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Innocence

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There are not many things that are agreed upon by all the citizens of Asgard, but one of them is this: Baldr is innocent.

This is meant in the broadest sense. The youngest son of Odin has always been known to be so. The birth-prophecies that swaddled him spoke of a man who would still be in his heart as pure and bright as the child they all saw then. The foretellings of the Norn witches were recited each year at the celebrations that lit his earliest memories. These things were spoken among the people of Asgard, believed and doted upon: the youngest prince of the realm, fair Baldr, who would ever be the best of them, unspoiled, untouched by the dark fates of the worlds.

He grew up that way, surrounded by tales of his innocence.

But in his earliest years he did not notice this so much—it seemed a distant thing, unimportant, beyond the circle of his family—for he grew up also surrounded by his brothers, both many years his elder.

He spent his whole young life in awe of them. Thor, like a stormcloud edged in sunlit gold; Loki, the cool and green-tinged shadow that travels with it. In Baldr’s earliest memories, there was Thor swooping him up, spinning him in the air—and the silken laugh as Loki conjured blue-black butterflies to swirl around them, Baldr’s small hands grasping for the delicate wings but never quite reaching them. It seemed that whenever he was not held in Frigga’s arms he was between them, his brothers, and he had never felt safer or more loved.

They were also the only ones in the realm who did not treat him as a child, even when he was one. They merely treated him as their brother, offering him the same easy affection and respect as they gave each other. And he could not help but adore them.

And somehow, to be their brother made it all right, no matter how different they were. To be their brother—innocence seemed a small enough price to pay.

*

He has grown since then, as years passed. He has grown up, grown more aware. Yet the tales of his innocence have not gone away, and he has begun to notice them more. They have begun to grow heavy around him.

They follow him into the dusty heart of the training yard, when he grows enough for that, and though he is no longer treated like glass—he is a prince of Asgard, prince of a realm of warriors, and already showing signs of hardy strength of body—he is surrounded by loyal friends and companions who yet believe he has never heard a crude word. And while he knows they mean well, it makes him feel oddly alone among them.

He stands, wooden waster in hand, watching a pair of boys just a few years older as they practice a few of the more dishonorable (yet eminently practical) hits and holds, yet they stop when they see him looking, just as they would if the arms master were spotted coming their way. Baldr finds himself blushing and frowning, though not for the reason they believe as they shuffle their feet and resume training with more appropriate tactics. Another time someone makes a coarse jest, only to be shoved by the boy next to him, with an apologetic nod at Baldr. And someone ruffles his hair.

It baffles him. He tells himself they only mean to show their loyalty, their love for him. He tells himself what he has been told by his mother and father—that they wish to be nobler than they are in his presence, and that he must not mind it.

Still, he wishes they wouldn’t.

And sometimes, on days like this, it bothers him enough that he simply must escape.

*

He leaves, on his own. He wanders in the green, sun-warmed fields surrounding the city, listening to the songs of birds and the chatter of small creatures, and he leaves his mount at a small pond and wanders into the shade of a little grove where the birds are singing most sweetly.

There is something peaceful about the solitude, and he thinks that also is part of why everyone sees him so differently from how they see his brothers. Thor is most comfortable surrounded by a crowd of admirers, and, unless it is at Thor’s side, the place Loki is most comfortable is on the shadowy edges of that crowd, whispering lies among them and laughing, sowing confusion and benign chaos. But Baldr thinks he could sit here amid the green forever, letting the seasons swirl around him. He could stand here with his arms stretched to the sky as if he were himself a tree, and do nothing more than feel the rain on his skin and the prickling of songbirds’ talons as they alight to sing into his ear, feel the soft-furred cheek of a squirrel as it nudges against him. If he stood here long enough, moss would cover his feet as if they were roots and mistletoe would grow in his hair like a crown. He could do that and be happy eternally, he thinks.

From nearby, there is a dark, silken laugh, and Baldr walks toward it on feet that have learned quiet from the does with their white-spotted fawns, their inky-black eyes blinking back at him before they stepped softly away, but he does not know why he takes such care. He will be glad to see his brothers here, out in the wilds where there is no one else whose opinions they must all attend to.

(Sometime Baldr thinks that the love of their parents is more oppressive to him than anything he has ever known.)

He steps forward, until he is just at the edge of a clearing in the midst of the grove. It is a lawn of soft grass that is the color of new leaves in spring, although the season is nearly midsummer. In the middle of it there stands a grouping of stones, grey and aged, worn away to smoothness. One resembles a massive slab like a great bed, dipped slightly in the center; rainwater collects on it in which the sky gazes back at itself in quiet vanity until wind ripples the image away. Another is a great finger pointing at the sky, the speartip of some buried giant. Red streaks down its sides, rust from the iron in the stone, a bloodied blade withdrawn from the fallen foe and planted there as a marker of the battle. The final stone, wedged beside them, is simply a rounded boulder a little taller than a man, its sides made of irregular angles and planes.

By the sound of it, his brothers are around the other side of it, and Baldr wonders briefly what has brought them out here to this place, and why, if they knew of it, they never mentioned it before.

(He knows the answer, deep in his heart. They have been brothers since... he is far younger than they, and although he has spent his life adoring them, they grew up together as brothers before he was yet born. Sometimes he feels it when he follows along to one of their chambers or the other’s when they sit together in the evenings, sharing a skin of wine. Most nights they seem happy to have him there, giving him a glass—watered, of course—and telling him tales—or in Loki’s case, perhaps lies, though he doesn’t mind. But sometimes he gets the feeling that he is intruding on something, and it makes him almost heartsick.)

But maybe, he thinks, maybe he is not so alone as he thought. Maybe they too find it peaceful here—maybe they too seek to escape the expectations and disappointments of the city by coming here, and maybe this will be what brings the three of them closer together, maybe…

Baldr’s brow draws up in hope as he steps forward, and he inhales breath to call out a greeting.

The first thing he is aware of is red. It is the red of Thor’s cape, bright and searingly vivid under the sun surrounded by shade.

The next thing he is aware of is black. The black of Loki’s hair, and that and the laughter are the only immediate signs that Loki is there, slipped somehow between Thor’s body and the stone, bent over slightly where the rock curves (Baldr is suddenly newly aware of how narrow and lithe Loki is; he has always thought of Loki as larger than him, being older. And when set against Thor’s magnificent strength anyone would look small. But pressed between the eldest brother and the curve of the stone, the contrast is striking.)

The final thing Baldr becomes aware of is the motion, and the two hands pressed against the stone where he can see. Thor’s large, tanned fingers clasp Loki’s, long and white. The two hands are curled together, clutching tight even as their owners’ bodies slide against each other in lewd, cruel, violent motion.

Baldr stands stock-still until his heart pounds in his ears and he has to breathe again, and when he does the odor of damp earth and fallen leaves under the trees nearly overwhelms him. And then he is running back the way he came, and the songbirds never stop singing in the branches above.

His heart is still frantic when he reaches the pool where his mount awaits him, and for a minute he simply has no choice but to clatter ungracefully to the ground, legs splayed out, panting for breath and wiping sweat from his brow.

No matter what his friends believe, he is not so innocent that he does not realize what he just saw.

A few minutes later he is silently riding back to the city of Asgard, stone-faced, an uncomfortable flutter deep in his belly.

That evening he tells his mother that he is not feeling well and that he will have some food brought to him in his rooms instead of dining with the family.

He doesn’t actually bother with the food, though. It was no lie; he is sick to his stomach, nausea coursing through him, the sound of Loki’s laughter still resounding in his ears. Details flood him, things he swore he did not notice at the time—the way Thor’s head was dipped into the hollow of Loki’s shoulder so that Baldr knows that there will perhaps be a bite mark there, even if Loki hides it. The way they moved together so that Baldr is sure that had he been able to see on the other side of them, he would have seen Thor’s arm wrapped around Loki’s belly, both holding him in place and pulling him close, holding him tight so that Thor could have him. The way they both rippled in the edge of the pool of rainwater, red and black against the blue sky.

Baldr coughs and gags and spits against the basin until his eyes water, until he cannot remember any taste but sour bile, and he hopes with all his being that neither one of them will be so generous as to come to visit him now, to see how their little brother fares.

The fates themselves cannot help but smile upon Baldr (so it is said), and no brothers knock upon his door that evening.

But Baldr is not innocent at all, and when he strips off his clothes and climbs under the covers, he squeezes his eyes shut before he takes himself in hand. He is hard and he trembles and bites his lip and thinks of the way they moved. When he finishes, something that isn’t even pleasure wracking through him in violent jolts that steal his breath away and make him sob, he wipes the sticky fluid from his hand onto the bedsheets, furtive and hurried. He wants to go bathe right away but falls asleep before he can make himself stir to do it.

His dreams that night are unsettling, and in them he sees the spire of rusted, bloodied stone pointing at the sky.

*

Baldr cannot think of them as anything other than his brothers, but he has known the truth for a long time. Since he was small he’s known: Thor is the first Odinson, embodying the wild youth of the Allfather’s power, but it was Jörð who bore him, making him only half-brother to Baldr.

And Loki is not of their blood at all—not even Aesir, a stolen frost-child who caught at Odin’s conscience as he trod the icy ruins of that other realm.

Baldr knows this, but he knows also that the two were raised together before they were told, before they knew. They grew together thinking themselves wholly of the same blood.

They are his brothers; they call each other thus and treat each other like kin. That is why he cannot stop thinking of what he saw.

He knows he could go to Frigga and Odin. He could tell them, and they would put a stop to it. It would be ended one way or another—perhaps with both his brothers in the stockade, backs striped red from the whip, or banished, or…

Baldr daydreams of this sometimes, and he can taste copper on his tongue when he does it, and he cannot tell whether the thought pleases or horrifies him. He can barely imagine the scene—his innocence has meant that his mother often shielded his eyes from any public punishments, so he has only tantalizing glimpses to go by. A brief flash of stringy, pale hair damp and clinging across an unseen face. Hunched, pathetic shoulders bowed so low it seemed unnatural. A thin shirt, filthy and shredded, and a trail of red down the back of a bare thigh. Baldr cannot imagine… but those prisoners, whoever they were, were not princes. Surely it would be different. Surely his brothers would not be so easily beaten.

