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And if your right hand causes you to offend, cut it off, and cast it from you: for it is better for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell.

 

*****

 

He had always known well the ways and means of working through the frustration of bringing his body back to full fighting form. The attack of the alien symbiote had taken deep toll upon his reserves of body and soul, and the memory of it lingered over his mind still. That was the only reason he could give for his the persistent sense that he had not yet recovered.

Physically there was no real reason for it, for while the damned creature had stripped him greatly of his deepest energies, it had not been the first time such things had happened to him. It was instead the memory of Loki’s trembling body beneath his seeking hand that had troubled him every night since. In that moment he had been unable to rise, trapped between the dream and the reality, unable to equate one to the other.

And Loki had just walked away.

You shouldn’t have tried to go after him, Banner had chided as he had looked Thor over later, shaking his head over fresh injuries taken in the fall he had taken from the gurney.

I did what I knew I must.

And he knew that he would do so again. In fact he had tried to do it again, stopped only by the combined restraint of the Captain’s strength and the Doctor’s alchemy, even though in his heart he’d already known Loki had long since vanished.

He meant to kill you.

Thor loosed another arrow, took the target dead in the centre.

Then I would be dead, Dr. Banner. He would not have missed, had that been his true intention.

“Nice shot.”

Thor inclined his head, taking the compliment for the gift he knew it was. “It is hardly the art you have made of it,” he offered in comfortable humility, and the archer snorted.

“Yeah, but the end result is pretty much the same. Didn’t really know you were into this sort of thing, though.”

“All Asgardian warriors are trained in a variety of weapons. Though we each have those we favour, in the heat of battle one never knows what weapon might be to hand, and which beyond our immediate reach.”

“Fair enough.” Barton understood this well; Thor had seen him fight in the field with far more than just the bows and arrows he tended with the care of a father to a child. That same professionalism had him striding then to the target, pulling the arrow with professional critical curiosity. It was not a training tool; rather it was Asgardian in both wood and metal head and worksmanship, fletched with raven feather. The archer frowned, testing its weight with one brow raised.

“Enchanted?”

“In a manner of speaking.” For a moment he contemplated the wisdom of such an offer, but then he had known from the beginning that Barton deserved as such more than any other. “I had planned on offering you one.”

He gave a faint nod, examining it still. “Do you even know what it was, that thing he burned out of you?” he asked, and Thor’s brow furrowed.

“Sorcery has never been my speciality nor even my interest.” He spoke with simple apology, though Barton’s expression indicated that he knew it was not intended for him. “I have heard tales of such things, though I had not known them to exist in any of the realms in which I have travelled.”

“So it’s something from beyond? Chitauri, perhaps?”

“I would not imagine so. But then my imagination has been called somewhat limited.”

It was not the irony of Thor’s words that appeared to bother the archer; a long moment passed before he spoke. “Before this,” he asked, tracing the rachis of one dark feather with a callused finger, “had you ever had Loki in your mind?”

“In such a fashion? No.” He had never felt comfortable discussing such matters with the archer, knowing of the man’s experience as his brother’s maddened hands. “Before the Chitauri, Loki’s strength in such mental manipulation…was not so strong, nor of such a nature.” Both apology and old reluctance drew his words in dim lines. “He chose more often to manipulate by spoken word and unspoken action.”

“I can still feel him in my head, sometimes.” Thor gave him a sharp look but he seemed unmoved by his own admission. “But…doors do open both ways.”

The jealousy struck him low, harder than expected; this was not something he had ever spoken of. “You saw into Loki’s mind?”

“Not far. And not deep.” Setting the arrow aside, Barton leaned back against the target, arms crossed over his chest. “Not that it would have done me much good either way, understand. I was entirely devoted to his well-being and my mission, and they were irrevocably linked.” His brow furrowed, eyes dropping; Thor could not tell if the motion was geared by thought, or some sense of shame he had no intention of sharing. “Besides, he was next to impossible to read.”

He shifted, uneasy. “Mind-walking is a very specialised art.”

“I don’t think even Loki could do it. Read his own mind, I mean.” He glanced up, eyes dark with borrowed shadow. “It was a mess in there, Thor.”

“What are you trying to tell me?”

“He doesn’t know what he wants.”

“I have come to believe that true of Loki for many years now.” And with it had come the bitterness of realising it had been there for longer than he could even dare imagine. But the archer remained troubled, head tilted like an owl seeking fresh wisdom from a source beyond its own realm of shadow and night.

“You said the creature made you dream of what you desired most.” His lips worked, as if he counted to ten before adding: “And that Loki walked in those dreams.”

“Yes.” That truth he had given willingly enough when they had sought the nature and source of the creature that had taken the team’s near-immortal down. Yet he had kept the detail of them to himself. It hurt even now to remember it: the peace of Loki forever at his side, his declared partner in everything – family, kingship, life. The wrench of being taken from it had hit him hard, and he had fought hard to keep it. And then, the only reason he had let go, even as he clung tighter still to the imagined Loki of his fantasy: the real one calling to him, the joy felt in press of his mind and the desperation of his grasp as he’d sought to draw him back from the brink.

Stay with me, he’d asked. In turn, Loki had made that promise.

And then he had just walked away.

“He didn’t like what he saw,” Barton remarked, summoning Thor back from the iron grasp of memory. With a shake of his head Thor dispelled the vividness of it, if not the agony.

“I cannot be sure what he thought.” The bow, taken from the armoury behind Asgard many moons ago, was the smooth familiarity of home, golden in his grasp. “But it kept me alive.”

