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Exhaustion

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Loki touched the cold concrete beneath him and choked on a bitter laugh. Sitting in a filthy alley that stank of rancid fat and urine, the cold digging needles into him; was this how it was going to end? He curled up tighter, wincing at the aching pain in his stomach where he’d taken a beating from a motel manager when he couldn’t pay them. His magic lay dormant, spent on teleporting across the world and back again, trying to escape Stark’s technology and the cell the man wanted to put him in.

But Loki was tired. He didn’t have the strength in him to run any longer, to flit about with his tricks and his quick anticipation of his opponent’s plans. It had been a year and he was buckling under the strain as his clever ideas became slippery, difficult to conjure up when he needed them, and then his magic began to slip. Now it was his body, which was nothing but a disappointment after Odin had made him mortal, colluding with the man of iron in a joined attempt to find him. Loki had shielded himself from Asgard’s prying eyes for as long as he could, but it was crumbling around him now.

Stark would find him first, though. His technology seemed to reach everywhere on this pathetic planet, a constant shadow looming over Loki, clinging to him like lichen.

“Fancy seeing you here.”

Loki closed his eyes. Perhaps if he were braver, he would have killed himself before Stark arrived, but he hadn’t been able to gather himself to do it.

“Sorry I’m late. The traffic was awful.”

Loki opened his eyes to see the red gleam of Stark’s metal contraption; the machine that worked with human magic to enable his flight. The mortal smiled down at him, his face arranged into an expression that ought to have been warm, but his eyes were cold as Jotunheim.

“If this is a bad time for you,” Loki managed, “don’t let me keep you, man of iron.” He stayed sitting on the concrete because he feared if he stood, he would only collapse. He’d overused his magic far beyond its ability to regenerate and without it he felt like empty rind, hollowed out and nauseous with it.

“And let you lead me on another wild goose chase? I don’t think so, reindeer games.”

Loki had nothing to say, no quick words to help him wind Stark around his finger and slip out of this Norns-damned mess he’d gotten himself into. So he just sat silently, shivering, waiting for Stark to kill him or take him away. He suspected the latter, and feared what they’d do to him.

“Cat got your tongue?” Stark said. “Fine with me, fucking pain in my ass.”

He tensed as Stark lifted his hand and then panicked when a sharp blue flash led to very small but very sharp metal spikes embedding themselves in his chest and forcing him rigid, unable to move, his jaw clenched shut as his muscles spasmed. Some kind of magic shock and, gods, it hurt.

“Nice. Let’s get this wrapped up, eh, Loki-poki, before anyone else arrives.” Stark came towards him and Loki couldn’t move, couldn’t much breathe. He didn’t know who Stark was expecting would arrive, nor why he wanted to take Loki before they did. Perhaps he wanted Loki to himself before he handed him over, Norns forbid it. Restraints snapped onto his wrists, and around his ankles and he growled low in his throat, hating Stark with a cold fire in his belly. If he only had his magic-

“Alrighty,” Stark said triumphantly and the paralysis dropped away all at once, along with the weird metal spikes, leaving Loki gasping at the damp air and trying to lift himself up, but lacking the strength to do so. He’d never felt so weak. “Let’s get this show on the road. You look like a wet mutt and I’d rather be in bed, in all honesty.”

Stark wrapped an unfeeling metal arm around him and before Loki could properly catch his breath, Stark had jetted up into the cold air above the city, leaving Loki shuddering in Stark’s icy grip. When Odin had turned him mortal, he’d taken his Jotun form from him; a body he’d hated, but he’d missed the damn thing when he was hiding out somewhere cold on this filthy planet, and he missed it now, as Stark took him higher and Loki could no longer feel his feet or his fingers as the wind stole what little warmth he’d had.

Stark flew for some time and Loki’s eyes fell closed as he shuddered, limp with exhaustion. He welcomed the cold, wished almost that it would freeze his stubborn heart, or that Stark would drop him and Loki’s worries would be done with. Mortal bodies were so fragile, he’d discovered.

But Stark brought him, if not fully hale then mostly conscious and in one piece, to what Loki presumed was his home, because it didn’t look like a prison. Stark dropped down to land on a platform, releasing Loki roughly, whose whole weight fell onto his elbow and he screamed as he felt it crack beneath him. The pain was awful and he curled up defensively on his side as he tried to drag air in through the stabbing agony that radiated all the way up to his shoulder.

