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Silvertongue

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The mask bites into his flesh, the sharp edges digging into his jaw and pressing too hard against his lips. It reminds Loki, uncomfortably, of having his lips sewn shut, the miserable story a reflection of what Loki knows to be true. He will never be one of them. The Aesir protect their own, and even as a prince of Asgard, as the son of Odin, he has never been -- will never be Aesir.

Even the foolish Midgardian mortals had long known what Loki has only just discovered. Thor pulls him along, more gently than Loki had expected, still playing the part of a concerned and protective elder brother. It's laughable, truly, because in the centuries that Loki has spent by Thor's side, the prince has never expressed concern for Loki's wellbeing. A few days in the company of mortal minds is not enough to change one's nature.

Loki knows this.

If a thousand mortal years cannot turn a Jotun prince into one of the Aesir, no meager scrapings of hours on Earth could make Thor into anything but the arrogant buffoon he has always been.

At least he hasn't been paraded in front of all of Asgard like some defeated enemy, humiliation piled on top of defeat. That is a small consolation.

Frigga makes a soft, wounded noise when Loki is shoved to his knees in front of the Throne.

Odin stares, his one good eye impassive as Loki kneels in supplication -- no, not supplication, Loki may have been defeated, may be wounded, but he is not about to surrender.

"Loki," Frigga says, and Loki's eyes snap back to his mother's teary-eyed, pale face. "My son, my darling boy," she says, and after everything that Loki has done he does not expect for Frigga to throw herself at his feet, to kneel beside her disgraced younger child, the foundling she never wanted with tears of gladness in her eyes.

Loki gasps. He's not relieved, no, he's anything but that, but he leans forward into the her soft embrace as she cups his face in her hands. The sick metal contraption melts away under Frigga's gentle fingers, disappearing as if it never was.

"Mother," Loki says, and it's no trouble at all to pull against Thor's hold, to free his arms, to wrap himself around the woman who raised and loved him. "It's good to see you," he murmurs against her cheek, words spoken so quietly that no one else could hear them. He bites down on the welling tide of gratitude that this is something Loki is being allowed, that neither Thor nor the Allfather attempt to tear Frigga away from his arms.

If they tried, Loki would kill them.

"My son," Odin says, gruff.

Loki chooses to ignore him, instead carefully gathering his queen and mother into his arms, the chains that bind him clanking against her dress. She places slow, soft kisses on his cheeks, his brow, the lids of his eyes, and Loki holds her close and does not weep at the feeling, the blessed closeness, the solid familiarity of her affection.

Odin pontificates in the background, every inch the undisputed king of Asgard. Allfather. Borson. He speaks of lies and trickery and forgiveness, offers Loki the chance to once more be prince of Asgard. Redemption. Of course, Odin Allfather does not offer him love. Loki wouldn't accept it anyway, so he doesn't feel the loss.

"No," Loki says, when Odin has finally stopped speaking, given him permission to address the court.

"Loki, listen to reason!" Thor shouts.

And ah, yes, there it is. Bitter irony.

"You listen," Loki replies cooly. His hands are soft, gentle where they lie on Frigga's waist. "Strike these chains from me if you wish it, but know this. I will not seek out redemption, Odin Allfather. I am unrepentant. I am remorseless. I am Loki. I will raze the realm of Asgard to the ground, I will tear out your throat and reduce your throne to bitter ashes. I will destroy you, Odin, I will wreak such havoc and destruction upon you and yours that your shade will spend a hundred thousand years weeping at the losses you will suffer. I will not submit to your justice, I will not submit to the rule of a petty tyrant, a weak-willed coward, a liar and a thief. Free me if you will, Odin, but at your own peril."

Finishing his speech, Loki is met with complete, utter silence.

Loki stares back at Odin, looking for... for something. Some sign, some flicker of surprise or disappointment. Loki sees nothing on Odin's face, however, no surprise, no grief. Odin's expression is one of acceptance, of resignation.

Odin never expected Loki to agree, to be forgiven, to redeem himself.

Loki allows himself a small smile.

It's his brother who reacts first. Thor steps forward to pull Frigga away, and Loki doesn't fight. He lets Frigga be removed from his unresisting arms. The queen looks, to Loki, like all of the things he would never see on Odin Allfather's face. The things that Loki had never even hoped to see in the King's unwavering gaze.

Frigga looks at Loki, and in her eyes he sees sadness, he sees loss, he sees grief... and love. In Frigga's eyes, Loki can see understanding, and for that he smiles again, grateful. She masks her expression, replacing it with a mask of polite disinterest, the quiet dignity of the crown. In silence, the Queen of Asgard turns her back on Loki.

In that moment, Loki feels blessed.

"Brother," Thor says. He is weeping, tears tracking down his cheeks. "Why... why are you doing this?"

It is the easiest lie that Loki has ever told.

He meets Thor's gaze, squarely, the bitter smile in place on his face, and Loki tells him, "Because I hate you, Thor. I always have." His gaze stays steady, unwavering, until Thor is the one to look away.

Odin and Thor remain behind, in the throne room, pale and stone-faced as Loki is led away by guards, as the younger prince of Asgard is tossed into one of their many dungeons like so much refuse.

Lying on his back in the small, dark cell, Loki laughs. Hysterical, feeling the edges of his sanity crack around him, he laughs. He has never, ever felt so wretched when one of his schemes has gone so well, so perfectly to plan.

--

Heimdall is an unexpected visitor.

Loki raises his head, smiling kindly at the gatekeeper. "Heimdall," he says warmly. "You are indeed a sight for sore eyes. How perfectly lovely to see you roaming free on the other side of my prison's bars. I am so glad to see that Odin hasn't dealt too harshly with you, old friend. I would so hate for a little betrayal and treason to come between you two."

"They are calling you the Destroyer," Heimdall says grimly, ignoring Loki's comments.

"An apt kenning, I would say. One that sounds far more intimidating than Sky-Traveller or Silvertongue. I think it suits me, wouldn't you agree?"

"Does it?" Heimdal replies flatly.

"Have you not paid attention? I have so far attempted to destroy Jotunheim and Midgard. I could do with more practice, however, as Thor keeps thwarting me. For my next trick, I think I shall commit treason -- first I'll need to swear an oath to a king, however, so that might be more difficult than I'd like." he considers the man in front of him for a moment. "Have they named you Oathbreaker, yet?"

"And yet," Heimdall says. "You brought the Jotnar to Asgard, and then you destroyed them. You can hide your presence from my gaze, and yet you chose to give my sight your location on Midgard. What game do you play, Trickster?"

"One of my own making," Loki inclines his head, sighing. "They do call me the Lie-Smith, you ought to have paid attention Heimdall. I serve Loki, my lies serve Loki, my truths serve Loki. I aim only to do what Loki wants."

Heimdall's stare is intimidating to those who cannot hide from it. Loki meets his eyes, unflinching.

"And what is it, then, that Loki seeks?" Heimdall asks.

Loki smiles. He stays silent.

--

Three days pass, with a silent guard standing by his cell replaced by yet another silent guard hours later. Servants appear, bearing hot meals, leaving and returning to clear away the untouched dishes. Loki puts no effort into entertaining his captors, instead leaning against the wall at the side of his cell and staring unseeing at the the light that filters into his cell. Three days, and then Thor visits him.

They stare at each other in silence, for long, tense moments. Thor looks like Thor -- mjolnir in his hand, and his cape, bright red and flowing at his shoulders, behind him. His face is different though, aged in the time since they had last seen each other. Loki has seen Thor happy, has seen him angry, has seen him taken in with blood lust or in grief. He has never seen his brother so quiet, though, and Loki wonders briefly if Thor has managed to learn quiet and contemplation from the frantic, scrambling masses of humans as he never managed to in the thousand years among the Aesir.

Thor doesn't say anything. He stays silent for two hours, watching Loki through the bars of his prison. At last, he stands and leaves.

Loki watches him go.

--

The manacles that hold him are of Frigga's make, magic woven into every link of chain, every fold of pounded metal. There is no magic that Loki can use to break them, which is why he is left to rot in a cell with no one but a nameless, faceless, silent guardian to watch over him.

Any Asgardian sorcerer would fade to nothing.

Loki is not Asgardian.

He has prepared himself for this, before he had even allowed the mortal soldiers to apprehend him. The Hawk had found an apt pupil, and Loki knows that he can escape at any time. But the time is not right, not yet, not until he can find the materials he requires to bring about the final stages of his plan. Not until his magic, so depleted from the fight on Midgard, has been restored to full power.

Loki's enemies know where to find him, and for the moment, it suits him to recuperate where an Aesir army stands between him and his foes.

Hogun visits him next. Grim Hogun, of sharp steel and even sharper mind. The warrior frowns at Loki, disturbed by something or other. "There is much that I have done that I regret," Hogun says at last, in a quiet voice. "I knew that my betrayal was treason, and yet I spoke my thoughts and betrayed the friendships we had."

"But you don't regret it," Loki says, wry. "The Lady Sif and the Warriors Three were only ever loyal to Thor."

"True." Hogun nods. "We swore our oaths to Odin Allfather and to Asgard, but it was only ever Thor who owned our hearts and our loyalty, our love. Were anyone but Thor to sit on the Throne of Asgard, we would turn our backs on the realm and follow him anywhere he leads." Hogun idly flips a knife in one hand, catching it by the blade to send it spinning up into the air once more. "Thor is our king, he always was. He always will be. Anything else, to us, is treason."

"And so you make light of treason," Loki snorts derisively. "Well, so long as it wasn't meant to be personal."

"It was not," Hogun either doesn't note the sarcasm of Loki's tone, or he purposely ignores it. "Thor would never ask us to take the throne from the Allfather, and so it is by Thor's will we have not. But you were never meant to be King, Loki."

"Not the king of Asgard," Loki agrees. "Born to a king, and to be king, yes, but I was never meant to rule."

Hogun looks unsettled. "We were friends once," he says, at last. "I regret that our friendship has come to an end. But no, Loki Silvertongue. I do not regret my actions."

Loki nods. "I think," he says, consideringly, "That Thor wouldn’t thank you for what you have done, not if he knew the truth of it."

"Then it is fortunate indeed," Hogun says with a subtle smile. "That you are the lie-smith."

Loki spreads his hands wide, a gesture of smug satisfaction. "Indeed," he says.

Hogun flips the knife again, bright metal flashing as it spins in the air before disappearing, tucked back into a sheath hidden by the fabric of his sleeves.

--

Sif comes to shout at him, accusations sharp on her tongue. Loki listens to her complaints, unsurprised by her vehemence. If anything, he's flattered that Sif had been paying attention to him at all, years spent at Thor's side apparently used to document Loki's every misstep.

"You were always jealous of Thor," she says, which Loki presumes must be true if Sif thinks it to be. "You always wanted power, always thought the throne was meant for you."

Sif has always been fiercely beautiful when angry, and Loki feels no compunction about enjoying the sight of her with her eyes flashing, cheeks flushed, hair in riotous disarray. She has years of fury and rage, and she vents every one of her complaints at him with her voice trembling with anger.

Loki keeps his face blank as he listens to her rail against him. Sif lists his faults as if he is unaware of them: jealous, greedy, power-hungry, mad, insecure, cowardly, liar, cheat, manipulative, ergi, agyr, without honor, without shame, without conscience, without remorse, without compassion.

Loki raises his eyebrows when she finally runs out of things to accuse him of.

"I hate you," she finishes, quietly.

"Who are you trying to convince?" Loki inquires. "Me, or yourself?" It's the only thing he says to her before he turns his back, returning to his seat in the corner of his cell.

--

Thor comes back.

"Our mother refuses to speak of you," he says.

"Your mother," Loki corrects him gently.

"She raised you, she loved you." Thor says through gritted teeth, as if the words themselves pain him. "She is your mother as well."

"But not the one who bore me," Loki sighs. "Do you wonder, Thor, what happened to the Jotun queen? Do you ever think to question Odin's tales? Tell me, then why he spared the life of the Jotun king who left me to die in a temple."

"That's not--"

"Perhaps he lied about that as well." Loki adds cheerfully. "It wouldn't make much of a difference after the lies that came before. Tell me, Odinson, how does a temple become a battlefield, and how does a queen die unmourned, a prince disappear without a trace, and yet the king still rule uncontested?" He smirks, looking up at Thor through his eyelashes. "Do you think the Aesir would leave Odin on the throne if Frigga were to die, and you were left to die in the midst of battle with the Jotnar?"

"Stop your lies, Loki!" Thor shouts at him. "I will not hear you slander our father--"

"YOUR father!" Loki shouts back.

Thor falls silent.

"A thousand years of peace, Thor." Loki says quietly. "The price my father paid for my life. Make no mistake, Laufey knew me when we journeyed to Jotunheim, before I even knew myself. The Frost Giants knew me for what I was. And when my flesh froze at a Jotun's touch and my skin showed my true self, the soldiers of Jotunheim stayed their hands and allowed me to slay them. They fought you, and Sif, and your Oathbreakers Three, but none of the Jotnar raised a hand to me. They stood and died at my hand because they knew the son of Odin was the prince of Jotunheim.”

Thor shakes his head. "You are confused, brother-- Odin saved you, you were abandoned. It was mercy--"

"It was strategy." Loki interrupts him. "The Jotnar knew that Odin had their prince hostage, and so he bought their obedience with my life. It is no coincidence that the giants broke into Asgard on the eve of your coronation, when they knew that Odin's treaty would not hold your lust for Jotun blood."

"You led them here to--"

"You are a fool," Loki snaps. "I am the one who built the destroyer, who forged the protections around the Casket, whose magic saturates the bindings that protect it. If I had wished to ruin your coronation with some ill-conceived scheme, I would have engineered a much better diversion than three mewling Jotnar to be slaughtered in our treasury floor. And, were the Jotnar protected by my magic, they would have passed by our guards without a whisper of suspicion, and made off with the casket.”

"I don't believe you,"

"I don't care." Loki shrugs. "Believe what you want, Thor. You wouldn't want to shock me by showing some modicum of intelligence, after all. Such a display is unbecoming of prince of the Aesir. I doubt you would understand the truth if it were spelled out for you in moving pictures as if to entertain an infant. Come, then -- if I am so treacherous a creature, why did I not bring the giants to the throne room? Why did I follow you to Jotunheim? Why did I kill Laufey?"

