It didn't matter how much you bathed in Twelve; you could never get the stink off. Not the stomach-heaving stench of manure, like Nine or Ten, nor the nostril-stinging engine grease of Six, but the ever-present tang of coal. It ground itself into your skin, found its way into your eyes, your throat, your nose, and itched and itched and itched forever.
Not that anyone in Twelve noticed. They crawled through it with the filth up their noses, never looking up at the sky. Never dreaming of better. Loki didn't blame them; he pitied them. They saw nothing but the darkness and the coal and their rations of grain. He pitied everyone, from the grit and grime of the Seam, where his parents eked out a living, to those who lived in the richer areas and thought themselves above it all -- but the same dust sat in their lungs.
Loki didn't pity his parents. They had ambition, but they didn't squander it on themselves -- an intelligent move, considering it wouldn't have done them any good. Instead, they used it toward the only asset they had: their son. For that insight, he didn't pity them -- but nor did he thank them. If they hadn't, he would have found a way. Loki knew from the time he first stared at the marks on the paper and connected them with the words his parents said aloud that the world extended far beyond the borders of Twelve, and that on the day of his birth, the world gave a sigh of relief. The deliverer had come.
Odd thoughts for a six-year-old, perhaps, but Loki's parents had told him he was special since before he knew the meaning of the word. For nearly a year he'd thought it referred to him only; now he knew better -- that the dictionaries were wrong.
District Two's sponsor program persisted every year, but the paperwork mostly gathered dust in a council office somewhere. Two had more skilled children to fill its Career farm than it needed; every year, each pool of applicants reduced themselves from the initial hundreds to the final two. They had little need for outside talent, but at the same time, if anyone made it onto their radar, they wouldn't turn it down.
Over a year, but finally, Loki's parents succeeded in securing Loki a place at the Career Academy. The Farm, the kids in Twelve called it, snickering with their precious superiority. Two sent forms, and tests -- not academic ones, but aptitude and personality profiles -- and evaluations, and finally actually sent a representative to Twelve to check Loki's physical ability. That almost failed him -- Loki's mother had inhaled too much coal dust during her pregnancy, and the toxins soaked into him and stopped his growth, or so the doctor said. Loki didn't care about the reason, only that the other children his age grew taller, stronger. It almost failed him, but the interviewer sat down with Loki and talked with him -- really talked, like an adult who knew about the world, instead of walls and tunnels and canaries -- and in the end, they received the letter with Two's seal inviting him.
"You're going to make us proud," Mother said, brushing Loki's hair back from his face. He detested the touch even if he didn't detest her -- why would one detest a stepping stone on the way up a mountain -- but he forced himself to remain stoic. A tribute from Two had to deal with far worse than unwanted caresses. He would learn.
"I'm going to make the Capitol proud," Loki corrected her. Part of the papers they signed included an agreement, that from the moment Loki stepped onto the train, they relinquished all claim to him. Forever. If he won, they would receive no compensation, no reward. "I'm going to make Snow notice me."
Father gave a short nod. He and Mother both agreed to send Loki away, but for different reasons; Mother out of that most debilitating of human frailties, while Father thought only to get something from the world in exchange for the stunted son who couldn't swing a pickaxe. Two paid handsomely for candidates, whether they made it through to Volunteers or not. At last, Loki had given them something they could use.
"Farewell," Loki said, indulging in a bow. Mother sniffled, and began to say something else, to call out one last time, but the conductor shut the door.
Loki spent half the train ride being bathed and groomed, as though the beauticians thought they could scrub the olive from his skin as well as the dirt. He tolerated the indignity of it only because they promised not to perfume him; he was going to Two, a district that understood priorities, rather than to the glitz and glory of the Capitol. He did not wish to smell like someone's pampered lapdog.
He did his best to clamp down on his excitement as the train rounded the curve and District Two glittered in the distance. Surely they would change his mind if they saw him bouncing in his seat like an infant. Loki forced himself to stay in his seat and only just avoided sitting on his hands to stop himself from pressing against the glass through sheer will. He needed to look like he deserved this honour -- which he did.
At last the train arrived, and despite all his attempts, Loki's heart still tripped an embarrassing jig in his chest. He breathed slow and deliberate, ran a hand through his slightly overlong hair -- too long for training? He didn't know the regulations -- and hoped that not a speck of Twelve had been left on him. The new clothes they'd given him were simple enough, but even the fabric of the plain cotton shirt he wore would have required a month's wages back home.
No. Not back home. Home was here, this venerable heaven where men understood the priorities in life, and fought for glory instead of grubbing in the dirt. Loki put Twelve from his mind, once and for all.
He knew nothing about his new adoptive father, only that a mix of families applied to host children in the program. Some, Victors who'd never managed a family or to find a mate who understood what it meant to have seen death so close. Others, parents who'd given up a tribute to the ultimate honour, and wished to try again. Still others, Loki guessed, did so because their own children had failed even to make the cut; he hoped, desperately, that he would not have one of those. He would not fail his new parents, and by extension, hoped they would not fail him.
Loki stepped off the train and nearly into the arms of a god.
At least, that's how it looked; an enormous man, bigger than Loki had ever seen, blond and handsome with a face cut out of rock; he wore his hair long in defiance of common fighting sense, but he was no enthusiast only. Not unless he'd put out his own eye to look impressive, but the scars puckering around the patch he wore to cover the missing organ said otherwise. This man had not gone to the Capitol to have his scars removed, his eye replaced. He'd fought for his wounds, and he embraced them, and dared anyone to say otherwise.
Loki would have recognised him even without the eye patch, for he'd watched the tapes of Odin's victory so many times that the exasperated woman at the dilapatated archives in Twelve said he could keep them -- ridiculous, since where in his little shack would he have the equipment? Still, he knew Odin's Game so well he could probably list the tributes in the order that they died.
That year, everyone knew from the beginning: from the Reaping day, where the proud, tall, oak-chested teenager stepped in to Volunteer for a terrified twelve-year-old; to the parade, where even the ridiculous helmets and shields could not mask the boy's power and confidence; from the training, where audiences gasped as the boy hefted a spear the same height as he and heavy as a small child, and skewered a training dummy to the wall; to the Games themselves, when he pulled another, larger boy from torturing a child from Five and tore his head half from his shoulders, then gave the other child a quick, merciful death. Those who watched the Games that year saw a spectacle of honour and glory, not a mad scrabbling for victory; even Loki, who only watched the tapes years later, the footage spotted and aged, had felt the true beauty of the Games suffuse him like sunlight on his skin.
Odin: Victor, Mentor, legend.
The instinct hit him before he could think it through, and Loki dropped to his knees before this man, his saviour.
"Stand up," the man said, the voice rumbling in his chest, at once commanding and amused. "I have no need for someone who grovels. If you're good enough, then you're good enough, and that's good enough for me."
Loki stood, and clasped his hands behind his back to hide the shaking. Weak, weak, he looked weak. "Thank you, sir," he said, and bit down on his cheek to stop the breathy admiration from leaking into his voice. The pain sharpened him, reminded him where he was.
