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black sheep and mischief

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Sleep, each night, is elusive at best. After three nights Thor stops really trying. He does his work through most of the night instead, slumped in his makeshift throne, watching the stars pass by.

And there is work — plenty of it. When he was a child and even afterward, old enough that he's ashamed to think of it now, he'd never dwelled much on that part of ruling. After his trials on Earth, he thought about it, and happily ran from it as long as he could.

Now, he sees it, and has no choice but to take it up. His people don't have a home, no guarantee they might prosper, even without his negligence; they need him now more than ever. He won't see them fall.

A bird alights on Thor’s shoulder and pecks his cheek twice, hard enough to make him wince.

“What are you doing?” it warbles in his ear.

“Wondering what my brother is doing up at this hour, little bird,” Thor replies. “Will you go ask him for me?”

When he looks up, he sees Loki standing before the glass-wall front of the ship, half-turned away from Thor, a pensive profile studying the stars. There’s a small smile on his face that falters at the edges, like its owner has forgotten the shape of anything that isn't nearer to a smirk.

When he turns that smile on Thor, coupled with the expectant arch of his eyebrow, Thor is hit with centuries-old memories of Loki coming to him like this and tugging at his sleeve, begging him to abandon whatever he was doing and run off on some adventure somewhere. The image is so strong Thor can't contain the resulting grin, even as Loki narrows his eyes at him like he knows Thor is thinking something designed to irritate him.

“Did father give you another gift I don't know about?” Loki says archly. “The ability to forsake sleep entirely, perhaps?” His brother's concern is familiar in its cloak of swipes and jabs.

Thor shrugs. “There's too much to do, and you know I've never needed much sleep,” he says, and then holds out a hand palm-down to show Loki the faint sparks crackling blue at his fingertips. “Besides, I can't. Not until I get used to this, anyway. When I try to sleep with this in my veins I feel like I'm mid-battle, still.”

“So instead you're…” Loki prompts, gesturing toward the paper in Thor’s hand.

“Counting,” Thor says after a moment, in a heavy voice that makes Loki close his mouth. “There’s more of us than I thought we'd save, but still...”

Loki nods, and looks back out into the vast, looming space stretching before them. Before everything that splintered apart between them, even before Loki knew and embraced an identity built on mischief, Thor remembers a thoughtful, bookish little brother. One who kept his own counsel, and looked at everything with a measuring eye, especially when Thor himself did not.

The mischief is still there, but then Thor would be sad to see it gone entirely; the thoughtfulness is returning, and that balance is to Thor’s liking.

“Well, I'll leave you to it,” Loki says at last, turning to face Thor fully, arms locked behind his back. There’s a birdlike, bright-eyed expectancy to his expression that Thor, try as he might, doesn't understand.

“Sleep well,” Thor says, unsure.

Loki’s mouth twists briefly; but then his face clears, and he nods at Thor and walks away, soft-footed and quick, until all that is left is Thor and his work and the stars.

 

*

 

The next night, Thor is in the storeroom of the ship when Loki finds him.

“Inventory?” Loki says, leaning against a shelf and inspecting his fingernails.

“Inventory,” Thor sighs. “Hopefully there's enough.”

“Hopefully they don't all eat like you,” Loki murmurs, smirking down at his nails.

Thor raises his eyebrows. “Hopefully no one has your sweet tooth, or they'll clean out the fruit stores in another day.”

“Hopefully — ” Loki begins, before Thor covers his mouth with one hand — it's the only way Thor can win an argument, sometimes.

Loki licks his hand, a purely little-brother reflex that makes both of them freeze. Then Thor doubles over laughing while Loki wipes his mouth repeatedly in disgust.

“Ugh, who knows where that's been,” Loki mutters to himself, sticking his tongue out and looking down as if he can inspect it himself.

Thor wiggles his eyebrows at him. Loki rolls his eyes.

“Why aren't you sleeping?” Thor asks, when they've made their way a few shelves down.

Loki shrugs, taking a step away from Thor. Thor doesn't push, lest his brother feel the need to leave entirely: Loki has never responded well to being badgered. He’s here, with Thor, and causing no trouble; that's enough.

