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Little Sister

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The Bifrost brought Hela to Asgard quickly enough. She could have traveled faster with her own sorcery, but sometimes traditions were important. Particularly for occasions such as this.

That was also the reason she’d worn her headdress. It was an unwieldy thing that tested the strength of her neck muscles each time she wore it. But she knew she looked damn fine in it.

Heimdall, ageless as ever, nodded to the queen. “It’s good to see you well, Your Majesty.”

“As it is to see you, Heimdall,” she said. She was caught off-guard for a second at how stilted she sounded. She’d spoken as such to her own subjects for nearly two thousand years, but this was Heimdall. Speaking so formally to someone from her childhood was disconcerting.

The Bifrost hummed to life once more. Ah, yes. Hela had nearly forgotten that the King of Jotunheim would be joining her.

When the Bifrost finished, King Thrym Byleistrson towered in the chamber, along with his mother, Queen Angrboda. She inclined her head to Hela with a smile, but Thrym dropped the etiquette for a moment. “Cousin,” he said, extending his arm.

She clasped his forearm, and he hers. “You certainly grew taller since I saw you last,” Hela said.

Thrym beamed. “You, on the other hand, look exactly the same.”

She hid her smirk well by chewing the inside of her cheek. “Enough flattery. Shall we go through to the palace?”

He nodded. “I suppose I must follow you, as decorum dictates.”

Yes, decorum did dictate that. As Queen of Niflheim and Ruler of Hel, she took precedence over all others, even another realm’s king.

So, Hela began the long walk down the Bifrost alone, Thrym and Angrboda at her back.

Through her sorcery of souls, she knew everyone in the city streets below was looking up to their approach. Relations between Asgard and Jotunheim were prospering under the rule of King Thrym, so the citizens’ hearts bloomed with joy upon seeing him and his mother.

But their hearts filled with more bittersweet nostalgia when they laid eyes upon Hela. The princess has become a queen, their souls spoke. How ageless she has become. How distant and proud.

But the loudest sentiment was, What grief she must feel for her father.

Hela steeled herself against that. It was the whole point of the visit, but she wouldn’t give herself to the emotion now. She would maintain her poise to say her goodbyes, at the very least.

That poise began to crack, however, the moment her heels started clacking on the marble floors of the palace. It was a sound from her childhood, racing through the hallways with her brothers and sisters, hiding from their minders to get up to all sorts of mischief. She hadn’t expected to feel such melancholy from those memories.

But the heaviness faded some as she sealed away her headdress, letting her dark hair loose about her shoulders. The sadness abated entirely a moment later, when a familiar face appeared from the throne room. A young woman with bright gold hair and high cheekbones. Her smile lit up the entire realm when she saw Hela.

Hela hadn’t seen Thrud for two thousand years, but she would know that smile anywhere.

“Sister!” Thrud cried out, and ran to Hela. Hela couldn’t help her grin as she embraced her youngest sibling. “I’ve missed you so,” Thrud said into Hela’s neck.

A rush of sorrow nearly overwhelmed Hela’s heart before she forced it back down. “And I have missed you,” she said. “Each one of you.”

Thrud pulled back enough to look Hela in the eye. “Then you must visit us more often, silly!”

Hela smiled sadly. “You know I have the duties of a queen now.” Not to mention the duties of ruling the Nine’s dead souls.

“Yes,” Thrud said, “but you have the duties of a sister as well, no? Asgard is not the same without you.”

Hela sighed, and kissed Thrud’s cheek. She couldn’t explain all she had to do as queen of a primordial realm. Most of it was secrets she’d learned in her apprenticeship to the last Queen of Niflheim, Karnilla. Secrets she could not speak to any other soul in the universe.

So, she pivoted to the matter at hand. “Where are the others?”

“Waiting for you,” came a voice from the throne room. A voice Hela would have engraved in her heart till her dying breath.

She smiled as she looked behind Thrud to take in the sight of her sole elder sibling. Vali looked more distinguished now, with his dark blond hair now down to his shoulders. His prominent jaw now had some stubble on it, in a perfect mimicry of their father’s face.

There were more lines in his face since she'd seen him last. More than Thrud’s, more than Fenrir’s and Jormungandr’s, who had now appeared behind Vali. Bearing the responsibilities of a future king took a toll, particularly as Vali was following in the footsteps of the two greatest kings in Asgard's history.

She released Thrud, who went to hug Thrym and speak with Angrboda. Vali went to hug Hela without another word.

“Little sister,” he whispered into her hair, so only she could hear him.

It was a good thing, too, for at his words, Hela nearly broke down crying.

