100indecisions: my chains are broken (the universe says hello)
[personal profile] 100indecisions
Title: all this that is more than a wish is a memory
Author name: 100indecisions on AO3
Characters/Pairing: Loki & Steve Rogers, very gradually working in a Steve/Loki direction
Fandom/Universe: MCU
Rating: R for violence
Word count: ~26,000
Warnings: Violence and resulting injuries, medical experimentation/torture, suicidal thoughts, dehumanization (these are the main ones, but each chapter will have additional warnings when relevant)
Summary: Direct sequel to let me see you stripped down to the bone, in which the soldier with the star-spangled shield became a weapon for the other side, and decades later, the false prince fell from the sky and became their experiment. The soldier and the prince were never supposed to meet—but they did, and together they escaped from HYDRA. This is what happens next. (Or, the AU where Steve is the Winter Soldier and Loki’s a HYDRA guinea pig, and things are generally awful.)

Chapter-specific warnings: explicit suicidal thoughts (if you need to, you can skip everything after Rogers leaves the room, up until the last couple paragraphs), dehumanization, paralysis

For a span of time that is probably only a few moments but feels much longer, Loki lies still in Rogers’ bed, too full of sick exhaustion to sleep. He has escaped at last, unbelievably, but he can find in himself no relief, only a dull sort of surprise that he is still alive—surprise, and something that feels a little like grief.
            Against his will, his thoughts turn toward HYDRA, and what exactly he has just escaped. Finally he allows himself to consider what Rogers told him, that he was HYDRA’s prisoner for an entire year, and his stomach clenches at the thought. A year is an almost inconsequential length of time compared to the overall lifespan of…well, of anyone accustomed to Asgardian lifespans, since he is not Aesir and never was. But a year as Midgard marks time is still a year on Asgard, weeks and months in which anything can (and occasionally does) happen. The broken Bifrost would have made travel difficult, not impossible, and it should have done nothing to impede Heimdall’s sight.
           So now he knows, after all this time, what his false family truly thinks of him. If they ever cared, they would have found him, would have torn HYDRA apart to free him, and instead they left him to be carved apart over and over again, all their reassuring words of love and belonging proven meaningless. They knew, they must have known, and they did nothing, because they all knew he was only a thing who thought it was a person, and what would it matter if a thing were finally treated like the soulless object it was? It would be a little funny, under other circumstances—these honorable, noble Aesir, proving themselves far greater liars than he, the supposed god of mischief, the one who could never be trusted because of his ease with trickery and deception. He did enjoy exposing just that sort of hypocrisy, once. He is not sure when, if ever, he will find anything truly funny or enjoyable again, and he wishes with sudden, nauseating intensity that everything had stopped when he let go, just as he intended. That he could forget his false family as quickly and easily as they have clearly forgotten him.
            It hurts, it all hurts, but he is too tired to hang onto any emotion for long. Eventually his thoughts begin to break apart, becoming nonsensical and disconnected, and exhaustion triumphs over the pain of his broken body to drag him down into a deep sleep.

Loki dreams—
            He is pinned down, dizzy with drugs and constant blood loss, the table beneath him cold and unyielding, artificial lights blinding him, and for a moment he is not sure whether he is going to laugh or vomit. Of course he is back, of course he never escaped—he will be here, cut apart again and again, until the scientists have carved every last secret from his flesh and bones and blood, have finally grown bored with him, and then perhaps they will let him die. (He does not think they will ever let him die, not as long as they have any use for him at all, and these humans have proven themselves to be nothing if not inventive.)
            Something sharp presses up under him and into his lower back, fresh biting pain of a tiny blade slicing through skin and muscle, and he cannot even try to pull away from it. The blade presses deeper, scrapes against the bones of his spine, and then something splits and he stops feeling the blade, stops feeling anything from his waist down. He realizes sluggishly that they have severed his spinal cord, no doubt to see whether it will repair itself, and at some level he knows this should terrify him. He has never experienced an injury like this before, has no idea whether he can heal from it, and yet all he can feel is relief because half of his body is no longer in pain. Perhaps he will remain badly crippled for whatever portion of his life remains, but he cannot even begin to care. Not when some of the constant agony is gone.
            He barely notices at first that the scientists have turned away and the light has stopped blinding him. Then he hears, very distinctly, a voice he thought never to hear again: “Loki.”
