A/N - There are a few things you should know. First - this is intended to be a one-shot. I may potentially add more to this at a later date, but, for now, I will assume otherwise. Second - people will probably wonder how Loki survives so long without food; the answer is that he's a god. Enough said. Third - Jane has been given Idunn's apples, which is why her lifespan is mirroring Thor's. I don't know if mortals can technically eat Idunn's apples, but in this story, they can. Fourth - if you think Loki changed too much while in prison, and that he's way OOC after getting out, just try to imagine being all alone for that amount of time and the damage it could do.
When they left him in the cell, Loki assumed that there would shortly be a trial. Or, at least, a rigged, showy affair where the Allfather pretended to deliberate on what sort of hellish sentence to pronounce and the council pretended to be unbiased.
The trial never came.
For the first three months, Loki paced and snarled, spitting insults under his breath. What was taking the damned king so long? It didn't matter how long they dilly-dallied; Loki was going to end up being tortured for eternity in some manner or another. The trial was a mere formality - why hadn't it yet occurred?
As the fourth month waxed and waned, the first twinges of worry flickered in his seething mind. Surely there was no reason for things to move at so sluggish a pace...
Seven months passed before Loki finally admitted to himself that the trial was either being prevented, or-
No. He wouldn't think of that. It was too cruel, far too cruel. Frigga would never allow it to happen.
(If she still cared.)
Nine months after Thor had dragged him into the cell and left without a word, Loki screamed at the guards to tell him what was happening. "Why had I not been tried? Why have they abandoned me?"
But the guards only laughed. They didn't bring him any food that day, just to spite him.
A whole year had ticked by, and there was no word from above. Loki was still stuck alone in his squalid cell, naked and chained at the wrists, shouting at the guards for news. They came less and less frequently.
Two years brought no change, except that now Loki hardly saw the guards at all. They appeared twice a week, at best, bearing a bowl of the slop Loki had come to despise, not because of its horrid taste, but because he was actually starting to want it. He, a prince, craving food not fit for a pig.
Two years and five months after his imprisonment began, Loki broke his wrist from pounding at the metal bars of the door. He screamed for the guards.
No one came.
Four years, and Loki began to talk to himself. He never saw anyone, now; had he not know that there was an entire world above, it would be easy to think himself the only living being in existence. At first, he hated himself for talking out of simple loneliness, but once he started to speak, he couldn't stop - the sound of a voice, even of his own, was so wonderfully sweet.
He recited spells, poems, passages from books, old palace gossip; anything he could remember. He would spend hours shouting his hatred of Thor and Odin to the cold, dank stone. He would rattle the bars, screaming curses so violently that spittle flew from his mouth.
There was never a response.
As the eighth year progressed, Loki sometimes forgot that he was speaking to himself. He would stop, sometimes, realizing that the voice he heard was not inside his head - it was his own. He would shake himself and continue pacing, unable to sit down. The loneliness and silence grated on his mind; he strained his ears for any sound, any sound at all, that might issue from another being.
Thirteen years, three months, and twenty-one days marked the first time that Loki begged. He fell to his knees in the middle of the cell, clenching his chained hands, shouting that he was willing to accept Thor's terms if they would just come for him. He loathed himself as the pitiful words left his mouth, but he was far too desperate to care.
No one ever came.
Twenty years, and Loki began hurting himself. He clawed at his arms, at his face, at his stomach, anywhere he could reach with his chained and bruised wrists. He pulled at his hair, sometimes tearing away chunks of it when overcome by a fit of anger. He shouted at everything - at the universe, at Asgard, at his not-parents, at Thor. For abandoning him. For leaving him in this Nornsforsaken cell to rot.
It had been well over a decade since he was last fed, and Loki was shockingly emaciated. His godly stamina and energy could only sustain him for so long without nourishment, and Loki could feel his body weakening by the day. He was covered in dirt and filth, and his hair was matted and greasy and lank. Had Loki been able to see himself, he would have been sick.
