its blue glow all too familiar.

"No!" Thor cried, driving forward with Mjolnir swinging. But Thanos saw him coming, kicked him off. His boot caught Thor in the chin, at a poor angle but still it snapped his head back, knocked him sprawling to the ground.

The Hulk's next blow did not fall; he stood silenced and suspended, great fist drawn back. The stone's flaring blue light blended oddly with his green skin as Thanos put the gauntlet to his chest.

"Oh hell," Thor unexpectedly heard Barton hiss in his ear, "don't tell me that's—"

Thor could not guess where in this cavernous room the archer might have appeared, and did not try to determine it. "Stop him!" he shouted.

Out of seeming nowhere an arrow screamed toward Thanos's head. Without looking the titan batted it aside; it exploded in a teeth-rattling burst of flame and smoke and noise.

But when it cleared, Thanos and Banner stood just as they had been, untouched; except the Hulk's furious grimace had gone slack and blank, and his dark eyes were bright, glimmering blue to match the stone.

Then those unnatural blue eyes rolled back into his head, and Banner toppled backwards. He shrank as he fell, all his incredible strength folding uncomfortably back into his mortal body. So that an ordinary human hit the ground, bare but for his ragged pants, unconscious and helpless as the fallen Chitauri as Thanos raised his boot over his skull.

Another arrow exploded in Thanos's face, releasing a choking gray cloud. Thor flung Mjolnir and himself with the hammer, skidding low along the ground. Through the smoke he seized Banner under one arm, and let Mjolnir drag them both out of danger—

Or tried to, but Thanos grabbed his ankle, slamming Thor down into the floor, cratering the solid rock. Thor twisted in time to shield Banner's limp body from the impact, taking its brunt on his own shoulders, then quickly rolled aside as Thanos's foot stomped down, the stone further shattering under his boot.

One arm curled protectively around Banner, Thor gripped Mjolnir in the other as he lurched to his knees. In his ear the radio was buzzing, "Shit—Bruce—the Hulk is down, repeat, Thanos took down the goddamn Hulk—!"

"What—how—?"

"Retreat," Rogers said over Barton and Stark, "Avengers, retreat! Thor, get out of there—Sif, wait—!"

As Thor brought up his hammer to desperately block Thanos's next crushing blow, a swift silver figure swooped down, as fast as one of Barton's arrows. Sif was like a Valkyrie, howling and luminous, as she parried Thanos's swing with her sword—but he had his gauntlet yet, and his strength besides—"No!" Thor shouted. "Sif, flee—!"

A sweep of Thanos's great hand knocked her aside, smashing her to the floor at his feet. She rose unsteadily, blood winding in a crimson ribbon down the side of her face, but her sword still raised unerring toward the titan.

The crevasse of Thanos's grin split his mouth. "You," he rumbled, "would be a worthy pawn, to grant death to my would-be challenger," and he lifted his golden gauntleted hand, its blue stone shining to wicked life.

Thor lunged for Sif, not knowing how to shield her from that terrible power, only that somehow he must, along with Banner, even if he fell in the doing—

"Thor," a voice whispered in his ear—the radio, he thought at first, except it was not whining with faint electric static but as clear as if the speaker were standing before him; and the voice did not belong to any of his human allies. "Brother, take hold—"

"Loki?" Thor gasped in confusion.

"Hold Sif tightly," his brother's voice commanded, "and the human, and do not lose your grip on Mjolnir—now!"

Thor did not understand, but he launched himself forward, even as Thanos's gauntleted hand knocked aside Sif's sword as if brushing aside a blade of grass. Thor did not try to block him, but hooked his arm around Sif's waist to pull her back. Banner tucked under his other arm, he gripped Mjolnir's haft.

A ghostly silver light was curling about the hammer-head. Thor threw Mjolnir with all his strength, and felt it caught—yanked. Even the Mad Titan reached for them with his gauntlet, Thor and Sif and Banner were pulled out of his grasp—pulled out of the ship, out of space itself and into the rushing light of the world tree between.

Then Thor was stumbling on smooth solid ground, still clutching his friends to him. Gleaming golden walls surrounded them instead of dank gray darkness, and the fresh scent of summer leaves replaced the blood and smoke of battle. And Loki was staring at him, eyes green and enormous in his wan face, lips whitening as he pulled them into almost a smile, saying, "Welcome back, brother."

Chapter Text

To Thor's clearing eyes, his chambers appeared no different from when they had departed, except that the sun out the windows was at a lower angle.

And there were only three of them standing now in Loki's ash circle, where there had been seven.

As Sif caught Banner's still-unconscious body and lowered him to the floor, Thor swung toward his brother, thundering, "Where are the others, Loki—where are the rest of my friends!?"

"Too far away, regrettably," Loki said. "The spell's anchor—"

"The anchor was on the ship!" Thor cried. "Or so you claimed!" He moved to grab Loki.

Loki jerked back, as if Thor's hands were raised to strike him, and stumbled as he did. His too-pale face went bone-white as his knees buckled, and Thor barely caught him by the arms before he fell. Loki sagged in his grip, head lolling back and lashes fluttering over glassy eyes.

Thor gave him a shake, rough but his heart was still pounding, the nerves of battle and sour panic running too high in him for calm or gentleness. "If you feign infirmity to avoid my wrath—"

"Not—not infirm," Loki mumbled, twisting his head in denial. He wrenched himself from Thor's grasp, only for his legs to fold under him, sitting him hard upon the floor. Head hanging down, he panted, "Too much power, expended too quickly—had to bring you back. The spell wasn't readied, but Thanos...if I did not..."

"Loki!" Thor crouched before his brother to take his shoulders, tipping Loki's face up to him. "Why did you not bring all of us back? Where are my friends now?"

Loki blinked, struggling to focus on Thor's too-close face. Before he could speak, a deeper voice behind them said, "They are yet on Thanos's ship."

Thor looked back to see Heimdall, standing in his chambers as solid and sure if the palace itself had been built around him. The watchman's head was in profile as he stared out an immeasurable distance beyond the windows. "They run from Thanos," he reported. "They are fleet; he has not caught any of them yet. The Man of Iron and the Black Widow are almost to the spell's circle, and the captain and the hawk-eyed man will arrive shortly..." Heimdall stopped, frowning, then slowly shook his head. "Thanos once more blocks my vision; I can no longer see the ship or those upon it."

"Send me back!" Thor demanded. "Loki, you must return me to the ship; I can waylay Thanos long enough to aid their escape—"

"No!" Loki pulled his head up, vague eyes snapping open and aware. "No," he repeated, more distinctly, "would you not rather I use what power I have remaining to rescue your humans?"

"But the spell—you claimed once you brought us back, your anchor on the ship would be lost, and you'd need Stark and Banner's magic to locate it again—"

"My anchor is still in place," Loki said, "as it was not how I summoned you back here. If the humans reach the circle, I can bring them back." He braced his arms on the floor to push himself standing, hunched over and with little of his usual grace. Thor took his arm and Loki leaned on him heavily. He was still more pallid than most corpses, hand shaking as he reached toward the circle traced on Thor's floor. "Move from it," he ordered Sif, "and the mortal, too."

Sif cast a resentful look his way, but at Thor's nod she obeyed, scooping up Banner and easily carrying him aside. Loki, still leaning on Thor, gestured to actuate his magic, a faint green glimmer streaming from his fingers to spiral around the circle on the floor. Thor could feel the prickling power flowing through his brother, as if holding Loki were like holding Mjolnir or Gungir, his very form charged and channeling his sorcery with no tool but his own will.

"Watchman," Loki asked Heimdall, his voice gone hoarse and harsh with effort, "can you see any shadow of the humans' location?"

Heimdall shook his head again. "Nary a glimpse."

"Why does it matter?" Thor demanded. "You claimed that once we stood within the circle on the ship, you'd be able to sense us, regardless of Thanos's obscuration—"

"Yes, well, I was assuming you would be in that circle," Loki snapped, though his voice was too weak to carry more than a trace of acerbity. "This is proving a greater challenge."

"Summon them back now!"

"So you'd willingly abandon whoever has yet to return to the circle?" Loki said. "Once the spell of returning is cast, the anchor is broken. If the humans are not in it—or Thanos is instead—"

"Then bring the others back how you brought me," Thor said.

"That would be difficult," Loki said, "since to my knowledge none of them carry Mjolnir."

"Mjolnir?"

Loki was staring at the circle, not at Thor; his fingers continued pouring magic into the spell, energy drained from his own self. "The night before the fleet departed, I wound a thread of magic within the hammer's core," he said. "It's how I brought you from the Point, and drew you across Yggdrasil now."

Thor frowned down at his hammer, remembering that silver strand of light. He could see no hint of the magic now. "You said nothing of this before—why?"

Loki's lips pulled back into the best smirk he could manage, with his concentration so divided. "I doubted you'd approve of me keeping a hidden hold on your weapon that you allow no one but yourself to wield."

"Does this hold linger still?" Thor began to ask. "Or did your spell—"

Before he could complete the question, he was interrupted by a voice hissing in his ear, "—Thor?" The radio crackled, faded out and in again, briefly. "Bruce? Don't know—went, but if—in Asgard—the gang's all here—the magic circle—beam us up, Loki—Any time now—if you can even hear this—got the gain up as far as—so here's hoping—" Abruptly it cut off entirely.

"Stark!" Thor exclaimed. "Loki, they're in the circle—bring them back! Now!"

"Trying," Loki said, teeth gritted, fingers bent into claws with the shimmering green of his sorcery winding between them. The air over the circle was wreathed in emerald mist, thickening like a cloud caught under a glass dome, into an opaque sphere as tall as a man. "Thanos—seems to be—impeding the spell. Thor—your help—"

"Yes," Thor said, "send me, I'll fight him off long enough to distract his magic—"

"No!" Loki coughed out. His other hand clutched at Thor's arm, closed around his wrist with bruising force. "Not you—the hammer—"

"Mjolnir?" Thor grasped his weapon's haft and raised it, Loki's fingers still braceleting his forearm.

"The circle," Loki said. "Strike it with your lightning!"

The day outside was mostly clear, but Thor called what he could, a spidery, jagged bolt crackling from the window to Mjolnir, then leaping to strike the green-cast sphere. The magic, Thor's and his brother's both, flared up, green and silver-bright light sparking like steel on flint. Sif brought up an arm to shield her eyes, swearing an oath. Heimdall stared into the magic's brilliant heart, impassive.

Then the ball of sorcery cracked like an egg, breaking open as it faded to nothing, and four humans spilled out and tumbled to the floor.

Barton, Natasha, and Rogers all immediately rolled to their feet, weapons at ready as they stared about themselves. Stark lay between them, on his back in his armor like a flipped turtle. His helm's mask opened and he blinked upwards, said, "Guys? Guys, stand down, that ceiling looks familiar..."

"My friends!" Thor said, greatly relieved to see them all, and with no serious injuries apparent. "You escaped Thanos!"

He would have gone to them, had Loki not slumped, with no warning but a faint trembling exhalation, his outstretched arm dropping lax at his side. Thor caught his brother, carefully helped him to sit on the carved bench beside the wall. He kept his hand on Loki's shoulder, steadying him when he swayed as he sat. "Brother, are you—"

"—Fine," Loki gasped, leaning over and breathing so deeply his shoulders heaved, as if he needed more air than his lungs could hold.

"Sif," Thor said, "if you would please find my mother, and ask of her what fruits besides Idunn's would best restore depleted magics?"

"All right." Sif frowned briefly at Loki, then turned to the humans and said, "Avengers, you will see to your comrade?" and she indicated Banner, lying supine and insensate at her feet, her silver cape spread over his bare chest.

"Bruce!" Stark struggled, his armor clanging against the floor as he ineffectually tried to move his limbs. "Uh, guys, could I get some help—and how's Bruce—"

"Out cold, but he's breathing okay," Barton said. He tucked the cape around Banner as Natasha pressed a hand to his throat, reported, "Pulse is good and steady."

"So, par for the course after de-Hulking," Stark said, relaxing and silencing his clattering iron attire.

"Tony?" Rogers asked. "What's wrong with the suit?"

"Blew a fuse, I think," Stark said. "I told you it was a gambit, putting all power to the radio, but the headsets aren't designed for that long-distance comms, and without a satellite to boost it—did I get through, Thor?"

"You did," Thor said. "Loki would not have known to bring you back, otherwise."

"'So you were bullshitting us when you said you should be able to see your magic circle through Thanos's cloaking device?" Stark did not sound angry or even resigned, so much as curious.

"No," Loki said, and even so feeble from exhaustion that he could not sit up without assistance, he still managed a prideful sneer. "I was able well enough to sense my ring; it was only your lesser mortal beings that fell beneath my notice."

"Tony," Rogers said, kneeling to tap his knuckles upon the Man of Iron's breastplate, beside the glowing star of his heart. "How do we get you up and able?"

"Emergency manual release is on my right side in this model," Stark said. He clattered again as he attempted to lift his arm more than a handspan. "Can't quite reach it—"

"Here?" Something clicked under Rogers's hand and the Iron Man's armor suddenly retracted from his limbs.

"Much better!" Stark said, bouncing back to his feet and stretching to test his new freedom. With only his torso armored he still brought to mind a turtle. Unconcerned with this awkward appearance, Stark clapped Rogers on the shoulder in thanks, then joined Barton and Natasha over Banner, satisfaction giving way to concern on his mobile face.

"So how were you planning to bring us back, if you couldn't pick up our pathetic mortal vibes?" Barton asked Loki, with considerably less lenience than Stark.

"It wouldn't have vexed me, had you not been so thoroughly defeated." Loki glared sidelong at Thor. "I warned you of Thanos's strength—"

Before Thor could answer this base accusation, Stark said, "Bruce? Hey, buddy, you with us?—aw hell, that can't be good—"

Barton's attention was suddenly off Loki and entirely on Banner, bow in his hand with an arrow strung on it, aimed unwavering at Banner's head as he slowly sat up. "Whoa!" Stark cried, lunging to get between the archer and their comrade. "Watch where you point that!"

But Barton was not aiming without cause—Banner's eyes were glazed over with the Tesseract's shimmering blue. He smiled at them, serene and unconcerned, said casually, "Hey, guys, you know what? I think we picked the wrong side."

"Oh no," Rogers muttered, as Thor reached for Mjolnir.

His other hand he kept on Loki's shoulder, to hold his brother from overstraining himself rising. Loki was staring at Banner, eyes wide. "How—?" he breathed.

"A little brainwashing is no reason to go putting holes in anybody—" Stark was trying to convince Barton.

The archer did not lower his bow. "If he hulks out now—"

"Getting put under was what made him turn back," Rogers said, "so maybe—"

"Bruce," Natasha said, crouching next to the man.

Banner turned to her, smiling that blue-eyed, fatuous smile. "Yes, Natasha?"

"Sorry about this," Natasha said, and drove her fist neatly between his eyes, sending Banner sprawling.

"Hey!" Stark exclaimed, moving slightly too late to catch their comrade.

"Cognitive recalibration," Natasha said briefly, with a nod to Barton. "It worked before."

"But Bruce is a scientist," Stark protested. "He needs his brain unscrambled—"

"And unbrainwashed," Rogers pointed out.

"—besides, I don't think you were actually sorry at all," Stark said, glaring at Natasha as he slid his hand under Bruce's head to cushion it from the floor.

Natasha rolled her shoulders in a stretch that might have been a shrug. "Well, I wouldn't get much other chances to do that, with him," she said.

Barton had yet to lower his bow. "Question is, did it work?"

"It should have," Loki said. "From this distance the hold would be weak, if it were Thanos who enthralled him."

Barton's shoulders were as stiffly rigid as if he bore the weight of his planet and Asgard besides upon them, for all his arrow was unwavering. His focus did not falter, not glancing at Loki for even an instant as he said, "Yeah, and thanks a lot for warning us that he could do that."

"Who do you think gifted me with that trick?" Loki asked, dangerously soft. Thor gripped his shoulder, not liking the brittle edge to his tone, nor how his brother was trembling minutely, perhaps only from enervation. "Though how he managed it now, with neither staff nor Tesseract, I do not understand..."

"With the Infinity Gauntlet," Thor said

"What?" Loki's head jerked up, eyes widening until their green was rimmed all round with white; he might have paled had he not already been grayer than a phantom. "But he cannot—it's guarded in the treasury—!"

"What's an Infinity Gauntlet?" Rogers asked.

"Thanos wields a second gauntlet, on his left hand," Heimdall pronounced from where he stood over them. "I saw it clearly in the brief time he was distracted from his obscuring spell."

"A second." Loki made a choked rasp, as if his throat were strangled too close for a laugh to escape. "I should have guessed, I should have guessed he had another—"

"—Another what?"

"The stone set in it is not yet an Infinity Gem but a lesser piece," Heimdall said, "akin to that in the scepter now on Midgard."

"Of course," Loki said. "Thanos wouldn't have given me the scepter, had he not had his own tool to counter it; I was not so trusted a slave. He must have forged the left gauntlet to complement the right—though it cannot have the power of the right, without the Infinity Gems to craft it around. Perhaps the scepter's crystal was an earlier prototype...either way, that's how he draws on the Tesseract now. Even with most of its energies warded, what he can yet channel is formidable—I should have guessed—"

"Yeah, it is pretty obvious," Stark said. He shrugged when they all looked to him, Asgardians and humans alike. "Okay, I don't actually know what the hell we're talking about, but gauntlets, gloves, they all come in pairs, right?"

"So let me get this straight," Barton said. "This gauntlet—gauntlets—are like your scepter, only worse? Brainwashing voodoo, the works? And you guys have one here in Asgard...let me guess," and his gaze did go to Thor now, if but briefly, "—that was what you got hold of before? Thor mentioned an incident..."

Loki took his meaning immediately. "It was," he said. "I used the gauntlet to enthrall my brother and attack my father, in an attempt to claim the Tesseract for myself."

The confession was more terrible for being so plainly spoken; Thor saw his friends' faces blanche, those he had told and those he hadn't. "Loki," he murmured, closing his fingers tighter around his brother's shoulder.

Loki did not look at him, head raised to regard the other Avengers. "It was that attempt," he said, "which opened the Tesseract to Thanos's awareness, that he could track it here to Asgard." He inclined his head at Thor, added with hint of wry resignation, "I imagine your ally neglected to tell you that it is my fault the Mad Titan threatens this realm now. Excuse Thor that prevarication; he did it for me, and learned it from me. Either way I fear I'm no good influence on him."

