The wet towel hit his face with a pang of relief. The sun was scorching on his skin, beads of sweat clinging to him, his muscles burning with exhaustion. Dust stuck to Thor's clothing as much as it stuck to his mouth, dry with thirst. Thor groaned as he was forced to soak the towel into cold water once more before slapping it on his skin. As much as he would like to, Thor couldn’t stop now. His first tournament was fast approaching and it could not end on anything else than his victory. Thor would not disappoint his father. Thor would prove to his father that choosing Thor to represent their house had not been a mistake. Thor would make his father proud.
“My, aren't we excited?”
Thor's face broke into a smile. “Loki!”
Loki crossed his arms over his chest and kicked the ground. “Who else?”
Thor walked towards him with arms outstretched.
Loki glared at him. “Don't you dare touch me.” Thor let his arms fall to his side as his smile collapsed and Loki scoffed. “Anyone would think you haven't seen me in ages.”
“It's been long enough,” Thor said.
Long enough since Thor was chosen as his father's champion. Long enough since it was determined that, despite being of age, Loki's body would not be able to stand against the other competitors’ brute strength. His brother would sooner collapse from heat stroke than from a well-aimed blow. Thor, within the safety of his mind, would admit that the only problem he saw was Loki's hurt pride. And don't get him wrong. Thor knew his brother. Loki wasn't interested in battling as a sport. His brother only presented himself to training out of obligation and because he could see the usefulness of it. The true problem was that the “inadequacies” of Loki's body had been pointed out to their father even though Loki had not expressed interest in the upcoming tournament. Loki admitted as much.
“Clean yourself. Then, you may touch me,” Loki said.
Thor bobbed his head and went back to washing the sweat out of his skin, his brother's emerald gaze following his movement. “You know father doesn't favor me for being bulky, do you not?”
Loki snorted. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
Thor glanced at Loki. “Do you not?”
“Of course.” Loki directed his gaze downward. “Your golden hair also has a hand in that.”
“Loki,” Thor complained.
Loki hummed. “I suppose we could add your being his first-born to the list.” Thor made a move to protest but Loki shushed him with a dismissive wave of his hand. “All parents have a favorite child, brother. I have made peace with the fact that I will never be mine's.”
Thor tossed the towel aside and strode to envelop Loki in his arms. Loki made disgusted sounds as he tried to get away. “You never tire, do you?” Thor asked.
Loki snapped at him and pushed against Thor's chest. “Oh, let's face it! My confounded body is nothing more than another disgrace.”
Thor squeezed him. “You will find something right for you.”
“…I already have.”
Thor entered the Great Hall and took in the sight before him. People's chattering was loud enough to strain the ear as hearty plates went from one hand to another and back. There were no hands covering whispering mouths, no talk of his brother. When the doors opened to admit Loki inside the Hall, slender and immaculate as always, Thor told himself that perhaps he had dreamt the night before. Or that perhaps it had been a joke after all. A very cruel joke. With Loki's clipped greeting, Thor prepared to do his job of making sure his brother ate enough. Breakfast appeared to be what it always was, so Thor followed Loki's lead and did what his brother wanted.
Act normal, you fool.
Thor froze when Loki slammed his hands on the table. Had he misunderstood what was expected of him? After Loki blurted out the news of his pregnancy for all to hear, Thor was sure his brother and father would descend into a shouting match, but his father uttered a simple dismissal that made Loki hung his head. Thor's hand found his brother's knee. It wasn't a conscious movement, not something Thor did to get on Loki's nerve. It was just what Thor always did when Loki and their father butted heads. Thor offered comfort, as little as it was worth, anyway.
Thor had entered his father's private study with his only expectation being that this would be his final goodbye with Loki. Even if both of them were disowned for loving each other as more than brothers, Thor didn't dare hope that Loki would let him stay by his side.
“We can work around this.”
Thor frowned. Loki wouldn't abandon his child and Thor wasn't so sure he could live with the knowledge that Loki's child would be somewhere out there. Not that his opinion mattered. Thor's jaw went slack at his parents’ alternative. Their solution was to rip his child from Loki's delicate body. No, not Thor's. Loki's. Loki's and someone else's, Thor reminded himself. But it didn't matter. That wasn't happening. It wasn't something Thor should worry about. Loki was too far along for that to be a possibility. The child would live.
Thor's pulse quickened as his mother knelt in front of Loki. It hadn't occurred to Thor, not in a coherent way, that his parents were not aware of the child, and how stupid was that? The realization that his parents did not know Loki was at least halfway through his pregnancy didn't slam into Thor until his mother tried to convince Loki to abort their child. No, not his. Just Loki's.
Thor massaged his temples.
“The sire, Loki. Give me the name of the sire.”
Thor startled to attention. What would his brother say? Would Loki say Thor's name? Should Thor step up as the father? Thor didn't know. Did Loki even want Thor to claim the child? After last night… Thor didn't think he had the right. Thor's pleading gaze met Loki's hardened one.
