It was too easy, of course. Thor should have known that Loki would never have allowed himself to be bound and gagged and dragged like a dog before the Asgardian court, had it not served his purpose.
Yet Thor does not reproach himself in the matter, for Odin himself looked as shocked as any when Loki loosed his chains and bound the entire court in stillness and in silence with one graceful gesture. Thor knew little of magic, but even he sensed that this was power of a kind Loki could scarce have marshaled ere he fell into the void.
“That’s better,” Loki says, after pulling the gag from his mouth and dropping it aside. “Now we can have a proper conversation.”
Loki admits his crimes, after a fashion; his confessions are couched in such terms that he seems the victim of malice and hatred at every turn. “I confess that my envy was equal to Thor’s arrogance,” he says. “I confess that my machinations were equal to his war-mongering. I confess that in my devotion and my desperation, I took actions unbecoming a prince of Asgard.”
Thor understands, then; he sees the curve and sweep of Loki’s intent, knows where Loki will place the dagger. “Of course,” Loki says, inclining his head towards Odin, “I am not of Asgard. Perhaps I may be forgiven some of my transgressions on the grounds that it was Odin’s choice, not mine, to harness a frost giant foundling with such responsibilities.”
Shock travels through the crowd, palpable though silent, suggesting the pandemonium that would have ruled absent magical restraint. Loki waves a hand in Odin’s direction. “You may speak, Allfather. Reassure the rabble of your infinite wisdom.”
But Odin does not look to the crowd. He only bows his head in sorrow and says, “My son, your anguish is evidence enough that I have made grave errors. Yet I cannot consider taking you to be one of them. Would you have had me do otherwise, truly? Would you have had me choose vengeance over mercy?”
“Would that you had dashed my brains out on the floor of the temple!” Loki shrieks, his composure suddenly shattered, his face twisting into a snarl. “That would have been mercy! It would have been - ”
He catches himself and draws a deep, shuddering breath; he presses his hands together as if to disguise their tremor. When he speaks again it is in measured tones. “I am your true son, Allfather, in every way but that which matters. And that is how I know it was not mercy, nor pity, nor kindness that stayed your hand.” He lifts his chin and meets Odin’s gaze. “It was pride. It was greed. It was the will to dominate, and how could you resist the gift of so useful a weapon?”
“No, Loki,” Odin says wearily. “You were always a child to me. A son. Never a weapon.”
“You lie convincingly, but I have never been more than a spear aimed at the very heart of Jotunheim. Accept your due, for as such things go I am fairly impressive, am I not?” Loki holds up his hands and lets magic burst across and between them, starbursts of green and blue and gold blazing brighter than the shining sun. “The fatal flaw lies not in your craftsmanship, Allfather. That much I recognize. You did what you could with such - ” here his lip curls in disgust - “crude material.”
“My son,” Odin breathes, but Loki continues as if he had not spoken.
“Therefore I do not seek vengeance.” Loki sinks gracefully to his knees. “I ask only for deliverance. And yet,” he continues softly, as if speaking to himself, “that’s not quite true. I do not ask. I demand it. In the house of Odin was I made into this - this wretched, malformed creature.” He seems to choke on the words. Yet the tears standing in his eyes do nothing to soften the cruel lines of his face, nor the steel in his voice. “So by the son of Odin will I be unmade.”
Thor startles. He had thought himself forgotten, his role complete, now a mere spectator to Loki’s virtuoso performance. Loki’s eyes, when they meet his, glitter with promise, with malice, with a kind of certainty that makes Thor’s heart seize in his chest. He tries to speak and finds that he can. “I will not harm you, brother.”
Loki rises to his feet with a mocking smile. “I do not require your permission, thunder god. Only your might.”
“You shall have neither, for Mjolnir will not heed you.”
Loki laughs long and loud, head thrown back, exposing the pale line of his throat to Thor’s suddenly-fearful gaze. “What a cruel joke it would be, if it did! To be found unworthy at every moment but the last? To command obedience only in service of my own destruction?” Loki chuckles again, shaking his head. “Thoughts of such vicious humor do you no credit, Thor. The people of Asgard seek other qualities in their kings.” He lifts an elegant shoulder. “Or so they say.”
