The first time his family forgets, Loki is still a child.
He stands of a height with his mother's waist, and he is a vibrant creature. He is quicksilver cunning, in constant motion, all wide green eyes and clever fingers and a crescent moon grin. Already, he is talented with magic. Already, his tutors exchange glances over his head and scold the boy for leaving illusions in his place to sneak out during dull lessons.
He has asked Father for a book that is not in the library, told him with the excited chatter of a talkative child of this tome said to come from Alfheim, of the famed author, of the unusual spell structure discussed in its pages. With the confidence of the very young, he has not noticed that his words were not heeded- that the king of Asgard has more important things to pay attention to than his second son.
On the anniversary of Loki's birth, a feast is held in Father's hall. This, he thinks, is as it should be: this is as it is every year, with lively music on the harp, with men and women dancing, with all his favorite foods. Except this year the foods are not the ones he prefers, after all, but those favored by his brother. And the music is not harp music but the blaring of horns. And when Father calls attention to the assembled throng to give a speech for the occasion, he does not mention Loki at all.
He proclaims the meal in honor of Thor's prowess as a warrior. He announces that the firstborn prince has bested his training instructor this day.
The boar meat, spicy and rich on Loki's tongue, is suddenly tasteless. He puts his fork down amidst the wave of applause that floods the hall; he watches as his brother, golden and triumphant, stands to accept his congratulations. The child thinks, perhaps, that this is some ruse. His family, too, scolds him for his pranks, and perhaps they have decided to show him what it is like to be on the receiving end.
But the jest, if jest it is, grows long. Father and Mother surround Thor with an embrace, speak words of pride, and members of the court stand, one by one, to offer blessings and encouragement. Father sits, as do Mother and Thor, and the meal continues; the horns play on.
Loki does not truly believe they have forgotten until Father sends him off to bed; young as he is, he is not yet allowed to feast through to the dawn, as the warriors will. He moves slowly for the doors, waiting to be called back- for Mother, surely, will know that this has gone on long enough. He wishes for her to stroke his hair as she sometimes does, for her to see that this is amusing no longer. She must know, he thinks, that he is genuinely hurt.
But when Loki glances back, she is laughing with Father, and her hand is upon Thor's, clasped tightly with love.
He stumbles blindly from the hall, grateful when the noise is left behind him. It is a simple matter to disappear, to cloak himself in magic- for a prince of Asgard must not walk the palace pathways in tears. It is not seemly.
But Loki does not want to return to his chambers. With a sudden intense longing, he does not want to be alone.
The feast will go on for all the night, though- this the boy knows. His family will be there until the final hours, partaking of savory foods and decadent desserts. The kitchen will be overrun with them, one course after the next, each more tantalizing than the one before. That is what gives him the idea: the image that comes into his mind of the kitchen, a room bustling and warm, filled with desserts not yet presented.
It is a simple enough task to slip in by the servant's entrance. It is simpler still to find a cake unattended, a moist, dark honey cake of the kind he favors. Loki extends his magic to keep it, too, from prying eyes, lifts it carefully in small arms, and begins the long walk back to his chambers.
He has not done anything like this before, he realizes as he sets the cake upon his writing desk. It will be difficult, but he thinks that he can do it- because he does not wish to be alone, not here in his bedchamber while Mother and Father and Thor forget him.
Loki is a child, but Loki is a clever child; magic comes to him the way birds come to those who offer scraps of bread. He has not ever made an illusion so complex before, but he makes one now: Father's beard, perfectly white, the folds of Mother's gown, the way Thor grins, friendly and inviting. He has never needed to touch the false images he creates, and so never before has he crafted one with the power to be felt, but he thinks he knows how it can be done. He need only reach farther, give more of himself- and so he does. He pours his magic into the task with painful earnestness, turns all his loving care to each detail.
And when Father embraces him, he thinks that the exhaustion he feels already is worth it. When Thor slings a careless arm about his shoulder, mindless strength such that he nearly knocks Loki down, he does not mind at all. When Mother strokes his hair the way she sometimes does, Loki beams up at her, and he does not notice that his cheeks are wet.
He fights against the strain of the spell as long as he is able, for he knows that when his strength gives out, the illusions will slip away from him- but talented as the boy is, he is still a child, and this magic is new to him. Loki gives in much sooner than he had hoped, falling exhausted across his bed; his family flickers and fades when consciousness goes, and in the morning he wakes to find a cake with only a single slice missing.
