Part I: Midgard
It had been—a month, perhaps; Thor had lost count of the days. There was always pain now, a steady and wearing constant, but his captors kept it well-measured: not so much that he could not feel more when they wished it, and dread their coming. They had resentfully given over trying to break him: he could not be touched so by ones such as they, and their attempts to maim him in revenge had failed. But they still gloried in their power to make him suffer, and to use him for their amusement.
Mjölnir they had hung on the wall above the door where he might see it every moment, and especially when they came in: a mockery of his impotence. Even after so much time, his hands and wrists strained against the binding wires when they came, so when they had done with him, the blood trickled wet over his wrists for a time. He did not mind: it was better to feel that pain, and think on it, than the other.
"They got someone special coming in to work on you, later today," one of them whispered that morning, breathing obscenely in his ear. "They say he's going to crack you open like a nut, let us pick out all the meat. Not gonna be much left in you after, though. We're gonna dump you somewhere, just let you go, let your pals pick you up off the street drooling." He touched the corner of Thor's cracked and bloody lips with one finger. "You maybe want me to look you up? Maybe you'll use that mouth on me in the end, just to have someone look after you."
After they left him, Thor stared at Mjölnir just out of reach and tried not to fear. He would not have thought that anyone could do worse to him than this and yet let him live, but then, he had not thought anyone could do this much. He did not fear death; death would have been welcome lately, if only it had not left these mean and shameful men after to brag that they had taken the life of Thor. But to be made less, to have some essential portion of himself taken—and there might yet be powers in the universe who could do such a thing.
He shut his eyes. To think of it was as much as to admit it might be possible. Sleep would not come, so soon after they had been at him, but he might yet gather what remained of his strength.
They did not leave him waiting long. An hour passed, and then the door opened; the chief of his captors came in and smiled down at him, vicious as a starving war-dog. "You've held out a long time, god of thunder. But I think that's at an end, now." He turned and made way, and Thor caught his breath as Loki stepped forward to his side.
"Loki," he said, and tears slid from the corners of his eyes, running hot down his face.
"Yes," Loki said, and bent down and kissed his forehead. "Tell me: would you rather kill them yourself, or be out of here more quickly?"
"Quickly," Thor said. His captors were saying things, but he didn't have to listen or think of them; Loki was standing up and opening his hand. There were a few little black papery scraps in his palm: he blew upon them and they stirred and fluttered into the air, like moths, and flew away. The voices went silent.
Loki turned back and said, "Here." He bent down and pressed his lips to Thor's. Thor breathed in icy chill and felt it flow through him, settling into his flesh and his bones, a deep and thorough numbness that swallowed all pain. The wires unwinding from his arms and legs were only a dull removed sensation.
It took long moments before he could take a step, when Loki had helped him off the slab. His feet yet were numb, and he did not look more than once to see the ruin of his flesh. "Lean on me," Loki said. Thor let him take his weight, and limped with him past the corpses. Loki paused beneath Mjölnir in the doorway. "Can you reach the haft?"
Thor could only raise his arm a little, but Mjölnir leapt across the distance eagerly; he stood a moment holding the hammer against his chest, a comforting weight. They limped onward, out of the chamber. The paper-moths were flitting back to join Loki, darting around his head and resting now and again on his shoulders; blood dripped from their black wings. The halls were silent but for the low hum of the light-tubes overhead; the occasional corpse slumped in a corner, or lay with arms outflung in a room as they passed. Thor put one foot after another, and did not think.
"Jesus," Tony Stark said, standing in the doorway. He'd seen a lot of dead bodies in the last few years, but usually there were fires and explosions happening. There was something creepy as fuck about men just lying there dead like they'd fallen over in the middle of a sentence. He couldn't even see wounds.
"This is not the work of Mjölnir," Lady Sif—and hey, they grew them tall and hot in Asgard—said. "This is darkest sorcery. I pray Yggdrasil we are not too late!"
She charged off into the complex without bothering to discuss a plan. Tony could get behind that approach, so he followed her, ignoring Steve's shout from behind. It turned out they didn't need one: everybody in the place was dead. The guy sitting in the sub-basement bathroom stall reading the newspaper was dead.
"Sorcery, huh," Tony said. "Not biological warfare or anything?"
"Sorcery," Sif said, and stopped: they'd reached the last room in the building, the one that wasn't built of concrete, the cave that the whole complex had been built around. Giant strange runes were carved into the stone around the door, into the floor. The door was standing open, and Tony could see the first blood in the place: on the floor around the big slab in the middle. There were coils of wire hanging from the corners. "We have come too late," she said. "He is not here."
She put her face in her hands, and Tony was debating the odds of offering a little friendly comforting. Not to be insensitive or anything, but looking around, it seemed to him that wherever Thor was, it had to be an improvement. "Hey," he said. "Hey, don't worry. We'll find him. Come on, these guys didn't manage to hang on to him, right?"
"These men were cowards and dogs," she said. "They only happened upon this ancient chamber by accident and took Thor prisoner through treachery; they were nothing. One who could have done this magic and borne Thor away against his will must be a true power: what such a one might do to Thor, when he has already been weakened and wounded—"
"If the two of you are done turning up the obvious," Steve's voice crackled over the intercom, "back up to the entrance and hang a left. I've got a security tape to check out."
Steve had put his shield aside and was working a console. Two dead guys were lying slumped over their poker game on the side. Sif crowded in close as Steve got the video up: the cave-room itself wasn't on the tape, but the entrance was, and a guy was on the screen smoking a cigarette. While they watched, he waved his hand at his ear, and then abruptly he stiffened and stood for several minutes with his eyes bugged out of his head, quivering, mouth open in utter horror. Then he fell over dead. "The hell," Tony said. "Back that up."
"There," Steve said, pointing to the screen just before the man started dying. There was a little bug, a moth or something, flitting around the guy's head. Then it darted into his ear and vanished. After he fell over dead, it came out of his mouth and flew back into the complex.
"The Leaves of Annuvin," Sif said, darkly. "At least it was not an easier death than they deserved. But—" She stopped and drew in a sharp breath. A man was coming out of the doorway supporting Thor—at least, Thor's face wasn't showing on the monitor, but the size was right, and the long blond hair hanging down. It was matted with dried blood. Tony frowned. Even just seeing the top of his head and his back, Thor didn't look great.
Then the other man glanced around, so for a moment his face in profile was visible on the monitor, and Tony said, "Well, shit."
Sif said bleakly, "We must go to Allfather at once."
It was a trip and a half to watch Odin—as in, the Odin, with the one eye and the ravens and the eight-legged horse and all that crazy shit—holding an iPad. But hey, Tony had no better ideas for how to deliver video through a wormhole. Odin watched the video of Loki helping Thor out of the complex, and bowed his head over the screen silently when it was over.
"So we thought to ourselves," Tony said into the awkward silence, jerking a thumb back at the god in the golden armor standing above them on the dais, "maybe your pal Heimdall here could give us a lead—"
"Loki has grown too skillful at concealing himself from my sight," Heimdall said. His voice echoed in the big golden chamber. "I see no sign of them anywhere."
"— Okay," Tony said. So Heimdall didn't have to do anything to look, he was just seeing everyone all the time? That was just creepy. He turned back to Odin. "Then in that case, maybe you guys could whip up some other Asgardian magic—"
Odin raised his head and held out the iPad. "I thank you for bringing me news of my son, Anthony Stark—"
"Tony," Tony said.
"—but when Thor is ready to return to us, he shall," Odin finished.
"Allfather—" Sif began.
Odin shook his head at her. "Fear not for Thor."
"He is in Loki's power!" she said. "Allfather, you cannot let your grief blind you. If Loki did not mean him harm, why would he not bring Thor home, or to his friends? He must know all would be forgiven—"
"Therefore," Odin said, "there is some grave cause which outweighs in Loki's judgement our wish, which he must well know, to see Thor at once."
"And that is like to be one of his deep-laid plots," Sif said. "Otherwise—"
"Lady Sif," Odin said quietly, "how is it you know that Loki has Thor?"
"Because we have seen him on the—" She stopped.
"A little clarification for those of us who have apparently missed the point?" Tony said, when they both seemed ready to leave it there.
"My younger son has made himself your enemy, this I know, and I am sorry," Odin said, "but he makes no small and foolish errors. He has deliberately revealed his face through this narrow medium, that I may know where Thor is and that he is safe; that is all which he has done. Therefore Loki feels no more is—advisable, at present." His old impassive face briefly twisted in a flash of pain and sorrow, and he looked away; his mouth worked a moment. "We must trust that Thor will recover, and return to us whole. You must pardon my lack of courtesy: I must go and tell the queen."
Sif bowed, and Odin turned and left them, walking away down the long bridge to the citadel in the distance. Heimdall said, behind them, "I will open the Bifrost for you again, Anthony Stark, if you would now return to Midgard."
"Yeah, hold your horses a second," Tony said, turning to Sif. "That's it? You're just going leave Thor hanging out with Loki? The guy who turned half of Los Angeles into zombies last year? And incidentally tried to set Thor on fire?"
"The Allfather has spoken," Sif said, low. "I must heed his wisdom, little as I like the thought. I thank you and your allies for your aid, Tony Stark. If you would call on me in future, you have the word of Sif that I shall come. Forgive my discourteous haste in leaving you: I would also be with the queen, when she has heard the news."
So the Asgardians were all very, very strange, which Tony had known, but this seemed pretty extreme. Not that Tony was incredibly dedicated to the traditional superhero schtick, but sitting around while the supervillain had your thunder-slinging pal in his clutches was definitely not buddies, even if they were both from the same dysfunctional family.
He took the rainbow ride back to Earth and rounded up the rest of the Avengers with an all-points, and laid it out for them. Which produced nothing, nada, niente.
"Can I make a suggestion?" Banner said softly, after the rest of their ideas had degenerated to the level of skywriting LOKI IS A DOUCHEBAG over major cities and seeing if they could annoy Loki into showing up.
"Please," Tony said. "No, not strong enough. Please."
"Let's listen to Odin, and leave well enough alone," Banner said.
"Well, that's a terrible idea," Tony said. "Who knows what that asshole is doing to Thor right now?"
Thor woke by slow degrees. Water trickled softly nearby, and the warm air was redolent of life, of green and growing things. He pushed himself up on his elbow: he lay in a bed of leathery hides and cloth, lightly covered, and a cup of bark stood nearby beneath a flowing rivulet, spilling over. He drained it seven times over and wiped his face down, although he was already clean: he looked at his wrists and at his legs, and saw no sign of injury.
There was a tunic hanging over a stone at the foot of the bed. He put it on and went outside the cave: Loki was sitting just by its mouth on a broad flat stone, spinning thread by hand out of a heap of matter that looked too thin for wool.
"Brother," Thor said, and Loki yelped and flung the spindle into the air; Thor just managed to catch it with one hand, and keep him from falling off his rock with the other. "I haven't been able to startle you in ages," he said, laughing as he righted Loki, and wondered even as he laughed: the sound felt easy in his throat.
"Yes, well," Loki said, laying down the spindle, "I wasn't expecting you. You'll be hungry."
