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10 October 2012 @ 09:11 am
Fic: The Poison Rain 11/14  

Thor prayed for Loki to emerge from this attack, to break the shell that surrounded him and to rise from its shards, reborn and free. But instead its grip tightened.

The peace their mother had given him was shattered as Loki started to scream.

The sound was horrific, as if he were burning alive. It didn't stop, it only paused, and continued, wave after wave that made his body convulse in helpless spasms. Thor tried to pull Frigga away, but she refused to go, clutching Thor's arm with her fingers like talons, and stared at Loki with her brow furrowed in anguish.

Thor remembered Director Fury's question about what he was prepared to do to interrogate Loki, and he now knew the answer, watching his brother scream and writhe on the floor: not this. Not for the tesseract, not for Earth, he would never allow this. Yet there was nothing he could do to stop it. His heart quailed at the sight, and he wanted to flee, but he stayed. If his brother had to endure the pain, then he could endure witnessing it.

He tried to reassure himself there was no external cause for it; it was all in Loki's mind, but it was real to him, and he suffered beneath it. "It is a phantom, Loki," Thor urged repeatedly. "Illusion. Do not accept it as real." But Loki did not hear him, trapped in his own mind beyond their reach.

His cries hoarsened over time, and his struggles weakened, and Thor's heart grew heavy with dread that the end was approaching.

Loki's lips moved in voiceless despairing pleas as tears slipped from his eyes, and suddenly, Frigga could take no more. She broke away from Thor with a cry, striking the barrier with both fists. "No, I will open this and stop it--"

Thor caught her and pulled her back, keeping her within the circle of his arms as she struggled.

"No, I must stop it. I must help him," she protested, twisting to look over his arm at Loki. "Thor, let me go! There must be another way! We will help him find another way!"

Her voice cracked in grief, and he saw her eyes were liquid with tears. Her desperation made his eyes fill as well, but he held her, as tenderly as he could, not letting go. "No, Mother, no, we cannot."

"I will not let him die, Thor. He has sacrificed so much already--"

When her voice faltered and she could not continue, Thor gathered her against him, trying to comfort her when he needed it himself. Looking at Loki trembling on the floor made Thor think about Loki years ago, lying broken in the hall, while Thor feasted, oblivious to his brother's suffering. He felt he could not breathe, so thick was his guilt and remorse. How had he not seen?

He buried his face in her flower-scented hair, trying to hold onto his hope that Loki would recover. "He will have the victory, I know he will," Thor declared, as if saying it would make it so.

It felt like an eternity later, that his father's voice made Thor lift streaming eyes to see Odin above them. "Frigga. Frigga, come away."

She shook her head against Thor's shoulder in adamant refusal. "I will not leave him."

Odin came closer, his eye watching Loki, who seemed oblivious to anything outside himself, his eyes closed, but his body rigid and jerking at the touch of phantom fire on his skin and in his heart.

Odin's expression was soft with pity and sorrow. "Frigga, come away," he repeated, coaxing her with a hand on her shoulder that rose to smooth her hair. "For a little while."

"I will not leave him alone."

"Thor will stay and watch. Come, beloved," he urged, bending to take her hands in his. "Your hands are cold. Step outside, take the air in your garden. He needs you to stay strong."

But she resisted when he tried to pull her up. "Do you want him to come back?" she asked, not taking her eyes from Loki. "Swear that you want him to come home or we will lose him, I know it."

"I want him to battle this enemy to victory," Odin declared. "And to return home. I swear."

That was enough that she no longer resisted, and he pulled her to her feet and clasped her against his chest. Thor stood with them, exchanging a worried look with Odin.

She rested there in her husband's arms before lifting her head and stepping away to stand before the barrier. "Be strong, little one," she said. "Remember, this is in your mind. It is your battleground and you have the strength. I will return soon."

She pressed a hand on the barrier, as a kiss, then she walked away, glancing back as she left the immediate view and biting her lip in renewed distress. Odin put a hand on her shoulder and helped her leave.

Thor knelt and watched for a time, and then rose to pace the hall. He glanced at his brother, who was not asleep, but not exactly awake either. He occasionally twitched as if struck, but mostly his body stayed rigid and he whimpered in a distressing way. White-knuckled fists pressed into the ground, only changing position when his body jerked enough to dislodge them.

Thor stayed because he had promised to and so Frigga would not, but it was difficult. Difficult to watch Loki suffer. Difficult to watch him and think of past occasions when Loki had hidden his weakness from everyone, even his family, until he felt alone and apart.

