Wow, when I said I intended to post new stuff soon, I didn't think I meant the next day, but here goes.
I feel like I should warn those of you who wandered over here from my happier stories that I write fluff and angst in about equal measure, so this is the other shoe to all the laser tag and invisible cookies and glitter from my recent shorts. It doesn't have a super sad ending because I don't roll that way, but I mean all the things I said in the tags.
I don't own Marvel or any of the characters, I just borrow them occasionally for a bit of fun.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Loki sits at the Allfather's bedside because it is the place Thor is least likely to stumble upon him.
The room is lit by a warm golden glow, a soothing, healing light centered on the motionless figure dwarfed by his enormous bed. The sight unsettles him. Odin is laid out, arms folded and legs perfectly straight. He is not wearing his armor, but neither is he in the soft robe he prefers for sleeping. Instead, he wears an outfit of rich silk and soft leather, decorated as though to remind any who visit of his station. Loki finds the resemblance to funeral clothes uncomfortable. The impression he gives is not of a man at rest or an invalid in recovery, but of a corpse on display, an impression only contradicted by the touch of color in his cheeks and the slight rise and fall of his chest.
The Allfather's face is peaceful, but Loki can't get the image of his rage the last time he was awake out of his mind. It plays out behind his eyelids whenever he fails to distract himself. The shouting when they had returned from that ill-fated trip to Jotunheim. The livid purple of his face when Thor shouted back, a fury that melted to an icy, dangerous calm while Thor, oblivious, ranted on.
For a moment he had been sure that Odin was about to do something drastic, and afraid that his own plan to discredit his brother had gone too far. The feeling was like a missed step at the edge of a cliff.
When the color had drained from his face instead, when he'd choked on whatever retort he had for Thor's words (you are an old man, he'd said, and a fool), when his knees had given out beneath him and he'd clattered to the observatory floor, already deep in the Odinsleep, Loki hadn't known whether to be horrified or relieved.
Time passes differently in this room, the soft golden glow making no distinction between night and day. The hours seem hardly to pass, and it is easy to lose sight of the world behind the chamber door. Perhaps that, too, is a part of why he shelters here. There are several things he'd rather not think about.
The mess he made with his foolish plan to disrupt Thor's coronation, for one.
The fact that Thor will probably still be crowned and almost certainly will try something foolish immediately thereafter, for another.
And beneath it all, a litany of it turned blue it turned blue runs through his mind like a constant itch, one that nags at him until he wants to scratch out his brains. The curse—if it is a curse—hasn't begun to manifest yet, but he's not looking forward to whatever symptoms that may entail.
So far he feels fine, though, which is almost worse. What sort of curse leaves a man feeling perfectly normal? The half-formed theories that bubble in his mind are all too awful to acknowledge, so, for now, he doesn't.
A soft knock at the door startles him out of his carefully maintained unthinking daze.
He takes a deep breath and quiets his suddenly racing heart. It isn't Thor, Thor wouldn't knock, and even if he did it would be loud and boisterous and aggressive like everything else Thor does. That leaves his mother, and he has nothing to fear from her.
And why should he fear Thor? part of his mind insists, but he shies away from the thought. No, there is no reason to fear his oaf of a brother, either. Loki would just... prefer not to deal with him just now.
"Oh," Frigga says when she sees him. "I didn't realize you were still here."
She must mistake his unease for worry about the Allfather's state, because she smiles gently at him as she collects her dress to sit at the edge of the bed. "Your father is strong," she says, "and though this is early it is not unexpected. He shall recover as he always does."
He takes a deep breath, grabs a corner of his tunic to stop the slight shaking in his fingers. Once he is composed he makes a show of very deliberately studying her face. "With such a lovely sight awaiting him when he awakens, I do not doubt it."
She smiles a genuine smile through her worry and cups his face in her hands to plant a kiss on his forehead. "Flatterer," she chides him fondly. A soft touch of magic trails over his skin with her fingertips, soothing the headache he hadn't mentioned to her. "You should go now, get ready. Your brother will take the throne soon. You should be at his side when he does."
"They still intend to crown Thor?" He doesn't feel a stab of fear at the thought, no, because that would be ridiculous. He holds concerns about his brother's rule, yes, but that doesn't mean he's afraid of it.
It turned blue why did it turn blue?
She misunderstands the look that crosses his face, because her expression softens with sympathy. "Thor will serve as regent while your father sleeps, yes," she says, "but he is in need of wise counsel now more than ever. I know you are angry with him about Jotunheim—" a brief flash of panic and he thinks, she knows, but he remembers that he was against the trip from the beginning, so far as she knows, that he sent for the guard and had every reason to be frustrated and upset, curse or no, "—but promise me you'll help him?"
"Yes," he says, because it's the only thing he can say to her. "Of course."
She smiles again, and pulls him into a quick hug, murmuring "thank you" into his ear. When she pulls back and squeezes his shoulders, her eyes are shining, and he thinks there might be pride mixed in with the affection and worry. "Now go," she says. "I'll stay with your father."
He nods and leaves reluctantly, something inside tugging him back towards the room and its soft, unchanging golden light.
He takes the long way back to his chambers because he feels like stretching his legs, because walking burns off some of the perfectly understandable nervous tension that's curled in his belly.
He doesn't do it because it means less chance of encountering Thor.
No, that isn't his reason at all.
At the ceremony he stands off to the side of the throne, in its shadow, and looks out over the gathered citizens of Asgard.
The cheering crowds from only hours ago are gone. Before, Thor had been prepared to accept the throne from Odin, a planned transition in a time of peace. Now, he is to accept the position of regent offered by the council, a young, inexperienced ruler taking the helm on the eve of a probable war.
It is not as satisfying to Loki as it probably should be that there are limits to the mindless trust his people place in his brother.
His brother who kneels at the foot of the throne, accepting Gungnir from the Allfather's Council. His brother who, he notes without any particular satisfaction, is no longer smiling as he gives his vows. When they get to the part about preserving the peace, Thor agrees with a straight face and not a trace of irony. He is almost impressed, almost disgusted, but then, the first step to a convincing lie is believing it yourself.
It is the first time he's had a chance to truly look at his brother since their return from Jotunheim. He sees the tension in his shoulders, the set of his jaw, and the part of him that is Thor's little brother translates the signs to 'trouble brewing'.
Thor doesn't even look at him, but it doesn't inspire the same resentment it had the first time. If anything, it is a relief.
When it is done his brother stands King of Asgard, and the gathered crowds disperse quietly. Loki himself slips away without offering congratulations, and no doubt many would call it jealousy, the bitterness of a second prince not fated for a throne. Thor himself likely wouldn't read so much into it, if he even noticed his brother's absence.
That isn't the reason, not that any would believe the liesmith on that count. No, he's put off thinking about it for as long as he can, but it's been more than a full day and still no symptoms of the Frost Giant's curse have manifested. He's almost convinced himself that he imagined it, that it was the poor lighting and the adrenaline of battle that deceived his senses and made him think he saw—
It turned blue.
He wants to believe it, that it was all a mistake. He wishes he could just decide that and be done with it, let the entire thing go.
If he could do that, he wouldn't be Loki. He has to know.
There's one way to test it once and for all, to disprove all of his worst-case scenarios or confirm them. He knows exactly what it is, so he walks the shadows back down to the weapons vault, returning, quite literally, to the scene of his latest crime. The guards let him in because he is their prince, surely he must be, otherwise they would never give him access, he's being silly, it's a curse if it's anything at all, and he picks his way over to stand before the Casket of Ancient Winters.
Part of him wants to draw this out, to prolong the inevitable, to savor what could be his last few seconds of innocence, but the need to know draws his hands to the sides of the artifact, and before he has made the decision to touch it his fingers are pressed against its cool sides.
In the light of the Casket his pale skin already looks blue, but he can still see the other skin crawling up his arms like a stain. Worse, he can feel it, and it doesn't feel wrong or unnatural, doesn't feel uncomfortable at all except that the coolness of the room is stiflingly warm against this foreign flesh.
It turned blue again, his mind supplies with an almost childish clarity. A curse wouldn't do this. His mind is racing, searching for another answer, but the blue of his skin doesn't have the comfortable predictability he would expect from a lie.
The world around fades out until it is just him and the Casket and this new revelation, spinning in a void of nothingness.
Soft footsteps at the edge of his hearing draw him back.
When he turns he finds himself face to face with his mother. No, he is facing the Queen of Asgard, regal and beautiful, and now he is almost entirely certain they aren't even related.
She looks at his face, taking in the monstrous blue of his skin and meeting blood-red eyes with concern but not confusion. She is not surprised; she already knows the truth of the monster she calls son.
"What am I?" he asks, and tries not to dwell on how small, how frightened his voice sounds.
"You are my son," she says, and there isn't a hint of dishonesty in her voice. However much a lie the words may be, she believes them.
He sets the casket back down, shivering as a sharp wave of magic sweeps back over him, stripping away his true appearance and cloaking him in the familiar disguise he once believed. "And what more than that?" He is careful, this time, to keep his tone even, not to let it break.
"Hm," she says in pretended contemplation, and a brief smile dances upon her lips. "What else are you? Prince of Asgard, though that is nearly the same thing. A sorcerer, one of the most powerful in the Nine Realms. A scholar. A warrior, through tenacity if not by inclination." She brings a hand up to his face, brushes a thumb over his cheek, and despite himself he leans into her touch. "Intelligent, handsome, driven, and according to some outlandish rumors, the loving mother of an eight-legged horse."
"Mother," he protests, stepping back and away from her touch, "I am being serious!"
Her smile fades, leaving behind a quiet intensity. "As am I. I will tell you everything you want to know, dearest, but first I want you to remember that the whole of your identity is composed of many parts. What I am about to tell you does not dictate who you are."
She waits until he nods his reluctant acceptance to continue.
"You are our son," she says carefully, "but not by blood."
"I think I figured that much," he says drily.
"See?" She smiles weakly. "Intelligent." He doesn't respond, so she goes on. "You've heard stories about the war with Jotunheim. What we didn't tell you is that your father returned with a tiny baby tucked under his cloak. He told me he found you abandoned in the temple, and that he intended to keep you. Apparently he had somehow managed to hide you from everyone for the few days between when he picked you up and when he returned home. I personally have no idea how he managed it."
"I'm Jotunn," Loki says. The casket had already confirmed it, but there is something different about hearing it from Frigga herself.
"Yes," she says. "Your father told me later that he's fairly sure you are of Laufey's blood."
"But why?" he asks, and the room suddenly feels uncomfortably small, the walls too close. "Why would he take—" he means to say a baby monster, but Frigga's expression convinces him that would not be well-received "—me, if I was—the son of his enemy," he finishes when she gives him another look. It is absolutely unfair how much preemptive disapproval she can communicate with only her eyebrows.
She smiles mischievously, a smirk that, until just now, he thought he'd inherited from her. "You were the cutest baby. Half the ladies I know would've made off with you if they thought they could get away with it."
"I am being—"
"Serious, yes, I know." She sighs. "He took you because he couldn't leave an innocent child to die, and he kept you because he loves you. You should've seen him when he came back, so excited to introduce our new son that he couldn't understand why I was making a fuss about his missing eye. The only way I was able to pry you out of his arms to send him to the healers was by convincing him you needed to be fed. He lost the eye the same day he found you, by the way, and he used to joke to me he'd gotten the better end of that bargain."
Loki shakes his head because this doesn't make any sense. The Odin he knows wouldn't be thrilled about adopting an enemy king's unwanted runt. The words sting him, so he repeats them to himself. Unwanted runt. It hurts no less the second time.
"I was with child at the time," she says, and the sadness in her voice jars him out of his self-pitiful reflections. "We originally planned to keep you in secret until the baby was born and present you as twins." Her face spasms with remembered grief. "When we lost the baby we introduced you as our newborn second son." She smiles weakly. "I think you know the rest."
He's breathing too fast, now, and she notices. Going slowly, as though being careful not to spook a skittish horse, she moves her fingers to his temples and he can feel the soothing numbness of a calming spell taking effect. He allows it.
It's a mistake. As soon as he starts to calm, to move past his own reaction to the news, another thought hits him like a sledgehammer to the stomach.
"Thor doesn't know," he says, because he can't. Thor hates Frost Giants, and there's no way Thor could know he was Jotunn and keep quiet about it.
His mother shakes her head. "No, and though the decision is yours, I don't believe it would be wise to tell him now. It is a conversation we should have as a family when your father awakens."
He nods, feeling something sick and uneasy settle into the pit of his stomach.
Loki is Jotunn.
He doubts Thor's said it in front of their mother, but he plans to slay every last one of the Jotnar, of the monsters.
This really can't end well for either of them.
I just realized that I took a popular, attractive male character and made it so that he doesn't travel to Earth because of contrived circumstances, doesn't meet a smart and beautiful human woman, and doesn't fall in love with her after an improbably short amount of time, unlearning bad habits and problematic attitudes gained through an entire lifetime of living in a culture with different values than ours.
... I think I'm doing this fanfiction thing backwards, guys.
I wasn't planning on posting chapter 2 for a few more days, but I'm updating early as a thank-you to all the lovely people who left kudos and encouraging comments on chapter 1. Thank you, lovely people!
I know I tagged it but here's another warning: this story has canon-typical fantasy racism against Frost Giants, and though it's made clear in the story that those attitudes are harmful and wrong, they're still held by a lot of characters for a fairly long time. If you're sensitive to such things, proceed with caution.
Thor is king.
The thought doesn't hold the triumph, the satisfaction he expected it to. His father isn't here, and he can't shake the nagging feeling that it is his fault. He's started a war, and while that may not be a bad thing, it is certainly his fault.
A wise king never seeks out war, but he must always be ready for it.
Gungnir feels like it's grown heavier in the hours between his last coronation and now.
A nagging worry has been eating at him ever since his return, and before he's fully aware his feet have taken him nearly all of the way to the healer's wing. Eir nods as he enters and points him to the correct bed and he finds Fandral sitting up, favoring a shoulder that is no longer bandaged and half-leaning on Hogun.
His friend's eyes light up when he sees him. "Thor!" he greets happily, then scrambles off the bed and clumsily lowers himself to one knee. "I'm sorry for missing your coronation," he says with a pointed glance at Eir, "but the blasted healers wouldn't let me leave. I can go now that it's over, of course. I pledge to you my loyalty and my sword, my king."
He bows his head, and Thor smiles as he pulls the man to his feet, careful to grab the arm with the intact shoulder. "I thank you for your loyalty, and forgive your absence," he says with good cheer. "It is good to see you well again, my friend."
"It is good to be well," he says. "Besides, 'twas but a scratch. Those Frost Giants were no match for the might of Asgard's finest warriors."
"Indeed," Thor agrees.
