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Outside, in the Cold Darkness

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Thor found Loki. Eventually.

He hadn't thought it would be easy for anyone to hide in the ship for long, even Loki. The vessel was large but also fairly crowded with refugees and former gladiators. Heimdall, Valkyrie, and the Hulk each had their own space, but Thor knew even Loki wouldn't hide in any of those. And he'd checked both his own and Loki's room twice.

Honestly, Thor had been worried when Loki had casually claimed a private room. Heimdall and Valkyrie were both respected by the refugee Asgardians, and no one was about to argue with the Hulk over whatever space he felt he needed, but Thor wasn't certain how his people would react to the presence of the man who claimed to be dead and then ruled for several years in disguise. He said as much to Heimdall, who had completely surprised him by shrugging.

"He is the God of Tricks. It is in his nature. But he is also a prince. Remember that they did not learn the truths you did. They have spent generations and millennia ruled by the throne. Unless the king condemns him, he is still a prince."

"But Odin imprisoned him for life."

"And Odin is gone from us, and you are the king. You seem unconcerned that he walks free. Thus, so do they."

That had kept Thor awake for the night. He had to reevaluate all of Asgardian society as he considered Heimdall's words. It was true that, aside from Loki - and, before their time, Hela - Thor had never heard of Asgardians so much as questioning Odin's commands. That was part of the reason why it had been so difficult to go against his father's will when they'd fought the Dark Elves. It was why, once Hela had destroyed the army, the citizens had huddled in silent fear or fled like rabbits, easy prey if Heimdall had not asserted himself as a new leader. Now that unwavering trust and faith was on Thor's shoulders, and he wasn't sure if that was a good thing.

Automatically, he'd turned for advice ... but his parents weren't there. His childhood friends were dead. He tried to talk to Heimdall again, but all he got were statements of fact. The subject proved slightly too complex for the Hulk, and every time he tried to broach the subject with Valkyrie, he felt strangely awkward and self-conscious and would stop before he even began.

So, even though it might be a terrible idea, he decided to talk to Loki. If he could find him.

When Thor finally tracked down his brother, he had to admit, he was impressed. Loki had discovered the one way to obtain true privacy on a spaceship: he was outside.

Thor entered the airlock in a thin suit that projected force fields to maintain pressure and temperature around his body, assured by the refugees who had taken over that section of the ship that he would be able to spend several hours in close-range space without issue. Still, a wave of cold rippled across his skin when he climbed out of the airlock. The ships' gravity generators gave the hull a slight force, so that a little practice could allow a person to walk along it almost normally, so the airlock out of the "side" of the ship suddenly became a portal "up" onto the hull. As Thor adjusted to the environment, he walked, with only minor uncertainty, over the curve of the hull and onto the "roof."

Loki, in contrast, seemed to be wearing only his usual attire, lying quite comfortably in a bend in the hull much as a sunbather might lie on a beach lounger. As Thor approached, he realized he could see a slight shimmer of magic in a wide sphere: on carefully stepping through, the feeling of cold lessened and the heads-up display on the suit showed a green light for breathable atmosphere.

"One would think that going outside on a spaceship would be enough to indicate that one wishes to be alone," Loki drawled, but it was lazy and had no bite, so Thor continued to walk towards him.

"A lot of effort for a little privacy," Thor commented. "You have a room."

"Yes, but if I were in my room, people who came looking for me might find me," Loki pointed out.

Thor couldn't help but grin at that. "How absolutely terrible for you."

Finally, Loki opened his eyes. "Well? I assume you want something."

"Yes, I -" Thor paused as he figured out how to sit down in the low gravity without accidentally pushing himself into space. "I need your advice."

Loki gave him a look of utter disbelief.

"All right. More like, I need your perspective." And then he summarized his conversation with Heimdall. He didn't notice until the end that Loki had, uncharacteristically, not interrupted. "So. That's it," he finished, lamely.

In response, Loki rolled his eyes. "So what you're saying is, it's taken you until now to realize that Asgardians are unquestioningly obedient to the crown, and for some reason you don't want to use that to your advantage?"

"It's unethical," Thor said flatly. "And no, I don't wish to be the sort of king who orders his people to cater to my ego."

"Why else be king?"

"Because -" Thor started to shout indignantly, but then he caught the curl of Loki's smirk and sighed. "Why did I think this was a good idea?"

"Because I've already gone through what you're going through. I just came up with a different answer," Loki said plainly.

Thor frowned.

