Author's Note: By god, I don't know what happened.
I knew the moment I left the theater that I was going to write fic bringing Frigga back, because obviously. The "road trip to Valhalla" started out as a joke and then became...not a joke, like most of the things I joke about. And then I had a rapidly expanding movie coda that was about bringing Frigga back - but also about getting somewhere with the Thor/Loki relationship that I felt good about. Because I'm really all about fixing things. (No, actually.)
So, so many hugs to the incomparable thorkizilla, who gave me pages and pages of invaluable commentary and criticism and put up with my nervous fretting. Thanks also to my personal Steve, zaataronpita, who makes sure I don't go off the rails. And how about a bonus thanks to all the people following me on tumblr who put up with my writing angst on a regular basis, and somehow still seem to like me.
Other fics are coming! I'm working on everything that's still in progress. But this one, at least, is done. I hope you enjoy.
Thanks also to portraitoftheoddity who, when I had written myself into a corner, helped me wriggle out of it again. You are a lifesaver, friend.
Thor woke up in the middle of the night with Loki standing over him and looking powerfully displeased. "Wake up," he said, snappishly. "I require your assistance. Regrettably." Thor stared at him, helplessly. Loki made an impatient noise. "Yes, yes, I'm alive, can you skip the hysterics?"
Thor swallowed. "This is no dream," he said. Loki rolled his eyes and smiled, sharp and nasty.
"Have you been dreaming about me that much, brother?"
Thor reached out and grabbed his arm. He could feel a pulse under the skin, solid flesh under his fingers, and let go, drawing back. "You're alive," he said, a little hoarsely.
"I thought I said to-"
Thor hauled back and punched Loki in the face.
He pulled it, at the last moment, though a part of him was tempted not to.
Loki stumbled back, more, Thor thought given how much he'd held back, out of surprise than anything else, one hand going to his nose. "What was that for?" he demanded indignantly. Thor stared at him, incredulous. He remembered holding Loki as his skin turned that ghastly grey and apologies spilled from his lips, remembered him going still, and rose to his feet.
"You let me think you were dead!"
"Oh, for the love of-"
Thor's voice rose steeply. "You let me think you were dead again!"
"Yell a little louder," Loki hissed. "I think someone in the city might not have heard you. Are you going to listen to me or-"
"I will yell all I like about my younger brother allowing me to believe he was dead!" Thor bellowed, taking a step toward Loki. "I wept for your loss, I have imagined countless ways I might have saved you, and all this time you were alive?"
"If I had my way I would not be here at all," Loki said, though he looked, Thor thought, slightly taken aback. Thor took a step toward him, and Loki took a step back. "Before you hit me again would you at least let me tell you why I'm here?"
No, Thor was tempted to say, not until I give you a piece of my mind. He could pin Loki down and put Mjolnir on his chest to make sure he didn't go anywhere, too. It wouldn't be terribly hard. But- looking at Loki, his eyes were bright. Almost too bright. The look he got, Thor realized, when he had some kind of grand idea. He narrowed his eyes. "Fine," he said. "But don't think I'm finished-"
Loki expelled a breath. "Yes, I'm sure. But the matter of why I am truly here…" His chin lifted, and his mouth was set in a determined, stubborn line. "I am going to bring Frigga back."
Thor's mind went perfectly blank. "What?"
The look Loki gave him was perfectly scathing, and his voice was waspish. "Have you lost the last few wits you had? I am going to go to Valhalla and I am going to bring the All-Mother Frigga back to the realms of the living. Is that clear enough for you?"
"You're mad," Thor said, though for just a moment his heartbeat sped up with hope. "No one can-"
"Need I remind you," Loki interrupted, "that I have spent a lifetime testing the limits of the possible? I do not intend to refuse this test on the grounds that it may be difficult, and much as I would sooner not, I require your cooperation."
Thor stared at him. He was half tempted to chalk this all up to a powerfully vivid and elaborate dream, but… "You say that like you have already figured out a way," he said, slowly. Loki's mouth turned down in a very slight frown, though the displeased lines around his nose were more pronounced. Thor caught himself staring at Loki, drinking every detail in with thirsty greed.
"That depends," Loki said, still annoyed. "Are you going to punch me again?"
"No," Thor said, after a moments' consideration, though he added mentally, though that does not rule out other means of expressing my displeasure with you at the moment. "Not unless you do something that necessitates it."
Loki gave him a sharp look. He looked…good, Thor noted. Filled out from his gaunt thinness, and with more clarity in his face, somehow, less of the sharp hungry rage that had filled his features…before. "Yes," he said, after a moment. "There is a way."
Thor could feel hope swelling in his chest. "Dangerous," he said, not really a question. "Difficult, too, no doubt." Loki's eyebrows twitched, very slightly, and Thor drew himself up, feeling a smile start to tug at the corners of his mouth. "Did you really think I'd refuse?"
"I did not wish to ask you at all," Loki retorted, but Thor wasn't going to let that touch him. For the moment, he was almost giddy. Loki was alive, and soon they would have their mother back as well. If Loki thought there was a way and the two of them were determined to find it, there was no force in any realm that could stand in their way. "Put your affairs in order and meet me here at this time tomorrow."
"Wait," Thor said, smile fading a little. "Loki-"
"No," Loki said firmly, and then, "Tomorrow," and vanished. Thor shut his mouth and frowned at the empty room.
Well, he told himself, this journey would doubtless take time. There would be ample time to talk to Loki later, and specifically to make sure that he understood that if he ever let Thor think he was dead again he was going to be very, very sorry.
He did not go back to sleep, half fearful that if he did, he might find that he had never been awake at all.
Telling Jane was difficult. "I go to a conference for three days and your brother comes back from the dead to take you on an interdimensional road trip?" were her precise words over the phone. "You couldn't wait for me to get back for these things to happen?"
"You could not come," Thor said. "It is too dangerous."
"A dangerous interdimensional road trip. Great." Jane did not sound pleased in the least. "Thor…"
"I must," Thor interrupted. He could hear the pleading in his voice and was not ashamed. "Jane…it is my mother."
"And Loki," Jane said, and though she sounded tired, it was not reproachful, and Thor couldn't deny that.
"And Loki," he said, bowing his head, even knowing she could not see the gesture. "Him as well. He is alive, Jane, and I…"
"Go," she said, suddenly, and Thor started.
"I said go," Jane said, sounding somewhere between peeved and resigned. "You've got a chance to get your mother back. And maybe your brother, too. What kind of girlfriend would I be if I took that away from you?"
Thor heaved a great sigh of relief. "Jane," he said, but this time with powerful affection, "thank you. I am-"
"Oh, just-" he could almost hear Jane's flush over the phone. "Just come back safe, all right? And don't take too long. And be careful. Okay? You can make it up to me when you get back."
"And I will," Thor promised, and couldn't help a smile. "With great vigor and enthusiasm-"
"Thor!" Jane exclaimed, and he just laughed. "Be good, you big dork," she said, after Thor subsided. "I'll see you soon."
As for the other party that needed to be informed…Thor had known that his friends were not going to be happy about the development. He had, perhaps, underestimated how much so.
"So what you're telling me," Tony Stark said, "is that you're taking some vacation time to go on a road trip to resurrect your mom with your psychotic baby brother who oh right is also supposedly dead?"
"Well," Thor said, after a moments' pause, "it turns out he was not." Which was, he supposed, perhaps not a relief to the others in the way it was to him.
The noise Tony made was distinctly strangled. Steve leaned forward on the table, eyebrows knitted together. Clint looked profoundly unhappy, and the Lady Romanov shook her head. "Is anyone else struggling more with the idea that resurrecting someone is apparently a completely plausible thing that can happen?"
Thor rubbed his forehead. "It is not heard of," he allowed, "and I would normally not…but if anyone could figure out a way, it would be Loki."
"And your not-dead brother," Clint said, his voice tight, "who, coincidentally, lied about the whole dying thing, wouldn't be, I don't know, lying about this?"
Thor didn't even hesitate. "No."
"Wow," Bruce said. "That was fast."
"Of this, I am certain," Thor said, staunchly. "Loki loved mother dearly. If he wished to trick me, this is not the bait he would use."
"Yeah, you'll forgive me if I don't really trust your judgment on this one, Thunderstruck," Tony muttered. Steve opened his mouth, and then closed it. And then opened it.
"It's not really our call, is it?" he said, finally. "This is more of a…courtesy notice, am I right, Thor? You're not asking for advice." Thor felt a well of gratitude, and gave Steve a faintly rueful smile.
"No," he said, "not really. I have made up my mind, and your protests cannot dissuade me from my course. For any number of reasons, I intend to go, and well intentioned though your objections may be, I do not particularly care to hear them in this matter."
Steve rubbed his forehead. "Yeah," he said. "I kind of thought so. So I guess that just means we're here to wish you well. Or at least there's not much point in doing anything else."
"But," Clint started to say. The Lady Romanov laid a hand on his arm and squeezed, and he subsided, shoulders slumping. "—yeah, okay," he said, sounding dubious. "But be careful, all right?"
"I will be," Thor assured him, "of course." He decided not to add that Loki would likely be watching his back, if for no other reason than to ensure they succeeded. Though he wondered if everything Loki had said, all those desperate apologies…had those been lies, too?
"All right, fine, whatever," Tony said, after a long silence, "But you can't borrow my car. Any of them. And don't let your psychotic baby brother get you killed. Again." Thor couldn't keep back a smile, and straightened, his heart lifting.
"I will not," he said. "And however long it should take…I will return."
"You'd better," Steve said, but with a smile of his own.
Thor gathered his things, packing food, a bedroll, and some other necessities in a satchel, changing into his traveling clothes, his excitement building with every moment. He knew it was likely inappropriate – perils unknown would face him soon, no doubt, and the road could not be easy to Valhalla, especially if Loki had come for aid, but it hardly seemed to matter. He'd been on a thousand quests like this before, in his youth, he and Loki together, going hither and yon through the nine realms.
And Loki, his brother Loki, was not dead. That alone was cause for rejoicing, though the questions it raised would need to be asked eventually. Where he had been, and what he had been doing, and how he had ever thought it was acceptable to make Thor hold him as he died and watch the light leave his eyes-
Yes. Many questions that would need asking. Firmly and possibly punctuated by manhandling.
Thor sat back and surveyed his gear, frowning to himself. He already knew that for their mother's sake, if nothing else, he would not risk driving Loki away. If he meant to help, then Thor would let him help – nothing forgotten, nor necessarily forgiven, but for the moment set aside. There was the fact, besides, that Loki had come, whatever resentment he harbored about having to do so. This might be Thor's last chance to reach him, and he could not be at peace with himself if he did not try.
For the moment…he would keep Loki close, on this journey, and watch him more closely still.
Loki arrived, of course, perfectly on time, and as Thor was finishing his last check of his items. He carried nothing visible, and his expression was of the purest disdain, but nonetheless Thor could not keep back a smile.
"What are you so pleased about," Loki said, his voice curt, "and why are you not ready?"
"I am ready," Thor said, straightening and swinging his pack over his shoulder. "And why should I not smile?" Loki's scowl deepened and he muttered something under his breath.
"You are a simple fool," he said, more audibly, and for a moment Thor felt the urge to chuckle, until he remembered the last time he'd heard Loki call someone a fool, turned then not on him. His thoughts must have shown on his face, because Loki turned sharply on his heel. "If you are ready, I would sooner not tarry needlessly."
"Whenever you will, brother," Thor said. Loki gave him a quick, sharp look, but did not comment.
"Brace yourself," was all he said, and then his hands rose. The air twisted in on itself, a gateway opening. Loki stepped through it without looking back, and after a moment, Thor followed, noticing that the doorway was just high enough that he had to duck to go through. Almost immediately, the door snapped closed, his room vanished, and for a moment Thor nearly panicked at the sudden feeling of nothing under his feet, darkness threaded with silver and stars but nowhere to stand, and Loki had disappeared.
"Loki!" he shouted, heart dropping into his stomach. "What are you-"
"Stay calm," said Loki's voice, at his shoulder, and Thor whirled around to see him standing right there, white-faced and his mouth slightly tight. "There is no need to yell."
Thor exhaled, trying to calm his racing heart. "I thought you had-"
"Left you here? And yet you didn't bother to ask where we were going before you followed me." Loki's smile was sharp. "It seems you haven't learned much after all." Thor scowled, but he could still feel his entire body vibrating. He didn't like this place.
"Where are we?"
"Between worlds." Loki glanced over his shoulder. "Did you expect that we could simply waltz into Valhalla?"
"No," Thor said, somewhat defensively, "but I wasn't expecting this, either." He kept his eyes fixed on Loki, though his gaze kept trying to wander off into the vastness around them, but even just glancing at it made him feel dizzy and light-headed.
"The path is like traveling via stepping stones," Loki said. "Starting here."
Thor squared his shoulders. "Then should we not step to the next stone?"
Loki's mouth did something peculiar. "Yes," he said, though there was something strangely reluctant to his voice. "So we should."
Thor frowned. "Which means…" He realized that Loki was not looking directly at him, but somewhat past, and turned to follow his gaze into the black between the stars. It took him a moment to grasp the implications, and then his stomach swooped in some alarm. "There is a path, is there not?" he asked. Loki looked at him, his expression faintly baleful.
"Do you walk between stepping stones typically, Thor?"
"So we are to simply…jump."
"Into the Void," Loki agreed, "yes. If all goes well, there is a thin place a ways down where we can slip through." He did not sound pleased. And well he might not, Thor realized. It was not so long ago that he had forgotten the way it had looked as Loki had disappeared into the darkness, the first time. Thor was not quite ashamed of the well of nervousness in his chest.
"If all goes well," he echoed. "And if it does not?"
Loki shrugged one shoulder. "Hope you land somewhere eventually." There was a faintly bleak note to his voice. Thor blew out a breath through his teeth. Is there not another way? He wanted to ask, but didn't need to. If there was, they would be taking it. Loki looked no happier about this than Thor felt, and that, more than anything, made Thor suspect he was telling the truth. His brother's narrow shoulders hunched, and Thor could hear his breathing, slightly harsh.
"Are you," Thor started to ask, and Loki snapped, "Fine." Thor considered him for a long moment, and then held out his hand. Loki stared at it. "Hold onto me. We will go together."
Loki's lips pressed into a thin line. "Do you expect me to find that reassuring?" Thor left his hand where it was, simply regarding Loki patiently. After a moment Loki stepped in, motions quick and jerky, and grabbed Thor's wrist instead of his hand. Thor clasped Loki's wrist in return, and couldn't help a little thrill at feeling solid flesh under his fingers. He took a careful step forward, wondering how he was supposed to find the edge when he couldn't see anything under his feet at all. He felt Loki's fingers shake, just slightly, though the way they clamped down was doubtless meant to disguise the unsteadiness.
"Are you ready?" Thor asked. He caught a slight nod, from Loki, and inhaled. "For mother, then," he said, bunched his muscles, and sprang.
"For mother," he thought he just heard from Loki, before the cacophony of the Void tore all sound away, and he was plummeting through nothingness, the only solidity Loki's fingers locked around his wrist tight enough to bruise.
It was terrifying and awe-inspiring and seemed to last forever, and yet between one blink and the next they went from empty nothingness to slamming into solid ground hard enough to knock the breath from Thor. He pushed himself up, or started to, but Loki's grip on his wrist didn't slacken, and when Thor looked to him, his brother was ghastly pale and gasping, eyes round as moons.
"Loki?" Thor said, carefully, to no response. He tried again, stomach flipping worriedly. "Loki!"
Loki's eyes were slow to focus on him, but focus they did, eventually, and Thor wanted to wince. He'd seen some fragments of it before, when Loki had nearly been devoured by the implosion of the svartalfar's device, and in the dark before they had jumped, but it was clearer now. Rank terror, unreasoning and slow to let go. "We are here," Thor said, trying to make his voice soothing, though he was not sure how well he succeeded, and he was not in the least certain where 'here' was supposed to be. A quick glance around showed him nothing but black rock and grey ash, so much like Svartalfheim Thor felt his skin crawl.
"What?" Loki said, after a moment, brows furrowing a little, and Thor exhaled in relief that his mind had not fled, just gone away a little.
"We are here," Thor repeated. "Wherever that is. Will you let go of my arm?"
