His eyelids flutter, and he can feel himself rise from the depths of sleep, feel himself becoming aware of the silk against his cheek, the hush of the palace at night, the brightening awareness of the moonlight filtering through the tall windows.
When Thor opens his eyes, Loki is staring at him from the other side of the bed.
He blinks a few times rapidly, and his brother, by contrast, only carries on staring.
“Gods,” he exclaims, and drops his head back into his pillows. “Loki, what in Hel—”
“You snore.” Loki cuts him off, voice calm and flat, but underneath there is something brewing, something working its way up to the surface. “Very loudly.”
“We shared a room for years,” Thor mutters, and sits up. “You should know already.”
His brother’s eyes are bright, and it looks as if he is trying very hard not to breathe, not to blink, not to move, even. His hands are held very tightly in front of his body, his torso strung still like a taut bow. The lines of his mouth are quivering—it looks like he is trying to hold back a grin. “Thor,” Loki breathes very lightly, and he blinks at his brother, blinks at the sudden light in his eyes, blinks at the hesitant smile on his lips and the way his fingers shake. “Thor, I did it.”
The room suddenly feels as if it is standing on the precipice, on the edge of the known world as Loki leans forward, and Thor feels, all of a sudden, as if he is too big and too brutish for the delicacy of the moment; as if he has to take a care how he breathes, lest the Norns never grant him a quiet like this ever again. “Did what?” He asks dumbly, and he is thinking of the time Loki had set their father’s horses free from the stables, he is thinking of the time his brother wrought phantom hounds from thin air to chase their tutors around the training ring. He is thinking of Loki withdrawn and still after his bouts of play. He is dreading that silence already. “Loki, what did you do?”
Loki flicks an eye outside his window, where the moon hangs serene in the dark sky. Something must have occurred in the skies then, and Thor watches his quicksilver brother click into place. It is as if the night has whispered into his ear.
“We don’t have much time.” Loki says. “Get dressed.”
He had known, ever since he was a child, the role he was to fill within these halls.
Courage, bravery; he is an Odinson, the grandest of the grand, the son of a man who had been born into legend and had fashioned a pantheon. It is no secret that Asgard is wrought of gold, that his father’s throne of the same material. Kingdoms, he had known since he was but a boy, kingdoms and loyalty and love do not come from cowardice. Valhalla comes only to the brave.
So he does not falter, he does not hesitate. He thinks of his father drinking from Mimir, he thinks of his father hanging himself from Yggdrasil itself to know fate, and he does not hesitate. He is an Odinson before he is Thor.
It is hard to remember to be brave, now.
He feels it rising in his throat, turning in his stomach, coursing through his veins to the tips of his fingers; if, if, if, if. Odin Allfather sets the barge alight, and it begins to float.
“Be clever, above all.” His mother had said, when he had shown her proudly his first scar from the training rings. “Never fight when you can’t win. Bravery is not brashness, and make sure you don’t scar your face.” A gentle hand, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. “How will Sif take your hand then?”
He had felt his ears go hot. “I don’t,” he had spluttered, “like Sif. Like that.”
When his vision begins to blur, he stares straight ahead. He thinks of Loki in the crypts below them, thinks of his brother’s fragile hands and the dark circles under his eyes, thinks of his brother tipping his head back to listen to the bells of Asgard ring for her queen. There are veins in Loki’s eyelids, he remembers suddenly with a start. He remembers his mother kissing their closed eyes when she put them to bed.
The barge begins to float away, towards the end of the world, towards the abyss. Thor watches his father’s bowed form, watches the curved line of his father’s back beneath the heavy ceremonial armour, the incline of his head; as if he is carrying a great weight. His eyes catch on his father’s bared wrist where he clutches Gungnir, and swallows hard. Blue veins, and soft skin. It looks like paper; as if he would crumple in on himself if one applied the slightest pressure. He thinks of reaching out a hand to rest on his father’s shoulder, but then his hand clenches uselessly.
“She’ll dine in Valhalla tonight.” Odin says quietly, meant only for his ears. “She’ll—”
Odin’s voice breaks off, and Thor pretends not to notice. Valhalla, bravery, courage. Frigga Great-Heart, a woman who loved gods and monsters alike; he can never tell who is which anymore. He wishes he could be that brave. He wants to be that brave.
“He is your brother,” his mother had stressed to him once, hands busy at the loom. That afternoon he had punched the son of a Vanir diplomat for calling Loki a coward. He was to be confined to his rooms for a week. “I would have expected nothing less. Punch him again, for good measure. I’ll put in a good word for you, shall I?”
That night, Loki had brought him a casket of mead and a leg of a good young boar with a secretive smile. When asked how, his brother waved a hand. Thor remembers being stupidly, immensely, happy.
He needs to be that brave.
His brother is a dark shape in the corner of his cell when he goes down to the crypts. Beneath him, his steps echoed, seemed too loud to be contained in this dank holding hall, seemed to reverberate up the walls. His brother doesn’t react to his approach.
He stands for a long time on the other side of the glass, watching Loki’s chest rise and fall shallowly, the quick darting of his eyes beneath his closed lids. A vein jumps in his throat, and the muscles of his jaw are working. He is not asleep.
When his brother speaks, his voice is tight and controlled. “It is done then?”
When he doesn’t reply, Loki opens his eyes. His cheeks are wet, Thor realizes.
“It was a good parting?” His brother’s throat seemed to be hoarse, and the words come out with a desperate lilt. “The barge burned? It steered true?”
Thor imagines the endless train of thoughts behind his brother’s eyes—the mourners were dignified? It was a stately affair? Did Volstagg wail? Their mother did so dislike display; did father’s hand shake? The commons can’t see that. Gods, the guards’ line was straight? The grave goods did not spill? Was I missed? Was I missed?
