from Maybe You, by Say Lou Lou
And all those times I lost myself in lies
It was you I was trying to find
And though it really hurt sometimes
It was always true
~ ⌘ ~
"It's probably too late to go to the bathroom, right?"
Loki tries to smartass his way out of the tension but it does nothing to abate the close, stifling heat of the machine and the way it’s drawing out cold sweat he can’t move to wipe away. The metal pod hums and groans, huge around his body like the gut of a sleeping dragon around the burden of a lamb.
He’s locked in a cramped, dark tube, his own wheezy breath is loud in his ears. Blood thumps like the tide washing up in hot layers under his skin, making his eyes throb. Loki’s arms hurt, everywhere hurts, the heavy, blunt ache of the blue liquid being injected into his veins. It’s white behind his eyelids, light so bright it zings with electricity, stinking ozone and powerful heat.
Loki moves, squirming a little, just to test the room. There isn’t any to test. Cold metal brackets hold down his arms and his chest sucks in too fast, breaths too shallow to process air thick with sweat and adrenalin. He’s an insect pinned down to a card and there’s nothing to be done about it.
And he was never one to shy away from pain, familiar with its company, anticipating it most times, always doing something stupid to tempt it but it’s kinda different now when it’s just him inside the tube alone with his own demons and something to prove and the machine starting to really whirr like a bastard—
He grips the hand rests he’s strapped to, feeling so powerless and it’s not the pain that’s scary, it’s not the dying if they fail, no, the scary thing‘s the goddamn hissing in his chest getting worse and making him black out before he can get the job done. Loki wonders at that wheezing pull in his chest, trying to concentrate on why it feels like it’s his lifelong companion while being completely alien at the same time. Maybe they’ll open the machine to find a corpse. Oh, the irony, dying in the service of his country while never so much as setting foot at the front—
It's unrelenting; hydraulic, metal, unstoppable, hurting, oh god it hurts so bad, but can't stop now, don't fucking stop now, this can’t have been for nothing.
“NO! DON’T! I CAN DO THIS—", teeth locked so tight they might break, should have asked for a mouthguard, should have asked for something to bite because Loki’s going to bite clean through his tongue, blood boiling, every inch of him zapping, from his toenails to the tips of his ears, everything in iridescent agony and vibrating to the relentless force of the machine, oh god, OH MY GOD—
~ ⌘ ~
Loki woke bowing from the bed with his mouth locked open in a silent scream, his shoulders and the heels of his feet braced into the coverlets. Suspended in a shock of jagged pain, he sucked at the warm summer air like a fish plucked fresh from water.
Asgard slept on around him, oblivious to his distress. Long moments passed as he lay in darkness and calmed himself.
Loki’s body tingled as though he'd been struck by a stray lightning bolt from Thor, every bone, muscle and sinew quivering in shock at the flare of pain that had scourged like a layer of fire beneath his skin and woken him so abruptly.
He lay blinking in the darkness, assessing. He was whole, all parts of his body accounted for and well enough, and yet there was something—
There was definitely something.
His body and limbs felt normal but within him, something churned bright and as intense as a new world being born, debris magnetising around the kernel at its core.
He stared wide-eyed into the darkness, carefully settling his senses around it.
Buried deep beneath his ribs in the very center of him, the odd sensation, the strange weakness that he had been carrying inside him for years suddenly burned hotter than before, more substantial than he had ever felt it, as though it had been forcibly jolted into life while he slept.
Where before it had been nothing more than a ripple in the depths of a murky lake, now it pulsed, dangerous and elemental. It pulled at his insides like an undertow.
Loki turned to face the window and tried to steady his breathing. With a small flick of fingers, he sent his magic along the strange pulling sensation, directing it to follow. His stomach clenched with anticipation as it went out into the night, scurrying along its length like flame up an oiled rope. Loki gasped, sensing its vigour as it flexed like a live thing against the press of his magic.
“What is this,” Loki whispered into the quiet of his rooms.
It was sure and strong, and banked out into the void beyond Asgard, between realms, scampering along the very branches of Yggdrasil. He could feel intent in its direction, an almost sentient need to—
Loki threw off the sheets and sat up in his bed, suddenly brimming with a mix of curiosity and dread as the coil spun onward into the void, a strong thought alighting into his mind, unbidden.
