Loki is in New York reading on his living room couch when the lights go out.
It starts with a brief flare of immense power that lights up the room, making Loki squint against the brightness. Before he can even react, a great whoosh sounds in the air and then it's as if all of the energy is sucked out of the room, little streaks of light that are gone in the blink of an eye.
Something terribly wrong is happening, something unnatural. Loki can't help but feel a deep sense of foreboding. Though he most often views himself as above petty emotions like fear, he's also not a fool. Above all else, Loki is a pragmatist and a little healthy fear has saved him more times than he can count. The most important thing right now is finding out as much information as possible and Loki knows that he will learn nothing by just sitting there in the dark. Loki stands up and gestures fluidly with his hand, conjuring a small blue magelight to hover in the air and light his way. He carefully moves through the penthouse and then opens the balcony's sliding glass door, stepping out into the summer evening air.
"By the Norns," he breathes out. The so-called City that Never Sleeps has been plunged into total darkness. There are no streetlights, no flashing signs, and the street below is full of cars and taxis that have suddenly stopped working. Loki can hear the sounds of mortals speaking, their voices shrill and rising in fear. For several moments, Loki simply watches in morbid curiosity. It's not about the mortals, as he can't say that he really cares whether they live or die; it's the situation itself that leaves him on edge.
This is more than just a simple power outage. Loki knows what he felt right before everything went dark. The incident was magical in nature, and oddly enough, the magic seemed almost familiar. As Loki watches the people of New York panic, his thoughts come rapidly and the pieces start slotting together: the raw elemental power, the way it affected the electricity, and the familiarity of it. It all points to one source.
"Thor," Loki mutters to himself, "what have you gotten yourself into this time?"
Because Thor - fool that he is - has a ridiculous fondness for mortals and would never do anything to intentionally cause them harm. Whatever has gone wrong clearly happened against Thor's will, and from the amount of power at play, the situation must be very dire indeed.
It would be better if Loki could just leave it alone. He shouldn't care about Thor being harmed. After all, he's spent the past five years scheming and wreaking havoc on Thor and his friends. And yet he feels the urge to find out what happened, driven by his curiosity and the odd possessiveness of Thor that he can never quite shake.
Loki swallows hard, his throat tight with the bitter knowledge that he will go to Thor's aid now, even after everything that has passed between them. Thor is ever the stupid, brave idiot and Loki the shrewd, clever one to save him from his own foolishness. It is weakness, plain and simple. They are not brothers and Loki is under no obligation to help Thor. However, it seems that they cannot escape each other; they must always be something to each other, whether it be the closest of brothers or the bitterest of rivals.
It shouldn't end like this, Thor felled at the hands of another. It should be the two of them facing off against each other, a final showdown where Loki can at long last prove himself as Thor's better. Loki laughs bitterly to himself. It seems that even he has some twisted sense of honor left within him.
Loki takes a deep breath, quieting his mind so that he can concentrate. He lets his magic reach out with little tendrils, tracking the residue of the disturbance back to its source. His body becomes ether as he teleports and travels towards it. While Loki doesn't know exactly what he'll find there, he's certain that Thor will be at the center of it.
When Loki arrives, it's pure chaos and he can't help but take some pleasure in it. The streets of Manhattan are overrun with humans, panicking and yelling in an attempt to make sense of what has happened. There are flames of a few scattered lanterns and torches, lonely beacons cutting through the overbearing darkness. From what Loki can make out, most of the torchbearers seem to be wearing SHIELD uniforms; it seems that some humans do possess the ability to be rational in the face of danger. Loki mutters a brief spell to make himself unnoticeable and then starts walking forward. As Loki effortlessly glides through the mob of people, he also comes across a slew of stinking, motionless corpses that appear to be draugr of some kind.
After a few more moments of looking around, he finally sees something to point him in the right direction. Captain America, Iron Man, and Black Widow are further down the street, huddled around something on the ground. The Captain holds a torch in one hand, the weak light illuminating their faces.
Loki curses under his breath at the sight of them. It's been five years since their first encounter and it's truly shameful that he still hasn't managed to destroy them yet. He's also painfully aware of the fact that he himself was the catalyst that brought them all together. But Loki doesn't like to dwell on his own personal regrets, not when it's so much more rewarding to nurse his grudges.
The archer and the green monster are nowhere to be found. Loki supposes they must have been off on business elsewhere, as the Avengers' talents are in high demand. He cannot say that he's terribly upset by their absence.
