Actions

Work Header

Two Steps From Redemption (but only taking one)

Work Text:

"We are home at last, brother." Thor breathes, and his expression turns soft, almost pensive as he takes in their surroundings. Travelling with the Tesseract is nothing like riding along the Bifrost – more like saddling a galactic storm. The impact of arriving knocked the air out of their lungs as it landed them just outside the city of Asgard. The setting sun glints off the familiar buildings in breathtaking hues of carmine and gold, and Loki can feel his heart jump with the sight even as he all but hisses through the gag over his mouth.

No home of mine. No kin of mine.

Thor's eyes are so grieved when they look at him. It's utmost irony to think he gathers Loki's meaning, that he believes he can and that he does. Loki would laugh, mock him without words, but Thor reaches out towards him, and those green eyes fill up with burning ice and vicious promises instead.

Thor's hand stalls for perhaps a moment before he fixes a strand of dark hair that has fallen astray during their travel. Loki lets him; releases a breath he didn't realise he was holding.

Then Thor's hand slides lower, the scold's bridle gives and falls away.

It was meant to be symbolic, sending him back to the All-Father robbed of his freedom and his might in the fullest sense of the word. It was meant to show the extent of Midgard's victory, to be a message to all who may be watching. Thor's actions are no different in their motivation, even if contrary in their purpose.

Loki runs his tongue over his teeth and narrows his eyes.

"What would your allies say, faced with such misplaced loyalty?" he asks, perfect manners dripped in venom. Thor's eyes harden into something akin to a glare, but he keeps his voice down when he answers. It is still strained and perhaps just a bit resigned.

"You are in no position to lecture me about loyalty."

Loki pulls back, mock surprise, humility. "Oh, absolutely not. You seem to excel in the breaking of it all on your own. Family trait, one could argue."

"Hold your serpentine tongue, brother!" Thor snaps, and Loki's smile widens as the wind picks up around them. "You will not insult--"

"But who might they be, these people I'm not supposed to affront so? What are they to me?" Loki cuts in, a snarling dare that forces Thor to turn his eyes back to the city before them as he sighs.

"Our parents, Loki," he starts, and Loki cuts in, but it's not like Thor can be thrown off so easily once he has set his mind on something, "have shed tears and blood in grieving." He is pushing out the words like blows, crude and stubborn like he always is.

Loki turns his face away and there is a moment of silence.

"And that is why they would have me before them in chains?" Loki's voice trembles, but his eyes latch onto the shadow passing across Thor's face.

His open heart like an ever unmoving target, and Loki wields words not unlike his throwing knives, hard steel wedged deep into a polestar of hurt.

"If I were to free you of them, would you walk with me to the Hlidskjalf and take your punishment from the hands of the All-Father?" Thor asks, more of a plea than an offer.

How sweet. How foolish.

"You'd do that for me?" Loki's eyes are all thin suspicion, and after a moment of hesitation Thor finally nods, so sad, so-- "Why?"

"Loki, please. Don't make this any harder than it has to be."

"Fine," Loki says, a bitter sneer lurking just beneath the surface.

"Say it." Thor crosses his arms over his broad chest, waiting.

Loki's lips spread, amused, offended, fake.

So you are learning after all.

"But of course. As you wish." He bows his head in fake courtesy, can taste the calm before the storm in the air. An electrifying, familiar taste on his tongue that shivers things awake inside him that he has long thought lost. Ripped out and scattered across the cosmos like so many useless sanctities.

He makes his promises in no uncertain terms as is expected, briefly wonders what Thor would say if he knew he is bartering for something Loki wants to do anyway. Thor of all people should know that making the most of a situation is just what Loki happens to be the best at.

*****

The court is by no means empty, but the usual ebb and flow of people is missing. Even that is dispersing as they make their way towards the throne room in silence. Loki's eyes dart around as they go, swift and observant. He takes note of their burdened faces, their wary suspicion and barely veiled hostility. Thor must be picking up on it as well, for he looks unsettled, worried. Once he even casts a confused, questioning look at him, but Loki keeps his own expression unassuming and disinterested.

Still, he cannot quite help a small shudder as they stop before the double doors leading to the throne room. Not that he even wants to. Why would he, when it makes Thor look so stricken, so deliciously concerned?

Thor gives his shoulder a tentative squeeze, and Loki wants to hiss and spit acidic words, but he just swallows, lets a fragment of his inner turmoil show in his eyes. Emotions have always been Thor's greatest weakness, they sway him so easily, so surely.

Have I not warned you they will be your downfall?

Perhaps, he should lash out now, grab for the Tesseract and forge his alliance anew, show them all what it means-- But then the great doors are sliding open and the moment is gone. With every step forward Loki's blood seems to turn burning hot and icy cold in his veins, and he cannot bear to turn his gaze away from the Hlidskjalf and the people around it.

There are the usual royal guards present, but more than that, there is a gathering of their captains, the war gods in their brute finery, the leaders of the einherjar and the envoys of the Five Worlds that maintain friendly relations with Asgard. They are eyeing the two of them much the same way as everyone else did before, their whispers gaining volume before the resounding ring of Gungnir hitting the floor stuns them all into silence.

Thor stops at the stairs leading to the throne and bends the knee, as is proper. Loki chooses to stand a little behind and holds his chin high.

The weight of unspoken words in the air is suffocating.

After a long moment, Odin nods at Tyr. "Leave now, and convene here again tomorrow at the same hour." The gathered bow as one and disperse like a flock of birds when a child rouses them with a stone, leaving the King alone with their Princes.

