He knows what has happened before the first rippling clench of pain. New pain. Not like the ache in every muscle and bone; this makes him feel like he is a piece of tearing parchment.
Loki reaches a trembling hand (trembling only because he is injured, weak; nothing more than that) to his navel, to the ugly twist of magic forced out of shape. It's slimy to the touch, unnatural. It makes him feel sick. It did even when there was something alive to sustain it, but now it holds nothing more than a broken corpse.
"Damn you," he gasps, letting his hand fall to his side. "Wretched, thrice-cursed creature. I needed one thing of you, one thing."
At every turn the Chitauri torment him, even those that are yet unborn.
He gives a quiet keen through gritted teeth. His head spins and he can't catch his breath, that's the only reason there are tears in his eyes. Fragile and weak Midgardians may be, but that green beast of theirs hits like a landslide. If only it had killed him.
He's still lying there when the sounds of battle abruptly die. That cannot be a sign of success. There should have been many more troops. Something has gone wrong. He's spitefully pleased, but oh, they are going to be so very, very angry with him.
no realm, no barren moon, no crevice where I can't find you
Loki wants to drag himself to the shattered window, but when he braces his hands against the smooth stone floor, he hasn't the strength. It takes all his breath to even try, and his ribs pain him with every movement. Sagging back down, he squeezes his eyes closed against the damning wetness in them. Think. He must think.
The battle has ceased, and he hasn't managed to be slain. The half-breed babe is dead, and won't grow big enough to send him to Valhalla the mother's way. He needs more options. A new plan. He won't fall back into Chitauri hands, he can't. He can't think.
He shouldn't have been thinking in the first place. Maybe this is his punishment for daring to stray from single-minded focus. He thought of escaping his servitude and now he has failed his task and they will-- they will be--
Maybe the Midgardians will execute him. That would solve his problem nicely. An enemy execution for a failed war might even still earn him entrance to Valhalla, but he'll settle for Helheim if he must. He just needs-- The Chitauri and their master cannot hunt him there (no realm no barren moon). That's all that matters.
If not, Thor will take him back to Asgard. He cannot rely on execution there. Not because he expects mercy for his so-called crimes, but simply because when has that realm ever given him what he needs? Then he will be hunted down and if he thought he knew agony before...
He must continue hiding his condition, then. He can't risk some ill-timed shred of pity staying the Midgardians' hands. He is weakened, even more so than when he first arrived on this accursed rock, but he can yet maintain the illusion. As soon as he is healed enough to walk unaided, he can try to escape, find himself some other battle.
If he hasn't managed to die or escape before Thor brings him to Asgard, his situation becomes more... difficult. But he cannot bring himself to think on that right now.
He cannot bring himself to think about any of it. (no crevice where I can't find you)
His hand finds his stomach once more, and he bites back a sob.
The Avengers are suitably... displeased with him. He keeps the blood from their eyes and flaunts remorselessness in their faces, to further provoke their ire. That monster, Loki. See how he smiles. See how he mocks your dead.
Let them kill him. Oh, please, let them only kill him for it, and he will be safe.
He has to tread carefully, though, for if he goes too far the archer's woman is standing close by with the scepter. He cannot afford to be on the receiving end of its powers. It will come to bite her, though, and he is careful not to look at it directly, playing up his fear of it. Let her think she has an advantage.
They summon one of their jets, and help him to it. (Loki thinks that if the archer had his way, he'd have been made to crawl.) The pilot has brought manacles, which is laughable in so many ways. As if their Earth-wrought chains can hold him!
"We had these made special," says the metal man, helmetless and grimly smug. "I think you'll like them."
Spiked, perhaps, or deliver some electric shock, and Loki is unconcerned, until the first one is clamped around his wrist and his grip on his illusion flickers.
"No--" He's panicking, he mustn't panic, they mustn't do this, they don't understand. "You fools, stop," and he struggles but he is wounded and slow and they hold him in place and snap the second manacle closed--
He screams. The magic shaping his insides starts to collapse; cannot. The corpse in his belly holds it there, burning like acid in his veins, like the clawed hands that first rummaged inside him to make room for this monstrosity while his blood and viscera spilled onto hostile soil.
If only his illusion were pinned in place the same way. He would embrace the pain if only it meant they would not see. They can see everything. From his burned and patchy hair, to the distended horror of his failed pregnancy, to every last shameful scar the Chitauri marked into his flesh.
"Oh, what the fuck--"
He sobs and spits curses at them, calling down on them every terrible fate he can think of, meddling curs that they are. Arrogant, ignorant insects.
"That blood's fresh. Loki, can I--"
"Do not touch me," he snarls, batting the beast's hands away. And because he can, because he remembers what the archer told him of this little team, he narrows his eyes and says, "Don't you think you've done enough?"
The green beast in its man-form flinches, huddling in its borrowed clothes, but Loki wants more. He sways forward and whispers, "Just like Daddy," and oh, how beautiful it is to watch that face shatter, such exquisite pain in it before the mask of mild calm slams back into place.
The metal man gets in between them, bristling protectively. "Hey, knock it off, Bullwinkle, we didn't start this fight."
Good, they do still remember that. He does not want their dismay, these contemptible Avengers. He does not want their wretched pity. They are beneath him. They know nothing of what he has endured, what he has overcome. In this moment he hates them all, almost more than he can bear. He wishes he'd taken the time to kill them, one by one. Stretch them out and give them a taste of what the Chitauri could mete out.
And Thor, Thor is the worst. Thor looks like he might weep. Maybe he will, maybe he truly had no idea. Which makes him guilty of rank stupidity at the very least.
"Loki, how did this happen?" Thor asks, and Loki throws his head back and laughs and laughs.
"Loki," Thor says again, that familiar tone of frustration edging through, because of course Thor must have his answer.
