"I…" she shook her head, "I'm a warrior. I haven't the words. But he was not as I expected to find him, Thor."
Thor glanced sideways at Sif where she stood, very level and every ounce earnest with her hand on the pommel of her sword. He had not anticipated her voluntary offer to inform Loki of the Queen's death. They had never been friends. And now he did not know what to make of her statement. That Loki was 'not as she expected to find him'.
Thor looked at his hands where they were braced against the coarse, grey stone of the balcony ledge. The wreckage of the city sprawled beneath him. Distantly, he could hear the sound of the people who moved among its crumbled gold. The sun shone overhead. Songbirds chirped in a nearby vine.
Behind him in the palace he could sense only darkness and death.
He did not want to turn around.
"What would you have me do, Sif," he asked, finally.
Instead of answering, she said, "He was close with your mother. Wasn't he?"
Thor closed his eyes and one hand on the stone. His knuckles scraped against it. His right hand. The hand that called Mjolnir. That had not called fast enough.
"She encouraged him," he said. "She visited him. There was always something she saw in him that strengthened hope in her heart that he might come back to us."
He did not say that they had always shared a nearness between them that Thor had sometimes envied. That he had seen it in Frigga's frequent visits to Loki's cell. That a dark, distant part of him had wondered why she never sought him out in the same way. It was a voice he was not accustomed to, and it had made him think uncomfortably of his brother, of cautions given him by his mother years that felt like lifetimes ago. So, he had pushed it away. He had pushed her away. And now there was nothing he could do to repair that. He didn't say he was sorry, though the words were at the tip of his tongue. Sif would think him mad. Think he babbled in his grief. What good were apologies to the dead?
"But not in you?" Sif pressed.
That brought him back and he took a long breath. "No," he forced something like a smile. "My brother is long-dead."
She paused. Then, "I would have said the same…"
He remembered Sif, worry creasing her brow as she came to him after his return home, after his banishment and Loki's supposed death. She'd told him he waded too far in his grief and to come back. He had been angry at her. That same anger flickered in his breast now. Her misgiving rankled him.
"But you wouldn't now," he finished.
"No. Thor," she said. Excitement tinged her voice, "he did not take this from me."
Thor looked and he saw that she held out the key to the dungeons.
"And he knew where I held it." Her grey eyes were luminous.
"You went into the cell with him?" Thor frowned.
"I thought he would cause hurt to himself."
"It was a show."
"And yet I still have this." She lifted it on her palm, "Take it, Thor."
He took the key and he turned from her. He squared his shoulders and looked down at what was left of the city. "Thank you, Sif."
He felt, rather than saw the way she hesitated behind him before she sketched an uncertain salute and went her way.
Thor watched the birds skate across the blue of the sky.
He closed his left fist around the key and pressed it into the ledge. Blood slid down from the side of his calloused palm and pooled in a crimson bead against the grey before the bead burst and the blood spread, black against the porous stone.
It was late. The sky was dark. The halls were empty ruins. No more now than a wrecked, hollow shell.
Thor did not sleep.
He carried no torch. His step did not falter.
He'd walked this path a thousand times in his dreams.
He knew where the cell was. He'd known from the beginning. The location was etched to his mind, as though he'd been there all those thousand times in the flesh.
The dungeons smelled of stale fire and of death.
The lights were dimmed. They were made to rise and fall with the sun that those incarcerated beneath the earth might not lose all track with time. Those few barriers which remained after the attack, glowed a steady twilight.
Loki wouldn't like that, he thought. Loki had always demanded full-dark when he slept. In the cold moths when a fire was required for warmth he'd grouse and he'd grumble and Thor would find him in the morning hidden beneath all of his blankets.
He put that from his mind.
Loki was not sleeping. He was pacing, back and forth in the cell, barefooted and disheveled. The furnishings Mother had sent down were either smashed or overturned and strewn about the room. Thor was not surprised. He remembered the wreck of his own room, the table he had thrown against the wall and the things it had shattered. How he'd turned from the wreckage at a sound, panting, to see Jane, watching him with her back pressed against the doorframe and tears rolling down her face.
Loki heard Thor coming and he whirled to face him.
He stepped back.
"Thor," he said.
Then the surprise vanished and in the half-light that shadowed them both Thor saw his hands curl to fists, "You're late, Odinson," his voice cracked. "Go back to your life above and leave me to what little remains of mine. I have no wish to see you now, or ever."
"I would speak with you," Thor said.
"What could you possibly want?" he hissed, "It wasn't important enough to come before, and," the laugh was unsteady in his throat as he gestured to the room, "I'm hardly entertaining visitors now."
He was uneven on his feet. Thor thought it unlikely that he had slept.
Neither had he, but Thor had had ruins to right, others who looked to him for strength, appearances to keep up. Loki had had none of those things, and their absence showed.
Part of Thor had expected him to put up some front. But Loki had not anticipated his coming now. Either that, or he purely did not care. Thor did not let himself think on it. He had come for a purpose.
Thor moved his hand, bringing up the light.
