“I’m sorry—I’m—I'm sorry.”
His skin is losing its color quickly, too quickly, until his face suddenly seems carved of stone. But he’s not made of stone, he can't be, because stone couldn't shake like this, stone couldn't stare up at him with the frightened eyes of his little brother, stone couldn't grasp at his arm with a desperate grip that's cold and then colder and getting colder still—
This time it's different.
It's always different.
Loki doesn't close his eyes and fall still. This time he crumbles before Thor's eyes, crumbles like real stone until he is nothing but dust falling through Thor's fingers. And somewhere, faintly, he hears someone laughing, a horrible laugh that chills him to his very bones —
His heart leaps into his throat and he automatically moves to fight back against the stranger assailing him, but his arm stops short.
There is a firm grip on his wrist.
“Brother. Stop. Breathe.”
His eyes adjust to the darkness, and for one horrible moment he thinks he is still in the dream. Loki’s face is devoid of color, eyes wide and frightened. But he’s not shaking, and he’s standing upright, and the grey of his skin is just an effect of the dim lighting, the light of distant galaxies and stars streaming in through the wide window of their shared bedroom.
Loki watches him for another few seconds, and then he releases his hold on Thor’s wrist. He keeps his hand raised, palm toward his brother and his eyes watching him warily, and the message is clear: Are you good now? A hint of worry, more than a hint of sarcasm.
Thor shifts until he is sitting upright. He looks away from his brother and stubbornly swipes at his cheeks, presses his thumb and forefinger to his eyes as he gets his breathing in order—only to wince, badly, when he accidentally touches the empty eye socket. Loki, to his credit, pretends not to notice. He slowly retreats to his own bed on the opposite side of the room.
He's still no more than ten feet away. Space is limited on a spaceship full of refugees, even for a king.
“You still have nightmares.”
It's framed as a simple observation, but Thor knows a question when he hears it.
They haven't shared a room in centuries, not since they were children, back when Thor was plagued with frequent nightmares about some monster or another—the made-up enemies and imagined horrors of a child's mind, rather than the twisted memories that haunt him now.
“Not… not as often,” he answers, and it feels like a terribly inadequate response. He clears his throat and adds, “I slept soundly every night for years. The nightmares only started up again recently. Dreams of Ragnarok. Asgard going up in flames.”
A moment of silence passes between them, and then:
“Asgard already has gone up in flames, brother.”
It sounds harsh, but Thor hears the meaning. The worst has passed. It's over.
Of course, the point is moot. His dreams of Surtur and fire and crumbling ruins have all long since passed.
For a moment, he debates telling Loki what this nightmare actually was, but what would that accomplish? These particular nightmares are few and far between, and fewer still now that he knows Loki never really died.
He could try to dig deeper, try to understand the root cause of this particular nightmare, but he shrugs off that idea as soon as it comes. It was a terrible memory, and nightmares by their very nature focus on the terrible. End of explanation.
“You were letting off lightning, you know.”
“In your sleep. It's what woke me in the first place,” Loki tells him. He is sitting at the edge of his own bed, elbows on his knees and his hands clasped together. “You need to work at controlling this new power, or you're liable to short circuit the ship's entire engine system with an ill-timed spark.”
“It's not a new power. I've always had it.”
“Yet I have no recollection of your nightmares causing indoor thunderstorms when we were children.”
Thor frowns. He's not wrong.
“I always had Mjolnir to channel it,” he admits, because that is the only explanation he can give. “I don't know how to keep it tamed otherwise.”
“It's like any other kind of magic,” Loki says with a dismissive shrug of one shoulder. “Control comes with time, and patience, and practice.”
Thor chews on the inside of his cheek, trying to believe Loki’s words. He looks down at his hands. The energy hums beneath his fingertips, ready and waiting for his command. He wonders of he’ll ever truly be able to control it, or if he'll even be able to rein it in enough to prevent causing a disaster in the cramped little vessel in which all of Asgard now resides.
“Is that how you create your illusions and spells? Patience and practice?”
Loki gives a wry smile at the unexpected question. “No. That's how I perfected the illusions and spells. They're second nature by now. Eventually, controlling your lightning will be the same.”