"Father, why is the War Council--" Thor straightens and steps closer, but Odin silences him with a wary gesture.

Loki can hardly believe his eyes.

Their fa-- The All-Father looks old, waned, tired. Like a light behind thick glass covered in cobwebs, his might is shaded. His familiar, strong presence only echoes in the easy confidence of his golden son that is now tinged with the taste of despair.

It's like a slap in the face, and once Loki's eyes take in the tender, worried expression Thor wears he glances away and swallows.

Foolish old man, you should've never touched those spells. The thought comes to him unbidden before he can remind himself that without the dark sorcery, Thor would've never returned to Midgard. To change the game. To change everything.

A silent hope in the back of his head that he never allowed himself to expect.

Who was played for the bigger fool?

"Loki," Odin hesitates for perhaps the briefest moment. Maybe it's not even there, just wishful thinking, together with the resigned edge of his voice. "Laufeyson. My child."

Loki steels himself, standing tall and proud. He has no idea if those words make it better or worse, but they make, even though they have no right to. No right. He wants to snarl and shred, but mad dogs are put down and sly foxes avoid the wire loops.

"Odin All-Father." Loki produces a twisted smile. "The one man in the Nine Realms who had managed to play me for a fool. How it must please you now to hold it over my head." His tone is almost amicable, a glint of cold amusement in his eyes, but underneath it all there is simmering, bitter resentment, plain for all to see.

There's no reason to hide it now.

Thor shifts by his side, his pleading eyes a mirror image of Frigga's, except younger, bluer, more reproachful. Something churns inside him, biting and mournful, and Loki locks his eyes on Odin instead. There is something there, something he cannot quite grasp between the regret, the sorrow, the strict disappointment and the flash of majestic wrath, something deep; something that twists Loki's face in a half-sneer for how small and vulnerable it makes him feel.

"In the Nine Realms, you say." Odin closes his one eye briefly, and Loki cannot help but notice the way the wrinkles around it have grown deeper, marking his once-beloved face with a touch of grief. "But I am lead to believe I would not merit such a title outside of them."

Loki bristles like a cat threatened with a bath. His long, spindly fingers curving into vicious arcs by his side before he relaxes them and lets out a little laugh. "I see. Your beloved son was not the only thing you've sent down to Midgard, was it?"

From her perch, Muninn caws in answer.

"Quiet, deficient fowl, what is it you know?" Loki hisses, regretting the outburst instantly. But there is no time to linger on that slip now, because Odin speaks again, and for a moment he radiates all the dignity and power Loki remembers so well.

"Loki Laufeyson, you have defied the laws of the land, and you must answer for your crimes."

He has a thousand words on his tongue, poisonous and unforgiving, but Thor is faster, down on one knee again, head bowed and his face hidden behind the fall of his hair.

"In your wisdom, father, I beg you to consider--" his voice booms out certain and unafraid in the vast hall, and Loki clenches his jaw. Trust the dimwitted oaf not to realize Loki would rather cut out that tongue than to have it plead for him thus. Or just don't care either way.

"Poor, oblivious Thor. You had no time yet to tell him," Loki says with a smile, sharp and sweetly gloating. "So why don't you tell him now?"

The All-Father's hand twitches briefly, and he ignores Thor pushing himself to his feet and demanding to know what that is supposed to mean. There is a silent understanding there that makes Loki's lips spread just a breath wider.

"Leave us." Odin orders, and Thor wants to protest, but a hard look from his father his father keeps him quiet. The god of thunder nods grudgingly, jaw set and eyes hard.

"I'll let mother know of our return," he says, shooting a stormy look back over his shoulder before the doors close behind him.

"Much cosier, wouldn't you agree?" Loki studies the All-Father from behind lowered lids with smug, bright enjoyment.

"I have not the time for childish games," Odin says, and despite visibly letting go of some of his earlier composure, there is a glint reappearing in his eyes, that of superior, amused satisfaction of old, and it's setting Loki's teeth on edge.

"We will see about that once you are watching Asgard burn." He spits with mad delight, but Odin's expression never weavers.

"I will not repeat myself."

For a moment, Loki closes his eyes, but the words cannot be shut out, and they cut, they burn, taste like blood and futility.

"Your actions are those of a child, they command the respect of no man."

Sly foxes, sly foxes...

"You have breached the confidence of the people once again. You have lead the enemy to the heart of the land, you have opened their way into the sacred vaults and helped them take what belongs to this realm at the expense of several lives. Once again, you have tried to destroy a realm and have brought upon us all a threat of imminent war. If you have anything to say for yourself, now is the time."

Each word is like a whiplash, but he has had worse. Odin's scorn cannot touch him, not now, not ever. He will not have it. "Even if it were so, I fail to see on what grounds you think you hold the right to bring me under your jurisdiction. I am no Aesir, as you are well aware, are you not?" He mocks, flippant, biting. "If I have wronged you, the law clearly states it is my peoples’ sovereign you should approach."

"How convenient that at the moment Jotunheim has none."

"So it would seem," Loki's lips curl into a little smile of cruel satisfaction. "Then again, there is always the Elder's Council..."

"Where you would no doubt make a gamble for power to gain Laufey's throne for yourself. Do not take me for a fool, Loki." Odin raises his voice. "As a Prince of Asgard--"

"Oh, but am I a Prince of Asgard, father?" Loki cuts in, all poison and acid, but his green eyes are wide and his hand trembles the slightest by his side before he balls it into a fist.

"Have you not held Gungnir in your hand and called yourself King of Asgard even after your heritage was revealed to you?" Odin asks mildly, and Loki grits his teeth. "Have you not renounced your true sire in front of several witnesses?"

