The sun was setting low beyond the courtyard walls, and Thor's heart was beating a quick drubbing beat in the upper part of his chest. He didn't know what was going on, and no one anywhere in the palace seemed to think there was a problem at all. He knew they were watching him as he pushed past them, all amused and curious. He'd stayed late with Sword Master – hours late. Thor was one of Sword Master's favorite pupils, not only for his bloodline, but for his sheer skill with a weapon and his evident pleasure in using it. Without any real conceit, Thor knew it. He used Sword Master's preference to get more training. He figured that if he was to be king, he could use all the training he could wheedle out of his teacher. Asgard would need a defender one day when his father was too old for it, after all. Thor had asked Sword Master – innocently enough – for help with one particular form, and answer had led to question had led to demonstration had led to this: Thor, skin tingling from the cold of the water he'd washed with, his tunic clinging to his chest and arms, with his pride in his lessons forgotten and no idea what could have happened to his family. He'd come in, expecting a hot tongue-lashing and a cold dinner – both of which he would have appreciated – and instead he'd come into their private dining hall to find it empty. If it was Loki he was looking for, Thor would have been irritated, but unsurprised. But Mother? It was unlike her, and that frightened him.
He found her, finally, slumped in a chair in her library.
Seeing her still, Thor was afraid. "What's the matter?" he managed. His voice sounded younger than he would have liked. He hovered on the edge of the room, anxiety like a fluttering of wings in his chest. He cleared his throat and asked, louder, "What's happened?"
Drawing herself a little more upright, Mother glanced at him. He didn't think she'd heard him come in. Her face was red with weeping. When Thor saw that, his heart dropped. He stole in and he knelt down beside her.
"Thor," She gave a broken kind of smile and laid a hand against his tousled hair, "Nothing's happened," she assured him.
"If it was nothing…" Thor hesitated, then shook his head. He was old enough yet that he knew when an adult was lying to him. She only meant to free him of her problems, he knew that. But he was old enough to help her. She didn't have to think of him as a child. He was nearly a man. He could help her, surely. He raised his head to meet her eyes, "You can tell me," he promised.
Mother gave a fond breath that was like a laugh. She said nothing for a moment, but he could tell she was thinking, so he waited, tentatively watching her. When she spoke, it was in a brittle voice, "Your father and I…" her smile wavered, and Thor was afraid she would start crying again. Much as he wanted to help, he wasn't sure what to do if she cried. Mother never cried. "Your father finally did something I've wanted him to do for a long time," she stroked his hair distractedly, "I on–" Her hand fluttered to her mouth, "I only wish he'd taken it better…I wish we…"
Fear for his father superseded nervousness around feminine emotion. It propelled him to his feet, "Father? What happened to Father?"
Mother shook her head.
Giving an irritated breath through his nose, Thor wavered between comforting his mother, and running to find out what had happened to his father. He didn't understand and secrets pricked like needles under his skin. He reached out hesitantly to touch her shoulder.
Her hand covered his, trembling and cold.
Thor swallowed dryly, "I…"
Mother understood. She nodded her head. "It's all right," she said, giving him weak smile. Fresh tears streaked her face.
Heart beating an unsteady rhythm, Thor jerked a nod. He hung back in the doorway, glancing toward his mother, but she had not risen to come after him, and after an uncertain moment, he fled. He was out of breath when he finally came to his father's study. It was where his father always went when he was unsettled. If Father had been hurt or sick, there would have been servants everywhere. Thor would have heard of it before now. He would have been fetched from practice. He was certain of it. So it must have been no large thing. But what small thing could have reduced his mother to tears? Thor didn't understand. Father would explain it to him…if he was well enough.
Thor crashed through the door. So bent were his thoughts toward his father's well-being, that he didn't think to pause or listen for voices. He thundered into the study, winded from his run and blown by the breeze that had risen all throughout the city, panting, demanding, "Father? Father, what's–"
It was too late by the time Thor noticed the men in the study with his father, and the way they were dressed. He'd forgotten. A King's duties come before his personal life. Father had told him so a thousand times. Swallowing his tongue in a quick flush of shame, Thor drew back. He was all-but man-grown, and heir to the throne besides. He ought to have had the presence of mind to wait, to listen, before throwing himself into a room. A self-satisfied voice in the back of his mind pointed out that Loki would have waited.