Please tell me what to do.
“I know not,” Loki said.
Thor deflated, shoulders slumping. No, of course Loki didn't want Thor claim the child after Thor called him a whore.
“I want you gone by the morrow. Go live with the wretch to whom you submitted,” his father said.
Loki rose to his feet and Thor followed the movement of Loki's hand sliding over their child. Thor groaned and shook his head. Why couldn't he make up his mind already?
“Loki,” Thor whispered as his brother passed him on his way to the door. Loki jerked his arm away, ensuring Thor couldn't grab his wrist and sending a heated glare Thor's way. But no. Loki couldn't leave. He was Thor's little brother. Thor was supposed to keep him safe.
“What about you, Thor?” his father asked. “Have you, perhaps, impregnated some young maiden?”
Thor bunched his fists on his pants as the door closed behind his brother. “Not precisely,” he responded. His father's lip thinned but all Thor could think about was how much his brother would hate him for this. “I’m the wretch that got Loki pregnant.”
Thor's father looked about to throttle him but his mother sighed, sat in the chair Loki had previously occupied, and waved his father off.
“This is no news, Odin. We always suspected this would happen,” his mother said.
Thor gaped at his mother. There was no way they could know. The brothers had been far too careful. “How?” Thor demanded.
His father's shoulders sagged. “The lingering looks for one.”
Thor's face heated. Perhaps he had been to generous in his worship of Loki's body. “And yet you let it happen.”
“There was no reason to stop it,” his mother said.
“No reason to stop it?” Thor asked in disbelief. “I made a child with my brother!” And Thor had wanted it so badly, it was perverted. “What if the child comes out deformed?” Oh gods, Thor hadn't thought about that before. Had Loki even considered that possibility? “And I called,” Thor stumbled with his words. “I called Loki a whore.”
His mother stood up. “Thor, darling, you need to breathe.”
“Loki is not your brother.”
Thor's head snapped to his father. “What?”
“He is a Jötunn, Thor. Not Æsir like the rest of us.”
“What?” It seemed that was the only word Thor's brain could formulate.
His father sighed and collapsed in his chair. “The child should not be born with deformities. When I brought Loki to Asgard, your mother and I hoped we would be able to marry you to each other.”
“But then you confused Loki with a brother,” his mother said. “I didn't have the heart to take away from you the sibling I always wished I could have given you. But I never stopped hoping.”
Excitement flushed through Thor's veins. This changed so much. “So I can claim Loki's child as my heir?”
“No,” his father responded.
Thor's hands clenched again. “Why not? You said-"
“I said no,” his father repeated sternly. “Loki must learn responsibility. He should have admitted the child is yours.”
Thor lowered his head. “That's because I denied our child.”
“I care not. Until Loki does not admit it, you will not claim the child as your own, understood?”
“But what if he leaves, father?”
His father stood from his chair and spread his arms wide. “Look around you, boy. We live in a palace made of gold. What makes you think Loki would leave this behind?”
“And I imagine he does not wish to give birth alone or he would have left already,” his mother said with a thoughtful frown.
His father nodded absently. “You will wait until Loki comes to us.”
Thor frowned. “Loki will not do that. Not after how I have treated him.”
“Then, he will need an incentive, will he not?”
An incentive Thor did not agree with. If anything, it seemed to have pushed his brother farther away from him. At the moment, Thor could not see the wise king he had believed his father to be. Thor understood what his father was thinking. That if only Thor's children were able to inherit, but not Loki's, then his brother would confess who the father of his child was in order to secure his child their rightful place. Thor could not see Loki doing that. His brother was by far the most prideful creature Thor had ever met. Loki would never do that, and Thor was all too aware that it was his fault. Perhaps, if he found a way to apologize…
Thor suspected the only reason Loki still allowed Thor to fill his plate was out of centuries of tradition. At least that Thor could still do for his brother with Loki avoiding him at every corner. But Thor's love for his brother only seemed to grow, becoming consuming even, as he was forced to watch Loki's body change to accommodate their growing child from a distance. The way Loki caressed his belly, the way he whispered to the child within when he thought nobody was near… it was a tenderness Loki had never offered to Thor.
Loki had always helped Thor with paperwork and that was the excuse Thor used to visit his brother. Thor felt light-headed when his brother's door opened for him. Thor had expected Loki to guard the place against him as Loki did with everyone else, but Thor wasted no time in crossing the distance to Loki's desk, where his galloping heart had Thor rooted to the spot. It was the first time Thor would be alone with his brother since coming back to Asgard. No one to listen raptly at every word exchanged with Loki. No need to keep his eyes in check. Thor didn't know how to proceed, what would worsen things between them. Loki was rubbing his stomach and, as Thor often did when he glimpsed his brother shift on his seat or wince before pressing a hand to his belly, Thor wondered if Loki was feeling their child move. Thor couldn't hold back a snort when Loki spread his legs with a hesitation that had never been there before. Was that all Loki thought Thor wanted from him? If that was the case, then Thor had dug himself a deeper hole than he had thought.