As Loki approaches, he can almost make out the figure on the ground. His suspicions are raised when it appears that there are little bits of sparks dancing around it. When he's roughly ten feet away, he has his answer: it is indeed Thor. The concrete is cracked like a small crater around him, as if he smashed into it with great force. Mjolnir is tightly within his grip and crackling with energy beside him.
Thor's body is prone and his armor is battered and streaked with dirt and sweat. His skin is pale and his face has gone slack. But the most alarming part of all is the steady crackling of lightning in his eyes. Loki has seen sparks flash in Thor's eyes during battle or in moments of intense rage, but never like this and never for this long. The wrongness of it makes Loki's skin crawl.
Before Loki can think better of it, he's moving forward and shoving Thor's friends out of the way so that he can crouch down beside his former brother.
"Thor," Loki calls out as he takes Thor's shoulders in his hands and shakes him. The lightning crackles a bit brighter in Thor's eyes, but Thor doesn't stir. Loki mutters obscenities to himself under his breath. He starts considering which spells he might use to try and rouse Thor when he hears the cocking of a gun behind him.
"Get away from him. Now."
Loki stands up and slowly turns around to find himself face to face with the Black Widow and staring down the barrel of her gun. The Captain and Iron Man stand beside her, glaring at Loki. Like Thor, they all look a little worse for wear, dirty and exhausted. Though Stark is dressed in his full armor (with the exception of his faceplate), the parts of his suit that are usually illuminated have gone dark. The three of them hover around Thor defensively, their bodies tightly coiled and ready to strike out at their enemy.
Loki crosses his arms and smirks at them. "Oh, I'd like to see you try."
Romanov glowers at him and cocks her gun again. Loki smiles at the empty threat.
"Come to finish the job then," Rogers says, gesturing down at Thor.
"No. This is not my doing."
"Forgive me if I find that hard to believe," Romanov says.
"Believe what you will," Loki says. "It's none of my concern."
She looks around for a brief moment before fixing her sharp gaze on Loki again. "Why has no one else noticed you?"
"They can't see me," Loki says dryly. "The only reason you can is that I need information and you're the only remotely intelligent people for miles."
Stark raises an eyebrow. "Thank you?"
"Enough pleasantries. Now tell me what happened," Loki demands.
The three of them look at him warily, but then they all glance down at their fallen comrade. Loki can't help but glance at Thor too, and he forces himself to tamp down on his own foolish worry.
The Avengers exchange a series of looks, as if struggling to reach a consensus on their next course of action. From the resignation that eventually settles over their features, Loki can tell what they have decided. Though they do not trust Loki, it seems that their desperation and concern for Thor have won out for now.
Loki can't say he's surprised when the Captain is the one to speak, always willing to play the fearless leader. He is so like Thor sometimes, stupidly noble to the point of being nauseating.
"Apparently there was some kind of stone that got unearthed during a construction project earlier today," he says. "Didn't look like much until some teenagers disturbed it when they were messing around on the construction site tonight."
Loki rolls his eyes. Mortals can be so terribly careless sometimes.
"It started having a reaction, spawning those creatures," Rogers continues, gesturing to the rotting bodies around them. "SHIELD came and killed one, but then more kept coming. They attacked the stone itself, but that only seemed to make it worse. That's when they called us in."
Loki strokes his chin thoughtfully. "Tell me more about this stone."
"Natasha was able to get pretty close to it, she said it had some strange markings on it," Stark says.
"It was gray with little flecks of silver," Romanov says, "and it looked like there were some sort of Egyptian hieroglyphics on it, the jackal-headed god."
Loki's eyes widen. "The Necromancer's Stone," he says as the realization dawns on him.
"And what exactly does that mean?" Rogers asks.
"It is an ancient artifact, one of great power," Loki says. "It was thought to have been lost. From the last account I could find, it was in the possession of a mortal witch who resided not far from here a few centuries ago."
Loki looks at the carnage around them and sighs bitterly. "Let me guess: it was destroyed."
"Um...obviously," Stark says, rolling his eyes.
There are so many things Loki could have done with such a powerful item, but it doesn't matter now. Loki finds it hard to truly focus on it anyway, not when he keeps stealing glances down at Thor and once again being struck by how unnatural he looks.
"Necromancer's stone, huh? I guess that explains the zombies then," Stark says.
"It feeds on life force and uses it to fuel itself. For those with a talent for sorcery, its power can be harnessed and used as they see fit. But for those fools who don't know what they're doing," Loki says pointedly, "the stone will react and seek to defend itself from harm."
"Yeah yeah, we don't know anything about magic, I get it," Stark says sarcastically. "Are you done? Or do you want to know what happened next?"
