His brother falls through the Bifrost and the emptiness between stars, and he watches his father whisper close to Mjolnir, watches his father place upon it something almost like a curse.
If he be worthy, his father whispers; and he feels his heart hammer in his chest, pounding against his ribcage, his limbs trembling like a spent horse. If he be worthy, he shall possess the power of Thor.
His breath stops, and he feels for a second as if the world has opened up.
His brother is loud and tall, and growing ever taller. In the training ring, Thor grunts when he is tossed to the ground, and laughs when he triumphs. Sif flips her braid over her shoulder and aims her spear squarely at the hollow at his brother's throat.
"Yield," Sif hisses. Loki averts his gaze, and smiles down at his book.
There is laughter in the lines of Thor's face, and Loki has to bite back his own laugh. Sif is fast—all who frequent the training ring knows of her hard fists, of the way she perches on your back and beats you into the dust. Loki wonders if he alone knows that Sif will fight harder than any of them, if they knew that she alone does not hold back.
"Yield, brother," He says without looking up. "Give the Lady Sif her victory while she still has it within her to be kind."
"You stay out of it," Sif snaps. "If you will not join us in the practice ring, then you shall have no say in the matter."
"Unlike my brother there," he replies, "pinned to the ground in such an undignified manner, I'd rather not be pummelled for sport."
"You'd lose, that's why." Thor quips, and bats Sif's arm. "Let up, I yield."
"On the contrary," he says, barely paying attention; a separate part of his mind is whirring away—numbers, figures, equations; his finger traces a line on the page of his book. "I'd hurt you."
Fandral chose that moment to make his presence felt. "He jests!" He rolls up one of his sleeves. "Will you, now?"
Loki smiles up at them. Sif has fallen back, her spear held lightly in one hand, one eyebrow raised. A month ago, they had faced the Boar of Nornheim alone, and she had watched as it ran through him and came out the other side, stupefied. In the shock afterwards, he had thrown his dagger.
He meets Sif's eyes over his brother's shoulder, and his mouth curves. Watch. Just watch.
Mjolnir is given on a summer's day, along with the promise of a throne.
The ceremony is lavish; Asgard is the Realm Eternal, and ruling, he has learnt over the years, is nothing if not a performance. Gold coins tossed to the commons, boar on the tables, the wine flowing in the streets; give your people display enough, and you win their loyalty. This is a lesson that the Allfather had not taught him, but this is a lesson he knows nonetheless. Courage, Thor proclaims, courage and bravery and Aesir spirit. That is all you need for the commons to follow you.
He stands next to his mother, and he smiles when his father presents his brother with the weapon.
Thor is gold and scarlet, his grin white and careless, and the people cheer and shout their approval. Loki's heart is hammering, and his hands are cold, and he hears it all as if from a very long distance away. Thor Odinson, Thor Light-bearer, Thor, the Thunder of Asgard, I hereby proclaim you my right and lawful heir. I hereby proclaim you king-to-be.
"I shall need you by my side," Thor had said before, his hand heavy between Loki's shoulder-blades. "When I'm king, I will need you with me. I will need your gifts, I will require you."
He had smiled. "Always."
Courage, and spirit, Thor had said, years ago, the two of them gazing over the golden skyline of the eternal city. That is what's worth following. Everything else is secondary.
Food in your belly, Loki had thought. A warm bed, a roof over your head, to live without fear. Oh, my brother. Nobility makes for a poor meal.
The Allfather does not hold festivities for naught. Wine is free and bread is free and even the coins tossed out at parades are free; but do not think for a moment that it comes without a price. "Of course," he had said at the time, smiling. "Asgardian courage. Asgardian spirit. Now you must gain it, brother."
There is a cold chill at the back of his neck and something heavy in the pit of his stomach. He watches Thor rise, watches him lift Mjolnir, listens to the crowd roars in response. The thought settles within him like a stone.
His father had not conquered the Jotunns with courage and spirit alone. His father had not won dominion over all the worlds of Yggdrasil by might alone. The heart is a powerful tool; it can rally troops and call on the brave and bear one's soul to the golden halls of Valhalla. But the heart, left unguarded, left unarmoured, is still a piece of meat.
He claps his brother on the back, and thinks; it takes more than heart to make a worthy king.
In the tales of men long dead and kingdoms felled by love and war alike, the heroes are always golden, are always brave, are always immovable like the mountains at the far side of the Realm Eternal. He reads of warring brothers, of the great Elf-kings of millennia past, of the sons of gods, of slayed monsters; of a single brave, righteous man, standing in a field of the slain.
O, sing, muse, he reads. Heavenly muse, muse of fire, patron muse. Sing of rage, of bravery, of justice, of strength.
Sing to me of war, of blood, of the mud-strewn corpses of our enemies, of my brother's sword; an arc in the air. Sing to me of all things immovable, of all things prized, sing to me of light; sing to me of heart. Sing to me of all that I lack.
He knows, and has known for many winters, of the divide between him and Thor. On quiet nights he lies awake, on the roof of the palace, in the gardens of the Allmother. On quiet nights he watches the stars curve around the branches of Yggdrasil, the blackness in the depth of space. He wonders if there is something desperately wrong with him; that he cannot love as Thor loves, that lies sit easier on his tongue than oaths.
"Sing, muse," he says out loud. The air around him is deafeningly silent.
If he be worthy, he shall possess the power of Thor.
His hand wraps around the hilt of Mjolnir. It is alive; this he had always known. If Thor had been blind to the magic in this piece of metal, he had been achingly aware of it—of the way it hums, of the way it sings, of the way it calls.
In a different continent, many hundreds of years ago, there had been something similar; a similar tale, the same story, carved into the annals of the universe. A sword, in a stone, waiting for the man worthy enough to wield it.