"Let go of your," Loki said, eyebrows pulling further together, and then he seemed to register it, and frowned at his own hand. "Oh." He did not sound pleased. Thor waited, and it seemed to take Loki several moments to coax his own hand into letting go. Of course, the moment he managed it he pulled back as though he'd been stung and looked sharply away from Thor, brushing hair out of his face.
Thor stood, allowing him his privacy to recollect himself, and turned in a slow circle, scanning the surroundings. He could see no living beings other than themselves, though. Not even a tree to break the rocky horizon line.
"Where are we?" he asked, finally, looking back to Loki. His brother shrugged one shoulder.
"Damned if I know," he said, tersely, and Thor stiffened.
"You don't know?"
"No," Loki said snappishly. "I do not. These are not exactly places that are well known to the Nine Realms at large. We are in the backwaters of the universe; like as not it doesn't have a name." Loki sounded profoundly displeased, but Thor judged that to have more to do with his loss of composure than anything else. He clambered to his feet, brushing off his clothes. Thor turned to look at him, and frowned. Some of the color had returned to Loki's face, but he still looked startlingly pale.
"Are you," Thor started to ask. Loki shot him a glare.
"If you continue to ask me if I am all right at every turn I am going to spell your mouth shut. I don't need you to talk."
If I did not talk you would grow bored very quickly, Thor thought, but he kept it to himself. There was no real point in starting an argument already.
Loki held up a hand, flat, and an arrow appeared over it, spinning around until it settled pointing somewhere to the left, and then Loki clenched his fist and it vanished. Thor inhaled deeply. The air smelled like an attic, as though nothing had stirred here for eons.
"What next?" he asked. Loki glanced at him, just briefly.
"The access through to the next waystone is perhaps a day's ride that way." He gestured to the left. "A bit longer walking, I presume."
"And then?" Thor asked. "Are we going to jump through the Void again?" Loki's shoulders twitched, and his mouth tightened.
"No," he said. "We are not."
Thor summoned a smile. "That is a relief." Loki didn't look at him, though, or smile back, simply turned on his heel and began walking. After a moment, Thor followed him, measuring his strides to catch up and then keep pace. "At least this world seems to be uninhabited."
"Seems to be," Loki said darkly. Thor gave him a sidelong look, but Loki did not elaborate.
It was not easy walking. The ground was uneven. Even if they had had horses, Thor thought, it would do no good; any steed would turn an ankle before getting far. Loki, of course, seemed to pick his way over it with ease. Thor kept half an eye on him as they traveled, examining the planes of his face, drinking in his graceful motion. Loki, for his part, never so much as glanced in Thor's direction, little to no emotion visible in his expression.
"Where have you been?" Thor asked, finally. "All this time?"
"About," Loki said briefly. Thor narrowed his eyes, wondering what that was supposed to mean.
"That is no answer."
"If I wanted to answer you I would have given you one." Loki's shoulders hunched, Thor thought. "It is none of your business."
"Of course it is," Thor said, without thought. Loki coughed a short, harsh laugh.
"Why?" Thor opened his mouth, but Loki cut him off. "Because I am your brother? I am not; I thought we established that back at the cell, remember?" Thor wanted to reply to that, but Loki was too quick again. "My life is not yours, Thor, and you cannot make it so."
"You let me think you had died," Thor said, feeling himself tense.
"Are you still harping on that?" Loki said, though Thor thought he caught a strange note in Loki's voice. "I knew you were a sentimental fool. It seems I underestimated how much."
Thor felt anger well up in his chest. "You died in my arms," he said, more ferociously.
"If you are expecting me to apologize," Loki said, voice sardonic and dry, "you will be waiting a long while, I warn you." Thor wanted to grab him, shake him. He did growl, low in his chest.
"You have no notion of what I felt, brother. You cannot understand-"
"Did you really expect me to return meekly to my cell after you let me out?" Loki's voice had sharpened to a knife's edge, not quite shrill. "I never intended to go back, you idiot."
Thor felt his nostrils flare. "You might simply have run," he retorted. "You need not have-"
"You would have pursued me to the ends of the earth," Loki snarled. "The only way for me to get away from you was if you believed I was gone!"
Thor felt his mouth go dry. He didn't know how to say you cannot do that to me, it isn't fair. Didn't know how to say did you not think of me at all? How I would feel? "You are thoughtless," Thor said. "Cruel, selfish. Father – our family-"
Loki's eyes turned hard and cold. "Do not tell me that Odin mourned," he nearly spat. Thor opened his mouth to argue, and shut it. He couldn't remember ever speaking to Odin about Loki in any detail. Couldn't, now that he thought of it, remember Odin ever saying so much as a word about the death of his second son. Loki laughed, quiet but harsh. "Yes," he said, "precisely."
Thor shook his head. "Whatever you have convinced yourself of, Loki, you cannot deny that you-"
"I deny nothing," Loki said, voice flat, "except that you – or any in Asgard – have any claim to the right of my care."
Thor felt his mouth tighten. "And what of mother, then?" he said, voice harsh. "Does she have right to your care?"
He could just see the spasm of Loki's mouth before he turned his head away. "I owe her a debt," he said, after a long few moments. "That is all."
Thor wanted to argue that. It was so obviously false. But he did not know how to begin, did not know the right words to say, and his heart already felt bruised. He did not wish to make it worse. With a sigh, he lapsed into silence, and they trudged on.
"Finally," Loki said, after a few moments. His voice was sharp and bitter. "A little peace."
The light didn't change. In this strange country, it seemed to be constantly mid-afternoon, at least judging by the sky. Loki didn't answer again, breaking Thor's attempts at conversation with terse, monosyllabic responses. Thor was disappointed but not terribly surprised, and after a few times subsided into his own thoughts.
The only problem was that most of his thoughts still swirled around Loki, and the tangle he was that Thor had never been able to unknot. Where had Loki been, and what had he been doing? How had he found this path, and at what price-
"Hold," Loki said, his voice sudden, loud, and harsh, and Thor jerked up short. Loki had fallen still, just a few paces away from him, and was turning slowly in a circle. Thor frowned.
"Is something amiss?"
"There is something…" Loki frowned, and he held up his hand again. The arrow appeared, spinning, but instead of stopping it simply continued to spin. Loki's frown deepened. "Hm."
Thor took a step toward him. "What is it?"
"Some sort of disturbance," Loki said, vaguely. "But I can't think what would-" He cut off, eyes turning to look behind Thor, and they widened. "—run."
"What sort of 'disturbance,'" Thor started to ask, but then he caught Loki's expression, and that single word, almost breathless, and turned, hand at once going to Mjolnir. For a moment longer he failed to understand what he was seeing, and then he realized that it was a vast cloud, glimmering strangely, roiling toward them like a thunderhead across the ground.
"Thor, move!" Loki cried. Thor half opened his mouth to ask what it was, and then realized that he could hear…something.
Screams, he thought, slowly, eyes fixed on the cloud. He didn't want to look away. He could hear screams.
Thor jerked at the sudden sharp pain in his jaw, and wheeled on Loki, only to stop short at his brother's expression, wild-eyed and intent. "Don't look at it," Loki hissed, "and run, you idiot!"
The cloud was screaming, Thor thought dazedly, and it was that thought that shook his brain out of the momentary stupor and had him running after Loki as fast as he could.
Not fast enough, though. He could hear it drawing closer, and a frantic glance over his shoulder showed that it was gaining, eating up the ground and boiling after them. "Loki!" he yelled after his brother. "It's moving too swiftly-"
"I'm aware," Loki snapped. "I'm looking for cover!"
"There is no-" Thor started to say, and he could feel it now, like a cold wind that reached down deep into his bones and made him, him, want to quail. He felt his steps falter and ahead of him Loki staggered. Thor caught him and turned, unconsciously moving his body to form a shield, his teeth bared at the oncoming shadow, Mjolnir pulled from his belt and upraised even though he doubted it would do much here. The hammer twisted uneasily in his hand, humming with a strange frequency he didn't know.
"Hold on," Loki rasped, and then he flung one hand out as the seething black cloud rushed toward them.
It slammed into a green barrier of magic and boiled up like water, sweeping past and around and over them, kept out by what seemed a paper thin layer of sorcery. Thor stared at it, wide-eyed, the strange and mesmerizing colors, the awful screaming that was unmuffled by Loki's working. He swore he could smell blood and worse, the stench of a weeks old battlefield, a corpse smell.
Thor yanked his eyes away when he realized that he could feel his brother shaking. Looking at Loki, his face was pale and his skin had a sheen of sweat, teeth bared, the strain of effort visible in his body. Thor planted his feet and reached out to grasp Loki's shoulder as though he could loan Loki strength, steady him.
The cloud seemed to take forever to pass. When it was gone, Loki fell limply against him, panting, and didn't fight Thor's holding him up. He turned his head, watching the cloud receded across the stony landscape, the awful sound of it still ringing in Thor's ears.
"What in the Nine was that?" Thor demanded, as soon as the thunder of his heartbeat slowed.
Loki shoved weakly at him, but Thor did not let go, just yet. "It was a theory," he mumbled. "I thought. Not…real. A legend, even, if that." He sounded shaken, and Thor could feel himself responding to it, almost instinctively. Mjolnir, still in his hand, urged his temper; it, Thor thought, unsettled as he was. He took several slow breaths to control himself.
"A theory of what?" Loki seemed to refocus on his face slowly, and looked perplexed by the question. Thor repeated it, worriedly. "What was the legend?"
"This planet was inhabited once," he said, finally. "But nothing lives here now." This time, when he pulled away from Thor, Thor let him, feeling vaguely nauseous. "That – thing…is what is left of them."
Thor swallowed. He remembered the screaming he had heard and suddenly very much did not want to be here, not a moment longer. Loki was pale though, and swaying on his feet. The magecraft had taken much out of him.
"You need to rest," he said, after a moment's silence, though a part of him wanted to press further. "Will that…will it come again?"
Loki rubbed one eye. "Yes, probably. Eventually. I do not know when. I am fine, we hardly need delay on my account-"
Thor planted his feet. "You are shaking," he pointed out. "Your body is a poorer liar than your mouth."
Loki looked indignant. Whether that Thor had noticed or that he had pointed it out, Thor thought it difficult to say. "Do you really wish to waste precious hours? Your mother-"
"Our mother," Thor pointed out with the slightest emphasis, "would hardly be pleased with me if I bring you to her exhausted and bedraggled. But if you wish to receive her scolding…"
Now Loki's expression was furious. Thor crossed his arms and waited, half expecting Loki to argue for the sake of it, but to his faint surprise his brother's face smoothed clean and a bundle of furs appeared in his arms. "Fine," he said, curtly. "But only for a couple hours, and then we keep moving."
Thor kept himself from smiling with some difficulty. "A couple hours, then," he said, as Loki laid out the furs and stretched out on them. "I shall keep watch."
"Wake me if anything else strange should occur," Loki added, after a moment, his back to Thor. "I doubt your brute force will do much against anything in this realm." He huddled under the blankets, almost entirely covered but for a fraction of his hair. That had always been his way, almost to cocoon himself, leaving nothing uncovered.
Thor wondered, suddenly, if it was perhaps a thing of the jotnar. They did not seem to feel cold, but they must, somehow. Perhaps Loki's hatred of it, Thor thought, was the distant soul-memory of being left to the cold by his birth parents.
That thought made him frown, and Thor pushed it away, settling in for his vigil. He wondered what it was Loki had not wished to say about the cloud. What ill magic must have created it. What other dread things they might yet encounter on this road.
He hoped that at least a few of them might be fought with his 'brute force', at least.
Thor let Loki sleep for a bit longer than the few hours he had instructed, though it was impossible to say how long it was for certain, given the light that still refused to change. He reached over to shake Loki awake and only just caught the knife that flashed for his eyes as Loki came snarling out of sleep, eyes half wild.
"Brother," Thor said sharply, but Loki's expression had already cleared, the knife vanishing. He shook his head and pushed Thor away.
"I am awake," he said tersely. "How long…"
Thor shrugged. "Impossible to say." He glanced at the sky. "I mislike this place."
"You're not the only one," Loki said, refurling his blankets. He still looked too pale, but the set of his mouth told Thor without need for words that suggesting a longer rest would not go well. "Shall we move on, then?"
Thor stretched. "Indeed," he said, and glanced toward the horizon. "Before that cloud should come back."
"Preferably," Loki said, standing, and then he was pacing off, and Thor hastened to stay with him.
Thor expected some kind of marker that would indicate the place they needed to pass through, but he didn't even notice that something had changed until the air was suddenly full of the raucous chatter of – something. No birds Thor had ever heard, but it was certainly sound, and the barren grey landscape was gone. They were surrounded by heavy, deep green trees, and the air itself seemed to drip with moisture.
Loki was looking around them, seeming surprised. "Do you know this place?" Thor called. After a moment Loki shook his head.
"No," he said, though Thor thought for some reason that he might have been lying. He could not have said why. "I wasn't expecting…"
It reminded Thor uneasily of the convergence, how they had simply walked from one world to the next without so much as a blink. Loki's expression was slightly disconcerted as well, though he wiped it clean swiftly. "How many steps are there along this journey?" Thor asked, after a moment. Loki shrugged.
"Somewhere between three and ten." Thor frowned.
"You don't know that either?" Loki said nothing, and after a moment Thor added, "how much do you know about where we are going?"
"Enough," Loki said shortly, sounding annoyed.
Thor frowned at him. "Where did you find this path, anyway?" he pressed. "You never said."
"And you never asked." Loki held up a hand, the green arrow spinning as it had before. Thor watched it, and him, closely.
"Now I am asking," he said, after a moment's silence. Loki turned a look on him that was unmistakably displeased.
"The same way I find most of my information, Thor. I looked. I would not expect the particularities of my research to be of interest to you."
"So someone else has done this before?" Thor asked. Loki's mouth twisted.
"Not exactly." Thor frowned.
The arrow stopped spinning and Loki glanced at it and then closed his hand and started to stalk in the direction it had been pointing. "It was a theory espoused by a mage nearly three-thousand years ago. The principles were sound."
"A theory?" Thor was torn between asking if Loki had really had no idea if this would work and… "Did he not attempt it?"
"Undoubtedly," Loki said, his voice distinctly sour. "But she was not seen again." Thor hastened after him, spine crawling just a little.
"That does not worry you?" He asked, after a moment. Loki wheeled.
"If it worried me I would not be here, Thor. I never claimed this was going to be safe. If you are going to act like a frightened child, though, I would sooner you did so before you chose to accompany me."
Thor gritted his teeth. How could he go back? Loki had said he needed Thor to do this. To bring their mother back. "I am not acting like a child," he said, finally. "I merely wished to know what I might expect."
"Anything," Loki snapped, turning. "Do you want to keep moving or not?"
Thor opened his mouth, then closed it. He breathed out through his nose, faintly annoyed with Loki for his irritability. As far as he was concerned, Loki had no right to be annoyed with him, and particularly not for asking perfectly reasonable questions. "I would expect you to be pleased that I am thinking more cautiously," he said. "You often used to complain that I threw myself into things without looking first."
"Plainly you still do," Loki said, mouth a flat line, "as you asked me none of this before following me through a portal to parts unknown. Though I suppose belated is better than never." He turned and began moving again, stride brisk. "Forgive me if I fail to congratulate you on achieving a basic level of common sense."
Thor glowered at his back, but followed him shortly. He had no wish to get lost in this strange land, no matter how familiar it seemed. "I like this much better than the other," Thor said, after a few moments of silence.
"That may be the point," Loki said, sounding sour. "Keep your hammer ready, Odinson." The harshness of that name stung, somewhere deep in Thor's heart. He remembered Loki saying I am Loki, of Jotunheim, and wondered how much of that had been trickery and how much truth. If the purpose of his death was to truly sever all ties with Asgard, and with Thor…
It hurt too much to consider, and he pushed it away. And Loki was here, was he not? For Frigga, and Frigga was as much of Asgard as Thor himself.
Thor cast about for a better subject. Loki had always loved to talk about his spellcraft, Thor remembered, and perhaps it was a road of conversation less likely to lead to an argument. He was reminded, queerly, of a wounded fox kit that they had tried to rescue, luring it close with tidbits of meat so that its hurts could be tended.
Loki would not, Thor was sure, appreciate the comparison, but he thought it nonetheless apt.
"How does that arrow work?" Thor asked, deciding to pursue the idea.
"Magic," was Loki's terse answer. Thor huffed out a breath.
"Yes, evidently," he said, dryly. "But I meant – how does it know where to point to? If you do not have a map…"
Loki gave him a slightly odd sidelong look. "Why do you ask?"
