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All the ghouls come out to play

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He smells a storm brewing, a thickness to the air that slows his breathing. Flinging the windows open he closes his eyes and feels the wind whip against his skin. It's natural, not conjured, he can tell, and still he imagines the thrum of Mjölnir contained within restless palms.

Electricity gathers at the base of his spine and he savors the sweetness, its uncanny resemblance to his magic (no, no longer his), coiling and tightening before it strikes. He reaches out with his hands, flexes his fingers, and then hisses a little at the pain, withdrawing them quickly. He stares at the bandages, still white and pristine, freshly changed. The last had been soaked through, the wounds refusing to heal. Fragile, mortal wounds confirming his exile (finite in length, in that he would seek solace).

He recalls Thor's rumble of distress, tightly knitted brows as he rewrapped raw, bloodied fingers, gently, patiently. He wonders if Thor means to repair him or rend him to dust, scattered to the winds of his storms.

"I let you go once, brother, and it is a mistake I will not repeat."

The sentiment was a poison in his blood that needed to be sucked and spat out. But for a moment he had let it run unhindered to a heart that no longer felt like his own, heavier and clumsier than he was used to.

"Sentiment. It always causes far more trouble than it's worth." He'd said at last, careful to avoid Thor's eyes, imagining they would make him yield in a way that his words could not.

*

There are no longer guards at his door. The keypad is replaced with an ordinary lock accessible from both inside and out. None of it is meant to suggest they trust him, he knows (he would not trust him), but they're assured he's human now, only capable of inflicting minimal damage.

He's edging his door open, craving company, Thor's inane chatter detailing the wonders of Midgard, when he hears Thor's laughter, a honeyed sound that weighs down his eyelids.

"It's good to hear you are well, Jane. I wondered if you still preoccupy yourself with chasing thunderstorms and rescuing strange men."

Loki slips away unnoticed, through the front door and down the street before he remembers he has no shoes. His bare feet collect the city's perpetual grime and he walks on.

He takes slow, aimless steps as he watches mortals in their haste to tend to their affairs, as if their lives amount to more than a fleck of ash on the immense, ever-reaching branches of Yggdrasil. He is disgusted by their ignorance. Envious of it, something traitorous in him whispers. Even standing as one of them now he feels himself an imposter. His bones ache for home, for fertile valleys and immaculate towers of gold.

I loved you as my own, yet you have made a mockery of me, of all that I have gifted you. You are no longer worthy of your name or of this realm.

He craves a drink to quell the thoughts (the fear he let slip what he had all along, and the one mind he had succeeded in tricking was his own). When he finds one, he takes it down in three swallows and motions for another. The place is loud, the voices grating. Tension builds and throbs at his temples. He makes a move to silence them with a twist of his hand, clamp down on their throats and squeeze until he feels their pulses quicken then slow, like the stags he and Thor hunted for the feasts of Odin. Then he remembers he has no power; he has nothing.

His awareness is suspended for a moment, thoughts dark and viscous. Somewhere there's the sound of isolated thunder. He breaks a bottle and presses the broken edges against a pale quivering neck, eliciting pleas, then screams. The air stinks with terror and chaos.

A fist slams into his jaw and he's hurtled backwards, shattering glass and splintering wood. He tastes his own blood, unremarkable, and realizes that he hesitated. The man he restrained is already gone, to tell anyone who will listen how narrowly he had escaped death.

He lashes out with a fist and watches the red spread through his bandages. He understands now, why Thor looked so different when they met on the Bifrost. The woman wasn't the reason. No, it was a fragment of his short-lived humanity that had embedded itself in his heart, a fragment that to this day he has been unable to shake off and bury. Loki knows it now because he feels it staying his hand, making him weak.

And then Thor storms in, flashing brute strength and wielding Mjölnir, as if there's something to save. One of his beloved mortals crying for a hero. Loki would call it arrogance, but then he would be lying.

"Brother." For a moment the God of Thunder looks defeated. "I must take you back."

