Loki wakes drowning. He's drowning, in a black and endless sea. Although it makes little difference whether or not the sea has an end. It will still be the end of Loki. Water fills his lungs, and he goes under.
Loki wakes with his feet on solid ground. He is in someplace very old, he can feel it, although he can't explain or even begin to understand it.
There's no one there. Just him.
Gradually, he becomes aware that he must be dreaming, even though it's been so many years since he's seen anything but a sea of endless black that he can't know for sure. Now he's seeing... shapes. Towers and spires that crash overhead like waves that have been frozen solid by a sudden winter.
They seem to be made out of light.
He walks the golden halls until they fade.
Loki wakes, but only just. He feels a breeze, and sees nothing.
Loki wakes, knowing right away that things are different this time. Instead of the usual black, this time it's a blinding white that burns his eyes. Still, he stares, trying to see, until his eyes fill with tears and everything goes dark. He feels a hand on his face, covering his eyes for him.
The smell that assaults him next - and it's been so long since he's smelled anything at all, but he remembers how right away, like breathing - tickles at the corners of his memory. It feels familiar, but he can't remember why.
When the hand lifts from his face, the light is dimmer, not nearly as painful - it takes the absence of pain for Loki to recognize that he had been in pain just before - but still too bright. He still can't see.
Loki wakes to hands on his face again, white light burning through his eyes. Waves crash in the distance, the quiet sound of the sea meeting the shore.
He closes his eyes and a hand caresses his forehead.
shhhhhhh, goes the sea. keep calm. i am here.
Loki listens only to this.
I've been told to stay away, the sea says. Loki wakes to the sound of it. The light burns when he opens his eyes, but he's used to the pain, so he keeps them open. Listens to the sea.
...supposed to let you get better, give you time. You know how I find it difficult to be patient sometimes.
Well, actually, you might not know.
shhhhhh. It sounds like breathing. shhhhh...
They tell me you might not understand what I'm saying, but you might recognize my voice. And I suppose that's good...
It sounds like breathing.
Brother, what happened between us means nothing. It is nothing more than a memory. Please understand that.
Can you hear me, Loki?
Son. Brother. Friend. These words mean nothing to him. Mother. Father.
He wakes with an ache in his body that feels like he's been in a bed for a very long time. Slowly, he drags himself up, rising to his feet for what feels like the first time. It takes a few tries to get his legs working properly, to stay upright. He's out of practice, but makes short work of mastering his balance.
There is a door that opens at his touch, and he walks through it.
Outside, the light is like fire. His room is dark enough that he can open his eyes without hurting, but the light outside is enough to make his eyes water and sting. He blinks until they clear, and then he walks.
It feels like the dream he had, the old smells and the columns made of light. Familiar.
There's a sound behind him, something else familiar. He turns. There's a girl, just the shape of her, half hidden behind one of the columns.
"Prince Loki," she says. "You're not dressed."
None of it means anything to him. "Who are you?" he wants to ask, but he hasn't spoken once in the time it took for his hair to grow halfway down his back. No sound comes out. He just breathes.
"Please, you haven't got any clothes on," the girl explains, and holds out her hand. Palm up, fingers splayed, nothing in it. Loki realizes that she wants him to go to her, wants him to hold her hand.
He moves towards her, and she meets him halfway, taking his hand and smiling.
"Good," she says. She sounds relieved. "Now, let's get you back to bed, yes?"
"Yes" Loki tries to say, but he just breathes.
Loki wonders with genuine interest if he is a child. It would explain the way people take him by the hand and lead him back to his room whenever he tries to walk anywhere, the way everything is explained to him in the simplest, most basic forms. The way people put hands on his face and brush his hair back and press their lips to his forehead.
He doesn't understand it.
He must not be allowed to go walking, since he's always being brought back: 'This way, prince Loki,' they say, and take his hand and bring him back to his room.
But sometimes his room feels too small, too dark. Sometimes he has to leave. Sometimes he just has to let the light burn his eyes and let his feet take him wherever they please.
He is always approached carefully, people treating him like he might run. He doesn't know why they would think that, but they take his hand and lead him back all the same.
The next time he leaves his room, the girl finds him staring at his reflection. It's the same girl who brought him back before, but Loki can't seem to tear himself away from the mirror.
Instead of his reflection, of which he had only a vague idea, Loki finds a man with a full beard, with black, stringy hair hanging over his shoulders and down his back, skin with no color to it, eyes that stare at nothing.
He thinks he must be in there somewhere.
The girl takes his hand and brings him back to his room again.
