Thor had never been one for libraries in his youth. Even now, older and (somewhat) wiser, he had little call to come visit those hallowed halls. Nevertheless, he smiled at the scribe holding an armful of tomes. The scribe looked at him suspiciously, and then looked down to his side and frowned even more suspiciously.
"Why do you require my aid in here, again?" Thor asked, closing the wide oak doors behind him.
"I have need of your noble stature! There are some awfully tall shelves, you see, and the library is desperately lacking in ladders," Loki said, taking a few steps and a skip to match Thor's steps.
Technically, he should be helping with the last of the negotiation efforts with the otherworld, but he had let himself be cajoled into following Loki to the library.
It had been a few weeks since Loki had returned from his trip, looking tired and far older than his young years. He had avoided all attempts by Thor to discern the cause of this strange sadness-- and it was sadness, however Loki tried to disguise it. It had been a relief to have Loki bound up to him at the beginning of the day, asking for his assistance.
Loki knew exactly where he was going; he took a few turns down into a dark corner of the library, where the shelves were hung thickly with carpets of dust and cobwebs.
"Ah, here it is!" The tome that Loki pointed out was an innocuous volume bound in a deep red, with no sign on the outside as to its identity. "Would you mind terribly if I--" Here Loki mimed something that might have signfied "hop up on aforementioned noble stature."
Thor obliged and bent down enough for Loki to scramble over his back and perch on his shoulders, nearly getting a knee to the eye for his troubles.
"A bit to the left, if you please!" Loki called down, drumming his heels against Thor's chest. Thor grasped his ankles to keep them both from toppling over in a surfeit of academic enthusiasm. Loki gave a light "oof" as he heaved the volume out from the shelf, passed it down to Thor. The fine chain that anchored it to the shelf slithered out after it
"Excellent! My thanks, Thor, I did not fancy irritating the librarian further. I think they are a bit weary of having me in their domain. I cannot imagine why, given my winsome charms. I was simply suggesting a magical search engine for the library-- you cannot deny that it would be terribly useful." Thor did not know why Midgardian engines would be useful in a library, but no matter. If Loki was planning to make an ambulatory library of some sort, he would find out soon enough.
Loki slid nimbly from his shoulders, taking the book from Thor. He dropped to his knees, tucking his feet under him and placing the book in front of him, his fingers tracing over the tooled leather of the cover.
"It is in remarkably good shape, it seems," Thor offered.
Loki hummed thoughtfully. "Yes, isn't it? I imagine it must have been spelled against damages, fire or otherwise."
Curiously, Loki made no move to open it yet. Rather, he spanned the thick spine with his small hands and nodded, as if to confirm a thought.
"Is there something peculiar about its binding?" Thor asked.
"Yes-- you see, the amount of shelving space in this section always seems to vary, and the librarians weren't sure whether it was a matter of the particular bookshelf shrinking or expanding in an ill-advised prank-- which I quite assured them was not my doing-- before they saw that it wasn't the shelf shrinking, but rather, this book changing."
"I take it that they've had quite enough of you asking after it, which is why I am acting as your glorified stepstool?"
Loki grinned at him. "You make a very fine stepstool, brother! One could not ask for better. Do not worry, I will not tarry long."
He glanced up at Thor and then at the book, and opened it.
Between one breath and the next, the world tilted sideways, a moment so quickly passed that Thor was not sure he had not imagined it. He staggered to the side, twisting around to pinpoint the source of this strangeness.
It was the bird that warned him, once again. A clap of wings and the screech and scrabble of claws on his helmet, and Thor could tell that something was not right.
“Hush, bird-- come now, what--"
Loki was curled forward on the floor, his shoulders heaving. A few inked words coiled up from the pages of the tome in front of him, crumpling and dissolving into fine dust, pulled in by Loki’s gasping, frantic breathing.
Thor slammed the book shut at once, and the last few syllables caught between the pages of the book, quivering still. He spared a thought to hope that the vile letters would be contained for the moment and turned to Loki, hoping that he was not too late.
He put his hand to Loki’s shoulder, encouraging him to uncurl. He had a moment to realize that Loki’s tunic was damp with sweat, that the skin below radiated an unnatural heat as Loki shuddered and arched towards his hand, a shocked breath punching out of his lungs. Then Loki twisted about, throwing off his hand and scrambling to the side. His eyes were wide and his cheeks were pale as the pages before him, half-caught words still twisting and struggling between the leaves. Thor caught Loki's elbow before he could hit the bookcase, and Loki clutched at his arm, still breathing hard.
Loki's bird perched on the bookshelf, the dry parchment-leaf rustle of its wings the only sound but for Loki's harsh breathing. Its gimlet eyes stared out from the darkness of the shelves.
Loki tore himself away from Thor, gasping still as he placed a hand on the bookshelf to steady himself.
"I'm all right! I'm fine," he said, focusing at last on Thor.
