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The Straightest Path

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I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.



It never ceased to amaze him, Thor thought, how Loki managed to get under everybody's skin.

Already the sun had begun to set, and slowly the crowd that had gathered began to dissipate. Heimdall frowned and Hoder stood aghast, while the warriors three looked on, disgust plain on their faces: Loki emerged triumphant, amulet in hand, as the red and white flags above them caught the heat of the dry air.

"You dishonor us!" Sif said. She shoved past the crowd, glaring. "Using trickery and mage-craft, lies and deceit! You deserve not that amulet, which from us you stole!"

"My lady, you should not shout," Loki said. "I cannot help you your jealousy. If you please," and he made a motion, as if to move through the crowd. He walked past her; she lurched forward.

She spat on him. The crowd gasped. Volstagg's eyes widened and Fandral and Hogun yanked Sif back, face was red and and the veins in her neck and temples popping. "Sif! Calm yourself, lady!"

"I shall not calm myself!" Sif said. "Not while he stands and makes honor a mockery!"

Loki said nothing. Silently he stood, then wiped the saliva from his face, the dust from the scuffle kicked up by their boots. Sif glared and Thor whirled around, angrily.

"Sif! You speak of dishonor, now look what you do!" Thor said.

"Worry not, brother," Loki said. He stared at Sif pointedly. "She dishonors herself with her actions."

"Trickster wretch," Sif said. She jerked forward, Volstagg and Fandral yanking her back. Loki rolled his eyes.

"Come, brother," Loki said, and he swung the amulet idly, a boy swinging a ball on a string. "We should celebrate, you and I. For no one has touched this piece for a thousand years."




They called it the Vault of Impenetrability. Forged by the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim, the great iron doors stretched skyward, situated within the rocks of a craggy cliffside and the figures of heroes past sculpted in high relief. "Within this vault lies the Amulet of Truth," Hoder said. "It is said whoever holds it commands the earth and seas. But no one has ever before entered," Hoder said. "No one in a thousand years, save for one: Odin the All-Father, King of the realm."

"Why am I not surprised?" Fandral said and Volstagg sniggered. Sif rolled her eyes.

"Quiet," Thor said. "This is an age-old test. Sword and strength against impenetrable steel."

"The doors are iron, brother," Loki said. "Besides, if no one in a thousand years has penetrated it, I do not see why we should even bother."

"You bother," Hoder said, and the company's attention snapped forward, "because it is a test of your mettle. Of how you will do facing insurmountable odds."

"In other words, how long we bang at it until we give up," Fandral said. "What is it we have to do, anyway?"

"It is as we've said," Hoder said. "Take the amulet and claim your honor. If, indeed, you can."

Thor frowned. The day was hot and long and already a crowd started forming around them, seasoned warriors and brilliant scholars both, whispering amongst themselves and pointing at the door. "We shall draw lots," Hoder said, and he held out his helmet, scraps of paper folded neatly inside. "Each of you will try your utmost to reach the amulet before the sun sets. If you cannot," Hoder said, and he passed along the folded numbers, solemnly, "it is not a reflection of your worth as a warrior. Remember this," Hoder said, and the warriors nodded, gravely.

"I still do not see the point," Loki said, and Thor elbowed him against the shoulder.




They were drinking again, Fandral and Volstagg tossing back shots while Hogun glared, miserably.

"He didn't even go through the door!" Sif said. "He made a mockery of all of us. How can you let that pass? You are his brother," Sif said, and Thor frowned.

"Need I remind you, my lady, you spat on him, and my brother did not so much as bat an eye," Thor said. "And to be fair, Hoder said nothing about going through the door: he said to capture the amulet, which Loki did--"

"By cheating," Volstagg said. He took another swig, then set down his cup with a flourish. "It would be one thing if he used magic to get through the doors, but he didn't even do that. He didn't follow the rules."

"Nothing about magic follows the rules," Sif said. Thor sighed, then rubbed the back of his neck, frowning.

"My brother may do things...differently," Thor said. "But it is just his way. Do not doubt the intentions in his heart."

"And so you vouch for him?" Sif said. "Your brother, the mischief-maker, pitting mage-craft and magic against the work of our swords?"

"I vouch for you, my lady, a woman warrior who spits on her friends when things do not go her way."

"He is not my friend," Sif said, and she stood, shoving her chair against the table.

