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Stormbreaker

Chapter Text

In the grand spirit of everything going wrong in Thor’s life, just as he is about to kill Thanos for a second time, disaster strikes again.

The gauntlet lights up just as Thor swings Stormbreaker, crackling lightning, and then –

It isn’t so much an explosion as an implosion.

There is a BOOM and Thor is thrown backwards – forwards? – the world warping in and out of his vision. His body is on fire, and he knows he is screaming but he cannot hear it over the deafening silence, the void he has been transported into.

Then it stops. Thor’s knees hit hard ground, buckling beneath him. He slumps, Stormbreaker still clutched in his hand, the axe head striking the floor with a distinctly metallic clang. He has failed again, he knows it. Deep in his bones, he knows. He has failed, and all is lost.

The tip of a sword pricks at his throat.

Thor raises his head to meet familiar golden eyes, and his heart stops. Heimdall, miraculously, gloriously alive. The joy that fills Thor’s chest is quickly dampened by disbelief. It is a trick, a lie.

The sword at his neck is very, very real.

“There are few who can slip past my gaze, traveller,” Heimdall says.

Thor notices, then, how much younger Heimdall looks. In his peripheral vision, he sees the familiar golden gate of the Bifrost. He cannot turn his head to look, but the bridge must be behind him, the towering golden spires of Asgard up ahead.

Asgard, so recently destroyed, has been resurrected.

At another time, Thor might have rejoiced, or demanded answers, or started swinging his axe around to catch out the imposters, or simply leapt to his feet and pulled Heimdall into an embrace. Exhausted in both body and mind, his grief and loss still far too real, he does none of those things.

He looks into Heimdall’s face, whispers, “Oh, great,” and keels over sideways in a dead faint.

- - -

He wakes to a cell, which is unsurprising.

What is surprising is his overwhelming joy at finding himself there. He traces the cot with his fingers, peers out the tiny barred window as much as it will allow, watches the guards patrol in their Asgardian uniforms, with Asgardian weapons and Asgardian armour, speaking to each other in an Asgardian manner. Asgard. He’s in Asgard.

Thor is by no means a master when it comes to magic, but he has learned a great deal over the last few years. So when he thinks back to Stormbreaker striking the Infinity Gauntlet, to the colour and light that followed, it is not impossible to think that maybe, just maybe, he has travelled back in time. That this is not simply a contortion of reality or a hallucination, but a dislocation in time.

They have confiscated Stormbreaker, but that is of no consequence. What is more concerning is how his family – his family, alive – will take the news. Or if he should tell them who he is at all, or if he should focus his efforts on destroying Thanos before the man can get his hands on the Infinity Stones.

It is too much to think of, all at once. There are too many possibilities, and he is too heartsore to think clearly about anything. At least he has reached a stage in his life where his pride will allow him to acknowledge the fact.

When they finally come for him, Thor follows quietly as he is lead through the winding corridors, up and up until he is brought before the king himself. His father, looking so much younger, hair a mix of black and silver, sits on the throne with Stormbreaker laid on a plinth by his side.

For a moment he thinks Odin will recognise him. The king’s face, though, is entirely unreadable, even as Thor is put on his knees before the throne. Thor makes no attempt to hide his face but… nothing. He is too changed, too old. His father does not recognise him.

The guards release their grip. Looking into his father’s eyes, the calm that washes over Thor surprises him. Perhaps he should feel grief, bereaved of all identity, a total stranger to a much-loved father. Instead, he feels hope.

He knows this place, knows this past. He has already lived this time once over, and grown and changed since then. Now, however it has happened, whether truth or an illusion, he has been granted the chance to walk these paths again. That is a rare gift indeed, the stuff of fairy tales, not to be readily dismissed.

He bows forward, as much as his position on his knees will allow without prostrating himself like a criminal begging mercy, and he waits.

“Speak your name, warrior, and your purpose,” Odin says.

Thor opens his mouth. Closes it again. By all reason, there will be a younger version of himself running around somewhere. Part of him wants to tell Odin everything, that he is his son and all that has passed, but something stills his tongue. Some voice suspiciously like Loki in the back of his mind reminds him that while he may always reveal his true identity later, keeping his cards close to his chest until he ascertains the true nature of his situation would be wiser.

“My name I am worthy of no longer,” Thor says. Only after he has spoken the words does he feel the thud in his chest, the twist of self-recrimination, but he forges on. “But I beg pardon, great King of Asgard, for trespassing unexpectedly upon you. I am on a quest to avenge my family against a mighty sorcerer, but his magic was mightier even than I anticipated. I was transported here, much to my surprise, and can only offer my humble apologies for the trespass.”

With a pang, Thor thinks Loki would be proud of him for such a pretty speech. Then he realises that Loki is probably here too, young and whole, and his chest constricts in an entirely different way. It is like sitting atop an emotional seesaw, the whiplash disorienting, but if there is even the slightest hope…

He meets Odin’s eyes. They pierce his very soul, and something in Odin’s expression shifts.

“You have suffered, I see,” Odin murmurs. “But tell me, this is a weapon fit for a king. How did you come by it?”

Thor hears it, the subtle knife-edge buried in apparent commiseration. He must keep his guard up, and choose his words wisely.

“Its name is Stormbreaker, and it was earned at great cost to myself.” Very true. He still feels strange after taking the star’s full force. “It was forged for my hand. You will find others are far less successful in wielding it.”

“It is mighty indeed,” Odin says.

“Mighty enough to slay a mighty foe,” Thor says.

“And who is your enemy, warrior? I can see you are Asgardian, but you have not been home for a long time.”

Thor swallows. “No,” he says, “I have not.” Asgard was only recently destroyed, but already it feels like an age has passed.

“My enemy is Thanos, your Majesty,” Thor continues. “He lurks in shadows, waiting to strike, but his power when it comes is infinite. He has taken everything from me, and I intend to return the favour.”

Odin regards him with sharp blue eyes. Thor knows that look. He is being weighed up, judged. It is not an unfamiliar experience with his father, though usually paternal love softens the calculation in Odin’s eyes.

“You did not intend to come here,” Odin says at last.

It is a mark of Odin’s inscrutability that Thor cannot tell whether it is a statement of known fact - a confirmation that Odin believes he speaks truth - or intended to lull him into a false sense of security, but he answers anyway.

“I confess I did not.” Not that he would not have leapt at the chance if he had known it was possible. “The magic that forced me here is beyond my understanding. However, I am grateful to find myself on familiar terrain.”

Odin nods. His posture on his throne changes, and relief sweeps through Thor. Odin’s expression has not changed, but Thor knows what a regular prisoner would not. He knows he has passed the test.

“Rarely are Asgard’s defences so easily breached. Your enemy is powerful.”

“He did not escape our encounter unscathed. He will be deep in shadow now, unlikely to surface for some time while he regains his power,” Thor says. It is true, though not in the way Odin will think it is. Thanos in this time period will be hidden, a nobody. His explanation, though, also acts as a rather convenient excuse for why Odin will hear no talk of Thanos when he sends out his spies.

Deceiving with the truth. Thor has learned a lot from Loki.

“What do you intend now?” Odin asks.

That pulls Thor up short. In truth, he has not even begun to consider it. He is too tired, too disoriented, too overjoyed to think much of the future at all.

“My transportation here has thrown many plans out of order,” Thor says, “but it is not unwelcome. It has been many years since I have been home. With your Majesty’s permission I would like to stay here for a time and regain my own strength. The road ahead will be a long one.”

Odin’s nods, thoughtful. “No doubt my advisors will have questions regarding the magic that sent you here, but I will accept your explanation. I can see you are a man of honour.”

Their conversation has been short. Does he mean that, or is he watching for Thor to drop his guard so that he may strike?

Thor almost cringes at the treacherous thought. This is his father. And though Odin may not recognise him, Thor loves and respects him as much as ever.

The king gestures at Stormbreaker and a servant comes forward, lifting the weapon and bringing it down to Thor. The guards step back, the restraints on Thor’s wrists snapping off, and he is allowed to take Stormbreaker into his own hands.

“If you are to remain here, you must have a name,” Odin says. There is a smile on his lips, though it lacks its usual warmth.

Thor is a stranger to him, he reminds himself. Still, it is jarring, being treated as such by your own father.

“This weapon is all I am now,” Thor says, feeling the grooves and textures of Stormbreaker’s handle beneath his fingers, already so comfortable and familiar. “I will answer to Stormbreaker.”

A pause. “Well, Stormbreaker,” Odin says. “I look forward to seeing what you do here. I believe my sons may learn a great deal from you.”

Thor’s head snaps up, surprised, but his father has already turned his head away, the kingly sign for dismissed. He is allowed to stand and exit the throne room, mulling over Odin’s words. What did his father mean by that? What does he want?

He longs to see Loki again. Meeting his younger self, though… on that score, he is ambivalent.

The guards come for him again before he can go far. Politely but firmly, they inform him that the king’s advisors will see him now.

Another interrogation, then. Thor goes willingly.

He cannot help but wonder how Odin saw nothing of his son in him, until he happens to pass a mirror. Hair cut short, mismatched eyes, and a layer of grime and soot so thoroughly embedded in every part of him that it is some surprise he even registered as Asgardian. Even his signature blond hair has turned an ambiguous brown.

An advantage, Thor reminds himself. An opportunity. He can do something now, kill Thanos before he has the chance to make the gauntlet, destroy the stones, warn people. Something. It does not matter if his loved ones do not know him.

Mother. Father. Loki. Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg. Lady Sif, still alive in his own time but far beyond his reach. His friends. His people. He will protect them. He will make everything right.

So with head held high, he goes into his next interrogation, this one substantially longer than the last.

- - -

Speaking in half-truths is easier than expected – far easier than once it would have been – but Thor still feels wrung out by the time it is over.

He has answered questions on everything he can. The magic that brought him here, which he doesn’t fully understand but can recount in adequate detail. His history, true but carefully told so as to avoid names and dates. He is a drifter whose family was killed, dedicated to bringing their murderer to justice. A traditional warrior’s tale, with just enough random chaos sprinkled in so as not to sound like he had read it in a book. And Thanos. No, he does not believe Thanos is a threat to Asgard. Yes, his vengeance is motivated by personal reasons rather than a larger plot that might affect the security of Asgard (that one is not entirely true, but he has no way of proving Thanos’ power so remains silent).

Finally he is released.

Then he realises he has a larger problem. Thor has nowhere to go.

He stands outside the Council Chambers, watching the steady stream of people go by. He has no home, no money, no connections. Everything he had here was burned to the ground.

He starts to his left on instinct, then stops. He cannot go to the royal wing. He starts back to the right, thinking of a nearby tavern, but he has no money either.

“Stormbreaker?” a voice says from behind him.

He turns to find a servant standing behind him. The servant inclines his head, rather than the full bow to which Thor is accustomed, and speaks again.

“His majesty the king has granted you temporary chambers within the palace in light of your circumstances. Please follow me.”

Of course his father had thought of that. Of course. Thor sags with relief.

He follows, more grateful than he can say. He should not be surprised. He had lived through the endless rotation of foreign warriors who would be granted temporary lodgings as they quested through the Nine Realms, but he had never had reason to involve himself in their arrangements.

His father would not leave any traveller stranded.

The room is small. A simple bunk, a washbasin, a dresser. Small, and heavenly. Thor thanks the servant and the man leaves, job done.

It is just coming on midday, but Thor allows himself to lay down on his bed and rest.

He heads to the feasting hall when he wakes. It is largely empty, but simple fare is not hard to find. A loaf of bread, a slice of cheese, an apple. It is the simplest food Asgard has to offer, and it is pure delight.

Even on the ship, Asgardian bread had not been the same. It possessed a stale quality, even freshly baked. Here it is light and airy. Thor closes his eyes and relishes every bite.

He opens them to curious stares.

It takes him a long moment to recognise Volstagg and Fandral, young and lacking their usual distinctive facial hair. That, and the fact that their faces are barely visible as they peek around the corner. He raises a hand in greeting, chest blossoming with warmth. The boys – for men they are not – duck back, and he can hear furious whispering.

It is a young Sif who ends up shoved in his direction, though he had not seen her peeking. She has nothing on Loki, but she was always subtler than their other friends, less likely to be caught gawking. She shuffles her feet as she approaches, then appears to make a conscious decision to square her shoulders and march up to him like a warrior should.

It is hard not to laugh. He does not wish her to think he was mocking her, though, so he bites the inside of his cheek and looks down at the remains of his crust to distract himself.

She bows at the waist when she draws level, meeting his eyes with a defiant stare as though daring him to question her for it. And he remembers her, all of a sudden. Remembers the girl she was before she became the fearsome Lady Sif he knows so well. Remembers her knobbly elbows and fits of temper, remembers her desperation to be taken seriously, even as she sought approval. It is so easy to forget, during the passage of time. Sif is a composed and dangerous warrior who cares nothing for the judgment of others, but that is the woman she will become. This girl, on the cusp of adulthood and yet still so terribly young, is not her yet.

It is a bittersweet realisation.

He inclines his own head.

“Well met, warrior,” she says.

“Well met,” he replies, and smiles.

“We – I have not seen you around before,” she says.

Thor remembers this as well. They used to be so nosy whenever a new presence turned up in court. Particularly a warrior, which would set Loki to sighing while Thor and their friends extracted every tale they could, wide-eyed and eager. It is strange to be on the receiving end.

“The king has graciously granted me leave to stay while I get my affairs in order,” he says, intentionally ambiguous.

He is teasing her, he realises a moment later, as he would tease her older self, though this Sif will not know it. He is deliberately masking his words to deny her the information she wants most. Like Loki always did.

“What is your name, young warrior?” he says.

Her eyes widen for a moment, then she raises her pointed chin, eyes proud.

“Sif,” she says. “And yours?”

“I am called Stormbreaker,” he says. “And I hope you can assist me. Which way must I go to find the public baths? My travels have been long.”

Sif nods. “Turn left out of the feasting hall, and continue along the passageway until you come to a statue of a wolf, then turn right.”

The wolf statue. He never paid it much attention before, but now he wonders how long it was in the palace. Was it made before or after Fenrir’s death? Was it a clue to Asgard’s brutal past, unknown to any but his father?

Suddenly, his hunger is a thing of the distant past. And he can no longer bear the feel of his sweaty clothes.

“My thanks,” he says, standing.

Sif, though, is not so easily put off.

“Will we see you at dinner tonight, Stormbreaker?” she says, trailing after him eagerly. “You seem a fine warrior. My friends and I would like to hear of your travels.”

The thought of teasing her again – asking what friends she could possibly mean when their noses can be seen poking around the doorframe again – crosses his mind. He is overjoyed to see them, he knows he is, but his need for solitude has suddenly become urgent. It is too much, to have lost it all then have it suddenly brought back again.

If Sif is here, it will not be long before Loki hears of his arrival. And Loki, dragged along by his brother, will come.

It is everything Thor has ever wanted, but it is still too much.

“You will see me,” Thor says. “But for now, farewell.”

- - -

After he bathes, Thor tidies himself as best he can.

He trims his beard, tidies his hair. Now clean, it looks blonde again. After some deliberation, Thor realises that will not do.

It does not take him long to find some hair dye that will colour his hair darker. It looks strange, but then, his whole appearance is strange these days. Short hair and mismatched eyes, a far cry from the blue-eyed goldenness he used to possess. He had not thought himself vain until his natural looks were taken from him.

He has no spare clothing of his own, and is both surprised and humbled to have some given to him without question. His father always impressed upon him the need to provide for his people, but it has never occurred to him how deep that care went. It has never occurred to him to question why he never saw poverty in Asgard of the likes he found on Midgard.

He will be a good king, he is determined to be. He is also grateful to learn these lessons now.

His axe strapped across his back, Thor makes his way back towards his little room. None of the people pay him any mind, going about their business with barely a glance. His heart, so accustomed now to grieving, finds pain in their vibrance, knowing full well the destruction that is to come.

He will stop it. He will find a way. These people, his people, will not die to Hela’s wrath, nor Thanos’ madness.

His first visit, when he returns to the palace, is the library. Loki will not be there at this hour, will be stuck with his brother and his tutors. Thor tries to ignore his own cowardice. Now the time comes, he finds he cannot face Loki. His father, yes. His mother, yes, and his excitement at seeing her again is hard to suppress. Loki…

There are so many mistakes to rectify, where his brother is concerned, and Thor does not know where to begin.

He searches instead for books on the Infinity Stones. Scours tome after tome until his eyes are sore, and the sky outside has darkened. He cannot help but feel frustrated by his lack of progress. Loki always enjoyed research, the slow process of putting scraps of information together piece by piece. Thor, older and wiser though he may be, still despises it.

He can stand no more. He must go and face his brother.

His stomach twists into knots as he walks. Mother and brother alike will be in the feasting hall, so very much alive. Loki, he knows will not recognise him, but his mother…

It is a foolish hope. She will not know him either. Somehow, that pains him more than his father and brother combined.

The evening meal is in full swing when he enters. A ripple of interest is the only mark of his arrival. He is a warrior, but not one of any apparent standing, so people return to their own friends.

Thor braces himself. He looks up at the high table.

He sees his mother at his father’s side, radiant in a dress of rich purple, deep in conversation with his father. Loki is seated in his place, glaring at Thor’s younger self (and seeing his younger self should be more jarring than it is). It is a perfect family portrait, yet here Thor stands on the outside. None of them so much as look at him.

Well, then.

Thor finds himself a seat, well away from the high table. Faced with so much Asgardian fare – real, true Asgardian food - he finds his heartache does not diminish his hunger.

He is soon drawn into conversation with the warriors around him, and the table grows more boisterous as Thor exchanges tale for tale. He enjoys this, talking to people, sharing battle stories and showing off old scars.

His eyes, though, drift to the high table. To where Loki sits, pale-skinned and dark-haired and entirely alive.

Loki redeemed himself, in his final moments. That knowledge has sustained Thor in his darkest hours. Loki loved him, almost in spite of himself, and died with honour.

Thor knows, logically, that in living he has committed no crime. He knows also that he has been a flawed brother, but he has always been just that – Loki’s brother, and the older of the two. If one of them was to die in defence of the other, it should have been him.

He is growing melancholy again. He shakes himself, forces his attention back to the table. Strange, how he finds himself taken from a warzone to a peaceful place, and it is only now that his grief grows overwhelming.

He looks up, and green eyes meet his.

A bolt of electricity goes through him when he sees those eyes. Even at a distance they are so familiar that Thor aches. A smile comes to his lips unbidden, and he bows his head respectfully to Asgard’s young prince.

Loki raises a haughty chin and turns his attention back to his own table.

The royal family retires before Thor can find an opportunity to speak to them. He watches them rise almost as one, leaving him to sit among strangers in the feasting hall. It is, perhaps, for the best.

He spies Sif at a table near the front of the room, drinking far more than her skinny form should allow. Hogun sits beside her, refusing to make eye contact even with the people he is talking to – another quirk of youth that Thor has somehow forgotten. Fandral and Volstagg eat and laugh and are apparently having some success impressing young ladies of the court, even with Fandral’s patchy beginnings of a beard.

Thor excuses himself before they can find him. Seeing them, he feels old and tired, and he will do them no favours in this state.

Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow he will go to Loki, will find a way to mend things before they are broken beyond repair. Tomorrow he will find a way to stop Thanos and Hela alike.

Tomorrow, Thor will set everything to rights.

Chapter Text

Many years of habit see Thor at the training grounds first thing in the morning. No one pays him any mind, one warrior among a score of others.

He always thinks best when he is moving, and think he must.

Taking up a sword, he runs through basic drills with a dummy. Mindless work with a weapon that, though proficient in, he has no affinity for. He strikes the dummy over and over, a rhythmic bang, bang, bang like the pulse of a drum.

He knows three things with certainty. One, that his appearance here is linked to the Infinity Stones. Two, that Stormbreaker struck two of the stones in the moment of impact. Three, that one of those stones was the green Time Stone.

That is as far as his memory can recall. He remembers the vibrant green, but not which colour he struck alongside beside it. The Time Stone, when combined with the Space Stone, the Power Stone, the Reality Stone or the Soul Stone, could be capable of dislocating him in time, though the effects of each combination would play out in different ways. There is a very real possibility, however, that he struck the Mind Stone, in which case everything around him might be an illusion.

Thor whirls the sword around his head, passing it with a flourish into his left hand. Strike, strike, feint, strike.

He recalls the image of the moment as best he can. Stormbreaker and its crackling lightning, the golden gleam of the Gauntlet, Thanos’ sneering face. He swung, and Stormbreaker struck the green stone dead-on, the one on the thumb, but the swing was wide enough to strike another… He does not remember seeing yellow as he struck the Gauntlet. The problem is, he does not remember seeing any other colour, which takes him right back to the essential conundrum.

It comes to this. There is a very good chance he has genuinely travelled through time. There is a small chance, however, that this is taking place entirely in his mind.

Thor’s head aches already. Only a few years ago he would have been happy to disregard that niggling concern. Now, though, he knows that emotion could blind him to a dangerous truth. He cannot discount the possibility of illusion, no matter how slim the chances, and no matter how hard he wishes his appearance here to be real. Loki would know where to start narrowing down the possibilities, but Thor cannot fathom where to begin.

So he strikes the dummy. Changes his rhythm, changes his pattern, quiets his mind. It is a welcome relief to feel the Asgardian sun again, to taste the breeze and the distant fragrance of Asgardian fruit trees.

He envies the other Avengers their search engines. Their technology is primitive, true enough, but he could use one of their devices right now. If only he could just type how do you tell if everything around you is real or if you are stuck in your own mind by magic and receive an answer.

Thor sets down his sword. Due to his general lack of information, there is only one path before him. He must proceed assuming that the dislocation is genuine, and conduct himself accordingly, but remain on his guard until he ascertains the true nature of his position. Which he will do. Somehow.

All right, then.

After another quick wash in the public baths, Thor heads into the feasting hall in search of breakfast. Never has he been gladder at the seemingly constant supply of food that comes from the kitchens. The hall is mainly empty, as most have already taken their early morning meal, but Sif and Volstagg are both still eating, with Fandral and Hogun keeping them company.

Wonderful. Much as he is delighted to see them again, even the thought of conversation – having to choose each and every word precisely so as not to give himself away – is tiring.

Thor seats himself at a respectable distance, but Sif’s head whips around at a word from Fandral.

“Stormbreaker!” she cries.

He raises a hand, helping himself to some sausages, but soon finds himself surrounded by younger versions of his friends.

By the stars, they are young. They practically scamper over, all brightness and energy, ready to take on the world but entirely lacking in the experience to do so. Caught in that strange point in time where they are too old to be children, but too young and inexperienced to be truly adults.

Volstagg has neither the beard nor girth he remembers, a tall, strapping lad with considerable breadth across the shoulders. His face is clean-shaven, Thor realises, rather than simply hairless, because Volstagg cannot grow a full beard yet. Lack of ability has certainly not stopped Fandral from trying, and he looks like a scruffy scoundrel. Hogun’s composure appears to stem from shyness rather than the quiet dignity of his older self – to be fair, he is likely still mastering his command of the Asgardian tongue - and Sif…

Thor forces down a smile. There is a smear of sauce on Sif’s cheek. She carries a blade at her hip, but her total lack of guile makes her seem even younger than she is. That and the sauce, which he is sure she will be mortified about as soon as she catches sight of her reflection.

“Good morning, warriors,” Thor says, raising a glass to toast them.

“Stormbreaker,” Sif says with a dignity that is quickly dissembled by the shining enthusiasm in her eyes. “These are my friends and companions, Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun.”

“Well met,” he says. “You are the companions of our young princes, I take it?”

As if he does not know. He is getting rather good at this sort of thing.

“Yes,” Sif says. “They are still at their lessons, but we are most eager to take some of your tales to them.”

Thor pauses. There is an opportunity here.

“Let them come themselves,” he says. “I have many tales of battle, but I am afraid that my business takes me elsewhere this morning. Perhaps I can entertain you all this evening.”

“But you are a warrior, are you not?” Fandral cuts in. He is frowning, either suspicious of Thor’s credentials, or baffled that any warrior would not hold forth about their adventures at the first sign of interest.

“I am,” Thor says. “I have fought many battles, and I must prepare for another.”

Around the table, all their eyes light up at once. The effect is bizarre, even eerie. He remembers being one of them, but he never knew how downright alarming the force of such enthusiastic attention could be. Thor is accustomed to speaking to young people, has been raised to speak to all kinds, but they are rarely so forward in coming to him.

It is usually his title, he supposes, that holds them back. As a no-name wanderer, he is fair game.

He has piqued their interest at least. Now they must do their part and take the information to the princes. Thor doubts he will find an excuse to join the royal table any time soon, and curious gossip is as good a draw as any. He must make Loki, and by extension his younger self, come to him.

To that end, he must leave his friends now.

“I wish you a good day,” he says.

“But you just got here!” Sif protests.

“Good day all the same.”

Thor grins, knowing it will annoy her, and takes his leave.

Tonight, then. Tonight he will reunite with Loki. This time around, things will go differently.

- - -

Asgard is so beautiful this time of year.

Thor meant to go back to the library, he really did. He had every intention of spending his day doing research, when he left the feasting hall. There is so much to be done, so much he does not yet understand. About the Stones, about his enemies, about his own situation.

Instead, he walks the gardens.

Every step he takes, he is surrounded by greenery. Climbing ivy trailing up and along the garden walls. Flower beds full to bursting with flowers unlike any other. The blooms here are small to the eye, but so fragrant they dominate every other sense, heady like a fine wine. They secret themselves away in the most unlikely of places, bursting from a crack in the pavement, peeking from beneath a windowsill. This garden is his mother’s and, rather than the carefully sculpted landscaping that dominates the rest of the city, is allowed to ramble and wind.

There was nothing like this on the spaceship. Nothing like this even on Midgard. This garden, with its branching paths and untamed beauty, is home.

Thor sits down on a bench, leaning back to look at the sky. He watches clouds and, for the first time in a long time, he breathes.

He can feel Asgard’s power all around him. It is a recent lesson, that he draws his strength from this place, and he lost it too soon to learn his lesson properly. He is not bound to it in the same way Hela was – or, he supposes, is - but when he focuses he can feel its draw, feel the subtle shifts of power beneath his skin.

He is the god of thunder, and Asgard calls to him.

He opens his eyes, not sure when he closed them, and looks up at the clear blue sky. And he knows, all of a sudden, that Asgard knows its king. Knows him. He knows it with a certainty that surprises him.

Even more surprising is that this does not worry him. Logically it could mean any number of things. It might betray his identity to Odin, pitting him against the crown. It might be tied to the Stone that brought him here, either an increase of his own power or an illusory symptom of his mind.

Asgard is not a place, but a people. It is an overwhelming truth, but not the whole truth. For Asgard is also a vessel, this city a cradle for its people, holding all their power and life and urging him to protect them. Granting him its strength, so that he may serve them well.

A familiar sound startles Thor from his thoughts. The swishing of long, elegant skirts.

Somehow, he did not anticipate meeting his mother here.

She rounds the corner with a small party, the bottom of her dress trailing across the ground in the lightest of touches. The sound is one he remembers well, and he looks up, meeting her gaze directly as he smiles.

Her brow furrows, her expression closing.

Thor’s heart thuds, and he jerks his gaze away. He has forgotten. He is a stranger to the queen, he has no right to meet her eyes. This garden is a public space, but it is her space, and the unspoken rule is well understood. He should not be here while she wishes to walk.

Thor pushes himself to his feet. He bows.

His mother sweeps right past.

He raises his head as she goes, watching those even, steady strides. Her people follow, and she does not look back, not even so much as a glance. There and gone, without so much as a turn of her head.

He is nothing to her.

Thor swallows.

It is two sides of a coin, this adventure. Asgard knows him, but his mother does not. In exchange for its power, for the possibility of a future, he must endure the pain of having those he loves so close but entirely out of his reach. He will save them, but they will never love him as he loves them.

All will be well, he tells himself. All will be well.

- - -

It seems the feasting hall is destined to act as a meeting space.

His young friends have done well. Thor has barely sat down to dinner when a shadow falls over him, and he looks up to meet his own eyes.

It is an uncanny moment of recognition, like looking into a mirror and seeing someone else’s reflection. Except that is not quite right, because it is his face. This once was his reflection. Then he aged and changed, and now his long-dead reflection has returned to him.

There is a reason Thor has not, until now, thought too carefully about the younger version of himself running about the place. He already feels like he is going a little mad, and the boy has not spoken a word.

That changes quickly.

“Warrior!” the young Thor declares.

Did he really walk around with that sorry excuse for facial hair squatting above his upper lip? Surely Loki would not have allowed it, would have found a way to wax it off him if sheer reason did not work.

But Thor remembers with a sudden burst of clarity how much he had agonised over his beard coming in late. He spent many an hour in front of the mirror, peering at his chin and hoping against hope that it would come, it had to come. He was so embarrassed to be beardless when others not much older sported full beards, never mind that neither Volstagg nor Fandral’s beard had grown in either. He had agonised, as only a youth can, and all but begged his long-suffering mother to perform some miracle to make it grow because he could not stand the humiliation.

The memory is vivid, and Thor has been silent a fraction too long. He clears his throat.

“Young princes,” he says. His voice has gone hoarse. “How may I assist you?”

His eyes travel from his younger self to Loki, and seeing him so close is another blow to Thor’s chest. Those green-grey eyes he loves so well, looking at him with wide-eyed innocence. No malice, no suspicion, no resentment. Just Loki.

Loki’s mildly exasperated expression turns quickly to startled, his emotions worn clear on his face, which is another surprise. Thor has looked too long.

Young Thor is speaking, so he forces his gaze away.

 “My friends tell me your name is Stormbreaker.” The boy gestures in their direction.

Thor follows his hand and finds the young ones moving closer like a pack on the hunt, clearly keen to share in any stories that may be told.

“Not my name,” Thor says, “but the name I will answer to.”

He is not sure why he says it. Perhaps because Loki is still looking at him, and to surrender his name would be like surrendering any kinship he has left.

“There must be a tale behind it,” young Thor says, pushing for an answer.

His sheer confidence is amusing. Judging by the look of him, young Thor is almost the same height as Thor is now. He is, however, about a hundred pounds lighter and looks more like a beanpole than a warrior.

It is little wonder that no one recognises them as the same person.

Loki, hovering over his brother’s shoulder, looks like he is trying and failing to disguise his interest in the proceedings.

“It is long tale. Dull, too,” Thor says, just to watch his younger self’s face twist in displeasure. “I have more exciting tales to share. Why, not so very long ago I found myself in a gladiatorial arena, bid to fight to the death against a champion never before defeated.”

Young Thor seats himself, apparently happy to accept this tale as a replacement. The boy takes in his older self’s musculature, his beard, his scar, and leans in. His friends take that as their cue and Thor finds himself surrounded by excitable young people. They are all too proud to actually communicate their eagerness, perusing the contents of the table in front of them as though that was their intent in coming here, not realising that their body language has already betrayed them.

Youth is a simpler time. Thor feels surprisingly fond of their antics.

Loki, though… Loki stands where his brother left him, and Thor can see he is divided. Does he sit or does he go?

Volstagg and Fandral make themselves comfortable on the bench, taking up the remaining space. If Loki wishes to join them, he will have to ask them to make room.

Thor sees the moment Loki’s lips turn down, where the boy turns to leave, and speaks again hurriedly.

“Of course, proficiency in combat is all very well, but the tale was really decided by the wit and wiles of a sorcerer.”

Loki turns back, eyes sparking with interest. Thor holds his gaze, smiling, welcoming. Trying to disguise his desperation for his brother’s company.

“Come, it is a long tale, full of twists and turns, and magic even I do not comprehend. Perhaps you, Prince Loki, could elucidate the subject?”

Loki watches him as though expecting a jibe, but when he realises Thor’s intentions are honest, Thor is treated to a shy smile.

By the gods, this is Loki, his Loki. He had all but forgotten how Loki vacillated between total confidence and an innate shyness that took him years to overcome. He had forgotten the childish joy in Loki’s eyes when someone praised him, a sharp juxtaposition to his generally sullen teenaged expression. The coltish limbs, the awkward posture, even the frizz to his hair that his older self would never allow the world to see.

Thor misses him terribly. Both this boy, and the man he will become.

Thor shuffles along his own bench, now too squashed but happily so, and pats the space beside him. Loki seems to calculate for a moment, then apparently decides there is nothing in that to wound his pride, and he sits.

His eyes are averted, apparently embarrassed by Thor’s gaze, so Thor looks back at young Thor who is eager for such attention. Loki’s thigh, by nature of necessity, is pressed against his beneath the table. Warm and alive.

“This story begins with a sorceress sending me through the cosmos and face-first into a mountain of garbage,” Thor says.

He tells his tale, and though there is so much he must conceal, though he does not have Loki’s way with words, he tells it well. He tells them of Scrapper 142 and her change of heart, of the great battle with the Grandmaster’s Champion (which, he is sure to stress, he won fair and square). He tells them of his escape with the help of a wily old friend, whose wit and magic created mischief along the way but who always, ultimately, helped.

He feels Loki leaning into him as the tale goes on. The boy stops holding himself in a rigid posture at the very edge of the bench, and allows his body to relax against Thor’s. He is shy, for whenever Thor looks at him during the story Loki is quick to look away.

Thor notes with a surge of affection that Loki’s expression is still decidedly sullen, as though any display of interest would be his undoing. Loki cannot lie with his eyes, though, not yet. And they are shining.

Loki is listening.

So Thor speaks. He laughs, and jokes, and tells both simple truths and exciting embellishments until it is a rollicking good tale. He speaks around the gripping urgency and the threat facing Asgard, around his fresh grief and simmering anger, until the story is one of pure adventure, the best kind of tale. Thor tells them of the escape into the wormhole, and finally he falls silent.

“But where did you go?” Loki bursts out.

Thor, surprised, looks down at the top of Loki’s head. Loki is looking down at the table as though embarrassed to have asked, though the others are all still eager enough, and Thor cannot help himself. He places a gentle hand on Loki’s shoulder.

Loki looks up, startled, and Thor smiles.

“I will tell you another time,” he says.

Loki’s eyes are wide. The others do not cotton on to the fact that Thor means Loki, and Loki alone. They argue, trying to persuade him to continue, even as Thor laughs them off. He downs the last of his goblet, clapping Loki once on the shoulder before withdrawing his hand.

“It is late!” Thor tells them. “You young folk should all be in bed.”

A look of mortal offence crosses young Thor’s face, as though bed times are of no consequence to a prince, but Thor pays his younger self little mind. Loki is looking at him, quiet where the others are loud.

“How long do you mean to stay here?” Loki asks.

Once, Thor might have answered him thoughtlessly. But words are important to Loki, and absent-minded promises easily broken, so Thor considers carefully.

“As long as I am able,” he answers. It is the truth.

- - -

When Thor returns to his little chamber that evening, his heart feels very full.

He lies down on his bed and stares at the ceiling. He is not tired, but bursting with energy.

He can help Loki. He knows he can. He will set Loki on a new path, change the terrible road his brother will otherwise walk, redeeming himself only in his final moments. Thor can help Loki forge a new life.

It is something he has wanted for years, on those nights he lay awake after Loki’s betrayals, heart aching and mind whirling with every sign he missed.

Loki responded to him. Shyly, true, and with the same sullen expression he seemed to show everyone, but he responded. He listened, and he left Thor that evening with a smile lingering about his lips. Thor had felt him leaning in during the conversation, seen the shine in his eyes when Thor spoke of the sorcerer in his own life with admiration rather than mockery.

Thor has been given a chance to right many things, and he would be a damn fool if he did not take it with both hands.

- - -

Time may have changed, but some things remain the same. The next morning Thor wakes to the palace in disarray.

Loki has cut off Sif’s hair.

Chapter Text

Loki is, as ever, a thrice-damned trickster.

The thought is far fonder than it should be. Thor knows he should not be amused, especially with Sif’s obvious distress. He already knows how it plays out, though, so it is hard to muster the righteous indignation that should be mustered.

Thor takes his time with his grooming routine, relishing the relief of the warm memories overtaking him, pushing the ache of his grief to the side. Loki is Loki is Loki, and though Thor may have lost the older one, the younger one is every bit his brother.

It is a wicked thing Loki has done, true, but a childish one. And if Thor remembers correctly, not entirely unprovoked, no matter how much Sif may protest. Loki’s tricks, no matter how cruel they seemed at the time, were never directed towards the undeserving.

That is no longer true, of course, not of the Loki in Thor’s own time. His brother’s mind twisted from vengeful cheek to wanton destruction seemingly in the blink of an eye. This Loki, though, this young one, is a different matter.

The palace moves about Thor in a whirlwind, and he simply stands still and lets it pass him by. This time around, he is an outsider to the latest princely drama, free to do nothing but oil his beard while excited feet stamp up and down the corridor outside his room.

Thor moves at a sedate pace while young Thor storms about the place, threatening to beat Loki up at top volume. Sif vacillates between fury and tears she tries so hard to conceal. Volstagg and Hogun trail young Thor, and it is Fandral who takes up the task of consoling Sif. Thor only hears snatches of their conversation, ducking into an alcove as they rush by, but Fandral appears to be commiserating about her loss of hair by comparison to his own failure of a beard. Thor doubts it will be as successful as the boy intends, but it is well-intended.

Thor remembers being outraged on Sif’s behalf when his father did not interfere. Odin had merely raised an eyebrow and told them to sort it out themselves. At the time it had seemed the height of injustice, but now Thor sees the wisdom in it. If Odin had interfered, the matter would have only amplified in gravity, for the king did not involve himself lightly.

Thor, as Stormbreaker, is a different matter.

He makes a quick trip to the feasting hall first, then slips off to the queen’s gardens. He takes his time, wandering the paths and keeping his eyes sharp for signs of movement. He does not remember exactly which tree he is looking for until –

There. A foot, just barely visible through the foliage.

Thor grins. Then, because he is feeling mischievous himself, more alive than he has felt in the longest time, he seats himself directly at the base of the tree. He pulls out a hunk of bread he took from the feasting hall and bites into it.

Not far away, he can hear young Thor crashing around, hollering Loki’s name. Why he does so, Thor cannot say. All he ever achieved by yelling was alerting Loki to his location.

When young Thor happens upon him in the height of rage, all he sees is Stormbreaker having a peaceful breakfast in the shade of the tree.

After all, Thor is sitting directly in the shadow that, when the clouds moved, gave Loki away the first time around.

“Good morning,” Thor says to his younger self.

“Have you seen my wretched viper of a brother?” young Thor demands.

“Not this morning,” he says, taking another bite of his bread. “Should I pass on a message, if I see him?”

He should not rile young Thor up, but it is terribly amusing to do so. He begins to understand why Loki did it so often.

“Tell him he’s a scoundrel and I’ll have his head for this,” young Thor snarls. It would, perhaps, be more impressive if he were not so stringy-looking.

“I’ll pass it along,” Thor says amiably.

The boys storm off, their yells of Loki’s names slowly fading into the distance.

Still, Thor waits and eats his bread until they fade entirely. Then he looks directly up into the tree.

“Would you care for some breakfast, Prince Loki?”

A branch jolts, betraying Loki’s location.

Thor pulls another hunk of bread out of his pocket and tosses it upwards. To his surprise and pleasure, a pale hand snatches it from the air before disappearing back into the foliage.

“You did a marvellous job of her hair,” Thor says conversationally. “A little uneven, perhaps, but with practice you could make a career for yourself.”

“I am a prince of Asgard,” Loki hisses from above. “Do not mock me, warrior.”

So Loki is in one of those moods. Very well, Thor knows how to deal with that.

“A prince currently hiding in a tree,” he says, light and teasing. He can practically feel Loki’s offence radiate downwards. “Not hiding, my apologies – tactically concealing oneself.”

Loki is silent. Thor finishes his bread and searches around in his pockets for a piece of fruit he brought with him – yes, there it is. He bites down, relishing its sweetness.

“Are you planning to sit there all day?” Loki whispers.

