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Shadow Plays

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Loki's punishment is decided even before Thor returns with him to Asgard.

The Tesseract carries them from Earth. It's a quick journey, if an unpleasant one; it feels like being twisted into nothingness, then wrought back into being by the combined forces of blood and fire.

He and Loki materialize in Asgard's vast, golden throne room. The space is empty but for Odin and Frigga.

Thor is surprised to see that their mother's eyes are dry. He expected tears on Loki's return; he expected them all the more surely once he saw the monstrous metal device silencing his brother. But there are no tears in Frigga's eyes, even as she glides down the steps from Odin's throne.

Her expression softens as she approaches them. Her skirts and hair glint golden in the light of Asgard's sunset, the fading rays stealing in to the cavernous space.

"My son," Frigga says, framing Loki's face with her hands. She touches the ugly metal of the muzzle, and Loki shivers visibly. "This is not for you," she says, and though her touch still appears gentle, the metal cracks and shatters beneath her fingers. She tosses the rent pieces aside and traces soothing fingers through Loki's hair.

Unmasked conflict flashes in Loki's expression, so frank that even in profile Thor can see it. Loki's eyes speak to an inner war of self, and Thor can't tell if it's a loss or a victory when at last Loki whispers, "Mother."

"I'm sorry," Frigga says, and she guides Loki down to press a soft kiss to his temple. "I'm sorry," she repeats, a quiet murmur against his hair.

Then she draws back a step, and though her eyes are still dry when she turns them on Thor, he reads heartbreak in her gaze. She steps towards him, but she offers no gentle touch or warm greeting. She simply holds out her hands, tiredly expectant, and Thor relinquishes the Tesseract in its strange container.

She glances over her shoulder—up at Odin, still seated and watching from his throne—and at last she departs with her burden. The blue glow tinges her skin, and she looks icy and pale despite the warmth of the setting sun.

Odin stands, and the movement draws Thor's attention with a sense of finality and dread. There are no words of summons, but Thor comprehends his father's command as surely as if there had been. Loki's wrists are still manacled by S.H.I.E.L.D.'s crude chain, and the metal clinks quietly as Thor leads his brother up the tall dais. They stop just below the top step—just below the Allfather—and Thor holds his breath.

"Loki," Odin says, in a voice that's all at once ancient and exhausted and burdened with power.

"Allfather," Loki says. He speaks blandly, but frosty hostility flashes in eyes.

"You will answer for your crimes, my son." Odin's eye glitters with the tears Thor couldn't find in his mother's face. "Would that you had left me some other choice."

Loki's expression freezes into something vicious and cold. His lips press into a tight, thin line.

"There is always choice," Loki says. "Though little enough, perhaps, for a king so weak he cannot afford mercy."

"Brother," Thor gasps, fingers grasping tightly at Loki's arm.

"Don't," Loki snarls without looking at him. "I am no brother of yours. And my punishment cannot be worse for speaking a truth he already knows."

"I am not without mercy," Odin says, calmer than Thor expects. "There are many who would see you dead for the destruction you have caused. There are others who would see you chained and tortured instead."

"But you see better," Loki sneers. "Tell me, then, Allfather. What retribution shall Asgard claim for my sins?"

"Your magic will be sealed away. Thoroughly. For a span of one thousand years. In that time, perhaps you will come to understand the calamitous error of your decisions."

"No," Loki snarls. Not just denial, Thor realizes, but disbelief.

Loki's brow knits tight with consternation, and he says, "You don't have enough power. You've no one in Asgard who could accomplish such a task. Even with your own most potent magics—even aided by your strongest sorcerers—you could not do this."

"You underestimate my resources," Odin says.

"And you think me a fool," Loki bites back. "No. You're bluffing. You can contain me in part. For a decade, a century perhaps. But to cut out the whole of my magic, and for a thousand years? Such is beyond even you, Allfather."

"I did not claim it would be my own power carrying out your sentence."

Thor can't take his eyes from Loki, despite the misery in Odin's voice as his father continues, "You are right, of course. No power in Asgard could bind you thus. But there are other realms."

