a/n:

well, this is it - the last chapter! i'm sorry that i basically did the opposite of what i said in my last notes, but there were a lot of decisions to make in this ending. originally i thought i had it written out, but i ended up changing several things, and it turned out to be quite different...and quite longer =3=

thank you so so so much for everyone who's stuck with me this far; i really couldn't have finished this without all your support and i'm really grateful that you guys dealt with my sporadic updating and typos and just everything as;fdlkjsdfl ; m ;

i've really enjoyed writing this story, and i hope you could say the same about reading it

p.s. i listened to talk by coldplay on repeat while writing most of this and it was fitting and /sighs
i'm gonna miss this story


cxvi.

Oddly, he remembers something, right before he hits the water: a memory that comes in a quick flash, and later he'll think back on it and wonder if it was the start of his life passing before his eyes.

They once tried on their father's suits just for fun, and Loki remembers the way the fabric had limply on him. "You look ridiculous," Thor told him, while the jacket suited him just right.

"No more than you," Loki protested and left it on for a little while longer, feeling the heavy draping of the cloth.

He likes to think that his brother was not the cause of the fall, that the jacket of his suit had become so heavy throughout the night that it threw him off balance. Loki puts a foot in front of himself to stop the fall, but there is nothing to hold on to, and something twists horribly in his foot before he's falling.

The heaters are off during after school hours, and the temperature of the water is evident of that. The first instinct is to start kicking his way back up to the surface and he moves to do so, only for a sharp pain to come racing through his body.

Loki shouts, and of course there is no sound under water, and water starts filling up his mouth fast until he clamps it shut again. He screwed his eyes closed as soon as he started falling, but he thinks chlorine might have gotten in them anyway, because they sting. Or perhaps they're tears.

Something brushes his cheek and he cries out again, swatting at the object. Later he'll come to know it's simply his tie, which had become loosened, but he does not know that now. There's a terrible nightmare he had once, and it parallels the present with a frightening accuracy: all he can is darkness and he cannot feel any surface beneath his feat and his chest feels like it's about to burst-

Thor, he pleads in his mind, or maybe it came out of his mouth too. Maybe his brother is still standing there on the edge, expecting him to come back up. But I can't, he thinks moving his right leg again and earning a jolt of pain for his troubles, I can't, brother, please-

. . .

cxvii.

Do you know how the story ends, Thor?

Would you like to know what happens to the little brother?

. . .

cxviii.

He wakes up in a white room, and honest to goodness, when he first opens his eyes, he thinks he's really died this time, fourteen years too late. There's a stranger sitting by the side of his bed and two more sitting in chairs. The blankets feel itchy against his skin.

"Loki," someone says, and it's the one sitting by his bed who's spoken.

It comes back slowly, at first: Finding the letters, arriving at the dance, feeling dizzy, retreating into the pool.

Then, all at once: a fight, being pushed, the pain, hitting the water, feeling so scared that he'd thought he would die of a heart attack before he drowned-

"Where am I," Loki says. His vision is swimming. When he moves his leg, it feels heavy, and he reaches under the covers to find a cast around his ankle.

His parents have awoken too. "Loki," says his mother, drawing him close. It's a little too fast and his head throbs, but he himself be held. "Thor, let them know he's awake," she says.

Loki stops paying attention after that. He tunes in to only half of what's happening, allows them to check his body, answers their questions, tries hard not to think of how chlorine feels and tastes and smells. Thor is looking at him; he can feel the heavy weight of his brother's stare.

While the release papers are being signed, Thor says, quietly, "He can come home in my car."

Their mother is quick to react. "No," she says, "Loki is coming in the car with us." For the first time, Loki notices the distance between his parents and his brother. It was too subtle to catch his attention before, but now he sees it, and he looks between them hesitantly.

"Frigga," his father murmurs, setting a hand on her shoulder. "Let him."