After the twenty-ninth year, Loki couldn't walk. There was no strength in his legs; merely standing taxed beyond his feeble capability. Loki curled into the corner, clutching his knees to his chest and rocking back and forth. With the lack of food, his energy and his body heat were quickly decreasing; he was wracked by unbearable shivers, his gaunt frame trying in vain to retain what little degree of warmth it could.
Thirty-four years, and Loki began to cry. He wept and sobbed and screamed to whoever might be listening, begging for someone to come. He couldn't bear the thought that everyone had abandoned him. Surely such a thing could never happen. Surely, there was someone who cared...
Loki fell dangerously ill in the forty-first year. He would cough wretchedly, plagued in turn by fevers and chills, and clutch desperately at the chains on his wrists that were his only reminder that there was another world outside of his miserable cell.
Sixty years found it very difficult for Loki to keep his eyes open. There was a vague notion in his mind that he shouldn't sleep, that succumbing to the darkness might be permanent, but he was so tired. Surely it could not harm, if it was only for a little while...
Loki drifted in and out of a dark, fitful sleep. He could never rouse himself enough to think clearly; his head was so heavy and sluggish, and it was harder and harder to remember where and who he was. It was easier to close his eyes and rest.
After the two hundred and fifth year, seventh month, third day, Loki fell asleep and did not wake.
"Do you think it is time, Jane?"
The young woman, Thor's betrothed and soon-to-be-queen, turned to the young king, frowning. "Time for what?"
She bit her lip. "You think it's safe?"
"I believe so," Thor replied, chuckling. "I think that three centuries will have dulled his anger. He cannot be a threat now, not after having had so long to contemplate."
"I highly doubt he's been contemplating, unless he was trying to escape."
Thor smiled, thinking fondly of his brother. Leaving him in the dungeons for such a long time had been hard, at first, but Thor knew that his brother was well cared for, having ordered him to be given a comfortable cell and access to his favorite books (provided they did not give any information that could lead to an escape). Odin had said that all Loki needed was some time by himself, to reflect on his actions. As much as Thor would have liked to visit Loki, he was content to know that his brother was alive and well beneath the palace.
Frigga and Odin had left to spend a several decades on Vanaheim a few years ago, both warning Thor not to release Loki until the time was right. Well, if three centuries did not do the trick, then nothing would.
A week later, the preparations had been made. Loki's old chambers were cleaned and secured with heavy enchantments, ready for their long-missed inhabitant. Thor made sure that everything was just as Loki would like it; he found himself eagerly anticipating his brother's return with each new day.
Finally, the hour was at hand.
Thor stood in the throne room, Jane by his side, waiting. The guards had been dispatched to retrieve the prisoner and bring him to the king, restrained only as was necessary. Loki would probably be angry with Thor for forcing him to wear the chains, but it was an unavoidable necessity. Thor could not risk losing his little brother again.
The great doors swung open, and Thor stepped forward excitedly, squinting to catch his first glimpse of Loki in three hundred and seven years.
Something was wrong.
The guards moved slowly, and Thor realized they were carrying something. His heart fell to his stomach.
The king hurried to the guards, eyes widening with horror when he skidded to a halt before them.
One of the guards, a man nearly the size of Volstagg, held a naked, unconscious Loki in his arms. Though, if it hadn't been for the black hair and chained wrists, Thor would not have recognized the dirty, pale, skeletal figure as his brother. He heard Jane gasp in shock behind him.
"What..." Thor could hardly form the word. "What is this?"
"The prisoner, my king." Loki was lowered unceremoniously onto the floor. Stunned, Thor bent down, hands hovering over the fragile body, afraid to touch for fear it might break. Thor swallowed and reached with trembling hands for Loki's face, turning it slowly and gently towards him. The eyes and cheeks were sunken and hollow, the lips dull and gray. There was no sign of life save for the near-imperceptible rise and fall of the narrow chest.
"Take him to my chambers," Thor finally choked out. "Summon the healers."
The guards did so, lifting Loki from the floor and departing. Thor would have carried his little brother himself, but he did not trust his unsteady legs. His mind was stil numb with shock; he couldn't process what he had just seen. How could that thing - that starved, neglected thing - be his Loki?
