Thor has already been banging his fist on the metal door to Loki's rooms for five minutes, when it eventually opens. It's dark inside, and much colder than the corridor. But Thor doesn't have to look for his brother. Loki is re-buckling his armour in front of the mirror, careful and unhurried.
"You are loud," he says slowly, without turning around. "And persistent."
"What were you doing?" Thor demands. "I've been calling you."
Loki's hands still. "Try to take over a kingdom once, and suddenly everyone is suspicious of your motives," he says waspishly.
Thor instantly regrets his harsh tone. He raises a hand, in apology. "I did not mean it like that. It is impatience, nothing more."
"Then Asgard is guilty of impatience often lately," Loki says. His distracted irritation is obvious enough that Thor's tempted to assume he interrupted something, but the rooms are empty. There is nothing in the darkness but Loki himself.
"I need your help," Thor tells him.
For a moment, Loki's reflection looks genuinely surprised. But it's gone before he turns to face him.
"I usually have to work harder, to encourage those words fall from your mouth."
Loki does not always help once they do, or helps in such a way to make things arguably worse than before. But Thor has not asked for anything since Loki returned, he has not pushed. For all that things between them have been strained, Thor's first instinct is still to go to Loki, with his troubles, always.
"This is different."
Loki shakes his head. "It is always different."
"It's easier if I show you," Thor says. He reaches out, and catches the bend of Loki's arm, before he can stop himself. It's an old gesture, familiar. Thor has never had cause to worry that it was unwelcome before. It unsettles him, that he has cause to now. He doesn't pull him, or tighten his grip. But neither does he move his hand. "Will you come?"
There's an arched eyebrow, and old shades of amusement and tease. Encouragement that this thing between them can be repaired.
Loki sighs. "I will come. If only to see what has left you in a fit of girlish distress."
"I am not in girlish distress," Thor huffs. He gives in to the urge to pull then, and Loki may be sharp, but he's narrow and light. He has no choice but to come, complaining bitterly and calling him an oaf, and Thor's driven to laughter, at how familiar it all is.
They leave the palace behind, the city, the high walls, and if Loki had not already guessed they were headed for Heimdall's domain it's a certainty now. Thor had not thought - curses himself for not thinking - that this may be the last place Loki wishes to be.
"I am almost certain that I am not welcome here," Loki says flatly. But there's no anger there, no fear. "If Heimdall murders me gruesomely, I shall hold you responsible."
"He would have to murder us both," Thor says simply, hand tight on Loki's shoulder. There's no reply to that, though he expects one. He tugs Loki behind one of the high curving pillars, that look down upon the golden room.
"There." Thor points.
There's a hexagonal table, far back from Heimdall's usual post. It's cut in gold, and obsidian. Heimdall is seated on one side, regal and inscrutable, Odin at the other, looking the very picture of a roguish, and dishevelled king. He is also very, very drunk. The table is piled high with cards, coins, and small golden discs, etched with writing.
Loki's noise of amusement is quick, and harsh. But Thor did not expect anything else, Loki has always found other's misfortune entertaining.
"I do not know what possessed him to play this game with Heimdall."
"Pride, most likely," Loki guesses.
"He's losing," Thor says angrily.
"I'm not surprised." Loki laughs. "Odin may be able to fight drunk, but he has never been able to make a sensible decision. Let him gamble away his riches. It will serve him right."
"He is losing considerably," Thor insists. "Things he can ill afford to lose."
Odin chooses that moment to lay both hands on the table, squinting at whatever permutation of cards he holds. Then squinting at the absence of golden discs, or coins on his side of the table.
"I wager my daughters."
"You have no daughters left," Heimdall says, frowning at his own hand.
"Someone else's daughters then," Odin proclaims angrily, with the air of a man who's certain he cannot lose.
"You cannot wager someone else's daughters," Heimdall says seriously, as if this is something that's come up before.
Odin thumps the table. "All daughters are my daughters!"
"It runs in the family you know," Loki says sympathetically. "If nothing else you have an old age of drunken insanity, and waging other people's daughters in ill-conceived games of chance, to look forward to."
Thor winces. "Loki, that is unkind. He is our father."
"He's your father," Loki protests, raising a hand as if to distance himself. "I fell far from that tree, as you well know."
Thor has not forgotten, Loki will not let him forget. It's a wound he keeps picking at. Though he is the one most harmed by it.
"You are still my brother, which means you have to help."
"The logic you use to draw conclusions honestly confuses me," Loki admits. He does not leave though, which is encouragement enough for Thor to plead his case.
"I cannot fix this alone. If I try there will be shouting, and overturned furniture, and someone's honour will be offended, and you will complain bitterly that if I had simply come to you -"
There's no smile on Loki's face, but Thor thinks there is one underneath, should he look hard enough.
"Stop trying to play me. You lack skill, it's embarrassing."
"Help me, before we find ourselves little more than tokens on that table."
"Damn you!" Odin yells suddenly.
One of Heimdall's golden arms is carefully pulling gold pieces to his side of the table. Thor decides that he's duty bound to take a wild stab at helping.
"Perhaps, we could disguise you as a woman again."
Loki stares at him, as if he's not entirely sure whether he's serious, or joking. Thor is uncertain which he eventually decides on.
"I see your planning abilities haven't improved noticeably in four hundred years."
Thor refuses to be offended. "I am not the one skilled in schemes, and subterfuge. I have strengths of my own."
Loki lifts a pale hand, and gestures elegantly towards the game. "Then, by all means, brother, go in there and knock them both out with your mighty hammer."
Even Thor knows that that will not end well. He lets his scowl speak for itself.
"I thought not," Loki says flatly. "Alas, you will be disappointed to know you will not get the opportunity to kiss me today."