His mother clearly wants to disallow it, but they all know: everything their father did, he did for a reason.

"Do you need help?" Thor says as Loki climbs out of the bed.

"No." The crutches support him well. He moves forward experimentally, then stops near the door. "Are you coming," he says, not a question. Thor opens the door for him in a stiff motion.

He wants to tell his parents that he would rather ride in their car. He doesn't want to deal with the inevitable discomfort of being in such a small space with Thor. Not yet, at least, when the scars of his words have yet to fade, much less begin to heal: Maybe you're right. Maybe-

He'd had no idea what the argument turned into, only that Thor was suddenly denouncing him.

-we're not brothers after all.

. . .

cxix.

He gets into the back seat. Thor was clearly expecting him to sit in the passenger's seat, but quickly recovers from his surprise. They pull out of the hospital parking lot, and Loki's crutches are bumped around. Their parents' car is right behind them.

"They asked me what happened," Thor says, which Loki was expecting but not at all ready for.

He doesn't want to answer. He has no obligation to. But he also had no obligation to do anything else for Thor that he's ever done.

Their parents will talk to him later - this he also expects. This is what he tells Thor. This is what he adds: "And I will tell them the truth, all of it."

They stop at a red light. He's sitting directly behind his brother, so he cannot see his face. He leans against the window as much as he can, so that Thor can't see him through the rear view window either.

"You will only confirm what they've heard from me," comes the response.

Loki barks out a laugh. "What modifications have you made to the story?"

"None."

"Liar."

"I'm sick of fighting, Loki." The car starts moving again. "When we fight, I hurt you. I don't want to hurt you, I never mean to hurt you. I don't want to fight.

"I told them the truth. I left out...unnecessary details, but I assure you, they know that I was the one whose anger got out of control. I pushed you into the water, and then I left you for dead."

Loki already knows these, but things always hurt more when they're said out loud. "Who pulled me out?"

"I don't know. Steve? I don't know." Pause. "The next thing I knew, someone had called 911 and...you were just lying there and you looked so pale and you weren't moving." Pause. "They let me ride in the back of the ambulance with you. I held your hand and it was cold and I thought you'd died. And now I realize that if they hadn't managed to get all that water out, my last words to you would have been..."

Thor trails off; both of them already know.

They arrive at the house a few minutes before their parents. Thor pulls the keys out of the ignition, but neither of them make a move to leave.

"Do you want to know," Loki says, voice thick, "what happened to the little brother?"

Thor doesn't answer, but answer or not, Loki would have kept going anyway.

"It started storming one day, while they were out in the forest. They tried to run home, but the narrator was running a little too fast. He heard his brother calling out for him, but he was fueled by spite and by anger, and he outran him.

"Eventually he stopped. Eventually he could think again, and he turned around and went searching for his brother."

Lights flash as their parents turn into the driveway. Suddenly, it's hard to find the words to finish.

"Loki-"

"I hate you," is what comes out instead.

He gathers his crutches and leaves the car.

. . .

cxx.

Their parents do talk to him that night, when Thor has retreated into his own room. They sit on the foot of his bed, the first time they have done so in a long time.

"Loki," one of them says softly, "we need you to tell us what really happened."

He does. And then a lot of other things come out, too: the picnic, the bruises, the letters. He almost wants to cry in relief; for how long has he practiced this confession? How long has he waited to finally tell someone?

Then there are also details that he withholds, of the library and the swimming lessons and Valentine's Day - not because they are too intimate, but more importantly because only he and one other person are allowed to know about them. They remind him that there were times before this, before something went wrong somewhere, and he will not let them be tarnished with the ugliness of the way things are now.

His mother holds him through it, but he's fine, really. No, he's great, he's soaring, it feels exhilarating while he speaks.

And if a sense of betrayal starts manifesting in his chest as it's always wont to do, he ignores it.

. . .

cxxi.

Someone comes into his room that same night.

