So, this fic was born of me thinking...

...we all know what a massive system shock everything during the first "Thor" movie must have been for Loki, right? We see all that he goes through and everything that changes for him and we can totally get why he'd crack and try to murder all the Jotun, right? A quantifiably repugnant thing to try and do, but we see the journey that led him to that point.

Thor had none of that knowledge.

Can you imagine just how awful his confrontation with Loki must have been, because Thor had no idea why it was happening? As far as he knew, his little brother just one day out of the blue decided to set the Destroyer on him. His little brother just one day out of the blue went nuts. And so Thor is desperately trying to reach him and reassure him even as he has to stop him, because *Thor doesn't understand* and there's no time for anyone to explain it to him until too late.

Thor doesn't get told until he thinks Loki is already dead that Loki was a Jotun. When he's been proudly declaring since he was a child that he's going to subjugate and kill the Jotun, and if back then he meant it to comfort Loki. Knowing what Loki was, *his parents let him say that*. Knowing what Loki was, his parents still told him those stories and taught him, in all these little ways, to hate his brother's people and so hate his brother. And Thor bought into all of it.

That must have been *horrifying beyond reason* to grapple with right on the heels of Loki's death. I mean, I love Frigga. We all love Frigga. I even loved the first movie's portrayal of Odin. I can think of plenty of reasons - good, well-meaning reasons - why they would never have told Loki and Thor the truth. Like Dumbledore in Harry Potter, they valued his happiness too much to shake up his world like that until the choice was taken out of their hands. It was too easy to continue on as they always had. But there is a difference between what is right and what is easy, even if that difference sometimes only comes with 20/20 hindsight and grief to fuel everything you're saying.

A lot of religion wound up bleeding into this. I guess I'm not entirely surprised - Norse culture in general does fascinate me, even if in general Marvel wouldn't know the myths if they danced naked in front of them wearing a tea cozy. But where they don't actually blatantly contradict one another, sometimes it can be interesting to try and see how they mesh. And it was interesting, trying to write Thor grappling with these big questions that I don't know if he would have ever had to confront before. But he would have had to confront them after all of this, and I think he would, for Loki's sake.

It was an unfortunate side effect of being Queen that Frigga was often the last to know of her husband's actions, especially when those actions took place abroad. She was in hiding on Alfheim when news came that the war had finally been ended, Laufey and his army brought to heel and peace won after a long and bloody battle. The news came to her through visitors from Asgard to Alfheim courtesy of messengers from Jotunheim, and they brought half a dozen different version of the tale. There would be a great deal to do in the days to come – relocating back to Asgard, seeing their support troops settled back in their homes and jobs, searching for prisoners and tending to wounded and assessing damages and drawing up treaties. For the moment, however, she allowed herself to merely be happy with Thor, at the thought of Odin finally coming home.

Her only son was so giddy with excitement at the prospect that getting him to sleep that night was a mighty effort in its own right. In the end, Frigga relented, allowing Thor to stay up as late as he could. He was asleep within the hour, curled up next to her with his head pressed against her leg. Frigga sat with him, stroking his hair gently, until the sound of armored movement and murmuring voices from outside caught her waiting senses.

Frigga gently eased Thor aside enough to stand without disturbing him. She also grabbed the knife she kept on the bedside table, flipping it into a stabbing grip before stealing towards the window to peer out. It had been a long war, after all.

Her fears were finally for nothing, however. It was only her husband outside, apparently dismissing the last of his escort. "If a Frost Giant attacks me between here and the front door, we will all have bigger problems," he was saying gruffly. "I would see my wife, and I would not have company while I do. Go and sleep. Tomorrow will bring more complicated matters for us all."

They obeyed, of course, bidding him good night with all courtesies due their Allfather and general. With a clatter of armor, the Einherjar turned and walked down the road and back into the night, towards the city proper. Odin watched them go for a long while, until the sound of Frigga opening the front door drew him back to the world and he turned to face her.

Frigga sucked in a breath sharply, one hand moving unconsciously to cover her mouth. Not for the first time, although as always only in her head, she cursed the fact that she was so often the last to know of some things. Like the presence of the thick white dressing covering Odin's eye, visible beneath his helmet.

"Don't," Odin said gently, drawing nearer. There were so many things to talk about. So many things to be done. Frigga allowed herself a moment, just to focus on the state of her husband instead. A moment to stop being strong and to just grieve for the state of him, even as he carefully and gently pried her hand away from her mouth long enough to kiss her. "A fine price to pay for peace. I will heal."

"You always do," she murmured softly in reply. Then, drawing upon centuries of practice, Frigga made herself smile – it wasn't as though she didn't have anything to be happy about, however. Odin could certainly have returned in a far sorrier state than this. What was an eye, to one who could see all things from his throne? "Welcome home, dear." She allowed herself the familiarity that could only be with solitude, and was gratified when doing so made him smile just a bit. "Thor has missed you."

"And I him." He chuckled, the sound fond and warm and all the sweeter for being so much missed. "I am amazed you were able to get him to sleep at all, the news being what it is."

"He has a willing spirit, but his flesh still needs a while to catch up." She laughed with him, feeling her heart swell with love for her child. It was true that going into hiding had been a lonely existence, for all its necessity. It had only made her more grateful for Thor's presence to brighten her long days.

