Chapter 1: Prolog
”Explain once more why you need me to tag along. This endeavor of yours, haven't you been at it long enough? Norway can’t possibly still hold any more secrets for you. I think it’s high time you gave up, Thor.”
Thor pretended not to hear that last part, as he adjusted his knapsack for what felt like the dozenth time since packing that morning. The wear and tear of the past year had taken its toll on everything. The straps had become prone to slipping free of their buckles. It was bothersome, but he had grown attached to the damned bag. It had been his constant travel companion and he kept his face impassive as he fixed it, perhaps so as not to hurt its feelings—inanimate objects were not always as inanimate as they seemed.
Moreover, Loki had a habit of misinterpreting everything he did, willfully at times, and that included a scowl directed at an unrelated thing.
“Brother, I want you to come,” he said. He did, whether or not Loki believed it. “Of course, I believe your talents will aid us in solving this mystery once and for all, but more than that… I think you might actually enjoy yourself."
A waver in his voice betrayed fear, fear that Loki, so filled with resentment over their ongoing detention in New York, would still find doing nothing preferable to the suggestion there was anything in Midgard worthy of his attention. With a mirthless laugh, Loki tilted back his head with renewed interest in the ceiling, as though it was far more compelling than Thor’s invitation. He took his time, lifting his chin as he traced the cracks, putting on a show.
This script of theirs had grown tiresome: he would extend the invitation and Loki would snidely decline; it was like a checkpoint before every departure.
Loki was in one of his moods. Thor balled his fist around his knapsack, turning his attention to the wall to hem his irritation, though it did not really help. Their apartment was nothing to look at: good by New York standards, or so Thor had been told, but it was dreary. The windows did not let in much light because they were flush against another building. Now that autumn had set in and the weather was cooling, everything felt damp. It was like living in a cave.
For Loki, it was a cell. He did not seem to know what a lamp was anymore. Thor often returned to find the television as the sole illuminating glow, with Loki asleep in front of it, regardless of the time of day.
Sometimes, when Thor came back to the apartment, he would turn off the television and fetch Loki’s pillow, leaving it by his head in case he rolled over. Other times he would sit and let it play until his brother noticed he was there.
They both liked HGTV. It evened out their rough edges. When they watched it together, it was easy to forget about everything that had gone wrong. It gave them something to joke about, as they bonded over their shared hatred of open-concept layouts. HGTV was, perhaps, the one thing they both liked about Midgard these days.
When all this was over and they could freely and honorably return to New Asgard, he and Loki would be able to decorate their royal abode with genuine skill. But for now, they lived in rooms too soulless to decorate.
New Asgard itself was on another world, with weeks of travel between them without the Bifrost—Thor had originally intended to bring his people to Earth, but now he saw what a mistaken that would have been. If bringing Loki here had not been absolutely necessary, Thor would not have done that either, but the spell he’d been taught to revive his brother required a location of paramount significance to both of them, and New York had been the best choice. And it had worked. Loki was alive.
Alive and yet hardly so.
And everything had gone wrong after that.
Thor tried not to blame Loki when he was like this. The terms of their bargain had not played out as they had been given. For that, Thor blamed himself. He had been a fool, he had such blind faith at the start. He and Loki would please everyone, he was sure of it; they would all be satisfied once they saw how willingly his brother cooperated.
They had—Loki had—been trapped here for too long. His brother was becoming like a caged animal.
Loki stretched against the arm of the sofa, arching his back, wrinkled his nose with distaste. “And if this relic you seek does not exist—”
“I am certain it does,” said Thor, cutting him short, though honestly, he was not certain of anything these days and Loki knew it better than anyone. He tried to sound confident. He was determined to set things right.
Loki frowned. He adjusted his back, wincing a little more than undetectably as he did. His body seemed to constantly ache these days—more of their bargain gone sour. The chains keeping Loki on Midgard did their job, but at a cost. They did not discuss it. Thor had given up asking. Loki always lied about how he felt, anyway. Sometimes, Thor wondered if his brother was actually trying to protect his feelings.
“Even so, so what?” snapped Loki. “It’s merely another Scandinavian temple that’s been left to rot. How are you not sick to death of it by now?”
And sometimes Loki did not seem to know Thor had any feelings at all.
Sometimes Thor wondered if Loki gave a damn about anything that had happened, or if he was actually content to wait out his confinement, wretched as it was. He flopped around the apartment, he watched television, he read—although he was doing less and less of that, these days. Perhaps that was why it was always dark in the apartment. It was as though Loki was going blind.
But he rarely had a word to say about it. He didn’t want to talk about it. Or at least, he didn’t want to talk to Thor about it.
Loki had always been the more patient of them, slightly, but Thor had reached his breaking point months ago. He wanted to shout and throw things, sometimes at Loki, if it might fire him up. If they could do nothing else, they could at least rant and rail about everything that had gone wrong, together. They had a common foe, and for once it was not each other.
But Loki was immovable. And Thor began funneling his energy into something worthwhile, lest he explode, and that had led him to Norway and the tale of a fabled relic of his people. Their people. Dammit! Thor did not understand why a treasure hunt did not galvanize his brother the way it did him!
