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On my deathbed (I will pray)

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Sunlight glittering down from a bare, translucent sky. The landscape and myriad facets cast into precious jewels. Heavy chains in gleaming hematite against the white beachstone of his wrists. The stormy blue agate of Thor's eyes, and the gold in his hair.

There is little ceremony on the day Loki returns to Asgard. He is bound and gagged, guided by the warm, steady hand low on his back that never quite falls away. The keeper who watches him ceaselessly, as though Loki might vanish without his heavy and constant gaze—as though losing Loki to endless air and a wash of sunlight is a nightmare that does not bear contemplation.

But Loki has secrets, and this one carefully guarded: it is the heat that saps his strength, the brightness that blinds him. Everything warm and brilliantly lit about this day, every flash of steel or polished stone or wild rush of hair, every shelled carapace that casts shards of illumination into the sky—they tire him always. For centuries, Loki felt rejuvenated of an evening, refreshed by the colder climes. Vigorous in the dark, deep places.

And, for centuries, he knew not the truth of his progenation.

Knowing so now serves only to aggravate his discomfort, to flavor his shame with futility. To salt the great wounds of his weary eyes, because the greater the number of flaws that can be attributed to his fundamental origins, the greater is the mistake of his existence. The more surely his made-family should regret ever preserving a life such as his.

Thor eventually breaks away to survey his mortal comrades-in-arms. He is proud to have battled beside them, to have spilled blood for them—to have spilled his own, even. It is evident in every word of farewell, in the way he clasps the wrists of Captain Steve Rogers, the shoulders of Tony Stark. The way he shakes Agent Romanov's hand with both of his and bows his head respectfully to Bruce Banner. How he apologizes to Agent Barton on behalf of his—on behalf of Loki.

Loki closes his eyes. He recalls last night, the stacked hours of exhaustion and wakefulness: sleep fitful, and a cause lost to his newfound isolation, because the Other has gone from him. It is a vast emptiness, a bleak finality, after having shared such an intimate part of his mind.

(After having listened to the echoes of his thoughts like a seashell cupped to his ear, the rush of blood telling the lie-stories of ancient waves. How thoughts feel so much smaller once you can track how they resonate, how they angle back and fold in on themselves, exaggerated until nothing surely can be what you know.)

In the small hours of dawn, Thor had come to him smelling like the night sky and stormwinds. Loki had failed even to speak, let alone to turn him away or to ask scathingly after his human woman. In those moments, there had been nothing to say.

So he had simply moved aside in the cramped bed, mindful of the chains, to allow for the close-quarters contact of children at rest. Boneless and safe.

It is something Thor has not attempted for years, because it has been years since Loki permitted it. Sometimes you must tear a thing out by the root before it can bloom, heady and drugging, with a fragrance to poison you both.

Sleep had claimed Loki in a steady rhythm analogous to the resting breaths of a storm-god he had loved for the whole of his life, and despised. A god he had envied in the deep recesses of his liver, had admired in the pale, cobwebbed chapel of his heart.

He knows not what has changed, or when. If anything has ever changed at all.

Loki opens his eyes, the memory of Thor's warmth a tight crush in his chest that never quite melts away.

They have come to the center of a plaza, all lush trees and towering buildings and plain-clothes Avengers on every side. Loki has to squint his eyes to see clearly his brother's face.

No, a sharp voice whispers in the empty caverns of his psyche. There resides only, to accompany his thoughts, a pale scar in the shape of a six-fingered hand: We are not brothers.

Later, he will wonder if the bond he cannot articulate or identify—these ties that bind Thor to the rest of the Avengers, and the Avengers to each other, sticky and strong and gossamer like magic, like spider-silk—is a thing forged by Loki's own hands, engendered by grand conflicts of his own devising.

Even as Thor turns to him, gripping the ornate handle of the Tesseract's handsome cage, small bursts of despair spread through the angled halls of Loki's intestines: Thor has spoken little since his return from New Mexico, has fallen into a silence as meditative as it is rare, though he walks with a light heart. The raging beast of his anger has been tempered to a passionate simmer, and the brash and thoughtless excesses of his youth have fallen away from him entirely, a discarded mantle—and Loki realizes with a start that Thor has grown wise.

The sunlight sets him afire, casts him in a fierce glow, and when he meets Loki's gaze, it is with a question: Will you cooperate with me in this, or must I bind your hands also to the Tesseract?

Loki closes his eyes briefly. His imagination, however, offers no respite from the angle of Thor's jaw or the fullness of his lower lip; from the darkness of his lashes or the weary lines on his face.

The muzzle heavy over Loki's mouth, a dead weight, a veritable black hole for his magics, leeches at his energies always. This is what he tells himself as he reaches for the second grip on the device that will transport him home.

He watches the careful almost-smile, the flicker of warmth in Thor's face, as he does so. He keeps his mind empty of these two things, but the twist in his belly and the heat in his chest are not so easily erased; they are the same as from two minutes ago, as from two millennia ago.

The world breaks apart around them. As if they are the only ones who never disappear.

