Before you dive in to the story, let me reassure you that this fic is already completely finished. I will update twice a week (hopefully Tuesdays and Fridays). There will be 27 chapters and an epilogue, which will be posted at the same time as the final chapter. If there are any changes to this format, I will try to let you know, but rest assured that this story WILL be completed, and the updates will be regular. I also really, really love reviews (except for flames, of course), so please let me know what you think! With that, I hope you enjoy "The Door That Shouldn't Be in Front of Me".
That was what they called him. Not to his face, of course-they would never be that blatant in their gossip. But he heard their whispers, their soft voices through his walls and door.
They were wrong, really, or at the very least inaccurate. Shattered, that was what he was. Reduced from a once-powerful figure, a master of sorcery, a king, to nothing but a shadow, robbed of his essence, his being, his everything.
He had been brought before the Allfather, his wrists still chained together, the iron gag still encircling his mouth in an ironic mockery of an embrace. All the better for Odin, he had thought acerbically, laughing in his head, that I am unable to say aloud what I am thinking. He would be shocked at what came from the mouth of his quiet, introverted, youngest son. And the first thing I would say would be to deny that title. He is nothing more to me than a thief is to a string of jewels he has stolen. I am the object of some passing fancy entwined between the fingers of one who plans only to sell it to the highest bidder. He is not my father. I have committed the most unforgivable act in the Nine Realms, and the patricide hurt me no more than it does now to glare jeeringly at him-the one who called himself my father. I have no father.
It had been Odin's captain of the guard who had brought him before the king-he had been separated from Thor in the antechamber to the throne room. Thor had tried to argue with the captain, saying that he wished to stay with his brother, to be by his side when his sentence was pronounced. What could you do for me, you fool? Loki had thought. Hold my hand while they tell me I am to be executed? As if that would somehow mitigate the coldness of the truth? Or would you beg the Allfather for mercy on my poor, twisted soul? No. We both know how this will end.
He had fully expected to be dead come sunrise, and he had been prepared to face it. It was over. He had failed. Midgard remained free, he was a king with no kingdom, and it really was not worth even trying anymore. There was nothing left for him.
He had staunchly refused to kneel before the Allfather, staring defiantly into Odin's eye, his chapped and parched lips curling into a smile behind the metallic bitterness of the gag. He would go out with his pride and dignity still intact.
In the end, you will always kneel.
He had kept his gaze fixed upon the Allfather, making a point of not looking at Frigga, who stood at Odin's side. He could feel her eyes on him. They had not seen each other since he had fallen-fallen into a world of darkness and depravity, where monsters conjured illusions that bent your mind backwards and twisted it around upon itself over and over until the only way you could escape the insanity was to yourself go insane. Frigga had believed him dead, he knew-Did you mourn? We all did.-and he was sorry for having caused her grief. Though he knew now that she was not his true mother, her wrongs against him had been small compared to everyone else's, and she had shown him love and care and loyalty. It was she who had put Gungnir in his hand, who had first bowed down to him as her king. She had supported him, believed in him. But it was too late for reconciliation now. Better to spare them both the pain.
Odin had stood and read off his crimes. Loki had found the length of the list rather impressive. At least he could say he had accomplished something before his chance to do so had been wiped away forever. But as prepared as he had been to die-after all, he had tried to bring about the same result himself no so long ago, dangling off of the shattered remains of the Bifrost-he could not help but feel a small flame of fear flick at his insides, leaving small burn marks in his entrails. He had been almost able to feel the intensity and worry in Thor's gaze from where the thunderer stood behind him, separated from him by the captain of the guard.
But the sentence had not been death. Loki should have guessed, really-Odin would never have done something so conventional, especially not to-in the eyes of everyone watching, at least-his own son. No, it had been something far, far cleverer.
The small candle-glimmer of fear sparked into a wildfire of terror as the Allfather approached, arms outstretched. Not this. Not what he had worked so hard for, had been practicing and perfecting for over a millennium. What would his life be without his magic? But of course, that had been the king's angle.
