The arena erupts into cheers when the Hulk beats Thor into a crater. Loki is on his feet without remembering when he stood. He is only aware of how small his sometimes-brother looks on the ground below, crumpled in a heap at the feet of the Champion.
"Yeah, now see, that's a, a, a, a total defeat. A stunning blow. A, what do you call it? Real strong ending," the Grandmaster says from the other end of his long and luxurious sofa. He pockets the tiny device that served to incapacitate a God, and Loki feels his blood simmer. He is not so hypocritical as to chafe at the trick, but he is annoyed by its inelegance.
"Grandmaster—" Loki begins, his silver tongue working in his dry mouth.
The tyrant holds up his fingers in a crooked constellation. "Wait one second; my Champion needs his boon first. Always fun." He stands, robes shimmering as he dusts them off. His form is projected in a million rainbow lights into the arena, and when he speaks, his voice booms across the land. "What a fight. Just magnificent." He claps his hands a few times, and the giant mirage of his shape claps as well. "So what will it be this time, Champion? Gold? Steak dinner? Diamonds made into a kind of, you know, hat?" He mimes putting such a hat on his own head.
Loki watches his quirked eyebrows as the green monster turns to face the viewing window. He hopes the Hulk does not see him, and makes himself smaller in his little corner.
"HULK WIN THAT." The beast points a tree-trunk of a finger at Thor's beaten body, and Loki suppresses a groan.
Can nothing be simple these days?
"Ah, you want that guy? Okay, fine. No killing him maybe? I mean, a rematch would be— Oh, what the hell, you won fair and square. Up to you." The Grandmaster twiddles his fingers in the air with a flourish, and instantly dozens of lackeys leap to carry out his commands. The gates of the arena creak open, and the Hulk scoops up Thor into one gigantic paw.
Loki's mind races as he turns once more to his captor. "Grandmaster, with your leave I would join the Champion in celebrating his victory."
But the Grandmaster is already distracted by another set of hapless creatures being dragged into the sand to fight to the death. He waves Loki away, nodding absently. "Great idea. You do that. But hurry back; lots more to see."
Loki catches up with the Hulk in a prism of a corridor outside the coliseum. He does not relish the thought of facing this creature again, not after the beating he received on Earth. But the beast has Thor clutched in his huge hand, and that is a sight Loki cannot stomach.
Not that he harbors any misplaced sentimentality when it comes to his once-brother. No, he simply must secure Thor's life so they can use his newfound power to leave this strange world. But Loki will have to convince Thor that the idea is his own; there is too much distrust between them for plain speaking—and for what reason? Merely because Loki ushered along inevitable Fate to meet their Father? It's all too absurd.
So Loki will save him, and when the time comes to escape, he will make the selfless offer to part ways with his sometimes-brother. He will say goodbye and Thor, being Thor, will feel the loss keenly and beg Loki to come with him. This is, after all, the same Thor who wept over Loki's fallen form on the battlefield not too long ago.
Yes, it is not sentiment. It is only survival. This is what Loki tells himself as he prepares to face his old enemy.
He uses a simple glamor, one of the first he'd ever learned, to make his form less lean, his hair, more fair. If it is a poor approximation of a young Thor, well, that is only because the original was so available to Loki when he was still learning his craft. It was easy to use his brother as a practice form.
"Another resounding success, great Champion," he calls to the Hulk in a lower, rougher voice. "May I personally congratulate you with a drink?" But when the green demon turns to look at him, Loki knows his disguise has not tricked him. He snarls in a familiar way, his eyes narrowed with anger.
"LITTLE GOD," he says. "SAME SMELL."
"No, you're mistaken—" Loki tries to say, but the Hulk roars and tightens his hand around Thor's limp body. It is a threat, and it works. Loki raises his hands in a silent plea and lets the glamor fall away, leaving only himself. He swallows.
"Apologies," he says. "Apologies. I only want my brother."
The Hulk sniffs. "NOT REAL BROTHER."
"Yes, true, adopted. As we've all been reminded time and time again." Loki's frustration seeps into his words. "All the same, I would prefer him intact."
