Loki was sitting down, his back to Odin. Dusk was falling slowly, the moons starting to show in the sky, and a part of him was still waiting for the killing blow.
Odin had not tried to speak to him. Loki was grateful for that; he did not trust what might come out of his mouth if he opened it. He was hollowed out, emptied of everything that had sustained him for so long, and there was nothing to replace it with.
Still, he looked up as he heard the skiff approaching. “Ah,” Odin said. “That will be your mother.”
Loki remembered vaguely that Thor had said something about going to fetch her. He closed his eyes and dropped his head forward.
He did not open his eyes to the sound of running footsteps, nor the feeling of strong hands grasping his shoulders. “Loki!” Thor sounded breathless. “You live.”
“ Husband. ” Frigga’s voice vibrated with anger that made Loki want to flinch. “What do you think you are doing?”
“Not what you would accuse me of,” Odin said, sounding weary. Loki heard the crack of a slap.
“Then why did our son come to me, frantic, with news that you meant to murder our youngest?”
Loki closed his eyes. “I did ask for it.” He stuttered a weak laugh. “In more ways than one.”
Frigga made a sound like an enraged cat. Loki flinched, but it was clear her next words were not directed at him. “And you meant to allow this? To kill your own son because in his sickness he claimed to want-”
“Loki,” Thor said, his voice low and demanding. “Look at me.”
“Of course not,” Odin snapped. “I meant to do the only thing I could do, the only thing that seemed likely to save him-”
Loki felt a brief prickle of...something. Not quite anger. “I would be grateful if you did not speak of me as though I wasn’t here,” he said quietly. Silence fell.
“I think,” Frigga said icily, “that for the moment you have spoken enough.”
Loki’s lips curved in a bitter smile. “Everyone does.”
That brought a brief silence before Thor said, sounding unaccountably nervous, “Please. Will you look at me?”
Loki turned his head and opened his eyes to slits. Whatever Thor saw only seemed to make him unhappier, and he shook his head. “Did you know…?”
He didn’t need to finish the question. “I did not.”
“I meant to let him go his own way,” Odin said. Still speaking over his head. “Plainly our attempts are doing no good. He was only growing worse.” Thor jerked back visibly, glancing toward his father and then back at Loki.
“You didn’t leave,” he said, sounding surprised. Loki shrugged. He did not know how to explain I can’t, I don’t want to, there is nowhere else I can go. He was too tired to try.
“Loki,” Frigga said after a moment, finally speaking to him. “Let us return home.”
Not home. But I have no other home. “Is that a command?” He heard Frigga inhale, a wounded sound.
“My love,” Odin said soothingly, “let me handle this.” Handle me, Loki thought, but the bitterness in it was feeble. The fire in him had been thoroughly doused, the awful feeling of panic bled away and leaving exhaustion behind.
“Because you have handled everything so well thus far.”
“If you need to speak,” Thor said, something tense and strained in his voice, “perhaps you should return to the palace, and Loki and I will return when he wishes.” Loki glanced at Thor quickly, but he was looking at his parents with plain displeasure.
“Generous of you,” Loki murmured, but Thor ignored him. Loki’s brief gratitude ebbed quickly away.
“Yes,” Frigga said testily at length. “I think that would be best.”
Loki did not look back to see them depart. He waited for Thor to speak, knowing he would not stay silent for long. Knowing he had only suggested his staying because there was something he wished to say.
“Are you…” Thor trailed off before he said well. Even he, Loki thought, could see otherwise. He was not such a fool as that. He exhaled. “I feared I would arrive too late.”
“It seems the Allfather tricked us both.”
“Thank the Norns,” Thor said, heartfelt. “You cannot truly...you did not mean what you said.”
“Tell yourself what you must.” He found something else more interesting. “How long has there been strife between the Allmother and the Allfather?”
Thor was silent for a long time. Struggling to decide, Loki thought, whether he trusted Loki with the answer. “Some time,” he said at last, quietly. “Since you...since you fell.”
Loki was not sure what that made him feel. A twisting, painful sensation deep in his gut. An unhappy clenching in his chest. “Ah,” he said at length. “It seems even absent I can bring chaos in my wake.”
Thor sighed. “That is not…”
“Isn’t it?” Loki pressed his hands into the grass and curled his fingers, digging them into the dirt. It did not make him feel any more grounded. He was far from himself, from Asgard, from his body. He did not know what to make of the fact that only an hour or so before he had believed he would be dead, and now he wasn’t.
(At least that was familiar. He’d felt the same after falling.)
“Loki,” Thor said, sounding disconcerted. “What is...what are you thinking?”