"Thank you, Father," he corrected, giving Loki a small smile. He turned to the side. "Thor, here's your new brother, Loki."
The boy who rounded Odin's side could have been his clone, and Loki's heartbeat increased until he thought they might hear it. He'd never heard that Odin had a son, but why should he, when the news from Twelve carried little more than weather patterns and Capitol bulletins. Thor had perhaps two years on Loki and at least a head in height; Loki's thigh nearly matched the circumference of this boy's bicep.
Thor carried himself with the confidence and easy authority that Loki envied, so strongly that it nearly choked him. This boy didn't need to posture or threaten, and he didn't look intimidated by his parentage, but seemed only to take it as his right. He inclined his head in a nod and offered Loki his hand.
Loki took it, fearing for a split second that Thor would attempt to crush his fingers in a petty show of strength, but he didn't, merely grasped Loki's hand between both of his. "A pleasure to meet you, brother," he said, in a voice that sounded much grander than his actual young-boy's tenor. "Together we will bring glory and honour to the Capitol. I'm sure of it."
Loki smiled. "I'm sure we will, brother," he said.
Odin watched them, approval in the smile that creased his face. "Come," he said. "I will show you to the Centre. Someone can fetch your things."
Loki straightened his shoulders. "I have no things," he said. "Nothing of consequence, nothing that could not be left behind."
Odin studied him with narrow eyes, then his smile broadened. "Good!" he thundered. "I like a boy who doesn't cling to his toys. You will do well here."
He knew he should say something humbling, something like 'I will try' or 'I'll do my best', but Loki couldn't bring himself. "I will," he said. "You can count on it -- Father."
Odin -- Father -- clapped him on the shoulder hard enough that Loki nearly toppled, but he caught himself. A test, albeit a friendly one, and he would not fail it. He would not be the weakling who could not even endure his father's affection.
"You will die when you see the weapons room," Thor proclaimed, eyes shining. "It's beautiful."
Loki laughed aloud. District Twelve faded from memory and reality, and he followed his new family toward the shining citadel.
One Year Later
Loki predicted hard work, humiliation, struggles, muscle pain, broken bones, bruises -- but not mind-numbing intellectual boredom. He probably should have -- if Two lost the Games for something other than a natural catastrophe, it was usually because someone from an outlier district outsmarted them -- but he'd been so stuck in the idea of getting out of Twelve that he'd blinded himself for a while.
The initial level of the program appeared to be designed to suck the young ones in, to make them fully committed to the Capitol and their responsibilities. Loki didn't need that. He didn't need to be bribed with juice and rough playtime and the promise of knives one day. At the same time, the other children didn't care that they couldn't think their way out of a maze with a map and a hovercraft; they just knew Loki was small, and while even the dullest of them could see he was mean, he didn't have the physical skills to back it up.
Loki wished he could just skip all this and move to the useful training; he saw the first tier exercises for what they were, innocent games designed to train their balance and endurance and flexibility. The trainers didn't need to pretend, for him; they didn't need to hide strategizing sessions behind games of dodgeball. He knew they were watching, looking to see what qualities each candidate had that might translate to the Games in ten years.
The dodgeball games nearly drove Loki to his wit's end. Being smart enough to taunt but not, perhaps, smart enough to avoid taunting bigger, heavier children, Loki had learned early on how to be fast, and his stature helped with that. He was rarely the last man standing in dodgeball, but never one of the first, either, placing him squarely in the middle -- in the forgettable zone. The zone of tributes who didn't get sponsors because no one could remember their names or districts.
And so he tried strategy, which might have worked except that his teammates may as well have been hulking animals from Eleven, for all the good it did. "No! What are you doing?" Loki screeched, as one boy barrelled a ball across the room at the opposition, taking out one of the slower, but heavy-hitting girls. She sat up, clutching her nose with blood pouring down her shirt, but moved to the position behind Loki's team without complaint. She caught Loki's furious glare and grinned at him through bloodstained teeth.
"Winning," said the other boy, giving Loki an incredulous stare for a second before grabbing another ball.
"No, you idiot!" Loki snapped. "Her advantage was her aim, not her speed! The only thing stopping her from destroying all of us is that she had to keep moving. Now you've captured her, and she's right behind our lines! She can pick us off without --" but a ball hit him in the back of the head, and Loki stomped off to the other end of the room.
His team lost, and rightly so. Afterward, Loki fumed all the way to the free time, eschewing the games the others played in favour of sitting alone in the grass and ripping up stalks in angry chunks.
"You know, there's a difference between being a competitor and being a sore loser," said a voice from above, and Loki tilted his head up, squinting at Director Fury. Formerly a Victor and one of Two's most illustrious Mentors, alongside Odin, Fury now worked behind the scenes, but still came back to Two to train the candidates because, he said, he loved the potential. He hadn't lost his eye in his Games, only damaged it, but they said he'd refused to have it replaced or fixed because it helped him remember that a tribute could overcome obvious physical weakness if he really tried -- that it reminded him not to overlook certain candidates simply because they had a defect that crossed them off the list.
If Fury had another name, everyone had long forgotten.
"I'm not," Loki said, more sharply than he might have dared to Fury, whom otherwise Loki would occasionally spy on by peering around corners. "There's a difference between losing by one's own failings and by one's teammates' idiocy."
Fury chuckled and lowered himself to the grass. "I see. And what would you have done?"
Loki told him about the stupid decision to take out the slow but accurate girl, dropping her behind her lines where she had no distractions, nothing to dodge. "They ignored the fast one, too," he said, warming up to his subject. "They let him go because he was fast, even though he couldn't throw so he wouldn't be any danger to us behind the lines. They should have taken him out first, when the floor was crowded with the weaker players, because he'd have less room to move."
"I see." Fury tilted his head. "But you're not sure."
"Not exactly." Loki gnawed the inside of his cheek. "The problem is, there are two ways to win. One is to win the game as effectively as possible. In that case, taking out the fastest ones first, then the weakest, then the slow but strong ones means they have less of a chance of beating us. But the other way to win is to make for the best entertainment, and that means leaving yourself open so that it can be exciting. I can't figure out how to mix it up. Maybe sacrifice one of our strong ones early on, so they can take them out behind the lines? Bait them with someone who looks weak, then turns out to have throwing power from behind?" He glanced up at Fury, but the man's face gave him no clues.
"You know that's not your job," Fury said at last. "That's why you have Mentors. You should focus on your own training."
"I can't," Loki said, and he knew, he knew he shouldn't complain to one of the directors, but he couldn't help it. "I can't just stop thinking and do pushups and run laps. I'm always thinking. I'm never going to be as strong as them, but they're never going to be as smart as me. I hate that it doesn't seem to matter."
Fury said nothing for a moment. "It does matter," he said at last. "It's not just about brawn. But it's also about trusting the orders given."
"What orders?" Loki demanded, forgetting his place. "If we'd had a coach, I would have listened to the coach. He would have known how to strategize, instead of throwing balls around like unevolved primates."
