“May I see it again?” Loki said quietly, and Val once more held out her arm for his inspection, though she looked away as he studied the unfading, ancient ink that marked her as sworn to Asgard’s throne; he even traced the mark with one fingertip, though the look on his face was not one Thor understood. Awe he would have recognized. Wonder. Desire. But not this strange caution.
Loki slid her vambrace back down, giving her her privacy once again.
“It’s hard to believe,” he said. “You’re the last, I take it?”
She nodded. “The only twofold survivor of Hela. A small club with a shitty VIP room.”
“You could have told me.”
“Yeah, maybe. I almost did—I even almost did it more than once. But especially when I took an oath to be your champion. I knew who you were: the first prince of Asgard I ever swore my sword to because I halfway liked him and he halfway deserved it. I’d have protected you for your own sake, though, so why not let the past stay dead?”
“Evidently because it sometimes falls from the sky.”
“She didn’t tell me either,” Bruce said. “If that makes you feel any better.”
“She told Thor right away.”
“Yes, people do that,” Loki said with the faintest evidence of distaste. “I’ve never determined why.”
“I have innate nobility,” Thor said. “According to Bruce.”
“Bruce has clearly never seen you miss your mouth and slop mead straight down the front of your tunic after a night’s carousing,” Loki said, “or the toothmarks you left on your toy horse at what was, I have to say, quite an advanced age for that kind of thing. Or held your hair as you vomited into a gutter. A task, by the way, that the milkmaid you were endeavoring to seduce that night was strangely absent for. I could go on.”
“Clearly.” He frowned. “I don’t remember that, about my hair. Did you really?”
“With unfortunate frequency. It was as much for my benefit as your own. The one time I didn’t, I was stuck looking at the mess afterwards and it was nearly enough to make me contribute to it.”
“Perhaps I did give you some cause to dislike me.”
“A little. But not especially.” He said that last part very rapidly as though he wasn’t sure he would otherwise say it at all. “All beside the point.”
“Innate nobility be damned, you just have hair that lets everyone compare you to the sun. Every skald we ever had was half in love with you, it was sickening.”
“None of that’s the point, actually,” Val said. “And before you ask, why this whole place smells like rotten dismembered jellyfish isn’t the point either.”
“I was only hoping that wasn’t supposed to be dinner,” Loki said.
Talking to him was like fencing with a hall of mirrors. Glitter and flash and doubles everywhere you looked, and the only blows you ever seemed to land were the ones that made a screech fit to pierce your head straight through. If Loki didn’t want to talk about a thing, he wouldn’t. He would bluff and lie and joke and charm and misdirect until the sun set on whatever it was he was determined to ignore. It had been Thor who had fitted that muzzle into his mouth, those years ago, though he’d come to regret it—he had only thought then that he would not be able to listen for one more hour to Loki’s endlessly conversational refusal to truly talk to him. Well, he had only thought Loki dead once then; two deaths had made him think he would listen to Loki’s nonsense for as long as Loki cared to speak it. Though he wouldn’t tell him so, of course, that would be madness.
The surest way to cut through the haze of words Loki cast around himself was to irritate him, which Thor was proud to say he did better than anyone: “Did you hear that I knocked down that statue you made of me?”
Loki stared at him. “Beg your pardon, you did what?”
“That great big statue, you know the one. I hit it with a lightning blast. It was a little too sentimental, I thought, and you know, your poetry has never been much.”
“I am going to kill you,” Loki said, snapping each word off very precisely. “I am going to rip your idiotic head off and smack it on a plinth and call that the monument to my dear departed brother. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“I do. The Grandmaster thinks I want to take over Sakaar with my Valkyrie lover and my planetary asset lover and my other assorted luminaries, yourself included, and blowing up public property did nothing to alleviate his concerns. Or will do nothing, anyway, once he hears about it. You can tell him I don’t have those ambitions.”
Loki pinched the bridge of his nose like he was trying to stave off a headache. He closed his eyes. “But I take it that you do have ambitions, brother.”