There was surely more to this than Loki was saying, but there were more important things at the moment.
"Come, we will go to the healer's at once," he said, gathering Loki in his arms. Loki did not resist at first, but then attempted to untangle himself from Thor's grasp as soon as Thor started moving.
"Wait, wait, Thor--"
Thor hung on to Loki, striding as quickly as possible towards the library's exit. He was suddenly very aware of the slight weight and bird’s bones of his brother's body, and walked faster. The aisles seemed to stretch on and on, the worn, dun-coloured wood straining to contain the multitudes of volumes in their shelves.
He was certain he was headed in the right direction, and yet the door to the library was still not in sight. Surely they had not ventured too far into the labyrinthine stacks?
"Thor-- Thor, we've already passed this section." Loki tugged on his cape, trying to get his attention.
Thor slowed. This was-- curious. Definitely curious.
"You see?" Loki said breathlessly.
Thor looked around at the rows of books, stretching as far as the eye could see, sunlight streaming through the windows and setting the dust motes in the air alight. It seemed utterly familiar, the same dusty corridors from which he had so often tried to pry Loki loose. And yet, when he looked down the rows, there was no hint of the big iron-barred doors that marked the exit-- nothing but books and yet more books.
He put Loki down slowly. "Where are we?"
Loki's breathing was still laboured and he still burned from the inside, but he stepped away from Thor's steadying hands easily enough. He considered the question for a moment. "Inside the book, I think!"
"Ah," Thor said. Inside a book. For all the strange things he had seen over his many years, there were still things that gave him pause. Not unsurprisingly, most of those things had to do with Loki. "Are you all right? We will make the greatest haste to get out of--" Thor waved his hand, encompassing the library and its unexpected depths. "--this place, but will you be able to carry on?"
"We wouldn't have much choice, even if I were rather badly off, I think. But no, I am quite well now! Just a momentary weakness. No need to rush for the fainting couch."
Thor looked at him closely, and Loki looked back at him, trying very hard to look utterly guileless. Loki was right, unfortunately-- whatever had affected Loki upon entering the book, there was nothing to do but look for an exit.
Loki pulled out his Midgardian device and tapped at the screen. "As I thought, we are most definitely out of range. Not a single bar! I will have to advise Mr. Stark of this shortcoming."
"I'm sure he'll be most receptive to your criticisms." Thor walked over to the stone walls, placing a hand on them. They seemed as sturdy as ever, with no hint of weakness to be exploited.
Loki joined him, tracing his fingers over the joins of the stones. "I suspect that whatever secret passages the library had will be similarly barred to us, unfortunately."
"The windows, perhaps?" Thor suggested.
Loki looked doubtful, but shrugged. "I am all for wanton destruction, as you well know! Have at it-- if necessary, we can surely blame it on an unusally vigourous game of bases and balls."
If any of the scribes were around, they would surely not be happy. Still, he took up ever-faithful Mjolnir and swung its familiar weight towards one of the windows. The hall echoed with a resonant tone as Mjolnir bounced neatly off the window panes, flying off into the stacks.
Loki squinted over in the general direction of its rebound. "I think it may have landed in the section on Midgardian technology. No great loss, it was dreadfully out of date. I am not entierely sure what betamax is, but the library apparently has twenty-three manuals for it."
Thor called Mjolnir back to him, watching Loki out of the corner of his eye. He was leaning casually on the bookshelf, looking quite at ease, though his breathing still rasped loudly.
"Why this book?" Thor asked, gesturing at the shelves around them. "Was there something you sought, to enter its bounds?"
"Because it looked interesting? Is that an appropriately me-ish answer? A complicated question, I know, but it surely wasn't out of character," Loki said easily, shrugging. "And just look at it! How wondrous!"
"Yes, truly," Thor said, "Was it what you expected?"
Loki shrugged again. "Yes and no? There were some unexpected wrinkles that I had not expected. Namely, the lack of doors. Most uncourteous of them not to indicate the emergency exits."
"What is it, then?"
"An abandoned experiment by a librarian long past. They're far more devious than you would realize, librarians," Loki added thoughtfully. Thor gestured for him to get to the point. "A library inside a library-- a backup, you see. It's a rather neat idea, in every sense of the word, though . Just think of all the volumes that must have been lost in the last battles alone. All that knowledge-- gone! Simply said, if the theory is right, it contains all the books that the library has ever had or ever will have. It's ingenious, really."
Thor blinked. The prospect of an endless library certainly seemed like a prize that would tempt Loki. "Why abandoned, then?" Thor said, "Did it not work?"
"Oh, yes, it did! But perhaps it worked too well? If what I've read is right--well, you can see for yourself." Loki tugged a thick tome off the shelf, glanced at the cover, and cracked it open before Thor was able to warn him away. The words began curling again, just as they had earlier, and Thor slammed the book shut, throwing it onto the floor before it could do any more harm.
