Chapter 1: Prologue
“You'll have to excuse the state of the facility,” Director Fury said, glancing back over his shoulder to address Thor as they walked. His voice reverberated off of the heavy steel walls in a tinny echo, as though they were locked inside a metal strongbox. “We don't usually have people down here. Too dangerous.”
“Why bring me?” Thor asked. He felt as though he filled the hallway, though Fury himself walked proud and tall as usual.
“Because we think this might be of interest to you.”
The place seemed a labyrinth. Thor had no idea how deep they had gone, or how far; they had taken countless turns and passed through countless armored doors, and were he forced to find his own way back he had no doubt he could remain lost here forever. He suspected that was the point.
“Subject Zero has been here for as far back as any of us can remember,” Fury said. He placed his palm flat on a panel, leaned forward to gaze into another with his good eye, then spoke his name aloud. Some manner of sorcery opened a door that had not been there a moment before. “Subject Zero has been here since before I took over as director.”
He gestured for Thor to follow him.
“He has no I.D., no SSN, no fingerprint record, no anything we could possibly track,” he continued. “Officially, he doesn't exist. We have no idea where he came from anymore, because all of those records were destroyed in the forties. As far as we know, he was used as an experimental subject.”
Thor glanced around. The deeper they went, the staler the air became, as a long-isolated cave, or perhaps a tomb sealed off from the surface. A faint sense of claustrophobia tingled at the back of his neck. They were deep underground, tons of rock and earth above them, the sun a mile away.
“When the meds took your blood, we were expecting a unique sample,” Fury said. The air seemed to be getting colder; Thor could almost see the director's breath as he spoke. “DNA sequences we'd never seen before.”
They reached the end of the hallway. Fury stopped in front of a heavy door, like that of a massive vault, the kind of door that might open at the end of the world. He turned to face Thor.
“Instead, we found a match.”
He pressed a button, and a panel in the wall opened to reveal a wide, dark-tinted window. Through the window was a small, bare room, dark but for the faint glow filtering through from the hallway. Thor stepped up to the glass, squinted through it. The walls of the room appeared soft—padded somehow. In the back of the cell, there was a figure held to the wall with strange, thin manacles, strapped at the wrists.
The figure lifted its head. The face was shadowed, unrecognizable, hidden behind strings of dirty dark hair. Thor saw the lips move to form words through a sharp, rictus smile.
I see you.
Something cold slid down Thor's spine. Suddenly he remembered fear.
“This is Subject Zero,” said Fury. “You wouldn't happen to recognize him, would you?”
He flicked a switch. Light flooded the cell. Thor's legs went numb, and he collapsed against the window with a loud bang that made the prisoner start to laugh.
“Loki,” he whispered.
Chapter 2: Part One
May 28, 1918
Aisne River, France
“Gin,” says a gruff voice deep in the trench, amused around the fat cylinder of a cigar.
There's a low growl, and the sound of cards being thrown down into the mud with a wet slap. The first voice laughs, a deep rumbling sound.
“Aw, don't be a sore loser, Jimmy,” it says.
The second voice snorts softly. “Not sore. Sick of gin rummy.”
“Hell no. You cheat.”
“Me, cheat? Not nice to lie, little brother.”
It's dark. The thick dusting of stars overhead shines dimmer than usual, diffuse through a haze of dust and gunsmoke and wisps of mustard gas. It, and the dirty-haloed half moon, still cast enough light to throw shadows long and jagged across no-man's-land—the shadows of barbed wire, shrapnel, unexploded ordnance, pieces of casualty. Silence rules the trenches, broken only by snores and the shuffling of cards and the occasional weak moan. The stillness is making both sides edgy, as they tend to their wounded and reload their artillery and wait for sunup.
So the sudden weird noise makes everyone, doughboy-Tommy-poilu-Frontzschwein, look up.
It sounds like a rusted steel I-beam bending in half under strain. It sounds like a giant sustaining a compound fracture. It sounds like every death humanity has ever witnessed all at once. And it sounds like it's coming from a million miles away.
The first man darts pale green eyes skywards, pulling on his cigar.
“The hell is that?” says the second, craning his broad neck.
The first chuckles in a cloud of smoke.
The stars distort, bubble, then spread out, as an aperture opens in the firmament like a monstrous pupil dilating at the scent of blood. There's nothing behind it but utter blackness, a blackness that sends atavistic shudders down every spine on the Aisne. It's blackness outside of time, the way the universe looked before it was the universe. Even the two card players, immovable walls of muscle both, curl their lips and raise their hackles like wolves faced with fire.
Something drops from the opening, a little speck, and a thousand pairs of eyes follow it down. It streaks towards the middle of no-man's-land, too small to be a bomb, but it's too dark to see what it really is. The aperture closes with another unearthly sound, a sucking chest wound in the sky, and in a moment it was never there.
Before the mysterious object hits the ground, there's a flash of poison-green light and a gust of icy wind. There's no impact sound. Nothing else happens. Helmeted heads pop up behind barbed wire.
“Leave it,” shouts a captain, and the command echoes in French and German. The card players exchange glances.
“They're gonna make us get it, aren't they,” says the second.
The second sighs, wipes sweat off his brow.
The figure rises from the ground—tall, thin, human. It stands far too steadily for someone who just fell from the sky. It turns its head, scanning the sere landscape.
At a barked order, a half-dozen Yanks armed with nothing but bandoliers and bayonets emerge from the trench and approach the figure with cautious steps. One of them calls out, demanding name rank and serial number. The figure turns to him, tips its head to the side. Green eyes gleam in the dimness, cold and empty.
The voice is clear, soft, beautiful, and hollow as a frozen desert. The card players prick their ears. The first raises his eyebrow at the second.
“Identify yourself!” yells the soldier.
Then, so quietly the card players have to strain to hear even with their enhanced senses, the man who fell from the sky begins to laugh.
It starts out sounding like he's just realized something ironic, funny in a cosmic sense—a self-deprecating little snicker through the nose. And it doesn't stop. It doesn't stop even long after it passes the threshold of awkward. It escalates. It ratchets up. It teeters on the edge of hysterical, then freefalls over it into flat-out maniacal cackling. And it still doesn't stop.
Green light explodes in the darkness, searing the eyes of every man watching, and the soldiers scream.
Guns cock all over the battlefield. The soldiers are charred bones. And the man is still laughing.
The trenchbound men fire. The man deflects the hail of bullets with a wave of his hand, like he's swatting at flies, and begins to walk towards the Allied side of the battlefield. A cape billows out behind him; the flashes of gunfire reflect off of something metallic in his clothing.
Cold green fire bursts from his hands, darts like a dragon into a trench, and devours everything in its path. The shrieks are deafening. And the man is still laughing.
The card players exchange another glance.
“Scared, Jimmy?” says the first. He's grinning, baring sharp eyeteeth, oh this'll be fun. The butt of his cigar lies cooling in the mud.
The second ignores him, eyes fixed on the dark figure in no-man's-land.
Behind them, someone speaks. “Howlett. Creed. This is your ballgame now.”
“Finally,” growls the first.
The card players leap from the trench and charge.
Slim and delicate-seeming as he is, it takes both of them to bring him down. He disappears and reappears, plays their strength against them, counters their brutality with his own finesse, dodging and dancing and laughing, always laughing. He mocks them, sends them flying into each other. Soon the high, mad sound of his laughter mixes with feral growls and roars.
But eventually, he runs out of breath.
They drag him to the ground, beat his head against the blackened soil until he finally stops fucking laughing.
Chapter 3: Part Two
Fury gave Thor a searching look. “Yeah, that's what he called himself,” he said. “Mind telling me how you know that?”
The...creature...behind the glass writhed under the harsh light, as though it pained him. He was stripped of all clothing, bare and sickly pale, blue veins snaking through the flesh like spidery cracks in porcelain. His ribcage showed, heaving in and out, the gills of a gasping fish.
It could not be.
It could not be.
This skeleton of a man, this fetch, this—this mockery, this could not be his long lost and sorely missed brother. There was some fell influence at work, some foul treachery. Perhaps Thor was reliving another nightmare, another of the hundreds he had suffered through since the day he saw Loki's hand uncurl from the spear. Soon he would wake, sweating, with thunder rumbling outside, and alone in his room with no one to see he would allow himself to weep.
But the face. Despite the lines of age, the hollows in the cheeks, the deep shadows around the bones, the face...Thor would know that face anywhere. That face, those bright green eyes. Though the smile was twisted with madness, he knew it as well.
Thor's hands clenched into fists against the glass, knuckles cracking.
“Let me in,” he said, in a voice he hardly recognized as his own.
Fury stared at him.
“Let. Me. In.” The lights flickered for the barest of moments.
“This man is one of the most powerful metahumans on the planet,” said Fury. “He's probably insane from being down here so long. What you're asking me to do is sign your death warrant.”
“You will not speak of my brother that way!” Thor bellowed, rounding on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s director with a rage whose like he had not known since his bellicose youth. To Fury's credit, he did not flinch, only arched his eyebrows. “No matter what he has done, no matter the state of his body or mind—he is Loki Odinsson, he is my brother, and I will not allow you to speak any more on it! Now open the door to his prison, Nick Fury, or I will tear it down with my own two hands!”
The silence rang through the metal corridor in the wake of Thor's rage. Fury met his gaze steadily, with a courage befitting a man his rank, then shook his head.
“Your funeral,” he said, shrugging.
Thor turned back to the window, staring in at the apparition that had once been his brother—no, was still his brother, had never stoppedbeing his brother. No matter how it appeared. A terrible ache bloomed in Thor's chest. Loki recoiled from the harsh light as though he had never seen it before. And he had been down here...
“How long?” Thor asked, over the hissing and creaking of the vault door slowly unsealing itself.
“What?” said Fury, leaned over a console in the wall.
“How long has he been here?”
“Told you,” Fury said without looking up. “Since before anyone here can remember.”
Thor's eyes narrowed.
The prison's door began to recede, metal scraping upon metal that had not moved in decades. Below the cacophony, Thor could hear a low mutter, bitter and spitting.
“—they think to offer me light again after all this time, after all this time in silence and darkness, do they think it will appease me, no, no, they return to torment me again and expect me to be grateful, tell them, tell them take this filthy dog collar off of me and I will show them what they seek—”
Icy claws curled around Thor's heart. That voice, he knew that voice, had wanted to hear it for so long—but not like this, not like this.
“—brother, no, please,” and the bitterness in the voice drained away into an almost childish whine, “please, don't leave me, even if you aren't real I need you, I am going mad, brother, please, don't go—”
Before Thor quite realized it, he was smashing his way through the half-open door to his brother's side, and Fury was yelling his name and yelling for him to stop, and the metal was screaming as it bent and tore under his fists, and Loki was screaming along with it no more no more too loud no more, and the restraints that held Loki's thin arms glowed white-hot and burned Thor's hands as he ripped them loose—
—and then Loki was collapsing into his embrace, too weak to stand, and he was pale and sickly, and Thor was striding up to Fury in thunderous rage, his frail brother cradled in his arms.
“You have no honor!” he roared, lights sparking and buzzing all around him. “You would sooner sentence a man to eternal bondage, forgotten by all, than grant him a worthy death? What mercy is this? What kindness? I shall not allow this to continue!”
“All right, calm down, let's talk about this,” said Fury, but Thor was beyond such words.
“Of what is there to talk?” he shot back. Loki had lost consciousness, and hung limp in his brother's grasp, like a rag doll dragged from an attic. “This is my brother, and you have him caged like an animal! No—not even an animal—you would feed an animal, would you not? Take me out of this accursed prison, Fury—take us out, or I swear by Odin Allfather you will not see the light of day again!”
Fury held up his hands, placating, shaking his head. “Okay, all right,” he said, and sounded more annoyed than afraid. “I'll lead you out. And then we can discuss this like civilized people, without you smashing my head in, got it?”
Thor glared at him, searching Fury's one eye for any sign of treachery. He saw none, and nodded.
Chapter 4: Part Three
I could have done it, Father! I could have done it!
Aching hand, hanging in freefall, father and brother above.
Imperious father, staring down through one eye, unreadable.
For all of us!
Imperious father, so close and so far away, brother between them as he always has been, always between them. Cold metal in his grip, no warm skin to offer comfort. So far away.
Imperious father, horrified, appalled at the son that was never a son, only a horror wrapped in stolen skin.
So it ends. In freefall.
He lands in a body wracked with jagged pain.
He is bound. He knows this only because he can feel bands of tightness in his skin, digging into flesh. His head throbs, his mind pulverized into gravel.
Voices filter in as he gathers up pieces of himself. He can't process what they're saying. He only knows that he doesn't know them.
He picks up a shard of memory. Falling. It feels distant, as though it belonged to someone else, though he's certain it's his. Who else's could it be?
He strains against the bonds holding him to hard surface. Nothing. Weak.
No. No use struggling now. Better to wait—to heal. Won't take long. A few hours at most. Then he will be strong enough to escape.
In the meantime, rest. Let them think they had him. Wait and rest, and listen.
He sorts through the rubble for an emotion, a feeling. Anything. He finds none.
Later, he is in a small room made of canvas. Flimsy chains hook around his wrists, hold him to his little metal chair. He has been dressed in a long shirt and trousers that may have been white at some point or another, uniform, nondescript. He feels a little sluggish; he has been dosed with something.
None of this bothers him. A gesture, a word, and he could be gone.
But he is curious.
A man, big and broad and gleaming with medals pinned to his clothing, paces back and forth in front of him. Loki follows his path, head tipped back, moving only his eyes.
“Who are you?” asks the man—Staff Sergeant Nathaniel Gunner, he called himself, as though the title were a protective incantation, as though it meant anything. He shakes his boarlike head in disbelief. “I've never seen anybody do anything like you did back there.”
Loki raises an eyebrow. It's a little twitch in his face, nothing more.
“You wish to know my name?” he says, bored, unimpressed.
“For a start, yeah,” says Staff Sergeant Nathaniel Gunner. “After that, I wanna know who you work for. You sound like a Brit to me, but you wouldn't be the first scumbag traitor I've met in this war.”
Loki lets out a harsh little humorless chuckle, smiles like an axe wound. “I have no allies,” he drones, “no—friends; I work for no one but myself.” His gaze wanders to the fabric walls. “Traitor you call me...Perhaps you speak true. Or perhaps, like all the others, you speak from ignorance.”
“Don't give me a runaround, pretty boy,” says Gunner. His growl, presumably, is intended to be frightening. “I want your name.”
“My name?” Loki lets his gaze wander back around to the other man's watery blue eyes. He's still smiling. “I suppose Loki will do for now. I will tell you my patronymic when I have figured it out.”
“Low-kee?” says Gunner, like it's the most ridiculous thing he's ever heard. “Sounds Oriental to me.”
“It's not,” says Loki.
Gunner curls his lip. It gives him an unpleasantly bulldog-ish look. “Okay, fine, you're gonna be stubborn,” he says. “Think this is funny, do you. Think this is a game.”
“Yes.” Loki flexes his long fingers. “And I am quickly losing interest.”
“Guess we'll see how interested you are after a couple days in the box,” Gunner scowls.
Loki examines the ceiling pensively.
“I think not,” he says.
The chains burst, reduced to their base matter. Loki unfolds himself from the chair, amused to find that even at his small size he towers over this little pig of a man; a flick of his hand and a bolt of dark energy sends Gunner flying through the tent's closed flap.
The world tilts a bit. Loki tries to walk and stumbles, laughing. He wonders what drug they gave him, how much they had to pour into his system before it would take effect.
He exits the tent, steps over the dead man's body. Three darts hit him in the leg, zip-zip-zip; the pain is minimal, but darkness closes over his head, and he goes down laughing into the mud.
Chapter 5: Part Four
Sudden small thunderstorms over this particular area of New York were a common occurrence, and never lasted very long, so when thunder rolled and lightning flashed and black clouds boiled above the large manor house no one looked twice.
The inhabitants of said manor house, however, knew what was going on, and battened down the hatches.
As it were.
The doors blew open in a howling gust of wind, and Thor stomped inside.
“There are doorknobs for a reason,” said Tony, not even glancing up from his newspaper.
When Thor swept past him without so much as a disgruntled, well, grunt, Tony dropped his paper to the table and stood up to follow him. “So I take it whatever Fury had to say didn't go over well? That guy never has any good news. 'Stark, Hydra just stole a bunch of your tech and used it to attack the UN, Stark, there's a crazy guy outside who wants to kill you, Stark, stop being drunk in public'—”
“Do not test me, man of iron,” Thor growled. “I am ill-disposed toward you and your kind at best at this moment.”
“Whoa, what did I do?” said Tony, indignant. “I don't think I've done anything stupid lately—Steve, have I done anything stupid lately?”
“I don't think—” Steve began, as they passed through the sitting room, but then he was leaping out of his chair and rushing up to Thor with concern written all across his face. “Thor! Who's—what happened? Is he—”
“What the hell is going on?” said Tony, straining to see around the two broad backs in front of him.