"And if he didn't?" Fury's voice had an edge to it -- not of anger, or even warning, but one which tripped Loki all the same. Something in this conversation went deeper than dodgeball. "What if your coach gave you orders that made no sense? That you knew would cause you to lose?"
"Well, I don't know." Loki looked over the field. A girl tackled a boy so hard they both went flying, and stood up laughing hysterically. He shook his head. "I'd find a way to do what I wanted to do without technically disobeying, I guess." His eyes flicked to Fury for a moment. "Are you going to report me for insubordination?"
"Not this time." Fury smiled at him, and Loki smiled back. The expression always looked like a shark about to attack, with Fury, and it comforted him. "Next time, see what you can do. If you can't rely on your teammates, do what you can on your own."
"Yes, sir," Loki said, and felt better. Maybe not everyone was an idiot.
Not every candidate got personal advice from Director Fury, and Loki wasn't about to sit around and let it go unused. He started studying the others, and realised that he could get people to do almost anything he wanted them to, as long as he convinced them it was their idea. It worked so well, and so routinely, that Loki felt rather like an idiot for not discovering it sooner.
The seven-to-nines played a lot of allegiance games, though of course they were never framed as such, not outright. Survival games in the woods, the players armed with paint guns that stung and bruised but could not kill, where players were free to change teams if they chose, and the trainers double-crossing encouraged. Loki enjoyed that one the most. He tore through the game with precision, never once firing his weapon but always convincing the other to join with him against the others. By the end, Loki was the last man standing; each of the other candidates had destroyed each other, having sworn allegiance to him. They sulked, but all but the most petty admitted to being impressed.
After that, he found the trainers watching him more than ever. Loki welcomed the challenge.
He still found himself behind in the physical challenges -- especially grating since Thor routinely bragged about his growing skill with weapons -- but Loki merely searched for what he could excel at, and ensured that he did. Early on, he discovered that even if he could not do one hundred chin-ups without breaking form, he could still use his mind to defeat the tests.
"What's that?" one of the girls asked, gaping.
"It's to test your pain endurance," said the trainer, indicating the bucket filled to the brim with icy water. "You're going to stick your arm in it, up to the elbow, and see how long you can leave it there."
Loki glanced around the room, found most of the faces a mix of fear or dismissal. He scoffed at the first and rolled his eyes at the second -- of course it would be painful, but this sort of thing only required mental discipline. Any idiot could do it, provided they had the proper motivation. Loki raised his hand. "Who has the record?" he asked.
The trainer smiled. "Thor. Before that, your father. I won't tell you what it is, but just know that you have a lot to live up to."
And, just like that, Loki had his motivation. He watched the others cringe and shout -- the trainers said they were allowed to scream and curse, if they wished, just as long as they didn't leave their seats or move their arms -- and shook his head. Wrong, all wrong.
At Loki's turn, he pictured Thor's face. The way the camera practically made love to him every time it captured him on film. He pictured him bouncing home to Father and proudly declaring his score. Loki plunged his arm into the water and clenched his teeth to avoid gasping. He would not cry out. The most he allowed himself was to twist his fingers in the fabric of his training suit, digging his nails into his thigh.
He counted in his head. One minute. Two. The ice burned, and he thought for certain his heart would give out. How could ice water be so painful? The ache went all the way up to his chest. Three. His breath shuddered in his chest, as though he had to pull each one through a wall of knives, but he kept on. Four. Tears stung his eyes, but Loki blinked them back. Around him, the room had gone silent as candidates stopped roughhousing to watch him.
How long until nerve damage? He'd lost all feeling in his arm; he didn't think he could remove it on his own even if he wanted to. Well, it didn't matter. They would stop him before it got that far; no point in ruining a candidate so early. He stopped being able to count the seconds as each one stretched into infinity; spots danced at the corner of his vision.
"Time!" the trainer called, and Loki finally allowed himself a gasp. As predicted, his arm wouldn't respond; he reached over with his free hand and hauled it out manually. His arm had turned a mottled, furious red, purpling at the fingertips. He enjoyed the mix of awe and fear on the faces of the other children as the trainers hustled him over to the medics.
"I broke Thor's record with the ice endurance test today," Loki said at dinner. He forced himself to look neutral, though he couldn't manage modest, and thus didn't bother.
Father raised his eyebrows. "Good," he said. "Don't let it go to your head."
Two Years Later
They laughed at him at the Centre, the other children, but what did it matter? They were bugs, worse than bugs, they were worms, only fit to eat and shit and have their shit turn into something that could be used to help their betters.
They laughed at him, at his District Twelve accent, at his attempts to lose it, at his clumsiness with a staff the first time he chose a weapon. Loki didn't care. He was an exception -- the exception -- in a district that never made them. As far as Loki was concerned, that made him a god.
And his brother, dear Thor, mighty Thor, glorious, beloved Thor, laughed loudest, and thought it was all right because he did so with love.
Hating Thor would make life so much easier, but alas, Loki didn't have the conviction in him to take it all the way. Typical; he felt the weakness every day when Thor made him laugh, or coaxed a smile in spite of everything else. In those moments, Loki forgot his discontentment, his jealousy, and immersed himself in his brother's loud, contagious laughter and the feel of Thor's strong hand clapped against his shoulder.
Except it never lasted. Time in the shadow of a mountain could be pleasant for a time -- it blocked out the harsh sun, and weathered storms so that you never got the worst of it -- but after a time, the chill set in, the need to get away and feel the light on your face. To stop being sheltered and start living.
He'd thought, maybe, that when Thor turned thirteen and began living at the Centre full-time, that the weight of his shadow would decrease, that Loki could finally spread his wings and prove himself to Father. A naive, foolish thought, underscored daily by Father extolling Thor's virtues and regaling the table with tales of what Thor had accomplished in weapons training that day. Loki sat straight in his chair and waited for his turn, when Father would tell Mother how Loki's spear-work had improved -- a skill that emulated Father's own, and at which Thor remained laughably insufficient -- but it never came.
But still, Loki could not hate him, even if he didn't know if his feelings ran straight to love. Envy clouded everything, made it too difficult for Loki to parse, and the Centre didn't care about his emotional breakdowns.
A boy -- Loki didn't bother with their names or identifiers, as all were rude and loutish and beneath him, save for their physiques -- crowded Loki against the corner. "Hey runt," he said, a grin splitting his face from ear to ear, but sadly only in the metaphorical sense. Loki imagined doing it for real, but he wasn't allowed to use knives against other candidates, not yet. For now they practiced on dummies and the occasional animal carcass. Shipments of pigs from District Ten showed up by the truckload for them to work on their weaponry; their target practice could have fed all of District Twelve for three days, a thought that Loki pushed from his mind. Twelve was no longer his concern. One day, but not now.
Loki rolled his eyes. "How plebeian," he drawled, knowing it would only irritate the boy for not knowing its meaning. He could give a high-worded compliment and it would have the same effect. As always, ignorance was faced with bluster, rather than an attempt to capture and attain it for themselves.