"I am curious," Thor said, almost offended. "Am I not permitted to be that?"
Loki looked at him a moment longer, and then away. "You never were before," he said, after a few moments, his voice too deliberately neutral. Thor frowned, opening his mouth to protest, but he had to close it. He could not remember asking Loki about other spells. He remembered being curious, sometimes, but he'd always thought it would seem stupid of him to ask, and he had never wanted Loki to think him stupid – for all the good it did.
"I was," Thor said, not quite plaintively. "I was often curious, but I…"
"Ah," said Loki, his voice sharpening a notch. "So I am to take your mockery and your scorn as curiosity, am I?"
"I never-!" Thor cut off. Perhaps there was no point in arguing with Loki like this, and he did not truly want to start an argument, but it was only… "I teased, Loki. As you did me. As we all did each other."
Loki laughed, sharp and harsh. "So there was no difference between your 'teasing' of me and that of the rest?"
"If it bothered you, you might have said something!" Thor said, voice rising.
"And be branded a coward? More of one than I already was, that is. Or a whiner? Or whatever else pleased your friends that day, when your taunts gave them permission?" The sound Loki made did not sound much like a laugh at all. "I think not, Thor. Better to give back the same that I received than to go mewling to you about my wounded feelings."
Thor jerked back. "It was not like that," he said, angrily. Loki turned and sneered at him.
"Oh? Was it not? I lived it, Thor, I think I remember-"
"I lived it as well," Thor interrupted, "and I remember none of this cruelty that you describe-"
"You would not," Loki said, his voice suddenly thick with disgust. He turned his back again, the edge fading out of his voice, leaving it dull. "Such was the way of things, Thor. What was everything to me meant nothing to you. I ought to have realized that an age ago, but perhaps I am as much a fool as you."
Thor's anger wavered. "I am trying to understand," he said, not quite fervently.
"And it is plain you shall not," Loki said, picking up his stride. "So you may as well-"
Thor saw the twitch in the leaves and roared a warning, leaping forward to shove Loki out of the way as the tree struck.
And it was the tree – the plant itself, one branch lashing out like a snake, and when Thor grabbed it his entire palm burned. He yelled, letting go quickly, grabbing Mjolnir and lashing out with it. The branch cracked and flew off, where it writhed for a moment before going still, but then the other branches were attacking him and Thor hardly knew where to strike as they tried to trap his arms, every brush of the bark stinging his skin painfully and leaving a violently red mark behind. The ground rippled under his feet, and one of the roots exploded out of the ground, snaking up to wind around his legs.
"Thor!" he heard Loki yell, and thrust Mjolnir high with a prayer to the Norns, and summoned lightning.
Whatever sort of tree it was, it burst into flames as well as any other, though with an awful shrieking noise, the roots and branches (Thor could not help but think 'limbs') thrashing, withdrawing, and Thor stepped back to stand in front of where Loki had gathered himself to his feet, hammer raised.
The plant went still slowly, and when Thor was sure it was finished he called the rain to put out the growing fires. Loki folded his arms around himself and glowered up at the sky. "Was that necessary?" he asked.
Thor smiled. "I see no need to burn down an entire forest."
"Why not," Loki said, eyeing the tree. "We have no idea how many of those there are."
"Nor what other things might be drawn by a fire," Thor pointed out. Loki made a face, and Thor glanced at his arms, marred by bright red patches. Loki's gaze followed his, and he frowned.
"What is that?" he asked.
"I don't know," Thor said. "It stings, but not badly." Indeed, the pain was already beginning to fade. "When the tree touched me…" He blinked. Mjolnir in his hand suddenly felt terribly heavy. "Llloki," he said, feeling a very small twinge of alarm. The world seemed to be slowing down, gradually dragging to a halt.
"Thor," Loki said, and he sounded alarmed. Why alarmed? It wasn't a problem, really, was just a bit…strange. "Thor, I need you to pay attention to me."
"Payinttention," Thor said, though it came out sounding rather odd. Mjolnir just kept getting heavier, and he let it slip from his fingers to hit the ground with a hollow thud. "Wha…"
"It's a poison," Loki said, talking rapidly. "The tree is – damn, damn, it must be a paralytic, so the prey doesn't fight back…Thor!" Loki slapped him, abruptly, and the sharp pain shook him out of the daze he'd been sliding into.
"What?" He asked, and then realized that his fingers had gone numb, and his face was beginning to feel it as well. Poison, he registered, and felt his heartrate increase. "Llloki…"
"Stop, stay calm," Loki said, his hands fluttering anxiously. "You idiot, I am perfectly capable of – let me think – you need to stay calm, the faster your heart beats the faster it will likely spread."
"Thnk I nee'ta lie down," Thor mumbled. The world seemed very far away, suddenly, heavy wooziness taking over.
"No, no, no – dammit, Thor!" Followed him as consciousness oozed away into fragmented, colorful dreams.
He came around feeling decidedly soggy. It took him a moment to realize that it was because he was soggy, which made sense, as he was submerged in a pool of deep, clear water. Thor flexed his fingers experimentally and felt a rush of relief that they responded to his command once more. He examined his arms and could not see any trace of the rash, either.
"Can I get out of the water?" He asked, carefully.
"Yes," came the reply after a moment, unsurprisingly terse.
Thor pushed himself up out of the pond and turned to see Loki prodding at a fire, his back to a tree. Thor narrowed his eyes at it, and Loki made a sharp and hollow sounding laugh.
"It is not the kind that attacked you," Loki said. "I made sure of it."
Thor slopped over to the fire, managing not to drip water on it, and summoned a tired grin. "I have changed my mind. I do not like this stepping stone better."
Loki's mouth twisted. He did not seem amused.
Thor wrung his hair out over his shoulder. "You might have removed my clothes before dropping me in the water," he said. The leather and cloth all felt heavy and unpleasant. Loki's mouth twisted again.
"I might have. I was a bit busy ensuring that you would not die." That clipped tone was familiar, at least. For some reason Loki always seemed to get irritable when Thor was recovering from some injury. As though he were offended by Thor's failing to avoid it. He seemed to take it personally, somehow. "I wasn't even certain it would work."
"Weren't certain what would work?" Thor asked. Loki shot him a look.
"The water," he said, after a moment. "But none of my little healing magic was helping, and I did not particularly want to try bleeding the poison out of you. I noticed that this area was relatively clear of trees. It was a guess. Many antidotes grow near the poison." Loki shrugged. "You are fortunate. As ever."
"Fortunate that you were here, with your quick thinking," Thor said honestly. Loki's lips pursed.
"I would not have needed it if you did not insist on jumping into danger whenever it presents itself." Loki's shoulders twitched. "You are no use to me dead."
"That is a relief," Thor said, but Loki still failed to seem amused and Thor sighed and huddled close to the fire. "Do you think you might do anything about my damp clothes?"
"They can dry on their own," Loki said ruthlessly. "That is the price you pay for recklessness."
Thor felt a prickle of irritation. "If I had not moved it would have been you to be struck down, and I would not have known what to do. I do not know the way from here, and I have no magic, so I would simply be stranded here, and neither of us would be doing any good!"
Loki sneered at him. "I do not do good in general, Thor, or have you forgotten?"
Thor made an exasperated noise and ran his fingers through his wet hair. "Is that what you have been doing the past year, then? Because I have heard nothing of it!"
"And if you have heard nothing of it, clearly it cannot exist," Loki snapped. "The Mighty Thor all-seeing and all-knowing as he is. Ah, wait-"
Thor heard himself growl. "Why must you always turn these things against me? I attacked in order to help you – how can you make that a fault?"
"Watch me," Loki snapped. He brushed at his clothes, though Thor could see no dirt on them. "I am not a child, Thor, and I no longer require your protection – if that was not abundantly clear by now-"
"I do not protect you because I think you are a child!" Thor cried, starting up, "but because you are my brother and I care for you. I protect you as I would any warrior to fight at my side-"
"Am I your brother or am I not?" Loki said, sharp. "You seem to keep changing your mind."
"I have never -"
"When I fought you before," Loki said, his voice a cruel and exact mimicry of Thor's. "I did so with some glimmer of hope that my brother was still in there somewhere. That hope no longer exists to protect you."
Thor felt his face contort. "Of all the times for you to listen to me and take me at my word," he said, "you would choose the one time I was forced to speak harshly to you. You proved on Svartalfheim-"
Loki's eyes brightened. "Ah, but that was a lie, remember?"
"It was not a lie that you saved my life by attacking the Kursed when you did," Thor insisted. Loki laughed.
"Was it not? It was an elegant move, was it not? To 'end' my life with a noble act of self-sacrifice? I would think you would recognize a twist of the knife when you see one, Thor."
Thor shook his head like he could shake off the doubts Loki was trying to sow in him. "Whether it was deception or not – you killed my attacker. Just as I protected you from that – tree-creature, you protected me." He glowered at Loki. "And that you cannot lie away." Loki glanced aside, his mouth twisting. "You are my brother," Thor pressed. "Always. Even when I have hated what you have done, even when I believed I could not trust you, that has not changed. And will not."
Loki stood up and put out the fire with a gesture. "Do you never tire of preaching at me?"
"I will tire of it when you finally listen to me," Thor said, exasperated.
"Just because I do not agree with you does not mean I'm not listening," Loki said, and turned. "Are you ready to move on? I would prefer to be out of this jungle sooner rather than later."
Thor sighed and shoved himself slowly to his feet. His body only protested a little. His damp clothes were terribly uncomfortable, but he wasn't about to try begging Loki to dry them. "Very well," he said, though his mood felt sour again. He wished – he wished just for a little while he could know what Loki was truly thinking. No matter how much it might hurt, it would still be better than not knowing, surely. "I am ready."
They stopped at a large, towering black obelisk that rose out of the ground like an enormous finger pointing to the sky. Thor looked up at it, and then to Loki. "Is that-"
"A marker," Loki said, "yes."
Thor frowned. "There was no marker in the last world."
"Nor was there much of anything else," Loki pointed out, striding up to the pillar. They'd had near misses with two other trees and a gigantic, bright red serpent-like creature, but this time they were both careful not to touch anything. "Ah yes, runes…"He leaned in, lips moving as he murmured to himself over the inscriptions on the black stone.
"We cannot simply walk through?" Thor asked.
"Not this time." Loki sounded distracted, and thus less hostile than he had sounded before. "I suspected as much…the other way stones will likely be more complicated than the first two."
More complicated. Thor wondered what that was supposed to mean. He looked up the pillar to where it broke through the thick canopy. "Why place a marker for the path to the underworld?" Thor asked. "Wouldn't they make it – I don't know, difficult?"
"Is this not difficult enough for you?" Loki asked, a little snappishly, and then shook his head. "Likely to keep anyone from wandering in accidentally, though that would be difficult to do…" he straightened. "Well. Let us see if I have this right."
Thor looked around uneasily and hung Mjolnir on his belt, drawing closer to Loki and bracing himself. "What do we have to do?"
"I," Loki said, with more than slight emphasis, "have to recite the runes in the correct order to open the gateway."
"And do you know the correct order?" Thor asked.
"I believe so."
Thor frowned. "You believe," he said. "You do not know?"
Loki turned and gave him a scathing look. "If you would like to attempt to decipher the runes and try your own hand at it, be my guest. I shall wait."
Thor scowled. "I was only saying-"
"Refrain from saying," Loki said, turning back around to place his back squarely to Thor. "And we shall all be happier for it." Thor closed his mouth and Loki stepped forward, pressed one palm to the obelisk, and spoke a series of strange words.
Thor felt the air hum, a peculiar buzzing feeling. "Grab onto me," Loki said, flinging out one hand, and Thor seized it just before everything inverted.
It was like being swallowed, and then spat out, and between one long, stretched moment and the next Thor found himself flailing underwater, Loki's hand no longer in his. He opened his mouth to yell without thinking and swallowed water, and immediately began to claw his way toward the surface, or what he thought was the surface, given the glimmer of light. Mjolnir dragged heavily at his belt but he was a strong swimmer, and his head broke the water into open air in short order. He gasped in air, spat out a mouthful of sour tasting water, and turned in a circle looking for Loki to surface as well. Everything was water, as far as he could see, and no glimpse of a dark head to break the smooth glassy surface.
"Loki!" he yelled, but there was no answer.
Thor's heart began to pound. "Loki!" He bellowed again, but still no answer. Where was he, they had been holding on to each other – he ducked underwater, opening his eyes to look around, but could see no sign of any other life in this sea but himself. He turned in another slow circle, treading water, his heart sinking.
Without Loki, he had no way of knowing where to go, and no way to get back. He had no idea if Heimdall could see here, if the Bifrost could reach him. Without Loki, he might be stuck in this – backwater of the universe, if not forever then for an unpleasantly long time.
Was this what Loki had been waiting for? A chance to betray Thor, to abandon him – but he might have done that before, when the tree had poisoned him. No, this wasn't intentional, and that was worse.
He had just found Loki, and it occurred to Thor that he might lose him in the same breath.
Thor ducked his head again and swam several strokes, turning in a circle in the water again, but it was just the same landscape as it had been. Water stretching out far to every side. Motionless but for the ripples of his movement. A drowned world. And he was alone in it.
Thor let out a roar of anger and keeping himself afloat with one hand, pulled Mjolnir from his belt with the other and lifted it to the sky, reaching for lightning, thinking to create a signal, perhaps – if Loki were here (and he had to be here) he could find Thor that way. He felt it crackle with energy, but nothing came – the sky was heavy with clouds, but no drop of rain answered his summons, no rumble of thunder. An attempt to fly out of the water was met with the same building of energy without response.
But for the sounds he made, there was only silence, heavy and thick between water and sky.
He could swim for a long time, Thor knew, but not forever. Eventually he would tire. And there was nothing to tell him where he was supposed to go.
But he could not give up.
Replacing Mjolnir in his belt, no matter how heavy it was, Thor picked a direction and began to swim. Eventually, he told himself, he would find something. Eventually. Or else – Loki had always been able to find him. He would this time as well.
(Unless he was already dead, floating somewhere in this endless ocean.)
Thor set that thought aside.
Or he tried to, but it followed him. He scanned the surface ceaselessly, looking for any break in the calm, smooth water. Nothing, and the silence was beginning to wear on him. The silence, and his own weariness, catching up quickly. He had been poisoned, and even with his rapid healing Thor knew he was not as strong as he could be.
Something bumped his leg.
Thor whirled around, lashing out blindly, but a moment later something did surface, another head breaching the surface – but not human. A seal, sleek, dark grey, large eyes regarding Thor as its nostrils opened and closed. Thor hesitated, startled by the…normalcy…of the creature, and the sudden presence of life in an otherwise silent world.
The seal vanished underwater again, only to resurface shortly. Thor frowned.
"Loki?" he said, hesitantly. The seal's expression did not change. It twisted around and dove underwater. Thor stayed where he was until it surfaced again, several minutes later, looked at him, and then dove again.
Was he imagining the faint glint of green in the creature's eyes?
"Loki," Thor said, when it came up a third time, "I do not know what you want-"
This time he swore he saw impatience in those large, dark eyes, but only for a moment before the seal lunged, teeth sinking into his arm, and was dragging him underwater.
Thor flailed, struggling, but the grip of the creature's jaw was surprisingly strong and he was loathe to lash out with all his strength, in case this was Loki – but if it was, then what was he doing? Thor had barely had time to draw in sufficient breath, and he could feel himself running out of air as they plunged down into the water, into black depths.
Thor was just nearing the end of his air, his attempts to strike the seal off becoming more ferocious, when water turned to air and he was falling, only to land with an oof on soft grass. He looked to the right and there was Loki, soaking wet and breathing hard, grimacing.
Thor blew water out of his stinging nose and hauled himself to his feet, flexing his stinging arm. "What was that?"
Loki gave him a baleful look. Thor could see a bruise rising on his cheek. "You didn't need to hit me."
"So it was you," Thor said, and couldn't help the rush of relief that came with a chuckle. "Well, I couldn't be sure-"
Loki touched his fingers gingerly to the bruise, grimacing. "There were no other living things there, and you thought a seal just happened to find you irresistible?"
Thor gave up and walked over, pulling Loki to his feet and into a wet embrace. Loki squirmed. "I had no idea where you were," Thor said. "You frightened me."
Loki made an attempt to push Thor off that he ignored. "Yes, well. I don't know how we were separated – some trick of the waystone, I would guess. Are you going to let me go?"