The fifth time his family forgets, Loki considers himself a child no longer.
He stands even with his Mother's shoulder, and his slender limbs war between the awkwardness of adolescence and the grace of the man he will become. His words are more brilliant now than ever they have been, but these days there is an edge to his jibes; when he is slighted, he makes his returns in veiled insults and witty retorts, and he is slighted often. His tutors have nothing left to teach him, for he has moved beyond their knowledge, and he seeks answers for himself now, spending long nights in the recesses of the library or at the writing desk in his room.
He has asked that Mother set aside an hour for him, that they might sit out in the garden and take their lunch together, as they used to do. Loki tells himself he does not mind that she has forgotten the significance of the day- that it is enough, to have her to himself for a time. It happens so rarely, now.
He enjoys the sunshine in the early afternoon; he enjoys the green of the creeping vines and the tiny leaves on the trees, before they have fully grown. He will not admit to it, now or ever, but this is where he has come to love the color. Green, like a dazzling garden path. Green, like the cloak that Mother says matches his eyes. Green, inextricable from the memories of soft words and gentle laughter.
Loki waits at the outdoor table, this secluded place shrouded from prying eyes by the trees and hedges that ring it, by the flowered trellises that keep them from view. Loki waits, and to pass the time he cuts the bread into shapes, arranges it flatteringly on Mother's plate. Loki waits, and the pot of tea that was meant to sit between them cools and then stops steaming altogether.
The sun angles slowly downward, drifts so that it is no longer high in the sky but approaching the line of the trees, and Loki presses his fingers carefully to his eyes- rubs briefly to subdue the prickling at the corners. When he removes his hands, Mother has appeared, every illusory strand of hair in perfect position, every dimple in place as she smiles, every gesture as full of grace and casual beauty as though she had been there in person.
Loki reaches to pour her tea.
The thirteenth time his family forgets, Loki is nearly grown.
He has passed his mother in height, though the bulk of both Father and Thor still dwarf him, for he is slight and pale to their golden skin and solid muscle. He is elegance in motion, all careful steps and understated facility; he slips effortlessly through the court as though he owns it, and when the whispered insults follow after him, he pretends that he does not hear. His words have gained a reputation: cunning but untrustworthy, prone to tricks and underhanded means as surely as are his spells.
He sees this day approach and knows that they have not marked it; no mentions are made as to gifts, nor cakes, nor feasts. And though he has become accustomed to the fact that he is overlooked- that he stands ever in his brother's shadow- still he yearns for one day, every year, when the people he loves the most will celebrate his being there with them. Still he longs, with the shattered dreams of a child playing pretend in an empty bedroom, to feel treasured.
They do not have to grant him such things daily. They do not have to feign interest in his studies, nor make time for him in their busy schedules. As Loki has grown, he has come to think that these must be unreasonable expectations, for surely if they were not, he would have all the affection others offer up so readily to Thor. He would have for his own the casual embraces, the tousled hair, the spontaneous touch of those who wish to be near him. But he does not, and so he has drawn his own conclusions, has settled for what he thinks must be natural, has fallen back upon schemes and tricks to gather for himself whatever attention might be spared him.
But on one day every year, Loki would like to know that he still has a place in their hearts. He would like to be assured that on this day, at the least, he will not have to invent some clever, elaborate plan to keep his family's eyes from passing over him.
He does not wish a cake. He does not require any extravagant gifts. He has asked that his brother come hunting with him, an adventure together of the sort that Thor enjoys. Loki has compromised, in this. He has calculated it carefully. He has selected something that his brother delights in far more than he himself, in order to assure that his request will not only be met but agreed upon with pleasure.
All goes according to his design. Thor does not even suggest, as so often he does, that his friends accompany them for the trip.
And Loki rises before the sun on the anniversary of his birth. He bathes and slicks his hair, sharpens his throwing knives and dons his armor. He packs food, that they might take a moment from the hunt to sit and talk awhile, to picnic as they have not done since both princes were very small. He saddles his brother's horse and his own, leads them to the palace gates so that they will be ready when Thor arrives.
But Thor does not arrive.
The sun rises, tinting the sky palest blue; morning becomes afternoon. It is nearly midday when his brother comes at last, arm in arm with Sif. She is leaning close to his ear, whispering something, and Thor throws back his head and bellows laughter. Loki thinks at first that his brother has merely run tardy, and for an instant he regrets that he has not saddled a third horse, just in case. But they do not stop; they do not slow. This is not the destination, he realizes with a violent twist of understanding, but merely a path chosen by chance.