"Whatever," the boy scoffed. Definitely done his first animal kill, if he didn't let Loki get to him. The others who hadn't, they tended to be more defensive, lash out quicker. This one had that air of smug confidence to him, and Loki's alarms blared in his head. "You sure you know how to use that spear? It looks pretty heavy for you. I could give you a hand."
Loki gave him a flat-eyed stare, eyeing him up as subtly as possible. This boy was bigger -- almost as big as Thor, though not quite -- and Loki still hadn't hit his growth spurt, so brute force wouldn't do the trick. He'd need something else. He glanced at the floor, at a tangle of rope, and followed it to where it looped around a hook on the wall. It was used to hold up a net full of weights, used to test upper-body strength. Perched on a ledge on the ceiling, trainers would add one weight at a time to the net while a candidate below struggled to hold it steady as long as possible.
The last person to use it had put things away improperly, missing one of the weights in his eagerness to move on to the next task. Not enough to kill someone -- not without a very precise hit -- but with the net behind it, could at least knock a boy over and stop his laughter for a while. Meanwhile Loki couldn't even be scolded for it, because he wouldn't have laid a hand on him, either in person or with a weapon. Anyone who saw would know his guilt, but the rules said nothing to forbade it.
He smiled. They never liked that, the boys who searched for fear in Odin's pet's face, and this one was no different. He scowled. "Yeah, I think that spear's too heavy for you," he said, and snatched it out of Loki's hands, held it up high. As if Loki would demean himself to jump for it. Honestly. For a thirteen, this boy hadn't much in the way of wits, or knowledge of human behaviour. Loki guessed he wouldn't make it through the training.
Loki edged sideways, hunching his shoulders in false submission. The boy grinned and advanced. Just a little more. Loki reached the rope and curled his fingers around it, as though using it for protection. The boy laughed. "Not so special now, are you, Odin's pet?" he grinned. "What are you going to do without your daddy here to save you?"
Father had never saved him from the bullies. Not once had he stepped in, or said a word, or so much as quelled another's mocking with the force of his glare. He'd stood by and watched it happen, studied Loki to see his response. For that, even if nothing else, Loki loved him.
"I suppose you'll have to see," Loki said, tightening his fingers on the rope and preparing to pull it free.
Thor leapt down from one of the climbing mazes on the ceiling, and Loki bit his tongue to stifle a curse. "What be this?" Thor demanded, dropping an arm around the other boy's shoulders, as companionable as an anaconda. He was still using that affected manner of speech that he'd picked up a few weeks back. It made Loki want to hit him.
"Just some fun," said the boy, and he didn't flinch in body, but Loki saw it in his mind.
Thor tilted his head and pretended to consider. "Doesn't look like fun. Looks like a waste of time. Should you not be attending heavy weapons training at the moment?"
"Shouldn't you?" the boy shot back, but he edged out from Thor's arm and dropped the spear with a clatter against the floor.
"I have finished," Thor said, unperturbed. He watched to make sure the boy had gone, then turned to Loki and shook his head. "One of these days, I will not be there," he said, blond eyebrows furrowing. "You should not antagonise them."
"I had it under control," Loki snapped, and shook off Thor's hand on his shoulder. "If you'd just stayed out of it, you would have seen."
Thor snorted. "Do I look a fool to you?" he asked, but without rancour. "Still, if that be your wish, next time I will sit back and watch you work."
Loki blew out his breath in a sigh of frustration, picking up the spear. "You should stop talking like that. You sound like an idiot."
"Father doesn't think so," Thor said, and his eyes glowed at the mention of their parent's praise. "He thinks it's perfect. It makes me memorable, and if I am memorable, the sponsors will fight over me."
Loki couldn't help but gape at him. "Are you serious? You're enormous, and son of Odin, besides. You really think some ridiculous diction is what's going to get you sponsors?"
Irritation flashed across Thor's face before he smoothed it away, the older, mature brother to the end. "Fine, I'll knock it off around you," he said, losing the deep rumble and reverting to his normal tone. "Happy now?"
"No," Loki grumped, but Thor only laughed and punched him in the shoulder. "You shouldn't treat me like a child," he insisted. "If you keep protecting me, that will only make them think I'm weak"
"So next time, enact your scheme before I get worried they're going to smash your skull in," Thor said, in the sort of tone that said he thought he was being perfectly reasonable. "I waited to see what you were doing, but you just hid behind that rope. I got worried. You have these elaborate tricks, I've seen them, but they take too much time. All this effort to set up traps when you could smash their skulls in with a rock."
"Now who's not worried about sponsors?" Loki countered. "I'm not a giant; I can't win them by looking like I stepped out of Careers Monthly. I have to use what skills I have, and while the appeal of intellect might escape you, dear brother, it is nevertheless useful."
Thor waved a hand. "You're never going to make it to Volunteer if you can't prove you can handle yourself without your tricks," he said. "But enough of this. What say you --" Loki cleared his throat, and Thor stopped. "Why don't we skip afternoon activities and go swimming?"
"We can't skip!" Loki protested, aghast. He didn't even want to know what sort of punishment that would incur, not that Thor ever seemed to think about that, given his position as Two's golden boy. No one in all of Loki's years had been as certain to be a Volunteer as Thor. He searched for something that might actually change Thor's mind. "We have nothing to swim in. Are you actually suggesting we go naked?"
"And why not?" Thor demanded, puffing out his chest and placing his hands on his hips. "We're youths in our prime! Nature should be honoured to see us thus."
Moments like those were exactly why Loki couldn't hate his brother, no matter what happened. He sniggered, pressing his hand over his mouth to catch the sounds before anyone heard. "You're mad," he said.
"Madly handsome, perhaps," Thor said, with a thirteen-year-old's breezy confidence. "Come, let's have fun. Everything's getting so serious. What are they going to do to Odin's sons, anyway? Scold us?"
"I should cut you both from the program right now," Father thundered, and Thor flinched. They both knew he didn't mean it, but even to speak the words brought the clouds of ill omen into the house. "What are you thinking? That you're above the rules, just because you're my sons? Just because you do well on your test scores? Because you're stronger, handsomer, or smarter?" He skewered them both with a glare; Loki had the fleeting thought that if he lifted his eye patch now, lasers would shoot forth from the empty socket and kill them both.
"I'm sorry, Father," Thor said, but Odin waved him off with the same unconcern that Thor had done their imaginary punishments.
"I want obedience, not apologies!" Father roared. "Any fool can snivel and grovel, but only a true soldier does what is asked of him at all times. Do you understand that? The Capitol wants tributes who understand their responsibilities, not ones who shirk, and that is exactly what the Capitol deserves! Do you honestly think I will let you sail through just because of your lineage? I will not hesitate to cast you out the same as I would any disobedient brat who doesn't know what has been given to him."
He got himself under control with visible effort, straightening out his shoulders and taking a long breath. "My sons, there is no shame in being cut from the program because someone is better. Of course, I want my sons to succeed and carry on our legacy, but if you don't make it for those reasons, I would never shun you. However. If you're so stupid as to flout authority and make yourselves unsuitable, I swear to you, you will never set foot in my house ever again."