He sounds, rather than angry, a little panicked. He will calm soon enough, be reasonable again, but Thor needs to help him get there. Loki has always been tempestuous, even at his sweetest.

“It is a beautiful day,” Thor says. “And a beautiful garden to sit in.”

“All of Asgard is looking for me, and your presence will draw attention!”

“Your brother and his friends are looking for you,” Thor corrects. “But I see no reason to move. What have I got to do with it?”

A great deal, actually. Thor is hoping so spare Loki the broken nose that will come when young Thor finds him. He was not a kind brother, when he was young.

Loki is silent above him. Thor shrugs and enjoys his fruit.

He should not be so indulgent of Loki’s tricks, he knows that. He should probably be persuading the boy to climb down and face his punishment – with careful intervention so as to ensure no broken bones – but he does not. Loki’s antics are familiar, a welcome distraction from more pressing issues.

He is, he thinks, being selfish. Putting his own needs – the need for normalcy, for his family, for a sense of joy in life – ahead of others. This time, though, he will allow himself to indulge, and simply enjoy the company of his brother. Enjoy Loki’s mischief as it was, before everything went wrong and his brother grew twisted with anger.

“Do you want some fruit?” he calls up.

No reply, but when Thor throws it upwards it, too, is snatched out of the air.

At length, Loki climbs down of his own accord. His face is pinched, cheeks flushed red, but he is no longer quite so prickly. If Thor is reading him right, now Loki has sufficiently calmed down, he is embarrassed. Thor pats the ground beside him, and Loki glares.

“Come now, surely we are past the point of pride,” Thor teases.

Loki bristles. Wrong thing to say.

“I would have you know, Stormbreaker, that my business is no business of yours.”

“I meant no offence,” Thor says, cursing himself. Even with the benefit of age, he still stumbles where Loki is concerned. “I have hidden in far less pleasant places than a tree in your mother’s fine gardens.”

It is not quite the right thing to say, but Loki’s expression looks less hostile.

“I was hoping to hear how you did it,” Thor says, pressing his advantage. “Quite a feat, cutting someone’s hair without them waking. How did you enter her rooms in the first place?”

Just like that, he is pushing too much, the words falling out of him before he has time to think. He worries that he is being too obvious, too desperate. He does not usually prattle on so. Loki looks at him with suspicion but does not walk away, which Thor is counting as a victory.

“I… commandeered a key,” Loki says slowly.

“No easy task,” Thor says. “I have told you one of my stories, now you should tell me yours. I promise not to share your secrets.”

“And you expect me to take you at your word?”

“I ask only for as much of the tale as you are willing to tell.”

That seems to satisfy Loki. He sits and, haltingly, tells Thor what happened.

It is wonderful, hearing him speak again. Thor knows how much of the tale Loki tailors and embellishes, limiting his own culpability and talking up his successes. Edging around the hurt that inspired this particular act of mischief in the first place. Thor is old enough now to read between the lines. Or perhaps it is more that Loki is not yet skilled enough to disguise his hurts.

This was an act of revenge. Thor knows that already, but was not expecting to hear how long it has been brewing. Given how cheerful Loki had seemed last night (and it is hard not to preen about that) he assumed that Sif had said something to the boy afterwards. Which, as it turns out, is true, but hardly the whole truth of the matter.

Loki tells him of Sif laughing at him in front of his friends, tripping him on purpose, damaging a book that meant a lot to him. And last night, when Loki had left Thor so happy, she made a disparaging remark about how upset Loki seemed about the book’s loss.

How she taunted him, exactly, Loki does not say. He talks around it, as though afraid that if he gives voice to it, he will find Stormbreaker in agreement.

“She has no idea of the value of it,” Loki finishes, with enough bitterness that Thor can imagine the rest.

And that, Thor understand. Loki speaks not just of his book, but of sorcery in general. It is not an idle hurt, for Thor too used to think little of sorcery. Sif ruined Loki’s book and then teased him for being upset about it, making a mockery of the one talent that was always Loki’s and Loki’s alone, so he cut off her hair.

“I am sorry about your book,” Thor says. It is a relief to understand the root of his distress, if not to solve it. There is one part, though, that Thor himself may remedy. “Is it replaceable?”

Loki looks surprised again. Thor is not quite sure how he keeps doing that – his Loki always berated him for his predictability.

“It was expensive,” Loki says bitterly. “Father brought it back to me from Niflheim.”

“Then I will see if I can find a copy, when I am next there,” Thor says, pleased to find such a simple solution.

Loki looks taken aback.

Only now Thor realises he has done it again. He is acting entirely too familiar. Who is he to make such a promise to a prince? His own Loki would have scoffed but taken him at his word, but he is a stranger to this Loki. He should not speak with such an assumption of intimacy, lest he scare the boy off.

Loki looks down at his hands, nestled in his lap, and Thor does not know what to say.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, Frigga rounds the bend. Her eyebrows rise when she sees Thor sitting beside her son, but she is too composed to make a scene of her surprise. She folds her arms in front of her, looking down at Loki, and Thor can take a hint.

“Your Majesty,” he says, rising to his feet and bowing. Then, to Loki, “I will leave you now. Thank you for the tale.”

He inclines his head to his mother as he passes her. Tries to ignore the pain in his heart when she does not respond.

“Well, my darling,” he hears Frigga say to Loki. Not angry, not even exasperated. Concerned.

She understands Loki acts out when he is in pain. She always understood, well before Thor did.

With a pang, he leaves them to it.

- - -

He does not see the aftermath, much as it pains him to withdraw now. He has drawn enough attention to himself as it is. He cannot push intimacy with the royal family and rouse suspicion.

The next day, though, all is back to rights. Loki has been disciplined, Sif given a stern talking to for her part, and young Thor, this time around, has not broken his brother’s nose.

When he walks past Sif in the corridors, Thor pretends he knows nothing of the situation, raising a friendly hand in greeting.

“I like your hair!” he tells her, making his voice warm and easy. “It matches mine.”

Her hand flies up to touch her short hair, and there is a spring in her step as she heads about her business.

Thor, for his part, has work to do. Easy as it is to fall back into old rhythms, he has indulged enough.

He spends the next few days in the library. He gathers precious little, but progress is still progress.

The history books carry traces of Hela, despite the effort to wipe the slate clean. He can see her in the gaps and absences, in the dark spaces where information that should have been obvious is lost. She is a shadow over their history, intangible but ever-present. Only one who already knew where she was would ever find her, ever suspect the truth of the past.

It leaves Thor with yet another conundrum. Hela, he knows, is mad beyond reason. He cannot unleash her on Asgard, but equally he cannot find so much as a whisper of the location of her prison cell. And even if he found her, what then? Would he strike her down, while she is defenceless against him?

There is a small part in him that wonders if she might be redeemed. It is a foolish part, and he knows how Loki and Odin alike would shake their heads, but he would not part with it for anything. He must hold onto hope, even when all seems lost.

“Because that’s what heroes do,” he murmurs to himself.

The librarian looks at him oddly, but Thor sends her a grin and she goes back to sorting books.

There is little information on Titan in their books. Histories, geographical facts, and little more. If he wishes to find information on Thanos, he will have to travel to do it.

Thor rubs his temples, resting his head in his hands. The table in front of him is strewn with books, and he should do something about giving them some sort of order. He has the tendency to fling them carelessly away when he is done with them, and now he wants to cross-reference something he cannot remember which book he is looking for to do it.

It is a perfectly quiet day. He has seen neither hide nor hair of any of his young friends. It is their day off, so presumably they are gallivanting about and enjoying themselves while the rest of the palace continues its work. Much as Thor wishes he could join them, he pulls another ancient history book towards him, careful of the delicacy of its spine, and gets back to work.

A few minutes later he is jerked from his studies by a servant hovering over him.

“You have an audience with the king,” she says.

Thor knows better than to think he has a choice. He shuts the book, shoves his notes into his pockets, and goes.

He should have been more careful. Loki once told him that you could tell a lot about someone by their choice of books, and if that is true then Thor has revealed his hand unwittingly.

His mind races through the evidence – the sheaf of notes in his pocket, the history books stacked on tables. All on the same time period, all looking for the same blanks.

There is one thought that keeps repeating itself over and over as he follows the servant down to the throne room. It is simply, oh no.

- - -

“Rise, Stormbreaker.”

Thor pushes himself up from his kneeling position.

Odin’s face is impassive. Gungnir is balanced beside the throne, an ever-present reminder of the king’s power.

Thor knows his father will betray nothing until the last moment, so he must do the same. He keeps his own face smooth, even as his mind races a mile a minute.

Does Odin know he is looking for Hela?

“I have heard many tales of you, since your coming,” Odin says. Then he waits.

Odin’s eyes are piercing, compelling Thor to speak. It is a tactic Thor has seen him use many times, even on Thor himself. Under that weighty gaze, he has confessed to all sorts of wrong-doings.

Now, though, he resists. Even as the tension builds, and his fingers threaten to twitch.

Odin leans back in his throne.

“My son Thor tells me of your battle with the Grandmaster’s Champion.”

Belatedly, Thor realises it is not just his research that could betray him - he may have said too much. He was careful to conceal the identities of the people in it, to omit entirely the threat facing Asgard, but he did not disguise the place. Is the Grandmaster ruling Sakaar even in this time period? Does Sakaar exist at all, or is it still an empty rubbish dump for the universe?

Ymir’s teeth, he is a fool.

“It was a great victory,” Thor says. Hedging his bets.

“Indeed,” says Odin.

That silence again. Odin watching impassively, waiting for Thor to crack, for him to fill the blank space with jabber that will reveal too much.

Thor stares at Odin’s boots. He is every bit as stubborn as his father, he reminds himself. He is his father’s son, and a king in his own right. He need not be cowed, not now. Just because he may have made a mistake does not mean that all is lost.

Stay calm. Wait for Odin to lay out his hand before Thor shows his own cards.

Wait. Wait.

“There is a tournament in a week’s time,” Odin says at length. “A friendly test of skill. My sons will both be participating. I hope that Asgard may see you fight as well.”

Thor almost sags with relief before he remembers himself. It is not about Hela after all.

Then again, perhaps it is. The one thing Thor can trust is that Odin knows far more than his words reveal. Thor may have inherited his father’s strength, but he has never had his cunning. He cannot predict Odin’s thoughts, and he will not know what Odin is prying for until the very moment he betrays himself. The thought makes the bottom drop out of his stomach.

To his father’s mind, Thor may well pose a threat to Asgard.

He has time to prove himself. He can be sure, at the very least, that Odin wishes to see what Thor can do. Knows full well that, mild as Odin’s words may be, there is a command undercutting every syllable.

“I would be honoured to take part,” he says.

Odin nods. “We shall look forward to it.”

He stands from the throne, robes sweeping down to the floor. A servant attends him at once, offering up a scroll that must contain the details of Odin’s next meeting.

Thor waits until the side door shuts behind his father before he allows himself to sag, wiping the sweat from his brow.

- - -

Unable to stomach more reading and too distracted by his father to make sense of his notes, Thor heads to the training grounds again. It is a familiar path to tread, yet he is still surprised to find the place so full. Warriors of all kinds test their mettle. Shaping up, most likely, for their best performances at the upcoming tournament.

His eyes go instantly to Loki.

Loki trains slightly separate from the rest (and no wonder, after his latest trick). While Thor’s younger self is sparring in the ring, Loki throws knives at a distant target. He gets three in a row before he misses the target, and when he does he seems to throw some sort of fit. None of his friends are watching him, so they do not witness the way he throws his knives to the ground in frustration, only to pick them up and try again.

Their tutors, to Thor’s surprise, are occupied almost entirely with the younger version of him. Despite Loki’s obvious struggle, they turn only rarely to the second prince.

Thor frowns. Has it always been so? He has always known that Loki is prickly about his mistakes and does not like being corrected, but surely a boy his age is unable to scare his tutors away, no matter how unreceptive he may be to their advice.

I remember a shadow, living in the shade of your greatness.

Something in Thor’s chest clenches. He always, when it came to the heart of it, believed that Loki’s grievances were irrational things, brought about by over-sensitivity and a tendency to find fault. He was the older brother, but Loki had always received his fair share, despite his jealousies.

That his jealousy was not unfounded does not excuse Loki’s madness. But Thor knows, deep in his heart, that this kind of treatment was not uncommon. It was convenient for him so he ignored it, and Loki rarely complained.

No, Loki just let it fester, and slowly break the bond he had with Thor bit by bit, and Thor only noticed when it was far too late.

It is an explanation, if not a justification. Still, Thor grieves.

Again and again, Loki throws his knives. He does not yet have the smoothness, the ease of reflex that Thor remembers from Loki’s later self. This young Loki is still learning. He practices pulling his knives from his sleeves, his holster, even his boots. Each variation he practices over and over, with general success. When he hits the target, he hits it almost dead-on.

The strange thing is that sometimes he misses the target entirely.

It is a pattern, Thor realises. The few times Loki misses, those knives fail to so much as nick the target. Which means that, while Loki has the physical skill and dexterity to throw knives with great precision, there is some mental block causing him to throw his aim off entirely.

He does not remember this at all. Loki certainly never asked him for help.

He glances over at his younger self, strutting about the yard as he waits for his next sparring partner. Basking in all the attention, so pre-occupied with his own prowess that he would laugh Loki away if he heard so much as a whisper of Loki’s trouble.

Loki runs a hand through his hair, body language irritated. He needs to calm down and focus on getting to the bottom of whatever his block is. Sometimes warriors put pressure on themselves when they get too many throws in a row, and miss the next one. Sometimes it is a cycle in which they believe they only have a certain number of accurate throws before one is doomed to fail, a belief which only ensures it. Whatever it is, it is easily corrected, yet none of his tutors pay Loki any mind.

Thor is already starting across the grass before reason catches up to him. Stormbreaker has no business sticking his nose into the young prince’s training. He doubts Loki would welcome the help at present, even if he offered it. No, Loki would probably be shamed, and the little progress he has made with the boy would evaporate into nothing.

So he stops himself, even though it is frustrating. He wills his younger self to notice, to go to his brother, for surely this is where their problems began. With Thor not noticing, perhaps not caring, what troubled his brother.

Is this where he and Loki drifted apart? The thought is more painful than it should be, given Thor knows exactly how it ends. But to stem back, not from the time surrounding the coronation, but into the earliest days of their manhood, perhaps earlier still…

He thought them friends and brothers, from the beginning until the very end. Yet Loki struggles alone, and Thor does not know how to help him. He never even knew this was a problem. What kind of brother does that make him?

His own mother does not recognise him. Now, on top of the memory of his brother’s lifeless body falling to the ground, he has another piece of evidence as to just how many times Thor failed him.

Grief threatens to overwhelm him. He bows his head, knowing full well that it is foolish to dwell, that it will not change anything.

He has longed for Asgard’s miraculous resurrection, but now he is here he does nothing but wallow in his own misery.

Loki has set the knives aside when he looks up again. The boy scrubs a hand over his face as young Thor’s latest partner leaves the ring, the tutors speaking excitedly while young Thor laps up their praise.

Thor does not realise his steps are taking him closer until it is too late. Pulled as if by an inexorable force, he approaches Loki, and Loki finally notices him.

He cannot muster a smile, not now. But Thor bows his head in a gesture of respect as he walks.

When he meets Loki’s eyes the boy is wearing that startled look again. Thor walks on, as if meandering past the training yards had always been his intent.

He can feel Loki’s eyes burning into the back of his head. And, foolish as he is, despite all his intentions to appear as neutral as possible, he turns to meet Loki’s gaze.

Thor is not sure what Loki sees in his eyes, but something passes between them. At this distance, knife held in hand, Loki looks almost as Thor remembers him. Sharp and fierce and dangerous, an unpredictable force of nature.

How Thor loves him.

He places a hand over his heart, stilling his feet so that he may bow from the waist. If this Loki knew him, Thor would go to him, pull him into an embrace and ruffle his hair. But he does not, so he must settle for the touch of his hand against his own heart to still his longing.

His brother lives. And this time, Thor will not fail him. Not again.

Loki’s mouth hangs slightly open when Thor rises. It makes him look so young that Thor cannot help but smile at him, despite the heaviness in his heart.

“Come on, Loki!” his younger self calls, the trouble between them apparently forgiven already.

Loki looks over his shoulder. Looks back at Thor when he goes to follow his brother, as though he cannot help it.

Thor knows the feeling. As always, Loki is both his grief and his joy.

He continues his walk, listening to the familiar hammering of metal, grunting, yelling, that comes with the training yards. It is a racket, but a soothing one.

The peace in Asgard is seductive, persuasive, and he could easily fall into it and forget his main task. He must resist the temptation, must remember his quest.

Fortunate, he thinks with a snort, that Loki is around. For with him as a reminder, young and uncorrupted, Thor will never forget his grief.

Chapter Text

The upcoming tournament is one of no significance – no foreign entities are attending, and the only real prize is the right to boast – but Thor’s young friends are taking it with deadly seriousness.

The more experienced warriors, of course, have already proven themselves. They view the event as more of a social occasion, as they rightly should. Thor remembers that his father held competitions often, keeping skills sharp while acknowledging those with particular talent. So while they practice, they also spend a great deal of time leaning on fences around the training yards, talking. Thor himself knows that he is participating, but beyond that puts the event out of his mind.

It is not so for his younger self.

Young Thor trains with a ferocious intensity. Anyone unfortunate enough to be passing by the training grounds is challenged to spar with him. He trains until his hair is plastered to his forehead with sweat, and even at a distance Thor can see his muscles shaking.

The boy is still learning how to use Mjolnir.

It is an odd realisation. He remembers wielding Mjolnir being as simple as breathing, and Stormbreaker is much the same. But young Thor is off-balance, putting too much into his swings, then not enough. The weapon is not an extension of himself, but a weight that holds him down.

Not that the boy knows it. His determination is admirable, his arrogance not so much. He is so sure of his physical strength that he pays little attention to the flaws that could be his undoing.

The boy is both cocky and desperate to prove himself. It is a strange moment of self-realisation, long overdue.

Worse, Thor is not able to keep his younger self at as greater distance as he hoped.

The young Thor accosts him at every opportunity. Though Thor minds his own business, the boy seems to spring out of nooks and crannies wherever he goes, seemingly making a point of hunting him down to issue a challenge.

“Stormbreaker, spar with me!” he says when they encounter one another in a corridor, his enthusiasm undampened by repeated rejection.

“Not today,” Thor tells him, with increasingly limited patience.

“I want to see if you live up to your tales,” young Thor says with a grin, trying to goad him. He tosses Mjolnir up into the air – inside the palace, no wonder Thor gave his mother conniptions - and summons it back again, and in that split second Thor can feel it calling to him as well.

It is a song he knows so well. It thrums in his blood, the call of the power that is his birthright. That he earned and bled and killed for.

It would be so easy to throw out his hand and take back his weapon. He does not.

He has changed, he thinks. As much as he mourned Mjolnir, he does not feel the need to reclaim it.

“Perhaps at the tournament,” Thor replies.

He walks away, as he always does, trying to ignore the disappointment on young Thor’s face.

It is still too strange to see a younger version of himself. Perhaps it is weakness, perhaps not, but Thor cannot stomach spending too much time in the company of the boy he once was.

He finds, when it comes to the heart of it, he does not like him much.

Thor wishes he could spend more time practicing himself, not because he needs to but simply because it would be more fun than his current task. The library is, once again, Thor’s home for the day, so with heavy steps he treads the familiar path. Painful as the process is, he needs as much information as he can gather before taking his inquiries further afield. His next step, he thinks, will involve finding wise folk of all descriptions, and learning what cannot be learnt from books. But in order to get specific answers, he must ask specific questions, so he crams his mind full of as much information as he can find.

It is deeply boring. But he likes to think he has resigned himself to that particular aspect of kingship. And what is he doing now, but protecting his people?

If he is honest with himself, he hoped to see more of Loki in the palace library. In his memories of youth, Loki spent a lot of time there. Now, though, Loki is nowhere to be seen. Thor glimpses him once or twice, but somehow he is not able to catch Loki’s eye before the boy scampers off.

His company is missed.

Days pass, and he does not see Loki training again either. It is pathetic, he knows, sidling around the palace grounds like one of those paparazzi on Midgard, hoping for the briefest encounter with Loki.

He sees Loki at dinner, of course, but while Thor and his friends approach again, Loki remains at the high table. His pale, pointed face turns deliberately away from Thor at every meal. Loki is avoiding eye contact on purpose.

Thor’s heart sinks, but he tries not to be too discouraged. He is Loki’s brother, knows him better than anyone. It is both a great advantage, and a terrible curse, for it makes him act in ways that might be alarming from a stranger. It is only natural that there are some stumbles on his part as he tries to balance his own knowledge of Loki with Loki’s total ignorance of him.

So he tries to give the boy space. If he can keep his identity from his mother – his dearly beloved mother, who barely looks at him, does not speak to him, does not love him – he can give Loki space too.

- - -

He spends a lot of his spare time in Frigga’s gardens. It is the one place of solitude that is truly peaceful, where he can wander at will. It feels as though nothing bad ever happened here, a sanctuary from the pain and bloodshed that took the rest of Asgard as Hela swept through, its peace only destroyed by the coming of Ragnarok. Nothing else, he thinks, would have disturbed it.

Of course, nothing so pure may last forever.

As is usually the case with his current luck, he is not left to his own devices for long.

Frigga comes gliding through the gardens like a ghost – and is that not a spear in his heart. She looks pale, and harried, and more tired than he remembers her ever looking. She was always invincible, a nurturer and guide. Until the day she was not.

Thor stands and bows as he always does when Frigga passes him by. He is braced for her to ignore him, as she usually does, and continue on her way. This time, though, her eyes hone in on his face.

She stops, right in front of him.

“Your name is Stormbreaker, is it not?”

“The name I currently wear,” Thor says, trying to disguise his surprise.

Not the one you gave me.

He is not her son, not the one she knows. He must not act like her son, cannot expect the warmth of her love and the intimacy of her care. He must be distant as the stars themselves – for his own sake, if not for hers.

It is easier said than done. For Frigga nods, and… lingers.

“I am at your service, my queen,” Thor says. Courtly, polite, and utterly unlike himself. He has never put on a mask in front of his mother, not until today.

“I hear nothing but talk of you,” she says. “Will you walk with me?”

Thor’s heart skips a beat. Even if he wished to, he could not say no.

Just like her, he thinks ruefully, to seek him out just as he has resolved to stay away from them all for a while.

He needs to mind his tongue, remember himself. He is her son, always and forever, but in this garden here and now he is not her son, not the son of this younger, tired-looking Frigga. It is like abandoning the very foundations of his being, but it must be done.

“Yes, your majesty,” he says. The words taste bitter in his mouth.

They walk. It is strange to be in such close proximity, and be silent. They stroll through the gardens, and Thor wonders where her people are. She usually has companions, but not today.

Frigga looks like she needs a rest. He cannot help but worry at the bags under her eyes and heaviness of her brow, but there is nothing he can do. Nothing, he reminds himself, despite doing as she asks and walking with her. It is utterly insufficient, but he will give it a hundred times over.

“You spend much time in my gardens,” Frigga says at length.

“They are beautiful,” Thor murmurs. Then, trying not to sound stung, “If my presence here disturbs you, I beg pardon for the intrusion, and will remove myself-”

“Hush, none of that,” Frigga says. And for the first time in a long time, she turns and smiles at him.

How he missed the crinkle of her eyes, the warmth in her gaze, the slight lilt to her smiles as though she knew something he did not. Which, to be fair, she usually did.

“All are welcome in these gardens,” Frigga says. She turns her eyes back to the path, but Thor cannot help his own stare.

The sunlight bounces off the curls in her hair. He can smell her perfume, so warm and familiar, and hear the ever-present swish of her skirts.

“Thank you,” he says.

“I confess I had an ulterior motive in inviting you to walk with me,” Frigga says. “I wondered if I may make a request of you.”

“Anything, your majesty.”

“You may live to regret that,” Frigga says. There is a flash of humour in her eyes, and Thor remembers it is not their father from whom Loki got his wit, for all appearances. Diplomatic she may be, but Frigga always had a sense of humour.

When he was little, she used to tease him in ways only a mother could. She would feign ignorance of his favourite warriors from the stories, calling them by names just slightly wrong so that he would roll his eyes and correct her, thinking her a terrible fool and entirely oblivious to the amusement in her eyes. Then, when he grew older, she teased him about his friends, and his romances, and even Mjolnir, which no one else dared to do. She always, in her way, encouraged him to take life less seriously.

What would she say to him if she saw him now?

He has lost himself in his thoughts again. He buried his mother, but here she stands again a thousand years younger. Watching him, her eyes clear and clever.

Thor ducks his head away from her gaze. He cannot help it.

“All Asgardians are welcome in Asgard,” Frigga says. Her voice is gentler, now. “No matter how long they have been away. The All-Father provides food and lodging for every traveller, no matter the circumstances, and the light and warmth of Asgard is open to you.”

Thor is not sure where this is going.

“Yes,” he says, “and I am grateful.”

Frigga is still looking at him. Thor is not sure what she sees, but she keeps talking, though on a slightly different track.

“I had hoped you might take Tyr out for a drink,” she says.

Thor blinks. Of all the things his mother could have said, that was beyond the realms of his imagination. And unexpectedly blunt.

“I… would be happy to assist…” Thor says, trailing off.

His confusion must be clear on his face, because Frigga stops walking, turning to face him. Thor is no coward, so he meets her there. Lets her see whatever it is she sees.

He would not cower before Odin's piercing gaze, but before his mother... it is harder.

“You have travelled long, and seen many things,” she says. And her wording is so careful, vast spaces of meaning left out. She sees his pain, but does not name it. “It can be hard to settle back in at home when so much is lost to you. Many warriors have similar trouble, and there is no shame in that.”

Just like that, Thor’s throat closes over. Frigga must mistake his silence for offence, for she continues.

“I do not ask you to forget your quest. You are a man of honour, and your dedication is admirable. I only ask that you remember yourself.”

She is… trying to help him.

He cannot speak. He looks away, desperately trying to pretend that he is fascinated by a tree in the distance.

He knew his mother was kind, but not that her kindness was so universal. Warriors spoke of her with great admiration and respect, of course they did, but he assumed it was because she was their queen.

All these years, he has done her great disservice. How many warriors has she helped to ease their passage back into society? How many broken men and women have been the benefactors of her gentle hands and heart? Her kindness is not borne of blood, a mother’s care for her son, but simply her.

What does she see in him? She does not know him, but she extends her hand in compassion. She does not love him, but she will worry and care for and nurture him anyway, because that is simply who she is, because that is what every fibre of her being tells her to do.

She does not know him as her son, but she will always, always be his mother.

“I am humbled by your kindness,” he says, when he thinks he can manage it, when the words will not turn into something else. And though his voice is too rough, she only smiles and continues to walk.

Frigga gives him a moment to collect himself, her skirts swishing as they wander down a new pathway. When he can trust his voice again, he makes a joke to lighten the mood.

He will never forget what she has said today. But he would prefer she leave him with a smile, rather than worry in her heart for yet another broken soldier.

“May I point out, your majesty, that was in fact two requests you have made of me.”

It is a feeble joke, Loki could do far better, but she does not seem to judge. It is such a joy, to see the amusement in her eyes.

“One is merely a step towards the other,” she returns.

“Semantics, I am sure,” Thor says, and though he cannot hold his own in a battle of wits as Loki did – and how Loki used to make Frigga laugh – he still gets a laugh of his own.

“My sons speak highly of you,” Frigga tells him. “In fact, I hear of little else these days.”

She sends him a smile bordering on cheeky.

He cannot help but hear the approval in her voice, though. Her sons hold him in good opinion, and now she does too.

Distance, he must keep his distance. But it is so hard to be distant from her, whether she knows him or not.

“They are fine young men,” Thor says.

“That they are, though I speak with bias,” Frigga says. “I must thank you, though, for helping my son after his latest prank.”

“I did nothing at all,” Thor says. “Except provide him with some breakfast, I suppose.”

Frigga’s eyes are knowing, when she looks at him again, though knowing of what he still cannot say.

Soon after, they part ways. She does not kiss him, as she always did before… everything. Does not bid him come to supper, or take tea with her tomorrow afternoon. But she does smile at him again before she goes, and that is enough.

- - -

Though the tournament is approaching fast now, Thor does not see Loki in the training yards again. Therefore it comes as something of a surprise to go looking for Tyr – for while Thor does not seek Tyr’s companionship, his mother asked him - and stumble upon Loki practicing his knife-throwing at the edge of the woods.

Even now, seeing him is a punch in the gut. It seems strange, that Thor has missed him so terribly over these last few days, but he has. Missing him feels oddly worse, now that he has him back again.

Why the boy is using a tree rather than the training yards Thor cannot say for certain, but he can guess. Loki’s aiming problem is not yet resolved, and he is probably too ashamed to practice in public, never mind the negligence of his tutors in correcting him. It is they who should be shamed, for failing to mend what it easily fixed.

Thor should leave him be. Even as he thinks it, he knows he is not going to. He is buoyed by his success with Frigga, and this is one area in which Loki might allow him to help. He has failed Loki so many times in the past that, now he is presented with an opportunity to assist, he cannot sit by. It will not make up for centuries of distance, but it is something. He can be a mentor to this Loki, if not a brother.

Loki’s head whips around when Thor approaches. Rather than offended, or even angry at Thor’s presence, he looks… small.

He lowers the knife in his hand to his side, and his knuckles are white.

“You are very good,” Thor says. He means it to be encouraging, but Loki’s head whips up, nostrils flaring.

“Excuse me, but I wish for privacy,” he says, cold and to the point.

“If that is truly what you want, I will grant it. But,” Thor says, trying to make it seem casual, “I could also help you. You want to win in the tournament, do you not?”

Loki snorts. “The tournament is a waste of time.”

It is not a no.

Careful, as though approaching a wild cat, Thor moves in. He is all too aware, all of a sudden, in the difference between them. He and Loki are of a height, but Loki looks so young. His face carries none of the subtle lines that come with the passage of time. His older self, for all his flaws, was always handsome in a sharp, restrained way, but this Loki’s cheeks are still too full, too young, to be aristocratic. He is not quite handsome, not yet.

Thor is not sure why the realisation makes him feel so fond, but it does.

“Your aim is very good,” Thor says. “You have the physical skills to win. But sometimes you throw yourself off balance.”

He extends a hand and Loki passes him a knife. Loki’s eyes are narrowed, lips thin, and Thor already knows that he is walking around a sensitive point. He also knows how to fix it, and hopes Loki will give him the chance to try.

“Here,” Thor says. He throws the knife at the same tree Loki is using. It is a good hit, but not as precise as Loki’s. While Thor is accustomed to throwing larger weapons, the balance of knives is different.

He extends his hand for another, then another. All of his throws stick, but none are exactly where he was aiming.

“My aim is not as good as yours,” Thor says, throwing another. It, too, sticks. “But it is reliable. I may not hit the centre of the target, but I know my throws will hit.”

“Your point, Stormbreaker?”

Anyone else might have taken offence. Thor, though, grins. Loki is acting haughty, but his eyes are watching Thor closely.

“My point is that there is nothing wrong with your aim. When you miss, it is due to something in your mental state.”

He resists the urge to flick the boy in the forehead, a time-honoured brotherly tradition. Instead, he pulls his knives from the tree and hands them back.

“Try again,” Thor says, “and pay close attention to your thoughts as you throw.”

“You are very sure of yourself, Stormbreaker,” Loki says. It is a little snide, but he does take the knives. That, more than anything, is an indication of how frustrated Loki is with his lack of independent progress.

Thor stands behind him, watching. Loki lands three shots in near perfect succession before one misses the tree entirely.

“There we go!” Thor says. He claps his hands on Loki’s shoulders. They stiffen beneath his touch but, after a moment, they relax. “Do you remember what you were thinking of?”

“I think so,” Loki says. His voice is a little strained, so Thor gives his shoulders one last squeeze and steps back, away from his body heat.

“Try again,” Thor encourages. He never thought himself much of a teacher, but the strategy seems to be working. “Take note of your thoughts. Do not try to change them at present, just notice them.”

Loki tries again. And again. He gets in two good throws, but as he pulls back his arm for the third, Thor knows he is going to miss.

“Stop!” he says.

Loki, to his surprise, does.

The boy turns to look at him, and there is a light of comprehension in his eyes.

“I think I know what I’m doing,” Loki says. “Talking myself out of it.”

“Very good!” Thor’s grin is so huge that Loki ducks his head. “Go again.”

And Loki does. After a few throws he misses another, but rather than frustration, his expression is one of deep concentration. Thinking back and noticing what caused the error in the first place. The next time he is about to let loose a throw that Thor can see is going to miss, Loki stops himself before Thor can.

“Very good,” Thor repeats, quieter this time. He puts his hands on Loki’s shoulders from behind. “You’re too tense here.”

It takes a moment. Loki’s shoulders go even tenser when Thor touches them, and he realises ruefully that he is being too familiar again, but this time he really is just trying to help. With visible effort Loki relaxes them again.

“You can win this tournament,” Thor says. Loki looks back at him, both vulnerable and filled with wonder. Thor smiles. “Trust your aim, and it will be true.”

- - -

The same cannot be said of Thor’s research. He has reached a frustrating point of stall. If he were any good at this, he would be able to find a way around it, think of a related topic to look up, but he has exhausted every possible angle he can think of.

Did Loki ever get stuck? He always came up with answers, even to the most obscure of questions. Thor wishes he knew where Loki got all his information from, because it cannot be from these wretched, useless books.

Thor is going to have to start talking to people. Which means that, very soon, he is going to have to leave Asgard.

He has only just gotten here. Only just begun building his relationship with Loki, making himself a place in the palace. He has not yet found a way to connect with his father, but that will come in time.

Not if he leaves. But what choice does he have?

He will give himself until after the tournament. If he were a better man, he would go at once, but… Thor is so tired. So, so tired of searching for something that cannot be found. A home for his people. A way to defeat Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet. And now, if this is real, a way to stop any of it from ever happening in the first place.

If it is not real, he will have to cross that bridge when he comes to it. It certainly feels real, but so does a lot of sorcery, and who knew what the damned Infinity Stones could do to a person’s mind.

Thor wants to be at peace so badly he could beg for it. It seems unthinkable that only a few years ago he was smashing his way through the Nine Realms, hungry for a taste of kingship. Now all he wants, all he truly wants, is peace and safety and to spend time with his family.

A few days. He can have a few days to himself, a few days without research or worry. Then once the tournament is over, he will venture into the cosmos.

Chapter Text

Even though he has granted himself a few days of rest, it proves hard to come by.

Thor has never been a poor sleeper, outside of battle zones where being on the edge of alertness is the difference between life and death, but he is now.

He spends a great deal of the night staring up at the ceiling, woken by some small noise and unable to rest again with everything whirling through his mind. Thoughts, plans, worries. Theories that are quickly snuffed out. Battle strategies that surely will never need to come to fruition, but which his tired mind cannot rest for thinking through.

Is this what Loki’s mind was like? Thor’s Loki, the Loki he lost. Always thinking, always plotting, never able to rest. Loki never seemed to stop, always three steps ahead of everyone else. And if this is what it feels like, no wonder Loki went mad.

He rises, decidedly unrested, to go about his day with his family nonetheless. He means to find Loki, or Frigga, and begin one of the many conversations his mind provided him with rather than sleeping.

It is not to be. His young friends seem intent on hounding him.

“Stormbreaker! You should come and train with us!” Sif practically bellows at him the moment he steps into the feasting hall for breakfast.

She is all brightness and enthusiasm, and tired as he is, one look at her bursting energy is enough to make him even more so.

“No, I thank you,” he says.

Of course, eyes turn to him after Sif’s outburst. Tyr’s are among them, and Thor realises he has failed to complete his promise to his mother. He must find Tyr later, for he cannot stand to disappoint her.

Fandral is the next to bother him. He sidles over as Thor makes to leave, his hair immaculately coiffed but his wispy facial hair in a dismal state – really, the boy should just shave it off – smiling at him in a manner reminiscent of his older self. The same white teeth, the same natural charm, but with the unexpected addition of a slight stammer.

“Surely you wi-will join us today, my good sir,” Fandral says, playing it off as though he’d spoken smooth as silk. “We have much desire to see your – your strength.”

Thor frowns, despite himself. Another thing he does not remember, it seems. Fandral does not look particularly shy, so why is he stammering? Perhaps it is the speed at which he is speaking, as though the boy worries if he does not get the words out fast enough Thor will be gone before he can finish a sentence. Or is he simply stumbling over his wording? Fandral does not come from a high-born family, for all his courtly manners. Is he still learning how to speak in the manner of the upper classes? His accent is a little broader than Thor remembers, come to think of it.

Fandral takes a step back, smile faltering, and Thor realises that he is practically glaring at him, lost as he is in his thoughts.

He smooths his features out, softens them. Though not so much that Fandral may take it as an acceptance.

“I have other business,” Thor says. He offers no thanks, this time.

Volstagg tries too, accompanied by Hogun, who still seems reluctant to open his mouth unless absolutely necessary. He settles for staring over Thor’s shoulder – just shy of actual eye contact – while Volstagg does the talking.

“Will you join us in the training yards today?” Volstagg says, catching Thor on his way towards Frigga’s gardens.

It is becoming very evident to Thor that his younger self has put his friends up to this. They are exuberant but well-meaning young people, and they must have shared Thor’s very first refusal amongst themselves. None of them would have continued to ask without their prince’s instigation, of that he is certain. Does young Thor think that pestering will eventually get him his way? Why is he so intent upon seeing Stormbreaker in action, anyway?

Is it the scar across his eye that intrigues them? Thor has done nothing during his stay but eat and study in the library. He can think of nothing but his appearance that would have set young Thor’s interest upon him so firmly.

“No, I will not,” Thor says, low and to the point.

Volstagg and Hogun scuttle out of his way, but that does not exactly please him. Thor cares for these boys, loves them. He does not wish to frighten them, no matter how much they irritate him.

Anticipating another ambush, Thor veers away from his intended location and walks off without any real destination in mind.

The sharpness of his annoyance is something of a surprise, even to him. He does not begrudge them their excitement for the upcoming tournament, it is just that he himself has participated in enough that they no longer hold weight. Further, he has fought too many real battles to care to humour youths with pretend victories.

Thor’s own power is hard-won. He has no patience for batting at his young friends like a lazy lion would the offspring of a common housecat.

He cannot go to the gardens – not if he wishes to restrain his temper should one of them ask him the same question again – but he finds a secluded balcony that overlooks it. It is not the same, but it gives him some semblance of the peace he finds there.

He leans against the railing, and breathes.

He should not be so short-tempered. They are young, and eager to prove their worth, for all they are abrasive. The tournament is three days hence. That, he supposes, must be the reason behind. And it is all his own fault, anyway, when it comes to it – that of his younger self. It is strange, how easy it is to slip into thinking of young Thor as a different person.

Footsteps. The balcony door opens and closes behind him.

Thor shuts his eyes and prays for patience. A low growl leaves his throat unbidden, but he pushes down the flare of temper. (Unwarranted, why is he so irritable today?) He grips the railing in a firm twist, then turns to face the intruder on his privacy.

It is Loki.

The boy opens his mouth, closes it again, eyes already darting back to the door. He looks awkward and lankier than usual in the harsh light of day.

Thor softens, finding the peace he has been searching for in his brother’s face.

“Prince Loki,” he says. “It is good to see you.”

A look of surprise flashes across Loki’s face before it is quickly hidden. “Forgive me, I did not intend to intrude upon your solitude.”

“It is no intrusion,” Thor says. “I would welcome your company.”

Thor cannot say for sure why Loki’s eyes go so wide, but judging by the way they dart away from him, Thor is being too intimate again.

He turns back to look out across the view, giving Loki the choice to leave him. He feels the boy hesitate, but after a moment Loki comes to join him, pressing his own hands against the railing and leaning out to look.

Two brothers, side by side once more. Despite the immeasurable gulf between them.

