They sent in a healer, leaving his hands bound and with both guard and Thor hovering nearby, to ensure that none of his injuries needed treatment. The healer hmmed and muttered and ultimately stepped back and proclaimed him sound, that he would heal cleanly. “The only thing concerning,” he said, as though Loki were not even there, “Is some signs of exhaustion. Rest will mend that quickly enough.”
Loki could have laughed, but the metal gag that kept his tongue still hurt enough for every twitch of his lips.
“And what of the madness I told you of?” Thor asked, not even bothering to lower his voice. The healer looked faintly peeved.
“I can hardly make a judgment of any such if I cannot speak to the subject. From what you have said…if it is a madness, it is not one I know how to treat. I am sorry, Prince.”
Loki did laugh at the way Thor’s face fell, a muffled coughing sound all that emerged, the corners of his mouth tearing. Thor glanced at him sharply, but he looked more nervous or worried than frightened. The more fool him.
“No,” said Thor, after a moment. “It is I that is sorry. I will return, Loki. There is much I must speak to our father about. Sleep. You are safe.”
Your father, Loki thought viciously. Your father, not mine, but he could not say as much, and Thor and healer and guard were already exiting the room. Leaving him alone to his thoughts. Sleep.
Loki didn’t bother to close his eyes. He knew already that he would not rest tonight. Had not slept since the dark eternity that was his fall through the void. Did not think he would sleep for a hundred years more.
When he had been younger and unable to sleep, he had crawled in beside his mother and fallen asleep after hours of listening to her breathe. Older, he had woken Thor and simply talked to him, talked and talked of whatever his mind would not let go of that kept him awake until it was gone and he could sleep, more often than not next to his brother.
He did not think there was a power in any of the nine realms to settle his mind now.
Loki paced, pressed his tongue against the metal prison holding it back, and his mind twisted and coiled in on itself like a snake seeking to devour itself.
He didn’t sleep.
Thor woke up with a grumble when Loki slipped into his room, and stared uncomprehending for a moment before pushing himself up onto one elbow. “Whassit,” he said, coherently, and Loki leaned against the door and tried to keep his hands from twitching.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“Mmph,” Thor said, and then sat up a little more and gestured to the bed. “Commere. Swear I don’t know anyone who makes an enemy of rest like you do.”
Loki smiled a wan, thin smile and went over to the bed, perched on the edge of it like a bird about to take flight. “It’s a talent.” He could feel his shoulders trembling slightly.
“I think you need to find a new talent,” Thor muttered. Loki attempted a laugh, but it fractured halfway through. He could almost hear Thor’s frown.
“If you’d just stop thinking once in a while,” Thor said, and Loki made a sound embarrassingly near to a sob before he managed to swallow it.
“If it were that easy don’t you think I’d have done it? I can’t. I can’t just stop. It never stops. There’s always…something. And that leads to another something leads to another something leads to –“ Loki rubbed one eye, almost savagely. “I can’t. I can’t do this.”
Thor sat down. “Tell me,” he said, “I may not understand, likely will not, but perhaps if you speak these thoughts it will exorcise them from your mind.”
Loki lowered his face into his hands and took a shuddering breath. “The universe is so great,” he said, after a long moment. “I sometimes wonder if…I think such dark things. What happens if you die? If Frigga, or Odin…I think about how much there is in the world, in all the realms, and I don’t feel real, Thor, I don’t feel…and if I sleep I’ll wake up and it’ll all be gone. I’m…I’m sorry. I must sound utterly…pathetic.”
“No,” said Thor, solemnly. “You sound like my brother.”
Thor came back, true to his word. Of course. Loki was sitting on the still-made bed and worrying at his own hands. He heard Thor coming and did not bother to look up when he opened the door with the click of the magically keyed lock Loki had not yet found a way to trick.
“—brother,” Thor said, “You look awful.”
Loki thought to wonder briefly what he did look like. And lifted his head slowly to regard Thor, who looked appalled. He lifted a hand to his heart in pantomime, how you wound me.
Thor’s eyes flicked to the bed he was sitting on, and back to Loki’s face as though transfixed. Loki was briefly tempted to attempt to claw out his staring eyes. Let him goggle then. You might see me better. “Did you not rest as the healer instructed?” Thor said, almost scoldingly.
Loki stared at him in a way he hoped communicated how effective a one-sided conversation was going to be. Thor did, for once, seem to get the hint, and closed the door rather forcefully, crossed the room and with just a press of his fingers the muzzle clicked open and fell away. Loki licked the corners of his lips and tasted blood.
