A/N: This is a one-shot I wrote a while back and rediscovered today. After a little clean-up, I thought I might as well go ahead and publish it. As you can see, I have marked it as "Complete." There is a possibility that I may add a little more to this later, but it is extremely unlikely that this will become a full-fledged story.
This is completely unconnected to anything else I have published, or to my current story The Trickster's Tale. This story begins when Thor brings Loki back to Asgard after the events of The Avengers, and is pretty much one of my many ideas on how Odin could have better handled Loki's situation.
Warhing: angst and some rather graphic violence.
He paces in his cell. Around and around and around the cramped space, bare feet against cold stone. He is alone, abandoned in the deepest pit of the darkest dungeon. Forsaken by his 'family' and left to rot for eternity.
Or so Loki assumes. It wouldn't surprise him.
The muzzle and chains remain, binding him like an animal. So pointless, restraining his body when his magic is gone and there's no conceivable way of escaping from this thrice-accursed cell. But that wouldn't matter to the Allfather. Of course not. Not when the senile king wants Loki to suffer for his wrongdoing. Not when the bloodlust of Asgard demands that Loki be punished as cruelly as possible.
It's only been a day, and Loki can feel the madness hovering in the dark corners, waiting to seize his mind the moment he succumbs to the awful despair of knowing that he is worth nothing to those he once called his family. He remembers with a sting of bitterness how he used to crave their love, how he used to agonize over how to please them and earn their respect. Such hopes are pointless now; they won't take him back.
So much for sentiment.
He finally sinks down to the floor, bare back sliding against the damp stone wall. There's no point in tiring himself out; in the event that someone actually visits him (not that that's ever going to happen), he'd rather not be pathetic and exhausted. Even now, there's a pang of longing for someone to come - Thor, Frigga, anyone - and assure him just with their presence that he isn't forgotten. That someone still cares.
He hates himself for this.
Thor certainly made no indication that he would ever return when he shoved Loki inside the cell. And why should he? Loki has only ever hurt him and those he loves; there's no reason for him to trouble himself any longer over the fate of a criminal he so foolishly insists is his brother. Was his brother. Surely Thor has given up by now in trying to convince Loki that they are at all related. After Midgard, Thor will not want to be known as Loki's brother. Why should the golden prince share in the disgrace of a murdering Jotun?
Loki feels his eyes drooping as he leans back against the wall. The last time he slept... He can't even remember now. It must have been when he was among the Chitauri, during one of those rare respites from their tortures. He can close his eyes now, though; there are no enemies lurking in the edges of his vision, no knives poised to cut his throat at the slightest sign of inattention. There are countless centuries, now, for him to sleep. It's not as though he has anything else to do.
Wrapping his arms around his legs and laying his head on his knees, Loki closes his eyes and sleeps.
Jangling metal. Footsteps. A rough voice and a rough hand. Consciousness returns with bleary unevenness as Loki is shaken awake. He tries to ask why, but his voice is muffled incoherently by the muzzle. Then the face before him comes into focus. It's a guard, perhaps one of the ones who dragged him here. They all look the same.
"On your feet, ergi."
Loki snarls at the man, shaking off his hand and pushing himself to his unsteady feet. The cell tilts dizzyingly as he stands, the lack of food and water over the recent months finally taking their toll on his weary mind. Before everything rights itself, there's a hand crushing his arm and pulling him forward. He stumbles out of the cell and follows the guard through the labyrinthine passages of the dungeons.
Sunlight bursts upon him with blinding intensity, and Loki shuts his eyes, turning his face away from the unwelcome brightness. The guard curses and yanks his arm. The ground under his feet is smooth and cool - he's being taken through the city. Hisses and whispers follow in his wake, some brave voices even daring to shout insults at him. Loki would glare at them, but he still can't open his eyes.