"Come now," and Loki bares all his teeth, smiling with all the anger that fuels him. Someone - the soldier - wraps a blanket around him. "Surely your father explained to you how this works? How grown-ups lie together and mix their seed to make a child? You cannot doubt that I would bed a monster; I am one, after all."
"You did not," says Thor, looking pale and appalled.
"Oh, but I did." Loki wraps his chained hands around his abdomen, hissing between his teeth at a fresh burst of twisting, tearing pain. If he must suffer, why shouldn't Thor? Blessed, protected Thor, who knows nothing of true cruelty.
He snarls his words, throws them like knives. "I lay with tens of their warriors, hundreds. I would have birthed their whole army if there was but time. Should I tell you all the ways I let them have me? You might find you like hearing of it."
"Stop it," Thor chokes out, eyes wide.
Always so pitifully easy.
"That's enough," the soldier says firmly, manhandling Loki into a seat and strapping him in, the thin blanket arranged in a laughable pretense at modesty. "We'll get you to Medical."
Loki waves a hand airily, with what little reach the manacles give him. He tries not to notice the raw wounds on his fingers, the stubby crescents where his nails are beginning to grow back. Everyone else is seating themselves so that the jet may take off. "The babe is dead and the bleeding has stopped." Externally, at least. "I'm sure your healers have much to do."
Let them remember the death he has wrought today, the destruction. Though he has little hope they will see fit to slay him now.
The metal man gives a low whistle. "Seriously, is this guy for real? --You are a guy, right?" he adds, addressing Loki. "Some kind of seahorse thing going on? We don't usually, uh. Get pregnant. As a general rule."
"There may have been some magic involved," Loki says, as casually as he can, as if he can't still feel their greedy grasping fingers in his gut. As if he doesn't remember the slick, foul taste of the perversion they wreaked upon his body. The disorientation as they turned his own magic against him.
He wants to say, I don't suppose you'll consider killing me anyway? After all, didn't Thor once say he should ask for what he wants, instead of tricking people into it? (Of course Thor would think that; people listen when he speaks. No one has ever told Thor to be silent and wait his turn, only for his turn to never come. It is always, always Thor's turn.)
The archer stretches his legs out in front of him, watching Loki with sharp, marksman's eyes. "So all those scars, you had those before? Or do you just like a little pain with your cross-species gangbang?"
Loki forces a smile in return. He will give these base creatures nothing. "I find a little extra excitement adds something to the experience. Perhaps I should have demonstrated for you, when you were under my thrall."
"Oh, that's cute," the archer drawls. "He thinks that'll creep me out."
"You might want to remember who's got the thrall-stick now, buddy," the metal man chimes in.
Oh, he remembers. He remembers very well. His magics bound, he cannot manipulate it from a distance. It may yet serve a purpose though, so he looks away from the woman who holds it, their trickster, towards the beast. It leans into the corner as if it can make itself invisible.
"Nothing to say?" he asks it, making a mockery of gentleness. (The metal man is already bristling again. How sickeningly touching.)
It turns its head a little, eyes flickering to his stomach then back to his face. "I'm sorry for your loss."
Loki snarls, unable to completely contain his rage. How dare it presume to know anything of this? "And can your sentiment return the dead to life?"
The man-beast lowers its eyes. "I'm sorry," it says again.
"Ye-ah, if you start a war while pregnant, you don't get to throw blame around when the totally predictable happens."
"It's fine, Tony."
So solemn. Loki sneers at it. "Such compassion for the death of a monster. Feeling some kinship, perhaps?"
"No more than I feel for you," it says mildly, and oh, the beast has claws after all.
Thor is shifting unhappily beside him. "Loki, please. Tell me the truth. The Chitauri did this to you?"
Oh. Oh, Thor. Of course.
Loki turns his head and smiles very sweetly, while he entertains a fantasy of sliding a knife up under the trusting fool's ribcage. "How do you know that name, Thor?"
Without looking away from Thor, he can tell the mortals have all gone very still. Like wild beasts scenting danger in the air.
Thor just looks confused. "Father told me of them when he sent me here. Answer the question, Loki."
"No, I don't think I will." This is going to be so delicious. "You said you thought me dead. For how long, Thor?"
"I and everyone else." Thor is starting to frown with uncertainty. He senses the trap beginning to close around him, but he can't see it. "We only knew otherwise with this spiteful attack of yours."
Spiteful, of course, because everything is about Thor. Because Loki must somehow have gone hundreds of years back in time and planted the Tesseract here solely so the Chitauri would demand Midgard, solely to spite Thor (who never even cared overmuch for the realm before now).
The bullheaded arrogance of it is breathtaking.
"Yes," Loki murmurs, "I rather thought so. After all, if you had known me alive before now, Odin would surely have sent you for me much sooner." At least found a way to send a message. Anything.
He inclines his head a little, as if musing aloud. "Strange, don't you think, that Heimdall the All-Seeing was unaware of me for so long?"
Thor opens his mouth. Hesitates.
"And Odin, on his great throne, from which he can see all worlds." Loki stops for a moment as his gut curls in on itself again, hot and tearing, but he will not cry out, he will not. He clutches his stomach and endures and when it is over he exhales roughly. "He didn't see this. How strange, that neither of them saw me until I was about to get hold of such a valuable object."
Thor bristles, all indignation. "You can't possibly believe--"
"Oh, of course not," Loki assures him, and watches him relax. Then, "You must admit, though, it worked out very well for Odin. If I'd been found earlier, he would have wasted all the realm's Dark Energy on fetching me, and had none left to retrieve the Tesseract. This way he gets both."
He keeps his eyes on Thor, but he can feel the eyes of their audience. The seeds of doubt are taking root in fertile minds; fed, he imagines, by their own insecurities. Let Asgard find no easy allies here.