Baldr does not really want to know. Yet he daydreams of it sometimes, trying to decide whether they would scream while it happened (would they scream for each other?), and he wonders how it would be when they were released. If they would stop meeting each other’s gaze, exchange only mumbled words across the table while the Allfather watched them with one sharp, piercing eye, forever shamed by their actions. Or maybe, he thinks, they would run away together, abdicate their responsibilities in favor of love… Baldr wonders if that’s what it is—love, the sort the skalds weave into tales, a thing that makes women hurl themselves from cliffs when it is lost, that makes warriors charge into the monster’s putrid maw to gain it—or if it is just a dalliance, just the pleasure found between Loki’s pale legs (and Baldr has heard things like that in bards’ songs as well, no matter what the rest of Asgard would believe of him).

He wonders this, and as he spends time with his brothers (he cannot avoid it for long, not unless he wants to make his knowledge clear) his thoughts wander there; he tries to decide what he sees between them, if he can guess how they are when he is not there to look. In honesty, there is nothing really any different than before. In such calm hours as those the two spend with their younger sibling, they jest with each other, or Thor recounts tales of their adventures while Loki weaves knots of floating fire to dance above their heads, bright and fleeting as flowers. Or Loki tells them the gossip of the city around them (somehow, Loki always knows every breath, every word of it, and Baldr has no idea how he learns it all, how he plucks up every court quarrel and every hidden betrayal, storing them away like a magpie’s nest of shiny refuse only to reveal one perfect trinket in the palm of his hand at just the right moment) or recounts some old trickery he’d worked (Loki is not able to resist the temptation; he speaks of it like a compulsion, like a thirst for heady wine, with a strange lust in his voice as he tells those tales. Baldr wonders whether in fact he lost his innocence to that voice speaking of little acts of wickedness with an honesty that no one else would grant him), while Thor sits back, wearing a patient smile as he puts a whetstone to one of Loki’s treasured knives, a gesture that Loki never asks of him and never seems to acknowledge but Thor does it anyway.

And sometimes, as Thor reaches over to ruffle Baldr’s hair in warm affection or as Loki winks at him in the middle of a particularly scandalous tale, the soft lull drops away and something else plunges into the pit of his stomach like a stone into a well, hard and cold, as he remembers. As he thinks of what he saw that day in the clearing and realizes that for just a little while he had forgotten, and that in those moments, he had felt…

But he can never forget it for long. They’re brothers, all three of them, and they always have been.

*

Baldr grows less innocent with time. He sees more, hears more, knows more, even if he has long since decided he will not say anything.

It becomes very obvious, to one who is watching, just how much time his two brothers spend alone together, and Baldr is far beyond the innocence that would let him doubt why—why he is so often not invited to go with them on their journeys. He suspects that they purposely enlist Frigga’s aid in this: it is always she who tells him that the wilds are perilous and he is young and he has time yet to indulge a mother’s worry.

He watches them go, one hand held up to shield his narrowed eyes from the brightness of the sun.

They are in high spirits when they return from Utgard some time later, arriving together at the broad door of Bilskirnir, and Baldr is surprised to see that they have two mortal children in tow—a dark-eyed boy and a mousy little girl, both trembling in awe and clinging to each other, and Baldr knows that they cannot be even a dozen years old, though they look only a bit younger than he.

Thor calls out their names happily, urges them to greet their master’s other brother, but the little things can only stare. And Loki, standing near, arms folded and looking wholly satisfied with the results of their adventure, is the only one who bothers to give an explanation. “The boy, Thjalfi,” Loki says, “has a belly, and now one of Thor’s goats is lame. And his sister wouldn’t be parted from him—sweet, isn’t it?”

Loki wears a tickled smirk as he says it, eyes flitting between his younger brother and the children, but Baldr does his best not to respond, and he says little as the children are led off to get settled among the other servants and as his brothers make themselves at home once more, throwing down their journeying packs and calling for ale.

An hour later, the two have wound their way through telling most of the tale, and Loki returns to the subject of the two young mortals. He nudges up against Thor, laughing as if at a secret joke.

“Did you? Did you warn them?” Loki asks, giddiness in his voice.

Thor shoves him back the other direction with an awkward laugh. “No, I didn’t. You were imagining things.”

“I was not! Quarters were too close in that cave for me to be mistaken about something like that. Believe me, brother, if you do not have the women here keep an eye on them, you’ll have another young charge under your roof before the year is out.”

Thor scoffs. “They’re barely more than children themselves.”

Loki shrugs. “They would hardly be the first.”

“But they’re brother and sister!” Baldr, sitting on the floor by the hearth, had turned to watch this exchange, and it takes a moment for him to realize that the shocked exclamation was his own. When he does, he feels his cheeks flame, and he turns back to stare into the fire. They will know that he knows. They will guess from his face, from the way he can hardly sit still…

But a moment later Thor gives no sign as the rumble of his voice breaks the silence. “Don’t fret over it, little brother. Loki is mistaken.”

Loki only laughs.

*

Baldr doubts Loki is mistaken, but all that really matters is that it has grown harder to stop himself from imagining other things—no more does he daydream of what would happen if Asgard learned of what they’ve done, if their parents learned of it. Instead, when the golden light is shut up around them in Bilskirnir and thunder rolls through the deep clouds outside, or when they disappear together into the wilderness, returning after days with only one stag draped over Thor’s shoulders to show for their efforts… all he can think of is red and black shivering in the mirror of the water, and a bloody spear pointing at the sky.

Baldr imagines everything, mind roiling and blood aflame, and he is now of an age where there is much he can imagine and little he cannot. Bared skin and wet mouths and hands tangled in hair, brutal force bringing out sharp cries, a long, lithe body sprawled out for the taking beneath a stronger one, or bent into whatever shape would suit. Baldr cannot stop himself from imagining.

Sometimes it is a blow so heavy and sudden that he can hardly breathe. Sometimes it sits in his stomach for days, a heady and trembling warmth that will not go away, cannot be spat up, cannot be ignored or put aside. Sometimes it is a shadow on his mind that makes him want the whole world to end, if only it means that they will stop and he will never have to know it again.

*

Maybe, Baldr thinks, he has been more innocent than he knew, for it is not until a number of years after that—until he is nearly counted as grown—that he begins to learn other things. Less secret things, perhaps, but that only makes it strike him harder when it does.

He has always relied upon Loki to tell him what rumors pass from lip to ear and onward; any friends his own age have always stayed silent, unwilling to sully him with such mean things. So he does not even recognize the description before he hears the name. It cannot be his brother Loki they speak of thus, he thinks. But they mean no other.

It has always seemed so natural to Baldr that Loki is trickster, dark where Thor is golden, that he is sharp-tongued and sorcerous against Thor’s plain-spoken might. But now he is shocked at what he has heard, and distressed by it so that he feels unsettled hours later.

Ergi, the gossips named him, and stirrer of poisons, and Baldr thinks they cannot possibly see the same person he knows as his brother—quick and clever, and yes he is like a shadow against the gleam of their elder brother, but that is as he is meant to be, the flash of his eyes like knives, his hair like a raven’s wing at night, his laughter soft and sharp by turns, and that laughter tickles Baldr’s ears when he is discovered in the feasting hall, half a mug of drink already gone to his head so that he cannot resist Loki’s far greater skill at drawing the truth from unwilling lips.

He admits that he heard… scandalous things.

Loki gives him that wolf smile that Baldr has only ever seen on his face as he gathered up careless truths to let spill in bouts of flyting—events that Baldr was not meant to hear, huddled at the top of the stairwell—and pulls from him at least the general shape of what he heard. (Even Loki, in some ways, bows to Baldr’s reputed innocence, much as he was the one to first break it. He won’t make him repeat the words he heard, though he seems amused as Baldr blushes and stammers even so.)

Baldr is yet more surprised when Loki takes the news without anger, only preening a little, hands wrapped around his own mug between mouthfuls.

(For the first time in his life, then, Baldr thinks that if he has spent his life being told of his own innocence, then Loki might have spent his hearing the name of trickster. And for the first time in his life, Baldr wonders what that would mean.)

“Does Thor know?” Baldr asks then. He knows the heat of Thor’s ire and the quickness of his temper—everyone knows these—and how they are most fiercely roused in defense of that which he loves. Baldr knows this; he has felt the warmth of it all his life. He has watched his eldest brother fight and spar and heard the rumble of thunder in the sky. And if Thor knew… if he heard what was being said of Loki…

Loki watches Baldr’s face, and it is clear that he can guess what is in Baldr’s mind. There is a casual thoughtlessness to it as he reaches over, brushing back an unruly cowlick in Baldr’s hair, fingertips skimming along and down to his ear.

“Yes,” Loki says. “He knows. But he also knows there is nothing at all he can do about it, so he pretends he does not.” Loki looks into Baldr’s eyes as he says it, sly and earnest as if he is telling a great secret about their elder brother, and Baldr finds himself staring back, watching Loki’s lips and unable to form any reply. Then Loki’s mouth twists into a knowing little smile. “You needn’t weep for me, little brother, dear innocent Baldr.”

Baldr hadn’t known he was—he pulls away from Loki’s hand, wipes his palms across his eyes only to find them dry. But in his ale-dizzy confusion, Loki has disappeared, leaving him alone where he sits, ghosts of slim fingers in his hair.

And he is not a bit surprised a week later when a handful of minor social misfortunes befall those he overheard gossiping about his brother that day, even though he is sure he did not tell Loki their names.

He mentions none of this to Thor, who goes on as if nothing has happened, as if all three of them were beloved by the whole realm.

Baldr wonders if Loki is mistaken.

*

Baldr thinks he is the first to notice when Loki goes missing, aside from Thor. He knows he is the only one else to notice what came before that.