Those had been the terms of their agreement with Fury. Thor keeps his brother in his sights or Fury would have his way, and Loki is far from stupid. It isn't a matter of freedom, but of self-preservation. He's seen the gleam in Fury's good eye and it screams of vengeance. He would rather suffer Thor's condescension, his compassion, than be made the spoils of war, bent to the will of mortals.

This time when they return, Thor leaves clean bandages by his bedside and leaves without a word. He ignores them for the time being and stands by the window, leaving a smear of red across the glass as he pretends to summon the rain.

*

On days when Thor's thoughts weigh on him too heavily he walks into Banner's lab and chooses an empty chair to occupy. He watches the human play with his machines, conjure illusions and then swipe them away, a kind of magic both foreign and familiar. It's the motions that put him at ease, and the sureness in Banner's hands.

"How's your brother?"

The question is always the same but its sincerity never fails to confound him.

"You know, I always feel bad about the pummeling the other guy gave him. Until I remember how many people he killed and maimed and otherwise tried to enslave."

"He hasn't been--well. Not since he discovered--" Thor still doesn't understand why this truth, of all truths in the cosmos, matters so dearly. They may not be brothers by blood, but they are still brothers; his heart tells him so. "If only you could know him as he was. Mischievous, quick to laugh. And charming. He always knew the words to appease Father when we caused too much trouble."

"Charming Loki, huh? Hard to imagine."

He studies Banner for a moment, who looks a little less weary than when they first met.

"Why do you not hate him as the others do? They pretend to tolerate him for my sake, but I am not blind. I know how much they wish that I would give him up."

"I never said I don't," Banner says plainly. "I just know a thing or two about demons."

It's the manner in which he utters the word that makes Thor understand. He's seen these demons in Loki, grotesque, elusive forms that shadow his brother's eyes, hounding and haunting. They are what make him fear, above all else, that a day may come when he will look upon his brother and be met with something wholly unrecognizable. And he would have Loki despise him, renounce their brotherhood a thousand times over, than know that day.

"Then you pity him." He curls his fingers into a fist against the table and wars with his own anger. The blame lies on their Father, on him, that Loki has been reduced to this. An inglorious sentiment fit only for insignificant men.

"Doesn't really matter what I think, does it?"

Thor can neither affirm or deny it.

"Blaming yourself won't help him, you know. You can't fight his demons for him."

It's a truth that roils in his gut and makes him wonder what else he could do if he could not fight, if he could not bring Mjölnir crashing down upon the foes that have already pulled his brother so far from his reach.

He seeks out Loki after leaving Banner to his experiments. When he enters Loki's chambers, situated in the far west wing of Stark's tower, he finds his brother in his usual place at the window, looking to the sky.

"How are your hands?"

Loki remains motionless, transfixed by some sight in the distance. Only the flex and curl of his fingers give any indication that he's heard Thor's inquiry.

"They are of no use to me now. What does it matter?"

Thor cannot bring himself to say what he truly thinks. That he has always thought Loki's hands extraordinary, the length and shape of them, and the beauty (the terror) they have wrought. He remembers when they were children, laying in the summer grass past their bedtime, Loki would tell his stories of kings and beasts, his hands in perpetual motion as they conjured visions of glory. (He remembers the men they've slain without compunction, the blood they carry.)

He reaches out and Loki flinches away, sensing his proximity, finally turning to him.

"Why do you care so much when I have given you every reason to despise me?" The shadows cast by the day's waning light shift in secret, sinister shapes through Loki's eyes.

"I could never despise you."

Loki smiles widely, baring teeth and malice.

"I think sometimes about how it would have ended had I won. I had plans for each of your friends, oh yes. I would have started with the iron man first, silenced his incessant chatter by crushing his metal heart under my boot and then seeing how far he could fly without his suit of armor. As for the captain, I would have kept him, sent him to teach the humans exactly what freedom buys them. His stars and stripes splattered with the blood of his brothers. You have to admit it's a compelling--"

Thor moves without warning and pins Loki against the nearest wall, a hand around his throat to silence his taunts.