“My brother is looking for you, you know,” Loki says.

Thor groans before he can stop himself. “I beg you would keep my location between us. He is beginning to drive me mad.”

That startles a laugh out of Loki. “I believe he wishes to spar with you.”

“And I am disinclined to indulge him.”

“You helped me, after all,” Loki says. He shrugs his shoulders, gazing down at his own hands. Awkward again.

Not yet Loki Silver-tongue, it seems.

“Of course,” Thor says. There was never a question in his mind that he would help Loki if he could.

Loki, though, looks unconvinced. Thor is not sure exactly what he is feeling, just that there is doubt in the furrow of his brow. But then, Loki always reads malice into good intent, suspicious beyond good measure. Perhaps that is all that is happening now. Thor can dispel those doubts.

“To tell the truth, I prefer your company,” Thor tells him.

Loki flushes, his lips twitching up into a hesitant smile. Thor returns it before he turns his gaze back to the landscape.

He feels warm again. He almost forgot what that feels like.

“I have not seen you in the library much of late,” Loki says at length.

 “I have gained as much information as I can there,” Thor says. It is a surprise to know that Loki noticed his absence at all, given how little Thor saw him when he was actually in the library.

“What are you researching?”

Thor shakes his head. “Nothing that need worry you. You are young yet.”

Loki’s eyes flash. It takes a moment for Thor to realise that he has given something away.

He has got to stop getting lost in his own thoughts. Loki is far too clever to let that slide.

“So it a matter of some import, then? Your expression grows dark, Stormbreaker.”

“Forgive me,” Thor says. He wishes he had a better response to that – Loki should not see him melancholy and tired. He should see Thor at his best, bright and brave and ready for adventure. What would Loki say, if he knew Stormbreaker was really his brother turned so grave?

And just like that, Thor’s mood sours again. For as much happiness as Thor finds in Loki’s presence, he cannot help the waves of sadness that sweep over him in unexpected moments. He vacillates too often, too wildly, between joy and grief. It is beginning to fatigue him, even more than his lack of sleep, and he knows that is not a good sign.

“There is nothing to forgive,” Loki says. “Since it seems to be your main area of interest, though, I might tell you that I am well-versed in our histories. I can render you any assistance you might require in finding the right tomes.”

Thor is not sure which he should be more surprised by – that Loki knows what books he has been reading, or that Loki is offering help. Willingly.

Suspicion rears its head, but it is quickly tamped down. This is not the Loki of the future, whose kindness came with claws, whose every promise came with a price. This is Loki as he once was, a young man seeking to prove himself using the skills he knows best.

Thor does not want his help. Neither does he want to refuse him. He cannot tell Loki about Hela or the Infinity Stones, but perhaps…

“Thank you,” he says. “Perhaps you might know the answer to a question I have been pondering. The tales speak of…”

It is only as Thor says it that he realises he has no alternative topic in mind. All his questions are related to now – or, well, the future that is his past, but is this Loki’s future, except that he is trying to stop it from ever occurring – he is confusing himself. Time travel is more difficult than it seems. And Loki is looking at him expectantly.

“Your father,” he says.

It is a flimsy cover, and Loki is tilting his head.

“What about him?”

Thor looks away to buy himself time. Studies the light of the sun as it moves across the trees, beautiful and so very, very real.

“Asgard has changed a great deal since last I was here,” Thor says. “I wonder at how your father maintains its prosperity, when so much of the cosmos is in chaos.”

Lying with the truth. It saddens him how easily it is coming to him these days.

“Well,” Loki says slowly, clearly giving the question some thought, “I think there are a number of factors. My grandfather’s time was turbulent, but when my father took the throne he established a firm hold as Asgard’s ruler – firm but fair. We still have enemies outside of Asgard, of course, but Father has introduced many social policies that keep the peace on our home planet.”

It is a long time since Thor heard Loki talk like this. He starts off slow and self-conscious, but grows more alive as he speaks. Eyes alight with the excitement of knowledge, words more sure with every one that passes his lips. He talks on (and on, and on), but Thor is no longer paying attention to his words. Just watching the animation of his face, memorising every quirk of his eyebrows, every gesture of his hands, the way his lips curl up at odd moments as though Loki is laughing at something only he knows.

“- and Father introduced a new legal method of divorce, which did not involve the grievous bodily wounding of one party by the other – which of course was barbaric – but a separation of parties for a mandated period of time that would end in the peaceful dissolution of marriage if still so desired.”

Loki speaks as though from one of their textbooks. His gestures are less restrained than those of the man he will become. He flicks his fingers almost with every word, as though talking with his hands. The older Loki learned to mask himself so completely that even his body could lie. But the same spidery fingers that have always mesmerised Thor are so busy, in Loki’s younger self, they could almost be described as twitchy.

“There are a lot of celebrations that Father brought to the people too, to enhance social cohesion and satisfaction. Even the upcoming tournament has a history. It is not one of great importance, but it is still interesting… I beg pardon, I have spoken too long.”

Thor is jolted out of his happy reverie. He has been silent too long, Loki must have noticed the glaze over his eyes without knowing the cause. Loki, for all he tries to look proud and princely, is turning pink in the cheeks.

“Not at all,” Thor says. “Your knowledge is admirable.”

“Thank you,” Loki says, stiff and formal. He falls quiet, and it is clear he will not go on, not now. His gaze is fixed on the horizon, all of the avid enthusiasm for stories and histories gone from his face. He has already assumed that Thor is only being polite to spare him embarrassment.

He does not know how accustomed Thor is to his rants. It has been a long time since one of those sprung from passion rather than fury. There are no hidden barbs, just Loki taking joy in knowledge.

Thor wishes he would go on forever.

“Besides,” Thor says, as warm and calm as he knows how, “I enjoy the sound of your voice.”

That, at least, turns Loki’s head. The boy looks to him, questioning, and Thor holds his gaze.

“Perhaps you would take a walk with me, Prince Loki?” And there, he added a title, surely that will stop the invitation being too familiar. “I am not the greatest reader, and my knowledge of our history is patchy at best. Perhaps you could fill in some more of the gaps?”

Loki looks away again. And again, he seems embarrassed, but the smile tugging at his lips is very real.

Thor never dared to dream his brother could be returned to him. But here Loki is, and here they are. He does not care of what they speak, only that Loki speaks to him. He used to find Loki’s interest in learning boring, too busy with his own interests to take time to think of others. Now, he just wants Loki to share with him. It is a step towards healing the chasm that lies between them.

“I would not wish to keep you from practicing for the tournament,” Loki says.

Oh yes. It will soon begin. Time has flown past.

Thor waves him away. “I already know I will win.”

Loki snorts, somewhere between a scoff and a laugh. “You are very sure of yourself.”

“Always.”

Thor smiles at him, and Loki cannot help but smile back. His gaze is a little wondering, as though totally unaccustomed to such attention and care, used to no one listening. It pains Thor to see, but he can fix it now, he can.

It is wonderful, Thor thinks, to be forming such a bond with his brother.

Loki seems a little flustered when they fall in step, side by side. He is quiet. A few gentle questions get him talking again.

- - -

As inevitable as the tides themselves, young Thor eventually tracks him down.

Thor is on his way to the feasting hall – perhaps that is his mistake, his daily routine is banal in its predictability. Young Thor comes striding down the corridor towards him, even though the meal has started and his parents will surely be expecting him.

It does not take a genius to recognise the sullen petulance on the boy’s face. It is, however, a surprise – is that really what he looks like when he is cross? Thor can only hope he does not still make that face.

“Stormbreaker!” the boy barks in his usual greeting.

“Hello,” Thor returns, as mild as he can manage.

“I wish to spar with you,” young Thor says.

It is a demand, as though ‘no’ is a concept beyond young Thor’s understanding. Does the brat mean to pester him until Thor relents out of sheer frustration?

It is hard for Thor not to snap in reply.

“It is dinner time, I am otherwise occupied,” he says.

Young Thor waves him away, as though meal times are inconsequential.

“You’ve been walking around with Loki!”

The boy speaks with great indignation, and anger flares hot in Thor’s chest. He forces it down, wills himself to take one deep breath, then another.

“I enjoy your brother’s company,” he says. “I have no interest in sparring.”

“But – you are a warrior! You spoke of great deeds – do not tell me you are a coward after all.”

Thor laughs. It is not a kind sound. “You think it cowardly, for me not to fight with you?”

Young Thor pauses, for the first time in the conversation, to actually think about what he is going to say. His brow furrows, there is a flash of uncertainty… and then it is gone.

“I am a prince of Asgard,” he says.

Ah, of course, the age-old argument.

“I wish to test your mettle,” young Thor continues. “You claim you are a warrior, yet you will not engage in a practice bout.”

“What use is there in practicing against an untried whelp?” Thor says. The words leave him before he can reconsider them, and there is no mistaking the flash of temper behind them.

He and young Thor are not so different after all.

Young Thor practically reels from shock. Then his face turns red with anger.

“I am a prince, you shall not speak so!”

Anger rears its ugly head again – an unreasonable amount of anger, for while young Thor is brattish and entitled he has done little to warrant the heat of Thor’s response.

Thor waits it out. Then, forcing the words out through gritted teeth, “I spoke hastily, and I apologise. I would ask, however, that your highness desists in making these demands.”

If Thor just speaks formally, language as flowery as he can muster, perhaps he can persuade himself that he has changed after all.

“You trained with my brother,” young Thor says. There is open confusion on his face. “He does not speak of it, but I know you did.”

Unrelenting as ever, as though he has the right to demand Thor’s attention simply because Loki received it.

“Your brother is assisting me with my research,” Thor says – but he does not owe his younger self an explanation. “You will see me fight at the tournament, prince, but not before. Good day, your highness.”

He inclines his head, as final as he can hope to be, and hopefully with his manners still roughly intact.

He is just walking away when he hears young Thor speak from behind him.

“At the tournament, then.”

Determined to get the last word. Young Thor’s voice is a growl – as much of one as he can muster, anyway.

Thor ignores him. And this time, his refusal actually sticks.

- - -

The day of the tournament comes fast.

Thor wakes to the palace in chaos once again. Every corridor is practically bursting with people – servants, warriors, and spectators alike, all going about their tasks. There is food to cook, blades to sharpen, trinkets and letters to be gifted to favourite warriors to wish them well.

He dresses slowly. Rather than the quiet of his princely chambers, he is housed in what seems to be the busiest part of the palace. He can hear the laughter, the shouting, can practically feeling the excitement emanating through the closed door.

Thor tends to his hair and beard. A group of women pass his room, shrieking with excited laughter. Not long after, he hears the tell-tale clanking of someone marching past in full-body armour.

He took Tyr out for a drink last night, just as promised. They spoke, they shared stories, then Thor retreated to his little chamber. He wonders if the drink is why he feels so tired.

He dons his own armour, what little is left of it. Hefts Stormbreaker, the weapon that is now his namesake.

Asgard is revived. An Asgardian tournament is to take place, and he is to participate once again in the fun and revelry and excitement of the fights.

All he really wants is to walk in his mother’s gardens again, with Loki by his side.

He rubs a hand over his face. Fighting, at least, will clear his mind. Will allow him, for at least a little while, to pretend that he is here to stay.

Stormbreaker in hand, Thor leaves his cosy quarters. There is a tournament to win.

Chapter Text

The crowd roars.

Thor sweeps Stormbreaker in a wide arc, striking his opponent’s shield with a resounding bang. The man staggers but keeps his footing – no small feat, in and of itself. If Thor had struck much harder, he would have shattered the man’s arm.

Another blow from the axe makes the man dart backwards. Just in time. Thor strikes the dirt beneath their feet, gouging a hole almost a foot deep in Stormbreaker’s wake.

Even through his opponent’s helmet, Thor sees the man’s eyes go wide. Halfdan – was it Halfdan? – is already trembling from exertion, his grip on his sword slicked with sweat.

He should be wearing gloves, Thor thinks, as he swings his axe high, striking downwards with a speed that belies the size of it.

The clang of metal on metal is ear-splitting. The shield breaks in half, pieces of metal scattering across the battlefield.

The crowd goes wild. Shouting, laughter, bellows of encouragement and jeers towards the current loser. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the noise, to allow it to distract from the battle at hand.

Thor pays it no mind. Halfdan does.

He swings. Halfdan does not move. The axe-head comes closer, closer, air whistling with its speed, sharp and cruel and heavy with both Thor’s own strength and the strength of momentum, aiming right for Halfdan’s throat -

At the last second Thor swings the blow wide, hurling his own weight forward so he does not decapitate his opponent. He slams the axe into the ground with earth-shaking force. His shoulder strikes Halfdan instead, knocking him to the ground and sending his sword skittering out of his hand.

Halfdan does not get up again, not at once.

He lies on the ground as though stunned to find himself there. He looks at Stormbreaker, buried deep in the ground beside his head. Looks up at Thor towering over him.

He is frozen.

Thor sees a look in Halfdan’s eye he has seen a thousand times before, the look that comes to a warrior’s eyes when they come face to face with death. The dust is still settling from the blow that almost took off Halfdan’s head.

With one swing of his axe, Thor could end the fight now.

“On your feet, lad,” he says instead. He pulls his axe out of the ground.

He backs off.

The crowd boos and jeers. Some of them are calling for him to finish the fight, but Thor ignores their anger as easily as he ignored their cheers.

There is no honour in defeating an unarmed opponent. Less still in beating a warrior who forgets the most important rule of battle: to pay attention. Thor bites down a growl. Even a practice bout can turn deadly, everyone knows that.

He waits as Halfdan staggers to his feet. He holds his shield arm close to his chest, fragments of metal still clinging to his forearm. The shield did not just break, it shattered. Halfdan’s arm looks injured, probably dislocated. No wonder the lad is going into shock.

Thor waits until Halfdan has his sword firmly in hand before he moves forward, circling around him in obvious re-engagement, trying to draw out an attack. Giving the lad enough time to right himself and meet him once more as a warrior.

Halfdan does not disappoint. Whether it is pride or sheer stubbornness that keeps him on his feet Thor cannot say – the lad’s knees look one mild gust of wind from giving out – he lunges towards Thor with his sword ready and fire in his eyes. They whirl in a long-familiar dance, dodging, feinting, occasionally with that clash of metal-on-metal shrieking through the stands.

It is a good fight for the crowd. Entertaining.

It is not, unfortunately, the same for Thor. He tries not to feel disappointed at the lack of challenge. It is only the start of the day, and he is a stranger to Asgard. Of course his first match is against an inexperienced fighter.

He can make out the royal family in the stands, and that is something. Halfdan, at least, is good enough that Thor is not tempted to look away to wave at Loki mid-battle. Such a thing would be disrespectful to his opponent, even if Loki’s response is likely to be funny.

Strike, dodge, strike. Thor is barely sweating.

When he finally puts his axe to Halfdan’s throat, the man yields in an instant, sinking to the ground in relief. The lad’s limbs are shaking so much that his sword slips from his grip.

The crowd cheers, stamping their feet and banging goblets together. It is early yet, but they are already on their way to intoxicated.

Thor bears them no mind, setting Stormbreaker in the earth beside him and offering a hand to help Halfdan to his feet.

“Well fought,” he says.

Halfdan removes his helmet, looking at Thor with disappointment clear in his eyes, but he accepts the hand offered and allows Thor to pull him back to his feet.

“You’re a demon,” the lad mutters. It is not entirely good-natured.

Thor laughs anyway, clapping him gently on his uninjured shoulder.

“Keep practicing, and some day you will be too.”

He is a king in his own right. He loses nothing by being gracious in victory, and providing encouragement where he can.

Something in the lad seems to relax. When he smiles at Thor, it is genuine.

He is not quite as young as Thor thought, when he had his helmet on, but he is by no means old yet. He looks, when it comes to it, vaguely familiar…

“Are you part of the Royal Guard?” Thor asks him as he helps Halfdan pick up the remains of his shield from the ground.

People are already coming in to sweep the dirt back into place on the battleground. It would hardly be fair for someone to lose a fight because they fell into a hole made by his axe and twisted their ankle.

“Yes!” Halfdan says, looking pleased that Thor remembers. “I joined up over the summer.”

“You will serve the kingdom well,” Thor says.

Despite his defeat, the boy looks proud to hear it, and walks to the medic with his head held high.

Thor tries not to hang his own head. He won, after all, but there is no trace of the thrill he was hoping for. Better than sitting in the library, he supposes.

He glances towards the royal stand. Odin and Frigga in conversation. Young Thor talking a mile a minute in Loki’s general direction. And Loki, pale and princely, watching his brother, an amused twist to his lips.

Thor leaves quietly. Some people in the crowd lean over the stands to congratulate him, and he acknowledges their praise with a smile and a wave.

He has won his first match. Once this round of fights is done he will be called on again. Until then, he may wander as he pleases.

- - -

The tournament is, first and foremost, a festival. Thor wanders through a sea of merchants peddling their wares – trinkets, weapons, fresh-cooked meat. He still has no coin, a fact he deeply laments as he passes a stall selling spiced bread, freshly baked and steaming in the midday sun.

Oh well. He will have enough gold once he wins to buy a hundred of the things.

Every so often he hears the crowd roar as something exciting happens in the arena. When the first round of fights is done these streets will be brimming with hungry revellers, but for now it is only Thor and other folk who are, for whatever reason, disinclined to watch the main event. There are the more scholarly types, those who object to fighting on moral grounds, keen shoppers grabbing a bargain rather than watching the spectacle and, somewhat to his surprise, old warriors like himself.

It is comforting, in a way, to know he is not the only old soldier who tires of theatrical battles. With no stakes involved, and every confidence in his victory besides, Thor is at something of a loss.

Another roar from the stands, carrying longer and louder than last time. It seems like another match has been won.

The crowd will soon descend for their midday meal. The merchants are already leaping into action, throwing meat onto grills, fretting with displays, preparing games for play.

Thor settles himself at the base of a tree, well away from the oncoming crowd. He will not see Loki fight today. The boy is technically of age, by the barest margin, but neither he nor young Thor’s names were on the board this morning.

They will participate in the event for younger people, Thor supposes. It would be unwise to match a stripling against a veteran, so he cannot fault the logic of it. The tournament is a free-for-all, warriors coming head-to-head with every tool at their disposal, as warriors do on a true field of battle. Head shots, tricks and pure brute strength, all fair game.

Exhilarating, but infinitely more dangerous than, say, a sword-fighting competition, and Thor remembers enough of those from his youth. Stuffy, formal affairs, with strict rules of engagement and judges watching your every move. The tournament, conversely, has only one important rule: defeat your opponent. Deaths are rare, but injuries are not. He is glad that Loki is not participating.

He tries to ignore the niggle of disappointment not to meet Loki in the field of battle once more. Thor can scarcely remember a tournament in which he and Loki did not participate. It is strange, and more than a little disconcerting, to realise exactly how far back in time he has come.

There will be three rounds of fights today, to determine the tournament’s champion. Tomorrow, the young people’s tournament, with the champion sitting as a judge, and various other festival activities. Some competitions based around skill, but also a fair share of sillier competitions, like the ever-popular goat wrangle, and the cheese wheel toss.

Thor never participated in the last as a youth, too obsessed with the battles to care much for the extracurriculars. He wonders what it says about him now the he is seriously considering joining in, if only to see Loki laugh.

“Congratulations on your victory, Stormbreaker.”

Thor startles, jolted out of his thoughts. He turns to find Sif, of all people, hovering nearby. She looks oddly reserved, given her usual energetic manner. Her hands are clasped in front of her, and she maintains a respectful distance between them.

With a pang, Thor realises that his refusals to spar must have scared her away after all.

“Thank you,” he says. “Are you participating in the tournament tomorrow?”

Sif pulls a sour face. The impulse to pinch her cheeks is sudden and overwhelming, but Thor restrains himself.

“I wanted to participate in the real tournament, but my father said no,” she gripes.

“Fathers are like that,” Thor says. “Besides, the tournament tomorrow is real too.”

Real, and a fair level of challenge for the young. Not that he himself thought as much when he was one of them, but as an older man he has come to appreciate it for the opportunity it is. He cannot imagine anything more disheartening to a youth than making it to their first tournament only to be matched against, say, an opponent like Heimdall.

“I suppose,” she replies, looking entirely unconvinced. Then, more awkwardly, “Well, I just wanted to congratulate you.”

Leaving already, then. Still, it is odd, now Thor thinks about it, to see her alone.

“Where are your friends?” he asks her.

“Over there somewhere,” she says, waving vaguely back towards the stalls.

She is a brave girl, and kinder than Thor deserves. It is no coincidence that she and she alone has come, out of all of young Thor’s friends.

Loki has not come, but... he is a prince. He has duties to attend, a fact Thor knows better than anyone. Thor will have the chance to speak with him later.

“I am looking forward to your fight tomorrow,” he says.

Sif looks momentarily pleased, but then a frown forms on her face, her eyes narrowing as she stares at him. Her head tips to the side, and she chews at her lip.

Thor is at a loss as to what prompted these changes. She is holding something back, that much is clear, but whether it is an accusation or a question he cannot say.

He raises his brows, waiting her out.

“Why are you sitting under a tree?” Sif bursts out. “I thought you would be celebrating your victory.”

Ah, so that was it. Confusion. Thor fights down a smile.

“There are many fights to come,” he says simply.

“You do not seem excited.” She speaks as though the very idea of a lack of excitement about combat is foreign to her.

“I have done a lot of fighting, in my time,” Thor says.

“Yes, I could see it,” she says, fire in her eyes. “The way you moved…”

She trails off, suddenly embarrassed. Looks back over her shoulder in the direction of her friends.

“You should go and enjoy the festival,” Thor says. “I will see you later.”

Sif throws him a grin, and Thor is pleased to see her usual cheer seeping back into it. No longer awkward at his very presence.

“Good luck!” she tells him, then hustles off.

Thor manages not to laugh until she is out of earshot.

- - -

Thor’s next fight is even shorter than the one with Halfdan. It feels like he barely raises his axe before he finds himself, blinking, over his fallen opponent.

The man does not take it well, either. Once his initial shell-shocked reaction is over, he starts shouting that it is not fair and that Stormbreaker has, somehow, cheated.

That, more than anything, rankles Thor. Cowardice is one thing, but to be so blatantly dishonourable…

His own composure slips. He turns his attention towards the audience, raising his arms in an exaggerated shrug to demonstrate his incredulity. They greet him with cheers and laughter.

“Bring me an opponent with honour!” Thor shouts to a roar of approval.

The man’s face goes beet red. He balls his fists, face twisted with fury.

“He cheated!” he howls to jeers from the crowd.

“Off! Off! Off!”

The cry builds momentum until the audience is shouting as one, banging their fists and stamping their feet.

The announcer is trying to cut through the din from the sidelines, but his voice is drowned out.

Odin’s voice cuts through the din like a whip crack.

“Enough!”

The clamour dies.

Thor marvels at the quiet that falls throughout the stands. Not silence – they whisper and murmur among themselves – but the people are listening, waiting on the command of their king.

Odin stands, looking down from his high seat onto the battleground. Even at a distance Thor can feel those eyes piercing him, weighing him, judging him. The audience hushes, the air itself heavy with the weight of the king’s judgment.

“Stormbreaker wins!”

Thor pounds his fist into the air. Exhilarated now, more exhilarated in his triumph over a lying scoundrel than in the fight itself. He bows to Odin as the crowd roars its approval.

But then, perhaps it is not so strange. The fights are nothing, in the grand scheme of things. Thor is too old to care much for tournament battles now he faces foes like Hela and Thanos. The approval of his family and his people, though... is it really any wonder, that it is that which brings him joy?

Frigga is applauding him too, he realises, and there is a smile on her lips. She is regal and composed, even surrounded by all the noise and excitement, but her approval is clear. Loki sits beside her, leaning forward in his seat as he claps, staring down at Thor.

His opponent howls in protest, but the king’s word is final, the crowd even more vicious in its disapproval in light of the king’s judgment.

Thor will be the bigger man, though. Despite the offence to his honour, he offers a hand to his opponent to shake. He will engage with honour even if his opponent will not.

The man spits on the ground at his feet and storms off the battlefield amidst a sudden downpour of things hurled from the stands. The crowd boos and hisses at him, and one enterprising young woman manages to throw her tankard far enough that its contents splash down the side of the man’s face as he passes by.

Thor looks back to Loki. This time the boy is watching him. And this time, joy – actual joy – coursing through his veins in the wake of his victory, Thor can offer him a grin. He bows, a low, sweeping gesture. The smile that brightens Loki’s face in return is worth the dullness of the battle.

Young Thor is, for whatever reason, sidling out of his seat and heading down the stairs, but Thor pays him little mind.

- - -

Thor should have known better.

Time passes quickly. The second round of fights ends, the third and final round arrives.

This time, it is serious. These are best of the best, a much smaller pool of warriors. This time around victors will not have time for reprieve. As the numbers are cut down they will fight again and again, sometimes without pause, to determine the victor.

It is the best and most challenging part of any tournament, and Thor is ready. Excited. The lethargy that plagued him earlier in the day is gone, and now he feels alive.

He fights, once, twice, overwhelming both opponents with his enormous strength and the raw power of his axe. Even without the lightning that is his birthright, they are good fights. Still too easy, but despite himself he is enjoying the theatricality of it all, spurred on by the crowd chanting his name.

It is, in other words, going too well.

Thor stands in the centre of the battleground as his latest opponent limps off the field, arm raised high as the audience cheers for him. He turns to the announcer, awaiting instruction as to whether he faces another fight immediately or should leave the ring until called again.

The man is looking at a scroll in his hands. Furtive. Shaky, even.

“There is a slight change in line up,” the man calls.

On some instinct, Thor glances up at the royal box. Odin’s face, usually impenetrable, is black with sudden fury. But what – why –

Then Thor takes a closer look. There sits Frigga, lips pinched. Loki, glancing back and forth between his parents.

Young Thor is nowhere to be seen.

No. No. Surely the boy would not be that stupid.

“A new challenger joins our midst,” the announcer says. “People of Asgard, I present to you your prince, Thor Odinsson!”

Chapter Text

Young Thor Odinsson.

His cape whips behind him as he strides onto the field. Skinny, wiry, but every inch a prince. He raises Mjolnir to a cheer from the crowd, grinning, basking in it.

If Thor is not very much mistaken, the people’s cheer is quieter than usual, tinged with confusion. Dampened by whispers.

Young Thor has not competed in the two qualifying rounds that came before this one. He has no right to be here.

Now we will fight, Stormbreaker,” young Thor shouts. The stupid boy even looks smug, as though he has gotten one over Thor.

Thor plants Stormbreaker firmly on the ground. It strikes with every bit the finality of Gungnir, as powerful in its own right as his father’s weapon. It is the weapon of a king, and its power ripples through the earth. The stands hush.

“No,” Thor says.

Young Thor’s face twists in shock, as though that was the last reply he expected. Despite having received it over and over, every time he has tried to spar. Is the word ‘no’ so beyond his vocabulary?

“I am here by rights, Stormbreaker,” the boy says, “and you must meet my challenge or forfeit.”

“What rights? You have not fought this day.”

Murmurs in the crowd. The mood is changing, teetering. It is a tangible thing, the crowd’s mood, and Thor knows it could turn on either one of them. They are intoxicated by now, well and truly, and have come to see a fight.

“I come as a challenger taking Rogir’s place,” young Thor says. Impatient, as though the question is of little importance.

Thor is no stickler for rules, but this is a matter of honour. More important here than anywhere else, for what is a tournament but a test of it? Warriors need not fear death by their enemies – the only thing at stake is their honour, and there is no true defeat here but to be publicly disgraced.

The little whelp has a lot to learn. Thor’s grip tightens on Stormbreaker’s handle unthinkingly, but he forces his hand to relax. Turns to look up at Odin in silent appeal.

The king is standing. Looking down at his eldest son. Silent.

“Your Majesty,” Thor says, words leaving his lips before he can consider them in full. “I object to the addition of this opponent.”

Young Thor’s face darkens with anger. In the distance Thor can see clouds rolling in, but the boy’s power is nothing to his.

Odin looks at Thor, and the power in that gaze is a blow in and of itself. It is unstoppable, inimitable. Odin is the All-Father, ruler of the Nine Realms, and his power is absolute.

It is easy to forget such a thing, when the king is also your father. Now Thor feels the weight of Odin’s gaze with its full force. A weight that would put lesser men on their knees.

Odin did not raise him so. Thor is a king in his own right, every bit Odin’s son, and he meets his gaze with a level stare.

Perhaps, one day, he will command such power with only a look as well.

Still, when Odin breaks eye contact it is a breath of fresh air. Now he fixes his piercing eyes on his young son.

“What is your right?” he says. He speaks quietly, deceptively so.

“Father,” young Thor says, “the tournament charter permits any man to stand in as another’s champion, should a contestant withdraw.”

True enough. Exceedingly rare, though, as a warrior who has successfully reached the third round is unlikely, to put it mildly, to simply withdraw. It is an honour to be here, and any warrior who makes it this far, even if they are not the ultimate victor, is widely acknowledged and publicly celebrated for their battle prowess. No one would ever give it up, not lightly.

What, then, did young Thor use to convince this Rogir to give up his place?

The king considers them both. Sweeps his eyes over the audience.

“Very well,” he says.

The crowd takes that as its cue to cheer again, and it does, loudly.

Young Thor grins, raising a hand to them, tightening his grip on Mjolnir. Then turns, still grinning in triumph, to face Thor.

To fight. To fight himself.

Thor experiences a wave of disorientation again. He is actively changing his own past, for he does not remember this fight – it never took place. If he changes too much, will his future self change too?

It is an odd position to be in, fighting against one’s younger self. It cannot be helped now. There is no question of Thor withdrawing from the fight, but a nagging voice (that sounds suspiciously like Loki’s) is repeating tales he heard of his youth. Tales of travel through time that always, always ended in tragedy.

Not this time, he reminds himself. There is not much that could be more tragic than the present he has left behind.

 Perhaps he can teach his younger self a lesson here.

“Very well,” Thor says, repeating the words of his father.

Still, he cannot quite help himself as he looks up at Loki.

Loki is standing now. Leaning on the railing. Even at a distance Thor can make out the anxious furrow of his expressive brows. Frigga sits behind him, hands clasped tightly in her lap, the only tell that she is worried. Odin, meanwhile…

Odin’s expression is grim. Thor knows that look, knows what will come. Young Thor does not seem to care.

Odin sits, and allows it to proceed.

 “You should turn away, boy,” Thor says to his younger self. It will not work, but a it is a warning fairly given. “No one would think less of you. Do not presume that I will go easy just because you are a prince.”

“I look forward to it,” young Thor growls back.

 “Warriors!” the announcer calls, a small red flag in his hand. Their signal to prepare.

Young Thor braces himself, bringing Mjolnir up high.

Thor does not move. He leans on the handle of his axe, watching his younger self prepare for battle.

The red flag rises.

“Begin!”

The flag flashes down, and young Thor hurtles towards him with all his might.

Thor takes a leaf out of Loki’s book and, at the very last moment, uses his grip on the handle of Stormbreaker to pivot, letting young Thor sail past him. He manfully refrains from sticking out a boot to trip the boy as he goes by.

Thor dodges another strike, and another. The head of his axe is still in the dirt. He has barely moved a foot, rotating just enough to be out of young Thor’s striking range.

“Fight me properly!” the boy snarls when his next attempt goes the same as the last.

“Aim better,” Thor replies, and the boy’s eyes flash with rage.

He throws Mjolnir dead-on. Thor could catch it, but –

He leaps away, swinging Stormbreaker up and out of the dirt in one smooth motion.

The battle is on.

Thor swings Stombreaker in a mighty arc and brings it crashing down so hard it splits the earth, sending the boy sprawling from the shuddering quake.

Young Thor’s eyes widen. He stares at the ground, where it is broken in two.

That got the boy’s attention.

Fighting young Thor is like fighting off an irritating insect. Mjolnir, for all its power, cannot make its wielder a great warrior. Thor grieves it all over again as he watches how its current master is wielding it. Young Thor both over and underestimates the strength of his swings, either utterly ineffectual or throwing himself off-balance. His footwork is sloppy. His timing is good, but not quick enough to prove any real challenge.

He keeps coming back. And back. And back.

Thor does, when the next opportunity arises, trip the boy into the dirt. He let one opportunity slide, he can allow another. After all, what would Loki say if he knew Thor let such an obvious opportunity for mischief slide?

Young Thor’s face crashes into the ground at an unfortunate angle, and when he shoves to his feet his lower lip is bleeding. There are gasps in the stands, followed by pockets of laughter. The boy is not smug now – he is furious.

“Come on,” young Thor snarls. “Come on. Fight me properly!”

“Why bother?” Thor says, and the boy’s face somehow turns even redder.

The clouds roll in overhead. The temperature drops, electricity in the air, sparking above their heads.

Young Thor seems to think it gives him an advantage.

He thrusts Mjolnir up into the air and a bolt of lightning arcs down, striking the hammer with a crash.

Young Thor’s expression is savage, illuminated by the electric light, and when he comes at Thor again he means it. He fights in a way that would kill a lesser man.

Thor bats Mjolnir away with Stormbreaker, dodges as young Thor throws the hammer and it whips past his face.

“Fight back!” Young Thor howls. “Fight back, you coward.”

The boy will not learn, will never learn. Arrogant, stupid, he will lose everything, everyone. Everyone Thor has ever loved will die and this stupid boy -

The flare of temper is shocking in its ferocity. Sudden, irrational, all-consuming. It steals the  breath from Thor’s lungs. Dark and vicious beyond reason, beyond all sense or understanding.

It eats Thor alive. For a moment in time, Thor is lost.

His body moves, Stormbreaker in hand, even as his mind screams for him to stop.

One hit. That is all it takes.

At the last second, just before the blow connects, the rational part of Thor takes over again. He turns the axe mid-air, just time enough to angle its sharp head away.

The impact is still sickening. The side of the axe-head collides with the boy’s torso, and while the mid-air turn stops it from cleaving him in two, the blunt force of it throws the boy right across the arena, just shy of tumbling into the crowd.

It is the sound that lingers, even once the boy lies still. The awful crack of bones crushed by the sheer force behind Thor’s swing.

Screams in the crowd. Frigga jerks to her feet, hands over her mouth. Loki all but scrambles onto the railing, face lit with terror.

Young Thor is crumpled and motionless on the ground.

The anger is gone, now, as sudden as it came. Thor stares at the fallen boy, empty.

He is – he is not like this.

He takes in one painful breath, then another. He cannot make sense of it. The flash of rage, beyond all rhyme and reason. The inconceivable violence that sprang to his fingers.

He nearly killed the boy. For an idle taunt, he almost killed a boy.

He feels sick. Only pride keeps him from dropping to his knees. He is not like this, not a cruel man, not a monster.

And yet he has seen warriors turn before. Seen good men turned monsters through trauma and grief. He cannot control the twists and turns of his mood, the rapid transition from grief to exhilaration to emptiness, round and around. Why should violence not join that list?

Why did he think he would be any different?

Thor lets go of Stormbreaker. The axe thuds to the ground.

Young Thor coughs.

Thor’s eyes snap to him, startled. The foolish boy is trying to push himself to his feet, even as blood spatters the ground with every hacking cough.

“Medic!” Thor calls. Barely seconds have passed since the strike, and now the shock is wearing off people leap into action. Two women with a white stretcher hurry towards the field.

“No,” young Thor snarls. Barely comprehensible around his mouthful of blood.

Struggling, still, to push his broken body to his feet.

Trying to fight.

“If you will yield,” Thor calls to him, surprised by the steadiness of his own voice as his insides shake and shake, “so will I.”

A murmur passes through the crowd. Confusion, protest, Thor cannot say.

The tournament battles never end in a draw, but he will end it so gladly. Winning is nothing now. An honourable fight meaningless. Thor struck a boy so hard in anger he might have killed him, and the shame of it is too much to bear.

“No!” young Thor yells again. He shoves himself upright enough that he may look Thor in the eyes.

Then Thor feels it. The change in the air. The boy forces himself onto his knees, face contorted with rage, draws back his arm and, with the last of his failing strength, he throws Mjolnir.

Lightning.

Mjolnir arcs across the field towards him, all speed and explosive power, crackling with energy. But its energy is out of control. Young Thor used the last of his power, and the lightning is arcing in a great ball, striking the ground at random as it goes.

It is going to fly right past Thor, and not stop there.

If Thor does not stop it, Mjolnir and all its lightning will hit the stands.

Young Thor collapses again, the last of his foolish strength spent. Eyes wide with realisation, his hand twitches upwards to recall his weapon, far too slow, far too weak.

Thor lunges and catches Mjolnir by its handle. It is a split second decision, and the electricity flickers up his arm like a kiss, familiar.

He drops the hammer. Knowing, to the very depths of his soul, the gravity of the mistake he has made.

Only Thor is worthy of the power of Mjolnir. And now he, interloper that he is, has held both it and the young prince’s lightning at bay.

In the stands, Odin is on his feet, Gungnir held aloft. To stop what Thor has just stopped.

Which means that he saw everything.

Cold settles in Thor’s chest.

“Yield, and I will yield,” Thor repeats. “We will call the fight a draw.”

Young Thor opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. He coughs, spitting blood, and tries again.

“A draw, then,” he says, and hits the ground in a dead faint.

- - -

Thor will hear no talk of him having won the fight.

A draw was agreed upon before the boy passed out, so a draw will remain.

A draw is also outside the rules of the tournament, so Thor’s part in it is over.

He does not care that the legitimacy of young Thor’s challenge was questionable at best. Does not care that he did, when it comes down to it, win the round.

The tournament is nothing, a frivolity, a distraction. He wanted to win when winning seemed worthwhile. When it might earn him the admiration of his family, demonstrate to all of Asgard that he is worthy.

He cares nothing for that now. No, he cares that the rage inside him was so terrible he almost killed a boy, almost cut him in two with one swing of his axe, and the knowledge of his own brutality will live with him for the rest of his days.

Thor has always had a temper, but it has never been so black, so all-consuming. Who is to say it will not happen again?

Something inside him broke after Hela, after Thanos, after everything. He is not in control of himself. He cannot go on like this, but he does not know what to do about it either.

Young Thor is swept back to the palace on a stretcher. Thor cannot be persuaded back onto the pitch, so someone else takes the prize.

Thor returns to his room, even though it is early. Finally the day is kind to him, and he sleeps.

He wakes the next morning, more tired than before.

He drags himself from his bed only because he cannot disappoint his young friends, and goes to the stands with all the rest.

The young people’s tournament is a spectacle in its own right. The rules are stricter, penalties are handed out (with Loki weaselling his way out of a few), but the young ones do well all in all.

Loki wins a few rounds, his knife-throwing putting opponents at disadvantage, but is finally defeated by Sif.

If Thor had more energy to admire the fight, he would be on his feet. It is long, and deadly, and skilful. Both young warriors achieve feats he has never seen them achieve before. Sif seems to take the opportunity to work out the last of her anger about her cut hair, and Loki’s focus and lethal skill are apparent for all to see.

Sif is crowned the ultimate victor, by a small margin. She stands, beaming, on the podium with Loki beside her, as she is presented with her prize – a sword of the highest quality – by Odin himself. Loki is disappointed not to win, but the set of knives are some of the finest Thor has ever seen, and Odin lays a heavy hand on the boy’s cheek before moving on, his pride plain to see.

Loki waves when he spots Thor in the stands. Smiles at him. Thor is not sure how, after what he almost did to Loki’s brother.

Young Thor is still in the healing rooms. His injuries are not as grave as Thor feared – broken ribs, some internal bleeding, but nothing broken beyond repair. The healers are skilled at their work, and rumour has it that the young prince will be released in time for the feast.

Thor knows what he intended, though. Knows what that swing would have done if Stormbreaker had struck true.

He waits to be called before the king. Once the tournament is over he expects a guard to come for him, for Odin cannot have missed how he stopped Mjolnir. The call does not come.

So Thor goes to the gardens again. Breathes in the familiar air, though this time it does not bring him peace.

