After the strange daylight and lurid astral horizons of Asgard, Darcy found the ordinary bright daylight of Sol an immense relief. It was a short-lived one, however, for Coulson immediately led them through S.H.I.E.L.D. security deep into the mountain, taking them down what felt like several hundred feet in an industrial-strength elevator.
“Is this a prison?” asked Thor.
“No,” replied Fury, as he led them through gray hallways emblazoned with the stylized S.H.I.E.L.D. logo at regular intervals. A hand on her shoulder caused Darcy to drop behind the others a few paces, and Phil Coulson hissed in her ear, “You came back with the Tesseract?”
“Yes. Tesseract’s the least of it. Odin kicked out Loki and Thor threw his hammer at him and Fury said everybody could all come to earth so here we are. Also we took some of Odin’s shit, including the Tesseract.”
“Why did Odin kick out Loki?”
Darcy did not want to get into what she and Jane had done, so she just said, “Odin’s just the kind of guy who always says that if you didn’t provoke him he wouldn’t have to hit you.”
This must have been enough, because Phil released his hand from her shoulder and let both of them catch up with the rest.
Fury finally ushered them into a spartan but spacious and well-lit windowless office containing several chairs ranged around a mahogany desk. A large detailed globe stood on a stand in one corner and a framed photo of the Earth photographed from the moon landing hung on the wall beside it. Gesturing at the others to take a seat, Fury seated himself behind the wide desk, facing them, his face haloed by the huge stylized logo of S.H.I.E.L.D. that decorated the wall behind him. Phil Coulson took up a stand on Fury’s left, while Fury pushed away the computer screen on the right side of the desk.
“Loki, what can you tell us about Thanos’ surveillance capabilities?”
“Probably not as much as you want to know,” replied Loki. “All I know for certain is that Thanos has an uncanny ability to show up whenever his name is invoked.”
“Speak of the devil and he shall appear,” mused Fury. “How much were your speeches for the benefit of Thanos?”
“I admit I was careful to say nothing of which the Titan was likely to disapprove, should he hear of it. But do not flatter yourself, mortal, I meant every word I said.”
“I’m sure of it,” replied Fury. “How does Thanos’ knowledge of what happens compare to, say, Heimdall?”
“His senses are different from Heimdall’s, though no less acute, but they seem to vary in scope. I found I could conceal my presence from Heimdall, but not from Thanos.”
“That’s really scary,” said Fury, and looked as if he meant it.
“But there seemed to be things Thanos did not know. He appeared unaware of anything that transpired in catacombs where Selvig assembled the portal.”
“Well, we’ve got more than three levels of leadlined flooring above us, and a few more tricks and toys besides. So we should be safe here....” Fury leaned forward across the desk, his restless hands folding over themselves. Darcy realized he was nervous.
The Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. looked the Norse god of mischief and lies right in the eye and asked him, “So, Loki, why did you attack earth?”
Loki looked taken aback, but replied, “Isn’t it obvious?”
“Actually, no, as a matter of fact it isn’t.”
“I wanted to make myself king of a realm, and earth looked easy to conquer.”
“Is that all?”
Loki did not answer, and presently Thor said, “He also wanted vengeance against me, but do not concern yourself with that. I have promised to answer for my brother, and I shall. Is not Thanos the greater threat?”
“We’ll get to Thanos pretty quick,” replied Fury. “Loki, is that true?”
“What difference does it make?” Loki snarled. “What is this nonsense? What do you want?”
“Odin wanted the Tesseract,” Thor replied. “Is that what you want to hear us say?”
“No,” said Fury. “Bear with me a moment, gentlemen. I’d just like to game something out here. Take this Thanos, for instance. He was killed trying to gain control of the universe, Thor, wasn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Thor, “and how he is seen alive again I know not.”
“Neither do we. However, let’s assume he still has the same goals. It’s a safe assumption that he’s going to want his magic mitten back, and an equally safe one that Odin’s got it squirreled away somewhere. But even though Thanos gets his paws on a genuine Asgardian prince, he doesn’t go to Asgard. Instead he finds out that Loki here knows all there is to know about the Tesseract, a macgruffin that Loki tells him is located on the much more accessible earth, so Thanos decides he’s going to start his war of universal conquest here.”
“But you don’t know the workings of the Tesseract,” objected Thor, looking at his brother in surprise. “It’s been on earth since the first Jotun war. Even in Asgard it was little more than a legend.”
