Requiem for a Brother

No, no, no!
Oh, you fool. You didn't listen.
I know. I'm a fool. I'm a fool.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
I know.
I'll tell father what you did here today.
I didn't do it for him.

Failure. It was likely the heaviest millstone you could drag along, the greatest burden you could carry. Goodbye. It was probably the hardest word to be spoken – or not to be spoken. Because it hurt most when a Goodbye wasn't to be foreseen, wasn't to be explained, wasn't to be expected. He was lost yet he was home. But was he really? I don't have it. There is no place like home. But what was it? It wasn't Asgard. Not anymore. To Asgard he was nothing more than a shadow, dark, cold and dead. It wasn't Jotunheim. It never was. They had wanted him dead. It wasn't Helheim. It refused to offer hospitality. Alas, he wasn't dead. He had failed to die. Again. Miserable, miserable creature. Couldn't even claim his birthright. Never wanted. Never needed.

He was lost. He could never go home. There was no such thing for Loki.

~*~*~

There was a cold, stinging and biting, sizzling on his skin. Usually he wouldn't feel it as the breath of everlasting winter wouldn't harm a Frost Giant. But this wasn't just cold. It was bleakness. It was lifelessness. There was darkness, nothing and nowhere. A bridge, a gate in the distance. A pair of empty eyes that was still glowing. The cold winds made him shiver as they were whooing and aaahing around the stone bridge – the lament of oblivion. The bridge seemed long, and yet he left it behind in what felt like a heartbeat, all the way heavily leaning on Gungnir, keeping it by his side like a walking staff. And the eyes he faced then seemed to emit a pale yellowish glow and as he looked back and nodded at the huge black wolfhound, the gate that it guarded swung open.

And without further consideration, he passed, didn't even wait to hear the bang the gate gave as it closed behind him. Never let me out ever again. What surrounded him then felt like darkness but it wasn't really. He could still see the vast desert in front of his very footsteps. He could see what looked like snowy hats on the mountaintops and he could see that the sky was radiating in a blueish light that made him think of the Casket of Ancient Winters. It always reminded him of Jotunheim when it actually was nothing like Jotunheim but still similar – colder, much colder. And only this cold made him bear in mind that he was indeed still alive and had warm blood pounding through his veins. His heart was still beating.

As he kept walking, the landscape seemed to move past him. At first, there was nothing and no one. But then they came, for they were curious. And soon he found himself surrounded by empty, expressionless eyes. Eyes as far as he could look. Thin, lifeless bodies. No blood, no pounding hearts. He wasn't sure they even really saw him as they instinctively moved out of his way – they just watched and didn't waste a second for blinking. And they stepped away because they felt the warmth rushing through the intruder. They whispered without breathing. He didn't belong here. Oh well.

Soon, there was the door. He thought it was silly. A door without walls, placed on yet another bridge the howling winds used as a playground. A door into nowhere. But still he kept his manners and used the iron ring to knock and, surprisingly silent, the door floated open. He stopped. Trapdoor. One step to the right, two steps forward. And without looking to the ground, he resumed walking into the wall-less halls of what the dead called a palace.

In the past he had entertained the idea of it being an actual palace, with real walls, only the walls might be invisible to the living. Maybe it was only meant to keep out the unblinking eyes of the dead, without affecting visitors from outside. Just like the wolfhound was only meant to keep the dead inside, ignoring everyone else who happened to pass. Not that there were many.

He had discarded this theory a few decades back, when the eyes of a dead boy clearly followed him throughout his entire visit, no matter whether or not he had passed the entrance doors. Nowadays, he did not care anymore. There was no need for it to make sense to him. Barely a thing in this place made sense to anyone but its mistress.

He had seen the throne upon entering, but had not bothered to keep his eyes on it while approaching. She was present. She always was when he visited, and sometimes he wondered if she knew beforehand when she was going to have a guest, or if she actually just spent all her time in the same place, waiting for someone to arrive. Did the dead ever come to her? Did they ask for her help and guidance? Did they need her? Did they need anyone?
Loki wondered if he should care. Was the state of being in her kingdom as numb as it appeared to be? If so... he found himself envying the dead.

"Hela." Loki had reached the end of the hall and stood before the throne. He put down Gungnir with a click, inclining his head respectfully before raising his gaze to her eyes. "Queen of the Dead."
Her scrutiny was daunting, but Loki was not one to be too impressed by these things, and he withstood her gaze unblinkingly.
"Loki." After a few seconds, she nodded, cocking her head slightly to the side as she contemplated him. "Judging by your formal addressing of me, this is not a mere social visit."