When he hears the swish of skirts behind him, he closes his eyes.

“I fear you must despise me, my queen,” he says. Better to give voice to the truth than let it fester.

Frigga comes to stand beside him, looking out towards the horizon.

“I fear as any mother would fear, but I do not despise you.”

“You are gracious indeed,” Thor says.

He can feel her eyes on him, but he does not look.

“You are a strange creature,” she says. “And if I am not very much mistaken, the time you were pulled from was one of war.”

Thor is momentarily surprised, but then realises the foolishness of it. Of course his mother knows. All kinds of whispers reach the ears of the queen, and there is little Odin keeps from her.

“Yes,” he says. Then, because he has to, “I did not mean to harm-”

“Thor made his choice,” she says, much to his surprise. “He stepped into the ring in the third round, knowing well he would be facing the very greatest Asgard has to offer. Much as it pains me, he is a man and he must face the consequences of his actions. He is not harmed in any way that will last.”

“I almost-”

“But you did not,” Frigga says. “You are not the first warrior to find themselves in trouble when they move from war to peace in the blink of an eye. With time you will heal, but you must allow yourself to rest. You have not been here long yet, and I can see you do not sleep enough. I-”

She cuts herself off abruptly.

When Thor is finally able to meet her eyes, he finds her looking… confused. Brow furrowed, lips parted, gaze set on something in the distance.

“Your Majesty?” he says.

Her attention jerks back to him. She studies his face now, but Thor senses her confusion is not from anything he has done. She seems, at length, to answer her own question, and her lips twist into a smile.

“Forgive my familiarity. There is a strange draw about you, Stormbreaker. You loosen many tongues, I think.”

Thor is not sure what to say, or what to make of that.

“There is nothing to forgive, your Majesty,” he says.

“You do not need me to fret at you,” Frigga says. There is humour in her eyes again. “It is hard to suppress one’s motherly instincts, sometimes. In a strange way, you remind me of my Thor.”

The words hit Thor right in the chest. He cannot speak.

“I hope to see you at the feast, though,” Frigga says. “There is to be dancing.”

With that, she leaves him.

Thor breathes. She came to him. She sees him, cares for him, even if she does not know why. He does not know how he went on without her, without his mother to guide his actions and soothe his soul.

What happened yesterday cannot happen again, but no lasting damage has been done.

Thor breathes, and finds it in himself to make peace.

Chapter Text

When Thor enters the hall, he finds the dancing in full swing.

Asgardians of all ages twirl around the dancefloor, dancing in that manner typical of Asgard, somehow both elegant and unrestrained. One man throws his partner high in the air to her hoot of laughter, catching her seamlessly and dancing on, around and around. Two ladies dance together, caught in a seemingly endless stream of spins, their feet quick as lightning and their skirts flowing graceful as water. Towards the edge of the hall children dance in a large group, holding hands and stamping their feet, uncoordinated but enthusiastic as they copy the steps of their elders.

The music is bright and joyful and all-consuming. The musicians take up a full corner of the room, playing on strings and wood and metal, banging drums and singing.

They are all so alive.

Thor closes his eyes, just for a moment, to breathe it all in, commit it to his memory. To simply feel all the energy in the room.

He feels like a shadow, not quite up to the task. He is late, and even his attire is sombre. Dark, rather than the bold colours he has always favoured. Beggars cannot be choosers, and in truth the black tunic that was given to him fits him well in his current mood.

He feels different. Other. It is not a sensation he is accustomed to here in the heart of Asgard, but now is not the time to dwell.

Thor opens his eyes again, and heads in.

It is easy to lose himself in the crush of bodies. The excitement is so palpable that it breathes life into him as well, and he finds a smile creeping onto his face unbidden.

He heads first to the food tables. They are pushed to the edges, laden with celebratory fare. Those who do not wish to dance talk and laugh around them, drinking great draughts from goblets and feasting on Asgardian delicacies. Venison, goat, spiced breads – Thor intends to savour them all.

He bites into a piece of meat with relish. The high table has also been moved, but from here he can see that the royal family still stands on ceremony. Odin stands on high, deep in conversation with some officials, while Frigga moves about. Thor watches as she touches a shy-looking young lady on the shoulder, and whatever she says to the girl makes her cheeks glow with pleasure.

Mother. Thor could search the whole of the Nine Realms, and never find a better queen.

He is not left alone with his thoughts for long. A warrior clasps him by the hand, congratulating him on his display of skill in the arena. Despite Thor’s lingering reluctance to talk about it – his mother soothed the worst of the injury, but the guilt weighs heavy on his chest – he finds himself drawn into conversation anyway, first with one man then another until he finds himself part of a group, Tyr among them.

He is not so alone after all. Even without his princely title, Asgard embraces him.

“That axe of yours is mighty indeed,” Tyr tells him, without any trace of the jealousy or resentment that might come from a younger man. “Where did you find it?”

“It was forged for me,” Thor tells him, a beat too slow.

“Clearly you’ve found yourself a proper blacksmith. The young fellow down at the markets barely knows the pommel from the blade itself!”

He is met with laughter from the group at large, others chiming in to share their own stories of the hapless young lad whose knowledge of weaponry leaves much to be desired.

Tyr glances at Thor once, just once, then turns his attention back to the group.

Thor is grateful not to be pressed further on the subject. Tyr saw his hesitation and moved the conversation on without a hitch, old and wise enough to read a fellow warrior in a way that the younger ones missed. No wonder Thor’s mother encouraged him to befriend the man.

It is a surprise when a hand touches Thor’s arm, and he turns to find himself face-to-face with Heimdall.

“Heimdall,” he says, clapping the man’s shoulder in friendly greeting. Then he remembers that this Heimdall does not know him, and his cheer cools again.

Heimdall does not look offended. Nor does he look pleased. His face is inscrutable, for all that it is younger than Thor remembers.

Heimdall has always been a man of duty and honour. He is rarely seen at social gatherings, so dedicated is he to his post. Thor wonders what tempted him away now.

“You are settling in well,” Heimdall says. A statement, not a question. He has seen it for himself.

“I am glad to be home.”

Heimdall inclines his head. Conversation lulls, but there is something in Heimdall’s eyes that prevents Thor from taking the lead. Instead, he waits.

The dance twirls on and on.

“That was quite a fight,” Heimdall says at length. Spoken mildly, still difficult to read. There is a compliment there, but something else as well.

Not hostility, Thor thinks. For if Heimdall was watching as he stopped Mjolnir, Thor has already proven himself worthy of it, and therefore not a threat to Asgard. However, Thor has no doubt Heimdall has other questions.

“It is good to see you,” he says by way of reply. Equally enigmatic, he thinks, though he cannot say if it has any effect.

Loki was always much better with word games. Thor misses him, then remembers all over again that his brother is here, even if he is not as Thor remembers.

“And you,” Heimdall says. “Enjoy your evening.”

He inclines his head as he goes, and Thor is left wondering what the purpose of that conversation was. A reminder, that Heimdall is watching? Thor knows that already. Heimdall is always watching.

They are not dissimilar in that sense. For Thor catches sight of Loki, and he cannot help but stare.

It is as if the rest of the world is forgotten. Thor’s eyes catalogue the elegant shift of Loki’s fingers around his goblet, the light dancing across the sharp bones of his cheeks. Unbidden, his mind is at once busy dissecting the differences between Loki as he is now and his older self, simultaneously intrigued and baffled by the discrepancies. Loki’s shoulders are not as broad, his physique still stuck in adolescent skinniness where his older self is – was – lithe but strong. He is so thin at the waist Thor could encircle it almost completely with his hands.

There is the hint of a scowl painted across Loki’s features, sullenness peeking through his princely demeanour, and Thor cannot help but bury a laugh in his hand. Loki is so painfully young, and the rush of fondness that comes at the thought is surprisingly free of grief. Loki is young and gangly and deeply uncomfortable in such a large room of people, and Thor does not miss that phase.

He is drawn briefly back into the group of warriors, laughing along with a joke he did not hear, then inclining his head and removing himself. He is drawn to his brother like a moth to flame, for all he does not deserve his company.

Thor steps easily around the dancers, eyes fixed on Loki. The boy is peering into the crowd, his expression abruptly darkening. A moment later, Thor sees why.

Young Thor goes spinning past him, dancing with one maiden then just as quickly switching to another. Eager young ladies practically queue to revel with the boisterous little prince, sporting bandages but gamely dancing all the same.

It is some miracle just to see him upright, let alone dancing. Thor wishes the sight of him whole and hale could assuage some of his guilt, but it does not. He knows all too well that it is a mark of his father’s extraordinary healers that the boy is on his feet again. That young Thor has been healed does nothing to lessen the severity of the injury inflicted.

Still, he is here, and it is good to see him. This is the first time Thor has honestly felt so.

Across the hall, Loki crosses his arms. Then he seems to think better of it and uncrosses them, but his eyes still follow his brother as he dances, his lips turned decidedly down. Jealous, Thor thinks, though he has no reason to be. Both young ladies and young men cast their eyes in Loki’s direction, only for them to flit away. They do not approach Loki, simply because they do not dare.

Young Thor is all easy smiles and loud gallantry, can provide to all tastes, and through no particular design of his own.

Loki, though, is and has always been different. Secretive, reserved, harder to approach. Dressed in black and foreboding, his anger at being overlooked rendering him unapproachable. Where young Thor is easy pickings, only the most daring young persons would ask Loki for a dance.

Perhaps it is the idle notions of a sentimental mind, but Thor thinks Loki is not so alone this time. Thor is dressed in black too, and perhaps it is foolish to take that as a symbol, but he does so all the same.

After what he did to Loki’s brother, he does not deserve his company. Cannot expect to be welcome or even liked. But after speaking with his mother, Thor feels daring. Feels like trying anyway.

Loki does not notice him until he touches him on the shoulder, and visibly startles at the sight of him. His cheeks redden, and his eyes flick away as though searching for an escape.

Thor forces his smile not to slip. He bows low.

“My apologies, prince, I did not mean to startle you.”

“N-no, think nothing of it. I was just watching the dancing.”

“Congratulations on your success in the tournament.”

“I must thank you again for your assistance. Without your help I am not sure I would have done it,” Loki says, uncharacteristically humble. Thor is instinctively suspicious – his brother was always at his worst when he was acting his best – but reminds himself that this Loki is different.

“It was my pleasure,” Thor says.

There is a brief pause in which he waits for Loki to fill the conversation – a life-long habit - but Loki does not. He fidgets.

Perhaps it is too much for Thor to ask for a dance. Loki is obviously uncomfortable in his presence, if not outwardly hostile. While he is polite, he takes no pleasure in the company of the man who – who nearly killed his brother.

Thor deserves this. His actions cannot go entirely unpunished. He tries to ignore the ache in his chest as he opens his mouth to excuse himself.

“That tunic suits you well,” Loki says in a sudden rush. Then, mystifyingly, he goes bright red and stares at his shoes.

Thor stares down at his head, baffled. Loki is hardly a stranger to giving a compliment, silver-tongue that he is. Perhaps it is the difference in age between them, but then again he does not remember Loki being so shy of conversation with adults.

“Your father is very kind in bestowing such comforts to a wandering warrior,” he replies. “I did not expect such fine garments to be gifted to me, but I am grateful.”

“You are a great warrior, though, it is fitting,” Loki says. “I have never seen anyone fight as you did.”

He looks up, then, and unless Thor is very much mistaken, there is something like admiration in his gaze.

Loki does not hold a grudge, then, and the relief of it almost makes Thor’s knees buckle. He almost laughs, but he knows it would be taken in the wrong way.

Loki does not hate him. Even as a boy Thor knew Loki’s grudges were dangerous things. It is only in these last few years that their true magnitude has become clear to him.

Thor does not deserve this, could never deserve this in a million years. But it seems that he is forgiven.

“I am old enough to have learned a trick or two,” he says, unable to help the foolish way he smiles at Loki.

“You are not old.”

It is oddly vehement, and this time Thor cannot help but laugh.

“I should hope not,” he says, and Loki ducks his head again. “But come, tonight is a night to make merry. Why are you not dancing?”

Loki folds his arms across his chest, scowling down at the floor. His princely propriety is so quickly forgotten, and Thor forces himself to stop smiling lest he cause offence.

Dancers twirl past them, their joy palpable. They are surrounded by talk and laughter, by hoots and hollers and the endless stamping of feet.

“I despise these foolish gatherings,” Loki mutters.

Thor stifles another laugh. Sullen and ill-tempered he may be, but Loki never fails to amuse him.

“There will be time tomorrow for more intellectual pursuits. You are young yet. Is there not someone here who has caught your eye?” he says, teasing.

Loki’s eyes dart towards him, slightly wide, then away again. He shrugs.

“You will find I am not so easily pleased as my brother.”

Thor glances over at his younger self, and his good-will towards the boy sours again. Young Thor is dancing with Fandral, but not in innocent fun. They dance in a façade of romance, exaggerated so as to be a form of mockery, eliciting peals of laughter from their peers. As though there is something funny about two men dancing together.

When he looks back at Loki, he sees those sharp eyes following young Thor as well. Fandral dips young Thor to hoots and hollers, and Loki’s shoulder hunch.

That wretched boy is such a fool. The thought is not tinged with anger, now, but despair. What could Loki help but think, when his elder brother set such an example? Mocked every part of Loki so thoughtlessly, so cruelly, without the slightest knowledge of the damage he had done?

Something in his expression must change, because Loki is looking towards him, now. Leaning forward, his brow furrowed.

“Stormbreaker?” he says. “Is all well?”

“Forgive me,” Thor says, “my mind wanders.”

He forces himself to smile again, but Loki looks unconvinced.

“You think dark thoughts,” Loki says. Thor wonders why Loki looks so intrigued by the notion.

He shakes his head. “I am glad your brother has been put to rights, and I grieve the injury I did him.”

It is as much apology as Thor thinks he can give, tonight. It is a night of revelry, he does not wish to darken Loki’s own mood with his guilt.

“Thor was arrogant,” Loki says. “He should never have challenged you.”

“He is young, and the fault is not only his to bear,” Thor says. He tries not to chide, but Loki’s face sours again, so he is not sure of his success. “But come, you should be celebrating your own success.”

“There is no one I would ask to dance,” Loki says, gazing out at the crowd.

“Then I will do the asking. Would you honour me with a dance, Prince Loki?”

Loki’s head whips around, his surprise so evident that Thor has to suppress another laugh. Such an outburst would undoubtedly be misconstrued.

Loki opens his mouth. Closes it. Opens it again… no sound comes out.

What did Thor say that was so shocking?

“I am not the greatest dancer in the world, I must confess,” Thor says, “but I promise I will not step on you.”

Thor holds out his hand. Loki looks at it uncertainty. Looks up into Thor’s eyes.

“I… suppose so,” Loki says, with affected dignity.

He allows Thor to lead him onto the floor, but he cannot quite look him in the eye as they face each other. His jaw is set, his posture stiff.

Thor encourages Loki’s hand to rest upon his waist, then does the same with his own. He offers his free hand, palm up, and after a moment of hesitation Loki takes it.

Then, they dance.

At first, it is awkward. Loki is clumsier than Thor remembers, unsure of himself. Every mistake makes his cheeks flush, makes him move as if to pull away.

Thor simply smiles, and acts as though he does not notice. Smiles, and sways, and leads in such a way that Loki begins to loosen up. Begins to dance, his body warm and solid, his hand holding tightly onto Thor’s own.

Thor breathes in the smell of him, and though Loki wears a different scent than the one he remembers, it is nonetheless familiar. An old scent, an old memory.

Bit by bit, Loki forgets his nerves. Forgets to watch his feet, and when unwatched they move with ease. Forgets to hold himself distant and aloof, a smile lighting his face, joy in every line of his body.

Bit by bit, Loki’s grip on Thor’s waist tightens. For while his eyes still skitter away from Thor’s when they meet, his hands grow sure.

Thor never thought he could have this again. Everything so good, so easy between them. His own smile threatens to split his cheeks, and for a moment, just for a moment, Thor tugs Loki close enough that they dance in an embrace. Chest to chest, cheek to cheek.

Then in one smooth motion, Thor uses his grip on Loki’s waist to spin them around and throw Loki up into the air.

Loki’s shriek of surprised laughter is drowned out by the music. Thor catches him, and though Loki protests – “Put me down, you beast! – he is still laughing.

How long has it been since Thor heard Loki laugh? Since he could take such a liberty, childish and playful as it was, and not cause offence? He is being too familiar, treating this Loki as his brother and friend, but it is so hard to hold it at bay. How can he, when Loki laughs?

Thor sweeps them around in a one last circle before coming to a halt, releasing his hold on his brother.

They are both panting, and Loki’s cheeks are flushed pink with exertion. He points a finger at Thor’s chest.

“You threw me!” he says, just slightly shrill. Loki never means for his voice to sound that way, but even his older self would occasionally let it slip.

“You are too serious for one so young,” Thor says. “There is no harm in a little fun.”

Loki brushes down his tunic, smoothes his frizzing hair back down his head. “I am a prince of Asgard!”

Huffy, but not truly offended. His eyes are sparkling with delight for all his protestations, and Thor knows Loki’s nature all too well. He will cheerfully take Loki’s prickliness if he knows, deep in his heart, that Loki is happy.

“You are a prince,” Thor agrees, “but you are more than that.”

Loki looks at him with wide eyes again, as though Thor has said something surprising. Thor is not sure how he keeps doing it, but he sincerely hope he never stops.

“Thank you for the dance, Prince Loki,” he says. He bows, stiff and formal, but the smile he sends his brother is teasing.

Loki looks flustered, but he collects himself fast.

“The pleasure is all mine,” Loki says and bows at the waist, a hint of his future silvery charm breaking through the surface. “I hope to dance with you again, Stormbreaker.”

Hearing the name from Loki’s lips is bittersweet. There is none of the fraternal exasperation to which Thor is so accustomed. Nothing sly, or mocking, or even particularly familiar, for Loki knew Thor better even than Thor knew himself.

But it is warm. It is Loki, for all that he is different.

“I hope so too,” Thor says.

He bows again, smiles with all the warmth he can muster.

Oddly this makes the boy withdraw into himself, ducking his head and retreating into the crowd. Ah well. Who is to say what goes on in any youth’s head, let alone Loki’s. Thor is well accustomed to the quirks an adult Loki presents but, though the same creature, this one comes with his own surprises.

When Thor turns, he unexpectedly meets the eyes of his mother. She watches from her place on high, expression pleasantly impassive but her eyes keen. Supervising her son, no doubt, given what Thor did to the other one.

The grief sweeps over Thor again, breaking over him like a wave, but he stands and rides it out. He is beginning, he thinks, to understand. All his life he has been steady, quick to anger perhaps but slow to everything else. He is different, now, in ways he cannot quantify. Something in him has broken and will remain broken, perhaps never to be fixed.

The grief in him is so raw, so real. But he breathes through it. He thinks of what his mother said, and breathes through it.

She has been so kind to him, perhaps he can be kind to himself.

So this time, despite the overwhelming urge to do so, he does not retreat at once to his chambers. Instead he moves back into the crowd, lets Asgard move and breathe and live around him. He cannot do the same when his chest aches this way, but he can be here nonetheless.

He will live.

Chapter Text

The next day is bittersweet. For Thor promised himself he would continue his quest once the tournament was over, and with the celebrations finally at an end, he must keep his oath.

He wakes slowly, staring at the ceiling of his small chamber, listening to the sounds of the palace moving around him. He is still tired, but he feels more rested today than he has in a long time. Rather than images of death, his mind conjures the simple pleasures of the celebration last night. Loki’s laughter, his mother’s grace, his people’s joy. Much as he aches to leave them, he goes with a renewed sense of resolve.

He will save them. He will.

He packs his meagre possessions when he rises. Spare clothing, soap, hair oil. He was relying on victory in the tournament to fund this venture, and now must make other plans. A warrior of his skill has little trouble finding worthwhile employment, but it will make his time away from Asgard longer.

What must be done must be done, and he is the only one who can do it. No amount of homesickness can compare to not having a home at all.

Thor feels stronger now. He is learning to carry the weight on his shoulders.

He is not entirely surprised when a servant raps on his door just as he fastens his bag, and tells him he has an audience with the king.

Thor makes the bed first, a habit he has gotten into now he has no one to do it for him. Keeping his tiny space neat and tidy, even when his mind feels the opposite. He checks his reflection in the mirror – still strange, still too dark, particularly with the dye in his hair – and reminds himself to breathe. He is the worst kind of son, but he cannot help but dread a conversation with his father. Still, he goes.

His footsteps echo in the hall as he walks the long walk to stand before the throne. He kneels, feeling Odin’s eyes on his bowed head.

“You are leaving us,” Odin says.

Not a question. Heimdall must have told him, which means Thor is likely being watched more closely than he anticipated.

“I must gather information,” Thor says. “I will return.”

“Hmm.”

Odin regards him. It is strange how much Thor feels the weight of the king gazing upon him, so different from the eyes of his father. The same man, the same stare, yet a gulf between them.

“You have power,” Odin says. “Few can stop my son so easily in his tracks.”

Thor has been waiting for this.

He nods, but does not reply. What can he say that will not betray him?

“Asgard embraces you,” Odin continues.

Thor’s stomach jolts. Father knows. He does not speak of the people, but of Asgard itself. Calling to Thor, empowering him, loving him. Loving its king.

Just how well does Odin know his kingdom? How much has Thor yet to learn?

“It is good to be home at last,” Thor says, careful.

Loki was better at this. At speaking of the superficial when he knew all too well of the deeper meaning behind the words. He could walk conversational tight-ropes with ease, but Thor usually falls off.

Odin’s eyebrows arches. “At last? You do not sound like a man eager to leave.”

“Duty compels me-” Thor says, and then cuts himself abruptly short. Curses himself for nearly slipping so quickly, so thoughtlessly.

He almost said ‘duty compels me, Father.

Odin will not have missed his slip, the sentence oddly choked-off. Odin misses nothing.

Odin stands, hands clasped behind his back. He moves slowly to a window, looking out. Standing with his back to Thor.

It is a good strategy, one to remember. For somehow the loss of the king’s heavy stare makes Thor even more tense. Odin is calm and patient. He has all the time in the world for Thor to reveal things that should not be revealed.

To think, just last night he was dancing the night away. Taking it for granted when his father did not call him in for questioning as soon as he stopped both Mjolnir and the full force of young Thor’s lightning in their tracks.

Thor’s power is too great, and Asgard’s connection with him equally clear. Thor does not know what his father is thinking, but he knows one thing for certain: he has drawn far too much attention to himself.

Fool, fool, fool.

“Tell me of yourself,” Odin says. There is something different about his voice, younger as he is. A steeliness that softened as his father grew old, back in full force.

“Your Majesty?” Thor hedges. He needs a clearer question, to know which verbal traps to avoid. A fact his father deliberately exploits.

“Tell me of yourself, your family. Come, stand with me.”

Even more dangerous. There is a certain level of protection in the separation of class, Thor kneeling before the king. Now he must stand by his father’s side as he has always done – no shield of propriety for him to hide behind, to remind himself of his current station. To remind himself that he is Stormbreaker, now, and not Thor Odinson.

Thor stands, and does as he is bid.

“I am one of two sons,” Thor says. “Raised on Asgard, but I found work elsewhere when I came into my manhood.”

All truths, but clumsy, fragmented. Stilted in a way that neither Odin nor Loki would miss.

“Your parents?” Odin asks.

“My mother died not long ago,” Thor says, swallowing around the lump in his throat, “and my father followed her soon after.”

“At the hands of this Thanos?”

“No. It was my brother Thanos took from me. As well as several dear friends, and many more innocents.”

Odin nods. “Have you any other family?”

It sounds like small talk, a king making idle conversation with one of his subjects. Thor knows better. Every word out of his father’s mouth is a test, gauging his loyalty, his ties to Asgard. Gauging if he is a mere wanderer or a traitor.

A bead of sweat rolls down Thor’s back.

“None surviving,” Thor says. Then he realises he has inadvertently omitted a detail. A sister. He had a sister too.

He does not know what Odin is looking for, but he cannot risk lying to him now. Misdirecting, but not lying, even by omission.

“I had a sister, too, but I never knew her. I am quite alone in the world.”

He does not really expect a bid for sympathy to work, and is not surprised when his father merely hums again.

“May I ask to what these questions pertain, your Majesty?” he says.

As soon as the words leave his lips, he realises they are a mistake. Odin turns his cool eyes on Thor, and though Thor is taller, Odin’s presence is so huge it feels as though he is looming over him.

“You are a stranger, appearing in my kingdom with mysterious power and no known associates. I am Asgard’s king. I have been most hospitable, I think you would agree, but your presence here raises… questions.”

“Of course,” Thor says. “My apologies.”

“Where do you intend to go?”

Thor opens his mouth, but Odin raises a finger.

“The whole truth,” Odin says.

Thor can feel the blood drain from his face. What can he do? What should he say?

He wishes Loki were here with him. Loki could talk his way out of anything, would be miles ahead of Thor by now were it Thor who had died and Loki who had come back to the past. Of the two of them, Loki was the only one who could ever lie to Odin and get away with it. Loki would know what to do.

“I seek Thanos,” Thor says. “More than that, I cannot say.”

“Cannot?” Odin’s eyes flash dangerously.

The next words out of his mouth are vital, Thor knows that. He must persuade his father that his intentions are pure, that he is a loyal citizen of Asgard. Must convince his father to trust him with the information he cannot share – no mean feat in and of itself, for a king’s true currency is knowledge – and allow him to continue his search not just for Thanos, but for Hela. The daughter Odin imprisoned, whose release spelled the death of Asgard, and through seeking Thor is likely committing an act of treason.

Thor comes up blank. Completely blank.

“Yes,” he says at last. Defeated.

Odin’s eyes scan Thor’s face. Thor squares his shoulders, but it is of little use. Nothing he does now will impress or beguile his father. Odin cannot be tricked.

The king turns from him. Walks calm and steady over to his throne, and sits as though he has all the time in the world.

“Very well,” Odin says. Thor cannot conceal the shock that paints his face, but Odin’s own expression is unwavering. “My people will be watching you, Stormbreaker.”

The name leaves his lips, and there is weight to it, an emphasis. The name is tested as Thor is being tested.

Information, Thor thinks. That is all this is about. Through watching Thor, even if he proves untrustworthy, Odin will gain information, and at present the risk is worth the reward.

“I know, your Majesty. I hope-” and Thor should not say it, should not even think it, but, “I hope I will not disappoint you.”

Father, he adds silently. Father.

- - -

The conversation drains him. He feels too tired again, his resolve wavering. Thor curses his lack of resilience, but he cannot falter now. There is much worse to face ahead than his father, and he must continue on his path.

Through charm he is able to persuade the kitchen staff to pack him a small amount of supplies. He has none of Loki’s silvery eloquence, but he has always found smiles and good humour get him what he wants.

A kitchen girl blushes and stutters and acquiesces almost immediately, soon to be joined by an eager cook and a girl delivering produce. Thor receives a death glare from the young man sweeping the floors as the kitchen girl not-so-accidentally brushes past him in such a way that she gets a good feel of his biceps, but Thor is not complaining.

They are helpful and kind, and give him far more than he asks for, enough that he need not worry about supplies for some time. He bows to each one of them in turn as he thanks them, and he finds he is quite enjoying using courtly manners as something of a weapon. He understands now why Loki spent so much time kissing hands – excessive politeness could cover any amount of mischievous intent. The kitchen boy glowers at him as he goes past, but Thor smiles at him as well and goes on his way.

It is inevitable that his mind strays to young Loki, after thinking of the elder. He wonders what the boy is up to, and much as Thor is loathe to part from him, at least he leaves with the memory of Loki’s laughter embedded in his heart, the honest joy in Loki’s face as they danced. Thor has made such progress with the boy. There is bitterness in Loki even now, resentment towards the cruelties of his thoughtless brother and his friends, but nothing that cannot be fixed.

Loki, though, is nowhere to be found.

Thor treads all the usual paths – library, feasting hall, training yards. He must leave today – soon, before his resolve deserts him entirely – but he wanted to wish Loki farewell before he went.

He tries Frigga’s gardens last, but instead of Loki, Thor finds the boy's brother.

Not an auspicious day to begin his journey, all things considered. Of the two people currently most difficult to speak with, Thor has managed to find himself with both. His father and young Thor are both conversational minefields.

He wonders, briefly, why young Thor is sitting in his mother’s gardens, gaze fixed on the ground and a book lying abandoned beside him on the bench. Quiet tranquillity was never Thor’s style. Then he sees the way young Thor holds himself, slightly hunched in and smaller, and he understands.

Young Thor is in pain, and does not want others to see him so. That, more than anything, is what prevents Thor from simply walking away unnoticed.

“Good morning, your Highness,” Thor greets.

Young Thor straightens, though the flash in his eyes indicates that it hurts him.

“Stormbreaker. Good morning.” He sounds haughty, but affectations of dignity do not suit him.

Thor considers – young Thor will not pursue him, if he leaves now. A conversation between them is likely to be as pleasurable as the one Thor just had with his – their – father. But there is much to settle between them, much to atone for, much as Thor may not wish it.

He sits, and young Thor shuffles along the bench to make more room for him.

“You are alone this morning?” Thor asks.

“As you see,” young Thor replies. Not in a good mood, then, sullen and ill-tempered.

Thor remembers this, he thinks. He has never enjoyed pain, but as a boy he enjoyed even less having others know of it. Felt shamed, for having any sort of weakness.

“You fought well in the tournament,” he offers, thinking of his mother’s kindness. He could learn much from her.

Young Thor does not look at him. “I could still have beaten you,” he mutters.

And just like that, Thor’s own temper flares. Young Thor is just a boy, he reminds himself. Just himself as a boy, with all his flaws and failings. Funny, how young Thor’s temperamental failings make him respond in kind.

“Learn to pick your battles wisely, whelp,” he says, but it is good-natured. He claps a hand on young Thor’s shoulder, careful of his injuries.

The boy still winces, though he tries to hide it. He should not have danced last night, that much is clear. Whatever painkillers and pride propped him up are long gone now, and he looks so small. He is so small, if not in body then in mind.

The guilt wells up in Thor’s chest again, but it is a useless thing, not worth brooding over. The damage is already done, the lesson already learned. For both of them, he thinks.

“You took quite a hit,” he continues. “Not many have the strength to raise their heads after a strike like that, let alone throw their own weapon.”

It is a concession, of sorts. He cannot find it in himself to lower himself in the name of the boy’s ego, but then that is a failing they share.

Young Thor looks pleased with himself, at least.

“It was nothing,” he says, which is clearly a lie. “I was able to dance all night last night with no trouble.”

No trouble but the pain he is in now. No doubt he has re-inflamed injuries the healers worked so hard to soothe.

“It was a good night,” Thor agrees, and leaves it at that.

They are quiet for a moment, watching a bird flutter onto the branches of a nearby shrub, hunting for caterpillars.

“I suppose you are looking for Loki,” young Thor says. There is something bitter in his voice, but Thor can understand that. It is not often that young Thor is so overlooked.

“I am,” Thor agrees.

“He is with Mother, today. She summoned him early.” Again, that bitterness. Young Thor cannot stand not being the centre of attention, Thor supposes.

The boy kicks at the grass beneath his feet.

“Do you not have lessons today?” Thor asks.

“Not today,” young Thor says. “And I am not allowed in the ring, either.”

He looks positively gloomy. Feeling very much sorry for himself.

“I do not imagine your mother was thrilled with all the dancing last night,” Thor says.

Young Thor nods, but he seems surprised Thor knows. As though he is the only young warrior who needed a telling off from his mother when he did something foolish.

“I was fine,” young Thor says. “The healers said so.”

Thor does not reply. He has nothing else to say to the boy, not right now. Still, they have done better, this time around. He cannot say if they have reached any sort of understanding, but it was… easier than he thought it might be. Speaking to young Thor.

His skin itches with the need to move, and all of a sudden Thor knows it is time to go. He must leave Asgard now, while he has the energy. If he lingers too long, allows himself the indulgence of staying in Asgard, he is not sure when he will muster the strength to leave again.

He is a weak man. He should be better, but he is not.

Thor stands.

“I bid you farewell,” he says. “I must journey out today.”

That gets young Thor’s attention. The boy’s head whips around, and he looks excited all of a sudden.

“You are heading on a quest?”

“I have some errands to perform,” Thor says, trying to dampen the enthusiasm, suddenly struck by the idea of young Thor stowing away with him in search of excitement. “But they will take me out of Asgard for a while.”

“How long?”

“I do not know.” Thor shrugs.

Then, a thought occurs to him. Much as he is sorry to leave without a proper goodbye to Loki, the boy will likely be even more so. Loki always took offence to things like that. Poor manners, he used to call it, and he would spend the next few days ignoring Thor no matter how compelling his reason had been.

He does not want this Loki to be angry with him. But if Loki is with their mother for the day, he will be there too long for Thor to linger just to say goodbye.

Thor should have told him last night. It cannot be helped now.

“Perhaps you would do me a favour, and deliver a letter to your brother for me,” Thor says to young Thor. A poor compromise, but the best he can do.

Young Thor looks equal parts curious and sour, which Thor supposes is the most grace he can expect.

Thor pulls out a pencil, and young Thor has paper in his pockets, though Thor cannot say why. Quickly he jots a message.

Dear Prince Loki,

Thank you for the dance last night. I must venture out of Asgard for a time, but I hope to return soon.

Yours,

Stormbreaker

He folds it and hands it to young Thor, for the first time confident that the boy will do the right thing. For all his failings, Thor was never inclined to read other people’s mail.

“I will give this to him,” young Thor says, “though you would be better to say goodbye yourself.”

A rare piece of insight about his brother.

“I can wait no longer,” Thor says. “Please give him my apologies, but I must go now.”

“Is your task so urgent?” Young Thor looks excited again.

Thor sighs. “It is, and it is not. I will not know until I perform it, but I cannot linger any longer.”

He must go now, before he loses the will.

He heads back to his room, picks up his bag and hefts his axe. It feels heavy in his hand, but strong. Familiar. Like it was always meant to be his.

A chance to change fate. That is what he has now. He can hold all the joy from last night like a secret in his heart, carry it with him, let it bolster him. He can be the brother he always wanted to be, a son to make his parents proud. He has the chance to save them all, and he must take it.

Thanos and Hela. He is coming.

Chapter Text

Thor is away longer than he intends.

It is like falling down a rabbit hole. He is lost in an endless stream of worlds so familiar, yet utterly foreign. Flashes of conflicts, of tragedies, of celebrations, from a time so long ago to his memory that they are like a dream.

He finds work, though of the messier kind than he likes to contemplate. The kind of messy involving copious amounts of dragon dung and viscera on his person by the end of it.

It earns him enough to travel, though, and travel he does. He jumps across worlds and galaxies, diving into the dark underbellies of civilisations, where whispers grow like fungus. He is slow, for this kind of information-gathering was always Loki’s task, but Thor learns enough.

He goes from seer to seer until he hears of one who sounds worth her salt. He finds her in a backwater bar, and he wonders what it says about people of great talent that they turn to the bottle. Valkyrie, now this woman.

“I’ll tell you about your future wife if you buy me a drink,” the seer is telling a patron, already swaying in her seat. It is not the most promising start, but as soon as she locks eyes with Thor, he knows.

This woman is a real seer, a true seer.

All things considered, it is little wonder she drinks.

He joins her at the bar.

“Allow me,” he says, and signals the bartender, and she smiles.

First one drink, then another. Strong stuff, the smell of it so overpowering he can taste it on his own tongue. She says little, watching him consideringly, and he knows the expectation is that he wait. Until she has drunk her fill, she will give him nothing. So he buys her another, and another again.

When she sets the glass of her fourth drink down, she pins him with a surprisingly sober stare.

“You have moved through space and time to try the universe again,” she says, “and you will unwrite what was written. But patience… patience…”

She proceeds to vomit on his shoes, but Thor cleans up without complaint. Sets extra coin on the counter for her as he leaves, his mind whirling.

If the seer speaks true, his dislocation in time is not an illusion brought about by the Mind Stone on Thanos’ gauntlet. It is real.

He wishes he were not so suspicious. Once, he would have taken that as an absolute truth. Now he cannot escape the niggling worry that the Mind Stone could make hallucinations tell him it was real, and he would be none the wiser.

It is the confirmation he has been searching for, but now it comes he does not trust it. Cannot trust anything completely, and perhaps never will again.

It is sad. He is sad.

He must take it as truth for now, for what else can he do? The seer’s vision is knowledge, and knowledge enough. He has dangerous enemies to seek, and, assuming her words are true and his presence here is written in the fates, then he will succeed in his task.

He finds no mention of Hela, across all the worlds. It is like she has vanished, scrubbed clean from the universe itself, from even the darkest corners and deepest secrets. He has no choice, then, but to search for information on her on Asgard, and it is not a task he looks forward to.

Thanos is another matter. He must be young, but already there are whispers of him marauding around the edges of the universe.

He has left Titan, and is already a criminal. Thor would be lying if he did not confess that were something of a relief. Evil destiny or no, Thor could not have slain a babe in its crib.

He knows Thanos’ current occupation, knows his location in the vaguest terms. Knows that even now Thanos is a bad man, gathering power and harming innocents. He hears whispers of Thanos’ family back on Titan, fractured by his departure, and Thor knows all too well the pain of having a loved one turned wicked. He will not exacerbate their pain by asking questions of them until he must.

Thor will need more resources to seek Thanos out. A ship of his own, likely with a crew unless Thanos lands for an extended amount of time. As powerful as Thor is now, he does not relish the thought of swinging an axe and blasting lightning on a ship in the depths of space. Even gods must breathe.

A plan, then. He must make a plan, and gather resources. He cannot afford to rush this, for the risks if he fails are too great. He must take things slow and steady, and where once that would have been an impossible task, he thinks he can manage it now. He has learned enough, enough to allow him to return home.

So finally, at the end of two months, he does.

- - -

Heimdall lets him in with a nod of his head, but not a word from his lips.

Thor supposes that is a good sign – he is not under arrest, and the Gate-Keeper feels no need to engage in conversation – but it is hard. Heimdall is – was – his friend. He never understood the man when he was a boy, but he always knew of his honour, his loyalty, the unflinching devotion in the man’s heart. Heimdall was as much a protector of the people as Thor and Odin were. A king in his own right, so steadfast that he never once laid claim to a crown.

Thor misses him.

The long walk up to the palace gives him time to order his thoughts, to acclimatise to being in Asgard again. He feels the energy of it wrap around him, wonders how he never noticed it before its destruction. Being here is, as ever, both pain and delight, full of the best and worst memories of his life.

He feels no shame in requesting a chamber in the palace, and it is granted without question. He is grateful, of course he is, but he is not the only warrior seeking such lodging. Others mill around, warriors and fighters every one of them. Asgard’s palace is large enough to accommodate and honour them all.

He realises as he heads to his chamber that people from other walks of life are not represented, for having known Loki so long he cannot help but notice such a thing. While transient warriors lodge for free, the rest of Asgard must pay its way. Tradesfolk, sorcerers, the lot. A situation to amend, when the time comes.

Thor sets his things down in his chamber. Sits on his bed. Waits.

He expects a summons from the king, but it does not come. By the time the sun dips below the horizon, Thor is tired of waiting. He splashes his face, combs his hair – still short, still dyed too dark – and his beard. Then, he joins the throng of people heading into the feasting hall for their evening meal, and is once again blown away by the sheer vibrance of them all.

He is not sure he will ever stop being surprised – stunned, amazed, dismayed – by the sheer life emanating from all around him. It seems impossible, that anyone could survive the loss of such a home, such a world.

And yet he did.

He is not oblivious to the whispers that follow him, the occasional pointed finger. Heads turn as he passes, but there is nothing malicious about it. Nothing particularly excited, either, not like common folk pointing out the presence of a prince. The attention springs more from idle amusement, more ‘remember the time that man fought Prince Thor’ rather than any particular interest in Thor’s person.

