"Every night I cut out my heart, but in the morning it was full again." - Michael Ondaatje
These were the things of which nightmares were made: an endless frost, a rush of cold air licking the sky like flames.
They threatened to cut off his tongue, shoving Loki's face hard against the cold concrete and digging a knee against his back. He could imagine what it would be like, the rusty blade sawing into the offending organ, dark spurts of blood filling the back of his throat and making him gag. An inglorious end, but Thor had put a stop to it. Face pinched, grey eyes not looking into his.
The beatings were merely routine, when one got down to the specifics: a crack against the jaw, a kick to the ribs. The stomach-sick blow to the solar plexus, which knocked the breath out of Loki's lungs and made him spit up blood.
Loki hit the ground with his shoulder first, body splayed at odd angles and the joints in his legs buckling underneath the weight.
"Stop," Thor said. "Stop, I said stop!"
Loki looked up at his captors and grinned, teeth bloody and swallowing mouthfuls of copper.
He was six years-old when the idea occurred to him.
"Brother," Loki said. "Tell Father I was kidnapped."
Thor looked at him the way a cow would, head tilted and frowning, blue eyes blinking confused.
"Kidnapped?" Thor said, and Loki nodded, quickly. "Why on earth would I tell Father that?"
"Because, brother," Loki said. "I want to see if Father go and will find me."
Thor's brow furrowed. Blonde bangs hung in loose wisps about his face, and blonde lashes blinked in studied concentration. "That is stupid," Thor said. "Heimdall will see you."
Loki grinned. "Then I shall hide, and see if Father will miss me," Loki said, and he found the perfect hiding spot: a thatch of trees, wild and overgrown, overlooking Asgard and the gate to the other realms. He was young and bored and he imagined their father wailing and gnashing his teeth. It was, he thought, a very clever game.
At first, he amused himself with his magic, turning leaves into sprites then having them vanish into the air. When that grew tiresome, he made sparks of fire from his fingertips, conjured snakes from tall grasses and made the wind rise as if to follow a coming storm.
And then when the day faded and the hours began to stretch, Loki began to wonder: why no one had noticed him, why no one had wondered why he was gone.
By all accounts he was a terrible child. He knew all the rumors, the derisive whispers in the kitchens or in the furtive sniggers of the warriors in his group. Stupid Loki, crying and frightened of his own shadow.
"You were a difficult child," Frigga told him once, years later, when a teenaged Loki found her feeling lonely and unsettled. "You always cried unless you were held, and when you were older, you used to sneak into our bedroom to cuddle at my side. So love-starved," Frigga said, and Loki frowned, brow furrowing at the thought. "I always wanted to hug you and kiss you, but your father said it would make you soft. Your brother was never meant for hugs and kisses, you see."
His mother smiled and Loki understood: her husband and eldest son were off to war while her youngest sat uselessly beside her, unfit for glory or battle.
A strike. Loki pitched sideways, his helmet spinning with the blow as Thor stood over him. "Do you yield?" Thor said.
Loki shook his head. "No," Loki said.
"Then stand!" Thor said.
Loki stood. The grip around his sword was awkward, clumsy, and his helmet fell over his eyes.
He dodged the blow, but left himself open, Thor's fist slamming into Loki's side, making him stumble, one knee to the ground.
"Do you yield?" Thor said.
"No," Loki said.
"Then stand!" Thor said.
He found himself on his feet again, legs unsteady, the weight of the shield heavy in his arms as he lifted it to hide his face, the blows from Thor's sword making him stagger back.
"Do you yield?" Thor said, and then, "Yield, brother! I will show you no mercy!"
"Then show me none!" Loki said, and he threw back his shield, throwing his hand upright to block the blow.
The shockwave of Loki's magic threw Thor back. Threw his sword to the side and slammed Thor's body back into the wall.
Loki breathed. Sweat dripped down his eyes as he pulled off his helmet, pushing back a sweaty strand of hair and breathing, hard. "Brother?" Loki said.
And Thor laughed. A booming, brilliant sound, even as Thor lay upon the bushes, bleeding. "Marvelous!" Thor said, and Loki felt himself tugging into a smile, which widened as Thor stood upright and clapped Loki on the shoulder. "I believe you dealt the most powerful blow yet!"
Thor's hand on Loki's shoulder was warm and strong, and Loki felt himself smiling wide under the warmth of his brother's praise. Golden hair and bright blue eyes, Thor's face was wonderfully expressive. His eyes shined and Loki smiled despite himself, feeling suddenly, inexplicably shy.
"Thank you," Loki said, because that was all he could muster, overwhelmed, all the joy and happiness beginning to overflow and start to spill over.
