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Rhythm

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An impromptu party at Stark Tower. Because there’s no way that could possibly go wrong. Not until the speaker gets knocked over and Loki nearly breaks your neck, that is.

You’re wearing your second-best outfit. This has been a deliberate ploy on your part: your best outfit is amazing but makes you feel like you’re going to a funeral or your estranged cousin’s wedding (which is, in fact, what you bought it for). You want to feel relaxed, comfortable, and thereby look much cooler. 

At any rate, you needn’t have bothered, because your second-best at a Stark party is hardly going to be noticed. Everyone there’s either drunk out of their skull or so focused on the person they’re trying to get into bed with that you could have shown up wearing fruit like Carmen Miranda and the most anyone would have said would have been “Duuuuude! Cool pineapple.” A man walks past wearing something so shiny Liberace would have sucked his teeth in horrified admiration and you’re probably the only one who winces.

The music thumps through your body, faster than your heartbeat, louder, stronger, and you remember what it is you‘re really here for. Music. Your love of the beat. The speakers flanking the stage are the size of the back end of an articulated lorry and right next to them the air seems to sizzle with the force of the rhythm. An eldritch blue-white light glimmers in their dials and switches. The magazines are often full of the exploits and inventions of the billionaire genius, but this is the one that really jumped out at you: a sound system that could blow the roof off Grand Central if you so much as played rock-a-bye-baby through it on a child’s recorder.

You love music and everything it does to you. The way it worms into your brain and ties your soul up in knots; the way a simple syncopated beat can turn catchy into unforgettable; the way when you plug in your headphones on the subway the music becomes your world and paints your grey journey in rainbow colours. And the lyrics. Anyone who ever claimed good music lyrics aren’t pure poetry was talking out of their ass.

So Tony Stark’s newest baby, this Mack Truck beatbox that gives the music itself a physical presence around you in the floor, the air, the heat of the dance - you couldn’t resist coming here. Stark’s patently a half-strung super-social lunatic, and Facebook parties were made for him. Unlike most people, he’s perfectly happy to invite 30,000 of his closest Facebook buddies (and their closest buddies) to come down and party on a random Tuesday afternoon.

You wonder, briefly, where he is.

Everybody here seems to be talking to someone, though you can’t imagine how anything’s being understood with the overwhelming, addictive beat, and behind the incredibly lengthy bar there are a number of wait staff flitting back and forth with complimentary drinks that probably cost more than your month’s wages for a small glass. And that have a small sparkler in them that changes colour as it burns, which probably also cost a minor fortune.

You are too intimidated (and poor) not to take a glass of the peculiar stuff as it comes round on a tray. You don’t even know what it is.  It’s green and smells as if someone’s sprinkled raw pollen over it. There’s also a growing whiff of ozone and gunpowder, which you are just starting to attribute to the sparkler, when the outer wall of the tower implodes in a cloud of rubble dust and acrid smoke. A body flies through it, backwards, and slams into the wall behind the stage with a crunch that’s audible even over the music.

There’s not that dramatic silence of shock, because the music is soaring, and the screams of the guests blend with the vocal track as they start to realise that maybe this wasn’t part of the planned entertainment (you can never be sure with Stark) and you realise that the body picking itself up off the stage is tall and slender and boiling with suppressed fury.

And is Loki.

Loki. The god. The killer.

Beyond the immediate shock, the only thing your brain can come up with is that he’s a lot better-looking than genocidal lunatics ought to be. Admittedly, he looks pissed as all hell as he sweeps to his feet and stares venomously at something behind you.

“OK,” says the unmistakable voice with its synthesized twang, somehow perfectly audible over the music. “You’re getting unfriended the minute we’re done here, Harry Potter.”

A blast of white-blue light slams past Loki’s head, and he’s ducking and moving with unbelievable, unnatural grace. He counters with a flare of lurid green energy which gouts from his hands like liquid fire. And Iron Man darts down from directly overhead, in hot pursuit.

You probably shouldn’t stay standing where you are. Around you the other 29,000-odd people are starting to panic and surge for the exits, a tide of struggling, shoving, terrified bodies. But it’s all happening in what feels like slow motion, and the music thrums through you even as Loki’s terrible (magic?) sears the floor and the drapes and everything starts to burn. Loki’s face is lit by flickering firelight and the neon flares of Iron Man’s blasters: and it can’t be your imagination that now there’s a brilliant, exhilarated glee in his expression. He bares his teeth, big and white like a wolf’s, and this time it’s unmistakable. He’s grinning even as he almost gets flattened by a falling piece of masonry. That grin snares you, the fascination of the rabbit with the coils of the snake. Loki is so crazy he’s drunk-high on being fought and fighting in return.

So, rabbit-in-the-headlights, you watch Stark and Loki trade blows, blind to everything but the pair of them, deaf to everything but the humming rhythm as, against all odds, your favourite song starts to play through Stark’s ludicrously outsize speakers. Loki lashes out with a gesture and a magic-laced, non-English  word: Iron Man staggers from where he’s braced himself up against the bar, smoke curling up his arms. There’s a moment of almost comical respite as he flings out a gauntleted hand and lethal energy fails to blast Loki in the face; Loki laughs, head thrown back but soundless in the roar of the music, and Stark spends precious seconds waggling his wrist, peering into the now evidently powerless hub of his palm blaster.

“Hardball. OK,” he shrugs, after a moment, and puts his shoulder down like a quarterback, charging Loki full-tilt. He passes you by barely a meter, smelling of hot metal and burning, which is when you realise that the crush of panicking partygoers has pushed you dangerously close to the fight. You’re almost flush against one of the two huge speakers.

Your favourite song hits the middle eight just as that speaker, caught a glancing blow in the fight, begins to rock and topple. It falls like a monolith, like an ancient stone circle dolmen, and still you can’t move. You stare up at the approaching slab, the beat pulsing in your ears and vibrating your vision to a blur. Killed by music. Not a bad way to go, your fracturing thoughts murmur.

But an arm snakes around your neck and yanks you sideways at the critical moment. The speaker crashes to the floor and everything shudders at its demise. You exhale in a gasp of relief and then extend to a hiss of pure fright as you realise that the arm holding you is wearing leather, not metal.

Loki has you by the throat in a choke-hold and he’s pressing you up against the front of his body like a shield. Your neck burns with the strain of being pulled. In the sudden silence caused by the speaker’s fall you feel almost deaf, but against your back Loki’s heartbeat takes up the rhythm. You can feel his chest (and he’s breathing hard from exertion) shoving at your spine. He’s saved you: without him you’d be dead. And yet somehow there’s no room for gratitude alongside your growing dread - what exactly has he saved you for?

Chapter Text

Stark pulls up his next charge and stops dead, a short distance away. The Iron Man suit is scorched, battered and scraped like a car on demolition derby day and you can hear in the new quiet the creak of metal under strain. Loki pulls you tighter against him, and his unexpected strength is terrifying. He’s built slim but grips like a wrestler. You couldn’t move if you tried. Your own blood thumps nauseatingly through your ears and head, an alarmingly fast beat, but right now you cling onto its sheer normality of the rhythm because everything else around you is going mad.

“Drop,” says Stark, as if he’s talking to a naughty puppy, one finger gesturing at you. Loki’s answering laughter hums through your body, making all the hairs at the nape of your neck stand on end. He shakes his head, hugging you closer, strands of his dark hair sticking to your cheek. Unsurprisingly, you‘re sweating. He smells like spice, sharp, like coriander. You’ve never been this close to anyone who wasn’t your mother or your lover. It isn’t comfortable.   “C’mon,” Iron Man continues, in what you feel is an unnecessarily pally way given the circumstances. ”Give it up. Don’t make me tell big bro on you. I hate snitches.”

“Ohhh,” purrs Loki, and his fingers dig into your shoulder in a painful massaging caress, “but Thor would be so pleased to hear I was following his example and taking up with a mortal.”

Iron Man’s expression is, of course, unreadable behind the helmet. It’s all in the body posture and the head-tilt with him. His current stance suggests deliberate ease and a confidence you’d suspect he didn’t feel, had he been anyone but Tony Stark.

“Yuh-huh. There’s taking up and taking up. This? This is called hostage-taking. Not blind dating. Big difference. Now let go.”

Loki’s free hand slides down your body and, before you really realise what’s happening, inside your second-best outfit. Horrified confusion and more than a little fright grips you until you realise that he’s doing nothing more than checking you for weapons. His hand slips down your ribs, along your flank, under your arms. The touch is precise, purposeful and firm, but not in the least gentle. Nothing to be found except your money and your phone. The rest of your stuff, coat included, is in the check room and for usefulness purposes might as well be on Mars - not that there was anything useful to be had in there anyway. It’s not like you went out for the evening loaded with a pre-packed hostage survival kit and a takeout bento box. Loki plucks out the phone anyway and casts it aside. Possibly he doesn’t know what these things are for, or maybe where he comes from there’s some particular stigma attached to sharing photos of chicken ramen with others. Regardless, your last contact with normality is gone as the phone clatters into a corner.

“No, I think I’ll keep this one,” Loki says, and Stark jolts forward a step, metal joints whirring. Loki clicks his tongue warningly, tutting, and you feel the arm circling your neck abruptly tighten like the coils of a python. You choke, writhing, your feet skittering back to hit and trample upon the toes of Loki’s boots. Loki doesn’t seem to notice. His heart rate is actually slowing, calming, as he feels himself regaining control of the situation. You can hear his breathing steady and flatten, and his calm is far more frightening than his fury had been. There’s an honesty in rage that you can appreciate. Anger is very human, and you’re human.

Except that to you, Loki has never seemed more inhuman than he does right now, calming and relaxing in the middle of a standoff with a hostage beating the hell out of his calves with their feet. Even with you snared invasively close to him he manages to seem vastly distant. Cold. The only warmth is that of his body against your back. He seems to be growing warmer, or maybe it’s you growing colder as your air supply runs out.

Air. Heartbeat. In and out, thump-thump, in and out. The smell of spice from Loki’s body. Air. Thump-thump. There’s nothing left to you except that most instinctive of actions, the things your body does by itself. Air. Heartbeat. Thump-thump.

Pause.

Thump.

Your feet, beating uselessly against Loki’s legs, fall limp.

The sight of Iron Man leaping forward blurs as your consciousness starts to fade. Then, just as you’re about to black out, pain shoots through your knees and your vision explodes back into life. You almost wish it hadn’t.

Loki is turning to dodge Stark’s charge, and he’s swinging you like a doll to keep your body between him and the Avenger. Your knees have just smacked hard into the edge of the fallen speaker as he turns and you cry out as the pain really starts to set in. Dimly, in relief, you feel your toes curl inside your shoes. Nothing broken, most likely, but lord, does it hurt. But you can breathe again, so you do,  in a great whoop of desperation, and Loki, backed up against the stage now, holds you so that the most of your body is covering his. The full connotations of the phrase “human shield” leave a bad taste in your forebrain as they pass.

It’s been in your mind before: thinking about what would happen if someone tried to mug you, car-jack you. You’re not the sort of person who hangs about waiting to be rescued, or at least you liked to think so. Facing death now (or possibly worse, you’ve no idea what Loki has in mind for you) has given your self-image a nasty edge of clarity. You just don’t have what it takes to fight this. And what’s worse is that you never did. Gods or human monsters: you don’t have it in you. You’re a victim and you always have been.

You wonder if Loki knew this, in the way that the lion can look at a thousand zebra and immediately single out the lame one.

Your shoes scrape the expensive floor, dragging trails through the spilt green drinks and rubble from the wall. Loki is backing further up along the edge of the stage, pulling you with him, his breath on your neck. Iron Man’s glowing eyes are on you, flat, seeming empty.  He doesn’t take a step to follow, though you try to plead with him using only your expression. Your throat aches from Loki’s grip and you suspect that even should you try to speak, all that would come out would be a whisper.

“You know, I didn’t think you were this stupid,” comes the voice from the Iron Man mask, and there’s a hint of genuine sadness. A genius often appreciates intellect in others: Stark sounds as if he found a dime and lost a dollar. “This doesn’t end here.”

Loki grins, a flash of those predatory teeth. “You always say that,” he says, almost lovingly. “I think I’d miss it if you stopped.” 

And he turns, leaps with you through the blasted hole in the outer wall before you even have time to think the fatalistic words: how high up are we?

Chapter Text

“You’ve got a car.”

It’s a statement rather than a question. His accent is not like yours. He sounds incredibly, overstatedly British. Downton Abbey British. Except you didn’t think the Brits were that into leather and kidnapping. Maybe you were wrong. Maybe London’s a hotbed of fast gods and cheap kinks.

Your mind’s wandering and not into helpful places. He shakes you, like a terrier shakes a rat.  Your voice is a croak.

“ I took the subway.”

He huffs out a breath and continues to drag you. Your body doesn’t seem to be working properly, but that’s hardly surprising, given that -

 

 

Falling. You’re beyond terror.

There’s too much to take in and because you know you’re going to die, your mind’s in a frenzy, trying to suck into itself the last seconds, squeeze every drop of experience out of them before the finality of the sidewalk. The open air feels cold and your eyes (tears?) watering blurs everything further into confusion.

Falling.

Turns out you were fairly high up. Not at the top, which in a weird way might have been better, but quite high all the same. Once inside the building, you’d quite lost track of location in the hum of the beat, the thronging, packed hallways and elevators and endless, elegant rooms. The music had drawn you in, pulled you to the centre and held you there in its sway, as always. You could have been anywhere - on the Moon, in Paris, in a basement. All that had mattered was to be there and to be part of the party.

Loki leaps into the void as calmly as if he’s jumping rope in the park and the sudden solid reality of location hits you. Quite high up. Quite high up can mean views, vantage and status: but quite high up is always accompanied by its gleefully morbid partner, quite a long way down.

You may have screamed. You’re quite likely to have done, and no-one would judge you for it. Loki doesn’t make a sound. His arm has shifted down to snag you around the chest, and it’s crushing, but that no longer matters because any moment now you’re going to be dead.

Still, your body has other ideas, other more basic survival instincts. It screams. It clings and scrabbles. It doesn’t want to die. At the last, as you can sense rather than see the ground rushing up to meet you, you turn your face into Loki’s body and grip onto him as if he’s the last thing that can save you. The hard edges of the leather press into your cheek and your fingers dig hard into his collar.

Your primal survival instincts, as it turns out, are good.

The impact is purely ridiculous, in a cartoon way. There’s no previous experience in your life that can give it context. You’ve flown before, and experienced the g-force on takeoff and landing. You’ve fallen from the apex of a swing’s parabola as a child. You’ve been taken down, last man standing, in a hail of acrylic at paintball. This is really nothing like any of them, but a little of all.

As the sidewalk lurches sickeningly close, Loki swings you again, bringing his legs under himself, bending, bracing. His knees smack up under your spine as you hit, his torso arching over yours. There’s a sound that you only realise much later was the sidewalk cracking in several places, like it was peanut brittle. This scares you, once you work it out. You’re stuck with someone who is tough enough to crack concrete and not crack his own bones doing it. His stupidly resilient Asgardian body has acted like a car’s suspension and rollcage: you’re bounced around, bruised, whiplashed and winded, but you’re still alive.

Why?

Crazily, the first sound you can make sense of is a parked car’s stereo system. It’s playing a song by Muse and the familiar intro bars give you an odd sort of comfort. Then into the familiar refrain comes the wail of sirens, and from above the super-and-sub-sonic whine of the Iron Man suit. You feel Loki exhale and uncurl from his crouch around you. Around you, there are people: the streets are never empty.

Fuck, man,” says a deep voice, from behind you. “Some party.” More voices, cutting in, making only snatches of sense.

“You OK?”

“ - need an ambulance -”

“ - all the way up there, isn’t it a -”

“ - recognise that guy -”

“ - isn’t that -”

“ - shit, he was on the news -”

Loki’s name hits the crowd like a stone dropped into a lake. The ripples spread out as he stands, dragging you with him, and he looks up at Tony Stark’s graceful descent, bathing in the blues and twos as more cars approach.

Someone takes a photo. Then another. Someone videoing. The camera phones flash and flicker in Loki’s eyes as he darts looks side to side, turning his green irises to reflective red, like a cat’s eyes in the dark.

You swear to God that if you get out of this you’ll never use your own phone to record stuff that happens in the street ever again. It’s insane, an affront to your own fright and desperate situation. You’re gripped with an abrupt, numb hatred of these people who seem to think your impending death is some kind of tourist attraction. Had you been less in shock and more your normal self, you’d have felt unbearably exposed.

The scream of Iron Man’s boosters sounds from above, and the air around you suddenly suffuses with the spice-market smell you’re already starting to associate with Loki, and there’s a moment when the air seems to flicker, fog with cinnamon shades, before clearing again.

“Hey,” says the original deep voice, which belongs to a guy wearing a baseball cap backwards and a designer shirt. “Holy -! Where’d they go?”

The growing crowd hums uncertainly. They draw back, murmuring, and Loki moves as they move, slipping into the growing gaps, unbelievably silent despite the boots. You’re in pain and you yelp as he jolts you. His only response is to clamp his hand over your mouth and he keeps moving.

Behind you, Stark’s boots hiss and there’s a ker-thunk as he lands in the centre of the cracked sidewalk. Bumping along with Loki as he slides between cars in the rubbernecking jam building up, you only catch glimpses and you can’t understand what’s happening. It’s like the moment just after the speaker fell: you feel strangely half-deaf, unreal. People are looking everywhere but at you and the focus of everyone is now on Iron Man and the cracks in the pavement.

And this is how you and Loki disappear, under a cloak of magic (another thing that belatedly dawns on you once you’re feeling less concussed). He’s determined, it seems, to go on the run, and you’re going with him.

 

“You’ve got a car.”

“I took the subway.”

This doesn’t stop the newspaper headlines, for days afterwards, being convinced that you took your car anyway. And by that time, you’re both long gone.

Chapter Text

You’ve never felt more like an accessory in your life, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, you’ve just fled the scene of a crime (you can’t entirely work out what the crime would be classified as, but figure it starts with destruction of property and works up from there) and while you may have started off as a definite victim, your doing a moonlight flit with the principal villain will at least raise doubts with the powers that be.

You’re not stupid. You know how the media works.

