Drip. Drip. Drip.
The venom falls to a point in the center of Loki's forehead. It pools there and then hisses along his brow in each direction, a thin burning line in the shape of a crown.
At first he almost enjoys it. Odin's cruelty laid out, tangible. He's always known it would come to this in the end. The pain merges with victory into one scream. It's like lightning, beauty and power and death and bright pain crashing down around him like home.
If he moves his head, he can direct the pain: over his scalp, behind his ear. By dint of struggling up onto his elbows, one drop slides down his nose and into his mouth. Fire on his tongue.
He shifts to blue. Venom freezes on his skin. Respite.
But new drops fall. A stalactite begins to form on his forehead. When he shifts into himself again, it will melt over his face like syrup on a hot cake. The notion frightens him unaccountably and he shifts back at once.
He's angry next. His insides sizzle and burn like his skin. He tilts his head all the way back and lets the poison run right down his throat. He screams for Thor.
At Thor. He screams at Thor. "Is this what you saved me for, brother?" Then he remembers that he had planned never to use that word again. "You should have killed me when you had the chance! You should come down here now and split me open, or when I'm free I'll--" Threats come, glittering and inventive and clever, things that would have Thor on his knees begging for mercy, and he forgets everything else in sorrow that he won't be able to do any of it.
His voice gives out before his imagination. He can't speak--Thor's hands were gentle and unhappy and as immovable as his hammer when he fastened the gag--and it's dark. Thor's hands are clean. Loki tried and tried and never managed to hurt Thor at all, and Loki is utterly destroyed and Thor's hands are clean. He brings his own hands up to see how the blood on them will mix with the blood on his face--he can't move his hands. He's bound. He'd forgotten.
It's dark in the cave. He doesn't know how much time has past. All that's left is pain and darkness. It hurts and he's alone. No one is coming, no one will ever come. It's as if he never existed, as if he died in the cradle. Things will go on as they were always meant to. He's always known it would come to this and it hurts.
At first he thinks the venom has got into his eyes. He'll be blind and even though the cave is pitch-black and there's nothing to see, the thought terrifies him. But the venom isn't in his eyes. He's crying. He cries for a long time. The calm after the storm never comes. The pain is outside him this time and he can't exhaust or free it. The salt of his tears burns in the open places on his skin. Snot stings as it runs down his cheeks and into his mouth.
"Father," he whimpers without meaning to. He hates the pain as if it were a part of him. He hates the sound of his own voice, hates his body that cries and shivers and turns blue and hurts. If he'd been born with a body like Thor's--
He presses his lips together and holds the shame in. It's all that is left to him and he will not yield it to the Allfather. This last pathetic Jotun relic he will keep.
He convulses. His body shakes as if it would come apart. Can he die from this after all?
No. The floor convulses. The walls convulse around him. The serpent tumbles sinuously to the floor and slithers away. Fellow feeling sparks through Loki. He and the snake are brothers. Take me with you, he thinks.
When the next drop of shocking pain doesn't come, he's startled.
Rocks rain down with a roar like thunder. This is Odin's mercy, then, the quick sharp death given to an honored foe. Shards of rock glance off his raw face, a few last moments of painful life. Loki treasures and scorns them.
Light. He shuts his eyes against it. Why hasn't he been crushed? He recognizes the heavy fall of Thor's feet. He doesn't want Thor to see him. He doesn't want Thor to see that he was crying. He opens his mouth to tell Thor to go away, but the ruin of his throat defies him like everything else.
"Where is the serpent?" Thor demands.
Loki opens his eyes, startled. The light hurts his eyes. He cannot make out anything of Thor yet. Thor is blinding enough in sunlight. "The s--" He hisses like a serpent himself. "--Serpent?"
"Where is it?"
It comes to Loki all at once that Thor is angry. As if the serpent did this.
"He only did what was in his nature," Loki heaves and rattles.
Thor looks down at him grimly. He heard the double meaning, then. He refuses to answer it. There is silence. Then Mjolnir comes down and breaks open the chains that bind Loki. "Can you stand?"
Loki sits. The rush of air on his face stings. He is lightheaded. But he will not be weak before Thor. In a moment, he'll stand. He's surprised Thor doesn't simply lift him--but Thor is gripping his hammer as if to put it down would kill him.
"Can you take us out of this realm?"
Loki's breath freezes in his lungs. "Us?" The word rasps against his throat like a dull razor.
Thor frowns. "We don't have time to argue," he says, as if he believes Loki doesn't want him. As if there were no reason at all for Loki to be surprised. "We must begone before the Allfather hears. Can you do it?"
It will be extremely difficult in his condition, but Loki lets his shoulders set into a swagger anyway. "Of course." Thor wants to come with him. At least--of course. At least for the moment. He can always return once he's satisfied that Loki is safe.
Loki has a lifetime of practice in taking what he can get.
Thor takes a deep breath, and sets Mjolnir gently on the floor. Loki puts up a hand to be helped, but Thor kneels and lifts him like a child after all. Loki is slighter than Thor, but he isn't small. It isn't an easy hold; he can feel himself dragging at Thor's arms. He could walk.
He rests his head against Thor's shoulder and closes his eyes with a carefully calculated sigh of pain, a hitch of breath: this is necessity, not comfort. He can feel his power flooding back as they cross the threshold of the cave. Yes, he can take them out of here. He waits for Thor to--
"Quickly, brother," Thor says.
