"Gracious beings," Thor spoke in a low, clear voice, keeping his head bowed respectfully. He'd traveled far to find them. Entering a place none were meant to go. He did not come to make demands, nor offer challenge. He had no desire to be struck down where he stood. Thor held some hope he might even find his way back to his own plane of existence when this was done.
If Father were to see me here, Thor thought. He almost felt a phantom hand delivering a slap upside his head.
"I have come..."
"We know why it is you have come, son of Odin."
Thor glanced up quickly. He wasn't sure which one spoke or if they spoke as one. Then he realized he hadn't heard the sound of any voice. The words were spoken inside his head.
His heart beat faster. Thor took a deep, calming breath. Another fast glance at the three creatures - women, supposedly. One old, one young, one in between.
They circled around a well, slowly, tracing fingertips along it in seemingly random motions. Stepping over the thick, strong roots that surrounded them as they walked. They took no notice of any of the obstacles. No notice of him. Round and round they walked. An endless cycle.
"Then you know my quest is just."
"Unweave what is woven, but some paths remain the same."
"I hope that is not so," Thor said carefully.
"Will you grant me the answer to one question?"
"Perhaps. Are you worthy of the answer?"
"Yes," Thor answered without hesitation. "I am."
There was a sound like chittering whispers inside his head. Unease tensed his muscles, sinking into his bones. Thor held fast and waited.
"We wonder - what does the Odinson sacrifice to retrieve that which is lost?"
Thor nodded to himself. A part of him always knowing what it would cost him if he found this place. Remembering the stories told of these creatures. Stories he read anew when he was last on Vanaheim searching for answers.
Searching for the path that would lead him here.
Thor grit his teeth and made his sacrifice, the pain of it driving him to his knees. But he uttered no sound and made his offering to the women.
The Norns examined the sacrifice one after another, passing it from hand to hand before one dropped it down the well. In perfect harmony they leaned in to watch it fall. Then each woman stretched out a hand and began making their nonsensical patterns in the air and the tangled roots around them, other hands still tracing along the well as they circled.
Thor received the answer he sought without voicing the question.
He rose shakily to his feet. When he stole one final glance at the Norns before departing, they were walking backward around the well.
* * *
"How is everything?"
"The same," Thor could no longer hide the disappointment in his voice.
"If you need anything - we're all here for you, Thor. You know that, right?"
"Thank you, Bruce. I appreciate your words."
"I mean it. If you ever want out of this room for awhile, I can stay with him. If you want. Since the Big Guy and I have everything sorted out, we can handle him if anything happens. The Big Guy wouldn't hurt him or anything, if that's what you're worried about. I'd make sure of it."
"You deserve a break. Is what I'm trying to say."
"Thank you. But I'm fine."
The door closed. There were always knocks at the door. Different people, Thor's friends, offering their help. Their support. Advice. Thor thanked every one. And sent them away.
There was shuffling. Thor's heavy sigh. A cupboard door being opened. Then silence.
The silence was welcome. It was better than listening to Thor cry. Which he did far too often after his joy faded into something else. Pain. Denial. Resignation.
For surely Thor must regret his choices.
The cupboard door closed. Another opened. Clanking and rattling followed movement. More shuffling steps. Thor appeared with a plate of sustenance.
Thor set the plate down on the small table next to the bed before sitting down on the edge. The mattress dipped under his bulk. A large hand settled on Loki's shoulder. Solid. Present.
"Loki," Thor said, voice dipping as low as the mattress. "I've brought you some food. It is simple fare, easy to eat." He paused, as if waiting for some reply. Some reaction. When there was none, he sighed again, chin meeting his chest. "Come now, you must eat. Have just a little, yes? For me?"
Loki didn't acknowledge him. He stayed where he was, on his side in the bed. Facing the window that filled the far wall looking out over Midgardian greenery. Where Thor brought him...after.
Thor adjusted the blanket Loki huddled under. "Please, brother. Come back."
Loki said nothing. He did nothing. He stared at the world beyond the window glass.
Thor was quiet for a long time. Then the hand on Loki's shoulder began to tremble. "Loki, I don't know what to do. Help me, please."
Loki watched the distant treetops sway in the wind. Pretended he could hear the rustling and creaking of the branches through the closed window. Pretended it was enough to drown out the shuddering sobs beside him.
* * *
Valhalla was a revelation.
All the stories promised and so much more.
Loki spent the first day weeping in his mother's arms. Frigga stroked his hair and crooned softly to comfort him. Her own tears soaked his hair, but he did not mind.
"It's all right, Loki," Frigga promised as she held him. "Here you are and here you are safe."
He almost believed her.
