Author's Note: Every time I think I have hit the limit of how self-indulgent my fic can get, I discover a new boundary. And then I write it. I am - almost sorry. Probably. Maybe. Someday I will stop, I swear.
And this, Loki reminded himself, was why he couldn't trust anyone. No one. Only himself. Because every attempt at collaboration always ended like this, with his allies du jour thinking that they could put a knife in his back. Occasionally, when they were particularly foolish, literally.
He had been dodging assassins since before most of them were a gleam in their grandparents' eyes. He had seen corners of the universe they could not even imagine. He had survived creatures that were madness to look upon.
And they thought-
His hand left a smear of blood on the wall and Loki stared at it for a moment in blank concern before registering that it was not, in fact, his. That had been their mistake. They had thought him weak, they had thought him pathetic, they had thought they could hope to bring him low with some concoction of human chemicals.
They knew otherwise now. Or would, if there were any of them still alive. Loki could not be certain he had been entirely thorough. And he was-
Well. Not entirely fine.
Loki listed to the side and caught himself on the wall. The floor bucked and heaved under his feet, and he watched green sparks play around his hands in peculiarly mesmerizing patterns.
Perhaps not truly all that close to fine.
Fool, he thought. No, the floor was steady. His head was what was spinning, in dizzy reels, like dancing. Dancing? He hadn't been dancing for a while. That was a pity. Perhaps later?
The world, he realized, had suddenly become full of bright spots. He had a moment to appreciate it before the heel side kicked in.
Loki doubled over and vomited thin bile and what he estimated was a half-pint of blood onto the floor.
"Huh," he said. That did not seem to bode well. If he could just focus a bit better perhaps he could remember just what it was the little man had been saying in the moments as he gloated before Loki snapped his neck. Ah, yes, he had it. We don't need you alive. Your corpse should be plenty for our purposes.
Human arrogance. Of course.
There was a curious numbness tingling in his fingertips.
Then again, perhaps not.
His stomach clenched, heaved, and knotted. He could feel his heart racing so it seemed to batter against his ribs. Damn, he thought succintly, and sank towards the floor, vision greying out in a faintly disconcerting sort of way. Perhaps I should have asked about an antidote before killing them.
Bit late now.
The thread of his thoughts snapped and unspooled into blankness.
Someone was trawling through his guts with claws of white-hot metal. Loki panted emptily, mouth dry as bone, and distantly thought he might have heard himself whimper as his muscles seized.
Heimdall, open the Bifrost, Loki thought frantically, and then almost laughed aloud. Because that would work. Norns, he felt awful. Worse than he had since- since.
His mind was blurry and wandering. A while, he was quite sure.
His heart was thudding in the stone underneath his ear. Buried somewhere underground. He was going to need that back, Loki thought dizzily. Probably sooner rather than later. Then again, it seemed to be a great deal of trouble. Perhaps not. Maybe he could give it to Thor for safekeeping.
Thor! His eyes snapped open – or dragged open, like they were sealed shut by thick mud. Thor was going to come and, and –
It seemed there ought to be something dreadful at the end of that sentence, but all he could think was and throw me in the pond, again, and it wasn't even my fault.
He thought he could hear his heart break into a gallop through the stone. Four beats, just like a horse. Or eight, for Sleipnir, he thought. But Odin wasn't there. Odin wouldn't come. Odin hadn't come, never, not for him. If it had been Thor-
Old bitterness and past. Do you not feel it? On your back. A beast pressing you down. It will smother you, it will swallow you, and no one will save you.
But Loki knew that. Had known it for a while. There was no use in expecting anyone else to save him. Rely only on yourself and the only one to be disappointed in..no, he stood alone. Lived or died on his own lack thereof.
You are going to die, said the man, his head hanging at a bizarre angle from his mangled neck. You are going to die, and there is no one in any of the nine realms who will care.
Well, Loki thought blurrily. Maybe one.
Loki clawed his way through the void out of sheer stubbornness and emerged on the other side of it breathing in thin, shallow gasps. He rolled over and pushed himself to hands and knees in time to avoid choking on mingled blood and bile.