Loki opens his mouth. The pain in his throat is not what stops him from speaking. He swallows. "You forgot--"
Thor's mouth sets. Loki knows that look. There's no reasoning with him. "It belongs to Asgard."
So does Thor. He can't possibly mean to leave Mjolnir. "It will mourn until you return," Loki says.
There is silence. "Then may it mourn a good long time," Thor says heavily, and if Loki had been standing his knees would have crumpled. Thor means--may Odin live a good long time. Loki can hear it in his voice. He means he doesn't plan to come back, doesn't expect to be allowed back. He means he plans to leave Mjolnir behind. For Loki.
Thor loves that hammer more that anything in the world. On Earth, he cried like a child because he couldn't have it. He cried like a child because he couldn't come home.
Loki forgot this tenderness. He forgot what it felt like to look at Thor's face and only want to make him smile. Quickly, before he can regret it, he gives Thor the only gift he has left to offer. He takes them to Earth.
Loki awakens. The bed beneath him is strangely firm and--he moves gingerly--elastic. The ceiling above him is an odd brown color.
"You swooned," Thor says. "We are in a motel."
Loki sits. The room spins around him. "A--?"
"A motel. Like a hotel, only numbered."
"This is the sixth one. Sit still." Thor presses a cool, rough cloth to his face. It stings. Loki flinches. "It won't heal unless I get the venom out."
Since his throat feels better already, Loki thinks that probably isn't true, but he lets Thor minister to him. The first time he was hurt badly in battle, Thor took him to the healing room and left. Loki had to remain there for three days, and though he waited and waited, Thor never once came to see him. He feels guilty, their mother said. Men don't like to see pain they can't fix. Loki didn't point out that when Thor was hurt, Loki spent all his time in the healing room telling him stories, doing tricks, making him laugh every way he could think of.
He doesn't understand why Thor is here now.
"I am sorry, brother," Thor says. "When I took you home, I did not think Father would be so..."
"So?" Loki prompts.
"Unreasonable," Thor says darkly.
Loki begins to laugh, wheezing painful gusts of mirth that scrape in his throat. Thor sits on the dingy floor and watches him, looking sad and confused. "What did you think I deserved?" Loki asks. "A commendation, perhaps? A hammer of my own?"
Thor looks away, one big hand closing around a hammer that isn't there. "If Father had never given me Mjolnir--"
That stings. That Thor knows how jealous Loki is, and that he thinks the only way they could have been equals is if Thor hid his own strength. "Don't blame yourself, brother," he says, feeling as if he might vomit venom. "We were born to be enemies."
"We are not enemies!" Thor always speaks with such force, as if his words have the power to shape the world. Until now, they always have.
Doesn't Thor remember the Destroyer? Doesn't he remember hurtling towards Earth like a dying star? Doesn't he remember Loki's dagger in his side? Loki remembers. His heart stops, races, and shudders with Thor's. There's an intimacy to battle that Thor has never understood. "Why not?" he asks at last with honest curiosity.
Thor's mouth twists as if Loki's words were a rotten fruit he had bitten. "If it had been me in the cave," he says, a heavy angry resignation in his voice that Loki has never heard before, "would you have left me there? For a throne?"
Yes, he thinks. He would have liked it. He would have liked seeing Odin punish Thor. He liked Thor's banishment. He liked it all the more because he missed Thor so terribly. He thought it a fit punishment for being--who he was. Someone who wanted to please Thor. He thought it might teach him to change.
He would have imagined it, though. Imagined the drops of venom falling, pictured the red grooves cut in Thor's flesh. He would have thought of nothing else, and when the vicious satisfaction faded only the pain would have been left. No, he realizes, a little startled himself.
"I would have let you stew a little longer," he says at last with a sidelong grin.
Dawn breaks on Thor's face. He laughs delightedly. "I would have borne it better," he teases.
Loki doubts it. Neither of them have ever liked to be thwarted. With a lazy wave of his hand, he turns the cloth in Thor's hand into a snake in retaliation. It's a harmless little green fellow, and Thor laughs and shakes it off.
But to Loki's surprise, the sight of it slithering on Thor's skin frightened him. He turns it back into a cloth with a hasty flick of his wrist.
He loves Thor. He has always loved Thor. That is what he has always resented most of all, that Thor could doubt it.
He looks around the cheap, ugly room. The light is dim and yellow. Thor glows in it, but nothing else does. He has finally succeeded in dragging Thor down to his level. But he feels no satisfaction, only a panic he does not understand. It feels like Mjolnir on his chest. He almost wishes Mjolnir were here, to hold him down. He will float off the bed and away--
Thor claps a hand on his shoulder. "Sleep, brother."
"I always take first watch," Loki points out.
Thor smiles. "True. Suit yourself." He strips and climbs into the bed. Loki switches off the lamp.
His eyes adjust quickly to the dark. He leans back against the unsteady headboard, arms around his knees, and watches Thor sleep, his breath heavy and even, his hair falling across his face.
On Earth, lightning and thunder are separated. Counting the moments tells you how close you are to danger. To Loki, there's never been a pause.
His heart beats in his ears, a low roll like thunder. Thor is here.