"While you were basking in your little military exercises, before you had your heroic epiphany, I saw what you're seeing now. I saw that Odin's word was law. If I tried asking questions or making suggestions, I was met with anger and suspicion. Which naturally made me more suspicious." Loki paused before continuing, "Considering what we know now, I imagine there wasn't much dissent tolerated during Asgard's bloody founding. When only blind obedience survives, I suppose it becomes a way of life."

"Which is exactly why I'm not comfortable letting it continue," said Thor. "I want our people to be able to stand up against tyrants. I don't want to feel as though I only think I'm doing a good job as king because no one dares voice their complaints."

"Even though you'd lose their unquestioning allegiance?" Loki asked. Thor gave him a withering look. "Fine, fine. So you need to encourage your people's sense of independence without shattering the monarchy that's currently their only bastion of stability."

"Well when you put it like that, it sounds so easy."

The comment seemed to have no impact on Loki, who was tapping a finger against his mouth in silent thought.

Thor sighed. "You really didn't have any issue taking advantage of them, did you."

"Of course not. Odin didn't. He shaped their entire society. He made them into fools. All I did was step into his shoes. It would have been compromising the whole disguise if I encouraged them to start thinking for themselves."

"That's a terrible excuse," Thor said.

Loki made a little noise of frustration. "Honestly, what was I supposed to do? I relaxed his iron grip on the other realms. I let those of them that still could assert self-governance again. It's still a bit muddled, but at least they won't be left in utter chaos with the destruction of Asgard. But your people can't function without clear leaders: they don't know how."

"So you had them build you statues and put on plays."

"I encouraged them to enjoy themselves!" Loki folded his arms with a huff. "You needn't take my word for it. Not that you ever do. Why don't you ask some of them what kind of king I was?"

"All right. I will." Thor made a mental note to do so. He wasn't sure what he expected, but he supposed he'd either be proven right or be pleasantly surprised.

Loki gave Thor a look that, try as he might, he couldn't interpret. Then the smaller man twisted his fingers, and a shining outline of the ship hovered in the air in front of them. More gestures: the diagram grew features, room markings, a few labels, and finally flooded with primary and secondary colors to mark off different sections.

"They’ve already separated themselves into smaller communities, based on occupations, family trees, who lived close to whom, that sort of thing. It's not quite set yet, but it could be. Make it official. Let each neighborhood, for lack of a better term, be an official structure. Explain what you'd like to see from each in terms of internal structure and leadership, but, of course, you've been gone for so long, and all the old advisors are dead, so you'll need each neighborhood to propose or vote on candidates for their own governance. They'll probably end up nominating the highest ranking people in each unit, but they'll have to come up with that themselves. So it's a start."

Thor stared at the diagram, then at Loki. "How do you know they've formed communities like this?"

"I don't spend the entire day on the roof, you know."

Thor reached out for the illusion, felt its presence, carefully turned it this way and that to see it from different angles. (He suspected Loki was only letting him think that he was turning it himself, but he allowed his brother the little deception.) Though he could think of a number of potential problems that could occur with the plan, he couldn’t see a way for Loki to take advantage of it, and that made him suspicious.

"And if I were to personally interview everyone who gets nominated, I wouldn't find you, in disguise, or pulling any strings, would I?" he asked with an edge of apprehension.

"Why would I need to do any of that? I'm still their Prince. There's nothing they can provide for me at present that I can't obtain myself, or simply by asking. That would be so much effort for a game with no prizes."

Thor sighed again. "Still speaking of games and prizes on a ship of refugees and slaves."

"Did you expect otherwise?" Loki asked rhetorically. He closed his eyes again.

But Thor wasn't going to leave it now, not after they'd had a whole conversation without shouting or insults. "I don't, but I want to. I'm no longer surprised by your actions, but what drives you still eludes me."

"You said it yourself. I'm the god of mischief," Loki said flatly.

"So you just can't help yourself. That's all there is to it." Thor said with clear disappointment.

"You understand me perfectly."

Thor was about to leave it, but there was something in Loki's tone that made him pause. It was that peculiar self-deprecation that normally signified that Loki felt he had been mistreated, something Thor had only learned to identify from their arguments during the failed invasion of New York and the secret trip to Svartalfheim.

"There's something else," he said softly. Since he was watching Loki carefully, he saw the twitch of Loki's mouth that confirmed it. "Tell me."

Loki opened his eyes again to stare straight at Thor. He expected a joke, a deflection, a sneering attack, and for a moment he suspected it was on the tip of Loki's tongue, but maybe ...

Finally, with unexpected abruptness, Loki stood up and took a few steps away from Thor, staring out into the starry expanse. "I don't know if I could tell you," he said, almost to the stars rather than to Thor. "But I could show you."