Loki did not see Odin. Not right away. He let Frigga guide him, but she allowed him to set the pace. She showed him to a private place that was for him alone. It looked very much like his old rooms back in Asgard. Before he fell. Before everything went to ruin. Frigga explained he could changed whatever he pleased, he had only to will it so. Loki left it as it was. For the time being.
When he was ready to see Odin, Loki found himself hesitant to approach him. Old hurts still stinging, feelings tangled beyond his ability to sort. But Odin rose to welcome him with a sad, but fond smile. Holding out an awkward arm to invite Loki to sit at his side. Loki declined. Odin told him he was welcome any time. He sounded sincere.
"My heart sorrows that you step into these halls so soon, my son," Odin told him. "But I am gladdened you are here nonetheless. This is Valhalla. It is where you belong."
Loki fled before Odin could say more.
He spent endless days in Frigga's company. And endless days alone. There were garden paths to walk. Horse paths to ride. Streams and lakes to swim in. Forests and mountains to explore. Cliffsides overlooking the water to sit upon while contemplating endless sunrises and sunsets.
Loki could do anything he pleased here without reproach. And he did.
Valhalla was beautiful everyday. Beautiful however Loki wanted it. If he wished the sun to touch his skin, it shone brightly. He could watch snow fall for however long it pleased him. If he longed for rain, the skies opened and it poured down on him.
He watched lightning dance overhead. Closed his eyes and felt thunder reverberating through his bones.
But more often than not, Loki wished for the sun to shine. He would stand in the middle of a field and tilt his face up to the sun's rays, letting it warm him, luxuriating in the light. Even if it felt wrong to have it shine on him alone.
* * *
Thor was sitting across the room in a strange contraption of a chair. The legs were raised up and the back tilted backward so far Thor was almost lying flat in it. He imagined Thor must have rolled into it over the wide, padded armrests. Norns only knew how he would escape it. The ridiculous things mortals invented.
Speaking of which, Thor was holding one their primitive communication devices. Speaking into it in hushed tones.
"Thank you for calling, Jane. I know we did not part of the best of terms, but it is a great relief to hear your voice again." Thor quieted, listening to what was being said on the other end.
What good was a communication device that did not allow all present to hear what was being said?
"You are not alone in feeling this way. I'm told many others do. I cannot imagine how strange it must be for those who were gone to be returned as if no time passed when it did indeed pass for those of us left behind."
Thor glanced over at Loki. "It is a relief to know those taken by Thanos' madness have returned."
More was said unheard on the device.
"Between Erik and Darcy, I've little doubt you'll be caught up in no time at all," Thor said. "I imagine Darcy has already prepared a schedule for this purpose."
Whatever was said next made Thor laugh. "Loki often did the same to me when we were younger. If I went abroad for a time without him, when I returned he would try to convince me the most ridiculous things occurred while I was gone.
"Once he convinced me our weapons master retired in my absence and our father appointed my cousin, who was quite young at the time, to replace him over others more experienced warriors. I was angry enough to confront my father over it. In front of three members of his council, no less. Turns out the master was taking time away from his post and my cousin was tasked with managing his communications in his absence. By the master's own request, no less. My father was none too pleased with me. Loki found it all quite amusing."
He laughed and then something was said and he laughed again. Thor relaxed further while he listened. He made small noises of agreement or encouragement from time to time, letting the other person carry the conversation.
Then something was said that turned him somber. Thor pressed something on the side of the strange chair and it folded itself into the shape of a proper chair.
"Please do not cry, Jane," Thor spoke soothingly. "I did only what had to be done. I would do it again in a heartbeat." His gaze drifted back over to Loki. "I am only sorry it could not have been done sooner."
* * *
The Warriors Three welcomed him with open arms. In their eyes all was forgiven, for Valhalla was no place for old grievances. Volstagg swept him up in a fierce hug. Loki, to his own surprise, allowed it. He even went along without protest as they insisted on giving Loki a tour of their making.
Ushering Loki through all the halls, pointing out the legends of old where they sat at the endless feasting tables. Showing off the sparring grounds where they could test their might against the greatest warriors ever known. Bringing him to the halls where there was music and drink and dancing and merriment.
"There are halls to practice magic, too," Fandral told him. "Have you yet found them?"
Loki had not.
"I will make inquiries, then come and find you to show you the way," Fandral, who had not so much as a flicker of magical talent in his entire body, promised him.
There were the halls where the walls between all the lands of the dead were thin and one could mingle with whomever they chose. These halls burst at the seams with families and friends and lovers reunited.