“Jesus fuck,” Stark muttered and Loki tensed to be kicked, or roughly dragged, only for the metal arms of Stark’s armour to wrap carefully around his chest and lift him to his feet. The movement still jarred his elbow and he hissed, shaking. “Didn’t mean to break you. Sorry.” Stark manhandled him with unexpected gentleness inside the building, the door closing behind them on its own. Without the wind, the silence felt heavy and Loki’s harsh breathing painfully audible.

He was set down in a soft fabric chair, of all things, before Stark stepped away, pointing a finger at him. “Don’t move, princess,” he ordered. “Jarv, keep an eye on him. He’s a slippery prick, and not the fun kind.”

“Yes, sir,” a voice said from the ceiling. Loki was too tired to even startle and he stayed where Stark had left him, neither willing or able to stir himself. Stark left the room and Loki felt himself drifting, as the waves of pain from his arm and the empty ache of his absent magic washed over him, rough as an ocean storm.

Stark returned an indeterminable time later with a man at his side, a man Loki blearily and unhappily recognised as the mortal form of the great green monster; Bruce Banner.

“Is that really-?” Banner stuttered, staring. Loki exhaled, his jaw aching from how he was pressing his teeth together.

“Yup, the trickster asshole himself,” Stark said cheerily, though he sounded grim under his light tone. “Might have broken his arm a little bit.”

Banner turned to give Stark an incredulous look. “You didn’t,” he said.

“He did,” Loki muttered, exhausted and wishing they’d either throw him in a cell or knock him into unconsciousness. He didn’t much care which at this point.

“Oh,” Banner said. “Ah well I better look, then. Tony, if you could-?”

“Medical room?” Stark said. “Yeah, see you there, green bean.”

Banner headed out with an irritable huff, muttering under his breath in a displeased manner that Loki doubted boded well for him. Medical room? Loki didn’t like the sound of it and his head skittered away from imagining what Stark might require medical equipment for.

“Wow you look like shit warmed up,” Stark said. He was still in his red armour, but he’d removed his helmet and Loki eyed his face, trying and failing to read the mortal’s intentions. Stark clinically picked him up and Loki ducked his head as he tried to suppress a noise of pain from his elbow as he was moved.

Stark took him silently out of the room and into what Loki had learnt was an elevator, which carried them smoothly down several floors. Loki wished futilely that they wouldn’t be going underground. He loathed the cold and dark, even as the blue skin that lurked deep inside him thrived on the barren ice.

“He’s properly mortal, then,” Stark said and Loki stirred as he was set down, realising that he’d drifted again. His elbow sparked with pain.

“Yes, seems that way.” Banner was moving about with an intent expression, looking at screens and tapping them faster than Loki’s weary brain could follow. “You fractured his elbow, Tony.” Banner brought up a picture of the bones in Loki’s arm, or so he assumed.

“Oops,” Stark said carelessly. “My bad.”

Banner made a disgruntled noise. “Radial neck fracture,” he muttered. “But doesn’t look like it needs surgery.”

Together, the mortals attached Loki to the chair and, as much as he loathed it, there wasn’t anything he could do. Norns, he loathed feeling so weak.

“I shall disembowel you,” he snarled at Stark, when the mortal was holding him still so that Banner could stick a needle full of something into him.

Stark shot him an unimpressed look. “If you’ve nothing nice to say,” he said darkly. Loki tried to drag his thoughts together into a response, only for whatever had been in the needle to hit his systems, making his thoughts go fuzzy at the edges and leaving him limp. He vaguely felt Stark let go of him.

They were talking but Loki couldn’t make the sounds make sense. He felt his arm being moved and looked down at it in confusion, widening his eyes as gloved fingers cleaned a bloody gash on his elbow that he hadn’t even noticed.

Time passed and his head rolled back as his arm was moved and shapes moved around him. He knew he was fastened down but it didn’t worry him. He let consciousness slide away from him with a sense of overwhelming relief.

*

He woke groggy and dry-mouthed to a throbbing ache in his right arm, which lay across his chest, wrapped in white. A splint of some kind, he thought blearily, trying to make his mind work. He reached for his magic on reflex but found little, and what there was squirmed away from him. To take anymore of it now might be irreparable, he feared, and life without his magic wouldn’t be any life at all.