Father rose from his desk. Coolly, he excused himself and the visiting dignitaries parted to make way for him. Thor didn't know where the men had come from. He didn't recognize their speech or their clothes. He ought to have known that by now. Loki would have known, and Loki was his younger. He realized they were all looking at him. His hands and feet felt huge and he didn't have the first notion what to do with his arms. Thor ducked his head, and, dodging their eyes, he stepped back out into the hall, making way before his father and grateful to be in the hall again and out from under their eyes. "Sorry," he mumbled.
Father closed the door delicately behind him. If he heard Thor's muttered apology he made no note of it, but raked his eye once over his son's downtrodden look. "I see you need no reminder of your error," he said crisply. "What is it that could have so blinded you to propriety?"
Spurred by the curtness of his father's tone, Thor raised his chin, "What's happened between you and mother?"
Father took one long breath and touched the bridge of his nose.
"She weeps," Thor said. An edge of desperation tinged his voice. At another time, that would have bothered him. In the circumstances, Thor barely cared.
Father eyed him, unimpressed. "You will find as you age," he said dryly, "that women do. Your mother is soft of heart. How she could have failed to conceive of this as an outcome is beyond me. I have not the time, Thor, to explain. You will wait." He said it with decision, and Thor bristled. "And I will explain all to you when it is time that you know. Now. I have business to which I must attend, and it has been disrupted enough."
Father turned, signaling an end to their audience. Thor's temper wouldn't have it. He took an unthinking step forward. "What have you done to Mother?" he demanded, half-catching himself.
Hand on the door, Father glanced back at him. Something like amusement flickered in the depths of his eye. "Nothing," he said. He turned, better to face Thor. "She told you none of it?"
Mother, drops running from her eyes, unable to speak for her tears, flew to memory. Flushed and uncomfortable, Thor grit his teeth. "She couldn't."
Father hmmed, as if that answered any kind of question. "Look to your brother," he said, simply. "Should he choose, he can explain some of it to you. Had you attended dinner," Father gave him a significant look, "already you would know all."
Thor shifted on his feet. "Yes, Father," he grumbled.
He was about to bolt, certain that he was dismissed, when his father's voice stopped him. It was a near thing that he kept his balance as he caught himself. Thor couldn't place the expression on his father's face.
"Do not," Father hesitated, glancing away before he pinned Thor with a look. "Do not press him too hard, Thor," he decided, and his voice was as gentle as Thor had ever heard it.
Thor nodded quick understanding, not thinking much of his father's words but eager to be on his way, and no sooner did the door obscure his father's face then Thor was off at a run to his brother's chambers. Loki was a person who knew things. Surely he could explain all of it. Thor should have thought of him first. The questions spilled over onto his tongue before he'd so much as touched the door, in hot demands and complaints that died entirely when he saw what had become of his brother's room.
Thor starred around in profoundly new mystification.
And from the middle of the wreck of his room, Loki looked back at him.
Neither of them were tidy, but this…this was unexpected. Thor had known Loki to be so caught with an idea that he would throw things wildly in his pursuit for some lost item. But never like this. And he'd never known Loki to mistreat his books. They were scattered across the floor, amid loose papers and broken shards and clothing…Thor couldn't even tell what some of it had been.
Feeling like the rug had been tugged out from under him, Thor swallowed. He was winded from his run up the stairs. He raised his eyes to his brother's.
