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A King's Work

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Threaded throughout the many fine memories of Thor's long golden youth (fighting, drinking, brawling, hunting, more fighting, boyish capers with Loki, a little judicious pillaging here and there), there are those like this:

"When a king ascends to the throne, he ceases to be a man and becomes an avatar of his people's will. Are you listening, Thor?"

"Yes, father." He is paying less than half his mind to the lessons; he is thinking mainly of the bilgesnipe hunt he plans for tonight with the Warriors Three, and wondering if Loki can be pried from his books and convinced to come with them.

"There is no place in a king's heart for weakness that serves the self. No place for boyish pastimes such as bilgesnipe hunts," his father says, and Thor jerks guiltily out of a pleasant reverie of his arrows seeking the beast's six hearts. Odin smiles, his face indulgent. "Enjoy them now while you can. You will miss these childish pleasures one day. A king may lead a hunt, but his arrows must always find their mark. He must not show weakness or pain, doubt or fear. Those are failings for lesser men, my son."

"Is it true, Father?" Thor asks.

"Is what true?"

"That you don't feel pain or doubt or fear."

Odin only smiles, and turns the conversation to other lessons.

 

Odin was many things, when he lived. Thor no longer sees his father through the glowing eyes of childhood; he recognizes now that Odin was both a good king and a poor one, a good father and a poor one. He was a harsh disciplinarian when needed, and sometimes when not; he was the man who exiled his favorite son to another realm to learn to be a good king. And Thor did learn that lesson, and appreciates it more than he can say, and resents it still.

Everything Thor knows of being a king now, he learned from his father. He tries to sift through the lessons, take what is useful and discard what is not.

He used to imagine, in his youth, the day he would ascend to the throne. He always pictured cheering masses, mountains of food, and gold glittering everywhere in the halls of Asgard. He imagined himself triumphant, benevolent, and wise, standing at the head of his people as the god-avatar his father always told him he would grow to be.

But life runs roughshod over fantasies. This is a lesson his father never taught; he has learned it at the knee of life instead, learned in a hundred small ways over the years -- but never has it been so profoundly demonstrated as now. He grew up knowing that his destiny is to be king, but he never dreamed that it would be his lot in life to take the throne over an exhausted and broken people, while exhausted and broken himself.

In his people's most desperate hour, he finds himself falling back on his father's lessons because he must. There is simply so much. Every moment of every day finds a thousand small tasks that need doing. Food must be rationed and distributed, quarters allocated, disputes settled. And through it all, the most important thing is that Asgard still has a king. Never in all the tests of his youth was he tested like this. He thinks his old tutors, and perhaps even his parents, would never recognize him now. The hotheaded prince is now the calm king, struggling to keep his face impassive even while presiding over the most trivial of disputes. His remaining eye burns with exhaustion he will not show, and the socket aches with dry and never-ending pain.

But he will not fail. He will not let them down. He will stand up straight even when pain and exhaustion sink claws into his chest; he will soothe their fear with calm, and answer their doubts with confidence.

If he is nothing else, if he has nothing else, he will not be a bad king. He owes his people that.

 

*

 

"You look terrible, brother," Loki mutters in the dining hall, as Thor takes a moment to snatch a bun in passing. The cooking rota is cranking along nicely now, and as he takes a bite by rote (tasting it no more than if it were made of sawdust), he makes a series of mental notes to check and make sure that Alfhild and Knut's rivalry in the kitchen isn't going to cause everything to unravel, and also that their flour supply isn't being depleted too quickly to last until the first Xandarian station where they can resupply, and he really should check on that recurring space weevil issue ...

Loki's dry comment sinks in eventually, and: "So does your face," he answers on pure instinct. Loki looks startled and then amused.

Thor has little attention to spare, these days, for the puzzle that is Loki. He only knows that Loki has chosen to stay on the refugee ship, at least for now, and he cannot help being grateful for it. He tries not to delegate much to Loki, knowing that way lies disappointment, but there is something about the glimpses of black and green in a crowd, the swirl of Loki's cloak at the edge of his vision, that gives him much-needed energy.

He likes having his brother here.

As Thor starts to turn away, Loki's narrow hand catches his arm and pulls him back. Thor gives him a look.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, let alone complaining about this, but your normal 'brick shithouse' physique is looking a little attenuated," Loki says. "Have another roll. Have twelve. Sit and talk awhile."

Thor pulls his arm away. He's too tired, too cored out and aching to think around enough corners to figure out what Loki is planning now. "Take your games elsewhere, brother. I am busy."