Loki frowns, but nods for them to continue.
"Alright, long story short," Stark says. "We were all trying to destroy the stone, especially Thor since he's our heavy hitter. He struck it with lightning, I don't know, at least five times and it had no effect. That's a hell of a lot of power. But I don't have to tell you how powerful Thor is, considering how many times he's beat you and all."
Loki scowls, but before he can make a biting comment, Romanov cuts in.
"Thor flew up into the air and then he came down hard and hit the stone with Mjolnir," she says. "There was a bright flash and then I heard his body hit the ground. When I could see again, he was having convulsions and it was like the energy from the stone and from the city itself, was just... flooding him."
"Exactly," Stark says. "All of the light hit him, like some sort of... lightning rod," he frowns. "Okay, not my best analogy, but it's been a long day, cut me a little slack. I mean, I'm lucky I don't have an arc reactor in my chest anymore, otherwise I'd have a heart full of shrapnel right now."
"That's quite enough," Loki says sharply. This whole conversation is a farce and they are wasting valuable time. He looks down at Thor, his eyes still flashing with sparks and his skin the same unnatural pallor. When they were younger and had newly come into their powers, sometimes Thor's skin would spark with lightning when they kissed. They had thought it funny back then, but this? This is no laughing matter.
"So you know what's wrong with him then?" Rogers asks.
Loki nods. "The Necromancer's Stone itself was incredibly powerful and Thor only fed it more power when he struck it with his attacks. When it was destroyed, all of the energy had to go somewhere, and where better than the God of Thunder?"
Thor's body suddenly convulses and they all look down helplessly. There is a collective sigh of relief when Thor goes still again and his breathing evens out.
"As I..." Loki starts, forcing himself to recover. "As I was saying, the force of it created a vacuum that also allowed Thor to absorb all of the city's power. He is overloaded and lost within his own mind now. If he remains like this for much longer, it will burn him from the inside out. Just look at him," Loki gestures. "He's already straining, struggling to control it."
"So what are you suggesting we do then?" Romanov says, crossing her arms and looking at Loki with cold suspicion. Though he would never say so out loud, Loki has to admit a grudging respect for her. Despite Stark's constant bragging about his own intelligence, it is she who is the most shrewd of them all. He has never forgotten the way she thwarted him during the Chitauri invasion. But although Loki has learned not to underestimate her, not even she can stand in the way of what he must do tonight.
"Thor is confused," Loki says, "and his mind is fracturing as we speak. Someone must go into his mind and get him to harness his power once more."
"And let me guess," Stark says sarcastically, "you think it should be you."
"I don't see any other sorcerers here, do you?" Loki says archly, raising an eyebrow. He's doing his best to stay on his toes, but every time he looks at Thor he feels that his veneer is slipping. Because he is not just exaggerating the circumstances to rile up Thor's friends; the situation really is that grim.
Rogers gives Loki a hard look. "Then take us with you," he demands.
Loki shakes his head and lets out a snort of laughter. "I will do no such thing. I need all of my magic for this task. I'm not going to waste it on you mortals, especially when you'll only be underfoot and in my way."
Romanov does not look impressed by this at all. "So what's to stop you from killing him once you're inside, or controlling his mind for your own ends?"
"Nothing," Loki says simply. "But you're not in a position to make bargains with me. It's very straightforward, my dear. I perform this task or Thor dies. If he survives, he could release the energy safely and return the power to your city. But if he dies? Well, let's just say the outcome is less than ideal."
"I don't like this," Rogers says.
"I can't say that I'm terribly fond of it myself," Loki says, his voice sobering as he looks down at Thor. "You only cost Thor time by arguing with me," Loki continues. "Ask yourself, what choice do you have? Your city is in turmoil and none of your little devices work."
Stark rolls his eyes. "Look Gargamel," he says, and even though it's not even a reference Loki understands, he can tell when he's being insulted. "I know you like to think you're always the smartest guy in the room, but I built an arc reactor while trapped in a cave," he continues. "I think I can probably come up with something to take care of this little problem."
Loki laughs cruelly. He could almost admire the man's bravado if it wasn't so foolish and misplaced. "No Mr. Stark," he says, "I fear this is... what's the expression? Ah yes, above your pay grade."
