The door slams shut behind Loki. He slumps against it, panting. The side of his face throbs where it got singed on his way here, and his fingers ache from weaving spell after spell, from holding his knives too tightly. He lets his head fall back against the door with a heavy thump.
“Loki,” Strange’s voice comes from far above him. Loki looks up to see Strange hovering in front of a huge glowing map. His hands dance across it, and as he moves, areas glow in green and red. There are dark shadows underneath Strange’s eyes, and his hair is completely gone from one side of his head, burnt away by one of Thanos’s minions. Still, he looks down at Loki with one eyebrow raised, as though surprised to see him.
“You still have it?” Loki asks, his voice cracking on the words.
“The Eye?” Strange nods, motioning down to where it glows on his chest. “Yes, but I don’t know for how much longer I can keep the sanctuary closed to them.”
“You know how to use it?” Loki asks, levering himself off the door.
“Well enough,” Strange answers, turning away from the map of the city and floating down to stand in front of Loki. “But I also know better than to do so, at least I think I do.”
“You’ve used it before,” Loki says flatly. He has learned enough of the man to know that, at least.
“Only to save the universe,” Strange laughs. “That sounds a little self-important, doesn’t it? Well, it’s true, however it sounds.”
“Do it again,” Loki tells him, straightening his shoulders. “They are almost here. They will take it, and then Thanos will have all of them. Do you have any idea what would happen then?”
“I think it’ll be quite a bit better than the entire universe falling to Dormammu, don’t you?”
Loki rubs a temple with bloody fingers. They don’t have the time to argue over this, not for long, at least. He just barely carved a path here through the warriors on the street, and even the protections of this place cannot keep all those hundreds who are coming away forever.
“In any case, what would I do? Take us back to before this started? Thanos would still be coming, and we would be only a little better off. Time isn’t some toy you can play with.”
“No,” Loki glares at him, stalking deeper into the into the sanctuary. “Send me back.”
“I can fix this,” Loki grabs on the bannister of the grand staircase to keep himself upright as he wheels to face Strange. “Send me back to before Thor came to earth the first time. A year before.”
“What makes you think that will make any difference?” Strange asks. He looks about to say something else, but there’s a crash from outside, and all the windows in the sanctuary rattle.
“They’re going to be here any moment,” Loki grits out. “You have to do this now. What could it hurt, Strange? We’re about to lose, or hadn’t you noticed.”
“How could it hurt?” Strange’s eyes go wide and he actually falls to the ground, stomping back and forth in front of Loki without the help of his cloak. “How could it hurt? You’re asking me to erase the lives of every person in the entire universe for the last decade. You’re asking me to change everything. Do you even have any idea of how wrong this is?”
Loki chuckles. His knuckles are white on the banister and he’s hardly standing now. There must be some wound inside him draining him of blood. He would worry about the fact that his seidr isn’t healing him, only it hardly matters now. If Strange doesn’t agree to do this, they’ll all be lost, and then it’ll matter little whether Loki is alive or dead.
“More wrong than the destruction of Earth? More wrong than Thanos having power over the universe? We are not mere men, Strange, that we must worry about such things. We have a greater power, and isn’t it the midgarders who say that with great power comes great responsibility?”
“Which you notoriously don’t care about?”
“I’m caring now, Strange. This is all my fault. I can fix everything. Only, you have to do this now. We’re running out of time.”
Strange laughs then as well, fingering the Eye on its chain. “The one thing we always have is time,” he murmurs. “You know, if I do this, I’m sacrificing my own life for this as well. I go back to being some arrogant doctor. But not only that. Cap goes back in the ice, Bucky is the solider again, Shield is Hydra’s playground. It all resets. Is that world really better than this one?”
“Look at your damn map, Strange. Look at it,” Loki snarls. He calls the map over to them with a flare of seidr. It is covered in red now, places that have fallen to Thanos’s forces. “It cannot be worse than this.”
Strange takes a deep breath. He nods. “You’re sure you going back is enough to change things?”
“As sure as anyone can be,” Loki answers.
“This is going to hurt. I don’t even know if one can go back as far as you want to.”
“It’s the Time Stone in there, Strange. I could go back to the beginning of the universe if I wanted, only since I wasn’t born there’d be consequences. I’m only asking you to reverse time for a short period.”
“I’m going to have to set the spell and then let it run, since I’ll be caught in it myself.”
