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Drag the Past Out Into the Light

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"What do you think they'll do to him?" Bruce asked, watching the glare fade as the Bifrost closed.

Tony shrugged. "Do we care?"

"No," Bruce admitted.

"Exactly," Tony said.

"Do you suppose there's any truth to that myth about him being tied to a rock while corrosive venom drips into his face until the world ends?" Bruce wondered.

"Hope so," Tony replied cheerfully, as he walked over to his car. "Can I drop you back at your lab?"

"Thanks," Bruce replied, following him.

~oOo~

The cell was dimly lit, bare, and quiet. Quiet enough to hear every syllable of the voices in his mind, harassing him with failure, and loss, and disaster.

Loki stood in the back corner, gaze fixed on the door, though he did not see anything. Hours or days might have passed since his brother's mortal pets had brought him down, and he had no idea how long he had stood here in his chains, held upright by force of will, silenced and powerless, the steel collar that dug into his neck trapping his words in his throat as it bound his magic in his chest. His thwarted powers raged within his body, making it impossible to feel the Tesseract no matter how determinedly he groped. The connection was severed, the power gone.

Failed. Failed, lost, unwanted relic, bastard get of monsters, of no use to any and with no value save what he could make for himself, and that was nothing. Brought here to be gloated over and then thrust back into the shadow cast by the gleaming prince of gold, until such time as his disgrace was no longer satisfying to behold. And then, he supposed, someone would snap his worthless neck and fling him again from the rebuilt Bifrost.

Whatever plans the one-eyed king originally had for him had come to nothing, and so he did not matter. He had himself despoiled any other value he might have had, making his name monstrous even in the realm of monsters, no longer of any possible worth as a hostage or sacrifice. The golden prince could kill a thousand monsters and forgiveness would seek him out, but the monster would only have what it could win for itself, and that was nothing.

So be it.

When the cell door opened, he was not surprised to find his sight blinded by the golden prince. The credit would be his but yet he was jealous of it, would bring his prize to the feet of the one-eyed king himself, like a dog bringing prey to its master, sure of his reward.

The reward would be forthcoming, of course. It always was, for the golden one.

The monster had laid everything at the feet of its master, had renounced all claims of blood or family, forswore all to prove its loyalty, and had been punished when his tribute proved unsatisfactory. No protests or proofs of fealty could make up for what it was, and so it had been cast out to live as it could, on scraps, and when it refused, when it demanded the place promised it in a lifetime of lies, sought to make that place for itself--

"Father would see you in the throne room," said the deep voice that drowned out all others, even those in the mind. The device that choked Loki's words, along with his magic, was hardly necessary-- no one would hear his voice if the prince chose otherwise.

Loki raised his chin, looked past the prince of gold, acquiesced as he was manhandled out of the cell past the silent guards and into the presence of the king.

There were, of course, witnesses. There was little purpose in humiliation and disgrace if none was there to see it. Loki walked with firm steps to the foot of the dais on which sat the throne, but when the golden prince pressed upon his shoulder he did not struggle, sank to his knees without protest. It was over, and all that was left was to hear the sentence. He had heard the mortals agree that death was too good for him, and that much was true. He would not die until the one-eyed king had wrung payment from him in blood and torment. A monster could live nearly as long as a god, could be tortured for a span equaling all the little mortal lives he had ended.

That was fair, he supposed. He did not feel especially sorry about the creatures, but he would not have sought to harm them if his plans had succeeded. They were not, after all, monsters.

The deep voice of the prince went on and on, detailing the crimes that were already known to all, reveling in awareness of its own glory and acclaim. Loki did not hear any of it-- his crimes were known to himself more than anyone, and besides, he was accustomed to being drowned out and silenced by that voice. The only way he could return the favour was to refuse to listen to it.

At length it ceased, to sounds of approval that ended when the one-eyed king rose to his feet, struck a blow with the heel of the great spear, now retrieved from the hands that had befouled it.

Beside him sat the golden queen, hands folded, expression calm. She had once made a pet of the monster, pretended affection for it. Even though it was long ago, even though he now knew it had all been lies-- it had to be lies-- Loki found it hard to look upon her and know it, know the kindness was all pretense. He carefully averted his gaze from her, concentrating on the king and on what his vengeance would be. This was the second of the voices that had ever drowned his, but this was one he must needs hear.

"Remove the chains," commanded the king.

"Fath-- ?" began the golden prince, and the voice of the monarch overruled him as ruthlessly as ever it had the monster.

"He is known to be a prisoner. Your point is made. You will remove the restraints-- all of them."

Without looking up, the monster knew what tightness had come into the expression of the prince, and the hands that unfastened the shackles were hardly gentle. It made no difference: a bruise or two more or less hardly mattered anymore. A moment later the monstrous hands, those that had committed so much evil, were clasped in front of him and he worried feeling back into them as he felt his words and his magic loosed, flaring and settling in his chest. He could not decide whether it was kindness to let him feel them one last time, or a refinement of cruelty.

The king's next words were another surprise.

"Loki Odinsson." There was a rustle from the watchers, and the golden prince stiffened by his side.

Had he not been startled into full attention himself, Loki might have smirked at this evidence of surprise. Brother, the golden one had always called him, brother, had insisted on the bond, had made show of his own reluctance to forswear the creature whose defeat and humiliation he sought. Great-hearted, golden prince.

But yet he wished to be the only one who did so, wanted his generosity to be beyond question and above all others'. The words of the one-eyed king were not a repudiation, and so were neither expected by, nor welcome to, the golden one.

They were hardly welcome to the ears of the monster, either, simply because he did not understand them. He had gained the full attention of the king, for once, but that attention should have come in the form of curses and violence. That had been earned. That would be understood.

This, he did not understand.

The king went on:

"The wrongs you have committed are many, and far outstrip those done to you." To him? What wrong could be done by a king to such as he? Lies did not count, when the creature to which they were told was of no value. One could not lie to a beast of burden. "You will be made to pay for your crimes, in a manner that ensures you will never again seek to harm those who are harmless." Harmless Had the king turned only his blind eye to the mortal world, to what they were willing to do to one another? Harmless ? Give the little creatures the power of Asgard, and see what wreckage they would make of their own world and any others they could reach.

These thoughts must be stifled, as he would be, because the king continued to speak:

"Asgard does not demand death as punishment for any crime, particularly not when the mind of the criminal is out of balance."

And now he looked up, now he let the snarl escape and curl his lips, because of course he must be mad, of course that was the explanation, the only value he had ever had was of his mind, and so that must also be worthless.

The one eye of the king met the monster's squarely, and it was the monster who looked away.

The king should by now be raging, filled with anger and vengeance, with offense at the dishonour to Asgard. That was expected. That would make sense.

And yet the king's voice was quiet as he said,

"You will, of course, make payment for what you have done." And here it was. Loki waited, and the king went on, "When I say payment, I do not mean in blood or suffering. There is little that could accomplish, except to ensure even worse crimes should you ever escape your prison, and would certainly mean you could never be safely released.

"Our sentence is that you shall, if possible, be healed to a point where you understand the severity of your crimes, and you will be compelled to make what recompense for them you can.

"Your rank is forfeit, and your powers are to be sealed, until such time as you earn their return to you. You will not be imprisoned, but held in thrall to one who can be trusted to control your actions and hold you harmless. This sentence will not be merely imposed upon you; rather your participation will be full and your release dependent upon your ability to learn from what you have done."

Loki was barely aware of the golden prince, stock-still in surprise beside him. His own mind was reeling, bewildered. This was entirely unexpected.

The king looked around. "You have all heard the sentence. This audience is at an end." Loki did not look around, kept his eyes focused on the foot of the dais until the sounds of movement ceased and the throne room echoed with emptiness.