He remembers, for years, lying in his bed at nights and trying to shut his eyes against the knowledge that his brothers were perhaps at just that moment together, Thor with his fingers curled around Loki’s neck in that caress that was theirs, brotherly and yet far too intimate. He’d imagined it so many times he would have sworn he knew how they would be, how Loki would snicker and squirm until Thor pinned him and only then would his silver tongue be silenced, only then would he be subdued. Baldr would have sworn he knew the taste of skin and sweat and lightning. He had lain there so many times he cannot count them now, hating every moment and every image his tormented mind could conjure.

But now he almost wishes for those days again, for there had been a storm brewing between them for months, and Baldr, who was not as innocent as everyone believed, had watched it unfold in nights on which Loki would lock himself away, giving a thin excuse that would leave Thor’s face sour and his brows bent low. Arguments between them. It was all so much worse that these were not fights, for Baldr had seen his brothers fight, drag each other down to the training grounds, and return filthy, bruised, and laughing. This was different: arguments that seethed but never fully surfaced, anger bitter and choked as a clot of tangled white roots under the soil that sucked their own life dry, and Baldr did not know what had happened, what had caused it.

A few times after his brothers sent him back to his own rooms for the night, he heard a few shouted words through the thick solidity of the door and was left to puzzle through them, again languishing all sprawled on his bed with his hands covering his eyes and an aching sickness in his belly like a great hollow, burning hunger.

And now Loki is gone, and Baldr remembers hearing a slamming door and a set of quiet, darting footsteps that ended at the high window at the end of the hall. One that opened above a green lawn below, and empty air to the end of the world.

Baldr dines with the family that night, a quiet event over which the Allfather presides with solemn calm, and Frigga asks him small questions of his day so that Baldr nearly feels like a child again for how she dotes on him, and Thor eats in silence.

Baldr watches as his eldest brother does his best to feign that he does not notice the empty seat beside him, but his eyes are downcast, distracted, every time Baldr searches for them. And when eventually Frigga asks where Loki has gone, Baldr glances to Thor—Thor should be the one to answer, he thinks, but his eldest brother keeps his silence—before shaking his head and saying he does not know.

“I’m sure he won’t be gone long,” he adds, lightly. He does not know why he says it.

*

A month passes, and another, and Loki does not return. And even when Thor begins openly planning a journey for which he can state no purpose, answering only with a shrug of his broad shoulders (for Thor is no good at all at surreptitious), Baldr thinks he may be the only one who grasps why.

The night before Thor leaves they spend together, quietly, in Bilskirnir.

Baldr does not recognize the man who opens the door to him, but there is something familiar about the mousy woman who pours their ale, and about the dark-eyed girl who follows behind her, one hand clinging to her mother’s blue skirt. Baldr smiles at the little one and waves her over to him—he is not often around mortals, and he is fond of children now that he is not one himself.

“So you are Roskva’s daughter?” he asks.

The girl, a wet finger tugging at the edge of her mouth, shakes her head. “Roskva is my granny’s name.”

Baldr tries not to show his surprise and gives the child a gentle pat as she dashes back to her mother’s side, but he feels eyes upon him, turns to see Thor watching him.

Despite all this, though, neither of them mentions Loki at all that night, no matter how strange and hushed it is to be there, the two of them, without him.

“You know I am very proud to be your brother,” Thor tells him later, seemingly intent on voicing things that Baldr has never doubted, with an intensity that seems out of place for him. “I have been honored to walk beside you as you grew, and I can do nothing but admire the man you have become.”

Baldr shrugs, awkward, and swallows. Then he has a thought. “You are going to come back, aren’t you?” he asks, nervous.

The solemn mood is lifted with Thor’s bark of laughter. “Of course I will. It’s only… I think I have been reminded not to leave too much unsaid.”

Thor rubs a hand across his short beard, staring off to the edges of the room, and he smiles to himself just a little. And his smile is so distant and so full of longing that Baldr hurts. But then Thor comes back to himself and it brightens, and Thor claps a hand to his shoulder.

“Now, littlest brother, you must help me finish this cask I’ve opened before I depart…”

Baldr nods and he does so, and when the morning comes there is a throbbing, hazy ache behind his eyes as the sun hits them. And Thor, too, is gone.

*

Chapter Text

In the weeks that follow, it is like Baldr is the only Odinson, the only prince of the realm. It is like he has no brothers at all. For the first time in his life, though he has long since come of age, he is adrift and alone.

He spends his days among groups of his old companions, who still think of him as Baldr the Innocent. Baldr the Bright. Baldr the Pure. For years, though he told himself he should be glad to have such friends, he secretly wished he could make them forget who he was. But now, for the first time, in the absence of his brothers, he truly accepts it: he cannot change what is in their eyes when they look upon him. He cannot erase the seeress’s words.

Perhaps this is just what he is.

So he accepts it, and he welcomes their company. But still, more often, he keeps his own.

One morning, he rises early while the dew wets the grass, coaxes his horse out from the stables, and picks his way along a path he has not traveled in many years, since he was little more than a boy. Yet he finds the place easily, the memory still fresh. The iron still leaches out of the stone so that rust runs in long rivulets down the side and rainwater still shivers in the pool, reflecting a grey morning sky, empty.

Baldr dismounts and leaves his horse in the grassy field as he tramps toward the third stone.

He looks at it—he thinks moss has grown farther up its damp sides over the years. He touches it, feeling the roughness of the rock under his hands. He leans his back against it, feeling the cold seeping through his clothes, a damp chill that grows uncomfortable almost immediately.

Just an ordinary boulder in an ordinary clearing. With a shaky sigh he slips his eyes shut, tilts his head back, listens to the sound of the wind until the chill grows too much to stand.

The same wind makes his eyes water on the ride back as he stares up into the treetops where the morning sunlight it just beginning to bleed through, blurred gold and green on wavering shadow grey, and it is not until he is almost home that the day begins to grow warm.

*

Noon, however, finds him with his mother, for he has grown enough to not be ashamed to sit beside her while she weaves.

“You’ve never thought of me any differently, have you?” he asks her in a quiet moment, the loom clacking before the knee of her gold skirt.

Her lips press together softly. “Thought of you differently…?”

“Than my brothers.”

The loom clacks and whirls, once, twice.

“I think of all of you differently, because you are different people. But I love you all equally well, which I think is what you’re asking.”

She does not need to watch the shuttle as it moves under her hands, and she meets his eyes, indulgent. He is not so innocent that he believes her. He is the only son of her blood, of her body. He knows she loves them. But she has always reserved a special tenderness for him.

“But what if… what if something happened?”

“Oh, dear one,” she says with a cluck of her tongue. “I know you are worried, but you needn’t be. They are both well—at least enough that I expect they can sort it out for themselves. Nothing terrible has happened.”

He frowns, biting his lip. “But how can you know?”

She shows him, then, the way she finds hints to the future in the threads that shift and twist under her fingers, making patterns that she can interpret. She shows him, explaining what she might see if he or his brothers were in harm’s way, and how she uses those threads to feel for the shape the future will make.

Baldr watches, and he wonders if even Odin knows all the secrets that she reveals to him, the only son of her own blood.

*

It is a few nights afterward that Baldr wakens out of dead sleep at a strange but subtle sound. Such a thing usually would not disturb him for more than a moment—he is a sound sleeper—but this night all thought of slumber departs in the space of a heartbeat, and he puts his toes briefly to the chill of the floor, wrapping a robe around himself and shoving his feet into a pair of soft old fur-lined boots.

The moon outside rides high and white and full, and Baldr makes it all the way into the gardens of Fensalir before a shiver courses down his spine.

He spins to find himself face to face with his brother. Loki stands there with a finger to his lips and his other hand clasped hidden behind his back, and it is not his return thus in the middle of the night that makes Baldr gasp. It is the ragged state of his garments, his night-black cloak tattered at its edges, and the unhealthy gauntness of the body beneath. It is the pallor of his face, stark moonlight casting deep and jagged shadows down his cheeks and his eyes glinting like those of a wild beast half starved and half mad. Even when he smiles, it does not help. Baldr can see only teeth.

He begins to grope for words, but Loki doesn’t let him get that far, leaning close to whisper to him, breath cold on his ear.

“If you would like to do something for me, little brother, you will forget that you met me here tonight,” Loki demands in a harsh rasp. “Return to your bed and say my name to no one.”

Baldr cannot even get a word out—can neither acquiesce nor refuse—before Loki has reached up and ruffled his cowlick into disarray and slipped away into the shadows of night.

Baldr does not know what to make of it until the next day, when tidings travel of the unexpected disappearance of Idunn, who departed from her own halls in the middle of the night as if the moon itself had stolen her away.

*

And no matter how he feels about his reputed innocence, Baldr can only be glad that he is young when the stores of golden apples dwindle and then are gone, for even after months pass without he feels little different.

But the rest of Asgard languishes—they weaken; beards go grey and limbs frail and for the first time the centuries drag upon their minds—and it is into this low, dull, endless panic, the panic of gods who have begun to feel the fingers of ignoble death upon their hearts, that Loki returns. And he returns looking hale and well-fed and content, no more the shuddering wraith from the night garden, returning with a ready tale of adventures that took him across half of Alfheim. And he portrays perfect surprised dismay when he is told of the loss of the goddess and her apples.

“But does not Thor have a supply hidden away, enough to delay things longer than this?” he asks.

And maybe, Baldr thinks, the shock in his eyes is real when he is told in reply that Thor has been gone as well, and for nearly as long as he. But if it is, he hides it quickly away.

*

The months drag on, though, and Asgard continues to languish. Thor does not return, and Loki does not leave again. Loki makes no move as if he might. Gives no sign that he will do anything, even though Asgard is suffering around him.

One time Baldr tries to say something, tries to hint, at least, that he should

For his trouble, Loki begins to avoid him.

It is only when Baldr can stand the strain not a moment longer that he takes action, his guts knotted upon themselves (or so it feels) as he passes through the door that leads to Hliðskjalf, seeking out Odin.

The Allfather’s love has always been strange to him, distant but pervasive; he is not the first son of his father’s blood. He has many times seen how willing Odin is to clap a fierce, approving hand to Thor’s shoulder when the eldest son returns from battles in defense of Asgard, and he has sensed the subtle current of respect that passes also between Odin and his adopted middle son, the one who shares his ken for secrets and seiðr. And he has wondered if he would someday become anything in his father’s eyes but Baldr, the youngest son, the child, the innocent.