Loki shakes his head, and though the crease in his brow smoothes out, his eyes narrow dangerously.

"No," he repeats in a calm, quiet voice. "You would need the most powerful sorcerers from five realms. You would need the Norns at the very least, and they are no friends to Asgard."

"You underestimate the fear you inspire," Odin says, and Loki's eyes momentarily widen. "As you say. Six sorcerers have come, each from a different realm, and each with the power and blessings of their people. Their sorcery will be sufficient to bind even you."

Loki falls silent, and Thor cannot look at his brother any longer.

"When?" Thor asks. His eyes find Odin in time to see a single tear slip down his father's cheek.

"Tomorrow at sunset," Odin says. He seems to have difficulty drawing his gaze away from Loki in order to meet Thor's eyes, but at last he does, and he continues, "Until then, a cell has been prepared beneath the palace. You will escort Loki there yourself."

"Yes, Father," Thor says, but the words are difficult to speak through the tightening in his throat.

- — - — - — - — -

Loki follows silently as Thor leads him through the palace—as they navigate down and down, beyond the warmth of golden walls. The dungeons below are spare and grim, hidden from any hint of sunlight.

It's past even these that Thor leads Loki now, farther down narrow corridors and winding staircases, until they reach a slim walkway across an endless, empty darkness. There's a door ahead, on the other side of the bridge: a wall of stone that feels to Thor like a tomb, as he and Loki slowly approach.

To either side of the broad door, there stands a sturdy guard in full armor. The door itself is open, thick and heavy. It boasts the appearance of fine wood, but its surface is cooler to the touch, like metal or heavy stone. Loki hesitates in the open doorframe, and Thor sets a hand at the small of his brother's back. He feels warmth against his palm as he urges Loki over the threshold, into the chamber beyond, then follows without closing the door behind them.

Thor has never been one to notice the pricklings of magic along his senses, but even he can feel the strength of the wards in this space. They chill through his skin, a tight and unpleasant sensation. The wards weren't crafted for him, and yet he feels them crushing in on all sides, a claustrophobic sense that these walls could hold anything.

He's grateful for the open door behind him, and immediately feels guilty. Because he'll be leaving Loki here, in this wretched space. He'll be leaving Loki trapped and surrounded until the time for penance arrives, and then what? What kind of freedom will that be?

"I see you've learned to follow orders," Loki murmurs, shattering the quiet with the silken venom of his voice. "Father's perfect soldier at last. He must be proud."

Thor doesn't ask what else Loki would have him do. He already knows, and the temptation is great enough without Loki's silver tongue entering into the equation.

Even now, even in his own head, there's an angry voice telling Thor this is wrong. Loki's crimes must be punished, but how can Thor deliver his own brother up to such a fate? How is he meant to live with himself after?

The chamber itself is vast and empty around them. Pools of cool light stretch from crevices along the floor—not fire, but something else. Some barren magic that sends chills along Thor's skin. The ceiling arches so high it's lost in shadow, untouched by the chilly glow, and the walls and floor are impossibly smooth. There's no furniture in sight.

Thor steps towards his brother, his stride noisy on the smooth floor, eerie in the vastness of the space surrounding them. Loki's shoulders are an unhappy line of tension, and his posture stiffens further at Thor's approach.

Thor's chest aches with an abundance of angry feeling, frustrated and futile. He longs to take Loki in his arms and cling to him, the way Loki has not permitted since they were children. He wants comfort for himself, almost as much as he wants his brother to accept what little comfort Thor might offer. He wants to take them back in time and undo the wrongs they've done each other.

But then, how far back would he have to go, even if it were possible? Beyond Midgard, surely. Loki's betrayal was not born of any one slight. His quest for vengeance went far beyond the simple rivalry of their upbringing. Thor knows his younger self was thoughtless; he knows he has wronged Loki in a hundred ways, none of them small. And although his wrongs don't justify the things Loki has done, they stand between them just the same, as insurmountable as Odin's judgment.

"Perhaps if you repent," Thor says, though it's only desperation prompting the ludicrous suggestion. "Perhaps if you are sincere, Father will show greater mercy."