He was alone in a bare room, a cell he realised with a sigh. His left hand was locked to a metal loop on the floor, while his fractured right arm was rendered immobile with his injury.

“Good afternoon, Mr Laufeyson,” a voice said from the ceiling, making Loki startle. He twisted around to scour the room but could see no-one. One of those microphones he’d experienced, then, or something similar. He’d jumped violently when he first heard a voice come from the ceiling of a food store, but since the humans hadn’t seemed bothered by it, he’d realised it was considered normal.

“Who am I speaking to?” he asked hesitantly, unsure if the voice would even be able to hear him, or if it was only one-way.

“My name is Jarvis. I’m a type of computer that Mr Stark developed to help him with his work. I have alerted him that you are awake.”

Loki just nodded silently. A door slid open and Loki lifted his head slightly to eye Stark coldly.

Stark grinned. “Someone’s happy to see me,” he said lightly, coming forwards. Loki noticed a second too late that Stark was holding something in his hand and when Stark crouched down beside him, Loki couldn’t push him away, flinching with a growl when Stark lifted hands to his neck and fastened cold metal around his throat. A blue glow emanated from it and Loki sent Stark a look, trying to keep his terror from his face. He could feel something, the collar feeling icy against his skin, like it was sapping warmth from him.

“What is this?” he managed, attempting disdain and failing. Stark patted his cheek in such a way that Loki gritted his teeth and imagined crushing Stark’s throat under his heel.

“Just a precaution, reindeer games. Be a dear and have a go at some magic for me, will you?”

Loki blinked at him, the metal collar seeming to choke him for a moment as realisation rolled over him.

“It blocks my magic?” he murmured, horrified.

Stark gave him a cool look. “Don’t fret,” he said easily. “It might not work. Give it a spin for me, eh?”

Loki had already been reaching for his magic. It had been severely, painfully depleted, but it had been there, tingling and slowly increasing. Now there was nothing, just a barren nothingness when he reached for it. He stared at Stark in horror. This would kill him. To take his magic—Stark would strip him first of sanity and then his life, slowly. Stark’s face split into a satisfied smile.

“I suppose that expression means it works? Perfect.” He stood up while Loki stared at the ground. He felt sick. Did Stark know what he was doing? “Jarv, release Loki, please. I don’t think he’s going to be any more trouble for now.”

“This will kill me,” Loki breathed, glancing up at Stark. The man’s satisfaction faltered for a moment as he narrowed his eyes. Then he smiled slightly, almost puzzled.

“Don’t be a drama queen,” he said easily.

The metal cuff on Loki’s left wrist fell away but Loki only lifted his arm to shift it into his lap as he stared at Stark and didn’t do anything else. He kept reaching for his magic, straining to find it, hoping that he might feel some responding tingle, but there was just a vacant emptiness; an awful, endless nothingness.

“Come on, Lokes,” Stark said from the doorway of the cell. “Aren’t you hungry?”

Loki was, he realised, and also painfully thirsty. Mortals were almost constantly hungry, he’d found out, and it was something he hated, the way that his body was constantly clamouring for sustenance.

He got slowly, unsteadily, to his feet and when Stark led the way down a corridor, he followed. His hand came up to touch the cool metal around his throat and resolve hardened in his stomach. He had to remove this thing, and to do it he needed information, time, and as much strength as he could muster.

So when Stark placed some odd, cold food and a glass of water in front of him, Loki drank until his throat didn’t feel so raw, and then ate the offered food, finding it to be chilled fish and rice and pleasant enough. Nausea twisted inside him, though, and he felt slightly dizzy. He knew it would only get worse. Stark talked at him, half taunting and half inane chatter.

“…Since I’ve got you all nicely secure here, your brother’ll be dropping in tomorrow to say hi.” Loki paused with the chopsticks half-way to his mouth to meet Stark’s sharp eyes. Stark smiled slightly. “You’re rather good with those, for an alien, you know,” Stark said, tapping his own chopsticks together and Loki made a noise of agreement without thinking. The chopsticks were at least convenient in that they only required one hand, since his right was out of commission. “But then you spent several weeks in China, didn’t you?” Stark said, his voice going hard and Loki set his chopsticks down as he lost his appetite entirely. Stark had been on his tail for the best part of a year: they were captor and prisoner and the collar around Loki’s neck was only one of many reminders of how powerless Loki was.