Loki is waiting for his response, breathless. For the first time, Thor understands the power of the silence his brother had wielded; he understands what it means, truly, to have power in words. How silence can make or break a man, how a single word can set another spiralling.
“Yes.” He says finally, and finds that his own voice is unsteady. He can be kind. He must be kind. “Yes, it was a good parting.”
His brother ducks his head before he stands. Thor watches him carefully, notes how he wipes his cheeks on his sleeves; too quick a movement. You’d only see if you were looking for it. “Then I suppose it is time.”
He inclines his head. “The guards will escort you to ready yourself. You shall bathe, and attire yourself as befits a prince of Asgard—”
His brother doesn’t say a word, but Thor notices how his mouth tightens, how his fingers twitch.
“And once you are decent, once mother’s funeral festivities are done, we shall have our audience with the Allfather.” He finishes. He doesn’t retract the title and he doesn’t regret the way his brother’s eyes tighten. He is brave, he is brave, he is brave. “The guards will take you now.”
He attends the festivities in a daze.
The Warriors Three and their ilk, drinking, swapping tales of the Queen’s wit and kindness, and Volstagg’s voice is choking up. He is about to make a scene of himself.
“The bravest, kindest woman I’d ever known, the gentlest queen there ever was,” Volstagg says tearfully, and Fandral claps a hand on his shoulder. Around them, the warriors raise their glasses, the ladies of the court nod along; a crowd of Aesir who remember their fair, calm-voiced queen with never a bad word to say about anyone.
What a puppet show this family is, he realizes with a start. Once upon a time, he had marvelled at Loki’s gifts for twisting the truth into what he wanted it to be at any moment, and now he thinks perhaps this whole family is a nest of liars. Frigga with her gentle words and her calm exterior, her quiet fingers at the loom and the daggers she leaves as gifts under Loki’s pillow. Frigga and her insistence that the warriors may not enter the sacred hall with the blood of enemies on their swords, and her hands in his hair when she tells him that Loki is his brother, that he must kill for him if need be. He wonders suddenly which version of the Queen Mother is the true one, wonders if they all are.
“You’re not drinking.” Sif is at his side, and she does not look at him. Her eyes lock on Volstagg, and she takes a measured sip from her own glass.
“No,” he replies. “I can barely think straight without mead. I’ll be a fool tomorrow if I drink tonight.”
She pauses, then turns to look at him. “It is happening, then? He’s agreed?”
“Father will grant us an audience tomorrow.”
“I wasn’t,” Sif says quietly, “talking about your father.”
There is only silence between them. Sif pats his arm lightly, and says, “Be careful.”
And then he is alone.
Jane’s hands are still shaking.
She is sitting on her balcony, a cloak wrapped tight around her small shoulders, her plate untouched. He makes his way to her side, and makes no move forward.
Humans have short lives, he knows. A hundred years, if they are particularly lucky or healthy. A year to them is an inexplicably long time—three years even longer.
These three years had been long for him too. But he does not recall it ever being so; knows in his heart that she will not wait years at a time for him, no matter how much she loves, no matter how much he loves. In his youth he would have demanded her patience. In his youth, as Loki was fond of reminding him, he was a fool.
How things have changed.
“Can you believe,” she says finally, and her voice is shaking. “All these constellations, and I don’t even have the proper equipment to record them?”
Thor chuckles. “Make a list of what you require,” he says lightly. “I shall arrange for them to be crafted. Perhaps it is time that Asgard had a Hubble telescope of her own.”
Jane laughs, and that laugh too, shakes. “I have completely oversold myself, I can tell.”
A comfortable silence falls between them, and Jane huddles herself closer in the cloak. Finally—“I’m… I’m sorry about your loss.”
Something in his chest twists, though it is significantly less painful than watching Odin’s hands falter with the fire. “Mother was a good woman. Mother was kind, and she was brave, and she did better today than half the warriors of Asgard—” he laughs, and it sounds hollow, even to his own ears. “She shall dine in Valhalla tonight. Right this moment, she might even be charming Hel herself.”
Jane smiles at him. “Is this how it always is?” She asks softly. “The feast, the drink?”
Not always, Thor thinks. Not for the unmentionable dead, not for the craven dead, not for the dead who had not died in good honest combat, not for those who had given up.
These are the rules of the Hall of Kings, of the Realm Eternal, of the edict of great Odin Allfather. Thor knows this as well as any, but still—they leave a bad taste in his mouth.
“More or less.” He says instead.
“I never got to thank her,” Jane says, and she doesn’t meet his eyes. “I never—I panicked.” She took a deep breath, and her words came out suddenly like a great waterfall, as if she could not hold them back any more, an edge of hysteria colouring her voice. “I was—one moment I was watching her weave, and watching her pull all these little wolves and snakes out of thread, and it’s a lost art and it’s something noted how you guys can travel through space but still use a spindle, and then those—those things, just came out of nowhere, and I panicked, Thor, she was telling me about stars and theory and magic and the next second she’s pulling a sword out of the bedpost, and I don’t know what to do and I—”
She has her head on his chest, and he can feel her shoulders shaking. “I just stood there. I let her—I watched them slaughter her, and I didn’t do a thing.”
Something is pricking at the back of his eyes, and he is thinking of his mother’s gentle hands around the hilt of the broadsword he knows she keeps in every post of the bed, he is thinking of those hands in his hair, on bruised knees and Loki’s split lip. He is thinking of Sif at his back in every battle, he is thinking of Natasha besting Loki at his own game and her bullets in Chitauri necks, he is thinking of Jane with her eyes on the stars, he is thinking of Jane daring to look up.
