The summons comes when Loki is at his desk, a whispering sensation announcing his visitor’s arrival as Loki’s numerous wards are breached. He doesn’t look up from the scroll he’s already covered in meticulous notes, dark ink drying quickly in the mid-morning sun streaming in from the window. There’s no need to. There are only a handful of people with permission to enter the inner sanctum of his private chambers without notice, and fewer still who make use of this privilege.
“What it is, Alrik?”
The head of Loki’s personal guard has taken position just inside the entrance, careful to keep his eyes averted from the papers strewn around the various desks. “The Allfather has requested your presence in the Council chambers, my Prince.”
“Indeed?” Loki asks, sweeping up the freshly written scroll as he rises. “Then I best be going.”
Alrik accepts the paper Loki hands him with the custom inscrutable expression that has kept him in Loki’s good graces for the better part of four centuries, dark eyes sweeping over the narrowly written script without difficulty. “Are these to be carried out right away, your Highness?”
Loki smiles. “Posthaste.”
Striding into the darkened Council chambers a few minutes later, Loki has stripped himself of any trace of mirth, expression somber as he draws to a halt across the echoing floor. The Allfather is still in conversation with a group of his advisors, but dismisses them with a wave of his hand at Loki’s appearance, cutting one of them off in the middle of a sentence. Knowing better than to mistake this for an invitation to speak, Loki waits patiently, even as the men’s footsteps fade and the silence begins to grow oppressive.
His father’s voice betrays nothing when he finally speaks, eye fixed on a map on the far-off wall. “What do you know of the Meraxen empire?”
Loki’s back straightens almost painfully, and he forces himself to measure his reply, staying the treacherous eagerness that threatens to loosen his tongue. “A trading conglomerate. Founded three hundred years ago when Empress Maharni turned her family’s wealth into the galaxy’s most profitable enterprise by securing trade routes between the Pangorian quadrant and its immediate neighbors. Rumor has it she’s looking to expand its influence even further.”
“How so?” His father is still studying the map.
“The Empress has no children of her own to inherit her claim. There are numerous nieces and nephews, however, who are clamoring for the chance to prove themselves worthy of the task. The result is a rather ferocious familial competition for the most promising expansion strategy.” Loki hesitates but then decides to forego caution for daring. “A competition that in all likelihood will find its victor in the Empress’ younger brother’s offspring.”
Now his father’s eye is on him, the force of his attention as piercing as a spear. “And why is that?”
Loki forces himself to meet his gaze without hesitation. “Because they have received an invitation from the King of Asgard to forge a trade alliance, guaranteeing them access to the Nine Realms and beyond.”
“So they have,” his father says after a long pause. “Though I’m not certain how my youngest son came by this information, given that it wasn’t supposed to travel past the confines of my very own Council.”
Loki doesn’t attempt to offer an explanation or excuse, well aware that nothing he could say would make any difference to the outcome of the conversation. On any given day, the Allfather’s reaction to Loki’s continued circumvention of prohibitions is wont to cause either amusement or punishment, with very little reliable precedent to gauge which one it might be. This time he seems to be settling on something approximating contemplation, brow furrowed as he turns his gaze to the map again.
“Our guests arrive today. As you have taken it upon yourself to become part of this matter, I’m putting you in charge of their reception as well as the negotiations.” His father shakes his head. “I intended this to be a task for your brother. But since he chooses to waste his time and efforts dallying about with his friends, you will now be acting in his stead.”
Loki doesn’t outwardly react, biting his tongue until the metallic taste of blood fills his mouth. As always, any of Loki’s merits are merely taken as a whetstone to sharpen the Allfather’s beloved golden weapon with. The revelation ought not to sting so freshly given that it’s hardly the first time he’s been subjected to this reality. It’s like he never learns.
Thor left to explore the Palyn star system months ago, just in time for the approaching hunting season on several of its planets. The Warriors Three and Sif went with him, of course, faithful and mindless companions that they are. Thor proved himself quite unhappy when no amount of wheedling would change Loki’s mind on the matter of accompanying them. He must have since shed that unhappiness, because he’s been gone for ninety-six days now, the longest he’s ever been away from Asgard.
Loki doesn’t miss him at all.
“Any help you need, the Council will provide,” his father says, and Loki hurries to incline his head, the deferent gesture concealing his hot flash of triumph. This may only be the Allfather’s way to punish Thor for not living up to his expectations, but Loki will make the most of this opportunity, as he always does.
“As you say, Father.”
Alrik is already waiting in the courtyard when Loki arrives, a flock of frenzied Councilors fluttering in his wake like flustered birds. Paying them no more heed than he has all afternoon, Loki takes in the assembled Einherjar, to the man mounted on black steeds and clad in shining armor. Off to the side, two beautifully adorned white horses are still awaiting their riders, blinding coats brushed to silver perfection, manes tinkling with tiny bells that gleam in the early evening light. With a brief but satisfied smile, Loki turns to his guardsman.
“All carried out, your Highness. The Meraxen delegation has been notified of the delay and is awaiting their journey to Asgard on Pangor.”
“Preposterous!” one of the Councilors blusters. Loki has a mind to put a knife in his side to see if the man will be half as stubborn in a fight as he is proving himself to be in an argument.
