Two days hence, Thor was napping on Loki's cot (Loki was not inclined to use it himself, or sleep at all, and given his nightmares Thor thought that decision one of his more rational, in the balance) when he felt as much as heard Loki start out of the latest reverie he had fallen into. Thor sat up, rubbing his eyes clear as he asked, "What is it—"
"Shh," Loki motioned for silence, standing beneath the metal barricading the cell's exit with his head cocked. Thor listened as well and heard footsteps coming down the corridor, not as evenly matched as the guards marching on their usual rounds.
Over the approaching footsteps, muttered voices were growing louder, "—yes, I'm sure this is it; what dwarf would forget his way through a tunnel? The very idea!"
Thor frowned; that voice sounded familiar. Though not as well-known as the softer reply, "...sure you are right, but please, lower your voice, before we're over—"
"Sif?" Thor called, raising his own voice to carry through the ceiling's barrier. "Is that you?"
"Thor?" The footsteps sped up, then stopped overhead, and two faces appeared behind the barricade: Sif, and next to her the dwarf Fjalar, peering down at them.
"So you are here, Thor!" Fjalar said, triumphant. "And Loki, too, excellent! May we come down?"
Thor looked to Loki, who looked back at him, bemused, but made no indication of protest. So Thor gestured to lower the metal stairs into the cell, and Fjalar bustled down, with Sif following behind him in full armor, her sword sheathed at her side. She stood at Fjalar's shoulder like a bodyguard as the dwarf swiveled between Thor and Loki as if unsure who to address, saying, "So, excuse us for barging in like this—"
"If you'll excuse me for having no food or drink to offer my guests," Loki said in turn. It would have been all right if he'd stopped there, but he had to add a properly courteous nod, and Thor snorted before he could stop himself.
"Quit that, brother," he said. "It's ridiculous to make a better host as a prisoner than you would have in your own rooms. Besides, it's not true; there's food and drink both," and Thor waved at the breakfast the guards had brought an hour ago, the bread and milk untouched as usual. That argument Thor had not given up on, and Loki grimaced slightly at Thor's look.
"Oh," Fjalar said cheerfully, "do you mind?" so Thor tossed the dwarf the heel of the fresh-baked loaf, which he tore into readily.
Thor hoped that show of appetite might encourage Loki's own, but Loki was watching Sif instead. He had drawn himself up, straight-backed and pale, his black-clothed figure taller than Sif's shining silver. Sif stared back at him, watchful; her hand was on her sword's hilt.
"So," Thor said, jovially loud as he thumped Fjalar and Sif on the shoulders in greeting, "what brings you down here?"
Fjalar swallowed the last bit of bread and grinned back up at him, remarking, "Well, at least he's not acting bespelled, eh, Lady Sif?"
Sif's nostrils flared, one of the few signs of infuriation she'd yet to conquer; her eyes darted to Thor and immediately back to Loki. "Bespelled?" Thor asked, frowning.
"He is not," Loki said, burning cold as his blue Jotunn form. "My magic is greatly limited by this cell's wards; it's why I'm kept here still."
"We knew that you were under no enchantment, Thor, else we would have come sooner," Sif said stiffly.
"But there's those at the court who'll be most relieved to hear it!" Fjalar said. "What with their prince having entirely disappeared for the last two days."
Thor could feel Loki's sidelong glower upon him; this had been an argument, too. "I've been at the dinner feasts—"
"Only long enough to eat," Sif said, "and then you're gone again, with scarcely a word to any of us—"
"You can have them," Loki interrupted. "He's had far too many words for me; it's quite exhausting."
Sif's still face did not reflect a glimmer of Loki's sardonic smirk. "I will not bandy words with you as if we are friends. Thor may call you brother and treat you like one; but you are not my kin, and you tried to kill me and those I hold dear, as well as moved against Asgard."
"Oh, but who moved against Asgard first?" Loki asked, smirk falling as his voice sharpened like an icy blade. "Who defied their rightful king, committed treason against the throne—"
"You did," Sif said, evenly, though her neck flushed, "when you brought the Jotunn into Asgard—for the first time—"
"Sif," Thor said, "Loki, stop this," and he stepped between them, tall enough to block both their glares. He looked back first at Loki, said, "Brother, please do not hone your tongue's dagger on my friends. You've no need to provoke them to further ire; they hate you too much already." Then he turned back to Sif, asked her, "Sif, Loki is my brother still, and for that, I entreat you as my friend to bend your honor and ignore him."
Sif looked at him long, then nodded. "For you, Thor; as long as it's understood that I'm only setting aside his offenses, not relinquishing them."
