A booming clap of thunder; her skull suddenly alighting with blunt, throbbing pain. Her heart drums in her ears, lungs aching for air, and Loki’s eyes jolt open to find themselves in darkness.
(Odin’s stoic, disappointed face, blurred by a haze of tears. Heart hammering in her ears yet her mind startlingly clear, resolute in its resignation. Tightly wrapped fingers slowly uncoiling around cold metal, the void’s pull seeking her out from beneath her dangling legs, enveloping her, swallowing her whole.)
Desperate arms draw trembling knees close to her chest, body heaving for air a part of her knows she won’t find. Feels wetness crawl down her cheeks, distantly recognizing a dull ache in her back. Her head hurts, her elbows hurt, yet—yet the ache is not harsh and all-consuming, not like—no, but strangely mild, bearable.
(The void swallows all.)
A sharp, heaving gasp of breath; tremors wracking her skin.
(Darkness, illuminated by distant specks of dying, unreachable light. Encroaching from all sides, stealing her breath, boiling her blood, swallowing her voice, tearing her skin. Tidal forces pulling her atoms apart, piecing them back together wrong and jagged and misshapen. Leaving behind only a husk, this still-lingering echo of a scream.)
No, this isn’t—
Loki snaps her eyes shut. Opens them again, the darkness of her surroundings slowly fading into gray. She’s not—not falling, she blearily recognizes: not anymore. She can feel her own weight, feel the goosebumps on her skin and the shiver of her legs. Beneath her is something cold and hard and solid, the metal of her cage on Sanctuary, or—
The floor, a part of her realizes with a jolt. Her chamber in the Avengers mansion, Midgard. She must have fallen from her bed in the throes of her nightmare, a part of her says. Another, the skeptic, only wonders if she is hallucinating again. She doesn’t know whom to listen to. Never does, these days.
(Burning cold flaying her hide, cold turning azure blue into a withering obsidian black. Eating away at her nerves, bit by bit by bit, drowning all sensation. Senses slipping from her grasp, cold and heat and pressure and pain all losing meaning, becoming one before simply dissipating into nothingness.)
Even through the darkness, she can make out the outline of her hands: they’re shaking, fingers trembling. A half-conscious thought, and weak wisps of poison green begin a dance at their tips, too frail to do anything more than cast a dim, dying light into her surroundings. Beneath the deafening throbs of her heartbeat, Loki can still feel a gaping maw.
(Numbness: raw, absolute, omnipotent.)
Long, unkempt nails seek out the skin of her palms, and Loki watches detachedly as small droplets of blood begin to ooze out from the thin crescent marks they leave where they meet flesh. Crimson red, the blood, even in the scant light of the room, Distantly, she can recognize her nerves flaring, signals of pain. She can still feel that. She is here; this is real. Pain is real.
This, at least, Loki knows.
She’s not falling, she reminds herself. She’s not in the Void. There's a cold, hard, solid floor beneath her, the merciful pull of gravity keeping her tethered. She can still feel: there’s a dim, distant pain coming from her left palm, there’s something soft and fluffy and jarring clutched tightly by her right. The cold of her feet is still merely that: cold, neither withering nor numb. She’s not falling, she’s not in the Void, she’s not in Sanctuary. This was only a nightmare.
(The third you’ve had this week.)
Loki drags herself up. Stumbles into the bathroom adjacent to her chambers, flicking on the lights. They sting at her eyes, and Loki blearily blinks a few times before opening the tap and splaying water on her face.
Eyes flit unsteadily towards the mirror. Smooth porcelain skin tinted with a healthy pink, bright green eyes unmarred and glinting softly in the fluorescent light. Hair disheveled, yet only so far as one might expect from one who has just woken up. The same body she flawlessly exhibits despite never actually inhabiting. She thinks she hears herself let out a dark chuckle, distantly. Illusions had always been a particular talent of hers.
A mere thought and it’s gone. The face that stares back from the mirror now is nothing like the one that was there a second ago. Still masculine, yes, yet skin ashen, deathly pale; coarse, unkempt raven locks falling from a sweat-drenched forehead down onto a pair of too-gaunt cheeks. Eyes bleached a murky, lifeless gray, nearly devoid of the vivid magic that had once possessed them. Frame much too thin for the tunic that loosely hangs around it, almost as if draping a cadaver. Too many meals skipped, Loki knows, the few actually eaten quickly retched out, too much for her stomach to take.
Can’t even eat.