But he would be strong again, he hoped, if he could just get this thing off. And even Thor, with his frankly abysmal understanding of magic, wouldn’t let Stark kill him like this; slowly going mad, wasting away, would he? Even after all that had passed between them, Loki hoped that Thor retained at least enough regard for him that if he wanted Loki dead, he would kill Loki outright. He hoped at least. Perhaps Thor was done with him, but if that were so then he wouldn’t come when Stark told him of Loki’s capture. Unless he wished only to taunt Loki for his fall, or to lecture him.

Loki’s thoughts spiralled sickening as he doubted himself and doubted again. Once, he’d been so good at anticipating other’s moves that it had become almost dull. Now he was alone and weakened in enemy territory and Thor, who he had once believed would never leave his side, was now an unknown.

“You look thoughtful,” Stark commented. He took some of the fish left on Loki’s plate and stuck it in his own mouth. That at least told Loki that there had been nothing in the food, something that he hadn’t even considered before digging in. His fingers came up to brush the collar. It was messing with his head. “Regretting your life choices?” Stark mused aloud. “Or just planning to murder me?”

Loki lifted his eyebrows silently and Stark looked innocently back at him. Did he know what the device he’d fastened onto Loki was doing? Did he just not care?

“This collar will kill me,” Loki tried again, searching Stark’s eyes, trying to gage whether the mortal had designed the device to block his magic so utterly that it would slowly kill him, or if he was just playing with things he didn’t understand.

Stark was impossible to read. His forehead tightened into a frown but he stubbornly pressed his lips together. “Yeah, you said that already. Doesn’t make me more likely to believe you.” Loki blinked. So Stark didn’t know. That was good, that gave him space to try to- “Oh no, I can see you thinking,” Stark interrupted as he stood, gathering the plates. “Don’t fucking start. You’re not called the liesmith for shits and giggles. That collar’s not coming off, Loki-poki and if you start harping on about it, you’ll only piss me off.”

Loki clenched his jaw. His balance was off so that when he turned his head too fast, a wave of sickness made him pause, dizzy. But Stark didn’t see, his back turned as he put the plates in the sink.

“Blocking my magic-” he tried.

“Loki.” Stark’s voice was hard but Loki pressed on, desperately.

“-is like cutting off blood-”

Loki.”

“-to my brain. I will go-”

Stark slammed the plates down in the sink. “Enough!” he snapped and Loki broke off, falling silent. He had tried, it was the mortal’s idiotic fault for not listening. “You can’t help yourself, can you?” Stark turned to face him and Loki leaned back slightly, wary of the mortal’s power over him. Once he could have killed the man with a flick of his fingers, but now was not that time. “You’ve learnt nothing. You don’t give a fuck about the lives you took, you’re just a selfish dick.”

Loki clenched his jaw against the things he wanted to say and told himself to bide his time until Thor arrived, if Stark wasn’t lying about the visit. That was Loki’s best chance. And, if it fell through, then Loki would have to seek his own means to remove the thing himself.

Maybe Stark was right that Loki ought to accept the punishment as his due. But he was a survivor and he’d been damned if he went down like this, sick and weak and not even at the hands of mortals, which would have been tiresome enough, but by the work of a rudimental machine. If Loki was to die for his crimes, then he would die with honour, not like this.

“Get up,” Stark ordered flatly and Loki reluctantly did as he was told, struggling against the alarming dizziness when he came to his feet. “Move, go on,” Stark said and Loki started slowly down the corridor, back towards the cell. Loki didn’t relish the prospect, but what choice did he have? He had no doubt that Stark would best him in any physical confrontation, what with Loki’s broken arm and his sickness. “What would my dad say?” Stark sounded bitter and he pushed Loki in the middle of his back, almost sending him to the floor as his vision swung sickening before him. “You can go and think about what you’ve done. Maybe if you’re left for a couple of decades you might develop a smidgen of compassion for the hundreds you slaughtered, you fucking murderer.”

