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as if death itself was undone

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Thor held Loki’s body as the ship blew apart around them, torn asunder by the accursed might of Thanos. He could think of nothing else to do. Failure sat like ash on his tongue and grief carved into the space behind his ribs. At least he would not have to suffer long under the weight with his losses; the void would see to that.

Decompression flung his people across the nothingness between the stars. Vacuum burned Thor’s skin, stealing the air from his lungs. He pulled Loki against his chest and held him, wondering how long it would take to die and if he could speed the process. Dying in the interstellar wastes offered no honor.

And then Loki stirred, impossibly, the red veins on his face sinking back to nothingness. He blinked twice, and Thor’s heart swooped at the sharp slash of his smile.

Loki mouthed something, all sound stolen by the void of space, curled an arm around Thor’s ribs, and sketched a complicated shape with his fingers.

Something pulled, burning against every cell of Thor’s skin, all at once, and then—

--Thor landed on something hard and unforgiving, grunting at the impact and sucking in a desperately relieved breath.

“Jesus Christ!” someone yelped, somewhere overhead. “Did two guys just beam onto the ship?”

Loki turned in Thor’s arms, and Thor released him, trying to sort out the world gone suddenly mad. Perhaps he hallucinated, a final effort from his mind to grant him joy before death. He took in the cramped space of a small craft, the air smelling of grease and… oddly, trees. He shook his head, trying to clear the last remaining spots away, and Loki offered him a hand.

“Hello,” Loki said, as Thor stood, finally noticing the crowd clustered at one end of the hall, staring at them with all manner of weaponry drawn and ready. “I am Loki, of Asgard, and this is Thor, son of Odin. We require your aid.”

#

“I thought you were dead,” Thor said, after introductions and explanations were exchanged with the self-titled Guardians of the Galaxy. The crew seemed bothered more that they would be receiving no reward for responding to the emergency beacon from the Asgardian refugees than anything else, though they had agreed to grant Thor and Loki use of their emergency craft to travel to Nidavellir. The crew had requested only enough time to discuss a plan and, Thor suspected, to bicker amongst themselves.

The delay had given him time to corner Loki in the emergency craft, still burning with adrenaline from the lost battle. He usually tried to avoid Loki in this state of mind. His emotions ran too close to the surface, and Loki was ever skilled at picking them up. It would not have done for him to grasp Thor’s current state.

Loki shrugged, scrubbing his face clean as they waited. “So did Thanos, luckily.”

Thor stared at him, the image of his still form hanging from Thanos’s hand still terribly fresh. The horror of watching helpless as Thanos strangled the life from the last being Thor loved still sped his pulse and sat like a rock in his stomach. Thor swallowed bile and looked away, his hands twitching to reach out, to make sure that Loki was hale and healthy.

“It was not my most creative plan,” Loki said, sitting beside Thor and reaching out to wipe at the filth on his cheek. “But I could think of no other way to get him to leave.”

Loki’s cool fingertips anchored Thor’s thoughts. Thor stared across at the far wall, focusing on the evidence that Loki yet lived, that his mad plan, had, somehow, succeeded, resisting the urge to lean closer, to take yet more proof. He asked, “Does it matter? All of Asgard is dead.”

“Not all of Asgard,” Loki said. “And Thanos believes you and I to be no longer a threat. We will yet have justice.”

Thor scoffed, squeezing his eye shut. Loki’s fingers trailed down his neck. He shivered. “Will justice bring back our people?”

Loki held his silence for a moment, his fingers stilling. “No. I suppose justice will not,” he said, finally, something thoughtful and quiet in his voice.

Thor cracked open his eye, looking sideways at Loki, asking, “What does—”

“Ready to go already?” the rabbit asked, strolling into the emergency shuttle, the Groot following him. “You guys sure you want to go to some forge? I know a guy who can get you almost anything you want without all the hassle. Charges a very reasonable price, too, most of the time.”

Thor looked away from Loki, unable to read his expression, in any case. He shook his head, marshaling a smile for these new allies. “He would not be able to get us what we need.”

#

In the end, Thor killed Thanos in a field on Midgard, blinking down at where his new axe had cleaved the Mad Titan’s head in twain. Thor had aimed for his chest; decades of training had taught him to seek the largest target, when he might get only one shot.

“Excellent aim,” Loki said, from across the field, one hand still extended out, energy shimmering around his fingers, the echoes of his spell tingling across Thor’s skin.

Thanos sank to his knees, the axe slipping loose of his flesh, and then collapsed sideways, looking smaller, suddenly. His blood sank down into the earth the same way anyone else’s would have, feeding the thirsty soil.

“Holy shit,” Rogers said, stumbling up from the side, holding his ribs and panting. “Is he… Oh, yeah. He is.” And then he laughed, shakily.

Loki knelt beside Thanos, ignoring the shouting around them. He cocked his head to the side, reaching for the Gauntlet, and Rogers said, “Hey, I’m not sure you should be touching that.”

Loki looked up, grinning, and raised his hands. “By all means, handle it on your own.”

“Thanks,” Rogers said, a bite in the words. “I think we will.”

Loki snorted, rolling his eyes and rocking to his feet. He wiped his hands off fastidiously and stepped to Thor, holding onto his bloody axe, staring at the ruin of the man who had wiped out their entire people.

Loki’s fingers on Thor’s wrist were cool, calming. “It is done,” Loki said, quiet, against Thor’s ear. “He is dead.”

Thor breathed again, finally, smelling blood and ruin in the air. He looked over at Loki, away from the ruin of Thanos’s body and the crowd growing around them. Thor threw an arm around Loki’s shoulders without thinking, and leaned into him, confident that Loki could take his weight, even if only for a moment, as Thor considered his revenge fulfilled and found the outcome lacking.

#

The universe celebrated Thanos’s fall.

Thor wished he could share their wild joy, but while he felt relief and satisfaction over the death of the Mad Titan, happiness evaded him. Thanos had destroyed too much before they ground out his life, too much that could not be replaced.

Thor watched the celebrations from a distance, toasting when it was asked of him, before removing himself to quiet space, where his grim mood would not spoil the well-earned joy of the others.

He found himself frowning at his new axe, sitting quiet and alone on a balcony overlooking the celebrations below. It was a fine weapon. A kingly weapon. But he was no king. He had no people to rule. He had failed them all. It had been his first and only act as ruler.

“There you are,” Loki said, breezing out onto the balcony. He held two long, skinny glasses in his hands, full of some bubbly, Midgardian liquor. He strode forward and leaned against the railing, offering out one of the glasses.

“Here I am,” Thor said, accepting the glass and draining it in one swallow. The liquor fizzed on his tongue and seemed to evaporate to nothing, leaving behind only the faintest hint of fruit and alcohol. “Did the party not suit you? You seemed to be doing well enough for yourself.”

Loki hummed, sipping at his drink, looking lazily down upon the gathered masses, dancing to pounding music, though the night had near passed into morning. He’d loosened his hair and donned fabrics that would not have been out of place at one of Mother’s fine galas. He looked like a lost dream, a memory of the world Thor had lost, given life once more and spread out before him.

Thor clenched his jaw and looked away.

“I decided not to overstay my welcome,” Loki said, drawing Thor’s attention immediately back. He swallowed the last of his liquor, his throat working up and down. He proffered a bottle out of thin air and said, “It isn’t very good, is it?”

“No,” Thor said, and swallowed directly from the bottle, missing the mead of Asgard, it’s honeyed sweetness and the burn of it in the back of his throat. Loki watched him, brows arched, and Thor offered the bottle, raising it thoughtlessly to Loki’s lips.

Loki parted his lips without looking away, and Thor tilted the bottle up, watching Loki drink with an intensity he ought not, desperate to think of anything but the loss of their people. And that was an excuse, and a poor one, at that. He lowered the bottle and Loki licked across his bottom lip, catching a drop of liquid and Thor’s attention.

“I am glad you lived,” Thor said, taking another swallow, shifting so one of his hands rested by Loki’s hip. “I… thought I was alone, utterly.”

Loki reached for the bottle, his fingers curling over Thor’s. “You are not.”

Thor nodded, a bitter smile curving his mouth. It was strange to feel relief, but it surged through his veins, nevertheless. He could have been completely alone, the last son of Asgard, a king who lived through the murder of his people, but he yet had Loki. He could have picked no other to survive, instead.

He looked at Loki’s thin, clever fingers, pale over the roughness of Thor’s knuckles. Loki stroked his thumb back and forth over the scarred back of Thor’s hand, and Thor shivered, wants he should not acknowledge stirring in his gut. Loki tugged the bottle from Thor’s grip and took a long swallow. Thor stared, knowing he should not, and felt heat burning in his cheeks when Loki caught his eyes.

Loki slid from the railing, coming close, pressed against Thor’s side when he said, “You performed impressively.”

Thor narrowed his eyes, striving to ignore the tight heat in his gut, the stir he had ever felt from Loki’s closeness. “I aimed for his chest,” he said.

Loki flashed him a grin. “What luck that you missed,” he said. Thor snorted, looking away from his smile before it tempted him to things it ought not.

“Will you not smile, even?” Loki asked, quieter, the pound of the music almost overriding the words.

Thor stared down at his hands, to avoid looking elsewhere. “How can I? They celebrate the defense of their world, but our people are gone. I failed them and they are gone.”

“But you killed the man responsible,” Loki said, sliding his fingertips over the back of Thor’s hand, up to his arm, raising gooseflesh in his wake.

Thor barked a laugh. “We did. And that was justice, of a sort. But it does not satisfy. It does not bring them back or make right the great wrong he did.”

Loki said nothing, for an uncomfortably long time. Thor looked over at him, and found Loki staring at him, his head cocked to the side, something thoughtful in the gleam of his eyes. He swirled the liquid in the bottle back and forth.

“What?” Thor asked.

“Nothing,” Loki said, smiling all at once, blindingly wide. He turned and gestured at the sky. “Look,” he said, “the sun rises.”

#

The party lasted throughout the day. Thor lost track of Loki at some point; no doubt he had found some other fancy to capture his attention. Thor thought little of it, eventually wandering off to find a quiet room. He felt deeply tired, but sleep would not come to him, no matter how he tossed and turned on the bed.

He rose in the morning to find that no one knew where Loki had gone.

“Of course,” Stark said, when Thor brought the matter to his attention, hoping some of Stark’s tools would be able to locate Loki. “Of course he’s gone.” Stark scrubbed his hands up over his face, sighing. “So, what should we be expecting? Another alien attack? How long do you think we have before he tries to wipe out the planet?”

Thor frowned. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

Stark eyed him. “You know,” he said, “I don’t actually think I’m going to take your word for that. We’ll keep an eye out for him.”

“Good,” Thor said, and left him to carry out his own search. Loki ever disappeared without warning, sometimes vanishing for only a few moments, sometimes only returning after years. Thor had grown used to it, but never before had it been just the two of them.

Loki was all he had left of Asgard, of home. To have no idea where he was set Thor’s teeth on edge and made his stomach ache. If something were to happen to Loki, if he were to fall without Thor there, standing by his side…

The idea could not be borne.

#

Loki was nowhere to be found for weeks, each day eating away at Thor’s sanity. He seemed to have disappeared off of the planet, and Thor had not Heimdall’s sight to locate him. Thor whiled away the time as best he could, trying not to think of the myriad losses that threatened to smother him.

Loki was nowhere to be found for weeks, and then, one night, as Thor stepped out of his bathing room, there he was.

Thor gaped at him, grateful for the towel he still clutched. Loki sat on his bed, elbows on his knees, frowning at the wall before he grinned and rose to his feet. He wore a fine black shirt of Midgardian make, rolled up his forearms. His hair had grown yet longer. He looked a dream.

“Loki,” Thor said, dumbly, hurriedly wrapping the towel about his waist, where it seemed too small by far.

Loki’s smile stretched wider. He said, “Thor. Did you miss me?”

To admit it felt too telling. Thor felt a droplet of water slide over his shoulder and fought the urge to brush it aside. “I worried for you,” he said. “Where have you been?”

“I brought you something,” Loki said, ignoring the question as was ever his wont. He stretched out his hand, suddenly holding an aged book with a red leather cover, badly worn. Thor took it, frowning at the state of it. It looked ready to fall apart at any moment.

“What is this?” he asked, turning it back and forth, unable to open it and hold up the towel at the same time.

“It contains some of the tales the Midgardians tell of our folk. I thought it might interest you.” Loki plucked it from his fingers and placed it on the table by Thor’s bed.

“Where did you get it?”

Loki waved a hand. “From a place where no one seemed to be using it.” He arched an eyebrow, looking Thor up and down. “You look well.”

Thor’s tongue knotted in his mouth. He opened his mouth to say he knew not what, and Loki took a bracing breath, stepped up to him, cupped both sides of his face, and rocked up to kiss him.

Thor stared at him. His thoughts tried to race to some kind of understanding and then ground out entirely, overwhelmed by more pressing concerns.

Loki pulled back after but a moment, opening his eyes. He said, “Before you say anything, it is--”

Thor had no intention of saying anything. He had wanted—And all was lost—And—

He grabbed Loki by the shoulder and pulled him close, going for a kiss he had desired for too long now to resist it. Loki made a surprised sound against his mouth, and Thor swallowed it, kissing him fierce and careless, unsure why or how and uncaring.

Loki froze beneath his attentions for a moment, though he had started it, he put hands on Thor first, he--

And then his mouth softened, inviting, before he nipped sharp at Thor’s lip and then soothed the sting with a suck. Thor groaned, abandoning the towel to better hold Loki, to tug at the silken fabric of his shirt.

“Oh!” Loki exclaimed, when Thor pushed him back a step. His eyes had gone wide and startled—Thor could not even recall the last time he had seemed so surprised about anything, which made no sense, but Thor presently cared little. He could wonder over Loki’s motivations when they had not a bed presently available, and the time in which to put it to use.

