The great hall of Asgard was alive. Every single sconce in the wall held a fresh torch, its light reflected and magnified a thousandfold by the gold that seemed to be everywhere. It shone where it nestled with gemstones in long, lustrous locks, danced over the hilts of swords and spears, and dazzled when it struck armbands, table lamps, and braziers. But gold wasn’t the only thing to see, not by a long shot. There were rich velvets, sleek silks and satins, and cloth of every color of the rainbow, along with furs and leather, for Asgard’s men and women were all decked out in their finest tonight.
It was the first night of the solstice, a night to feast, to sing and dance, to laugh in the face of winter and its vain belief that it could ever get the better of them. The long tables filled with food, the lively music the rich sweets, the honeyed mead, and the bards’ tales all served the same purpose - to bolster the people’s spirits and remind them that they were Aesir, that they would triumph over all, just as they always had. War and famine might come, but they would be turned back, for they had the greatest king to lead them, the mightiest weapons and the strongest warriors. Secure in their place in the universe, all of Asgard celebrated.
Well, almost all.
Loki didn’t know the man who sat at the last table in the hall, but that wasn’t cause for alarm. He didn’t know all that many people outside the palace and the guard, and while the man was clearly a warrior, he didn’t wear the regalia of the Einherjar. He seemed too big and bulky to really be content as a scholar, and he wasn’t dressed richly enough to be a merchant, so he must be a mercenary. Or perhaps... perhaps he was a lone hero, one who slew dragons and bested entire armies single-handedly?
Yes, that must be it. He looked like a hero, like he’d somehow walked right out of one of Thor’s books. Loki edged a little closer, trying to get a better look at him without drawing any attention to himself. He was supposed to be in bed, or at least in his quarters, enjoying a private feast with Thor. It was their own solstice ritual, a way they’d found to make being excluded from the evening’s revelry bearable - Thor would charm the kitchen maids into bringing them a second supper with tidbits from the downstairs table, and they would trade stories and spin dreams for their future.
It was the stories that had convinced Loki to slip out and creep downstairs. He wasn’t going to stay, not with his brother waiting for him, but he wanted to hear some of the bards’ tales, wanted to carry them back upstairs to Thor. But now he had something even better - he had a real, live hero to tell Thor about! His brother would like this even more than the Saga of the Valkyries, Loki was sure of it. Although...
Were heroes always like this man? Loki would’ve expected him to be at the center of a table, surrounded by food and drink, with women and men alike vying for his attention, but instead he sat alone in a dark corner far from the feast. He stared intently at the celebration, watching both Father and Mother with a strange expression on his face. Loki didn’t believe he meant them any harm - not that anyone could hurt Father, but the way the man watched them was unnerving.
Loki crept closer, trying to both figure the man out and memorize everything he could about him so that he could tell Thor all about the hero that had found his way to their hall. Even though the man was sitting, Loki could tell that he was tall enough to tower over most, and he was far more thickly muscled than most of the Einherjar. He kept his hair short, which only made him all the more markedly different from the Aesir all around him, and he bore the marks of a fresh battle - cuts littered his bare arms, with blood visible at the edges of his vambraces.
It was the blood that led Loki to take a step closer. “Are you hurt?”
His question must have startled the man, because he turned his head quickly to look at him, only for his face to turn white when he saw Loki. Frowning, Loki took another step towards him. “We have healers if you need them,” he informed him.
For a moment, Thor could only stare at the child before him. Loki. There was no mistaking those fine, elfin features, and if he’d had any doubt that it was indeed his brother, a tiny purple head peeked out from behind his back, tongue flickering quickly in the air. “Jormun,” he said softly, barely restraining himself from reaching out to touch, to run his finger over the small snake’s head and feel those smooth scales once more.
Loki frowned and crossed his arms over his chest, and it was only then that Thor realized that he hadn’t yet answered his brother’s question. “I don’t need a healer.”