Secondly, which feels worse in a strange sort of way, you’re being dragged along and generally swung about like a battered shoulder bag. And not the fashionable kind - distressed is a good look on jeans and leather coats. It’s not a good look on you.

Loki evidently cares about the condition of his shoulder bag even less than he cares about heights. Your tongue feels thick in your mouth, where you suspect you have bitten it during the descent. Your knees are screaming pain at you with every bend of your legs and jolt of your steps, which is why you’re being dragged. Walking is proving difficult. And you can still feel the bruised constriction of Loki’s arm around your throat, even though he’s now got his hand dug into your scruff like a belligerent lioness moving her cub.

As you focus on the hard grip of his fingers on the back of your neck and head, something foreign and cold in the back of your mind murmurs [skoft] in that Downton Abbey accent, but you’re so weary and dull with injuries you barely take notice. Hindsight will prove marvellous.

He hasn’t asked your name, and you certainly don’t need to ask his. You both just keep moving. The world around you is a cardamom scented blur of people, cars, buildings, all coloured by your pain. The sound and sense of emergency vehicles fades as time and distance passes. The black plume of smoke rising from Stark Tower begins to recede behind the horizon of high-rises. Once, far overhead, a chopper passes in a curving diagonal. The deep thrum of those circling rotors sets up a vibration in your bruised body that’s just on the benevolent side of painful, and you’re almost sorry when it passes beyond the block and is gone.

It occurs to you later that this reaction, part of your addiction to the beat, is probably something psychologists would have a field day with. They’d go right back to the primal: the heartbeat of your mother, the safety of the womb, and all manner of peculiar earth-mother-wind-and-fire shit.

You don’t feel you’d have a lot of time for this. A chopper’s scything rotors are not your mother. The hum of speakers does not move you, claim you, because it makes you feel safe.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

And there’s a new rhythm, a new unsafe beat to live by: the stumbling of your feet, the quick tread of Loki’s boots. And despite the peril, even this becomes something you almost enjoy. Every second you keep moving is a second he hasn’t killed you. Every second you keep moving is a second he hasn’t decided you’re useless. Because you’re pretty certain that useless things of Loki’s don’t just get discarded. They get destroyed, just in case they should become useful to anyone else.

Loki shifts the grip of his fingers on your neck, like a guitarist shifting chord. He’s  slowing down and your watering eyes rove from side to side. The blur of scenery passing by around you seems more dusty green and brown and yellow than clean city greys and reds. The smell of spices that surrounds you both has taken on a sour tang, as if someone is burning powdered cumin on an overly hot skillet. It’s also reminding you a little of the smell you get when you boil a saucepan dry. Running on fumes. How far have you gone?

You haven’t actually asked him anything. Where would it get you? In movies and fiction captives are always demanding answers. What time is it? Where am I? What do you want with me? How could you? Where are you taking me? Do you want money? When are you going to let me go?

Now that you’re in their exact situation you genuinely can’t understand why they do this. It only ever antagonises, or worse, prods the villain into revealing more than they wanted to. At which point they’re more likely to kill you because you know their plans and are a risk.

You’re painfully aware that every train of thought you’re having is ending up n your death. Given what’s going on, this probably shows a healthy grasp of realism.

Against your skin, Loki’s fingertips shudder, just the tiniest amount. Another sound joins the creak of leather clothing, the drag of your feet, the rapid tread of his boots. His breathing. Laboured breathing, bordering on a gasp. Steady, but ragged. A new syncopation in the rhythm, shifting with an accent to weakness.

It’s only then you start to realise you’re probably not the only one who’s injured.

Somewhere inside you once again hear that voice, a new word [sárr], and there’s a phantom pain gnawing at your gut. It feels like there’s a huge snake curled around inside your intestines, like there’s a giant wolf with its teeth meeting in the soft parts of your abdomen -

Eyes that are not your eyes are burning and so very [sárr!] painful.

What the hell -?

Loki suddenly stops moving forward and the world stops rushing around you in a blur. You would have dropped like a rag doll had it not been for his hand on the back of your neck. As it is, he holds you there upright, glaring fiercely at the point where his hand meets your neck, as if the very fact of his having to touch you offends him.

He’s remarkably pale, with livid exertion spots slashing along his cheekbones and making them look almost bruised. You look everywhere except directly into his eyes. The chased leather that covers his chest, battered and scorched, moving in and out as he breathes hard. The dirty, flicking ends of his black hair moving against the sky. The heavy way the tails of his tunic are lifted by the breeze and fall back to hit the sides of his boots. The boots themselves.

He shakes you warningly, like a terrier shakes a rat, then drops you, before dropping to the ground himself.

Chapter Text

When you look back on it later, now would have been a really good time to run. The best time, actually, before the birds and the weirdness really kicked in. There are only a couple of problems with this.

One: had you been expressly ordered to by the President, the baby Jesus, and your mom, you wouldn’t have been able to get your legs working enough to even stagger.

So you stay there on the ground in a half-sprawl, trembling with strain, but unwilling to lapse down into being fully prone. It would be too vulnerable a position and you have no idea where the hell you are. If he’s chosen to drop you in the middle of the freeway you could shortly become more prone than any living human being can comfortably be and they’d be scraping your intentions to escape (along with the rest of you) up with a shovel.

Two: Loki is conscious and watching you like a hawk. You’ve often thought that was an odd choice of phrase - you saw a bald eagle in a zoo once and it had a certain mad-eyed vacancy to its expression that didn’t lend itself to being thought intelligent or keen.

But with this all this inhuman attentiveness fixed on you now, you completely get it.

And shit, you looked him in the eye. And now you can’t look away. He’s lying in a position almost mirroring you, propped on his arms, not letting himself slump, his legs splayed behind him. And staring, his expression unreadable.

There was that bit you read in The Silence Of the Lambs where the mother of the kidnapped girl does a thing with the press asking the kidnapper to hand himself in. She used the girl’s name a lot, because that was supposed to do - what was it? - personalisation. Get the criminal to see the girl as a person, not an object. Another human being, a soul, a life. Someone he couldn’t just kill.

Loki is watching you as if you’re something totally exterior to his sphere of reference. His lips are slightly parted as he breathes hard through his own pain, and there are little silvery scars, like threads, running along them. Your throat hurts, and your mouth is dry. Your tongue feels swollen and moves sluggishly as you try to speak.

He frowns at your first attempt, possibly because he can’t hear your damaged whisper.

You try again, and you tell him your name, which only strikes you as being a mistake after you’ve managed to choke it out past your thick tongue and dry lips.

Personalisation might work with another human being. Might. But what you’ve basically just done here is tried to say to a god “Look at me! I’m just like you! See how much we have in common! You wouldn’t hurt me, wouldya, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal?”

Your heart hammers in your throat. Loki continues to frown, delicately, the lines on his brow drawing together above his long, elegant nose. Until, abruptly, the expression clears.

He repeats your name back to you, sarcastic, incredulous, his tone giving it all the is-that-supposed-to-mean-something-to-me he can muster.

And something happens.

That’s the best you’ve both got, it seems.

Something.

It feels a bit like what happened when you stood directly in front of Stark’s speaker. An external vibration, except that there‘s no noticeable source. So powerful it throws your heart off-beat, a palpitating, unhealthy fluttering that is in no way romantic and makes you feel sick. You only realise you’re not having a heart attack when you catch the open-mouthed intensity on Loki’s face, and realise it’s having an impact on him, too.

You hear voices in your head, all talking in that weird language you don’t recognise but somehow can catch the gist.

One of them, you realise now, the voice that had said scruff [skoft] and expressed pain [sarr!] is Loki’s.

The other is an older man. You have no idea what he looks like, but his voice sounds broad and portentous and powerful. And angry.

Somewhere a few feet from your ear, a bird makes a shriking, ugly sound, and both you and Loki turn to look, snapping back to what passes for your reality these days and out of that something.

It’s a fuck-off massive black bird with a beak that looks just made for digging into eye sockets. You’ve never seen one so big. It eyeballs both of you and gives a gutteral croak that sounds on the edge of being a word.

And Loki laughs.

It’s not a comforting sort of laugh, or the crazy bloodlust grin from Stark Tower. This is almost resignation: the laugh of someone who’s suddenly got the joke, and thinks it’s neither very funny nor in very good taste. You have no idea what’s funny [hlaeja] or what the hell is going on.

There’s blood on the ground underneath where Loki is sitting, big drops in the dust. The big bird takes wing with a dusty rustle of feathers, and joins another, almost as big. They fly up together and perch on a telegraph wire across the street.

It’s really only then that you bother to realise that you’re somewhere way out in the suburbs, practically the boonies, on a sidewalk next to a car that doesn’t look like it’s moved in about 3,000 years (and that was to go pick up more rust at the rust store) and that there’s an old guy with his t-shirt all covered in car grease just wandering out of his garage towards you both. He’s just a guy: his hair is thinning, his bald patch is sunburnt, and he has a belly hanging over the belt on his blue jeans.

“Well, hi,” he says, as soon as he gets within range. “Help you folks?”

He’s particularly giving Loki the hard eye, which isn’t surprising given the outfit. “Look like you’ve got yourself a good battering, young fella -”

Just like that, you can feel the balance of the situation shift. And as the guy reaches down to give Loki a hand up and Loki reaches out, smiling, to take it, you open your mouth and try to say “No!”

Quick as a snake, Loki grabs his arm, pulls hard. You have only time to lean your body away as he brings the man crashing onto the dusty street, arm first.

And there’s a dull, almost non-noise as he breaks the guy’s neck with an elbow brought down expertly.

You find you’re empty. You want to be horrified, but you’re not. You want to be able to do something, but there’s nothing to be done. The guy’s eyes stare up at you, bulging a little, and quite dead.

There is effort, weariness and a sneer on Loki’s face. He pauses, just briefly, eyes closed, then pushes upright, towering above you, backlit by the sun. A hot scent like coriander suffuses the air and a few more spots of blood hit the street.

“Get the keys,” he says. There’s no hint of any expectation of disobedience.

You finally find them inside the old guy’s back pocket, attached to a faded leather key fob.

“Get in the car.”

It’s a 1958 Plymouth Fury, or was, under the rust, with ridiculous fins, and it smells like something crawled in and died under the aging upholstery. It hurts when you bend your knees to get into the seat, but the relief to be sitting on supportive padding to rest your spine is greater.

A weight abruptly drops the back of the car down: Loki’s doing something with the trunk that you can’t see. When he climbs into the seat next to you, he winces a little and licks his lips.

You hope, when he makes you put in the keys and start the thing up for him, that he knows how to drive.

Chapter Text

Stockholm syndrome.

You’ve heard of it, of course. Everyone has. It’s become a standard of any situation involving duress, fashionable to mention at parties and cool to talk about in discussions of the latest HBO Game of Thrones. Everyone claims to know a story about someone who started to love their captor, their tormentor. Everyone says they think they kind of understand it, in a weird way, sure, but wouldnt it be natural, kind of, if the guy was the only point of surety in your tortured little shrunken universe -

Everyone is lying. And you don’t understand it at all.

The world outside the Plymouth’s grimy windows swims past in a flickering pattern of images. Your sense of time has been skewed since the party, but the sun is definitely going down. Loki has somehow goaded the stolen ancient rattler into doing something like 100, and the sounds it is making while it does so are alarming to say the least. Not to mention the sporadic bumping and thumping of something heavy in the trunk that you are beginning to suspect (all right, more than suspect) is the body of the old guy Loki killed in the street.

The milometer on the car is running backwards.

You glance up at Loki in the driving seat, carefully, and check your feelings. No. No sympathy in you. Definitely no love. A lot of fear. A little resentment. But mostly, oh, mostly, you’re just so tired that everything else is fading, becoming window-dressing to the weariness.

He picked up how to drive in about a minute. It was obvious, for a scary twenty seconds, that he had no idea how the car worked, and was just tinkering with buttons, pedals, the stick shift. But then there was a moment: a few golden seconds as his face worked, jaw clenching, and you could almost see his brain getting to grips with it.

Then he rammed the stick into drive and floored the pedal. A small consolation is that they’ll probably be able to track the pair of you by the trail of rust alone.

As your aches and pains begin to settle into a steady throbbing, your body begins to suggest that maybe, just maybe, you need a drink. That odd green liquor at the party seems a thousand years ago, and your eyes feel like they‘ve been bathed in acid.

“You can stop that,” Loki says, almost mildly, as if bored. You’re confused. He glances down at you where you’re slumped in the deep bucket seat, and raises his eyebrows, shaking his head slightly. “We keep moving.”

You’re fuzzy for a while on why this statement makes you feel so conflicted, but then you get it.

We. We keep moving.

You’re caught between hope - he’s not killing you - and utter, utter despondency. We keep moving. You’re not getting out of here. For whatever peculiar, twisted purpose, he’s still keeping you. And now his mood has shifted, from mild boredom to absolute rage, just like that. His emotional state is like a tide, perpetually on the turn. You can almost feel his anger [reidi], hot, like the feeling when you open a bread oven and stand bathed in the baking blast.

Except ovens are contained and this heat is not. It’s more like standing in front of an advancing bushfire [villieldr] with no protective clothing and only a Solo cup full of water to protect you.

The foreign word seems to echo in your head as you stare at Loki’s hands on the wheel. Almost musical.

“You think I don’t know what this is about?” Loki says after a moment of this furious silence, and it’s absolutely not clear whether the person he’s talking to is even on this earth. He‘s certainly not looking at you. Those glazed green eyes are fixed somewhere beyond the horizon as the Fury eats up the road. “It’s pathetic.” The word gets bitten out, angrily. “Can you not even be original in your punishments?”

You say nothing.

“Stupid. Old. Man.”

The ancient car roars in protest as Loki leans on the accelerator, urging it faster. There’s blood getting tacky on the ragged upholstery under Loki’s legs, but he doesn’t seem to be actively losing blood anymore. The dark crimson stain seems to swell sickeningly, fill your vision -

You only realise you must have blacked out when you wake up to the primeval, blaring trumpet of a juggernaut‘s horn. Your damaged throat lets out an instinctive, painful shriek. The car is swerving all over the road, drunkenly. A terrified glance at the driver reveals Loki slumped over at the wheel, just beginning to sit up again, his expression slack with his own just-regained consciousness. He doesn’t seem to know what’s happening as the windshield fills with white light. Some time during your (mutual?) blackout the sun’s dropped out of sight and it’s almost dark. There’s an oil tanker bearing down on you, headlights on full, and you’re in the middle of the road, lurching from side to side.

Modern man’s instincts in the face of a metal monster are just as good as the lizard instincts of proto-man in the face of the tiger. You lunge for the wheel, yank it sideways, aware of Loki’s hands regaining their own grip and almost pulling against you as you do so. You pull out of the path of the tanker, swerving with a scream of rubber and rust. Merciful darkness swamps the windshield again, the headlights and the departing accusatory blatt of the truck’s horn dopplering away behind you.

The Plymouth crunches onto the soft shoulder and comes to a halt, Loki’s foot on the brake. For a moment, it’s almost peaceful. The field in front of you is wide and darkening as the night comes on. White moths blunder across the glass, their wings patting gently at the car, the only sound your own ragged breaths and Loki‘s own, quieter, stressed panting. You realise the car’s own lights aren’t on. Loki was driving you in the dark, not knowing or caring what the headlights were for, until…

Until what, exactly? You both blacked out? Co-incidence?

He’s silent. Not looking at you. Points of light, reflected from the rising moon, gleam in his staring eyes.

For the first time since you’ve been in his presence, you feel he’s genuinely afraid.

And you still don’t feel any need to reach out to him.

If anything, you feel a tiny spark of satisfaction, thinking: Be scared, you cocky shit. You deserve it. I’ve been scared my whole life. If this is new to you, then hey, welcome to Earth. We’re good at fear, here. We know how it works. It’s crappy and incapacitating, but we know how to handle it. See? This is how.

You close your eyes, because they hurt, and retreat into yourself.

Until, that is, Loki’s voice says your name. Repeatedly, in escalating tones of affront and annoyance.

“Change of plan,” he says, when you open sore eyes again in surprise and look at him. “Get out. We’re walking.”

You can’t help it. The laugh bubbles up and is past your lips before you can stop it. Your legs. Your legs won’t walk. It occurs to you through the mild hysteria to tell Loki this, because quite frankly, what more harm can it do?

He snorts when the message finally gets through.

“You seem to think I am asking,” he says, in a silken, superficially reasonable tone. “I assure you, I’m not.”

“I can‘t.”

“You can,” he commands. “I will make you.”

And you do. Because he does. He walks you almost like a dummy, his arm under your arms this time, supporting you almost gently, walking stiff-legged himself as if his ribs hurt him. The grass feels thick under your dragging feet.

Above you in the gathering dark, the ravens are still following. 

Chapter Text

Eventually, you start thinking about Thor. Loki, much to your growing alarm, seems to be able to tell that’s what you’re doing and is horrendously unimpressed. He makes a noise like a hissing kettle or an angry wildcat between his big, white front teeth and looks skyward.

There’s not a lot more to do in the remains of the building except think, though. With your perception still blurry with pain and shock, you know only that the ravens found it first: you have a clear vision in your memory of the two black shapes, swift shadows against darkness, flying close overhead and then diving into the rafters of the ruined roof. Otherwise, you’re no clearer what this is. It’s big, that’s for sure. Big enough to hold at least a hundred transport containers (there are still two here, against what’s left of the far wall, open and empty). There’s a doorway to your left, no door on it, the opening pitch black. Could be anything through there. The ceiling is intact only over half, the rest having fallen in. It’s dilapidated and feels like it’s been empty for a long, long time.

You can see stars glimmering above in the patches of sky revealed by the broken roof, and they’re beautiful, but also horrible, because they’re reminding you that you’re stuck here. The last time you looked at stars, you were free. Now you’re not. Your heart has finally slowed into a regular beat, though your breath catches now and then with your misery.

It’s Loki’s fault.

It’s also Thor’s fault.

You explore that thought for a moment, wondering where it came from.

It’s been a weird few years, all things considered. Like everyone, you followed the news. Guys like Thor started being problems as opposed to escapist fantasies. Then guys like their crazy brothers started showing up and trying to destroy the world, but not in that cozy, fun tea-time Masterpiece Theater kind of way. No, they favoured the actual alien armies with added Armageddon kind of way.