“If I’m right,” said Thor, “it is much more than a rotting temple. My friend and I—"
"Ah, yes. Your ‘friend’ the woman archeologist who has been ‘helping’ you."
Thor rued the day Loki picked up the Midgardian custom of using his fingers to make quotations in the air when he was sarcastic. He gritted his teeth. "We are very close to discovering its location.”
Loki laughed. “You’ve been saying that for months.”
“But if it contains a relic of Asgard,” Thor shouted, “a true relic...”
Asgard. Destroyed. Blotted from existence.
Gone. And in its place, incurable homesickness.
Something inside Thor crumbled every time he thought about it, and he thought about it constantly. It was a wonder there was any of him left to fall apart.
“Is a surviving relic not worth a thorough search, Brother?” His voice cracked with a plaintive swell and Loki, at last, turned his attention toward him. He scowled heavily. Thor sensed he was gathering his energy for a final blast of snark to send him on his way.
But instead, Loki’s eyelids fluttered, and he quickly turned away from Thor, but not before a flicker of light on his cheek betrayed him. He swiped it away and cleared his chest. Thor tightened with anticipation, with even the hair at the back of his neck standing on end. Had he made it through Loki’s armor? Was he glimpsing at the boy he had grown up beside, the boy who had become a relic himself. There were times when Thor, too, felt like an artifact from a bygone era.
“Norway is cold. You’ll need a thicker coat,” said Loki.
Time to go.
“I’ll...see you when I get back.” He fixed the strap of his backpack.
Every muscle in Thor’s body came to a swift halt. He froze with one hand extended toward the doorknob, hesitant to move even that.
"You've actually...obtained permission ...to take me on this little field trip?" Loki asked, though the answer was obvious. It would have suited Loki to spit the words, the way they bitterly dripped, but that he had asked at all galvanized Thor to turn back.
“Yes,” he said. “They gave me permission.”
“I suggested that it would be an opportunity to study your behavior when you’re not trapped in one place.”
Loki looked down at his hand, flexing his fingers before wrapping them into a fist. “With my... abilities ...returned?”
“Some of it,” Thor said. “We might need it to find the temple.”
The chains. Invisible to the eye but apparent in every other way. The wizard called Strange was behind that part, although Thor had many doubts that the man was capable of placing such a spell on Loki without his brother willingly allowing it. And when Thor thought about just why his brother had been willing...
Not that they spoke of that, either.
Whatever Strange had done, the man was a surgeon by profession and he had done his work on Loki with precision, but he had been heartless. Initially, it had made Loki so ill that Thor wondered whether a cell on the Raft might have been the better option. Loki recovered, somewhat, or he was faking it for the sake of his own pride.
Strange, the doctor, never intervened while Loki was ill. Thor was generally unimpressed with Strange as a representative of Midgard.
But such had been the terms. Thor probably deserved to be on the Raft himself, for breathing life into his brother on the very planet he had once attempted to rule. But they never threatened him with a cell. They only wanted Loki. At the time, Thor believed the intent of the bargain was merely to appease a few outlying government officials, people who did not believe Loki had been under the Titan's influence, or who did not care regardless. They wanted revenge, they wanted their scapegoat, and Thanos was gone. And Loki was already guilty enough.
Loki would serve time, one year, and Thor had sworn on everything he held sacred to make sure the year was served. He had even given Stormbreaker as collateral, although it was really just a token. The only thing keeping Stormbreaker out of his hand was his unwillingness to break an oath. He could call Stormbreaker to himself at any time and summon the Bifrost.
But Thor had walked into a trap. Strange had been brought in. Loki's magic was under the strictest regulation. The few friends Thor expected to help them, at the very least to pass the time, were not to be found. They did not want to be involved. Some of them even wanted to see Loki suffer, which was the hardest part of all. What did they expect of Thor? To leave his brother in a filthy New York gutter? To punish him with his own two hands?
Stark stood out among them, surprisingly compassionate toward Loki, though more in his actions than in words. He had procured their apartment, he funded Thor's travels to and from Norway. But Stark was often busy. He could not keep them company. He had endless obligations.
In the end, he and Loki had become isolated. Whatever Strange had done, it was wearing Loki down to the bone. And Thor, though he struggled to say it, was sick at heart to witness the fall of so many he had once considered good people.
So Thor had made another bargain, very recently, a full day had not yet passed. He did not trust Strange, not at all, but he had to be involved. Loki required access to more of his magic if he was going to assist in the search for the Asgardian relic. Norway was the first step toward proving that his brother could travel without a thousand eyes upon him, a step toward freedom, of reclaiming both their honor. When they reviewed Loki's case, they would see that he was not the threat they believed him to be, that his focus was on New Asgard, where he and Thor both belonged. It would work. It had to work.
Thor hoped beyond hope that it would work. Strange warned him of what might happen if it did not, but he had agreed to Thor's terms nevertheless.
“Come with me to Norway, Loki. Please. But if you say no, I promise not to ask again.” It was a lie, they both knew it. Thor had been asking for months and he would keep asking; he was very bad at giving up. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his hope balanced on the edge of a knife.
Loki’s chest collapsed with a sigh. “Oh, why not? Since you asked so nicely."