They met again, as had become their tradition with time, in a restaurant on Midgard. Cheap and shoddy to Loki’s eyes, but that seemed to be his preference, and Loki was not terribly inclined to question it. Loki arrived a bit early and settled in to wait.
He wasn’t waiting long.
He came through the front door to the pleasant ring of bells and sat down across from Loki, his movements unhurried. Loki gave him a smile.
“It’s been a time,” he said, bowing his head with the utmost politeness.
“I’ve been busy.”
Loki’s eyebrows arched. “What with? I haven’t heard about any great disturbances…”
“Here on this planet. Some unpleasant business,” Death said casually. “Now done with.” Loki was getting better at reading his expressions, and that one seemed faintly peeved.
“Well, that’s a relief.” Loki nodded at the menus set before them. “What is it you’re here for?”
“The pickle chips,” Death said, quite casually. “They’re quite good.”
Around them, the usual bustle and noise of the restaurant had quieted. Voices a little quieter, Loki noticed, tempers a little more subdued. Death, he thought. Death bringing a little death with him, though he doubted the mortals were even aware of it. No doubt they thought it simply their own temper. Perhaps the grey color of the day.
“You’re planning something,” Death said, after a few moments of silence. Loki raised his eyebrows.
“If I am? I know well how little interest you have in the petty affairs of us living things.”
“You look like you dearly wish to tell someone some secret.”
“Are you nominating yourself?”
Death looked faintly bored, perusing the menu. “I merely remark.”
In two days time, Loki thought, perhaps Death would visit Asgard. If it went poorly. But it should not, he had planned everything to perfection. Nothing would go wrong. All would see Thor for a reckless fool, and Loki could breathe easily for a few more years.
(And Thor would not, once again, shine above Loki so much higher that he could never hope to reach him, only to stay in his shadow, forever and ever and ever, but that was petty, small, and he was doing this for the good of the realm, the good of the realm.)
Death was regarding him, not with curiosity. With knowing. It was tempting to ask, of course. It always was. Do I die? How? When. Does Thor…?
He found a smile, bright if not entirely sincere. Death never remarked on the honesty or lack thereof of his smiles. It was one of the things he appreciated. “I come here to listen, not to speak.”
Death did not question the change of subject, either, and Loki let himself relax into the strange familiarity of this odd thing, at once comfortable and nerve-wracking. Like walking a familiar high wire. A dangerous line, thin, often-trod but who knew when it might…
Loki had never shied from danger. Not when other lures were greater.
It was like this:
Loki was very young when they first crossed paths.
He’d been sick often as a young child. Low level fevers, lingering coughs that settled in his chest and clung despite all the best efforts of the healers. This time, however, was somewhat different, and he’d known it even then. His fever had started low only to climb and keep climbing until he was burning with it, half delirious, and the cold compresses only seemed to spur his temperature to greater heights.
He, of course, at the time, knew none of this; only that his body hurt and he was too cold and too hot at the same time, that the world was a blur of smeared colors and indistinct voices and every so often he wept dry sobs, not having the water to spare for tears.
And then, he remembered, it all started to bleed away, fading a little at a time with a feeling like he was coming untethered from his body and starting to drift. Disconcerted, he’d opened his eyes and there he’d been, gaunt, his face lined and something profoundly ancient about his eyes, even more so than the All-Father. He remembered a desire, almost overwhelming, to reach out and touch his hand, and then how strange it was that no one seemed to be alarmed by the sudden appearance of a stranger.
He understood a moment later, and snatched his hand back. “Am I going to die?” he remembered asking.
Death considered him. “Not today, it would seem,” he said. “Strange. I am seldom wrong.” The desire to reach for the stranger faded. “Another day.”
Loki blinked and found himself once more bound in the heavy weight of his body. Everything seemed too bright and he felt deathly tired, but the pain had subsided, and he blinked dazedly up at faces slowly coming into focus. “His fever’s broken,” Eir’s voice drifted into his consciousness. “I think he’s through the worst of it.”
His mother made a sound that to his young ears was terrifyingly like a sob. I’m all right, he meant to tell her. Death decided not to take me, but he slipped off into sleep too quickly to say it, and when he woke, it seemed rather like a dream, hazy and strange, and he couldn’t be certain it had happened at all.