Although [Ragnarok] might be a more appropriate term, you suppose.

You can just feel Loki staring at you from his place perched on the only other feature of the place, a cab-less truck bed. You don’t look at him.

So as you understand it, Thor was kind of a dick, which resulted in his father Odin throwing him off his home planet (Realm? Heaven? Dimension?) so he could come here and learn some good Christian values like humility and love-thy-fellow-man and all that. So he could become a better person. Alien. God. Whatever.

Actually, maybe it’s Odin’s fault, at that - why did he have to pick here? What’s Earth, his own personal time-out step for his naughty kids? Why would he pick here to teach his son good manners, when obviously just sending him down would put the place in danger? What the Hel was he thinking, shoving his discipline problems off on Midgard, where the people were so soft and stupid and breakable -

You feel your throat clench, wanting to throw up.

Those aren’t your thoughts.

Someone’s in here with you.

You badly want a mirror, right now, just so you can look at yourself, find comfort and familiarity in your physical face, because you’re not finding any inside your own mind. It’s like watching yourself on film, raised to the power of twenty. That dislocation. You recognise yourself easily enough: that voice that maintains your inner self, your inner monologue, but now it’s like listening to a movie that’s had something go wrong with the synchronisation between the visual and audio tracks. And another track’s been spliced in, one from a foreign-language film perhaps, with its odd little interpolations and inhuman, arrogant tones.

You finally have to look over at Loki, cold creeping along your arms despite the warmth of the night, frightened all over again. He sits there, very still, the moonlight just catching in his eyes and silvering his dark hair.

“Me,” he says, very quietly. 

And then you do throw up, hearing him add, equally quietly, “You’re disgusting.”

He didn’t need to speak. His disgust is already suffusing your mind like smoke.

 

He moves you both into one of the empty transport containers. Hands you a piece of musty tarpaulin to clean yourself up. The insights are starting to come fluidly, now, so you know this is nothing to do with compassion for you, only his finer sensibilities revolting at the scent of human vomit.

When you ball up the scrap of tarp and hurl it into the gloom, you see the ravens dive after it. Sounds of cackling combat echo around the wrecked building as they fight over it. The whirr of their wings seems loud.

You agree silently with Loki that that’s even more disgusting. He sniffs, apparently amused, then:

“Do you have any congenital diseases?”

As opening gambits go, that’s not the one you expected. Still, he’s talking to you rather than issuing commands or trying to throttle you, so it’s probably best to see this as a step forward. He’s impatient, however.

“Injuries?” he pursues. “Weaknesses?”

You shake your head, or try to. Your neck hurts.

“No. Not that I know of.”

His shoulders set.

“How old are you?”

You tell him. He rolls his eyes. Your new mind supplies you with his age in return, and along with that knowledge comes the feeling of being incredibly small and fragile. Loki looks about thirty. But he’s really not. For some reason you remember the sidewalk, cracked and shattered like peanut brittle under his boots. In your mind, the mirror that you longed for moments ago, reflecting your frightened, hollow face, shatters likewise into a thousand pieces under Loki’s feet. Your fear must be written all over your face, never mind your psyche.

And again you hear that laugh of his, the one that suggests he’s well aware he’s the butt of a very bad joke.

“Don’t you understand,” he says, when he’s all laughed out, “you’re the one mortal on this ridiculous world who doesn’t have anything to fear from me?”

You don’t voice the question, because you don’t dare.

Fortunate mortal,” Loki purrs, in tones of deep sarcasm, “Allfather Odin has decided to teach me a lesson. And my lesson is going to be you.”

He pauses, but not long enough for you to start weighing up the full potential ramifications of your apparent good fortune. Then he sets all guesswork to rest. “You’d better prepare yourself,” he continues, that cut-glass British voice edged with suppressed, icy rage. “I imagine things are going to get rather painful.”

Chapter Text

You suppose that you’ve always believed in magic. Oh, not in that little-girl, pink-unicorn sort of way, but you’ve always had that feeling that at the very furthermost edge of things-that-make-sense there’s that other, more intangible mass of things-that-don’t. Things that can’t be explained by scientists in a ten-second commercial. Things that can’t be measured. Even now you’re grown up you still occasionally feel that frisson of wonder, of joy, when you encounter something that isn’t quite in the ordinary way of things. Something that lifts you out of the mundane.

Music does that to you every time, for example. A song can raise the hairs on the back of your neck, or a simple melody can call up a memory of home, long ago. Homespun magic. The magic of the human brain and endocrine system. You’re not sure if that counts as real magic, but you’re sure that it’s real, if that makes any sense at all. Loki’s voice, even now, is like music, making you react, running the gamut from a full orchestral symphony (probably Wagner) to a simple, finger-picked classic guitar.

You suppose religion is like that too. Religion probably falls into the same broad category as magic - that extraordinary silver edge just trimming normality - just with added structure.

You used to be pretty sure you’d love to be a part of that edge.

You’re not at all sure now, and would give practically anything to be doing something normal like buying a coffee or doing the laundry.

Because here you are, in the company of gods and fairytale monsters (you’ve already decided that Loki counts as both), listening to Loki rage.

You’d say he was explaining things to you, if it wasn’t patently obvious that he would rather you weren’t there. His eyes are almost glowing with the effort of keeping his fury in check. Odd, that. He speaks levelly, biting off the words occasionally, as he paces back and forth in the dark.

I imagine things are going to get rather painful.

They’re already painful. Listening to him is only making things worse. The fact that you are starting to feel every convoluted, conflicted twist of his emotional state as a roil in your gut isn’t helping. His emotions are like bonfire sparks, continually flaring up into the night and petering out, only to be replaced by another, brighter, hotter, the next moment. It’s exhausting just being near him.

“The Aesir,” says Loki, nearing the end of his paced furrow and half-turning to come back, “are self-deluded and vain, and Odin Allfather first among them. He’s like a child. If he thinks you’re not listening to him, he’ll relentlessly dog your every move until he sees some sign, some reaction, that tells him you’ve noticed him and acknowledged his glory. He can’t bear to be ignored, because of course he knows best.”

A flash of those big, predatory teeth in the gloom. No humour whatsoever. Just an unbearable weight of resentment. Up in the ruined rafters, there’s the sound of wings shuffling and the click-click-click of talons as the ravens patter back and forth uneasily.

“So he’ll make sure, now, that I have no choice but to deal with this - this farce he’s built for me.” He shoots a lethal glare upward as one of the ravens rattles a croak. “Oh, please. Credit me at least with some small criticisms. And what will it prove? That you’re in control of both your sons? That there’s something here on Midgard we in Asgard can learn from? Spare me.”

Silence from the birds. [Huginn and Muninn], the new facet of your brain supplies. Thought, and memory.

“Thor had his ridiculous goats and now he has his even more ridiculous Avengers. You? You’ve shackled me to a human being. What’s next? The roots of the Tree? The coils of Jormungand?”

He chokes out a laugh, and there’s a catch inside your heart that lets you know it was laugh, then, or turn to weeping.

Again?”

You’re lost to him. Speaking directly to Odin, lost in a twist of previous grief - I could have done it, Father - he’s almost forgotten you’re there at all. There’s a long moment of nothing. Loki is empty. You’re empty. There’s only the starlight and the pain in your legs. When it comes, Loki’s voice breaks into that silence like a gunshot.

“And what if it dies?”

All of a sudden you wish that you’d stayed forgotten. Because now you’re an it, a thing, a nameless burden.

“What if,” Loki says, his voice almost inaudible, “I fail.”

It’s the most he’s spoken in one block since he took you from Stark Tower, which feels like a million years ago.

From the darkness, the bigger of the two ravens gives a single croak, laced with finality, and Loki’s dark head lowers. There’s a small sound that you realise must be him grinding his teeth.

“You are an old bastard, aren’t you.”

Inside his head there’s nothing but [daudr] death and darkness. Your heart almost stops at the horror of it.

“Well, at least I’m not rendered helpless like your golden son. Don‘t expect gratitude.”

The ravens break into a chorus of gutteral cawing that strikes you both as mocking laughter.

“No, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Loki snarls. “Remember who I am, Father. I do the surprising.”

And then you surprise both yourself, and him (but possibly not the ever-watching Odin) by attempting to bolt.

 

You’re not quite certain why you did it. It was hopeless, of course: your legs are battered, he’s quicker than you and probably sees in the dark like a cat - but there was something about [daudr] that made your skin crawl with the certainty.

If you die, Loki dies. That’s what it meant. Odin’s squashed the pair of you together like peanut butter and jelly in a sandwich, and there’s no way to draw you apart. If Loki dies, you die.

Can gods truly die?

If you’d been able to think more rationally, this should have come as a comfort in some small way, because Loki isn’t going to kill you. He’s far too protective of his own skin. But there’s nothing rational left in you. You’re all exposed nerve endings and exposed soul. So you run, because it’s what humans do.

The long grass of the field swipes at your wounded knees as you stumble along. The moon is high, affording you some view of the way you’re going, and there’s nothing, nothing, nothing on the horizon except a few tiny distant lights on a far-flung highway. The heat of the night seems to be increasing, a stuffy, cloying mugginess in the air that’s suffocating. Every breath you draw into your lungs reeks sharply of ozone.

Inevitably, you fall. Onto your face in the arid, crackling grass, your body singing pain at you, your heart trying to thump its way out of your chest. Crickets chirrup indignantly among the dry stems.

“What are you trying to do?” comes Loki’s equally dry, sardonic voice from a few steps away. You realise he probably wasn’t even trying to chase you: probably just sauntered along behind as if out on a happy moonlit stroll and waited for your own limitations to bring you down.

“I can’t do this anymore,” you hear yourself say. What sort of stinging retort Loki would have come up with in response to that is lost, because at that moment there’s a rumble and crack of thunder in the previously clear skies above, towards the east, and an answering magnesium flare of lightning. Clouds begin to boil up across the moon like plumes of black ink in water.

Loki’s fear abruptly slams into you like a bucket of ice water dumped over your head. He is, for that moment at least, plainly and simply terrified.

“We need to go,” he says. “We need to go. Right. Now.”

Chapter Text

The feel of Thor in Loki’s head is complicated, in far more than a Facebook relationship status sort of way. Thunder growls in the sky, an unmistakable warning: I’m coming. I don’t stop for anything. Take cover.

Loki’s emotions writhe and contort like a nest of snakes set aflame. Your own stomach feels as if it’s full of bile, but as you’ve got nothing left to be sick with, you stumble along at his side with no more than a faint, bubbling nausea.

Thor. The name has got into his mind and is running around restlessly, and he seems unable to put a stop on it. It circles your own train of thought and derails it, rushing off again to go and torment Loki, a babble of jumbled noise.

You’re amazed at how easy it’s becoming to think about your brains working together like this. You can almost picture it now: stretching between you like spider webs, a set of incredibly strong, unbelievably slender invisible silver cords. Through these cords comes the connection -

[then they bound him with a rope called Thin to a rock called Scream]

- and the thoughts, and the memories.

The ravens race along with you, cawing harshly and loudly, as if determined to show the god of thunder exactly where you both are. The moon has vanished in the oncoming storm. The night is pitch. Just as you suspected, Loki isn’t bothered by this at all. He runs like a cat, sure-footed, unerring. In comparison, you run like a one-legged sheep (that is to say, hardly running at all).

You are beginning to suspect, however, that this connection cuts both ways.

Your legs aren’t hurting as much anymore. Okay, you’re probably not going to be cracking concrete beneath your mighty conquering boot-heels any time soon, but you’re no longer utterly lame. Your kneecaps no longer feel as if being smashed into a giant speaker has pulverised them beyond repair. Pulverised, oh yes, but there’s a dull sensation of pins-and-needles or possibly more like knitting going on under the bruising that isn’t entirely unpleasant.

You wonder what Loki’s knees are feeling like right now, and catch yourself in the middle of hoping they hurt him like hell. After all, you’re rather dependant on him at the moment. Wishing him injured isn’t going to do you any good at all.

Lightning forks down, only a few miles distant now, and the glare blinds your night-expanded pupils. The smell of ozone is unbearable, metallic. Loki changes direction like a hare, turning in mid-stride in a leaping zig-zag, dragging you with him. Your arm feels like he’s almost yanked it out of its socket as he jinks and bounds onwards.

His grip on your hand is incredibly tight. Those long, cool fingers have wrapped up your hand almost in entirety and his fingertips are grinding in across your knuckles.

It feels a lot better being dragged by the hand than it did by the scruff. Less impersonal. More like a partnership.

You’re just starting to think that you don’t like the way that set of feelings is heading when inside Loki, inside you, the sensation of Thor intensifies and drives everything else out. There’s a lot of hate in there. Loki is consumed by it: you, at the end of the silver cord, can be more objective.  Clearly, he hates his brother. That couldn’t be plainer. But if you lift up the massive safety curtain that reads “hate”, there’s a whole lot more going on backstage that gives the lie to it. Loki’s as conflicted as a war zone and he doesn’t like it one bit. It’s almost as if he’s more running away from his feelings about Thor than he is from the god himself. That seems to be the main source of the fright he’s experiencing. Certainly, most people would be frightened given the threat of an inbound beating by a man whose general appearance suggests he could cover model for a whole year’s worth of Men’s Wrestling Monthly Magazine. But that isn’t it. You’ve been frightened of physical assault yourself. It doesn’t feel like this. If anything, your experience of Loki during his fight with Stark suggests he treats being beaten up by more traditionally physical opponents as some sort of hobby: an extreme sport, perhaps.

It starts to rain, slowly at first, then quickly increasing into a solid, vertical downpour of hot droplets. Loki’s boots splash up wet earth as you exit the grass field onto a dirt track, and mud starts to hit your legs.

“Faster,” is all he says to you, as the going gets flatter. You don’t spare any breath to try and argue or point out your physical shortcomings anymore. You have a feeling he knows perfectly well what your capabilities are and is just using his voice as a goad.

And just what would happen if Thor did catch you?

Your traitor thought actually brings Loki up short as it hits him in the hindbrain, courtesy of the link. His head flicks sharply round to stare at you, soaking black hair plastered to his cheeks with the abrupt movement.

You’d probably be quite safe. Thor likes humans. More than safe. He’d deliver you back to the world you belong to, where magic is ephemeral, on the cusp, not all-encompassing and dangerous. If you just stopped running, became a burden to Loki, slow him down enough that he can be captured -

The moon flickers out from the scudding clouds, illuminating you both briefly in its light.

“No,” Loki says, and there’s an alarmed edge to his voice that is quite believable. “No.”

And so quickly, before can you even pick up on his intention through the link, he’s pulled a tiny, wicked-looking little arrowhead-shaped knife from up his sleeve and has swiped it across the back of his hand where it clutches yours. He hisses. Blood wells, dappling quickly with the relentless rain and dribbling down his pale skin in diluted red trails. It looks almost black in the darkness. 

You feel the mirroring smart in your own hand growing slowly, in the same way as a nettle sting grows to a slow, irritating burn over the minutes after you were stung. You raise your hand close enough to see it even in the dimness, fingers trembling, and watch the thin wound blossom open like an awful flower. It’s not as bad as Loki’s: more of a scrape than a gash. But it’s there.

“You think that if they catch us, they will undoubtedly want to save you.”

You stare at it. Time seems to slow. His voice comes steadily, bitter with resolution.

“You’re quite right, of course. But if they catch me, they will not be kind.”

Your blood mixes with water and begins to create its own rivulets.

“If they catch me, I will tell them what has happened to us.”

At your feet, the growing muddy puddles flare with light as sheet lightning bathes the track. You look between Loki’s injured hand and yours, the images strobing and ugly in the storm.

“They will not believe me.”

The pain is growing to a crescendo, the dripping of both your wounds a steady beat.

“They never believe me.”

The truth of that is a new pain, all in itself.

“Oh, don’t worry. They won’t kill me. Even Odin could see that with his blind eye. He wouldn’t make it so easy, and I wouldn‘t risk that. They don’t kill when they want to hold an advantage. But they will not be kind.”

You close your eyes, but the lightning still sears your eyelids. You can see all the little blood vessels in your skin, see the pulse moving them.

“Eventually, they will have no choice but to see the truth of what I have told them. Then they may even try to help solve our little problem. But it will be a lengthy process.“ Thunder barrels above, as if in agreement. Your previous thought about wishing him injured thumps guiltily in your head. Our problem. No doubt about that.

“How much unkindness do you think you can take?” Loki asks, and his voice almost sounds gentle.

You shake your head in denial, eyes opening, water cascading from your hair and collar. The pain in your hand is already receding.

“Because I can take a lot.“

For the first time you see the enhanced durability and increased speed of healing for what it is. A blessing, but a curse. It doesn’t stop things hurting. It just makes you able to be hurt, over and over again, for much longer before death takes you. Back along the link comes the instant knowledge that Loki has been hurt over and over and over again, almost beyond endurance, in this way. You don’t know how to feel about that.

The wind picks up, unnaturally strong, and the sense of Thor is overpowering. Loki’s sharp expression flattens into cold anger, and he starts moving again, dragging you along.

“If you don’t give up any ideas of hindering me,” he snarls, any trace of gentleness utterly obliterated, “I will fight them when they come and I will make such a fight of it they will have no choice but to hurt me a great deal. Now. Run!”

Chapter Text

Of course, he’s crazy.

You don’t know how you managed to forget that. You’d seen it back in Stark Tower, and you’re seeing it again now: because really, can you outrun a thunderstorm on foot? This has the feeling of a old chase, long played out, and you’re just along for the ride. You’d read once that the definition of madness was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

So Loki’s crazy. No doubt about that.

Loki makes a snarling half-laugh as he picks up on your thought through the link, and gets a firmer grip on your hand.

You’re running through what is now battering rain and enfolding dark, and you can feel the oppressiveness in the air as more than atmospherics. You can feel Thor. Bigger brother, older brother, stronger brother, favoured brother. His shadow is long and deep and you can’t get out from under it no matter what the Hel you do.

The storm makes kettledrum noises in the sky. Thor’s now that feeling you get sometimes, fleetingly, when you check your phone ten seconds before it rings. He’s the sensation of being stared at in a bar. Something familiar, something coming, closing in. And he’s that close: the equivalent of a few barstools away.