"You know, if I wanted to play games," Loki begins in a tone that makes Thor lose his appetite for the remaining half of the bun; it's a tone that means trouble. But then Loki just ... stops, and looks at Thor with an odd expression. "You are the worst," Loki says in the same light, conversational tone.

"Thank you," Thor says dryly. He tries to push past Loki,. Shoving him out of the way shouldn't take as much effort as it currently seems to; he wonders if Loki also has the ability to increase his mass. Somehow that seems like him.

"I just don't understand it," Loki says as he slides to the side, feet unmoving on the floor, as Thor relocates him. "What is it about your lunkheaded devotion to duty that is so contagious? I could be making life so much more, shall we say, interesting for every last man, woman, and child on this ship, but do you want to know what I spent the last half-cycle doing? Do you? Ow, that's my arm."

"No," Thor says wearily, "but I'm sure you're going to tell me."

"I was cleaning the air filters," Loki declares in a tone of deep disgust. "It is boring. It is dusty. I absolutely loathe it. If I could have found a dozen small children to do it instead of me, I would have happily done so."

Thor tries to dredge up the details of the filter-cleaning rota from the depths of his exhausted brain. Did he actually put Loki on filter-cleaning duty? If so, why? That was a terrible idea. He's slipping. "At least if the entire ship ends up high on hallucinogenic spores, I'll know why," he says, realizing only after the fact that apparently he's so tired that the connection between his mouth and brain has become somewhat tenuous. He really is going to have to watch that.

Loki pulls away from Thor's loose grip, which is the first time Thor realizes he's still holding onto him. "I am going to go play a cruel prank on someone. It's the only way to set the universe back to rights." He spins around in a swirl of dark-green cloak. "And eat something!" he snaps, a second before a currant-studded bun bounces off Thor's face.

Thor catches it and decides to eat it because it's actually easier at this point to stuff it into his mouth than to put it down.

He feels as if he missed some important subtext in that conversation.

 

*

 

He's in the middle of trying to adjudicate a violent dispute between competing would-be winners of the First Annual Shipwide Hnefatafl Tournament (what even) when Brunnhilde stomps up to the plank table where the carved wooden hnefatafl pieces are scattered, and drops a platter of dried meat and an enormous flagon in front of him.

Thor catches the flagon to stop it from spilling. What he thought at first was mead turns out to be water. "What is this?"

"Food," she says flatly.

"Yes, I understand that, but --"

Brunnhilde hops onto the table in front of him. The hnefatafl players leave off trying to out-shout and out-stab each other and stare at her.

"Leave," she declares. "Your king needs a moment with his close advisor for a matter of state."

"... Valkyrie," Thor begins.

"He captured my king through base trickery and cheating!" one of the players snaps. Thor is pretty sure her name is Gunnborg.

"My pieces were scattered by her elbow; I was merely compensating for --"

"She wins," Brunnhilde declares, pointing at Gunnborg.

"My king --!"

Thor opens his mouth to ask both of them to restate their cases so he might choose between them. And then realizes that Brunnhilde is right. He has to make a decision. Both of them have a reasonable case and are also petty, squabbling fools.

"She is right. Gunnborg wins the tournament. Leave."

The players collect their game pieces and clear out. Thor sinks his face into his hands. "Why are you here?" he says out of the corner of his mouth.

"I'm here because, given current conditions, it's in no one's best interests if the king works himself into a state of collapse," she says bluntly. Thor raises his head to find that she is now sitting crosslegged on the table and stealing a piece of meat off the tray in front of him. The thought occurs to him that she and Loki have been spending far too much time together lately.

"I'm not going to do that." But having the food in front of him makes him realize that he is, in fact, ravenously hungry. Through a mouthful, he goes on, "I'm the King of Asgard and the God of Thunder. I'm resilient."

Brunnhilde rolls her eyes. "I know that. We all know that. But we aren't all going to die if you go off duty for a few minutes to get some sleep."

"We nearly ran into a sun yesterday."

"Okay ... so not everyone on this ship is good at steering. We all now agree that Korg is not allowed on the bridge."

"The point is," Thor says quietly, "there's always something like that. I can rest on Earth."

"Which, in my understanding, we're still months away from. More than that if we keep stressing the engines until something breaks." She frowns and steals another piece of dried meat. "Which isn't a bad metaphor for your current state."

"Why does everyone keep acting as if I look like the walking dead? I do not." He has been working hard on it, in fact. There's nothing that can be done about the eyepatch and hair, but part of being a king is presenting himself well. And that includes keeping the exhaustion off his face, never allowing his shoulders to slump.

He's slumped right now, draped over the table in fact, but he had assumed it would be all right since Brunnhilde is the only person to see. He makes an attempt to straighten his shoulders.