It is easy to brush it off, smile and speak when spoken to but otherwise ignore the whispers. After all, Thor is accustomed to much worse. He finds a seat and, suddenly starving, piles his plate full of food.

He catches sight of the royal family well before they catch sight of him. Seated as he is with the general population, he blends into the crowd, one Asgardian warrior among many. He has been so busy it has been hard to find time to miss them, but now they are within his sight he feels it all come rushing in. His mother’s laughing eyes, his father’s steady wisdom, Loki’s cheek and youthful innocence.

(Loki’s viciousness and sharp intellect, his humour cutting but his heart, in the end, in the right place. Thor misses him too, but that Loki is far beyond his reach. He is not sure whether to be grateful or heartbroken, and either option makes guilt weigh on his heart.)

Dinner is busy tonight, and his arrival unheralded, so Thor is not surprised that it takes his young friends time to notice his return. Sif spots him first, because of course she does, and all of a sudden Thor finds himself surrounded by excitable young people once again. There is no room for them on the benches, so they stand, clamouring and chattering.

Thor laughs. He cannot help it.

“It is good to see you, my young friends,” he says.

“You’ve been gone for ages!” Sif exclaims.

“Good to see you too, Stormbreaker!” Volstagg says simultaneously, clapping Thor’s shoulder with a heavy hand. Not yet as strong as he will be, but strong as an ox nonetheless.

“Is that breast-plate made of dragon-hide?” Fandral asks over the top of them both.

Only Hogun is quiet – still shy, struggling to look up from his boots – but he presses near Thor like all the rest.

“Peace, friends, peace,” Thor says, raising his hands. Fortunately, the warriors seated around him look amused rather than irritated by the unexpected company. “I will answer your questions, but in the morning.”

“You always say that,” Sif complains. It startles Thor, that he has been here, in this time period, long enough for there to be an always, but it is a happy kind of surprise.

“I’m an old man,” he tells her, and she groans and rolls her eyes.

“You’re nothing of the sort,” Fandral says with a scoff.

He is right, of course, and it must say something about Thor’s current state that he makes jokes about his age, but… after everything, after everything he lost, he certainly feels old.

The commotion they make – mainly Sif, if he is honest, because the girl cannot regulate her volume – does not escape the notice of the high table. When Thor glances towards it, his eyes lock on Loki’s. Loki, whose eyebrows are raised in an expression of almost comical surprise. His expression shutters when he realises Thor has seen him, shutting down into princely neutrality, but when Thor raises a hand Loki raises one back. A smile pulls at the corner of Loki’s lips before the boy manages to fight it down. Loki has always been funny like that, reluctant to show joy as much as sadness.

Loki doesn’t think you’re old,” Sif mutters, and why she looks so sullen all of a sudden is beyond Thor’s understanding. Young people.

“I promise I shall tell you tales of my adventure in the morning,” Thor says, standing firm. “Now, let us eat before all the food is gone!”

An idle threat – when one plate is emptied, another takes its place – but their appetites must be even greater than his, given their age. With reluctance they make their way back to their own seats, and while Thor is sorry there is no room for them at his table, he is not sorry to wait until morning. He will have plenty of time to make his tale sound more exciting overnight. Young warriors never want to hear that a job like dragon-slaying can become run-of-the-mill. Thor certainly didn’t.

Loki does not look at him for the rest of the night, proud and outwardly impassive, though Thor’s eyes drift to him often enough. The boy sits very straight, a sure sign that he is feeling some sort of emotion. Loki’s posture always mysteriously improves when he is trying to hide a reaction, and Thor does not think Loki – his older self - ever realised that it was a tell. Thor certainly never told him.

Loki and young Thor are, oddly, seated on either side of their parents. They usually sit together – Thor supposes they got into trouble of some sort and had to be separated. He puts it out of his mind.

He will speak to Loki tomorrow.

- - -

Thor is waylaid by his young friends at breakfast, and spins an admirable tale of excitement and intrigue. It is strange that young Thor is not with them – breakfast is a less formal meal and he usually leaves the high table for it – but Loki is nowhere to be seen at all.

Of course, his young friends being so boisterous, he is quickly distracted.

“A dragon?” Fandral sputters. “You took on a dragon by yourself?”

“How big?” Sif asks, equally excited.

“At least the size of this hall,” Thor says, to appreciative hoots.

He tells them nothing but the truth, for all he takes his time in telling it, but when the tale is done it still feels like there is something… disingenuous about it. Once upon a time, defeating a dragon single-handedly would have been his life’s greatest accomplishment. He would have shouted it from the roof-tops, named himself ‘Thor Dragon-Slayer’ and refused to answer to anything less. Now he finds little satisfaction in killing a beast, no matter how wily. He cannot share their excitement, and so when the tale comes to an end it feels, somehow, like he has cheated them.

“You must take us with you, on your next journey,” Sif tells him. She leans in, expression deadly serious, eyes shining with enthusiasm. Entirely heedless of how young she looks to his eye. “We are warriors, all of us.”

“We could fight alongside you,” Fandral chimes in.

A quick glance at Volstagg and Hogun, the quieter ones, confirms their agreement. Volstagg’s jaw is set like a man headed off to war, eyes burning. Hogun makes eye contact with Thor, just briefly, and turns red, but Thor knows him too well to doubt his enthusiasm.

He should find Hogun when the boy is alone, he thinks, and speak to him. For all Loki’s talk of being a shadow, Hogun seems actively repelled by the idea of being noticed. Crushingly shy, in a way Thor had entirely forgotten. Perhaps homesick. Definitely disinclined to speak when Sif and Fandral so readily do it for him.

“I am honoured, my friends,” he says. “I will call on you when the times comes, I promise.”

Several decades down the line, but he tactfully does not mention that part.

He is in a good mood when they part ways. But, as with many things at this time in his life, it does not last. Loki does not seek him out, and Thor cannot find him anywhere.

At first he thinks the boy is busy. Off with his tutors, or with his family. But as the day progresses, and Thor searches all of the usual spots, he realises that is not the case. Loki moves about the palace – he hears news of it in idle conversation, servants gossiping, guards chatting as they change shifts – but the boy steers well clear of Thor. Loki is avoiding him.

Disappointment hits him like a blow.

It is not hard to figure out what must have happened. Loki is angry. Angry, or hurt, or both, for Thor left with only a letter to wish him farewell.

He had to leave, he knows that well. He made progress with his investigation. It does not make the disappointment any easier. He was making progress with Loki, and now he has lost it.

He does not know what to do. If Loki knew him as a brother, Thor would hunt him down and make Loki talk to him. He would lurk in his rooms, or shout for him, or start telling stories about Loki that would bring him running just to make Thor stop embarrassing him. But he is not this Loki’s brother. He is Stormbreaker, a stranger.

In the end, and for want of any other ideas, Thor sends Loki the gift he brought him. Halfdan, the young guard whom Thor encouraged at the tournament, is happy to oblige him. He asks no questions, either, and Thor is left alone with his thoughts.

Loki will not speak to him, and just like that Thor is aimless again. Unsure where to even begin seeking Hela without inciting the king’s wrath. Unsure of where he stands with his loved ones, if his absence has undone all of the work he did.

I had to go, he reminds himself, but it is small comfort.

Thor spends the rest of the day walking in his mother’s gardens, browsing the library, training. He spends it alone.

Perhaps it was too much to ask for. His loved ones’ survival and their love. The people who loved him are dead, and the price for their return to life is everything that he had with them. In light of this, it is hard not to fall into the trap of self-pity, of feeling as though no one in the world could possibly understand his predicament. Thor does not quite manage it.

He sleeps. He eats. Another day comes, the same as the last. The king has not called him, the queen has not walked with him, neither Loki nor young Thor have spoken to him.

Come morning, he forces himself out of bed. Looks in the mirror, and even he does not recognise his reflection. He is not the man he once was, and never will be again.

- - -

It is inevitable that only once Thor’s mood reaches its blackest, once he is most distracted by his own grief and disappointment, that Loki comes.

Thor is standing on a balcony, watching the setting of the sun while his mind works. Sometimes planning, sometimes grieving, sometimes scolding himself, the cycle repeating over and over. He used to wonder why he found his father in such places, standing still and silent, observing the passage of time. When Thor was young, he could not stand still for more than a minute, could not imagine losing precious time to inaction. Now, though, he finds himself following in his father’s footsteps, the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He hears footsteps behind him, clicking on the cold stone. Consumed by his thoughts, it takes him a moment to realise that they are coming closer rather than passing him by. He turns.

Loki stops, several feet away. Distant.

Thor’s heart leaps at the sight of him. Not for the first time, though, he wonders how Loki only comes to him when Thor is at his most miserable. It is both curse and blessing, for Thor needs him more than ever, but Loki cannot help but see him as a mere shadow of his former self.

Still, Thor musters a smile. And finally, by some miracle, his thoughts go quiet. Only later will he wonder why.

“You remembered my book,” Loki says in lieu of greeting. The book Sif thoughtlessly destroyed, that provoked Loki into cutting her hair off.

“Of course,” Thor says, surprised. “I promised.”

Loki’s expression does something complicated. He is subdued, guarded, more like his older self than Thor has ever seen him in this time period.

“You left, and I thought…” Loki trails off.

“I wrote you a letter,” Thor says. It is a weak explanation, weaker now he has said it aloud. This is Loki. No version of him would ever be satisfied with such a farewell.

It is Loki’s turn to be surprised. “That was really you?”

A baffling question. Thor frowns. “I gave it to your brother. He did pass it onto you, I hope?”

“Yes,” said Loki. “But I thought… your handwriting is remarkably similar.”

Thor’s heart stutters. His handwriting. His handwriting. By the gods, he is a fool. It did not occur to him, he did not even think.

His penmanship has improved since his youth, more through greater care than any improvement in skill, but it is still unmistakable. No tutor has ever been able to correct his chicken scratch, no matter how many exercises they made him do. No one would ever mistake his handwriting for someone else’s. Loki would never mistake it.

Loki was right all along. Thor is a thrice-damned fool.

He has been silent too long. He has to say something, to deflect.

“Perhaps your brother and I have more in common than I thought.”

It is a testament of how bizarre and unlikely his situation is that Loki seems to accept this answer. Even for a mind as sharp as Loki’s, it takes something of a leap to go from unusually similar handwriting to this is really my brother who has time travelled from the future. The pieces will not be hard to put together, though, if Thor keeps handing them to him.

“I see. You just left so unexpectedly, and when I got the letter, I thought…”

Loki trails off again, but Thor can fill in the blanks. “You thought your brother had written it instead.”

Loki nods. Thor is pushing his luck, but he steps away from the railing, towards Loki. Raises a tentative hand to grip his upper arm and meets his eyes, trying to impress Loki with his earnestness, with the truth of his regret.

“Forgive me. I did not wish to leave without saying a proper goodbye, but time was of the essence. It did not occur to me that my writing might be mistaken for his.”

A thought dawns on Thor. He thinks of the princes in the feasting hall, sitting on either side of their parents.

“I hope this did not cause an argument between you.”

Loki’s cheeks redden, and Thor has his answer.

“My brother is an oaf at the best of times,” Loki says, but there is something defensive in the set of his shoulders. He withdraws, but by moving to the balcony railing rather than retreating back the way he came. Looking out over Asgard.

“I take it you took it upon yourself to seek retribution,” Thor says, both resigned and somewhat amused. He can well imagine the kind of pranks young Thor has been subjected to.

Even with Loki’s back to him, Thor can see the way he closes off, and this is not at all how Thor wanted this to go. Loki’s mask is imperfect, his body language betraying him, but he is practicing. With time, he will become impenetrable.

Perhaps Thor cannot change that. Perhaps that secretive reserve is innate to Loki, as much a part of him as intellect and mischief. But he does not need Loki to guard from him. Not again.

“Forgive me, I do not mean to chide you. The fault is mine.” Thor says. And then, in a bid to distract Loki from his offence, “I am glad to see you. I have been away some time, I feared we might no longer be friends.”

Loki turns his head just a little, peeking at him. Thor seizes the chance to come up beside him, now he thinks Loki will not run away.

Loki exhales, and though he stares down at his own hands on the railing, he is smiling.

“You need have no fear of that. Not this time, anyway,” Loki says. The last part is pointed, and Thor inclines his head in understanding. Loki will not always be so forgiving.

Thor has not lost him, though. Not this time.

“You are very good,” Thor says. Not kind. Not forgiving. Just good. He does not think Loki - the older one - heard that word often in relation to himself but, twisted as he became, part of Loki was always good.

Loki visibly shrugs it off, but it is a work in progress. He turns to face Thor again, and he is back to his youthful, bright-eyed self. Jarring, and yet it should not be a surprise, all things considered. Loki himself is whole – it is only Thor who is seeing him in pieces, trying to connect the dots between two different times, two different Lokis.

“Where did you journey, that took you away for so long?” Loki asks.

Thor smiles, leaning over the railing by his side. And, though editing carefully along the way, he tells him.

Chapter Text

Thor hears, through the ever-reliable palace grapevine, what has transpired between the two princes during his absence.

It has been an all-out war.

Multiple interventions from the All-father. Many a plea from their mother. Innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of Loki’s pranks and young Thor’s temper tantrums. Hair has been pulled, shins have been kicked, and beds have been set on fire (by Loki – Thor has never mastered the trick of burning the sheets without setting the occupant alight as well).

Sitting in his little chamber, Thor buries his head in his hands. He is caught in an odd place between guilt and exasperation. It was such a simple error to make. All he did was write a letter, and he unleashed hell upon Asgard for the last two months.

Thor can already guess how it began. Loki, hurt and angry, pulled a particularly nasty prank on young Thor. Young Thor retaliated, Loki retaliated to his retaliation, and the cycle has continued ever since, only escalating in severity each time.

He has forgotten what it is to be young. A simple misunderstanding has caused months of chaos, and neither boy will see any form of reason. Not even their father has been able to prevail on them. Even now that the truth is out, Thor knows Loki is far too proud to admit fault. He will neither admit his mistake nor seek reconciliation – and indeed, knowing he made something as mundane as a mistake might cause Loki to escalate out of stubborn embarrassment. So Thor must try and bring an end to it himself, as punishment for his sins.

The last thing he should find all of this is amusing, but despite himself he laughs. His and Loki’s battles were so petty in their youth. So boyish. He only wishes his Loki had pulled his hair and set his sheets alight before his coronation, rather than heading down the path that led to Loki’s fall and the breaking of their family.

Thor grooms his beard, checks his hair – still dark, but he will need to dye it again soon. He can feel the weight of his grief on his chest, like a constant pressure on his heart, and wonders what it says that it troubles him most when he is at peace. When he is on the move, he feels more like his old self again, but when he stops…

There is no use worrying about it. His temper is the only thing he must control. The rest of his moods, troublesome as they are, can go where they will. He can always speak with a medic if they get worse. He is wiser now than once he was, and sees no shame in seeking aid. If Loki had only… but best not to think on that.

When Thor leaves his chambers, it is not young Loki he goes in search of – it is young Thor.

He finds the boy in the training yards, the very first place Thor thought to look for him. He has always been a creature of habit, whereas Loki is never found in the same place twice. Young Thor, of course, is not alone. He travels in a pack wherever he goes, so Thor is not surprised to see Sif and the young Warriors Three milling about, though he worries what that must mean for the state of Loki’s friendships with them all.

“Stormbreaker!” greets Sif. She bounds over to the fence where he stands with a grin all over her face.

“Sif,” he says. His smile is genuine, and he hopes she cannot see it is tinged with amusement. She is so very enthusiastic about everything. He wonders how he ever forgot that.

“Have you come to train? I would spar with you, if you are in search of a partner.”

She speaks as though offering him a personal favour, but he can see the hope in her eyes.

“Another time. I come in search of the prince.”

“Loki?” she says.

“Not today.”

That surprises her. She looks over her shoulder to where young Thor is sparring with Volstagg. Unless Thor is very much mistaken, the boy is pretending not to notice his arrival while simultaneously showing off. He swings Mjolnir with exaggerated strength, and where before Thor arrived Volstagg stood a chance, there is no way young Thor will allow him a victory now.

Young Thor swings his hammer so mightily that Volstagg – tall, strong lad he is – is thrown to the ground, skidding a few feet before coming to a halt in the dust. He stands and brushes himself off easily enough, but there is no question as to who won the match.

“A good bout,” Thor says, making his voice carry.

Young Thor pushes his hair back from his face and all but swaggers towards Thor.

“Stormbreaker,” he says. “It is good to see you.”

Thor had somehow forgotten how irritating he finds the boy. These last months he has been thinking of young Thor in the abstract, in terms of his own mistakes and the dangerous black temper he cannot allow to surface again. He forgot how much young Thor is, even when standing relatively still. But it is not the boy’s fault. If the boy can forgive Thor for crushing him with his axe, surely he can forgive young Thor for being the embodiment of Thor’s regrets.

“I wonder if you would oblige me with a moment of your time,” Thor says, as courtly and obfuscating as he knows how. Formality is a useful crutch to fall back on. “At your convenience, of course.”

“That, I can grant you. I will speak with you now,” young Thor says. He hooks Mjolnir through his belt, clasps hands with Volstagg to acknowledge the end of their bout. He too is playing the formality game, but is not as good at it yet. His curiosity is evidently piqued, even while he acts nonchalant.

“Perhaps you would walk with me,” Thor says, and young Thor inclines his head.

They match each other, step for step. Though he does not notice himself doing it, young Thor mimics Thor’s posture, his long strides and the way he holds his shoulders.

Thor feels… something about that. Some mix of melancholy and amusement and the mind-boggling confusion that this is him, himself, only younger. Him, copying himself.

“I think I owe you an apology, for making you my messenger,” Thor says once they are out of earshot of their young friends.

Young Thor snorts. “My brother was quite convinced I had played a trick on him.”

“Never mind that he is the tricky one.”

They come to a halt near the forest’s edge. Young Thor looks at him with an uncharacteristically serious expression.

“My brother is very fond of you,” young Thor says. He sounds… bitter, almost. Suddenly older than Thor thinks of him. More like Thor is himself.

There is confusion there, too. And sadness. A boy missing his brother, even if he is too proud to admit it. Thor thinks he knows what the boy needs to hear. It is a simple conclusion to draw - it is what he would want too.

“He seems to be, true enough, but there is no bond like that of brothers,” Thor says. “You may argue, and argue a lot, but you will never find a truer friend.”

“Loki and I are not on speaking terms,” young Thor says. Open, perhaps too open, with a man he barely knows.

Perhaps Thor did not need to worry that the people of Asgard had forgotten him in his absence after all.

“The fault is mine. I did not imagine my letter causing such a problem,” Thor says. Then, carefully, “You and I are more alike than I realised.”

An expression of surprise crosses young Thor’s face. Then, inexplicably… pride. The boy puffs up with pride.

The realisation is flooring, in and of itself, but Thor cannot deal with that now. Cannot comprehend what he is seeing. It is too much. He will think on it later.

“I know it is not my place to interfere,” Thor says. He can see Loki in his mind’s eye, Loki as he was, rolling his eyes and crossing his arms and saying and yet you are. It did not work then, and it will not work now. “But I hope you can make peace with him, falsely accused as you are. It pains me to be the cause of a rift between the two of you.”

Young Thor’s expression sours abruptly. “I suppose you want me to apologise to him.”

Stubborn. Such a thing will never happen, and there is no point in asking for it.

“No,” Thor says. “I know he has goaded you considerably. I only ask you to attribute the blame where it lies – with me – and find it in your heart to forgive him.”

“Why are you asking me this?” young Thor says. He kicks at the ground with his boot. “Are you concerned for Loki?”

Again, bitterness. Perhaps even jealousy, that Loki receives so much more of Thor’s attention, though why that matters to young Thor he cannot quite parse yet.

“For both of you,” Thor corrects. “I had a brother-”

He stops himself. He did not mean to utter those words, especially not to his younger self. Did not mean to stain this happy past with the grief of his future. Now the words have come, though, he cannot stop them. He feels – itchy, desperate. To change things, to make it right as he could not in his time. To make this stupid, proud boy fix things before they are beyond all repair.

He will speak now, for all that he may regret it later.

“I had a brother,” he repeats. He can feel young Thor’s eyes on him, but he cannot look at the boy, not now. “We fought, as you did. As the fights grew, so did the silences, and I did not notice him turning from me. I thought that, no matter how we fought, he would always be by my side when the time came. I was wrong.”

In a surprising show of tact, young Thor does not speak when Thor goes quiet. It is… hard, to speak of this. Harder than he thought it would be, given how often he thinks on it.

“I could not swallow my pride, and so did not notice as his mind twisted into darkness. It took betrayal of the worst kind to see what he had become. And after fighting for so long, when I offered my hand… he did not take it.”

Loki, his face twisted into something fierce and ugly. Tears leaking from his eyes as they hung from the Bifrost. As he looked Thor in the eyes and let go, and was never the same again.

Thor releases a breath. Finally, he looks young Thor in the eye.

“I never listened to the prattling of old fools when I was your age,” he says. Easier to joke. If he does not, young Thor may attempt to offer him consolation, and he cannot stand to hear it. “I tell you this only because I hope… I hope you can learn from my mistakes. Old fool I may be, but I was young once too.”

Young Thor’s gaze meets his, a mirror image. The boy’s focus is intense, serious. For the first time Thor looks upon him and sees a prince, a boy who is destined to be a king. Thor wonders what young Thor sees in return.

The boy looks down. Looks back up, and nods.

“Thank you for confiding in me,” young Thor says, unexpectedly gracious. He stops, grimaces. Speaks anyway. “You speak sense. I will talk with my brother.”

It is a concession, and a large one. Thor can already see what it cost the boy, and it spurs him to make one in turn.

“Spar with me tomorrow, if you like,” he offers. “I could show you a thing or two about that hammer of yours.”

“Hah! I would like to see you try,” young Thor says. He tosses his hair back, all bluster and unearned confidence. When he smiles, his eyes crinkle, and it is with a shock that Thor realises his must do the same.

It is young Thor who extends a hand. A simple gesture of kinship between warriors. An understanding.

Thor takes it, and they shake.

- - -

He needs not wait very long to see the fruits of his labour.

The next morning, he spies young Thor and Loki walking together down to the training grounds. Alone, no friends or tutors. Just the two of them.

Thor probably has more important things to do than watch them. For example, consolidating his plans as to what to do about Thanos. Most of them involve what he will do when they stand face to face – cutting Thanos’ head clean off remains a personal favourite – but how to actually get to that point… Thor does not know. Once again, he finds himself in a situation where he cannot simply act first and think later. He needs information. Again.

He watches the princes instead. Finds a vantage point in a nearby alcove, and leans against the wall.

The brothers spar, practicing with swords rather than their weapons of choice. Neutral territory. However, in the classic fashion of brothers, their sparring match quickly devolves from a fair fight into a dirty one. Young Thor catches Loki in a headlock, a move which forces both of them to abandon their swords – an interesting strategy in a sword fight. Thor quickly sees why, though, as young Thor proceeds to rub a fistful of dirt directly into Loki’s hair. When Loki breaks free he abandons all pretence of dignity and flings himself bodily at his brother until they are rolling around in the dirt.

Thor wonders if he should intervene. Fortunately they settle quickly, lying side by side in the dirt. Laughing.

There is hope for the two of them. He has always believed it, but it is one thing to wish and another to see it so plainly. Loki loved him when they were boys, loved him again when they were men, despite all that had passed between them, despite the fact he did not wish to. This time around, Thor hopes that Loki will never find cause to wish that love away.

Young Thor spots him when the boy clambers to their feet. Thor is not hiding, but nor is he making his presence known. He is more surprised that Loki did not spot him first. He raises a hand to young Thor, and the boy raises one back.

Loki, still on the ground, looks over his shoulder, and Thor is gifted with the memory of the boy hurtling to his feet in a great flailing of limbs. He tries to brush himself off, then turns to magic when he realises he is, quite literally, covered from head to toe in dirt. He performs the spell so fast Thor is amazed he did not catch on fire.

Thor walks towards them at a slow pace. He has been caught spying, and should probably feel ashamed. Instead, he smiles at them as he leans over the railing.

“A great battle,” he tells them, teasing. Young Thor grins, while Loki’s face turns red.

“How much of that did you see?” Loki mutters.

Thor cannot help it. He laughs. “Enough. There is nothing like rolling in the dirt to bring warriors together.”

Loki looks torn between embarrassment and scepticism. Young Thor, meanwhile, nods. On this subject, Thor has always been quicker to understand than his brother. That a little indignity builds a lot of camaraderie.

“My apologies for intruding,” Thor adds. Loki looks like he swallowed a lemon, but young Thor seems unperturbed.

“Will you spar with me this afternoon?” young Thor asks him. There is dirt streaked all through his hair, but he makes no move to tidy himself.

“As promised.”

“Then I shall see you then.”

Thor is surprised that he would withdraw so quickly. He expected young Thor to hang around, to pester him or ask him to spar right now. Young Thor, for reasons best known to himself, casts a heavy look at him, then turns the same gaze on Loki.

“Until later,” young Thor says. He nudges Loki with his shoulder as he leaves, grinning when Loki shoots him a venomous look in return.

Thor decides not to ask. Neither boy seems genuinely offended. Venomous looks are as common on Loki’s face as a smile – perhaps more so.

“I am glad to see you have reconciled with your brother,” Thor says.

“I take it you were involved in that,” Loki says. He does not meet Thor’s eyes, instead fussing with his now-immaculate tunic.

Thor forces down a sigh. He should have just waved and gone back inside. He is being too familiar again.

“I apologise if it was unwelcome. I thought I might have some insight to offer. Your brother and I have more in common than our handwriting.”

Loki snorts at that. “You have nothing in common with my brother.”

The last part carries its usual exasperation, but Thor knows too much now to let it slide.

“I do. Pride, stubbornness. Arrogance. The only difference is that I have faced consequences for my actions, while he has not. I hoped to save him from a lesson I learned the hard way.”

“You take great interest in my affairs,” Loki says. “And you watch me a great deal, Stormbreaker. I wonder what you mean by it.”

He means, Thor thinks, for it to come across as a jibe, both probing and mocking at once. Something the Loki of his time had long mastered, but his younger self has not. Instead, it comes out as an uncertain wobble, a young man feigning the confidence of someone much older.

“You have quick hands,” Thor says, “and many a trick up your sleeve. I would be foolish not to.”

A pause. “Is that so?” Loki says.

He is stiff, and pale. He cannot quite conceal the look in his eyes. He is hurt. Thor has misspoken.

“You are admired wherever you go, Prince Loki,” he says, gentle and placating, trying to regain lost ground. Reminding Loki that he is valued, not just by Thor but by all around him, a fact Loki has never been able to see. “A young man of your wit and talent is always admired. And you always surprise.”

The compliment makes Loki’s cheeks redden again. Still, it takes a moment for Loki to speak, and Thor can only hope he has soothed the sting of hurt. Loki has always been capricious, sensitive in some ways and impenetrable in others. Thor tries not to berate himself for his mistake, but it is no easy task. He knows how deep Loki’s grudges run.

“Do I really surprise you, Stormbreaker?” Loki asks at last.

It says something about Loki that even now Thor is not sure what the right answer is, what he is looking for. The only answer he can give, in these circumstances, is the truth.

“Always,” he says. Even at the very end, the Loki of his time managed to surprise him. Thor got better at predicting his tricks, but Loki himself was always unpredictable. This younger Loki will be much the same, no doubt.

Loki smiles, then ducks his head away to hide it.

“I take it you finally agreed to spar with my brother,” he says. Trying to feign indifference out of shyness, Thor hopes, rather than concealing lingering hurt.

“Yes,” Thor says. “I only hope I will not live to regret it.”

Loki laughs. A real, honest laugh, the kind that Thor felt he’d lost. Hearing it again is music to his ears.

- - -

The summons to see the king always comes at unexpected times.

Thor is making his way towards the feasting hall, mind set on what he will eat for his midday meal, when a servant appears from around a corner and demands he speak with the king at once.

Thor knows his father does it that way on purpose. Keeps people off balance, and therefore less likely to be able to lie. Knowing that does not make it any less off-putting.

He goes at once, because of course he does, but he is tense before he sets so much as a foot in the throne room. Once again, he allowed himself to be lulled into a false sense of security when Odin did not call on him immediately. He has done nothing but talk with the young people and loll about. Now he walks into an audience with the king unprepared, and knowing all too well how his tongue almost betrayed him last time.

He kneels before the king. Forces his mind into the present, into this vital task. He has no idea what Odin means to ask him, and he cannot afford any more slips.

“So you return to us at last,” Odin says. His voice is, all things considered, quite friendly. Thor wonders what it says about him now that that only puts him more on guard. “You caused quite the ruckus when you left.”

“I have heard that,” Thor says. Careful, and stilted as a result. Loki would be shaking his head at such an awkward sentence. Thor rallies and tries again. “I am sorry to have caused trouble with your sons, Odin-king. It was not my intent.”

“Many things happen that you do not intend, it seems,” Odin murmurs.

Thor does not look up. Hardly breathes.

“You are a man of many talents,” Odin continues. “A warrior of outstanding skill, and blessed with the kind of charm other men can only envy. You have my children quite bewitched.”

A moment passes. Another. And another.

“You flatter me, your Majesty.”

It is not the right response – Loki would have done better – but Thor cannot think of a better one. Plenty of worse ones, but none better.

“Not at all. You seem to bewitch people wherever you go,” Odin says.

An admission that Odin has been spying on him, which Thor already knew. What he does not know, however, is where this line of conversation is going.

“I have little magical talent, your Majesty.”

“And yet you find yourself surrounded by friends, no matter where in the cosmos you travel. That is a magic all of its own.”

Again, a strange form of compliment. Odin is probing for something, but for what?

Thor is not ready for this. Just a few minutes ago, all he could think about was whether he fancied lamb or duck today. He was not ready for an interrogation – an obvious mistake.

“You honour me,” he says.

“Did you find anything useful during your travels?” Odin asks.

It is such an open-ended question that Thor’s mind cannot help but travel to the few things he hopes Odin did not see. His investigation into Hela is one of them, his visit to the seer another. Heimdall could not have watched him all the time. Odin’s spies could not have watched him at every moment. But that still leaves any number of moments they could have watched him.

“I did,” Thor says, “but I am glad to be home.”

“Asgard is your home, I take it?”

“Yes,” Thor says. “It always will be.”

Odin leans back in his throne. Watching Thor. Considering.

“It is strange. You are a warrior to match Asgard’s finest and have the bearing of a prince. Yet I have never heard of you.”

Thor’s heart stutters. “I have been away for-”

“Do not attempt to deceive me, Stormbreaker.”

That, more than anything, is what causes Thor to raise his head. To look his father dead in the eye. Though he can practically hear his own good sense yelling at him to bite his tongue, he finds he cannot.

“I have been lost, Odin-king. To Asgard, and to all that really matters to me. When I lost my family, I lost my home, and I…” He does not know how to say it, how to put his feelings into words. “I love Asgard. I was lost, but I am home now, and I would do anything to protect it. Surely you have seen that.”

When you were spying on me, Thor thinks, but does not say.

“You have many secrets,” Odin says.

For a moment, Thor considers just giving up and telling Odin who he is. Telling him everything, as he has always told his father everything. Odin could help him with Thanos, and with Hela.

But Thor is a king now, for all he has lost his kingdom. He cannot rely on his father, or anyone else, to do what must be done. As a king, he has learned caution. While he is Stormbreaker, he keeps his freedom, if not Odin’s trust. In revealing his true identity he would be taking too much of a risk, for there is every chance Odin might not believe him. That could spell his death.

Thor takes a breath. Speaks. “As do you, my king. Some secrets are better left buried.”

It is something Odin said to him once, parroted back at a man who has yet to say it.

Odin raises one silver-flecked eyebrow. Says, heavily, “Indeed they are.”

Not for the first time, Thor wonders exactly how much Odin knows.

“We will speak again another time, I think,” Odin says. A concerning promise. “For now, it is high time you headed to the feasting hall. You must be hungry.”

So Odin knows that too. What else does he know? And why does it have to be so difficult?

Thor stands, bows, and heads for the door. Just as he is leaving, Odin speaks again.

“I still have many questions for you, Stormbreaker.” A reminder, and a warning.

Thor turns back to face him. Meets his eyes, son to father, one king to another. “And I for you, your Majesty. When the time is right.”

Odin inclines his head in acknowledgment. Heart beating too fast in his chest, Thor bows one last time, and leaves.

Chapter Text

Sparring with young Thor is not at trying as Thor feared.

The boy is arrogant, but Thor seems to have gained his respect. Young Thor is not as he was at the tournament, all entitlement and bad manners. He is focused, determined. He watches Thor’s every move, listens to his every criticism without complaint. He is learning.

Slowly.

Thor knocks the boy into the dirt for the fifth time, using nothing more than young Thor’s own momentum.

“Try again,” he says. And the thing is… the boy does.

He tries and tries. He shows no sign of fatigue or frustration. His limbs shake, his forehead drips sweat, his clothing is covered in dirt and he loses again and again, but he utters not a word of complaint.

Everyone can see them. All the warriors, the palace guard on their rounds, servants walking to and from the palace. Sif, Volstagg, Hogun and Fandral all watch on. When the sparring started, they had all feigned interest in practicing with each other, as though their presence here was mere coincidence. Now they have abandoned all pretence. They watch, open eyed and open mouthed, as Thor spars with his younger self.

Loki is nowhere to be seen. Thor thought he would attend, would watch and probably spar with Thor himself, so naturally Loki does the opposite of what Thor expects. Loki is, and always was, contrary.

The fight goes on, for all that Thor pays little attention to it. Young Thor raises Mjolnir, bringing the hammer down with a force that Thor knows all too well. Good, but not good enough. Young Thor has traded power for precision, and his blows do not hit their marks.

Thor counters easily with Stormbreaker.

“Control your swings,” he commands. “Better to use less force than strike where you do not intend.”

“I thought,” young Thor pants, “I was supposed – to use – my strength.”

Controlled strength,” Thor reminds him, and to demonstrate grabs hold of young Thor as the boy is mid-swing – really, it is too easy - and shakes him by the neck.

Young Thor struggles ineffectually to free himself, but he shows no sign of wanting to stop. He will fight, and fight, and fight, until he has nothing left to give.

Enough, Thor thinks. Thor is not one of his tutors. And if he is honest, Thor still tires of the boy quickly. He appreciates the boy’s dedication to battle – after all, it got Thor where he is today, tossing a younger version of himself about like a wet kitten – but Thor has other things to do. Not to mention the queue of young warriors hoping for their turn.

“All right, enough for the day,” he says, releasing young Thor from his grip.

The boy staggers away, but he turns back to face Thor, eyes blazing.

“I can keep going,” young Thor says. He burns with determination. He is… a lot. “I am not tired yet.”

“I did not say you were,” Thor says. He resists rolling his eyes. Was he really so obtuse as a boy? “I am tired.”

“You felled a dragon!” young Thor splutters. “Single-handedly!”

“Not of fighting, whelp, of teaching.”

And here it comes, young Thor’s temper. Thor is surprised it took so long. Young Thor has endured loss after loss, but verbal acknowledgment of his comparative inferiority is too much to bear. No wonder Loki has always been able to twist him in knots.

“I am not in my lessons, and you are no tutor,” young Thor growls. “We were sparring.”

A significant distinction. Sparring, an act between equals practicing their craft, versus teaching, in which the better warrior shows the young whelp how to use his hammer properly.

Thor’s own temper rises in rapid response, but he breathes through it. It is an ugly thing these days, his temper. Irrational and unnecessary, too easily provoked by the boy in front of him. He does not trust himself to reply with a civil tongue.

Instead, he turns to their spectators. Since he has sparred with one, he will have no peace until he has sparred with them all. Might as well get it over with.

“Hogun, you’re next,” he says. He means it kindly. Choosing quiet Hogun after the prince, showing the boy that Thor knows his worth as a warrior, that he has noticed him for all that Hogun is shy.

He knows immediately that he has made a mistake. Hogun’s entire face drains of blood. He looks like a rabbit caught in a snare, all eyes on him as he shuffles, almost stumbles, into the ring. While he holds his mace competently, his determination to avoid making eye contact with anyone, anyone at all, means that he stares solely at the ground as he comes to stand before Thor.

Wrong decision. Thor knew he should have gotten the boy alone.

Hogun will be a great man some day – brave and true, always quiet but with an inner strength he carries everywhere he goes, that steadies all around him in turn. A thoughtful, sombre man with an odd sense of humour that always takes Thor by surprise. A man unafraid to make eye contact, even with strangers.

Thor bites back a sigh. These younglings… sometimes he barely recognises them at all, and through no fault of their own.

Still, he takes Hogun through his paces. Once the boy starts focusing on his technique rather than the fact people can see him, Hogun is a very skilled fighter. Even more skilled, perhaps, than young Thor. Even now that rankles a bit – Thor never acknowledged such a thing was possible in his youth, so determined was he to be the best.

When Hogun leaves the pitch, he is not smiling, not quite, but his face shines with pleasure.

Sif is next, because she is practically bursting out of her skin with impatience. Then Fandral, then Volstagg, the only one among them with anything resembling good manners.

It is with some surprise that, as Thor disarms Volstagg for the third time, the boy makes no move to pick up his weapon. Instead he bows low, and Thor looks over his shoulder to find Frigga gliding across the grass towards them. All over the training grounds warriors halt what they are doing to bow to their queen.

She is a queen worthy of their admiration. Thor follows their lead, and bows low.

“Thor, my darling,” Frigga says, and his head instinctually snaps up again before he remembers his mistake.

She is speaking to young Thor, not to him. Their eyes make contact in the split second before Thor redirects his attention, forcing his eyes away to watch young Thor, as though that were always his intention. Trying to play it off.

Frigga definitely noticed that. Fool, he berates himself. His mother may be as graceful as a dove, but she has the eyes of an eagle and the same instinct for spotting weakness. She will have noticed both his error and his obvious attempt at recovery. Thor can only hope the reasons behind it remain a mystery.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“Mother,” young Thor greets, voice pitched low and disinterested. But then, he is a young man among his peers. The last thing he wants is to be seen publicly receiving affection from his mother. What would the other warriors – who presumably have loving mothers of their very own – think?

It is comforting in a strange way that Thor’s foolishness is a life-long trait.

“Have you forgotten something, my dear?” Frigga says.

Young Thor’s expression morphs quickly from confusion to contrition. “Ah – of course. Forgive me. I was distracted by a sparring session” – No missing the emphasis there – “with Stormbreaker.”

Again, the boy looks… proud. To be in Thor’s – Stormbreaker’s – company.

“Stormbreaker is very obliging,” Frigga says, to an indignant yelp from her son.

“It is my pleasure, my queen,” Thor says. He finds, though, that when their eyes meet he cannot quite bear the weight of them. The lack of recognition. The lack of the love that he took for granted until, all of a sudden, it was gone.

He averts his gaze back to the ground.

“Come, Mother, I will take tea with you now if you have time,” young Thor says.

“Have you forgotten we are hosting honoured guests from Vanaheim this evening?” Frigga says, and though her tone is sweet there is a flinty look in her eyes. No doubt taking tea was meant to double as an education session for the rowdiest of her boys.

Young Thor, for all his foolishness, recognises a telling off when he sees one coming his way. He smiles as charmingly as he knows how, all coltish limbs and youthful bluster.

“I have not forgotten, Mother. In fact, I hoped you would grant me the first dance,” young Thor says. His mother swats him on the cheek, but turns her smiling eyes on the rest of his young friends.

“I am sure you will all make me proud tonight,” she tells the assembled younglings.

It is a genius trick. Frigga need say nothing more, but Thor knows without a doubt that every last one of them will attend the feast freshly washed and groomed to the best of their abilities, rather than stomping in late in their muddiest boots, as is so often their way. Every last one of them would be loathe to disappoint her. Thor knows the feeling all too well.