Loki laughs, and the sound grates with mockery.

"Father's mercy is a poor jest," he says, turning tiredly away. "He claims to make the more lenient choice. To geld me instead of kill me. But what do you suppose will happen once I am defenseless? I've made many enemies. Do you think they will stand idly by when they see what the Allfather has done?"

"Loki, no." Thor surges forward, and his hands clench into fists against his thighs. He wants to touch, and the urge is a spiraling rush along his skin, difficult but not impossible to resist. He forces himself to stop at Loki's side, but he can feel his brother's heat along his front just the same. He senses Loki's discomfort at the way Thor looms into his space.

"Father would not abandon you that way," Thor says. "He would not choose such a punishment and then leave you to die. He will protect you."

"Leaving me to cower behind the Allfather's delicate mercy for a millennium," Loki snarls, whirling to face Thor and suddenly heedless of the lack of space between them. Loki's face is flushed with the force of his anger, color glowing high in his cheeks, and his eyes narrow like a threat. Thor knows he should step back. No good can come of fighting Loki like this. He doesn't dare do anything to bring a harsher sentence upon his brother's head.

But for all the wiser instincts telling Thor to back away—telling him how dangerous it is to stand near when Loki resembles, more than anything, a wounded animal—he finds he can't retreat.

"Brother," he says, and raises his hands to frame Loki's face, just as Frigga did in the throne room so short a time ago.

Loki freezes at the touch, eyes widening and breath catching in his chest.

Thor brushes his thumbs over Loki's cheekbones and says, "It will not be forever."

Because a thousand years will pass slowly, but they will pass. And then perhaps things can be as they once were.

But Loki thrashes free of Thor's touch, jerking back and retreating several steps. A snarl splits the air, a dark sneer twisting Loki's face as he stares at Thor. And Thor is a fool. He's a fool for harboring such blindly hopeful sentiments. He's a fool for thinking they can ever go back to their former closeness, if even that was real. He's a fool for hoping he'll ever have Loki back.

But for all the futility—for all that he's not naïve enough to ignore the unwelcome weight of reality—Thor finds himself hoping just the same.

Loki is watching him warily now, expression derisive. His eyes follow Thor with angry unease as Thor closes the space between them and reaches for Loki's hands. But he allows Thor to grasp his manacled wrists, and Thor breaks the metal apart and drops the pieces to the floor. The restraints serve no purpose here.

"I don't want to fight with you," Thor says, watching Loki rub his wrists with slim fingers. "I'll leave if that's what you want."

Loki's eyes are cold as he nods. And although it leaves an unhappy pit in Thor's stomach, he turns his back on his brother and departs.

- — - — - — - — -

He doesn't stay away long. Thor spends a restless night, failing to sleep in his own empty bed. He thinks of nothing but Loki.

The sun has barely risen, but the first rays stab unrelenting at Thor's eyes. He tosses aside the twisted bedclothes and greets an unhappy morning. He feels stiff when he rises, and belatedly realizes he never changed out of his armor last night.

His chambers are bright with the warmth pouring in through massive windows, even at this early hour. He's surrounded by gold and finery and the sculpted extravagance that speaks of home.

None of it feels right.

There's a young page waiting outside his door, holding a message from Frigga. A softly worded invitation. Thor makes the barest appearance at a quiet breakfast in his mother's chambers, but even there he feels wrong. He stands abruptly and retreats, and already he knows where he needs to go.

The guards don't speak. They simply nod and let him pass. They close the door heavily behind him this time, and the wards feel instantly heavier. Thor wonders how they must feel to Loki—Loki, who has always been the stronger and the more sensitive where magic is concerned, for whom these wards were specifically crafted.

Loki, who currently lies in the center of the smooth floor, apparently asleep, with one arm bent beneath his head and his whole body curled in on itself. It can't have been a comfortable way to sleep. The wards must be effective indeed at dampening Loki's magic if he's crafted no extra comfort for himself.

Thor approaches with measured steps, trying to move quietly. Loki doesn't stir, even as Thor reaches him, and Thor drops cautiously to his knees beside his brother. Loki's injuries from Midgard have healed in rest, leaving no sign of the Hulk's violent devastation on his skin.

