Thor studied Loki for a moment, taking in what his brother had just said and what it meant, before slowly leaning forward and resting his hand over his brother's on the bed.
He had done it for him.
He had save Odin...for him.
For his brother.
"Thank You..." Thor whispered
At the familiar contact, Loki's immediately pulled his eyes from the ceiling and turned his head back to face his brother
"You're…welcome," he replied softly, seemingly taken aback by the sentiment
The brothers locked eyes for a few moments before Loki spoke again.
"Thor…" he began, quirking an eyebrow
"Yes?" Thor responded, blinking his eyes to release himself from being lost in his brother's gaze
"You can…let go of… my hand now," Loki said in an uncomfortable tone of voice, his eyes awkwardly looking down to where Thor still grasped his pale hand
"Oh… yes…" Thor said immediately, quickly removing his hand from Loki's, "Sorry…"
"No, it's fine—" Loki smirked, flexing his now free hand before bringing it to rest on his chest as he watched Thor sit back and shift nervously in his chair, then continued in a teasing tone to lighten the mood, "At—at least you didn't hug me…Because that…would have been awkward."
"Agreed," Thor added before his eyes met his brother's again and they shared a small smile.
Just then, there was a knock on the door and one of the healers entered carrying bandages and healing herbs to change Loki's dressing.
"Well…" she smiled kindly, eying Loki as if surprised to see him awake, "Welcome back. We were worried about you…especially this one." she said, nodding to Thor
"I—uh—I should go," Thor quickly interjected and stood, looking back and forth from the healer to his brother, "Everyone will want to know that you made it through the night. I'll—I'll come back later…alright?"
Loki smirked uncertainly and nodded, narrowing his eyes in confusion as he watched his brother turn and exit the room, his cape flowing behind him.
"That was not at all odd…" Loki mused, his eyes still following Thor's path as the nurse rounded the bed and began tending his bandaged chest.
"I think he was worried I would give him away," she smiled softly as she worked
"What?" Loki replied, his eyes moving to her now, "What do you mean?"
"That he was here all night. We offered him a bed, but he said he preferred the chair. We weren't sure when or if you would wake up—you were in a blood loss induced coma— but, he refused to leave your side. The All Father, too was here—"
"Wait," Loki suddenly interrupted, his eyebrow rising, "Odin was here?"
"Yes, My Lord," the healer continued as removed the bandage from his chest, "But, in all honesty, The Great Mother didn't think his magics would work on you. I guess she was wrong."
"Magics?" Loki countered with a hiss under his breath in pain as she applied the healing salve to the top of his wound then turned him slightly on his side to look at his back, "But my father hasn't used magics in a very long time."
"All I know is that we were ordered to leave him so that he could work on you for at least an hour, trying to refocus your mind while you slept," the healer added as she lowered Loki onto his back again and began wrapping the new bandage around his rib cage, "He wasn't ready to give up on you and the Great Mother didn't have the heart to tell him no. He was absolutely convinced that he could bring you back from the coma—that you just needed someone to guide you back."
Loki closed his eyes as he laid his head back on the pillow while the nurse continued to work on him.
"The North Star…" he whispered to himself, remembering his father lying next to him in the field in his dream.
# # # #
"Father," Thor acknowledged as he met Odin in the main hallway just outside the healing room.
"Is he awake?" Odin asked hopefully as he approached his son
"He is," Thor smiled, "Whatever you did…it worked."
Odin sighed in relief as he closed the final distance between himself and his eldest son, then rested a triumphant hand on Thor's shoulder
"How is he feeling?" Odin asked curiously
"Why don't you go in—" Thor urged, but Odin quickly removed his hand from his son's shoulder and held it up to silence him as he shook his head.
"No…he won't want to see me," he said sadly
"You don't know that—" Thor continued, but Odin swiftly cut him off again
"Just tell me he's alright," Odin replied
Thor nodded reluctantly, then gave his report.
"He's alright. He's in some pain, but he assures me that he'll be fine—that 'he's been through worse'."
He and Odin shared a smirk
"Spoken like a true king…" Odin mused
"Indeed." Thor agreed
A silence fell between them for another moment and Thor watched as Odin's eyes wandered toward the healing room door as if he was contemplating walking through and asking to see his son.
"Father—" Thor finally broke the silence, stepping forward toward Odin
But, the All Father quickly pulled himself out of his trance and pulled his eyes from door, focusing them on Thor.
"We should regroup with the others. They are waiting in the Great Hall," he said, turning on his heel and leading the way back down the hallway, waving for Thor to follow him, "Now that we know Loki is alright, we can decide what to do next about the Celestials."
# # # # # # #
Scores of armed guards, lining the main hallway to the central command bridge of the Celestial war bird hovering high in space above the nine realms, immediately snapped to attention as their military leader, Arishem The Judge, passed with his personal assistants and bodyguards trailing close behind.
At least twenty more soldiers and pilots came to attention as the sliding doors to the bridge opened and Arishem entered, taking his seat in the commander's chair to receive the guests who had recently arrived aboard. They were Celestial government officials and diplomats, in the form of twin brothers.
