It was three days before the first complaints arose.
Which was not to say that the days before were quiet, exactly. But the people were...subdued. Overwhelmed, and bewildered, and numb. Their entire world was gone, destroyed, and they’d been cast adrift with only remnants of everything that had been theirs.
Loki knew the feeling.
There were still wounded that needed tending, and various logistical matters to attend to, and scuffles that broke out and either resolved themselves or were resolved without interference. Loki spent most of the time sleeping and avoiding Thor, two activities that occupied him enough to avoid getting bored. The former was because he was, to put it simply, tired. Helping to defeat the Goddess of Death and destroying your own home Realm was exhausting.
The latter was more complicated.
I’m here, he’d said, and Thor’s smile had shifted, broadened, warmed. A reminder of everything he’d tried to forget, as this entire nightmare had been a reminder, how easily they slipped back into old, familiar patterns like all the intervening time had never been.
Finally, Thor said, impatient and fond and amused all at once.
Loki hadn’t seen him since, with the exception of the coronation, where he carefully avoided Thor’s attempts to catch his attention. The simple fact was that he did not know what to do. Did not know where he fit into this strange new world, did not know how to settle, hardly even knew who he was.
At some point, he would need to figure that out, but thus far he’d managed to avoid trying. He was doing a lot of avoiding, these days: Thor, the Hulk, the Valkyrie, and himself, among other things.
It seemed he could not avoid everything, however.
“Prince Loki,” said the wide-eyed, earnest-looking young man standing in front of him. “Might I beg a moment of your time?”
“You might,” Loki said after a pause, hoping his surprise wasn’t visible. Tensing reflexively. Now that the first rush of relief was over, it was possible that some of Asgard’s people would have questions.
His brief role as savior of Asgard might be coming to a rapid end.
“We...my sister and I, that is, we only wished to convey a concern to King Thor, and thought perhaps you could…” He trailed off, nervous. Loki’s eyebrows twitched.
“What sort of concern?”
“Well,” the young man said, sounding somewhat more sure of himself, “there were some questions about the accommodations. Namely the allocation of rooms. My sister has three children, and all of us are staying in one small room, but in the very next berth Hilda Gunnarsdottir has claimed an entire room for her own and refuses to share. And there are the Centaurians across the hall who are awake at all hours doing Norns know what-”
Loki blinked. “And you want me to...convey this to Thor.”
He cut off abruptly. “Yes?”
And why are you asking me and not going directly to him, was on the tip of Loki’s tongue, but he looked so...hopeful.
“All right,” he said slowly. “What is your name? And your sister’s?”
“Alfdi Agnarsson,” he said, melting. “And she is Vedis Agnarsdottir. Thank you, Prince Loki.”
Don’t thank me until I’ve done something, Loki thought, but said aloud, “I’ll see what might be done.”
Alfdi’s smile almost made him wince, though it was only visible for a moment before it vanished in the bow that bent him in half.
Oh, Norns, Loki thought, what are you doing? Are you really going to play intermediary for Asgard’s peasantry?
Apparently he was.
“Thor,” he said, standing awkwardly in the doorway of his brother’s room. “It seems there are some...difficulties with the accommodations.”
Thor turned around and Loki flinched again at the sight of his new eyepatch. Simple, not a trace of gilding or metal, but it was still…
He did wish he could have had the chance to claw one of Hela’s eyes out in recompense. Pity.
“With your accommodations?” Thor said, eyebrows going up.
“No,” Loki said. “With Alfdi Agnarsson and his sister Vedis’s accommodations. It seems there has been some unequal distribution of space. And perhaps some, ah. Friction between Asgard’s people and our...companions from Sakaar.”
“The first time you speak to me in days and this is what it is about?” Loki wasn’t sure whether it was gratifying or insulting that Thor looked surprised. He supposed it probably depended on why Thor was surprised.
Loki shrugged. “I was asked to intercede.”
That was certainly insulting. “Yes,” Loki said. “I was. Sometimes people are not comfortable approaching their king directly, and your reputation is such - particularly at the moment - that you aren’t exactly approachable.”
“And you are,” Thor said.
“Of course,” Loki said, “I am the savior of Asgard.” He kept his voice dry. Thor’s lips twitched a little but his eye, studying Loki, was serious. It was uncomfortable how much Thor had grown up when Loki wasn’t looking. He didn’t think he liked it.
Certainly not when it led to him lying on the floor twitching while Thor walked away because he had really, truly, had enough. There had been a lot of low points in the last few weeks. That was at least in the worst five.
He probably should have seen it coming, though, in retrospect.
“Thank you,” Thor said at length. “I’ll look into it.”
“Good,” Loki said. “That would be the kingly thing to do.” He took a step back. Thor didn’t move.
“Have you been avoiding me?”
“No,” Loki lied. “Why would I be avoiding you?”
“I don’t know,” Thor said. “Why would you?”
“I cannot think of any possible reason,” Loki said. “If you’ll excuse me…”
“Did you come back only to keep running away?”
Loki twitched. Losing an eye did make you more perceptive, didn’t it, he thought, a little wildly. Now seemed a little too soon to make that particular comment. “Pardon?”
Thor shook his head, but he seemed disappointed. Loki started to turn, and stopped.
“I wondered,” he said. “Did you know I’d be able to get away? That I would be able to reach the ship in time?”
For a moment, Loki thought Thor would lie to him. Of course I knew. You are Loki; you always find a way out. “I could not be certain,” he said.
Did you hope I wouldn’t? Loki wouldn’t let himself ask. Instead, “would you have believed I was dead if I hadn’t reappeared?”
Thor was quiet. Thinking. “I don’t know,” he said, finally.
Would you have hoped one way or the other, Loki thought, but he didn’t speak that, either. He was too afraid of the answer. “Fair,” he said instead. “I suppose that particular surprise must be getting a bit tired by now.”
Thor gave him a look. “It was tired the first time.” Loki just looked back at him, and Thor shook his head. “I have been wondering. How did you do it?”
“How did I do what?”
“On Svartalfheim,” Thor said. Loki stared at him, then laughed a little bitterly.
“You give me too much credit,” he said. Thor’s eyebrows furrowed for a moment, and then his eye widened just a hair. Loki looked away. “I wasn’t exactly planning to get myself stabbed. It hurt. A lot.”
Thor opened his mouth, then closed it. “Oh,” he said. Loki shrugged.
“I can’t blame you for making the assumption. If you’re going to ask how I survived, I don’t have a good answer for you. Maybe frost giants keep their hearts in a different place.”
Thor was looking at him with a strange expression on his face that Loki couldn’t quite pin down. He found it a little worrying that he couldn’t read Thor’s face as well as he had been able to, once.
“I went back to Asgard disguised as a guard,” Loki said. “I told Odin I was dead. I was curious what he’d say. He saw through me, I overcame him and dropped him in one of Midgard’s places where they hide their elders. Then I had Heimdall declared a traitor, sent Sif off chasing shadows, and you conveniently ran off to Midgard, which was, I must tell you, a relief. Does that more or less answer your questions?”
“More or less,” Thor said after a long pause.
“Oh, good,” Loki said. “I was hoping it would.”
Thor was still looking at him with that peculiar expression. It was beginning to make Loki decidedly uncomfortable. “Well,” he said. “That was all I had to say.” He left quickly, before Thor could say anything else - or before he could say anything else. He wasn’t actually sure which would be worse.
It was amazing the things you found when you were trying to stay away from...everything. In this case, the Valkyrie, pouring herself a drink behind what was unmistakably a bar.
Loki stopped and stared at her. She looked up at him and kept pouring.
“I had no idea there was a bar on this ship,” he said.
“I found it four days ago,” she said.
“Naturally,” Loki said dryly. She raised her glass in his direction. He shifted back on his heels. “What happens when you drink everything that’s here?”
She shrugged. “I’ll figure that out when I get there. Were you just here to criticize my drinking habits? Because you have about five seconds before I throw you out. And I mean that literally.”
Loki frowned at her. “Five,” she said, and Loki held up his hands.
“Please don’t.” He eyed the bottle she’d brought out. “Mind if I…?”
Loki sighed but decided not to press. “Glad you came back?”
“Are you?” The Valkyrie picked up the bottle, tipped it toward the glass, then took a swallow directly from it instead. “I’m surprised you’re still around.”
“I am surprised you are.”
“Yeah, well. Once I commit to something I commit to it. You struck me as the kind of slippery little weasel who’d cut and run once the glory was over.”
“You insult me,” Loki said.
“I do,” she said. “I bet you’re used to it.”
Loki winced. “I take it you haven’t let go of that...incident.”
“No,” she said. “I haven’t. It hasn’t even been a week.”
“I did come back to save the lot of you,” Loki said defensively. “Don’t I get any credit for that?”
The Valkyrie seemed to be considering that. “Maybe,” she said at length. “Possibly. You would probably get more if you hadn’t come back after destroying Asgard.” Loki winced again. The thought had occurred to him. Briefly.
It turned out he did still have a self-preservation instinct. And if he’d just pretended to die nobly at this point he’d probably end up tripping over Thor again anyway.
“Is that why you vanished for so long?” He asked, maybe a little sharply. “Because you thought it would look better if you seemed to die with the rest of your sisters?”