“Very little,” Loki said. He pushed himself to his feet. “Do not think I have forgiven you, Thor. Do not think that anything has truly changed. ” It had, though. He felt like an animal that had stumbled all unaware into a trap, and was now writhing at the bottom impaled by spikes. Loki was still uncertain if it was for better or for worse.
But he knew he felt bled out.
Thor had not stood yet, which meant Loki was looking down at him. There was a deep line etched between Thor’s eyebrows.
“I am glad,” he said. “That you did not leave us.”
“I did not leave,” Loki said. “It had nothing to do with you.” He looked at the dirt on his hands. “I suppose you ought to take me back. There is a tunnel we might use. You probably want to avoid prying eyes.”
Thor sighed heavily, and Loki expected him to argue, but he did not. “Show me,” he said simply. Loki’s chest tightened at the prospect of going back underground with the walls pressing in around him, but that, too, felt far away.
It might be for the best, Loki thought. Like this, everything was softer.
Thor brought him back to the room - his cell - that he had been occupying since his return. He sat down on the bed and tried to order his hopelessly disordered thoughts. Thor stood by the door and stared at him like if he blinked Loki might vanish.
“You can leave,” Loki said without looking in his direction. “I am not going anywhere. I had my chance to do that, remember?”
“I will stay until someone else comes,” Thor said solidly. As immovable as a stone wall. Loki could beat himself to death against it.
He heard himself laugh strangely. “What are you afraid of, Odinson?” He saw Thor twitch out of the corner of his eye. “Do you fear I’ll harm myself? Set a knife to my own throat and-”
Thor lurched forward. “Loki,” he said, sounding horrified. Loki huffed a weak laugh.
“I cannot, you idiot. Even if I intended to.”
“And you do not...intend to.”
“No,” Loki said, and because he needed to, added, “at least, not right now. It changes from moment to moment. And it would be so embarrassing to fail.”
Thor made a noise like he was going to start shouting again, or perhaps weeping. Loki’s guts twisted uncomfortably as if in a cramp. He stretched out on the bed and turned his back to Thor, closing his eyes, tired as though he’d been running all day. He kept turning over what had happened in his mind, trying to make it make sense.
Could Odin have really meant to let him go? No. He must have known that Loki would refuse. Once again, another test, another game, perhaps seeing if Loki would hang himself trying to run-
There are doors open in front of you.
“The others,” Thor said. “Sif, Volstagg, Fandral, Hogun. They ask after you.” Loki said nothing, and Thor apparently took his silence for encouragement. “They want to know how you fare. Is there any word you would give me, for them?”
Loki meant to stay silent, but in spite of himself his mouth opened. “Certainly,” he said. “Ask them if they’ve considered committing treason lately. I’d worry it was habit-forming.”
Thor sighed. “I wish you would not…” He trailed off, seemingly unable to decide how best to complete that sentence. Loki could think of several possibilities: I wish you would not be such an inconvenience, I wish you would not be so unreasonable, I wish you would not be yourself, all that you are-
“I understand that you are weary, and heartsore,” Thor said, his voice quieter. “But that is no reason to give up. Or should not be reason. Let us help you. Let me help you.”
And how, Loki thought bitterly, do you think you would do that? He said nothing, because there was nothing he could say that Thor would hear.
The door banged open. “Out,” said Frigga coldly. Loki very carefully kept his breathing even.
“Mother,” Thor said, objecting.
“ Out. ”
“We will speak later, Loki,” Thor said after a long pause. Or you will, Loki thought, and waited for him to leave.
There was silence after the door closed. Loki did not turn to face Frigga, waiting to see what she would do, where her rage would fall.
“Tell me,” Frigga said, her voice ice cold. “My husband claims that you asked him - begged him - to end your life. Is this true?”
“It is true.” He heard her inhale sharply and tensed, half expecting a blow. None came, however, and Loki heard his voice turn biting. “Is that a disappointment or a relief? You know you need not be angry at your husband, surely, given he was only heeding my wishes. And not even that, in the end.”
“Look at me.”
“Why should I?”
“I would see your face when I speak to you.”
Loki stood slowly and turned to face her, meeting her eyes without flinching. Her face was pale, her lips pinched and eyes burning, as angry as he’d ever seen her. Some distant fear flickered through the fog that held him. “Well?”
“How could you,” she demanded, her voice trembling. “How dare you, cruel child, treat your life so lightly? How dare you act as though your death is any answer-”
“I did not seek an answer,” Loki said. “I sought an end.”
Frigga flinched, hurt flaring in her eyes that almost stung before the anger came roaring back. For a moment he thought she would strike him as she had Odin, but the moment passed. “You will never,” she said, “ never, seek after such a thing.” Loki said nothing. “Do you understand me?”