So as he faces the high seat he squares his jaw. He keeps his chin lifted and his voice steady as he admits to Odin what happened in the garden that night. What he saw.

“If it were not the life of Asgard in the balance I would not incriminate my brother at all,” he finishes, as Odin’s one eye picks at him like guilt, while the two ancient ravens stoop on the back of the seat, dark against its silver frame. Odin turns his head to whisper a word to one (which then flies off into the shadows and away, presumably to summon Loki), so that his true eye is hidden. Odin looks weary—wearier and older, the lack of Idunn’s harvest telling on the lines that edge his face—and resigned to the confrontation to come.

Baldr waits in silence, waits for long enough that he begins to wonder if his father has forgotten that he is there.

When Loki strides through the door, the blithe and untroubled look he’s worn since his return melts suddenly away, faced thus with the sight of Odin with his chin perched on his fingers like one about to hear a most intriguing tale and with the sight of his younger brother standing stiff and uneasy before the dais.

“Loki, I suspect you can guess what your brother has told me,” Odin says—it is no question, with no room for argument or slippery words—and Loki’s shoulders sag. He nods.

“Can the goddess be, shall we say, retrieved from wherever you took her?”

This time, several heartbeats pass in hesitation before Loki answers, a mumbled affirmative.

“Then do so, and if you are successful I will assume that your reason for all this was dire indeed and I will fault you no more for it.”

For a moment, as the two meet each other’s gaze unflinching, Baldr can see in his brother’s face a shadow of the hunted, ragged look from under the moonlight in Fensalir, and then Loki is giving a curt nod and stalking away again without so much as a glance at him.

Baldr feels almost like a child again as he hurries after.

*

Loki keeps only a small set of rooms here, and these he hardly ever stays in (most times he abides in Bilskirnir with Thor—but Thor has not yet returned, and Baldr thinks he would not go there now anyway), yet those half-abandoned rooms are where the two of them end up, Baldr following on Loki’s heels, ignored in silence the whole distance. Only when the doors close behind them does Loki look at him or speak.

“You know I’d have brought her back eventually,” Loki says. “She’s in no danger and it will do her no harm merely to enjoy the hospitality of ice giants for a while. She’ll be no more than a pretty trinket to them.” And though his voice is full of spite for both the giants and their prey, it is otherwise level. Almost bored.

Baldr is not so innocent that he believes that Loki is so untroubled by what he has told. “Loki, I’m sorry,” he says at once. “I didn’t want to tell anyone! But I had no choice… You—”

He could not be more surprised than when Loki rubs his fingers tiredly across his face and interrupts. “Yes, I know. You had no choice, just as I had no choice but to fulfill the promise once it had been extracted from me, and I suppose at this point there was really no danger that I might find a way out that would not let everyone in Asgard know just who it was that gave them the fright of their not-entirely-immortal lives. So yes, little brother: you are forgiven, if that’s what you wanted. Though I ought not to, just to have someone to blame.”

The knot in Baldr’s stomach still lingers, though, as he watches Loki turn and draw out the feather cloak from within a locked chest beside his table.

“I will come with you,” he stammers out. “If I could be of any help…”

The smile Loki tosses at him is nearly a sneer. “But you couldn’t, unless you’ve learned to grow wings as well.”

Baldr says no more, only sitting in awkward silence on the edge of a divan while Loki slips the cloak over his shoulders, adjusting the fit of it on his arms, flexing and turning in fine, graceful motions that make Baldr feel he ought to look away. Despite all this, before Loki turns to leave—before he shifts into his falcon form with its swift yellow eyes and gleaming talons—he ruffles Baldr’s hair as if he were still the naïve child who sometimes had to be carried to bed, half asleep, in their elder brother’s arms.

*

Yet all this is as nothing to the chaos of Thor’s return from his long and fruitless search across half the realms: the eldest Odinson rides through the gates and has barely time to hear the outlines of the tale of what has occurred in his absence before there is a strange, distant rumble that emanates from the broad expanse of the sky. Not thunder, for Thor’s face turns up in confusion toward the horizon, but great wings beating the air into a frenzy—and Loki returns, pursued by giants.

Thor is first into the fray, the center of it, and there comes a dreadful screeching cry as he takes a vast wing between his hands and snaps it. Another as he draws his sword and strikes, the shining tip the only point of clarity in the maelstrom of dust and debris stirred up by the coming of the pair of great eagles. When the battle is done, he is painted in the red of giants’ blood, and he stumbles back to look upon the scene, seeking for the one who led the chase to Asgard’s gates.

He finds Loki nearby, fallen backward on the ground with one eye beginning to blacken and a number of red scratches clawed across his face and chest, gaping upward at Idunn rubbing at her fist as she stands over him.

Frowning, Thor grabs his brother and brings him home.

Baldr sees the entire scene, watching from the inner edge of the gathering crowd. They have both at last returned, and Baldr is wise enough not to dare to follow.

*

They have both at last returned, but everything is changed.

Little is seen of either of the two elder Odinsons over the time to come. And if Loki was distrusted in whispers before, he is despised now in louder speech, as it becomes widely known that, for whatever reason, the Allfather has chosen to deal out no punishment at all to the trickster for endangering the very life of the realm. And it is widely said that he hides, cowardly, behind the Thunderer, who permits it because of the bond of kinship between them—although all the rumors claim that he too grows weary of Loki’s tricks, of Loki’s deceit.

Baldr hears of this from his friends—they try not to speak too ill of Loki in Baldr’s presence, because of the way he always offers up a few soft words of defense out of habit, and they love him all the more for his goodness and purity, his unwillingness to see evil in anyone. But in truth he would hardly know. He hardly sees his brothers at all anymore.

On the few occasions when he has—sent by Frigga on some unavoidable errand to Bilskirnir, perhaps—there is a pall cast over both of them.

Clutching an awkwardly offered cup one such time, the tension of a storm hanging in the air, Baldr could not help but be painfully aware of the trickster’s silence as he sat crouched in a corner of the hall out of the firelight, his eyes flickering back and forth between his brothers. No gossip, no chatter, no tales. And Thor trying to make up for that silence with tedious queries about how Baldr fared...

Baldr fled, leaving Thor’s fine ale nearly untouched, trying desperately not to envision how they would be when he was gone.

He has never before seen Bilskirnir so cold. He can only imagine how Thor’s anger must have risen when he learned more fully what Loki had done, what he had risked. He can only imagine how Loki must have answered it. He can only imagine—

Baldr is too uneasy to think on it long.

After that, returning to his growing group of companions makes him feel like a man dipping himself into a warm spring for the first time, wading in to the knees and at last submerging his body wholly until the winter is sapped away from his bones. Where before he only accepted what he is, now he sinks himself into it, willing himself to forget. It soothes him. He is Baldr the Innocent, beloved by all Asgard, and for the first time in his life, he is glad to be.

Among the group of his companions, he immerses himself. He attends feasts and bonfires; he drinks just enough to bring a glow of warmth to his chest but never enough for more than that; he listens to skalds’ recitations and his friends look to him at the end to see whether it has pleased him before they applaud. And while some of that group of friends have grown up to be warriors of great renown, they praise first his compassion, with bright eyes proclaiming him the better part of themselves, the greater and kinder part.

Baldr is absorbed into this group and lofted to the pinnacle of it, and for a while—for a long while—he barely thinks of his brothers at all.

And then one day among them all, he notices for the first time a woman called Nanna who looks at him with timid eyes full of devotion. She has soft brown hair and pink cheeks and long lashes, and when they are first alone together she goes down on her knees, avowing how she has loved him since she was a girl but never had the courage to say so. He bends to take her by the arm and bring her back to her feet. She turns her face up to kiss him, and he accepts it. She melts against him and remains there.

He finds her pleasant and agreeable, and he can think of no reason to turn her away.

Soon enough it is widely known that Baldr the Bright is without a doubt in love. And because it seems the sensible thing to do he goes to his parents to receive their blessing, his intended at his side. He is not at all surprised that Frigga instantly adores the girl, taking her in her embrace as a daughter long-awaited, telling her stories of Baldr’s youngest days—he thinks his mother means to make him blush before Nanna, and after a while he gives in as the two women giggle together over his bashfulness.

That night as he makes his way alone to his own chambers, though, he is ambushed by a thin shadow that leans rakishly in a dark doorway he passes.

“I had seen so little of you lately, but now I understand why,” Loki says, stepping forward into the light.

It has been a long time, and Baldr is startled at the mad brightness of Loki’s eyes, the thin claw of his fingers gripping Baldr’s upper arm in a parody of brotherly camaraderie. He had not even guessed that Loki would be here, cannot imagine why he is.

But Loki, seeing his expression, only gives a breathy chuckle. “Congratulations on your betrothal.”

So much time away from him, and all of it surrounded by his cadre of followers; Baldr has gone so long without the unsteadiness, the knot in his guts, the sight of his darker brother as he last saw him…

Baldr cannot remember the last time he saw Loki with his face not in shadow. He had begun to skulk, it was said, brooding in the background of Asgard when he was not clinging to the eldest Odinson’s side like a vine. That was all the gossip Baldr had heard, all he wanted to hear; he needed only to frown at the mention for a reverent hush to fall upon the topic.

But Baldr has gone so long without that feeling that it irks him now, and he brushes Loki’s hand away and steps back, unsettled. “What has happened to you?”

Loki ignores his irritation, spreads his arms out in a little shrug.

“I have only just now learned that my little brother, bright Baldr, has found himself a love, and that he will soon be wedded in a ceremony filled with gold, crowns of lilies to adorn them,” Loki says.

Somehow, the timbre of his voice echoes Baldr’s earliest memories, which are filled with the sight and sound of Loki weaving tales from rumors, a secretive finger to his lips. He wears the same expression now, and it seems half an age since Baldr has seen it. He finds himself waiting, anticipation making his heart thump, for Loki's next words.