"Right..." Stark said, drawing the syllable out with skeptical languor. All the humans were looking at Loki askance, no less than Thor himself; even not knowing his brother so well, they could yet suspect the deception in his apparent honesty. Though even Thor could not guess to what hidden end he now worked.

"The threat to Asgard's contained for now anyway, isn't it?" Barton asked after a moment. "We didn't take down Thanos, but his ship's dead in the water, however many thousands of miles out."

"Over a million," Stark said, "but that won't last. For one thing, we didn't turn on retro-thrusters, so the ship will keep moving, with or without engines. For two, according to my research the jamming won't do the Chitauri any permanent damage. And since Thanos is still alive and kicking, he can find the jammer and wreck it, might've already—we didn't get a chance to hide it, we weren't counting on him flipping both Thor and the Hulk like flapjacks. So best case scenario, we slowed him down for a day or two, but he's still coming. Worst case, we didn't slow him down at all and him and his army will be here by tomorrow morning. And either way he's going to be one pissed-off crazy titan."

"So what are our options?" Rogers asked. "If the Hulk and Thor aren't enough to bring down this guy..."

"Not when he can take them out of commission," Stark said. "And maybe turn some of us against everybody else—Thor, it worked on you before, the gauntlet's brainwashing?"

Thor nodded; as he tried to force himself to speak around his shame, Loki said for him, "It did, though only for a limited time, before his will overcame it."

"He wouldn't need long to take us out. So if hand-to-hand's off the table..."

"Nuke him?" Barton suggested. "Pop back to Earth, pick up a missile..."

"Even me and Captain Patriotic together couldn't talk the government into overnighting an active nuclear warhead to a foreign power," Stark said. "Besides, I'm not convinced that would do it—we blew up the other ship good, and if Thanos was on it...most people wouldn't be invading a few months after taking a missile to the face, is what I'm saying."

"So how do we play this?" Rogers asked. "A coordinated assault? How many of us could he affect with the gauntlet at once?"

"I wonder if I could figure out a way around that," Stark mused. "If the gauntlet could be blocked like my reactor blocked the scepter—though if it's stronger—"

"—He can't use the gauntlet if he can't get his hands on us, right? If you beefed up my arrows, your lasers—" Barton suggested.

"—should have brought more armor-piercing rounds," Natasha murmured, checking her belt.

"My friends," Thor said, with force enough that they all quieted, looking to him. "I am more grateful than I can say, for your allegiance," he said, bowing his head to their bravery. "But this is not your realm and not your battle, and I cannot ask you to do more than you've already done. I'll take you to the Bifrost, and send you back to Midgard—"

"So we can cut and run, just like you did back on Earth when we were in trouble—oh, wait—"

"The conflict then was as much Asgard's as your realm's," Thor protested.

"But would you help us again, even if it weren't?" Rogers asked.

"I would, if you asked it," Thor said. "You are my allies now, and battle-mates besides."

Rogers nodded. "There you are, then."

"Besides," Stark added, "if Thanos defeats you guys then he becomes Earth's problem. Better to nip this in the psychotic demi-god bud."

"...not demi-gods," Banner mumbled faintly. "The titans were the predecessors of the gods, not their hybrids..."

All the Avengers looked to their man on the floor. Barton and Natasha readied their weapons, though forbore to aim at their comrade without proven cause.

"Hey," Stark said, peering down at Banner and cradling his head in a careful hand. "You back with us? Brain finished with the spin cycle?"

Banner sat up with Stark's assistance, blinked around at them as he pulled the cape tighter around his bare shoulders. His eyes were clear, no glimmer of blue frosting their dark brown. "Whoa," he said. "That was..."

Barton folded his bow away and crouched on Banner's other side, opposite Stark. "Welcome to the mind control club—sorry it sucks so much. But you're okay now."

"...Yeah," Banner said, drawing a deep breath and releasing it in a long hiss. He brought up his hands, closed them into fists and opened them again, slowly, watching them. "Yeah, I'm okay."

For a moment Thor thought he saw a tinge of green staining Banner's knuckles like an old and faded bruise; but when he looked closer the unnatural color was gone. The human lowered his hands, raised his face to the rest of them. "Sorry about that," he said. "The mission could have gone better, what I remember..."

"Not your fault you got the mind whammy," Tony said cheerfully, patting Banner's back. "According to our friendly neighborhood supervillain here, Thanos's golden glove was an upgrade of the scepter that he owned Clint with before. Besides, it could've been worse—at least we didn't have to deal with Megadeth siccing the Jolly Green Giant on us."

"Worse than you know," Thor said. "The gauntlet's enchantment greatly increases the strength of its thralls, as well as dominates their will."

"Okay, we really lucked out there," Rogers agreed. He looked slightly pale under his tan.

"No luck was required," Loki said. "He could not be angry, with his heart ruled by the Tesseract; anger is not an emotion the Tesseract has."

Rogers frowned at him. "So Thanos can't take control of the Hulk?"

"I believe that is what I just explained."

"Small favors," Banner murmured. "How are we going to handle him?"

"That's the million dollar question," Stark said. "So far we've got as far as establishing that leaving Thor and his folks to fend for themselves is not on the table. If you've got any actual ideas—this is definitely a two-genius problem."

Banner rubbed his hands over his face, stretching the skin pouching under his eyes. "From what I remember...someone as strong as Thanos, normally I'd just let the Other Guy handle him. And since he's presumably going to have his ship and army back as well, once he disables the jammer..."

"Though there's more where that came from," Stark said. "And it worked even better than expected, so the Chitauri shouldn't be too big an issue—"

"Do not discount Thanos so quickly," Loki warned. "In the disabling of your device he will likely develop protections against it; he is at least the genius you consider yourself."

Stark bristled at this, predictably; Thor rather suspected the slight was not unintentional on his brother's part. He gave Loki a reproving look, but Loki was studying Stark, an odd intensity to his narrowed eyes.

"And what about you, Plenty of Horn?" the unarmored Iron Man said, getting to his feet and crossing his arms over his glowing chest to stare down Loki. "You're supposed to be pretty clever yourself, but I haven't heard you coming up with anything. Even though Thanos is on your shit list, too—or are you on his? Something like that, according to your big brother."

Loki did not rise from the bench to loom over him, but he straightened his back, squared his shoulders. "I know how to defeat Thanos," he said. "I've known how since before you were brought here."

All the Avengers stared at him. "Then why didn't you say something sooner?" Rogers asked finally.

"Brother," Thor murmured, again dropping his hand to Loki's shoulder. "Don't, please."

Loki's shoulders fell as if that touch were too heavy a burden for them, but he did not lower his chin, jaw firm. "My brother cares not for my plan," he said.

"Let me guess," Barton said. "Because it's your plan, and the big guy here's not an idiot?"

"No," Loki said, and his voice was soft but clear, something in his tone making a silence that his words fell cleanly through. "Because he is my brother, and loves me, more than sense or history should allow. He knows there would be no chance for my trickery; but he would not see me go to my demise. Not if there were another way—but there is no other now."

"...Okay, today is just full of surprises," Stark remarked.

"So what is this plan?" Natasha asked, as quiet and clearly.

Thor squared his jaw to match his brother's. "Loki would take up the Infinity Gauntlet in our treasury."

"—Yeah, I'm loving it already," Barton muttered.

"He would bring it to Thanos in the guise of bearing a gift; then before Thanos could claim it, Loki would use his magic to destroy the gauntlet, and the gem in it which is the source of its power and its link to the Tesseract."

Stark whistled. "You could do that?" Banner asked, blinking at Loki. "But the energy potential in those crystals—I analyzed the scepter; if we're talking more powerful—"

"Significantly," Loki said. "An Infinity Gem is to the scepter's stone as a diamond is to flawed quartz."

"That might do it," Stark said. "That's the kind of yield measured in megatons—"

"Though more contained," Loki said, "as much of the mystic energies would be released into adjacent planes of reality. But if the blast does not rip Thanos's atoms asunder, then it will tear a hole in the realm that will banish him to the distant reaches of the void, deep enough that your world's telescopes still could not yet see him when your grandchildren's grandchildren have grown old." Loki's smile was thin and as cold as that void. "And I can assure you he would suffer there."

Thor's fingers curled around the thin shoulder under his hand, as if he could stop its invisible tremors by force. "And you would suffer the same fate, in the doing. Your magics could not shield you, no more than Thanos's could."

"They could not," Loki said. "Though destruction would more likely be my fate than exile to the void, since I would be holding the gauntlet."

"Couldn't you plant the bomb—gauntlet—and run?" Natasha inquired with mild curiosity. "Or teleport yourself out of danger?"

"To work such sorcery of destruction requires me to wield the gauntlet," Loki said. "And the energy released would prevent any escape via magic ways, or any shielding. At best I might be able to redirect more of the energies into other planes, and thus prevent my immediate destruction—but doing so would tear a wider hole in spacetime, and thus only hasten my banishment to the furthest void. Given the option, I prefer annihilation to return..."

"Return?" Stark repeated, frowning.

"No," Thor said, not meaning to speak, but the word escaped him all the same. "Neither the void nor death—you will not do this."

"You see?" Loki said, not ironically or irritated; his softness was almost gentle. "My brother argues on my behalf yet."

"It's not only me," Thor said. "Mother would not permit it and will not now; nor Father—"

Loki raised a long-fingered hand, a polite request for Thor's silence. His green eyes moved between the humans, meeting the gaze of each in turn, not defiant but patient. "I am not one to speak truths," he said, "but the truth is, Aesir do not lack a whit in courage, but have little experience with sacrifice, enjoying as they do the power and wealth of Asgard. Your human lives are far shorter than ours, but you understand how much they are worth, and what can be bought for their price. Who among you would not lay down your own life for your world? I believe most of you already have offered such, and would again. I would do the same—but my brother, my mother and father, would stop me. They would put my life above this realm."

"Aw, heck," Rogers said gruffly. "That's not an Asgardian thing—that's just family. How a family's supposed to be.

Loki bowed his head in silent acceptance of this wisdom. "It is for my family that I would do this."

"And not because you just hate Thanos that much?" Stark asked. "Or because you're bored with the whole breathing thing?"

His seemingly flippant tone was belied by how Loki's spine stiffened under it; but Loki's reply was level, as he looked to Stark, to the other humans, each in turn. "Ascribe to me what motives you wish. Say that I find my sins too burdensome to carry, or that I wish to wipe some measure of red from my ledger. Or that I think it my duty to settle a peril of my own making; or that I hope for one shining moment to be the hero. Whatever my true reasons, I would do this; and otherwise I know of no way to defeat Thanos."

Thor looked around his chambers at all his human friends. Stark was frowning, but not with anger, rather a thoughtfulness very like Loki's most intense consideration furrowing his brow. Rogers nodded once, slow and measured. Barton's arms were folded and his hawk eyes fixed on Loki, but evaluating, not doubting. Natasha's face was more difficult to read than Sif's at her most restrained, but if she had an argument she would speak it; and she stayed silent.

Banner was the only one among them not looking at Loki, but rather down at his own hands again, at his fists, square and sturdy but so small compared to his other self's.

And Heimdall watched them all, as silently and completely as always he observed. Like Natasha, he would raise a protest, if he had cause.

For a moment this considering silence lasted, and then Rogers, spokesman always, began, "Thor—"

But Thor had realized what to say. "Dare we risk giving you the gauntlet, Loki?" he asked deliberately. "How can we believe that you'll destroy it, rather than take it and flee, as you tried to before?"

"You know its powers are limited, with the All-Father suppressing the Tesseract," Loki said. "And I'm not as strong as Thanos; I could not make it far with it—"

"Perhaps not yourself," Thor said, "but if Thanos takes hold of it—takes hold of you, with his gauntlet—"

"He will not," Loki said surely. "Even if my magics aren't a match for his power, the Tesseract's energy is still the Tesseract, whatever tool channels it; were I wielding the right gauntlet, he wouldn't be able to control me with his left one."

"Even so, how do we know that you won't give the gauntlet to Thanos?" Thor asked. "What proof have you that you haven't been in secret service to him all along?"

He heard the humans murmuring but did not look back to them, keeping his gaze on his brother as Loki stared up at him. Loki's face was not even angry as much as shocked, brows drawn down and throat working as he said, "You know—you know better than any how I suffered at Thanos's hands; do you think I would ever give myself back to him?"

"You suffered under the Tesseract," Thor said flatly, swallowing down his rising gorge that he should say such a thing and forcing himself to go on, "but you gave yourself over to it gladly, and would again."

"You know that is different—" Loki protested.

"I know that you're a liar, brother," Thor said. "And that your schemes run deeper than I can ever fathom—how can I tell that this isn't one? Haven't you told me over and again that I shouldn't trust you?"

"You don't need to trust me," Loki said, and now ire flashed in his eyes, so bright that it might be mistaken for pain. "Not in this; I won't ask that of you again. But my hatred of Thanos is neither truth nor lie, but simply is. I could not be his pawn or his dog and still be Loki—and I am Loki, else you would believe me!"

"But you are Loki," Thor said, slowly, surely, "and I should not believe you. I cannot allow you to take the gauntlet to Thanos, even if you claim you'll destroy it; it's too great a risk for Asgard."

"For Asgard?" Loki asked, quieted to almost a whisper, and his eyes were darkened, no longer angry. "Or for your brother? A king cannot put family before the realm's good. If Thanos is not stopped—you cannot imagine what he will do to Asgard, if he is not defeated—"

"Then we will defeat him," Thor said confidently, "you and I together, if you're willing to take up the gauntlet again; but not by destroying it, or yourself. Not when there's another way."

Loki, opening his mouth, clapped it shut again, staring at Thor, searching. Thor did not know what his own expression held, but his brother always had been able to read him well, and by the paling of Loki's still too-pale cheeks, by the thinning of his lips, he understood.

Stark spoke first, before Loki could. "Okay, what'd we miss—do you have a plan, Hamlet? Because that sounded like you've got a plan..."

Chapter Text

"This is a bad plan," Stark said. "Just for the record, this is a terrible, terrible plan."

"I don't know," Barton said, testing his bowstring for weaknesses. "I'm coming around to it."

"That's because you're getting to aim an arrow at Loki's head."

"Eye," Barton said. "Straight at the eye. Best chance of penetration, I figure."

"Thor," Rogers said, ignoring their comrades, "are you sure about this? You're certain this is how you want to play this?"

"Play or duty," Thor said, "I am certain."

"You are a fool," Loki said, quietly, as if he were tiring of saying it.

Thor looked to him. "If you are unwilling, brother—"

"It's not my will that's to be—"

"Loki," Thor said, and Loki drew a breath, said, "Yes—yes, I am still willing."

He was pale yet, if steadier on his feet. They had returned to his dungeon cell, that the wards might afford protection should Thanos try to reach him—should Thanos realize that it was Loki's spells that had taken his prey, and seek vengeance beyond that he already sought. As well this trial of Thor's plan was best done within the wards, with Loki contained.

"In case this is my ploy as well, and I manipulated you into coming up with such a lunatic scheme?" Loki had asked.

"Yes," Thor had bluntly agreed, and Loki, mouth twisting wry and amused, replied, "Then I am flattered that you think so greatly of me."

"Heads' up," Natasha said, interrupting the quiet conversation she had been having with Banner in the corner of the cell. "The guest of honor's here."

Hearing the measured footsteps in the corridor, they all turned to the stairs, save for Thor, who looked to his brother instead. Loki's eyes were fixed on Heimdall as he descended into the cell—or rather on Heimdall's burden, carried between both hands and wrapped in silk so that he did not touch it: the golden weight of the Infinity Gauntlet, with the cobalt gem set in its back.

"Oh yeah," Stark said, "such a bad idea."

"Tony," Rogers muttered.

"Steve—this is basically like asking a recovering junkie to save the world with a ball of black tar heroin—"

Loki paid them no mind, turning instead to those entering the cell behind Heimdall: Sif, and Frigga with her. Only with Gungnir's authority had the queen been allowed to take the gauntlet from the vault; she bore the spear now, and set it down to stand vertical on its own, as she went to Loki. Taking his hands in hers, she asked him, "Loki, do you think yourself strong enough for this? If you are not—"

"I am," Loki said. "To fight Thanos, I am."

Frigga nodded, then drew from her sleeve a peach, a round ripe fruit near the size of a grapefruit, fuzzed and yellow-pink and so ripe its scent made the mouth water. "If you would eat, its charm will strengthen you," she said, though she did not press the offering on Loki, but simply let it rest in her hands before her.

Loki did not hesitate; he reached out and took the peach. "My thanks, Mother," he said, and bit deeply into the fruit.

Frigga turned from him to clasp Thor's hands with her cool dry fingers. "And Thor, are you sure—this will be so hard for you—"

"I know, but it's the only way I can think of," Thor said. "And it's still better than Loki's plan." Loki scowled, and Thor answered with a smile designed to deepen that grimace.

Loki shook his head, admonishing. "You would jest now?"

"I will, if you'd fail in your part as trickster and refuse to," Thor said. "We're going to defeat Thanos, brother; show a little cheer for our coming victory!"

Loki ate the last of the peach and made the pit disappear between his fingers—not illusion but simple sleight of hand, Thor thought, seeing no green of magic, and Loki needed to conserve his power besides. He met Thor's eyes, nodded.

Heimdall and Sif were both watching them, but Thor's fellow Avengers had turned away, looking elsewhere in the cell or out the window while Thor's family conversed—all save Natasha's, whose gaze was as clear and penetrating as Heimdall's. It was an endearing if unnecessary courtesy, and Thor smiled to see it, as he said, "My friends, we are ready."

Stark jumped from where he was poking a finger at Gungnir as it stood solitarily upright, hastily pulled back his arm and drew his back straight. His armor restored to working order, he wore it now but for the faceplate, so he was as tall as Rogers beside him. Clapping his armored hands together, he said, "Right, okay, that's our cue to get out, give you space...Thor, you're sure...?"

"I must be stronger, to face Thanos," Thor said, "and he must not be able to enthrall me with his gauntlet. This will ensure both."

Natasha stepped up beside the Man of Iron. "And you trust Loki not to take advantage of the situation."