"I am," Thor said emphatically. He sat down and turned his face up to the sun's warmth as Loki rose and went to a small stone cache built against the side of the cliff to take out food: flat cakes of journeybread and dried meat, and clay bowls full of preserves. Thor stretched long and pleasurably, yawning. "How long have I slept?"
"One hundred and twenty-six years," Loki said, laying down the food.
Thor jerked his head around and looked to see if Loki was joking: he wasn't. "A hundred—" He sat up, stunned, but he believed already. The pain and the darkness were too distant. He stared down at his wrists. "Then," he said softly, "my mortal friends—"
Loki flicked his eyes briefly heavenwards and handed him a slab of bread slathered with fruit and meat; despite his sorrow, Thor couldn't stop from falling-to at once. "There's no need to be maudlin. I brought us into Midgard's past. You could sleep a thousand times as long, and when we return to the present your beloved mortals will still have at least half their flyspeck lives ahead of them."
"Mmgfdphg mhf mhghhm?" Thor said. The meat had splendid flavor, but it took a great deal of chewing.
"I do know what I'm doing," Loki said. "We won't alter the future from here. Theirs or ours."
Relieved, Thor swallowed the bread and held out his hand for the next slice Loki had already prepared. He ate for nearly two hours without stopping, and then finally belched with contentment and lay back flat upon the ground. "Am I going to sleep so long again, if—" he said, drowsily.
"If you're awake, I think you're healed as much as sleep can do alone," Loki said. "And if I'm wrong, what matter? Rest. I'll wake you if there's need."
He woke inside the cave again; it was dark outside, and a sound of soft rain falling; Thor could feel the energy in the air which told him the thunder waited to be called. Loki was asleep in the bed beside him, sheets of rough paper covered with his writing scattered on the floor and the skins around him.
There was a tray on the floor by Thor's side of the bed, heaped. He cleared it and lay back for a little while with his arm behind his head, looking up at the roof of the cave, and thought of going back to sleep. But he wasn't tired anymore, and his body wanted to be doing something.
He climbed out of the bed and called Mjölnir to his hand; he went outside and looked up to the clouds, closing his eyes to feel the rain upon his face. His feet were bare, and the downpour steady; in moments he was dripping-wet, and then the droplets began to trickle: down his back, his chest, over his thighs—
He heard the voice only distantly. His lungs were burning, his throat; he was shouting, and the air was full of smoke. The earth shook around him, lightning coming to his call. He struck blindly and felt Mjölnir land with a tremor, and struck again: wood splintered and rock groaned.
"Thor!" There were hands upon him, and he lashed out, but Mjölnir passed only through thin air. He lunged after the enemy and missed again. "Thor, listen to me—"
In the dark, he couldn't see the man's face. Was it the chief of his captors, or one of the others, one of those who had—but he had Mjölnir; he was not bound by runes and dark sorcery anymore; he would take his vengeance. He feinted one direction and whirled to strike in another, calling lightning. In the blaze of light as the bolt struck his hammer, he saw Loki's alarmed face, and barely managed to pull the blow so it struck instead the ground beneath their feet.
The slope gave way in a roar of mud and shattering rock. Thor reached vainly for Loki as the earth fell away and carried them with it. The two of them tumbled blind as pebbles as it rushed them through clawing bushes and grass, down and down until at last it spilled them across a clearing, and a stand of trees and thornbrake sieved them out of the running mud.
Thor pushed himself up and reached to wipe mud from his eyes, somewhere between alarm and laughter: what had that fit been? But Loki was sprawled beneath him like a flipped and angry turtle, soaked to the skin and his hair plastered with mud—and then he was pushing at Thor's shoulders, wide-eyed, and saying, "Get up. Get up now!"
"What?" Thor said, confused, and then abruptly the clearing was trembling as the immense and armored head of a dragon thrust itself between the trees, all horns and claws and reptilian stink.
It took Thor nearly half an hour to slay the thing: the armor plates resisted even Mjölnir's blows, and the thing clawed at him mightily and swung an immense and barbed tail. At least it hadn't fire-breath, or wings. He finally staggered back from the carcass and looked across the clearing where Loki sat under a stand of tall sheltering ferns watching: he was clean again. "You could have helped!"
"But you were having such a good time," Loki said.
"What is this thing?" Thor said, tearing off leaves and using them to strip the blood and offal from his skin in the still-falling rain. "There are no dragons on Midgard."
"An ankylosaur, I think," Loki said, and Thor halted standing with fistfuls of ferns in his hands. "I told you we were in the past."
"You brought us—how many years?" Thor said.
"Sixty-five million," Loki said. "Give or take a few hundred."
"Wait," Thor said. "Did Father not say once that if one traveled in time, the further back, the greater the chances of changing history with even a small—" He stopped in horror and turned to look at the slaughtered dinosaur.
"He did," Loki said, "and your splendid trophy might indeed have altered the course of all history, if it weren't already sure to die in a few years when the asteroid strikes the earth almost directly here."
Thor made Loki explain the whole thing in detail as they climbed back up to the cave, where they had to strip naked and rinse in the stream. He climbed shivering and damp into the bed and huddled under the covers. Loki brought in some more food, and they ate in the bed, in the dark: it was like being boys again, running wild in the woods behind the citadel.
"Have you been waiting here all this time?" Thor asked, looking at the dried fruit and meat with new eyes: no men yet lived in this world. Loki had hunted for this food; had cured the skins upon the bed and woven the cloth for their garments; had beaten out the paper for his writing by his hand.
"Traveling through time isn't so easy that I thought I'd go wandering," Loki said. "I didn't think you'd be very pleased if I left and came back a few months off from when you woke." He shrugged a bare shoulder. "I haven't minded."
"And now—" Thor said, uncertainly.
"If you're well enough, we can return to the present," Loki said, and left it there, hanging: if. Thor was silent. He felt whole again, in body and in spirit, but the memory of the strange fit still troubled him. "It was too much to hope for that your mind could heal completely while you slept," Loki said, after a few moments. "There's no need to hurry. We can return whenever we need."
"A few days more, perhaps," Thor said finally, and then brightened. "So you're certain we can hunt here with impunity?"
"Oh, no, no, no, we are not going dinosaur hunting," Loki said.
Loki protested bitterly at being dragged through the jungle, but he came along anyway, so Thor paid no attention. It was a wonder Loki didn't have mold growing on him, sitting around in a cave doing nothing for a hundred years. "I would have gone mad," Thor said, stooping to inspect the ground: the tracks of many herding beasts had gone this way, and recently; their predator was sure to follow.
"I did hunt," Loki said peevishly. "Where do you think all the food you've been eating your way through came from?"
Thor snorted. "If I know you, you laid out a hundred little traps in every direction in the first week, and since then all you do is go and clear them out: you haven't made a single real kill while you were here." Loki's sulky silence was enough answer. "When they're all doomed to die anyway! It's a true waste. Someone should remember what the beasts were like, and have a tale to tell of them." As they walked onward he said thoughtfully, "Do you suppose we might find some of their young? We might raise—"
"I draw the line at bringing a nest of tyrannosaurs to the present," Loki said. "I'm sure to be blamed for whatever happens as a consequence."
There was a sharp and bitter edge crept into the words, a reminder that not all was well: that Thor still had a brother, but not a friend.
He didn't know how to repair what had broken between them, what had broken in Loki; and felt all the injustice of that when Loki had found healing for him. But it seemed to Thor this couldn't fail but help: better to have Loki safe by his side again, however angry, than off in some dark hole plotting malice for distraction from his own misery. "Then we'll take back the head, at least," Thor said, clapping him on the shoulder, "and mount it in the trophy hall."
Loki sniffed, but said nothing more—did not outright reject the notion of ending his self-imposed exile, which was something. Thor drew a deep and joyful breath: he was free, and well, and might soon even bring Loki back to Asgard where he belonged; and for now, there was a tyrannosaur to hunt.
It took them until that evening to find the hadrosaur herd, the dinosaurs perplexed but unalarmed by their presence. The night was warm and dry, so they bedded down on a low hill overlooking the herd. Loki built a small fire behind a screen, and warmed small bark cups of a liquor he had brewed, strong and fragrant with herbs. Thor drank six cups, and harassed Loki into reciting a saga for him as they lay beneath the slowly turning stars.
"Perhaps I should not use Mjölnir," Thor said thoughtfully. "There would be more sport in it if we made javelins."
"Yes, because there's not enough sport in killing the largest predator that's ever lived on the planet, we ought to do it only with sharp sticks," Loki said drowsily sarcastic; he had pillowed his head on a bundle of leaves. "After all, we would like it to be fair. I suppose I shouldn't use magic, either? Will you strip na— "
He broke off suddenly and gasped. Thor had been drifting gently off to the sound of his complaining, and had to turn his head to see: Loki was sitting up, trembling, and as Thor looked, he suddenly cried out and arched as if in pain. A miasm of white fog was taking shape around him. "Loki!" Thor said, seizing Mjölnir, and looking in vain for—an enemy, any enemy, but who—
The fog was drawing close around Loki, and condensing into thin glowing strands that wrapped themselves around his body, his limbs. He was on the ground writhing in their coils; Thor knelt beside him and tried to seize them and pull them free. But the strands could not be gripped: his hands went through them as though they were not there, and then abruptly they sank beneath Loki's skin and were gone.
Loki lay panting, his face ashen and drawn; he was trembling. Thor put a hand on his chest. "What was that? Brother, are you well?" He reached for the stoppered jug of liquor, and helped Loki up to drink; Loki's hand shook.
He drank two cups, in slow sips, and then he pushed himself up to his feet and held out his hands. He stood staring at them for long moments; nothing happened. At last Thor ventured, "Loki, what was—"
"A spell," Loki said harshly, and dropped his hands. "My magic has been bound."
Dr. Strange lowered his hand from over the globe and nodded to Tony. "It is done, Stark. Wherever Loki is, his magic is gone from him until Thor stands before at least one of the Avengers once more."
"Beautiful," Tony said. "Fantastic. Amazing." To be honest, magic pissed him off: it meant there was definitively something in the universe that he hadn't figured out yet. But right now he wasn't knocking it. "That'll bring him out of whatever hole he's in. Thanks, Doc. How about a cappuccino? Let's get some lunch."
"I thank you for your hospitality," Dr. Strange said, drawing his cloak about him, "but I require nothing; I will go on my way. Stark, keep in mind, while the spell would not have taken force if they presently required his magic to survive, Loki may have sequestered them in some place requiring magic to come and go—"
"Thought of that," Tony said. "Now that Loki can't hide, I'm expecting to hear from some pals of Thor's any minute now. Wherever Loki's got Thor tucked away, we'll find them both."
In fact, it only took half an hour before Sif charged into the mansion, knocking down the door and the security guards without even breaking stride. She came in, ignored the glass of champagne Tony was offering her, and grabbed him by the shirtfront to shake him back and forth. "Are you a fool? Why did you not heed the Allfather's words!"
"Whoa, whoa!" He popped a few buttons getting loose, and flipped the ready switch on the suit: okay, Sif was apparently not happy. "Look, we're on the same side here, right? The side that wants Thor back safe and sound and not with Loki?"
"Yes!" Sif snapped. "And is he here?"