He watched as she rose gracefully from her dark, uncomfortable looking seat, descending the nine steps that separated her throne from the floor. Her right hand reached out to cup his chin, so she could tilt his head and look directly into his eyes, and Loki inhaled a little sharply at the feeling of bones and rotting flesh on his skin. He did not flinch back. It was not particularly unpleasant, merely unfamiliar. And Hela was a beautiful woman, no matter what many would say. It was obvious if you looked at her left side – fair skin, straight black hair that fell to her waist, dressed in a long, simple dark green gown that left her shoulder and back uncovered. Her eye was without white, the deep black only interrupted by her dark green iris. Her right side... the dress hung in tatters from her gangly frame, bones protruding and jutting forward beneath the fabric. Her flesh was decaying, only half covering the bones anymore. Her cheek was hollow, her lips barely existing, her hairline receding into nothingness. The eye was empty, dark, and nonetheless still appeared to be seeing. And yet, she was beautiful.
There had always been beauty in death.

"Indeed it is not," Loki replied after a while. Her touch had silenced him. Her all-sensing touch. But he kept his eyes on her and she kept looking into his eyes for one or two moments more; the eyes which shared the same deep green that also coloured hers. Her stare got intense but Hela saw nothing. She only saw how he was implicitly hiding every possible trace of sentiment that might betray his inner turmoil. Loki's eyes were almost expressionless, experienced in casting illusions and wrong truths. And this ability secretly frustrated Hela. Usually she would see through anyone. But not through him. She couldn't tell what was bothering him.
"Tell me, what is it that you require of me?" she finally asked with a suppressed sigh. Her words were only slightly curious. Like a little girl. Then she took a step back to preserve the formality that didn't allow this personal closeness.
"Alright," said Loki, lifting his head to keep facing her, "Then I am not going to waste time with trivia. I came here to ask of you a favour."
Hela patiently waited for him to elaborate, expressionless herself, her green gown smoothly floating from her leg as she stood still on the stone steps. One could say she wore clothes that shared Loki's taste, especially in colours. And as she waited, both eyes, even the dead eye, seemed right awake.

"It is your business to show the dying their path to your Realm and to provide the dead a safe home. But I am coming to you as a living being and I am unable to express how much being alive distresses me. Two times I thought myself eventually dying and two times I could not find my way here. So I ask for your guidance-" He knew now, it weren't the dead who asked. It were the living. "-and I ask of you to not let me get lost in this life a third time."
At this, Hela found herself cracking a smile. It was keen, turned her features sharper than they were but it also made her look hauntingly charming.
"It amuses me how you seem to think I was trying to save you and prevent you from dying. And I am truly sorry, Loki. But I find I must tell you that survival is something I have no control over. I am not the executioner, I am the host and the shelter. I help those who have already crossed the border to find their place. But deciding whether you survive or you die is not in my reach."
"No, you – you lie!" Loki's fist clenched without his own doing, a soft tremor shook it as he tightened his grip around his own fingertips, the other fist curling tighter around Gungnir like a harsh claw. And as he threw those words at Hela, he took half a step towards her, but stepped back immediately and with his lips trembling, he faced the ground in fear of spilling too much emotion. Then, with a gasp, he met her gaze again.
"I felt how my heartbeat was drowning in my blood, I felt how life's grasp on me loosened, I saw how the light turned into darkness and how I fell… I was so close, so close to the end of it all. But I found no guiding hand. It was like the very depths spat me right back out again. You had no place for me. You didn't want to keep me just yet. You sent me back!" With every word, his voice had gotten louder than he had originally intended. Too much. Too much emotion. He had revealed too much of what he had been brooding about ever since.
Again, Hela fixated his shining eyes, the mirror to the core. She was tearing at his wounds and she saw them all open again. He was bleeding out, vulnerable and small and oh so lost in his own life; in the state of living.
"I can assure you," she continued, putting all sincerity in her sharp voice, "it was not my doing."