"I feared you might be dead," Thor said. "Truly."
"And you stuck out here in the wastelands of the Nine Realms," Loki said, painfully dry. "Yes, I can see how that would be-"
"Not just for myself," Thor said. "For your sake." Loki's squirm was more pronounced. "I have feared you lost enough times, Loki."
"Let go of me, you cretin," Loki said, and Thor did let go, finally, at the sharp jab to his ribs. "I am clearly not dead, nor have I ever been. I am not so easy to kill."
"I am thankful for that," Thor said honestly, and Loki looked away, his mouth a line. "But – why did you not simply change back to tell me…"
Loki rolled his shoulders, looking tense. "Truth be told, it was difficult enough to change shape to begin with. That place…does not like magic. I could feel it fighting me."
Mjolnir, Thor remembered, and his inability to summon the storm or fly. "What a strange world," he said, but his eyes were still mostly on Loki. "Do you think it was always…"
"I have no idea," Loki said, terse again. "Nor do I care, now that it is behind us." His shoulders were tense, though, like there was something he was thinking that he did not want to share. Thor hesitated, trying to decide whether or not to press. Loki drew himself up straight. "All that matters is that we are one step closer."
Thor decided, with a sigh, to let it go. "One step closer," he echoed. Soon, he promised himself, they would have their mother back. And before then…before then, he would manage to pry Loki's secrets from him. At least some of them. A little at a time.
Thor was finding this world – grassy, rolling hills and a clear blue sky, almost eerily like to Midgard – a welcome respite. They saw a few six-legged beasts bounding through the hills a ways off, and a few small scurryings to either side of them suggested some kind of smaller life as well. After the peculiar silence of the drowned sea-world, it was a relief to have some familiarity.
Loki, of course, was quiet.
"Why is it that you needed me to come with you, exactly?" Thor asked, to break the silence between them. Loki snorted.
"For your cleverness and charm, of course."
"It was a serious question."
"And mine was not a serious answer?" Loki shook his head, after a moment. "Not everything can be managed with magic. I needed brute force along, just in case. And there is also the matter of your…relation…to Frigga."
"My relation is the same as-"
"No," Loki said, his lips thinning. "It is not. You carry her blood and I do not. In magical matters, that is of – certain importance. If I am to find her amongst the many souls in Valhalla, I will need that connection."
Thor blinked, and then swallowed. He felt a curious sense of – something, sadness, maybe. "That you do not have her blood does not make you any less-"
"I am aware of how you feel about the matter," Loki said snappishly. "That does not change the way the rules work, I am afraid, but next time I am in argument with the universe itself I shall be sure to inform it that the great Thor disapproves of the way it works."
Thor sighed, almost sorry he'd brought it up. "Loki…"
"If you are about to apologize or something equally sickening, I beg you to swallow it," Loki said tightly. "It is unnecessary on any number of levels."
Thor sighed. He was tempted to give up, but that would be admitting defeat, and that he could not do. "Whatever your reasons," he went on, gamely, "I am glad that you came to me."
Loki scoffed. "I hope you are not reading some kind of sentimental foolishness into that choice."
Thor frowned. "Must you turn aside my gratitude as well? Is everything I would give you so anathema to you?"
"I merely wish to be certain that you don't have the wrong idea," Loki said smoothly. "Seeing as you already have some strange, rosy-colored notions about the sequence of events on Svartalfheim, I consider it a risk."
"A risk of what?" Thor challenged. "That I will see you as you really are? That I will realize that you are not so severed from your past and family as you would have me believe?"
Loki's laugh was harsh. "You fixate on the strangest things, and forget that I fought you, or tried to kill you, more than once. Succeeded, the first time."
That still stung to think of – yet in the long months of mourning Loki the first time he had forgiven it, had sworn that he would forgive it if only Loki would return. "And yet saved my life, in the end," he said firmly.
Loki twitched a hand. "You cling to that with such determination."
"I hold to it as a reminder of the truth amidst your lies," Thor countered.
"You must have loved me better dead," Loki said casually, "where I could not argue with your absurd version of events."
Thor quickened his pace and grabbed Loki's shoulder, spinning him around, anger welling up in him. "No," he said savagely. "Never. You jest about this – do you not understand that I grieved for you? I lost – we lost – our mother, and then I lost you as well, or I believed I had. I watched you die."
Loki's eyes gleamed with something savage. "You were a fool to do so, as must be clear to you now."
Thor shook him. "Do not – there was a wound in my heart that I did not know how to heal. I wept often and much."
Loki's mouth twisted. "No doubt your friends told you how foolish you were being."
"My friends understood that I had lost my brother, just as I had him back!"
"But you never did have him back," Loki said, ruthlessly. "Your brother has never existed."
"Then why do I see him standing before me?" Thor demanded. "Why do I feel such anger with him for deceiving me, for letting me grieve as I have these months past-"
"Tell me," Loki said, too smoothly, "are you angry that I let you believe I was dead or disappointed that it turns out that my oh so heroic sacrifice was naught but a sham?"
Thor released Loki's shoulders and reared back. "You think – you think that I am – that I would rather you were dead in truth?"
"You must admit," Loki said with a shrug. "It makes a better story." His lips curved in a smile. "Every hero needs his tragedy. I was yours, in such a beautifully symmetrical way – and here I am, ruining it with my living self."
Thor felt his face contort. "You think that I – that I-" He could hardly shape the words. "Never," he pushed out, finally. "That has never been the case. I have never thought of it like – when you stood before me, alive, I was so overwhelmingly happy-"
"And that is why you punched me in the face?" Loki said, eyebrows raised.
"I punched you because you let me suffer, for months, when you must have known what it would mean for me to know that you were alive!" Loki turned away and didn't answer. "You did know, did you not?" Thor pressed.
"I did not wish your pursuit," Loki murmured, after a long moment. "As I said. The only way for me to be rid of your shadow was for you to believe that I was gone."
"You might have simply asked," Thor said, after a moment's pause, because it hurt, to think that Loki felt his pain and grief a worthy trade to be free, of him. Loki snorted.
"Ah, yes," he said. "Because you would undoubtedly have let me, traitor and prisoner of Asgard, go free, if I had simply requested it of you. Of course." He began walking again, long strides eating up ground. "You will forgive me if I doubt that."
"You have chosen to be with me now," Thor said, slowly.
"For her sake," Loki said, harsh and short. "Not yours."
Thor took down one of the six-legged beasts, butchered it, and skewered the meat over the fire Loki lit with an idle wave of his hand. Hunched in on himself, his brother did not look eager for conversation, and Thor's attempts at it throughout the day had been thoroughly rebuffed. They were both tired, and irritable, and hungry. Thor had not stopped thinking however, and as Loki turned the spit to cook the meat – which smelled strange, but not badly – he spoke up again.
"You said you found this route by reading notes of a sorcerer from some time ago," he said. Loki looked up at him, eyes hooded.
"Yes," he said at length. "And?"
Thor nodded. "You might have found this information before, but I doubt that you would trust to even your memory with something like this. There are two libraries of magical texts in the nine realms that are old enough to have such documents," he said, slowly, remembering Loki talking about this a very long time ago. "One in Vanaheim, the other in Asgard. You did not say the name or race of the sorcerer, but that means at the very least you have been in one of those realms."
Loki's mouth twitched. "Or that I have visited one or both briefly. Is this your attempt to deduce my actions of late?"
Thor chewed the inside of his cheek. "Finding a single obscure document in one of those libraries is no easy task," he said.
"For you, perhaps." Loki scoffed. "You may as well give up on this train of thought, Thor. What I have been doing is my business and none of yours."
Thor had indeed reached the dead-end of his thoughts, and was unsure what step he could take next. There was an answer hidden here that he wished – no, needed – to know, but he had never been good at ferreting out Loki's secrets when he wanted to keep them. "And you will tell me nothing of it."
"No, I will not."
Thor sighed, and decided to take a different tack. "That trick, with the seal…"
"Ah, there it is," Loki murmured. "Trick. Your favorite word."
"I do not mean-" Thor let out an exasperated breath. "It was not the same as the glamour magic you have used before, was it? Or you could not have – bitten me," and he had bitten, the bite marks had lingered some time.
Loki looked faintly surprised, but he smoothed his face quickly. "No, it was not."
"Then what was it?"
Loki examined him for a long moment, and then laughed, nearly soundlessly. "Truly? Well, if you wish an explanation. You know what I am, yes?" Thor opened his mouth, and Loki waved a hand. "Don't bother. I am jotunn." His voice hitched, only slightly. "Yet I was not aware of this myself. Odin claimed that when he plucked me from the battlefield like a stolen treasure, I changed to Aesir flesh in his hands. I thought at first that this must be Odin's magic – but I could find no trace of such a spell. Then I thought it was my own – but that was not the case either." Loki shrugged. "I have always been able to change my shape in small ways – from male to female, for instance. So perhaps, I thought, what I did as a child was true shapechanging – not just in skin, but in total body. It is – not the same as other spellcrafting, but not so different either. And thus." Loki made a flourishing gesture with one hand, and Thor almost had to smile.
"When did you learn this?" Thor asked, curious. Loki's eyes skated away from his.
"Is it of import?"
Now that you do not wish to tell me, it is, Thor thought, but knew better than to say. He made himself shrug. "I am curious."
Loki's mouth did something strange. "One learns many things when there is a very literal infinite nothingness to contend with, and nothing but one's own mind to keep from going mad," he said, voice slightly too light. Thor swallowed, thinking of his own brief fall, and wondered how long…
Loki pulled the stick and meat off the fire and pulled a piece off, popping it in his mouth. He nodded, briefly, and then held it out to Thor. "Here," he said. "Eat."
Thor took it, slowly. "And you?" he asked, as Loki moved to wrap the remaining meat up in the hide of the creature, whatever it was.
"I am not hungry."
Thor frowned, feeling a slight prickle of uneasiness, but after a long moment decided to let it go. Loki's not eating was never a good sign, but he couldn't know, just now, what it was a bad sign of. Perhaps just his disquiet with their conversation. He would just watch more carefully, from now on.
This time the waystone was a mound of earth, a circle of stone set into the top of it. Thor kept his hand near Mjolnir, wary of any dangers, but Loki crouched over it, apparently fearless, reading the inscription on it. Thor could feel his skin prickle with awareness of some energy in the air.
At length, Loki stood. "It requires a sacrifice," he said, nose wrinkled. Thor reared back.
"Not that sort of sacrifice, you dullard," Loki said. "Just an object. Something you would rather not part with, something of value. I think I have my translation right."
"I cannot surrender Mjolnir," Thor said at once. Loki snorted.
"Of course not. Nor would I expect you to. Have you nothing else that you care about?" Thor hesitated, and Loki rolled his eyes. "Come, out with it. Some token from your lady love? Whatever it is, if you wish to go on, you need to relinquish it."
Thor racked his brain, trying to think of something else in his pack, but it was all practical supplies. "I have nothing of true value," he hedged. Loki gave him a look.
"Not monetary, Thor. What interest – or power – would that be?"
"I know, I know…" Thor fidgeted. "What are you giving up?"
Loki's face closed off. "You first."
Thor crossed his arms. "No."
"I translated the runes," Loki said, sounding snappish. "So I hardly think it fair that I need to-" Thor didn't budge, and Loki made a low snarling noise. "Fine. Fine! Since you insist on being so very mature about this-" He called something into his hand with a flick of his wrist and dropped it unceremoniously on the stone circle, his chin high. Thor stepped forward to look at it.
"Mother's comb," he said, and then looked to Loki in surprise. "You stole it?"
"She gave it to me," Loki snapped, his cheeks turning slightly pink. "When I was – imprisoned. She sent it down hidden in one of her books." He looked away, shoulders drawing up. "I kept it. Are you pleased?"
Thor felt an ache somewhere in his chest. "Loki," he said, quietly.
"Make your offering," Loki snapped. "I do not wish to hear your – whatever sniveling it is you think I wish to hear."
Thor sighed, but after a long moment he bowed his head and reached behind his neck, unclasping the delicate chain and removing the necklace. He bit the inside of his lip and set it delicately down next to the comb, squaring his shoulders. The pendant that hung from it was rough-hewn crystal, pale green and clumsily cut. He did not look at Loki. "There," he said roughly. "Now what?"
"You kept it," Loki said, quietly. Thor pressed his lips together. "You know it doesn't – truly do anything, do you not?"
"It is not because of what it does that I kept it," Thor said stiffly. He heard Loki shift. He remembered when Loki had given it to him, when they'd both been small. It was after Thor had broken his leg on some exploit or another, and Loki had shoved it at him.
Mother said I should make a charm to keep you safe, he'd said. So here. The crystal will absorb all the harm that would come to you. Please, you'll wear it, right?
He glanced at Loki, at length, and found that his brother was not looking at him. He murmured a couple words, and the stone circle vanished, replaced by a perfectly round, black, hole. Thor stared at it, feeling a prickle down his spine.
"That's where we go next?" he said, trying to sound wry, though he could hear the faint strain in his own voice.
"Let's go," Loki said, though his voice sounded strange, and when he reached for Thor's arm he took his hand instead of his wrist.
They jumped into the dark.
Thor blinked, but could still see nothing.
There was nothing, he realized, nothing but absolute blackness. Not like night, somehow, deeper and darker than that. He was standing on something, but could not feel what it might be, only that it was solid and seemed even. He felt Loki's hand tighten in his, but when he turned in the proper direction could not see even a glimpse of him, though he must be right there, and his pale skin should have glowed even in this darkness.
"Loki?" he said, and his voice sounded strange as well, peculiarly muffled.
"Something is – something feels very odd," Loki said. "The air – can you hear that?"
Thor strained his ears, but could hear nothing but their own breathing. "No," he said, cautiously. "Hear what?"
"Someone – someone is calling me." Loki's voice sounded strained. "You cannot hear it?"
Thor felt a shiver run down his spine. "No," he said. "I hear nothing-" But that wasn't quite true. Now he could hear a faint sound, like the whispering of a breeze through leaves. But no voice, and the air wasn't stirring as it should with a wind. "Loki," he said slowly, "I do not think – your magic. The arrow. I do not wish to stay here." Silence, for a moment.
"Thor," Loki said, and his voice – quivered, very slightly. "There is something – someone – here."
Thor strained his ears again, but even the faint noise of before had faded. "I can hear nothing," he said, again. "Loki, perhaps it is…"
Loki made a noise in the back of his throat. "Do you think me mad?"
"No," Thor said, more vehemently than he was sure he felt. "No, it is just-" He blew out a breath. "Perhaps some – whatever it is, it is trying to trick you."
"You don't hear it," Loki said, his voice sounding a little sharp. "How would you know-"
"What – what is it saying?" Thor asked, warily. "What does it sound like?"
"It sounds like-" Loki cut off, abruptly, and Thor felt him stiffen.
"Loki," Thor said, worriedly, and then Loki whispered no and yanked his hand free of Thor's. "Loki!" Thor cried, and grasped for him, but in the absolute darkness he was already lost, not sure which way Loki had gone, or where to turn, or what to- "Loki!" he bellowed. "Get – call out, tell me where you are-!" He spun in wild circles, groping blindly at the impenetrable dark.
"Thor," said a quiet voice, at his ear. "Come with me."
Thor whirled around. "Loki?" he burst out, and reached, found cool skin under his fingers. "Is that you?"
"Thor," Loki said, his voice strained. "I've – I've made a mistake. You need to come with me, quickly. Something is hunting – me, you, us, I can't tell. But we need to get out of here."
Thor felt himself tense. "What?" he asked. "What is hunting-"
"I don't know," Loki said, low but urgent. "But we need to move."
"You shouldn't have run off like that," Thor said. He could feel something prickling up and down his spine, a warning. That faint whispering sound, like a distant breeze, was back. "We could have lost each other."
"Yes, I know, but I thought-" Loki cut off. Thor could almost hear him shake his head. "Never mind. Go." Loki's cool fingers wrapped around his wrist and gave him a tug, and Thor followed after him, stumbling a little at first in his blindness, startled at how swiftly Loki seemed able to move.
"What did you think it was?" He asked. "What did it say to you?"
"Never mind that," Loki said tightly. "The arrow indicated that the gateway is some distance this way. If we keep moving-"
Thor nodded. "The sooner we are out of this darkness, the happier I will be."