"You're haggard," she says quietly. "And your wounds still pain you a great deal. You're right, I don't think the majority of the people on this ship have noticed. But to those who know you, it is obvious."

The most annoying thing about all of this is that he suspects she's got a point. Also, he doesn't think she would have come up with most of this on her own; she hasn't known him that long, but one person on the ship has. "Have you been talking to Loki? He may have ulterior motives, you know."

"Surprisingly few of them where you're concerned," she says, which isn't a no. "As you said, you're the God of Thunder, which means you can keep going a lot longer than most of us. But even you can't run on no sleep and very little food indefinitely --"

There's a brisk knock on the door. "My king? I'm sorry to intrude, but there's a situation on the maintenance levels -- sewage everywhere --"

"On my way," Thor says, straightening his shoulders and attempting to assume a kingly mien. "Duty calls," he adds to Brunnhilde. A particularly unpleasant duty, from the sound of things. He pushes away the tray, having lost his appetite.

"Delegate!" she whispers fiercely at him. "You're a king, not a plumber!"

"True, but regrettably, much of the vital equipment on this ship is too heavy for anyone else to lift." Asgardians, on the whole, are incredibly strong by Midgard standards, but the ship is meant to be repaired in a shipyard with maintenance haulers, not on the fly in deep space. "Anyway, the people should see their king on the site of an equipment failure so they know the situation is handled and there is nothing to fear."

"You know, Loki isn't wrong about you," she says to his back as he strides away. "You are the most stubborn man I've ever met, and I've been dealing with the Hulk."

 

*

 

He is able to ignore the dizzy spells, at first. It's not that he's trying to work himself to exhaustion. He knows that he needs food and sleep, particularly since his body is still healing from the damage sustained in the fight with Hela. It is only that there's always something else: another dispute, another question, another equipment failure.

Thor has reserves of strength and energy unmatched by any mortal and even by most of his own people. He has never actually pushed himself to the limits of it, at least not in this particular way. Fighting is different. This sustained need to keep going, to show no weakness, to be all that his people need him to be -- it strains him in a way he has never known.

And he is as surprised as anyone when it just ... runs out.

 

*

 

He doesn't actually remember passing out. The first thing he's aware of is low voices nearby.

"He actually just keeled over." Loki's voice sounds half incredulous, half amused. "I wish I had been there to see that."

"Yes, well, if you had, you could have helped me drag him." Brunnhilde's tone is tart. "He's not exactly small, you know."

"Oh, trust me, I'm more aware of that than most."

Thor opens his eyes and realizes he's not entirely sure where he was. He's lying on something soft, with a curtain cutting him off from the rest of the room and enclosing him into comfortable darkness. It isn't his quarters, not that he's spent much time there. Space on the ship is at a premium, and the rooms he assigned himself are being used mainly for storage at the moment.

"Are you telling me he literally hasn't slept at all since we left Asgard?" Brunnhilde's voice comes closer.

"Not that I'm aware of."

"How is that even possible?"

"He's Thor," Loki says dryly.

The curtain draws back and lamplight falls on him. "You're an idiot," Brunnhilde declares.

Thor pushes himself up on his elbows. He is thirsty, and terribly weak. "Where am I?" he asks hoarsely.

"My room." Loki appears behind her like a shadow. "Where someone brought you without asking."

It's quite a nice suite, now that he can see beyond the curtain. He's pretty sure he didn't assign Loki anything this size. He decides to be charitable and not mention it.

He also needs to get back to ... whatever he was doing before his body apparently decided to give him a catnap without asking. "This was most appreciated," he says, gritting his teeth and sitting up with a great force of will, "and now -- oof." He finds himself suddenly incapable of moving. "Loki!"

"Just a simple binding." Loki waggles his fingers and the stricture disappears, though Thor's limbs still feel like lead. "Must we have the Hulk come sit on you?"

"I have things I need to do," Thor says.

"You know," Brunnhilde remarks, "you would think nearly taking a header into the engines would make an impression on most people." Oh right, that's what he had been doing; the left thruster had been giving them trouble on jumps lately. He'd been holding parts in place for Bruce while the scientist worked on the engines and grumbled the entire time about being "not that kind of scientist."

"How is the --"

"The engine is fine. And Banner is fine."

"He called you," Thor says, resigned.

"No, I was wandering by and found him struggling with what I assumed for a moment was your corpse. You know what?" she says to Loki. "He's your brother and therefore, as far as I'm concerned, your problem. You can sit on him or do whatever you must. I promised to give sparring lessons in the training room and I'm late for it. I'll have someone bring some food by."