"It's understood," Thor said, not knowing how to tell her that Loki would not want her to relinquish his crimes: that Loki had not the strength now to take up that burden, if she dropped it.
Thor did not exactly understand it himself. He only knew that in the past two days, whenever their conversation approached what Loki had done on Asgard or on Midgard, it would bring a wildness to Loki's eyes, a coldness to his voice—a brittle cold, like walking on thin ice. And sometimes that ice cracked and the words that came bubbling and rushing from Loki seemed out of his control, too fast and raging a flood to channel. Thor did not assume their unruliness made them true—they could not all be true; Loki would contradict himself from one sentence to the next, claim he hated the Tesseract and then beg for it, laugh at the Chitauri's annihilation even as he cursed his defeat.
But lies or truths, Loki would drown in them, until he stopped—until he was stopped, Thor cutting him off. One time he had to put his hand over Loki's mouth to silence him, because he would not otherwise.
Afterwards Loki would be left wan and trembling, gasping for breath as if he had drowned for real; and ashamed, avoiding Thor's eyes and turning from him. It was that shame more than anything that made Thor believe it was not an act. Loki had his pride still, but it was so tentatively balanced on his unstable mind, on his unsteady heart. Sometimes Thor thought he desired the Tesseract for the sake of that pride more than anything else, thinking its fearful strength better than his weakness now.
Except that Loki was not weak—Thor had never thought his brother so, and not now either. Thor remembered too well the Tesseract's power, his inability to resist it, but this was more than that dark magic. Loki's words had always been his weapon and his shield at once; but now his words were not always his to wield.
Mjolnir had been taken from Thor before, with he unworthy to lift it, but this—Thor could not imagine going into battle and being unsure of his weapon, not knowing if the hammer would strike foe as he intended or friend instead, or himself. With such uncertainty he did not know if he'd have the courage to swing it at all. That Loki still spoke anyway, still tried to weave his lies around the gaps of his madness—it was foolish, Thor thought; but terribly brave, too.
No, Loki was not weak; but he was wounded now, as badly hurt in mind and spirit as ever Thor had seen men maimed in body on the battlefield. Thor was no healer anyway, and knew even less how to tend injuries such as his brother suffered. But he knew from hard experience that going into combat not yet healed would only reopen the wounds, infect and worsen them.
So before Loki could engage Sif again, Thor said to her and Fjalar, "My friends, what brings you here? Was there some reason you wished to see me?"
"Not you, in fact," Fjalar said, "that's just happy coincidence; it's your brother we were wanting," and he beamed up at Loki as if Loki's cool glare were a welcoming smile. "We're refining the cage for the cube, you see, and there's been a few arguments—look, here," and from his tunic the dwarf pulled a sheaf of papers, dropped to his knees to arrange them across the floor as he talked, "this leftmost spiral curls inwardly, and I naturally assumed it was to feed the ley line back into itself, but a few noisy types—my wife among them—are insisting it's projecting to the opposite—"
Loki stared down at the dwarf and his papers, brow knitted. "You realize," he said, carefully measured, as if he were talking to someone slow-witted, "that any advice I gave you was ultimately for the purpose of activating the Bifrost, so I might take advantage and escape."
Fjalar rocked back on his haunches to peer up at Loki's looming shadow, tugging his beard thoughtfully. "Obviously," he said, "but just as obviously, to pull that off, you needed to know as much about both the Tesseract and the Rainbow Bridge as any of us crafters. That none of us figured out in time what you were doing lends credence to the supposition that you know more than us. And it would be a shame to let such knowledge go to waste, when you're still here to have your brain picked."
Loki blinked. Thor thought his face looked like nothing so much as a cat who'd cornered a mouse, then had its intended prey present it with a perfectly smelt fish. "You mean to say," Loki said finally, "you'd collaborate with me again, knowing my intent?"
Fjalar shrugged. "Master Adalsteinn's against it, and I wouldn't say all my crew are jumping to work with you—though the way the Bifrost grew after that mess did smooth a flock's worth of ruffled feathers. Besides, you're a prisoner; it's only expected that you'd try to escape. This time, though," and he grinned, white teeth showing behind his bushy beard, "it's a matter of pride that we don't get fooled again. So do your worst, trickster, and let's see if our wits measure up."
Loki studied him, mouth flattening in a manner that Thor had not often seen: Loki gave his respect rarely, and begrudged it. But he knelt before Fjalar's pages, picked one from the spread and said, "Aridva had it right; this curve projects rather than contains..."
Having no understanding of the magic or engineering, Thor stopped listening, and went to sit on the unused cot. Sif was watching Loki and the dwarf, her hand still on her sword's hilt. Thor did not try to dissuade her to release it, but motioned for her to join him, and Sif took a seat beside him on the cot, her scabbard hanging off the side in easy reach.