"So." Fandral bends to gather his armor from where it was discarded beside the bed, and Thor helps him, scooping up pieces and tucking them under his arm. "Have we any plans for further action against Jotunheim?"
Thor frowns then. "We do indeed." He finishes gathering the armor and stands. "I intended to speak with Tyr as soon as I assured myself you were well."
"I am that." He starts walking, Hogun hovering just behind to steady him should he falter. Thor trails after, armor in hand. "They tell me I shan't even have a scar. It's a shame." He sighs wistfully. "Ladies love the scars."
Thor raises his eyebrows. "Do they, now?"
"Scars show that you are a tough and well-seasoned warrior," he insists.
"They show that you were too slow to avoid getting stabbed." Thor starts as Volstagg falls into step with them, his grin wide and his eyes teasing. "I was coming to check on this one," he explains, gesturing to Fandral. "Good to see they've let you go."
"I have it on the best authority I'll be right as rain after a good night's sleep and a wholesome meal," he says, and already he looks steadier on his feet. Hogun pulls back, and Volstagg takes the armor from Thor, cradling it in one large arm. "Sif left a bit ago to round up the food, and I daresay after a bit of lunch I can make my own way home. Would you care to join us?"
"Gladly." Thor smiles; in the stress of his coronation he had forgotten about food, but now his stomach insists it is time for a meal. He follows them to a smaller dining room, one of those set aside for the convenience of visiting minor dignitaries or guests but often used by returning adventurers to celebrate their hunts and recover from their travels. The room itself is fairly large, the table larger, but compared to the main feasting hall it seems nearly cozy.
"Good to know that the mighty King Thor can still make time for his old companions," Fandral says, his voice light and teasing and regaining some of its usual strength.
"Of course," Thor says, "even a king would be foolish to neglect his closest companions. I would not pass over your company even if Fandral had not allowed the Jotnar to use his mighty shoulder as a pincushion."
The man in question lays a hand over his chest. "You wound me," he says, eyes rolling skyward in an exaggerated aggrieved expression.
"Then perhaps you must grow a thicker skin," he tosses back. "My tongue is hardly so sharp as all that."
"Speaking of sharp tongues," Sif cuts in, "where is your brother?"
"Loki?" Thor frowns. "I know not." He cast back in his memory, trying to recall if he had seen his brother since their father's collapse. "Now that I think on it, I don't recall seeing him earlier today, either."
"He's probably off sulking somewhere." Fandral seats himself and begins dishing greedily from the assorted foods. "He made no secret of his distaste for going to Jotunheim, and he's probably upset you didn't bow to his demands we stay home. You know how his moods get when he feels he has been slighted."
"He was at your coronation." Sif squints at the memory. "Not that he looked happy about it. He's always been jealous of you, you know."
"Was he?" Thor thinks back. "I do not remember seeing him there, though I admit that my mind was elsewhere." And Loki, he admits, is the sort you don't see unless he wants to be seen. If his brother is still cross about Jotunheim, it is entirely possible for him to sulk on it until he forgives them or takes some petty revenge.
"As it ought to be," Fandral says. "You are king now, a fact he would do well to remember. Kings have many things to think on at all times. Your head shall scarcely have the room to hold them all." Thor gives him a look, and he grins back impishly.
"And while a king may take advice, the decision is ultimately his, as it was yours to go to Jotunheim," Sif adds more seriously. "And I believe it was the right decision. For the Frost Giants to react so quickly with evasion and violence, they likely were scheming against us. Better to face an enemy honorably than wait and take a dagger to the back."
"Icicle, more like." Volstagg laughs at his own cleverness, and Fandral winces.
"That is if they did not simply sneak up behind and put their foul freezing fingers down your collar." Volstagg scoops up several of the ice chips packed around their fresh fruit and slips them down the back of Fandral's shirt, making him yelp indignantly.
Fandral, in turn, says something disparaging about the touch of Jotunn maidens that sets the whole table to laughing.
This, Thor thinks, is exactly what he needed. Here in the company of his friends, the anxiety that had plagued him about the beginning of his rule starts to melt away, leaving behind his usual, cheerful confidence. Their easy banter reminds him why the trip to Jotunheim was necessary, how only a fool would ignore the threat their infiltration represents. They may prove a worthy foe, but he has no doubts that Asgard will triumph, and he can add his own victories to the legacy left him by his father and grandfather.
For the first time since the Allfather's collapse, Thor starts to feel like his old self again.
Okay, Loki thinks as he melts out of the shadows once Thor and his friends have passed, he is ready to admit to himself that he is avoiding his brother.
The truth is he doesn't want to get too close. It feels like if Thor looks too closely, if Loki lets him stay too long, he'll be able to see right past the glamor to the Frost Giant beneath. It's ridiculous-- he knows it is—but the nagging fear won't leave him alone. Thor may have gone more than a thousand years without recognizing his brother for an impostor, but back then Loki didn't know, and he feels as though the knowledge has marked him. Perhaps it has, brought the markings on his natural skin that much closer to the surface, opened him up for anyone's perusal.
Besides, so close on the tail of their recent visit (and, if he knows Thor, on the eve of war), the topic of Jotunheim is bound to come up in near every conversation, and he knows the sorts of things everyone is saying about the Jotnar. Usually he enjoys being in on a joke no one else is aware of, but not when the joke is on him.
So he avoids his brother, and makes his way to a place Thor is unlikely to stumble upon him by mistake. His choice serves a dual purpose, as the library is a good place to start gathering information he is long overdue in collecting.
The shelves containing books about the Jotnar are pitifully sparse. He finds only one history of the war that looks even remotely impartial, a set of illustrations of Jotunn biology comparable to Asgardian medical tomes written tens of thousands of years ago, and a book of badly translated children's stories that are nearly painful to try and read. There is not a single book on Jotunn culture, or magical studies, or even a history book written by the Jotnar themselves. He wonders if his people are too primative for such things or if Asgard is simply to prejudiced to value them.
He has made it through the history, given up on the anatomy text in disgust, and suffered through half of the stories when the phantom sensation of being watched prickles across the back of his neck.
"I'm not causing any trouble, nor do I intend to," he says without looking up.
“I never suspected you were.” His mother makes her way over to his side, and he moves a small stack of parchments out of the way so she can sit.
“So you weren't checking up on me?”
She smiles. “I never said that. I only thought to see how you are doing, nothing more.” She reaches over and picks up one of the books, the children's stories, and runs one finger along the spine. “On the hunt for more information? I shouldn't be surprised. Though I should warn you,” she says deliberately, “that many of the texts you will find here on Asgard are colored by prejudices left over from a long and bitter war. If you seek to learn more about the Jotnar as a people, you may find the library of Vanaheim a better place to start.”
He grimaces and nods. “I guessed as much.”
She carefully closes the book and sets it back upon the pile, then reaches over to rest a hand on his shoulder. “You seem to be taking this well,” she says cautiously.
“I think I'm probably still in shock.” He shakes his head, gesturing at the short stack of books. “I needed a distraction.”
"Is it working?"
“I'm almost out of books.”
She runs a hand through his hair in a way that, were he younger, would have made him insist she not pet him. Now he absorbs the much-needed comfort and wouldn't dream of complaining. “Then we shall have to find you more.” She smiles at him fondly. “But when you are ready to talk—I'm here, Loki. Any questions you have I will answer to the best of my knowledge.”
His returning smile is crooked and wry. “I know you will,” he says, and he means it. “And I know I will have many, when I am ready to ask. For now,” he taps the picture of the Jotunn on the front of the anatomy book, its skin peeled back to show off its heart to the open air, “I don't think I can face the answers just yet. I'm not so sure I can face the questions.”
Without hesitating, she pulls him in for a hug. "I'm sorry," she whispers in his ear. "You should never have learned of this now, like this. We should have told you the truth long ago."
“Why didn't you?” It isn't an entirely fair question, but he wonders, and she all but gave him permission to ask.
She doesn't answer right away, staring down at the book and tracing the illustration with her fingers. “There are many reasons your father did not wish to tell you, but I think the foremost was a desire to protect you.”
“From the truth? That I am a—”
She gives him a hard look. “From your own curiosity. He worried that once you knew, it would drive you to visit Jotunheim, and that is no safe place for a son of Odin. Parents worry about such things. Though I admit,” she says after a pause, “that much of it may have been out of desire to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. Your father did not relish the thought of explaining, and he worried you would take it ill.”
“That I do understand,” he says, and he does. “The thought of having to tell Thor...”
“That's a battle for another day,” she says firmly, “and not one you'll face alone.”
“You shan't have to face any battle alone.” Loki jumps half out of his skin when Thor's voice booms out cheerfully behind him. “I'd be terribly cross if you left me out of an adventure, and so would our friends. Who are we fighting?”
“Your friends,” Loki says before he can bite back the instinctive reply. “Never mine.” Their mother gives him a faintly reproving look but doesn't say anything.
Thor doesn't bother to acknowledge his protest. He's noticed the books on the table and picks one up, turning it over in the ungentle way that non-readers handle books. “Trying to learn how to defeat the monsters of Jotunheim by reading?” Thor's voice is threaded with amusement, and he snorts. “You'd be better served in the training rings for that, brother. Better yet if we get you some actual experience putting down the beasts. There'll be enough of that to go around before long, I'll wager.”
“Thor!” The outrage in their mother's voice makes him flinch, but he recovers quickly.
“I am joking!” He claps a heavy hand on his brother's shoulder, and Loki flinches away from the strong grip, so close to his throat. “I am sure whatever you learn will be most helpful. Truly.”
Thor looks back and forth between them, Frigga speechless with enough shocked displeasure to make Loki uncomfortable even though he knows he isn't its target and Loki failing to suppress his own wounded expression, and takes a step back. “I'll leave you to that, then. Carry on,” he says hastily, and ducks back out of the room.
Loki isn't aware of his own defensive hunch until Thor is gone and the tension eases out of his back and shoulders. His mother is staring after his brother, dumbfounded.
“Perhaps ‘battle’ is not too far amiss,” he mumbles, and his mother shakes her head.
“I don't think he means it,” she says, displeasure hardening her voice, “but that is no excuse to speak of any people in such a way, enemies though they may currently be. I will speak with him to make sure he understands this.”
“No!” he says too quickly, catching at her arm when she rises. “Not now, please.”
“I won't hear him say such things,” she insists. “Such prejudices stand against everything your father and I have taught him. They are unworthy of a king.”
“You are angry he said what he did in front of me, and so soon after I learned the truth.” He keeps his voice calm, reasonable. “You won't be able to hide your ire, and he'll be left wondering why you would take a slight against the Jotnar so personally. Until we are ready to share with him the full truth, I believe it would be wise to wait.”
“I disagree.” She sighs, deflating. “But if that is what you wish...”
“Then I will respect that.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Perhaps I should have discovered the truth sooner, if the result is that you let me win so easily.”
“Don't test your luck.” She gives him one last crooked smile and pushes back. “And your brother will come around once he knows the truth, I promise you. He loves you, Loki.”
He nods because he knows she's right... Thor may mock, or tease, or even bully on occasion, but he does love his little brother, at least in abstract.
He loves him as truly as he hates the Frost Giants.
The problem is that Loki isn't sure, at this point, which impulse is stronger, and he is unwilling to set them at odds until he knows which will win.
In which Thor learns some lessons about war, but not the right ones.
Thor hasn't been able to find his brother since that awkward exchange in the library.
It's not that Loki is nowhere to be found—according to the people he's asked, he keeps just barely missing him.
Who he does find, however, is Tyr.
The first time he encounters Asgard's master of war is in one of the halls, coming back from an unfruitful trip to his brother's rooms.
“I hear Asgard may soon be at war,” he says without preamble, falling into step beside Asgard's young king.
“Indeed,” Thor says, trying to sound grim because that's what his father would have done. He finds himself asking what Odin would do far more than he would have expected since taking the throne. A part of him wishes his father was awake to ask.
“Then I pledge to you my sword and my knowledge, my king.”
Thor smiles. “That is good,” he says sincerely, “for Asgard may have need of both before this is concluded.”
“I've taken the liberty of drawing up some plans for your inspection,” he says, and Thor nods. “I believe with some effort, we may be prepared to attack within a few months' time.”
That stops Thor short. “Months?”
“Aye.” Tyr nods, sharp and precise as all of his movements. “Asgard hasn't seen true war since you were but a lad. We'll need to assemble supply trains, build new siege engines, whip the younger recruits into fighting shape. The sooner we start, the better.” He shifts a bundle in his arms, and for the first time Thor notices he is carrying a stack of paperwork. “These are just the orders you'll want to issue right away. The rest can wait for an official declaration of war. ”
He hands over the first few pages, and Thor scans the heading. “For the healers,” Tyr explains. “We should start them manufacturing supplies as soon as possible. Healing stones, pain draughts, bandages. We should consider setting aside extra buildings to house the wounded when the war reaches its peak.”
Thor hands the papers back. “I trust you,” he says. “Bring everything you believe I should sign to the Allfa—to my office. It shall be finished before the day is out.”
Tyr bows sharply then leaves with precise, mechanical strides not unlike a soldier's march.
Over the next few days, Thor and Tyr meet with many of the ministers individually to make arrangements. The minister of trade is tasked with discreetly increasing the number of weapons purchased from other realms, and also with securing shipments of ore and lumber and certain ingredients needed by the healers. The minister of diplomacy is asked to strengthen relations with allied reams, focusing on Vanaheim as Asgard's strongest ally and Alfheim as the realm most likely to object to the war out of principle. The minister of security is bid strengthen Asgard's defenses from within, fortifying key buildings and increasing the guard in case Asgard herself should be attacked.
By the time Thor meets with the minister of agriculture, a short man with an unremarkable face and a personality like an anxious pet rabbit, he is acutely aware that war has more faces than he's ever realized. He orders the man to Vanaheim with the minister of the treasury to secure a portion of the next harvest's grain crops for provisioning their campaign.
He can see the importance of these measures, in fact, now that they have been explained to him they seem obvious, but still he feels ill-prepared for the many questions each meeting brings about. How much grain will they need? Should they first fortify the armory or the hospital? How much of the cloth they have ordered should become bedrolls, and how much bandages? It was always Loki who had a practical head for such things, and near as Thor can tell, he is still sulking. When he thinks on it it makes him angry—Loki was supposed to help him with such things when he took the throne, not abandon him when he is so new to the demands of rule they feel likely to drown him. No jealousy or imagined slight should inspire him to this childish hiding.
When he finds his brother, he isn't sure whether he will tell him off or just ask him for help.
He stalks the hall back to his brother's room for the third time in a day, sure that if he checks often enough, Loki will be there sooner or later. He isn't, though, and on the way back he almost literally runs into someone else.