"Not yet, but since I'm guessing that your good if extremely strange friend Heimdall can see them now that Loki's magic isn't getting in the way—"
"Heimdall has indeed seen Thor and Loki," she bit off, "lost and now without the power to return, more than a thousand thousand ages in your past."
Tony paused. "So, that sucks."
"Without your concealing arts, Heimdall will have told Father where—when—we are," Thor said, to Loki's back. Loki had said nothing more, but despite the night all around them had risen and started walking back towards the cave at once; Thor had not argued, but followed. "He will know how to reach us, brother; we have only to wait until they come."
"Waiting would not be wise," Loki said without looking around. "Do you remember that asteroid I told you about?"
"The one that will land here, and slay near all life," Thor said warily.
"Such a cataclysmic event, accompanied by so much death, will affect the shape of time and space here," Loki said. "They'll have to wait until the consequences subside. We'll be lucky to be rescued in a decade."
"Why should they not come before it lands?" Thor said.
"Traveling to an unfamiliar time is imprecise," Loki said. "They can't be sure when they'll arrive, so they'll have to give it room."
"But the asteroid will land in a few years, you said," Thor said. Loki said nothing; Thor caught up and seized him by the arm. "Loki!"
"I didn't want you to feel rushed!" Loki said. "If you still hadn't been ready to leave, I would have told you—"
Thor stared at him, heart sinking. "When does it land?"
"Three weeks from now," Loki said.
They packed swiftly: all the hides, Loki insisted, though they were heavy; all the food; a couple of cooking-pots. Every so often Thor caught Loki frowning at something or gesturing absently before he recalled his inability. "Is there no way we might undo the spell?" Thor asked as they tied up the bundles, on the grass outside the cave.
Loki opened the cache where he had set a haunch of the ankylosaur to smoke, and flung the yet half-raw meat into the cavern. "That will bring the scavengers to tidy after us," he said. "And no. It's a very neat little spell. I don't have to go to any lengths to break it, all it requires is for you to stand before one of the Avengers. Any spell that easy to undo is almost impossible to break from within."
"If you say so," Thor said; it made very little sense to him, but there was a reason he'd never made a study of magic. "Let's be off, then." He swung up the larger bundle to his back and looked around. "Which way?"
Loki picked up his own. "North. There's nothing but ocean every other way."
Thor hummed a little as they walked. The asteroid might soon lay waste to all this land, but he could not feel sorrow: that had already happened and was done. The sun shone above them with pleasant heat, and in three weeks they might walk a thousand miles, more than enough for safety. He was glad, even, to have something to do, some kind of real work. That was the cure his restless nights needed, and very likely it would do wonders for Loki, too. They hadn't had a good long walking journey in a while, for that matter. "Don't look so glum, brother. You've waited a century: what are ten years more?"
Loki looked at him as if he meant to speak, then hesitated. Thor prodded him. "You haven't understood," Loki said. "A thousand miles away, ten thousand, on the other side of the world—the asteroid won't kill us when it lands, but that won't matter. When it lands, it will throw up great clouds of dust, enough to make a night that will last for years—a winter that will last for years. Everything that lives will die, or near enough, and dear brother, we are going to find out how long Asgardians can live without food."
"Ah," Thor said, daunted. But after all—"I just slept a hundred years without."
"Thanks to the magic I no longer have," Loki said.
Thor sighed. A warrior of Asgard had to be prepared to endure great challenges, but he'd never done very well at going hungry. "But we will endure," he said. "We have your provisions, and when we have reached safe harbor, we will hunt and put still more aside; and ration what we eat. Not all beasts will die at once, and by the time we have run short, we can hope the sun has returned enough that we may plant."
Loki was regarding him with an exceptionally doubtful expression. "What?" Thor demanded.
"Have you ever planted anything in your life?" Loki asked. "Besides that time we tried planting knives in Idunn's fields to see if they'd grow into swords?"
"And were set to spreading manure for her for a month," Thor said ruefully. "No, but I am sure it cannot be a matter of great difficulty."
"Interesting," Loki said. "I on the other hand am equally sure it can."
"Come, brother, don't look so dark," Thor said. "Together, we will contrive; and who knows? Rescue may come sooner than you think."
Two weeks of walking brought them to what Loki thought would be the Rocky Mountains. They scaled a great sheer stone wall, their face, and found at the summit instead a high and cold plateau where only grasses grew, a waving pale yellow sea featureless and unbroken; some dinosaurs with large snouts, plant-eaters, lifted their heads curiously out of the field to see the strangers in their midst.
That night as they slept, the world caught on fire. Thor roused abruptly from an unpleasant dream of wire coiling around his wrists, and shook Loki awake to watch: in the south the sky was red, a blazing line drawing near the ground, and a vast blooming eruption of dust rose silently into the air lit with fire from below. The earth trembled faintly underfoot, some minutes later, even at the distance.
"You said three weeks," Thor said.
"I said waiting would be unwise," Loki said.
The sun never rose that morning. By the time they were climbing down the far side of the plateau, the first snow was falling from the sky.
Avengers HQ was always a good time.
"Let me get this straight," Steve said, leaning back in his chair with his fingers at the bridge of his nose.
"Do we really need to go into all the boring details?" Tony said. "Thor turns out to have been in the past, now we just have to go get him back." He activated the 3-D schematic of the Bifrost. "The Asgardians can send us back—"
"In other words," Banner said, completely ignoring the beautifully rendered diagram, "you should have listened to Odin."
"Yes," Tony said. "Yes, in hindsight, that would have been a good strategy. Anything positive to contribute to the current discussion? Let's not waste time on yelling and recriminations, people, we need to stay on-task here."
It turned out they wanted to waste some time on yelling and recriminations. "Since we're time-traveling anyway, it doesn't really matter when we leave," Banner pointed out.
"So first of all, that's stupid, and second of all," Tony said, trying hard to think of the second of all; he had downed a few glasses of Scotch before the meeting in a pre-medicating spirit. Okay, more like a quart, but—
"Tony?" Steve said.
"Yes, Cap?" Tony said.
"The situation's already complicated enough," Steve said. "How about you don't also pick a fight with Bruce." He stood up. "Let's go get Thor. And then we'll have a conversation about charging in where actual gods fear to tread."
"Looking forward to it," Tony said. "A whole lot."
Sif was waiting for them back at the library in Tony's penthouse, her arms folded and her eyes still wrathful. In fact it looked like she hadn't even moved since Tony had managed to convince her to wait there for him to get back with the cavalry, after his six attempts to call Dr. Strange had failed. Fucking magic.
When they assembled at the rainbow bridge, Heimdall looked down at him with what Tony couldn't help but feel was disapproval, even though his expression didn't change. "The Bifrost can indeed send you into the past, with the magic of Odin Allfather behind it," Heimdall said. "But the journey will be a perilous one, and I cannot say if you will find Thor, or your own deaths." Cheery.
"Hasn't it already happened?" Tony said. "You know how this turns out, don't you?"
"No," Heimdall said. "I will not see your fate until you too have entered the past, nor can I see Thor and Loki's ends at the present time: their destiny is as yet suspended. What will be, not even I can say, save to tell you that the time you enter has grown dark."
Thor hadn't really thought what it would mean, truly not to see the sun for years. In the first days of deepest dark, when noon was as night with neither moon nor stars, he woke again and again, thinking himself once more trapped in a close-shut room deep underground, waiting for torment. A few times he struck Loki in his sleep, and once in another fit nearly throttled him, Loki batting frantic at his face and unable to defend himself with magic.
"Forgive me," Thor said after, gulping; his eyes were wet, and dread lingered with the ash upon his tongue. "Forgive me. You are not hurt?"
"What's a little strangulation between brothers," Loki said, raspily, drinking water filtered through a scrap of cloth; then looking at Thor's misery he added, "It's no worse than I've done to you, more than once."
The worst of the ash-cloud passed after a week or so, but even after, the sky was dim as if a perpetual storm lingered in the sky, and the snows came swiftly and hard one day after another. They found a small cavern on the western shore of the continent, near enough the ocean for fishing, and built caches of stone for their provisions; while Loki wove and gathered fuel and baked clay pots, Thor took Mjölnir and hunted: the great plant-eaters were too enormous to bring back, and not worth the effort to slay, but there were many others who fell to his skill, and together they butchered and salted all the meat they could.
Thor insisted on planting fields despite Loki's pessimism, but even when the summer came, short and cold, what they planted did not grow, and what grew was stolen by the hungry animals. Thor found himself improbably happy, nonetheless. His nightmares were wearing away under the slow erosive strength of work and peace, and he was not alone: he had his brother, with his quicksilver wit and endless cleverness. If there were yet flashes of darkness behind Loki's eyes, now and again, Thor could choose not to see them.
He woke in the dark and found Loki sitting up in bed looking down at him unreadable, his writing lying neglected in his lap. Thor yawned and said, "Why are you awake?"
"It's midmorning," Loki said.
Thor pushed himself up: in the circle of the cavern's mouth dark clouds massed thickly across the sky, and thin flakes of snow already were drifting softly down. Summer had ended.
By the fourth year, game had grown scarce and thin, and the predators vicious with starvation. The winter came sooner, every year, and around their cavern all the trees died one by one. Soon even the fish had vanished, and the water was too cold to go out very far. Their provisions began to moulder. Loki looked over their stores now every day, and what they ate was whatever was nearest rotting, boiled for long hours with a little tree bark for flavor.
Thor refused to despair. He knew the days of their supply were counting away, but those days counted away also to their rescue, and when Loki grew silent and bleak, coming back from their stores, Thor would drag him out in their little dugout canoe onto the ocean to harvest nets of seaweed and occasionally bring back a fish to make a small feast day with. "There," he said jubilantly, throwing back his wet hair, as they trudged through the snow with their catch, "and you would have sat all day glowering at the fire; I told you we would get one."
"Yes, brother, your foresight was truly remarkable," Loki said. "It only took four trips to be proven correct. I deeply regret doubting you, and clearly my preference for not being soaked to the—" and he broke into a run.
Thor dropped the nets and flung himself after, already raising his hand for Mjölnir, which rested upon a stone by the entrance to their cave. Loki was seizing two of the sharpened javelins they had thrust into the ground to make a rough fence. The crouching raptors at the cache, nothing but hollow-sided bellies and ferocity, raised their heads from the heap of collapsed stone and dried meat and hissed. Loki flung one javelin and took the lead raptor in the belly; two others were charging him, and he slid deliberately to the ground and met another on the point of his second.
The other was upon him then. Thor reached them scarcely a moment later and swung: the raptor flew back and into the cliff wall, falling lifeless atop the cache, but Loki was curled gasping around his belly, fingers red. The other two raptors bleeding came at them from both sides; Thor planted himself over Loki's body and swung Mjölnir forward and to the back, and smashed in both their skulls.
He dropped Mjölnir and lifted Loki in his arms, fear catching at him: they had neither healing chamber nor medicines, and the slashes gaped like four red mouths mocking at him. "The—the cache," Loki said.
"Later," Thor said, carrying him into the cavern and laying him down upon the bed. He tore a square from the woven coverlet and pressed it to the wound. "Can you hold it?"