"There she goes," Fandral mumbled, his face red with drink as Sif marched out of the tavern, the door slamming loudly behind her.

Thor sighed and rubbed his temples, his headache now a scorching vice-grip banded across his forehead. It was not the first time Thor would have to make peace among his companions, who regarded Loki with equal measures of suspicion and thinly veiled contempt: they toiled hard, with blood and sweat and silence, while Loki seemed to float above them, skirting across their responsibilities with airy spells and twisty runes, paying no mind to the weakness of his body nor his lack of skill with sword.

And ever since that botched joke on Sif, wherein a ten year-old Loki accidentally changed her golden locks into an inky coal, she had nothing for him but irritation and unkind words, much to Thor's consternation. "She doesn't even care about her looks," Thor muttered, and Hogun nodded, catching the reference. Thor rubbed his temples again, then took a drink, swallowing mouthfuls of wine with gratitude, before setting down his cup.

"And where is Loki, anyway?" Fandral said. "That glorious brother of yours. Why is he not here gloating, or celebrating with the rest of us?"

"Probably because he knows better than to test his luck," Thor said, and he rose. "I should see about my brother. Until then, friends, good night."

"Goodnight," Fandral said, and Hogun lifted his glass, Valstagg waving and taking another drink.

Thor walked. It was dark at night in the Great Hall, and Thor's shadow cut against the lights of the torches in great swaths of black. Hours had passed since Loki's confrontation with their father, and secretly Thor worried his brother still took their father's words to heart. "Go with your friends then, and drink your fill," Loki had said, bitterly. "I care not what you think of me, brother. Just leave me be."

At the time, Thor had protested, pressing to stay by Loki's side, when his brother struck him like a coiled snake: "If you touch me, I swear it, I shall take off your head."

That was hours ago, and Thor hoped the hours alone had calmed him. A part of him wondered if it was right for him to intrude, the humiliation of Loki's rebuff and their father's harsh words still fresh in his mind, but he pressed on. He didn't think Loki should remain alone.

He didn't knock on Loki's chamber door, choosing only to softly enter, peering into the the darkened room before quietly stepping inside.

"Brother?" Thor said, and Loki looked up. His eyes were still red, the rims of his eyes still catching with water, and Thor watched as Loki blinked slowly, lowering his head and looking back at the amulet in front of him.

"How goes it?" Thor said, and Loki shook his head. Quietly Thor shut the door behind himself, stepping forward. "Are you feeling better?"

"I am fine," Loki said. His eyes were wet and he made a sound, something between a scoff and a tired sort of sigh, before shaking his head, mouth twisting into a wry sort of smile.

"I take back what I said: I think I should keep this," Loki said, and he twisted the golden chain in his hand. "I imagine it would give Father the most exquisite chest pain, seeing me wear this. Don't you agree?"

"Brother, do not do this. Do not torture yourself--"

"Torture myself?" Loki said, and Thor frowned at the tone Loki took, strained and lightly mocking. "I believe wailing away at an impenetrable wall would constitute 'torturing myself.' Or perhaps banging my head against impenetrable glass. Because surely that would be more honorable," Loki said.

Thor's mouth thinned.

"Father does not understand," Thor said. "You earned that amulet by right. Who among us could claim to outwit the Dark Elves, whose malice and ill-intent are known across the Nine Realms? Father does not give you credit," Thor said.

"And my brother gives me too much," Loki said. Tiredly, as if the very marrow of his bones had been wrung out from the inside. "Do not worry yourself, brother. I am fine. I am not so fragile as to suffer the iniquity of a few choice words. Truly," Loki said.

Thor looked at him doubtfully. Loki smiled, weakly.

"It is late," Loki said, finally. "I believe I shall retire to bed. If you excuse me," he said, and he rose.

Thor caught the door before his brother closed it, shouldering it open and pushing back inside.

Loki startled. "Brother?"

"At least let me stay with you," Thor said. Loki snorted. "You are not well. I can see it on your face."

"And so you can see my consternation. Goodnight," Loki said, but Thor caught the door.

"A moment," Thor said. Loki rolled his eyes. "Let me stay. A night such as this should not be spent alone."

"Keep this up and I'll start to think you're trying to seduce me," Loki said. "Very well. If for whatever idiot reason you feel the need to keep me company, fine. Just try not to roll on top of me," he said, and he tossed Thor a pillow. Thor grinned, and tucked it under his arm.