Odin's expression grew somber once more, however, and he shifted something in his arms. Attention caught, Frigga looked and saw that it was some sort of wrapped bundle. Some sort of…moving wrapped bundle.

"Before he awakes," said Odin, very quietly. "There are things we must discuss."

He twitched the blanket aside, and Frigga gasped aloud to see a baby revealed beneath, blinking owlishly at the world around it.

"What is the meaning of this?" she asked, her voice somehow hushed, her gaze remaining on the child even as she directed her question to Odin.

"I found him. After the battle." Odin's voice was heavy and somber, betraying memories unsaid she knew he would never speak aloud no matter her prodding. "I…wish to raise him as our own, Frigga. He deserves as much."

Of course, it was not unheard of, for lords or other highborn to take in the foundling children of loyal subjects. That was exactly the scenario Frigga leapt to, as she reached out to take the child into her arms. Odin surrendered him happily. He'd never been good at holding children which was, she suspected, the reason for the thorough swaddling of blankets covering it.

The baby squirmed as he was passed over, struggling to focus on her with bleary green eyes. His expression crumpled slightly, in the way babies had when they were about to cry. Moving with a mother's instincts, Frigga set to work rocking him gently, shushing him softly, and his expression quieted once more.

"Whose child is he?" she asked, gently stroking the fine black strands already growing on his head. She expected to hear the names of one of Odin's personal guard or vassals, one of the old families that had marched to war with him. She most certainly did not expect what her husband said instead.


Frigga's gaze snapped up to meet his, eyes wide, stomaching tightening. In a mad moment, she was sure she must have misheard him. Because here was a child that seemed perfectly Asgardian, if rather worryingly frail and stunted for how old he seemed to be when she tugged some of the blankets loose to get a better look. Here was a child that would draw the nurse's worry in her own kingdom, and Odin was claiming…

Odin stepped forward, and laid a gloved hand on the child's forehead, murmuring a few words. Frigga stared down at the baby, in time to see blue spreading forth over his skin where Odin touched him, deep cobalt blue replacing pale pink, smoothness replaced with fine, ridged lines. The milky green eyes turned red. In the space of a few seconds, by the hand of a magic so subtle that even she barely felt it, Frigga was indeed holding a tiny Jotun baby in her arms.

He blinked up at her, blearily, his expression furrowing as though puzzled. Then, as though sensing her confusion, her disbelief, her distress, the baby let out a whine of distress, flailing his arms helplessly a moment. Frigga felt whatever had defensively seized up inside her melt at the sight. "Shh," she murmured gently, rocking him once more and feeling deeply, piercingly ashamed of herself. Asgard and Jotunheim had not always been at war, after all. There had been times when their peoples had interacted peacefully, even pleasantly, and it had not been so long ago that she had any excuse to forget. "It's all right, baby, it's all right."

Odin took his hand away, and that same, shimmer change happened, this time in reverse, until once again she was carrying a tiny, overtired Asgardian baby. Frigga looked up at her husband sternly, eyes narrowed. "Why do you keep doing that to him?"

"I am not," Odin said, sounding tired. "He is doing it to himself."

That was impossible, of course, and yet when Frigga reflexively turned her other senses towards the child, she realized that her husband was right. This was not her husband's magic changing the child's very species as easily as a cloud passing across the sun. It was the baby's own power – uncontrolled, of course, but shining with such bright potential that she had rarely seen in any three times his age.

"And Laufey allowed you to take him?" Frigga asked quietly, resolved to merely working down the list of everything wrong with this situation. Not that it was the child's fault, of course. In fact, at the thought of the trip he must have taken – harrowing enough for a grown man – Frigga felt her heart ache with sympathy for him. When had he last slept? Or eaten?

"He did. He left the child to die on a rock outside his castle walls. A runt, as you can plainly see. Hard to care for in the most prosperous of times, for whatever Jotunheim considers prosperous. And those will be a long time coming again."

Odin reached out to carefully brush his fingers along the side of the baby's face. His one remaining eye bore such a sadness that even Frigga could hardly bear to see it. "I decided I had seen enough dead giants, Frigga."

Frigga sighed quietly. She knew how this was going to go, of course. There was no other way it could. Yet, she had to ask. She had to say these things, because she was Odin's wife as well as his Queen and it was her duty to remind him of such matters when he apparently took leave of his senses for the best possible causes. "They will never accept him. Taking a Jotun into our home so soon after the war? Even a child? There will be an outcry. Unless…" And here her eyes narrowed, already feeling fierce stirrings of protectiveness in her chest. "…you mean him to be a hostage?"

"He would make a poor one if I did. No, Frigga. I mean him to be our son. Perhaps Jotunheim's King, one day, when he is old enough to know the truth. It is his birthright, if he wishes to claim it. But our child, as much as Thor is."

Frigga nodded her firm satisfaction. "Good."

"Most of Asgard has not seen you since the war began. If we claim that you kept the pregnancy hidden, they will believe us."

"Will they?" Frigga asked, raising her eyebrows and twirling a few strands of the baby's black hair through her fingers.

"I am their Allfather," Odin said grimly. "They will believe."