He kept his eyes lowered as he heard the king's footsteps, coming down from the throne, heavy and solid, and those of the queen, soft and light. He could sense the prince drawing away from him. The golden one had been glad enough to play the hero, the self-sacrificing brother, before his friends on Midgard, had made parade of his mercy though it was in fact meaningless, words only. He was less pleased now, to have to see mercy bestowed by one with power to actually do so.

"Stand up," the king said now, and Loki slowly rose to his feet, gaze still downcast. "Have you anything to say?"

"Why?" Loki heard his own voice ask.

The king sighed. "As I have said, your crimes... your crimes are outrageous, and out of all proportion to any harm done to you. But your talents, the good of which you are still capable, should if possible not be wasted." Under other circumstances, Loki might have laughed. Now he had talents to be valued?

The tired old voice went on, "Also... harm was done to you, and as the one who committed most of it, I must take that into consideration." Loki closed his eyes, muttered something. "What do you say?" the king prompted.

"You should have left me to the man-beast, to be finished," Loki said. "It would have saved you so much wasted effort."

"Wasted-- ?"

"I will never..." He should be snarling, defiant. He meant to be, but somehow it was not coming out that way. He was too tired, taken off guard. "I will never earn forgiveness. I am monstrous and worthless. It would be better to cast me back where you found me." Where the monsters who birthed him now waited, eager to make an end of him. It would be swift and without any undeserved mercy, the best solution for everyone.

"It is too late for that," the king replied evenly. "It was already too late when first I gave you to your mother. You are our child, so you must make the best of it." He paused, leaned forward. "And I would pluck out my remaining eye, rather than deliberately add to the burdens you bear." Loki fought the spasm in his mouth and clutched at his defenses. There was silence for a moment, before the king went on, "As I have said, there would be little point in imprisoning or tormenting you-- you would surely escape, with nothing learned or healed, or be rendered too dangerous to ever release. Therefore, as I have told you, you will instead be made thrall to one who will prevent you from harming anyone-- including yourself."

Beside him, the prince squared his shoulders and began to step forward, ready to display his generosity in accepting the burden to be placed upon him. Loki kept his eyes down, and now he felt the expected surge of resentment, of weary anger. Of course he would be handed over to the golden prince, of course he would be pushed back into the shadows, where no one could see him and no one need think of him, forgotten again. Or perhaps he would once again be dragged along with the old companions who had always hated him, to demonstrate how safely contained he was, the greatest warriors of Asgard protecting against the evil represented by the monster in their midst.

The king was not finished speaking. "This task cannot be handed over lightly. The person responsible for you must be someone whose concern for you is equal to their concern for the realm, someone who can be trusted entirely.

"Upon consideration, there is only one who is suited to all parts of this task. You will, therefore, be bound to your mother, until such time as she and I agree you are ready and worthy to be freed."

And now Loki did glance up, surprise stamped on his features, to find himself looking into the gentle eyes of the golden queen. Try as he might, he could see no hatred, no disgust, nothing but regret and an emotion he could not identify.

This meant nothing. She had, after all, made pretense all these years of being his mother, when instead she had been his keeper. A kindly and merciful keeper, it was true, but a keeper all the same.

And now she would have the role again, this time openly. It was humiliating, but at the same time so much better than any alternative he could imagine that Loki could only cast his eyes back down. Pressing forward in his chest was an emotion he was unable to identify, one that hurt but for once did not make him wish to lash out. He could not remember the last time he had felt anything that did not prompt him to lash out.

"Father, no," argued the voice of the golden prince, the deep rumble now meaningless and feeble, like the unheeded buzz of an insect. "You cannot ask Mother to be responsible for-- "

"Think carefully before you say any more, my son," the queen said calmly, speaking for the first time.

"He does not deserve-- " the prince argued, and Loki wondered how long it had been since he and the favoured prince had found themselves in such perfect accord. He indeed did not deserve, but it was not the place of the prince or the monster to say so, and only one of them had learned that lesson.

"Does he not?" the queen said softly, and Loki wondered that her son could not hear the danger in her voice.

"The hundreds of mortal lives he has destroyed-- " the prince began.

"Indeed," she replied, still softly. "Creatures living their lives on their own world, until the invader came to provoke them. And he, unlike you, with no single act of bodily courage, of glorious self-sacrifice, to wipe them out at a stroke and render him clean and shining once again in the eyes of all, as though the dead had never even existed." Loki found himself glancing back to see the face of the prince. It was reddened, eyes downcast. "And then, of course, you saved the Jotun from the madness of your brother, and the mortals as well. You are indeed lucky. Not every hero has such a whetstone, against which his heroism can be sharpened and polished."

"Mother, I-- " the prince protested.

"It was never our intention, to make one child into the instrument by which the other would be glorified, but that is what we have done. And now that your grandeur is assured, you have no further need of him, and can leave him instead to those who should have protected and loved him, to undo what damage we can. You would be wise, my son, to say no more. If you cannot control your tongue it is best that you leave us."

The prince fell silent, and the queen reached out to stroke the cheek of the prisoner. Then the king stepped forward.

"Your hands," he said, his voice quiet but still a command. Loki's heart bounded in sudden terror-- his hands would be forfeit, and probably his tongue as well-- but he extended them without hesitation or protest. He would not have the prince return to his mortal playmates with stories of the prisoner's craven begging. Besides, he had spent his life offering one tribute or another to the king, whatever he thought might please, and he would not deny the king what he now demanded.

There were bronze cuffs, not a weapon, in the hands of the king. The monarch hesitated, and then said,

"This will hurt you. That is not purposeful; pain cannot be avoided in these circumstances. It is not my intent."

"Will it hurt more than leather cords through my lips?" Loki heard his own disastrous question.

Typical: the last words he would ever utter were naturally calculated to make his punishment even worse.

The king's face, and that of the queen, reflected sudden pain of their own.

"Yes," replied the king. "But not for as long." He clamped the first of the cuffs around Loki's right wrist, and Loki felt the panicked response of his magic as the fastenings closed, the king murmuring, "A sign to all, that you are sealed to the one who wears the other." The second cuff was fastened around the slender wrist of the queen, with the words, "A sign to all, that the one who wears the other is sealed to you."

And within Loki, magic rose in rage and panic, beating and clawing to escape. Loki's head snapped back and the world went sparkling white and then black. A moment later he found himself lying on the floor, blood in his throat and nose, his head supported in the lap of the queen. He clutched in shameless, panicky instinct at the folds of her skirts before he remembered himself and released her, pushing himself to his knees. The queen, in turn, knelt facing him and took his shackled hand in her own.

"I bind you to do no harm, and to speak no falsehoods, as I will speak none to you," she said firmly. Loki, fighting to control pain and nausea, had still enough wit to be surprised: he was to be bound to her, her words defining the terms. It was not the custom, was indeed unheard-of, for the one holding control to bind herself in return.

The prince reached down to help his mother to his feet, still apparently unaware that he had no part in any of this. She brushed his hand away and continued to hold that of the monster. Both of them rose together, the prisoner staggering a little as the struggles of his magic became feebler, leaving behind dizziness and pain and the aching weariness left over from his recent forays into madness, from the beatings he had received at the hands of the man-beast.

The queen's eyes met those of the king. "I will take our son now, my king."

"I wish you both good fortune," the monarch replied, and she curtsied to him, still holding the monster's hand in both of hers. Then she walked from the chamber, leading her thrall. Neither looked back.

~oOo~

The chamber to which he was conveyed bore no resemblance to those he had previously occupied in the palace, but it was clean and warm and not a cell. The door could be locked from within, though there was of course no key. Even so, the room had been designed to protect, rather than to imprison, its occupant. Loki noticed this by instinct, even as his mind now reeled with exhaustion and reaction, from the battles and the binding spell.