A rumble echoes through the hall, and the Hulk tosses his head in the direction of his quarters before continuing onward, lumbering along with his burden cradled close to his massive chest. Loki takes this as an invitation, and follows.
The Hulk passes through a kind of open archway, and when Loki steps through it, the hum of lightning kisses the nape of his neck. He thinks for a moment that Thor has awoken, but no. It's merely a sort of alien technology that bars him from escaping the way he entered. He turns and sees the orange glow of the mortal-made lightning stretching across the archway.
"We are prisoners here, then?" he asks. He is fairly certain he can undo the simple trap's power with his magic, but he'd rather not show his hand just yet if it can be helped.
The Hulk does not answer except to grunt and place Thor on the floor at the foot of a macabre bed fashioned from a huge animal's jaws. No doubt another of the green monster's conquests. Loki watches his sometimes-brother's chest rising and falling in troubled breaths. At least he lives still.
Loki goes to him, kneeling on the nest of silks and furs that seem strewn about every inch of this odd chamber. There is blood seeping from a gash on Thor's brow, and this Loki wipes away with the blade of his hand. Then, not knowing what else to do, he wipes his hand on his leather breeches.
"Why did you bring him here?" He looks up and finds the Hulk stripping off his armor. His gladiator trappings fall to the flagstones as Loki watches.
"If you mean him further harm—" The words catch in his throat as the monster unbuckles the final garment from his thick waist. Naked, he is more terrifying than ever. Loki's eyes shoot skywards, not out of prudishness but of self-preservation.
He remembers dimly the tales from his childhood, of warriors battling in contests of old. Of the victor claiming his prize in every conceivable manner. Surely this beast cannot be so vile toward someone whom he once called comrade.
And yet Loki knows such darkness exists.
Well, then. The monster leaves him no choice.
He moves carefully so that he is between Thor's body and the massive Hulk. He clears his throat, ducks his head, looks to the side in a way that bares his throat just a touch. If the thing is an animal, it will respond as an animal does. Loki's pulse thrums beneath his skin.
"If that is the sort of harm you intend," he says evenly, "perhaps I will suffice. A waking victim is more lively, is it not?" His eyes squeeze shut of their own accord. If he is very lucky, he thinks, he might be able to persuade the beast to only rut its enormous cock against the length of his body. Otherwise, he might be broken.
The loud snort from the Hulk brings Loki's gaze swinging back to his brutal, bare body. "HULK NO HURT THOR," he says slowly, like he's speaking to a child. "THOR FRIEND."
Loki blinks. "Yet you beat him to a bloody pulp in that arena," he says, pointing an accusing finger back the way they'd come. "Wasn't that a good bit of hurt?"
The Hulk shrugs a huge shoulder. "HULK ONLY SMASH A LITTLE." He gestures around the room before loping toward a shadowy corner. The reason for his nakedness becomes apparent as Loki hears the sloshing of water from a pool near the wall. The Hulk relaxes into its depths with a happy sigh. "THOR STRONG. SAFE."
Safe? Loki looks down at the still form of his sometimes-brother. He does not look very safe, bloodied as he is, but the Hulk is right; he's out of the clutches of the Grandmaster for the moment.
His fingers fumble at the clasps of Thor's chest plate, lifting it away to reveal the bruises blooming on his otherwise perfect skin. That something could have done this to a God—
Pride and indignation, he knows, will not get him anywhere. It hasn't yet. "Thank you. For keeping him safe," he says to the Hulk, who has submerged himself up to his nose in the steaming bath. "May I tend to him?"
The Hulk grunts again, bubbling into the water.
Loki takes this as assent and sets to work. His magic does not tend toward healing, not naturally, but there are a few spells he has learned that will mend bones and ease pains. There is one, a whispered prayer to a long-forgotten goddess, which restores strength to a fallen hero. And there is one that calms a heart and lets it know it is held gently in someone's hands.