Loki had backed up a step unconsciously as Odin stepped toward him, feeling the stiff, restrictive hands of the captain of the guard on his back. But then the Allfather had done something that had surprised him-he had motioned for the captain to remove the gag. Loki had licked his cracked, stinging lips and wondered at the reason for this small portion of freedom. Was Odin trying to apologize for what he was about to do? To show him some sort of compassion? This thought was affirmed when the king spoke, kindly,
"Fear not, my son. This is only for your own safety and that of your keepers. What is yours will be returned to you when you have proved yourself worthy of it."
The words had been ironically gentle, considering that Odin had done the same thing with Thor's prized possession not so many months ago and had yelled his way through the condemnation. Loki had glared at the king yet again, for he was determined to resist bowing to whatever level Odin required of him. His desire to fight against his so-called father's will burned even deeper than his attachment to his magic.
All the same, he had wanted so badly to fight what he knew was coming when Odin laid his hands on him, the ancient, calloused fingertips barely touching Loki's own. It was all the contact that was needed. Loki had watched sorcerers who had misused their gifts being stripped of their powers before. They had stood dignified and silent through the whole process, as he now did, like a prisoner being led to execution. But he would not resist. He would not give Odin the satisfaction.
But then it had started, and suddenly Loki had had no idea how any of those sorcerers had managed to stay calm and upright. The pain had been incredible, so much so that if his mind had not been so overcome by it, he might have found it interesting to step back and watch it from a distance, from another, imagined perspective. But it had been too overwhelming, and he could think of nothing but the agony.
It had begun at his fingertips, his only point of contact with Odin. It was as though someone had grabbed his hand and held it into a flame, but no matter how hard he tried to pull it away, he could not. From there, it had spread up his arms and quickly throughout his entire body. Every inch of his skin was on fire. The blood pounded in his head as though all the veins in his body would burst. His insides burned as though someone had held his mouth open and poured acid into it and forced him to swallow, and his guts felt like some unseen hand was reaching in and twisting them around like a strand of hair about a finger.
He had heard himself scream, and he was barely aware of falling to his knees. (In the end...) From somewhere far away, he had heard Thor yelling, and then the sound of someone being pushed aside-he imagined the foolish captain of the guard had tried to stop the god of thunder, and had of course failed miserably. He had also heard Frigga cry out from near the throne, but the pain was so intense that he could no longer distinguish the significance of it. And by the time he had felt Thor's presence, kneeling next to him on the cold floor, Loki had curled up on his side and vomited. He had not even possessed the ability to feel humiliated about it-this torture did not allow for him to think of anything else, just the anguish. He was certain that every single organ, every molecule of his body was being ripped out of him, starting at the inside and working out.
After an eternity, the pain had finally eased, but still Loki had lain trembling on the floor, unable to move. He wished so much that he could have faded into the blissful embrace of unconsciousness, but it was not to be. For the Allfather was not finished.
Both Frigga and Thor had protested simultaneously. "How could you? He is your son! Odin, something is wrong, no sorcerer has ever reacted like that to the extraction before!" "Father, surely he has suffered enough, he cannot take any more! Look at him!"
Yes, look at him. Look at the one who would be lord of all Midgard, the leader of the most dangerous army in the Nine Realms, he who can manipulate anyone, spin any lie, master any illusion. Bound like a common criminal, curled up on the floor like a dog. Pathetic. A failure. Worthy of mockery and laughter and cruelty. Or at least, that was what Loki would have thought, if he could only have stopped shaking long enough to make his mind function linearly. As it was, all his brain, still reeling from the shock of the extraction, could manage was No, no please. I cannot...please.
But the Allfather would not be swayed. Justice had to be served. Loki was a murderer. No, that was...he had killed people. He had directly caused people to die. And he had to pay for his crimes. Odin had said that he should consider himself fortunate that his punishment would simultaneously provide such an opportunity to learn from his mistakes.
