Driven to his knees before the All-Father, Loki's mind races. The genesis of another scheme, peeled off from the remnants of the last, a laser-thin point of light refracted and reflected and refracted through the shattered-reconstructed crystalline structure of his psyche. He barely hears the litany of his crimes ringing out across the convocation in Bragi's clear, fine voice. He already knows them; what need has he to listen?
Thor's hand on the back of his neck is heavy, firm. Restraining. Protective. Warm comfort. He wants to tear each finger off with his teeth.
His eyes trace the patterns filigreed into the golden floor. After so long in the chill void, Asgard's brightness is near blinding, but he will not close his eyes. He knows what he will see if he closes his eyes.
There's no need to pretend to weariness, to defeat. He is weary. He is defeated. He is also wise enough to understand that both states are temporary—and to his advantage. So he allows his head to hang, his shoulders to slump with exhaustion, his kneeling body to sway into Thor's broad hand as its thumb gently strokes the side of his neck (a conscious gesture? unconscious? knowing his never-brother it is most likely the latter, he has always been too open, too revealing, too thoughtless). The manacles and gag only serve to increase his appearance of helplessness, unable even to speak in his own defense, and without his words nothing more than the weak, pitiable runt he has always been, nothing to fear, nothing to suspect, there is nothing he can do now...
“What will be done with the Tesseract?” Thor asks, in serious tones that suit his father better than himself, and Loki curls a lip behind the gag, unmindful of the sharp tines caging his tongue. Odin-son. What a wretched fate, to become nothing more than an echo, a fate far, far more wretched than Loki's own.
“It will be placed in the vault, where it belongs,” replies Odin, “to be kept from those who would misuse it.”
Loki does not bother to stifle the derisive noise that snorts through his nose. And who is All-Father to decide these things? Who is All-Father to judge what is use and what is misuse, such hubris, such—
A shard of memory dislodges, from the heap of jagged trash he tossed aside as he rebuilt his broken mind. Useless pieces, no longer needed or wanted, warm sun and the scent of grass and golden apples and nostalgia—but this—this one—ah—young, small hand clasped in larger one, creases and calluses, an aged voice lilting with even older tales, the Destroyer standing sentinel in its alcove, the Casket, and along the walls—other things—a brazen fist with sockets in the knuckles—ah—yes. Yes.
“Peace, brother,” Thor murmurs above him, grip tightening momentarily around his neck. Must have mistaken his sudden tension for fear, the perfect fool. Sentiment. Sentiment. Sentiment.
His new plan clicks into place, square peg in square hole, and he smothers the urge to laugh with relief.
When he is tucked away in the dungeon (only for a night, Thor assures him, as if either of them cared), when the suns have set and the achingly familiar glittering sea of stars shines through his barred window—the Other comes.
It pulls him from his flesh, roughly, and throws his spirit-body to the barren drifting rock before it, cold, without malice. Unlike before, his kingly mien is denied him; the Other leaves him only the ragged, ill-used leathers his corporeal form still wears. The gag and manacles remain, as well, and a curl of panic unwinds in the pit of Loki's stomach. If he is not permitted to speak—
“You have failed,” the Other rasps. Loki stares up at it, wide-eyed, frightened, penitent, play the part, play the part. “You were warned of failure's price. He is not merciful. And He has granted His loyal servant the privilege of receiving your payment.”
There is dark oily glee in its voice, a whip made of crackling blue in its two-thumbed hand. Loki cannot take his eyes from its juddering light, cannot but think its kiss will be painless, will be much worse than pain.
Again he does not need to lie (and how strange it is that he must drop his mask, he finds himself once more surprised that he remembers how to do so), his fear and desperation are horrible honesty, and as much as he hates showing this weakness, he reminds himself that now his weakness is his strength, and he must use it, he must, or all is lost for him.
So he pleads with his eyes—prostrates himself, grovels at the Other's feet, writhes on the hard scraping rock, sobs in terror and shakes his head convulsively no no no and begs and begs with his hands and his body and his eyes until the Other fists its distorted hand in his hair and yanks him upright.