Loki looked back at him, his chin high in a show of defiance, though defiance against what Thor couldn't fathom. He was distracted sorely by the state of Loki's books. It had only been perhaps a year ago that one of the two of them – Thor couldn't remember which – had left one of them out and overnight it had rained. Loki had nearly cried the next day when they'd found it. Suddenly alarmed, Thor looked up. But he couldn't tell if Loki had been crying or not – and whether or no, Loki wasn't crying presently, and that was entirely enough for Thor, in that moment. Thor was out of breath, and he was beginning to suspect it wasn't entirely the fault of the staircase. Loki was very pale with every muscle wound tight like a drawn bowstring. Thor knew enough of both horses and fighters to recognize that something was desperately wrong, even without the state of Loki's room to bear witness. He didn't know rightly what to do, just then. Distractedly, he pushed the hair back from his forehead.
"-Father…" he finished lamely, his tongue feeling too large in his mouth and hardly knowing what it was he had been saying before he saw Loki's room, "…said you could tell me." Loki just kept looking at him, in that strange hollow way he sometimes had that made Thor feel like no one was looking back at him at all. It set his hair on end. Abruptly, Loki turned away. "I don't want to."
He said it softly, and that jostled Thor's already shaken nerves. Irritably, Thor pushed farther into the room. Throwing his leg over an over-flung end table to make room, Thor slung the door shut behind him.
"Oh, well, come in, then," Loki drawled.
That was too much. Thor growled, shoving the damp hair back. "You have to tell me something," he demanded.
Loki's face didn't change. He merely stepped around a sprawl of books on the floor to stand before his desk. Putting out his hand, he righted a candlestick. But he said nothing.
Thor's annoyance was palpable, squeezing his chest until he thought he'd scream, and Loki was just calmly fiddling with oddments on his desk, as though the day were any other and his counsel was his own to keep. "You've ruined your room," Thor countered hotly, sticking out a hand towards the mess, "Mother's weeping in her library, and Father told me you know why. You have no right not to answer me!"
"Just go away, Thor."
"I'm not going away!"
The muscles across Loki's shoulders stiffened, but his voice still didn't change as he said, "What makes you think you have the right to know?"
Thor couldn't stop thinking of his mother, weeping in the chair in her library. He couldn't remember ever seeing her cry before. He threw down his arms, "I just explained why!" he shouted.
"I didn't even know until today…" Loki continued, very slowly, like he hadn't heard Thor at all – or worse – like he had and was treating Thor like a witless, spoiled child. "…And I rather think I would be the nearest concerned."
"I'll have it out of you, Brother," Thor growled, "one way or another. What has happened?"
Loki was quiet long enough to pick up a pen that lay on the seat of the chair that yet stood beside him, and set it precisely on the desk.
Thor wasn't going to say anything else. He was just going to stand there in Loki's room until Loki got sick of him and admitted something. But his patience was running out. He was just thinking he might actually step forward and throttle him when Loki moved his head.
"I'm not your brother," he said, softly, "And nothing's happened."
Spoken calmly, the words took his breath, and Thor staggered.
"Not –" wounded, Thor floundered for words. His anger righted him. "I'll have none of your lies Loki. Not today."
"I'm not." For the first time Loki rounded on him, his eyes flashing, and it was good to see life there, even if Loki's outburst startled him. "I'm not lying Thor," Loki shouted, "Sometimes things are true even when you don't want them to be! Don't you understand?"
Loki's face went blank, then, and he fell back, catching his hand behind him on the desk. He looked away, breathing hard, like the words had taken something from him.
Thor was reeling and something throbbed behind his eyes. It boggled him that Loki would think this day one for his games. Loki liked tricks, but this – this was cruel.
Loki made no attempt to say anything else. He just stood there, holding onto his desk behind him.
"Why?" Thor demanded. The question was weaker than he'd have liked. He pressed through, "Why would you say something like that?"
Loki had retreated back behind the emotionless mask Thor so hated. Leaning on the desk, he shrugged. He didn't look at Thor.
"Father named you God of Mischief, not Lies," Thor spat, finding his proper voice again.
"Well I don't see what that has to do with anything…" Loki murmured. He folded his arms and through the red haze Thor noticed distractedly that his hands were shaking, "…since he's the one who said it,"
"Father would never speak such lies!" Thor whirled to the door, well-prepared to storm back to Father's study, dignitaries or no, and have Loki punished for his thoughtless cruelty.