Loki gripped at his shoulders when Thor tipped him back. Thor followed him down, catching his weight on one arm, bending to nuzzle at Loki’s neck, reddening the pale skin with the attentions of his mouth and the rasp of his beard. Loki bowed up beneath him, beautifully, just as Thor had always known he would, and--

And Loki’s buttons scattered satisfyingly across the room when Thor rended his shirt, needing access to all the skin beneath. He found scars he did not know, and for a moment the strangeness of that brought him up short, derailing the hot rush of want and desire in his blood. He traced his thumb over a curve of raised flesh over Loki’s ribs, ugly and poorly healed. There were other marks, here and there, imperfections he would have noted before; he had ever paid more attention to Loki’s body than he ought.

“I knew Thanos before you,” Loki said, his voice a rasp.

“He did this?” Anger followed Thor these days, aimless. It sprang back to life now, the scar tissue smooth and hot under his thumb.

Loki shrugged. “One of his particularly ugly sycophants if I remember correctly. They all blended together after a while.” He reached for the edges of his shirt, trying to close it over his chest, and Thor caught his wrists.

“Why did you not tell me?” Thor asked, his voice echoing the hollowness in his chest.

“What did it matter?” Loki turned his head to the side, setting his jaw. “You could not kill him more than you did.”

Thor sank against him, kissing his cheek, his jaw, his forehead. “I could have tried,” he said, and Loki laughed, a cracking sound, before pushing hard on Thor’s shoulder, rolling him. Loki’s weight rested across his hips. His hair fell forward. His smile shone like a knife Thor wanted to cut himself open on.

“Such romance,” Loki said, bending forward, kissing Thor with a blend of sweetness and sharpness that inflamed his blood. Loki groaned, squirming a bit, the soft fabric of his slacks rubbing--

Thor sat upright, depositing Loki fully into his lap, that he might better rip the shirt off of Loki’s arms and toss it aside before reaching for the belt at his waist. “I liked that shirt,” Loki complained.

“You can get another,” Thor said, fisting his fingers in Loki’s hair and kissing his mouth, tossing him down to the bed and following him, and they said little else after that, though Thor knew words fell like prayers off of his lips when finally he sank deep into Loki’s willing body, centuries of wants all fulfilled at once.

#

Afterwards, Thor stumbled from the bed to grab his forgotten towel. His head buzzed, but pleasantly. He half-expected to wake. When he turned back to the bed, he found Loki twisted, his fact set in concentration as his fingers moved back, between his legs.

Thor’s cock twitched. He asked, thickly, “What are you doing?”

Loki’s expression did not waver. He said, distracted, “I need--it is sliding out--”

Thor was on him, then, rolling him that he might see, his gut tightening even as his cock hardened. “Do you require it to stay in you?” he asked, his voice a low, rough thing. There were smears of wet across Loki’s skin, glistening. Thor rubbed his fingers across it.

Loki gasped, cheek pressed against the sheets, one hand fisted around a slat in the headboard. “Yes,” he said, “actually, I--”

Thor shivered, want hitting him low in the stomach. “Some has escaped,” he said, before helping, feeling Loki shiver and quake around his fingers. “Perhaps I should replace it with more?”

Loki made a wordless sound, and cried out, louder, when Thor gripped his hips and pushed forward and made good on his word.

#

Thor had sated the hungers of his body through a night before, finding pleasure over and over and over once more. He could not recall continuing through the following day before, but the fire in his blood burned and rekindled with the briefest touch or the merest glance from Loki’s eyes.

Perhaps that was what happened when you longed for someone for so long.

He fell, finally, into an exhausted slumber sometime after the sun sank, still buried within Loki, for it seemed the best way to satisfy whatever desire Loki had to remain full. Thor curled his arm around Loki’s ribs, over the scars on his flesh, and buried his face against Loki’s hair.

“Sleep,” Loki said, quietly, and Thor hummed and listened.

#

Thor awoke slowly, his body heavy with satisfaction, muscles well-worked by activity that had been, for once, pleasant. He stretched and frowned, because no other body rested beside his. He opened his eyes, expecting to find a spread of dark hair on the pillows beside him.

The sheets were empty.

Thor sat up all at once, the warm pleasure of the morning draining away all in a rush. “Loki?”

No voice answered his call. He heard no movement in his rooms. He threw off the blankets tangled around his limbs, standing naked by the bed, looking around as though perhaps Loki lurked in some corner.

A note sat on the dressed. His name stood on the envelope, written in Loki’s swooping hand. Thor snatched it up, pulling free the paper and staring blankly at the message that awaited him: Read the book, Loki had written. Look for me before the turn of the year.

Thor tossed the note onto the bed and pushed open the bathroom door. He found the room empty, something in his chest going hard and tight.

He pushed the bedroom door open and stepped out, calling his armor as he went, feeling it form over his flesh even as the boy they called Spider-Man choked and flailed backwards. He eyed the boy, concerned for his breathing, and asked, “Have you seen Loki?”

The boy shook his head, his eyes wide, still coughing into his hand.

The tightness in Thor’s chest spread downward, turning into stone in his stomach. He moved down the hall, the memories of the previous night still terribly fresh in his mind, searching for what some part of his mind already knew was gone.

He found no sign of Loki, no rumor of his presence or when he had left. He had simply disappeared from Thor’s bed, taking with him all sense of comfort and warmth, leaving behind the memory of his touch and the pleasure of their joining.

Thor ended up back in his rooms, staring at his unmade bed, his heart clenched tight in his chest. He should not have taken such liberties. But he had hoped….

Thor turned his face aside, nausea climbing in the back of his throat.

Loki did not return as the day passed.

He did not return at all.

Thor returned, alone, to his room and his bed and the note, forgotten over the course of the day. He lifted the parchment and read again Loki’s brief instructions. It seemed a cold missive to leave after what they had shared, but perhaps Thor had overreached, driven by need to take what he ought not.

Thor traced a finger across Loki’s slanted writing and sat heavily on the edge of the bed, waiting for the ache of loss in his chest to disappear.

#

Thor’s first instinct was to look for Loki, but the problem was that Loki had already proved difficult to pin down when he did not want to be found. He had ever had a skill of slipping into shadows and evading the most careful of searchers.

The fact that Thor feared what he would find ate away at him, as well.

Thor had wanted and wanted for so long, for ages. And when he had finally satisfied the wild hunger in his bones he had dared to assume that Loki’s wants matched his own. But Loki had fled, afterwards.

Perhaps it had been nothing but a fleeting hunger, a desire to take pleasure with someone, anyone, who could withstand their might. Perhaps no one else could satisfy what Loki desired. Perhaps--

Thor gritted his teeth against the thoughts that haunted him, stalking him during his waking hours and his dreams. He had allowed desire to move him, he had taken what so long he desired. And Loki had gone, leaving behind nothing but a note and a book.

Days later, Thor looked down at the note, folded and unfolded so often that it had nearly split down the middle, and felt his shoulders slump downwards. Only Loki’s promise that he would return kept Thor from true despair. He could not be judging Thor too harshly, not if he promised to return.

Thor set aside the note and all thoughts of Loki, the sweetness of his mouth and the give of his flesh, sense memories he ought not to have learned. He picked up the book and opened it carefully, hoping, briefly, that it contained some hint of Loki’s whereabouts.

#

The book contained tales of his people, but told crookedly, full of mistakes or outright falsehoods. Thor poured over the tales Midgard told of his father, his people, himself. Some brought laughter to his throat, others great sadness. He could see in them the echoes of true events, like a tale told so many times over that it changes shape, retaining only the hint of its original form. He grieved at the reflections some showed, at tales of Loki’s mouth sewn shut, the birth of Sleipnir, of Ragnarok…

Thor put aside the book and covered his face with his hands, comforting himself that all the hurts visited on his family had not equaled the depth and breadth of what the Midgardians imagined they did to one another.

He felt no closer to understanding why Loki had asked him to read the book.

#

Time passed, a period of peace stretching out from Thanos’s demise as survivors counted their blessings and re-grouped. Thor turned his attentions to rebuilding efforts on Midgard, where much damage had been wrought by Thanos’s lieutenants.

The effort to create and repair kept Thor busy, filling his days and leaving him exhausted at night. He still slept little. His people were born to war and strife. He could wage battle for days on end, denied of food and drink and rest. Simple work drew little and less on his reserves.

The tasks left him too much time to think, his mind wandering to the line of Loki’s leg, hooked around his elbow, the sweet, clinging heat of his body, the darkness of his eyes when he cried out in pleasure.

Thor did his best to shake those thoughts away. The moon swelled and waned. Repairs proceeded. The year crawled along.

“You look bored,” Stark said, one day, dropping out of the sky in a flash of gold and red. “Bored and frustrated. Are you bored and frustrated?” Thor frowned at him, holding up one side of a building while technicians of some kind swarmed over it, fastening things into place. He felt, indeed, frustrated, but Stark could not address the cause of his malaise.

“Right,” Stark said, “I’ll mark that as a yes and a yes. Well, you might be interested to hear that we got a message from those Guardian guys who helped out with Thanos. It seems like maybe they could use a godly hand.”

Thor took a breath, his knuckles suddenly itching. A fight--a fight sounded like just what he needed. He asked, “What do they need?”

#

It turned out that the Guardians needed assistance rescuing some poor soul who had, apparently, brought down the might of the Thressian Empire. Thor considered the construction efforts that waited for him, the time yet left to the end of the year, and agreed with all haste.

Thor arrived in the middle of a battlefield gone mad, the Guardians outnumbered by an impossible order of magnitude. “I am Groot,” Groot, now nearly fully grown, yelled across the field as the Bifrost sparks died away.

“And I am glad to join you,” Thor replied, adjusting his grip on his axe, calling to lightning with his bones, satisfied with the ferocity of the battle that spread around him. He threw himself into it, time slipping and blending together, until they took their victory.

Thor burned the core from the last of the enemy’s massive ships, lightning jumping from the sky down to his hand, searing all that it met on the way. The colossal craft listed sideways, brought down by gravity as electricity crackled across its surface. “Nice shot,” Quill called, grinning with punchy delight.

Thor nodded acknowledgment, releasing the last electrical charges from his flesh as he strode across the remains of the battlefield. “Well met, my friends,” he called. “What brought you so deep into the Thressian Empire?”

“We picked up a distress signal,” Rocket said. “And I guess that since responding to one of those worked out so well last time, here we are.” He ejected a clip from his gigantic gun, elbowing Quill in the back of the leg as he did.

“I am Groot.”

“He’s right,” Gamora said, and she looked… different, Thor noticed, with a new scar down her forehead and a fresh slowness to her smile. “But I don’t think it matters if we did the right thing or not. It looks like we were too late.” She gestured at the ruined temple before them. It had been a fine structure once--only a few hours ago, probably--crafted of gossamer metals curving and twining up into the purple-pink sky. The remains lay twisted across the ground, still faintly humming with power.

“Don’t be so negative,” Quill said. “Our client could be inside. And grateful.”

Thor frowned, his adrenaline already leaving out, left to fade in the aftermath of battle. He said, wiping his axe on one of the dead, “I wish you luck with your client. I will--”

“Oh, don’t go. Come on, stick around, help us with this, we’ll catch up afterwards with some drinks,” Quill said.

“Yeah, and he’s not just saying that because it looks like we’re going to need your help clearing out this rubble, either,” added Rocket.

#

In the end, Thor stayed to clear away rubble. It was that or return to Midgard to do much the same, and at least with the Guardians the scenery was different.

He pulled apart chunks of stone and uncovered the entrance to the temple, aided by Gamora and Drax. The work was mindless and Thor held out little hope for their client. He had seen too much death to hope anymore for miracles.

He wiped his hands and stood back when Rocket scrambled through the hole they made, accepting the flask offered out by Quill, who looked only slightly uncomfortable with the act of kindness.

Thor took a long drink of the warm, sour liquid, grimacing as Rocket called up from below, “Uh, Thor. I think you’re gonna want to see this.”

#

“The good news is he’s alive,” Rocket said, while Thor dug into the remains of the Temple, his heart surging in his chest, beating at his ribs. “The bad news is he looks pretty messed up.”

“You are sure it is Loki?” Thor demanded, shifting a mighty pillar with a grunt of effort.

“Oh, I’m sure all right. You two make an impression.”

And then Thor did not have to wonder and doubt any longer. He shoved aside a fallen wall and opened a space large enough to admit him. He jumped down into the dark space below, smelling power and blood on the air.

“Loki!” he called, moving forward as lightning crackled across his skin, casting just enough light to see. “Loki, are you--”

The question strangled in his throat, answered by the scene before him.

Loki lay across a pile of rubble, debris scattered across his body. He’d sprawled out on his side, loose-limbed as you could only be when unconscious or dead. A terrible cut, purpling around the edges with bruises, curved over his forehead and into his hair. And one arm curled, loose, over the prominent swell of his stomach.

Somewhere above them thunder crashed, deafening.

#

Loki’s pulse beat in his neck, thready under Thor’s fingertips. His chest rose and fell as he breathed. Blood clotted in his hair and pooled on the stone, flowing in patterns carved into the rock.

Thor murmured, senseless of the words in his mouth, “No, no, no.” He worked his arms under Loki’s shoulders and knees, lifting him with all possible care. Loki’s head fell back over his arm. He seemed terribly pale, worm thin, save for the swell of his stomach.

Thor tightened his grip, striding forward and leaping, clearing the ruins in one bound, lightning dancing over his skin, filling the air with the sharp tang of ozone.

“Oh, shit,” Quill said, eyes widening as Thor landed in their midst.

“You will provide him with medical care,” Thor said, something dark and hard in his voice. “You will do it now.”

#

“I just want to be clear: we were here responding to his distress call. We in no way had anything to do with… this,” Quill said, not for the first time.

“I don’t think now is the time,” Gamora snapped, the words passing over Thor’s thoughts like water over rocks. He carried Loki into the ship, following Groot into what passed for a medical bay.