“Sif,” he greets happily, and then “my friends!” when he notices who is behind her. The warriors three are all gathered, moving together almost purposefully in her wake.
“Thor,” she says, and there is something odd in her voice. “We were just searching for you.”
“I apologize for neglecting your company.” Thor smiles, because it is good to know he was missed. “I have been kept busy with preparations for the war against Jotunheim.”
They look uneasy, and his smile starts to fade. “We know,” Sif says hesitantly, “that is what we wished to speak with you about.”
“Thor, what's all this we've been hearing about supply trains and campaigns and new hospitals?” Fandral blurts out. “I mean, is all this really necessary?”
“They are how wars are won,” Thor says, surprised by how much the words echo Tyr's to him over the past few days. “Armies must eat, and plan, and care for their injured, else there will be no army to fight. Wars are won or lost in the preparations.”
The warriors look distinctly more uncomfortable, and Thor frowns. “But there won't be a war, not really,” Fandral says hesitantly, as though he's asking more than telling. “It'll hardly come to that. We need but a handful of good men to put the Jotnar in their place, then this whole matter will be settled. The Frost Giants are no match for the might of Asgard, after all.”
Thor shakes his head. “I once thought as you do,” he says, “but consider this: what if they do not surrender after our first victory, or our second? What if the fighting continues, and we are forced to stay in enemy territory, ill-provisioned and underprepared?”
“That won't happen,” Sif says with unearned conviction.
“My father did not win the wars of yesteryear with such assumptions.”
It strikes him then what a childish attitude it is that he so recently shared. No, such simple ideas of battle are not how his Father's legacy will be continued. He thinks he understands Odin's anger in the observatory now; they did not understand what they were doing and so they did it poorly, like a child who wants to help with the baking and instead pours the whole of the flour upon the floor.
Sif glances at Fandral, Fandral glances at Hogun, Volstagg stares down at the floor, and overall they look very uncomfortable.
Thor leaves them there trading looks. He has a war council to arrange.
Loki is startled from his new favorite reading nook by a loud, insistent banging.
Said nook is tucked away in an old storeroom, on a retired couch squeezed between two bookcases. It is his favorite because no one ever visits the room or even passes by, and so none will happen upon him by accident. Since no one has reason to expect to find him there, his chance of being discovered is practically zero.
For whatever reason Thor has been hovering around the library and wandering over to his rooms whenever he is not otherwise occupied, as though being king isn't enough to keep him busy and out of Loki's hair. He thinks his brother might want to find him almost as badly as he doesn't want to be found, and he has no desire to find out why that is.
But the banging is loud, not close-loud but loud-loud, the type of sound that echoes through the foundations and vibrates off the walls.
He sighs internally. What now?
It draws him out of his safe little enclave, and he sets his book aside with a sigh and sets out to investigate.
In the courtyard outside the room he finds the reason for the noise. Half-assembled war machines litter the grass, swarming with men who saw, beat, and hammer components into shape, fitting them together in a clumsy dance that grows smoother with their practice.
He identifies siege towers and ballistas, trebuchets and more taking shape as the work progresses. These are serious weapons and tools of war, and judging by the volume of scattered parts they are making a lot of them.
A man carrying a saw moves past him, and Loki pulls him aside. “What is going on here?” He tries to keep the unease out of his voice and fails.
“We're building a siege engine.” The man gestures to the half-completed machine, hunched like a gargoyle over the grass.
He fights the urge to roll his eyes. “Obviously. Why are we building so many siege engines?”
“It's part of Thor's war preparations.” He spins to face the new speaker and locks eyes with Sif, who continues, “which you would know if you hadn't crawled off to some hidey-hole to sulk. Where have you been?”
He tilts his head, studying her. Despite the confrontational words she seems ill at ease, as do the warriors who are picking their way over to stand beside her. “I hardly need answer to you,” he says instead of asking, because honestly he cares very little what is bothering them.
“Thor's been looking for you.” He isn't quite fast enough to hide the grimace that inspires.
“I've been busy.”
Her hands find her hips, the stance belligerent and challenging. “Too busy for your king? What have you been up to?”
The suspicion in her tone makes him bristle, even after he remembers it is probably justified. Only days ago, he did betray Thor, did allow the Jotnar into the Vault to disrupt his coronation. Still, the Loki that let the Jotnar into the Vault feels like an entirely different person, decades or centuries in the past. One whose worries about Thor's reign were abstract, his faith in his position secure.
“That is none of your concern.”
“It is if you're scheming to—”
“We didn't come here to fight,” Volstagg cuts in, hands raised in a placating gesture. “We wanted to speak with you, Loki, about your brother.”
He contemplates saying something scathing, but curiosity prickles at him, and he sighs. “What about Thor?”
“We were hoping you would speak with him,” Fandral says, sweeping a hand out to encompass the field of construction, “about this. He's spending all the days and nights at his war plans, and we're concerned. ”
He raises an eyebrow. “I thought you were in favor of the war.”
Sif shakes her head, lips pressed into a thin line. “Not like this. This is… too much.”
“Asgard does not need a return to the great wars of yesteryear,” Hogun says.
“No,” Loki gives his most scathing look, “truly? I thought it was a fine idea, and most certainly wasn't against it from the start. Thank you for enlightening me.”
“Loki,” Sif begins, but Volstagg cuts her off.
“Then our thoughts and goals are aligned,” he says quickly. “We only want you to speak with Thor, help him to see reason on this matter. Nothing more.”
"We worry that without counsel, Thor may do something rash that he later regrets." Fandral fixes him with a look that is half pleading, half cajoling. He looks self-assured, confident in his own charm. It irritates him.
"Thor has already done something rash." He pushes to his feet and barely restrains himself before he starts pacing. "You were all there in Jotunheim. You, Fandral, should know better than most, seeing how you nearly died. Is that the sort of rash act to which you all are referring?"
They all frown. "There is no call to be unkind," Sif says, chiding. "We are simply asking that you talk to your brother. Nothing more."
"Thor won't listen. He never listens to me." He can hear the bitterness in his own voice, but he can't quite bring himself to care. "He didn't listen when I warned him not to go to Jotunheim, and that was when he was a prince. Now he is king. I don't doubt that anything I say in the future will make as much difference as a stray breeze howling against his window."
How much more if he knew what you are?
You are many things, his mother's voice tells him.
But only one would matter to Thor.
The warriors are giving him doubtful looks, so he shakes himself out of his own head and meets Sif's eyes. "So no," he finishes, "I don't believe I'll be speaking with Thor."
"You could at least try," Sif says reproachfully.
"Why should I?"
"He's your brother."
And if he wasn't?
He sighs and walks back towards the door leading inside. Sif goes to catch his wrist, to pull him back.
As soon as her fingers touch him he jerks away violently, scrambling back and away from her like a spooked horse. He almost trips over his own feet in his haste, a far cry from his usual dignified stride.
It takes a second for his brain to catch up with his muscles, and he realizes he is irrationally afraid that his skin will be cold to the touch, that it will freeze and burn and give his true nature away. He recognizes how ridiculous this is as soon as the thought is in words, but that doesn't slow his pounding heartbeat or steady his breathing.
Sif and the others are giving him an odd look, but he can't for the life of him think of an explanation that will excuse this odd behavior, so he turns on his heel and walks away without another word. Hopefully they will dismiss it as another of his oddities, the strange reactions of a strange prince.
Better that than guessing at the truth.
Hi! Fair warning, the violence warnings in the tags are mainly for this chapter, and there is a fair amount of canon-typical violence.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Thor makes his way to bed at a time that is far later than what he would consider his usual, but quickly becoming his new norm. The duties of kingship are long, the nights sleepless.
He has just crawled into bed and fallen into a light doze when Gungnir, propped up on his bedside table, starts to rattle and shake as though trying to get his attention.
When he reaches out and wraps a hand around the spear, trying to make it stop, an image shoots into his head that has him fully awake and on his feet in an instant. It shows him Frost Giants, far more than invaded on the day of his coronation, with a palace hall as their unmistakable backdrop.
With a soft shift in reality that is very unlike the thunderclap generated using Mjolnir, he summons his armor as he bursts into the hall, startling the servant outside his door.
“Raise the alarm,” he tells the frightened young man. “Asgard is under attack.”
Without waiting to see if his words have been heeded, he races down the hall and towards the invading force. Now that he is aware of the threat Gungnir shares no further information with him, or else the giants are able to shield themselves from detection once they are through.
It is not long before he comes upon a small knot of the fighting, a group of Einherjar holding two of the giants at bay. Gungnir reacts almost without his input, lashing out with magic that still has the electrified feel of his lightning, but more controlled, more condensed. It is slightly more effective and far less viscerally satisfying than throwing Mjolnir; the spear takes his will and sees it done, a true king's weapon.
The giants fall without even enough of a fight to burn off some of the adrenaline singing through his veins. He aches to hunt down more, sure that this is not the whole of the invading force, but he is king, and it is his duty to see that the response is managed.
“You!” he shouts to the nearest guard, a man just older than him and heaving to catch his breath. “Gather as many of your fellows as you can find and head to the Vaults. They must not be allowed to reach the Casket.” The man nods, and Thor doesn't bother to watch him leave, turning instead to the next. “Find Lord Honir and have him declare a state of emergency,” Thor says. “Shut down the Bifrost, suspend all travel between realms, and raise the shields.”
“Yes, my king.”
“Inform Lord Tyr that—” a commotion from down the hall distracts him, and his heart sinks as he realizes what lies in that direction. “With me,” he orders the remaining guards, and sets off in a sprint toward his parents' private bedchambers.
The fighting there is heavy, so heavy he wonders if the other group was simply a diversion, and he realizes with sickening clarity what they must be after. His father is vulnerable in his sleep, unable to wake even to defend himself.
By the time he arrives the few guards stationed outside the doors have fallen, and several Jotnar invaders are trying to break down the door. One of the stone pillars from an outer hall has been gouged from its place and the giants are swinging it like a battering ram, and every time it meets the heavy oak of the doors there is a crunching sound and a shower of golden sparks. His mother's spell—likely the door would have fallen long ago were she not holding it with reinforcing magic.
Thor growls and throws himself at the beasts, swinging the spear like a blunt instrument and catching the closest with a blow to the head, hard enough that it crumples. There is a howl as the makeshift battering ram falls, slamming to the floor with enough force to crush the feet of a second giant.
Thor flails, too angry for precision but with a fury-given strength that sends giant after giant to the floor, broken before the onslaught of ferocious blows. When he finishes a half-dozen giants lie dead at his feet, and he breathes hard, veins singing with spent adrenaline and vicious satisfaction.
He goes to knock on the door, twinges of worry spurring him to check and see for himself that his mother and father are well, but movement in the corner of his vision sends him spinning around, spear held at the ready.
It is only a palace servant, though, or perhaps the child of one, for he is little more than a boy. His face is pale and blood drips from a shallow cut above one eyebrow, but he seems otherwise unhurt.
“My king,” the boy says between gasping breaths, “they are headed towards the bridge. The Bifrost is under attack.”
Loki is in the library (safe, Thor is in bed) when he feels the unmistakable pull on the fabric of space that signals a doorway opening between realms.
Which is wrong, because he should be the only one who knows how to do that, and he isn't doing it now.
He reaches for his magic to teleport to the spot and then stops, because he does not know what is coming through the tear in space, and appearing unannounced and unprepared in the midst of it would be Thor-level reckless.
Instead, he draws shadows about himself and creeps softly and quietly down the halls. Were his brother or the warriors to find out, he would be called cowardly and unmanly, but in the face of the scathing insults he has heard tossed about aimed at the Jotnar, such familiar insults would be nearly a respite.
The quiet explodes into the sounds of an armed scuffle, shouting and movement and the clang of steel. When he turns a corner there are more than a dozen Jotnar towering over the fray, battling a knot of outnumbered guards. Beyond that, though, is what had drawn him, a cool knot of magic holding open a tear in the fabric of space.
It is not his magic but it is his method—one of the Jotnar must have learned and remembered and recreated the process from when he brought the first two in to disrupt the coronation. He swears quietly, cursing the giants for being so perceptive and himself for stupidly giving Asgard's enemies a major weapon to use against them.
He can close the portal now, though, so he slips past the fighting and seeks it out, calling his magic to himself and allowing it to dance and spark on his fingertips. He has to let his near-invisibility drop, but both guards and giants are absorbed in their battle, and he might as well be a ghost for all the notice the give him.
He reaches out with hands and magic and suppresses the force keeping the portal open. Once it is done the folds of space drop back together like curtains whose ties have been cut, and he weaves the ends together, sealing them tight. Just to be sure he adds a seal, chanting the words softly under his breath until it draws together into a door over the door, difficult for any other than him to pass or break.
When he is finished and turns his attention back to the fighting, most of the Jotnar are gone. Not dead at the guards' feet, but rather vanished off to wherever they were headed in the first place.
Rather than assist the guards with fighting off the two remaining giants, he reaches out with his seidr, searching out unfamiliar signatures. Someone had opened a portal, which meant that somewhere on Asgard was a Jotunn sorcerer with magic capable of rending the walls between realms. Fighting a sorcerer is a dangerous proposition, and all the more so for those who have no magic of their own. This is his mess, in a way, and taking care of that sorcerer is the closest he can come to cleaning it up.
He had expected (dreaded) to find the foreign magic user in the Weapons Vault, or at the very least en route to there. The Destroyer guards the Vault's many treasures, and he doubts they will find an easy way around the construct, but a Jotunn mage who managed to take and wield the Casket would be near-unstoppable, especially with Odin still deep in sleep.
Instead, the energy signature he picks up is halfway between the palace and the Rainbow Bridge. After a second's confusion he swears. He had assumed this to be another wild grab for the Casket, but it seems the Jotnar have a different goal in mind. If a small group can take control of the bridge, they can either let an entire army right into the heart of Asgard's capital, catching the whole of the Golden Realm unprepared, or they can destroy it, leaving Asgard crippled and unable to invade, seek reinforcements or supplies from allied realms, or even carry on its normal business for the centuries it would take to repair.
His legs will never take him to the giants' location fast enough, so he trades them in for wings, jumping into a foolish-looking half-hop and then shifting in the air to a falcon.
He swoops through a doorway then wings higher, catching an air current and riding it high above the city. The Frost Giants are distant specks of blue crawling through the streets, making their way ever closer to the bridge and its observatory. Heimdall is there but so far no reinforcements have reached him, and while the Gatekeeper is impressive it would be foolish to gamble the future of their realm on his ability to best the Jotnar on his own.
Loki dives, the part of him that is bird reveling at the feel of the wind whistling through his feathers, and he aims for the base of the bridge, pulling up at the last second to avoid smacking into the crystal floor beak first. He flaps his wings expansively several times to hover as he shifts back, melting back into Loki in front of the Giants as they reach the base of the bridge. His armor settles into place around him as he draws himself up, and even with his horns he is shorter than the smallest giant by more than a foot.