"I was born the year the Great War with Jotunheim ended."
Thor paused, his hands fisted by his side, his breathing labored. He did not turn to face his brother, but he listened. What Loki said was true enough, it could not be denied. Not that Loki wouldn't try. Thor wanted to call him a snake, but he didn't. He listened.
"Mother – your Mother," there was a pause. Thor still did not turn. He felt his own hands shaking and he didn't want to see Loki's face. After a moment, Loki continued. "She carried a child, that year, who arrived stillborn. A brother you never knew." Loki was speaking very slowly, like the language was new to him and didn't quite know the words. "AllFather found a child. A child who was left. In a temple."
"And you're telling me," Thor said, his voice hot, and quavering with passion, "that you were that child?"
When Loki spoke, his voice was reed thin, each word spoken deliberately, "What would I stand to gain by lying?"
Thor whirled on him. Loki's eyes looked like sightless glass. "You'd make me very, very angry." Thor wanted to step forward, to close the space between them and use the full advantage of his height against his brother. He wanted to see the fear flicker in Loki's eyes and make him take back the terrible things he'd said. But there was no easy path to where the younger boy stood – something Loki had done deliberately, Thor was certain of it. Thor had to content himself with a meaningful glare. "So angry that I might not know what I did. I'm sure I could explain it to Mother."
It didn't work. Loki only looked at him. "Your mother."
Thor's temper exploded again and he threw his hands, "You expect me to believe that you are not my brother? Nor son to Odin?"
Loki did not flinch. "Laufey," he said.
Thor blinked at him in blind stupefaction. It was a name. The name of Jotunheim's coward-king, who had accepted surrender instead of glorious death in the face of Asgard's supremacy. His was a name from history books. Nothing more. Thor didn't understand why Loki had changed the subject again. Thor's anger was slow to return, slower than his voice. Finally, shaking his head, "What?"
A spark lit behind Loki's eyes, "Father and Mother sat me down today to tell me that I am no son of theirs," he straightened away from the desk, and Thor stepped half-consciously back, "but the bastard runt of the disgraced king of Jotunheim. And you have the gall to throw yourself into my room and complain of being kept in the dark? Because Mother's crying?"
Staggered, Thor lost his footing and barely caught himself, bracing his hands against the wall behind him. His blood ran cold. "Loki," he stammered, "is…you're telling me the truth?" He didn't believe it. He fumbled backward, searching for the anger that had buoyed him this far, but it was gone, slain by cold certainty. He didn't really believe Loki was lying, not anymore. This truth was too terrible for even Loki to have made it up. His heart did something uncomfortable behind his breastbone.
"Why else would I have told you anything?" Loki spat.
Sick to his stomach, Thor lowered himself in an awkward sprawl of limbs onto the floor. All the strength had gone out of him in that one moment. He put his head down against his hand, trying to still the awful spinning. He had wanted to learn what was happening so that he might fix it. He was a warrior, and he was strong. Whatever had hurt his mother, whatever had made Loki so angry he had damaged his books – it could be faced, and – if faced – vanquished. Warriors faced their greatest fears. They battled dragons and they survived. The warrior-princes in his stories were fearless and brave. Even the ones who died did it with laughter and courage.
Faced with what Loki had said, Thor didn't feel like a warrior. His head throbbed. Awkwardly, he drew his right leg off of the chair it balanced on. He hugged his knees against his chest.
"Thor..?" Between the beginning of his name and the end of it, Loki's voice lost all derision. It hitched higher, like Loki was afraid, "…you're not…"
There was a knot he could barely breathe around in his throat and he dared not raise his head for shame. "I wish you were lying…"
"Thor, stop," Loki begged.