Stand up. Pull yourself together. (You shouldn't have come here. Why are you here, what are you doing-)
Bed, he registered. That he might use. Loki dragged himself to his feet and half fell, half crawled onto it. He could feel himself shaking so if his jaw were not clamped closed he thought his teeth would clatter together like a set of dice.
The sheets smelled like Thor.
Loki curled up in a nest of them. His muscles spasmed in another cramp and he bit back the desire to scream. He dug his nails into his palms until they broke skin. This will pass, he told himself. You've endured worse, haven't…
A thin whine squeezed from his throat. He could feel the venom, whatever it was they had given him, searing in every vein, flensing blood vessels open from inside, and there was the yawning darkness, waiting. Wanting. He felt truly wretched.
And this, Loki thought dizzily, it is is what comes of trust, fool, if you die-
I don't want to die, he thought, plaintively.
"You will not," said a clear and familiar voice from his bedside. Loki forced his head to turn.
"Mother?" slipped out of him before he could remember to correct it. Her eyes on him were cold with traces of iron.
"I mothered two sons," she said distantly. "You wear the face of the second but he has died. You are not mine. You are not him. You are an evil spirit wrapped around his bones. You are-"
Loki covered his ears like a child, and she slapped him. He felt the sting. "For shame," she said, voice not muffled in the least. "You. Wretch. Mewling coward." Her voice was changing, altering, deepening. That wasn't right, was it? "You-"
"—have failed me," the Allfather. Loki's bones seemed to echo in resonance with his voice, or maybe that was another twist of pain grinding through him. "You were a tool to be used. You presumed to have your own will other than mine. You will come back. You have no other place."
I don't have a place with you, Loki thought bitterly. That's just it, I never did. He couldn't. Couldn't breathe. All the air choked and locked in his lungs-
He pressed his face into Thor-smelling sheets. There was something he had meant to do. Something important. But he couldn't remember now. Perhaps, he thought as the world greyed out, it would come back later.
He surfaced from nauseous, fragmented dreams to a shadow looming over him and roaring. Fear swamped him like a wave flipping a small boat and he moved to skitter away, reaching for his magic. Or that was his intent.
Rather foiled by the tangle of blankets he had wrapped around himself at some point, and the flare of protest from cramping muscles as he tried to move that combined together ended with him moving not at all. Even his magic betrayed him, eluding him like a book just out of reach.
Loki's whole body shuddered, teeth clattering together. He squeezed his eyes closed, fighting the urge to claw his skin open to relieve the itch. "He came here to be safe!" the beast bawled. "I will not have it taken advantage of-"
Thor, Loki realized. Was that – oh. He ought to…there was something there, probably important. Thor will fix it, soothed a thoroughly childish voice. Or at least hit it until it goes away. That wasn't it, that wasn't…right.
"And what about the fact that he's covered in blood? Are we just ignoring that?"
"It is not his-"
"Yeah, that's exactly what worries me, how do you know this isn't some kind of-"
Loki wished they would make sense. Or else not talk, or talk more quietly, or talk elsewhere. He wanted Thor. No, that wasn't right. He wasn't allowed to want Thor. Because…because why? His thoughts were such a tangle. He wanted to unsnarl them, and wasn't certain how. His stomach heaved again and Loki distantly heard himself make a small and thoroughly pathetic sound. Wretch, he thought, vciously, with something nearing hatred.
Thor's roaring voice, too close. "Loki? Loki, brother, do you hear me?" A deaf whale at a thousand leagues could hear you, Loki thought, but it did not quite reach his lips. Seemed to get lost partway there. "What illlness has taken you?"
Thor's hand, then, on his forehead, so gloriously warm. He heard Thor swear.
"He's freezing," Thor said, sounding alarmed, and Loki felt the urge to giggle. Well, of course. You do know what I am, don't you? The magic's probably wearing thin, wearing off, I wonder if I did die if I would die looking like one of the Aesir or- "Something is very wrong," and Thor sounded so worried.
That was nice.
"No shit something's wrong, what's wrong is that your supervillain adopted brother is nesting in my tower-"
"Tony!" If only he could keep track of what it was he was supposed to remember. "Thor, what are you saying?"