At first Barton offered respect in his silence. Then his words began to burrow deep, sowing seeds of discord and unease. “I know how it is, to want to give someone a second chance. Believe me, Thor, I know.” He paused, allowed that to sink in. “It was different for me, sure. I hardly knew her. But…”

The tales of how his comrades had come to be warriors sworn to the code of Fury’s Avengers had been told only in fragments, and the Widow’s had long been the tapestry most tattered and incomplete. But he knew the friendship of the paired avian and arachnid hunters had come through a tangle of spontaneous trust and perceived debt. Thor’s heart tightened in a quick doublebeat. “You believe I should just give up on him?”

“It was different, for her. All that she was…hell, all that she is now, it was always just a job.” One hand moved back through his hair, the first uneasy gesture of the conversation. “Yeah, I know it looks like we don’t have much beyond all this. In a lot of ways we maybe don’t…but even though there are personal things about all this, it’s not all we are.” His mouth worked, as if he rolled his words in his mouth, tasting them for palatability. Then he gave up. “Hating you has become his life. Everything he was, everything he tries to be…it’s all about hating you, and your family. So without that, who is he?”

“He is my brother.”

His head moved in slow back and forth. “We’ve all wondered, you know. What we would have seen, had that thing got one of us instead of you.” Though he offered nothing of those thoughts, Thor could feel the unease rippling over the darkest depths of his soul even as he asked: “Did you expect what you saw?”

His spine stiffened. “I knew it for the truth.”

“But did you expect it?”

The archer had always been perceptive. Thor had often thought that explained why Loki had chosen him, why he still often displayed a tolerant curiosity to him that he rarely extended elsewhere. “No,” he admitted, though he did not lower his gaze. And Barton gave a shrug more in word than motion.

“If even you can lie to yourself, then what hope has he?”

Thor did turn away then, shoulders beginning a slow hunch upward before he forced them down. “I do not understand what it is, that you are trying to tell me.”

“No-one’s seen him since. And I mean no-one – not just us. Word on the grapevine the bad guys all get drunk off says the same thing.” Barton let that lie a moment, and then took one last shot. “I don’t think the god of lies could resist something so tied to the truth. Look at the tesseract.”

Denial had never suited him well. Still Thor pulled it over himself like a cloak, keeping his attention upon the arrows that had been made with the intent of neutralising seiðr more than taking life. “I would return to my training,” he said, blank and easy; the archer paused, then expelled a long slow breath.

“Can I just tell you one last thing?”

Thor could not abide cowardice in anyone, least of all himself. He turned back to the archer. “Yes?”

“I tried to put an arrow in his head, once. When I got free of his mind. I told myself it was for me.” His guarded hand wrapped about the shaft of the borrowed arrow. “But like I said, he’s still trapped in here.” Even as Thor raised his bow again, taking measure of his target, Barton shrugged, turned away. “And sometimes I think I did it for him, too.”

When the mortal had gone, Thor lowered his bow, arrow nocked still. He no longer held desire any longer to take his shot.

 

*****

 

Despite the odd length of his recovery, Thor felt no less strong when he returned to his duties both as son of Asgard and a sworn warrior of the Avengers. Matters might have been resolved more quickly had he returned to Asgard, even only for a matter of days; he could almost taste the tart promise of Iðunn’s apples upon his tongue. But even for his strength, he could not bring himself to leave. It was easy enough to pretend at concern for his comrades, given they still did not know exactly where the peculiar creature had originated from, and if some hand other than its own had guided it to its rest.

But he could not bear the thought of walking those halls, not yet. The false memories of dream and desire remained emblazoned upon his mind, and the certain knowledge that Loki would not be at his side, as brother or lover or both, kept him away. And Thor had not enjoyed partaking of Iðunn’s harvest since the days of Loki’s ill-fated return from false death.

But Loki appeared to walk Midgard’s soil no more than he did Asgard’s runed marble floors. Weeks passed, the moon waxed and waned, and Loki felt no urge to show his face before his brother. The greater concern lay in that no other saw him, either. It drove him to the point of summoning Heimdall, calling for counsel. While he knew Loki shielded himself more often than not from the gatekeeper of worlds, he also knew Loki’s seiðr was not constant nor infallible.

“He lives,” the gatekeeper had responded, and nothing more. Barton’s own brief assent had proved the same; though he claimed that the mind control gone, it seemed old knowledge to SHIELD that the tesseract had forged something between the two not so easily broken: a faint sense, servant to master, but too lacking in strength to ever become again the choke chain it had once been.

He might have been jealous of it, had he not the same. Thor would know if his brother had died. In the days after Loki’s fall from the broken bridge, that had been the worst of it. His mind had carried the certain knowledge of his brother letting go, falling into darkness – and yet never once had his heart or soul been able to believe it. The same sensation followed him now. And it was in the dimness of another battle’s end, the Doom Doctor’s mechanical thralls scattered like children’s toys about the great city Loki himself had once tried to force to its knees, that it strengthened, sharpened, sudden and sinister: like a whisper crawling into his eyes, scratching behind his eyeballs, a lightning-crack driven through the soft tissues of his brain.

Brother.

It could be imagined, just for that. Loki had not addressed him by such willingly in some time. Yet even the mighty Thor had not strength enough to resist it. With no remark to his comrades he let fall the device gifted by Stark through with they speak with mortal science, scarcely hearing the sound of its tinkled abandonment upon the concrete pavement of Fifth Avenue. Without accompaniment Thor moved through streets already coming to life with the half-panicked, half-euphoric buzz of citizenry, and heard nothing more than the voice insistent in thought and not true sound.