He pulls, and pulls, and pulls.
That man had been a king, too. But his crown was not stolen.
Watch, just watch.
The kernel of magic in his core is brightening, hardening, expanding, and when he stands, Fandral does not notice. When he stands, there is still a Loki, sitting cross-legged on the ground, smiling at an advancing Fandral.
Sif's bottom lip is caught between her teeth, and she is holding back a laugh, one hand held to her mouth.
"Were you not a prince of Asgard," Fandral says, and his voice is coming from very far away. "I would wipe the ground with you."
Thor shoves him. "And I shall give you to the kitchen wenches to use as a mop. Mind how you speak to my brother, Fandral."
"Were you not a thick-headed oaf, with more brains between your legs than your ears," Loki mouths, and the ghost enunciates the words. "You would."
Fandral lunges, and in the split second before his fingers grazed the ghost, Loki smiles, and ends the spell. Fandral lunges head first into a bramble brush.
"Ha!" Sif laughs out loud, clapping her hands over her mouth, and Thor is looking around in amazement. "You should have seen the look on your face!"
"Loki!" Thor exclaims, his eyes bright. "Brother, where are you?"
"Here," he says, and taps his brother on the shoulder. Gone.
"Here," he says, and flicks his brother's ear. Gone.
"Here," he says, and he is lounging on a tree branch, five meters away.
They have drawn a crowd. The youths of the noble families gather a little while away, and his heart is hammering in his chest; there is a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead, and his fingers are shaking. Thor is laughing, and in a flash, has pulled himself on to the same branch.
"You ass," Sif rolls her eyes, and goes over to help Fandral to his feet.
"You must teach me how to do that!" Thor exclaims. "Brother, together we can defeat all the great armies of the realms!"
His throat is tight—he has exerted too much energy. He manages a grin, and winks at Sif. "All the great armies," he repeats. "Beyond the unknown—I am talking about myself and the Lady Sif, who defeated you, of course."
Thor laughs, and shoves him good-naturedly.
In the crowd, gathering beyond their circle, the whispers are building. One word leaps out at him, low and heavy.
His fingers are shaking.
There is something building in the confines of his chest, a weight settling in his heart; he feels as though he cannot breathe. He steels his hands, and slowly, inch by inch, he takes off his helm.
Thor Odinson, Thor Light-bearer; Thor, the Thunder of Asgard, I hereby proclaim you my right and lawful heir.
He bites down hard on his mouth, and sets his helm down on the great wooden table on the other side of his room; a gift from the dignitary of Vanaheimr. There is a burgeoning silence, blooming around him like the moonflowers in Frigga's garden; fed by the night. Fed by the dark, by the cold, by the black space between stars. His hand curls into a fist, and he clenches his jaw.
He hears her approach before she opens his door.
He lifts his head, but does not turn around to face her. His voice, when he speaks, is calm. "Yes?"
Sif's gown rustles against the black marble of his floors. The heels of her shoes click against the ground. "You left early."
"Forgive me, my lady." He forces a wry humour into his voice. "I have no stomach for drinking contests. I fear I shall make a fool of myself."
The lie shatters before it has left his mouth fully. The words are too measured, too precise. It comes across as an equation rather than a jest. He feels Sif stir.
Her words are careful. "Thor loves Asgard."
Thor loves a great many things. Thor loves his father, his mother, the Warriors Three. He loves Sif, he loves hunting, he loves the roar of the battlefield. He loves a good vintage.
He loves his brother.
Thor loves a great deal of things. Not all of the things he loves returns his love quite the same way.
He has to clench his hand hard, nails biting into his palm like daggers, to keep his voice low and calm. "Do you think he shall be a good king?"
Courage and guile, love and cold, calculated figures. A king must possess the light and the dark and in equal measure; a king's worth is measured in the silver of his tongue as much as in the application of his heart. Why then, he thinks, does the throne only seat one?
He can smell the clean, sweet scent that clings to her hair as she drifts near. Her words come slowly, but they are precise. "I think he is a worthy heir."
"Ah," he says. His nails have broken skin. "Worthy. I see."
Thor's hand is clenched tight around Mjolnir, the veins in his hands standing thick and distinct.
This is madness.
His voice comes from very far away, drifting across to him like the spices from the markets below. Loki, this is madness. This is madness. This is madness.
Even the basest creatures seek the light. Even the snake in the grass, the scorpion beneath the rock, the eel in the creek; all the dumb and deaf and venomous creatures of all the worlds reach heavenwards for the light that nature denies them. Darkness grows harrowing; there is nothing so stifling as shadow.
Thor Light-bearer, he thinks, vicious. Golden son of Asgard.
"Is it?" He hisses. "Is it?"
His fingers clench; he readies himself for the killing blow.
Oh, sing, muse.
He is escorted down the golden hall of kings with his brother's hand on his back.
The mask digs into his cheek; it is cold against the lines of his jaw. His wrists are chafed red, and he wants to laugh. The hall is full; Asgardian nobles lined up in silent, taut rows. No one bows.
He is forced to his knees at the base of the steps, and above him, Odin Allfather stands, Gungnir clasped in hand.
Allfather. You look weary.
Thor steps back, and Odin's mouth is a stern, silent line. His gaze does not waver.
Loki Silvertongue stares up at the man who had been his father, who had fed him and sheltered him and lied to him and used him, and when he grins, blood fills his mouth. He holds the old man's gaze, does not flinch for an instant. He imagines the hall reduced to ashes, to crumbling bones, to a rotten realm falling apart at the seams.
What a great mistake you have made, Allfather, he thinks.
I am a worthy son.