The healers spent nearly an hour tending to Loki, who remained limp and unresponsive where he had been laid on Thor's bed. Thor waited, silent and unmoving, staring at the near-lifeless form that was his brother. He'd been expecting a Loki that was irritated, but relieved to be out of the cell again; not this - not this weak, broken thing with the shadow of Loki's face. In the back of his mind, Thor wondered how his orders as to Loki's care could have been so blatantly disregarded, but such things were meaningless now. If they could not make his little brother wake again...
"He is stable, my king. He needs time and nourishment, as he has not had any form of sustenance almost since he was imprisoned. We have placed a spell on him that will begin to replenish his energy, though it must do so slowly. We have also removed the bindings; his magic is essential for him to recover. He will most likely be conscious tomorrow, around midday."
So Thor waited again. Waited as the agonizing hours crawled by, barely heeding the words of anyone who spoke to him offering consolation or advice. Sif tried to persuade him to sleep, but Thor could do no such thing. He seated himself on the end of his bed, watching his brother. Night grew into day, and Thor had not moved from where he stood sentinel.
It was around midday, as the healers had stated, when Loki began to stir. The signs were faint - an infinitesimal quickening of breath, a twitch of the eyelids - but Thor saw. And he watched, with anticipation and guilt churning in his stomach, as Loki slowly drifted back to the realm of the living.
Heavy eyelids opened to reveal dull green eyes, staring sightlessly at the ceiling above. Thor's throat was thick and his eyes warm with tears as he moved closer to Loki.
There was a hitch in the feeble breaths. Loki's eyes widened slightly, with a faint note of panic.
"Loki, it is I... It is Thor..."
Loki was breathing a little faster, throat working in a pitiful and vain attempt at speech. The slender fingers twitched. Thor took one of Loki's frail hands in his, holding the cold skin against his chest with as much pressure as he dared.
"Can you not remember me?" he asked, voice quivering. "I am your brother. These are my chambers you are lying in."
The eyes flicked back and forth, and Thor was almost sure the hand he held squeezed back just the tiniest bit.
"I have had you brought from your cell, Loki. You will never see that place again."
At this, Loki's breathing quickened alarmingly. His eyes moved about frantically until they suddenly caught sight of Thor, widening even further. There was a faint, hoarse sound, as though he were trying to speak.
"All is well, brother. I am here. You are safe."
Loki's eyes were fixed on Thor, shining with desperation. He blinked, and a single tear slid into his inky black hair. The hand in Thor's grasp was clutching feebly at Thor's shirt, its grip weaker than that of a newborn babe.
"Do not worry. I will not leave you again, I swear." Thor hesitated, then continued. "I am so sorry, Loki. I would never have left you down there, if I had known..."
Loki's brows furrowed, as though he were confused. He struggled to speak again, only whimpering hoarsely. The plaintive noise broke Thor's heart.
"I am so sorry," he whispered, tears rolling down his cheeks. He carded his fingers gently through Loki's hair, clean and soft again now that the healers had spelled away the centuries of grime. "I am so sorry, brother..."
Loki tried to speak again, then suddenly coughed, his chest lurching and heaving as the terrible sound wracked his lungs. Loki screwed his eyes shut as he coughed, and Thor cringed at the terrible noise.
"Are you all right, brother? Are you in pain? Are you- are you thirsty?"
Loki nodded jerkily, eyes watering. Thor quickly poured a glass from a nearby pitcher, then, as gently as he could, slid an arm under Loki's shoulders and lifted him so that he was almost sitting upright. Loki looked a little nauseous at the change in position, but he didn't protest as Thor brought the glass to his deadened lips, tilting it minutely so that the younger god could sip weakly at the water.
"Is that better?" Thor asked when Loki had finished, the glass barely depleted. He set the water down and lowered Loki back onto the bed, handling him as though he were made of glass.
Loki nodded slightly, eyelids drifting down again. It seemed the few minutes of waking had drained his energy; within moments, he was asleep, though not quite so deeply as before.