“You could go back too,”
“No. The ancient one would not stand for that, and if we go back that far, she’s still alive. I can’t, not if I want to live.”
There’s a roar of wind around the sanctuary, and the whole building shudders. It sounds as though they have made their way into the heart of a tornado. “Then do it. Strange, you have to do it now,” Loki pleads. There’s blood filling his mouth, and his head is strangely light.
“I hope you’re right about this,” Strange says, taking the Eye from around his neck. He lays it down on the marble floor, kneeling in front of it. Then he crosses his hands, and the Eye glows in response. The clockwork mechanism surrounding it whirs and opens in response to Strange’s slow, sure gestures. Loki stares at it, and then everything around him starts to change.
At first it’s little things. The umbrella stand in the corner rights itself, and the broken glass on the floor forms back into a cabinet. Then things start to speed up. The world dissolves into a blur of light and color. Loki thinks he screams. His whole body seems to be tearing itself apart, flinging itself back and forth across the galaxy. His eyes roll up in his head, but somehow he can still see everything around him. There’s Asgard, fitting itself back together. There’s Sakaar, and then Asgard again. He has a moment to feel himself become Odin, before he’s ripped away. His chest gapes open as it is split open in reverse, then knits itself back together again.
He spends whole seconds in his cell on Asgard, feeling as though his stomach is going to turn inside out, and his head split open from the pain of it. It’s nothing compared to what comes next, though.
Loki is suddenly freezing. He feels himself sucked across the galaxy by the tesseract again, only this time, it is not with the knowledge that on the other side will be an escape from torture. Loki has just enough time to realize what is about to happen before he finds himself in Thanos’s torture chambers again.
It turns out that torture is only a little better when it’s faster and in reverse.
Loki finally finds himself back on Asgard, but by this point, he’s just barely clinging to consciousness. It fades away somewhere on Jotunheim, and Loki slips away into blissful sleep.
Loki wakes with a splitting headache. The sheets are cool about him, and he rolls over in bed, burying his face in his pillow to try to block out the sun that beats against his eyelids. It works for a second, just long enough for Loki to realize that his face is pressed into a pillow, and that his body doesn’t feel like it’s about to fall to pieces.
He flips over and sits up so fast that his head spins. The light beating against his temples really is sunlight, and the soft sheet on top of him is his own. Loki gazes around his room with eyes wide. There, on one wall, hangs a tapestry some grateful villager gave him on Vanaheim after he healed the town of cholera. He can see his workroom through the open door on the opposite wall, a few papers littering the long desk across from the door. A pile of clothes sits on his floor, silks and linens that he hasn’t worn in years.
Loki’s heart thumps in his chest. He looks down and starts to ant. While he’s never been even close to Thor’s size, over the past few years he’s put on a bit of muscle. Now, though, his chest is narrow and pale, the only scars on his skin those of training and adolescent adventuring. The marks of torture and deceit have been washed away.
Loki leaps out of bed, ignoring the way his head throbs when he stands straight. A robe hangs haphazardly off the chair next to his bed, and he pulls it on as he throws open his bedroom door.
His sitting room is quiet, the only sound that of birds chirping somewhere outside the open window. Loki takes a single moment to look around before barreling out into the corridor, the tails of his robe flapping behind him. He’s running so fast that he almost slams straight into a servant girl with a tray in her hands.
“My prince,” she says, giving him a wobbling curtsy.
Loki stares at her, wild eyed. “My-my mother. Where is she?”
“The queen? She’s breaking her fast in the gardens,” the girl replies, blushing.
Loki can’t spare a moment to calm her, though. The halls turn almost to a blur as he races through them, doors flashing past and people diving out of the way.
The sun beats down fiercely when Loki races out into the private gardens. Sweat beads at his temples. He runs down familiar paths with rocks biting at his bare feet. Then, finally, he catches sight of Frigga through the trees.
Loki comes to a halt, his heart racing. There, in front of him, Frigga sits curled up in a wicker chair, a glass of iced juice in one hand. Her hair hangs long down her back and she wears only a light summer shift. As Loki stands there, dumbfounded, she turns to him.
“Loki, darling, where are your clothes?” she calls out.
Loki walks towards her with stuttering, halting steps. When he’s finally in front of her, he reaches out for her hand.
He half-expects his fingers to pass through hers, just as they did the last time he saw her. Instead, though, Frigga squeezes his hand and looks up at him with troubled eyes.
“Is everything alright, my dear?” she asks.