Volstagg's children threw themselves gleefully at Loki's legs, trying to topple him with their hugs before racing off to chase one another around and around. Loki conjured a great, sparkling dragon to fly over their heads and they shrieked with delight. Everywhere he looked rang with children's laughter. With couples embracing. With old friends parted and reunited once more.
Loki saw many people he knew there, but still felt strangely lost.
At tour's end, the Warriors Three invited Loki to join them at their table for a feast. When Loki declined they took no offence and asked him back to visit them again. Fandral and Volstagg talked over each other enthusiastically listing all the activities they could partake together, Hogun occasionally grunting in agreement.
Just like old times.
It felt wrong-footed to refuse outright. For a moment, Loki let go of old hurts and promised to return. They looked happy for it and Loki marveled at the sudden weight lifting away from his shoulders.
Valhalla was a place for rest it was said in stories of old. For comfort. Renewal. Leaving the company of the Warriors Three, Loki wondered if there was truth to be had in those tales.
The following day, it Frigga not Fandral who sought him out and showed him to the halls of magic.
"I thought to save it for another day when you're more settled," she said laughingly, walking with him arm-in-arm. "If I allow Fandral to guide you, you're both likely to end up turned into frogs."
"Perish the thought," Loki said with a smile.
* * *
"Hey, Thor. Just wanted to check in. See how you're doing."
"You are kind, Sam."
"You got a lot on your plate, man. Listen, there's a whole compound of people out here willing to help. Who are all kinda going through the same thing."
"Hell of thing. Being dead. Then not. Some days I wake up and it's like I can't decide if I'm actually here or not. Like maybe I'm still dead and this is the afterlife, you know?"
Thor said nothing.
"The thing that decides it for me is getting up and walking around. I figure no afterlife of mine would have Barnes in it. Especially not with that stupid man bun he's taken to wearing. Not unless I really messed up in life."
Thor made a sound of amusement.
"Anyway. Like I said. I just wanted to check in."
"I thank you."
The door closed. Heavy footsteps walked away and came into the room. Thor stood at the foot of the bed for a long moment, staring down at Loki's prone form, before crossing the room and disappearing through another doorway. There were muffled sounds followed by the sound of running water.
Thor returned to come stand at the side of the bed and bending over to scoop Loki up, blanket and all. Thor carried him into the brightly lit, white-tiled room where mortals tended to their cleanliness. Thor set him down gently on a low, wooden bench and carefully unwrapped the bedding from him and undressed him.
He picked Loki up again and set him down in the tiny pool of warm, scented water. Norns only knew how mortals fit themselves in such things. Thor washed him briskly, cleaning both hair and body, then rinsed him off with a hand-help spray and scooped him back out of the pool. Thor patted him dry and carried back him into the main room. Loki was set upright on the edge of the bed while Thor gathered up fresh, soft clothing and redressed him.
"Do you want to sit in front of the window and look out while I change the bedding?" Thor hovered at his side waiting for a response of some kind. When he received none, he uttered not a sound of complaint before picking Loki back up and carrying him over a plush chair next to the glass barrier.
Loki stared out the window while Thor bustled around behind him. Before long gentle fingers were carding through his still damp hair as Thor set to work braiding Loki's hair out of his face. When he was done, Thor smiled.
"I know it is not your usual style, but I think I am getting better at it. I think it looks quite fetching. If you do not like it you will have to redo it yourself."
Thor waited. Always waiting.
"Do you want to go back to bed or stay here for a time?"
There were two birds chasing each other in flight in the pale sky. Bobbing and weaving on the currents, a small black bird determined to catch up to the one with the bright red plumage.
Loki blinked as he watched the birds.
* * *
Loki lost himself in the halls of magic. Where he learned and relearned and relearned again magic he lived and breathed every moment of his life, but now had the pleasure of testing against ancient mages whose mastery of the craft Loki longed to attain. One game he played often with another mage was changing one another into different forms and seeing how long it would take the one cast upon to undo the spell.
Loki found the days he spent as a fish swimming through the streams rather peaceful.
Time spent in this place was challenging, maddening, rewarding, and mystifying. Sometimes all at once.
And it was fun.
When Loki finally chose to visit with Odin, the Allfather looked as if he'd been expecting him. The old man smiled and again offered Loki the seat at his side. Loki sat. They talked. The conversation hesitant and stilted and brief. Loki departed and returned again the next day. And they began again.
Every question Loki ever wanted answered Odin freely gave him. At times Loki could not contain his anger and spilled forth every feeling of resentment. A lifetime of angry words words held back. Every fearful confession hidden behind walls built over years. Odin listened to it all without rebuke.