“You are well?” Thor says, just to be safe.

“Yes, Thor,” Loki says, perfectly exasperated. “Have you ever known me to be silent when I wasn't?”

Yes, Thor doesn't say; when you had a wound of anger and hurt splitting your heart, and you never said; when you lashed out with violence rather than speak of it. When you made me fight you.

Loki’s face creases into a frown as if he's heard the words anyway. They stand together in silence a while longer, more strained than before and chilly.

“Perhaps you should try to sleep,” Thor says at last, and braves the forbidding cloak of temper around Loki enough to put a hand on his shoulder. “You're looking paler than normal. It might do you good.”

“Very well,” Loki says shortly; and he shakes Thor’s hand off his shoulder and leaves Thor alone once more.

 

*

 

“Three times is a pattern, you know,” Thor says the next night. He’s in his room this time, warded by Loki against unexpected visitors except, of course, Loki himself.

“Your point?” Loki says, leaning against the wall by the door. It's a good thing he isn't the one who can control weather; going by the black scowl on his face, there'd be a small thunderstorm in Thor’s room if he were.

“Why aren't you sleeping?” Thor says.

“We can talk about my sleep problems after you've agreed to address yours,” Loki says, voice clipped. He’s thrumming with tension, visible to Thor even across the room.

Thor would ask, if he thought he'd get a straight answer.

“And what are we working on today?” Loki says, tapping his foot on the floor, voice falsely bright.

“Budgeting,” Thor says, propping his chin up on his fist. Asgard is its people, not the place, that's true enough; but still, they'll sorely miss the resources left behind in the destruction.

“Fascinating,” Loki drawls, sounding as if it is anything but. His bad temper is painted all over his face, in his clenched fists and the angle of his body, ready for battle.

Thor would ask. Thor wants to ask. But he's tired, and his head aches, and there's so much to do underscored with the constant fear that he will fail at it. And if he asks Loki what's wrong there's no guarantee he'll get an answer; he'll more likely be bitten for his troubles.

Still. He must.

“Do you need something, Loki?” Thor asks wearily. “You really should try to sleep.”

“Don't trouble yourself with me,” Loki says coldly.

“Fine, then. I won't,” Thor snaps, at the end of his tether. He bends his head to his work and waits for his brother to leave. The room goes silent; slowly, the tension eases away.

When Thor looks up again, he's surprised to see that Loki is still leaning against the wall, studying him with the oddest look: his anger is gone as if it had never been there; instead, Loki’s lips are pursed in thought, his eyes fixed on Thor and yet very far away.

“I've done this to myself, haven't I,” Loki says at last, soft and contemplative.

A prickle of tension washes down Thor’s spine. He doesn't say anything; something tells him that to speak now would be disastrous. His is no silver tongue — the best match for Loki is Loki himself, speaking aloud.

“Not even a thought that I might help you, not even a disappointed look that I haven't. You don't respect me,” Loki says, in that same strangely soft voice.

“Loki,” Thor begins to protest; silence was never going to last long for him anyway, and that's not —

“You love me, I know; by now I know that at least, you fool, ” Loki says, holding up a hand. “But you don't expect anything of me. You don't think me capable.” He folds his arms across his chest, long pale fingers drumming restlessly on his upper arm. “You respect my ability to cause havoc in that you consider it a threat, but you think it the petulant lashing out of a child.”

Thor just stares at him, lost for words. He wants to protest Loki’s dispassionate analysis, but there is enough truth mixed in to make him falter; besides, he feels again as if he is extraneous to this conversation, a mere witness to some turbulence happening without his say.

“Hmmm,” Loki says thoughtfully; turns on his heel and, for the third night, leaves.

 

*

 

For three days more, Thor sees Loki only from afar: disappearing around corners, standing at the back of a room and silently watching. Seeing Thor, and turning to leave.

Thor considers for half a moment asking Heimdall to help him track down his brother and get him to stay put. But Heimdall has long made it a policy to never involve himself in their brotherly squabbles; when their fighting was a matter of Asgardian security it was different, but when Thor had wanted to find and kill Loki for putting spiders in his hair while he slept, it definitely hadn't counted, and neither does this.