“Midgard,” he whispered, blinking in confusion. He felt sure, as he always had, that it could not be a bond. The whole business had been a debacle from the start and now, with the hint of its supposed location . . . Whoever heard of a soul bond between the races of Asgard and Midgard? It was surely nothing more than an error. A cosmic joke. He could not immediately think of any other explanation.
And yet, the pull was unmistakable; the more he cast his thoughts toward the other realm, the less doubt remained.
Midgard. It was impossible.
Loki had not waited. He had not pined. He simply grew older and his skin thicker. He had already come to accept being born without a bonded soul to cleave to, one more way in which he would always be the lesser brother.
So of course it made sense that it would settle upon him when he least expected it.
He lay in a tangle of sweaty sheets with his heart lodged in his throat and recalled reading absolutely nothing at all about soul bonds born as sickly as runt babes only to inexplicably burst into vibrant, healthy life some years later.
Perhaps it was not a soul bond after all. Perhaps he had truly been poisoned, or bespelled. He cast about himself but felt nothing amiss. Loki pressed his fingers into his eyes and tried to relax his tense shoulders. An echo of the pain which woke him lingered in his bones and inside his chest, the false bond swelled and swelled until he thought he would choke.
Gingerly, he sent his magic to curl around the ache in his chest. It flared hotly and he gasped at the mix of pain and intense need, like coals ripe for stoking into a proper fire. It licked at him, seductive and dangerous, a promise of belonging that life had already taught him was not his to covet.
Staring blindly up at the ceiling, Loki breathed in sharply through his nose and tried to center himself. He had to control it. It wasn’t real. He had to learn to tame it, then forget it. He would will it into oblivion.
He was still meditating hours later when a servant knocked on the door of his chambers to summon him to Odin's presence, putting an end to it. As it turned out, he would have no time to dwell on any matter but this: Asgard had been called upon to head a council for war.
Within a day, he and Thor had been outfitted for battle, and rode hard for the Bifrost at their father's side and the time for delving into personal affairs was over. Loki grinned, self-aware enough to be glad of the interruption. He would have little opportunity to consider anything but how best to use the strange energy that burned so bright inside him and turn it into a forge with which to sharpen his blades.
He would throw himself into the campaign, even if it took months.
And in that time, if his dreams took on an almost frightening intensity, to the point where he preferred long bouts of sleeplessness rather than the distress of waking sweat-drenched and aching, Loki bore it in silence. It lingered beneath his skin; a reminder of a challenge he had yet to face, and from which he could not run, no matter how many enemies of Asgard he laid to waste at Thor’s side.
The campaign had not been without casualties, but they came home to a victor’s welcome. Loki often found the lights and festivities of Asgard garish but never more so than now. Or perhaps it was simply that over his two year absence he had grown accustomed to the windswept snap of tent walls and mud caked as far as the eye could see.
He kept his eyes on Thor’s back as they entered the great hall, Thor hand-in-hand with Sif and flanked by his friends, and Loki escorting Frigga on his arm. Odin was already seated and presiding over the feast.
Loki saw his mother to her seat, then excused himself under the pretense of seeking out someone he had seen in the crowd. He walked only so far as a darkened corner where he could lean against a column and stay cloaked in shadow.
They had barely had time to finish a course or two before Sif whisked Thor away; he would gripe later about his cold dinner, no doubt. Loki watched them make their way around the banquet hall, Thor always with his eyes on Lady Sif, his hands on her nearly as often. Loki could almost see their bond, it was so intense. They had been inseparable for days, no longer constrained by the etiquette of battle camps where Sif was less Thor’s beloved and more a mighty sword at his side.
The spartan surrounds, the fighting and training as well as the constant wariness of living in a soldiers’ camp made it easy to ignore the pangs echoing around his heart, though he had to put his mind to it. Denial was a lot harder to achieve when faced with such obvious displays.
He was just considering snatching some fruit and making for his rooms or perhaps the parapet, when someone approached in the hesitant way of the acquaintance currying favour. Loki recognised Gunnar, a warrior possessed of some good swordsmanship. He admired the man - they had fought side by side. The thing in his chest squeezed at him.
“Magnificent feast,” Gunnar said, looking around as though seeing it for the first time. Loki snorted. People were ridiculous.