"He cheated," his father said, and Loki felt his gut bottom out. Odin had been watching silently, frown deepening as the sparring progressed, the eldest showing off his skill with sword, while the youngest showed his skill with running away.
"He did not cheat!" Thor said, because he was still young and stupid and bullheaded enough to challenge their father, who stood silently watching them. "Loki has the best magic in all the realm! If he were allowed to use it--"
"--if he were allowed to use it, he would be the laughingstock of all of Asgard," Odin said. "There is no magic in battle. There are no feints when meeting certain death. There is only strength," Odin said, and his eye moved to meet his: "only steel. Only the sword by your side."
Loki felt his jaw tighten. He blinked his eyes, keeping them fixed on the ground.
"His magic is powerful!" Thor said. Defending him, as he always did. "Father, if you could only see--"
"You know not your place," Odin said. "Would you trust your brother to ride with you into battle, with only parlor tricks to protect you, at his side?"
Thor's mouth opened, then closed, then the side of his jaw tightened; Loki said nothing, just kept his eyes fixed on the ground.Years would pass, and Loki would think back to that moment, how Odin's face was a silent rebuke; shadows fell, deepening the creases around his eyes and the unmappable scar on his brow, which spoke of past journeys and battles and old tales of heroes and gods the likes of which neither Loki nor Thor had yet seen. When Odin smiled it was a blessing, but when he looked down on you there was nothing but the deepest shame.
"Learn," Odin said, and his good eye met his, milky white with disappointment. "Learn to fight or learn to die, for there are those who will not spare you."
It was the summer of his fifteenth year that Loki's body finally righted itself, bones snapping straight and spine lengthening, the limp-grease locks falling at different angles and framing a longer face. His voice slipped, then cracked, then deepened as his body grew lean and long but otherwise stayed slender for a man.
Thor somehow escaped the awkwardness. Loki watched, cold envy biting across his throat, as Thor came into manhood with the same ease and grace as he did everything else: one week, a hand casually resting on the hilt of the sword was common, utterly routine, and then the next it was imbued with such beauty and power that Loki could not look away. Thor smiled and it was as radiant as any shaft of light. The line of his jaw tightened. The heavy armor, which Thor and Loki both wore while they trained, fit him well, stretching over broad shoulders and hard muscles, while it still hung loosely over Loki's own thin shoulders.
"You would make a beautiful woman!" Thor said one day, and Loki wanted to hit him. Wanted to, except Thor dodged easily and began to laugh, hard. "Brother, with the way you are skulking about, you will be better fit to lurk about the graveyards behind the camps! Smile," Thor said, and Loki just barely managed to glare at him, "You would be more handsome, brother, if you smiled."
But Loki was not handsome: pale skin and sallow eyes, hair falling in limp pieces around an over-long face. His body was more that of a woman, slim and bowed like a willow bent with rain, having none of the speed or strength of Thor or Thor's companions.
He learned to change shape, slipping into lifeforms the way water slips into the crevices in a stream: one day he was a stag, hurtling through the brush with enormous speed; the next he was a hawk, wings spread and soaring above the capital with consummate ease.
As a lark, he changed himself into a woman, and Thor nearly choked on his drink.
"Brother!" Thor said, and Loki smiled, his woman's eyes looking into Thor's intensely.
"Do you think me handsome now, brother?" Loki said, and his voice was a woman's voice, his hands a woman's hands when he slowly dragged a finger up Thor's shirt front, making Thor stutter and gasp. "A woman, with the mind of a man, who knows the things that make men weak. Shall I seduce you, brother?" and his voice purred, honeyed and slow and seeping like a poison between them. "Shall I show you what else it is I can do?"
"You embarrass yourself!" Thor said. He jumped back, as if Loki's touch were a heated stone. "Brother, enough of these parlor tricks! We should practice for battle tonight."
Loki sighed tragically and shifted back into himself. "You haven't any fun anymore," Loki said. Thor scowled.
"Frankly, brother, being seduced by you is a terrifying prospect."
"Indeed," Loki said, and he bit back a laugh, enjoying how unexpectedly flustered Thor was at the act.
He joined Thor at the banquet, watching as his companions laughed and traded jokes, and as their father looked on, proud. Loki hovered silently, watching separately in the background as his brother spun tales of glorious exploits, beaming at his followers and smiling at the crowd.
He washed his face after the celebrations, pulling off his shirt and splashing his face with cold water. Raising his eyes, he caught his reflection in the mirror: shadows under his eyes and skin the color of a runny egg, the thin chest and slender hands. There was a bruise on his lip and collarbone, leftover from their sparring session that night, after Thor had bested him in front of his companions, who laughed with derision as Loki scrambled onto his feet: he stood and silently took stock of his imperfections, then quietly, silently, shapeshifted into Thor.