Not that Thor is sure they're fighting. He doesn't really know what happened. The only thing he knows is that he has no option but to wait for Loki to stop thinking, or sulking, or seething — whatever he's doing — and come to Thor when he's ready.

And when his brother returns to him he can tell him his words aren't true: not all of it, not even most of it. Thor has the utmost respect for Loki’s strengths. It's only his willingness to use them Thor sometimes doubts. And after all, hasn't Thor run from the throne for years now? If he's taken his seat it's through necessity alone.

Perhaps necessity will find Loki his place as well.

Thor enters the hallway leading toward his room and sees Loki leaning against the wall with his head cocked like he’s listening to something. Thor stalks forward silently, but Loki’s eyes flick toward him like a startled deer’s, before he melts through the floor and disappears.

Damn it,” Thor growls to himself, fists clenching, before he forces himself to relax and enter his room. A little time — that's all he'll give Loki before he forces them to resolve this. Just a little longer.

 

*

 

It takes two days more.

Thor is working at the table in his room again, across from a chair that is empty one moment, and holding his lounging, scowling brother the next.

Thor looks at Loki, and puts down his pen. Then he leans across the table and pokes Loki in the middle of his forehead.

Loki rolls his eyes. “Yes, I'm here, try not to expire from excitement.”

“You went through Heimdall the last time you saw me, forgive me my shock,” Thor points out. Loki waves it off.

“I wasn't in the mood for being sat on and interrogated, thank you very much — no, shut up, it doesn't matter,” Loki says as Thor opens his mouth to argue — like he couldn't do better than sitting on Loki, really. “Here,” Loki says, throwing a rolled up paper onto the table.

“What's this?” Thor asks, picking it up.

A wry smile crosses Loki’s face. “Trouble,” he says, steepling his fingers together. “As adept as I may be at causing it, I hope you'll agree I have equal skill in finding it.”

“I'll give you that,” Thor says.

“Splendid,” Loki says sarcastically. “Anyway. We're in alarmingly close quarters, tempers are high, and people have questions. Those — ” he gestures at the paper “ — are the ones you need to talk to. Stomp around, make some kingly speeches, offer to arm-wrestle them — I don't really care.”

He lifts his chin when he's done, fixing Thor with a knife of a glare that practically dares Thor to say something sentimental.

Thor can't. His throat is too tight — filling with old, swallowed hopes he thought he'd lost long ago.

“Now, where's the rousing speech of goodwill and thanks you're planning to give when we land on Earth and beg to squat there,” Loki says sharply, looking around Thor’s quarters with exaggerated care, as if he expects to find it under Thor’s bed.

Wordlessly, Thor rifles through his papers and hands Loki the draft he's been tearing up and restarting for days now. Loki begins to read it, nose crinkling as he gets further and further.

“Our tutors would be in tears,” he sighs at last. “At least in death they've missed this tragedy.” He crumples up the paper and tosses it over his shoulder, beginning anew.

Thor beams at him; he can feel it splitting his face and making his cheeks ache. It feels like a small sun is rising within his chest, blazing right through him. Underneath Loki’s mocking and bristling sarcasm is a steady heartbeat thumping the words you are not doing this alone.

Loki ignores him, so determinedly it's clear he's seen everything written on Thor’s face.

They work in silence for several minutes. It still doesn't come naturally to Thor, but five years back he would have said whatever idiot thing came to his head just to shatter the quiet. Now at least he's learned patience; or perhaps he's learned to treat his brother like the quarry he hunts, with endless waiting and pretending he can't see a thing as he creeps ever-closer.

“I hated ruling,” Loki says. His head is bowed over the paper, hair falling forward in a curtain, hiding his face. His voice is very even. “I loved being king, but I hated ruling.”

Thor has to physically bite his own tongue to keep himself from interrupting this flow of explanation, finally coming through in drips.

“It's irritating, and time-consuming, and boring,” Loki continues, still scribbling away as he speaks, still not looking at Thor. “Everyone wants something from you. I just want someone to feed me grapes.”

“I could feed you grapes,” Thor says mildly.