Exhaustion began to cause gaps in his awareness. One moment he was sitting passive as his mother's hands cut his hair, long strands falling into his lap and to the floor in another symbol of his convict's status. The next, he found himself in a bathing chamber, facing a pool of gently steaming water. Drowning crossed his mind, but he found himself unable to hold onto the idea, and the next thing he knew he was dressed in nightclothes, cropped hair wet and skin still warm from the caress of the water. He was aware of the absence of sourness on his skin, though he had not noticed himself feeling dirty.

The bed was comfortable, the sheets perhaps a little rough against the skin but their scent fresh, as though recently laundered and dried in sunshine. There was no telling when he would next see the sun, and so he breathed in the smell of the sheets while he could. The eiderdown that covered him also smelled clean, its weight like an imagined embrace.

He did not imagine the hand that stroked his head, fingers carding through what was left of his hair, as he drifted into sleep.

He slept for most of the next three days. Had he eaten or drunk anything since days before his return to Asgard, he might have thought he had been drugged, but he had not really slept since before the ruined coronation, and that was the reasonable explanation. He had not been able to calm his mind, or to feel safe, and sleep would not come to him.

Now he woke periodically, always to find the queen nearby, sometimes petting his head or holding his hand, watching over him as though she was bound in service to him instead of the other way around. He would try to rouse himself, but he was so terribly tired. Now that everything was over, now there was nothing further he could do, now there was nothing else to fear or hope for, sleep claimed him readily.

Late on the third day he was finally able to rise, washed himself and dressed in the clothing he found folded and waiting in the bathing chamber.

Servants' garb, but clean. No blood on it anywhere.

"You must be hungry," said the queen, when he emerged, as though it mattered to her, as though she had no better purpose for her time than caring for crippled, useless monsters. He nodded, and she held out her hand, the one with the cuff on the wrist. "Come, then."

He could have refused. She had not bound him to obey her every command, merely not to do harm or lie to her. Magic lost, falsehoods lost-- all weapons or defenses lost-- but he could refuse to take her hand, if he wished.

Her hand was small in his but strong, callused from her weaving. He thought he remembered it being larger-- and then he also remembered, of course, that when she used to touch him he had been very much smaller.

The kitchens were empty when they entered, and the two of them cut bread and meat, found fruit-- not apples-- and arranged them on plates, filled tumblers with cold water from a pitcher.

She did not prevent him handling knives. He looked at the veins inside his wrist, just under the skin, and he tried to think of what he could do, with a blade, to those lines of hateful blue. The thought twisted away from him, refused to form, like smoke in his brain, and with a surge of frustrated anger he realized he could not even end this, she would not permit him to harm himself.

They ate in silence at a work table in the kitchen. She must have sent the servants away, have somehow sent word, because no one interrupted them. He did not speak and she did not either, but she touched him often, now covering his hand briefly with hers, now caressing his shoulder when she got up to move around the kitchen, now stroking fingers across his head. As they washed the utensils from their meal, she stood close enough that several times her arm and shoulder pressed against his.

Later she took him to her own garden, where the queen was accustomed to sit and write or read or simply think, or to occupy herself with care of the plants that grew there. He remembered visiting her, watching the care and gentleness lavished on the buds and blooms, envying them, envying the concern in the gaze she bent upon them.

Now they simply sat there, alone and silent, the sunshine on their faces, until it grew dark and cold. The queen rose and extended her hand, and he took it and walked with her back into the palace.

~oOo~

He had no sense of how long this went on, he silent and acquiescent, she patient and quiet but always near, always touching him, gentle petting caresses as he imagined one would a sick child. He thought perhaps he remembered her caring for him thus.

Aside from battle, real or simulated, none had touched him in so long that his skin responded to the contact, even through his clothing, as it would have to the pulses of energy fired by the Iron Man: he did not react visibly, but his skin flinched and quivered, as though assaulted by tiny darts of lightning.

He naturally did not draw away or protest, but the queen was aware of the reaction. It did not stop her. Of course not: he was her thrall, and she had the right to do as she would with him. He did not understand why she persisted, why she seemed determined to caress something so loathsome, but she did, and instead of brief and glancing contact, she began to linger, palm or fingertips resting on his arm or shoulder, until the startled flinches were smoothed away.

Once, only once, he deliberately stepped out of her reach, just to see if he could. His feet obeyed him, took him smoothly away from her, and he saw this was not part of her binding. He could reject her touch if he chose.

They looked at each other for a moment, her hand lowering itself to her side, her expression calm and empty of reproach.

And he reversed his movement, came back to her, did not protest when she took his hand.

He made no further effort to avoid her caresses, but he still did not speak, and she did not try to force him, showing no sign of frustration or impatience. That had to end, of course, it would surely end, she would realize her task was impossible, pointless, surely more trouble than it was worth, and she would concede defeat and return him to the cell.

Every day he waited for that to happen, and every day went on as before, he silent, the queen speaking when necessary, leaving spaces for his response if he chose to, but not trying to force or insist, communicating instead through gentle touches as though to a babe before it has learned language.

He wondered whether she thought he was trying to punish her, ridiculous though it was to think such a thing of a thrall. He was not trying to punish. He had no defense except silence, could not control his own words to shield himself, and so feared to use them at all lest they become one more thing that would turn on him.

He wondered what would happen when her patience was at an end, for of course she could change the terms of the binding at any time, could force him to speak, pour out his mind and what passed for his heart, bare everything about himself to her scrutiny.

That did not happen. He had no idea how long they went on like this, weeks or perhaps months, but her patience was endless and her gentleness never varied.

And one day, he asked her:

"How long will you continue like this?"

"As long as is needed," she replied, showing no surprise or triumph at his overture, merely answering his question.

"You have more important uses for your time."

"I do not."

It was several days, or perhaps weeks, more before he spoke again. They were in the garden, pulling weeds from a bed of flowers, placing the noxious plants into a basket, to be taken away and burned.

"That is what the king should have done, that day," he said suddenly. She turned toward him in silence, waiting. "He should have wrung its neck and discarded it, not brought it back to his house, to pollute and destroy."

He glanced at the queen and saw her mouth open, saw the argument, the reassurance, begin to form on her tongue.

And then she swallowed it, said only,

"Why do you think he did not?"

He shrugged. "I have no idea. Everything he does is for a purpose. I am sure he had some plan in mind, before it tricked his son into disgracing himself and brought Asgard to the point of war. If all had been let alone, surely he would have found a way to make use of the creature, gain some benefit from its disposal. Why else keep it?"

"Perhaps he loves it," she said.

He raised his eyes from the weed he was tearing into tiny green fragments, looked squarely at her.

"Should you not tell me, if you change the terms of my binding? You have the right to do so, of course, but even a thrall deserves to know if the contract changes."

"Nothing has been changed. I am bound to speak truth to you, as are you to me," she replied, without offense.

"And that was not a falsehood," he agreed, thinking on it. "You said 'perhaps,' after all. Perhaps he loves the creature. Perhaps the sky over Midgard is brilliant yellow."

"Perhaps it is easier not to believe you have been mistaken for so long."

"Perhaps it is easier to believe what is there to be seen, not what is only wished for, without any evidence to support it."

They returned to their task in silence.

Some time later, days or weeks, they were planting at the base of the wall that enclosed the palace. He looked up at the towering stone construction.

"He did not love the creature when this wall was built," he said, as though their previous conversation had only just ended.

"Why do you say so?" asked the queen. He did not look at her.

"You remember what I did, to disrupt the builder and cheat him of his payment?"

"I do. You saved us a great deal of trouble."

"Yes. I felt no shame, you know. I did what I could to solve the problem, and there was no shame in becoming a mare and behaving honestly, as a mare. I did not even expect thanks for what I did-- wished for it," he admitted, under the press of his artificial honesty. "Wanted it. Hoped for it, but I did not expect it. But then, I did not expect ridicule and mockery, either. I had no way of knowing your son had already solved your problem by slaying the builder. I thought even the king would honour a contract after some fashion."