"Hey, that's what we're for," Barton said. He had taken an arrow from his quiver, tapped it lightly against his bow. "Any funny business, we'll take him down hard. No trust required, when we've got steel and incendiary rounds—not to mention the Hulk's fists, if it comes to that," and he nodded at Banner, fully dressed again, and Sif, both taking up positions opposite him at the edges of the cell.

Stark, Rogers, and Natasha all seemed uneasy, in their own ways; but they climbed out of the cell to keep guard in the corridor above. Frigga raised the metal steps to seal off the barricade, then took her own place in the cell's fourth corner.

Thor walked to the center, and Loki joined him, standing around the circle which marked the staircase's descent. Heimdall came forward, extended his hands holding the gauntlet.

Loki stared down at it. The faint blue light from its gem washed out the little color the peach had restored to his cheeks.

Thor took Mjolnir from his belt, held the hammer firmly in his fist. "I am ready if you are, Loki," he said.

Loki licked his lips once and said, so softly that only Thor and Heimdall might have heard it, "And so you give it back to me, so easily—all I've wanted, needed, craved. You wield the hammer, a hero's tool for a hero—and I'll have this, a monster's tool for a monster—"

Thor shook his head. "You are no monster, brother—I do not think a monster would so badly want or need something to save himself from pain."

Loki huffed a single silent breath of laughter, then turned his head to look past Thor, to Frigga standing before the window. "Mother," he said, raising his voice just enough to carry, "if I should be...I've let your magic in me; do not hesitate to employ it."

"I will not," Frigga said, serenely assured.

"Don't worry," Barton said. "We've got you covered." He raised his bow, the arrow set on it, if not yet drawn.

Loki's lips quirked, almost as if he hid a smile. Then he turned to Heimdall, drew a breath and lifted the Infinity Gauntlet from its silk shroud, and slid his right hand into it.

The cobalt gem glowed to vivid life, and Loki exhaled, so long a breath it must have emptied his lungs. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them they were more gray than green, in the stone's shining.

"Loki?" Thor asked, and steeled himself not to flinch when those green-gray eyes lifted to him. Though Loki did not quite look at him direct but past him, the remote gaze Thor recognized from when his madness overtook him.

His brother's voice was calm, however, not manic but carefully controlled. "Yes," he said, "I know," and he raised his gauntleted hand—then hesitated, eyes sharpening slightly to focus on Thor. He angled his head in wordless inquiry; and Thor nodded.

Loki set the gauntlet over Thor's heart, and its gem glowed, flooding Thor's being with its magic. For a moment he resisted, instinctively and desperate, fighting to keep his will as a man fights to keep his face above the waves—but finally he sank beneath, drowned in that blue power, filled by its limitless strength. The very air he exhaled seemed charged with it; his heart pounded with the force of an earthquake, beating in time with the cobalt light pulsing within the gemstone.

"Thor," Loki said. "Look at me."

Thor forced his eyes from the blue stone's glory to meet Loki's, smiling with the sheer delight of his newfound strength. Yes, this would be enough; like this he could fight anyone and win. "Yes, brother?"

"Holy—I mean, um, shit," he heard Barton mutter to the side, "now that's creepy..."

"Raise Mjolnir," Loki told Thor.

Thor glanced down at the hammer in his fist. For a moment it seemed heavy, far heavier than it ought to be, when he could feel the strength flowing in him, endless and invincible.

"You will need it to fight Thanos," Loki said. "And that is a worthy fight—a righteous battle, to protect Asgard."

"Yes," Thor said, and the hammer was lighter now, solid and strong as his own arm, as he lifted it up toward the ceiling, shook it mightily. In the mists outside the windows, lightning flashed and thunder boomed, loud enough to rattle the floor beneath them.

"Good," Loki said, and smiled at him, tight but true.

Thor threw back his head and laughed. Blue ran like electricity through his veins, like the lightning made lasting. "Brother, this will be a great fight! You and I together can never be defeated; we'll save Asgard for sure!" He could not wait for the coming battle; he wished to fly from this cell now, smash open the barriers with Mjolnir and seek Thanos this very moment. He could bring Loki along, free him from this prison, if Loki wanted it. They would fight side by side, as ever they should—Thor did not know why he had not done so before. Loki was his brother; for all his tricks and sins, Thor could not think of why he would have doubted him. It seemed so strange and senseless, that ever he had.

"All right," he heard Sif say behind him, "this trial is over—release him, Loki, now!"

Loki turned his head, stared at her, and there was anger in his close-pressed lips. Thor tightened his fist around Mjolnir. If Loki asked it—

But Loki gave him no instruction, only raised his gauntleted hand again and brushed the golden fingers over Thor's chest, as if he were clearing away a cobweb stuck to his armor.

The stone's blue light faded, darkened, and Thor blinked. It was like waking from a dream, being one self and then removed to another. He stumbled from the vertigo of it, and Sif moved to his side, ducking to put his arm over her shoulders to support him. "Thor?" she asked urgently. "How fare you?"

"I am—all right," Thor said. He felt strangely weakened—his limbs as strong as ever, but feeble in comparison to the Tesseract's unnatural strength. Even Mjolnir felt too heavy, too solid for him to bear. He closed his fist around his weapon's haft, then straightened up from Sif's aid and looked to his brother.

That was strange, too, to look at Loki and feel fear, concern, all the turmoil of the past months; where there briefly had been complete and confident and unjustifiable faith. Thor could remember how clear his thoughts had felt under the enchantment, but the clarity itself was lost; the memories were vague, inexplicable, for all they'd seemed entirely self-evident mere moments ago. "Loki," he said, Mjolnir in hand, "the gauntlet—"

"I know," Loki said, though for a moment he did not move, and Thor feared he would resist—but then he drew the gauntlet off his hand. Heimdall came forward to take it from him, and Loki let it go, shuddering when his fingers lifted from its beaten gold. His eyes when he looked back to Thor still seemed paler than they should, colorless, the blue drained but the green not restored.

But he smiled thinly, turned to regard the others in the cell. Barton and Banner both looked discomfited; though Barton had lowered his bow, he shifted from foot to foot uneasily. Sif looked little more happy than the humans. Frigga and Heimdall both appeared calm, but Frigga lifted her chin when Loki met her eyes, and Thor thought her small smile was pride.

"So," Loki asked them, "have we proven ourselves to you? As long as Thor is still worthy of wielding Mjolnir, you know for certain that I've not turned his will toward my evil. And so enthralled he'll have the strength to challenge Thanos, and also be protected from Thanos's influence."

"Great!" Stark said, calling down through the barricaded ceiling. "Now that's settled, let's go kick some titanic ass!"

 


 

On Radsvinn's Point the Chitauri army had been defeated, but even the fastest ships in Asgard's fleet would not be arriving for another day yet, too late to intercept Thanos. All that remained in the golden city were a few slow barges. While they lacked in armaments and defenses, with the best archers of the city's militia along with the remaining Einherjar guards on board, they posed a not insignificant blockade.

They took formation along the branch of the World Tree that Thanos's hiveship followed, far enough out from the city that the palace's golden spires were only a twinkle behind them, like a bright morning star, as the sun rose.

There they waited for Thanos to come and the final battle to begin.

"Don't worry," Tony Stark said from where he paced along and sometimes off the deck, aided by spurts of his armor's rockets. "The jammer's set to go; as soon as the ship's in range, we'll have it and its army shut down. Then we can focus all fire on the big bad mad titan."

"We are not worried," Captain Eirikur said. As leader of the Einherjar squad, he was on the Avengers' barge, otherwise left clear, both to give the humans space to deploy their various equipment and talents, and that Loki would not be disturbed by Aesir suspicions—or else that Loki might not harm more Aesir, should he betray them after all.

Eirikur for his part had subjected Loki to a long hard stare for most of the voyage out, even not knowing the particulars of the plan, or what was in the silk-wrapped bundle in the hold. He accepted Thor's word that Loki was allied with them against Thanos, but clearly disliked seeing him out of his cell and not even manacled.

Now, however, the Einherjar captain's attentions were apprehended by the humans, and the more Stark spoke, the more his suspicions rose.

The Avengers' own captain was not unaware of it. Rogers gave Eirikur a salute, a little confused as to protocol and rank with their differing service, and said, "My apologies, Captain; he doesn't mean anything by it." In a less formal aside to Stark he hissed, "Keep a lid on it, Tony, please?"

"Yeah," Barton called down from his position in the crow's nest, "don't go starting duels with the nice Viking gods until after we've taken down the bad guy."

"Speaking of which," Natasha asked from the forecastle, "any estimate when the target's due? We're not seeing anything out here yet..."

"Soon," Banner said; he was monitoring one of the pieces of equipment he and the Man of Iron had brought on board. "By these readings he's definitely decelerating on an approach vector...not sure when that'll translate to visual range, not knowing the atmospheric density out here—if there is an atmosphere, which one wouldn't expect without a landmass, but obviously we're breathing something—so yeah, definitely—"

"—Soon," Loki completed. He had been sitting silently on the deck, seemingly uninterested in or unmindful of either the humans' impatience or Eirikur's distrust, his focus internal. Thor recognized his quiet from the prelude of a thousand prior hunts and battles: Loki gathering his power, marshaling his magics, considering his spells and strategy, even as Thor reassured himself of his own strength with sparring and shouting.

Once Loki's quiet might have been mistaken for cowardice, nerves before battle—once Thor might have teased Loki about such, even knowing it wasn't so. Though maybe some of the other warriors who joined in the mocking had truly thought him a coward, not understanding all the layers of lies his brother cloaked himself in; and maybe Loki had not denied that lie because he wished the warriors to underestimate him—or perhaps even then he had realized that a liar's denial would not be believed...

Thor did not tease Loki now, leaving him to his meditation and stopping his human comrades when they would interrupt him with questions. But Loki stood now, unfolding to his full height to gaze out over the prow, eyes narrowed. "Thanos is nearing," he said. "Thor—"

"Yes," Thor said, and they proceeded to the barge's hold. It would not do for Eirikur or the Aesir on the other ships to see Loki wield the gauntlet against Thor; they might misconstrue his intent. Better to explain after the battle, when everyone was flush with victory and celebrating, and more inclined toward exoneration than suspicion. "Easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission," Stark had said, winking. "It's my family motto!"

Barton joined them in the hold. "I know that Heimdall guy's watching," he said, "we've got him on our comms, plus he'll tell your mom if anything goes wrong—but just in case."

Loki arched an eyebrow at him, a hint of a sardonic smirk curling his lips. "And you truly think one of your little arrows could stop me, should I betray you now?"

"Big arrow," Barton corrected, pulling his quiver an bolt tipped with a head as wide as four of Thor's thumbs together. "This baby's special-order—Stark whipped it up for me, with Banner's help. The doc's done some reading up on his Norse myth, see. This maybe won't kill you, but I'm pretty sure it'll take out your eye, magic glove or no magic glove. Which will distract you long enough to take you down more permanently, I'm figuring."

"I will see to it," Sif vowed, ducking to enter the hold, holding the gauntlet in its silk wrappings.

"I would expect no less," Loki said. "And am glad you're both here for it."

"All right, enough with the mind games," Barton said, gesturing with his arrow. "Put on the gauntlet and get this party started."

"I don't remember you being so impatient when you served under me," Loki remarked to him.

Barton snarled an indistinct expletive. "Brother," Thor said, "he hates you enough already; you need not bolster him so."

As Thor took Mjolnir from his belt, Loki picked up the silk bundle of the gauntlet. He glanced between his watchers, the Aesir shieldmaiden, the human archer, and he was not smiling now. "You are well-chosen; your hatred of me assures you will not waver or hesitate, should I betray my brother, and the rest of you."

"We won't," Sif said, meeting his eyes squarely; then she added, "But do not, Loki. It would not be happily, that I would strike you down."

Loki looked between them, the bundle heavy in his hands. "He will forgive you, Sif, if you must do it," he said. "Won't you, brother?"

"Not only for that," Sif said, speaking before Thor could himself answer. "If you do this honestly, Loki—if you help save Asgard, and prove yourself once more our ally...once more our friend..."

Loki unwrapped the golden gauntlet, cradled it in his silk-draped hands. "Sif," he said quietly, and the gem's cobalt glow glimmered in his eyes as he met her hazel ones. "For what I did to you and to our friends, and for the pain my betrayal caused you—I truly am sorry."

Then the straight line of his mouth twisted as he dropped the silk, the gauntlet already on his right hand, and raised the golden glove to Thor's chest. "But you should know better," he said, "than to think I can do anything honestly."

The stone flared brilliantly blue, overwhelming Thor, even as through it he saw the green glimmer of Loki's own magic.

Then the barge's hold, Sif's opening mouth, Barton's hawk-eyed glare, all vanished, as Loki's spell swept himself and Thor away.

 


 

They reappeared in empty space, floating in the sky, Loki's left hand on Thor's arm sharing his magic to keep them both aloft. Over Loki's shoulder Thor could see the blockade of hovering barges, near enough to discern figures standing on the decks, but too far to hear their voices.

Thor idly wondered if they were shouting yet; he suspected Sif and Barton might be concerned by their unexpected departure.

"Thor," Loki asked, "you hold Mjolnir still?"

Thor nodded and raised the hammer in his fist. "No," Loki stopped him before he called lightning to prove it. "My spell veils us from their eyes, but a thunderbolt's not so easily disguised." He turned his head to study the barges. "Though Heimdall will soon tell them where we are—still, not accurately enough for the archer to aim his little arrow, I don't think."

"Why do you not hide us from Heimdall's sight as well?" Thor inquired.

"And cause them all to panic hunting us, instead of concerning themselves with the real threat?" Loki said. "As entertaining as that might be to watch—no, it would be too dangerous to divide their efforts. Besides, Mother would fret..."

Thor accepted this with an unconcerned shrug. "Then where shall we go?"

Loki looked back to him. "Anywhere I said, you would accompany me now, wouldn't you," he said. "To Midgard or to Jotunheim—anywhere in the Nine Worlds or beyond, you would stay beside me now."

There was an oddness to his tone, but Thor did not need to untangle it to reply certainly, "Yes." After consideration he frowned and added, "Though I don't know that I would so willingly agree, were I free from the Tesseract's spell."

"Likely not." Loki laughed, near-silently. "But we are going nowhere, Thor—not until Thanos arrives. I do not intend us to flee; I only moved us from the ship because they would have me squat in that cramped hold while you faced Thanos, and I would see that fight—I would see Thanos defeated, crushed beneath your strength. And if your battle goes poorly...well," and he glanced down at the golden gauntlet on his hand, the shimmering blue stone as bright as the sky around them, "then there's always the other option."

Thor felt a distant twinge, as if that look on Loki's face should concern him; but it did not trouble him enough to mention it. Instead he brought up Mjolnir, demanded, "When will Thanos arrive?

"His ship will appear soon enough. Are you ready to fight him?"

"More than ready!" Thor growled. "I will burn my lightning through his body, I will smash his bones to powder, I will beat him until he has no more blood to bleed—I will give to Thanos a hundredfold all the hurts you took from him, and destroy him in the doing—"

"Calm this bloodlust," Loki told him. "Else you take on too much of my will, and your hammer slip from your fingers—it will take you long to retrieve it, should you drop it out here."

But Mjolnir was no heavier than before; to Thor's fantastic strength now it seemed to weigh no more than one of his old wooden practice swords. "The bloodlust is mine, brother," Thor said. "I feel no different toward Thanos now than I did, and I could still wield Mjolnir against him. He hurt you grievously, and took you from us, kept you from us—keeps you from us still. I will make him pay for that."

Loki looked at him, brow furrowed. Thor said, "But I will stay calm now, as you ask it."

"Do so," Loki said. "The hotter your heart blazes, the faster you'll burn yourself free of the Tesseract's yoke—that you can use its power now does not mean you've accepted it. And I can barely wield it myself, even with the gauntlet; the cube will realize eventually that I am lying, that my will is not its own...I think I could not do even this, were Father not suppressing so much of its power, making it desperate for any chance..."

He shook his head, fell silent for a moment. The thin, chill winds of the space between the lands whispered around them. The blue sky was darkening with gathering clouds, the thunderheads coming to Thor, mustered by his battle-charged spirit.

Presently Loki said, "Thor, I would ask you a question now, when you must answer."

"All right," Thor said.

"You would bar me from destroying the gauntlet, and Thanos and myself with it."

"I wouldn't bar you now," Thor said, though something in him wrenched to say it, like the heaving of the World Serpent miles beneath Midgard's seas, far too deep to see and yet the surface rippled.

"I know, but don't think about that," Loki commanded him, and his hand resting on Thor's arm tightened. "Rather, I want to know why you would stop me. I know the reason you gave for me to stop myself, that I should not die before I've made proper restitution for my sins. But for what reason do you argue it so unwaveringly?"

Thor frowned at him, puzzled. "You need not have me enthralled to ask me that."

"Answer anyway."

"Because you are my brother," Thor said, "and I missed you dearly when you were gone; I would not lose you again."

"So simple?" Loki asked, whisper-soft.

"There's another reason," Thor admitted, "but it's more selfish; I wouldn't want you to hear it."

"Tell me anyway," Loki ordered, so Thor of course obeyed.

"You told me I would be a good king," he said, "and I want to be, and perhaps someday I will be, with much more time and practice and wisdom. But I would never be as good a king of Asgard alone as I would be with you beside me, with all that you can do that I cannot, that I will never do so well as you."

Loki's brow knitted. "Why would you shy from telling me this, if truly you think so? Because it shames you, to so need your wicked brother?"

"How could it shame me?" Thor said. "I didn't wish to tell you because Asgard is my kingdom and my beloved home—but it is not yours anymore, however I wish it still were. You are Laufeyson; you have no duty, no responsibility to this realm; it matters not to you whether Asgard is ruled well, so why should you devote yourself to it?"

"Yes," Loki said, so quietly, "why should I?"

"I do not want you in my shadow," Thor said.

"No," Loki said, a little stronger. "You wouldn't put me there now; even enthralled, the Odinson could not be content to be ruled by his lesser, so you must presently consider me at least your equal."

"I didn't always think you my equal," Thor said, "but I never wanted you in my shadow, now or before. All growing up, I always thought that someday you would draw even with me, so that when finally I stood crowned, you would be standing beside me in the sun, pointing us towards Asgard's brightest future. But I was blinded by that wish, and foolish; I kept looking behind myself, looking for you to catch up—when you were already at my side, and then walking ahead, while I lagged behind.