“Do you truly think,” Loki said blandly, “that you can shout me into submission? I thought you taught me better than that.”
Frigga jerked back as though he’d struck her, and then seemed to shrink inwards. “Loki,” she said quietly, now desperate, almost pleading. “Why would you do this?”
Loki shrugged and gave her a crooked smile. “Why not?”
Frigga visibly choked on that. “You cannot mean that.”
She stared at him, her eyes full of pain and horror, the anger ebbing away. Without another word, she turned on her heel and left. He was alone.
Loki lowered his face into his hands and breathed, slowly and quietly.
The All-Father did not come. His only visitors were healers, who looked at him with either pity or suspicion. Loki ignored them as much as he could, staring blankly at Eir as she tried to interrogate him about his thoughts, his feelings, his intentions.
I don’t know what I intend, he thought. I have found the end of all my planning. All my expectations have been confounded and now I am lost, bewildered and adrift.
“I cannot help you if you will not speak to me,” Eir said, audibly frustrated.
I doubt you could help me if I did speak to you.
Eir sighed and shook her head as though he was a recalcitrant child refusing to take his medicine. Loki did not know how to tell her that he did not know how to explain, even if he had wanted to. His thoughts felt like a tangled skein of yarn and he could not find the end of it to begin untangling them.
And he was exhausted. Drained beyond reason, as though something that had been fueling him had very suddenly burned out.
He did not know what he was meant to do now.
Thor was the first to break his family’s silence. Loki had begun to wonder if they were avoiding him, as ignorant as Loki himself about their next course of action.
He entered almost gingerly, as though fearful of traps, his eyebrows furrowed. Loki feigned sleep, his eyes open just enough to watch Thor, who seemed to relax when he looked at Loki. His expression softened into something too painful to look at.
He crossed the room out of Loki’s sight and he heard Thor grunt, straining at something.
“The windows do not open,” Loki said. “They never have. You do not think I would be left such an obvious avenue of escape, do you?”
He was not certain what kind of escape he meant.
“You are awake!” Thor sounded surprised, and pleased. Loki opened his eyes and rolled over.
Thor did not seem stung by the sarcasm. Instead he smiled, warm and guileless, a tantalizing glimpse of what - whatever Odin might claim - he could never have again.
There is no going back. There is no returning home.
The home I thought I had was never real to begin with.
“You sound more like yourself today,” Thor said. “I am reassured.”
“More like myself,” Loki echoed. “Which self?”
Thor’s smile faltered. “What do you mean?”
Loki looked away and shook his head. “Nothing.” He pushed himself to sitting and then to his feet, wanting to at least try to face Thor, whatever he had come to say. Thor, however, was frowning again.
“It occurs to me,” he said, “that you most often say ‘nothing’ when you mean ‘something.’”
“Is that so,” Loki said more flatly. Thor inclined his head.
“It does seem so.” He smiled weakly. “It has always been so, hasn’t it? I remember it used to madden me, that you would not simply say what you meant. You never wanted to simply tell me when you were in distress.”
A hysterical laugh bubbled up in Loki’s throat. “I wonder why you would think I am in distress now.” Thor’s face fell. “If you think,” Loki said, “that I am now more inclined to unburden my soul to you - I hate to disappoint.”
Thor did, indeed, look disappointed. Loki looked away from him, unable to savor the expression.
“I am trying,” he said with audible frustration. “I want to help you, Loki-”
Your brother would drag you through it. “No,” Loki said, looking back at Thor and feeling the first spark of anger since Odin had revealed his deceit. “You want to coax me into doing what you think I should.”
“Is that such an ill thing, when all it means is that I want you to be my brother once again?”
“I thought I had never stopped,” Loki said. “Or had you changed your mind about that?”
Thor’s nostrils flared. “You twist my words again. It has always been you who has claimed otherwise.”
“Because it is otherwise,” Loki said.
“It is not for me.”
Loki’s lips twisted. “Your determination cannot make me any more Aesir.” A twisting, sick urge grabbed hold of him and Loki reached within. His magic might be bound, but this he could still do, even if the sensation of the change still left him nauseated. “You see?”
He was almost impressed by the fact that Thor did not recoil, though his eyes did widen a hair. Loki could only imagine what he looked like. He had never dared to seek out his red-eyed reflection.
“Whatever face you wear,” Thor said stolidly, “you are nonetheless my brother.”
Loki’s stomach heaved and he shifted back, recoiling as Thor had not. “So simple. ”
“Some things are, whatever you would believe.”
“Nothing is,” Loki snapped. His voice came out sounding brittle. Thor let out an explosive sigh.
“I wish you could see that it is you who makes it otherwise.”
“Ah, yes,” Loki said. “It is always me, isn’t it? Who makes things complicated. Who brings strife and discord and ruin. Norns forfend anyone else acknowledge their part in things.”