“Mother,” Loki breathes in response. He falls to his knees, bending forward so he can throw his arms around her. “Mother,” he says again.
“What has happened, Loki?” Frigga asks again.
Loki can’t answer. Instead, he buries his face in her skirts, feeling for all the world like a tiny child again, desperate to return to his mother and hear she still loves him. Frigga sets her hand down on his head. She runs her fingers through his hair, and Loki sighs. She smells of early morning and fresh grass, of clean sweat and the garden. He presses his cheek against one of her legs, biting his lip against the temptation to let tears spill down his cheek.
“I-” he mumbles. His voice catches, and Loki takes a shuddering breath before he manages to get control of himself enough to whisper words against Frigga’s skirts. “Would you still love me if I did something terrible, Mother?”
“Loki, what is this?” Frigga slips a hand beneath Loki’s chin, lifting his face carefully up so she can look into his eyes. “Of course, darling. I will always love you.”
“Even if I pretended I didn’t love you?” Loki manages to gasp out.
“Even then, dear.”
Frigga runs a finger beneath Loki’s left eye, and Loki realizes he hasn’t managed to keep his tears entirely at bay. Frigga says nothing else, though, only keeps stroking his hair with her free hand.
“What about if Thor and I fought? I mean, really fought, not just had a quarrel. Would you choose a side?”
“Loki, I love you both. If one of you was in the wrong, I would try to convince you of that, but it wouldn’t change how much I love either of you.”
“Shhh,” Frigga murmurs. “It’s all going to be find. Whatever this is about, Loki, it’s going to be alright.”
With an effort, Loki clenches his stomach and straightens his shoulders until he is no longer bent over Frigga’s lap. He kneels in front of her, looking up into eyes he never expected to see again, eyes that don’t judge, a gaze that doesn’t reek of betrayal and hurt. He shakes his hair out of his face.
“I apologize for my outburst, Mother,” he says, but he chokes on the words, and they come out sounding pitiful and quiet.
“Loki, I need no apology from you. It is good to see you letting yourself feel things, instead of bottling them up inside. I promise, whatever you have done, we will find a way through it together.”
Loki laughs a little brokenly. All he has done for the past ten years is feel things too much, too strongly, too desperately. Now, though, he’s gone back to a time before all that. He can’t seem to stop feeling though, to lie well enough to cover up all the ways he’s been torn apart. His whole body aches with it.
“We already have,” he whispers. “It was nothing more than a dream. A terrible, horrible dream. It’s all over now, though. You’re fine, and Thor’s fine, and Father’s his old self, and I haven’t broken anything that can’t be fixed. It’s all over now.”
Frigga smiles softly at him. “Come, sit with me. We’ll wash away anything horrible together, even nightmares.”
Loki wanders back into the palace in a daze after breakfast. He pulls off his robe, dropping it onto the floor of his room, and makes his way into the washroom naked. The water hits his skin and steams about him, invading the drier air of the palace with heavy thickness too much like that of the garden. Loki frowns, tapping at the wall to cool the water. It streams down from above him, falling like pouring rain.
For long minutes, Loki stands in the spray. He runs his hands down his sides, trying to take stock of this new-old body he finds himself in. It isn’t only his skin that has been cleansed of his wrongs. His whole body feels lighter. He has, of course, lost all the wounds of the war with Thanos, but that isn’t what makes Loki trace shuddering fingers over his ribs and down to his hips. He doesn’t get a chance to work out quite what’s different, though, because a heavy hand lands on his shoulder.
Loki startles. He whirls around, drawing a dagger from the nowhere-space he keeps them. It’s a monumental effort to keep from pressing it deep into Thor’s side. He lets it vanish away instead, breathing hard.
“W-what are you doing here?” He says.
“You missed our meeting this morning,” Thor mumbles. He crosses his thick arms over his chest, bottom lip parking out petulantly.
“Meeting?” Loki asks, shifting uncomfortably under Thor’s gaze. It has been so long since he stood like this in front of Thor, unguarded and ungirded.
“We were to spar an hour past. I waited almost thirty minutes before I came to find you, thinking the whole time that something horrible must have come to pass. And here I find you, still not done bathing.”
Loki starts to retort, but then bites hard at his tongue to stop himself. He shrugs instead. “I was with Mother in the gardens. I must have forgotten.”
Thor laughs. “Always a good tale with you. It’s no matter, though. We can simply go to the yard now.”