Loki's face was gaunt and pale, his eyes dark hollows, worn through and weary. Thor didn't know how much of that was due to grief, and how much his time here, below the earth. Prisoners rarely looked their best when brought to trial, and Loki had dwelt in the dungeon's keep longer than most.
"I do not require entertainment," Thor said.
Loki's mouth was a firm slash in his face. "Your bondswoman told me all I need know," his chin jerked up. "Get out." And he turned his back on Thor.
"She did not tell me all I would know."
Loki whirled on him. "And what would you know now," he sneered, "at this hour of the day? The time is lost, Thor."
"I want to know why."
For one long moment, Loki just looked at him.
Then he shook his head as though to clear it. A laugh jerked his throat and he spread his hands, "Please," he said, "the options are endless,"
"But none so near." Thor felt his blood heating. He kept his voice level. "Why are you here?"
The mirth winked out of Loki's face. When he spoke it was with great care, like someone walking on a field that might erupt beneath them without warning.
"You would know that of me?" he questioned. "I would think that nearer your knowledge than mine."
"Mother," Thor said, "did not think so."
"Oh?" Loki asked carelessly, "What did she say about that?"
Thor's temper flashed, "She believed you had good reason for your actions on Midgard. She believed there were things you had not said. There was something in you that she saw and she believed in and I would know what it is."
"I think it's a bit late for that question,"
Thor slammed his fist with all his strength against the nearest corner of the cell. The stone shuddered under his force.
"Mother is dead," Thor shouted, "This isn't one of your games!"
"You think I don't know that?"
"And if it hadn't been for your secrets," Thor pushed, "You might have been with us. She might yet be alive!"
For one moment, Thor saw the impact of that statement. Saw the mask flicker. Saw Loki fall back a pace. Then Loki recovered himself. He turned his head and he breathed as though the words had been a blow. One pale hand closed in a fist. A tear skated down his cheek.
Thor stood without the cell, anger and grief and a howling need to know why tangling and writhing in his throat.
Many things Thor was guilty of. Many things repented and many repaid. Loki had refused his offer to begin and make things right, refused all the past they'd shared and now the city was in ruins, Jane might be dying and.
Mother was dead. The ceremony of her funeral was over.
And here they were.
Loki was the one to break the silence. "Malekith."
He whispered the name like a prayer.
"The Dark Elves," he said, "the Kursed."
He opened his eyes and he turned to face Thor. Tears fell unheeded down his face. "Your mortal found the Aether, didn't she?"
"It possessed her," Thor's hands opened and closed by his sides.
Loki scoffed, "'Bury it deep," he sneered, "where none will ever find it'. She was where she ought not be because she sought you."
"Do not make this about Jane," Thor threatened.
"Isn't it already? Had you not been so besotted by your mortal you might have seen the threat coming."
"Not," Thor breathed thickly, stifling his temper, "even Heimdal, had warning of their approach."
"Heimdal sees nothing," Loki snapped.
"And you," Thor argued, "you would have seen farther?"
Loki closed his teeth, eyes flashing venom. He turned his head.
Thor made himself breathe. "Father claimed that all of them were dead," he said, "None of us looked for their attack."
"Of course not." Loki dismissed it as though it were no more than a slight infraction of etiquette, already forgotten.
Thor stared at him.
A smile flashed on Loki's face. He half laughed, then he turned, leering down at him, "How is she, Thor?" he asked, "Is she worth it?"
And Thor flung open the cell. He slammed the gate behind him and he hit Loki. Hit him as hard as he could.
Again and again.
And Loki did nothing to stop him.
Finally, Thor hit him hard enough that he dropped and Thor caught him. Thor caught him by the neck and he thrust him back against the wall with his hand closed about Loki's throat.
Then, abruptly, the red haze was gone. It fled and it left him cold. He barely understood what it was he had done.
Almost as though it was a second thought he drew his hand back to himself and Loki crumpled onto the ground. Thor opened and closed his fist. His knuckles were raw, wounds re-opened. Some of the blood was his, some Loki's, mingled on his skin.
As though from very far away, he heard Loki coughing, gulping back his breath.
Thor stood very still, and closed his fists, and breathed.
The cell was different from within. The light of the barrier made it nearly impossible to see what lay outside of it. It made Thor feel small and helpless and watched, even knowing that there were only the two of them in all the cavernous space around. He noticed the broken glass on the floor. The shattered mirror, the torn, broken things strewn about.
He was so cold. His breath shuddered as it heaved in and out of his chest.
Loki had pushed himself up so he was sitting on the floor with his back to the solid wall of the cell and his arms draped over his knees. His hands hung limply before him. He breathed raggedly.
Thor went and sat down beside him. He let his head hang low.
Loki coughed and spat blood onto the floor. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. Thor noticed that his hand was shaking.
Thor looked at his own hands, calloused, scarred, bleeding.
"Why did you stop?"
Loki had turned his head to face him. Blood was smeared on his skin, and a bruise darkened the side of one cheekbone. None of the mockery that had so angered Thor remained. What remained was a tired emptiness that left Thor feeling suddenly incapable and inadequate.