Loki refuses to give any sign that he's awake. If anything, he would like to fall back asleep.

Finally, he hears the creak of the door opening wider. Then: the rustle of clothing as someone kneels down next to the side of his bed.

A hand comes down on his shoulder, and that's when he knows it's Thor, when it slides down to cup the back of his neck.

It's frustrating, the next few minutes: All Thor does is simply stand there.

"I know you might never forgive me for what I did, Loki," Thor says, suddenly, and Loki flinches. Thor must have feared he was waking, because the hand on his neck is lifted.

A few seconds of silence pass.

"But I love you. And- god, I know it's too late and it'll hardly make a difference, but for what it's worth- I'm so sorry, Loki."

The mattress dips, and then Thor touches his lips lightly to his cheek.

Expecting him to do more, Loki waits-

-and waits and waits and waits until he can't take the following silence anymore and opens his eyes and sits up in bed.

But his room is empty.

He tries to lie back down and sleep. The closed door is an image that burns itself into the inside of his eyelids and commits itself into his memory.

. . .

cxxii.

He doesn't go after him.

What he thinks is this: I'll talk to him in the morning. We will sort everything out.

. . .

cxxiii.

Except Loki doesn't Thor at all the next day. Or the next, or the day after that, and then the day after that.

"Where's Thor?" he asks on the third night.

His parents do little to stop him from going upstairs and throwing his brother's door open. "Stop avoiding me-" he starts, and never finishes; Thor's room looks virtually untouched.

"Thor?" Loki says to the empty room. The closet is half open and he can see that it's empty. "Thor," he tries again, a little louder this time, because his brother could be hiding somewhere and he might have been difficult to hear.

"Thor, it's okay, you can come out now," he says, opening the closet door the rest of the way. No, Thor isn't inside.

So he puts his crutches aside and tries under the bed, because it used to be Thor's favorite hiding place when they played hide-and-seek.

No, he isn't under there, either.

"Thor," he says, his voice cracking, and no, he does not get a response.

His last words had been "I hate you."

. . .

cxxiv.

We... We all agreed that it was for the best, Loki.

"We?" He agreed that he would leave me?

He was hurting you, Loki. We all saw that. Sending him away was for the best.

He never meant to hurt me! I'm his brother, he loved me, and I love him-

. . .

cxxv.

He seems him at school. He catches him once, during his lunch period, and he grips Thor's arm tightly, afraid that he will simply walk away. "You can come home, Thor." It's not a plea. He swears, it's not.

"I left for a reason." Thor bends his head towards him and speaks in a low voice, like he's admitting some secret. "I can't go back, Loki."

The warning bell rings, giving Thor an excuse to gently slide his fingers off and leave with one last, "It's for the best."

"How is it 'for the best' when I-" But he is talking to an empty hallway by this point.

This is the last time he and Thor speak for a long, long time.

. . .

cxxvi.

The rest of the school year blurs past.

He attends the graduation ceremony and he finds himself smiling through tears when he hears Thor's name get called and his brother steps up onto the stage. After Thor accepts his diploma, he turns to wave to the crowd, and Loki thinks that their eyes meet for a second. Then Thor is being ushered off.

Loki tries to find him after the ceremony. No, he doesn't succeed.

. . .

cxxvii.

Two days after the graduation ceremony: his parents show him the adoption papers.

. . .

cxxviii.

He isn't the same after that. Everyone tells him so, but he thinks they're wrong - he hasn't been the same since almost drowning.

His ankle heals and he gets the cast off a month into his sophomore year. Everyone knows what's happened to him, of course, and not all of them are exactly sympathetic (not that Loki needs any of their sympathy). One of them makes an off-handed comment and Loki ends up doing something to his locker.

He won't ever remember what he did, only that it's bad enough that for the rest of the week, people are either giving him looks of awe or distaste. Sif and the rest of Thor's friends give him the latter.