Loki looked at him in surprise and then crouched onto the floor beside the book. "It's all right! It's a different one, so it shouldn't do that thing that the other one did."
Thor hesitated, but before he could object again, Loki flipped through the pages and threw the book open.
The words began curling again, but instead of cracking and dissolving off the page, they trickled and pooled in the spine of the book, and a spring-green curl popped up from the crease, sprouting from the ink. In a trice, the sprout unfurled into a slender stem and leaves unwrinkled themselves from its extremities. Branches extended from the stem as it grew thicker, gradually growing rugged and brown, stretching ever taller over Thor's head.
The branches bloomed and drooped, then dropped acorns upon them as its leaves changed to brown and drifted down. And then, the branches bloomed again, the tree changing with every breath, and the golden light of late afternoon filtered through the leaves sprouting endlessly from the branches high above.
Loki brushed the fallen leaves away from the base of the tree, touching its inky roots where they sunk into the vellum. He glanced at the heading of the page.
"'The life cycle of oak trees.' Looks about right! The author must have taken a few artistic liberties, though, because the size of those acorns is a bit ridiculous." He rubbed his head where a particularly fine example had bounced off his skull. "It would perhaps be best to close this up before we get buried in leaves and deadly acorns," he said, slipping his hands under the cover and lifting the wings of the book.
Like water falling from a height, the massive tree shivered and collapsed onto itself. It shed a few more leaves before landing in a dark spray of ink and crawling back across the page to sepate into words.
Loki closed the book and rolled up to the tips of his toes to slip it back onto the shelf. He dusted his hands off, sending more dust motes into the air. "Well-- that's it! It is rather cool, is it not?"
"That... it certainly is," Thor said, for a lack of anything else to say.
"Just think what else could be in here! Wait, let's find the section on Midgard. It would be dreadfully awesome to see dinosaurs. Only small ones, of course." he clarified, affecting as innocent a mien as possible.
Thor ruffled his hair. "Well, let us find what you are looking for, and then we shall see about Midgardian beasts. I do not fancy getting eaten before we have even accomplished the aim of our quest."
Loki blinked up at him, looking up at him as if considering denying that he was looking for something, a brief, serious look in his eyes. He shook it off quickly, apparently deciding that going down that path was too much trouble, and smiled again. "Naturally! Shall I lead? I believe the section we're looking for would be in this direction..." He pointed down the aisle, and Thor nodded, following him.
Loki kicked up the fallen leaves as they left, sending acorns rolling across the aisle.
Thor had never quite figured out the arcane logic that governed the library of Asgard's classification system, but Loki had taken to it at once, exploring the library as avidly as any alien world. He now led Thor through the endless branching stacks, stopping every so often to glance at a title or quickly open a book to glance at its contents before it coalesced in a much more material fashion, and then taking a turn or continuing on. He chattered all the while about this and that, gesturing wildly and almost clipping his disgruntled magpie on more than one occasion.
For all his talk about mere curiosity, he was leading them determinedly towards something, looking for something in particular. There was a focus to the way he turned swiftly down yet another aisle, bringing them deeper and deeper into the library, something urgent and almost desparate that seemed to spur Loki on. Thor did not know if he was willing to ask what it was, exactly.
The light outside the windows dimmed as they walked on, and soon enough, even Loki's irrepressable energy seemed to run dry, perhaps sapped by the mysterious ailment that had taken hold of him earlier in the day. When he stumbled for the third time, Thor caught his arm and set him back on his feet.
"It will be getting late, soon. Perhaps we should make camp and aim for whatever cookery section exists," he suggested, keeping his tone light.
"Why, is that Volstagg's influence speaking?" Loki waved off his concern. "I am perfectly fine. Shall we press on?"
"It will do us no good if you run yourself ragged before we find what you are looking for," Thor said, hoping that an appeal to his reason would work. "And how should I get out of here if you cannot lead us through these books?"
Loki smiled. "You are not so unaquainted with the library as you would pretend to be! Surely you could find your way out."
Nevertheless, he found them a comfortable corner a few aisles down and pulled down a book that produced a very acceptable roast from its pages. Thor tried not to think too hard about the implications of eating words out of a book-- whether the writing would disappear from the real library, and whether he would be in for some truly unusual indisgestion upon exiting the book. Loki waved his concerns aside.
"When we are in the book, at least, we must be subject to its rules," he said, picking at his hank of meat. "It shouldn't be a problem, I think."
Thor's comment had been intended partly as jest, but Loki's face shifted to something thoughtful and serious, taking Thor off-guard.
"But outside the book, well. That I do not know. The tree we saw earlier is not a real tree, is it-- a tree, by definition, does not grow in a book. And yet--" Loki fished around in his pocket, producing an acorn and rolling it between his palms. "Who is to say that these acorns would not grow, if I put one in the soil? If a tree gives all appearances of being a tree, and its actions are appropriately tree-ish, who could say that it is not a tree, though ink flows through its branches, not sap?"