Loki’s hand suddenly squeezes yours almost hard enough to snap fingers and he goes even faster. The idea of sitting in a safe house, writhing in pain, while they torture Loki, is clear and Technicolor in your mind. The fact that he could have been lying by exaggeration is irrelevant.  He’s Loki, father of lies, mother of invention. His belief, however, is unshakeable and in your combined heads it is as powerful as truth.

If he dies, you die. If he hurts, you hurt. And he’s unequivocally stronger than you. Your fear of pain has defined and restricted you for as long as you can remember.

The dirt track has turned into a dirt road, one of those big dirt roads with a worn surface that probably only ever see long-haul trucks and lonely farm vehicles. It’s currently trying its best to be a river, and you and Loki splash up it at Loki’s best speed (which is considerable) and your best stagger (which is at least improving). There’s nothing but darkness behind and deeper darkness ahead.

Until the lightning. So bright, your vision whites out for a few seconds, because it’s so close you’re staring right at it. Fork lightning, hitting the ground in a white-blue electric ribbon. But it doesn’t go. Lightning should strike once and dissipate. This is staying, a flickering, spitting ragged column of electricity, arcing from ground up into the boiling, unhealthy night sky. It hisses and crackles as the rain pelts across it.

And Loki just - stops.

Sick dread spills down the link. It’s a feeling you’re incredibly familiar with. You’ve lived with it your whole life. Exam-room dread. Job interview dread. Doctor’s surgery dread. The whole gamut of what-will-become-of-me horror that makes up the core of the human equation is tied up in that jagged electrical beam only a few feet away.

It’s only afterwards you remember that the ravens had gone. Because it didn’t seem relevant to be looking for birds when there was an armoured figure looking roughly the size of a mountain stepping out from the blackness behind the lightning, and you would have known who it was even if you hadn’t seen him on television because he’s imprinted on Loki’s mind in permanent ink.

The rain around the three of you abruptly goes away in a widening circle, and you’re lit by that stark, eldritch flare of the lightning.

Thor just stares sadly and doesn’t say anything, and you can feel everything that Loki wants to say but doesn’t bubbling around like poison through the link. As it does with every kid who’s ever said “Am not! Shut up! I’m so not scared.” Loki’s bravado is seething to strike out, making the best defence out of a primary offence. Having that detachment it’s easier to see it: living inside it, you doubt Loki sees it at all. The lord of lies is best at lying to himself.

And that’s the moment. For the first time you feel a hint of what it must be to feel sorry for Loki. Because that lurching, unknowable dread of the future is suddenly his. No more being in control. Up until now he had the game plan, held it in his clever hands and formed it, nurtured it. Twisted it, even.

Now it’s gone.

You know that feeling so intimately. Except you never even had a game plan. Your tiny sliver of fellow feeling slides across Loki’s consciousness, makes him blink in surprise, seems to spur him to speak.

“Well,” says Loki. “Aren’t you going to hit me?”

The huge balls of Thor’s fists clench and relax, clench and relax. The famous hammer is hanging loosely from one of them. He seems unknowably immense and part of you (or is it part of Loki?) wants to go to him, find protection from that sheer, unyielding immensity.

“No?” Loki muses, in the face of Thor’s silent scrutiny. You can feel his confusion. No hitting, no talking. What else is there? “Your human’s made you soft, brother.”

The silent bulk of Thor shifts, uncomfortably, foot to foot.

“Hasn’t yours?” he says, in a bass rumble that still manages to sound sorrowful. Loki makes a wordless scoffing sound, but his fear and defeat snaps along the link. You make him weak, is the overwhelming feeling. He knows that was the point.

“Father told you.”

“Told me what?”

Loki’s brain leaps back onto track. Thor doesn’t know anything. As usual. Misses everything important, Thor. You have to hit him in the face multiple times with the bloody obvious before he sees it, and even then he might need you to draw him pictures as well. 

“Told me what? Speak, Loki.”

But it’s Loki’s turn to be silent. Giving up on the direct offensive, Thor looks to  you, now, sizing you up. His eyes are blue, even in the nuclear illumination of the lightning, and his blond hair is dry.

“Come,” he says. “I will not hurt you.”

Again, you can’t be sure if the overwhelming desire to do as he says, to believe there could be safety there, comes from you or from Loki. But Loki’s conscious mind has other plans. He still holds your hand, and now he draws you to him in a single motion, pressing you tightly up against his body just as he did when hurling himself out of Stark Tower. His other arm curls around your back, holding you fast. You’re not going anywhere. Water from his clothes and hair drips down onto you as he raises his head above yours, his sharp chin jutted forward challengingly.

And, looking at the two of you in that moment, Thor’s expression changes markedly. You don’t need the benefit of a link to see the conclusion he’s jumped to. It’s written all over his face. Thor wears his heart on his sleeve, always has done, making it easy for people to see where to stab.  You can hear Loki‘s heart beating deep within his chest, the rhythm calming as it had before in the most tense of situations. And this time, you too begin to calm right along with him. It feels wonderful, to be calm. 

“Loki -” Thor begins, his tone more urgent, stricken.

“Just get on with it. Hit me, tell me I should regret my heinous actions, I tell you no. Or we could just take all that as read.” Loki’s tone is a smooth, pseudo-bored purr. The sensation as he starts to feel in control again is like a balm. You feel light-headed with it. “Get to the part where you beg me to give it all up and come home.”

Thor’s golden-labrador hangdog look is etched even deeper. He shakes his huge head, in genuine regret. Held in Loki’s encircling arms, you stare at him, confused.

“Not this time,” he says.

The lightning suddenly dissipates into the ground with a crackle and hiss, leaving your retinas blind in the blackness. And ahead of you on the road, a gathering of square shadows previously invisible against the night turn on their headlamps to pin you and Loki in yellowish spotlights.

Chapter Text

The overhead neon strip lights are blinding. You feel physically sick.

Looking back on it with the benefit of hindsight, you feel you had been massively slow in understanding what the real problem was, who the real villains were.

The sickness turns in your gut like poison, working up into your throat and mouth with an acrid tang of bile, working down into your leg muscles and rendering them all shakes and shudders and Loki -

- Loki is gone, but not gone.

It’s everything of the worst you could have imagined, and more. It’s everything he could have possibly suggested, and more. The fact that he was right about it, about everything that’s happened since the lightning went out, is no real comfort.

The room you are in is bare, unbearably brightly lit, and painted an unassuming shade of magnolia that has graced a hundred thousand hospital waiting rooms and cheap motels. There is nothing in it but you, the chair you are in (which is bolted to the floor, you realise gradually) and the little red eye of the security camera up in one corner. There is no noise. The room must be soundproofed. There is, on the edge of hearing, a high, soft hissing of air-con respiration and a deeper, sub-sonic hum of unthinkably large machinery working all around. There is no food. There is no water. No-one has offered to take you to the bathroom. You haven’t even seen another person since you were pushed in here and you’re too dead inside to call out in indignation or demand. Your clothes are still wet from the rain and there are a few tiny droplets on the floor around the metal bolts holding the chair legs. The room is sterile and featureless and terrifying in the lack of information it offers.

You’re completely safe. Nothing can touch you here. And never in all your years have you so much wished to be in danger again.

[Let me know if real power wants a magazine or something]

The occasional flickers of Loki’s memories down the link are like blessed shadows in the unending artificial light. The fact that you’re grateful for this doesn’t surprise you as much as it should.

What had taken you by surprise (both of you, you suspect, though Loki covered it up better than you did) had been the rush of silent soldierly type men dressed in dark fatigues. What kind of work requires that sort of camouflage as standard? Desert troops wear sandy fatigues, jungle troops wear leafy fatigues, and agents of SHIELD troops wear the colour of dusk falling.

You remember your grandad, dead three years past. The old man had loved his wild west stories. Bored you stupid when you were twelve, talking about the black hat and the white hats, and the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and about how a lone man out for revenge was more powerful than a whole posse of bad guys. The way your grandad told it, back then on the Frontier, there was only the good guys and the bad guys and a whole lot of righteous indignation.

There’s no white hats or black hats here. There are just magnolia walls and a there had been a whole bunch of guys in soft dark grey that didn‘t make a sound when they moved out from behind the blinding headlights of their massed cars. Loki, in his black, green and hints of gold, had looked as out of place as was possible surrounded by them. And then there was you. The battered, soaking, dirty thing that had once been your second best occasion outfit (and now you will never, ever wear again) pressed tightly up against his Asgardian glory armour, with the after flare of Thor’s lightning still burning in your eyes.

Here in the empty room you wonder (with a burst of almost hysterical amusement that bounces down the link to Loki and gets reflected and refracted back at you from him) what one should wear to one’s capture/emancipation these days. What is appropriate?

[Fashion to be tortured by] says Loki’s mind, and he laughs. The laugh quickly turns into a gasp of seared agony, and in your empty room you gag, almost vomiting, as the pain bubbles up through your stomach again.

It’s bad for you. For him it’s worse. It probably won’t stay like this, though. The weaker Loki gets, the less of the pain will get soaked up by his stupidly resilient alien body.

[said..theywill notbe kind] he reminds you.

And they’re not.

Thor, now. You’re not sure about Thor. You remember his sad, hangdog expression. Through his pain in the link, Loki scoffs weakly, but you are the stronger right now and your image of Thor shines through.

He’d not wanted things to end up this way. He’d wanted his brother back so badly he would have done anything. His brother was his brother. No blood relationship? He didn’t care. Multiple counts of attempted genocide? He could make Loki better. He would do anything. If Loki had been a hopeless meth-head, stealing cars and punching old ladies to get the money for the next hit, Thor would still have been there picking him up from the precinct station and driving him to rehab. The sight of Loki drawing you closer, pulling you in, had stabbed Thor so deep even his deep-held belief that Loki could be saved had shuddered. At first he’d clung to his hope that perhaps, just perhaps, Loki had learnt in the same  way he had during his banishment, that some humans and their causes could be worth dying for. But then he’d realised that Loki was far more likely going to snap you in half right there on the dark road, just to prove a point. And something good and great inside Thor would have snapped right along with you, just like that, had Loki done it.

But of course he didn’t.

When the lightning went out and the men in shades of grey whispered forward from behind the wall of headlights, you realised that Thor could have caught you both at any point. Could have punched Loki out like he’d done a hundred times. Could have picked you up and taken you away.

Could have. Didn’t. He’d been under instruction, driving Loki like a sheepdog harries a recalcitrant sheep. They’d known that Loki would run, and run you both did, straight into the roadblock.

With Thor behind, and what seemed to your half-blind vision to be a whole army of people with guns leaping out straight ahead, Loki had gripped you even closer and his body, which had been calming you both, began to slide back into panic.

“Loki of Asgard,” a somehow familiar voice had said, over a loudhailer. “Drop your hostage and surrender or we will have to -”

Loki didn’t let him finish. His arms wrapped tightly about you, not letting you go anywhere. You could just feel, in that one silent moment, the terrifying hair trigger of that massed army with their guns levelled, preparing to take him down by filling him with as many bullets as it would need. You could almost feel the sting of those bullets entering both your bodies.

“I surrender,” Loki snarled, in possibly the least acquiescent voice imaginable. When the levelled mouths of the guns didn’t go anywhere, he repeated himself. Several times. He was still saying it as they descended in their droves, pulled you apart, and dragged him away.

You remember only now that the only point at which he’d started to fight was when his arms had been forced back from you and it was too late to make any difference.

[No, I think I’ll keep this one]

Thor, his sadness forced away by practicality, had stepped in (and the men in grey had stepped back almost immediately) and picked Loki up bodily, keeping his arms crushed behind his back to incapacitate him. Loki had started to swear in Asgardian, which no-one but you and Thor had understood. Then they’d gagged him, which drove him into a frenzy.

He’d wanted to keep you close by him. But there had been hundreds of them, and Thor’s sad practicality and Odin’s bond had prevailed, and he was gone. You couldn’t even say who it was who pushed you into an anonymous black off-roader with tinted windows, and drove you away to place you in magnolia hell. All you could see was Loki, hear his fright and his anger in your head, and then later on, the beginnings of the pain he’d known all along was coming.

The room is empty and the silence as crushing as the pain in your gut. To distract yourself, you start to hum, finding some comfort in the familiarity of lyric and rhythm. Mumford and Sons, this time, something that had been streaming on your phone that morning when you were getting dressed. As the cramping agony starts to build again, you helplessly reach out to Loki, the only person you can still feel, in the same way as he had reached to pull you closer to him when the trap was sprung. You whisper the words from the song down the link to him.

[I really fucked it up this time didn’t I my dear?]

And Loki’s tiny spark of gratitude that you’ve thought of him in this terrible moment lights up your whole sterile magnolia world. This time when you actually throw up with his second-hand pain, retching empty bile, you somehow don’t feel so bad.

Chapter Text

The sudden lack of pain and Loki’s silence in the link is almost more upsetting than the noise and agony had been.

You remember that Loki said he would tell them about what had happened to you both. For the first few minutes when the physical pain subsides and the noise of Loki’s body in pain dies away to an oddly disturbing, mindless hum in the link, you are relieved. Maybe this is what’s happened. Maybe he’s told them everything, they’ve believed him, and now they’re letting him alone.

Then the anxiety sets in.

You’ve always been an anxious person, more frightened of the thought of pain than pain itself. Now the silence is filling with your dread.

You try to console yourself with facts. He’s not unconscious and he’s not dead. From the experience you’ve had so far, it seems that when you black out, he blacks out, so it would make sense that if Loki had been rendered unconscious, you wouldn’t be awake to worry about it. Equally, [daudr] makes you quite sure that if Loki had been killed, you’ve have far bigger problems that sitting in a puddle of your own vomit in a sterile beige room with a camera on you.

Or maybe not. Maybe being dead would be an end to all problems.

Would you go to heaven? Unlikely, as you’re not sure you believe in it anymore. And also, while your mom was always more religious than you, you’re fairly sure that her Lord God would probably be less than forgiving to someone who’s been effectively sharing their soul with a pagan deity.

Maybe you’d end up in Asgard, sharing eternity with an angry, disappointed Loki.

Or maybe there’d just be…nothing. Like this. A blank room. No sense of other people being nearby, but a sense of being observed and silently judged, nonetheless.

For the briefest of moments you entertain the possibility that you’re already dead, and this is the afterlife. The idea doesn’t frighten you as much as it should. Instead, you feel only a shrugging sort of resignation. This is an alien feeling for you. You’ve spent your whole life buried in what-ifs and fears without ever managing to feel properly resigned to your fate.

You’re never going to be a celebrity. You’re never going to be rich. It’s too late for that, and you weren’t born into the right scene or given the right advantages. Your life is going to consist of only the same things that nearly everyone else’s life consists of. Here’s how your obituary will read: Born. Schooled. Employed. Died. That’s all. You made no impact on the global stage and that’s the way of things for almost every human being on the planet.

It would be depressing if you weren’t already in that odd state of mind that allows you to be objective.

And also if you hadn’t remembered at that point that you aren’t actually dead yet, you’re in (presumably) an extremely high security holding cell with the eyes of some incredibly important people on you, and an alien god has you leashed up to the mind of his wayward younger son like some kind of adopted puppy dog.

That’s probably enough to make anyone a celebrity, if you think about it.

Gosh.

Born. Schooled. Employed. Attached to god. Died.

Now thats something.

And at that moment there’s a golden sensation/sound along the link, like someone plucking a harp string attached to your central nervous system, and you can feel Loki again. He feels like [Hel] hell. All the hairs on your body stand on end in response, and you realise that part of what you’re feeling is relief.

A door that you could barely even separate from the magnolia wall opens, slowly and silently, in front of you. Two anonymous figures in soft grey come in. They’re wearing helmets and some body armour, a bit like a more sophisticated and elegant type of riot gear, and they have specialist guns that look bigger and more wicked than any gun you’ve ever seen, and you’ve seen your Uncle Clifton’s gun locker in his basement.

One of them holds his gun on you and you freeze in place. The other comes over to you and tautens some kind of plastic strip like you get on packaging around your wrists. He is professional and relatively gentle, and you say nothing, even when he steps in your vomit. Let him. Worse things have happened to you today, let someone else have a turn.

[Come to me]

Loki. His voice feels rough and unfinished somehow, but his intent is clear. He wants you. He needs you. Somehow you know that wherever he is, there are people doing worse than holding a gun on him, and your being there with him will alleviate his situation in some way.

Your guards usher you out of the room. The one with the soiled boots keeps a hand firmly on your shoulder, his colleague walks behind with the gun. You can feel the threat of that gun as if it were physically prodding you in the back.

There is nothing to see outside of the room. The corridor you walk down is lit and just as magnolia as the room had been. Except it all looks…unfinished. There’s that sensation again. As if SHIELD are in the middle of decorating and have left the chipboard undone.

Loki murmurs something at the back of your mind. Yes. They’ve deliberately covered up anything that you could identify about this corridor before bringing you along it. Behind these hastily raised magnolia covers, there are things of interest.

It’s clear from Loki’s murmured comment that this is exactly the sort of thing he would have done. A sensible precaution. No. Wait.

[ I have done]

What’s he done? What -

The guard at your shoulder swipes a card through a reader at the side of another door. The door opens with a hiss, like an airlock.

And inside is Loki, on the floor, being stood over by a man who looks as irritated as it’s possible for any man to look with one eye covered up.

Loki looks as if he’s been through a very precise, scientific threshing machine. His armour is gone. Instead he’s wearing something anonymous and black that reminds you a bit of form-fitted thermal underwear, covering his body from neck to ankle, leaving only his pale feet, face and hands uncovered. There’s a sensation of rage and violation from him on your tongue, and its metallic awfulness makes you feel sick all over again. His eyes look green and glassy in the bright light, and there are dark exhausted circles ringing them.

He feels like dissonance, like badly formed syncopation, like a Sondheim refrain. His rhythm is all off. He feels wrong.

Behind the one-eyed man there is a little sealed booth, and in the booth a group of people in white coats. They are so stereotypically scientific it’s almost funny, and Loki’s pale lips twist up a tiny amount at one corner as he senses your amusement. The whitecoats are all dividing their time equally between staring at you and staring at innumerable little screens that are cycling readouts of stuff. It’s like something out of Star Trek.