Which is fine. He realizes he likes the attention, because now the spotlight for some other reason than being the kid who almost drowned. If the shift in his behavior bothers his teachers, all they do is give him pitiful looks during class.

He doesn't remember much of the rest of high school, either.

. . .

cxxix.

He does remember that it's hard.

He graduates a semester early, and when he finally leaves high school behind, he moves out to an apartment closer to the college he's been accepted to. He's decided he wants to be something along the lines of a graphic designer, but he's not even a hundred percent sure about that. And it's been long enough that he wishes he could talk to Thor about it, because he's learned his lesson after bursting into the room next to his and realizing for the nth time that Thor isn't there any more.

The first thing he does on his own is drive two states away, to the street address written on the upper left hand corner of a four-year-old envelope. There is an elderly couple who lives there, and Loki tentatively asks if they might know anyone by the name of Balder.

And yes, replies the father, in fact, that's our son, why are you looking for him? And Loki is about to start explaining when Balder himself appears behind the couple.

"It's me," Loki says when they're alone on the porch, a smile tugging at his mouth. "Loki."

"You've grown, Balder remarks with the most priceless expression on his face. "You- I couldn't recognize you at first."

His hair has grown longer and more unkempt without someone he can trust to cut it. He's taken to simply smoothing it back so it's out of his way. "I'm sorry?" he offers. Balder laughs and invites him in.

There's more he wants to say. He wants to apologize for not writing back. He wants to tell Balder about everything that's happened since he left. He wants to know how his new school is. He wants to ask if he's still interested in music.

When they bother to glance outside again, it's already gotten dark and Balder tells him they have a guest bedroom. "How long did you say you took to drive here? Five hours? Yeah, I'm not going to let you go home now."

So Loki stays the night. While he's changing into the night clothes that Balder gave him, the other boy speaks up, "Did you ever get my present?"

Months too late. "The snow globe? Yes, and it's wrapped up in layers upon layers of tissue paper so it doesn't break while I'm moving into my new apartment. I'm going to put it on my center table."

"I can't tell if you're being serious or not."

"I'm being completely serious."

Balder laughs, and Loki can't stop himself from smiling. He's missed this. He's missed Balder. He's missed having a friend.

"And...so you read my letter, right?" Balder sounds a little more hesitant this time.

Yes, he did, and he still has it packed carefully away in his suitcase. Loki nods.

"You know," Balder muses, "you never did tell me who you liked."

"Doesn't matter now." Loki shrugs. "It didn't work out."

"Oh. I'm sorry."

"Why are you apologizing?" Loki rolls his eyes at him. "But what about you? I never heard you talking about who you liked, either." He realizes the implication of his words a split second too late.

Thankfully, Balder doesn't take it the wrong way. "I met a girl a year ago, actually," he replies sheepishly. His cheeks are a faint red. "Her name's Karnilla and she's... She's just great, Loki."

He goes on about her, and Loki listens intently, becoming gladder as Balder grows more animated. He genuinely feels happy for him; if anyone deserved to be happy, it was Balder. "I'll have to meet her some time," he teases. "Have you played your lute for her yet?"

"She doesn't know about that-"

The rest of the night goes as pleasantly as this, and Loki sleeps peacefully for a change. In the morning, he wishes he didn't have to leave, but he has one more stop to make before going home.

"I put my number into your phone," Balder tells him on the way out. "I'll text you, and you better not take four years to return contact."

Loki cracks a wry smile. "That was one time. I'm usually punctual, I'll have you know."

Thirty minutes later, as he's waiting at a red light, he purposely sends a text to Balder just to prove his point.

. . .

cxxx.

His next stop is two hours away: a cemetery. He makes his way slowly down the rows of tombstones until he finally reaches one with a certain name on it. This is the man he was told about.

He puts down a bouquet of flowers: peonies for a father he's never known.

. . .

cxxxi.

And life goes on.