“Take him over to the sick room, Thor, I'll call a doctor—”
“No doctor,” Thor said through his teeth. “I'll not have him poked and prodded like an unknown animal.”
Steve winced. “He's obviously in bad shape, we'll have to call someone,” he said, but Thor interrupted him.
“I know what I must do.”
The door to the sick room slid open with a bang, startling Hank at his lab table.
“Hey, hey!” he yelled, “How many times do I have to tell you, you have to be sterilized before—oh. Oh.” His eyes went wide. “Oh, God. Uh, hold on, I've got a clean bed over here—”
He scurried over to one of the beds, stripping off his latex gloves and pulling on a fresh pair before grabbing the covers and yanking them down. “Here, here,” he said, “put him here, I'll go—I'll go get Bruce, wait here—” and he ran off.
Tony got his first look at the cause of all the fuss as Thor laid the frail body into the bed like it was made of glass. Long black hair spread in ragged strings against the sterile white of the pillow, framing a skeletal, miserable face. The man's skin was so pale it was almost blue. He was naked, except for the inhibitor band around his ropey neck. Tony had never seen Thor be so gentle with...well,anything. Not even kittens.
“Is he dead?” he asked, leaning over for a better look.
“Tony!” said Steve.
“What? It's a legitimate question!”
Thor shook his head. “No,” he said, “though were he mortal, he would have been dead long ago.”
“Jesus,” said Tony. “Who is he?”
“He is my brother,” said Thor. “Loki.”
“Wait, you mean the one who dropped himself off the—”
Thor reached out, smoothed back some of the scraggly hair with a hand that looked like a giant's next to the fragile, wasted face. Rage and sorrow warred in the Thunderer's eyes. Tony noticed, with a certain amount of alarm, that Thor's hand was shaking.
“Hey, Jarvis,” he said to the ceiling, suddenly feeling way more sober than he'd ever wanted to in his life, “can you get a read on his vitals?”
“My biometric scanners indicate that he does, in fact, have a pulse, sir,” said Jarvis primly through the intercom. “It is, however, rather weak.” A pause, which Tony suffered through with arched eyebrows. “It also appears that he suffers from severe dehydration and malnutrition, and that he has for...some time,” Jarvis finished, abruptly evasive.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Don't be coy, how long?”
Another pause, this one somewhat awkward.
“In excess of seventy years, sir.”
The temperature in the room dropped about thirty degrees. Steve went ashen.
“That can't be right,” he rasped. “He'd—he'd be—”
“He is immortal,” said Thor, his voice leaden. “As I said. Asgardians do not die of natural causes.”
“Getting starved to death counts as natural causes?” said Tony.
Steve was staring down at the wasted figure, his fists clenched so tight that the veins in his arms pulsed, his jaw set, his blue eyes haunted. It looked like he was having to remind himself how to breathe.
Tony's gut twisted. “Steve?”
“He looks like Dachau,” said Steve hollowly. “Like...God. God. I...”
“Steve. Hey.” Tony grabbed him by the arm, shook him a little. “Steve. Come back, buddy.”
“I—Sorry.” Steve swallowed. He put his hand on top of Tony's and squeezed so hard Tony could feel his bones creak. “I'm sorry, Thor, I—”
“Go,” said Thor. “I would not have you cause yourself anguish for my sake.”
“Are you sure?” said Steve, but Tony was already pushing him towards the door.
“You heard the man, go sit down, I'll keep you posted, Jarvis, make him some tea or something, you know how he likes it.”
With the traumatized soldier out of the way, Tony returned to the bedside, where Thor was cradling his brother's thin hand in his own.
“Is this what Fury showed you?” said Tony.
Thunder rumbled overhead. Tony glanced warily at the ceiling.
“Yes,” said Thor. “Nick Fury called him 'Subject Zero'. My own brother, a prince of Asgard, reduced to a number.”
“Wait, Subject Zero?” said Tony. “I heard that story, every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent has heard that story at least once. Not officially, mind you, it's one of those ghost stories the rookies tell each other to scare themselves.”
It was all he could do not to flinch at the lightning glare Thor shot him.
“Tell me,” said Thor.
Chapter 6: Part Five
How is he still awake? He's got enough morphine in him to kill a horse!
Loki's gaze rolls around the room, taking in the vague shapes of the white-coated men circling him. Like vultures. Bleached crows, waiting for him to stop moving, so they can swoop down and take his eyes.
He grins, slow, wide, and they all back away a half-step.
They know, he's sure. They know if he could move his fingers, if his tongue would work, he could blast the flesh from their bones and free himself from the cold steel slab to which they have him strapped. Or maybe they don't know how he does it, and fear that if they jostle him too much, he might...go off.
He would laugh, because it's funny, really, how they treat him the way a group of mice might treat a trapped cat, but it's currently enough of a chore to keep breathing.
There is a needle stuck in his arm, but he can't feel it. He can't feel most of himself. His brain is a stew of vague memories, idle thoughts, pieces of spells that refuse to be strung together. Whatever poison is in his system, it is strong.
He can't be human.
Oh, now that is funny. His body tries to laugh; it comes out as a series of weak hissing noises, and lack of air makes darkness bloom across his vision for a few moments. He gasps. His vision clears.
You think he might be like those two Yankee soldiers? Creed and Howlett?
Only one way to find out.
Heads turn, look at each other. The light above him is blinding.
Shouldn't we knock him out first?
Why bother? He won't feel it.
The men lean over him, faceless.
This is as knocked out as he's probably getting, anyway.
Cool air blows across his chest, suddenly bared as the scratchy cloth gets pulled away. Something metallic glints in the light.
He feels the pull in his skin, but there is no pain.
The next few eons are blurs.
Skin pulling back, exposing organs to air.
Occasional bright spots:
He develops a tolerance for the poison, slowly. Patience is one of his virtues. He uses it to its fullest. Waiting. Feigning fogged consciousness, as he gathers the sludge of his mind and helps it solidify. Lets them transfer him from cell to operating table to cell to cell, pulls back from his skin as the feeling returns to his body, holds his breath and does not scream as they cut him open to toy with his insides again.
Soon enough he has the strength to whisper into the mind of the man who puts the needles in his arms. Why are they so scared of this guy? He doesn't look so tough. He hasn't done a damn thing in years. It won't matter if I leave off the morphine just this once. It's a pain to set up. And they kept me late tonight anyway. My girl's waiting on me. I'll just leave it. Not like anyone'll notice. Guy's a vegetable.
The man is child's play. That night, the poison is left out of the IV.
That night, Loki breaks free.
He should wrap the shadows around him, slip out in the darkness, hiding, creeping, as he always does. He should disappear before anyone notices something is amiss. He should whisper to the guards, tell them there is no one there, nothing to worry about, as he stalks by behind them.
He should. Part of him understands this, the crafty, careful part.
The straps melt away from his skin. He rises from the slab, levitating, watches the ceiling drift closer to his face.
He is angry.
And Chaos demands his penance.
He smiles. All teeth, no eyes.
The spell, hissed through his grinning lips, unzips the skin of every mortal within a mile.
He blows the ceiling apart. Rubble rains down around him to the sound of blood-choked screams and his own high laughter.
It gets him a few hours—a few hours of precious freedom. He kills eleven people in those few hours; wounds, maims, torments dozens more.
Eventually they catch him again. He's hanging on to life by a thread when they bring him back. It was the only way he would go.
Chapter 7: Part Six
The tale was short, as Tony Stark related it. A creature, powerful beyond belief, sealed away in the deepest tomb the Midgardians could muster, because it could not be killed. Little was known about it, but speculation ran wild. It was too dangerous, too hostile to be dealt with otherwise. None were allowed to go near it, for fear that it might escape. Rumor said that it had escaped before, killed many before its recapture. Like Surtr, or Mangog.
Unthinkable, to hear his beloved brother compared to such monsters.
Then Tony Stark left, to see to their companion nursing old war wounds in the hallway, and Thor was alone with his brother.
He seemed almost dead, needles dug into his arms and tubes running from his body to the softly beeping machines positioned nearby. Bruce Banner had promised that they would help—that they would strengthen him, give him food and water without his having to eat or drink—and Thor knew enough about Midgard healing technology to trust him...but he could not help watching Loki's thin chest for every slow rise and fall that said he was still breathing.
It made him ill, to see the way the collar around Loki's pale neck had chafed against his skin for so long. He had tried to remove it himself, but could not pry it loose, and worried that pulling too hard might injure Loki even further. It seemed to be hooked into his muscles somehow, long wires burrowing into raw flesh beneath the metal plates. A disgusting thing, meant to weaken him.
But Bruce Banner had balked at removing it.
“If he wakes up, he'll probably be...in a bad state,” he said, in his quiet, tired voice. “I don't like leaving it on there any more than you do, believe me—I know what those things feel like—but I don't really want to run the risk of taking it off. Don't want any, uh, accidents. You know.”
Grudgingly, Thor had to agree, though he suspected that Loki would be in no state to cause any damage even if he were to wake. He looked so...thin. Small. Fragile, like something made of straw and twine.
The room dimmed. Night began to fall. Thor stayed, Loki's slender hand cradled gently in both of his. He disliked how...cold it felt. In the faint light of the room's devices, it seemed so pale it was almost blue.
His comrades came in, one after the other, offering to relieve him of his vigil. He barely looked at any of them, and refused them all.
Steve came back in late that night, about 0200 or so, unable to sleep. He and insomnia had always been good friends—before, he had trouble breathing sometimes, and would wake himself up gasping for air; after, it was hard to sleep no matter how exhausted he felt, with the images of the War and all the things that had passed him by spinning in his head.
Besides, he thought Thor could probably use the company. Sleepless vigils were better with someone to talk to.
So he sat in a chair across the room, sketchbook in his lap, doodling aimlessly and listening to the Asgardian speak. It still made his stomach lurch sickly to look at the...the remnant lying in the bed, pale and thin and stretched out with tubes running into his arms and under the sheets.
For some reason Steve found himself thinking of one of the last scenes in that Western movie Tony had made him watch, about the OK Corral shootout. Doc Holliday in the bed in the sanatorium. Dying.
Not a good thing to be thinking about right now.
“He needed me,” Thor was saying, voice hollow. “And I failed him. Had I not been so—arrogant, so foolish, Father would never have seen the need to banish me.”
“That's in the past now,” Steve said with a sigh. “Take it from me. You can't change what's already happened. Not much point in thinking about how things might have gone.”
Thor managed a smile. “You are wise beyond your years.”
“Nah.” Steve chuckled a little—what Bucky would have called his aw-shucks laugh. “Just common sense.”
The man in the bed whimpered softly, almost too softly to be heard over the hum and whirr of the machinery sustaining him. Thor jerked to attention, leaning over, touching broad fingertips to his brother's face. Steve had seen Thor be gentle before, especially with children, but...never like this. As though he were terrified to so much as breathe too hard. He brushed away a strand of tangled black hair from the sunken eyes.
“What's he like?” Steve said. “Your brother, I mean. If you don't mind my asking.”
Thor didn't look up, watching his brother's lips twitch in whatever coma dream he was having. Steve had never seen him so lost. It didn't suit him.
“Much too clever,” Thor began slowly, stroking his brother's damp forehead. “Too clever for his own good, sometimes. He always was. Even when we were children, he had his games and his schemes. While I and my friends spent our days pretending to slay frost giants with wooden weapons, he hid in the library and devoured every tome he could lay hands on.” A fond smile played across his lips. “Especially the ones he was not supposed to read. The surest way to convince Loki that he must do something was to tell him that he must not.”
Steve had to laugh. “Sounds like a few people I know,” he said. “No wonder you always got along so well with Tony.”
“Yes, Loki and Tony Stark do bear a great resemblance to each other,” said Thor. “Though I have no doubt that both would be deeply offended at the sentiment.”
Thor took a deep breath, let it out in a heavy sigh like a big dog flopped sadly on a rug. He stroked the back of Loki's hand with his thumb. He hadn't let go of that hand since Steve had left the first time.
“I do not know what happened to him when I was banished,” he said, dropping his gaze to the floor. “Something...something went wrong. Father fell into the Odinsleep. Loki had to take the throne. It—it must have been too much for him. I must have done something terrible, without realizing—it would not be the first time.” His face twisted. “We fought. We have fought before, but then...he truly meant to kill me.”
“What?” said Steve. He hadn't heard much about Thor's time on Earth before; it wasn't something the Asgardian liked to talk about. “He—he tried to kill you? Then why...”
He didn't finish the question. He knew why.
“Because he is my brother,” Thor answered anyway, “and I love him.”
Steve said nothing. There was nothing to say. He returned to his drawing.
When he glanced up again, he stared for a moment, then laid a hand gently on Thor's arm. “Hey,” he said, quietly as he could. “Hey. His eyes—they're open.”
Thor's head snapped up.
The sunken eyes stared blankly at the ceiling, a shade of green that Steve had never seen before in his life. They might have been beautiful, if not for the strange emptiness behind them. Soft whispers drifted up from the thin lips, and Steve had to strain to hear them.
“I could have done it, Father...I could have done it...”
“Loki,” Thor was saying. “Loki, can you hear me? Please.”
“I don't think—” Steve began, and then Loki screamed.
The sound was deafening—an ear-piercing shriek of utter terror that distorted that already gaunt face into something wraithlike, something that should have been dead. The frail body arched off of the bed, spidery fingers clutching at the sheets.
Steve had never seen Thor move so fast. In an instant, he had Loki in his arms, had pressed the black head against his chest, rocking him gently and murmuring something in a language Steve didn't understand. There were tears on his face.
The scream trailed off into a deathly moan. Steve shuddered.
Thor continued to soothe his brother, stroking his hair, kissing his forehead, until those staring eyes closed again in exhaustion.
Steve didn't sleep well that night.
Chapter 8: Part Seven
There is some sort of...commotion happening.
Footsteps, shuffling toward his cell. Whispers. A muffled cry, choked off. Thud.
Men in black masks pry the door open. They speak in harsh gutturals, a language reminiscent of past times, when Asgard and Midgard were not so far apart from each other. The men bind him, gag him, and blindfold him, then carry him out like a sack of jewels, muttering amongst themselves. One of them laughs, a harsh staccatto.
Loki laughs with him, but they cannot hear it through the gag.
You can't be serious!
Of course I'm serious, doctor. I have heard fascinating things about this subject from our spies, and I had thought that perhaps he might be useful to your experiments.
You're asking me to—this is—
Is something amiss, doctor?
Then I will let you return to your work. Good day.
He opens his eyes. The bright light is painful. A figure hovers above him, smallish and wispy-haired.
Can you hear me? it says, then, No, no, of course you can't, they made sure of that, didn't they—this is barbaric, I really am sorry, but I have no choice...
A needle plunges into his arm, draws blood thick and red from him.
He thinks you to be a god, says the figure, but he treats you this way? As an experimental monkey?
Loki laughs again. The man startles, pulling away.
There are voices—unfamiliar, speaking of power and madness and other petty things. One demands results; another begs, please, give me more time, I almost have it, just a little longer, Herr Schmidt, please.
There are voices—familiar, but further away, speaking of adventures, of excursions to Alfheim, and perhaps Loki would like to come along, surely there is something of interest to be found. Come, brother, we have not sparred in a dog's age, I want to see how you fight now. What's the matter, silver tongue turned to lead?
Tears leak from his eyes. Someone wipes them away.
Not too much longer. Patience, my friend. The Americans will be here soon.
Through the wall, he hears someone screaming, agony and rage, and he knows—somehow, he knows—that he has something to do with it. Some part of his soul is tearing that man apart.
In here! In here! Quickly!
The commotion from before repeats itself almost exactly, though this time there's much more noise as the men in black carry him from his cell. It's all cycles, all the same thing happening over and over again, and it always will be...
The doctor lays a cool, damp cloth on his brow, and Loki cannot hear what he says over the roar of engines. The floor sways, like a ship on rough seas. He retches, dizzied from the motion.
He dreams again. More tears.
Then they put him back in his cage and lock the door.
Chapter 9: Part Eight
Three weeks passed before Loki opened his eyes again.
Whether he was actually conscious or not, well. Tony didn’t claim to know what was going on in that head. Didn’t seem much like it to him. Sure, the guy sat upright, tracked motion, all of that—he could even walk, if somebody led him around, which was quite an accomplishment for somebody who apparently hadn’t so much as paced his cell in decades—but he wouldn’t talk, and he wouldn’t really look at anything, either, like he saw it but didn’t care what it was. Lights on, nobody home.
Not that Tony was going to say anything like that to Thor. Especially with the big guy looming the way he was.
“I want that infernal device removed,” Thor growled, while Loki looked on blankly from the bed.
“What, you mean the collar?” said Tony. He scratched at his jawline. “You know, that might not be the best idea—”
Thunder rumbled overhead, low and threatening. Thor’s fist tightened on the handle of his hammer. The leather creaked.