“No,” Loki said. “I did not. I had more interesting things to do with my time. Plot an escape. Imagine all the myriad ways in which I could tear your little mortal friends to pieces.” He smiled his best grin, the one Fandral used to say made him look like a wolf had moved into his skin.
Thor looked unmoved. He sat down. “I have not come to fight with you.”
“Then you ought to have left the muzzle on.” Thor cast him a reproving look, the same as the one he might have when Loki had made some casually mocking remark at the expense of one of Thor’s acquaintances, if not one he liked very much.
“I do not believe,” he said staunchly, “that to speak with you is necessarily to argue. I refuse to believe it. I remember too much else, and I cannot think it all lies.”
“Likely because you are a credulous fool,” Loki said acidly. He picked at his nails with something approaching savagery, “But then, I knew that. What are they planning to do with me, has Odin Allfather declared yet?”
“No,” said Thor, after a moment of silence. “He has not.”
Loki smiled a thin, sharp smile. “Asgard will be crying for blood. You do know how they love a good death. I should hate to deny them.”
Thor’s expression set stubbornly. “Loki-”
Loki interrupted. “What do you want of me, Thor Odinsson?”
Thor’s shoulders slumped, and his eyes when he turned them on Loki were nakedly pleading in a way that made him feel vaguely sick. “I want you to be well again, brother.”
Loki’s stomach churned. Well? I have never been well. Even at my best I was nothing but a pretender. A sickness in your golden family, a failed experiment. And now you would bring me back, a rotten thing, bleeding black hatred and bile, and my mind spins like a wheel in mud, I can’t, I can’t-
He sneered. “You want me to be docile and pliant and subservient again. You want me to roll over and show my belly for you and father like a good dog.”
(When I close my eyes it’s that endless dark looking back.)
“I will tear into my own veins and drain my own blood before I submit,” Loki said, and Thor seemed to wilt.
“I would help you,” Thor said, looking down at his hands, “If you would but tell me how.”
“The greatest service you can do me,” Loki said coolly, smoothing and flattening his voice, “Is to leave before I attempt to strangle you with my bare hands and suffer the not inconsiderable embarrassment of failure.”
Thor said nothing more, and a few minutes later he got up and left. Loki stared straight ahead and tried to center himself, to focus. It was like trying to catch dust motes with his bare hands. His stomach flipped and twisted and he squeezed his eyes closed and traced runes in the air with shaking hands.
The muzzle sat forgotten on his bedside table, the runes of stillness and silence over the mouthpiece almost like grinning teeth.
When Loki almost fell asleep with his head on the table for the fourth time in four nights, Thor finally seemed to decide that he was not going to take no for an answer and cornered him in Loki’s own room. Literally. Backed him into a corner and glowered at him. “You have not been sleeping.”
He wanted to snap. Wanted to be his usual (reassuringly nasty) self and wanted Thor to leave him alone so he could curl up and try again.
Loki didn’t have the energy. “I can’t,” he said, after a moment of silence. “I tried, I keep trying, and I just can’t-”
Thor’s brow furrowed. “You have had this trouble before. Why did you not tell me-”
“I’m not a child!” Loki cried, and he could feel himself shaking, oh, the shame. Sniveling weakling. “I’m not-“
You never struggled like this. You were never sick, never tired, never weak, and I, with my mind spinning too fast to track, cannot even do so simple a thing as sleep, laughable, isn’t it, positively hilarious.
“I am fine,” Loki said, determinedly, doggedly. “I am fine, I am fine.”
“I may not be so clever as you,” Thor said reproachfully, “But I am not a fool. I can see you are not well.”
Oh, horrors. Loki felt an embarrassing prickle in his eyes. It was only the lack of sleep, making him foolishly emotional. Nothing to do with the worry being reassuring, nothing to do with the fact that he’d half thought Thor would turn away or scoff or Loki, why can’t you just, why are you so-
“You should have sought me out,” Thor said, and he sounded faintly hurt. “If I have been able to help before, why not now?”
Weak, said the whisper in the back of his mind. Pathetic. You can do nothing on your own without the shelter of your brother. But he was so tired. Wanted so badly to be able to close his eyes and…
“I’m,” he said, lowering his gaze to the floor. “Thor. I’m asking now?”
