When Loki is young, he does not recognize the snow-swept waste of Jotunheim; he does not know the endless drifts of white, nor the dark, thick sheets of ice. He is unfamiliar with the way the wind howls like an animal in chains, roaring through the rocky, unforgiving peaks as though it means to cow them into submission.
When Loki is young, he only knows that this is the place he dreams about.
They are not pleasant dreams, the ones in which it is always winter. He spends the length of them huddled beneath what shelter he can find, and there is not much shelter to be had. He cannot form words- can only make a helpless, wordless mewling- and his skin is strange and rough, blue with the cold. There is no food for him here, though he searches for scraps that have been left behind.
Sometimes he dreams that Father comes to this place, all his men resplendent in their armor as they march doggedly onward through the snow. He dreams that Father’s face, usually stern, softens as it does so rarely for his youngest son. But when Loki ventures forth from the place where he huddles, frozen and starving and breathtakingly alone- when he lifts his arms to be taken home- Father turns away.
Loki cannot speak to call him back.
This night, as on many before it, the youngest prince of Asgard wakes from the dream in tears, the tracts that they make down his cheeks the only part of him that feel warm. He remains in bed for a long moment, unable to rise; he trembles and rocks himself, and clutches his blankets tighter around his small frame. It is not until the child has calmed a little that he wraps his bedclothes about his shoulders like a cloak and slips out into the hall, knocking with a small hand on the door beside his own.
When his brother opens it to the sound, peers blearily out with hair still mussed from sleep, he does not seem surprised to see the teary-eyed child that stands before him. “I’ve space,” Thor tells him simply. Then he takes Loki’s hand, shuts the door behind them, and guides his little brother to the bed they will share for the rest of the night.
They slip in like a sickness, through the cracks in his defenses: disparaging words he was not meant to hear, off-handed cruelties tossed before his feet to stagger him. Loki is smaller than the others, and he is weaker; he cannot lift the practice weapons that his brother favors. Where the young lords that train by his brother’s side employ Thor’s overpowering force, Loki finds that he must rely instead on cunning, on speed and agility. They serve him well; he avoids the worst of the blows and circumvents most serious injuries, but time and again, the end of his practice bouts leave him bruised and dispirited, bested.
When his anxiety begins to give rise to a sleeping world that mirrors his waking one, it comes as no surprise. Nightly he hears the words that plague him all along the palace halls: “Such a shame about the younger prince,” and “If only he had his brother’s prowess.”
In these dreams, he trains until his hands are blistered and bleeding; he tries again and again, and when he is knocked senseless to the stone floor of the training grounds, he rises up on shaky knees to try once more. He cannot win, no matter what tactic he employs. He cannot win, and though his muscles burn and his face is streaked with sweat, he continues to try.
He wakes in the night consumed with bitter frustration. His jaw aches from having ground his teeth while sleeping. His hands form fists so tight that the nails cut into his palms, and he strikes the pillow, throws it from the bed, bites his own knuckles so that he will not give voice to the emotion that roils within him.
His shoulders are still tense when he raps on the door to his brother’s room, whole body vibrating with malcontent. And when Thor opens it and Loki surges forward to embrace him, needing the reassurance, he can feel the older prince’s arms through his sleeping shift, muscled and sturdy. Loki does not hate him for it, but envy slides like a knife below his skin, sharp and insidious.
Each and every one of them is a true event, and they come to visit him again at night, when he cannot explain them away with his rational mind. Loki is not able, in the dream, to tell himself, “Father is burdened with his work and hasn’t time,” or “Mother did not wish to soil her dress with the grime of a child’s adventure,” or “Surely brother did not mean his words in that way.”
He only sees them for what they are- the stark, naked truth- and in the light of the dream, washed grey and unyielding, there is nothing to cushion against the blows they inflict. He sees Father’s unforgiving eye, dismissive and uninterested, as it turns away. He watches Mother shift aside, all but unthinking, to deflect the embrace. He hears his brother’s voice: “Tricks and sorcery, brother? Come take up your sword, and we may yet make you a warrior Father will be proud of. What need have you of a coward’s way?”
It is in the early morning hours when he wakes, not in tears or tense with frustration, but with a sickened sort of yearning lodged somewhere behind his ribs. His throat aches fiercely, and disappointment is like ash on his tongue. His thoughts become tangled in one another, chase themselves round and round his skull until he has made himself sick with it. His worry is a physical thing; it clutches at him, drives him, makes lying still an impossibility.