Thor grimaces, shoulders twitching in a show of confusion. "I do not claim to know your mind," he groans. "Laufey-King was merely victim of one of your schemes--"

"You cannot have it both ways," Loki hisses, shaking his head. "Either he was a king who surrendered his son for his kingdom, and an innocent victim of my treachery --- or he was a monster who abandoned an infant to die on a battlefield. If he was my father and he abandoned me, I had every right to kill him. If he was innocent, then Odin lies about how I came to be here."

"So you slew him, who left you to die. There is no shame in that, none at all," Thor agrees after a moment.

"And yet you still name him blameless, victim of Loki's schemes."

Thor scowls at him. "I have never understood you, Loki."

"I never wanted you to. I never needed you to." Loki hangs his head, suddenly exhausted. "You make too good a habit of foiling my plans, Thor. I wish that this once, you had not."

"And then you would rule Midgard, a benevolent dictator, saving the humans from their own evils?" Thor looks pained at the thought.

"No, Thor." Loki shakes his head. "You should have let me kill the Jotnar, should have allowed me to destroy Jotunheim."

"You think that this genocide would have been in any way preferable?"

"Yes," Loki replies. "If Jotunheim had been eliminated, then--"

"You can't just slaughter an entire race of people!" Thor shouts. "It wouldn't change anything, Loki, it wouldn't change what you are--"

Loki knows that what Thor is saying is true, but he cannot help but laugh, incredulous, at Thor's astonishing ignorance. His naivete is appalling. What must it be like to have so simple a mind? For one's thoughts to line up neatly, one by one, ignorance and stupidity so sweetly aligned? Loki's mind is a kaleidoscope of mirrors, each facet bejeweled with diamonds and reflecting a thousand different ideas, each idea made of countless thoughts, observations, reflections.

"You wound me," Loki places a hand over his heart, mocking. "I never intended to change, brother, I have only accepted the truth."

"What truth is that?" Thor asks, and he sounds tired. Resigned. Defeated.

"I am Loki," he replies, and he bares his teeth in a bright parody of a smile.

--

It takes longer than he'd like, to recover from his injuries. Days spent in the Asgardian dungeons, being shouted at by his former friends. Friends, traitors, anyone who wants to see him -- perhaps this is meant to be a punishment, the open-door policy that allows anyone access to Loki's prison. If so, it's rather ineffective, as most of his visitors are ignored until they leave. Most don't come back.

Thor, of course, is the exception. His brother has never lacked in stubbornness or pride, and so Thor returns, his visits coming every evening, sometimes arriving in between princely duties, pausing to stare forlornly at Loki.

Loki has never been swayed by Thor's sad eyes or pouting sulks, this is no different.

"Brother," Thor calls him, no matter how often Loki corrects him, reminds him of the truth.

"This can still be forgiven," Thor says. "Father has written the law, he holds you blameless. Why must you insist on this -- this farce. We are brothers, we are kin, no amount of blood spilled or battles fought will alter the love I feel for you."

The truly terrible thing is, looking into Thor's eyes, Loki believes it. He sees the truth, plain as day, writ on the planes of his brother's face. Thor will not stop loving him. Thor will never think of him as anything other than a brother.

Loki is nearly overcome with despair. This cannot be -- Thor must hate him. Thor must despise him, truly, must swing the might of Mjolnir at Loki's skull and never hesitate, never hold back. He must not crumble in his resolve, must not allow their past to colour his vision. Oh, Thor. Oh, dearest, most beloved imbecile.

Thor reaches through the bars of Loki's cell, clasping his shoulders in big meaty hands. "Brother, please," he pleads. "End this."

He doesn't mean to do it. Loki doesn't mean to do it, but he steps forward, into Thor's embrace. Loki reaches out to cup Thor's jaw with one hand, holding on to him, his other hand scrabbling at Thor's back, eyes shut as tightly as he can manage. "Thor," he says, and his voice is wet with tears and wretched with misery. "Thor-- brother," he chokes, and Thor is gripping him back, the two of them clinging to each other, desperate, separated by the bars but still holding on to each other.

Loki loathes it, this desperate, mewling need he has, to have Thor's love. Pathetic, contemptible, Loki shouldn't need this, shouldn't want it. He is nothing to Thor, for all that they were raised princes and brothers. Thor is a king and Loki is a monster. They are not brothers, Loki reminds himself viciously. They are not kin. This is Thor playing the fool, sad and weak with sentiment. Idiot.

Loki knows what he has to do. It lights upon him, a sudden epiphany, the sunrise over a bleak and desolate landscape. He knows what must be done, now.

Smiling, Loki kisses Thor's brow, presses his cheek against the rough bristles of Thor's beard. "Do you love me, brother?" he asks softly. "Do you love me more than anything?"

"Yes," Thor answers, no hesitation. "I love you, of course I love you, Loki."

"More than you love your friends?"

Thor struggles with that one for a moment, but with an obvious confusion rather than a lack of decisiveness. "You're my brother," he replies, the of course I love you more is implicit.

"More than you love Odin?" Loki whispers. "More than Frigga? Do you love me more than Asgard? Would you tear Yggdrasil's roots out and set fire to the nine realms for me? Do you love me enough to let Midgard burn, to let Asgard and Vanaheim wither and fade to dust? Would you have have me as your brother, and watch the universe reduced to ashes in front of your eyes?"

Thor sobs, his face pressed into Loki's neck, and Loki knows that he is weeping, can feel Thor's hot tears fall onto his neck, and Thor shakes in Loki's arms, pressed up tight to the bars that separate them. "Yes," Thor weeps.

Loki presses another kiss to his brother's temple, strokes a hand lovingly over his brother's hair. "More than your Lady Jane Foster?" he inquires.

Thor hesitates.

Almost imperceptible, but not quite. Not when Loki has him in his embrace, can feel Thor's sudden inhalation, the brief tension in his shoulders, the oh-so-short moment where Thor chokes on his response. So slight, so near a thing, and yet Loki cannot miss it. Oh, Thor.

His brother is here, completely defeated, his shoulders slumped in complete, abject surrender. Loki knows, right then, that he can have everything. He can take Thor's love, can have the throne, the respect of his peers -- can have the Allfather's forgiveness and his mother's love, he can have his brother, he can have anything he can think to ask for. Thor will give it to him, will give up his birthright, his kingdom, his love, everything he possesses to have his brother.

"Yes," Thor answers, his voice steady, but there is pain in the response. He loves his brother more, but Thor wants Jane, wants the life he could have with her, wants the kind of love and happiness Loki can never provide.

Loki knows what must be done.

So he does what Loki does best.

He lies.

"That's not good enough," Loki says, his lips pressed to Thor's skin, and he doesn't need to see Thor's face to know what he looks like, the expression of grief, the despair in his eyes. "It will never be good enough," Loki lies. "I don't want your love, Thor. I want to hurt you, to destroy everything you love, to break you. Hate me, Thor, because that's the only thing I want from you. I want you to suffer, and when you finally hate me as much as I hate you, I will kill you." He pats Thor's cheek, gently, as lovingly as he can. "The next time we fight, brother, one of us will die," Loki promises.

Thor pulls away from him, something akin to horror on his face.

Loki lets his arms fall down to his sides.

He watches in silence as Thor leaves.

--

No Asgardian cell can hold him. Loki's magic is bound, but his mind is not -- and the Aesir were always fools, to think that Loki's mind was anything other than his most dangerous asset.

Of course, there's the other thing as well, because for all that Odin claims he brought Loki into his house out of kindness, he's never told anyone the truth of Loki's parentage. And in this case, it only shows that Odin is almost as much of a fool as Thor, that he would bring Jotun spawn into his realm and never bother to learn anything of their race.

It's almost too easy. Loki has seen other Jotnar do it, of course, call forth ice and mold it to their needs. Those other Jotnar did not have Loki's sharp mind, however, instead constructing crude weapons to stab or bludgeon opponents.

Loki spends a day practicing, bringing forth ice and watching it crawl, snakelike, over the raised lines that scar his blue-tinted skin. It's no less shocking now that he knows what he is. He wants to hate it, but the raised lines on his skin, the ice that moves over them, are a part of him just like the deep azure that paints his monstrous nature in clear relief, a warning to others.

Loki has accepted what he is, even if he doesn't like it.

Then, his practice run complete, Loki crafts his ice.

If he had attempted a spear, sword, or club, even to create a scepter, the bindings around him would prevent him. But the Aesir magic knows that it cannot completely suppress an innate ability, even one magically sourced such as Jotun ice-forming. It has enough power to prevent him from conjuring a weapon.

But Loki doesn't need a weapon.

Instead, he crafts a set of lockpicks.

The finely tuned instruments are made to do delicate work. The ingenuity of the human mind is an endless source of amusement to Loki. In Asgard, one uses might or magic. Cages are conjured open or broken. None of the Aesir would think their way from a prison, but then again, Loki has never been Aesir. The Hawk had taught him well, found him a willing student with a keen eye, and this skill had been a relatively simple one to learn.

It takes twenty minutes to remove the chains, the magical locks fooled into thinking they had been appropriate keyed open. Loki rubs at his wrists, sore from the tight, chafing metal. The cell door takes a mere moment to pick apart, and then Loki leaves the manacles lying neatly on the cot in his cell, the door shut closed behind him.

Trickery and magic.

A Midgardian could solve this particular riddle in a few seconds of half-hearted thought. Asgard, on the other hand, will be scratching their thick skulls for years, unable to solve the mystery of Loki's disappearance.

The spellbooks he steals from the library will not be missed. Loki was the only one who ever ventured down to the lower levels any way, Odin was never a scholar and Frigga already knew the knowledge contained in those tomes. He feels better for the theft, because this is nothing that Loki has not done before.

Just a bit of fun, really.

Just another prank. Not harmless, but a prank nevertheless.

A pity that Thor would never be in on the joke.

--

Hela smiles when she sees him. Loki kisses her once on each cheek, one of perfect porcelain smoothness, and the other blackened and withered. "You look beautiful," he says, and it is not a lie. Loki has never seen a woman more beautiful than his daughter.

"Father. You shouldn't be here," Hela says, returning his embrace and still smiling her fond, lopsided smile. "The Allfather is looking for you, and even the dead whisper of his rage."

"Odin is always in a rage about something," Loki waves a dismissive hand. "I'm sure he'll forget all about it soon enough."

"I doubt he'll forget." Hela disagrees, shaking her head. "But no matter. This isn't a social call, I think. What is it that you need, father?"

"A warrior," Loki smiles at her. "One of the honourable dead."

"Would it trouble you to be more specific?"

"Perhaps."

It says something about the way that she was raised that Hela doesn't become offended. She is Loki's daughter, first and foremost, and she has never held any love for Asgard or Odin, even before they cast her out. "Making trouble, papa?" she asks, smirking at him knowingly. Her smile is full of mischief.

"Of course, dearest," Loki replies easily. "It's what I do."

--

He drags his chosen victim back into life, screaming, squalling like an infant, naked and wet. Loki drops him on the ground, wiping a hand on his jacket as the human chokes and spits, sputtering until he can pull air into his lungs once more.

It takes quite a long time before the sick, wet breaths slow into something less harsh. Loki waits patiently, sitting and watching the feeble mortal struggle to come to terms with his continued existence.

"Welcome back!" he says cheerfully, when he's certain he can be heard over the human's sobbing gasps.

"W--w--what," the man stammers; he's shaking violently. Perhaps he's cold.

Loki waves a hand to clothe him, waiting for the the other to formulate a proper response. Returning from the dead is, from all reports, an unpleasant experience. Loki can afford to be generous with his time.

"W--what d-do you w-w-want," the man says, still shaking, stammering, pained; Loki is pleased to note that the mortal is quite certainly not happy to see him.

"I am in need of your assistance," Loki informs him, cooly.

Not even a pause. "Go fuck yourself."

Loki laughs. He really can't help it. Humans are just so delightfully defiant, even when they have no right to be. Their obstinate rebelliousness is in direct proportion to how woefully outmatched they are. It's an endearing trait, and one that makes for truly spectacular entertainment.

"You could at least listen to my offer before you turn me down," Loki feigns disappointment, but he really isn't all that surprised. "After all, that's no way to thank the one who raised you from the dead."

"You're the guy who killed me to begin with," Agent Coulson responds. "I'd say we were even, but as I see it, I still owe you a world of pain."

"I didn't mean to kill you," Loki says. It's technically true, at the time, he's thought the mortal beneath this notice, more of an inconvenient obstacle in an otherwise clear path.

"Tough shit."

"Well, I didn't really care," Loki amends. "Your life means little to me one way or another, but it does mean something to quite a few others. Hence why I have so generously brought you back to dwell once more among the living."

"Eat shit and die," Phil Coulson says in a deceptively pleasant voice, clearly enunciating each word. "You literally stabbed me in the back, I am not about to help you do a damn thing."

Loki sighs. "Yes, you will," he tells him. "I am not giving you a choice."

Cooperation would be ideal, but Loki is accustomed to the pawns in his schemes actively resisting his efforts. Whether or not the man chooses to give Loki the information he desires, he will still play his part. It's for the amusing irony that Loki has chosen this particular warrior, because he alone will understand the intricate joke.

"You can't make me do anything."

"I can convince you to listen to reason," Loki croons softly.

To say the other man looks skeptical would be a gross understatement, but Loki is undeterred. He crouches down in front of the agent, tilts his chin upwards with a carefully placed finger underneath his jaw. "Tell me," Loki whispers. "Where I might find Thor's lady-love, Doctor Jane Foster."

"No," Coulson says.

"A pity," Loki smiles slowly, a familiar stretch over his lips. "I had so hoped you might make this easier on yourself."

--

Loki has the creativity, calm, and the cold intellect to be an effective master of torture. What he lacks, however, is the patience.

He has never enjoyed the battlefield, never wanted the screaming chaos and blood involved in winning a war. Nevertheless, he finds it occasionally necessary, and Loki has fortunately never needed to enjoy something in order to be very, very good at it.

The screaming does, eventually, become tedious.