"At least as magnificent as the last one. And the one before that."
"Ah. Yes. My apologies.” Gunnar looked up, sheepishly. “May I speak frankly, then?”
“By all means.” Loki cocked his head, curiosity stroked just a little.
“I had hoped to speak with you alone. I understand there is to be a hunt soon to celebrate our triumphant return, and, well. I would very much like to join your exalted party, you see."
Many saw Thor's weakness for his odd brother and sought to ingratiate themselves, to impress him, and by extension, Thor. If Loki hadn't been fielding such offers for countless years, he might have been offended. As it were, he was only tired.
"I'm in no mood for this," he said, watching the revellers preen in their finery, the noise of their chatter near unbearable. He pushed off from the column he'd been leaning on and gave Gunnar a slight nod, making it clear the discussion was over. "Enjoy the rest of the evening."
As he turned to walk away, warm fingers slipped around his bicep, not holding him, but simply . . . there. Loki turned his head to find Gunnar much closer than friendly propriety allowed. Warm breath fanned over his cheek. Loki stilled, waiting, senses prickling.
"Is there something else you may be in the mood for?" Gunnar said quietly.
So it would be seduction, not bribery. Loki’s reply was as glacial as he could make it.
”This will get you nowhere with Thor. Perhaps you should be making your bid directly to him instead of insulting me."
"Oh, but you have me wrong, Prince Loki," Gunnar said, a slight smile playing at his lips. He was attractive, Loki realised, especially when he laced his voice with an element of contrite teasing. "It is not your illustrious brother whose favour I hope to win."
Loki stayed still as Gunnar neared in to press a soft, chaste kiss to the corner of his mouth.
It was nice, pleasant, not tinged with the desperation of muddy, bruised lust-slaking that was all the experience of lovemaking any of them had had of late - the rush and filth of the needful scrabbling between battles. Loki leaned into the kiss, testing, allowing Gunnar to crowd him against the pillar, cold marble at his back, warm chest to warm chest.
"I have wanted you," Gunnar said, mouthing his way to Loki's throat, nuzzling at him. A tightening coil drew around his chest right beneath Gunnar’s splayed fingers.
They were the wrong hands. It was all wrong.
He tried to relax into it - it would be wonderful to release some of the tension lurking in his bones - but the sudden surge in his chest turned unhappy and anxious, a confusion of feelings swelling inside him now that he could no longer conceal them under the rage and heat of war and the need to feel alive with another breathing body to cling to, to rut against lest they die in the next skirmish.
Loki kissed him back, bit at his mouth and pushed his body into Gunnar’s embrace, and for a moment it seemed as though he could— if he just closed his eyes and—
But no. The disquiet around his heart was not appeased, the hollow ache worsening the longer he clung to Gunnar’s shoulders.
Helpless with the pent-up rage that everything - even this simple, base pleasure - had been taken away from him, Loki laughed darkly against Gunnar's wide mouth, before pushing him away.
Gunnar's confused, earnest little frown almost made Loki relent, though he knew he could not.
"But I have not wanted you," Loki said, watching Gunnar's face fall, then harden. Loki shook off the fingers still curled around his bicep and shrugged his clothing back into place. Gunnar’s wounded pride was better than his own vulnerability revealed to exploitation.
He turned, and did not look back, walking into shadow, then stepping through the void and into his chambers and with a flick of his hand barring the doors to anyone who would enter.
The dream was vivid as they always were now, and Loki woke hot all over with his heart pounding and his mouth dry, the sensory memory of wide, strong hands spread over his thighs not easily shaken off with the vestiges of sleep.
He could still feel the echo of battle-worn calluses dragging deliciously over his skin. There had been a hint of an intense blue gaze, a soft mouth, stubborn and full and Loki ached with desire, hands shaking, stunned and nearly sick with it. Panting still, he put his hand against his chest and closed his eyes, the pull of the bond inside almost violent in its need.
The memory of his dream alone made what happened earlier with Gunnar a travesty. He could ignore this no longer. They'd only been home for a week and in that time his dreams, the ache in his chest - constant, but bearable up until now - had escalated. There was nothing to keep his mind off this torment in the serene, gilded halls of Asgard, and it pervaded his every waking - and sleeping - moment. He didn't know how much more he could stand.