“Oh,” Tony amended, “right, you don’t care. My bad.”
“You are capable of doing this, are you not?” said Thor, crossing his arms. “It is not—outside your area of expertise?”
“Psh, that thing?” Tony waved dismissively. “Please. Don’t insult me. That’s practically an antique. Give me a multitool and fifteen minutes and I’ll have it beeping ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ for you.”
Thor’s eyes narrowed. “No tricks, Tony Stark.”
“No. No. God no. Hang tight a minute, I’ll be right back.”
Five minutes and a quick detour through a side hallway to dodge an angry-looking Natasha later, Tony was sidling back into Thor’s bedroom with his trusty toolbox at his side. Granted, this was not exactly how he would have preferred to be spending his time in Thor’s bedroom, but hey, at least he could say now that he’d been there. For some length of time.
He sat down on the foot of the bed and popped open his toolbox. Loki watched him, impassive, his expression as empty as it always was, pale eyes like mirrors, reflecting everything and revealing nothing.
It was giving Tony the creeps, frankly.
“Listen, can you—” Tony gestured at Thor, then at Loki, as he laid out the contents of his toolbox like a surgeon’s tools on the fur coverlet (why the hell it was fur, Tony would never understand, but hey, who was he to say no to a god?). “Can you get him to stop staring at me like that? It’s—it’s really bugging me.”
Thor leaned in, one broad hand on the back of Loki’s neck, fingers toying with strands of long black hair. “Loki,” he murmured. “Loki, he will not harm you.”
“Yeah, yeah, listen to the big guy,” said Tony idly, picking up a thin screwdriver and making sure it was the right shape. “Okay. Let’s get this thing off of you.”
Stars exploded in Tony’s vision, to the tune of a panicked shriek, and oh hey, flying through the air, that was a familiar feeling, wham into the wall with Thor yelling muffled through the concussive roar in Tony’s ears, Loki brother stop it stop please he means you no harm.
And then another voice, high and piercing fading in and out with the ringing sound that Tony knew so well from his many intimate interactions with walls, get away get away from me you dare lay hands on me I will kill you I will destroy you every last one of you—
—Brother leave him you are safe there is nothing—
—with your knives and your blinding lights and your pressing fingers—
Tony got a real good look at those eyes, then, those pale sharp green eyes and bright teeth snarling through the blotches of darkness crawling across his brain, and Tony had thought he’d seen crazy but hoo boy Vanko’s nasty little laugh had nothing nothing on the bottomless pit full of ugly writhing things he saw in those eyes.
Thin fingers curled around his throat, choking, throttling.
Then they pulled away, and Tony gasped for air, coughing, bright blossoms of pain surging across his skull. Thor had yanked Loki backwards, was trying to shout him down and apparently failing at it, grip like iron on those skinny pale arms.
Tony shook his head, coughed, tasted blood. He wiped his mouth and willed the room to quit spinning.
“Okay,” he said, mostly to himself. “Okay. Might take a little longer than fifteen minutes.”
“What is going on in—Tony!”
Tony looked up to see Steve crouching down over him, reaching around to help him stand up. “Oh, hey,” he said, grinning as best he could. “Was trying to help out for once, having some, uh, minor technical difficulties—”
He swung his head around. Loki had stopped yelling. His pale eyes had gone wide, and fixed right on…
“Steve?” Tony turned back to him. “Steve, why’s he staring at you?”
“You,” said Loki suddenly, in a raspy, disused voice that sent a cluster of shivers down Tony’s spine. “You have something—that belongs to me.”
“Brother, you speak nonsense,” said Thor, his grip tightening just a hair, but Loki didn’t seem to hear him.
“In your blood.” Thin lips peeled back into a wide-eyed snarl. “It was taken from me. I want it back.”
He wrenched himself out of Thor’s grasp and threw himself bodily at Steve, who couldn’t react fast enough to get out of the way in time; the two of them went crashing into the wall. Loki bit down on Steve’s throat, bright red blood welling around his teeth, and then he rippedback and okay that was definitely enough of these shenanigans.
Tony stabbed the syringe right into the crook of Loki’s shoulder.
They eventually got the collar off.
“His blood,” said Loki softly, as Thor poured warm water over the raw wound at his throat. He had returned to staring into nothing, walking where he was led, and this was the first he had spoken for some hours since his attack on Steve Rogers.
“What of it?” Thor asked. He crouched next to the bathtub, stripped down to his trousers, washing Loki’s ravaged body as gently as he could.
Loki’s brow twitched. “His blood,” he repeated, as though trying to pin down a memory. “They took my blood…they took mine, and they put it in his.”
“You speak in riddles, brother,” said Thor. But then, he thought, Loki had always spoken in riddles, had he not? That he was speaking at all was something for which to be grateful.
“They stole my blood.” It was almost a whimper. His eyes had gone wide again. “They filled me with poisons and took me apart to see how I worked and stole. My. Blood.”
“Loki,” Thor said, winding one arm around his brother’s thin frame.
“It tore that man apart, the man who thought he could control a god,” said Loki, and his lips spasmed into a smile like a wound. “Ripped his skin away. No more than he deserved. Fool.” And he laughed—a horrible, wavering laugh that dribbled between his lips like a madman’s saliva. “He wanted power. Any imbecile knows power has a price.”
“I’m not your brother,” Loki spat. An echo of their last encounter before his fall. “I never was.”
The words struck at Thor’s heart, a pain worse than any mundane wound. “Why do you say these things, brother?” he asked, tightening his embrace. “Do you think I never loved you?”
“Then why did you abandon me?” Loki shrieked, his voice a clamoring chaos reverberating off of the bathroom walls. Hot water splashed, spilled onto the floor around Thor’s knees. “I waited! I was so certain you would come find me—you in your unending bravery andheroism, you could never leave me to die in that thrice-damned Midgardian dungeon, your pride would never allow it! Would it? Brother?” He bit the word off like a curse, like some disgusting taste lingering on his tongue.
“Had I but known your fate—!” Thor began, drawing back from his madly raging brother, but Loki shouted over him.
“I waited!” he said. “For endless ages I waited! And you—never—came!”
“I thought you dead!”
“You hoped me dead!” Loki screamed. His eyes flashed with poison-green light. “Do not dare lie to me—you wanted me dead, you prayed that I was dead! No doubt our father told you what I am—”
“What are you talking about?” Thor interrupted him, seizing his shoulders, almost shaking him in frustration. “Had I known you were alive, I would have scoured the Nine Realms for you—would have brought down Yggdrasil itself to find you!”
“So much easier to believe me dead, then! You did have a throne to take, after all—and that woman to go running off after as soon as the Bifrost was repaired—I assume it was repaired, since you are here and not on Asgard—”
“Loki, listen to me—”
“No!” Loki snarled, and for one insane moment, Thor was a child again, listening to his little brother throw a rare tantrum and refuse to be put to bed, let me go I have not finished reading yet put me down. “Why should I listen to you?”
A red haze began to gather at the edges of Thor’s vision. “Because I am telling you the truth!” he tried not to shout.
“You know nothing,” said Loki, his expression black as the deepest pits of Hel. “The Allfather did not tell you, did he?”
“Tell me what?” Thor said, pulling back just slightly. “What are you talking about?”
And Loki started to laugh.
It was, without a doubt, the worst sound that Thor had ever heard in his long life. High, brittle, hollow, like a mirror shattering, Loki’s smile splitting his face in a sword wound cut to the bone, his eyes round and bright and dead. Tears slipped down his cheeks, one, two at a time, then an endless stream of them, leaving shining tracks like branches.
Thor tried to speak, tried to say something, anything, that might stop this insanity, but then a biting cold snapped at his hands, forced him to jerk away from his brother, their breath fogging in the air.
A deep, jewel-toned blue crept over Loki’s skin, tendrils of it snaking up from his feet and wrapping themselves around his body. A thin crust of ice began to form on the water around him, cracking softly, melting and refreezing. Strange ridges rose on his wrists, lines of hardened flesh following the subtle curves of his torso, drawing half-circles on his brow. Red—blood, blood red, arterial, blood on snow—flooded his eyes.
Thor watched in horror.
Loki’s laughter saturated the air, and the tears froze on his cheeks.
Mjolnir was in Thor’s hand before he knew what he was doing.
“What trickery is this?” he shouted, leaping to his feet. “What madness? What have you done with my brother?”
“Don’t you understand, you great oaf?” the Jotunn said, almost howling with laughter. “I am your brother!”
He allowed Mjolnir to slip from his grasp, and it fell to the floor with a booming thud like distant thunder.
He reached out, and Loki recoiled, his laughter dying.
“Don’t touch me,” he snapped, but Thor closed his hands around Loki’s arms, and the contact sent pale pink blooming back out across Loki’s flesh. He pulled Loki close, embraced him, kissed his temple gently.
Loki wriggled in his arms, trying to pull away. “Stop. Let go. Let go!”
“No.” Thor tightened his hold, rubbing warmth back into Loki’s limbs, brushing the melting tears away with his lips. “I will never let go of you again.”
“I tried to kill you,” Loki said, almost whining, red eyes gone pale and green again. “I tried to destroy an entire realm.”
“You did,” Thor allowed, running his fingers through Loki’s wet hair.
“I have done terrible things—so many awful, terrible things—”
“All of that is past, brother.”
“Don’t call me that.” Loki’s voice was choked. “Don’t call me brother. Not now that you know.”
“You are still my brother,” said Thor firmly. “You will always be my brother.”
“Stupid,” Loki sobbed, and he buried his face in Thor’s chest and wept.
Chapter 10: Part Nine
[Audio Log 0643-899-201.75]
[ACCESS RESTRICTED. Please enter password]
[Access granted. Begin log playback.]
You won’t keep me locked up in here forever, will you. Will you. You can’t. You’ll come back, you always come back, knives and needles and machines. You think they’ll tell you what you want to know of me. What I am. No one will ever know what I am. I don’t even know what I am. [Laughter.]
What? Who’s there? Show yourself! No, I must be seeing things. So dark. So thrice-cursed dark.
[Steady, rhythmic banging, accompanied by pained vocalizations.]
Odinsson. Laufeysson. Odinsson. Laufeysson. [Repeated for approx. 2 minutes.]
Help me brother please I’m sorry I’m sorry please help me please brother perfect flawless I hate you perfect I hate you please tell father I’m sorry tell him why no please don’t leave me.
[Sustained scream lasting over 1 minute.]
[Singing, interrupted periodically by quiet sobs. Language identified as a dialect of Old Norse.]
Kill me. Please. For tree’s sake kill me.
Chapter 11: Part Ten
“You tortured him.”
Coulson let out a long sigh. He closed the log file and set the computer to shut down, then turned his chair around slowly. Rogers stood in the doorway, staring at him, his expression caught somewhere between confused grief and righteous anger—looked like the world’s biggest kicked puppy.
There were bandages wrapped around his throat, dark with dry blood.
Coulson shrugged. “I can’t speak for my superiors on the matter, Agent Rogers,” he said.
“Don’t give me that,” said Rogers, stepping forward and jabbing his finger at the air between them. “Don’t—don’t feed me that line. Don’t you dare feed me that line. You—your organization, S.H.I.E.L.D., you—you tortured him.” He gestured back toward the door with a wide sweep of his arm. “I saw what he looked like when Thor brought him back! I heard the file you were just listening to!”
“Give me a little credit,” said Coulson, raising his hands placatingly, “I didn’t know much about this until recently, either. All of the information was classified. Strict need-to-know.”
“Right, let me guess, no one needed to know about the man you were keeping locked up underground!” Rogers yelled. There were tears standing in his eyes. “You know how this”—he pointed to his bandaged throat—“happened? When he woke up, he attacked me—said I had something that belonged to him, something in my blood—what did he mean by that?”
“Stand down, Agent,” said Coulson, rising to his feet.
“What did he mean by that?” Rogers slammed a fist into the wall, denting it, crunching the plaster into a tangle of spiderweb-cracks. If he’d hit a stud, no doubt the whole wall would have come down. “What am I, Coulson? Is that classified, too?”
And then Stark swept in, like he owned the place, “Oh, hey, there you are, big guy, don’t go running off like that, you’ll scare the kiddies,” and he grabbed Rogers by the arm and tried to haul him away. “Sorry about this, Phil, he’s lost a lot of blood, not quite in his right mind, you know how it is, come on Steve let’s go—”
Rogers pulled loose each time Stark tried to grab him, not even looking around. “What price did you pay to get Captain America?” he shouted. The tears in his eyes had started spilling over now, the anger in his voice fading into genuine distress. “Take it back! It’s not worth it, I don’t want this anymore!”
“Stand down, Agent,” said Coulson. Then, more quietly, “Screaming at me won’t change anything, Agent Rogers.”
“For once I agree with him,” said Stark, his hand yanking at the crook of Rogers’s elbow. Rogers finally turned his head to face him, blue eyes wide and hurt. “Don’t give me that puppy look, come on, let’s go.”
“Might be a good idea to listen to him,” said Coulson, and he was fairly sure he’d never thought he would ever hear himself saying anything like that about Tony Stark, of all people.
Rogers turned back to stare at him. Searching. If he was looking for a reason, he wasn’t going to find it here. It wasn’t fair, but…well, was anything ever fair? Things were only fair when people like Steve Rogers made them that way.
Maybe that was why. Maybe that was the reason.
“Off the record, Agent Rogers,” said Coulson, sighing, “I don’t like it much either. But there’s nothing any of us can do about it now. Just move forward.”
The expression on Rogers’s face wasn’t one Coulson expected to see on a grown man. His daughter, maybe, when she was watchingUp for the first time. But definitely not a grown man. It was kind of heartbreaking.
He watched Stark lead Rogers away.
Then he went to the firing range.
Chapter 12: Part Eleven
Seventy-odd years wasn’t really all that long, in the scheme of things. Loki had been alive for much longer. Would be alive for much longer, if he had any say in the matter. To an immortal, seven decades was a raindrop in the sea. A leaf in the jungle. A grain of sand in the desert.
Though. A grain of sand did stand out a bit, if it were black.
Seven decades of black.
It shouldn’t have meant anything. It should have been nothing. Just another story to tell in an eternity of stories. Just another nightmare.
Should have been. So many things should have been.
He stood alone in the room he had been alotted, watching green sparks flicker between his fingers. The sensation of it dancing through his nerves was almost overwhelming. He couldn't get enough of it. After so long without it, so long feeling it snuffed to a dim ember in his soul, it was like breathing again.
He still couldn’t quite convince himself it was over. That he wasn’t…dreaming all of this. Sound. Sunlight. Clean air. Freedom. And Thor—Norns curse him—Thor at the center of it all, behaving as though they were still in Asgard and Loki had merely taken ill. As though all that had transpired between them were forgotten.
Perhaps he had forgotten. It would not be surprising. Thor had all the wit of a large dog.
Norns curse him.
It was only a matter of time, Loki knew. Only a matter of time before he would be cast out again. He belonged here no more than he belonged in the palace at Asgard, not now, not after—everything. How could Thor pretend otherwise? It was—it was stupid, it was outright cruel of him—how could he do this, how could he? Taking his wayward little brother in like a stray kitten, no doubt to assuage his own guilt, acting as though he truly cared, how magnanimous of him, deigning to forgive Loki’s crimes, how sickeningly noble—
He flung out a hand with a scream of rage, and bolts of energy sent the glass on the bedside table crashing into the wall.
Beautiful, how it shattered.
He would have seen everything shatter, if he could. Like him. In pieces, shards too sharp to handle without blood. Cutting. Useless for anything but causing pain.
He did not look around, eyes fixed on the shards of glass glittering in the setting sun.
“Leave me be. Brother.”
The word tasted bitter to him now. Everything tasted bitter. Bitter, familiar. He could live with that. A shield of nettles and nightshade drawn around him, so that he could forget what sweetness was, and in the forgetting never long for it again.
“Loki.” Heavy footsteps—slow, wary.
“I said leave me alone!”
In the ringing silence, the footsteps hesitated, then settled to stillness without advancing further. Loki supposed that was all he could ask. Thor would not leave him without good reason. Norns curse him.
The glass shards blurred. He swiped the back of his hand across his eyes; it cleared his vision but didn’t kill the sting.
“Will you at least look at me?” The faint waver in Thor’s voice (can I come home?) set Loki’s jaw tight, clenched, his teeth grinding together.
“You have no idea.” The words came thorned and poisonous from between his teeth. “How hard. I tried. To wipe your face from my memory.” His breath hissed in his throat, painful, as though he were inhaling needles. “I could hear you. See you. In the black. I dreamed of you, and when I woke, the black mocked me with your voice. Your absence. Of all the things it could have left me—and it took so much from me, so much—of all things, it left me the image of your Hel-cursed face. Left untouched the absolute certainty that I. Was. Alone.”
He was shaking now, wound tight enough to tear himself in two, fingernails dug so hard into his palms that blood dripped slow and dark from his knuckles. His pulse roared in his ears, the raging breath of some great beast trapped inside his head, so that he barely heard Thor speak.