"Cease this," Thor snaps. "Why must you twist everything? Father loves you. Most likely Heimdall simply couldn't see you until you entered Midgard."
"A fine explanation," Loki says agreeably, "with one small flaw. Tell him what it is, Agent Barton."
The archer shifts reluctantly. Clears his throat. "I wasn't with him the whole time, Thor. I'm not saying-- Look, I can't be certain. But, uh. I sure never heard him mention their name."
The shock and hurt on Thor's face is beautiful. It slips sweetly under Loki's skin like a Chitauri flaying knife. It's only there a moment, then Thor shakes his head and looks twice as determined.
"No. No. I do not believe it."
"You never even thought to question, did you," Loki murmurs. "You didn't even wonder why they suddenly found me, after... how long?"
"May two thousand ten." The archer glances at his colleagues. Not at Thor. "Two years."
"Two years," Loki drawls. The number seems meaningless; how can what happened be measured in normal time? But for Thor, two years. "And that didn't seem at all strange to you. Or were you in on it? Did you help your father decide that the Tesseract was valuable enough to come for? More valuable than me--"
"No!" Thor cries, jerking in his seat. Anguish is plain on his face. "How can you even think that of me? You are unwell, brother; your mind betrays you."
"My family betrays me," Loki snarls back at him. "All too well I remember your arrival in this realm. You pulled me from a vehicle much like this one. Do you remember your first words to me, Thor? Your first words to the beloved brother you thought dead for so long? 'Where is the Tesseract?' How long I was a guest of the Chitauri, and then when I finally have something Asgard deems more valuable than a bastard frost giant--"
His voice cracks and he can't, he can't, he's shaking and he didn't mean to, it's not even a ploy. He hurts all over and he has nothing and the Chitauri's master is going to come and tear apart his mind in a thousand different ways and he can't. He bows his head and curls around his stomach and the dead child inside and tells himself fiercely that he will not cry. Not here. Not in front of these people.
Thor speaks, voice low and thick with emotion. "Brother, I swear to you, I did not know."
The worst part is, Loki believes him.
He stays hunched over, as much as the straps will allow, for what little privacy it affords him. Control yourself, he thinks. He is a disgrace. He resigned himself to this long ago, he cannot possibly be so affected by it now.
The rest of the flight passes in silence.
The Midgardian healers dress him in a plain mint-green tunic and pants. They put him on a bed, for which he is secretly, shamefully grateful. He thinks he has probably never been so exhausted in his life. It's strange though; they are still treating patients from his earlier attack on their vessel. Were he in charge, he'd have made sure all his own warriors were tended to first, before the enemy.
(So many of the healers are men; it's far from the strangest thing he's seen on Midgard, but enough to catch his notice.)
His self-imposed guards talk quietly amongst themselves; three peel off - the soldier and archer to have injuries seen to, the man-beast to aid the healers - and three remain to watch over him in this small room.
It only bothers him because Thor is one of them. It's not as if he has the strength to leave, yet. But Thor's constant presence is an irritant he can't ignore, a bright and testing reminder of Asgard and everything that is lost to him. What used to ground and focus him now serves to keep him all too present in his own body, when all he wants is to cast his mind free and stop feeling for a time.
His stomach twists again, crushing and cruel, and he can't help the pained noise that escapes his throat. The strength of the manacles keeps battering at the cocoon of magic that remains within him, trapped with nowhere to go.
The healer is speaking about labour, about expelling the fetus, and Loki laughs tired and bitter.
"And how do you imagine that will happen? Do I look like a woman to you?"
The metal man stirs. "Well, I don't know, that hair kind of--"
"Can it, Stark," the lady trickster says. She wears half-gloves, but her bare fingers are curled around the scepter, skin vulnerable to it. Careless.
"How could that be?" Thor asks. "Why would you take on one part but not the other-- how would you even place a babe there without--"
'Take on', oh, how precious. As if Loki had any choice in the matter. Thor has listened over-long to the sneers at court, the malicious rumors. (Loki, who submitted to a stallion and personally birthed its get. Loki, who lay with a frost giant and produced monsters beyond imagining. Loki is no warrior, he wields a woman's arts, surely there is no limit to his perversion.)
"They shaped me perfectly for their needs," Loki says coldly, and how very true that is. Over and over, until they sensed no more deception in him, until he was truly willing to do their bidding. And then still more. "Alas, little remains."
Most of the changes reverted the moment the manacles went on his wrists. What's left can probably not even be referred to as a womb, just a crude membrane around the babe.
"Surely what's needed is within your power," Thor says, and Loki rolls his eyes, raising his manacled hands in answer. There is no power to use.
"Normally I'd suggest a C-section," the healer says, "but without any idea how anesthesia would react with your physiology..."
Blades slicing into him, parting his flesh like splitting fruit; opening him to relentless, seeking claws. Loki bares his teeth, fighting chills of memory. "If you try," he says evenly, "I will slaughter everything you love, and I will take your own intestines and strangle you with them."
"Loki, he's trying to aid you," Thor snaps, while the metal man and the lady trickster look to brace themselves for battle.
The healer gives a soft snort. "Don't worry about it. I've treated Director Fury; it takes more than a few threats to intimidate me." To Loki he adds, "You have the right to refuse any treatment. I would like to properly examine you, though. Some of those burns look like they're still healing, and I wouldn't be surprised if you have some internal injuries."
Loki hesitates under warring instincts. He wants to hurt Thor. (He wants to carve that beloved face into a mask of blood until Thor finally sees.) He wants to shed his meager coverings and flaunt every last proof of the hospitality he was offered by his allies. But he wants none of Thor's pity or concern. He cannot afford to be lulled into thinking anyone might protect him. He cannot risk the agonizing blindness of Thor's love.
"I require nothing," he says tightly, sliding his eyes away from anyone in particular. "Go do your job where you are wanted."
