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Uneasy Lies the Head

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Thor wanted the Grandmaster to bleed.

If he could be the one to make the Grandmaster bleed, so much the better. As long as there was blood. Preferably a lot. Plus pain. And screaming. Perhaps to want such things didn't make Thor the good man he longed to be, but he was past the point of caring.

It was no less than the Grandmaster deserved for what he'd done to Loki.

Thor wondered how many bones were in the Grandmaster's body. Wondered how long it would take to break each and every one. Wondered how to keep him conscious and alive long enough to feel every break.

Loki would know.

His eyes drifted up to the Grandmaster's viewing room. The hateful creature sat upon a pristine white sofa with Thor's brother seated at his side. The Grandmaster caught his gaze and smiled down at him. Thor glowered back. Demanding with his eyes the Grandmaster drop dead at once. The smile grew wider and, without breaking eye contact, he leaned over to whisper in Loki's ear. Loki gracefully lifted off the couch and slid to his knees between the Grandmaster's spread thighs.

Thor looked away. He killed his next opponent with ease.

* * *

"How is he doing this?"

Valkyrie didn't look up from her drink as she shrugged her response. No different than the last time he asked.

Thor paced the small room assigned to him. Clean, quiet. Comfortable furniture. Good food. It was the most loathsome room he'd ever had the misfortune of staying in. Valkyrie on the other hand - she just came and went as it pleased her. He didn't know why she started to visit him. He thought she would help him. He thought her honour, her sense of duty would return to her when reminded of Asgard. Turns out she was just as lost as the rest of them in this cursed place.

"There must be an answer. Is Loki bespelled? Has that thing drugged him? Does it wear off?"

"You heard me the first time I said I don't know, right? Gast just has ways."

"Ways? What does that mean he has ways? Is he a sorcerer?"

"No, you idiot," she enunciated sharply. "He's an Elder of the Universe."

Thor's stomach dropped to the floor.

Valkyrie smiled without humour. "I see Odin didn't neglect that part of your education."

"Fine," Thor said. "An Elder. How do I get Loki away from him?"

She shrugged.

"You have to know something!"

"I really don't."

"Not good enough," Thor snapped.

"So sorry," she said, not sounding sorry at all.

Thor paced some more. Each step more maddening than the last. Valkyrie finished her drink and departed. Nothing more was said.

* * *

This is just like Loki, Thor thought bitterly. It was late, the lights long ago dimmed for sleep. He was laid out across his bed, feet crossed at the ankle with one arm folded behind his head as he stared up at the ceiling. Sleep didn't come easy to him anymore. Not in this place. But, if he were honest, he hadn't slept well in years.

Not since his mother and brother died.

But he got Loki back. Just in time for everything to go to shit. And Loki? Loki apparently got netted by a madman - one of the Elders, no less - who stripped his mind away from him. Thor was relieved to find Loki alive if not entirely well. But this was all wrong. Thor wasn't close to done yelling at his brother. He had years of anguish and anger left to vent, dammit. But he had to put it aside to find a way to get them out of this, to restore Loki to himself, and hope the damage inflicted by the Grandmaster wasn't too much for Loki to bear.

Typical. And unfair.

Odin dead. Hela returned. Asgard in danger and out of reach. Thor didn't know what to do. His options were various degrees of awful. The one person he'd depended on for centuries to talk things through with was somewhere in this same building. But now a stranger.

But then again, hadn't Loki been so for years?

Thor closed his eyes as though the darkness would make things clearer. It didn't.

What do I do, little brother? What would you tell me to do with you?

Thor thought he knew the answer. He didn't much like it. Finally he understood all those lessons Odin had given him about what it is to be a king. The choices one must make.

He already resented those choices. What kind of king did that make him?

Sleep didn't come that night. Nor the next.

* * *

"Thor sad?"

"Yes. I suppose I am."

Thor found he didn't care much to socialize with the other fighters. It was a distraction he didn't want, felt he couldn't afford. But when he was of a mind not to be alone he chose to spend the time with his old teammate. The Hulk was a comfort in his own way.

"Because of puny god. Still sick."

It was as good a label as any. Damned if Thor could do better. One could recover from a sickness. See a healer. Drink a potion. Rest and be well recovered. Spells were trickier, if that was what this was. He still wasn't sure. Even if he was, Thor didn't know how to break or counteract one. That was never his area.

Some spells couldn't be undone. Some spells left permanent damage even if broken. He knew that much. For all the good it did him. For all the good it did Loki.

"Yes," Thor said. "He's still sick."