“I think now is exactly the time,” Quill said, background noise. “Did you see his face? That’s not the face of a guy you want to be angry at you about… well, anything.”

“He is not angry,” Mantis said, hanging back by Drax. “He is frightened. Incredibly frightened.”

There was almost relief in hearing someone else define his emotional state. He had not been able to manage it on his own, not through the terrible white noise in his head and the racing pulse in his chest. He looked up at them, feeling Loki’s blood soaking through his armor, and said, “Fix him.”

#

The Guardians’ medical facilities were laughable at best, but Thor knew not what a trip through the Bifrost would do to Loki in his present state. He dared not find out. Primitive medicine would have to do, unless it appeared to be failing, unless Thor had no other option, and then he would take Loki to Vanaheim, and take advantage of the healers there, who owed him still from the great beast he slew for them many years hence. They would be able to see Loki to rights, Loki and the child.

The child! His heart twisted in his chest at the thought. The child, the child! He knew little of the specifics of a pregnancy, but he had seen enough to judge their state, roughly. Loki was heavy with child, many months along. My child!

Thor had no proof, no proof but the timing, but Loki’s sudden disappearance. Had Loki known, somehow, immediately? His grasp of magics had ever exceeded Thor’s. Perhaps he could tell, somehow. Perhaps the shock had driven him away. Or perhaps he had worried Thor would be… unhappy, displeased.

He had written that he would return before the end of the year, which quickly approached. Had he planned to come back before he delivered the child, or after? Did he fear what Thor would say? Did he not realize—

“He’s going to be fine,” Gamora said, stepping up beside Thor, where he loomed by Loki’s sick-bed, unable to think of leaving the room. He looked over at her and found her eyes heavy with weariness. “You got him out of there in time.”

Thor let out a breath, relief settling in his bones. “And the babe?”

Gamora shrugged. “It seems alright? We’re not really… experienced with Asgardian pregnancies.”

Thor braced a hand on the medical bed, breathing carefully around the swell in his throat. He wished Mantis were there, briefly, to tell him what the tangle of emotions meant. He managed to nod, eventually.

“Is it…” Gamora started, before shaking her head. “We’ll be outside, if you need us.”

Thor did not look around to watch her leave. He just stood by the bed, staring down at Loki before reaching out cautiously to touch the curve of his stomach. The sound that tore from his throat was somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

#

Loki woke, after Thor knew not how long. He stirred, groaning, and Thor stopped breathing, the white noise in his head unbroken even as Loki cracked his eyes open and raised a clumsy hand to brush across his head.

“How do you feel?” Thor asked, automatically, and Loki froze, his eyes flying wide. Thor leaned over, concern digging into his guts. “Are you well?”

Loki turned his head slowly, his eyes focusing on Thor. “Ah,” he said. “Thor. How… unexpected to see you.” He tried to sit up, and Thor reached out, helping steady him, worry burning through him. Loki seemed too thin, delicate.

“Perhaps you should rest,” Thor said, unnerved by the memory of Loki, lying in the collapsing temple, unconscious. If Thor had not agreed to assist the Guardians, if Stark had not brought the problem to him, if--

“There will be time to rest later,” Loki said, rising to his feet. He seemed unbalanced, frowning around the room. “I recognize this ship. It will do.”

“Loki,” Thor said, catching his arm when he made to step by. He wanted to pull Loki close, to kiss his mouth, to make a thousand promises he could not yet comprehend. “We must speak.”

Loki stared up, his smile wan and tired. “I suppose we must. But the conversation will wait a moment. I need to speak with the captain.” And really, there was nothing for it but for Thor to follow him from the room, still trying to order his thoughts into coherency.

#

“I need to travel to Siren’s Fall,” Loki said, as soon as they stepped into the main hold of the ship, where the entirety of the crew seemed to have congregated. “The sooner the better.”

“Uh,” Quill said, frowning, his gaze moving between Loki’s face and his stomach. “Why?”

“I will pay you whatever you wish,” Loki offered in answer.

“Siren’s Fall it is,” Rocket said, springing to his feet, abandoning the game of cards he’d been playing with Mantis, Groot, and Drax. He hesitated in the doorway, cocking his head to the side to say, “I have just one question.”

Loki sighed. He looked wearier by the moment. “What?”

“It’s to settle a bet. Are you pregnant with one kid, two kids, or all of freaking Asgard?”

Loki smirked, his hand alighting briefly on the swell of his stomach. And the comment could have passed then, unnoticed, swept aside by Rocket’s snort of laughter as he stepped into the corridor. But something familiar about the quality of Loki’s smile caught Thor’s attention. Thor’s breath snagged unexpectedly in his throat and he grabbed Loki’s arm, drawing him away.

Quill sputtered something, but Thor disregarded him. They found a slice of silence out in the hall of the ship, where the engines hummed and the rest of conversation faded away. Loki arched an eyebrow at him, a question in his expression, and Thor unknotted his tongue. “Loki. Tell me true, are you carrying all of Asgard?”

The question sounded ridiculous—such a thing could not be possible, not truly possible, Loki did not even seem overly large—but when had Loki ever yielded to such petty concerns as credible achievability?

Loki shrugged, instead of laughing uproariously at the question or casting Thor a mocking glance. He said, “Of course not.” And Thor let out the breath caught in his chest, feeling some mix of relief and…. “By this point, it would only be most of the refugees.” He narrowed his eyes, tilting his head to the side. Considering. “Perhaps ninety percent of those lost on the ship.”

The words hit like a blow against Thor’s sternum. He reached out and braced a hand against the wall, his gut seizing hard. He managed to grit out, “What?”

Loki grinned at him then, his expression wild and devious, a sparkle in his eyes. “Did I cost you the bet?”

“You—” Thor’s tongue could not hope to keep up with the rapid-fire sleet of his thoughts. “What did—How?”

Loki shrugged, something infuriating in the smug delight curving at the corners of his mouth. “Well,” he said, his gaze dragging up and down Thor’s form, heat in his dark eyes, “surely you remember the—”

Thor stepped closer, bracing one hand by Loki’s shoulder on the bulkhead. He growled, “I did not impregnate you with our people.”

“Not for lack of trying,” Loki said, wetting his bottom lip, as though determined to distract Thor with hungry thoughts. “But no,” he said, before Thor could corral another question. “Your assistance was not so… direct. But are you not Thor, son of Odin, who slew Ymir and built from his body Asgard? Are you not Thor, son of Odin, who fathered all of Asgard?”

“He did not,” Thor said, “that is nothing but a story, told on Midgard.”

Loki hummed. “Yes. Stories have great power. And we are on Midgard. Or we were, when I worked the spell, anyway. I will have to return there, when my time grows close.”

Thor stared at him, expecting, now, for Loki to laugh at him and spin aside, mocking him for falling for such an obvious ploy. No laughter came. Thor rasped, “Do you mean it, truly?”

Something in Loki’s expression softened, just slightly. He nodded. “You will not be without a people, soon.”

The realization should have prompted exaltation, but something shifted cold inside of Thor’s chest, instead. He looked down at the swell of Loki’s stomach, a sickening sense of loss creeping up his spine. “Is there not—I thought—do you not carry a child, then?”

Loki took his time answering. Thor glanced back up at his face and found his mouth thinned, the amusement drained from his eyes. “I…” Loki looked to the side, his jaw twitching. “It seems unlikely. This seems to be a perverse consequence of the spell.”

Thor swallowed the taste of ash from his mouth. The idea had barely had enough time to grow in his mind, but the loss of it stung. He nodded, drawing back from Loki, unsure how to feel, no one emotion managing to rise to clarity in the maelstrom of his mind.

“I am sorry to disappoint you,” Loki said, bite in his voice, and when Thor looked up to object, he found the hall empty, nothing but a hint of cold to mark Loki’s disappearance.

“Oh, man,” Quill said, peeking his head from the main room, “that did not go well for a reunion with your pregnant lover, though I guess it could have gone worse.”

Thor ignored him and stalked down the hall.

#

Thor found Loki on the bridge of the ship, staring out across the waste of the stars. Rocket sat in his chair, fiddling with controls and staring at Loki out of the corner of his eyes. Thor touched Rocket’s shoulder and tilted his head towards the door, relieved when Rocket left with only a few grumbles about missing all of the fun.

Loki sighed, not turning away from his consideration of the void beyond.

“Why did you not tell me?” Thor asked, gripping the back of one chair, his jaw clenched so tightly that it hurt. Restraint came easier to him these days, than it had once. But sometimes it still proved a challenge.

Loki shrugged. His hand rested on one side of his stomach. “I did not want to get your hopes up. There was no way to know if the spell would work.”

“Did you think I would not have wanted to know? Did--”

“I thought,” Loki interrupted, tilting his jaw down, his hand curling into a fist at his side. “That I would not be able to bear your reaction if I tried to bring back your people and failed.”

Thor stared at him, wondering how much of the explanation was a lie, or at least a half-truth. Anger licked at his thoughts. “Do you think so little of me?”

“I think you have already lost enough,” Loki snapped, turning enough for Thor to see the twist of his mouth.

Thor scowled, glancing down at Loki’s stomach, quickly dashed hopes stirring in his gut. He scrubbed a hand over his face, trying to re-order his emotions. “Perhaps I have. But I would have borne the risk.” He blew out a breath and stepped up beside Loki, painfully aware of his closeness. “I should have been with you. You are… in a delicate state.”

Loki laughed, then, tilting his face up, his eyes crinkling in the corners. “I am not, truly.”

Thor snorted and set the thoughts aside. Worrying over them would serve no purpose. He would stand at Loki’ side, now, and ensure no harm came to him. He could do no more than that.

Thor’s thoughts turned to other matters, despite all his efforts to direct them away. “Did… That night. Was it only a necessity of your spell, then?”

The thought set ill inside his chest. The memories of Loki in his bed had been sweet punishment for months, a torment that plagued his thoughts no matter how many times he tried to dismiss them. He braced for Loki’s answer, unsure how to reconcile the idea of their intimacy being no more than a component of a spell, even one designed to bring their people back.

Loki took a breath, staring resolutely forward once more. He said, quietly, “No. Not entirely.”

Thor shivered, memories unfolding hot in his mind, the bow of Loki’s back off the bed, the spread of his hair across the sheets, his pale skin stained and reddened—

Thor shut his eyes, his teeth locked tight together, unsure even how to take the admission. His thoughts were in disorder, his emotions in a tangle he could not begin to unravel. He wanted… he could not even tell what he wanted.

“Uh,” Rocket said, clearing his throat loudly. “I can see that you two are having what might be called ‘a moment’ but, you see, you’re on the actual bridge of the actual ship, and I need to actually pilot us so we don’t run into a star. So.”

“Of course,” Loki said, turning aside, leaving Thor to stare at the emptiness of space, his hands clenched so tightly that his nails bit against his palms.

#

Thor should have, perhaps, gone after Loki again, but his thoughts were too busy for that. To find Loki again, after so long apart, to believe he would have a child and then have that belief dashed to the side… It was too much. Thor found a quiet space, put his head in his hands, and focused on breathing, until he no longer felt like screaming into the void.

And then he went to find Loki again. He had questions that needed answering. He found Loki standing in the escape craft, his fingers moving in strange configurations, his eyes rolled white up into his head, chanting. Thor had long ago learned not to interrupt a working. He settled in place, instead, and set to cleaning his axe.

So, Loki did not carry his child. Instead, he’d somehow managed to draw in the souls of all their lost, and Thor wondered if he intended to birth them all as infants, or if they would spring, fully formed, from the ether. He tried to imagine dealing with hundreds of newly born Aesir, grimaced, and Loki swayed.

Thor remembered not rising to go to him, but he clasped Loki’s arm, steadying him, the lingering remnants of magic tingling against his exposed flesh. “What are you doing?” Thor asked, listening to Loki pant, feeling a tremble in his limbs.

“Maintaining the working,” Loki said, his voice thready. “It is… complicated.”

Thor nodded, guiding him to sit; he seemed unwell, too exhausted, and something about the shape of his stomach threw switches in Thor’s head that he had not realized existed. He frowned at himself and said, “That is why you were on Thressia II? The temple held some component for this spell?”

Loki nodded, leaning his head back against the wall. A sheen of sweat had gathered across his forehead. “A nexus of power,” he said. “Not a component. As does Siren’s Fall.”

Thor offered him out a drink, and Loki drained it to the dregs in one long swallow. “This is what you have been doing, then?” Thor asked, not watching the movement of his throat. “Moving around the universe? Maintaining this spell?”

“Mm.” Loki closed his eyes, then. There were lines of exhaustion around them, and pain, as well. “My task nears completion. And you?” He cracked an eye open. “How goes the reading?”

Thor grimaced, looking aside, and Loki sighed. “Ah. I see. Well, you have yet a month. If you apply yourself, I have no doubt you will be finished by the time I return to Midgard.”

“I will not be separated from you,” Thor said.

Loki rolled his eyes. “Following me hither and thither across the stars will not entertain you. And there is another task I must ask of you. You must--”

“You--do you honestly believe you could convince me to leave you to face such danger on your own?”

Loki’s eyes narrowed, before he looked to the side. He said, “I do not actually carry your heir.”

“I care not what or who you carry,” Thor snapped, tasting lightning in his teeth. “Surely you realize what I--how I--” The words strangled out. If Loki was determined to misunderstand him, he would be misunderstood. He set his jaw and said, instead, “You would have perished, had I not found you on Thressia II. I will stay by your side.”

Loki stared at him for a moment, and then sighed once more. “Very well. Do not say later that I did not warn you. I suppose we will have to find time to arrange for you to rebuild Asgard, then. It will stretch my schedule.”

Thor rubbed a hand across his face, ignoring, for the moment, the comment about Asgard. “I believe,” he said, “that I can speed your progress somewhat.”

#

The Bifrost delivered them to Siren’s Fall in seconds, removing nearly a day of travel time. The Guardians had complained briefly of losing their payment, but Thor had left before they could get out more than a few words. They would, no doubt, find some other way to replace the funds.