An interminable amount of walking finally finds him ascending the palace steps, feet fumbling frantically as the guard pulls him quickly along. Then there's the cool stillness of the marble hall, and at last Loki can open his eyes. The soldiers lining the walls regard him with cold contempt, and Loki tries to return the sentiment as much as he can with the muzzle over his mouth. It stings to move his lips; the thing is all metal and sharp edges and he can feel the bruises and blood from torn skin underneath.
Loki nearly falls forward when the hand on his arm suddenly compels him to halt. Shouted words are audible from where he stands, though muffled, as if from the other side of a wall. Moments later, the ground trembles as the great doors of the throne room swing open, and Loki walks inside.
The hostility is tense in the air. The room has fallen silent, no doubt at Odin's command, but the unspoken jeers and curses are as tangible as the cool, polished floor beneath his feet. Loki locks eyes with Odin, sitting peacefully in his throne, face as blank as a mask. Hatred for the man courses through his blood. He can still feel the aching pain of years wasted trying to please his 'father,' all to no avail. It's obvious why, now, but the wounds are still there, still throbbing with hurt and desperation. Thor is standing there, too; he is at Odin's right hand. Where he belongs. Frigga stands beside him, and there's a fresh welling of betrayal when he sees her. Loki had always believed she was the one person who would never forsake him, who would always love him almost equally with Thor. But she, like all the others, never even bothered to search for him when he fell from the Void. No; she only mourned, grieving his death while he writhed with pain in the hands of the Chitauri.
They have all abandoned him, now.
Loki is forced to his knees between two wooden posts that stand before the throne. Their purpose is almost laughably obvious, but Loki's skin tingles with fury with the knowledge that Odin will have him whipped in front of all these people. It's more humiliating than he'd care to imagine.
So Odin has finally stopped pretending to be Loki's real father. The fact should please him, but it doesn't. There's only a hollow ache.
"You are guilty of numerous crimes against Asgard and the Nine Realms. You led Frost Giants into the palace, endangering the lives of thousands of Asgardians. You set the Destroyer loose upon your brother. You attempted to use the Bifrost to destroy Jotunheim. You fought your brother upon the Rainbow Bridge and betrayed his trust. You allied with the Chitauri and invaded Midgard. Hundreds died at your hands. And yet, you still refuse to show remorse for any of this."
Well, how exactly am I supposed to apologize when I cannot even speak? Loki almost laughs. Odin is so dramatic, rattling off charges to a kneeling and bound prisoner from the majesty of his throne. One would think Loki no more than a piece of scum, from the way the Allfather speaks; it's hard to believe now that Odin ever pretended to love him.
Or that this actually hurts.
"The sentence is one hundred lashes."
One hundred? Loki's blood chills at the thought. He would doubt his chances of surviving fifty. There's no way he can make it through a hundred.
Clever, clever Odin. Why simply sentence his son to death when he can have him flogged instead, and blame Loki for cowardly weakness when he dies after the eightieth lash?
There's a murmur of satisfaction around the room. Clearly, everyone approves. Thor, however, looks pained, and Frigga is crying softly. Loki wants to throttle them. They could argue, they could demand a lesser sentence, they could stand before Loki and defy Odin if they really care that much. But, of course, they prefer to weep and do nothing. Just as when he fell through the Void.
But Odin isn't finished. His face suddenly saddens, and he seems to age a hundred years in the space of a moment. "However, it is not through the fault of Loki that we find ourselves here today. His crimes are great, but the pain that led him to commit them is even greater. The blame is not upon his shoulders. It is upon mine."
The air is gone from the room. Loki does not even see the shock on the faces of the thronged Asgardians. He is paralyzed, his mind blank and confused. Odin's words echo meaninglessly in his head.
Because there is no way that Odin has just named himself responsible for Loki's actions.
Such a thing defies all reason.
"I was never the father Loki needed me to be. I raised him in Thor's shadow, instead of loving and cherishing him as my own and as an equal son. I let him fall into loneliness and despair when I refused to bestow any praise upon him, when I ignored him and exalted his brother. I was never there to teach him, to guide him, to love him as a father must. Because of this, he thought himself inferior and unworthy of my esteem. I never told him otherwise.