Loki glared at her, still enraged and unnerved at the same time. And studying her empty face in search for a lie, he snarled back, "Then promise me something." Pause.
"Let me see if I can."
For a second, his teeth grit before he gained back control. "Promise me that you will let me fall next time. Promise me that whenever you see me circling the border a third time, you will not hesitate to guide me in for once and for all." Pause.
"I will keep my eyes open."
"Promise me. Please." Help me. His plea was neutral, nonchalant. But deep inside, a part of his core screamed for help. Suddenly, his eyes were unable to meet hers. So he let them wander around the hall. He saw the throne sitting emptily on its pedestal of nine steps. Made of dark slate and dead wood that shimmered pearl white; like bones. And behind it, a dead tree. It decorated the hall, like a bleak, puny copy of what held them all: Yggdrasil. He shook his head at the comparison and looked back. Hela was still expressionless.
"I cannot bind anyone to life, if his greatest desire is to join the dead. Survival is not my business. But if you are ready, be certain that I will welcome you."
For a moment, the atmosphere seemed tense and neither of them made an attempt to speak.
"I will count on it," said Loki eventually. "Farewell."
And with a last bow of his head, he left and Hela watched him turn his back to her and walk away. Her stare was blank. He was bound to leave. He did not belong here yet.

~*~*~

Gungnir felt cool and hard in Loki's grip, unyielding beneath his tightly clenched fingers, like an anchor as it kept him where he needed to be, like a strong arm to hold on to and stop him from falling, though he faintly resented that he even felt the need to hold on to something. All was as it should be, or at least, it would be soon. He was determined to see to that.
There was only one thing left to do. He had to say goodbye.

"Mother." Despite nobody being there to hear him, his voice was barely more than a whisper, swallowed by the rustling of the wind in the trees' branches and the waves breaking against the shore a small distance away. "Forgive me."
The willow stood before him, silent, not affected by the soft breeze like the other trees behind her were. Tendrils of mist, no more than barely visible wisps, hung perpetually around her, like clouds come down from the skies to keep her company and moisture should Asgard's weather become too harsh. Loki swallowed, gripping Gungnir even tighter, and stepped forward until he was engulfed by the dropping branches, hidden from sight by the wood and leaves that reached down to tickle the tiny grains of sand.
He had not come here before. He had seen the memorial tree from afar, he had even wandered by once or twice, but he had kept his distance. He had not been able to bring himself to come closer, he did not deserve it.
He still did not deserve it, but he had no other choice. He could not leave her without this. And he felt safe, hidden from the world by the tree's branches. It reminded him of her embrace when he was but a child, when she would take him into her arms and hold him close. He had always felt, then, that her arms could protect him from any harm.
But she was gone.

Slowly, Loki sank to his knees in front of the willow's trunk. A little distance above the ground, where the trunk started to merge into roots, those roots split up in a shape like the entrance of a tent, or the outline of opened curtains, and gave way to an opening to the inside of the trunk. Loki's eyes were transfixed on the eternal golden fire there, flickering without consuming, spending warmth without burning, without hurting.
"Forgive me," Loki repeated. He felt undeserving of her warmth, her protection, and had to struggle against the lump forming in his throat. "It is my fault that you are gone. Mother, I – I am sorry. I never intended for any of this to happen." He closed his eyes, swallowed. "I hope Valhalla is as desirable a place for you as everyone always made it out to be. I hope the Valkyries have been good to you. Forgive me, for sending you to their arms before your time."
He opened his eyes and reached out with his free hand, feeling the warmth of the magic flames on his fingers, and imagined it was the warmth of her own fingers caressing his hand.
"I came to say goodbye, mother. I could not follow you to Valhalla when I was supposed to." I have failed, I have failed again, I fail even when there is nothing to do but die, oh mother I'm sorry– "And now I will never be there. I will not see you again before Ragnarök." A sad, bitter smile spread on his lips, and with a sigh, he retrieved his hand. "And I fear, when that happens, we will be fighting on opposite sides."
It was the only true regret he had concerning his intentions, but he had no choice. It was the only way he could compensate for all his failures and misdeeds.
So Loki took a deep breath and pulled himself back to his feet, casting one last, longing glance toward the flames before turning away and making his way back through the branches, which rustled softly as he brushed past them. "Goodbye, mother."