Thor’s expression darkened. “Loki, you must admit that you have… ”
“Spare me the litany of my misdeeds,” Loki said. He meant it to be scathing, but it just came out exhausted. He could feel his brief anchor to the world slipping away. “I am well aware of them. Perhaps more even than you, who seems so quick to forgive them. I do not dispute my own wickedness, son of Odin. Only the implication that the rest of you are entirely innocent.”
“How was I meant to know?” Thor asked. “You accuse me of so many things but we had centuries together and you said nothing, made no complaint-”
“I tried,” Loki said. “You would not listen. I am not a fool, to beat my head bloody against a stone wall.”
“I do not remember,” Thor started to say, and Loki scoffed.
“No,” he said, “you wouldn’t.”
Thor looked stung. “What is that meant to mean?”
“That you have two methods of avoiding criticism you do not wish to hear - which is most of it. You laugh and brush it off as nonsense. If you are feeling generous, you might apologize that they are upset, but not for what you may have done. Or you react with affront that someone dares accuse you.” It was easier to speak, Loki found, when he felt like this. “I have always been a quick study.”
Thor’s expression was tight. “You are being unfair.”
“There,” Loki said, “that is the latter.”
Thor opened his mouth indignantly and then snapped it closed. His eyebrows furrowed. “How long?” He asked. “How long have you harbored this bitterness against me?”
Loki sighed. “Does it matter?”
“It matters to me.”
He turned and went back to the bed, lying down with one hand over his eyes. “If you are seeking some specific, significant, singular inciting incident,” Loki said, “There wasn’t one. It was not as though I adored you one day and hated you the next. A thousand small wounds can eventually bleed a warrior dry.” He shook his head. “Leave it, Thor. There is nothing for you here.”
“There is you,” Thor said. Loki’s breathing hiccuped.
“And what a gift that has proven,” he said flatly, and rolled to his side to turn his back towards Thor. For once, he took the hint, but almost immediately after he was gone Loki wished he had stayed. Alone, it just felt like his mind would start eating itself.
He slept, and dreamed muddled and terrible dreams. He was walking down a dark hall full of doorways, and voices kept calling out behind him, telling him to open this one, or that one. Odin’s voice, Frigga’s voice, Thor’s voice. At the end of the hall loomed the Void, sucking him in, and out of desperation he turned and opened the nearest door to see himself on his knees, a four fingered hand hovering at his temple, a great black sky swirling behind him.
He flung out a hand, reaching out. “Please!” The other Loki cried. “Help me!”
Loki quailed. “It’s too late,” he said. “It’s too late. There’s nothing I can do for you.”
The fingers pressed to his head and the other Loki howled, and when Loki stumbled back into the hallway he fell into the Void, falling and falling and falling-
“ Loki, ” Odin said, his voice echoing. “ Wake up. ”
He jerked awake, gasping in a breath like he’d forgotten to breathe. He turned his head, already knowing what he would see: Odin, standing at his bedside. His eyebrows were furrowed, but his face otherwise inscrutable.
“Stay out of my head,” Loki said, meaning it to be a snarl. It just sounded desperate and afraid.
“You did not wake for my voice alone,” Odin said. “Your ill dreams seem to hold you fast.”
Loki rolled over and to his feet, putting his back to the All-Father. “My mind is my own. You took it upon yourself to be certain of that.”
“Do you fear that?” Odin asked. “That Thanos holds yet some lingering hold on you?”
Loki flinched at the Titan’s name. He hoped it was not visible. He was certain it was. “Why should I fear, if the All-Father himself says it is not so?”
“Have you decided to now trust my word, then?”
“No,” Loki said, staring at the window. He thought he saw black wings flutter by and wondered which one of them was watching him. Odin sighed.
“I...misstepped. In doing as I did.”
You misstepped in not simply doing as I asked you, Loki thought bleakly, but he did not reply.
“I should not have led you to believe that I would end your life. It was a cruel deceit.”
Loki made a noise in the back of his throat. “Are these your words, or the All-Mother’s?”
“Mine,” Odin said. “Though I will not deny that your mother had...harsh things to say about my actions.” He chuckled, though it sounded strained. “She has a fierce temper, particularly when it comes to her sons.”
I am not her son, Loki thought, but he choked on the words and so said nothing.
“Loki,” Odin said, his voice more stern, “I would have you look at me when we are speaking.”
“Is that a command, All-Father?”
Odin sighed. “I know you are gifted at twisting words, Loki. You do not need to prove it to me.”