"Thor was not told to kill the builder. He acted on his own account."

"Because he learned it was a Jotun, and so its life did not count? I see. Jotun lives only began to matter when I was the one who ended them." The queen made no reply, and he returned to his original point. "I did not even grudge him the child I handed over in tribute. I was a mare and his father a stallion, so he is a horse. I feel no resentment that he is treated as one, and I know he is happy as he is. But having ordered me, threatened me, compelled me to find a solution to the problem, I confess myself angered and hurt the king did not acknowledge the fact I had done so, or allow me the chance to succeed."

"You were little more than a child. He did not expect you to do... what you did. He did not think you would take him seriously."

"He promised me death in torment. I was hardly going to risk my life on the chance he was only joking."

"He spoke in anger. You had advised him to accept the builder's terms, and-- "

"Yes, I had," he replied, his voice constricted with fury. "At least, I spoke in his presence. I never expected him to take me seriously. He never paid attention to a single word from my lips before that day or after it. Why would he have done so then?

"He did not take my 'advice,' he made his own decision, and that decision was wrong. Rather than admit his mistake he blamed me, would have slain me to protect his own appearance of wisdom. Of course he had not made an error in judgment, he had rather been bewildered and misled by an untrustworthy, unworthy, sorcerer. That was what he preferred to believe, what the court preferred-- apparently, that sort of misjudgment was permissible, because I was to blame rather than he.

"I suppose you are right that he would not really have slain me, that would have deprived him of a useful scapegoat-- see, he did find a purpose for me after all-- but he certainly would have imprisoned and tortured me, in punishment for my bad counsel. I who was, as you say, 'little more than a child,' and had never been trusted before to tell him when the sun was shining."

He stared at his hands, and the queen said quietly,

"He was sorry when he realized you were gone, was afraid for you. That is why your brother slew the builder, because he believed the Jotun had harmed you somehow." He did not look up, but nor did he move away when her hand rested on his rigid shoulder. "Your father knew better, knew it was his temper that had driven you to do something desperate, knew you were afraid of him. Heimdall found you, saw what you were doing. Your father thought it best to let you stay away until your fear of him subsided, until you were ready to come back on your own terms. He did not know what else to do."

"When I realized I could not change back until the foal came, I hoped Heimdall would tell the king what had happened, that he would come to find me. I would have come to him, mare as I was. I would have been so glad, so grateful, to see him. But he did not, and so I stayed away, fending for myself."

"Heimdall watched you. You were ever under your father's protection."

"Was I indeed? It would have been pleasant to know that, when I slept in snatches all through my pregnancy, lest some beast of prey come sneaking up upon me, always ready for flight until I was so heavy and awkward I could hardly waddle. I remember when the foal came, how afraid I was he would not come quickly, that something would harm us both while we were helpless. I remember guarding his sleep, scarcely closing my eyes. I had never been so tired in my life. Surely the king had bred a maiden mare before that, knew how vigilant they are of their children. Did he really think I was on a pleasant vacation?

"Although it was, in truth, only a little more frightening than trying to find a place in his court, knowing how reviled I was, knowing everyone was only waiting for me to disgrace myself permanently so I could be cast out and forgotten, hoping to be the one who found the proof that excused it.

"I remember walking back to the palace, naked, with my son beside me. I spoke at once when the guards came, told them the colt was tribute to the king, lest they make an end of the monstrous creature before I could protect him. I did not mind surrendering him, not when I knew the king would keep him and be proud to have such a horse. He was not proud of me for the gift, of course, it was no more than he deserved in payment for my error in judgment, and his son had already solved the problem anyway so no thanks for my attempt were necessary or forthcoming. I suppose I should have been grateful not to be imprisoned, for playing the truant for so long."

The queen sighed. He looked at her. "What? No more explanations? No more protests that I am wrong, that what I think is wrong, that I must not say such dreadful, hurtful things, must keep them to myself and not speak such evil? What?"

"I used to think you said such things to wound only," she admitted. "I thought them calculated to sting and hurt, and that you took satisfaction in the pain you caused. I did not realize... I did not know that to you, they are truth. I thought you disregarded what was real, for the power your words had to cause pain."

"Perhaps a little," he shrugged. "Lacking any other power or notice, I used what I had. It made people glance in my direction, before they looked away again. It was the only thing that ever did. But no, now that you have bound me to be truthful, I will tell you the truth. I led away the stallion and surrendered the foal in fear and homage, hoping to find some way to appease the king, so he would cease to be angry at me for my very existence.

"It was not the only time I did so. The wolf and the serpent, who are called my children since I captured them by magic-- those, too, I gave to the king, only to see them cast away."

"They were dangerous."

"They were loyal to me, and I to the king. They would have protected Asgard from any enemy, but they were not enough. Likewise the gifts I brought from the dwarves." He paused, fingertips rising to his lips. "The scars are still there, you know. I hide them by a glamour, so I do not have to see my failure every time I look into a glass." He dug his fingers into the soil before him. "I should have realized my quarrel with Sif would not stay between ourselves, and I know it was foolish of me, ugly, to place that spell on her hair when I was not sure I could reverse it. It was ugly of her, too, to call me a girl, to deride me for being womanish. It was not only I to whom she showed disrespect by speaking so. But I should not have ruined her beauty like that. I should have realized she would not scruple to claim a woman's price when it suited her.

"When the dwarf demanded my head as his payment, I thought he was joking. And then I realized he knew I was desperate, would not dare return to the house of the king and his prince without something to placate them. I saw that he expected the king to ransom me, which I knew he would never have done. He would rather have let my head be struck from my shoulders, there in the throne room, than lift a hand to save me. He who had paid the price to retrieve his own son, the friends of his son, when an adventure on Nordheim went so badly awry and I was not with them to save them by magic.

"But I saw, too, the way out, the flaw in the dwarf's demand, and I knew I could use that flaw to bring back wonders as gifts to the king. I bargained for far more than that foolish sop to Sif's vanity, knew I could save my own life at the same time, knew I could demonstrate that my gifts were of use to Asgard."

"It was not honourable," the queen said, as though quoting someone.

He laughed. "No, it was not. Not like allowing the people, the children, of Jotunheim to starve in darkness after the war. And he was eager enough to get out of the bargain with the builder, when he thought he would really have to pay for the wall.

"But a little thing like my life, my head? That is the kind of bargain that must be held to, for the honour of Asgard." His mouth twisted, fingers once again rising to his lips. "He never scrupled to lie or to trick when it suited his book, and so I hoped he would see that I could help him there, that I was wiser, more cunning, than the boy who gave bad counsel over the builder, that he would accept my gifts and recognize my abilities as things he could put to use.

"That should have been the last time I made such a mistake, but you know, for one who is supposed to be clever, I really am very stupid. I could never seem to stop myself from offering proofs of my loyalty that only disgusted him, right up to the moment I turned the Bifrost on Jotunheim. I did not realize it was the loyalty itself, and not the gifts, that revolted him.

"It was, however, the last time I ever trusted the goodwill of the prince." Fingertips again pressed to his lips. "That much at least I was able to learn."

"He should not have held you, for the dwarf to do what he did," the queen admitted.

"What he did," came the ruthlessly mocking reply. "He stitched my lips together with leather cords, and an awl too thick and crude for shoemaking. That is what he did. And the prince did not hold me. There might have been a little comfort if he had done that. He pinned my arms and knelt on my chest, so I could not breathe, could not swallow my own blood, had to feel it bubble through my nose until I nearly drowned, and he laughed when I panicked and thrashed. The whole court laughed."

"I did not laugh."