"Tell me where to find Doctor Foster," Loki sighs. "And all of the pain will stop." He is met by silence, the only response he's had to his questioning so far. It is actually quite intriguing. Loki could have used a soft voice, a cajoling tone, and persuaded the human to see his point of view. In fact, if he were to do so, it's likely that he would find out the lady doctor's location in no time at all. Perhaps even quickly enough that she wouldn't be spirited away to another location before Loki arrived.

Of course, if he did that, it might throw the rest of his plan into chaos. Loki is playing a longer game, and this screaming torture is necessary for the SHIELD agent to play the rest of his part.

Loki begins anew.

So does the screaming.

--

In the end, of course, Loki holds the mortal's still beating-heart in his hand, the frantic beating like a scared rabbit, red and exposed in his gaping chest. And when he squeezes it, fingers tight around the bloody flesh, the dying tortured man screams for death, for salvation, for an end to the pain. And with this last fragile dying breath, he tells Loki where to find Jane Foster.

Loki can be benevolent when he wants to be. He can be magnanimous. His is a giving soul, and so instead of snuffing out the pale flickering light of the mortal's remaining life force, Loki uses a small amount of magic to restore the man's health, repairing the damage he has caused.

Loki sends the human back where he belongs, to his Midgardian stronghold, the fortress Loki has already destroyed. And, sitting down, he begins to laugh. He sprawls, amused, in his hidden dimension, chuckling at the portal as it swings shut. Loki howls with mirth, unable to halt the flow of near-hysterical laughter.

With the last, pained breath in his body, Philip Coulson had lied to him.

Loki is starting to like these strong-willed, unruly Earthlings.

--

It wouldn't do to let on that he knows of the lie, though. He gives the humans a day to muster their forces, to prepare their hastily executed trap.

The might and strength of Midgard has been pitted against him before, though, and they hadn't a hope in all of Yggdrasil of keeping Loki in a cage other than one of his own making. Their strongest technology is no match for Loki's strength, his magic. Without Thor, he will walk all over them.

Naturally, he is not expecting much of a fight. He comes prepared for one, nevertheless. It is a good thing that the purpose of this exercise is to gain Asgard -- and thus, Thor's -- attention. That much, at least, should be relatively easy.

--

"You're going to lose."
"Am I?"
"It's in your nature."
"Your heroes are scattered; your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where is my disadvantage?"
"You lack conviction."

--

Loki bares his teeth, wading into the fight, demolishing the feeble trap the humans have built to ensnare him. Pathetic, simple-minded creatures.

"We've already done this dance," Stark says, throwing an incendiary device into Loki's path. "It didn't turn out so well for you last time, Rudolph."

"I have missed you," Loki sneers at him. "You're the only one of these creatures with enough of a spine to make conversation entertaining."

The metal faceplate hides Tony's face, a blank expression firmly affixed upon the helmet's surface. It adds something to the verbal sparring, requiring that Loki uses at least some of his concentration to decipher the tone of the man's voice, filtered through the mechanical interface.

"Well, I sure as hell haven't missed you, cupcake." Stark snaps back. "Not a fast learner, are you, Loki. Give up--" he snaps an armoured arm down, blocking Loki from annihilating another of the vehicles filled with cowering weaklings. "Because--"

Loki dodges a blow to the head.

"You--" another, faster, deflected by his helmet, "--cannot--" Loki snaps out a kick, easily dodged as Stark uses his suit’s remarkable ability to fly out of Loki's reach. "-- win--" Stark dives for him, but Loki has trained with Volstagg and Thor, knows how to leap into the tackle to meet him in the air, catching his arms and dragging him back onto the rooftop. "--this--" Attack, deflect, defend. Loki begins to grow bored. "--fight!"

"I beg to differ," Loki says sweetly.

"Oh, baby, you know I like it when you beg," Stark quips, aiming a repulsor blast at Loki's face.

Loki snarls, unsure if he's furious or titillated by the man's insolence. Rather than decide on his own feelings, he decides instead to tear Stark's hand off. Catching the metal glove in his hand, Loki draws in the energy from yet another blast from the repulsors, and converts it to heat.

Stark screams as the metal encasing his hand glows, suddenly red-hot, warping, soft under Loki's grip.

"Did you really think that you, with mortal flesh and such a meager grasp of those mysteries of the universe which I have already mastered, could defeat me?" Loki hisses at him.

"No," Stark jerks out of Loki's grip, the ruined metal glove stripped away from his burnt flesh in half a moment. Loki has the feeling that behind his expressionless mask, the man is smiling. "I'm just the distraction."

Fuck.

Loki finds himself crashing head-first through the roof, down three stories and suddenly covered in plaster and rubble, blinking in amazement. Dancing black spots hover in his vision.

An enormous, awe-inspiring roar follows him down, echoing around his skull and ringing in his ears. Loki groans, pained, because he remembers the green beast and it's rage, and while he's certain he could win in a fair fight, Loki knows that monsters like himself never fight fair.

Neither does Stark, apparently. The Iron Man swoops down after him and grabs Loki by his lapels, lifting him up and flying through the newly-formed hole gaping in the building. They fly straight upwards, into the sky.

Loki considers, briefly, the consequences if Stark were to drop him.

The Midgardians seem to value life above all else, but Loki has no illusions that their generosity will extend to him. Not after the recent invasion, Loki's machinations, and that one small incident with the Destroyer. It is entirely possible -- not probably, not likely, but entirely possible that these human protectors of the Earth won't require Thor's assistance to defeat him.

Stark tosses him through the air. It's more than high enough to kill a human, high enough even to injure one of the Aesir. Loki can see the raging monster below him, gearing up to strike him from the air with a mangled vehicle wielded like a club.

Oh, Midgardians. It's as if they think Loki has no more tricks up his sleeve.

Loki snaps his arm outwards, drawing his magic around him like a cloak, and disappears.

The Hulk swings at the empty air where Loki isn't, the Iron Man spins to face the spectre of Loki that appears behind him. There are two more of Midgard that Loki expects to appear from the woodwork, but both the woman known as Black Widow and the Star Spangled Man are bound by their own limitations to the earth.

Roaring, the Hulk swipes at another of Loki's incorporeal decoys, yelling in wordless and incoherent fury when it dissipates into mist.

Invisible, Loki perches on the corner of the rooftop, allowing his doubles to draw attention from Stark and the Beast, even going so far as to throw a few decoys at the earthbound Captain and the Widow. He can be generous, and he doesn't want any of them to feel as if they aren't contributing to the battle.

And then, Loki waits.

And waits.

And waits.

The Hawk spots him eventually, although from what Loki knows of the man, he perhaps noticed nothing more than a quiet corner, stillness amidst the chaos of the fight. And then his arrows find their way towards Loki's heart. His aim is impressive, never before has Loki met an opponent who was able to discern his location and so unerringly, without any visual aid. One of the man's arrows drives through his shoulder, cutting through his armor as if through wet parchment. A quick and incidentally lucky teleportation is all that spares Loki from the indignity of being injured by the explosion that follows soon after.

He forms an illusionary projection, a wounded shadow that stumbles bleeding away from the site of Loki's impact, while he moves in another direction.

Heimdall, you lazy, traitorous fool, Loki snarls to himself, frustrated. Gatekeeper, watcher, do your Norns-cursed, thrice-devoured job!

It still takes far too long.

Loki might be able to fight Thor to a standstill, face the warriors three in the sparring ring, battle countless Jotnar, or defeat any of Earth's Mightiest Heroes with nary a quiver of apprehension. But even he cannot defeat the numberless hordes of Midgardian soldiers, their Jormungandr-strong monster, their man of iron, and the man with eyes like a hawk, the woman with the sharp mind and agile body, and their captain. Not indefinitely. He is far from depleted in power or ability, but he is tired. His shoulder is bleeding.

Worst of all, Loki finds for the first time in a fortnight, he is actually hungry.

Yggdrasil's roots, he is not enjoying this any more. The battle has ceased to be an entertaining distraction, and has become tiresome and tedious. Where in the Nine Realms is Thor?

Two minutes, Loki decides, angry. If the thrice-cursed oaf doesn't appear in the next two minutes, Loki is leaving to find a coffee shop and a slice of pie. Perhaps in France. Thor has two short, Norn-sucking minutes.

Ninety seconds left, and the Captain's shield shatters one of the horns of his helmet, sending it flying from his head and spirally down into the collected chaos below. Loki lets his shades melt back into shadow and dust, conjures a few knives to throw back at the man.

Given time, he'd like to study the shield that the red-white-and-blue-clad Captain wields with such surprising ingenuity. Utilizing a defensive item in an offensive capacity is an intriguing idea. Were they not on opposing forces, it would be interesting to discuss strategy with the man. Loki makes a mental note to himself, to see if such a strategy might be useful to him, as he flings himself into open air, catching the Iron Man in an embrace.

"What the shit!" Stark screams, unable to see Loki clinging to his back or to manoeuvre his way free.

It gives Loki enough time to catch his breath, certain that the others won't risk injuring their comrade.

Thor has eighty seconds.

Loki leaps from Stark's shoulders to the perch where the Hawk has sequestered himself, and burns through half of his reserves to pull that accursed bow apart into its component atoms, destroying it as completely and utterly as Loki knows how.

Thor has seventy-five seconds, and Loki throws the sniper from his perch, into the path of the now-furious Iron Man.

Seventy-three seconds, and the Hulk snags Loki by one ankle, grip crushing-tight, the bones grinding against each other with the abrupt and unrelenting pressure.

Loki spends the next twenty seconds being brutally, violently thrashed. Again.

It takes him six seconds to catch his breath, a wet rattling in his chest that doesn't bode well for future efforts in deep breathing. Thor has forty-second seconds before Loki runs away to lick his wounds, and Loki is quite seriously contemplating leaving before he has to deal with the red-haired harpy of a shieldmaiden currently flinging herself at his location.

Thunder rumbles in the sky above them.

"About fucking time," Loki groans, dragging himself to his feet. The vision in one of his eyes is off, he'll need quite a bit of healing if Thor doesn't kill him when he arrives. He dodges the widow's flashing blades, exchanges blows for a second before transporting himself away.

The storm swirls in the sky above them, violently churning clouds turned dark gunmetal grey, the bright white light of the sun fading fast into the dim grey of twilight. The storm growls, low -- or perhaps that is the green beast, Loki doesn't particularly care. His heartbeat quickens, excitement and anticipation flooding into tired limbs, energized for Thor's arrival.

The clouds heave, a swirling portal opens up in it's eye, and out from the vortex appears--

The Chitauri spokesman.

Loki's jaw drops.

It has been over a year since anything has been able to genuinely surprise him, but this is both startling and deeply, deeply unfortunate. Without the Tesseract, there is no way the Chitauri -- or their viciously despised spokesman -- ought to be able to transport anything to the far side of the galaxy. The spokesman's presence means that the other has unforeseen power, something that Loki has overlooked. It means that the destruction of the Chitauri army, the loss of the Tesseract, has not thwarted the other's plans.

At the very least, it means that the other's far-reaching ire has decided that vengeance against Loki for their defeat is more important than Loki would have predicted. He should have planned for this, should have taken the other into his account when he formulated his scheme. But time should have been on Loki's side, they should not have been able to find him so quickly.

The beast is roaring in defiance at the newest arrival, and Loki is faintly aware that the one called Stark is shouting obscenities and confusion at the skies. For a short, fleeting moment, Loki considers running, leaving Stark and the mighty heroes he'd been so boastful of to fight Loki's enemy for him.

But Loki is not a coward. And Thor still has thirty seconds to arrive.

"Traitor!" the spokesman howls, the word hissing unpleasantly through reptilian lips, spittle flying as he steers his craft through the howling wind. "Deceiver! Destroyer!"

The likelihood of three different peoples naming Loki the Destroyer is an easy diversion. He calculates the odds at around one in six hundred million, less than a millionth of a percent. If any of the Midgardians catch on, Loki may decide to add it to his usual titles. God of Destruction; Destroyer of Worlds. (Well, destroyer of armies, to be accurate.)

Six behemoths flank the spokesman, an escort of such concentrated hatred, and focused entirely on Loki, ignoring the gathered forces of Earth in their fervor.

Snarling, Loki summons the one weapon in his arsenal that can tear them to pieces. The casket flows into his cupped hands, fiercely exultant at the chance to once more unleash its icy devastation. The magic sings.

The behemoths meet their deaths.

Magic and ice crack through their metal shells, magic coursing through the natural paths of their bodies, ice and withering death following closely behind. There is no time for retaliation, five of them are destroyed by the casket's initial blast, bursting with sudden cold, flames exploding into being where ice has not yet formed, the large bodies colliding and crashing, fire and ice entwined in deadly embrace.

Loki laughs.

"Is that it?" he shouts, delighting in the look of astonishment on the spokesman's ugly, chitinous face. "Is that what you bring to face me? Loki, the Destroyer of Worlds? Is that the best that you can do?"

A blast from Iron Man's working repulsor knocks him over, but Loki barely notices, shrugging off the effect.

The Avengers are gathering their (somewhat limited) amassed intellect, though, and with the added forces of the remaining leviathan, and the Chitari spokesman, Loki knows that it is only a matter of time before he is caught in the crossfire.

Apparently not one for verbal sparring, the spokesman hefts a huge black sword, glittering with power, and sweeps his way across the skies towards Loki.

The sky is no longer an ideal battleground. While Loki enjoys the advantage of holding the high ground, it adds the risk of falling should he fail to maintain his magic. And now there is the added concern of being tossed back and forth between two aerial opponents. The ground is more appropriate, as it provides cover, distraction, and more importantly, an angry green-skinned ogre that isn't as picky about what it crushes in its grip as the rest of the Earth's protectors.

Loki feigns a fall, ducking underneath the approaching aircraft and deliberately placing Stark in the spokesman's way. The Widow curses loudly as he crashes into her, rolling neatly into a crouch and deflecting the angry Captain's well-timed punch.

He spends long moments furiously defending against a flurry of punches, kicks, and the wide-arching arc of the gaudily-decorated shield as it flies towards him. Far to the side, the Hulk is tearing the head off of the remaining behemoth's mighty shoulders, but Loki is far too busy deflecting the furious attacks of the Black Widow and the Hawk to appreciate the sight.

The captain is coming in as well, picking up his shield and dropping into the fight as Stark flies overhead. Four against one, with the spokesman fast approaching and the Hulk ready to turn on him as well as soon as the beast finishes crushing the behemoth's skull.