His legs felt numb, but they carried him towards the ocean nonetheless, away from his mother's memorial. You couldn't even make it to her funeral after you all but condemned her to death. Pathetic. You don't deserve to die in her presence. He had planned it carefully. Nobody would ever know, nobody would realise. The ocean's waves would take his body with them, carry it to Asgard's edge and into the Void, and nobody would notice he had even been there still. Nobody would be forced to remember him when they were all so happy to finally be able to forget the dark stain amidst their golden glow.
He readjusted his grip on Gungnir, feeling his fingernails dig into his palms. It was good. The Nine Realms would keep the happiness they had achieved in his ostensible absence... and he would finally forget.
Loki could feel the sea leaking at his feet, soaking through his thin boots, and stopped, wearily staring at the horizon. He had gone far enough.

~*~*~

It was night-time, yet Thor didn't feel the need to retire. It had been bright daylight on Midgard when he had made his way back and now that he was back and found the moon in a secure stand and Asgard's ever shining stars in front of a black sky, he thought he might better still go for a walk before troubling anyone with his return.
The sea seemed so much calmer at night, almost unaffected by the soft breeze, it whispered only occasionally, as if in a pleasant slumber. And the water was black like molten pitch and turned even darker far back on Asgard's edge, where the stars didn't visibly reflect in the water anymore – thousands of silvery splotches on the inky, calm surface. In the silence of the night, Thor heard only his scrunching footsteps as he crossed the beach that was entirely covered by pearl white pebbles, and his boots where almost drowning out the serene song of the ocean that was so soothing, so pleasant. It was just him and the night. A night Thor could savour without feeling too tired to relish everything that it offered.
Though, as it happened to be, Thor was not the only one who had sought out the beach that night to listen to the singing of the ocean waves – and also to feel the presence of the queen while he couldn't turn to anyone else at this time. His place was already occupied by a tender silhouette, illuminated by the night sky that never allowed Asgard to be fully consumed by darkness. For a moment, Thor came to a halt and contemplated the loner who stood there, seemingly captured in devotion. He hadn't even heard the scrunching of Thor's boots on the pebbles over his thoughts. Thor considered he might better leave this person alone, since whoever sought out the memorial beach at that late an hour surely wished not to be disturbed – but something stopped him. The way the loner stood there, his lanky figure slightly bowed, his gaze cast in the silver glowing distance, one hand dangling at his side, his shoulders tensed, his fingers curled into a gentle fist, his knees stretched as the wind exposed his calves whilst playing with his cloak. The back of his head, the hair, the dark curls dancing in the salty breeze. All this looked so much like Loki. It looked almost like it could be Loki. And then Thor spotted that Loki was holding on to Gungnir and it made him look so much like a king – if only his stance was more secure. Thor noted that Loki had walked a few steps into the ocean, the small waves caressing his boots. And over the undeniable lump in his throat, he knew that this could only be a phantom. Was he getting tired after all? Or was it just what his mind longed to see at this all but magical place? He continued walking towards what must be a ghost, a trick of his still sore memory.
"Oh brother… Have you at last found a way to cast illusions even from Valhalla to make sure you keep haunting me?" He stopped. It actually was a painful sight, a painful company to keep. Because he knew it couldn't be true. And then, the illusion gave a response. Thor hadn't believed his imagination to be that vivid.
"Do forgive me," Loki said, quietly and calm, "Had I known you would be present here tonight, I would have made sure to choose a different place, as clearly my sight must be a sore disappointment to you." Of course he would say that. Finally, Thor dared to look in his brother's face, as he thought he might have felt him flinch and the soft splashing of the water told him, that he took a step away from him. He was pale, but not paler than usual, not as pale as Thor would have imagined a ghost to be. And his eyes were slightly widened, alarmed, his jaw was tensed, his look seemed defensive. He looked so real.