Thor scowls at him. "Now you're mocking me," he says fiercely, because that does not happen every time, and there is always too much mead flowing.
"Only partly," Loki says with a smile. Then lifts both hands. "Come here."
Thor comes without question, and it's clear by Loki's expression that his obedience is unexpected, and not entirely approved of. Loki lays hands on his face. They're cool and firm. They shape to the curves of his skull, thumbs resting just below his eyes.
"Be still," Loki says firmly. "This will be harder if you fidget."
"What are you going to do?" Thor is more curious than worried.
"Would it not have been wiser to ask that before I had my hands on you?" Loki says, with a smile that's truly devious.
"Would you have told me?"
Loki simply smiles wider, and says nothing. Then, suddenly Thor is looking at his own reflection - no, not his own reflection, because the smile is familiar, and also higher. Thor lifts his hands, and finds them smaller, paler. Though they are still familiar.
"What have you done?" Thor answers his own question with the words, because he hears Loki's quiet demand instead of his own.
"I have not put you in my body, I have simply lent you my form for a time. Stay close to me, and do not speak. You're forbidden the use of my tongue, because you do not know how to use it properly."
"I know how to talk," Thor says, and it is disquieting to hear his words in his brother's voice. He has never heard Loki use that tone. Though the aggression is an uncomfortable reminder of events still recent and painful.
"You know how to make words, there's a difference."
"Cruelty does not suit me," Thor complains. He had always thought it wouldn't suit Loki either. But his brother has learnt it nonetheless. Or perhaps he has always known how, and simply chooses not to hide it any longer.
"And be glad of it. You are not pretty enough to be forgiven." Loki smacks his cheek, loudly, and it is such an odd sensation that Thor has to lift a hand to his own face, finds it smooth and curious.
Loki tugs his hand down. "Stop touching, and shut your mouth. Boredom will do. I don't think you can manage anything else."
"You think very little of my skills." Thor is offended this time, and he doesn't bother to hide it.
"I know your skills brother."
"That was not a compliment, I think." Thor struggles to be annoyed about that, because he's certain he should, but seeing Loki's expressions on his own face is...disturbing.
"When I compliment you, you may mark it down and celebrate it." Loki is already striding down towards the table, forcing Thor to follow, and Loki's body does not move like his own. It feels like an ill-fitting suit of armour, balance all wrong, or perhaps simply different. Thor forces himself to slow, to at least attempt the elegant stealth his brother seems to employ without trying.
Loki has already reached Odin, and is overdoing it terribly. Thor is neither so loud, nor ridiculous, and he does not smile at everything. Loki proclaims that he desires to play, in a voice so dramatic that Thor cannot see how anyone could believe it was him. He's fully prepared for their father to accuse them of trickery on the spot. But Odin simply claps him drunkenly on the back, and pulls in a chair for him. Heimdall nods to him.
Heimdall does not nod to Thor. He looks like he wants to murder him. It is a very unkind face.
Thor drifts to the seat beside Loki.
//Not so stern, you're making me look constipated.//
Thor obediently tries to relax his expression, into something he's seen his brother wear, when people around him are being particularly boring.
It is not so much a compliment as grudging acceptance.
"The ones with people on are important, you say?" Loki says around a handful of cards. His brother has him grinning like a fool.
Thor cannot see this ending well.
Loki looks far too pleased, his cape is straining at the edges, under the weight of golden discs. He's fingering his way through them, curiously. Thor is strangely annoyed by the ease with which he'd managed to acquire almost the entire table's bounty.
"He wagered mother's entire wardrobe. I do believe she would actually kill him for that. We should tell her." He spins the golden shape on his fingers.
"No, we should not," Thor says grumpily.
"And your armour, and my armour - exactly how much did Odin have to drink? Heimdall would have owned half of Asgard tomorrow."
Thor gives the collection a pointed look. Loki looks back, with all innocence.
"Give them to me."
Loki raises an eyebrow. "Are you sure that you do not intend to misuse them, brother. There are a great many relics, riches, and lives wagered here."
Loki smiles, and lets his fingers drift through the glitter of it. "Perhaps they would be safer with me."
"Dragons would not be safe with you," Thor says firmly, and he believes it. "You would have their golden hoards out from under them, before they could blow so much as a smoke ring."
Loki laughs. "I feel guilty for denying you compliments, when you gift me them constantly." He sighs dramatically, and hefts the weight in his cape, then tips every last coin, and golden disc into Thor's.
"Heimdall is not stupid, he will know what we did," Thor warns.
"Then he will have even more cause to want my head," Loki says, then shrugs carelessly, as though it has become far too easy to accept the ill will of other people. As though he expects it, or deserves it.
Thor lays a hand on his shoulder and draws him close.
"Thank you, brother," he says, with warmth.
"Have I not always attended to the problems of Asgard, to the best of my abilities," Loki says quietly.
He has, Thor knows, and the truth of it has never seemed so sharp.
"You have, even when they seem insurmountable, and should you ever need me, for anything, I will be there," he promises.
He cannot read Loki's face, but he thinks, somehow, that this strange blankness is more real than any false smile he might offer. He wants to tell Loki that he doesn't have to pretend. That he never has to pretend for him.
"Loki, come, have a drink with me?"
Loki doesn't bother to hide his lack of enthusiasm. "Why? So you can drink, and I can sit and watch?"
Thor throws up his hands. "Then we will go to your rooms, and read books instead. Or scheme nefarious plans, or whatever else would have you content. Simply tell me, for it's your company I desire more than anything else."
Loki frowns, as if unsure if he's serious. "You wish to find common ground?"
"I wish to find ground," Thor says fiercely. "I do not care where we find it."
Loki's cloak flutters in the wind.
"That was either very astute, or incredibly stupid," he says carefully.
"Let us assume the former," Thor says with a nod.