Loki's eyes were shut, but he nodded, and pressed his hand over the injury. Thor went out again: the raptors had chewed and fouled nearly all the meat, but the half-buried jugs of liquor had escaped. He heaved the dead raptor onto a heap with the other two, and gathered a few pieces of meat yet in their leather wrappings along with the jugs. Loki drank a swallow, and pressed his face into the covers while Thor drenched the wound, shuddering. Thor winced in sympathy. "At least your guts look whole," he said.
"That is not much consolation, since it means you can see them," Loki said, snappish. "Give me another swallow."
Thor gave him several more, and then fed him pieces of meat cut small and pounded soft, until even drunk, Loki said, "How much have you given me?" and would not take more.
He fell asleep a little after. Thor looked at the bandage: blood was seeping through yet, but not so copiously as before. He went out and chased off the handful of lizardlike scavengers who had already been at the raptor carcasses and the remains of the cache, and began the work of butchering.
He had time: Loki slept a day and night, muttering restlessly, and afterwards was querulous and drowsy all the week. But on the final day, as Thor finished wrapping the last slivers of smoked meat to put into the repaired cache, he looked up to find Loki standing watching him, wrapped in a hide. "You're better, then," Thor said gladly, and then followed his gaze down at the meager pile of meat: there had not been much to speak of on the half-starved animals.
"How much did we lose?" Loki asked.
He stood looking over the near-empty cache, silent. Thor finally reached past him to lay the new meat upon the carved ledges of stone. Three months of supply, perhaps, if they kept their bellies near empty. "We will manage, brother," he said. "You should go back to your rest. Nothing is served by brooding."
Loki did not answer, but turned and went back into the cave. That night, Thor woke and raised his head: Loki was standing in the mouth of the cave, looking out at the falling snow: another blizzard coming in. "What are you doing?" he said sleepily. "Come back to bed."
"What I ought to have done sooner," Loki said, without turning round. "Rest. I'll return soon."
"The world's half ice out there," Thor said, muddled with sleep; what did Loki mean?
"Yes," Loki said. "It is." And then he dropped the leather hide and stepped out into the blizzard, naked but for his breechclout.
Thor heaved off the covers and pulled on his boots and tried to go after him, shouting vainly into the snow. But he went three paces from the entrance and could see nothing around but whirling white: the wind yelled distraction in his ears, and he was shaking with the cold when at last he let it drive him back into the cave. He built the fire back up slowly and carefully, to keep his shivering hands from wasting any of their fuel, and then heated the remnants of their last night's thin soup over it, swearing at Loki fiercely under his breath.
Loki came back shortly before dawn, emerging from the blizzard as a silhouette against the brighter mouth of the cave. "Are you mad?" Thor demanded, standing up. "What have you—"
He stopped. Loki came inside, carrying a small duck-billed dinosaur over his shoulder, the yellow hide standing bright against his skin, which shone with dark blue lustre in the firelight. He laid it down just outside the entrance of the cave. "It's frozen solid," he said. "It should keep until the blizzard ends. Go back to sleep. I was never in any danger."
He turned away and settled himself against the side of the cave wall, by the entrance, as though he meant to rest there.
"I'm not tired," Thor said quietly. "Come and eat. You should not have strained yourself so."
"I need nothing, in this form. New-fallen snow is all the nourishment a Jotun requires," Loki said over his shoulder. "They—we—eat food only for pleasure. Eat the full portion yourself."
"Are you making that up?" Thor demanded. "How can you be nourished on snow?"
Loki looked around at him, with red eyes. "Jotunheim has no sun, nothing there grows. What did you think—we lived on?"
"You live on sweetbreads and pears in wine and new-grown peas, whenever you can get them," Thor said. "And I thought perhaps they ate—fish, or something. They have beasts."
"And what did you think the beasts lived on?" Loki said. "Why would I invent such a thing?"
"For the same peculiar reason you're sitting over there in the coldest corner of the room hunched over like a troll," Thor said. "Come and have a drink of this—for pleasure, if you insist. Then I'll have the rest, and we'll both go back to bed."
Something in Loki's shoulders eased. "This is now a perfectly comfortable corner of the room," he said, in a lighter tone, "and while I would gladly accept your invitation, I'm afraid you might regret it. Don't you remember what happened to Volstagg when a Jotun touched his arm?"
Thor paused. "It was attacking him."
"Yes," Loki said, "but it didn't have to try to freeze him." He got up and came over to the fire, and held his hand near; the flames bowed away, and Thor could feel the cold radiating from his flesh.
"But you'll turn back, won't—" Thor said, and reached out to grip Loki's bare arm. The cold swept into him with sudden, burning force, dreadful as the wind outside; Loki had to wrench his arm away. "I don't understand," Thor said, nursing his trembling and chilled hand. "What have you done to yourself? I thought you couldn't work sorcery anymore."
"I've done nothing. I've only stopped clinging to the pretense that I was ever Asgardian," Loki said, curling his hand back towards his body and standing up. "This is what I really am: it's the face you know that's a lie. Like all the other lies."
He turned away, and Thor realized only just in time that he meant to leave, to go out into the white whirling fury of the blizzard. Thor snatched a hide from the bed and covered his hands so he could seize hold of Loki's arm and pull him back, bare steps from the entrance. "It's no more a lie than any other shape you've taken," Thor said, gripping tight though the cold still bit at him even through the leather. "And the rest—" He stopped, helpless. "Not everything is a lie," he said finally, softly. "Stay with me, brother."
Loki stood in his grip trembling a moment, and then he said, "You had better leave off before you get frostbite," in a more usual tone; and when Thor let him go, he came back and sat near the fire, though not beside it, and laid down on a hide by the bed when they went to sleep again.
"So," Tony said, "I vote Loki doesn't get to pick the vacation spot next time." He was standing with the faceplate open, because the iridium dust still hanging in the air was wreaking serious havoc on the suit's telemetry systems. Even with the suit's heating systems kicked up high, his cheeks were starting to go numb. "Are we still committed to the idea that Loki brought Thor back here as a good deed? Because I have to say, if you've got all Earth's past to choose from—I read a book that said there were some really fantastic parties in Rome?"
He nudged Steve with an arm, and got an eyeroll for his pains.
"The Allfather believes that Loki sought a time where Thor might recover without altering the history of the world to come," Sif said. "As we ourselves must strive to do. We must find them and be gone."
"So any ideas on how we track them down?" Tony said. "I'm guessing looking for footprints isn't going to do much good." The snow was coming down thick around them, and the sky had gotten dimmer instead of brighter since they'd landed, although he'd thought it was probably five in the morning.
"Heimdall said they had gone to the north, to escape this cataclysm," Sif said, turning away from the giant bowl of the crater. It was still blackened and smoking in places, and the snow hadn't stuck in the center, though it was a good couple of feet on the rim. "We must seek them there."
Tony sighed and closed the faceplate. A little static was better than losing half his face to frostbite. He didn't know how Banner was handling it; even his feet were bare. "Lead on, my lady."
The supply lasted longer, with only one mouth to feed, and Loki was for a while able to increase their stores: while the beasts stood blind and dumb in blizzards, merely enduring, he could see them and take them easily now. Blades of ice bloomed on his hands for the wishing, and he could even freeze the blood in their slashed throats before it was spilled and wasted.
But three more years of darkness crept by, and there were no longer even starving beasts to hunt. The cache dwindled, and Thor cut his rations twice without telling Loki to stretch it further; but hunger gnawed at him, and cold. He found he more and more often lay drowsing in bed, eyes half-shut, unable to raise the strength to stand. He woke once only for Loki shaking him, through the covers: he had slept three days, and his stomach felt pinched tight as a nut.
Loki could not lay the fire anymore without killing it, only cautiously feed it from arm's length; he had nevertheless managed to build it up and put on three logs, a profligate number, and hung a great pot of soup over it. "You must eat all of it," Loki said. "You can't go on eating a quarter-ration, it's not enough."
Thor ladeled himself a bowl carefully, with a weak arm, and drank it slowly, enjoying the warmth and savor of it. He put it aside. "Listen to me, brother," he said. "My strength fails. I can stretch it a little longer, but our stores are almost gone." Loki tried to flinch away, but Thor reached for him, and Loki stopped rather than make him actually grip.
"If I am dead when rescue comes," Thor said, "I would have your word that you will take me back to Asgard yourself. I know you are deeply wroth with our father. But for my sake, forgive him. He will need you, and our mother. Do not let them mourn us both."
Loki shuddered with broken laughter. "Mourn us both?" he said, low. "What comfort do you think it would be to them to have the traitorous monster come back whole, with the beloved child dead in its arms? The best kindness I could do them would be to stay away, and let them forget they ever pretended they had another son."
"I do not know how to persuade you that you are wrong," Thor said, "so I can only ask. If you cannot trust in them, trust me, and let the choice be theirs."
"And you would have me go to them like this?" Loki said. "To come back before all Asgard in this form, hated and accursed, the form of their worst enemy, unable even to be touched, and still call myself their son?"
"I would," Thor said steadily. "Will you give me your word?"
Loki gave a short harsh bark of laughter and bowed his head. "You need not die," he said, after a moment. "There's another way, if you will endure it."
"As long as it is better than death, I will," Thor said, struggling to sit up; he wondered what Loki was talking about, and why in the hells he hadn't said anything before.
"That depends on your point of view," Loki said. He held his arm out above the empty bowl. A blade of ice formed about his other hand, and he slashed open a vein and let the blood pour out.
"Loki!" Thor said.
"It will stop in a moment." The flow was already slowing: the blood froze even as it ran, and closed the wound. Loki picked up the bowl, half-full of blood, and turning back to Thor held it out. "You will take in the essence of my blood, if you choose to drink," he said. "With your body weakened, I think it will let you change—to feed off the cold, as I do."
Thor stared at him, and reached for the bowl. Loki held it back. "The change may well be permanent," he said. "You're not a shapeshifter—you won't even be able to disguise yourself."
"And you think I'd rather be dead than be Jotun?" Thor demanded. "Give it here." He seized the bowl out of Loki's hands and drank, choking a little: damn, it was cold! He managed to get it down before the first full-body shudder seized him: then he was shaking with the cold of it, a sharp tingling pain like feeling entering back into a sleeping limb, but over his entire body.
Loki was touching him, helping him up out of the bed. Thor stumbled under his guidance to the cave entrance and out into the snow—the snow, suddenly soft and pleasant beneath his feet, like spring grasses. He shook off Loki's hand and pulled his tunics and his shirt off over his head, to feel the wind blowing gently over his skin, the flakes landing upon him and melting into his very flesh: it was shading to a darker blue with every moment. The field was still driven white with snow, but he saw it now touched with a thousand shades of blue and violet and green. He could look through the blizzard all the way to the ocean, and see the waves crashing in glorious froth upon the frozen beach.
He laughed aloud for joy, and shook Loki by the arm. "Why didn't you say it was this beautiful? I've been freezing slowly to death for three years now, and you could have done this anytime."
"Yes, forgive me for not suggesting earlier that I turn you into a monster like myself," Loki said, prying off Thor's grip. "I don't give you my word, by the way. In fact, I refuse to be present when Mother sees that I've turned you into a frost giant."