Her eyes narrowed. She set the bottle down too hard. “Do you want a fist in your face?”
“Not at the moment, no,” Loki said. The Valkyrie narrowed her eyes further, and then laughed, to his surprise. She poured into the glass and slid it across the table.
“Ass,” she said. Loki smiled at her.
“But a charming one, no?”
“Don’t push it.”
Loki crossed the room and picked up the glass. “Cheers,” he said, and took a sip. He almost spat it out. “This tastes like vinegar.”
“Yep,” she said. “It’s Luphomoid. One of the worst liquors in the galaxy.” She took another swig. Loki set his glass down and shook his head.
“That’s appalling,” he said.
Loki drummed his fingers on the top of the bar. “What were you called?” He asked. “‘Valkyrie’ is a title, not a name.”
Her face went blank. “It’s good enough.”
Loki narrowed his eyes. “But it isn’t-”
“It’s good enough,” she repeated, voice hard with warning. “If you don’t like it, use ‘Val.’ Does that suit your sensibilities, your highness?” She snatched the glass back and drank the rest of it, then smashed it on the floor, staring directly at him with an expression that suggested she’d like to do the same to Loki.
He took the hint and left.
Over the course of the next couple days, Loki found himself ambushed by a stream of Aesir seeking intervention of one kind or another. One woman wanted to propose organizing anyone with knowledge of healing and arrange some kind of place to tend the sick and wounded. Another came to ask if Thor required a new complement of guards. Several wanted to know if it was true that their destination was Midgard. The first seemed like a decent idea, the second sounded unnecessary, and the third, he informed the questioners, was unfortunately true.
He did not say ‘unfortunately.’
The one who asked about guarding Thor looked so crestfallen that Loki found himself adding that he could still make himself useful by looking out for his fellow Aesir and ensuring that all was well among them. He regretted it almost immediately, but it wasn’t as though he could take it back.
As for the first, he told her to go to Thor.
“Oh,” she said, her eyes going as round as saucers. “I couldn’t possibly. Speak to King Thor myself? I’m certain he’s too busy to listen to the likes of me.”
Loki stared at her for a long moment and sighed. And what, if I can ask, makes me so much easier to approach, he wanted to ask, but he wondered if he’d like the answer.
Don’t be cynical. You’re the nearest to Thor other than Heimdall, and they might think you have more influence over him. As though he had any influence over Thor whatsoever anymore.
The thought brought him up short. It was true, wasn’t it? Through everything that happened, he had not managed to manipulate or persuade Thor once.
Norns, but that was a troubling thought.
“Very well,” he said, after a long delay in which she began to look nervous. “I’ll bring your idea to him.”
He tracked Thor to a room where he seemed to be poring over a chart with Heimdall, who looked over his shoulder even as Loki started to turn on his heel and walk away. His most recent interaction with Heimdall had been to depose him from his post as a traitor. The time before that he’d encased him in ice. And they’d never been on particularly good terms.
Heimdall stared at him, and Loki stared back, trying to look untroubled. Thor turned with Heimdall.
“Ah, Loki,” he said. “Come in.”
Loki glanced from Thor to Heimdall, who raised his eyebrows a fraction. Loki pressed his lips together and crossed the threshold, though he remained carefully on the other side of the table.
“Someone has proposed setting up a center to gather together those with healing skill,” he said without preamble. “I thought it might be a good idea. There will be illnesses in such close proximity, particularly with such a...motley mix of peoples.”
Thor glanced at Heimdall and then back at Loki. “That does sound like a fine idea,” he said. “Why don’t you manage it?”
Loki blinked. “Pardon?”
“Why don’t you manage it?” Thor repeated. There was a faint gleam in his eye. “I’m sure you could use something to do.”
Loki opened his mouth and then closed it. Heimdall turned toward Thor. “Are you certain that’s wise?”
“I am perfectly capable,” Loki said sharply.
“It isn’t necessarily your capability that I’d question.”
“Just my loyalty,” Loki said. “I’ve never been a traitor to Asgard.”
“Mm,” Heimdall said, in a way that suggested that’s debatable.
“I’m sure Loki can manage,” Thor said. “Right, Loki?”
“Yes,” Loki said, still a little thrown. “Of course.” He wasn’t sure whether he was being toyed with or honored. Studying Thor’s face, he still wasn’t sure, which was more than a little unnerving. “Any other orders?” He asked, a little snippily.
“Why don’t you start with that,” Thor said, as though he didn’t notice. Loki narrowed his eyes, then spun on his heel to walk away.
He began by putting out a general call for healers, but other than the woman who had initially suggested the idea, none came forward.
One of the first things Thor had done was to take a census, of sorts, of the survivors. The results were pitiful - a miserable summation that said more about the dead than the living. Looking at it made Loki feel vaguely ill. One thousand people. Asgard’s population had never been large, but it was a miserable tally.
He scanned the names of the children without acknowledging what he was looking for.
Thor had had the foresight to request that everyone include a brief summation of their former occupation. There were too few farmers and too many merchants, but buried in the list Loki found ten midwives, five apothecaries, and a large number of women who’d written ‘hedgewitch’ next to ‘housewife.’ Loki frowned at them, wondering why none had come forward, and realized belatedly that to them, healer probably meant something more exalted than midwifery and herb-work. But Asgard’s healers by and large lived in the center of the city, where Hela’s hand had fallen like a hammer.
He sent out a list of names, more or less randomly selected. It wasn’t actually that hard - they were already doing the work, just not in a coordinated manner. They seemed pleased by the suggestion. One or two of them actually thanked him
“It wasn’t my idea,” he found himself saying. “Gudrun thought of it.
“The people should have a single, centralized location they know to come to,” Loki said after a brief silence. “And if you work together you can learn from each other. Broaden your skills.”
“If you have the time,” a woman he didn’t know said suddenly, “we would appreciate your help, Your Highness.”
Loki blinked. “My skill at healing is limited,” he said slowly.
“Even if that is so,” she said, and Loki noted the if, as though she thought he was being modest. As though that had ever been one of his qualities. “Your presence would lend us legitimacy.”
“Then it would be my pleasure,” Loki heard himself saying, though in truth he was not certain of any such thing. “As long as I am able.”
Their gratitude was enthusiastic enough that Loki felt almost embarrassed accepting it. He excused himself and left as quickly as he could.
He didn’t have the first idea how to run a medical clinic. He wondered if Thor had intended this as a punishment.
Loki caught his feet turning toward Thor’s quarters and stopped himself. He turned and walked in the other direction, a strange weight pressing on his shoulders. He wouldn’t go to Thor with a job half done.
You’re not trying to prove yourself to Odin anymore, said a faintly snide voice in the back of his mind. Just switched over to chasing Thor’s approval, have you?
Loki rubbed the back of his neck and pushed the thought away. Not such a bad thing to chase, he thought dryly. At least maybe that’ll keep you on the straight and narrow.
Loki was developing a new respect for the work of healers.
Most of the truly serious injuries had been seen to already, but there was still a constant stream of Aesir coming through - some with coughs, or sprains, or other wounds they’d judged too minor for the immediate aftermath. Headaches, sour stomachs, knocked heads and some sheepish individuals drifting in with the clear evidence that they’d been brawling.
Loki had never realized the sheer range of common ailments that could afflict people. He’d intended to stay back and keep his role largely at a remove, but there was too much work to be done, and before long he was being ordered about by the small army of women who seemed to forget who he was the moment a patient walked in. Resources were pitifully slim, but somehow they’d managed to scrape enough together to manage so far.
The first real difficulty came with a woman who stumbled in holding her rounded belly and weeping. “Help me,” she said. “Something’s wrong.”
She survived. The baby didn’t. A distant part of Loki thought one less mouth to feed and a moment later he was disgusted with himself.
“Where’s the father?” Gudrun asked, her hand on the woman’s shoulder. She just shook her head.
He returned to his room, exhausted and nauseated, and stopped dead. Thor was lying on his bed like he owned it, looking up at the ceiling with a strange look on his face that made something uneasy twist through Loki’s stomach.
“Don’t you have your own room?” He asked.
“Did you know that they were dead?” Thor’s voice was dangerously flat. Loki managed not to take a nervous step back.
“I’m afraid you will have to be more specific-”
“Volstagg and Fandral,” Thor said. “Hogun. No one can tell me about Sif. I assumed you had sent them away somewhere. I meant to ask you where, now that it is safe, but the word is that Hela killed them all.”
Loki’s stomach swooped. He looked for a place to sit down, but Thor had already occupied the entire bed. “Oh,” he said. He couldn’t say he was exactly surprised - the Warriors always would have defended Asgard to the bitter end, taken the lead in its defense, and fallen for their foolhardy bravery. “I...was not aware, no.”
Thor nodded slightly. “You let her in,” he said, even more dangerously flat. “If you had not opened the Bifrost-”
Loki recoiled. “You are blaming me?”
Thor rolled over and to his feet. “You opened the way to Asgard for her. She could not have gotten there-”
“She would have found another way,” Loki snapped. “And likely razed Midgard while she was finding it. Would you rather that? She was going to kill us both. I didn’t think she would be able to follow us.”