The healer nods. "Get someone to fetch me if you change your mind," he says, and takes his leave.
"So, what," demands the metal man, "he's just stuck there with a dead baby in his gut? That's a terrible punchline. This is really fucked up. I mean, seriously, this is fucked up."
"How eloquent," Loki mutters disdainfully.
Thor approaches, trying to take his hand, and Loki pulls away with a hiss. Thor lays a hand on his shoulder instead. The touch is warm and gentle and he cannot bear it. It makes him want to hurl himself into his brother's arms and that will never, never solve anything again.
"Loki, tell me what I can do. I would not see you in such pain."
Then you should have come sooner, Loki wants to snarl - wants to howl and rail and cry, for all the good it will do him - but he only turns his head away and says through knotted throat, "Then leave me."
"I will not," Thor says, all righteous determination. "Do not mistake me, you have done great wrongs here, but I will not leave you to suffer alone."
Sanctimonious churl. With all his strength Loki lashes upwards, driving his fists into Thor's jaw. (Thor has the decency to stumble a little.) As fast as his rage overtakes him, it ebbs away, leaving him burnt out and used up. He collapses on the bed, panting hard and fast against the jagged constraint of his ribs.
"Get out," he chokes out, his throat clenched tight and wet. "You useless, impotent oaf, get out."
"Thor, buddy, you might wanna back up a little," the metal man advises, artfully casual. (Loki recognizes the guise well; it's one he performs often.) "Just give him a little space, okay? I mean, not that I object to watching you push all his buttons but I kind of get the impression that's not what you had in mind."
Loki would say something snide in return but he's still trying to wrestle his traitorous body back under control. His lungs are struggling, cramped. His stomach - his false womb - oh, how it burns. It cuts as if still filled with claws he cannot evade.
At least Thor stops touching him. Takes two small steps backwards. But Thor cannot leave him be; insists on saying, in a low voice, "I told you, Loki, you are still my brother--"
"And I told you, it's too late."
Enough. Answering Thor only encourages him to keep speaking. Loki struggles to push himself over onto his side. To his surprise, the metal man steps forward to help him, with a mechanical, impersonal grip. The effort strains his ribs, but it's worth it to put his back to Thor.
"I will be silent, if that is your wish," Thor murmurs, "but I will not leave you."
Loki exhales through his teeth. It will have to suffice.
His head begins to clear, but the pain of his deformed innards isn't easing. If anything, it's growing worse. Likely he is bleeding into his abdomen. For the most part, he keeps his eyes closed, managing to drift a little loose of his body and its physical weaknesses.
Approaching footsteps snap him back into awareness, and Loki opens his eyes to see. The soldier returns, a white dressing visible under the scorched hole in his costume.
"Barton's talking to Director Fury," he says quietly. "How are we doing here?"
"You mean, our living voodoo doll?" The metal man gives a snort. "Refused treatment. I'm trying not to think too hard about it. Tag me out, Cap, I need some fresh air."
"You should let one of the docs take a look at you first."
"Calm down, grandma. I told you, I'm fine."
Warrior posturing. Some things are the same in every realm, apparently. Loki very nearly rolls his eyes, and does his best to tune them out.
Then there's a noisy clatter, and he glances at the trickster. She is hunched over, gasping, the scepter on the floor.
About time. He had wondered what was taking so long. It must have taken them a while to marshal the remains of their fleet and regroup.
Both of the other mortals go to her, calling her name. Thor, of course, says, "Loki, what did you do?"
Maybe he should wave the manacles at Thor again. If he had the strength, he'd wrap the chain around Thor's throat and silence him for good. Except that Mjolnir still hangs at Thor's side in blunt warning.
The trickster straightens, composing herself with enviable ease. "I'm fine. Psychic transmission." She meets Loki's eyes and raises an eyebrow at him. "Friendly guy."
"Oh dear," he says softly, well satisfied. "I do hope they weren't terribly angry."
Of course, now they know he has the scepter no longer, they will seek him out by other means.
No matter where he is. Or how he hides.
He drops his eyes from hers and swallows tightly.
"So they've had a direct psychic hotline into his head this whole time?" The metal man makes a strange sound. "You know, I'm starting to be really glad I nuked those guys. I get the feeling it's going to be one of those memories I cherish. I mean, aside from the part where my suit shut down and I nearly died, that part I'll overwrite with something a little more glamorous, maybe a ticker-tape parade with Playboy bunnies."
Such endless, inane prattle. Loki gives a quiet hiss and returns his attention to trying to control the pain. He has endured worse. He presses both hands to his abdomen and carefully does not think about the Chitauri's master finding him and does not think about what led to this and he does not think about how strange it is to be so still and feel no more movement inside.
The sound of his own name catches his ear. The soldier is speaking to him, tone oddly gentle. "Loki, do you want anything? A drink of water?"
Loki feigns disdain with a curl of his lip, instantly on guard. They cannot be so soft as all that. "Is this how you treat all your enemies? Make houseguests of them?"
The trickster, the archer's woman, shrugs with good humor. "I already told you, they hired me."
"We have rules for the treatment of prisoners," the soldier says, more evenly. "We, ah. We learned some pretty hard lessons about that, actually. So, do you want anything?"
This kindness is surely prelude to the beginnings of his punishment. The Chitauri oft did the same thing, to make it ever more brutal in contrast. Maybe they will pull him from this soft bed and cut into him until he swears repentance.
Thor's continued silence is unsettling and Loki flexes his fingers, pulse quickening. "I want my freedom."
"What happened to 'freedom is a lie'?"
"Tony," the soldier hisses. Then reaches for something just out of Loki's sight. "I could trim your hair, if you like? You might feel..."
