Thor falls on his back, his entire world shaking for a moment before he sits up.
It's the third time this morning that Loki has managed to overpower him, knocking him back with a blow augmented by his magic. It's the third time Thor's eyes have flicked across the training yard, to where their father stands watching them, to see disappointment.
Loki crosses the distance between them, offering a hand to help him up. There's displeasure etched on his face, because he's not stupid. He knows that by all rights—magic or no—Thor is the one who usually wins these sparring sessions. He's superior in strength and as much as Loki's magic and speed have obviously improved over the weeks, there's still no explanation for why Thor is on the floor, not him.
Thor doesn't explain, accepting Loki's assistance and getting to his feet. Loki's hand lingers for a moment as he gives his brother a concerned look. Thor lifts a shoulder in a shrug and Loki sighs, concern carefully replaced by boredom.
"I'm returning to my books," he announces, turning away. "We'll spar again when you actually feel like challenging me, brother."
The guards part for Loki, leaving Thor alone in the training yard, with Odin standing at the edge.
For a moment, it looks like Odin is about to speak. Instead, he shakes his head and turns away, taking his leave.
Thor should feel ashamed. Instead, he only feels relieved.
It is, however, short-lived. Odin finds him later that afternoon, when Thor is tending to his sword. He's progressed in skill to be allowed to train with sharpened weapons. Thor knows that he's progressed enough that he can beat Loki in moments. If he allowed himself to.
He doesn't look up when Odin comes to stand behind him, continuing to polish the blade of his sword. He can see the glint of golden armour that tells him that Odin just came from the throne room.
They're both silent, waiting for the other to speak first. Then finally, Odin clears his throat.
"Love is a weakness on the battlefield."
Thor's hand pauses and he lifts his head. He doesn't quite look at his father, but it's clear enough that Odin has his attention.
"Do not be mistaken," Odin says. "It is important to feel love, to feel compassion. Especially as a king. It is just a matter of knowing when it is better to shut the emotion away."
Thor sheaths his sword and turns around. He's expecting Odin to look disappointed in him, the way he did at the training yard. Instead, his father is giving him a look of complete understanding.
"The fact that you love Loki, and that you do not want to cause him harm warms my heart, but those sentiments do not belong on a battlefield. Whether it be a training yard at home, or a distant realm where we must do war. Love dulls the blade, it distracts your senses and overrides reason. It can cost lives, Thor, do you understand?"
Thor nods reluctantly. "Is that why you have paired me with Loki for our sparring sessions?"
Odin smiles. "I had thought it would be of greater benefit to Loki, to better develop his speed. I see now that the difficult lesson to be learned here is yours."
Thor looks down at the floor. "Loki seems to have no problem with attacking me, the way I do with him."
Placing a hand on Thor's shoulder, Odin chuckles. "Loki has spent his entire childhood watching you get yourself into scraps and pick yourself up again. You are his older brother, Thor. It does not matter that you are both reaching adulthood now. There will always be some part of him that believes you to be invincible. He can do his worst, and still expect you to get back up to your feet afterwards."
Thor laughs quietly at that, feeling a rush of pride and fondness. "I hope that this does not encourage him to do his worst. I doubt I would still be standing after that, and I would hate to disappoint him."
Odin's expression softens at that. "I cannot even begin to explain how it gladdens me to see how close you both are. All you need to do now is learn to use that affection when it is needed and shut it away when it will hinder you. Consider this your next test in your training. Once you have learned this, I know that you will be ready to lead armies into battle and to command them in the field."
Thor nods. "I shall try my hardest, father."
Odin leaves, and Thor waits until he can no longer hear his father's footsteps before sighing heavily, letting his shoulders slump.
He's loved Loki for as long as he can remember; ever since he was first introduced to his little brother, no more than a squirming baby swaddled in blankets. They'd grown together, getting themselves into trouble and then finding ways to get back out of it.
The love that he's begun to feel for Loki recently, however, is of an entirely different kind. It lingers in his mind even when it has no reason to, making Thor look forward to the time they spend together and dread it coming to an end. It's the kind of love that Thor tries to stop feeling at all, because he knows that he shouldn't, but the more he tries to kill it, the stronger it grows.