“But you’re hurt,” Loki pointed out, and Thor followed his gaze, glancing down at the blood on his vambrace. Stark had tried to tell him that he should wait long enough to wash up, to make himself presentable enough that he wouldn’t draw comment, and it would seem that, once again, his friend had been right. But Thor had been in too much of a hurry to see his friends, his family, his home, and most of all, his Loki again, to listen. He hadn’t wanted to risk Stormbreaker’s newfound ability to transcend space and time slipping away from him while he bathed and changed his clothes.
“Not mine,” he said, and it was both a relief and a surprise to hear his voice growing steadier with every moment. Indeed, most of the blood was either others’ or minor scratches that didn’t bear mentioning. “I would’ve washed up before the feast, but I arrived late and didn’t wish to miss anything.”
He watched his brother’s eyes narrow, and knew that he was being scrutinized, his story examined for any inconsistencies. The adult version of Loki would likely have pushed the point, demanded Thor tell him whose blood it was, where he’d been, and why he’d been late to the great solstice feast, but the child, for all his perception, was more trusting, and nodded. “You can wash up in my bath if you want,” he offered generously. “I share with my brother, but he won’t mind.”
Oh, Loki, if you only knew. Thor swallowed past the tightness in his chest that came with hearing Loki talk so easily of his brother and forced a smile. “You might be surprised,” he said quietly. “I know I shared many things with my brother -” Everything he ever asked, and would gladly have given him the rest if he’d so much as indicated an interest in it. “- but I never quite learned to share him or what was ours with any others.”
“Is he older or younger than you?” Loki asked, eager as all children were to mine for the details that mattered to them.
“”Younger, and sometimes he thought that meant I believed him weaker or inferior.” And to Thor’s eternal shame, back when he’d been that foolish, arrogant young prince that was no doubt waiting in their shared quarters for Loki’s return, heedlessly self-assured of his brother’s love for him and unaware of what a great gift both love and brother were, he’d sometimes shared in those assumptions. “But he was wrong, you know. There were some things he was even better at.”
Loki’s eyes widened, although Thor couldn’t say whether it was from the thought of a younger brother bettering an older sibling, or the older brother admitting it. “Like what?”
“Magic. He was a sorcerer of unparalleled skill,” Thor told him proudly. “I never saw him beaten in a contest of equals.” He wondered, sometimes, if the Midgardian wizard had known just how lucky he’d been that his little party tricks had caught them both unawares. “And wordplay. He could charm a bilgesnipe into laying down at his feet if he wanted to. They said he had a silver tongue, and he used it often to get both of us out of trouble.”
For a long minute, his brother said nothing, and Thor wondered if he’d somehow made a mistake and given himself away. Surely Loki hadn’t earned his Silvertongue title so young, that he would recognize himself in Thor’s description? Then, he asked, “Why do you keep saying ‘he was’ a sorcerer and a charmer?”
Thor’s heart broke just a little bit more. Loki, damn you, you always did see far too clearly. He briefly considered trying to claim that his brother had moved on to different pursuits, become more of a warrior than a mage, before discarding the idea. While Loki might have been a god of lies and deceit, Thor had only successfully lied to him once, and then only because he had the strong suspicion that Loki wanted to believe him. So he took a deep breath and forced the words out. “Because he’s no longer among the living, little one.”
“I’m sorry,” Loki said quietly. It was the same phrase that all the Avengers had offered upon hearing of Loki’s death, from Steve to Natasha to Stark, but only now did it truly threaten to rend his heart in two. “How did he -”
“Saving my life.” Thor shook his head, then tried again. Because that wasn’t right. Loki had done so very much more than that. “Saving all of us, really. He was - it was a hero’s death. A good death.”
Green eyes studied him solemnly, and Thor knew Loki’s magical studies had only just begun, but perhaps his brother’s ghost had made the trip back with him and spoke to his younger self, because it seemed as though the two of them were suddenly removed from the great hall and the feasting around them. “A good death seems small consolation for the loss of a brother,” Loki offered.
The words were wise beyond his years, but Thor didn’t care. Whether somehow his own Loki counseled him through this small self or whether this solemn child had always been hidden away within the youngster he remembered, it didn’t matter. “True, indeed. And I would give -” his voice cracked, but he made no attempt to hide the tears that threatened. “- almost anything if I could just -.”