Loki nods slowly. He’s still uncomfortable in this new-old body of his. And perhaps a fight will do him good. He lets Thor pull him out of the fall of water. Thor tugs him along back into his room, then stands there as Loki hunts around, trying to remember where his training leathers are in this room. Thor taps his foot, staring at Loki with his arms crossed in front of himself.
He finally finds them folded on top of the chair in his dressing room-cum-closet. Thor’s still watching him when he pulls them on on, then grabs his arm again to pull him along towards the training yards. His fingers dig into Loki’s arm, and Loki hardly gets a chance to look at the palace flashing past him as Thor drags him through the halls.
The sun beats down on them as they step outside. Loki grumbles, clicking his tongue against his teeth. Thor turns to him, poking him in the side.
“If you’d gotten here on time it would have been cooler.”
Loki squirms away, glaring at Thor. “I was with mother,” he repeats. He doesn’t remember Thor’s voice being this piercing.
“It’s alright though, Loki. I’ll let you lose to me now, and it’ll only be sweeter because of how you’ll look in the sun.”
Loki glares at him, letting a dagger slip down between his fingers. He says nothing, only waits for Thor to stop posing and start the fight.
It’s a shock to see Mjolnir fly into Thor’s hand, but not as much of one as to notice that Thor swings it more slowly than Loki remembers. Loki has enough time to duck to the ground, letting the hammer pass over him as he crouches. Thor grins, regaining his balance quickly and circling Loki.
“Playing hard to get? I guess that’s all you can do if you don’t know how to stand and fight.”
Loki grits his teeth, but doesn’t say anything. Instead, he moves in zigzagging lines across the yard towards Thor, sometimes crouching low and sometimes spinning up a little higher. Thor stands his ground, swinging the hammer in a wide enough circle that Loki has trouble spotting an opening.
One comes, though, when Thor feints forward towards him. There’s just enough space for Loki to slip under his guard, and knock the pommel of his knife into Thor’s outstretched wrist. Thor grunts, and Loki slides away, his shin burning as he scrapes it across the packed dirt.
He springs up onto his toes, knives flashing in a circle, to find that Thor hasn’t quite recovered Mjolnir yet - he rarely calls it to himself in a friendly match, at least not at the start of training for the day. There’s just enough time that Loki can dart back in, his right leg stretching out between Thor’s and hooking behind Thor’s right. At the same time, Loki grabs Thor’s collar, holding a knife to his throat and jerking Thor off balance.
Thor tumbles over Loki’s outstretched foot, slapping the ground as he falls to distribute his weight. Loki’s on him in an instant, straddling Thor even as Thor dislodges the knife from where it’s pressed to his neck. From then on it’s grappling match, Thor trying his hardest to flip Loki, and Loki distracting him with the knives for just long enough to keep his position on top. They’re both panting hard, and Loki’s hair is starting to fall down in sweaty strands, sticking to his cheeks. As he blows at them, Thor bats away one of his knives, and Loki can’t quite manage to keep ahold of it.
Thor crows with delight, but it’s short lived, because Loki manages to pin Thor’s arm in a lock, one leg flung over Thor’s throat and the other over his chest, Thor’s arm stretched out across Loki’s front. Thor’s delight turns to a grunt of pain, and Loki smiles. He arches his back, forcing Thor’s arm to bend back as well. Then he tosses his remaining knife from the hand he’s using to keep Thor in the arm lock to his free one. It gets pressed up against Thor’s side, just where it will cause a slow and painful death if Thor were mortal and Loki were to press it inside him.
Thor taps the ground.
Loki rolls back off him, his heart beating loud in his chest. Just a few feet away, Thor is panting on the ground, his chest heaving. In a moment, he rolls onto his side, grinning at Loki.
“When did you learn to do that, brother?” Thor asks. Loki smirks.
“When did you get so slow?” he replies. Then he chokes. Thor hasn’t gotten slower. Loki has simply forgotten what he was like.
He wonders how much else he has forgotten as well.
Thor pulls Loki into the family dining hall by his arm, his fingers digging into Loki’s bicep a little. Loki trails after him, trying not to wince at the feeling, dragging his feet. After they sparred, Thor had insisted on going out into the city to buy a present for Frigga’s birthday, which is apparently in a week.
Loki doesn’t remember this. Always, before, when he’s looked back on the time he and Thor shared before Thor’s botched coronation, all he’s seen is Thor’s constant laughs, his jeers, his horribly perfect smirk. This Thor is rough and arrogant, yet he smiles at Loki like Loki is his fondest companion. Loki’s stomach flips each time Thor turns to him with something other than pity in his eyes, and his whole body goes warm when Thor laughs at one of his flippant jokes.