While humans are curious and sometimes clever, they are but children in the grand scheme of things. Loki has lived for over a thousand years and has seen things that these mortals cannot even begin to grasp. He has wandered across all of the Nine Realms. He has travelled down to the roots of Yggdrasil itself, has stood there and communed with the source of all life. These mortals are fools, clinging to their paltry conceptions of how the universe works. They blather on about their science while a god fights alongside them, the wielder of one of the most powerful magical artifacts in all of creation. It's only a testament to Thor's extraordinary nature that the power is still being contained within him and not obliterating them all into dust.
"You do not understand," Loki says. "You see Thor as your friend and your shield brother. You forget that though he walks among you, he is not one of you and he never will be. You cannot fathom what it truly means to be a god, to be such a force of nature and raw power."
"And that's why you want to help, isn't it? Get all that power for yourself," Rogers says.
"My reasons for being here are my own," Loki replies sharply. "I have no need to explain them to you." Truth be told, sometimes he doesn't think he's even capable to explaining his relationship with Thor to himself.
"Now I have wasted enough time humoring you," Loki says, turning back to face Thor, making it clear to the humans that the conversation is over.
"Hold on a second," Stark says. "We didn't agree to anything and we sure as hell don't trust you. Someone else can do this, you're not the only sorcerer on the block."
"No," Loki says, glaring at Stark from over his shoulder, "I think I am quite literally 'the only sorcerer on the block.'"
The Captain puts a firm hand on Loki's shoulder in an attempt to restrain him. "The government and SHIELD will be sending reinforcements soon."
"They are soldiers, not sorcerers," Loki says, violently shrugging off Rogers' grip. "I do not have time for this and neither does Thor; his hold is tenuous enough as it is. No, I will not wait any longer. It has to be now. It has to be me."
Loki turns away again and crouches down next to Thor. He waves a hand in the air but it's more than just a dismissive gesture towards Thor's friends; the motion conjures a small, magical barrier of protection around both him and Thor.
Loki can hear the muffled sounds of the Avengers yelling at him, but he pays them no mind. All he can focus on now is Thor. Thor, who is filled with so much power and yet so powerless at the same time. Thor, who will die here if Loki doesn't do something.
Just walk away, a little voice inside him says, but he... can't. It feels like an inevitability and Loki is strangely relieved by the idea that the choice was taken from him.
After all, freedom is life's great lie, he thinks bitterly.
The barrier pulses as the Captain hits it hard with his shield. Loki knows that it will not hold for long, not with the amount of magic he'll need to expend to complete his task. But it doesn't need to last forever. It only needs to buy him enough time to cast the spell to enter Thor's mind.
The humans continue to shout and attack the barrier, but to no avail. If Loki is very lucky they'll tire themselves out and give up on using brute force, believing that the barrier is impenetrable. If he is unlucky, they will destroy the barrier and his body will be there, vulnerable and defenseless against them. And in the worst case scenario, his plan will fail and neither one of them will make it out of Thor's mind alive.
Loki has never been the lucky one; he has always had to fight and struggle, using his wits and cunning to make his own luck. Thor is the one for whom everything has always fallen into place, high praise and good fortunes falling down at his feet. Loki takes Thor's hand in his own and closes his eyes. As he begins to speak the incantation, he hopes that Thor has enough luck for the both of them.
The last thing he feels before he leaves his body is hard concrete as he crumples to the ground next to Thor.
This is what greets Loki when he awakens, hot and bright against the thin skin of his eyelids. He hisses and shields his eyes quickly against the onslaught. He squints, letting his vision slowly adjust enough for him to sit up and look around.
He's lying on the ground, right behind a bunch of thick bushes that are overflowing with red, wild berries. He looks up and sees a small clearing surrounded by tall oak trees. From the position of the sun, it appears to be a little after midday. Sunlight streams through the leaves, bathing the clearing in its warm glow.
As Loki continues to get his bearings, a sense of recognition hits him. He knows this place. He and Thor spent countless hours playing here when they were children. During the summers especially, Frigga could hardly keep them in the palace at all.
It's uncanny just how real and vivid it all feels: the sound of birds in the trees, the smell of the earth, the gentle breeze, and the heat of the sun on his face. It's all here, every detail beautifully rendered. Loki can even make out the initials "T + L" roughly carved into one of the oak trees. Truthfully, Loki doesn't know why he was surprised to find it so bright and beautiful here. Even with his mind on the brink of destruction, Thor's disgustingly sunny disposition is still intact.
But despite the beauty here, there's still a strange charge in the air. There's a feeling of creeping dread that Loki cannot quite shake and it makes his hair stand on end.
Loki tenses up when he hears voices nearby. Quietly, he gets up on his knees and peeks over the bushes to see two children laughing together as they run into the clearing. It is Loki and Thor, as they were so many years ago. Just the sight of them makes Loki's heart clench into a tight knot of emotions he can't even begin to unravel.