The brothers were smaller than the average Celestial, about seven feet tall, and covered in the traditional formal white armor reserved for council and government agents. And like all government agents, didn't stand on formal ceremony or greeting and went straight to the point of their visit without further build up or eloquence.
"Not one of our soldiers returned…" Devron the Experimenter, said in his native tongue, turning from the large paneled windows of the ship's viewing deck at the front of the bridge to face Arishem the Judge where he sat and clasping his hands formally behind his back, "Not one. And to add insult to injury, the Asgardian survives."
"The One Above All is not impressed," Devron's companion and twin brother, Gamiel the Manipulator, added, himself turning away from the windows and coming to Devron's side to also face Arishem, "And he grows impatient. You know that he needs certain assurances before we attempt to conquer Earth once more…"
"I remember…" Arishem replied, his eyes darkening in anger behind his helmet visor, "And he will have those assurances. My word is my bond. I will not allow our people to be defeated..."
"You say this," Devron interjected, straightening his posture, "Yet Loki still lives and is still in possession of the sacred relic—"
"The assault on Asgard failed, yes," Arishem relented, then immediately rebounded, "But, I can assure you and our great leader that Loki will die and the sacred relic will be returned to our people. I am already gathering forces to—"
"No." Devron said sternly, holding up a hand to silence Arishem as he took a step forward, "We tried it your way—with physical violence—" he said, stopping to share a look of mild disgust with Gamiel before continuing, "and the results were... disappointing."
"The council has given us instructions to go another path now…" Gamiel chimed in
"And what way is that?" Arishem scoffed, "Asgardians only respond to physical action—they are not negotiators by nature. Odin's father and ancestors proved that a thousand time over and so has Loki's brother, Thor."
"Oh, believe me," Gamiel continued, "We've been doing our research on Asgardian nature and we've kept a special eye on both Loki and Thor. And we have calculated, not just their physical strength, but their intellectual capabilities as well. You may be correct in thinking that Thor is a more 'physical' being, but Loki…" Gamiel trailed off, looking over his shoulder and smirking back at Devron, before continuing, "Loki is very clever. If we are going to beat him at his own game and get back what was stolen from us, we will need to outsmart him, not sucker punch him and hope he stays down."
Arishem took in a heated breath and leaned back in his command chair, defeated, as Devron smirked and Gamiel raised an eyebrow before stepping down and walking past Arishem across the room to the guard standing at the main bridge door.
"Alright..." Arishem said, quickly glancing over his shoulder at Gamiel where he was now speaking to the guard, before turning his sharp gaze back on Devron, "What do you two brains propose?"
"You might remember that we have moles on Earth," Gamiel stated, suddenly appearing in front of Arishem and coming to stand at Devron's side once more, "From them we've learned of the 'Avengers Initiative' and more specifically the details of what happened three months ago when Loki arrived on Earth at the head of a Chitauri militia, wishing to rule it and its people. The Avengers—which included Loki's brother, Thor—stopped him and returned him to his home realm, where he has been kept in seclusion in an Asgardian dungeon."
"His time in there seems to have broken him of his diabolical streak and tamed the personal demons that raged inside him and caused him to go so far astray…" Devron observed
"Happy news to his brother, we understand," Gamiel continued, "Who seems to want nothing more than his redemption. In fact, we understand from our sources, that he freed him when he heard of our impending return and plans, along with an entourage of Avengers, to bring Loki back to Earth to aide in staving us off, Commander."
"You've calculated his physical strength and lost, Arishem…" Devron added with a cheeky smirk
"So, you plan to calculate his mental strength?" Arishem challenged, sitting forward, "If so, you've already answered your own question in that regard…Loki is as clever as mortals and immortals come. You will fail in any attempt to manipulate him."
"Oh, we don't plan to calculate or even challenge his mental strength…" Gamiel said, as he looked past the commander to the figure who now entered the room and Devron nodded a greeting to their guest, causing Arishem to turn and follow their gazes to rest his own on the interloper—it was Nezarr, the Calculator, "We plan to calculate what he can't see coming."
Arishem was very familiar with Nezarr. He was known on their planet as a well-respected scientist, researcher and mathematician…though, mainly kept out of the public eye and rarely sent on colonial exploits of other planets due to a slight genetic affliction that had made him a valuable asset to Celestial government intelligence.
"You see, we plan to exploit the mental strength of his companions…" Devron explained, "Thor...the Avengers..."
"And if all goes well, they'll break…" Gamiel added, "And they'll turn on him, completing our task of both finishing off Loki and taking back the sacred relic."
"And just how do you propose to bring about such a reaction?" Arishem questioned, genuinely curious
"By bringing back a face from the not so distant past," Devron answered, then bowed his head to their guest, "Nezarr...a demonstration, if you please…"
Nazarr immediately stepped forward and in a burst of light, showed off his remarkable talent, transforming himself from a nine-foot tall, armored alien like his brethren, into the five foot, nine inch form of Agent Phil Coulson.