The All-father stares them down from on high. He sits the golden throne that Loki covets low in the damp cellar of his back: a cold lick of power that stirs and sweats in him until he is owned by nothing else.

Odin, monstrous and solid, heavier with magic even than Loki, though less with selfsame trickery, holds Gungnir in one strong hand. Wields it like a scepter rather than a spear, and his remaining eye is old beyond old.

"My child," he asks, somber through the ages. "What evils have you wrought?"

"Little enough, Father," Thor interrupts firmly. He has not left Loki's side. He is a bright presence which grates and wears like a sunburn, like wounds old and new. He holds Loki's metal half-mask, enchanted wordeater, fitfully in his hand. "The mighty of Midgard's heroes assisted me to—"

"Silence, Thor," Odin commands with all the cold finality of unending winter, and his eyes do not leave Loki's face.

Loki thinks: I wanted one thing for myself.

Loki says, "I meant to rule Midgard."

"No, Loki," Odin sighs. His voice is almost gentle. "You meant to crush Midgard. To set them under your yoke!"

And there it is, implicit: that Loki cannot be trusted with the well-being of a people. That he must never be permitted to orchestrate a perfect system of ultimate law, to fine-tune the lives of every subject. To leave no room for the frictions of war and crime, illusions of conquest. It is so ridiculous that he snaps, "I would have been a great king!"

Odin's single eye is tired; in another life, Loki could have interpreted this as an expression of sorrow. "You would have been a tyrant. How can you not see that, even now?"

Loki has nothing at all to say in reply, but the weight of words unspoken beats furious and hot in his chest, makes him sick with it, makes him shake.

In the vast and empty twilit throne room, he feels at odds with the cool air; as though his nature has reversed polarity, as though he is neither Asgardian nor Jötun; half-formed, and reversed-out, and interminably lost.

He wonders if Frigga, notably absent, as her son loves him still. Wonders if it matters, if he would even want her to. If there are any of the nine realms who would take him, or if he is simply a being too flawed in his firmament for that heaven called Home.

On his knees, bound, his words granted their paltry freedoms, he stares at the majesty of the hall that has been a main fixture through all his life. Glossy and regal, visually delicate and stunning with all the hard strength of the king himself, this place is a cage in more ways than even Loki can name.

It closes in from all sides as a reminder, an old ache in his bones: of his childhood, reflective and traitorous, and happiness bleeding out slowly over years and years until, one day, there was nothing left in the tower of his throat but the ugly tang of jealousy.

Once upon a time, he might have belonged. He might have been able to make himself believe that. Before Thor had begun to eclipse him so utterly.

Once, he had felt with alarm and confusion the growing rift that had begun to set him apart, the all-encompassing disconnect. Had felt, even before his mind began to twist inward and self-devour like an ouroboros, that Asgard wasn't any place for him at all.

And then he learned what now he knows: there is no way it ever would be.

Thor steps forward, solemn and grim, a well of reckless and unstable energy because he wants to save Loki more than anything else in the world. It's written so clearly in every limb, every look—how he still believes saving is possible.

Loki studies the rough brute of a god as well as he can without turning up his face. Even now, even here, his eyes are drawn to him, spurred on by the complication of heat and anger that alights in the stone labyrinths of his arteries whenever Thor draws near.

Asgard's future king has his mouth twisted, miserable and tight, and his fists are curled like he wishes he were holding Mjölnir. That this were a battle he could fight with his hands, and not some indiscernible thing that has ruptured betwixt all of them. He makes small, abortive movements like he would get his hands on Loki, would reassure himself of Loki's solid presence, if it were a thing permitted of him by anyone at all.

The Thor of old was impetuous and hotheaded, never one to spare a thought for his actions, nor to consider their consequences. But Loki admits—quietly, to himself, in the whispery corridors of his ear canals—that perhaps, one day, this particular incarnation of Thor could serviceably rule. Could even do so graciously.

It is quite likely that Loki will never tell him this. It even is more likely that he will never have the opportunity, present circumstances considered.

When they were very much younger, and through repetitive experience, Thor learned that Loki can vanish with a thought; that it is impossible to keep a hold of him, then or now, unless it is something Loki explicitly wants: to be held.

It once was a game, whether or not he would disappear just as Thor got his arms around him. They loved each other; they were children. Romanoff was not far wrong.

Now, the frolics of their youth come packaged with a much heavier implication. It is a thing of which Loki is keenly aware, a thing he cannot bring himself to actively resist—but also a thing he fears. Perhaps the only thing he fears.

Thor gravitates between ferocity and uncertainty while their fath —while Odin passes judgement. Between what is right and what he wants.

Between what he believes and what is patently true.

Restless, rough, tightly self-contained, Thor means to combat every tragic ultimatum; but Loki knows it is impossible to predict the entirety of any circumstance, and Thor has never been adept at managing even the most likely scenarios. He has always walked the singular path, prefers to cut through the middle while Loki dances, suspended, on the knife's edge of possibility and inevitability. Picking at the seams until a new path opens up and swallows him whole.

Thor fidgets, close and unquenchable, and Loki shifts toward him in the smallest increment; Thor stills; Loki touches their elbows together.