Remembering that meant Thor could not leave him again, but that made it no less frustrating. His brother fought an enemy Thor knew little about, could not help him defeat, and threatened everything he loved, but he could do nothing but watch.

A loud groan followed by the sound of deeper breaths from the cell stirred Thor from his restless pacing and he hurried to the barrier to see what had changed.

Loki stirred, turning onto his side enough that Thor could see his face. His eyes were open and alert, and though he was still pale and tired looking, he seemed more relaxed.

"Loki!" Thor called.

Loki sat upright, moving slowly and with care as if he expected each movement to be painful, but found it was not. He pushed himself up to kneel on the floor and with one hand combed back his hair from his face. He panted for breath and his shoulders slumped, as if the effort of sitting up had exhausted him.

"It is gone," Loki whispered, eyes bright with wonder as they met Thor's. "Gone."

Thor smiled. "I am glad, brother. You have won a victory!"

Loki shook his head in denial. "No. It is a few moments of peace before it starts anew. He promised to punish me, forever, if I failed."

"Loki, you will defeat it," Thor encouraged him. "Mother said you push back his influence even now. Endure, brother, and you will be free."

"There seems little point," Loki said in weary bemusement and glanced around the cell. "Free to spend eternity in a cage? I would rather take this moment and be truly free."

Thor frowned at him, sudden anxiety like a sickness in his heart. "Loki, what do you --" Then he thought he realized what Loki was saying and shook his head. "No, you cannot …"

Loki's lips quirked in a faint smile. "How have you not yet learned that telling me I cannot do something spurs me to do it?" He held out his right hand and in a moment a long dagger of ice formed across his palm. It sharpened and hardened, gleaming pure and clear as diamond. "My birthright." He held the dagger in front of his face, letting his eyes flash crimson. "Perhaps I should have been better off trying to win that throne. Though Midgard is in desperate need of a ruler. I could not possibly do worse than what they already have," he mused.

Thor was not distracted by the levity. "Do not do this," Thor pleaded. "Loki, no, brother, please…"

Loki looked at him, smiling a little, and for the first time in a long time, his eyes seemed clear and he was sorrowful but resigned. "It is for the best. So much suffering would have been averted had Odin never brought me here."

"No! No, do not think that. Did you not hear Mother's story?" Thor protested urgently. "Your mistakes do not define all of who you are, Loki. You are not beyond redemption."

"Redemption is the cruelest lie of all, Thor. Speak to Natasha; she will help you understand. There is blood on my ledger, and it will never come clean." He glanced behind Thor to the empty hall and the smile turned bitter. "He took her away to test me. I suppose I fail and prove myself the weak reed he believes I am, but at least he need never worry about my dishonoring the house again." He paused and inhaled a deep breath, centering himself. "Tell Mother I love her and I regret all the pain I caused her."

Then he clasped the hilt of the ice dagger in both hands and drove the blade beneath his ribs.

Thor watched in horror, not believing he would do it until the moment it happened.

"Loki, no!" Thor yelled and beat at the barrier with his fists, as Loki folded. His eyes met Thor's, agonized and surprised, before he crumpled to the floor.

Thor called Mjolnir, howling until it finally arrived to his hand, and beat at the barrier again and again, in a fury to get inside, until finally it collapsed. He stumbled and nearly fell, unbalanced by the sudden disappearance of the barrier, and knelt at Loki's side.

Loki was still and silent. "No, I will not let you go this time," Thor murmured and rolled him onto his back, prepared to heal him with every bit of power he possessed.

Loki's eyes popped open again. "I warned you not to open it, fool," he whispered and his dagger of ice slammed straight through Thor's armor into his side.

The pain was sharp, but sharper was the betrayal, realizing that Loki had pretended. It had been illusion, all of it.

Suddenly Thor was on his back looking up at Loki who knelt above him. But Loki wore no smile, and his expression was pure confusion and desperation. "Thor?" he whispered and held out a bloodied hand toward Thor. He grimaced and shuddered, brow knitting with distress and confusion. "I am sorry, brother." His whole face seemed to burn with shame and grief, before he blinked it away, leaving his expression utterly blank. Without another word, he rose to his feet, war armor shimmering to cover him before he was fully upright.