Loki rose from his bed and dressed simply in a tunic and soft trousers, and sat for a long time by the window, the nightscape of Asgard stretched out as far as he could see. He looked down at his own hands, turning them over and over. Was someone out there dreaming of them in return?
Something had changed for him - or perhaps inside him - in that moment two years ago; the ill-formed spark he had grown accustomed to ignoring had come alive while he had slept. He would not be able to fall asleep again this night, his body shivering for that phantom touch and his mind aflame.
He took a long walk through the torchlit halls, bound for the Queen’s gardens. There was once a good vantage to be found in a high nook he and Thor had favoured as children - ah yes, it was just as he remembered. He looked up to the recess lined with drooping vines, removed his boots and sent them up ahead with barely a thought. Then, he climbed the ornamental embankment using his fingers and bare feet the way he did as a boy, found the perch large enough still to accommodate his adult size and set to wait in the soft bed of fragrant greenery until dawn.
He leaned back onto the wall of the very rock from which Asgard was hewn and looked out to sea, the firmament reflected on its sleek waters. Perhaps there was someone whose counsel he could trust.
Night finally receded and Asgard preened, the regal arrogance of her thoroughfares and crystal spires picking up the glare of morning sunlight. Loki had seen this view hundreds of times and had always thought it beyond beautiful. Now he wondered when it had begun to jar his senses.
“Aren’t you going to come down and join me?”
Frigga sat on a bench as though she had always been there, the morning sun favouring the braided rope of hair over her shoulder and glinting from her golden cuffs.
“Mother,” Loki said in greeting.
Frigga grinned and turned to watch the sun rising over the water.
Loki stretched the stiffness from his shoulders and made his way down, landing lightly on the grass beside her bench. He sat, mindful of Frigga's gown and dutifully kissed her proffered cheek.
“You did not rest well,” Frigga said, and Loki tried to muster up some indignation.
"Telling someone they look tired is akin to telling them they look terrible, you know."
"Oh, please. You wouldn't know terrible if you tripped face first into a puddle of it."
"I do not trip."
Frigga cupped his cheek in the palm of her hand and he made himself stay still instead of leaning in, but she knew him too well. There was a deep well of fondness in her eyes for him. There always had been. "How you make me fight for your love."
Loki rolled his eyes and nuzzled into her soft hand. "There. Is that better?"
Frigga laughed in genuine amusement. "Good morning, Loki."
"I hadn't noticed."
"Is that because you've not slept all night?" Her smile was wry.
“Someone must stay awake and plot. It may as well be me.”
"And none better for the task."
"I happen to know of one," Loki said, grinning, and leaned companionably into his mother's shoulder.
Frigga chuckled, as he knew she would. "Oh, but I need to sleep to retain my youthful complexion and cannot stay awake all night, scheming."
“The youthful complexion of our beautiful queen is in no danger from a few late nights of scheming, which well you know.”
Frigga rolled her eyes, but her mouth curled in pleasure. “Flatterer.”
"I do not flatter, either. Everyone knows who truly rules in Asgard, and if they do not, they're fools not worth so much as this." He plucked a speck of leaf litter from the soft fabric of Frigga's gown and blew it into the light breeze. Frigga smiled and pressed back against his shoulder.
They sat quietly for a long moment. Loki watched the waves of the endless sea break over Asgard's rocky shores and thought once more of his dream, and of inevitability. He thought of fate, and of believing in no fate unless he made it for himself.
“Mother, what do you know of Midgard?”
Frigga’s brow rose in surprise. She turned to him, searching his face. Loki stared at the reflection on the water, willing his heart to slow and for his face to be still.
“A little. Your father would surely know more than I. Why do you not ask him,” Frigga said, and Loki pursed his mouth.
“Ah. I see.” Frigga smoothed silky fabric over her lap and looked out over the horizon. “What is it you would know? I cannot guarantee that I have the answer, but—”
“Something draws me there,” Loki said, inclining his head in a contrite nod at interrupting her. “It is - I do not know what it is.” Loki lowered his hand from where it had been absently rubbing circles over his sternum. Frigga gave no sign of noticing, allowing him a moment of silence to regroup. He knew she had seen. What she would make of it, he did not know.
“That sounds intriguing, though I am sure you will not confide in me.”