"Coward," Loki says, and she sticks out her tongue at him as she slips out the door.

There's a moment of silence. Thor considers whether he could take Loki in a wrestling match right now, if he tried to make for the door, and is very much afraid that he might not be able to. They might have a point about this whole "not sleeping and eating" thing.

"Are you going to get up?" Loki asks. He crosses to a sideboard and pours water from a crystal decanter. Thor is pretty sure they didn't have that when they left Asgard, or half the furnishings in this room, for that matter.

"No," he says meekly.

Loki hands him the water glass. Thor drains it and Loki refills it before saying, "I know I got all the common sense in the family, but must you prove it so often?"

"You got the common sense in the family? Do you really need me to make a list of all the --"

"That won't be necessary," Loki says quickly. He sits on the edge of the bed and, after a moment, reaches for a book. "Are you going to stay there?"

"Loki. I need to --"

"-- try to be our father?"

Our father, Thor thinks, the words catching in the sieve of his fatigue-dulled mind.

"You're not Odin," Loki says. "You don't have to be the kind of king he was. You can't. You're going to have to be your own kind of king."

"Like you were?" he can't help but say.

Loki's smile is thin as a blade, but laced with genuine amusement. "Yes, brother. Like I did. I am not a king for a warrior's age; I am a king for a peaceful age, an age of monumental architecture and government-sponsored investment in the arts."

"That sounds like a Midgardian concept."

"They have their moments, the Midgardians."

"You weren't a bad king," Thor says, feeling his way around the words, surprising himself.

"Damned with small praise. Be still my heart --"

"Loki. You did well. I am proud of you."

Loki is startled into silence, thin brows raised, and Thor thinks: if he had only known it was this easy to silence him years ago.

If being king has taught him one thing, it is that one must say what needs saying, however deep into one's soul one must reach for the words.

"Granted," honesty compels him to add, "I cannot condone the methods you used to obtain the throne. Faking your death, throwing our father into exile, taking on an assumed identity --"

"You could have stopped with 'Loki, I'm proud of you,'" Loki says, and he's smiling, a strange smile, one that sits uneasily on his face. It is a smile, Thor realizes with an odd jolt, that would have belonged better on the face of Loki the child, and he doesn't even know if Loki know it's there.

"The point is," Thor says, "I may not like how you came to the throne, but you were not a bad king, brother. I think it might have behooved me to remember that I had an advisor who had done before what I am now trying, badly, to do."

Loki stares at him, and Thor realizes he has disarmed him again, with words, for the second time in as many minutes. This is a pleasing record.

"You're not bad at it," Loki says after a minute. "Please don't force me to commit myself to public record, but this ship is running more smoothly under your leadership than I would have believed possible. That being said, if you intend to sacrifice your own life to the cause, I plan to tie you up, throw you into an escape pod, and set the coordinates for Sakaar."

"You wouldn't."

"Just try me."

"Do it and I will return the favor."

"You are the worst," Loki says, with a smile skirting the corners of his mouth.

"What say you, though? Will you offer me council, brother?"

"I ... will think about it," Loki says. "Contingent upon you getting at least six hours of sleep, no arguments."

Thor prepares to argue, looks at him, and realizes that Loki is expecting an argument and that attempts will only dig him deeper. "Fine," he says, and sinks beneath the furs on the bed.

"Well, that was surprisingly easy," Loki says. His hand settles on Thor's forehead, cool and firm. "Will you be well, brother?" And it's gentle, and it's genuine, and it's something that they haven't had for a long time.

"I will be," Thor says just as quietly, and he thinks it might be true. The thing he is slowly beginning to understand is that his father never trusted anyone, except, perhaps, Mother, but he doesn't have to live like that. One does not have to be alone to be king.

"Would you like some help with your sleep?"

"I ... suppose," Thor says cautiously, and then it occurs to him how much this means, that Loki is asking his permission for a sleep spell. "Yes. Six hours?"

"You could use more, but I suppose. I'll wake you when food arrives, if it ever does."

"And if there are issues of state while I sleep --"

"Oh, that won't be a problem," Loki says lightly. "I'll just change myself to look like you and handle things while you get some rest."

"-- wait, what --"

"Good night," Loki declares cheerily, and his hand sweeps across Thor's brow and waves him into sleep.

Thor's second-to-last thought is that when he wakes up, he is going to first of all strangle Loki and second, string him behind the ship in an escape pod and let him live there for a couple of days as a lesson.

His last thought is that he actually trusts Loki to take care of them all, and the intensity of that conviction is the last thing he remembers before warm darkness wraps around him and pulls him down.