Hulk nodded his understanding. In a strange way, Hulk understood almost as quickly as Thor that something was wrong. For Thor, it was a spoken sentence - I've never seen this man in my life - and a lack of recognition in eyes as familiar to him as his own. For Hulk? It was in the lack of reaction.

When Hulk burst into the arena and Thor, overjoyed for a moment at the sight of another familiar face, called out to his brother - Loki, look who it is!  The Hulk caught sight of Loki at the Grandmaster's side and snarled. And Loki, who'd been smashed thoroughly not so long ago at the Hulk's hands, didn't so much as twitch. He sat placidly at the Grandmaster's side, smiling and empty.

When the lightning came, Thor sent it straight at the Grandmaster. It left scorch marks on the protective glass. The Grandmaster hadn't hesitated to drop him where he stood. When Thor came to, the setting on the disc implanted in his neck had been adjusted. His lightning no longer came to him.

Hulk, too, prodded at Valkyrie when she came calling. "Angry girl fix Thor's puny brother?"

He never fared better than Thor. "Sorry big guy," she'd say. "Can't. Don't know how."

Thor stared moodily out Hulk's window. His own room didn't have one. Not that there was much to look at. Fields of trash. Mountains of lost souls and discarded lives. He hated it. He hated this planet of broken things with every fibre of his being. It was as rotten to the core as the creature who oversaw it.

Hulk lumbered up next to him and set a large hand gently on his shoulder. He patted Thor awkwardly. "Thor good brother. Thor good friend. Hulk help Thor fix talky, annoying god."  

* * *

The Grandmaster occasionally toured his holdings. Meaning his fighters. Breezing through the common areas and ever-circling corridors where the imprisoned beings expected to fight and die for his entertainment were kenneled. He never walked alone. A phalanx of guards trailed him wherever he went and there was usually a companion or twelve to be found at his side.

Thor longed for these tours. They were the only times he laid eyes on Loki outside the fighting arena. The sight of his brother, clad in colourful outfits that suited him ill, filled Thor will a sense of sad longing. And rage. So much rage.

Rage at the Grandmaster. And at Loki as well.

Anger filled him, at war as always with the relief at seeing Loki alive. Breathing. Present. But not. Because the man walking at the side of the Grandmaster was not truly Thor's brother.

Thor's brother spent years pretending to be their father. Thor's brother spent years pretending he was dead while Thor grieved him. Thor's brother left him with an aching heart, a confused mind, and lightning playing at his fingertips the last time they saw one another before landing in this place. Thor's brother lied and lied and lied and Thor still carried the anger over the deception. Deceptions. Still carried the unshared sorrow for having lost Odin, as well as the bafflement over the very existence of Hela. Not to mention the fear for what was happening in Asgard.

Thor had unfinished business with his brother. Business interrupted by an unknown sister. The death of a father. A stupid, cruel deception complete with stupid statues and stupider plays.

Business interrupted by whatever the Grandmaster had done to Loki before Thor arrived.

Whenever Thor saw Loki, he ached. He ached and he raged. Logical? Perhaps not. But Thor never claimed to be a logical man.

He watched while Loki and the vile thing enslaving them talked, too far for Thor to hear. Loki looked unhappy. His unhappiness written in the thin press of his mouth and the small furrow between his eyebrows. Unhappiness Thor was blind to when they were younger, but now could not unsee.

The Grandmaster's affable mask slipped and irritation shone through. They were less than thirty feet from Thor when they stopped. The Grandmaster turned, one hand fisted on his hip while the other hand whipped out to slap Loki across the face.

Thor's breath caught in his throat. He waited. Waited for the flash of enchanted Dwarven forged metal to embed itself in the Grandmaster's throat. Thor would use the distraction to smash through the nearby wall - easier for him than trying to get through the energy barrier - and take down the guards before anyone could trigger his implant. Then he'd do his damndest to help Loki finish off the Grandmaster. It might end up killing them both, but at least they'd go down together.

But the flash didn't come. No dagger appeared in Loki's hand. No quick as a striking serpent action. Instead Loki did nothing. And Thor had never experienced such a sense of unease in all his long years.

It was the Grandmaster who moved next. He spoke with a smile. Stroked the back of his fingers along Loki's cheek, the same spot he'd struck, before circling fingers around the back of Loki's neck. He pulled him close for a kiss. Loki didn't resist. In the next moment, they resumed walking like nothing happened.

The small furrow between Loki's eyebrows remained.

When they walked passed Thor, the Grandmaster met his angry gaze with cool indifference before returning his attention to his entourage.

"Loki," Thor called.

Loki didn't spare him a glance.