"You're twisting my words…" Thor simply gave back, as he thought discussing with an illusion might not be of much use. It was of as much use as discussing with his own mind.
"I am by no means twisting anything!" Loki snapped back. And at this point, Thor even thought that hearing his brother snarl at him felt good – as crazy as it might sound, he even missed it. No more arguments.
"How I wish it was truly you…" Thor breathed, then he narrowed his eyes, "But it isn't." Loki remained silent, determined to keep it that way and his fist was still clenched at his side, but tighter. It felt awkward. Even if it was just a ghost, it felt awkward – it shouldn't though. He wondered, "Or is it?"
As he looked back, he saw Loki's lips trembling. "No, of course not" he spat, "I am an illusion cast from Valhalla to torment you with my presence…" Why did it sound so sarcastic? Finally, Loki met Thor's gaze. "Even you should know the impossibility of an illusion such as that!" Sarcasm was it then. Thor froze. "…Loki?" He reached out to touch him and Loki closed his eyes and swallowed and it puzzled Thor but he still reached for his brother's shoulder. And expecting the phantom to fade, he eventually brushed the fabric of Loki's clothes. But his fingers didn't reach into nothing but cool air. He actually felt rough fabric on his knuckles.
"It cannot be…" his usually strong and loud voice had turned into a far-off whisper, as if from a dream. Again he reached out to feel the cold, smooth leather beneath his fingertips. Loki's face was blank, closing in any trace of emotion, silently facing the pebbles under his boots. As Thor brushed Loki's shoulder a third time, he carefully kept his hand there, his thumb drawing circles on the fabric of his brother's clothes. "Oh brother… you're back…" said Thor, barely audible, as if he didn't dare voicing the impossible. It still felt like wishful thinking. Like that lost moment he had always seen in his sleep. Like that wondrous reunion he had always wished for. Yet, finally experiencing that desperate dream felt so wrong, that he was unable to feel anything but confusion and a heart that was unsure of how to beat.
"You're back…" Thor whispered with the wind and pulled Loki close. He felt Loki's ragged breath in his strands, as he gently pushed his brother's nose to his own shoulder, tangling one big hand in the curls on the back of Loki's head. Loki was stiff but he didn't attempt to pull back. After a few tense seconds, Thor even thought Loki would give in to his hug, while his own arms where still dangling loosely at his sides. Suppressing tears, Thor swallowed a sob. He had seen the blade cutting through his brother's body, sharp and clean. He had seen him drowning in his blood, had seen him fighting for his last breath and he had felt like his heart might give up along with Loki's. And when Loki had stopped blinking, Thor had remembered what mourning him felt like, what it was like to believe him taken from his side forever. To feel that abysmal loneliness. His heart had faltered every time he had been forced to remind himself that he would have to spend another morning without Loki.
In that moment, when Loki had seemingly died in his arms, when the pressure of his fingers on Thor's had gone, he had realised with pain that this had been all about to come back to him.
But Loki was back again, he was breathing in his arms and Thor realised that miracles could indeed happen twice.
"How could you do this to me?" Thor's smile faded. He pulled back still holding on to Loki's hair, so he wouldn't avert his gaze and look him in the eyes, emeralds on sapphires, tears glistening in both. "How?" Thor pushed him back, all but slamming his fists on his brother's shoulders. His voice still sounded rough and strained. His eyes were burning with his suppressed tears, his breath was uneven and he felt his heart quickening its pace, as a dull, unexpected feeling of betrayal struck him. "I thought you were—"
"Dead?" Loki cut him off. "Well, it surely would have been better that way…"