She stuffed that down, however. She stuffed it all down, as she’d planned to do for most of this visit. She was a queen now, not just a sister or a daughter.

But Vali seemed to understand that. After all, of all their siblings, he was the closest to being a monarch himself. So he released her quickly and said, “I’m glad to see you.”

“And I, you,” she said.

She exchanged brief greetings with her other siblings. Fenrir and Jormungandr were still thick as thieves. Sleipnir was still just as sweet, but stronger in body and will. Magni (a man today) and Modi still gave the best hugs.

Vali’s wife, Princess Elyr of Alfheim, made an appearance with their three children. So did Magni’s betrothed, a young Asgardian noble named Gorunn, who gave Hela a smile as mischievous as his intended’s. Fenrir’s pregnant wife, Sindr, only nodded sagely at Hela. As a Princess of Muspelheim, the other primordial realm, she understood the balance of the universe as Hela did, in ways no one else could. Even if Hela did not care for Sindr’s father, Surtur, they each understood their duties to the Nine.

Between Hela’s siblings, their own families, and their cousin, Thrym, the extended family of the Aesir-Jotnar alliance was reunited at last. All, that is, except for the two heads of that family, whom they were gathered here to see.

Hela looked around at them all. “Are they in their bedchamber?”

Vali nodded. “After you.”

Hela paused. Usually the hosting monarch would take the lead. She looked at Vali expectantly.

Vali’s face fell, as he realized the reason for her hesitation. “I’m not king yet,” he said quietly.

Everyone’s spirits faltered at his words. Hela didn’t need her sorcery to feel it.

But it didn’t make sense to dwell on it. So, Hela took a brisk breath in, and started toward the kings’ bedchamber. The rest of her family followed her.

She soon felt a hand entwine with her own. She turned to find Modi looking up at her with bright blue eyes. Though her little sister was now a woman grown, she still had such a fragile disposition, even after all these years.

Hela let go of her hand, only to wrap her arm around Modi’s shoulders. Modi leaned into the embrace as they walked. Hela could sense her slight smile.

The eighteen guards at the bedchamber doors, while a tradition for times such as this, seemed quite unnecessary. Especially considering the circumstances of whom they were guarding.

But among the guards was Sif, the last of Hela’s adopted uncles and aunts. The Warriors Three had long since passed to Valhalla, but Sif still carried their mantle. She still looked as proud and dignified with her silver hair as she had when it was black.

She smiled at the family’s approach, though it was a sad smile. “They’re waiting for you,” she said.

Hela nodded. Sif’s smile faded; she couldn’t seem to keep wearing it for long.

She touched Hela’s shoulder, her eyes showing the struggle between bravery and sorrow. Hela felt something deep in her heart tremble.

Sif left them then, leaving Hela free to lead the others inside the bedchamber.

Hela’s footsteps were cautious as she entered. Perhaps that was why neither of her parents looked up to her approach. Or perhaps it was because, after four and a half millennia of marriage, Thor and Loki’s attention always defaulted to each other.

Even now, Loki was sitting on the edge of their bed, his silver hair obscuring his face from Hela as he looked down at Thor. He was petting Thor’s head, running his fingers through hair that had long since turned white. Neither of them said anything. Hela wouldn’t be surprised if her parents had developed telepathic powers with each other. Or maybe that’s just what happened when two people were happily married for so long.

Thor lay in their magnificent bed, his eyes closed as he fell into the trance of Loki’s fingers. His hands, callused from millennia of holding weapons in Asgard’s name, now lay limply at his sides. Each breath from his broad chest seemed to take so much effort.

It wouldn’t be long now.

Hela paused in the threshold as she took in the scene. Modi stopped with her, still burrowed into her side. No one else behind them hurried them along. These were moments that could not be rushed.

Thor’s eyes suddenly flew open. Age had not dimmed how brightly blue they were. And, as he looked to see two of his daughters standing in the doorway, neither had time dampened the brilliance of his smile.

“Children,” he said. Hela could tell it took him a great effort to speak, but that just made each word more important, more worthy of being heard.

Loki looked over to them. He too burst into such a smile when he saw them. “My darlings,” he said softly. He rose and walked over to them, still so graceful even as age had slowed his movements.

He cupped Hela’s face first. “You made it, my dear.”

Hela managed a grin. “Of course I did.”

Loki grin turned so grateful. His laugh sounded more like a sob. Hela knew it was not one of grief, however, but of surprise. After all this time, Loki Laufeyson still could not believe he had such a loving family. Even though he’d been instrumental in creating that family, and in nurturing that love among them all.

Loki ushered them all inside. Hela, being the first one in, made her way to her father’s bedside. Thor’s arm trembled as he reached out for her, but he reached out nonetheless.