They are so young, no older than eight and ten. Both are dressed in the customary outfits they wore then: light blue shirts under tunics in their respective colors, leather belts, wrist cuffs, and boots.
Loki's eyes are drawn to Thor, the boy's whole face lighting up as he laughs.
"Go and hide, brother," Thor says, "It is my turn to be the seeker." It's both jarring and yet painfully familiar to hear such a high-pitched voice come from Thor. It's been over a millennia since Loki has heard it so, but he'll never truly forget its particular timbre. Not after untold nights of staying up late and telling each other stories by candlelight, the room silent except for their voices and bright laughter.
Thor smiles and Loki's doppelganger smiles back at him before running off.
Hide and seek was a game that they played many times as children. It was always one of Loki's favorites because it was one of the few he could consistently best Thor at. Even back then, Thor was too loud and larger than life to stay hidden for long. Loki, on the other hand, has always been gifted at sneaking around and melting into the shadows.
Thor covers his eyes with his hand as he starts counting down from thirty. His loud, boisterous voice echoes through the forest as he speaks each number. When Thor is finished, he opens his eyes again and looks around. He takes a step in the direction he saw Loki run toward, but then his eyes narrow and he pauses.
"You think yourself so clever, but I will not be fooled again," Thor mutters to himself and Loki has to stifle a laugh. By this age, Thor had become accustomed to Loki's use of trickery and misdirection but - much to his frustration - had not come up with an effective strategy to counter them.
I suppose not much has changed on that front, Loki thinks.
Loki remembers an incident from when they were about this age, where he had become so skilled at throwing his voice that he'd tricked Thor into running into a pond, thinking he was right on Loki's heels. Loki allows himself an internal chuckle at the memory of Thor, soaked and indignant.
Thor slowly walks around the clearing, stroking his chin as he considers which way to go. Loki doesn't find it adorable. Not at all.
Suddenly, Thor stops dead in his tracks and his whole face lights up.
"There you are!" he shouts. "You did a terrible job of hiding this time, brother."
It takes Loki a moment to realize that Thor is actually talking to him.
Loki looks down at himself and sees that his hands are small and he's dressed in his childhood clothing, just as the imaginary Loki was mere minutes ago. It is Thor's mind after all; it seems that he perceives Loki in a way that is familiar to him and fits in with these old memories. Though Loki finds the whole thing a bit unsettling, it does provide him with some useful information. It broadens his understanding of the internal logic of Thor's mind and the parameters he must work within. For now, it's best that he bide his time and play along with Thor's memories.
He is well aware of the fact that not only is he inside Thor's mind, but Thor is positively overflowing with power right now. Loki is at a terrible disadvantage and knows that he must tread carefully. Though these childhood memories induce feelings of comfort and familiarity, any sense of safety here is just an illusion.
Loki quickly racks his brain, trying to think up something his younger self would have said. "It always takes you so long to find me anyway. I thought to go easy on you this time, brother," Loki says with a smirk. His own childish voice sounds strange to his ears.
Thor laughs and shakes his head. "A convenient excuse, brother," he says, "but I know your game. You sought to throw me off by hiding near to me, tricking me into running off in search of you when truly you were here under my nose the whole time. You are clever, Loki, but this time I have foiled you!"
This time, Loki doesn't have to think about how to respond. He simply frowns and rolls his eyes. Loki has found that it's an appropriate reaction to Thor in almost any situation. It's like a reflex and Loki is grateful for it, as his mind has other things to focus on now. From what he can tell, they are not reliving a particular day, but an amalgamation of several memories of summers gone past. All of those times seemed to blur together anyway. The only real constant was Thor.
It's even more surreal to see this Thor up close. His cheeks are rosy and a smattering of freckles spread across the bridge of his nose. His hair is like spun gold and when he grins, Loki can see the slight gap between his two front teeth.
"Well, since I have found you," Thor says with a grin, "it is my turn to hide now."
"No!" Loki blurts out, and Thor gives him a strange look. "I mean, let's play a different game." The last thing Loki needs right now is to risk being separated from Thor. There is still so much about this situation that Loki doesn't understand and he doesn't know how much time he has left. If he loses track of Thor now, who knows if he will be able to find him again before it's too late.
"What shall we play then?" Thor says excitedly, his previous wariness now completely evaporated.
Though trying to bring this childlike Thor to his senses requires it's own set of challenges, Loki thinks that perhaps it may actually be ideal. Who better to coax Thor back to reality than the little brother that he still trusts implicitly?