Second nature, Thor thinks.
Second nature, like switching loyalties on a whim. Second nature, like weaving lies and constructing new deceptions at every turn. Like creating the illusion of a massive blade through the center of his chest.
Before Thor can stop it, he finds himself asking, “Like faking your death was second nature?”
He doesn't look up at Loki right away, but he hears the slight hitch in his brother’s breath, and he imagines that the smile must have fallen from his face completely.
“It's… a bit more complicated than that.”
“Is it?” Thor asks, shooting a glare at his brother.
Loki at least has the grace to look uncomfortable. He bites the inside of his cheek for half a second and then looks away, out through the window.
“It is,” he answers.
Thor shakes his head, glaring down at his hands again. In his mind all he sees is Svartalfheim, Loki trembling in his arms, the light fading from his eyes, all of it a farce. And then— years later—Loki, caught in the act, with that remorseless smile on his face.
Thor almost laughs. He rolls his eyes. “You can tell that, can you?”
At first, Loki doesn’t prod. He stays silent for a moment, but then he sighs, and it comes out sounding more like a groan. “Well, get on with it, then.”
Loki waves a hand. “Go on, let’s hear it.”
Thor’s brow furrows. “You’re serious.”
“I am,” Loki answers. “If we’re going to be sharing a room for the remainder of this journey, I’d prefer not to be electrocuted in my sleep because my hot-headed brother never learned how to express his anger outside of a battle.”
“Hot-headed—? I’m—” he stammers at Loki’s audacity. He shakes his head. “I am allowed to be angry with you, Loki. I had to watch you die.”
Loki looks unfazed. “I’m aware of that.”
Thor stares at him, jaw hanging open. Then he pushes himself up off the bed. There is no chance of him going back to sleep now, not feeling the way he does, not with Loki looking at him like that. And if he’s going to have this conversation, he is going to need a drink. Or several.
He stalks to the table at the corner of the room, unstoppers a glass bottle of some bitter Sakaaran liquor, and takes a long gulp straight out of it. The taste nearly makes him gag—all the Grandmaster’s strange brews have that effect—but it’s strong, stronger than any ale would be. He forces down another long gulp and relishes the burn in his throat.
“So you think I don't have the right to be angry?” he asks quietly, swirling the liquid around in the bottle and watching the way the color of it somehow changes. Blue, then purple, then red, and back again like magic.
“I never said that.”
“You didn't have to. What did you think, that it wouldn't affect me? Did you think I wouldn't be upset?”
“Of course not,” Loki shoots back, a bit of anger in his own voice now.
“Oh, of course not,” Thor repeats with a humorless smile. “So you knew, you just didn't care.”
“I can't help that you're too sentimental for your own good. I gave you plenty of reason not to mourn me—”
“Too sentimental?” Thor all but shouts, spinning around to finally face his brother. The liquor has sent fire dancing through his lungs, and it creeps into his veins, his fingertips. The room has become washed in a hazy blue light, and a second later he realizes that the light is coming from him.
“I know,” he snaps, closing his eye so he doesn't have to look at Loki while he gets the power under control.
When he opens it again, the blue light is gone, and the room is once again devoid of all color. He takes another sip from the bottle and returns to his bed, shifting around until he's sitting somewhat comfortably with his back against the wall. He wishes their beds were switched, his own on the left and Loki’s on the right; it would make it easier not to look at his brother if he could use the bad eye as an excuse.
Still, he manages. He doesn't look at Loki at all, just stares down at the bottle and swirls it about. Blue, purple, red, purple, blue.
“Call me too sentimental if you want. Call me whatever you like. But…” he trails off, and the words almost get caught in his throat, just as he knew they would. But he takes a slow breath and determinedly presses on. “But I had to watch Mother die. I don't have to tell you what losing her felt like. You understand that much, I know, however you might try and deny that you're vulnerable to sentiment. But… I lost Mother, and then, not twenty-four hours later…”
He falls silent, just long enough to take another long gulp. The drink is helping somewhat, he thinks. It burns through the lump in his throat, at least, shrinks it down a bit.
Before he can say anything more, though, Loki beats him to it.
“You were there? You saw her die?”