Loki's ears burned. Part of him wanted to protest -- it hadn't been his idea, and he had tried to counsel Thor against it -- but he knew he deserved the abuse just as much as Thor. He could have refused, instead of going along; he could have told Thor no, and stayed at the Centre like a good soldier. His failing was just as strong as Thor.
"You shouldn't chastise Loki, Father," Thor said, and Loki nearly gasped at the risk. "It was my fault. I urged him on."
"With a knife to his throat, I suppose, hm?" Father said, giving Loki a shrewd stare. "Loki. Even if my other son is too foolish and secure in his own bloodline to see it, you, at least, should understand that favour is precarious, and can be snatched away at any time. I took a risk with you, and would not wish to see it proven false by your mischief."
"Still, the fault is mine!" Thor broke in.
Father rounded on him. "Then you, as elder, must bear your punishment!" he snarled. "For as the older, and the one with the blood connection to me, you must know that any of your shared transgressions will reflect the worse on him. If you lead him astray, it will be he who bears the consequences, not you. Your punishment is to know that you nearly cost your brother the life he worked so hard to earn. If you are so willing to reap the consequences on yourself, then you shall have them."
Loki trembled, and even Thor paled. But as a summer thunderstorm, Father's rage abated, replaced by weariness. "Out of my sight!" he commanded, turning away. "I tire of your foolishness. You're excused from this evening's training, since it seems so odious to you."
Both boys flinched at that. It was the same as when the trainers allowed a struggling candidate to rest while the others ran laps; it was not a kindness, but rather a public nod to the candidate's weakness. Not everyone understood that. Loki did.
"I'm sorry," Thor said to Loki, who just shook his head. "I really didn't think we'd get in trouble."
Loki barked out a laugh. "I know. But maybe you should be careful, brother, or one day you'll wind up in the Arena with a knife in your eye, because you didn't really think you could die."
Thor said nothing for a long time after that.
Four Years Later
Everyone knew when a fourteen came back from their kill test. Even if Thor hadn't bragged about his upcoming for at least a week beforehand, Loki would have known when he returned, silent and shaken, eschewing conversation and friends in favour of sitting with the others who'd gone through theirs. They huddled together, not speaking, until gradually, the others in their year joined them.
Loki couldn't understand why. They'd all killed animals beforehand, but Loki took no pleasure in that. What honour, what glory came from murdering something incapable of thought or speech or reason, no matter how large or vicious? Had they put him in a room with a lion and no weapons, he could not have felt much satisfaction in the victory. But people, now -- to match wits against the pinnacle of evolution -- that was something different. He wanted to know how it felt, to watch the life slip from another thinking creature's face, to watch the thought processes dim as the film slid over the eyes.
Loki was the last in his year to have his kill test, and he chafed at it. He had no friends in his group, so their withdrawal didn't bother him, but it chafed him to wait. He knew there had to be a reason, that the trainers did everything with a purpose in mind, but he could not fathom it this time. Surely there could be no crime in eagerness, in straining to catch any tidbit from the mouths of those who'd done it, as few as they were.
"He pissed himself," said one. "I smelled it on me for days. Even after I showered until my fingers wrinkled."
"She didn't even scream. She just looked at me."
"He tried to beg. It was disgusting. I couldn't even feel proud -- if he'd fought me, maybe. But he tried to bribe me to let him go. How am I supposed to feel with that?"
Loki drank in every detail. Each day that passed with him untested rankled until he felt it like an open wound -- but then, at last, he understood. They left him for last because they wanted him to impress them. After seeing his entire year, they would not be satisfied with knives or rocks or spears, or even tricks and traps. From Loki they required something greater, and by making him wait, they were giving him the chance -- and increasing the pressure -- to do so.
In a music recital, the first performer must be good, to set the bar, but the final one must be a virtuoso.
And so, when they dropped him in the corralled-off forest with no weapons or anything to guide him, Loki didn't run, or search. He picked dead twigs from the ground and built a fire, then covered it with a thin layer of green leaves and fresh shoots to set off smoke, and waited.
They'd chosen an impressive target for him. A physique that would make Thor feel the need to hit the weight machines for a few days, fists the size of Loki's head, and a number of improvised tattoos -- including a crosshatch that Loki guessed was either number of murders or times in a penitentiary.
No surprise there -- a candidate's target was always chosen to have a direct relation to the candidate's weakness. Always convicted criminals, of course, to keep things humane, but beyond that, they were always picked to be the most difficult for the candidate to overcome. Thor's, Loki had finally pried from him, had been a woman, raped and impregnated in prison, promised freedom for herself and a home for her baby if she managed to kill Thor and survive. No matter how much Loki pressed, Thor refused to tell how he'd killed her.
No snivelling sympathy-grubbers for Loki; anyone who watched him as much as the trainers did would know he'd have no compunctions about that. No, for Loki, his weakness was the same as it had always been -- his size. In any battle, Loki must always have the upper hand, because once he lost that, he would be finished. His tricks wouldn't save him with a three hundred pound wall of muscle crushing his chest.
His target rushed out of the trees, clutching a knife that looked small in his hand but which was half the size of Loki's forearm. He stopped short when he saw that Loki wasn't running, eyes darting about for traps, and he actually stopped, rather than charging. Interesting. They'd chosen someone with at least the minimum allotment of active brain cells. Well, all the better.
"Hello," Loki said, giving the man a pleasant smile. The man winced. "You're a murderer, I suspect."
The man shifted his grip on his knife and didn't say anything, but adjusted his weight so he could dash forward or back, whatever the situation required. Loki continued. "Judging by the number of tattoos -- not professionally done, those -- I'm guessing you were slated for execution at this point. I suppose they've promised you immunity if you kill me?" The man said nothing, but the muscles next to his eye twitched. Loki nodded. "I thought so. You do know they're lying."
The man didn't answer. Loki saw him gauging the situation, looking to see if Loki was talking in order to stall him while something else happened. Yes, this was an appropriate enemy indeed. He must remember to thank them later.
"You're a convicted criminal, likely on death row. They're not about to let you out on the streets with a new identity because you've killed a child," Loki said, using a reasonable tone. "Especially not the son of Odin."
This time, the man flinched hard enough that Loki saw it. Loki smiled. "They didn't tell you that, I suppose. I'm Odin's younger son. I don't think you're getting out of here, whether I kill you or not. I know desperation can make a man forget, but you need to remember this. People lie, especially when you have something they want. Even our lords and masters -- especially them." He paused, tilted his head to the side. "I suppose I could be lying. I might not be Odin's son. But either way, I don't think it matters. How many times have you heard about someone being released because they defeated a candidate? The answer is never, because it never happens. But people play along and buy into it, because the fiction is better than the reality -- that there is no easy way out. No magic wand to erase your mistakes and give you the chance to start over."
The man growled, and Loki watched his feet to see which way his weight would be leaning when he charged. Loki still straggled behind many of the others in sheer physical prowess, but he practiced martial arts that allowed him to use the other's power and body weight against him. Even Thor, who fought low to the ground, couldn't always avoid Loki throwing him when they sparred -- it happened rarely, but when it did, Loki couldn't keep the grin off his face for hours.