Loki rolled the acorn across his palms a few more times, then shook off the thoughtful mood like a horse ridding itself of flies. "Well, if we do get some truly atrocious indegestions, you'll be able to give me a good 'I told you so', which is always tremendously satisfying."
The sun set quickly after that, the long shadows of the library's aisles fading into a deeper darkness. The library was quiet at night. The musty air was still, with no wind to disturb it, and Thor fell asleep quickly. He considered setting a watch, but there was surely little that could harm them in this place, and he slept lightly enough for it to not be a concern.
He awoke with a jerk in the night, a shout echoing in his ears; his hand flew to Mjolnir, lying readily in his reach, and he sat up to face whatever lay in the darkness.
There was nothing. He looked around, his heart pounding, trying to ascertain what had woken him. He looked over to Loki, to ask him if he had seen anything, and froze.
Loki was curled in on himself, his shaking fingers clutching at his narrow wrists. His loose hair hid his eyes, but Thor could hear his breathing, harsh and quick, punctuated with quiet, muffled cries that terrified Thor in a way that battle never had. He grasped Loki's shoulder, still unsure if this was a dream, and pulled him into his lap, smoothing Loki's hair back from his face. Loki's eyes were wide open, unfocused, staring at something dark and unknowable beyond Thor's ken.
"Shh, shh, everything is all right," he said, not knowing what to say.
Loki was frantic against him, his small hands sliding over his armor in an effort to find purchase and catching in his cape.
"I-- Thor--" he gasped out against Thor's shoulder, sounding as if he could barely wrap his tongue around the words. He shuddered again and stilled, pressing the length of his body more fully against Thor's, his skinny foal's legs askew.
Thor knew not where to place his hands-- he did not want to worsen whatever ailment had taken hold of him, coursing through his veins and laying even his mind to waste. He settled for wrapping an arm around Loki, holding him fast. He placed a hand on Loki's chest, felt the rapid, skipping pulse of his heart hammering against the thin frets of his ribs, his skin fever-hot even through his tunic. A strange, unsettling thing, that, especially for Loki, who had always thrown off his furs in the middle of winters long past and laughed as he pressed his icy toes to Thor's feet.
"Loki, please, you must tell me what is wrong." Pleading had never been very effective with Loki, but it was now the only tool that came to hand readily. Loki's only answer was to clutch ever more tightly to Thor's arm. Loki was a shivering bundle in his lap, his thin fingers grasping at his own hands, raking over his forearms. There were words tumbling out of his mouth now, but they blurred together, thick with gasps.
This was no ordinary illness, he was sure of it. Loki had rarely been sick as a child, a quality he had taken pains to point out on the few occasions Thor himself was taken with illness. Loki had never had a very comforting nature. But he did tell strange, weird stories: fever-dreams that Thor only half-recalled now, the rise and fall of Loki's voice wrapping around dusty tales pried loose from shadowed bookshelves. They were stories unlike those of the court tellers that declaimed slain monsters and the deeds of heroes, stories sly and queer and perhaps not the best for a fevered mind, but wonderful nonetheless. He wished he could remember them now, but all that floated up from the depths of memory were the ghosts of beasts and wishes, and the cool touch of a hand in the silence between words.
A death in a sickbed was a fate to be dreaded by any warrior, but it suddenly seemed far worse to consider the prospect of a child's body wasted away by illness. He could suddently understand Volstagg's worry when one his little ones was taken sick. Loki shuddered once again, and Thor smoothed his damp hair back from his forehead, feeling quite powerless.
"Shh, Loki, all will be well," he said, rubbing circles into Loki’s back.
Loki's breathing gradually evened out, his body untensing under Thor's touch. He blinked a few times, and then tilted his head up to look at Thor, his eyes clearer now.
His next breath came as a shaky giggle. "Well, that was considerably more harrowing than expected. To be avoided, I think!" Loki said, running a hand through his hair. Loki must have noticed that his hands were still trembling, since he put his hand down in his lap, curled in a loose fist.
"'Than expected'? Surely you didn't expect to be poisoned by a book?" Thor's heart was still tight with adrenaline, his muscles taut and battle-ready, though there was nothing here that he could fight.
"Nnnno?" Loki said tentatively, still catching his breath.
Thor sighed. "If this is part of a plan of some kind, I would like to remark that it is a unusually terrible plan."
Loki huffed out a breathless laugh. "I shall take that as a compliment, naturally."
Loki was not clinging as before, but he still settled in Thor's lap. For all that he put on an easy chatter, he still glanced up at Thor as if to ask, "I am allowed to do this, yes?" Loki had never much cared for what was allowed and what was not, but there was a certain tentativeness to the way that he settled back against Thor's chest.