Still, their stroll will carry them by him; they will see, and suddenly, wretchedly, Loki does not wish to be seen. The spite that clutches his heart is vicious, is sharp enough to make him gasp, and yet still he can think of nothing worse than his brother noting his presence here by the gate, waiting for an outing that only he has recalled.
The magic enfolds him like shadow, like blessed night, and to the eyes of the young lovers that slip by close enough to touch him, he is not there at all.
One day, Loki asks. One day of every year, to know that his family loves him still. He does not wish to beguile them with dazzling shows of trickery, nor to garner their attention only when he manipulates it into being.
He does not wish these things- but he will do what he must.
The following morning, when Thor drags Loki from his bed, one hand fisted around a chopped hunk of Sif's golden hair and demanding answers, those stunning blue eyes are bright with anger- and they are only on him.
The twenty-seventh time his family forgets, Loki is a man by rights.
He is as clever as ever he was before, as well-spoken. In a game of wits, Loki Liesmith will take the victory nine times of ten. His magic has long eclipsed the abilities of any that dwell in Asgard, and his opponents mark his peculiar skill in battle, quick and sure-footed, not strong but remarkably dextrous. He counsels wisdom where his brother charges in, favors diplomacy where his brother prefers battle, brief and bloody and decisive. In another family, in another time, perhaps these virtues would be commended for what they are- but here and now, they are not the virtues that Asgard prizes, and so they are rendered worthless.
Twenty-seven times, Loki tells himself, is not so many. In all the centuries he has lived, each one with a hundred days to mark the anniversary of his birth, it is a marvel that not more have been overlooked. If Mother and Father were the kind to neglect such details, he is sure that he would not feel this frustrated sense of yearning quite so keenly. Twenty-seven times is not so many- and yet, in all the centuries, not once have they forgotten Thor.
Loki intends that they will never forget him again, either.
The god of mischief prepares for the day's pretenses with an anticipation that borders pride. He arranges the false serpent, larger than life, that lurks inside the armory doors. Every member of the king's guard has had the inside of his helm painted vivid orange, so that when they begin to sweat from the day's heat, as they attend to Father, it will bleed down upon their faces. The ovens in the kitchen have been bricked over, and the hallway leading to the throne room has been overrun by greenery to rival any on Vanaheim. Great birds with wings of paper roost in the library, cawing challenge to all who enter.
It will be a grand and glorious day.
Loki pulls the strings from the center of the spider's web, but he takes care to leave clues. It will not do, after he has gone to all this trouble, if they cannot piece together the one who is responsible.
And when all is arranged, when every detail has been cared for to his satisfaction, Loki retires to his chambers. By noon, the All-father will have summoned him to the throne room for an audience. If he uses his silver tongue wisely, if he goads them in exactly the right way, he believes that he can keep his family there a whole half hour before the punishment is meted out.
The day that he falls, Loki thinks: they never knew it.
The day that he falls, Loki thinks: how could they be expected to remember an anniversary that is not even real?
The day that he falls, Loki thinks: of course.
The thirty-eighth time his family forgets, Loki is in chains.
He is ragged from his time with the Chitauri and his exhausting days on Midgard; his wit is razor sharp, but the edges have grown jagged, grown brittle, and to touch the places his mind has strayed to is to draw blood. Always thin, he has been pared away to a slip of a man; always pale, his skin has faded to sickly white. His hair has grown lank and greasy, for he is not allowed to bathe, and the muzzle kept in place above his mouth makes food a distant, pleasant memory.
His brother visits him this day, golden Thor, exultant Thor, cherished Thor, and Loki stares at him with eyes the green of venom, stares at him and thinks the things he cannot voice, stares at him until at last the god of thunder stands and leaves the room.
When he has gone, Loki laughs until his voice breaks, the sound muffled by the gag. He laughs until the walls ring with it it, until the tears run down to drip from the metal clasped tightly over his lips.
He makes his escape this day. On the way out, the god of lies kills thirty-eight of the guards that try to stop him- no more, and no less.
It is his present to himself.
The forty-third time they all forget, Loki sits alone in the abandoned warehouse that he calls his home.