Child's play, really. A grip of the wrist, a shift in balance, a step this way, and the man was on the ground with a broken wrist and Loki's foot against his windpipe. "I'm going to offer you a proposition," Loki said, and the whole time he kept his tone conversational. The man struggled, but Loki had his knife. It wasn't a foregone conclusion, of course -- the man could still throw him off -- but Loki made allowance for the possibility even as he discounted it.
"The unfortunate thing for you is, I have to make this look good," Loki said. "It needs to be entertaining. Any fool can kill, but not everyone can make it interesting for the audience, and we all know that's what the Games are about. You're a killer; I'm sure you understand. So when I kill you, it can't be a merciful death. That's not memorable, or interesting. I'll have to make it take a long time, and inflict as much pain as possible." The man's eyes were wide, panicked, but he didn't have the desperate look of someone about to make a last rush for survival. He'd accepted the inevitability of death, but feared the means.
"Or." Loki paused, giving the word weight. "Or, I return your knife to you, and let you end yourself quickly. If you make a mistake, I promise that in this case, I will finish the job without preamble. The choice is yours. We can spend the next few hours together, learning how much blood a person your size can lose before losing consciousness -- how much pain he can stand if he has no vocal cords left to scream -- or you can give yourself the easy way out. I promise you this, I am not lying. It's not a trick."
Loki removed his foot, backed up, and tossed the knife down. The man lurched to a sitting position and stared at the weapon. "I suggest the femoral artery," Loki said. "If you get it, you should bleed out in less than two minutes. Though if that's not fast enough, you could strike here --" he indicated a spot in his abdomen, beneath the ribcage -- "and aim upward. You would hit the heart or lungs without having to go through bone."
The man's breath heaved. Loki lowered his voice, gentling his tone. "It's a good death," he said. "An honourable one. Many ancient cultures considered this to be the ultimate glory for a warrior. There's no shame in it."
Maybe not in ancient cultures, but definitely in Two. One or two tributes had gone insane and taken themselves out, and their names were the only ones not on the Wall in the Centre -- though their absence spoke volumes, and ensured that their stories would always be told, albeit in hushed whispers. But no point in mentioning that.
The man picked up the knife. Loki nodded. "I swear to you, if you miss I will end it quickly," he vowed, and let the man hear the truth in his voice.
He didn't miss. Loki watched him thrash and sputter for a few moments, before jerking still. Only then did Loki lean forward, dip his fingers in the pooling blood, and rub his fingers together. He sat back and waited for the hovercraft to pick him up.
"All our candidates are dangerous. If they weren't, they wouldn't be here."
"Not that kind of dangerous. You know what I mean. He sees too much."
"We're not just interested in raising drones, you know. And we have his loyalty -- without us, he'd be digging in the mines in Twelve. He'll never forget that. We should be grateful, really. It shows that he sees what's behind the curtain, but he's not disillusioned by it. If anything, it's encouraging."
"He killed a man without touching him -- he convinced a serial murderer who'd been promised acquittal to kill himself. He told him we lie. You really think that's encouraging?"
"Well, maybe. We'll have to watch him."
"Believe me, we are."
"That was impressive," said Loki's trainer, when he returned. He didn't look impressed, his arms folded and lips thinned. "Unfortunately, it wasn't what we asked you to do."
Loki frowned. "Was it not entertaining enough?" he asked. He couldn't believe that. A man that size, taking his own life when faced with a teenager who only came up to his chest? Surely if that had been televised, the audiences would have been craning forward in their seats and fighting for the better viewpoint.
"Oh, it was entertaining, all right," the trainer said. "But we also need to see that you know how to kill yourself, not just convince others to do it. You might get away with that once or twice in the Arena, but not forever. You need to show us you can handle yourself in a fight you can't talk your way out of. You'll have to take your kill test again, and this time, show us you can do it right."
That made sense, but Loki still burned at the injustice of it. He'd done something no other candidate had managed to do in the history of District Two. "Yes, sir," he said.
He didn't intend to take the kill test again. The other candidates, they would hear about it and think that he failed, that his opponent nearly defeated him, or perhaps fell on his own knife or over a cliff by accident. They already whispered when Loki didn't return from his test pale and withdrawn. He needed to show them, to show everyone, that he could do it.
The next day, during training, they paired Loki against a much larger boy, one who had tormented him in the past, and enjoyed taking the smaller candidates down. During their sparring, Loki watched him, studied his movements, the way he stepped, how he balanced. When the boy lunged, Loki adjusted for it, and got his hand under the other's chin.
The snap and ensuing thud reverberated through the training room. Loki stepped back, letting the medics and trainers run forward to check the corpse, and looked up to where he knew the camera watched him. He narrowed his eyes at the lens, then smiled.
"Now do you believe me? The boy is dangerous. He's too smart, too self-sufficient. He's more interested in showing off than obeying the rules. We need to bring him in."
"What about his brother? If anyone exemplifies that last one, it's Thor."
"Thor didn't kill another candidate to prove a point."
"Still. Thor is cocky and thinks he knows better than his trainers. He deliberately ignores orders if he thinks his plans will work better, whether they do or not. He's far more interested in bringing honour and glory to Thor than to District Two, let alone Panem. But we can't scrub both of Odin's sons. There'd be a riot."
"We won't have to. Thor is rash, but if we tell him how close he is, he'll smarten up. His problem is he thinks nothing can touch him; once we take that illusion away, he'll be fine. But Loki -- I don't think there's any way we can use him. He's too intractable. There's no indication that he wants to serve the Capitol."
"He wants the Capitol to love him."
"That's not the same, and you know it."
"If we cut him, we'll lose him, and I don't want to think what will happen then. He's not going to be satisfied with a Peacekeeper job."
"No. We'll need to be careful with this one. I don't think it would take much to drive him insane. I'm half-convinced he's there already."
"Insanity can be useful."
"Only if you can control it. We want precision grenades, and he's a nuclear bomb. I'm not convinced he wouldn't tear the Capitol down if he thought we treated him unfairly. He might think he loves us, but it's conditional. That's not what we need."
"Fine. But you're in charge of finding a way to do it without setting him off."
In spite of everything he'd done, Loki was not stupid. He didn't expect a commendation for his actions, and when he was called in to see Director Fury and the others, he didn't expect an award and a standing ovation.
At the same time, he didn't expect to be faced with a line of all the trainers and the heads of the Centre, either, with one single seat in the middle reserved for him. Loki sat, and for the first time in years, fear beat in his chest.
"Loki," Director Fury began, and just that word carried the weight of a thousand reprimands. "This is going to be difficult."
Uh-oh. Loki's chest contracted. He looked at Father, but Father merely stared at him, impassive, and revealed nothing. Most of the other trainers averted their eyes. Fury winced, as though he had to work himself up to speaking. "Loki, we've made a decision, and in the light of your actions, and in reviewing your files, we've decided you are not fit to take the place of Volunteer."
