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Drifting

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“Sir!” Hill shouted over her shoulder as warning lights began to flash. “They’re going out of sync!”

Director Fury stood at his usual calm. Hands behind his back, only his sharp eye moved to take in the readouts as screens tracked the left and right hemispheres of Thunder Frost’s operation.

“Who initiated?” he asked.

Hill’s fingers flew across the console.

“It’s Loki,” she reported. “He’s already forty percent off.”

Fury’s mouth formed a hard line. Though there was really no need, Hill touched the comm unit at her ear, speaking into the mic.

“Thor! It’s your brother. He’s out of alignment.”

There was no need, because Thor could already see.

It was plain on Loki’s face.

“Loki!” he shouted. The sound of his voice felt hollow and trapped inside his helmet. Hot breath fogged the shielding. “Loki! Turn around!”

Loki didn’t hear him. He couldn’t. He had already gone too deep.

His eyes were distant, lost. They lifted upward, emerald clear, at something only he could see. Swept away by a current of the drift in which he knew not how to anchor himself.

His mouth formed a single word.

“Thor,” Fury warned, though he kept his tone level. “Don’t you dare.”

But Thor had already made up his mind. It would do no good to disconnect entirely. Pilots jolted suddenly from the drift when they slipped too deep could wind up in a coma for months. Sometimes longer.

Thor tried shouting once more, though he knew it would not help. Reality, as far as Loki was concerned, had already ceased to be.

So he did the only thing he could.

He followed him, plunging headlong into the rabbit hole, determined to catch his brother before he fell.

***

It was snowing.

Thor thought it strange at first. He hadn’t seen snow since the last time he’d been home.

It never snowed in the Southern Pacific, or around the equator, where they’d been stationed.

He reached out his hand. He caught a handful of flakes on the palm of his glove. He closed his fingers and wiped them away, as though he could feel the cold through the polycarbon of his pilot suit.

The snow smudged. Smeared a dirty gray-black.

Not snow.

Ash.

Thor lifted his eyes as the sky grew light. The memory he’d found himself in formed into sharper focus all around.

A forest. Snowbound, but steadily littered with a growing layer of soot.

One of Loki’s memories.

Thor could hear his breath inside his helmet as he turned.

Was this home?

Then he heard something else. A child. Crying in the distance.

He hurried towards it. His steps left no tracks, made no sound on the snow for as fast as he ran.

He stopped when he came upon the sight, framed between two black trees. The forest all around lay impossibly tall and still. Trees with their gnarled, blackened trunks formed unfriendly faces, their bare branches like claws poised overhead and ready to strike.

It was a scene from a fairy tale.

The way a child would remember it.

Loki – young, he couldn’t have been more than ten – crouched in the snow beside their mother. She lay half propped against a snowbank near the foot of one of the trees, curled small, long coat with its fur lining all but swallowing her in its folds.

It was Loki who was weeping.

Thor stood, numbed into silence, overcome with an unforgivable sense of intrusion as he watched the scene play out before him. One he didn’t recognize, but feared he already knew the end.

In the distance, a city burned: a red halo of light over the black trees.

“Loki,” their mother whispered, touching his face. Doing her best to wipe away his tears. “Shh. It’s alright. It’s alright...”

She was young. As young as Thor remembered her being in the pictures their father still carried with him. As young as the last time he had ever seen her.

Loki would not be comforted. He grabbed onto her wrist with both hands and held her palm against his face, closing his eyes with a brow furrowed in determination. As though he could wish this all away.

“Mother,” he whimpered when she coughed.

Coughed, and tried to hide the red flecks against her coat.

“It’s alright,” she said again, and stroked back his hair. Tried to wipe away the smudges of ash on his face.

She smiled. The crystalline rim of tears around her eyes only made her more beautiful.

Thor felt his throat ache and grow tight.

“You’ve got to get away from here, Loki,” she said. “You need to head away from the coast. Find the city where there are other people.”

“No!” His defiance reared itself, as petulant as ever. “I don’t want to leave you. I won’t!”

“You have to, my love. You have to.” She drew in a raspy breath.

Eruptions sounded in the distance. Thor wished he could believe it was a storm.

Loki looked back over his shoulder, only for an instant. Only long enough to make sure the monster had not found them again.

“It will be alright,” he said, even as his voice caught and broke. “It will be alright. I can help you to the city. Father and Thor will find us there. Then it will be alright...”

Her coughing drew him back.

He scooted close to her side, held her until the spasm eased. There could be no hiding the blood this time, or the toll the kaiju poison was taking on her.

Thor had seen its effects all too often.

“I’m going to miss you,” she whispered, and cupped Loki’s face one last time. “My brave little prince.”

Her hand fell away from him, and she breathed her last.

Loki held onto her wrist. He shook her shoulder and shouted as loud as his tiny voice could manage.

The forest swallowed the sound.

She would not wake.

Loki slumped beside her in the snow, and cried, while in the distance a monster screamed.

