Disclaimer: I am truly blown away by the reactions I'm getting in response to this fic. Thank you all for your reviews, I hope I can continue to deliver the kind of material you're expecting. I own nothing but the plot, and I make no profit from having written it. Characters within belong to Marvel.
"You are going to do it, aren't you, Loki." Balder said, standing near the door in the reception room usually reserved for diplomats from the other realms. The words sounded like a question, but the tone made it a statement and Loki furrowed his brow, glancing at the other from where he stood by the window.
"You are back in Asgard, and we are to celebrate your return." Loki's voice was puzzled. "What is it I am to be doing?"
Balder smiled slightly, the expression warm and amused. "You're about to reset the cycle. But it's a little soon, isn't it?"
Loki sighed in exasperation and turned to look at the older god. "Enough. We have been centuries separated, but I do not remember your words being so cryptic. You are not a wordsmith, Balder. Just be clear."
Balder smiled more and Loki found himself reminded of the many ways that the older God had infuriated him, that arrogance which had led Loki to poison him with ground up mistletoe many centuries before, though at the time he hadn't intended for the older Aesir to nearly die from it. "You invited me here, for you intend to bring about Ragnarok." He stated.
Loki gave him a queer look, but inwardly he was panicking. How could Balder possibly know what he planned? That he had in truth sent the letter of apology for the long ago childhood jealousy and a wish for reconciliation in order to lure Balder back to Asgard where he could be killed and so be rid of the only warrior who could not die in battle before Loki let Asgard's enemies in?
"Your time in the company of Karnilla has made you strange, Balder." Loki said, crossing his arms. "Such a thing to accuse me of. I should be insulted!"
"Yet you are not." Balder pointed out, seeing through Loki's lies as he always had. "You have brought me here to kill me."
Loki snorted. "If you suspected such a thing of me, then why did you come?"
"Because I was curious." Balder shrugged as if the conversation was of a far more casual topic. "It's too soon, so I thought maybe this time I was wrong. But no, all the signs are there."
Loki forced a laugh, but it sounded manic and he knew there was no convincing Balder that he was wrong. He turned away, working his jaw. ".....There needs to be a cleansing fire."
"In time." Balder agreed, much to Loki's surprise. "But not yet. It's too soon, by several centuries at least. You'll fail."
"....I might." Loki said at length. "But I need to try. I've come too far, planned too much...."
"I'll play the part I must," Balder said, once more surprising Loki. "But this is too soon. Asgard is too strong, and she will withstand your efforts. You will fail."
Loki opened his eyes. He had fallen asleep in Frigga's arms to the tune of a gentle lullaby, and now he woke on his bed, the coherency of the dream already fading. He rolled onto his back and sprawled out, staring at the roof of his canopy bed.
It was hard to believe he was really back in Asgard. A part of him was still convinced that he had finally lost the last dredges of his mind and succumbed absolutely to insanity. Still, even if this was a fallacy, he didn't think he minded. Thor loved him and so did Frigga. He got to eat food, drink wine and feel clean. He thought perhaps he liked the feeling of being clean the most.
But if it was real.... Loki frowned and sat up to look around at the closed curtains of his bed. If it was real, then what would happen next? Thor said he was King and would protect him, but that had to be a lie. Not about being King, Loki believed that. But why would Thor protect him when Loki had done that Bad Thing? And he was still being punished....
His hands came up to claw at his neck, digging desperately at the collar to try and get a grip on it so as to try and tear it off. But just like every other time, all he succeeded in doing was hurting himself. He stopped, emitting little whimpers and looked at his nail-bitten hands. Maybe if he could just leave them alone long enough to let them grow, maybe then he'd be able to get the damnable thing off.
Knowing it was futile, he scratched at his neck again anyway and then gave a scream of frustration when he once more failed. He turned to viciously attack his pillow, tearing and biting at it like a feral animal in his anger.
A curtain was ripped aside and Thor stood there. "Loki! .....What are you doing?"
Loki paused in his assault on the hapless pillow and then let go of it, spitting out a feather and curling up a bit. "Got angry."
"Angry?" Thor moved to sit on the edge of the bed. "I thought you were asleep. What were you angry about, brother?"
Loki looked back at Thor with a distressed expression, and then brought up a hand to curl over the choker. "Want it off. Take it off. Please take it off."
Thor frowned, brows furrowing and expression turning troubled. "Loki. I told you, it's not that easy." He reached out to grasp Loki's arm and pull his hand away from his neck. "You're.....you're not well. I don't want you to hurt yourself."
Loki stared at him for several moments before he lowered his head and sat back, drawing his arm close to him when Thor released it and curling in on himself. "How long?" How long was he going to continue to be punished for the Bad Thing?
Thor looked upset. "Until you're better, Loki. I spoke with Mother after you fell asleep, and she agrees. You've.....forgotten so much, brother."
"Forgotten. Yes." Loki smoothed down a bit of his blanket and picked up a loose feather to tease between his fingers clumsily, looking down. "But will remember."