Thor doesn't know how he's going to find a way to ignore it when he's already tried and failed so many times, but all he can do is try some more.
"Do you not take me seriously?" Loki asks one day, his eyes dark with fury. He's sitting there, rubbing ointment onto the burns he'd inflicted on Thor just minutes ago. "Do you think that I won't be able to handle your attacks, when you've seen for yourself how much I've improved?"
It is then Thor realises that while his reluctance to attack Loki in the training yard may disappoint his father, but it insults his brother. This, more than anything, strengthens his resolve.
It's a place where secrets are born; where secrets are kept, for the right amount of gold, and Thor goes with plenty of it, weighing his pouch down, ducking into an old, weathered hut that matches the crone who runs it.
"Thor Odinson himself," she croaks, getting to her feet and wrapping a shawl around her shoulders.
It's well past midnight, so that nobody sees Thor here. He presents her with his pouch of gold. "I was told that you can make charms."
"Charms, yes," she nods. "I make charms that can cause their wearer to feel certain emotions, and charms that can stop their wearer from feeling certain emotions."
"A charm that can stop love," Thor says. "Can you make one?"
The crone gives him a toothy, yellow smile. "And what kind of love would that be? Platonic love for a brother? Romantic?"
"A charm for love," Thor says firmly. "If you cannot make it for me, I will find another who can."
She snatches up the gold. "Of course I can. Be warned, however, that this charm won't make your love simply disappear into thin air. It can only delay it, put it off while you wear it. The moment it is no longer around your neck, the emotion will return, stronger for the fact that it all comes at once. And do not think that you can cheat this by never removing it. The longer you keep it on, the more intense the emotion will be once you take it off. If you are forced to deal with all of this emotion at once and it is too strong for you to contain, it will kill you."
"I understand," Thor replies grimly.
"I wonder if you do," the crone mutters and shrugs. "Wear it during the day and take it off at night, when you are alone and can no longer act on what you feel. No more than one day at a time, Odinson. For your own sake."
Thor nods, sitting and waiting as the crone turns away to make his charm. She returns with a small tin pendant in the shape of a sword, hanging on a black cord and holds it up for him to see.
It's unremarkable, for something that could potentially solve all of his problems. It's tiny in his hand but the moment he touches it, he can feel the magic that emanates from it.
"Tomorrow," the crone tells him, stopping him as he's about to put it on. "Put it around your neck in the morning, and take it off before bed. The first time you put it on, think of whoever it is you do not want to love. The magic will do the rest of the work."
Thor nods thankfully, carefully glancing around to make sure he isn't seen before making his way back to the palace.
"Well, it's about time," Loki says with a grin. He lunges to attack Thor again, and their fight continues. It goes for much longer than any of their sparring sessions before. Even though Loki is thrown to the floor three more times until he's finally too tired to keep going, he looks happy, like this is what he wants. Odin looks proud as well, and that makes Thor stand a little taller, pleased with himself.
When he takes the charm off at night, however, and all of his feelings for Loki come rushing in at once, he can understand exactly why he's not meant to wear it for longer.
His heart aches with how much love he feels for Loki and at this intensity, he is unable to stop and question whether this is right; all he can do is feel.
The next morning, he's reluctant to put the charm back on, knowing what will be waiting for him once he takes it off at night. Then he reminds himself of the pride in Odin's eye. He reminds himself that he doesn't have a choice in this matter; he needs to shut these emotions away. He shouldn't even be feeling them at all.
With a sigh, he puts the charm around his neck and leaves his room.
The days pass, and the charm is no easier to deal with; not at night when Thor takes it off and definitely not in the morning when he needs to put it back on.
He becomes a better warrior, much to Odin's pride. Soon, he is no longer fighting Loki but doing drills with the Einherjar. He keeps the charm on anyway, because he doesn't want to deal with what he feels.
His father soon makes him the leader of a small rank to test his skill, with the promise of much more if he is successful.
Thor notices the way that he and Loki grow distant. The time that they once spent together—in the training yard and away from it—diminishes into nothing. It's Thor's doing and he can see that. Loki can see that.