“Your indignity amuses Him,” it says, baring its black-slicked teeth in something that might be a grin. Its breath is hideous, sulfurous against Loki's skin, and he fights not to gag as fresh tears sting in the bridge of his nose. “A creature who named itself a god, now understanding the truth—that it is no more than a worm wriggling in the dust. Very well, broken-crowned worm. Beg for the mercy you will not receive.”
Thick sluglike fingers stroke along the muzzle, dissolving its spirit-form, and Loki, elated to the point of euphoria, gasps out, “I can still be of use.”
“How so, crawling god?” the Other asks, mocking. It is enjoying itself, sadistic, bullying, and Loki can play on that, he can use that, he hopes that its master is watching.
“Please—I beg of you—hear me out.” His voice sounds strange to his own ears, tremulous, hoarse, hissing with the bright sting of the Other's grip on his hair. Good, good, play the part, use that weakness. “I can bring your master—what he craves—please—”
The Other drops him, and he crumples to the stone, dull little flares of pain blooming where his body strikes it. He takes great shuddering breaths, tries to wet his dried throat. It gazes down at him, expectant, expecting pitiful grasping at straws, more desperation and humiliation to mock.
Arrogance. So satisfying it will be, to watch it deflate at his words.
Loki coughs, spits, wipes his mouth. “In Asgard, there is a room,” he begins, tipping his gaze submissively up to the Other's face. “Where Odin All-Father keeps his spoils of war. Artifacts. Stolen from other realms.”
The Other does not speak when he pauses. He swallows, goes on, letting his voice quiver, letting himself be honest, be honest, and oh what a perfect lie it is, the most perfect lie.
“There are many items of great power there.” He coughs again; his voice is strained from disuse. “Such power. Odin Borsson does not know—he cares not, they are petty trinkets, trophies of his battle prowess—but I have seen. I know.”
A nervous little laugh escapes him, high and breathy. He remembers black, everything all at once in his eyes, black-white blue-orange red-green yellow-violet all simultaneously, too much, too much, his skull cracking under the crushing weight of revelation.
His hands shiver as he gestures with them, the chain clinking and jingling.
“The Casket of Ancient Winters. The Warlock's Eye. The Eternal Flame. The Orb of Agamotto.” He pauses. A shaky smile flickers across his face, his eyes wide, watching, watching, waiting, waiting. “The Infinity Gauntlet...”
The Other goes very, very still.
An eternity passes between Loki's breaths. Every last shred of his being tightens with anticipation, with fear, perhaps even a frayed thread of that anathema hope, though he knows, he knows, the Other's master will not be able to resist the lure of his greatest desire, he will not, he stands no chance.
“You have revealed the Gauntlet's location,” says the Other slowly, its gaze calculating, penetrating, and Loki does not drop his eyes. “What more use are you? What is to stop Him from discarding you, now?”
Loki's smile jitters wider. “The vault can only be accessed by one of Asgard's royal family, or with the permission of one such,” he explains, spreading his trembling hands. “Not only does Odin's great magic ward it against intruders, any who do manage to enter unwanted will be slaughtered by the room's guardian. An automaton, called the Destroyer. It does not bargain, it cannot be bribed, it cannot be tricked, and it answers to none except Asgard's king.”
He licks his lips, sets the final piece into play.
“Prince of Asgard I am no longer,” he says, “but Thor—ah, Thor, he is still a son of Odin—and he loves me, the fool. Persists in doing so. It makes him weak to me, easily swayed, easily turned.” He ignores the thick tightness rising in his breast. Sentiment. “If you will but spare me, and have patience—I can ply his sympathies, manipulate him into assisting me. And once I retrieve the Gauntlet, I will bring it to your master, and its power will be his.”
Still gazing impassively down at him, the Other begins a slow walk, describing a wide circle around Loki's kneeling form, searching, contemplating. Loki focuses on appearing as helpless and servile as he can manage.