Loki tries to remember the games they played back then and which ones would feed most into Thor's ego. Which ones would make him happy and therefore more relaxed and easier to manipulate? When Loki considers it in these terms, the choice becomes obvious.
"We should play as warriors," Loki says and Thor's whole face lights up. Loki feels pleased that things seem to be falling into place. His suggestion also offers him an opportunity to test Thor and better gauge his current state of mind. When they play fought at this age, they almost always used wooden swords, but Loki sees none near them now.
"This is an excellent idea, brother," Thor says, "I will get our swords." Thor darts away and grabs the two wooden swords that are leaning up against an oak tree, swords that Loki is certain were not there a moment ago. As Loki suspected, Thor seems unaware of his power here and the ways he's able to manipulate their environment. Loki looks up and sees the edge of an ominous cloud in the distance like a harbinger of danger, but Thor doesn't seem to be aware of that either. It seems that Loki truly does have his work cut out for him.
"Here," Thor says as he hands Loki his sword. Loki takes it and lets his gaze settle over both of their weapons. The level of detail is truly astonishing; Thor's sword is chipped and battered, as he always liked hitting trees with it to test his strength. Loki's is smooth and largely unmarred. He was always careful with his own sword, more focused on finesse and making sure each strike counted.
They both take up their fighting stances and stare at each other.
Thor grins. "Come on, brother. Fight me!" he says and it forces Loki to recall his own words on the Bifrost some years ago, the day when his whole world fell apart. But this childish Thor speaks with no malice, only with the simple joy of playing a game with his beloved little brother. It all seems like it was so long ago, the days when they used to fight each other for fun. These days it's a very serious thing indeed, no matter how many times Loki may laugh at Thor during their battles. That isn't to say that their childhood relationship was perfect by any means. They were brothers after all, and they still bickered often. But back then their little squabbles and hurt feelings were easily mended instead of broken beyond repair.
Thor strikes first and Loki parries easily. Though Loki feels he has retained his own knowledge and training (if not his strength), this child version of his brother fights just as Thor did back then. Loki is careful and conservative in his movements. He cannot alert Thor to the fact that everything is not as it seems, not yet.
Thor lunges forward again, but Loki is too quick and darts away. Thor gives him a petulant frown, but Loki only laughs at him. Thor advances again and this time Loki meets him, a loud clack echoing through the forest as their swords lock. Their eyes meet in between the "X" formed by their weapons and Thor laughs before they break apart and begin their mock battle again.
Loki gets lost in it for a moment, this playful, clumsy dance. It is simple and straightforward, with nothing of the intricate choreography that comprises their battles as adults. Thor's effervescence makes it easy to play along and Loki has to force himself to hold on to his wits. He feels the seductive little curls of Thor's magic on his skin, as if trying to convince him that this is real.
Loki's own magic feels off somehow and he's uncertain of the effect this place may be having on it. It disturbs him that he cannot even trust one of his greatest talents, but there is no help for it. He resolves to use his magic sparingly and only when necessary. He will have to make do with his words alone, but for Loki this is truly no hardship.
The fight continues on, and Loki feels sweat dripping down his brow at the exertion. They go through a sequence of lunges and thrusts, kicking up the dirt under their feet as they move. Though Loki had intended to throw the fight, the longer it goes on, the more he wants to win. It seems he cannot let go of his compulsive desire to best Thor in any manner that he can.
Thor has always had a bad habit of leaving his left side too open, and Loki sees an opportunity to exploit that weakness. Unfortunately, before he can make his move, Thor lunges forward and uses his sword to sweep Loki's feet out from under him. Loki falls to the ground with a hard thud, the force of it knocking the wind out of his lungs. Loki's sword slips from his hand and skitters across the forest floor.
Thor looks down at Loki and laughs. Loki scowls up at him as his familiar resentment rises. At its core, Loki's mission here is really quite simple and straightforward: find Thor and smack some sense into him. But Thor has never possessed much in the way of sense and Loki should have known better than to think anything involving the two of them could ever be uncomplicated. Without even understanding what he is doing, Thor is forcing Loki to relive the same old indignities again, as if a thousand years of it was not enough.
But then Thor stops laughing and reaches down a hand to pull Loki up.
"I have bested you this time," Thor says as he clasps Loki's shoulder warmly, "but you fought admirably." Loki resists the urge to roll his eyes. Thor speaks with that particular blend of arrogance and benevolence that has always grated on Loki.