She sat at his side, and took his hand. She could still feel some of the strength in it. It brought her the safety and peace that only her father could provide.

“My darling girl,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.”

Hela’s breath caught. She was sure her father could see the tremble in her lip. But he just smiled, and put his other hand on top of hers. She gripped it tightly.

But her father’s hands were not hers to monopolize. Not when he had so many to grasp, and hug, and hold close. Eight children, three children-in-laws, three grandchildren, a nephew, and a sister-in-law were plenty to hold onto. He kissed their foreheads, holding their hands, whispering how much he loved them.

Hela noticed Loki hung back from the gathering, letting his husband greet his family for the last time. She reached out to Loki from where she sat. He gave her a rueful grin, but accepted the offer readily enough, though he ended up tucking her into his side more than the other way around.

But that was Loki, always more than willing to be a mother and provider whenever he had the chance. It seemed even a night like this was no exception.

Vali’s two youngest children had piled on top of Thor’s chest. “Do it again!” they clamored.

Thor laughed, that deep rumble which had always made Hela feel so safe as a girl. The children giggled as their wish was granted, being tickled by the vibrations of Thor’s laugh. It was a game he had played with all his children when they were young. ‘Papa Bear,’ they’d called it. It was one of Hela’s fondest memories.

But Thor’s lungs now wheezed as he drew in breath. Vali and Elyr must have noticed. “Enough,” Elyr told her children, lifting the youngest boy off Thor’s chest. “Don’t tax Grandfather too much.”

The children obeyed, curling into Thor’s sides instead. He held them close, and soon his breathing calmed.

A silence descended over them all. It felt anticipatory to Hela. After all, they were here not just to say goodbye to Thor, but to bear witness to his final words.

But Thor, ever a soul of lightness, put the opportunity to good use. “Well,” he said, “if you’re all here, it means I must truly be dying.”

They all laughed slightly. But there was not much joy in it, save for the laugh from Thor himself.

All the laughter quickly faded as the truth started to sink in. Not that there was any denying it, from Thor’s appearance and his being bedridden for the last month. But now that it was spoken, none of them could escape the fact that Thor Odinson, King of Asgard, the pillar of strength they’d known all their lives, was going to die tonight.

The first sob broke through. It was from Thrud. No one was surprised; everyone knew that her father was her favorite person in the world. Just as everyone knew that, though he would deny it to his last breath, Thrud was her father’s favorite child.

“My sweet girl,” Thor said, reaching to where she sat beside him to cup her cheek. Her next tear ran onto his fingers. “I know you weep from a place of love, but this is not a sad parting.”

“Is it not?” she asked.

He shook his head with a smile. “No.” He looked to his family gathered around him, either sitting on his bed or standing around it. “I know you all will mourn my death, for I am leaving you. But you must not mourn my life. It has been one worth celebrating.”

“That it has,” Loki murmured with a smile in his voice.

Thor looked to his husband, with the greatest love in his eyes Hela had yet seen. Again, no words were said to Loki out loud, but Hela knew they were said nonetheless.

Thor looked back to everyone else. “I know we have faced many trials,” he said. “Not just Loki and me, but all of us.”

The mood turned somber. Though Thor looked round at them all, his gaze lingered on Modi a little longer. She nodded at him. Then he looked at Sleipnir, then at Thrym and Angrboda. They all nodded in response.

But the lightness in Thor’s face never left him. He grinned again. “But we have had so many more moments of joy, have we not?”

They all smiled at that. Hela couldn’t deny that most of her memories of life in Asgard were happy ones, even if it didn’t seem like it at the time.

“So many of them were at the dinner table,” Fenrir said. He laughed. “You and Mother always made us eat dinner together. I hated it sometimes.” Everyone chuckled with him. Hela remembered feeling the same way, probably more times than Fenrir had. Then again, she’d always been a moody child.

But Fenrir’s mirth soon took on a quiet earnestness. “But now I understand why. And I’m glad you insisted.”

The sagacity of the adults’ happiness at that statement was quickly broken by Vali’s middle child: “So are we still gonna have family dinners?”

“Of course we are,” Vali said. “It’s important. And soon you’ll have a new cousin to share them with.”

Sindr gave a small grin, unconsciously laying a hand on her pregnant belly. “Thank you, Father,” she said to Thor. Then to Loki, “And you, Mother. For this family. I was saved a great deal of grief by marrying into it.”

“As was I,” Elyr said.

Gorunn nodded. “It’s nice to know my in-laws won’t be a pack of dysfunctional bastards.”

Everyone laughed, even with Elyr tutting him for his choice of language around her children.

