It didn't feel like their journey took a year. It felt like it took so much less, like they might arrive home with the night of their departure having not yet fully passed, and so much more, as though they might return to find everything they had left behind them withered to dust. It didn't help that time passed differently between the Void, on different worlds that turned at different speeds.
But, by the standards of the worlds they'd left behind them, their journey home took a year. And what a year it was, a story Thor was resolved that all the great singers should know once he'd taken enough time to sort out the events in his head. He saw worlds he'd never imagined, worlds that even Asgard's long histories had never recorded. They sustained themselves on monsters out of dreams and nightmares, and survived off the kindnesses or commerce of other races that either had no knowing of the network of realms around them or no desire to get involved.
They traveled together as they hadn't in centuries, and even if Thor knew what lay at the end of their road if it was successful, he couldn't deny enjoying himself. Even through the hardships, fear, and pain that went along with forging a trail back to familiar places through unknown ones, the fact that all of that came with Loki's presence left it, overall, a good thing. He hadn't realized just how much he'd come to miss having his brother's company for prolonged periods of time. He'd merely gotten used to its absence.
Only once, under a blood red sky with a black sea churning beneath them, as they huddled together in a cave on the edge of the cliffs, waiting for the storm to pass, did Thor even tentatively raise the idea of trying to convince Mother and Father to end Loki's sentence upon their return.
Loki had slapped him for it.
"I will not have your pity," he'd growled, green eyes bright with anger. "That will never change, brother. If you trust me in anything, trust me in this."
Privately, Thor suspected the matter ran deeper than that. Perhaps Loki saw his imprisonment as yet another challenge to overcome, an obstacle to beat, and being freed from it as tantamount to surrendering. Perhaps he'd come to enjoy the isolation and the work, at least compared to facing the rest of the universe. Perhaps he still thought he deserved to toil for what he'd done. Truth be told, on the grand scales of cosmic balance that Asgardian justice attempted to operate by, he did. Thor knew that. But after seeing how hard Loki had fought, how far he'd come…he'd caught himself wondering if there might be another way to see things.
Loki was adamant, however, and Thor respected that. He was even proud of Loki for his insistence, whatever motivations drove him to it, and did not bring up the matter again. Really, he was privately glad to be spared having to have his loyalties torn in two all over again. Once had nearly ruined him.
Thor learned in their travels together that Loki still had nightmares. He'd never been a peaceful sleeper, but now was his first opportunity to see just how much matters had worsened in recent years. Sometimes they were silent things that merely left him hollow-eyed and grim when he awoke. Sometimes they were screaming terrors that left him shaking and blind and terrified, and Thor would have to let him curl up alone in the corner of wherever they'd made camp while he calmed before trying to soothe him, or else be stabbed for getting too close.
His dreams weren't always awful, frightening things, though. Sometimes Loki awoke whispering, "Mother?", reaching out for a hand that wasn't there in the physical sense. That might still have been written off as wishful thinking, if Loki didn't lead them on with confidence and surety in his steps for days afterward. Even if Thor couldn't see her in his dreams the way Loki apparently could, it left him cheered all the same to remember that they weren't alone in the universe.
They watched coronas and auroras paint the skies in colors they'd never seen or dreamed in life. Had a snowball fight on a world of softer snow and gentler winds than Jotunheim. Caught a fish the size of a large house in a poisonous red sea and spent a while being hailed as gods by the grateful fishing villages along the coast of glass. Rode giants across mountains in exchange for a magic trick, a song, and subduing a rival that had been making passage difficult in any case.
The brothers traveled together from world to world, forging a path ahead no matter what tried to stand in their way. And then, at long last…
…there was a knock on her door, and Darcy went to see who it was. Jane's heart skipped a beat at the evident glee in her intern's voice as she peered through the peephole. "Hey, Jane? I think it's for you."
"I can't think of anybody I would actually want to see at this time of night. Ergo, it's not," said Jane, forcing herself not to look up from her laptop.
"Oh, I think if you used your imagination, you could think of a couple of possibilities," said Darcy in a sing-song voice. "But hey, if you say so."
Jane heard the sound of a door opening, followed by Darcy speaking, "Hey, Thor, sorry. Jane can't come out and play right now, she's busy digging in to Candy Crush Saga. Level 243, you know how it hey!"
Darcy had just cried out this last because Jane had all but vaulted over her coffee table, bounded over the distance to the door in three strides, and shoved her friend out of the way the better to throw her arms around her boyfriend and kiss him silly.
She wasn't sure exactly how much time had passed, but it ended at the sound of Loki clearing his throat. "Well. I think it's safe to say that she's missed you."
Whatever other snark he had on hand was destined to go unsaid, because Jane pulled away from Thor just long enough to throw her arms around him, too.
He was pretty obviously stunned into silence when she pulled away, and Jane took advantage of the opportunity to follow up with a smack upside the head. Then, and only then, did she step back to give the two of them a once-over.
Her immediate thought was to utterly believe that, yes, it had taken them a while to find their way back. Their clothes – the same clothes they'd left in – were ragged and torn, their hair was longer, and their bodies leaner. They looked exhausted, but they also looked unhurt, and as she looked them over, the two brothers shared a glance and a smile.
"Our apologies for intruding at this late hour, Jane," said Thor at last, bowing his head to her.
"It's great. It's fine." She felt herself grinning like a fool, and didn't care in the slightest. "I'm just…oh god, I'm so glad you're okay. Both of you."
"We never meant to stay away for so long. But as I have learned in recent…" Thor looked to Loki, raising an eyebrow quizzically. "…months?"
"Months," Loki confirmed with a nod.
"Months," Thor finished, turning back to Jane. "Traveling in the method we found ourselves forced to rely on is…imprecise. Wherever we started, we have had to travel a long and winding road to return."