“You didn’t think,” Thor growled. Loki took a step toward him.
“Why are you looking at me? I wasn’t the one who made her and then locked her away, kept her secret for millennia, left us to deal with her-”
“You as good as killed our father when you banished him to Midgard-”
“He was already dying!” Loki shouted. His eyes were starting to burn and it made him furious, was he really going to cry, now of all times? “He was old, he was weakening, and he left us with his mess-”
“Because he died!” Thor roared over him. “And you, you don’t even grieve for him-”
“Don’t tell me what I don’t feel,” Loki hissed. “I was two weeks on Sakaar, alone, assuming you were dead and Asgard was lost. That I was the only one left.”
“And you wasted no time in making yourself at home.”
“What else was I supposed to do?”
They stared at each other, breathing hard. Thor turned aside first with a rage filled, wordless shout. Loki flinched back and then made himself take a step forward.
“Thor,” he said, quiet so his voice didn’t shake. “I am...I’m sorry.” Thor said nothing, breathing hard, his expression barely visible.
“For what,” he said, finally.
He forced a laugh. “Well. There’s a bit of a list, isn’t there?” Thor said nothing, and Loki sighed. “I could start with your friends. And Odin.” He swallowed hard. “Father.”
My sons. How could he say that so easily? Like it didn’t matter. Like nothing mattered.
Loki’s stomach ached.
“Father,” Thor said, more quietly. “So you’ve decided to stop denying it?”
Loki shrugged, not looking at him. “Apparently.” He paused, swallowing again. “As far as I know...Sif isn’t dead.”
He could feel Thor’s sudden, sharp gaze. “As far as you know.”
“She wasn’t when I sent her off looking for the Time Stone,” Loki said. “Of course I have no idea where she is now, but as she hadn’t returned to Asgard I assume she’s still looking.”
“Or already dead,” Thor said. Your fault, his voice said. Loki closed his eyes briefly.
He felt Thor’s gaze move away and glanced back at him to see that his back was turned and he was tracing the outline of his fresh eyepatch.
“Does it still hurt?” Loki asked.
“Not very much.”
Loki bit the inside of his cheek and walked very carefully over to Thor. “Look at me,” he said quietly. “I might…” He raised a hand vaguely and then let it fall.
Thor turned toward him. Loki moved slowly, steadying his head with one hand, pulling the eyepatch away. Laying his fingers on bruised skin and calling on what healing ability he possessed, though it was still drained. The bruise faded and Loki heard Thor exhale in what sounded like relief.
“Not very much, hm?” He said mildly, replacing the patch and stepping back. Thor grunted.
“I’ve had worse.”
“Yes,” Loki said dryly, “and we are all very impressed.”
Thor frowned at him. Loki smiled too brightly in return, but Thor’s annoyed frown faded to something more serious.
“It’s really gone,” he said. “They’re really gone.”
“You saved everyone you could,” Loki said.
“It doesn’t feel like enough.”
Thor shook his head. “Sometimes it feels as though I’ve been mourning for six years. You, and then Mother, then you again, Father, the Warriors Three. So much has been lost.”
I’m still here, Loki thought, but he didn’t think that now was the time, so he kept his mouth shut. Well, except to say, “You survived. Stronger than ever.”
“That does not make it hurt less.”
No, Loki supposed it wouldn’t.
“I’m glad,” Thor said, after a long pause. “That you stayed.”
Some anxiety that had gone unidentified - or at least unacknowledged - melted away. Really? He managed not to say. He didn’t particularly fancy sounding like a needy child. “Oh, good,” he said lightly. “I was worried you might be regretting it already.”
“Not yet,” Thor said, but when Loki glanced at him there was a small, crooked smile on his lips. It didn’t erase the grief from his eye, but maybe it was something.
The makeshift infirmary seemed to be working well without him. Loki went to visit them at times, but he began to think he was just getting in the way; his presence seemed to draw eyes, and the healers had grown in confidence, more sure of themselves.
Loki found that he was disappointed.
It started as an idle project to keep himself occupied. He learned that there was no proper record of their available supplies - no organized method of keeping track of what, exactly, was on the ship. Loki considered pointing it out to Thor, grimaced, and settled in to do it himself.
The results were...dismal. They had limited food, and almost nothing that they could trade. Loki did a few quick calculations and learned that they had, probably, enough rations to last them perhaps another week, and less than that at the current rate of consumption. Loki stared at his calculations and swore.
Then he got up to go talk to Thor.
This time he found him talking to the Hulk’s alter ego, who turned to see him first. Loki raised his eyebrows.
“Loki,” Bruce said.
“Bruce,” Loki said, and then turned pointedly to Thor, as though it didn’t trouble him finding the man at his back. “I need to talk to you.”
Loki glanced toward Bruce, pressed his lips together, and went back to trying to ignore him. “I’ve done some work recording our supplies,” he said. “The results are...dismal.”
Thor straightened, lips turning downward at the corners. “How dismal?” Loki told him, and Thor’s frown deepened. “You’re sure?”
Loki gave him an affronted look. “Yes, I’m sure.”
“I’m guessing it takes a lot longer than a week to get to Earth from here,” Bruce said wryly.
“It does.” Thor eyed Loki. “We’ll need to find a map. See where the nearest friendly planet is.”
“That’s the other problem,” Loki said. “We don’t have anything to bargain with.”
He wouldn’t have thought Thor’s frown could deepen. “Isn’t this a freight ship?”
“An empty one,” Loki said. “I guess it hadn’t been loaded when we...left with it. We have some weapons, if their owners are willing to give them up. Perhaps some jewelry, if anyone was wearing it when they fled. But I would not count on either.”
“Do you have any suggestions?” Thor asked.
“You’re asking me?” Loki said, a little surprised. Thor raised his eyebrows, and Loki sighed. “No. I’m afraid I don’t, other than yours - finding a friendly planet and hoping they are willing to assist a ship full of wandering Aesir. Though I would be prepared for the possibility that they may be...less than welcoming.”
“Why should they be?” Thor asked. Loki gave him a sidelong look.
“Perhaps because Asgard has traditionally maintained its place through the threat, if not the outright application, of force? Or, apparently, its history of bloody conquest? Even if that were not so - a former power limping and crippled is a powerful lure for scavengers.”
“You’ve thought about this,” Thor said, sounding surprised. Loki shrugged, a little self conscious. Thor was studying him with a strange look on his face, and Loki tensed.
“What is it?” He snapped.
“I didn’t ask you to do this. I knew it was a matter that needed tending to, but I hadn’t gotten around to it.”
Loki shrugged. “The infirmary is set up and no longer needs my supervision. I needed something to do.”
Thor looked like he was going to smile. “There are a lot of things you might have done. Thank you.”
That threw Loki off guard. “Yes, well. It needed doing, didn’t it?”
“Why is it,” Thor said, “that you accept - seek out - the adulation of Asgard’s people, but will not take simple thanks from me?”
Loki did not want to answer that. “I’m going to go look for maps,” he announced.
“Yes,” Thor said after a moment. “You do that.” He sounded oddly disappointed, and Loki wondered what in.
Heimdall had already found the maps. Loki learned this when he ran into him looking them over.
“Loki,” he said before Loki could slip away. “Come in.”
Loki sighed, but he moved forward rather than back, walking over and around to where he could look at the star chart Heimdall was examining. He didn’t look up, or say anything further. Loki shifted uneasily.
“Was there something you wanted?” He asked, perhaps a little pointedly.
“We haven’t spoken much.”
“Since I had you accused of treason, you mean,” Loki said dryly. Heimdall turned to gaze at him with those golden eyes that had always made Loki want to fidget.
“I did commit treason,” Heimdall said. “Not against you, it is true. I do appreciate your restraint in not making much effort to pursue me. If somewhat less appreciation for your choice of replacement.”
Loki’s mouth spasmed. “I may have been somewhat short-sighted in my choice, in retrospect.”
“Somewhat,” Heimdall agreed. Loki sighed and looked away. Skurge, he thought about pointing out, had done well at the end. But doing well at the end didn’t wipe away anything else.
It worked out decently for you, murmured a snide voice that he pushed away as hard as he could.
“Entertaining as this is,” Loki said, “I do not think it’s what you intended to talk about. So if you are going to make threats, or dire warnings, or whatever else you were thinking, I urge you to get on with it. We both have better things to do.”
Heimdall chuckled. “That wasn’t my intention.”
“No?” He could not quite keep the bitterness out of his voice when he said, “you were certainly quick to tell Thor not to entrust me with anything important.”
“I was,” Heimdall agreed. “You surprised me.”
“Did I,” Loki said, a little warily. Heimdall turned toward him.
“Should I be flattered or insulted?” Loki asked, raising his eyebrows.
“That’s up to you.” He pointed at the maps. “Come here and look at this.”
Loki walked over slowly and with some reluctance. “What am I looking at?”
Heimdall tapped a marked planet on the map. “Here. Chandilar. What do you know of it?”
Loki gave Heimdall a sidelong look. “Less than you, I would think, All-Seeing Heimdall.”
“Seeing isn’t the same as knowing,” Heimdall said in measured tones. “Do you know anything about it? It’s nearest to our course. Would it be a good place to stop for resupplying?”
