Loki had always loved watching his brother spar.
Even in their younger days, he had observed his older brother with an adoration so fierce it was nearly idolization as Thor took up the challenge of whatever weapon was handed to him, moving with the grace and assuredness that came with years of practice to best his opponent. As a small child, standing at the edge of the grounds, he had dreamed of the day when he too would pick up the dummy weapons and join the fights at his brother’s side.
But the years had not favored that fantasy.
Loki had grown into a tall, lanky form, lacking the hardiness and power that his brother possessed. He was cunning, yes, infinitely more so than his somewhat thickheaded sibling, but in Loki’s opinion it was a poor substitute for his lack of physical ability. Intelligence, he reasoned, was something one could expound on through experience. What Thor had was something else entirely.
He envied Thor for it, yet admired him in the same measure. All too often he’d wished that he possessed that prowess, that confidence in battle, but it was rewarding in its own way to watch his brother strike down a foe with utter ease.
Striking down foes was exactly what Thor was doing today, which was why Loki was perched at the edge of the grounds, under the shade of a scrappy birch tree. He preferred to watch from a distance, far enough away to be out of sight and mind, but close enough to still see the action.
The sparring was rather casual today, the group consisting of Thor, his steady companions, and a few Einherjar, the fallen warriors Odin kept in his hall. Loki had only been invited to practice with them on one occasion, and his subsequent poor performance ensured that it would be the only invite he would ever receive. That didn’t stop him from watching, however, and he had learned much from just viewing the fights, although he doubted he would ever put any of that knowledge to use.
His brother’s weapon of choice for today happened to be a small shield and a spear, and he was doing rather well, although he had a tendency to leave his right side open. It wasn’t hampering him as much as it should have, because few opponents chose to capitalize on it between Thor’s vicious blows.
Loki knew his brother was well aware of his presence here, and Thor had even glanced over a few times, smiling once at his forlorn sibling. Loki had returned a twitch of a grin.
Thor knew better than to acknowledge his brother out here. Loki’s brief trials in the ring had started and ended poorly. At sixteen, like all Aesir boys, he was finally permitted to take up a sword and shield (or whatever weapons he preferred), as was the custom. Loki had lasted one afternoon, getting battered about, but rising to his feet each time with more and more determination. It wasn’t enough to impress his father, however, who had him quietly pulled from training, formally stating that Loki would strengthen his other talents.
It was something Loki had never forgiven their father for.
The rounds were finishing up now, the warriors packing up their equipment and clearing out of the ring. Loki remained under his tree, absentmindedly peeling off some of the papery bark. It crinkled and cracked in his hand before coming free, and he twisted it in his fingers, looking at the soft contrast of white bark on his pale skin.
His physique had always been delicate—milk-white flesh, fine bones, wide eyes. His brother was hardy, with tan skin and sandy hair and clear, enticing blue eyes. Loki felt like a sickly runt next to him, and he was sure that opinion was the consensus amidst the population. Thor was the golden boy, destined to be king and to live up to his father’s name. Loki was the frail prince, the one that was quietly shushed up in the palace, rarely seen nor heard for fear of the shame he would bring to his house.
The scrap of bark fluttered in his hand with the coming breeze, and he squeezed it, softly, ensuring that it did not fly away. Most of the warriors were gone now, his brother leaving with the last of the Einherjar and Sif. Loki saw them go, knowing that he should wait until they were past the gates and back within the palace before he even thought about leaving his perch.
He saw his brother draw close to Sif, putting his thick arm around her narrow, graceful shoulders. Jealousy fluttered through him at the sight. He wanted to be Sif, wanted to be like her, like Hogun and Fandral and the others—he wanted to be strong and powerful and respected more than anything.
He wanted to be like Thor.
Perhaps, then, if he were more like his brother—more fearsome, radiant and confident—he would be worthy of his brother’s affections.
An awful sense of shame filled him, like a thick, congealed venom in his veins, one that settled in the pit of his stomach and burned there. His throat felt swollen, his skin on fire, his chest tight and achy, all feelings he knew he deserved. He shouldn’t want such things from his brother. It was unnatural, and wrong, oh so very wrong, and Loki knew he ought to be more than just ashamed for what he felt.