Instead, he smiles, raising a conciliatory hand. “You must forgive me, Lord Barild. The Allfather’s command came as quite a surprise to me. I’m afraid it’s taken me some time to get a grasp on the proceedings.”
“Everything had already been arranged!” the absolute moron bleats, apparently intent on finding himself at the end of one of Loki’s daggers today. “You need only adhere to the schedule we laid out very clearly-“
“My Lord,” Loki interrupts, pleased when Barild flinches at the dangerous softness of his tone. “I think we can both agree that wasting more time by arguing will do very little to assuage the situation. Shall we?”
The ride to the Bifröst does its part to cool some of Loki’s simmering resentment at the continued insolence visited upon him. As their party draws to a halt in front of the observatory, his mood has improved so much that not even the sight of Heimdall’s unmoving stature is capable of galling it. Loki straightens his shoulders as he dismounts, handing the reins of his mare to Alrik.
For a long, terrible moment Heimdall looks as if he might not move at all, exposing the lack of authority Loki holds over him. The image is so vivid in his mind that Loki almost misses his cue to follow Bifröst’s gatekeeper as he turns to lead them through its golden gates.
“Your guests have grown impatient,” Heimdall states, climbing the steps of the dais to lay his hands on the golden broadsword sunken into Bifröst’s core.
Loki raises an eyebrow, taking his own position by the base, as the Council members file into the observatory behind him. “Then let’s not keep them waiting any further.”
In lieu of a reply, Heimdall twists the sword, and the Bifröst groans opens like a beast swallowing reality itself, the observatory’s mechanism picking up speed as the walls become a whirling blur all around them. Seconds later, cries of astonishment and sheer terror split the air, and Loki bites his tongue to suppress a grin -- travelling the Bifröst for the first time isn’t for the faint of heart, the sensation disorienting even to Asgardians who possess a far hardier nature than most races.
Of the thirty or so arriving Meraxens, only a handful manage to remain on their feet as they are deposited in the observatory. Of those, only one appears to belong to the negotiation party, rather than soldiers brought along for reasons Loki can’t possibly fathom. They must know they’d stand little chance against any Asgardian show of force. Surprisingly light footed for someone just subjected to the forces of the Bifröst, the man steps neatly around his shaken companions, keen eyes narrowing in on Loki as he bows.
“Prince Loki. We’re honored you would receive us yourself.”
Loki takes in the dark curls and olive skin, the elegant but understated clothes that appear almost drab in comparison to the colorful and rich apparel of the other Meraxens, and quickly concludes that whoever he’s facing right now, it isn’t one of the Empress’s closer relations.
“I’m afraid you have me at something of a disadvantage, as I can’t repay the courtesy in kind.”
The man smiles. “Nor would you be expected to, your Highness. Even among my own people, my name hardly invokes the same renown as yours. I am Navén Caldar, a humble servant and ambassador to her Imperial Majesty. May I introduce her niece and nephew to your Highness?”
Loki inclines his head graciously. “But of course.”
The Imperial Highnesses, Yartha and her brother Bevak, appear peeved as Loki greets them, whether due to the wait they’ve been subjected to or the aftershocks of their unceremonious arrival. It matters little, for one look at their vapid faces and garish attire tells him how much sway they’ll hold in the outcome of their negotiations: figureheads, though they may flatter themselves otherwise. They carry all the stink and desperation of the recently wealthy, every limb so laden with gemstones and gold that Loki is impressed they’re able to move at all.
No, these two won’t be important. The man he has to keep an eye on stays behind, as Loki leaves the siblings to the tender mercies of his father’s Councilors, who usher them towards the waiting horses.
Caldar turns towards him with an apologetic expression. “I regret the inconvenience, your Highness, but might it be possible to send my men back now that our safe arrival has been ensured? The Empress insisted on an escort party, but I see little need in having them remain now. They’re sorely needed elsewhere, our convoys have recently run into some trouble with Ravagers.”
Loki follows Caldar’s gaze to where the armored Meraxens are still standing in a small group, talking among themselves. “If that is your wish.”
“Most gracious of you,” Caldar says. “Could they be permitted to postpone the departure for another hour? I’m afraid another trip like that so soon might test anyone’s strength of stomach, even theirs.”
Loki lets himself consider this for longer than truly necessary before he nods, not missing the way the ambassador’s gaze flits to his men. “I don’t see why not. Heimdall, see to it that these men arrive safe and sound.”
Caldar keeps to Loki’s side as they leave the observatory, and his sharp intake of breath at the sight in front of them is one of genuine astonishment. In the setting sun, Asgard shines a darkly burnished gold, every waterway in the city glimmering as the first stars appear in the increasing spill of indigo sky high above. Loki prepares himself for a sufficiently dull remark on the unimaginable beauty of his home world.
“I’ve travelled nearly every way this galaxy has to offer, but I must confess your Bifröst is something else entirely,” the ambassador tells him, forgoing the mindless flattery Loki had expected. “I suspect it’s not such a strain on your people as it is on ours?”
“Not entirely,” Loki says as they approach their waiting horses. “There’s really very little mystery to it once you grow accustomed to the sensation. The key is to-“
“Relax your knees upon impact?” Caldar laughs, and Loki glances at him sharply. “Yes, I received that advice as well.”