“I have always needed to prove everything to you,” Loki said, slipping out of him before he could hold it back. “Everything I did-”
“You have never needed to prove anything to me,” Odin interrupted. Loki snorted, and his voice sharpened. “What is it that makes you believe otherwise?”
Nothing I did was ever good enough for you. You always wanted more from me, demanded more when you saw me at all, when your eyes were not full of Thor, always Thor, your heir, the son of your blood-
He clamped his lips together. Odin sighed, his hand coming to rest on Loki’s shoulder. He lurched away, almost lunging to his feet and whirling around - as much because he wanted the touch as because he feared it.
“Why did you not tell me?” He demanded. “Did you ever mean to?”
Odin seemed to falter. “We meant to,” he said. “I meant to. The moment never seemed right. We feared-”
“What I would do?” Loki asked, and let out a shaky laugh. “It turns out you were right to fear that.”
“That you would be hurt,” Odin said. “That you would think it made you less.”
“It does,” Loki said. “That is why you feared it. Because you knew it does make me less.” His nails dug into his hand, though the pain felt dulled. “The All-Mother claimed you did not want me to feel different. I always knew I was. I was never enough like Thor, never enough like a proper Aesir-”
Loki inhaled sharply. “No,” he said. “ No. ”
Odin, at last, fell quiet. Loki fought the urge to sink down to the floor and hug his knees to his chest. Something - hurt, deep in his stomach. More than the indents in his palms where his nails had left marks. He looked at them, wondering if they would still be there in his other shape.
“What would you have me say?” Odin sounded frustrated. “Every word I speak to you, you seem to insist on taking as either a lie or a trap.”
The feeling ebbed away again, the hollow nothing coming back.
“You said that you want to come home,” Odin said. “But you seem unwilling to accept that you are home.”
“Perhaps it might help if I were not caged like an exotic bird,” Loki said dully. “With healers prodding at me day after day.” Odin hesitated. “But of course,” Loki said wearily, “you cannot risk that.”
“No,” Odin said. “I cannot. Not when you asked for your own death and meant to accept it without struggle.” He paused. “I thought perhaps you were deceiving me. Or else desperate in the moment, but that if it came to it you would change your mind. And yet you did not. I had hoped that offering you your freedom would ease your mind, but instead it distressed you.”
Loki bit his tongue. He was beginning to wish he had said nothing.
“You are not well, Loki,” Odin said.
“I am mad,” Loki said plainly.
“Eir calls it a soul-wound,” Odin said. “She says it can be healed, but it takes time. Until then...how can I trust that you will not harm yourself without the spells here that make it impossible?”
“Soul-rot, more likely,” Loki murmured.
“Why are you so certain that you cannot be helped?” Odin asked, his voice too gentle.
“Because I am broken,” Loki said dully. “Deep within, there is something bent awry. Too far out of joint to fix. Because I have gone too far to come back.”
“Your brother thinks otherwise,” Odin said. “As does your mother. As do I.” He moved toward Loki, slowly, and he stood frozen as the All-Father reached out to grip his shoulders. “It is not too late.”
Loki looked away. Odin squeezed his shoulders once, a paternal gesture that shocked Loki with its familiarity, and let go.
He walked away, and Loki stared after him, completely wordless.
The first servant he had seen in weeks - servant, not healer, and not his cursed family - bustled in carrying a bundle of clothing. “Prince Loki,” she said with a curtsey. “Your garments for tonight’s meal, as requested.”
Loki looked between her and the clothes she was holding. Not finery, but finer certainly than the invalid’s clothes he had been consigned to since his return. “Pardon?”
The servant looked faintly confused. “The All-Father said you were joining him, the All-Mother, and Prince Thor tonight for a private supper. Was I mistaken?”
Loki’s skin prickled. What was the old man playing at? “No,” he said, because he did not want her to linger and ask questions, or see too much. “No, thank you. I...forgot, momentarily. You may go; I can dress myself.”
She hesitated just a moment before she curtsied and left. Loki turned back to look at the clothing she had deposited. It was his colors, green and gold and black, of fabric rather than leather. Not formal. What did that mean?
Perhaps you look for a trap where there is none. Perhaps he heard you, and thinks to grant you some slight release from your cage as appeasement.
Perhaps this is an attempt to act as though everything is all right and nothing has changed.
He picked up the clothes and set them back down. Shook them out and held them up. Curiosity and anxiety tugged at him in equal measure.
In the end, he donned the clothes and paced back and forth, waiting for the summons. It was Thor who came for him, and when he opened the door he seemed both pleased and relieved.
“What is this,” Loki asked.
“Dinner,” Thor said. “All of us together.” A family, unsaid. Loki thought Thor was holding himself back from saying it. “Come with me.” He turned, walking a few steps away before he realized Loki was not following.
“Why now?” He asked.