A numb anger was blooming in Thor's chest. It was as real and definite as Loki's form before him. About as impossible and unfathomable, beyond reason and beyond control. Born from all the agony Thor had endured since he had believed his brother had left him once and for all. He had believed that Goodbye to be infinite. That never spoken Goodbye. For some time he had still hoped for that second miracle, but he had thought it in vain. Now here he was and before him was Loki, a substantial illusion, speaking of death and it still felt like a nightmare. Overwhelmed by confusion, delight, shock and fury all at once, his mind was unable to spare a thought. And before Thor knew it, his fist connected with his brother's jaw and it gave a dreadful cracking sound. Thor was panting with blind rage.
Loki's hand came up, the back of his hand wiped his nose, blood staining it, while he carefully grabbed his now slightly throbbing jaw. He huffed, "Ah. Yes, it obviously rejoices you to see me – I should likely be thankful you did not show your joy with Mjölnir's help—" That was a lie, Loki thought. He would rather have been thankful, had Thor decided to kill him right away.
"How could you?" Thor continued, still lost in the rainstorm of emotions that was blowing within his chest, "How can you? After all this – this mourning, this guilt… it turns out it was all without reason?" He blinked and gasped, as he found his assumptions confirmed. "Was… was it a trick? A fit opportunity for faking your death so you could escape your prison cell?"
Loki had been facing the ground again but now, his head shot back up – the outline of his nose was trembling, his grip on Gungnir tightened and he pulled it forth like a sword and it gave an unpleasant whoosh as it cut through the air.
"A trick… a trick?" He dropped the sceptre, and it stabbed the ground, it forced the pebble stones to scatter in a feeble attempt to escape the pointy edges of Gungnir. Thor's sharp features softened. He uncurled his fists. But Loki didn't allow him to say a word. "You think—you think that I would, that this—that it was a plan, that I wanted this to happen?!" Neither of them gave a reaction. Breathing, just breathing, irregular, not fitting to one another. Loki peeled off his coat, he dropped it to the ground and it sounded like the fluttering of a bird that had been scared off. "Oh but of course," he continued. He shed his armour, the golden, skilfully patterned arm pieces. "what else would anyone expect of me" – cling. – "but a trick," – clatter. He started fumbling with the buttons at his back, opening his leather shirt. – "because naturally I so enjoy getting a blade" – He shook off the shirt, it landed on the coat that lay outspread between the pebbles. – "run" – He tore at the collar of his woollen tunic. – "through" – He pulled it over his head. – "my" – He hurled it through the air, it gave a flutter once again that echoed in the silence. – "body" – He dropped it, gasping, and looked at Thor again, the alas of his nose still vibrating. – "just so I can escape yet again—do you really believe that?" He paused. "Do you really—Does this look pleasant to you?! Like something I would—Like I would—" He trailed off. There he was, half naked, still panting from out-right screaming at Thor who had been watching silently. And as the white moonlight stroked Loki's bare chest, Thor could see it. There was a line, traced without care, a shaky, milky, still slightly red line that marred his brother's skin. It was drawn straight over his ribs, not clean but rather sloppy. This was where the blade had entered his body. This was the scar he still wore, like an unwanted, painful souvenir. Thor opened and closed his mouth.
"Loki…" he stammered, "I am sorry… it's just… I did not expect to… I didn't think…" He sighed. "I didn't think I would ever see you again… I—you made me think I lost you yet another time… I couldn't take it… I… Why did you return?" Loki had told him repeatedly to think before acting or speaking and again he had disregarded his brother's advice. He had awoken from his rush of numb anger only to realise what he had done. No Sorry could ever wipe away that hurtful frown on Loki's face.
"Why did I return?" Loki's voice cut like broken glass as he repeated Thor's question. But it wasn't the tone of his voice that cut deepest, it were his eyes, this sharp look. His green irises seemed to be aflame as his fingertips curled to his palms again and he clenched his fists even tighter than before, the veins on his neck seemingly growing from the effort. And then he spilled over.
"Why didn't I stay dead? Why couldn't I just stay your brother? Why did I have to turn into a monster?"
"Loki…"
"Why didn't I pick the red tulips? Why didn't I go to the other side of that tree and let the boar escape instead? Why didn't I tell the truth about the poison that day?"
"Brother please…"
"Oh no, I didn't forget you were all blaming me – you always blamed me! I didn't forget you all thought I poisoned that brat! I didn't forget you thought it was me who let Sleipnir out of the steeds, I didn't forget how you pushed me into the mud and told me you wished your brother was taller!"
"Loki, stop…" His tries proved futile. Loki didn't even seem to hear him.
"Well, I am not your brother at all! And I am tired of being overlooked in your shadow, my whole life I was trying to be someone that I was not, so I would not be overlooked but… your father didn't see, didn't care. You didn't care! Remember that day, when father told me I should try to be more like you, told me I was a mistake and a vermin? And you were there, I know you were, but you-" He pressed his lips into a thin, black line. Thor tried again. "Loki, calm down, I didn't—"
"Oh and… Why didn't I get you back from Midgard? Why did I lie to you about father? You know very well why! Because you are an idiot, Thor! A self-absorbed, shallow, blind, selfish oaf who devastates everything in his path, who earns all the pride and applause just for himself and I hate you and I hate father and – mother didn't want to see me, it seems even Valhalla is not a suitable place for me because they cast me out, I even failed to die, I failed to endure the pain, I failed to oppose—I—" He swallowed, his eyes weren't burning anymore. They were damp, there was moisture collecting in his eyelashes. But he was fighting against the tears. Still furious, he turned and lifted Gungnir from the ground behind him, leaning on it, as if he might fall. "I should make sure I do not fail again, don't you think? My plan surely was not to survive! I should finally grant you your relief, shouldn't I? I shall make sure I won't return ever again!"
Panting breathlessly, and with a wild glint in his eyes, Loki raised Gungnir, and Thor reared back, automatically, because his brother was out of his mind, was attacking him again—
Only he held the spear the wrong way around, and Thor realised it too late as Loki, with a harsh, desperate sounding laugh, thrust the weapon through his body, without a second of hesitation, reopening the half-healed scar on his abdomen causing it to spill blood over his pale skin once more, as if it were weeping. For a moment, Thor's mind supplied him with a different picture, a memory, the picture of the Kursed running its blade through Loki on Svartalfheim mingling with the scene before his eyes – Loki, his hands clutching Gungnir as it protruded from his body, lean and subtly muscular, so different from Thor's bulk, almost slim in comparison. His chest seemed almost white in the darkness, and it made a stark contrast to the crimson blood that was pouring out of him at an alarming rate.
Loki gave a shallow gasp and staggered backwards, collapsing onto his back, and finally Thor was able to move, falling to his knees beside his brother with a cry as the waves stained red with blood. "Loki—!"