Loki pursed his lips and moved his head to the side. “I'm sorry. I don't know what I was thinking.”
Loki shook his head. “It's quite alright. I understand.”
Thor huffed. “If you would just listen.”
“Same goes for you.”
Thor walked to sit on the edge of the bed with tentative steps. “You have not given me the chance to say I'm sorry.”
Loki lifted his shoulder in a half shrug. “For what?”
“That night, Loki, I… I didn't mean what I said.”
“What night?” Loki asked with feigned disinterest. “The night you called me a whore? If that is how you see me, Thor, I'm afraid I can't change that.”
Like he did on the night in question, Thor crawled closer to his brother. “I didn't mean it, Loki. I didn't mean anything of it.” Thor brushed his fingertips over Loki's bump. “About the child-"
Thor's head snapped to meet his brother's glazed eyes. “Loki, I have-"
“You may touch me anywhere you want, but my belly is off-limits. That is my condition.”
Thor, who didn't want to anger Loki any further, complied with his brother's demand and snapped his mouth shut.
The day they found out that a group of guards had been crowding Loki in the corridors, that they had dared place their dirty hands on Loki (on his belly no less), thunder had rolled in the distance. Thor had burnt with the knowledge that they probably had felt his child move inside Loki when not even he had been granted that privilege. Thor's chair had flown backwards as he stood up and called Mjölnir to his hand, ready to pummel the trespassers’ skulls into the ground, only to be held back by his mother. Loki could solve it himself and if he had not come to them, then help would not be appreciated. Thor sat back down with slumped shoulders. He supposed that if Loki could barely stand his presence, then his intervention would be rather unwelcome.
That proved to be true when Thor couldn't stop himself from coming between a guard and his brother. Thor's first reaction had been to stop dead in his tracts. Loki had promised Thor that this time they would be exclusive, that there would be no one between them, and Thor had itched to tell Loki their father's condition then before being silenced each and every time. Silenced like Loki was now being silenced by someone that wasn't Thor. It had ended on an argument, of course. Despite telling himself he would do as Loki wished, Thor had tried to get a word in with Loki but, once given the chance, those words proved to not be what Thor had been burning to tell Loki. Precisely.
“You claim to carry my child and yet this is what you do with your time?”
Thor kicked himself mentally but once one was on the war path, one was always on the war path. In retrospect, Thor should have apologized right after that or after Loki said, “Oh, so it's your child now?” at the latest instead of trying to argue that point with his brother once more. But then again, war path. “Careful, brother. You don't want people to see you be tainted by this whore.” Nonetheless, Thor knew when he had pushed too far. Thor was walking on thin ice with his brother again, so Thor didn't try to stop Loki from leaving instead of wrapping his arms around Loki like he longed to do. Perhaps shout to the world, and thus to anyone that would listen, that it was his child in his brother's belly.
Thor banged his head on the wall. It seemed he could not stop digging.
Thor had walked to the Great Hall that evening knowing that Loki wouldn't show up to dinner but waiting for his father's order to take food to Loki all the same. But Loki's chambers were bathed in darkness. Of course Loki had gone to bed early. Thor shushed his brother as he tried to get up from the bed and slipped under the quilt with the rustling sound of Loki shifting. Thor didn't think twice before pulling Loki against his chest in their usual position.
“What are you doing, Thor?”
Thor sighed into his brother's hair. He had thought, hoped, really, that Loki would allow him closure for just a little, that perhaps a shared childhood memory would do the trick. For old time's sake, if nothing else. Thor removed his hand from Loki's belly, unintentionally making his desire known to his brother as he moved away if the sharp intake of breath was anything to go by. Thor hastened to apologize.
“I'm sorry, Loki. I can't help it, but I assure you, brother, that's not why I came here,” Thor stammered.
Loki sighed. “Why, then?”
“You promised you wouldn't skip any more meals,” Thor mumbled.
“Ugh, why do you even care?”
“You can't keep doing this, Loki. You have to be-" What? Responsible? Thor swallowed. “I have always cared about your eating habits.”
Thor imagined Loki rolling his eyes.
“I imagine there's food waiting for me outside?” Thor nodded before remembering Loki couldn't see him in the dark and responded in the affirmative. “So bring it in.”
Thor hurried to do so as Loki's witch lights illuminated the room. Thor's brow knitted together as he watched Loki eat; he have keep a closer watch on his brother. Thor gulped, preparing himself to tell Loki what their father had actually said despite having sworn not to do so. “I have something I must confess to you.”
“Is that so?” Loki's eyes were gleaming. “Well, I have something I must ask of you.”
Thor's breath escaped him in a rush. “Anything.”
“You know I love your company and you know I don't mind your coming to my chambers.” Thor nodded but Loki held out a finger. “But, you see, once my child is born, I don't want you anywhere near us.”
Thor's world screeched to a halt.