"I have the right to be heard by the Grand Chamber."

"That you do. And they shall convene at the first opportune time, whenever that might be."

"You cannot keep me here until then."

"Can't I?" Odin's tone is light, challenging, but the superficial air of it is belied by the strict line of his mouth, his strong grip on the smooth handle of Gungnir.

Oh, Loki remembers how it feels against his palm, he remembers it so well.

"According to the edict of Va--"

"Null and void under Martial Law. Which I was forced to introduce the moment you have made the same mistake twice."

"How... flattering." Loki scrunches up his face, his disbelief just a tad more genuine than he would care to admit.

"Which, I trust you are well aware yourself, allows me to keep anyone under lock and key whom I deem potentially threatening to the realm. It also grants me the right to take away your title, renounce you as my son and a citizen of Asgard." Odin continues calmly, and Loki has expected to face something as such eventually, but the sudden wrought iron weight pressing down on his chest is nothing he could have ever prepared himself for.

He cannot breathe.

"But since you obviously don't value these things, taking them away would hardly be fitting punishment," Odin goes on, his lone eye watching Loki intently.

"I won't be tossed the scraps of your mercy like coppers to a beggar," Loki snarls after a moment's pause, wishing nothing more than to claw that thrice-cursed, clever eye out. "I would rather subject myself to everlasting torment at your hands than--"

"That can be easily arranged!" Odin rises, and his voice falls back from the high ceiling like the roiliing rumble of an earthquake.

Loki has so many ways to turn this around, an abundance of honeyed words, but none come to him as he stares at Odin's display of wrathful might – a tangible weight on his shoulders that would force him to his knees if he only let it.

"Father..." the word permeates the air and settles like the ashes of a cradle. Odin closes his eye, and the tension drains from Loki's body with a choked sigh.

"You are to stay confined until the Grand Chamber assembles for a hearing. It would be advisable not to give them reason to try you for another account of treason."

Once again, the All-Father looks burdened, wary as he gestures to the guards to escort him out of the hall. Loki squeezes his fists tighter and bites his tongue.

*****

"Is it true?"

Loki doesn't even bother to look up from his book, or to even stop reading. They have led him to his old rooms and left him there. He had no idea what to make of it until he discovered that the magic of all the protective charms he had once placed on the chambers have been reversed. Instead of keeping things out, now they served to keep him in, turning into the most secure prison the All-Father could wish for.

Odin's handiwork, no doubt. That might take a while to unravel, and Loki has better things to do with his time.

"By all means, allow yourself into my humble abode, you boar." he flips a page and can practically hear Thor's teeth grind together.

"What father says, is it true, Loki?"

"I have always known you to be a dolt, Thor, but you have an uncanny ability to prove me right in ways no less than spectacular in their nature."

"Don't play games with me at this time, brother," Thor growls, crossing the room to stand before him. "Have you or have you not led the Chitauri beasts into the sacred vault and let them take the Infinity Gauntlet with them?"

"Is that what he's been telling you?" Loki finally glances up, and for a moment the sheer splendour of Thor's bright anger hits him in the chest like a stellar explosion. He blinks, clicks his tongue and goes back to reading. Or at least pretends so. "Interesting how a story changes according to our own perceptions, wouldn't you agree?"

"Is it not true then?"

"I believe you could argue that. Considering I certainly didn't let them take it," he looks up once again, and Thor's face is too precious, confusion, relief, frustration warring on his features. Loki's lips curl into a savage sort of smile. "I took it myself."

The next thing he knows is that an irresistible force is tearing the book from his hold and Thor's other hand is closing around his neck. "You wretched, foul creature!"

"Whatever happened to brother now?" Loki sneers with hateful joy, and Thor's grip tightens on instinct before he lets go with a snort like a war horse chewing the bit.

"Did you think I wouldn't learn of your schemes?"

"Oh, no. I was counting on it." Loki's smile comes easy to his lips, and for a moment it seems like Thor is about to shake him by the scruff like a cat, but in the end he just settles with a look of caged lightning, heavy with darkness like storm clouds ready to burst.

"How could you have done such a thing? Any of it?"

"You have to admit, it was a brilliant ploy." Loki gives a lopsided grin just like old times and there is something hollow in his chest as he sees Thor coil back from it.

"You have the blood of innocents on your hands, Loki!" he cries, the anger replaced with that beseeching despair from before that Loki finds so hard to piece together with his memories of the never-brother before him. "You have brought war to the realm! To all the realms!"

"Oh, look who is talking. Or have you actually forgotten the reason you were cast out, Thor?"

"I have changed!" Oh, the certainty of it, because in Thor's view of the world things are all readily labelled and fixed in their respective positions know your place, brother without a shadow of a doubt between the black and the white of it.

If only things were that simple. But then again, they never had been.

"Wherever have I heard that one before?" Loki shows teeth, and Thor suddenly stands so still, so very still. For a moment, it's like being back in the hands of the Chitauri, waking from a nightmare that has no end. This, here, is real, Loki knows it, clings to it even as the cold, irrational dread of it seizes him, turns him inside out so that for a moment he doesn't dare blink, doesn't dare breathe.

He is in his old room and Thor is there. The essence of his broken pleas, answered, everything he will burn away to be able to let go.

And it's all real, now.

"Loki, I..." Thor's voice falls away, pained and unsure. A long silence stretches into eternity as they hold each other's gaze, knowing they are both thinking of the same day, its echo a dull ache resonating between them. "Do you know what father said to me then?" Thor's face is drawn with a sorrow so deep it almost seems dispassionate for his usual temper.

