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what beats within

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“I realize this isn’t a great time to ask,” Sylvie says as they walk past Alioth toward the impossible citadel at the end of time, “but what happened to you?”

“You’ll have to narrow it down a bit.”

“Your mind,” she says. “It’s…scarred, I think.”

“…ah,” Loki says.

“I didn’t know what I was looking at before, when I tried to enchant you, and your shields were good, but enchanting Alioth was different. There’s—scar tissue, lots of it. I really can’t think of a better way to describe it.”

Right. He probably should have expected something like this—not that it would have made a difference, because she actually did need his help and the other option was to let Alioth devour them both, but he could’ve at least tried to shield himself better.

Maybe. Or maybe any conscious barrier would have prevented what they’d managed to do together, and he wouldn’t be alive now to wonder about it.

“You don’t have to tell me what it’s from,” she says, when he lets the silence stretch on too long. “Just—I dunno. I didn’t realize.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it,” Loki says, although yes, fine, it is also that. “I’m not sure I know how.”

She considers that for a moment. “You know, I never had a chance to ask what you meant when you told the Time-Keepers you’d been killed before. Does that have anything to do with it?”

“I guess I don’t know for sure,” Loki says, “but that’s probably a safe assumption, yeah.”

Her eyebrows go up. “Have you literally, actually died?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. But it definitely seemed that way, so…yeah, close enough. Well, one time was right after I said that, when they pruned me, and another didn’t happen to me personally but I still had to see it, so I think that counts.”

“…you lost count at two.”

“No, that’s three, the first one was…earlier. Part of the Sacred Timeline, apparently. And no, of course not, what I meant was…” He sighs and shoves both hands into his pockets. “It was…training. They told me it was training, anyway. I suppose that might have been part of the intent. I think—some of it was real. Not the fatal parts, obviously, although it turns out it’s possible to survive a lot more than you’d expect, with people who know what they’re doing and want to keep you alive. But some of it was very definitely fatal, so I suppose that was all happening inside my head. After a while it was hard to tell the difference.”

“Wait,” Sylvie says, “d’you mean Asgard—”

“What? No! No, not…no. I collected a lot of bruises learning to fight there, don’t get me wrong, but—no. It was…” He looks away with something like a laugh. “Did you know the TVA has Infinity Stones just lying around? The office workers use them as paperweights. Not very good paperweights, I’d think, they’re not that heavy, but I guess they work.”

“That sounds like them, yeah,” Sylvie says.

“And you’ve probably—what with the apocalypse-chasing, you’ve heard of Thanos. He’s—it all seems sort of ridiculous now, the TVA’s probably pruned half a dozen variants of him, he’s nothing next to them, but he wanted to collect the Stones and use them to wipe out half of all life in the universe. And he…found me, at a particularly bad moment—after the first time I died, or something close enough to it.” He keeps his gaze trained on his feet, suddenly needing most of his concentration to keep from stumbling. “He thought I could be useful in his quest, just…not as I was.”

“Loki,” she says, “I mean it, you don’t have to talk about this.”

“It’s fine,” he says, which is almost certainly the baldest untruth he’s ever told her.

She tugs him to a stop, frowning at him. “You’re shaking.”

Oh. He is, actually. He hadn’t realized. “It’s fine,” he says again. “I’ve mostly…I haven’t really thought about it.” He has, in fact, actively avoided thinking about his time on Sanctuary, but that’s more or less the same thing. “What’s the point, right? He did what he did because the TVA wanted him to, and in the Sacred Timeline he really did kill me in the end, but I’m here instead, so…it shouldn’t matter. It wasn’t real, anyway, just his pet telepaths messing with my head.”

“You barely felt it, when I tried to enchant you,” she says. “I know I’m self-taught, there’s a lot of shit I don’t know, but the way you reacted to me—look, I’m thousands of years old and that’s never happened before, so if it has anything to do with what they did, it wasn’t ‘just’ anything. And I can tell you one thing for sure, that psychic scar tissue in your head is very fucking real.”

“Well,” he says, “they never discussed technique with me, obviously, but I know the Mind Stone was involved some of the time, and it would probably work again. But I don’t think there’s much else that could, now. It’s…I did rebuild my defenses, as much as I could, but the…the scarring probably has something to do with it too.”

“Because Thanos’s people invaded your mind and made you experience your own death over and over until you literally lost count. That’s what you’re saying, right?”