“But you are alone no longer.”
“How much longer?” Loki snarled, whirling around to face him, and oh Realms and Tree but it hurt to see him, hurt to look at him, all blue eyes and sincerity, like staring into a noonday sun, too much, too much, strangled his throat and stung his eyes, he had to look away, turn his head and shut his eyes tight. “How much longer? When will I be alone again? Tell me that! Tell me when you will leave me! I know you will!”
Strange, that Thor was not trying to interrupt him, seemed content to let him rave—not that it was surprising, really, it only proved that Loki was right, proved what he had known all along.
“Better that you throw me out now, leave me, let me be alone and give me no more reason for this vain wretched hope,” he snapped. “Kill it. Summon what mercy you have left for me and kill it. Before it kills me. Cast me out. We both know I deserve no better.”
He could feel himself falling again, as he stood with his eyes tight shut and his muscles tensed to breaking—falling from the bright, through the black, into the black that writhed behind his eyelids. His nails biting into his hands kept him present, but only just; it threatened to blend into the rest of the pain, the more distant all-encompassing ache of the black and the void, the scraped-out hollowness haunting his edges, the pounding of his head. Drying blood stuck his fingers together.
He could feel his brother’s eyes on him. He didn’t want to think what they might hold.
Thor stepped forward. Loki wouldn’t have thought it possible for him to draw himself up any tighter, yet somehow the sudden proximity made it possible—the warmth of his brother’s nearness bringing into sharp focus how far apart they truly were. How cold he truly was.
How much he wanted that closeness.
That was dangerous. Wants were things other people had—strings to be pulled, tools to be used. Loki had seen too many times how a man’s wants could break him open, leave him desperate, pleading, willing to submit to any drudgery or degradation a mind could invent for even the smallest taste of fulfillment. It was—it was pathetic, sickening to watch, and Loki had long ago vowed never to permit anyone to control him that way.
Because it was about control, in the end. Loki answered only to Loki. It was all he could really say for himself; his freedom, all he had to his name.
So he seized hold of his want—crushed it—crippled it—twisted it into anger. He could control anger. Had spent most of his life controlling anger, honing it into acid-laced blades thrown at the backs of those who turned away from him.
Now if only Thor would turn away. Then they could be done with this farce.
A broad hand settled lightly at the crook of his neck, tentative. Even through the fabric of his high collar, Loki could feel how warm it was.
He remembered nights spent in beds other than his own, beds he had tricked, manipulated, lied, cheated himself into—the women and men whose hands he had allowed upon him, had allowed to touch, caress, scratch and strike and bruise. So many hands, so many bodies; and still, when he slept alone, his mind would turn to fingers callused from hammer-wielding, and with his face pressed into the pillow he would sully himself in the dark thinking of a quiet voice like a lion’s purr calling him brother.
Thor tugged at him, gently, stroking a thumb across the sensitive spot just behind his jaw.
Something cracked in him, then—at the first touch he had really felt in—in so long, too long—how starved he was for it, how wretchedly desperate—a dry sob wrenched itself from his throat as the crack widened, spread—
“Get away from me!”
He shoved hard, magic arcing hot down his arms; Thor vanished mid-cry in a blinding flash of green light, and the door slammed shut and locked itself.
Too much. All too much. It hurt too much. He couldn't take this—this wanting, this needing, this broken, incomplete feeling. It disgusted him. He loathed it—loathed his brother for doing this to him—loathed himself for letting it happen.
He screamed. Every mirror in the mansion shattered.
Chapter 13: Part Twelve
Thor found himself back out in the hall, Loki's door slamming in his face.
He spent a solid hour beating on it, calling out his brother's name—shouts, pleas, roars fit to shake the very walls. He even struck it once with Mjolnir, in helpless rage, a ringing blow which put a crack down the middle but otherwise did nothing. Loki's wards were too strong. They always were.
When he finally accepted that no reply was forthcoming, that Loki was not going to open that door again or even speak to him anytime soon, Thor forced himself to stillness, trying to slow his hard, heavy breaths. His muscles trembled with the effort of restraint, vibrated with overflowing emotion that suddenly had nowhere to go. Mjolnir fell from his hand, his faithful companion reduced to nothing but dead weight, and he put his back to the cracked wood and sank heavily to the floor with a frustrated sigh.
What had he done wrong?
He had tried very, very hard to be gentle, and not say any more than he felt he had to. Loki treated words like knives, used them as such and expected the same from everyone else. Even back in Asgard, before—before all of this, when he was still Thor's beloved little brother, beautiful and secretive and far too clever for his own good—he would take offense at the barest of slights, raise his hackles at the faintest hint of mockery. Nine times out of ten Thor would have no idea what had been said or done to turn his brother's smile sour. He would tease, and joke, and laugh with the rest of them; then, three days later, something would happen to Fandral or Sif that had the prints of Loki's mischief all over it. A prank, yes, and usually harmless—usually—but there would always be something...vicious about the glitter of mirth in Loki's eyes. Something vindictive.
And sometimes the smile would vanish entirely, replaced by razor-thin glares and bared teeth. He would perceive insults where there were none, weave elaborate webs of malice and hatred out of thin air; nothing could convince him that he was not secretly reviled by every thinking being in all of Asgard, that he was only snapping at shadows conjured by his own mind. No one could do anything at all without somehow inciting his wrath. He would rage at being bothered, seethe at being left alone, snarl at being watched.
A scant few months ago, Thor would never have thought to see his fights with his brother as anything other than isolated incidents, each one quickly forgiven and just as quickly forgotten. He would never have thought to wonder why Loki was so easy to fight with. He had merely assumed that they were brothers, and that was what brothers did.
But ever since watching Loki's hand uncurl from Gungnir's shaft as they hung suspended over the abyss, Thor had been giving many things a great deal more thought. Why had been the only question on his mind.
Was it his fault? What had he done wrong?
Or had Loki done this to himself?
He was not sure which option was worse.
Thor listened to Loki's boots against the carpet, pacing around the room in a haphazard start-and-stop pattern, hesitant and uncertain and undirected. Like a wasp in a jar.
“I am still here, brother,” he called out.
The pacing stopped for half a minute, then resumed, faster.
“It's been eight. Days. He can't keep this up.” Tony slumped back in his seat, running a hand through his hair. “Can he?”
“He already has for eight days,” Bruce pointed out.
Tony waved a hand at him. “Okay, beside the point,” he said. He leaned forward, chair creaking slightly, and clasped his hands in front of his lips. “What do we do with the crazy guy?”
Steve shot him a look.
“I don't trust him,” said Natasha, arms crossed.
“You don't trust anyone,” said Clint, unstringing one of his compound bows in a corner.
“I mean,” Tony went on, as though no one else had spoken, “I can't afford to keep him here, he keeps breaking stuff. Well, okay, not strictly true—I can afford it, I'd just, y'know, rather not have to.”
“I told you taking the inhibitor off of him was a bad idea,” sighed Bruce.
“Thank you for your input, Dr. Banner, it has been duly noted,” said Tony, irritably. “The point is—what are we supposed to do with him? Thor won't leave him, Loki won't let him in—you've been watching the security feed, Clint, what's he been doing this whole time?”
“Walking around in circles muttering to himself, mostly.” Clint wound a new string around one of the pulleys, pulling it tight. “Doesn't sleep unless he collapses. Hasn't eaten that I've seen. Shows signs of paranoia, occasionally looks like he's about to try clawing his own eyes out. Speed up the framerate, it looks like a Tool music video in there.”
“Oh, God,” said Steve, looking horrified.
“Does he know he's being watched?” said Natasha. “What reason do we have to believe he's not putting on an act?”
Clint looked up at her, arching an eyebrow. “Pretty sure he's not acting. That kind of psycho is hard to fake.”
“I don't have the facilities for this,” said Tony, burying his face in one hand. “This is a house, not an asylum for Norse gods.”
“Tony, don't talk about him like that,” said Steve.
“Like what?” said Tony. “You saw what he did to me when I tried to help him! Hell, he tried to—to eat you, I don't know what the hell he was trying to do, but he nearly tore your throat out! I'm not letting that happen again!”
“So what do you think we should do? Just—throw him back in that cell?”
“What? No! No, Jesus, I never said that!”
“Then stop talking like he's some kind of—stray animal that Thor brought in!” Steve shot back, suddenly on his feet. “He's a human being, Tony!”
“Strictly speaking, he's not human, he's Asgardian,” said Tony.
“You know what I mean!”
Clint rolled his eyes. “Mom and Dad are fighting again,” he muttered under his breath.
“Come on,” Tony said, “what the guy really needs is a psychiatrist, not—not Thor standing outside his window with a goddamn boombox or whatever it is he's doing.”
“No! Absolutely not, are you nuts?” Steve was on his feet by now, looking as though he were about to fling himself in Tony's direction. “Do you have any idea what some headshrinker would do to him?”
“I'd be more worried about the therapist, myself,” said Bruce, but naturally neither Steve nor Tony was listening.
Tony rolled his eyes, in the most put-upon way he possibly could. “Okay, look, Steve, I get it, you're from the forties, calm down, things have changed a lot in sixty years, okay?”
“Don't you bring that up again—do you have to bring that up every time I disagree with you?”
“So what do you suggest we do?” said Tony sharply, getting to his own feet. “He's dangerous, there's no telling what he might end up doing if we don't get him some kind of help. Besides, we need Thor, he's the strongest guy we've got, and if he's sitting up there outside his brother's door like some kind of golden retriever with separation anxiety, he's not exactly being a productive member of the team!”
“Oh, is that what this is about, then?” Steve shouted. “You don't give a damn about him, do you? It's just that he's distracting our best man, is that it?”
“Shut! Up!” roared Bruce, slamming his fists down onto the table. “Both of you!”
Everyone in the room froze. All eyes slid to Bruce. He clenched and flexed his fingers rhythmically; the only sound was his heavy breaths hissing very slow and deliberate through his nostrils.
“You done, Banner?” said Tony, though he was as still as everyone else.
“I'm. Fine.” Bruce glared up at him from underneath his brow, eyes flickering brown to green-yellow and back. He smiled. It was all teeth. “You, on the other hand, might not be in about fifteen seconds if you don't. Stop. Talking.”
Steve sat back down, looking thoroughly chastened. And for once in his life, Tony kept his mouth shut. Though that may have had more to do with the threat of collateral damage than anything else. “Repairs to damage caused by screaming green gamma-monster rampage” didn't look that good on a tax audit.
Then the door to the meeting room burst open.
“He's gone!” said Thor, standing in the doorway with panic in his eyes.
Chapter 14: Part Thirteen
It was the walls that had made him leave—even without the chains, even without the dull glowing ember of suppressed magic searing behind his solar plexus, he had still felt the walls closing in around him, they were too close, confining, threatened to crush him even as he paced the perimeter of the room to make sure they were staying in place.
But without them, he felt...exposed. Unprotected. Vulnerable.
He was certain the people around him were staring. He must look strange. He'd had enough presence of mind to conjure up more appropriate clothing (a pair of dark trousers, a button-down shirt, and a long black coat), but he knew there were still bruised circles under his eyes, knew how pale he was, how drawn and thin.
He stared at his hands. They belonged to a dead man. Clammy white, blue-veined.
He pulled his coat tighter around himself. Ducked his head.
There were eyes on him. Mothers tugging their children closer to their legs. Men watching without looking at him, gazes cast just to his left. Policemen laying their hands on their holsters.
He kept his own eyes on the ground, avoiding the cracks in the street.
It would be dark soon. The sun was sinking, the shadows of the tall buildings reaching out over him like lengthening claws, to snatch and swallow him up. The thought should have been comforting. He had always been at home in the shadows, in the darkness, where no one could find him. Protected. Hidden. Safe. Where he could see and not be seen. But now—now he could think of nothing but his cell, his prison, so thrice-cursed dark. Nothing but black pressing in on his eyes, seeping into his mind, sinking its needle-teeth into his brain, until he could barely remember what light was.
No. No. He would never go back. They weren't going to make him go back there. Never. He wouldn't let them.
A tickling feeling between his shoulderblades made him whip around—was someone—no, no one was following him, just like no one had been following him the last three times he'd turned around.
The tall buildings had eyes. They glowed balefully in the liquid firelight of the sunset. No matter where he went, they would see. They would know.
Loki pulled his collar up and walked faster—though where he was going, he had no idea. Away. Away from Thor. Away from his stupid, meddling, mule-headed dolt of a never-brother. Away from the four walls.
If he next saw Thor at the end of the world, it would be far too soon.
Something barbed, buried deep in his chest, caught on the flesh of his heart and pulled. He would have let it rip away his heart completely, if he knew how.
He wanted to stop feeling. He was broken, shattered, irreparable; why couldn't Thor see that? There was still some shard of him down in that dark hole—some shard of him back in Asgard—some shard of him in the void through which he fell—pieces of his soul forgotten and rotting away. Pieces that could never be replaced.
Every thought felt jagged, tearing at him as it passed through his mind.
(you are unworthy)
The thoughts that had tortured him as he plummeted between the branches of Yggdrasil, little hooks lodging in his mind, refusing to let go—they were returning, rusted but just as sharp as before.
(the house of Odin is full of traitors)
He ducked into the space between two buildings, leaned back against cold brick, as his breath began to grow short and rough. His fingers clenched around the lapels of his coat, drawing it tighter around himself.
(this is madness)
He ground his teeth together, pulled at his hair, willed this to stop, please, stop, his breaths ragged and shuddering in his own ears.
(can I come home)
(you twist my words)
The shadows grew around him, darkness creeping over him, please no no stop no—
(know your place, brother)
(the loved ones you have betrayed)
His hands came away from his scalp with blood beneath the fingernails. He could feel it trickling down the back of his neck, delicate as a lover's touch. Put his fingers in his mouth, metallic bitter against his tongue; sucked the blood from his fingers, swallowed it, a shiver of pleasure and disgust skittering down his spine.
He wanted to laugh. What came out sounded half like a sob.
What did he have left? Only his own skin. His own power. Was this really freedom? Why did it hurt so much?
He remembered the glass. How prettily it had shattered.
The eyes of the buildings...weren't they made of glass, as well?
He looked up.
(silver tongue turned to lead)
His face split into a smile.
A surge of power boiled in his veins—oh, how he had missed that feeling, magic tracing blue-hot webs of energy through his nerves, his will, his strength—and a blinding flash of poison-green lit up the alleyway, lit up his fingers and his teeth and his eyes. His feet rose from the asphalt.
(Loki, this is madness)
“Madness,” he whispered. “So be it, then.”
Green light blasted outward from his hovering body, his shriek rending the air, every window in a hundred yards exploding into glittering shards that rained down onto the street like broken stars. The mortals gasped, screamed, stared openmouthed at the spectacle.
He stepped out of the alleyway, clad in much more familiar garb now, no longer caring what the mortals thought of the strangely-dressed man in their midst. They were nothing. Less than. It hardly mattered. Let them stare. They were weak, helpless. Not like him. Not like him at all.
He knew what he needed to do, now. What Thor should have done, when he found Loki imprisoned in the depths of the Earth—what he would have done, surely, if not for the sickening affection he apparently felt for his mortal pets. If he hadn't been so soft.
But no matter. Loki didn't need him anymore.
He turned, the taste of his own blood still lingering on his tongue, and began to walk through the crowd of gaping mouths and frightened eyes towards his old prison, towards the dark-skinned man with one eye.
As he did, he heard himself laughing, while the broken glass cracked beneath his boots.
Chapter 15: Part Fourteen
In which ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE.
Happy New Year, mofos. :D
Agent Philip Coulson was on his coffee break.
He took them as often as he could, mostly because a steady caffeine-and-sugar intake was one of the only ways to survive the hordes of hotshot rookie FBI recruits who were always mistaking him for a very lost accountant. It was almost worth it, seeing the looks on their faces when he flashed his badge, though it was no less annoying. Besides, playing second fiddle to a man like Nick Fury was no walk in the park. Lots of paperwork. Legal shenanigans.
He stood leaned against a table, cup in one hand and the funnies section of a three-day-old newspaper in the other, sipping carefully at the scalding liquid as he read. He spared a momentary glance for the clock hanging on the wall; edging on six-thirty. Getting late. Just about time for him to head back to his apartment.
Which, of course, meant—
—something was about to go wrong.
He tossed the newspaper into a chair and pulled his phone out of his pocket without bothering to check who was calling.
“What is it?” he said, taking another sip of his coffee.
“Sir, we have a situation,” said the woman on the other end.
“Of course we have a situation. What's happening?” He pushed off the table and started walking down the hall to his office as she spoke.
“Police scanners indicating an 11-60 in the Midtown Center, starting at the intersection of West 56th and Madison and moving very quickly towards the east. Sounds like it might be a Code Violet in progress. Windows shattering without visible cause, cars stopping suddenly or turning over...”
“Anybody we know?”