He does not offer support. He is simply stemming an unnecessary distraction.

All the same, Thor leans into the touch, and he almost looks at Loki, and he almost smiles at him.

Except—Odin says a word that chases every particle of comfort from his son's face.

It could be, Exile.

It could be, Death.

But Loki is listening only to the pervasive silence of his own mind, to the high and distant ring of residual magics not his own. Carefully testing a seal between planes erected hastily in a moment of enemy weakness. If he is to die at all, and alone, may it be secure in the knowledge that nothing can climb through his corpse to play havoc on the land of his birth. Some things are your own to destroy.

And if Loki never again feels the chill touch of the Other's thoughts slipping like cold water over his brain, it will not be half long enough to wait.

He turns his attentions outward, picking through the white noise until the reality of his world settles back around, comfortable and close. A quiet of the average and well-appreciated variety: his own measured breaths, soft as dawn light; the creak of Odin-king's aging knees; the harsh breaths of a god who loves him still.

...A god fierce, and strong, and absolutely powerless in the presence of this ultimate judgement.

Thor erupts, "Father, he is your son! You must not do this thing!" Roars, "He is my brother!"

Loki stares dully at chains heavy and hot around his wrists. Thinks, We are not brothers.

The royal prisons of Asgard are not without comforts, and Loki is a twofold prince. His ancestors were kings, and he was raised among kings. He has been groomed for the throne since birth, even if that somber child of his youth exists no longer. Even if he is shadowy silhouette of a ragged, half-mad memory—the memory of a memory.

He is housed in a cell comprised not of transparent, curving panes, bullet-proof and shock-absorbent glass, and polymer layers—rather, it is isolation whole and impenetrable in the form of four sealed, stone walls and a floor; a curiously open ceiling to let in natural starlight; and no discernable windows or doors. He cannot even see the peripheral dawn of Asgard: there is only the great expanse of the evening sky overhead.

All entrances melt seamlessly into the stone construction, and the marble is so smooth and cool and fissureless, impenetrable, that Loki may as well be encased in ice.

Worse jails have contained him, and better; but traversing the planes has brought about a darkness, inky and cloying, that climbs into bed with his jealousy and his loneliness. That forms a veil to cloud his mind always.

He should revel in the perfect quiet, embrace the cool solitude; his mind should be expanding to take up the empty space, free of distraction. He should be able to think clearly here. After falling into the swirling chaos of the decaying Bifröst, the crush of stars like so much brittle glass—after knowing worlds diseased and pristine, and he altered for having passed them through—after his grand dismantlement, humiliating and complete by Midgard's appointed guardians—Loki should be able to rest.

It does not come.

Instead, the emptiness only exaggerates the somber hollows of his moods, spreads him thin, traps him in the razored cage of his psyche until the particular weight inherent to nothingness can be borne not a moment more.

Without abstraction, without stars-crossing schemes or the delightful complexity of political manipulation—without even a text from an unexplored area of study to pass the time—the scrawny bones of reminiscence seek entry, beg quarter from the cold extremities of his thoughts. They bear the sweet poisons of nostalgia, the bitter aftertaste of regret.

It is only possible to turn your mind away from itself for so long before you begin to snap at your own heels.

As for now, Loki thinks not of youthful revelries, Sif and the Warriors Three and many a drunken evening. Frigga's boundless love, or times long past when Odin adored him still.

Nor does he recall brawny hands resting on his shoulders, cupped at the nape of his neck or low at the cradle of his spine. Breath that reeks of mead, or ale. Of perfect, liquid laughter like the quaking of all the earth.

A low voice near his ear, the exact flavor of thunder.

He does not think about a heavy, settled weight, burning low in the furnace of his belly; how that particular cadence of sensation arises always when Thor is near. And only.

He does not think about arrogance, or how it can be stripped away until it has become a kind of strength that Loki has never known; and he does not think about trust—he has not kept to it for years.

Loki presses his face into his thin hands and tries to ignore the endless list of desirable attributes which Thor is in possession of, which Loki is not. Every piece of his not-brother that vaults ever higher, distancing the two of them until Loki is certain: he can never stand beside Thor as an equal.

This stupid, perfect brute. This brother who loves him, who isn't his brother at all.

Loki eases into the corner, sits with his palms resting on his thighs and his back against the wall, but all he wants to do is fold his lean body into as small a shape as possible. Withdraw inextricably into himself.

Instead, he awaits his sentence as befits a god of his standing. He is no longer a child. He keeps his mask intact.

It could be hours later, or days, since his incarceration. In addition to leaving untouched the meals that have been provided—the wall splits to reveal an alcove where might rest bowls of food or pitchers of water, whatever is needed to sustain him without actual contact—he has left them uncounted. It could have been four or six; it could have been eight. They could be feeding him twice a day, or thrice, or once. He has had no desire for food.

His isolation is complete, perhaps in exchange for relieving him of that silvery, draining twist of a half mask. Thor had taken it from his face, his calloused fingers gentle on Loki's cheeks, and had never reaffixed it.

