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For Better (Or For Worse)

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The dragon was mere inches from Loki when he woke up.

His eyes flew open, staring at the dark ceiling of his chambers. His breaths were loud. The night was dark and silent. His blankets made a soft rustling noise as he turned over. His eyes strained futilely at the dark; it swallowed up everything. His dresser, his books, his carpet, everything to the end of the bed. Everything was normal. But the dragon had been right there, roaring jets of flame, and Thor had been screaming–

He shouldn’t have read the recounting of the Hel dragon. But he’d been trying to prove to Thor that books could be interesting, even more interesting than play acting with invisible swords.

There had been illustrations.

Loki could still feel the phantom flame on his face. If he closed his eyes, a great big pair of reptilian orange eyes blinked at him. His breath came out faster. Sweaty palms twisted his blankets.  

Thor?” Loki whispered.

Nothing.

“Mother?”

Silence. What had he expected?

“Father? O-Odin?”

The darkness swallowed his words.

In one swift motion, Loki threw off his blankets and slid out of bed. His bare feet curled on the soft carpet floor. He ran his fingers over his dresser until he felt his green robe. He pulled it on and hugged it tightly. Loki opened the door slowly. No matter which way he looked, the dragon was always waiting in the darkness of the other direction. A giant black snout, exhaling puffs of smoke. Meter-long claws scratching at the stone floors. Loki clung to the wall, hurriedly placing each foot in front of the other.

The entire corridor was solely for the royal chambers. Odin and Frigga’s was at the end of the corridor, with a door leading out to Frigga’s private gardens. Next was Loki’s: he had moved in two weeks ago, from the nursery. Thor has been gloating about his own chambers for decades, and Loki had rushed to get his own. He’d pestered Frigga about it for weeks, and now he had them. But they were empty. Big, but empty. Loki could fit five of him in his bed just width wise; he’d rolled over six times before falling off the bed.

And maybe they were just a little scary when he woke up from a nightmare and there was nobody there, not even a nursemaid.

Loki paused at Thor’s door. His original intention had been to slip into Thor’s bed. Thor would never turn him away. He might tease him about it in the morning, but only to him. Thor would never tell that Loki still ran to his big brother in the middle of the night because he was scared of nightmares. But he might let something slip. And if he was sent back to the nursery, well, that would be unbearable. His hand fell off the doorknob. Loki continued moving forwards, his slender fingers running along the smooth stone walls. He stopped at another door frame.

Hela’s door, as always, was open. Loki wavered for another moment. She's my sister, Loki thought. I won't disturb her. But she's scary and I don't know her, and she might laugh at me. But she's awesome scary–

 

-Its breath came out faster as it crept down the corridor, claws clacking quietly on the flagstones. A long, forked tongue flickered out, almost touching the figure who was standing still, back turned, by the open doorway–

 

Just a dream, just a dream. Although it could be a prophetic dream–nope, not going there. Loki turned around determinedly, back to the door, because he wasn’t afraid of a dark corridor-

And the dragon was there, meter long white teeth gleaming in the dark, saliva dripping to the floor. It crept around the corner, and Loki felt tremors in the floor with every step, and he couldn’t help it, he whimpered, it looked so real-

-The dragon roared, and it was no phantom roar in Loki’s head, and he could feel the cool stone wall, so it was no dream-

dragon roar

“Hela!” Loki screamed, and ran inside his sister’s rooms without a second thought.

 

The truth was that Hela was a ridiculously light sleeper, and she didn’t know why, but it was certainly useful.

Which was why Hela was stirred into semi consciousness when something issued tremors across the stone floor of the corridor. A trained assassin like Natasha Romanov (or the Winter Soldier, except he didn’t get to sleep), would have taken one of two options: gotten out of bed as quickly as possible  and retrieved the nearest weapon, or kept their breathing pattern the same, so it looked like they hadn’t woken up at all. Hela took the second option, because she really couldn’t care less. Ugh, went her brain. Who is it, and why do I care, and the answer was I don’t really care, and I really don’t, so her body couldn’t be bothered to move.

But her eyes flew wide open when Loki screamed her name.

When she’d made that decision, centuries ago, that she wanted to know first Thor and then Loki, she hadn’t realized how hard it was. She had no idea how to talk to people, much less little people. Most people just agreed with whatever they said, patiently corrected them (Odin), or cooed at them (Frigga). And she couldn’t see herself listening to any of the idiotic things they said without wanting to stab somebody. Like “I wanna be a valkyrie!” (Thor) and “but why can’t I be a valkyrie?” (also Thor) and “how come all valkyrie women?” (because Bor didn’t want women in his army, you idiot, but back then they were just the chosen riders of the winged horses, and then Astrid Flæmingrsdottir proved him wrong).