Not that this is anything but an illusion either. On a whim, her eyes close, an all-too-familiar cold then emanating from her fingertips and traveling up her body. When she opens them, they are a bloodshot, crimson red. Jagged ridges of silver travel through azure blue hide, now tinted purple like a bruise in bloom. Much too gaunt cheekbones seem even sharper now, seem wrong in that too-familiar way that makes her want to crawl out of her hide. Yet another gift of her true, monstrous heritage.
Briefly, Loki wonders what she will find beneath if she does take a knife to this hide and tears it all away.
Is there anything of truth to her, or is she but an empty void wrapped in deception?
A lie can only hold for so long.
(Metal vambraces shattering to reveal porcelain skin turning to azure, a bone-deep cold traveling over her arms. Ears buzzing with the Casket’s deep, pained howls, mind reeling with an unmistakable feeling of home even as the one she’d always thought she had shattered before her eyes.)
She dimly recognizes thin wisps of her magic wash over her, her Aesir glamor steadily climbing back into place. Her chest aches again, the ever-expanding chasm in her seidr reserves making itself known once more. The white lights of the chamber suddenly seem too bright; her ears feel like they’ve been plunged underwater. Her heart is thumping.
(Weakling; a runt of a beast thinking it’s worth something just because it survived being drowned.)
A harsh, jarring clink; the shatter of glass. Sharp, stinging pain flares through her knuckles, tiny, translucent shards embedded into ashen skin. Blurry eyes flit upwards. Even now, her reflection doesn’t look nearly as cracked as she is.
The pang of pain that bursts through her chest is harsh, not merely a dim ache but a sharp, stinging thorn, but through her tear-blurred eyes, she can still see her dagger materializing in her palm. It would be so, so easy—so easy to give in to that temptation. Good, even. Her Jötunn hide is too repulsive, her female form too terrifying, but perhaps when she tears it all away she might truly find something resembling herself underneath.
(You wouldn’t—you know that.)
Loki wants to stop.
Stop thinking, feeling, breathing. Wants to scour away her own skin, be rid of her own bones, mute the throbs of her own heartbeat. Wants to shatter every mirror, every portrait, wipe clean every single piece of evidence reminding her that she is real, that she exists no matter how hauntingly she feels like she’s nothing more than the flicker of an illusion. Wants to stop being a stranger in her own skin no matter what skin she chooses to wear.
(Because your true skin is that of a Jötunn, Laufeyson, and no amount of Aesir lies can shapeshift that truth away.)
She can feel it, distantly; recognize that all-too-familiar veil crawling out of her again, turning her thoughts to mush, dimming her senses until they became almost bearable. It has been hovering right at the edge of Loki’s consciousness for days now, she thinks. (Weeks, months? They all seem the same anyway). Has almost swept her beneath it multiple times now—has swept her away once or twice, perhaps, but her memory's become weak and useless and she cannot for the life of her recall anything.
It would threaten to descend over her at the most meager of excuses. Too many people occupying the same room, talking too loud, Thor shouting at her too harshly. She would get overwhelmed, her mind suddenly a chalkboard being scraped by a fork, the world turning too harsh, too much, too everything, and there it would be. Filling the voids between herself and her body and the world, calling to her, reaching out, veiling the edges of her vision in a haze. Beckoning Loki to retreat back into the deepest pits of her mind. Muffling her ears like cotton, promising to take away her thoughts and leave her mind in an empty, blissful fog.
The one place that kept her sane at Sanctuary, yet—
Nails find palms again, scraping against her skin, this time clawing even deeper.
No, Loki can’t—she can’t. There’s—too much to do, far too much to do. Negotiations with Norway, New Asgard’s diplomatic ventures, reestablishment of relations with the rest of the Nine. Experiments with Stark, her consultancy with SHIELD. She has a meeting with the European Union scheduled tomorrow, and later that day she must instruct a newly-pardoned Wanda Maximoff in magic as if she has any of hers still left remaining. She cannot allow herself to hide away. Cannot afford it, she knows, cannot afford to become useless.
(Aren’t you already, though? )
No, she—she can’t let herself hide beneath a veil of numbness like the selfish, unfeeling coward she is. Can’t leave Thor alone again, this time perhaps for good. Can’t leave her brother to suffer for one as unworthy of being mourned for as her, not all over again. She’s all he has left—she’s taken far too much from him already, his family, his friends, his home. She won’t let herself take more. Not again.
(How long will you fight your very nature, Jötunn?)