“Going somewhere?” He smiles viciously as his daggers drop into his hands, a solid, reassuring weight.
The giants don't answer, only charge towards him.
Meeting that charge head-on would be suicide; physics alone dictates that it would not end in his favor, so instead he uses the most impressive trick he has mastered so far and replaces himself with an illusory double. It requires that he casts the illusion exactly where he is standing, animates it, makes himself invisible and moves himself out of the way, all at once and without a single visual stutter or hesitation that would give him away. He's yet to find anyone who truly appreciates the complexity of the maneuver or the tremendous amount of focus, practice and skill it requires.
Perfecting it is its own reward, however, as the trick has saved him numerous times, just as it does now. The giants rush through his double and stumble in surprise, and once he is invisible behind them he drives a dagger into the back of the one closest, sliding it in between the ribs. The Jotunn gasps and falls, and the remaining four round back on him.
Loki swears. He has taken out one opponent but also given away his best trick, and now the giants are between him and the observatory.
A giant lunges toward him, thrusting a spear of ice as it grows from one wrist, and when he moves back he stumbles, heel catching on the arm of the last giant he felled. The misstep brings him to the edge of the narrow bridge, and he teeters for a half-second before righting himself. On impulse he replaces himself with a double and sends it hurtling down into the abyss, and when the giant peers over the edge to watch him fall he sends it plummeting after with a sharp kick. The giant flails, trying desperately to right itself as it fades away and out of sight.
A whisper of movement and he dodges instinctively, still catching the edge of the hurtled spell on his shoulder. His entire right arm goes dead and numb, the dagger in that hand clattering to the bridge. He swears—had the spell hit its intended mark it would have stopped his heart.
At least he found the mage.
He sends a surge of magic down the limb as he dodges another spell, shaking out the painful pins and needles as the nerves repair themselves. He tosses a roaring ball of fire to where the spell originated, satisfied when he is rewarded by a yelp of pain. The effort drains him; fire magic has always been particularly exhausting.
Although that starts to make sense now, in light of recent revelations. Perhaps he'll try his hand at ice magic once this is all over.
The distraction is enough to leave one of the other giants an opening, and had they chosen to stab him he doesn't know if he could have avoided it. Instead, though, the giant grabs hold of his arm, infusing the touch with the burning cold that would scar or maim one of the Aesir.
The rush of magic that sweeps up his arm feels almost familiar now, and he uses the distraction to put a knife in the giant's throat.
There is a sharp, ringing pain in his head, and he realizes abruptly that all he sees is the sky. The next second he realizes this is because he's on his back, and his head is throbbing like Mjolnir attempted to go through it. The other giant must have gotten behind him, clubbed him over the head.
The mage pulls him up by the arms, close enough that the smell of burned flesh from his own spell leaves him dizzy, and steps toward the edge and the void. “No illusions now, little snake,” it hisses in a deep, gravelly voice. He tenses because he sees what is coming. It means to throw him over the edge.
One second the giant is holding him up, its hands squeezing his upper arms hard enough to bruise, and the next it is gone, sliding down the length of the bridge with Gungnir buried in its chest. The last giant snarls and turns on Thor, but the spear runs it through on its return path, and it, too, falls.
Loki's eyes snap up to find his brother leaning on the spear like a staff, surveying their fallen enemies with a look of dark satisfaction. It is replaced by concern as he pushes unsteadily to his feet from where he has fallen, but he still flinches back when Thor strides forward to offer him a hand.
“Don't look so disappointed to see me,” Thor says, “I just saved your life.”
“Yes,” Loki takes another unconscious step back, “Thank you for not standing by and allowing me to be murdered by Asgard's enemies. I shall have to throw you a parade.”
Thor frowns. “Are you hurt?” His tone is concerned, almost gentle. Would that concern still be there if he knew?
Loki shakes his head to rid himself of the thought, then looks up to a brother who is frowning, unconvinced. “I am fine,” he says, “there is no cause for concern.”
Thor huffs, the sound halfway between petulant and frustrated. “And would you tell me if there was? Or would you hide it like you've been hiding these past few days?”
Loki's breath catches in his throat. “I've not been hiding,” he protests, but Thor ignores him.
“You've been avoiding me. You avoid me even now. It feels like you are keeping some great secret from me.”
Loki says nothing, and Thor frowns harder.
"You are? What is it you're keeping from me? Tell me what it is you fear I will discover."
Thor infuses his voice with a forceful command, which isn't unusual, but he holds Gungnir, the King's Spear, and Loki can feel its magic tugging at him and enforcing the order.
He feels his mouth open against his will, and with horror he realizes that the spear means to force an answer out of him. Father would never have dared to use that sort of coercion against his sons, or needed to, but Thor probably doesn't even realize what he's doing.
For a second he thinks he might confess to his part in the invasion, and he's already coming up with a list of explanations and excuses when he says "I'm not your brother."
He blinks. That is quite possibly the worst thing he could have said, and of course it came out sounding even worse than it already is. Of course. Thor had asked him what he was afraid Thor might learn, and so Loki told him.
He opens his mouth to clarify, to say I'm adopted and take that dawning look of horror off Thor's face, but his brother cuts him off. "What are you, then?"
"A Frost Giant," he says, and his eyes widen. No. That's not what he wants to say at all. Of all the true lies he's ever told, this is by far the worst, and it isn't even properly of his own making.
"Loki. Is this a jest?"
"No," he says, and when he tries to say more Gungnir's magic stops him, stealing his voice. It knows the pattern of an interrogation, and that is what this has become. He can only speak to answer whatever questions his brother asks.
His brother, who is glaring down at him now with suspicion and growing anger. It is far more serious, far more intense than the way Thor looks at him even after the most malicious prank. For the first time in his life, Loki is afraid of his brother.
"You look like my brother. Are you a shapeshifter?"
"Yes," he says, slowly circling to put the city behind him and then edging backwards. The bridge stretches away behind him, but if he makes it to the end he can slip off to a branch of Yggdrasil and escape.
"Where is my true brother," Thor asks, his voice hardening with anger and with something sharp beneath.
I'm right here, Loki wants to say. He thinks of Frigga's story, of the baby who died and then went unacknowledged so that Loki could take his place. "Dead," Gungnir's magic answers for him.
"You're lying," Thor screams, hefting the spear and holding the point against Loki's chest. He looks into Loki's face, and something he sees there makes him angrier. "Change back," he demands suddenly. "You are unworthy of my brother's form. Change back and then tell me the truth of where you're keeping him."
Everything inside Loki screams at him that no, he mustn't shift back to the form of a monster, but he tries anyway, reaching within himself and pulling at his magic.
It won't work. Something prevents him, some mental block, some revulsion holding steady even against his own will and the magic commanding him. He shakes his head. "I can't," he manages, his breath coming faster until he feels lightheaded and the world spins.
"Where is my brother," Thor demands, and he nearly sobs in frustration. He wants to shake his brother, wants to embrace him, wants to run to safety but his traitorous body won't move.
"Dead," he says, "dead and hidden so that I could take his place."
A bright flash like repressed lightning streaks through Thor's eyes, and he lowers Gungnir, lifting his hand to summon his hammer.
Loki takes the opportunity and breaks into a sprint for the end of the bridge.
Surrounded by all the refracted colors of the rainbow bridge, Thor can only see red.
Everything is anger. It's the tinted glass through which he sees the world, the shroud that covers his mind and his thoughts, the fuel for the wild energy coursing through his veins. He's angry with himself for being distracted, for not pressing sooner when he realized something was off with Loki. For taking his little brother to Jotunheim in the first place and putting him in danger.
For not killing every single one of the monsters that could hurt him while they were there.
The only thing stronger than the anger he feels with himself is that directed at his fleeing enemy, the foul creature that hurt his precious little brother.
No, not hurt. It'd killed him.
With a shout of mingled anger and grief he throws himself at the fleeing creature, launching into an uncontrolled sprint faster than anything he's managed before now. The ground flies beneath him, and within a few steps he's crashing into it, carrying them both to the floor. The bridge shivers beneath them at the impact.
Thor doesn't care. Let them fall into the void, so long as he can kill this monster and avenge his brother.
It struggles beneath him, gasping as he closes a hand around its throat. Pleading green eyes meet his, the eyes of his little brother, and they fill Thor with rage.
How dare this creature try to beg for its life with its stolen face. If it wants mercy, reminding Thor of the brother he lost is a poor way to get it.
The giant gasps, its eyes growing bloodshot as Thor squeezes harder. It looks on the verge of passing out when a flash of blue skin burns his palm, forcing him to jerk back. When he looks down his fingers are angry and red with frostbite.
He pushes to his feet, standing over his enemy as the impostor chokes and gasps. He aims a malicious kick at its ribs, and the bloodlust singing through his muscles and surging through his veins revels in the way it curls inward around the blow.
He reaches out with one hand, and Mjolnir slaps into his waiting palm, humming with power and anticipation that resonates with his anger. The impact sends a shock of pain through his burned skin, but the pain only serves to sharpen his focus.
The impostor lifts his hands in supplication; Thor raises his weapon to strike.
The enemy that isn't his brother casts around wildly, but there is nowhere to flee, no escape but the edge of the bridge and the void beneath. The terror in his eyes only feeds Thor's anger. Was this how his brother had looked when those savages had murdered him? Frantic and afraid, like a hunted animal? He scrabbles backwards, and as Thor swings the killing blow he kicks back and rolls off the edge, vanishing with a terrified scream that fades to nothing in the silence of space.
Another frustrated scream follows it down, and it takes Thor a second to recognize it as his own voice, howling his frustration and grief and rage to the uncaring stars.
When that, too, fades he pushes to his feet, ignoring his heart hammering and aching inside his chest. It's an illusion, he knows it is.
How could his heart be causing him pain when his chest feels as empty inside as the void that surrounds him?
Okay, before anyone starts a petition for an un-kudos button... everything is going to be okay. Sort of. Eventually.
In which Loki is more okay than anticipated, Thor's friends have a terrible sense of timing, and Thor and Frigga talk.
Wow, I am absolutely blown away by the response to the last chapter. Never in my time writing here have I had so many people react to something I've posted. I'm stunned.
Out of gratitude to the people who liked, bookmarked and commented on the last chapter, and also because I left off on the immediate aftermath of a literal cliffhanger and that was pretty mean, here's a new chapter earlier than planned!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When Thor is finally gone, Loki lets the shroud of invisibility drop and lays on the bridge, sucking in deep breaths as though he truly were falling through the airless void.
Thor had tried to kill him.
Thor had killed him, in all but truth. Remorselessly, without asking or waiting for a deeper explanation.
As he slowly uncurls Loki notices he is shivering, every muscle shaking with the cold adrenaline still racing through his veins. He coughs, sending pain shooting through his damaged throat and radiating from the spot in his ribs where he'd been kicked. Already his throat is swelling, leaving him breathless and nauseated, and at least one of the ribs is cracked.
The world spins and nearly goes dark as he stands, and he puts his hands on his knees to steady himself.
Plan. Right, he needs a plan if he's going to survive this. He pushes down the nasty though that pops into his head, do you really want to survive this? Maybe things would be better if... and forcibly gathers his scattered thoughts.
He can't go back like this right now. Thor will just finish the job, and he doubts he'll be offered a chance to explain. Even if he does, there's no guarantee that Thor will accept a brother who is an adopted foundling Jotunn, and now that he's seen his brother's rage he can't risk having it turned on him in truth.
Even if Thor didn't kill him, he thinks that might destroy him all the same.
No, Loki has to stay dead, at least for now.
Not forever, though. He'll wait until his father—not his father, but Odin, he has to get used to that—awakens from his Sleep. Odin knows exactly what Loki is, and yet he still decided to take him home all those years ago, and to keep him ever since. Odin will help him, will not let Thor kill him, so he only needs to survive until then.
While Thor is king, though, no one must know that he's alive. No one, not even his mother—not mother—but mother all the same, and when his resolve weakens he freezes it within him. No, this will hurt them both but he can't risk her telling Thor. She always believes the best of her sons, and they would be in a far better place right now were she always right.
Besides, if their mother defends a Loki Thor already knows to be a Frost Giant, he might believe her to be a shapeshifter as well, and... he can't follow that thought all the way down, except to harden his resolve that he must not tell his mother.
He could stay invisible until Odin wakes up, but he doesn't like being slotted into the role of a passive observer. Another skin, then, another face until his own is safe to wear once more.
One pops into his head almost immediately, and it takes him a few seconds to place it. Lord Byggvir is a member of the minor nobility and holds an uninteresting spot on the council, something related to agriculture, if memory serves.
He had also left that morning for Vanaheim just before the shutdown of the Bifrost.
If he were to show up now and claim he had been unable to leave, well, the lie would not be discovered for quite some time.
With a tug on his magic he arranges the shape, his dark hair lightening to weak brown curls, his face growing softer, less angular and slightly older, his frame shortening but filling out.
He should still be hidden from Heimdall's sight, so the only way he can be discovered is if the gatekeeper sees him with his actual eyes, which, so long as he avoids the observatory, won't be a problem.
He heads down the bridge, each step growing steadier than the last. After all, Lord Byggvir has little to worry about.
His brother didn't just murder him over a stupid misunderstanding.
Thor has to tell his mother that Loki is dead.
The thought is almost harder to bear than the knowledge of his brother's death. She will be devastated, and it will be his fault. Not just because he is the bearer of bad news—he will have to confess that he failed as an older brother, failed as a king, failed to protect the brother he'd sworn to guard with his life. It was the first oath he'd ever taken, a child's promise made to himself long before his duties demanded he swear fealty to land and king.
He has failed in his first, most sacred duty. How can he now hope to fulfill the rest?
At least, he thinks, he can spare her the horrid details. There is no reason she need know about the enemy that has pretended to be his brother since their return from Jotunheim. Thor remembers them sharing a significant amount of time these last few days, and he will not steal those hours from her, nor taint his brother's memory.
No, so far as the rest of Asgard is concerned, Loki was killed in this most recent battle, his body lost to the void. It is kinder that way.
He walks the streets with a heavy heart, and the cheers of victory fade away as he approaches and the people notice their king's dejected bearing. The anger that boiled his blood is gone, and it has left behind a weary, aching grief. The sky is overcast but no storm threatens, and the weak light makes the golden city look as muted and tired as he feels.
Part of him hopes to make it back to his chambers without being stopped, to have some time to regroup before he must once again act, but he isn't so lucky. Tyr stalks out to meet him in the courtyard, snapping a salute but not waiting for acknowledgement before he begins his report.