Thor remained by his side, clutching Loki's fragile hand and running his fingers through his dark hair. He wondered, with gut-wrenching shame, how many years of neglect must have been necessary to reduce his little brother to such a state. The healers had told him that Loki had not eaten almost since the beginning of his imprisonment; had the guards simply forgotten to feed him? Thor began to doubt that the conditions of Loki's imprisonment had been even slightly as he had specified. There had probably been no bed, no books, no clothing (obviously) - nothing that Thor had ordered Loki to be provided with. What had happened?
The image arose unbidden of Loki curled up alone in a bare, cold cell, shivering and crying out for help when none would come. Thor knew what the dungeons were like - it was why he had given such painstaking instructions for Loki's care. He'd wanted Loki to be changed, to have time to repent, but this was far worse than anything Loki could have deserved. To be abandoned by everyone he knew, bound and thrown in prison and forgotten... It was not a fate Thor would wish upon anyone, most certainly not upon his dear, sweet Loki. The thought of how the three centuries of solitary imprisonment might have affected his brother was too frightening to dwell on. Would Loki still be himself - his quick-witted, sly, clever self? Or would he be... different?
The rest of the day passed with Loki waking only twice more, each time falling back into his slumber after a matter of minutes. As the sky darkened and night fell over Asgard, Thor finally gave in to his exhaustion and climbed onto the bed beside Loki, reluctant to sleep but reassuring himself that he would be close by should Loki regain consciousness again.
He was woken by a soft, pleading voice and a small tug on his thumb. Thor's eyes flew open to see Loki gazing at him, eyebrows quirked upwards in an unarticulated question. The young god whined again, and his fingers closed around Thor's hand, squeezing feebly.
"Loki?" Thor sat up, grinning. "Have you slept well? Do you feel stronger?"
There was an answering whine and an insistent tug at his hand. Loki was trying hard to speak, but his mouth seemed unwilling to cooperate. Thor placed a hand gently on his forehead, checking for any signs of illness.
"You look better," the thunder god said encouragingly, though he was mostly lying. The only improvement in Loki's appearance was a slight increase in energy; he still looked as though he might wither away into nothing at any second. "Are you hungry? Thirsty?"
Loki made a hoarse noise that was the closest yet he'd come to speech, then promptly coughed horribly. Thor waited, grimacing, until the fit had passed.
"I will get you some water." Thor carefully disengaged his hand from Loki's and rose from the bed, only to hear a sudden, desperate keening. He turned to Loki, startled, to find the younger god's face strained with fear. "Brother, what is it? What is the matter?"
After several seconds of effort, Loki managed to force a word through his lips. "Th-Thor...?"
Thor's joy at hearing his name was dampened by the Loki's evident panic. "Yes? What do you need?"
Loki stared at him for several moments, fingers twisting into the sheets as he tried again to speak. "Don't- don't l-leave..." He coughed again.
Thor felt tears pricking at his eyes when he understood Loki's fear. "Brother, I am not going to leave you. I was only fetching water for you."
Loki seemed to relax a little, but his face still shone with anxiety. He watched with fearful eyes as Thor took the pitcher and filled a glass, repeating what he'd done the night before as he lifted Loki and let him sip at the liquid.
"There. See, brother? I will stay with you until you are healed. You have nothing to worry about."
Loki swallowed, looking confused. "Then- th-then you're not going to k-kill me?" he rasped.
Thor nearly dropped the glass in shock. "No!" he cried. Loki shrank back, and Thor quickly calmed himself. "No, Loki, why would I do such a thing? I am going to care for you."
"But..." Loki coughed. "But I'm... I b-betrayed-"
"Brother, you have for more than paid for crimes for which you were no more guilty than I. You have suffered more than you could ever have deserved. The fault is mine for abandoning you." Thor gently lowered Loki back down onto the bed, but he could feel that his brother was still tense .
"Then... w-why did you never come?"
Thor hung his head. "Father told me that it was best to leave you alone, and I trusted him without question," he said bitterly. "Had I known..."
"Known what?" Loki looked puzzled.