"No. You ran away. I saw you leave the throne room, and did not see you again until after my lips had healed. And since the king refused to allow me a healer, either to remove the cords or to do anything for the wounds or the pain, it was some considerable time before that happened. It took me a full day before I could pluck up the courage to cut the cords myself-- with a knife, since I had no other implement in my rooms with me, and I was certainly not going to go begging for help from those who were so enjoying my punishment."

"I hoped you would come to me," the queen admitted. "I should have gone to you, but I had not the courage to face your wounds."

"Nor did I, but I had to." Looking down at his hands, he said abruptly, "I am tired, and not particularly hungry." This was not a lie, since he knew he could not swallow anything. "Would you permit me to go to bed a little early tonight?"

The queen hesitated. "They would not have allowed the dwarf to kill you. If he had insisted on his price, your father would have refused, and Thor would have killed him."

"Ah, yes. I had forgotten. Trickery is dishonourable, but murder is not. At least, it is not unless the murderer is me. You know, I am glad we have had this talk. I now see that my mistake, in each case, was in solving my own dilemma, instead of coming to beg assistance from the king and his prince. Had I only abased myself to them, so they could remind me of my weakness at will, I am sure they would have taken tender care of me. May I go to bed?"

Her hand slid from his shoulder up his neck, to stroke his hair. He did not push it away. "Of course."

~oOo~

He wondered later whether the queen regretted the end of his silence. From that day and for many after he talked almost constantly, bile and anger pouring from him, as blood and infection had poured from his wounded lips so many years ago. He waited for her to draw away, remove her caresses, bind him at last to silence.

She did not. She did not argue with him anymore, but she listened, and when she did not understand what he said-- when his rage made it impossible to make out his words-- she waited for him to pause for breath, and then she asked him to tell her again. And when he ranted she stayed close, touching him still, until he would reach for her hands and cling them, in desperation but gently, carefully, as his grievances poured out of him. Some of them were repeated, but not many-- in centuries of life he seemed to have centuries of separate hurts and anger, and she listened to all of it.

There came a day when he had nothing further to say, no more wounds, no more bitterness to vent to her. What he had were tears, and since there was none here to call him womanish for giving way to them, that is what he did.

The golden prince would have called them tears of self-pity, and so they were, but the golden prince could not possibly have understood that when no one else loved or pitied you, self-pity was the only possible reaction. The prince and his playmates might have thought the monster who set out to rule the mortal world did so out of self-love, but that was only because they had no idea what a monster looked like in his own eyes. When none loved or pitied you, you did not either. Acts of self-aggrandizement were nothing of the sort. They were invitations to be attacked and hurt so the blows from the outside would cancel those from the inside, and perhaps you could hold yourself together for a little while longer.

He thought the queen would be glad when he ran out of words, but it turned out he had mistaken her reasons. When he finally ran out of angry words to spew, she was able to take her turn. She had, he knew, every reason to be angry and disgusted at him-- was that not, after all, his aim, to give genuine reason for the disgust she and her family could not help but feel?-- but that was not what she spoke of, not then.

Instead, she spoke almost endlessly of a baby, a toddler, a little boy, a youth. Of the clever things he had done, he had said, of the weight of his head leaned trustingly against her breast. Of the feeling of watching him grow, realizing there was no real place for him at the court, of hoping she could, his father could, they both could, cushion the hurt and help him, and of never being able to do so.

Of the pain of watching him slip farther away from her, as he realized the court would not love him, his brother's friends would not accept him, his father and brother could not understand him, and his mother's acceptance and love was simply not enough to save him. It was not perfect understanding or love, no one could offer that, and besides, one person was not enough, never could be. And so her love wore thin with usage, until she too was tired and helpless and could not think of anything else to try.

It was not that he was all wrong, not that he was bad-- not really, not at first. But whatever he was could not fit into the court, and his parents could not bear to admit defeat and send him away. Perhaps they should have, perhaps he should have gone to be trained with mages, come home for visits, looked forward to seeing his parents and brother for manageable stretches while he learned to control his gifts among creatures who would have appreciated them.

But his mother would have missed him, wayward and difficult as he had become, and she wanted him near in case her love might yet help him. And his father the king feared what might happen if he was sent away, was afraid his loyalty would break if stretched by distance, and so the idea was never tried.

"He did not trust me any more than I trusted him," Loki said to that.

"No," the queen replied. "He loved you always, he still does-- even now, he sometimes reminds me of how cleverly you tricked the dwarf, how fearless you were when you led away the builder's stallion, boy though you were-- but he feared what you might do, even as you feared him."

Loki wiped his eyes. "If he had ever said... if I had only any idea." He did not speak of the distrust, which had always been known to him, but the love.

"I know."

~oOo~

It was remarkable, really, how she mastered her own anger for as long as she did. It only came out after she had said all her words of love, said them often enough that he felt their truth, after months and years of caresses and listening had convinced his heart. He knew she, like he, was bound against falsehoods, so he knew in his head that she spoke the truth, but believing it was a different matter. She repeated and persisted until he could do nothing else.

And so, when she finally let herself speak of her anger, disappointment, guilt, it was painful to hear, to know, but it did not erase all else he was now able to believe.

"I failed you both, both my sons," she wept, fury and anguish finding outlet in seemingly endless tears. "And you failed each other, year upon year, century after century, until all trust between you was destroyed. I do not know if any love remains at all."

Loki met her eyes, as tearful as his own. "I do not know, either," he whispered. His mother sat at the corner of the table, holding Loki's hands, and finally he moved around the table to put his arms around her. "I am sorry I hurt you," he said, choked. It was the first time he had said it. It was the first time he had felt it.

"And I am sorry I hurt you," she whispered, and that was not for the first time.

~oOo~

"I did not mean to hurt them," Loki said one night, shoulders rigid, staring down at the plate he was scrubbing clean.

"Who did you not mean to hurt?" his mother asked.

"The mortals. I did not mean to... I would have cared for them, if they had let me... But they did not want me either."

"They would not wish to be conquered. Surely you can see that."

His mouth twisted. "Nor did the Vanir, when Father did so. I do not recall that he consulted them."

"No. But times change, and anyway Midgard is not like the other realms. It has been disconnected from the rest for so long that we have left it alone. You know that."

"Yes. That is why I thought... he would not mind very much. If I took a realm he did not want anyway. It did not occur to me that Thor had already laid his claim."

"Your brother does not want to rule Midgard."

"The prince may want it someday, and so he keeps it aside just in case."

His mother's hand rested on the small of his back. "The prince is your brother. Try to say it."

Loki shrugged, tense. "I am bound to tell the truth. The truth is that he is not my brother."

"Is the king your father?"

He looked at her sideways. "Yes," he said softly.

"And am I your mother?"

"Yes." More certain.

"And Thor is also our son. That makes him your brother. Whether you want it or not, whether you love him or not, he is your brother. I wish he was also your friend."

He chewed on his lower lip. "I wish it too," he whispered.

~oOo~

"I should be doing something," he said. "Something to make amends. It was part of my sentence and I have done nothing about it." He was making his bed with nervous hands, tugging at the covers, and his mother went to him, turned him toward her, laid her left hand over the cuff on his right wrist.

"Why are you so upset?"

"The king... Father. He said I was to... All this time I have wasted. I am your responsibility, and he will blame you if I do not-- " His eyes were frightened. "I will not hurt you, too." Again hung unspoken between them.

"I will not be hurt, and no more will you." He glanced away, and she saw he had been worried for himself as well, just not first or most. It was hard to say when he had last been worried for someone besides himself. Long ago, perhaps, when someone besides himself had cared for him. When no one cares for you, when you are all you can count on, you become all you bother to think about.

She held his hand in both of hers. "I will not be hurt. You know I leave you sometimes." He did, he knew it, he no longer woke at night to find his mother guarding his sleep. He no longer woke very often at all. "You know I go to your father. I tell him about you, and he is glad to hear."