“Small ones,” Val said. She said it derisively, like she was talking about the size of a cock.
“Manageable ones,” Bruce corrected. “Incremental reform. Nothing that needs to make anyone nervous.”
“That’s not you,” Loki said seriously. He spoke to Thor like there was no one else in the room. “You cause explosions, brother. Tempered and mild and incremental—that is not your nature. It’s more a ‘hammer through the face’ approach that you favor, as I recall, and I have reason to recall that very well. But you’re not ground down, or you wouldn’t try at all, so whence this sudden desire for patience—” He cut himself off. Loki was not, perhaps, as smart as he thought he was, but he was still, Thor had to concede, smarter than was convenient for anyone else. “Ah. You think I might try to kill you again.”
“How many times did you try to kill him before?” Val said, mildly interested.
“Oh, who can recall?” Loki said.
“I can,” Thor said. “I would describe it as often.”
He had not anticipated that his compromise of gradual, grounded-on-Sakaar reform would be so quickly undone by Loki’s low opinion of his patience. Though perhaps it wasn’t the compromise itself that was undone, only the secrecy of its nature. He still could not imagine how Loki would react to being told to leave his place of fame and swear fealty to his brother. Maybe he was a coward for holding his tongue—silence was not his virtue any more than restraint, and it rankled him to practice it. But here he was, behaving unnaturally to ensure that Loki remained natural with him, remained easy and funny and companionable, as he had been for nearly all their lives.
Murder attempts excepted, obviously. Should go without saying.
“What reforms do you have in mind?” Loki said, folding his arms.
“Hey,” Bruce said, handing out drinks. “This is the part where you’re supposed to say, ‘I’m not going to try to kill any of you.’”
“I certainly don’t want to rush into promises I won’t be able to keep. Do you have any mint for this?”
“Sorry,” Val said, taking her own glass. “You used up all the froufrou the last time you were here.”
Loki rolled his eyes and drank. On Asgard, in their youth, he hadn’t been much of a drinker; wine with dinner, yes, but in revelry only enough to loosen the tension he always carried in his shoulders, only enough to blunt the edges of his tongue. He had always been downright miserable when he actually overindulged and it did not sound like that had changed—though he had more to weep over now, surely—but those indulgences had been rare. Certainly he had not had a practiced enough hand at unvarnished liquor to knock it back so deliberately and without any pause.
It was a small way to feel the years he had missed, but it was there all the same. This was a Loki who had spent a long time drinking himself into oblivion, a Loki who had the muscle memory of how to make a hard and fast turn into stupor.
“Brother,” Loki said testily. “What reforms?”
He hadn’t thought it would have to happen all at once like this—he wished he’d had more time to consult Jane, to talk over strategy with Bruce and Valkyrie. But now he was left on his own. Not to be king, because he was not king, but… advisor. It wasn’t a role he knew how to easily play.
“Close down the arena, to start with.”
“The people love the arena,” Loki said. “You fought in it yourself and smiled as you did.”
“You weren’t there.”
“You think because I was not there I do not know? I know. The arena is entertainment for a world that sorely lacks in art and good company.”
“People should not die for entertainment.”
“They did on Asgard. Only there we called it war. Adventuring.”
Thor recalibrated. “Reduce the number of glassy eyes on the street. Tighten up restrictions on their drugs, if nothing else.”
“And now you’re a temperance advocate. That’s endearing. The drugs on Sakaar are not a health hazard, for the most part. No more than anything else.”
“They’re stealing away people’s minds.”
“From people who want them stolen. Who are you to turn up, almost entirely unhurt, and tell people who have lost everything how sane they ought to be as they grieve?”
“Do you call me unhurt?” Thor demanded.
“I call you a fool,” Loki said. His voice was cold. If they had begun this innocently, they were no longer continuing it that way. This was a fight as serious as any they had ever waged with swords. “What else, Thor? Do tell us.”