“And all the realm will be looking on as they speak their vows, to be hallowed by the Allfather himself and blessed with happiness by all the highest of the gods. Every hand will lift a drinking horn in tribute so that the air will be thick with the scent of wine and mead, and sweet woods will be burned on the fires, and the celebration will go on until the moon sleeps in its velvet bed.”

Loki’s voice meanders, weaving the scene in its soft melody so clearly that Baldr can envision it.

And when that voice at last trails away… there in his own doorway Baldr stares at his brother, who stares back at him, his lips slightly slack and the fire-flicker in his eyes shifting, hunting, seeking without moving at all.

It is not until that moment that Baldr recognizes that flicker as hunger. As envy.

But overlaid upon the realization, Baldr remembers butterflies made of blue and turquoise light. And a pale hand gripped in a gold one, pressed against rough, cold stone.

Loki gives him a sudden, curving smile as he speaks again. “All the realm will be looking on, and there cannot possibly be a wedding without gifts from closest kin, can there?”

Baldr does not know the meaning behind Loki’s laugh then or his deep bow as he bids Baldr good night.

*

The next day, though, the hour during which Baldr and Nanna sit under the sun in the gardens of Fensalir is the time that Thor in his turn arrives to congratulate them and wish them well; he comes striding across the grass toward them, thumbs hooked beneath his belt and the light of the afternoon burnishing the flying strands of his hair as he smiles. And he comes alone.

He kisses Nanna’s hand and calls her lovely, calls Baldr lucky; he sits beside them, folding his ankles under himself and plucking a ragged white flower from the lawn, tying its long green stem into a complicated knot as they all talk. He looks untroubled, as serene as the god of thunder could look on a warm, cloudless, perfect day. Yet that serenity somehow darkens when Baldr mentions their brother, says that he had seen him the day before, wonders where he has gone.

“He goes where it pleases him to go,” Thor answers, and no more than that. But the knot of green frays apart under his fingers, and a little while later he takes his leave of them.

When Thor is gone, Nanna moves to sit a little nearer to Baldr, and she rubs his neck gently, strokes his hair, takes his hand in hers. He sighs and tries not to think of it anymore.

*

As it happens, Loki’s prediction did not capture the whole extravagance of the event. It turns out that a whole week is needed for all the guests to come, for all the gifts to be brought. The light elves come, bearing bouquets of flowers that have been made to grow bright as gems and to never fade. The dark elves bring a handful of rare treasures, enchanted instruments and carved boxes of rich, dark wood from trees that grow not on Asgard. The dwarves bring the work of forges, weapons and ornaments and other cleverly wrought things. The Vanir come as well, with casks of wine and crates of foodstuffs and small, priceless jars of rare spices and oils.

It seems all of Asgard attends as well, the great milling gathering spilling out of Gladsheim, filling the streets and lawns around for as far as can be seen. White banners fly from rooftops, and every inn in the city is crowded with folk. It is, one might think, because the realm has been denied such an event for so long, and they are a people fond of celebration, who could mark the faster cycles of time with feasts and the longer with battles. Not since the wedding of Odin and Frigga has there been such an event, even though there are two elder sons.

At the center of it all, Baldr greets the noblest of his guests personally, and in the heart of Gladsheim he sits with his father and his eldest brother as these guests come to present their tributes. Each calls Baldr by all the titles of his birth-prophecy until he thinks he would gladly never hear any of those words spoken again, yet he smiles graciously as he accepts their wishes and their gifts. And with each new arrival that bows before him, Baldr finds that he is waiting for another, watching for him, taking a breath in anticipation each time a slim figure fills the doorway.

By the sixth day of tedium, Baldr has begun to think that Loki will not come at all. But then he hears hue and cry from beyond the doors, a rising clamor.

Loki makes sure his entrance is well noted, and Baldr leans forward in his seat; this is not the skulking Loki, the gaunt and craven shadow. This is the Loki of long ago, and he takes the distance of the long hall in a few quick strides, his smile flashing as two rival groups of dwarves laden with burdens trail along in his wake, glaring and glowering at each other and at the one who leads them—who can guess what trickery Loki has worked to get them there in such a state? Who can guess how they were deceived?—and when he reaches the foot of the dais he greets Odin with solemn respect. He winks at Baldr. He gives Thor a nod.

By this time word has spread, and the hall begins to fill as the silver tones of Loki’s voice rise.

“I bring gifts for this joyous occasion,” he says, “and not only for my younger brother but for all the high gods of the realm.”

For Odin, the spear Gungnir, its tip gleaming bright; Loki brings it to his father’s feet with a bow, deep and decorous. For Thor, the hammer Mjolnir; Loki’s hand meets his brother’s on the haft (Baldr is sure he is the only one who notes the way Loki lingers to give his brother a hesitant smile as Thor holds the great weapon, feels its weight in his mighty grasp).

But onward: from among Brokk and Eitri’s wares he gives to Frigga the fruitful ring Draupnir, and from Ivaldi’s sons there is a golden boar for Freyr. A comb of polished black auroch’s horn enchanted so that Freya’s hair will grow long and beautiful when she brushes it. A fine armored gauntlet for Tyr.

Loki saves the last gift for Baldr, and his eyes light with pleasure as he draws it out. It is a little thing, something that fits in the palm of his hand, curled there like a tiny bird, precious, cherished.

Loki extends it to him reverently. “The like of this has not been made before, I would say. It is the ship Skiðblaðnir. All you need do, brother, is blow on the sails.”

Baldr takes it in his hand, studies it closely, the tiny planks and the white gossamer wound loosely upon the rigging. He can almost smell the green salt sea on it, and while it is in his hand he feels somehow that it is not a miniature ship but instead that he is a giant the size of the world.

He loves it, and he looks up to thank his dark brother. But Loki has already turned away, taking in the rumble of talk across the room, carried upon the crest of that wave. Baldr can see the edge of his pleased smirk; Loki will wring from this every advantage he can after so long despised and ashamed and outcast among them. Loki will use this to win his way back into the hearts of Asgard. Baldr has no sooner thought this than Loki raises his arms for attention, head thrown back, hair a wild cascade of black to his shoulders.

“And now, a gift for all: an amusement. A diversion. It is to be decided among you whether the works of Ivaldi’s sons are the greater, or those of Brokkr’s kin.”

The people of Asgard do greatly enjoy this sort of power, the power to laud or to disdain, to declare their own judgment the finest thing of all. And so excited talk passes back and forth, spreads outward like ripples in a pool, as the gathered folk try to reach a consensus.

Loki sits back, smug, and Baldr overhears what he says to Odin.

“Either way, it will be worth it. In secret I bet each a head’s payment to make gifts unparalleled, and they worked for that chance alone—and for such gifts!”

A head’s payment, the weight in gold of the bettor’s head; it is an old custom, an old forfeit, rife with symbolism and meaning. Yet whichever group loses… Loki will simply pass the payment on to the other, and he will have gotten his prizes for nothing. Nothing, and with the new warmth of well-amused Aesir around him.

A thrill passes through Baldr, the same as any time that Loki ever told tales of his trickery. It winds through his veins, hot and cold by turns.

Odin raises an eyebrow at his adopted son, dips a nod in generous acknowledgement. And Loki strolls easily, lightly, back to the side of the eldest Odinson, who looks up at him with a grateful, open, adoring smile.

The little ship is still in Baldr’s hand as he watches Loki lean close to whisper into Thor’s ear. Watches as Thor raises the hammer, light glimmering silver on its head, as he inspects it with a warm look on his face and turns to whisper something in return.

Loki’s arm goes around Thor’s shoulders, and it is the first time in years that Baldr has seen both his brothers happy, together.

The little ship is still in Baldr’s hand, the wood smooth against the tips of his fingers, the sails soft against his thumb, when Bragi comes forward, speaking for the assembled masses, and declares the works of Brokkr and his kin to be the finest.

It is still in Baldr’s hand when he hears his own voice speaking, laughing like a child and saying that it is good that the dwarves do not expect a real head in payment.

The little ship seems to sink heavily into the pad of his palm as the kin of Brokkr, hearing this, huddle together in the center of Gladsheim, their short dark heads together and their sharp dark eyes flashing when they turn to look at Loki.

And dwarves are known nearly as widely for their precision in deal-making as for their skill in the forge, so the first time the heel of Gungnir sounds upon the floor in Asgard, it is in upholding Brokkr’s claim, for Loki had indeed failed to specify what head was meant when he made the bargain.

Loki’s eyes go wild, and while he manages to talk his way out of the worst of it, the upper hand is lost. And the people of Asgard have been promised entertainment.

Thor is the only one strong enough to hold him down while the dwarves take out their payment, with an awl of glistening metal and a thick strip of leather that is tugged through the wounds as Loki struggles, whimpers, the thong coming away wet and dark until at last the ends are tied.

The tiny ship is still in Baldr’s hand, its tiny edges denting his flesh, as Loki gets to his feet. He is trembling as if in shock. His face is smeared with blood where Thor’s hand held his chin in place, a red mark in the shape of Thor’s hand. And if he is silent as he flees that place, flees from that gathering of guests come to celebrate the youngest Odinson’s wedding, then the crowd only rumbles the louder with laughter.

*

That night, as soon as he can get away, Baldr goes to his eldest brother first.

Thor has not returned to Bilskirnir but instead to his own old rooms in Gladsheim, and the warm place of Baldr’s earliest memories is now hollow and dim and filled with a sound Baldr has heard only a few times before—though the sound is in fact covered by the tapping of rain on the windows, the distant roll of thunder. Thor covers his face with his hands as his shoulders quake.

Baldr remembers when Thor could lift him in his arms and spin him in the air until he was breathless from laughter. It is all wrong to sit there rubbing a hand across Thor’s back in an attempt at comfort while his older brother sobs, cursing himself and the dwarves and everything that happened. They both know that he could not have refused, not when it was Odin’s order, and they both know that Loki will not care.

“I’ll go and find him,” Baldr says. “I’ll…”

Thor looks up, his face wet and his eyes puffy and red but still somehow desperately grateful. “Tell him I’m sorry, Baldr. Please… tell him I’m sorry.”