"There is nothing to tell. I do nothing, only menial tasks." He pulled free, finished with the sheets and began to arrange the eiderdown. "I talk, and do menial work, and I make no payment-- "

"Your first task was to heal," she reminded him. "And I think you are beginning to do so." The infection had been worse than when the cords came out of his lips, and the scars would remain always, but the wounds were perhaps beginning to heal, the weeping edges no longer bled so freely. "That is the first part, and you are trying," she repeated, for he did not look convinced. She sighed. "Have you given thought to it? To what you should do?"

He nodded, mouth tense and eyes anxious. "I thought... I thought of what I might do that would help. I cannot stop their wars. The wars are their own, and they must... want them." He saw by her expression that he had gotten it wrong, and tried again. "They must want to stop for themselves." That was better, that was the right track. "And there is no way to do it for them. Not without... " He twitched his shoulders uneasily. "There are so many things wrong on Midgard, things I cannot remedy without… interfering. I thought about that, and then I thought of remedies.

"And it came to me: there are terrible illnesses on Midgard. They belong to no one, and are wanted by no one, and they do the most harm in parts of the realm where people have the least. Surely if I was to banish any of those, it would not be a bad thing? Not banish by magic," he added hastily, "but if I was to learn the healing arts, and then use them to find ways to kill some of these diseases... I cannot bring back the lives I have destroyed, but if I could save other lives instead, that might go a little distance toward making amends." He hesitated, afraid to look at her, afraid he had once again gotten it wrong, afraid even now that he would be punished for offering something he hoped would please.

His mother smiled. "I think that is a very good idea, my dear." She pretended not to see how his shoulders relaxed as he breathed again. "We will speak to Eir, and ask her how to begin."

~oOo~

Much of what Eir had to teach him would have been child's play, if he had only had access to his magic. It was still there, and even now throbbed like an infection under the skin, but he could not command it, or even reach for it without hurt, and so he had learned not to. Instead, he learned potions and spellwork that had nothing to do with whether one had natural talent. This was all applied, and all that was needed was patience and hard work and time.

He had little besides time, was accustomed to hard work of one sort or another, was learning patience. The terms of his binding permitted him to leave his chamber unaccompanied, provided he went exactly where and did exactly what he had received consent to go and to do. The palace guards were used to him by now, had nearly forgotten he had ever been a prince, would not consider it sport to torment him even had he not been under the express protection of the queen. Therefore, his mother was not required to rise as early as he, or to spend such long hours in study and practice.

She did so regardless, joining his labours or asking questions, listening to his answers, carefully hiding her relief as colour gradually began to seep into his complexion and life into his expression. She was reminded of his face when he was a boy, learning to control his magics and as yet unaware of the distrust and contempt his talents and abilities would earn him. She could not remember when he had realized that, when his expression had closed down into self-protective misery, but the dawning interest and hope in his eyes hurt her in ways she tried not to let him see.

In the same way, he tried not to let her see his pleasure when Eir praised him for his progress, perhaps embarrassed, perhaps afraid his mother would not like to see him forming a bond with any but her. Once, centuries ago, he had had a bond with his brother only, and had not known friendship of any kind since that was broken under the pressure of a knee. She wondered now whether it was all his strangeness that had held his constant companions, the friends of his brother, away at arm's length for so many centuries. She wondered, now, whether the brother who was the point of contact between them had acted as a barrier instead of a bridge.

It was only a few years before Eir began to take him with her, when she went to the poorer sections of the city to tend the people there. It seemed for the best, since there were still those at court who remembered the queen's thrall before he was disgraced, might fiercely object to his part in their healing. Eir did not so much care for their objections, but she prized her new apprentice and chose to protect him from circumstances in which he might come to any kind of harm.

Away from the palace, the royal family was not so immediately known. Surely the people knew of the prince who had disgraced himself, had fallen to disaster, but it was not information of any special importance to them, and by now it was largely forgotten. Many of them might not have recognized the golden prince himself, let alone the dark quiet thrall who might have been anything from penitent prisoner to Vanir hostage. He dispensed medicines and advice, took an interest in their children, was harmless and helpful and so treated with friendliness. Despite the fact his mother the queen did not accompany him on these rounds-- she, at least, was far too well known for disguises-- despite the fact she could not see and be proud of him at first hand, he still looked forward to these excursions around the city.

Eventually, Eir decided on her own authority that he should also work in the healing rooms of the palace. The announcement brought on nights of sleepless, twisting anxiety, but he did not protest-- he was fully aware that he was still under sentence, and he did not wish to test the limits of his mother's patience or mercy. But for the most part he saw servants, healed the burned hands of cooks or the bruises of stablehands.

Like the common people of the city, the servants cared surprisingly little about the royal family or the other nobles, except as their work was affected. Loki had been among them for years now, patient and quiet, attending to his own needs and staying out of the way. The attitude toward him was as that toward any thrall, slightly contemptuous acceptance, but now he showed himself useful the contempt faded and the acceptance remained. He was not their friend, a free servant did not befriend a thrall, but his status as an apprentice healer made it possible for the servants to speak to him at least as though he was their equal.

This could not last forever, he could not forever avoid the notice of the court no matter how carefully he kept to back hallways, how meticulously his mother planned out their routes around the palace. There came a skirmish between the forces of Asgard and the Dark Elves, and Eir called on her assistants and apprentices to help care for the wounded.

Loki deliberately placed himself in a corner of the room where the foot soldiers were receiving care-- one or two remembered him from visits to their homes, when a mother or little brother was ill or hurt. But his skills by now were such that Eir called him, when the worst of those wounds had been dealt with, to assist her with one of the officers.

He had not seen Fandral since he saw him through the eyes of the Destroyer on that day long ago. It was evident from the expression on the face of Thor's friend that a considerably longer period might preferably have elapsed. The blood soaking through his pantleg, evidence of a serious wound, was not enough to persuade him to accept assistance from a traitorous felon. As his friends supported him away to another healer, Loki remembered what it was to know he was a monster.

And then there was a silence, a stillness, in the activity of the healing room, and Loki turned to the door to see the entrance of the king himself.

"It is not very serious," he told Eir as she approached, indicating a slashed forearm. "I am sure it would heal on its own, but my wife insisted I have it seen to. I thought perhaps your apprentice might have a moment." Loki froze, but Eir gestured firmly, and he reluctantly approached.

He was aware of many unaccustomed and entirely unwelcome eyes upon him as his trembling hands cleaned and stitched and bandaged, but in the end the job was done and he handed over a healing draught to help with the pain.

"I thank you, child," the king said, gently but still perfectly audibly. "Your mother has told me of your skills in this field. This is very well done."

"Thank you, my king," Loki choked out, and did not watch as his father left the healing room.

~oOo~

After the Infinity Formula was successfully reproduced by SHIELD, the Avengers were pretty much removed from the normal aging process and looked forward to what might be an eternity of protecting Earth from any threat.

Okay, "looked forward to" might have been a bit of an overstatement. "Accepted their life sentence"-- and that a freakishly long one-- was far more accurate. The only one who was honestly happy about the situation was Thor, who needed no serum and who, over the twenty years since the defeat of his brother, had been letting more and more time elapse between visits home.

Everyone knew that had to be about Loki, and Tony had to admit he felt a little bad about it. Thor obviously didn't like to go back knowing his brother was imprisoned, probably being tortured, probably indefinitely, and that by his father. As much as the bastard deserved everything he got, you could hardly blame his brother for being upset about it. Nobody ever asked for details-- partly to spare Thor's feelings and partly because, while they didn't object to whatever was being done to him, it felt wrong for the good guys to be interested in the specifics.

And after all this time, really, none of them was very interested anymore.