Loki harnesses it as one would a beast of burden; he fixes the anxiety to all his considerable intellect, and he sets the combination loose to draft his plans. They are complex things, these plans- but they must be, for he has exhausted every straightforward route he knows. If he cannot earn his family’s affections honestly, then he will manufacture situations that allow him to garner their attention in other ways, instead.
On this night, for the first time, Loki does not leave his room in the wake of a nightmare. He does not venture into the hall, does not turn to his brother to banish the fears that consume him.
He cannot rid himself of the memory of Thor’s thoughtless words.
Loki has grown; the unthinking impulses of childhood and the awkward interim of adolescence have both slipped past. Asgardians are long-lived, and so he does not find changes in his body daily the way a young man of Midgard might, but just as surely do they come, a series of discoveries that spans centuries instead of months. He does not understand, at first, why he wakes at night aching and hard- why the sheets are sometimes wet in the mornings.
He does not understand- and then, when Father’s warriors begin to consider him old enough to be in the company of bawdy tales- when he begins to notice the way his brother’s chest gleams golden in the sunlight on those days when the heat is too great for a shirt- Loki understands all too well.
For the first time he can remember, the dream that comes to him at night is not an unpleasant one. He dreams of Thor half-dressed, his brother’s strong, work-roughened hands intoxicating when they touch him. He dreams of sharing Thor’s bed, the sheets full of their mingled scent, the fire pooling low in his abdomen unbearable in its heat. He dreams that his brother lies atop him and touches him in the way he has only just begun to touch himself.
In this dream, Thor kisses him in the manner a man should kiss a maiden, and it is the most heady thing Loki knows. It has been long since Asgard’s youngest prince has been free with physical affection, and he leans into the caress of his brother’s fingers, revels in the heat of his brother’s mouth, basks in the pleasure given at his brother’s hands.
He wakes shaking and on the edge, every nerve screaming with excruciating want. The sheets are damp with sweat and his breathing is ragged; the place beside him in bed where his brother had been is glaringly, bitterly empty. When one hand slips beneath the covers of its own accord and palms his own erection, Loki cannot help but arch into it, gasping.
He thinks, as he begins to stroke, that the nightmares were better.
He does not mean to sleep- not here.
Not with the glaring lights and the fortified glass, the cameras watching his every move as though he is some rare specimen of insect, set out for observation before the final dissection. Not surrounded by his enemies on this fortress in the sky, where probability dictates that he will suffer before he can effect his escape. It will be necessary pain, perhaps- a concession for the sake of the plan’s success- but he does not relish the knowledge that it is coming.
Still, it has been long since his last proper night’s sleep- longer since he has had a bed to call his own, or a haven where he need not worry what seeks him in the night. There have been worlds between the humans’ realm and the fall that cast him from his home, vast stretches of time filled with galaxies and the creatures that inhabit them. He has long been deprived the luxury of security, and now that he is on Midgard, he’s not had time to pause. He has hurtled forward as though possessed, every waking moment consumed with ensuring that events unfold according to his design.
Loki does not mean to sleep, but his carefully-placed words tick away like the explosives so favored by warriors here, and nothing remains but to wait for the detonation. The exhaustion begins to creep upon him; his restless steps slow and then cease altogether. A moment’s repose will not jeopardize all he has planned for, the god of mischief tells himself. It will prepare him for the coming maelstrom of chaos, give him strength when most he needs it. And if the mortals watch him with their electronic eyes and see Loki of Asgard resting, well- it will not hurt, when the time comes to strike them down, to have their perception of him colored by weakness. A foe that underestimates, after all, is a foe that will find himself sorely unprepared.
And so Loki lowers himself to the floor of the chamber built to house a monster and leans back against the reinforced glass of the wall. He does not mean to sleep- but no sooner has he allowed himself to settle in than it rises to claim him all the same, and the dream that waits for him just below the surface alongside it.
It is endless dark, here in the void.
There is no warm light of any sun to make the chill bearable, and away into eternity stretch the stars, distant pinpoints both harsh and unforgiving. If there are creature comforts in this place, he has not seen them, much less been granted any; the chains that bind him chafe and burn, and he does not know what magics his captors have used to keep him restrained. If he knew, Loki thinks, it would be more bearable. If he knew, he might begin to seek a way to break them.