Loki reached out to lay a hand on his sleeve, and whatever else Thor might have said, whatever ill-advised wish or prayer he might have offered to any listening deity, they caught in his throat as hot tears slid down his cheeks. He fully expected Loki to leave him alone with his grief, but instead the boy moved forward, hands reaching up to curve around the back of Thor’s neck. It had to be coincidence that he put his hands right where Thor was wont to set his own on Loki’s neck, that one spot that always said brother and comfort and love to both of them, or so Thor told himself. If it wasn’t coincidence, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know, because sooner or later, he would have to leave this hall and this Loki and return to his life where both were lost to him.
For now, though... for now he let Loki ease him forward while his hands blindly grasped Loki’s arms, holding on tightly as though he could somehow summon his older self back from the grave with the sheer force of his need for him. For now he let himself cry, let himself actually grieve and give in to the pain, let himself acknowledge and ache with how very much he missed his brother. Loki said not a word, merely stood fast and held him until a voice said calmly, “I believe you were sent to bed several hours ago, my son.”
There was no disobeying that measured speech; there never had been. Thor swallowed hard and sat back, reluctantly releasing Loki and forcing a smile despite the tears he knew both of them would still be able to see on his cheeks. “Your father’s spoken, little one. Time for bed.”
“In a minute, Father,” Loki said, never taking his eyes off Thor. “I need to say farewell to my new friend.”
Odin didn’t move, obviously intending to stay until Loki had followed his order. Loki reached back behind him, then held his hand out to Thor. “Here. I know he can’t make up for not having your brother, but you shouldn’t be alone. His name’s -”
“Jormungandr,” Thor said quietly, holding his hand out to allow the small purple snake to slide over to wrap around his wrist as he had so many times throughout his memory. “I’ve heard many tales of this fearsome creature, you know. And yet he seems like a good friend.”
Loki nodded. “He is.” He smiled shyly at Thor. “Maybe you could come back sometime and tell me some of those stories?”
“I believe our guest will be leaving soon,” Odin said, and there was no mistaking those words for anything but a command. “You’ll have to create your own stories starring your pet, my boy.”
Considering that it was Loki who had told him all the stories in the first place, Thor knew that was exactly what he’d do. “A good idea,” he agreed. Loki turned to go, but Thor couldn’t bear to see him walk away, not knowing this was the last time he’d ever see him. Not without - His hand shot out to catch Loki’s wrist. “Wait,” he said desperately. “Loki, listen to me. This is important, and I need you to remember it, no matter what happens.” He waited for Loki to nod, although he could tell from his wide eyes and white face that he was frightening the child. “Your brother loves you. You have to remember that always. Promise me that. No matter what, all right?”
He could see Loki’s fear vanish in an instant as he laughed. “Of course he does.” He eased his wrist out of Thor’s grip and shook his head. “Silly hero. As if I’d ever forget that Thor loves me.”
Except that he had. But Thor couldn’t say that, so he just nodded and watched Loki hug Odin and hurry out of the hall. Then he looked up at the Allfather, who had lost all traces of the indulgent father and was now every inch Asgard’s king. “I will not apologize for my presence here tonight,” he said quietly. “I am Asgardian and therefore have a right to be here. But I will not trouble you any longer.”
As ever, his father surprised him. “On the contrary. I wouldn’t think of questioning your right to attend the festivities. But I would ask a few moments of your time before you leave.” He turned around. “Walk with me.” Without waiting for an answer, he strode towards the doors that led out of the hall - and right down to the vault.
Thor was left with little choice but to follow. Once they were alone, he asked, “Is this where I’m imprisoned for touching one of the princes?”
“You had no evil intent,” was the calm response. “That was easy enough to see. But the magic that you used was rather unstable, and I’d prefer that Loki not be exposed to quite so much chaos energy so young.”