“Now come, my boy,” Frigga says, and puts an arm around young Thor’s shoulders to lead him away, despite an obvious complaint in his posture. Heaven forbid his mother touch him in public, people might think they loved each other.

Young Thor is a proud, silly boy. But then, Thor is not much better.

And… Frigga does not spare another glance for him. It is fine, truly. He knows. He understands, and it is the price he must pay for her safety.

But he is done for the day. He bids his young friends good day, cutting Volstagg’s sparring session short.

The change in him is abrupt, and he sees the confusion on their faces as he walks away.

Because just like that, Thor is tired again. The awful melancholy has stolen back in like a thief in the night, and he feels it in every one of his bones. Old, sad thing he is, he will eat a lonely supper and climb into bed before the sun is down, and hope to sleep away this mood.

Thor is not a man easily frightened, but he would be lying if he said his stomach does not twist at the knowledge of his own instability, of what it means and where it could lead. A moment ago he was fine, but now…

Be calm. Just breathe. Let the grief ride through him, and trust he will come out well on the other side.

One thing is certain. He needs rest, and has every intention of taking it. Thor will not be attending the welcome feast tonight.

- - -

Thor sleeps as much as he is able. When he wakes the next morning, he lies in bed for a long time, staring at the ceiling. Just… feeling Asgard all around him. The smell of his sheets. The noise of people moving about the palace. The taste of the air itself.

He rolls out of bed, throws his clothing on haphazardly. Forces himself, with no small amount of self-discipline, to head to the library after a quick breakfast. His tiredness has not abated, but action might jolt him out of it. Thor has plans to make.

He reads. He writes. Foolish little notes on a piece of parchment, productive only in that it is better to have plans that are crossed out than no plans at all.

Buy a ship and hire a crew. Crossed out. Where would he get the money? It would take him centuries to accumulate the kind of coin he would need to combat an already dangerous opponent. Thanos may be young, but his reputation for ruthlessness precedes him.

Trick Thanos into coming here. Crossed out. Thanos is no fool. He hid himself well from Asgardian attention, back in Thor’s time. Thor had not heard of him until the Infinity Stones came into play.

Acquire Infinity Stones. Crossed out. Even if he could find some miracle location in which to hide them, the thought of stockpiling such power makes Thor… uneasy. Better in his hands than the hands of his enemies, but he has seen far too many examples of good intentions turned evil in recent times.

And not so recent. He thinks of Hela, slaughtering her way through the cosmos in the name of Asgardian supremacy. Thinks of his father. Odin, wise and incorruptible, or so he once thought.

He loves his father, respects him. But he is no longer blind to Odin’s faults, or to the magnitude of his mistakes. Both Hela and Loki were monsters of their father’s making.

As soon as he thinks it he drops his quill, buries his face in his hands. He feels like the worst kind of traitor, the worst kind of son. Yet… here he is. Sitting in the middle of a family divided in two. Trying, with questionable success, to prevent their downfall and the ruin of the entirety of Asgard.

Before his coronation, before Loki’s fall and all that came after, Thor dreamed of glory. Of glory and honour and war, his name written in all the annals of history. Now, he thinks, he would be quite happy to be forgotten in the passage of time, so long as he can keep his loved ones and his people safe.

He is jolted from his thoughts by the feeling of eyes on the back of his head. It is a mark of how finely-tuned his instincts have become that he senses Loki before he sees him. Before Loki has the chance to sneak a look at his work.

With one easy motion Thor folds his notes and stows them in his pocket, then snaps his current (useless) book shut. Then, and only then, does he turn to look at Loki.

“Good morning, prince,” he says, to Loki’s distinctly put-out expression.

Loki rallies quickly, for all his attempt at snooping is foiled.

“Stormbreaker,” he greets. “I did not think to find you in the library so early in the morning. Your research is proving difficult, I take it?”

“How did you guess?” Thor says, with a self-deprecating chuckle. He gestures at the books strewn across his table, all in various stages of disarray. “Research is not my strong suit.”

“You are a man of action,” Loki says. After a moment of hesitation, he lowers himself into the seat across from Thor. His eyes dart from book to book, utterly transparent as he tries to piece the information together. Tries to play it off by brushing his hair from his eyes and leaning back in his chair.

Thor fights down a smile. Nosy. He is not sure whether to be dismayed or pleased that Loki gets far better at it in years to come.

“The two need not be mutually exclusive,” he says. Then, because he sees an opportunity to encourage Loki in his talents, “One of the greatest fighters I knew was both scholar and warrior. A sorcerer, talented in both martial combat and the subtler arts.”

“The sorcerer from your tale?” Loki says. “The one where you fought the green gladiator?”

Thor is surprised Loki remembers. The boy is picking at his own fingernails, feigning disinterest. But of course he remembers. Thor is probably the only person to tell great tales about people like Loki.

“The very same,” Thor said. “We had many adventures together.”

“Oh,” Loki says, with a look of surprise. “I did not think you great friends. You did not name him, in your tale…”

He trails off, looking suddenly embarrassed.

Thor looks at him. At his dark hair, his lithe stature, so unlike anyone else in his family. Wonders how he never saw before how badly Loki needed to hear stories of heroes like himself, how hard he clung to them. All Loki ever heard was stories of how men like him – sorcerers and Jotun alike – became monsters.

Did you think you had to be one too? Thor thinks, with an unexpected moment of insight. Loki himself likely never thought of it in such terms. But then, Loki never knew himself as well as he liked to believe.

Thor takes a breath. Considers his words. “He was my life’s greatest companion,” he says honestly. “The best of all friends, and an eternal thorn in my side. It… pains me to speak of him.”

It is both truth and obfuscation.

Loki, at least, understands enough to take his meaning. His expression sobers. “I am sorry.”

“You would have liked him,” Thor says, smiling. It is only after he says it he realises it is more hope than truth, for of all the hatred in his heart, Loki saved the most for himself.

Loki smiles back, fidgety. Unsure how to act in the presence of grief, and Thor knows the feeling all too well.

“Now come, how was the feast last night?” Thor says. “I heard there was to be dancing.”

“There was,” Loki says.  “It is a shame you were not there. I… I had rather hoped to dance with you again.”

That raises a flag in Thor’s mind. Surely Loki did not stand sullenly by the wall again. Perhaps it is foolish, but Thor hoped that his dance with Loki would give him the confidence to put himself forward.

“I am sure there was no shortage of young people hoping to dance with you,” Thor says. He tries to ignore how much he sounds like a fussy aunt.

Loki glances at him, but his eyes quickly flit away again.

“What are you working on?” Loki asks. It is an obvious change of subject, but Thor sees no point in pressing him.

“A very impressive headache, at present,” he jokes. He tidies his books. His turn to avoid the question. “As I said, research is not my strong suit.”

“Perhaps you would like some fresh air, then?” Loki says.

The offer is unexpected, and it makes warmth bloom in Thor’s chest. This time, Loki has approached him. Different as it may be, Thor is slowly building a relationship with his brother again.

They walk Frigga’s gardens, which are just as beautiful as ever. Thor remembers running through them with Loki chasing at his heels, Frigga and Odin walking arm in arm behind them. Those were happy times. Now, they are bittersweet.

It takes Thor a moment to realise Loki has gone quiet again, watching the ground as he walks.

“Any news from Vanaheim?” Thor asks, in the hope of getting him talking.

“A little,” Loki says. “The usual tales, though the sighting of an unusual beast has excited my brother.”

“Your brother is fond of a hunt, I take it.”

“Yes. Any sort of fight delights him. He has been bragging excessively after his bout with you yesterday.”

Thor snorts. “I don’t know why. I beat him resoundingly every time.”

“Not the way he tells it.”

They share an exasperated look. A moment of easy familiarity and shared thought, just as it used to be. Only for a moment, before Loki ducks his head again.

They walk on, side by side, and Thor is lulled into quiet memories. He and Loki used to walk together often, sharing everything and nothing. Thor would leave his friends, Loki would leave his books, and they would just… walk. Just the two of them.

The habit sits at a strange moment in time, for as Thor remembers it they were older than Loki is now. Still young, but old enough for their boyhood games and struggles to have faded, for them to find need to re-define their relationship.

He wonders when they stopped. If it was in stopping that Loki stepped away, allowed his resentment to build and his love to grow cold. Thor has thought on it often, on what they should have done, what he should have changed. Even now that he has travelled to the past, he doubts he will find his answer. He and Loki were always complicated.

Thor grows aware that there is something… awkward in the air. The realisation jolts him out of his thoughts. He keeps his own silence happily, but Loki is starting to radiate tension, once again proving Thor a fool. He is comfortable in Loki’s company, for they have been together since they were babes. To this Loki, however, he is all but a stranger, walking side by side with the prince and saying nothing at all.

“Forgive my quiet,” Thor says.

When he woke this morning, he felt weighed down by the strength of his grief. Now, with Loki by his side, he feels lighter again. Light enough to drift into memories of happier times, without the ache that usually comes with it.

Odin said to him that he had bewitched his sons, but Thor is beginning to think it might be the reverse.

“You must forgive my asking, Stormbreaker,” Loki says, “but are you well?”

The resemblance to his older self, smooth and charming, is uncanny.

Thor looks at him, surprised. “I am, thank you.”

“It is only” – and here Loki’s silver tongue slips, his age seeping through again – “you were not at the feast last night. And my friends tell me you… after sparring with them, you did not seem yourself.”

Thor barks a laugh. He wishes they had not seen it. His moods are not as hidden as he would like, but… what can he do?

“I am perfectly well. Surely you young people have better things to do than gossip about me,” he says. He is teasing, but Loki does not take the bait.

“Darkness preys on your mind a great deal,” Loki says. Thor supposes he should not be surprised by the boy’s flair for the dramatic. Not after watching that play of his, back when Loki was impersonating Odin.

“I don’t know about that,” Thor hedges. Trying to simultaneously steer Loki away from his fascination with the morbid without shutting him down entirely. “But such is the way of an old soldier, I suppose.”

“You have seen many things,” Loki says.

Thor hides a wince. The boy sounds positively fascinated by the idea. Perhaps, though, he is misunderstanding, and this is Loki’s way of demonstrating sympathy.

“Yes,” he answers. Simple and to the point. “But here I stand on this beautiful day, in good company. I am content.”

Loki’s face flushes with pleasure. “The pleasure is all mine, I am sure.”

Thor’s heart warms. He wishes he had more to give, that he were not so changed. That he were the brother this Loki loves.

Time is wasted on wishing. And grateful as he is for Loki’s soothing company (and is that not strange, that Loki can be soothing), he has kept Loki long enough. Thor has few words today, nothing to entertain him with. He is sure the boy has more interesting things to do than stroll around his mother’s gardens in silence, for all he is too polite to say it.

“Do not let me keep you from your activities, Prince Loki,” Thor says. “I am sure you have better things to do than walk.”

“Not at all,” Loki says. “I prefer your company.”

The response is unexpected, slightly strange. Loki is flushing, so clearly he realises it too. Something… flickers at the back of Thor’s mind.

“You honour me,” Thor says. Cautious.

“You are an interesting man, Stormbreaker. I hope – I hope that you and I will continue to get to know each other. Better, I mean. I enjoy your company - very much.”

Thor frowns. Loki is tripping over his words, and when Thor looks at him the boy stares resolutely down at his own feet, cheeks flushed scarlet. Why should he be so embarrassed? All he is doing is expressing a desire to deepen their… friendship…

With a shock, Thor realises Loki is flirting with him. Ineptly, true enough, testing his charms without the verbal skill to dazzle, every bit an awkward youth, but he is flirting.

Thor… is not sure what to make of that.

His mind comes to a halt, playing the conversation back. From one brother to another, it was nothing at all. Affectionate, innocuous. From a young man to a new acquaintance, however, out on a private stroll in the gardens…

Oh dear. Oh dear.

Thor takes a deep breath. “You are very kind, Prince Loki.”

It is the only thing he can think to say that sits in remotely neutral territory.

They part ways soon enough, Loki practically scurrying away, the last reserves of his courage apparently spent on that awkward attempt at flirtation. And in running, he takes with him Thor’s hope that he has misconstrued Loki’s intent. He knows Loki too well for that.

Thor sits down on a bench. Struck dumb. Stares down at his own hands.

Well. Well.

At least Loki does not hate him, Thor thinks, and buries his head in his hands. He cannot help it. He laughs.

Chapter Text

When Thor settles himself into a seat for his evening meal, he selects his table carefully. He chooses one towards the back of the hall, where grizzled old warriors surround him on all sides. It is still not enough to discourage his young friends from weaselling their way into positions beside him.

No sooner has he reached for a plate than he feels the bench jostling beneath him as warriors shuffle about, making room for their additional table-mates. Thor pushes down a sigh.

Usually his young friends sit with the other young warriors, as is proper, though there is no firm rule against joining the elders. A glance at the high table informs Thor that both of the young princes are where they should be, sat nicely beside each other. Their reconciliation seems to have lasted.

“Where were you last night?” Sif asks Thor as soon as she is seated. Not even a greeting. His lip twitches, despite himself.

“Last night? What about last night?” he says. Teasing her, though she does not realise she is being teased.

“The dance!” she says, so emphatically she almost sticks her elbow into a neighbouring warrior’s bowl. He jerks it away from her with a grunt, though she does not notice.

Thor’s eyes catch the warrior’s. The man’s expression is impassive, but in their brief moment of eye contact Thor can see he too is amused. Annoyed, but mainly amused, which is fortunate. Despite not having invited them, it is clear these young people are Thor’s responsibility.

“Ah yes,” Thor says, turning back to Sif, “the guests from Vanaheim.”

Sif huffs, impatient. “You missed the dancing. And the feast.”

“It was a grand feast,” Volstagg interjects. “And they brought great casks of ale all the way from Vanaheim.”

“I am amazed you are all so energetic tonight, then,” Thor says. “Last time I drank their ale I was in bed for days, though it did make for a very merry evening.”

“The ladies were very elegant,” Fandral says, looking positively starry-eyed. “You should have seen the way they danced.”

Sif rolls her eyes. “Fandral spent all night trying to work up the courage to talk to Lady Arrabee.”

Fandral’s cheeks go red. “I’ll have you know, I-”

“All right, all right,” Thor says, before the argument can build steam. “You’re all rowdy this evening.”

Well, aside from Hogun, but that is to be expected at this point. Hogun is so grim and silent he practically blends into the older warriors around him.

“You really should have come, Stormbreaker,” Sif says. She leaves Fandral alone, at least, even if she does not drop the subject of the dance entirely.

“I had other things to do,” Thor says. “Now, eat up, the lot of you. The food is getting cold.”

They do, and in the moment of peace that follows Thor’s eyes drift, through sheer force of habit, to where Loki sits at the high table.

Loki is talking to young Thor, and his cool composure strikes Thor with the memory of how Loki used to be. Is. Was. A dark, proud prince, mischievous spirit concealed by his innate grace. Thor remembers how it was when they were both young, in a time when Loki could get away with anything. No matter how bad his reputation for mischief became, Loki was charming enough to talk his way out of everything. He’d always been good at keeping a straight face.

Now Thor thinks on it, Loki made him laugh a great deal in their youth, but Loki’s smiles were rarer. He wonders, not for the first time, when Loki’s unhappiness truly began.

Thor looks only for a few moments before, drawn as if by magic, Loki’s eyes meet his. Even seated so far away, Loki’s eyes home in on Thor as easily as Thor’s do on Loki’s. Loki sees him looking.

Thor turns his attention back to his dinner plate. Unnatural as it feels, he does not look up again until he is finished. He bids his young friends goodnight, ignoring both their disappointment and their complaints. He avoids looking up at the high table as he walks out the door.

Do not encourage the boy. Whatever happens, no matter how simple his gestures may be, he cannot encourage Loki in this.

- - -

Thor has a plan.

The revelation that Loki has taken a fancy to him hit him like a bolt of lightning at the time, but on reflection it should not have been such a surprise.

Since the moment he arrived in Asgard, Thor has watched Loki, favoured Loki, encouraged Loki. He has been forward in seeking out Loki’s company, even telling the boy outright that he favours his company above his brother. And Thor knows, he knows how competitive Loki is, how shadowed he feels. That is, after all, one of the reasons he has been determined to bolster the boy’s confidence.

For the first time, Thor can see himself entirely from Loki’s point of view, without the clouds of guilt and grief that have shuttered his own vision.

To Loki, he is Stormbreaker. A tall, dark stranger full of great tales and sad mysteries, with a scarred face and an inexorable air of power. A man whom his brother and friends follow about like eager puppies, but who has eyes for Loki alone. A warrior who knows, as no one else seems to, the value of Loki’s magic and wit. Praises him, dances with him, admires him.

No wonder the poor boy is taken with him.

Thor knows now he has made mistakes in his approach to Loki. Well-intended mistakes, but mistakes nonetheless. It never occurred to him that Loki might take his overtures as flirtation, shuttered as he was by his own perception of their relationship, and Thor has accidentally tipped the scales. Where once he pushed his brother away from him, this time around he has unwittingly gone too far the other way and reeled him in. His obvious care for Loki, without the brotherly context that has surrounded his own life, has therefore been misunderstood.

He can fix this, he thinks. Hence his plan.

It is quite simple. Withdraw for a while, and let Loki’s interest cool off. Loki is a young man of a fickle temperament, Thor is sure it will not take long to distract him. Then Thor will re-engage, but cast himself more clearly in the role of a mentor. Focus on helping Loki through teaching him, rather than through the brotherly intimacy Thor has unintentionally been seeking (and has been entirely misconstrued, besides).

That second stage is a little hazy – Thor has been mentoring Loki - but Thor thinks with some tweaking of his own behaviour it can be done. He is much older than Loki. If he leans into his age, he hopes he can make himself an unappealing romantic prospect to a young man just barely past the age of majority.

Loki. His own precious, infuriating little brother.

Not for the first time, Thor wonders how his life came to be this way. The whole situation is ridiculous. All this time, he has worried about how he has changed, how moody and sombre he is, how his family could ever recognise him, ever love the man he has become.

Clearly, he has been worrying about the wrong things entirely.

- - -

Despite the next few days going exactly to plan, Thor cannot say he is proud of them.

In his defence, he has never had to deal with this problem before, and it is so far from anything he imagined that he is completely stumped. So he withdraws.

That is to say, he avoids Loki entirely.

He makes himself scarce from the library. He goes rarely to the training yards. He spends most of his time at an ale-house in the centre of the city, nursing a drink and ostensibly doing research among the old warriors of Asgard. Asking for stories from long ago, because he still needs to find out more about Hela. The tales he actually hears are decidedly unrelated to his field of research, but he makes no attempt to re-direct them.

He is not hiding, per se. That would be undignified. But he is keeping his distance. Besides, you never knew what you might hear in a pub – perhaps one of the warriors would let slip a critical piece of information, somewhere in between reminiscences about the good old days and convoluted accounts of long-standing personal feuds.

Every time he thinks of Loki’s attempt at flirtation, he is torn between groaning aloud and burying his face in his hands to smother a laugh. It is just… after everything, all he has been through and all he has lost, he foolishly thought there was little more Loki could throw at him that could catch him off-guard.

It was a foolish thought. Loki has always loved proving Thor wrong.

After a few less-than-stellar days hanging around the ale-house, Thor drags himself back up to the castle, hoping that Loki might have cooled off on him a bit.

“There you are!” Sif says the moment she sees him, walking down a corridor and minding his own business. “I wondered if you had gone away again.”

“I told you he hadn’t,” young Thor says beside her. He looks unreasonably smug about being right. Thor forces down the familiar spark of his own temper at the boy. “He would have said goodbye this time around.”

Thor laughs. “I would not risk your highnesses’ displeasure again.”

He tries, surreptitiously, to side-step around them. It does not work.

“Where have you been, anyway?” Sif says, stepping with him. Never one to be deterred by social niceties.

“Around,” he says.

“Perhaps with some… charming lady,” Fandral says. His attempt at sounding debonair falls flat, particularly when he lets out a high-pitched squeak as Sif elbows him in the ribs.

“Stormbreaker would not do such a thing,” Sif scoffs.

The worried, slightly-accusatory eyes that turn quickly on Thor speak of something else entirely. But why should they look at him in such a way? Unless… they all know of Loki’s fondness for him, and they have interpreted his own interest in Loki as romantic…

It is all Thor can do not to bang his head against the wall. Of course they have all seen it. Everyone must have seen it. His own parents must have seen it, and he dreads to imagine what they have been thinking all this time.

“No ladies,” he says when he can muster the words. “No gentlemen, either,” he adds, before the question leaves any young lips. “I have been spending my time amongst my fellow warriors, that it all.”

“We are warriors!” young Thor argues immediately. Thor really should have seen that one coming.

“Fellow full-grown warriors,” Thor amends, barely restraining the roll of his eyes, “Should you young folk not be headed towards your lessons by now?”

Perhaps if he makes the age disparity between them all clearer, all of this will go away.

Put that way, it is not much of a plan, but it is all Thor has.

Fandral leans towards Thor then away again, nose crinkling. “You smell like ale, Stormbreaker.”

“That happens when you spend time in an ale-house.”

“It’s first thing in the morning,” Sif says, then apparently something occurs to her. She narrows her eyes at him, taking in Thor’s appearance. Then she exchanges a look with Hogun, of all people, and Thor can read her far too well to guess her thoughts.

She clearly thinks he has been holed up and drinking away his sorrows. She is not wrong to wonder, not with Thor’s moods being what they are, but he can hardly tell her the truth about his absence.

Besides, he realises with some surprise, he actually feels quite well today. The shock of Loki’s interest in him seems to have jolted him out of his melancholy, at least for a little while.

Suddenly playful, Thor steps forward and takes both Sif and Fandral – the other person closest to him – by the neck, trapping them under his arms and shaking them about. They scrabble to free themselves, but their strength is no match for his.

“Off to your lessons, you delinquents,” he says. “Don’t let me catch you skipping them.”

Once they move off, he continues to wander where his feet happen to take him. It is nice to be home, back in the palace proper. And though he must vary his routine from what it was before to avoid seeing Loki, things do not feel as hopeless as they did before.

- - -

Despite his better judgment, Thor cannot keep away from Frigga’s gardens. When the night grows long and he cannot sleep, he heads there, hoping the lateness of the hour will allow him privacy.

He sits on a bench, looking up at the moon. Hears footsteps and the swish of skirts, and he knows his mother is coming. He knows he should probably leave, but cannot resist the opportunity to see her, if only for a moment.

“Good evening, Stormbreaker,” says Frigga.

 “Your Majesty,” he says. He stands, bows. Steals a look at her when he can.

She looks tired. It is late for her to be out walking.

“I did not expect to meet anyone here at this hour,” she says.

“Forgive me for my intrusion, then,” he says. “I find your gardens a place of… peaceful contemplation. I will leave you now, and my apologies for disturbing your privacy.”

Frigga looks at him for a long moment. “You cannot sleep, I take it?”

Thor hesitates. But despite himself, he has never been one to conceal the truth from his mother. “Not right now, no.”

“You are too young to have a mind weighed so heavily.”

Thor’s lips twist. “Someone ought to have told the universe that.”

He realises, after he has said it, it could be construed as rude. An impolite way to address the queen of Asgard. She merely laughs.

“So morbid, my dear. Well come – if you cannot sleep, perhaps you would be so kind as to keep me company on my walk.”

This time, Thor’s smile is very real. “It would be my pleasure.”

He falls in beside her, offering his arm. She smiles at him, and to his surprise she takes it without hesitation. This close, he can smell her familiar perfume, the way she has always smelled since he was a very small child. Warm, homey. Safe.

“How were your travels?” Frigga asks him. “We have not had the chance to speak since you returned.”

For a time, it is like nothing has changed between them. He tells her of his adventures, of all the little details she has always liked to know. How the smell of a particular blossom struck him as he walked into an ancient city. How the light shone so beautifully above a lake of ice that he had to stop and stare, struck dumb by its beauty. He tells her tales of the people he met, paints little caricatures of their character.

He has none of Loki’s way with words, but his mother has always understood what he was trying to say. Changed as he is, she seems to understand him even now.

“You look well,” she tells him. “Not quite so tired, for all that you do not sleep.”

“Thank you, your Majesty. As do you.”

“One of my most impressive abilities, I believe,” Frigga says. Her eyes twinkle. “I barely slept the first ten years after my sons were born, but you would not have known it.”

“I am sure nothing could dim your radiance, your Majesty,” he says.

She laughs. “You flatter me.”

He can see the way she watches him – trying, he thinks, to work him out, as she would any stranger come to court. He wonders if she reads him as well as she used to.

“My mother raised me well,” he says.

“Yes, it seems she did.” Her eyes crinkle in amusement. They possess only a hint of the laugh lines that will come as the years go on. “I can only hope my sons learn manners such as yours. I have tried, I assure you.”

Thor laughs. “If it is any comfort, I was a terror in my youth. My mother despaired of me often enough. I cannot tell you how many times she took me by the ear and dragged me out of trouble.”

“It seems to be a mother’s burden.”

Something in the way she says it gives Thor pause. Her voice is still coloured with humour, but he knows her too well not to see something troubles her.

He looks at the ground. Feels her small hand in the crook of his elbow, grounding him as he considers his words.

“I hope I am not… impertinent,” he says, when he finds the right words, “to ask if you are well, your Majesty. You are not asleep either, and the hour is late indeed.”

She pats his arm with her spare hand. “I am well,” she says. “It is a mother’s burden to worry after her children, as it is a king’s to worry after his kingdom.”

“Has something happened to – to the princes?” He manages to correct himself before he says their names. That would definitely be too familiar.

“Not after their most recent argument, no,” Frigga says. She shoots him a meaningful look. Remining him of whose fault their last argument happened to be.

Thor winces. “Yes. The situation with the letter. For that, I can only apologise to you, my queen.”

“All is mended, so no harm done.”

Their talk, from there, is idle and polite. He knows that something troubles her, but it is not his place to press her further. Besides, he knows both of her sons well, and she is right to worry.

For now, it is enough to walk by her side and forget, if only for a little while, that his mother does not know him.

- - -

The next day, Loki tracks Thor down.

Thor cannot pretend he is surprised. Loki has never acted according to Thor’s plans. It is why Thor spent several days holed up in an ale-house, for Loki is too proud to set foot in such an establishment. As soon as he emerged, Thor knew there was no hope of avoiding Loki entirely.

Thor is seated on a bench along the public promenade when Loki finds him. Usually at this hour, Thor is either in the library or haunting his mother’s gardens. Today he bought lunch from a street vendor, and is just brushing the last crumbs from his lap when a shadow falls over him.

He has planned for this. He is ready. Happy as he is to see Loki, he knows he must keep a careful hold of the conversation. No time like the present to make himself as unappealing a romantic prospect as possible. (Really, how did his life come to this.)

Thor looks up, and smiles.

“Prince Loki,” he greets. “Good day to you.”

Loki inclines his head, but his expression is… guarded. A pang goes through Thor’s chest. He does not want to hurt Loki. Knows, much as he tries not to dwell on it, how keenly Loki feels the sting of rejection. But what other choice does Thor have?

“Stormbreaker,” Loki says. Nothing else. Thor is reminded, not for the first time, of how young he is.

“Join me, if you like,” he says, and after a moment’s hesitation, Loki sits.

The promenade is bustling with a constant stream of people travelling to and fro. Chattering and laughter fills the air. Beside him, Loki looks at his own lap, fidgeting with his sleeves. The furthest from Loki Silver-tongue Thor has seen him.

Perhaps Loki has already taken the hint. Thor certainly hopes so. Then again, Loki would not be the first youth struck dumb by the presence of someone they fancy, so he cannot read too much into things.

It is a good opportunity, whatever the case may be, for Thor to lead the conversation.

“I used to love that statue as a child,” he says, pointing to a statue that stands, gold and brilliant, nearby.

It is Bor, Odin’s father, noble and indomitable. Loki has never cared much for it, but Thor used to think it the grandest thing he had ever seen. He wanted a statue of himself to stand beside it. Only now he is older has he realised what that kind of power costs.

Loki follows the line of Thor’s finger.

“I wanted to be a warrior as great as your grandfather,” Thor continues. “For poems to be spoken and songs sung in my name. Arrogant, don’t you think?”

“Many have aspired to such things,” Loki says. Thor’s own Loki was fond of a golden statue, if Thor recalls correctly.

“I knew nothing of the cost of greatness,” Thor says. “I was a foolish child, worse in my early years of manhood. Not so different now, for all my years.”

“You are not old,” Loki says. The fond exasperation in his tone is achingly familiar.

He has said those words before, but now Thor realises what Loki truly means. That Thor – that is to say, Stormbreaker – is not too old for Loki.

Thor needs to re-direct the conversation. Already they walk dangerous ground.

“How were your lessons today?” he asks Loki. If he keeps going as he is, he should be able to steer Loki away from any more advances. Should be able to keep himself at arm’s length – a friend, but not an option.

“Dull,” Loki replies.

“I was never one for lessons myself,” Thor says, “but I look back on them with fondness nonetheless.”

Loki nods. Then, in typical fashion, foils Thor’s plans for the conversation just as Thor begins to congratulate himself. Really, Thor should know better by now.

“I have not seen you around, these last few days,” Loki says. He is aiming for casual, misses spectacularly. There is something keenly vulnerable in his voice, in the set of his shoulders.

It takes all of Thor’s willpower not to allow himself to go visibly stiff, for any change in his posture will undoubtedly be misconstrued.

“You have not missed much. I have been making friends,” Thor says. Then, choosing his words carefully, “I have been swapping battle stories with old warriors. Nothing that would interest a boy your age.”

Loki goes still. That remark seems to have hit home.

Words are not Thor’s battleground. All he can do is his best, and hope that it will suffice.

“You might be surprised, Stormbreaker,” Loki says. “I am not like my brother and his friends.”

“You are young yet,” Thor says. “You have so many adventures before you, Prince Loki. Do not let your spirits be dampened by old veterans like myself complaining about our blistered feet.”

“I prefer to spend my time with those who know something of the world,” Loki says. His tone is verging on shrill, but Loki contains it. Just barely. “My brother and his friends, for all their pretensions of being warriors, understand little.”

His friends, Thor realises. Loki’s brother and his friends.

It feels like a rock sinking to the bottom of his stomach. All thought of his plan leaves his head as this new revelation presents itself.

“Surely they are your friends too,” he tries. Already, he thinks he knows what Loki’s answer will be.

Loki’s face twists. “We have little in common. I join their adventures sometimes, but I prefer my own company.”

Of course he does. Of course. Because when Thor was young, he never made room for Loki, not really. Expected Loki to fall in line and act normal, if he wanted to be included. It is painful to acknowledge it even in the depths of his own mind, but Thor knows he did it. It is only now he realises what its effects were – are, for here Loki sits in front of him.

Loki has never felt like he fit in, never felt like part of any group. Too clever, too strange, too quick to assume they will not like him. Thor knows all of that now, as he did not when he was younger.

Just when Thor thought he was done being ashamed of himself. Yet here is another testament to his failings, and even with the benefit of hindsight he has done nothing to correct it.

Stupid. Stupid, stupid.

Thor swallows around the lump in his throat. The surge of self-loathing will do this conversation no good.

“They think of you as their friend,” Thor says. “Your brother loves you, fool-hardy as he may be.”

He needs to stay calm, but his mind is racing. In all his time here, he has never seen Loki alone with anyone outside his immediate family. Some day, Loki will stop giving Thor revelations that freeze the very breath in his lungs, but today is not that day.

Loki huffs in reply, and the sound is awkward. Small.

“I hope I, at least, count among your friends,” Thor says, because how can he not? He cannot encourage Loki’s romantic attentions. Cannot distance himself from Loki, who needs him more than Thor realised, who needs help now, not centuries down the line when it will be far too late.

Loki has no friends – or perhaps the more important distinction is that Loki does not feel like he has friends. Thor has always been his friend, but poorly, with all the self-absorption and inattention of a young man who was popular without even trying. It was always more difficult for Loki, he was always other, in a way difficult to quantify.

A Jotun foundling. A child not just from another culture, but another world, another species. Dressed up to look like an Asgardian, but the shape did not entirely fit.

Loki is speaking. Thor jerks his attention back to the boy. He cannot allow his thoughts to spiral now, not at such a pivotal point in the conversation.

Friends,” Loki says. “I suppose we are that.”

Loki is picking at a loose thread on his sleeve, a nervous gesture.

Thor braces himself. Searches for the right words. “You are very dear to me, Prince Loki,” he says. “I hope you know that. I value our friendship very much, despite our age difference. I hope it will not change.”

“Friends,” Loki repeats. “Yes. I am honoured.”

He does not sound sarcastic. Does not sound anything, really. Thor wishes he could see his eyes, for with Loki looking away from him he cannot see what the boy is feeling.

“Friends,” he affirms. He reaches out and squeezes Loki’s shoulder.

Loki, Loki, Loki, he thinks. Why must everything about you be so complicated?

Chapter Text

Thor does not see Loki the next day, nor the one after that.

He goes about his business. Returns to the library for more fruitless searches for Hela, or a way to combat Thanos.

Fortunately, inspiration does strike there. The Asgardian library has little information about Titan, because of course it does not. Titan is a considerable distance away, barely worth Asgard’s notice - and how Thor feels the sting of that ignorance, all these years on. Great and mighty Asgard fell so quickly, to dangers of which it did not even know. Ragnarok was prophesied long ago, but should Odin have warned them of Hela?

Thor thinks he understands his father’s reasoning. The reasoning of a king, calculated to keep as many of his people safe as possible against an enemy he could not destroy. After throwing Hela into the deepest pit for her sins, it is easier to see how Odin could have locked Loki away just the same, with barely a second thought. Kingdom before family. Kingdom before anything.

Thor… Thor does not know if he can be that king. Not after all he has seen, and the losses he has endured. He does not know yet whether that is strength or weakness.

(Does not know, in some lurking corner of his mind, how to reconcile the different sides of his father.)

He does know he will find little else on Titan here. He has already journeyed to corners of the cosmos to hear its news, to uncover more. He learned valuable information during his travels, enough to have ascertained, at the very least, Thanos’ rough location.

So he sends away for newspapers. He cannot believe the thought did not occur to him before.

He pens a letter to a woman he met there – a reputable businesswoman, he thinks, though many like to present themselves as such – requesting anything and everything she can get him about the scourge of piracy in that corner of the universe. Newspapers, holovids, eye-witness reports, anything. He promises almost every scrap of gold he has left in return, which is going to be a problem down the line. He will have to go out and find work again at some point.

He needs to get a good idea of Thanos’ patterns and firepower. This is one way to do it. He likes to think Loki would be proud of him.

Loki… Thor seals his letter, sets his pen aside. Then, and only then, does he allow himself to fall forward, pressing his palms to his eyes. Even thinking about the boy gives Thor a headache at the moment.

He thinks, he thinks, that Loki understood their talk about friendship in the way Thor meant it – that is, to rule out any prospect of a romantic relationship between them. He is not persuaded, however, that Loki genuinely understood that Thor loves him, even if it is not in the way Loki hoped he might.

He is not sure that Loki ever understood, for all Thor’s flaws as both brother and friend, that Thor loves him and loves him and loves him.

Thor pushes himself upright. He will deal with this. The plan is working, and though Loki’s hurt may sting, Thor can overcome it with time. He has to, for both their sakes.

- - -

On his afternoon trip to the training grounds, Thor is surprised to find young Thor there. Alone, no friends or tutors, going through the motions with Mjolnir.

He has gotten better. Taken on the advice Thor gave him. Young Thor throws with better precision, his eyes narrowed in concentration as he hits a target, recalls Mjolnir, then whirls and throws it at another. Practicing both speed and accuracy while he is in motion.

“Very good,” Thor calls when Mjolnir connects with its target. Off-centre, but enough of an improvement to be worth his praise.

Young Thor turns to him, visibly startled. So focused on his training he did not realise anyone was there.

“Are you here to spar?” young Thor asks.

“Not today,” Thor replies, and to his surprise young Thor shrugs and turns back to his training without pressing the issue.

Thor watches him as he strips off his own over-coat, rolling up his sleeves and hefting Stormbreaker in hand. He does not show young Thor his weapon often, not since their disastrous match at the tournament. Thor uses swords and spears and practice axes when the yards are full, for the real Stormbreaker is so mighty it cannot help but raise questions that Thor prefers not to answer.

Today… if young Thor is focused on his own training, Thor can use Stormbreaker today.

He takes it through its paces, more for the joy of it than anything else, for the burn in his muscles and the feeling of rightness when he holds it in his hand. He feels almost like his old self again, bold and brash and a fighter, through and through.

Somehow, he almost forgot the feeling.

When he finishes, he finds young Thor holding Mjolnir limply at his side, staring at him with his mouth slightly open.

The boy has the good grace to look embarrassed when he realises he is caught, but the joy seeps out of Thor nonetheless, as quickly as it came. He is not choking on the guilt of what he almost did to this boy - his mother soothed the worst of it from him - but he has not forgotten, either, the violence that his own hands are capable of.

“That is a mighty weapon,” young Thor says. His cheeks are tinged pink, but the excitement in his eyes clearly outweighs his pride.

“Thank you,” Thor says simply.

“What is its name?”

Here, Thor hesitates, running past conversations through his mind. Odin knows why he chose Stormbreaker as his own name, why he took on the name of his weapon. But, Thor realises, he told no one else. Never explained it, simply adopted it as his own.

He wonders briefly if he should conceal it, but… what would be the point of that?

“Its name is Stormbreaker,” Thor says.

Confusion flashes across young Thor’s face, but it is followed, quickly, by understanding.

“I see…” he says. “I did wonder where you got your name.”

Thor does not respond, and young Thor does not press him with questions. Again, it is a surprise. Young Thor is not known for his tact.

Thor takes a look at him – a real look, this time. Young Thor is sweating from the exertion of his training, but there is something sullen about his features. Ill-tempered, and Thor will never be over with how strange it is to see his own face – young as it may be – from the perspective of an outsider.

“You are alone this afternoon?” he says. It is not the question that he is really wondering about – namely, what is wrong with you today – but he dances around it.

“So you see,” young Thor says. Not hostile, but not his usual unstoppable self.

“Does something trouble you?” Thor asks.

Young Thor goes still. He tucks Mjolnir into his belt, and turns to face Thor with a surprisingly weighty stare.

“That is quite a personal question to ask a prince.”

Thor raises his brows. Unimpressed, and pushing down the usual flicker of irritation. “Your rank does not cow me, Highness.”

So, all right, he did not push it down entirely successfully.

Young Thor squares up, anger flashing across his face. “You would do well to remember your manners, Stormbreaker. I do not care how powerful a warrior you may be, I am still your prince.”

Thor opens his mouth to reply – the word princess dancing childishly at the tip of his tongue – when he remembers himself. Remembers that he is specifically not to fight with his younger self, that he is the adult here, that he must control his temper.

It takes a moment for him to force the words out, but he manages, “My apologies, your Highness. You are right. I forgot my place.”

He bows low, then wheels away and strides towards the exit of the yards.

He has barely made it three steps when young Thor’s voice carries over to him.

“Stormbreaker,” young Thor says.

Thor stops. Taking a breath, he forces his face into a neutral expression. Turns back around, even though it is the last thing he wants to do.

“Prince?” he says. Calm, respectful.

Young Thor’s face twists through a complicated series of expressions before he finally spits out, “I… am not myself this afternoon.”

Young Thor leaves it there. It is as close to an apology Thor supposes he can expect. He inclines his head, and turns to leave again.

“Stormbreaker,” young Thor calls again, and Thor has no choice but to stop.

This time, he does not turn. He does not want to look upon his young self, does not want any more time in his company. All it took was a few sharp words between them – pointed, but hardly a real argument – and he feels entirely too on edge.

He tilts his head to show that he is listening. That is the only concession he can make.

“Have you seen my brother lately?” young Thor asks.

The question gives Thor pause. “I have not, Highness.”

“Did you have a quarrel?” young Thor asks. The impertinent little pest.

“No, Highness,” Thor says. And then, because something ugly in him compels him to take one last jab at his younger self, “I do not waste my time arguing with children.”