He wants to say it out loud, wants to say it to her and to Natasha and to Sif and he wants to look his mother in the eyes one last time, he wants to take the hot burning thing in his chest and form it into words; knows he needs someone else to do that for him. He wants to tell Jane how proud he is, how brave she is simply for being here, simply for daring to take the leap.
He wants to, but he can’t put it into words. Instead he strokes her hair back, whispers “it’s not your fault,” over and over, until she has stopped shaking.
Grant me wisdom, mother, if you are there, he thinks. Frigga Great-Heart, grant me strength.
When he had held out his hand, Jane had not hesitated. When he had held out his hand, her eyes were big and they were bright, and she had taken it, trusting in him to catch her if she falls and to bring her where he promised. All the universe is just stars, is just constellations forming branches and roots, and she had jumped. Without knowing how or why or when or what it is, even, Jane Foster had leaped.
Now it is his turn. Thor closes his eyes, and it is time to make the final leap.
In the old tales passed down by the grand masters, by the keepers of the books, they say that the Hall was crafted in a single night by a maelstrom of thunder and light, by the first rays of the sun, by the stretching branches of the World Tree. Those had always been Thor’s favourite stories as a child—the ones he listens to in lessons, chin in hand, of lightning and thunder and the roaring quake of the earth, erupting into the most beautiful palace in the nine realms.
A fool’s tale, Loki had always said, rolling his eyes. The hall is made of bronze and steel like anything else. We would be fools, to attribute to Yggdrasil what we can build with our own two hands.
Was it magic? Thor had always asked.
The master would go off on some waffling diatribe about the nature of seidr, of the might of will, and before long Thor would doze off, his attention lost. Beside him, Loki would look at the master with his head tilted to one side, mouth curled in amusement.
What is so funny? Thor would ask later, and Loki would laugh in turn.
The old fools, his brother grinned. They would not know magic if it accosted them in the street. A thin fingered hand twisting arcane motions in the air, and a shower of gold dust that forms itself into something like a rupture in the earth, from which appeared a golden palace; a miniature of the Hall in which they stood. It’s not so hard, see, Thor?
The Hall is not gold now.
Thor stands at the base of his father’s throne; hands folded in front, the dark mourning cloak flung back from his shoulders. Next to him is Jane.
“She is a mortal.” His father had said when she landed in this precious Hall of his. “If you insist on her presence, then she must not stand where she can be seen. It would look ill, to afford to a mortal a place that should be given to our closest allies.”
Thor is his father’s son, and Thor, for the most part, tries to be a good son. That is why he calms himself before he speaks, pushes down the sudden roar of irritation in his chest, and thinks of his Lady Mother. “She is our closest ally.” He says steadily. “Her realm paid the price of Loki’s ambition and our neglect. She is attempting to reconstruct what we have lost, and her comrades fought by my side and saved me when they did not have to. I would not have her slighted.”
What he does not say: Jane is a rare woman; the humans are a rare species. What he does not say: the first day she had been in the palace, she had made as if to touch the metal at the base of the throne before she drew back hastily, eyes wide and saying something about high-density particles too fast for Thor to follow. What he does not say: that night he left her in the great library, and found her asleep with a dozen books around her, in Loki’s old seat. He had not mentioned that to her, had noted with something bright and warm in his chest that she had been trying to decipher their language from a book that even Thor had trouble following.
Go big, she was fond of saying, or go home.
What he does say: “I would not have her slighted. I would not insult so kind and brave a woman.”
Now he asks her, “You are not afraid, I trust?”
She gives a small shrug of her shoulders, but he notices that her eyes are tight. “Just your average genocidal space alien Viking exiled prince who once brainwashed one of my closest friends. Not scared. No big.”
The title could well apply to himself, Thor thinks with a start, without the brainwashing.
“He will behave himself.” Thor says finally. “There is naught to be gained by deceit and tricks today; and perhaps everything by honesty.”
The impact of Gungnir on the ground, the crack of sound beneath the polished floors, and a thousand men and women—Aesir, Vanir, and human—fall silent. When the doors on the far side of the Hall open, Thor bites his tongue. His brother’s tall, tapered form, his armour wide across his shoulders, hands folded quietly at his font. He is wearing one of his old tunics, the fall of leather familiar, the opening at his throat—it is as if nothing has changed.
And then the guard’s words falter. “Loki, Son of—”
A taut silence.
A low, light laugh, and Thor sees a flash of teeth when Loki steps past the threshold. “Laufeyson?” His voice is light and playful, and the silence is deafening, the impact of his boots on the ground like a slap. “No, no. But it does have a ring to it, does it not, Allfather?”
Odin does not reply.
“Certainly not Odinson.” Loki chuckles to himself, and Thor remembers that his brother had always had a flair for crowds, knew how to make them dance and make them laugh, but also how to make them spit and hiss. “We have run into a bit of trouble, haven’t we?” He grins at one of the Vanir diplomats as he passes him, and Thor watches the man flinch. On the other side of the throne, Sif’s hand is on her sword.
“How about this,” Loki says, and comes to a stop at the base of the throne. “Loki, Son of None, son to two monsters and not one. Betrayer, World-killer, Liesmith, Silvertongue.” He bows at the waist with an exaggerated flourish. “At your service, Allfather.”
Odin’s mouth is thin. “You are done?”
“For the time being.” He casts a look around, eyes impassive, as if he stood in a room with a thousand dolls, and Odin is the only other living man. “It’s an impressive welcome. I’m touched. Although, if you do not mind me saying, I notice a very conspicuous absence—”
“Loki,” Thor snaps, and steps forward. Around him, the crowds are beginning to hiss in anger—this is his meet, his plea, and Loki is his weapon; he would not have it sullied by his brother’s spite. Loki’s eyes are bright and cold, when he turns them on Thor, and there is an unpleasant curl on his mouth. When they had been young, Thor had cried easily, and loudly and especially when it was Loki who was hurt rather than himself. A burned hand, a fall from a horse, and later, a miscalculation of magic—and Loki would jeer at him for crying until the tears turned to anger. He thinks, now, that that is now Loki refrained himself from tears.