"Tell me-- what are we doing here?" Thor asked quietly.
Loki hesitated, and some part of Thor wondered if the pause was deliberate. "I'm... I'm looking for a book. There's something I need to check. Someone I'm looking for."
"Well, I believe you've come to the right place," Thor said dryly, and Loki gave him a sheepish smile. "But let me ask you: why did you ask me to accompany you? I have never been at my best in libraries, as you well know."
Loki's smile didn't drop, but it went brittle at the edges. "Well, I didn't intend for you to come with me into the book, but backup, I suppose? Just in case."
"In case of...?" Thor pressed, trying to be subtle about it.
Loki's small shoulders shrugged quickly, almost convulsively. "One never knows, right? Especially with me!"
If it was an attempt at jest, it was a poor one, but Loki lay back down again and turned away from him.
Reluctantly, Thor lay back down, still unsettled. "You will wake me if there is aught wrong, yes?"
Loki waved his hand at him. "Yes, yes, of course. Now, back to sleep! I will be fine."
The silence dropped back over the library, thick and blanketing, and Thor fell back into an uneasy sleep.
Loki was already up when Thor slowly awoke.
Loki had taken off his gloves and was inspecting his fingertips, twisting them this way and that in the grey dawn light creeping in through the windows. His face was curious, considering, the terror from the night gone. Thor blinked a few times to clear the early-morning fog from his vision, which blurred the bookshelves into soft edges and darkened the tips of Loki's fingers. He blinked again, but the darkness was still there.
He caught Loki's glance as as Loki looked over at him, no doubt hearing him awaken. "Good morning, brother!" he called, tucking his hand back into his glove and waving. "Ready for another exciting day at the library?"
"Oh, doubtlessly," Thor said.
"Sarcasm first thing in the morning! You do me proud," Loki said, grinning.
Thor sat up, looking at Loki carefully. The boy did not show any signs of the fit during the night. And yet-- the way he had been looking at his hands, the way he had clutched at them the night before-- there was something unusual there.
"How are you?"
Loki waved his concern off. "Well as anything. Please don't make a scene, Thor, it would be thoroughly embarassing."
"Loki, can you hand me that book from the bottom shelf? The third one from the left, if you please."
Loki raised his eyebrows. "A little early morning reading on animal husbandry? Is this really the time?" Nevertheless, he scooted over to the shelf and tugged the book out, extending it towards Thor.
Thor took the book from Loki's hand and wrapped his fingers gently around Loki's small wrist, putting the book aside.
"Oh, wow, I can't believe I just fell for that," Loki sighed. "What have things come to."
He twisted his wrist in Thor's grasp resignedly. "I don't suppose you could give me my hand back? I do need it, you know. Terribly useful things, hands."
"In a moment."
Thor took Loki's hand, drawing off Loki's glove and turning down his sleeve to bare his arm. Thor caught his breath at the sight, though he surely had suspected something.
Loki's skin had been damp with sweat the day before, but now it was dry, though it still held that same unhealthy heat. The tips of Loki's fingers were as black as pitch, as if he had dipped his fingers in an inkwell. He turned Loki's hand over-- the dark stain spead down Loki's fingers and pooled in his palm, trickling over the bony spur of his wrist and down his forearm.
Strangely, the darkness did not have the stark edges of an ink blot. The edges of the stain feathered out into delicate ink strokes that crossed over each other in indistinct patterns. If Thor looked ever more closely, the strokes resolved themselves into letters.
"I can't read it either," Loki said, breaking the silence. "It's a bit maddening, really. Whoever copied this text has terrible calligraphy." He craned his head around, trying to get a better look at the scrawl leeching down his arm, where the letters had coalesced into the semblance of words.
"You were aware of this, weren't you," Thor asked, trying not to sound accusing.
"I-- Well, I knew that there was a possibility, if not the specifics," Loki said, hedging, tugging his hand away from Thor's. "If I had known that coming here would result in possible rude words scrawled on my arm, I wouldn't have bothered!"
Right. Thor gave Loki a look and said, "I'm fairly sure you wouldn't have stopped for such a meagre threat, but this seems rather more than rude words. What is this, really?"
For all that Loki, as he was now, accepted the titles that were now thrown at him-- Liesmith, Silvertongue-- he was remarkably reticent to lie outright. Naturally, he bent the truth into interesting shapes in the process, but Thor was fairly sure that Loki could not help but give him a true answer, however refracted. In his more suspicious moments, Thor wondered if lies were simply too boring, too easy, now-- a fiction quickly told, whereas the truth took a lot more finesse to fit one's purposes.
Now, Loki licked his lips and looked carefully at Thor, as if considering the best way to handle the situation. There was something off about him, not in his secrecy or reluctance to show all his cards, but in the way that he acted so clearly as if there were more cards to his hand. Thor was not naive enough to think that Loki would ever spill his knowledge in whole, but Loki was rarely off-guard enough to hint at the presence of more information so clearly. No, there was something unbalanced about Loki, though it didn't make Thor concerned for the fate of Asgard or Midgard, but rather for Loki himself.