~*~*~

It felt like home. Gungnir slipped from his fingers as he fell, and Loki vaguely felt Thor pulling the spear out of his abdomen, accompanied by frantic words and pleas that remained unintelligible to him. It hurt, it hurt more than he had remembered, and he languidly thought that time probably had made his memory dull, but he didn't mind. He felt himself wheeze, gasping for air, his body heaving, convulsing with pain as it tried to breathe, tried to repair itself, tried and failed to make his punctured lungs keep up their work, but he managed to keep his energies away, fighting against his natural instincts to recover.
It hurt. But Loki didn't mind. The pain reminded him of the last time, when he thought he'd die and yet had been refused, but this time it would be different. Distantly, he felt pressure on his wound, was aware of Thor lifting his upper body out of the water, curiously pressing something against him to stem the crimson flow, and causing fire to flare through his body. He let out a sound that was meant to be a laugh and came out as a low moan, but the pain was sweet. It was home, a home he had never known, he had never had. He would have a home, the pain would lead him there, and it was so, so sweet on his tongue, even as his body protested, shaking as he coughed and red splatters blotted the silvery shine before his eyes—Loki no no please don't do this oh Norns why why please brother don't don't die don't leave me don't—

What is it, he wanted to ask. Why would Thor's voice sound so desperate, when Loki was doing him and all the Nine a favour... but perhaps he wasn't desperate, Loki's blurry mind just delivered it wrong. He scoffed at himself, the sound dissolving into a weak, frail cough that rattled his whole body. Or maybe it wasn't that. He suddenly became faintly aware of his body moving without his doing—hold out just hold out keep breathing I will get help I will bring you to Eir brother hold out—the wet chill of the ocean gone and replaced by a soft breeze that made him shiver.
His eyes landed on the tree, somehow, focusing enough to make out its frame, and a pang of longing shot through him. Mother. The pain wasn't gone, but it had retreated to a faraway corner of his mind, leaving only the sweet calmness it had promised, and Loki could feel his lids drifting close but tried to keep them on the willow for a moment longer. He would not see her again...
Just before his vision was engulfed by nothing but blackness, he imagined the long branches moving, as if by a breeze that wasn't there, reaching for him, and he could almost feel their warmth on his face as the golden fire flickered, like the caress of tender, gentle fingers. Almost.
His eyes fell close as a soft breath rushed past his lips, and he did not possess the strength to draw another one, even had he been willing. His lips twitched, trying to smile. He had succeeded, for once, this one time he had not brought his plans to ruin, had not failed – had he? Hela—?
Welcome, Loki.

~*~*~

When Thor glanced down at Loki in his arms again, frightened by his sudden stillness, his ashen face had gone from a pained grimace to a slack, calm expression, his lips faintly curved upward in a serene smile, and Thor thought his own heart might give out and freeze in his chest. He slowed to a halt, the rush of the waves pounding in his ears as he frantically searched for a sign of life, for an indication that it wasn't...
But nothing. He knelt down on the shore that he hadn't even left behind yet, scared of worsening Loki's condition by striding at a quicker pace, and carefully laid his brother down before him. There was no breath, no pulse, the pale chest unmoving and the blood barely flowing any longer, a mere soft drip now that there was no heartbeat to pump it out anymore.
For a long time, Thor remained motionless, just looking at the prone form of the man he had never stopped calling brother. He did not notice the tears that were running down his cheeks, just blinking every few seconds to get rid of the blur in his vision. All he could think of was that he had failed. Failed, once again, to protect his little brother, to protect him, as he had always sworn he would do, even when they were still children and barely aware of the meaning of their words. So long had they been together, next to each other for centuries, for millennia, saving each other's lives more times than Thor could count. He knew, without Loki, he would long have perished on one of his adventures. No matter what he had promised – how often had Loki kept Thor safe? And now – now Thor had failed to do the same for him. Three times had Thor seen him teetering on the slim edge that had separated him from death, teetering and falling, while Thor had only watched. Two times, he had returned, brittle and raging and full of pain, and despite everything Thor had been relieved, had felt delighted to get another chance, knowing his brother was not yet lost to him.
He knew that he would not get that chance a third time.