Thor lifted his head to watch. Two guards appeared, and Loki flung out a hand, sending both flying into pillars. Staggering a few steps, Loki gripped the edge of the cell wall, leaning against it for a moment as if to gather his strength. Then his form shimmered again, as he pulled his power around him and he vanished.

"No. Loki, no," Thor called after him hoarsely and forced himself up to one knee, determined to stop him. The pain of the blow made him dizzy, but he used the handle of Mjolnir to brace himself and readied himself to stand.

Frigga ran into view, shocked by the sight of the two guards groaning on the floor and Thor in the empty cell. "Thor!"

"Mother! Loki escaped! We must hurry; he is not himself." He tried to heave himself to his feet, but stumbled. But Frigga was there, grabbing hold of him and steadying him.

"First, we heal you," she said in a tone that accepted no argument. "What happened?"

"He stabbed himself, or at least seemed to. I tore down the barrier like a fool," he admitted. "I thought he was dying. And in return he stabbed me and escaped."

Her gentle fingers found the wound and she pressed her palm over it. He felt the warm energies weave through the injury, restoring his strength. Clenching his jaw he waited until she was finished, even though impatience churned within him. Loki was headed for the tesseract; he would take it and he would wield it as he once had promised. And he might destroy Asgard or Earth, or bring it to Thanos, but in the end the outcome would be the same: Loki would destroy himself.

"I will stop him," Thor declared.

Frigga clutched his arm, holding him back. "Together. He will not harm me."

"For a moment, there was a stranger in his eyes," Thor said. "He may not recognize you. And if he kills you, there will be no saving him."

She must have known that, too, but she declared firmly, "He will not. Do not waste time arguing with me, my son. We must hurry."

He hated this idea of her facing Loki, but she was already rushing down the hall for the steps to the main level. He picked up Mjolnir and ran after. The palace seemed undisturbed, with attendants doing their duties as normal, moving aside for the queen and prince as they hurried past. There was no confusion about Loki coming through, and thankfully no sign that he had hurt anyone in his haste. He must still be cloaking himself unseen.

At the foot of the tower stairs, all seemed ominously quiet. Thor moved in front of her and ran up the circular staircase, Mjolnir ready to face whatever monstrous power was about to take shape if Loki seized the tesseract.

The top of the tower was a tiled, circular platform ringed by delicate arches supporting a high dome above, open all around to the air. Beyond the dome, a barrier of energy glowed faintly, indicating the tower was not quite as lacking in security as it might seem. In the center of the platform, on a tall narrow stand, sat the tesseract in its containment device. It glowed like a star, unopened and apparently untouched.

The tower seemed deserted, but Thor turned, hammer raised to try to reveal Loki's illusion. "Loki! Show yourself! I will not allow you to wield this, brother! It will destroy you." He tensed, awaiting the attack.

Frigga appeared at the top of the steps and glanced about the small circular chamber. "He is not here, Thor."

"Is he yet to come?" Thor asked, frowning in puzzlement that he had arrived first though Loki had left earlier, and feeling oddly disappointed. He was ready for battle, but there was none to be found. He lowered Mjolnir to his shoulder and shook his head. "He should be here." Then with a sudden idea, he approached the tesseract. "Has he been and gone? Did he leave a simulacrum in its place?"

Frigga's head suddenly lifted with realization and she gave a little gasp. "No. It was always a simulacrum. We have been fools." She whirled around and started back down the steps.

Thor followed her, confused. "The tesseract is real, though, Mother. I saw it in use."

She shook her head impatiently. "Your father was right; Thanos played a deeper game than I thought. This has never been about what Loki desires, Thor. His obsession with the tesseract was to mislead us. He is in thrall to Thanos, and there is but one thing in all the universe that Thanos hungers to have back most: the Infinity Gauntlet. And only Loki himself remains to stop him."

Thor remembered that terrible darkness in Loki's eyes, as if his entire soul was quenched in that inky nothingness. There had also been fear and pain, and truth, struggling under the terrible shadow. But Thor did not believe it would be enough. Loki would take the Infinity Gauntlet and escape Asgard through the hidden paths that only he knew to bring it to his master. When next they saw one another, Loki would sit at Thanos' right hand and there would be no struggle left in him, only death.

I knew of what he was capable. I knew he would not hesitate to use trickery or use my love against me. He told me so, and yet I did not listen. I acted in reckless haste and I have failed him and Father, and all of Asgard.

And yet he did not truly feel his failure, until he and Frigga reached the corridor outside the hall of treasures.

( Chapter Twelve