"No, but I trust you to enlighten me whether I desire so or not." Loki's answer is dry, but there is a rasp underlying it like bones rattling in the wind.

He hates himself a little more for it.

"He said to me that I should bear punishment for what I have done, for raising my hand against king and kin, however just the cause."

"But you weren't punished, were you? The golden son of Asgard, unable to do wrong," Loki wants to spit, hurt, but there is a shrill tone to his malevolence, a touch of cold pain to its embracing darkness.

Unlike me.

"I will never forget how he sounded then, like never before or after," Thor goes on, oblivious, his eyes fixed on something only he can see. "And he looked at me and said he could not sentence me to any retribution more severe than what my actions carried within themselves."

"The old man has always been quite adapt at double standards, hasn't he?"

"Stop spilling your malicious words in my ear!"

"Or what? You'll put the muzzle back on the stray?" Loki takes a fast step forward, the depths of his fall opening up in his eyes with every word.

Thor's hand, raised instinctively to pull him in close, falls back to his side helpless and resigned. His voice comes out low, washed out by too much emotion, too many unresolved hurts. He looks angry. Disappointed. Lost.

Beautifully wrecked.

Thor was not lying when he had said he changed, and it's so gloriously ironic, so hopelessly exhilarating. It makes Loki want to dip his fingers into all those wounds he cannot see and lick the blood from their tips. Taste its sweetness in a way he cannot taste his br-- the brother he never had.

Soon.

"That day has been no victory of mine. Think on that, brother, if you will." By the time Loki could say anything, Thor is already storming out of the room, slamming the door shut behind his back with enough force to make Loki wince.

*****

The next time Thor steps into his chambers it is well into the night of the ninth day. Loki is lying on his bed, amusing himself with an illusion of their latest battle, occasionally using one or the other of Thor's motley comrades as target practice for his knives.

"To what do I owe the displeasure?" he asks, but Thor just crosses the room and sinks into one of the heavy armchairs without uttering a word. Loki frowns and banishes the images conjured up by his magic. "Has the All-Father sent you to bore me to death, or did you tire of the company of wenches so soon?" Loki strides across the room and seats himself in another chair, surprise flitting across his features briefly as Thor looks up.

The thunder god's face is worn out from lack of sleep, the dark shadows beneath his eyes making their blue feverish bright. Loki finds himself unable to look away, fingers curling against the armrest like so many restless claws.

"Mother says you refuse to see her," Thor speaks eventually, the rumble of his voice tamed by wariness like a wild mountain spring is tamed by the long expanse of the plains.

"I'm not in the mood for such trifles."

"What of her letters?"

Loki's lips twitch, a knowing, unkind glint in his eyes. "I burnt them."

"Loki," Thor groans, but even his frustration is faded. Loki scowls, lips pressed into a thin, dissatisfied line. Thor doesn't seem to notice.

He never does.

"Am I ruining your expectations of a make-believe family reunion, brother?" Loki leans forward slightly, eyes narrowing still. "I hope I am."

"Mother loves you, Loki." Thor's gaze is heavy on him, and suddenly it's hard to swallow.

"I doubt you are disturbing me at this hour to plead her cause," he lifts his chin, and Thor slowly nods. It's almost like he knows, but Loki is comfortable knowing better.

"The War Council has been dismissed."

"And here I thought your weathered look was due to you joining pursuit with our resident poetaster. How you surprise me."

"Even if the mood took me, I could do no such thing," Thor grunts unhappily.

"Oh, yes," Loki leans back, links his fingers together. "Too busy imagining all the ways you'll lead our echelons into glorious battle, no doubt."

"I told you, brother, I have no desire for war."

Loki laughs, a sharp bark of a sound.

"Oh, really now?" he suddenly materialises himself behind Thor's back, savouring the sharp intake of breath his familiar trick elicits. Still, Thor doesn't move but lets him loom there, lean in, and Loki's fingers itch to wrap around that throat, so close, so vulnerable. Thor smells like leather and sunshine, like wet stone and sea breeze. Loki inhales slowly, deeply, lips all but touching Thor's ear as he speaks. "Don't think I didn't see you. Battling the Leviathans. Calling down the lightning. Your blood hot with battle lust, enjoying every moment of it," The shiver is barely there, but Loki is too close to miss it, his voice dropping down to a sweet whisper. "Am I not generous, brother dearest?"

"You are mad." Thor cries, blind force and raw pain, but Loki just straightens with a chuckle.

"Mad? No, I think not."

"You have gone too far this time, brother." Thor shakes his head, finally looking at Loki again. His jaw is tense, his eyes full of bright rage and heartbreak.

How he longs to touch that cruelly honest face, carve it into his possession.

"So now you are giving me lectures on proper conduct."

As if Loki raising his voice is a sign, Thor's own picks up as well. "I have made many mistakes, but at least I'm not afraid to say so." He booms with a scowl, and Loki's eyes flash with pure rage in answer.

"The only mistake I ever made was trying to gain the heart of a father who only ever saw me as a mean to his own ends!"

"Father would've never--"

"Never as a son!"

"That is not true--"

"Never as an heir!"

"-- and you know it to be so!"

For a moment they just stare at each other, catching their breath and reigning themselves in. It's almost like being unruly youths again, except Frigga is not there anymore to step between them.

"And this is what it all comes down to, always." Loki gives a smile that is more of a wounded sneer. "Who would listen to Loki? The Trickster. The Silvertongue. Liesmith," he spits the word like snake poison, and a mere heartbeat is all it takes for Thor's anger to bleed out of him and turn to clumsy, stammered apologies before Loki cuts him off coldly. "There is a reason you have came here. What is it?"