"When Loki discovered his true nature, I did not assure him that he was still my son, even if not by blood. I did not apologize for years of letting him believe that Frost Giants are savage monsters. I neither admonished Loki for letting the Jotuns break into the Vault, nor explained to him that such measures were not necessary to capture my attention and that he was always loved. I did nothing. And because of this, Loki believed I did not care.
"I did not search for Loki when he fell into the Void. I never asked Heimdall if he was alive or if he had perished among the stars. Loki spent a year being tortured at the hands of cruel beings, alone and without anyone to save him. I abandoned him in his greatest need, and allowed the Chitauri to twist his mind and fill him with hatred, sending him to Midgard with a purpose he thought his own.
"I have failed as a king and as a father. I ignored Loki when his pain was greatest, when but a simple word would have turned him from his dark path. I am responsible for what he has done.
"And I will bear the sentence."
Loki's limbs are heavy and sluggish and he's struggling forward and time has slowed like thick honey and everything is muffled and strange and he doesn't understand and he's trying to shout something, anything, to stop this madness and demand why, because Odin has no reason to do this and it makes no sense and it can't be real.
Cruel hands tighten on his shoulders, holding him back, and his ears slowly become aware of shouts of confusion and anger. But all of it flies harmlessly by him. He has eyes only for one man, for one inexplicable man who stands before the throne, sad and tired, the weight of the world in his aged face. Odin is regarding him with something strange, something he can't decipher. It's not until later that he realizes what was in Odin's eye as the king regarded his wayward son.
Thor's horrified yell is the first to break through Loki's consciousness and register as something intelligible.
"Father, no! What are you doing? You cannot survive a hundred lashes!"
"I can, and I must," Odin says wearily, stepping slowly down from the throne. "They are mine to bear."
"But..." Thor's mouth is open and wordless. He turns helplessly to his mother, who is regarding Odin with tear-stained wonder, a light shining in her eyes that Loki has never seen before. Her eyes lock with Odin's for one moment, shining with admiration. Loki stops struggling against the merciless grip of the guards, staring at Odin and trying to understand why in the Nine Realms his father would do this. For him.
The hall falls silent in hushed horror as Odin sheds his armor and cloak and shirt, standing bare-chested and suddenly smaller. Loki hardly notices as he is dragged upright and away from the wooden posts to make way for the king, who kneels down where his unrepentant son did moments before. Loki tries to speak again, to shout the questions burning in his chest, but the muzzle silences him. He can only watch as Odin raises his trembling arms to grip the posts. A masked soldier walks forward, a long, barbarous whip trailing on the ground behind him. He stands just behind Odin, waiting.
Odin nods his head.
The first lash cracks through the air and slices over Odin's back, tearing flesh and leaving a line of tattered scarlet. Loki's eyes widen and he launches himself forward again, writhing and screaming against the muzzle. This isn't right, something has gone terribly wrong, it should be him kneeling on the cold ground and grunting with pain at each strike -
The lashes continue, unrelenting. Thor's hand is over his mouth, his other arm braced against the throne as his legs threaten to give way. Tears fall silently from Frigga's eyes and over her cheeks, but she makes no move, stoic and unyielding as a statue. The angry roars of the crowd have died down to shocked whispers and cringes at each blow to the Allfather's bleeding back.
Thirty lashes, and Odin is already sagging, his grip on the posts faltering.
Fifty, and tears fall from the end of his nose to the floor below him.
Sixty, and he is leaning against the left post, unable to support himself.
Seventy, and he begins to scream.
Eighty, and he shrieks in pain as the whip tears across bone.
Ninety, and he slumps against the post, barely conscious.
One hundred, and the lashes end.
Loki surges forward the moment the whip-bearing soldier steps back. The guards are too sickened to restrain him and he sprints across the floor to where his father lies in a pool of blood, hardly breathing. Frigga and Thor and all the others try to do the same, but are held back by some invisible barrier.