Loki doesn't know what else he could say about it. It's not fair that the world could keep spinning on while he didn't have Thor by his side, while he was suffering like this, but it does, and he has no other choice but to move on with it.

He runs into Steve once, while he's wandering downtown. Sometime during their conversation - which is a little strained - Loki says, "I never thanked you for saving me."

Steve shoots him a puzzled look.

"You pulled me out of the pool, didn't you? I was... That's what Thor..."

"Loki," Steve says, looking puzzled, "I didn't pull you out. Thor did."

. . .

cxxxii.

He knows where Thor is. No, he's known where Thor is. His adoptive mother told him before he left for college; a parting gift, of sorts. But he's never had the courage to do anything with the two addresses: his college, and his apartment.

It's four states away, but he makes the drive. His first visit is during Thanksgiving break, where he waits anxiously by the front for a sign of Thor. No, he doesn't see him that day, and he ends up going home disappointed.

He comes back when the holiday break begins and ends up waiting so long, his car stalls out. It's all due to the unreasonable amount of snow, he's sure, and he's kicking ice off his tires when someone approaches and asks, "Need some help?"

Loki already knows who it is.

. . .

cxxxiii.

But Thor doesn't seem like he can say the same.

"I think you're good now," he says as he finishes checking on the rest of Loki's car. "But it's generally a bad idea to park here. We try to warn all the freshmen on their first days, but do any of them ever listen?"

"I-" Loki wants to get in his car and drive far away and never come back. He should never have come here. What made him think he was ready for this? "I don't go here."

"About to graduate high school soon and just staking out the place, then?"

"No, I'm already in my second year of college, actually."

"You don't look like it." Thor grins, even though their height difference is blatantly close. "So what were you doing here?"

"Nothing. My car just happened to break down here."

"Perfectly parallel-parked?"

Loki feels his cheeks heating up in embarrassment. "Look, thank you for fixing my car, but I have to-"

"There's a café just down the street. You look like you're about to freeze, so I'm going to buy you a cup of hot chocolate and then you can up and leave me."

When he says it like that, it makes Loki feel guilty. Moreover, he hasn't seen nor talked to Thor in years, and while it's unnerving that they're speaking so casually, it's contact. He misses Thor.

Fifteen minutes later finds them sitting in a booth together, Thor wiping up a spill because no matter how much older he's become, apparently he's still prone to knocking things over. "Sorry." Thor tosses the napkins into a trash bin before sliding into the seat across of him.

"Do you still play football?" Loki blurts without thinking, and Thor casts him a curious look. "I mean," Loki hastens to correct himself, "you look like the type."

"Well." To his relief, the suspicion seems to fade from Thor's face. "I do, whenever I get to meet up with my friends from high school. But when you're studying to become a lawyer, you don't exactly have a lot of time for things like that, right?"

Loki blinks. "You're going to become a lawyer?" He would be lying if he said this didn't feel like the old days, when he would be awed by his big brother.

"I didn't see it coming either, to be honest," Thor replies with a grin, and Loki's chest hurts a little.

Eventually they run out of hot chocolate and Thor has to attend to other things. "But if you're gonna be in town tonight, you should come by my apartment." He writes it on one of the napkins, even though Loki already knows the address by heart. "All we talked about was me. There's still you."

Thor not being able to recognize him - that's not what hurts the most. It's knowing that Thor could be so open with a stranger he just "met," and Loki starts thinking whether Thor even thinks about him at all.

"I never told you my name," he says, when Thor makes to leave.

"It's okay," Thor says, still smiling, though it's tinged with something like sadness. "I could never forget your face."

. . .

cxxxiv.

It had terrified him and he almost didn't come to Thor's apartment that night.

A year from now, Loki will look back on this moment and feel glad that he made the opposite decision.

He knocks on the apartment door and on the third knock, Thor answers.

"Hi," Loki says, only to be suddenly swept up into someone's arms.