“The palace and the observatory have been secured,” he begins, “and while we still have men combing the city to be sure, we're fairly certain that all the invaders were eliminated. One of the palace magi located the portal they used to invade and confirmed that it has been sealed.”
Thor nods miserably, because that at least is good news.
“The state of emergency is ongoing and will continue until you command otherwise,” Tyr continues. “A dozen of the Einherjar have been assigned to guard the Allfather in three watches of four around the clock, and the palace guard in general have been doubled. We don't have the complete count yet but we estimate fourteen invaders, all dead, and five killed, thirteen wounded among our own ranks, no civilian casualties. The wounded are receiving treatment in the palace infirmary for now, and the families of the slain have been notified, though it would not hurt for them to receive a visit from their king in honor of their sacrifice.”
Thor nods again, feeling numb.
“With regards to the armory census...”
He wants to tell him to stop, can hardly bear to listen to prattling about checklists and supplies when he has just suffered so grave a loss, but stopping him now would mean explaining and Thor doesn't want to. He listens to the rest of the report without listening, nodding when Tyr pauses and trying not to see the monster who looked like his brother tumbling off the edge, scared green eyes that looked too much like Loki's wide with panic.
When Tyr bows and leaves he wanders back toward the palace until he reaches the entryway to the throne room, lined with cold white pillars of marble. A small knot of people are lounging against the pillars, and when they straighten at his entrance he distantly notes, with something that is part relief and part heartsickness, that they are his friends. He does not want company, but they are better than citizens seeking reassurance and favors from their king.
"Thor!" Sif hurries over, and the rest of his friends follow. "We were hoping to gain an audience, but you've been busy, and then the attack..." She pauses, almost uncertain, but when he moves to cut her off, to say he is not in the mood to speak, even with friends, she speaks over the top of his attempted protest. "We know you won't like what we have to say, but please hear us out." She takes another deep breath, steadies herself, and blurts out "we think Loki is behind the Jotnar attacks."
"He's been behaving suspiciously lately," Fandral put in, "almost been acting guilty, ever since we got back from Jotunheim."
"He has always been jealous of you," Sif adds quickly. "I wouldn't put it past him to do something like this in attempt to discredit you as king."
"The throne falls to him after you," is all Hogan says.
"All I know is that he's been avoiding us." Volstagg rests a hand over his beard and frowns as though he doesn't particularly like the implications of what he is saying. "It's like he's afraid of what we'll find if we look at him too closely. He actions are those of one with something to hide."
"It would take a powerful sorcerer to carve a path for the Jotnar between worlds," Hogan says, and it's more words than he usually uses in a day.
"He can do it," Volstagg says, then continues with less hesitation, "he's helped us with that trick often enough in the past."
"I know you want to think the best of him," Sif finishes. "He's your brother. But please at least consider our words. We would not come to you with these concerns lightly."
Thor is stunned. That their friends should notice the difference in his brother before he himself did—it prickles at his sense of guilt. Every one of them realized something was off, realized his brother wasn't acting himself.
And yet—and yet they notice those differences and ascribe them to envy and malice. It is so easy for them to believe that Loki has betrayed him, betrayed Asgard, and that grates at him. They do not know that they disrespect the memory of a dead man, but that does not matter. They still treat his brother with mistrust and hope to convince him to do the same.
He shakes off the thought that they must have been pondering this for some time before speaking with him. He knows it would have made no difference had they spoken up before now, that his brother has likely been dead since before they stepped foot back on Asgardian soil, but he still can't help but wonder what would have happened had they come to him sooner out of concern rather than suspicion.
Your friends, his brother's voice echoes in his memory, never mine.
"Loki is not working with the Jotnar," Thor says, and the words come out lifeless and hollow. Sif groans as though she expected his disbelief, and she moves to disagree, but he continues. "Loki is dead. Slain by the very giants you accuse him of conspiring with."
Their eyes widen. "We didn't—" Fandral begins, and stops himself.
"I am sorry," Sif says instead. Her face has gone pale, her lips bloodless. Sorry for what? For Thor's brother being killed? For accusing him of treason so soon after, and speaking ill of the dead? For mistrusting and disliking Loki in life?
Thor almost wants to ask, but he does not. "Are you?" he asks instead, and turns away so they can't see the frustrated tears building up in his eyes. "I have no wish to speak with any of you further." His voice stays steady, too calm, dangerously calm. "Leave me."
They look ready to protest, but something in his expression warns them, and they remain silent as they obediently leave the room.
Left alone it is harder than ever to resist the urge to scream, to lash out, to break something in his frustration and grief. He could overturn a banquet table in his petty anger over being denied a trip to Jotunheim, and it feels wrong to do so and then control himself after his brother's murder, as though that were the lesser offense.
There is nothing here to smash, though, except the stone pillars. He drives a fist into one of them and it's hard enough to chip the stone, and it leaves his knuckles split and bloodied. He does it again, and again, ignoring the pain as his bone bruises and he leaves little smears of blood on the marble.
He doesn't hear his mother enter the room, isn't aware of her presence until she rests a gentle hand on his shoulder. Magic calms him at his touch, a familiar spell from his childhood, only now it makes things worse. It is harder to hide his grief behind a veil of anger when he is calm.
She takes his hand and a warm golden glow blossoms around the knuckles, knitting the skin back together and soothing the pain.
Only when the healing is complete does she speak. "An invasion is a difficult situation to handle, even for one not new to the throne. It makes perfect sense for you to be frustrated, and angry, and perhaps even a little bit frightened." She looks at him as though expecting him to object, to tell her he wasn't frightened, but words stick in his throat. He knows what his next ones must be, and he dreads them, oh how he dreads them. "I ask only that you keep the events of today in perspective. The invasion force was small, and Asgard's forces repelled them easily. You reacted well and proved you can keep your head in a crisis. The invaders were defeated before they achieved their goal, and Asgard suffered neither significant damage nor major losses."
"That is not true," he says over the ringing in his ears. She frowns and reaches towards him, calming spell on her fingertips once more, but he catches her wrist and forces himself to look her straight in the eyes. "They killed my brother. Loki is dead."
She fumbles and sways, the color draining out of her face. "No," she whispers, and then she presses her fist to her mouth, choking on a small sob. She meets his eyes through a layer of tears. "How?"
"The fight on the bridge," he says, hating that he has to lie to her and knowing that the alternative is worse. "His body fell into the void. I couldn't catch him, mother. I'm sorry."
He intends to be strong for her, to be the solid rock against which she can collapse, but that resolve crumbles when she takes him in her arms, and he selfishly accepts as much comfort as he offers.
They cry together, clinging to one another, until they have nothing left with which to cry. He supports his mother on the walk back to her chambers, doing his best to shield her from the worst of the prying eyes. His own grief will have left its mark; he knows his eyes are red, his head bowed. No doubt all of Asgard will know of their tragedy before long.
His grief bleeds itself out with the tears, and in its wake it leaves anger once more, burning in the bottom of his gut like the embers of a banked fire. He feeds it, lets it grow. When he focuses on the anger the pain of loss becomes an abstract—his brother is dead, and that is still horrible, but it is most significant for the magnitude of what the Jotnar have stolen from him. It is something to drive his rage, something worthy of a great feat of vengeance, indeed.
When he focuses on the anger, he doesn't have to acknowledge that when his revenge is finished, he still comes back to a life where he is an only child. One where he will rule without an advisor, and raise children who have no uncle, and never play with his own nieces and nephews. So much of the life he had planned for himself died with his brother that the shape of his future, when he dares think of it, feels warped and wrong.
He dreads being alone with those thoughts. He is meant to retire to his bed and take some rest to prepare for what is to come, but he worries that the second he falls still they will catch up to him and consume him.
He keeps moving, staying ahead of the thoughts that stalk him like a predator, chasing him through the halls into the long hours of the night.
I feel like I should mention at this point that the trope where all the problems are caused by easily-avoided misunderstandings and all the conflicts could be fixed with reasonable communication skills is one of my least-favorite tropes.
I am such a hypocrite.
It takes Loki until well into the following morning to learn what he needs to know about Lord Byggvir. Byggvir can hardly go around asking people where he lives, whether he has any family, or what his schedule looks like for the immediate future, but even when he finds a private corner and slips into another skin where no one can see, no one seems to know much about the man beyond his court persona. It appears most everyone finds him as unremarkable as Loki does, and though he must have a handful of closer friends, Loki hasn't a clue who they may be.
He eventually finds directions to Byggvir's house by asking a local grocer, and he follows them to a comfortable but unassuming little dwelling in an affluent area not far from the palace proper. He picks the lock and finds it clearly furnished for one, which is a relief. No need to fool a family or find some excuse for what is certain to be out-of-character behavior.
The house itself he scours for clues to help him take on the role. He finds some letters from the man's family, filled with sweet but generic conversation and absolutely no helpful details to help him play his part. The furnishings are expensive but simple, almost tasteful, and decorations are sparse. In the kitchen he finds an abundance of spices and ingredients, so the man likely cooks much of his own food.
He is rooting through another man's closet and feeling profoundly uncomfortable about it when a knock comes at the door. His first reaction is to startle and try to hide, but he remembers at the last second that he is not a burglar, or at least doesn't seem like one, and that whoever is knocking is likely looking for Byggvir. If he is to keep his cover, it would be in his best interest to answer.
He opens the door to find a messenger from the palace on the other side. "Lord Byggvir," the man says without inflection, "you are summoned to an urgent meeting of his Grace's Council twenty minutes hence." Message thus delivered he bows and leaves, presumably to carry the summons to the next member of the Council.
Great. Thor's War Council. He should have known better than to believe he'd be spared those, even after his assumed death. If he didn't go, perhaps they would assume Byggvir was on Vanaheim—but no, he'd answered the door to that messenger, and he would remember having seen him. Drat. It would have been better to hide after all.
There's no two ways about it; he has to go to the assembly. The thought makes his heart sink deep into his stomach. Facing Thor now, after everything, is the last thing he wants to do, even if it is behind the protection of a stolen face. The attack here in the heart of Asgard will have stoked Thor's rage, and talking sense to him will be near impossible.
He bites back a sigh and borrows some formal clothes out of Byggvir's closet. His own clothes are hidden beneath the same elaborate illusion changing his appearance, but Byggvir's clothes are clean and loose and comfortable, and besides, he needs to go to the closet in any case, to find and mimic the man's sense of fashion. He checks and re-checks the illusion in the mirror, making absolutely certain it is believable and secured in place.
As soon as he can stall no longer, he steps outside and lets his feet take him along familiar paths to the front wing of the palace where the Council Chambers are located. While he walks his mind chases itself in an inconvenient slurry of thoughts that resemble a blizzard on Jotunheim. Should he try to make Byggvir a voice of reason? Or stay silent and observe? What would the man himself do? How long can he keep this up?
When he makes it to the chambers almost everyone is already assembled and seated. He nearly walks by the seat appointed for Byggvir and towards the head of the table where he would normally sit, but at the last moment he catches himself and slides into his appointed spot. The seat that would usually be his remains empty.
The assembled Lords fidget nervously with various degrees of unease, and several whisper to one another.
Olfred, the minister of trade, leans over to him. "I heard that King Thor was injured in the attack," he whispers. "Do you know if it's true?"
"I haven't heard," he says, but his head spins. Thor injured? He would have noticed, would he not? But he had been distracted, and what if the oaf had gotten himself hurt—
"That's not what I heard," another minister puts in. "I heard it was the Queen. A Frost Giant made it into the palace, and she was burned defending her sleeping husband."
His blood runs cold. Rumors, he reminds himself, that's all these are. Nothing more.
He's saved from further chasing down his spinning worried thoughts when Thor enters and they all rise. He studies his brother as he takes his seat, and he is pale, even if his gait is steady as he enters and he shows no other signs of injury. His eyes are rimmed with red and his face is sombre, almost pitifully so. The sight fills him with a low-level anxiety that gnaws on the insides of his ribs.
"I have grave news," Thor says without preamble, and that doesn't help with the anxiety. He pauses as though gathering himself and Loki squirms. "We have successfully repelled the invading force from Jotunheim, but Asgard has suffered a great loss." His voice stumbles slightly. "My brother, Prince Loki, was killed in the attack."
Around him, Lords are offering their regrets and condolences with traditional, scripted words, but he cannot speak. It is though his tongue has frozen to the roof of his mouth. One or two of the people sitting near him give him sharp looks, but Thor doesn't seem to notice his silence, and then the moment has passed.
"He fought valiantly," he just hears Thor saying, "but the Giants overcame him at the edge of the bridge. They slew him before I could come to his aid, and his body was lost to the void."
Oh, so that's how the story is to be told. It makes sense when he thinks about it; telling the truth, or at least, what Thor believes to be the truth, that would cause a panic. If the people believed the Jotnar had shapeshifters who could infiltrate Asgard's ranks, who could pose as and secretly replace any friend, any general, any leader or member of the nobility, that would create chaos. In a way he's almost impressed. Thor doesn't usually think this far ahead, or consider the political consequences of his words and actions.
Perhaps what little experience he's had with being a king has taught him a thing or two.
"I'm assuming," a voice speaks from the end of the table, "that you intend for Asgard to avenge this grave loss." Tyr. Loki just barely holds back a grimace. Of course the man would use Loki's death to promote a cause he had been firmly against in life. He doubted any would see the irony of it, either.
"I do," Thor says.
They spend the rest of the meeting plotting war.
When the meeting ends, all Thor wants is to curl in on himself and drift off in an unthinking haze, or perhaps a dreamless sleep. Daydreams of vengeance play themselves out across the canvas of his imagination, but they don't make him feel better, only set his heart racing like a spooked and riderless horse.
He has much to think on, though. Tyr had suggested they not move up their planned invasion, but rather come up with an immediate retaliatory strike, something quick and dirty to even the score and remind the monsters of Asgard's capabilities.
The issue is that the Frost Giants have far fewer assets than they, and thereby fewer things to target. Their greatest treasure, the famed Casket of Ancient Winters, already sits in Asgard's vaults. Without it, the great temple at Utgard is little more than a hollow shell. The invaders who attacked his home targeted the Observatory, but Jotunheim has no Bifrost, no watcher for them to attack in turn. They sought to harm Thor's family, but he does not know if King Laufey has any living relatives, or if he would even care for their lives if he did.
Whatever they do now, though, Thor wants it to hurt. To pierce them the way his heart aches when he meets eyes full of sympathy, when friends and strangers alike offer him condolences and meaningless platitudes, when he realizes that with his father asleep, the planning of his brother's funeral must fall to him.
The monsters must pay.
They will, he'll make sure of that, but for now he has a more immediate concern.