Thor looked away from him. He opened and closed his hands. His throat ached and it felt like an eternity might pass before he could answer.
He took a long breath that grated as it went down.
"Brothers should stand united," he recalled.
Loki closed his eyes and his head rocked back against the wall. He did not answer.
The ground between Thor's feet wavered as he watched it.
After a moment Loki began to breathe again. He lifted his head and his hand was at his mouth. His eyes were dark. He worried the nail of one thumb with his teeth.
He'd sucked his thumb as a child. Thor remembered that. Thor had teased him. Mother had not liked the teasing.
"Brothers should stand united."
"Mother," Thor choked, "would have expected more of us."
Loki gave a breathless laugh, but the smile left his face as fast as it'd come. His eyes skated away when Thor looked at him, as though he was afraid.
He swallowed thickly, then he looked back at Thor. He looked at him like the fate of world's hung on Thor's answer. His fingers dug into the fabric that covered his knees.
"Did she suffer?" he rasped, finally.
It reminded Thor of when they were children and Loki would wake him, frightened of his dreaming, asking if the dark things would catch him.
"No," Thor said. And the tears spilled boiling hot from his eyes.
Relief washed across Loki's face. Then abruptly, he turned his head away.
"It was over too quickly," Thor opened his hand, "I could do nothing to stop it. She," he took a long, shuddering breath.
Loki did not move.
Thor let his breath out and he closed his fist. "She was brave," he said.
He put a hand on Loki's leg and Loki jerked as though the touch had hurt him.
He looked at Thor and his eyes were like the Void.
"She died a warrior," Thor promised.
Loki sketched a sharp nod. Then he looked away. Afraid, Thor thought, like he wanted a place to run.
Thor hadn't thought of it in all the years of their youth and manhood. But he had used to be that place.
Mother had wanted no more from them than that they get along. And they had failed her.
He. He had failed her. In so many ways he had failed her.
His breath strangled in his throat and tears rolled down his face. Then Loki gave a shuddering kind of sob and Thor put an arm over his shoulders and pulled him as close as he would allow. And they both cried.
"There was another reason I came down,"
Beside him, Loki didn't say anything. He stared at nothing some yards in front of him and he didn't move.
Thor toyed with a splinter of wood from the ground. "I don't know, what to do," he admitted. "Malekith was drawn by the Aether. And with Jane here," the splinter crumpled in his hand. He cast it away, "I have to take her off-realm. And I always circled back to one thought."
When he looked over, Loki had turned empty eyes on him.
"I wondered," Thor said, "what you would do."
That won a laugh and a smile that cut like a knife, "I always knew you for a fool," Loki said. His voice was rough. "I had yet to realize how great a fool you were."
He straightened a little, resting his head back against the wall. His eyes closed and he let the jagged smirk fall away. "What would I do, Thor?"
It was a distraction, and distraction was good.
"Something dangerous," Thor said. He smiled, a little. The past couldn't hurt more than what was, and he did not shy from the memories as he had. "Something clever, and probably," he allowed, "against the rules. We never did follow them," he remembered, "did we?"
Loki smiled. "No," he said. "We…" he faltered. "We never did."
…against the rules…
"I think…" Thor got to his feet. He turned sharply to face Loki. "Would you help me?"
Loki just looked at him. The emptiness was bleeding all out of his eyes.
"Well," Thor asked, "Would you?"
Loki flicked his eyes at the ceiling, "I'd have to check and make sure I hadn't any more pressing engagements," annoyance colored his voice in the way that Thor remembered, "I'd rather thought my agreeance implied, Thor."
"Someone will come for you," he said. "Be ready."
Perhaps he was a fool, Thor thought as he strode from the dungeons. But it was a chance. And Thor would take what chance he had.
The words were a whisper, a whisper none of them would ever hear.
In his mind he saw the way Thor would tip his head and the way the light would catch in his eyes. "For what?" he would laugh.
"Everything," he said. "For everything."
He opened his eyes and the cell was empty.
He let his head fall back against the wall.
He'd been angry and that anger was something he could cling to. Now Thor had come and he'd taken that away.
It was easier to believe that he was alone. Memory was merciless.
"Brothers should stand united."
Tears leaked down the sides of his face.
This was never supposed to happen. My last "one-shot" was supposed to end there. But then Sif thought about it some more and she thought maybe Thor should be made aware of what it was she had discovered.
And here we are.
Hope you enjoyed, hope everyone was in character, I hope November comes soon because I cannot WAIT for 'Ragnarok' - but not too soon, because, you know, Summer.
Review and let me know your thoughts/theories/critiques/questions/etc. I might not answer right away, but I'll get to you. You know...adult-ing...
Also, shout-out to GoodForBad, my one-shot muse, without whom my "one-shots" would remain forever trapped inside my fantasy worlds.
And, seriously, read her story 'What the Woods Did Bring'. In a way, it's the grandfather of this piece. And it is so much fun.
Shameless plugging over. May the Bifrost light your way and Yggdrassil guard your paths.