"And I am sorry, brother, because I think if I'd realized, that if instead I'd run to catch up with you, that Thanos never would have gotten hold of you—that you might never have fallen, that you would never have been given the crown you didn't want; that none of the evils you did would ever have come to pass—"

"Brother," Loki said, soft but undeniable, "know that what I am and what I do is not your fault. You helped shape me, that is true; and you wronged me, if not as badly or purposely as I did you—but I will not let you steal the burden of my evil; it is mine to bear. You've taken most of my lies from me; you will let me keep my sins for myself."

"All right," Thor said; he could not do otherwise.

Loki might have told him more, while he could and Thor could not deny it; but then he inhaled sharply, grayed-out eyes going wide and wild. Thor followed his line of sight, and saw, through the clouds, a tiny black speck in the sky, growing larger as he peered at it.

"Is that Thanos?" Thor asked, and Loki answered, "Yes."

Thor's pulse was booming in his ears like thunder; there was a bluish haze over his vision, like the scarlet tincture of rage, only this was power, infusing him until every nerve in him sang with it, screamed with it. His fingers clutched Mjolnir's handle so tightly they ached.

"Thor," Loki said, and reached up to lay the gauntlet's cold metal fingers against Thor's cheek, turning his face towards Loki. "Listen to me," he commanded, as if Thor could do anything else. "You will feel no pain as you battle, unless the injury threatens your life—and if it is threatened, or if you feel your power begin to falter, you will flee; you will use all strength remaining in you to escape. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Thor said.

Loki smiled viciously, lips drawn back over his teeth. He lowered the gauntlet, took his hand off Thor's arm, and said, soft but not calm, "Then go."

Thor swung Mjolnir, once, twice, thrice; then released the hammer at its highest arc and let it carry him, hurtling toward the Chitauri vessel, and his enemy aboard it.

Chapter Text

The hiveship decelerated as it approached the city, but it was still moving fast enough that the thin air gathered around Yggdrasil's branch screamed with the fire of its passage, flickering red-hot over its black hull. Thor flew toward it with such speed himself that the wind shrieking in his ears deafened him, as the vessel grew ever larger before him.

Chitauri flyers buzzed like flies around him; Thor wove between them without engaging any. The ship was his target, a giant spiked spider-vessel, too big by far to miss. They met with hurricane force, the vessel's warped and asymmetric keel buckling under Mjolnir, then ruptured, exploding inward as Thor forced his way inside.

Not knowing his way through the tunnels and twisting corridors, he smashed through them, heading upward. There were no human allies on the ship now in danger of harming, and Thor did not fear getting tired; the Infinity Gauntlet's energy coursing through him was as limitless as the universe itself.

"Thanos!" he roared as he broke through one deck after another. More Chitauri swarmed him, raised barriers against him, bolts from their staff weapons crackling. He minded not their minor irritation, swatted the soldiers aside only when they blocked his way, as if they were but more walls; they were not his chosen foe. "Fight me—"

Without warning a huge dark shape loomed over Thor. A fist of stone slammed into his stomach, sending him crashing back through the ship's shattered bulwarks as if falling through paper screens.

Over him he heard the voice of disaster rumbling, "So you've returned for your death, godling?"

"I've returned for yours," Thor shouted to his foe. He grinned as he swung Mjolnir around him, leveling stockades and Chitauri soldiers alike. "I'll destroy you with this ship, before you ever reach the golden city!"

"The arrogance of Asgard would shock even my people," Thanos said—from behind Thor now; he moved with remarkable speed, for so massive a being.

But Thor was faster now than he had been. He turned as Thanos threw his next blow, so the titan's fist slammed past his ear. Thor caught his arm and continued to carry him along that momentum, throwing Thanos's great rocky bulk over his shoulder.

Thanos crashed through the ship's heavy hull as if it were fragile glass. The howling winds outside rushed through the gap, whipping Thor's cape into a scarlet banner as the Chitauri shrieked in protest. He ignored them and flung himself outside after Thanos. Better to have this fight under the open sky anyway, below the thunderclouds, and in sight of Loki who had wished to watch it.

Four protuberances swelled from the hiveship's core, two pairs of pylons extending out like the limbs of some grotesquely fat, four-legged spider. The titan fell on the broad, curving deck of the bottom pylon, out in the open air, with the upper shading them from the setting sun. He landed on his feet, but when Thor dropped onto him, his fall hastened by Mjolnir, he knocked them both over, with Thor on top.

Thanos's shoulders caved in the dense metal under him as Thor pounded Mjolnir into the titan's craggy face, with all his new strength behind the blows. He got in three good hits before Thanos shouted, "Enough!" and cast him off like one would flick away a beetle, knocking aside the hammer with a sweep of his great hand.

There was the sharp crack of snapping bone, but Thor kept his grip on Mjolnir as he rolled back to his feet. His clenched fingers and arm both were numb, but there was no pain, as Loki had commanded.

Thanos grabbed Thor by the throat with his golden-armored left hand. Thor felt the gauntlet's cold metal fingers dig into his neck, forcing him up on his toes, as the titan's red eyes glared down upon him. "You are stronger than you were," Thanos rumbled. "Shall I turn that strength on your home, before I introduce you to sweet death?"

The cobalt stone in the gauntlet's back blazed blue—but not as bright or vivid a shade as the gem which Loki wielded, and Thor laughed in giddy triumph as Thanos's eyes narrowed in confusion. Tossing Mjolnir to his good hand, Thor brought the hammer down on Thanos's arm, smashing his elbow. The grasping fingers opened enough for Thor to wrench free, and he pushed off the ground to slam his shoulder into Thanos's stomach. It was like throwing oneself against a boulder, but the blow drove the titan back a step.

But even so Thanos was smiling, a fissure opened in his stone-gray face, and lava words spewing from it. "So that is the source of your new strength—you have already been opened to the Tesseract. Does Odin so fear me, that he would use his own son thus? But no..." The chasm opened wider. "No, he would not; I know him better than that. So, if not the All-Father...oh, it was my dog, wasn't it. My would-be general—Loki of Asgard," and his scathing tone warped the name into a mocking insult. "He sends you to glorious death to try to save his spineless self."

"He sends me nowhere that I was not already determined to go," Thor said. "And I go not to death but triumph, monster—I will protect my brother from you; you'll die at my hand before you near him again!"

"'Brother'," Thanos repeated. "So it was not a delusion, when he screamed for you? I thought his mind well-broken then, for a Jotunn to be so mad as to claim Aesir as kin—"

Thor let him get no further, and while the Tesseract's power lent strength to his arm, the rage which swung it so quickly was his own. Mjolnir's head caught Thanos square across the chin. If the titan had been braced for the blow, he was yet unprepared for its force; it crashed his teeth together, snapped his head back in a spray of dark blood. Thor pressed this advantage, swinging Mjolnir with the speed to charge the air around it, crackling and tingling as he forced Thanos back.

Until at last the lightning came, a great white bolt as blinding bright as the opened Tesseract, searing down from the clouds. It struck Thanos with Thor's next blow, sending the titan sprawling. He was momentarily stunned, lying motionless on the hiveship's deck, and while before a foe's helplessness might have made Thor hesitate, now he sprang forward eagerly. The taste of ozone was metallic on his tongue and his arm throbbed with adrenaline and power as he raised Mjolnir to deliver the next strike, maybe the final—

A burst of energy exploded against Thor's chest and sent him stumbling back. Five Chitauri together had aimed their staffs to strike him simultaneously. Even as Thor roared and flung Mjolnir to rip their band apart, a flyer plummeted down from the sky and rammed him. When he pounded that one aside, another dive-bombed him, followed by a charging platoon of two dozen Chitauri troops, crashing into him like a wave to push him further back.

They could not harm him, not enough that he would notice it; but with so many soldiers Thor could not quickly break free, or see their titan master past the swarm. He hollered in outrage, "Thanos, you'd cringe behind your sycophants, even as you call my brother a coward—!"

A sudden streak of red, white, and blue dropped a swathe of Chitauri before Thor, as a voice above said, "Don't worry, he won't have anyone to hide behind in a minute!"

Thor looked up to see the Man of Iron hovering in the sky, Rogers hanging from one hand and Sif from the other. Captain America grabbed his flung shield from the air as he and Sif dropped down onto the deck beside Thor, freeing Stark's arms to fire at the flyers converging on him from above. Behind them Einherjar were boarding the hiveship from two of the barges, dodging in between the flyers with cover provided from the other ships.

"Thor," Sif said, her sword drawn and already wet with Chitauri ichor. She dispatched the next who rushed her with ruthless grace, continued without breaking concentration from her battle, "Where is Loki? Heimdall reported your location when first you vanished, but since the hiveship arrived we've had no word from him or the queen."

"There's a problem with the jammer, and it's messing with our radio, too," Captain Rogers explained beside her. "Bruce is working on it; we need to hold off this army long enough for him to finish—" He suited action to words by punching aside two incoming Chitauri, then bringing up his shield to block the staff-blasts from those behind them.

"I do not have the patience for these small foes!" Thor growled, leveling a dozen Chitauri with another throw of Mjolnir. "Thanos! Come fight me again!"

He raised his hammer, charged air crackling around him. "Thor," Sif began, eyes widening, "you cannot—"

But he could, and easily. Thor called the lightning, not a single strike now but a forest of electricity, shooting down from the skies, the air sparking and sizzling as the plasma coursed through it. Sif tackled Rogers, guarding him from a lightning bolt that might have struck his head, as across the deck Chitauri soldiers screeched and fell.

"Hey, watch it!" shouted Iron Man overhead. He stooped like a falcon, curving past Thor. "What's with the electric boogaloo?"

Thor paid him no heed, scanning the battlefield. Even as the felled Chitauri rose, more soldiers emerged from bulkheads arranged across the pylon. But there was no titan among them.

Beside him Sif climbed back to her feet, helping Rogers up as well. "Thor," she said again, but Thor had no attention to give her. Instead he hurled Mjolnir into the air and himself with the hammer, to survey the ship, shouting as he did, "Thanos! Reveal yourself!"

Stark barely managed to dodge from his flight path in time. "Okay, mental note, do not get in the way of the brainwashed thunder god—"

The Chitauri flyers converged on Thor—foolishly; in his frustration he cast them aside like falling autumn leaves, as he soared over the ship, seeking his prey.

Without warning there was a keening sound, faint in his ears, and a strange shudder around him; then the muted grumble of the ship's engines abruptly ceased. As one the Chitauri fell, soldiers slumping paralyzed to the ground as the flyers tumbled from the sky.

Before, Thor remembered this unnatural defeat had disturbed him. There was no place in his blue-lit heart for such disquiet, however, only frustration that he still saw no sign of Thanos.

"Thor!" Sif shouted again, waving up at him from below, with the captain running behind her.

Thor touched down beside her on the suddenly peaceful battleground of the hiveship's deck. "Where is Thanos?" he demanded. "Did the jammer fell him? It did not before—" He thought he would smash the device, if it had; disposing of the Chitauri didn't concern him, but if he were denied his rightful battle—

"I know not where the Mad Titan has gone," Sif said. Chitauri ichor was splattered across her face, mixed with sweat as she panted in gasps of effort. "What about Loki—and you, Thor? Your arm, you're injured—"

"It's no matter," Thor said; the limb hung mostly useless at his side, but there was no pain.

"Loki might be, though," Rogers said. "The radio's still down—"

"That's our fault now," the Iron Man said, floating down from the sky above them. "To get around whatever Thanos did, we had to broaden the jammer's frequency to cover half the spectrum; no way for any radio signals to get through. For all I know, it's blocking out Goldeneye's vision, too."

"If Loki were entirely fled, I think the enthrallment would be broken," Sif said, glancing at Thor sidelong, as if she could not bring herself to meet his infinitely blue eyes directly. "But even if he is close it cannot last for much longer, and once it ends, and Thor's strength is lessened..."

"Then we're back to square one." Stark cut his rockets, dropping from the air to thud onto the deck next to them. But no sooner had his metal boots touched down when there was a screeching, the moan of wrenched metal, and the deck dipped under them like one of the mortal's lifts, as if Stark's landing upon it had jarred it from its flight.

Stark immediately ignited his rockets to levitate again. "I didn't do it—!"

"No..." Sif stared around them in dismay. "With its engines stopped, this vessel falls off Yggdrasil's branch, into the abyss between—"

"That sounds like the opposite of good," Stark said.

Rogers spun and scanned the tilting deck, waving to draw the attention of the Einherjar scattered across it. "We all need to get back on the barges, now!"

Stark shot back into the air, his electrically enhanced voice projected over the former battlefield. "Okay, everybody, make like a rat and get off this sinking ship; it's going down—uh, wherever the hell down is out here—"

The Einherjar had realized the danger and were already moving. Sif and Rogers joined them sprinting for the barges. The Aesir ships maneuvered around the descending Chitauri vessel, dwarfed by its mass, like mice scrambling beneath the hooves of a dying horse.

Thor took to the air himself, though not to escape. Instead he flew over the hiveship's decks shouting Thanos's name, his frustration mounting with every pass as the air around him cooled and darkened.

"Thor!" Sif shouted—from above, though he was passing between the hiveship's upper pylons. He looked up to see her leaning over the lowest barge's prow, face white with desperation as she beckoned him. "Fly back here, Thor! Even if Thanos is still hidden aboard, you cannot follow the vessel into the abyss—too deep and you'll lose all hope of return—!"

True though this might be, it was a pale truth compared to the dishonor of the abyss stealing from him his foe and his victory. Thor turned away from Sif, back to the ship dropping beneath him, when a metal hand fastened around his arm. "Okay, playtime's over," the Man of Iron told him. "Let's listen to the lady and get back up there—"

"Do not challenge me," Thor warned, shaking off the armored man's grasp to brandish Mjolnir at him, the hammer gleaming silver even against the abyss's growing darkness.

"Whoa, watch where you point that thing, I'm on your side!" Stark said, swooping back—but only an armslength, still within range of the hammer, and Thor might have employed it to free himself from his ally's unwanted attention, had not another voice sounded in his ears, "Thor!"

Not a shout, but he heard it far clearer than Sif, or Stark: Loki's voice, distinct as if his brother were beside him. Thor stared around but did not see him—but the voice in his ears said clearly, "Forget the Iron Man and forget the hiveship, Thanos has new transportation—the barge, the smallest barge, seek it out—!"

Thor looked up at the Aesir vessels maneuvering overheard, silhouetted against the roiling gray clouds. Their blockade was scattered, the ships turned haphazardly in their rescue attempts—except for the smallest, swiftest barge, of which Thor saw no sign.

Abandoning the still-dropping hiveship, and the Man of Iron shouting behind him, "Whoa, hold your hypnotized horses—!" Thor shot back up towards the others. He flew past Sif who smiled to see him rise, past the others on the ships waving to him.

The sky seemed empty for a moment. Then a distant twinkle caught Thor's eye: the smallest barge, far away from the rest of the fleet, only a speck in the sky, sailing at full speed toward the golden city shining in the distance.

"Hey, guys?" he heard Clint Barton call from the top of the mast on the barge below. "Where's that boat going—" but Thor heard no more; he was hurtling toward that fleeing vessel.

The barge's quarterdeck at first appeared empty, but as Thor neared the air about it blurred and shimmered as if with a heat mirage, and through the breaking spell he saw Thanos's giant, heavy figure standing at the stern. The titan's golden-armored left hand was raised, blue light from the gauntlet's stone radiating over the deck below. The warriors and ship's crew lay curled up and clutching their heads under that light. Focused as the titan was on holding them spellbound, he was not looking behind him, and Thor grinned ferociously at the opportunity, willing himself faster. He aimed Mjolnir for the back of that massive skull, to knock Thanos over the deck's railing and send him falling after the hiveship—

But at the last moment Thanos turned. His teeth were clenched in his own grin, as he showed what he held in his other arm—the squat, bearded figure of one of the few dwarven warriors who had been brave enough to venture shipboard and join the battle. Fjalar hung limp in Thanos's grasp, the titan's arm nearly as barrel-broad as his own torso. The builder's helm had been struck from his head and his eyes were open, glazed blue to match the glowing stone on Thanos's gauntlet, to match Thor's own.

As Thor neared, Thanos lifted the dwarf and threw him off the deck, casting him into the abyss below with such force that a mortal human's neck would have been snapped. Though a scream sounded from the lower deck, Fjalar did not cry out or struggle as he plummeted, obedient to Thanos's will, for all his eyes were wide with instinctive horror.

Thor could have let the dwarf fall—should have let him fall, should have continued his attack. Thanos was his foe, and must be defeated to save Asgard, to revenge Loki. The certain knowledge of this dominated Thor's thoughts, leaving no room for concern for a falling ally.

But Thor did not think about it; as if Mjolnir were acting on its own, the hammer in his hand angled down so that he dove, so that Thor caught Fjalar. The dwarf fought back, limp body snapping to violent life, struggling against Thor, kicking and punching in a mindless frenzy, so that Thor nearly dropped him, his injured arm almost giving way. Recalling how Natasha had cured Banner, Thor gave Fjalar a tap on the head with Mjolnir, and he slumped again.

Thor swung Mjolnir back on course, heading again for the barge, and Thanos, still heading toward the golden city at all due haste, near enough now to make out the palace's spires rising before the mountains. Mjolnir's flight was much faster, of course, so that Thor caught up quickly, though the part of Thor which should not be concerned but was anyway wondered how to fight and still keep safe the friend in his arms, to say nothing of all the Aesir aboard the ship—but no, that should not distract him now—

"Thor!" came a shout, and with the roar of rockets the Man of Iron flanked him in midair. "Give him to me!"

Thor nodded and heaved Fjalar over. Stark caught the dwarf in both arms, his armored form dipping in the air, then rising level with Thor again, rockets whining. "Okay, you guys need some dieting tips, maybe some aerobics," he said tinnily through his mask. "But I got this—go get him, Thunderbird!"

Thor needed no such permission; he flung his hammer and himself with it toward the barge. Thanos on the quarterdeck saw him coming, braced himself with his teeth bared at Thor.