It looked, at first, like Thor had merely had too much to drink. Gesticulating wildly, his grand gestures nearly knocking the Dark Elf seated next to him in the face, his face was brightly flushed and he roared with laughter at odd moments. Loki, seated a few chairs down from him, resisted the urge to shake his head or roll his eyes. Such might be permitted at their family dinners, but then, Thor was still not allowed to drink at their family dinners. They were both, it was adamantly stated, too young.
But at a state feast there was nothing to keep Thor from getting into the mead, and it had apparently gone straight to his head.
But there was something odd about it, Loki realized, the more he watched. Something clumsy about Thor’s movements, and when, quite suddenly, Thor hiccuped and fell forward against the table, to the good-natured laughter of the hall, he felt a prickle of wrongness.
“Thor?” he heard Frigga say, over the din, leaning over. “Are you well? Perhaps you should retire…”
Loki reached out clumsily with his half trained magic even as Thor tried to shrug her off, mumbling something about being fine. His enhanced sight flicked to the cup and he recoiled at the snarl of purple-black oozing from the golden chalice.
Oh. Oh no.
“Mother!” he said, leaping to his feet and starting to run down the table, ignoring the startled exclamations of his neighbors. “Mother, poison!”
Frigga turned, and then Thor wavered, bent double, and threw up thick black slime over his plate.
Loki reached them as Frigga was pulling his brother away from the table, shouting for the healers. Loki could see her own magic weaving in and through, fighting the dark tendrils that had rooted inside Thor, but it seemed so weak, so fragile-
He threw himself into her fight, ignoring her sharply barked “Loki, no!”, latching onto the curse and prying at it like trying to pull a leech off of skin. He could feel it coming and drew harder upon his store of magic, too weak, too weak-
“Loki,” he heard, someone tugging at him but Thor was dying, “stop, stop-”
There’d been no slow fade, this time. One moment he’d been straining to reach depths he didn’t have, and the next he’d gone under as surely as though he’d been struck over the head. Though it didn’t seem that way to him, at the time; only as though suddenly his magic was gone and he was standing nowhere-in-particular and facing a gaunt man, dressed in black and leaning on a cane, thinning hair combed sleekly back from his face.
He hadn’t remembered, until then, the first time. And then he did, and so understood. “Oh,” he said. “Oops.”
Death did not look amused. Death did not, in fact, look anything. He simply regarded Loki with as little concern or care as he had shown before. “Am I dead, then?” Loki asked, finally. Death shook his head, after a moment’s pause.
“No. You are not.”
“Then why am I seeing you?” he challenged.
“I thought you would be.”
“Does that mean you were wrong again?” Loki asked, feeling strangely giddy, but even as he spoke the question Death was gone.
He learned, when he had come around to his mother’s ash pale face and fiery fury, that the poison Thor had been given had been dangerous, but the dosage had never been fatal; that Frigga had had things under control at once, that the healers knew well how to counteract its effects. In other words, that Loki had made a complete idiot of himself for no good reason.
“You nearly died,” Frigga said, fiercely. “You have no idea – drawing on your own life force like that!”
I know, Loki was tempted to say, even with his face burning with shame. I saw him. But somehow – he stifled that urge, to speak of it. He did not think, somehow, that it was the time.
Loki took on the habit of testing everything he was given before tasting it, and did the same for Thor. He added poisons and their antidotes to his researches already well under way, to Thor’s great unease.
The first time Loki summoned him on purpose he did it on Midgard. It was a realm of mortals, after all, more familiar with Death. He had searched long and hard and deep in books that the rest of Asgard had forgotten for the means, and finding it had gone through everything with even more meticulous care than he took with his other craftsworkings. Everything he read warned against what he was attempting, with varying degrees of threats of dire punishment (ranging, he noted with some amusement, from immediate death to an inability to die at all), but that had never stopped Loki from any course.
The casting was, in the end, simple enough. He chose his words carefully to make it a request, not a demand, performing the ritual in the upstairs floor of a German tavern. He waited roughly an hour with no result, and then descended in disappointment to find Death sitting at a table by the fire, the rest of the room empty. There was one man left, lying on a table with a knife in his belly, chairs and cups overturned like there’d been a rush to leave.
Loki sat down across the table and folded his hands together. “Am I to thank you for the privacy?” he asked, after a moment’s silence.
“Not very many attempt to summon me and succeed, Loki of Asgard,” Death said, his voice a tone that sent shivers down Loki’s spine, though he could not have said why. “I do not take to it well. Those that do succeed do not tend to survive to describe their success.”