[Come to me]

Loki is sitting on the floor, his arms circling his knees, the sense of him still jangling along your nerves like a modern arrhythmic composition. His inner voice is flat. The gun behind you gestures you forward, as the one-eyed man tilts his head in a confirming gesture.

[You’ll have to kneel]

He sounds odd. You only realise afterwards this is because he’s sounding very slightly apologetic and that emotion doesn‘t fit. Almost in a dream, you walk forward, get down on your knees, and kneel before Loki. He reaches out a big, pale hand and touches your forearm. An impersonal place to touch, which somehow feels much more personal than it should have. Every muscle in your body seems to relax.

And all the little screens in the booth go crazy.

Chapter Text

You’ve seen all this in movies.

Usually (and not particularly comfortingly) they’re the kind of movies where scientific people in labs get extraordinary readouts on screens mere moments before the earth explodes/the aliens invade/the zombies attack.

Rarely has huge activity on a usually mediocre scientific readout been a positive sign, in movies. The one-eyed man is the only one who doesn’t seem to be overly worried about the surge of activity in his science corral.

Well, him…and, if you’re being completely honest about it, you. Which is a surprise, but not an entirely unpleasant one.

Loki’s hand has fastened over your arm and he is not letting go. His long fingers tap over your pulse point in the wrist, keeping time with the rapid beat. Calm floods you. You wonder if this is what it’s like being high. The world around you recedes until you almost can’t feel the movements of your body as you curl forward and he curls in: the sounds of the room become muffled, as if you’re pulled the covers over your head.

It’s been almost longer than you can remember since you felt this centred. Alcohol doesn’t do it for you. Meditation doesn’t do it for you. Prozac doesn’t do it for you. Even when you were a kid you weren’t calm. You were a little living ball of energy and nerves, running on nothing but instinct and anxiety. Everyone you met was not a friend, but a potential judge, jury and executioner. Every new experience a potential threat. The only thing that ever took you away from that was to tune in and tune out. Your best friend was the radio. It never wanted anything from you and it gave in abundance.

Right here and now you feel like you get what the Dalai Lama’s been going on about for years, what Disney were onto when they wrote that hit from Frozen.

You feel like it’s gone, that ever-present need of yours to be what the world expects, to be constantly on alert for any threat or any slight, real or imagined.

[you feel wonderful]

He sounds as if he can’t make his mind up about whether to be disgusted or delighted. It’s a very odd mixture. In return you are half-insulted, half-overjoyed.

[thanks]

Not expecting to hear your own voice like that, it startles you out of the calm for a moment, because this is now a conversation and not just a weird two-way emotional radio show in both your heads. He tightens his grip, somewhere corporeal that feels a helluva long way away right now. A little tinge of awareness lights your world, and you can see what’s happening around you.

Loki doesn’t like it. He wants to keep you where you are.

[don t]

Scientists are sidling up to the big one-eyed man, showing him things, talking in hushed tones. They look frightened but excited at the same time. For once, your over-active empathy isn’t kicking in and you find that you don’t care if they all get scared to death. Other people being frightened of you is merely a side-effect of being you. It’s a natural reaction. One that can be exploited, admittedly, and one that makes life a whole lot easier, but -

[that s you isn t it]

[could you please just not]

[don t you like it?]

You can hear the sly joy.

[oh come on, not even a little bit?]

[no]

He laughs. Probably even in reality, it seems, because everyone in the room suddenly gives him a hard stare, like they’re just waiting for him to spring like a tiger and the laugh is the only warning they’re getting.

[you can t lie to me]

And just like that, with that odd conflicted mix of comfort and unease, you’re back in the room. The noises that have always been there seem to lurch back into full volume and it’s ugly and jarring compared to the internal world. You can’t help it: you flinch back. Arms come up and around you. Familiar arms that almost make you feel as if you’re hugging yourself. Loki’s arms.

You’re practically sitting in Loki’s lap, with what feels like half a million guns pointed directly at your head and a bunch of geeks straight out of The Big Book Of Nerd staring at you like they just discovered penicillin. The big guy who’s evidently in charge is frozen in mid-move, reaching down as if to pull you away.

In the recesses of your [plural?] mind you hear something that makes your primitive monkey-brain shudder.

There’s a wolf down in there somewhere, bigger than imagination itself can allow, and it is growling.

The big man settles back on his haunches in front of you both, and exhales through his nose loudly in an almost-satisfied snort.

“Got you,” he says to Loki, whose glare you can almost feel against the back of your head. “In case you were labouring under any misapprehension here, genius, this is the part where you realise you’re screwed.”

“Oh,” says Loki, charmingly, “only this part? Funny. I thought that would have been earlier.”

That one word, and you get “earlier”. You get it in about two seconds, condensed and amplified and dumped straight into your memory as if it had happened to you, and it nearly makes you sick all over again.

They’d gagged him, of course. It had taken nearly all of them to secure him in the end, as Thor had wanted no part of it. The memory is very clear of Thor arguing with the big man, then turning away, shoulders low, and looking back at Loki over one brawny shoulder. Misery and resignation. And in Loki, hate and horrified abandonment.

The big man [Fury] had leant close as soon as Thor had left, and said:

“Just so you know, you’re about fifty miles from the nearest innocent people, and we’re still on the ground.”

“Innocent,” Loki had snarled, “there are no true innocents in your world anymore.”

Fury had quirked his lips in an entirely humourless smile.

“You’re right. Treasure it. It’s the only time you’re gonna hear me say it.”

There’s a commentary from Loki in the memory burn, indicating that Fury likes to think he’s impressive, while harbouring close to his heart the knowledge that there is nothing intrinsically impressive about humanity.

“So let’s be clear. You cannot hurt anyone here. You cannot escape.”

The single eye had gleamed with triumph.

“No goddamned inter-dimensional diplomatic immunity this time.”

They’d removed the gag about half an hour later, once they had him installed in shackles. He’d remained motionless until they undid the straps tangling in his hair, and then there had been a short pause in proceedings while they’d attempted to save the fingers of the agent who’d actually taken the gag off. Your stomach contracts in horror at the mental image.

But it hadn’t stopped them, merely slowed them down a little. The next time they gag and subsequently un-gag him, they’re holding his head flush to the wall by his hair.

They’d tried electro-shock first, but this had only led to a discussion between the agents and the scientists that perhaps attempting to electrocute the brother of the god of storms might not be the most effective plan.

Fury had come back in a couple of times and been greeted with a flurry of words, the somewhat unflattering translated gist of which had been relayed back to him through his earpiece by the scientists in their booth, who had taken the opportunity to Google some Old Norse.

You, of course, don’t need the translation, and think that even untipped New York taxi drivers could take some lessons from Loki.

And then, the pain. More pain. Burning. Cutting. Ritual humiliation that you thought of only in terms of what happened in history books and distant, totalitarian states.

No wonder Loki had shut down.

No wonder you’d been sick.

All this you get in scant seconds, and your hatred of Fury mixes with Loki’s, becomes stronger.

“You need to be taught a lesson, boy,” says Fury, almost flippantly, his face level with Loki’s.

And just for a second, as you look up to meet that single triumphant eye, you think you see the ravens again.

Chapter Text

Birds. You’d had a bird once, when you were small. It had been a lunatic budgerigar, one of the lime green ones with mad round eyes and a frenetic way of moving that had made you tired just looking at it. It had been your mother’s pet, really. To you it had been a living, chirruping, irritating, shitting-everywhere ornament. You’d read in a book that birds were supposed to be the descendents of dinosaurs on earth: the last bastion of the giants who had once ruled this world as their own.

The budgie had been called Gerald. There had been nothing about Gerald that had suggested his ancestors had once stomped roaring over Australasia.

But the ravens, now. They’re different.

You’re quite sure you see them now, and not only that, Loki does too: you catch the micro-movements of his head and the tightening in his arm muscles as he tracks their movement.

Most of the time it seems that there are two. Huge things, feathers smelling like snow and smoke, with dark, intelligent eyes and bird voices that almost sound human (admittedly a human who chain-smokes a hundred a day). But sometimes, and these are the bad sometimes, there are thousands. Millions. The stale recycled air of the complex hums with them, torn apart by the beat and clatter of a million wings.

The echoes of that sometimes-sound are just as loud and as old as any dinosaur you can think of. You want to put your hands over your ears.

And nobody else there can see them, except…

Looking away from Loki now, looking up as the largest black bird you’ve ever seen lands, making a low rattling croak of amusement in its throat, between the cluster of scientists and you. You’re looking in the right direction to meet Fury’s face, he’s still so close. 

His single eye flicks minutely, just a flicker, following the beat of wings.

He sees them.

He sees.

And Loki hisses like a cat in a fight, an utterly inhuman sound of rage and, oddly to you at least, satisfaction.

“Mistake,” he spits, slamming the emphasis on the final syllable as if it’s personally offended him. And as that emphasis comes down, so does a whole cavalcade of other snippets, flooding rapidly and rattlingly into your head like someone opened a bag of buttons and spilt them down a flight of stairs.

 [ Remember who I am, Father. I do the surprising. ”]

A Plymouth Fury, battered and bent, in the right place at the right time. Fed with the blood of a sacrifice and attended by ravens.

A Fury. [Really,] you and Loki think in tandem, [I should have known.]

[Fury.]

[Modr.]

[ Stupid. Old. Man. ]

“The man who thinks he’s in charge always only has one eye. Isn’t that right?”

Loki is starting to get up, and though the guns track him as he rises (and you - he’s not letting you go anywhere) Fury makes no move, gives no order to fire, even as Loki gains his feet. He only mirrors him, rising also, so they’re still face to face.

“Because he’s blind. Half blind!”

[Odin Aldafodr, Odin Hoarr, Odin Hrafnass, Odin Njotr, Odin Of-Many-Names]

Loki has taken the stage, now: growing in confidence just as he grows in fury.

“But Midgard, if it is anything, is truly the land of the blind, is it not?”

The nearest raven makes a sound an awful lot like laughter. The voice in your head is again that of the older man, who you’d heard in the suburbs what feels like a hundred years ago.

[Veurr-Loki. Loki-the-Protector. It almost suits you.]

“And in the land of the blind,” Loki says, pulling on your arm once again, determined, “the one-eyed man is king.”

You’ve been moved before you even have time to realise the full implications of what he’s just done. You are behind him, shielded from the bulk of the guns by his slender, black-clad form. Not in front of him, not pulled against his chest, but behind him. You are being treated as more than an inconvenience, more than a human shield, more, even, than just a chess piece in a painfully long game. You are an asset. You can feel it in the link. You are power, and must be protected.

[Veurr] his mind says, almost proudly, and you can feel the gladness in Odin’s heart as the word echoes through them both.

Holy shit. Loki’s protecting you. You, not it, not thing, not Midgard scum. You.

[You] he agrees, while turning his full, ferocious grin onto the big man before you.

“Except that this isn’t your world,” says Loki. Fury One-Eye, Fury the Leader, Fury -

[it s not Fury, don t you understand yet?]

- Odin stares him out through that one eye, seemingly waiting -

(and wouldn’t you, you can’t help thinking, wouldn’t you, if you could, just for the sake of argument, pour your essence into another body, even if just for a bit, wouldn’t you pick one with two eyes? If Odin had been in a wheelchair, wouldn’t he have wanted to have a body that could walk?)

Except that this isn’t about that sort of physical convenience at all. This is old. This is something that’s been going on for centuries, and it’s all about congruity. Stories have a certain beat, a natural rhythm to them, and the old stories in particular. The old stories made the world. They are the reason that soap operas feel cliched, because in the deepest part of our shared human consciousness, we‘ve heard it all before: all the love, the death, the betrayals and the lies. Stories are the reason that you believe lost princesses should get saved. They are what bring prodigal sons home and punish negligent parents.

Everyone knows how stories go. Fewer people stop to think about where the archetypes come from. Even with the archetype standing in front of you, smelling like spice and the electricity they’ve zapped him with, his body humming with tension, it’s hard to get your head round it.

 

You may know the beat, but you don’t always know why you dance to it. Stories are the rhythm of the universe.

 

Odin has been telling the redemption story, to bring his sons back to him in the only way he knows how. He got Thor back by pulling just this kind of stunt. Shove him away, make him want to fight for your approval, learn from his mistakes, take care of lesser creatures, yadda yadda yadda.

It had worked on Thor. Odin hadn’t even had to stir out of Asgard. But then, Thor’s as impressionable as a dollop of warm wax and about as smart.

No such luck this time. You can feel the rhythm about to derail in the same way that pet dogs can often feel the storm coming before it breaks. Here stands the oldest, fairest and fallen of Asgard - Odin, the wolf warrior - in the body of the head of SHIELD, feeling like he’s won and not having any comprehension of just how much he’s about to lose.

You wonder how long he’s been there. Did he have control of SHIELD the whole time? Or was he just relying on the story to carry it all along, and has just popped in, like a shareholder at a baseball game, to see the denouement?

Loki raises his head, juts out his sharp chin, and flares his eyes. Your heart, already heavy, sinks into your feet.

“It’s not your world. It’s mine,” he concludes.

And that’s when the guns finally start to fire.    

Chapter Text

This is it.

This is when it should happen.

If stories are the lifeblood and heartbeat of the universe, then this should be your indrawn breath, your chance to run with that living rhythm and show the world what it didn’t know it had been waiting for until now.

Lots of modern stories love this beat. The underdog story. The person of small power, small means, who grows - either through natural time or through adversity -  into something greater. Whom, under enormous pressure, proves not to crack like glass but to transform instead into diamond. The one who spends the whole story looking like a mouse, but in the moment, the one moment where it counts the most, throws off the bare tail and the squeaking, and roars like a lion.

Like Harry Potter, this is where you should come into your power and realise that you are, after all, not a lost unwanted soul, but the lynchpin around which the whole universe will stand or fall. Realise that you’re magic, resilient, have special powers. Suddenly become unbelievably goodlooking or able to fly.

This is it.

This is when it should happen.

You hadn’t properly realised before now how much you were actually waiting for this.

It just goes to show how much of a prize fucking idiot you really are, even on the inside. You’re even still capable of believing in fantasies.

The first bullet tears through Loki’s flank and goes straight into your right shoulder. Even with the full whack taken out of it by passing through Asgardian flesh, it still hits with enough force to spin you off balance. For a moment you think the magic’s happened after all: there’s no pain, nothing more than the shove of impact. You actually laugh giddily, a stupid, deluded little giggle. No pain. You’re invulnerable. Being linked to Loki has its advantages. Hooray!

 

Prize. Fucking. Idiot.

 

The second shot takes your left earlobe off entirely after scraping a glancing path across Loki‘s upper arm. Your earlobe. Been there since before you were born, and you never thought anything of it. There one second, gone in a gory puff of blood and flesh the next. The pain and heat starts in your shoulder now, beginning like a swarm of fire ants on the attack, and turning rapidly into a red-hot poker of agony, alive and boring deeper into your body.

In front of you - because despite the shots he hasn’t moved, is still shielding you - Loki’s body jolts and turns as the bullets hit him.

If this was being filmed, it really ought to have been a movie made by the Wachowskis. Time really does seem to have slowed. You’re living in bullet time, where the guns spit fire and death in slow motion and everyone looks as if they’re running, suspended in water.  The agents are creeping forward like sleepwalkers, guns raised. Fury/Odin’s expression spreads across his face in increments so tiny he almost appears to be snarling. The noises of the room seem to blur, merge into a background roar. It starts to sound like the murmur and flurry of countless wings: an unkindness of ravens.  

[don t ]

Through the haze of your shared pain you can still hear him. Unthinking in your misery, you throw your physical agony down the link at him, and he takes it. He just...takes it, even though you can feel his own pain like a wall surrounding you. He packages your agony up, slings it into the back of his being, to be dealt with later. He’s simultaneously doing the same with his own dreadful injuries. It’s like a sorting office in there, packets of pain and blood and dreadfulness being hidden and slammed away. You can just feel him doing it somehow, and now you’re actually pretty glad that you aren’t magic and that you can’t do weird and ugly (and useful?) crap like that. It’s like he knows all too well how to do this, like he’s been shoving pain somewhere convenient for years - and not just his own.

It also makes you think that you really don’t want to be around later, when the packages get brought out again.

But concentrating on the immediate present (because it’s all you can do) you can breathe again. The agony is now mere pain, but all the crazy alien magic in the world isn’t going to stop your right arm hanging loosely where the nerves have been battered by shot, or the sick sensation of blood from your shattered ear washing down your neck and soaking into your clothes.

[ don t worry ]

Worrying was not the word you would have thought of first. But even with his body being torn up, you can feel Loki’s heart, slow and regular.

He feels in control.

And then you get it. And you almost feel like reprising that stupid giggle, because it’s all a big joke. Of course.

[the effort he has expended has been immense]

[to get us here]

[to do this to me]

[to US] 

The group of men in grey are, naturally, incredibly skilled and very good shots. They are standing a mere five yards away. The idea that they could miss a heart or head shot is something that only happens in very badly thought out movies.

[If he wanted us dead - ]

[we d be dead!]

[yes]

Then you realise the guns have stopped. And more to the point, during the unknown length of bullet time, you’ve somehow fallen to your knees. You’re not surprised. The bigger surprise is that you’re still conscious. Your entire left side feels clotted and sticky with blood, and your ear is still bleeding as if it will never stop. Heads bleed, though, you’re sure you’ve heard that somewhere.

And Loki -

“Had enough, wiseass?” says Fury, the echoes of that older man‘s voice reverberating through his tone.

- Loki just chuckles.

“You know,” he says, raising his head and brushing down his bleeding body with an air of careless dignity, “that Midgardian turn of phrase suits you. I can see it being very popular with the children.”

You can feel the packets of pain, stacked like a wall inside him. It’s costing him a lot to do this, to be this casual. But it’s absolutely essential to him that he does it. There can be no weakness here. Odin is an old wolf, cunning and cautious, and used to spotting weakness in his prey to make the hunting easier.