Whatever else he says becomes noise; Loki sees the flash of blades coming at him and scrambles sideways. There's falling (distorted, impossible behemoths in the dark, and silent chittering, and chill that burns) and he slams against the uneven rock, stained brown with his own blood. They shred his clothes and the skin beneath and tear at his secret plans to disobey.
He is gutted like a fish and it is agony-- no. That was later, this is later, they open him up and promise they have a way to watch him, they will make a tether to keep him close. They play like children as his viscera slides through their fingers. They peel his magecraft from him strip by strip and leave it pooling discarded on the ground; they poison it and stuff it up under his ribs and then stake him over a fire to roast.
They carve his tainted spells into new organs and pass him among each other for their use, all the while comforting him: it will be better when he surrenders, isn't it so hard to fight, doesn't he see, he needn't try to deceive them, why doesn't he just do as they say. It will be so peaceful, so easy, if he but lets them. They will relieve him of the burden of his freedom.
He screams and sobs and swears he'll do their will, he'll lead them anywhere, command him, and the Other rummages through his mind until it finds that tiny stubborn core of rebellion and says have patience, Asgardian, we will cut this out of you (but it always grows back).
They've been using him for days and his body doesn't even feel like his own and all he can remember is the terrible graveled sound of their laughter and jagged rock shredding his cheek. Surely something must catch soon, and his stranger's body is in agony. He's hunched on the dirt sobbing please, please, praying that this time his mind won't betray him, praying that this time all he can think of is to obey.
It feels like he is tearing open again, oh it hurts. He chokes on it and then his stomach is convulsing, brutal; bile slips up his throat and spills on the floor. His guts heave, and heave again; he retches uncontrollably. There's blood in his vomit.
Someone is holding his hair back. Someone calls for the healer. He's crying so hard he can barely breathe. He was bad, he disobeyed, he was thinking of ways to get away. They always find out. Maybe... maybe he can still do enough to stave off the worst of his punishment. Earth was always incidental; if he can still deliver the Tesseract-- It must have been brought here, there's still time to find it, time to please them.
He grinds his palms against his eyes, trying to stay the flow of tears. The chain is hanging heavy from his wrists, solid and potent. The Chitauri never used chains. He is on the primitive Midgardian vessel and the Tesseract is still within reach. This can still be mended.
Slowly, he controls his shuddering, hitching sobs. He takes a deep, dragging breath, throat thick and clogged. He is no longer a bawling child, he should be beyond such piteous displays. mewling wretch what kind of warrior are you may as well be dressed in skirts picking herbs like the rest of the women get off the ground get up and fight
"Loki?" Mother says gently. "Back with us, Loki?"
Mother does not speak so. Loki shakes his head a little, trying to line up his senses. The trick is to put everything in the right order. Obey and complete the task. He nods, and wipes his face on the short, thin sleeve of his tunic.
"Yes." His voice sounds unfamiliar, rough and wrecked.
"Doctor Pierson's going to ask you some questions, okay?"
"Yes." He blinks slowly, taking in the room. The trickster in a crouch in front of him, her face as calm and assured as ever Mother was. The soldier at a cautious distance, looking stricken. There's a-- Thor's, it's Thor's hand on his back, and he pulls away with a grieving whimper.
Thor backs away, silently sets to righting the toppled bed. Loki is both grateful and disappointed; he lowers his eyes and reminds himself of his task. Of how he hates Thor, who is allowed to wallow in ignorance and naiveté.
The healer asks of his injuries, and where he has pains, and he remembers his obedience enough to anticipate their desires. The magic is breaking down, and he explains this in short, hoarse words. It cannot hold out against the manacles; it is doing him damage as it attempts to fuse the foreign body with his natural state.
"Can we take them off?" says the healer.
Loki stills. He cradles his stomach in his hands and keeps his eyes lowered, listening to the long pause. The scepter isn't on the floor anymore; it disappeared out of the room at some point, along with the metal man.
The trickster rises to her feet, breaking the silence. "Thor, you know his abilities better than we do."
"If we removed one," Thor says slowly, words oddly weighted, "Loki, would that be enough? Could you mend this?"
"Yes," Loki answers, on reflex, and then thinks. If he is to gain the Tesseract-- He is far too weak to make proper use of the opportunity. If he bides his time-- perhaps later he can seem to give in, act as though the pain has overwhelmed him. These are not the Chitauri; he need not obey. "But I will not."
"What? Loki, you must--"
"I must nothing," he snarls, tensing. Thor would thwart him, would endanger them all. "I will fight you if you try to force me. Until an age has passed and I birth a rotted, festering corpse so that all can see the true meaning of Lokason."
"Okay, take it easy, fella." The soldier pitches his voice low, as if Loki is a skittish colt. That may be true enough. "No one's going to force you."
"Listen to him speak," Thor says, desperation creeping into his tone. "He is clearly not in his right mind. We are not honorbound--"
Thor would ruin this. Loki digs his fingers in to flesh made tender, breathing hard. He will not tremble. "How convenient, that rightmindedness overlaps so neatly with your desires."
He would say more but the pain takes hold of him in a rush; he is left curled around himself, dry-retching amid helpless cries. It has been worse, it has been worse, he promises himself it has been worse. This will end. By one means or another--
He stuffs that thought down into the deepest recesses of his mind, praying it is deep enough. By one means only: he will bring the Tesseract as he promised. He is not thinking about the other end, he is obeying.
Thor continues to protest. Fine. There is more than one way to silence him. Loki sneers up at him from his place on the ground. "Do you think Odin liked watching? Do you think he enjoyed what he saw? I was such a disappointment, after all; surely it was only what was due me."
He thinks he remembers being glad of it, that if Odin was watching his tempering, then perhaps in some small way he had finally pleased him. But maybe he only imagines the memory. He can't be sure.
"Or do you think perhaps it was a distasteful chore?" He cocks his head, smiling hatefully at Thor. "Such a vulgar display of brutality. Perhaps he only looked in now and then, checking to see if there was any use for me yet."