Baldr promises.

*

He finds Loki later on the high balcony that overlooks Folkvangr, dotted tonight with flickering bonfires in honor of the upcoming events, and he does not try to walk softly but Loki tenses anyway for a moment with his hands upon the railing before he turns to see that it is only him—only the youngest brother, the innocent one, harmless and naïve—and then relaxes.

Baldr cannot help staring. The leather thong is still there, now rust-colored with a seeping crust of blood that likely cannot wholly be washed clear, caked against Loki’s lips as it is. The smears across his jaw and cheek are gone, but it doesn’t matter; in their place there are bruises now, dark veins of violet and grey crawling from his mouth and across his face, the shape of a strong hand. And his eyes… his eyes burn.

“Thor says he’s sorry,” Baldr says, and the sealing of his lips does not prevent Loki from giving a snort in reply.

“He was weeping when I left.”

Loki has no response to this, and he only continues to stare out, leaving Baldr to stand beside him, feeling forgotten. The night air is damp with recent rain, chill for early summer and it raises gooseflesh on his arms; Baldr lets the little shiver distract him from the strangeness of ferrying secret messages between his brothers. It is almost as if he has become part of their hidden relationship, even if they don’t know it. Except he has always been, hasn’t he? And maybe this is what it is to be an Odinson—because he knew from the first time that he saw them together, when he was little more than a child, that it was wrong, whether they were blood or not. That it was an abomination of brotherly feeling, a twisting of it into something wretched and lowly and obscene. Yet he had told no one. He had kept their secret because they were his brothers. And maybe for more reasons than that.

Baldr has ached for his brother, for Loki, since before he knew what to name the pain.

So now he scuffs his foot against the wet slate of the balcony floor, steps forward, hopeful. “I did like your gift,” he says, breaking the silence, as he reaches out to touch Loki lightly on the arm. “I would have called it the best of all of them…”

Loki’s hand rises and his wrist moves in a dismissive flick; Loki is done with him. He cannot speak to answer, and he has no other use for Baldr now.

Baldr’s breath catches: the distant bonfires glinting off Loki’s eyes and his bruised mouth sewn shut on this of all nights, and Loki—

Loki does not move, does not give him another glance. And Baldr can do nothing but nod in the terrible silence and depart, leaving his brother as alone as he wishes to be.

*

When he returns to his own chambers he finds Nanna there, waiting; she tells him she heard what happened, and she looks at him with her warm brown eyes full of sympathy.

And that night, because it is the night before they are to be wed, she shares his bed, and he cups the roundness of her breasts in his hands, and he lies between her soft, bare legs, and she makes quiet, devout sounds as he kisses her cheek.

It is the night before his wedding and he pushes inside his bride while his mind roils with the memory of Thor holding Loki down on the hard stone floor of Gladsheim, straddling him with one unforgiving hand on his jaw and the other on his wrists. Nanna is soft and warm and welcoming inside, and he barely feels it, thinking only of the sight of Loki squirming beneath his brother’s bulk, fighting uselessly against their brother’s greater strength. The sound of his shouts fading to whimpers, fading to the sputtered bubbling of blood between his lips as it went on. He collapses on top of her, elbows on the bed as he thrusts so that he doesn’t have to see her face, doesn’t have to worry that she will see his.

Sweat bursts on his brow and her hair sticks to it, salt forms on his upper lip and he presses them against her skin. With bitter sickness hollowing him he thinks of the ship and the awl and a tall, rust-covered stone as climax hits him fast and hard and painful. And with his heart in his throat as his breath comes back, unable to look Nanna in the eye, he knows at last that he hates his brothers, but Loki most of all.

Chapter Text

It is a month until the supply of honeymoon mead is gone.

It is a month, likewise, until Loki is seen again, until the bespelled leather cord can at last be cut and removed. The dwarves, it seems, thought that would be time enough to make Loki miserable, time enough to teach him lessons of couth and caution, but Baldr knows his brother too well to think it likely. Loki disappears from the public eye for those weeks, unwilling to let his visage be seen and mocked, unwilling to do anything but nurse his grudge to the point of sickness.

When he reappears with irregular red scars pocked across his mouth, he is changed. Whatever it was in Loki that once made him quicker to laughter than to hatred is gone, and he hides no longer. In fact he seems to make a point to be seen. In the feasting halls he drinks himself into a frenzy, and he nearly begs those around him to challenge him—the larger and stronger and more fearsome they are, the better—stamping his foot and hurling the wild opening gestures of a flyte at any who attempt to calm him. He refuses to be talked down, not even (or perhaps especially not) by his brothers.

One night just after sundown, when the sky deepens with every passing moment, Loki’s frenzy brings his path to cross with the gathering of Baldr’s companions. And he picks a fight, blindly, with one of the group, with someone who has hardly said two words to him in the past hundred years. As Baldr approaches the source of the commotion Loki looks up and smiles, scars pulling out of shape on his pale skin, grotesque, and Baldr nearly recoils at the sight. Loki is a depraved echo of the brother Baldr grew up knowing, as far from himself as he has ever been. He was not so gaunt and ragged in moonlit Fensalir. His eyes were not so fevered and mad. Yet Loki finishes his insult against one of the men’s mothers—if anything, the dwarves’ treatment has made his tongue sharper and quicker than ever before—and he is still speaking as he meets Baldr’s eyes, surprise flashing across his face followed by pleasure. His thin and bloodless lips curve up into a mischievous smile, as if he is glad to meet his brother there under such circumstances.

Baldr feels his heart in his throat as he speaks to his friends without breaking away from Loki’s gaze. “Take pity on my brother,” he says in a quiet voice, for he is Baldr the ever-kindly, the ever-pure. “Do not hold his poisoned words against him. None of us can help what we are.”

Loki stares at him dumbfounded as Baldr leads his friends away, leaving him to erupt in hissing rage as soon as they are gone.

*

Years pass. It is long enough that when Baldr visits Bilskirnir (as he does more often now), the mortal servants know nothing of the names Roskva and Thjalfi, except as faded entries in the earliest pages of their lineage. Baldr has come to enjoy his eldest brother’s company without reserve, and Thor is always pleased to see him as well, whether he brings along Nanna and their son or not. Thor has taken well to being an uncle; he has promised to assist in the boy’s training when he grows enough for it, but in the meantime he attempts to spoil the child when he believes the parents will not protest.

Baldr wonders if Thor would have liked to have children of his own, but Thor makes no mention of it, and he seeks no female companionship. Baldr does not ask why. He knows that Loki still spurns him—Thor does not say it that way, but Baldr knows. Thor has taken him into his confidence enough to speak to him sometimes of their brother and how he still has not forgiven, the anger and betrayal still fierce in his heart. Sometimes Thor speaks of how much he misses Loki, how dearly he misses the friend he was raised with, the companion he had always relied upon. As he speaks his thumb caresses the weighty head of the hammer that is always slung through his belt now.

Baldr thinks it eases Thor’s mind to have someone to share his loss, someone who can understand what it means to love Loki despite his nature, so he listens. And Thor does not question his youngest brother’s quiet sympathy.

But those evenings are the only times that Baldr ever thinks of Loki anymore, and that he does at all is only for Thor’s sake. Baldr has begun to understand at last what everyone else around him has known for years or centuries. And if in childhood he was blind to Loki’s faults—if he spent his youth adoring his darker brother—then at least he is innocent in that way no longer.

Loki has turned on everyone, as he was always bound to do. And Asgard has returned the sentiment, for the tale of Loki has always seemed destined to come to a bad end.

Baldr learns this for certain one day when he returns to Gladsheim to visit with his parents, and he meets a wandering witch-woman—one of those who craft prophecies—emerging from his father’s hall. Black eyes stare down the curve of her sharp nose at him; she clutches a white wolf’s pelt around her shoulders as she passes, as if to keep out a wintry chill. Later, when Baldr asks, Odin admits that he did not receive the answers he had wanted: darkness and chaos and pain, all in a blur that cannot be untangled or put straight.

But Loki’s fate has always been unclear, adopted son that he is, with no birth-prophecies upon him.

Odin’s aging brow is furrowed, his lone eye distant and grey, its wisdom stretched thin. Baldr sits with his father for a while, wondering.

*

Years pass.

Baldr should be happy. He has everything, and he is no longer a child curling under his blankets while thunder and lightning tear across the sky, no longer a boy wishing to be something other than what he is. He is a married man with a good wife who loves and obeys him. He is the father of a strong and healthy son. He is a prince of the highest of realms, and all revere him. He has a group of companions whose devotion he has earned.

But he is not. Instead, there is a hollow feeling inside him and a heavy tedium of days, and at last it grows bad enough that he simply must escape. So he rides out of the city, feeling that he leaves nothing behind that he will miss, even if he were abandoning his whole life and not just going for a day's ride.

Thor had departed some time ago from Asgard, gone not on the lighthearted adventures of youth but instead on a diplomatic errand on his king and father’s behalf, and he still has not returned. And Loki has not been seen in some time either, though his comings and goings are no longer noteworthy; the rumors that pass through Asgard say he sometimes wanders in other realms, even Jotunheim, where he is not yet instantly known and distrusted for the trickster he is. That is why, as Baldr rides beneath the canopy of green with thin and empty rays of afternoon sun glancing across his face, he knows he will find the place of his destination empty. He goes for just that reason, and because once these woods soothed him. Because once, before everything changed, he daydreamed there of standing in the peaceful stillness, arms outstretched, until he became as a fast-growing sapling. Until leaves sprouted from his fingertips and mistletoe grew in his hair and the blood slowed to sap in his veins.

Yet as he approaches the clearing of the three great stones, he can hear singing, clear and sweet, rising on the drifting breeze.

Baldr leaves his horse beneath the trees; he is lured forward by the voice. It sings of the softness of a lover’s gold hair, the tenderness of a lover’s blue eyes. It is an old song, one Baldr recognizes, but the words that follow make him blush anyway as he walks around the flat stone, water on its surface and the sky shivering on its cold bed.