"As I'll now be alive, I'll just drag you home without asking," Thor said cheerfully, his face turned up to the falling snow to feel it bringing strength back to his body. He wasn't a lunatic, so he knew perfectly well that Mother would only raise her eyebrows and purse her mouth and then perhaps insist on some more clothing. "No wonder they all run about half-naked, though," he added, and flung himself flat into the snow to roll about on it: the feeling of it was indescribable, halfway between the embrace of a sweetly yielding maiden and the indulgence of a gluttonous feast.
"You look like a dog," Loki said peevishly, so Thor had to catch his ankle and pull him down and rub his face in the snow, which was less a punishment than he deserved. Loki spluttered and shoved a handful of snow into Thor's face; Thor licked it off his fingers and laughed again: he felt warm. He hadn't been warm in eight years. He pulled Loki onto him and squashed him into a hug, ignoring Loki's muttered complaints, and then he rolled them both up to their feet.
"Come," Thor said. Mjölnir leapt into his hand from beside the fire, and he hung it upon his belt. "I've barely stirred from that cave in years. Show me where you've been hunting all this time: I want to run for miles."
"Well," Steve said, looking around the cave, "unless the creationists are right about humans and dinosaurs living together—"
The bed was big and covered with dinosaur skins and a couple of woven blankets. There was a pot still hanging over a small fire: the pot had cooked down to a blackened mess and the fire burned to ash; they'd both been cold a long time, though. There were a few knives and things lying around, some papers scribbled on in a weird alphabet: Sif sprang on them.
"These are in Loki's hand," she said, studying them. "Poetry, and some accounts of the beasts that live in this time. They were here."
"So where'd they go?" Tony said. "And how long ago?"
There was a thin layer of dust on most of the stuff: probably a couple of years' worth, best guess, though it could've been more. It looked like they'd just walked out one day and never come back. Tony eyed Sif, who apparently hadn't picked up on the potential badness of that yet.
Another thump sounded outside the cave mouth, and Banner made a grumbling noise. "No food," he said, flipping aside another couple of giant boulders like marbles. "Hulk getting hungry."
"That's just not a good thing to hear," Tony said, and they went outside.
"Maybe that's why they left," Steve said, looking at the cache that Banner had ripped open. It did look pretty bare.
"Listen man," Tony said to him quietly, as Sif started hunting around for some sign of a trail. "This doesn't look too good. Why wouldn't they take any of their stuff? And put out the fire?"
"They might have had more than they needed," Steve said. "—Yeah, Stark, I know, it's thin. But I'm not going to count Thor out until we see him on a slab, and even then I wouldn't be in too much of a hurry. Lady Sif," he called, beckoning her back. "We'd better bunk down here for a night's rest. We need to clean this up tomorrow anyway: there's too much stuff here that might last long enough to confuse some archaeologist if the chips fell the wrong way. Tomorrow, soon as we get some clear weather, Stark, you go up and take a spin around, see if you spot any signs of human activity. That's our best shot at finding them."
"Hulk go fishing," Banner said, and lumbered away down to the ocean. Tony squinted through the drifting snow: he could vaguely see Banner pick up something that looked like a canoe up off the beach with one hand, inspect it, toss it aside, and go plunging into the waves.
"Yeow," he said. "That's gotta be cold. All right, Cap. We'll give it a shot. I've got nothing better to do for the next sixty million years."
Loki spoke of going back to the cave once or twice, but after a few weeks they had gone far enough that neither of them were sure how to return. It did not seem to matter. They had all the shining world open before them. Thor raced Loki up the steepest mountain slopes, the two of them calling the ice to grow out to them for handholds as they went. At the summit of the world they looked down at endless fields of rock and snow, and then leapt and skidded all the way back down to the valleys, tumbling now and again into great rolling heaps of snow, like children.
They came after some months to a sheltered valley, where Loki devised tricks of shaping ice, and they began to build a great hall together one tall and gleaming column at a time. Their voices rang against the ice during the night, and it sang back to them in echoes; one night as they lay sleeping in the crystalline vault, the clouds broke, and the moon shone briefly down on them.
It ought to have bored them both quickly, but silence and stillness had become easy in a way that Thor would once have found wholly unimaginable. He remembered on Jotunheim the way the giants had only slowly come out of the ice and shadows; at the time he had thought them deliberately making ambush, but now it seemed the natural order of things. Time did not mean very much. One day of winter passed into another; the sky lightened to pale grey and darkened to pitch; storms blew. The ice did not care, and neither did they.
And when change came, it came also as if to ice: one moment stillness, and in the next a shattering and a thousand jagged shards where only smoothness before had been.
They had gone wandering across the wide cold plains, over the buried grasslands, to see if they could yet find any of the great dinosaurs moving. Afterwards, Thor did not even remember what precisely began it—Loki had said something teasing and sharp, he had flung a snowball, and they had ended wrestling in the snow together. An air pocket in the grasses gave way beneath them, and they fell through into a dim and sheltered hole with the snow heaped around them. Loki was complaining beneath him, and between one breath and another Thor was aching with desire so startling that he was pushing at their few surviving scraps of clothing before he thought.
He halted as quickly as he had begun, Loki's hand on his arm and Loki's eyes wide and appalled in the dark, meeting his own horrified look, but it was too late. They dug themselves out of the snow-cave and went back to the hall, where they spent three weeks carefully not-touching and pretending they were not both shivering with lust in their opposite corners at night.
"No," Loki said, when Thor finally broke and crept over to him. Loki put his hands on Thor's chest and pushed him away. "No. I won't—I have done enough, I have already—you don't desire this, this is merely—"
"Hush," Thor said. "You've done nothing to harm me. Let me—" He pressed his lips to Loki's wrist, and Loki made a low pained noise.
"Only turned you into a monster," he said, raw, and wrenched his arm free. "No." So Thor had to go back to his own agonizingly empty bed, knowing Loki lay on his own pallet, trembling and equally miserable, or more.
Loki would have held out a long time, years perhaps: Thor could not help but look at him in hope each night for some sign of relenting, and every time saw Loki lying still staring blindly with his hands at his sides, clenched with determination. But they went out hunting again, or rather pretended to be going hunting, for a distraction, and they stumbled wholly unexpected and by accident on one scrawny but determined tyrannosaur eking out an existence in a low valley sheltered from snow and wind, where a herd of hadrosaurs yet had survived.
Thor had not been paying attention; the great beast broke from cover roaring and savaged his leg before it fled Mjölnir's blow. Loki had to carry him back to the hall. He lay Thor down upon his ice pallet, and cleansed the wound with snow, and packed ice upon it. Thor waited, trembling with impatience, until the gashes closed. "Loki," he said. Loki's hands had been upon him for three hours.
"Yes," Loki said, very softly, and let Thor draw him down.
It was strange to find his body respond so differently to the act. They were both reduced to inexperienced and fumbling children, groping at one another without much notion of what would please or satisfy. "Ah, here?" Loki said suddenly, after a moment, and his fingers slid over a place between Thor's legs that made him sigh with eagerness.
His body yielded open to Loki's pressing touch, and then to his cock, as his own slid into a reciprocal grip; they were joined twice and pressing close together. There was no thrusting or heat or violence; only a gradual and easy merging as though they became truly one. They lay so entwined together for what seemed endless hours without moving, while above the clear night spun away.
They eased apart again only in the morning. Thor lay peacefully and aglow with satiation, his fingers entwined with Loki's, and he was not sorry in the least.
If Loki did regret, he did not say so. That night they lay down together without discussion, and every night thereafter. Thor did not feel quite the same way as he ever had for another lover; he had already loved his brother, and Loki seemed less an object of passion than some essential and inseparable part of himself. "A shieldmate, perhaps," Thor said idly one night, pleasure rising slow and certain as the tide within him. They lay upon their sides together, Loki's thigh pressed between his own, Loki's fingers stroking and clever in his hair. "Do you suppose it is always so, among the Jotun?"
"I haven't made a study of it," Loki said, eyes heavy-lidded and dreamy.
The nights were growing shorter, and for the first time in ten years, the winter began to unlock around them. The sun broke out of clouds almost blinding-bright, and blue sky showed through the walls of their ice palace; they went out to stand beneath it blinking, shading their eyes against the painful glare off the snow.
The valley was well shielded from wind, and faced the sun. Two months later, Thor found Loki standing over a small hollow in the snow, near the base of a cliff. A few blades of green grass poked up through the thin crust, nearly all melted away.
"They'll come soon," Loki said, and turned away.
"So, we might possibly have a problem," Tony said, landing next to Steve and flipping his helmet open.
"Hulk smash?" Banner said, perking up. He'd started to wander off for longer stretches during their searches, bored.
"Not out of the question," Tony said, and Steve's eyebrows went up. "Lady Sif, these, uh, frost giants I've heard Thor mention—"
"They live on Jotunheim, ages hence," Sif said impatiently. "What of them?"
"They wouldn't happen to be blue, would they?" Tony said.
They crept cautiously up the slope and peered down into the valley. The tall and mostly-naked blue guy was cutting ice blocks out of a glacier wall, with his bare hands as far as Tony could see. "Like I was saying," Tony said.
"It is a Jotun," Sif said, staring. "But why—" Abruptly she stood, her face pale. "They must have learned somehow, through some black magic, and come here to—knowing Thor and Loki vulnerable, they—" She swung her sword off her back.
Steve sat up reaching, "Hey—" but it was too late.
"Yeah, couldn't see that one coming," Tony said, as Sif went flying down the slope enraged, her hair streaming out behind her. "Let's go."
He went over the ridge and landed with a thump in the valley as Sif raced towards the giant shouting, just in time to see the giant turn and drop the ice shards from his hands and reach for her, laughing aloud, and saw Sif skidding to a wide-eyed halt in front of him, staring up at his face.
"Wait, you mustn't," the giant was saying, as Tony jogged up to him: Sif was reaching out towards him. "My touch would freeze your skin. By the Norns, my dear friend, I am so glad to see you again."
"Huh," Tony said, looking up at the giant. "Thor? You're looking kind of—blue."
Thor beamed down: yeah, despite the blue, it was definitely him. "Have you all dared to pursue me through time?" He looked at Steve, who'd made it down the slope, and clasped hands with Banner, who didn't seem to be bothered any by the freezing touch thing. Blue, green, all the same, probably. "I am grateful beyond measure to you all."
"We feared..." Sif's voice faltered. She was still staring at him. "Thor, what—what have you done?"
"We ran out of food," Thor said, simply. Like he wasn't talking about ten years starving slowly to death in a cave. Tony winced guiltily. "Loki was able to share this power with me, that we might live."
"So are you stuck this way now?" Tony said. "Because doorways are going to be a problem, I'm just saying."
Thor blinked at him with a puzzled expression, and then looked around at them all like he was just noticing he was about two feet above where he'd been. "I've grown!" he said, as though it was news to him. "Brother, have you? Look, our friends are here."
"So I see," said a cool and level voice, and Tony turned around to find Loki standing behind them: not taller, but also blue and with unsmiling red eyes. He was pulling a black cloak around his shoulders that he'd just drawn out of thin air, a glitter of magic fading away. "And I would like to know, dear friends, which of you had the brilliant idea of binding my sorcery without finding out where we were."