"Yes, you will remember." Thor agreed. "I'm sure you'll be fine in no time at all, brother." He smiled slightly and moved to stand. "It is still night, Loki. You should try to get some more rest. Do you mind if I retire to my own chambers.....or do you still wish for company?"
Loki looked up at him, and then he forced a smile. "Kings should sleep and rest well." He lay down atop his covers, curling up tightly. "Sleep. I'll be good."
Thor smiled sadly. "......I believe you, brother." He said softly and reached up to pull the curtains shut around the bed.
Loki waited until he heard Thor leave and then he all but exploded from the bed, tumbling off and almost slamming headfirst into the floor, but managing to awkwardly roll and end up on his side instead. He lay there, laughing at first, but then dissolving into sobs. He was afraid that he would never be 'better', not enough to satisfy Thor anyway. This was just another prison, a prettier one yes, but no less a prison. He curled up there on the ice bear rug and sniffled. If there had been one good thing about That Place, at least there he hadn't been tortured by false hopes.
Morning broke, and with it came Thor, knocking lightly on Loki's door and then entering even though he had received no answer. He looked over toward the bed, which still had the drapes closed even though he could clearly see the bedding had been stripped and for some reason put by the balcony door. It wasn't until a sleep-rumpled head emerged from the pile of bedding that Thor realized what was going on.
"Loki!" Thor laughed and walked over to the table to set down the breakfast tray he'd brought before approaching the younger. "What are you doing, brother? Did your bed not prove comfortable enough for you?"
Loki looked down and fiddled with the blankets surrounding him. "Felt trapped." He spoke softly.
"Trapped?" Thor looked puzzled for a few moments before he sighed softly and smiled slightly again. "Well come on, brother. I brought breakfast for you." He helped Loki to untangle himself and led him over to the table to sit with him and watch him once more consume everything and then lick the plate clean. He imagined Loki would likely eat in this famished way for a while, but while he might have imagined it, Thor thought that maybe Loki was a little more efficient with his eating this time.
"Do you want more?" He asked once Loki was done sucking the marrow out of the last of the bones.
"Full." Loki pronounced happily and then looked at Thor. "Now what?"
Thor shrugged and smiled to him. "In the afternoon, I've decided I will take the throne back from Father--I am King and I really should be doing it--but I am here for you until then. What do you want to do, brother? We could walk around Asgard. Things have changed while you're gone."
Loki started shaking his head, slowly at first and then more vigorously. "No. No no." He curled up on his chair. "Don't want to."
Thor stood up and went to his side of the table, putting a hand on his shoulder. "...What's wrong, Loki?"
Loki hid his face in his knees. "They hate me. For the Bad Thing."
"The bad...." Thor trailed off and frowned. "Loki. Do you remember what you did?"
Loki lifted his head, looking off. ".....Bad Thing." He said at last. "Big Bad Thing." He shook his head and hid his face against his knees again.
Thor sighed softly. "It's alright, Loki. You paid for it regardless. Don't worry about it right now." He squeezed his shoulder. "What do you want to do?" He looked around the room for inspiration. "I could read to you, if you would like."
Loki lifted his head. ".....You don't read."
Thor felt a flash of familiar irritation at the accusation, but when he looked back at Loki he found the younger smiling uncertainly at him and he realized he was being teased. Irritation turned into exaltation and he could have whooped with joy. Though Loki clearly still had a long recovery ahead, his mischievous nature seemed to be coming back and Thor never thought he'd be so glad to see it.
"I might not read as much as you," He said, unable to help the grin spreading across his face. "but I know how thanks to your insistent badgering when we were children." He knelt to be at eye level with Loki. "Do you remember that, Loki? How you used to be endlessly after me to learn my letters even though I didn't want to?"
"Yes." Loki was smiling more too, though he seemed to be mimicking Thor's, which appeared strange on a face usually given to more reserved expressions. "Stupid, stubborn Thor. Would rather go beat heads in."
Thor let the insult slide and chuckled. "You have always known the value of lessons I could not see." He acknowledged. "I am grateful Loki, for all the things you have forced me to learn that I didn't want to."
Loki's smile faded, and confusion settled in its place. "You never listened."
"No, because I was stupid and stubborn and would rather beat heads in." Thor smiled again, though not as widely and gave Loki's leg an affectionate pat before becoming more serious. "I've since learned the value of the lessons you tried to teach me, and I'm only sorry I wasn't ready to listen when you were the one teaching them to me. You deserved better than that."
Loki gave a watery smile and reached out to put a hand on Thor's cheek. "You're a good King now." He said softly. "You do good. I'm happy. I'm proud."
"Thank you." Thor smiled back to him, though he felt like his heart was breaking anew. He said he was proud of him, but this sweet-mannered, gentle person wasn't really Loki yet and that hurt. Loki was supposed to deliver his praise offhandedly, as if it something barely worth mentioning, because Thor knew that was how Loki gave his most sincere compliments. Stating it so baldfaced like this was the lie, even if right now Loki wasn't really telling one. It just wasn't....Loki.