Hela realized she shouldn’t have expected anything other than this lighthearted atmosphere at her father’s last words. This was Thor Odinson, after all. He was the embodiment of the sun, even in his final moments.

“Thank you for this family.”

Everyone looked to Sleipnir, who had spoken those words with a trembling voice. He looked like he was holding back tears, though they weren’t held back for long. “I know you didn’t have to. To foster such love among us. Or to even include me in it at all.” He looked down, his voice wavering. “I know I’ve told you this before, but-”

“I know,” Thor said. He reached to Sleipnir’s shoulder, clasping it with all the strength he had left. “I know, my son. Just as I have told you this before: you are a part of this family. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind about that, nor has there ever been.”

Hela could feel her mother trembling beside her. She squeezed his hand. She also pretended not to notice how he discreetly dabbed at his eyes.

Modi had ended up sitting next to Sleipnir, and she also started sniffling. “You always supported me, and all of us. There were…there were so many moments you could have wavered, and not given us your complete attention and love. And I don’t know what wounds might not have healed if you hadn’t.”

Hela’s heart clenched as she remembered those moments. That time Modi referred to was easily the most painful for her and her siblings, and probably for Thor and Loki, as well.

But Thor didn’t waver now, just as he hadn’t then. His hand on Sleipnir’s shoulder now reached to take Modi’s. “That’s what a father should do,” he said. “He should love, and support, and encourage his children, through every moment. Especially in the most difficult moments.”

Modi let out a shuddering breath. “And you did. You and Mother, you both did.”

“Yes,” Thrym said. He clutched his mother’s hand tightly. “Though that’s not what every father does.” His red eyes flitted briefly to Loki, who just nodded in acknowledgement. Hela knew then that it was not just Thrym’s father he spoke of, but Loki’s as well.

“Not every father loves his children so openly, or so unconditionally,” Thrym continued, looking to Thor again. “But you did. You always did. Which is why I’m so glad you took in my mother all those years ago. While you are my uncle, you have been as a father to me, and Uncle Loki as a second mother.”

Thor smiled. “And you, Thrym, have been as a fifth son to me.”

“Or a sixth son,” Magni mumbled.

Everyone laughed again. “Or a sixth son, sometimes,” Thor agreed.

When the silence settled in again, Thor looked to Vali, who stood with Elyr on the opposite side of the bed from Hela. But Vali avoided Thor’s gaze.

“Vali,” Thor called softly. Hela could hear how weak his voice was becoming.

Vali must have heard it, too, for he reluctantly looked his father in the eye. Thor reached out a hand for him.

Vali took it, taking the space Magni and Thrud cleared for him as he sat on the bed. He leaned over his father till their foreheads touched. Thor clasped a hand on the back of Vali’s neck.

“It’ll be your turn now,” Thor murmured.

Vali drew away an inch. He looked at his father with such fear, but he bravely nodded back. Elyr placed a hand on his back, rubbing gently.

“I know you’ve been dreading it,” Thor said. “But I’ve kept you waiting as an heir apparent long enough.”

Vali chuckled, though it was a wetter sound than he perhaps intended. “I was prepared to wait as such for the rest of my life.”

“I know,” Thor said. “In some ways, so was I, when my father’s time drew near. But that means you’re suited to it. A throne is not something to covet. If you did, you would not wear the mantle well.”

Vali swallowed. “But how can I wear it well?”

Thor’s eyes crinkled around the edges as he smiled broadly. “You have everything you need. Your mother and I have taught you all we could. Now it’s up to you, to make it your own.”

“And you will,” Loki said.

Vali looked up to his mother, his eyes shining. “So you don’t have any last-minute words of kingly wisdom to impart?”

Thor could hardly manage a chuckle; his strength was fading fast. Leave it to her father, Hela thought, to wage a battle with death itself for the right to laugh one more time. “Why didn’t you say so?” Thor asked. Vali leaned close to hear. “Look around you,” Thor whispered. “Look.”

Vali did. Around at his siblings, his cousin, his wife and children. Thor managed to grip Vali’s arm. “This is your family,” he rasped. “They are what’s most important.”

Vali looked back to Thor, appearing confused by that notion. But Thor’s humor in his eyes had been replaced by something iron. “It’s so easy,” he continued, “to leave them behind…and throw yourself…into ruling.” His hand trembled as he tried to grip Vali tighter. “Don’t ever make that mistake. Not once. You cannot…do this job…without them.”

Vali’s gaze didn’t break from his father’s as he took in those words. For some reason, they landed like knives in Hela’s heart.

“We’ll help you,” Elyr said to Vali, still rubbing his back. “We’ll help you do this, however you need us to.”