Thor leaves. This time, young Thor does not stop him. It does not feel like a victory.

- - -

On the third day since their talk, Thor finally sees Loki.

The boy is walking down a corridor with an armful of books, trying to both carry them and read them at the same time, which is no mean feat. One is balanced on top of the pile propped against his chest, and Loki squints down at it, head at an unnatural angle.

What could he possibly be researching that is so pressing it cannot wait until he sits down? Thor fights down a wave of amusement. His own Loki would never have done something so foolish. The older Loki would not allow himself to be caught off-guard, would stride down the corridor with eyes open and alert until he reached the sanctuary of his chambers, no matter how excited he was to begin his research.

Young Loki, on the other hand, is so engrossed that he seems to be using bumping into the wall as a form of guidance, arm straining beneath the weight of his book pile as the other turns the pages. Thor can see his mind working away, the light in his eyes, the eager thirst for knowledge.

Loki is also, Thor realises, about to take quite a nasty fall.

He lengthens his own stride so that in two quick steps he is on Loki, just in time for Loki’s oblivious foot to hit the uneven stonework and send him, with a startled yelp, forward and down.

Thor catches him, books thumping one by one against his chest as he grabs Loki by the shoulders to keep him upright. Miraculously Loki keeps a hold of most of his books, though a few from the top of the pile teeter and fall to the ground.

“Prince Loki,” Thor greets, warm and amused. “You have been to the library, I take it?”

His jovial greeting is not met in kind. No, when Loki staggers back from him, his face turns scarlet. He ducks his head away, rushing to pick up the fallen books without losing any more from his pile.

Loki definitely got the message of their last talk. Took the rejection to heart, without taking on any of the genuine care and affection that came beside it. Thor has never seen Loki so mortified by his company. Thor’s throat clenches.

“My apologies, Stormbreaker,” Loki says. Trying so hard to look unaffected, despite the redness in his cheeks and the fact he cannot look Thor in the eyes. “I was not watching where I was going.”

“No harm done,” Thor says. He bends to pick up the last of Loki’s books, the one the boy had been reading. It is a slim volume, something about poisons and anti-venom, and Thor can only hope Loki is not up to some act of mischief. “May I help you back to your chambers?”

“No,” Loki says, hasty, “thank you and good day.”

And Thor should not push, he knows. He knows Loki is just a boy, that he is sad and vulnerable and recently turned down by the object of his affection, no matter how gentle Thor tried to be. He knows that Loki needs time to lick his wounds before he will be ready to spend any amount of time in Thor’s company again.

Thor also knows that he needs to prove to Loki that he cares, some way, somehow, or Loki will never believe it again. He struggles, not for the first time, to know what to say to Loki.

Once upon a time he would have insisted on helping, and simply taken the books from Loki’s arms. Now he turns his mis-matched eyes on Loki’s and says, quiet, “Please. Allow me.”

He is not sure what to make of the slightly stunned look on Loki’s face, but Loki nods jerkily and allows Thor to take the books from his arms. Follows, quiet, as Thor turns and heads back down the corridor towards the royal wing.

They are silent. This time, even Thor is not comfortable. The weight of the silence presses down on him, and he knows in his bones that any moment Loki might cut his losses and bolt. So, somewhat desperately, he begins to talk.

“You know, I heard a very interesting tale the other day,” he says. ‘The other day’ is something of an exaggeration, but nothing lends a tale intrigue like a sense of immediacy.

Loki does not reply, but Thor forges ahead nonetheless.

“I thought it might interest you,” he continues. “I knew a man who knew a sorcerer who made his home between the mountains and the sky.”

He weaves the tale as best he can. Fills the void between them with his own voice. He tells Loki of an old sorcerer who lived alone until a mischievous boy stumbled across him, and asked to learn the secrets of the sorcerer’s trade. When the sorcerer refused, the boy set such tricks and traps that the sorcerer grew angry and began to retaliate, coming further and further down from his sanctuary with every trick the boy played. At last the old sorcerer set foot in the village once more, and found it full of smiling faces and an impish boy who, for all his cunning, did not want the old man die alone.

It is truth and fiction woven together. One of Loki’s own, told to Thor when they were much older than this Loki, when Loki was not really a boy anymore but acted like one all the same. A pretty tale Loki told him when Thor asked, innocently enough, where he had learned his latest spell and why a whole town of simple mountain folk were suddenly addressing Loki on first-name basis.

He does not tell it quite the same as Loki did, however. For where Loki was cool and mysterious, Thor is hurried and clumsy. Telling a story that should have taken some time in a matter of minutes, largely by skipping over all the best bits.

What am I doing? He wonders. But he keeps talking. Right up until the entrance to the royal chambers.

“What did you think?” Thor asks Loki as he finishes the tale. Since no response is immediately forth-coming, he has no shame asking for one directly.

“You seem to know rather a lot of tales about sorcerers,” Loki says. He seems to have composed himself, though he still avoids Thor’s eyes. He examines his nails, trying to look proud and haughty. It only half succeeds.

“I liked that tale, when it was told to me. I thought you might enjoy it as well.”

For a moment, a familiar look flashes across his face. A look that suggests Loki is about to say something deliberately cutting. Fortunately, it fades quickly.

“I must say it sounds a little far-fetched,” Loki says. Only the barest hint of bite in his tone, which for Loki is an excellent result indeed. Thor knows all too well how prone Loki is to lashing out when he is vulnerable.

“It does, doesn’t it?” Thor says. “I heard many a tall tale from its original teller, but that one I believe is based largely in fact.”

Loki nods, once. No smile, no eye contact.

“I can take those from here,” he says, reaching out for the books. Still eager to be out of Thor’s company, and Thor’s heart sinks.

“Of course,” Thor says, for what else can he say? He places the books carefully in Loki’s waiting arms.

Before Loki can stalk away, Thor reaches out and catches him by the shoulder. He does not know what else to do – he cannot leave things between them like this.

“Someday you will be a great sorcerer,” Thor tells him. He has to – has to offer some encouragement, for all the good it will do. “Someday the tales I tell will be of you.”

They already are, but this Loki does not know that.

“You flatter me,” Loki says, but it is mechanical. He does not believe it, and Thor can easily guess his thoughts. At being ever his brother’s shadow, unnoticed, unworthy.

“I would never flatter you,” Thor says.

Loki meets his eyes, and for a moment Thor sees everything. All the emotions running through Loki’s lean, lanky frame. Defensive anger, confusion, sadness, and the slightly stunned look he wore before when Thor took his books…

Oh, Thor realises. Loki’s… fancy for him. That is what it looks like.

He claps Loki once on the shoulder – a warrior’s touch, rough and a far cry from a lover’s – and drops his hand. Smiles at Loki, simultaneously trying to pretend not to have noticed everything going on in Loki’s head while also moving away.

Loki is a positive maelstrom of emotion. Thor does not envy him that.

“I will leave you to your work,” Thor says. “Perhaps I will see you at dinner.”

Loki nods. Turns and stalks away, and this time Thor does not prevent him from going.

- - -

A week later, Thor receives a letter of agreement from the foreign businesswoman and the first shipment of information. He buries himself in foreign newspapers, and when he emerges his thoughts are grim indeed.

Already, Thanos is powerful. Not yet powerful enough to conquer worlds, but Thor sees the signs already of what is to come. Mass killings, in small corners of the universe. Destruction and chaos being spread in the name of Thanos’ conception of order.

Titan itself still stands, which means Thor has time. Thanos is in exile, his home planet not yet extinct. Thanos has not had the chance to put his philosophy into practice, and while Titan stands he lacks the proof of his theory that will set his madness in stone.

Still, even while exiled, he kills his way across the universe. None of the great powers have taken much notice yet, for Thanos sticks to where the outlaws lie, where the people are so powerless their deaths mean little to the larger realms. He kills in large numbers, raids settlements. He takes people as often as he takes resources. Building himself a fighting force.

Thor presses a hand over his eyes, feeling the dull thud of a headache building behind his temples. In his current state, he has no authority. He is one faceless warrior among a warrior people, with neither the right nor mandate to lead.

He cannot do nothing. He must stop Thanos before it is too late. He has to find a way.

For a while, he paces. To go alone would be foolish, and he has no allies to take with him. His friends, whom he would once have taken without question, are far too young and inexperienced in this time period. None of the Avengers have even been born yet. Brunnhilde…

Brunnhilde might help. If he can find her. If he can persuade her away from her drinking and her sorrow.

She is the only one of his friends both living and full-grown, the only one he can call if the time comes. And given that she does not know him now, and was reluctant to help him the first time around, he does not know if he can persuade her. Her friendship with the Hulk changed something for her, he thinks. Broke through the haze of her grief, until she was strong enough to pull herself out on her own, to avenge herself and her fallen comrades against Hela.

The circumstances are so different now. He does not know if they will be enough for her to move forward. He would not blame her – he knows just how heavy grief can be.

With Brunnhilde’s help questionable, that leaves just him again. And he is not so arrogant to think he can take care of Thanos and his band alone, not anymore. There is far too much at stake. So what are his other options?

He paces. His head pounds. He comes up blank.

He needs to go outside, he decides. Get some fresh air to clear his thoughts. He will make no progress like this.

The journey down to the training yards takes little time, and only once he arrives he realises he has misjudged his timing. His young friends and their peers – a whole group of them - are training with their tutors.

Thor has not exactly been avoiding them, but he has not been seeking them out, either. He and young Thor have not spoken since their last tense exchange. Loki has spoken to him periodically, but so stiffly and with such a thin veneer of pride that Thor has not pushed him. The fact Loki is willing to speak with him at all is enough, for Thor knows how much it costs him.

Sif has been glaring at him, for reasons Thor does not know and has not cared to enquire about. Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun, apparently following her lead, have stopped hassling him at every opportunity, though he has noticed a distinct tendency in Fandral to brag about his battle exploits whenever Thor is within earshot.

All in all, it has been a tense week, and Thor has been ill-equipped to manage his young friends’ volatility. He has kept to himself.

He has been well, mostly, despite the quietness. Melancholy lurks at the edges of his thoughts, but he is getting used to that. His moods have been stable, and he has taken that as the blessing it is. His dreams, however, continue to plague him. He is always tired these days.

He really needs some exercise. These days he prefers to train when the yards are quieter but, well, the young folk are otherwise occupied…

Thor finds himself a corner of the yards, takes up a practice sword, and gets to work.

For a time, he finds the peace he has been searching for. In motion, with a burn in his lungs and blood pumping through his veins, Thor feels his most free, his most himself. He can forget his worries, narrow his focus to the bang, bang, bang of the practice sword against a dummy.

Like all good things, his peace does not last.

Long-honed battle instinct causes him to pause and look over at where the young people are working. Loki is visibly bristling, his opponent on the ground while another young man shouts something at him. Loki tosses his head back and laughs.

All of a sudden, Thor has a flash of memory back to this day. Of an argument between Loki and another young man which spiralled out of control, a flash of Loki’s magic pulling the young man’s legs out from under him. Wounded pride, broken wrist, an angry brother coming to the other boy's defence –

It feels like he is watching the moment in both real time and on a slight delay. He hears Loki say something biting, sees the fallen boy's anger, sees the boy's brother’s expression twist. Loki, though, is turning, and misses the moment the brother’s hand closes around the handle of his throwing axe. Thor is already in motion, flinging himself across the training yards.

A tutor turns, but too slow, too late.

The axe leaves the boy’s hand, comes whirling towards them.

There is no time to block it, or to push Loki aside. All Thor can do is throw himself in front of Loki.

Chapter Text

 

The axe strikes true.

Pain bursts in his thigh, and Thor staggers. Given how fast he was moving in order to get to Loki in time, he struggles to keep his balance. Manages, just barely, to stay upright, and for the sake of his pride more than anything else.

The throwing axe is lodged in his thigh. Thor has felt worse pain in his life – many times, in fact – but the sharpness of it steals the breath from his lungs all the same.

He grimaces. Meets the eyes of the young man who threw the axe.

It is strange, these moments in time. Thor’s thoughts move fast, but the world feels slow. He sees the realisation sweep across the boy’s face that his throw has found a target. Watches as the boy’s face drains of blood, his mouth opening in an exclamation of surprise.

Noise, action, shouting. One of the tutors lunges at the culprit, another rushes towards Thor. People are speaking at him, flapping their hands, but Thor pays them no mind.

He holds the boy’s eyes. Ignores everything but that foolish boy, who threw an axe at the turned back of his brother. Sees how the boy trembles.

“Consider yourself lucky that it is me you injured this day,” Thor says, and his voice rumbles like a crack of thunder.

That is not good. For a moment, the sky darkens. Thor’s power surges inside him, entirely unbidden, and it takes all of his willpower to force the storm away.

Deep breaths. He focuses on the pain in his leg which, oddly enough, is grounding. One breath, another. The storm recedes.

“- cannot apologise enough,” the tutor is saying. “There shall be a reckoning for this, mark my words. Einar – don’t just stand there, fetch a medic, boy!”

“No medic,” Thor says.

The tutor’s expression falters. “Please, sir, I really must insist-”

“I am fine,” Thor says.

Never mind the axe still sticking out of his leg. Though come to mention it, everything feels oddly… detached. Not quite real.

Off to the side, young Thor is shouting at the offender. He is so angry that sparks burst from his fingertips, and the air itself crackles with his power. Sif helps Volstagg hold him back in the half-hearted sort of way that suggests she is very much on the verge of joining him.

When Thor looks back, Loki’s face is white. His mouth hangs open in shock.

And Thor is still angry. In a strange, distant way, as though he is not entirely connected with his body. As though someone has numbed the part of him that feels anger, but the anger is still there.

His power is under his control. His hands hang loose by his sides. His leg stabs with pain. And though he cannot quite feel it, he knows he is so very, very angry.

The world seems to tilt sideways. Not even Loki’s presence can pull him back from the edge. Thor feels his grip on himself slipping –

Breathe, breathe, breathe.

Words fade in and out of his understanding. Loki’s face contorts as he speaks, his hands jabbing through the air.

Thor hears nothing but the thundering of his own heart. He is having – a fit of some sort. He knows it, knows he cannot think clearly, is not quite himself. Panic spikes -

Just wait it out. Just breathe.

And then it is over. Reality floods back in, and Thor could collapse with the relief of it. A medic is striding across the yards, and Thor remembers the axe still sticking out of his leg.

Oh, he thinks. Blood drips down his thigh.

“I said no medic,” he says, and reaches down to pull the axe out himself.

Stop,” Loki cries, and Thor pauses.

“I am quite capable of tending to myself,” Thor says. His voice sounds hoarse, even to his own ears.

“It is not a matter of capability, you fool,” Loki says. For a moment, he sounds exactly like his old self. Then Thor looks at him, at his twisting hands and wide, worried eyes, and the illusion shatters.

The old Loki would not have worried so. After all, Loki stabbed him enough times himself to know Thor can take a hit.

For this Loki’s sake, Thor allows himself to be tended to. The medic shepherds him over to a log, has him sit as she examines the injury. Thor ignores the stares, the chatter, the ever-present bellowing of an angry instructor in the background reprimanding the young fool who dared throw a weapon at the turned back of a prince.

Thor looks at the ground. Now the adrenaline is wearing off, taking with it that urgent, desperate impulse to protect Loki overriding all rational thought, memories are coming back to him. Memories of what actually happened this day.

He remembers how Loki and those boys had a long-standing feud that came to a head after a particularly vicious jibe from Loki. He remembers how Loki was hurt, for in his memory the axe struck its intended target, but he was not hurt badly. Some stitches in his calf, nothing more. Meanwhile Thor, in throwing himself so heedlessly into the axe’s path, is lucky indeed that it did not strike an artery.

Thor overreacted, and now there is an axe stuck in his leg, and everyone saw that… that fit he had in the yards – and he does not know what he looked like, but he knows it cannot have been good. Not only does Thor feel like an idiot, he looks it too.

Loki’s life was not in danger. But all Thor saw when the axe left that boy’s hand was Thanos, and Loki, and –

“It would be best to take you to the healing rooms,” the medic tells him.

Thor jolts back to the present. To the medic kneeling in front of him. To Loki standing nearby with a miserable look on his face. To his young friends hovering nearby - and why do they hover? It is hardly a critical injury. People have survived much worse. Why is everyone making such a fuss of his embarrassment?

“Surely that is not necessary,” Thor says, gruff.

The medic levels him with a hard look. “You were lucky, warrior. And if you wish to return to the field in a hurry, it would be better to take my advice. I would prefer a senior healer tend to you, to avoid further damage to your leg.”

Thor toys with the idea of just pulling the axe free and stalking off. But it does, in fact, hurt, and he would rather it heal quickly than linger. Furthermore, the healing rooms are away from all these prying eyes.

“Very well.”

- - -

“It was a brave thing you did, protecting our young prince,” says the senior healer. Bandaging finished, she washes her hands in a basin nearby.

Thor watches her. She is a middle-aged woman, hair half grey and with the kind of face that suggests severity. That has turned out not to be true, however, for while she has tended him with gravity and focus, she is very kind.

“It was not brave,” Thor says.

“No?”

“No,” he says. “It was a spiteful throw from a foolish boy. I have bested better enemies, I assure you.”

“Still,” the healer says. “Quite an unpleasant injury. No doubt their Majesties will be grateful.”

“I need no gratitude,” Thor says. “Am I ready to go?”

“In a moment.”

She takes a seat beside him again. Peers at him, and Thor feels compelled to look away.

“We have not met before, have we?” she says. When Thor shakes his head, she continues, “My name is Hertha. I would like to ask you a few additional questions, if I may.”

This is most unusual, to say the least. Thor has been here many times, and no one has asked him questions, no matter how ludicrous his injuries have been. Then again, this is his first time here without a princely title to dissuade curious tongues.

He nods his assent.

“How are you sleeping at the moment?”

Thor frowns at her. “Why do you ask?”

Hertha smiles. It softens the otherwise stern lines of her face. “I would like to get an idea of your general health.”

“My health is fine.”

“I am a trained healer,” she says. “Anything you tell me is confidential. I cannot discharge you until I have completed this paperwork.”

She waves a great sheaf of it at him, and Thor groans. “Is this necessary?”

“I am afraid so. This is your first time in the healing rooms on record, and as such I require further information.”

Never mind that Thor could simply get up and walk out and there is little anyone could do to stop him. It seems churlish to do so when she has been so kind. Taken such care over such a stupid, self-inflicted injury.

“My sleep is fine.”

She raises her eyebrows, plainly disbelieving.

“I often wake during the night,” Thor relents, “but I sleep well enough.”

Aside from the nightmares.

“How is your mood, in general?” she asks him.

He feels a twinge of suspicion. “Why do you ask?”

“These are routine questions.”

But… no. They are not. He has a leg injury – she needs not ask him personal questions. Loki would have seen through it immediately. Once again, Thor is being stupid.

“I thank you for tending to me,” he says, as polite as he can manage. Pushes himself to his feet. “But I am leaving now.”

She pauses. Then, quietly, “There is no shame in having trouble re-adjusting to ordinary life after time on the battlefield.”

Thor goes still. She holds his gaze, calm but… kind. Still kind.

She continues, “Did you think yourself the first warrior to experience this?”

For a moment, Thor does not know what to say. Part of him is dismayed and shamed by his own obviousness. Perhaps the other medic saw his behaviour in the training yards, perhaps she picked up on it herself – either way, he is too transparent. Another part of him, a part he does not wish to acknowledge, is still shaken after his latest… experience.

He was doing better. Feeling calm, and even happy sometimes. Then all of a sudden, and for no particular reason he can discern, he had one of his worst episodes yet. Different to the time he almost killed young Thor, when he blacked out in rage, and that was bad enough. This time, he did not lose his temper – he lost himself.

Thor opens his mouth, but finds he cannot speak.

“There is no need to be embarrassed – it is my job to identify such things, and I have training that ordinary people do not,” Hertha says, as though reading his mind. “I understand you may not be willing to speak to me. But you should know there is a great deal we can do to help you, if you are willing to try.”

If you had asked Thor yesterday, he would have refused outright. Now, though… now he does not know what to do. He has so many tasks ahead of him, so many lives resting on his shoulders. He must be strong, must keep going no matter what happens.

(Another part of him feels a different kind of shame – he has always been the elder brother, thought himself the braver one, the stronger one. He has never judged Loki for his madness, but he truly believed he would never succumb to the same. But now. Now…)

Thor is so tired. So tired he can feel the ache in his bones.

Slowly, he sits back down.

- - -

The potion the healer prescribed him gives Thor his first dreamless night of sleep in what feels like a century.

He wakes the next morning and lies in bed, staring at the ceiling. For the first time in a long time he is well-rested, but it takes him a while to pull himself out of bed all the same. Takes him a while to dress, and comb his too-dark hair, and pull on his clothes.

Two small bottles sit on the table by his bed. The one on the left is tall and blue, filled to the brim with a mild sleeping draught. The other is smaller, round and green. He tries not to look at it.

He has so much to do today. His contact has sent him more documents to read, and he hopes to uncover more information about Thanos. He will have to speak to Loki at some point, if only to see for himself that Loki has calmed down. Knowing his young friends, they will probably wish to see him too, and pepper him with questions. Thor is old enough to know that injuries like his become the talk of the training yards for weeks. Exciting for those young warriors who have not yet tested their mettle in true combat.

He goes to the door. Pauses. Comes back and picks up the green bottle, drops a single drop of its contents onto his tongue. He feels no immediate difference, but the healer said it might take some time to feel its effects.

Then he heads out to face the new day.

- - -

Loki finds him almost immediately, and Thor should not be surprised.

“Stormbreaker!” Loki calls from behind him.

Thor is on his way to get breakfast from the feasting hall. Not mentally prepared for conversation yet, but when has that ever stopped Loki? He allows himself to take a breath, then turns to greet his young brother.

Loki is as well-groomed as ever, but there is a wild look about his eyes. He does not look as though he has slept much.

“Good morning,” Thor says.

“How is your leg? I tried to visit you yesterday, but the healers would not let me. Are you well?”

Loki is babbling. Thor has not seen him so anxious in a long time.

“I am perfectly well,” he assures him. “The healers patched me up without issue. I am sorry to have worried you.”

“You should not have intervened,” Loki says. And it is not angry -  he is still distressed, Thor realises. Breakfast will have to wait.

“Come,” he says, and steers Loki out of such a public place.

He finds a secluded alcove in a quieter corner of the palace. Thor sits down by the window, folding his arms comfortably across his chest and letting his legs stretch out. Perfectly whole and hale.

Loki does not sit. He stands, twitchy and nervous.

“There is no lasting harm done,” Thor says, gesturing towards his leg. It is still bandaged beneath his clothing, but mainly for the sake of caution. The wound is almost fully healed. He barely even limps. “I could have tended to the wound myself if your healers had not been so insistent.”

“Yes, you would have pulled the axe out of your leg in the middle of the training yards,” Loki says. He laughs, but it is not a happy sound.

Thor waits for more, but more is not forthcoming.

“Forgive me if I overstep my bounds,” Thor says carefully, “but I sense you are still concerned.”

Loki’s eyes lock onto his. All of a sudden, Loki is angry.

“You do overstep your bounds,” Loki snarls. “Constantly. In this, and in everything. You should not have interfered in my business. You had no right to.”

Thor’s head jerks back in surprise at Loki’s sudden change of mood. Words leap to mind, but he pushes them down. Waits out the initial surge of indignation, anger, shame and hurt that swirl within his chest. Not Loki's fault - a by-product of his own poor state.

“You are my friend,” Thor says when he is able. “Not to mention a prince of Asgard. My own feelings aside, it is my honour and duty to protect you.”

“It was an accident in the training yards. They happen all the time. I do not need a – a bodyguard when I am at training. I am not a child, whatever you happen to think.”

There it is, Thor thinks. But what can he say to that? He is too old and Loki too young. Whatever Loki feels for him, that will not change.

“Someone threw an axe at you. That is no accident,” he says instead.

“We were – we had a long-standing quarrel. That is none of your business,” Loki says. His cheeks pink, and for the first time Thor sees a flicker of shame in Loki’s eyes before he manages to conceal it.

Loki provoked an attack. Thor took the blow. He can only assume Loki feels guilty – and while Thor knows he should not be happy about it, there is a relief in that knowledge. In knowing this Loki’s conscience has not yet been skewed by perceived slights.

“It does not matter how petty the squabble began, nor who started it,” Thor says. Trying to alleviate Loki’s guilt without stating outright that he knows full well Loki picked a fight. “An axe was thrown at your turned back. Some warrior I would be if I saw it happen, and did nothing.”

“I can fight my own battles!”

“I know you can.”

But the distress is back. Loki’s face is caught between anger and… hurt.

“Do not mock me, Stormbreaker.”

Thor means no mockery. It hurts, to see Loki like this, in a way he cannot put a name to. Their relationship was improving, and he thought he was managing Loki better. Now here they are, having a fight in a palace corridor. 

Thor has made so many mistakes, of late. The pressure on his chest intensifies. He cannot hold eye contact.

“I do not mock,” he says. He cannot help it – he sounds sad. He should have a better hold of his emotions, but he does not. He was a fool to think he did. “I never mean to mock you.”

“I… Stormbreaker,” Loki says. Sighs, and in his peripheral vision Thor can see Loki push back his hair. It is such a familiar gesture it makes Thor’s heart ache. “I just… I do not understand you. Why do you do such things? Why do you say such things?”

Thor recognises the frustration in Loki’s voice, for he has felt the same about him often enough.

“I know you do not believe me when I say I care for you, but I do,” Thor says. “You are my friend, and I” – this part is harder. He does not want to say these words. Forces himself – “I am sorry. For interfering where I was unwelcome. I acted without thinking, when I realised you would be hurt. It is a fault of mine.”

He tries to smile. Is not sure he entirely succeeds.

Loki is quiet for a moment. Then, at last, he sits down beside Thor.

“May I ask you a personal question?” Loki says. He sounds nervous. Thor can only hope he does not intend to broach the subject of his interest again. He also cannot refuse.

“Yes,” he says, “of course.”

Loki hesitates again. Speaks, carefully, “You do not seem yourself today.”

That is all. Thor quirks another smile at him. “Is that a question?”

“You know what I mean,” Loki says. He huffs, but visibly relaxes. He settles himself into a position by the window that mirrors Thor’s.

Not for the first time, Thor is struck by the realisation that he has his brother back. Sitting with him, side by side. Different as things are, no one can take that away from him. He will not let them, not again.

“I am myself,” Thor tells Loki. “Though it is not a self I wish for others to see, and for that I apologise. I am an old soldier, prince. I am not the bold young man I once was.”

“Do not speak of yourself thus,” Loki says. He sounds exasperated.

“I am a broken man,” Thor says. He is not sure why he says it – the admission claws out of his throat without his permission. “It is a simple truth. I am not well. I am sorry that you must see it.”

Loki looks at him, with those intense green eyes. Looks and looks, and Thor is not sure what Loki sees. Why he keeps looking, when seeing Thor's weakness should make him turn away.

“Do not apologise,” Loki murmurs. He reaches out, touches Thor’s hand – retracts it the next moment. “You have nothing to apologise for. I should be apologising to you – you should not have been injured because of me.”

“I have had much worse,” Thor says. He gestures towards his false eye, and Loki looks surprised. It makes Thor smile. “Did you think I was born with this?”

“Some people are,” Loki says.

He looks intrigued, staring into Thor’s mismatched eyes as though seeing them differently. After a moment he seems to realise what he is doing, for his gaze flits away again.

“You make no sense, you know,” Loki mutters. Exasperated, but fond. He has always struggled with puzzles he cannot solve, and Thor is quite a large one.

Thor smiles again. “I know."

For a moment, they simply sit, side by side. Thor can hear the faint sound of Loki's breath, the brush of fabric as Loki shifts. Loki is fiddling with his sleeve again.

“I am not a child,” Loki says. “You need not hide things from me, or try to protect me. Especially not from yourself.”

If only that were true. Thor looks down.

"I see you do not believe me," Loki says. And where Thor expects anger, instead Loki is quiet. Fragile, though he tries to conceal it. "Perhaps I shall have to prove it to you."

And Thor does not know what to say to that. Loki has spent his whole life trying to prove himself, when he was always enough as he was. Thor always loved him, though he knows he was not very good at it. Did not show it enough. Thor cannot imagine what Loki is thinking of doing - what, or for what purpose, or how to dissuade him from doing it.

"You need prove nothing to no one," Thor tells him. Already knowing Loki will not believe it. Already knowing that his Loki never believed it, and went to his death thinking of himself as the shadowed second son.

It is worth a try.

Chapter Text

When Thor’s next shipment of information on Thanos comes, he gets to work immediately. He settles in at his now-familiar desk at the library and pours over every scrap of information he has been sent.

There are news reports of piracy attacks in predominantly lawless regions that provide him with a good sense of Thanos’ travel trajectory. Comparing articles by date, he is able to piece together where Thanos has been thus far, and a few likely locations for his next appearance. There are also anecdotal accounts – cities laid to waste, lives taken, all in the name of a bizarre philosophy. The accounts are confused, and if Thor did not know the eventual outcome he would read little into them, but there is already a suggestion of Thanos’ future plans – destroying half, so that the rest may prosper.

Thanos has not mastered it yet. His victories are, by all accounts, neither clean nor easily won. But every day, his power grows. Every day he tests out his philosophy, modifies it, perfects it.

And here Thor sits, no further along than the last time he received a shipment. Still haunting the streets of Asgard, strange and grim and somehow distant from the living. No plan, no money, and no institutional power to back him up.

He presses his face into his hands.

Before he can get too far down the path of self-loathing, a new thought occurs to him. He needs more resources, that he knows and has always known. To venture out alone would be to die without reason. He needs a fighting force, with all the strength and organisation that entails. As he is, he does not have one. But why not just… ask for one?

A formal petition to the All-Father. He cannot believe he did not think of it before.

He leaps to his feet, unable to sit still as his mind whirls with this new plan. He has enough information now that he has something concrete to take to the king, so why not use it? Thor is no stranger to petitions. He knows how the process works, and the reasoning and language that might sway the king. He has seen his father make these kinds of decisions, been asked to participate more than once (though young and foolish as he was, he never paid as much attention as he should have).

The key is to balance the risk to Asgard against the potential gain, both for Asgard and for Odin himself.

He gathers his things without much care, crumpling several documents as he yanks them into his arms. He needs to move while he thinks this through, but he cannot simply leave them here either.

He does not remember walking to his chamber, but he deposits the documents haphazardly on his bed when he gets there and wanders right back out again, thinking and thinking and thinking, his feet carrying him where they will.

Before now, a petition to the king was not an option due to lack of information and Thor’s own position – that is, one decidedly hard to explain. If, by some miracle, Odin did believe Thor was his son come from the future… what then? Because much as Thor loves his father, he knows Odin is neither a perfect king nor man. Odin might believe his tale, but to what extent? Would he be willing to act immediately and forcefully, placing Asgardian lives on the line to do so? Would he be willing to trust Thor so completely?

The Thor this Odin knows is just a boy, prone to exaggeration and dramatisation as most young people are, and it would be all too easy for Odin to assume that Thor – Stormbreaker -is much the same. This Odin is also, if not young, at least not aged yet. Not ready to relinquish his throne or his power. Not ready, perhaps, to listen to counsel, or relinquish his own control over Asgardian affairs.

Once, Thor would have been appalled at the mere suggestion that Odin could be anything other than just and impartial. But Odin is just a man. Thor knew it first when Loki dangled from the Bifrost, and Odin spoke the words that damned him. Knew it again when Odin sent Loki to a cell in chains, refusing both Thor and Frigga in their attempts to persuade him to visit his other son. Knew it when he came upon his father with a hand pressed to Loki’s empty chamber door, and Odin affected a mask of stern fury rather than admit to Thor that he missed him.

Hela hidden and locked away. Thor cast out. Loki imprisoned. Thor sees the wisdom behind each one of those decisions, and yet…

No, Thor cannot rely on his father’s love for him as a weapon in his fight against Thanos. In this, it is better to be an outsider, calling on the king’s reason with facts and inside knowledge. Keeping Odin as the impartial king, without the complication of also being Thor’s father. Not even Odin can master the balance between feeling and rationality, and Thor foresees two ways that could sway: Odin would be either dismissive or overbearing, and neither option lends itself to Thor’s goals.

Thor nods absently as someone greets him in the corridor. Smiles when people smile at him, an automatic reflex, but his feet keep moving.

Odin already knows of Thor’s – Stormbreaker’s vendetta against the mysterious Thanos. Thanos’ distance from Asgard also ensures that Odin’s spies will not be able to dispute Thor’s own account, as Asgard has little interest in the region. If Thor compiles the documents he has received, he should be able to paint a picture of Thanos’ crimes.

What is his angle, though, for Asgardian involvement? Odin knows of Thor’s personal enmity, but what can Thor use to persuade Odin to help him?

He thinks and thinks. On the verge of epiphany, but unable to reach it.

Go back, try another angle. What is he going to petition Odin for? Not the whole of Asgard’s army. All he really wants is a ship and a band of warriors to come with him, but he needs to plan carefully, anticipate Thanos’ movements…

The sun is beginning to set by the time Thor settles his arguments. He comes to a stop on a balcony, allows himself to breathe. His mind feels well-worked, and later he will have to sit down and write out his petition, but he can allow himself a moment.

His stomach grumbles. Rest, dinner, then he will write his petition.

As if to purposefully lift his spirits, Thor spies Loki and his young friends from his current vantage point. They are grouped together in a courtyard far below and, despite Loki’s talk of having no friends, he seems to be leading the group. He is drawing something in chalk onto the stonework, a book lying open before him, and even at a distance Thor can see that Loki has their full attention. Sif, Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun, even young Thor – they all watch him raptly, occasionally nodding along.

Thor leans against the railing, allowing himself to watch them. To watch Loki, specifically, gesticulate wildly, pointing chalk at people when he is particularly determined to make a point.

Thor wonders what he is planning. For they must be planning something, an adventure of some kind. Thor should know – he is far more accustomed to being part of those little meetings rather than watching them from his current vantage point. He remembers how they would sit and hatch their hare-brained schemes, and while Loki’s intellect was a tempering influence, he was also the worst of the lot. Pushed them to do things that, without his clever tongue, they would never have conceived of. For every adventure Thor himself led, there was another that Loki goaded him into.

Thor misses those adventures. Everything was so much simpler then.

He has business of his own to tend to, and though his heart pangs with nostalgia, he feels no need to join them. As fondly as he remembers the antics of his youth, he cannot go back to them now they are done. Let the young folk have their adventures, and learn their lessons for themselves.

The setting sun glints off Loki’s dark hair. Thor watches him a moment longer, heart very full, before he turns away.

He has a lot of work to do.

- - -

Thor submits his written petition to the king the next day. The real challenge will begin if the king deigns to grant him an audience, but it is out of his hands now.

As he walks down to the training yards for some much-needed exercise, he finds the young folk in the midst of another meeting. They must be serious, if they are putting this much planning into it. Unless Thor is much mistaken, someone has even brought out a map.

Loki looks up to meet his eyes. Thor is then very much surprised, for rather than look shyly away or turn his attention back to his friends, Loki stands and walks towards him. A bold move, and it does not go unnoticed by his friends. They stare after him as though watching a piece of theatre, though Thor catches the exact moment where Sif elbows both Volstagg and young Thor in the sides and tells them all to look away.

So unsubtle. Even a blind man would see what they were thinking. The way their four heads turn away as one, as though they had not been watching avidly. Thor feels a surge of amusement.

“Hello, Stormbreaker,” Loki says. There is a wooden fence dividing Thor’s laneway and the open green space in which Loki is situated, and Loki leans over it, his elegant hands draping over the woodwork.

“Prince Loki,” Thor says.

“How goes your research?” Loki asks.

He is bold today indeed. There is still a hint of shyness in the quick darts of his eyes – meeting Thor’s then flitting away, over and over, like a dance – but his body language is open. Leaning closer, despite the barrier between them.

“Well enough,” Thor says. “I see you are enjoying this fine day with your friends.”

The emphasis on friends is not very subtle, admittedly, but it seems to slip by Loki all the same.

“I was hoping I might see you today,” Loki says. “I wanted to show you something.”

“I look forward to it, but I would not wish to take you away from your friends.”

What is that Midgardian saying? ‘Second time’s the charm?’ – or is it third? Maybe if Thor keeps repeating the word ‘friends’, it will worm its way into Loki’s subconscious.

“They will keep,” Loki says with a dismissive wave of his hand. Then, in a surprisingly graceful move for his lanky frame, he leaps over the fence. Lands as light and easy as a cat, and looks at Thor with bright eyes and cheeks just slightly pink.

Loki is, Thor thinks, trying to impress him. There is a perfectly good gate not far away, and Thor cannot be sure if Loki is showing off for the sake of it or to try and… win him over, as it were. Perhaps a mixture of both.

Thor has to be careful. Because Loki looks and moves so much like his older self today that Thor is in danger of forgetting himself.

It quickly becomes apparent that Thor has every reason to worry. For as they fall into step, it becomes clear Loki has formulated some sort of plan. Before Thor knows what is happening, he is embroiled in a perfectly civilised conversation about nothing at all – a far cry from his usual interactions with Loki.

 “I was speaking with Lady Alva the other day,” Loki tells him. “Have you met her yet? Delightful woman. She was telling me about a remarkable variety of mead she was fortunate enough to sample, made from a very particular kind of honey, and with a most peculiar method.”

“I do enjoy mead,” Thor says. Unsure what to make of the change in Loki – not to mention the dogged look in his eyes - but meeting him in kind. “How is it made?”

It is jarring, to say the least, to experience an onslaught of courtly politeness from one’s own brother. Loki has never tried it on Thor before, never needed to engage in polite small talk when a boot thrown at Thor’s head would adequately express his feelings.

Loki stammers occasionally, loses the thread of the conversation, rambles on more than his older self would. But he is doing what Loki did – perhaps has always done - best. Admittedly with the air of one who has taken this perfectly pleasant walk towards… wherever they are going as a great personal challenge, but doing it nonetheless.

“Have you travelled much to Vanaheim? I hear it is particularly beautiful this time of year,” Loki ploughs on, when the topic of mead it exhausted. Apparently set on fitting as much small talk into one walk as is possible.

Once they are done with Vanaheim, Loki moves to more personal matters. Asks Thor how he slept, how he is liking his room, if he has been to the theatre lately – and oh, he has not? There is a wonderful piece in performance right now, which Loki highly recommends. And would be delighted to attend again if Stormbreaker would like some company.

Thor forces down a smile. Really, what is he supposed to do with Loki? Is this what Loki meant by proving himself – engaging in polite chit-chat like a proper gentleman of the court? Trying so hard to act like a fully-grown man, even if he has to grind his teeth to make it through a conversation based entirely around small talk? Any moment now, Loki is going to start talking about housing prices. Not for the first time, Thor is struck by the ridiculousness of their situation.

Loki’s steady stream of polite conversation wavers as they reach what Thor presumes must be their destination. Loki starts fidgeting with his sleeve again, and finally runs out of things to say. Thor is not expecting to feel the surge of fondness for him, for the odd flashes from boy to man, but he cannot help it.

“Is this what you wanted to show me?” Thor prompts, as gentle as he can.

Loki rallies, straightens up again, but his fingers fidget and fidget. “Have you ever been up here before?”

Thor looks around. They have wound their way up the city to a small and out-of-the-way courtyard. There is a tree planted in the middle of it, and a striking view out over Asgard. A view comparable only to the view from Odin’s own chamber windows, which Loki has no way of knowing Thor – Stormbreaker - has ever seen.

“I have indeed,” Thor says. Loki deflates, and he hurries to add, “but not since I was a boy, exploring Asgard’s nooks and crannies. I had almost forgotten it existed.”

“It is a very out-of-the-way sort of place,” Loki says. “I- I like to come here sometimes. To think.”

There is Loki’s stammer, making an appearance again. Thor cannot help but smile.