“Thor, I was lying,” Loki replied with impressive patience.
Darcy thought she caught the ghost of a smile in Fury’s eye. “In any case, the Tesseract is quite easy to operate, at least as a portal. It was not a lie Thanos was likely to uncover, just like the lie that the stabilized portal you would build for him could not be closed. Thanos would never suspect the scepter that he himself had given you.”
“Do not flatter yourselves, mortals, that I did not intend to conquer this realm,” said Loki sharply.
“We don’t,” Fury said quietly. “That backdoor needn´t have been for us. It could also maybe come in handy if, say, Thanos wanted earth for a staging ground for the vast armies he might employ for the conquest of Asgard. He might have discovered a little too late that his armada had not managed to follow him there.”
Loki said nothing, but it seemed to Darcy that his expression softened a bit.
“Thanos trapped in Asgard might even learn that with the portal closed, you could find your own way in to kill him. Preferably with an audience. Something like the way you took out Laufey. You won a hell of a victory over Jotunheim, even if only the rank and file seem to appreciate it.”
Loki still said nothing.
“Wait a minute, I think I know how Thanos came back to life,” said Jane. “It was the will of Mistress Death, wasn’t it? What you told us on the Isle of Silence.”
Loki continued to look at the floor; the rest of them looked at Jane.
“Loki described it as a what-if,” she went on. “Suppose Mistress Death likes a steady harvest of souls, not a cataclysmic collapse. Say Mistress Death doesn’t like the fact that the earth’s in the middle of its sixth great extinction, and so she dispatches Thanos to take care of the humans who were causing it. Except that if Thanos went off to conquer Asgard instead, Death wouldn’t trust him anymore.”
Fury frowned. “He explained all this to you?”
“At that time Loki thought Odin had sent us,” said Jane. “He figured we’d be letting Odin know.”
Fury looked at Thor. “I’m guessing this kind of thing didn’t come out at Loki’s trial.”
“What trial?” said Thor. “Odin merely ordered his punishment. It was the same when I was exiled to earth. The Allfather simply decides, that’s all. But I think I know whereof which Jane speaks. You are changing the chemistry of your atmosphere, are you not? Peace we can keep, but our laws provides us with no guidance here. I tell you frankly that all in Asgard are mystified as to why the mortals seem to be intent upon destroying their own realm.”
“Yeah, that’s a problem,” said Fury. “Which is why we need the Tesseract. It’s a clean energy source, and it should be able to give us energy to replace coal and oil. But until that happens, you tell me that this gives Thanos an excuse for killing the human race to please Mistress Death.”
“Death does not love, whatever the delusions under which Thanos may labor,” said Loki unexpectedly.
“But since he’s no longer going to be lured off to Asgard, Thanos is still our problem,” replied Fury. “Any ideas?”
Thor gripped his hammer. “We fight him!” growled the Norse god of thunder. Loki said nothing.
It occurred to Darcy that from his point of view Loki had good reason to say nothing: however pleasing it might have been to Odin to be presented with a dead Titan and a living Tesseract, a conquered Earth and an obedient drone army of Chitauris, Loki could well appreciate that a mortal would see in such accomplishments nothing more than a vision of horrors which boded ill toward earth. From what little she had seen, she could guess that Asgard neither forgave failure nor valued mercy, and the Asgardian prince’s downcast gaze suggested he expected none of the latter here. Yet surely even Loki could understand that crimes he had not committed could not be held against him?
Fury turned his gaze from Loki, and said, “Jane, I still want to know what you asked the Infinity Gauntlet to do. You never said.”
“Right now?” Jane was puzzled. “All right. Darcy and I decided it was unfair that Loki had no weapons, so we decided to raid the weapons vault for him. But it's not really a weapons vault, it's kind of a storeroom for all sort of magical stuff, isn't it? Anyway, after I stole the gauntlet, and even though it obeyed me, I could sense that it had a mind of its own. And I thought, let me see what it has to say. When I stopped time I took it up to that portico above Odin´s throne, and questioned it. Something spoke to me, telling me the Infinity Gems could give me all that which they possess: sovereignty over life and death, power over earth or any other realm, a sign to control all elements, the ability to alter the very rules of physics and science and chemistry. I then asked the Gems to make Odin truly love both his sons the way as a father he claims to do. And they told me that love was not of their essence, or available to their skill; they could enthrall Odin if I so chose, and make him do whatever actions I asked; but love -- love freely given, love alone -- was beyond them. Then I beggged the Gems to allow me to give the Gauntlet to Loki so that he might leave Asgard and all its evil, and they answered that I might try this but he would not take it. I could not believe that, but they assured me it was true, and bid me ask for something else. When I did not answer them, the Gems spoke again, and they asked me this, was there any gift they could make me that was not worthless in my eyes?”