Their return journey to Asgard ensues at a much slower pace, in consideration of the Meraxen’s lack of experience at riding horseback. Observing the nervous grip many of their guests keep on their saddles, Loki congratulates himself for having Alrik chose the most even-tempered beasts within their stables. Having the Imperial Highnesses thrown from their uncertain perch would undoubtedly amuse Loki greatly, but might not bring the negotiations off to the best start.
Caldar does better than most of his compatriots, his steed keeping pace with Loki’s mare. “I was surprised we were able to make the journey as one party. It’s incredible, having thirty souls whisked halfway across the cosmos in the blink of an eye like that.”
“A fraction of the Bifröst’s potential,” Loki says casually, observing the ambassador’s expression from his peripheral vision. “Entire legions may travel it at the same time.”
“Marvelous.” Caldar shakes his head. “Is there no limit to the mass being transported?”
“Not as such,” Loki says. “Any limitation is due to the physical impossibility of fitting more than a few thousand men into the observatory.”
“How curious,” the ambassador remarks. “It creates a wormhole for each journey?”
Hiding a wince, Loki humors the lack of basic understanding this query betrays. “In a way. Significantly more stable and with a much higher degree of precision of such an occurrence, however.”
“It must take considerable skill to operate.”
“Not at all. The mechanism itself is fairly simple.”
They’re approaching the city gates, and the swell of noise greeting them once they pass through turns many a head among the Meraxens. It seems like the entirety of Asgard has assembled in the upper courtyards, and Loki fights the urge to grin openly at his own cunning. Seen from afar, bathed in the fading evening light, the two silver mares Yartha and Bevak have been entrusted to shine like a beacon among the black steeds of the Einherjar and their remaining party. Every eye in the city is drawn to their royal guests, and Loki is almost able to see any possible ill will evaporating in the face of that attention as the two idiots preen and wave like oversized birds.
It’s almost too easy.
Negotiations take up the better part of the next week, and as they progress, Loki is pleased to find his first impression of their guests to be increasingly accurate. The Empress’ niece and nephew talk a good deal without contributing anything of value and the true gift is watching the ambassador attempt to steer the Meraxen side of the negotiations without his airheaded lieges growing wise to the fact. Navén is proving himself to be quite skilled at the task and not even the otherwise quite steadfast Asgardian Councilors are entirely immune to his charm.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how little Loki minds the man’s company. There aren’t many people he deliberately chooses to spend his time with, and Navén is…not entirely dull, Loki has to admit. The Meraxen has a knack for storytelling and his quick wit causes, on occasion, even the dullest of the Allfather’s advisors to crack a smile. It makes Loki almost content to just watch the talks play out, unceasingly amused by the subtle manipulations none of the others seem to take note of.
By the end of the twelfth day, however, arguments have become sufficiently repetitive for Loki to pull aside Navén afterwards, the two of them taking dinner outside the confines of the feasting hall. Loki allows the conversation to flow for a while, counting the number of times one of the servants refills the ambassador’s cup before he leans back in his chair with an affable smile.
“Your compatriots drive a hard bargain.”
Navén raises an eyebrow in mock surprise. “Negotiations away from the table, your Highness? Highly circumspect.”
Loki raises a quick hand. “My apologies, Ambassador. My mind is on little else these days.”
“I’m the one who should apologize,” Navén sighs. “Prince Bevak’s understanding of Asgard’s responsibilities within the Nine Realms is lacking, I’m afraid. Insisting on Midgard as a major trading port is poorly thought out, I admit. He may prove himself quite stubborn on the issue.”
“A loss for Asgard as well as the Meraxen Empire then,” Loki says, pausing for effect. “Though perhaps not its ambassador.”
Navén takes another sip of his wine. “I’m not certain what you mean.”
He’s very good. Loki is actually starting to like him.
“Don’t you? Talks were proceeding nicely until you allowed your liege lord to derail them. We both know Asgard could never agree to the terms as Bevak laid them out. But then it’s not an agreement you’re after, is it?”
“And what am I after, your Highness?”
Loki smiles. “The Bifröst technology, of course.”
Watching Navén attempt and fail to hide his startled reaction is sweeter than even the most seasoned of wines, and Loki can’t help but laugh. “Oh, come now, Ambassador. Your escort party? I’ve never seen soldiers take time to gossip among themselves on duty. What are they, engineers? Architects? Was there a sorcerer among them perhaps? Whatever the case may be, you were a fool to believe an hour would be enough for them to make any meaningful observations.”
“Your Highness, I assure you-“
“Don’t bother. I’m certain you’re quite familiar with the consequences of espionage during a negotiation in good faith.”
For the first time, Navén appears rattled. “The Empress-“
“Wouldn’t shed a tear if we sent your head back on a platter, oh humble servant to the Imperial throne. Especially since I’m rather certain this plan of yours didn’t meet with her approval. Branching out from the Meraxen empire, are we? Perhaps even usurping it in time?”
There’s another beat of silence and then Navén sighs, polite puzzlement sliding off his face like water to reveal a sharper, hardening expression. “Even with an aggressive expansion strategy, the Empire will reach its natural limitations in another two hundred years if there is no significant effort to explore other means of transportation. I’m not interested in short-term investments.”
“An admirable stance,” Loki says. “Of course, the Allfather would never consent to such a frivolous use of the Bifröst. And you have no hope of replicating its technology, even if you send another hundred spies.”