Fortunate. He had doubted very much that that was how he would feel when he came out of it. And he had been correct.
The captain and another guard had moved toward him. Thor had turned on them like a she-wolf defending her pup, an almost animalistic instinct to protect overcoming him. He had reached for Mjolnir, but the hammer was of course not at his belt-all weapons were stripped at the entrance to the throne room. Odin had barked at him to back down, and Thor had turned to stare at the Allfather, blue eyes filled with hurt and betrayal. That moment had given the guards enough time to pull Loki to his feet and force him away from Thor. They had practically had to drag him, for Loki had found that he had difficulty getting his legs to support his weight. Odin had placed a threateningly firm hand on Thor's arm, its touch warning the thunderer of the consequences if he tried to interfere with Loki's sentence. But it had not stopped Thor from yelling his name, his voice breaking.
Sentiment, Loki had thought acidly as he struggled to stay upright even as the guards gripped beneath his arms. But deep within the recesses of his mind, buried far beneath the forefront from which that stinging thought came, his subconscious had whimpered Thor's name, softly and pitifully.
The punishment that Odin had devised was genius, really. That Loki had to admit.
Rather than the dungeons, they had brought him to his bedchamber, the place that had always provided him with the most comfort and protection. Reading on his bed on a rainy day, studying his lessons at the desk, curled up next to Thor in the bed when they had, on a whim, decided to spend the night together as children, giggling and talking the night away until a disapproving Frigga had come in to tell them to either be quiet and go to sleep that instant or Thor would have to go back to his own chamber. And then Loki would curl up and fall asleep with Thor's arms around him, feeling warm and safe.
More sentiment. You pathetic fool. He had forced the thoughts away, the heat of his anger at himself a sudden contrast with the coldness of his thoughts up until that point. But he had had no time to dwell on the significance of it.
The guards had bade him change into his nightclothes, waiting just outside the door so that he might have some privacy. He had moved slowly, still unsteady and shaky. He felt empty and cold without his magic. Always before this, his powers had been there, a sort of energy humming around him, always within reach and granting him strength. A part of him. Now when he reached out, there was nothing there, and the feeling was unnerving. He felt weak and exposed. He knew he should be relishing these last few moments of so-called freedom, but so much did the thought of what lay ahead sicken him that he could not even think of enjoying himself.
A knock sounded at the door just as he was finishing the last button of his nightshirt.
"I am ready," he called softly, lowering himself to sit on the edge of the bed. That was a lie. He was far from ready.
The guards had reentered, flanked by Odin. The Allfather had ordered him to lie in the bed as though he were getting ready to sleep. Loki had not resisted that time-he had had no power or strength to do so. He had obeyed the order silently and resolutely, lying on his back against his pillows and pulling his comforter around himself, the motion automatic as he tried to find some form of comfort as he awaited the horrors ahead of him.
The son of the king, even the adopted son, could not be thrown in a dungeon and left to rot, no matter how hideous his crimes. The punishment needed to be quick, but effective. So Odin had decreed that Loki sleep for one turn of the sun and moon-the Midgardian equivalent of twenty-four hours. Although the time seemed short on the face of it, dreams last mere seconds, and his sleep was to be filled with dreams. Nightmares. He was to have a nightmare about every single person that he had hurt or killed on Midgard, from their point of view. He was to know their fear as he stood over them, scepter aimed. He was to feel their pain as they quivered, whimpered, writhed, and died. He was to experience the grief of their family members when they learned that their loved ones would not be coming home.