Oh yeah. Still Thor.

It had been easier, if frustrating, when they couldn’t talk, but of course they couldn’t remember any of it now.

So she’d watched them. Watched as Thor fell over when he swung his imaginary sword too hard, when Frigga introduced Loki to sorcery, his delight as he watched the green flame in his palm for the first time. She’d watched as they played in the gardens, in the fields, by the horses they weren’t big enough to ride. But she’s never known what to say. How do you talk to little people? Hela had spent so long compiling a list of what she couldn’t say- at least, not until they were older- that she’d never considered what she would say. It all seemed so contradictory. Thor was very interested in warriors and battles- but Hela couldn’t tell them about ones she had started or ended, because that was too much. Most people were extremely uncomfortable if she told them stories about things she had done. (Atrocities, they said, because nobody ever thought she was listening. War, she said, but nobody ever listened to her). Siblings usually grew up with each other, Hela knew, but with a place as large as the royal palace and all the differences between them, and the fact that Hela had long stopped coming to family dinners, they just really didn’t seem to see each other. She was sure Odin had a hand in it–she just couldn’t prove it.

But now here he was. Screaming her name in the middle of the night. Sorry, what?

In one fluid motion, Hela was standing in front of her bed in her battle armour, green cape materializing in front of her. She heard a dragon roar, and then Loki stumbled into her room, green eyes wide with fear.

The dragon was right behind him.

dragon flight

Its mouth framed the entire door. The two top fangs jutted down from the top of the door frame like a really gruesome Halloween decoration. Its eyes were glowing orange embers set behind either side of the door. Its skin was not the ash gray of Muspelheim fire dragons, but as black as Hela’s necroblades.

What Hela noticed was the flickering flame building inside of the dragon’s mouth, as it readied to blast both of them into cinder. She didn’t hesitate to fling one arm around her little brother, covering him with her cape and bodily hauling him behind her. Her other hand drew back and a three meter long blade materialized, which she flung directly at the center of the flame in the dragon’s mouth, between its teeth–

-Which flashed green, and then the dragon disappeared.

Hela blinked, and then realized exactly why. The scales of a Hel dragon, supposedly, were black, unlike real dragons Hela had seen. Only it was impossible for a Hel dragon to be here, in Asgard, because if they were a Hel dragon, that meant they were from Hel, which meant that they were dead. Which meant that:

  1. Loki had been practicing illusions in the middle of the night, gone a bit far, and had gotten scared, or
  2. Loki had had a nightmare, and when he woke up, he’d accidentally made his nightmare into an illusion, and gotten scared.

See, she was thinking before jumping to conclusions. Odin would be proud.

(Not that she cared).

Number two seemed more likely, but was did she know? About seidr or nightmares? Hela was pretty sure she didn’t have any seidr of her own, not that she’d ever bothered to see. And she never had nightmares that she could remember–

“–You are unworthy of your family,” Odin said, face set in stone. “Unworthy of your power, unworthy of the loved ones you have betrayed—”

No, that didn’t count–

“I cast you out!” Odin roared, raising Gungnir, and for all Odin’s faults, he’d never raised a hand against her.

Until now.

“You are banished from Asgard–from the Nine Realms–from any place where you might do harm–!”

Hela attacked the image viciously. That was not a nightmare. In order to be a nightmare, she had to be scared of it, and she was not scared.

“S–sister,” Loki stuttered, glancing from the doorway where the dragon had been, to his older sister, whose cape he clung to. “I–I didn’t mean to-”

“I should’ve known it was an illusion,” Hela muttered, which was probably as close as she got to ‘it’s okay.’ “Hel dragons don’t exist–even if they did, they couldn’t be here.”

(Although in another universe, Hela was not conversing with her little brother, but battling a Hel dragon in Hel, thanking the Norns her necroblades still worked, wondering if Odin would even noticed if she died, even though she knew the answer was no–he’d sent her there, hadn’t he? To quite literally the land of the unworthy dead. Where everyone might be dead, but they could still feel pain, and she had to convince each and every one of them that the pain wasn’t worth bothering Hela, who had sent so many of them there herself. Even though, if she died, she might not go anywhere at all; she was already in Hel-)

“S–sorry for,” Loki swallowed, “disturbing you-”

“Was that your illusion?” Hela interrupted.