All this Loki does over Thor's body, his fingertips searching out wounds and closing them, his lips a constant movement through ancient words. He combs his fingers through Thor's shorn locks. It suits him, though Loki mourns the long golden strands.
"LITTLE GOD," the Hulk intones, breaking Loki's concentration in the middle of fixing one of Thor's cracked ribs. "NO TRICKS? NO HURT?"
"No," Loki says, affronted. "I would not hurt him." Then, realizing what he's said and to whom, he adds, "Not these days. A lot has happened, you know. I've—" How to explain to such a simple creature? "I only smashed a little, and now, not at all. Not unless someone deserves it."
The Hulk seems to mull over this explanation, then, with a firm nod of his great head, accepts it.
Loki returns to his task. His hands map the way across Thor's broad chest, down his sculpted flank. It seems ludicrous now to think they'd once believed they were kin. In all the nine realms, there are not two beings built along more different lines.
He finishes his murmured incantation and sits back on his heels, surveying his work. Thor is whole now, and yet still he sleeps. Loki presses his thumbs to Thor's temples, his forefingers to his jawline. Awaken, he thinks, weaving the spell.
Nothing. Thor does not move. His eyes remain shut.
Perhaps the lightning—whatever it was—has taken its toll. Loki reaches deeper, his mind going into Thor's. Awaken, he commands.
Thor, ever stubborn, does not.
Loki sits in a sullen heap next to his brother and stares at his unmoving form. In his little pool, the Hulk makes water jet into the air by squishing his meaty palms together.
"NEEDS TIME," he offers.
Loki hates to admit it, but the creature is probably right. He settles in amidst the silks and furs, remembering days long past when he and his then-brother were much smaller, much more ignorant of the world, and always together. He had nestled against Thor in their bed or in a field of soft grass, had slept easily knowing the elder boy would watch over him.
My turn, then, he supposes, and rests his palm, still heated with magics, against the flat of Thor's drumming heart. It is steady. Never wavers.
There is a spell Loki knows that enables the caster to send a dream into the mind of a sleeper. It is useful for passing along secret messages, persuading a foe, frightening an enemy, calming a friend. Loki toys with the idea of using it now. Thor had been the first recipient of the spell, back when Loki was still learning such things. They'd been dozing in a bower in the wilderness, their fingers sticky from berry juice, moss as their pillow. Loki had made Thor dream. A very sweet dream, indeed.
Loki's hand retreats from Thor's chest and tucks against his own. That closeness they once shared would never return, he knows this now. But perhaps they could make a new life with each other to lean upon. They could escape and begin an adventure in some other world. Or Thor might be amenable to stay and spend endless days battling in the arena for sport, and Loki could move his pieces across the board. With time, they might rule this place. Whichever path they took, they would be far away from Hela. Loki shivers as he remembers how she had crushed Mjolnir to dust with as little as a thought. Their elder sister would never allow them to live.
How foolish he had been to think he could rule a kingdom through tricks and sleight of hand. He had never wielded true power; he could never stand against the Goddess of Death. Even when he'd tried to conquer Earth, or when he'd cast the Allfather from his throne, he had been a child playing with toys, careless of breaking them. Now, because of him—
Loki takes a shuddering breath and edges nearer to Thor's warmth. "Do you ever imagine," Loki murmurs to the Hulk, "that you might have destroyed everything around you so utterly that there is no chance to ever see it rebuilt?"
A resounding snore is his only answer. He turns his head and sees the Hulk sleeping with his giant head tilted back against the chamber wall.
"No, I suppose you wouldn't."
Loki is tired, and so he decides if everyone else is sleeping, so will he. He closes his eyes. Lets his hand drift back to its spot on Thor's heart. Dreams, a little.
It is a good dream, or rather, a good memory. Loki is young—for a God—and Asgard is still his home. His power grows by the day, and every new sunrise is a chance to hone his skills. Today he is learning to change his shape, which will become his very favorite act of mischief, not because it is a falsehood, but because it is the opposite. The truth is Loki has no true form, and all his forms are true ones. That is the ultimate trick.