Loki leaned forward, trying to call up every memory he had of the many, many books he’d read about the worlds other than the Nine Realms. He felt a pang, suddenly, thinking of the entire palace library gone up in smoke. All that knowledge, all that history...gone.
He caught himself, focusing. “It’s one of the central pieces of the Shi’ar Empire,” he said. “Probably not...an ideal destination. If we can make it - and I think we can, with careful rationing - I’d go here instead.” He tapped the map. “Korbin. Non-aggressive, scientifically advanced. Asgard’s never had contact with them.” He hesitated. “At least, as far as I know.”
“Do you know anything about what they trade in?”
Loki made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. “I can’t remember. But they’ve always been a prosperous people, at least...in terms of what I’ve read.” He shook his head. “Perhaps you shouldn’t rely on my memory of books I read years ago.”
Heimdall leveled him with a solemn, heavy look. “We have little else to rely on.”
Loki offered a strained smile. “Thank you ever so much for the vote of confidence.” Heimdall didn’t look terribly amused, and Loki glanced away. “We don’t have a lot of options, do we?”
“No,” Heimdall said. “We really don’t.”
“Korbin it is, then,” Loki said.
“Do you want to inform Thor, or shall I?”
“I’ll let you,” Loki said. “If this goes wrong, I don’t want to be held responsible for it.” Heimdall gave him a long, considering look. Loki twitched. “What?”
“Nothing, I’m sure,” Heimdall said, too evenly. Loki felt his lips twist.
“‘You’re watching me’, is that it?”
“I watch everyone,” Heimdall said, and smiled faintly before turning away. “I’ll tell Thor we’re setting a course for Korbin.”
Loki frowned after him, eyes narrowed, before eventually turning back to the maps and looking over them without really seeing them, thoughts far away.
Loki had yet to get used to the rhythms of the ship. Or the feeling of sleeping on one. He woke up in the middle of the night restless and anxious, and, after lying awake for some time, finally got up and went wandering.
He found Valkyrie by accident, sitting in a corner of a hallway and drinking something that smelled like vinegar.
“You,” she said without looking up.
“You,” Loki echoed. “Interesting choice of drinking location.”
“I don’t want to get predictable.” She turned her head to look at him, her red-rimmed eyes flat and angry. “If you want a kick in the balls you’re in the right place. Otherwise…”
“I’m beginning to think that you don’t like me,” Loki said with a quick, winning smile.
“What gave you that idea,” she said, but she didn’t kick him in the balls, so he moved over and sat down. He kept a safe distance between them, though.
“It’s actually a bit of a relief,” he said. “Not to be the most dysfunctional person on this ship.”
“Don’t undersell yourself.” She took a swig from the bottle she was holding. “What do you want?”
“Nothing,” Loki said, honestly. “Well. Maybe a bit of your alcohol, if you’re sharing.”
“You wouldn’t like it,” she said.
“I’ll have the other thing you brought, then,” Loki said. She looked for a moment like she was going to deny it, then reached down and threw him a second bottle. He couldn’t see anything through the amber colored glass. “Should I ask what this is?”
“Bottoms up,” Loki said, cracking open the bottle and raising it in her direction. It actually wasn’t bad.
He wouldn’t call the silence ‘companionable’, but it wasn’t actively hostile either.
“Sometimes I think I hate your brother,” she said abruptly. Loki turned his head sharply, and he must have been drunker than he’d thought because the world tilted a little.
“At least when I was drunk and miserable on Sakaar no one was expecting anything from me.” She gave him a dirty look, like this was somehow his fault. “And then he comes around and - drags me back into it. This shit. I didn’t even get to kill Hela.”
“Sorry about that,” Loki said. He meant it, too. It’d been very satisfying to kill the Kursed that had murdered his mother.
He shouldn’t think of her. It made him want to cry, and Loki was fairly certain if he cried in front of Valkyrie he would die of humiliation.
“Anyway,” Valkyrie said. “Now I’m here. My best friend spends half his time as someone else and I’m stuck with another one-eyed king who thinks I’m still one of the Valkyries and an asshole prince with shit taste in drinks stealing my liquor.” She stared at her bottle. “Heimdall’s all right.”
“Thanks,” Loki drawled. She shrugged. “Thor is...he believes in you. That’s not a bad thing.”
“Isn’t it?” She eyed him. “He believed in you, too. Not much of an endorsement of his judgment.” Loki bit the inside of his cheek and looked away. “Don’t cry,” Valkyrie said, sounding more annoyed than sympathetic. “You’re not that bad. You could be a lot worse.”
“What a ringing endorsement.”
“You might have noticed,” she said, “I’m not a very nice person.”
“No,” Loki said quietly, “but you’re not a bad one.” She squinted at him. Loki took another long pull from his bottle. “Anyway,” he said, starting to stand up. “Have a good night.”
She grabbed his arm. With surprising accuracy, considering how much she smelled like alcohol. “Sit down,” she said. “Finish that bottle. If you’re going to steal my liquor at least drink it.”
“If I drink this,” Loki said, “I am going to pass out on the floor, right here.”
“That’d be fine.”
Loki eyed her. “Does this mean you like me?”
“Don’t push it,” she said. But the corner of her mouth quirked, just a little.
Thor had had the idea of organizing the ship into sectors. “There needs to be some kind of system to keep track of everyone,” he said. “I can’t manage the complaints of everyone individually. But if people choose their own representatives who can deal with problems on the ground, and bring larger disputes to me…”
“You sound like Korg,” Loki said.
Thor smiled faintly. “He has some good ideas.” He paused. “Do you want to arrange it? You can give me the names, once it’s done.”
Loki blinked. You’d trust me with that? He thought, but all he said was, “if you would like.”
Thor’s faint smile twitched. “I would appreciate it. You might ask Korg for help.”
The new system was relatively easy to implement - people had already divided themselves into sections based on where they were living, so it was just a matter of making things more formal. And to Loki’s surprise it seemed to work fairly well: almost immediately it started to filter out some of the pettier issues and consolidate those complaints that were more or less the same. And, Loki realized, it also gave the Aesir some much needed control over their own lives. He wondered if that was part of why Thor had done it, and supposed it probably was.
His brother was getting rather good at this.
Loki had expected there to be a great deal of arguing over who would take the position of representative, but the leaders almost seemed to select themselves.
Once the list was completed, and he’d looked it over for accuracy, he took it to Thor. Aware, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he was looking for some kind of affirmation. Look at me! I’m doing a good job!
He let himself in and had to duck to dodge something that flew almost directly at his head and bounced off the door behind him.
“Loki,” Thor said, almost a growl. He tensed, ready to go right back out the door.
“What did I do?”
Thor scowled. “Not you.” Loki stayed where he was, holding very still. He pointed at the object that had almost hit Loki. He picked it up: a small ball of some sort of rubbery material.
“Yes,” Thor said, still a growl. “It is. Now look there.” He pointed, and Loki turned. On the wall was a circle about a handspan in circumference. Loki looked back at Thor’s stormy expression and put three together.
“You can’t hit it,” he said. Thor looked like he was trying to start a storm indoors and didn’t answer. “You lost an eye, Thor,” Loki said. “Not even a month ago. It takes time to adjust.”
“How am I supposed to fight if I cannot even aim?”
“You seemed to manage fairly well with Hela,” Loki said, a little dryly. The glare Thor gave him was not amused.
“The other day I almost walked into a door because I thought it was further away than it was.”
Loki bit back a laugh that he knew would probably get him punched. “Turn your head from side to side more while you’re judging the distance.” He demonstrated. “You just need to...retrain yourself. I’m sure you’ll figure it out quickly.”
Thor frowned at him, but his temper seemed to have eased somewhat. “I suppose I could always try throwing things at you. You’re a larger target than that.” He gestured at the wall. Loki eyed Thor, not entirely sure he was joking.
“I am also a moving one.”
“True.” Thor’s expression sobered further and he sat down, staring into the distance. Loki hovered awkwardly, wondering what he was meant to do.
“Do you wonder how much of everything was true?” Thor said abruptly. Loki glanced at him sidelong.
“What do you mean?”
“About...our past. I always thought…” His lips twisted. “You know what we learned. Asgard, the Golden Realm, protector of the Nine. Benevolent guardian and keeper of the peace. And it was a lie.”
Loki thought again, cruelly, how does it feel, the foundation of everything you knew being ripped out from under you, your entire world shaken and thrown off its axis, but this time he didn’t say it. “Not entirely a lie,” he said. “Asgard has been a protector. A keeper of the peace.”
“A lighter control, but nonetheless control,” Thor said reluctantly. “Do you remember the uprising in Vanaheim, a couple of centuries ago? Separatists who condemned the parliament as puppets of Asgard. At the time I thought it the belligerence of a group of brigands, but now…”
Loki remembered what he’d thought when he’d learned what he was; what he’d expected of Odin’s plans for him. A king of Jotunheim guided by the will of Asgard. Slowly, he sat down next to Thor.
“Our sister,” Thor said quietly. “And Father never breathed a word.”
Loki’s laugh felt strained. “Can you blame him? Who would want to claim her? Especially when he was trying to create a new Asgard...she was in the way.”
Thor shook his head. “He should not have pretended she never existed. Erasing the past, hiding...hiding the truth.”