Thor gazed out across a barren expanse of plain, and asked, “Where do--”

Loki bent at the waist and vomited, reaching out to grab Thor’s arm as he folded down. Thor swore, attempting to gather his hair as he retched. It ended after a moment, Loki breathing raggedly and wiping at his mouth as he straightened. “Are you alright?”

Loki waved a hand, ever dismissive of the concern he actually received, though he would turn waspish if it were not offered. “It occurs, sometimes. A side-effect. Come, our destination should not be far.”

Loki set off across the plain in a direction that seemed no different than any other. Thor frowned at his shoulders and followed, watching twin, watery suns rise overhead. Loki said, as they moved over featureless earth, “Do you truly have no questions about any of this?” He sounded bemused.

Thor shrugged. “In truth,” he said, “I do not know which question to start with. Why are you doing this? How is it possible? Why did you--”

Loki took a few more steps in quiet, and then he nodded. “The why should be obvious,” he said. “Are not all of the Aesir dead?”

The pain of that loss still stung. “And we revenged ourselves for their loss,” Thor said.

“Mm.” Loki shrugged. “And did that revenge ease the emptiness inside you? I know you are not satisfied with the punishment of their murderer.”

Thor shivered. He said, “The how, then. The dead do not return to the living, Loki. Not even through sorcery.” A part of him raged that such an attempt was blasphemy and cruelty, in any case. Their dead had fallen in battle. They would be in Valhalla, welcomed into that hallowed hall, free now from the tribulations of the living. But that part of him was shamefully small.

Thor had spent all the ages of his life protecting his people, only to fail when it mattered the most. It was a sin he would have given much to wash away, to satisfy with something besides only cold revenge.

“Not with that kind of attitude,” Loki said, pausing and lifting one hand, frowning at his fingers for a moment before grumbling and changing direction slightly. “The Aesir were not fated to die on that freighter. Thanos cut threads that should have stretched for millennia. Those souls lingered, caught between the worlds of the living and dead. I felt them. Perhaps you did, as well.”

Thor closed his eyes, remembering a hundred imagined moments, when he had sworn a hand reached out to support him, or a voice called to him in desperation. “They did not pass to Valhalla?” he asked, fresh grief staining his voice.

“No. They could not. They were held back from it, prisoners of wrongful timing, wandering bodiless through the gray space between realms.”

Thor shuddered. What Loki spoke of sounded as a fate worse than death. Thanos had not died badly enough. He swallowed, fighting down anger that had no just outlet. “And you have found a way to… to give them bodies?”

“Yes.” Loki adjusted their course slightly once more. “I have tethered most of their spirits. And when the wheel turns at Yule I will bring them back.”

Thor shivered, though the temperature around them was mild. There was something like cold iron in Loki’s voice, something sure and hard and unrelenting. It was not a tone he was accustomed to hearing from his brother, who flowed like quicksilver.

“Ah,” Loki said, finally drawing to a stop. “Here we are. Find what comfort you can. This will take time.”

#

Indeed, the ritual took the better part of a day, during which time Loki crafted a circle of runes across the earth and then stood, still as stone, in the middle of it, his form shimmering as though putting off great heat, though the air around them dropped steadily in temperature.

Thor stood sentinel beside him, axe drawn and at hand, though this world seemed dead and abandoned save for them. He did not blink or waver at his task, though unseen fingers brushed across his cheeks and arms and shoulders, though unspoken voices whispered “yes” and “help us” and “please” against his skin.

Loki shuddered, finally, and collapsed to one knee in the middle of a circle of frost. His shoulders shook with each breath and a tinge of blue had crept into his skin. Thor took a step forward and hesitated, long experience with sorcery staying his movement. “Is it done?” he asked.

Loki jerked out a nod, and Thor crossed to him, helping him to his feet and frowning when he swayed. “We must go to Yythrawl,” Loki said, his voice a dry rasp now.

“You must rest,” Thor said. “And we have yet the time.”

#

The Bifrost opened on the threshold of Stark’s newest creation, a grand complex that would have rivaled some of the finer homes on Asgard. Loki folded neatly at the waist once more, his sick falling on a bed of delicate flowers. He gripped at Thor’s forearm as his shoulders heaved. After, he said, “I think you do that differently than Heimdall.”

Thor doubted, privately, that it had anything to do with his technique. Loki’s condition seemed the far more likely culprit, but he only said, “Perhaps it takes practice. Come, we will find you something to break your fast.”

He helped Loki straighten and then knocked upon Stark’s door.

A voice said, “Welcome, Thor of Asgard, Point Break, First of His Name,” and the door opened. The inside of the manse was cool and brightly lit. The walls were covered in art that Thor assumed was in fashion in Midgard. Music floated on the air, something with many drums and a discordant beat.

“Stark,” he called, “I am returned from assisting the Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“I was wondering what was taking you so long,” Stark said, stepping out of one of the many doorways off the long hall, his head down as he read letters picked out in light, floating before him in the air--he claimed not to be a sorcerer, but Thor saw little difference between his technology and the magic of Asgard. “How did it go? Did you bring me--” Stark looked up and fell silent, his jaw clicking shut with a sharp little sound.

“It went well,” Thor said, to give Stark some time. He might have swallowed his tongue. He stared at Loki, gaze flicking lightning fast from his face to his stomach and back again. Thor drew Loki a little closer. “I rescued Loki.”

“No,” Stark said, shaking his head. “No. Nope. Haven’t had enough coffee to deal with this.”

“There is nothing for you to deal with,” Loki said, and Stark snorted.

“Right,” Stark said, turning on his heel and walking away. “Because pregnant gods showing up on my doorstep won’t affect me at all.”

“He is not actually pregnant,” Thor said, following Stark down the hall.

Stark paused in the middle of a step, and then said, “You know what, just go ahead and explain. What the hell. I’m curious now.”

#

“So what you’re telling me,” Stark said, after Thor had laid out the situation to the best of his understanding. “Is that Loki here is knocked up, not with one child, but with upwards of a thousand Asgardian refugees who are going to be looking for a place to live in around, oh, a month?”

“That is crudely accurate,” Loki said, nibbling at a piece of toast and ignoring the rest of the food placed in front of him.

“And you want to use some space on Earth to settle them?”

“That was our initial plan,” Thor said, though the idea seemed to have occurred long ago; the events on the refugee ship felt like they’d been in another life. “We would not take up space already used by Midgardians, and our presence would be a boon for your people. You are known to the universe, now. Thanos will not be the last to bring war to your world, and our folk are warriors born.”

Stark leaned back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling. “You know this isn’t my decision, right? I’m just one guy. I can’t wave a hand and say, sure, you look like hardy folk, have half of Greenland, barely anyone is using it.”

“You do not have to give us land,” Loki said, setting aside the toast and picking up an apple.

“Oh, I don’t?” Stark asked, looking down and arching one eyebrow. “Because if you think you can just—”

“Thor will create the land.” The crunch of Loki biting into the apple echoed in the cavernous dining area.

“He will?” Stark asked, squinting over at Thor, who frowned at Loki.

“I will?”

Loki sighed, pursing his lips and allowing just the slightest slouch of his shoulders. “You will,” he confirmed. “It is one of the requirements of the spell. The working will not succeed unless the Aesir have a home to return to, a true home, Asgard, the hearth of their hearts, built by one with the blood of Odin.”

Stark stared at him and then rubbed at his eyes. “Well,” he said, “good luck with that, I guess.”

Loki smiled, a thin, sharp expression. “We will, undoubtedly, need it.”

#

“I cannot create land,” Thor said, once Stark shook his head and left them to it, swearing to speak with the others about their situation. “I am no sorcerer. I have none of your skill with magic.” He was supposed to be allowing Loki to rest, but the impossible task weighed on his mind terribly.

Loki sank down onto the bed Stark had given them, the circles under his eyes grown yet darker. His skin looked papery thin and his blood vessels stood out beneath it, too similar to the way he had looked, suffocated at the end of Thanos’s arm. He said, unaware of the way Thor’s gut clenched, “You are the son of Odin and Frigga. You call and control the soul of every storm ever to rage across any world. Do you somehow yet labor under the misapprehension that you lack magic?”

Thor felt his cheeks heat. He said, gruffly, “I do not know—”

“You will find a way,” Loki interrupted, sinking onto his side and curling up, as best he could. He pillowed his head on his arm and shut his eyes. “I left you instructions, even, but I will aid you, if you require it, after I rest. Wake me in no more than three days. Our time is short.” And he fell immediately into sleep, as still and quiet as one of the dead.

#

Thor watched Loki sleep for a time, for hours, taking advantage of the quiet stillness to attempt to bring some order to his thoughts. By the time the sun began to set, he gave up the task for a loss and put his head in his hands, thinking.

He knew enough of the history of Asgard to know that Odin had played no role in the actual creation of the land. The Aesir had sparked and grown there as a people, nurtured by the magic of their realm, blessed among the sentient races of the universe with knowledge and strength. His knowledge of Midgard’s myths regarding his people was less complete.

Loki slept, unmoving, when Thor rose and ventured from the room. He retrieved the red book, left to him so long ago, and rejoined his brother, concern and a sense of familiarity keeping him close. Loki, the space around Loki, reminded him of breathing the sweet air of Asgard after too long away, of seeing towers rising in the distance, of the fall of water off the edge of the world….

Thor shook the thoughts from his mind and bent to his work, looking into the past, into the tales of Odin’s creation of Asgard. He did not believe that a cow had been involved at any point in his family’s creation, but it was not the strangest story the Midgardians told of his folk.

The formation of Asgard itself felt… correct, if only in spirit. A world built from the bones and entrails and muscle of a giant, that made sense of a sort. He wondered that those in Midgard attested their own world as being the product of an eyebrow, but they were a strange sort and perhaps it suited their beliefs.

Thor knew, in any case, of primordial beings, though he had avoided those that yet lived. Their corpses littered the interstellar wastes, some of their carcasses lived upon, others surrounded by empty space where no creature dared make a home. Thor stared at Loki, the lines of exhaustion on his face, the swell of his stomach, and brushed his hair back from his face. His skin felt cool to the touch. His eyes moved beneath his eyelids, ever watchful. Thor bent and brushed a kiss across his brow, before standing.

He had never faced any of the great primordial beasts, not daring such an act even in his most foolish, impulsive moods.

But he had responsibilities, now. A people who needed a home, one that, according to Loki, only he could build. And even if the words were a lie, even if someone else could craft a second Asgard… The duty ought to have rested on Thor’s shoulders. He gave the order that destroyed their home. He led them when Thanos attacked. He failed to protect them.

The chance for redemption shone bright in his mind, a desire that called to the core of his soul.

“Rest,” Thor said, straightening and walking from the room, from the manse, to the gardens beyond where he could call to the Bifrost.

#

The battle did not take as long as Thor feared, though the Serpent of Ages fought viciously, and with a strength beyond any foe Thor had faced, save perhaps Thanos. But Thor had power of his own, now, hard-earned and filling up his bones, and he slew a beast the size of a moon, floating, afterwards, in the pull of its gravity, breathing the atmosphere already escaping from its dead form.

He could not bring all of it back. Not in one trip. So he carved through its neck for hours, until it’s head drifted free, and he brought that along, for it contained flesh, bone, blood, and brains, all the component parts used in the Midgardian tales of Asgard’s creation.

He left the head by Midgard’s moon, in a stable orbit around the satellite, and only then returned to Stark’s home.

Two days had passed. He had returned only just under the time Loki had requested to sleep. “Hey,” Stark said, when Thor alighted on his yard, Rhodes standing beside him, both of them wearing expressions of grave concern. “There you are. Did you know Loki was in a coma? We can’t wake him. Friday isn’t even detecting brain activity. He won’t eat, he won’t drink, he—”

“He but rests,” Thor said, too exhausted to explain the costs of magic. “I shall rouse him now.”

“What happened to you?” Rhodes asked, as Thor walked past them. “You look like you got in a fight with a lawnmower and lost.”

“It was not a lawnmower,” Thor said, ignoring the pains in his body—they were bearable, and Loki had said he needed woken in three days. Thor would not risk the spell, the fate of his people, by failing to follow such a simple instruction. “And I won.”

Stark swore, and then asked, “Your little field trip didn’t have anything to do with the object my satellites just picked up around the Moon, would it?”

“It is not a threat,” Thor said, and stepped into Loki’s room, shutting the door behind him. Their questions could wait. Loki slept as Thor had left him, unmoved. Thor closed his eyes and breathed in and for a moment, just a moment, it was like being home, truly home. He opened his eyes, refreshed, and sat on the bed, reaching out to touch Loki’s shoulder. “You have had your three days of rest,” he said. “You must awaken.”

Loki’s eyes opened. He looked no more rested than he had. Thor’s chest ached for him. “Can you not rest longer?”

Loki turned slowly to look upon him, grimacing slightly at the movement. “I cannot,” he said, frowning. “What happened to you?”

“I killed the Serpent of Ages,” Thor said, looking down at his hurts for the first time. The deep puncture in his side bled still, freely. The lacerations on his arms stung with the remnants of poison. Each muscle ached and burned from overuse. “I have returned with its head.”

Loki stared at him for a moment, and then a smile curved the corners of his mouth. “A good start,” he said, reaching out to press his hand to the gouge in Thor’s side, magic leaping from his fingers to bind shut the wound. “Where have you left it?”

#

“Excellent progress,” Loki said, after Stark showed them an image of the head, taken by one of his far-seeing devices.

Thor frowned, looking at the flattened, rounded shape of the head and feeling a chill down the back of his neck. “It did not look like that when I left it,” he said.

“Stories have power,” Loki said, as though that were an acceptable answer. “You will need much of the rest of the body. Deliver me to Yythrawl while you retrieve it.”

“Wait,” Stark said, holding up a hand. “Wait, wait, wait. Are you telling me that you’re actually building a new continent out of… monster parts? Is that the thing that we’re saying is happening here?”