Asgard tended to take care of its own problems, but the second Dark Elf attack in five years finally persuaded the Allfather to ask his "Midgardian allies" for a little help. Tony actually was kind of looking forward to seeing the Realm Eternal or whatever it was Thor called it.

First, of course, they saw what had to be the armpit of the Nine Realms, Svartalfheim, where the Avengers helped hold back the second wave of the Dark Elf raiders.

"Any chance Loki's behind this?" Tony asked Thor during a lull in the battle. He didn't really think it was a possibility, but there was a viciousness about the elves that reminded Tony of Loki's savage little smirk.

"None whatsoever," Thor replied, with a flatness that made it clear even to Tony that the subject was closed. And locked. Like a cell door. With Loki chained up on the other side of it, probably.

They pushed back the Elves, and this time their king sued for peace, so Odin and his generals met with them while the rest of the troops were transported home. Or, in the case of the Avengers, back to Asgard. That was where someone finally noticed that Natasha had gotten a bad slice on the back of her neck, so they had joined the general parade of the injured to the main healing room.

There was quite a scene of activity when they arrived, more soldiers having been injured than Tony had originally noticed. The healers were all busy as Natasha waited her turn, and it was several minutes before she was approached by a tall thin young guy who back home probably would have been a resident, quiet-spoken and black-haired. He asked her to bend her head forward so he could take a look at the wound, made a little noise that indicated concern, and was just telling her she had been very fortunate, which she knew already, when Tony recognized Loki.

It was amazing it took him as long as it did, but Tony put that down to the fact he was less pale, his hair was cut off unusually short for Asgard, and he wasn't grinning like a psychopath. He wasn't grinning at all, actually, he had quietly asked Natasha to wait a moment and was turning away to consult with what had to be the senior healer when Tony fired the repulsor blast into his chest.

He was staggering back, obviously disoriented, when Steve realized what was happening and backed Tony's attack with a shield-blow across the cheekbone.

Back in the day, that would hardly have broken Loki's stride. Now-- and it had to be a trick-- he went down like a sack of laundry, blood pouring out of his nose and mouth. His eyes were open but he didn't seem to be focusing. Steve and Tony were about to follow up their advantage when a couple of the Aesir soldiers who had brought in their wounded buddies stepped between the Avengers and Loki, who had rolled face-down on the floor and seemed to be trying to push himself to his hands and knees.

The healer got involved then, dropping to her knees next to Loki and speaking quietly until he stopped trying to get up. The two young soldiers continued to face off against Steve and Tony. It wasn't clear exactly how powerful the kids' weapons were, so Steve and Tony stood down: they didn’t want to wreck the place or get anyone else hurt, and surely in a minute someone would realize the fake healer was an escaped prisoner.

The whole scene got even more surreal in the next few minutes, because as the healer continued to fuss over Loki's busted-up face, she actually called him by name, making it clear she knew who he was. And as more of the soldiers came over to see what was wrong, it got very obvious they knew exactly who the fake healer was, and they didn't like what had happened to him.

By the time Thor showed up things were about to get very nasty.

"What the hell was that?" Tony demanded, incensed, as Thor shepherded the Avengers-- except Natasha, who was finally being looked at by another healer-- away.

Thor looked defeated. "That is the sentence passed upon my brother."

"What? That he gets to play doctor all day? I thought he was supposed to be locked the hell up!"

Thor squirmed. "My father, the king, did not agree."

Tony would have demanded to have a chat with the Allfather, King of Crazy, except for the fact the senior healer got in there first with her complaint. About the Midgardians attacking one of her valued apprentices and causing him serious injury.

And actually, yeah, when they all arrived in the throne room Tony had to concede that was about as bad as Loki had ever looked, even after he'd gotten busted up in the arrest twenty years ago. His left eye was blackened and swollen shut, his cheekbone looked lopsided, and he hadn't yet changed clothes so he was still wearing a shirt generously splattered with his own blood.

Odin, erstwhile ally, was not one bit pleased when he arrived for the audience.

"What is the meaning of this?"

Loki, who for some reason was kneeling on the floor next to the healer, looked down. Odin's expression, as he stared at the top of the close-cropped black head, was a mystifying blend of fury and what almost looked like tenderness. The queen's expression was not a blend of anything: she looked like she wanted to snatch Odin's spear of office away from him and start blasting Avengers.

Holy hell. Tony belatedly got it: they had turned Loki over for punishment, and Asgard had just gone ahead and released him. So much for binding and snake venom and justice, the bastard was walking around Asgard free as a bird, for God's sake. No wonder Thor was too embarrassed to talk about it: his sick, psycho, murderous brother had been back here all this time, being mommy's little boy.

"We were about to ask you the same question," Steve spoke up, evenly. "Am I to understand that Loki didn't escape from custody? That he was permitted in that healing room, unrestrained?"

"Yes." Odin clipped off the syllable and didn't even have the grace to look embarrassed about it. "You wish to speak about it?"

"Yes," Steve said, just barely restraining his own anger. "Twenty years ago, your son committed terrible crimes against our planet. We arrested him and sent him back to you, on the understanding he would face justice."

Odin tilted his head slightly. "Do you speak of justice, or vengeance?" he asked calmly. Without waiting for Steve's reply, Odin went on, "Because, if it was vengeance you wanted, I should tell you he has faced that before, from youth onwards, and all it has accomplished was to make him angrier, more afraid, and more desperate in his actions. In terms of altering his behavior it accomplished nothing except to make him worse."

"Which is why you should have locked him up and thrown away the key," Steve insisted, and Tony wanted to cheer Cap for not letting the omnipotent god-king off the hook. "Surely you have chains that will hold him?"

Utterly unexpectedly, Odin laughed. "Do you have any idea how long a time eternity is, little mortal? There was a time when kings of the Nine Realms thought punishments like binding a prisoner for torture until the end of time was… appropriate." Odin glanced at Loki again, and Tony's eyes followed the king's gaze. Loki was still kneeling, staring at the floor, huddled into himself as if he expected Odin to suddenly change his mind, take Steve's advice, and throw him into a pit or something.

No such luck. Odin went on,

"The end of time has not yet come, and enough of those prisoners have escaped, maddened by their suffering, to take vengeance of their own, to make a king rethink the effectiveness of such punishment. Particularly in a case such as this, when the slide was so slow, and he fought against it as hard as he did, for as long as he did, despite what I now realize was a complete lack of help from those who should have stood beside him."

"He had Thor, which made him much luckier than most people," Tony spoke up, and Loki looked up at that, head twisting around to see him out of his functional eye. His expression was unreadable.

"He had indeed," Odin agreed, looking at his older son, who had been unaccountably silent all this time. Before he could speak again, Tony shouted at the kneeling figure:

"What do you have to say for yourself, you son of a bitch? You can't really believe you deserve to be turned loose as if nothing had happened?"

"You may speak," the queen said suddenly, worrying at an ornate bronze cuff around her right wrist, one that matched the one on her son's. Loki looked up at her for a moment before replying, in a quietly remote voice,

"I deserve no such thing, and I know it. No punishment could possibly make up for what I have done, to your world or the one on which I was born. I am simply… I am trying to learn… as my brother did. He was given another chance, and… "

"Your brother didn't do anything to need another chance, pal," Tony snapped, and Loki's hands, which had been flat on the marble floor, clenched helplessly into fists.

"The people of Jotunheim may have cause to say otherwise," the queen spoke up again. "There is little love on that realm for either of my sons."

"I was pardoned," Thor spoke up, goaded out of his silence. "I sacrificed myself for my friends, and Mjolnir was returned to me. Do you really say that this was not deserved?"