And that seemed to be that. Frigga certainly wasn't going to turn the child aside, and Odin knew she wasn't. He started off towards the door, she remained a moment longer where she was, tugging the blankets back around the baby. The warmth of them, the warmth of her, seemed to soothe him. Strange for a Jotun, perhaps, but could such a tiny body stand up to the cold of the world even if it did belong to a Jotun?

Even as she gazed down at him, the baby gave a tiny yawn and his eyes fluttered closed.

"Have you named him?" Frigga called back softly to Odin.

She heard his footsteps stop. She heard him take a deep breath.

"Loki," he said at last. "The one thing Laufey deigned to give him. I thought he should be allowed to keep it."

Frigga nodded her acceptance. Loki. It was as good a name as any.

"What of his mother?" she asked, turning to follow her husband up the path to the house.

"I do not know. Laufey did not say."

Dead, perhaps? In the fighting, or the chaos that came after? Had she agreed to abandon her child that seemed to have so little hope of surviving, or did she have any idea of what had happened to him at all?

Was that why this child seemed to settle so easily into her arms? If he'd never known his own mother, after all, why should it matter to him that she didn't even share his true face? She was here and willing to hold him, soothe him, feed him…and, for a baby, wasn't that really all that mattered?

Either way, this baby had obviously chosen her to be his mother, whatever had happened to the one who birthed him. So what could Frigga do in turn, but choose him to be her son?

So resolved, she turned back to the house, and the explanations that would already await her. She saw coming through the door that Thor was already awake, gone from sleepiness to exuberance in his usual record time. He had his arms as far around his father as he could go and was chattering happily at him, attempting to tell through a tongue that only newly grasped speech just all that had happened to them since his father had been away.

Thor looked up, however, at the sound of Frigga closing the door behind him. Frigga, in turn, looked down at her oldest son – no longer her one and only – bright-eyed and fair-haired, healthy and strong and growing, despite the hardships he'd already had to face in life.

She looked down at the sleeping baby in her arms, misty-eyed and dark of hair, small and weak from neglect, but alive all the same. A testament to the tenacity of life in his own right.

"Thor," said Frigga, smiling gently, kneeling down carefully and beckoning him near. "There's someone here to meet you."

That had been a long time ago.

Her two sons had charged off to the Bifrost, Thor pursuing Loki and Loki pursuing whatever desperate ambitions had taken root inside his mind in the wake of the shock that had been discovering his true heritage. A discovery he should have made a long time ago, but that Odin and Frigga were together mutually guilty in delaying. Telling themselves to wait another year. Telling themselves that he wasn't ready. Asking just what was the harm in letting him go untroubled by that harsh truth a little while longer? What was the difference, after all, when he had only ever been their child and they his family, regardless of blood?

Too late, as always, their mistake came harshly to light.

Frigga didn't know why she remembered that night, now of all times, as she struggled to keep the castle in order and prevent a panic spreading. Much as she would have given anything to be able to charge off to the Bifrost after her husband, after her children, she had to trust that Odin would make things right, that together with Thor they could reach Loki and bring him back from the brink he was teetering on. She, in the meantime, had other responsibilities, other duties, as a Queen besides those of a mother.

Deep down, however, she knew the truth. It was just a truth she desperately tried to hide from. Everyone with magic had the potential for prophecy. The clarity of their foresight depended on their strength, and Frigga knew it was not arrogance to claim that there were few stronger than her in Asgard. Her vision of the past was a herald of the future.

So her choice to remain was one that would ultimately haunt her the rest of her life. Deep down, Frigga knew what to expect, but that didn't make the sight of her husband returning with only one child on his shoulder any easier to bear.

Frigga met them at the gates, having been alerted of their return. Her gaze strained as they drew near for any sign of Loki, took in the injuries that had battered Thor, the way her husband's shoulders bowed under a weight above and beyond Thor's and his gaze seemed glued to the ground until he looked up and saw her waiting.

"Loki?" Frigga asked quietly, her voice so quiet and so trembling that she barely recognized it as her own. Even if she knew the truth, she had to hear. If she didn't…she knew she would never stop hoping.

"He fell," said Odin, those two words falling more heavily than the footsteps of giants.

"No," said Thor, and his voice broke even on that one word. He stared up at Frigga, and she saw then that he was in tears. "He let go. I was holding on to him and he let go, Mother, I don't understand…"

Loki was dead. Neither of them could bring themselves to say the word aloud, but it was true. No, more than that. Worse than that. Loki was not only dead, Loki had killed himself. Taken his own life rather than carry on as he was.

Frigga felt as though the world was shattering around her, breaking into razor sharp fragments that sliced at her with every move she made. She couldn't see, and it took her a long second to realize that it was because of gathering tears. She couldn't breathe, the air just wasn't getting to her lungs no matter how she gasped.

Loki was dead. Her child was dead and yet she was still alive, even though her heart might as well have been ripped from her chest. How was that good or right or fair, when she could have, should have been there to save him?