His brother's body, as he imagined it, stared back at him. Bronzed, muscular, the line of his back and shoulders as sure as an archer's bow. Quietly he let his hands trace the ridge of his brother's abdomen, the hard line of muscle of his brother's chest and throat. "You forgot the mole," Thor said, and Loki startled, shifting back. Thor stepped behind him and Loki's face burned, turning to stare heatedly at the basin of water in front of him.
His heart was in his throat when he said, "It isn't what it looks like," because it was exactly what it looked like, but he was good at lying and so Loki pressed on, anyway. "I was formulating a plan on how best to seduce Sif. I should like to see her face, thinking she bedded you and then waking up with me."
"You think she would be disappointed?"
"What do you think?" Loki said, and the tone was meant to be light. It wasn't, and Thor looked at him, frowning.
"Do you think yourself ugly, brother?" Thor said, and Loki snorted, shaking his head.
"Even pretty things are ugly, when compared to the beauty of gods."
"So then you are a pretty thing?" Thor said, and Loki laughed, pushing back a strand of hair from his eyes.
"Prettier than you are, certainly," Loki said, and Thor grinned at him, and there was a silent warmth for which Loki was grateful.
"Will you not drink for me?" Thor asked. Loki eyes cracked open. "Please."
The leather gag around his mouth cut into his skin, digging raw welts into the sides of his lips and jaw as saliva dripped, undignified, down the leather straps. Loki's eyes lowered. The bruise on his temple had receded to a mottled yellow-blue, and dry flecks of blood crusted into his hair.
Quietly, Thor raised the bottle, tilting it gently to the slats along the gag, just enough to wet his lips.
"Drink," Thor said, but Loki turned his head. Water dribbled down the leather straps, then down the soiled front of Loki's shirt.
"You are parched," Thor said. "Your skin is cracking. You will suffer more from dehydration. The pain will be even worse."
There was a cut on Thor's lip, leftover from their prior battle, and irrationally he wondered what it would be like to ghost his thumb over the tender swell, if it would hurt him, brushing over the cut on his bottom lip. Loki's eyes flicked upward. Thor only frowned.
"Very well," Thor said, and he took the flask away.
Silence. It trailed behind them on the bifrost without so much as a meeting of the eyes or a wayward glance, the stone silence sitting heavily between them like a murky fog.
He knew Thor like he knew the grain of his own skin, knew the hurt and confusion that seeped like acid, the uncertainty maddening for a man for whom kinship and glory were as intrinsic to him as breathing. This was a time, as there were hundreds of times, that Loki forced his mind shut, forced himself to skirt the edges of memories that recall better days and clamping down on that dark part of himself who thirsted for the other man's love.
"When we return to Asgard, I do not know how father will react. You've done a lot of damage, Loki," Thor said, and the name sounded foreign on his lips.
They were not brothers. It was everything Loki had said, everything he had felt, but the lack of familiarity between them, the coldness of his name, stung worse to him than the hardest of blows.
"I do not understand," Thor said again, because he was a dense child and a stupid man, and Loki's face stretched into a sneer. "What was it that twisted you in these knots? I despair for I do not know the answer."
"Do you love me?" Loki said.
He stood over Thor's figure, prostrate, cut bleeding from his lip, blonde hair dirty and matted. Thor looked up at him quietly. "Yes."
A strike. One swift blow to the face, knocking him sideways. His brother coughed, then spat up blood.
Loki knelt low. Spoke into his ear. "Do you still love me?" Loki said.
Thor looked him in the eyes. "Of course I do," Thor said.
"You are wrong," Loki said.
The metal crashed, breaking skin and splitting the side of Thor's face.
"Why do you lie?" Loki said. Yelling now, hands balled into fists and tears stinging his eyes. "I give you the opportunity to save yourself, and yet you still lie!"
"I am not," Thor said, and Loki choked, Loki could not breathe. "I am not lying, brother," and Loki blinked, once, twice, the word digging into him like the curve of a blade.
"Neither am I," Loki said.
Tears stung his eyes when he lifted the scepter.
The bifrost parted, and Asgard came into view, at once distant and familiar, slim spires and lights sparkling. The form flickered, motes of light converging and taking shape. Loki could sense it even before he could see it, bound by a cage where even his shadow fell beyond his line of sight. "We are here," Thor said, and he unlocked the cage. Loki stood up carefully, favoring his side as Thor walked in front, keeping his gaze fixed forward and avoiding Loki's eyes.