"Much I have done wrong and wish I could have done differently. I am sorry for the part I played in your hurts, Loki," Odin said. "I failed you in many ways a father should not fail. I can only hope you will one day forgive me my mistakes, but understand if you cannot. But in all the ways I erred, I have never once regretted bringing you to Asgard and naming you my son."
Loki wanted to resent that it was never this way before. Wanted to yell and stomp away. Wanted to throw things at all those who'd wronged him in the past and decry their welcome as false. But at the same time found himself increasingly uninterested in expending the effort. It was exhausting being angry. And Loki was tired of being angry.
Loki took the answers given and asked still more questions. Sometimes Frigga joined them and they dined together. It was almost like it was before their family fractured apart. Except for the one who was absent. Loki embraced the love and knowledge given and felt no shame in craving more.
More weight lifted away.
* * *
"Tony called today. Since getting Pepper back I think he's determined never to leave her side again."
"Ah. I wonder how long she will tolerate this."
"Good question. Rhodey's trying to start a betting pool." They both chuckled. "Tony asked how everyone was doing."
"What did you tell him?"
"That we're managing okay."
"It is rude to lie one's friends, Steve."
"Yeah, well, we are. Mostly. For a bunch of people getting used to being alive again and having missed a few years. Luckily, I've got some experience with that. Not often I get to give other people advice on how to cope."
"And how is your friend?"
"Buck? He's managing. He's got some experience in this area as well. Listen, Thor, you've been in here for awhile. Ever since we reversed this thing. Are you sure you don't want to take a break? I'd be happy to stay with him. You go out. Take a walk."
"Thank you, but no."
"No. I will not leave."
The door closed. There was no sound except the slumping of a body against a surface. All was quiet. Then shuffling. Thor made his way into the room. He moved around the bed, tidying as he went. Picking up and folding clothes. Carrying an untouched bedside tray away to the kitchen. He rattled around in the kitchen before returning with another tray heaped with bread and a steaming, fragrant bowl.
"A young lady named Wanda prepared this food for us," Thor spoke easily as he slid the tray back onto the table. "It is a kind of stew, I think. I cannot recall the name she used. Something from her own homeland. It is very good. If you sit up, I will help you eat."
Thor hovered beside the bed, arms outstretched and ready to assist with any motion made. With no movement forthcoming, Thor leaved back with a sigh. He turned to the window and pushed open the coverings further, letting more light stream in.
Thor walked around to stand at the foot of the bed, looking down at the figure huddled in the middle. Staring out the window at the bright, sunny day.
"The sun is shining on us again, brother. Just as you promised it would."
Loki rolled over, turning his back to the window.
* * *
The vastness of Valhalla was impressive. As were the people in it. The halls were endless and crowded and yet still there was room for more. Loki lost himself in discussions with old scholars and warriors who lived through times he'd only read about. Could only imagine. Yet here they were. The subjects upon which countless tomes had been written could be sought out to answer questions pondered and argued over for an age.
And when Loki crossed paths with Asgard's old loremaster, Bragi took him by the arm and guided him to a vast labyrinth of a library running beneath all the halls of Valhalla. "Without the foundation of all that is known, there could be no true Valhalla," Bragi said with smug satisfaction.
Loki could only stare. More books, scrolls, maps and so much more. More than he'd ever seen in his lifetime. Everything ever written across all the realms and across time. His knees went weak and Bragi's hand on his arm tightened as the old man laughed. "Yes, young one. I know."
Loki did not surface for many weeks.
The breadth of knowledge available should have been overwhelming, yet it was not. It was there each day, whenever Loki wanted it. No one turned him away. No one mocked his desire to know and learn. Everywhere he went in pursuit of knowing, Loki was welcomed. He almost forgot was it was to be scorned.
Frigga smiled when Loki breathlessly told her of all he'd discovered. "You have forever, my darling. Pace yourself. You need not learn it all now."
Beside her, Odin laughed. "Might as well tell a barren tree not to bud in spring."
Loki laughed, too. He felt light. Lighter than in more years he could recall.
It was good to laugh again.
* * *
"How's it going in here?"
Thor said nothing.
"That well, huh?"
"Loki is...he is still adjusting to being back. It is difficult."
The Widow made a considering noise. "Are you sure that's all?"
"His return was different, wasn't it? You've been cagey all along about the trip you took to find these Norns of yours. Strange left us the means to bring back everyone Thanos killed with the Gauntlet, even if it did take us a few years to figure it out. But you insisted you needed to find the Norns first to be sure it was the right way. What happened there? Besides the obvious."
"I know not what you are implying."
"I'm not implying anything."
"Is there something I can do for you, Natasha? I have things I must attend to."