"No," Frigga whispered. She was a queen, and as a queen expected to maintain her composure no matter the difficulty or hardship. But damn it all, she was also a mother, and what mother could endure in the face of this loss? "Loki, no…"

Frigga slumped to her knees with a sob. She was only dimly aware of Thor kneeling before her until he reached out his arms, and then she moved on instinct, enfolding her remaining son in a fierce embrace as though to spare him from his brother's fate by force of will alone. Thor was weeping openly, his shoulders shaking with sobs, torn open from loss just as she was. Frigga held him close and let him cry, because if there was anyone else who must be grieving harder than her, it was him.

Loki might have crumbled under the weight of the truth…but Thor had never known it. Never known just why his brother had gone desperate and mad, why he had been so seized with despair beneath that he would be willing to take his own life rather than bear it. Their family had fallen apart in his exile, and Thor had come back to the wreckage.

No more lies. No longer. She might be too late to save one son, but she could at least do right by the other.

Odin and Frigga had something to tell him. Thor had absolutely no idea just what they could say that would make a difference, but all the same, he allowed himself to be led to Odin's chambers and sat down, ready to at least try and listen.

His hands were shaking, and Thor had a sneaking suspicion that the only reason he wasn't crying any longer was that he'd exhausted his tears. He couldn't bring himself to look at them – to look at anything, really. Everything in the world around him seemed to be…mocking him with the fact that Loki wasn't there anymore. Would never be there again.

In front of him sat his mother and his father. Frigga sat in a chair, and Odin leaned against the wall beside his bed, still shimmering with its protective enchantments. Neither one of them could seem to look at one another, or him. Once the silence had stretch on almost to the point of feeling like it would snap, however, Frigga found her voice at last.

"The first thing you must know, Thor, is that…" Frigga closed her eyes, took a breath that shuddered like a leaf in a gale. Her hands were shaking where they were clenched in her lap, just as his were. "No matter the love we…we bore Loki, no matter how we always tried to raise him as our own son, as your true brother…the fact remains that he was never ours' by blood, as you are."

Thor's ears were ringing. He felt the world crystallizing around him, ready to shatter with one more push. His mind was struggling to grapple with what he was hearing, just as she was obviously struggling to say it, both made sluggish and clumsy and slow by exhaustion and grief. In the end, however, Thor marshaled himself and managed to say the word that was simultaneously so impossible and yet explained so much.

"Adopted. You adopted him."

Frigga nodded.

Thor sighed, bringing up a hand to cover his eyes in a vain attempt to massage away the pain blossoming behind them. Despite himself, his mind was already racing, digesting, trying to fit this revelation into his world.

"You always said he looked like your brother," Thor finally said, looking up at Odin now. Even as children, he and Loki hadn't failed to notice how little they looked alike, even if they'd grown not to notice or care. He suspected now that few others must have missed it, and that they'd only kept quiet because the Allfather claimed Loki as his blood, and so that was that. When the two children had asked their father why, however, Odin had merely smiled, and sat them both down, and told them stories of his brothers, dead long ago in an ancient war. Dark-haired, clever Cul, fair-haired and valiant Vili and Vi. Blood worked in mysterious ways, but he looked at the two of them and saw his brothers alive again, and was so, so proud of them.

"He did," said Odin heavily. Thor couldn't discern the emotions in his one remaining eye. "That made things…simpler."

"But there is more to it than that," Frigga interjected. She had taken a moment to compose herself, and was sitting square and tall, now. "Loki was not just not of our blood, Thor. Loki was not even Asgardian."

"What do you mean?" The truth that Loki was adopted had been a shock, so much so that it was still hard to breathe, to think, to move. But not being Asgardian. "What else could he be?" Thor found himself smiling tremulously, because this had to be a joke. Vanir? A particularly tall dwarf? This had to be a joke, this all had to be a joke, what…


And then the world shattered.

"Jotun?" Thor demanded, disbelieving, appalled, and then appalled at himself for being appalled because this was Loki, except it couldn't be. "He's barely six feet tall! His eyes are green! He…"

Then Thor realized that, in his shock, he'd started speaking as if Loki was still alive. As though he were merely a few rooms away, and Thor should stop shouting lest he overhear this terrible impossibility, rather than worlds away and out of reach forever.

Thor slumped back into his seat with a groan like a death rattle. He hadn't even realized until then that he'd surged to his feet.

It hit him, suddenly, like one of his own lightning bolts. What sort of magic did his mother specialize in? What sorts of magic had Loki specialized in?"

"He was a runt, in their eyes," said Odin flatly. "A small giant is not so different from a tall Asgardian."

"And left to die alone because of it, as a baby," Frigga continued on. "Unaware, perhaps, that he had the power even then to disguise himself. He did, when we took him in. He made himself look like us as though it were the simplest thing in the world, without a word." Her expression crumbled. Tears gathered in her eyes, and her voice broke on a swallowed-back sob. "We were his people. We always were. But something must have…happened, when the two of you journeyed to Jotunheim. Something to make him suspect." She was speaking now like water tumbling over rocks, as though now that she had started it was impossible to stop. "I told him the truth. How could I not? To see him looking at himself as if he were an insect, a monster. I had to stop him from hurting himself. I thought he could bear it until we could manage together, as a family, I thought…"

"And why do you think he looked at himself that way?"