Recent preparations have made the process familiar, so he follows it numbly, automatically, writing out orders for the lumber and the tools, commissioning the boat that, in other circumstances, would bear his brother's body to Valhalla. The boat that still will serve as his funeral pyre, because that is the one thing Thor can still do for him.
His hands don't shake as he signs the orders, nor when he folds and seals them carefully before handing them to the messenger that waits outside the door.
It's almost harder filling out the rest of the orders of the day, mundane paperwork for kitchen orders and infirmary supplies alongside authorizing the weregild for the guards killed in the attack and and diplomatic letters to the leaders of other realms explaining the current state of affairs. These things are a reminder that life goes on, and though he knows it must, it still bothers him. To allow things to return to normalcy so soon after his brother's death feels irreverent, as though he is dismissing the loss as too insignificant to affect his life in any lasting or meaningful way.
He finishes quickly, rushed by nervous energy, then seeks out his mother. Together they can work at planning the funeral, and he can have something to do that doesn't feel like moving on before he is ready.
This is the chapter that forced me to research viking funerals, and then seriously Disneyify them. I'm not kidding, never Google this.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Loki sputters in indignation.
They are going to burn his stuff.
He didn't feel much when he saw the boat being prepared, nothing more than the faint stirrings of curiosity. He'd stopped imagining his own funeral when it struck him how morbid the habit was, but that didn't keep him from wondering now how it would be: who would mourn, who would pretend to, and who would not even bother. He had wondered if they would bother holding a funeral at all without a body, or whether they would wait for the Allfather to wake before attempting to send his (false) son to Valhalla.
But then he noticed a servant scurrying by carrying one of his favorite books, and it was all he could do not to smite the man where he stood.
Following the servant had led to the funeral boat, which is how he came to be standing invisibly in his own rooms, watching Thor and Frigga argue about which of his favorite things to throw into a glorified maritime bonfire.
"He loves this book," Thor says, "it should go with him." Loki peers over—it is a reference manual, one that has proven very useful to some of the projects he has been working on lately. He wouldn't go so far as to say he loves it, exactly.
"It is unique," Frigga says. "If we burn it the information within would be lost, and I don't think your brother would want that. He would prefer we give it to the library."
No, Loki would prefer they leave it in his room. He wonders if Lord Byggvir could suggest postponing the funeral until after the Allfather wakes, but it really is none of his business. Curse this whole mess.
"A few scraps of knowledge for the scholars are not more important than my brother." Thor glares, and he clutches the book closer. "We burn it."
"That isn't what I meant, dearheart, and I think you know it." Frigga reaches over and brushes some hair out of her son's eyes, cupping the side of his face and running a thumb over his cheekbone in a comforting gesture. Loki is suddenly, inexplicably jealous. "You're grieving, and I understand, believe me I do. All I'm saying is that we should think of what your brother would want. I doubt he craves a legacy of destruction."
Thor jerks away from her touch, the book held between them like a shield. "We burn it," he insists, and stalks off.
Frigga heaves a small sigh, then looks around his room, her eyes lingering on the chair at his desk, the seat by the window where he loves to read, the hearth by the fire as though she is hoping against hope to still find him there. He stands behind her as her eyes fill with tears, close enough to see the tremors in her strong frame, close enough to reach out and touch her should he decide to.
His resolve almost breaks, but no. She would tell Thor, hoping to ease his suffering, and then her grief would have a true reason. The Allfather will wake soon; she can know then that her son lives.
Still, for the moment he cannot bear to see her cry. He leaves hesitantly, his heart tugging him back toward his weeping mother, and he follows the path Thor took to the ship.
Time to see how many of his most beloved belongings he can save from the fire.
The book, the one he and Mother argued about, is missing.
Thor stands beside the funeral boat, the finest the craftsmen can make, and tosses things around, searching around and behind and beneath them. It was right here, he remembers settling it into the pile, but now... he growls in frustration. He wants to ask a servant, to drag them before him and demand to know where it is, but the room is empty, cleared by those who desire to avoid his rage.
Now that he's looking, truly looking, he notices that a number of things are missing. The map of Alfheim's uncharted forests he and his brother had spent years making on their various adventures is gone, as are the blankets Frigga had woven for her son and a fair number of books. The grave goods had been rearranged to hide the gaps, but now that he is tossing everything about it is perfectly obvious.
His first thought is that it is his mother, going against his express wishes and stealing back trinkets, but it doesn't sound like her. For a second he hesitates—even if she had, could he truly grudge her a few mementos by which to remember her son? He hardens his heart against the thought. No, the important thing here is Loki, and he will have all of his favorite things with him in Valhalla. Thor failed his brother in life; he won't fail him again in death.
Halfway to the door, he turns around again, going back to carefully pick up the remaining items from where they had fallen and arrange them. He catches a guard's eye as he leaves. "Let no one near that boat, am I understood?" he growls, and the man nods.
He finds his mother in her garden, carefully picking white lilies and braiding them into a garland. Between the traditional funeral flowers she weaves little blue bellflowers, Loki's favorite. The bright pink bleeding hearts she slips in occasionally need no explanation.
"Did you take anything from the ship?" he asks bluntly, the accusation in his own voice making him wince.
His mother frowns, looking up from her flowers. "No," she says. "Why do you ask?"
"Some things are gone." He manages to keep from shouting only because this is his mother. "Books, things he made, gifts we've given him. Someone stole them." His fists clench and unclench, but there's nothing nearby for him to break. Lashing out here will only damage his mother's garden and hurt her further.
Her frown deepens. "Are you certain?"
"Of course!" He starts pacing, then stops when he realizes he is trampling the wildflowers. "It must be the servants. If we have everyone who has been near the boat arrested, we can—"
"You'll do no such thing," she says sternly, and the fire in her voice makes him blink. "Thor," she says more gently, "I understand why you are upset, but terrorizing the servants won't accomplish anything."
"Someone stole from him, mother." He blinks hard, and his nose stings. "They took his things right from under our noses. They thought we wouldn't even notice."
"I know," she says, and she cups his face, pulling him down until she can plant a gentle kiss on his forehead. "And I'll investigate. Leave it to me. I should also like to know who would steal from my son, and a king has other, more pressing concerns." He draws back, and she lets him. "Promise me?"
He sighs. "Aye," he says. "The flowers are lovely," he adds. "He would love them."
That earns him a tearful smile. With a delicate movement she plucks up a little blue bellflower and whispers a spell over it to keep it from fading. She holds it out to him and he takes it, balancing the delicate blossom carefully between thumb and finger.
"Thank you," he says reflexively, and he tucks the little flower into his breastplate, pressed up against his heart.
He can see it when he looks down, a little spot of color, and it reminds him of happier times. Of running through the gardens with his brother when they were both young enough that being outside was in of itself an adventure. Of plucking wildflowers to present to his mother as a way of keeping his hands occupied while Loki read them both stories. Of feeding snips from the garden pruning to the goats in the lower pastures to make his brother laugh at the way they disappeared.
The memories draw a small smile from him despite everything, and it is the first time he almost believes that grief may have another side from which he can emerge.
He holds to that as they finish preparing the boat, as the sun begins to set, as the crowds gather dutifully at the edge of the water.
Loki has a front row seat to his own funeral.
Given the choice, he would have preferred to observe from the back, to watch the gathered crowds and escape their scrutiny in return, but Lord Byggvir is a part of the council, however relatively unimportant. So he stands in the front lines, not far at all from where he would be as Loki, Prince of Asgard.
The funeral itself is a grim affair. Usually, the funerals Loki attends follow in the wake of some great victory, the dead casualties in a battle that has already been won. In those events the sadness and mourning are tempered by an air of triumph, and stories of battle and glory are shared proudly among the survivors.
His own funeral, though, is on the eve of a coming war, and everything falls under its looming shadow. The recent battle was neither victory nor defeat; the enemy was repelled, but first reached the very heart of their realm and, in the fiction Thor had told his people, slain a member of the royal household. The faces of the lords around him, at least those he can see, are grim and set. No one jests, no one boasts, no one whispers stories of his exploits. The assembled crowds are somber and cheerless as the shades of Hel.
Thor himself looks terrible. The grief of these past few days has cut lines into his face, and his eyes are rimmed with red, his lips pressed into a thin line. His grip on the bow he holds is nearly tight enough to splinter the wood.
Loki fiddles his own bow in his hands. He's done this before, of course, but the dismal mood has him wrong-footed, and he has to remind himself there is no reason for everyone to be mooning over this stupid boat.
The funeral drums start beating, a low, ominous sound that shivers through the very earth beneath their feet. Doom, doom, they rumble as the first line of archers steps into formation, then the second falls in behind them. Everyone who holds power or position in Asgard stands on the shore, waiting to send him off into eternity. He can't see Frigga from his position but he knows she must be here, most likely with a bow of her own. No Sif, either, or any of the warriors three, though he would have expected to find them standing beside Thor, for his brother's sake if for no other reason.
Doom, doom, they raise their bows, arrows notched. Through sheer power of will he keeps his own from trembling.
Doom, doom, with a flicker of magic the arrowheads spring alight, bright beacons burning on the hillside. He isn't sure who lit them; usually it would be the Allfather or Loki himself. He might imagine the twitch in Thor's clenched jaw as the fire blossoms.
Doom, doom. Thor steps forward and draws his bow, releasing the first arrow. It cuts through the mist in a bright arc and lands in the center of the boat, catching immediately. The contents, his things, start to smoke.
As one they raise their bows and draw; as one they release, sending a hail of arrows to follow Thor's. Some miss, more don't. A proper fire catches and the entire boat goes up, the physical representation of his life ensheathed in flame. The crackling of the sap in the new wood can be heard from the shore, so still are the crowds.
Thor's bow falls from his hands and makes a soft sound as it hits the ground. The spell breaks. Now people are shuffling and muttering, but it is still muted, still respectful, though whether their respect is for their dead prince or mourning king is unclear. Not that it really matters. He doesn't listen to the whispers, ignores the faces of those gathered on the beach.
He watches Thor. Thor stands at the edge of the water and stares at the burning boat with a face made of stone until the ship breaks apart and falls into the sea, motionless until even the wreckage disappears, swallowed beneath the waves. There is no shower of golden sparks rising up to meet the stars, no indication that a soul has left for Valhalla.
He wonders how Thor takes that.
When at last there is nothing left to see, Thor drops his gaze and stalks off, expression unchanging. Behind him, the crowds disperse.
Tradition says they will feast in his honor and memory in seven days, drinking the sjaund and bidding him a final farewell. If the fates hold any affection for him whatsoever, Odin will be awake and this farce ended long before then.
Loki casts one last long look out on the water before he, too, turns to leave.
Sometime in the near future, someone is going to owe him a pile of books.
Okay, I think I can admit that having characters secretly attend their own funerals is one of my favorite angst tropes. I blame Mark Twain.
So I'm posting this a little early because things are looking busy for a while so it might be a bit until the next installment. Thank you all again for your kind words and support!
Thor walks away from his brother's funeral feeling hollow.
The proceedings had been grand as he could make them, fit for a prince. The assembled crowds had been impressive, even without the delegations from other realms denied access with the Bifrost closed. Still, he can't help but wonder if his brother has been truly laid to rest. They had no body to send off to Valhalla, nothing to burn but flowers and trinkets and books.
A single boat, charred and then gone, hardly seems a fitting tribute to a life so brutally cut short.
He had considered marching off to Jotunheim and demanding his brother's body be surrendered, killing any who refused. If he thought there had been a chance they would have admitted their duplicity and returned him, he would have done it.
He knows, now, what he wants to do instead. He can use his head, just like Loki had always told him, and solve two problems at once.
Making up his mind doesn't quite grant him a measure of peace, but it does quiet some of the wild emotion swirling inside him. There is still enough, though, to set him pacing, pushing one limb after another in a helpless parody of purpose until he looks up and realizes he is on the rainbow bridge.
It isn't actually the site of his brother's death, he reminds himself, but something still crumples inside him at the glow of the colored lights, the cool dark of emptiness reaching inwards with long fingers, the sight of the bottomless void stretching above and below and in every direction except that which leads back to his home.
He sinks down onto the bridge, ignoring the small spark of vertigo as his legs dangle off the edge. For just a second he wonders what it would be like to push off, to fall, hurtling through depthless space that wraps around like a cocoon and leaches away feeling with the fading warmth.
He doesn't notice Sif until her hand drops down to rest on his shoulder, and when he startles her fingers dig in, steadying him on the edge.
When he looks up to meet her eyes, her face is pale and dark shadows ring her eyes. She looks as though she might have spent her night the way he did, pacing restlessly through the halls. An apology for his inattention springs to his lips then fades away, unsaid.
"Why are you here?" The words sound rough, and it's almost as though he can hear in his own voice the thinness of the thread that is holding him together. He wonders if she's come to apologize or to offer the same weak condolences as everyone else; at the moment, he isn't sure which he wants to hear less.
She doesn't answer right away, only sinks down to the bridge beside him. Her hands clasp together between her knees and twist together, the nervous gesture strange enough for her that he notices even through the fog in his head. For long moments they sit in stifling silence, and it feels like all the void is between them even though they sit close enough to brush shoulders when they shift their position.
"He's really gone." The words are almost too soft to pierce the dizzying silence of the void, or else it is the thin air that mutes them, but Thor still catches the bewilderment in her tone. "Part of me keeps expecting this to be some trick, and he'll turn up and laugh at all of us for believing it."
Thor smiles at that. "Aye. I've done the same."
"I am sorry," she says at last, emboldened by his lack of anger. "About Loki."
It is condolences and apology in one, and he grits his teeth. His throat spasms and threatens to close. He still doesn't know if he forgives his friends, or if he wants to.
"Not half as sorry as the Jotnar will be," he says instead of acknowledging the cause if this tension between them. It is the answer he has bitten back around nobility and members of the court, but here, with his oldest (second-oldest) childhood friend, he need not hold back.
Except that she doesn't agree, doesn't nod or murmur her assent or pledge her sword to his mission of vengeance, only draws her lips together into a thin frown. "You are still set upon your designs of a grand war with Jotunheim," she says unhappily, a statement and not a question.
"Of course." He returns her frown. "More so now than before. My brother's murder cannot go unanswered. Jotunheim asked for war when the filthy beasts invaded our home, and now I cannot rest until the entire realm has paid in blood for what they have done."
There is a long pause that descends into awkwardness as Sif continues to fidget with her hands, seemingly working to carefully marshal her words before sending them forth.
"I understand your anger," Sif says at last. "A great deal of it I share, but still I would ask whether that course of action is truly wise."
She looks up then, meets his eyes. "The war hasn't even truly started, Thor, and look what it's already cost us. This isn't a game, or a quest, or one of the adventures from our youth. I have no wish to see more funerals like the one today. Perhaps it's time to put and end to this, to seek peace while peace is still possible."