“Why not now?” Thor said. Perhaps for him, it was that simple. Because I do not know how to be with any of you, Loki thought. Because I am not steady in myself. The ground shifts like quicksand under my feet. I am too fragile for the battlefield this will be.
He stepped over the threshold and gestured at Thor to lead on.
Loki tagged after him through the hallways, still trying to think through the possibilities, the implications. He was lost enough in thought that he did not notice Thor had fallen back to walk beside him until he said, “may I ask what you are thinking?”
“It seems to me that you just did.”
Thor huffed. “Will you tell me what you are thinking?”
“That is a better question.”
“Is it a question you are going to answer? ”
Loki almost wanted to smile at the familiar exasperation in Thor’s voice. “No,” he said simply. Thor huffed in even more familiar exasperation.
“Why not? You say you want me to understand, but you will not explain. ”
“In point of fact I have not said that,” Loki said. “You have said you wish to understand.”
“And I do. ”
“Best of luck,” Loki said. Thor growled.
“What do you want me to do?” He demanded.
Loki sighed and dropped his head forward, suddenly exhausted. “That’s a good question, too,” he said wearily. He heard Thor sigh, and a moment later his hand landed on Loki’s shoulder. He kept himself from flinching, remembering what Odin had said about it. You flinch at every touch, or movement to touch.
He wondered if Thor had noticed as well.
“I wish you would stop fighting me,” Thor said. So do I, Loki thought, but he stayed silent, and Thor did not press him further.
The room Thor led him to was one of the familiar family dining rooms. It looked just the same as it always had, four chairs set around a table, Odin and Frigga already sitting down. Loki’s stride hitched.
“So it’s to be like that, then,” he murmured.
“Sit, Loki,” Frigga said. It was a gentle command, but it was still unmistakably a command. He sat, tense and rigid and staring straight ahead. His nerves jangled like a harp out of tune. He stayed silent, because he was afraid of what words might come out if he spoke.
He was sitting across from Odin, Loki realized, who was looking at him with an unnameable expression. Loki kept himself from looking away.
The first course was brought out in silence, no one else seeming to want to break it. Loki could feel Thor looking at him, eyes pleading, but he kept his gaze locked on Odin, refusing to touch his silverware for all the soup smelled delicious. Mushrooms and chestnuts. An old favorite.
Loki broke first. “What are you trying to do?” He asked directly. Odin set down his spoon and looked at him. “Who do you think you are fooling?”
“We are not trying to fool anyone,” Frigga said, her voice impeccably calm. “This is a private dinner for our family. Nothing more than that.”
“Your mother speaks truly,” Odin said, perfectly level as well. “We wanted you to join us. Your seat has been empty for too long.”
“You say that like I have just been - absent a while,” Loki said. “Off on a little journey, perhaps.”
“Loki, please,” Frigga said.
“No,” he said, but where there might have been anger before now he only felt exhaustion. “This is what you do. This is what you always do. Pretend like everything is fine. Cover over the ugliness or else cast it out.” He looked down at his soup. There was a long silence.
“You are not an ugliness, Loki,” Frigga said at length, softly.
He heard himself laugh, a hollow sound. “Really.”
“You are our son.”
And what does that mean? Loki wanted to ask. What is that worth? But he was tired, and in truth he could not really remember why he was fighting.
He picked up his spoon and ate the soup. It didn’t taste as good as he remembered.
He made it through the rest of the meal without breaking. He answered those questions directed to him in a dull voice, knowing he was being churlish and unable to care. When the meal at last came to a close, Loki saw Thor open his mouth, perhaps to ask if Loki wanted to return to his quarters; at the moment, the prospect sounded welcome. Odin beat him to it, however.
“Loki,” he said, “might I escort you back to your rooms?”
“You are the All-Father,” Loki said. “You may do nearly whatever you will.”
“And yet I ask just the same,” Odin said, seemingly unfazed. Loki stared at him a moment longer, then jerked his head in a tiny nod and stood. Frigga did as well, and rounded the table to approach him. He flinched back from her as she drew near, but she reached out anyway, leaning in to kiss his forehead.
“Sleep well, Loki,” she said, stroking his hair back, and Loki wanted to lean into that touch and away from it in equal measure.
He ended up pulling back from her, turning away and ignoring the twist of guilt in his stomach. He walked away before Thor could reach for him as well, knowing that Odin would follow.
He did, catching up to Loki only a few steps later. “I thought you would be grateful to be outside your room.”
“To be out of my cage, for a few hours,” Loki said tonelessly. Odin sighed.
“To eat a meal with your family,” he said. “To remind you of what you have been missing, and show that you are still welcome home.”
Loki’s breathing snagged and he stopped, turning. “How?”