“And what is to keep you from taking the Gauntlet for yourself?” says the Other.
Loki cringes, recoils, folds in on himself. “I do not want it,” he quavers. “That much power—it would shatter me. I only wanted Midgard, not the entirety of the universe.”
It's true, even if he is exaggerating his horror at the idea. He has no idea what he would do with the whole of the cosmos at his command. The thought gives him vertigo. Controlling so much—he could not, there would be no meaning to it. No more reason to fight. To exist.
He shudders a little.
Refuses to think what the Other's master might want with that power.
He raises his eyes again, and the Other has completed its circle, standing once more in front of him.
“You have my word,” he says, in a small, pleading voice. “I swear it, by the roots of Yggdrasil. I will prove my worth to your master. He will have the Infinity Gauntlet.”
It cocks its head faintly to one side, as though listening, its wrinkled mouth pressed into a thoughtful line.
“Hmm,” it says.
Loki waits, waits. Maybe even prays just a little, because he knows this is his last chance, and if he is rebuffed, he will find his doom here on this barren rock, and none in Asgard will ever understand what made their prodigal prince into a hollow, mad wretch, soulless, fouling himself in a corner of the dungeon, as if he were put to the most brutal question imaginable—
—but if he is accepted, oh, then a blessed reprieve, and an opportunity to ingratiate himself with a being who will soon be the most powerful in the universe—so long as he succeeds, and he is certain he will, in time—
The Other only stares at him, its face unreadable. Loki inhales.
Then the Other tears open his mind.
It rips the skin asunder, plunges its cold tendrils into the gaping wound, and Loki might have screamed were he not half-expecting the incursion, were he not acquainted with the Other's mental probing (though perhaps he screams anyway, he cannot tell, through the agony of what is not agony but so much worse, intrusion, violation, wrong wrong wrong no please stop don't no get out please). It paws carelessly through his thoughts, a surgeon gone mad, shoving them aside like layers of fat and muscle, pulling them loose and peering at them like viscera, a coldly ruthless search for tricks, for dissemblance, for lies, and Loki would laugh, honesty, honesty, the god of lies is honest, such irony, he would laugh but he cannot because he is screaming.
The invasion lasts for eons, infinities, endless void-spun time filled with unnumbered icy squirming fingers parting and prodding and prying and pushing, feeling around in dark hidden chambers, burrowing ever deeper into weak soft places, opening, upending, ransacking. Loki no longer has breath to scream. The delver has all the pity of iron—it peels away scabs and dredges up monsters from the rust-swirled oozing suppuration beneath—his stomach wrenches, twists, collapses in on itself—he vomits nothing but a thin string of saliva laced with blood—wet dust grinds into his cheek—he begs the stars to let him die—
—until finally, finally, the Other's tendrils withdraw.
It is over. Over.
Loki seizes, great heaving shuddering breaths, sprawled like a child's thrown doll on the stone. A cracked titter leaks from the pinhole in his throat. Then a whimper.
He laughs. He sobs.
He laughs and sobs and laughs and sobs, his mind in shambles, his nails scrabbling, convulsively scratching nonsense runes into the tear-and-spit-soaked rock. Gives himself gladly, eagerly, gratefully over to the madness, it's comforting, his mother's loving embrace, an unburdened fugue in which he does not need to think about what has happened, does not need to think about anything at all.
“He accepts,” says a harsh whispery voice, off in some other realm, in some other language. “Do not fail Him again, crawling god, or your fall through the void will be as a pleasant daydream before the unrelenting torments you will suffer.”
Everything fades into blackness—everything but Loki's consciousness.
He giggles, weeping, curled up inside himself, bloody fingernails digging into his cheeks, the salt from his tears burning like acid in the crescent-shaped cuts as his mind tries to gather itself back up and stitch its wounds shut again. The pain is good, the pain is life, he is alive because he hurts and that is all that matters, so long as he hurts, so long as the pain does not end his life does not end, but there are things worse than death, are there not? Things so much worse than death, death might be a blessing, if he fails again he will force Thor to grant him that blessing, better that than spinning in the Other's grasp trapped and torn apart and stitched together and torn apart and stitched together over and over and over and over and over forever and ever and ever...