Loki was struggling to focus but he heard the underlying sharpness to Stark’s words and wondered, blearily, whether Stark wasn’t just berating Loki, but himself too, or perhaps his father, since he spoke so bitterly of him. At his best, Loki might have tried to dig his fingernails into that chink, to pull Stark’s vulnerabilities out into the harsh outside air, but he hadn’t the strength of mind to form words, let alone manipulate them.

A door slid open and Loki was nudged inside the same cell. Stark roughly took hold of his wrist and tugged him violently down so as to secure his left arm to the metal loop on the floor, where the shackle still lay, like an opened oyster. The wrench on his arm unbalanced Loki entirely and he fell hard on his hip as he collapsed to the floor, with the impact jarring his broken arm badly enough that he could nothing for several seconds but try not to cry out, dragging harsh breaths in through clenched teeth.

“Caught off guard?” Stark muttered. If he’d been surprised by Loki’s collapse, Loki hadn’t been looking at the man’s face to know. Stark closed the shackle around Loki’s wrist and Loki did nothing to stop him, because he couldn’t, and there was no point besides. So he just sat, breathing through the pain in his arm and the dizzy sickness in his head, as Stark looked down on him for a second and then left silently. The door closed behind him with a soft hiss that felt violent nonetheless.

Loki sagged back against the wall and closed his eyes, exhausted. The hypervigilance of being a fugitive had been a slow grinding down of his energy and his inner fortitude so that more and more frequently he’d found his mind invaded with thoughts of just handing himself in. And then he’d depleted his magic, fleeing from Stark’s mechanical eyes, which had somehow managed to track his magic, no matter what form Loki had twisted it into, or what shielding he’d placed on it. There had been a delay, but never long enough. He’d thought he’d hit the worst of it, in a mortal body and without his magic. But there was now this, this new torment, new pressure, and Loki was just so so tired. He would not roll over and accept his fate, he didn’t think he was capable of it, but Norns damn it, it was tempting.

*

The sickness worsened far faster than Loki had anticipated. The collar felt frigid against his mortal skin and even when he tried lifting it away from his neck, he felt the ache of its power in his fingers, down his wrist, sapping his power from him as surely as a burning candle wick.

There was a drain in the corner of the small cell and Loki moved sluggishly some time after Stark had left him, needing to relieve himself, only for his stomach to flip and with a sudden violence he threw up on the floor, retching until his throat was raw and he coughed, trying to rid himself of the vile taste.

He tilted backwards only for the cell walls to swing nauseatingly and he ended up falling hard against the wall as he closed his eyes and tried to regain his balance. It was futile, though, and even when keeping completely still, the cell still rocked before his eyes and Loki groaned, feeling sick and scared, as much as he loathed it. This was happening too fast and he wanted Thor. Norns, he wanted to see the idiot’s stupid puppy-like face and his golden hair. He didn’t want to die sucked dry of magic in a grey box beside his own vomit.

After a time, sitting up became too difficult and he lowered himself with great difficulty to the cold floor. His broken arm throbbed agonisingly and his stomach rolled, threatening to send him into retching again until his mouth was sharp with acid.

Lying flat was marginally better and Loki let his eyes close. He could feel his heart-beat slowing. He reached repeatedly for his magic, unable to stop himself, like a tongue worrying a sore tooth, but it was never there and it hurt every time.

*

“Loki!”

Loki couldn’t move. He wasn’t sure he could open his eyes, he had so little energy. His thoughts were as sluggish as tar. There was a hand on his shoulder and it shook him. He knew it was hurting his broken arm but barring a low hiss, he didn’t have the strength to do anything to stop it. He didn’t even care.

“Loki! For fuck’s sake-” There were fingers on his neck, then and Loki would have flinched, but he felt like he’d been set in amber, or ice: immovable.

“Brother,” the low voice, so familiar, stirred something in Loki’s gut and he blinked dizzily but he couldn’t see through a haze of grey and he closed his eyes again after a moment. “Brother, you must hold on. The man of iron is removing the collar.”

Loki struggled to couple the words with the meaning of them in his brain. It was like two boats in calmed waters trying to communicate with one another across a vast expanse of lazily rocking sea.

Something cold fell away from his neck and he released a harsh breath that he hadn’t been aware he was holding. He felt lighter, somehow, but he still couldn’t move.