You realise that you and Loki are pooling your internal experiences of dealing with authority figures, and coming up with a whole bunch of tools in your shared armoury. You’ve been used to handling overbearing bosses for years, ones who don’t understand that there are personality types out there who don’t enjoy team building, that glorification of extroversion that typifies one living the American Dream. Like you. You used to work at Bandy‘s Burritos. Every Friday there was a scheduled team motivational line dance, at 5am before the breakfast bar opened at 6. You often believed you could actually feel the tiny slivers of your soul being pared away every time you took that cowboy boogie step. You couldn’t believe something you loved so much - music and beat - could be twisted into something so horrific. To this day, listening to “Achy Breaky Heart” makes you want to hit something. You managed to get up the courage to refuse, after several months of it. Your manager took you out back and spent a full five minutes screaming in your face, his spittle hitting your hair, your eyes. People in charge often don’t quite get that shouting and degradation doesn’t motivate everyone. Some it destroys.

And some it drives to madness.

You hate [I hate] them.

So it’s both of you who look Odin square in the eye, now. And you might be shuddering and queasy from shock, and Loki might only be standing on a wing and a prayer, but you’re finally and completely together on this one and damn, you’re going to see it through.

The men with guns are holding fast on their leader’s order, triggers loose, stance alert but relaxed. They’ve picked at you both expertly, wounding not killing, just as they were supposed to. You wonder if they ever questioned the orders of the man who wasn’t really Fury, not anymore, not on the inside where it counts. If they ever thought, “Man, Fury’s acting weird today. Maybe he’s getting ready to audition for Shakespeare in the Park.”?

Of course not. Because questioning’s for [tricksters] people who get fired from burrito shops.

[does Thor - ]

[brother-not-my-brother, see my father-not-my-father]

[- does Thor ever question?]

“Loki,” says Odin, moving Fury’s face into a semblance of pity. “Loki. A king cannot be popular. Never that. Have you learnt nothing?”

The unspoken I-had-such-hopes hangs in the air. The man’s single eye is heavy with emotion. Loki’s interpretation of it is dull and bitter, throwing your own thoughts back at you before tearing off into his feelings about Odin’s motivations.

[Odin couldn’t believe something he loved so much could be twisted into something so horrific]

[“I had such hopes for tormenting Laufey‘s memory.”]

[“I had such hopes when I decided to lie to you about being your father.”]

[“I had such hopes that your brother would learn how to be a good king by murdering you. “]

[“I had such hopes that putting a few wounds in you and giving you a helpless, unAsgardian creature to protect would teach you how to be more like me.”]

And then Loki, lord of manipulating all hopes until they’re precious origami in his hands, shivers. The fine silver thread connecting you hums miserably like a telephone wire in the rain. Your own eyes prick, redden, well at the corners.

Loki is crying, a single set of tears streaking down his thin cheeks. You can’t see his face, being still on the floor behind him, but you know. You’re crying too.

“Father,” says Loki, brokenly.

Except that you’ve cried a hundred times in your life and you never felt this empty of any emotion. The tears run down your face, and you feel the track of them, wet and hot, but that’s all you feel. Physical sensation.

You’re not sad. You’re not broken. You’re not touched to the heart in even the slightest way.

If anything, you’re starting (miracle of miracles) to be angry.

And something else is happening instead. Your muscles, responding to prompts from Loki’s nervous system, begin to tense and bunch, ready to get you on your feet. Lactic acid floods your calves, fast and painful, a familiar feeling by now.

Sometime soon, probably in the next moment, you’re going to be required to run.

Chapter Text

Running.

It’s something Loki’s good at.

With hindsight, you’ll come to see Loki differently: when the PTSD subsides, when the wounds heal, when normality is restored (come on, as if it ever IS) or at least when you finally have time just to sit down and chill in a chair, read some stuff. When you can read about him without it binding your brain up in knots for hours.

The old stories have him the best, unsurprisingly. They’re less clear on his familial relationships (and Odin‘s), but then there probably wasn’t any DNA testing back then and the method of deciding whose dad/brother was whose would have involved more ax duels and more locking virgins in sheds to make sure they stayed that way.

Loki is a runner, not a fighter. His wars are won with words, with magic, and with him dancing round on the edges of the battle and not getting hit. He’s a creature of the periphery and the unspoken as much as the spoken. In some ways, if Loki has to use his fists to fight, it’s because he knows he’s already lost and he’s just trying to get a few vengeful licks in before he goes down. As you saw oh-so-long-ago with Tony Stark, it’s not that Loki’s a poor hitter, it’s just that he has to have crossed a boundary in his own complex emotional state in order to throw the punch - the boundary that separates his quick wits from his boiling rage. It just backs up your initial gut feeling that Loki fights with bigger people as a form of extreme sport, tying up the unwanted physical risk with the more delightful mental challenge of trying to avoid that risk in the first place.

He also hates defeat like the tiger hates the circus cage. So he’s a successful runner: built like one, long and lean, and psychologically primed to find the long road, aim himself at it, and take off, gods help anyone trying to catch him.

Good thing, then, that this is something you and he have in common. You’ve been running from everything your whole life. You don’t exactly have the body that he does, and your efforts at maintaining your physical fitness have been variable, but the same mentality is there. Fight or flight? No contest, kid: make like a bird.

Now you’re with him, now you and he have finally found that genuine, soul-deep commonality of feeling, you’re almost euphoric. Or as euphoric as a couple of people who’ve been riddled with gunshot can get. The package of silver thread that snaps his and your beings together seems to have been spun tighter as if on a spindle. No longer as simple give-and-take, more like give-and-get. Together, you’re stronger. Clichéd, and on the front page of every political manifesto ever, but true.

Odin doesn’t move. You feel like jeering. It’s an Oscar-winning performance from Loki - come on, not a dry eye in the house, surely? - and yet Odin hasn’t so much as flinched. Made of stone, this one, too old and jaded to give in to a few of his son’s tears. Your leg muscles burn with the effort of holding still. Every fibre of Loki’s being, despite his miserable, defeated posture, is ready to turn on a hair and leap away, running because running is a way to victory.

And that’s when it comes to you. This is yours. This is something you can do. It comes from your history, earth [Midgardian] history, not his. And you’re all at once exhilarated and horrified. Running isn’t always a way to survive. Sometimes to run is to admit defeat, to give yourself over to the inevitable.

You don t have what it takes to fight this. Gods or human monsters you re a victim and you always have been.

Victim. You always have been. Loki, for all his protestations of ill-treatment by the Aesir, has not. He has been an asset, a prince, a son, a brother, a weapon, a force to be reckoned with. Now Loki remembers your thought from Stark Tower with you, gathers from the deeper recesses of your education your intent, and for an instant you’re awash with his genuine surprise and delight, and maybe (dare to think it?) admiration.

[You ]

[Yes.]

You’re still terrified. Can’t hide that from him, but he’s Loki, unconcerned with your mortal fears. Inside, he laughs, because the extreme sport is paying off and he’s going to win, and it’s all because of [this mortal, this one, oh this one, who ticks like a metronome, as predictable as one, back and forth -]

This has all taken seconds. Odin is still staring. Outwardly, Loki is still crying.

And you get up. And you.

Step.

Forward.

Away from Loki, your jailer and protector, your heart is beating the fastest it ever has, because this is more terrifying than guns. Guns are an external force acting on you which you have no control over. This is an internal force, made up of you, acting on you. Nothing can be more frightening than when you manage to surprise yourself. Odin’s eye tracks you. Looks inside you. Sees that this is indeed you, all you, that though Loki remains leashed to your soul, this action is yours and yours alone.

It’s a joke, in a horrible sort of way. Knock knock. Who’s there? Victim. Victim who? Nobody, that’s the point. You’re a victim, and what do victims do? Nothing. Things get done to them. Victims are the done-to of the universe, the put-upon, the permanently crushed, the helpless, the unable to fight back. But there’s one other definition of a victim, one of the oldest, that in this specific situation (and who’d have ever thought you’d have cause to say that?) gives you the power. The power that comes from letting go of everything, the final giving up, the final giving in.

You say it now out loud in the link, deliberately wanting Odin to hear you.

[Victim. From the Latin, victima. An animal or a human that is offered as a sacrifice to a god.]

In Fury’s face, Odin’s eye widens.

“I offer myself as a sacrifice,” you say, knowing that Loki thinks your voice sounds little and scared and rusty and weak, and though previously this would have disgusted him, now he loves you for it, if even only a little, because it’s exactly what‘s required. “To Loki.”

[Oh, you glorious thing.]

And then you run. And, for once, he doesn’t.

 

Chapter Text

“Hung on a windy tree nine long nights

Wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin, myself to myself.”

Havamal

 

The element of surprise is as genuine as the element of lithium, and has pretty much the same potential for explosive consequences. On the periodic table it’d be over there on the left with all the other reactive alkali metals: potassium, rubidium, cesium, francium, surprise! Surprise, however, unlike its elemental compatriots, occurs freely and naturally all over the place, especially where humans are in evidence.

[If he wanted us dead -]

[we’d be dead]

Which really only leaves one logical conclusion. Death is the last thing he wants, for either of you. Later, when you have time, you’ll think to question the grip on sanity of a man who thinks that torturing and shooting at people is an efficient method of preserving their lives: but you’ll come to the conclusion, just as Odin likely did, that no-one, but no-one , is as committed to saving their life as themself. What he’d done was the equivalent of putting the job into the hands of the person most qualified. Like any savvy manager would.

Not even your Bandy’s Burrito manager, however, would have taken his elegant brand of human resource wrangling to this extreme. Sacrifice. Surprise! Who’d’ve thunk it? Not you, not until about a minute ago, that’s for sure. Not Loki, either, because like a cat he had absolutely no faith in your ability to do anything useful except not get killed [and now even that ability is rendered obsolete and inconvenient, isn’t it -]

Not Odin, it seems, which for a guy whose name is practically synonymous with hanging and otherwise doing inappropriate and lengthy things to his own body at the base of trees is kinda dumb, if you do think so yourself. Maybe sacrifice to him is reserved for the strong. For those who really know what wisdom is worth and who aren’t going to let a little thing like binocular vision stand in their way.  

Sacrifice is all about ultimate power. The power of life and death. For those of us who live mortal lives, there’s nothing greater. You remember learning about the Aztecs, long ago and far away, and remember those angular pyramids, with their grooves for blood and their carved skulls. There had been drawings of the victims in bamboo-style cages, some huddled and drugged, others scrabbling with fear.

Those people didn’t look like they were in control of jack shit. But whoever had illustrated the textbook had it all wrong. The sacrifice had to hold all the power, or their death wasn’t worth anything. If they were powerless, their sacrifice was worthless.

 

Ergo, to take this argument to its logical conclusion, you are not worthless. It’s a new concept for you and is probably going to take a while to sink in.

 

For what feels like minutes but is in reality mere seconds, the sound of your feet on the floor is the only thing you can hear - the shoes that were really meant for fancy occasions and not running about like a lunatic are clattering and clamouring on the hard surface. Bits of drying mud skitter away from them as you speed up, your strides longer (if not more confident) with every step.

You don’t even really know where you’re going. Strike that. You have no idea whatsoever.

[Run!]

You’re going away from Odin. That’s all you need to know.

For a moment you think about the bamboo cage door swinging open and the victim looking up into the eyes of a well-intentioned would-be rescuer.The victim doesn’t immediately leap up and hurl themselves into liberty, and the rescuer cannot understand why – but you think you can. The door is wide and they may go through it. On the other side, freedom and life and all the uncertainty those entail. But on the inside, captivity and death and utter, utter certainty. And all the power that control denotes.

 

You hate uncertainty almost more than anything else. Everything about your life has been uncertain until now. Your future. Your job. Your relationships. Your health. Always questions, always what-ifs every way you turn, and none of the pseudo-choices you’ve been offered have ever been good. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, and asked to choose which one you’d like most. The futility of choice and the lack of control in your life have been the points against which you’ve beaten your impotent fists many times.

 

Physically distanced now from Loki, you weirdly feel much closer to him. He’s a constant in the link, perhaps now that all the attention’s dropped from him and is focussed instead on your fleeing figure. For a brief moment, he gives you a flash of what he sees, and you get to see what you look like from behind.

Just as you suspected. You [run like a demented baby giraffe]. There’ll be time to relive this horrible analogy at a later date.

[Giraffe?!?]

Odin roars, and you can‘t help but turn, just fleetingly, to look. He doesn’t even sound human anymore: Fury’s mouth gapes impossibly wide and he flings out an arm, backhands Loki across the face like an affronted whore at the bar. He’s obviously super-pissed that a mortal and a reprobate are daring to cut in on his act of making himself look big. Loki spins backward, his own expression shocked at the unexpected force of the blow. You reel sideways as the phantom of that hit gets through the link, despite Loki’s obvious efforts to shield you from it.

Shield. The irony of it is worth a whole thought to itself. You stagger, almost falling. There’s an abrupt roil of murderous fire that boils up through your gut and almost makes you feel as if you’re going to throw up. Your vision turns green, and there’s a moment where you think you’re actually being sick, but then the whole room flares as green as the Emerald City and it’s Loki stepping up to the plate with the remainder of his strength, fighting like a pro with whatever-the-hell the green fire is, and Odin –

Odin is about to perform a mighty Allfather-style smackdown on his second son, and you can just tell that Loki, in his post-torture state, can’t withstand it. Your eyes start to burn again, as if there’s acid dripping into them, and your body feels constricted in strands of thin, cutting wire. Your back is insisting that you’re lying on jagged, volcanic rock.

 

[a rock and a hard place?]

 

You hear a tiny shred of laughter from him, but it’s weak and there’s no heart in it. The thin wires [a rope] and the rock [called Scream] are too much to bear.

 

This is what Loki’s deepest fear feels like, given ultimate form and the benefit of his experience. It’s also what finally confirms, somewhere deep inside you, that you’re doing the right thing, however insane and self-defeating it might seem. It’s a huge thing for you, that knowledge all tied up with Loki’s pain. You almost turn, overwhelmed, and –

 

[RUN!!!]

 

You do as you’re told. Pain floods the link. You don’t look back. Later, much later, you’re treated to Ibn Fadlan, and you realize just how much of an idiot play you made and how much of a shit Loki was for letting you make it.

 

The door in front of you suddenly slams open, and your rescuer stands before you. He’s probably what every victim ever wanted to see. Big and blond and muscular and practically seething with righteous indignation. He doesn’t quite have the full set of shining armor and you’re pretty sure he prefers goats to noble white chargers, but otherwise he’s the perfect Disney prince and if he wasn’t so [unbearably simple], forthright and loyal none of this would work at all.

Uncertainty and life unfold before you. The cage door hangs ajar.

Thor looks into your eyes with recognition, and when you don’t move, his brow furrows in confusion. He doesn’t understand. His arms make a flinching, abortive motion to grip you, enfold you, protect you in all your vulnerable mortality. It would be so nice to be protected, to feel safe, even if it’s only for a little while. But that would be the sting – it would only be for a little while. And giving it up would hurt so much more.  

[Trust him, if not me]

So instead, you drop to your knees in front of a Norse god for what’s probably the third time today.

“Kill me,” you say. “If you love your brother.”

There. You said it. You really can’t believe it, but you did. And now you’re going to -

[blota – it means to worship with sacrifice]

[I know. You know, so I know]

Loki’s internal voice is almost a whisper.

[it also means “to strengthen”]

Thor, because he’s a good man, hesitates for an abominably long moment.

And then he does.

It’s something that with Loki in your head doesn’t really seem odd at all, but you’re pretty fairly aware that to a casual onlooker, this would possibly be the most horrific and unbelievable thing imaginable. There’s still enough normal human reaction in you for that. It’s the same sort of feeling you’d get if, while watching TV, the star of your favorite soap suddenly took a bullet in an unexplained drive-by shooting in their secure gated community.

This is not the world Loki and Thor are from. Asgard is one of those places where you can make viable boats out of dead men’s nails, where you can wrestle bodily with old age, and where death isn’t everything it was cracked up to be, especially in the part where it’s any kind of surprise.

Viking warriors went into battle embracing death. They were dead already: it saved time and gave you a uniquely clear perspective on which to start smacking seven kinds of shit out of the enemy. Admittedly some of them were probably hopped up on mushrooms, but then that’s just another way of transcending the mortal, the usual, of getting closer to [Valhalla] that place where the line between death and life was not so much a barrier as a mirror.

They come from a world where if you want something really badly, sometimes the only way to show how much you want it and to eventually get it is to give up something you prize.

Thor doesn’t do it showily. You don’t get smacked with the hammer, which you must admit you’re glad about, as the idea was giving you the screaming horrors. He doesn’t punch you with one of those meaty fists and then jump up and down on your neck with those size forty-six armored boots. Also glad. You’ve read enough kid’s books about Vikings to know that their chosen methods of killing aren’t always the tidiest – blood eagles, anyone?

Lucky you, your internal organs get to stay where they are. Thor’s bright blue eyes for once seem to look through you and into you and see Loki there, wrapped around your soul like a snake curled into a pained, suffering coil. He exhales long and slow and as if he can’t imagine taking in another breath to enable himself to do this. But then he pulls you up and into his chest with the most heart-wrenchingly sorrowful expression imaginable, simply turning your face into his body. And holds you there, his huge hand pressing warmly at the back of your neck just enough to make sure you can’t move.

Or breathe.

The world slows. Blurs. That thump in your ears is back, the rhythm of your heart, that fluttering, erratic beat that hours ago you had been so frantic to preserve, and now you’re calmly listening (thump-thump) to it (thump.Thump-thump) slipping away. Isn’t it ironic that the fear of death, the anxiety you’ve held so close about dying stupidly, accidentally, has been making you ill all this time? The very act of being frightened about losing control of your life and it slipping through your fingers has been stealing your natural rhythm away from you. You’ve been killing yourself for years by worrying about death. It’s actually kind of funny.

Your amusement slips down the link to Loki, who is on the floor and in pain, and he acknowledges it, acknowledges you, and shares with you his experience of falling into the Void. It’s weirdly intimate, sharing death. And there’s never going to be anyone you can share that experience with because a) well, dying here and b) this isn’t something normal human beings ever get to experience. Loki is so close in your mind that it feels as if his body is pressed to your back, pushing you between himself and the sorrowing presence of Thor. It feels right. It feels comfortable. You experience your moment of clarity (just as you’re supposed to, it’s good to know that humans got something right about the death experience) and all it contains is the knowledge that it feels good to have Loki there, after all, despite his being a grade-A despot and having more issues than TIME magazine.