Thor grinds his teeth together. “This is folly.”
“This is fate,” Loki snaps. “And very bad things happen to those who attempt to alter destiny.” He bares all his teeth. “Consider me a cautionary tale.”
He turns at last to Frigga, but what insults he might have planned to hurl at her seem to die on his lips. “I have loved you,” he says softly, after a moment’s hesitation, “wholly and without reserve. If my love was not sufficient - if it was not right - I beg you attribute that only to a nature unsuited to such affection.”
Her lips move soundlessly, tears spilling down her cheeks, every muscle seemingly straining to gather him in her arms. Thor realizes that Loki will not, cannot let her speak, lest his resolve be weakened.
“Loki,” he pleads. He would kneel if he could. “Loki, please. Release her, and end this cruel charade.”
“Yes,” Loki says. He turns back to Thor and offers a beautiful, deadly smile. “I think it is time I released us all from further pretense.”
Loki has taken his place; he stands where Thor knelt, an eternity ago, eager to assume a crown for which he was unthinkably, poisonously unready. Odin and Frigga remain bound where they stood at the foot of the golden stairs. Thor stands facing them, Sif and Fandral and Volstagg and Hogun at his back, and the silent unmoving crowd beyond them.
“I had thought to die with your hands about my neck, but that is so terribly intimate.” Loki shrugs his cloak to the floor, then unbuckles his chestplate and lets it fall. “Frankly, I don’t think you’ve earned it.”
“Loki, let me go.” Thor struggles against the magic holding him in place as valiantly as ever he fought a foe, but he cannot so much as twitch a finger. He cannot let himself believe that Loki means to carry this through. And yet - Loki’s eyes are as bright and empty as they were in that eternal moment at the shattered edge of the Bifrost. Thor sometimes feels as though he was reborn in that instant into some tormented half-life, doomed to cry out endlessly into the dark for an answer he never dared hope would come. If only he could make Loki understand that life began anew when word reached Asgard that the fallen prince lived. If only he could make Loki understand - “I love you, brother. You must not ask this of me.”
Loki surprises him by stepping close and laying a gentle hand on his arm. “You’ve never been afraid of anything,” he says, and he’s so wrong, so utterly wrong it takes Thor’s breath away, “so you mustn’t start now. And I’m not asking.”
Then he steps away and draws Fandral’s blade from its sheath, and returns to press it into Thor’s unwilling grip. Loki squares his shoulders and grips the bare blade with both hands. When he whispers, the hilt grows hot, then icy cold, against Thor’s palm. “There. Now the merest scratch would see me gone. Not that I don’t trust the strength of your sword-arm, Thor, but I dread leaving anything to chance. She has been terribly unkind to me of late.”
“No,” Thor grinds out, “no. I will not harm you,” yet something in his voice makes his father groan piteously. His heart is hammering painfully in his chest, his eyes are burning, his skin has gone sweat-slick and cold. Loki reaches forward to wrap his hands lightly around Thor’s own, curving his body so that the blade’s point rests against his breast. “Turn away from this madness, Loki, and I swear full recompense for your grievances. Anything you want will be yours. The throne. My life. Anything. Brother, please!”
“You have mistaken me entirely,” Loki says, not unkindly. “But I find that I cannot wish it otherwise. For had you known me better, you must have loved me less.” He rubs his thumb across the back of Thor’s hand in a comforting gesture. “It’s almost over, now. Soon we will both be at peace.” He smiles, and closes his hands hard over Thor’s, and with all his strength and magic he pulls.
Loki’s eyes are wide and green and his face is so peaceful and Thor must have won out, must have broken the spell, must have changed fate, must have missed somehow, because Loki’s eyes are so clear and so calm and so very, very, very close. Then Thor feels the faint shiver of the hilt in his hand. He feels Loki’s heart beat its valiant last against the bright blade piercing it through.
“Oh,” Loki breathes, red stains blooming on his lips, “oh, brother, that was well done.”
The binding spell shatters all at once, and Thor knows that the court is in riot, that Frigga has flung herself forward with a cry, he knows these things as he knows that the sun continues to shine and his heart continues to beat. He knows them, but cannot believe them. They must be lies.
The only truth left to him is Loki’s still, cool body in his arms.