“Thor,” Loki inclines his head, smiles. His gaze, cold and green, flicks from him to Jane and in that second, Thor could swear he saw something click behind those eyes; some piece of the puzzle falling into place. And then Loki assumes an expression of boredom and turns back to the Allfather.
“This is tedious.” He says finally, voice flat. “Tell me what you will have of me.”
“It is Thor who must tell us his plans.” Odin says. “Though it rests in my power to grant it.”
Loki turns his gaze back to him, and blinks slowly, like a snake. “Go on then. Enlighten me.”
“The Svartalfar have attacked.” Thor begins, and this is a story that has been carved into Asgard in the ashes of the far tower, of the corner streets, in the rooms of the late Queen, in Loki’s heart. “A band of them, known as the Marauders. They have attacked Asgard itself and slaughtered many of our soldiers, including our Queen. Reports and our friends in the far country have informed us that they have established themselves in Asgard itself, in the further reaches of the planet, out of the reaches of our jarls. They are dangerous warriors but they are lethal users of seidr. We require your help.”
Loki’s eyes are heavy lidded. “In return for?”
Gasps permeate through the room. The hissing is louder, an undercurrent pricking at the sides of his mind, but he holds his brother’s steady gaze.
“My king,” one of the older officials stumbles through the crowd. “I must protest Prince Thor’s decision; we cannot let a traitor such as—”
“Silence.” Odin bellows, amidst the growing shouts in the room. What of us? How can we trust the word of a Frostgiant? What if he does to us what he did to Jotunheim?
“My freedom?” Loki raises an eyebrow, and then turns to the Allfather. “Teach your son some sense. He’d have to do much better.”
“You would rather spend your life in these cells?” Odin inquires. “Without this deal, you will go back, you will remain stripped of your powers and you will remain nothing, for another century if not more. This is mercy, Loki, a mercy you do not deserve.”
“Don’t play the fool.” Loki says silkily. “You know freedom is not so much a prize for me as it is a foregone conclusion. If you do not grant me my freedom, in time Thor will, and if he does not… I can assure you, Asgard has no shortage of enemies. And even if your enemies do not come… you don’t think that cell would keep me for long, do you?”
“Is that a threat?”
“A reassurance. A memo circulated to all the stakeholders, as the good Doctor might say—” here he inclines his head in Jane’s direction. “It is a chore, simply, to negotiate with one who does not have sufficient information when I do not intend to manipulate.”
Thor watches his brother carefully. “What do you want?”
Loki blinks slowly at him, lips curving. “How much simpler it all would have been,” he says lightly. “If you had asked sooner.”
Thor blinks, and for a moment his vision shakes and he is not sure which matter Loki is speaking of, his tone too soft, his eyes too hard and the sneer gone from his mouth. For a moment, Loki looks frighteningly open, before the mask slams back into place.
“I want what is rightfully mine.” Loki turns from Thor, his attention pulled away as easily as a thread that had been snipped, and Thor feels himself released. “As the sole heir of Laufey, King of the Jotuns, I am the last Prince of Jotunheim. In time, I will be its king—”
The crowd begins to shout. Murderer, traitor, world-killer, bastard son of monsters—
Loki carries on as if nothing had happened. “And I wish to be acknowledged as such.”
Odin gazes down at Loki calmly. “If you are asking for the Casket, you shall not have it.”
Loki smiles, makes a slight gesture. “I am not. And besides, you do not have it.” A cut of white teeth, and the hissing of the crowd grows louder. “Did you not notice, Allfather, its absence after my fall from the Bifrost? Did you not notice the empty spot in the vaults where you keep your stolen relics—”
Thor feels a chill at the back of his neck. Heimdall had spoken of Loki’s trick with the Casket, had spoken of the bone-freezing chill and then oblivion, but in the loss of it, the loss of the Casket had paled in comparison to the loss of his brother, and Thor had not thought, had not even conceived—
“You stole it from the vault.” Odin’s voice is calm and flat. “You stole from Asgard.”
“It is my heritage,” Loki spits back at him. “It is the relic of my people, the Casket is in my blood and I am of the royal line of Laufey, I cannot steal it from Asgard any more than I can steal myself from you. It. Is. Mine. I have merely removed it from the possession of thieves and liars, from a man so caught in his own hubris and arrogance he cannot see that the universe is moving past him—”
A guard at the base of the throne proceeds forward, knocks his spear into the base of Loki’s spine, and he goes down without a sound, his knees hitting the floor.
“We are not negotiating.” Odin says, his voice rising with the royal ‘we’. “We are extending a choice to a prisoner, we are giving you one choice, and one choice only. Assist us or retire to your cell.”
Loki spits at the ground. “Oh?” He laughs. “And what will you do without me? Without me and mine? The mages haven’t worked out my magic, have they? The old fools don’t know a thing about traversing the stars and you would seek to threaten me when it is you, and you alone, rotting in your stagnation that will burn when the Svartalfar comes?” Loki laughs, the sound rising higher and higher, a symphony of barely contained madness. “Let them come. Your hands are tied, Odin Allfather. Hear me now—your time is done.”
They pull him laughing from the hall, Odin’s hands gripped tight around his spear.
Thor watches his brother pulled from the room. Something clangs in his chest—something almost like recognition. He pushes it down.
It is not summer anymore.