The sun was high when the lots were drawn, the warriors unfolding the slips of paper and comparing the numbers in their hand.

"It seems I am the first," Volstagg said, and he stepped up to the great iron doors, picking up his axe.

Strike. The force of the strike sang in waves reverberating through the metal frame, the great rocks and craggy cliffs echoing the strike with thunderous sound.

Thor watched as Volstagg jumped back, tugging on his beard and surveying the colossal structure in front of him: great iron gates stretching to a solemn sky, the gray columns of rock standing over them like giants from the frost. The man paced, once, twice, tapping his axe on the ground, before rearing back and swinging with one mighty strike, pummeling the gates with all his strength.

The head of the ax flew on the last strike, the handle splitting with the force. Volstagg yelped and ducked and jumped back, the metal piece whipping through the air like a boomerang, before landing blade-first into the dusty ground.

"Who is second?" Hoder said, and Hogun stepped forward, face pinched and tugging a satchel of gunpowder in his hand.

The explosions did nothing. Hogun shot explosive tipped arrows, each singing through the air and lodging into the cracks and fissures of the sculptures, figures of the old gods who seemed to laugh at them from the iron. Smoke rose, and the iron gates stood unmarred, the iron surface gleaming with afternoon light.

"Who is third?" Hoder asked.

"Who is fourth?"

"Who is the fifth?" Hoder asked, and Thor raised his hand.

The gates stood over him, the great bronze face grinning with contempt. Sif's sword and Fandral's battery ram did nothing to tarnish the great iron features, leaving not so much as a dent against the figures sculpted into the gate's great frame.

"C'mon, Thor!" Sif clapped and Fandral pumped his fist, clapping. "If anyone can do it, you can!"

"Indeed!" Thor said, and he raised up his hammer, fortified.

Mjolnir sang. A strike, the blow reverberating through the steep slats of metal. Thor raised his arm into a swing, and smashed hard against the door.

The metal groaned, then swayed, then dented. The warriors cheered.

Clang. Crash. Smash. Thor slammed his weight into the door, the weight of Mjolnir clanging against the iron.

But the doors stood standing. Minutes turned to hours, and soon the crowd's cheers faded to silence, and Thor's muscles began to ache. The iron was barely scratched, the dent so small it was hardly noticeable.

"Enough!" Thor said, and he threw his hand up, summoning lightning and directing it toward the gate's way. Lightning gathered, and Thor threw it with all his force, slamming the gates with the force of a thousand currents, the strength of earth and sky concentrated onto that one weak point.

The clouds parted, and the gate stood undamaged. Sif shook her head.

"No one has touched this gate for a thousand years, but you are the closest one yet," Fandral said. "Will you try flying into it, perhaps? Maybe the force will knock the hinges off, surely?"

"You would do better to break your head," Loki said, quietly, and he stepped forward.

"I am the sixth," Loki said. He glanced up at Thor, as if asking his permission. And then,

"I should like to try."




Their father's silence was more telling than any words, and Loki stood, amulet in his hands, waiting silently before tucking back a strand of dark hair, a nervous gesture.

"Are you not pleased?" Loki said, finally. He lifted his eyes, meeting their father's gaze.

Thor shifted, uncomfortably. Their mother once said Loki's eyes were transparent as windows, and Thor could see why: every flicker of doubt, the deep wells of uncertainty and an aching, overriding need for approval, seemed to gather at the corners and spill with an ever-increasing hurt. Loki's mouth twisted. He looked back down, twisting the amulet in his hands.

"They said I was the first in a thousand years to crack the great gates," Loki said. His eyes shined with strange emotion, a gathering wetness, reflected like a slick of black oil. "They said no one had entered since you did, Father."

Thor glanced at his brother, then back at his father, who seemed to be measuring his words, carefully. His father's face was a mask. Proud features beneath scarred skin, his father bore the marks of his reign like ribbons on a suit of armor. He stood over them, silent and impassive, more imposing than the iron gates they had faced just hours before.

"Tell me again what you just said," Odin said. Loki looked up. A sliver of hope in his pale blue eyes.

"That I was the first in a thousand years--"

"No," Odin said. "What you first said to me. Just now, a few moments ago."