“Um, yes, I think so. I d-didn’t mean to, I had a nightmare-” Loki shut his mouth and looked mortified.

“Did you know you could do that?” Hela asked, interested.

“I-d-d-n-no!” Loki stuttered, and began crying. “Mother says my seidr is a lot more powerful than hers; she’s been tutoring me, she said this was possible, but not for centuries, and it seemed so real-!”

Hela shrugged. “Then get a tutor. Mother was a shieldmaiden, not a seidkona.”

Loki continued crying into her cape.

What was she supposed to do now? This was why she had avoided Loki and Thor. She had no idea what to say! How was she supposed to comfort him? She didn’t want to make it worse–she wasn’t supposed to, she didn’t think.

Ugh. She’d rather face another dragon.

Besides, her cape was getting wet.

“Nightmares are nothing to be afraid of,” she tried.

“I kn-kn- know!” Loki bawled. “I’m sorry! Don’t tell Mother and Father, please–”

“Alright,” she agreed quickly, and he stopped bawling, but continued sobbing.

Progress?

“It could have been a prophetic dream,” Hela offered.  She meant that he might not be scared over something that was just a dream, but for some reason he didn’t look comforted at all.

“Or…it could not have been,” Hela said swifty. “But…if it is, I’ll kill it.”

Loki stilled. “You r-really will? You can?”

“Brother, I’ve never met a creature I couldn’t defeat,” Hela said dryly. She went to close her door and ended up dragging Loki along with her, because he refused to release his grip on her cape. He didn’t seem to mind. “Here-” she reached for the doorknob and closed the door with a quiet click. “Come on.” She dragged Loki back over to the bed, her armour exchanging for bedclothes.

He exchanged her cape for her arm.

Hela rolled her eyes, but smiled slightly at the same time. She lifted her arm up, and he simply rose in the air, knees draw to his chest, and didn’t let go until she dropped him on the bed. She climbed on after him, unsure of what to say.

“Come on brother, go back to sleep,” she said, nudging him.

He mumbled something incoherent and continued shivering.

“I’ll protect you,” she promised, because he seemed to like the ‘I shall slay the dragon!’ method.

(And it wasn’t a lie).

She pulled the blankets over both of them. Her heartbeat had already returned to normal, but his was still beating nearly twice as fast, and his breaths came in fast and unsteady.

Hela decided she had nothing else to say, turned over, and fell asleep.

Loki lay curled on his side, eyes wide open, staring at the utter darkness. Not a sound stirred from Thor’s chambers, or from his parents.

Or from Hela, except for her light breathing. Who was only several inches away from him, but seemed impossibly far.

He couldn’t possibly fall asleep again. Not with the dragon, lurking in the corners of his mind every time he tried to close his eyes.

 Then he remembered a different story.

 

-OoOoO-

 

“I shall be the first warrior to slay a dragon!” Thor declared.

Someone snorted. “Already too late for that, Your Highness.”

Thor turned, lowering his invisible sword. “Who are you?”

A valkyrie, Loki deduced immediately. Even without her sword or steed, a valkyrie’s white armour was distinctive throughout the Nine Realms.

“Ragnhildr Øivindsdottir,” she said, confirming Loki’s little theory. ‘Hildr,’ which meant battle, (more or less), was only used by the valkyrie.

“Who?” Thor demanded. “Has slain a dragon single-handedly?”

“Most recently?” The valkyrie asked rhetorically, lifting a practice sword from a rack that Thor and Loki were not supposed to have touched. “Your sister.”

“Hela?” Thor echoed. Their sister was a rather distant figure. Thor thought that maybe it was because of the age difference–Thor and Loki were two centuries apart, whereas the age difference between Thor and Hela was at least a millennia. Nobody seemed to know when Hela had been born, Frigga thought the question was rude, and they hadn’t worked up the courage to ask Odin. All they really knew about her was that she was the greatest warrior in the Nine Realms, her colors were green and black, neither of which were royal colors, she hated having other people in her rooms but always left the door open, she actively avoided Odin and was exasperated by Frigga. None of which made sense.

They had never seen her fight, for one. They couldn’t figure out why she avoided Odin, or why she always seemed annoyed by Frigga. Or why gold wasn’t one of her colors–after all, only the five of them could use it. Or why she left her door open if she hated people in her rooms so much.

Thor thought she didn’t like them very much. He was a bit miffed by it– everybody liked Thor–but she wasn’t really around to show her rare Thor-dislike, so Thor wasn’t really bothered.

