There is blood in his mouth.
Something bitter, something desperately vile; something like bile rising at the back of his throat, with too much metallic bite to be entirely disgust. Outside the glass cage, his brother smiles, gestures to his stained blade, as if to say: look what you made me do.
He steps back, something twisting and coiling in the pit of his stomach, like a viper, like a curse. His brother is watching him through veiled eyes, long fingers hovering over the red button, and it doesn’t make sense, none of it makes sense—
He looks down, and his mind is buzzing, something unspoken and cold at the back of his tongue. He feels slightly dizzy, as if he had blinked, and the world had been thrown out of orbit. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense.
Loki, this is madness.
The man outside the glass cage presses the button, and then he is falling.
“This is the stupidest idea you’ve ever had,” Loki mutters. “And trust me, you’ve had a few.”
“Shh,” he hisses, and pushes his brother down until he grunts. He had miscalculated exactly how cramped the alcove would be—from a distance, it had seemed large enough to accommodate two rapidly growing princes for a couple of hours, but he had really not taken into account how sharply Loki’s elbow would jab into his side or how cramped his legs would become after only an hour. Still. He was willing to sacrifice comfort for spectacle—is he not the crown prince of Asgard? And the Aesir do not complain about weary knees or bruised ribs. Though Loki’s elbow really does hurt. “They’re starting.”
“You realize, of course, brother,” Loki says smoothly, and he furrows his brows; his brother has begun to speak that way of late. Measured and precise; Thor decides, without knowing quite why, that he doesn’t like it. “That had you actually spoken to father or issued a formal request, we would have been allowed to attend the ceremony without this undignified fuss.”
He is craning his neck. Beyond the small space through which they can see the rapidly filling field, he can see glinting armour, banners and dignitaries from the foreign realms, the chatter of a thousand tongues, the light falling, golden and brutal, on the curved head of axes and the lean cut of swords. “Loki! They are starting!”
The Allfather is on his dais, his spear grasped in one hand. When the butt of the Gungnir touches the ground, silence falls down upon the crowd of warriors, heavy and reverent. Beside him, unbidden, he hears his brother’s breath hitch. His own heart jumps.
“Warriors of the Nine Realms,” comes their father’s voice, low and stern and heavy with kingly gravitas. He feels something run down his spine, and he is mouthing the words below his breath; he is imagining himself giving the same speech. A scant inch away, Loki turns to him. “We welcome you to Asgard. Yggdrasil itself blesses your pursuits and wishes you every victory.”
His brother snorts, and Thor, barely paying attention, shoves him a little.
“Not for every warrior, of course.” Loki whispers. “Was it not two winters ago that Nornheim was at war with the dwarves?”
Thor waves a hand. His brother is always concerned with minute details, with conjunctions and turn of phrases in old books that make him sneeze, in the precision of numbers and of equations—what is the point, Thor wants to ask sometimes. He has never understood why Loki would forfeit sunlight for the musty rows of the library, why he would abandon the honest edge of a sword for obscure, dead languages.
The rush of a blade in the air, the euphoric stretch of muscles when he lunges, his fingers curving easy around a hilt—these are things that he understands, the things that make sense. Honest, clear things without corners or caprice. His teeth bite into his lip, and beyond them, the warriors are cheering, a thunder in the earth trembling along his bones. He turns to look at his brother.
The lines of his brother’s thin face are lit in light from the field outside, his eyes pale. This is what he will not think of later, years, centuries later, when they are two brothers on a crumbling bridge: Loki’s lips are moving too, mouthing alongside with the Allfather’s words.
Loki throws knives, and Loki never misses.
A white arc, flashing with his brother’s own particular brand of magic, flying and flying until it is embedded to the hilt in his brother’s target. They are always silver, always sharp, always finely wrought; tucked into his brother’s sleeves and beneath the leather of his tunic.
He folds one of the daggers—curved and deadly and so very beautiful—over and over in his hands, a finger tracing the runes on the back of the pale blade. He is sitting in his brother’s room, watching him buckle on his vambraces, feeling foolishly clumsy. “Do you make these?”
His brother’s voice is bored, preoccupied; one hand smoothing down the front of his tunic. “Yes.”
His own armour had not been fastened properly, not shined to perfection. “Why have you not asked the royal smiths to make them for you? It would certainly take less time and—”
“The smiths craft out of steel.” Loki says, without looking up. “You will find, brother, that that is hardly sufficient.”
Oftentimes he feels too large and clumsy next to his tapering, pale brother, with his clever words and his quick smiles. During banquets and processions, his brother is sought after for his elegant turns of phrase, for his charming quicksilver grins, for his wit and diplomacy. It is an unacknowledged fact in the court of Odin that the second son will one day conduct the business between realms, and this Thor knows, this Thor had known for many years and many centuries; he might be thunder and lightning and the storm of the heavens, he may be the warrior king on the golden throne of Asgard, but it is Loki’s wit and Loki’s tongue that will keep the peace. This he knows, and this, he thinks, everyone must know: he may be king, but his brother is kingmaker.
Loki is precise and calm and specific; he is the eye at the centre of the storm, the calm in the heart of this thunder.
Loki throws, and he never misses.
Their father peers at them over his golden goblet, and asks, “What makes a man worth following, my sons?”
His mouth is full—boar and fruit and the spices of great Vanaheimr, and he speaks without thinking; this is not a difficult question. He has never understood how dead men have written volumes on this very subject; the answer is clear. “Courage and spirit, father, of course.”