Loki's face furrowed. Thor looked at his father, then at his brother, who seemed imbued with a nervous energy.

"That I had cracked the great gates after a thousand years--"

"That you cracked the great gates," Odin said. "But that is not true, is it, Loki?"

Thor saw Loki's jaw tighten, an imperceptible movement.

"No," Loki said. Odin sighed, then raised his head.

"And how did you do, Thor?" Odin said. Thor startled.

"Poorly, Father," Thor said. "Loki outsmarted us all."

"Is this true?" Odin said. One eye roamed to Loki, who seemed to shrink under the weight of their father's gaze.

"Yes," Loki said. His voice was very small.

Their father sighed. He sat back upon the throne, weary and closing his eyes.

"It is not enough to be clever, and it is foolish to think there will always be an easy way out," Odin said. "A time will come when you cannot bluff your way to victory, and I fear when it does, you or your companions will be the worse for it."

"Father, that is unfair," Thor said. "Loki did what no one else could do. He found another way--"

"And what shall you do, when you are surrounded by enemies and it is just your brother beside you?" Odin said.

"He will do magic," Thor said, stupidly, and Loki threw him a sharp look, at once pained and humiliated, and Thor dug his toe into the floor, plowing through with all his force, "He may not be good with sword, but he masters a power greater than the sorcerers of the Nine Realms. If we should be surrounded, he would best them," Thor said.

"With magic," Odin repeated.

"Yes," Thor said. He glanced at Loki, who looked as if he could burn holes through the marble floor.

"And your companions. Were they impressed by Loki's feat?" Odin asked.

Thor thought back to Sif, and how she had spat in Loki's face. "Well--"

"I have heard enough," Odin said. He turned, his cloak billowing with the movement. Loki stood.

"So would you be proud, Father, had I smashed through the walls like Thor?" Loki said. "If I pummeled my fists against the great gates? Is that what it would take?"

"Yes," Odin said, quietly. And Loki closed his eyes.




"A jest!" Valstagg said. He pointed at Loki, laughing. "Your brother could barely make a dent, and he was the closest one of all of us! What makes you think you could do any better?"

"Perhaps he will do a magic trick," Fandral sniffed.

"Perhaps I will," Loki said, lightly. "Or perhaps my muscle is stronger than you suppose."

Sif sneered and Hogun frowned, but Thor smiled, clapping Loki on the shoulder.

"It is only fair!" Thor said, and he gave his brother a confident squeeze. "The door itself is slightly dented. With any luck, my brother can push through with all his strength, and the amulet will come into our possession, yet!"

"And Frost Giants will likely melt, first," Sif said.

They watched. Loki circled the gates, studying the large flat plates and the iron fixtures, the great figures leering down at him, monumental and casting a shadow as long as the sky.

"Well, come on," Fandral said. "Let's see this great brawn of yours, prince. Or perhaps you've realized it is a foolish endeavor?"

"Do not strain yourself," Thor said, quietly. "All of us have tried. You do no dishonor if you fail."

"He will likely break his arms than dent that door," Valstagg said.

Loki pressed his palm against the cool metal, letting the tips of his fingers trace the veins on the smoothed out iron. Thor watched. The metal was smooth and cold and no imperfections could be traced on it. Loki paused again, flattening his hand against the surface, then frowned.

"It truly is impenetrable, isn't it?" Loki said.

Fandral rolled his eyes and Volstagg smirked, whispering something in Hogun's ear.

Thor watched. Slowly, Loki walked three paces around the door, pressing his hand against the metal the way a child would dip a toe in a pool of water, testing the temperature before jumping inside. "The fool thinks he's going to break through, doesn't he?" Fandral said.

Thor glanced behind him, then back at Loki, who seemed to be studying the door with great concentration.

And then Loki turned, walking past the door and to the rocky wall in which it was situated. He pressed his hand against the rock, just left of the doorframe, paused, and then phased through the rocky wall.

"What--" Sif jumped upright. There was a ripple among the crowd. "Did he just go through the rock?"

"I believe he did," Fandral said. They watched, a few tense moments passing, before Loki phased back through the cliff side, holding the amulet in his hand.

Thor gaped at him, and Loki gave him a small little shrug.

"Well no one said we had to go through the door."