Thor, you must come.

Eventually he raised Mjölnir, let her draw him upward and with unerring accuracy toward the sense of his brother. The strangely simplistic surroundings at the brief journey’s end brought with them a creeping sense of dread that he could not quite understand. But he did not halt. His brother called still, and it grew louder with every step closer he took upon the shadowed lane where Mjölnir had brought him.

It seemed as no mortal foot had set foot here in many a year, and when he reached the terminus of the rutted, ill-kept road he could see it to be true. The ruined house lay in solemn, miserable despair in a bed of seeded grass and drooping tree, the front doorframe gated only by a loose lattice of vine and flower. As the porch steps creaked beneath his weight, as he peered through dirtied glass and saw nothing beyond, his mind could not reconcile this with the call of his brother at its loudest now in his mind.

 Loki’s whims had ever been peculiar, but Thor’s mind turned over with uneasy suspicion. This place was unsuited to his fastidious brother’s temperament. A faint fear slithered into the secret corners of his heart as he pressed aside vine and thick-scented bloom, moving within and to darkness with Mjölnir firmly in hand. It could be a trick, a trap. But then Loki would realise he would suspect it. They had been playing this game since before they knew how to fight with hand and word and weapon.

“I am here.”

His voice rang through the halls, a command near-regal in its relentless demand. But then you are still a prince, Thor’s mind whispered, even as he raised his own voice to thunderous shout. “What do you wish of me, brother? Why have you summoned me here?”

“Because I knew you would come.” And the bodiless voice paused, tight with something Thor had no hope of identifying at such unseen distance. “And I so believe the issue is more what do you wish of me?”

A flush stained his cheeks, hot with the realisation that he had not seen Loki since that day. It burned him even now to understand that for all he had so willingly fallen into the fantasy offered by the creature, it had still been a shock even to him. And yet from the first moment he had tasted the dream-Loki’s lips, had wound one hand about a flushed cock with the fingers of the other driven up hard into clenching heat while clever fingers dug deep into nape of neck and curve of shoulder, Thor had known it for the truth. He’d simply never really seen it until that moment, that secret within himself: the desire, the longing, to need to always have his brother ever at his side.

And the irony of the liesmith, at the heart of the truth even you, noble Thor, had never known—

“Why did you call me here?”

He had paused upon the threshold, a choice not yet made as Loki’s answer floated upon the air; he could not tell if it were exhaustion or something else that rendered it so low, half-breathed curiosity. “Do you not wish to come and see?”

It came then, that not-memory of Loki nude and languid upon their marriage-bed. With golden light spilled careless through the opened windows, his skin had been aglow with the promised pleasure of home and hearth that he offered. Dark hair lay in stark contrast against crisp white of sheets, legs lazily opened with one hand behind his head, the other skirting the low curve of his swelling abdomen. Everything I ever wanted, he had thought in hazy satisfaction, hearing the song of the city beyond as they celebrated the announcement of the heir’s quickening. Walking forward, Thor had shed armour like skin until he was nothing but want and need and desire, nothing but the creature that was neither king nor son nor brother nor warrior. Nothing but Loki’s – for only when he pressed into that welcoming oiled warmth was he whole again.

In the cold overgrown shadows of Loki’s chosen reality, Thor swallowed hard and set Mjölnir upon his belt. He did not expect to find anything of the sort beyond the door half-hung upon its rusted hinges. As he stepped beyond the threshold he found himself instead in a world of shadows, each indistinct form creeping along the floor and upon the walls. The drip of distant unseen water beat a staccato to match the uneven rhythm of breathing and heart as his eyes adjusted to the dimness of Loki’s chosen hiding place.

The gardens had come inside, the doors upon to the tangled darkness beyond. Only one true piece of furniture stood near the far wall: a ragged chaise-lounge upon which Loki reclined while staring up at the crumbling plaster of the high ceiling. Fully clothed, his neck curved backward at a near-critical angle so that he looked nearly entirely behind rather than up. One hand lay upon his abdomen, though the other lay thrust outward to rest upon the spindly table at his side.

Thor’s eyes were drawn to it almost without thought. There they fixed, creeping horror winding cruel tendrils about his heart and lungs, squeezing breath from him so that he was barely able to speak aloud.

“What have you done?”

“I could pluck it out before, always.” Grunting with effort, every limb tense with pain, Loki lifted his head, attempted to fix his gaze upon his brother as he added with casual malice: “But not any longer.”

“Loki.” His voice half-choked on the word, throat stitching up tight with the horror of his realisation. It had been different, for him. Thor had been unconscious, and remembered nothing of what it had been like in any physical sense, having his soul and spirit and very life-force stolen by another beyond his immortal body. Only the fantasy remained; only the fantasy had mattered. And only when another Loki had called to him had he become aware that there existed any dream to be lost before he could live again.

Loki did not dream, but the thing resident now in his hand spoke in ugly eloquence of a mind annexed by something that existed beyond its confines. Thor could scarcely look at it, but then he found he must. At the centre of his palm lay embedded a piece of the creature that had taken him; he knew it to be true, the faint memory of its song a too-sweet taste and nausea and need filling his mouth with bile. And then he nearly retched indeed to see the ridges of its passage beneath his brother’s near-translucent skin; the roots were digging deeper, writhing in lazy seeking thought even as he watched. I could pluck it out before, Loki had murmured but moments ago. But even as he watched, it dug deeper still – and he looked up to meet his brother’s eyes with deep revulsion. Half-glazed, staring into the distance where a dream danced before him, they still fixed upon him.