Thor barely recognized the sound of his own voice, but he did recognize the emotion suddenly smoldering in his heart. Even if he'd never dreamed before this night that he could feel such indignant rage on behalf of a Jotun.

What a fool he'd been.

"Why should he think of himself any other way, when you told us those stories?" Thor had never spat a word with more venom than he did then. "He…he used to cry, in the nights, for dreams of giants catching and devouring him. Even when you made us get separate rooms, for years he would come to my bed rather than sleep alone. He would dream of being lost and alone on Jotunheim, crying for us, and I would tell him…"

Thor pressed a hand to his mouth, because the words, the truth of them, burned his throat like poison. His eyes stung and blurred with memories and tears, and when he forced himself to speak again, to suffer that poison on Loki's behalf, his voice broke on a sob. "…I would kill any giants that tried to take him from me. I would slay all the Jotun so no one would have to fear any more. Oh, Norns, and you let me say those things to him!"

"Promise?" Loki asked quietly, staring up at Thor like he was the mightiest warrior in all the Nine Realms.

"Promise," Thor replied firmly, as he finished tucking his blankets firmly around his little brother. Once he was done, he ruffled Loki's hair in that way his little brother always pretended to hate before he wound up giggling, and was not disappointed. "Now go to sleep, you fool. I'll keep you safe. And we have class in the morning."

No wonder Loki had tried to kill him. Loki should have been able to turn to him for help, but how could he have thought to do so, with those words weighing on his mind? With those promises of reassurance and safety turned sour? Of course, Thor wouldn't have hurt his brother even if he'd known, he would have reassured him as he had then…

…wouldn't he? If Loki had come to him, had revealed the truth out of nowhere, how would he have reacted? As he should have, with understanding and support? With rethinking his opinion of the giants, knowing that he had spent his life with one held close to his side? Or with rage at a trick, a deception, a replacement of his real brother with a monster?

In that moment, Thor didn't know.

He was suddenly, piercingly sure that he was going to be sick. Dimly, Thor was aware of both their parents calling out for him, but he didn't look at them. He just stumbled to his feet, hand clasped over his mouth, and stumbled for the doors. They didn't stop him from flinging them open hard enough to bang heavily against the wall so he could stumble out into the hallways, into the castle echoing at every step with the reminder that he was alone, now.

If he stretched and strained his memory back, Thor could just barely recall a hazy memory of standing on tiptoes to stare up at a tiny little creature sleeping in his mother's arms. "But he's so small! How can he be my brother when he's such a weakling?" All the same, he kept his voice at a whisper, not wanting to disturb the little thing.

"You were this small once, Thor. All creatures are. Loki is only a baby. He needs time to grow up as big and strong as you. And we must keep him safe until he does." Frigga reached down and gently stroked the baby's cheek. Thor watched with baited breath, still scarcely able to believe that there could exist anything so fragile and soft. He almost didn't look real. If it wasn't for the way he shifted slightly in the blankets, the way his thin chest rose and fell with breath, he might have been just a toy.

Fascinated, Thor reached out a hand as well, only remembering just in time to look up at his mother and make sure it was okay.

"Be gentle," she warned him, soft but stern. Thor nodded, even as he felt his hand start to shake with the heavy weight of responsibility. All the same, he swallowed down his anxiousness, and patted the baby softly on the head. He…Loki…didn't break when Thor touched him, which was good. Thor's relief was short-lived, however, as the baby's expression crumpled and scrunched in confusion, and he scarcely dared to breathe as the baby…his brother…opened watery green eyes to blink muzzily at the world around him.

Thor was absolutely sure that Loki was going to cry – that was what babies did, wasn't it? Loki certainly seemed sure that he was about to cry. At the last moment, however, he didn't. At the last moment, his gaze found Thor's, and instead, Loki merely…looked at him. Stared up at him, seeming as entranced by Thor as Thor was by him.

Thor felt a surge of emotions welling up in his chest, a rush of feelings that he would never be able to entirely name centuries later, would only know that this was what being a brother was, at heart. "It's okay, Loki," he whispered quietly, reaching out to take one tiny, pudgy little hand in his. "I'm Thor. I'm your brother, and that means I'm gonna keep you safe."

In the absence of any direction from his addled mind, Thor's steps apparently took him to Loki's rooms. The futile desire to find his brother had not yet faded. Thor stood in the doorway, his shadow falling across the darkened room. It was a mess inside. Loki was never exactly tidy, he lived in a space of comfortably organized chaos. This, however, was different and worse than anything Thor had ever seen before. There were books torn from the shelves and thrown about the floor, sheets tangled, papers scattered. The worst of it was the mirror by the bed. It had been shattered into a thousand diamond-bright fragments, most of which were scattered over the floor, some of which were marred with blood.

He could almost see Loki, prowling through this space, agitated and upset and alone. Could almost see him paging through books in a hopeless attempt to find some way to stop this, could see him staring at himself in the mirror – staring at the true skin beneath, the form that Thor still could not even imagine – before he smashed the glass.

Moving like he barely remembered how, Thor found himself stumbling to Loki's bed. When he reached it, all he could do was collapse upon it there and then, and Thor realized as he breathed in the last lingering scents of his little brother that he hadn't quite exhausted all the tears he had to give just yet.