There's an innocence to his brother in sleep. His face looks impossibly young, rage smoothed away and replaced with a stillness that makes Thor want to protect him.

But then, Thor always wants to protect Loki. That particular sensation is hardly new.

He should wake Loki now (if his brother isn't already awake). He should say something into the stifling quiet. He should most certainly not reach out to touch, which leaves him at a loss to explain the way his fingers are smoothing Loki's hair from his face.

Loki stirs, but he doesn't flinch from the touch. Thor's fingers ghost over Loki's jaw, and then, with fierce reluctance, he draws his hand back.

"You're early," Loki says without moving or opening his eyes. "I'm to be punished at sunset, not sunrise."

"I haven't come as escort," Thor says, sitting back on his heels.

"Then what is your purpose?" Loki at last opens his eyes, and slithers upright with unnatural grace.

Thor doesn't for a moment consider lying.

"I wanted to see you," he says.

"That's unfortunate, as I don't particularly want to see you."

"Yet here I am." Thor sets a hand heavily on Loki's shoulder. "I've no intention of leaving you alone today."

"You think I might escape?"

"No," Thor says. In truth, if he thought Loki might escape, he'd be more apt to keep his distance. He'd be content to know his brother was far from this place, despite the danger Loki poses with all his anger and his power and his vicious hunger for revenge.

"You think I might do myself harm, then," Loki surmises. His expression is unimpressed.

"I think you are in need of company," Thor says. "And it has been far too long since we spoke as aught but opponents on the field of battle."

Finally, belatedly, Loki shrugs Thor's hand from his shoulder. He stands, fluid grace, and Thor watches with a tight feeling in his chest. There's something tired in Loki's posture; something beaten and exhausted, and it hurts to look at. It hurts more than even the expression on Loki's face just before he fell from the Bifrost, out of Thor's reach.

"Loki." Thor scrambles to his feet, and there's nothing graceful about it. "Loki, please." He doesn't know what it is he's asking for, exactly. Forgiveness? He neither needs nor deserves it. A few moments of peace between them? That will never happen. But Loki has turned his back, and Thor is reaching for him anyway, wrapping his arms across Loki's chest and dragging him close. The leather of Loki's attire creaks as he's crushed back against Thor's chest, and Loki breathes a grunt of surprise.

"You sentimental ape." Loki's voice drips with disbelief and venom. "Unhand me." But there's resignation in the words, as though he already knows Thor won't comply.

"Must we always be at cross-purposes?" Thor murmurs the question against Loki's ear. Loki freezes, a nearly imperceptible tremor coursing through him.

"Only if you keep getting in my way," Loki says, careful and measured.

Thor is silent, recognizing that Loki is deliberately goading him. Despite the banked caution in the words, they offer a clear challenge, nudging Thor to retort, to escalate. Violence lies along that path, and Thor has no interest in fighting Loki. He tightens his hold instead, willfully ignoring the awkwardness of this one-sided embrace.

"Stubborn," Loki mutters tiredly. "There's nothing I can say to make you leave, is there." His words pose no question. They're the resigned observation of inevitable fact.

"Nothing at all," Thor says. Then, before Loki can twist free, Thor releases Loki and takes a step back. He sits on the smooth, chilly floor and waits for his brother to join him.

- — - — - — - — -

Thor remains the entire day in Loki's expansive cell. They speak of little (Loki's mood does not improve with his capitulation), but the day passes quickly just the same. There's nothing that speeds time forward like awaiting an unpleasant event.

The door at last opens, and several heavily gilt guards step through. They stand in a semi-circle of warning power, hands tight on their weapons.

Loki is once again manacled, this time in Asgardian chains. The gold flashes, masterfully sculpted elegance, as the cuffs close around Loki's wrists. The chain itself glows with a humming energy that speaks of runes and powerful magics. These bindings are not for show, though they are certainly less potent than the power crafted into the prison walls.