Thor's breath skipped, catching in his throat. He couldn't fix Loki's fear. He couldn't fix this. He was just a boy, after all. Barely worth the expectations thrust on him by his birth, and he couldn't fix something like this. His hand came up, kneading his forehead. "I–" He dragged in breath, knowing he had to say something before he couldn't, "I want you to be my brother." The tears spilled hot and stinging on his cheeks and he drove his face against his knees to hide them, his voice muffled. "I don't want anyone else…" Thor sobbed. Loki's words ran round and round in his head, throbbing behind his eyes, taunting him. A brother you never knew. He didn't know what would happen, or why his parents had said something. Why now? He didn't understand, and there was nothing he could do. Would Loki have to go back, to live with those monsters? He couldn't give up his brother. But if what Loki had said was true, he already had and he'd never known. He'd spent all his life loving someone who was never really there. A brother you never knew. And now Loki would be taken from him too.
When his tears ran out, they left Thor feeling shaken and more weary than he had ever been. Loki was crying too, Thor could hear him across the room, but he couldn't move yet. He had to find his balance again, in a world he didn't recognize anymore. But Loki was crying. Loki was scared, just like he was. Probably more. That helped, somehow. Maybe…maybe he could do something.
Thor lifted his head with a shuddering inhale, scrubbing the tears off his face with the heel of his palm. He rested his head on folded arms, and he looked toward the door, not really seeing it – not really seeing anything.
After a while he got carefully to his feet, and he picked his way around the mess. It was harder than he'd expected, since he didn't want to disrupt anything and break it more than it had already been broken, and he was met with only marginal success. Embarrassed, a little, Thor went over to the desk. Loki had stopped crying some time ago. His breath was almost steady. He looked small, hunched over the desk like he was. He was just being still, like Thor had been. Loki didn't like contact. He cultivated a careful distance between himself and Thor. The best Thor knew to do was to put a hand on his shoulder.
After a few minutes, Loki took an exceptionally long breath. He turned his head without lifting it out of his arms. His face was flushed and smeared with tears. "Did you mean it?" he asked, without really looking at Thor.
Thor couldn't think back to what Loki meant. He was afraid it might be a few of the things he did remember saying.
"What you said," Loki clarified.
As much as that didn't seem to explain anything, Thor understood. He nodded, not thinking to account for the fact that Loki very well might not have been looking at him at the time. "It changes nothing," he said, hoarsely. And with the word spoken, he felt he'd finally found firm ground in a bog. He said it again, thrilling at it, down to his core. "Nothing."
Loki sat up, knocking his hand away, "It's not up for debate, Thor," he hissed, his face suddenly twisted. He jumped to his feet, pushing Thor back, "Father showed me –"
Thor caught his wrist. "Easy," he said. "That's not what I meant."
Breathing hard, Loki tore his hand away. He turned back to the desk so that Thor could only see him in profile. Loki was next to impossible to read that way. His chest heaved for breath.
Thor inhaled deeply. "I don't care who you are, Loki," he said, finally. "Or what. Or who your father is. I want you for my brother. No one else."
Thor expected some kind of response. But Loki said nothing, and he didn't move.
Thor faltered, "If…" he tipped his head, trying to tell if Loki was even breathing, "…you'll have me?"
The sound Loki made could have been a laugh. Thor wasn't sure. Loki turned his head part-way, like he was trying to answer, but his mouth was unsteady and he gave it up. Thor saw the tears in his eyes and all of a sudden he understood. Thor stepped forward and in the next instant Loki was hugging him tighter than Thor remembered him ever doing before. Thor was amazed to have his embrace returned. Loki's hand twisted behind him into the fabric of his shirt, like he thought Thor might somehow sneak away from him. He'd driven his face down into the hollow of Thor's shoulder, where the skin was soft by his neck and Thor could feel the hot slipperiness of tears against his skin, but Loki didn't make any sound. Thor didn't move. He just held on to his brother. For the moment, it was enough. After a moment Loki took a shaky breath.
Thor's own throat felt tight again. "I'm sorry I called you a liar, Brother," he whispered.
Loki gave a wet sounding laugh, "It's not like it was an unmerited accusation." Drawing one last shuddering breath, Loki slipped away from him, and Thor let him go.