            Distantly he thinks no, this isn’t right, but his heart begins to pound painfully under damaged ribs and he manages to raise his head enough to see— “Father?”
            Odin sighs, his expression hard and unreadable. “Oh, Loki. Look at you.”
            “Help me,” he gasps, barely able to get the words out past the sudden tightness in his chest. “Please, I can’t—”
            “Have you no shame?” another voice cuts in, and Thor steps up beside his father. “You should be on your knees where you belong, runt, begging forgiveness for repaying boundless generosity with treason. Not demanding favors.”
            Loki stares at them. Against his will, tears begin to well in his eyes. “Papa—please—”
            “He always was weak, wasn’t he?” Frigga says. “I had hoped he would grow out of it. I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that he would become…this. Utterly undone by mere mortals.” She shakes her head pityingly.
            “No,” Loki says hoarsely. “Mama, no, I—”
            “And he still has the gall to call you his parents,” Thor says, his lip curling in disgust. He glares at Loki. “You sicken me. You always did, but I never understood why—until I learned what you are.”
            Loki can only gape at them, his chest heaving and his vision blurring. “But you…you said…”
            “Be silent,” Odin says. “Show me there is anything of worth left of you and perhaps I will grant you mercy. Get off that table and meet your fate standing like a man.”
            Loki’s throat closes. He can’t move, can’t they see he can’t move—but if this is his only chance—
            He rips one arm up from the bolt holding it down, chokes as agony drowns out everything else, and then tears the other arm free. The table grows slick with blood as he struggles to sit up, but he is half paralyzed and his arms tremble too badly to take his weight.
            “Well, Father,” Thor says, “I believe you have your answer.”
            “No,” Loki chokes out, scrabbling at the edge of the table. He manages to push himself up on his elbows and then he is slipping, falling, and he crashes to the floor. For a moment he can only lie there, stunned and gasping, his head ringing and his lungs empty.
            Thor sneers at him. “To think I once called you brother. You tried to die like a coward and you failed even at that. I would not sully my hands by ending your pathetic life.”
            “Please,” Loki gasps. He stretches one hand out toward them; he can do nothing else. His entire lower body is still nothing but a great absence, and something in his chest seems to have torn when he fell. “Please, have mercy—kill me—”
            There is no sympathy in Odin’s gaze. “I showed you mercy once, centuries ago on Jotunheim. I will not make that mistake again, Loki Laufeyson.”
            “No,” he whispers, and then “Please, I’m sorry, please,” but all that comes out is blood. As one, his former father, brother, and mother turn their backs on him and walk away.
            “No,” Loki chokes out again. “Please…no…” Only deafening silence answers him—until the scientists return and close in on him, and then he learns that he still has the breath to scream after all.

           He wakes, and he knows he is awake only because now the pain shrieking down every nerve is real, not faded memory—and hard on the heels of pain comes blinding terror, because he is still trapped, he’s on a hard surface and he is bound by something hot and suffocating, and if he is back—if he has wasted his chance yet again—
            There’s a voice saying his name, just like in the dream when his former family intruded on a real memory, and that is almost worse—he cannot hear this again, cannot bear their disgust and rejection again, and if he is still not awake even when he knows he is awake then he has no idea what is real and surely that can only mean they’ve broken his mind at last, made him their puppet, and he can’t move and he can’t breathe
            Hands pull away the material stifling him and he gasps, shrinking back. But that is—that is not right, is it? If he is in the lab, he should not be able to move at all, and no one would help him.
            “Loki,” his name again, and now he actually hears the voice speaking, the flat quality and lack of much emotional inflection, and he recognizes Rogers. Realizes abruptly that he is not there, he is in Rogers’ safehouse lying on the floor, tangled up in his blankets. But he is still trapped, his pounding heart still sending fresh jolts of pain through his ribcage, and he knows he will only hurt himself if he struggles but he can’t move and he can’t seem to get enough air into his lungs no matter how hard he tries—
            Rogers yanks the blankets back, the motion wrenching against torn skin and grinding broken bones together, and Loki’s vision goes white with pain. Then there is a shock of cold air on his skin, and he feels himself slump to the carpet, head falling back and mouth opening on an nearly airless gasp.
            When he can breathe properly again and the pain in his limbs and his core has settled back into a more bearable ache, he tilts his head to get a better look at Rogers. The other man is crouching a short distance away, blankets in a pile on the floor next to him, and his stare is an unnerving combination of blank and intent. He is absolutely still, balanced as he is on the balls of his feet, and his bearing puts Loki more in mind of a cat stalking its prey than a soldier.