Loki was going to laugh at him when he found him here, except he never would. Maybe Loki would think Thor was making fun of him for all the times Loki had come crawling to his bed late at night when they were small. He would probably either grumble and sigh but let Thor stay or kick him out in a huff, except he wouldn't because Loki could never see or say anything again. Loki was far away and Thor couldn't reach him, so why did his mind and memories insist on tormenting him with lies more sweet and beguiling than any his brother had ever told?

It had barely been a few hours. Not nearly long enough to remember that he couldn't think anymore about how Loki would be back soon, about how he had to find him, to talk to him, that Loki had to know what was happening. Thor kept thinking of the future in terms of Loki being there, and every time he remembered the truth, it was like missing a step at the edge of a cliff and starting to fall.

It had barely been a few hours, and Thor already missed Loki so much that he could barely breathe.

How was he supposed to make it through the rest of his life?

Thor didn't remember falling asleep. He only remembered waking up, opening his eyes to scattered shadows and quiet. His eyes hurt for reasons above and beyond the sunlight stabbing into them. His throat was dry and his body felt heavy and dead. For one blessed, blessed moment, however, he didn't remember why he was here. He didn't remember what had come before or what must soon come after.

Then he realized that his mother was sitting beside him. He felt her fingers stroking gently through his hair, and Thor remembered everything.

"I know," Frigga said quietly, as Thor let out a shuddering, broken sigh. "I know." She was quiet for a long few moments. Thor let his heavy eyes fall closed again and tried to lose himself once more in the feeling of this simple affection. All his earlier rage at them aside, to have his mother here, now, to have family beside him…it was comforting, and he needed it.

"I can never…I can never apologize to Loki. For all that I didn't do, or should have done. For all that I tried to do too late," Frigga said, her voice trembling with the effort of keeping it level. "I would give anything for him to be here, even if only to hear me one last time. Instead, all I can say to you is this, Thor. I…truly did love Loki, as much as I could any child I bore. My mistakes may have driven him to this. But they were mistakes made in an attempt to secure his happiness alongside yours'. And to you, my son, I can still beg your forgiveness, for not doing enough in time to spare you this loss."

She was apologizing to him, and through him, to Loki. She had turned to him for absolution for the fears and doubts and what-ifs that Thor knew must be weighing as heavily if not more so on her as they were on him. It was a heavy weight to bear, and Thor's shoulders already felt bowed as an old man's.

Maybe they could have done something differently. Maybe telling Loki sooner would have given him time to come to terms with what he really was. Maybe it would only have led to his death sooner. Maybe his brother had always been doomed from the moment he'd been left to die, and as a family they had only been able to postpone the inevitable.

Thor knew what he would have tried for, but now, after everything, he felt too tired to hope. The cold truth was that they would never know.

And he knew his mother had loved Loki dearly.

Thor reached up and held her hand tightly in his. "I know, Mother," he said, his voice hoarse and quiet. "I understand."

There was less desperation in the way he sat up and hugged her, and she held him. There were no more tears, even if there was just as much sadness and grief. All the same, Thor caught himself wondering if this meant he was healing. If he was already starting to move on and accept a world where his brother was dead and gone, or if this was just a calm before another storm.

Thor truly wasn't sure which option he dreaded more.

All the same, there were other thoughts of the future to consider. Other grim thoughts that filtered through the haze of waking as he hugged Frigga fiercely as though to keep her here by the strength of his grasp alone.

"We don't even have a body."

Somehow, Thor had always thought Loki would be the one setting the first arrow to his barge when his time came, but the fact remained that it was a sacred obligation among family, especially among the family of warriors. Setting a body afloat in a barge and setting it aflame to set the soul free for Valhalla.

They didn't have that. He couldn't even do that for his brother.

Frigga, however, seemed to read his mind. Maybe she'd struggled with the same fears herself. "It's all right," she said soothingly. "That doesn't matter. Loki…his soul is already free. Where he fell…"

She suddenly tensed where she held him – Thor felt it in her grasp. She tensed and fell silent and it was worrying enough that Thor pulled away and looked up to stare intently into her eyes. "Mother?"

She wasn't looking at him. Whatever she was seeing was far away and elsewhere. Whatever idea she was grappling with was such that he could all but see the ideas turning in her head. Until the moment suddenly passed, until Frigga gave her head a little shake and looked properly back at him with a wan and tired smile. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice tremulous once more. "My mind was…elsewhere. I'm sure you can understand."

Thor nodded – he certainly could.

"We may not have his body, but that changes nothing. We will have a funeral befitting a prince of Asgard. I swear to you, Thor. We can do that much for him, still."

It was a weight off his mind to hear, because he knew his mother would keep her word in that regard. Given the circumstances surrounding Loki's death, Thor hadn't been sure what they would do, but this was what he'd been hoping for.

Perhaps they would merely burn the grave goods that would have accompanied his body on the barge alone. After that, there would a week of time set aside for their mourning, and then a feast to celebrate and remember Loki's life. It was a ritual Thor hadn't had to go through or witness very often before now. Volstagg's children were all in good health, Hogun's family was far away, Sif and Fandral didn't seem to have much contact with theirs'. His grandfather had died long before he was born. All the same, it was a tradition that had always appealed to Thor. There was an order of events, proceeding from one day and one step to the next. After it was over and done with, you had said your farewells and could move on with your life without the weight of regrets, safe in the knowledge that the soul of the departed had gone on. It was like a gauntlet, a trial by fire, like any other battle. Like this, grief had a beginning and an end.