A soft sigh floated through the doorway. "Thor, I know Loki didn't die the same way everyone else did. Thanos killed him on your ship, didn't he? Loki didn't escape like you said."
"Please..." Thor even begged with dignity.
"I'm not judging you. No one is. We all lost people important to us to Thanos. Look, I don't know what kind of bargain you struck, though I can take a pretty good guess. But are you sure they gave you what you wanted?"
"I have no regrets." Thor's voice turned defensive.
* * *
One day, while sitting and drinking with the Warriors Three, Loki began to feel strange. Like something foreign was invading him. He looked down at his arm and could see through it. The same arm that once turned blue under the touch of a Frost Giant. Loki recoiled.
"Are you all right?" Fandral asked.
"You look pale, lad," Volstagg said.
Hogun studied him and frowned.
"Excuse me," Loki hurried from their table. He stumbled as he went, feeling ill. He ran to his parents' hall, all but throwing himself at them. "Something's wrong," Loki gasped, thrusting up his arm for them to see. "Something's happening to me."
Odin and Frigga both reached for him at once only for their hands to pass though him. Frigga's hands flew to her mouth. Odin leaned close to Loki, peering at him with an unsettling intensity. Odin and Frigga exchanged a worried look.
"What? What is it? Tell me, please," Loki begged.
"You are being pulled away," Odin said.
"But why?" Loki said. "You told me I was welcome here."
"You are, darling," Frigga reached for him, framing his face with her hands as if she could still touch him. She smiled. "But Thor is being a touch reckless, I'm afraid."
"I don't understand."
"There were many lost to the Mad Titan's insanity, Loki," Odin said. "It would appear your brother and his allies are attempting to undo what was done by the power of Gauntlet."
Loki shook his head. "But I died before Thanos acquired all the stones."
"You did. But it makes no difference to Thor, determined as he is to make the universe bend to his will." Odin leaned back with a resigned air.
"But I don't want to go," Loki protested, still shaking his head, the rest of him beginning to shake as well. He could see through more of him now, everywhere he looked. Frigga gave up trying to pretend to touch him.
"Shhh, little one," Frigga said, trying to comfort with her voice. "It'll be all right. There's no need to be afraid. You'll be with Thor again."
"You earned your place here, Loki. It will keep. When it is time for you to return, your mother and I will be here waiting for you," Odin promised. "As we will for Thor when it is his time."
Loki tried to hang on to them. To the table. Tried to plant his feet and reverse what was being done. But he was a single snowflake swept up in an avalanche and he was helpless in the face of its might.
Then it was over. And Thor's anxious face was peering down at him.
* * *
Thor blinked awake slowly. It had been years since the small talking rabbit called Rocket gave him a prosthetic eye and Thor still found the feel of it strange.
Rocket told him he would have to remove it each night for sleep, but Thor noticed no difference between removing it or leaving it in and stopped bothering to remove it years ago. He only removed it now when it required cleaning or adjustment.
He'd allowed Tony Stark to examine and scan it with his machines before the man handed it back to him with a degree of annoyance in his voice Thor found entertaining.
"This thing shouldn't work the way it does," Tony had said. "I don't know why it works. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe I've just gone crazy. Maybe it was too much time spent in outer space and my mind just noped on out of here. Here's your eyeball back. Please wait for me to look away before putting it back in your face."
The sight it gave him was as sharp as that of the eye it replaced, but each new morning it still took him a moment or two to adjust to its presence. Thor often wondered why Odin did not avail himself of one of these artificial eyes. It was something he longed to talk about with Loki.
Thor longed to talk with Loki about anything.
Shifting his weight, Thor craned his neck to see if Loki still slept. He sat bolt upright when he saw the empty space next to him.
Panicked, Thor threw himself out of bed, nearly tripping over the bed clothes and his own legs in the rush to stand. He turned in a fast circle taking in the whole room as if there could be a place in it Loki was hidden from his view. Thor hurried to the washing chamber, looking in just long enough to see it was empty.
A tightness grew in his chest. His heart squeezed by a massive hand. His breath coming quicker and quicker.
"In here, Thor."
The voice drifted through the open doorway from the next room. Thor snatched up a pair of soft trousers off the floor and yanked them on as he rushed from the room.
Outside the sleeping chamber there was only one large room. Tony Stark called it an "open concept" when he first gave Thor a tour of this place. There was a seating area with couches and chairs and a large screen affixed to one wall with its many options for entertainment, a well lit and stocked kitchen with informal seating along a raised block in the centre, as well as a more formal dining arrangement beside it, and a small entrance area which led out into the rest of the complex.