“Don't think so, sir. Tall guy, apparently male, wearing...ah, gold armor with a green cape?”
Coulson pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fascinating. Any other useful information?”
She paused for a moment. “I could be wrong, sir, but judging by street camera footage, if he keeps his current trajectory, he's heading right for us.”
“Us, as in...”
“As in this facility, sir.”
He stopped for a minute in the middle of the hall, then changed directions. “You're sure about that?”
“Pretty sure. I wouldn't quote me on it, but that's what it looks like.”
Damn. “Okay. Send out an all-points, don't make it too urgent, we don't want a panic, just say that we need everyone to be on the lookout. Get the evac vehicles ready, and tell everyone to stand by for further instructions. Understood?”
“Already on it, sir.”
He hung up, slid his phone back into his pocket, and knocked on Fury's door.
“Sir?” he said, pushing it open just a little.
“Yeah, I know,” said Fury, from his position in front of a wall of monitors—security and news footage from Midtown, displaying destruction, running tourists, and flashes of a sickly green light.
“I thought you might. Permission to begin lockdown procedures?”
“Permission granted. Send out Task Forces Epsilon-5 and...Gamma-16, tell 'em priority is to get civilians to safety. We do not want anyone dying out there just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Oh, and Agent?”
“Put A-team on alert. We're probably gonna need 'em.”
Thor was panicking.
Tony watched him warily as he paced the meeting room in tight circles, cloak whipping with each turn, fist clenched tight around Mjolnir's handle. He breathed hard and heavy, like a bull getting ready to charge. Tony just hoped he wouldn't charge into anything too expensive.
“Look, don't worry about it, okay, big guy?” he said, fidgeting with a click pen. “He'll turn up.”
“You don't understand ,” Thor growled, nostrils flaring. “I promised him I would protect him, that I would keep him safe, that I would never let him come to harm again.”
“Maybe he didn't believe you,” Tony shrugged. “Didn't seem like the most trusting guy ever.” Which was an understatement. Loki reminded him of a cat, one of those scraggly black types that had been kicked around most of its life and would rip off your face if you so much as looked at it funny. The kind that would sooner eat your hand than the piece of tuna in it. And then tear up all the furniture in the house, just to spite you.
Tony didn't like cats very much.
“He never has been,” Thor admitted. “Though I can't—why would he not believe me? I have never lied to him. He is my brother , I am supposed to—to keep these things from happening to him!”
Tony drummed his pen on the table. Why everyone had left him to babysit the freaked out God of Thunder, he would never know. “Sure. Right. Ohana , nobody gets left behind, all that Disney jazz. Yeah. Good stuff, not that it means anything.”
Thor stopped pacing and shot him a suspicious look. “What do you mean?” he said, low in his chest.
“What I mean,” said Tony, knowing he would probably regret it later but little things like foresight had never stopped him before, “is you can talk about how you're the big brother and you're supposed to protect him and all that until you're blue in the face, but what good does that do? Words are—words are just sounds , you know? They don't do a goddamn thing. Not really.”
Thor continued to eye him, somewhere between confusion and offense—like he thought Tony was insulting him but wasn't quite sure yet. Tony kept going, if only because once his mouth got started it was hard to put the brakes on. (One of these days that would get him in trouble.)
“I mean, part of my job is to get up in front of a bunch of cameras and make pretty noises into their microphones so Stark Enterprises doesn't get the torches-and-pitchforks treatment,” he said. “And that's all well and good, keeps the news anchors busy, at least—but then if I go back and, say, outsource half my employees' jobs and leave them with nowhere to go, so much for the nice words, right?”
He spread his hands, the click pen held with his index and ring fingers. Thor blinked at him, his head twitching sideways.
“Are you calling me a liar?” he growled.
“No, no nonono,” said Tony quickly, waving his hands, “I'm not saying you lied when you said all those things. Frankly I don't think you're capable of lying. No. What I meant was—well, a guy like that? Locked up in a hole in the ground, left completely alone for half a century, and I mean it's pretty obvious he had some abandonment issues already given what I've been hearing—I mean, it doesn't matter what you say to the guy, he's going to assume the worst regardless.”
Thor held his gaze for a moment longer, emotions cycling across his face. His mouth twitched, and he dropped his eyes.
“At this point I doubt it matters what you did or didn't do,” Tony shrugged. “I doubt he cares. Far as he's concerned, everyone's an enemy now.”
“You are right,” said Thor, and his voice was weak. He sat down heavily, elbows on his knees, Mjolnir between his feet. “Is there nothing I can do? For him? I have never been...good with minds, that has always been Loki's territory. And he kept his so obscured...I could never be certain what he was thinking.”
Tony winced a little. It always made him uncomfortable when Thor's descriptions of his brother started hitting too close to home. Good thing Steve kept his opinions on that subject to himself (not that Steve was above the occasional searching look, which also made Tony uncomfortable).
“Hell if I know,” he said. “Best we can do right now is find him, make sure he's safe, I guess.”
Both their pagers started going off, tinny little beeps in the emptiness of the room. Tony ignored his completely, while Thor only spared his a momentary glance before resuming his brooding with a heavy sigh. Tony drummed his pen on the table again.
Minutes passed. Thor didn't seem inclined to more conversation, staring sad-eyed at a corner of the room, so Tony took out his smartphone and started playing with it. Partially because he was bored and fidgety by nature, and partially because the atmosphere was starting to gag him. He'd never been good at the whole reassurance thing. That was more Steve's job.
Still, it kind of unnerved him to think that he actually didn't know what to say in this situation. Tony Stark always knew what to say, always had an answer for anything that came up, and it was just—it was just weird not having a response to this. He'd never really had to deal with anything like it, true, but...
Steve banged the door open, and both their heads jerked up to see him with one hand on the doorknob and the other pulling on his hood.
“Guys, didn't you get the alerts?” he said, sounding—unsettled, and Tony didn't like that look on his face at all. “Come on, we have to go!”
“Look, unless it's something like vitally important—” Tony began, intending to make a case for Thor to stay behind, because the big guy was definitely not on his A-game, but Steve cut him off.
“It's him,” he said. “Loki. They f—”
Thor would have run him over if Steve hadn't jumped out of the way just in time.
When Loki had been young, long long oh-so-long ago, when he had been small enough to need watching and small enough to be missed, he had often been left to his own devices. Thor had just begun to master the joyous art of leading their nursemaids on merry chases through the vast winding hallways of Asgard's palace, and since Loki was by all accounts a very quiet, well-behaved child, the women thought little of temporarily deserting the second prince in order for all of them to hunt down and capture the first.
At first, Loki cried when they left him. Eventually he realized that it never brought them back any faster, so he stopped.
It wasn't as though he himself never wandered. Far from it. Odd things were always catching his eye, sparking his precocious curiosity and drawing him away from his sitters. He would explore for hours, sometimes, padding alone through vaulted corridors and rooms filled with things to climb and take apart and put together, before anyone happened to stumble upon him and return him to the nursemaids who had never noticed he was gone.
Thor was loud, brash. If he wanted something, he ran for it, calling out and pulling at their mother's skirts or their father's robes. He was impossible to ignore, a little hurricane blowing in and out of every room he could get to. He thrived on touch, on people; he demanded to be coddled and played with by everyone he saw, and was obliged more often than not.
Thor introduced himself boldly by name to every stranger, while Loki huddled behind their mother's legs with a finger in his mouth.
Sometimes, finding himself alone, Loki would be overcome by a sourceless fit of childish rage. His little hands would clench, silent tears would spill from his eyes, and any object he had ever been told not to touch became a target. He pushed over endtables, sending everything on them crashing to the floor. He knocked things off shelves and smiled at the sounds they made when they broke. He stomped on his toys and scattered the pieces everywhere, tore pages out of books, smashed inkwells, ripped the fletching from decorative arrows.
Once he dropped Thor's favorite play-sword off the edge of a high balcony overlooking Idunn's garden. That really got him in trouble. Thor refused to speak to him for twenty whole minutes.
Why those memories were drifting behind Loki's eyes right now, he could not begin to fathom. He had long given up trying to understand the twisted, cobweb-complex trails along which his thoughts raced like so many tiny sparks of lightning; by now it was all he could manage to keep apace with them. Controlling them, directing them, pulling them into recognizable patterns—he might as well try to swallow the sun.
Laughter bubbled up and out of his throat. How strange, that he should be thinking of such things at a time like this.
Asphalt cracked beneath his feet as he walked. Long forking splits in the grey-black rock, stretching out before him, heralding his arrival. Cracks shaped like lightning.
He barely noticed the mortal crowds boiling away around him—men in uniforms waving to clumps of pedestrians, drawing them back from the deadly monster strolling down the middle of the road, funnelling them into buildings and down back streets. How kind of them to redirect traffic for him, he thought, and flicked his fingers at one nearby. A wisp of sickly green darted its way around the woman's legs; she doubled over, and her grunts of pain warped into a snarling roar. Loki smiled at the sound of the woman's clothes tearing, and the crowd's shrieks, as one of their protectors abruptly became another terror amidst terrors.
Incidental amusement on the way to his true goal. Setting fire to an anthill just to watch the little wretches scatter.
He felt...distant. Too much so. His own body seemed so—so far away, fading, as though he were losing substance and cohesion—
He dug his nails into his palms, then flung his hands out at the faceless masses surging away from him.
Screams. Bodies twisting under his magic, bones and flesh cracking and splitting and rearranging themselves at his bidding, just as he had done to the woman in the uniform. The air filled with horrible gurglings, screechings, retchings, snarlings.
Such a unique experience, being monstrous—why shouldn't these fragile mayfly creatures know what it felt like?
He was close. He could sense it, magical correspondences converging like crosshairs on the sharply angled building that was his destination. The dark-skinned man with one eye.
He reached it quickly, each of his long strides covering a hundred yards, tired of toying with the people in the streets and eager to exact his revenge. Extract it. With his magic and his knives and his fingers and his teeth. Maybe he would lay the man out on a slab, cut him open, stitch him back up, do it again and again and again just the same way they'd done to him , over and over and over until he begged to be released, to die, and Loki would not listen, no, just as they had not listened to his own pleas for death—would make homunculi from the man's blood and viscera to assist him in his “experiments”, how resilient were mortal bodies, how much could he do before Hela took pity upon the man's wretched state, the way she never had with him—
Abruptly, he stopped. Cocked his head, curious.
An uneven line of bodies in black armor blocked his path, ten wide and three deep. They held transparent shields, wore dark-visored helmets, pointed long and complicated-looking guns at his vitals.
In the center of the formation, a smallish man in a suit held up a megaphone.
“Hello,” he said, his voice magnified fivefold. The device screeched, a strange ringing noise that drove itself like needles into Loki's eardrums. The man winced, eyed his device, then continued. “This is Agent Phil Coulson, of S.H.I.E.L.D. You are causing a disturbance. Please stand down or we will have the right to make you do so.”
Loki stared at him. At the soldiers, standing and kneeling in position, like black beetles in their armor.
His face split into a knife-thin smile.
“And if I do not?” he called back. “What will you do to me?”
“I'd rather we didn't have to resort to force,” said the man in the suit. How calm he seemed; how in control. As if this were a mere setback, a minor hitch in his routine that he saw more than often enough to find boring.
“You are in my way,” Loki said idly. He examined his nails—black as jet, gleaming sharp. “If you wish to stay intact, I suggest you not be.”
Screams and snarls drifted around them on the breeze.
“We're open to negotiations,” said the agent, glancing downward at his wrist. “What is it you want? Maybe we could talk this over.”
Loki's smile dropped. His eyes went wide, unblinking in his deathly white expressionless face, as the spidersilk threads of his thoughts tangled up around each other, little knots forming and catching in the weave, turning his already-frayed streams of consciousness into one big snarl that dragged all of them to a shredding halt.
“What I want?” he echoed, not much more than a breath. “You want. To know. What I want.”
He cocked his head, just a bit, his face stone-blank. Ice-blank. The agent met his burning gaze expectantly, arching his brow, though despite his collected—even, insolent creature, disdainful—demeanor, a sheen of sweat glistened on his forehead.
“Don't you think it's a bit late to be asking me that now?” Loki said, smooth and quiet as a knife between the ribs.
“Negotiations or a messy fight, take your pick,” said the agent, and Loki was gratified to hear his voice shake—just a bit, just a tiny hitch at the beginning of the sentence, no other would have noticed it, but he did. “I'll be honest, I don't really want to make a big deal out of this.”
The corner of Loki's mouth twitched upward, as if yanked by a fishhook. “Perhaps I do.”
“Do you really want to give us an excuse to use deadly force?”
Oh, now that was funny. As though they could possibly hope to kill him. He had already tried to die—tried so many times, so many, many times—as though these little specks of mundanity could possibly convince Hela to accept him. It was enough to make him laugh, high and humorless, staccato like a machine gun.
“I could flense the skin from your muscles with a word,” he said. He began to walk, slowly, deliberately, in a wide curving path toward the grouping of mortals; the agent watched him without turning his head. “I could reflect the bullets you shoot at me, fling them into bystanders. I could summon up creatures from the depths, monsters so foul that even to look upon them is death. Or I could transform you all into ants, and crush you beneath my heels.”
The barrels of their guns tracked him as he moved. The knife-smile was back, settled crooked on his face, as if it didn't quite fit.
“Any fire you give me will join my cause,” he went on. “Your guns will freeze solid in your hands. Your men will turn on each other—on you . There will be dozens of me—hundreds of me—and you will never know which is the one that bleeds. With a snap of my fingers your bodies will be dust.”
He stopped. Looked the agent square in the eyes. Found fear. Laughed.
Disappeared. Reappeared mere inches from the agent's face, in a flash of green.
“And you think you can threaten me?” he whispered.
The armored men whipped around to face him again, in a clatter of plastic and metal, but kept their weapons pointed in the air. No doubt they had no wish to strike their leader.
To the agent's credit, the only flinch Loki saw was a tense blink. This man was an iron bar.
“Are we going to talk, or are you going to stand there and make threats?” said the agent.
Either he vastly underestimated Loki's powers, or he was simply stupid.
“Should you choose to engage me, those 'threats' will become prophecies,” Loki said. “But very well. We will...talk.” He drew back, towering over the much smaller man, the curved horns of his helm casting long, thin shadows on the twilit street. “Take me to the man who leads you. The dark-skinned man with one eye. I wish to speak with him.”
Mild surprise flickered across the agent's face. “You want to talk to Director Fury?”
“Is that the man I described?” Loki snapped, crossing his arms.
“Then yes , I want to talk to Director Fury,” he echoed the agent mockingly. He flicked a dismissive hand above the man's head. “So take me to him. Unless, of course, you wish to fight me, and risk the potential destruction of several city blocks.”
The agent paused for a moment—turned his head to the side, two fingers pressed to his ear as though he were listening for something. “Are you sure, sir?” Loki heard him mutter. “This is possibly a very dangerous—” He flinched, as though a very loud noise had just sounded off in his ear. “Yes, sir, I know—no, sir, I'm not second-guessing—well, maybe if—”
Loki examined his nails again. There was still dried blood underneath them, crusted and rust-dark. He picked at it, absently. “My patience is wearing thin , agent,” he said. “Make your decision.”
The agent sighed. “Yes sir. All right, sir. I just want to go on record as not liking this.”
He looked back up at Loki.
“All right, come with me.”
Loki's mouth stretched into a wire-thin smile. “I knew you would see reason.”
Chapter 16: Part Fifteen
You're going to hate me for this one.
And if you don't...I haven't done my job.
Thor flew across the skyline, with the man of iron cutting a bright swath through the air beside him. Below, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton, and Bruce Banner drove a black vehicle through the darkening streets, cutting across lots and ducking into side roads to maneuver around the damage that blocked their path. They might have used the airplane—the gigantic metal blackbird driven by Stark's artificial mind Jarvis—but there would have been nowhere to land the thing. Not in the middle of the metropolis.
Looking down as he flew, Thor saw bright shattered glass everywhere, glitter scattered over the streets and lit by orange-white lamps in the dimness of oncoming night. Bits of twisted metal were darkened threads on the asphalt, like scorched worms; cars lay on their sides or backs, overturned and crushed into scraped hulks, steel corpses left to rot.
Had Loki truly done this?
It seemed surreal, a terrible nightmare from which Thor desperately wanted to wake. He had little sense of what might have driven Loki to this extremity, little sense of why, could not even begin to think of how, not after the way his brother had been so frightened and fragile. Delicate, shaking like an aspen tree—and so weak he had seemed, so starved and crumbling to dust, falling apart before Thor's very eyes...
He hated it, hated the way it twisted his heart, but the thought refused to leave him: what if it had all been a ruse? Just a play at his sympathies, Loki coaxing and plucking at his emotions with deft fingers and well-placed words, exactly as he had always done? Another falsehood—another veil drawn back. Another wrong guess.