Mjolnir rammed square into the titan's chest, carrying him over the deck's railing and into the empty space beyond. The thickening winds howled in Thor's ears, ripping through his hair as they grappled, Thanos's giant hands clubbing his shoulders.

Blocked by the titan's bulk, Thor could not see where they fell, nor did he care. At the speed they were traveling it was impossible to tell up from down or left from right. Mjolnir carried them ever faster as they fought, until the air itself began to heat and burn around them.

When they did hit, it was with the force of a meteor crashing to earth, a wave of shattered stone cresting around them. Though it was Thanos's shoulders that met the ground, the impact jarred through Thor. Sharp agony stabbed across his chest and ricocheted through his broken arm, more piercing than the thousand smaller wounds he'd taken, bruises from Thanos's fists and burns from the Chitauri blasts—

Though he should feel none of them, when none threatened his life, and Thor ignored those straining aches as he pushed to his feet. Thanos before him also rose, dark blood trickling from the edge of his jagged-lipped mouth as he laughed, grinding like a fall of rocks. "Thank you, Odinson, for the assistance," he said. "Your hammer is swifter yet than any vessel, to bring me where I wished to go."

Seawater lapped around their ankles, filling in the crater where Thanos's shoulders had shattered the stone. Thor realized that they stood on one of the small islets along Asgard's rocky shore. Behind them, the waters flowed over the edge into the abyss. Before them, across too narrow a stretch of water, rose the golden city, with the rebuilt Bifrost extending out from the white walls like a ship's prow.

Unexpected dread pierced Thor, as keening sharp as his injuries. He pushed back that fear as he did the pain, declared defiantly, "However swift, you will never breach those walls, monster!" and he swung Mjolnir one-handed.

White lightning crackled over the waves as he struck. But where his attacks before had sent Thanos stumbling, now the titan only jerked back his head, shook off the blow and straightened again. "Does your arm tire, Odinson?" Thanos asked, fissure-smile cracking his face. "I see a different blue in your eyes now, than the power I seek." He brought his gauntleted fist down like a boulder on Thor's shoulders, too heavy, forcing him back. "You throw off your would-be brother's yoke, and the Tesseract's strength slips away with it—"

"I have strength enough for you!" Thor roared as he hauled back Mjolnir and brought it down. The rock fractured under the blow, splitting open under Thanos's feet. The titan staggered, sinking into the gravel to his knees and lowering his chin to Thor's level, that he might slam Mjolnir against it.

But Thanos blocked the blow with one arm, almost negligibly, then backhanded Thor with the other. His gauntlet caught Thor across the temple and smashed him down against the rock, dizzied, Mjolnir knocked from his grasp.

Before Thor could rise, Thanos's great boot came down on his neck, crushing his throat as the titan's weight bore down on him. Cold water bubbled between the gravel under his cheek, burning his lips with salt. Thor groped for his fallen hammer as he struggled to breathe, broken rocks slicing his fingers.

Over him Thanos was speaking, grinding words falling on him like an avalanche. "With or without the Tesseract, you are strong, Aesir. Long have I regretted failing to grant to death your father, as I swore to; but you will make as worthy a gift."

Thor ignored him, as he ignored his lungs aching for breath and the throbbing of his arm and all the other agonies now making themselves loudly felt. The Tesseract's power within him was ebbing; he felt it flowing out of him like blood. But his hatred of Thanos was his, as he had told Loki, and it burned all the hotter with that blue miasma fading—

—If you feel your power now begin to falter, you will flee, Loki had commanded; but he had not the strength remaining to throw off Thanos's boot. Besides, to flee was not Thor's way, not with a fight unfinished, and Thanos still threatening—

Thor's hand met Mjolnir, his fist curling around the leather-wrapped handle. He could feel the power in the hammer, the pure forces of nature so different from the Tesseract's energy. The currents from the surrounding clouds tingled against his skin, streaming through the same nerves as the pain of his injuries. The lightning was his to call, his to command. Usually Thor channeled it, let it flow over him and through him, making himself a conduit for that power and guiding it with Mjolnir.

But if he did not guide it, but took it in; if he let the charge build...his heart was pounding in his ears, pulse quickening with the currents crossing it. Thor's thunder could cleave the ground, had shattered the rock under him now; but Thanos was stronger than any stone. The power to break him, crack him wide, might break Thor as well, if his heart did not give out first—but if he could manage it before Thanos's final blow fell—

Thanos lifted his face to the sky, to the gray clouds blackening overhead. "I know you are watching, Odin All-Father," he bellowed up at them, and brought up his hand, the gold fingers outstretched and set together in a thick crushing blade. "Do not mourn; you will soon enough join your son in death's sacred embrace—"

No, too soon! He had not yet gathered enough power—but he had no choice. Thor called the lightning.

The bolt sundered the heavens, as blinding bright against the sunlight as the difference between noon and midnight. It struck Thanos's gauntlet, haloed the gold in blazing white, and the titan jerked, hunched and trembling in the energy's grip—

Then he shook his head and straightened again, even as the thunder boomed around them. Stone face grinning, Thanos raised a rock-steady hand, then brought it down on Thor beneath him—

Except that Thor was no longer beneath him—Thor was lying on the ground still, stones digging into his back and seawater wetting his lips; but there was no boot set on his neck. He gasped as he inhaled, flailed against the rocks and waves to sit up—

And saw before him, several lengths away, Thanos. And under Thanos, where Thor had lately been, now crouched a bent, stooped figure, armored in gold to match Thanos's gauntlet, the hem of his green cape soaking in the sea.

—That had been one of the first spells of movement Loki had mastered, Thor recalled with a strange removed clarity, to exchange places with another, put them in your position and you in theirs. Loki would invoke it during wrestling matches, put himself on top when an instant before he had been pinned, and the disorienting shock of it would win him the victory—at least until Thor learned to recognize the subtle motion of fingers that initiated the spell, and would move himself as the magic took hold, to put himself in the most disadvantageous position.

Thor remembered vividly how he had laughed and Loki had scowled, trying his trick and getting splashed in a mud puddle for it. He almost could hear his boyhood laughter echoing in his ears now, as he stared at Loki—stared at his brother kneeling on the ground under Thanos's hand. He had arranged himself to take the blow, braced with his arms raised to block; but even so, when Loki raised his head to Thanos, his face was masked in blood, his teeth filmed in red as his lips pulled back from them.

The gauntlet on his hand gleamed like silver instead of gold, in the shining brightness of the stone set on its back.

"Thor," Loki said, not breaking his gaze from Thanos, "as fast, as far as you can—flee," and the cobalt gem's glow blinded Thor, his mind as much as his eyes.

He did not, could not, think, but only acted as commanded, flinging Mjolnir away from Thanos and his brother, flinging himself over the sea. Behind him Thanos rumbled, "So my Jotunn dog once more kneels before me—"

"For the last time," Loki said, and Thor should not have been able to hear him—not if he had properly obeyed, as he should; not if he were escaping with all his speed and strength—but Thor was slowing, as if Mjolnir itself were fighting him, refusing to carry him any further.

In midair he wrenched himself around, looked back to see Loki still crouched in the shadow of Thanos's massive frame—except there was no shadow, only brilliant light. Through that radiance Thor had to squint to make out Loki's silhouette, his gauntleted hand raised in a fist.

The light pouring from the cobalt stone was reflected perfectly in the sea below, the waves gone flat, pressed down to a glass-smooth mirror. The air was so still it trembled, ringing in the ears like the deafened moment after a thunderstrike.

Thanos's chasm of a mouth split open, but even his stone-breaking voice was muted, having not the power to shatter that stillness. The titan raised his own gauntlet, its stone also glowing, or else it was reflecting the other's light; it was impossible to tell, the source of the brightness lost within its brilliance.

Then, even as Thor shouted his brother's name and had it swallowed by the silence, even as Thor with all his strength hurled Mjolnir and himself toward them—there was a crack—a crack as soft and quick as a branch broken underfoot that betrays an ambush, as a fowl's neck snapped in the barnyard before a feast. The light cracking, the world itself breaking open.

And darkness flooded from that crack, even as light had flooded from the gems. Not the pitch black of an unlit tunnel, but a darkness as vivid and blinding as the light before it had been. A shadow that was not cast behind things but reached out and dragged them into its depths, beyond the reach of any light: the howling, hungry mouth of the void, opened onto the world.

Thor had seen such a thing before, when he had shattered the Bifrost. But that hole had been distant, its drawing-in slow-seeming and almost lazy from far away, for all he had felt its pull. This close, the vortex was ferocious; the once-calm sea was frothing and wind roared in his ears as the air, the water, the stone around him rushed desperately into the darkness, trying and failing to fill its bottomless appetite.

At the center of the vortex were Thanos and Loki. Thor glimpsed them in what little light escaped, reflecting off Loki's golden armor, off Thanos's stone-gray face. Thanos clung to the ground with one hand, his giant fingers dug into the rock itself, making furrows in the stone as if it were fresh earth.

And Loki clung to the titan, one-handed. His arm that had worn the gauntlet was tucked to his side, while his left hand grasped Thanos's shoulder. Against the void's pull he dragging himself upright, in order to bring up his leg—to bring his heel down on the back of Thanos's hand.

He stomped hard enough to loosen the titan's grip—only one finger, but it was enough. The vortex's gale tore the titan free from his hold on the rock, lifting both Thanos and Loki with him with ease, tossed in the wind like toys, like dead leaves—

Then the void's pull grabbed them, sucked them down—

"No!" Thor shouted, though the wind tore his voice from his throat, so it failed to reach his ears. He threw himself forward, but still he was not fast enough, still his arm was not long enough. No matter how he strained to reach, his brother once more was falling, Loki's white face growing smaller and smaller, as he was drawn into the void.

But Mjolnir was still in Thor's hand, the hammer-head bright against the void's blackness—shining silver, and Thor suddenly recalled the silver light of Loki's spell coiling around it. The spell he had set in Mjolnir without telling Thor, the spell with which he had drawn Thor from the Point and from the hiveship, across all that great distance in the blink of an eye.

This was no great distance at all, just that little further he had to reach—

Thor took hold of the silver thread of spellcraft, letting it run through him like he let the lightning's current flow through his veins, around and through until it was entangled in every fiber of him—and yanked.

And at the other end of the spell, even as Thanos's huge form vanished into the void's depths—Loki's fall abruptly halted, long enough for Thor to dive forward and catch his hand, on the edge of the void's yawning pit.

The air and water ripped at them, strewn stones beating them like fists. Thor set his boots on the wave-lashed bedrock, leaned back and held on, his fingers curled tight around his brother's.

He had dropped Mjolnir; the hammer was behind him now. Even the void could not budge it, not worthy of its powers. Thor tried to reach for it, but his broken arm hung numbly at his side, not moving no matter how he strained. His other arm he could no more move; Loki did not weigh so much, but the force of the vortex dragging at him was as heavy as a moon, all but wrenching Thor's shoulder from its socket.

"Thor!" Loki shouted. Thor heard his voice over the vortex's howling, clear in his ears, and realized Loki put it there by magic; he could feel the air sucked from his lungs and knew no spoken words would escape.

He turned his head with effort, toward Loki's face staring at him, white cheeks streaked with red blood and black hair. They were being pulled nearly parallel to the ground, and yet with the gravity of the vortex and the void's blackness yawning behind Loki, Thor felt as if he were looking down into the bottom of the universe itself.

"Thor," Loki said again, softer though his magic still carried the words clearly, "let go."

A chunk of rock was ripped out from beneath Thor's feet, the vortex drawing him and Loki a handspan deeper in. Thor gritted his teeth and tightened his hold on Loki's hand, sweat-damp callouses slipping.

"You cannot hold on, Thor," Loki said, and his voice was calm, his face was calm. His fingers were not clasping Thor's in return—could not clasp, too tightly squeezed in Thor's to move. "You cannot hold on, and you cannot drag us both free; you'll only get pulled in yourself—"

"Then I'll get pulled in!" Thor said. He could not hear the words himself, but maybe Loki's spell would bring them to his ears, or maybe he could read Thor's lips; or maybe it didn't matter if he understood them, when he should know them anyway. "I'll be pulled in with you, and we can battle our way out of the void together, if it take a thousand years—"

"Let go, you fool!" Loki screamed, and Thor would have winced had he been able, as they slid another length closer. "I order you, I command you, let go—" but the enthrallment was nothing, its lingering traces meaningless, so much weaker than what Thor had set against the void.

Loki's eyes were fixed on him, wide and round, the vortex swallowing their green to leave only black, swallowing any tears that might have fallen to leave his face dry, but not calm, not anymore—"Brother," Loki said, "Thor, please—for Mother, for Father, for all your friends who love you so—for Asgard, for Midgard—if you love them—let me go—"

"No," Thor said.

The last rock under his boots gave way, and Thor was falling, falling with Loki, tumbling into the void and still holding on—as he had been unable to before, but he would not let go again—

Then somehow, somewhere in the depths of the void's endless black, Thor glimpsed a point of light—a tiny square glint of blue that expanded, that swelled and grew until it seemed large enough to frame the very world, so great it filled up and shattered apart the void. The darkness burst apart, exploding into light even brighter than that of the gauntlets' paired gems. Within that light he glimpsed a silhouetted figure, that looked to his dazed eyes even broader and stronger than Thanos—

The shockwave hit, and Thor was thrown back from the light. He only realized he was flying when he stopped, rock smashing to sand under his shoulders.

He lay there on the ground where he had fallen; he could not move, or breathe. Chill water lapped at him, soaking his right side. The blackness pressing down on him felt as dark as the void, and there was a weight on his chest as heavy as Mjolnir.

But his hand was still wrapped tight around—not Mjolnir's handle, but flesh and bone—

"Thor," a voice said over him, "Loki—my sons—" The ground beneath Thor quaked slightly under the impact of knees fallen beside him, and a solid hand came to rest on his shoulder.

Thor blinked his eyes, trying to focus on his father's face above him, white and gold and blue, blinding after the void's darkness. Brighter still were the perpendicular angles of the Tesseract beside Odin; everything else was blurring, dimmed by that luminance. His father's face, saltwater-wet from the splashing waves, was fading, even as Thor fought to keep his eyes open. He felt as if he were again being pulled down, dragged into a new void opened within him.

The last things he was aware of were the black hair brushing his chin as the weight on his chest shifted, and the moving of the fingers his own were still clenched around. They curled around his hand to squeeze slightly, as if trying fruitlessly to hold onto him as he tumbled off that inner edge into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

Thor half-woke in the healing halls. A hand was laid over his chest, holding him down when he would rise. Fighting against that pressure brought unexpected agony, and a voice murmuring, "You've cracked ribs—please stay still, my lord; relax under the enchantment—"

"No," Thor refused, denying the magic's gentle drowsiness, forcing open his eyes. They stung with the sweat and blood dripping in them, his vision bleary with pain, so the healer above him was only a smear of motion. He felt empty, his chest hollow, not enough air to fill it; his limbs were weak, sapped of all power. His hands too were empty, clutching nothing—"No, where is—"

Another blurred shape leaned over him, a cool hand resting on his brow as his mother said, "Loki did not fall, Thor; he is being tended to now, as you are. Your brother will be here when you awaken, so sleep—"

Thor did.

 


 

Sometime later he half-awoke again to raised voices floating to him through the muffling swathes of the healing enchantments. Familiar voices, though he could not think clearly enough to identify them, or understand their argument: "—shouldn't he at least be tied down, if you're not going to lock him up? Throw a few chains over his bed, just in case? You said it yourself, he can throw off this medical-trance-spell-whatsit anytime he feels like it—"

"But he is still healing; why would he reject it?"

"Oh, I don't know, maybe to escape while he can, when no one's watching the infirmary? Oldest trick in the jailbreak book—"

"Simmer down, Clint, don't antagonize our hosts. Please excuse our buddy here, he has something of grudge—"

"He is not the only one to bear such a grudge against this one, it's true."

"And he has a point; if Loki gets away—"

"—Like he could've gotten away yesterday, and let Thanos hand our asses to us?"

"The enemy of our enemy doesn't make us BFFs—just because you've got a hard-on for him, Stark—"

"Geeze, admire a guy's magical science and crazy hair one time, and they never let you forget it—"

"He did willingly destroy the gauntlet, I think that should count for something—"

"Right, Bruce, that's what I'm saying. Besides, anybody care to consider what the god of thunder here's going to do, if he wakes up and sees his kid brother in chains, after he got hurt kind of saving us all—"

"You need not fear Thor's wrath on this matter, my lords and lady of Midgard—"

"—Uh, we're not actually lords—"

"—Shh, queen talking—"

"—for my son shall not be bound within the walls of this healing hall. I will not allow it, and after his valor in the battle, nor would any other of Asgard. Further judgment may yet be ruled on him, but only after he is healed."

"Uh, yes, ma'am—I mean, Lady Frigga. And while I'm at it, thank you for putting us up here, really sorry to intrude on you—"

"It is the least we can do, after your courageous fighting on our behalf..."

The voices drifted away again, and Thor let them go.

 


 

When Thor next became aware of voices raised around him, he had the strength to listen more closely. What he heard made little sense, however, and vaguely alarmed by this confusion, he roused himself from the healing enchantment. Yet even awake the words were more nonsensical than not, as if the All-Tongue's magic were failing: "—so you Midgardians have managed to harness light and its cousins for such fine attunements as seeing through flesh and powering engines; and also to sunder atoms—but you've forgotten the most basic principles of magic?"

"What can I say? Sorcery's not part of the modern scientific paradigm. Though I'm thinking now that we should really be putting some research money toward it..."

"Yet you thought you could control the Tesseract, only understanding a fraction of its potential? How arrogantly foolish could you—"

"Aridva, we'll not be welcomed on Midgard, if they suspect we come just to insult them! I assure you, Man of Iron, we have other purposes—"

"Well, if you bring along a few of those fist-sized diamonds you mentioned, there's plenty of folks who won't care how rude—hey, Sleeping Beauty! You with us?"

Thor blinked at Tony Stark, out of his armor and waving a hand experimentally before Thor's eyes. "I believe you, rather, are with me," Thor said. "As this is a chamber in the healing hall, is it not?" He recognized the polished white stones and the patterns of rainbow sunlight thrown by the prism glass windows, colors to soothe the ill and wounded. "—Unless you are wounded?" he asked Stark, suddenly anxious. Thor had thought the greater part of the battle over by the time he had fallen, but if the Chitauri had broken free of the humans' sorcerous science—

But Stark shook his head in reassurance. "Nope, we're all fine. A few bumps and bruises, all fixed up by now. We've been waiting on you and Snow White over there," and he pointed a thumb over his shoulder.