"You know that is not true!" Thor exclaims, as if they know any such thing. "There is some other explanation, and when I bring you home--"
Then he will have failed, and he will be hunted, and he will wish for something so sweet as pain--
"You forget that I have sat on that throne." (Albeit briefly, before he was unseated by treason.) Loki forces the words out, hating how his voice betrays him. "I know precisely how far its gaze flies."
"No." Thor looks like a small child, casting about for something to take the pain away. "Unless-- maybe it was not all that you would have us believe. We have battled side-by-side, I've seen you endure great pains, you have never-- You can obscure Heimdall's gaze with magic. You would manipulate us, have us think you weak--"
It is both so very wrong and so very right, and Loki laughs so hard he almost thinks he might die from the agony.
The soldier speaks to Thor in a low voice, ushering him out of the room with a promise they'll be just outside. It's not far enough away for Loki's taste, but it's far enough to keep him from calling Thor back to beg forgiveness.
The healer helps him back onto the bed, raising it after he is settled so that he half-reclines. Offers water and pain medication (with reservations about the effects on a non-human) and asks after his comfort.
Loki is not in the least bit tempted. His memories are all too fresh of water-that-is-not-water, and injections and elixirs that burn. As for blankets, if anything he is too warm, sweat starting to collect at his hairline and in the small of his back.
When the healer leaves, only Loki and the trickster remain. The trickster has cleaned the floor, and put a bowl and a jug of some clear liquid next to him. She says, "I'm going to clean your face," and because it's not a question he abides the gentle strokes of warm, damp towel.
It occurs to Loki that this may be the last gentleness he receives.
"You are all fools," he murmurs, and he means to sound threatening but mostly it just comes off flat and tired. "Do you think this will buy you mercy? I will raze your planet to the ground. I will butcher your women and children and destroy your monuments. I will leave nothing but ash and the echoes of your people's screams."
"That's too bad," the trickster says calmly. "I was planning to visit the Great Barrier Reef next time I take a vacation."
He bristles. "You doubt me? I have already destroyed one world, why should I balk at another?"
"That's assuming you get the opportunity." She pulls up a chair and sits beside him. "Your... ally wanted me to give you a message."
"Yes." Loki exhales and closes his eyes. He may be in pain now, but it's nothing compared to what awaits him. "I rather think I know what it is."
no realm, no barren moon, no crevice where I can't find you
"His threats are blunt, with no precision," she muses. "He makes no effort to tailor them to the individual. Crude. I find that a little finesse produces much more reliable results." She pauses. "Did he threaten your loved ones, too?"
Loki opens his eyes again to regard her warily. "At first. I suppose it's unfortunate for him that neither of us love."
"Mm," the trickster says, looking pensive. "Fortunate for Thor, though. If you didn't hate him so much, he'd be a hell of a target right now."
"Well, perhaps I shall try to hate him a little less, then," he says sharply. He doesn't like this, her poking at things that are better left alone, and he is very careful to think about the Tesseract and its terrible beauty. The Tesseract and his anger and his task, and that is all. "What is your point?"
"I'm just thinking about what you could slip past someone like that."
He chuckles darkly. "If you can fake a belief while a telepath searches out your every deception, then I have sorely underestimated you."
"Belief is malleable," she answers. "I would know."
Loki turns his face from her to scowl at the far wall and the closed door. He feels flushed, overheated; the sensation of decaying magic is nauseating. "Perhaps they will come to this realm another way, and you'll have the opportunity to test that."
"Perhaps. We know they have some form of spacecraft. Do they have interstellar travel, or do they need to find another way to create a wormhole?"
"How unfortunate that your only source of information is about to be turned over to Asgard," he says, although he's aware she must have left that opening on purpose. Still, if he can create any delay, he'll welcome it.
"Not quite the only source," the trickster corrects him. "If what you say about Asgard's throne is true--"
"Oh, it's true." He remembers the dizzying spread of realms laid out before him, the near-overwhelming weight of too much knowledge. The vision slides all too easily into its reverse: worlds painted in darkness instead of light, and freefall, and great, foul shadow-creatures beyond his comprehension.
Loki squeezes his eyelids tight for a heartbeat, then opens them again. The world is solid. "Asgard is foremost among the realms, and her king would see it remain so. From the throne, he can see to the boundaries of the universe. He can hear every little whisper you seek to make behind his back."
She falls silent, thinking on this. Loki is content to let the implications of it settle in her mind. He goes to reach for the bowl, but with his hands chained he must twist to the side and it sets off another staggering wave of pain. He grits his teeth, tears springing to his eyes as he fights back a cry. Fresh sweat pricks his skin all over. The trickster puts the bowl into his hands just in time for him to start vomiting again, blood and bile in deep, wracking spasms.
He's vaguely aware of a knock at the door and someone entering. He's a little occupied trying to assess whether his stomach is being torn apart. By the time he spits the last of it and collapses back against the bed, he's flushed hot and trembling, damp with sweat.
"Wow," the archer says, closing the door behind himself. "And they say good things never happen to people who deserve them."
There's something peculiarly comforting about his matter-of-fact gloating. Maybe it's the absence of pity, or maybe it's simply that he's one of the mortals Loki's most familiar with.
"You see Stark?" the trickster asks, rising from her chair.
"Yeah, him and Banner are hugging it out." The archer strolls closer. "Council's riding Fury's ass. Rogers caught me up on the excitement here."
The trickster nods. She rests her hand on Loki's brow for a moment and it is shockingly cold. "He's deteriorating quickly. I'll update Director Fury. Someone needs to make a call."
"No treatment," Loki mumbles, reminding her. Even his eyes are too hot. If he can stall long enough this might even-- Not that he's thinking about that; he's going to retrieve the Tesseract. He's going to obey. Is obeying.