Everybody turned to stare at Tony. Tony glared back at all of them, but none of them took the hint. He put on a winning smile. "Okay, yes, agreed, not my finest moment. No hard feelings, right? All's well that ends well?"
"Mortal," Loki said, "I'm going to tear out your entrails and serve them to—mmrph," Thor crossed the space and put a hand over Loki's mouth.
"Come, brother," Thor said. "Let us not mar this moment. I would have you forgive Stark: whatever ill consequences came of his act, we have survived, and he acted in concern for me."
Loki looked at Thor over his hand, and then back at Tony, with an expression suggesting that entrail extraction was still potentially on the agenda. Thor didn't seem to notice; he let go and clapped Loki on the back. "Besides, now that your powers are released, I would we were home soon. Our mother will be waiting anxiously for news."
Loki paused and then said to Thor, "I might send Sif ahead, to..."
Thor stopped Loki with a hand cupped around his neck. "Take us home," he said gently.
Loki bowed his head and said harshly, "Very well."
Part 2: Asgard
The clamor of their return was tremendous: his friends from Midgard, and Sif, and Volstagg and Fandral and Hogun were lying in anxious wait for them—Odin had forbade their going, as increasing the size of the party too far—all talking at once; and then Mother came in answer to the news, with her attendants trailing for the gossip of it. They stood a wide-eyed flock hovering at the gate of the Bifrost, staring in at Thor and Loki and whispering furiously.
Loki had laid a spell upon them both, before the crossing, that their touch should not sear Aesir flesh. It was just as well: Mother rushed in upon them and despite the suddenly greater distance in height flung her arms round Thor's neck before any warning could have been given. She clung to him a moment, then smiling wiped her eyes and reached for Loki, who had tried to retreat into a shadow of the dome; Thor caught him and pulled him back into reach.
Mother held Loki's face between her hands and whispered something Thor could not hear over the general noise: Loki was staring at the floor, his face drawn taut, but at least he was listening to her.
"You had to become Jotun and eat snow," Volstagg said, in tones of horror, drawing away his attention.
"Good Volstagg," Thor said, laughing, "snow is delicious. You haven't any idea."
"Are you trapped in this form?" Fandral asked, peering up at him. "Surely Allfather can work some spell to free you—"
Thor grinned down at them. "Perhaps he can leave me the height." And then the maidens gathered by the door gave way, and Odin came into the room. Thor straightened, and smiled to answer the question which Odin looked up at him, as he gripped Thor's arms between his hands.
"You are well, my son?" Odin said quietly: asking not merely about the flesh.
"I am, Father," Thor said; Odin nodded, and turned to Loki, who stood yet with Frigga, watching them with his face utterly flat. Thor had not seen him look so blank in all ten years of their lonely imprisonment, and almost reached for him; but Odin slowly put his hands on Loki's shoulders and said, "And you, my son?"
Loki's throat worked in a swallow. "Yes," he said. "Father."
Odin bent his head a little for a moment, standing there with him. "You have both suffered a long ordeal, and we crowd upon you too swiftly," he said at last, straightening. "In three days' time we will celebrate, if you are both well-recovered; until that time, let none visit you that you do not invite. Go and rest, my sons. Asgard is blessed that you are with us once again."
It was not quite so easy as that to extract them, but an hour later, Thor was alone in his chambers and looking down with some dismay at his bed: it was too small. He pushed open the door to Loki's room and found Loki sitting on his own bed, staring at nothing, his hands in his lap. "Come and make my bed larger," Thor said, and Loki rose without protest and came and cast the spell; but when Thor tried to pull him down, Loki drew his hands away.
"It's not as though you can change what has happened," Thor said. He'd thought Loki would have done with worrying, by now. "I was right, was I not? About everything—"
Loki snorted. "Yes," he said, "Father didn't actually fling me off the Bifrost, and there was a notable lack of mention of my assorted crimes in the first five minutes after our triumphant return. Forgive me for doubting that he might in any way yet disapprove of our liaison."
"I wasn't planning to tell him about this," Thor said, leaning off the bed and sliding his hand up Loki's thigh hopefully. "And if Heimdall were going to, he already would have."
Loki made a face and didn't yield. "Thank you, yes, that's calculated to put me in the mood: Heimdall watching."
Thor sighed. Loki had been a good deal easier to handle when there had been no one in the world besides the two of them and dinosaurs. Then he sat up. "Damn! I forgot to get a tyrannosaur—"
"We are not going back," Loki said.
"No, I suppose," Thor said regretfully. He looked over at the door as someone knocked. "Enter!"
A girl came in carrying a basket, and curtsied nervously in the doorway looking between the two of them. "Allfather—" Her voice squeaked, and she had to stop and clear it. "Allfather sends me to say the apples will—will—"
"Fix us," Loki said, coolly. She nodded and held out the basket at arm's length and took a trembling step nearer. "Leave it there on the table." She put it down and fled the room with a look of relief. Loki crossed to the table and picked up one of the apples: golden against his skin. He turned and tossed one to Thor. "You'll feel better once you've eaten."
Thor caught it and raised it to his mouth, and then he stopped. "What do you mean?" he said suspiciously. "No, don't try giving me that look now; you meant something." He put down the apple. "Tell me."
Loki didn't speak a moment, and then he said, "We weren't overcome by loneliness, and we haven't been nursing some secret passion all these years. It came on us unbidden. There must be—we did not merely choose to do this. We were impelled by instinct. A Jotun instinct." He spoke bitterly. "And when you eat, it will go away."
"But," Thor said confused, "you want it to go away! You were just refusing me. Why are you angry?"
"I'm not angry," Loki said.
"Yes, you are!" Thor said.
"I am—" Loki stopped. "I am not angry," he said. "I knew as much from the beginning, I knew that—I knew this moment would come. I'm not angry." He crossed over to the bed, and picked the apple up and handed it to Thor. "Eat."
"Why aren't you eating?" Thor said without taking a bite, still wary; Loki hadn't told him everything.
Loki paused, and then the blue color faded gently from his skin in slow waves, until he stood looking his old self. "I don't need to," Loki said, putting his hands behind his back and turning away. "The cuckoo can squash itself back into the nest without help."
"Why didn't you do that before, when we—wait," Thor said, realizing, "you didn't want me to be the only one looking Jotun?"
"It didn't seem the proper order of things," Loki said.
"Why must you always overthink everything?" Thor said. "And you're still not telling me the truth: what will happen when I eat? I'll be restored, the instinct will leave me—" He paused and then said slowly, "—and it will not leave you."
Loki didn't look around. "I am Jotun, however my borrowed plumage looks," he said. "You're only playing at one."
Thor looked down at the apple. He wanted to eat—he wanted to look himself to his friends and kin; to once again rejoice in Asgard's endless summer and in sunlight, now too bright and stinging in his eyes. He would not have sorrowed long, to be forever altered; it was small price to pay for life and the joy of returning safely home. But it was a price. It would be difficult to remain so all his days—
And Loki had no choice but to do so. Slowly, Thor put down the apple. "No," he said. "Forgive me, brother. I think until this moment, I had not understood. But I do now. I will not leave you to bear this alone."
Loki wheeled, staring at him, and Thor rose to catch him by the arm and draw him in. Loki trembled at his touch, blue shivering back up his skin as Thor tumbled him into the bed and kissed him, and he yielded as Thor wrapped his arms around him.
They lay together all that day and night. Thor was vaguely aware of tapping on the door, but when they made no answer, it went away. Only when dawn came the next day, Loki at last drew away with a sigh and rose from the bed to stand by the window, looking out across the falls at the rising sun. Thor stretched out slow in bed, letting a yawn take him; he threw his head back to look at Loki. "Now will you have done with all this brooding?"
"Thor," Loki said.
Thor groaned and covered his face with the pillow.
Loki came and sat beside him on the bed, which dipped annoyingly; Thor missed the unyielding comfort of the ice. Now that they had stopped, the sheets felt hot and prickly against his skin, a rasp like sandpaper; and his head ached with the blaring color everywhere. Loki's hand alone felt cool, upon his bare arm. He lowered the pillow.
"It won't work," Loki said. "I'm a shapeshifter and a mage, and I was raised here under the influence of Father's magic all my life. I can be Aesir when I need to. You can't. No snow falls in Asgard, no winter wind blows. This is no realm for a frost giant to live in."
Thor couldn't answer him; he felt the truth of it in the steady irritating heat creeping over his flesh. "Then," he said, "— then we'll go and live in Jotunheim together. If the giants don't like it—"
Loki laughed: for once not bitterly, only sad. "You'd leave Asgard without an heir, and start a war besides, all to have this?" He shook his head. "No, brother. Some things cannot be only because we wish them so."
He held out the apple. "Don't make me argue you into my own sorrow. Let it be done quickly." His mouth twisted briefly with a thin, quicksilver smile. "Besides, if we delay, Father will find out. And that's really not a conversation any of us need to have."
Thor took the apple slowly, and ate.
Tony had to say, the Asgardians threw a hell of a party. The solid gold drinking-horns were a nice touch, he had to remember to tell Pepper to order fifty of those for his next event. Their idea of mead also grew on you, once it had finished burning your taste buds off.
They were up at the high table in what Tony gathered was a place of honor, along with a whole lot of Asgardian warriors and Odin presiding, which you'd think would've cast more of a damper on things than it did. Everyone wanted to drink Thor's health, and since that apparently required Thor to toast them back, by the time they started clearing the third course, the big guy was drunk as a skunk, if the skunk had spent four hours drinking 200-proof rotgut.
Loki was sitting next to his mom, talking to her quietly. No one seemed interested in toasting him, and even though he wasn't blue anymore, he still somehow looked like he didn't belong. All the Asgardians around them were big, bulky guys in armor and with weapons leaning against chairs and tables in ways that were inconvenient where they weren't actually irresponsible. Loki with his thin face and long-fingered hands looked like a greyhound that had accidentally dropped in at a convention of Rottweilers. Not that Tony felt sorry for the evil supervillain, exactly, but he was starting to see the source of Loki's issues.
Then one of the guys sitting near Thor said loudly, "Trapped with that forked-tongue liar all the time, and you had to be a Jotun like him—it must have been like being turned into a swine."
Loki jerked around and started to get up, but before he'd managed it, Thor had grabbed the guy's head and smashed it into the table. "Whoa," Tony said, and put down his napkin. "Security?" None of the Asgardians seemed to be shocked or anything by the sudden eruption of violence. To be fair, they all looked like they were Security.
Thor banged the guy's head into the table a couple more times, then stood up dragging him from the table by the hair and punched him in the face for good measure. He dumped him on the floor where he lay wheezing and bleeding. Everyone was watching interestedly, and then a murmur of surprise went around the room as Thor, wobbling a little, said savagely, "You are no man, Dovran; I name you nithing: now get up, and say when you will meet me."
Dovran stared up at him, chalk-faced beneath the red blood that trickled from his nose and his mouth. "I didn't—Thor, I meant no offense to you—"
"Did you not?" Thor said. "Then you ought not have spewed your vile insults in my presence. Name the time, or be outlaw."