Suddenly, Loki realizes that he is going to lose this fight.

He can't win.

He laughs.

--

Loki's weapon of choice has always been knives. He appreciates the versatility of a weapon more than its potential to cause untold destruction. His knives are perfectly balanced for throwing, sharpened to an edge that can split hairs, and the blade itself reinforced with magic. Spelled to pierce armor, to deflect the stronger weapons he might face, they are as easily used defensively as offensively. He summons his blades now, short throwing knives and a much longer dagger, wickedly sharp with a slight curve to the blade.

It's his favourite weapon. If Loki is going to be defeated by the combined forces of lackeys, beasts, vermin and fools, he will at the very least first drench his blade in their blood. The mortal warriors - assassins, Stark had called them -- are no match for Loki's training. They cannot injure him, nor do him any lasting harm, but their presence demands his attention nevertheless. He dodges their attacks, keeping a sharp eye for the ingenious little devices that the Hawk-Eyed warrior has in his arsenal. The Widow forces him to stay close, trapped between them, cornered for Stark and their Soldier to land their blows.

The spangled shield cracks against his injured shoulder and Loki screams, because the pain is immeasurable. The amassed avengers note the weakness (a blind and deaf infant would note the weakness; it's no point in their favour) and Stark aims his concentrated blast of energy at the joint.

Thrown to the ground, pinned by the Captain's strength and the heavy weight of Stark's armor, Loki twists wrenching his injured arm in an attempt to escape.

"Hold him down!" the Captain shouts, as if his team were doing anything else.

In a stroke of hilarious and ironic luck, the spokesman chooses that moment to plow straight into the tangled group of heroes, bowling them over and sending them flying back. Freed, Loki scarcely has enough time to block the first downward strike of the glittering black sword with his dagger, the blades screeching in protest and throwing off sparks. The blade in Loki's hand trembles, magical protections almost, but not quite, overwhelmed by the inherent magic of the sword.

Loki's eyes glitter, intrigued. "Where did you get that sword?" he murmurs, curious. The spokesman doesn't answer, merely snarls in response, like an animal.

For training, ability, or speed, Loki is clearly the superior of the two. He's far more agile, and having trained with the Warriors Three, he knows that he can win easily against a stronger opponent if he can move inside of the other's reach. However, Loki is also exhausted, his magic depleted, his shoulder bloody and throbbing in agony. He is also outnumbered, and so the outcome of this particular battle is already certain. Writ in stone, but Loki is and always has been stubborn.

He may be about to fall, but this shall not be a fight easily forgotten.

"You shall pay for your betrayal!" the Chitauri says, wielding his sword.

Not bothering with a response, Loki throws himself forward to attack, his knives flashing, forcing the spokesman to take first one step back, then another. He slices a thin piece of flesh from the creature's cheek, cuts the guard clean off of its helmet, and smirks as he hears the thing's furious howl of pain.

"You really should have come better prepared," Loki sneers, kicking it in the chest and stalking forward as the Spokesman goes flying backwards. The Avengers are rallying, but perhaps Loki will have enough time to strip the repellent beast's flesh from its bones and crush its skull beneath the boot of his heel. To think, that the Other had sent this, this weak and cowardly peon, a wretched parody of a warrior, after Loki.

The Midgardians are weak, mewling, wretched creatures, but at least they have sent their strongest, best, and brightest to fight him. That the Other thinks to defeat him with a sad, useless worm is... degrading. Sending the Spokesman is an insult that Loki refuses to bear.

"Do your worst, insect," Loki says.

And he is surrounded, wounded, fighting against enemies on all sides, but Oh, blessed Norns, Loki has never before felt this fierce and exultant joy. The fire of battle that runs through his veins. This is it, the end, and he loves it -- loves the freedom, the power, the certainty that his death will follow and then..... oh, then.

Cackling with laughter, he vaults into the fray, becomes a creature made of instinct and action. He throws himself into every attack, risking daring strikes that leave him open to injury. Loki fights to maim, to wound, tears the sparking and fractured gauntlet off of Stark's suit of armor, grabs the Widow by her blood red hair, drags her off of her feet and throws her at the Captain.

It buys him a moment to stab viciously at Agent Barton's forearm, slicing through the thin straps holding his wrist guard in place. Barton jumps back and is replaced by Stark, who has depleted his arsenal of missiles and must resort to throwing punches in the absence of his gauntlets' repulsor blasts.

Viciously, Loki rams his blade through the brightly glowing heart in Stark's chest, kicking the suddenly-powerless suit off to the side and forcing the Captain to dive to the ground to avoid being struck.

Loki is the eye of the storm, the master of chaos in the midst of a battlefield, bloody and exhausted and untouchable. The spokesman is faltering, no match for Loki's prowess, although the black sword he carries has more than enough power to defeat Loki. The creature wields it clumsily, no skill, no knowledge, no expertise.

For long, moments, Loki is the master of the battlefield and his own destiny.

And then it falls apart.

The green beast has destroyed the behemoth, tearing it limb from limb and leaving it's bloody ruin spread wide around them. Stark's glowing heart regains its power, sputtering back to life in defiance of the stab wound that should have been its end. The Widow slips a knife by Loki's unguarded eye, slicing across his brow and deep into his temple. Barton thrusts his last arrow into the wound on Loki's shoulder.

Too soon, too quickly, it all falls apart.

Loki staggers backwards, blood obscuring his vision. He can no longer feel his left hand, but he can hear the dull clatter as his senseless fingers allow his last throwing knife to fall to the ground. Underneath his armor, the shirt he is wearing is stuck to his skin, wet with his blood.

The spokesman drags itself back to its feet, bloody and limping but still as angry as ever. Loki smiles at him, a bland and unassuming smile, more polite than the stupid, dull insect deserves.

"Come and get me," he whispers, spreading his arms wide in open invitation.

Feigning weakness, he lets his weapon fall to his side. It's a calculated risk, but the gambit pays off as the Chitauri soldier charges towards him, howling in triumph. Loki steps forward, into the attack, bringing his arm back up. His blade is an extension of himself, graceful and gentle. Lightning-fast, he moves.

Too slow.

The sword punches through his chestplate, blunt and bruising force that rends the metal apart, steals the very breath from his lungs. Loki uses his injured arm, pulls the spokesman towards him, letting the sword thrust its way through his chest, until only the hilt is visible where it touches his armor. He uses his good arm to slit the creature's throat, dark black blood flowing over the shining silver blade and gushing, wet and hot over him.

The stupid thing has the gall to look surprised as it dies.

He shoves the still-warm, twitching corpse away from him, allowing its weight to drag the sword from his body.

Loki refuses to be killed by this, by a minion sent on behalf of his true enemy. He may be the younger son of a king, but he will not be killed by a-- by an insignificant speck.

He uses a flash of magic, emotion turned to heat, and cauterizes the wound to stem the flow of blood. The sky spins above him, his vision darkening, but Loki is still alive.

"Jesus," he can hear Barton say, as he stares at the spot where Loki stands. His eyes are covered by dark glass, shading him from the sun as well as Loki's gaze. "Doesn't this guy ever stay down?"

Loki bares his teeth at him, trying to focus his vision on the Hulk. The others could perhaps also pose a threat, but for the moment they seem content to stare at him with wonder, or perhaps even fear.

"Turn yourself in," says the Captain. "We'll-- we can get you some help."

Help. That is just so precious; they're trying to help him. As if he is in need of their pitiful assistance. As if he even wants it.

He summons another knife, sharp and with a blade of pure crystal, and flings it carelessly in the Captain's general direction. It pings harmlessly off of the shield, but the momentary distraction gives Loki more than enough time to launch his own attack.

It's graceless and clumsy, slow. It feels as if Loki is wading through the thick and gluey Midgardian sweet they call 'pudding'. For all of that, it's also rather viciously effective, shearing off a large section of Stark's armor.

The Hulk responds with a roar, charging forward and wrapping one large, chunky green hand around Loki's waist.

Loki screams as the beast squeezes him, the wounds on his chest and shoulder bursting at the sudden pressure, blood flowing freely once more. The Hulk throws him, violently, crashing into a pile of rubble to lay helpless and bleeding on the ground. Being pummeled to death lacks elegance, grace, but Loki is willing to accept that it's preferable to imprisonment or -- horrifyingly -- the thought of being sent back to Asgard in disgrace.

Lightning flashes, lighting the sky, outlining the dark silhouette of the beast as it once more lunges towards him.

Loki closes his eyes, waiting for the blow to fall. Waiting to die.

-

He opens his eyes after a minute, to find that the beast has stopped in its tracks, one large fist raised, stopped in mid air by---

-- by...

Oh.

Hel and Ragnarok.

-- by Thor

His meatheaded, imbecilic, lumbering oaf of a brother has arrived, but of course, Thor cannot do what Loki wants. Of course Thor is determined to be as contrary as possible. Of course, because when in his entire cursed existence has Thor ever done as Loki wants him to?

Thor stands above him, crouched protectively, one hand on Mjolnir and the other holding back the mighty fist of the Hulk. The monster seems confused, seemingly aware that Thor is not its enemy, and yet determined still to crush Loki into dust.

Loki groans, wincing, unable to force any of his limbs to obey his demands. It hurts to breathe, by Yggdrasil, and he is not sure how long he'll even be able to do so. "What," he whispers, voice rasping in his throat and barely audible. "Thor-- what are you doing?"

"I will not allow this, brother," Thor says, his voice steady with conviction. Stubborn.

The laugh is unintentional, and far more painful than any expression of amusement has any right to be. It bubbles forth stained with blood, Loki can taste it on his lips, warmth and copper in the back of his throat, numbing him.

"Damn you," he hisses, blood and spittle dripping from the corner of his mouth. "Damn you, you--" he cannot think of the words. No words are fierce or strong enough to suit. "What is wrong with you?"

"I cannot allow this," Thor says in reply. He keeps his eyes on the Avengers who stare at him, unmoving.

The battle has ceased, now reduced to nothing more than a standstill between his brother and his friends.

"You idiot," Loki chokes. "You ruin everything, you buffoon. Why are you protecting me? After everything that I've-- after all that I have done, after all of my crimes, why are you here?"

"Because," Thor says, his eyes flickering down to Loki, his eyes lingering over Loki's wounds, the wreck of his armor. "I-- Loki, we are brothers." As if that means anything. As if he cares.

Loki's next breath is something between a moan and a sob. Thor never cared about him when they had believed themselves to be kin. Why would Thor care for him now that he knows they are not? "Of what use am I to you?" he whispers, pained. "What purpose does Odin Allfather have... what does he have planned for me, that he sends you yet again to spare my life? Why are you here?"

"You are my brother," Thor repeats. "I-- Loki, I do not want to see you hurt. I love you."

Loki shakes his head weakly. That is a waste -- wasteful use of magic, a waste of energy. If the Allfather has sent Thor to Midgard, it is for the purpose of defeating him. Nothing else. And while Thor claims to love Loki more than everything in the nine realms, Loki knows that his brother is a liar and a fool. Given the choice between a brother or a world filled with monsters, Thor had chosen Jotunheim. Given the choice between his friends and Ragnarok, Thor will not choose Loki. He could never choose Loki and still remain Thor.

"Thor, if you do this..." Loki says softly. "If you save me, Thor, I will destroy you. I will burn the very heart out of you, and when it is over, you will either destroy me or perish."

Thor's eyes are blue, so very blue. It's like falling into the ocean.

Loki stares up at them, drowning, surrounded by the blue of Thor's eyes, until the entirety of his vision fades away to grey.

--

To his eternal disappointment, Loki awakens.

--

The thin metal shackle they've clamped down on one of his wrists is the only restraint that has been placed on him. Needles prick his skin, a cacophony of wires runs across his chest, anchoring him to the machines that hum and whir quietly in the otherwise silent room. Loki blinks up at the ceiling, listening to the high-pitched hum of the lights, the soft static generated by the machines.

It takes far too long for his mind to return to him, to decipher his location. Midgard, most definitely, as the lack of magical restraints would indicate. Some primitive sort of healing hall, judging from the bandages covering his wounds.

Loki scowls at the metal circling his wrist, attaching him to a bar on the bedside.

He twists his hand, slowly, until the metal links that connect it to the bedframe begin to warm. The metal bends easily, and soon he tears free, ignoring the sudden frantic bleating of the machines around him as his heartbeat speeds up.

Now freed, he relaxes back against the bed. The machines around him fall quiet once more.

Scowling, Loki turns his head to the side, only to find that there is a hideously ugly painting of some sort of vivid yellow flower garishly adorning the wall. The room has no windows, no natural light, only the too-bright illumination from the bulbs overhead , and a thick, heavy-looking door.

For all that this room is clearly meant to be another prison, Loki finds it is not nearly as offensively bland as the other cells he has been imprisoned in. The paintings of unsightly flowers are not what he would choose to decorate his own walls with, but they do convey that this room was not intended as a prison for him.

And makeshift cells are the ones that are most easily escaped.

If he could, Loki would rise up and walk away now. He needs to rethink his strategy-- he'd thought that the attack against his brother's compatriots would be enough to fuel Thor's ire, but apparently his brother has learned something of how to control his childish temper. An unexpected piece of ill luck, that, but hardly an insurmountable obstacle.

Loki wants nothing more than to get himself out of the bed, to hunt down the wretched woman who'd so turned Thor's head, to finish this fight once and for all. If the implicit threats to her safety are not enough to heat Thor's blood, then Loki will cease to be subtle. A nice, neat strangling, perhaps. Or a knife to the kidneys.

But he doesn't get up. It doesn't matter how much he plans or schemes, because while Loki's mind is alert and ready, his body is as weak as a babe in arms. Merely moving his wrist to free his arm from its binding has left him depleted, his muscles trembling with fatigue. In his current state, lacking strength or magic, he would lose a fight to a kitten.

A sickly, newborn kitten, at that.

Furious at the current state of affairs, Loki lifts his gaze to stare in stony silence at the tiled ceiling. For now, there is nothing that he can do -- he can only wait. And plot.

--

He reaches for his magic, just to reassure himself that it is still there, and he finds nothing. Just a gaping, empty hole, where the magic should have been.

Loki wonders if he's burnt himself out, if he's run dry.