Loki stood propped against one of the kitchen counters. He was eating slices of bread straight out of the bag. He looked worn, pale, with deep shadows beneath his eyes and his hair stuck out at different angles in many places. But he was upright and he was eating and Thor could have wept with joy for the sight.
When Loki looked up at Thor's entrance, he froze with his hand half-way in the bread bag. He stared sharply at Thor for an uncomfortably long moment before shaking his head and rolling his eyes. "Please. Aren't you tired of spilling tears on my behalf? I know I've had enough of your weeping." He ate another slice of untoasted bread. "I don't understand why their food tastes so foul. This is meant to be bread, yes?"
Thor cleared his throat twice over before he could speak. "It is bread. There are things you can do to improve the taste. But I've learned much of their food is this way. It is because of what they add to their foodstuffs so they keep for longer periods. I don't think they notice the taste."
Loki gave him a baffled look in response.
"Many mortals do not prepare their food freshly for each meal. Including their bread," Thor explained. "Nor do they eat as much as we do. It is convenient for them to be able to preserve food."
Loki sighed and pushed the half-eaten loaf aside. "Mortals are strange."
Thor laughed, a little choked, but a happy sound all the same. "Yes. But also clever, I find. Are you still hungry?" Loki glared at the bag of bread in lieu of an answer. "Then sit. I will prepare you something more to your taste."
After another moment of glaring, Loki pushed himself off the counter. Thor saw right away he was unsteady on his feet and trying to hide it. Thor pretended not to notice and crossed to the refrigerator.
While Loki settled on one of the high backed stools in the centre of the kitchen, Thor puttered around him, gathering ingredients and an array of cookware. He set coffee brewing and prepared a pitcher of freshly squeezed juice, pouring out a tall glass and setting in front of Loki along with the pitcher.
Loki said nothing while Thor worked around him. He eyed the juice suspiciously before first taking a small sip and then draining the glass and pouring himself more.
Before long, food began arriving at the table. Thor slid a plate piled high with round, flat breads in front of Loki and set down a small pitcher of thick, steaming syrup next to it.
"These are pancakes. The maple syrup is poured on top. It's sweet. I think you will like it." Thor said before bustling off back to his cooking. The smell of meats frying rose in the air. Pans clanked and sizzled while Thor stirred and chopping and tasted. There was another stack of the pancakes steaming on the countertop.
Loki watched Thor's food preparation with a perplexed air before turning to the food in front of him. He did as Thor instructed and smothered the cakes in syrup before cutting the first piece and bringing it to his mouth. Thor was right. It was sweet and he did like it.
Loki kept himself busy eating through the pile of pancakes and soon more dishes arrived at the table. There was a platter of fried smoked meats. A dish piled high with well-seasoned scrambled eggs. An assortment of fried cubes Thor called potatoes mixed with peppers. More plates and cutlery were set down along with a new pitcher of juice and the extra pancakes. Thor poured two cups of coffee and brought them over to the table with him as he sat across from Loki.
Thor pushed one of the cups at Loki. "I do not know if you will care for this beverage as is. I've noticed many mortals like to add cream or milk and sugar or honey before consuming it."
Loki said nothing as he devoured his food. When the pancakes were gone, only then did Loki sniff at the coffee. One sip later he was making a face and reaching for the honey and cream. He tasted both before adding them to his cup. Thor watched with a fond smile as Loki dumped as much of both as he could without overfilling the cup and tried it again. Another sip and then Loki drained the cup and turned back to the food laid out before him.
The brothers fell into silence as they ate. The room was quiet except for the clinking of cutlery on plates, the scraping of food from serving dish to plate, the pouring of coffee and juice, and companionable chewing. After they'd each eaten and drunk their fill, most of the food was gone. They sat back in their chairs and regarded each other across the table.
"Thor," Loki said. "There's something I must know."
Thor tensed. "Yes?"
"Where did you learn to cook?"
Whatever question Thor expected, this was not it. He blinked and then laughed, tension melting away. "I found it a necessary skill on Midgard. My friends taught me what they could. I struggled as you did much of the time with the taste of their manner of preservation. Though I do not mind it as much in some foods, there were others I could not stand.
"Also, I found a place of learning that teaches such things - all manner of food preparation. I attended for a time. I will teach you, if you wish. Perhaps you might enjoy it. I personally find it soothing."
Loki stared. "You are joking?"
Thor shook his head. "I am not. I've spent many years upon Midgard. It seemed wise to better learn how to adapt here."
Loki still stared. "Who are you and what have you done with Thor?"
Thor smiled. A slow smile that spread across his face, lighting his features with relief. "Was it not you who often advised the wisdom of blending in with the locals when necessary?"
"Yes. Not that you ever listened."
"I did. I listened."