Only instead of leaving him alone like she did last time, she sits him down on the bed, then comes back a few minutes later and sits in front of him. He can see the light in her eyes as she takes his chin in one hand, then drags something cold down his face with the other.
He flinches. shhhhhh, she says. "It's alright."
When she's done, she gets up and sits back down behind him. Her hands are on his face, his head, pulling back his hair, gathering it up in her hands.
"You did this for me once," she says. "Remember?"
Her breath sounds like the sea. He feels a pull, and then his head feels lighter, familiar. He closes his eyes and lies back and lets the feeling of her fingers carding through his hair lull him to sleep.
"Where am I?" The question has been on his mind for a long time, but only now can he put it into words.
"You're home. In Asgard."
"No," he says, shutting his eyes, trying to remember the words he wanted. He finds it, at length, and it feels strange and foreign on his tongue: "How?"
"The bifrost was repaired. Heimdall saw you, and brought you back to us."
Perhaps his brother was right; he doesn't understand. He lets the woman with the kind voice hold his hand, listens to what she says about stars and space and family, even if he understands none of it.
Loki wakes to anger.
"...stop this folly at once!" No one has ever spoken this harshly to him. It worries him, a little. "If it's attention you want, you have it already."
Harsh as the tone is of the voice of the man with one eye, Loki can sense that it comes from a place of fear. He can practically smell the fear coming off the man in waves. "It's high time you were done with this," he continues. "This has gone on long enough."
Loki doesn't understand what he is even doing, but it seems to be upsetting the one-eyed man. So he swallows and clears his throat, intending to offer an apology. But the words don't come. Nothing happens.
He knows, remembers, that sometimes he says nothing when he tries to speak, sometimes he can offer nothing but his breath. But this time is different. This time, he can't even think of the words.
He tries again, taking another swallow past a strange lump in his throat. But still, nothing.
"I mean it," the man says, Loki's efforts obviously going unnoticed to his eye. "Stop this."
Then Loki can't see him anymore, his presence giving way to the sound of angry footsteps, and then the kind voice of the woman who calls him 'son.'
"I have no reason to stay."
"Please, just talk to him. He needs you."
"He needs to be fed and bathed and dressed because he's feigning helplessness. When he grows tired of this cruel prank, I will gladly talk to him, and the subject of our talk will be his punishment for putting you through all of this."
"What are you saying? Your son, our child, is sick!"
"And I say he is not."
Loki, too, is curious. Who is he if not their son? It's what the woman with the kind voice calls him when she climbs into bed with him and takes his head in her lap.
The answer doesn't come, nor anything else. Loki thinks on it until he falls asleep, and then again when he wakes, but still the answer doesn't come.
Eventually, Loki gets used to the lights of his room. His eyes eventually acclimate until he starts to see more things around him. No longer is he floating, falling, into nothingness. He can see things now, more and more.
The ceiling stretches high above him so that he can barely make it out. Dark, thick curtains hang down, possibly to keep the harsh light from shining through what he thinks might be windows. There is a wall of books and a ladder on wheels, both as high as the curtains. A desk carved out of black stone. A little fountain that seems to operate outside the boundaries of logic.
Loki has no memory of any of these things, nor any knowledge of what to do with them.
He eventually gets used to the lights outside too. That takes longer, but soon enough an entire world takes shape for him. Where there once was only white, hot light marred with occasional shadows, Loki now sees a shining city on a mountain, one that he is at the center of. There are streets, houses, people, statues, fountains, a vast stretch of green.
There is a black sea, bisected by a scar of light.
Loki feels drawn to it, inexplicably compelled to follow that scar. He never makes it very far from his room, though, before they bring him back.
His father doesn't come to see him very much, doesn't come to his room anymore.
Loki sees him walking sometimes, although his father is quick to change directions and walk someplace else as soon as he sees Loki approaching.
"Father," Loki says, but the greeting goes unheard.
A gentle squeeze of his hand, and he is led back to his room.
His brother is the only one who doesn't hold his hand when he leads him. He still leads him like everyone else, but with an arm around his shoulder, as if they were companions.
And instead of his room, he leads Loki other places. A garden. A library. Grand rooms and halls filled with strange things that Loki can't understand. A large, circular floor, marked with lines and patterns.
"This is where we would fight," his brother says. "Well, we fought in many places," he adds sheepishly. "But here is where we learned how."
Loki doesn't understand why his brother is talking about fighting. He can't remember a time when they had ever fought.
"Who won?" Loki asks carefully. It's a simple question, one that Loki feels deserves a simple answer, but it takes his brother a very long time to reply.