“I would let it draw me. I would travel there,” Loki said, surprising himself. He had not meant to say any such thing, but the spark within him seemed aligned with the idea somehow.
He recalled how the sensation had been weak and flawed from the beginning, nothing more than a flutter in his breast, perhaps a quarter century earlier though he had not kept strict measure of it. It came to life one evening while he sat at table, flickering like an ill-lit candle. It had been so faint that he'd almost failed to recognise it.
The thing had kicked then, a pulse of warmth radiating out to pool at the base of Loki’s stomach. He did not know what to make of it.
He bore it in silence that evening, expecting it would disperse in time.
It had not.
Against all odds, it had persisted, a dull ache of an accursed thing, and Loki had grown suspicious. He had been uneasy about sharing this secret with anyone who might exploit it and had summoned as many tomes from the library as he could find regarding the subject. He had emerged from his rooms weighed down with tales of bonds corrupted or otherwise malformed, people sent mad with unrequited longing for a dead bondmate, tragedies of soul bonds formed without regard for age or race, the bureaucracy of class or the territories of war.
He woke with it and ate with it, sparred and lay down to sleep with it, and keeping it secret had made it easier to finally accept the kernel of this strange, crippled bond which pulsed like his own heartbeat’s echo, keeping time alongside his own, arrhythmic and weak, but stubbornly refusing to surrender. Loki could certainly respect that.
There had been precious little in the old texts about bonds formed as late in life as his had been, and with such strange beginnings.
Loki had searched inside himself for signs that might suggest some kind of tampering. The sensation of twin heartbeats, an echo inside his own mind and reverberating in his chest had been disconcerting. It still was. The time had come for him to stop making excuses and get to the root of it. He took a deep breath and looked into his mother’s eyes.
“I would see Midgard for myself.”
“As far as I know, nothing is preventing you,” Frigga said, her quiet scrutiny unsettling him.
Loki set his jaw. “I imagine Father would have something to say about it.”
Frigga clucked her tongue. “You have already decided,” she said, and of course, it was true. He had decided, probably the very moment he had woken in exquisite agony two years before. He had to see, to finally know.
“Contrary to your belief, the Allfather does not go out of his way to make your life difficult.”
“Of course not. He does not need to go out of his way.”
“Oh, Loki,” Frigga said, her voice sweetened with fondness. “If it’s reasons not to go that you need to hear from me . . .”
“Yes. Tell me why I must not go. Feel free to bandy around words such as irresponsibility, the foils of youth, gallivanting—”
“And give you the excuse to immediately defy me?” Frigga laughed. “My dear son. Keep your secrets if you must but do not try your tricks on me. I am not one of your weak-minded friends.”
Loki smiled and leaned into her shoulder once again. “Hardly. You know I do not have any of those,” but his smile vanished at the stiffening of her posture.
Silence fell between them, and Loki looked to the horizon, unfocused and suddenly untethered, like a sail flapping in the wind. Frigga tugged at his hair where he’d let it grow long at the nape and Loki let himself sink, tucking his head into the crook of her neck and pushing everything else aside for this tiny, stolen moment of comfort.
“I will speak to your father if the need arises. But it won’t.”
Loki nodded, words caught in his throat, and simply allowed himself to be held, nursing the glow in his chest for the first time with a little warmth.
Loki stepped into the dome which housed the Bifrost and closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the bond throb and tug at him strong as rope wound tight around his heart. When he opened his eyes, Heimdall was watching him from the shadows.
"Am I a fool?" Loki said, his hands clenching into fists.
"Undoubtedly," Heimdall deadpanned.
Loki huffed a laugh but the tension within him did not relent. "Allow me to rephrase, then. Am I a fool to hope?"
"Perhaps," Heimdall said after a long moment, his yellow gaze inscrutable. "If you are, then so are we all."
Loki frowned, his chest feeling a little tight. He gave Heimdall a small smile and took his place upon the mark.
“You will tell no one about this?”
“As long you honour your promise, I will honour mine,” Heimdall said, unblinking eyes fixed on Loki’s face. He could trust Heimdall to keep it to himself as he had promised. Loki had uttered a promise in return, and intended to keep it. After all, this was a personal matter and no possible scenario, no direct action he could take would call for him to cause harm to Asgard.
Loki gave him a stiff nod.