Now that he was the one passing through, however, Thor wondered if it would be quite that simple. Whatever his fears, however, this was how it was going to happen. This was how it had to happen, for Loki to have any chance of resting peacefully. To leave his little brother's soul in any other state was unthinkable. Thor could do that much for him, still. As per tradition, he would be the one to fire the first arrow into the barge.

This left him, left all of them, with all day to gather up the grave goods they would burn. Thor looked around the room and felt the bare beginnings of a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. He suspected already that it would be mostly books. At least they would go up easily.

By the time sundown loomed, Thor already knew that he'd called it right. The process of packing up Loki's life to send it on was almost as hard as losing Loki to start with. He'd fought with Frigga and Frigga had fought with Odin and Odin had fought with him about what to keep and what to burn. Thor knew it was the same leaden grief that drove them to it, the same wounds torn open and raw across their hearts. However, there was still only so much he could stand before the tension of waiting, of time ticking on, left him feeling like he couldn't breathe.

So Thor walked away. He walked out of the palace and through the gates and kept walking. He moved through the city streets, barely able to heed the people passing around and in front of him enough to keep out of their way. His arms pumped at his side with each purposeful stride and it felt good. His legs burned slightly with his brisk strides and it felt good. Over the last day or so, he'd felt like he was slowly becoming a corpse himself, as though to take Loki's place on the barge. Now, like this, moving and seeing and breathing the warm night air, Thor knew he was alive, and reveled in the feeling all the more.

There was only so far he could walk, but maybe his steps had been taking him here all along. After what felt like a minute and an eternity at the same time, Thor found himself at the edge of the world, staring up into the vast swirling expanse of clouds and sun and sky instead. The roar of water tumbling into the emptiness below filled his ears, the sparkle of light filled his eyes. It was an achingly beautiful sight, just so long as he didn't look down.

Thor didn't. He just sat at the edge of the Bifrost, far enough away not to disturb Heimdall's vigil. He looked up at worlds turning on around him even if his eyes were not sharp enough to see them, and let himself drift with them, free and unburdened just for a little while longer.

Sif found him there, in the gilded light of sunset. She found him there, sitting at the edge of the world on the edge of the Void, but staring up at the clouds scudding across the fading stars above instead.

Without a word, she sat down next to him. Without a word, he shifted over to make room for her. For a long while, they sat together like that, the silence the closest thing to comfortable he'd felt in what already felt like an age.

"Have you slept?" Sif asked at last.

"For a while," Thor said after a minute. "Until my mind refused to allow me any longer."

"If your thoughts are heavy," Sif said, her tone one of gentle insistence. "You know you can share the weight with me, don't you?"

"I do," Thor agreed without hesitation, offering her a smile that was also the closest thing he'd felt to sincere in days. Already, however, Thor was slowly starting to understand that it was a pain like bleeding out poison. That it meant he would eventually be able to pick himself up and carry on.

Thor wanted to ask the questions that had been weighing on his mind as heavily as a mountain, persistent and clinging as a burr in the saddle. He wanted to ask in the desperate hope that someone would give him an answer. To do so would have required putting grand and terrifying ideas to ordinary words, however, and that had never been a talent of Thor's.

"Oaf," Loki would say, watching him now. Thor could still remember perfectly the tone he would use to say it – teasing, not mocking, because there was a difference that he'd thought they both understood. He remembered the way Loki would smile, biting and wry to conceal fondness beneath that only Thor ever seemed to see.

Thor remembered. He wondered how long he had before he started to forget.

"Do they keep books in Valhalla?" he asked aloud.

Sif started in surprise beside him, stared at him in puzzlement, and Thor immediately felt piercingly foolish. At least until her puzzlement faded to intent consideration, until she steepled her fingers in front of her face and hummed thoughtfully, spoke slowly and with consideration as though giving the matter just as much weight as Thor hadn't been able to stop himself doing. "I don't know. None of the old stories ever said one way or another."

"I know." Even Loki had never seen anything wrong with that, or at least nothing that he'd said aloud. Thor did, now, on his brother's behalf, and it was easier to lay out his reasons why. "I only thought…Loki will be so bored in Valhalla, if they don't have any books." His voice wavered. His eyes stung. Thor looked away from her once more, up at the sky and the heavens above, even if he knew that she knew him too well for him to really hide the truth. Once again, Thor wasn't truly certain if what he was feeling at the thought of Loki like this was affection or grief. He wasn't truly certain if there was a difference between them anymore. "He never had much of a stomach for a proper feast."

Sif smiled, very faintly. "I suppose he would be." She leaned towards him, just enough to nudge him lightly with her shoulder, and added, "He'll have to write the first, then."

Thor chuckled, taking himself by surprise in doing so. He barely recognized the sound of his own voice raised in laughter. "How?"

Sif made a play of thinking on the question before she answered. "With the hide of slaughtered goats as parchment, the feather from a roasted goose as a quill, and the blood of the eternally battling as his ink."