"I did," he eventually says. Then he gets quiet again, his expression stormy.
Later, when his brother brings him back to his room, Loki tells him, "I'm sorry. That we fought."
His brother goes very still. His lips part into what looks almost like a smile, like he wants to give over to this new feeling of happiness but isn't quite sure of it yet. "Are you, brother? Truly?"
"Of course," Loki says blankly, not understanding his brother's reaction.
He doesn't understand his brother's next reaction either, which is to wilt for no apparent reason, his smile suddenly gone. His arm falls to his side, no longer around Loki's shoulders.
He must have misunderstood Loki's apology, Loki thinks later, when he is alone. His brother must have thought he meant something else.
Loki sleeps, and dreams of a tree made of ice and light, of a million screams fading into nothing.
They give him new clothes to wear. Instead of the soft pants and loose shirts he had been wearing before, these garments are heavy, and very warm. It's another familiar feeling, like when his hair had been cut.
They don't bring him back to his room anymore, but let him go where he pleases. There are always people with him, though, always following, always redirecting him when he begins to stray.
He doesn't mind.
The first time they sit him at a large table in a large, vast hall, he feels so overwhelmed that he wants to run. There are people everywhere, all around, all talking and making noise and looking at him.
Loki has gotten used to people when they were only a few, and would come see him in his room or follow him down hallways. He is not used to being surrounded by them.
He's afraid. The woman who calls him son rubs his arm and whispers in his ear. shhhh, she says. Keep calm, I am here.
"It's alright, Loki."
And Loki believes her.
It gets easier the more they bring him to large gatherings like these. The noise does not seem so loud, the press of people on all sides eases as Loki grows more accustom to it all.
She still sits with him, his mother, still strokes his arm, asks him questions and tries to get him to talk.
"Please, Loki," she says one night, losing her impeccable calm for just one moment. "Come back."
He looks at her, not understanding. "Didn't I?"
Because he did come back. They told him, he had been found, and he had come back to them.
He doesn't understand why her eyes fill with tears and she excuses herself from the table. He was falling, and now he's home, just like everyone keeps telling him. Didn't he come back?
His brother leads him back to his room after the meal.
"She was crying," Loki tells him.
"She's upset. Not at you," his brother says. "Don't think on it."
"I won't," he says.
He does, though. It keeps him awake for a very long time.
And then one day, Loki wakes. Really, truly wakes. All of him. Every memory, every thought, every insignificant opinion, emotion, idea...
He reacts first by being violently sick all over his sheets.
Then he runs.
He hasn't run in years. He'd spent a great deal of time falling, then shuffling slowly down corridors where the lights were too bright, then walking where he was led. But he hasn't stretched his legs or felt the wind in his hair in a very long time. It's almost enough to calm him.
When he's dripping sweat and running so hard his lungs are screaming for air and every breath feels like it could be his last, Loki only feels the shame, rage, and a violent self-loathing in brief snatches instead of a constant barrage of i'm a monster, i have no family, i don't deserve this, i hurt people, i'm a monster.
He almost has to stop and be sick again when one of his mothers ladies starts when she sees him, and futilely reaches a hand out to him. These people have been helping him all this time, even after what he'd done. He'd let himself fall from the bifrost in an effort to get away from his crimes, from his guilt, from all the people he'd hurt, but even that had been futile.
They'd held his hand and led him back to his room like a child, like his actions had been nothing but forgivable, trivial mistakes.
He runs past the woman, clenching his hands into fists to suppress the urge to grab her by her robes and throw her into a wall at the mere thought of how badly off he had been to have both needed and allowed such sympathetic behavior.
In seconds, Loki is past her, and this flash of anger goes away, falling into place behind Loki's body screaming out complaint after complaint as he pushes it past its limits and runs away from everything.
Thor finds him on the bridge, hours later.
"You've never come out this far, brother" he says carefully, keeping a cautious distance.
Loki considers not answering as he stares out into the abyss. If he says nothing, Thor could just go on believing him to still be lost. It would mean not having to ever talk about any of this. Maybe one day, he could even forget.
But then that would mean being led back to his room with Thor's arm around his shoulders, and that thought alone makes Loki draw a few deep breaths in through his nose just to keep from being sick again.
"No one's ever let me," he says, when he's mastered himself.
And now Thor knows that Loki is himself once more. The hard part is over, and yet Loki feels no relief. He can't even bring himself to look away from the void stretched out before him.
"I'm not going to jump," he continues. "I know it's what you're thinking. Me. Going over the edge. Again. But I won't, so... don't be scared."