Loki had made it around the table by then, and had his hand on Thor's arm. "Come, brother," he said. "It's kind of you to make the feast still more memorable, but there's no need to feed the gossips quite so well as this. I'm sure Dovran withdraws any remarks he made that—"
"He can withdraw them when I've stuffed them back down his throat and into his guts," Thor growled, shaking Loki's hand off.
"If insult I gave, it was given to Loki Od— Loki Laufeyson," Dovran blurted desperately, "and his to meet, if he is not a coward."
Loki paused, his hand on Thor's arm, and looked down at Dovran. "Well," he said after a moment, "in three days at the crossroads, then."
"So this dueling thing—" Tony said to Sif.
"To the death," she said.
"The challenge is mine!" Thor was protesting. Dovran was struggling up to his feet, and Thor wheeled on him, looking like he was ready to knock him down all over again, but Loki caught him by the arm more tightly.
"You'd leave him in no condition to fight, brother," he said. "I wouldn't want there to be any suggestion of unfair advantage."
"With worse hurts than these can I face you in the ring, Jotun," Dovran said, coughing, "if you do not use foul enchantments, instead of standing like a true man."
Loki laughed and said, "Thick-tongued Dovran, dung-bird and troll, digging yourself into your grave! No magic craft or cunning arts will I bear to the challenge-ring: a cold sharpened point is all Loki needs to speed a crude-witted cur on his way."
It sounded almost like poetry—nice ring to it. The crowd appreciated it, too; they didn't laugh, exactly, but approving mutters went around. Dovran purpled helplessly, opening and closing his mouth while Loki just stood there with an air of a teacher waiting patiently for a slow student. Loki dragged it out, and then just as Dovran was opening his mouth again, nodded equably and said, "Three days, then," and drew Thor back to the table.
"So," Tony said to Steve, "what do you think? Any chance of coffee?"
Thor woke up the next day with a pounding headache, a dry mouth full of cotton, and appalled realization. He stormed into Loki's room, meaning to wake him and yell, but Loki was already up and sitting stretched out on a couch with a cup of honey wine, reading. "Why did you take the challenge?" Thor demanded. "He had no right to retreat from my challenge to offer one to you—"
Loki closed his book and looked at Thor. "Why haven't you given challenge to any man in the last three centuries?"
"Because it is an unfair contest," Thor said. "No warrior can stand against me in battle."
"So when you sobered up this morning, and realized you'd challenged a hapless idiot who had no more prayer of defeating you than a puppy wet from birth, what would you do when it came time for you to meet him?" Loki said.
"I—I—" Thor said, fumbling, and said, "I would let him live."
"Yes," Loki said. "You would have let live a man who called me a liar, a coward, and did not give me our father's name. And at that point, I would no longer have grounds to challenge him, having allowed you to take the challenge for me."
Thor flushed. "You only needed to say so."
"Then you'd have killed him," Loki said, "and been sorry for it. It doesn't matter, anyway. Someone was going to challenge the foul Jotun imposter in our midst, sooner or late. I may as well get it over with." He picked up his book and opened it again.
"Loki," Thor said, "the fight—Dovran—"
Loki glanced up and levelled a cool unblinking gaze at him, and Thor couldn't quite manage to get out his worry in the face of it. Dovran hadn't a chance against him, but that did not mean he was the least warrior of Asgard: he sat at the high table for a reason, and he fought with sword and shield and armor, a bad opponent for a knife-fighter. Thor tried to think of a way to say—something to suggest—
Loki kept looking at him steadily, and finally Thor gave up and sat down on the floor beside his chair and sighed. After a moment, Loki put his hand into Thor's hair and stroked his head gently, a wordless reassurance, and Thor closed his eyes and leaned into his touch until it made the ache in his head go away.
Dovran came to the ring of stones armed in mail and plate, with a shield and a longsword and a helm with bare slits for the eyes. Thor hadn't been able to find Loki since last night: he stood with arms folded at the crossroads, waiting. Dovran looked and called across the ring, "If he comes not—"
"Be silent," Thor said coldly. "Your tongue is too laden with insults already."
"Besides," Loki said, "I'm here." Thor turned and nearly throttled him. Loki was in ordinary garments, thin leather and wool and silk, and he wore no weapons but a pair of long-hilted knives: perfect for close-range fighting, after he'd already slain his more dangerous foes with sorcery. Loki sidled around Thor, managing to evade his grab, and stepped into the ring before Thor could drag him off and pack him into at least a shirt of mail.
Dovran grinned, seeing him, and stepped into the ring. "Ready to die, Jotun?" he taunted.
Loki looked at him across the space and smiled. "Come, then," he said, without even drawing his blades. Dovran launched himself across the space, sword rising for a killing stroke; but Loki held out his hands, and a javelin of ice formed in his grip just as Dovran running drove himself upon the point.
Dovran stopped too late, sword toppling from his hand as he groped fumbling at the javelin protruding from his chest. Loki, unsmiling, red-eyed, took a step and thrust; the point broke out through the back of Dovran's mail, and he arched back with his mouth open on a hoarse cry: there was blood on his lips.
Loki took two more steps, driving Dovran to his knees, and leaned over him. "You should have fought my brother." And he thrust the javelin through to the ground and let Dovran's body topple to the ground. He straightened, blue color fading up from his hands as he let go the javelin, and left the ring giving Dovran's seconds his back without a word.
Thor glanced at him as they walked back to the citadel; Loki's face was impassive. "Well-fought," Thor offered uneasily.
"No, it wasn't," Loki said. "Well-fought would have been if I'd put on armor and a shield of my own and hacked him to pieces with a longsword. Or, I suppose if I'd somehow killed a man in full armor with a pair of knives. That would at least have been impressive. Letting Dovran run himself onto an ice-spar because he was too stupid to think was merely effective."
They came into the citadel, and Loki flicked a glance back at Thor and added, "But I'll take what I can get." He stepped into a shadow and was gone, leaving Thor alone.
The citadel muttered all the next week, sullen whispers that died if Thor got into earshot, men grown belatedly wary. Loki meanwhile behaved as though he heard nothing, noticed nothing. He ate at the high table each night, though before he'd rarely shown his face more than three times in a month, and once even stood and recited the Ymirssaga when Mother asked him for it. His voice rose and fell like a winter's wind: the story was the familiar one, but the words were his, and new, and struck the heart like a hammer on a blade fresh from the forge. All the hall was silent listening, and silent after; but there was no applause, and Loki seated himself again and resumed speaking with Mother as though he'd barely interrupted their conversation.
At the end of the week, Regnar Jorlsson named Loki sordinn in front of witnesses, and Loki called him out; three days later, Regnar too was dead, slain with blade and ice together, and the corpse rimed with frost on the ground.
Even still, Loki acted as though nothing had happened. That very night, in what for any other man would have been gross insensibility, but in Loki's case was viciously deliberate, he rose in the hall when most of the warriors were already drunk, and spurred a round of bawdy song. Each verse named a different man to tease him; as the song traveled the hall, Thor realized appalled that Loki meant to name Regnar in his next turn, and hauled him out of the hall before the singing could reach him again.
Loki didn't resist too hard, although he called Thor humorless; Thor squinted at him as he dragged Loki back to the royal quarters. "Are you—are you drunk?" Thor said, baffled. Loki's eyes were vague and there was an unaccustomed faint flush to his cheek.
Loki wrenched his arm free as they reached his chambers. "Some sins, dear brother, you have no right to reproach me for."
"I didn't mean—" Thor said, but he was speaking to a closed door.
Loki somehow managed to spend the next week hiding from him, until Sethnir Kirsson forced him into another challenge, and he needed a second again. Thor went to Odin. "You must put a stop to it!"
"What would you have me do?" Odin asked mildly. "Decree that Loki is not permitted to fight challenges?"
"It is dishonorable!" Thor said. "These are not honest feuds, nor even quarrels begun in the heat of a moment, which Loki has invited and ought to answer. The holmgang is not meant to allow men to do murder, and that is what they seek."
"So far, they have only found their own deaths," Odin said.
Thor was not consoled: even if Loki was the more dangerous man, even he might yet make a single mistake. Sethnir was a wily fighter and a cautious one, and he had a name as a slayer of giants. He was not a hothead, to challenge Loki without thought. He meant to win.
"So do I," Loki said, without looking up from his tome: of course he was curled into a dark corner of the library, reading, while Sethnir drilled in the practice fields under the advice of half a dozen teachers. "I'm wounded by your lack of faith in my prowess. Or are you concerned about my depleting our ranks?"
"Brother, do you not see there will be no end to this? If you are victorious, the more men you slay, the deeper you will kindle wrath and resentment against you," Thor said.
"Of course," Loki said. "But I don't think they would like me any better if I did allow myself to be cast out and disowned, so I may as well win. I haven't yet tried killing one of them really painfully," he added thoughtfully. "I suppose I can try that tomorrow—I think I still have that whip somewhere. It will get messy, though, so I'd advise you to wear clothing you don't mind burning."
So far they'd put off going back to Earth in hopes that Thor would come along for the ride, since none of them really wanted to lose one of the big guns off the team, but Tony was getting the sense they'd landed in the middle of something complicated here.
"So explain something to me," he said to Sif, thumping down next to her on the tiers overlooking the huge practice grounds. They'd just had a workout which had mostly involved Tony letting Sif throw him to the ground repeatedly. He'd been more than fine with that: excellent view of her legs. He downed a gulp of mead. "Is this a regular Asgard thing: a couple of challenges a week, thinning out the herd so to speak? Or is Loki getting special treatment?"
She reached for his drinking horn and wiped her mouth when she gave it back. "I have fought three holmgang in all my years, and I am accounted to have a quick temper in such matters."
"Got it," Tony said. "Not that I'm arguing with anyone who thinks Loki is a bad guy, but are they really so pissed off about finding out he's a frost giant that they're ready to die just to take a shot at him?"
"Their motive is not mere dislike of the Jotun," Sif said. "Odin has not disowned Loki. He remains in line for the throne—indeed, held the throne a short while not long hence—and many of our warriors cannot abide that we should be ruled by one of our enemies. If Loki is defeated, or even if he merely dishonors himself by refusing a challenge or swallowing insult, he will be cast out of the succession."
"For the moment, let's gloss over the part where the crazy supervillain who on more than one occasion has tried to destroy a planet is still in line for the throne," Tony said. "Although as an aside, Thor's well-being has suddenly become much more important to me. What exactly are their chances of taking Loki out?"
There was a stir at the other side of the grounds, where they let out onto the road. Loki had just come in with Thor, and he was coiling up a whip in his hands that was dripping blood onto the stones. He looked as placid as if he'd come back from walking a dog. Thor looked bleak. Three other men trailed them, carrying a corpse wrapped in a completely blood-soaked cloak.
"I withdraw the question," Tony said.
Sif shook her head in disapproval of the scene. "It has ever been Loki's way to avoid confrontation. He would rather flatter a man into quiescence than enter the ring with him, and therefore many who have never fought beside him have thought him weak, or a coward; easy to defeat."
"And once they get the picture, the challenges will stop?" Tony said.