He wondered, now, if he should have seen it coming, if it had been something he should have expected, if he could have prevented it. How long had Loki's life, his mind's balance, dangled on a thread before it snapped? How long had he been unhappy, while Thor had remained blissfully ignorant, only noticing that something was wrong when it had already pushed his brother over the edge? How long had it been, how long could something have been changed yet had Thor only noticed, had he realised, but he hadn't, he had stood by and watched, watched his little brother despair and struggle until he broke and he had not saved him—!

Thrice, Thor Odinson had watched his little brother die. Twice, he had sought death from his own hands. Once, he had succeeded, leaving his big brother behind to mourn him a final time.

Thor could only hope that Loki, at least, had found peace.

~*~*~

He did not know how much time had passed, but eventually, he forced himself to move. Loki was lying in front of him, unnaturally still, and Thor felt the irrational urge to yell at him, to shake him and slap him and tell him that it wasn't funny anymore, that this was no game, but he restrained himself, merely wiping at his damp cheeks despite the new tears that refused to cease.
His hands sank down to land on Loki's cheeks instead. They, too, were wet, with the ocean's salty water that had mingled with his own tears and washed them away, away with the blood that had ran from the wound, and yet there was still blood on his face, leaking from the corner of his mouth, staining his pale skin. Thor's breath hitched as he shakily wiped it away with his thumb.
He could not leave him here. He did not know what to do. Loki apparently had not wanted anyone to know he had been alive still, and though it pained Thor he could not think of anyone who would have wanted to know. Nobody whom he could tell of what had transpired. That Loki, his little brother Loki, had died on the shore, had taken his own life with Gungnir, next to his mother's memorial and with his big brother watching, intending for the sea to carry away his body without a trace.
Thor's breath caught in his throat. There was not much he could do.

The boat was small, almost too small for Loki's height, and plain. Inornate, a fisher's disregarded jollyboat, and Thor's heart clenched painfully as he laid Loki down on the hard wooden planks, arranging his lifeless arms over his chest and covering him with the coat he had flung aside earlier. It looked poor – the former prince, the former king, lying still on a small wooden boat, surrounded not by wealth and signs of worship but instead by the few things Thor had managed to gather for him. A few books from Loki's old rooms which wouldn't be missed, for no one except their mother had ever ventured there. A small, beautiful gem that Thor knew Frigga had once gifted him with. His dagger, and his throwing knives which Thor had found in his rooms. And the deer skin from their very first hunt together which had always been in Thor's chambers since then, even though they had killed it together, but Thor had insisted and Loki had finally just shrugged and relented. Now it was spread beneath him, as though to shield him from the harsh wood.
He remembered their mother's funeral, as he watched the small boat drift away, towards the edge of Asgard where the sun was just starting to rise, brightening up its black to a softer blue. He remembered the mass of people that had been there to bid her and the fallen warriors farewell, and he remembered that Loki hadn't been allowed to attend, had never been allowed to say goodbye to his mother. Now nobody was here to bid him farewell either. Nobody but Thor, and he didn't bother containing his tears.

The bow and arrow felt heavier in his hands than such a weapon should. Loki had not drifted very far yet – but Thor was not well-trained with a bow, and he would be squinting while he took aim, against the sun and the dampness in his eyes, and he did not wish to miss.
"Goodbye, brother." His voice was hoarse, scratching against his raw throat, and he suppressed a sob. Be at peace, Loki. You are alright, it is fine. Don't you worry, little brother, I will protect you. "I have failed you for the last time."

The arrow flew high and dark against the brightening sky, and though it didn't hit the exact spot Thor had aimed for, it still set the wood aflame fairly quickly, and Thor watched, mesmerized, as the golden flames hungrily consumed the boat and the gifts alike, Loki's body just a blurred dark shape in their middle.

He thought he could hear a tree rustling behind him, although he felt no wind on his skin.