Thor looks up at him, shocked to hear the waver in Loki’s voice, but in the dimness of the room his face reveals nothing of what he's feeling.
Rather than answer aloud, Thor looks away and nods, mostly because he doesn't want to describe what he saw. The memory is bad enough without having to speak of it aloud—and in any case, he doesn't want to put Loki through that pain right along with him.
He almost laughs at that. It’s amazing, he thinks, how long that big brother instinct lingers.
His thoughts are interrupted by movement and a heavy sigh from Loki’s side of the room. He watches as Loki wordlessly stands up, crosses the distance between their beds, and gracelessly falls backward onto the end of Thor’s mattress.
Loki holds out a hand. “Share some of that, will you?”
Thor blinks, staring for half a beat before he regains his senses and passes the bottle over. Loki takes a long gulp from it, and then another, and another. Half of what remained in the bottle is gone by the time he comes up for air. He regards the drink with his head tilted.
“The Grandmaster had his… eccentricities,” Loki says distractedly, “but you can’t fault his taste in drinks.”
Thor resists the urge to disagree aloud. He waits, watching what he imagines to be the gears turning round and round in Loki’s head. Somehow he knows his brother isn’t in the midst of concocting another complicated deception. Loki enjoys his deceptions, pulls them off effortlessly, and he looks far too uncomfortable right now for any of that.
Again, Loki sighs, and he takes yet another swig from the bottle.
“I didn’t exactly plan on faking my death, if you must know,” he finally says. And again Thor says nothing, fearing that an interruption might make Loki give up entirely on explaining himself. “But I’d managed to finish off Malekith’s friends, and I looked up only to find Kurse beating you to a pulp. You shouldn’t blame yourself for that, by the way, Kurse was a different sort of enemy than you were used to fighting. You had to pierce his armor to do any sort of damage, and you’ve always favored your blunt weapons and fists, even before you had Mjolnir.
“So, there you were, being ground into the dirt, and he was so focused on you that he never saw me coming,” he says. “I’ll admit it was a mistake on my part to stay so close after I dealt the killing blow. A stupid mistake. But I learned my lesson. I damn well got skewered for it.”
Thor’s brow furrows. He still doesn’t want to interrupt, but he can’t help asking, “That wasn’t an illusion, then?”
Loki lets out a derisive laugh. “I have the scar to prove it.”
“But it didn’t kill you.”
There’s a moment’s pause, and Loki chews on the inside of his cheek again. He still hasn’t looked at Thor since sitting on his bed, choosing instead to stare down at the bottle in his hands.
“No,” he finally says. “But it felt like it would. I thought for certain I was dying, and then… and then I wasn’t. The wound started healing itself. And I know what seiðr feels like when it heals wounds. This was… similar, but not. Like someone else was controlling it, because I was far too focused on how much it hurt to do anything about it.”
Thor frowns. He can tell, watching his brother’s face, that this has been torturing him ever since. Loki has always hated anything he couldn't properly explain. Hell, even the fact that Loki shared so much was proof enough that this was bothering him greatly, like he had started the explanation for Thor’s benefit and then found himself unable to stop.
“You still don’t know what it was that saved you?”
Loki shrugs one shoulder, trying to look nonchalant and almost succeeding. “I’ve since decided to believe that I was controlling it and… just didn’t realize it, perhaps. Like it was some sort of self-preservation instinct.”
He stares ahead at nothing for a while, and then he shakes his head and takes another sip of Sakaaran liquor.
“Anyway, while I was still dying, before the wound started restitching itself, I thought… well, what better way to escape a life sentence than to die? You had made it very clear that after our excursion I was to return to my cell, and yet, with my death I knew that wouldn’t happen. I had almost accepted it. And then suddenly I was no longer dying, and I had some of my strength back, so…” He turns his free hand palm-up. “I kept the illusion going.”
Thor watches his brother, but Loki still doesn’t look at him. The explanation made sense. Loki using his own death as a means to escape his imprisonment was, if nothing else, exactly what Thor would have expected. Even if he had made the decision to let Thor watch him die.