[Dying was perhaps the most powerful thing I ever did. And - ]

Your physical body is going limp. It feels warm here, cradled to Thor’s chest. Warm, safe and right [right] [right?]

You reach out at the last to Loki, querying gently.

[and?]

He chuckles.

[and it gave me everything I ever wanted because -]

And then you die. Your body still held so carefully by Thor.

[because?]

[Because it wasn’t the end.]

And it isn’t.

You die. And everything changes, but nothing stops.

Chapter Text

Two things, really.

  • I'm sorry this isn't a new chapter.
  • I'm just sorry, in general. 

It's been a crazy time in my life, and this isn't an abandoned story. It's just rather like a British train...perpetually long overdue. 

I also just don't have words for how grateful and continually surprised I am at the immense amounts of love you've shown my little tale. Believe me, you make it (and me) live. Love you all, and I am still writing. 

~B

Chapter Text

Cattle die,

kinsmen die

you yourself die;

I know one thing

which never dies:

the judgment of a dead man's life.

- Havamal


 

 

All things die.

All good things must come to an end.

Life is sacrifice.

It’s a funny thing, you’ve never wanted to be able to speak to the whole of humanity at once before. Humanity are a dicey lot: it’s hard to tell how they’ll react to anything, especially these days. Like a poorly trained dog, humanity will turn around and bite themselves in their collective ass without any real warning at all. And then complain bitterly because they’re butthurt. But there’s something about this new knowledge that floods your brain as the last neurons fire, the last flickers of consciousness strive for activity - it makes you want to get a megaphone and shout out to the globe at large. Tell them the secret. Tell them what you have learnt.

What is the meaning of life? What is my life for? You really want to know?

You are what your life is about.

It’s no coincidence that pretty much all the ancient texts are stories of great deeds. The world runs on stories, as do people. Without a story, without deeds, you are not likely to gain a footnote in the pages of history.

People like Thor and Loki and Odin - they are legends because of their stories. And they have stories because they acted. They took decisions and made their mistakes and made their sacrifices and their stories came to life around them. They were both author and protagonist, hero and villain, rescuer and victim, all at once.

Even if they died, like Odin.

Like you.

You are dead.

But this isn’t the end of the story. This is not [Ragnarok]

[And even if it were,] Loki’s voice adds, a slight curl of amusement touching the edges of thought, [Ragnarok is merely a twilight. It is not full dark. After twilight comes night. Then dawn, once again…]

He feels all around you, inside you in so much more than the shallow physical. It’s like you are the blood and he is the heart. Between you, life is sustained. Without one of you, life ebbs, fades and dies.

The sheer power of such a symbiotic relationship baffles and confounds you, in the same way that if you start thinking too hard about your breathing it becomes stiflingly difficult to just pull air in and out.

[Loki?]

[Yes, my beautiful sacrifice?]

Here in death, his voice is so rich that Bill Gates would envy it.

[What do we do now?]

He laughs a little.

[We scribe the runes we have won at such a cost, and we create from them our victory. We have given up everything we ever thought we held dear and our sacrifice is rewarded with a greater power]

More power. The thought seems inconceivable. Loki already feels so strong around you he could break the nine worlds apart with a stray gesture. He hears this from you and everything suffuses glimmering gold with his sheer pride and self-satisfaction.

[and all because of you]

His thoughts are so warm. Like being wrapped in a blanket that smells of your childhood home and hugged tightly by the person you love and trust most in all the [world] [worlds].It’s enough to make you deeply self-conscious and you want to retreat into yourself, but there is nowhere to retreat now. You are everywhere. Loki is everywhere. You are dead.

Where would there be to hide? Why would you even want to anymore?

Somehow you’d expected death to be scarier. But then most people who die don’t have Loki there with them, leashed to the fading consciousness like a grappling hook buried in the mountainside. He is boiling through your soul like scalding water through ice, melting away all your anxieties and inhibitions and replacing them with knowledge, power, and certainty.

If you could bottle this feeling, Prozac would be out of business in less than a day.

Death turns from grey and black and white into warm gold and green: Loki’s colors. Everything feels fluid. In this moment, anything is possible. You believe it.

[come]

And he gathers you to him as easily and naturally as if you have been a part of each other’s lives since...well..forever.

[it is dawn]

The world goes white. There is a roaring in your ears like the water that pours eternally into the abyss at the edges of Asgard, and a single word that echoes back and forth between you and Loki like a pinball in a pinball machine. [þræll] [þræll!] [þræll?!?]

It means thrall, slave, human. Some of the voices you hear are raging the word like a curse, others make it sound full of fervour and joy, like a devotional hymn.

Then you slam into the floor at Thor’s feet and for a single second everything hurts more than you feel it could possibly hurt and leave you still living. Unbelievably, you have been dead for only seconds. Perhaps you should be grateful that you didn’t have to spend nine days tied to a tree. You whoop in an agonized breath as if you’ve just surfaced out of unfathomably deep water. Thor rumbles a note of surprise, then chuckles. He says something else, but you don’t catch it. There’s just too much sensation, too much input, and your senses are shorting out. The physical pain fades into that humming, seething boil of Loki’s magic and presence around you.

Then you…

...you rise. Your hand stretches out involuntarily, and green light curls around your fingers like tiny snakes made of smoke.

What do you know? Looks like you got your Harry Potter moment after all. And there’s a tiny bit of normal-you left that is convulsing in sheer childish delight because magic, magic, magic. And then, just as suddenly as it arrived, it is gone. And there’s still the blood drying to a tacky unpleasantness on your neck, and you’re still a sad little meatbag with only the passing touch of greatness upon you.

Then you hear Loki. Not inside your head or your soul, but out loud, back down the corridor, the way you came. He is roaring like an animal, and the electric lights have all gone out. An eldritch green glow paints the magnolia walls with shadows in sickly pastel shades.

You look up at Thor, and his face sets in that good-natured-guard-dog expression that gives you a pang deep in your chest that is all to do with Loki and nothing to do with you.

[come]

[ please  come]

[I...I]

[oh, I]

Loki’s mental voice is stuttering, incomprehensible, drowning in the wash of the whatever-it-is that you have gained during your shared visit to the realm of death. He sounds drunk with it all, and he’s still taking damage from Odin’s onslaught. You can feel everything he feels as if it hums through your own nerves, and he is shuddering, trembling all over, high as a kite on what he can sense within you both.

He said please.

Truly, this is a time of miracles.

[I’m coming]

And you do. Lurching a little, because you’re only human, you just died and you feel like a metaphysical water balloon, so full of power and magic and oddness that you may just burst if pushed too hard. But you’re coming.

And you bring the knowledge of the [daudr] dead with you.

The gods have fallen into the gloaming. Long live the gods.

 

Chapter Text

“Didn't you say earlier that each person will live in some world throughout all ages?"

-     The Edda


 

As you stagger along the corridor, Thor trails at your side. It’s extremely odd to feel like you’re suddenly responsible for leading the charge when there’s a man roughly the size of Andre The Giant hanging about the place. You can almost feel his furrowed brow expression like a physical weight on the side of your face. Something is evidently bothering him.

“You gave up everything for my brother,” he says, after a moment.

There’s nothing to be said. Yes. Yes, you did. You concentrate very hard on not falling over.

“You don’t even like him.”

There’s a world of hurt in those words. Thor loves his brother. Thor would do anything for his brother, but his brother wouldn’t let him. And someone - some human -  who didn’t even want to be near him got the gig of Loki-wrangling. And got Loki’s co-operation into the bargain. It’s clear that Thor feels some injustice has occurred here. If this were any other situation it would be a cheap Jerry Springer script: I Tried Everything To Save My Bro From Himself But The Only One He Listens To Is That Mortal Bastard Over There.

“No,” you agree. “No, I don’t like him. But there are some things more important than like or dislike.”

Shit, you’re so profound you may be able to get a job on daytime TV when this is over. Still, Thor seems to accept it, although he still doesn’t look happy.

Is it true, though? That you dont like Loki?

You feel him there, wreathed in green fire and pain, his long body arched in a spasm of mixed fury and agony. His mind and his emotion flow through every part of you. And you wonder.

Loki is not a nice person. You’re not even sure Loki can be judged on the same scale as “people”. It would be rather like trying to hold a wildcat to a dress code, or expecting a python to use the right fork at a dinner party. Loki, like wild animals, is exactly and absolutely what he is meant to be, and all human societal and ethical precepts be damned. It would be unfair to judge him based on a system that he isn’t a product of. Ignorance of the law may be no excuse where you’re from, but a full-blown existence outside said law may be a different matter.

He protected you because you were his way out. That doesn’t mean he likes you.

You’re not sure he really likes anybody. Anyone who’s ever owned a cat would immediately identify that there’s a big difference between love and convenience. Cats are basically psychopaths in cute little furry bodies, killers in fur. They will tolerate you for as long as you give them things they want, things they like. And they’d still eat you if you died and left them hungry.

Yeah, you’re pretty sure Loki has the emotional mindset of a cat.

[Nobody would dispute that. Nobody sane, anyway.]

It’s probably because he’s never been able to fully trust anybody.

[...]

You’re far too familiar with that feeling and you shove that knowledge at him down the link almost bitterly, wanting to show him that he’s not all that special. Misanthropy amongst the bullied, outcast and betrayed is a universal constant, gods or not. Loki wisely makes no comment on the influx of emotion. You glance at Thor instead, and see his face with Loki’s perceptions coloring your vision.

[Yes. He wants me to be him because he loves me]  Loki says, and his internal voice is both full of wonder and full of sadness. [That can never be the case. And then he punishes me when I dont live up to his expectations. Because he loves me. A lovely dichotomy, is it not? Hes a lot like Father, really. Father should be proud.]

Thor pushes the door open with one massive arm.

[But Father is only ever truly proud of himself]

The scene that greets you is hardly an encouraging one.

Loki is once again on his knees, in a puddle of blood. He may have parcelled his reactions to the pain away, but physical bodies are harder to persuade with a simple cease-and-desist, and Loki’s body is leaking all over the place. The smell of it hits you, metallic and alien, mixed with the burnt-spice scent of his magic almost utterly spent.

He feels your alarm. His mental words come in a flurry, tripping over themselves.

[no, it s all right]

[this is what s supposed to happen]

[come to me]

And then, perhaps, most surprising of all, in a tone tinged slightly with uncertainty:

[don t be frightened]

The unexpected reassurance is perhaps the only thing that keeps you moving. That, and Thor very close to your wounded shoulder, his own anger as palpable as the ionized air that heralds the storm. Oh good. Thor is pissed, and you’re pretty sure he’s not pissed at either you or Loki, which makes a nice change.

The man who is not Fury is standing alone in the centre of the room. He has Loki’s blood on his boots. At some point during your flight and death scene, the human agents around the room have been...dealt with. You don’t look too closely at the crumpled grey bodies that you pass. They’re probably still alive. Probably. The idea that they’ve been consigned to a death that (unlike you)  they can’t come back from is anathema.

Because they’re bit-part players, you see. Nobody ever really cares. The goons, the redshirts, the stormtroopers, they’re grist to the mill of the story and the story is going to roll on and crush them no matter what. They will inevitably have families. Those families will be grieved. Some families will even collapse because a mother fails to come home, a father can no longer work. And here in the realm of gods and monsters it just doesn’t matter. They’re not even a footnote. Not even a stray beat in the middle eight. Just grist. Just food for the story.  Grey people. 

[But it SHOULD matter]

The unfairness of it stings through you like acid and Loki feels it, takes it, uses your strength in indignation to get back on his feet. It makes you feel dizzy as the emotion is suddenly siphoned off, turned into strength. Perhaps the last strength either of you have.
Loki sways, unsteady, and like a neighbouring tree in the storm, you sway with him.

“Father,” says Thor, and you’re suddenly surprised that it’s Thor, of all of you, who speaks first. “Father, this is not what you have taught me. This is not how we should live.”

“Loki has not learnt his lesson,” says Odin, and oh how much it is Odin now, the voice coming from the big man’s throat far older and more cruel than it should be. It’s also a British voice. You wonder if Asgard favours certain accents. “He still seeks to defy me. Seeks to find the loopholes in what is, and by exploiting them change what should be. What must be.”

“Because I would not bend?” Loki asks. “Because I would not take this mortal as you intended and learn humility at their knee? Because instead I taught them the true power that is possible through the right kind of submission, and to reject the wrong kind for what it is - pure, unparallelled egoism?” He spits out blood. “Oh, you really don’t like it when people try to steal your act, do you? And the thief is better at it than you. People will die for me and they dont even have to like me in order to do it.”

The air is thick with menace, and the dusty, cloying feel of feathers. Odin does not move. 

“I hate you,” says Loki, green eyes full of venom, for that brief moment as petulant as any child. [I loved you].

Something inside you that is purely you, nothing of Loki at all, suddenly hurts so much at those simple words that you almost gasp.

“Why will you not learn,” says that dry, old man’s voice from the soldier’s lips. “Neither of you will learn. You disappoint me, my sons. You reflect very badly upon me, and upon Asgard.”

At your side, Thor shifts uncomfortably.

“On the contrary,” says Loki, his eyes and nostrils flaring like an angry tiger’s, his teeth bared. “I have learnt everything I ever needed from this Midgardian.”

His hand shoots forward and grasps Odin’s arm in a vice-like grip.

“It just wasn’t the lesson you intended.”

The invisible silver string between you pulls so taut it might as well be an umbilical.

[now?]

[now]

“Was it.”

“Odin Allfather.”

“Killer of children.”

“Cheater of the Norns.”

“Stupid. Old. Man.”

There’s that intensely uncomfortable bloated feeling inside of you again, and you actually hiccup, as if all that knowledge, all that death magic, is about to surge up your throat and vomit itself into the world. That would just be the cap on an amazingly awful day: puking your guts all over a pair of Asgardian princes. But instead of your throat, the sensation slams up that thin silver cord that’s leashed you and Loki together, and you see Loki physically jolt with it as the power of your sacrifice passes through him and into Odin.

“Surprise. Father.”

There is no greater offering that you can make a god than a god himself. Linked to Loki, your action is his: your sacrifice his own. A god to a god. If you think about it, that almost makes you a god for a day. Awesome.

And in deity fight terms, you just did the equivalent of handing Loki a big set of nuclear brass knuckles and a bazooka. And he’s just used them to give Odin a righteous uppercut, to which Odin responds by having a hitherto-unknown glass jaw.

It’s a weirdly anti-climactic physical sight. The body of the army man - Nick Fury - rocking back on his heels as if nothing more than a brief breeze has passed him, Loki’s grip tight on his arm. It looks like nothing at all. But the full impact of the blow is felt through your silver thread, and it is enough to rock the foundations of the world, and you feel more than see the shade of Odin thrust unceremoniously out of its human shell. Thor gives a great shout of alarm - and perhaps it’s a little bit victorious, too [brother?]

There is the sound in your ears as of a million ravens screaming in outrage, and the ringing, exhausted laughter of Loki through the link as the story as told by Odin derails, the rhythm disrupted, the mitre broken. He sounds completely mad, and utterly triumphant.

[Veurr] he reiterates, unmistakably proud this time. [This is MY story]

He turns to you, flashing all those teeth in a huge, glorious grin, black hair crackling with little sparks of static overflow from the rush of (yes, you think you can say it un-ironically now) magic.

[and you - you’re mine] he says.

Oh. Oh well. That’s new.

Then Loki faints, crumpling magnificently from full height to full prone in a single, fluid drop. It’s only seconds before your link drags you down with him, hearing only faintly as you fall Thor’s voice raised in worry.

Chapter Text

Being in hospital is nothing like it is in the movies.

You wake and you are alone in the room. There’s a drip in your arm and one of those machines that goes “bleep” next to the bed. Your throat is sore and you’re thirsty and there’s not even any water to be seen.

You spend a long moment appreciating the little things. The bed is comfortable and clean and even the strong smell of disinfectants feels comforting. Whatever hurts you had left on your body are lessened, and there are bandages covering the worst places. Your arm aches where the bullet took you, but it is a dull thing, not a sharp agony. For the first time you can really understand how those characters in books and films feel when they get the “and then he woke up and it had all been a dream” moment. There is no real evidence that anything out of the ordinary has happened. A car accident could do this to you. It didn’t have to be gods and monsters.

Maybe you’re on the good drugs. There could be enough morphine in your system right now to drop a horse. Somehow you suspect there isn’t, though. You feel too clear, too focused, and besides there aren’t any of the paranoid hallucinations like your Uncle Clifton said he had after he had the engine block fall on his leg that time.

You actually feel pretty good, all things considered.

Then you realise.

You’re alone in your own head.

Loki isn’t speaking to you. The silver thread that has been both your lifelines for days is no longer thrumming in your hindbrain like the half-heard backbeat of a distant nightclub. You tentatively search for it, trying to regain that feeling of reaching inside with unseen fingers to grasp at it.

Nothing.

You’re completely unprepared for the swell of panic that rises in your chest as you seek fruitlessly within. The machine that goes bleep starts to bleep more frantically as your heart hammers.

Why are you panicking? You are safe. People - human people - are evidently looking after you, and there is no mad god of chaos inside your soul, consuming you from the inside.

It feels -

[good? quiet? normal?]

(nobody answers)

- empty.

And you don’t like it.

Look, just because you’ve never been a joiner, just because you often prefer you own company to a loud group of people, it doesn’t mean you don’t get lonely. Liking being alone doesn’t mean that you always want to be alone.

You don’t have a lot of friends. Your best friend from college lives in Maine. Too far to see them all the time. The people from work are not friends. They’re people. Nice people, but not people like you. You work with them, you pass pleasantries, and they are…they are fine. But they’re not friends. Grey people, who touch your life lightly.

But Loki has touched your life like he was trying to pull your soul out through the pores of your skin, brushing every nerve on the way through. It’s been a connection that goes beyond friendship, love, hate, religion, sex, family - and now it is gone.

And you are alone again.

Suddenly you find you are on the brink of tears. Funny how this happens. Everything you’ve been through and now it’s the simplest and most human of feelings - isolation - that brings you to this. You lie back against your pillow and look at the clean bandages and the tubes and the bleeping machine and the ceiling tiles until your eyes blur with the effort of trying not to cry, and you squeeze them shut.

Oh god, your insurance is really not going to cover this.