“We all will,” Fenrir said.

Hela looked away.

Her father tried several times to speak again, though only breath and mouthed words came out. He was edging toward the veil between worlds now. When he did manage to speak, everyone had to lean in to hear him. “I would say goodbye now,” he whispered. “And give my last…last moments…to your mother.”

And so, one by one, everyone went to hug Thor close, one last time.

They each hugged him for a while, all wanting more time for themselves, even if it was selfish. But Hela soon realized that he was whispering to each one of them. And each time, it had a similar ending.

“Fenrir, my strong lad. I love you. I love you.”

“Jormungandr, my clever boy. I love you. I love you.”

“Sindr, dear child. I love you. I love you.”

“Modi, my sweet blossom. I love you. I love you.”

“Thrud, my bright star. I love you. I love you.”

And so it went. He captured how special they all were, how much they meant to him. And then it always ended the same. I love you, I love you. As if saying it once wasn't enough, though he hardly had the breath for saying it twice.

When it was Hela’s turn, though Thor could hardly manage a smile, she knew it was because of how little strength he had left. She knew his heart was ablaze with how much love he had for her.

When she hugged him, she felt like a toddling child again. Wanting to be held by her father forever.

“Hela,” he whispered into her ear. “My darling little one.”

She gasped, too close to a sob for her comfort. After thousands of years of being strong, winning battles, ruling the dead, keeping the balance in the cosmos of the Nine…

…to her father, she could still be his darling little one.

Then, with all the feeling Thor had ever mustered, he whispered to his little one, “I love you. I love you.”

She hugged him tighter. “I love you too, Papa.”

His hand on her back started stroking her hair. It had probably been at least three thousand years since she’d called him ‘Papa’. Perhaps he’d needed to hear it now, as much as she’d needed to say it.

When she withdrew, his eyes were misty. Hers might have been, as well.

She had to leave, though. Vali still had to say goodbye to him. It was fitting that the first of his children would also be the last of them he would see.

So, with one last look at her Papa, Hela rose from the bed.

But when she started for the door, she was surprised to see everyone surrounding her mother. Modi was hugging Loki tightly, starting to weep. Loki was clutching her just as close, murmuring, “It’s alright, my dove. You’ll be alright.”

It could have just been grief from Thor’s impending death. But it suddenly hit Hela what was about to happen.

As long as Thor had been king, Loki had been king alongside him. And yet they were all speaking with the assumption that Vali was going to become king upon Thor’s passing.

But as much as Hela’s heart ached with the realization of her mother’s decision, she knew there wasn’t anything she could do to stop it. Nor should she. It wasn’t her choice to make.

She could make the choice, however, to face this as bravely as she could.

So, when Modi released Loki, Hela embraced him next. His arms were still strong around her. She could feel his heart beating so quickly, as if trying to get a full life’s worth of beats in before the end.

“I love you, my dear daughter,” Loki murmured. “I love you so much. We have always been so proud of you.”

She tightened her arms around him. “I love you too, Mother. I love you.”

She felt it necessary to say it twice, not just because that was apparently the custom tonight. But because Loki had always seemed to doubt that he could be loved. He’d always told Hela, and probably her other siblings too, that it wasn’t their job to take care of his emotions. But Hela always wanted to reassure him anyway. Especially tonight.

When they released each other, Loki’s eyes were starting to glisten with tears. No one was acknowledging that this was goodbye in so many words. But they knew. They all knew.

When Vali left his father, and said his unspoken goodbyes to his mother, they all filed out the door. They went to the throne room to await the inevitable news in silence.

Hela, however, kept listening to her parents’ souls. It wasn’t fair, nor was it the most appropriate use of her sorcery. But she wanted to know.

As she suspected, neither of them said anything out loud. Thor didn’t have the strength to speak, anyway. But they didn’t need to. Their eyes and hearts spoke all the words they needed.

We did it, Loki. We grew old together.

Aye, beloved, we did. And what gifts you gave me along the way. A family. A home. A kingdom. And your heart of gold.

You gave me those same gifts, my love.

Modi and Thrud were starting to weep again. Hela took Modi in her arms, and Thrud went to Vali.

Thank you, Thor. For treating me with such care. Even when I did not deserve it.

You always deserved it. Always. And thank you, for the same.

Their voices were growing fainter now. Hela knew they would not have much longer to speak.

I am glad, Loki, to not be alone at the end.

As am I. Since our wedding day, I have never felt alone. I would not leave you now.

So, to Mother in Valhalla, then? Or to our daughter’s realm?

Hela’s breath caught. She knew their fate, though she could not speak it to anyone.