"Then show me," Thor said without hesitation.

Loki spun, reached out a hand, touched Thor's forehead with the palm of his hand, and then the world imploded.

Falling, falling, falling, until direction has no meaning, falling has no meaning, into darkness, the stars sliding away and winking out in the distance and it's only blackness and space and cold and nothing. Screams don't reach your own ears and skin is too numb to register touch and no spark of light left to see, are you still screaming? Time slides away as well, and now you're been here forever and forever will be and nothing will save you and it's your own fault and maybe you deserve this, maybe this is your damnation, or maybe it's your prison or maybe it's your tomb -

It took Thor several long moments to come back to himself, to realize that he'd wrenched himself away from Loki's hand on some physical instinct that had overridden the illusion in his mind. He took in deep, heavy breaths, reasserting himself in the world of light and sound and sense.

Loki had dropped his hand and turned away again.

"That," Thor managed at last, "That was … when you fell? From the bridge? But why -"

"Why didn't I land in some random place, like Sakaar? Sakaar is for the lost, when one falls off a bridge or out of a tunnel. The bridge was broken so badly that it ripped a hole in the fabric of space and time. I fell into the void of non-existence and kept falling, on the other side, across the entire length of the universe."

"How did you …" Thor trailed off, still shaken.

"There was another tear, at the far end. You wouldn't have recognized the person who emerged from it. Unluckily, I was weak enough to be susceptible to manipulation and control." He turned to face Thor again, once again composed, emotions tucked neatly away. "Truly, in hindsight, the invasion of Midgard was a mess. I'm ashamed to take any credit for it."

Thor recognized the comment for what it was. Loki was offering an out, a change of subject. But Thor wasn't going to let this revelation pass so quietly. "Gods, Loki. You were deprived of sense for an immeasurable time. That's torture. Of course you were vulnerable. Why didn't you say anything?"

Loki gave a small shrug. "I suspect I only truly came back to myself after my imprisonment, and at that point, it would have been an excuse. I was still angry at father - at Odin - and I could never have shown him what I showed you."

"Why not?"

Loki pursed his lips for a moment before saying, "Because if it had been you, you would have endured it."

Thor frowned, confused, about to argue, and then it clicked. He had come to understand, over the years, that Loki felt a sense of rivalry between them to a degree Thor had never even imagined. If Loki believed that he broke under a torment where Thor would not, admitting such to Odin would be tantamount to admitting that he was the lesser brother.

Thor wished, not for the first time, that he could go back in time to their childhood, to whatever events had broken this rift between them, and convince Loki that he saw them only ever as brothers, as comrades, whose differences could make their bond stronger. But he knew that now, as it had been when they had fought in recent times, there were no words he could say or actions he could take to dissuade Loki of his bitterness and pride.

So instead, he said, "I might not have marched on Midgard, but I would have been changed. No one could live through that and not be changed."

To his relief, it seemed to be the right thing to say, because Loki's drawled, "Truly?" was merely disbelieving rather than spiteful. And when Thor let the silence hang between them, he continued, "You asked me what drives me. When I faked my death on Svartalfheim, when I tried to betray you on Sakaar ... that was what drove me. I can't explain it any clearer than that."

Thor wasn’t sure he understood, but he thought of warriors driven mad by unending battle, who practiced beyond reason and feared to sleep lest they fall under attack, and he thought he might have the edge of the idea. "Thank you."

Loki looked pensive for a moment longer, but, as Thor had suspected, the trickster had reached his limit of vulnerability for the day and now needed to retreat to the safety of his usual masks. Thor could see the shift on his brother's face as the man executed an elaborate bow with a drawling, "Whatever my liege commands."

Thor made a face. "You're going to do that all the time, now, aren't you."

"Should I not show proper respect for my rightful king?"

"Does that mean you'll actually swear allegiance to me?" Thor quipped back.

"Well I thought it could go without saying, really."

"Because you're going to do everything I ask?"

"Because of the unspoken bond among heroes!"

Thor shook his head and turned to walk back to the airlock.

"I am a hero now, you know. If it hadn't been for me, everyone on this ship would be dead. I think that qualifies as heroic," Loki continued as he followed Thor back along the hull. "Doesn't that qualify me to be part of your little club?"

"Oh, you mean the club we formed to stop you from invading Midgard?"

"Well …"

Thor smiled. For the first time in years, he felt a spark of hope.

Because he was a hero. Heroes save people. He would save his brother from this darkness. He just had to find the way.