“Don’t worry. I paid.”

It takes you a second to recognise the voice.

“Oh, and I replaced your ipod. With something much better, if I do say so myself. And headphones. You like green? Cos they’re green. It’s a new colour we’re trying out. Oh hey, there you are.”

Tony Stark smiles at you as you open your eyes. He’s standing in the doorway, doing that thing he’s famous for - namely, wearing very ordinary jeans and a rockband tee, and still managing to make them look like they’re woven from pure greenbacks. “And before you ask, no, I wasn’t reading your mind. It’s just something people worry about. Normal people, I mean.” He catches your vaguely horrified expression. “Health insurance?”

You’re about to open your mouth to say something (probably something dorky, because it’s Tony Stark) but he isn’t letting you get a word in. “You probably have a lot of questions. But that’s okay. I have answers. Well, some answers.” He comes and sits down in the visitor’s chair next to your bed, pulls out a packet of grapes from nowhere (did he think that grapes were a pre-requisite for visiting people in hospital? Like some kind of tax on sick friends and relatives?) and proceeds to eat them, occasionally offering one to you. You refuse, mostly out of sheer bemusement.

“So, Loki,” Stark says, mid-grape. “Your buddy Loki. Don’t look like that. He’s okay. These Asgardians. It’s like they’re made out of Kevlar or adamantium or something. Your face,” he adds, wagging a finger at you, “you’re almost as bad as Thor. Seriously, you should have seen him. It was like a Shakespearean tragedy. There was a great wailing and probably even a manly gnashing of teeth over poor little bro on the ground.”

You can certainly imagine. You have been far closer to experiencing how Thor feels about Loki than probably almost anyone else in the world.

“You know he carried you both, right?”

Stark is watching you closely. It occurs to you that maybe this is an attempt at an interrogation. They’ve sent Stark, all Led Zeppelin and grapes and affability, so that you feel more comfortable. What a mistake that was. You feel completely overwhelmed.

“Oh yeah. Took Reindeer Games off first but came back for you. Wouldn’t let anyone else touch you until he’d given you the once-over.”

In your memory, Thor’s eyes, creased around the edges with worry.

“You’re free of it,” Stark says, his tone flattening into seriousness all of a sudden. “As far as Thor can say anyhow. When Loki gave good old step-daddy a metaphysical broken nose, the spell he put on you both started to unravel. Don’t ask me about spells, by the way. I’m still working on Thor to start explaining it in terms of science. I know he can. I think he likes to go all ooga-booga on me just to see me cringe.”

“Where’s Loki?”

Afterwards, you’re pretty embarrassed by how rude you were to the richest, smartest man in the country, but Stark doesn’t seem to care.

“He’s around,” he says, carefully non-specific. “Hey, you need to take it easy for a while, okay? I’ve been keeping Fury off your back, but that’s not going to last once he knows you’re, y’know, actually conscious and all. Speaking of Fury, whoo, is he mad. Turns out his least favourite thing in the world isn’t Hello Kitty after all. It’s being possessed by an ancient Asgardian douche bag. I mean, I don’t like Loki, but I’m getting to like Odin even less.”

You process this slowly as Stark rattles on. Nick Fury, bereft of his unwanted connection to the divine just as you have been, had come out fighting mad. Nobody, least of all Tony, seems surprised by this. It seems there’s been some kind of emergency diplomatic meeting arranged so that Asgard doesn’t come lumbering down and destroy Midgard in a fit of Odin-pique - and this has only been possible because nobody really seems to know where Odin actually is. They’ve looked to Thor instead. Loki was right, you think, somewhat fuzzily. But it isn’t just humans who like to kneel. Asgard too seems keen to bend the knee to royalty - whichever one is currently in evidence - to keep their lives as normal as possible. Nobody likes civil unrest. It tends to cause everyday things to stop working,  like the trash being taken out and the food being delivered. And no matter how horrifying the concept of inter-realm war may be, ordinary people still get more annoyed by having their amenities messed with.

Stark has rolled right off the subject and into a discussion about some kind of new emergency protocol that S.H.I.E.L.D. has started working on to, y’know, avoid this kind of crap happening in future, when you interrupt him.

“Am I…am I going to jail?”

Stark’s eyebrows hike up, dark eyes serious.

“God, no,” he says, and his tone has become warmer, more genuine. “No. Why would you think that? I mean, I know Fury is an amazing rage monster second only to Bruce, but this wasn’t your fault. Hell, it’s probably more my fault than yours. I just had to go and have a party, which Loki just had to go and crash, and you didn’t do anything other than turn up for free drinks and bitchin’ tunes. I should be apologising to you for getting you kidnapped.”

“So I can go home?”

This is the bit that feels least real of all. Home. Your small life, full of small pleasures and annoyances, in muted colours. Your home. Your job. The grey world, with only your music bringing threads of brightness into it.

“Sure,” says Stark. “You might want to heal first. But sure.” There’s something guarded in his expression that says he knows more, but his pocket suddenly jingles at him, and he whirlwinds out of the room, phone to his ear, with a quick apologetic smile to you. The door closes. Silence falls once again, broken only by the steady bleep of the machine and the low background hum of the hospital. You close your eyes once again, abruptly weary beyond measure, trying to acclimatise to the knowledge that soon your life will return to what it was, mere days ago.

Your life may pick up where it left off, but you’re not at all sure that you can ever go back to how you were.

There is a subtle, almost unnoticeable shift in the air next to the bed. A swift expansion of air molecules, moving to accommodate something that’s unaccountably in their way. And -

“Hello,” says Loki.

 

Chapter Text

“Often you gave to the man you shouldn’t have

Victory to the more faint-hearted.”

-Lokasenna


 

He looks very tired.

Of all the things to think, it’s that you notice first. There are dark circles smudging his eyes, and his pale skin seems almost translucent. There are a few marks - scrapes and bruises - dappling the side of his face.

He’s dressed in a black suit, very nice cut, very expensive, but it only serves to make his pallor the more noticeable. His black hair, clean now and pulled back from his face, falls in soft curls around his ears.

It’s unfair that he gets to look tired and ethereal and stylish when you’re pretty sure you look like you’ve been steamrollered by a garbage truck.

You stare at each other for a moment. You don’t realise until afterwards that this is probably the first time you’ve just sat and looked at him, taken him in, considered him as just another person. The huge, looming spectre of the trickster god Loki has constantly overshadowed  who Loki really is for you. Because it’s not like he wakes up every morning and eats his godly cornflakes, takes his godly shower, brushes his godly teeth before heading out to do all kinds of godly things. Loki is a person. Sometimes he just needs to do people things, like everyone else.

And he does look so very tired. Tired enough to be human.

That helps, in an odd way.

“I want to be clear about this,” he says, just when the silence is starting to become uncomfortable. His voice is flat: carefully so. “So there is no misunderstanding between us. That there can be no misunderstanding in the future.”

You look down, twist the fabric of your bed sheets between your fingers. You’re not sure where this is going. You’re also not sure where you want it to go.

“I am not your saviour,” Loki says. And he pauses. You don’t react. You wonder if he was expecting an outcry. “Nor am I your personal bodyguard, or your pet, or your paramour.”

Again he waits. You’re not sure what he’s waiting for. What can you possibly say? He’s been your kidnapper, your protector, the cause of your death and, paradoxically, the owner of your salvation. But it’s not like you owe him anything, and you certainly don’t want to feel that he owes you. Maybe that makes you unusual, but the idea of having someone as dangerous as Loki owe you something makes you feel deeply uncomfortable. 

“I am aware I should thank you.”

It’s really not gratitude. Not even close.  

“You don’t have to.”

And you sound so small.

“No, I don’t,” says Loki, quite calmly, but with an edge of amusement tinting his tone. “But I should. My brother has been quite effusive with praise for you. And quite definite in his opinions of how I should behave in return.”

You both sit for a moment in silence, contemplating the solid definiteness of Thor. There’s quite a lot of Thor to contemplate, after all.

“He will rule now,” says Loki, eventually. “In the unaccountable absence of our dear father. He will be busy.”

“What are you going to do now?”

The question is automatic on your part. It’s odd, sat here chatting with Loki like you’re making small talk with your boss’ brother at the works Christmas party, but this seems to be your life now. Might as well go with it. After all, Loki is more a part of your life now than any of your work colleagues. God, you hate small talk. You’ve never been any good at it.

“Oh - nothing that I wouldn’t be expected to do,” says Loki, airily, infuriatingly vague.

And that just gets you thinking once again about what your life will hold, once you’re released from here, once all the gods, monsters and magic are gone.

It’s a whole lot of nothing, basically. Nothing that wouldn’t be expected of you. Your expression must speak volumes.

“You don’t want it,” Loki says softly, reading you with unerring accuracy, but then of course nobody knows you better than he does. Probably nobody ever will. He has been inside your soul. How can anyone else hope to come close to that?

“You don’t,” he insists. “You have survived it. This time. This one time. In your life, there is only ever this one time where you face this kind of peril, be this kind of person, and live.” His face is as earnest as you have ever seen it: if the god of lies is lying to you now, he has reached levels of incalculable deception. “Any other time, you die,“ he says, quite simply, quite matter-of-fact. And you know that he is right. The fact that you’re still alive at all is ludicrous considering what you’ve been through. “You do not need to die,” he concludes. “You’ve done it once, and it holds nothing further for you.”

He sits back in the uncomfortable visitor’s chair, examines his nails in a show of unconcern and disinterest. You don’t say anything. There’s nothing to say. Everything you could say is ridiculous, trite, asinine.

Are you leaving soon?

Are you…are you still in my head? At all?

Does anyone know that I’m here?

Does anyone care?

Do you care?

“So you understand,” Loki says, studying his index fingernail as if he’s found a blemish, “what I am not to you. I have been clarity itself.” He flicks that sharp green gaze up and pins you with it. “Have I not?”

“Yes.”

Your voice is still small. And incredibly, chillingly, Loki smiles. A small, deceptive smile. 

“Then perhaps you can also understand what it is that I am to you.”

Your entire body goes cold and your brain instantly regurgitates everything he said, just to rule it out. Not saviour, bodyguard, lover, pet. What is left? Nothing good. Murderer? Captor? You’re alone in here with him and there is never any way of predicting what he might do.

“You’re still frightened of me,” Loki says, still smiling. “I understand how that feels. And it is natural. Mortals nearly always fear their god, at least at first.”

He is watching you very intently, and when you get it you can see that grin widen and he gets that indulgent sort of look that Mrs Chen downstairs gets when one of her multitude of cats manages to fall over in an adorable way.

“Yes,” he says, and spreads his fingers in a self-deprecating gesture. “I am your god. Forever.“

When you can’t immediately think of anything even remotely appropriate to say to that (somehow “yay?“ or “aaargh!” doesn’t seem to cut it), he raises his eyebrows sardonically, and adds: “Aren’t you lucky.”

“I don’t know,” you manage, eventually. “Am I?”

You honestly didn’t mean for it to come out like sass. It’s a genuine question. You genuinely don’t know. You’re not religious. Your mom is. And to be fair, she seems to get a lot out of her God. Praying. Church socials. A nice gold cross on a chain. A sensation of the ineffable, invisible divine. Which must be lovely, in a way, but  you’re really not one-hundred-percent sure how that translates to your god, who‘s sitting there in a plastic-covered guest chair with one leg hooked over the other. Besides, your mom chose her God. She didn’t just fall off a building one day and end up in a weird symbiotic relationship with Jesus because God was mad at him.

(As far as you know, anyway).

Loki gives you what may best be described as an old-fashioned look at which point you realise he probably thinks you’re sassing him and almost panic: then he grins, giving you all those teeth in a display of fierce amusement that‘s practically deranged. You remember, from before all this started, how you knew even back then that Loki was always little bit crazy.

Then he reaches out with a single long finger and touches you in the centre of your forehead. That simple touch abruptly becomes your whole world, as if all the nerve endings in your body have surged to that spot and started to burn.

Because he’s there again, back in your head, that fingertip alight with the same silver that had connected you all that time. His voice is warm, familiar. It’s almost painful how much you missed it.

[did nobody ever explain to you what gods are for? Did you think they were just big beards in the sky, constant judges, unending observers?]

You get a flash of Odin in Loki’s mind. Big judging beard in the sky. Got it.

[an excuse to do terrible things?]

[no] you shoot back at him, immediately, and he laughs.

[you have died for me. I am yours. You are mine. This is the old magic. These are the old rules.]

[I thought you didn’t play by the rules?]

He laughs even more, and pulls his hand back. The shock of his absence hits you again, all at once.

“We are gods,” he says, “so that you may be shown what you should be. When Odin and his kind first came to Midgard long ago and were taken as gods, you humans chose. Some wanted to be mysterious, wise, and powerful, so Odin was their god. Others wanted beauty and magic, so Baldur was their god. Sometimes, the god chose for themselves, and showed their chosen human how to become. But there was yet a third way.”

“I didn’t choose you,” you say. “And you didn’t choose me.”

Loki pauses, silent: his lips thin out as he presses them together, and he doesn‘t answer directly. 

“Sometimes,” he says, “a child was dedicated to a god from birth. Their life path was set. They would be a thunderer, like Thor, or a war-maker, like Tyr. They never doubted what they would be. And you…have been twice dedicated to me. Once by Odin against your will. And once by your own hand.”

He glances down, exhales briefly, seemingly amused at his own rhetoric, then looks up at you again, eyebrows raised. “This must all sound terribly grandiose.”

“A little.” You’re startled by your own daring.

“Well then. Perhaps this will be easier.”

And he abruptly leans in, pulls you up, against his body, and holds you so tightly it feels like you might be absorbed into him. It is without doubt the most intimate feeling you’ve ever had with anyone and it’s apparently all you’ve ever wanted, even though you didn‘t realise that before now. The pressure of his arms, wrapping you. The slight shift of his chest as he breathes. The brush of that breath as he dips his head against yours. The unique spiced scent of his magic, still faint in his weariness, threading his clothes. You will never forget any of these things. Even when you are old and tired, and your memories have become less factual and more fleeting things like leaves caught in the breeze, the feel of Loki pressed against you will never leave you.  He is, and now always will be, the most solid and real thing that has ever happened to you.

Maybe this is what a god is. The memory of being one with something greater, forever. The feeling that you are reborn. Loki, still clutching you tight, murmurs a string of words that definitely aren’t English and without the link you no longer understand them -

“Ek taka við…”

The world whites out. Your heartbeat takes over everything, insanely loud in your ears, a relentless rhythm. The beat of the music that‘s kept you alive since you were born and keeps you living now.

And when your world fades back into colour, Loki is gone.

He doesn’t come back.

 

They discharge you from the hospital surprisingly quickly. It turns out that your wounds are mostly superficial. Apparently you’ve been really lucky. You don’t even need stitches, and your knees, while they’re pretty much just a big bruise, are fine. Nothing permanent. The doctor looks a bit surprised. For some reason, you’re not. Maybe you’ve just entirely lost the ability to be surprised at anything ever again. You walk out of there without even a visible bandage - the one bandage you have is over the shot in your shoulder, under your clothes.

Nobody follows you. Nobody even tries to stop you. If, as Stark suggested, there’s indeed a militant Nick Fury just waiting for the chance to interrogate you, he’s dropped the ball today. And every day after, as it seems, because as it turns out, he never comes after you. No secret meetings. No calls from shadow-grey men in the middle of the night, who want to bundle you into an unmarked car and take you away. It’s as if you’ve somehow managed to vanish completely, hide yourself.  

You don’t know where your cell has ended up - presumably it is still lying somewhere in the rubble they cleaned out of Stark’s place - so it’s only when you turn up at the café for your regular shift that you find out you’ve lost your job. You should have expected it, really. Considering people at your work get fired for turning up late twice, not turning up at all for several days is definitely a sackable offence.

Your boss doesn’t ask for an explanation, and you don’t give one. Somehow you no longer feel that you owe anyone any explanations. Everything that’s happened to you over the past few days has defied explanation, and that doesn’t seem to matter. Not everything in life can be explained, after all. 

So because you have no place to be you go out walking, with your new Stark headphones in, listening to your music. You have no money (wallet in coat at Stark Tower, presumably). You have no keys (also in coat). You have nothing you should be doing right now, and nobody who is going to be looking for you. 

This should bother you. This doesn’t bother you at all.

You get back to your apartment block. The outer door isn’t latched, luckily, so you just push on through. And when you get to your own apartment, your door is hanging open, so no keys required. But If this was robbers, they haven’t taken anything. Not that you really had anything to steal. The door is just open. The place is still a bit of a mess. There is no mail and no message on the answer phone. Everything seems normal.

So you call your mother and she has no idea what your life has become, where you‘ve been, what you‘ve done. And you don’t tell her, partly because there really is no sensible way to explain, and partly because there is no need. You are safe. You are alive. So instead you sit and listen to her rambling on about little things and people you can’t remember who are nonetheless apparently very important to her and let the familiar voice and tempo of conversation lull you into a half-doze.

When you wake, the first morning back in your own bed, the reality of it flows through your mind. Unemployed. Not (apparently) a wanted criminal. In possession of a door that needs a better fix than a table shoved across it.

Your world is empty. A blank slate. A whole lot of nothing, just what would be expected for you. 

And you’re not scared.

You’ve spent your whole life being scared, so this is pretty huge. So for a while you decide that you’re emotionally dead. That you’re in shock. That this whole experience has killed you inside and you won’t be able to feel anything, ever again. But even that belief doesn’t last, because it just isn’t true.

Months pass. If anything, you feel more alive than ever. You find things funny that previously would have floored you. You find yourself watching other people just to see what they’re doing, rather than wondering how bad it is and if they’re going to do it to you. You find that you don’t miss the loss of Loki’s magic so much, because around you the world seems to be waking up, alive with its own kind of normal, everyday magic. Small things. Important small things.

It’s only when you walk out of the Starbucks closest to your home and realise that you’ve basically just talked your way into a new job that you’re not even properly qualified for that you understand what’s happening. What’s been happening since you walked back out into your life. What had actually happened, back in that hospital room.

[I accept you, I take you in]

And you actually laugh out loud, in the middle of the street, just like someone who‘s a little bit crazy.

[Sometimes, the god chose for themselves, and showed their chosen human how to become.]

Loki chose you, after all.