For a while Thor just stares at his hands in his lap, slowly clenching into loose fists and unclenching again. "I need your help, Loki."

"Oh? You see, I might have heard something wrong here because I thought you said you needed my help." Loki scoffs, watching with rapt attention as Thor raises a wary hand to rub his eyes, the tense edge of sleeplessness slowly reclaiming his features once again.

Hard time in the Council, was it? Good to know.

"This is no matter for jest, brother."

"I'm all ears. What may my humbleness assist your highness with?" Loki's eyes are all brittle green hatred, and Thor takes a deep breath before looking at him again.

"Tell me about the Chitauri."

Loki holds his gaze. The silence stretches, heavy and uncomfortable.

"Loki--"

"Go and get some rest."

"I don't--"

"You are quite useless even when you are not barely keeping yourself upright in a chair," Loki raises his voice, imperious and cutting. "I said get some rest."

For once Thor doesn't argue. Loki wets his thin lips and watches him go.

*****

"I'm sorry for last time," Thor starts, so absurdly like his own childhood self after a good scolding that Loki's lips twitch into the beginning of a smile before he catches himself and frowns instead.

"I have neither need nor patience for your oafish apologies."

"But I do," Thor lifts his gaze, and it stirs something inside Loki, something vile and acidic, this vain summer's hope. "There are so many things, Loki, but I want you to know I never had any ill will towards you."

Intent and effect. Such a difference, but one Thor has never quite appreciated.

"Oh, I understand completely," Loki nods. "After all, I myself never had any ill will towards Midgard either."

"You wanted to subjugate them!"

"Wouldn't it have been brilliant if I did though?" Loki arches an eyebrow, like they are merely discussing the finer points of weaponry.

Thor looks at him like a kicked dog, so pitifully precious.

"Oh, but you have such love for those pests," Loki leans forward with a hiss. Thor's anger is preferable to this laughable display of weakness.

The brother he once knew has never been so soft.

"Why would you want to rule them if you hate them so?" Thor's sad incomprehension stays firmly etched on his face, and Loki outright laughs.

"I had about fifteen different reasons, even though I needed none of them. As it happens, there was just no reason not to."

It's not even a lie, not that Thor would agree.

"What happened to you in that place, Loki?" Soft, so soft, so small, troubled, pitying, condescending. Loki bites the inside of his cheeks and swallows back rusty words like nails in a coffin.

"You want to know?" Oh, he would tell Thor, pin all that fine weight down against him and whisper in his ear until he screamed. Not now, he reminds himself, not like this. "I was there, surrounded by a darkness that you could never imagine." Darkness has always seemed to cling to him just as much as it seemed to fall away from Thor. It all makes sense now, just another gash across his heart. "Suspended in unspeakable pain, and waiting."

The understanding lighting up in Thor's eyes is like watching the sun rising over a battlefield.

"I kept on waiting, and no one came." Loki twists the knife yet deeper. It tastes like victory, tart in his mouth and useless on the grand scale of things.

"We believed you dead." Thor breathes, the picture of misery. "Even Heimdall--"

"Ah, yes. Your mighty guardian. Not quite as all-seeing as you thought, is he?" Loki snorts, lips in a downward curl of disgust. "Or perhaps he is more loyal than keen on his reputation."

"Why would you say such a thing?" Thor frowns, confused and appalled.

"Oh, I don't know, not like they ever gave me reason to doubt their intentions where I'm concerned," Loki mocks. "Not that it matters. I have made my bargain. A realm for the Tesseract. If you think about it, my rule would've saved your precious Midgard from everything that now will come its way."

"Midgard is in danger? Speak!"

"Ah, there you go again." Loki gloats, loving the way Thor's brows knit together.

"Loki,"

"There is one thing you should know about their leader. Thanos, he calls himself. He cares not about glory or riches. Not even power. All he has eyes for is Death, and he brings his sacrifices to her like a savage pet. Your precious Midgard has proven to be a worthy foe against his forces, and he will not rest until they are laid out at the feet of his mistress."

"If this is so, then the realms will not know peace as long as the Gauntlet is in the hands of this Thanos. He must be stopped."

"What do I care? Asgard shuns me, it always has." Loki bites back, watching with mild, bittersweet amusement as Thor takes to pacing the room, unable to come up with a suitable answer, instinctively coiling back from accepting such a claim.

"Asgard depends on me now," he finally says. "Father is asleep. Mother will not leave his side, and the Council is all in favour of war. You know our enemy, brother. If you had a way to avoid such an event, I would listen to your counsel."

So he sleeps, again. How well timed.

"The mighty Thor, asking for my advice." How far his beautiful once-brother has fallen and how far still he has left to go. All the way down to where Loki is, waiting. "One would think with the Odinsleep upon the All-Father, you would be busy preparing for your great day." Loki glances at him, but it's not quite questioning, not quite amused.

"There will be no ceremony. Regarding the... circumstances."

"It seems to be my cruel fate to ruin your coronation. My sincere apologies."

The look Thor shoots him is dark, but then he just shakes his head like Loki's words are just so many flies to be swatted away. "Let us not start this again, brother."

"Then perhaps you should finally get it into your thick head that we are not related."

How quaint that you would strip me even of my one true sin.

"I will not bear such foolish words from you!" Thor booms, fist hitting the table, and Loki gives a short, high laugh.