Jane paused; no one else spoke, so she continued.
“I laid a condition upon the Gems that they should not to kill anyone or harm earth, but if they needed to destroy Asgard, they should feel free to do so. And then I asked of them, if you cannot make Odin love his sons, then give me this: show him to them.”
“That’s what you asked of the Infinity Gauntlet,” said Fury.
“Yes,” replied Jane, “that was all.”
Loki broke the silence. Eyes wide, he looked at his brother: “But you are the golden child, the one who can do no wrong. Odin does love you.”
Thor shakes his head. “No, brother, he does not. Jane is right.”
Loki jumped up, overturning the chair in his frenzy. “But he does! He does! You are the first-born, the heir, the beloved. You are his real son, cherished as I could never hope to be.”
Thor did not move. “No, brother. Do you remember my coronation that never was?”
Loki stood still. “All too well.”
“Do you remember how Father was not happy, that day?” continued Thor, not getting up but shifting his chair to face his brother, still standing. “I was triumphant, winking at Mother, Sif was rolling her eyes, the Warriors Three were up to their usual tricks, but Father was grim.”
If it was possible for Loki to any more still, he was, but he spoke. “I remember.”
“Then do you remember the three of us and the ice in the Weapons Vault? Father never smiled, but the more angry I got, the more his mood lightened. He did not even raise his voice until he could say to me, But you’re not King! That was what roused his anger, he expressed neither grief nor rage over the valiant warriors just slain in the course of their duty. And then in Jotunheim, when he spoke to Laufey, and again, when he cast me out from the Observatory, he was happy. He was almost falling over from need of the Odinsleep, but he was happy.”
If it was possible for Loki’s skin to be any more white, it was, but he spoke. “I remember, but Thor, that ….that can’t be true. It isn’t the truth! It must be that you … you were too exuberant to be king. Or some such matter.”
“Should I not be glad to be made King, when all of Asgard clapped and cheered to see me made so, and none had any cause for grief at the change, even if it was but for the duration of the Odinsleep?” asked Thor. “No, brother, it was Father who let the Frost Giants into the Weapons Vault, to prove to all that none were fit to take his place. Least of all me.”
“No,” cried Loki, in horror. “You were always all he could have wished for in a son. I was the evil one, the dark child, the changeling. It was I who opened the secret way to Jotunheim, who invited Asgard’s enemies into its heart! It was I who ruined your day of triumph. None other!”
“No, brother,” said Thor again. “Who else could have timed the invasion of the Jotuns to the second, to match the moment upon which the power would be bestowed on me? Who else was aware of their presence besides Father?”
Loki appeared on the verge of a complete meltdown. “I know what I did! I swear to you that I know what I have done! I thought you might kill me, but never that you might not believe me!”
“There was no reason for you to disrupt the ceremony, but the Allfather had every reason,” said Thor.
“There was a reason. Listen to me!” and Loki took a deep breath, looking around at the others, distracted but regaining control. “There is no excuse for what I did, no justification, nothing good in it, but there is an explanation. Thor, you wanted a war, the bloodier the better. You courted war! You were eager to lead Asgard’s armies into another bloodbath. You were not ready to be king, even if you were of age, and I had to do something to stop it. So I decided to ruin your ceremony, to ruin your day. If Odin had not yet proclaimed you king, I thought he would simply appoint Mother to manage Asgard during the Odinsleep as he has done so many times before.”
He looked around the room again, wild-eyed. “I opened the Weapons Vault to Jotunheim because I thought you would remember, or at least would be reminded, that Jotunheim was the one realm that was forbidden. I can scarce recall this now, but I swear it seemed a safe choice at the time. I knew nothing of my own connection to that hideous place. I was ever your shadow, but to make certain you committed no folly after the ceremony itself, I truly became your shade and followed you everywhere. I thought that if only I stayed with you I could talk you out of doing anything stupid, or that the Warriors Three or Sif would do so. They also knew Jotunheim was forbidden! I told Heimdall our destination and if he had but done his damn duty he would have spoken to Odin before we ever spoke to Laufey.”