He has long mastered snakes and horses and foxes. He can twist himself into a bird or a deer with barely a word. Animal bodies are simple; it's other forms that need concentration. He practices his mimicry of Thor, but every detail is a pitfall. One small mistake and the entire illusion crumbles. A too-big nose, an inch off the height. Thor is encouraging as only an elder brother can be.
"It's not your fault you're horrible at this," he says. "Why don't you try someone new? Something all your own? That way, no one will know if it isn't perfect."
(Even in his youth, Thor thought himself perfect.)
And so on his own, in dark caverns and empty halls, Loki works a new glamor. He tells no one, not even Thor. That will be the test, he thinks. If he appears in this new shape and even Thor cannot see who he is, that will mean success.
There is a clearing in the forest. Cool mosses and grey mists. Thor barrels into it while on a hunt, his bow at the ready. Loki is waiting. Steps forward, footfalls light on the wet leaves. Thor raises his eyes and sees him. But does not recognize him.
He does not look so different, not really. A bit smaller in the frame, a little rounder of face. Small breasts where there had been lithe muscle, graceful hips that had been narrow. It is not such a strange shape, and yet Loki wears it better than he does his others. This one has a power that pulses.
"Tell me your name, maid," Thor begs. Loki never speaks, not trusting a voice that is so new. He only looks over his thin shoulder, now clad in gauze and moonlight, and gives Thor a small smile. He leads him on a chase into the bramble, across crystal rivers, into the valleys and dells. Thor's fingertips sometimes sweep playfully at the very tips of his long, dark hair, but Loki is quick and will not be caught.
They run until the sun crests over Asgard, and then Loki disappears with another incantation.
The next evening, they meet and run all over again. Seven nights, they do this. Running, laughing, Loki with skirts hiked up long legs, Thor crashing through the trees behind.
"Fair maiden, why do you tempt a poor boy like this?" he cries.
Loki is not sure why. Not yet, not until the eighth night, when he stops mid-step on the side of a hill and turns to face his then-brother. Thor, panting and pink from his exertions, grins like he's won some game. Then, realizing his quarry has stopped of its own accord, says, "Are you well?" It is that sweetness in his voice and face that tells Loki: This is why.
They kiss on the hillside. Loki never speaks a word, not even when Thor lays him gently in the grass, nor when he guides his brother into his new body. It is the first time for both of them, and Loki delights in this secret knowledge. Later, he will disappear into the night air as he always does, but he will not reappear. Thor will mope and sigh and hunt through the woods every night for months, pressing his younger brother into service after the first fruitless weeks, telling Loki of a fairy-maid so beautiful, so tender, that he simply must find her and make her his Queen.
Loki considers telling Thor the truth a thousand times, and a thousand times he holds his tongue. What good would it do? What had begun as a silly trick had become a dangerous transgression. An unnatural coupling, two brothers. How lucky to have discovered so many centuries later that the sin was not so awful. Not completely free of stain, but not the worst imaginable. Much like Loki himself, perhaps.
At any rate, Thor would never know.
"Think yourself so clever," a deep voice rumbles, and Loki's eyes fly open. Thor is still sprawled next to him on the floor, still asleep, but with a smile playing on his lips.
"As if I didn't see it was you the whole time," he murmurs. His head falls to the side, nose snuffling along Loki's neck. "My fairy-maid."
Oh, hell. Loki retracts his hand from Thor's chest and instantly his golden face goes slack again. He'd shared a dream without meaning to. And Thor had rambled through the dream world, speaking utter nonsense, really. He'd never suspected in reality; he wouldn't have been able to conceal such a thing!
No. Once they leave this horrible planet, maybe they will find the time to discuss these dreams. Until then— Loki takes a deep breath and changes. Mirrors himself into many shadows. A handful of handmaidens who will drape Thor in healing poultices. Thor cannot know he was here, not after that spell gone awry.
He dips a strip of clean cotton into a nearby bowl of scented water.
Only days ago, he was a King. Now he is something else, a balm to his not-brother, and this is as much Loki as anything else has been.