He thinks that if servants to attend him were necessary, they would likely avert their eyes regardless. Treat him as life forfeit: a not-thing.

Today, in alongside the food Loki has no interest in, there is a basin of water, clean clothing, soap. A cloth for scrubbing and a cloth for drying.

Thoughtlessly, Loki peels out of his clothes and kneels upon them, on the hard floor. Sluices water over his body, takes the opportunity to focus on the lukewarm wetness and the plain, nostalgic scent of bergamot and tarragon and lye.

He scrubs his body until his flesh is red and tender, his hair until the wild mass is gleaming and he can pick through the tangles.

The washbasin is dark with filth and old blood, and it feels as though Loki has removed a layer of himself, has exposed some new being. Has discarded parts of him which were rubbish.

He's drying his body, slowly and thoroughly, when a thunderous pounding rattles what must be the prison door. Thin angles of light edge into existence, and it doesn't creak open so much as slam up against the wall, shuddering and singing with residual force.

"Why have you not been eating," Thor demands in his angry, anxious way, but he goes quiet when he gets around his superfluous concerns long enough to actually look at Loki.

Because of Thor's size, the available space seems to reduce by half; but he is also close and familiar, enough to suck from the prison all remaining air, and Loki shuts his eyes and allows himself one small moment to appreciate this. He can loathe himself for it later; it is a thing he excels at.

"I have not been hungry," he answers, glancing up at Thor. "And if I am to be executed, I fail to see how my diet is of any consequence."

The color drains from Thor's face only to rush back furious and red. It makes Loki think of the sea, of tidal rhythm: the onslaught in main force on the heels of tactical retreat.

He looks everywhere but Loki's body, his face uncharacteristically stony even as his voice shifts and warps with feeling. Like the sight of Loki is repulsive, like he is actively working to keep his disgust in check.

It has been many years since Thor has seen him laid bare, and they are no longer skinny children: Loki is all that a warrior of Asgard detests. His armor adds bulk, but beneath it he is lean and hungry-looking, all sharp edges and pale skin. Worse still, he is thoroughly bruised from Banner's hulking monstrosity; it mars his skin in great, purple blooms, black ridges, giant blue finger-marks on his arms and legs.

Perhaps Loki needed never to run away at all; perhaps he needed only to show Thor a bit of flesh to be left alone.

"Does the occasion of your death matter so little to you," Thor asks, harsh and unruly and loud even when attempting otherwise. He has never been soft-spoken. "You are—why must you twist everything you touch into—" he pauses, sucks in a breath. "You bring pain and difficulty to all things," he finally says, but it doesn't come out scathing: rather, the words are unhappy, lost. Almost wondering, because Thor cannot understand Loki's base nature. It is a thing that has been apparent for years.

"Why can we not," Thor begins, reaching out his hand. But the gesture falls flat, goes still in the empty air, when Loki moves away in something that is not quite a flinch; pulls his towel more firmly about his waist.

"Why can we not what," Loki whispers, tilting his head. He doesn't look at Thor's face; he doesn't look at anything. He reaches for the clean trousers and, after a second's hesitation, allows the towel to fall away. He does not dress hurriedly, and he can hear Thor make a rough, tight sound at the back of his throat.

They had bathed together as children. They had not known shame. And now he cannot even dress without feeling the hateful line of Thor's eyes hot on his spine, his hip. The flat planes and hollows of his chest and belly. As though he is every part of him a monster.

Thor doesn't meet his eyes until Loki has pulled the tunic over his head, has seated himself on the bench. They watch each other in silence, wary and weary.

Eventually, Thor goes to him. He does so without preamble, without appearing to have thought about it or convinced himself of anything. As though it occurs to him in the first moment: I should sit beside Loki; and in the second moment, his heavy weight settles on the stone with a faint creak that mirrors how Loki feels all along his body. The pressure he carefully contains surging restlessly for a breaking point.

Because Thor is patient now in a way he could never have managed before he was cast down to Earth, they are not shoulder to shoulder. The space between them, as much as can be provided, is more symbolic than practical: a gesture that says, I wish to be near you with your consent.

It's something of a compromise. Loki appreciates the effort, if nothing else, though something in the act is grating; it's the concept of releasing your momentary pride in favor of what you will eventually possess at journey's end. What you must see past your present anger to reach.

It's counter to Thor's very nature, and yet—and yet.

In light of Loki's sins, in light of all the ways he has brought harm to Thor—subtle and overt, malicious and calculating, sly machinations known and otherwise—here Thor sits, and here he waits. As though he is the one who has failed Loki. As though there is something, between them, salvageable. Worth saving.

Loki wonders when his brother will finally cast him out as a lost cause. He wonders what it will take.

He thinks, I have that wrong. I can never hope to convince him if I continually forget myself.

The thought is bitter within the locked undercity of his esophagus, flushed and flashing between the loose planks, the aging drawbridge of his tongue.