"Oh, Thor, Thor," he chides, revelling in the grunt of frustration the thunder god makes. "Restraint has never been your forte. One would expect the All-Father should know better by now than to leave Asgard in your hands."

This time, however, the jab goes unheeded, if not unnoticed. Thor drags a hand across his face and doesn't say anything.

"There is a way," Loki breaks the silence, and it falls like the sands of an hourglass over an endless pit.

"Tell me."

"I could take you there. Tapping the Tesseract's power. No army, just a handful of warriors, the best, the ones you trust the most. The Chitauri may be defeated, but not yet crippled. Still, if taken by surprise, it would be easy enough to sneak in and locate the Gauntlet."

"That's not honest battle."

"Then by all means, have your war."

Thor makes an unhappy sound. "And what reward will you want for your help in this?"

"Oh, nothing fancy. But I'm afraid I can hardly guide you through the barrier of a different universe without being present myself," Loki clasps his hands behind his back. "And of course, the Chamber's judgement needs to be pushed back until I return to Asgard." He adds almost offhandedly.

"You have called on the Chamber?" Thor's eyes are impossibly wide and so very blue.

"Isn't that just what I said?"

"Loki, what demon possessed you to do such a thing? Should war descend on us, the lords of the realm will be hit by it harshest. They will show you no mercy!"

"Well, then we better make sure this war is avoided, yes?" Loki snaps at him hard and unflinching. "I imagine such a feat would carry weight strongly in my favour."

Thor slowly nods his understanding. Loki can basically see as he works over the implications with a small frown like it's just another lecture from one of their tutors about material the golden firstborn finds is not to his liking.

"I cannot do this, Loki." He eventually sighs, looking so dejected about it. It's honestly unfair. But even through his denial, Loki can see the idea taking root in his mind like a seed of slow killing poison, ready to grow.

"As you think is best. You are king now, and a king has to make his choices wisely," Loki offers lightly, never for a moment letting go of his deprecating smirk.

*****

"I'm told you do not sleep easy," Thor says out of the blue. He is staring out one of the windows, back straight and arms lax by his side. The gardens bow vibrant green and honey-sweet below, the air still with early summer heat. Thor doesn't like gardens. It almost makes Loki smile, this familiar show of discomfort, this predictability. There is a fine tension in the line of Thor's shoulders. There is sunlight in his hair.

"How about we stop pretending my comfort comes before the current state of affairs?" Loki looks away and keeps his tone light, bites back a groan of frustration when Thor only takes his jab as admission, all boyish, awkward concern as he turns.

"If you wish to have someone--"

"Don't be foolish. I am no child anymore, Thor," Loki scoffs, but his teeth are biting white and sinister as he bares them. "Have you forgotten already? I am the monster trespassing the shadows outside while they sleep."

"Loki," Thor sighs, his tone invoking entire elaborate arguments with their spinning circles and inherent futility, which they are both stubborn enough not to concede to. "How many times--"

"Do not." Loki raises an imperious finger. "Do not even dare think it."

"I know you have suffered greatly--"

Loki laughs and laughs and laughs.

Might as well.

He thinks about those endless days of a living nightmare, the threats and the promises and the pain, wraps his arms around himself and shakes with it until the near manic edge of his laughter tames into deep, wet sobs, and suddenly there are Thor's arms around him, and for one bright moment he thinks nothing could ever get to him as long as they stay like this.

The shove surprises Thor so much he staggers back and knocks over a footstool. "Loki, what--?"

"Suffered, yes. I have suffered, beyond what is real or imagined, but how would you know, how would you call it for which there is no name as it is unknown to this world," Loki hisses, words falling from his mouth choked and feverish. His trembling hands are tearing at the fastenings of his clothes, working the layers free, and Thor takes one step closer before he stays as though rooted, eyes wide and breaths shallow.

"Calm the raging of your mind, brother," he says, and his voice is hoarse.

"Oh, not quite, no. You think you know anything? Then let me show you truth." Always a stronger weapon than lies. It hurts more, deeper. Cuts both ways. But he needs to know. Just how deep, how painful.

Another pull, a tear as the last of the material falls away, and finally his skin is uncovered from the waist up, and he savours the gasp Thor makes, the way his eyes go wide in terror before darkening to a terrible midnight blue shot with silver, echoing storm and destruction.

"Who did this?" Thor growls low in his throat, a savage, roiling sound that settles sweet and black in the marrow of Loki's bones. The next words are like the crack of thunder itself, a demand of blind force and a threat. "Answer me!"

"Isn't it rather obvious?" Loki taunts with vicious delight sparkling in his eyes, trembling within his throat. He closes his eyes, soaking in the raw, elemental power and the promise within, warming him on the inside with its fierce passion. "Who else but they who think themselves above mortals and gods alike?"

"Then they are dead." Thor grinds out with ruthless certainty, lightning storms in his eyes as his teeth clash together and his weapon hand twitches by his side.

"Oh, but you see, that is not the real beauty of it," Loki draws closer, stalks around him in a slow circle like a starved wolf smelling blood. He watches Thor, eyes green reflections of unsated hunger and malice, a taste of iron and bile heavy on his tongue like a dying kiss, but his quicksilver wit is relentless, striving for more, for enough. "You see... I let them."

For a moment, Thor just stares at him, then the words hit and he trembles as though struck, as though wanting to move but being unable to decide on a direction, his wrath thrumming hot and ready just beneath the skin.

"You--"

"Yes. " Loki sneers, eyes narrowing in sinister delight at the pain on his bro-- Thor's face, open and hurt and he drinks it in, this prelude to ruin, a mere appetizer to this starved desire inside to see Thor, golden, radiant Thor break apart under his hands.