The Chitauri have no love of outsiders, no peaceable interaction with any save their own, and Loki knows, within hours of the first sentry sighting him, that they do not believe any foreigner capable of kind intent. They take him for a spy; they suspect he has come to learn their ways so that an army might follow in his wake. The trickster is glib with his speech, and he points out that a clever spy would pose as an ambassador- would come bearing gifts and sweet promises, the better to win their trust. He himself has arrived battered and worn, left weakened and too thin from his travels. Surely, Loki tells them, any spy would come better prepared.
It is as though all reasoning is merely air. His captors do not acknowledge what he says- do not admit the points he raises, nor even seem to consider the fact that the tale he spins may be truth. They bind him, and they set about correcting the lies they believe fall from his lips.
The Chitauri, Loki discovers, know pain. They are creative, and inexhaustible, and if he had come as a spy, his secrets would have been laid at their feet by the third night they have kept him awake screaming. In the dream, he feels again the crushing terror of realizing that his weapon of choice- his words, always clever enough to slip him from the most untenable of situations- have failed him.
The Chitauri will not believe the truth, and when he begins to tell them lies- when he paints the picture they want to see, of an army intending to arrive behind him- the torture intensifies as they root deep for details.
It is Midgard, he claims. For though he resents the ones who have posed as his family for centuries, still Loki’s mind shies from the thought of these creatures extracting retribution of them for imagined wrongs. And so he picks the realm he knows next best in lieu of his own, the people he has walked among, in the age when they were regarded as gods. The humans of Midgard have sent him, he says; he has come as their spy.
And Loki talks, though his voice is nearly gone with screaming, though the tears run down his cheeks in hot tracts. He invents allies he does not have, conspiracies that do not exist, and in return he gains small things: brief respites from the pain, a few scraps of sorely-needed food. Loki is the liesmith, and the deceptions he weaves are extravagant, detailed, utterly believable.
It is not until he hears the Chitauri begin to talk of war that he sees the way forward- that he comprehends how he may yet be free.
“You will win,” Loki tells them, “but what need have you of the humans? They will die like vermin at a touch, and your victory will be hollow.” He licks at his lips and tastes blood on them, coppery and familiar. “Surely in a battle you must have a prize.” When the trickster smiles, it is an expression no longer familiar to his face. “And I know of the greatest prize of all.”
This is the time, he thinks. He must yet spin this mendacity a little farther, must craft the rest of the spider web to catch him and cushion his fall, but the beginning of the end has arrived, and never has it been more welcome. This is the point at which the pain will finally stop. Loki yearns for it, the way a drowning man’s lungs cry out for air; he knows what is to be in the way dreamers often sense such things. They will take his offer, heed his bargain. His silver tongue will, at last, have freed him from this misery.
But in the nightmare, the creature holding the blade above him does not respond; the proposal falls on deaf ears, as have so many made before this one. And when the agony begins again, all-consuming, Loki tears at his bindings- thrashes wildly despite the futility of the effort- shrieks and sobs and begs, all pretense at control stripped away.
The god of mischief does not scream himself awake; the cry is caught in his throat, wedged at the back and choking him. In the first instants after sleep recedes, he scrambles shaking to his feet- and for a moment, he cannot recall where he is, the dream terrors having chased away all else.
It is the brilliant glare of white that brings him back, the sleek, clinical surfaces of modern Midgard. He recalls the plan, recalls the words that will tip the scales in his direction, the spell on his staff that will goad these humans into action. He feels himself relax, degree by slow degree- schools his face into unruffled amusement and runs a hand through his hair to smooth it. The liesmith tells himself that all is well in hand.
It is not until Loki turns to face the door that he sees his brother.
The shock comes like a shard of ice on a warm summer’s eve, and the questions spring, one after the next, fully formed into his mind: how long has Thor watched, how much has Thor seen? If his sleep was uneasy, did the thunder god mark it? Was he steady on his feet when first he rose? Loki does not wish this man who is not his brother to see him at his weakest. He does not much like the way those damnably blue eyes are softened at the edges, the way those lips are pressed tight in something that might pass for concern.
He does not want this now. He has paved his own path forward, has forged his way through a barren landscape lined with jagged rocks, has done all this without the help of any save himself. All that remains is the culmination.
And yet a part of him recalls, centuries ago, two little boys curled in the warmth of the elder’s bed to ward away the terrors of the night.
Loki lowers his head and says nothing at all- and, in time, his brother turns from the room.