"Welcome home," Thor says into his shoulder, "welcome home, Loki."

. . .

cxxxv.

"Did you honestly think I wouldn't recognize you?"

They're sitting on the couch together, watching some Christmas special on the TV.

Loki doesn't reply. He thought he managed to keep his memories under control, but evidently that's not the case; fragments start coming back and he drums his fingers on his knees, anxious. Thor's knee is just barely touching his and it's an effort not to move to the other side of the couch.

Baby steps.

"I was thinking," one of them says with great trepidation, "we could start over."

. . .

cxxxvi.

It was Loki who said it, because it is Thor who responds with a sharp:

"No." He adds with great difficulty: "I once- I once tried to- drown you, Loki."

"Do you think you're the only one who this is hard for? I had every right to forget about you after what you did, to just carry on with my life - but I came back here because we might not be brothers and we might not have acted like brothers, but we still spent years thinking we were.

"You may have hurt me, but you helped me far more often, and I can't spend half of my life with someone, only to have to forget about them in the end. That's not fair."

"It's not about being fair, Loki-"

"You said you loved me, and I- I still love you. That's why I'm here. And if you meant what you said, then you...you would at least try, too."

Thor isn't looking at him. The only movement he makes is to shut the TV off, filling the room with a sudden silence.

When he talks again, he does so with stinging eyes and a heavy voice: "It won't be easy."

. . .

cxxxvii.

No, it's not easy.

But time passes and they haven't fallen apart, and Loki will take that more than anything as a sign that they are doing something right.

Months later, Thor asks:

"You never did tell me how that story ends."

Loki's cooking breakfast for them. They only times they get to physically see each other on weekends and holidays - besides that, they're either calling or texting. He thinks that the distance between them frustrates Thor sometimes, but he never once hears him complain about it.

Loki personally likes it. The days in between their meetings give him time to adjust to everything that's happening. He still has nightmares about drowning, even though they've been less frightening since he found out who had saved him.

No, he hasn't gotten over what happened between them, and he's admitted this to Thor, who in return reminds him that that's okay, that he understands, that he will wait as long as it takes.

They do fight. Things in the past do get dredged up. They do end up hurting each other, and though none of the wounds are ever physical, each one of those fights reminds Loki of when they were younger. He does, on numerous occasions, regret coming back. He does contemplate never coming back to see Thor.

But by the next morning, both of them would still be there - and for Loki, that's what counts. Thor has apologized over and over for what he's done, and Loki forgives him each time, but they've yet to formally address it. He doesn't know when that time will come, but for the time being he and Thor trust each other enough, and they have the rest of their lives to have that talk, along with so many other things. They will take one step at a time.

"The story of the scarlet ibis?" Loki asks over his shoulder as he turns on the burner.

"What other story was there?"

Loki tries to remember where he had left off. It's a little uncomfortable to think about the story again and now, of all times. But he supposes it was bound to come up again soon. "Eventually, the narrator's anger died down enough that he stopped and turned around to look for his brother." He focuses on the food in front of him. "He finds him under a tree, dead."

The vegetables are cooking and there's nothing else he can distract himself with, so he turns to the sink.

Perhaps he will never understand why Thor didn't tell him he was the one who pulled him out of the water.

. . .

cxxxviii.

Later, Thor will come up behind him, puts his arms carefully around his waist, and murmur into his shoulder, "It's a good thing that isn't our story."

. . .

cxxxix.

It took weeks alone for Thor to be able to touch him without Loki recoiling. He hopes that means Thor will be around even longer.

Loki isn't sure what will become of them, if they will ever be as intimate as they were. Sometimes he wishes they could be, though sometimes he's glad for the ambiguity. It takes a while for him to realize that he doesn't care how his and Thor's relationship is labelled - as long as Thor is in his life in the first place.

. . .

cxxxx.

No, it's not easy; it's anything but easy.

But isn't that what makes most things worth trying for?