"I had to travel a long and winding road, you mean," Loki interjected, but he was smiling when he said it. "I just happened to be carrying you in the meantime. And you are so very heavy, brother." He jabbed Thor in the ribs with an elbow, and Thor retaliated by mussing up his hair, smiling. Loki swatted his hand away, glowering. It wasn't a very convincing glare, however, even to Jane.
"There will be…questions to answer, once we return to Asgard," Thor continued, his sunny smile faltering only a little. "Our story has become a long one, and we are both very tired from living it. I know it is late, and I know you must be busy, but…would it be all right, if we stayed the night?"
Loki had nothing further to add to Thor's request, but Jane could practically feel his gaze on her intently all the same. She also realized, now that she had a second to look, that he was swaying just a little on his feet.
It wasn't really ever a decision at all. Jane stepped back and opened the door wider. "The more the merrier. We have popcorn, bad movies, and coffee."
"Fates bless you," Loki said with a grateful sigh, stepping inside along with Thor. Thor hung Mjolnir on the coat rack by the door, as he always did when he came to visit, and Loki followed suit by hanging up a dagger he'd been wearing on his belt.
The younger god proved pretty much able to walk on his own, although exhaustion clearly did have him in a stronger grip and he was pretty obviously unsteady on his feet. He also hesitated, visibly faltering, the sight of Darcy sitting on the couch.
The younger girl smiled and favored him with a wave. "It's cool. Jane filled me in. Doing the foreign exchange student thing, huh? And trying the hero thing on for size, hey, good for you." She reached out to shove him lightly in the shoulder. Loki allowed it, looking, to say the least, thrown. Jane knew well enough by now that Darcy just took people like that. "I know how it goes. Hey, has Thor introduced you to popcorn yet?"
"No." Loki settled down on the couch next to her, obviously grateful to be off his feet and now quite obviously curious about the contents of her half-eaten bowl. Darcy held it out to him, and after a moment's intent staring, Loki grabbed a couple of pieces and popped them into his mouth.
"Yeah, popcorn's great," said Darcy brightly, as Loki chewed thoughtfully. "You can put stuff on it, too, makes it even better. I pretty much never bother with it without mondo amounts of salt and butter. No right-thinking American does. And hey, when I say butter, that does include peanut butter, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise…"
"Darcy!" Jane snapped from the kitchen, even as she found herself forced to keep her attention on the coffee maker so as not to betray a smile. "Don't lie to him!"
"Just because you're boring doesn't mean we all should suffer!" Darcy called back. "Also, hey, no offense, but if you guys are going to have a lot of official-type talking tomorrow, you should really shower. And maybe get a haircut. I could cut your hair. I cut my intern's hair. He says it looks great. It's all about the good impressions and that goes for you, too, Sparky." She lobbed one of Jane's couch cushions at Thor for emphasis.
He caught it neatly and tossed it back. "We would be most grateful for any assistance you could offer in that regard, Darcy."
After asking her where she kept the peanut butter, a quick experiment ensued, with Loki eventually landing on Darcy's side of the fence where popcorn was cncerned. Even she looked taken aback, at that, and judging by the mischievous and very self-satisfied smile on Loki's face as he munched some popcorn kernals off a knife full of peanut butter, maybe that was the entire point.
Or, maybe not. Who knew what tasted good to a giant? Even a little one.
He also hovered to see just how she was working with the coffee maker, and a quick lesson ensued. It only had to ensue once. However, beyond that, Jane knew just by having him next to her that even her strongest espresso wouldn't keep Loki conscious for long.
She didn't make her strongest espresso, but he didn't seem to mind. Either way, within the hour, Loki had fallen asleep on the rug in front of the television. He came just awake just long enough to let Thor shift him over to the couch, which Darcy obligingly vacated. Jane noticed that he tried to wrap himself up in his cape as he curled up, and rolled her eyes before heading off to the hall close to grab a blanket.
Thor had already taken up a spot leaning against the couch beside his brother when she returned. And, where he saw what she'd gone to do, the sun had never shined brighter than his smile in that moment.
It was really, really nice to have him back. Even if only for the night.
Despite Thor's own tiredness, a donation of a box of Darcy's usual cereal proved enough to keep him awake. When Jane offered to retrieve some blankets for him, instead, he shook his head.
"I've missed you," was all he said in reply, and what could she do in reply to that but kiss him some more?
There wasn't enough time until dawn to catch up on everything. But with frequent trips back to the coffee maker, a couple more bags of popcorn, and whatever else caught their fancy in the refrigerator, the three of them made a valiant effort. Every so often, Jane caught herself looking at the peacefully sleeping figure on the couch, all but covered by her old comforter and with the lights of the muted movie playing over his features.
If she was perfectly honest with herself, Jane had to admit that she was just a little disappointed about not being able to pick his brain a little more about magic and how it worked for him. Not enough to have the heart to wake him, though.
Maybe next year.
And at long, *long* last, we have reached the end. Phew! I always knew this fic was going to be a monster, but around about 10k words ago, I realized even I hadn't contemplated just how much.
But I also knew that it was a monster that would have to get wrangled at some point during this no-longer-so-little series. Loki had to rejoin the plot at least once before finishing up his own personal journey. And the next fic will be the fic where that happens, a.k.a the last fic of the series.
I don't know when it will be posted. Probably before the semester ends. And it definitely won't be as long as this one. I hope you look forward to it and enjoy it, all the same, and I hope you have enjoyed this latest tale of mine. Your favorites and comments were always appreciated and welcome, and wondrous motivation wen my own started to flag. I couldn't have asked for a better batch of readers, but I am deeply grateful to have you all here anyway. You have my sincerest thanks for your attention and your time.
See you in oh, about two hundred and sixty years.