"Thor," Loki prompts quietly, his voice a hard rasp, and it is as though a dam has burst. This god beside him, luminous and attentive, blind in the extreme when it comes to some shameless liar who has filth instead of blood arush in his veins—this valorous god of battle, of the sharp scent of ozone and breaking storms—this god who calls him brother, who will never stop chasing him until either has died or Loki returns to him at last—this god curves toward him and hangs his golden head.

Bowed and bulky and hunched-in, and Loki with the sudden weight of one broad hand that has crept around and behind to rest high on his shoulder, the space between them falls away as though it never were. Thor has never strayed from physical contact; it is one of his most visceral comforts. If he is furious, it is his fists; if he is pleading, it is the careful caress of his palms.

His calloused thumb slides over the edge of an exposed collarbone, fingers splaying like he needs to have a better grip. Loki can smell him, can feel the heat of his breath: some things remain, even through the rigors of time and distance, beautiful and constant.

"Why can we not be as before," Thor finally asks, tension in the tightness of his muscles, all down the line of his back. "What have I done to—when did you become so—" He trails off, uncertain and sad.

Loki says nothing, doesn't move or breathe. Then he slowly unslouches to his full, seated height, his steadily-healing wounds offering a thousand small complaints. He leans slightly into the body beside him.

Even this small, rare piece of affection shifts Thor's demeanor, draws up the huge god's face. Has him watching Loki with an impossible knot of desperation and hope, even as the nervous energy drains out of his body. Like the rush of pleasure you feel of a battle, while waiting for the pain of your wounds to set in.

Thor is terrible at deception, and he is every part of him an open book.

Loki is all that undercuts Thor's better nature, the only element that leaves his happiness incomplete. He wishes them brothers in arms once more; he wishes never to spend their time together with the lingering fear that Loki will again disappear.

It is a baffling thing to be innately certain of, and something quite like guilt pools in the lost alleyways of Loki's bone marrow. "Do you think me evil?" He asks colorlessly, allowing his body to fully rest its weight into Thor's brawny chest. Thor slides his hand from Loki's neck to his elbow, skidding his fingers into the hollow he finds there before latching them tightly around Loki's forearm. He grips it just above the wrist.

"Never," Thor answers vehemently. "Perhaps you are misguided, but you are not lost. You will never be lost, Loki."

But he says it like he's swearing an oath, and Loki can hear: I will never lose you, brother.

He doesn't react for a long moment, and Thor awkwardly releases him. But he doesn't move away, and the fingertips of his right hand slip up to rest on the inside of Loki's elbow again, as though this small bit of contact grounds him. As though he traces Loki's pulse like an answered prayer. It's awful.

A moment more and Loki asks, "Thor?"

"Yes?" He studies Loki's face searchingly. He's too close, too familiar, and Loki's heart stutters and drowns behind the thin shield of his sternum.

"You've left the door open."

There is a tense, hard moment where Thor's eyes flash, where he soars to his feet, hot with intent to tear off after Loki—who, calmly, remains seated.

"You... do not flee?" Thor hesitates only a moment before sitting down again, unsure, off-balance. Loki wishes this were a trick; it would be a good one.

Instead he shakes his head: one honest expression, unlikely as that may be. "I have nowhere to go."

Thor stares at his hands and says nothing for a long, long time. When he finally looks up, his eyes are bright.

When he embraces Loki, his arms strong and warm and steady, holding him together like the crumbling foundations of a ruined temple, Loki does not struggle. He does not have the strength.

It is the first gift he has offered his brother in years.

Thor visits daily after that, until his arrival becomes a way of telling time, of passing time. Routine. Often, his adoptive brother will bring in food and mead of which Loki is surely not permitted to partake—he is still a prisoner, that much is entirely clear—but he eats in silence as Thor goes on about all and sundry. Slowly, Loki's body finishes knitting away at bone and bruised tissue until he is once more, barring all things missing underneath, whole.

Today's story involves partial nudity. It is a good day. One grows weary with tales of drinking and feasts, especially when one is imprisoned, and cannot attend for himself.

Not that Loki was ever one for that particular brand of entertainment. Not every night.

"So then Sif stole the vital attentions of the mad king by honorably removing her breast plates," he says, and Loki glances up from his folded hands with interest.

"Was he suitably distracted?" He asks, and Thor grins and absently pushes a loose chunk of hair back behind his ear. Loki watches the movements of his blunt fingers as they tangle in the pale stands and thinks of nothing.

"Suitably enough for Hogun to bury a mace in his skull."

"Lovely," Loki murmurs, but his mouth twitches and spoils the dry sarcasm with true humor.

After the initial bark of laughter, however, Thor's grin fades somewhat; grows hesitant. There is a rare, withdrawn quality to the mirth in his eyes, and Loki studies his face sharply. As a liar and a thief, inherent suspicion is his nature.

"Thor," he says, "What weighs upon your mind? I can feel from here the great struggle of your intellect." He pauses briefly. "It pains me."

There is a ghost of a smile on the other god's mouth, fleeting and gone in half a heartbeat. "I have had words with our father," he admits, and stands abruptly. At first Loki is unsure what he means to do, if he is to storm about angrily or kick the wall or—or grab Loki up, crush him against his chest. Instead, surprisingly, Thor simply folds his arms, quelling his restlessness by main force. In another life, his rage would be destructive, extraneous, cathartic but ultimately useless; now, it is focused and powerful. A tool. All over again, Loki marvels at the change in him.