Loki looked down at his hand. The left, where he thought he might always see faintly superimposed another skin. “That was his way.”
“It will not be mine,” Thor said firmly, but Loki could hear the pain in his voice. Loki half reached out and stopped. Thor looked down. “Do you think Mother knew?”
Loki’s breathing snagged briefly in his chest and he forced it to even. “I don’t know.”
“Who was Hela’s mother?”
“I don’t know, Thor,” Loki said wearily. “We probably never will. The only people who did are dead now. What use is it to ask?”
“What use is it?” Thor sounded angry. “If I don’t think about these things, what is to stop it from happening again? If I do not understand this history of blood and violence-”
“Thor,” Loki said, “you are not your father.”
“I know that,” Thor snapped. Loki grimaced and looked away.
“Already, you’re taking a different course. He tried to erase his mistake. You are facing it. His mistake, not yours. You have the unenviable task of rebuilding a people from nothing, but you also...you have the chance to shape a people from nothing. Raise a new Asgard free of the bloody foundations of the old.” He cleared his throat. “And that is...what you’ll do.”
Thor was giving him a strange look. “Why, brother,” he said. “That almost sounds like a compliment.”
“It is.” Loki turned his face away, afraid what Thor might see on it. “You will be a good king. Maybe even a great one.”
He could sense Thor’s gaze on him. That it was one-eyed somehow made it feel twice as intense. “This new sincerity makes me uneasy,” he said after a moment. “Should I be concerned?”
Loki’s stomach knotted. You are incapable of sincerity. He stood with a tight-lipped smile. “No,” he said. “It just appalls me to see you languishing about like a lovesick maiden.”
Thor’s frown turned to a scowl. “I am not languishing.”
“Of course not,” Loki said soothingly. Thor’s scowl deepened.
Loki gave him a quick, insincere smile. “I will leave you to your not languishing, then. Your Majesty.”
“Loki,” Thor growled, but he was already gone.
The Korbinites sent out a hail as they entered their airspace. To Loki’s faint surprise Thor asked him to be present along with Heimdall for the conversation.
“We don’t recognize your ship’s signature,” the Korbinite emissary said. “Who are you?”
“We have come from Asgard,” Thor said. “We would ask to resupply on your planet.” He paused, clearly considering, and Loki tensed. “Our home has been destroyed,” he said, and Loki might have groaned. “We have little to trade, but we will offer what we can, and be grateful for your generosity.”
Silence, for several long moments. “Asgard is destroyed?” The emissary said at length. Thor inclined his head. Loki tried to read the emissary’s face, but he had no idea how Korbinites communicated emotion. “I must consult our Elders,” the emissary said. “For the moment...stay where you are.”
The connection closed, and Loki turned on Thor. “Why did you tell him Asgard was destroyed?” He said. “You immediately weakened our bargaining position-”
“I could not assume word hadn’t spread here already,” Thor interrupted. “And besides...what bargaining position do we have? We have nothing. We are here as beggars. If we want their kindness, it is better to approach with honesty than try to pretend we are more than we are.”
Loki snorted. “Truth is not always a guarantor of kindness.”
“No,” Thor said, “but lies easily found out are never a source of favor.”
Loki looked away. He knew Thor was right, but he didn’t like it. Didn’t like the feeling of vulnerability that came with it, the knowledge that if these people chose, they might well be able to destroy all that remained of Asgard.
“If they agree to speak with us,” Thor said after a long pause, “you’ll join me. Heimdall, you will stay with the ship.”
Loki shook his head. “No. You shouldn’t go.”
Thor’s eye narrowed. “Why not?”
“Three reasons,” Loki said. “First - this is what I am good at. I don’t say that,” he added quickly, “to say you are bad at it. Just that diplomacy was always...my specialty.” Thor didn’t argue, so Loki went on. “Second - you are right that we should be as honest as possible. But that doesn’t mean we should appear weak. Sending our king to negotiate directly makes us look too desperate, and will reduce respect for you and your position.”
Thor’s expression was hard to read. “I can count, Loki. You said three reasons.”
Lips twisting, Loki hesitated. “If something goes wrong,” Heimdall said, “we can’t afford to lose you.”
Loki raised one shoulder and let it fall, almost relieved that he had said it first. “Just so.”
Thor looked back and forth between them. “That’s…”
“True,” Loki said firmly. “And you know it.”
Thor’s frown deepened. “I’m not sending you down there alone.”
Loki opened his mouth to say actually, you will, when Heimdall said, “send Valkyrie with him.”
Both Thor and Loki stared at him. Thor adjusted first. “That’s a good idea,” he said. “She can put on the armor of the Valkyries-”
“She’ll love that,” Loki murmured. Thor ignored him.
“Then we will have a prince of Asgard and one of the Valkyrior of old as our negotiators. Well, I expect you’ll do the negotiating.”
“Hopefully,” Loki said dryly. “I don’t think she is much of a negotiator. Of course, this is all predicated on the idea that the Korbinites actually agree-”
The communications flashed and Thor completed the connection. “I am Ti Asha Ra,” the Korbinite said - a different one, Loki thought, from the previous speaker. “You may dock your ship and refuel, and we will discuss other possible exchanges with you in person.”
“Thank you,” Thor said. “We appreciate your kindness.” He hesitated a moment, glancing toward Loki, and then said, “my brother will be speaking on my behalf.”
“As you wish,” Ti Asha Ra said, and closed the connection. Thor took a deep breath.
“I’ll go tell Val,” Thor said.
“Better you than me,” Loki said.
The docking was difficult. The port was a sophisticated design that adjusted poorly to the outdated, hulking model of their transport, but somehow they managed to figure it out. Loki went to the airlock to prepare to depart, Valkyrie a tense and sullen presence at his side who managed to exude displeasure without saying a word.
The doors opened and Loki started downward, but Thor caught his arm.
He turned, raising his eyebrows. “Change of heart?” Several expressions crossed Thor’s face, and Loki added, “I’d assure you I’m not planning on doing anything treacherous, but I don’t imagine that would be very reassuring.”
Thor grimaced. “Be careful,” he said.
“I’m always careful.”
“I mean it.” Thor’s one-eyed gaze was serious, intent. “If things look to be going poorly…”
Loki withdrew his arm. “I shouldn’t keep our hosts waiting.”
Thor let him go, though he was still frowning when the door closed behind him.
For all Loki’s unease, the Korbinites were remarkably polite. They brought him and Valkyrie to a warm room, the walls coated with greenery. Loki sat down on one of the comfortable couches; she stayed standing, one hand drifting repeatedly toward Dragonfang.
“Try to look less threatening,” Loki told her. She scowled at him.
“Your brother told me that I should be ready to throw you over my shoulder and run,” she said blandly. “Apparently he doesn’t have much faith in your diplomatic skills. I haven’t seen much about you that I’d call ‘diplomatic’ either.”
“I’m full of surprises,” Loki said. She snorted, and then went silent.
“There was a Korbinite on Sakaar,” she said. “Did pretty well, for a while. Fought hard.” She looked away. “I don’t know his name.”
“It’s probably better,” Loki said mildly, “if you don’t mention that particular detail.”
They were joined after a bit longer by two Korbinites - they introduced themselves as Ti Asha Ra and Myra Lee Sal. They brought with them food and drink. Loki managed not to gulp the fizzy, fruity beverage that was poured for them - after testing it for poisons - but he was tempted.
“Asgard was destroyed?” Myra Lee Sal said. Loki set down his glass.
“Yes,” he said. “By Surtur.” It seemed better to leave out the bit about Hela, at least for now. He had no idea how many people would recognize that name.
They both lowered their heads. “That is sorrowful to hear,” Ti Asha Ra said. Loki couldn’t read her voice to tell if it was sincere. “I take it that the All-Father is gone as well?”
“Yes,” Loki said again. “He was...he was lost in the initial assault. His son, Thor, now rules.”
“And you are his brother,” Myra Lee Sal said.
They studied him, eyes sharp and intelligent. Loki picked up his glass again and sipped at it as though thoroughly unconcerned. Valkyrie shifted behind him.
“Asgard has been no friend to Korbin in the past,” one of them said. Loki kept himself still, hunting for the right words. It is better to approach with honesty than to pretend we are more than we are.
“Asgard as it was is no more,” he said. “We are a wandering people. Whatever wounds you may have suffered in the past...those who remain are not those who inflicted them. Our people are few and hungry. All we seek is enough to see us on our journey.” He lowered his head, a calculated motion, his heart racing. “Our king...my brother...he is a good man. I cannot promise that we will be able to repay you, but if ever we are able...I know that Asgard - Asgard’s people - will remember the magnanimity of Korbin.”
He didn’t quite hold his breath, waiting as they looked at him. I hope you’re a fast runner, Valkyrie.
Ti Asha Ra and Myra Lee Sal looked at each other. Loki could not tell if they were communicating silently in some way or simply knew each other well enough that they could read each other.
Finally, Myra Lee Sal looked away and Ti Asha Ra turned back toward him. “What do you need?”