“A fine place for it.”

He moves about the space, exploring it. Places his hand against the thick trunk of the tree, feeling the bark beneath his fingertips.

“It is not the prettiest tree,” Loki says, quickly. Sounding more like himself again – the young version of himself to which Thor has grown accustomed. Perhaps doubting his decision to bring Thor here. “There are much better-looking ones down lower.”

“It is a very fine tree,” Thor counters. “Old and strong. A tree that has passed the test of time.”

Loki’s face brightens into a smile, and Thor feels he must have passed some test of his own.

Thor looks up into the tree’s branches. The tree has clearly weathered the passage of time, is gnarled in some places, uneven in others. It has lost branches, leaving ugly scars behind, and its leaves are sparse. It is still beautiful, in a way entirely of its own.

Thor pats its trunk again before withdrawing his hand, taking a few steps forward to better admire the view.

“You often seek out quiet spaces,” Loki says, “and I thought – I thought you might like this one too.”

“You thought right,” Thor says, turning to smile at him. “Thank you for sharing it with me.”

“I also – I have something for you.”

Thor stiffens. Turns, cautious, to find Loki rummaging through his pockets. It is fortunate that Loki is too distracted to see the expression of dismay that Thor cannot suppress. A gift… mercy’s sake. The plan – think of the plan. He has to respond as a mentor, a guide, a -

Then Loki pulls a bundle of papers out of his pocket, and Thor’s expression freezes into one of forced neutrality.

They are his papers. The ones he was perusing in the library, and gathered together so haphazardly. Clearly, he left some behind.

Loki is smiling when he looks up at Thor, though it quickly falters when he catches sight of Thor’s face.

“I – I found these,” Loki says. “In the library.”

Thor forces his expression to relax, tries to push his mouth into a smile. It is not very successful.

He reaches out without saying a word and Loki, baffled, hands them over.

Thor flips through them, heart in his throat. Is relieved to find that he left nothing damning behind. Only a few pieces of newspaper.

“I must have dropped them,” he murmurs. “Thank you for returning them to me.”

This time, the smile he gives Loki is genuine, but that only makes Loki’s expression turn shrewd.

“You are researching something secret,” Loki guesses. “Something that worries you.”

Thor folds the scraps of newspaper carefully, tucking them into his pocket. Tips his head to the side with his smile still in place, aiming for charming. Trying not to show that Loki just hit the nail on the head.

“Now now, nosiness is unbecoming of a prince,” he says, teasing in a way that sounds, unavoidably, like their mother. “I am glad you returned these to me – I was merely surprised.”

“Why the interest in piracy on the outer rim?” Loki presses. His eyes are sharp, curiosity evident in every line of his face.

“I have always thought I would look good with an eye-patch,” Thor says. A reference to Thor’s past that goes over Loki’s head, though the joke itself does not. Loki huffs. “Perhaps I am thinking of a new career.”

Loki raises an eyebrow at him, unimpressed, and the gesture is so familiar it steals Thor's breath away.

Thor raises his own eyebrows right back at Loki. Gives himself a moment to steady the beating of his heart. “I take it you read them."

Loki’s cheeks tinge pink, but that is the only outward sign of embarrassment at being caught nosing about.

“You should not leave important papers lying about.”

“Duly noted,” Thor says.

Loki regards him with that same shrewd look. Trying to stare Thor down, but unsuccessfully. After a moment, he huffs again, apparently giving up.

“You really are infuriating, you know,” Loki says. “Always so mysterious.”

There is bite behind the words, a tinge of mockery, but Thor does not take it personally. Conversely, he feels a swell of fondness in his chest. He claps a hand on Loki’s shoulder. Shakes him, fond, the only way he can express the surge of love.

“You are a good boy,” Thor tells him.

Loki stiffens in his grip. His eyes flash up to Thor’s, but there is no anger there. Instead, Loki’s eyes burn.

Thor is not sure what to make of that. Knowing Loki as he does, though, he doubts it will be anything good.

- - -

A few days later, a servant hands Thor an envelope.

He makes no pretence of waiting. He tears it open the moment it reaches his hands, eyes scanning it. Breaths out. Tucks it, at a considerably calmer pace, into his pocket.

Odin will hear him out. The time is set for tomorrow morning.

Thor spends most of the day going over his notes, muttering under his breath as he rehearses his argument. A necessary precaution, for it would be all too easy to slip and reveal something of himself he does not intend to reveal. Odin will be studying him, searching for any sign of weakness in both him and his petition, so he must be prepared for an interrogation.

This must succeed. It is, at present, his only option. He must get this right.

It is not his usual battlefield, but tomorrow he must fight like a king. The future of everything around him depends on it.

When he finally allows himself a break, he wanders the palace grounds again. He is not seeking company, but still finds himself slightly disappointed when he finds Loki and young Thor sparring in the training yards, both occupied entirely with each other. Their training is more playful than anything else, but they are busy. They do not even notice him.

It is good to see them together, even when it reminds Thor of his own grief. Of the brother he lost, sharp and twisted as his Loki was. Thor still loved him. Loki loved him in return, though Thor knows all too well that Loki hated him too. Hated him, envied him, even sought to do him harm. But Loki still loved him, and his love always outweighed his hatred.

By the end, their relationship had fractured, broken, then began the process of reforming into something new, made up of the old pieces but moulding into a different shape. They were on the verge of something.

What it might have been, Thor will never know.

Looking at those boys now, you would not know what the future holds for them. They are shouting, taunting each other, laughing. Totally at ease, too old to play but playing nonetheless.

And for the first time, Thor is struck by the realisation of what changing Loki’s fate will mean. For that is Thor’s intent, and has always been. To change Loki’s descent into madness, to prevent him from taking the dark path he chose in Thor’s time, to make him feel loved for all that he is rather than lamenting what he is not. To keep the boy before him happy, and safe, and strong.

It is the right choice, a necessary choice, to spare Loki that pain. But in doing so, the Loki he knew… will be gone. Is gone, now and forever. Cruel, traitorous, half-mad but redeemable Loki. Gone.

Thor is well-accustomed to grief. This grief burrows deeper still.

He takes a breath, but this is not the kind of sadness that can be ridden out. It burrows deep into his heart like a parasite, never to let go. Thanos killed Loki the first time. But it is Thor, with nothing but love and devotion in his heart, who will wipe that Loki from the slate of existence. Replace him with another, and be the only one who remembers him.

Loki is Loki, and Loki is Loki. But Thor knows. Thor understands, for young Thor will not grow up to be him either, if Thor’s plans come to pass. They are one and the same, and yet they are so different. So very, very different.

Thor bows his head, presses a hand to his heart, and allows himself a moment. Just a moment to remember Loki, and to grieve him all over again.

The boys still have not noticed him. They are still laughing, still playing. They have no knowledge of what the future holds, and if Thor has his way they never will.

Thor raises his head. Takes another breath. He has preparations to complete, and a lot of work to do.

Tomorrow, he petitions the king.

It is the right thing to do.

Chapter Text

The morning of his petition, Thor wakes to a note slipped under his door.

He is ill-rested. He rolls out of bed groggy and ill-tempered, a headache already pounding at his temples. Much of the night was spent rehearsing his petition instead of sleeping.

He picks up the note. Stormbreaker is written upon it in familiar loopy handwriting, and he opens it at once.

Dear Stormbreaker,

I write to let you know that I have joined my brother and his companions on a quest that may take us out of Asgard for some time. As I am sure you understand, time is of the essence, so I apologise for not wishing you farewell in person. On this score, we are now even.

Of course Loki still holds a grudge about that.

Thor reads on.

I shall return with tales of my own to tell you.

Take care, my dear friend, and I shall see you on my return.

Yours,

Loki

Once he is through, Thor reads it a second time, his brow furrowing. Loki has intentionally left out any details as to where he is going, or what he and his companions mean to do.

Thor sighs. He must allow them their adventures. Though now he understands the worry his mother felt when he went gallivanting off into the universe without so much as a by-your-leave.

Thor dresses quickly but carefully, grooms with the same eye for detail. His hair is still dyed dark but getting a little long for its current style, so he sweeps it back as much as he is able. He ends up looking like Loki, and after a moment he musses it up again. He trims his beard, smooths his brows, checks his tunic for wrinkles. And when he is satisfied, he collects his notes – he has time to revise while he eats his breakfast – and heads for the door.

He pauses. Heads back to his dresser, and drops a single drop of the potion in the green bottle onto his tongue. Every day he fights an internal battle – some part of him screaming that he should not need it – and every day he swallows his pride and takes it anyway. Pride has gotten him nowhere.

That over with, and a lingering taste of sweetness on his tongue, he heads out the door.

One hour until he meets the king. Thor is as ready as he will ever be.

- - -

“Rise, Stormbreaker.”

Odin sits on the throne before him, leaning to one side with his chin resting on his hand. Studying Thor. Thor’s written petition sits on a table to the side of the throne, but Odin makes no move to look over it. Instead, his eyes are on Thor.

Thor will never stop being struck by how those eyes pierce him. Not for the first time, he has to remind himself that he too is a king. He cannot look away, no matter how tempting it may be.

“It has been a while since we spoke,” says the king.

“Indeed, your Majesty,” Thor says. “I thank you for granting me leave to speak with you today. In my petition-”

Odin waves his hand, and Thor cuts himself off.

“We will come to that,” Odin says.

The hairs on the back of Thor’s neck prickle. He straightens his spine, lifting his chin just a little. Not a show of defiance, but of the pride befitting a warrior of Asgard.

“You were injured recently. Defending my son.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Thor says.

“You have my thanks.” Despite his words, Odin is cool and unsmiling, and Thor’s instincts scream caution.

Surreptitiously he scans Odin, seeking more information. His father looks well-rested, his weight within his ordinary range – Thor has seen it fluctuate both high and low when Odin is stressed – and Odin is clearly in no hurry. However, his posture, now Thor takes note of it, is odd. Rather than straight and upright, as is his usual style, Odin’s lean to the side speaks of… arrogance, or something like it. He is not the kind of king to sprawl insolently across his throne, but the intent is not far from it.

“It is an honour and privilege to serve the crown,” Thor tell him. Careful, mind whirling. He does not know why Odin is this way today. Knows that he is likely to find out, and equally likely for it not to end up in his favour.

Perhaps he should try another time. Though as soon as he considers it, he knows Odin will not let him. Odin would see through any attempt to delay immediately, and take offence to it. Thor must weather this unexpected storm, wherever it has come from.

“It is a privilege, indeed?” Odin says. Silky, serpentine. Loki had to learn it from somewhere, and it was not from their mother. “Though I wonder if you have… other motivations in mind.”

Thor’s heart thumps. He does not know where this is going, and he does not like it. He says, “I am an Asgardian citizen, your Majesty. There is no higher honour than to assist the royal family.”

“Hm.”

At last Odin turns his attention to Thor’s petition. Picks it up, flicks through it, slow and theatrical. Clearly intending to make Thor sweat.

It works.

“Your interests are far-reaching, it seems,” Odin says at last.

It is not an encouraging start, not by a long shot. But it is an opening, and Thor takes it. In one breath, he scraps the long-winded and cleverly-worded speech he had in mind, and goes straight for the jugular.

“Your Majesty, I firmly believe that Thanos poses a threat Asgard. He is a small and distant one now, but he is establishing a firm base of power that will come to threaten Asgardian allies and, eventually, Asgard itself. His methods are of the worst kind. He kills without limitation – no one is too young or too infirm to meet their death at his hand.”

“He is a pirate,” Odin says. He lets Thor’s petition fall back onto the table. “The cosmos is full of them.”

“Thanos is different.”

“How so?”

Thor stops. Considers. Backtracks. “As you may have read in my petition-”

But Odin cuts him off. “That he is a particularly skilled and ruthless pirate is no matter. I have read your arguments there, and they do not sway me. Why should Asgard involve itself?”

Thor swallows. Tries to collect himself, but Odin cuts him off a second time as soon as he opens his mouth.

“I have no interest in hearing your usual obfuscation. I have been most patient with your… innumerable secrets.” Odin’s eyes are cold. So cold Thor can feel their ice deep in his chest. “I will have the real reason, Stormbreaker. Your personal vendetta against the man does not persuade me. Asgard does not care for how many of your relatives this man has killed.”

Just when Thor thought he was done reeling. His throat constricts. He fingers shake, before he clasps them behind his back. Odin has no idea how cruel he is being. He does not know that the family he speaks of – disposable as he thinks them – is his own.

Thor’s head knows this. His heart does not.

And Thor… Thor has no choice. Sees no other way forward than to say, “Thanos seeks the Infinity Stones.”

Odin stills. Just for a moment. Just long enough to let Thor know this news affects him.

“You know the damage even one of them can do,” Thor continues, pressing his advantage. “And Thanos will find them. Those he kills are often the lucky ones, for he changes those he leaves alive. He breaks them and rebuilds them as monsters. He enslaves them. He need only wait, and his puppets will do his dirty work.”

Odin’s fingers tap the paper of Thor’s petition. He is silent for almost a full minute, but Thor will not break before he does. He stands, tracking the slow progress of a bead of sweat as it slips down his back.

“In your petition you requested a band of warriors,” Odin says at length. “Have you experience in leading a fighting force?”

“I have.”

“Tell me.”

But Thor cannot tell him. Not the truth, anyway, not all of it. And Odin knows that. Why else would his eyes gleam so?

“I recently led a team called the Revengers against an army of the undead,” he says. A dangerous gambit – too dangerous. He changes his mind almost immediately. The last person he wants to bring up right now is Hela. “I have extensive leadership experience spanning from my youth. I have fought bandits, and pirates, and insurgents. I have slain all manner of monsters, in all corners of the cosmos.”

“And yet I have not heard of you,” Odin murmurs.

“Perhaps you know me by a different name,” Thor counters. “But it is not a name I lay claim to any more.”

Odin considers him. Inclines his head, conceding the point. For now.

“I would prefer one of my own to lead such an expedition,” Odin says. “Perhaps my son Thor-”

No,” bursts out of Thor’s throat before he can stop himself. Odin’s gaze sharpens and Thor knows he has made a mistake, but there is no going back now. “I apologise for the interruption, your Majesty. But your sons, much as I respect them, are too young to take up such a task.”

“You think to tell me how to manage my sons.” Odin speaks quietly – too quiet. Thor is in danger now, more danger than he has ever been with his father. But there is no other way.

“I speak only because I have seen what Thanos can do,” Thor says. “In single combat he almost bested me. I have bested both your sons time and time again – if they cannot stand against me, they have no hope against Thanos. He has no qualms against harming the young.”

“Neither did you, if my memory of the tournament serves me correctly,” Odin says.

That silences Thor. He swallows around a sudden lump in his throat. Temporarily speechless, but even so he does not look away. Cannot look away, or he risks showing Odin how well he hit his mark.

“Your Majesty,” he says when he is sure his voice will not waver. “Thanos is a greater foe than you can possibly imagine. Given time, he will extend his reach to Asgard, and by then he will be too powerful to stop. I do not petition you for personal glory, whatever you may think. I petition you so that I may defend our people.”

“Our people, is it? You, a stranger, and yet you speak to me of our people.”

“Yes, my king, I do,” Thor says. It is all he can do not to raise his voice. This is a disaster, but he does not know how to set it to rights. “I may have travelled far from home, but home it has remained. It is my duty to protect that which I hold dear.”

“You take too much upon yourself,” Odin says. “Asgard is well protected. These crimes, regrettable though they may be, are taking place well beyond the borders of Asgardian territory and, therefore, Asgardian concern. I see no reason why I should risk the lives of my people for such a venture, at the command of a nameless warrior who has nothing at all to recommend him to such a post.”

For a moment, it is all Thor can do not to gape as he takes in the magnitude of the insult Odin has dealt him.

Thor squares his shoulders. Looks Odin dead in the eyes.

“You declare me unworthy, my king?” he says.

For a moment, Thor thinks he sees the hint of… of a smirk at Odin’s lips. Cold and self-satisfied. That, more than the insult itself, makes ice settle in the pit of Thor’s stomach. He has never seen his father so. Flawed, yes. But never so – so petty.

“I make no declarations,” Odin says. “You have, at least, proven yourself a worthy warrior. Perhaps you should consider how the rest of your conduct recommends you.”

Thor does not understand what Odin means. Odin must see it, and apparently decides to do away with crypticism.

He leans forward. Looming over Thor. “You should be more careful, Stormbreaker, in your relations with my sons.”

Thor goes very still. Stunned.

Apparently satisfied, Odin leans back on his throne. Waves a hand. “I shall consider your petition. You are dismissed.”

Thor opens his mouth to reply, but nothing good will come of it. He forces his jaw closed, and bows. Leaves without another word.

- - -

As so often happens when he is troubled, Thor finds himself in Frigga’s garden.

Anger whirls in his chest, but it is dampened by his shock. Shock that Odin would allow a - a personal complaint against him to influence his judgment as a king.

Odin never meant to grant his petition, he knows that now. He only summoned Thor to have the opportunity to taunt him with it.

Thor strides around the garden in endless loops, trying to steady his breathing. Of all the stupid, childish reasons to deny his petition – did Thor not make it clear what they are up against? He knows his father knows exactly how dangerous the Infinity Stones are. Odin is blind. Far blinder than Thor ever knew.

With that knowledge at the forefront of his mind, Thor’s anger eventually simmers down. Still there, but able to be pushed aside in favour of analysis.

The stakes have just been raised again. Odin may be petty, but Thor cannot afford to be. He must come up with a new plan to take down Thanos. Perhaps he needs to play a longer game – spend a century or two in some other ruler’s service, and earn himself a fighting force that way.

His heart aches at the thought of leaving Asgard, but he must destroy Thanos. If Asgard will not aid him, he has no choice but to find another way.

Strangely, even with Odin’s dismissal, the task does not feel as impossible as before.

He is pulled out of his thoughts when he senses someone watching him. Frigga, hovering nearby as though unsure whether to speak to him.

“My queen,” Thor says. He bows. If she has heard tell of Thor and Odin’s meeting, it is little wonder she might not wish to speak to him. Does she hold Thor in such low esteem, as his father does?

At his greeting, though, Frigga seems to make up her mind. She approaches, offering him a smile.

She does not fool him. She would never be so obvious as to wring her hands, but Thor recognises the furrow of her brow, the repeated motion of her hands bunching at her skirts then pulling away again before she can crease them. Frigga is anxious.

And damn Odin – Thor is going to talk to his mother, and to Loki, and to young Thor, no matter what foolish ideas his father takes from it. His anger is unhelpful, though, so he calls on his most courtly manner – the one his mother taught him.

“It has been a while since I had the pleasure of walking with you,” Thor says. “Would you do me the honour?”

“Of course,” Frigga says. She slots her arm through his.

Perhaps she does not worry over Odin after all.

For a time, they walk quietly. Thor knows his mother, and gives her a moment to compose herself, waiting until he sees the signs of her calming. Less fussing with her skirt. A tension slowly loosening in her shoulders. An exhalation of breath.

“Forgive me for my impertinence,” Thor says, “but you do not seem yourself today, your Majesty. If you have troubles, I would be glad to assist.”

Frigga looks at him. Then, unexpectedly, pinches his arm.

“If I have troubles, they are of your doing,” she says. Not angry – amused. She must read the alarm on his face - for how could such a statement not alarm him, directly after his meeting with Odin? -  and she clarifies, “My sons, Stormbreaker. You have a singular talent for riling my sons.”

That same concern again. Different in Frigga than in Odin – with Frigga, Thor’s hackles do not go up.

He hangs his head. “I can only beg for your forgiveness, my queen. I cannot seem to persuade them to leave me be.”

“They are terribly taken with you,” Frigga says. Casts him a look out of the corner of her eye. “My youngest in particular.”

She knows then. How could she not? If Odin knows, Frigga knows, though her reaction is different to his. Thor wonders what has prompted both of them to bring it up in such a short space of time.

“I assure you, I did not intend…” he says. Trails off, finding himself incapable of saying the words aloud. He rallies. “I have tried to… discourage such interest.”

“That I also know. I have heard it lamented at length.”

Again she is teasing, but Thor cannot meet her in kind. He stops walking. Turns to look her full in the face. “If there is something more I should do, please, tell me.”

“My son is very young,” she says, squeezing his arm. “Young, but not easily dissuaded. He gets… ideas sometimes, and will not relinquish them. He and Thor have ventured out, you know.”

It is still jarring, hearing his mother use his name for someone else.

“I know,” Thor replies. “I received a note this morning.”

A flash of amusement crosses Frigga’s face, then fades like a cloud coming over the sun. She bites at her lip.

“They often go on such adventures, of course. You might think me foolish. It is a mother’s burden to worry,” she says. Seemingly trying to convince herself that she is over-anxious.

“What troubles you, my queen?” Thor asks. “Where have the princes gone?”

Frigga looks at him, and he sees in a flash of understanding why she came to him. She is worried for her sons, has probably voiced as much to her husband, but it is a worry he does not share. Thus stifled, she seeks another kind of intervention. She is too proud to ask anything of him outright, but Thor already senses where this is going, and his own alarm rises in kind.

“They have gone to Vanaheim,” says Frigga. “One of the delegates told them all about some beast – rare and singularly dangerous - and it has been on their minds ever since to hunt it. I told them it was foolish errand.”

Vanaheim… A memory occurs to Thor. Of a fight against such a beast on Vanaheim. A fight that nearly resulted not just in his own death but in the deaths of Sif and Loki too. And they were much, much older and more experienced at the time.

“Begging my queen’s indulgence,” Thor says. “Your sons do not seek a wind-wyrm, do they?”

Please say no.

But the look on Frigga’s face says yes, and in her eyes is a silent plea. Without another word to her, without so much as a backwards glance, Thor whirls away.

She does not need to speak the words. Does not need to ask him for anything, given what Thor knows. He will go after them, at her behest or otherwise.

He packs for travel in record time, straps Stormbreaker across his back and marches for the Bifrost.

A wind-wyrm. A wind-wyrm. The thrice-accursed fools.

Thor has a new plan of action. First he will deal with Loki, and young Thor, and all the rest of the young fools who think hunting such dangerous quarry is a good idea. Then he will deal with Thanos.

Thor can only pray that he will get to the fools in time.

Chapter Text

When Thor hits the ground, it trembles beneath him.

The wind howls around him, whipping his cloak, lashing at his face. Cold, unnatural wind, carrying with it the inescapable smell of sulphur. He grimaces. He is going the right way.

He presses his hand to the rocky wall on his right. Swings Stormbreaker onto his back, strapping it carefully in place. With its power he landed with precision, but that makes the area no less dangerous. To his right is an endless wall of loose rock, dangerous even without the wind. To his left, a sheer cliff and inky blackness, an unnatural ooze of fog clouding the valley from view despite the force of the wind.

Even with Stormbreaker, Thor is not fool enough to attempt to fly down there.

He winds his way down the path as quickly as he dares. The smell of sulphur is getting stronger, but he can hear nothing above the wind’s howl and the small rocks slipping beneath his feet, trying to trip him up. Treacherous.

The people of Vanaheim warned him of this place, and they are not a superstitious people. It is full of old magic and long-forgotten ghosts.

“Do not go,” they said. “Only death lies there.”

Once Thor would have taken it as a challenge, the glory of slaying a wind-wyrm far outstripping the hazards of its lair. He is sure his younger self has. Now… now, he fears. His young friends, if they have made it this far, are in very great danger indeed.

He has come as quickly as he can. There is nothing he can do now but keep moving, and hope he reaches them in time.

He descends. Down and down and down. His face begins to grow numb and the wind lashes him, as though it wants him to fall. The darkness settles around him, feeling him, tasting him. Waiting for its chance.

His chest feels heavy. Every breath painful as all his dark feelings, his grief, his misery, his anger, whirl inside his chest. Hopelessness comes in quick succession – it is pointless. He cannot win. Cannot beat Thanos, or Hela, and he cannot save Loki from himself. He might as well just die here.

Die here die die die

Thor grits his teeth, and walks on. His steps grow heavy, but he will not be fooled. These thoughts are not his own. Some foul magic lingers in this dark fog. It will not take him, no matter how it whispers.

When he reaches the bottom of the path, he finds himself in a narrow valley. Damp, dark, crowded by hard rock on all sides. The wind is even worse here, an endless torrent down the corridor of rock. He squares his shoulders and leans into it, forcing himself towards its source. It grows stronger and stronger, an endless, unrelenting shriek, the smell of sulphur filling his nostrils and mouth.

Closer, closer. The narrow pathway widens out, branches off into other paths, all snaking and winding away. One path is wider. Another narrower, and turning sharply to the right. Directly ahead of him the path opens out into a cavern, a gaping hole in the face of a cliff.

The wind is so strong, the smell of sulphur so pungent, that Thor knows he must be close. He pushes his way towards the cavern, through the veil of darkness. For a moment, the wind drops out entirely. Then he sees a flash of light and – there.

Up ahead. Loki on an outcrop of rock, his hands stretched above his head, a great shield of light emanating from his hands. His friends clustered around him, weapons raised, shifting into formation.

Above them, the wind-wyrm. A creature of hurricane and death, half-flesh, half-nothingness. It ripples through the air like a serpent, long and winding. It dives, but Loki’s shield holds firm and it is forced to whip away again. Young Thor and Sif burst from behind the shield for just a moment, striking where then can then leaping backwards as its tail whips at them.

The shield repels another strike, and this time Hogun and Volstagg seize their chance. The beast shrieks and whirls away, crashes into a wall, and rocks hail down as it pushes off again.

For a moment, the young fools are forced to break formation. They dodge aside, young Thor shielding and guiding his brother as he holds his shield of magic firm and steady. They regroup quickly, bunching together again. Thinking their formation will protect them as they pop in and out of cover like moles popping out of the ground. They are more than foolish if they think such a strategy (if it can be called so) will work – they are quite mad.

The wind-wyrm is testing them. Daring their strikes, feeling the way they move. Preparing itself for a meal.

Thor does not remember breaking into a run. But he is, hurtling towards them, the force of the wind be damned. He is the god of the storm, and he will not bow to it.

The wind-wyrm tests them a third time. Strikes the shield dead-on, and Loki just barely manages to hold it in place. The young warriors rush forward, waving their weapons uselessly as the wind-wyrm rears back and away. Lashes its tail, and the gale intensifies. The force of it pushes the shield back, Loki and his friends along with it.

“Run,” Thor shouts, but it is lost to the wind.

The wind-wyrm twists, long and serpentine, whipping through the air as it dives again. Young Thor raises his hammer. Steps to the front of the group, side by side with his brother.

The wind-wyrm flickers. Disappears. Young Thor’s blow cleaves the empty air, striking nothing. There is a moment in time where Thor can see the stunned expressions on the young people’s faces. A moment in time where the air is suddenly, deathly still. The wind gone, the silence deafening.

Run,” Thor bellows again.

He sees them turn, confused. But they do not run, and terror seizes Thor’s chest. He knows what is about to happen. His lungs burn as he hurtles towards them, another step, another, but too slow. Too late.

This cannot be. It cannot. Something so stupid, so petty. He is so close, but not close enough.

A flash of silver ripples through the air. In front of him, between him and his young friends. Mjolnir gleams in young Thor’s hand, catching Thor’s eye, and he has no time to reconsider as an idea pops into his head. He throws out his hand, and calls.

The wind-wyrm bursts back into the world, a solid wall of death, its jaws opening as it bears down on Loki, on young Thor, on all their headstrong friends. Right where Thor needs it to be. Between him and them. Because right as the beast rematerialises, his call yanks Mjolnir from young Thor’s hand. It hurtles towards Thor, and right into the wind-wyrm’s gaping mouth.

The beast’s head jerks back with the force of it, shrieking and flailing. Mjolnir bursts out the other side of the beast’s head, but it is not enough, not by half. The wind-wyrm writhes, hits the ground with a sickening force, sending a great hail of rock crashing down with it. 

The young warriors go down, all of them. Some flung back by the force of its landing, some struck by falling rock. Stunned and helpless. The furious wind-wyrm is already bearing down again.

Too slow. Thor is here.

He lets Mjolnir hurtle past him. Wrenches Stormbreaker from his back and throws himself into the air. The beast is still shrieking, still gushing putrid blood, but it senses the danger. Whips back into nothingness right as Stormbreaker would have struck it.

Thor lands on his feet, quite steady. He was expecting that. His eyes flash over the damage – bodies sprawled across the ground, streaks of blood, groans and exclamations. He will deal with that later. His eyes dart from place to place, searching for that tell-tale glimmer of silver. Bare seconds to find it before the wind-wyrm strikes again.

Where is it, where is it…

There. In the direction he just came from, the mouth of the cavern. The beast thinks it is wily. He smiles, grim, and turns his back. Making himself an easy target. Baiting it out.

For a moment, his eyes meet Loki’s. Loki is on the ground, blood trickling down his face, eyes wide and stunned. His magic still fizzles at his fingers, useless.

The air ripples. A burst of wind and the wind-wyrm twists in the air behind Thor, bearing down. Thor can feel its acrid breath as it unhinges its jaw, ready to devour him.

“Stormbreaker!” Loki screams.

Thor waits until the very last second. Waits until the beast’s jaws open wide around him, until he can feel its saliva dripping down his back. He pivots right as the beast’s jaws descend. Draws back his weapon as its teeth close around him, its stinking hot breath enveloping his whole body. Now.

Thor reaches for his lightning, and strikes.

The moment of impact is deafening. A cacophony of noise as the lightning blasts down the beast’s gullet, as the axe splits its head in two.

Thor jumps through the hole, hitting the ground hard and rolling out of the way as the wind-wyrm’s body comes crashing down. Still thrashing and writhing as the electricity smashes through its every organ, its every vein and capillary, searing flesh and decimating it from within. It keeps thrashing, long after Thor can see that it is dead.

Thor closes his eyes, and breathes. It is over.

He sets Stormbreaker across his shoulders. Sticky saliva coats his hair, and something red plops to the ground when he shifts his head. The smell of burning flesh reaches his nose. Familiar. He does not gag.

He turns, slowly. Takes in the damage. Loki is closest and visibly bleeding, but obviously alive. Young Thor is alive too, but not as lucky as his brother. He is trapped beneath rockfall, struggling his way out from underneath. Bloodied, but a hardy boy, and lucky none of the larger pieces of rock struck him. Sif is sprawled out further away with a leg obviously broken, staring mutely at the dead wind-wyrm. Fandral is beside her, lying on his back but his chest clearly moving. Volstagg…

Thor’s heart jumps. The force of the wind-wyrm’s landing threw him the furthest. He lies slumped at the bottom of a wall of rock. Hogun is beside him, cradling his arm to his chest while the other fumbles for Volstagg’s wrist.

Thor hurries to him. Kneels down and pushes Hogun aside, feeling for Volstagg’s pulse – alive.

“He- he hit his head,” Hogun says. Small, quiet. Unnecessary, and Hogun is not usually one for unnecessary talk.

Thor nods. Feels – carefully, so very carefully – the top of Volstagg’s neck. Vertebra by vertebra he goes, checking for a break. Then he feels the back of Volstagg’s head, still so very careful. His fingers come away sticky with blood. Thor makes to pull off his cloak, but reconsiders. He is covered in viscera.

He turns to Hogun instead. “Cloak.”

Hogun fumbles one-handed at the ties, but manages to get it free without assistance. Thor tucks it over Volstagg.

“Do not attempt to move him,” he says. If Volstagg regains consciousness, Thor will be able to ascertain whether his back is broken. If he does not, he will need to come up with a make-shift stretcher, and will need help manoeuvring him safely onto it.

He goes to young Thor next, yanking the boy free of his pile of rocks. The boy groans, dropping to all fours and wheezing once he is freed. Thor he goes onto Sif – her leg will need splinting – and Fandral – chest pain, for the beast’s tail struck him directly and most likely cracked a few of his ribs, but not in immediate danger. Loki…

Loki is the only one on his feet. Blood dripping down his face, but safe.

Thor shuts his eyes. Breathes as the adrenaline coursing through his system begins to come down. He feels shaky. On the verge of either laughing or strangling the whole wretched lot of them.

“You killed it,” Loki says. His words are slurred – he is in shock. “I thought it swallowed you. But you killed it.”

Thor looks back at him. Pale face, green eyes – dead eyes on his back lifeless, he is dead he is dead

The memory is so sudden, so visceral, that Thor feels sick. He opens his mouth, but finds he cannot bring himself to speak. His only answer is a nod of his head, then he moves back to Volstagg’s side. Hogun sits there still, his worry clear on his face, and Thor claps a reassuring hand on his uninjured shoulder.

Volstagg stirs. Moans, blinking erratically. His eyes are dazed, and he makes a noise of pain as he attempts to focus them.

“Easy, lad,” Thor says. He is no medic, but he knows enough. He gets to work.

- - -

Once their wounds are tended and Volstagg is back on his feet, the young people’s injuries are all but forgotten. They shout excitedly at one another, waving their arms about and marvelling at their victory. They examine the wind-wyrm’s corpse, picking their way carefully over the rubble and debating what they should take back as a trophy.

Thor sits off to the side, cleaning his axe. Practiced, steady movements, despite the hint of a tremble in his hands.

They should die here you should all die

He takes in a sharp breath. Shakes his head, rough, but there is no dislodging the whispers. This place is cursed, Thor can feel it in his bones. Can feel its tendrils seeping into every part of him with every breath he takes.

Flashes of fractured memory, so quick he does not recognise them. Screams, pain, death.

There is nothing for you left, nothing… nothing…

Die, false-king. Die

A sharp noise jolts him out of it. His head jerks up, his breathing uneven, eyes searching for the source of the sound. Loki is climbing across the wind-wyrm’s body. The pressure of his steps caused the beast’s leg to move, its talon to clack down onto the rocky floor.

Teeth, get one of its teeth!” Fandral shouts up to him.

“Get a scale,” Volstagg counters. Slow and obviously a little concussed, but otherwise whole and hale. Hogun hovers near him, watching him carefully for any sign of further damage.

A good boy, Hogun. Out of all of them, Thor is the least inclined to wring his neck for pulling this stunt. It is not Hogun who led them on this ill-advised hunt.

“We should take its skull,” Sif says. Innocent, despite the inherent morbidity behind the idea. She does not realise how thoroughly Thor destroyed it, its skull is shattered in a thousand places. He will not be the one to tell her.

Thor looks down again. Works a particularly unpleasant bit of flesh out from near Stormbreaker’s handle and lets it plop to the ground. They need to leave, and fast, but Thor needs Stormbreaker in perfect condition first. Senses that anything less would be dangerous indeed.

Die die die

“It is Stormbreaker’s trophy,” young Thor says. “He should decide.”

“You struck the first blow,” Sif says. All but bouncing with excitement, despite her splinted leg. “If Mjolnir had not thrown it off its course, I do not know what would have happened.”

Thor’s hand stills. They do not know whose hand truly controlled Mjolnir. Have no reason to question it, and Thor does not wish them to.

“That was a good throw, lad,” he cuts in before his younger self can speak. His voice is quiet, but they all fall silent the moment he speaks.

Young Thor turns to look at him. Thor smooths a hand over Stormbreaker’s handle. Raises his eyes to meet his younger self’s. Younger to elder, past to future. The boy’s face is an open book - surprise, confusion, then… consideration.

A beat. Young Thor inclines his head just the barest amount. “I thank you.”

Young Thor is playing along. Knows full well he did not throw Mjolnir, knows it was wrenched from his hand. He gives Thor a heavy look, but plays along anyway. It is a surprise – Thor did not think the boy capable of tact, for he is not the subtle sort and has not yet had cause to learn. But young Thor meets his eyes and understanding passes between them.

It makes sense. They are, after all, the same person. In a manner of speaking.

Young Thor’s eyes bore into his, unsubtle in their message. We will speak of this later.

Thor holds his gaze, just long enough for his acknowledgment to register in young Thor’s mind. Then the boy turns away.

“What about a spike?” he says to his friends. Then, louder, “Loki! Break off one of its spikes!”

There are many things Thor will have to explain. His young friends are all aflutter now, excited by their victory and the stories they will tell, delighting in exploring the beast now it can do no harm. Simple and single-minded, but Thor knows it will not last. Young Thor, at the very least, knows Thor had the power to pull Mjolnir from him.

And Thor used lightning. Their view of it was shielded by the beast’s mouth closing around him, and they were distracted by their own injuries. Both those things, however, provide feeble cover. There is no mistaking the sound of a lightning. No mistaking the effects of electrocution.

Thor had no choice. He had to kill the beast, and kill it fast. But equally, he has no control over what the ramifications will be. He can only hope their naïve stupidity extends to his actions as well as their own. Bunching up like a flock of sheep, behind a static shield… They cannot have been fighting long before Thor’s arrival, or there would have been nothing left of them.

You deserve to die

Thor presses his head into his hands. The darkness of this place presses down on him. He reminds himself to breathe. Breathe… breathe…

“Stormbreaker.”

Loki’s voice to his right. Thor does not know when he came to be so close, but he does not look up. Cannot bear to look at him.

You failed him he died he will die again

“Why did you come here, prince?” He does not realise he is speaking until the words are out of his mouth.

“I – we came to kill the wind-wyrm.” Loki’s voice is faltering. Anxious now, when he should have been so before he embarked on such a foolish quest. Thor is still silent, and Loki fills the gap. “Stormbreaker, are you well? Truly, you do not look…”

Thor jerks to his feet like a puppet on strings. Still cannot look. Forces himself to breathe.

“I am not well-versed in healing magic,” Loki says, “but if you are injured-”

“I am not.” Then, again, “Why did you come here?”

His voice feels disconnected from his body. He does not mean to speak.

“The people are frightened. They needed help. They say this valley is cursed, and so did not come to help themselves. Now the beast is dead, they will be safe again.”

“No.”

Loki stutters to a halt. Thor still cannot look at him, but he hears Loki take in a shaky breath. Can practically feel him changing tack. “I must thank you for coming to our aid, Stormbreaker. We could have handled it, but-”

No.”

Thor’s hands are on Loki, gripping him by both arms, even as some corner of his mind screams for him to stop, to calm, to let the boy go. Thor cannot.

He will die and there is nothing you can do, nothing

“You would have died,” Thor says. His voice is unrecognisable, even to his ears. “You would have died, Loki. And for what?” And when Loki does not speak, “Answer me!”

“We just – we are warriors,” Loki stammers out. “Like you. We are warriors too, but you never…” Loki cuts himself off, his face going red. Honest. Too much so. “We could have done it, Stormbreaker.”

Loki hanging above the void. I could have done it, Father. I could have done it.

All of this, to prove himself. Always, always looking to prove himself, no matter the cost.

Thor is gripping him too tightly, and Loki makes a noise. His eyes go wide. Afraid, Thor thinks, and for a moment he is glad of it, for Loki should be afraid, should fear the death that almost took him.

It takes a longer moment to realise that it is not death Loki fears – it is him.

He releases him. Loki staggers backwards, his mouth open. Thor turns his face away, his stomach churning. This is his fault. Loki, young Thor, all his young friends… they have come here to prove themselves. To Thor. To prove they are his equals.

Die, false-king

He instigated this. They are so young, too young to understand the consequences of their actions. But Thor should know better. He remembers this, remembers their pride and naivete. Once, it was his own. He has prodded them into this, and they almost died.

No matter how he tips the scales, it is always the wrong way. He creates distance, they try to close it. He shows them his strength, they try to mimic it. He shows them his love, they love him too much.

What is he supposed to do? What more can he do? Why can he not get this right?

Die die die

“I apologise,” Thor says. His voice sounds distant. Not quite real.

Loki is shaking his head, stepping forward. “No, Stormbreaker, I-”

He reaches out. Thor turns away, picking up Stormbreaker and strapping it to his back. He can feel eyes on him. All of them staring.

“Stormbreaker, please, I-” Loki is saying. He sounds choked.

Thor cannot look at him. He strides away, back towards the passage that brought him here. Says, over his shoulder, “Come. All of you.”

He does not wait for them. Keeps walking, and leaves them to hurry after him.