A man had left a practice ring and intercepted Loki and Thor, across the grounds. He spat in the dirt before them, and opened his mouth to say something. Thor punched him in the face before he got the words out, and sent him flying about ten feet into a wall.
"Warriors of Asgard are known for their tenacity," Sif said. "And their willingness to die."
"So that's a no, then," Tony said.
Thor turned on the practice field, shaking off the hand Loki tried to put on his shoulder. "Hear me, warriors of Asgard," he said, and a rumble of thunder sounded overhead for just that right touch of dramatic punctuation. "Whatever man hereafter insults my brother, insults me; and I will take insult from him and all his kin thrice removed." The practice ground was silent, and Thor swept a cold gaze around. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry to meet his eye. Tony did smile and wave when Thor glanced his way, but privately between himself and himself alone, it took an effort.
Thor turned and went into the citadel. Loki stood looking after him and sighed audibly in a resigned way. "And I was only just starting to have fun," he said, and tossed the bloody whip onto a heap of equipment to be cleaned. He looked at the group of men helping up the one who'd been about to challenge him, and smiled nastily. "Come, Festan, don't look so glum. There's sure to be some way around my brother. Perhaps you could organize a band of thugs to sneak into my bedchamber and murder me in my sleep: wouldn't that suit you better than an outright challenge, anyway?"
Festan, still wiping blood from his mouth, took two angry steps at Loki before his buddies grabbed him and hustled him back.
"Oh, don't you even," Sif said half under her breath, glaring down at Loki, who was looking around the practice grounds with a considering air, head tilted.
"So what was that Thor just did?" Tony said, watching. "'All his kin thrice removed,' he's not actually saying he's going to kill a man's entire family if he insults Loki."
"Yes. All his kin who call themselves warrior," Sif said grimly, "who choose to defend their honor rather than be named outlaw, and lose their rights as men."
Loki was wandering around the practice ground chatting to various warriors. Judging by the clenched fists and the reddening faces following him around, he wasn't being very nice. "Ah. And I'm going to say that Loki's taken this as a golden opportunity to insult everyone who hates him, since now they're scared shitless of Thor killing everyone they know," Tony said.
"Yes," Sif said.
Tony leaned back on his elbows and contemplated Loki's growing swath of angry victims. "You know, crazy supervillain-ness aside, I think I'm starting to like the guy."
That night in the great hall, Loki stood up and recited a brilliant new poem. Every line was beautifully chosen to stick in the mind, a steady rhythm like a marching beat, artful turns of phrase. Five minutes after he began, Thor realized that it was also nothing but one subtle insult after another, directed in turn at nearly every man at the high tables.
"What are you doing?" he said, dragging Loki out of the hall. "Are you trying to provoke a challenge—"
"But dear brother," Loki said in reasonable tones, undisturbed, "you seemed so excited to do battle for me. I'm only trying to persuade someone to answer you."
"Are you angry at me?" Thor said, half bewildered. "I only wished to stop the challenges—"
"Of course I'm not angry with you," Loki said. "But as long as I am now comfortably behind the shield of your arm, I may as well enjoy myself."
"Why would you take pleasure in—"
"Taunting those who despise and loathe me, while their own cowardice keeps them unable to answer?" Loki said brightly.
"Brother," Thor said, "you need not make every warrior of Asgard your enemy."
"No, that is true," Loki said. "I need do nothing; I was born their enemy." He wrenched away: they stood in a dark corridor away from the feasting, where the lamps had not been lit; the light from the hall glittered in his eyes, and they shone for a moment redly. "Tell me, brother," he said, "do you still think the monster will be made welcome in Asgard? If I had returned without you, how long do you think before one of them did take me, or—"
"What do you wish me to say?" Thor took a step towards him, angry and helpless to answer him and all the angrier for that. "This is not—those who challenge you now are those who are glad of an excuse, who already disliked you—"
Loki laughed, a cutting sound. "But dear brother, everyone in Asgard dislikes me." He lay his fingers against his lips and tipped his head to one side in a contemplative fashion. "I suppose I can lay a claim to the affections of some few score ladies of the court, but that doesn't endear me to any of the noble warriors who are thirsting for my blood. But I could always try that instead; do you think Festan would—"
"What?" Thor said, bewildered even further. Then he understood, and then Loki's face, startled, swam back into his sight through a red haze of fury; Thor had him thrust up against the wall and his hands were clenched with tearing force into Loki's doublet. "You will not," he grated out. "You will never—"
Loki struck his hands away. "A little rich, that; what concern is it of yours, exactly? You are as free of me as you could wish. If I do want to fuck all of Asgard—"
Thor snarled with rage, involuntary, and Loki halted, a single brief flash of something like uncertainty in his face. Thor stared at him: his pale, whip-thin face, the cold lips pressed tight, familiar and infuriating and beloved, and why in the Nine Realms had he believed Loki so unquestioningly, that it all should have to end? "Come here," Thor said, leaning towards him.
"What?" Loki said, turning his face sharply away.
"Come here," Thor said, "I want to—"
"You don't!" Loki said.
"I don't know if I do!" Thor said. "And you don't know either—"
"Don't know," Loki spat, and flung him across the hall with a burst of sorcerous power. "You never wanted—you only—" He flung himself after, shoving Thor against the wall, magic spilling away from his hands like water from a cup over-full, binding Thor against the wall, tangling him up, tearing at his clothing and Loki's both. Thor managed to wrench one arm free to seize Loki by his grown-long hair and pull on it, goading him on. "Curse you a thousand times," Loki said, and oh it was astonishing and splendid and quick, Loki shoving his thighs back and thrusting into him without warning or ceremony, hot as a brand inside him.
Thor groaned with pleasure and managed to wrap a leg around Loki's thin hips and worked to meet his urgent thrusts. "You damned idiot," he panted. "It's no different, I'm no different, I still—"
"Of course it's different," Loki said bitterly, lips at Thor's ear as he kept fucking him savagely, his hands gripping possessive and hard as iron on Thor's thighs. "All the world is different, and you think all that matters is that your heart is not, as though that meant anything—"
It was too much to stand for long, wild as thunder and lightning crawling over his skin in the heart of a storm, and Thor was already spilling. Loki thrust into him raggedly a few strokes more through his own climax, letting Thor's legs down again, and afterwards yielded resentfully to his encircling arms even as his forehead sank against Thor's shoulder, damp with sweat and misery. But he stood so a moment only before drawing back, and then he flipped a hand and set Thor's clothing to rights: too much to rights, even the smell of sex and laboring sweat wiped from his skin.
"Stop," Thor said angrily.
"What did you have in mind instead?" Loki said. "Strolling back to our seats at the high table stinking of our incestuous lusts, as though the assembled host of Asgard cared no more for what we do than glaciers and starving hadrosaurs? You've already gone too far; men mutter behind your back that I've twisted your mind, all these years alone with me among the ice; that you've become a Jotun-lover, and they don't even know you really have."
"Do you think I care for what anyone should say of me?" Thor said. "I have made my oath, let any man who dislikes it face me, if he dares—"
"But they don't dare," Loki said, "so they'll whisper instead, and whisper more; and when you need to take them into battle for Asgard's sake, or when you do ascend the throne, they'll hesitate and question and drag their feet, and then what will you do? I'm afraid you haven't the particular gifts required to rule men who despise and fear you. Tell me that you're happy now, walking the halls of Asgard, feeling their looks upon your back."
Thor wished to answer him so, truthfully, and could not; he did feel those looks, and they kindled a deep anger in his belly to see. But Loki had missed his mark a little: Thor had led resentful warriors older in years and skill than himself in the field often enough to know that he could rule men harshly long enough to bring them around. The trouble was otherwise: he did not wish to rule men who were trying to murder his brother or hound Loki out of Asgard; Thor had made his challenge in hot rage but sincerely, ready and even half-eager to take vengeance against those who ought to have been his people, his warriors. And that was not the heart a king could have for his own men.
"Ah," Loki said. "I suppose I ought have realized you'd have more difficulty with hate than being hated."
Thor reached for him again, as slow as stalking an unloosed warhorse. "If I must bear their looks," he said, settling his hands and his claim on Loki's arms, "I would at least suffer for better cause."
It startled Loki into laughter, for a moment; he did not draw away again, but he bent his head and was silent, and Thor read in the thin cold line of his mouth their doom: Loki would yield enough to come back to his bed, but no further; he would put spurs to the side of every warrior in Asgard, cruel enough to make them bleed and hate him all the worse, and if Thor withdrew his own challenge would accept any flung at him.
"Can you not—" Thor said, because Loki could have done otherwise; could have turned his wit and tongue to pearling-over the irritation he made in Asgard, and brought men softly to his side by degrees.
"No," Loki said flatly.
"Very well," Thor said, and did not press him; he could not draw the boundaries of Loki's pride. What ruin would come, he would bear it; there was nothing else. He leaned in, and paused: a cough loud enough it could only be deliberate, though Thor could not imagine who in Asgard would have chosen to so intrude—
"Sorry to interrupt," Tony Stark said, shaking off Steve Rogers' attempt at restraining him.
Thor privately stifled a sigh: did Stark wish to be disemboweled? "I would have private words with my brother, Stark."
"We'll just be going," Rogers said, trying again to drag Stark away.
"Oh no, by all means interrupt us," Loki said, with a bright vulture's gleam in his eye where it rested on Stark. Thor prudently tightened his grip.
"Right, well, I couldn't help noticing that things have been tense here in Asgard lately," Tony said. "And as I feel a certain sense of responsibility for the chain of events that led us to these circumstances, I thought I would offer an alternative solution to your current—shall we say, public relations problem."
"What?" Thor said. Stark was clever, but sometimes he might be utterly unintelligible.
"Tony," Rogers hissed, "what are you talking about?"
Loki tilted his head. "Do propose your alternative," he said. "I'm on tenterhooks."
"I've often found in my own dealings with the general public that a brief period of absence makes the heart grow fonder," Stark said. "Granted, it wouldn't take a lot to make the hearts here grow fonder of you, but that only makes my point."
"Which is?" Loki said, interestedly.
"Skip town," Tony said. "Come back to Earth with us."
"Stark, I am honored by your invitation," Thor said, "but I cannot leave Asgard at present—"
"I meant him, actually," Tony said, gesturing at Loki. "The Avengers could use a sorcerer, your brother's already got a costume—I don't see any downside," he added; he had put a hand over Rogers' mouth, and was smiling at them fixedly as he kept it in place. "Not that you're not always welcome too, of course."
Thor snorted, trying to imagine Loki joining the Avengers, joining any band of mortals save for his own temporary pleasure—"Why not?" Loki said.
Thor stared at him; Loki blinked at him as innocently as though he had always longed to be a superhero on Midgard—on Midgard, Thor understood suddenly, and his heart abruptly leapt with hope. "Loki!" he said. "You will come away from Asgard? And fight beside me—"
"It seems as entertaining a thing to do as any," Loki said, and Thor crushed him close and sought his mouth. Loki did his best to try and convey an air of patient long-suffering beneath his lips, but his hand crept onto Thor's side and held hard enough to hurt.
"See," Tony said to Steve, who was staring, "you people should trust my judgment more often, I'm just saying."
= End =