Loki let out a strange, stuttering laugh. "I do not blame you for that. Now-"
He froze. The fingers around his wrist gave a tug. "Don't listen," Loki hissed, but – that had been Loki's voice. Clear as life. As clear as it was Loki's voice speaking to him now.
"Did you hear that?" Thor demanded. "Did you-"
"Thor, where are you?" Loki's voice sounded strange, distant, high and fearful. Not right, Thor thought, but then, if Loki was lost in the darkness – but Loki's hand was around his wrist now. He could feel it, cool and familiar.
"Don't listen to it," the Loki leading him said again. "Thor, it's trying to trick you. Pay it no heed-"
"Answer me, you great oaf!" Loki's voice rose again, somewhere out in the darkness. "I need you to listen to me. For once, please-"
"It doesn't even sound like me," the Loki holding him protested, and gave his arm a tug. "Would I ever snivel for you so? Come, Thor. If you want out of here, follow me."
"It's a trap," the other Loki called. "Surely you must be able to see that, even you – whatever form it's taken, it is lying to you. Listen to me."
Thor licked his lips but held his ground, not giving in to the tugs on his arm. "I don't – one of you is not Loki. Tell me-" He turned toward where he thought the one leading him was. "Tell me something only Loki would know."
The Loki leading him scoffed, loudly. "Truly? Fine, fine – when we were young, it was I who put the frogs in your bathing quarters." Thor felt his mouth flicker. "Are you going to stop this dithering now? We are in danger as long as we stay-"
"Thor!" Loki's voice rose out of the dark. It sounded farther away, somehow. "Use Mjolnir. The storm, the lightning. I can't use my magic – something is cutting it off. But perhaps you-"
"Absurd," the Loki near to him said, and gave his arm another tug. "Let us go-"
Thor balked. "Why haven't you used your magic?" he asked. He hadn't thought of it until now, and suddenly he was not sure why. "You could – you could create a witchlight, some sort of illumination…"
"And draw its attention," the Loki leading him countered.
"Or blind it," Thor said, moving his hand toward Mjolnir. "With a flash of light."
"Do not – do not take that risk," Loki hissed. "I will not have you endanger us both because you cannot listen and follow simple directions! Just follow me and we can be free from this place-"
Thor swallowed, hard, and tried to pull his hand free. Loki's fingers tightened. "You are not my brother," he said, with sudden certainty.
"And now you change your mind again," Loki said, voice perfectly sardonic, but Thor could hear – could tell- "Decide, will you? Whether or not I am your brother, whether or not you wish to claim me, right now I am your guide and your only way out of here-"
Thor tried to pull free again. "No. You are not – you are not Loki." Why had he not used Mjolnir before? He hadn't even thought of it. Because, he realized with a chill, something had not wanted him to think of it. "You are not-"
He heard a hiss, out of the darkness in front of him, and yanked Mjolnir out of his belt, raised it high, and summoned lightning.
It split the black in a flash of silver-white light, and for a moment Thor was blind as well. The hand around his wrist released with a howl, and Thor caught the briefest glimpse of something – something hideous, naked flesh and a contorted bunch of limbs. Another flash of lightning and he could see it crouching a few feet from him, and he could see Loki's face and one pale human hand but the rest-
Then it lunged at him, as the light went out, but in total silence. He swung the hammer blindly and it connected with something, but so too did razor sharp claws that ripped into his side, deep, deep. Lightning came in flashes but he was fighting in the dark, struggling blindly with whatever the creature was, slippery like an eel, its strange copy of Loki's face leering in the dark but with a mouth lined with needle teeth. Its claws ripped and tore and it didn't growl or hiss or yelp, made not a sound, and as Thor smashed Mjolnir into its body again and again it hardly seemed to notice that it was being destroyed, just continued to fight until at last the hammer found its face and crushed it into the ground.
"Thor," gasped a breathless voice behind him, and Thor wheeled, hammer upraised, but the next flash of lightning revealed only Loki, panting and disheveled, his eyes wide. "It's me," Loki said hastily, "It's me, Thor, it's – ah," and then the light was gone. Thor reached for and grabbed Loki's hand, tight enough that he heard Loki hiss in faint objection.
"We need to get out of here," he growled. He could feel blood soaking his clothes, running out too fast and not healing quickly enough.
"Yes," Loki agreed. He sounded shaken. "We do."
"Which way?" Thor demanded. Loki swallowed audibly.
"I don't know."
Thor turned to him, though he could still not see Loki in the darkness. "You don't – what?"
"I can't use my magic," Loki said, his voice tight. "For whatever reason – I can't reach it. I don't know which way the waystone is. Or if there even is one. This isn't – this isn't a proper world. It feels – wrong."
Thor growled. "No. There is a way out. There is always-" He broke off. He could hear Loki's breathing in the dark, loud and too quick. "Loki, think," he admonished, sharply.
"I am – trying," Loki said, what sounded like through his teeth. "I am trying but it is not – it is too dark. I can't – I'm going to fall."
"No," Thor said firmly. "Loki, perhaps if you-" He was still bleeding. Something on the creatures' claws, perhaps? He needed to bind the wounds shut, and for that he needed to be able to see, and not just by flashes of light. There had to be an exit, somewhere. He gave Loki's hand a rough squeeze, listening to him struggle not to panic, and tried to think. He looked down at the nothingness beneath them.
"Loki," he said, slowly. "Do you trust me?"
Silence, but for the hitching of his breathing. Thor waited. "With what," Loki said at last.
Another long silence. Finally, barely audible, "yes."
"Then trust me now," Thor said, and pulled Loki into his chest. He raised Mjolnir and began to spin it.
"Thor," Loki said, voice sounding a little steadier. "You're-"
Thor flung them both into the air. Nothing whistled past his face, there was no sense of momentum, they were just going up, and up, and up. "What are you doing!" he thought he heard Loki scream, and ignored it, eyes fixed above them. He could feel something tugging him down and fought it, felt it stretch-
The light was bright, almost painful on his eyes. Thor could feel himself beginning to grow light-headed, and could hear Loki in his hold gasping for breath. He turned his flight path downward, toward a hollow between two purple hills, and set down, letting Mjolnir drop from his fingers as he released Loki, who stumbled away from him, staring at his hands. His hands covered in red.
Was Loki hurt?
Thor swayed, and Loki turned to him, eyes wide. His mouth opened, but whatever he said, Thor didn't hear it; nor did he feel himself hit the ground.
Thor swam groggily and uncomfortably into consciousness. His body ached and he felt so very tired, but it seemed important that he wake, so he did. He could hear a fire crackling nearby, feel its warmth.
He shifted and groaned as his side twinged.
"Here," said a startlingly quiet voice – Loki's, but strangely subdued as he lifted Thor's head with one hand and brought a glass to his lips with the other. "Drink this, it'll take the edge off."
Thor obeyed, and indeed the pain did start to fade, rapidly. Loki moved away but Thor licked his lips and managed a, "thank you."
He just caught Loki's shrug out of the corner of his eye. "I would sooner you made this sort of ministration unnecessary, but unfortunately I cannot blame you this time." Thor frowned, not quite able to sort through that. He did not have long, however, as Loki blew out a breath and said, sounding uncommonly less than acerbic, "you have my apologies. If I had not – run off…"
Ah yes. It was beginning to come back now. Thor shook his head. "I don't doubt that it would have attacked sooner or later."
"Yes," Loki acknowledged, "mostly likely, but by separating us for it I likely helped a great deal."
Thor pushed himself up on his elbows. "It was only with your help I was even able to realize that I was not following you," he protested. Loki gave him a strangely baleful look.
"I am attempting to apologize to you, you dolt. Must you make it so difficult?"
Thor subsided, a little. "I have no doubt that it is thanks to your healing that I am still here," he said, after a few moments. Loki shrugged one shoulder.
"Such as 'my healing' is. We shall have to wait a day, perhaps, before I would feel assured letting you travel."
Thor tried to push himself up. "I can-"
"No," Loki said firmly. "You cannot." He turned back to the fire, and Thor noticed a bowl hanging over it. His stomach growled, and Loki glanced briefly at him before spooning out a few ladlefuls into a smaller bowl and holding it out. "Take this."
Thor gave Loki a doleful look. "How am I supposed to eat stew flat on my back?"
"Sit up, then."
Thor made his eyes as wide as he dared. "Help me?" Perhaps it was childish of him, but this was the first time he could remember in so long of Loki offering anything like warmth to him, and he wanted to savor it. By the look Loki gave him, perhaps he guessed, but for whatever reason he acceded anyway, helping Thor over to prop him up against a stone before he moved away again to serve himself.
Thor was relieved to see him eat, though he noticed that it was fairly little. Still, he gobbled his own bowl hungrily, and felt a bit better afterwards, if still weak.
"How did you know how to get out," Loki asked, as he set his bowl aside. It took Thor a moment to realize what he was asking.
"I didn't," he said, once he had. "I just…guessed. It had to have an end eventually. It felt like – it felt like we were in a box. So I had to find the top of the box."
Loki stared at him, and then let out a quiet huff of a laugh. "Remarkable," he said, quietly, and then subsided into silence again. Thor frowned at him, but Loki did not expand on his thoughts, and eventually Thor set the bowl aside.
"Are you all right?" he asked. Loki gave him a sharp look.
"You went-" Thor waved a hand. "Running off. What did you hear?"
Loki looked away, his lips pressing to a thin line. "None of your business."
Of course it's my business, Thor wanted to protest, but he remembered how well that had gone last time. "And the creature – it did not hurt you?"
"No," Loki said, after a moment, and Thor wondered if there was something underneath that answer. "It did not. For whatever reason, it was more interested in you, and merely wished me out of the way so it could lure you to your doom, I suspect."
Thor shivered. He did not want to know, he thought, what that doom might be. "Where are we now?" he asked, instead. "I don't mean – only how far is the next gateway?"
"I haven't looked," Loki said, after a moment. "I have been a touch busy. But not far, I think."
Thor took a deep breath and smelled – spruce, he thought. Dirt and grass. "It feels familiar," he said, after a moment. "This place."
"Well it might," Loki said, peering into the pot. "We are on Midgard."
Thor sat bolt upright. "Midgard? So we might simply have-"
"No," Loki cut him off. "If you attempted to reach this place from Midgard itself, you would not be able to find it. I can feel the working around us. If a mortal were to walk through this place, they would not see us, or the waystone." Loki ran his fingers through his hair. "This is not the sort of thing on which you can cheat, Thor. Unfortunately."
Thor sighed, but he nodded. "Well," he said, after a few moments. "Now we are here."
"Indeed." Loki pushed himself to his feet. "And I feel filthy, and there is a stream just a bit away. I am going to go wash. Do you think you can manage not to bleed to death for the duration?"
Thor summoned a smile. "I do not think I am in any danger of that now."
"So pray, do not find another way to make it happen," Loki said, but Thor thought he saw the corner of his mouth twitch, and then he was moving away.
Thor sat up a little more with just a bit of a wince, serving himself more stew and eating it slowly, frowning in the direction Loki had gone. He didn't know what to think. That was nothing new when it came to his brother, but…
He wished Loki had brought a pack that he could look through, for hints. Where had he been, that he didn't want to say? Perhaps nowhere, Thor reminded himself. Perhaps Loki was just – being Loki, and did not wish to tell Thor because he was a private person and genuinely didn't understand Thor's need to know.
Thor chewed thoughtfully on a piece of meat. Whatever else he had been doing, however, Loki was here now.
He finished his second bowl and leaned back, feeling heavy and full and relatively relaxed. Midgard – he knew Midgard, and did not feel threatened here. After all the unknown, strange worlds, that was reassuring in itself. He half closed his eyes and began to drift, summoned back by the soft sound of Loki's feet on the ground. He opened one eye and raised his eyebrows at Loki's state of undress, in underclothing but little more.
"I am not going to get immediately back into my dirty gear. Instead, I intend to enjoy the feeling of being clean for a while," Loki said, sounding a little peevish again.
"Have a care, brother," Thor said, with a bit of a smile. "Someone might wander off with them."
Loki cast him a look, and the trace of a smile from before was not visible now. "Why do you insist on acting as though nothing has changed?" he asked, after a moment. "As though we are still youths on a jaunt for your glory?"
Thor raised his eyebrows. "And if I did not it would only justify everything you wish to believe about my feelings for you. Why should I not wish to enjoy an adventure with my brother, while I may?"
Loki's mouth twisted. "Because-" He let out a harsh breath. "Because things have changed. Because we are not the same as we were, and sometimes I wonder if you realize, if you have ever realized-" He cut off. "Just because you wish a thing to be true does not make it so."
Thor sat up. "You would have me treat you as my enemy, and that I will not do. I would think you would recognize that by now."
"Damn you-" Loki broke off again, and he looked aside, his mouth and brow tight. Thor scrutinized him.
"Perhaps," he said at length, "I hope that if I remind you often enough of what you seem to wish to forget – that there was joy, and love between us – that you will remember it."
"I do remember it," Loki said, his voice strangely harsh, but he did not look at Thor. "But I remember all the rest as well."
"And I am sorry," Thor started to say, though he could hear the exasperation slip into his voice. "For whatever it is-"
"You don't know what you apologize for," Loki said, bitterly. "You don't understand, and you never will. I have accepted that." He stood up, jerkily. "My clothes-"
"Wait," Thor said, sudden and sharp. The shift in light – he'd noticed something. Thor started to push himself to his feet, and Loki frowned at him and took a step back.
"You should not strain yourself. If you break open your wounds-"
His body twinged, but little more than that. "I will not." Thor took a step forward. "Step into the light, Loki."
Loki's eyes narrowed, and then he let out a short laugh. "Why? Hoping to admire my beauty? Flattered as I am-"
Thor moved, and Loki jerked back from him but not quick enough to keep Thor from grabbing his arm and pulling him back into the circle of firelight. It was easy to miss on pale skin, but no, he was certain now, and Thor let go as Loki snarled and lashed out at his arm, his mind suddenly blank.
"What is this," Loki asked. "What is all this about-"
Thor blinked. He could just see the gleam of a silvery scar just to the left of Loki's sternum. It looked startlingly small, startlingly faint. Just enough of a mark that he knew.
"It was real," Thor said. He hadn't been sure, he realized suddenly, when the illusion had replaced the reality. But that scar-
The image of Loki's body stiffening with a gasp as the monster impaled him on the blade through its chest was too vivid to mistake it. Thor half reached out, and pulled his hand back, as though Loki would vanish again if he touched him. "What," Loki snapped, and then appeared to become conscious of the direction of Thor's gaze. He turned, swiftly. "For the love of- I am getting my things."
"It was no lie, then," Thor said. "That you were stabbed. Wounded." Saving me. He was reconsidering, suddenly, thinking through the course of events, everything that had happened in those few short moments. There was a certainty lurking on the horizon, and he moved toward it, slowly.
"It would be far more helpful if you were to focus on the now rather than indulging pointless-"
"When did you decide to trick me?" Thor asked, implacable. Loki turned, his lip curling.
"Immediately, when I saw the look on your face. I saw my chance-"
"No," Thor said, quiet but sure. "No, I do not believe it." Because he had seen the look in Loki's eyes. He remembered it well. Fear. Desperation. And then serenity. Just like the Bifrost, that first time. "I do not think you knew you would not die."
Loki's shoulders twitched. His laugh was harsh, like the caw of a crow. "Why should you think-"
"When I held you last," Thor said, quietly, "you lived. The weight of your body was no illusion. Your stillness was no illusion. You believed you would die."
Loki sneered. "Why should it matter if I-"
"Because," Thor said, and he felt his eyes prickle, "it means that the last words you spoke to me were no lie. That you meant it. That the fact that in that moment I saw my brother again – that it was no falsehood."
Loki drew back, his eyes bright, something about his stance, the angle of his body, reminding Thor of a wild thing. A feral cat hissing at the extended hand. "Even if – if – your foolish theory were sound…why should you think I would not lie in death, as I have always-"
"Not always," Thor said. He smiled, though it felt strange on his face. "I have grown better at seeing your truths and your lies, Loki." He caught a shudder in Loki's shoulders, and took a step closer. Loki took an equal step back. "I do not think you meant for Kurse to stab you. And after – I do not think you expected to survive."
Loki's eyes darted, landing anywhere but on his face. "I do not have to listen to your drivel," he said, tightly. "Perhaps I regretted it, the moment I awoke-"
"Did you?" Thor asked, implacable. Loki said nothing. "As you said in the cell," Thor went on. "I see you, brother-"
"Do you wish to know where I have been, the last months?" Loki said, suddenly, his voice sharp and hard like a knife. "Do you want me to tell you, Thor, where my selfless sacrifice led me?"