* * *

"He's my brother. Help me. Please." Thor wasn't above begging. His opponent died earlier that night like all the rest. Thor was left standing alone in the ring waiting for his victory to be acknowledged. He could only leave with the Grandmaster's permission.

Thor had had to wait for the Grandmaster to finish groping Loki on the white couch first. How he wanted to set that couch ablaze.

"I can't. Stop asking."

"Can't or won't?"

Valkyrie turned away.

"Damn you!" he exploded at her retreating back. "Damn you and your self-pity. You spend your life capturing people to be sent off to their deaths for that monster's amusement. Have you no thread of pride left to you? How do you sleep at night?"

"Who says I sleep?" She didn't look back.

Fine, Thor thought. He'd faced worse odds.

* * *

"This is bad, this is really bad. I don't know what we're doing. We're going to get caught, what happens when we get caught?"

Thor let Banner babble, tuning most of it out as the human trailed along behind him. He needed to find them a way off this planet. He wasn't worried about them getting caught. Banner was much easier to hide than the Hulk.

And yes, despite what Loki might think, Thor did know how to pass unnoticed.

"Oh my god, what are we doing Thor?"

"As I said, we're leaving." Thor glanced back at his companion, wondering if it would be unforgivably rude to ask him to panic more quietly. Banner was disoriented and distressed by the experience of being submerged by his alter ego for so long and was not dealing with it well. Not to mention the killing people for sport part. But Banner was an intelligent being, a problem solver and Thor needed him focused on the problem at hand. "We need a ship."

Banner blinked. "A ship. Right. Because we can leave through any one of those portals. And end up god knows where. Do we even know where any of them go? Because we should probably find that out, don't you think?"

"Probably," Thor conceded. There was a gathering ahead. It looked like some kind of celebration. He noticed guards along the fringes keeping watch. He was unsure if this was normal practice on Sakaar or if this was a response to the Grandmaster's projection calling for Thor and Hulk to be found. Still, a crowd was a good place to lose themselves for a time.

If their path wasn't being blocked by Valkyrie.

"You're not going to get out of this place without help," she said. Hands on her hips, she challenged Thor with a steady stare. He met it unflinching and unsmiling. He felt Banner hovering at his side and watching the both of them.

Valkyrie pressed her lips together and looked away first. "So I guess I'll help you," she said grudgingly. "Had enough of this place anyway."

"Thank you," Thor said.

Her eyes drifted back to his face, suspicious until she decided he was sincere. Her mouth twisted in a parody of smile. "Sure." She took in Banner and gave him a once over. "Have we met?"

"Um," Banner fidgeted while giving her a nervous look. "No?"

"Huh." She dismissed him and returned her attention to Thor. "So what do you want to do about your brother?"

Banner did a double-take. "Wait - Loki's here, too? Wait - Loki's alive?"

"It's a long story," Thor said finally.

Valkyrie's eyebrows went comically high. "Now I kinda want to hear it."

"Another time."

She shrugged. "Whatever you say, Your Majesty."

"Wait - your what?"

* * *

When they followed Valkyrie back to her quarters, Thor was only slightly surprised to see Loki already within, trussed up, gagged, and in a foul temper. Banner froze in the doorway and gawked until Valkyrie tapped his arm.

"Want a drink?"

Banner dragged his attention away from Loki with effort. "Uh, no. Not really."

She turned away. "Good. You can watch me."

Grateful for the illusion of privacy as the two of them retreated to the tiny kitchen, Thor crossed the floor to Loki who stared up at him with defiance emanating from every pore. The familiarity almost made Thor smile. He dragged over the nearest chair and sat. Eye level seemed a better choice than looming under the circumstance.

Thor reached for Loki's face and he jerked away. Thor froze, fingers still outstretched. "I'm not going to hurt you," he said softly. "But I think we should speak." When he reached again, Loki let him and Thor pulled the gag away.

"What do you want?" Loki spoke as soon as his mouth was free.

"I want to help you. I want you to listen to what I have to say."

"Help me?" Loki scoffed. "By having her ambush me and drag me here when the Grandmaster is distracted? He's already searching for you and you do yourself no favours in attacking me. Nor yourself," he called over his shoulder. "He'll have you killed for your betrayal."

"Have to catch me first," Valkyrie called back unconcerned.

"Loki, please," Thor pulled Loki's attention back to him. "This is wrong, all of this. You must sense it. I know it."

"You know nothing about me."

"That is not true," Thor said. He leaned forward, hands folded together. "I know that you are Loki, son of Odin and Frigga of Asgard, though you were born elsewhere to others. You and I were raised together, we played together, we fought together. You love sweets, especially anything with apple blossom honey, but also neffleberry jam which is tart enough to straighten your hair. You enjoy wine and music. You love to dance, but don't like anyone to know so you pretend to abhor it.