Her voice is furious and gentle all at once, and he can’t look at her. “Some of it was training. Combat scenarios, all the ways Midgard might react to my arrival, that sort of thing. They didn’t make me fail, I did that on my own, so if I’d been better—” He laughs again; it sounds more like a jagged gasp. “Story of my life, really. Even the other scenarios, maybe they didn’t expect me to win, maybe I wasn’t supposed to win, but I could’ve been smarter, fought harder. Something.” Even when he didn’t know what was real anymore, when he couldn’t remember the last time they’d let him eat or sleep, he could’ve done…anything else.

Sylvie’s gaze stays steady on his. The look on her face isn’t pity exactly, and he’s grateful for that, but he doesn’t know what to call it, either. She’s studying him, forehead furrowing like she’s in pain, and when she touches his arm—gentle, too gentle, why is she being so gentle?—he flinches again, just like he did on Lamentis. It’s only Sylvie, he knows it’s only Sylvie and he knows and trusts her, but his body is harder to convince—which is the other ridiculous thing, given that a lot of what he’s remembering didn’t even happen to his physical body in the first place. But he remembers it all, his body remembers it all, remembers enormous claws tearing him apart, remembers Midgardian scalpels carving him down into his component parts, remembers crushing pressure, remembers skin and muscle dissolving in flame, remembers vomiting up his own organs, remembers—

“Loki,” she says. “It’s just me.”

“I know.”

“Loki,” she says more insistently, “breathe.”

He does, raggedly, fighting his body for it, his body that won’t stop remembering how it felt to die. “It—it never happened. It was in my head. And it’s over, he doesn’t matter. I don’t—don’t know why I’m reacting like this—”

“Sit down before you fall down, idiot,” Sylvie says, tugging on his shoulders, and he goes with the motion because she’s probably right. The ground closer to the citadel is harder, colder, with nothing growing on it under the vast sweep of the timeline. “Of course it happened. Of course it matters. It was real to you. If minds didn’t work that way, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. Don’t beat yourself up for—what, having trauma? From being tortured?”

He manages another too-thin breath, in and out, and shrugs jerkily. “I made my own choices. I did. They were bad choices, most of them, stupid choices, but I made them.”

“So did I. Doesn’t make it suck any less.” She sighs. “You know, I was assuming you had a pretty good life.”

“Well, I still didn’t have to grow up in apocalypses.”

“It’s not a competition. Hell, maybe that’s part of being a Loki—you always get dealt a really shit hand at some point, even when you get to grow up as a prince.”

Loki snorts. “That definitely seems to be part of the Sacred Timeline package, yeah.”

Her hand tightens on his shoulder—comforting, not restraining, and at least his body manages to recognize the distinction. “What happened to you was real, and so is this. We’ve made it this far. Now it’s time to stop the TVA’s Sacred Timeline bullshit for good.”

“Right,” Loki says. He drags another deep breath into his lungs, holds it, lets it out. “Right. Sorry, this is…not why you’re here.”

“Loki, shut up,” Sylvie says without a hint of rancor. “I’m not…I know I’m not good with people or whatever, but I’m not such a hardass that I’m going to be pissed you needed a minute to deal with it after talking about something really fucked up. Especially when I asked.”

Loki huffs out a laugh. “To be perfectly honest, I think I was happier not dealing with it. I’m sure that’s supposed to be unhealthy.”

“Yeah, well, any decent therapist would have a field day with either of us.”

Loki laces his fingers together. They’re still shaking, but not quite as much now. “I’m not sure I could tell the truth to someone like that.”

“I mean, either of us would need a very very good therapist and I sure as hell wouldn’t trust anyone at the TVA, so we’re probably both shit out of luck on that point anyway.” She leans against him a little and telegraphs her movements this time before taking his hand, and he…only twitches a little at the contact. He can’t forget, but at least his instincts seem capable of acknowledging that Sylvie doesn’t want to break him and rip out his insides.

Physically, anyway. Figuratively is still a possibility, he supposes, and even then, he trusts her enough to know that she wouldn’t hurt him out of cruelty, or a desire to turn him into a weapon, and at the moment that seems like more than enough.

“When we’re done here,” Sylvie says quietly, “I only sort of know what I’m doing so I’m not making any promises, but I think I could help with some of the scarring. If you’re willing to let me in your head, I mean.”

The idea of anyone digging around in his mind is nearly enough to trigger another panic. The fact that it’s Sylvie, that she’s here and real and looking at him like she actually sees him, and he’s fallen into sync with her more easily than he has with anyone else, even Thor—it’s enough to dispel the flood of adrenaline before it can really start.

He lets go of his own fingers and grips hers. “I’d be willing to try.”

She squeezes back. “Ready to see who’s behind the curtain?”

“Ready when you are,” he says, trying for half a joke and a little surprised to find he means it.