His fractured, twisted mind should have relished this-after all, had he not caused all of this for the enjoyment of pain? But watching it was one thing-experiencing it, he knew, was quite another. He wondered if Odin knew about the nightmares that had plagued his childhood. He had dreamed terribly often of the Frost Giants, who were then the terrifying monsters of his father's tales. The worst had been when he had dreamed that he was one of them, a cruelly ironic foreshadowing of a very real nightmare that would befall him years later, when he would learn that the most terrifying illusions of his childhood were real. He had never told either of his parents about his dreams-he had been certain that his father especially had already thought him a weakling up next to his brave older brother, and that knowledge would have enhanced the unwanted image all the more. Instead, he had looked to Thor for comfort, his own personal source of warmth and love and companionship. He would sneak into his brother's chamber, clamber into bed with him, and cry while Thor rubbed his back and spoke softly to him. And then everything had been all right, and they would sleep together for the rest of the night, Thor's arms wrapped protectively around Loki. Loki would always think in those moments that nothing could hurt him; that he was safe from whatever horrors the world had to offer. How innocent he had been! How foolish, how delusional. He had allowed himself, in the innocence of his childhood, to be fed lies about how life truly operated. He knew the truth now. For every action, there was a consequence, and nightmares could be even more real than you ever imagined.
He had closed his eyes before Odin could lay his hand on his brow, so he did not know the precise moment in which he fell asleep. But he did know when the nightmares began.
Although each dream had been different from the last, the lack of repetition had not made the experiences any easier. Not so long ago, Loki had fallen so deeply into despair that he had tried to end his own life, and he had come so close to succeeding that he had thought he knew what it was like to be on the brink of nonexistence. But he had been wrong, he realized. The plethora of emotions that runs through someone's head in the last moments of their life ranges from sheer terror to nostalgia to sadness to worry about the loved ones they are leaving behind. Time and again he saw himself, standing aloft, full of his own desires and plans as innocent people lay dying around him, not necessarily at his hand, but definitely by his will.
The worst, he thought, was anything involving children. There had been a young, single mother who had just happened to be walking home from the store when the Chitauri had attacked. Loki had become her, just as he had become all of the others. One of the hideous creatures drove its spear through his gut, laughing cruelly as it did. Loki had screamed in agony-for the thousandth time now, it must have been. He reached a trembling hand up to the wound in his abdomen, and winced as he drew it back, hot, sticky blood coating his fingers. As his vision began to fade, he thought of the little girl back at home, only four years of age, and how heartbroken she would be when she learned that she would never see her mother again. Who would care for her now, that her only provider, her only source of love was gone forever? It was a terrible last thought, but it had been the one the mother had died thinking-and that he had died thinking, for the dream had changed once more.
Perhaps the oddest, and yet some of the most terrifying of the nightmares had been the ones from the point of view of the people whose minds he had warped to serve him, particularly those of Clint Barton and Erik Selvig. Loki had told Fury and his people that freedom was life's great lie. But what he had not realized when he had spoken those words was that one of the most priceless things one can possess is the freedom to think. To have that taken away, to have your identity stripped and replaced, to become someone else against your will-that was the truest form of dehumanization. Loki had writhed as he felt the fingers of the Tesseract's power and his own malice twisting the strings of once the upright minds, distorting them and bending them to his will. The mind, he soon came to realize, was the ultimate sanctuary, the one place where one could go to feel safe, even if every available physical environment was harsh and unyielding. And he had taken that one last refuge away from these men, and made them into something other than themselves. As Barton, he sat strapped to a chair, with Natasha Romanoff sitting beside him, clinging to her voice and her words as he tried desperately to reclaim the bits of himself that had been scattered to the four corners of his consciousness. There was a terrible sense of urgency in that act, for it seemed incredibly dangerous to remain this fragile shell of a man for any length of time. Anything could come along and break him, snap him in two like a twig. But as always, the dreams had moved onward.