Thor frowned. "You cannot distract me with whatever it is you think I will-"
"I went back to Asgard," Loki said. There was a savage, vicious gleam in his eyes, like a cornered animal. "I disguised myself as a guardsman and went to the Allfather to report the doings of his only son."
Thor felt a sudden uneasiness twist in his stomach. "Loki," he said lowly, in warning.
"I told him a body had been found. I wanted to see what he would do." Loki's mouth twisted and he let out a short bark of laughter, and Thor suddenly remembered what he'd said, do not tell me that Odin mourned. "Did you not think it strange that your father released you so easily from your duty? That he so easily let you go to Midgard, giving up your birthright?"
"Loki, no," Thor said, feeling his heart sink, and Loki let out another harsh laugh.
"Now you understand, do you? It is not the hand of Odin Allfather that has been ruling Asgard these months past. You gave me Asgard, Thor, when you walked away from it-"
"And yet you are here," Thor said, cutting him off, though anger was bubbling in his chest. Loki's eyes snapped to him, narrowed. "You are here, and not ruling Asgard," Thor went on. "My father. Does he live?"
"I am already once a patricide," Loki said, with a sneer. "I saw no need to make it two. Besides, it was ever so much more enjoyable to watch him struggle against my binding spells, stripped of all his power and revealed for the weak and feeble thing that he always has been-"
Thor lashed out. He grabbed Loki by the neck and flung him to the ground with a wild yell, pinning him down as he scratched at Thor's arm. "Is this what you wish?" he demanded, fury pounding in his veins. "Do you wish to make me angry? I am already angry. You hid from me, you lied to me, you let me grieve. You stole father's throne and mock him to my face." He shook Loki like a fox with a rabbit, and Loki made a strangled noise, trying to pry Thor's fingers loose. "But what does this change?" He pushed him into the ground and leaned in close, and said, eyes boring into Loki's, "nothing."
He released his brother and flung himself back. His wounds ached at the harshness of the movement, but he ignored them. Loki did not get up. Thor paced.
"Is Asgard left undefended?" he asked, finally.
Loki coughed, once. He was silent, but when Thor rounded on him grudgingly spoke. "No. I lifted the spells keeping Odin concealed. They will have found him by now."
Thor nodded shortly. "And his condition?" More silence. "Do not test me, Loki."
"Not dire," Loki said, at length. "He will recover swiftly." Thor nodded again, and took several deep breaths, clenching and relaxing his fists.
"Then you have already righted at least part of the wrong you have done," he said, finally, and made himself turn and look at Loki, still sprawled on the ground and rubbing his throat. "Why is it that you must always respond to my kindness with a knife?"
Loki drew himself up to a sitting position. "Your folly. Not your kindness."
"I told the truth," Thor said, his voice flat. "When I said this changes nothing. I am – very angry with you. But you are still my brother. You still saved my life. And you are still here, when you might be on Asgard's throne, risking your life for a woman you claim to care nothing for." Thor gave Loki a long look. "You call me fool, but I look at you now and I wonder if it is not you that deserves the title better."
He turned his back and walked away, sitting down a good distance out of the firelight. He waited, listening, but though he heard Loki moving about, and then the hiss of the fire being put out, his brother did not follow.
Thor did not sleep. He watched the stars of Midgard move overhead, heart heavy.
Loki did not apologize.
Thor was not surprised, though some part of him was disappointed. The strange sort of camaraderie that Thor thought they had developed, in their traveling, was gone, replaced by wary sidelong glances from Loki and a tense silence that Thor had no real wish to break.
"The waystone is a few miles north," Loki said, as they were breaking camp. Thor nodded shortly. For a moment it seemed as though Loki might say something more, but he did not, just stood with a simple, "this way," and began walking.
Thor followed him. He didn't know what to do with what Loki had told him. It was truth, he thought, but perhaps not all of it. He had pushed Loki toward the truth and in answer Loki had lashed out.
"I will not go to Asgard," Loki said, at length. "I will not be a prisoner again. You may try, but I will fight you. When this is done-"
"And what will you do if I do not?" Thor asked, interrupting. "You cannot think you will be able to usurp Father again, now that you have abandoned that ruse. Where will you go?"
Loki's shoulders hunched. "That is my business."
"No," Thor said. "You have most assuredly made it mine."
Loki fell silent again. Thor sighed.
What if, he thought, Loki had come to fight with him against Malekith? What would he have done, after? Duty would have bound him to take Loki back to Asgard. Perhaps he might even have been forgiven. He wanted to believe that Odin would be willing to do so. But if he had not been? Would Thor have been willing to lock him back in his cell, after they had fought together as brothers once more?
He couldn't be certain.
And now? If this worked, if they truly got their mother back…
He wished there was someone he could ask, but it had always been Loki or Frigga to advise him on these things, and he could not go to either of them.
Thor looked ahead of him, at Loki's back, and wondered what Loki was thinking. What plans he might be making. "Ahead," Loki said, voice breaking into Thor's musing. "That hill. And I think…I think this may be the last one."
Thor looked where Loki pointed. Perhaps two thousand paces away rose a hillside, sharper and steeper than those around it. The top was perfectly flat, as though it had been severed neatly. He could not see any indication that marked it out other than that, but he felt a prickle on the back of his neck looking at it, and Mjolnir hummed in his belt, an uneasy little quiver. He felt a sudden flicker of doubt, the thought occurring to him for the first time with any belief that this might indeed be a trap of some kind. He pushed that thought away at once, but it lingered stubbornly, hovering just outside of where he could reach it.
Neither he nor Loki spoke again as they reached and climbed the hill. There was a square stone table in the center, two interlocking wheels before it, and on the other side, a stone archway and a smooth black door with no handle. Thor examined the entire scene uneasily, the prickle on his skin intensifying.
"What makes you think this is the last?" he asked, cautiously, as Loki bent over the table, running his hand over the smooth, unmarked surface.
"Can you not feel it?" Loki sounded faintly distracted. "The barrier between worlds is thin here. And not as it was between realms, during the convergence. This is different." Thor turned in a slow circle, looking for something, though he was not sure what. He rested a hand on Mjolnir, half to settle the hammer and half to settle himself. Loki straightened, and frowned. "There should be something written here…"
He stepped back and murmured a few words. Green light swept over the stone, but nothing seemed to change. Thor turned to watch. Loki looked from the table to the wheels and back again.
"Stand there," he ordered Thor, pointing at the left wheel. Thor planted his feet.
"Because I said to," Loki said, somewhat snappishly, and then rubbed his temples in such a familiar gesture that Thor wanted to wince. "I am trying to work this out, Thor. Humor me."
"You must admit that you have placed yourself in a position where I do not feel altogether comfortable trusting you," Thor said, lowly.
"And that is fine," Loki said, though he sounded a little snappish. "But for the moment – all I require is that you stand there."
Thor hesitated, but only a moment longer before he went and stood in the middle of the circle. Loki went to the other, and then frowned as nothing happened. "I am missing something," he murmured, and beckoned Thor. "Come here and lay your hands on the stone."
After a moment, Thor went and rested his hands flat on the smooth surface. It felt strangely warm to his touch, but no words appeared. Loki growled a curse under his breath and paced away and then back as Thor removed his hands. Loki stalked back and forth, muttering under his breath. Then suddenly his head jerked up and he grinned, rather wildly.
"Ah," he said. "I wonder if…" he returned to the stone, bent over it, and whispered something Thor couldn't quite hear, then stepped back with a flourish. "And now you."
The stone seemed to ripple, in a way that made Thor's hand jump to his hammer, but then the top layer simply melted away like so much smoke, and underneath Thor could see a few rows of carved runes in no language that he recognized.
"What did you say?" Thor asked. Loki gave him a smile, startlingly genuine.
"An exchange. A secret for a secret. One of mine for one of its."
Thor was not certain how a stone was supposed to understand spoken language, but perhaps it was not a stone after all – and if it was not, Thor was not certain he wished to know what it was. "What secret?"
"If I told you it would no longer be a secret," Loki said easily, inspecting the runes. Thor looked at the circles again. He bent down to touch one of them, and found it strangely warm, like the other had been.
"Mjolnir is uneasy," he said.
"As are you, I would imagine." Loki sounded very faintly amused, but mostly focused. Busy with his examination. "Unsurprising. It is not exactly usual for the still living to venture to the realms of the dead. But it is nothing that can harm you."
Thor was not certain he was appeased by that. His unease from earlier was back, and stronger. Loki, he suspected, knew more than he had said – about this journey, and about this place – and Thor wondered what he had left out.
His brother hummed, quietly, and Thor turned swiftly to him. "What is it?"
Loki was tracing the runes on the stone with one finger. "It needs blood," he said. Thor blinked, and then felt himself stiffen.
Loki lifted his head, eyebrows raised. "Did you expect anything else? All great magic requires a sacrifice, Thor." His voice had a faint hint of mockery in it, and Thor fought the urge to take a step back.
"This is why you brought me!" he said, with sudden understanding. "You brought me here to serve as a – a sacrifice, is that it?"
Loki's expression flickered. "The spell to open this gate requires the blood of the kin of the one lost in order to forge a link between them. I mentioned this to you before. I do not, if you have forgotten, carry that blood." The faint bitterness in Loki's voice was unmistakable, but Thor shook his head.
"I thought you meant-" He broke off. Foolish, he thought. Foolish, to assume… "Is that it, then?" He could hear the incredulity and anger in his own voice. "You brought me here to die?"
Loki's eyes fixed on him. "Would you be unwilling to trade your life for hers?"
Thor felt a flicker of doubt. "Do not accuse me of loving her less," he said, fiercely. "I loved her just as well as you. Better, as I did not betray that love." He caught Loki's flinch and felt a twinge of guilt that he crushed. "But you said nothing of this! I have duties, Loki, friends…" he realized belatedly that there was a small quirk around Loki's mouth, and his temper snapped. "What amuses you? You should have told me that-"
"Always so quick to assume," Loki murmured. "I did not say how much blood I needed from you, Thor. Hold out your hand." Thor's voice broke off, but he hesitated. Loki rolled his eyes. "Come, Thor. Would I really have dragged you all this way just to kill you when I might have simply slit your throat and taken your blood to make the journey alone if I wished it?"
Thor eyed Loki's face, but after a long moment he extended his hand. Loki produced a slender blade and cut a thin line across it, tugged Thor forward and tipped his hand over the left of the stone circles. Both of them watched the blood run down over his palm, and Thor after a moment squeezed his hand into a fist to hurry the flow. Three, four, five drops spattered on grey stone and then Loki released him, giving him a little shove. "There," he said. "That is all I need from you."
Thor stepped back, feeling a little foolish for his outburst, but nothing happened. The door did not open. Loki climbed to his feet, knife still in hand, and stepped over to the second wheel.
"It's not opening," Thor said with a frown. Loki seemed briefly amused again, though there was something about his expression…
"No," he agreed, "well observed. A moment. There is one more thing that needs doing." Loki closed his eyes and murmured four words. They seemed to fall into the air like stones into a still pond, and Thor felt the charge of power over his skin. Loki looked at him, opened his mouth, and then shut it. Thor felt his anticipation grow with that sense of something building. The last step, and soon they would be bringing Frigga home.
"She will be astounded to see us working together," Thor said, giving Loki a grin. Loki didn't smile back, and Thor realized, suddenly, that he was still holding the knife.
"She will be," Loki said, and then flipped the knife and drove it in under his ribs, angled upward, eyes widening with a hollow gasp. Thor's eyes widened and his body froze.
"Loki?" he said, blankly. His brother smiled, even as his body began to bend.
"Oh, Thor," he said, and sounded almost fond. "Did you really think that five drops of blood was enough of a sacrifice? A life for a life. That has always been the rule."
He pulled the knife out. Thor lunged for him with a cry.
The world went white, and he heard a door creaking open.
The first thing Thor registered was the roaring in his ears, and that had him on his feet immediately before he realized that it was no dragon or beast, but merely the sound of raucous festivity. The second thing he registered was that he was standing at the periphery of a great feast hall – greater than any he had ever seen, vast with a high vaulting ceiling so tall that he could not see the peak of it.
The third was that Loki was lying on the floor a few feet from him, pale as ash and facedown.
He lunged for Loki at once, turning him to his back. Loki's eyes were half closed and he looked dazed, eyes going past Thor to the ceiling. "Well," he murmured. "It worked."
Thor's stomach flipped and he pulled Loki's hands away from the wound. He tried to press down but the blood ran through his fingers without slowing. "Damn you," Thor growled. "Loki – did you know, did you-"
Loki smiled at him, the expression almost giddy. "I guessed," he said, voice slightly strained. "So you didn't really – hm – mourn by mistake. Just a touch early." His head dropped back to the feast hall floor. No one seemed to have noticed them. "Focus, Thor. Frigga. Somewhere nearby."
"I can't just-"
"The living can't come here," Loki said, voice sharpening. "And the dead don't leave. You have, I would guess-" he glanced down at himself- "Twenty minutes. Then I die and go to Helheim, you return to Midgard, and Frigga stays exactly where she is now."
Thor wavered. "You tricked me," he said, hoarsely, but it wasn't the trick he'd feared. Loki smirked at him.
"Of course I did," he said. "Isn't that what I do?"
Thor froze. Loki's breath caught, and his eyes closed, pain flashing across his face. Thor made himself turn, and there she was, wearing her blue dress and silver armor and frowning.
"Mother," he said, his voice cracking. "Mother, I'm here- I'm here to help you-"
"And how did you do," she started to ask, her eyes narrowing as they had when he was a boy and he was trying to keep from telling her some mischief, and then she seemed to notice the form sprawled prone on the floor. Her lips parted and her eyes widened a hair. Loki stared at her, for a moment seeming transfixed. He licked his lips.
"All-Mother," he said, after a moment, politely. "How nice to see you again."
Frigga took a sharp breath in. "You, my son," she said, after a moment, "have done a very stupid thing. Both of you." Thor felt the urge to quail and the urge to protest in equal measure, but Frigga did not give him the chance. "Take your brother, Thor," she said, "and follow me."
"You have limited time," Loki said, trying to push Thor away as he gathered him up, feeling a sudden well of irrational, childish relief. "You need to-"
But apparently whatever part of Loki was here could still pass out, if jostled too much.
Thor caught up to Frigga in a few swift steps. "Mother," he said, voice slightly hoarse. "Are you – he's – I didn't know-" He stumbled over everything he wanted to say, and found himself unable to voice any of it. She looked sideways at him, and whatever she saw made her pause, her smile warm and calming as he remembered it.
"Peace, Thor," she said, softly. "I will explain everything, once I have rectified your brother's foolishness."
"He said that-"
"Never mind what he said," Frigga said, and though she sounded calm when she glanced at Loki her eyebrows were furrowed with worry. "We can discuss this later." Thor glanced down with her. Well, that settles it, he thought, only half wry. I am never letting Loki out of my sight again.
"I will not leave without you," Thor said, just in case that wasn't clear. Frigga gave him a considering look.
"And if that were to mean leaving without your brother?" she asked. Thor felt his mouth flatten.
"Must it? Why must it be one of you, can I not-"
"As I said," Frigga said, after a moment, but Thor could see a faint strain around her eyes. "We can speak of this later." She sighed. "I suppose I ought to have expected something like this."
He did not like the sound of that. "We could not leave you dead," Thor said, anguished. Frigga turned down a hall Thor hadn't seen and he followed, tagging at her heels. "If I had known the way – if I had known there was a way, I would have come long since."
Frigga frowned. "So Loki found it. How? I thought since the two of you were here, you must have convinced Odin to let him go, but you make it sound as though…"
Thor hesitated. "You do not know?" he said, as Frigga stopped at a doorway and opened it inwards, gesturing him inside. It looked, Thor noticed, like her rooms in Asgard always had. Warm and familiar. Frigga. She gave him another considering look, gesturing to Thor to set Loki down on the couch.
"Other than the fact that the universe has evidently survived and thus you must have succeeded? I do not know the world outside from within here." Thor took a deep breath and looked at Loki again. Frigga's frown deepened. "Why do I suspect I am not going to like this?"
She did not.
"Must I have a constant watch on you both?" she said, sounding peevish.
"Why me?" Thor demanded. "I have done nothing."