The queen looked thoughtful for a moment. Then-- "No. I do not go quite so far as that. However, I have long thought your swift and total forgiveness may have deprived you of a chance to really learn from your mistakes. You have never really been asked to do so, my son. Instead, always, you have learned that forgiveness will be offered you yet again, while your brother learned that, even if he committed no crime at all, he would not be pardoned for simply being himself. Madness lies in that direction, sooner or later. It came later than it probably should have, and for once, at last, we are trying to get to the source of the anger and the pain, and trying to root that out, rather than simply breaking and discarding the one who suffers from it. If you will listen, we can tell you what he has been doing for these years since his return. He has not been, as you say it, simply 'turned loose.'" She was addressing Tony and Steve now. "You found him at his new work with the healers, and that seems to me appropriate, since we are trying to help him to heal himself. He cannot harm anyone. He no longer wishes to."

"He should have been-- " Steve stopped, apparently unable to even articulate what he thought should have happened to Loki.

"Then you should have retained him, and done it yourselves," Odin replied. "Instead, you handed him over to the barbarian king, and for the last twenty years you have piously told yourselves it is a shame, really, that he is being flayed alive over and over again, but that is not your work, it is that of the monstrous beings who claimed him. That is what angers you, is it not? Asgard was supposed to carry out the punishments you wanted, while yet allowing you to pretend there was no blood on your hands.

"The blood of all those innocents of your realm and Jotunheim is on the hands of my son, but also on those of myself and my queen. And my heir. We all deserve some share in whatever vengeance you wish to carry out, and if that is not to happen, then you should let us alone to repair what we can, in the ways we can. You had him in your power, to be tortured and maimed, and while you had the desire to do so, you lacked the courage. That is not my fault, and has nothing to do with the sentence passed on my son. Next time, afflict your own cruelties." Odin rose, slammed the butt of his great spear onto the dais. "This audience is at an end."

He should have made an exit at that, but apparently he didn't trust his baby boy with the Avengers, because he remained standing by his throne and waiting for the humans to leave. The healer stood fast, silent, blocking Loki with her body. Loki looked up once at the queen and then remained in his hypocritical, penitential position.

And Tony couldn't stand it anymore. He took a step toward the kneeling figure and shouted,

"Thor was on your side all that time, you asshole. He loved you, and trusted you, and would have done anything to make you happy, make you feel better. And you spit on him. Are you proud of yourself?"

Loki didn’t even look at him. Instead, he shuffled around, again, so he could look at Thor out of his one good eye. When he spoke there was, somewhere, a hint of the old caustic jerk:

"Your friend speaks so highly of you, my brother. Is it all true?"

Thor looked down at his brother's battered face, and for half a breath Tony actually thought he was going to reach down, grab Loki by the throat, and choke the life out of him. And then he spoke:

"You are my brother, and you always will be, because my father and mother will never renounce their claim upon you. But you know and I do that your place was always behind me, at my heel. You spoke once, in your madness, of wanting to be my equal. You never will be. These past years you have spent as a thrall, half a man, less in rank than the lowliest servant, and that is what you are and what you have always deserved. Is that what you wanted to hear, brother?"

And Loki looked… relieved.

"Is it the truth?" he asked, perfectly evenly, as though no rugs had been jerked out from under him, no gaping holes opened in the ground before his feet. No, Tony was the one who felt like that. Loki just looked as if something had been confirmed for him that he already knew.

"It is," Thor replied, in a growl.

"Then it is what I needed to hear," Loki replied, and turned away again to gaze quietly at the floor.

~oOo~

The confrontation with the Avengers, with his brother, did not set Loki back as much as his mother had feared. The attitude of the heroes surprised her much more than it did him, and he was honestly relieved to finally know what was in his brother's heart.

His mother was less convinced Thor had spoken the unvarnished truth, but if it gave Loki peace to believe he had his answer, she would leave it lie.

Besides, before another fifty years had passed, Loki and Eir-- with assistance from the queen, who was not so much guarding her son now as fascinated with the healers' work-- had far more important things to think about.

"You are sure of its efficacy?" she asked, as the three of them gazed at the potion that had taken so much study and research.

"Yes," Eir replied.

"Nearly," Loki corrected. "But we are sure it can do no harm."

"And you have decided where to go, to begin to administer it?"

"Yes," Loki replied. "Where the need is greatest. It is not… where I committed the worst of my crimes, but so many die in this place that, perhaps, there will still be a sort of justice."

His mother reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "I have spoken to your father, about your request to use magic. He agrees that if you take on a glamour, you will blend in better and be more readily accepted." She stopped, as Eir and Loki exchanged a glance. "What is it?"

"It was only, I had hoped you might wish to accompany us," Loki explained hesitantly.

His mother beamed. "I would be glad to."

~oOo~

The Infinity Formula really did keep its users more or less young, more or less forever. And that was how Tony Stark came to be present when the Interplanetary Health Coalition (formerly the World Health Organization) made its special award to Asgard, for research that had wiped out six separate diseases-- including AIDS, cholera, and malaria-- that had long ravaged what was once known as the Third World. Stark Industries no longer existed, but Tony had never lost his talent for making money, and one of his new enterprises was sponsoring part of the conference at which the presentation was to be made.

Loki was definitely a little older, although all things considered the extra five hundred years sat pretty lightly on his shoulders. He and his research partner-- that same senior healer who had protected him from the Avengers-- and his parents showed up wearing Earth clothes, and Loki could still wear the hell out of a suit, the bastard.

Tony looked pretty sharp himself, as he walked up to be formally presented as a sponsor. Five hundred years wasn't enough to take away the flinch as Loki recognized him. And there was a definite flash of surprise when Tony held out his hand.

"Good work," Tony said, and Loki smiled as he extended his own. As his suit jacket rode up a little, Tony spotted an ornate bronze cuff on his right wrist. "Stylish," he remarked, as he released Loki's hand. "What is it?"

Loki glanced at his wrist, turned the cuff thoughtfully. "This? It was a symbol of my binding. My mother wore the other, and I was sealed to her as a thrall, so that I could do no harm and speak no lies."

Tony stared. "It's been nearly six hundred years. Are you telling me you're still bound?"

Loki smiled, a perfectly sane, actually very nice, smile. "Oh, no. I was released from my servitude… one hundred and thirty-two Midgardian years ago. As of next Thursday." He looked down at the cuff. "Its power has been removed. I simply continue to wear it, as a… reminder."

"A reminder?" Of what? His punishment? Not to get crazy and megalomaniacal again?

"Of what my mother did for me, and my father allowed her to do. If it had not been for them…" Loki shivered. Odin had asked if Tony knew how long eternity was. He now had some idea, and the prospect of anyone being without hope for all of it no longer appealed to him.

Before he could speak again, Loki looked up, smiling again. "Your Avengers. I have lost track of them-- "

"Yeah, after the old gang broke up, we kind of went our separate ways," Tony shrugged. Times changed, and so did crime rates. The galaxy had been in a peaceful age for the last couple of hundred years, and the Avengers had gratefully disbanded. The peace probably wouldn't last, but Tony could hope. "Banner and Barton decided to quit taking the serum and died years ago. I don't know what happened to Natasha. Steve's still working at SHIELD, with Fury, still maintaining law and order. He still sometimes has to be reminded to balance justice with mercy. And I'm still a rich philanthropic asshole. That's all of us, except for-- "

Thor had returned to Asgard a couple hundred years ago, and Tony hadn't heard from him since. Loki looked wistful.

"We speak, occasionally," he answered the unspoken question. "There is little cause for our paths to cross, since I spend my time on research instead of the actual healing, but we both visit our parents, of course, and… Sometimes we see one another." Loki's fingertips went to his lips for a moment, and then he smiled again. "Perhaps one day, we can… "

Do you have any idea how long a time eternity is, little mortal?

Tony patted Loki's shoulder and smiled back at him. "Yeah. You've got time."

"Yes," Loki said softly. He turned as his mother and father came up, and Tony left him to their embraces.