The bed seemed smaller than Thor remembered, their bodies pushed close by the boundaries of the mattress, which caved in the middle with their weight. The bed creaked, then groaned, then seemed to crack when Thor climbed inside, his added weight adding stress to the bedframe and making Loki snort, derisively.

"I think this is a sign we are too old," Loki said, but Thor grinned against his shoulder.

"Come now, brother. Do not tell me you don't enjoy the occasional spoon?"

"I wish you would not call it that," Loki grumbled, but he did not move when Thor settled against Loki's back.

Time passed, and slowly Loki's breathing deepened. Thor could not see his face, but from the stillness, he could sense that Loki had fallen asleep.

Thor shifted to look. Above them, the curtains stirred, moving on a breeze from the open window. Pale moonlight drizzled down the inky walls and cast a watery shadow on Loki's body, cutting a silver swath of light that rimmed the edge of Loki's cheek. Unlike Thor, whose complexion was ruddy and craggy like sunburnt earth, Loki's bones were delicate, smooth, the birdlike cage of his jaw underrun with fragile glass. There was a wetness, a shadow of a tear from the hours before, that seemed to make its way to the hollows of Loki's cheek; quietly Thor brushed it back, pausing only to push back a strand of dark hair.

When was the last time they slept like this? Thor remembered when Loki was younger, plagued with nightmares of darkness and frost, and Thor would let him crawl into the blankets beside him, lips blue and shivering. He was always small for his age, and fearful, and Thor had seen how the others had jeered at him, at first with his back turned, and then increasingly more openly: unskilled with sword, lacking in strength, Loki worked with an entirely different set of skills of which Thor and his companions were entirely unfamiliar. His intellect was staggering. There was a sharpness to his eyes and his tongue that made others stare at him in sullen admiration, and others avoid in outright fear.

Lonely child in his brother's bed, that was the sad fact of Loki's existence.That he would grow into a man knowing nothing but solitude should not have surprised him; Thor knew the cruelty of children even better than the cruelty of men, and if his brother ever felt lonely, Loki rarely ever showed it.

Now Loki breathed, then shifted, his eyelids fluttering in his sleep. Suddenly, irrationally, Thor wanted to rush up to his father and scream at him, wanted to claw at his father's eyes and at his father's throat, wanted to shout to the heavens to look at him, his brother, whom his father had torn down with a few careless words.

He had seen it, in the hours before this: when Loki crouched low on the floorboards and lost his honor and his self-respect, clawing his hands to his eyes and raggedly, hopelessly, starting to cry.




It was strangely beautiful, Thor thought, how the facets of the jewel seemed to reflect the shafts of light. Slowly, he turned the amulet on Loki's desk, watching with fascination how the light seemed to gleam in a thousand fractured colors: with one turn, the deepest violets and sharpest greens, and another, bright torrents of orange and earthy browns.

"You can keep it, if you wish," Loki said.

Thor looked up. Loki was standing behind him, holding his breastplate in one hand and unhooking his arm guards with the other. Unlike the others, who wore thick leather smocks under shirts of chain mail, Loki wore only his tunic, which was wrinkled in places and stuck to his skin.

"You would give away such a precious jewel?" Thor said. "They say you can command the winds with this, if you wanted," and he turned amulet in his hand, watching it cast prisms of light like threads of spun gold. "It is a magnificent piece," Thor said. He glanced up at Loki, who had removed his helmet, hair stuck with sweat and plastered to his forehead.

"I have no need for trinkets," Loki said, and Thor watched as Loki cast a changing spell on himself, the sweat and grime of the day's toils washing away with a faint white light. "The amulet is no more magical than the metal in your chain mail. I would be happy to give it to you," Loki said. "Even if it were magic. Consider the amulet yours."

Thor grinned. He clapped Loki on the back, beaming. "Father will be proud," Thor said. "The first in a thousand years to breach the impenetrable vault, and that was you, little brother. I think you do us proud."

There was something about Loki's face that made Thor's breath catch. Something like joy, giddy and unbridled, spilling into Loki's features, though he tried to hide it, a cup of wine overflowing that you'd try to uselessly mop.

"Come," Thor said, and he stood, gathering his helmet and his brigandine vest, "Father will be waiting," when he glanced at the mirror and caught Loki's eyes.

His eyes were dancing. Thor laughed. "What is it?" Thor said, but Loki shook his head, that unrestrained joy widening into a wondrous smile.