Loki had often told him he would never understand. And Thor wanted to understand, wanted so badly to assure his brother that he was not alone, that there was at least one he could trust, but Loki had spoken the truth then—Thor never would understand. Not while Loki held himself so tightly closed, hid himself away behind careful smiles and clever eyes and silver tongue.
“Going in for a landing, Thor,” said Tony Stark's voice in his ear. The communication device made him sound reedy and thin. “In the lot right there, next to the parking garage.”
Thor clenched his jaw and tried to drive the confusion out of his mind. He could ponder it more later. Right now, his primary concern was finding his brother.
They landed on the cracked asphalt just as their teammates' vehicle came to an abrupt halt with a screech of its tires. The sun's last light was slipping under the horizon, the sky turning a deep bruise-blue above the bright glow of the streets' lamps. Faint moans and cries drifted through the air, tatters blown about in the twilight breeze—casualties from the acts of unnatural violence perpetrated here. Thor tried to breathe, his chest wrapped in iron bands, tried not to think of his own brother doing these awful things, tried not to think about why.
“Dr. Banner, you stay here, all right?” the Captain tossed back over his shoulder as he jumped out of the passenger's seat. “We'll call in if we might need you.”
Hawkeye and Black Widow slid out either side of the vehicle's back end, each checking their respective weapons. “Situation?” Widow asked, curt and businesslike, as always. She and Sif could have been great friends. Or perhaps rivals.
“Coulson took him to HQ,” said Iron Man. He sounded utterly baffled. “With two task forces as escort. Says he wants to talk to Fury.”
“Yeah, that's smart,” said Hawkeye, testing the tension on his bow. The loud twang of it seemed muffled in the dust-choked air. “Give the crazy guy with the unhealthy vendetta access to the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Good plan. Remind me to high-five Coulson for that one.”
“Do not speak of my brother in that manner, archer,” Thor heard himself growl. His energies had been dammed for too long; he ached to fight, to strike out in righteous anger, to wield his hammer in whatever way would—would fix all of this, would make Loki see, would make Loki become once more the clever, beautiful trickster whom Thor had always loved and would always love. The cause was fruitless, Thor knew, but the knowledge did not stop him from wanting. From hoping. Loki was not beyond saving. He was not beyond redemption. To think otherwise was worse than betrayal.
“Simmer down, big guy, no PvP on this server,” said Iron Man. “Save it for the boss fight. According to Coulson, the building's been evacuated, so there's nobody in HQ right now but Fury. Stupid bastard thinks he's gonna martyr himself—okay, Fearless Leader, how you wanna do this? Just walk right up to the front door and ring the bell?”
The Captain nodded, as if deciding something. “Thor, is there any way Loki could sense us coming?” he said. “Do we have any chance at surprise?”
“Not likely,” said Thor, shaking his head. “Unless I miss my guess, he already knows we are here. Perhaps he planned to involve us from the start. His objectives can be...clouded, at times.”
“There was probably a reason they locked him up, Cap,” said Hawkeye. “Being that nobody could stop him otherwise.”
“Archer, you test my patience,” Thor snarled, his fist tightening around Mjolnir's handle. Thunder rolled in the distance.
“Thor,” said the Captain sternly. “That's not going to help anyone. And stow the snide comments, Hawkeye, I don't want to have to scrape you up off the tarmac.”
Hawkeye muttered something under his breath, and took to going through his arrows.
“So we're going in with the assumption that he knows we're coming,” the Captain said. “We'll trade stealth for speed, then. Thor, you'll take point. Your priority is finding Loki and doing whatever's necessary to bring him down. The rest of us'll be right behind you. Widow, Hawkeye, your priority is finding Director Fury and getting him out safe. Iron Man and I will cover Thor. Clear?”
“Sir yes sir,” said Iron Man with his typical tense humor. The others merely nodded. Thor did not trust himself to speak.
The Captain put a hand on his shoulder. “I know you don't want it to come to this, and neither do I, but...”
“I understand,” said Thor, hating the implications but grateful for the sympathy. “I will do what I must.”
He gripped the Captain's shoulder in turn, trying to smile. He had never been very good at lying.
The Captain gave him a long, searching look, before nodding again and calling out, “All right, let's go, guys. Move fast.”
Thor led the way around the next block to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s headquarters, his heart leaden inside his ribcage. Iron Man and the Captain followed close behind him, on either side. It occurred to him he was not sure if they were watching his back...or waiting to restrain him. Something in their scrutiny felt—uncertain. Wary. Were they afraid he might turn against them? That if Loki were—were incapable of listening to reason, Thor would turn his weapon on them, to protect him—would be unable to stop himself from soaking Mjolnir with their blood, for the crime of touching his precious brother?
He could hardly blame them for that fear. He shared it himself.
But Thor's heart leapt when they reached the building, a joy as intense as his previous grief bursting in his chest, and heedless of the shouts of his friends he broke into a run.
For there, slumped just outside the doorway, tattered and crumpled but blessedly alive, was Loki.
Tears stung in Thor's eyes as, beaming, he dropped to his knees in front of the balled-up figure of his brother, reached out to clasp his hunched shoulders, called his name again and again, grasped his head, held his face, brushed his hair back, kissed his brow, pulled him close and swore on everything he could think of never to leave him again. Loki allowed his outburst—was oddly silent about it, indeed did not seem even to know Thor was there, staring wide-eyed into nothing and hugging his knees to his chest. Thor held him tight regardless, continued to pour out his oaths, just in case Loki could hear him.
The rest of the Avengers approached carefully, gathered behind him, but Thor paid them no mind. All his attention belonged to Loki, and the overwhelming relief he felt at having found his brother so quickly.
“Well, that was kind of a non-event,” said Hawkeye.
“Where are Agent Coulson and Director Fury?” said Widow sharply.
Thor tugged Loki gently to his feet; he stood without resistance, his eyes still unnervingly empty—but now was not the time to worry over that, Thor reasoned, they needed to bring him back to the mansion before bothering with anything else. “I am certain they are safe,” he said over his shoulder, holding Loki steady. He wrapped one arm around his brother, guided him out from under the awning. “We have our quarry, do we not?”
Widow raised an unimpressed eyebrow.
“Is he...okay?” said the Captain hesitantly. “He looks kind of...” He trailed off, biting his lip.
Iron Man took a step back, lowering his head a bit. “I don't like this,” he said.
“Loki,” Thor murmured, brushing a hand against his brother's jawline. “Loki. Brother. Please look at me. Loki?”
He coaxed Loki's head around to face him, but those pale green eyes still stared blankly, their gaze turned inward. Just as it had been before. When he had first awakened from his coma, and walked through the world as if in a daze.
Thor swallowed against the lump in his throat. Ten steps backward. Still, if this were the price to be paid for his brother's safety, he would have paid it gladly a dozen times over.
He led his brother carefully away from the building, followed at a distance by his comrades. Widow hung back from them all, two fingers pressed to her ear, trying to contact their missing leaders.
“I can't reach them,” she said.
“Maybe their comms are busted?” said the Captain, sounding apologetic.
“Still not liking this,” Iron Man grumbled. “Trust me, I'm a businessman, I know a crooked deal when I smell one, and this one's about as fishy as Donald Trump's hair.”
Thor turned to look back at him over his shoulder, frowning, unsure what that meant exactly but knowing what was implied. “You think this is some sort of ruse?” he said.
Iron Man held up his hands. “Don't jump on me, okay, I know I'm paranoid, but it keeps me in one piece, all right?”
“Do you really believe he is in any state for trickery?” Thor replied, letting go of Loki's arms for a moment to take a step towards Iron Man.
“Hey, I told you not to jump on—”
“—dare you speak to me so! Wretched gadfly—pay for what you have—!”
Thor whipped around. Loki's image had—twinned, somehow—two of him blurring on top of each other like a moving picture caught between two frames. The blank-eyed Loki stood straight and still, as he had been, and the other—the image bleeding through—it was bent, snarling like a beast, helmed and cloaked and clutching something in clawlike hands, screaming in rage. His voice was distorted, crackling in and out like the other image, magic static interfering with its signal.
“—flay the skin from your bo—sew your lips sh—isions of monsters from outs—the Tree's very roots—”
Widow was already running, back to the building they had just left, Hawkeye yelling and unslinging his bow close on her heels, but Thor was frozen, unable to process what he was seeing, his mind would not let him. An illusion—one of Loki's dopplegangers—but why? Why would he—what purpose—no, no, it couldn't be, this could not be real, this was another nightmare, another dreaming vision of failure—
The Captain's shield sliced its arc through the double-exposure image, destroying it in a flash of green-white light, and from behind him Iron Man shouted, “I hate being right—What the hell was that?”
“No time!” said the Captain, seizing Thor's arm by the elbow and dragging him around into a clumsy run. “Come on, Thor, don't clock out on us now!”
“Loki has always been very skilled with his illusions,” Thor heard himself say. “Diversionary tactics, an image of himself in place to draw the enemy away—”
“Which means he's still in there!” the Captain shot back, with the voice that lived up to his alias. “Get it together, soldier, we need you! He needs you!”
That last yanked Thor back into his body, into his warrior-mind, and he set his jaw and broke into a dead run.
“Make way!” he roared, winding up.
Widow and Hawkeye leapt out of his path just as Mjolnir shrieked through the air where they had been and smashed the front doors into scrap and slag. It returned to his hand with a slap of leather on skin, and he vaulted the crushed and bent metal into the lightless foyer before any of his comrades could even reach the doorway.
Then he stumbled to a halt, his blood turning to ice.
“Hold!” he shouted to his friends, throwing a hand out to stop them. Naturally, none of them listened, and within seconds they were all behind him, and abruptly backpedaling into defensive stances.
A thousand hollow eyes turned to look at them, bright and pale green like jade coins in the dark.
A thousand shadowed faces stretched wide with wolfish smiles, white teeth gleaming feral inside thin lips.
A thousand ragged voices broke into cracked laughter, high and shaky and echoing off the walls.
“Find me, brother,” they said, in uneven unison, their mockery rolling through the room like water boiling over. “If you want to save me, then find me.”
“Oh, fuck,” said Hawkeye.
Chapter 17: Part Sixteen
UGH I'M SORRY THIS TOOK SO LONG OFFLINE LIFE IS BEING A BUTT
I actually have more than this written, but then I decided this part was getting too long and I might as well cut it off so you guys can have something to read while I work on the rest of this fucking thing it just never ends asdlfkjsdkjfakujslkdfa
This was gonna suck.
Tony Stark was familiar with things sucking. Things had sucked for a great majority of his life, and that suckage had increased exponentially in the last, oh, three or four years, so he knew a thing or two about how to tell when something was about to suck.
And this? This was gonna suck a lot.
“My scanners aren't picking up much of anything substantial,” he offered through the comm, with a light cough as all the Lokis turned their creepy pale eyes on him, and wow was that an unpleasant feeling, sweat springing up on his skin beneath the suit's interface. “Not getting any heat signatures or vital signs. Just some weird energy readings.”
“They have no substance, unlike the first,” said Thor as quietly as he could manage (which was approximately as quiet as a raging thunderstorm about ten miles out, but Tony had to give him credit for at least trying). A thousand pairs of eyes swiveled in his direction. Jesus that was creepy. “There are too many. He must concentrate to form his illusory duplicates, and giving them flesh requires more than his mind is capable of right now.”
“So they're basically holograms,” said Steve. And yeah, there went the eyes again. This was getting old.
An arrow shot past Tony's ear, straight into the closest of the Loki clones, and straight through it, leaving a trail of vanishing illusions before embedding itself in the far wall with a vibrating thunk.
“Barton!” Natasha snapped.
“What, I wanted to see if it'd work,” said Clint, shrugging.
“Now is not the time for games, archer,” Thor growled. “We will separate, to find my brother more quickly.”
“Whoa, whoa whoa whoa, you want us to split up?” said Tony. “That is literally the worst thing we could possibly do under these circumstances—don't you ever watch horror movies?”
A high snicker rippled through the room, among the shuffling doppelgangers. “You are wasting time, brother,” they hissed. “Hurry, hurry, little heroes, lest you find your man skinless and vomiting blood.”
“Ew,” said Clint.
“See? Horror movie!”
Steve just shook his head. “Thor's right. We'll find them faster if we split up. This is a big building, and God only knows which of these duplicates is the real one.”
That got him another laugh from the clones—a raspy titter that sounded disturbingly like it might break into sobs at any moment. Steve ignored them, which was a credit either to his bravery or his balls-out craziness, Tony wasn't completely sure which. He was leaning towards the latter, for the record.
“Okay, fine, just—nobody do anything stupid like turning the comms off or something,” he said, figuring now wasn't the time to argue the point, not with Thor looking at him like that. “We're all smart enough not to fall for any kind of Jigsaw plot, right?”
Clint snorted, but he was the only one. Everyone else just looked at him.
“Right. Okay then.”
Steve adjusted one of his gloves. “Keep in contact,” he said, quiet but firm, and when he spoke like that Tony could believe without question that he was the real McCoy. It was still kind of surreal to be fighting next to Captain freaking America. “Anything happens to you—anything at all—you call in, make it back here if you can, wait for help if you can't. We're leaving no one behind, not any one of us, not Director Fury, not Loki. Got it?”
“And if we find them?” Natasha asked, toying with a garotte.
“Give the rest of us your location and we'll get there as soon as possible,” Steve replied. “Then do whatever you have to. Our priority right now is Director Fury's safety. Don't give me that look, Thor, you know it as well as I do.”
Green eyes glittered at them from the dimness further inside. Tony wondered whether there were emergency lights anywhere in this place, or if Loki had knocked those out too.
“We go, then,” Thor said, the finality in his voice like a coffin lid slamming shut.
“You sure you guys don't need us?” said the voice over Clint's comm, tinged with dry amusement.
“Shove it, Banner,” Clint replied, slashing through more of the weird holograms with an arrow before nocking it to his bow and putting his back to a wall. He leaned carefully around the corner. More holograms. Great. “We've already got one guy making with the smashy-smashy, I don't think we need the Jolly Green Giant in on this party.”
Banner snorted. “Suit yourself. I'm still keeping an eye on all of you. Stark's tech is good for that, at least.”
“I heard that,” Stark cut in, annoyed.
“Both of you shut up, I heard something,” said Clint, going tense.
He whipped around the corner, keeping his back pressed to the wallpaper, bow pulled back and ready. One foot in front of the other, crouched low, while the holograms watched him pass by. He could almost see through them. Good—that meant he'd know the real one when he found it.
Jesus it was creepy how they all kept staring at him.
There it was again. The sound he'd heard. Sounded like—
Fantastic. Now they were talking to him. Just what he needed.
“Clint Barton.” He saw their lips moving, but only the ones closest to him; the others just kept looking at him, silent, almost smiling. It created a weird ripple effect, as the ones he approached started talking and the ones behind him stopped. “What are you doing here? A little clown, playing pretend with the grownups.”
Training told Clint not to respond. Loki was baiting him, he knew that much. Not real subtle.
He kicked open a door, found nothing but darkness on the other side.
“Ooh, bad luck? Guess again, little jester.”
“Cram it up your ass,” Clint muttered, mostly to himself, as he crept down the hallway. Romanoff would give him the Look for rising to the taunts—but hell, it was his own way of keeping his head together. Keep the sass coming, focus on the mission.
The projections laughed at him, and he couldn't help a little shiver.
Steve didn't bother with stealth. He knew he didn't have time for that.
“You do not belong here,” the clones were whispering, as they moved aside to make room for him barreling down the hallway. “You are past.”
He broke down doors, shattered office windows, yelling Director Fury's name and praying the man could still respond, still hear him.
“The only reason you still live is because of what you stole from me. And when you find me, I will take back my blood, and send you off to Valhalla, where you belong. To join your friend Barnes.” A nasty snicker. The hair on the back of Steve's neck stood up. “Consider it a favor, for the—kindness you showed me.”
“You don't have to do this,” Steve called out, smashing open a keypad lock. Nothing. “You don't.”
“No.” The clones smiled, mirthlessly, a hundred sets of bared teeth. “I really do.”
“The Man of Iron, he calls you,” said the holograms, clustering around Tony like pushy paparazzi. Grinning. Always with the fucking grinning. Good thing he could go right through them, or there might be an actual problem. “Speaking metaphorically, it is—something of a misnomer, yes?”
“Well, I heard you were a god of fire,” Tony replied matter-of-factly, speeding through the second floor and scanning for heat signatures. There were electromagnetic weirdnesses everywhere, thanks to the projections, and they were really messing with his sensors. “Always seem kinda, I dunno, cold to me.”
The grins flickered into snarls, feral, hard eyes like chips of green glass. “Shut up.”
Oh, hey, that must have hit a nerve. File that one away for later.
“You are so...fragile, aren't you.” And the grins were back. Tony had heard of being two-faced, but this was a little ridiculous. “Soft. Nothing like your—would you even call them friends, Tony Stark? Companions? Or is that too kind?”