“There is a quaint Midgardian saying,” he remarked, very nearly conversational, “that implies that if some part of your body would encourage you to sin, that the best cure for such malady would be simply to remove said part lest it should endanger all that one is.”

The need to smash Mjölnir through something took him hard, and heavy – yet it would be little challenge enough. It might only bring the house down upon them, and the stale damp air between them seemed to cast the sad little house enough in the light of a mausoleum without actually consigning Loki’s corpse to its collapsed vault. “Is that why you called me here?” he asked instead, voice thickened by the horror of implication. “You wish for me to remove your hand?”

I cannot do it.” The withering words were very nearly the voice of childhood reborn.  “And this is your fault.”

“That you would do something so foolish as this?”

Loki had never responded well to Thor’s easy assumption that an elder brother’s knowledge should always be assumed the greater by dint of mere age rather than of worked acquisition. His back arched, though the unseen weight of his hand meant his shoulders came scarcely upward before he let himself fall back, eyes flashing with sudden fury. “That this is all I see,” he spat out, all venomous fury, and Thor’s eyes widened in a fashion that might have been comical once.

“And what do you see?”

“You. Me.” His laughter scraped against the crumbling walls, high and half-broken. “My belly swollen with child, and all of Asgard awash with joy for the gold having taken the silver and remade him anew!”

The rotting floorboards felt to tilt beneath his feet. “That is your dearest wish?”

“This is not my dream.” Scorn propelled each word like a thrown blade, leaving them embedded deep in Thor’s prickling skin. “It is yours.”

 “But this creature gives one their own greatest desires.” Words and wit had never been his chosen battlefield; Thor fought on regardless, dogged though not yet desperate. “So how can you then dream my dreams?”

“You have poisoned me.” For all his laughter, Thor knew Loki was no more fit for war such as this than Thor himself. Yet the sons of Odin had been taught from before memory that they left the field either victorious or borne upon their shield and the shoulders of their comrades. “You never cared for what I wanted,” Loki bit off with the harsh relish of a stubborn strength, “nor for what any other ever wanted, as long as you had your heart’s desire.”

“But I don’t have it.” Though Mjölnir hung still upon his belt, Thor’s fingers spasmed about empty air; in such combat, his hand was impotent without any true weapon to grasp. “In the end, I fear I’ve never had it.”

The low rumble of Loki’s laughter grated against his throat, leaving voice raw and bloody. “Our imagined daughter is a hellion, you realise?” Raising his hand, he held it before his face. As it twisted and turned like a condemned man dancing upon his gallows, Loki’s half-lidded eyes never left the curse of his palm; the fingers jerked, all their former grace erased by the weight of the overgrown creature he had once sought to wrest under his own command and control.

And the bitter curve of his lips waned like a bleeding crescent moon. “But then I suppose you would want that. There could be never any ordinary thing worthy of one such as you…nothing but the extraordinary for the golden king of Asgard.”

Loki’s capacity to hurt him seemed a limitless well, a murky oubliette where all was never forgotten for all it was kept eternal in that festering darkness. Now knelt at his side, though not quite daring to touch, Thor could not look away. Speaking would do him no favours, for all Loki’s own weapons were wielded now drunken and blunted, but Thor had never been able to hold his silence for long. “What is her name?”

A breath escaped as little more than a half-choked laugh. “This is your fantasy, not mine.” When he rolled both head and eyes towards his brother, Thor saw Loki’s pupils had dilated until they seemed to have swallowed his eyes whole; the promise of blood there tasted of iron upon Thor’s own lips. “Perhaps you should tell me.”

Unable to meet that maddened gaze for long, Thor’s eyes slid sideways, downward, and again his very soul withered at the sight of it. Loki’s too pale skin had reddened and blackened, become a living crater about the place where the root pulsed at the centre of his palm. A deep shudder rocked him from within, even though there existed in Thor’s mind no conscious memory of the creature’s tendrils in his flesh, of the serpentine path of wished memory that had mimicked vasculature, flexed with muscle, held his body as strong as bone. Loki had stripped it free. Loki had broken those bonds. And then he had stepped willingly into them himself.

I could have stopped any time I wanted.

Unable to look at either Thor raised his eyes to the distance. A smile came to rest upon his lips even as he felt the weight of saltwater as inevitable as the tides; whatever else it had been, it had been a perfect dream. He could not help but wish to speak of it, even knowing now what he does.

“She has long hair, and she never binds it back.,” he said, speaking with the careful measured delicacy reserved for tales given over the banqueting table. While he’d never had any true talent for such undertakings, not like that gifted to those such as Bragi and Loki, sincerity gave weight whenever he chosen to weave his tales. “She rides Sleipnir with the aid of no saddle or bridle. I can see them, even now: his dark mane and her blonde hair, bannering behind them both like the heralds of war and glory…sword in hand and seiðr flickering from hands and eyes and her perfect brilliant soul.”

Hope flickered and guttered as Loki’s too-thin body shook with laughter. “It’s just a fantasy, Thor.” The thing pulsed again, and reflexively Loki closed his fingers. Nails dug deep, his hissing pain as physical as it was something else entirely. “Idiot fancy and foolishness,” he muttered, and Thor tightened his jaw.

“Then why do you indulge in it?”