"Do not push me, brother," he warns, squeezing until Loki chokes and gags and he remembers that his brother is mortal now (yet still dangerous with his words that seek to start another war). He eases his grasp before allowing his hand to fall limply to his side.

Loki heaves in a breath, nearly doubled over, and then starts to laugh. It's a hollow, inhuman sound devoid of mirth that leaves Thor shaken.

"Have I struck a nerve?" Loki rasps, rubbing a hand across his throat that's certain to show bruising come morning. "I need not guess where your loyalties truly lie. Tell me, brother, is it your pity or your guilt that keeps me alive? I am only a burden to you now, a nuisance you can easily cast off. You know as well as I the humans feel slighted by our arrangement. Why deny them their justice?"

The centuries they've spent together have done nothing to diminish the efficacy of Loki's words, their power to wound, and the accuracy with which they strike. Thor feels them drawing blood.

"You are my brother." You are mine. The thought startles him, then surges through his limbs carrying a heat so vicious and bright that his breath shudders within him. Whatever wrongs Loki has committed, the wreckage he has strewn, he remains Thor's to keep.

Loki narrows his eyes and then offers a smile shaded with mischief, darker and crueler than Thor has ever seen it.

"You do not wish to see me punished and defiled. Not by their hands. No, you wish to take it upon yourself, for it is your brotherly duty, is it not? To hurt me, break me, make me cry out for more--"

"No." Thor moves quickly and takes Loki's wrist in one hand, tightens his hold until the bones dig into his flesh (he feels how fragile they are and still he can't let go).

Loki hisses in pain, but remains unnervingly still.

"Your actions would suggest otherwise." The triumph in his eyes makes Thor drop his hand as if he's been burned. And suddenly he's weary of the games they play, of the clever words with which Loki veils his intentions, and of his own failure to rid his brother of the poison infiltrating his heart.

This time his hand settles against the curve of Loki's neck, thumb grazing the steady pulse point, and for a moment he sees a flaw in Loki's scheme, one that could raze his brother's defenses to the ground if he only applied the right amount of pressure.

And before Loki can use his tricks to escape unscathed, Thor presses in to claim Loki's mouth, possess him in a way that tells him in no uncertain terms that he will always be found.

He expects his brother to struggle, and when he does, pins him even closer against the wall, their chests and thighs aligned, and bites down firmly on his lower lip. When he's rewarded with a gasp, he invades the sweet heat of Loki's mouth with his tongue, the taste of it threatening to shatter his resolve, until he feels Loki surrendering and the sudden pliancy underneath him takes him apart.

A ruined sound slips from Loki's throat, vibrating through Thor's hand, and he swallows it greedily, relishing in the quaking pressure of Loki's fingers around his shoulders. His other hand travels to Loki's hip and slips underneath the soft material of his shirt to palm bare skin. His thumb dips along the sharp protrusion of bone, drawing another sound from Loki, so beautifully undone that he at once regrets and savors it.

When he finally pulls away Loki's eyes are wide and wrecked by hatred, lust, and resignation in equal measures. Loki plants a hand against Thor's chest, curling his fingers halfway as if he doesn't know whether to push or pull. Thor reluctantly returns his hands to his sides but keeps his body pressed forward, unable to bear the loss of Loki's weight (startling warmth) against him.

"Do you remember the words you spoke on my coronation day?" Words that had tormented and soothed him in turn as he had ignorantly mourned for his brother.

There's a moment of silence before Loki closes his eyes, perhaps sensing that denial would be futile and that Thor would persist.

"Yes," he whispers. Never doubt that I love you.

"Tell me again that I was wrong to doubt you. That I would be wrong to doubt you now."

This time he waits and no reply comes. Loki clenches his jaw, against a lie or a truth Thor cannot tell, and curls his hand into a fist where it lies against Thor's chest.

