There was a rumour spreading through Asgard that the Vanir of Vanaheim had found someone from the inside of Asgard to help them with their proposed war on the Asen. Retaliation for the war so long ago when they had lost Asgard to them and had been exiled to Vanaheim.
Someone was helping them and Loki was missing.
Thor couldn't remember seeing his father this angry before, not even when he had been banished to Midgard. Come to think of it he had never been so angry either. After everything, after his near betrayal of Asgard, of their father, of Thor, Loki had again sold them out.
"This treacherous little bastard! What have I been thinking? Of course he would betray us!" Odin raged. "I nursed a snake on my breast!"
He made it public the next day that the traitor Loki was no longer his son. And Thor stood at his father's side and swore an oath that Loki was no longer his brother and that he would kill him for what he had done to them.
Only Frigga had stepped aside, saying nothing and sadly shaking her head.
The Vanir used a bone-old magic that would have fascinated Loki if at the moment it didn't made him weak like an ordinary human. The Vanir, too, knew about the hidden, secret paths in and out of Asgard but they had forgotten how to use them.
"How many does Odin command?" They were relentless in their interrogation but Loki clung to the thought that his brother and his father would come for him, so he shook his head. The guard hit him in the face and Loki could taste blood.
"How do we open the hidden paths to Asgard?" They threw him on the ground, kicked him in the stomach and the rips.
"Who guards the Bifröst?" Someone stepped on his hand and grinded his heel viciously.
"What are the weaknesses of the Asgardian defence?" Another blow to the head but this time not with a fist but with someone's boot.
They had been at this for more than a week if Loki wasn't mistaken.
"I don't think he responds well the light version." Loki laughed. Light? They had no idea about pain, he had had worse after a training fight with Thor and they really thought they could break him with this?
"Laugh all you want, pretty boy. Without your magic you're no match for us." His interrogator patted his bloody cheek. "We will get from you what we want."
"Never." Loki spat at him and tried to bite his hand.
"Oh, our pretty mare likes to bite." The Vanir stood up, turning to another. "Give him to the guards for the nights. Maybe a strong rider can break him in."
Loki closed his eyes when rough hands stripped him of his remaining clothes.
"Father, everything I have done, I did for Asgard. You said you understand. I am your son, please don't leave me here. Thor, I was jealous and I hurt you but I love you. You said once you would always find me and bring me back home, no matter where I was. Please find me here as well."
The next day they came with a sorcerer who carved symbols into Loki's flesh. Rune magic as old as the Vanir themselves. A thing of beauty where magic was concerned.
It tore Loki's flesh apart, drowned him in his own body and set his skin alight with fire.
But he still wouldn't talk, wouldn't answer a single question.
They kept him in the rune magic, sometimes mingled with actual, physical pain and the guards having their fun with him at night.
They gave him water but not food and soon he was half-delirious from the pain and the hunger.
"Your stubbornness won't do you any good. No one will come for you."
"My father will. And my brother, too." Loki was tempted to bite the arm that held him down, to see if he could eat Vanir flesh.
"Odin disowned you. Asgard is closed forever to the traitor Loki. And Thor swore to kill you for your betrayal."
"Lies!" Loki yelled with surprising strength.
"You would know, wouldn't you, silver tongue?" The Vanir laughed derisively. "See, they think you went with us voluntarily. No one will come. And should you escape there's nowhere for you to go."
"Lies." Loki repeated but the Vanir merely smiled. The seed of doubt was planted. The rest was just a matter of time. The Vanir had waited ages for their revenge, what difference could a few weeks make?
Odin declared war on the Vanir and Vanaheim and assembled his army to strike before they could get the upper hand over the Asen with Loki's help.
It was a long and bloody slaughter, the Vanir were excellent warriors not thump creatures like the ice giants.
Thor only had eyes for Loki. Before the battle he had made clear that Loki's head was his and no one else's. His betrayal had stung deeper than Thor could admit even to himself. After he had brought Loki back from earth he had honestly believed that things could go back to the old ways that they could be friends, brothers again.
The castle in the lake was important, rune shimmering on every surface inside and outside. Thor wondered with deep, black fury if Loki had hidden here, hoping no one would find him.
The thought gave Thor new strength and he marched through the ranks of the guards, slaying them without stopping. Loki was here, he could feel it.
"You are the mighty Thor, then." A Vanir stepped into his way, not a guard but one of their sorcerers, Thor could see the runes glowing on his skin. "Came for you brother, didn't you?"
"Loki is no brother of mine."
"Oh, that will crush him." The Vanir mocked. "He was so sure that you would come for him. But, you might as well not have bothered. There is nothing really left of him. Nothing worth saving at least."
Thor grabbed the Vanir by his armour. "What do you mean?"