"'Nothing' but stop Malekith from unleashing darkness, and I doubt you were as unscathed from that battle as you would have me think." Thor looked down at the ground, a little sheepishly, but only for a moment. "And the two of you – rushing blindly into the realms of the dead-" Frigga made a sort of frustrated noise. "One would think you had all of your fathers' courage and none of his wisdom."
And with that, she fell silence. No matter if he was a touch stung, Thor watched, intrigued, as she worked her magic on Loki – and it was her magic, though it didn't look like he was used to, strangely faded. The wound didn't mend, but it stopped bleeding. Loki woke the moment it touched his skin and made an attempt to push her away.
The quelling look she gave him was fierce enough to make Thor want to quail by proxy. "I am not extraordinarily pleased with you, my boy," she said. "If relieved that you are alive. Despite, it would seem, your best efforts." Her voice was unmistakably tart as she stood. "The rest will have to wait until you are properly in your bodies again."
Thor blinked. "But I feel – and he was bleeding."
"Not here," Frigga said. "In the other world – wherever you are. I haven't healed you," she said, voice sharpening a bit as she turned to Loki, "merely stalled the process. I will expect you to see to the rest when you return."
"When we return," Thor said, firmly.
Loki made an exasperated noise. "Weren't you listening? There is no we. You cannot expect to leave here with both myself and your mother."
"I refuse to leave here without both of you," Thor said, firmly. Frigga shook her head.
"Does neither of you care what I think of the matter?" She asked. Thor almost simply said no before he stopped himself, somewhat worried that would get him a cuff on the ear. Loki did say it, which Frigga ignored. "I am not so unhappy. This is not a prison, nor a condemnation. It is intended as a reward."
Loki lifted his chin. "And would you rather be here than in the realms of the living, All-Mother?"
"If you hope to persuade me, my son," Frigga said, and now the tartness was more than slight, "then you had best stop acting as though you intend to forget the truth of our relationship, do you understand me?"
Loki's mouth twisted and he looked away. "—understood," he said, after a moment. "But the question still-"
"Even if I were to return," Frigga interrupted, "it seems most of my time would be spent ensuring that my sons do not engage in acts of reckless stupidity!"
Thor dropped his eyes, feeling as chastised as he had as a child when he'd broken some delicate ornament. He was somewhat relieved to see that Loki appeared to be looking down as well.
"A task," Frigga added, after a moment, more softly, "that it seems I am still needed for." She stood. "But I am unwilling to accept the sacrifice of your life for my sake. Or of anyone's," she added, with a glance at Thor.
Loki scowled. Thor looked for a place to sit. "Then what shall we do?" He asked.
"Nothing, apparently," Loki snapped. "We appear to be at a stalemate, unless you can convince y-our mother to change her mind."
"You know very well, Loki," Frigga said calmly, "that when I have decided something, neither you nor your father nor your brother could change my mind. If he were even inclined."
Loki folded himself up and glowered at both of them.
"There must be some other way," Thor said, not glaring back. "Some trick…"
"You expect me to trick Hel herself?" Loki snapped.
"If anyone could," Thor said, voice rising, "it would be you!"
Loki blinked, his face registering surprise as he jerked back. Thor glowered at him, not quite able to wish that he'd muffled his voice. "You were always able to find a way out of trouble when we were boys," he went on. "And I do not believe – am I to believe you have lost your talent for that?"
"He has a point," Frigga murmured. Loki looked back and forth between them, eyebrows furrowing in consternation. "If you are set on this course…it is a better idea than self-sacrifice."
"The pair of you are madder than I," Loki said, clearly incredulous.
"You used to say," Thor said, groping for memories. "You used to say – if I got myself killed, you would trick death itself into giving me back."
"I was a child," Loki said, though Thor could almost see the wheels starting to turn in his brain, and tried not to find it disquieting that it had taken his urging to remind Loki of what he ought to know for himself. "You can hardly think-"
"I believed it then," Thor urged, trying to infuse his words with all the honesty he could summon. He did not attempt to approach Loki, but gave him a pleading look. "And you were only a child, then. You cannot tell me you have not grown cleverer with time."
Loki's expression was full of disbelief as he stared at Thor. "Are you trying to flatter me?" He looked to Frigga, as though expecting help from that quarter. "You are honestly…you must be jesting. This is an absurd jest, or a hallucination, perhaps-"
"I know where Hel is likely to be found, if you wish to speak with her," Frigga said, and Loki looked at her as though she'd sprouted a second head.
"I believe you can do it, brother," Thor said encouragingly, and then winced, the name still slipping too easily off his tongue. He braced for the backlash, but Loki seemed distracted, still frowning, though a slightly different sort now. "And think – what a tale that would be, to tell."
"And pray," Loki said, but more quietly, "who would I tell it to?" One of his long fingers lifted to his lips, however, in a gesture Thor was more than familiar with, and his heart leapt eagerly. "And if I fail – likely Hel should claim the lot of us for the shores of her less pleasant domain."
"Then I suppose it is best not to fail," Thor said, not quite able to keep a smile from tugging at his mouth, even if the look Loki gave him was distinctly less than amused. "As I know you will not."
"Your confidence touches me," Loki drawled, but it sounded fairly distracted. "I may…" he allowed, slowly. "I may…have something of a plan."
Thor was not thrilled by it. "It seems…risky," he said, carefully.
"Of course it is," Loki shot back. "No deceit would ever occur without an initial gamble."
"Perhaps if I offered," Thor began, only to stop, at a loss. Loki snorted.
"Barring your life, you have nothing she would have any interest in. And I doubt anyone is willing to offer that – as you yourself made clear already," he added, a little snide, and Thor felt his mouth tighten, wanting to object, because he would be willing but for the consequences. He could no longer think only of his own heart – nor even only of Frigga.
Frigga was somewhat less ambivalent. "Absolutely not."
Loki crossed his arms. "It is either this or my first plan, and if I recall you did not like that one either." Frigga's lips pressed together, and Loki raised his eyebrows. "This was not my clever idea, if I need to remind you."
"How certain are you," she asked, lowly. Loki shrugged.
"Fairly!" Thor burst out, and that had touched off another round of arguing that ended with Loki's flat burst of, "and when you said you thought I might manage to achieve this, then, was that but words?"
Thor subsided, reluctantly, but he took a deep breath and shook his head. "No," he said, with a sigh. "They were not. I do not – like it, but if you believe this is the way…I will follow you."
Frigga said less, but after a long moment she stood. "Come, then," she said. "I will take you to Hel." Her voice was a little cool, and she swept out of the room in a movement with more of regality than motherly care. Loki did not glance at Thor before pacing out after her, his long strides catching up, and speaking rapidly to her in an undertone.
Thor stayed a few steps behind. Frigga's eyes were focused on Loki, and that let Thor look at her, drinking her in. His heart ached, remembering all over again how much he had missed her.
His heart was in turmoil. Too much had happened and he didn't know how to process it all, how he should be thinking about it, how he should feel. Loki was dead but he was not, Frigga was dead but she was here, he was angry and frightened and elated and hopeful all at once and it was too much to hold. He wondered if the argument with Loki yesterday had been his way of shielding Thor from this blow, and he wondered if it mattered to him if it had.
On some level, he realized, none of it mattered. Here and now, he trusted Loki with this gamble, with this trickery, that might be their one chance of bringing them all back together. This was, after all, what Loki did best.
They headed in the opposite direction from the feast hall into which they had first dropped. After a few minutes, Loki fell back, his expression tight and slightly displeased. Thor quickened his pace to catch up to him. "Is all well?" he asked, lowly.
"I think mother is unhappy with me," Loki said, his voice dry as desert. Thor frowned.
"She is not the only one."
"Still?" Loki's mouth twitched. "And what are you going to do about that, Thor?"
Thor sighed. "I don't…know. I will decide when we are all out of here and back in the Nine Realms proper."
Loki tilted his head a fraction. "And if I flee before you can decide?"
Thor shook his head. "Loki…"
"Oh, very well, very well. I will not tax your mind with difficult questions at the moment." He paused. "I trust if this goes…not as planned…you will see to the All-Mother."
Thor bit down on the inside of his cheek. "It had best not go poorly," Thor said, and heard the flatness in his own voice. Loki jerked his head.
"Yes, but if it should-"
"Our mother has a will of her own, Loki," Thor said, in a voice that brooked no argument. "And I doubt I would disagree with her refusal, whatever it is you wish me to agree to."
Loki muttered something under his breath that Thor did not quite catch. "The both of you are stubborn fools," he said, and then his eyes sharpened. "Ah – do you think that is Hel's palace?"
Thor looked ahead, and nearly stopped. Amidst all the gold and light, the structure was dark – elegant, and beautiful, but built of what looked like gleaming black metal, curving like the branches of trees in the heart of winter. Heavy oak doors, polished to a shine, towered before them, and Thor felt a sudden faint chill over his spirit. Loki twitched at his side as well; only Frigga seemed untouched.
She paused at last, however, and looked back at the two of them. She sighed, and her eyes softened.
"Oh, my boys," she said, a little more gently. "If you wish to turn back…I do not ask this of you."
"You do not have to," Loki said, his voice almost icy, and if Thor wished his delivery had been warmer, he could not disagree with the sentiment, and merely nodded. Frigga's eyes looked from him to Loki, lingered on his brother a moment longer, and then she walked to them and kissed both of their foreheads, the sensation strange.
"Then let us go to audience with Hel," she said, quietly, and they approached the doors together. Loki stepped forward, and Thor thought he looked pale, but his voice was clear and steady. "Lady Hel," he said, flawlessly formal. "Queen over the departed. I, Loki Odinson, seek your attendance on the matter of the All-Mother, Frigga Fjörgynnsdottir." There was a long silence, and no stirring from the doors. Loki went on, after a moment, "I have an offer for you."
The doors, slowly, creaked open. Thor felt a chill crawl down his spine and wished he might reach for Mjolnir, but he knew he could not. Not and fail to give grave insult to the woman – creature – whose help they sought.
Thor scrambled to remember what he knew of Hel, as a being. Not quite Aesir, he recalled, and yet not quite one of the Disir either. Something else. She ruled the dead – Helheim and Valhalla both – and all he could think of was old horror stories. Nothing more.
He looked to Frigga, but she, too, was impassive, though he thought he caught a line between her brows. Loki, for his part, strode forward through the widening gap between doors without hesitation, and Thor followed, though his feet felt heavy as he did so.
The hall around them seemed familiar. Sculpted in the same graceful arches of metal as outside, though the walls were smooth – stone, perhaps, but probably none such. Probably nothing Thor had a name for. He nearly stopped dead, the moment he registered what it was the hall reminded him of. The great hall in Asgard, the seat of Odin's throne.
"She mocks us," he growled, under his breath.
"Mocks, or honors?" Loki murmured, softly, but his eyes were fixed forward toward the end of the hall, where the mimicry of Hlidskjalf sprawled across the hall. It seemed to take a long time for them to traverse the distance, and the figure Thor could dimly make out seated there said nothing, all the while. Hairs prickling on the back of his neck, Thor imitated Loki and his mother, and looked forward, holding his silence.
He drew in a sharp breath as they halted before the throne, he and Frigga franking Loki to right and left. Seated on the throne was – naught but a child, small and skeletal, but barely out of her girlhood, too large dark eyes peering at them.
Loki swept an elegant bow that could have been flattery or mockery, and Thor would never have known which. "Lady of the dead."
"Your nice words ill disguise your intentions, Liesmith," said the girl, and Thor started again at her voice, which was that of a full-grown woman, and yet not, vibrating with something else. "You would have a favor of me."
"Not a favor," Loki said, straightening. "A bargain."
The girl shifted, and before Thor's eyes went from child to woman and back again, a flicker something like a vulture between. "What makes you think I would find any bargain more pleasing than the first you gave me?"
"An option no longer on the table," Loki said dismissively. "And besides…I think you will find my new terms sweeter."
"Will I." The vulture appeared again, talons flexing on that eerie mimic of Odin's seat, beak clacking. "Tell me why I should not simply rip the spellwork holding you together to shreds, and claim your brother's bright soul as well, Loki Odinson."
Thor felt his left hand clench, tensing, but Loki was already speaking. "Because," he said, "I am offering you my magic."
For a moment, Thor held his breath. The vulture became a woman again, her body soft and full and poorly covered, and then flickered toward a formless sort of shadow, and then the child. She leaned forward. "Is that so."
Loki raised his chin. "I will die, eventually, and you shall claim me then. Perhaps I shall die now. But either way – that power will be lost to you, will it not?" Thor watched those small hands flex, eerily like talons, and wondered if she could see the tension in Loki's shoulders as he could. His mouth felt dry. "But here I am." Loki spread his hands. "Offering it to you. Merely for the return of one small soul…for a time. As I am sure the All-Mother intends to return, when her time has run its course – naturally, and not by a Dark Elf's blade."
His voice was smooth as silk. Hel leaned back, however, her momentary eagerness fading. "And why should I have need of power?"
Loki laughed, sharp and sudden, and then blinked, though the expression seemed affected. "I am sorry, was that a serious question? Why should you not? You are powerful – I can feel that. But not powerful enough, I think. You have been bound." Thor thought the creature on the throne might have tensed. "You could have more. Did, once, perhaps. There are other dead than Asgard's – and to reach for them…"
Thor felt a shiver crawl down his spine. Frigga, he noticed, looked pale as well. If Loki was lying, he thought, desperately, if Loki was lying about anything…the consequences might well be very dire indeed.
Hel's eyes narrowed, and she was a man now, eerily like unto Loki. "And you would willingly sacrifice all of that," she said, "all of your birthright…for one woman, not even of your blood?" Loki easy demeanor wavered, and he glanced aside, as though hesitating. Thor felt doubt rise in his throat, and Hel leaned forward. "Would you not rather…bargain something else?"
Loki squared his shoulders, then, and his chin rose. Thor felt a peculiar ache in his chest. It was – such perfect simulacrum, of fear and then determination. He almost wondered if he ought to believe it or not. "Perhaps I would," Loki said, "but I will not. I was willing to give my life, to settle the debt that I owe." Loki's voice was clear, and certain. "This way I will still live – that is clear," he said, eyes sharpening. "You will leave me my life."
Hel's eyes narrowed. "Ah," she murmured. "Do you think you might gain back what was lost, in time?" Thor could not see the way Loki's face flickered, but he heard his breath catch, and Hel laughed, low and dark. "Well, well. And that shall be interesting to see."
A lie, Thor reminded himself, this is all part of the performance, but nonetheless he felt his skin tighten with unease, because Loki was playing this creature with such ease might he not as well be-
Hel slithered to her feet, and it was the child again, though her head kept flickering to that of a vulture and back in a way that made Thor faintly nauseous as she descended from the throne. "You are right," she said, after a few moments. "I do find your new offer…more intriguing. And truth be told…I would sooner see your chaos wrought further than end it now."
Loki's face was shuttered again, what Thor could see of it. "Do we have a bargain, then?"
"Not just yet." Hel's voice was like a whip crack. "Allow me to…taste the wares. In case of a trick, you understand." Dark, glassy eyes gleamed as they flicked, strangely enough, to Thor. "I am sure you will forgive me my skepticism."
"I could not do otherwise." Loki's voice did not waver, though Thor thought he saw his shoulders quiver, briefly. He tensed, hand moving toward his hammer. Taste the…what did that mean? "Go on, then, lady. I am your subject, in this realm."
Hel made a low hissing sound, entirely at odds with that childish form, and then the woman was there, and those fingers like talons curled over Loki's shoulders and pierced spirit-flesh.
The sound Loki made was barely audible, his head suddenly tossing back as his body jerked, and a small wisp of green rose, slowly, like a tendril unfurling from his throat. Thor jerked forward, but he froze in his steps as Loki moved, slowly and with what looked like pain, lowering his head and his mouth fixing to Hel's. Thor heard a greedy sound and looked away, shuddering, the urge surging through him to destroy that creature here and now and utterly.
It was over swiftly, however, Hel awfully a child once more and wiping her mouth, seeming almost to glow. Loki wavered for a moment, swaying, and even as Thor moved to steady to him he stepped forward, righting himself and taking himself out of Thor's reach in the same movement.
"To your satisfaction?" he said, voice raw. Thor glanced at Frigga, and found her face tight; with disgust, he thought, and worry.
"Yes," Hel said, almost purred. "I think so. Your magic for the woman who raised you, if not the one who birthed you."
"But not my life," Loki said. Hel waved a hand.