He could hear that tiny nagging voice in his head, the one that usually bid him to cause mild havoc around the palace, reminding him that while he had been raised as Thor’s brother, they shared no blood relation between them. Surely that counted for something, it whispered, but that fact was never reassuring.
Loki was not Aesir. He knew this. He would never be as shining and noble as Thor. It wasn’t in his blood.
His hand clenched around the bark, the scrap crackling and crunching with a satisfying string of pops, and he summoned forth a small flame, singeing the piece to ashes in seconds. He continued to dig his nails into his palm until the last vestiges of heat from the orange flames had long passed, and only the gray, charred ashes remained. At last he unfurled his fist, dusting off the residual mess into the grass.
He rose to his feet, trudging off to follow his brother. The walk was quick, so long as Loki kept himself to his thoughts and didn’t focus on his steps, only vaguely aware enough of the outside world to keep himself from stumbling.
As he crossed the field, his eyes caught sight of something left behind, lying inconspicuously off to his left, at the edge of the ring. He frowned, but decided to approach it anyway, mostly out of curiosity.
It was a wooden practice sword, the edges dulled enough to prevent serious injury, but still sharp enough to cause a vicious sting when the blade struck flesh. Loki knelt and grasped the handle, the wood smooth to the touch from years of wear. His hands were soft, lacking the calluses warriors developed from years of dedicated practice, and the sword felt heavy and foreign in his hands.
“Father, please!” Loki’s voice sounds unfamiliar to himself, as if he’s not a participant in this conversation, merely an outside observer looking in. His mind is instead focused on the pain lancing through his left arm, which hangs limp at his side, partially cradled by his free hand. His father had twisted it moments before, the action excruciating, and although he senses that it isn’t broken, it hurts far too much to move.
He shuts his eye for a second as blood runs into it, quickly reaching up to wipe it away, but for that he is met with another blow. His body convulses into violent sobs, born of pure agony, and his thoughts concentrate on the pain and not his father’s words.
“How many times have I told you?”
“I know, Father, I know!” Loki’s crying impedes his speech, but he struggles to do his best. It’s not enough to stop his father’s next onslaught, and Loki feels the bite of another slap, of a bruise blossoming in his cheek and a cut being gouged into it from his gauntlet. In another moment, he is knocked onto his knees, struggling for balance.
Odin’s strikes abruptly cease and Loki is left half-hunched, trying to shield his face with his good arm. He can hear his father panting, can see his fingers curling and uncurling from the corner of his eye, and he braces, waiting for a second flurry. But nothing comes.
Instead, Odin crouches down and shakily brushes Loki’s hair out of his face. There is no apology, no spoken contract, but Odin’s eyes express regret for a brief second, and Loki’s whole body tenses.
“I shouldn’t have struck you,” he says, nudging Loki’s chin up with a finger, delicately tracing his jaw line. Loki suddenly feels uneasy, and he wishes that his father would continue hitting him, degrading him, calling him names—anything but this. “But you know why I did it?”
Loki concentrates on the rapid beating of his heart for a long minute before answering. The sensation of the rough pad of his father’s finger as it skims over his chin sickens him. “Yes, Father.”
“Even though you look like us, you aren’t one of us.” Odin’s hand skims up to Loki’s cheekbone, looping a strand of hair tenderly behind his ear.
“I know, Father.” Loki tries not to shudder.
“But look at you,” he whispered, digits now roaming down over the boy’s neck, causing a pang of dread to germinate in Loki’s stomach. “So small. So delicate. So frail. Yet so beautiful.”
Tears spring up in Loki’s eyes, but he fights them. To cry now would only warrant a worse punishment, would only serve to drag out this torture longer. Loki knows that he is not Aesir, not a beautiful, radiant god like his brother, and that this is why he can be treated in such a manner.
“Get on the bed,” Odin whispers, and Loki does as he is told.
Loki’s head was spinning by the time he dragged himself from his memories. He looked down bitterly at the sword before tossing it aside with blatant animosity. His father had shied him away from such things, poisoned him against them forever, and Loki knew that at this point in his life there was no changing such a thing.