"What they were doing to you! I gave orders for you to be treated well, not to be-" he broke off, forcing his anger to abate. It was obvious that Loki was only far too ready to interpret the anger as being directed towards himself. "I commanded that you were to be given clothing and clean accommodations and food from my table and any books that were safe. I know not why my words were so heedlessly ignored."
There was a faint rumble of thunder, and Loki glanced fearfully at the window.
"No harm will come to you," Thor said soothingly, rubbing Loki's shoulder. "You are safe here, remember?"
Loki gazed out of the window for a few moments. "No one ever came," he whispered softly.
"What do you mean?" Thor asked, though he already knew the answer.
"I called, and no one came... I even begged, on my knees..." Loki turned to Thor, eyes brimming with tears. "Why did no one come?"
"Oh, Loki..." Thor could barely look at his brother; the guilt weighed so heavily in his chest. To see Loki's gaunt, emaciated face seemed to rend his soul in two. He could not bear to think of Loki alone and thinking himself unloved and unwanted. "I can only plead for your forgiveness - I and the rest of Asgard. I should have visited you, I should have made sure that you were being treated well. Brother, I am so sorry..."
"Why? Was the punishment not fair?"
"No, Loki, it was not! How could you possibly have deserved...?" Thor couldn't finish the sentence. He pressed Loki's hand to his forehead, trying to hold back his sobs.
"Thor... Why are you crying?"
Thor tried to smile, wiping his eyes. "Loki, you have changed so much..."
"Is that- is that not what you wanted?" Loki looked afraid again.
"I wanted my little brother back," Thor said fondly, stroking Loki's hair. "But... not like this. It should have been your choice, my love."
"But you succeeded," Loki said matter-of-factly. "You made me beg. I said I would do anything if... if someone would just come. I thought that was what all of you wanted."
Thor wanted to cry again. "Perhaps some did, but not I, or mother, or-" Thor stopped before adding Odin's name. Even though his faith in his father was strong, he could not deny that he had misgivings about Odin's love of Loki - especially after all of this.
"It is what the Allfather wanted," Loki whispered. He did not seem angry or bitter, as Thor would have expected; only tired. Defeated.
"No, Loki, I am sure that is not true."
"Are you?" Loki sighed. "He was right, in wanting to break me. It is no less than I deserved."
"How can you say such things?" Thor demanded, horrified. "Surely you cannot believe that about yourself?"
"Of course I do," Loki replied, bemused.
"Loki, you did not deserve this. Do you understand me?" Thor said firmly, staring straight into Loki's eyes.
Loki hesitated before mumbling a meek 'yes.' There was an awkward pause before Thor's face suddenly lit up - he knew what he could do to make his brother happy.
"Would you like to go see the gardens, Loki? They are beautiful - Jane has done wonders."
Loki's eyes brightened. "Yes, if... if it is not too much trouble. I should like to feel the sun again."
The grin fell from Thor's face. He vowed to find the guards responsible for mistreating Loki so and punish them for their cruelty. But for now, such things would do Loki no good. Forcing himself to look cheerful, he slid his arms under Loki's bony frame and lifted him from the bed, cradling him against his broad chest. Loki made no complaint; Thor thought with a quiet chuckle of how vehemently Loki would have protested such treatment before.
Before he was broken.
Shaking the dismal thoughts from his mind, Thor told Loki all about what had happened in the palace during his... absence... and Loki listened contentedly, resting his head on Thor's shoulder. He weighed so little; Thor was determined to feed Loki like a pig until his little brother gained some weight back.
People stared at the two as they passed, obviously agog at the sight of the formerly jailed prince but too intimidated by Thor's expression to make any comment. Thor could feel how Loki curled in on himself a little, trying to shield himself from the unfriendly stares, and he felt a rush of anger.
Two young warriors - probably the sons of nobles, still in the early stages of their training - stopped and gaped openly at the sight of Thor and Loki.
"He's letting the king carry him like a woman!" one of them drawled, causing several others to laugh.
"Isn't the Frost Giant princess lovely?"
"She must have swooned!"