Thor nodded at her, asked, "So did you come to see me, Sif? Since you're not here for Loki."
"I came to escort Ambassador Fjalar in the dungeon," Sif said. "In case of trouble, if the guards happened across us. He petitioned to speak with Loki, but the All-Father refused—not wrongly, I thought. But Fjalar..."
"He's very...insistent, when he thinks he has the right of something," Thor said. "Even for a dwarf."
"And I wanted to see you besides," Sif said. "While I knew the rumors of your enchantment now could not be true," though from the penetrating look she gave Thor, she perhaps had not entirely disbelieved them, either, "I wanted to know if you really were here, with Loki."
"For the last couple of days, mostly, yes."
"Your mother thought you've not been back to your chambers, even."
"I've slept here," Thor said. "Loki has been making little use of his cot, and it's comfortable enough, you see."
Sif patted the muslin sheets. "Far better than a bedroll on the ground," she agreed, though by the downturn of her mouth she doubted Loki worthy of that luxury. She did not say so, however, instead asked, "What have you been doing these past days, besides sleeping?"
"Talking," Thor said. "Or not talking," because sometimes Loki would have enough, would stop and turn away and Thor would give him the silence he needed, until Loki broke it. He did not leave, however, to be there when his brother chose to speak again.
Sif looked skeptical. "Only talking?"
"Loki has no wish to spar," Thor said, discounting their fight after his nightmare—that had been no practice fight, and Thor wondered if it was the fear of another such struggle, that Loki refused his offers. "And he's not been interested in writing—until now," because Loki had found a pen and was presently scrawling runes across Fjalar's papers.
Sif with Thor watched them work, the builder and the sorcerer, absorbed in discussion of some esoteric working of magic power and molded metal. Loki was not smiling, but his eyes were intent and his face calm in his concentration. Thor smiled himself to see it; that calmness was too rare a thing in Loki now.
"How dare he."
Thor looked to Sif in surprise. Her hand was closed into a fist, set on her knee as if she had to plant it there, or else would swing it; her jaw was clenched. "How dare he be this way," she said again, so soft a hiss it barely carried to Thor's ears.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"As if nothing's changed," Sif said, a hoarsely harsh whisper. "He looks no different. All he did, to Asgard and Midgard, to us, to you—and there Loki is, showing off his magic and his cleverness. Joking with you, as if he never tried to kill you, and worse. He lives in a cell as pleasant as a farmer's cottage, protected from any vengeance he should have brought upon himself; and you attend him, smile at him—"
"Oh, Thor, I am sorry," and Sif took Thor's hand, wove her fingers through his. "To you he is your brother still, I understand that. You would not be so dear to me, if you could not love Loki like this, even after all he's done. But Thor, in all your talking, has he once offered any apology or amends?"
Thor did not answer her; he could not, not honestly.
Sif curled her fingers around his tightly, allowing herself to comfort him no more than that, as she murmured, "You've mourned Loki, wept for him; my heart broke with yours, and I'm more happy than I can say, that it's mended for now. But if I could change anything about you, it would be that you did not give your heart away so freely—did not give it to those who will not value it. For all Loki's done—for what he did to you—has he shown any sign of remorse? That he regrets anything but that he failed?"
"And how am I to make this apology, that it would be believed?"
Thor looked up with a start, and Sif, too. Loki had raised his head from Fjalar's discussion, his green eyes sharp on them, and his voice even sharper, an edge to draw blood. He rose smoothly to his feet, looking down at them across the cell.
Sif clasped Thor's hand in hers, not pulling away, and lifted her chin to meet Loki's eyes. "I didn't speak to you, but if you must eavesdrop, then I'm not embarrassed. Truth is truth, however loudly it's spoken, or who listens to it."
"But bellowing can't make something truth," Loki said. "Nor the prettiest of words. What apology can I give for whatever I've done, that would be taken as anything but the Liesmith's craft?"
"Loki," Thor said. Loki's voice was too cold, his eyes glittering.
"A posturing lie would yet be better than nothing," Sif said, defiant.
"Would it?" Loki smiled in a way that made Fjalar hastily duck back over his papers, muttering urgently. "Well, then, Lady Sif," and Loki set one foot before the other, swept his arm down in a faultlessly formal bow, "I am most extremely sorry for setting the Destroyer upon you and your hapless comrades, as well as my dear brother, and that unfortunate Midgard village as well. If there is any way I might make it up to you—"
"Shut your mouth!" Sif cried, her face marble-white with fury as she shot to her feet, hand clapped over her sword's hilt.