He wonders if the magic will ever come back.

--

Three days later, Loki's magic roars back into being, violent in its sudden intensity. Lying alone in his room, Loki's mouth falls open in a silent scream as the power rushes into him, overwhelming every other sense.

It's like remembering how to breathe, like the first heartbeat of a lifetime. Loki trembles with it, shaken, because it's only when the magic has returned to him that he can fully comprehend the enormity of its loss, the raw and gaping hole in his soul where that part of him resided.

Choking, he throws himself onto his side, curling into himself in a desperate attempt to curtail the agony, the pained, mewling noises of distress that fly from his lips.

It's like being torn apart, carved in two, and the separate halves of himself unaware there had been anything more. Loki has never before experienced the like, pain and joy and triumph at the same time. It's seeing a sunrise after an eternity spent in darkness, it is being struck by lightning and experiencing pleasure instead of pain.

Gasping, he sobs into the thin pillow on his bed, crying out with despair, or relief, or perhaps even both.

"So, I see you're finally awake," a voice says from behind him.

Squeezing his eyes shut, Loki struggles to steady his breathing before he formulates a reply. "I was awake before," he rasps at last, "I suppose you didn't notice."

"There's a difference between having your eyes open and being awake."

Well. That's true enough.

"Now that you're all present, why don't we get started?" The man walks around the bed, circling until he stands in Loki's view. His face is a study of polite inexpressiveness, his suit neatly pressed and lying perfectly straight and even over him without a single wrinkle in sight.

On his left cheek, just beneath his eye, is a dark bruise. Swollen, purple and blue, the edges are fading into mottled browns and yellow.

"Agent Coulson," Loki says, not bothering to muster the energy he would need for an insincere smile. It would be wasted on a man like this one, regardless. "What a pleasant surprise. Shouldn't you be locked in a dark, dank cell, under suspicion of being an imposter? I find that I'm disappointed in the security measure currently being employed by your agency. I ought to register a complaint."

"Smarter men than you have designed the security measure that were used to clear me of suspicion and confirm my identity." Coulson responds, pleasantly. "Your complaint is, however, duly noted. How are you feeling, Mr. Loki?"

"I have felt better days," Loki admits. "You'll be glad to know that, were it not for my accursed brother's ill-advised interference, your team of misfits might have succeeded in sending me to the next world."

"I don't think that would be good news for the next world," is his reply.

Loki bares his teeth. "I think that was a compliment."

"It wasn't meant to be." Agent Coulson falls silent, contemplating his next words.

Loki doesn't bother to intrude on the silence. The man has a game he's playing, and Loki isn't about to play into their hands. Not without reason.

"You've made a lot of people very angry."

"I meant to," Loki sighs, a tad melodramatic, perhaps, but he has no reason to refrain from his natural habit. So long as he doesn't spill any secrets that he doesn't want spilled, Loki is still free to be Loki.

"My people aren't pleased," Coulson continues. "There only reason you are here, Loki, is that we don't think Thor can be trusted with you any longer."

"Oh," Loki sneers. "I do so hope that you recorded the look on his face when you told him that."

"Thor is the one who suggested it," Coulson says bluntly. "He claims that his judgement is compromised where you're concerned. Under the circumstances, we weren't inclined to argue with him."

"A logical choice." Loki concedes.

"But that's not why I'm here."

"I thought not," Loki waves a hand, gesturing towards the otherwise empty room. "Your accommodations are far inferior to the last time I was your guest. Dare I ask whether you've come to me for suggestions on how to better apprehend criminals?"

His quip doesn't seems to register with the Agent at all.

Loki frowns. "Not here to be friendly, then, are you?" he murmurs, half to himself. "Tell me, then, Phillip of the House of Coul. Is it so common for you earthlings to heal your prisoners, only to torture them? It seems a rather inefficient method of going about things."

"We here on Earth don't look kindly on killing the weak or helpless," Coulson says with a bland smile. "Not much of a punishment to execute someone if it might be misconstrued and seen as mercy. We have to restore you to the very picture of health before the execution."

"Which naturally, means you've ample opportunity to torture me beforehand," Loki surmises. "How delightfully cruel! Have you come to do the deed yourself, then, dear Phillip? An eye for an eye? I must say, I hadn't expected you to be quite this... petty."

"That's not what this is," Coulson says. "Mr. Loki, my superiors have decided that because of our... past interactions... that you are more likely to develop a rapport with me. If I were to question that frankly remarkable decision, I expect that I'll be told that they aren't willing to expose any of their other agents to your influence. And so, here I am."

"You are the incorruptible man they've sent to befriend me? Strange, that they don't think you've been... what's the term you humans use? Compromised."

Coulson nods, acknowledging the point. "They probably assume that I am," he says. "This is a blatant attempt at manipulation, Mr. Loki, but for the moment I have chosen to play along. So, why don't you tell me why it is that you brought me back to life?"

"Oh," Loki murmurs, smiling. "Don't you recall? I hadn't expected you to find our conversations so forgettable."

If he expects a flinch, Loki is destined for disappointment. Coulson's eyes flicker to a spot behind Loki's back, and then he hears the soft click of the door opening. Another agent walks into Loki's field of vision, holding a chair. Agent Coulson stares impassively until the agent places the chair quietly on the floor and then scurries away, the door shutting behind him loudly.

"What is the nature of your business with Dr. Foster?" Coulson asks, sitting down.

"I'm sure that you could guess." Loki rolls his eyes. "Have you no imagination?"

"Why did you bring me back?"

"Is dying very painful?" Loki inquires. "I must admit that I'm curious. Pain is rather a familiar sensation, after all, but death remains a mystery to me."

"How did you bring me back?"

"Is that what you want? The secret to immortality?" Shaking his head, Loki drags himself up into a sitting position, his bare feet landing on the floor with a dull thud. "I am sure you humans wouldn't think of abusing that particular type of knowledge at all. You're doing such wonderful things with the time nature has given you already."

"Who is this?" Coulson pulls a picture from the pocket of his suit jacket, turning it so that Loki can see.

It's a blurry, crude photograph, but Loki recognizes it immediately. It was taken during his recent battle with the Avengers. "The Chitauri spokesman?" he says, confused. "Why on earth would you want to ask about that pitiful thing? Compared to the secrets of the universe and the key to unlocking immortality, a dead churl hardly seems worthy of note."

"Anyone who arrives on my planet without an invitation is worthy of note."

"I see." Loki nods appreciatively. "Well then, Agent Coulson, of SHIELD. Allow me to make you a very happy, very effective agent. What is it about the fiend that you wish to know?"

--

Loki has no problem telling Agent Coulson about the spokesman, about the Chitauri's various weaknesses and susceptibilities. There is, in fact, a sort of grim satisfaction that he feels at the thought of the humans of Midgard wreaking havoc on the army that had attempted to conquer them at Loki's behest -- to avenge themselves with information gained from Loki. And when Coulson learns of the Chitauri's ire with Loki, the reason that the spokesman had been sent to kill him, the SHIELD agent looks uncomfortable.

Curious.

"You mean to say that they blame you for their failure," the man says flatly.

"Quite," Loki says.

The Chitauri have good reason to hate him. He had, of course, been warned -- they'd been waiting for it, waiting for him to turn against them. Doubtless, they would have destroyed him immediately if he’d been foolish enough to give them the Tesseract -- although Loki of course had never intended to give them the cube. Loki hates the Chitauri back and with equal measure.

No one, no matter how powerful, no matter how important, threatens Loki Silvertongue.

The structure of their army, the loss of the Tesseract's power, and the capture of not one, but now two of their sacred magical artifacts was all due to Midgard's helpful interference. As plots for vengeance go, however, Loki couldn't have found a more desirable outcome if he'd tried. Not unless he had the opportunity to rip the Other's rib cage from his accursed chest, and shove it down his greedy, arrogant throat --- but as he hadn't died when he expected to, Loki is certain that he'll manage that eventually.

With a little bit of planning.

"If you're telling the truth," Coulson says, and it's pleasantly gratifying that the agent hasn't assumed Loki to be lying. It's equally gratifying that the man knows he wouldn't be able to tell, if Loki were. "If our enemies have suddenly become one and the same, why come here and attack us?" His brow furrows. "Why not come in quietly, bargain for your freedom for the information that we need to defeat them?"

Loki blinks. "The Chitauri are not your enemies," he says. "They have no interest in the Earth, the only reason they were drawn here was to obtain the power of the Tesseract. Without it, Earth has no lure for the other realms. The spokesman's purpose was to find and kill me, not to attack or conquer your planet."

"But we didn't know that," Coulson points out, staring at Loki with his fingers steepled in front of him. "We still wouldn't know, if you hadn't just said as much. What are you playing at, Loki Odinson?"

Loki snarls. "Do not call me that!"

Agent Coulson doesn't even flinch, doesn't move, although there is confusion in his eyes. "Was that incorrect?" he asks. "From what I understand of Asgardian culture, it's appropriate to use a patronymic in lieu of a surname."

Breathing hard, Loki doesn't reply.

"Thor tells us that the appropriate honorific is, for a prince of Asgard, Odinson, but I've heard you referred to with several other names as well.”

"I have many kennings," Loki hisses through gritted teeth. "I am named Loftur, Shape-Changer, Sly One, Word-Smith. They call me Silvertongue, Cloud-Walker, Sky-Traveller, Loki of the Mysteries, Loki the Smith, the Trickster, Father of Lies and Mother of Monsters. I am Loki the Traitor, Loki the Depraved, Loki Kingslayer, the Destroyer of Worlds. Apt kennings, and accurate, every one of them."

Coulson nods. "And Odinson?"

"I am no son of Odin!" Loki spits.

"Duly noted."

Loki sinks back down onto the bed, a sudden wave of despair crashing over him. He clenches his hands into fists, less a sign of his rager than an effort to stop his hands from shaking. It's the truth, Loki is no son of Odin, but... Yggdrasil, it hurts him, to think the words. To say them aloud. He is not Loki Odinson, he never was.

"My current patronymic is Laufeyson," Loki says dully, thinking of the large, hideous creature that crouched over Odin's bed, dagger poised over the Allfather's heart. Laufey, the king of Jotunheim, the dull and depraved monster that had sired him. Laufey, murdered by his own hand. Murdered by his son.

He has no reason to share this information with the agent in front of him. No reason at all, and no reason not to. "I am Loki, son of Laufey. Laufeyson."

"I see," the son of Coul does not see, however, does not understand. How can he? He knows naught of Odin, of Laufey, of the thousand-years war. He knows naught of Jotunheim, of the race of frost giants, of the hatred between Jotnar and Aesir reaching back for untold millennia. He is completely ignorant of what it means, how it kills Loki's heart even as it beats in his chest. Laufeyson. To one raised in the halls of Asgard, in the House of Odin, the word means much.

To the Agent of SHIELD who sits in front of him, it is merely another patronymic. Nothing more remarkable than one of a hundred million surnames. Just like any other.

"Get out," Loki says bitterly, and then he closes his eyes, turns his back, and refuses to speak.

--

Even with the ability to wield magic returned to him, the stores of power he has available are sorely depleted, and Loki has no wish to do himself harm by dipping into an already-dry well. He'll recuperate while enjoying Midgardian 'hospitality', and when he has the power necessary to continue with his plans, he will leave.

Assuming, of course, that Thor doesn't arrive with some sort of magical bindings, manacles that Loki will just as easily escape as before. If that's the case, Loki doubts it will bother him overmuch to compensate for them. The only person on Asgard who might know enough of magic to truly bind him, the only one who knows of his Jotun heritage, the only one whose intellect matches his own, is Frigga.

And even the queen of Asgard does not know the clever Midgardian trick, to pry open a lock without using magic or brute strength.

Appropriately -- or perhaps, disappointingly - Thor does not visit him in his Midgardian cell. The absence of visitors -- even angry ones, like Sif, who wanted to vent their outrages -- leaves him melancholy. Alone in an otherwise empty room, with nothing to entertain him, he begins to loathe the monotony more than anything else. He cooperates with the Midgardian healers, allowing them to perform their rituals that measure the beating of his heart or the pressure in his veins. He converses with them, politely, more for the novelty of being treated so well than because of any genuine interest in their lives.

They refer to his cell as an 'isolation room', and are all so relentlessly cheerful. It's amusing, that they know nothing of his crimes, his reason for being here, only that he is to be kept separate while he recovers from his injuries. Many of them are actively nice to him, telling him stories as they go about their duties, or bringing him things that will entertain him.

Of course, Loki still draws the line at allowing them to draw his blood. He knows little of Midgardian magical practices, from what he has observed it seems to be primarily based off of laughable superstition, luck, and willpower, with an obscenely small few capable of the magics Loki had mastered while in the cradle. Their rituals and grasp of power is truly pathetic, and yet Loki is still wary of what such primitive peoples might want with his blood.

Nothing good.

And so he refuses them their blood samples, and when they pursue the issue, making attempts to draw his blood despite his refusal, Loki sets their machines screeching. The cacophony of machinery drives them from the room, draws doctors that speak in worried tones about stress and heart rates and cardiac arrest.

The only person who comes to see him is Agent Coulson, and after their first conversation Loki doesn't feel nearly as charitable as before. It's clear that the man doesn't want to be there, that he doesn't care about the questions he asks. He asks them regardless, the same litany of questions each time, repeated over and over. What do you want with Doctor Foster, why and how was Coulson's life returned to him, for what reasons did Loki invade Earth, why did he attack the Avengers, blah, blah.

Loki amuses himself by lying, ignoring the questions to make grossly inappropriate comments about Agent Coulson's personal life, or to inquire about various members of the Avengers.

"Will the beautiful Agent Romanov be joining us at some point?" he wonders out loud, interrupting Coulson's thousandth (Loki had been counting, it was literally the thousandth) reiteration of the list of dull, unimaginative questions. "She was so very successful the last time you people wanted to speak to me."

"No," Coulson answers shortly. "She will not."

Loki hums in acknowledgement. "A pity. She is far more attractive than you are, dear Coulson, and I am starting to feel lonely in here all by myself. Although I must admit, you do have your own sort of appeal. Ruthless, competent -- and of course, I do so enjoy a man who can wear a suit as well as you do."