But he really was dying, at first. That was really his little brother, shaking and bleeding out in the dirt of Svartalfheim. That was all him. Thor gulps, trying to squash the feeling of something very uncomfortable tightening in his chest.
“So,” he says, “did you mean it, then?”
“Mean what?” Loki asks, finally looking at him and raising an eyebrow.
“All those… sentimental things you said,” he says, unable to hold back a smirk. “You know, saying you were sorry, ‘I didn’t do it for him,’ all that?”
Loki blinks, his mouth open. Thor allows himself a moment to enjoy having caught his tricky little brother off-guard, but then he notices a faint green glow emanating from somewhere beneath him, and a second later the pillow he's been sitting on is yanked from under him and flies straight into Loki’s waiting hand. Loki catches the pillow and throws it right back, full force, into Thor's chest.
“I was dying, you moronic oaf.”
“You did mean it!” Thor laughs, settling the pillow back where it was.
“Again, I was dying,” Loki all but growls. “I’m allowed to say stupid sentimental things when I’m dying.”
Thor shrugs. “You're allowed to say stupid sentimental things whenever you want,” he says without a hint of irony. “Now give me some of that before you drink it all yourself.”
Loki rolls his eyes, but he passes the bottle over anyway.
The effects of the Sakaaran liquor are already taking hold, Thor thinks, as he helps himself to some more of it. His limbs feel warm, his fingers tingling without a single sign of an actual spark. Mostly he can tell the drink is working because he’s beginning to wonder how much the drink is affecting him—something he only gives thought to when he is well on his way to being truly drunk.
The Grandmaster was crazy, sure, but he definitely knew where to find the strongest drinks.
Thor chews on his cheek, wondering if he should say what he’s really thinking. This conversation has been toeing the line for some time now, Thor knows, just this close to being too heartfelt for Loki to bear, just one wrong word away from driving Loki to bring the entire thing to a screeching halt.
But the drink has loosened his tongue, and he says what he’s thinking anyway.
“I still mourned you, you know.”
Surprisingly, Loki doesn’t slam a wall down, doesn’t lash out, doesn’t even ignore him. Instead he just sighs, staring into space, and says quietly, “I know.”
“And I still would,” he clarifies. “After everything.”
At that, Loki turns and looks at him, an eyebrow raised.
Thor pointedly resists the urge to squirm under the scrutinizing stare, but he shrugs and adds, “You are still my brother, Loki.”
Loki stares at him for another second and then lets out a huff that Thor thinks is supposed to be a laugh. He shakes his head and looks up at the ceiling. “Norns, you sound more like Mother every day. Do you know that?”
Thor smiles. “They do say we’re destined to become our parents.”
“Who says that?”
“It’s a Midgardian saying, I think.”
Loki nods, lets out a little hum. “A troubling thought, given both of our fathers. And yet… if your sister was to be believed, I somehow ended up sounding like your father.”
Thor frowns. “He was your father, too.”
“You know he wasn’t.”
“Oh, come now, Loki, blood be damned,” Thor says. “You were there on that field when he died. You heard him—”
“I don’t want to talk about it, Thor.”
Loki’s eyes are closed. His voice is low but firm, a tone that leaves no room for argument, and Thor obliges, though reluctantly. He knows he has already pushed Loki well beyond his usual limits. He bites his lip for a second, thinking.
Changing the subject is his best option. And there’s an idea at the back of his mind that has been there for about a day or so, and maybe it’s the drink, but just now that idea is sounding more and more plausible.
“Hey,” he finally says. “You remember Haskell?”
Loki opens his eyes, and his brow creases, a look of complete confusion on his face. “Haskell? That old baker?”
Thor nods. “That’s the one. He made that amazing bread with the malted ale mixed into the dough, you remember?”
“I remember you convincing me to help you sneak some of it from his kitchens.”
“That was your idea and you know it.”
Finally, for the first time tonight—perhaps for the first time in years—Thor sees a genuine smile cross Loki’s face, and he actually laughs. It’s a quiet laugh, but as real a laugh as Thor’s ever seen. “Your memory is terrible,” Loki says, shaking his head with the ghost of a smile still on his face. “You were the one who wanted to sneak it in the first place, I was just the reason we almost got away with it.”