Loki hates it.
Thor, though, seems not to notice his inner turmoil. That, at least, is just as Loki remembers. And now he tugs Loki over to where Odin stands with a huge smile.
“Father! You wouldn’t believe what happened today,” he says.
Odin raises an eyebrow, pursing his lips over the rim of his tankard of mead. “Will I not?”
“Loki bested me in two of our bouts. I’d never seen anything like it. He was magnificent,” Thor crows.
“Did he?” Odin peers at Loki. “Perhaps you are becoming more of a warrior after all, my son.”
Loki’s stomach tightens on the words, just as it had (or will?) when Odin had called him that on that cliff in Norway. He blushes, trying to slip behind Thor, but then realizes that he can’t do that. Of old, he had been desperate to prove himself to Odin, not to hide from Odin’s too keen gaze.
Of old, he hadn’t known of Hela, nor of himself.
He puffs out his chest, stepping up to Thor’s side. “It was a challenge, father, but I do think I’m improving. Of course, if I were to use seidr, the competition would come out in my favor more often.”
“I’m not going to let you cheat,” Thor says, poking Loki in the side with one thick finger.
“It’s not cheating! I let you use that hammer of yours.”
Odin seems about to let them continue bickering, but Frigga steps up beside the three of them, a hand on her hip.
“Now, boys, we don’t actually want you to hurt one another. There’s enough damage can be done with knives and hammers alone.”
“Mother…” Thor whines, sounding all the world like a five year old with a toy taken away. “We’re not children anymore.”
“But you are the sons of Odin, and as such, I won’t have you brawling like you were in nursery school when there is more important work to be done.” Frigga’s jaw snaps shut on the end of the sentence. She takes Odin’s arm and none-too-gently leads him to the dinner table, pushing him into his seat with a little more vigor than necessary. Thor and Loki trail after her, Thor blushing and Loki with his arms wrapped around himself.
He did not expect this to be so hard. He did not think that it would hurt so much, that it would ache like a hot coal in the pit of his belly. When he was here, the first time, he did not doubt Odin’s love. He yearned for its expression, fought for it to be shown, but he never wondered if it were real. Now, though, he stop thinking about it.
Frigga sets a hand lightly on his shoulder, and Loki comes back to himself to realize that he’s standing behind his chair while Thor and Odin are already seated, staring at him. He thumps down gracelessly, slouching a little to try to hide his distraction. Odin looks away after a moment.
Thor doesn’t, though. His brows knit together, and one of his big hands comes to rest quickly on the back of Loki’s neck, giving it a squeeze before Thor turns to the mug of ale in front of him. Loki’s skin tingles where Thor touched him softly and carefully, without even a hit of worry that Loki will turn on him.
The food in front of him seems tasteless in Loki’s mouth. Even as Thor eats with relish, listening to Odin tell them the court’s business for the day, Loki picks at his dishes. Here he is, in the midst of his family, and yet somehow, nothing is as he expected. They seems to be happy to see him, happy that he is there with them. There is no subtle sniping, no careful mockery. Thor, of course, makes jibes at Loki’s expense every little while, but they are small things, born of arrogance and ignorance, not of hate.
Frigga scolds him each time, yet gives Loki a concerned look when Loki doesn’t respond to Thor’s taunts. Odin simply laughs. It is unbearable.
A laugh spills from Loki’s lips just as Thor starts to say something about dwarf mining rights. Thor turns to him, but Loki just shakes his head. What can he say? That the very god of lies is on edge because he is caught in a lie? That he doesn’t know how to live with all the things that are papered over?
“Are you well, my son?” Odin asks in a low, slow voice, as Thor continues to jabber to Frigga about mining rights.
“What do you care?” Loki hisses. Odin can’t care. He never cared, not before.
“Loki…” Odin sighs.
Loki squeezes his hand into a fist so hard that his nails bite into the palm of his hand. The pain of it brings a clarity he hasn’t had all day, though, and he looks at Odin with a sharp eye. He cannot repeat all their errors of the past. He cannot go through every day pretending to be Odin’s dutiful youngest son. He cannot do it again.
“We need to talk, father,” Loki murmurs, low enough that even Frigga on his left and Thor across the table cannot hear. “We need to talk about Jotunheim.”