Magic? Chaos energy? Thor frowned. “I’m not - I don’t know what you mean,” he argued, while at the same time a faint, futile hope began to rise. Had Loki’s ghost somehow managed to come with him? Was he trying to raise enough power from his younger self or Asgard itself to resurrect himself? Was it even possible? “My brother was the -”
“The mage, yes,” his father agreed. “But the spell you cast to remove you and my youngest son from the hall was one that a sorcerer of his skill would have mastered long ago, and yours was far clumsier.” He paused for a moment. “Almost as though you didn’t even realize you were doing it.”
“I didn’t,” he said woodenly. “I always thought I was - Magic was my brother’s speciality and I was -”
His father regarded him steadily, his one eye seeming to look right into him. “You were the warrior,” was his even comment. “And it was easy when you knew your place in the world.”
“Yes.” The word came out in a faint whisper. Thor had always know just where he stood. He was the might, the strong right arm that served the throne while Loki was the mind, the diplomat that would ease the way for the future. Together they would have been rulers to be reckoned with, but they’d never been given the chance to see what they could do. “It’s - I’m sorry. It’s been a long few years.”
“From the looks of you, that would seem to be an understatement. Would you care to tell me the story of how you lost your eye?”
Thor shook his head. “Call it a... family quarrel.” A small, mirthless smile formed, one he saw echoed on his father’s lips. “I’m sure you know all about those.”
The words were probably ill-thought, particularly here in a place where his father reigned in full strength and power, but Thor couldn’t help himself. Perhaps he was angrier about Hela than he liked to admit. He waited for his father to threaten him, much as he had before he’d cast him out, but instead, he merely nodded. “I do, indeed,” he agreed. “Just as I’m sure you know all about the hard decisions and burdens of kingship that can spark such quarrels.”
Thor’s shoulders slumped. “I never asked for this,” he told his father. “I mean, I did, but I didn’t know -”
“None of us do.” And if he’d been hoping for comfort or sympathy, it was clear he’d come to the wrong place. “We can’t. There is no way to comprehend what it truly means to be a king until you are one, and then it is too late to turn back.”
He didn’t waste time asking how his father recognized him as a king, not when he knew their time together would be limited. Right now all he wanted was guidance, some wisdom to take back with him to help him as he tried to lead his people and rebuild Asgard. “What can I do, then?”
One hand closed on his shoulder briefly and squeezed. “Go forward. It’s all any of us can do.”
Before Thor could ask how he was supposed to do that, he heard the hollow ring of Gungnir strike the floor and light burst around him. He had no chance to stop it as he was flung back into the Bifrost, sent tumbling along the pathways of space and time, and deposited in a heap on the lawn outside the Avengers compound.
“You keep this up and I’m seriously going to start having all the groundskeepers’ hate emails forwarded to you,” Stark informed him.
Thor got to his feet and looked down at the charred soil. “My apologies,” he forced out. “I will -” But he didn’t know what he could offer, so he just trailed uselessly off.
Stark waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. Ten percent bonus’ll take care of it. That’s not the important part.” He clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “So did it work like you thought it would? The whole... time travel thing?”
“It worked.” And Thor could practically see Stark chomping at the bit to ask him question after question about it, try to pick it all apart so he could find a way to do it himself. “Not now, Stark. I need - I can’t -” He held his hand up, then saw the small purple snake wrapped around it.
Jormungandr. His brother’s beloved pet. The same sweet little snake that had been Loki’s constant companion until he vanished. Loki had always refused to say where he’d gone or what had happened to him, but he’d told Thor one outlandish and amusing tale after another featuring Jormun and the two of them out to do heroic deeds and save the Nine Realms. The stories had been some of Thor’s favorites, along with those that had him alone as a hero straight out of the storybooks, dressed all in black and -
A dry sob ripped free as it all came crashing down on him. He could remember Loki telling him about the stranger that had to have been a hero, about how Thor would surely be like him when he was grown. The entire thing, the whole trip... it had all been for nothing. He’d changed nothing, only fulfilled the faint memory from his childhood that must have always been there. Like a reflection looking at itself, nothing could be changed, and he’d been an idiot to try.