The charm might shut Thor's feelings for Loki away during the day, but it doesn't keep him from realising that he is hurting his little brother, that he is ruining the friendship that they had, due to his inability to keep his feelings from growing into something much stronger. He sees the confusion in Loki's eyes at first, and watches it turn into anger. Finally, it cools into a bitterness that haunts Thor through the day, until he's finally taken the charm off and has the capacity to despair over how he's losing Loki. He knows that he needs to fix it, but he has no idea of how. He cannot do it while wearing the charm, but he doesn't dare to take it off in Loki's presence; taking it off when alone is difficult enough to deal with.
There's nothing he can do. Absolutely nothing, but to wallow in the rush of pain, regret and loneliness.
Thor tells himself that he deserves it.
Thor is made a field commander, not long before Odin declares war on Surtur and his demons in Muspelheim. He leads a regiment of Odin's soldiers into battle, accompanied by a group of sorcerers. Of course, Loki is among their number. He barely acknowledges Thor as they march for battle. Thor doesn't try to engage him, focusing on his duty instead.
Surtur greets them with a legion of his fire demons the moment they enter Muspelheim. The battle rages for so long that Thor loses track of time. All he knows is that he needs to keep the enemy engaged so that Odin can find Surtur and stop him.
With Mjölnir in hand, Thor crushes his enemies. He's grown into one of the most skilled warriors Asgard has ever seen and the soldiers are more than happy to follow his lead.
It's only after he's fought his way through the first two lines of demons that he notices that something is wrong with Loki. His movements are slow and his spells seem to take a lot more effort than usual.
"Loki!" Thor calls from across the field, catching his brother's attention immediately. "If you cannot keep up, fall back!"
The look that Loki shoots him is pure poison and he hurls a ball of magic that just barely misses Thor and hits a fire demon instead.
Thor could argue, but he knows that it will only be a waste of time. He turns his attention back to the battle instead, letting out a loud war cry and charging the nearest demon.
It isn't until much later—when there are more Æsir than fire demons left standing on the battlefield, and Odin is doing battle with Surtur—that Thor glances in Loki's direction again.
It's just in the nick of time, as nobody else notices the demon behind Loki, about to attack him.
"Loki!" Thor shouts, lunging without thought. Loki barely manages to step out of the way before Thor is upon the demon, swinging his hammer at it.
Struggling beneath him, it manages to hook on his its claws under the chain that Thor has taken to wearing his charm on. Thor's mind is already a haze of conflicting emotion; the charm's magic fighting against his deeply ingrained instinct to protect Loki with his life, if need be. Then the claw pulls the chain loose, breaking it to pieces. Thor cries out in physical pain at the sudden rush of emotion, far worse than ever before.
"Thor?" he hears Loki's concerned cry as his eyelids flutter. He knows that he's wide open to be attacked, just as he knows that this is exactly what the demon in front of him is going to do.
He doesn't have the energy to defend himself; he barely has the energy to remain conscious. When the demon's claws rend his armour, he barely feels it.
"THOR!" Loki shouts again, more urgently this time.
Loki's magic fills the air around them; hundreds and thousands of ice shards, reflecting the orange glow of the fire around them. When Thor passes out; it is to the knowledge that he is safe now.
"Loki? Father?!" He struggles to sit up, but a firm hand on his chest keeps him lying down.
"Calm down. Father defeated Surtur. There's nothing to worry yourself about."
Thor's eyes focus and he realises that Loki is sitting on the edge of his bed. There's something clutched in his fist, but Thor doesn't spare a second thought for it, too afraid of the sudden rush of emotion that is bound to hit him now, without the charm to protect him
"Relax. I dispelled the charm's effects while you were sleeping. It was causing you far too much discomfort when you needed rest."
"The charm," Thor repeats, his heart sinking.
"Yes, Thor. I'm a sorcerer. I know what this is." Loki opens his palm. Thor recognises the broken chain, but the charm itself has melted. Its shape resembles a heart more than a sword now. "When did you get this?"
Thor frowns, unable to look into Loki's eyes when they're so full of anger.
"How long, Thor."
"Seven years," Thor sighs. "Give or take some months."