Loki falls to his knees before Odin, lifting the king's head in shaking hands and screaming why why WHY? There is no sense in the Allfather suffering such brutality simply to spare a Jotun traitor who wasn't even sorry and Loki's hands are gripping Odin's cheeks and his whole body is quivering with shame and needing to know and why would you do this for me?
"Loki..." Odin whispers, a feeble hand rising to Loki's face. Suddenly the clasps of the muzzle are coming undone and the thing is sliding from his face and he yanks it away, spitting blood onto the floor.
"Why?" he rasps, taking Odin's trembling hand and holding it tightly because he can't let go and he has to know. "Why? W-Why would you take my place?"
"Because you are my son," Odin says with soft tenderness. He presses his hand to Loki's cheek and Loki leans into the warm touch without even thinking.
"I am a Frost Giant and a murderer and a traitor," Loki says, the words like knives in his throat. "I am worth nothing to you." Then Odin's hand moves down to his wrists and the shackles rattle to the floor. Loki stares at his hands, uncomprehending. Odin's fingers touch the bruises left by the unforgiving chains and his eyebrow furrows, as though in concern.
"You are hurt... I apologize..."
And then it's too much and Loki sobs with shame and confusion, his head bowed and tears falling to the floor. He doesn't even have the strength to look up when there are lips pressing to the top of his head and a gentle, tremulous hand on his shoulder.
"Can you forgive me, my son?"
Loki's breath hitches and he gazes with unconcealed confusion at the man before him. "F-Forgive you?"
Odin's voice is heavy with sadness. "I let you bear the pain of my sins for so many years, Loki. I was never worthy to be called your father."
"Worthy...?" Loki still cannot understand, cannot comprehend this massive and unthinkable act of love and forgiveness that has just transpired before his eyes. He stares at the blood and torn flesh on Odin's back, unable to understand why it is the Allfather whose body is torn and not his own, why the mighty king would bear the punishment of one who has betrayed him in every way. Suddenly there is a thrum of magic in his fingers and he presses his hand to Odin's shoulder, willing his unrestrained power into the lacerated skin and bone, healing and repairing and erasing the horrible wounds. When the last of his magic drains from his body and Odin's back is smooth and unblemished he slumps against the king, exhausted and spent. He can't even feel the hands that gently caress his face, lifting it until he sees Odin's face shining with love.
"Thank you, my son."
"Why would you thank me?" Loki whispers pleadingly. "I have brought you nothing but suffering."
Odin's thumbs wipe the tears from under his eyes. "I would gladly suffer thrice the pain to see you smile again."
There's something thick and warm in Loki's throat and his heart is aching and he can't understand why Odin would say something like that to someone like him. "I'm not worth it..."
"Not worth it?" Odin's voice carries a note of horror. "Loki, my son, you were worth every lash."
"Me...?" Loki stares at Odin, uncomprehending. There's no reason, no reason in all the Nine Realms, why his life should be so valuable to the Allfather. He's a Frost Giant, a criminal, a traitor, a murderer... Nothing about him warrants such a high price of redemption. But when he looks into Odin's eyes and sees the love shining in them he realizes that for some strange reason that none of this matters. He's been forgiven.
Something is aching in his chest as he watches the Allfather slowly rise to his feet. Loki remains kneeling on the ground before Odin, vaguely aware that all eyes must be on him but still too overwhelmed to care. The idea that this man, that the King of Asgard would suffer so much to save a worthless and damned soul keeps him on his knees and bowing his head, too ashamed to raise his eyes.
"Loki?" Odin says softly, bending down again. "You need not bow before me. You are a free man."
Loki only sobs, grasping Odin's booted feet and wetting the leather with his tears because it's all too much for him and he can't bear to look the Allfather in the eyes. Then there are gentle hands on his wrists, pulling him to his feet until he is standing before Odin. The king smiles, turning Loki to face the crowd and summoning Gungnir to his hand.
"Loki is redeemed!"