Outside, the sky darkens and yields to storm clouds rolling in from the west.

*

He stands on the roof of Stark's lofty tower, studying the grayish hues of the city below that look even dirtier and dimmer against the oncoming storm. The wind swirls, hard and cold, in all directions but he doesn't shiver. He still feels Thor's crackling heat, in his mouth, against his skin, rushing to his core as if he might burn and perish where he stands. He feels branded, owned, and finds that he equally wants and loathes it. He shifts to the edge and wonders how long it would take for him to fall.

"You."

He turns. Romanov is standing at a distance, making no effort to conceal her distaste, arms crossed against her chest as if it was his intention to invade her personal space.

"Natasha, stunning as always."

"Go fuck yourself."

He smiles graciously. "I'm afraid we got off on the wrong foot. Why don't we start from the beginning?"

"Why don't you save your bullshit. How Fury agreed to let you run free is beyond me, but he's the boss and I actually like your brother, so I'm keeping quiet. But believe me, if your toe even looks like it's crossing a line and Thor's not around, I will gladly take you out."

He laughs this time, the sound loud enough to carry against the wind.

"I do not doubt you will. That's what makes us alike, you and I. We understand the futility of remorse."

"Don't delude yourself. We have nothing in common."

He feels the strength of her will and remembers how he had craved to bend it to his own, watch it splinter and crack under the calculated pressure of his words. It had proved more difficult than he'd expected and the desire lingers still, an itch beneath his skin.

"No, I suppose not. It is remorse that drives your vengeance. A sentiment you never cared to afford. Until Barton."

She takes a step forward, eyes growing darker, wilder at the name. He snatches up the tendril of power and holds fast.

"It's touching how deeply you care for him, that you would kill me for him, add my blood to your ledger. You say love is for children. I say love is for fools."

She looks murderous now, ready to silence him with her bare hands and send him plummeting to the ground below to paint the concrete.

"Loki." Thor's voice is rolling thunder through the wind and Romanov turns her head at the sound, slowly uncurling her fists.

"Guess I'm as big of a fool as you are," she remarks before walking away with the faintest smile on her lips that goads him as effectively as her words.

Thor appears then with his hair tied at the nape, divested of his cape and armor, looking more mortal than god, and Loki's fury swells and breaks against his chest, making his hands tremble.

"Can you not leave me be for a single moment?" he hisses, turning away to calculate the proximity of the storm.

"I have come to apologize for my actions. I had no right--"

"You need not pretend for my sake. I know you, Thor. Better than you know yourself."

"Do not speak to me about pretense, brother." His voice gives clear warning that he knows more than Loki gives him credit for.

And then it begins to rain, lightly at first and then in steady torrents that soak them to the skin. Loki turns his face upward and licks his lips. He finds the taste flat and bitter, so unlike the clean, sweet rains of Asgard and still he's reminded of home. Of the summer days when he and Thor ran wild through the storms, long before his brother could summon them on a whim, catching fat drops on their tongues and chasing the sound of the thunder.

"What would you have me do?" The words are so quiet even he is unsure if he meant for Thor to hear them.

He waits for an answer, and when it comes he imagines he's the greatest fool of them all.

"I would have you smile again," and it sounds like a hope Thor would not be persuaded to relinquish for all the glory of the nine realms. Such hope that would send a weaker man to his knees and make him weep.

Instead, Loki remembers what their mother had taught them of love, its pure and unselfish nature from which all things flourish. Yet his has become a damaged, destructive thing that seeks to ruin Thor, pull him from the skies and extinguish his glory. He had unleashed his war to cast off the weight of his brother's shadow. Drenched his hands in the blood of men to remake himself in his own image, however twisted. But in the end he had lacked conviction, and now he can no longer deny what he truly seeks.

"You are wrong to doubt me." It's an answer to condemn them both, and he imagines even the Allfather could not save Thor now.

In return Thor says nothing, only covers the back of his neck with a hand, to turn his head and make him weep at the sight of all that he hopes for them.