"I'll find a good book." He told Loki, standing up to head to the long untouched bookshelf and find perhaps a book of myths and fables. Loki had so loved stories....
Returning that evening, again with a tray of food. Thor found Loki sitting on the floor by the balcony window, staring outside. He glanced over at Thor, but then looked away again.
Thor set the tray down on the table and stepped over to settle beside him. "Loki?"
"Hm? What about it?"
"It's called the Bifröst." Loki put his chin in his hand. "The Gatekeeper is named Heimdall, and he sees all in the Nine Realms."
Thor blinked, but then he began to smile. "You're remembering! Loki, this is wonderful!"
Loki drew his legs up to his chest. "I'm a monster."
The sentence was delivered so casually, so offhandedly that Thor found himself more shocked than if Loki had spat it out in anger. His eyes narrowed.
"Who told you that?"
Loki looked away and curled up a bit tighter. ".....Didn't have to." He spoke softly. "Just know it."
"It is an untruth, Loki." Thor said firmly. "Doing....what you have done does not make you a monster."
Thor sighed. "Yes, you are a Frost Giant. That too means nothing. They are not monsters either, only a harsh people made so by the world on which they live."
Loki laughed softly, a sad sound. He shook his head. "Monster."
"Loki." Thor reached out to clasp his shoulder and give him a shake. "You are my brother. Though not by blood, you are still my brother. My brother is not a monster." Shifting a little closer, he tugged Loki over to hug him. "You are Loki, son of Odin, brother of Thor and brother of Balder."
Loki closed his eyes. "Balder is dead."
"He was." Thor agreed. "But we were able to barter his return from Hela, along with many other fallen warriors from her and the Valkyries. But come, Loki. Such dour things are in the past! Worry not....only please do not commit such actions again. I would rather have you at my side than locked away."
Loki snorted softly, but then he smiled. As always, something was missing in his expression, but he was acting more coherent than he had only the day before, so Thor was confident and hopeful that his recovery would continue to be swift.
With food long eaten, and Thor gone after showing Loki how to tie back the curtains around his bed should he feel 'trapped' again, Loki sat on the floor by the balcony again, staring out through the window. Contrary to what Thor no doubt believed, Loki knew how to open the door and he could go outside if he wanted to. He had tried earlier, but as soon as the outside air had touched him, panic had set in and he'd slammed the door shut again.
So long as he remained in his room, he would be safe. No one would hurt him as long as he was in his room. He'd even be safe from Odin he was sure, so long as he stayed in his room. He deserved to be hurt yes, he deserved to be killed. But if he stayed in his room, they would see how good he was now. They would see that he was good, and then maybe they wouldn't want to hurt him.
Except there was a problem. He curled his knees up to his chest. Balder was alive. Balder who had told him not to do the Bad Thing, who had died because Loki had decided he had to. Balder hated him, he had to hate him. Frigga loved him, and Thor too for some reason, but Balder surely hated him and if Balder found out where Loki was..... He whimpered softly and buried his face in his knees. Not even his room could keep him safe from Balder.
But he was good now! So so very good now! He would prove it, prove it to them all! He would show Thor most of all how good he was, and then maybe Thor would finally end his punishment and take the collar off. Then he would be safe everywhere, not just in his room. He would be better, Thor would see. They would all see! Loki would be better, Loki would be good.
He crawled away from the window and curled up on the ice bear rug, running his fingers through its fur. Ice bears came from Jötunheim, and so did Loki. Loki was a Jötun, and so it made sense for him to have an ice bear rug in his room. He inched himself to the far end of the rug and reached back to pull the pelt over him, wrapping himself up in it and relaxing, feeling safe and cocooned in the fur.
Did Jötun do this to stay warm? No, that was silly. Jötun didn't need to be warm at all. But then why did Loki feel so cold, when he was like them? Asgard wasn't cold. That Place had been cold, though. Cold, dark and quiet. So quiet all he'd had was his own voice, and then he'd lost that too. Then there had been the words, so many words. How long had he been writing those words on the walls of That Place?
Loki closed his eyes and whimpered softly. He was out of That Place, and now he was in Asgard. Thor loved him and Frigga loved him, but it hurt so much here. He was so lonely, so confused and so scared. If only Thor would tell him what to do, so he could be better. He'd do anything just to be better, just to be free. Maybe if he promised not to lie anymore? But no....because that would be a lie. Thor would find out and punish him again.
Maybe all he had to do was ask? Thor wanted him to be better, he had said so hadn't he? He wanted him at his side, not locked away. So if Loki asked, maybe Thor would tell him, and then he could be better and be free.
He burrowed into the ice bear rug and sighed softly as he began to fall asleep. Yes. He would ask, he would be better and Thor would set him free. He would show everyone then how good he was now. Maybe they would finally be proud of him.