As long as we are together, Thor, it shall be paradise for me.

And for me. So let us go. I’m ready.

So am I. You are the brightest light in my life.

And you are the brightest light in mine.

I love you.

I love you…

Then Hela couldn’t parse specific meanings anymore, just a general sentiment, of a love so great it could have stretched across the universe and back thrice over.

Soon, all that was left was the afterimage of that love, as her parents’ souls spoke no more.

xxx

It wasn’t long before nine of the eighteen guards entered the throne room. They marched before Vali and knelt, one fist raised over their chests.

“The kings are dead,” their captain said in a trembling voice. “Long live the king.”

Vali looked like he might be sick. To his credit, he refrained.

Sleipnir was the one to move first. He joined the guards in kneeling. “Long live the king.”

Then Fenrir. Then Magni and Gorunn. Then Thrud. Soon all but Hela, Thrym, and Angrboda were kneeling at the feet of Vali, King of Asgard.

But Vali didn’t stand for that. Literally. He charged the guards with spreading the news throughout the Nine Realms, and as soon as they had shut the golden doors behind them, he sank slowly to sit on the dais before the throne.

Everyone else followed suit. No one wanted to tower over him right now.

Elyr took his hand. He squeezed it gratefully. But beyond a few sniffles, no one spoke. Until Magni said, “I wasn’t sure Mother would actually do it.”

“You know how much he loved Father,” Sleipnir said.

“Yes,” said Magni, “but he loved Vali, too. And now he’s left you to be king.”

“Don’t speak of Mother that way,” Vali said. He shrugged. “I have to be king someday, don’t I?”

“But you’ll need help.”

Vali smiled. “I have all of you.” When that seemed to stop Magni’s protestations, he continued, “Besides, I don’t think Mother has ever acted selfishly in his entire life. He’s owed that at his death, at the very least.”

No one could argue with that. So the hall went silent again, as everyone tried to grapple with the onset of their grief.

It was a surprise to Hela when Jormungandr was the one to break the silence; he’d always been one to listen rather than speak. She was also surprised to hear what he had to say: “Father wouldn’t have done it, though.”

Everyone looked to him. He just looked back at them, his green eyes daring them to challenge his words.

“What?” Thrud asked.

“If Mother were the one dying,” Jorm said, “Father wouldn’t have died with him.”

“Why the Hel would you say that?” Thrud asked, her voice rising in pitch with anguish.

“Because it’s true,” Jorm said matter-of-factly. He’d never been one for sugarcoating the truth. “Think about it. By all accounts, Father had a happy life before his marriage. He had his mother, he had his friends, he had a realm that loved him. But Mother’s happiness only began after he married Father, and Father was the source of it all.

“If Mother had died first, Father would have been devastated, but he would have grieved his way through it. But he was the one who gave Mother a life worth living. It only makes sense that, when faced with Father’s death, Mother would want his life to end, as well.”

Everyone had to sift through that for a while. But it made perfect sense to Hela. She knew enough of Loki’s first thousand years of life to know what a difference Thor must have made for his happiness.

“Hela,” Jorm said. Her eyes darted to him. “I know you can’t tell us if they’re in Valhalla or Hel.”

She shook her head. That was a rule the Norns could not let her break.

“Can you at least tell us if they are together?”

Hm. She’d never been asked that question before. And since there weren’t any outright rules against it, it was probably allowable.

So, she closed her eyes, to sense where their souls were.

When she came to her conclusion, she opened her eyes. And nodded with a small smile.

Jorm smiled, too. “Then they’ll be happy.”

xxx

The guards told them that Kings Loki and Thor were found in their bed together, facing one another. A large vial of a sleeping draught had been found empty beside Loki.

That meant the chief healer, Hlin, had known about Loki’s plan. The guards asked Vali if they should bring her in for questioning, but he dismissed the idea. Loki’s death had been on his terms, and Hlin had only obeyed her king’s wishes.

The funeral was to take place nine days after their deaths. On the eighth day, Vali and Hela oversaw the healing women wash and dress both of the bodies.

Their parents’ wishes might have been surprising to anyone who did not know them well. They had wanted to be dressed in their ceremonial armor, but not in their helms, as they had both hated wearing them. They had wanted a single boat for them to be burned in together. They had wanted snowleaf and willow flowers sprinkled over them, and the willow flowers had to be harvested from a particular grove by the Lake of Mimir.

Written by the specification of the grove was the note: Vali, please trust us when we say, you don’t want to know what happened under those trees. Vali, in all his wisdom as a new king, had decided to leave the matter alone.