The reply was so low as to almost be no answer at all. The too-dilated eyes slipped closed, and his sorrow throbbed with every alien beat of the gamble he had taken and lost. And yet somehow, still, he smiled through his whisper. “But…she is beautiful...isn’t she?”

“All your children are.”

Opening his eyes, Loki lined up his answering shot. “I hardly think that’s the common consensus.”

“Since when have you ever thought me common?”

Though Thor had spoken with wryness, Loki’s immediate parry burned bitter and bright; again Thor had lost before he had even known the name of the battle Loki would have had him fight. “That is you all over, is it not?” His entire body tensed, but he did not rise. “One should have thought that it would be enough for you, to take to bride a courtier more warrior than lady.” Lurching upward now, the left hand braced his trembling form while the other cradled against his abdomen. “But then, uncommon as she was, the Lady Warrior Sif was not enough for you – even with sword and shield to bring to your marriage bed, you would go one further, you would take instead a mortal woman as your consort, tiny of stature though great in mind.” He spoke with deep derision, a giant moving over the relentless march of the ants beneath his great tread. “Or at least, she might be called so by their pitiful standards.”

Sorry a sight as his brother made, Thor’s temper had never been a beast easily tamed. “You will not speak of her,” he warned, reflexive and rigid; Loki’s laughter curved sharp around him and stabbed deep.

“But in the end even she was not enough, either.” With the curl of Loki’s lip Thor felt the twist of his own stomach, knowing that he only gave him what he expected even as Loki leaned forward from the waist, conspiratorial and damning. “No, the mighty Thor had to go one step further still, to be dangerous and different and demanding as is always and forever his right.”

“What foolishness are you speaking of now?”

He smiled, and it sounded as a verdict when Thor had not even realised he had been placed on such trial. “The only thing that would satisfy him would be to take to bed his own brother, to fill the younger’s belly with his seed and make him the lesser in everything once and for all.” The left palm moved over his stomach, eyes blazing as his voice rose in furious flaring wrath. “And so the golden Odinson wishes it thus: to have his brother disinherit himself with his own body! To have the second bring forth the child that makes him less than what he was, for all he was no Odinson in the first place, for all the throne never could have been his even had it not been stolen from him as he himself was stolen from the hell that gave him life he never deserved!”

On his feet now too, Thor’s hand closed about the handle of Mjölnir in intent if not actuality. “That is not what it was!” And though he did not truly grasp the hammer the air charged all the same, fury and frustration dancing over his skin like roused static. “How can you think that way? You saw it, Loki.” The more he tried to lower his voice, the louder it became. “You felt it.”

And then he fell back into his place. Reclining backward, legs fallen apart and head tilted, Loki appeared more exhausted than indolent. “You know nothing of what I feel.”

And then Thor fell to his knees, rested between those of his brother. “And that is what I want most.” He had dared come too close, he knew – but then they had always been too close for all they were so far apart. Without thought Thor pressed fingers into Loki’s thighs, wanting to bruise, even as his own heart bled for all the wounds Loki had left there. “I want to know how you feel,” he whispered, and Loki smiled like a wolf loosed and ravenous with centuries of dark desperation.

“You merely want to know that I am second to you in everything.”

Between them, Loki’s opened hand lay again upon the table like a condemnation. The throbbing thing at its centre had no eyes of its own, but Thor knew it watched, knew that it stared with roused hunger into the half-digested soul stolen from its grasp. With no seiðr of his own to call upon Thor could not see it how deep it had gone the last time Loki had dared risk the knowledge brought by its poisoned gifts.  Only the discoloured skin and agony of the madness of his eyes gave any answer while Loki held all else jealous and bitter to his own chest. Then shaking fingers closed about the palm, no fist able to be made.

“That is not what it was.” Each word felt like a shard of broken glass lodged in his throat, but still Thor forced them clear of numbed lips. “How is it, that even when you walk in my mind, you still see only what you want to see?”

“It was what you wanted.”

“And all I wanted was you!”

In the agonised silence left by Thor’s words, Loki turned his face away. “Look what you’ve made of me.”

No.”

Agony compelled him forward, needing to touch, to hold, to never let go. Trailing it came the memory of an empty hand over a kaleidoscope shattered, opening and closing even though there was nothing left to catch. But before he could catch Loki snapped back, eyes ablaze. “Oh, so it’s all my fault, is it?” A sneer struck him as strongly as did the sting of the slap that shoved his hand away. “Always the trickster, the sly one, the dark one.”

“There is no way one of us could have done so much alone.” Thor grasped his free hand, crushing the fingers between his own as he tried to push his sincerity beneath his brother’s skin until it rooted, until it took hold. “We did this together.”

“And so the only way to fix it is together?” Loki’s laughter burned through Thor like unleashed ice, beginning at the tips of his fingers before searing deeper inward. But still his heart beat strong, even as Loki twisted the knife of bitter perceived memory. “What must it be like, living in that simple little mind of yours?”

“You already know, Loki. Perhaps better than anyone else.” And Thor prayed for the falter of Loki’s fury even as he fought himself to say the one word he had left to give:

“Lonely.”

Loki tossed his head, casual bitter dismissal. “That is not my responsibility.” And his eyes fixed upon the festering wallpaper, dim with mould and damp. “Our choices have been made.”

“We can make them anew.”

This time Thor’s earnestness seemed only to make him tired. “Do not be so naïve,” he snapped, though with less force than before.  “Things will never be again as they were.” And his teeth bared with his smile, a casual dark mirror of dream-Loki’s easy teasing and sly asides. “It’s not even the way you want it to be. Is it?”