Thor's jaw tightens. "So before you accuse my brother of treason, and now you judge his death not to be significant enough to be worthy of vengeance?"
"That is not what I said."
"It may as well have been." He stands suddenly, pacing down the bridge and letting out a slow breath as he does so. "Do not seek out my company again. I do not wish to endure yours, if such is how you think." After another deep breath his agitation only builds, like bellows coaxing a flame to new heights. "Tell the others the same."
"I am your king," he says suddenly. "To disobey me is treason, and I say now to leave me be." He swallows and keeps walking, leaves her behind without stopping to look back and see the hurt that no doubt crosses her face. If he doesn't see, he won't regret the words, won't be tempted to take them back and continue this accursed conversation.
There is only one person alive he wants to speak with now, and as the dawn breaks he sets off in search of Tyr. If any can bring his vision to life, it will be him.
After nearly an hour of fruitless searching, he sends a servant to find Asgard's master of war and waits in one of the outer courtyards among pieces of partly-assembled war machinery. The general finds him looking over the cliffs out to the sea, a different shore, but the same waves that had swallowed their funerary tributes less than a day ago.
"I want Utgard to burn," he says, not taking his eyes from the waves. "The palace at the capital. You said our counterattack should show what Asgard is capable of. I want it to go down in flames."
“It'll be difficult,” Tyr grunts, “but I see the poetry in it. I think it can be arranged.”
“Then arrange it.”
He nods and leaves.
The water in the distance grows blurry, and he swipes at his eyes, but beneath the lingering sadness is a vicious sort of contentment. Utgard will burn, and it will be the sort of glorious funeral pyre his brother deserves.
And it will be the first, yes, but not the last. He will wreath the land of ice and snow in flame until the giants of Muspelheim would be comfortable stalking the ruins. He will burn everything to the ground until he is satisfied, and if satisfaction never comes he will burn the ashes.
Tyr pulls him aside, a few scant hours later, and takes him to the funeral beach. A war machine is already assembled on the shore, and Tyr shows him a missile that reeks of heavy oil and magic.
“Whipped this up just for you,” Tyr says, tapping the projectile and then slotting it into the machine. “It should do the trick, just what you ordered.”
When he pulls the trigger it goes sailing overhead, arcing gracefully through the air until it reaches the top of its arc and explodes. Only that isn't quite right—the projectile is like a sheet of solid flame unfurling in the air, spreading wide and thin before drifting down like a blanket. The curtain of flame settles almost gently over the sea and continues to burn, hot white flames that make the water hiss and boil.
For the second time that day, Thor watches the waves lap at the edge of dancing flames.
“It'll burn anything it touches,” Tyr says almost reverently, mistaking Thor's grieving silence for awe. “Water. Stone. Ice. With these,” he gives the war engine an almost affectionate pat, “we can burn the cities of Jotunheim to the ground around their frozen ears.”
“Good,” Thor hears himself say. He is still watching the flame, licking at the border between water and sky with a mesmerizing unpredictability. “That is good.”
Loki learns of his brother's planned attack on Utgard when Thor himself comes hunting him down. The young King of Asgard carries himself with such determination that Loki flinches back before he remembers that he is Byggvir, and Byggvir has nothing to fear.
“There you are,” Thor says when he reaches him, “I've been searching for you.”
“Oh?” he says, and raises an eyebrow. Thor freezes stock-still. “Why were you looking for me, your Grace?” he continues when Thor doesn't elaborate.
He shakes his head, then straightens. “Apologies,” Thor says, and for a moment he sounds tired. “For a second you reminded me of my brother. He used to make that same expression.” He shakes his head again. “I'm sorry, like as not it wasn't even that similar. I've been seeing ghosts where none are.”
“You are under a lot of stress,” he says charitably, swearing to himself. Really, one syllable is all it takes for Thor to start to recognize him? He would swear his brother never paid enough attention to feel him out so quickly. He shall have to be far, far more careful.
“Supply lines,” Thor says when he has fully gathered himself. “They needn't be extensive yet, but we shall need rations for the upcoming campaign. I expect we shall need food enough for near fifteen hundred troops for a minimum of four days, and they need be ready in two days' time. Have you need of any resources to be prepared by then?”
It's all he can do not to gape openly at this Thor, all efficiency and planning for eventualities. He thinks he might approve if Thor's energies were turned to literally anything other than this.
“And what campaign is this?” he manages when he finally regains some measure of control of his tongue. Thor starts to look irritated, but fixes him with a look that manages to be both completely earnest and utterly terrifying.
“We are laying siege to Utgard,” Thor says without a trace of hesitation. “It is near the Bifrost site, so the rations need not be transported far, but they must be able to withstand the cold.”
“You're doing what?” Thor's frown starts to look dangerous, but he can barely hold back the flood of arguments that build at the tip of his tongue. It's not his place, he reminds himself, to temper Thor's reactions and talk him out of his worst ideas. Not any longer.
“I'll expect a full report in the morning,” Thor says instead of answering, and then he hurries off, presumably to find someone else and make their bad day even worse.
This is ridiculous. It is a terrible idea, and someone needs to put a stop to it. At least when the planned invasion was months out, Odin could...
Odin. He has been asleep for more than a week, perhaps more at this point—already this is one of the longest of his sleeps in Loki's memory. If he were to wake, surely he would put a stop to this.
He makes himself invisible and creeps into the Allfather’s bedchambers, past the guards stationed to protect the old king as he sleeps. It disturbs him how easy it is—if he can do it so, too could another sorcerer that meant him harm—but he contents himself for now with the acknowledgement that the wards will not react to him like they would another intruder, that they will not mark him as out of place. Lucky that no one bothered to remove the signatures of a dead man; likely no one saw the point.
Odin looks much the same as he did the last time Loki was here, neither calm nor troubled, simply existing, stretched out on the bed. When he reaches out tentatively with his magic, though, his rest is lighter, and he is not sunk so far into the golden glow of the spell as before.
If Loki had to guess, he would say that Odin will wake in a couple days' time, but a guess is all it is. He dares not use magic to rouse him early, not for fear of what such acts would do to his health and in unwillingness to gamble at raising any alarms.
They say, though, that Odin can still hear what is going on around him, that he is aware even in the deepest depths of his slumber. Loki doesn't know if it is true, Odin never gave him a straight answer, and usually he hopes that it isn't.
Today, he sincerely hopes that he can hear and understand every word.
“Allfather,” he says hesitantly, using magic to muffle the sound so the guards can't hear. It doesn't feel quite right, so he starts again. “Father. Please, if you can wake up, Asgard needs you. Thor needs you.”
He lowers his head down to rest on the edge of the mattress and takes a deep, shuddering breath. He knows it isn't as important, isn't as convincing, but still it needs to be said. “I need you. Please.”
He waits, hoping, begging for some response, a sign that he has been heard, that his father cares.
The silence of the room is nearly deafening, and Loki slumps in disappointment. He grabs the old man's hand and squeezes it once before he bites his lip and turns to leave, silent as a ghost.
Okay, so my schedule cleared unexpectedly for a brief time, so here is an (admittedly short) update. Thanks everyone for reading and bearing with me, and I hope you all enjoy!
Thor hasn't slept since his brother's death, and if he had his choice, he wouldn't sleep for at least several weeks more. Months, perhaps. The mighty Thor has never been known to fear anything, but he thinks he might dread his dreams.
Still, he has been taught many times over the importance of sleep before a battle, and it would be remiss of him not to at least try for a few hours. He pulls off his armor at the foot of his bed, avoiding meeting his own eyes in the mirror on the wall.
Something small and blue flutters to the floor when he removes the breastplate and he bends to retrieve it. It is soft and moist and nothing he recognizes, at least not until he holds it closer. The flower, the little blue bellflower his mother had given him before his brother's funeral.
It is crushed now, mangled beyond recognition, and his heart twists at the sight of it. Somewhere in the back of his mind he had thought to press it, to close it between the pages of a book and preserve it as a reminder.
He had forgotten about it, though, had neglected it, and now it was too late. Not even his mother's gentle spell of protection had kept it safe, and now nothing can put it back together.
He stares at the flower a second longer and then sets it aside on his dresser. It watches him like an accusation, a reminder of his capacity for thoughtless destruction.
When he finishes changing he knows he won't sleep, so he wanders outside, finding a private balcony to sit and stare out into the dark.
A warm, soft glow slowly envelops the darkness, and he looks up to find his mother, soft lights woven of her magic hovering around her. "My darling," she murmurs, "I was hoping to find you here." She steps out to the railing beside him, tilting her head upwards and taking a moment to study the stars.
In the moment before the silence stretches too thin, she speaks. "The bonds that hold your father to his sleep are weakening," she says softly. "The healers say it is likely he will awaken sometime in the next few days."
"That is good," Thor says, and the words feel heavy and meaningless. It is good news, he knows that, but nothing has felt good for a long time. A few days or an eternity.
"I come to ask you a favor," she says after he falls silent, and he looks at her, waiting. "Postpone the attack on Jotunheim. Give yourself time to cool down, to think."
He shakes his head. He would do many things for her, almost anything, but not that. "I can't."
"I beg you," his mother says, "please reconsider. Your father stirs; soon he will be awake, and you can discuss this with him then."
"All the more reason to leave soon," Thor says. His mother's pleas tug at his heart, but he can't allow himself to be swayed, not in this. This is important, vital even.
It has to be. If he backs down now, it is as much as admitting that he was wrong, that these past battles meant nothing. He can not allow those to be in vain, not with the heavy price they had cost him.
If he doesn't invade Jotunheim, he admits that Jotunheim doesn't need to be invaded.
If he doesn't invade Jotunheim, his brother died for no reason.
"No," he says. "My father is wise in many things, but when it comes to the Jotnar he has become soft and blind. They are nothing but monsters, and it is our duty to see them wiped out."
His resolve is set, so he allows himself to soften towards her, pulling her into a one-armed hug. "It's okay, mother. I can do this."
For the first time he can remember, she pulls away first. "That is what I fear." She takes a deep breath, steadying herself, then looks him straight in the eyes. "There is something we should have told both you and your brother long ago. Perhaps in telling you now, I can keep you from making this mistake."
She sits down on a stone bench and pats the space beside her. When he sinks down she takes both his hands in her own, and they shake. "Loki was not your brother by blood," she says, and his heart freezes solid inside his chest.
"It was near the end of the Aesir-Jotnar War," she continues, searching his eyes as though unaware of the way his heart has stopped beating. "Your father fought his way to the temple where the Casket was held and he found something else. A baby, abandoned in the snow."
His heart is racing now, far too fast when all he can do is sit here and breathe as this surreal nightmare plays itself out.
"Laufey's son," she says, and no, that is too much. He shakes his head, frantic with his denial.
"No," he says, "no, that isn't possible. Loki is—Loki was my brother."
"Yes," she says, "in all except blood. He was Jotunn, Thor."
"I remember," he gasps. His breaths are coming too quickly, making his head spin. "I remember your stomach, the baby... this makes no sense! How, how could—"
"The baby was named Balder," she says through the tears running down her cheeks. "We lost him, but the Norns saw fit to grant us another son. It was easier to raise him in Asgard if we pretended that Loki was the son born to us, but he was our son. You must believe that."
Dead. Dead and hidden so that I could take his place. Thor wants to scream, but the ice in his lungs won't let him.
"Loki himself didn't know, not until after you came back from Jotunheim. We kept the truth of his history secret from all. The reason I tell you this now," she says, pulling herself back together, "is so that you'll know what we always should have taught you. The Jotnar aren't monsters, Thor. Loki wasn't a monster."
She searches his face for a reaction, for some confirmation that he understands. He does.
Loki wasn't a monster.
"You're right," Thor says, and he squeezes her hands as he stands. "I won't lead an attack on the aftermorrow."
She lets out a held breath. "Thank you," she says. "I know it's difficult, but—"
"We march tonight," he says, and leaves her speechless behind him.
Loki wakes from an uneasy sleep to an awful commotion.
It isn't just the noise that leaves him disoriented. Waking in Byggvir's bed is something he still isn't used to, but a low-ranking minister can hardly move himself to the quarters of a recently deceased prince without attracting attention. It takes a few seconds for him to orient himself, realize where he is and why, to remember the nightmare that these past few days have been.
When he pulls himself fully awake he recognizes the impatient knocking that woke him. He checks his glamor, and once he is comfortable he looks fully like Byggvir he staggers to the door.
"What could you possibly want at this ungodly hour?" Loki snaps at the palace servant, who doesn't look near as intimidated as he ought. Being the short minister of agriculture has its downsides.
"You are to prepare yourself for battle, by order of the king," the servant announces, and Loki is sure he's heard that wrong.
"Now?" The servant blinks at him, unimpressed. No. He was supposed to have another day, Odin was supposed to have another day, and if he wasn't awake by then, well, Loki could find a way to stall his brother until he was.
"Assemble in the courtyard," is all the servant says before he shuts the door and moves on.
Loki curses, and casts a quick spell to summon his armor before he realizes that not only has his good armor been burned, he cannot be Loki right now. Wearing Byggvir's armor is unacceptable, though—it is too ornamental to be terribly useful and would take far too long to put on—so he casts a quick disguise over the armored leathers he was wearing when he was 'murdered' and rushes out into the street.
Asgard is in chaos. Men in various states of battle-readiness swarm the streets, disoriented and lacking any sort of coordination. He dodges between them, careful not to jar his hastily-cast glamor, and makes his way towards the palace.
The palace courtyard is even more of a mess than the streets beyond. Warriors mill about with no one to tell them to fall in, talking uneasily among themselves. Near the palace he spots Thor, pacing and looking, if possible, even worse than he had at Loki's funeral. The scattered magelights paint his face an unhealthy shade of pale, and he looks disheveled and nauseated. He paces like a caged animal, half-ready to tear himself apart.
Loki marches straight up to him. "What the Hel do you think you're doing?" he demands, then only just remembers to grate out a "your Grace," afterwards.
Thor does a double-take, but he answers. "We are marching on Jotunheim," he says, and his voice carries the willful stubbornness Loki remembers from their childhood, but also something darker.
Clearly, something has him deeply upset, but Loki can't imagine what it could be. What could have changed?
"For the Norn's sake, why tonight, Thor?" People are starting to give him looks for this uncharacteristic display of familiarity, but he doesn't care. He needs answers. No, he needs for this not to be happening.
"We cannot waste time," Thor says. "This threat must be dealt with now."
Loki holds back a growl. "Perhaps it would be wiser to wait," he says instead in his most reasonable tone of voice. "Perhaps the Allfather will wake, and he can—"
"You are treading dangerous ground, Lord Byggvir." Thor's voice rumbles like distant thunder. "I am your king. Do you wish to commit treason this night by challenging me and my orders?"