Except. Loki had seen her lurking around in the shadows a lot of the time, when it was just the two of them. When Thor and Loki snuck out to Frigga’s private gardens when Odin was in a council meeting or something, he’d seen her green cape, or just a hint of her black hair. Thor–clueless, oblivious Thor–hadn’t noticed, and Loki never told him. Maybe it was selfish, but it was nice to think there was something out there that was only for him.

“Only got one, last time I checked,” the valkyrie said casually, running a practiced finger down the length of the blade. “It was back when your father was still sending a guard with her–before either of you were born.” She slid the length of the sword down her hand guard and seemed disappointed when the blade didn’t cut it. “We were on Muspelheim. The fire demons enlisted the help of a fire dragon. Turns out they can be surprisingly sneaky, if they want to be, and it did.”

Ragnhildr shrugged. “Figured if anything could take out two valkyrie and the princess of Asgard while they were sleeping, that would be it. Next morning, the dragon was lying on the ground with one of her blades through its neck. She’d gone back to sleep, and we’d never even woken up.” The valkyrie abruptly rammed the sword directly down on the flagstones so hard that it shattered. Thor and Loki jumped back a good two feet, startled. “Pathetic,” she muttered, kicking one piece with her white armour boot. Privately, Loki wondered if the valkyrie ever wore anything besides her armour. He wondered if maybe it was because nobody took them seriously otherwise.

(That was also when Thor decided he wanted to be a valkyrie. That dream didn't last very long).

“We never figured out how she killed it. Your father stopped sending guards out with her after that, I think. I’ve always slept lightly since.” She winked at them, tossed the broken piece of the hilt behind her, and walked away.

 

-oOoOo-

 

Loki snuggled in closer to his sister.

She was warm, despite how cold she could act to other people. Like everyone else. He didn’t want to bother her, but he really didn’t want to leave. And he was still scared- he didn’t know he could create an illusion nearly as complex as a dragon, much less accidentally.

The truth was, Hela was a ridiculously light sleeper. She was stirred into semi consciousness by his slight movement. Bouncing on the bed would have done it. Consciously, she thought ugh, go to sleep, you annoying little…ugh nouns. Semi consciously, she turned around and pulled his head in closer. Loki froze, but her eyes never opened.

Just gimme a hug already, you insufferable little brat, she thought, and then wait what why do I want a hug, and then Hela woke up and saw what she was doing. Loki’s eyes, still wide open, caught hers. He offered her a tiny little smile.

Hela had chosen siblings, for better or for worse. She might as well live with it. Hela sighed and started stroking his hair.

 

-And we’d never even woken up-

 

Loki closed his eyes and fell asleep.

When Loki woke up, he saw his sister staring down at him. “Had a good night of sleep, brother?”

“M-morning,” he managed, and was proud, because he was quite sure he’d never had a conversation with her before. Besides last night.

(Well, he had, but it was one-sided, seeing as he couldn’t talk yet).

“Are you alright?” Hela asked, because that’s what Sigrid and Isa asked each other after they’d gotten hurt.

Loki nodded mutely, so she wasn’t sure it was the right response. Hela stretched like a cat–no, like a great feline predator–and was suddenly wearing her battle armour. She pulled herself out of bed slowly.

He looked down at his own bedclothes, and the green robe he’d never taken off, and wondered if she went anywhere without it. Loki slipped out of the blankets and landed on the floor lightly, balancing on the front of his feet.

“Breakfast?” Loki asked, with a tentative little smile on his face.

And Hela almost said why in the Norns would I eat breakfast, much less with Odin-

But Loki was smiling at her hopefully, at this elder sister he didn’t know but wanted to, ready to be refused, or sneered at-

“Sure,” Hela said, shrugging.

Everyone was surprised to see her, and not always in a good way, and the servants had prepared a meal for four, although Thor and Loki competed to see who could share more food with her until Odin’s stern gaze made them stop, so she barely ate anyway.

It was both amusing and heartbreaking, to watch them offer up portions of their own breakfast like little offers of kinship and sibling hood. And Loki, who had so clearly asked because he wanted to show Thor ‘look, I have a big sister, and she’s awesome,’ had spent most of the meal focused on her instead. As if he’d forgotten about impressing Thor, who didn’t even question why she’d shown up. Hela barely talked, although Thor and Loki hounded her with endless questions, especially Thor, about the battles she’d fought. But anything she said in front of her parents could be used against her for Norns knew what Odin would come up with, and she was too tired to censure her words, so saying nothing was easier–

But she’d agreed.