Thor releases Loki's shoulder and Loki wipes the dirt from his pants, still not used to seeing himself with such small hands when he looks down.
"It is only because you are still younger and smaller than I," Thor says. "But we will both grow strong and together we will be the greatest warriors Asgard has ever seen," Thor continues, his voice full of conviction.
You will, but I won't, Loki thinks spitefully, but he doesn't say it out loud. Instead he does as his child self would have done: he shrugs, smiles shyly and says "thank you, brother."
Thor has always been a fool, but perhaps Loki's child self was no better. Much as he would rather forget them, there were many times when he took Thor's words to heart, when he truly let himself believe that he would achieve Thor's level of greatness. He'd foolishly clung to those words when other children taunted him, for if Thor believed in him then nothing else mattered. That was before they got older and this simple idyll between them was broken. Before Loki had to compete with all of Asgard for Thor's time.
"Come on, Loki," Thor says brightly, "let us play Dragon Hunters!"
Loki can't help a chuckle, and it comes out sounding more like his adult self than his child self. Though they referred to the game as Dragon Hunters, it was a lot more like Rabbit Hunters - and they ended up scaring the poor creatures off far more than actually catching one. Many years would pass before they finally faced an actual dragon, and it was far less glamorous than they both had imagined. It had taken days to get the stench of sulphur from their hair and skin.
Loki opens his mouth but before he can utter a word, Thor grabs his hand and breaks into a run, dragging his brother along with him. Loki picks up his pace to keep up with Thor as they dash through the forest. It's a peculiar sensation, the feeling of Thor's hand in his again. When they were young they would often reach for each others' hand in moments of joy or fear. With his hand in Thor's comforting grip, Loki could almost believe that they really were great warriors or dragon hunters. That together they could do anything.
They stopped indulging in the habit when they went through puberty. It was childish, a sign of weakness unworthy of the men they were supposed to become. The loss of it had bothered Loki then for reasons he didn't understand, not until their relationship turned sexual. Loki remembers the nights they fell asleep side by side, sated and exhausted. No matter how they would move and shuffle around in their sleep, Loki would almost always wake to find Thor's fingers tangled with his own.
"I think I see one over there!" Thor whispers loudly, oblivious to the fact that his voice likely scared any creatures away. He crouches down to peer through a mass of trees and it's then that he finally lets go of Loki's hand. In spite of himself, Loki feels a strange sense of loss.
It turns out that Thor's rabbit was actually a bush and so they continue on, traipsing along the well-worn paths. As they wander, a hard gust of wind blows, sending a chill up and down Loki's spine. He looks up and sees more dark, malevolent clouds in the distance, moving closer with every moment. Loki glances at Thor, but he's so engrossed in the game that he doesn't notice anything amiss.
It seems that time is running out. Loki looks around, trying to come up with a way to move things along. As he takes in the scenery of the forest, an idea occurs to him and he seizes it.
"Where are we, Thor?" Loki asks. "I thought this was where the lavender bushes grew. Are we... are we lost?" He looks at Thor, carefully schooling his features into an expression that he knows will bring out Thor's protective older brother instincts. His eyes are just a little too wide and his body is tense, as if he's trying to put on a brave front to hide his fear.
Thor's face pinches with concern and he runs over to put a hand on Loki's shoulder.
"Do not worry, brother. I swear to you that we are not lost. Although," he says with a small frown, "I too thought this was where the lavender bushes grew. This is very strange."
As soon as the words are out Thor's mouth, the landscape begins to change and little purple flowers start springing up all around them.
"Thor," Loki says as he gestures to the forest floor. Thor looks down and they both watch as more and more flowers bloom and the air is filled with the sweet aroma of lavender.
Loki looks up at Thor with wide eyes. "Brother, that was amazing! How did you do it? I must know."
"I don't... I don't know," Thor says, his voice hesitant and confused. A strange, subdued look crosses his face. He glances at Loki and for a moment there's a brief flash of something like recognition in his eyes, and then it's gone.
"What were you saying before, Loki?" Thor asks, and it's as if the whole incident never happened at all. Like Thor's mind is shielding him, offering him final comforts before he dies and protecting him from the horrible truth.
"It's... I was just-" Loki starts, but Thor is reaching for his hand and dragging him off again. Loki sighs internally. It seems that he will just have to keep looking for another opportunity.
They run through the forest hand in hand until they return to the clearing from before and collapse down underneath the oak tree with their initials carved on it. They lay on their backs side by side in silence, except for the sounds of the forest and their own heavy breathing. When Loki looks up, he can still see the sunlight through the trees, but it's much dimmer now. He turns his head to look further out and notices that the clouds are continuing to move in. As Loki stares at them, he feels that same sense of wrongness that twists his stomach in knots.
