His bones are still shaking. Knocked to his side, half-buried beneath volcanic ash, he wants to cough but can’t force a sound out from behind Darsmir’s weight. His ribs are alight underneath his armour, the ground beneath him hot to the touch. His sight swims.
“You are much more becoming like this,” Amora tells him, dropping to his side with a needling smile on her face. “I should keep you this way for a while.”
Her fingertips, the spell peeling Darsmir carefully away. He clears his throat.
“You would not dare,” he manages.
“Would I not?”
It is a pointless argument. They both know what she would dare – what he would dare. She holds a hand out to pull him to his feet. A green fire is already eating away at his chains, dropping them to the ground.
When he takes her slender palm he thinks to himself: it is just like drowning.
The tall arched beams of the palace; the prospect out to Mt Grimla in the distance. The thick blue smog of morning that will, as the day moves on, become thin as water, as the white of an uncooked egg.
He is pacing these halls like a caged lion. In his mind, the one thing that Darsmir cannot silence, he is running his fingers over the tapestries. He is memorising every thread and knot. Swirls of gold twist up the walls in patterns that have been sacred for millennia – he is pouring his magic along each groove, twining himself into the shadows that gather in the corners of the corridors, trickling down the railings like a whisper. On the tables, sprawling maps. Territories. Borders. Books with their words worn light by the hands of scholars, and in that way the dimensions of these halls warp and twist, slip out of his grasp.
The dim shore of Leanor, the purple moon. Sfalznar, the Isle of Driven; the metal ports of Kanash and the decades he spent living there as a bird with the wind underneath his feathers.
Amora says, “If you are not careful, Loki – ”
He snarls at her and pins her wrist beneath his hand.
There is a spell that he has been seeking in his years of exile, a flag flapping in the distance that he cannot yet reach. What is this place? Soft like a child’s footfall on carpet, the ghosts stepping by.
He is facing Thor for the first time in years on a mountain in Midgard.
He is tired of being asked if he still remembers. Do dumb beasts remember the first time the sun touched their flanks? Do creatures of the sea remember the taste of salt? Does a man being led towards his execution still remember the colour of his lover’s eyes?
He is looking into Thor’s face, loving, beloved. Brother, you are the one who needs to forget.
Amora’s eyes, bright as a cat’s, and furious.
“I want to know where you go,” she says. He is pushing off his hood, his lips numb from the cold and from the old memory of being stitched shut. “You cannot keep doing this, Loki. You know the risk I took freeing you. You know what the Chitauri are capable of.”
He is not listening. There is a thrum inside his chest, a breathless knowledge. The tips of his fingers crackle with new magic. He looks at her for a moment and knows suddenly that he can ruin her now, in a way that he never could before, take everything from her between once heartbeat and the next.
She picks up on it. He watches her take a small step back, eyes darting. “What have you done?”
“I have killed the Guardians of Nor,” he says. “I have learned their secrets.”
Her body tenses like an arrow put to the string. Her gold hair, framing the narrow slip of her face, glints in the firelight as she raises her chin.
“I do not believe you,” she says; though he can see how her magic is beading under her skin. “You lie.”
“I do not. Would you have me demonstrate my new powers?”
“There is no need – we are allies.”
He tilts his head, watching for a reaction. “I can defeat my enemies without you.”
She laughs at him. “We both know you cannot.”
They have the two of them survived for this long not through their magecraft, but through their ability to scent the slightest change on the wind. They were not born with the things that others were. He is not Thor; he does not have Thor’s strength; he has seen the cloud that passes over Amora’s eyes when there is talk of sisters. Theirs is a subtle craft of weakness, of finding fault-lines and magnifying them.
“If you truly wish to be great,” she tells him, “you will teach me what you have learned today.”
“You would betray me.”
“It would not count as betrayal, Loki,” she says. Her green eyes flare. “With the way that things are between the two of you, it would be a favour.”
The cave inside which the Tesseract rests is high-vaulted, dank and suffocating with damp, the moss inching across boulders that have spilled from one wall and across the ground like marbles.
He walks carefully. He can taste a raw blue power on the air, coppery over his tongue.
There are nights when he dreams things that terrify him. The whirlpools in the Strait of Grilpar allow nothing to pass – not ships; not even light – they collapse in on themselves and draw all things to their depths. The comet Lill veering off its course two centuries ago and striking the planet of Horth, leaving a fire in the sky for months. Gannivor’s two moons colliding soundless in space. Unbendable forces, the will of the universe: weight matched with movement, light matched with dark, the death of one star giving birth to the next.
He is tired of symmetry. In the Fifth Realm’s capital, Tyra, they believe that a warrior’s heart is placed on a set of scales upon his death and weighed against a feather in the Halls of Charlanon.
“Son of Laufey,” the Tesseract whispers to him; “You are welcome.”
For all things that are worth possessing, there is a price. For forgetfulness, there is a price.
“I would have the use of your power,” he says.
She stands from her throne; she goes to him.
Thor is asleep. He, Loki, is hovering by the window, invisible – out of some instinct he needs to be near a quick escape. The sharp rim of the sill pressing against his spine like an old friend. You are not here.
They learned each other as children, made translations as they made translations of the ancient languages, put down into their workbooks. A frown here: Thor has forgotten his verbs, his subject and predicate. A bright smile and the kitchen maids are generous today. A limp: a sprained ankle.
A fear like a bad taste on his tongue, a hook behind his sternum tugging him forward – is he hurt, is he hurt.
The first time the magic comes to him he is left bedridden for weeks. His bones are being rearranged inside his body. He lies, sweat-matted, breath coming short and fast, a poultice on his forehead and ice to bring down his fever, a brittle-boned boy in a swamp of sheets with his heart thundering. Thor is sitting on the edge of the bed spinning promises nobody but the Fates can keep, stories when the promises run out. We shall sneak out of the palace when you are better. We shall go to the Fens, where not even Sif will go. You and I.
“Am I going to die, Thor?” he asks, shivering.
Thor runs a dry hand over his cheek. “You are my brother.”
There are nights he stands by the side of Thor’s bed with a knife clutched precariously in one hand. The statues in Frigga’s garden, overgrown with vines, are not so still.
Corpses are not so still.
Where he has travelled the planets have left their mark on him: they have sunk in their teeth.
In Rilrath-Mor they take a maiden every month to be sacrificed on the altar for the goddess Tukk, pinning her arms and legs down as they carve her heart out of her chest with a stone knife. She does not die immediately – they place the organ on a large white slab; slowly, gently, it stutters.
He is watching Natasha Romanov’s eyes grow wide with demons through a plate of glass.
This is the thing about mortals. They come and go. He cannot imagine how many lifetimes Odin has seen, looking down on Midgard; the same battles appearing again and again. A world where all things are easily forgotten. A plaything.
He still wakes with the very fibres of him being split apart, his blood hot in his mouth as he falls through the universe with the dark matter of planets tearing at him. A fall for the bards to make verses of. He can imagine scraps of the story flitting, bird-like and fragile, through Asgard’s streets. He has tried to put the agony behind him but his flesh remembers it in the same way that some warriors feel the ache of an amputated limb. Through the legends, through the tales that mothers tell their children, through the threads of his muscle and sinew and bone, it stirs in its grave.
This is a truth he has come to realise. There are some crimes that cannot ever be forgiven; there are some things that, once known, cannot be unknown.
There is no freedom that can be found from yourself, for you are the past.
In the underground bunker, Clint Barton’s eyes gleam a cold, oblivious, indifferent blue.
He is envious in the way the heart is never meant to be envious. He is jealous from the very depths of his soul.