Loki lifts his head. “I could bite your fingers off,” he says, very sweetly. Thor coughs to hide a laugh. “Now, advising you means I just get to tell you all the things you're doing wrong.”

“Something you've never had any problem with.”

“Exactly,” Loki agrees brightly.

“Plus, you're still next in line for the throne,” Thor says logically. “I'm sure we could find someone to feed you grapes.”

“Alright, enough with the grapes,” Loki says crossly. Thor pinches his lips together tightly so he doesn't laugh at the look on his brother's face, like that of a cat stroked the wrong way.

They resume their work, heads bowed over the same table, scratching away in their respective manners: Thor writing in slow, sporadic bursts as he thinks and re-thinks and crosses out his words; Loki’s pen moving fluidly across the page, barely pausing for him to shake out a cramp in his hand. It reminds Thor with a sharp pang of when they were children, studying together and passing sweets to each other under the table, convinced of their own stealth under their mother’s indulgent eye.

“I've only ever wanted to do this with you, brother,” Thor says quietly, eye fixed unseeingly on the words before him. Perhaps he will insist they have all their conversations blindfolded, from now on. The lack of eye contact’s done them more good than anything else has in years.

Loki shifts in his seat.

“I would hate to inflict you on our people unchecked,” Loki says, and then closes his mouth so fast Thor can hear his teeth click together.

Thor can't help it — he has to look up to catch the grumbling, disgusted look Loki is wearing, directed entirely inward.

Our people. For all his magpie-greediness, Loki knows as well as Thor that a people are not a thing to own, but a thing to be owned by. To say it is to bind oneself.

Loki shakes his head to throw his hair back, a gesture Thor’s seen him use many times to settle himself. Then he hands Thor his paper, the frown on his face replaced by a neutral, unreadable look. He looks older, Thor realizes with a jolt; the absence of a smirk and the tired slant of his mouth lend him the same look Thor sees in the mirror, hair shorn and an eye as hollow as the socket beside it.

Thor looks at the speech Loki’s written without reading it, studies the neat slanting scrawl filling the page, so like their mother’s hand. His skin prickles with the weight of Loki’s gaze.

Frigga’s child to the end he may be, but at times there is a watchful quality to Loki that is entirely their father’s.

Thor lifts his head.

“Thank you,” Thor says simply.

Loki’s face twitches with the obvious urge to say something stinging; with visible effort he swallows it, and mumbles, “You're welcome.” Then he demands, “Now will you sleep? And don't give me that nonsense about your lightning anymore; if you've enough energy in you to make it even sparkle in here, I'll eat my own boot.”

Thor grins ruefully. “No, it's just regular insomnia, I think. I don't know why, it's not as if I've got anything to be stressed about.” Then he arranges his features into his best approximation of embarrassed pleading, channelling childhood memories of attempting to wheedle himself out of trouble. “Perhaps if you stayed as well? I might relax enough to fall asleep.”

Loki looks at him for a moment. “That was embarrassing,” he informs Thor. “I'm ashamed to know you. My brother, and not an ounce of a good liar in you.”

“I seem to remember getting the best of you fairly recently,” Thor says, grinning widely.

Loki scowls. “We're not talking about that. As far as I'm concerned it never happened.”

“Whatever you say,” Thor says amiably.

They get settled in Thor’s bed, which is just big enough for them to lie there with their arms pressed together. The room is so dark Thor can see only the bare glint of Loki’s teeth when he yawns, and deeper shadows within shadows where the pool of his hair must be.

“I never wanted to sleep when I was sick as a child,” Loki says in the darkness, in a low voice like he’s spilling secrets. To admit to the memories and feelings within him — he very well may be. “Mother used to make you pretend you wanted a nap and needed company, so that I would go along.”

“I remember,” Thor says softly.

Loki says nothing else for long moments, but his breath is too uneven for sleep.

“Be like her,” he says abruptly. “You have his gifts, and his teachings. But be Frigga’s son. Be the king Frigga’s son should be.”

In the darkness, Thor finds Loki’s hand, fine-boned and familiar, and squeezes it very tightly.

“I will,” he promises. “I swear it.”

Turning toward him, Loki squeezes back.