Loki didn't bother looking up as thunderous footsteps came near his balcony. The sound of Thor's boots was unmistakable, and had been so since they were children.
A warm hand landed lightly on his shoulder. "My brother."
It was funny, really. Thor had been coming to visit Loki every day of his punishment. And each of those days, three hundred twenty-five of them now, Thor's voice always sounded the same. Broken. At first, Loki had assumed Thor was pining for his mortal love and he inwardly cursed his brother for that weakness. But now he knew that it was not for Jane Foster that Thor mourned.
For weeks and months Loki had railed as only the truly mad can against his binds, screaming profanities behind his gag at the people who witnessed his shame, at his family for their betrayal. At Thor for being what Loki could not.
Eventually, inevitably perhaps, Loki's sanity had returned. His rational mind, his true strength, had shown him, over and over, the glaring mistakes he had made in his attack on Midgard. It had been shocking really. Loki knew better than to underestimate anyone, which was exactly what he had done and was exactly why he had been defeated so handily. He had let his emotions control him utterly. The agony of Odin's lies, the horror of discovering his true heritage, the jealousy of Thor. He'd meant to die when he let himself fall from the Bifrost. Instead he'd ended up in a place of further torture. And though he shuddered at the memory, he was capable of appreciating the irony of his utter manipulation at the hands of the dark ones. They had known just how to hit him, and with what to break him. His misery had fueled his madness to the point where he had agreed to attack Midgard, though looking back, he knew that what Tony Stark had said to him was correct. There had never been any scenerio where Loki was victorious. And it had all come to rest at his feet. He knew his punishment on Asgard would be weak compared to what would be done to him elsewhere. It was this realization that forced him to see it for what it was. Mercy. Love. His family, regardless of the circumstances he had come to them, regardless of his inability to accept that he had been lied to, regardless of the fact that he was a monster, loved him.
Loki sighed through his nose. Honestly, he now considered his brother's visits, his loyalty, his love, more of a punishment than the silver binds on his wrists and his mouth. Truly it was more difficult to bear Thor's forgiveness than it was to stand without rest or food, more difficult than the public humiliation. For his punishment had done what it was designed to do. It had defeated Loki's pride.
Now all he wanted was to be left alone. Though his sanity had returned, or perhaps because it had, Loki was left with nothing but heartache. He ached for himself, for the moster he was, for the lie his life had been. He ached for his mother, who had shorn her hair in grief for him and now wandered through the palace, aimless and mourning for the son she had not borne but adored nonetheless. He ached for Odin, his father. But mostly, he ached for Thor. His brother, who wore his heart on his sleeve despite being a fierce warrior. And while Thor missed his Jane, Loki knew that it was he who broke his bother's heart.
"My brother." Thor was waiting, as always, for Loki to lift his gaze, which as usual, he did not. Thor sighed, a tired sound. Why do you torture yourself this way, brother. Loki wished Thor would move on from him. Just go back to Midgard and be happy.
"Our father has summoned us."
This brought Loki's head around and as he met his brother's eyes for the first time in months he saw Thor's horrified expression before it was hidden. Loki was certain it was appropriate. Though he knew Odin protected the secret Loki's of true parentage with his own magic, it did little to improve Loki's increasingly gaunt and dirty appearance, and he knew the despair Thor must have seen in his eyes. He saw it himself every time he accidentally caught his reflection in the windows around him. But why would the AllFather want to see him? His punishment was not yet complete, and even if it had been, Loki was sure he'd be remanded to his rooms for the forseeable future. What could have happened that Odin wanted to see him now? Mother?
"She is fine, Loki. Mother is okay." Loki knew his brother couldn't read his mind, so Thor must have noticed the panic on Loki's face, and he realized his eyes were shifting manically and he was breathing hard through his nose. Forcing himself to calm, he met Thor's gaze again, a question in his eyes.
"I need to take you to Father. Everything will be explained then." As Thor worked to remove the shackles on Loki's legs, Loki tried to read his brother's face. It was obvious Thor knew what Odin wanted, but his normally honest face was closed off, telling Loki nothing. Suddenly he was free to move his legs and he staggered, only kept off the floor by his brother's strength. Thor started to lift him but Loki shook his head fiercly. He would not be carried like a child or an invalid before Odin. Thor gave a half laugh and backed off, holding Loki only by the arm. It would seem that Loki's pride was not completely gone after all.
It took them a while, but finally the brothers entered Odin's throne room and stood before their father. Loki noticed their mother was not there and again felt a pang of guilt for her suffering. Odin's heavy stare kept Loki's eyes on the floor, as much to concetrate on not falling down as on his shame, the muscles in his legs twitching and prickling from the sudden use. Thor kept his hand under Loki's arm, as though restraining him, but in truth supporting, as always.
"My sons." Loki lifted his eyes, slicked with tears, at his father's words. His heart clenched in his chest. Odin still considered him a son.
"The punishment is being changed." Odin was never one to waste words, and he seemed to be watching the brothers as he spoke. Loki looked at Thor, who wore a cautious expression, a ghost of his former optimism. Loki himself felt a wave of fear and hope at the situation, so much so that he trembled. Thor tightened his grip, the gesture strangly comforting.
"There is trouble brewing yet again for Midgard. Heimdall has seen a plot by the dark ones to attack it once more, not to rule it, but to destroy it utterly." Odin paused, drawing a deep breath, as though bracing himself for what he was going to say next.
"Loki. Have you any knowledge of this." It wasn't really a question, Loki knew. And although he was the God of Lies and Mischief, he could think of no reason the dark ones would attack Midgard again. He had been led to believe that the first attack was to distract Thor and to allow Loki to rule over the mortals as a gateway to conquering the whole of the Nine Realms. Meeting his father's eyes, Loki slowly shook his head.
"Very well." Odin's voice was strong and echoed magically throughout all of Asgard. "My son Loki is returned to me. In the care of his brother Thor he will be sent to Midgard to complete the punishment for his crimes. In order to serve justice, Loki will defend Midgard and all those who live there from this new threat." Thor's breath exploded out of his mouth, a sigh of relief and a sob combined. Both brothers fell to their knees before their father, their king, in deference and overwhelmed. Dimly, Loki heard Odin order him to be released from his bonds, fed and bathed and tended to. Thor wept openly, hugging Loki to him, as Loki buried his face in Thor's shaking shoulder. He felt his father's large hand on his bowed head, stroking his hair, and his heart shattered once again.