Loki is sitting with his back to the stone, the tilted column of his neck white under the sun, eyes closed as he reaches the verse about his lover’s adoring lips—his own curve up in mirth even as he sings, and the scars are faded almost beyond sight—and he appears not at all as the wretched madman he has been. He looks contented, alone in the world yet satisfied to be alive in it. He looks beautiful.

Baldr realizes he has been staring, entranced, at the same moment he realizes that Loki’s eyes are in fact slit slyly open, watching him in return.

“Well,” Loki asks, the song abruptly ended, “my dear little brother. I did not know you knew of this place. What brings you here to the wilds?”

With Loki’s eyes upon him, the hardened amber in Baldr’s veins turns back to blood again, hot and aching. He does his best not to show it as he answers. “You should be the one to tell me,” he says, shrugging. “You are the clever one.”

Loki laughs, a warm silver glow, and pats the grass beside where he sits. “Come,” he says, the invitation falling casually from his tongue. “We’ve hardly spoken in years. Surely we can act like brothers once again, at least for a few moments.”

Not knowing quite why, Baldr does as he asks, sitting on the cool ground with his back against the stone, their shoulders nearly touching. He doesn’t know if Loki means it; Loki—as Thor has so often said—holds grudges long after everyone else would forget them, and a smile from him is no promise that he does not mean you harm. But Loki is not really smiling at him; he is smiling at the sky, at a grey-winged jay that soars over their heads, at the swaying treetops at the edge of the clearing. He gives a contented sigh in the quiet.

Baldr frowns. “Why are you here?”

“I’ve known of this place for years. Thor and I... we used to come here sometimes, because no one else ever seemed to. And I like it.”

Baldr feels his face grow hot, yet he does not let himself look away in awkward discomfort, only watching as a twinge of longing passes briefly across Loki’s face.

And suddenly Baldr can guess that Loki has not been wandering, as has been said of him. Instead he has been here, in this exact spot, dwelling here on the twilight edge of Asgard and waiting until the moment comes when the whispers will fade enough that he can bear to go back, until the people have nearly forgotten why they call him scarlip, why they call him ergi and craven and stirrer of poisons, so that he will be able to walk unashamed in their midst, head held high. Or waiting until Thor is sufficiently repentant that he can justify offering his forgiveness.

Maybe this time when Thor returns Loki will come home to him, and warm summer storms will gather again over Bilskirnir when they are together.

Baldr’s hands grip tight upon the grass. He knows his knuckles must be white. He feels he can neither draw breath nor release it.

Loki rolls his head to the side to look at Baldr with a secretive smile. And he lifts a hand, fluffs the persistent cowlick that has been on Baldr’s head since he was a boy. It grates him, the familiarity and condescension of the act, but he only grits his teeth and stares down at the ground.

“Poor Baldr,” Loki murmurs, white fingers in Baldr’s hair sending a tremble of icy anticipation down his spine. “How terrible it must be for you.”

He knows.

For a brief instant Baldr thinks that Loki somehow has become aware of what Baldr saw, somehow, after all this time. Yet before he can blurt out a single word, Loki goes on, his voice light and easy. “Do you know, I had always thought Thor’s road a rough one: the golden firstborn, the champion of the house of Odin. Until you, at least, I thought that. But you—how truly terrible, to be so loved,” Loki purrs. “And as you said, none of us can help what we are.”

The glint in his eye is emberous, mocking.

“And that is why you have come out here to the wilds, to escape from that. Yet all you find here is me,” Loki adds with a single low laugh.

Baldr lets out a breath—no, Loki does not truly know—yet feels no relief at all. The dull haze that had crept across the world is gone in his brother’s presence, but the knot has returned to his insides, tightening more each moment.

He watches as Loki’s head tips back again to gaze at the sky, his long pale throat bared, and as his dark brows twitch down as if at a sudden thought.

“Tell me, have you ever seen a sacrifice? One of the rituals the mortals carry out in an attempt to curry our favor?” Loki asks.

Baldr shakes his head, which makes Loki smile a predatory smile.

“They are brutal things. Some young boy or girl dragged out to a lonesome stone on a cold night, stripped naked, and held upon it while they shiver, staring up in terror at the stars before the knife plunges in and lets out their blood to pool and swirl,” Loki muses, drawling out the words as if he enjoys the taste of them. His fingers draw shapes, swirls that might be of blood or the fire he used to paint in the air by magic to amuse his younger brother. “And the mortals think to prophesy by the patterns it makes, or cry out prayers in the passion of the moment. As if their pleas could matter more because they are carried by a dying soul.”

Loki’s throat bobs as he swallows, and his clever green eyes slip shut for a moment.

Baldr cannot help but envision what Loki describes. But he has spent so many eternal years imagining other things…

His mind is filled with the thought of Loki, sprawled naked on the stone, a sacrifice. He is wiry and quick and hard, but Baldr knows he could be held down, could be pinned as Thor once did. Hair turned into a spreading inky cloud in the standing water, plastered to his pale neck as he thrashes like a trout in the runnel trickling at a fisher’s feet. Chest rising and falling, gasping, dripping with sweat and grey rainwater. Beating his own brains out against the rock—dazing himself until he lies limp in helpless surrender, eyes unfocused, red smears leaking from his mouth and nose, until he can no longer fight back, his body bare and white…

Baldr's hands clench so hard his nails seem to cut him.

“But we… we have forever,” Loki adds, noticing nothing of the stone figure of his little brother beside him. “And we have no one to cry out to but ourselves.”

Clumsy with cold and with a sudden decisive fear, Baldr climbs quickly to his feet, takes a few steps away.

He is smothered. He is choking. The secret inside him burns like a smoldering coal that he can’t spit out, yet in this moment he knows he will.

In the very place where it happened.

The grass whispers all around them, and Loki sits there looking up at him as if nothing is amiss, watching him, untroubled, with wide-eyed interest.

Baldr’s voice is quiet as the wind when he speaks, humble and soft.

“I’ve been having dreams,” he says.

Loki waits, saying nothing. Waits, patient and expectant, for him to explain.

“I’ve had dreams in which I die... in which I am killed... some in which I am already dead.” Baldr doesn’t know why he says it. He does not know where the words come from—they are not true, he has had no such dreams, he has never before had such thoughts. Yet he feels himself blushing as if he has given away the knowledge of some terrible hidden shame.

A bright and greedy curiosity comes into Loki’s eyes then, and he gives a sly smile as if the two of them were sharing a wonderful secret.

“What could possibly steal eternity from Baldr the Bright?” Loki asks.

And the shadow of the tallest stone in the clearing, the spear-stone, falls dark between them as Baldr answers, his heart clenching in the center of his chest.

*

Days later, Baldr cannot stop thinking about what he said, what he told Loki about a dream he has never had. He cannot stop hearing his own voice and feeling his pulse racing, dread spreading like an itch of red poison beneath his skin.

And then the dream comes to him in truth, and he is not surprised. He wakes from it in the early gloom, a throbbing ache behind his breastbone, and though the dream did not frighten him while he was in it—there was blood, yes, but there was also peace, and salt waves, and blue sky—when he wakes he begins to shudder, and not all for the predawn chill.

He still does not know why he said it. But he feels sure that the nightmare came because of the words he spoke. He brought this, though perhaps there is some deeper source that he does not know and cannot see.

For a while he sits on the edge of the bed, clutching the corner beneath his fingers, Nanna still sighing on her pillow, curled beneath the coverlet.

Then he slips away while the morning is fresh, and he reaches Fensalir before the sun edges bright over the horizon. When he finds his mother, she is at her loom, working as if she too woke early from unsettled sleep. Her fingers are tense on the threads, plucking at them as if she could deny the future taking shape in the patterns. When he touches her shoulder she stiffens, sobs. She turns and gets quickly to her feet, pulling him into her motherly embrace, her golden hair against his cheek.

She knows what he has dreamed, and she murmurs to him that she will find a way to stop it.

He wonders if she can.

*

Time begins to pass swiftly then, for many things seem to happen all at once.

Thor returns from his long sojourn in Vanaheim, and there is a great feast held in Odin’s hall, with songs and tales, with ale and wine, with great merriment. All the gods attend, or nearly all. Baldr sits with his family at the head of the high table, Nanna and Forseti beside him, and Frigga reaching over to squeeze his hand every now and then. And across the laden table, Thor, smiling out across the gathering that has come together to celebrate his safe homecoming.

Baldr makes no mention to his eldest brother of where he went only a few days before and who he met there. Instead he listens as Thor offers up a brief and genial version of the tale of his travels, glossing over what must have been endless political maneuvering among the Vanir and instead relating to his listeners mostly the more exciting moments, though they are few and thin compared to the stories he used to be able to tell after his adventures. Baldr listens and he watches his eldest brother’s eyes—there is a look of deep weariness in them that Baldr has never noticed there before, and he is not sure if it can all be attributed to the road.

The dutiful firstborn. The champion of the house of Odin. A gold-limned stormcloud with no shadow beside it, while far away the shadow wanders on its own.

Baldr says nothing to Thor about where he went or who he saw, but he begins to wonder if Thor indeed already knows where Loki is. It is easy to forget that they grew up together as brothers before Baldr was born; it is easy to forget how well they know each other, even after so long apart. And Baldr begins to believe that all this time Thor knew, and that he has only been waiting, as patiently as he can despite his heartache, until Loki will at last acquiesce and come back to him.

Baldr wonders if, were it not for his responsibilities as the first prince of Asgard, Thor would have gone instead to be with him, followed to wherever he dwells.

But Loki has not returned yet, in any case. And Thor’s gaze falls into the cup in his hands in a flash of sorrow that he casts aside in the next moment, unwilling to sour the celebration with his own private grief. He musters a smile when he sees Baldr looking upon him with an expression of worry.

Baldr hates what he feels in that moment.

That night, Baldr has the dream again. And he begins to think that the nightmare has come not because some compulsion made him speak the words but because he wants it.

Perhaps even the fates bow to the whim of Baldr.