Loki leaned back in his chair so fast he nearly toppled it over. "What?" he demanded, though he knew the proper answer was to be silent. "Why? I've done everything you asked me."
Several exchanged glances at that. "The fact that you feel the need to contradict us is perhaps the best contraindication of your becoming a Volunteer," said one. "You're a little too in love with yourself, for one."
Loki clenched his jaw. "I wish for nothing but to bring honour and glory to my district, and to the Capitol," he said, parroting the motto.
"But will you serve it?" Fury asked him, eyes hard. Loki's hesitation lasted less than a second, but it was enough. The others sat back in their chairs, and several slumped their shoulders. "We're not releasing you from the program," Fury continued. "We want you to continue to train. We think you could be an invaluable asset to the Centre, as a teacher and strategist. You could help other candidates a great deal."
"I don't want that," Loki said, even as his mind screamed at him to stop, to take their offer with the gratitude he knew a loyal servant of the Capitol would do. "I want --"
"To show the world you deserve to be here. We know." Fury nodded. "And you do, because you are here. There are other ways to bring honour than being a Victor. You can do great things. Look at this as an opportunity to do something more with yourself."
Loki stood up, the chair clattering against the floor. "I'm sorry," he said. "I -- I can't." He turned and ran from the room, unable to see what expression sat on Father's face.
A failure. He was a failure -- except not, because others failed because they couldn't meet the demands. Loki had met them, exceeded them, and they feared him. Loki failed because he had become too great for the cage that housed him.
On his way back to his room, he ran through the lounge -- or tried to. The room was packed with candidates, whooping and clapping each other on the back. With a jolt, Loki knew what had happened: this year's Volunteer had been posted.
Loki pushed through the throng, his stomach heaving. He knew what he'd see on the paper, knew which name would be scrawled there. Still, he needed to see. Needed to sink the knife into his breast himself.
Volunteer, female: Wanda Maximoff
Volunteer, male: Thor Odinson
The scream built in Loki's throat, and once the door closed behind him, he let it loose. He knew they watched him, even here -- nowhere in the Centre was free from cameras -- but he didn't care. He ripped the blanket from his bed, hurled the single pillow against the wall. The chair soon followed; the bed and small desk toppled to the side. Everything that could be removed and hurled, Loki did, until his room lay in shambles.
Still, it was not enough. Since they hadn't barred him from the Centre like most of the washouts he still had access to the training rooms -- he could throw weights until his arms turned to lead, tear the training dummies to ribbons -- but he couldn't bear to go back there. Not anymore. Not when every candidate would know that Loki had failed, that he would never be a Victor. Those in Thor's year still had the ghost of a chance -- Thor might be killed, he might drown in his field test, might break a leg climbing the stairs on Reaping Day. Loki had none, and they would know it.
Fists hammered at his door. Loki ignored the distraction, smashing his lamp against the wall until it exploded into a thousand fragments. The door swung open, and in the entrance stood the last person Loki wanted to see.
"Have you gone mad?" Thor demanded, gawking at the mess. His friends gaped at Loki from behind him. Loki crossed the room, crunching on broken glass, and tugged Thor inside, slamming the door. "Do you want to get sent back to Twelve?" Thor asked him.
"Don't speak to me." Loki shook with rage. His mind darted about the room, cataloguing every available weapon, every piece of glass big enough to jam into Thor's eye. At the same time, he knew he didn't have enough control of himself to land a blow, not now. "Don't even open your mouth. Already they've broken their promises to me. They told me no one would know I'd been cut, but they obviously told you. You wouldn't be here if you hadn't heard."
Thor only shrugged, damn him. "I'm your brother -- of course they told me. They were worried you wouldn't handle it well, and I have to say they're right!" His expression softened into something like anguish. "I can't believe it. They must still be willing to change their minds, or surely they wouldn't keep you here. It can be undone."
"It won't be." Loki let out the ghost of a laugh. "I do my job to well for them, it seems. They want us to kill, but only on their terms. I think they're afraid of me."
"I'm afraid of you!" Thor cried, and gripped Loki's shoulders with his massive hands. "Please, brother. Loki. You must calm yourself. This isn't the end."
"What, you think if I ask nicely, they'll reconsider?" Loki asked, acid on his tongue.
"No." Thor took a deep breath. "But they might, if I do."
Loki froze. Thor saw that as encouragement, for he continued, words tumbling over each other in excitement. "I'm the Volunteer. They'll listen to me. If I tell them I wish you to have a second chance -- if I tell them how important it is to me, they'll change their minds. I'm sure of it. I can help you. I could go right now, if you like, before the others have the chance to hear --"
The force of Loki's shout actually drove Thor backward a step. "What --" Thor began, but Loki cut him off with a wordless scream.
"I didn't ask for your pity, and I don't want your help!" Loki searched for something small enough to throw but large enough to bruise; everything had been smashed to pieces. He balled his fists and bit back tears. "The last thing I want is the scraps from your table. Get out! Get out and never speak of this again!"
Thor opened his mouth, but Loki lunged at him, and he made a hasty exit. Once the door closed again, Loki collapsed and gave himself over to furious sobs. Thor didn't understand -- how could he? He'd never lost anything in his life. He'd made the cut. He would go on to be Volunteer, to Tribute, to Victor. Anything but a freak act of the Gamemakers could cut him down, and they'd never do it. Thor would never understand the sting of loss, of failure, the weight of inevitability and his own insignificance while another took the stage --
Wait. Loki stopped crying with enough force to make him choke. Wait.
Just like that, Loki knew what he must do.
He should have known it would fail. If the gods existed, Thor sat firmly in their favour while Loki cringed in the shadows. Loki had only half-expected his attempt to succeed, but with nothing left to lose, he'd had to try anyway. Even the slightest chance of victory meant a lifetime of peace for him, no matter if he saw it for the next twenty years from a prison cell, or for the next few days before execution. It didn't matter.
Except that he didn't expect it to fail so spectacularly.
With his assured status as Volunteer, Thor's training went into overdrive. The next week he took his field test, a mock Games with everything except other tributes; in this game, the volunteer fought against the creation of Gamemakers, the elements, and the body -- starvation, dehydration, exhaustion. Before the test, Loki broke in to the command centre and looked at the parameters of the test, searching for something he could use. It didn't take him long to find it.
A river, covered over in ice, which Thor would have to cross at some point during the games. Each candidate had to endure cold-water tests, plunged beneath the ice to see if they could survive the shock, but that had been in controlled conditions. This time, Thor would be alone, and no one would pull him out if he struggled. If they did, that meant he failed. His Volunteer status would be revoked.
Loki picked the lock to the room where Thor would be permitted to change before taking the hovercraft to his destination. It didn't take him long to split the lining of the jumpsuit and sew in weights along the hem, the kind the trainers made candidates wear in ankle or wrist bands during laps. Thor wouldn't even notice when he put them on -- or if he did, he would assume it part of the test.