In the silence, Thor felt the truth close about his throat like a newly-smelted shackle. “Why did you call me here?” he asked, his own exhaustion heavy and hot. Loki’s eyes widened, then half-drooped again.

“I want this to stop now.”

“Then take it out. Cast it away!”

“If only the world were as simple in practice as it apparently is inside that idiot head.” He shifted uneasily upon the makeshift bed, long body all bone and bruising skin. “Was it so easy for you?”

“I was trapped by my own desires, as you well know!” Shame burned him again, at knowing the things his brother had seen uninvited, but the temper faded as realisation crept forward from its cradling shadows. “Loki—”

“This is why I called you here.” Sharp, Loki used his words like a dagger and pushed them deep into his gut so he felt near breathless. “You. The only person I can trust.”

“To help?”

“To hurt.”  Even as Thor opened his mouth, he waved his free hand in exasperation. “But only as much as is necessary. I know you will only do what you must. Your damned honour won’t allow anything more.” Something alarmingly close to a leer coloured his features in shadow and light as he leaned up again, lips taunt over a grimace. “Even if I want more.”

“I am not here to punish you.”

“Even I wanted that, you could not bring yourself to indulge in such disgraceful conduct.” Again, his mouth twisted, and then he leaned forward, voice dripping with scorn and something more, something that made his abdomen squirm even as something lower tightened in sudden interest. “I want your hammer, Thor. Give it to me.”

“You…cannot wield Mjölnir.”

“Which is why I need you, fool.” The hand jerked, as if he sought to raise it, but it scarcely moved at all from where it rested. “Destroy it. Bring the might of the thunderer down upon this thing as I once did my seiðr, but do not stop.” Loki’s eyes seemed to fill the world, green-limed black against red-veined white. “Finish it.”

Where I could not, his following silence whispered. I was weak, and now you must be strong. As I was for you. As you could not be—

“Can you not—”

“There is no other way.” His other hand came down upon one thigh in a slap reminiscent of mortal gunshot. “Do you truly think I would have to come to you had a better solution presented itself?”

The words stung him deep, for all he did not let it show. “This will hurt you.”

“Perhaps that is what I want most.”

The involuntary low growl that escaped him was all the argument Thor offered before his fingers curled about Mjölnir’s handle and he rose to his feet. Standing before his brother’s prone body, a flash came again of the dream: Loki laid before him, head tilted, hair damp and curling from a bath. He had been all skin and sly smile, and when he thought upon it now Thor realised both he and Loki had been so often nude in that fantasy. There had been nothing between them but themselves, and then when pressed together not even skin and flesh and blood and bone had mattered. It had no right to matter, not when they had come together as they ought always have been.

“You will be able to heal this,” he asked, quietly dubious; Loki’s nod jerked his chin almost to his chest.

“Yes. When my mind is freed, my seiðr will follow.”

“You are not in your right mind?”

“Opinions vary as to whether I ever am,” he said in wry weariness, unwilling to respond to Thor’s fresh doubt. “Just do it.”

Yet his reluctance worked stiff paralysis through every muscle that had been trained from near-infancy to answer to the command of war and need. “I…brother, I cannot.”

Pity lit up his eyes as he raised a hand, drew him close; in earlier days, it had always been Thor’s gesture, to place a hand about Loki’s neck and hold him steady. “But you must,” he whispered, and then he leaned forward, lips sudden heat against Thor’s own. “Do this for me now, brother,” he added, voice the low susurration of implied pleasure, “and I will let you have what you desire most.”

Thor jerked back, Loki’s grip slipping by sudden degrees until completely lost. “But this is not what I want.” The fact that Loki could believe otherwise brought a wave of nausea, his words tight and forced. “Loki – I don’t want it to be a battle, to be a war. I want no coercion, no politics, no sorcery. All I ever wanted was your consent.”

“Liar.” His tongue traced the swell of his lower lip, head tilted with the wry knowing of a courtesan far from her patron. “You never want anything to come to you so easily. You want to fight for everything – and you want it to fight back.”

“And yet you accuse me of laziness! You claim I sit and allow everything to come to me soft and easy!”

“And everything would, if you would but let it!”

Silence fell hard between them, absolute save for ragged breath and the rising wind that had already begun to curl about the house like an uneasy cat on the verge of deciding whether to give hunt or not.

“Don’t make me beg.” The five fingers of his free hand dug into his palm like knives; Thor could scent the blood they drew upon the static-sharp air between their trembling true selves. “I will hate you until the ends of everything if you make me beg for this.”

“Loki.”

Thor.”

Meeting his brother’s eyes marked his mistake, made him unable to deny him this; the pain in them shone like a beacon begging a ship to come home. Already he aches. Already his agony is nigh-unbearable. That alone gave him the ability to raise Mjölnir. They had fought often, but he had never struck Loki with killing force. He would not now, even as he pulled her upward, even as he brought her down. He could strike far harder than this, and it was not charged with the elemental force Thor could call to her uru star-death head. Yet the blow he landed remained true enough to shatter stone, cracks spreading in stellate fashion beneath the hand.

And a high keening sound escaped Loki’s throat, shrieking breath squeezed from lungs as if through a vice of spiked iron. The thin back arched high, booted heels drumming against the ragged cushioning of the chaise-lounge. His head thrashed, and then he choked himself in sudden silence.