Loki found a smile, perhaps a little too easily. “If you were to kill me, you would have done it by now, without bothering to speak to me.”
“Perhaps I wished to see the face of one who would summon me with such audacity.”
“You knew it was me,” Loki said, with surety. “And I am fairly certain that you knew what I was doing before I’d finished.”
Death neither confirmed nor denied this supposition. Simply regarded Loki for several moments that seemed like the longest heartbeats of his life, half expecting that each would be his last. Finally, he said, “Did you have a question, or were you just planning to bask in my august presence until I grew bored?”
“You’ve come twice,” Loki said, feeling a little rush of boldness. “Thinking I would die. When I did not. That does not…usually happen, does it?”
Death regarded him, silently. Loki took a deep breath through his nose and let it out.
“I want to know why it has to me.”
Another long silence, but Loki resisted the urge to fidget. “That,” said Death after a long time, “I’m afraid I cannot tell you.”
Loki frowned. “Cannot, or will not?”
Death’s eyes regarded him as though he were a particularly peculiar and insolent insect. “Will not. I owe you nothing, Loki Odinsson. Remember it.”
Loki inclined his head at once. “I shall, of course. I only wished-”
“Then you may go on wishing.” Death stood. “I have business to see to.”
Loki could not keep himself from asking. “While you are here, do people stop dying?”
Death looked, just for a moment, perhaps faintly amused. But a fraction of a second later it was gone, and Loki might have imagined the whole thing. “No. As I am here, I am with them. As I am at all times, with all living things. There when they breathe their first, and at the last. Nothing lives without Death.”
Loki felt his eyes widen with a strange sort of awe. “That’s beautiful.”
“No,” said Death. “Beauty is an artifact of life. I simply am.” He straightened, and looked coolly down at Loki, who had never felt so thoroughly humbled in his life. “I expect I shall be seeing you again soon.”
Loki blinked, faintly alarmed. “—does that mean that I will-”
“Do not,” Death said, “even attempt to ask me.” He turned, and started toward the door. “And if you wish to speak again, offer me food,” Death added, with perhaps the faintest touch of asperity. “It is only polite.”
Loki did not think he would ever enjoy close combat. Others could talk about the thrill of grappling hand to hand with one’s enemy, or the exhilaration of the smell of sweat and blood, but it smelled rather foul to Loki, and primarily seemed to be a mess of heaving bodies, absent order, strategy, or any other sense.
That did not, however, Loki thought bitterly as he yanked his dagger free of a troll’s throat, mean that he was bad at it.
He called up a throwing knife and sent it flying into one of the beasts’ eyes, twisting himself out of being to land behind it and slice just above its knee. The creature went down, bellowing. Loki did a quick Thor-check, and found him gleefully pounding in the head of his own foe.
His eye caught Sif cutting down another, unaware of the troll trying to creep up on her. “Your back, Sif!” he yelled, and was caught thoroughly by surprise by the sudden white-hot thrust of pain through his side.
He glanced down and blinked at the spearhead that had – oh. Damn.
He looked back. The troll he’d just cut down was snarling victoriously, having dragged itself to its knees, hands wrapped around the crude spear it had just stuck through him. Blast.
“Brother!” Thor roared, and then the troll yanked the spear out and that was. Worse.
He dropped, reaching for the magic to sear the wound closed, and-
“Hello again,” said Loki, a touch raggedly. “Is this becoming a pattern?” Third time’s the charm, he thought a little giddily, and felt the urge to giggle.
Death regarded him, as unconcerned as ever. “You do seem to have an uncanny knack for trouble, Loki Odinsson.”
“Is this time the last one?” he asked. “Or are you going to be wrong again?”
“Don’t tempt me.” Loki suspected that was not entirely a joke. Maybe not even partially a joke.
“Oh.” Loki paused. Considered that. “So I’m not dead?”
“Not yet.” Death paused, and then turned.
“Wait,” Loki said, and Death paused. He felt a dizzy rush of – not confidence. Fear, maybe. But he forced the words out anyway. “Perhaps we could talk again? Lunch. I owe you a meal, do I not?”
Death was silent for a moment, and when Loki blinked again he was back in his body, Thor frantic with worry despite the fact that the wound, however awful, had already begun to close.
Much later, he found a note in the lining of his furs, however, that read simply, Midgard, three o’ clock on the solstice. There is a place in a new city called “New York” that interests me. I would not necessarily take company amiss.