It occurred to Darcy that Heimdall may have done just as he was bid. In her mind’s eye she could see Odin and Heimdall in the Observatory, Heimdall watching Odin, Odin watching Thor in Jotunheim, waiting for precisely the right moment to intervene.
“We should never have reached Jotunheim! I even dared to hope that if I spoke before you could answer Laufey I could prevent you from getting into a war, would I have dared to step out of my place for any lesser reason? But it is impossible to keep you out of trouble, Thor. Impossible! Every step of the way I met with complete failure. All my efforts to prevent you from starting another war were useless. And now here we all are.” Loki looked so distraught that it even looked as if he might cry.
Fury broke the silence that followed. “Odin stole an instrument of power from every realm except earth, then. You could have invited in anybody and gotten the same result. Only earth still had its Tesseract. Why did Odin wait until now to retrieve it?”
“It had been most skillfully hidden by mortal men.” Loki reached down and pulled up the chair he had overturned in his frenzy, but instead of sitting he placed his hands on the back and leaned on it. “It was not found until some decades ago, when a certain Johann Schmidt determined that the descendants of a line of Odin’s priests were keeping it in Tonsberg, Norway. Believing the Tesseract to be just an energy source he was unaware it was a portal until he triggered its power by accident. He has not been back to earth since that time as far as I am aware.”
“You know him,” said Fury.
“Yes,” replied Loki, “He is actually a mortal, although he has neither the appearance nor the lifespan of one. I believe Thanos made some use of his knowledge of the Tesseract to create my scepter.”
Phil and Fury exchanged a glance. “Steve said it worked like a Hydra weapon,” said Phil.
Loki was surprised. “You know of him, then. I had thought he left earth before any of you were born.”
“He did,” said Fury, “but he is no less dangerous for it.”
Phil Coulson looked directly at the man who had killed him and asked, “Loki, will you help us?”
Loki did not answer.
But while they were talking, Thor had succeeded in connecting some of the dots. “There is but one thing I cannot understand, brother. You knew the Gauntlet was in the Weapons Vault. We have both seen it there. And you know the secret paths into the Weapons Vault from every realm, you just said so yourself. Why lead Thanos in a fierce battle to conquer earth in preparation for an even fiercer assault on Asgard, when you could have simply opened the path into the weapons vault and handed his prize over to him at any time?"
Fury just looked at him, Darcy just looked at him, even Jane just looked at him. Darcy finally decided once and for all that if Jane could put up with anyone that stupid without facepalming, it must be true love for real.
And Loki looked at his brother as if he really, truly could not believe that was the only thought that could have occurred to Thor after everything that had been said.
But Thor was too enchanted by his own discovery to be disturbed by everyone’s looks, however. “By the Nones, brother, you have always been faithful! We should never have doubted you,” and he jumped up to enfold his Loki in an embrace. Loki tolerated it, but rolled his eyes.
Thor place his hand on his brother’s neck. “Now give us a kiss,” he demanded.
“Stop,” said Loki, and, realizing what he’d just said, froze, staring wide-eyed at his brother.
Then Fury spoke. “Loki, while your father’s been indulging his favorite hobby of stealing other’s peoples relics and hoarding them in his basement, and your brother’s been off picking stupid fights and picking up girls, it sounds to me like you’ve been fighting a lonely war defending Asgard by yourself for quite some time now. Would you like some company? Especially since it seems likely that we´ll be mixing it up with this Thanos sooner rather than later.” Fury punched up some numbers on the phone. “Hill, report.”
“Sir, it’s working! We have new video, do you want to see it?”
“Is Selvig with you? Put him on.”
“Yes, I am here,” said a man’s voice. “Is that Director Fury?”
“Director Fury speaking. Any more sightings of the U.F.O.?”
“Yes, yes, partial video over Patagonia and full video over Peru. There’s a pattern! He’s working his way north.”
Fury folded his hands. “Loki, do you want to fight Thanos on earth instead of in Asgard? You can protect Asgard from here. In fact, it sounds as if this won’t be that different from what you had already been planning to do. You’ll just be fighting with earth’s willing cooperation this time, instead of in spite of it.”
Thor gripped Mjolnir, and blue eyes met the wide eyes that contained a galaxy of color. “Brother, how long has it been since we have gone into battle side by side?”
A slow smile touched Loki´s lips. “Too long.”