When a gust of wind causes a few leaves to fall from the tree, Loki figures that now is as good a time as any to give his magic a try. He raises a hand in the air and rolls it around in circles, causing the falling leaves to twist and swirl. It's a very simple spell, one that he was already quite skilled with at this age. His magic still feels strange and muted, but it functions reliably enough for something this basic.
Loki can see Thor from the corner of his eye, his eyes wide and delighted as he watches the leaves. But his joyful expression inspires nothing in Loki except the same age old bitterness. Thor never understood anything about Loki's magic. He never recognized its true power beyond little trifles like this, parlor tricks to make people laugh while the real men sparred out in the training yards.
"You'll be able to do all kinds of things with your magic someday," Thor says excitedly. "We will be side by side, fighting monsters and defending the realms. Maybe one day Father will even allow us to travel to Jotunheim and slay the Frost Giants," Thor says, and when Loki sees the triumphant fist Thor raises in the air, he feels like he's been punched in the stomach.
As much as Thor's words about the Frost Giants sting, it's the other things he said that really give Loki pause. What Loki remembers most is being teased and looked down on for his magic. Were there truly moments where Thor encouraged and valued it, or is this just a manifestation of Thor's subconscious guilt over the path Loki has taken? Or perhaps it is Loki who remembers things wrong, who has forgotten conversations like this because they were so few and far between. Because the slights always seemed to matter more.
So who is right and who is wrong? Whose memories are more faulty and unreliable? Loki wonders if it truly even matters in the end. Perhaps they are no better than humans and the mythology they tell themselves about the gods; the same stories are told but they are slightly different each time until the truth itself is lost and people ascribe meaning as they see fit.
Thor chatters idly about what desserts he hopes they'll have tonight and what games they should play tomorrow. Loki interjects at appropriate times, but his true focus is on the ever darkening sky. The wind blows harder and the clouds move in until they block out everything. The bright summer sun is now nothing but a distant memory. Loki glances over at Thor and sees his body go tense. It seems that Thor's mind can no longer guard him from the fact that something is wrong.
They both sit up and look at the sky.
"What is that?" Loki asks quietly.
Thor frowns. "I don't know. But it's... it's not right. It's not supposed to be this way." The color drains from Thor's face and his distress is palpable as he watches the storm closing in. His expression looks pained and though he tries to keep his body still, Loki can see him trembling with minute little shivers. The dark sky is like a monstrous beast that Thor's mind has managed to keep at bay until now. Thor is weakening and starting to crack under the strain.
Thor shakes his head. "This isn't... I don't like this. I don't want to be here anymore."
"You must face this, Thor. You can't run away forever," Loki says.
"I'm not running from anything," Thor says angrily as he gets to his feet. "The Son of Odin never runs from danger!"
The sky opens up and the rain starts coming down in torrents, drenching them both. Loki wipes the water from his eyes and then stands up to face Thor.
"This isn't real, Thor," Loki says, his tone gentle yet insistent. "Do you understand what's going on? I'm trying to help you."
"I..." Thor says, confusion flickering across his face before his expression grows defiant again. "No. No, you're not." Thor puts more distance between them and glares at Loki with open hostility.
Loki sighs. "Thor, you need to-"
"No!" Thor shouts, the force of his words making the storm rattle and shake. "Who are you? You shouldn't be here. You're... you're wrong. You're not my brother."
And it shouldn't sting, but it does. Because even after all they've been through and all the times Loki has disowned Thor, never before has Thor disowned him. Loki knows that Thor is not in his right mind and really there's no time to dwell on such foolishness now. If Loki doesn't get Thor to snap out of this, it's very likely that they will both die.
"Brother," Loki says, pushing his wet hair back from his face as he inches forward, "I know that you're scared, but-"
"I'm not scared!" Thor insists, but it seems that the more upset he gets, the more the storm builds in intensity. The sky has gone black, and the force of the wind threatens to rip their oak tree from the ground. This pristine memory is being ravaged and torn apart by the storm and there is Thor, lost and confused in the center of this swirling maelstrom.
Thor clenches his fists and shuts his eyes. Loki is helpless to do anything but watch, struggling to stand his ground in the face of wind and rain.
"I'm not scared of anything! Go away!" Thor shouts.
"Thor, don't-" Loki says, but the sky crackles with a bright flash of lightning and then everything goes dark.