"We know." She takes her leave and the archer takes the chair, pulling out one of those little communication devices. Cellular phones.
After a moment, Loki says, "Not going to poke at your prisoner?" He's still clutching the bowl but hanging onto it seems easier than trying to put it down. Besides, he's likely to need it again, soon.
"Nope," the archer says comfortably. He doesn't look up from his phone. "Don't really have to, do I? Now be quiet, I'm trying to beat my top score."
Loki scowls at being so dismissed by a peon, but he's in no condition to do anything about it. He's aware that even his threats don't carry much weight at the moment.
He may as well rest.
They change his guards; some lesser-ranked foot soldiers, all in black. For the most part, Loki pays them no regard. (He does suggest they dim the lights, albeit without much hope, and they ignore him.) He vomits when he must, and cries out when he can't stop himself, and shakes through the fever and the pain. When he is able to detach himself, he ends up confused as to why he feels nothing, until he remembers all over again that it's dead.
At some point, the director comes to see him, as cold as Heimdall and as unforgiving as Odin, but with a straightforwardness both gods lack.
Loki is not finding it particularly easy to concentrate, by then.
"What the hell am I going to do with you?"
On the one hand, it's a problem that does seem likely to resolve itself on its own. On the other, that was almost certainly a rhetorical question.
"Agent Romanov seems to believe you might be interested in trading information in order to... influence your sentencing." The little king stands with his hands behind his back, looking down at Loki with a steely gaze. "She's also of the opinion that it's a lot more important to you than it is to us."
Loki narrows his eyes. He has to wet his lips before speaking; his voice is rasping and sluggish. "And you? Do you have opinions? Or do you let your women rule you?"
"You're in no position to be back-talking me. You got something productive to say, now might be a real good time."
Does it look suspicious if he speaks too soon? Loki is, honestly, too exhausted to care. "As long as you hold the Tesseract, Earth will be a target. The Chitauri's master is..." He closes his eyes briefly, skin crawling. "He gets what he wants."
The director is suitably unimpressed. "That the best you've got?"
Loki starts with unimportant things: he speaks of the Chitauri's weapons, their fleet structure, their tactics; all things the mortals have observed on their own by now. Amid wracking pains, he drags the telling out. It is a small, petty amusement, to be sure, but he may as well take what fun he can in aggravating his enemies.
It's a small consolation for the humiliation that he is so easily tired, just by speaking.
"We know all this," the director finally snaps, losing patience, and leans forward, hands on the foot of the bed. It's no doubt intended to be intimidating. "This... master of yours. Tell me about him."
"He is the end of everything," Loki says flatly.
"Cute. Real spooky. You wanna be a little more specific?"
"That depends." He fights back a wave of nausea. "What have you to offer me?"
There's a small, almost undetectable hint of smugness in the director's expression. "Why don't you tell me what you want, and we'll go from there."
So the mortal wants to hear him say it. Fine. Loki jerks his chin up, reminding himself that he is above these creatures. He has brought untold destruction to their lands. However... vulnerable he may appear, this mortal commander seems like he would welcome the excuse to slay him for his actions. "I want--"
Except. He is to deliver the Tesseract to the Chitauri. If he disobeys, they will know. If he even thinks of disobeying, they will know.
Now, he thinks urgently, but all his muscles are frozen. He swallows, and his throat aches around it, and he meets the director's gaze and says without emotion, "I want that magazine you offered me, for a start. I do hope it has pictures."
After a pause, the director says, "I see." His eye studies Loki a moment longer. "Why don't I leave you to think on that for a while."
Loki closes his eyes; he's not over-fond of the dark, recently, but the brightness of this room is harsh and dry. He listens to the departing footsteps and the thud of the door.
The air is sweltering. He plucks at his borrowed clothes and shifts restlessly. Everything hurts and he can taste failed magic bitter in the back of his throat.
When he was a child, Mother would lay cool cloths on his brow. Thor would skip training sessions to sit with him and tell him such glorious tales.
Thor can't help, this time.
He's floating in a haze of fire and claws. He thinks, please, please, and doesn't think what he's pleading for.
He wakes to a sensation like a cool river flowing through him. It sweeps him clean from head to toe, all his poisons washed clean by running waters. It feels like breathing fresh air. It feels like the crisp, cold winds of the north.
He blinks at the stranger standing over him. A human man, he thinks, one who practically sings with magecraft, who has one hand on the manacles and one on Loki's own hand.
"What are you..." Loki frowns, going colder still with suspicion. "What are you doing?"
It's Thor who answers, a few feet back from the other side of the bed. "Director Fury passed you into my custody. It was my decision."
Loki pulls his hand free and shoves the mage away. His body feels different and he fears he knows why. "What have you done?"
"Removed what was killing you," the mage says haughtily. "You're welcome, by the way."
There's a roaring in his ears. He touches his stomach. It seems less curved than before. There's an absence in it, not just of life but everything. He's been scooped out and scraped empty, molded once more by their insistent, demanding claws.
"Loki--" Thor starts.
There is nothing he wants less in this moment than to listen to Thor's self-righteous justifications. Loki measures the space between them and leaps, overturning the bed with a clatter. Careless of them to give his strength back. It means he can shove Thor against the wall and slam his arrogant, overbearing face--
Thor throws him back and Loki twists, breaking his fall as best he can with his hands still manacled together. He knew, he knew Thor wouldn't protect him, but he hadn't anticipated this. That Thor would have him unmade and reshaped and-- He snarls, lunging forward again.
"Loki, calm yourself!" Thor grabs him by the throat and pins him to the wall, making it shake. "I only did what was necessary."
Loki sweeps his arms up and into Thor's, breaking the hold; lets momentum carry him down into a crouch from which he can kick Thor's legs out from under him. Thor is armored and his own feet are bare, but if all he can do is pound Thor's face in he will do it eagerly. "Selfish... misbegotten... cur."