Navén looks frustrated for the first time since Loki has known him. “If employed smartly, this technology might-“
“Ah, but you misunderstand,” Loki interrupts smoothly. “I’m merely pointing out the Allfather’s stance. My own opinion on the matter is…flexible.”
“Unfortunately, it’s not your opinion that matters.”
Loki takes a long sip of his wine before setting his cup back down. “Yet.”
Navén narrows his eyes. “What do you propose?”
“One day Asgard will have a new King. I assure you they will show themselves quite more amenable to your suggestion than my father would.”
“And all you’d ask in return?”
“A favorable trade agreement, for now. Convince your Empress and her relations it’s in their best interest to show considerable good will to Asgard. When the time comes to crown a new King, we’ll renegotiate.”
Loki has no intention of keeping this promise, of course. What might happen a few hundred years from now is of little consequence. He needs this victory now.
Navén raises an eyebrow. “And if I don’t accept?”
Loki smiles sweetly. “In that unfortunate case, I might be forced to expose your plans, though I’m certain it won’t have to come to that. Do we have a bargain?”
Navén watches him for another long moment, and when he finally shakes his head, Loki can’t detect anything but admiration in his eyes. “We heard many a tale of your brother before we came, you know: the Allfather’s golden warrior, Asgard’s secret weapon. To think how wrong they are.”
He reaches across the table and offers his hand for Loki to clasp. “We have a bargain, your Highness.”
From that evening on, negotiations become far more interesting, Loki and Navén outdoing one another in their careful manipulations, wary to avoid giving any of their fellow negotiators reason to suspect either of them of circumspect motives. They’re rarely seen apart, and the gossip circulating the court soon has much of Asgard speaking admiringly of the clear effort their Prince is extending on this new alliance. Loki, for his part, spends many an enjoyable hour with Navén, their amicability curiously undeterred. The Meraxen doesn’t appear to hold Loki’s actions against him; if anything, his regard seems to have intensified in the face of it.
Nevertheless, the talks take up much of their time, the details complicated even with the outcome already determined. One morning, as he leaves the Council chambers, Loki is perusing another set of terms the Meraxens set out for them so intently that he almost runs over Alrik. After drawing back in surprise, Loki only needs one look at his guardsman’s face before following him to a more private alcove. Once there, he raises an expectant eyebrow.
“The Warriors Three and Lady Sif arrived back in Asgard late last night. Without Prince Thor.” Alrik glances around to make certain they’re still alone. “The official story is that the Prince is pursuing a pack of valdýr in the Palyn forests.”
Loki nearly laughs. The pelt of a valdýr may be a rarity, but Thor cares little for these things, certainly not enough to risk incurring their father’s wrath even further. “And unofficially?”
Alrik’s face appears to be hewn from stone. “There is an infamous courtesan establishment in Palyn. Word is the Prince has become quite taken with one of its performers.”
The papers crumple in Loki’s fingers.
Certain his voice will fail him if he tries to speak, Loki simply nods. Mercifully, Alrik needs no further invitation to take his leave.
Loki thinks of Thor before he left, the plaintive way his brother tried to cajole Loki into joining him and his insipid friends on their journey. The way he’d kissed him, like only Thor could, until Loki was almost ready to throw aside his reservations and come along anyway. Only the dread of having to suffer the Warriors Three and Sif’s company for scraps of Thor’s attention, all the while not being able to lay more than a hand on his brother, stayed Loki in the end. Thor appeared baffled and desolate at Loki’s refusal.
Apparently, he found something to console himself with.
There have never been any oaths of fidelity spoken between them, an impossibility with all eyes in Asgard taking note of every one of Thor’s moves, any occurrence the talk of the palace for weeks on end. Their station and birth forbid any such promise, just as it brands this damning horrendous desire of theirs an abomination. This is not the first time Loki has faced this truth.
Thor is a Prince of Asgard.
Thor can do as he likes.
Loki cares not at all.
And if the parchment in his hands dissolves into a sudden burst of vicious green fire, no one is there to witness it.
They bring negotiations to a close after an even three weeks, and both sides emerge astonished at the very favorable bargain Loki has struck. The Allfather calls for a celebration at the announcement, and just a few hours after the ink has dried on the contracts, the great feasting hall is filled to burst. Laughter and merriment is all around them, the air abuzz with the news, Loki’s name in every conversation as Asgard for once turns a favorable eye on its forgotten son.
Of course this has to be the moment Thor chooses to return.
Note of his arrival ripples like a wave through the great hall, heads turning and murmurs rising to cheers as Thor parts the crowd like a blade, striding towards the high table. He is all smiles and good-natured cheer, so certain of his welcome.
It appears he took no care to make himself presentable, his armor still grimy from the journey, golden hair matted and tied back without ceremony. The pelts of the vardýr are slung over his shoulder, like he’s nothing but a common tanner. They’re the only clean thing about his appearance--even Mjölnir, secured to Thor’s side, has been left unpolished. He’s filthy and disheveled and Loki has missed him, missed him, missed him, every beat of his treacherous heart whispering the truth like poison.