Loki cuts himself off and glares, pressing his lips into a thin line. "No," he says, refusing to look away.
"No what," Thor says, grasping the handle of his hammer.
"No, my king." He steps back, thoughts racing. He has to do something, has to stall or find a way to stop this.
"I am pleased to hear that," Thor says, returning his glare. "Now fall in and hold your tongue."
Loki nods, sharp and angry, and sets to pacing himself.
Men are still filtering in, but the pace is slowing down. Only a fraction of Asgard's main forces are assembled. This is not an army; at best it is a large strike force.
The men around him are not prepared for war; they are barely armed for a battle. Most carry one or two weapons, mainly swords or axes or maces. He sees hardly any ranged weapons beyond the occasional archer scattered in the ranks, and none of the heavier war machinery has been prepped for transport.
They have no organization, no commanders, and Loki can already tell Thor has no strategy. They have no supplies to sustain them for an extended campaign, no food or water or supply wagons.
Hel, most of their men are not even wearing warm enough clothing to protect them against the snow.
If they march into Jotunheim like this, they are all going to die.
Loki catches sight of a familiar face and breathes a sigh of relief. Funny how at this point even Tyr is a welcome sight. He may support going to war with Jotunheim, but at least he wants to do it well, and he of all people knows how to wage a successful war. Tonight he can talk Thor down, and Loki can deal with tomorrow when it comes.
Tyr pushes his way through the crowds and stops in front of Thor. "What do you think you're doing, boy," he growls, sweeping a hand out over the soldiers assembled in the courtyard.
"Our planned attack has been moved up," Thor says stiffly. "We move on Jotunheim tonight."
"We match tonight," Thor says again, stubborn.
"That is madness," Tyr spits. "Look around! You don't have a Jotunn's chance in Muspelheim if you march out like this. You'll be slaughtered!"
"I think you underestimate the brave men of Asgard," Thor says. "We can take on a few Jotunns."
"Not with a fool for a leader," Tyr bites back. A hush falls over the gathered crowd at that.
"Have a care how you speak to your king," Thor says, and sparks dance up his arms, throwing an eerie electric light over the courtyard.
"I've been leading Asgard's armies longer than you've been alive, boy, and I say this is foolishness. What's gotten into you? We had a plan."
"Guards." Thor snaps his fingers, and men look uneasily around at each other before a couple of soldiers who also serve as palace guards step forward. He motions, and they obediently grab Tyr by the arms. "Escort Lord Tyr to the dungeons. It seems he has yet to learn how to speak respectfully to his king."
"This is madness," Tyr repeats, shock bleeding through the anger in his voice. "We had a plan!" He meets Thor's eyes, his own almost pleading, before he struggles against the soldiers holding him. They drag him back and away, following their king's order, and soon they are out of sight.
"We are going to Jotunheim, and every monster there that is responsible for my brother's death will die. That is plan enough for me." Thor raises Mjolnir, a call to arms, and is rewarded with scattered cheering from the assembled men, who glance nervously to one another when his back is turned.
The numb shock that washes over Loki leaves him dazed. Tyr has been a figure of authority since they were young boys, and Odin himself treats him with respect and occasionally defers to his counsel. Treating him like this is absolutely unheard-of.
Surely, he thinks, surely the armies of Asgard will not march into a battle that her foremost strategist has just openly proclaimed to be hopeless, but as he stands and stares the men fall in line, preparing to set out.
Heimdall. The gatekeeper is loyal, but Loki has always suspected his loyalty lies with Asgard more than the crown. He hopes against hope that Heimdall won't let them through.
He makes his way to the front as they set out, striding beside Thor, but other warriors elbow him back, and soon he is barely able to see the glint of his brother's helmet at the front of the throng. He prays to whoever is listening that someone, anyone, is able to stop Thor before they reach Jotunheim.
Thor can feel the warriors of Asgard moving behind him, their footsteps in time with his own, their collective might making the very soil of Asgard tremble beneath them. Once it might have made him feel powerful, to be a leader controlling such strength.
Now, though, he only feels numb, and he does not let himself dwell on why that is. He is reminded of how it feels to close a window on a storm... you can still hear the wind, see the rain, but it no longer leaves you cold and wet and awed by nature's might. It no longer matters at all, except perhaps in abstract.
Thor finds all the windows within himself and shuts them tight. The sky does not stir, not a cloud separating them from the sharp starlight, but he doesn't feel calm. He doesn't feel anything. Nothing, that is, except the stomp and rustle of booted feet, the clink of weapons brushing armor, the inhale and exhale of men marching on their way to battle and glory and death.
The wave of instinctive marching, a soldier's movements, drilled to instinct, carries him to and over the bridge. It deposits him before Heimdall, who stands not at his usual post but in the center of the bridge, blocking their path.
"Gatekeeper," Thor says, coming to a stop before Heimdall and lifting his chin.
Heimdall nods, his eyes unreadable. "My king."
"I need you to open the Bifrost," Thor says, feeling ridiculously like a child asking for permission. He is king, and his orders must be obeyed. The Gatekeeper doesn't move.
Fury rises within him, buffeting the edges of his walls like storm winds beating against a windowpane. "You are sworn to obey me. Have you forgotten your oaths so soon after I take the throne?"
Heimdall's expression doesn't so much as flicker. "I am sworn to protect Asgard against all who threaten her. Without," he says deliberately, "or within."
"Those words are treason." He hears the disbelief in his own voice. Is everyone determined to betray him?
You betrayed yourself.
What has he done to deserve the mistrust of those who should stand most steadfastly behind him?
You know what.
Thor straightens his shoulders. "If you will not perform your duties, I relieve you of them. Step aside."
Heimdall does not step aside. Instead, he lowers his voice, speaking softly and carefully to Thor alone. "I know the reason for your anger, but this is not necessary. Your father wakes even now. You can..."
Thor doesn't hear any more. A wave of emotion nearly overcomes the walls within him because Heimdall knows, has to have known this entire time what Thor has done and has not told him, has only allowed him to go on believing that his only guilt lay in not protecting his brother from those who would hurt him.
Worse, he realizes, Heimdall must have been at the end of the bridge when it happened. Heimdall had not stopped him.
The swelling anger builds up in a rush, gathering into a cloud above them, and then a solid column of lightning blasts the Gatekeeper back and away.
He steps forward and pulls the sword from Heimdall's unconscious fingers, jamming it into the Observatory console himself. He twists and aims it, and the walls light up in a flood of different colors. "Come," he says to the gathered men, "we march."
He does not know if it is their loyalty or the lightning still crackling at the end of Mjolnir that compels them to follow, and he does not care.
Only a few chapters left... thanks again to all the lovely people leaving kudos and comments!
Okay, so this chapter is a little emotionally intense. In some ways, it was hard to write, and I had to take breaks to go work on the fluffy shorts from my Family Ties series to balance it out.
Fortunately, though, this chapter also marks the end of the "and then it gets worse" portion of the story. A happy ending approaches!
Loki is tempted to hang back at the end of the bridge, to wait until everyone else has passed and then turn around and do the sensible thing no one else seems capable of, which is not going to Jotunheim. To throw up his hands and declare that he has done his best, that if even Tyr and Heimdall could not keep Thor from this foolishness then what chance has he.
Instead, he hovers to the side until no one is looking at him (and it does not take long; after all, he is Byggvir the unremarkable). When everyone's attention is focused elsewhere, he kneels beside Heimdall and awakens him with a less-than-gentle prod of healing magic. Unfocused golden eyes blink up at him, and he whispers "tell the Allfather to hurry" before he stands.
With a deep breath he repeats his second-biggest mistake of the past week, nearly as bad as allowing the Frost Giants into the Vault in the first place.
He follows Thor to Jotunheim.
Worse, he does it for the exact same reason as before, a pathetic sense of loyalty that's no less strong for being misguided.
When he steps through the Bifrost there is the familiar stretching sensation, the pressure that pulls at his skin and crackles in his ears, leaving him slightly dizzy and disoriented. It does not help that he emerges into a crowd, the assembled armies piling up like Tafl pieces in the center of the board before the game.
How fitting, when his one goal now is to get his king out of this in one piece.
He weaves his way to the outer edge of the crush of men to look out over the snowy wasteland. It looks empty, but he is not naive enough to hope that their invasion has gone unmarked.
Surely enough, when he searches farther out he can just see the glow of red eyes, well above the level where he is used to searching for faces. Once he notices the first of them he starts to spot more, and crags in the rock and ice take in the shape of arms and legs and sharp, angular faces.
He swears to himself. He doubts the rest of them have noticed yet—the light filtering over the land is dim, and his night vision is better than most (almost certainly an artifact of his Jotunn heritage, he realizes suddenly)—but though they still have the advantage of numbers so far, the Jotnar have them surrounded.
Any hope of getting them out before the Jotnar are noticed is crushed as one of them steps forward, several more on its heels.
Thor steps forward as well, facing them down, but to his relief doesn't attack just yet. Neither do the Jotnar, and it quickly becomes apparent why. More giants fade into view around them, and for every one Loki had noticed there are two more he hadn't. Their own armies gather and multiply behind them, but the armies of Jotunheim are doing the same, a calculus that tips in neither of their favor.
If something does not happen, and soon, this is about to become the worst kind of chaos, too disorganized to be a battle, too deadly for a brawl. Worse, the number of men gathering at their back is limited, and they must be nearly all through by now. He doesn't know how many Frost Giants are just out of sight in this jagged, frozen wasteland. None of them do.
There is a commotion at the opening of the Bifrost, and Loki deflates in relief as Odin, astride Sleipnir, pushes his way through the ranks. Finally. When he makes his way to the front he dismounts to stand before Thor, who squares his shoulders and glares defiantly.
"Thor Odinson," Odin commands, "stand down."
That will be the end of this, Loki thinks.
That should be the end of it.
Thor does not stand down.
He stands up to his Father, more bold, more arrogant even than on their return from Jotunheim the first time, and says "I will not."
Odin raises one eyebrow. "I am not asking, Thor. I am ordering you to stand down. You will leave this place, willingly or not. Do not make this worse than it has to be."
Thor does not budge. "Until the council assembles and returns you to the throne, I am King of Asgard. They," he sweeps an arm to indicate the gathered army, "take orders from me."
The tension in the air is palpable. Men glance around, on edge, and no wonder; any stance they take will defy a King of Asgard and open them up to potential charges of treason.
Odin is one of the most powerful sorcerers in the Nine, but Thor holds Mjolnir and Gungnir is nowhere to be seen. Thor's jaw is set and his eyes are burning. Suddenly, Loki isn't sure how this is going to go. The grey clouds overhead bubble up with the promise of a storm, darkening as the chill wind grows stronger.
No one steps forward; no one dares interject themselves between the two primal forces of nature that are his father and brother. Cowards. Ignoring the sinking feeling in his chest, Loki raises Byggvir's voice above the wind.
"Why should we follow you, if this is where you lead us?" He means it to cause the troops to doubt, to cause Thor to reconsider, but now that he's started the words roll off his tongue, ignoring the better sense that tries to call them back. "Are you determined to ignore every single warning you are given? Must the Norns themselves descend and tell you to stop before you realize this is madness?"
"Shut up," Thor says, fixing him with a dark look, broken and angry, before turning back to Odin.
"You swore an oath to uphold the peace! You proclaimed it in front of us all. Were those just words? Does your oath mean nothing?"
Thor whips around to face him, eyes filled with anger he knows he should fear. He nearly steps back, stands down; after all, he is no longer a prince, no longer Thor's brother.
"Know your place, Lord Byggvir."
He wants to laugh. He wants to scream. Something inside him breaks, snaps like the neck of a game bird after a hunt.
"What of your place?" He hears himself screaming, but it doesn't feel real, the words twisted and distorted in rage and pain and a thousand other emotions he can't even begin to name. Around them everyone has fallen silent, shocked, Aesir and Jotunn alike stupefied by his unexpected outburst. Even Thor has fallen silent, drawn back with wide astonished eyes. His madness has broken through where words of reason failed.
"You are meant to be a protector," he shouts, his breathing ragged. "You swore it. You are supposed to protect this realm, to guard the peace. You are supposed to protect your people."
You were supposed to protect me, brother.
"It is in every oath you have sworn since we were children, and yet somehow the repetition has not driven it through your thick skull!"
This was treason, it would be treason even if he were not shouting it in front of Asgard's amassed armies and enemies. Thor had every reason to execute him on the spot. It didn't matter, he was beyond caring. Everything he had kept pent up, everything he had let fester poured out of him like the lancing of a boil.
"You are the one who has forgotten your place! You do nothing but destroy the things you are meant to hold dear. Look at your stupid hammer. It's a tool, but rather than use it to build a kingdom you only tear down the peace Father has built. Here you are, barely more than a week into your rule and already you've started a war!"
Thor is choking out ragged breaths, halfway between growling and sobbing. "It is—it is necessary," he bites out, and the swirling wind around them starts to pick up snow, driving the icy chips up to scour their skin. "The Frost Giants have to die."
"But why, Thor?" Not even the building storm can carry his voice away. He screams the words with every fiber of his being.
"They killed my brother!"
"They did NOT. YOU DID!"
Thor's face collapses. The storm howls louder, the wind buffeting them all until both armies can barely stand upright. For a second Loki thinks his brother will relent, and this will be the end of it.
Thor lifts his hammer, and from out of the storm lightning gathers and dances around him. "I have to do this," he says, his voice gone dark and ominous.
"All you'll accomplish is getting yourself killed!"
"IT IS NO LESS THAN I DESERVE!" Thor's voice breaks, and his tears freeze on his cheeks. "You're right, you're right. I killed you, brother, and for that I cannot make amends. I cannot live the rest of my life with you haunting me."
Oh. Loki looks down at himself; he isn't sure when it happened, but somewhere in the shouting and the storm his glamor had failed him, and he stands as Loki once more. Thor frantically, desperately meets his eyes.
"I can do it, brother," Thor whispers, and the wind carries it to his ears alone. "For you."
"No, Thor," he says, as gently as he can manage. "No."
Mjolnir finally falls out of his brother's hands, sinking noiselessly into the snow beneath. Thor himself collapses to his knees like a puppet with cut strings, his body spasming with silent sobs. The wind around them dies down, fading with Thor's outburst. It starts to snow.
Odin steps forward into the silence their argument has left. "It is time we return home," he says, resting one hand on Thor's shoulder. Thor does not seem to notice, lost as he is to his grief and guilt.
Behind them, the gathered soldiers shift uneasily, but comply. It is one thing to follow a reckless young king in a bid for glory, and another entirely to ride intentionally and needlessly to their own destruction. They fall into retreat formation, making their way back towards the Bifrost site.
The Frost Giants, wisely, let them go.