"Was that not posturing enough?" Loki inquired. "How about this, then," and he placed a hand over his heart, lowered himself to one knee and said, "Sweet Sif, my bosom friend, I cannot express how deep my regret runs, that ever I sought to harm you; I would sooner rend mine own hair from my scalp, ere I lift this hand against yours again—"
"Do not mock this," Sif growled, low with warning as she advanced toward Loki. "You will not make a joke of the friendship I once held for you; no matter if you never truly felt it yourself, it was real for me, and I will not have it maligned."
Loki stood again, grinning at her, and spread his arms. "A hug, then, and we'll be made up—let bygones be bygones, as friends do?"
Thor moved as Sif did, and faster, grabbing her arm before her punch met Loki's face. The blow would have landed, had he not caught it; Loki did not move to duck or block, but only continued to smirk. He kept his arms at his sides, hands restlessly opening and closing—grasping for something he would not reach out for.
Thor shouldered between them, swung around to Sif and implored, "Sif, please, let this go."
"Yes, go, we definitely should go—great thanks for your help—" Fjalar had gathered up the papers Sif and Thor were not trampling on, clutching them to his chest as he backed away, eyes on the Asgardians as he felt with his foot behind him for the first stair. Finding it, he hurried up and out of the cell.
Sif looked up at the departing dwarf and then at Thor, and very deliberately not at Loki. "You ask much," she said to Thor, pulling her arm away, jaw clenched so tightly a muscle in her cheek twitched. "Why? You never coddled him before, not when he'd brought it on himself—why now, Thor?"
Thor knew Loki was readying a reply, spoke quickly before his brother could, "I know, it seems unjust; I'm sorry, Sif—"
"Don't!" Sif said. "Do not make apologies for him."
"Then I'm sorry for denying you your rightful satisfaction," Thor said. "I can only beg your forgiveness."
"As if fair Sif would deny you that," Loki murmured behind him, soft and poisonous as an assassin's blade. "Or anything..."
Sif ignored him, met Thor's eyes and said, "You have it now, Thor; but next time you won't stop me."
"Next time I won't try," Thor promised her.
Sif nodded to him, clasped his hand again then climbed the steps, as Loki said, maliciously light, "Farewell, Sif, and thanks for your visit; how good to know I'm not forgotten—"
"Peace, brother," Thor said, as the barricade closed behind Sif.
"Shouldn't you follow them?" Loki said. "See them out like a proper host—accompany them back to the palace and finally leave me in peace!"
Thor turned to look at Loki, Loki with his face too pale and his shoulders rising and falling with too deep breaths. "Why would you say such things to her?" Thor asked him.
Loki's teeth were gritted behind his grin. "What would you have me say, Thor? How shall the liar honestly apologize? Prostrate myself before her and you and all your friends, and beg for forgiveness for unforgivable crimes, so you can prove your benevolence by granting me absolution anyway?" Loki spread his arms again, now not to feign a wanted embrace but baring his heart, offering it as if Thor had a dagger and he were a sacrificial goat. "Shall I beseech your pardon for all the times I tried to kill you—the Destroyer, and on the Bifrost, on the airship and on the tower, and oh, I am sure there are others slipping my mind; but you are Thor the mighty of heart and small of wit, and can hold no grudge even against your false brother—"
"Loki, do not—"
"Or what of the rest—all the Midgard mortals slain by my hand and my deeds and the army I brought, that you failed to protect—or have you forgotten them by now?" Loki stepped closer and Thor held in place, near enough to see the white showing all round Loki's green irises, as he raved, "Do they only matter when you are standing on Earth and wishing to be considered one of their heroes, wanting their devotion—did you even admit to them I was your brother, or did you claim me only Odin's mistake—"
Another step and Loki was close enough. Thor put his arms around him like a snare snapping shut, holding Loki's arms to his sides as he struggled, saying in his ear, "Stop it, brother; I won't do it."
Loki snarled back, "Do what? Forgive me?—"
"Strike you," Thor said. "If I wouldn't allow Sif to, why would I now? She'd only punish me later for stealing her own satisfaction; Sif's never wanted for any man to defend her honor."
"Then why stop her? Or do you think me too frail—would you shield me like the woman you do not take Sif for?"
"I stopped her," Thor said, impatiently in spite of his better efforts, "because she was taking offense where there was none to take, for all you tried to convince her otherwise; because she mistakenly thought she was hearing a lie."