Loki looked aside, finally, and spoke. "I don't think this book was designed to let someone leave. I've taken in some of it, you see, and now-- well, I think it intends to make me part of its collection." He paused, considering. "I wondered what had happened to the original scribe who created this place. He must be on a shelf somewhere, I imagine."
"Ah." Thor paused and took Loki's fingers in his hands once again. "You would not consider it, would you? Attaining a kind of immortality between the pages of a book?"
Loki looked surprised. "No, no-- is that what you thought? I have no intention of becoming a book. I would be a very slim book, I think. Hardly worth reading. Or, well, perhaps I would be some monstrous tome with endless confusing appendices. This is just-- a payment for passage, perhaps."
"Is it worth paying for?"
"Yes. Yes, I hope so."
They walked on, delving ever further into the library. Loki strode ahead even faster than the day before, still chattering and telling stories about the newest exploits of his puppy (if one could call it a puppy). The stories faltered occasionally, however, the steady flow interupted by a gap, a place where something or someone should be. Every time, Loki's footsteps slowed along with the story, and then resumed with a fierce determination that made Loki's footsteps echo on the flagstones. Sometimes, Loki wrapped his fingers around his arm, pressing hard, letting go as soon as he felt Thor's gaze upon him.
It was late in the afternoon before they found the book that Loki had been looking for.
Loki's footsteps slowed and stuttered to a stop as he looked up into the bookshelves. It was a long, long aisle, and when Thor looked up into the bookshelves, he thought he recognized old stories from the dusty annals of history, and then the names of battles that he had fought in, and yet more beyond. Loki bit his lip nervously and indicated a volume above his head: The Rise of the Age of Asgardia - Vol. 1.
Loki's magpie flapped over to his shoulder and squawked at Loki, but Loki waved his inquiring head away.
It was a thick affair, like all Asgardian histories, that surely contained at least a few hundred years. Loki did not open it when Thor handed it to him. Loki's lips pressed together in a thin line, and he opened his mouth, as if to say something, before shaking his head and closing it again.
When Loki did open it, he took a deep, shaky breath and pulled off his glove. For a moment, Thor saw no difference, before realizing that Loki's entire forearm was suffused with ink, black as his gloves. Loki sank his teeth into his ink-dark thumb until a gleaming black bead welled up from his skin. He pressed his thumb to the title page, leaving his thumbprint, deep black against the creamy vellum, the edges of the whorls giving the hint of words.
Loki flipped through the rest of the book, skimming over the sentences before they could dissolve and quickly turning the page as soon as the words started dripping into the centre of the page.
His brow creased as he read, deepening as he soon reached the centre of the book and then the end.
"What is it?" Thor asked quietly
Loki ignored him, still turning pages as quickly as his hands would let him.
"I don't understand-- why--" he said under his breath, his voice tight.
He threw the book onto the floor and took the next book out, flipping through it just as quickly, and then went back to the first, his hands frantic on the pages, his fingers shaking.
"No, no, she isn't here-- why isn't she here?" he said, a frantic edge to his voice.
"Who?" Thor said, looking between the books, desperately trying to understand what they were looking for. He had thought that there was some object of curiosity, some old, vanished tome that could have tempted Loki to this place, but this was something far more delicate, far more dangerous.
Loki looked up at him, looking stricken for a bare second, and then darted his gaze back to the book, skimming the pages again. "Nothing. Still nothing! Why, why, would there be nothing?"
"Just-- tell me, Loki what are you looking for?" Thor said.
"You wouldn't know!" Loki snapped, turning his attention back to the book, as if he could summon up the words he wanted.
The words bubbled up and slid to the centre of the page, but Loki didn't move. The words formed fingers, slim and tapered, and Loki caught his breath, a fragile hope in the curve of his mouth, but the ink surged up, and it thickened to a long-fingered man's hand, dark fingernails reaching out of the page.
Loki slammed the book shut. His magpie squawked again.
He didn't look at Thor.
Loki's dark fingers clenched tightly around the book's spine. "I should have known, Thor. She wasn't in there. And why should she be? Of course, she wouldn't be mentioned, she was just Hela's hand, she was going to have to go back to her, anyways, and that's that. It was inevitable, right? So it shouldn't matter."
Hela's hand-- Thor remembered hearing about a little, dark shadow of Hela who had taken to associating with Loki on occasion, but he had never met the girl himself, nor did he know anything about her exact nature. Thor felt a wrench of guilt twist inside his chest-- for not knowing who, exactly, this girl was, nor why Loki was so frantic now.
Loki leaned against the shelf now, looking paler and far more tired than ever before.