Despite the armed guard, it falls to Thor to escort his brother the long, winding distance back to the throne room. The palace halls are silent as they pass, empty and chilling despite the warm light that always suffuses these corridors. Thor has never felt out of place in his own home before, but every step now feels more wrong than the last.

This time the throne room is not empty. Sprawling multitudes have gathered to witness Loki's punishment—almost as many as filled this space for Thor's coronation. The comparison sits like a cold weight in Thor's stomach.

Loki's pace is not steady, though his posture is proud and straight. His footsteps pause repeatedly as Thor guides him towards the throne, and only Thor's hand at his back keeps them moving forward.

Loki stands rigid with tension when they reach the base of the dais, and despite the chains—despite the guards and the thousands of citizens of Asgard and the weight of Odin's gaze bearing down on them from above—Thor senses in that moment that Loki might bolt.

If Loki runs, there will be no saving him, and Thor's hand moves from Loki's back to close over his shoulder instead. Reassurance or restraint, even he doesn't know how he intends the gesture, but it stills Loki regardless. Practiced calm sits like a mask upon Loki's features, and he looks up at Odin with eyes that are deliberately blank.

Thor keeps his hand on his brother's shoulder as the gathered sorcerers step forward. The six take up positions between Loki and the tall steps rising toward the throne. Their eyes flash unnaturally brightly, colors that are not common Asgard (red, orange, violent gold), and every stare is focused grimly on Loki. There's shared purpose in those faces, a shared burden as the six join hands and prepare to mete out justice at the Allfather's hand.

Thor nearly begs them to reconsider. He clenches his jaw to prevent himself from doing anything so pointless.

He expects chanting. Or singing, perhaps. He expects an audible weaving of spellwork, but instead there's only silence. Whatever magic the six are crafting, it's a spell born of quiet, of careful minds and united purpose. It's a spell that, after a moment, Thor can see growing like a subtle glow over Loki's skin.

The glow strengthens and spreads, not just covering Loki now, but Thor's hand where he's still touching his brother. A moment later it reaches the sorcerers themselves. The floor beneath them, and the nearest pillars, and then the dais itself light with the spreading gleam of power. Loki shudders beneath Thor's hand. His eyes fall closed, and Thor wants to scream at him that this is wrong. That Loki is supposed to fight, even if it means Thor has to face him yet again. Even if it changes nothing.

At first he thinks the rattling of the walls is another element of the intended spell. It's disconcerting, but then so is the unnatural light that's so quickly overtaken the throne room.

But the rattling grows stronger, grows into a shaking of the entire cavernous room. The floor beneath their feet heaves, and it's difficult to stand, so violently is everything shaking.

The sorcerers have opened their eyes in unison, and it's instantly clear they aren't responsible for what's happening now, for the shaking that's turned to an angry thunder of twisting metal and falling stone. They look terrified, and one of them shouts, "What can be doing this?"

Another gasps, and then the assembled throngs are scattering. Odin rises to his feet as guards fall and struggle upright, only to fall again.

Thor is barely maintaining his own footing, but he still looks to Loki. He needs to know if this is his brother's doing.

But Loki's eyes are open and he's staring around him in unmasked shock. A sharp stone falls from somewhere above and catches his cheek, drawing blood, but Loki doesn't seem to notice. He simply stares as chaos ruptures the throne room, cracking the steps of the dais, splitting the smooth surface of the floor.

Something explodes. Several somethings at once, Thor thinks, and he's not quite fast enough. Loki gasps a pained sound before Thor manages to take him down, and then they're both on the floor as another explosion rocks above them. Thor covers Loki's body, shielding him from an avalanche of shattering gold sculpture and stone. He curls over Loki and curses as the air around them fills with screams and dust and smoke.

He looks down at Loki, and there's blood everywhere. Blood on Loki's face, his hands, his chest. Loki's eyes are wide and staring up at Thor, raw shock and pain, and Loki can't have planned this. The whites of his eyes are too wide and honest for such deceit.

"Loki," Thor gasps, willing the explosions to stop so he can check his brother's injuries. There's too much blood, and Loki can't die, not like this (not ever).

Loki reaches for him, and the light spreads brighter, blinding and impossible—