It wasn't funny at all, not really. It hurt to laugh. Thor laughed anyway, because he could imagine all of that perfectly, imagine Loki surveying with a disapproving huff a Valhalla barren of books before he set to work remedying the lack himself. Imagining a Loki like that – alive and annoyed and ready to work his will, just somewhere else, somewhere far away – was better than imagining the dead and broken look in his little brother's eyes as he'd let go and fallen away.

Besides, the both knew that Loki really could make parchment out of goatskin. He had, once, long ago when Thor had led them on a treasure hunt to Alfheim and they'd gotten horribly lost because Volstagg had bought their map off the sons of Ilifari again.

"We need a new map," Loki had declared at long last, patience long gone. "We need to keep proper track of where we've been so we can stop wandering back there."

"And while we're at it, we need this mysterious treasure we've come here for delivered into our laps," Sif snagged, waving her hand dismissively. "What do you intend to do about either, Loki?"

"Always you doubt me," Loki sighed.

All the same, when he disappeared shortly after sunset, even Thor thought that he had only gone off to sulk. Loki had proven them all quite wrong, however, when he'd returned the next morning bearing the skinned body of a mountain ram over his shoulders and the skin like a cloak.

"This is for you," he said to them all, letting the body fall to the dust at their feet. "And this…" He swung the goatskin off his shoulders and held it up the light, regarding it critically. "…is for me."

With that, he left them to cook the carcass and retired with the hide to a far corner of the camp. Loki worked so intently that they had to set some of the meat aside for him once it was cooked. In the meantime, Loki worked with his magic and his knife to accomplish in a couple of hours what otherwise might have taken the better part of a day. Until at last he called them all together and unrolled a sheet of parchment that he'd already marked in charcoal with the mountain they'd camped beneath.


And with even a vague idea of where they'd already been and which direction was which, the six of them found the treasure they'd been hunting a scant four days later. There proved to be too much treasure for them to carry back with just one trip, but that was fine. After all, they had a map to lead the way back.

"And even if he can't," Thor said, finding it easier to smile than stop for the moment. "He has no shortage of stories to tell himself. I imagine that by the time I finally arrive, he will have told every warrior throughout history the story of my journey to Utgard, or the time I had to pretend to marry a dwarf to rescue Fandral, or how he tricked the great sorcerer Thiazi into flying straight into Asgard's arrows."

"Doubtless," Sif agreed easily.

All of this, however, didn't cut to the heart of the matter, the root of Thor's fears. Those, however, he scarcely dared to say aloud, as though speaking them might make them true. Just as he had had to say aloud that Loki was dead, however, Thor had to say this, lest he be crushed under the weight of the fear.

"Because I will see him again."

Thor stared down at his hands, barely even surprised anymore to see them clenched so tightly in his lap that the knuckles were standing out and the hands were shaking. He stared down at the darkness swirling beneath their feet.

"He is in Valhalla, Sif. He must be."

Sif said nothing. She simply reached out and rested one of her hands gently over his, her thumb lightly stroking the back of his hand. Thor covered hers' with his other one, holding tightly. "Because if he is not…if the Norns are blind and have sent him to Nifleheim instead…I will go down there and drag him up myself."

"I know you will."

"And if I somehow could not…then I would stay with him, Sif. As long as the Nine Realms endured. Because no rest or reward would be complete without him there. And if I were the sort of man to leave my brother to the grey wastes of Hel when I feasted in plenty, then I would not be the sort of man who deserved Valhalla at all."

Sif reached out with her other hand and gently rested it against Thor's cheek, encouraging him silently to look at her. Thor did, and Sif leaned forward, closing the distance between them to rest her forehead against his.

Thor closed his eyes, leaning against her and the closeness and the presence she offered, familiar and warm and real, savoring the sound of her breathing and the life it meant. Her voice, when she spoke, was little more than a whisper, but he heard her plainly all the same. "I would expect nothing less of you."

When he moved to hug her, she returned the embrace. She held him, and didn't say anything when the tears returned, silently this time, even as they stained the shoulder of her tunic. Thor knew she saw. He also knew she didn't mind.

"I hate him," Sif said quietly, after a while of silence. Thor tensed with surprise in her arms, but did not pull away. He listened, just as she had listened to him, because he owed her that much. "I hate him for doing this to you, Thor. For leaving you to mourn alone like this. But do not think that Loki's family is the only one who will miss him. Do not think that you are the only one come to say farewells tonight."

"I won't," said Thor, even if deep down he wondered if he had started to think just that. So he was more grateful for her reminder than words could ever express. Especially Thor's words.

And when she patted his shoulder, murmured "oaf" in his ear…even if she didn't say it like Loki would, it was yet another reminder that he was not alone, and Thor loved her for it.

When she pulled away, when she got to her feet, when she offered a hand, Thor took it, and let her pull him up and away from the dark. He led the way back towards the palace, of course, back towards Asgard, as a prince and future king should lead. But it was only because of her at his back and the thought of all the people still waiting for him ahead that Thor advanced. It was only then that he thought the future might just be something he could face with a ragged hole still healing in his heart.

"I thought you dead."

"And did you mourn?"