His eyes drifted to the rest of the shelf, and Loki's fingers fluttered over the titles embossed in the leather-bound spines of the following volumes, further histories with titles of battles that Thor did not recognize. He made to lift one out, grasping the book and drawing it halfway out of the shelf.
"Loki," he said, placing his hand on the book. He would never deny knowledge to anyone who so desired it, but there was nothing to be gained from this.
Loki still did not look at him. "Would you not prefer to know what to expect from me? I'm sure everyone would--I hardly know what to expect from myself, at times. Especially now."
"Did you not say yourself that the volumes are ever-changing?"
"It could surely provide some information, a data point from which to extrapolate other end-points. You did not answer my question, I notice," Loki said, his voice flat.
Thor removed his hand from the book. "Loki, I do not know what happened, but I would not see you living your life with the shadow of the future hanging on your shoulders as well as that of the past."
"But it makes such a fine cape!" Loki grinned, a sideways, strained affair that hurt Thor to look at. "What is it-- are you so sure that these volumes contain the further adventures of Loki, burner of Asgard, killer of millions, all-around bad guy and kicker of kittens, pushed over the edge to his inevitable downfall by-- by--"
"No," Thor said. He wanted to reach out, to touch Loki's small, shaking shoulders, but Thor was not sure if it would be be welcome. Thor was sure that another could make Loki understand, but he could only shape his words like a blacksmith: simple, practical affairs that have never had the delicate points of Loki's speech. "No, never that."
It seemed to Thor that there was another ripple in the books behind them, titles sliding off to be replaced by others. Thor was quite sure that the shelf where Loki placed the book back had not contained so many volumes before. Or had it? Perhaps it had always been that way. Loki let go of the book with a shaky sigh that ended in a cough, his body still strung tight.
"I miss her," Loki said, quietly enough that Thor almost did not hear it.
There was a great shiver, a shudder that ran through the stones around them and shook their bones. The shelves around them groaned.
"Uh oh," said Loki.
Another shudder, and books fell off the shelves, falling open and liberating their contents-- in the aisle beside him, Thor could hear the bellowing of a great bull, the hissing of a chimera, and at the end of the aisle, a Vanir warrior of old stepped out of his book, shaking off the dust coating his spear. he drew Mjolnir-- this, at least, he could do.
"Loki, what for getting out of here?"
"Yes-- yes, all right," Loki said with a wrench, looking back to the shelves desperately, and then running for the end of the row.
Loki dodged a three-headed beast which then yielded to Mjolnir's might, and scrambled into the next aisle down. He stumbled, coughing heavily, a deep, wet sound, as if there was liquid in his lungs. Thor was at his side at once, his hands hovering over Loki's shoulders as they heaved. Loki waved him off. "I'm fine! Concern yourself with the beasts--I fear that though they might be made of ink and paper, they might be just as likely to cause us to die with lots of stabbings and bitings."
Loki led them through the aisles again, keeping a hand on the shelves to steady himself, as Thor brought up the back, wielding Mjolnir against the beasts, men, and crawling, mysterious things that sprang out of the paper around them. A creature of the deeps slithered out from the aisle beside them, catching Loki's foot with its tentacle before Thor beat it back, its yellow ichor splattering upon his clothes. At last Loki skidded to a stop, breathing hard.
"Please be here," Loki muttered, searching the shelves, his chest heaving.
He pulled a book off the shelf-- Keepers of Asgard's Library-- and opened it at once. The ink trembled and dripped and coalesced quickly into a figure, an old man who stepped neatly out of the book when Loki dropped it onto the floor.
"Ah," he said, looking around at the collapsing library. "Follow me."
The old man strode through the shelves with no hesitation, deftly avoiding the books still falling around them and yielding up wonders and monsters. Loki took a few stumbling steps after him, and fell to his knees, the wracking cough shaking his body. Thor picked him up again, cradling him close, and Loki said hoarsely, "Follow him, follow him."
The man stopped soon after and drew out a book, yet unopened, from the shelves. He handed it to Loki as he scrambled out of Thor's arms. It was a Midgardian book, to Thor's surprise-- an early history.
Loki cracked the book open in his hands, leaning heavily on Thor. He had the time to read the heading of the page-- "The Library of Alexandria"--before the words curled and pooled in the middle of the page, slick as oil, and a column of flame stretched up from the book, crackling and flickering. Loki dropped the book onto the floor, closing it at once and flinching back from the licks of flame that darted out from the book.
"Why?" Loki said, shaking-- whether from frustration or from the ink devouring his body, Thor did not know. "You can't just destroy all this-- everything in here! You made this!"
The old man smiled sadly. "Sometimes, it is better for things to be lost. To start anew."
Loki's face went hard. "To forget, then?"
"No, never to forget. To fade away with the passage of time, but not to forget."
"I won't, you understand? This--" he gestured around him. "You are just as real as I, are you not? What of your own fate?" Loki asked, his breathing rasping out from between his clenched teeth as he clutched at Thor's arm.