But when deciding which weapons to place with them in the boat, there were no instructions. So Vali chose them himself. For Loki, his favorite pair of daggers, and the scepter crowned with Norn Stones that he had sometimes used to augment his sorcery.

But he hadn’t told anyone what he was placing with Thor, so the servants completed the boat without it.

Once they had left, Hela watched Vali as he inspected the final presentation of the boat. It had been carved large enough for both Thor and Loki to lie flat, though their elbows still touched, and their heads were inclined toward each other.

Then, without looking up, Vali reached his hand toward the doorway.

Hela would have recognized the answering metallic whir anywhere. Mjolnir had long since accepted Vali as worthy of wielding her, and she sprang readily to his hand now.

Vali placed her in the boat, her handle folded in Thor’s grip. Only then did Hela ask, “You’re sure?”

Vali nodded as he surveyed his handiwork. “Gungnir is the weapon of Asgard’s kings. But Mjolnir has always belonged to him.”

Hela wouldn’t argue with that.

xxx

Hela didn’t let herself cry at the funeral. Every other member of her family broke down at some point. Thrud, Modi, and Thrym did when the boat was carried out of the palace. Sleipnir, Fenrir, and Magni did when the archers loosed their arrows. Vali and Jorm did when the fiery boat disappeared over the falls.

Hela clutched them close when they needed it. But she didn’t shed a single tear. Maybe the whispers about her were true, that being the Goddess of Death had numbed her emotions. Maybe she really was dead inside.

Her experience at the feast afterward supported that theory. Every skald’s tale about her parents, every song from the bards and eulogy from the other lords and visiting monarchs, all left her feeling hollow.

Once the official memorial duties ended, and all in attendance started honoring Thor and Loki’s memories by throwing the biggest party this side of Svartalfheim, Hela swept away from the hall.

She went to her old bedchamber. Though she’d slept in here the last eight nights, it didn’t feel like hers anymore. Even though it had been kept just as she liked it, which was probably her mother’s doing.

But now, with her parents’ funeral behind her, she felt it appropriate to ask the Norns her burning question about Thor and Loki's death.

She drew the shimmering green runes in the air as she whispered the spell. But when the answering runes were revealed in their place a few seconds later, her confusion only grew.

Before she could rephrase the question, however, her bedchamber door opened behind her. She quickly waved away the half-drawn runes. “You realize you are interrupting the Queen of the Dead?” she snapped. “Do you wish to become one of my newest subjects?”

“Not really, I just inherited subjects of my own,” came the sardonic reply.

She released her breath, and turned to face Vali. “What are you doing away from the feast?”

He managed a half-grin as he shut the door behind him. “I was going to ask you the same question.”

A fair point, she supposed. Maybe that was why, when Vali’s eyes looked past her shoulder to the last of the dispersing green seidr, she answered him honestly. “I was asking a question to the Norns about Mother and Father.”

He looked surprised. “What about them?”

She turned away, back to where the runes had been. “I don’t understand why they ended up where they did.”

There was a pause, before Vali said, “So they did go to Valhalla.”

Hela’s eyes widened. She snapped a look back to Vali, startled at her mistake in telling him that.

“Don’t worry,” Vali said. “Technically you didn’t tell me outright. I just inferred it. The Norns won’t be upset with you.”

“Easy for you to say,” Hela muttered. But she realized he was probably right. She didn’t feel any impending retribution in the threads of Yggdrasil.

“What was their answer?” Vali asked.

Hela sighed. “They just gave me five different names.” When all she got from Vali was an expectant silence, she listed them: “Laufey Jarrson. Helblindi Laufeyson. Byleistr Laufeyson. Odin Borson. And Svadilfari Gyllirson.”

Vali’s eyes listed to the side in thought. He went to sit down at one of the chairs at Hela’s breakfast table. “So, both our grandfathers, Mother’s two brothers, and…that sorcerer.” He spat out the last word. Hela agreed with the sentiment.

“That is a puzzle,” Vali continued, as Hela went to half-lean, half-sit on the table near him. “I know they were all terrible men, but Mother and Father didn’t die in battle with them.”

Hela’s eyes widened. Oh.

“Yes, they did,” she said.

Vali looked up to her. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, it makes sense now.”

“What?”

She looked down at him. “Mother and Father were hurt by each of them, in their own ways. They were locked in battle with those wounds their entire lives.”

Vali looked like he was starting to understand. He smiled. “So they won by living a happy life, in spite of them. Earning them a place in Valhalla together.” He laughed. “Our parents’ love is certainly poetic.”

“A tale for the ages,” Hela said. “We should write it all down, and sell it in three volumes. We’d make a fortune for the crown.”

Vali laughed at that. “You and I can start a first draft together while we plan my coronation.”