Odin paused as well. “What do you mean, how?”
“I mean how, ” Loki said. “I am not - I do not fit here. Not anymore. Not with you.”
“Why not?” Odin asked, as though it was that simple. All of them, acting as though it was simple, as though he could just come back and fit seamlessly back into the tapestry of their lives, as though-
It built up in him, something ugly and seething and furious - and then was gone, before he said a word. He felt vaguely nauseated and wrapped his arm around his middle, swallowing. “Eir is right,” he said faintly. “I am sick. There is something - rotten inside of me and I do not know how to get it out.”
Odin’s expression flickered. “Loki…” He reached out and Loki drew back without thinking. Odin let his hand fall. “Sickness can be cured. Wounds heal. None of this will last forever. It only...takes time.”
Loki coughed a tired laugh. “That easy.”
“I did not say it would be easy. But it would help if you did not push away those who are trying to help you.”
Something rebelled in Loki, twisting like a snake. “You are not trying to help,” he said, voice grating over his throat. “You are trying to fix me. To bend me back into what you want me to be.” He swallowed, a burst of sour bile on the back of his tongue. “The Titan molded me into one thing. You would mold me into another.”
Odin’s eyes sparked with anger and pain. Loki found both bitterly satisfying. “Is that truly what you think of me?”
“Am I wrong?”
“Yes,” Odin said bluntly. “You are. And I grieve that you cannot see any motives that are not cruelty and manipulation.” He paused. “You said you wanted to come home. You are, and yet you will not accept it.”
The satisfaction and anger both bled away as quickly as they’d come, like the anger of before. What is wrong with me?
Too much to name.
Whatever Odin saw on his face, his expression softened. “There is a poison in you,” he said. “It needs to be drawn out.”
And what if I myself am the poison, Loki thought. He swallowed hard and looked away, saying nothing. Odin sighed and began walking again, Loki trailing after him.
“I am sorry,” Odin said suddenly. Loki stopped dead.
“I am sorry,” Odin repeated. “I have...made mistakes. I see that now, and I regret that it took such a toll to recognize it. It is...difficult, at times, to balance being a king with being a father.”
Loki stared at his back and stuttered a laugh. “You are…apologizing. To me.”
Odin turned. “Is that not what you want?”
I want… Loki scrambled, thrown again. It was what he had thought he wanted to hear, but hearing it made his stomach twist. It felt wrong. The All-Father did not apologize. Did not admit fault. Odin sighed, a heavy and weary sound.
“I don’t know what I want,” Loki said finally. His voice sounded small and pathetic.
Odin reached out for him again, and Loki held very still as his hand rested on his shoulder and squeezed. He felt himself shiver, and Odin pulled back.
“You will heal,” he said. “It only takes time.”
Loki wished, fervently, that he could believe that.
Loki’s dreams that night were restless and unpleasant. He woke again and again, panting, a scream on the tip of his tongue that he only just managed to hold back. He remembered none of them but one, where Odin gripped the back of his neck.
“This is where you belong,” he said gently, and then began to change, growing and morphing in Thanos whose fingers slowly tightened their grip until he could feel them start to bruise.
“This is where you belong,” he echoed, his voice reaching deep, deep into Loki’s bones. “Here.” Blood filled Loki’s mouth, hot and thick, and as hard as he tried to spit it out it just kept coming.
When he woke up, there was a raven pecking insistently on the glass. Loki stared at it wearily, muzzy-headed and still half caught in sour dreams.
“What do you want,” he mumbled. “I told you. I can’t let you in.”
The raven croaked loudly and tapped on the glass again. Loki shook his head and turned away, going to the bathroom and splashing his face. He looked at himself in the mirror, though reluctantly.
He almost cringed at what he saw. His skin was ghostly pale and he was almost gaunt. There was a wildness around his eyes and his hair was too long and unkempt-looking. Loki waved a hand to make the mirror opaque. Nothing happened, the nullifying binding suppressing his power even as it built.
Loki ran his fingers through his hair, trying to comb it into some semblance of order. He heard the door open, then close, and fell still.
“Hello?” He said, turning quickly.
“Loki,” Thor said, coming into view. He sounded relieved. “You’re here.”
“Of course I am,” Loki said. “I cannot exactly be anywhere else.”
Thor smiled weakly. “I do not assume anything when it comes to you.”
“Is that compliment or insult,” Loki said. He wasn’t sure how he meant it, but Thor stiffened immediately.
“It is - I do not mean to say-”
“Calm down,” Loki said, stepping around Thor out into the main room. “Don’t strain yourself.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Why are you here?”
“To see you,” Thor said promptly. “Of course.”
“Of course,” Loki echoed. Thor gave him an odd look.