"Loki." It's more a sigh than a word, a breath of sorrow and despair, so sweet on his tongue, so bitterly infuriating how much it makes him crave more. To carve his claws deeper, draw the life blood out of that precious heart until there is not a drop left to spill.

"What would they trust more than the puppet they have broken to their hand, dissected and put together to serve them as they pleased?" He goes on, malevolent and mocking. Thor just stands there, staring at him with those stormy blue eyes so pained, pleading, furious. Loki hates it, loves it, wants to burn them out and etch them into his memory forever. And so he keeps pushing, chasing the thrill of it like there is such a thing as enough. "You speak of punishment, but how would you manage to surpass torture you have never known? Where is the blade, the fire, the spell so strong that it could hurt me more than I have allowed hurt to come to me?"

"Loki," Thor whispers, strangely quiet, but Loki cannot stop, won't stop, not now.

"What little is a body when you have let go of all that is inside. I have let them pick it apart and put it back together, feeding them truth that was lie and lie that was truth--"

"Loki!" Thor roars, and Loki barely has time to register what is happening before he is flung against the nearest wall, trapped in place by strong arms on either side, head colliding harshly with the stone behind. But that's not what breaks his momentum and seals the hot red rush of sharp words with sudden silence.

There are slow tears trailing down Thor's face.

The harsh slap of Loki's palm against their wetness seems too loud, but Thor doesn't even flinch, not with his quickly swelling lip or the way Loki tears ruthlessly at his long golden hair with both hands.

"Don't you dare. Do you hear me, Thor?" Loki grips harder, seeking the earlier rage inside those broken blue eyes. "Don't you dare pity me. I will not have it!"

"I know." Thor's touch is careful and desperate, and Loki's eyes blow wide as he feels those bruised lips press a kiss to his palm. "I know." Thor's other hand runs down Loki's bare chest, smoothing over the scars there, making him shiver.

Loki wants to laugh at the sadistic irony of it, because they had promised him suffering where pain would be a relief and a blessing, but there is no torture, no wound that can hurt as much as this, that can turn him into a tangled mess of raw nerve endings and worthless sounds.

He could have Thor now, he thinks with merciless clarity. He could coil a chain of pity around that proud neck and drag him to his knees. He could make it so. And Thor, foolish, sentimental Thor would give himself over to heal and to hold, muzzle his own guilt with make believe reconciliation. Loki's want is coiled so hot and tight inside his body, caged against the wall and soaking in their heady closeness. It's more than torment. It's madness.

His other hand is still tangled in hair that keeps the memory of sunshine snuffed out by dark clouds somewhere along the way. There are unshed tears burning in his own eyes, and it's ridiculous and unfair, but it doesn't keep him from gripping tighter, breathing harder. Thor draws closer and Loki drives his nails deep, exhaling in a long, shaky sigh against Thor's neck.

"Brother," Thor says, a deep rumble against Loki's chest as those lips brush his temple.

By the Nine, how he wants.

Loki knows he could, and he won't. When the time comes, he will have Thor, he will have him in every way he had ever dreamed of, body and soul. But it will be by Loki's hands, Loki's victory, Loki's mercy, not the other way round. He needs the truth of it, not the tricks. The absoluteness that is more real than reality could ever be. More cruel.

"I would have come for you." Thor presses their cheeks together, and the words are warm and thick against his skin like honey, sweet and ensnaring and brimful of simple, headstrong love as impossible as it is unbearable. "No matter where. No matter what it took."

It wrenches a single, loud sob from Loki, an animal sound of pain, rage, misery calcified into the skeleton of a name to bite down and choke on. He wants to curse, spit words of hurt and spite, but he has opened the door to that abyss and cannot help now but fall, nails drawing blood, teeth seeking thick muscle, pain, punishment. He sinks them deep into Thor's shoulder as though they can kill, pointed and venomous. A Serpent to end the world. If only.

Thor just keeps holding, and Loki would rather they were both dead.

*****

"They will come for me," Loki says quietly, staring unblinking at the flickering flames of the hearth. His fingers are toying with the soft fur covering the floor where he is curled against the foot of the bed. Thor brought him a fresh shirt, and his broad hand moves in slow, soothing strokes along his back, as though they are still children, as though a bright fire and a cup of warm milk is all it takes for the monsters to draw back into the shadows.

Asgard has never been a place of darkness, and there is nowhere for them him to go.

"How do you mean?" Thor asks carefully, the same way Loki knows he would talk to a skittish horse ready to bolt, and he almost snorts at the image.

"Thanos. His henchmen. One or the other. Doesn't matter."

Thor's hand abruptly stops between his shoulder blades. "You will be safe here."

"Safe," Loki deadpans. "Should I fail, there is not a single crevice of the universe I could hide in where they wouldn't find me, they said. And here we are, in my very own chambers," he looks around almost curiously, and Thor shifts uneasily by his side. "There is no such thing as safe as long as they draw breath."

"You should've never taken part in this, Loki." Thor shakes his head, but his hand stubbornly stays where it rests against the curve of Loki's spine, thumb brushing the vertebrae.

"Need I remind you of the inadequate nature of Chitauri hospitality?" Loki bites back, but his lips are curling into a smile like a blade, glorious and ready to draw blood. Thor lets his hand fall away and swallows.

"There must have been another way."

"Oh, there was," Loki agrees. "I never planned on handing Thanos the Tesseract."

Thor stares.

"Humanity and its thirst for power, they would have bowed to the feet of any man that promised them all that they ever dreamt of. A single power source that never runs out. The mortals had it in their hands but knew not how to use it. I did."