Thor takes one more sip from the bottle, nods, and hands it over to Loki so that he can drain the last of it. “You were the mastermind behind the whole thing, though,” he argues. “I never would have tried it if you hadn’t convinced me it was possible. ‘Oh, don’t worry, brother, I can distract Haskell, leave it to me.’ That’s what you said.”
“It almost worked, save for one little detail. And to be fair, you also forgot to factor Heimdall into the equation,” Loki says. “It’s not my fault you got into so much trouble as a child that Odin needed his all-seeing guard to keep an eye on you at all times.”
Thor scrunches up his nose in disagreement. “Wasn’t it, though?”
“Perhaps some of the trouble was my fault,” Loki admits, barely holding back a laugh, and oh, Thor thinks, his little brother is definitely drunk now. It’s a rare moment that Thor finds Loki without an intricate facade in place, without his carefully formulated expressions and quick fake grins, without his walls up.
“That bread was worth it, though, wasn’t it?”
Loki raises his eyebrows and nods slowly, staring off into space again, and Thor can’t help but remember the two of them huddled together in their childhood bedroom, tearing through the bag of stolen goods, blissfully unaware that Heimdall was just a few minutes from cutting their celebration short.
“You know,” Thor says, treading carefully, “there might be a way we could get more of it.”
Loki shoots him an incredulous look. “You’re not suggesting Haskell is still alive. He was ancient, and that was—what, eight, nine-hundred years ago?”
“No, he’s not,” Thor agrees. “He passed on a few centuries ago. But… he had a son and a daughter, and he taught both of them all of his best secrets before he passed.”
“And they are…?”
“Currently? Somewhere in Sector 4 of the ship, if I’m right,” he says. “And they love carrying on their late father’s work, but unfortunately it seems we’re a bit short on the supplies they need. That last planet we stopped at for refueling, the one with all the slaver colonies? As you know, they weren’t openly hostile, but they weren’t exactly generous.”
That’s an understatement, really. The leader they had spoken to, a blue-skinned man decked out in all manner of gold and jewels and surrounded by a harem of miserable slaves, had flashed a fanged grin at Thor and insisted that their planet was destitute and had nothing to offer. They were given enough fuel to leave the planet and nothing else.
Loki narrows his eyes. “What are you getting at?”
Thor looks down and makes a show of inspecting his nails. “I was just thinking, maybe, that that… er, lovely planet might have a little bit more to offer than their leader let on.”
He sees the exact moment that Loki understands, and a conspiratorial smile crosses his brother’s face. “Brother, I’m shocked,” he says, a hand on his chest, his voice dripping sarcasm and amusement in equal parts. “After their leader graced us with his presence and so generously elected not to—how did he put it? Right, after he elected not to ‘blast our dingy ship out of the sky,’ are you really suggesting we do something so dishonest as to steal from him? How unkingly of you, Thor. He’s the leader of a great people.”
“He is, but I mean, he’s also a liar and a slaver,” Thor counters with a shrug, “so…”
Loki tilts his head in agreement. “But you really want to do this?”
“I’m asking your opinion on the matter,” Thor says. “I trust your insight. If you think we could get away with it, then yes. The people need something to lift their spirits, and if a fully stocked kitchen and the smell of Haskell’s bread doesn’t do it, I’m not sure what will.”
For a moment, Loki only stares at him with his eyes narrowed, and then in one quick movement he pulls his legs up onto the bed and turns so that he’s sitting cross-legged and facing Thor.
He waves a hand, and suddenly the empty space of bed between them lights up, revealing a translucent three-dimensional map that Loki has concocted from thin air. Thor recognizes it immediately. It’s a map of the capital city of that slaver planet.
And over the glowing green light of the map, Thor sees Loki’s eyes alight in a way that they have not been since well before the battle with Hela. It’s something that mischief—or in this case, the promise of mischief to come—does to his little brother. It’s the very same thing that a well-matched battle does to Thor.
It’s then that Thor knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this was the right call to make.
“Alright,” Loki says, pulling him from his thoughts. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right. Pay attention.”
Thor leans forward, his pulse a little quicker at the prospect of the adventure before them, and his heart just a little bit lighter.