Hela’s short-lived joy faltered. She looked away.

“Hela?”

“You know I can’t be at your coronation.”

A pause. “Why ever not?”

She dared to look back to his questioning gaze. “Because I am the queen of another realm. Monarchs never attend another’s coronation. It could appear as if they will have influence over the new ruler.”

Vali just raised his eyebrows at her, not at all convinced. “I know that’s the custom. And that would all be valid, were it not for the fact that you’re my sister. And you walked away from the line of succession in Asgard to take up another realm’s seat. You’re no foreign ruler meddling in Asgard’s affairs. And even if you wanted to influence my reign, I would welcome it.” He elbowed her side. “You’re my little sister.”

Her breath caught at his last words. Her eyes started to sting. She quickly rubbed them with the back of her hand.

But Vali had already seen. He stood up, a hand on her arm. “Hela, what is it?”

She shook her head as more tears began to fall. “You know-” -she sniffed- “-you’re the only one who gets to call me that.”

“What?”

“Little sister.”

Vali’s face softened. “Oh.”

A sob forced its way out of her. Then another. She’d forced them down for nine days, and now they weren’t going to stop.

Vali’s arms were around her before she knew what was happening. “It’s okay,” he whispered, “I’ve got you.”

Hela broke down, clinging to her older brother with all her considerable strength. He held her just as tightly. “I miss them,” she sobbed. “I miss our parents. I miss them so much.

“I know,” Vali murmured, his own voice thick with impending tears. “I miss them, too.”

Hela cried hard and long into her brother’s shoulder. Anywhere else it would have been embarrassing. But here, in her childhood bedchamber with only her brother as her witness, it could be allowed.

When her tears subsided, she loosened her hold on Vali. He did the same. Though he drew back enough to look upon her face, Hela avoided his gaze.

But he didn’t seem to mind, for he didn’t comment on it. He just said, “We were damn lucky to have the parents we had.”

Hela just nodded. She sniffed deeply, realizing she’d snotted all over her upper lip (and Vali’s shoulder.) She conjured a handkerchief to wipe it away from her face.

“We were lucky,” she agreed, “though it came with a few drawbacks.”

“What do you mean?”

She shrugged. “Our parents’ love meant they couldn’t stop having children. Mother must not have gone on birth control until after his eighth baby.”

Vali laughed. “But what’s wrong with that? You love Thrud, and all the others.”

“Yes,” said Hela, “but with a family that large, and so varied in ages, the oldest siblings have to look out for the youngest. Do you know Thrud once called me ‘Mama’ when she was a baby?”

Vali smirked. “To be fair, you do look exactly as Mother would if he were a woman. The eyes, hair, cheekbones, everything.”

Hela breathed a laugh at that. It wasn’t a new idea to her; growing up, everyone commented on how she’d taken after her mother in her looks. Mother himself would mention it on occasion.

“That’s not the point,” she said. “And I love Thrud, and all the others, more than anything in the universe. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be envious of their position, getting taken care of all the time. Don’t you?”

Vali shrugged with an apologetic smile. “Not at all. I’ve always enjoyed taking care of the little ones.” He looked down. “Maybe part of it was because I thought, if I could be a good older brother, I would be a good king.”

While it stung at first to hear Vali's utter lack of commiseration with her, the hurt evaporated at his last statement. “Vali, you know that’s not true,” she said softly. “Neither of those things are dependent on the other.”

“I know,” he said. “But I’ve always liked being the one my younger siblings could depend on.” He looked her square in the eye. “All my younger siblings.”

A warm grin spread onto Hela’s face. Though she and Vali had gone through their rough patches in the past, she had always yearned for the moments when he would take her under his wing. Even now, when they were each just over four thousand years old, edging past the prime of their lives, each rightful monarchs of their own realms. She still cherished having that older caretaker.

That role used to encompass Mother and Father, of course. But they were gone now, so Vali was all she had.

Vali put a hand on her shoulder. “Stay for my coronation,” he pleaded. “And not as a queen. As my little sister.”

Her eyes met his, and all resistance at the idea melted away. She nodded.

He broke into a wide smile, so reminiscent of their father’s. His blue eyes even twinkled the same way.

He hugged her again. “Thank you, Hela,” he said. “Thank you, little sister.”

She returned the embrace, resting her head on his shoulder. His words etched themselves in her memory forever, to call upon when she needed strength or comfort.

For the next few weeks, she could set her burdens aside. The people of Niflheim, and the dead souls in Hel, would still be there when she returned.

But for now, she didn’t have to be a queen. She could just be a daughter of Thor and Loki, an older sister of six princes and princesses.

And the little sister of a king.