For this is Loki’s greatest and most secret truth, the one he guards with fervor bestowed upon little else in his life: at heart he’s just like everyone else, another fawning grain in the great sea of Thor’s admirers, pathetically desperate for any scrap of attention his brother may gift him. There are days when Loki thinks he might perish without it.
It makes him want to do outrageously foolish things, like throw himself into Thor’s arms as he climbs the steps to the high table. It’s what makes his chest burn with raging, despairing jealousy when Thor passes him with a mere clasp to the shoulder, not even looking at Loki as he bows to their father and presses a kiss to their mother’s cheek. There’s no gaze in the hall not fixed on him as he spreads the exquisitely preserved valdýr pelts on the feasting table, the court murmuring its astonishment at their silver shine.
Thor turns to Yartha and Bevak, raising his voice to be heard above the crowd. “I am sorry to have missed most of your visit to our realm. Please accept these as a token of our newly won friendship, which I’m certain will bring both our people much prosperity in the future.”
And just like that, a whole month of careful scheming and work is swept aside to rot in the dust as a cheer takes root around the hall, the Meraxens thawing like autumn frost in the first few rays of sunshine, fawning over Thor like he’s the one who brought this alliance about.
Even the Allfather looks appeased, the reproach in his voice but a shade of what Loki thought Thor’s behavior might finally bring about this time. “I take it this was a successful hunt.”
“The very best, Father,” Thor assures him, taking the Allfather’s good favor as nothing more than his due. “Forgive my belated arrival. There was a matter I needed to tend to.”
“So I’ve heard,” their father says and now he seems almost amused. “But it’s your brother’s forgiveness you’ll have to beg, not mine. He was the one who took on your duties. Rather successfully, I may add. He did Asgard proud.”
Loki wants to howl with laughter. Naturally the Allfather would choose this moment to dole out praise, when it serves as an admonishment for the son he truly seeks to shape in his own image.
“Of course he did,” Thor says and looks at Loki for the first time, his eyes filled with such warmth that Loki thinks he might burn at the mere sight of it.
He’s spared an answer when the Allfather raises a cup to his eldest son’s return, the gathered court all too happy to erupt in cheers as Thor raises both hands, turning from Loki towards his adoring crowd. The ensuing commotion lasts long enough for Loki to take advantage, slipping away from the high table in blind pursuit of somewhere he may rid himself of this terrible fire in his lungs.
Instead of solace, he finds Navén, and the Meraxen presses a cup into his hand before Loki can protest, toasting it with his own.
“I can see the relation. You and your brother could both charm a dragon into giving up its scales,” he says, and Loki nearly chokes on the desperate drink he takes, for there has never been any gift in which he may be judged as Thor’s equal.
“I’d been meaning to share this with you,” Navén continues, marvelously unaware of Loki’s fraying state of mind. “Partaking in it after a bargain well struck is a custom in my home world.”
“Presumptuous,” Loki says, momentarily distracted.
“Optimistic,” Navén retorts, raising his cup. “To new friendships.”
“I’ll drink to that,” a voice says from behind them, and Loki briefly closes his eyes.
“I hear you’re the man to thank for Asgard’s new trade alliance,” Thor says. Despite the affability of his words, his tone is anything but, gaze flicking between Loki and Navén.
To his credit, Navén doesn’t appear intimidated. “Actually, your brother did most of the work, your Highness. He’s quite skilled in these matters.”
Thor smiles, and it does nothing to temper the growing hostility in his eyes. “Yes, I know.”
Intervening before things unravel further, Loki gives Navén an unreserved smile just to spite Thor. “Could you give us a moment?”
“Of course. I’ll be waiting.”
They watch the Meraxen ambassador disappear into the crowd, Thor’s glare on his back so intent Loki wouldn’t be surprised if his tunic caught fire.
“He wants to bed you,” Thor says flatly, foregoing any pretension of a greeting.
“Yes,” says Loki, as any good liar aware of when the truth might best be wielded as a weapon instead. After four months of abandonment and worse, he’s not in the mood to entertain Thor’s childish need for reassurance.
“You’re angry with me,” Thor states; it’s not a question. He has the gall to almost look surprised before determination takes over. “I brought you something.”
“Another carcass, perhaps?” Loki asks snidely, eyes briefly shifting to where a good number of Meraxens are still admiring the valdýr pelts. “How thoughtful.”
Thor, the unmitigated ass, just smiles at Loki, bright and fond. “You’ll like it.”
“I assure you I won’t,” Loki says, because this can’t be how it goes. Thor can’t sweep back into his life and heart and soothe the wounds his absence struck with mere trinkets, like Loki’s a child to be consoled after a tantrum. Loki won’t allow it.
“Meet me in my chambers later,” Thor says, as if Loki hasn’t even spoken, and then he’s gone, heading back to the high table to no doubt be lauded with adulations that are Loki’s by right.
Loki thinks he might set the entire world on fire with his helpless rage.
He follows Thor with knees shaking from fury, the vicious and supremely gratifying vision of planting one of his daggers into his brother’s side never far from his mind, even as he laughs and converses as if nothing is the matter. In truth, few pay attention to him at all, Asgard’s second Prince fading into the shade of his brother’s shining sun, as if the past few months never occurred. How he manages to keep his composure during the remainder of the feast is a mystery even to him.