“I am doing nothing of the sort,” Loki said, downing a glass of water. “Thor is. Now, we do not have the time for a delay.” He held out a hand to Thor expectantly.

“That’s not how continents work,” Rhodes said, frowning at the entire lot of them.

“What a learning experience this shall be for your people,” Loki said.

Thor nodded to Rhodes and Stark, and said, “We will return. I thank you for all of your assistance.”

#

Loki’s illness after the Bifrost did not come as a surprise this time. He spat on the ground, afterwards, and said, “It will take me most of two days to complete this part of the ritual. Return for me then.”

Thor snorted, turning to take in the view off of the mountain they had landed upon. Snow and ice stretched for as far as the eye could see; here and there large creatures moved about, covered with spikes. “I will keep watch over you.”

Loki sighed. “Your time would be better spent--”

Thor gripped his shoulders and turned him, so that Loki had to look up into his face. “I will keep watch over you,” he repeated, and color crept across Loki’s cheeks, before he looked to the side, nodding.

“Very well,” he said. “Suit yourself.” Loki moved into position, grumbling to himself before finally settling on a location that pleased him. Thor leaned against a rock, the cold biting through his armor, and stared out across the sky, his aches and pains slowly easing as the day passed, his body knitting back together.

The sun set, eventually, giving way to dark skies filled with dancing lights. Thor watched them writhe across the stars, his breath steaming in front of his face. No clouds of steam rose from Loki’s mouth or nose. He stood, impossibly still, even as snowflakes fell from above, swirling around him, landing on his hair and cloak and refusing to melt.

“There,” Loki said, strain in his voice, finally moving with the second setting of the sun. He took a step and his knees gave, both of them. Thor caught him, hissing at the chill in his skin, so cold that Thor’s fingertips froze in place.

“Loki!” he cried, startled by the blue of Loki’s lips, and the heaviness of his head, leaned against Thor’s shoulder.

“I am alright,” Loki lied, but well, so firmly that Thor almost believed it.

“You need rest,” Thor said, for he could think of nothing else to offer, but that they abandon this mad spell, this glorious chance to return their dead to life, and he could not make his mouth shape those words. Not yet. Not while some strength yet remained to Loki.

“We need the Serpent of Age’s body,” Loki countered, trying to take some of his own weight. “Come, I will help you gather the most useful pieces.”

Thor frowned at him. His stomach seemed, impossibly, larger, while the rest of him wasted away. Thor called the Bifrost and this time Loki did not vomit on the other side. He folded up, instead, consciousness abandoning him, so it was just as well that Thor already held him. Thor lifted him, grunting at the effort and surprised—Loki weighed more than he should, more than any dozen men should, another side-effect of the spell, perhaps.

Stark looked tired when he opened his door, tired and worried, and more familiar faces waited behind him.

“Look,” Stark said, after Thor spread Loki out across the bed, where he sprawled insensate. “Look, we’ve been talking, and we’re not really sure—”

“We can discuss your concerns later,” Thor said, too exhausted to bandy about pretty words. “Allow no harm to come to him. I will return.”

#

Thor had hunted a great many beasts, looking for glory and adventure. He knew what pieces of a creature were prized, and he carved them from the Serpent of Ages, working though the void of space bit at his skin, though the air in his veins grew stale, though exhaustion bound him up tightly. He dragged heart and liver free from the beast’s corpse and carried them back, back to Midgard, to the flattened disc floating by the moon, barely resembling a skull at all.

Thor left the organs there—perhaps story would know what to do with them, he did not—and returned to Loki.

The rest of the Avengers waited for him, worry on their faces and in the way they held their bodies. “Thor,” Rogers said, stepping in front of the rest, wearing a soft shirt and pants, almost unfamiliar without his uniform. “We were hoping to talk with you.”

Thor braced his axe on the earth and leaned against it, calculations playing behind his eyes. Last time, Loki had requested three days of sleep. This time, he had passed out before he could set a limit, but Thor dare not let him rest his fill. Magic was finicky and cruel when denied. He would wake Loki after two days, and deal with the consequences if he judged the seriousness of their situation wrongly. That left him yet a few hours. He said, “It is good to see you well. Speak your piece.”

Rogers nodded, motioning Thor forward, into the cool halls of Stark’s abode. The others watched him with wary eyes. “Listen,” Rogers said, once they had entered an open room, “listen, we understand how much your people mean to you. But…”

“But they died,” Romanoff took over where Rogers faltered, her hair as red as blood once more, her arms crossed over her chest. “They died and the dead don’t come back.”

Thor stared at them, his friends, near vibrating with their anxiety. He said, bracing a hand against a wall, unsure when last he had slept, or even eaten, “Loki believes they can be returned.”

“Yeah,” Stark said, frowning. “See, the thing with Loki is that he also believed he could conquer the planet a few years back. Remember that?”

Thor frowned over at him. “He aided us. Thanos would not have been defeated without his assistance.”

“Maybe.” Stark shrugged. “Maybe not. But now he says he’s doing some big magic to bring your people back and, Thor, buddy, I can’t help but noticing that’s exactly what you want to hear.”

“What are you implying?” Thor asked, feeling his temper stir beneath his skin. His exhaustion made it harder to reign in.

“I think what Stark is trying to say is…” Rhodes frowned. “Well. Are you sure he’s telling you the truth? How do you know this isn’t some scheme—”

“To what end?” Thor frowned, looking across his allies and friends. “There is no throne for him to take. Asgard That Was drifts through space as dust. There is no warlord for him to placate. Thanos is dead and rotting, his corpse left for the carrion birds and the maggots. What do you imagine he intends, beyond the revival of my people?”

“We don’t know,” Romanoff said, shifting her weight. “And frankly that makes us a little nervous.”

“Your concern is understandable,” Thor said, breathing out the frustration in his chest. “You knew Loki at his maddest point. But I have known him for a millennium.”

“Right, yes, and shouldn’t that worry you more? He turned into a snake and bit you when you were children,” Banner said, speaking finally from the corner where he had ensconced himself.

Thor shrugged. “And I used to hold him beneath water until he stopped struggling.”

The others stared at him. Stark said, finally, “Must be a cultural thing.”

“Look,” Rogers said, frowning down at the ground. “This is all beside the point. Are you saying you trust him? You really believe he’s going to make a bunch of monster guts into a new Asgard and bring people back from the dead?”

Thor stared, judging the question as best he could in his exhausted state. “Yes,” he said, finally, watching them exchange glances with one another, speaking words in the narrowness of their eyes and the hardness of their mouths.

Rogers started, “Thor, what he’s promising you, it isn’t possible, it just—”

“You do not understand,” Thor interrupted, softly. “I heard tell my father slaughter ten thousand enemy soldiers on the night before a battle, moving from tent to tent with impossible speed, drawing his blade across their throats that they might not even raise a word of alarm.” Probably that tale belonged to Hela, now that Thor thought about it. He placed that thought to the side.

“I watched my mother heal the core of a diseased planet. I have seen Loki snuff out a sun, extinguishing all heat and light to cut the heart out of an enemy to Asgard. I have fought the entire army of Reiilia on mine own, taking neither food nor drink for seven days, wounded grievously, knowing that if I could but break the lines before me I would have victory for my people, that healers would shove back in my intestines and close my skin, and spare my life.”

The others stared at him, their eyes grown wide and their breath coming short. He turned away from them.

“I know the abilities of my people. And I have seen the cost Loki pays,” he said, his voice rough and dry. “If he says he can do this thing, if there is even a chance he will succeed, I will believe him.”

“Fair enough,” Rogers said, still with that quiet frown. “But what if he’s lying about the costs. What--”

“Perhaps he is.” Thor shrugged. It would not surprise him, not truly, to find that Loki’s scheme including more aspects and details than he’d yet seen fit to reveal. “Perhaps he will ask for more from me. But I cannot conceive of a cost I would refuse to pay to have my people returned from their unjust death. Do not try to incite doubt in my heart again.”

He stalked from the room, his heart racing too fast behind his ribs, and sank with exhaustion to the mattress by Loki’s hand. “Loki,” he called, gripping his shoulder, “you must wake.”

Loki’s eyes opened, hazy and unclear. A tinge of blue colored his skin and he radiated a chill. He asked, “How long did I sleep?”

“Two days,” Thor said, resting still his hand on Loki’s shoulder. He felt… thin, beneath his clothes. Terribly so. “I knew not how much time we could spare.”

Loki groaned, leveraging his body up, pausing once he sat to breathe, a hand braced to his stomach. “None,” he said, and then he gasped, and bent over, arms curled around his waist. Thor steadied him, alarm ringing in his nerves, his hand brushing the curve of Loki’s swollen stomach.

Something moved beneath his finger, something firm pressing out against Loki’s skin, and Thor almost recoiled, staring down in shock.

“Your people grow restless,” Loki said, soft, panting, looking up through the fall of his hair, his mouth set into a sloppy grin.

“Our people,” Thor corrected, a roll of movement pushing against his palm.

“Not yet,” Loki said, looking to the side to disguise a grimace--one he wanted Thor to see if he bothered hiding it so poorly. “I am famished,” he said, after but a moment.

Thor nodded. “Then you must eat.”

#

Loki feasted in the shiny kitchen of Stark’s manse, all manner of food, in an array that seemed bizarre but that Thor did not question. Once he had eaten nothing but crescent loaves for a fortnight for some spell of his, once he had eaten only the peeled skins of grapes for a week. Magic had requirements that were often harsh and sometimes simply strange.

“You must be excited,” Romanoff said, sitting across from Loki with a smile that looked wistful on her full mouth. She was otherwise quiet, reserved, her hands folded in her lap. “Do you have a name picked out?”

Loki glanced up at her, narrowing his eyes. He said, “Some ploys only work once, no matter how well executed they are.” And then, “But I suppose I would, incidentally, if I carried a babe, which I am sure you have been informed already that I do not.”

Romanoff’s mouth twitched briefly into a smirk as she leaned back, her body posture relaxing into a slouch, the understated grief she had worn falling away all at once. “Fair enough,” she said. “I don’t suppose you’d like to tell us what you’re really up to?”

“Do you imagine I have been untruthful?” Loki asked, tilting his head to the side. He had eaten enough to satisfy a squadron of Asgard’s fiercest warriors and yet still looked hollow cheeked. Thor pushed a plate full of some sweetened pastry closer to his elbow.

“It’s not a stretch. You are the god of lies,” Romanoff said, plucking the pastry Loki had rested his fingers on from the plate and taking a bite. She made a queer expression before chewing, glancing down at the delicacy with brief puzzlement.

“Among other things,” Loki said. “Trickery. Mischief. But it would be vain to assume I must always be tricking you. I enjoy a challenge, after all.”

Romanoff swallowed, finally, taking another bite before she spoke. “And just who are you tricking right now?”

Loki grinned, looking for a moment hale and healthy. “Wait and see,” he said, standing finally from the mostly emptied table. “Good health, Natalia Alianovna Romanova. Volkov boyat’sa, v les ne khodit.” He inclined his head to her as she stared, wide-eyed and blank-faced, and then turned aside. “We can tarry no longer,” he said, “Let us go.”

#

Loki fell to his knees halfway through the ritual, but the air around him yet hummed with magic and Thor yet heard the whispers of ghosts on the wind, and he dared not step forward to break the circle. He could only wait, tension building within his bones, until at last Loki waved a hand, swayed sideways, and collapsed to the ground.

“You cannot keep on like this,” Thor said, when Loki roused enough to open his eyes.

“I have not much left to do,” Loki said. “Should we falter so close to the finish?”

And the answer to that was no, no, they could not. The thought turned Thor’s stomach to stone. Loki was all that remained to him of their people, of his life. And the sour weight of the risk to him hung heavy around Thor’s neck--if this working went wrong, if it rebounded back, Loki could be lost, too, Thor would be alone, utterly on his own--

But if it went right so much would be corrected. The risk felt worth the reward, but only just.

“Help me stand,” Loki said. “We will skin your serpent and prepare our next step.”

Thor took him back to Midgard, instead. He collapsed into unconsciousness at the edge of the Bifrost, unable to complain about his directions not being followed.


#

Thor skinned the serpent., peeling it’s ancient, scaled hide back from flesh and muscles and dragging it across the wastes of space, back to the slowing turning disc that looked more and more like a continent by the day. A very large continent that no longer orbited Midgard’s moon. It had… shifted, taking a position along Midgard’s orbit, but on the other side of the Sun.

Thor frowned across the mountains sprung up around the borders of the new land, sparkling rivers flowing out of them, atmosphere caught by the formation’s impossible gravity.

He had never thought too deeply about the geography of Midgard, but it seemed unlikely the planet would be able to handle such a… large body of land. He had no idea how Loki planned to bring it back around, in any case.

Thor shook his head, dismissing the thoughts. Loki had asked him to build it. He could, it seemed, do that. All other considerations could wait.

#

Loki did not wake, when Thor returned and tried to rouse him. He had grown colder while Thor tarried, cold and still, as though turning to ice. The skin around his hairline and across his fingers was darkest blue. Thor shuddered, and told himself that perhaps Loki needed only longer to sleep; he returned to the Serpent and severed a section of ribs and flesh from its corpse, bringing it back to Earth.

The task took nearly a day. Enough time for Loki to recover, he hoped, he prayed. Thor went to Loki’s side without washing, his axe strapped to his back. He found the blue crept yet further across Loki’s skin.

Sour fear tanged in the back of Thor’s throat. He curled over, gripping Loki’s shoulder, wincing at the cold radiating from him. “Loki,” he said, shaking as much as he dared. “Loki, you must wake.”

“He cannot,” a voice said, familiar and dreaded, though Thor had sensed no other in the room. Hela. Thor spun, axe loosed and in hand in a heartbeat. Hela stood in the closed doorway, her green and black armor mended, her hair heavy and loose around her shoulders, her eyes dark and her mouth pale.

She said, staring past Thor to Loki’s still form, “Did you know that in the Midgardian stories, Odin had two brothers who helped him tear Ymir apart to build Asgard?”