On the chamber's second pallet lay Loki, resting quietly beneath the faint bronze shimmer of a healing enchantment. His eyes were closed, sharp profile blurred by the magic. Like Thor he was dressed in robes of a white so pure as to make even his pallor look ruddy in contrast. His right arm at his side was swathed in silk, from hand to past the elbow, healing dressings.

"The docs—healers—say he should be out for a couple more days," Stark said. "Though they said you wouldn't be up until tomorrow, so, yeah, apparently even deified doctors aren't infallible. How you feeling?"

"I am well," Thor said, though it took effort to sit up, and his chest ached from it. His arm also throbbed dully, even bandaged and wrapped against his chest; but it was the pangs of healing, he recognized from many centuries of broken bones. Within a week it would be mended.

"Our apologies for waking you, Thor!" Fjalar said. The dwarven ambassador stood in the doorway of the chamber, with his wife beside him. "We were accompanying the Man of Iron here to his scheduled watch, to see you for ourselves; but our discussion along the way became heated—"

"Hardly heated," Aridva protested, "merely stimulating! I hope you didn't take offense, Master Stark—"

"Not at all, you just call 'em like you see 'em, I appreciate that," Stark said, smiled broadly down at both dwarves. "Seriously, I'd be happy to host you guys at Stark Tower. You could come to the next expo, dwarf-tech would be a big hit, I'm sure. I'd love to get a look at one of those special dwarven ore diviners you mentioned..."

"Oh, we could surely show you a small one," Fjalar said jovially. "To satisfy the curiosity of a fellow smith."

"As I'm sure you can appreciate our own curiosity about the formulas of some of your oil-based moldable polymers," Aridva said.

"Ah-hah, now that might be arranged," Stark said. "Once I get back home, I'll have my people to call your people...literally, if we can figure out the cross-dimensions communications. Have to try routing radio over the Bifrost, test how well it transmits energy instead of matter, like you were telling me... Anyway, you were going somewhere, and I've got some things to talk about with Thor; catch you guys later?"

"Certainly," Aridva said, nodding. Then she turned toward Thor, clasped her hands together and bent over. Fjalar mirrored her actions.

It took Thor a moment to recognize that they were bowing, so rarely did dwarves show such respects. "Thank you, my lord Thor," the dwarf woman said, and Fjalar said, "I owe you my life, my lord; any favor you wish is yours. And the same to you, Man of Iron."

Thor stumbled on his thanks, scarcely knowing how to answer such gratitude; his memories of Fjalar in Thanos's grasp, dark dwarf eyes glazed with blue, were hazy, clouded by the Tesseract's power. But Stark said easily, "Told you guys already, no problem, anytime. It's all part of the hero gig. ...But if you really want to make it up to us, you could always loan Stark Enterprises an ore diviner?"

"...That might be arranged," Aridva said, with what might have been the first smile Thor had seen her make, though it was hard to be sure under her black beard.

"Glad to see you healing up, Thor," Fjalar said, "and may Loki be soon mended as well—the observatory's coming along, his advice will be most appreciated!" With that the dwarves departed.

"Sorry about the shop-talk, Thor," Stark said once they were gone. "I wasn't expecting to find anybody so technically minded up here. And that Aridva's quite the firecracker..." He gazed out the door speculatively. "How much do you know about dwarves? Obviously the girls have beards, but what's going on, uh, underneath...?"

"A dwarf lady is a woman; she conceives and births as women of other races do," Thor said, then lowered his brow at Stark and specified, "and the Lady Aridva has so birthed some five children with Fjalar her husband, that I know of."

"...Right." Stark gave his head a shake and turned back to Thor, looked him over like a smith checking a newly forged blade for faults. "You're sure you're all right? You're still looking kind of peaky. In a totally mighty and godlike way, of course. And loads better than when your dad brought you in."

"I could use more rest yet," Thor admitted. "But I am well enough—how fares my father? And the realm—the Chitauri vessel—" However peaceful this healing hall seemed, the more he thought of the battle, the more there was to be concerned about.

But Stark raised his hands in a placating gesture. "Okay, calm down—and don't get up, the healers want you horizontal, in the most boring way possible. They were pretty insistent about that—and about quiet, which, uh," and he belated dropped his voice, cringing. "Please don't tell Eir we woke you?"

"I will not," Thor swiftly promised, having himself experienced the master healer's intimidating authority. Lowering his own voice, he continued, "As long as you inform me of what has happened these past days."

"You saw most of it," Stark said. "Heck, you did most of it—you and him," and he tipped his head toward Thor's brother, silent on his pallet. "I actually caught most of the showdown on video, trying out a new zoom lens—up to the grand finale; once the black hole opened, things got shaky. Then your dad—King Odin—came and pulled a reverse Pandora, closed it up again with the cube. Just in the nick of time, from what Heimdall said.—To anybody who asks, apparently; I heard him spilling the whole story to some seedy-looking bard types," Stark added as an aside. "Didn't take Goldeneye for the gossipy sort..."

"He is not," Thor said. "But with few witnesses and some of us still abed, how else are the bards to learn the story of the battle, that they might tell it across the lands?"

Stark's eyebrows went up. "So he's not just Asgardian Homeland Security but also your publicity manager? Huh. ...Anyway, after your dad shut down the wormhole and saw you guys to the healers, he went and stowed the Tesseract away, then holed up in his room. We haven't seen him since..."

The Odinsleep, Thor thought. After his efforts shielding the greater power of the Tesseract from Thanos, Odin would have required the recovery. If Thor counted the days rightly, he should be waking from it soon, if not already.

"Then this morning the first wave of your fleet showed up, fashionably late," Stark continued. "The remaining Chitauri ass has been kicked but good, and everybody else is on the way back now. Your buddies were on board the flagship—Volstagg and the other two? Seem like fun guys. They were in here earlier until Eir chased them out; I expect they'll be sneaking back soon. They've got a lot of glorious exploits to share with you, it sounded like. Oh, except Robin Hood—whosits, with the face?"

"Fandral," Thor supplied.

"Yeah, hate to tell you, but you might never see Fandral again," Stark said solemnly. "For now Natasha seems pretty amused by the whole 'maiden of the flaming hair' deal, but if she gets tired of it, or Clint does..."

Were Thor less fatigued, he might have had the energy for genuine alarm; as it was he only smiled wryly and requested, "Friend Stark, if you could pass a discreet warning on to Fandral...I would not like my old friends to fight with my new, at least not when I'm not there to cheer any of you on."

"Can do." Stark punched his shoulder—very lightly; Thor was privately amused by how careful the human was not to harm him, as if he could possibly do so, without his armor.

"Otherwise you have been made welcome here?" Thor asked him, more seriously. As brave allies and guests he would expect the Avengers to be well-treated; but it had been long since mortal visitors had come to Asgard. In truth Thor could not remember the last time someone Midgard-born had been in the palace, other than the occasional human servant or slave of visiting nobility.

Stark nodded, however. "Your mom—Queen Frigga—is awesome; she's treating us like—well, royalty. We've practically got a wing of the palace to ourselves, guards, servants, room service—I think they'd peel grapes for us. Not sure about that, Steve won't let me ask, but yeah, don't worry, the Avengers are getting the five-star Asgard experience. We're not going to want to go home. Heimdall's on call to let us know if anything bad goes down back on Earth, so barring the occasional attack from megalomaniac supervillains, this is the best vacation I've had in years. Seriously, if you ever need extra cash, an exclusive resort—no, scratch that. Introducing mass-production plastics to the dwarves will probably wreak enough havoc—"

Stark continued in his haphazard way to catch Thor up with the latest events. Thor did not mean for his mind to drift, but drained as he was it was difficult to follow Stark's musings, his words more opaque than even the most learned crafter's. And Stark for his part seemed accustomed to only being half-attended. Idly Thor wondered if his brother might more easily navigate Stark's labyrinth, or were there human tongues that even Loki had yet to master?

He refocused when Stark said, "—don't exactly trust your brother. So we're taking shifts, since no one around here seems to mind a few humans underfoot. To keep an eye on you, too, obviously—the healers said you'd be fine, but you know doctors. But yeah, until Loki's out of here and back behind bars, expect to see Clint stalking in the rafters..."

Thor did not bother looking to the ceiling for the archer, instead studied his brother on his pallet. "So the healers believe he will soon awaken?"

Stark's mouth quirked in a partial smile, not unlike Loki's less malicious smirks. "Should be almost all healed up. Physically, at least..."

Thor nodded, reassured, only to frown as his eyes fell again on Loki's silk-swathed arm. It was not bandaged like Thor's, but layered with stronger enchantments. Stark followed his line of sight, smile dropping as he said, "Yeah, that's the one thing the healers aren't sure about. Seems like it's not a good idea to be wearing a bomb when you set it off, even for a god."

Thor nodded again, recalling how brightly the gem had shone on Loki's gauntlet, brighter and brighter, never dimming or faltering, until it shattered.

"Okay," Stark said, "don't tell Clint I said so—heck, don't tell my planet I said so—but your brother didn't do half-bad out there."

"No one could fault his courage in the final stand," Thor quietly agreed. Certainly Thor could not; he would not be alive to acknowledge it now, had Loki lacked that valor.

"You know..." Stark rubbed the back of his neck. For once his ever-moving tongue seemed tied. Finally he said, looking at neither Loki nor Thor but gazing out the prismatic window, "Saving someone else's life...it's not enough, not by a long shot. Hardened criminals, evil dictators, the most self-centered narcissistic insensitive son of a bitch ever born—everyone has at least one or two people they care about, if they're not complete monsters. Hell, sometimes it's not even that much—it can be pure reflex, trying to save the one person who tried to save you. Besides, however many people you save...you can't play the numbers game with lives."

"One can take a thousand lives, or save a thousand lives, yet fail to recompense the loss of one life," Thor said.

Stark blinked. "...Right."

At the man's evident surprise Thor smiled, though it was weighted, pulled down by too much knowing. "All warriors sooner or later try to make such a calculation, and realize it for naught."

"Yeah," Stark said. "There's no mathematics of ethics. Save a thousand people, but it still won't make up for taking away someone's child, someone's mother or father, someone's lover, someone's best friend. So that equation sure as hell doesn't work in reverse—no matter how valuable your own life is to you, you can't drop it on the scales and expect it to balance. Redemption doesn't work like that; it's not that easy."

"No," Thor agreed, thinking of Jotunheim's chill and the frost giants falling under his hammer; thinking of the stench of metal and asphalt and smoke, and the humans screaming in terror as the Chitauri flew down upon them.

"But..." Stark's gaze fell to his own hands, clasped loosely before him. "Trying to save someone else can be the first step. And the thing about saving people, helping people—about being a hero—that can be addictive, too."

Thor looked past Stark, to Loki lying on the pallet—bizarre to see him so still, to see him in white. He scarcely looked like Thor's brother at all, like a stranger for all the age-old familiarity of his profile.

Humans, Thor thought, could not even know someone for a single century—few of them even lived that long. How was any face truly familiar to them? Or were they simply used to recognizing strangers and calling them friends...

"You truly believe this?" Thor asked.

"I know it," Stark said. "Best high I've ever had. And I can tell him so, if you think it'd help."

"Thank you," Thor told him.

Stark shrugged, fidgeted a moment and finally said, "So, I should let you rest up before your buddies barge in again..."

"All right," Thor said. His lids were heavy, his limbs as well; it was a relief to lie back upon the cushions.

Stark started for the chair in the corner, then stopped, shuffling his feet. "There's one more thing. On the Chitauri hiveship, how it went down—"

"Stark," Thor said, recalling his actions then with shame, "I am most sorry for challenging you, when you tried to convince me to abandon my hunt for Thanos on that sinking vessel; I was not thinking clearly—"

Stark shrugged again, easily. "Don't worry about it. I've had other friends do worse to me when they were in the right minds. But the thing is, it shouldn't have gone down like that. I mean, literally, the ship shouldn't have sunk—once it was out of the jammer's range, all the Chitauri should've woken up along with the engines. In plenty of time to right itself and carry on attacking.

"Unless—and I'm just spitballing here, but Bruce and I put our heads together, and the best explanation we got is that somehow the other jammer we'd left on the ship was activated. Which would've taken someone with a working knowledge of Chitauri physiology, not to mention the technical expertise to get it up and running after whatever Thanos did to it. Plus there's the question of how somebody managed to sneak onto the ship in the middle of the battle without either us or the Chitauri noticing—only way they could've done that is if they could turn themselves invisible, or teleport, or something..."

Tony glanced at the pallet opposite Thor, speculatively. "But saying someone did turn that jammer on...I wasn't screwing around; I put a mini arc-reactor in that thing. It'll keep going for two hundred years, easy. And it's holding the Chitauri in stasis; I'm not sure if they can even die, shut down like that. So all of them and their ship will just keep falling through empty space, for a couple centuries or more...which I haven't mentioned to Steve; he was already skeeved out by them going down without a clean death."

As Thor was somewhat himself, or guessed he might be, depending of the nuances of the verb in question. But they had been Asgard's enemies, and Loki's as well. "And you, are you also 'skeeved'?"

"Me?" Stark shook his head. "I've got a long way to go before I'm that good a guy. I built the jammer knowing what it'd do; as far as I'm concerned those alien bastards had it coming. And come on, we call ourselves the Avengers. No, I'm not going to lose any sleep over this."

"Nor I," Thor murmured; indeed, he was already halfway to that promised sleep.

The last thing he looked to before he closed his eyes was his brother lying on the pallet opposite. And perhaps it was merely the angle of his head that Thor thought he saw, through the bronze shimmer of the healing spell, Loki's lips twitch up—such a small change of expression as he might only be smiling in his dreams, as Thor joined him in that healing rest.

 


 

Thor's sleep was broken by the Warriors Three clumsily attempting to sneak into the chamber via a window. Stark was still there, and the other Avengers soon joined them; their conversation grew so boisterous that the healers became fearful of interrupting and finding themselves in an unexpected duel. Instead they fetched the master healer Eir, who did not hesitate to march in and demand that her charge be allowed his proper rest. Thor being the charge in question; Loki stayed under the healing enchantment throughout. Thor was unsure whether this was a good sign or not. It might mean that Loki felt safe enough to remain asleep in spite of Stark's and Fandral's jests about inking a proper beard on his smooth chin. Or else he was still so injured that he did not want to risk the pain of awakening.

Thor asked Eir her opinion, once the others had been chased out (save for Barton, who sat himself silently on the windowsill behind Loki's pallet, an accustomed position by how the healer ignored him). The master healer only shook her head. "I cannot speak for how Loki feels; but perhaps he is clever enough to understand that his body most certainly needs the rest. Even enchantments can only do so much."

She had Thor brought his meal, a filling broth and a mug of mulled and spelled wine. He drank both down, feeling rather as if he were a small child by how she frowned at him, and did not try to fight the drowsiness induced by the food and drink, as Eir laid more healing enchantments upon him.

Perhaps it was the wine that made his dreams go strange, or else the warmth of the chamber. Thor usually was not prone to recalling his dreams, save when they took the occasional prophetic turn that most Asgardians experienced.

This dream, however, while vivid, was not of some destined future. Instead he lived the past, a long-ago memory mostly forgotten. He dreamed he was a boy, waking in his own bed in his darkened chambers, with his brother poking his shoulder.

They had planned this rendezvous, in whispers at that evening's feast-table; Loki had something he wished to show him, when few would be awake to see. But Thor, waiting for his brother to sneak out his own chambers, had dozed off instead. He was cranky to be shaken awake, shoving away Loki's hand and nearly overturning the candle he held—this was before Loki had mastered a foxfire charm to light their way.

Once they were in the hall, Thor appropriated the candle, in part because as eldest he should lead, and also because Loki when fiddling with latches and things was prone to forgetting he had a flame in hand; last time he had nearly lit a tapestry on fire. But with Thor walking in front, Loki had to prod and hiss at him to make him take the right route—of course Loki could not simply tell him where they were going. Even though, as it turned out, they were only entering the servant's passage down that led down to the kitchens. "That's not new, we've been here lots of times," Thor said, disappointed. "If you're so hungry, the guards in the gatehouse always have pasties with their mead—"

"Not the kitchens," Loki returned. "There's another passageway; I only just found it," and he pushed past Thor, felt along the wall and slid a partition aside. The tunnel beyond was narrow but tall, and well-tended. Their feet disturbed no dust as they walked it; they were not the first to follow this route.

"Where does this go?" Thor demanded, but when he looked back to his brother pacing at his heels, Loki just put his finger to his lips. Behind it he was grinning, a wild coiling shape in the fluttering candlelight.

After some ways they reached a curtain, heavy and black. Loki gestured for Thor to stay quiet, and blew out the candle. In the dark his fingers curled around Thor's arm to hold him still, as he drew the curtain aside. On the other side was a screen, low to the floor, with a dim yellow light filtering through it. Loki crouched and pulled Thor down with him to peer through the screen's intricate mesh. They were looking into a broad chamber, ornately but sparely decorated, fire-lit and familiar—"Father's room?" Thor began to ask, but his brother's hand tightened around his bicep as he shushed Thor with a hiss.

"Why?" Thor asked in as soft a whisper as he could manage. "We can come here whenever we wish—"

"But not when they do not know we are here," Loki breathed back, peering out the screen. "Think of all the things Father won't say in front of children—"

"He will tell us, when we are older—"

"But don't you want to hear them now?" because Loki never wanted to wait, never cared to think that there was anything he should not know. Thor knew he had taken a book of spells from the library, to study in secret in his chambers.

Thor had little interest in magic tricks himself; but he was passing curious what business a king did that he had not yet been taught. So he stayed with Loki, crouched behind the screen, and presently they heard footsteps enter the room. When they leaned down further they could see the feet across the floor—two pairs: their father's boots, and slippers under the hem of a gown that was their mother's.

Loki's fingers dug into Thor's arm, but Thor did not need the reminder to stay silent; he was holding his breath, afraid even his heartbeat might be overheard. Their father would be angry with this mischief, should he discover them; their mother might be disappointed, and that was much worse.