Her nails are now tearing out small flecks of calloused skin. The pain is there—it’s always, always there—yet it’s now beginning to become just that, merely a sensation. The bloodied wounds her claws leave are all red, almost like those of an Aesir.
(Wherever you go, there is war, ruin, and death.)
Her lips let out a dry chuckle. For all her talents at deception, there is only so long she can convince herself of this fiction. For all that the Captain makes her wonder otherwise sometimes, the Avengers are not fools; for all that Stark pretends to find their banter amusing, they are certainly not friends, and Thor can only cling to his misplaced sentimentality for so long. Perhaps she was truly worth the hassle when the threat of the Titan loomed over their horizon, when Loki’s suffering still held worth in the knowledge she could provide, but that’s long since over now. She has no more battles to her name.
Aside from those waged against her, in any case.
(Then why do you keep fighting?)
And when they decide they’ve had enough of pretending that she could ever be anything more than the sum of all the blood that mars her hands, when they finally choose to cease their relentless babble about redemption and second chances and healing and realize that what little remains of her is knitted together only by the threads of grief and anger and madness?
(Your birthright was to die!)
A useful monster is no less a monster, she knows; and a neutered beast still remains a beast by nature.
They’ll realize their folly soon enough. Learn exactly who it is they’ve been extending their kindness to for all this time, even if only for Thor’s sake. An ergi and a freak. Neither fully a man nor a woman but an abomination of both sewed together into one being like a chimera. Jötunn, barely a person, a monster. They’ll grow tired of their pretensions, eventually; they’ll see reason, even her brother. What then? Will she accept the fate she deserves, or find another way to run away from it yet again?
Loki doesn’t know: none of the plans she’d once made accounted for her surviving this long.
There is a familiar pressure building up inside her ears, clamping them shut from the inside. The colors around her suddenly seem simultaneously too muted and too bright, almost unreal. The veil again—edging closer from all four sides. Try all she might, she’s never succeeded in shaking it off, this veil, can’t get her stupid mind to get the hint that she’s no longer in danger, that this isn’t Sanctuary, isn’t the Statesman, isn’t Asgard, that whatever SHIELD or the Avengers or Thor might decide to mete out upon her, she’s the only true threat remaining to herself.
Yet—unlike the violence of the Void’s cosmic vacuum, the dull numbness inside her own mind has often felt peaceful. Safe, almost; gentle like a blanket. She hates it, loathes it, wants nothing more to never again feel shrouded in it, yet too often the empty bliss of nothing seems all too preferable to what alternative she has.
But she—she can’t, not here, she’s only here because she’s of use, because they think she’s of use, what will they make of her if they find her numb and barely thinking and incapable even of being fully present, will they not cast her away just like Odin did once he finally acknowledged she’d long outlived her purpose? What will it be then?
And—even in the pretense of privacy she is afforded in her chambers, Stark’s AI is watching it all, watching her fall apart and reveal everything hidden under her lies, is she not? How long will it be before they get to her? Before they—
Her heart is pounding. The person in the mirror has tears running down his eyes.
Loki just wants to get away.
Her head is shaking, her knees trembling. Blurry fluorescent lights sting in her eyes, far too bright and far too loud; she doesn’t know where she is. Her heart is pounding, chest throbbing with pain so sharp it feels like it might split open any second. The hollow inside it has grown wider, aching as if eating away at her organs. Tendrils of weak poison green still surround her, a reminder and a mark of shame. Even a simple teleportation spell is too much now.
There are glass panes a few meters in front of her, reflecting the outline of a haggard person she can only distantly recognize. Beyond them, a large stretch of grass meets an inky horizon. A crescent moon glints softly high up in the night sky.
Something taps her shoulder.
Loki flinches. Turns, prepared (not really) for an attack. Tony Stark, she recognizes, his amber eyes wide and something unreadable on his expression. Behind, she can make out two figures clad in grey and black: Romanoff and Barnes, she thinks. She doesn’t know why they are here. Doesn’t know where here is even supposed to be. What time is it? Could she—could she not even succeed in leaving the compound?
Stark’s lips are moving; he is saying something, something to her, but though she can hear the sounds, recognize something perhaps almost half-akin to concern in his tone, Loki can only half make out his words. Something about FRIDAY noticing her here, she thinks. Of course. Of course he was concerned. She’d been a fool to think they’d simply let the monster escape.