Loki isn't lying, not really, but he doesn't exactly believe his own words as he says them either. After all, his body seems to have brought him here on its own volition, to the bridge. Loki has vague memories of wanting to go to the bridge before he even knew what it was, imagining his two feet planted on the scar of light stretched over the black ocean.
But now Loki feels nothing as he stands on the edge of the bridge, halfway between the city and the bifrost, unmeasurable power surging beneath his feet, an endless black void stretched out before him.
Behind him, Thor clears his throat.
"I'm not going to jump," Loki says again, this time because his brother's silence is beginning to disturb him. He's never known Thor to be able to hold his tongue, but his silence now is only adding to Loki's already significant unrest.
So Loki steels himself, and turns to face him.
Thor's mouth hangs slack, his arms hang useless at his sides, and there's a wideness to his eyes that makes him look like a fascinated child. Loki wants to shake him until he snaps out of this state, but he keeps his distance.
The eye contact seems to shake Thor out of whatever he's working through, though, and he manages to stammer out, "Loki..."
"Spare me your astonishment," Loki cuts him off, turning his back on Thor. "Please, if you can do nothing else for me, do this."
"You... must forgive me," Thor says slowly. "You've been gone a long time, brother."
Brother. Loki wants to recoil from the word, but he doesn't. His body is electrified with a million things it wants to do, all conflicting, and so it freezes him in place. "You don't trust me," he says.
His feet are bare, his toes gripping the edge of the bridge. He knows he must be worrying Thor, but he can't move.
"I'm scared for you," Thor says.
"You should be scared of me," Loki snaps back angrily. "I am myself once more."
"And I rejoice to behold it."
Something twists like a knife in Loki's chest. "Why?"
"You were unwell. I missed you," Thor says, like it's all so simple.
Loki feels enraged at the way Thor is saying nothing of his betrayal, nothing of what happened the last time they stood together on this bridge.
It's too easy. Loki doesn't understand. "Have you forgotten all I tried to do? All that I did? Why did you bring me back at all?"
He can't make sense of it. He turns back to his brother again, hoping to find something on his face that reveals more than his words. But there's nothing.
"You shouldn't ask questions you already know the answers to," Thor tells him.
Loki shrugs. "I'll keep asking until the answers make sense."
"Then let me help you understand," Thor says, and takes a step towards him.
This sends Loki into a panic, and he takes a few steps along the edge of the bridge. "Don't!"
Thor freezes. "Alright, alright" he says, . "What can I do?" he says quickly. "What do you need?"
"I just..." he tries, not actually having any idea what he could possibly need right now. "I need to think!"
"Very well. Think! Just... try not to do it so close to the edge."
And if Thor was still harboring any doubts as to whether Loki truly was himself once more, he must feel even just a little relief when his last statement makes Loki laugh, through his panic, a wicked smile on his face.
"You really are scared," Loki says, reveling in the power he still has over people. He's just coming down from a very bad case of dependance; he needs all the help he can get.
"You had us all scared," Thor says.
"Please, all this sentimentality is turning my stomach." At the moment, Thor doesn't seem like he's going to try to approach him again, so Loki allows himself to relax. He looks back out over the sea. "I don't want to go back there," he says.
"You're... embarrassed," Thor says. "I understand."
Loki drums his fingers impatiently on his thigh. "Tell me... How long has it been since you brought me back?"
"Over a year," Thor says, looking uncomfortable.
"Well..." Loki wasn't quite expecting that. He knows he'd been out of the world for a while, but over a year... it's disturbing. Loki feels sick again.
Thor looks on expectantly.
"I'll come back," Loki tells him. "I just need to think."
Thor must get how badly Loki wants to be left alone, because he looks legitimately apologetic when he says, "I hope you understand that I'm not just going to leave you here."
With a deep, calming breath, Loki looks out into the abyss and stays there for a very long time. The sky changes colors. The wind changes directions. The water roars as it cascades over the edge. Waves crash against the bifrost.
Thor doesn't say a word. Loki never hears the sound of retreating footsteps, so he knows that his brother has been there the entire time. But he appreciates that Thor gave him at least the illusion of privacy, since he couldn't bring himself to give him the real thing.
Finally, the black grows too dark, it all gets to be too much, and Loki breaks away from it, stepping back away from the edge and turning to face his brother.
Thor snaps to attention. "Ready to go back?"
"No," Loki says, then adds before his brother has time to protest: "But I must."
"Go back to your room, I'll keep everyone away. Please, Loki. Take all the time you need."