"You had your first kiss the summer before you came of age. You would never tell me with who, but I suspect it was a friend of ours. I teased you for it and you retaliated by turning my hair green and then refusing to undo it. Mother had to fix it. Just like she had to that time you turned me into a frog. She said she found me splashing around in the fountain out in her garden and knew it was me right away from the mess I was making.

"We traveled all the realms together, you and I. Finding excitement wherever we went. Perhaps more excitement than our parents preferred. We had such fun. But in recent years we started hurting each other in ways that not so long ago I'd say wasn't possible. Perhaps you'd say different if I'd been listening. But we lost our way somewhere, Loki. I thought you and I would be at each other's side the rest of our lives. A part of me wants it still. I hope one day we'll find our way back again."

Loki stared at him, with clear eyes and a furrowed brow. Like he was trying to solve a puzzle. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I miss my brother. I very much want him back."

Loki make a small sound of consideration in the back of his throat. "Well, perhaps you ought to run along and find him."

"Damn," Valkyrie muttered into the heavy silence that followed, betraying any illusion of privacy.

Banner cleared his throat. "You know what? I will take a drink."

"Yeah, sure."

There was a loud thunk and a pause before Bruce spoke again. "Um, maybe a glass? If it wouldn't be too much trouble?" A lighter thunk. "Thanks."

"Aren't you going to offer me a drink, Valkyrie?" Loki called out, turning his face away from Thor. "Before the Grandmaster appears to separate you from the wretchedness of your drunken existence?"

"Piss off," she called back.

Thor stood abruptly, sending his chair skittering backward. "What must I do to get through to you? You are Loki of Asgard. You are my brother, not the Grandmaster's plaything. He has tampered with your mind, your very sense of being. The Loki I know would be incensed over such a thing, keen to spill blood for the offence."

"I think we've established I'm not the Loki you know. Though I suppose I'm flattered to be compared to such a bloodthirsty creature. Oh no, wait - I'm actually not."

Thor reeled away from him in frustration, pacing the length of Valkyrie's quarters before he trusted himself to speak without shouting. "Are you very sure you don't know anything about the Grandmaster has done?" he said to Valkyrie

"For the countless time, I'm sure. I've seen this effect before, but I've never seen it done. He just has ways. It goes with being like a million years old."

Banner looked up from frowning at the hazy contents of his glass. "The Grandmaster is a million years ago? Are you serious?"

She shrugged. "More or less. It's hard to tell. He's ageing really well." Banner gaped at her.

Thor laid his hands out on the countertop they were gathered around to keep himself from smashing anything. They were trembling. He pushed them down more firmly to make it stop. He closed his eyes and prayed to anyone - anything - for guidance.

Father. Allfathers. Please. What do I do?

There was no answer.

"I'm sorry, Thor," Valkyrie said. "I really am."

Banner cleared his throat. "Maybe we can just take Loki with us? Figure out how to fix him later?"

"Yeah, that would great except for the part where we're going from here to Asgard and Asgard's been taken over by a murderous hag who just escaped from prison. Who just happens to be Thor's sister. We going to leave Loki tied up in the back of the ship while we deal with her?"

"Oh. I missed that part about the sister." Banner gave Thor's shoulder an awkward pat. "You have a really complicated family."

Thor laughed. He couldn't help it. He laughed and he laughed and soon he was laughing so much he could not catch his breath. He caught sight of Valkyrie and Banner watching him with concern and that set him laughing more until tears streamed down his face.

It wasn't until Valkyrie wordlessly handed him a clean, soft cloth that Thor realized the laughter had stopped long before the tears.

Defeat, Thor decided as he turned back to Loki, was easy to mask with steady resolve.

Harder to mask was the rending of his heart.

* * *

"I mean, we can just come back. Right? Deal with your sister, make sure your people are okay, and then come back? We'll bring back some help. The Avengers. Some Asgardians. We'll form know, a rescue party." Banner looked to Valkyrie for back-up. She carefully ignored him.

"Loki will be okay until we come back, Thor. He's tough. He survived the Hulk. We'll come back for him and...and he'll be okay." Banner tried to smile. It looked more like a grimace.

Thor wished he would stop trying to reassure him.

"Here we go," Valkyrie spoke for the first time since climbing aboard their stolen ship. "Everyone hang on."

As they made their way through the portal leading them to Asgard - away from Sakaar, away from the still breathing Grandmaster, away from an enslaved (abandoned) Loki - Thor decided he hated being king. He wondered if that was part of being a good one.

He'd have to ask Loki one day. When they met again.