His mind is a tangled nest of possibilities; his thoughts will not sit still, but jitter round and round like live things, like insects, like sparks of his brother's cursed lightning. The hollows beneath his eyes are dark as bruises, and he cannot sit still; he paces, and he drums his fingers, and he works his bottom lip with his teeth until it bleeds. He has not eaten yet this day, nor for several days preceding; he has not slept for near as long, for when he sleeps the dizzying spiral that has become his consciousness crafts monstrous dreams.
Today Loki has celebrated as has become his wont, has cobbled together chaos to unleash upon the world like a rabid hound unchained. And he has received his due: mighty Thor, attended by the men and women he now calls companions, come to tame the pandemonium.
It has been a gratifying day, the god of lies tells himself. For near to four hours, their eyes and thoughts and every breath belonged to him. He has been wounded in the execution of it, but the injuries soon will heal themselves, and so he has not seen fit to tend them. They remain uncovered, two cuts still bleeding sluggishly.
When the knock sounds at the door of the warehouse, hollow and too loud in the empty space, Loki pauses in his step. None know of this place; he has not spoken of it, not even to those he names sometimes-ally. The ideas rush through his mind like the wings of bats, surging forward in a flurry: he has been found, and each possibility is more unpleasant than the one that comes before, for none who seek him wish him well. This visit, whatever it may be, can only bode ill- and so he readies himself. The magic tingles broken-glass-sharp on his lips and through his fingers, and Loki crafts a smile, calm and unsurprised, and dons it like well-fitting gloves as he opens wide the door.
Steve Rogers stands before him, the spangled suit forsaken in place of worn jeans of blue and a simple sweater; his hair has been combed since the fight of earlier, and in his arms he holds a box of flimsy cardboard.
“ The brave little soldier,” says Loki, by way of greeting. “Tell me, mortal. What calamity of the mind has driven you to walk into the serpent's den?” Even as he speaks, he waits for the other Avengers to strike; he waits for the solid heft of Mjolnir driving forward to collide with his flesh. He will be prepared, when the assault begins. He is prepared.
But the captain, at least, makes no move to attack. The captain is peering past him into the warehouse, taking in the lines of rusted metal long forgotten- looking closely at Loki's face and frowning at what he sees. “There's something I heard,” says the man born of another time. “I was kind of wondering if you could give me a yes or no answer on it.”
“ You seek a confirmation from the Lord of Lies?” The idea sparks a thrill in him- lights a sliver-thin ray of amusement, and Loki laughs. It is a low sound, not entirely stable. “Ask, if you would- though I make, as it is said, no guarantees.”
The man frowns at him again, inspects his face. “Today's not really your birthday, is it?”
And those- those are the very last words that Loki expects to hear.
They knock the smile from his lips and leave it hanging half-attached before it bleeds away entirely. For an instant, a reply flees the reach of his silver tongue and he is left silent, all his confidence and poise and artifice dispelled.
And perhaps Steve Rogers likes what he sees far less now, for he averts his gaze- shuffles his feet, as though an awkward boy. “Thor mentioned it. And I thought, well- everyone ought to have something on their birthday.” He lifts his eyes again- so very blue, so like Loki's brother's- and holds out the box.
There is a long pause in which Loki does not take it.
“ If you seek to make mock of me, captain, I will draw out your insides and leave them for the crows to dine upon.” But he moves forward all the same- snatches the box from the man's hands and clasps it tightly to his chest. Loki stares out from the door with an unspoken challenge: now, the calloused edges of those defiant eyes demand. If you would enter, do it now. If you would call your others, do it now. For surely this is a ruse, and his brother's friends wait in hiding for him to relax his guard.
“ No joke,” Steve Rogers tells him. “But I, uh... didn't know what kind of cake you wanted. I got chocolate.”
The god of lies could as well be made of marble. Not one muscle twitches, save when his throat works as he swallows. Long, pale fingers are crushing the cardboard at the edges of the box, and he does not seem to notice; his eyes are wild and suspicious, like an animal too often wronged.
“ Take yourself,” he manages at last, “from my sight.”
Now the movement comes: a tremor fine as winter's first snow, as though anger is held at bay, or laughter- or something else entirely.
“ Yeah,” the captain says, though he sounds strangely reluctant. “Yeah, sure.” He turns to walk away- gets two steps before he pauses to glance back. “Hey, Loki.”
The words come as a warning hiss, rough with some unidentifiable emotion. “Begone, mortal. Or so help me-”
“ Happy birthday.” The smile is so earnest, so uncomplicated, so genuine that it stops the threat between one word and the next. By the time the god of lies has recovered enough to finish it, Steve Rogers is walking away.