As it happened, however, their parents were already in conversation, and not mindful of other listeners. "I do not say you worry needlessly, husband," their mother said. "Only that the future is never entirely determined; and the more distant a future it is, the more can change in reaching it. And even you with all your wisdom and all your plotting cannot force its shape."

"No more than you can grow it," Odin replied, "though you may tend it like your gardens."

"I may water and weed and cast charms, but the plants grow themselves," their mother said. "And no spell can force fruit from a branch that does not flower, or roots from a barren seed—but my gardens are lush and bountiful, even so."

"And so too shall the future be? So you will tell me?"

"I hope it to be," Frigga said, her voice coming a little louder, as if she had turned toward the screen as she spoke. "They are my sons, as much as yours; I hope for them the best and brightest life."

"As do I," their father said. "Even if I must also think of the realm."

"I know," their mother answered. "But there, too—even now, I see in our young princes the kings that might grow from them, and they are great. For I see you in both of them, beloved, in Loki no less than Thor. Thor has your strength, your force to push through and bravely claim what he wants; while Loki has your cunning and your cleverness, that he might find a more careful way to what he wishes. And in both of them I see your pride, your own honor that you keep apart from any other's."

"I see as much you in them as me," Odin returned. "In Thor I see your kindness, your all-forgiving love. While Loki has your understanding, to look into someone's heart and know their truths. And they both have your beauty, your pure spirit."

"Then listen to my understanding now," Frigga said. "Together they have what we possess between us, and more that is their own selves. They will make a great king one day, whichever of them sits on the throne..."

If they spoke more, Thor did not remember it. The dream was dissolving around him. The golden firelight through the screen faded away, as did his brother's small hand clutching his arm.

But he still dreamed his mother's voice, murmuring softly through the darkness, "...What would you ask of him?"

The voice which answered was softer still, so worn that Thor almost thought it could not be his father's, even in a dream. "Now...only that he awaken, and be well."

"That is more than any healer could promise. But I think—I hope—that he may try."

"If he does not, then Thor..."

"They are brothers, still and always—would you try to change that, husband?" and Frigga's voice, though quiet yet, had a razor edge.

His father's, however, was blunt. "I would not, even if I thought I could."

Thor felt his mother's fingers brush against his forehead, stroking back his hair. He wondered, if he opened his eyes, would his dream-father be so great and tall, as he had seemed when Thor was a young boy—as he still was in Thor's thoughts, though in reality Thor was now the taller when he stood before the king.

He did not hear them speak again, but he dreamed his mother's hand gently combing through his hair as she hummed a wordless lullaby, until he finally sank back into a deeper, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Loki did not awaken the next morning or all the next day, despite the noise and bustle about him. Come afternoon Sif folded her arms, frowning down at his motionless form on the pallet, and said, "He should be cured; by now he's likely malingering to make us worry."

"You worry for him?" Thor asked, pleased.

Sif let go a huff of breath (rather like how Loki expressed vexation at Thor's denseness, though Thor wisely did not remark upon this.) "If I worry, it's only out of old habit."

The humans looked between them. After a moment Rogers commented, "So you all have known each other a while, huh? And Loki, too?"

"Aye, the three of them raised Hel as wee things," Volstagg said, "since Sif was fostered at the palace. Until they met we Three, who put them on a proper warrior's path—"

"Wine, women, and song," Fandral laughed, "—though food and mead more than wine, and more girls than women—and boys, too, of course," with a nod to Sif, "—and Hogun here cannot hardly carry a tune—"

"Better than you can carry a wife to your marriage bed," Hogun returned.

"Now that sounds like a story," Stark said. "Come on, spill!" and Volstagg obliged. That tale led to others, and the Avengers in return shared some of their recent adventures and mishaps, until more of them than not were laughing out loud.

The gaiety lasted until Fandral happened on the tale of the storm giant's treasure. It had long been a favorite recounting, but when he described in merry detail Loki's illusion which made Volstagg and Thor appear as members of the giant's sheep flock, the humans' high spirits abruptly waned. Barton shut his mouth and Natasha with him. The others looked to them, then at the sleeping figure on the pallet behind them, and quieted. Fandral, attentive to the Lady Natasha, shut his own mouth with a hasty apology; but the mood was broken. Soon after Thor admitted to tiredness, and they left him to his repose for the rest of the afternoon.

Come evening Volstagg kindly thought to bring a plate of real dinner to supplement the healer's broths. Thor ate gladly, and went to sleep full and content and feeling almost recovered. When the healers came later, he dozed through their enchantments, reassured by familiar voices, Eir and his human friends, and another...

Not until much later in the night did Thor find himself blinking up at the shadowy ceiling in some confusion, unsure of what had roused him. A cool night breeze caressed his cheeks, and stars showed in the clear black sky out the open windows.

Hearing a soft snuffling, he turned his head to see a moonlit Steve Rogers seated in a chair beside his pallet, arms crossed over his chest and head down as he slept.

"I've one, too," a soft voice said.

Thor sat up, entirely awake. Loki was sitting up in his own bed to look toward the sill behind him, occupied as usual by Clint Barton. The archer was as soundly asleep as the captain, his head tipped back and snores rasping from his extended throat.

"Mortals do get rather attached, don't they?" Loki remarked, tipping his chin at the bow in Barton's hand, grip firm for all his snoring.

"Brother," Thor said, smiling, "you're recovered?"

Loki settled back against his propped pillow, drawing his silk-wrapped hand into his lap. "Largely, yes, so the healers tell me," he said, his voice quiet, and not just to keep from disturbing their sleeping allies. For all his recent rest he sounded tired, more weakened even than Thor had felt himself upon first waking.

"We were triumphant," Thor told him. "Thanos is defeated, pulled into the void and not to return; and Father sealed the vortex afterwards—"

"With the Tesseract," Loki said. "Yes, I remember that." His eyes were dark through the shadows as he studied Thor. "And you—are you well?"

"Nearly mended," Thor assured him. "Eir said I'll likely be allowed to leave the hall tomorrow." In truth Thor thought he had rested more than enough, disregarding the dizziness when he tried to stand. But healers always would be overly cautious. Or perhaps Eir understood that he would have remained in the healing hall anyway, until Loki had awoken.

"I am glad you are unscathed," Loki said, in a quiet and carefully flat tone, as if he were trying not to sound too overly earnest for fear that any feeling would be disbelieved.

"I wish you were," Thor said, not hiding his own sorrow. "Does your hand pain you greatly?"

Loki looked down at the offending limb resting on his knees, layers of gray silk replacing the gauntlet's gold. "It's numb now; I cannot feel nor move it." His brow furrowed, not with pain or anger but like he might regard a puzzling page Fjalar had brought him.

He had written on those pages with his right hand, worked his magic with a motion of his agile fingers. Had cast the spell to exchange them, when Thor was under Thanos's blow. Thor swallowed. "Brother—"

Loki tucked his arm closer to his chest, as if to conceal it in the folds of his loose white robe. "A small price to pay, for our victory."

Far less a price than expected, that was true. "You said the gauntlet's destruction would destroy you with it, as well as Thanos," Thor said. "That it would rip asunder everything nearby it..."

"It seems I was mistaken."

"Were you?"

"I am here, am I not? And undestroyed, for the most part."

"But the vortex opened to the void, as just you said it would be," Thor said. Loki's eyes were steady on him—too steady? In the moonlit dimness it was hard to be sure. "And Thanos was lost in it, and you might have been, had I not caught you—"

"You might have been," Loki said, his calm narrowing to a needle-sharp point. "Not if you had fled, as I told you to—but you stopped; you were too close, when the gems shattered—"

"Was I close enough that I also might have been annihilated by their destruction?" Thor asked.

Watching intently, he saw Loki's shoulders stiffen, spine pulled straight by tension; they answered his question better than Loki's tongue, which only said, flatly, "How could I guess that, when I didn't rightly know the gems' power?"

"Whether or not you knew the full scope of that power, I wonder if you still might have directed it," Thor said. "When the gem cracked, could you have deliberately channeled its energies into the void, rather than risk destroying what lay on this side?"

"Even if I had such control, that seems a foolish choice for me to make," Loki said, "when to do so would rip a hole into the void wide enough to certainly swallow me."

"Indeed," Thor said, considering. "And you told me before that you would rather be destroyed than returned to the void..."

"So I said," Loki said, almost successfully toneless.

"Was that a lie?"

Loki turned away from Thor, toward the stars out the window. "No." He shuddered, even with his shoulders held so tight. "It was not."

Thor did not wish to hurt his brother; but he feared that not knowing, he risked doing him worse harm. "Loki, how long were you lost in the void, before Thanos found you?"

"I do not know." Loki continued gazing at the stars. "It was...it was not dark nor light; there was no sun or moon, no night or day. No way to tell what time had passed, but to count the seconds going by. And then I would lose the tally, when..."

He trailed off, shook his head and resumed in a flat, feelingless voice, "It is not empty, of course—oh, if it only were empty! But what is there—what passes there does not pass as it does here; one does not perceive any of it as one sees or hears or touches anything here. All my knowledge and magic arts proved as useless as—as your hammer and your strength would be there. I thought—I felt—for centuries I fell, it seemed, until I lost all hope of ever stopping—until I forgot I had ever even believed I would die, until I forgot why I had even fallen, where I had fallen from, who was falling—and then the Chitauri found me."

Loki's breath quickened, and the words poured from him faster, too fast to be silenced, though still monotone. "By luck, not intent; even Thanos's power was not so strong as to find one soul dropping through the endless void. But he found me, caught me, and I was...it was not gratefulness, it was not even relief—but to not be falling, to lie in place and feel solid stone beneath me, every pebble and jagged edge different against my skin—it was joy. Even the pain was joy, at first, because it was not the void..."

"Brother," Thor said, soft and sick with horror, and Loki finally turned from the window back to him.

"We could not have fought free," he said. "If you had fallen into the void with me—not in a thousand years, not in a hundred thousand, could we have freed ourselves; and you would curse me, for dragging you after me. Even as I cursed you as I fell, for your cruel mercy, for not smiting me with Mjolnir as you smote the rainbow bridge—" Loki snapped up his hand to cut off Thor's next words. "Do not apologize," he said, clipped short by his caught breath. "I do not want to know how much I have hurt you, in telling you this; you asked me, and so brought it on yourself."

"Then I will not," Thor said. "But Loki, if ever you should fall into that void again, know that I will pull you from it. I will find you in it; I will save you, whatever power I need obtain to manage it. I vow this."

Loki closed his eyes, started to shake his head.

"'A prince of Asgard should know better than to make vows he cannot keep'," Thor said, before Loki could. "So you told me before—but I saved you from Thanos, as I swore to. And this vow I make not as a prince, but as the All-Father of the Nine Realms, as I will be someday—on my future throne, I swear it."

Loki's breath rattled in his throat; but when he opened his eyes, their green gaze was steady through the dimness, and his voice was cool, laced with irony. "And if I steal that throne from you, as I have before?"

"But you did not," Thor said. "It was rightly granted you, when I was banished. And would you really want it back, were it offered to you again?"

Loki arched his eyebrows, exaggerated in the shadows. "I should think that time with your humans would've reminded you of my ambitions."

"They're my friends, not mine own creatures!" Thor shook his head. "And why should I heed anything you told me on Earth? You lie, brother. To the Tesseract as much as to anyone, I think. And you wished to anger me—you've always had a gift for that."

"It takes little enough skill," Loki muttered, then added, grudgingly, "if a bit more, now."

"I don't believe you ever wanted to rule," Thor said. "I told you before, the throne would suit you ill; even if you served it well, you would find it an uncomfortable seat. You enjoy rules too little to ever enjoy ruling."

"It's different to be the one making the rules," Loki said.

"But a king does not make rules," Thor said. "Not unless the people desire them. Not a good king, anyway. And would you really be content to be a bad one, brother?"

Loki snorted, shaking his head, not in denial but sarcastic despair. "A good king serves his subjects," Thor said. "So when I am king, I would be serving you."

"...If I were still a subject of Asgard," Loki said, and at Thor's sharp look went on, "You must have realized it by now. With Thanos's defeat, Asgard's first war with the Chitauri is ended. So I am that war's prisoner no longer."

"Then Father—"

"The All-Father will decide as is best for Asgard," Loki said. "As a good king must. And I am yet a traitor and a criminal—"

"Not now," Thor said. "You're Eir's patient now, by her honor, until you are recovered..." His eyes fell unwilling to Loki's silk-shrouded hand.

Loki lifted the bandaged limb into the moonlight, examined it blandly. "Do not think me so crippled as to merit mercy. What the healers can't put right, I'll find another solution for. I've never learned more than the basics of healing magic; this will supply motivation." His gaze shifted to Thor, the corners of his lips curling up. "Did you not tell me before, that I best enjoy finding the complicated answers?"

Thor nodded. "And so I think I can best serve you by giving you the most difficult problems to wrestle—and Asgard's problems are complex indeed. We have more enemies than mad titans and alien armies; and more who may be made our foes, if we misstep. And I can be clumsy, and don't always see the right way clearly. I do not want to be the king that leads Asgard to ruin, and so I would have you by my side when I rule, brother...if you would be willing to stand there."

Loki's shoulders curved inward, the black curtain of his hair falling over his eyes as he drew his uninjured arm around his knees. "My will matters not, if not in accordance with the All-Father's."

"Father will not always be the All-Father," Thor said. "And when I am, I will decide what is best for Asgard."

Loki did not answer. In the fallow silence, Steve Rogers on the chair beside Thor snorted, shifted position without awaking. Thor looked to him, then at Barton still asleep on the sill, and remarked, "By the by, brother—Clint Barton is not a man to doze off while keeping watch. Nor Captain Rogers."

Loki glanced back at the humans, asked innocently, "No?"

Thor sighed. "Take your spell off them."

"It wasn't my spell," Loki said. "I merely suggested to a healer that the mortals are overtired, taxed beyond sense, and needed rest despite their noble urge to watch over us. They'll feel better for it."

"Loki. They trust you little enough already."

Loki sunk his head down again. "Barton's hawk stare gets...tiresome."

"Then show him he has no need to watch you so closely."

"And if he does?"

Thor simply looked at him, until Loki grumbled, "Fine, then, wake them! But I'll sleep through that conversation, if you don't mind," and he laid himself down on his pallet, folding his good left hand over the bandaged right, so his sleeve hid the injury.

Thor continued to study his brother's sharp and pale face, asked him, "How has your sleep been now, these past days? The nightmares..."

"I am far out of Thanos's reach now; he cannot touch my dreams."

"But do you dream well?"

"If I do not," Loki said softly, "then they are at least my own horrors and no one else's. And not yours to defeat, brother."

"No," Thor said, "but you will tell me, if there's anything I can do to lessen them?"

Loki angled a glance across to Thor. "If I do not, will you otherwise seek your own way to enter my head and smite my demons with your mighty hammer?"

"I will," Thor said, determined.

Loki sighed, closing his eyes. "...Then I will tell you."

 


 

It took three more days of rest before the healers reluctantly relinquished Loki from their halls. If he was still pallid and thin, he was steady on his feet, and his eyes seemed clearer than before, with the black rings about them lessened. With his hair smoothed down and tied back, he looked younger to Thor, almost like his brother before he had fallen.

Though when Loki dispelled the white healing robes, it was his longcoat he donned. With his magic he saw to mending its tears and stains, oiling the leather until it sheened black and green. He forwent his armor; without those golden accents, he was outfitted as somberly as for a funeral.

Before they left the halls, he held out his hands to Thor, diffidently. Thor shook his head. "No, brother; you need no chains now."

Loki arched an eyebrow at him. "So Odin declared the prisoner should walk freely to the throne room?"

"He commanded that I bring you, bound and secure," Thor said, and nodded at the silk wrapping still tied about Loki's right hand, the only remaining sign of his injuries. "That binds your hand and your magic both, better than manacles would."

Loki's lips quirked. "Some might be more comforted by the chains. Such as the Einherjar sworn to protect the king. To say nothing of your human friends..."

Thor put his hand to Mjolnir on his belt. "This will comfort them, well enough."

"—Or stop them from complaining, at least," Loki murmured, and followed Thor from the healing halls.

No guard accompanied them, and the palace corridors were empty, washed in golden daylight. In the antechamber of the throne room, Thor stopped them, gave his brother an examining look. "The last time you stood in formal audience before the king, it was in another form."

"So it was," Loki said.

"Would you want to make the same point now?"

"Ah, would I?" Loki mused. His smirk was quicksilver, a wicked glitter between the cracks of his calm facade.

Thor snorted, then stepped past the curtain and through the golden doors. Loki kept an even pace at his side. His footsteps did not falter when they entered the throne room to see the larger part of the host of Asgard before them, over five thousand strong, warriors and nobility, guards and crafters, all standing according to their rank and principles.

The last time so many had gathered in the throne room was to witness Thor's failed coronation. Then the spirit had been celebratory—or so Thor had thought at the time; he wondered now how many of that cheering throng had had misgivings, besides his brother. The atmosphere now was more overtly strict, voices silenced and gestures stilled, and all eyes upon them, watchful, assessing, curious. For most of the audience, the imprisoned traitor prince had been only a rumor until this moment.

Every footfall of their boots on the etched floor echoed through the assemblage. Loki's strides were measured as they marched the aisle between the crowd, neither lagging nor hurried. He had probably anticipated this gathering from the emptiness of the halls. Thor kept facing forward, toward the throne as they approached, not looking to his brother. That Loki was still Aesir in appearance, not assuming the Jotunn blue, Thor guessed from the lack of reaction about them. And otherwise Loki's expression would tell him nothing.

The ambassadors from the other realms stood at their place before the throne's dais. The Avengers stood behind Fjalar and Aridva—a misordering; as representatives of the aggrieved world they should be in front, but Thor suspected they had let the dwarves forward so they might more easily observe. Fjalar caught Thor's eye in passing and winked; Thor gave him a slight nod back. He offered another nod to his human friends, all in their battle dress, save for Bruce Banner who wore a gray outfit that was embarrassingly plain to Thor's eyes, but which Tony Stark had assured them was the height of Midgard ceremonial fashion.

Thor and Loki halted at the base of the dais, and Thor stepped to the side so that Loki stood alone—though not too far.