Thor is achingly aware of that fact as he pulls his cloak closer around him, huddles the furs up to his cold cheeks, and curls tight beneath the thick material. Ahead of him, Loki’s boots are a steady, quiet beat against the rustling ground, the crunch of the last leaves of the year breaking beneath his weight.
“Come on.” Loki says, and turns a sharp corner. Thor has a worrying idea in his mind that they are lost, but Loki seems so sure, his feet so calm against the forest ground, and after all Thor has his sword and what Loki cannot charm their way out of he can kill, and that’s always a nice thought, but it’s so cold and the wind is so brisk, and if they get lost here Sif will surely laugh at him, and if it’s one thing he can’t bear it is to be laughed at by anyone except Loki—
“Stop thinking.” Loki snaps from ahead. “And hurry, would you? Gods, we’re going to miss it if we go at this rate.”
“Miss what?” They are alone, and Thor allows a thin note of wheedling into his voice. “Loki, its cold—”
They have been walking for at least two hours, through one forest and scaled something almost steep enough to be a mountain, across a river and now they are in the middle of another forest. In daytime, on horseback and with their companions all jesting and laughing, it would have seemed a short distance. Here, in the night, with Loki’s voice tight and body strung like a taut bow and Thor unable to feel his nose, it felt like an eternity.
A pause. He hears Loki turn in a circle, feels a cold ball of dread grow in his stomach, and then Loki says, “We’re here.”
His throat is bare, Thor sees suddenly, and he swallows nervously as he looks up from where he is standing in a ring of trees, an open meadow painted silver by the moon. His brother seems not cold at all, only a layer of leather in truth, to ward against the chill. Thor unclenches his hands from his furs, and grits his teeth against the cold.
Loki’s eyes dart quickly, and it is only when Thor looks up that he sees what his brother sees.
Stars. Multitudes of them. On quiet nights still, though these occasions are growing scarce, Loki pulls him from his room to climb the steep paths of the palace roofs together, so they can lie on their back and watch the far frontier of Asgard fall into the chasm of space, the blue black of the skies and the streaks of gold that come out to play only in the darkest hours, and Loki would trace patterns in stars, tell him stories that he had memorized from all those trips before. Thor knows them all, but Thor does not voice it. He is content to lie on his back and listen to his brother tell well known tales, if only to hear Loki talk.
These stars are different. They are huge, is the first thing he thinks. So near, so many, constellations drawn on top of each other, it seems. As if this is where the branches of Yggdrasil criss-cross, where all the realms meet in a flurry of silver pinpoints.
“Follow my lead.” Loki says to him. “Do not hesitate.”
I won’t, Thor thinks without pause.
His brother’s mouth quirks beneath the silver light. Loki spreads his hands, and begins to chant.
Jane comes to him, after, and she says, “Give him what he wants.”
They are in Loki’s room, though Thor doubts Jane knows it. Before, the floors had been coated in shadow, the walls perfumed with seidr, a basin in the far corner filled with water from some distant star with the bottom covered in small black rocks. The only reminders of his brother are the books stacked in the corners, the great wooden desk with Loki’s journals on top, and the bed with its bear skin. They are all disappointingly mundane without the whisper of Loki’s magic in the air.
He is flipping through one of the journals, from years, centuries ago. Loki’s hand is childish still, and he had not yet started writing in code. Even so—theories about stars, passages he had copied from books which Thor can tell his brother had not quite understood, underlined sentences with question marks on the side. In the back, an ink drawing of long lazy lines that sketch out Sif and Thor, tussling on the arena ground, laughing.
He looks up at Jane, smiles. “You believe he is being sincere?”
“Yes.” She says, and she steps into the room. “Or, well, it doesn’t matter, really. He’s kind of our only option. I wish to God that, you know, our only option was a bit less dramatic but beggars can’t be choosers, right?”
He laughs. “It is his way.” He closes the journal gently, lays it down on the desk. “For all his love of silence, he has a flair for performance that is entirely his own.”
Jane’s mouth quirks at that. “Not entirely.”
He rolls his eyes at her—not something particularly encouraged in the sons of Odin, a habit picked up from the Man of Iron, as if to say “very amusing” without saying much at all. Thor likes humans. Thor likes their ability to shorten words into movements, to save time even in the smallest of ways.
When he sobers, he says, “You think we should give him what he wants?”
She stares steadily at him, then steps forward. “He already has the Casket, or whatever it was your father was worried over.” She shrugs. “And he doesn’t seem to me to be the kind of guy that’s easy to steal from. Or a guy who’d let it slip from his fingers. Which means he’s asking for something else, when he says he wants acknowledgement...” she sits, lightly, on Loki’s bed. “He wants to be recognized as a king. He doesn’t need an army or anything, really. All he wants is words.”
“You think we should give those words to him, then. A benediction, a pledge of support from the Allfather.”
“Not,” Jane’s eyes are careful. “From the Allfather, necessarily. Just from the throne.”
He looks up at that, sits up straighter.
“Thor,” She is at his side, all of a sudden, her hand cool against the side of his neck. “Thor, they invaded Asgard, they made it here, they did what no one else has done in your entire history. If you do nothing, if you don’t give Loki what he wants—they’ll destroy you.”
It would be so easy to agree, to tell her yes, yes, of course. To let himself tell himself to believe Jane, and not Loki, and to do this for his brother because of her and not because of him. It would be so easy to let himself believe that he is doing this out of deference to Jane, should trusting Loki again betray him for a fool.
He doesn’t, however. It is time that he made his decisions on his own terms, it is time that he learned to rely on his own mind, on his own strategies—not on his brother’s silvertongue or Jane’s cool intelligence.