"Yes. Finally." Thor studied Loki across the table, over the remnants of their meal. Loki still looked wan. Pale beyond what was his norm. "Loki, are you well?"
"I suppose I'll know after the food settles," Loki said. "You may have yet poisoned me."
"Please do not jest. Not now," Thor said. "It has been two weeks since you returned, opened your eyes at looked at me. Almost five years have passed since Thanos...since he..."
"Yes." Thor went quiet. "I should have stopped him. I am so sorry."
Loki frowned at his empty coffee cup. "As am I. For many things. I should have told you sooner. About the Tesseract."
"You should have told me sooner about Thanos," Thor said firmly. "All those years, you kept it a secret. I don't understand."
"I had my reasons."
"Are you going to tell me what they are?"
Loki looked up and met Thor's eyes. "What does it matter now?"
Thor studied him across the table with a focus Loki found unsettling. "Perhaps it doesn't. But I would like to know nonetheless."
Loki's eyes went back to the empty cup. "Another day. Perhaps."
The quiet returned. Loki rose from the table in a single, steady motion, his strength returning for having eaten. He wandered out into the sitting area, taking in the furnishings and the artwork. Wandering over to the large window looking out over the Avengers compound. More well-tended grounds and woodland, but a different angle than the one in the bedroom.
It was early enough the sun was working its way higher into the sky, not yet breaching the treeline. The grass and plants still dewy, awaiting the warm, bright light to come shine and burn away the remnants of the dawn.
Thor rose and trailed after him, coming to stand next to Loki at the window.
"This is the Avengers compound," Thor said. "It is safe. Quiet. I thought it best for you."
"Thor, what did you do?" Loki asked, almost fearing the answer.
"What I had to," Thor spoke with a quiet dignity. "Undoing what Thanos had done to this world - to every world. Undoing the monstrosity he inflicted on so many. Undoing what he did to you. I assure you, brother, I regret nothing."
Loki shot him a skeptical look. "You keep saying that. I wonder who you're trying to convince." On Thor's look of confusion, Loki sighed, dipping his head forward enough to almost touch the cool glass before him.
"You've had many visitors since bringing me here. Many conversations in that doorway over there." Loki lifted his head and tipped it back to indicate the entryway behind them. "If you didn't want them overheard, you might have closed the inner door to the sleeping chamber."
Thor's face twisted in shocked disbelief. "You mean to say...but I thought..."
"What?" Loki looked back at the glass, watching Thor's reflection watching him. "That the deal you struck with the Norns - which was not wise, by the way - to bring me back among the living rendered me lame?"
Thor sputtered. "You heard - but you did not speak. Not for weeks. You could not care for yourself. You wouldn't eat."
"Why?" Thor was looking at him, desperate for understanding. "I have no complaint in caring for you, but I know your pride, Loki. How did you stand it?"
How indeed. "At first, I wasn't entirely sure what was happening. If this was real," Loki confessed. Glancing at Thor was a mistake for the stricken expression that crossed his face. "And after I realized it was, I just needed time."
"Time for what?"
Loki took his time in responding. Feeling for answers that he did not yet have, drifting just beyond him. He had been in Valhalla. Then not. He had been finished with the life he had. Then not. Satisfaction had been within his grasp. But still Loki could not close his fingers around it.
He was trying to understand why he was not angry. Nor sad. Nor filled with a longing to return to Valhalla's shores. Trying to understand why - after finding Valhalla, finding his footing after so many years of falling - when Loki opened his eyes and saw Thor looking down at him he was overcome with just one feeling.
The shame of that relief nearly swept Loki away. He'd clung to Thor's soothing voice with everything he had. Then all he could do was hang on. And think.
He was still grappling with the confusion. Working at the cluttered knots of his thoughts and emotions. But when he awoke this day, it was the first time Loki felt he could stand and move around and talk while he thought. The first time he woke and didn't fear losing his grip and having everything around him float away and leave him in darkness.
"To adjust to being alive again, I suppose," Loki struggled to explain, to find the right words. He couldn't look at Thor while he spoke, choosing to study the Midgardian greenery outside instead, calming as it was.
"To try and understand how this could be. I cannot explain how it felt. How strange. Like nothing I experienced before. It wasn't like falling from the Bifrost. Or waking up on Svaltalfheim. I was dead, Thor. And then I wasn't. How does one come to terms with such a thing?"
"It's all right," Thor said with unbearable kindness. "You need not explain further. I think I understand."
"You don't, Thor. You can't. You did not die. You did not go to..." Loki shut his mouth quickly.
Thor eyed him with trepidation. "I did not go...where?"
Loki shook his head. "It's no matter. Thank you for bringing me back. And for taking care of me."