What had been done was done.
In Thor’s opinion, Loki was a halfway decent shot.
His brother tossed another knife, with a restrained grimace on his face, watching to make sure his throw was true for a split second before following with a second. It was dark, making sight difficult, yet both knives landed with a solid, satisfying thump into the wooden dummy Loki had been aiming at, and Thor could see from his spot on the sideline that they had buried deep enough to stick. On a man, that could be fatal, provided Loki hit his target in the chest and not a limb.
If his brother had been allowed and encouraged to, there was no doubt in Thor’s mind that he would have become a competent, capable archer. Perhaps not the best, but certainly able to hold his own. But Loki had been guided away from such a direction, pushed into magic and the arts of illusion, into subjects viewed by all of Asgard as feminine.
Loki had fought back, however, in his own secret, sly way. Shortly after Loki was forbidden from weaponry, Thor had caught him stealing throwing knives from one of the armories, Loki rushing back to his room with four of them poorly concealed in his clothing. He’d run smack into Thor, too concerned with the possibility that someone was following him to look directly in front of him, and two of the knives had clattered to the floor.
His younger brother had looked up with wide, beseeching eyes, silently begging his brother not to tell, and Thor had simply bent down and retrieved the two fallen knives, handing them to Loki.
“Be careful,” was all he had said, punctuated by an understanding smile.
Three weeks later, Thor commissioned a set of twelve knives from his favorite blacksmith. He got them just in time for Loki’s birthday, leaving them in an unmarked wooden box on his brother’s bed.
Loki had carried them ever since.
He had made good use of them, Thor mused, watching as Loki tossed another at the wooden dummy. This one veered slightly left, coming to rest in the dirt past his target. Thor snorted in laughter as Loki sighed in frustration, abruptly turning his head toward his brother.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” he quipped. “It’s dark out here, and I’m tired—”
“I know, Brother, I know,” Thor reassured. He dislodged himself from the wall he had been leaning on and walked out onto the field, trying to pick out the shape of the knife, or even the glint of the blade, on the dirt.
Loki was carefully tugging out the two in the dummy, watching Thor skeptically as his brother searched for the missing knife. Often times, after fights, Loki would hold up the whole group until he found all twelve of his knives, even if it meant close to an hour of searching corpses and the surrounding landscape. The fact that he treasured them so meant something dear to Thor, and he always silenced the complaints from the group whenever Loki wished to hunt for his missing weaponry.
Something glinted a bit off the dummy’s left, and Thor meandered to that spot, finding the knife resting in the dirt there. He picked it up, turning the lightweight metal over in his hands, noting every nick, every scratch from usage that had appeared despite Loki’s dedication to caring for these beloved weapons, until he felt Loki’s presence behind him.
“Here,” he said, handing it to his brother, who promptly slid it into its spot in his leather holster.
Loki moved away, now attempting to pick up and carry the dummy singlehandedly. Thor watched, bemused, as his brother struggled with it. However swift, however lithe Loki was, he lacked pure strength, and it was a wonder that he had gotten the dummy out into the training yard in the first place.
“Let me,” Thor said, picking it up with ease. He caught the fleeting look of rejection in Loki’s eyes, and he realized, guiltily, that he was just as culpable as their father for shunning Loki from any sort of warrior’s task.
Thor slowed his steps, Loki stopping and giving him a questioning look out of the corner of his eye. “Here, grab half of it,” Thor said, feigning like he needed help. He knew Loki could see through the lie, and he comprehended that Loki was also aware that Thor knew Loki recognized the untruth.
Loki reluctantly scampered around to grab the upper half of the dummy, doing his best to mask the strain carrying it put on him. Together they hauled the thing to the edge of the ring, putting it back in its rightful spot among the others.
No one would ever be the wiser.
Loki, ever vain, dusted himself off and smoothed out his clothing. Thor could care less about his own state, but he found his brother’s devotion to cleanliness amusing, endearingly so. Once Loki had primped and preened back to an acceptable state, he started back toward the doors, waiting for his brother to follow him.