Mjölnir moved in Thor’s hand, sweat-slick and slack, bile bitter acid against the back of his throat. Everything had been rendered as sudden reminder of his first kill: a rabbit when his aim had not been quite true. At a distance it seemed to have been brought down clean enough. But Thor had scampered to its side to find not a perfect trophy but rather a pitiful desperate creature of wild eyes and broken back, death inevitable for all it fought all the harder to see his shadow fallen over its useless body.

“Brother,” and he could not hold in the sudden agonised gasp, “brother, are you all right—”

The punch was thrown blind yet it found its mark well enough. Driven back, Thor half-stumbled, blood choking his throat and flowing freely from his nose.

“Don’t stop.” Loki twisted upon the flat couch like a formulated butterfly upon a pin, entire body contorted in awakened agony. “Thor! I said finish it!”

Again. Again. Both strikes came with sobbing breath, whistling through a half-closed throat. Loki’s shrieks spiralled higher still, and Thor wondered how even one as unique as Loki could make two such disparate noises. A moment later he realised the former came from himself; Loki screamed, and Thor wept for it even as he went on. The crack of bone splintered in his mind, cheeks stung by the warmth of blood flicked back by the uprising motion of the hammer. Four, five blows: then he stopped. Stomach churning, bile rising, he wished to look anywhere else but where he must. Thor knew the damage that Mjölnir could wreak. He had raised her to Loki before. But never like this. As he looked down, he whispered I never wanted this.

It lay before him in violation of any such wish: his brother’s clever hand, pulped and ruined. The once-pale skin lay hidden, awash with blood and bone fragment; the tenderised muscle and tendon gave only the faintest twitch of unwilling reflexive moment beneath. And the damned root pulsed still, sluggish and uncertain in its half-pulverised state. Fury rose in him like brewing storm and Thor reached forward, pulled. Not even Loki’s gasping scream could slow or stunt the movement as long tendrils pulled free of forearm and torn palm. Only when it was free, long filaments beating the air like a fish pulled from water, did Loki bend forward over himself, wheezing as he pressed the ruin of his hand to his heaving chest.

“Do it.” He looked up, eyes wild with gold-green fury. “Thor! Finish this!”

The crackling energy of Mjölnir ripped through the ceiling, a great hole torn asunder in the sagging ceiling and roof beyond even as Thor channelled it at once into the cursed thing, burning all away. The air of the room burned with ozone and blood. For a long moment he could do little but stand, his own breathing ragged, harsh, half-poisoned by the cursed scent of the room.

Then he realised he could not hear anything of any other.

“Brother?” He swung about, Mjölnir cutting an erratic arc. “Loki!”

On his knees again, Thor pressed his hand over the crease of elbow though he could see the bloodloss had turned sluggish and slow. Loki’s seiðr had clearly retuned enough to set to work to some degree, but the more he stared the less Thor could see any evidence of actual healing. Raw ruined flesh remained, stripped of a dream, and Loki’s eyes closed like a corpse upon the battlefield of a war he had never wanted to fight.

Yet his lips moved, pale and blue-tinged though they had turned. “I need you to do something more for me,” he whispered, and a line of spit worked free from the slur of his tongue, trembling upon the clammy skin of chin and cheek. “Mjölnir.”

Thor wished to do little more than crush Loki to his chest, even as he beat his own head in for allowing such misfortune to befall the younger brother he had always sworn to protect – and by his own hand. “I think she has done enough.”

Loki’s hair flipped wildly about his head as he moved it in easy denial. “No. No. Not yet. Not…yet.”

“I will not strike you again.” His grip tightened; he had not let her go, no matter his horror at his own actions. Thor knew his responsibility. “There is no need for anything more.”

Loki opened his eyes, though they remained slits, reddened and salt-scoured. “Energy is energy, whatever the catalyst for its transformation.” He spoke with a surprisingly evenness, deep calm for all his clear agony. “I need energy, Thor,” he added, and then his teeth clenched as a fresh wave of agony crested, crashed through his trembling body. “And you can give it to me.”

“Through Mjölnir?”

“Call your storm.” His smile was the grinning rictus of a long-buried skull unearthed by the darkest of nercromancers. “And then gift it to me,” he added, as if he spoke merely of a sweet after the banquet rather than the volatile manifestation of divine glory.

How?” he asked, helpless. And Loki blinked, then sighed.

“Call it.” His eyes held open for a scarce moment, then slipped closed like the end of everything. “Please.”

Through the hole in the ceiling already made Thor could observe the night sky, the clouds rolling in. A rumble of uneasy thunder crept closer even as he listened, crossing the distance with a calm purpose Thor himself did not feel even as he again raised Mjölnir to unfamiliar heavens. A moment later, he called the strike, held it as the familiar pressure of light and heat danced through nerve ending, sparked through his mind, sang over his skin. In the light of Mjölnir’s roused lightning-song, Thor could see the hollows of agony had been engraved deep into his brother’s too-thin face.

“Bring her to me.”

The hoarse whisper gave him deep pause even now. Just another trick, just another game? his mind could not help but ask, and Loki’s face twisted as if he could indeed hear his brother’s thought as if spoken aloud. He answered first with a dull laugh. “You do not trust me even now, brother mine?”

The words drew him close in the fashion of a lodestone calling filament to crystallised rest, spiked and true upon its smooth face. The uru-head of Mjölnir thrummed above his hand, alive with silver starsong even as Thor offered it forward, uncertain of what Loki truly required of him. Thin fingers, trembling, wrapped around the shaft; it sent a shudder through Thor’s entire body even as Loki’s body bent back like a bow, like the sudden bondage of released pleasure. A shriek exploded from his throat, rich and harsh; with a wince, Thor sought to pull back – but in the moment before thought became action, Loki opened his eyes and fixed upon him.