"I haven't seen Loki like this since," Thor started to say, and then someone had transformed his intestines into snakes that were trying to crawl out of his body through his ribs, and he lost Thor's voice in his own screaming.
They'll pay, Loki thought desperately, and tried to ignore the faint, snide voice that responded, they're all dead already.
When he came around again, his mind felt a little clearer, but his body felt as though it had been pounded by Mjolnir repeatedly and with great vehemence. He kept his eyes closed and tried to breathe evenly.
Ah, damn. So he hadn't imagined that. He tried to keep his breathing even, to mimic sleep.
"Loki, if you are with me, I need to speak with you."
So much for that. He reached for his magic and let it flow through him, warm him. Wasn't certain at the moment that he could do more than that, but they hadn't bound it (likely didn't have the means) and that was something.
"Speak," Loki said, though his tongue felt heavy and unwieldy. He forced his eyes open and found Thor's face lit up with relief. His stomach heaved and Loki squeezed his eyes closed again. His thoughts blurred and veered sharply sideways. Perhaps not so much better, then. "Though attempt to keep it brief."
He shouldn't be here.
"We have been trying to…you are unwell." Really, Loki thought, because my turning to you didn't make my addled mind clear enough. "Poisoned, by some…Dr. Banner has been attempting to develop an antidote for my sake."
Oh, Norns. "Not necessary," Loki bit out. "I feel much better already." Weak as a kitten. Tremors trying to course through his muscles. Much better, indeed. He could almost feel Thor frown, and wished…
"I am not certain that is…you have had these periods of clarity before, only to sink once more into senselessness." Before. Loki searched back through his memory, trying to recall, and could come up with nothing.
"How long," he forced himself to ask. What had he been thinking, to come to Thor for refuge, for safety, crawl weakened into the den of his enemies, it was a miracle they had not put him down like a dog. Or Thor's interference, perhaps, and that was worse, owing his life to his lout of a false brother.
This is what comes of trust, he reminded himself. Don't forget it again.
"Five days, now, since I found you in my bed," Thor said, and he sounded worried. "I have not seen you so sick in an age, brother. What-"
Five days. Five days lost. "Do not. Call me that. Humans are not trustworthy," he said. "They are not…"He swallowed, hard, but his cautious exhale still tasted like bile. "Tell me…are you certain they make an antidote?" He forced his mouth to a thin, brittle smile. "Or a better poison?"
Thor jerked back. "I would never allow-"
If only he were not so tired. If only he did not hurt, if only he were stronger. If they do kill you it will be your own fault. But no, no, they would not, that would be. Morally reprehensible. Of course. He rasped a bitter laugh. "As if," he said mockingly, "What you allow or do not allow has ever made much of a difference."
"Tell me how I may help," Thor said, and he sounded anxious, almost frightened, even through the roaring beginning in Loki's ears. He heard himself laugh, short and harsh.
"You cannot," he said. "You cannot, and perhaps that is punishment enough, that I die before you and you are helpless despite all your so-called love."
"You will not die," Thor said, "I will not-" and Loki lost the rest of it as his head began to crack wide open.
Oh, but I will, he thought wildly, desperately, clamping his teeth together so he didn't scream. I will die, and the world, your world, will turn on without me, because I never really mattered, did I? I know that, though, I know my place, I always have- Thor was calling for someone, and Loki hoped it wasn't him, because he didn't think himself capable of answering.
"—a HYDRA nest. Gutted. Every person in there really very dead, looked like they were in the middle of cooking up something nasty…"
You are still in your enemies' laps. And still a fool. He could feel a heavy hand in his hair. Thor, of course, sentimental Thor, no-personal-space Thor, handsy Thor –
It felt rather nice. His head thudded in counterpoint with his heartbeat, of which he was too aware. He wondered if the poison was meant to be slow, or if they'd miscalculated. Wondered, briefly, what they'd intended to do with him if this slowness was intentional, and wanted to laugh, bitterly.
"You think that they are the ones responsible?" Thor's voice, thunder in his bones.
"Looks that way, though it's not like we can ask."
"If this is their doing they deserve their comeuppance. Attempting to betray an ally-"
"Some ally. But I'm not going to actually argue that one. Didn't really like the looks of that basement."