“Loki lies.” He says finally. “It is… when I was a boy I believed that he did it to spite me, but now I know it is in his nature. It is a part of him, and I cannot change it. But I do not have to fall for it and Jane, you do not know him—what he asks for might seem harmless, might seem small and pointless, even. But Loki never asks for anything he cannot turn into a weapon, and words are weapons, Jane. In my youth I scorned it, and I scorned him for placing so much stock in it. But I realize now—the fate of a kingdom, the heart of a king. All change with words.”
He blinks. He is thinking of Loki’s sweet smile when they were captured by the dwarven king, he is thinking of those honeyed words and those calm eyes and the gifts they walked away with. He is thinking of Loki’s fingers light on the blade of a dagger the king had given him. It was passed down through the royal dwarven line, Thor remembers. To this day he does not know what Loki said to acquire it.
“If Loki is asking for a pledge, then it will not be the only thing that comes with it.” Thor says finally. “He has plots within schemes within words. It would take a very wise man to unravel it all.”
“Or woman.” Jane smiles at him, it is a small thing, but he feels his heart lift. And then she sobers. “It’s really—” she bites her lip. “It’s not my place, and God, I’m being nosy with this and I don’t want to pry into your family business but—”
“Jane.” He says.
She takes a deep breath. “What he did to Manhattan—what he did to Erik. I won’t forgive him for it and I can’t forgive him for it, but I can see an advantage where there is one. He’s not—Fury told me that he was entirely unrepentant and doesn’t have a shred of humanity inside him—”
Unbidden, he makes a noise deep in his throat, a half-snarl torn out without his recognition. Jane looks at him steadily.
“That’s not true.” She concludes. “But it’s not untrue. And Thor—he might say otherwise, and he has tried to kill you multiple times, but family is family. And he might not admit it but you are his brother. It’s time you…” she shrugs. “Utilized it.”
He looks up at her.
“He’s not stupid. And he's not crazy.” Jane says, and her eyes are bright. “If he stays in the cell, it’ll be years before he gets an opportunity to get out. But he won’t budge, without giving him what he wants. Compromise—he wants to be on the winning side. He’ll give you what you want to get there. In return… you just have to give him what he wants.”
Thor smiles at her. “I am truly blessed by the Norns,” he says softly. “They sent me another wise advisor, just when I have lost the first.”
Loki is awake, and waiting for him, when he goes to the cells again.
They left him his armour, but now there is a bruise forming on one cheekbone, a split in his lip. There is a hint of colour in his cheeks, and his eyes are bright and laughing.
“They beat you.” Thor hears the words coming out of his own mouth, but doesn’t quite register forming them. “The guards.”
“On orders, of course.” Loki tips back his head, eyes half-lidded and lazy. “They’re just men following orders.”
He can hear the undercurrent of cool antagonism under his brother’s words—when I get out of here, I’ll kill them first.
“You asked,” he says quietly, “for acknowledgement of your kingship. Of your claim to Jotunheim.”
“Glad to know you were listening.”
“The Jotuns hate you.” Thor says calmly, and Loki doesn’t flinch. Loki doesn’t do anything, really, merely regards him with those cool, impassive eyes; bored, uncaring. “We’ve sent diplomatic missions over to them since you directed the Bifrost’s eye upon their planet. They are desolate and they have suffered unspoken losses—not just in men but in resources. Byleistr sits upon the throne, until a true son of Laufey may come to power.”
“See?” Loki says lowly, voice lilting. “Acknowledge me. It is in the interest of all those involved.”
“They have not sued for peace.” Thor carries on, as if Loki had not spoken. “They would not even consider it, not until you are handed to them alive to be dealt with in the traditional Jotun fashion; for the murder of their king and for the murder of innocents.”
Loki’s mouth twists, curving slowly into a smile. He had always been tall—in their youth, for a few years Loki had been a few inches taller than Thor’s widening bulk—had always been lean; lithe, not starved. Now, Thor watches those long splayed limbs straighten, until his brother stands suddenly; as if he had moved between one blink of the eye. He had always been fast, Thor remembers. No matter that the others called him craven, called him coward—in the arena, it was almost impossible to pin him down.
“And Odin did not hand me to them. And he is not going to give me to them, now.” Loki tilts his head to one side. “He recognizes an advantage when he sees one—you can never say that the Allfather does not calculate what ends his children may serve—”
“Enough—” Thor snarls.
“And yet—” Loki laughs. “And yet, now he hesitates. Did you know, my dear brother, that this was his plan all along? That you would rule Asgard in all its decadent rot, and I would be banished to the cold wastes of Jotunheim, to lord over the beasts and to whip them into shape? ‘You were both born to be kings,’ the old fool said.” The smile on his brother’s face fades away, his upper lip curled back from his teeth. “But what he didn’t tell me—or you, for that matter—was that he was grooming two puppets. You to rule as him, so that he may be king even from the grave. The other, to bow and scrape at the feet of Asgard, to murmur platitudes of love all the while spilling his own blood in order to win the barest affection from the sitting tyrant of the Realm Eternal—”
Thor’s fist slams against the glass. “Enough!” He roars.
Loki laughs, a full bodied sound, pulled from his core. There is a note of madness in it, wrought into the rising cadences. “Oh, my brother—” his voice breaks off; he sounds unhinged. “And for what?” His voice rises into a shout, a string of laughter still working its way through the words. “They left me to starve outside a temple; did your father truly believe that they would accept a runt they’d left out to die? No. Laufey was always meant to die so I could rule. All I did, in the end, was fulfil the plan through my own means.”
When his brother’s laughter subsides, he takes two steps forwards, presses his hand against the glass where Thor’s fist still rests. “Perhaps,” Loki says quietly, the laugh still in his eyes, in his voice, in the curving lines of his mouth. “It is time that you did the same.”