He looks at her now, Stark, brows raised, expecting something. Wanting her to speak. Loki tries to open her mouth, tries to say something, something sharp and witty and befitting one who’s well-earned her title of Silvertongue, but can’t find the words. Everything is too much, the world too blurred, the lights too loud. Loki clamps her eyes shut. She can’t.
“Nightmare,” she hears herself mumble, as if that’s all there is to it, as if that’s any excuse at all. It’s been—it’s been years since the Void, months since the Titan was defeated, who is as dead as she should have been the moment she let go of Gungnir. She is on Midgard, her brother is safe, what remains of Asgard is safe. She is free, her sins pardoned, she’s been neither executed nor locked away in the deepest of Midgard’s dungeons. There is nothing left to fight, she’s only digging her own grave in admitting to her weakness, should run hide escape, and yet—
She is so, so tired.
There are hands hovering above her shoulders, suddenly, Stark’s expression brimming with doubt. Loki distantly wonders if he did see her true, monstrous form, then, but then they brush against her hide. The touch is cautious, gentle and almost—almost kind. She does not know what to do with it.
She is pushed back to something soft, then, made to sit. There are voices above her, low and hushed. She can only catch a few words, Barnes saying something about having been there and done that and the other two humming in assent, Romanoff using strange words she's never heard of, and Stark reproaching somebody—himself?—about not having noticed earlier. She can barely make out their meaning, yet she knows they are talking about her, knows this means danger, yet she doesn't think she can move. Her eyes sting, her lungs hurt, her chest aches, the world is too distant.
The touch is back, for a few moments, wrapping something tightly around her palms. She is both terrified of it and longs for more of it. Her eyes drift close almost of their own accord, after some time, and Loki is too exhausted to force them to stay open.
Loki wakes to find himself pressed against another.
He is leaning against Stark's shoulder, whose head rests, in turn, upon the couch. On his other side are Romanoff and Barnes, also seeming deeply asleep, the former's legs laid atop the table and brushing against his own. Loki's head aches dimly, his memory fuzzy, and he briefly wonders if he is dreaming, only that cannot be right, can it, the only dreams he's had for the past—he's no idea how long it's been—have all been nightmares. There's... something soft and warm draped above him. A blanket, he thinks. Something in the distance flickers softly in the gentle light. He blinks a few times, clearing his vision. The Avengers Compound, Loki distantly recognizes. The shared floors.
Everything feels strangely... distant, disconnected, for a moment.
His gaze then drifts to his arm, and the dread sets in.
His palms and wrists are covered in bandages, the gauze somewhat hastily wrapped, below which he can make out faint gashes of red. The fingers he sees are his own and yet not: too pale, too bony. Still Aesir, yet missing the glamour hiding the gauntness and the scars. His eyes widen.
This—this is bad.
Loki could—he should get up, escape. He does not recall what happened yesterday—his memory is turning into a fickle, untrustworthy thing, these days—but whatever it was could not possibly have been good. Perhaps he might be granted the mercy of Stark pretending this never happened at all, perhaps even convince Barnes to never speak of it, but the Widow will treat this knowledge like the weapon it is. The Avengers will have questions, Thor will have questions, far too many of them. Questions he knows he won't be able to answer, not without—without revealing the true extent of his weakness, his worthlessness. Better to delay that eventuality for as long as possible.
Yet... they'd been kind, hadn't they?
His glamour had slipped out of his grasp, they had to know—they could have done anything they wished to him yesterday. Could have thrown him out, caged him, perhaps killed him even. Could have done that when he'd first exited the Statesman, could have done that as soon as the Titan had been defeated. Thor had in neither case been in any position to bargain, and they had every right to seek vengeance against him. Yet... they had all sympathized when he'd been forced to reveal what the Titan had done to him. Not mocked him, not called him a weakling, not told him that none of it would have happened had he only been stronger. Romanoff had convinced SHIELD to stop persecuting him. Stark had fought to get him a pardon. Though he deserved none of it, they'd been kind nonetheless.
Dare he stay, let them find him? Dare he take this risk?
(Dare he be that brave?)
The sunlight falling through the glass panes is gentle, warm. The blanket draped across him seems impossibly fluffy, the touch on both sides of him grounding. Though too much of his body still aches, his nigh-empty reserves of seidr crying out in pain, he hasn't felt this well-rested in eons. The voices in his head seem blissfully quiet, for once, almost too distant to be his own.
He doesn't know what happens next, doesn't even know if he wants to know, but this, perhaps—perhaps this will do for now.