Thor wrapped a warm hand around the back of his neck and pressed his forehead to Loki’s. “Good,” he said, with a peculiar kind of relieved solidity. “Because if you hadn’t I wouldn’t be above putting a sleeping draught in your water, looking at you was making me tired.”
Loki traced the fine chain linking his manacles with one hand. Slender, thin, and delicate, so delicate, every link engraved with runes of restraint, of binding, of blocking. Each one another brick between him and his magic, each contributing to the feeling like his skin was too tight, covered in a layer of wire mesh that cut into him at every move. The hours crawled by.
When he closed his eyes the dark behind his eyelids made his heart pound with fear.
“Frigga has not visited,” he said, when the door opened with the scrape of stone across stone. “I could almost be offended. I thought at least her love might have been genuine.”
“Odin has forbidden any to visit you,” Thor said, after a moment’s silence, his tone clearly disapproving. “Even her. I argued with much difficulty that left to your own devices you might find some way of creating mischief even from here, and he allowed me the duty of ensuring that you did not.” Loki looked up, and found Thor’s expression slightly absurdly pleased with himself. He took one look at Loki and it dropped into a frown, though.
He looked away, quickly, twisting his fingers into the chain between his hands. The spellcraft seemed to sting at his fingertips. “I have made no plots as yet. You need not linger. I shall inform you the moment that changes.”
“You do not look better, brother. You look worse. Sickly. I will call the healer here if you-”
“No,” Loki said, harshly. He could feel a headache trying to start behind his eyes. “Don’t be absurd.” He lifted his eyes and gave Thor his best, cruelest smile. “If I wanted to play on your sympathies it would be pitifully easy.”
“I do not wish you to suffer,” Thor said stubbornly. Loki sneered at him.
“Then you should have left me on Midgard. I suffer with every breath I take of Asgard’s air. I suffer with every second I look at your face. I suffer every waking moment I am in this room, and I have a great deal of waking moments of late. Try another, Thor. Your lies at least ought to be believable.”
“I do not-” Thor cut off, and took a deep breath, visibly calming himself. “Loki, if you will not have a healer…is there anything I might myself bring?”
“Why,” Loki said, shifting his tone to startled sweetness. “Yes, there is. Now that you ask.” Thor’s expression brightened almost painfully.
“A knife,” Loki said, brightly, “So next time you start talking I can carve off my ears rather than listening.”
The way Thor’s face collapsed in on itself made Loki have to look away for the painful twist in his chest it caused. Exhaustion making him sentimental, no doubt. He heard Thor sigh, a moment later, and he stepped away. “I will tell mother you mentioned her,” he said, and before Loki could object, had exited his cell once more.
Asgard was quiet and still as death in the middle of the night.
Loki lay awake and listened to all of the minute sounds that seemed to echo all too loudly in the stillness. Everything sleeps, the quiet seemed to say, except for you. The entire realm sleeps, and you…
Be calm, he told himself. Be still. Center, and focus. Clear your mind.
It didn’t work. Never had, not for this. When he needed it, to cast a working or spell, that clarity came so easily, but like this, it was like his mind was a snarled nest of thoughts and he couldn’t find the end to untangle them.
Thor always could.Thor who had not, perhaps, called him a weakling outright, not yet, but had snickered with the rest of his friends when he had lost another bout in the training ring, had brushed him aside when Loki had tried to speak to him later. Thor: stronger, older, (a whisper at the back of his mind) better.
His hands twisted in the blankets at his sides.
Minutes, hours later, he rolled out of bed and stood up. Sleep would not come. He might at the very least be productive. Stacks of books on his desk remained unread. There was always more work to be done, and always more to learn.
The next morning Volstagg made some remark about his unhealthy pallor, and Loki said something unkind about Volstagg’s burgeoning waistline, and when they laughed it was almost like belonging to something.
Almost enough to make up for the sleepless hours, but that Thor took off on some adventure or quest or another without so much as bothering to say a word.
He had lost count of the days since his last sleep. There were insects skittering at the edges of his vision, clicking legs and hard black carapaces that vanished when he turned to look at them head-on. His head throbbed with a persistent ache. The food he was brought twice a day tasted like ashes.
After the sentencing, he told himself. After the sentencing, then you can rest. Then it’ll be over and there will be nothing you can do, nothing expected of you. Or else you’ll be dead and it won’t matter. His own thoughts felt dull, lackluster.