The next part would be more difficult. Loki threw himself into a fine sulk in the days before the test, so that no one would question if he refused to watch the footage with the others. The morning of, Loki sneaked outside and into the hovercraft while the preparations were made elsewhere, lugging a bag of salt that he'd stolen from the kitchens. Yes, he knew this was ridiculous, that anyone watching would think him a madman -- but the time for sanity had passed.
The hovercraft dropped Thor into the testing grounds, then lifted back off. With the cameras all trained on Thor, Loki waited until it began its ascent, and tumbled out the door before it closed. He landed cleanly, albeit with a thud hard enough to jar the breath from his lungs, but no matter. He'd memorized the layout of the testing area, and he ran. Sooner or later Thor would find the river. The Gamemakers would make him cross it -- they wouldn't have put it there if they didn't intend so. Thor hated swimming, and he hated ice; they would not be able to resist the challenge.
Thor didn't find it for days. Loki hadn't brought any food with him, but no matter -- what was the gnawing in his belly over the chance to see Thor fail? He sucked chips of ice to slake his thirst and waited. At last, Loki was rewarded with the yelping of mutts, and he knew the time had come. The Gamemakers would use the mutts to force Thor to cross the river. Judging by the sound, he had several minutes to complete his task.
The cameras would see him, of course, but the Gamemakers would not; they would be trained on Thor, manipulating every angle. They wouldn't waste time looking at random locales. Loki slid the bag across the ice; it crackled, but held, and he crawled out on his belly. He withdrew his knife and slit the bag along its seam, then dumped the salt and spread it with his hands. The ice bubbled, and water began to seep up.
The mutts howled closer, and Loki bared his teeth in a smile. He shifted to get out of the way --
-- and the ice gave out from under him.
Loki had dressed for the cold -- he wasn't the one being filmed, after all -- and his coat dragged him down. The cold knocked the breath from his lungs, and he thanked his training for the ability to stop himself from gasping in reflex, filling his lungs. He fought to clamber upward, but the current had swept him to the side, and his quickly-numbing fingers scraped the underside of the ice. He couldn't find the opening. His lungs burned.
A hand closed about his wrist. A voice roared in his ears. The ice creaked and cracked, then the world tumbled all around him as Thor dropped into the water with him, the weights Loki had so carefully sewn dragging him down.
But Loki had underestimated his brother. He tore the soaked fabric and let it sink without him, and with one hand he pulled himself free, dragging Loki up with him. Loki, shivering, palsied, impotent, shook while Thor pulled them both to safety along the bank.
"Have you gone mad?" Thor demanded. Water dripped from his hair, slowly freezing. Steam rose from his chest into the chill air. "What were you doing? Why are you here?"
Loki couldn't respond. His teeth chattered too hard to allow him to speak -- and even so, his shame ate at him until nothing remained. He'd failed. He'd failed, and Thor had saved him. He knew, then, what he'd been too stupid, to blind to see: that he'd been observed, and permitted in this indulgence. They'd allowed it to see how Thor would respond. Thor had saved him, which wouldn't earn him high marks -- no one saved another tribute, for any reason -- but even that was little consolation.
Thor pushed Loki away from him in disgust. "I have a test to win," he said, and jabbed a finger at the sky, where a hovercraft already descended. "Go home." Away he ran, half-naked, and Loki knew he would win.
They beat him for his insubordination, but Loki didn't even feel it. Nothing they could do would erase the feeling of Thor's fingers around his wrist, hauling him from the water into a pit of never-ending shame. After they beat him, they pulled him in and told him he was officially released, but that they would still find him employment, if he so chose. A second chance.
Loki spat directly in Director Fury's face.
"Brother. Don't do this."
Father hadn't come to the station to see him off. No one had. Thor had even been forbidden from going himself, but, assured of his own invincibility to the very end, he'd come anyway. Loki would give anything to see his brother lying twisted and broken at his feet. Would, and had. Not that Thor would understand until the morning of the Reaping.
"It's already done, brother," Loki spat. "Crawl back to Father, to your precious Centre. Whatever bond we had is gone. Remember that."
Thor's face screwed up in agony. He actually believed the lies, that he and Loki shared something deeper than blood. Well, then. "Can you ever forgive me?"
Loki stared him down until Thor, the Golden God, dropped his gaze. "You know the answer to that, I think," Loki said.
"Still!" Thor wiped a hand across his eyes. He could weep, and no one would think him any weaker for it. It only drove the ice deeper into Loki's heart. "You don't have to do this. You don't have to go, leave everything behind. You could stay here. Father would find you a job, a good one. You could be a trainer, or even work as a Director one day."
"Enough!" Loki thundered. The word that Father so often used on him, the one that Thor would no doubt grow up to use once he had his Victory and placed himself on a pedestal that Loki would never have the chance to climb. "What's done is done. Just know this, brother -- what Father said to us as children holds true. It is your fault that I leave here, your fault that I have lost everything that was rightly mine. Know that, and never forget."
"Boarding now!" the conductor called, and Loki stepped back. He brought nothing with him, just as he had all those years ago.
"Farewell," Loki said, and curled his lips in a smile. "Take care of yourself. This will not be the last time we meet. I promise you that."
"I still love you, brother!" Thor called out, and Loki flinched. "I always will!"
"In that, you are alone," Loki said, and turned away. His hands trembled, and he slammed a fist against the carriage wall.
They expected him to crawl back in disgrace, and surely, Loki met with jeers rather than ovations as he stepped off the train. Loki held his head high and walked past them like the insignificant maggots they were. What could they do, toss coal dust in his face? He'd grown up in the Seam. He knew how to work with lungs full of rock and ash and not cough, to save it until he could hack up the dark gunk from the depths of his chest in private. A god should not have to deal with such things, but at the same time, a god could be expected to overcome his trials with dignity.
The mocking did not last long, as Loki predicted. The denizens of Twelve had too little energy after their days in the mines to devote much time to active alienation. He gave Twelve credit for one thing, and one thing only: these were a people who understood what it meant to bend their backs under the yoke of another. If they did not like the taste of servitude, it was only because their noses filled with soot. When Loki won, when he changed everything, they would understand, and they would kneel. Oh, they would kneel, and thank him for it.
"What happened, couldn't cut it in the big city?" one boy sneered. Loki took a full second to blink as he regarded the boy, but the boy's mental processes were too enfeebled, too weakened by the lack of oxygen as he spent day after day underground, to take the warning. "Couldn't kill after all, I guess?"
"On the contrary," Loki said, the tones of his cultivated District Two accent like velvet over the boy's unsophisticated flat vowels and sharp consonants. He smiled, and the boy flinched behind his dirt-ground skin. Loki reached over and placed a hand on the boy's shoulder, friendly, and squeezed. Squeezed, and pushed, until the sickening pop and crunch of bone disconnecting from socket filled his ears, sweet as strings wafting through an empty concert hall. He missed the entertainment. "I killed too many, too soon. They worried I would not mind the leash if they let me loose, and turn on my masters."
The boy collapsed to his knees, writhing in pain with tears smearing the grime on his cheeks, and Loki's smile widened. Yes, kneeling looked good on Twelve. Very good indeed.