That change is perhaps something possible.

"They cannot keep you locked away," Thor says, voice heavy with frustration. "You are no good to anybody in here, and you are not the only one who is punished by this arrangement."

Warmth floods Loki's chest, violent and sudden, and he turns his face away until he is sure he can suppress it. It is a very near thing that he cannot.

Thor cannot mean—Loki is sure he does not mean—

"Our mother is beside herself," Thor adds softly, pursing his lips, and the tightness in Loki's chest slowly releases him. This does not regard—them. It will never regard them, and they need not speak of it; Loki would prefer never to speak of it. His secrets guard themselves, and he is already a monster twice over.

"Also," Thor says, pausing and resting a heavy hand on Loki's neck, "knowing you are so close, and unable to spend my days with you. At times it is more than I can bear."

"Thor," Loki says warningly, and his brother looks pained. But what can be done? How many sins must he carry on his sharp, dishonest shoulders? This: their proximity and the heat of Thor's body within reach, and so eager to touch; the look in his eyes and the bitter, yearning twist to his mouth. This is folly, Loki is sick from wanting this, and this is—

They hear the sharp rap on the door. Thor looks away, and Loki's heart turns over in his chest, shifting like pins in a tumbler-lock.

"Your Grace," shouts one of the guards. He sounds understandably reticent. Loki does not envy his position; risking Thor's somewhat unpredictable wrath is foolish if it can be at all avoided. It is not a secret to anyone, least of all Loki, how Thor feels about him. "The king requests your presence."

Loki smiles tightly as Thor's hand withdraws; he carefully does not follow it with his eyes, or lean forward at the loss of it, to seek it out once more. These are traitorous urges that Loki cannot allow or display. They have already ruined him. But there are worse things.

Thor says to him, intent and heavy with promise: "We are not finished here. I will return within the hour."

He does not. Thor does not return for weeks.

Sif visits alone, her hair a gleaming black curtain that covers her shoulders like a cloak spun from midnight. She is beautiful the way a polished axe is beautiful, the way a perfectly balanced throwing-knife is beautiful. In the way of fresh-spilt red upon the snow, and the gilt spoils of war.

The first thing Loki asks, his voice somber and bone-dry, is, "Did you distract my guard by honorably removing your breastplate?" He keeps his face entirely without expression.

Sif strikes him, hard, across the face. As she is not one to pull her punches, Loki may or may not have a broken nose. Regardless, it bleeds profusely; he cups his hands around it.

"I am not in the habit of being refused." She snaps. " Who would dare stop me?"

"You make a compelling argument, Sif." Loki stands slowly, inclining his head. His voice comes out somewhat distorted. "It is good to see you."

There is a moment where they watch each other, and Loki knows what she sees: her childhood friend, grown gaunt and pale with heavy, sleepless bruises under his eyes, and a murderer besides. Hair the exact, lush color of her own, gone sharp and loose around the edges. Angles and lines to his face that did not exist previously, and bright, wet smears of red on his mouth and under his nose.

Eventually, she pulls a handkerchief from the pack at her waist and spends several minutes delicately mopping up the blood. Her lips are pursed in a fine line, and Loki wants to ask: Where is my brother? Why has he not come to see me?

And, frustrated, he wonders when he'll wean himself from that foolish untruth. When he'll accept in his heart that he is nothing to Thor, that there is no name for what they have become, no bond they could legitimately share.

As soon as he can accept this, he can perhaps convince Thor himself. They could have done with this, and Loki would feel this way no longer. Would not have to.

"Since you will not ask," Sif spits, something like disappointment and also reservation in her fierce, pretty eyes, "he has been injured. He is with the healers now."

"You must take me to him at once," someone snarls in tones that brook no argument, that threaten pain and worse should they be ignored. By the time Loki recognizes the harsh concern of his own voice, he has already jolted to his feet, has strode halfway through the prison's open doors, and Sif is struggling to keep pace with him after she seals the chamber once more. No guard has been posted, conscious or otherwise.

"Loki," she hisses, her smaller hand wrapping tightly around his wrist, hard as iron, "you must at least offer a pretense that I am escorting you!"

Loki glances at her furious, worried face, and slows his stride. Allows her to lead him.

"I will take you to him," she says, gentler this time. "Of course I will take you to him. But if they think for an instant that I have freed you, we will both be in chains. If you run, I swear on my honor as a warrior of Asgard that I will kill you where you stand."

Loki says nothing, but he shifts his wrist so that their palms slide together. And he squeezes her hand.

When he vanishes from sight, she stiffens; but he does not let her go, and she relaxes. Because neither does he escape.

He reappears only once they have bypassed the guards outside the healing chambers and Sif has shut the door behind them. Then he floods into visibility all at once and stalks to the side of the only bed occupied.

Thor is a mess of blood and mangled limbs. His armor has been removed: beneath it, he is torn and pitted and gouged, with myriad puncture wounds. Nauseating expanses of damaged flesh.