Thor continued to eye him, apprehension turning to suspicion. "Loki, after you died where - what do you remember?"
"Nothing. I remember nothing." Loki lied without hesitation.
Thor sighed. "You are. I can tell now, you know."
Loki pressed his lips together as he looked across the grounds, feeling the weight of Thor's stare.
He waited for Thor to decide if he wanted to pursue Loki down a path they might both wind up regretting. While he waited, Loki remembered the last time they stood side by side. On board an old ship, packed to the seams with the remnants of their people. Of Asgard. That was before a window as well. The two of them contemplating the future.
A future together. Like they always believed they would have. Before everything came apart.
"You were in Valhalla."
Loki closed his eyes. Thor never could leave well enough alone.
"I took you from Valhalla," Thor's voice wobbled.
"Thor," he breathed out on a sigh. "Let it go. Please."
"Or how about we talk of your foolishness instead?" Loki changed the subject with ruthless efficiency, turning his head to glare. "And how this is second time I've found you without an eye." Loki pointed accusingly at the eyepatch covering the space where Thor's remaining eye had been.
"The Norns required a sacrifice for knowledge I needed," Thor said, cautiously touching the eyepatch covering the spot where he gouged out his own eye. "For how to get you back. And now you're here and you're well. It was all worth it."
Loki opened his mouth, but found himself at a sudden loss for words. His own eyes filling with hot, unexpected tears to blink back. A careful hand brushed along the side of Loki's neck, hesitating as if unsure of the welcome before cupping it gently. Loki could not help leaning into its reassuring presence.
"I know I should be sorry for taking you from the halls of our ancestors, but I cannot feel regret for having you back. Alive. As you should be. I know it was selfish and I hope you can forgive me. But I have missed you so much."
"And I you." Loki spoke truthfully. Even with the weight of his past life lifted away in Valhalla, there wasn't a day that went by when Loki didn't miss Thor. Even when Loki stood under the brightest sun, it didn't shine as brilliantly without Thor there.
Thor's face was hopeful. "Truly?"
"Truly," Loki promised.
Thor's answering smile was every bit as radiant as Loki remembered. The hot stinging in his eyes returned. Loki stepped out of Thor's hold and turned back to the window to give himself a moment. Thor let him go and waited at his side.
Loki spoke once he was sure his voice wouldn't shake. "You wanted us to come to Midgard, brother. I suppose we finally made it."
"Yes. We have."
"Are we staying long?"
"That depends," Thor said, folding his arms across his chest. His smile not dimming in the slightest. Loki fought the urge to lean into its warmth.
"On what?" Loki asked lightly.
"You. I have been waiting some time for you to sit up and start making demands."
"Ah. Well, then. I'll do my best to make up for lost time." Loki studied Thor's face and the false brown eye that didn't twinkle the way it ought when Thor was happy. Loki made a face.
"What's that for?" Thor asked.
"That fake eye!," Loki said. "It's so wretched. How can you stand it? Where did it come from?"
"A very nice talking rabbit named Rocket gave it to me."
Loki's eyebrows knitted together in confusion. "A talking rabbit? Was he from Alfheim then?"
"Oh," Thor said. "I did not think to ask."
"It's not even the right colour," Loki complained. The very sight of the thing was making Loki's stomach turn. Either that or Thor's food poisoned him after all.
Thor's eyebrows went high. "Since it's the only one I have left, I felt it churlish to complain."
"Ugh," Loki said, with an annoyed wave of his hand. "At least your hair grew back. You look somewhat normal again. I suppose the eye will have to do for now, until I find a way to make you a better one."
Thor gave him a look that was disgustingly doting. "I will look forward to it."
"Your sentiment is truly nauseating. I hope you know this."
Thor nodded once. "I do know it. And do you know what, brother?"
Loki raised an eyebrow in silent inquiry.
"I've decided I do not care. Sentiment is not such a bad thing. Especially since it brought you back to me."
Loki fought back a smile and sighed loudly as a cover. Thor only looked at him more fondly. "It's official. I'm going to be ill. And it's all your fault."
"I accept the blame then. Gladly," Thor said, smile growing impossibly bright before he began to laugh. His rich laughter filled the room as he snaked one arm around Loki's shoulders and pulled him into a tight hug. Loki let himself be drawn in and if he hugged back just as tight, neither of them mentioned it.
The sun continued its steady ascent into the sky, crawling over the treeline to shine down on the two brothers, basking them in its light. Wrapped safely in the warm strength of Thor's arms, Loki turned his face to the Midgardian sun and wondered if satisfaction had found him after all.
Valhalla was a revelation. So was leaving it behind.