Thor said it with all his confidence, but was still relieved to feel his brother momentarily tense under his arms, feel the confirmation in Loki's unexpected gasp of breath, before he hissed, "A lie?" He tried to pull away again and Thor let him go, as Loki raucously laughed, "Are you such a fool to think a word I said to her was sincerely meant—"
"If you want to, you can sound sincere," Thor said calmly. "So sincere it will bluff anyone. Before my arranged coronation, you told me to never doubt that you loved me, such that I could only believe it—even while as you said it, you'd already brought the Jotunn to Asgard to ruin me. If you'd wanted, you could have convinced Sif now, could have wrung sympathy from her, if not yet forgiveness. And it would've served you better to do so, wouldn't it, to have another ally in the palace besides myself."
Loki, about to laugh again, fell quiet at that point.
"You and Sif used to squabble when younger," Thor went on, "almost like you and I used to. As we grew up she became your friend, but didn't trust you, wisely—and you admired her wisdom, even as you strove to trick her anyway. You never disliked Sif; I don't think you hate her now, when you never did before. But you would rather she hate you for your lies than for your truths."
Loki folded his arms around himself, tucked close to his chest to hide the heart offered before. "And what about you, Thor? Do you hate me for my lies, or for my truths?"
"I don't hate you, brother," Thor said.
"'Brother', of course—so it is the lies, then."
"Father lied when he first told us we were brothers," Thor replied, "but the truth is we grew up together. So either by lies or by truth, we are family, and nothing can change that."
"And you have such faith in that bond that you dare not leave me be for a moment," Loki said bitingly. "Tormenting me day and night with your watchful eye and endless prattle; even when you sleep I must suffer through your snoring, so that I can hardly hear myself think—"
"Yes, and that's the point, isn't it?" Thor said. "Little good comes from your thinking now; if I let you be, what would you put your mind to? Trying to reclaim the Tesseract, or convincing yourself of still worse things. If I weren't here, you'd only have yourself to lie to; and you believe your lies, all too easily."
"This is how you hope to manage me?" Loki's lip curled. "Make up a pretty story to justify my wickedness—tell yourself the lies, before I even can?"
"You can tell me all the lies you like," Thor said. "But I don't have to listen to them. Not when I know you. I cannot always tell your honesty from your deceptions, Loki—but I know my brother. Whatever you have done, whatever has been done to you, you are him still, and I will believe in that, no matter how you try to make me forget it."
"So you'd rather place your trust in someone who no longer exists—who never existed, except in your fool heart and head—rather than hate me as any just man should?"
"Yes," Thor said firmly.
Loki shut his mouth, swallowing back whatever acid he'd been about to spit as he stared at Thor. Then he turned away, keeping his lips sealed to dam back his words instead of drowning in them, and crouched to collect the fallen papers that Fjalar had left behind.
Thor waited, watching his bowed back; when Loki's silence continued, he yawned, said himself, "I'm still tired." He'd not slept the night before; Loki had seemed to want the company to keep himself awake, however he might complain about it now. Thor lay back down on the cot, said, "I'll bother you again with my snoring, if you don't mind."
"I do mind," Loki muttered.
Thor grinned as he tucked his arms behind his head and shut his eyes. "All the better!" They were, after all, brothers.
Though for all his fatigue, sleep proved elusive. In the dark behind his eyelids Thor could not help but see Sif's face, her painful anger, the ache of having an enemy where once she'd had a friend. And what she had said of the rumors around the court, that Thor had banished himself to the dungeon—strange that his father had not come himself to scold Thor for it; unless he were ashamed to return to Loki's cell...
Around him Thor heard the papers rustling, and then the soft padding tread of Loki's feet on the stone floor. "Thor?" Loki said, somewhere above him; but Thor was finally halfway to sleep and unwilling to risk that fragile repose by answering.
He felt the cot shift a little as Loki seated himself on the floor and leaned against it. "It was not a lie," Loki said, softly, as if to not wake Thor. "And at any rate I didn't bring the Jotunn to ruin you, only your crowning, which we all knew was a mistake save you. That, I won't apologize for. But what I told you before the ceremony was not a lie."
Thor lay quietly, breathed evenly in and out.
After another moment, Loki said, somewhat more sharply, "You would snore louder if you were actually asleep."
Thor opened his eyes and saw black hair, the back of Loki's head as he bent over the wrinkled pages, smoothing them over his knees.
"You are not the only one who knows his brother," Loki said with some asperity, not looking up from the papers. "Now really nap, if you can; we'll be entertaining more visitors soon, I expect, and I would have my dupe of a defender rested for it."
to be continued...
Thank you again everyone who's taken time to leave a review - it means so much to know somebody's reading and enjoying this, I love knowing what you think! (and heh, jaqueline, you might be the first reader to ping onto Odin's ploy there...)