Fandral, seated nearby, glances up from his wounded friend, mouth open to speak—and he falls silent, eyes wide and startled, when he beholds Loki.

"Sif," he asks, voice matter-of-fact, though his gaze twitches nervously between their faces, "this is wise?"

"I would speak with you," she says brusquely, and Loki feels a fierce gratitude toward her, a kind he hasn't felt for anyone, not for years.

"Sif, were you not posted as—"

"Where is Volstagg?" She asks as they leave the room, and leave Loki alone with Thor's silent, prostrate form.

"During a crisis where he is unable to break some vital thing by accident, thereby saving us all? Eating his way toward complacency." Fandral's voice trails off, and Loki moves closer to the bed.

Thor's eyes are closed. Upon closer inspection, while there is quite a lot of blood, it is neither fresh nor flowing; much of it is probably not his own. Strips have been cut from his clothing, and the bandages look clean. But where are the healers?

Loki glances around the empty room, lips pursed, and his eyes settle on a fresh washbasin with clean rags. He appropriates them.

He is on the third cloth, and the water is a dull, muddy red, when Thor opens his eyes.

"My brother," Thor rasps, and Loki looks up from the wet slide of flesh. Thor's face, shoulders, and sternum are passably clean; his belly and ribs are terrifically spattered with gore.

"I am here," Loki says, his voice tired even to his own ears. "Of what idiocy have you partaken, to arrive home in such a state?"

Thor moves to sit up, but Loki forces him back down—firmly, with a hand at the base of his throat. Thor winces.

"My apologies," Thor murmurs, but it comes out as a hiss of pain. "For not returning when I promised."

"Irrelevant," Loki whispers without meaning to, and it's not exactly a lie because it's true. But hearing Thor apologize for it, for making Loki worry, is—comforting.

He wonders when Thor became thoughtful.

"Tell me what has happened," Loki commands, combing thick clumps of filthy hair out of a clean, grimacing face.

"My Midgardian warriors," Thor begins with something like a smile, and from what Loki can surmise, this is the comprehensive tale:

Thor, because he an unrepentant fool, has sworn his allegiance to Earth's Avengers. As he already considers the planet under his protection, a band of powerful allies can only bolster his efforts. But, much to Loki's irritation, this has essentially put him at their beck and call.

Thor's—woman—has created a portal almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the Bifröst. His descriptions of it imply, despite efforts to the contrary, that it is a vile, unstable machine which draws power through the tesseract on Asgard.

Such a thing would not be possible without the blessing of Odin All-father.

It infuriates Loki to think that this god, who was born to be a king among gods, should kowtow to mortals. That his father, who is king, should do so as well.

Almost a month ago, Thor was summoned like a common servant. There was battle. A mortal man who can bend metal warped the links and plates of Thor's armor, curving and twisting the steel until the shredded edges pierced his flesh.

"But he could not lift Mjölnir," Thor says proudly, "even with his mind. He is unworthy."

"You will continue to go to Earth," Loki spits the foreign word, "to partake of battles which are not your own, alongside warriors weaker than yourself, against opponents who are stronger. Eventually someone will kill you."

"Loki," Thor murmurs, soft enough to surprise him into leaning closer; a big hand curves over his cheek, fingers fanning over his temple and behind his ear to hold him in place. "It was not so long ago that you sent the Destroyer to do the very same."

"I reserve that right," Loki says flatly. Caught off guard, he covers Thor's hand with his own. Presses his face into the dry palm as though it is second nature; as though he could belong here. "You great long lout."

Thor dozes, and Loki does not leave his side. No one enters—no medics, none of the Warriors, not even Sif. There's a puzzle here, something he should know, some obvious ploy; but he cannot bring himself to focus on it, to pick it apart. He can only slouch on the stool near Thor's bed, his hand trapped beneath Thor's heavy, curled fingers. Can only think about his words to Agent Romanoff, a lifetime ago: a child at prayer.

It would be a worthless exercise; gods have no one to beseech. So instead, Loki mentally composes long, winding arguments to present to Odin, to force Thor to abandon this madness.

It is an old wound of Loki's, but nevertheless the truth: Thor is the heir to Asgard. It is preposterous that he gallivant through all the nine realms until his body must needs return, and in such a state, as though he is naught but a weapon that requires repair.

A small part of him whispers faintly in reminder, however, of Captain Rogers. How he dutifully took his meals with Loki in Thor's absence, at Thor's insistence—kept him safe, kept him fed, kept him from isolation.

So perhaps they take care of their weapons, at the very least. They seemed to take care of their prisoners.

The thoughts flow languid through his mind, about carving out a place for yourself. About a place that chooses to keep you.

It is only when a hand touches his shoulder that Loki even realizes he has fallen asleep. He goes still, but the hand remains. He sits up slowly, one arm still held hostage by Thor, and glances over his shoulder into the wise, careworn face near his own.

"My son," Odin says softly, and he is not smiling.

And he is not looking at Thor.

Loki's throat goes tight, and he looks away quickly.