He is on the verge of rage; he can feel it, burning in his abdomen, working its way up his throat—the battle lust tingling along his nerves, stilling his tongue and his fingers itch for the cool hilt of Mjolnir, to break down this glass and haul his brother out by the throat—
With a great effort, he calms himself. “I don’t know what game you are playing.” His voice sounds stiff, even to him, without his brother’s silver grace or practiced inflections; he is no liesmith. “And I don’t care. I merely came to tell you of the consequences, should you seek asylum on Jotunheim or claim to be their king—you would find no mercy there. What you decide at this point is your own burden to bear.”
A silence. Loki’s eyes narrow. “What—”
“I will grant your request.” Thor says in a low voice. “I will do what you asked of the Allfather. In time, I shall be king of this realm, and it is the throne’s acknowledgement you ask, and not Odin’s alone. I will acknowledge your claim to Jotunheim, you shall receive your magic; I will commit no armies to you to retake your throne, I will make no promises of Asgard’s support. In return, you shall swear allegiance to the throne of Asgard and promise that Loki Laufeyson shall never harm a single soul of Asgard nor any under her protection; you shall swear to do no harm to Jane, but to protect her. And you shall swear to do all that is in your power to defeat and aid in the extermination of the Svartalfar threat. When you have done so, and completed all these duties, I shall set you free.”
He can see the cogs working behind his brother’s bright, narrowed eyes; a thousand different pieces of some grand, overarching plan forming in the space of a second. He remembers Loki working out the exact distance they have to travel to hunt this or that boar; the concentration in the line between his brows while he studied foreign battlegrounds; the exact angle at which he needed to pitch his knife to pierce between the armour of the exact archer. He remembers Loki timing the chaos Thor needed to pose to distract the kitchen maids at the exact right time so he may sneak in and grab as many sweetcakes as he can carry, the curl of his mouth as he conjured up phantom wolves to disrupt their afternoon history lessons. Now, they are here.
“And the Casket?” Loki asks softly.
“Yours, if you wish it.” Thor replies shortly. “As you have said, the Casket is in your blood.”
Loki’s smile is a slow spreading creature, curling across his mouth until he bares his teeth; white, sharp. Thor thinks that his brother could draw blood with teeth and claws, if he so chose. Unfortunately for the nine realms, Loki had chosen to do so with words.
“You have a deal, Odinson.” Loki says.
“And you,” Thor replies in kind, inclines his head. “Laufeyson.”
The second time Loki enters the Great Hall, there are less people.
Thor isn’t sure why that is—to avoid the mass embarrassment of the first occasion, perhaps. In any case, the necessary parties are here; diplomats from Vanaheim, commanding generals, negotiators from the lesser realms. And Jane, most importantly, at his side.
When Loki enters the room, the silence is palpable; a buzzing tension at the back of Thor’s neck. He feels sweat begin to gather between his shoulder blades.
His brother does not look victorious; does not look like a man who has gotten what he had wanted—he looks like he had been beaten into submission, in fact. Thor feels his brows furrow, and the crowds begin to murmur.
“What happened?” Jane whispers aside to him, as Loki begins to walk down the aisle, shoulders slumped, affecting a slight limp. “Thor, did you—”
“I gave him what he wanted.” He replies, confused. Across from him, he spies Sif with her hand on her glaive, something bright in her eyes as she watches Loki’s dejected lope; something almost like pain. “I don’t know why—”
Loki had stripped off his armour. When he stops at the base of the throne, and looks up, his face is pale and the purple bruise on his cheek more pronounced than ever. On his back, through his ripped shirt, Thor sees old, dried blood clinging to wounds barely closed. On his side, Jane claps a hand to her mouth.
“Allfather.” He says, and even his voice is broken, even his voice is dead.
“You wished to renegotiate.” Odin’s voice is just as calm and imperious as ever. Thor alone sees the lines tightening at the corners of his eyes—well. Perhaps not Thor alone. “We shall hear your plea.”
Loki stares up at him, and his eyes are blank and left dark, like the light behind them had been snuffed out. Something settles in Thor’s stomach, something desperate is working its way up his throat, muffled and painful and crying—what happened? What did they do to him, after he had left? Had the guards heard them talking? Had Loki been punished for Thor’s sedition? Oh, gods, gods, no no no no—
“I shall accept your most generous offer.” Loki continues in that dead voice. “I shall pledge my allegiance to the throne and my aid towards the defeat of the Svartalfar. I shall take what is given, and no more.”
“You have retracted your arrogant claim to Jotunheim?” Odin asks.
A tangible sigh of relief, working its way through the crowd like a knife through butter. For a momentary second, Thor shakes on his feet, the edges of his vision bleeding red, and that old bloodlust is back, curling in his fingers—he will find the guard who had done this to his brother and crush his bones to dust—
Odin makes a gesture with Gungnir. “Go on. Pledge your allegiance.”
When Loki kneels, the crowd gasps.
Thor looks down, at his brother on one knee in front of him, head bowed, and the crowd is whispering, dozens of men and women looking from Odin to him and back again, disbelief in their eyes at the sudden realization—the son had done what the father could not.
The son had humbled the criminal where the father could not, the son had broken Loki Worldkiller’s will where Odin could only irritate it. In that instant, Thor’s mind blanks, and then Loki looks up.
His brother’s eyes are bright, a smile on his mouth meant for him only. His voice, by contrast, is still dead.
“I pledge my allegiance to the throne of Asgard.” He is facing away from the throne itself, and Thor becomes achingly aware of the dirt on his cloak still, of the filth under his nails barely cleaned from the invasion; the buzzing of the crowd grows, until Loki has to raise his voice to be heard. “I, Loki Laufeyson, pledge my allegiance to Asgard’s throne, to her golden towers, to her silver waters and her myriad skies. I pledge my allegiance to her throne, to her far mountains. I pledge to do all that is within my power to defeat the Dark Elves, to exterminate all threats to her enemies and to protect her peoples at all costs. Here and now, I, Loki Laufeyson, pledge my allegiance to Thor Odinson, to the royal line of Asgard.”