"Don't ask, buddy. Just don't." Loki heard someone exhale. "You seriously think he came here because…because why?" Thor was quiet for a moment. His fingers moved to stroke through Loki's haira little, and that felt much better than it should have. It'd been a while, he thought. Since anyone had touched him so gently, since anyone had done these small things that had once let him believe he was loved.
He didn't want it now. (But he did.)
"I do not know," Thor said, finally. "I hope to get the chance to ask."
Their voices softened, slurred, blurred. More clearly, beside his ear, "Wretch." Laufey's voice, with that strange Jotun echo. You're dead, Loki thought, I killed you, but saying that seemed likely to make him angry. "Useless, puling lump of flesh. What are you good for?"
It did seem to be, particularly at the moment, a fairly valid question. And one there was probably an answer to, but he couldn't seem to recall it at the moment. Another Thor from somewhere near his feet said, "I liked you better when I thought you were dead."
That figured. After all, the only thing wrong with his life was him.
Thor's fingers curled in his hair. "Dash out his brains," Sif suggested. She sounded bored. "It's not amusing anymore."
Laufey's cold fingers wrapped around his throat. Loki could feel the wash of his other skin like a spreading sickness as his true father hissed, "It is a virtue to know when to die. Let me teach you."
It took him a few moments to long to realize that he couldn't breathe. His eyes opened wide but there was nothing to see but the dark, and he was falling, falling forever and ever and-
(and Thor's huge blue eyes staring into his and Loki thought frantically, look away, look away from me, I never wanted you to see me like this and understand my worth-)
He let it all go. It wasn't worth holding on.
Once, when he was very young, he'd been bitten by a small, reptilian creature native to Alfheim. It had been a startling feeling, more a sting than a bite, but he'd woken in the middle of the night with his world shrunk down to nothing but pain. It was not deadly, he'd been told later, in itself. Most of the creature's victims died ripping themselves apart to try to end the pain.
He remembered little of the ordeal with clarity, but for one bright, searing flash of screaming at his mother, begging her to let him die.
This was worse.
"Brother, you must remain calm-"
"I don't think he's hearing you – this is not worth it! As far as stupid ideas go this might be one of the worse ones-"
He was burning and freezing all at once, flashing between hot and cold too swiftly to tell the difference but for slightly altered flavors of pain. The very fibers at the core of him were coming apart, unraveling and soon there would be nothing left of him at all, he would simply dissolve into blood and skin and bitterness.
"Please, do something. He is burning, I cannot-"
It rippled through him like waves and he was a fish being raised by the water only to be dashed on the rocks, split open and dissected into fragments, laid out on a table and examined by eyes like knives. He wanted to be gone. Yearned for unconsciousness. It was a mercy that would not come.
"Thor, stay calm. I've almost got it, swear to god I've almost-"
He could hear, dimly, a high keening sound. It didn't sound like him but he knew it was. Could feel it vibrating in his throat. He was flesh, nothing more. To be rent and torn apart and let there be an end to this, let it be over, let it all-
"Brother." Thor's voice, close to his ear. "All will be mended. You will be well again."
No, Loki thought dizzily. I won't, and I don't care. I just want it to be done. Kill me, if that will end it. Cut me open and remove this sorry, stubborn heart. Not even I would mourn it.
"Okay, I think I've got it, Thor, hold him down, okay?"
Couldn't move couldn't think couldn't do anything but hurt and amidst it all he didn't even feel the moment when it changed and it was like ice on a burn. Sweet. Cold. Wiping everything away. Washing him clean and leaving nothing behind.
Nothing. Clean, blank, nothing.
They could have killed him and it wouldn't have mattered, because at least the pain was gone.
Loki opened his eyes.
He did not feel strong or hale, but there was no pain, and that was remarkable enough. And so strange, by now, that for a moment he didn't understand. He was warm and comfortable, and there was a whisper in the back of his mind of safe. Safe, as he had not been for so long.
You have been through a long sickness, he thought. A devouring fever. But now it has passed. All will be well.