*

It is not many days later that Frigga reveals her plan to save him, asking a vow from every force and every being not to harm Baldr. But carrying it out reveals also the threat against him, the cause for her fear, and soon enough even the trees whisper of it. That Baldr the Bright has had dreams of dying; that Frigga, his mother and the highest of the goddesses, has seen it in her weavings.

As word spreads, Baldr’s group of friends and companions swells, their number growing as the idea of his peril strikes to the hearts of the Aesir; they are a people who fear no danger to themselves, but Baldr has always been beloved among them, and they would protect him. Or stand near enough to try, and to tell the tale when all is done.

At home Nanna likewise stays a little closer to him, Forseti carried in her arms. Yet she believes in Frigga’s certainty, in Frigga’s plan, and she smiles to reassure him. At night, when they hold each other, she kisses his shoulder and swears that no fate can separate them.

But none of them understand that he is not afraid, and there are other things happening that no one else seems to notice but him.

He hears the barest whispers that Loki might have returned. That he might be insinuating himself back into the frayed edges of Asgardian society. Sometimes Baldr will chance to see a thin figure in the distance, in the far-off shadows, giving him a secretive wave, and when this happens his insides knot in nervous anticipation.

He has had the dream so many times, by this point coming nearly every time he closes his eyes, blood and pain and a lonely sky, that he understands it at last.

Baldr knows it is only a matter of time.

And when comes the great celebration, the yearly feast of all the immortal gods at which all the great prophecies are again recited, Baldr is not sure who suggests it (they wish to see, to know for sure) but when they do he stands, smiling.

He is no longer Baldr the Innocent, no longer Baldr the Bright. He is Baldr the Invulnerable, made so by his mother’s care, and he spreads out his arms a little as the first missile is thrown, landing feather-light and painless, bouncing away from his body.

He looks around at the crowd, wondering who it will be, seeking for the flash of green eyes among them, the shadow of dark hair, the sly narrow shape, knowing already that he will not see them, yet he does not need to. He accepts that he will not. He knows this is how it must be.

He understands the dream now, and he welcomes what must come. What must happen.

So many years before: Loki speaking of mischief like a compulsion, telling of the tricks he’d played, lust heavy in his voice. Baldr has seen what Loki will do to those who offend him. He has seen how Loki is unable to resist when told he cannot.

And now Baldr is invulnerable. Nothing can harm him now.

They will be bound together by this.

At last, Loki will be his. And it will be the end of them both—of all three of them, of all of this that Baldr has lived with and suffered and known for so long—the end of all in one swift stroke.

He welcomes it.

*

The slender bough pierces his chest, and there is pain, but it is dull and distant.

From his dreams he knows the copper taste that floods his mouth in the next moment. The wetness that edges his lips when he sputters, his chest clamping down so that he cannot breathe.

From his dreams he knows the sound of cries of alarm, the chaos of shouts and weeping.

From his dreams, and from outside of them, he knows the feeling of a lodestone in his belly and the feeling of sickness burning inside him, his heart pulling and dragging on his veins. He lets it all drag him down to the ground, falling to his knees, to his back, staring up at the sky.

In the faces that blur above him, he does not see either of his brothers, and that, he thinks, is as it should be. Someone braces his shoulders as he lies, pulls the spear from between his ribs, and he sees for one brief moment the stain upon it like a streak of bright rust before they cast it aside to press their palms against his wound.

Instead of pain he feels satisfaction.

And then, soon enough, he feels nothing at all.

*

It is Odin who blows upon the sails of Skiðblaðnir until the ship looms upon the water, the greatest ship that has ever sailed out from the shores of Asgard.

It is a group of Baldr’s friends who lift his white-wrapped body and place it among the grave goods that will go with him into the flames, into Hel.

It is Frigga, her voice not trembling only through force of will, who calls out the invocation to hallow the ship to carry the greatest and mildest and most beloved of all the gods to his rest.

It is Nanna who falls to her knees at the water’s edge, weeping as her heart breaks.

It is one of Thor’s mortal servants, a placid, reticent man with dark eyes, who calms Forseti, still too young to understand where his father has gone, and tends to him while the gods grieve.

It is Thor who waits until the ship is shoved from its mooring and then strikes it with one great burst of lightning, turning it into a floating pyre.

It is Loki who sits at the edge of the crowd, arms around his knees and his face in shadow, so that it is possible to think he too mourns.

It is Baldr who does not feel the flames but passes through them. And somehow, he is purified by them.

Some stain on his soul is burned away.

*

Hel, Baldr finds, is unbearably quiet. Its ruler even more so. When she does speak, there is a ravaged edge to her voice, the air hissing past bone and bare teeth on one side and past full, red lips on the other.

Being dead, though, Baldr finds this fact does not disturb him any more than does her presence beside him, the way she stands as close to him as a young girl in love, or the way the odor of graves clings to her, of damp dust and turned loam.

“He won’t weep for you,” she says, sounding satisfied, as together they watch the events of the living world unfurl before them.

Since he died, Baldr has come to realize so many things, and he knows she is right, but its truth seems somehow distant.

And he never wept for Loki, either, so he cannot see it as unfair.

*

By the time Aegir gathers the Aesir to his hall, the place overflowing with ale and ringing with cheer, the fire’s work is fully done, and Baldr remembers.

He remembers how it felt to be a child with his brothers on either side of him. He remembers how it once was when his world was so small, a golden haze at the edges, and all he knew was that he loved his brothers and they in turn loved him, and that nothing could be wrong in a world in which that was true.

He remembers it enough that he can feel only dread as Loki arrives alone at the door of Aegir’s hall, with feral desperation in his eyes. Loki demands a place, as a prince of the realm—demands it, teeth bared, and swallows down a stinging mouthful of liquor before seeming to smile. Baldr remembers, and he knows the look of spiteful pleasure on Loki’s face in the next moment as he prepares to let loose every rumor he has collected over the years, weaving them into verse too skillful to match what the drunken gleam in his eyes would say.

Baldr remembers how it had felt, dying and knowing that Loki would destroy himself afterward. He remembers how much he wanted that. Yet as he watches the destruction unfolding now he feels only horror, so vivid it is like he is alive again to feel it, hot and cold and prickling down the center of his chest. He watches the wrath of all the gods rise, watches as Loki calls that wrath down wholly upon himself, as if once begun he cannot make himself stop.

Hela hisses again beside him, reminding him of her presence. “The mortals believe I am his child. Which would make you my uncle,” she says. “It’s not true. Though I will see him in the flesh before the end, and you will not.”

Baldr watches as Loki runs. And he says nothing in reply to her prediction, for there is nothing he can say that is not now too late.

*

There is still pain. Even in death there is still pain, and Baldr feels it as he watches after Loki has been captured in a net of his own making.

Loki spends one night in the dungeons of Asgard, one final night before his punishment is called down, and Thor goes with him.

Earlier, before the council of the high gods, the eldest Odinson had stayed silent as Loki was accused and as his drunken confession was recounted. But Thor, looking stricken, caught between anger and misery, had refused to add his own renunciation of his brother to the rising clamor.

Loki, no more than a pale and haggard thing slumped in the center of the circle, had looked up aghast, his green eyes wide, at what came next: Odin had raised his hands and offered the traditional gesture, asking if there might be anyone who would choose of their own will to accompany the criminal so as to soften the punishment to which he had been sentenced… and Thor had stood. He had gotten to his feet, unsteady, his mighty form gone clumsy with his haste, and said that he would do so. That he would endure it with his brother, if only to spare him some of the pain.

No one present had seemed so surprised as Loki at those words, his mouth gaping open and his face blanched.

So Baldr watches the door of the dungeon clang shut, closing them in together. And the part of him that remembers being alive now shudders as if he has been shocked as Loki, with shackles on his limbs and faded scars on his mouth, disappears into Thor’s embrace.

He spent his life wondering why he was not part of their forbidden brotherhood, and this time he does not run from the sight of how they are together when there is no one there to see. He has to know what love was there that was not for him.

Thor’s shoulders are trembling. Loki’s bound hands lift, brushing blond hair back tenderly. They whisper to each other in the gloom, apologies and promises. Loki’s dark, thin laughter and Thor’s desperate show of bravery. They do not bother with recriminations. They touch each other, hands running along each other’s bodies as if unsure that they are both real. Taking this last chance before Loki’s torture makes any comfort impossible.

They kiss, and more than that, and if Baldr had a heart to beat it would be racing. Hela is still beside him, impassive as she watches—so much that he wants to tell her to turn away, that this is between the sons of Odin only. But he does not, for he has no right either, yet he does not want to stop.

He watches as at last they fall asleep together, surrendering in their exhaustion to the loss of these last few hours.

In Hel, Baldr finds that though the dead are not given the respite of slumber, they can still weep.

*

And then, when morning comes, Baldr watches from afar as his brothers descend into the cave, to the place where Loki has been cursed to abide in penance for his crimes.

Odin oversees the terrible ceremony, resigned in his sorrow, all of his sons lost.

Frigga stares after them as they pass, cold bitterness written on her face.

Thor follows at Loki's side, the hammer missing from his belt, left behind as a necessary condition, his head low and shadowed with pain. He stays close to Loki but lets him walk on his own these last free steps in a show of pride and strength.

And Loki looks back over his shoulder for just one brief moment as they reach the mouth of the cave where the snake resides, before he goes within to be bound. Sunlight glints off his eyes, yet he gives no hint of what he feels or what he sees.

And then at last it is over, and the gathered crowds who came to witness this scene return to their own homes. And they will pass the tale to others, repeating it in all its horror and sorrow. Brother and brother. Murderer and victim.

And Baldr, in Hel, knows that what he wished when he was alive has come true. He and Loki are bound together now; the tale cannot be told without both their names. Yet it will not be told in full. The stories will not say what precisely drove Loki to do it, what drove him to that final, fatal malice, what drove him to turn it on the kindest and gentlest of all the gods. And they will not say why, as some reported, Baldr perished with a smile on his bloodied lips. Those things will be lost, because they are not what Asgard knows. They are not what Asgard believes. Because, of all the things the folk of Asgard believe, the one thing that will forever be certain is this:

Baldr, alone in all the tragedy, was innocent.

***