All in all, the negotiations took barely an hour - once the doors were opened, the Korbinites’ generosity was nearly boundless. Loading the ship, however, took almost a full day - they had to figure out how to fit supplies without crowding people, which was no small feat. Permission was granted for the Aesir to leave the ship and breathe the air on Korbin, which would hopefully release some of the pent up energy for living in such close quarters.
Loki handed the reins smoothly over to Thor and went wandering.
He didn’t know what he was looking for. Wasn’t really looking for anything. They’d bought some time, but he had to wonder, pessimistically, how much. Asgard’s people were hardy, and had long endurance, but even great endurance had an end. They needed something more than basic sustenance to keep going.
Like a play, for instance? Loki thought, and then snorted.
He found a quiet place eventually, surrounded by greenery, and sat down, looking up at the silver-purple sky.
He didn’t last all that long before he got bored and headed back to the ship. On his way to go stare at the maps again, he almost ran into the Hulk.
He took several quick steps back, holding up his hands. “Ah,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here. I was just...going.”
“Going where,” the Hulk growled. Loki wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing that the beast seemed to have grown more articulate since the last time they’d met. Probably neither; all it really meant was that he could have a conversation with Loki before using him to redecorate something.
“Just to look at some things. Maps. Checking our route.”
The Hulk eyed him, seeming suspicious. “Don’t believe puny god.”
Oh, Loki thought bitterly, so that was still his name. “Where’s your better half?” He asked. “I thought he had you under control.”
The Hulk’s face went stony. “Hulk doesn’t need to be controlled, and Banner is not better,” he said. “Banner is weak and tiny. Hulk is strong.” He leaned a little toward Loki. “Could prove it, too.”
“Ah - no. That won’t be necessary.” Loki took a quick step back. “If nothing else, it would really be a bad idea to do any smashing on this ship. I don’t think the infrastructure could take it.”
The Hulk shrugged his massive shoulders, which was not an encouraging response.
“We are not enemies,” Loki tried coaxingly. “We fought together. Remember?”
“Hulk don’t trust puny god.”
“I’m not asking you to trust me,” Loki said. “Just to let me walk past you. Is that allowed?” Oh, Norns. He shouldn’t have snapped.
The Hulk made a kind of ‘huh’ sound. “Hulk is watching you,” he said, but moved aside.
“You and everyone else,” Loki said, and walked by, forcing himself not to skitter like an insect caught in the open. Even if he wanted to.
The brief triumph with the Korbinites seemed to have turned sour in his mouth. Loki ended up going to the bar and sulking until the ship undocked and started moving.
Valkyrie entered a little later. “Thor was looking for you,” she said.
“Was he,” Loki said flatly, scowling at his hands.
“What crawled up your ass?” She asked. Loki shook his head and left her to her dwindling stash of alcohol.
He managed to avoid Thor for a full three days.
“You know you have your own room,” Loki said, crossing his arms. Thor turned from where he was examining the assorted trinkets sitting on a shelf.
“I know,” he said, flashing one of those particularly Thor smiles. “So does the rest of this ship. You’ve apparently managed to avoid that.”
“I like my privacy,” Loki said pointedly. Thor didn’t seem too concerned.
“How have you been doing?” He asked, and Loki blinked, surprised by the directness of the question. No, not the directness: the feeling behind it.
“Fine,” he said, near automatically. He raised his eyebrows. “Worried I’m going to get bored?”
Thor chuckled. “I think we’d all know if you were.”
Loki narrowed his eyes, but he couldn’t quite be offended. Still, he scrutinized Thor warily, looking for some sign of ulterior motives. At one time, he thought, he would have assumed there were none. He’d believed that Thor was all surface and no depth, incapable of guile.
He wasn’t so sure of that anymore. Thor had grown. More troubling, Thor had grown past him. That was what he’d meant, wasn’t it? Maybe it’s for the best if…
Loki pushed that thought away as hard as he could and decided perhaps directness was his best bet as well. “Did you want something?”
“You did well with the Korbinites,” Thor said. Loki smiled crookedly.
“I took your advice about honesty.”
Thor smiled a little, briefly. He looked like he was going to say something, but when he spoke Loki thought it was something other than what he’d been thinking. “You haven’t said anything about our choice of final destination.”
“No,” Loki said after a pause. “I have not. It is a long ways yet before Midgard; I thought I’d worry about it later.”
Thor cocked his head to the side. “I’ve never known you to defer worrying about anything.”
Loki raised his eyebrows. “Life is about growth and change,” he parroted. Thor gave him an irritated look, and Loki shrugged. “What do you want me to say, Thor? You’re right that it’s the best option.”
Thor sat down on the bed, plainly making himself at home. “They’ll see that you have changed.”
Have I? Loki thought. “There are more immediate concerns,” he said instead. “Food, water, medical supplies. Pirates. The Korbinites’ generosity has given us time, but we will need to stop again to resupply.”
Frustration crossed Thor’s face. “I know all these things,” he said. “You do not need to lecture me on my responsibilities.”
Loki glanced aside, wondering if that emphasis was intentional. “Of course. I wouldn’t think otherwise. I was simply...saying that my mind is elsewhere.”
Thor looked like he didn’t believe what Loki was saying. Like he was trying to peel back Loki’s skin and see what lay underneath.
He wasn’t entirely wrong. The thought had crossed Loki’s mind, once or twice. What if Midgard rejected all of Asgard because he came with it? Or else what might they demand be done with him in exchange for refuge?
What would he give up in order to preserve Asgard’s people?
“Is that all you wanted to ask?” Loki said, knowing it sounded a little testy and not quite able to care.
“The infirmary seems to be doing well.”
“So it is,” Loki said. “A few of those just below their majority are training there. One or two show quite an aptitude for it.”
Thor smiled. “That’s good.”
“Mm. Gudrun knows what she is doing. She keeps her small army disciplined.” Thor raised his eyebrows.
“I’ve never known you to be modest.”
Loki frowned at him. “It isn’t modesty. Simply credit where it is due. Most of the day to day work is hers.” Thor was giving him an odd look again, and Loki decided it was time for a change of subject.
“Valkyrie,” he said. “Have you found anything for her to do yet, other than drink?”
Thor sighed. “I tried to tell her that she should walk among the people, to help...inspire them.” He paused. “She laughed in my face.”
“A unique woman, isn’t she,” Loki said blandly. Thor narrowed his eye in Loki’s direction like he suspected he was being mocked.
“She is that.” Thor shook his head. “I asked her if there was anything she’d rather do, and she said that she knows some things about ships. I asked if she could go work with the engineers, and she said she’d think about it.”
“She’ll do it,” Loki said. Thor gave him a quizzical look, and Loki shrugged. “She came back to Asgard with you. She’s stayed on this ship. She might be a drunk and barely functional, she might complain about it, but she’ll do the work.”
“Are we talking about her or you?” Thor asked.
“Excuse you,” Loki said. “I am not a drunk, and I am perfectly functional.” Thor’s expression didn’t move, and Loki huffed. “The point is. She might not tell you, but she’ll do it.”
“If you say so.”
“What,” Loki said, smiling too broadly. “Don’t you trust me?”
“Rarely,” Thor said, smiling back. Loki supposed that shouldn’t sting. He’d asked for it.
Thor sat back on the bed, head tilted to the side like he was doing as Loki had suggested, trying to get a different perspective with his one eye.
“How is the eye,” Loki asked, now that he’d thought of it.
“Fine,” Thor said, then grimaced. “Better.”
“Haven’t run into any doors lately?”
Thor gave him a slightly dirty look. “I never actually ran into one. I said I came close.”
“Mm. Korg said otherwise.”
Thor sat up straight. “He said he wouldn’t-”
Loki’s lips quirked. “Ah,” he said. “So you did.” Thor gave him a dirty look.
“I can hit what I aim at, now,” he said warningly. Loki held up his hands.
“I cry mercy.”
Thor’s smile made Loki want to smile back. He settled back down, and if it weren’t for - well, everything, it might almost have been one of their old rooms, back in Asgard, the two of them bandying words back and forth. But Thor had an eyepatch, the room was small and shabby, Asgard was ashes and so was the innocent purity of their brotherhood.
Loki felt a pang.
“I do have a question, though,” Thor said suddenly. Loki gave him a cautious, wary look.
“How exactly did you get close to the Grandmaster?” Thor asked. Loki almost choked on his tongue.
“How did you talk your way out of being thrown into the arena and into his favor?”
Loki felt himself flushing. “I didn’t,” he said. Thor frowned.
And if I’d rather not? Loki exhaled. “I didn’t escape the arena. I won my first battle the way I always have, by means of trickery and magic. The crowd was less than entertained. Fortunately for me, the Grandmaster was. He thought I would be more entertaining not dying.”
Thor’s eyebrows twitched up. “So you became his court jester.”
Loki stiffened. “I did not.”
Loki’s face flared. “What did she say to you,” he hissed. He was going to murder that - that-
No, he wasn’t.
Thor’s eyebrows dropped back down and now he looked a good deal less entertained. “You cannot be serious.”
Loki’s face got hotter. “I did what I had to to survive,” he snapped. “I pegged him for a hedonistic, pleasure-seeking, petty tyrant the first time I saw him, and I wasn’t wrong.” Thor was staring at him like he’d never seen him before, and Loki began to feel the first prickles of shame.