He could not, he had learned, have managed to murder a better man than Phil Coulson. The agent had devoted his entire life to S.H.I.E.L.D., often at the expense of things such as sleep and relationships, for the sake of enforcing justice and protecting innocent people. That perpetual ghost of a smile that always floated on his face, it turned out, was because no matter what the price, Agent Phil Coulson thought that what he was doing was the right thing. Conviction. He had been right, of course. Conviction and bravery were two things the man had possessed in immense amounts. Until he had drawn his very last breath, Coulson had thought first of what was best for the team. It was a kind of selflessness that Loki was not familiar with, and it puzzled and intrigued him. But he could not dwell on it, for his dreams had continued to change.
Never had Loki thought that a single day could seem such a horrific eternity. All he wanted was for the the pain and the fear and the sadness to stop. But though he fought as hard as he could, Odin's spell had kept him from pushing past the barrier into wakefulness. His only respite, as small as it was, was to create an illusion that he was not alone, that there was a comforting hand upon his shoulder and brow, another presence enduring these horrors with him. He did not know where the need for such a thing came from. All he knew was that it provided an infinitesimal amount of comfort, and that it alone had allowed him to keep from slipping back into the sweet grasp of insanity.
When the last nightmare had finally come to an end, Loki opened his eyes slowly and glanced around him. He was looking up at the ceiling of his chamber. Gone were the buildings of New York, the sounds of explosions, the screams of the dying, and the cries of the grieving. The silence was deafening, yet gorgeous simultaneously. But it did not last. He felt a light touch upon his arm and a murmur of his name.
"Loki?" The question was spoken softly and gently, but he startled all the same, gasping slightly and instinctively pulling away. Don't touch me, don't hurt me, please...
Thor immediately lifted his hand off of Loki's arm and faced his palms toward him, to show that he meant no harm.
"It is all right, brother, it is only me."
Loki trembled, instinctively burrowing into his blankets, his mind still not fully realizing that he was no longer in his nightmares. He blinked, and the faces of terrified people flashed before his eyes. His dreams still haunted him despite his wakefulness, he realized with a wave of nausea. He whimpered despite himself.
Thor continued to try to comfort and coax him, his deep voice almost paradoxically gentle. "Do not be afraid, Loki, I mean you no harm. You are safe now; your punishment is over. Father says you are free to leave your chambers whenever you feel ready."
Father. Loki's unsettled mind fixated on that word, a word he associated with so much betrayal and pain and hatred. That thief had called himself his father for over a millennium, and then turned right around and subjected him to this. And before him sat the old crow's true offspring, the one who had gotten off so easy, with only a short trip away from home, while he had been tortured inside his mind for something that seemed akin to an eternity. How dare Thor even show his face here? Especially now, after it was all over? Loki remembered his mental conjuration of a comforting presence during his ordeals, and realized that he was the epitome of loneliness. How pathetic did he have to be to need to fabricate a presence for his own comfort? If Thor cared so much for him, where had he been when Loki had been reduced to that?
Narrowing his eyes at Thor, he hissed, "Leave me!" His voice was full of anger and hatred, but he was unable to keep the notes of betrayal and hurt out of it, as well.
Had Loki had a heart left to break, the look on Thor's face would have shattered it completely. He had obviously been expecting, or at the very least hoping for, Loki to reciprocate his love just as he once had. The rejection and anguish reflected in his blue eyes would have broken even the hardest of wills, but Loki's own pain rendered him helpless to do anything but wallow in his own slights and miseries.
"All...all right." Thor's voice broke as he spoke, and his eyes were cast downward. But he did not try to argue with Loki. He simply rose, normally proudly held shoulders slumped, and exited the chamber. The tiniest piece of Loki wanted to call out after him, to ask why he would give up on him so easily. That was so unlike Thor. Was Loki really that far beyond hope?
And then suddenly, he was alone as he had been in his nightmares. Despite it being what he had expressly ordered not a half-minute before, Loki suddenly realized that it was not the state he desired to be in at all. He could still hear his own screams, sounding like those of thousands of people, now either dead or suffering, and he longed desperately for another voice to help him shut them out. But there was no one.
Loki curled up beneath his blankets and wept.