Navén is the anchor Loki wraps his sanity around, the Meraxen’s easy companionship and quiet conversation the most welcome distraction imaginable as Thor regales everyone around him with tales of his journey, the Warriors Three and Sif his ever sycophantic choir. He’s hardly fooling anyone with these embellished accounts, as if a seasoned hunter such as Thor would truly need so long to track and slay what amounts to a pair of overgrown wolves. The idea is laughable, and yet none of his listeners dare contradict him as they hang off every word Thor utters like he is imparting wisdom of the ages.
Loki tells himself it doesn’t matter.
Thor is a Prince of Asgard.
Thor can do as he likes.
And so can Loki.
“Your Highness.” The words are tinged with surprise that quickly gives over to genuine pleasure; it settles some of the roiling in Loki’s stomach, and he raises an eyebrow, hoping to convey none of it.
“Am I disturbing you?”
“You could never disturb me,” Navén tells him, stepping aside to allow Loki into his quarters, familiar now from the numerous private dinners they’ve enjoyed over the course of the past few weeks. “In truth, I meant to ask whether you might join me for that drink after the feast, but I assumed there were duties you had to tend to.”
“None more pressing than this,” Loki says, swallowing against the tightness of his throat as he slowly turns from his observation of their surroundings to face Navén. “And I’m not here for a drink.”
“I see,” Navén says, the measured cadence belied by the way his eyes darken. “Here I was smothering all my hopes in this regard.”
“Resurrect them then,” Loki says, and leans up to kiss him.
It’s a good kiss. Navén’s mouth is warm and skilled against his own, the lack of a beard novel enough to almost be a distraction at first. Warm hands move to rest against Loki’s hips, pulling him in against the Meraxen’s lean but strong form, as Navén kisses him with a passion that reveals weeks of silent frustration, the regard he holds for Loki evident in every reverent touch of his fingers.
It’s perhaps the worst experience of Loki’s life.
None of it is right: hands too slender where he’s come to expect broad palms that cover the small of Loki’s back in its entirety, jaw smooth where every bit of it is supposed to bristle against his own bare skin, wiry grace where all Loki yearns for is unimaginable strength kept in check by sheer force of will.
He rips himself away, stumbling backwards with all intentions of vengeance forsaken, the truth of his heart’s pathetic devotion setting his blood ablaze. Navén reaches for him, startled, and Loki retreats further, shaking his head as he fumbles for words that will explain what Loki himself can’t begin to understand.
“This was a mistake.”
It’s the first time Navén has made use of his name instead of his title, and hearing it from anyone but Thor, breathless and infused with an emotion Loki doesn’t dare to put a name to, has him fleeing blindly, refusing to even glance behind as the Meraxen calls after him.
Loki’s chambers lie undisturbed and dark, which seems impossible somehow, like the storm raging away at his heart would have to be reflected in his surroundings to match. Throwing up wards by instinct more than deliberation, Loki storms through his receiving rooms, pushing through the entrance to his study and sleeping chambers with so much violence that the heavy doors reverberate against the golden walls with a resounding boom.
A flick of his wrist ignites the spacious hearth. In the slow swell of light, the cluttered state of his desks take shape, and the urge to sweep the entire lot to the ground is so inviting Loki closes the distance with another few strides. He raises his hands-
And grinds to a halt.
There’s a piece of cloth spread out neatly in a carefully cleared space at the center of his desk, gleaming white among the haphazard stacks of scrolls and books. On its surface, arranged precisely into rows of four, lie twelve unassuming, downy grey feathers, each no more than half an inch in diameter. At first glance, there’s little to distinguish them from something a starling shedding its first coat might yield, the color and shape completely ordinary.
To Loki, whose senses extend far beyond the ordinary, they might as well be a beacon of light. Seiðr roils off the tiny feathers, the force of it stealing Loki’s breath away as he spreads a trembling hand to trace a revealing rune. The answering pull nearly throws him off his balance in its ferociousness, magic curling bright and pulsing and alive against his palm. Closing his hand into a fist just to be able to escape the untamed energy, Loki takes a step back, sucking in a breath that feels too harsh for his lungs. These cannot be what he thinks they are.
“Do you like them?”
The voice, low, rumbling and more familiar than even his own, would have Loki whirling around at any other given moment. Now, the shock at his brother going undiscovered is a mere afterthought as Loki stares at what is perhaps the most powerful natural magical property he has ever laid his eyes on. His voice is hoarse when he finally finds it.
“These are skikkja feathers.”
“Yes,” Thor says behind him, like that isn’t the most improbable and amazing thing to ever be uttered aloud. Like there haven’t been murders orchestrated and wars fought for just a glimpse to be gained of what now lies before them. Like sorcerers with vastly more experience than Loki haven’t made it their life’s purpose to find and harvest just one feather, growing desolate and bitter with the difficulty of the task they’d chosen.
And here Thor is, laying twelve of them at Loki’s feet like it’s nothing.
“How,” Loki begins, and then pauses again when the number of his questions far exceed his ability to formulate them.
Thor hums in contemplation, like he’s heard each one in spite of this and is considering his answer. Loki still hasn’t taken his eyes off the feathers, but he can feel Thor hovering, the heat rolling off of him like a furnace against Loki’s back.