"Then... why?"

"Oh, irony is such a beautiful thing," Loki laughs, but it's not a happy sound. "It was you."

It was always you.

"Me?" Thor's eyes go wide with innocent surprise, and Loki cannot help but think of a lamb under the knife. So helpless. So blind. Precious.

He turns his gaze back to the fire.

"Your appearance was a clear declaration that Asgard would not stay out of the conflict."

"How could I have, when--" Thor starts vehemently, but Loki cuts him off.

"Rest assured, Thanos does not care about your noble notions in the slightest. But some... concessions had to be made."

"By the Nine, Loki--"

"I had no choice, Thor!" Loki snaps, shoulders tensing up, and Thor seems torn between moving closer and giving him the space Loki has built up over the countless years shared between them. "But what is done is done. Now the important thing is that the Gauntlet must not stay in his hands. Should Thanos master it--"

"Absolute power." Thor nods.

"Yes."

"Can he do it?"

It's Loki's turn to shift uncomfortably. "Yes. Eventually."

"Then we must not leave him enough time for it," Thor is all robust determination, yet he seems almost relieved at the same time. Actions are his language, violence its tone and victory its punctuation. "I'm sure the Warriors Three and the Lady Sif won't turn down such a challenge."

"We would need to go to Midgard, where the barrier has already been breached."

"If Midgard is in danger, the one-eyed Fury shall aid us in this endeavour." Thor nods, considerably brightening at the prospect.

"Perhaps. I have a request, myself."

"Yes?"

"No restraints this time. I would fight by your side, if you'd have me." Their eyes meet, and Loki can practically feel Thor's heart skip a beat before that impossible hope shines across his features once again, so much stronger than before.

Sentiment.

"Brother... Truly?"

"I will have Thanos' head." The finality to his words rings metallic and true as they roll off his tongue. It is true, by all means and purposes, for Loki's pride does not allow for anything less. Asgard's justice is harsh, and so is his.

"How can I trust that you speak the truth?" Thor eventually asks.

Loki holds his gaze, a slow smile stretching across his lips.

Because you want it so badly to be true.

*****

"Here. You'll need this."

Loki catches the object thrown at him reflexively, and his breath hitches a little as he recognises its golden glint. His fingers curl possessively around the apple even before his eyes snap back to Thor. "In a generous mood today?" his lips curl, but there is no mirth in it. "Or perhaps you were so repulsed by the scars of this flesh you'd rather keep them hidden beneath the surface?"

For a moment, Thor looks at him with so much pained knowing, words he is not uttering written so clearly on his face. Then he just shrugs and takes a bite of his own apple, pointing a finger at Loki as he swallows. "I am going to Midgard, brother, and you are coming with me. I would rather you had your strength for the battle that lies ahead."

"How thoughtful of you." But his teeth break the golden skin greedily, chewing with childish haste, and he flinches the slightest when Thor catches the trickle of juice down his chin with a thumb, smiles and mindlessly licks it off.

Loki's lashes tremble, and he takes another bite, shuddering inwardly as his teeth break the shiny skin and for a moment he remembers the taste of Thor's blood fresh on his tongue.

"You cannot imagine how it delights me to have you fight by my side again," Thor says, and the honeyed taste of the apple turns sour in Loki's mouth.

Witless breed of a mouflon, is there no end to your blind arrogance? he wants to yell, and surprises himself when what comes out is a quiet "Not more than me."

Worse still, he means it.

"It will be just like old times." Thor's face lights up and he smiles, warm and wide. His golden, radiant fool of a once-brother, clapping a hand over Loki's shoulder and looking at him with so much hopeful affection, with his uncorrupted trust and cutthroat beauty that makes Loki's insides twist and his eyes burn.

You call me brother, but have you ever known me?

"They'll pay for what they did to you," Thor says, darkness shifting deep inside his pupils, a corrupt thrill down Loki's back.

"You'll have to be careful." He swallows, hand rising to wrap around Thor's wrist without thinking. He can feel the skin, the bones, the life pulsing in between, and he almost regrets, wants nothing more than feel it beneath his lips.

What is it like, being you?

Thor shakes his head with a little smile, ever the noble, oblivious fool. He has no concern for himself, never did, but it seems to drive that dark glint from his eyes, this open concern from Loki. "They shall never again lay a hand on you, brother."

"You promise?" Loki looks at him, eyes searching as though for a truth that he needs not find.

"I swear."

For a long moment their eyes lock, the open blue sea and the shaded green forest. Thor's smile widens still, his hand sliding to cradle Loki's neck as is his habit. How simple it would be, to lean into it and close his eyes. To warm to this easy sunshine love, given so graciously, so carelessly it has him pinned and ripped apart between fruitless longing and bitter resentment.

Nothing ever comes free in the world, and everything that seems so is a lie and a trap.

"We depart at dawn," Thor finally says, a last caress before his hand falls away, leaving Loki's skin open to the shallow bite of cool air that follows in the absence of his touch.

The cold is his strength. Thor will know it soon enough too. His way is no gentle sun but mauling blizzard and biting frost, and if it should end them both, then so be it.

"I am ready to do what needs to be done," Loki smiles back, brilliant and sure. He watches Thor nod, watches him turn and leave, red cape billowing after him with his majestic stride. He wants to laugh, except his throat wouldn't obey him. "Go, just go. Turn your face towards the enemy," he mutters, studying the light glinting off the jagged edges of the ice dagger he is slowly conjuring up in his hand. "I will gladly have your back all to myself, brother mine."