Loki buried his face in Thor's shirt, and Thor could feel a sob stifled against his shoulder. Blood turning to liquid rage, Thor stopped in his tracks and leveled the young men with a stormy glare.
"Speak one more such word of my brother, and you will suffer a hundred lashes for your insolence!" he boomed.
There was an uncomfortable silence, during which the cheeky young men quickly disappeared. The onlookers avoided Thor's blazing eyes, hurrying on their way.
Loki blinked at Thor, moist eyes shining with surprise and gratitude. His pale lips stretched into a bright smile, the first Thor had seen on his face in a very long time. It was a beautiful smile: brilliantly happy and bursting with radiance. "Thor, you... you stood up for me..."
"Of course I did," Thor replied, kissing Loki's forehead. "They had no right to say such wicked things."
Loki looked the happiest he had since long before he fell from the Bifrost. He gazed at Thor with an open love and admiration, face as bright as a child's on his name-day. Thor felt his heart break all over again; how pathetic was it that Loki had come to expect so little of his family that such a simple act of kindness wrought such a great effect?
They reached the palace doors, which were flung open at Thor's command. He and Loki were met with sunlight and a pleasant breeze. Loki laughed aloud, closing his eyes and relaxing in Thor's arms as he reveled in the warmth and sweet air. He looked as though he would be happy simply to lie in the sunlight forever.
Thor thought with a churn of guilt that this was the first time Loki had been out of doors and breathed the free air in a very, very long time. He'd never thought how valuable it was to simply be able to go outside - Thor could, at almost any time he wanted, step out onto a balcony or into the gardens and enjoy the Asgardian climate. Loki, on the other hand, had not felt the warmth of the sun nor the coolness of a breeze in three centuries; it had been one of many things denied him in his cold, dank, dark cell.
Loki leaned his head back, still smiling from ear to ear. "Norns..."
Thor wanted to cry.
He carried Loki into the gardens, walking some distance until he found a secluded glade, dotted with flowers and adorned with a small, clear pool. He set Loki down so that the younger god could sit up against a wide, mossy tree, nestled in between roots thicker than his legs. Loki drank in the sights about him like a man dying of thirst, fingers running across the moss and roots and grass and dirt. "It's beautiful..." he whispered.
Thor couldn't remember the last time Loki had been so openly appreciative of anything. He was starting to realize just how much the imprisonment had broken his brother; Loki barely resembled the man he'd been when Thor brought him back to Asgard, or even what he'd been before the disaster of Thor's first coronation. Not since he was a small child had Loki been so happy, or so expressive. There was a lump in Thor's throat as he gazed at his brother; he turned away so that Loki would not see the tears shining in his eyes.
"So beautiful," Loki said again. "Thor- Thor, what is the matter?"
Thor wiped his eyes. "Nothing. I am only very happy, that is all."
Loki grinned again, reaching out and grasping Thor's hand. "How could you be anything but in such a wonderful place?"
Thor had to dry his eyes again. "I... I do not know. You are right, it is beautiful."
Loki laughed, breathing deeply as another breeze swept through the glade and ruffled his hair. "I had almost forgotten that such things as trees and sunlight even existed," he said. There was no bitterness in his words; only pure joy. "By the branches of Yggdrasil, it is good to be outside again."
"How can you ever forgive me?" Thor said abruptly, overcome by a wave of shame. "I left you in that terrible place for so long. I never even inquired after your health. I just assumed that you were well... And all that time..."
"But you freed me," Loki said, regarding Thor with bemusement. "I thought I would be there forever. How can I be angry with you?"
Thor shook his head. "Because I am a miserable excuse for a brother. I am glad you have changed, Loki, but this price is one you never should have paid. I would much rather have kept you by my side and had you fighting me all the way."
"But I deserved-"
"No, Loki," Thor said quickly. "Let us speak no more of that. You deserved love, and compassion, and a second chance. Not this. Never this."
"You are a fool," Loki said fondly. "A marvellous fool. I will not try and argue with you."
Thor smiled and moved closer to his brother, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. "It is good to have you back, my sweet Loki."