"Seven years, give or take some months," Loki repeats, his hand closing around the melted charm like he would crush it if he had the strength. "How curious. I remember it was about that long ago that I stopped having a brother who would spare me a second glance. Interesting coincidence, don't you agree?"
"I only have one question," Loki says. "What was it? What was the emotion that you were so desperate to shut off that you would use magical charms that you don't even understand, for years on end?"
Thor looks away, unwilling to answer.
Loki sighs with irritation. "You don't have to tell me. The shape your charm distorted itself into when it was broken gives me enough of an answer. Coward."
Thor's face heats, thinking of the heart in Loki's hand. He sits up when Loki makes to leave, holding him by the wrist.
"Why am I here? Why my bed, and not the healing room where I should be?"
Loki growls under his breath. "I brought you home. I brought you here, instead of leaving you to the other healers. I was the one who healed you and watched over you."
Thor frowns in confusion. "But why?"
Pulling his wrist free of Thor's grip, Loki throws the tin heart at him. "Why do you think? You complete and utter fool."
"Loki!" Thor calls, but his brother is already leaving.
"I think I have done something extremely stupid," Thor admits to Odin. "I was selfish and thought only of myself. I have hurt Loki, and I do not know how to make amends."
Odin rests his hand on Thor's shoulder and smiles. "Somehow, I do not think you are referring to how you saved his life during this battle."
"No," Thor sighs, shaking his head.
"My only advice is to go find him. Speak to him. Your brother appreciates words above all else. He can separate truth from lies better than most. Be honest with him."
Thor finds Loki that evening, sitting in the library, at a desk piled with books. There is nobody else in the building and Thor takes no effort to mask his footsteps. Loki ignores him, continuing to read.
Walking up to the desk, Thor places the tin heart down on the polished wood. "I am an idiot."
"Well." Loki looks up. "I can't exactly say that's news to me."
Thor sighs, rubbing the back of his neck. "Will you walk with me?"
"Why would I possibly want to do that?"
"So that we may talk. It has been far too long since I have spent any time you with, and that is entirely my fault."
"Fine," Loki says, getting to his feet. "Lead the way."
They walk through the courtyard in silence, and once they're in their mother's gardens, Loki clears his throat.
"I thought we were going to talk."
Thor keeps his gaze fixed on the ground. "I do not know what to say."
Letting out a quiet, hollow laugh, Loki shakes his head. "Why does that not surprise me?"
He sits down on a carved, stone bench and that is when Thor realises that he's holding the tin heart.
"You brought it with you. All the way from Muspelheim."
Loki looks down at it and shrugs. "For the past few years, I thought that you did not care for me at all. This proves otherwise. It makes me feel like less of a fool. It makes me hate you a little less."
"I would rather you did not hate me at all."
Loki smiles, baring his teeth. "You should have thought of that earlier, Thor. Back then, I thought you had realised just how much love I had for you, and that you'd shut me out with disgust. I tried caring less for you, Thor, especially when you made it seem so easy. The more I tried, the more I loved you. I suppose I've always been contrary like that."
"Funny," Thor murmurs, "as the same happened to me. Feeling all the love I had for you at once each night when I took my charm off…"
"Oh, Thor." Loki places a hand on his cheek. "I hope it was pure agony."
"Just as I deserved," Thor replies, leaning into Loki's touch.
"Stop." Loki pushes Thor away gently. "You don't think it will be that easy, do you? You may think that your actions speak louder than words, but it's the words that I am interested in. You've spent years denying how you feel, Thor. I want to hear you admit it. I want to hear you say it, to confess it. Accept it. If you won't accept your feelings, then how am I to believe that you will accept mine?"
"I love you," Thor whispers and then louder, "I love you, Loki. So much that it terrifies me."
Loki grins. "Now that is acceptable."
Loki is the one to kiss Thor, hard, sharp and hungry. Like he is claiming something that should have rightfully been his long ago. He leads, and Thor follows without questioning, and it reminds Thor of why he'd bought that charm, all those years ago.
"I have one weakness," Thor murmurs against Loki's lips, "and it is you."
"Well," Loki smirks. "I don't mind that."
With the way Loki kisses him, claiming and intoxicating, Thor can't bring himself to mind either.