Thor caught up in several great strides, Loki glancing over his shoulder to confirm his presence. Thor smiled (“You look like a dolt when you grin like that,” Loki had told him once), and Loki weakly returned a smirk.
As they walked back into the palace together, Thor watched Loki swiftly stride inside, muttering some incantation to conceal them both from any eyes they might encounter. Seeing his brother, cunning, adept Loki, Loki who was leagues smarter than Thor would ever be, gave Thor a strange sense of pride. He was glad Loki was his brother—Loki was the perfect complement to him, and he wondered just how much of that respect Loki was genuinely aware of. He was flattered when Loki had come to him, asking him to help with these midnight training sessions, because it meant that Loki, in turn, had faith and some kind of confidence in Thor’s physical abilities (his joking doubt for his brother’s intellect he made all too well known, even though Thor was aware that it was in jest).
They started the walk through the halls back to Thor’s room, each left to their own thoughts. The silence bothered Thor; he was accustomed to rowdy, raucous halls and belligerent, brash men, not the reserved, studious silence his brother spent most of his day in.
“You’re getting rather good,” Thor blurted out without warning.
Loki cocked a brow in disbelief. “Thank you,” he replied nonetheless.
“I…would you like a new set?”
“Of knives?” he asked, quizzical. “These are fine.”
“They’re all scratched up. And you need to get them sharpened, at the very least.”
Loki stopped him with a hand at Thor’s shoulder. “No one’s supposed to even really know that I have these. I trust you and your friends, but not some…some random blacksmith.”
“So give them to me. I’ll have it done.”
Loki pursed his lips. Thor did his best to appear innocent and innocuous, trying to appeal to Loki’s ethos, even though he knew his brother instantly saw through the ploy.
Thor lit up. “So do you have any thoughts as to the shape of the new ones?”
“I thought we were just getting these sharpened,” Loki said, beginning to walk again, Thor trotting after him like an eager puppy.
He snorted. “Those are scuffed and worn beyond belief. You deserve a new set, Loki.”
Loki turned to face him, standing stock still for a moment, a wistful, almost longing gaze on his face. “You amuse me, brother,” he said, meeting Thor’s eye for a long second, before looking away, mildly distressed.
Thor didn’t push the point. Instead, he walked with Loki back to his room, standing in the doorway and watching his brother return down the hall. Loki was so strong, so confident, but not on the battlefield, and it pained Thor to be the only one to see his brother’s true prowess. Loki had so much potential, why had it all been squandered? But Thor knew it was not his place to question his father’s wishes—Odin was wise, he was prophetic, and he was aided by fine minds. Munin and Hugin, Odin’s fat, black, faithful ravens, served as constant reminders of that, as well as his missing eye, traded for mead from Mimir’s well of knowledge.
There was a reason his father did everything, and for this, too, there must have been a reason.
Loki’s place was at the far end of the table.
Odin sat at the head of the table, flanked by Frigga and, of course, Thor. The Warrior’s Three and Thor’s beloved Sif sat in a row beside Thor, like baby ducklings following their mother. Next to Frigga were Tyr, Freyr, Freja and Hermod, and at the very end, hunched over and too small for his grand chair, sat Loki.
In his younger days, he had sat beside Thor. But the years had driven them farther and farther apart, as Thor made new friends, ones that Loki quickly alienated. His pranks were motivated out of jealousy, out of a desire to drive a wedge between Thor and his closest comrades. It was petty and foolish, a trait he should have abandoned in his youth, but Loki had held onto his envy, letting it fester and percolate in a dark corner of his mind.
His trickery did not come without remorse, however. A quick glance at Sif, with her dark hair framing her round face, gave him a stab of regret every time. He remembered her soft, golden locks, the way they had glinted in the sunlight, a perfect complement to his brother. And he remembered how dull and insipid they had looked lying on the pillow next to her, the strands and locks separated from her scalp while she slept.
His brother’s anger at that had made Loki genuinely fear for his life.
But things had been resolved, old wounds healed and forgotten, and Loki still sat at their table, welcome and shunned in the same breath. Sif was chatting loudly, and Loki wondered if she still did miss her blonde hair.