Loki bowed, graceful and respectfully plain, before raising his face to the throne. "Greetings, Odin-King, All-Father," he said. "I again stand before you—"

He got no further, for Odin raised his hand, and Loki fell silent like the rest of the watching crowd. The All-Father stood from his throne. Taking Gungnir in hand, he descended the golden steps down to the dais's first rise, where Frigga stood in her most formal court finery.

At Odin's gesture, Thor took Loki's arm and escorted him up the steps of the dais to the rise, to stand level with the king. For all the evenness of Loki's steps, Thor saw his brother's shoulders tense, rigid with the effort of meeting the king's gaze.

Odin stood facing Loki, his back as straight, single blue eye locked with Loki's green. Carefully, deliberately, he set down Gungnir to stand beside him.

Then Asgard's king reached out and roughly pulled Loki into an embrace, before he could flinch or step back from it. Frigga smiled, and Thor beamed as their father clasped Loki tight to him, then gripped him by the shoulders and pushed him back upright. Odin held him there a moment, studying his aspect, as if to make sure his son would not flee, or fall over. From the shocked whiteness of Loki's face, neither would be so unlikely. Thor took a step nearer to his brother as Odin took up his spear again, raised it as he overlooked the watching crowd.

"We welcome back Loki Odinson," the All-Father shouted, his voice reverberating throughout the throne room. "Our prince and one-time king of Asgard, thought lost to us. But even as Thanos and the Chitauri were defeated, so now has the last shadow passed over this kingdom, with our lost son's return!"

For a moment the silence held, and Thor glanced down at the Avengers gathered before the dais.

Odin had spoken to them earlier, that these court affairs would not be a surprise. If the humans wished to, they had the right now to contest the king's pronouncement and make accusations against the enemy of their world. Thor watched them as surreptitiously as he could, not wanting to stare and so seem to discourage them from their rightful course. But none of them came forth. Though Stark was unreadable behind his metal mask, Rogers and Banner both looked thoughtful. And Natasha and Barton had their heads together, murmuring; but neither stepped forward.

Thor swallowed. He did not know if it was out of their gratitude or friendship for him, or for the sake of being Asgard's allies, or else it was that incredible human mercy; whatever their reasons, his heart ached from his own gratefulness.

Odin nodded to the humans, then brought Gungnir crashing down, echoing through the great hall. In answer a great roaring cheer swelled from all those gathered, breaking like a wave over the silence.

If most were shouting in answer to the All-Father's command, some were shouting for who he celebrated. Sif and the Warriors Three all threw back their heads to holler Loki's name. In the past three days, Stark had had the opportunity to show off the video he had recorded, projected images showing Loki's rescue of Thor in the face of Thanos's brutality; and Thor had told them in detail about the fight and afterwards, of how Loki had asked to be let go, lest he pull Thor into the void with him. Loki had no wish to speak of such himself, nor much desire to talk with anyone as he healed, so this was the first chance they had had to show him their feelings, and they expressed them loudly, as was their wont.

Fjalar's cheering was also directly meant; he grinned up at Loki, pumping his fist. Behind him, the Avengers all applauded with blank-faced, diplomatic courtesy.

No blanker, however, than Loki's own face, so astonished that he could not even fake some other feeling, as he stared out over that cheering host. Frigga came forward to claim her own embrace as queen to prince, which Loki returned mechanically, still looking dazed, until his mother whispered something in his ear that made him straighten up again, chin lifting in a measure of restored, proud composure.

After a bit, when the noise began to lull, Thor stepped up beside his brother on the dais, and the cheers rose high again. He heard his own name in it now—the bards had already begun on several versions of his battle with Thanos, some of which Loki did not figure as prominently in as he ought. Still, when Thor raised Mjolnir and the shouting redoubled, he could not help smiling at the enthusiasm, as gratifying thunder as anything he called from the clouds.

Loki shot him a sidelong look, a smirk curling around the edges of his lips, too slight a thing to be seen by any other. Nodding meaningfully to Thor, he raised his hands to join in the applause as he himself took a deferential step back, ceding the crown prince the center of the dais, so broadly visible a gesture as to not be missed over the tumult.

Thor grinned back at Loki, then threw his arm around his brother's shoulders and hauled him forward again, so they stood side by side before the throne, with all of Asgard cheering both their names.

 


 

"So that's it, then?" Tony Stark asked, taking a gulp from his latest cup. He was much taken with Asgard's mead and had already discussed importing some back to Earth. Around them the feasting continued, ever livelier the more wine and mead was poured; but the human's eyes were serious as he stared across the table at Loki. "The king says you're back, and all's forgiven?"

"Not forgiven," Loki said, "but rather forgotten. And so too must I forget—the name I had before, and all the deeds of he who held it, are no longer mine to claim. Nor anything that was his."

"So you give up any salvage rights to the Tesseract—not that you had any right to it anyway—and get to wipe a failed invasion and a prison term clean off your record," Stark said. He finished his stein, slammed it down on the table with appropriate vigor. "Sounds like a good deal to me."

"Aye, but so too do his victories against Thanos and the Chitauri get wiped," Volstagg said, leaning across the table toward Stark. "If the bards deign mention Thor's ally against the Mad Titan, it will be the traitor Loki Laufeyson who helped defeat him. Not the second Odinson, who has yet to prove himself so worthily."

"Except that you and everybody else knows it was him," Rogers remarked from Stark's other side.

Volstagg shrugged. "For now. In ten years, in a hundred...memories are fickle; legend and song endure."

Thor looked over at his brother, but Loki said nothing; he was watching Volstagg with a thoughtful look.

"Awfully convenient, isn't it?" Barton said. His own stein and wineglass were still full, untouched. "This criminal Loki Laufeyson goes down fighting Thanos, and then the prodigal son Loki Odinson just happens to pop up—this happen a lot in your legends?"

"There is precedent," Thor said.

Rogers coughed pointedly. Barton looked from the captain to Thor and muttered, "Uh, sorry, no offense—"

"But he's got a point," Stark said. "A complete karmic reset, and all you've got to do is change your name—I'd take that deal—"

"No, you wouldn't," the Lady Natasha said, seemingly mild.

Stark flushed with more than the spirits. "...Okay, maybe not. But still..."

"...And we have precedent, too." Banner had hardly spoken during the meal before, so while his voice was quiet it still commanded all their attention. Even Loki's green eyes flicked to him, as Banner continued, "SHIELD hasn't put me on trial for all the things the Hulk has done. "

"But that's different—"

"Yeah, maybe." Bruce looked down into the golden mead in his goblet. "I wonder..."

He did not break the silence which fell amidst the tumult of the feast around them, and the others dared not, until at last Stark cleared his throat. "Here's to rebranding," he said, lifting his stein. "May it go better than New Coke."

"Tony," Rogers sighed, but raised his own cup. "To new beginnings," he said firmly. The other Avengers echoed it, Thor with them as they knocked their steins together in the Midgardian fashion and drank, even Barton and Banner wetting their lips.

And Loki said nothing, and did not tap his cup to theirs; but he did lift it and drink with them, deeply enough to drain his wine.

"So," Fandral said, before another quiet could descend, "is it true you'll be breaking my heart by departing tomorrow, Lady Natasha?"

"Yes," Barton growled out, glaring, as Volstagg and Stark both snorted, and Natasha sipped from her stein, effectively hiding any expression. While to Thor's knowledge she had yet to return Fandral's advances, neither had she spurned them—Stark had declared she obviously had a thing for 'Robin Hood types'.

From there the conversation turned to the humans' impending return to Midgard. "You're sure you won't be able to come back with us?" Barton asked Thor again, and Thor again denied it, making the effort to smile around the heaviness of his heart. He had already discussed the matter with Rogers. In the case of dire emergencies to Earth Asgard's might could be called upon; but Thor had obligations to the realm that his father and his own honor would not release him from. Though it pained him, knowing most of his friends, and Jane Foster as well, were mortal; even if he might free himself somewhat in a few decades' time, their friendship might have faded, and perhaps their lives as well.

It was his own fault, of course, for long shirking his responsibilities as prince in favor of questing and carousing, and regrets now could not change youthful folly. So when Barton sighed and said, "Fury's going to be disappointed, would've made up for a lot, to have you around long-term," Thor could only say, "I'm sorry, my friends," and try not to wish too hard for Midgard to be direly threatened.

Sometime in the course of this discussion, Loki slipped away from their company. Thor did not see him go, only realizing it when he turned to ask his brother what he thought of Stark trading with the dwarves, and found his seat empty. Before Thor could rise in alarm, Sif met his eyes and nodded to the door to indicate Loki's departure, and Thor settled back in his chair, if less comfortably than before.

The others were moreso; with Loki absent, Barton offered a few toasts of his own, and their conversation grew more boisterous. Thor enjoyed it greatly, knowing it to be his last chance in however long to share the company of his human friends.

Though as the night deepened and Loki did not return, Thor's thoughts were drawn back to his brother. It gave him a start to realize that he would not know where to look, if Thor sought him now. No longer a prisoner in the dungeons, Loki might go anywhere. He might have left the palace, if he cared to—or even the realm, by one of his hidden routes that did not require the Bifrost. Though those might be more dangerous for him now, when his injury curtailed what spells he could cast...

The hour was quite late, the king and queen already retired, so Thor excusing himself was no marked event. Banner withdrew with him, and the other Avengers seemed likely to soon follow, either by way of being dragged or else doing the dragging. Theirs would be a late departure from Asgard tomorrow, Thor guessed.

After directing Banner to the guest chambers, Thor did not himself head for his own rooms. Instead he wandered back to the balcony alongside the throne room, to take in the night air, and a view of the palace grounds. Not that he expected to see Loki—but then, his brother always had liked to explore the gardens' shadows, and after so long in the cell he might enjoy watching the open sky...

As it happened, however, the balcony was occupied, low conversation floating through the night's quiet. Thor halted, concealed behind the columns lining the corridor and staying silent so as not to interrupt, as Odin's voice said, "You would pose Midgard as a threat against us, when they haven't even the power to understand the Tesseract, much less harness its power?"

"Not a threat," Loki's voice answered. "Not yet, at least; and hopefully not ever. Earth's people may not yet have advanced to our level, but witness how far they've come in scarcely more than the blink of an eye. The shortness of their lives drives them to attempt as much in their brief time as we do in millennia. In mere centuries they are already near able to meet us on the Bifrost; in a few more they may well surpass us. They are our protectorate now, but one day they'll be worthy allies to Asgard."

"They are our allies now," Odin said. "How do you propose to strengthen that bond?"

"By assuring that Asgard's king is as known and respected on Midgard as here," Loki said. "If they had the chance to get to know Thor, as we know him, to witness for themselves his heroism and honor—I'm not suggesting any great delay; with mortal life spans, it wouldn't take much time to make an impression upon them. You would only have to bear the crown's burden a little while longer, perhaps thirty or forty years, while Thor makes a name for himself on Earth. And it would be to political advantage as well for Asgard's king to understand better the ways of the humans."

"I didn't know you had such great respect for mortal ways, my son."

"That was my error—but you have always appreciated Midgard's potential, Father; why else would you banish Thor there to learn? There are already more humans now than all the other peoples of the realms together, and someday they may be stronger than us as well. Only a fool would ignore or overlook them, however quaint their customs might seem to us."

"And you do not think Thor would be such a fool."

"He is not," Loki said. "And he appreciates more than either you or I the best qualities of the Midgardians. His honest respect would win their respect in turn."

"Do you agree, Thor?" Odin's raised voice echoed tellingly between the columns.

Thor, flushing, ducked his head and stepped out onto the balcony. His father and brother both turned to him. In the moonlight their calmly assessing faces looked a near perfect match, for all the differences in age and blood. Neither showed any surprise; Thor supposed his tread approaching had not been so quiet as that, after all.

His father's pause was expectant, awaiting his answer, so Thor said, "I do respect my friends, that is true. And I would value the chance to better prove myself worthy of their respect, and closer friendship as well."

"...And maybe they could teach him more finesse in eavesdropping than drunkenly stumbling into private conversations," Loki murmured.

Thor gave him a mildly insulted look. "I could hardly become inebriated from sharing a few toasts with mortal men, brother!"

"Thor," Odin said, "would you be willing to live again among the humans—not banished, and returning to Asgard whenever you wished it or were summoned; but spending the greater part of your time dwelling on Midgard, to protect them with your strength, and make better acquaintance with them and their customs?"

Though it was true he'd hardly drunk enough to notice it, Thor felt almost dizzy now with unexpected hope. "I—I would, Father, be most willing!—If it would indeed serve Asgard, to go to Earth..."

Odin nodded. "Then I will consider this tonight, to discuss it with our Avenging allies on the morrow—and consult with your mother; she may regret having to relinquish her sons after so brief a reunion. But she will see what is best for the realm, and for you besides." With that, their father clasped both Loki and Thor by the arms, wished them goodnight and withdrew.

Thor stood beside Loki in silence, looking out over the grounds, softened into gentle dark shapes by the moonlight. Beyond the wall spread the glittering sea, and the Bifrost over it, reflecting prismatic rainbows on the dark waves. To think that soon it would be Earth's vast oceans that he gazed upon...

At last Thor conquered his emotions enough to say clearly, "I thank you, brother. This—this is a most incredible gift!"

Loki glanced at him sideways, only his eyes moving, his face still in unreadable profile. "You realize this might all be to further my own schemes. To get you exiled once more to Midgard, so I might have free reign on Asgard, out from under your all-too-understanding eye."

"But how would you get up to mischief here, from all the ways away on Earth?" Thor wondered.

Loki's brow furrowed in puzzlement.

"After all," Thor explained, "even if I succeed in winning the Midgardians' esteem, how would they trust me on Asgard's throne, if they knew my right-hand adviser only as the villain who once attempted to conquer them? They know you as neither Laufeyson nor Odinson, but only Loki; and it seems to me you have a greater need to make good that name on Earth than I."

Loki went still for a moment, staring at him. Then he said, "Setting aside my reputation in the world entire, I doubt any of your friends would willingly work with me, without the threat of Thanos and the realms endangered."

"On the contrary," Thor said. "Stark is most interested in studying your magic, as is Banner. And Captain Rogers believes it may be employed in multiple tactics, which Barton and the Lady Natasha are also intrigued by. They think that the man Fury would see its advantages as well."

"You've discussed this with your friends?"

"I have," Thor said. "Even not knowing when we would next journey to Earth, I told them you would also be Midgard's defender now."

"And they would trust me?" Loki laughed, brief and breathlessly sharp. "Even knowing my power and my ambitions, my crimes and my madness—no, they wouldn't trust me; it's you they trust. Did you swear to them that you would vanquish me, should I threaten their world again? Or did you rather threaten them, to accept me, or else deny them your own support?"

"Neither," Thor said. "I will not fight you again, Loki—I'll stop your evil should you attempt any, and save those you may threaten; but I will not seek your defeat or capture. But nor will I fight for you, when you have the strength to do so yourself, unless you ask for my help."

Loki stopped short. "Then how do you plan to reassure them? You're not so naive to believe the humans will simply accept me among their ranks, however interested they may be in my magic."

"No," Thor agreed. "But I'll be their ally, fighting alongside them and sparring with them—and they are very clever, those men Stark and Banner, and Jane as well. The better they know me, the better they will know how to defend against me—how to defeat Asgardians."

"So you will give them my weaknesses, so they might defeat me, and leave your own hands clean."

Thor shook his head. "I'll not reveal your vulnerabilities, save those we share—and one other. They know you are my brother, and it's my wish that you be given this chance. So if you betray it, the fault is mine, for believing in you when I should not have; and so too shall the punishment be mine, whatever they deem appropriate for your misdeeds, to be inflicted upon me."

Loki stared at him for a long moment in silence. Thor met his eyes squarely, that his brother might see his resolve.

"You'd make yourself a hostage to my good conduct?" Loki asked at last. "And you foolishly think that will be enough? That I would restrain myself for your sake, even knowing the mortals had not the power to stop me—"

"I think," Thor said over him, "that you would sooner have destroyed yourself with the gauntlet than endure the void again—yet you refused to destroy me with you. I think that when you shattered the Infinity Gem and we were suspended over the abyss, that you could have switched places with me with your magic, given me to the void in exchange for your own freedom—yet you did not do so. I think, brother, that you gave up your life and your death both, for my sake. You told me before that your hatred of Thanos was not a truth or lie but simply was; and I think that it is not a truth or lie that you love me—that you are simply my brother, and so you do. As I love you."

Loki shut his eyes, braced his arms on the balcony's railing to lean into the wind, letting the night breeze brush his black hair off his white face. Thor leaned against the balustrade beside him, looking over the palace and sea and shining rainbow bridge.

Loki did not answer him directly, and Thor did not expect it of him. But when his brother leaned in, so their shoulders pressed together, Thor smiled. "So," he asked, "will you accompany me to Midgard?"

He felt Loki tense. "Is that my brother's request, or the order of my future king?"

"It's a challenge," Thor said. "You would not let me go to Jotunheim alone, and you would not let me fall into the void at all—but will you dare return to Earth with me, even knowing the tribulations that await you there?"

For a long moment Loki was silent. His green eyes were open, studying the distant glitter of the Bifrost, and the multitude of stars spreading beyond. Perhaps he was thinking of all the myriad ways he knew to walk among them, all the secret places he could find the solace of solitude, now that he was free.

Perhaps this had truly been his scheme after all, to gift Thor with Midgard and then find his own way, find his own self that had been so long lost, in the void and after. They were no longer boys, after all; they had long since outgrown the days when Loki would dare Thor to reach the fruit on the furthest branch, or Thor would bet that Loki's magic tricks could not beat him in a spar...

"You realize," Loki said, quiet and too calm, "that my sorcery now is limited," and he lifted his silk-wrapped hand. "Perhaps when we were before the void, I tried to cast the spell to exchange us, but failed with my injury."

"But you did not try to cast it," Thor said, "and you're lying now to try to convince me otherwise."

"You are so sure of that? So sure of my lies?"

"I am so sure of you," Thor said. "And your other hand was uninjured."

Loki breathed out silently, his shoulder falling against Thor's. "Come with me to Earth," Thor said.

"...All right. But only out of duty to Asgard; I have no interest in the humans, or proving myself to them or anyone," Loki lied, and Thor smiled and replied, "As you say, brother."

the end