In the growing buzzing of the crowd, in the silent disbelief of his father, Thor raises Loki up by the shoulders, and his brother’s eyes, when they turn to him, are bright, and laughing.
Watch, he seems to be saying. Just watch.
When the earth shakes, when the skies rumble with all the force of coming thunder, when the ground at their feet twist and curl into something dark and swirling, pinpricks of stars peeping through, Thor steps back.
Loki collapses to his knees, his breathing coming in heavy pants, sweat beading at his hairline. He rushes forward, his chest cold and sharp and pulls his brother up. Loki’s lips are going blue, his cheeks frighteningly pale and there are suddenly shadows under his eyes that had not been there a moment before—
He feels his heart go cold, and when he presses a finger to Loki’s throat, he is terrified for one startling second when he does not feel a pulse immediately.
“I’m fine.” Loki pants, breathless. He bats away Thor’s shaking hands. “I’m fine, fine, you oaf—”
“I—” his throat is dry. He blinks hard a few times, trying to bat away the sudden shaking of his vision in those few terrifying seconds; his head feels light. His feet are unsteady.
Loki stumbles away, holds up a hand. “I—” a deep breath, eyes closed. “Give me a minute.”
He stands dumb and still as he watches his brother collect himself. The portal flickers, and Loki grips one fist around his wrist, fingers digging into the flesh. The portal steadies.
“It’s ready.” Loki says finally. “It’s done.”
His heart flutters in his chest; when Loki stands up, his face is pale again—not pallid. His voice is steady. “A portal I have gathered from the roots of Yggdrasil myself. I… I may have miscalculated the control it took to open one large enough for two and hide us from Heimdall at the same time, but I believe it is safe.”
Thor looks at him. “Are you sure?”
Loki stares at him. “Do you trust me?”
Yes, he wants to say. Yes, I trust you. Yes, I trust my brother, yes, I trust Loki Odinson. I trust your trickery and your brilliance and your cold, sharp cunning. I trust you with my life.
When Loki holds out his hand, Thor takes it.
The Allfather is furious.
“You arrogant fool!” Comes the shout. “Do you know what you’ve done? Do you know what you’ve done to this family and this realm? This throne?”
This is no family, Thor wants to say. This is an old, broken man and his desperate, grasping son, making deals with chaos to preserve a threatened state. There had not been a family since his Lady Mother’s boat had fallen into the abyss.
“I secured an invaluable ally against the Svartalfar.” He says instead. “Loki has pledged his allegiance. It was a blood oath; he swore on his name. He would incite the Norns should he break it.”
It sounds false, even to his own ears. Loki had sworn on no name—Laufeyson; as much a lie as it is a truth. He is no more Laufey’s son than he is Odin’s. Thor is no fool. The oath has no substance, has no hold and has no weight. He knows—he is not so stupid as his father believes. Keeping Loki loyal, keeping Loki on his side and fulfilling his wishes had always been about being the best option rather than being the recipient of some flimsy allegiance.
Thor looks at his father, and thinks that he can finally see what Loki sees.
An old, aging man, who believes all others to adhere to him not because of his superiority but of their own inferiority. The old ways are done, he wants to scream. The old order is dead. You are done, you are done, you are done.
The universe is bigger now. The realms is Yggdrasil, and Yggdrasil grows.
“The Norns—” his father stares at him. “You truly believe a madman such as Loki fear the Norns?”
There it is.
“Loki is not mad.” He says through gritted teeth. “Loki is not mad, and he had never been mad, not since the Bifrost, not since you told him no when he was dangling off the edge of the earth. He is saner now than he has ever been.”
It is as if he had struck his father in the face. Wordless, Odin turns from him. “Do what you must.”
Can’t you see? He wants to scream at his father’s retreating back. Can’t you see? Svartalfar, Chitauri, the Other, Earth—all of them rising up, higher and brighter and stronger than ever before; can’t you see that Asgard is no longer the apex of the universe?
He watches his father’s bowed figure make his way to Frigga’s loom, still untouched. He doesn’t say any of it; he swallow back the words, and leaves.
The day they set foot outside of the city gates, Loki’s eyes are greener than they have ever been, and the smile on his face is wide.
“Are you ready?” Thor asks Jane, swathed in a heavy cloak, awkward atop her horse.
She nods, throat working nervously, and directs a pointed stare at Loki, who smiles at her serenely.
“Don’t worry, Doctor.” He says lightly. “My oath extended to you. I would no more harm you than I would any citizen of Asgard.”
Thor stares at his brother steadily, watches those bright eyes, clear and calm, for a good second, before he gestures to the men atop the city gates. Behind them, the gates close with a ground shaking thud.
Loki pulls himself on to his horse with a careless, easy grace that Thor had not seen in him since before the fall, since before the worlds had broken open and his brother had left. He winds the reins around his thin wrists.
Do you trust me?
He can’t answer that question anymore. Not, at least, with the same kind of bone deep absolution as before. Loki knows, and he doesn’t ask it.
Instead, his voice is steady, almost upbeat when he squints off into the distance. “We can make our way over those mountains before the sun sets. If it comes to a fight between us and any hostile force, the Doctor shall be your responsibility. Incapacitate, maim; kill if you have to. We have no time for mercy.”
Thor pulls himself on to his horse, a dark brown stallion that he had had since he was a boy. “I understand.”
“When the moment comes,” Loki says. “Follow my lead. Do not hesitate.”
I won’t, Thor thinks.
He takes the leap.