"If you're trying to make me uncomfortable, it won't work." Coulson doesn't bat an eyelash at Loki's sudden change of tactics. "I've liased with Tony Stark; a pansexual psychotic demigod is small potatoes by comparison."

"I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high-functioning sociopath," Loki retorts. "Do your research. And what would large potatoes be, perchance? I grow tired of you humans and your incessant inane references to things that I do not know or understand."

"You don't know what potatoes are, but you've managed to watch British television." Agent Coulson says wryly. His tone is a rather unique cross between disgusted and impressed. His expression, however, is one of consummate, utter resignation. He doesn't even look surprised.

"One of the healers’ apprentices loaned me a Starkpad so that I might entertain myself," Loki explains. "He suggested that I would find the actions of a fictional detective’s investigations into the cruelty of the human condition to be intriguing; he was not overly incorrect."

"There are rules against giving you access to any sort of of technology, and I've mentioned at least four times that nurses aren't the same as doctors-in-training."

"Your classifications for healers are confusing and stupid," Loki retorts. "I have no need to memorize the preponderance of asinine and illogical titles for a group of people whom I shall never encounter for any significant time of my life, nor have cause to encounter again."

"Is our time together not significant?" Coulson asks wrly. The man is starting to show his sense of humour.

"If you'd intended it to be significant, you'd have attempted to keep me entertained. I suspect that this interminable monotony is actually a cleverly-conceived type of torture, which will force me to spill all of my secrets in exchange for a pad of paper and two sticks to rub together."

"Why would you want that?"

"So that I might set myself on fire and put an end to my boredom."

Coulson considers this for a moment. "Do you often think that self-harm is the solution to your problems?"

"What?" Loki stares at him.

"With a pad of paper, two sticks, and enough time or effort, you could set a fire anywhere in this room. Why skip straight past the obvious -- creating a distraction in order to escape, causing mayhem, destroying this facility, and go straight for the suicide play?"

"You are reading far too much into a comment I made in jest," Loki says, uncomfortable beneath the agent's unwavering stare. "And why would the answer matter to you or your organization?" He considers the idea of asking for a writing instrument and a bit of paper, but then he discards it as unnecessary.

He has nothing that he wishes to write down, no words that ought to survive past his stay here. He has nothing to say to anyone that has not already been said, and all the unspoken words, the explanations, apologies -- those are not meant to be shared. Those are the secrets that Loki will take with him to his grave.

Coulson doesn't reply, but he lowers his gaze, bringing a small object out of a pocket and tapping at it.

"How is Thor?" Loki allows himself to ask, when it seems the agent is going to ignore him for a while. Coulson's eyes are narrowed, his brow furrowed as he concentrates on the object in his hands.

"Fine," the man replies without looking up. The object in his hand seems to be some sort of communication device, crudely rendered. It isn't nearly as nice as the Starkphone that the healer's apprentice had used to show Loki the Library of Youtube. It must be company issue, as for some reason SHIELD refuses to accept that Starktech is superior to all alternatives. Likely, it has something to do with the man himself.

"Why are you still here?" Coulson asks, finally.

"Philosophy, or pragmatism?"

"Assume for the time being that I have absolutely no fucks to give about your philosophy."

Loki raises his eyebrows, not needing to feign his surprise. "Why the sudden lack of patience? I don't think I've ever seen you lose your composure before. It's quite alarming. And kind of sexy."

"You haven't seen alarming yet," Coulson snaps, eyes flashing.

"Oh my, I do believe I'm being threatened." Loki isn't afraid, of course. He is intrigued. "Is this about your Agent Barton? I know he's a bit of a sore spot for you."

Coulson moves so fast he's nearly a blur, elbow striking Loki's windpipe and cutting off his air, pinning him down to the bed. The agent's other hand is still wrapped around the communication device, his knuckles white with tension. "What have you done with him?" Coulson demands.

"Oh," Loki says softly. "What are you doing to do, Sir Agent? Your favourite jester has gone missing, and you are stuck in here with me, emotionally compromised by my gifts to you."

"Controlling one of my agents and forcing him back into your mess is not a gift," Agent Coulson snarls.

Loki bares his teeth once more, making no move to free himself or even to force the agent away from him. "No, perhaps not, but tell me dear Agent Coulson, what will you to do get your Hawk-eyed Warrior back? How much is that one man's life worth to you? Will you barter your planet in exchange for his life, like the beautiful Black Widow suggested? I am curious. She said that she didn't love him, that she merely wanted to repay a debt. Is your debt to him the only reason you care, or will you lie to the King of Lies and tell me that you don't love him?"

Coulson shoves Loki back, hard, stepping away from him and moving to the far side of the room, putting space between himself and Loki. Good. A little space is best, because Loki doesn't take well to being threatened, menaced, or to any other form of intimidation. He would hate to rip the man's head off of and then have to expend the energy to bring him back from the dead once more.

"What do you want?" Coulson asks. His face is schooled once more, a blank mask to hide his inner turmoil.

Loki considers him for a moment. "You aren't going to bargain with me?"

"From where I'm standing? You’re the guy with all the cards, and you're playing a game I haven't a hope in hell of winning. Congratulations, then, Mr. Laufeyson. I've been compromised. You win. Tell me what you want."

"You would trade your world for him?" Loki laughs. "Oh, that is precious. You love him that much? You want him back that much, that you would turn traitor, you would betray everyone and everything that you believe in, you would give me your loyalty and your service and want nothing for yourself in return."

"I want Barton," Coulson replies. "Barton -- alive, uncontrolled, unharmed, mentally and physically. That's the deal. Barton or nothing."

"Agent Coulson," Loki sighs, contentedly. "You are indeed a singularly remarkable man."

Coulsons stares in silence at Loki, who lets the smile fall from his lips and stares unflinchingly back. Finally, the other man breaks away, looking down at the floor. "I want my agent back."

"We all want a lot of things." Loki replies, his tone pleasant, conversational. "I want to leave this facility and pay a visit to Jane Foster without the inevitable confrontation with your agency. I want the sword that the spokesman used to fight me. I want to go back to Asgard to find the exquisitely wrought muzzle that they used to silence me, and then weld it permanently onto Tony Stark's face. That doesn't mean any of it will happen."

"What have you done with Barton?" Coulson shouts.

"You'll have to be more specific," Loki shrugs. "I've done quite a lot, actually. For an orphan raised in a circus, performing tricks for money, he's managed to make a surprising amount of personal acquaintances. Is there anyone on this planet who doesn't owe him their life? Other than myself, I mean."

"Probably not," Coulson replies. "Even Thor wouldn't be alive right now if it weren't for him. And me, of course, I was the one who didn't give the kill order. Starting to regret that now."

"He told me as much," Loki muses. "Your Agent Barton, I mean, not my--- not Thor. He seemed rather confused about it, I was under the impression that you're not normally so... soft."

"If you're going to give me a list of demands, then do it," Coulson snaps. "If not, then stop wasting my time."

"And if I admit to wasting your time," Loki says quietly. "You still won't have leave to go after him, will you? Your superiors believe you to be either indebted to me, or compromised by my magic. Your agent has played the turncoat before, and you've admitted to a more personal connection to him than they would like. So what will you do then?"

"They already think my loyalty isn't secure," Coulson says woodenly. "They think I'm compromised, and I am. So, I'll prove them right. With you, if you have him, without you, if you don't. I want my agent back, and I mean to get him."

"Is this love, Agent Coulson?" Loki asks.

"Does it matter? I'm not lying. You could tell if I was, you've had the same training as me. So tell me, what do you want? What do I need to do, to get him back?"

"Nothing," Loki says. "Tell me, Agent Coulson, would you like to play a game? I call it 'Spot The Obvious and Amateurish Attempt at Emotional Manipulation'. Why don't you go first? Ten points for this round."

"I'm not trying to manipulate you!" Coulson shouts.

"Oh dear, that's the wrong answer. Second Round: Spot the Lie! Fifty points."

"I am not lying," Coulson says, and his voice breaks, a sound like a sob escaping him. It's a low, broken noise, like a wounded animal.

"That is true," Loki concedes. "You are absolutely telling the truth, my dear Coulson, that much is obvious. Would you like to play again? Third Round: and I'll make it easy for you. How does a wounded prisoner take an enemy agent hostage without leaving his jail? Fifty points."

"What are you talking about?"

"Wrong answer. You're really not good at this. Four Round, and I'll even use small words. If a god can't find one woman among four billion similar creatures, how does that same god find one man?"

"You aren't making sense--"

"You aren't even thinking," Loki yells. "You claim to have my training, my intelligence, you say that your superiors think you compromised by my presence and my magic. You admit your feelings for Barton, equal to the fate of your entire world, and yet still you are the same blind, willfully ignorant fool. Open your eyes and see, you feeble-minded peon. I have no reason to answer your questions, no torture will break my will, no amount of begging or cajoling will wear down my resolve. Answer your own questions, fool."

"You..."

He can practically see the machinery of the man's mind whir to life, like rusted gears grinding forward after years of disuse.

"You're saying that I'm telling the truth, so, what, I'm the one being manipulated?"

Loki rolls his eyes. "Ten points, Agent, although I am being extremely charitable."

"So, if I'm the one being lied to," Coulson says slowly. "You're saying that... the alert is a fake. A lie meant to ensure I would turn?"

"There is a reason that SHIELD sent you to interrogate me," Loki agrees. "Why not someone less susceptible to my particular talents? Why not the appealing Lady Romanov, whose unique style of interrogation is so uniquely effective?"

"And I believed them," Coulson breathes. "I played right into their---"

"--blatantly obvious, amateurish attempt at emotional manipulation?"

Coulson scowls.

"I did tell you," Loki says with a smirk. "Would you like another chance at our game? What was the lie?"

"This isn't a game," Coulson retorts, but all the heat has disappeared from his tone, his tension fading into his usual steady composure. "So-- what, you're telling me Barton is fine?"

"I'm saying nothing," Loki demurs. "I have little to offer your people, Coulson, but never let it be said that I've ever done anything but encourage the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of intelligent thought."

The other man inclines his head in acknowledgement.

"Besides, Agent Coulson, I am rather fond of you." Loki smiles again, this time a genuine smile. "You've a mind behind that obedient, boring demeanor, and yet you lack the arrogance, the stupidity, and even the ambition that makes the rest of your kind so very irritating. A beautiful conundrum, you are."

"I'm going to pretend you didn't insult the rest of my species," Coulson replies easily, returning to his seat and stretching out. "I'm rather fond of the rest of the human race."

"If they were more like you, I might be as well."

"That was definitely a compliment." Agent Coulson raises an eyebrow. "So, Barton's fine. The Director must have decided to kill two birds with one stone--"

"Is that some sort of reference that I don't understand, or is it meant to be an allusion to one accomplishing more than one goal with a single action? If the former, I must admit your species' tendency towards meaningless violence is obscene. Why, it's practically Aesir."

"Your understand is correct, it's a colloquial phrase, likely referring to an outdated method of hunting."

"Ah," Loki nods. "An interesting turn of phrase, but rather accurate in this case."

"The lie was the text that informed me that Barton had gone off the grid," Coulson says.

"Fifty points to you, sir! And here I thought you didn't think that this was a game."

Wryly, Coulson shrugs a shoulder. "It's become apparent that everything is a game with you."

"WIll you try the other two? I'll give you fifty points for either, a thousand for both if you don't require any more input from me."

Coulson considers this for a moment. "How does a wounded prisoner take an enemy agent hostage without leaving the cell-- well that's obvious, now. He can't. And again, if you couldn't find Jane when you were looking for her, you wouldn't be able to find Barton either."

Loki grins at him. "Did it hurt?"

"Did what hurt?"

It's tempting to follow the question with 'when you fell from heaven' to lower the tone of their conversation. Perhaps simply to see if he can get Coulson to break his composure again. "Forcing yourself to use your mind," he says, instead. "Solving a problem with your mind instead of your might. Is it so much against your nature that it causes you pain?"

"I'll survive," Coulson smiles.

Loki lies back on his bed. The last question is hovering on the tip of his tongue, but he doesn't ask it -- he's not sure he should. He doesn't want to know how much damage his words can cause, when he has no business, nothing to accomplish here. Did it hurt, to be betrayed?

--

He can't stay here. Not any longer. Loki's magic is still weakened, his body sore, but suddenly the risks run too high. Agent Coulson is his enemy, no matter how much Loki enjoys their verbal fencing, and Loki is in danger of forgetting that.

He has killed the man, thrust his spear through his back and left him to drown in his own blood. Coulson is not his friend.

There are tactical problems that need to be considered if he is to leave immediately. Loki originally intended to stay until he had returned to his full strength. The humans are under the misconception that science and magic are one and the same, as if keeping Loki away from their technology will cripple his ability to do magic. They have the right idea, of course, but Loki's magic is a part of him. Short of a slew of spells designed to suppress his abilities, bindings on both his body and mind, there is nothing that can be done to truly take away his magic.

If he weren't so contemptibly weak, he could simply walk through the long-forgotten portals, transport himself anywhere in the nine realms that he wished to go. Instead, Loki forces himself out of the bed, limping painfully, using one hand braced against the wall to prevent himself from falling. He does nothing to the security cameras in the room, as he needs to carefully hoard the magic available to him.

He makes his way to the door, the heavy door that is barred on the outside, no lock for him to pry open. "Hello?" Loki calls out, wincing at the pressure on his lungs. Speaking is still exhausting, and mustering the breath to properly shout is going to hurt.

"Hello?" He calls, louder, bracing himself for the sharp twinge in his chest. "Is someone out there?"

One of the apprentices is on the other side of the door, Loki can hear her heartbeat, can feel the soft reverberations caused by her footfalls.

"If you need something, Mr. Loki, you need to press the call button!" she calls back.

Ah, what a helpful creature. The button won't help him, though, he needs a distraction, not medical assistance.

"I can't reach!" Loki shouts. "Help! Can someone help me?"

"Mr. Loki?" The nurse is keying in the code to his door, and this close to the source, Loki can close his eyes and send his mind to stand next to her.

He memorizes the code, carefully committing all nine digits to memory. When the door swings open the nurse finds Loki's body slumped over by the wall, blank-eyed and clutching at his chest where his wound has reopened.