“Stay back,” Thor snapped, the room heating as lightning splintered across his skin, flashing her shadow across the door, twisted into strange, impossible shapes that did not resemble the form she currently took. She was ferocious, that was true, but much of her power had been tied to Asgard That Was--she would be weaker, now, and Thor had everything to fight for, he had to get her away from here, away from Loki and the hope of Asgard, he could then--

“Relax, brother,” she said, her arms crossed, her nails painted black and shiny as the claws of a tiger. “I have not come to fight you. I am not yet grown strong enough for that, despite the succor of this world. Do you know, on Asgard I only felt satisfaction on the battlefield, surrounded by the dead, but here people die every second of every day.”

“If you are tormenting--”

“Please,” she waved a dismissive hand. “I do nothing to them. I do not have to do anything to them. They perish of sickness, hunger, and old age. And they kill one another, constantly.” He sensed no lies in her words, but they granted little comfort.

“What is your purpose, then?” Thor demanded, keeping his position between her and Loki’s unconscious form. If he had tarried--if he had delayed but a moment--she would have been alone with him. The thought shot ice through Thor’s gut.

Hela shrugged, her narrow shoulders rising and falling elegantly. “I am the goddess of death. He has been dabbling in my realm for months. I could hardly ignore his transgressions.”

“He is not for you,” Thor ground out.

Hela rolled her eyes. “Nor do I have any desire to challenge you for him. Do you imagine me to be so mad that I would destroy the chance for my home to return?” She closed her eyes and breathed deep, some of the hollowness fading away from her cheeks. “I never thought I would feel Asgard again. Not after you left that beast destroy it.”

“Ah,” Thor said, thrown suddenly off his guard. She did not seem overtly threatening, as such. He saw more curiosity in her, than anything. But her mad war had led to Ragnarok, to the destruction of Asgard That Was. He misliked the thought of her being anywhere near Loki, especially in his current state.

“He does resemble me, doesn’t he?” Hela said, ignoring Thor and frowning down at Loki. Her mouth thinned. “I suppose Father thought it would be so easy to replace me.”

That thread of poison wound down into Thor’s breast and bit deep. He did not know the truth of the accusation, but someone had obviously given Loki an Aesir appearance--either Odin or Frigga. And he could not deny the physical similarities between his siblings. Hela sighed. “I suppose I cannot hate him for it. He will not succeed, you know,” she said, narrowing her eyes as she stared down at Loki.

Thor’s skin prickled. Conversing with Hela felt like trying to keep up with Loki on his particularly mad days, except he had not a thousand years of experience following the winding trains of her thoughts. “What?”

“The working,” she said, stepping forward and giving his hand a disgusted look when he stretched out an arm to bar her path. “It is too much for him in his condition. He weakens by the hour. He will never wake from this sleep. I can feel it.”

Thor glanced back at Loki, still and pale as finest marble. “You underestimate him.”

Hela snorted, tossing her dark hair back over her shoulder. “No,” she said. “I give him all the credit he is due. Now, let me past, that I might grant him the strength he needs to finish.”

Thor shook his head. “You expect me to believe--”

“I expect you to believe nothing, save that I want our world back as much as you do,” she snapped. Shadows grew behind her, stretching up the walls, filling up the room. “Do you know the cost I paid, to build Asgard? To keep our people safe and secure? Can you comprehend the millennia I spent, waging war for love of our land? Only to be denied it? He can bring it back. But not alone. He knew that. He told you, you are just too much of a fool to realize. Odin and his two siblings built Asgard in the Midgardian stories. How lucky that three of Odin’s children survived.”

Thor breathed in and breathed out. He wished Loki would wake, to say one way or another. But he needed not Hela’s abilities to sense Loki’s weakness. He might not wake at all, if left unattended. Thor ground his jaw tight and stepped to the side. He said, “If you--”

“Yes, yes,” Hela interrupted, waving a hand as she moved past. “If I harm a hair on his head you will snap my neck, I understand.” She bent, bracing one hand on the mattress by Loki’s head and rolling him onto his back. She drew a nail down the middle of his chest, and then flattened her palm across his sternum.

Green energy swirled out from her skin, sinking down into Loki’s body. He shuddered, some of the blue fading from his face and neck. He breathed deeper, his chest visibly rising and falling. His eyelashes fluttered.

“There,” Hela said, her voice raw as she lurched back, one arm curled protectively around her ribs. “It is done. I have no more strength to spare him.” She dragged the back of her wrist across her nose and Thor saw the glint of dark blood on her skin. “Consider it an early gift for the Nafnfesti, brother. Until we meet again.” And then she straightened and was gone.

“Thor?” Loki groaned, twisting on the bed.

Thor shook his head. “I am here. So was Hela, a moment ago.”

Loki stilled on the bed, his color still returning--he looked better than he had since Thor found him amongst the rubble. He said, “Was she?”

Thor stared at him. “Did you know she would come?”

Loki shrugged, sitting cautiously, as though testing out the movement. “I hoped,” he said.

“You did not think I should know?” Thor’s blood still hummed, pounding too fast. He wanted to shake Loki, or grab him and kiss him, and dared take neither option. There had been no indication of Loki’s feelings for him, and no time to consider them, really.

Loki rubbed a hand over the center of his chest, where Hela had touched him. “No.”

“Loki--”

“What would you have done with the knowledge?” Loki asked, standing without swaying, some life and fire behind his eyes for the first time in too long. “Worried? Fretted about her appearance? Faltered in our course? We had not the time. You needed to remain focused.”

“You cannot just decide to withhold--”

“Be angry at me later,” Loki interrupted, his mouth pinching tight. “We have less than a week left. You must take me to Jotunheim, now.”

Thor stared at him, tongue suddenly numbed. He said, “You jest.”

Loki straightened his clothing. “No,” he said. “It is the last point of power I must visit.”

Thor looked aside, tasting bile in the back of his throat. He would have not chosen to take Loki back to Jotunheim at any point. But heavy with Asgard… He shuddered. “There is no other way?”

Loki stepped to stand before him. He said, “There is no other way.”

And Thor nodded, his heart heavy, and led Loki from the manse.

#

The ice on Jotunheim stretched from horizon to horizon. They landed on a glacier, one so old that the ice had gone sickly gray. Wind howled around them, full of stinging grains of ice and a chill that cut through Thor’s flesh and sunk teeth into his bones. The sun overhead was hidden by swirling clouds.

“You should go,” Loki said, standing unaffected by the cold. “Before you freeze.”

Thor frowned out across the glacier, loosening his axe. The Jotun were not fools and they would not remember Loki fondly. “I already see riders. What am I supposed to do with the Jotun army?”

Loki’s mouth twitched. “Keep them talking,” he said. And then he stretched out his hands, and the air around him fell yet colder. Thor paced around him, moving to keep feeling in his fingers and toes, watching the ice around mistrustfully.

The first of the Jotun arrived inside the hour, charging out of the mists on a great beast with six muscular limbs and a face like a hatchet. It drew up well outside of Thor’s reach, staring down at him with bloody red eyes. “Peace,” Thor called. “We have not come for battle.”

“Then you should not have come,” the Jotun said, drawing the blade across his back, which warped the surrounding air with cold. Other shapes moved across the glacier, coming closer with speed. The Jotun beast paced to one side, trying to circle around Thor.

Thor tried a smile. “I don’t want to fight you,” he said. “Any of you.”

“Step aside, then, Odinson,” the Jotun said. “Deliver the regicide’s heart to my blade and consider any enmity between our people closed.”

“I can’t do that,” Thor said, holding his smile through force of will. “But surely we can come to some other agreement. I don’t have trade to offer right now. Or land. But--”

The Jotun charged, making to leap over him, and Thor cursed, swinging his axe, slicing through the stomach of the great beast, which screamed horrendously as its entrails spilled out across the ice. “I was saying,” Thor said, as the Jotun scrambled from the saddle. “Why don’t we work something out?”

The Jotun sneered at him. “More of my people will be here soon. Waste your words if you will. They mean nothing on Jotunheim.”

Thor cursed under his breath. He did not want to kill these folk. Their war with Jotunheim was long over, and he had not an army at his back. He could fight them, but only days remained until Yule. He doubted he would finish with them by then.

Surely there had to be some way past this, some topic of conversation that could eat away at least a day--Loki had been known to argue for weeks about such subjects as the color of the sky, if only he were not--

“Wait,” Thor said, clearing his throat and regretting already the choice he prepared to make. “He carries the last of Laufey’s line.”

The Jotun went still, some of the red light from its eyes fading. “What?”

Thor stepped slightly to the side, revealing Loki’s form, his stomach quite obvious with his arms outstretched. Thor wetted his lips, his thoughts racing ahead of his tongue in a stormy rush. He knew not the state of Jotunheim, when had there been time to find it out, but he had seen enough other worlds after the death of a leader. He could… extrapolate. “Tell me,” he said, “how goes the civil war? Which of your warlords seems poised to gain a hollow victory?”

The Jotun had eyes only for the swell of Loki’s stomach. There was something hungry in his gaze. “You know nothing,” he spat.

“Of course not,” Thor said. “That’s why I’m asking. How warm has it grown, without Laufey’s sorcery to maintain your world?”

The Jotun’s lips peeled back in a snarl. “No babe could fix that. Much less the child of a traitor.”

“No child walks the path of their parents,” Thor said, his heart racing as though they exchanged blows instead of words. “You need someone of Laufey’s line or Jotunheim will thaw and fail. You have no other option but Loki or his children. Perhaps they will turn aside from you. Perhaps not. If you kill him, you will never know.”

For a moment they stood in a stalemate. And then the Jotun’s gaze shifted over to Thor, weighing. “A halfblood child,” he said, apparently to himself. “Of Odin’s line.”

It was… an assumption that Thor should have perhaps foreseen. He opened his mouth, words he could not foretell poised on his tongue, and the Jotun said, “There is logic in your words. Perhaps I will carve the babe from his stomach and raise it free of the venom of Asgard.”

Thor knew not what his expression did, but the Jotun’s eyes widened and he fell back a step when Thor snapped, “You could try.”

The Jotun took another step back, sheathing his blade in a smooth movement, glancing to the storm clouds roiling across the glacier. “Very well, Odinson. “I will take word to my people about this… development.” And he turned then, and lopped across the ice, eating up the distance with an easy stride, meeting the next of the approaching Jotun and conversing as Thor took a deep breath and tried to blow heat back into his fingertips.

#

The Jotun conferred and argued, raised voices floating sometimes across the creaking ice to Thor. Hours passed as the group grew, warriors slamming spears into the ice to make a point, bickering with one another before, finally, some agreement was reached and the entire group proceeded forward.

They did not rush in. No weapons were brandished. Thor planted his feet in front of Loki and leaned the head of his axe on the ice and waited, striving not to shiver.

“Well met, warriors of Jotunheim,” he called, when they drew close enough.

One Jotun in the lead, a huge warrior with but one blood-red eye and a scar splitting his chin, nodded back. “Hail, Thor, son of Odin. I am Gangr.”

Thor searched his memory for the name, relieved when recollection dawned across his thoughts. He inclined his head. “You fought well at the Battle of Two Suns.”

Gangr smirked, swinging down for his great mount. He towered over Thor, nearly ten feet tall without even boots, and nearly as broad across the shoulders. “I slaughtered a thousand Aesir in a day at the Battle of Two Suns.”

“That is the tale I heard,” Thor said, mildly. What did it matter, now? He had led the entirety of his people to their doom. If holding a fraught conversation with this old enemy was a cost of bringing them back, he would pay it.

“You have grown, boy.” Gangr narrowed his eyes, looking over Thor to Loki. His lips pulled back, revealing teeth that had not yellowed with age, instead looking almost blindingly white against his blue skin. “Why have you returned to Jotunheim?”

Their delay had given Thor time to think of an answer for that, though it was not a good one. He shrugged. “We are finishing a working.”

Gangr nodded. “For Asgard.”

That brought Thor up short. He said, “Um. Yes, actually. How did--”

“Word of Asgard’s fate has reached even our frozen little rock.” Which should not, technically, have been possible, but the fact that smugglers had set up a fine black market to and from Jotun had been a poorly kept secret, in better times. “I visited your world, when I was younger,” Gangr went on, his gaze going wistful as he stared at something in the past. “I even took an Aesir lover. A sweet, pink thing.” His eyes refocused, and he nodded at Loki. “He feels as your realm did.”

“The working will harm not you nor your world,” Thor said, mostly because it was what he had planned to say, and he had nothing better rise to the forefront of his thoughts.

Gangr snorted. “So our sorcerers have said. We will allow him to finish.”

Thor stared. He asked, against his better judgment, “Why?”

Gangr said nothing for a long moment, and then he shrugged. “Jotunheim fails. Without either Laufey or the Cask of Ancient Winters we cannot go on. Our people will wither and die. Our realm will pull apart into the ether. We know this. Some accept it. But I do not. Our peoples have warred for aeons, and it has brought both of us to ruin. But now our people are your people, by blood and bone, and we see, Thor Odinson, how far you would go for you and yours.”

He stared at Loki as he spoke, at Loki’s stomach, and Thor thought of the mistaken assumptions being made. They ought to be corrected, for the sake of honesty, but honesty would not propel them forward in any useful way. And so Thor bit the inside of his cheeks and said, “What are your terms?”

Gangr spoke without looking at him, still. “Finish your great working. Return Asgard to life. And once you have served the Aesir, you will come back to Jotunheim. You will set Jotunheim to rights. And the matter of succession will be settled.”

Thor nodded. It was a better deal than he had hoped to arrange, though once the truth of exactly what Loki did and did not carry came to light things might go badly. A mad, shivering part of his mind suggested that it would be easy enough to provide the Jotun with an heir, should it prove necessary.

Loki had not refused the act, before.

“We have an accord,” Thor said, memories of Loki’s past acceptances thawing his gut, at least. He set those thoughts aside, as best he could.