Perhaps what he should have said—and what he means, though he has never been good with words—is that the people follow light, and bravery, and nobility, and hymns. Perhaps what he should have said is that there is a single path, straight and true, that leads to the great halls of Valhalla, and all men instinctually follow it. Perhaps what he should have said is that it is a man’s heart that makes him worth following, that all the power and coin in all the realms cannot buy a single soul.
His father smiles at him. “Is that all, my son?”
“Power,” Loki says, and he does not look up from his food. His fingers are long and tapered around his dagger. “Cunning. The people follow whomever they perceive to be powerful, and the powerful are always followed.”
Odin tilts his head. “Are all men,” he asks quietly. “Looking for a shepherd then, Loki, and not a king?”
There is something humming in the air. Thor stops chewing, and swallows hard.
Loki looks up. “Are kings not shepherds then?”
His father holds his brother’s keen, intelligent gaze, his fingers steepled at his chin, his mouth pursed thoughtfully. I have done it again, he thinks. I have missed something. Something is happening, and I have missed it.
Loki’s words are quick, his breath come fast; voice bright with eagerness to impress their father. “The people will follow the greatest performer.” He says. “The people will worry about the roofs over their heads and the food on their tables. All the songs in the world will not matter when your belly is empty.”
Thor chews, and swallows, and there is a thought forming in his head but he has not the words to voice it, he has not the gift of his brother and it is tripping, falling at the back of his throat. He opens his mouth, and nothing comes out.
He will not know how to phrase it until centuries after, until entire worlds have died. Loki, he wants to say, wants to ask. Are all men sheep?
Whatever I have done to lead you to do this, he had said so long ago on Midgard, I am truly sorry.
He is trying not to blink. The inquisitive curiosity on Loki’s thin face, the curving line of his mouth, the tapering fingers hovering over the button.
He realizes, with a jolt, that he does not know the man who had pressed it.
The man who had pressed the button, who had watched him as he fell, who had dropped his brother to earth simply because he could. I love you, the man had said once, face limned by candlelight. Sometimes I am envious. But never doubt that I love you.
Through the deaths of stars and felling of kingdoms, through the fall of gods and the fading of empires. Through the blackness between worlds and by the eternal roots of great Yggdrasil: I love you, I love you, I love you. Never doubt that I love you.
His brother’s smile is warm in his memory, warm and bright and there is life in his eyes; not the flat dead stones he had seen in the man’s face. His fingers flex and bend, and he looks down at Mjolnir, buried in the ground.
What have I done? He thinks dumbly. I don’t understand.
He knows what his brother is about to do a split second before it happens.
There is something dead in his Loki’s eyes, something lifeless, something tired and weary; something that is barring the way to his soul. His brother does not blink.
Loki’s fingers are slipping and Thor is screaming, the sound torn like a tendon from his throat, like someone had cut open his flesh and pulled out the bone from between—
(“Sometimes I am envious,” Loki says, mouth curving, and there is something burgeoning and warm in his chest, something climbing around his insides like light. “But never doubt that I love you.”
The words are building in his throat, climbing across his tongue, and he wants to set them free, wants to say, you don’t understand. You don’t understand how much I—
He swallows the words back—too blunt and artless and without the silver grace of his brother. He cups his hand around his brother’s neck, and leans in close. If only he could imprint the words into his brother’s skin, if only there was some way to craft three syllables into stone.)
His brother is falling and his brother’s face is still, a fading flash of white amidst the stars and the blackness falling away into the depths of the universe, his brother’s cape billowing around him; a fading green and his brother is falling and falling and falling—
And then nothing.
This is what they do not write of in songs: the quiet of the aftermath, the silence of what comes after. Thor watches his brother fade into the black corners of the universe, and there is no grand finish, there is no trumpet call to mark the end of an age.
Thor watches his brother fade into the abyss, and his tongue sits, dumb.
The boat is floating towards the edges of Asgard’s shores, flames flickering against the dark skyline, and his father claps a hand on his back.
“It’s not your fault,” the Allfather says, quiet. His eyes are tired and the lines of his face cut deeper than they did before. His father is stooped and aged and for the first time, he is confronted with a weary man with too many years for his frail body. “This is not your burden to bear.”
Loki’s wide eyes, watching their mother run to embrace him. His brother’s parted lips, the sudden shock and the strange disappointment in his eyes even while Gungnir is smoking in his hand. The lines of his face so young and so lost, falling so easily into that self-same pattern, as if to say: I knew. I knew this was going to happen. I don’t know why I am surprised.
Thor thinks suddenly, watching the empty boat disappear from the face of his home, that he hadn’t understood; that the look on Loki’s face is something he had never known. It is something that the universe has spared him, in this final piece of kindness.
Thor watches the empty boat tip and fall, and thinks, oh.
“We can stop this,” he says, Midgard burning at their feet; they are titans grappling on a steel fortress. “Together.”
He thinks of his fingers flexing, he thinks of Mjolnir buried in the dirt beneath blue skies after the fall, he thinks of the moment of doubt, before he bends, and grasps, before he thinks, I can do this.
Sometimes I am envious, but never doubt that I love you.
This is the truth of it: he had not understood. He had never understood. He had not understood that envy spreads like a plague, that it is a black death that eats at the core of every cell, that it will burn and burn and burn until everything else disintegrates. The last time he was on Midgard, the last time he had stood face to face with his father’s Destroyer and spoke to his brother behind it, he had not understood.
But now I do, he thinks. And I shall bring you home.
His brother bares his teeth, and one of his blades; curved and sharp and beautiful, sinks into his flesh. He feels the breath go out of him.
For a cold second, he feels something break inside of him. And then, he thinks, half stunned—