Loki's voice hissed in Tony's auditory receivers, like a gas leak, or a massive cobra. Some nasty poisonous something or other. Still no infrared, that he could see, aside from the tiny flickers of it the projections were putting out against the ambient heat. And the only life signs he was picking up were from the rest of the Avengers' biometrics, running idle in his periphery.
“Perhaps 'competitors' would be a more appropriate term,” Loki went on, and Jesus Christ but this guy just did. Not. Shut. Up. “We have much in common, do we not. Surrounded by those who consider themselves our betters, forced to stand in their shadows, not strong, not special, not like them.”
“You're projecting more than images, buddy,” Tony mumbled. Where the hell were they? He was hoping the others were having better luck, but the cynic in him kept whispering doubt it.
A broken little whipcrack of a laugh snapped through the air. “Though I suppose there is one significant difference between you and me.”
“Nobody ever sewed my lips shut?”
The ambient temperature dropped about fifteen degrees.
“Why do you still bother?” A thousand pairs of eyes seared into him. “They will never accept you. You will never be one of them. You are a shallow, petty scarecrow of a man, hollowed out and flapping empty in the breeze. What right have you to fraternize with heroes?”
Tony snorted. This guy needed some new material. If you wanted to fuck with Tony Stark, you had to tell him something the bitter drunk in the back of his skull hadn't already said a million times before.
“I'm not here to be your movie screen,” he said, plowing on through the images. Muttering to himself. “I told Steve you needed a shrink, but does he ever listen to me, nooo...”
Natasha clenched her jaw, ignored the freeze creeping through her veins, and carried out her search without any regard for the chaos of murmuring voices mocking her in perfect Russian.
“Hey. You planning on coming back any time soon?”
Loki felt his upper lip twitch into a curl as the hoarse, deadpan voice dragged him back to his body's current surroundings. The dark walls shimmered with deep green for a moment, the walls sealing the two of them off from the rest of reality. “Stop distracting me,” he snarled.
Fury snorted, a bubble of blood between his teeth. “Thought I was the reason you were here,” he said. “Not that I really blame you for being more concerned with them. I'd be worried too if I were in your boots.”
“Worried?” Loki snapped. He felt stretched thin, cracking along his mental divisions (divide, divide and conquer, that was the plan, stick to the plan), felt that he was holding himself together with naught but hurried whipstitches and sheer force of will. “I am hardly worried. Thor is the only one worthy of my attentions. The others are mere insects.”
“If you say so.” Fury coughed. Loki contemplated cutting out his tongue.
Thor had not told his companions that he could sense Loki's magic. There was a wall of it, tingling in his mind, somewhere on the top floor of the building. Guilt tugged faintly at him for the omission. The Captain would not be pleased if he found out.
But it was for their good, and Loki's. Thor had to protect them—his friends from his brother's unpredictable, spiteful wrath; his brother, from his friends' fair but harsh justice. And since they were split apart, Loki's concentration would be split as well, trying to focus on all of them separately as well as Fury. He would be distracted, scattered. More easily subdued.
It was a matter of tactics. Thor knew his brother's strategies almost as well as he knew his own. Keeping the others out of the way was best for all involved.
“Always in your shadow,” the duplicates hissed around him, as he made his way to the wall of magic he sensed. “Your shade. Your whipping boy. Don't bother denying it, brother. We both know the truth.”
Thunder rolled a warning overhead. “You are ever a liar,” Thor said, low in his chest. “You lie even to yourself.”
The doppelgangers scowled. “And still you find it in the goodness of your heart to trust me. You are a fool. ”
“So be it, then,” said Thor. He quickened his long stride, his fist tightening around Mjolnir's handle. If Loki meant his words to be darts, to lodge into Thor's skin and drive him mad with pain—then he must not allow them to penetrate in the first place. “Call me fool as many times as you like.”
“You are a fool, and a hypocrite,” Loki's shades spat. “Magnanimity does not suit you, brother. It fits you ill—like this newfound temperance of yours. Where is your rage, Thunderer? Have you become a coward, in my absence?”
He chose not to respond. It seemed easier now than it had ever been before, to let the jabs slide harmlessly off of him. So much had changed. Loki still seemed to think him the same arrogant princeling he had once been, who fought back with his full wrath at every slight to his honor, because he did not know how to save his anger for what truly required it.
Thor felt a twist in his heart. So much had changed, and Loki had not been there to see, had not been at his side, where he should have been...
“Have you no answer?” the duplicates asked. “Has your limited command of language finally failed you?”
“What use would my answer serve?” he replied, remembering his conversation with Tony Stark much earlier, before they had left the mansion. “My words would mean less than nothing to you.” The sense of magic was coming closer; he could feel it buzzing in his skin, so different from the static hum of his own lightning, yet just as familiar.
The shades laughed, little snapping titters. “You mean you have no answer. Am I correct in my accusations, then?”
“If you wish to believe so,” said Thor simply. The duplicates scowled at him.
He could see the source now, through the faint green glow of the shades clustered around him. A barrier. Opaque, dark. And beyond it—he knew—Loki. And Fury.
Fury would not die. Thor was familiar enough with the form Loki's anger took to grasp that much. Loki did not want mere recompense or reparation—had already rejected with tooth and nail Thor's desperate assurances of protection, his promises of safety. Such was not enough for Loki, spiteful, shattered, too broken-apart to believe his own brother's words.
He would want revenge. For everything that had happened to him, every cut from every knife, every hurt real and imagined he had suffered not only since his fall but since his birth, and Fury—Fury was the sacrifice, the scapegoat, the symbol that Loki had chosen to serve as the focal point for his wrath and the representation of all the wrongs ever done to him.
Fury would not die. Death was mercy. Loki was never merciful.
Thor shifted his stance, feet spread wide, shoulders hunched, Mjolnir held ready. He did not want to fight. He wished it had not come to this. He remembered the blinding flashes of the Bifrost gate, the chill of the ice-tree holding its lightning in place, the snarl in Loki's eyes that, at the time, he had not understood, had not been able to make himself understand.
“Let him go, Loki,” he said. Another roll of thunder rattled the windows; a warning. He did not want to fight—but he would do what he must.
“Or what?” The shades smiled, horrible mad skull-grins.
(You can't kill an entire race.
“Lower the barrier,” Thor said, around the ache in his chest. “This is not necessary. Let him go.”
“And you claim to care so for me,” said the images, snarling. “The Thor I knew would have torn my prison into scrap, left this man a smear of blood and bone on the wall.”
“Such actions would have served no purpose,” said Thor. “You know that as well as I do. Let him go.”
“No,” said the images.
“Then you leave me no choice,” said Thor, and he hefted Mjolnir over his head.
“Stop! What are you doing?” the shades screamed, as he brought down the hammer with a crash.
Fury was laughing at him, with what little voice was left to him.
“This isn't about me at all, is it,” he said.
“Be silent,” Loki spat, conjuring another wickedly curved blade to his hand. He held the point threatening over the other man's throat.
“It's not even about S.H.I.E.L.D.” Blood seeped from his wounds, pooled on the floor around them, staining the end of Loki's cloak. Red turning green into black. “It never was. I read the reports. I know what you did when you first landed here.”
“Be silent!” Loki hissed, because he did not want to hear it, did not want to remember what he had done, it was easier to lay the blame on this wretched, broken creature in front of him.
“What did you expect us to do?” said Fury. “What did you think would happen, when you slaughtered an entire platoon of soldiers in cold blood—”
“—within thirty seconds of hitting the ground? Not exactly a good first impression.”
Loki reared back, plunged the knife into Fury's shoulder, to accompany the others pinning his hands to the floor, reveled in the grunt of pain it tore from the other man's ragged throat (but still he would not scream, why would he not scream, curse him).
“Do as you're told, mortal,” he snarled. “Or do you wish for more pain? Do you crave my attentions? Do you thirst for the agonies I can inflict?”
Fury sucked in a shaky breath, through his blood-rimmed teeth. “Do whatever you want,” he rasped. “Won't change a damn thing. Won't change what's happened to you, won't change what you are.”
“How dare you speak to me so, wretch?” said Loki, twisting the knife. He wanted this man to hurt, wanted this man to scream, to be desperate and afraid and abandoned and alone—
“You wanna make yourself out to be some kind of innocent victim, fine,” Fury said, through teeth clenched with pain. “Just don't expect the rest of us to fall for the act.”
“Stop! What are you doing?”
It rang through the entire building; every image, every shade, shouting in perfect unison.
“What's happening?” said Steve over the comm.
“Fuck if I know but man that's creepy,” Clint replied.
“Sound off, now! Captain America calling in.”
“Hawkeye, calling in.”
“Black Widow, calling in.”
“Iron Man, calling in, the hell's going on?”
“Hulk, calling in, just in case anyone cares, and yes I'm still in the van.”
“What, do you want to be in here?” said Clint, incredulous.
“Not really, I'm just pointing it out.”
“Thor?” Steve said.
Silence. The thin crackle of static.
More silence; more static.
“Top floor,” said Tony, quick and clipped. “See you there.”
“They know,” said Loki, from all around, as Thor struck again and again at the wall separating them. Spiderweb cracks sprayed out from Mjolnir's point of impact. “My lapse in concentration revealed you. They know you have found me. They know you have thrown away your communication device.”
Thor only redoubled his efforts, raining blow after blow down upon the barrier, his jaw tight with effort.
“They believe you have betrayed them,” Loki spat in a thousand voices. “Turned on them, for my sake—how well they know you, brother! Certainly better than I!”
“You are blinded,” was all Thor said. He had no time for conversation.
Magic rang through the air at each strike, vibrating deep in his bones, a sound beneath the threshold of hearing humming madly through his skull. But the discomfort was nothing—inconsequential—he must reach Loki, must get through to him, one way or another—
“Brother,” the shades keened, plaintive, wide- and wet-eyed, “brother, please—augh!—please, you're hurting me, you're h-hurting me—”
“Then stop hurting him!” Thor shouted, though his swinging arm wavered for a moment. That ancient, ingrained impulse to protect, to keep his little brother from all harm—Loki was using it, playing it against him, playing with his sympathies, and the knowledge of it stung deep. But he would not allow this, could not allow Loki to visit his torments upon any man, innocent or not— “Lower your barrier, brother! Let him go!”
And then—then all of Loki's images were screaming, as one, not merely those closest—spitting with fury, rage displacing the false pathos—though the tears stayed, silvery streaks on pale skin, and Thor shut his eyes to them, knowing he would falter otherwise.
“You care for him more than you do for me!” they shrieked, all around him. “You care more for your mortal pets than you do your own brother! I knew it! I knew all along! You hate me, you have always hated me, admit it, you were glad to believe I was dead, admit it, admit it—!”
“Lies, Loki!” he roared back, and thunder cracked through the slow-turning vortex of air forming around him, the loudness of it disturbing the shades, making them flicker, disrupted signal. Rain (not rain, not rain, not indoors) burned hot in his eyes. “Lies!”
He drew back, gripping Mjolnir's handle with both hands, using the strength of both arms to bring it back around in one final, massive blow—
—the barrier shattered.
And, with a snap of green light, every duplicate in the entire building vanished.
Chapter 18: Part Seventeen
I AM SO, SO SORRY FOR HOW LONG THIS TOOK YOU GUYS. I REALLY, REALLY AM. I HAVE NO IDEA WHY BUT WRITING THIS CHAPTER WAS LIKE PULLING TEETH. FROM A BILGESNIPE. WHAT THE FUCK EVEN.
PS Here comes the shippy stuff. Told you it would happen eventually.
PPS BRACE FOR FEELS.
A piercing cry rang out as Thor slammed his way through the remnants of defensive magic falling to shreds around him. Loki's voice, from the large darkened control room beyond, high and keening with the pain of his spell's sundering, as if something were tearing his nails out, and for a moment Thor saw nothing but red—his brother, someone was hurting his brother, who was making him scream like that, who, he would smear their flesh across the stones—and then he remembered himself, and had to force down the spike of despair that rose anew in his breast.
The cry guttered out into a cracked giggle. Loki crouched ten paces away, driven to one knee by the breaking of his spells, his green-cloaked back hunched, gripping the edge of a long table upon which a body lay pinned and spread like a vivisected dog. Fury, Thor's numbed mind supplied, though the director's prone form was hard to see in the dimness, speared on the looming curve-horned shadow the light from the doorway threw across a wall of spiderweb-cracked and silent monitors.
Loki's head turned; one wide, pale green eye glittered over his shoulder, its gaze rooting Thor to the spot.
“That,” Loki said, terrible and rasping, not at all the smooth tenor it should have been, was supposed to be, “yes, that...it has been so long since I have seen your wrath, brother. Your rage.”
He pulled himself to his feet, spread his thin hands wide above the broken form lying before him, and did something that made Fury's body seize with pain. The horrible wet gurgle that tore from Fury's throat was almost worse than a scream.
“Loki, stop!” Thor heard himself say, taking a shaky step forward. The room was tilting beneath his feet, all the Realms seemed turned upside down—how had it come to this, how had he let this happen, this was not his brother, this was some—some wretched splinter of him, broken off in the fall—
“Why?” Loki said airily, without turning around. “Would you deny him what he deserves?”
He conjured another knife, traced arcane symbols into the blood and flesh. Fury jerked and hissed.
“No one deserves this,” said Thor. A lump of cold lead sank into his stomach, its chilling heaviness spreading through his limbs. “I know you have been hurt, and hurt badly, terribly—”
“Do you,” Loki cut in, voice like cracking ice.
Thor winced, and glanced away, though he shouldered past the aching stab in his chest. “Fury is not without blame for your torment,” he said, trying to keep his words steady. “I do not name him faultless, but—all the same, there was little else he could have done, in his position, and he had nothing to do with the experiments...”
He trailed off, unsure where else to go from there; he hoped that such logic might at least deter Loki somewhat, his younger brother had always been more cerebral than emotional, preferring solid facts to assumptions made on instinct—but Loki only curled his lip.
“He was complicit.” He seemed to snap the words off at his teeth, consonants like twigs breaking. “He chose to do nothing. He, and everyone in his little club—they all forgot me.”
His knuckles were stark white around the hilt of his dagger, his empty hand fisted so tightly Thor feared he would cut himself with his own nails.
“I am—generous, brother,” said Loki, and his voice wavered, just a little, just enough for Thor to catch it. “I can forgive many injuries. Have forgiven. The theft of my blood. The torture. The isolation.” His shoulders were drawn up near his ears, his neck tense, his head low. “But these—people, this—entire organization, they—they forgot about me. And that—that, brother, I cannot forgive.”
“I never forgot you,” said Thor, with another uncertain step forward.
“Then why did you leave me there?!” Loki screamed, whipping around and fixing Thor with a wide-eyed glare so full of black, fathomless hatred that Thor staggered back as though struck. “Why did you never come for me?! You who claim to love me so, you abandoned me!”
And behind the hatred—through a thin tear in the black veil—there was—
There was terror, behind that mask of rage; terror, and loss, and despair, and—and pain, so much pain, and tears stung in the bridge of Thor's nose.
In that moment he wanted nothing more than to embrace his brother, to lay Loki's dark head against his shoulder and wrap his arms so tightly around him that nothing could ever harm him again, to hold him and stroke his hair until all the rage and pain drained away and finally set free the Loki he remembered, the clever beautiful trickster who spent days on end buried in the libraries, played pranks on irritating diplomats, sang to himself in the dim silvery light of the stars.
“Loki,” he said, quiet, choked. “Loki, please.”
“Stop staring at me,” Loki hissed through his teeth, and for half a moment the fear in his eyes leaked into the wrath in his voice, trickle of water through a cracking levee.
“Please.” It was all he could think to say. He was not a man of careful words like Loki, he could not persuade or cajole or spin pretty lies, there was nothing he could do to get past the shell of ice and spite Loki had built around himself, but he would not accept the thought that his brother was lost to him, he would not, he could not. “Please. Brother.”
“Don't call me that!” Loki shouted, his fingers stretched apart and crooked like claws, black nails crusted with blood. “Don't call me brother, I was never your brother, you mindless, deluded—!”
He was interrupted by the floor bursting open.
Five paces away, chunks of mortar and splintering wood exploded out on all sides with a searing flash of blue light, and through the smoke and dust Thor perceived the metallic frame of Iron Man coming to rest with a ringing clunk just to the side of the hole. His hands were raised, the weapons set in his palms glowing ready.
“You're paying for that, Stark,” Fury rasped as the dust began to settle, and then, finally, mercifully, fell still.
“Leave it to the half-dead torture victim to ruin my dynamic entry,” Tony grumbled. “Had a one-liner all ready, too. Whatever. Okay, Jigsaw, step away from the Fury and I won't take your head off, deal?”
The cry escaped Thor ere he could stop it; Tony turned to him, and despite the impassive metal of his armored face, Thor could still see that the man of iron thought him quite mad. Even Loki stared at him, incredulous, mouth slightly open. There was a painful familiarity in his expression (brother, have you completely taken leave of your senses?), and it ached to look upon him, but Thor did not avert his eyes.