“Did you...sleep well?”
“No,” Loki said bluntly. “I did not. I seldom do.” He could almost hear Thor’s eyebrows furrow and laughed, a brittle sound. “Would you say I do not deserve my nightmares?”
“I would not say it is a question of deserving,” Thor said quietly. “You are not here to be punished.”
“I should be.” Loki rubbed his eyes. “Everything is out of joint. And me most of all.”
“Can I not help you?”
“What ails me cannot be mended by hammer or storm,” Loki said.
“Those are not the only things I can offer.”
Aren’t they? Loki could say, but it would only be cruelty. He wanted, suddenly, to do as he’d done as a child with nightmares and crawl under Thor’s covers, curl up next to his warmth and sleep knowing that Thor would save him if the monsters came.
He wished he still believed with that certainty. It felt as though it had been decades since he’d been certain of anything. For a dizzy moment he imagined that he had never stopped falling, that this was all a fever-dream and he was still in the Void, his desperate, cracking mind conjuring something from nothing.
“Loki?” Thor said, sounding concerned, and he realized that he was shaking. On solid ground, the room brightly lit. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” Loki said, and then stumbled back into the bathroom and vomited into the toilet.
Thor knelt next to him. “Should I call a healer?”
“No,” Loki said. His voice came out strained. “It’s only memories.”
“Memories,” Thor said, sounding uncertain.
“Yes,” Loki said. “They cut, sometimes.”
“If you would like to speak of them,” Thor said slowly, at length. Loki rubbed his temples.
“What good would that do?”
“It used to help you,” Thor said. “To speak of those things that troubled you to me. Even if I could do nothing, sometimes saying things aloud seemed to soothe you.”
Loki felt his lip curl. “When I was a child. ”
“It seems to me that you were happier then.”
“Everything I thought I knew was a lie,” Loki said, his voice rising to a snarl. “I did not understand then what I was and what I would never be. Did not comprehend the truth of the world, how cold and dark and cruel it is. I did not know what it was to be unmade, to be flayed down to shreds of oneself and put back together crooked-”
He choked on his own words. Thor was looking at him, his expression sickeningly compassionate. “Loki,” he said softly. “I am sorry.”
“For what,” Loki said.
“For all you suffered,” Thor said. “I did not know. I wish that you had said... but I did not ask the right questions, either. I always swore I would protect you.”
Loki sighed and dropped his head forward. “You could not have protected me,” he said, the brief burst of anger vanishing again. He missed it; all his emotions seemed to come and go so quickly, leaving him with the cold nothing feeling. “There was nothing you could have done. And nothing you can do now.”
“I will not believe it.”
“You do not have to believe it for it to be true,” Loki said. Thor was quiet for so long Loki began to think he had left.
“Come with me,” he said suddenly. Loki lifted his head to look at him.
“Come with you where? I cannot leave these rooms.”
“You can with me,” Thor said. “We’re going outside.”
Loki frowned, some faint interest piqued. “Outside where?”
“It’s a surprise,” Thor said. He held out a hand. Loki stared at it for a long moment, then took it.
He felt the prickle of magic as they left the room, the spell that held him in allowing him out when Thor was with him. Dimly he knew he should be making something of that, if he wanted to escape, but thoughts of escape were far away now. Why leave when there was nothing outside the confines of his cage for him to run to?
Thor brought him out of the palace through a side door. They left the grounds via a small path through a copse of trees, and walked down a sloping hill to a narrow strip of sand and a small natural harbor invisible from above. “You showed me this,” Thor said. “I never knew how you found it. You told me to keep it a secret from everyone, that it would be our place alone.” His expression was strange; it made something in Loki’s chest ache. “I never did tell anyone.”
“Why are we here?” Loki asked. His voice sounded hoarse.
“To swim,” Thor said. “You were always restless. I can only imagine what all this time without any room to wander has been like.”
Loki stared at Thor, and Thor looked back at him. It was freedom, he thought. He could dive into the water and swim over the edge of Asgard. Could weigh himself down with stones and drown. Could…
He stripped off his clothes and went down to the water. He put one foot in cautiously. The cold was shocking, jarring him a little out of the fog.
He waded out until he was thigh deep and then dove forward, plunging under the water. The cold only caught him for a moment before his body adjusted, and he reached out and touched the bottom, fingers running over smooth stones. There was no sound but the rush of his heart in his ears.
He heard a splash and surfaced, looking back to see Thor standing back by the beach. Loki looked at him only a moment before plunging back under the water, holding his breath so it was truly silent. There, his own heartbeat. There, the soft movement of water lapping on the beach. He rolled to his back and let himself float to the surface, staring up at Asgard’s sky.
This, he thought, this is what peace feels like.