Thor felt the burn of tears respond in his eyes. He didn’t understand. When the Norway coastline had been attacked – the Breach may have been located in the Pacific, but that didn’t mean kaiju were limited in where they wandered – he and their father had rushed home as quickly as they could. They’d found Loki in one of the public shelters. He’d said he’d been playing in the woods outside of town when it happened. He didn’t know what happened to their mother.

Had he lied?

Had he been carrying this memory with him all this time?

Thor took his weight from the tree he’d come to lean against, and stepped away from it. Out into plain view, he approached the child he remembered being his brother.

Loki wouldn’t be able to see him. Thor wasn’t a part of this memory.

But he could not just stand and watch.

“Loki...” He heard his own voice come thick. Choked.

He should try to reach him, he knew. He should shout and strain across their connection and try to bring Loki back to the present. He should tell him none of this was real.

But more importantly Thor felt the need to comfort him. To let him know he wasn’t alone.

And Loki...turned.

He turned, and looked up at him, smearing more ash across his cheeks with a wipe of his dirty sleeve.

“Who are you?” he sniffled, his face red and lashes wet.

Thor stopped, shocked. He didn’t question. He didn’t wonder how he came to be as he took off his helmet with bumbling hands, saw his breath in visible clouds upon the cold air.

He knelt down in the snow. Felt its give and heard its soft crunch.

“I’m here,” he said, smiling with a painful need, “to take you home.”

Loki met his eyes. In them Thor saw the light that was his brother, the hint of the man he would one day become.

Loki lifted his arms, and without hesitation Thor swept him up.

He was light. Like he weighed nothing. Loki clung to him and Thor cradled his head, soothed his tears and his cries – though with nowhere near the skill of their mother, he was certain.

He turned and carried him away from that awful place.

***

It was afterward, that night, when Thor found his brother had slipped away from his infirmary assignment.

He found him on the roof of the Shatterdome instead, a blanket drawn around him against the chill night air.

Loki did not look at him as Thor climbed up onto the metal plating. He dropped the bulkhead closed behind him, in case anyone came looking.

“I brought you this,” he offered, extending a cup of hot drink.

Loki slid his glance aside without much interest, but he took the cup. He cradled it in both hands and blew away its steam while Thor settled himself.

It was a clear night. Again, unusual. It had seemed of late the Earth was doing its best to try and wash away the kaiju taint by dumping as much rain onto its surface as it could.

Global warming, the scientists said. Another courtesy of the kaiju and the nuclear bombs dropped on them.

It was a full moon that night. In the glow of the surrounding city, the stars were never visible.

But they could see the moon.

“How long will Fury be grounding me?” Loki murmured at length.

Thor made a pained expression.

“He didn’t use the word ‘grounding,’ so much,” he said, attempting to soften the blow. “More along the lines of...further training.”

“Remedial school.” Loki laughed softly. “I see.”

“It is not that,” Thor mumbled. “Many pilots go through the same thing their first drift. I remember the first time Sif and I—”

“Just because we’re brothers does not mean we’re compatible.”

“Loki...”

Thor looked to him. Loki’s eyes had turned down to stare at his drink, yet untasted.

The light in his eyes – the light Thor remembered seeing in his childhood self – was still there. Though it seemed...darker now. Colder, than what Thor remembered.

He wondered what Loki saw in his reflection.

“The moon is beautiful tonight,” he said instead, diverting the subject upward. Hopeful. “Isn’t it?”

Loki didn’t answer. Not for the stretch of several heartbeats.

When he did, it was only to sigh. He swirled the contents of his cup with no real thirst.

“Aren’t you going to ask me?”

Thor blinked.

“About what?”

“About why I lied.”

Thor bit at the inside of his cheek. His silence spoke an admission of guilt.

“I wish you had told me,” he said, quiet and careful. “You did not have to carry that memory alone. Father and I were there.”

“You were,” Loki breathed. “But you’re wrong. I did have to carry it alone.”

“Why?”

“So you wouldn’t have to.”

Thor looked at him.

Loki looked up at the moon.

A sudden gust of wind rose up over the Shatterdome, born inward from the cooling sea.

Thor shivered, and Loki shrugged off one shoulder of his blanket.

“Here,” he beckoned, holding it open.

Thor thought to protest, a thought killed quickly by Loki’s singular look. He ducked his head sheepishly and scooted in beside him, pulling the blanket back in tight.

It was much warmer that way.

They said nothing. They sat and watched the moon rise over the cityscape. Eventually Loki sipped at his drink, and found the taste tolerable.

He rested his head on Thor’s shoulder once he’d finished, and closed his eyes.

Thor felt him relax with the barest sound of an exhaled breath.

He looked peaceful with his eyes closed, Thor thought. A peacefulness that belied what other things lurked in the darkness of Loki’s psyche.

Their mother’s death hadn’t been the only thing Thor had seen before they re-emerged in the cockpit of their jaeger.

Beneath the blanket, Thor moved his hand. Just enough to reach out and feel across Loki’s back to his other shoulder. There he held him, squeezed tight, settled close in the safety and protection of his warmth.