Stay with me.”

There had never been any other choice. Something more than thought guided him as he sat down upon the long chaise-lounge, the awkward elderly thing protesting their combined weight with a groan. But he had not room in him to care, for Loki’s good hand scrabbled at Mjölnir, wishing her closer; Thor had to guide her even as Loki’s need guided him until her head lay pressed between heartbeats. The thinned chest heaved, drawing deep of her reserved power. And Thor could feel it, these strange opened channels between them now.

For the first time since he had claimed her Mjölnir felt heavy in his hands – but only because he wanted to hold something else. Guiding her down, he brought the ridged handle to rest between the leather of his brother’s thighs. Squeezing tight, Loki held her there even as Thor raised one hand and caught Loki’s neck and stared and could not speak.

And Loki smiled.

It seemed too easy indeed to lift his brother, to set him upon his thighs so that they bracketed his hips, two opposed faces of the hammer against their abdomens as the shaft speared down between both their legs.

And then the world dissolved into little more than lips and tongue and the hum of lightning loosed between them. Thor kept one hand still beneath Mjölnir’s charged head, where handle met head, and then found Loki’s tangled there still, pelvis moving against the hard ridge of her handle. With a jerk of his own hips he canting them upward, felt the rub of clothed erection against it. And Loki laughed, dark and low, hand moving over the throbbing head of Mjölnir between them. Thor could feel such touch as if upon his own skin; the hammer had always been an extension of his own self, and the sensation of Loki’s clever fingers working runes into her head and haft were like being set aflame.

“Do not let me go.” The words were panted into his ear, ravenous and demanding. “Not yet.”

“Stay with me and I never will.”

It moved through the air, digging beneath his skin and seeking deeper with every stolen breath: Loki’s seiðr, perfect and brilliant, roused in response to what Thor offered so easily. With the shuddering heat of Mjölnir’s unleashed energy between them, enabling them, their hips moved now in easy rhythm; they’d fought together, back to back, many times over many centuries. Despite the changes of recent years Thor’s body moved to match his brother’s with knowing ease, seeking glorious friction of leather and the hard shaft of his own hammer.

As Thor’s mind surrendered coherent thought, slaved to sensation, Loki’s hand moved. There as the scarcest sense of surprised victory – whole again! – and then it closed about the handle and pulled tight. Thor’s hips stuttered, his cock afire as if those knowing fingers chased vein rather than hard ridge. As they tightened harder his back arched in response. Release came without words, but resounded about the half-ruined room like the crash of thunder fit to tear Midgard apart.

Beneath him Loki quivered, stiffened, then stilled. “I am finished,” he whispered, and then nothing more.

The rain, afterwards, was nothing like the storm of sound and light that had heralded its coming. Soft rains came instead, the kind to wash away memory with all the gentle care of a mother’s hand. As they lay curled together on the dusty floor, Thor’s cape spread between body and splintered floor, it seemed only appropriate. Everything about how they lay together now evoked childhood memories of two boys in the dark of night, disembodied voices floating upon the dark air as their small bodies sought simple comfort where they knew it would always be found.

Thor gave over to nostalgia first, his voice hesitant in the half-darkness offered by straggly clouds that only half-hid the brilliance of the moon. “Might I make a confession?”

Loki’s snort was light, oddly lacking in true scorn. “Do you truly have any secrets left to give?”

“I never knew her name.”

“What?” Incredulous, the echo of a thousand times and more he had spoken with such disbelief when they had been but mere children playing their games in their golden halls. Propping himself up, despite the lines of exhaustion, he turned his head to look down upon his brother. “What sort of deep desiring fantasy was that, then?”

Thor looked no other way but up. “One where I waited for another to give the name.”

Searching eyes give more answer than the silence of his voice. Then his head turned and he looked away. They did not lie beneath the great hole rent in the ceiling by Mjölnir’s summoned strength, but as Loki stared up at the unfamiliar stars his hair dripped still. Then with a sigh he surrendered, laying his body down once more upon the floor. The manner in which he curved into his brother seemed more instinct than intention, and though they were both now grown and blooded warriors each to each, they fit together as well as they had when but mere children dreaming of the day when they would set out across the realms in fight and fantasy…brothers always in arms, never to be parted by either time or circumstance.

“Shall I tell you a secret?”

Loki’s whisper shivered across his skin, somehow a plea, somehow a promise. “Please.”

“I think I might always have known her name.” Then Loki leaned closer still, lips gentle as the touch his breath against the pinna of his ear. “And so shall I tell you another secret?”

Thor turned his head, met his brother’s eyes. He should not have been able to see, not in this darkness. But the light of the stars seemed to set his eyes ablaze, green flame; in them, he saw reflected the silver-shot blue of his own. Almost nothing of space was left between them now and yet still Loki leaned forward so that Thor could very nearly taste the rain upon his lips. A moment later he leaned back, head tilting in a delicate shake.

“I will tell you later, perhaps.”

It should have felt like loss, perhaps. But instead Thor felt nothing but gain as Loki subsided against him. He closed his eyes against the rain, revelling in the touch of soft warmth against his skin. With Mjölnir a low hum at his side Thor curved about his brother and let fingers curl in his hair. As sleep crept over his mind, Thor felt no particular wish to dream. The reality of who slumbered next to him felt to be truth enough for perhaps even them both here, now.

There was always time later, for forever.