“You will not harm him,” he said, willing Loki to see the truth, that he was forgiven, forgiven a thousand times over, and if it made Thor a fool then so be it.
“Yeah, I gotta disagree with you on that one, sparky,” said Tony, taking one step forward, his repulsors humming high-pitched.
Loki's form shimmered, flickered, reappeared in a spiderlike defensive stance at the other side of Fury's motionless, shallow-breathing form, with the point of his dagger hovering inches from the director's bloodied Adam's apple. “No closer, or your man's throat is mine,” he rasped.
“Loki, don't,” said Thor, reaching out.
Tony cut him off. “I don't need to be close,” he said, and there was dark promise in his light tone. “Now put down the knife, and let's talk about this like grown-ups.”
“I am done with talk,” Loki snarled, his knife arm trembling with tension. All of him trembling. He looked so fragile, so thin, like a cornered hare, his helm only emphasizing his thinness. “Finished. What good has it done me these last—endless decades? What good is talk when there are none to hear? What good are my words when no one will listen?” His voice spiralled up, wavering, hitching, until he fairly shrieked with every other word. “All words, words, words, that's all I am, meaningless, naught but noise, noise in the black, no one to hear, no one to hear!”
“Oh, great, he's having an episode,” Tony muttered.
Thor's wrath flared at the careless dismissal, but it seemed far away, unimportant, through the haze of chill despair hovering between himself and his brother.
Loki clenched his teeth, bared them, a feral snapping thing backed into a corner; there was a clunk of dagger against helm as his hands shot up to clutch at his head, the pupils of his eyes merest pinpricks aimlessly adrift in seas of pale green. His breath hissed wetly, carrying spittle with it. “Oh, but now—now you all hear me,” he said, with a ragged, quivering laugh, a rictus smile, pointing a trembling finger at Tony, at Thor, “now you all listen, do you not, every single last one of you, you see, you know, you all know and I will never permit you to ignore me again—!”
As Tony hesitated, repulsors buzzing with banked power, Thor took his chance—with the speed which his size had always belied, he swooped down on his raving brother, threw arms about his aspen-thin ribcage and snatched hold of his bird-brittle wrists, forcing him to drop his knife and pinning his hands together above his belly. In this mockery of an embrace, Thor hauled him screeching and kicking away from the Director's wrecked form.
“No! No no no!” he wailed, struggling, and the horn of his helm struck Thor in the temple; irritably, Thor took both wrists in one broad hand and yanked the helm off with the other, sending it to the floor with a clang. Stringy black hair whipped against his cheek as Loki flailed in his grasp. “Let me go I want his heart it is mine by rights give me this victory I deserve this—”
He spat and shrieked and seized like a child throwing a tantrum, heels of his boots slamming into Thor's greaves, head jerking back in an attempt to crack Thor's nose as he tried to wriggle free. Thor counted himself lucky that in his frenzy Loki entirely forgot his magic—otherwise, such simplistic measures as grappling him would not have been enough.
“—let go let go how dare you take this from me you stole everything from me I hate you I hate you I hate you—”
“See to Fury!” Thor shouted over the din at Tony, who seemed uncertain what to do now, gauntlets hovering idle in the air. “See to Fury, I have him, I—”
Loki struck down like a serpent and bit, sharp teeth sinking into Thor's restraining forearm, and Thor bellowed in pain but only tightened his hold.
Natasha raced through the door behind Tony, followed closely by Clint, both coming to a halt with weapons raised, both pairs of sharp eyes assessing the situation. Loki, his neck in too awkward a position to maintain the bite, wrenched his head viciously upright, ripping out a lump of flesh with a demoniac snarl.
“Holy shit,” said Clint flatly, as Thor fought back another agonized yell.
“I have him!” he repeated through gritted teeth, fast losing patience with his companions. “I have him, take Fury and go! Now!”
Natasha did not waste time staring—Thor had always held the greatest respect for her and her daggerpoint calm in the midst of chaos—she darted to Fury's limp, wrecked frame, scanning him with little flicks of her cold-blue eyes.
Loki spat out his mouthful of skin, no doubt leaving blood ringed around his foaming lips (and Thor's heart lurched sickly—he remembered how Loki would bite when they were small, when Thor was always the first to find him on the days being left by himself made Loki smash things and scream, alone, alone, alone! in the tones of a child who knew the words but could not make his mouth form them, and Thor would snatch his baby brother up in his arms and ball his pudgy fists tight against Loki's chest and hold him fiercely, not alone, I'm here, not alone, brother).
“Traitor scum never-brother,” Loki snarled, slinging himself back and forth like a salmon thrashing in a net, “you want to put me back there but I will not go you will not take me back into the black—”
“He's alive,” Natasha called out sharply.
Tony tapped the side of his helm. “Yeah, I know, biometrics,” he said impatiently, just as the Captain came charging in behind him.
“Secure him to the table and get him out of here,” Steve ordered without preamble.
Thor glanced frantically around the room, looking for somewhere he could isolate himself and Loki from the others, ignoring the blood flowing freely down his arm and the tears flowing freely down his cheeks. It was all he could do to keep Loki in place—his brother was contorting and convulsing as if he were prepared to tear himself apart if it would only free him.
“—let me go or I will slaughter them all rip them from their skins and throw them to the wasps and it will be your fault your fault all your fault—”
“Thor, do you need—” began Steve, but cut himself off when Thor shook his head hard. “All right. Tony, is the medevac on the way?”
“Should be here in ten.”
There. On the far side of the room—what appeared to be a storage closet of some sort, door hanging ajar. That would do.
He made a dash for it, heedless of the Captain shouting his name.
Loki could not tell how long he screamed.
Everything was red, red and red and red and he needed more of it, he had not taken enough—needed to feed the gaping, sucking black with bone and blood and viscera flung into its maw, to sate its hunger, make it leave him alone—and Thor did not understand, Thor was one of them now, would fain allow the black to devour Loki's very heartsblood if it meant his mortal pets would be safe—Loki would kill all of them, butcher them like the animals they were, these wretched lower creatures who dared split open, plunder, violate a god in their futile scramble for power—he would cast enchantments to deny them death and crack them apart, make blood-eagles of them, long curved claws of white bone blooming from the glistening vermilion wrecks of their backs and their airless screams would be as nectar to the all-consuming black—
He stomped his heel into Thor's foot, once, twice, but Thor didn't seem to feel it, ignored it, ignored it, oathbreaker níðingr never-brother, and then a door slammed and the black swallowed him and the yells died in his throat.
Thor's iron-bar embrace dragged Loki to the floor, and Loki, mindless and paralyzed with utter terror, could not struggle as Thor trapped him inside the confining curve of his kneeling frame, pressed against, bent over, holding tightly.
A pathetic whine leaked from Loki's closed-off throat, drifted out of him into the black, and he could not breathe for the straps tightening around his chest, tightening and tightening his magic sparking useless at his fingertips little knives slicing him open white-faced horrors leering at his insides could neither speak nor move nor breathe nor think nothing but black and black and black—
“Not alone, you are not alone, I have you, I'm here, brother, you are not alone—”
A choked, rumbling voice in his ear—in his ear, in his head, did it matter?—in the black it was all the same—it was all the same, none of it was real, he had dreamed it all, had dreamed his rescue, his return to the light, his brother—all just one more torture in an endless loop of tortures and it mattered not what he did how he wailed and cried and begged the black would always come for him—devour and disgorge and devour and disgorge until he was no more than a writhing squirming mess of decaying flesh and softening bone silenced and forgotten and mourned by no one—
—there was light.
Faint, blue glow, pulsing gently like a heartbeat, revealing rows of shelves stretching away into ever more distant darkness.
He could see.
Loki's breath returned to him in a gasp as that of a man about to drown, a panicked gulping of air that very nearly had him choking on his own spittle. He coughed violently, Thor's arms tightening around him, that low voice still rushing past his ears like the waterfalls tumbling into the void beneath the Bifrost bridge and saying things he did not want to understand.
“Stop, let go,” he wavered, sobbed, screamed, could not tolerate it, could not stand the embrace, the touch, it burned beneath his skin and made him think of things he had tried so so hard to forget, “let go, let go, stop, stop let go stop stop stop—!”
He wrenched himself free of Thor's clutches and stumbled to his feet, grasping at the edge of a shelf to steady his shaking legs—he gripped it so hard he could feel it cracking under his fingers, could hear the wood beginning to splinter. Good. Let it. Let it splinter, let it jab ragged sharpness into the flesh of his hand, let Thor see his blood oozing dark from his palm, dripping slow to the floor, drip, drip, drip, perhaps then the blind fool might finally understand what he had done.
Loki turned his head, one shadowed eye glaring back at his brother.
Thor did. Nothing. Did not move to restrain him again, did not stand, did not speak, did not do a damned thing, just—just sat there staring at him like a dumb beast, blocking the exit, preventing his escape, armor glinting in Mjolnir's feeble blue light.
Loki hated him. Hated him and hated him and hated him and still he did nothing but stare.
The silence was unbearable. Reminiscent of things not worth reminiscing. Voices of those long gone, far away. No wind, no thunder. Stolen relic locked up left to gather dust in the dark.
Unbearable silence. Unbearable noise.
“You should have left me there,” Loki spat.
Thor's pitiful stare crumbled to heartbroken. His blue eyes shone nearly as bright as his weapon, wet and gleaming, trails of saltwater glistening on his cheeks and Loki hated him for it.
“How can you say such a thing?” he said, and his voice was not the boom of thunder but a weak broken thing, crawling and twitching along the floor at Loki's feet. Loki wished he could tread on it, put it out of its misery and never have to hear it again. “Why?”
Loki dragged his hand from the splintered shelf, feeling the wood catch in his flesh and tear thin wounds along his fingers (so long there had been nothing—pain, pain was something, something familiar, almost a comfort). Held it before his face, staring down at the streaks of black-red, matte and glossy, dry and wet, old and fresh.
Because I am no longer certain what is true and what is dream.
Because even now I am trapped, confined, though their cage no longer holds me.
Because I am mad, monstrous, destroyer, worldbreaker, will gladly slaughter thousands to silence the silence.
Because I still cannot have you.
What he said was, “Do you remember, when we were young, and one of your father's hounds fell sick after a hunt?”
“Our father,” Thor corrected him shakily, as if it mattered, as if it were more than a tattered veil drawn down to hide blue skin and red eyes, to disguise the abandoned child as a prince.
“It was bitten,” continued Loki. He knew he sounded tired, ragged. Could not find it in himself to care. “By the time anyone realized what had happened, it had escaped the kennels. Was far too dangerous to approach. It staggered about, drunkenly, waggling its head back and forth as froth dripped from its muzzle. Snarled at threats only it could perceive. Miserable and insane. Until Freyr put an arrow through its eye.”
He could hear the clink of Thor's armor against itself, the shuffling of fabric, though he did not bother to look back at his once-brother.
“No,” said Thor, emphatic even through his broken voice. “No. I would do a great many things for you, my brother, but that—”
“If you ever truly loved me,” Loki bit out, teeth bared, “if you had a single shred of mercy in your damn fool heart, you would have snapped my neck when you found me.”
A much louder jingling of metal on metal, a creak of leather, a movement of air. The faint illumination wobbled, making the shadows dance in horrible clawed shapes.
Every muscle in Loki's body snapped tight as a broad hand seized his arm and yanked him around.
“How dare you,” Thor growled, and embraced him fiercely.
Mjolnir thumped against his thigh (so familiar, too familiar, his flesh eagerly bruising with nostalgia), and Loki stopped breathing. Refused to breathe. A desperate effort to stave off the agony he knew was coming, felt circling the edges of his withered heart like a horde of vultures waiting to stoop.
“How dare you,” Thor repeated, the words rattled harsh into his hair. His words wavered thickly, more and more choked as he went on. “Accuse me of anything else—of ignorance, arrogance, cruelty, whatever bitter thing your mind may conjure up—but by all the stars in the Gatekeeper's eyes, never tell me that I do not love you. Such a filthy lie cannot be made sweet even by your tongue.”
Breath returned in short, sharp sips through Loki's nose, his mouth pressed into a thin tight line, staring hard at nothing over Thor's shoulder. He felt he might—burst asunder, torn to shreds by the whirling clawed thing awakened in his breast. Despair and disgust and desperation and beneath it all the low blue-hot burn of desire. Ripping and cauterizing in turn. He clenched his jaw, his fists.
“It was so, so long for you, brother, so long,” Thor went on, and his tears dampened the dried flakes of blood on the side of Loki's neck. “I cannot—I cannot begrudge you for thinking yourself abandoned. It was only a year, for me, yet still I beg your forgiveness even for that little time wasted.”
Loki felt every vein in his body freeze bright cold, every thought shattered.
Only a year? Only—a year?
No, it—it couldn't be, it couldn't, it made no sense, only one year to his seventy, it was a lie a rotten ugly wretched lie—
—but—no, that made—that did make sense, now he thought about it (though he didn't want to think about it, his mind screamed to think about it, about before the black, needles and knives and his mind a bloody slurry), he went to Midgard regularly, knew its history, the nature of its people and technology in its eyeblink ages—
“I am so—sorry, brother,” said Thor, on the edge of a sob. “Please forgive me. I love you, by Realms and Tree, I love you more dearly than any other—”
“No,” Loki interrupted, flatly. His mind reeled, receded, went blank with refusal to comprehend—settled somewhere slightly to the left of his body. Everything was so far away. What did it matter, if he decided to be honest for once? None of this was real. Not even him. “No,” he said again. “You don't.”
His hands came up to rest on Thor's hips. Thor pulled back to stare woundedly at him, gripping his thin shoulders; his face was wet and red, crumpled with pain and confusion.
“What?” he croaked.
Loki felt hollow. Raw. “Not the way I wish you did,” he said, and pressed his lips to Thor's.
The kiss was as cold and empty as he himself, yet still so far from chaste that Thor stiffened in shock. His wide, heavy hands squeezed at Loki's shoulders, his arms, as if uncertain whether to pull closer or push away.
(He tasted of salt. Sunlight. Soft whispered promises, unkept.)
When Loki drew back, he could not look at Thor's face. He dropped his hands back to his sides, staring vacantly at the shine of metal on Thor's breastplate.
“I shall take my leave, then,” he said, stepping back and conjuring a dagger.
Thor—Thor stood, stone-still, a troll caught in the sunlight, and allowed him to pull away, let him leave. Let him go.
Let go. Let go once more, and then this will finally be over.
Loki's hand did not tremble as he raised the knife, though he did feel a faint tingling in his belly, in anticipation of the blow.
He shut his eyes. Opened them again. Inhaled.
“No!” Thor bellowed, panicked, and Loki's wrist slapped against Thor's hand as he brought the dagger down.
He found himself shoved back, gripped bruise-tight around both wrists, tumbling to the hard floor where Thor pinned him.
“No!” Thor repeated, above him, hard as iron against Loki's struggles. “I will not stand by while you destroy yourself!”
The hollow in Loki's breast sparked, flared, exploded in blinding rage, a blue-hot burst of utter fury clogged with the soot and smoke and stench of (hateagonyterrorlovewantneedlostalone) far too many other things to count, and it came screaming ragged from his throat, a wordless bestial noise, as he kicked and writhed and seized to make Thor let go of him.
He knew Thor was speaking but he did not want to hear it, more placating sounds, meaningless, less than meaningless, he did not care, only more torture, won't let him die, never let him die—
Thor lifted him up and slammed him back down, so hard that his head bounced on the thin-carpeted floor, and the scream cut off at its source; Loki stared, stunned, up into hard wet blue eyes.
“Listen to me!” said Thor, angrily. “For once in your life, listen! Please!”
Loki swallowed, panting for breath, still too stunned to say or do anything.
“If I—” Thor averted his eyes, but only for a moment. “If I promise,” he said, “to take you to my bed—will you come back with me? Will you return with me to Avengers Tower?”
Suddenly Loki couldn't breathe at all. Everything was too cold and too hot at the same time. He searched Thor's face desperately, frantically, for anything that might belie his words—Thor had never been able to lie to save his life, that was why he always left most of the talking to Loki—but found nothing less than earnest anxiety, almost a prayer, please, please, I cannot lose you again.
Loki wet his lips. Swallowed. “Swear it,” he rasped.
“I swear it,” Thor replied without hesitation—was that something like hope, there, breaking through the fearful wrath? “I swear on our mother's distaff and our father's single eye. On the love I bear for you. I will do this thing for you, I will take you into my bed, if you will but return with me, and promise to stay, at least for a time.”
Part of him—part of him wanted to scream again, how dare you barter this for my compliance, how dare you take advantage of my weakness, my need—but that part was so, so small compared to the part that wanted. Wanted and cared not how its want was met.
Finally, within his grasp—the circumstances were inconsequential. It mattered not.
(this would drive away the black)
“Very well, then,” Loki said, struggling to sound indifferent (hope was a poison, hope was caustic).
Thor's grin, watery and unsteady as it was, still nearly blinded him.