She rushes to his side, how sweet. Loki's pleased that she is so concerned for his welfare that she doesn't even close the door behind her. An unexpected bonus, that, and so he lets his mind return to his body. Opening his eyes, he stares up into the soft, concerned gaze of the healer-woman bent over him. "It's all right," she says, pressing a hand to his shoulder. "Don't worry, I'll fix you up, and then call the doctor to--"

Her nametag says Tracey London. Loki smiles at her, raises one weak and trembling hand to touch the inside of her elbow, feather-light. "Thank you," he says, as sincerely as he can, truly grateful for this woman and her genuine concern. "I won't forget this."

She doesn't have time to look confused.

Loki sends her to sleep with a thought, catching her as she falls forward into his arms. He hasn't the strength, or the time, to carry her to the bed, but he is sure to tuck a pillow under her head and arrange her limbs as comfortably as possible.

He has to crawl his way to the door, too much energy wasted to simply climb to his feet. The doorframe is helpful in that respect, giving him a helpful handhold with which to pull himself to a standing position. The hallway outside of his prison cell looms in front of him, long and empty, white walls and white ceilings and the strong, sterile smell of chemical disinfectants.

Loki walks down the hallway -- oh, fine, he shuffles, limps, and pulls himself along with one hand on the wall to keep his balance. The wounds have all reopened by now, bleeding sluggishly, causing his clothing to stick to his skin. He doesn't want to waste any energy healing them, however, not just yet. For now, the slow bleed is more helpful than harmful, and it isn't as if he's in any danger of bleeding out.

Before too long, he runs into yet another healer, this one male and considerably less concerned. "What are you doing out of your room?" the man demands. "You're supposed to stay in isolation."

If this healer had, instead, been distracted by Loki's blood-stained bandages, or seen his weakness and attempted to help him, perhaps Loki would have been a little nicer. Perhaps, but that will forever remain a mystery, because Loki's first thought when he looks into the human's uncaring face is 'stupid, oafish lout'.

The spell is a complex one, and not one that Loki has ever had cause to use before. It requires very little energy to disable an opponent, though, and so Loki grabs the man by his wrist and pulls -- with his mind, not his body, although from the way the healer crumbles to the ground it could have gone either way. Loki pulls as much of the man's energy into himself as he can without killing him, and then uses it to seal his wounds shut once more.

Slightly more energized, he continues until he finds a door that is helpfully labelled "exit". Humans are so pragmatic.

--

On his way out of the facility, Loki encounters two more healers, and three apprentices. The ones who notice he oughtn't be roaming free he drains of energy and leaves in a convenient closet, room, or behind a desk. The ones who instead seemed determined to assist him, Loki leaves alone.

After all, he is not so much of a monster that he would interfere with a Healer's Work.

The lack of guards, of security measures, of anything that he would expect to find in a prison is suspicious. It might mean that there is someone working to free him for their own purposes, or it may simply be an indication of how gravely Loki had been injured. Either way, his escape is uneventful.

Soon, he stands in front of the 'Hospital', with one hand pressed up against his side to support himself. Dressed in his Midgardian clothing, no one is the wiser.

Loki smiles, and disappears.

--

Finding Dr. Jane Foster is a simple affair, one simply needs to know whom to ask. Google, a rather convenient human invention, leads Loki to a Facebook account, and the Facebook account sends him to a Twitter page. The Twitter page gives him quite a bit of information, enough that he can find not only narrow down his search to Norway, find her current residence, but also suss out her favourite locations while not working. She has been working at an observatory in Tromsø, under SHIELD's protection.

He visits her in her lab.

"Doctor Foster?" he says politely, seeing the woman crouched over a computer, holding a pen between her teeth. She raises her head, looking mildly confused at finding Loki in her lab, but there is no hint of fear or alarm on her face. It would appear, then, that his brother hasn't warned her, hasn't told his lover anything of Loki.

"Can I help you?" she asks. She is pretty, of course, that is no surprise. The casual attitude she bears, however, practically dismissive of Loki's presence, is unusual.

"I'm sorry to interrupt your work," Loki says politely, stepping around the mess of machinery in her workspace. "I'd hoped you might be able to take a few minutes to talk with me." He gives her his most self-deprecating smile, the one that says oh-I'm-not-important-at-all-just-the-younger-prince-nothing-special-really, the pride and joy of the house of Odin.

She smiles back at him. "Oh -- are you from the grant committee? I promise, my most recent request for additional funding isn't me being greedy, once you've seen the results you'll understand what I mean. This is absolutely groundbreaking, we've gotten so close to building an stable Einstein-Rosen Bridge. Right now, the most difficult problem we're experiencing is ensuring that the doorway remains stable once opened -- the tunneling has already proven to work, and we can open a bridge for almost sixteen nanoseconds. Once we manage to incorporate the new information from Selvig's most recent paper on the interaction of heavy-metal ion fusion with high-energy gravity wells, we may be able to generate a stable opening! Just think, at this rate, we may be only a few years from faster-than-light travel! Interstellar excursions are suddenly a very real possibility in our lifetimes!"

Loki raises his eyebrows, genuinely impressed, and somewhat amused. "Selvig," he comments. "A brilliant man. I've had the pleasure of working with him recently. His mind has a rather breathtaking complexity."

"Oh yes, Erik is wonderful," Jane says, looking pleased.

"I'm afraid that I'm not nearly as familiar with your work, Doctor Foster. I have read your more recent works, however. I must say, your allusions to Scandinavian mythology were a surprise, although the newly-dubbed Foster Theory of pre-existing stable wormholes connecting our world to others has been surprisingly well received."

"It's not a secret any longer that we're not alone in the universe," Jane replies smugly. "And the experiments that my team has been running so far support my theory, the tunnels we create are stable. Math doesn't lie."

"I'm very impressed," Loki says gently. "And of course, the Banner-Stark equations also seem to fully support your theorem."

She smiles at him. "I'm about due for a coffee break, actually. Would you like to join me?"

"That would be lovely." He plays the gentleman, fetches her coat and holds it out for her, holds open the door for her to pass through. "I would be glad to join you, Doctor Foster."

"Oh, please, call me Jane," she replies with a laugh. "I-- oh, what did you say your name was?"

"I didn't, actually," Loki gives her the same self-deprecating smile. "How rude of me! I'm terrible sorry, Jane. My name is Laufeyson -- but you can call me Luke. I'm sure we're going to be fast friends."

Jane grins back at him. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Luke."

"Oh, I assure you," Loki says, smiling wide enough to show all of his teeth. "The pleasure is mine."

--

After only ten minutes in Doctor Jane Foster's company, Loki finds himself... well, to be frank, he's confused.

Jane Foster is not merely intelligent. she is -- brilliant. He's at a loss to explain how this woman would have caught Thor's attention. She is hardly Thor's usual type; not an attention-hungry socialite, the type of woman to be impressed by Thor's battle prowess, his boasting, his general... Thor-ness. Why, then, would she have been attracted to his brutish, arrogant, idiot brother? And why in the nine would Thor have found her worthy of his attention?

Among mortal women, Jane is... fearless. Formidable, even, and with a clever mind, startling intellect, and the sort of blunt disregard for rules or authority that Loki is used to seeing in a mirror and nowhere else. Jane's understanding of the universe is impressive, more so because what she knows she has sussed out for herself. She had seen the small discrepancies in the teachings of Earth's masters, and used those to unravel the mysteries.

Aside from her friendly nature, there is nothing he can see that would draw Thor to her. She is not loud, violent, sexually suggestive, or promiscuous. She isn't rude, crass, or lewd. Her focus seems to be entirely on her work, rather than being starry-eyed over Thor's masculine pursuits.

Jane's singular standout feature is her intelligence, and Loki knows that a quick mind is nothing that Thor would approve of, intellect is not something that Thor respects. Trickery, he calls it, deceit, as if to use one's mind is dishonourable, unfair.

If Thor has really changed that much, if he -- No. Loki crushes the thought ruthlessly, refuses to let it see light. Refuses to believe it. Thor is not an idiot, although his rages have given him the reputation of one. Thor must have known when he'd been banished to Midgard that this woman was his best bet if he wanted to go about returning to Asgard. That made sense, if the Bifrost was indeed closed to him. Although, if he had been courting her favour in the hope of returning to Asgard, then perhaps his affection for her was not as sincere as it seems.

He sips his coffee, nodding along as he listens to her speak with glowing eyes of the breakthroughs she's made. He wonders if the woman will be the wrench in his plans.

If Thor cares for her, then her death will command a rage the likes of which Loki has never witnessed. If Thor truly loves her, then Loki will destroy his brother's heart with her demise.

If Thor loves her. Loves her sharp, biting wit, and the intellect she doesn't hide, the way she looks upon the world and seeks to dig out its mysteries --

If, if.

Loki hates the word, hates his own uncertainty. The thought of this woman, this Jane, being with Thor is -- laughable. What would they speak of? What would they do in their time together? Jane would speak of the methods she would use to open a doorway between the world, to build the Earth their own Bifrost and launch their culture into the galaxy to see untold sights. Thor would speak of wrestling matches and hunting Bilchsnipe.

And yet.

And yet this woman is the one whom Thor had hesitated to give up. A handful of days in her presence compared to a thousand years of Loki by his side, and Thor had hesitated. He had wanted her, this doctor, this woman, more than he wanted his brother. More than he wanted his friends, more than he wanted his throne.

Perhaps Thor has finally grown up.

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about it," Loki says in response to one of Jane's questions.

"Iridium may be difficult to obtain, but I've heard rumours of a meteorite shower that has produced some trace amounts. Dr. Selvig has already gotten his hands on a few grams; your research is still in the preliminary stages of establishing an open Einstein Rosen-Bridge, so that ought be more than enough. If, of course, you can convince him to share. There is another option, if you're open to petitioning the Japanese -- they've a scientist named Doctor Amikuri whose research falls along similar lines to yours, you two might benefit from working together."

Jane grins at him. "To be honest, after that fiasco in Germany a little while back, I'd be very lucky indeed if anyone in the world was willing to give me a single microgram."

"Well, you need to speak their language." Loki shrugs easily, then leans forward and pulls a coin from behind her ear, holding it up to reflect the light. "I have yet to meet the organization who doesn't react with avaricious greed at the thought of a little money."

Giggling, Jane reaches out to touch the coin. "Cute," she says, and her tone is neither derisive, nor flirtatious, she seems to be... honest. "Don't tell me -- You're a wizard, Harry!"

"Nothing so dramatic, I'm afraid," Loki says, making the coin disappear and fanning out his fingers to display his empty hands. "Just a trick. A bit of magic."

Nodding, she leans back in her seat, stretching her legs out underneath the table. "Well, I've had fun talking to you, Luke, but it's pretty obvious that you're not from the grant committee... If you were, you'd never suggest I spend money to accomplish anything."

"I'm not from the grant committee," Loki agrees. "However, I am very interested in you, Jane Foster. Your research is... well, let's just say I'm here on behalf of an interested group of individuals, who are extremely fond of your work, and who would benefit from its application."

"I'm not interested," she says without missing a beat.

"You haven't heard the offer yet."

"I didn't need to. I know that I'm not interested in working for private corporations, or even an individual who will doubtless want to take and patent my technology and findings to ensure no one else is able to use it. I am redefining the universe, Dr. Laufeyson, I won't allow anyone to hide my findings for their own purposes. I intend to ensure the information I find is available to everyone."

"That was never the plan," Loki responds. "You will retain all of the rights to your research, all I ask is that you allow my people to use the results when you are finished. No secrets, no confidentiality clause, no patenting -- except, of course, in your name."

"You expect me to believe that you'd pay for me to reinvent the wheel, in exchange for new tires on your car?" Jane shakes her head. "That doesn't make any sense."

"It makes no sense if we were talking about wheels or cars," Loki counters. "But we're talking about travelling across worlds, of spanning the universe in a single step. I expect that having the plans to build a bridge between worlds would be more than worth the price of your research, and far more profitable than attempting to begin again from nothing. You are almost there, Dr. Foster, after all you've as much as admitted that you can open the ways, that you need only control the doorway."

"Who sent you?" Jane demands.

Loki smiles his gentlest, most charming smile. "I am here from Asgard, Doctor Foster," he says.

All of the colour washes out from her face, paling so suddenly he thinks she's going to faint. "Asgard -- Thor?" she whispers. "Did Thor send you -- how is he, is he--"

"No, not Thor." Loki shakes his head. "I'm afraid that the Prince has been busy with official business, things that only the royal family are privy to. But our Bifrost is broken, shattered by Thor when he used Mjolnir to destroy it."

"Why would he do that?" Jane asks, outraged.

"The Bifrost is -- or rather, it was... never a stable pathway. It is intended to open a doorway, and then allow a moment of... transference," Loki explains. "The Bifrost could hold the portal open, but without the inherent stability it required, it would tear apart the world at the other end. When Thor returned to Asgard, the Bifrost was prevented from closing, and he destroyed the bridge rather than allow the inhabitants of Jotunheim to die."

"Oh," Jane relaxes slowly, a bit of colour returning to her cheeks. "Oh, that's-- that's good. I mean, he said that it would be difficult but... do you mean... Can he come back?"

"He can return," Loki says, enjoying the unhappy frown on her face. Had she really thought that Thor would forget about her? "With permission from Odin Allfather, and quite a lot of energy expenditure, he will be able to cross over. But the pathways are dangerous, the ways are dark, and without the ability to travel to other worlds, Asgard will wither away."

"I see." Jane clutches at her nearly-empty cup of coffee. "So... you want-- what, exactly?"

"You finish your research," Loki says. "And when you've mastered it, when the technology once more exists that allows us to travel the universe, you build one of your devices for Asgard."

"That's it?" she asks, licking her lips anxiously. "I give one machine -- or the plans to build your own -- to you, and you want nothing else?"

"Well, you wouldn't give it to me," Loki says. "I'll ensure your research is adequately financed, but in return your device ought to be presented formally to the reigning King of Asgard, or their personal representative."

"And by representative..."

"It's likely that Thor will be sent to Earth once more," Loki says. "After all, I suspect he wants to see you. How long has it been? A year? Longer?"

Jane blushes. "Well, we met just over a year ago... but... well, he came to visit me a little while back. And then again last week."

Gently, Loki places a hand over hers and looks deep into her eyes. "He loves you very much," he says. "More than you know."