“The Grandmaster has slaves,” Thor said. Blunt. His weapon was not a sword, after all, but a hammer. “How would you tell me to live with that, brother? Does that salve the people’s grief? Does it entertain them? What sophisticated rationale am I missing? Tell me.”
Loki stared at him. His eyes were wide, his breath coming hard. “Can you not—can you not see that—this is all there is, Thor. This is—”
“You are better than this,” Thor said softly.
“Because I am a son of Odin? It was Odin’s daughter who made this world our only choice!”
Then it is Odin’s son who must save it, if you will not, Thor almost said—the words started in his throat—but what came out instead was a laugh, if a half-strangled one. “You know,” he said when he was fractionally calmer, “that’s almost exactly what I said. Very nearly word for word. Loki, I don’t think your worth was handed to you, an inheritance like the crown. When I say you are better than this, I say it for the love I bear you, no other reason.”
Loki flexed his fingers in and out. “I have killed,” he said, almost neutrally. “I have tried to conquer. I have lied more times than I’ve told the truth. And in your father’s last days, Thor, I wrapped him in a cloud of confusion and stranded him friendless on an alien world. In what way exactly am I better than this?”
No matter how intensely Loki felt about it, no matter the merit of any of it, Thor thought this an absurd argument, for it was absurd to have an argument about it at all.
“Because when the universe was falling down around you, Loki, you put out your hands and did what you could to stop it. And because you care to ask the question at all. And because you’re my brother, damn you, and I know you and I love you, and so you are what I say you are.”
Loki shook his head. And then what he said was not to Thor at all but to Val: “Splendid, shining ideas and picture-perfect morality and absolutely no practical ideas about how any of it should be accomplished. He will have to be king, because otherwise no one would have him on their council.”
“You’re good at practical execution,” she said, unruffled.
“Exceedingly so.” He turned back to Thor, his eyebrows now raised. He looked almost impatient. “I assume that is the goal here, brother, is it not? Your kingship? A second Asgard?”
“More or less,” Bruce said on Thor’s behalf. He didn’t seem convinced as yet of Loki’s good intentions, because he maneuvered a little to slide to Thor’s side, to stand there with the false casualness of a guard. “And yeah. We were curious how you would react.”
Loki lifted up one hand and Thor felt the invisible curtain descend around them. Val, looking a little less sanguine now, drew a knife and held it at the ready. Bruce simply tensed, his muscles rigid.
“They can still see us,” Loki said. “Just not hear us.” He wriggled his fingers. “It is a neat trick, isn’t it? I wish I’d known that when we were children. The things I would have gotten away with…”
“I shudder to think.”
Loki’s eyes were calm now. He said, “You know you can’t have the Grandmaster’s rule for the asking of it. Nor will he tolerate you setting up a second kingdom. He’s particular about these things.”
“I had deduced that.”
“So it’s a coup, then. That’s what you want. A revolution.”
Thor kept his voice steady. “I haven’t seen you as happy as you are now in… Norns, Loki, centuries. If I ever saw you so at all. I think the Grandmaster’s a madman, but I believe he cares for you. I know you care for him. And you have your hand a little on the wheel that turns this world. I will not agitate for a revolution if you swear to me now that we’ll work together on this. You saved this place. Let me help you heal it.”
“You would do that for me?” Loki said. “It’s against your nature to go slow.”
“I am your brother,” Thor said. “It’s my nature to protect you, if I can.”
“I thought you dead. I never want to think so again.”
“So you said.”
“I thought you died hating me,” Loki said. He examined the cuff of his sleeve as if he needed to pluck some loose thread free of the weave. “Before Hela broke through to Earth, you were ready to tear me apart, and I thought you died with that as your last thought of me. Or that you died thinking I was a coward who had chosen, willfully, to let you fall with Asgard. It was unpleasant.”
“Yes, I know.”
“How can you know?” Loki said dismissively. “It’s always different with you, you’re you.”
“You’re insufferable. I know because the first time you died, it was because you chose to. We fought, and you would have killed me, and you—you crackled with hatred. And you fell into nothingness because that was better to you than we were.”