He rolled to his side with a faint groan as aching muscles protested, and froze. Thor was sitting in a chair against the wall of the room, the room most certainly not his own, Mjolnir across his knees and watching him with an expression that Loki, alarmingly, could not read.
No. The fever dream had been in coming here and throwing himself on Thor's mercy. The sickness had been in whatever thoughts had drawn him to seek his enemy for solace because once so very long ago…
"Loki," said Thor, in his low rumble of a voice. "Brother. You wake."
He reached for his magic, groped for it. Still there. Still so weak, like a blanket just out of reach, comfort not quite obtainable. He couldn't run. Loki stared dully at Thor, waiting.
"…you are awake," Thor said, sounding slightly more uncertain, and Loki twitched.
"So it would seem." He could feel tension thrumming in his body. A low and constant hum, what will they do to you, you cannot trust to mercy, you should not be here. You never should have been here.
"And you are…"
"Rejoice." Loki made his voice flat and dull. "You appear to have healed what ailed me. Do you expect me to grovel at your feet?" Thor's face fell. It would have been comical if it didn't make some lingering part of Loki ache. "Does it taste sweet to you to have your enemy in your debt?"
"You are not my enemy," Thor said, all implacable determination despite the disappointment visible in his eyes. "You may call yourself such and fight against me, but it will not make it so. You are my brother. You will always be my brother. That will never change."
It already has, Loki felt the urge to snap. You merely refuse to see, but the words would not come from his throat. "What do you want of me," he snarled instead, pushing himself to a sitting position, the words seeming to choke in his throat.
"I asked my shield companions to save your life because I would not see you die," Thor said, every word weighted and solemn and honest. "I want you to live. I want you to know how well I love you. I want-"
Loki jerked to his feet, wobbled, and kept them. Tore the lines that fed into the veins of his arm free and dropped them, ignoring the shrilling alarm. "Stop," he hissed. "They call me Silvertongued and yet you would spin such tales. You want what cannot be. You appeal to weakness in me that I have burned away. The brother you loved fell. I am not he. I am better, I am stronger, and I will see the ruin of all you hold most dear."
Thor stood as well, and lifted Mjolnir in one fist. Loki tensed, eyes flicking to the weapon, imagining it brought down to crush his chest or hold him to the floor, pinned and helpless. "I know that is not so."
"Oh," said Loki, with perfect acidity. "Do you? What of your wisdom tells you so, Thor Thunderer? What of your infinite understanding lets you know my mind better than I do?"
"You came to me, Loki," Thor said, and his voice was almost a rumble.
Loki's mind froze, stuttered, stopped. In that moment, when it mattered most, he had no answer.
"I did not take you to Asgard," Thor said, quietly. "I do not think their punishments will heal you. This realm taught me the lesson I needed to learn, and I hope that it will do the same for you. That someday I will know you once again, and embrace you. Fight with you by my side. And I will keep your place till then, the hole at my right hand that no other can fill."
Loki's mouth opened, but there was nothing behind it. Thor's eyes met his, calm and level and so achingly familiar. "In your pain and need, despite all that has happened between us, you came to me," he said. "I will not forget." The alarm was still shrilling. The others were coming. Thor stood looking at him, and did not raise Mjolnir.
Loki reached scrabbling for his magic and found it at last, flooding into him like fire. Then he fled, and stood swaying in the dark between worlds, thoughts tangled in a snarl to which he could not find the end. Hovered on the brink of an edge he did not dare to step off.
In your pain and need, you came to me.
Loki found a quiet place and curled up there to rest, thoughts still spinning, wheels within wheels. It had been a mistake. An error in judgment he would not make again. A slip brought about by the delirium of poison. He could lie to himself a thousand different ways, and would. But it still remained…
With no place left to go, he had run to the one place he'd thought he might be safe, without thought, only instinct deeper than knowledge.
And he had been safe. Protected and made well.
Thor wasn't the only one who wouldn't forget. Much as he might want to, there was a greater part of him that didn't. That would hold to this small thing. Let himself be grateful. Let himself, very, very seldom, miss Thor.
Because the world was so often cold and empty and most of all lonely. Because there were so many unworthy of trust that he had nigh forgotten how it felt.
Because in the end, there would never be anyone else.