"I escaped," he says, without preamble and with nowhere to go. "I am," he tries.

Odin waits, watching. When Loki can offer nothing further, he murmurs gravely, "Your brother is often blind where concerns you." He takes a seat, bending his stiff joints. Adds, gently: "As is your mother. As am I."

Loki says nothing, and his lip does not tremble. Rather, his mouth is pressed into a paper-thin line.

"Sif, however, is not quite so lost on you. You owe her a debt." Odin reaches out and pushes a yellow strand of hair out of Thor's sleeping face.

Loki looks at Odin sharply. "Is she—? She will be punished?"

Odin shakes his head. "That will not be necessary."

Loki's heart hammers in the space suddenly burst open within him: resonating, breaking loose.

"We love you well," Odin says. "Even now. Know this."

Says, "Just as well as you love us."

Loki wakes once more, this time with a hand in his hair, and he wonders if the conversation with Odin was a dream. Wonders if he is not still falling from the Bifröst after all this time, if perhaps no time has passed at all: a long, slow descent through a hollow spiral of stars, so full as to fill every space with light, so full as to appear empty: a void, numberless and without meaning.

Wonders if these are not simply fantasies and delusions come full circle, from righteous fury to a sick fever for revenge; from love flipped to the opposing facet of hate, and then flipped traitorously back like the floor gone out from under you.

Loki cannot bring himself even to covet—he desires only to hit the ground. To have something to come back from.

Thor says, "You are coming to Earth with me, Loki."

Loki opens his eyes. He's bent forward onto the bed, cheek pillowed on his bony, crossed arms, and his back is stiff. Strong fingers comb over his scalp, pressing in at temple and crown, low on the back of his neck. Loki sighs.

Thor is sitting on the bed next to him, washed and dressed, bright and warm, both feet on the floor. He appears hardly worse for the wear, within leagues of death no longer; a circumstance Loki refuses to further contemplate, because to do so ignites the sick, yellow fires of residual fear in the chimney of his lungs. It is imbecilic in the extreme.

"The All-father will never allow it," Loki says, and Thor's hand stills momentarily to drag back around and brush a knuckle over Loki's cheek.

"The All-father has commanded it," Thor says.

Loki shifts, sits up in his chair and meets eyes bluer than Jötunheim's icy plains. Than Asgard's celestial seas. Than Earth's boundless skies.

Thor hasn't taken his hand from Loki's hair. "You did not slay me," he mentions. "You were sentenced to death. And you did not slay me, even with nothing left to lose."

Loki thinks, I had precisely one thing left to lose.

Loki swallows and says, "You thought that a possibility. And you came yet."

"I did," Thor says. His eyes are soft, sincere. He is almost smiling, but he is searching Loki's face. "You have many sins to atone for, my brother. But I will not be one of them. If you truly wished me dead, than dead I would be." A shadow crosses his face. "And, were you to be executed, no good could come of this at all."

"They will never forgive me, Thor. Even if I agree to this madness."

"They will not have to," Thor says firmly. "We will save many lives together. It will not resurrect those lost, but it will preserve the living. I believe you would agree," he adds quietly, "that usefulness outlives sentiment."

Loki, caught, cannot look away; and he finds he cannot respond.

"Find your penance serving others," comes Odin's old voice from the doorway. Loki meets his gaze: there is sorrow there, and resignation. There is regret, but beneath that there is love.

It is one of the hardest things Loki has ever done, maintaining eye-contact with the man he once called father. Toward the end, it is not quite something he can manage.

"Loki Odinson, your brother is reckless and foolish. I would appreciate it if the heir to the throne of Asgard were not killed in some off-world skirmish." His voice softens. "And perhaps, if Midgard can accept Loki, Asgard may one day follow."

Loki understands penance, and pain. He understands despair. What he does not understand, what he has gotten wrong all his life, is redemption. And in spite of his critical and varied tresspasses, it is now offered to him freely.

There are times he wishes desperately that he were truly a part of this family. In the face of this gift, he can only bow his head.

Later, near the ungainly portal Jane Foster has contrived, Thor says: "My heart is glad, Loki. I would happily take these wounds over again if it meant we could battle together as a cause for good."

Loki allows for a faint stretch of silence, and then for the ghost of a smile to color his mouth. "I rather suspect that your intent when you chose to take them the first time."

Sheepish, cheeks faintly pink, Thor slings his heavy arm around Loki's shoulders. "You think yourself the only one with clever schemes?"

Loki thinks about Sif's sharp acquiescence, ushering him to his wounded brother's side. About a body, haggard and bleeding out, and the jagged feeling of imminent loss.

About a twofold gesture of faith. We love you, it says. And we prove we love you by trusting you.

The thought settles cool and strange just off the grand staircase of his ribs, coiling down and down.

There is but one problem left, however, at the heart of the matter. Thor risked limb and life to prove a point and get his way; he is a child, and reckless, and cannot be set loose on his own.

Perhaps Odin is not far wrong at all.

Loki clasps Thor's wrist in his spidery fingers. "I remain," he sighs, slow and wretched, "the only one with clever schemes."