“There was an establishment we retired to after the hunt for the valdýr. One of its performers was rumored to be quite knowledgeable in matters concerning seiðr. I mentioned your quest for the skikkja to her and she told me there were whispers of one living in the singing forests of Palyn. Your books were right about one thing: they’re the most elusive creatures imaginable. I spent nearly nine weeks creeping through the undergrowth before I came upon it.”
Loki thinks of telling Thor most people go years without spotting so much as an abandoned hide-out or tracks, but his mind catches on something else. “You read my books?”
“Of course I did,” Thor laughs, and he’s so close that the warmth of his breath against Loki’s ear causes shivers to run down his spine. “You’ve talked about these feathers for years now. None of them mentioned how to capture one, though.”
“Because that knowledge was lost,” Loki says, lips numb. “Most of the existing feathers were harvested long ago.”
“So the seiðkona said. She knew of a way, though she wasn’t certain it would actually work. Apparently the skikkja won’t give up its feathers to anyone seeking them for their own gain. Mine were always meant as a gift for you. That’s why it finally showed itself to me.”
Loki, thinking of fingers singed with flaming parchment, tries to rid his voice of any inflection. “And what did she receive in turn for this wise counsel?”
Thor sighs, and without looking at him there’s no telling whether it’s rooted in exasperation or fondness. “I gave her one of the feathers.”
Loki sags against Thor as relief weakens his knees, every part of him crying out for his brother’s touch. Taking it as the permission it’s meant as, Thor wraps both arms around Loki and pulls him back against his chest, burying his face in the slope of Loki’s neck. The bristling sensation of the rather unkempt beard Thor grew in his time in the wilderness is the sweetest thing Loki has felt in months. He arches into the touch without restraint, a hand reaching back to grasp blindly at the back of Thor’s head, keeping him there.
“I would have spent another year crawling around that forest to bring them to you,” Thor murmurs, Loki shivering with every word. “But know that I missed you every day, brother. When I saw you in the feasting hall I could scarcely look at you for fear of what I might do.”
Loki opens his mouth and closes it again. There are no words in any language to devise a reply that would come even close to what he’s feeling.
“Loki Silvertongue, out of words,” Thor says, and this time the fondness is unmistakable. “Am I forgiven, brother?”
Unable to stand not looking at Thor for even a heartbeat longer, Loki turns and pulls away, his brother letting him go reluctantly, his palms trailing along Loki’s hips. He must have taken a bath at some point during the night, the earlier grime shed in favor of once more shining golden hair and a tunic he hasn’t bothered to fasten all the way up, revealing a tantalizing glimpse of his broad chest. Loki wants to eat him alive, but stays himself, adopting an expression of careful consideration before he gives his reply.
Thor’s eyes widen before narrowing again as he takes in the quirk of Loki’s mouth. “Ah. It’s going to be like that then.”
“I’m afraid so.”
Thor doesn’t need further encouragement. He leans in and places the softest, most tender kiss to Loki’s mouth, no more than a brief brush of their lips, and yet not lacking in intensity for it. Not moving away more than an inch, Thor’s voice has become a rumble that uncoils something heated low in Loki’s belly. “Am I forgiven?”
“No,” Loki lies breathlessly, and barely manages to finish the word before Thor kisses him again, deeper, tongue slipping into Loki’s mouth, and words cease to matter altogether.
Loki’s hands can’t seem to decide where to touch, fingers running everywhere they can reach, reassuring themselves that the brother returned to him is the same as when he left, unharmed and hale. When fabric gets in the way of his quest, Loki spares one impatient hand for a quick gesture. Thor startles against him as their suddenly bare bodies come together, then sighs in appreciation as he slides his palms down to grip Loki’s rear.
Thor clothed routinely sends the Asgardian courtiers into raptures; during his sparring matches, crowds of spectators fill the courtyards around the training area just in hopes of catching a glimpse of him. Thor naked is another matter altogether, the exquisite composition of his ridiculously broad chest and shoulders capable of inspiring songs, though Loki would rip out the tongue of anyone who dared to even try. He can’t get enough of him, wants every bit of his brother there and now. Thor, damn him, won’t allow it, gentling the kisses between them as he steers them backwards until Loki is laid out across his bed, Thor settling himself on top of him.
Against his stomach, Thor’s cock is a heavy, heated weight and Loki has never wanted anything so much in his life, legs falling open eagerly, always so damned easy for his brother. Groping blindly among the pillows behind him, Loki curses under his breath when he can’t locate the vial he’s looking for right away, practically flinging it at Thor once he does. Thor catches it with the reflexes of someone who has been dodging Loki’s flung daggers for centuries, and then bends to give Loki another lingering kiss, one broad palm against the inside of his thigh to bare him further.
The first of Thor’s fingers has Loki biting at his bottom lip, trying to relax muscles he hasn’t had occasion to use in the past few months. Noting the tension, Thor lays one warm hand across Loki’s belly, rubbing at his cock almost sympathetically as he waits for him to relax. Indignation grows fierce and dangerous in Loki’s chest, and he bucks his hips, forcing Thor to breach him further before he can withdraw his hand. Sucking in a breath like he’s the one being invaded, Thor uses the hand on Loki’s belly to still him gently but firmly; the next push Loki attempts is met with immovable resistance.