"I will have that sooner or later, as well." She lifted a hand, and Thor saw it was – bleeding, if that was the right word for the strange, shadowy substance that oozed from that undoubtedly false skin. "So, Loki Odinson."
Thor held his breath. Loki raised his eyebrows, but pulled out a knife and slashed his left palm without apparently wincing. "You know, of course," he murmured, "that this is not truly blood. I am not here in body."
"Nor is mine," Hel said, and Thor could see the glint in her eyes, of hunger and greed. "It will suffice. The gesture is the bond."
They clasped hands. "Then it is done," Loki said, solemnly, and Thor could just barely hear the faint triumph in his voice.
Hel's expression burst into an eerie grin. "Done," she said. "I would not expect such rank sentiment from you-"
Whatever happened, Thor could not tell, but Hel's expression flashed from glee to fury in a moment. Her hand tightened on Loki's visibly. "What have you done?" She hissed. "You swore-"
Thor moved, slowly, hand now on his hammer, so he could see Loki's eyes widen, his tone perfectly innocent. "Is something wrong?"
"I cannot-" Hel hissed, her hand tightening, and Thor could just see the lines start around Loki's mouth that suggested her grip was beginning to pain him. "Your magic is mine."
"That was the agreement," Loki said, calmly. Hel's face flashed from child to vulture to formless shadow to bear and back to child.
"Let him go," Thor rumbled.
"Oh," Hel said, ignoring him entirely. Her eyes narrowed. "I see. I see. You've linked it to your life force. You've bound your magic to your life." Vulture-bear-woman. "But I tasted-"
Loki smiled, faintly. "Easy enough to loosen the knot for a few moments." His eyes gleamed, and the satisfaction there was visible to Thor, made his heart pound in answer. "My magic, but not my life. That was the deal."
Hel bared her teeth and stepped back suddenly, releasing Loki's hand but only to raise both of hers and beginning to – expand. "If you think I haven't the power," she hissed, "to rip that knot away – it will not kill you immediately, and then I can watch you die as I strangle Odin's true son with your power."
Loki stumbled back, but it only took him a moment to take a defensive stance. "Admit it," he said. "You lost. Would you go back on your word?"
"Lying wretch," Hel hissed. "Cheating, foul-"
Thor pulled his hammer free, but Hel screamed and he couldn't move, was frozen and watching as the woman – no, beast, now, something vast and seething and not contained, reached for Loki with finger-talons and Loki's eyes widened, fear written on his features-
Thor felt the words vibrate in his bones, in his head, throughout his being. He imagined that the palace itself shook. Hel stilled, still formless, seething shadow.
"I have been cheated," she said.
Yes. Thor shivered. It was like something vast, pressing down on him, as though he were an insect as Loki had named the mortals, what seemed now a long time ago. But you cannot do this.
Hel hissed. "I require sacrifice."
There is much for that one still to do. Hel's eyes went to Thor and he felt his body try to shudder, but was still held perfectly still. And for that one as well. This is not a choice. This is the will. A female voice, Thor thought. Or perhaps – three. He could feel tears leaking from his eyes, his head aching. You gambled, Hel of the dead, and you lost.
"He cheated," Hel said, almost seeming to whine, but she was shrinking, back into a form more recognizable. "Lied-"
We recognize the deal as fair. You were greedy, and moved too swiftly. Release the All-Mother. Hate seethed on those strange features, and Hel hesitated. Thor felt the world vibrate. Now.
Silence, and then, barely audible, "fine."
The pressure vanished, and Thor staggered. Hel stood, back in her child's body, her eyes fixed on Loki and full of loathing – though Thor found almost equal part spared for himself.
"I hold my word," she said, at length. "Even when others do not. Take Asgard's Queen and go."
Loki looked jittery, and wide-eyed, and like he might fall over, but he bowed nonetheless. "My lady is gracious," he said, voice almost even. Thor had to be impressed.
Hel's eyes cut back to him. "I am not finished with you, Liesmith," she said. "As you observed – you must die eventually. And then there will be no protectors between you and my wrath. I will devour your soul and leave you to be digested, screaming, for a thousand years." Her face twisted. "That if I do not find a way to revenge myself upon you before then."
Loki's face went a little pale, and Thor stepped toward him. "You shall not lay hands on my brother," he said, stolidly.
Hel's eyes flicked to him. "Have a care, Odinson. You cannot stop me. And if you get in my way, I may consider you one of my targets." Her eyes flicked to Frigga, who had stepped up to Loki's other side. "And you…"
"Let us go," Frigga said, quietly. "I do not think the Norns will be so forgiving a second time."
"The Norns?" Thor said, incredulously, and was at least grateful that Loki seemed as bewildered as he did.
"Begone, then," Hel said, and turned her back. "Do not come here again."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Thor heard Loki drawl, as Hel flicked her fingers and Thor was lost in the dizzying sensation of falling.
He woke as from a dream, with the sun in his eyes and stone on his back, and sat up hurriedly with a cry of, "Loki!" His brother was crumpled a few feet away, on the other stone circle, curled around his middle and unmoving. Thor felt a rush of terror, his heart seized, and he lunged, rolling Loki to his back, reaching for the sluggishly bleeding wound-
Loki's eyes burst open with a gasp and even as fresh blood bloomed Thor felt flesh close, and then Loki fell limply back, his eyes closed and breathing hard. One of his hands covered his eyes. "Loki," Thor said, more worriedly.
"I am fine," Loki said, though his voice sounded a little faint. "—I think. Do not…mmm. Do not offer yourself to the queen of the dead, Thor. I do not recommend it."
Thor laughed, though shakily, and he reached for Loki's arm and clasped it as if to reassure himself that he was still alive. For a moment, he had thought – had been certain… "It worked, though," Thor said. "Or at least – I think-"
He looked around the hillside, but there was no one there but them. Loki pushed him off and set up, frowning. "Frigga?" he said, sounding uncertain.
"Where is she?" Thor asked, hearing the sharp note in his own voice. "Where-"
He heard a quiet sound, like a knob turning, and both of their eyes snapped to the handleless door, still closed. Thor held his breath even as he scrambled to his feet, reaching for Mjolnir though his heart was pounding with hope.
The door opened.
Frigga had to bow her head to step through, but she did step through, her smile warm and relieved, seeking out first one and then the other of them. One hand lifted to shade her eyes from the sun. Loki was still just sitting, staring at her blankly, and Thor dropped Mjolnir to the ground, his heart feeling so big it might burst his chest.
"Mother," He said, faintly.
"Boys," Frigga said, with a small, fond smile.
Thor flung himself forward, wrapping his arms around her waist to lift her off her feet and spin her around. Frigga started and then laughed, her hands giving his shoulders a squeeze only to return the gesture the moment he set her down, as though Thor were still a child. He could feel the strength in her arms, the heart beating in her chest, the warmth of her skin. She was alive, and he felt so much that he didn't know what to say, could just feel tears leaking down his cheeks with relief.
He turned, and found Loki staring at them, a strange look on his face, somewhere between envy and longing. He pushed himself to his feet the moment he noticed Thor looking, turning away to mask his face. "Well," he said. "That is done, and I hope-"
Thor meant to move, but Frigga beat him to it, releasing Thor only to sweep Loki up in just the same way, her arms wrapped around him too tightly for Loki to wriggle free. "My boy," she said, "my boys – the both of you are so brave and so-" She shook her head, and laughed, bright and joyful. "And so unbearably bone-headed at times. Oh, the sun…" She lifted her face to it, basking.
"All-Mother," Loki said, his voice strained.
"Loki," Frigga said, her voice hardening a notch. "Do not. Deny whatever else you will, but do not deny me. You and your brother marched into Valhalla and challenged Hel herself for me. If I must worry for you, and fear the vengeance she may take for your – recklessness, you will let me do so as your mother."
Thor waited, feeling his shoulders tense, but then he saw Loki waver, and melt, just slightly. "Mother," he said, then, and his voice cracked. "I am – I am-"
"I know, love. I know. Thor," Frigga said, softly, and Thor came over, obediently. She unwrapped one of her arms from Loki and wrapped it around him instead, so she was holding both of them, one in each arm, just as when they were children. "My sons. My boys."
Loki pulled away first, of course. He drew back, one hand swiping at his eyes in what failed to be a careless gesture. "We cannot – we cannot stay here forever," he said. "Frigga…mother…you need to go home. And Thor has those waiting for him as well."
Thor frowned. "Would you force us apart so soon, again?"
Loki tensed. "What else shall we do? Force mother to keep us from one another's throats? I do not wish to burden her with that, do you?"
"Perhaps," Frigga said, a little coolly, "you should let me determine what I am to be burdened with."
Loki's lips pressed together. "Nonetheless," he said. "The question remains. What do you intend to do with me?"
Thor had not been able to think about it. Or perhaps had not wished to. But one thing was clear to him. "You did not run."
Loki's eyes skated away from him. "I could not, clearly, as you awoke before I did. It would be difficult to vanish while you were watching me. And I wished to see that all the trial had not been for naught." Thor let his face speak his doubt, and Loki snorted, still not looking at him. "That is not an answer."
Thor looked to Frigga, but she shook her head, slightly. This is yours, she mouthed. Thor took a deep breath. His responsibility to Asgard – a throne he had abdicated. His responsibility to his father. His responsibility to Loki.
Everything Loki had done to get them here.
What he might have given up. What he had been willing to risk.
"If you wish to go," Thor said, quietly, "I will not stop you."
Loki's eyes flashed to him, sharp and surprised. Thor wondered what he had expected, and thought with a pang that perhaps he did not want to know what worst his brother had expected of him.
"You will – simply let me go free?" Loki said, sounding incredulous. "After I usurp the throne of Asgard – after I let you believe I was dead –"
"After you helped me bring our mother back," Thor said, still quiet. "After you saved my life, twice over on this journey alone." Thor took a deep breath. "When you are ready…when you are ready, we will speak."
Loki's eyes narrowed. "And if I am never ready?"
Thor felt his heart ache, but he bowed his head, made himself acknowledge that possibility. "Then…then you are never ready," he made himself say. He lifted his eyes, and found Loki staring at him, eyebrows furrowed, looking uncertain. Like he didn't know what to do with this offering, freely given.
"Thor," Loki said, but then stopped. He blinked, once more, and then turned to Frigga. "All-Mother – mother…"
"You know I will find you," she said, "wherever you go." She drew him into an embrace. "And you can find me. Always. I will not be far."
"You do not dispute your son's choice?" Loki said, sounding so painfully unsure.
"No," Frigga said. "I will not." Her arms tightened. "But…be careful, love. Hel is a dangerous enemy. And her reach is…longer than you might think."
"I have no wish," Loki mumbled softly, "to court death again so soon." He pulled back, and took a step away from them both, looking between them.
"Be well, Loki," Thor said, though his throat felt thick. "Wherever your paths take you." And please, he choked down, please come back to me, eventually.
Loki swallowed, visibly, and for a moment Thor thought he might say something, but then the edges of his form flickered and he was gone, a swallow flitting away over the hills, across Midgard. Thor watched it until even his eyes could make it out no longer, and it was swallowed up in the deepening sky.
His eyes stung, and he felt selfish. Here he was, with his mother, alive, and he was thinking of the one thing he could not have.
Frigga seemed to hear the direction of his thoughts, and her touch was light on his cheek as she turned his eyes to her face. "Thor," she said, softly. "Oh, Thor."
He smiled, even with his eyes stinging, and it was not difficult. All he had to do was breathe in the familiar smell of her. "What – what will father think," he asked. "What will you tell him?"
"The truth," Frigga said, "what else?" Though Thor thought he could see a sparkle in her eyes, so much like Loki's. His eyes flicked to the sky, and her fingers on his face brought him back to her, again. Sheepish guilt welled up in him.
"I am sorry-"
"Hush," Frigga said, quiet but firm. "What you just did, Thor…"
He felt a quaver of fear. "Was I wrong?"
"No," said Frigga at once, and then more forcefully, "No. No, Thor." She rested her forehead against his, and smiled. "You've grown up so much, Thor. Into a strong young man, yes, but also a good one. I have seen you come into your own, these past years – and I know I will only continue to see you do so." One of her hands stroked his hair. "Loki will come back to you, someday."
Thor's eyes prickled. "Mother," he said, softly.
"Thor, my son," Frigga said, and both her hands cupped his face, her eyes intent and warm and certain. "I am so, so proud of you."
Thor felt himself crack. The tears spilled over, and he flung himself into Frigga's embrace, and cried on her shoulder on a Midgardian hill. The skies burst open and it began to rain on them both, a light spring rain, dusting their hair, and neither of them moved to let go.
Thor slept for weeks upon his return.
He woke to eat, and to relieve himself, but mostly he slept, crashed snoring in the bed he and Jane shared. He was wearier than he had realized.
He told her what she needed to know – that Frigga was returned, that Loki was gone, though little more than that. He felt a twinge of guilt to keep it from her, but he was still not certain how to speak of most of it. He gave the Avengers much the same answer, and ignored their visible dissatisfaction.
Frigga came to visit the flat in London, and Jane stared at her, pale and wide eyed, until Frigga remarked that she did not recall Dr. Foster being quite so quiet, and then she flushed and was all questions, awkward and vague and uncertain. Frigga was patient, as always.
"Have you spoken to Loki?" Thor asked her, when they were alone.
She gave him a long look, and then said, "If I had, then he would likely have asked to keep our conversations private," and that was answer enough. At least, Thor thought, Loki spoke to someone, if not him. At least he was entirely not alone, wandering who knew where, with a vengeful death goddess waiting for him.
It still ached, though, and he regretted it, sometimes. That he had let Loki go, when he had had the chance to hold him. Even knowing that nothing could hold Loki for long when he did not want to be held – some part of him wished he had tried. Knew that now – he might never see his brother again.
The months passed. Loki did not cause any trouble – or at least none that Thor heard about. Jane continued her work, of which he only understood bits and pieces, but loved to listen to nonetheless, because it brightened her eyes. Frigga told him that Odin was well – angry, at first, but that she had convinced him to leave well enough alone.
That her presence had gone a long way toward mending at least some of the harm Loki had done – and not done. "He was not an incapable ruler," Frigga confided to him. "And some of the changes he made…I think Odin may have to allow, however reluctantly, were for the better."
Thor wondered, always, where Loki was. What he might be doing, at any given moment. What he thought about.
Did he consider their journey, as Thor did? Did he smile, at any of it?
Did he shiver, the way Thor did, at the looming shadow that was Hel's threats?
Thor tried to resign himself to the idea that he might never know. But as he had told Loki, once, surrender was not in his nature, and he struggled with it. With the reminder to himself that he had to give Loki time, and space, and who knew how much of either.
Spring turned to summer. In late July, Jane was away at a conference that he had declined an invitation to. He had been able to sense that she was getting tetchy, and he knew that he had – been what Darcy called 'clingy' of late. He knew the source of it, as well, and judged it best that, perhaps, they both take some time – he to sort himself out, at least as much as he could.
He was watching some foolish Midgardian saga involving many cars and explosions as he ate from a Styrofoam container of delicious noodles, and barely heard the knock on the door.
The second time, he did hear it, and stood up without turning off the movie, expecting Darcy Lewis, or perhaps her male companion. He opened the door, half distracted.
Loki's gaze swept over him from head to foot, taking him in, distinctly less than impressed. "Ah," he said, "so I do have the right apartment."
Thor hastened to grab the remote and silence the movie, returning in a flash. "Loki," he said, trying not to sound breathless. "What – is there some – is mother-"
Loki's expression twitched, strangely. "No," he said, "no, everything is fine. I don't know if your alarm at my appearance should be flattering or…otherwise."
Thor felt his whole body relax. "And you?" he added, after an awkward moment. Loki flipped a dismissive hand, but looked away. He seemed…Thor realized, suddenly. He seemed uneasy. Uncertain. Tense and wary.
"I have been better. I have been worse."
Thor spoke carefully, fearful of chasing Loki away, like the swallow he'd become back on that hillside. "Will you come inside?"
Loki was silent. He hovered, like a cormorant on the precipice of a cliff, poised to dive.
"Loki," Thor said, softly. "Why are you here?"
"I think…" Loki paused. He took a breath and shifted again, visibly composed himself. His eyes closed, and then opened. A thousand small gestures in the space of one moment, and then gone, and Loki raised his chin and looked Thor in the eye, and if it was almost defiant he could read fear there, too – but mostly determination. Resolve.
"I am ready."