“So you slept with him,” Thor said.
Not just him. “Yes,” Loki said almost defiantly. “I did. I don’t see what business it is of yours.”
Thor made a sort of growling noise in the back of his throat. “Maybe because I don’t like the idea - or the mental image - of my brother whoring himself out to that creature.”
Loki was certain he must be bright red by now. Spitefully, he said, “it certainly wasn’t the worst sex I’ve ever had.”
Thor gave him a disgusted look. “Loki.”
“Really,” Loki said, as lightly as he could manage. “It turned out he had some very creative ideas about-”
Thor threw something at his head. His aim was spot on, but Loki did manage to dodge it. Thor did not look as amused as Loki had hoped he would, though.
Loki ran his hands through his hair. “I did what I had to,” he repeated. “I wasn’t inclined to die crushed to a pulp on the sand while a mob screamed delightedly over my demise. I’ve certainly done worse than fucking someone to get out of a bad situation. And honestly I was quite drunk for a lot of it.”
Thor did not look impressed. Shame sunk its teeth in further. “I thought you were dead,” Loki said. “I thought all of you were dead, Asgard gone, everything gone. I thought I was the last one living in the entire galaxy. So, yes, I got hopelessly drunk, I whored myself to that creature, I hid. Judge me for that if you want. I can’t stop you.” He turned on his heel to leave. He was going to find Val and...and.
Well, at the very least he’d steal some of her alcohol.
“Loki,” Thor said, quieter. He fell still without really meaning to.
“I did not mean to shame you.”
“I suppose that explains why you knew the passcodes for that ship of his,” Thor said after a long moment.
Loki hissed and stormed out.
He went to the bar again and found Valkyrie there again. “Do you just sleep here?” He asked, more than a little snippily.
“No,” she said. “I’ve been sleeping with Svala.” Her smile was almost a leer.
“Ah,” Loki said. “Good for you, I suppose.”
She shrugged. “I was a Valkyrie. I think she thinks it’s very romantic.”
“Were a Valkyrie?” Loki said. “I thought it was generally a lifetime appointment.”
“There aren’t any Valkyries anymore,” she said. “Are you just back here to annoy me?”
“No,” Loki said. “I was actually going to get a bottle and drink alone.”
“Sounds like fun.” She studied him. “Is it true you faked your own death and impersonated Odin for four years?”
“More or less,” Loki said. She snorted.
“What’s the ‘less’?”
Loki managed not to rub the scar on his chest. “None of your business.” She narrowed her eyes, and then shrugged again.
“All right, probably not.” Loki paused, surprised, and she snorted again. “What, you were expecting me to demand to know? You’re not that interesting.”
“I’m sorry,” Loki said, a little surprised that the words came out of his mouth. “For making you relive your worst memory.”
Her expression hardened. “Are you trying to suck up to me?”
“No,” Loki said. “I have a feeling that wouldn’t be terribly effective.” He gave her a thin smile. “It’s a nasty little trick. I thought it was important at the time, but it didn’t even work.”
“It kind of undermines your apology when you say that,” she said.
“I still mean it,” Loki said. Val put the bottle down and came out around the bar, striding over to him. She was shorter by a fair amount, but Loki still had to fight the urge to back away.
“What do you want?” She asked, an edge in her voice that made Loki distinctly nervous.
“Nothing,” he said, and then amended, “well, nothing from you.”
“Then why are you here?”
“The same reason you are.” He nodded at the bar. “Thor, it seems, is now aware of some sordid matters I would rather he wasn’t. You wouldn’t have anything to do with that, would you?”
“No,” Val said. “I don’t care if you slept with the Grandmaster or the entirety of Sakaar. That is what you’re talking about, right?”
Loki grimaced very slightly. “Thor seems to care.”
She looked unsympathetic. “That’s too bad.”
“You really sound like you mean that,” Loki said dryly. Her lips twitched and she pulled down a bottle without looking at it, pushing it across the bar. Loki sat down at one of the stools and eyed it warily.
“This isn’t something disgusting, is it?”
“Depends on your metric for ‘disgusting,’” Val said. He gave her a nervous look and she snorted. “It’ll be fine.”
Loki poured himself a small bit first, but it was, indeed, fine. A bit more of a burn than he would have preferred, but perhaps that was to the good. After his conversation with Thor, he felt a bit...well. Off.
Alcohol was probably not the best idea, under the circumstances, but then bad decisions were rather his speciality.
Val narrowed her eyes and set down her glass. “If you’re going to mope you can leave.”
Loki wrinkled his nose. “I am not moping.”
“Yes,” Val said. “You are.”
“I suppose you would know,” Loki said. “You probably spent a few centuries moping.”
“Nope,” Val said, the ‘p’ popping loudly. “I skipped right to the drinking and punching people stage.” She nodded at his bottle. “Are you going to drink that or just stare at it?”
Loki glared at her and picked it up. “Actually, I think I am going to go with my original plan.”
“Works for me.”
Loki got about halfway back to his room before he remembered that Thor might be there still. He went to Thor’s room instead, drank the entire bottle of alcohol, and fell asleep on Thor’s bed.
On Loki’s next trip to the infirmary to see how they were getting on, he found Bruce talking to Torrun, one of the women who had taken the initiative of organizing things, and more or less politely evicted Loki from the duty in the process. He paused, face spasming.
They both turned around before Loki could flee. “Oh,” Bruce said, looking uncomfortable. “Hey. Loki.”
“Hello,” Loki said stiffly. “What are you doing here?”
“I was just talking with Torrun,” Bruce said. “About what she’s been doing here. I’m not much of a doctor but I figured maybe she could use some extra hands.”
“Ah,” Loki said. “I see.” He felt a bubble of resentment rising up in his chest. So I’m going to lose this too, it murmured. Useless. And if you’re useless...why would they keep you around?
He tried very hard to shake that thought away.
“I’ll leave you to it, then,” he said tersely, and turned on his heel to go elsewhere. Once out, however, he wasn’t sure where elsewhere would be. He didn’t want to see Thor, not just now. Val didn’t want to see him. That left...an astonishingly short list of people that he wanted to see.
That was...a little depressing.
Loki heard someone coming up behind him and turned, smoothing his face into a pleasant mask so he didn’t frighten off whoever it was. It froze the moment he saw who it was. Bruce rubbed his hands on his pants.
“So,” he said. “Um.”
“Did you want something?” Loki could hear the frosty note in his own voice, and didn’t doubt Bruce could as well.
“Not exactly,” he said. “Just figured we could...talk.”
“I do not see what we have to talk about.”
“How’s that...um. ‘Moment to moment’ thing going?”
“Fine, thank you. I haven’t tried to stab you recently, have I?” He turned back and started walking, a little faster this time.
“Is that going to change anytime soon?”
“I’ll let you know as soon as it does,” Loki said flatly.
“Um - thanks,” Bruce called after him. Loki stopped and turned around, narrowing his eyes while trying very hard to look nonthreatening. “For bringing the ship. A lot of people would’ve died otherwise.”
Loki studied him, still frowning. “You’re welcome,” he said slowly. “Not that I did it for you.”
“Well, I kind of figured that.” Bruce shifted, looking uncomfortable. “You don’t like me very much, do you.”
“No,” Loki said frankly. “I don’t. I don’t have a lot of reasons to.”
“You don’t know me.”
“I know your green friend rather personally,” Loki said. He wasn’t sure if the fact that Bruce winced did him credit or not.
“We’re not exactly...the same person.” Bruce sounded awkward. “Right now I don’t think he likes me very much either. We’re kind of having a fight.” Loki felt his eyebrows twitch and decided not to ask.
“I am sorry you are having a spat with your alter-ego,” he said, without much sincerity. “I’m afraid I don’t see what that has to do with me.”
“Nothing, really. Just...I don’t know. If we’re going to be on the same ship for who knows how long, I’d rather it was on...sort-of friendly terms. For the sake of general harmony.”
Loki felt his eyebrows twitch again. “I am not interested in causing you any discomfort,” he said. “I value my bodily integrity a little too much for that.”
“I’m really not trying to threaten you.”
“No,” Loki said. “You don’t need to.”
“I’m trying to be nice,” Bruce said, beginning to sound a little frustrated.
“And I am trying to be polite,” Loki said.
“So that’s it,” Bruce said. “You’re just going to leave the room every time I’m in it?”
“Yes,” Loki said. “That was more or less my intention.”
Bruce stared at him, mouth twisted in an unhappy expression. “This wasn’t how I thought this conversation would go,” he muttered under his breath. Loki let that go, waiting, and finally Bruce sighed and said, “I’m willing to let stuff go if you are. Start over. That’s all I’m saying.”
Easy for you to say, Loki thought. You have a weapon that’s always with you and are nigh invulnerable to boot.
“A clean slate,” Loki said neutrally. “That’s what you’re saying?”
Bruce looked relieved. “Something like that, yeah.”
Loki glanced aside and huffed a laugh. “There’s no such thing,” he said. “Though I suppose the effort does you credit.”
He pulled an illusion of invisibility around him so he could walk away without further conversation.
Something had been slipping over the last several days, perhaps since his abortive conversation with Banner. It might have been a result of the fact that things were beginning to run properly, the Aesir getting their footing, and while the problem of supplies would soon become immediate, Heimdall had identified a likely planet where they might find safe harbor to reload.