"Did you ever even consider the possibility that Loki didn't betray you?" The Vanir asked and laughed right into Thor's face. Thor dropped him to the ground, trying to come to terms with the Vanir's words.
One door was especially heavily guarded both by Vanir and by runes. Thor opened it and found Loki shackled to the floor, his body barely covered by rags. Thor had seen many things in his life but the sight of his brother and the realisation of his own failure and guilt made him physically sick. He retched into a corner of the room, wiping his mouth before he turned to his brother again.
The runes weakened him as well but he smashed the shackles with Mjölnir and kneeled down next to Loki who stirred.
"Loki." He said softly, touching his cheek gently. Loki opened his eyes and when he saw Thor he gave him a tiny smile.
"I knew you would come." He whispered, looking so happy to see Thor that it broke Thor's heart. "I knew what they said wasn't true."
"It's all well, brother." Thor said, caressing his cheek. "I will bring you home." Loki closed his eyes again but the small smile stayed on his lips while tears were running down Thor's face as he picked up Loki in his arms and carried him outside.
Odin saw his warriors parting to let Thor through who carried Loki's lifeless body in his arms and Odin felt an immense sorrow that it had come this far before reminding himself that Loki had betrayed them. He tried to harden his heart with that thought.
Then the two came nearer and Odin could see that there were wounds on Loki's body that couldn't come from a fight with Thor...runes carved into Loki's skin and the awful truth began to dawn on him.
"Is he...?" He asked fearfully when Thor approached.
"No, but father, we were so...I thought..." Thor couldn't speak, breaking out into sobs and Odin had never seen his son so desolate.
"We were wrong." Odin said slowly, realising his dreadful mistake. Thor nodded silently, clutching Loki's body even closer.
The chambers of healing were a quite peaceful place but they did little to ease Thor's guilty mind. Most of Loki's injuries were healed easily but the runes were too powerful and had to heal on their own while washed with the liquid of the golden apples to prevent scars that would bind Loki to them forever. Thor had refused to let anyone else look after his brother, washing the wounds himself, gentle and careful, and dressed them in the softest bandages available.
Odin had come, sat at his son's bed and held his hand for the longest time, guilt written all over his face. A guilt Thor could understand too well. They had both been too rash in their judgement. Odin himself had seen to the interrogation of the prisoners they had made at the castle Loki had been held and they had all agreed that Loki hadn't told them a single thing, hadn't been broken by the weeks of pain and hunger.
There was no way either of them could ever repay Loki the loyalty and trust he had shown to Asgard and to his family. Thor was painfully aware of the fact that during the disaster surrounding his exile Loki might have been a jealous bastard but he had only done what he had thought was for the good of Asgard.
Frigga spent even more time with Loki than Thor if that was even possible. She fed him soup and sang for him to lull him back into sleep when he woke from another violent nightmare, stroking his hair and speaking to him in soft tones.
Thor was grateful for her presence which allowed both him and Odin to avoid most conversations with Loki that inevitably would end ugly because Loki was not only a good liar but also extremely talented in detecting when someone lied to him.
Odin and Thor had both publicly denounced their vows against Loki and told the true events but the damage was done and it was only a matter of time until rumours would reach Loki one way or another.
"How are you feeling?" Thor asked. The runes had faded to angry red stood out ugly against Loki's pale skin but would be faded soon enough and Loki was healthy enough to leave the bed if only for a short time and only when someone was with him. Thor, Frigga and Odin, knowing about Loki's tendency not to listen to advice when he thought he knew better, made sure that one of them was always with Loki.
"I'm fine, you don't need to mother hen me." Loki complained. He was still too thin and his old clothes hung on him like on a stick figure.
"I wouldn't do it if you didn't need it." Thor smiled sunnily at the dark look Loki was giving him, but the guilt gnawed deep in his insides. He didn't deserve this, didn't deserve this at all. Loki walked over to the window and Thor followed him, a hand resting on the small of Loki's back just in case his brother's step should falter.
"You know when they held me captive, "Loki began, looking outside It was the first time he spoke to Thor about his imprisonment. "They wanted to make me believe that father and you wouldn't come for me. That you had denounced me and branded me a traitor." His tone was light but Loki had to stop and close his eyes for a moment to strengthen himself against the memory. He was grateful when Thor stepped closer, his brother's presence warm and protective against his back. "And when you didn't came I had doubts, "he hated to confess this but he had sworn honesty to Thor when he had returned from Midgard, "but then I remembered how you had embraced me when you found me on Midgard and told me that you would always find me, "he turned around to face Thor, "that gave me strength." He was pulled into a rough hug and he didn't understand why his brother was crying but he hoped that his confession would help to get rid of the expression of guilt that had plagued Thor's face since he had rescued him from Vanaheim.