Someone is calling his name, or, what he thinks is his name, it might be, no, he is No-One, Nameless, Níðingr, Nothing, son of none, echo of silence, shadow of air.
He flexes and curls his tongue, tasting blood as the spines caging it slide into the flesh, in and out, a lover's tease, and his eyes are open so wide he cannot see.
Warm soft steel manacles his forearms, like the cold hard steel manacles his wrists, and he is pinned down and unable to scratch his face so he clenches his fists hard to make his nails cut into his palms, the pain is good, the pain is life, he needs the pain to stay alive.
Slowly slowly slowly he reconstitutes, senses filtering back in broken pieces, golden light and a pair of sapphires, waves of heat, thunder rumbling in the shape of what once was his name, rusted metal and wet stone and sharp sweat with each inhale.
A word. Brother.
The rest of him falls into orbit around it, its gravitational pull drawing the stone and dust and gas of his mind back into cohesion. The gold and sapphire is brother. The heat is brother. The thunder is brother. The sweat is brother.
Loki. Loki, look at me, please, please come back to me, Loki. Loki.
A high, keening sound, hitching, a long whine curling around and around and around and it's his own, his head is thrown back because his spine is frozen in a hard arch off the stone floor and brother has pinned his thin arms with broad hands wrapped all the way around with their thumbs overlapping their fingers, and he cannot stop making that high, keening sound.
Saltwater dries on his skin, at the corners of his eyes, trails leading down to the shells of his ears, dries only to be wet again a moment later.
I have you, Loki, I am here, you are safe, Loki. Loki. Please. Brother.
The arch in his back begins to lower, as his seizing muscles finally unwind, tension flowing out of him to be replaced with fathomless exhaustion. He blinks; more tears spill, and the world stops swimming long enough for his sight to clear.
“Loki. Loki, please.”
Thor's face slides into focus, anxious, fretting, but when Loki meets his blue blue eyes he breaks into a blinding grin overflowing with relief.
“Brother?” he says, as Loki's gaze darts back and forth over the room. Back in the dungeon. Back in his physical body. Away from the Other.
He can feel himself shivering, even as his back goes flat against the floor.
Thor lets go of one of his arms and lays that big hand against the side of his head, looking as if he were about to cry. “Loki. Can you hear me? Do you understand me?”
The familiarity of that touch almost drives him into madness again, as he leans into it, breathing hard. Warm and callused and comforting and so many memories he tried to discard but never will be rid of, never, never.
He nods, a quick jerk of his head, because he is still muzzled, but he doesn't mind it so much now, it keeps him from babbling, saying things he cannot control; more tears spill.
“Thank the Norns!” Thor cries, too loud, always too loud, and he sweeps Loki up into his arms, holds tight, stroking his hair, laughing shakily into his shoulder. “I came to see you, and you were—you were insensate, and when I reached you I had to hold you down because you were convulsing and hurting yourself and I—I was so afraid, so afraid, brother...”
His embrace tightens, tightens, possessive and confining and safe. Loki wants so badly to believe he is safe, that nothing can touch him here, as he once believed, long ago, but he knows it is not true, that the Other can reach in and pull him loose and unmake him no matter how tightly Thor clutches him. No safety anywhere, not even in these arms, the arms he must betray or face unimagined horror.
He wants to scream. All that escapes is a whimper.
“Hush, brother, I have you,” murmurs Thor, and Loki squeezes his eyes shut. More tears spill. “I have you. Peace. Peace.”
It hurts. It hurts, to be so close, to feel his warmth and breathe his scent and hear his voice, brother who is not brother who never was brother, hates him too much to love him, loves him too much to hate him, love hate love hate and more tears spill, more tears spill.
More tears spill.