“I fell to nothingness because I had nothing at all inside me,” Loki said. “Whatever soul I had, Odin ripped it out of me piece by piece—or I tore it away myself.”
“And that’s meant to console me?”
“All those years, I felt nothing,” Loki said. “And now you’re here. And I—I can’t seem to convince you that that is the very opposite of nothing. I am nowhere near a perfect brother, even if you take the attempted murder out of the equation entirely, but if you think I would not choose you over the Grandmaster, over my own happiness… brother, you’re mistaken.” He swallowed. “My king, you are mistaken.”
Thor had almost thought himself done crying over Loki, but here again he blinked away tears. “How much of that newly-minted soul of yours did it cost you to say that?” he said with a forced smile.
“I’m certainly not going to keep saying it over and over again, if that’s what you’re after.”
“I am bound to hug you now,” Thor said.
He did. Loki’s fingers curled in the fabric of his shirt. They let go of each other only slowly.
He remembered what his mother had told him of his brother, when they were both very young, when Loki was still throwing temper tantrums almost on the hour. Thor had finally thrown his own, tired of not being attended to, and his mother had held him on her lap and stroked his hair from his eyes and said, “You are both my darlings, sweetheart. And I know your brother may seem a trial right now, but soon—very soon—you will feel his heartbeat like your own, and it will be the same with him. Your whole lives, you will have each other.”
He had thought of moment before, but never without feeling crushed by the lie of it. Now he did not feel crushed. Only disheveled—damp-eyed.
“Well,” he said, clearing his throat. “We can try restraint. If you are willing to be a spy of sorts.”
“A spy in my own household,” Loki said, giving him a strange, rueful smile. “I have been that before, I suppose.” He glanced around. “I should take this veil down before one of your infatuated court rends their garments with distress. By the way, as monstrously unfortunate this liaison is on a public relations level, as it were… you’ve done worse. Two lovers, though, I’m surprised. I always thought you so stodgy and conventional.”
“Bite your tongue.” As though he had not thought the same thing himself, and been a little troubled by it, as though he did not worry that his desire was excessive or appalling or shaped by tragedy. He loved them; he knew that. He did not like being driven to brood about it. “I was taking companions to bed while you were still mooning around writing poetry for them.”
“You swore never to mention that.”
“Oh,” Thor said in his best imitation of Loki’s voice, “who can recall?”
“You are the worst of brothers,” Loki said.
Thor smiled. “Liar.”
“Okay, you’ve clearly come to some kind of agreement,” Bruce said—loudly, as if he thought they wouldn’t hear him otherwise. “Now you’re just ignoring us. Should I just make dinner?” He tilted his head from side to side, his neck making a cracking sound, and he winced. “Yeah, I’m just going to go make dinner, sublimate into some potato-chopping or something. It’s all coming back now, you know, the anger… everything.”
“It’s just as well,” Val said, though she stood up to move into the kitchen with him, tipping a small salute at Thor and Loki as she did. “The big guy might come in handy.”
“Yeah,” Bruce said. “People always think that at first.”
“He’s right, you know,” Loki said. Thor was convinced he kept the curtain around them a little longer just so Bruce wouldn’t hear him admit that. “We’re in a bubble. My specialty now, like I said. But if you’re determined to break it, we’ll pay the price. What was your omen, anyway, the one you were speaking of when I first came?”
Thor told him.
Loki nodded, considering it. “I don’t know what it means.”
“It means hawks hunger like the rest of us,” Thor said. “That’s all. Ragnarok is done.”
“Ragnarok was a myth. Ragnarok said Surtur would rise and level Asgard with his fiery sword. I wasn’t there, but I’m fairly sure that wasn’t what happened. And Asgard was not the end of the destruction. We saw a shadow—Odin’s concealed beast coming back to slay us—and the reality was this. Now you see your hawk and bird. I say it holds meaning. I only hope we’re the hawk.”