Thor didn’t leave him alone. Thor, who was currently sitting in a chair by the door and watching him with something sickeningly near to pity. “You need to rest,” he said, eyes blue and sad and sincere. “You have lost weight. You will fall ill if you do not.”
“Then I will fall ill,” Loki snapped. He clenched his hands into fists, hoping that would disguise the shaking of his fingers. “Perhaps then I might be left to myself.”
“Loki…I have managed to delay your trial to let you heal, but you will want to be at your fullest strength. It will not be-”
“If you think they will let me speak in my own defense,” Loki said, “You are more fool than I gave you credit for.”
Thor’s jaw tightened. “What is it that keeps you from your rest? You are safe here,” he said, stubbornly. “No one here wishes you ill.”
“Do not assume that because you do not the sentiment is shared,” Loki said, looking back down at his hands. His nails were ragged and broken. Irritating. Uneven. He could not remember doing that, but he must have. “Half the court would rejoice to see a knife in my back. The other half would put it there themselves.” He smiled thinly at Thor. “I am no more safe here than I was falling through the dark between worlds.”
“Then I will stay and watch over you,” Thor started to say, and Loki laughed at him and felt his lips crack as they stretched, dry and chapped, over his teeth.
“And that is to make me feel safe?”
“Didn’t it,” Thor said, something almost plaintive in his voice. “Once?” And there was a lifetime’s worth of memories in that simple question, of kindness and unlooked for attention and the slow, deep sound of Thor’s breathing better than a lullaby for settling his wild thoughts-
He jerked to his feet and began pacing. “If you think to soften me with ancient memories of a time long gone-”
“I think to help as you once let me do!”
“What do you think you can do?” Loki’s voice sounded brittle to his own ears. “How can you possibly think you could help me now?”
“Because I’m your brother,” Thor said, a kind of fervent energy sliding into his voice. “Because I always could before-”
“You’re not my brother.”
He turned just in time to see Thor’s jaw set, stubborn and unyielding in the way Loki knew too well. “Whatever you say,” Thor said fiercely. “But you are still mine.”
Loki’s stride wavered, just for a moment. He wavered. Sentiment, he told himself, foolish, misguided sentiment, but he felt a shudder run through his shoulders, violent and seeming to quiver through his whole body. He stopped his pacing and wrapped his arms around himself. “Loki?” said Thor, tone suddenly concerned.
“I can’t do this,” Loki said, through his teeth. He couldn’t stop moving, couldn’t stop, couldn’t- “I can’t do this, I can’t-”
“Brother,” said Thor, “Please,” and when Loki turned to fix wild eyes on him, he was a great deal closer and Loki could feel the familiar warmth radiating off of him in waves, like standing too close to a fire. And he wanted…
“Stay back,” he said, but Thor ignored him (of course, Thor always had), moving like he was a skittish horse.
“You’re shaking,” said Thor, implacable. “You’re paler than usual, and you have not attempted to strangle me yet. If it is so important to you, we may be enemies again after you have slept. Only let me help you, just for now.”
He felt another of those convulsive shudders run through him. You don’t know, he felt the urge to yell, you don’t know what it’s like, I can’t stop thinking and it’s waiting for me, the dark, it’s waiting to take me back. “Stop it,” he said, but his voice had shrunk, become something barely audible and pathetic, and then Thor’s hand was on his shoulder, heavy and warm, and guiding him towards the bed and pushing him down to sit on it. “You can’t help,” he heard himself saying, the words spilling out of him like vomit. “You can’t fix this, you can’t-” Fix me.
“I’ll just stay here,” Thor said. “That was enough, sometimes, wasn’t it? At least it might be something. Just…”
My enemy, Loki tried to tell himself. He’s my enemy, I hate him, I do, more than anything I want to see him ruined. But he was listing sideways and Thor was warm and centuries of instinct against months of enmity whispered safe. Thor was easing him gently down onto the bed, and his eyes kept trying to flutter closed.
“I don’t want,” Loki started to say, but his thoughts fragmented and broke apart, and he ended up saying, “Don’t let me fall again, it’s waiting for me, it wants me back.”
“You’re safe,” said Thor, solid, reassuring. “You are well, Loki. Rest.” Thor’s hand settled warm and heavy between his shoulder blades, a solid weight that felt like it would keep him from drifting away.
Tomorrow, he told himself, nothing would be different. Tomorrow. He would grab onto his hate and remember everything that lay between then and here, past and now.
For tonight – he was tired. He was so, so tired. Let it go. Just for a little while.