To distract himself, he poked the food on his plate around. None of it was appealing to him, and he knew it whatever morsels lay before him were essentially destined to be wasted. He ate sparingly during mealtimes, just enough to sate his hunger and no more.
His mother and father were engaged in a playful flirtation, and she slapped him lightly on the arm as he leaned forward, licking an excess bit of something from his finger.
Loki’s eyes fuzzed over as something flooded forth in his mind, something long buried, a skeleton that he was not meant to dig up.
His limbs feel shaky and weak, his mind still hazy, but he was vaguely aware of his father’s hand resting on his bare inner thigh, tracing a small circle toward where it met his hip. Loki is still dazed, still confused at what has just happened, mystified by his own biology. His father had touched and teased and pleasured him, while Loki squirmed and moaned in his arms, feeling shameful and dirty and yet wanting more, until a rush of ecstasy hit him, his body convulsing helplessly.
Odin, however, seems amused by what has just transpired, a small grin plastered on his face. He wipes the inside of Loki’s leg, the white, viscous fluid forming tiny pearls on his father’s finger. He holds it up, Loki staring at it blankly for a long second, blinking a few times. Odin shifts his grip on the boy, holding him around the waist, Loki’s back pressed to his chest and his legs spread out before him.
“Open your mouth,” he whispers into his ear. Loki parts his lips, humiliated, and licks his father’s finger clean. The taste is bitter and sharp, and he wants to recoil, but he fights to keep a straight face. His father wipes up a bit more, and Loki repeats the gesture, until Odin is satisfied.
His father lets him go, Loki scrambling to his feet, rushing to find his clothing. He puts it back on in shambles, smoothing out his hair, trying to alleviate the level of debauchery he has been reduced to. He doesn’t want to linger, however, so his motions are hurried and somewhat haphazard. Odin watches him leave the room, that half-smile still present on his lips.
Loki runs as fast as his feet will carry him through the halls, his boots squeaking on the floor as he rounds some corners. Thankfully, at this late of an hour no one but the guards are out, and most are stationed far from his chambers. Loki locks his eyes on the floor and avoids eye contact with the guard he does encounter, however, too ashamed to meet the gaze of a man that society considers far beneath him.
Once he is safely inside his room, behind the thick gold doors, Loki strips out of his clothing. He races to his bath chamber and forces two fingers down his throat, keeping them there until he retches up everything his father made him swallow, not caring about the acrid taste. All he wants is to be free of every last vestige of their encounter, and as soon as he is finished heaving, he scrubs his skin so hard it bleeds in parts.
Despite the blood, despite the purging, Loki knows he will never be clean.
The table erupted in laughter as his brother made some kind of remark, his bellowing chuckle deeper and more robust than anyone else’s, thankfully loud enough to pull Loki from his thoughts. He hadn’t heard what he had said, and he sighed, softly, waiting for the ruckus to die down, timidly folding his hands in his lap.
When some semblance of order had returned to the hall a few minutes later, Loki sheepishly spoke up. “May I be excused?” he asked, his eyes darting from Thor to his father to Frigga.
He saw the stern denial in Odin’s eyes, and knew that he would be turned down before his father even spoke. The prospect of being forced to sit at this table, confronted with the constant reminder of the dark trials of his youth, was too daunting for Loki to comprehend. Frigga, to her credit, anticipated Odin’s reaction as well, and held her hand up as Odin opened his mouth.
“Let him go,” she said, softly. Thor idly played with a piece of his hair, waiting for the conversation to resume.
She smiled warmly at Loki, who nodded politely, and then rose, pushing his chair in behind him. He walked casually to the edge of the hall, speeding up as he rounded the doorway, his long legs carrying him swiftly to the same room in the palace that he had retreated to all those years ago.
In a flash, he was on the floor of his bath chamber, the sour taste of vomit in his mouth and his saliva still coating his fingers. Shakily, he dragged himself to the corner, sitting with his back flush to it, and drew his knees to his chest.
After all these years, Loki realized, he was still nothing more than a frightened little boy.