All of which left Loki rather at loose ends and with too much time to think. Or perhaps just the right amount of time to think.
Some conclusions were inescapable. That didn’t mean he had to like them.
It was not easy to find a quiet place on a crowded ship, but Loki had always been good at that sort of thing. Far at the back of the ship he found an empty room that smelled faintly of raw fish. He sat down on one of the empty cases and stared out the portholes into space, empty and infinite.
Thor found him, of course. Thor always did. Of all the constants in the universe, that surely must count among them.
“Worried I might be up to something?” He said, hearing the bitterness in his own voice and annoyed at himself for not hiding it better.
“No,” Thor said. “Can I sit?”
“Do what you like.” Loki felt on the verge of drawing his knees up and putting his chin on them, but he wouldn’t quite give in to the childish gesture. Thor sat next to him, looking out the window at the stars.
“Do you know,” Thor said after a long moment, “for a long time I could not look out into space like this without looking for you.” Loki turned his head a fraction, but only a fraction, so he could just see Thor’s profile out of the corner of his eye. “It was a strange feeling,” Thor went on. “You were there for so long. And then suddenly you weren’t.”
“Yes, well. I suppose the reality was disappointing.”
Thor shifted next to him. “What’s bothering you?”
Loki felt his jaw tighten and twitch and stood up. “It’s irrelevant.”
“Stop that,” Thor said mildly.
“That,” Thor said. “Pretending. You do it a lot, you know.”
Loki flashed his teeth. “I’m a liar, aren’t I?”
Thor patted the seat next to him. “Come sit down.” Loki stayed where he was, and Thor turned back to look out again. “I can’t help if you won’t let me.”
Loki’s mouth spasmed. “I thought you were done with that.” Thor sighed heavily, as if Loki was wearying him, and he turned on his heel. “Never mind. As I said. It is irrelevant.”
“Loki,” Thor said quietly. “Come back. Please.”
Loki stopped. He turned slowly and walked back even slower, drawn by some invisible thread. He’d spent so long resenting it, fighting it. Even still some part of him wanted to, to see how it would pull.
You always have to push, he heard Frigga saying, dabbing blood from a cut on his brow. Always testing the limits.
He swallowed hard. “What is it,” he made himself say. Thor nodded at the place next to him, and Loki sighed and sat down.
“You always assume the worst,” Thor said at length. “It’s one of the things that makes you a good strategist. You see problems before they happen and plan for all outcomes.”
“Are you going somewhere with this?”
“You’ve been pulling back from me ever since we started this journey,” Thor said. “You’re here. You’re helping. But when it comes to me…you speak to me of logistics, but hardly anything else.”
Loki shrugged. “You’ve been busy.”
“And you’re unhappy.” Thor frowned. “Why? Are you really that concerned about going back to Midgard?”
“That isn’t-” Loki huffed out a breath. “As I said-”
“It’s irrelevant. Yes, I heard you the first two times.”
Loki swallowed hard. He should say nothing. It had always been safer to say nothing. To hold his weaknesses within himself-
(Where they festered and turned to infection until you were rotted all through.)
“I do not have a place here,” he said, and added quickly, “I do not speak from self-pity. It is...a good thing, I think. Asgard’s people should learn to rely more on themselves and less on the dictates of their king - however wise he may be,” he added, inclining his head in Thor’s direction. “They may be vulnerable but Asgard’s destruction has drawn them together. United them. They will need that in the future.”
Thor cocked his head to the side. “That makes it sound as though they do not need me.”
Loki shook his head. “Of course not. You are still their king. They trust you. Love you. They need your leadership, the reassurance of a familiar face. Asgard-that-was is gone. You are a link to everything that was lost with it.” He half smiled. “Even down to the one eye.”
“And you?” Thor said. Loki twitched one shoulder up and let it fall.
“What of me?” Thor just looked at him, and Loki sighed. “I cannot make myself too obvious without undermining you. Or perhaps just making people nervous about instability of succession. I replaced one king, after all; might I not do so to another? I wouldn’t risk it. My various projects are running smoothly enough without my supervision. And as you point out, we are going to Midgard, where my presence will be a...complication, whatever your optimism about their forgiveness.” He glanced up at the ceiling. “You may have been right.”
“Right about what?”
Loki gave Thor a sidelong look and a crooked smile. “That we should never see each other again.”
Thor was quiet. Loki turned his eyes back forward. “You asked.”
“How long have you been thinking about this?” Thor asked, after several moments of silence.
“A while.” Loki kept his voice carefully casual. “I’ve just been struggling to come to a decision.”
“It seems you have thought through everything.” There was something odd in Thor’s voice.
“I try.” Loki stood up, brushing his hands off on his pants. “Well. Now you know. There are, of course, a few loose ends.”
Thor’s hand snapped out and grabbed his arm. “You would run away? Again?”
Loki rubbed one eye with his free hand, trying to ignore how his nose and eyes were burning. “No, Thor. I’m not running anywhere. I’m just leaving. There is a difference. The reasoning is sound, and I will leave you a means of contacting me. Should you need anything, I will come, but…”
“And what will Asgard think?” Thor said. “Her savior - don’t scoff, you said it - vanishing in the middle of the night?”
Loki raised his eyebrows. “A bit of romance to it, isn’t there? Everyone likes a good mystery.”
“No,” Thor said.
“And what about me?”
Loki blinked, swallowed, and blinked again. Thor hauled himself up, using Loki’s arm as leverage, and pulled him in so they were standing almost nose to nose, and there was a faint threat of lightning in his eye. Loki licked his lips nervously but didn’t try to pull away.
“What about me,” Thor said, more quietly though there was still a dangerous rumble in his voice. “Have you factored that into all your careful calculations?”
Loki’s eyes skittered away before he forced them back. “I…”
“You didn’t think you had to.” Thor’s eye darkened. “You decided you already knew what I thought. Like you always do. You decided that I wouldn’t care, is that it? That I’d - that I’d, what, consider it an acceptable loss? After everything I said-”
“You’ve said a lot of things,” Loki said, finally bringing his arms up to push Thor away. “What am I supposed to think? You lured me into coming back, but I’m not the only one holding someone at arm’s length.” He looked away. “Besides. You don’t need me. Not anymore.”
Thor swallowed, but he didn’t deny it. Loki twisted and shoved Thor away, turning his back so the wretched tears spilling out of his eyes didn’t show.
“Do you know what I saw when I looked at our sister?” he said finally, when he was certain his voice wouldn’t shake. “Myself. A mirror image of what I could be.”
“You aren’t,” Thor said. “You held the throne for four years, and the worst thing you could be accused of was some tacky statuary.”
“Tacky,” Loki said with exaggerated indignation, hoping it would serve as a distraction. Thor ignored him.
“You did not attempt to conquer a single Realm. If anything, the opposite: you ignored them.”
Loki stuttered a laugh. “I tried world-conquering once, remember? It didn’t exactly suit me.”
“Yes,” Thor said. “Exactly. That isn’t what you are. It’s what you thought you should be. But you’re not.”
“Sure of that, are you,” Loki said.
“Yes,” Thor said again, simply. “You might be a pain in the ass, but you are absolutely not a match for our older sister.”
“You don’t have to be insulting about it.”
Thor grinned at him, but when Loki didn’t return it it faded quickly. “I mean it. Whatever else you may be, Loki, you are not Hela.”
“I suspect our father may have thought otherwise.”
“If he did, then he was wrong. As he was wrong to keep Hela a secret. Wrong to lie to us both.”
Loki shook his head and looked away. “None of this changes anything I’ve said.”
“I want you here,” Thor said. “Is that what you need me to say?”
Loki’s breathing stuttered. “I do not want you to lie-”
“Do I sound like I’m lying?”
Loki looked back at Thor, slowly. He looked tired, but truthful.
“I want you here,” Thor repeated. “All the bad blood, the harsh words, the fighting...I can set it aside. I want to set it aside. You say I don’t need you - that depends on what you mean by need. I can’t trust you. Not the way I did once.”
Loki flinched. “That makes you not a fool, I suppose.”
“Trust can be earned,” Thor said. “And I...we are all we have left. You are all I have left.”
Loki closed his eyes. So you would keep me out of desperation, some bitter part of him thought, but he knew, deep down, that was not the truth of it. He knew what Thor meant, because he’d felt it himself. Thor had always been the only solid thing in his world. He wasn’t steady like that, but Thor knew him. Maybe even still loved him, somehow.
“Let us be...not what we were. But better. More. Side by side.” Thor paused. “Besides. Val would miss you.”
Loki gave Thor a flatly incredulous look. “She wouldn’t.”
“She would,” Thor insisted. “She told me so. Well, maybe not in so many words…”
“Norns, Thor,” Loki said. Thor reached for him and pulled him into a hug. Loki pressed his nose into Thor’s shoulder.
“I can’t make you stay,” Thor said, his voice soft again. “Not if you truly want to leave. You could take a shuttle and go with none the wiser. But there is a place here, if you take it. Your choice.”
Loki closed his eyes and didn’t pull away. “Let’s go back,” he said. “We have work to do.”