Loki opens his mouth to curse Thor, but his brother is quick to lean in for another kiss, taking the complaint right from his lips as he slides in another finger and Norns, that’s good, Thor handling him with the experience a few hundred years of shaping each other’s preferences have wrought. One crook of those perfect, thick fingers and Loki’s back arches against the silken stretch of the sheets beneath them, cock jerking against his stomach. Digging his heels into the back of Thor’s thighs, Loki drags him in closer, trying to convey what he wants if Thor won’t let him use his voice.
When Thor withdraws his fingers only to rub at where Loki is wet and open and ready for him with a third, Loki bites at Thor’s tongue in frustration. But even that doesn’t deter his brother, Thor going back to fucking Loki with his fingers even as he nuzzles against Loki’s ear. “You need this.”
Loki will forever deny the embarrassing noise he makes in response or how easily he puts himself into his brother’s hands afterwards, biting back any further protestation until Thor has prepared him to his satisfaction. When Thor finally lines himself up and sinks the hot weight of his cock inside slowly, every muscle in Loki’s body seems to coil in on itself, that perfect, nearly forgotten feeling of being filled, completed, overtaken by his brother shaking any thought from his mind but this, being fucked until he can’t breathe or speak or even think.
“Brother,” Loki whispers and Thor drops his head into the dip of his collarbone with a groan, starting to fuck him with slow, measured thrusts that leave Loki nearly empty only to fill him to the brink over and over again.
It’s maddening, how no amount of rolling his hips into Thor’s will get him to go faster, to take Loki hard and quick like they both like him to. Thor clearly means to drag this out for as long as either of them can stand it, and he folds Loki’s hands into his own when Loki reaches for him, pinning them next to his head with determination even as he kisses Loki almost apologetically. Restrained as he is by Thor’s weight, there’s little Loki can do but give himself over to his brother’s mercy. The slow drag of Thor’s cock is torturous, so close to what he wants and yet not enough.
His orgasm builds so gradually and steadily Loki almost doesn’t notice until it’s too late, and when it finally crests over him it does so with an intensity that whites out his vision. Thor kisses at the sweat-slick curve of his throat as Loki arches his back as much as his position will allow, burying Thor once more to the hilt as he trembles in his brother’s arms. When he comes to, Thor is still waiting for him, the strain of holding himself back tightening the curve of his jaw. This time, when Loki reaches for him, Thor allows it, kissing Loki’s palm when he traces the slope of his nose, runs his fingers through his beard.
It’s all the encouragement Thor needs to start speeding up his thrusts, head dropping onto Loki’s collarbone while Loki strokes at the back of his neck. Loki mutters words of encouragement, ones he won’t be able to recall later but which draw hitched gasps from Thor as he fucks Loki thoroughly, then with increasingly faltering rhythm as his own release overtakes him, biting down on Loki’s shoulder when it does.
With his weight now entirely on Loki, there’s not much room to move, but Loki doesn’t mind, digging his fingers warningly into Thor’s shoulder when he tries to shift away. He wants to stay like this, blanketed by his brother’s heated, damp skin, drinking in the closeness he hasn’t allowed himself to dwell on during the past few months, lest he go mad with it. Thor relents right away, burrowing his face in Loki’s hair again, his voice nothing but a murmur when he speaks.
“Come with me next time.”
Loki hums, eyes still closed. “You bringing me a gift this precious when I don’t doesn’t exactly serve as an incentive. Besides, it was wonderfully quiet while you were gone. I didn’t miss you at all.”
Thor turns his head then, and Loki cracks open one eye to take in his pensive expression, eyes bright with something Loki doesn’t want to think too deeply on. “Didn’t you?”
It takes all thought of teasing him further from Loki’s mind, the lies turning to lead on his tongue. He traces a finger along Thor’s jaw, keeps his eyes on the line it paints while he frowns. “Any day not spent in your company might as well be lived by another for all the meaning they hold to me.”
“Loki,” Thor breathes, and Loki seals his mouth shut with his own, not wanting to hear a reply or even think of how much of himself he’s just relinquished.
Fortunately, Thor doesn’t push any further, content to trade kisses with Loki as they drift slowly towards sleep, entangled as they are. Loki is about to doze off when Thor’s voice rouses him again, thick with fatigue but curious nonetheless. “What do you want the feathers for anyway?”
“They carry the most powerful concealing properties in the known universe,” Loki mutters, interrupting himself with a yawn. “I’ll be able to hide us from Heimdall’s gaze even beyond these rooms.”
It took Loki ages and much frustration to ward their little sanctuary to his satisfaction, the thought of discovery pushing them both to be cautious to the degree of paranoia. They’ve never even kissed outside the confines of Loki’s quarters. Another few heartbeats pass until Loki notices how still Thor has become against him, and he opens his eyes to find his brother watching him with a predatory glint in his eyes.
“Does that mean what I think it means?”
And Loki can’t help it, has to laugh at the barely concealed eagerness of those words. “Yes, brother, you’ll be able to have me anywhere you-“
Thor cuts him off with a kiss that involves too much teeth because Loki can’t stop smiling. Rolling them over until they’re both on their sides, Thor grips Loki’s neck with warm calloused fingers, caressing him reverently, like Loki is the most incredible thing he’s ever laid his hands on. “I would do much worse than spend a few months crawling through a muddy forest on my knees to see you this happy.”
“I know,” Loki whispers and finds that curiously enough, he does.