“If he dies, I would advise that you leave my presence immediately,” Loki heard that warm voice rumble, the tone dark but the voice itself comforting. “I’m not certain I will be able to keep from killing you.”

“Roger that,” the other voice said grimly. Loki thought he might be sick again, but there was nothing to bring up and he hadn’t the strength to vomit. There was a painful pressure in his bladder.

“Brother,” he breathed. The warm voice was important, he knew, and he wanted them close, couldn’t bear the thought of them leaving him here, in the cold, unable to move for lack of strength.

Warm, solid hands stroked over his shoulder and over his back. “I am here, Loki. Can you take something of my energy? Come back to me, Loki, please brother.”

Loki wondered whether he could do as the voice, his brother, suggested and he reached shakily for his magic. Overwhelming relief flushed through him when it tingled gently and a tear slid down his cheek. Norns, he’d missed that. He reached for the frayed threads of his power, barely there after being so depleted and then battened down ruthlessly by the evil collar, and gently teased them out, reaching for Thor’s energy as he did so.

Thor’s power was something huge, a wonderous, electric thing that he kept barely contained, sparking inside of him like a thunderstorm inside a maelstrom. Loki tentatively touched the ends of his pathetic magic to the edges of Thor’s power.

It felt like an electric shock and he jerked upwards with a sharp inhalation of shock and pain. Thor’s energy was relentless and harsh like static and Loki broke off the connection quickly, before he overwhelmed himself, or drained Thor.

But it was enough and he sat up, trembling, only to be embraced by warm, strong arms, his nose pressed to Thor’s solid shoulder, breathing in his burnt scent and shaking with utter relief. Not even the pain in his arm could flatten his brief, sharp elation.

“Thor,” he choked, clutching at Thor’s back with his good left hand, which was no longer chained to the floor.

The memory of the chain made him tense and Thor pulled away as Loki turned to eye Stark warily. The man looked pale and strained and he looked back at Loki with a pained expression. Loki regarded him coldly.

“Come, brother,” Thor said, his voice loud in the small cell that seemed tiny with Thor’s bulk inside it. “Can you walk? You must eat and recover.”

Loki made no move to try to stand but moved his gaze from Stark’s tight face to Thor, drinking in the sight of him desperately.

“You’re here,” he murmured. “You don’t- you- Thor?” he broke, unable to express the depths of his doubt, his despair, his wary hope that Thor being here meant that maybe-

“Of course I am here,” Thor rumbled, looking at him with such love that it crushed the air out of Loki’s chest. He’d not imagined anyone alive, save Frigga perhaps, would look at him like that again.

“I’ve missed you,” Loki gasped. I’m so sorry, he wanted to say, I love you so much.

Thor smiled, his whole face lighting up like his lightning did when it split the night sky. “And I you, brother,” he said easily, like it had never been in doubt. “We will talk more when you are well.” Thor glanced at Stark with something dark flicking in his eyes and Loki felt a surge of vindictive validation in that look. He glared at Stark with malice. I tried to tell you, he hissed silently. Stark looked back at him like he knew exactly what Loki was thinking.

Thor looped a large but careful arm around Loki’s back and Loki let him help to his feet. He felt unbearably weak, but he was alive, and Thor didn’t hate him, still called him ‘brother’, after everything.

“We are not brothers,” Loki said as he let Thor half-carry him out of the cell. There was more sadness than bitterness in his voice and he knew Thor heard it.

“You will always be my brother, Loki,” he said solemnly and Loki swallowed thickly, telling himself that he was overwrought and that was why he felt damnably close to tears.

Stark silently led the way to a room with a bed and Thor set Loki down on it with a certain tenderness. He reminded Loki painfully of Frigga, for a moment, with his care.

“Rest, brother,” he said. “All will be well.”

Loki looked up at him, and then over at Stark, hovering in the corner with his arms crossed defensively over the glowing metal in his chest. Thor had a determined set to his jaw and Loki smiled, exhausted, but more at ease than he’d been in far too long.

“I believe you,” he said. The warmth of Thor’s smile was enough that he managed to smile back, just a little, and though he grumbled at Thor’s fussing as the Aesir laid the bedcovers over him, the care left him oddly pleased. He fell asleep with a half-smile on his lips, content in the knowledge that his brother would watch over him.