He was told once, when they were children, that he had craved physical affection, crawling up on his mother's lap and clinging to his older brother like an irritating shadow. But when Loki thought back on this now, he wondered how this could be so, for he had been touched so seldom he could recount all those times with a startling clarity: the dozens of times Thor leaned on him or threw an arm around him, or how their hands would brush and Loki would stop, suddenly shy, when Thor would throw his head back and laugh, clapping his little brother on the arm.
Now he would not fall on himself, would not let himself stay broken and without glory, tears and snot dripping like some shameful secret while his brother stood over him and his brother's mouth thinned. Before, the desire for home and acceptance and love, those foolish things that made a man's heart weak, would draw him close like a moth careening into an open flame.
It was a weakness. A hunger and desperation, like a drowning man gasping for air.
Now Thor looked at him with that same sad expression, blue eyes tinged with hurt and sorrow and making it difficult for Loki to breathe.
"I did not forget you, brother," Thor said. "I had never forgotten you. But you have not yet told me why," Thor said, and there was pain in his voice.
Loki lowered his eyes. His jaw ached, the wire trappings stitching his mouth into silence.
Why ask these things if you know I cannot answer?
The funeral procession wound around itself, snaking down hills and valleys into an invisible point past the horizon, the nighttime landscape dotted with firefly lights that merged where land met sky.
It took some time before Loki could find him, standing alone on the cliffside and looking out into the dark and at the lights flickering on the horizon. Solid figure, red cape still in tatters, Thor was magnificent against the blood red teardrop of sun that was inching its way into the shadows; everywhere else, the sky was black and thunderous, gusts of wind whipping their cloaks like war-torn flags.
"Do you mourn for him?" Loki said. Thor shook his head, eyes fixed on the horizon and not meeting his.
"Of course not," Thor said, but his voice lacked conviction. Loki could hear it crack when he said, "He will be welcomed in Valhalla and greeted with open arms--"
"He was your friend," Loki said. "Brother it is all right to grieve. We know how much he loved you...."
"As he loved you. Loved all of us," Thor said, and he closed his eyes. "Love wins us battles, no?"
Loki did not answer.
A face painted with wartime colors, that was Thor's new face. In their normal life, Thor's face was a green field depicted by an artist's brush, clean lines and broad strokes brightening the shadows with a suggestion of warmth. But now his face was a ruin, blue eyes dimmed to a somber grey: tired eyes, skin smudged with dirt and blood and hair falling in matted tangles; Loki could see every flicker of emotion, every pain and sorrow spilling into his eyes. "Do not mourn for him," Thor was saying, and he offered Loki a smile, curved like the edge of a scythe. "He died a valiant death. The gods will sing for him..."
And then he faltered. Loki caught him by the arm.
"And this they shall," Loki said, and Thor raised his eyes.
He had never felt closer to anyone as this, this damaged, stoic creature who offered him good tidings and comfort even as his heart inside had caved with grief. Stop this now, Loki thought, it does not matter, and he checked himself, watching as his brother pulled the thin cloak tighter around himself, looking out into the darkness and bravely refusing to cry.
They camped on the battlefield that night. It was cold in the land of frost, and Thor shivered comically, curling up on his sleeping mat and drawing his cloak tightly around himself despite the animal pelts lining their shared tent, which kept out the harsh gusts of sleet and wind. For his part, Loki felt none of the same chill that affected his brother, whose teeth were chattering while puffs of white breath dissipated around his face.
"Come here, brother," Thor said. His blonde lashes were tipped with frost. "We should sleep together to conserve our warmth."
Loki dutifully scooted closer, pressing his back to Thor's chest and letting his brother burrow his face into the back of Loki's neck. An arm fell around Loki's waist, and pretty soon Thor was asleep, breathing softly into the back of Loki's shoulder.
Outside, the fire died, and through the slits in the tent Loki could see the orange glow growing dimmer and dimmer, the occasional shapes of shadows walking past the tent flaps crossing his line of sight. There was no comfort such as this, the feel of the other man pressed against his back, and silently Loki rolled to face his brother, studying his face. Quietly he learned the grain of his brother's skin, brushing back the errant strands of hair from his face and letting the pads of his fingertips linger on his features. His brother's face was an open plain, warm and wild with an astonishing sadness, and Loki shifted, pushing close and pressing his face into the spaces of his brother's body.
This is what love was like, a feeling of comfort and warmth that grew and expanded inside his chest. Comrades would die, cities would fall and palaces would be razed to the earth, but for now everything was safe. All at once they were children again, two heads on the same pillow, lying together and counting fireflies in the dark.