            Of course, Rogers is no ordinary soldier. Loki wonders, with a very distant sort of curiosity, who he used to be and what Rogers the human would think about what he’s become. He supposes he’s going to find out, now, and that thought carries with it a flicker of dull surprise, because he had not expected…anything, really. His last desperate gambit to escape worked and he hadn’t made any plans, hadn’t looked past Rogers discovering the lie and disposing of him for it. But that did not happen, and now he has no idea what to do.
           If it has taught him nothing else, the past year has taught him that his body will heal, given time—but to what end?
            He wants the pain back, suddenly, because when his nerves are screaming with it and he is struggling to breathe, at least then he cannot think, cannot contemplate the future stretching ahead of him and the inescapable question: he is not dead, so what is he supposed to do next?
           And Rogers is just looking at him with those blue, blue eyes, and Loki wants his brother so badly he aches with it and hates himself for the wanting. Thor is not here. Thor does not care about him, because otherwise he would not have abandoned Loki to be carved open and broken apart in a Midgardian lab for a year—would have listened, this one time when Loki needed him most to listen. At first he’d thought perhaps, perhaps…but time dragged on with more knives and poisons and blood and pain, and he realized that all Thor’s words on the Bifrost were meaningless things, tossed aside when Thor finally learned what manner of monster he had been taught to call brother.
            It should not have hurt, after everything, to recognize this. But just as there seemed no limit to the depths of pain his body could experience, so too did he discover that every new sting of rejection or betrayal sank deep into what was left of his spirit. The surge of disbelieving hope he’d felt in the lab, at the sight of blue eyes, long blond hair, a solidly muscled physique, and even the scruffy hint of a beard like Thor’s when he was younger—all of it was enough to galvanize him past his agony and his drugged stupor, and for nothing, because of course it was not Thor come to save him at last. Of course Thor had forgotten the worthless Jotunn runt who had followed him loyally for so long. Of course Odin and Frigga had lied about loving him, just as they had lied about who and what he was.
            And still Loki cannot stop his treacherous, pathetically weak heart and mind from longing for his former family, cannot stop that visceral flash of childlike need every time he catches an unguarded glance of Rogers’ face. The only comfort here is that Rogers does not pity him, perhaps is not even capable of pity, and that is…well, it is not what he wants, but what he wants is forever lost to him, and a companion incapable of pity is at least better than a great many alternatives.
            “You planning to just stay on the floor?” Rogers says, and Loki flinches, abruptly snapped out of his thoughts.
            “The floor does have a great deal to recommend it,” he says, unsure whether he even means to mock the soldier’s question or not. At least down here he will not have to worry about tumbling off and reinjuring himself again. He knows he needs to rest, and unconsciousness is no less desirable than it was when the scientists were cutting him apart every day, but his body has become one great throbbing ache, and almost everything inside him feels twisted, broken, wrong. He clears his throat. “I was not sleeping terribly well, I think, even before…that.”
            “Your bed’s too soft, right?” Rogers says, and then snaps his mouth shut with a vaguely startled expression Loki is already beginning to find familiar, the one that means why did I say that? Why do I know that? Loki envies him, a little. What would it be like, to give back the truths he never wanted to learn, the realities he never wanted to confront? All his life he hated the feeling of not knowing, whether it was arcane magical knowledge or historical trivia with which to stump his tutors or secrets he could turn to his own purposes—and then to learn the secret about himself that explained everything, to see every slight and rejection fall into a horrible and suddenly understandable pattern, to want so badly to return to the ignorance he did not know was bliss until he lost it forever…well, he might have laughed at the irony, had he read of it in a tale. The taste of it now is far too bitter in his mouth for that.
            And Rogers is more or less right, he supposes. After a year on a metal table, the bed is indeed absurdly soft, to the extent that the carpeted floor feels a little less unnatural. It is certainly better than admitting that he is afraid of another nightmare. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, exactly. I would prefer to stay here.”
           “Okay,” Rogers says, taking this in stride as he seems to do with nearly everything (as he has been made to do, or as the man he once was had done?). He grabs the pillow off the bed and helps Loki sit up enough to position it under his head, and then he shakes out the blankets from their pile on the floor and spreads them over Loki’s body, and Loki can only look at him with no idea how to respond.