Loki smiles sadly. "Time won't do it." He doesn't know what will, but he knows what it isn't another fall from the bridge, however desperate his situation seems. So he walks back towards the palace, with Thor following close behind.
Loki wakes alone, the chair beside his bed blessedly vacant. He will no longer be entertaining a bedside vigil, thank you very much. He rolls over, presses his face into his pillow, and falls back asleep.
He wakes to the smell of food and the sound of someone trying and failing to shut his door quietly. There's a full plate on the chair. Loki eats, returns the plate to the chair, and returns to his sleep before his anger wakes too.
When the sun peeks in through the curtains, Loki wakes to cover his face with the blankets. He wakes to more food. He wakes to a bird shrieking outside his window. He wakes from a dream he can't remember, left with nothing more than a vague feeling of dread.
And then he wakes to find Thor sitting beside him.
"I was told there would be no more bedside visitations," he says bitterly.
"I've been standing guard at your door for three days now," Thor tells him. "I got tired."
Loki doesn't believe that for a second. Loathe as he is to admit that there has always truth to Thor's boasting, his brother is a great warrior. Three days on his feet is hardly anything, in the grand scheme of things, especially considering Thor's predisposition to feats of incredible strength
"Very well," Loki says anyway, rolling onto his back.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees his brother lean forward in his seat. "What have you decided, then?"
"Decided?" Loki asks the ceiling.
Thor makes a quiet, disappointed sound, nothing more than a quick huff of breath, but Loki knows him so well, even after all that he's done. "You've been in hiding in here for three days now. If you wish to spend the rest of your life in solitude, I'm sure that can be arranged. However, I must remind you ."
"Brother, calm yourself," Loki says, keeping his voice even. Beneath his calm surface, he wants to fight, wants to rage, to blast holes through walls and take down anyone who tries to stop him.
But he's held back this long already, and would gain nothing from it now. Not in this moment in time, with Thor hovering over him, looking worried and worn and like he still doesn't quite believe he has his brother back yet.
The next time he wakes, it is to Thor's less than gentle slamming his door open and barging in.
"You've been summoned to the throne room," he announces, closing the distance between the door and Loki's bed with great, noisy strides. "The Allfather wishes to receive you."
"The Allfather," Loki says, testing the word in his mouth. "Not my father?"
"I'm being careful," Thor says. "I do not wish to offend."
"How thoughtful of you," Loki snaps, flinging off his blankets and standing up.
"Well, you've been summoned. That is all the news I have for you."
Thor's hand is idly gripping Mjolnir, fingers lax in their habitual grip. It speaks volumes.
"You asked him, didn't you," Loki says.
Thor is quick to reply. "I did not," he says, even if he's already
"You've never been able to lie to me, brother," Loki says harshly.
"I did not ask him to summon you," Thor repeats, raising his voice only to match Loki's. "So, what will you do?"
Loki takes a long, deep breath to keep from snapping any more than he already has. "I wish you'd stop asking me that."
Thor's mouth twitches. For a second, Loki considers hitting him, if only to get his thoughts back on track.
"Very well," he says instead. "Wait in the hall while I dress, and then you will accompany me to the throne room."
Thor clears his throat, his mouth twitching again like he wants to say something, but he only nods, and then closes the door behind him when he goes.
Alone, Loki strips out of his sleep clothes. He looks down at his naked body and sees nothing amiss, no outward indication of the monster that lurks just beneath the Asgardian surface. But Loki knows the truth, and he hates himself the more for it.
He goes to dress, but leaves his armor aside. Instead, he puts on leathers and heavy furs. It's cold, where he's planning on going.
He packs a small bag, and slips a long, thin blade into his boot.
He wonders idly how long Thor will end up waiting outside his room. And then, since he's already thinking about Thor, he wonders how long it will take him to realize where Loki's gone, or if he'll have it in him to come after him, to try and bring him back.
And if so, Loki wonders if he'll succeed.
He does not expect the Jotuns to be as lenient with him as his adoptive family have been, but Loki intends to be held accountable for his crimes. He is, after all, a Jotun prince, even if he had been abandoned and stolen and raised to believe otherwise.
But going back home feels right somehow, as if confessing to the murder of his father might be what Loki needs in order to move on.
Or it could mean the end of his life. Or the start of a new one. He doesn't know. It doesn't matter.
He slings his pack over his shoulder and turns to his magic, which has been quiet this long while. But it stirs at his touch, and allows him to slip between the folds of reality. He steps out onto the bridge.
He needs not ask Heimdall to step aside or even tell him where it is he means to go. The sword slips home and the bifrost whirs to life.
And Loki doesn't look back.