“Very well.” Gangr stepped back, his eyes still on Loki, as though he could not bear to look away. “We will watch for your return, Thunderer.” His blood-red eyes finally met Thor’s gaze, and there was something cold and determined there. A desperation. “Do not make us wait too long,” he said, and then he turned, and marched away.

Thor breathed out, not daring to relax. They would be watching him, still.

He kept up his guard, just in case not all of Jotunheim felt as reasonable as Gangr.

#

No Jotun attacked before Loki swayed, ending the ritual, though several passed nearby through the long hours, staring with the banked hunger of starving wolves. Thor took Loki’s elbow, not entirely unconvinced that they would be left to leave without a fight.

Loki blinked around the glacier, his body radiating cold. He said, “I expected more bodies. What did you do?”

Thor adjusted his grip on the axe. They could discuss this later, in safer climes. “I kept them talking,” he said.

Loki glanced up at him, head cocked to the side when he asked, “Did you?”

And Thor opened the Bifrost, because he could think of nothing else to do in the face of Loki’s curious scrutiny.

#

Hela’s gift must have been potent, for Loki did not collapse on Midgard, nor even grow sick. He wavered for a moment, Thor’s grip tightening on his elbow, and then straightened. “What must we do next?” Thor asked. “Do you have time to rest?”

Loki did not answer for a moment, pressing a hand to his stomach, instead, with a strange twist to his mouth. “Yes,” he said, finally, “I can rest for no more than a day before the final ritual. You must retrieve what remains of the Serpent of Ages”

The final ritual. The words reverberated in Thor’s bones, tied up with some much hope he could not breathe for a moment. All at once, he doubted the worthiness of the Serpent. Perhaps he had yet the time to slaughter some other beast, to add its blood and bones to Asgard To Be. He said, “Very well.”

#

Thor left Loki to sleep, to gather what remained of his energy, and dragged back to Asgard To Be what remained of the Serpent of Ages, before returning to Stark’s abode. He frowned on arrival, for there was a strange flying craft in the yard and no one stepped out to greet him.

Something cold slid down the back of his spine and he did not release his grip on his axe as he stepped through the door. A voice he did not know barked, “Do it.”

And Stark said, “Hey, whoa, no, you never said anything about killing him.”

And Thor stopped breathing.

“What did you expect us to do, Stark? My job is to protect this planet, not to feel good about myself. I said--” Thunder cracked overhead, quite outside of Thor’s control, the roll of it stretching on and on.

Thor strode forward, thrumming with the energy of the storm. He heard Loki say, sharp and goading, “You waited too long, Thaddeus.”

“Shit, I said--”

Soldiers waited outside Loki’s door, Midgardian soldiers, bringing up guns as Thor moved towards them. Thor extended a hand and they slammed against the wall, electricity dancing over their forms. Thor stepped over one, into the chamber where he had left Loki, crowded now with armed men.

Loki knelt beside the bed, his arms bound behind his back, his hair tangled around his face. Stark stood in front of him, his hands stretched out, a bracelet on his wrist blinking. Soldiers surrounded them, a dozen men filling up the large room. And man wearing a fine suit held a pistol, pointed down at Loki and--

The roil of thunder deafened even Thor. He smelled smoke as lightning hit the walls, burning against paint and wood and metal. He struck out, trying to aim for the guns, hearing the Midgardians cry out as they were thrown back.

Stark shifted towards him, saying, “Hey, Thor, buddy, I--”

“Get out of my way,” Thor said, the restraint it took not to knock him aside hard bought.

Stark stared for a second and the color left his face. He said, “Really not sure I should do that. Listen, I know this is important to you, but--”

“But your people would murder the entirety of my people anyway?” Loki struggled to his feet, awkward in his current state, but quiet, still.

“Put yourself in our shoes, okay, for just a second. You showed up, telling us that you’re going to make a new Asgard here, on Earth, and fill it up with Asgardians that your brother, Loki, who attacked our whole planet a few years ago, is actually pregnant with, by you, if I’m reading the situation right, which is…” Stark waved a hand. “That’s a whole other thing, I knew you always had some Byronic vibes, but that’s not the point. The point it… How did you expect us to respond?”

Thor snapped, “Not as you have. Now, step aside.”

“And if I do?”

When you do, I will take Loki someplace safe. “

“Look, you don’t need to--can’t we just talk about--”

“No.” There had been enough talk. Thor could bear it no longer. He took a step forward and Loki leaned forward, whispering something against Stark’s ear. And Stark’s eyes rolled back in his head, and his knees folded, and he collapsed, landing in a loose-limbed sprawl across the floor.

“It’s so upsetting to see friends fighting,” Loki said, and Thor ignored him, stepping over Stark and grabbing him close. He called the Bifrost without hesitation, energy punching down through Stark’s roof; he could not bear to remain in this suddenly unsafe place any longer.

Asgard To Be shimmered with light. Thor delivered them unto a field surrounded by purple mountains, the sky overhead shining, alight with the brightness of Midgard’s sun. Soft grasses grew to mid-calf, improbably long and terribly familiar. The air smelled like home. Thor could not even appreciate it.

He turned Loki, reaching for his hands and the bands there. He dug his fingers into the metal and pulled, rending the bindings apart and tossing them to the ground in disgust. Loki pulled his arms around, rubbing at his wrists as Thor turned him again, touching his face--pale but undamaged--his throat, his shoulders, his stomach.

“All is fine,” Loki said, catching his hands, his fingers cool and soothing. “Peace.”

Thor exhaled, his hands curling then around Loki’s ribs, holding him close and meeting his eyes. Loki’s hands rested on his body, one on his arm, one on his chest, more touch than he had gotten for so many months.  “I thought,” he said, his tongue knotting in his mouth. He had thought it would all be for naught, that all hope for the future would be swept away in the blink of an eye.

Thor gazed upon Loki, reaching out without thought to brush hair away from his face. Loki’s eyes opened, brilliant green under the clear light. His lips were just parted. They were the only two living beings on the world. Thor found his fingers threaded back into Loki’s hair, all of the tension of the last year caught inside his ribs, stirred to ferocious life by the too-close threat of the Midgardians. He wanted--

“I will finish the working here,” Loki said, looking to the side, tension in the line of his shoulders. “This is a good place. Your will is strong,” Loki turned his face skyward and closed his eyes. “You have shaped it well. I must finish my rest first.”

“Of course,” Thor said, thickly. “I will watch over you.”

Loki looked at him, gaze inscrutable, and did not offer any arguments. Perhaps he sensed he would not be able to win. “Very well,” he said, and sank down to the sweet grass, curling on his side, pillowing his head on his arm. After a time, Thor settled beside him, gazing up into the swirling colors of the sky.

A flock of birds passed overhead, a hundred strong and growing stronger as he watched, new individuals coalescing into being on the outer edges of the flock, formed from motes of light and dark.

Thor gasped, watching them, and reached out, resting his hand on Loki’s shoulder, wanting to share the sight with someone, even if Loki yet slept, drawing his energy for the final rush.

#

Loki awoke some hours later, rising from the sweet-smelling grasses with a stretch. A pair of ravens set on a tree across the clearing, watching them in silence. Thor could not decide if he recognized them or not. “You do fine work,” Loki said, stifling a yawn behind one hand.

“I still do not understand what I’m doing,” Thor said, setting aside the ravens to focus on Loki.

“Mm,” Loki said, combing back through his hair with his fingers and frowning around the clearing. “This is as good a place as any. I must prepare.” He glanced across at Thor, something measuring in his gaze. “And so must you. You must bring food and water. Some kind of clothing. You must feed and cover them as they return.”

Thor swallowed. “Feed them what?”

Loki shrugged, pacing away in what seemed an aimless path before finally stopping and nodding in satisfaction. “You’ll figure something out,” he said, before raising his hands to shoulder height in one abrupt motion. The air hummed and shimmered in front of him.

Thor hesitated, staring at him, but in truth he could think of nothing on Asgard To Be that would threaten Loki. He was safe here, or as safe as he could be made, in any case. Food and water, he thought. And clothing. He could obtain those things.

Perhaps, he thought, watching a fine, white hart dart through the trees, he would not even have to leave the meadow. There was room amid the fragrant grasses. Thor closed his eyes and pictured an apple tree, old and gnarled and heavy with fat fruits of shimmering gold. He imagined the crispness of the flesh and the burst of sweet flavor across his tongue, Idun’s apples given form once more.

He heard a sound like a sigh and when he opened his eyes a tree stood before him, leaves yet unfurling on the branches, fruit plumping even as he watched. He shivered, though the sun warmed the air, and turned aside from the tree.

Drink. They needed drink. There was no reason he could think of why a spring could not rise here, nurturing the apples and their people. Thor imagined clear waters bubbling forth from a split rock, so cold that a taste made the teeth ache, so pure that it cleaned mouth and throat and gut of any discontent.

He opened his eyes to the burble of water, overflowing down a new upthrust in the earth. His head ached terribl.

“It’s getting more difficult, isn’t it? To shape this place?” Loki asked, stepping up beside Thor and plucking an apple from the tree. He sunk his teeth into its flesh and made a thick sound as he chewed. Another apple sprouted from the tree, blossoming and ripening in but seconds to replace the first. Loki picked that as well, handing it out to Thor, who ate with ravenous hunger that seemed oddly satisfied by the single fruit.

Thor said, “Is that what I’ve been doing?” He watched Loki kneel by the spring, cup his hands, and raise the icy water to his lips.

Loki’s throat worked interestingly when he swallowed. “Yes. Our time is growing short,” he said, standing, water pooled in his palm. He offered it out to Thor, and Thor took his wrist, bending his head, the single swallow of water slacking his thirst. “The working comes to an end. The world will not remain malleable for much longer.”

Thor nodded; in that time, in that place, the explanation made sense to him. He said, “How will we bring Asgard to Earth?”

Loki smiled, then, pleasure showing even below his exhaustion. “I do not believe we will,” he said, and Thor nodded. That was, he thought, probably for the best.

He said, “I did not expect you to finish so soon.”

Loki snorted. “I needed only to create an anchor.” He gestured back at a single glowing mote of light in the middle of the clearing. “Now I will raise a temple. And then…” He shrugged.

Thor stared at the gleam of light and thought he heard laughter on the wind, familiar voices, a brush of touch across his cheek. He closed his eyes for a moment. “I will… go get some kind of covering,” he said, his voice thick. He dared not fail at his portion of the task. They were so close. He felt it.

#

There were a thousand markets on a thousand worlds. Midgard would be closest, but Thor doubted his welcome there, at the moment. He saw no way they would be able to contain him, but why take the risk? Stark had proved to be stunningly cunning when pushed, after all.

Instead, Thor went to the market on Alfheim, where the air swelled with song and each breath brought a new scent. He moved through brightly colored stalls, ignoring the calls of the merchants, looking for the first simple covering he might find--he cared little for the look of the thing. He only wanted to return, anxiety eating into his bones with each second he spent away.

He found a textile merchant beneath an awning that changed color with ever blink, flowing from one hue of the rainbow to the next so smoothly it was near impossible to detect the shifts. Woven tunics of a pale gray fabric caught his attention, well-made and soft to the touch.

“A fine eye,” a merchant said, sidling up to Thor’s side, all six of her eyes focused on him. She folded her hands in front of her stomach. “These garments were knitted by the--”

“I need 1,983 of them,” Thor said, the number arriving on his tongue out of nothing.

The merchant gaped for a moment, before recovering. “I’m afraid we do not have that amount in stock at present. You could place an order, we would create them as--”

“Give me what you have,” Thor said, an itching in his hindbrain urging him along. He left the shop carrying only a portion of what he needed and headed back out into the market.

#

It took hours and more than a dozen shops for Thor to gather what he needed. He brought portions back as he went, piling them near the tree and the spring, watching Loki’s progress as he raised his temple.

The bones of a building shimmered slowly into being before him, seven sided and stretching to a cathedral's height. As the hours stretched it gained form, growing solid. It appeared made of mother of pearl, covered with delicate knotwork and intricate carvings. The entire structure seemed to give off light, by the time Thor returned with the last of his prizes.

The mote of light, the anchor for their people, was hidden away somewhere inside of it.

Thor paced around it--it was large, but not impossibly so--it would not hold all of their people, not at once. He completed his circuit in time to watch Loki step away from it, bending at the waist, both of his hands going to his stomach.

Thor caught him up without understanding how he’d crossed the distance. “Are you well?” he asked, Loki leaning into him, his face twisted into a rictus of what looked very much like pain.

Loki panted for a moment, his fingers curled like claws around Thor’s forearm. And then he nodded. “Well enough.”

“What happened?”

Loki shrugged, straightening finally. “Everything has a cost,” he said, turning to gaze around the field, his gaze softening as he did. “It is ready,” he said, sounding awed. “It truly is.” He laughed, just a little.

Thor frowned down at him, the beauty of Asgard To Be temporarily set aside. He knew well enough that nothing came without a price, especially not magic. And he had not lied when he told his Midgardian friends that he could not imagine a price he would not pay to have his people returned. But he thought of the pain on Loki’s face, and Hela’s portentous words, and something in his stomach turned over.

“Loki,” he said, touching his side. “How much does this cost?”

“No more than we can pay,” Loki said, and smiled up at him. “Trust me.”

And perhaps Thor should not have. But he had never learned how to resist it.

“What now?”

“Now it ends,” Loki said. “You must not enter the temple during the ritual. No matter what you hear or what you see or what you fear. Do you understand?” A chill climbed Thor’s back. “Thor?”

“I understand,” Thor said, thick tongued.

“Good. I will fail, if you do. All will be lost. Now. When they come out to you, you must cover them and feed them and give them water. You must do this. The task cannot be given to another, do you understand?”

“I understand.”

“We cannot be interrupted,” Loki said, closing his eyes and setting his jaw--and swirls of color burst forth across his skin, darkest blue and brilliant gold. “Once we begin, we must finish. We will not have another chance. Do you understand?”