            “Thank you,” he says finally. Rogers nods and retreats to the front room, leaving the bedroom door ajar and Loki alone with his churning thoughts.
            Everything is quiet, the silence seeming to weigh on his ears. After being shocked into wakefulness, he cannot easily slip back into sleep, so he stares up at the darkened ceiling and tries not to think. As with everything else he has tried to do within recent memory, he fails, his mind circling back to the inevitable question he wants most to avoid. The words repeat endlessly in his head, a helpless litany of now what now what now what
           Letting himself fall from the Bifrost was easy. There was no planning, no effort, almost no thought, just the simple act of opening his hand.
            And now—
            He is not sure, truthfully, whether he could do it, or whether he would want to, if he thought he possessed the nerve. He knows how, certainly; specializing in bladework meant becoming familiar with the most effective places to strike, and after the past year…well. He knows a great deal more, now, about the vulnerable points in his own body, about how much damage he can take and how much blood he can lose without dying. He knows what it would take to kill him.
            And he still wants, very much, to complete what he started on the edge of the Bifrost. To be finished, done, unable to remember Odin’s disappointment as he looked down at the monster he’d tried to raise as a man, or Frigga’s shock as she caught the first true glimpse of the thing she had called son—unable to imagine the disgust in Thor’s eyes when he was finally told what Loki was. Unable to wonder how Thor and his friends, who had always at least tolerated him, would want to kill him and thereby cleanse their memories of his tainting presence—if it would be Sif’s spear, Fandral’s sword, Hogun’s mace, Volstagg’s axe, to spare Thor the unpleasant task, or if it would be Mjolnir after all. If the great hammer would flatten his skull with a single blow, or if Thor would pin him with it, as he did on the Bifrost, and pay back his own humiliation at having been tricked into feeling affection for a Jotun by tearing off Loki’s limbs with his bare hands (or worse, and he can imagine now a great deal that would be worse).
            He does not want to imagine how his former family must have laughed when Heimdall told them how pathetic their pet Jotun runt had become, clamped to a table in a Midgardian laboratory to be carved apart like meat, weeping and begging for them to save him. Perhaps Frigga did not laugh; perhaps she turned away, lips thinned with displeasure, embarrassed that the runt could not even maintain the dignity she had worked so hard to teach it.
            He does not want to remember being carved apart like meat. Does not want to remember the awful crawling violation of it, its own distinct horror despite the constant pain, of cold impersonal hands on his body, pulling apart his flesh, digging through his insides, touching everything until no part of him remained that was his alone—that was his at all, because his body belonged to them utterly.
            He wants to be dead. He wants the Void to have done it, or the landing, or Rogers, who is not quite enough like Thor to kill impulsively in his anger, or perhaps no longer human enough to be entirely overtaken by any emotion at all. He does not want to think about taking the knife he has kept concealed since Rogers gave it to him and determining which veins to open so he will bleed out before he loses consciousness and cannot finish the job, or trying to hunt down the right combination of substances that would actually kill him, or even rolling himself painfully to his front and pressing his face to the pillow until he suffocates.
            He wants Thor to have killed him on the Bifrost, as he should have done. He does not want Heimdall to inform his king that the Jotun runt has escaped its rightful captivity and for Thor to hunt him down like a beast. He does not want Thor’s face, twisted with hatred and contempt, to be the last thing he sees.
            That thought, more than anything else, sends a frisson of fear through him, and he feeds a trickle of his slowly recovering magic into a veil that will shield him from Heimdall’s sight. Once it was as natural as breathing; now, even this slight pull on his magic is enough to start a dull pain throbbing behind his eyes. But it is bearable, only an afterthought next to the ache everywhere else, and it will fade as he regains strength. (If he regains strength.) He can only hope no one was watching him in the brief period between this moment and the year he spent with no need and less ability to shield himself.
            The other consideration, of course, is Rogers himself, who should have killed him but did not and thereby left the scales unbalanced. For all that he told Rogers there was little he could do, he still owes the man a considerable debt, and that knowledge sits uneasily within him. Loki has no place in Valhalla anyway, but he dislikes leaving a debt unpaid, so at least…he must try to help. If he fails, perhaps Rogers will kill him after all, and at least that would cancel out the debt. It is almost certainly the best he can hope for—and, he thinks as he finally begins to drift back to sleep, rather more than he deserves.
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