"I remain here."
Suddenly, Loki gave a shudder and went limp in Thor's grasp, his legs folding under him. Something in Thor's chest seized with panic. He caught Loki up in his arms; even as dead weight, he weighed so little. Thor felt Loki's cheek with the back of his hand; his skin was dry as parchment, but burned more fiercely than ever. There was a line of black that crept out from his hood, and Thor did not care to check whether it was a curl of mussed hair or a stroke of ink.
The old man opened the book, letting it blaze once again, and lifted up a hand in farewell.
The floor tilted again in a dizzying lurch, and Thor clutched tightly onto Loki. It lasted but a moment, and then they were back on steady land. The bookshelves around them were still, with no blazing fire or monsters to disturb the quiet. In the distance, he could see the oak doors of the library's entrance.
Loki opened his eyes and shifted in Thor's arms. His breathing was steady now, and his skin no longer burned through his clothing. Loki sat up, untangling himself and setting his clothes right, something heavy in the way he moved, and did not say anything.
The book still lay open in front of them, its pages rustling in the breeze that drifted in through an open window.
There was a moment where nothing seemed to happen, before Thor spotted the slow, creeping edge of glowing red that spread from the spine of the book, leaving the parchment black and brittle. It bloomed over the page and ate at the text until it reached the edges, where it died, the glow fading.
Loki reached out to touch the parchment, and the pages of the book crumbled into ashes.
"Well, that's that. The librarian truly is going to kill me for this," Loki said.
Loki tugged off his glove, inspecting his hand. His hand was pale again, but for a line of black where he had bitten down on his thumb. He stared at it, an unfamiliar blankness on his face.
"I am tired of inevitability, Thor. I am tired of having to do the right thing," he said. His voice was tightly reined, but there was a trembling, unknowable thing underneath.
Thor tensed beside him. "What do you mean?"
Loki didn't answer, but curled in tighter on himself. "I am tired of losing people when I do what must be done. She can't come back, can she." It wasn't a question, and Loki went on, his voice high and tight. "How is that fair? Why do I get a second chance, and she doesn't?"
Thor was helplessly adrift, navigating treacherous waters without any stars to guide him. "I don't know," he said honestly. He put an arm out slowly, placing it around Loki's small shoulders. Loki tensed at the touch, but then collapsed all at once against Thor's side.
"I was just hoping. Maybe. Maybe, just maybe, if I gave the book some of myself in return--"
Thor knew not what to say, but he wrapped his arms around Loki and held on to him, steady and tight.
"But perhaps it wouldn't have been Leah. Maybe she wouldn't have liked milkshakes."
Loki's voice was very, very small. Too small, even for the boy's body that held it. There were so many who would say that there was surely a trick to this-- that Loki must be planning something, to show something so honest and so vulnerable as grief-- but Thor could not bring himself to doubt, not when Loki was curled against his chest, his fingers hooked into Thor's cape, holding Thor near as his shoulders shook, though he made no sound.
Thor wrapped himself as best he could around Loki, and hoped that somehow, it could be enough.
He didn't know how long they sat there, but Loki eventually pulled away. He still looked shaken, but that dangerous edge was gone, a quiet weariness in its place.
"Shall we go?" Thor asked, keeping his hands on Loki's shoulders.
Loki took a deep breath. "There's, there's just one thing I should do, perhaps."
Loki led them again to the Asgardian histories, though the shelves were a mere turn and a few lengths down the corridor of shelves, this time. He looked up at the shelves again and stood on his tip-toes to reach a book: the most recent volume for their time, if Thor was not mistaken. There were none of the later volumes that they had seen in the library, stretching far into the depths of the future.
Loki flipped to the very last page, a page that ended with a single question mark. Nothing stirred in the book. The letters did not shiver from their places, the ink dry and set.
Balancing the book in one arm, Loki bit his thumb again, right where the ink-dark mark remained.
At this, his magpie seemed to grow distressed, flapping its wings and cawing loudly, but Loki ignored it and pressed this thumb to the page, leaving an imprint of feathery whorls over the final interrogation mark of the book. The ink shone on the page for a moment, and then suddenly spread down the page in a untidy, spidery scrawl most unlike the measured calligraphy above. Thor glimpsed a scribble that might have been "BFFs" before the ink went dull as it dried and Loki closed the book.
"There," he said. Thor squeezed his shoulders, and did not comment on his wet face.
Loki put the book back on the shelf and gave a shuddering sigh, wiping his face on his arm.
"Would it be appropriate to toast her with a milkshake?" Thor ventured.
Loki lifted his chin. "Yes. Yes, I think that would be good," he said. "She liked chocolate ones."
The doors opened wide beneath their hands when they left the library, and the golden afternoon that streamed through set the dust motes in the air alight. Loki's hand slipped into his own and held on.