Thor throws him off with a rising growl; this time hard enough to break the wall, for Loki to land in another healers' room with his breath punched out of him. "You were dying!"
"So what?" As if anyone has tried to stop him before. Loki burns with fury. Thor is always so sure he knows best. "It was mine, you canting swine. You had no right. I said no, you heard me say no, and you just took it."
He may not have wanted or invited it, but it was his, and now it is gone. Not even dead, but wholly and utterly gone. Thor stripped him of his choices, did not allow him even one little thing to keep for himself. Not babe nor death nor his body unmeddled with. Was it so much to ask, to have one little thing to control? One thing outside of his obedience.
And now Thor is regarding him with pity, so patronizing, as if all of this is just further evidence of poor Prince Loki's madness.
No. Jotunn he may be, false son, captured sorcerer, but he is not some thing to be rearranged at the whims of all and sundry. He refuses. He will not take this - not from Thor.
Seething, Loki lowers his head, making a show of subservience. He climbs back through the wall, hands spread, placating. (The Chitauri would have had him crawl.) "Thor. Brother..."
And oh, how the tension just drains out of Thor at that, the fool so easily swayed by his hopes. Loki walks right up to him and whips his hands through the air, wrapping the chain on his wrists tight around Thor's neck.
Thor staggers, clutching at it with a sound of strangled surprise. Loki pulls on the chain as hard as he can, rising up onto the balls of his feet to whisper in his former brother's ear. "This I swear, Thor Odinson. Ragnarok may come, Yggdrasil may rot, but I will never, never forgive you for this."
He forgot the mortal mage, who lays a hand on the back of his neck and says, "Sleep."
The room he wakes in looks a lot more like a cell. The bed is low and narrow, and fused to the wall and floor. There's a complicated chamberpot made of piping, and a camera in the ceiling, and nothing else.
It's much easier to think now. If Thor brought a mage in, then perhaps... a moment of tender-heartedness... Loki holds his hands in the air and twists experimentally. The flesh pales, loses its marks and flaws; the nails are whole and unblemished.
Thor has had the manacles adjusted to allow him the dignity of his illusions.
Curious, Loki attempts to cloak himself from sight entirely. It works, after a fashion; the manacles themselves remain, hovering in the air to give him away. Not particularly useful.
Loki rises to his feet, trailing magic through his pores. He clothes himself in leather and armor once more, smooths out his hair, makes of himself the man he would be.
He smiles. Oh yes, he can work with this.
The 'Avengers' all meet to watch him depart. Thor brought him from his cell on the large vessel. (When Thor tried to greet him, Loki fashioned the image of a muzzle over his own mouth, to underscore his silence. Sometimes Thor needs things to be obvious.)
No one speaks. Loki considers making a farewell speech of his own - there are so many vicious little knives he could twist - but he doubts he would take much enjoyment from it. He's all too aware of the waiting Tesseract and what comes after.
Thor holds it out and Loki takes hold of the handle that has been fastened to it. Together, they twist--
--hurtle through the branches of Yggdrasil--
--and are elsewhere.
Thor stares around himself at the bleak, dead rock. "This isn't Asgard."
Oh, what a discerning eye. Loki rolls his own eyes, discarding the muzzle with a gesture. He is content to let Thor hold the Tesseract, for now. "You really shouldn't have let me have any magic."
Thor whirls on him. "Where have you brought us?"
Loki motions delicately. He can already see the Other sliding out from between the rocks.
"Asgardian," the creature hisses. "You were warned of the price of betrayal."
"Betrayal?" Loki widens his eyes, feigning hurt. "But I have brought you the Tesseract, as promised. Even though, might I add, your army completely failed to secure Midgard for me."
"Are you mad?" Thor demands in an urgent whisper, Mjolnir springing to his hand. "Why would you deliver yourself back to these--"
"Monsters?" Loki suggests out of the corner of his mouth. "I thought my madness was a foregone conclusion. Surely this cannot surprise you."
"Your information was flawed." The Other draws closer, clawed fingers flexing in a way that promises great pain. "You spoke of weak resistance and easy victory. You cost us many lives."
"There's another piece of information you didn't consider." Loki smiles with bared teeth. "Something all Asgardians know. There is a creature called a Jotunn. Barbaric, bestial--"
"Shut up, Thor. These creatures are a menace at the best of times. But all know that there is one time above all that the Jotunn is at is most savage. When the best that you might pray for is a quick and merciful death."
The Other makes an impatient noise. "Get to the point, Asgardian."
"My apologies." Loki goes smoothly to his knees, still smiling. "But really. You should never be near a mother Jotunn who has lost her young."
He leans forward to place the manacles against the ground, chain stretched out flat. "Now, Thor--" but Mjolnir is already swinging down, Thor ever quickwitted where battle is concerned. The chain shatters and Loki can feel the rush of power springing to his fingertips.
"Must you be put back in your place so soon?" the Other demands, and in it echoes a lifetime of know your place.
Loki conjures a pair of long, wicked knives. "Imbecile. Forever have I failed to be what others want of me. But I am Loki and I change for no one."
At last it has the wit to look threatened.
Loki laughs aloud, already thrilling to the blood he will spill. He lunges forward, calling over his shoulder to Thor. "Aid me and I might let you live."
"I need no excuse to make these foul beasts suffer," Thor growls, and Mjolnir starts to sing.
For all that might lie between them, Loki cannot deny that he and Thor fight well together. They've had centuries at one another's side, learning the steps to this dance. There are many Chitauri on this particular rock, and he and Thor cut a brutal, bloody swathe through them; without pause, without mercy. Each crumpled corpse makes him feel a little bit more like himself.
Loki hopes Odin is watching this.
He hopes Odin knows fear.