It was like this:
Loki met Death for lunch on Midgard, finding him in a city that smelled heavily of sickness. Loki picked his way through it until he found the establishment Death had spoken of, glanced through the window, and found it empty. After considering for a few moments, he stepped inside. He sat down at a table where he could watch the door.
He arrived, only a few minutes later, and sat down across from Loki without objection. A waiter approached them, looking nervous. Loki ordered the first item on the menu without much interest or hunger. Death considered a bit longer, and then requested fish and chips.
“Why this city?” he asked, after a moment’s silence. “It smells like-”
“It seemed…convenient,” Death said, his voice sonorous but soft. Loki steepled his chin on his fingers. And are you reminding me of who you are? He wondered, but that seemed…perhaps foolish. “And I am fond of the food here.”
“I must admit,” Loki said slowly. “I wasn’t expecting you to agree.”
Death hardly reacted to that pronouncement. He was watching Loki with that strange intensity, the gaze that made Loki feel unbearably young, as he seldom did even under the All-Father’s gaze these days. Young and insignificant.
He was not sure he liked the feeling, but at least here he knew it wasn’t personal. That was some small comfort.
“Your situation is somewhat…unusual.”
“And you still won’t tell me why?”
“By now, I think you have your own guesses.” The waiter brought Death a tall drink and he sipped delicately at it. “Which I can neither confirm nor deny.”
“I came up with one or two ideas.” Loki waited, but Death neither told him to stop nor continue. “The first is that it is some property of my magic, that when I am near death I can glimpse through whatever hides you normally, if you are – as you said – omnipresent.”
Death said nothing, not even a flicker to show if he was right. Loki leaned forward a little.
“Or else it’s a matter of fate,” he said. “And of my fate being in flux. The thread still being spun, and you cannot quite see the end of it. And thus you’ve thought – but what looked like the end was only another turn after all.” Still no reaction. “I’m inclined to think the second. Or perhaps some combination of both.”
“You prescribe a fair amount of unique talent to yourself,” Death noted.
Loki shrugged. “No doubt it’s insignificant to you, but Asgard has not had a better sorcerer in a generation. Since the All-Father himself, it’s been said.”
“You are right,” Death said. “It is insignificant to me.”
Loki leaned forward a little. “From your perspective…all of this must seem so. Petty and small and pointless.”
“Not pointless, perhaps.” Death sipped at his drink.
“But you’ve seen wonders,” Loki pressed, and he couldn’t quite keep the eagerness he’d been trying to suppress from slipping into his voice. “Old as you are…things no one else can imagine. Worlds, realms…”
“I have,” Death said, after a moment.
“Would you tell me?”
Death gave him a long, considering look. “Why? You will never see them. Most of them you could not. Some were dead and gone long before you were born.”
“I don’t care.” Loki leaned forward, fractionally, a little more, chest nearly pressed against the edge of the table. “I just want to know.”
Loki didn’t know what he’d expected. But he hadn’t expected Death to actually talk to him, tell him stories of worlds long gone and dead and forgotten, for hours. Death did not get lonely, he thought, surely not, but perhaps…
All those memories, perhaps it was good to have someone to hear.
His Midgardian fare sat forgotten before him, though Death’s did not, he seeming to devour the meal with at least some small amount of relish. When Death finally fell silent, Loki blinked as though he were waking from a deep sleep.
Death stood, slowly, and Loki snapped upright. “You’re leaving?”
“I have finished my meal,” Death said, with a gesture at his empty basket. “And I have other places to be.”
Loki’s breath snagged, almost, in his throat. “Might we do this again?” He asked, carefully, after a moment. Death considered.
“We might,” he said, finally, and started toward the door, strides slow and even even as he leaned on his cane.
It’s like this:
That last time, just before Thor’s coronation, was the last time they met.
When he let go of the Bifrost and fell, Loki expected to see him again. Falling with him, perhaps, or else standing, impossibly, where there was nothing on which to stand. Hand extended, saying, now is the time. See? I said you’d come to it eventually. Everyone does.
But there was only the dark, and the void, and the falling.
Death? he thought, or spoke, or perhaps both, but there was no answer.
It came to him in a moment of blistering clarity: the stories he remembered, about those who dared to call on Death, who presumed to hold themselves at his level. Cursed with instant death, sometimes; or sometimes eternal life.
He thought back to that meeting in the tavern in Germany, the man dead on the table with the knife in his belly, death watching him, and laughed until he howled.