They stood awkwardly, neither one quite looking at the other, until Thor noticed how dark it had gotten. Outside the window, the sun had set without their notice, and it was well and truly night. The next thing he remembered, rather painfully, was that he'd never gotten his dinner.
"Are you …hungry?" Thor asked. His voice felt strange, after everything.
The mask Loki usually hid behind was gone, and without it, he looked sad, and small. He was gripping the elbow of his left arm protectively in his right hand. He only shrugged.
Thor touched his arm, offering the beginnings of a smile, "Come on," he coaxed. "No one will be about at this hour. We'll get something to eat and then you'll come with me. This is no place for anyone to sleep."
Loki's mouth twitched towards a smile. "You missed dinner, didn't you?"
"That," Thor leveled one finger at him, "was not my fault." He thought back, "Not entirely my fault."
Loki did smile then, if softly.
"There, that's better," Thor said. "Come on."
When he reached to take Loki's arm, at least Loki didn't fight him. That had to count for something. Then the ground changed underneath him and the world popped into reality again in the candlelit hallway.
Thor reeled, staggering to the wall to avoid falling. His ears ached, and his jaw. "Loki," he groaned, massaging a temple with his fingertips.
Next to him, he heard Loki laugh.
In spite of his inconvenience, Thor smiled. There was familiarity here, and it felt good. He reached out through the haze to find Loki's shoulder and he gripped it. "Alright," he said, "you lead, then. I…can't seem to find the floor."
Loki's hand found his elbow. "You trust me?" he asked glibly.
Thor's answer came without hesitation. "Always," he said. Loki needed to know, whether the question was a jest or not. There was a startled silence. Thor filled it. "Lead the way, Brother. I'm starving."
Loki made a wry sound in his throat. "Who knew a starving man could be so heavy?"
"That," Thor reached over, a touch giddily, to ruffle his hair, "…that is your own doing. I could have walked just fine."
Loki jerked his head away from Thor, somehow without lessening his support. "You were making a mess."
Thinking back to the state of Loki's room, Thor concluded that there didn't seem to be anything productive to say to that. Instead Thor said, "You know we'll always be brothers, right? No matter what?"
There was a long pause while Loki said nothing. Then, finally, he whispered, "If you make me cry again, you're on your own."
It was late morning when Frigga decided it was high time she look in on her sons. Neither had attended breakfast, and she had thought it unkind to force them. She'd rather expected Thor to venture out by this time. She didn't know what Odin might have told him. She wished she'd been able to explain it all to Thor herself, but he had come too soon. She'd yet to see Odin, to ask him what had passed between them, or how Thor had taken it. She knew not even if Odin had come to bed. If he had, he'd come and gone while yet she slept. It had gone badly for all of them, she knew, and work lay ahead to rebuild what was broken.
She started with Thor, thinking that any interaction with him was likely to be simpler than with Loki. She had not expected to find them together.
Thor rolled upright at the motion of the door, putting his back to Loki and folding his arms with a protective scowl. His hair stood up all at odd angles. Behind him, Loki was curled up tight, breathing deeply in his sleep.
Softening, she remembered Loki's boyish face last evening, wide eyes full of the terrible truth as he'd looked from her to Odin, searching for lie where there was none, and she regretted that they'd had to tell him at all. Truth will have out, in the end. It's what she'd told Odin, and she knew it to be true.
Thor jerked his chin, his blue eyes flashing. "We need to discuss my brother," he told her. "Take a seat."
Her brows rose, amusement tingling at the corners of her mouth. It tangled with the unease that had settled behind her breast, plucking the knots loose so she could breathe. Thor. Her dear, golden Thor. She ought to have known he would come through for his brother. She was proud of him.
Closing the door softly behind her, so that Loki might not wake, Frigga gathered her skirts in her hands, and she took the seat nearest the bed. "Indeed," she said quietly, leaning forward to meet the resolute eyes of her elder son, "I think it high time we did."