“I understand.” The words felt like a benediction, like a vow.

Loki smiled at him, a strange light behind his eyes. And he said, “Good,” and he turned, and he walked into the temple.

#

Thor knew not what to expect. He paced to and fro in front of the building, the only structure on all of Asgard To Be. Overhead the sky grew dim, moving towards a purple twilight illuminated by strange constellations. He flexed his fingers, in and out, trying to ease some of the terrible tension moving in his muscles, and--

--and the temple gave a great thrum, the sound so deep that it shook the hollow spaces inside Thor’s gut. Light pulsed up through it, from the ground to the uppermost spire, where it gathered, multi-colored and throbbing. It built, spooling tight, and then shot forth, upward, into the darkening sky, a lance of color that did not fade away.

Thor stared, his mouth falling open, and from inside Loki cried out.

Thor took a step forward before jerking to a stop. He could not enter the vaulted doorway, dark and promising. He had sworn. He gritted his teeth together, waiting for another cry, for something, anything, else.

He braced himself and was still not prepared when, a moment later, a man, naked as the day he was born, stumbled out the door, moving like a colt just born, his eyes wide and his skin covered with a strange, shimmering liquid.

Thor only stared for a moment. And then wild joy burst from his chest, and he jerked forward, grabbing one of the robes he had bought. He draped it across the man’s shoulders, and the man turned to stare up at him, blinking rapidly, shivering. “Welcome home,” Thor said, leading him to the tree and plucking an apple. “Eat this,” he said, “you will feel better.”

The man stared at Thor for a moment, and then cautiously lifted the apple to his mouth and took a bite, his eyes widening as he did. “Good,” Thor said, moving to the stream and finding there a golden ladle that he did not recall. He dipped it in the water and held it out. “Drink.”

The man drank, water running out of the corners of his mouth as he shut his eyes. And then he let out a shivery breath, and said, tears running from his eyes, “This is Asgard. I am back on Asgard?”

“Yes,” Thor said. “Welcome, brother.”

#

The dead given new life walked out of the temple, one after another, into Thor’s waiting care. Some seemed more confused than others. They all ate and drank. Thor covered them all, the work keeping him from thinking too much, though his heart gave a jerk every time Loki cried out--that did not happen every time, either, only occasionally.

He tended his people, falling into the rhythm of it, until a much-missed face walked out. “Thor,” Brunnhilde said, her hair loose around her shoulders, her face free of any markings, her Valkyrie armor gone once more. She marched up to him as he lifted the next tunic from the pile. “What’s going on? The last thing I remember I was fighting some asshole who moved things with his mind and now we’re… where are we?” She frowned at the sky as Thor settled the robe around her shoulders.

“You are on Asgard,” Thor told her, plucking an apple from the tree--it never seemed to run out. He did not wish it to, and he could feel that power pulling on the back of his head.

Valkyrie only held the apple when he placed it in her hand. “Asgard,” she said. “Asgard burned.”

“Yes,” Thor agreed.

She frowned. “What--”

“Eat the apple,” Thor told her, bending to fill the ladle with clear water. He heard her take a crunching bite.

“I don’t understand what’s going on,” she said, muffled by the fruit in her mouth.

“I’ll explain later,” Thor said. Or perhaps Loki would, since Thor had no clear idea where or how to start. “Drink this.”

She downed the liquid in one swallow and then scowled at him. “This is water,” she said, accusatory.

And Thor smiled at her, so wide his cheeks ached with it. He had not known if he should expect her or not; she had been gone from Asgard for so long. But she had returned, and he delighted in her company, and--

And she looked over his shoulder and dropped the ladle to the ground, her expression open and stricken as she pushed around him. “Ashlan,” she whispered, so much yearning in the name that it made Thor’s gut ache in sympathy. He turned to watch her break into a run, hitting the woman who had just stepped out of the temple and gathering her into an embrace, stroking her hair, her face, cupping her jaw, kissing her, there, beneath the new sky.

Thor grabbed a cloak and walked over to them, hearing Brunnhilde panting, “You were dead, you were dead, I lost you, I--” Brunnhilde kissed her again, eyes squeezed shut, brow furrowed. Thor draped the cloak over Ashlan’s shoulder--he did not recognize her, but obviously Brunnhilde did.

“What is going on?” Brunnhilde demanded, holding Ashlan close as she blinked around the world, wide-eyed, open-mouthed. “Thor, what is happening? How is it happening? We were dead. Both of us were dead. I thought--I thought I would get to see her, again, in Valhalla, but this isn’t Valhalla, this is Asgard, I--”

“We weren’t in Valhalla,” Ashlan said, gripping at Valkyrie’s arms. “We were… nowhere. In nothing. For so long. It is… hard to remember.”

Thor held out an apple. “Eat this,” he said, because another woman was stepping out of the temple, and he had no further time. “And drink. I will explain later.”

#

The Valkyries—because they must have been the Valkyries, killed before their time, drifting as the other lost Asgardians had—gathered together, weeping and holding on another for a moment, before dispersing among the crowd, forming a perimeter. Thor was glad for the presence of warriors, the relief creeping through his thoughts as he tended to his people.

True night fell, the darkness lit by the light pouring from the temple. Hours must have passed, but it was hard to track them. Hundreds passed out of the temple, gathering in the clearing and spreading out, families finding one another, friends embracing, all of them talking of what they had experienced. Thor caught fragments as they moved around him, talk of an empty place, devoid of warmth or light.

He shivered just to think of it, welcoming his people back to the world of the living through the long watches of the night. Loki’s cries grew more frequent as the hours passed. Thor heard him curse and weep, as dawn began teasing the horizon with hints of pale purple light. Thor set his jaw, resisting the call in his bones, even when he heard Loki retching and the sound, finally, of screams bitten back.

The others stared at the temple as the sounds of agony grew more obvious, drifting closer, though they did not try to enter. “He said we must not go back in,” Brunnhilde said, when Thor asked. Her mouth was set in a hard line and he noticed that she still held onto Ashlan. “Will it kill him?”

The thought stabbed down into Thor’s gut, the question he had been avoiding for a month now. “No,” he said, because he had to believe that, he could not believe that he would have traded Loki for all of their people, for Asgard made again.

Brunnhilde looked at him and said nothing.

Loki’s cries grew hitching and wet, dreadful. A band of light encircled the horizon, pale yet, but a sign that morning approached. Thor frowned, because the stream of Asgardians had faltered. The meadow was full. Perhaps--

A figure moved in the doorway. Thor stepped forward, expecting Loki, thinking of what aid he might need, and Heimdall stepped forth into the world, blinking his golden eyes, steadying himself on the doorway.

Thor embraced him--he had almost dared not to hope for Heimdall’s return, Heimdall, who had died in battle, who had earned a place in Valhalla if any of them had. “My friend,” he said, wrapping Heimdall in a cloak and pressing an apple into his hands, the ladle ready in his other hand. “It is good to see you once more. I will explain--”

Heimdall gripped him tight, shaking his head. “Go to him,” Heimdall said. “Now.”

Thor blinked. “I cannot. I swore--”

“The working is over,” Heimdall said. “Or will be.” And he took a bite from the apple, and he grabbed the ladle from Thor’s hand and swallowed the draught in one great gulp. Around them the world went still and quiet, unnaturally so. The hair on Thor’s arms rose. The air seemed to draw back, like the tide washing away from shore, and then there was a sound so loud that Thor could not hear it, and a flash of blinding light.

When Thor blinked his vision clear, he found the temple dark. His people murmured around him. “Go to him,” Heimdall repeated, “Now.”

Thor did not argue this time. He strode forward, giving in to the desire he had suppressed throughout the night. He walked into the dark doorway, into cool air that smelled of… of blood, he realized, with a sick twist to his gut. There was no hallway to traverse. Only the door and the open room beyond.

Intricate carvings covered the chamber Loki had designed for the end of this mad ritual. The seven sides of the room matched perfectly in size. A straight path ran from the door to the center of the room, where Loki sat, hunched, surrounded by a robe of black and green, his hair falling loose in mussed strands.

Thor stared at him for a heartbeat before hurrying forward, concern eating at the back of his mind. He had never even heard of such a massive working being undertaken, much less carried out successfully. The cost would have to match the rewards, a thought that had plagued Thor over and over again.

“Loki,” he called, struck suddenly by his lack of preparation for… any of this.

Loki looked up, then, his expression full of strange wonder and the weight of exhaustion. He smiled, the expression crinkling his eyes. He said, “Thor. Come and see.”

“Are you—” Thor started, concern surging through his veins, only for the words to wither in his throat as he drew close enough to see what Loki held in his arms.

A babe. Loki held a child, a tiny thing with a shock of dark hair, waving reddened arms yet covered with some strange remnants of birth. Thor heard the sound caught in his throat, but could not decipher it. He swayed as though taking a blow.

Loki beamed up at him, looking deliciously satisfied. “It is just as well our people are returned,” Loki said, shifting so that Thor could better gaze down at the child, its eyes heavy-lidded as it sucked at one of Loki’s fingers. “Otherwise, how would you present your heir?” And Loki shifted, stretching his arms out, depositing the child on the floor by Thor’s feet, removing his finger from the child’s mouth, a stream of pale light stretching from a small cut in his skin to her mouth before he wiped it away.

Thor’s knees hit the floor. He did not recall planning to fall. He reached out towards the child, stopping a breath away from dark hair. He could not believe… None of the day’s revelations felt real, yet. He kept waiting to wake up, to have everything snatched away from him once more.

A child. A daughter. His heir.

He yanked the cloak off of his shoulders, barely feeling the fabric, lifting the squirming babe and wrapping her tightly, careful of her waving arms and legs, the delicate softness of her bones and flesh. She weighed barely anything in his hands. Her arms pinwheeled, her hands balled into fists, her face screwing up before Thor cradled her close and stroked a finger down her face, murmuring, “Sh, sh, sh.”

She caught a finger in one of her hands and squeezed, some of the indignation fading from her face.

Loki made a sound, terrible and gutted, and Thor looked at him to find him sagging, relief graven naked on his face. “You accept her?” he asked, his voice rough, scratched raw by the night.

Thor boggled at him, the emotion in his chest swelling yet further, impossibly, stretching his ribs beyond their limits. He brushed his fingertips over down-soft hair and the child blinked grey-blue eyes up at him. “Did you somehow imagine I would not?” he asked.

Loki stared at him, for a moment something haunted moving behind his eyes, and Thor tried to comprehend, to understand how Loki could have thought-- Perhaps he had never been clear enough about his feelings. Perhaps whatever doubt had eaten away at Loki for so long as not so easily soothed, perhaps--

Perhaps Thor needed to be more obvious. Decided, he fitted a hand against Loki’s jaw and pulled him close, kissing him desperately, exulting when Loki gave against him, melting into the touch.

“A daughter,” Thor said, his voice in rough shreds, after a moment, pulling away just enough to speak and breathe. “An heir. I thought you said--”

“I was mistaken,” Loki said, laughing, just a little, exhaustion filling the sound. “It seems I underestimated your virility. I forgot that you were a god of fertility on Midgard.”

The edge to his voice tore a laugh from Thor’s throat, giving an outlet to all the riotous emotion in Thor’s chest. He kissed Loki again, hard, needing to feel his mouth, to taste him, to share his breath. He said, when his daughter began to squirm indignantly, “Thank you.”

Loki looked pleasantly dazed when Thor drew back, mouth reddened and eyes heavy-lidded. Thor had gotten a child on him with one try before. The thought stirred something hot in Thor’s gut, something set aside for the moment as he stood, offering a hand down to Loki.

Loki’s fingers curled cool around his. Loki wobbled only slightly as he found his feet, flashing Thor a sideways smile and tossing his hair back, tugging his robe straight, but not before Thor saw the runes and swirls painted across his skin, the still closing wounds cut into his arms and across his chest.

“You are injured,” Thor said, frowning, tugging aside the robe.

Loki shrugged, ever eloquent with his body. “No magic is without cost,” he said. “I will heal.”

And there was nothing else Thor could say to that. The great magic had been worked. And he could not say he would have stopped Loki if he could have gone back. He kissed Loki once more, instead, an apology in the brush of his mouth, and gratitude. “Come,” he said, drawing back, turning Loki to the door.

The length of the room seemed to pass in a step. Without the door, Thor heard his people--his gloriously returned people--talking amongst themselves, their tones awed and confused. In his arm, his daughter squirmed, strong and determined already. Thor pushed through the heavy gold flap of the hall, ushering Loki out into the new light of the dawn.

Their people stood arrayed before them, taking notice and falling quiet, turning to face them, faces upturned and dirty still, some picking at the blood they had not yet had time to wash away. Thor looked across them, his heart overfull, almost beyond his ability to bear it.

“Asgardians,” he said, finally, his voice thick. “Welcome home.”

Cheers went up, joyous for all that confusion remained as well. Thor smiled, helplessly, heedlessly. His people lived once more, brought back from their unjust deaths, returned to the land of the living.

“You return in time for an auspicious occasion,” Thor said, so full of joy he felt near to bursting with it. “Behold, my daughter.” The full weight of it hit him, then. He had a daughter, an heir, a future, and a people to share it with, and--

And Loki put a hand on his back, steadying, and said, “Frigga.”

For a moment, scabbed over grief lashed through Thor’s chest, and, indeed, they had suffered loss such that perhaps sadness would always shade any joy they felt. But it need not overwhelm it. Thor stared down at his daughter, his throat tightening at the thought of his mother, her life stolen too soon.

He nodded, swallowing the thickness in his throat. “My daughter,” he repeated. “My heir. Frigga.” And he lifted her, so he could look directly into her grey-blue eyes, barely hearing the cheers that swept across the crowd.

Thor tucked Frigga close, once more. The morning air held a bite and she was so small. He reached for Loki, as well, curling a hand against his neck and drawing him close. He took a kiss under the new dawn, standing before their arrayed people, before Asgard reborn and remade.