“I do not know who it is. How can you know my destination to open the bridge, if I don’t know who it is?”
Heimdall looked down. His eyes seemed unfocused, but Loki knew he could see well beyond the eternal realm.
“If you draw your magic down the coil, I will see it, and will set you down in the right place.”
Loki swallowed dryly, his heart lodged in his throat. He did as Heimdall instructed, concentrating on sending his spark down along the bond, closing his eyes to feel its winding descent.
The gatekeeper stood in silence, looking out over the ledge while Loki let his senses lead him. Finally, Heimdall seemed satisfied, enough so that he hefted Hofund and inserted its tip into the receptacle at the heart of the dome.
“I have its measure now. You may go forth.”
Green eyes met gold. Loki said nothing. What more was there to say? He set his shoulders and waited.
Behind him, he heard the screech of metal upon stone as Heimdall drove Hofund’s blade in all the way through the sheath, opening the bridge which accepted Loki inside, sucking him through the portal with a heady rush.
Loki’s stomach lurched with a sudden, unexpected displacement.
Something was wrong.
Loki had travelled via the Bifrost many times but he had never experienced this horrible, sickening vertigo, the void sucking at him as though he was free-falling instead of being naturally propelled through the tunnel.
There was nothing for him to brace himself against and he felt as though he might vomit from the conflicting sensations of being pulled by the tunnel while simultaneously being violently pushed through it.
"Heimdall!" Loki shouted, not knowing if the guardian would see what was happening to him or if he could do anything to help when Loki was still within the tunnel.
With a sickening lurch in his gut, Loki realised he was trapped by the speed of his descent and that if something terrible was happening to the Bifrost, he would be unable to do anything to stop it from disintegrating around him. If Heimdall tried to close the tunnel with Loki still inside, he might well be flung out into the void in pieces.
Someone was shouting, something about —a dance? Loki was alone but there it was, as clear as if he himself was making it, a roar of defiance and terror, then the crush of regret so strong Loki could taste it, as bitter as ash. A crash through a white barrier, his body flung sideways, pain, bright hot flare of pain quickly swallowed by ice, the cold, oh god the cold, his chest heaving with the shock, trying to breathe and swallowing freezing cold water instead, fighting, sluggish in the cold, stammering out a prayer until the white turned black—
With an enormous boom, the Bifrost touched down on solid ground and dissipated in a flurry of hissing steam, leaving Loki curled on his side and struggling to breathe.
The sudden absence of sound was like a thunderclap. The only thing he could hear were his own lungs heaving for air. Slowly, he uncurled his limbs and lay back on the ground, looking up to a clear, navy sky full of constellations he had not seen before. The air smelled like apples.
It took a moment for him to realise the silence was in his chest, too, deep within him. The lack was staggering and absolute.
“No,” Loki whispered, pressing his open hand to his chest, as though he could reach inside and find the bond that way, wake it up. Keep it safe. “No!”
Why had he had been called to this barren place? There was nothing here but icy outcrops and snow as far as his eyes could see. He was alone on the stamp of the Bifrost, sensing not one soul for countless miles around, let alone the soul . . . Inside him the bond was a silent tomb.
He had been emptied, the cavity of his chest scooped clean. There was nothing. Nothing.
Loki got to his feet and howled himself hoarse, the raw gape inside him spewing pain into the white void.
All this time, he'd been coming to terms with a soul bond manifesting for him - late, odd, on Midgard of all places - all these concessions he'd made for it, trying to understand it and finally to accept that it was real, that he could have this, that he might have someone . . . all for nothing. It didn't exist. It had almost convinced him. He had begun to believe it. He laughed until his throat felt raw, and when he licked his cracked lips, he tasted salt.
There was something wrong with him, and he should have known it. He should have realised it wasn't real. Perhaps travelling through the Bifrost had disrupted the manipulation he had been under. Perhaps someone had tricked him into this, had worked at it long and hard and had managed to make Loki convince himself that it was real, that there really was someone waiting, someone for him to—
"Show yourself," he roared into the white distance, enraged, throwing the might of his magic around him to find the one responsible, to make them pay for his humiliation.
There was nothing. No one.
“Heimd—,” Loki said, his voice breaking on a sob as the Bifrost came down to where he knelt and collected him back up into the sky.