Jane nods, but she doesn't look too reassured.

"Is something the matter?" he asks. "If you are worried, you needn't be; with all you've accomplished already it's likely that--"

"It's not that," Jane interrupts him. She puts down her coffee mug, instead beginning to twist and shred the paper napkin that was in front of her. She keeps her eyes down, watching her hands, and Loki can see that she is practically shaking with some emotion -- Apprehension? Excitement? Fear?

Loki draws his magical sight around him, intending to look at her aura and perhaps gain a deeper understanding of her mood. He holds it for a heartbeat before he is stunned into silence, the magic dropping away as he finds himself too shocked to hold on to it.

"Oh," he says, finally, when Jane does not look up. "I see."

--

Curse Thor, curse his stupidity, his asinine-- EVERYTHING! Loki fumes, pacing, back and forth in his hidden fortress, sequestered between realms where none but he can reach it. He had left Jane back at her workshop, unharmed and none the wiser to Loki's true identity, but this new situation is wretched and leaves him with no plan of action.

What is he to do?

Before, he'd planned something rather more violent for Thor's lady, but-- well. Loki is a monster, true, and he wants to break Thor to his will, but even so. He's hesitant.

Loki cannot give up now, but he cannot decide on another course of action. What can he do? Loki does not lack conviction not in this battle. Not in this fight.

He has to accomplish this last, has to find a way. Jane is the key to Thor's heart, the key to unlocking his rage. There is no one else -- nothing else -- that Loki can use. Thor is too stubborn, too determined to believe that Loki is his kin, his brother, is somehow worth saving. Loki must show that he is beyond that.

Snarling, Loki throws a chair at the wall, splinters flying as it shatters at the impact. It doesn't make him feel any better, doesn't stop the raging turmoil inside of him.

Damn her! Damn her, and Thor, and Earth's offensive, stupid customs.

It would have been too easy, Loki thinks bitterly. Too easy to have what he wants, to trick the doctor into following him to a roof and then throwing her off the building. Or off of a cliff. Too easy to strangle her in her workshop, to slide a knife between her ribs and watch her fall. Instead, he is trapped in this exciting new quandary, one that he would trade his own life's-blood to avoid.

Perhaps Loki would have had no issue with killing the woman, before. Perhaps he might have only felt the smallest twinge of regret. More likely, he would have stabbed her and never given it a second thought, could have been the monster he knows himself to be.

Except that now, having met and spoken to her, having had her confess her innermost secrets to his ear, knowing her mind-- Loki cannot. He should, he must, and yet he cannot.

Tearing at his own hair doesn't calm him, nor does destroying the rest of his furniture. All he accomplishes is an agonizing stitch in his side and dry, heaving breaths that burn. Well, that and a mess of broken furniture in his space.

Scowling at the empty air in front of him, Loki draws himself up, begins to clean the mess. He is not an idiot, not a fool. If there is a way out of the mess he's created, then it will come to him. And there will be a way out, there is always a way out.

When there is not, Loki creates one.

--

He should not continue to visit Jane Foster, but there is an undeniable lure there. Loki recovers his energy, slowly, staying hidden between the world, only occasionally venturing out into the realms. When he does visit, he takes Jane for coffee and speaks to her about her research. The woman is going to ruin all of his plans, will be the single unpredictable variable that will tear apart the world and leave Loki to suffer for it. If only Loki could rid himself of his sentimentality, the weakness he is so eager to mock in others.

“Weak,” Loki mutters to himself. “Pathetic, pitiful--”

"Sorry, did you say something?" Jane asks, looking up from her work.

"Nothing of import," Loki says with a shrug. "I was merely thinking of a problem I need to solve."

"Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again?" Jane suggests absently, chewing on the end of a pencil. Her eyes are narrowed in concentration, toes tapping rhythmically. "Or, um. Thinking outside the box? No, take a break and do something else. A bath. Sleep on it!"

"Why do I have the feeling that you're merely regurgitating the useless advice others have given to you when you've found yourself stuck in the past?"

"Because you’re an insightful person," she replies. "The problem isn't what you think it is. You're solving the wrong thing, that's why you're stuck."

Raising his eyebrows, Loki sends her a considering gaze. "What do you know of my problems?"

"I know you're smart, so no matter what it is, if what you've been doing isn't working, it's because that's the wrong way to go about it. And if the solution you have doesn't fit your problem, then you're solving the wrong problem." Jane shrugs as if her wisdom is nothing significant. "So, rethink your problem, and then you can come up with the correct solution."

Loki leans back in his chair. "You are a wise woman, Jane," he says.

She winks at him. "I know."

--

When he does come up with a solution, it's far from perfect. Loki is unfortunately harnessed by his own weaknesses, and without the strength to overcome then, he isn't sure if this hastily-constructed ruse will work, will serve its intended purpose. If it does not...

Well, he can cross that bridge if he comes to it. No reason to plan for failure, as Loki doesn't intend to fail.

--

Jane looks -- conflicted, when he goes to visit her next. "Luke," she says. "I... have you heard from Thor? Or from Asgard?"

"No reason to fret," Loki says with a smile. "I have reason to believe that Thor is here on Midgard, although I haven't seen him myself, not recently. Why? What have you heard?"

Jane relaxes, her shoulders slumping forward. "Oh, it's nothing, really. Someone at SHIELD keeps giving me the runaround, says that Thor is trying to apprehend a dangerous criminal and can't be bothered by me. I wasn't sure if..."

"Ah," Loki nods understandingly. "You thought perhaps that he no longer cared? I assure you, Jane, that if Thor has received your messages, he would quickly come to be at your side, if only for a moment. I'm sure he would come by, before he once more left to apprehend this... dangerous criminal."

Jane sighs, in relief or despair. "It's just... he was so, so wonderful, and then suddenly he dropped off the map. I thought. Maybe. He -- maybe he knew, and didn't want to deal with--"

"Oh, Jane," Loki shakes his head, gathering the petite, fragile woman into his arms. "Dear, darling Jane. I am certain that Thor has not received your messages. He is so very fond of you, you know," he tells her quietly. "Nothing so feeble as a hunt would keep him away from you unless it were truly important."

"Thanks, Luke," Jane sniffs into his shoulder. "Hey, I've been wondering, is that you're real name, or did you adopt a more -- Human-sounding name, to blend in?"

"The latter," Loki admits, releasing her from the embrace. "My real name is somewhat unusual, and tends to attract attention. For the moment, it rather suits me to blend in."

"What is it, if you don't mind me asking?" Jane tilts her head inquisitively. "Is it something my poor mortal tongue can't hope to pronounce?"

Laughing, Loki smiles at her and winks. "Perhaps I shall tell you, someday soon. Until then, I wish to remain a mystery."

"Fine," Jane smiles back at him. "I just need a distraction, to be honest. Not being able to talk to him... even if I could call him. I can't say it over the phone, but I'd just feel so much better if he knew."

"You wish to tell him in person?"

"Well, I don't have much experience with this sort of thing, but I don't want him to panic and run away," Jane says wryly. "Men have a tendency to act like idiots at the most inconvenient times."

"Oh, surely, as I live and breathe," Loki agrees, offering his elbow, acting the part of a proper gentleman. "Well then, Lady Jane, would you like to visit with him? I've a few avenues of travel available to me that could have us there and back before your astronomical data has finished compiling."

Her entire face lights up at the offer, the poor thing. Jane's smile is incandescent, a thing to behold, truly astounding. Is this love, Loki wonders. Is this, then, what love looks like, unmolested by years of oppression or fury, unabused by time or choice, uncompromised by the twists and turns of fate?

"Do you really mean it?" Jane asks, nearly breathless, her face wracked with desire.

"Would you like to travel along secret paths and walk the roads carved out of time and magic?" Loki smiles at her, enticingly, and offers one hand. "Come with me, Jane."

She takes his hand, tentatively, anticipation lined in the tension of her shoulders, the blush on her cheeks. "Will it hurt?" she asks.

"Oh, no," Loki promises in a low, dark voice. "Jane, my dear-- this won't hurt a bit."

--

She stumbles on the landing, but Loki catches her in his arms, steading her silently while Jane catches her bearings. She sucks in a deep breath, and then another, before opening her eyes. "Where are we?" she asks, confused as she looks around her.

"My personal residence," Loki answers. "A small hideout in a pocket-sized world between dimensions that I created, for times I wished to remain... safe."

"Oh," Jane nods, slowly drawing herself from his grip. "Are you going to bring Thor to meet us here? Or are we taking a break before we go on?"

"Neither, I'm afraid." Loki takes a step back, giving Jane some space. From what he knows of mortal women -- of women in general, regardless of species -- she is likely to attack him in a few moments. "I am afraid that I have not been completely honest with you, Doctor Foster. I think that it's time we spoke."

"So. You decided to kidnap me." Jane's expression of instant, furious hatred is not entirely unexpected. Not even a cringe -- the woman truly is fearless. "That was not a good idea, Laufeyson."

Loki shrugs. "This particular conversation is one best had away from prying eyes or inquisitive ears."

"So talk," she snaps, drawing herself up, moving away from him.

Loki crosses the room and settles himself into a chair. He doubts that it will make Jane feel any more at ease, but the little things do add up. "Firstly," he says. "I wish to know if you know anything of me."

"If I had, I probably would have said something by now." Jane retorts. "Or at least known better than to trust you. To be honest, Luke, my current impression of you isn't a good one."

"If Thor mentioned me at all," Loki says slowly. "He would have used my true name. Loki. And he would have called me Odinson."

"You're Thor's brother?" Jane doesn't do a good job of hiding her shock. "You-- you're the one who lied about his father being dead, the one who sent a fire-breathing robot monster to kill him!"

"So, you have heard of me," Loki nods. "What else?"

"I know you're supposed to be dead!"

"Not quite," Loki smiles. "Not yet."

"That's reassuring."

"I am not here to reassure you," he says quietly. "Indeed not, my dear. Nor am I going to take you to Thor, not until my business with my brother is concluded."

"And what business is that?" Jane asks. "Come to do what your robot minion didn't manage?"

"What is it with you mortals?" Loki asks, disgusted. "If I wished to kill Thor, I've a thousand opportunities present themselves to me in the past, and it would hardly be difficult to stab him or slit his throat while he slept. If my plan was to kill him, I would simply do so." The small-mindedness of other creatures is a source of constant frustration for him. "No, Jane, I've no intention of killing my idiot brother, that's not what this is about."

"Well, then what is it that you're going to do?"

Loki's smile disappears. "I'm going to save him," he tells her.

Jane stares at him for long, drawn-out moments, silent and unmoving. Her lips are pale when she moves them to speak. "Save him from what?" Jane whispers at last.

"From me." Loki answers gently. "He is my brother, Jane Foster, and you his lady-love. I intend to rip out his heart, to destroy everything that he loves, everything he cares for, to break him apart until there is nothing left."

"And then what?"

"And then I'll kill him, I suppose. If he doesn't kill me first. Do you understand?"

"You're insane," Jane says flatly.

"Yes. But I am still quite capable of doing what I promise." Loki inclines his head to her. "And you, Jane, you've managed to hand me everything I need on a platter. Naive of you, to trust a stranger with your secrets, but I shan't argue with the results."

"What are you going to do with me?" Jane asks. For the first time, her tone is coloured with fear. She wraps both of her hands around her middle, curling into herself protectively, as if that barrier would make any difference.

"Well, to be truthful, I'd originally intended to kill you," Loki says, conversationally. "I--"

Jane interrupts him by throwing a beaker of goblin blood at his head, followed by a hefty paperweight in the shape of Yggdrasil, and then a small stone worked to resemble a phoenix.

"What the--"

"I won't let you!" Jane screams at him. "Come near me and I'll claw your eyes out, creep. Stay away or I'll cut your goddamn head off!"

Loki gapes at her. She'd managed to find a poker -- for the fireplace, hardly much of a weapon -- and was brandishing it threateningly at him. Bad form, but effective enough if he were to put himself within her reach. "Do you really think that you could stop me?" he demands. "My dear lady, if I'd still intended to kill you, I would have done so already. Calm yourself. I changed my mind."

Rather than taking his words at face value, Jane chooses this of all times to stop believing him. "As if I'm going to fall for that," she hisses, still brandishing her makeshift club. How frankly adorable. Perhaps this is what attracted Thor to her. The protective instincts of a woman (regardless of race or species) seems to be rather universally frightening and awe-inspiring.

Loki stands slowly, walking directly towards her. She holds steady at his approach, but he can hear her heartbeat quicken, can see her breaths come more shallowly.

He catches the poker in one hand as she swings it, and then removes it, gently, from her grip. "Calm yourself," he repeats. "You'll terrify yourself into a faint at this rate, and I have no mind to play nursemaid to a wilting flower."

Jane sees that she has no real choice in the matter, but she jerks away from him as if he'd struck her.

Women.

"What do you want with me, then?" she asks. "I'm pretty sure that you're a complete psycho who lied to get me here, so what, you're going to hold me hostage? Ransom me to your brother? I mean, yeah, I guess I get it, but if you wanted to see Thor, couldn't you just have called him, or sent him a message on Facebook?"

"I don't need to see Thor." Loki says dismissively. "I need only arrive in a public place and wait for SHIELD to find me, were I to wish for his presence. Nay, Lady Jane. My plan is, sadly, far more complex because of you." He touches her cheek, tenderly, unsurprised when she flinches at the contact. "You've thrown a wrench into the gears, but it also seems that you've given me all I need."

So unsuspecting, too. He's inclined to think that Jane has never before met a soul not worthy of her trust.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Jane says. Her voice is shaking, uncertain.

"I hold in my hands the key to Thor's heart," Loki says, cupping her cheek. "And with your help, I mean to tear it from his chest."

"With my help?" Jane cries, outraged. "You're fucking insane if you think I'm going to help you, you psychotic lying freak!"

"What choice do you have?" Loki drops his hand, steps back. "A mortal body is so fragile, so frail, so... easily broken. This is my bargain to you, Jane Foster. You will help me in my quest, do as I bid you, and I shall spare your life. Otherwise, I will kill you, and with you, take the life of the unborn child you carry."

Jane blanches, her skin so startlingly white it seems as if she has been carved from marble. Stumbling, she turns away from Loki, making her way on shaking legs to the chair in the far corner. "You're a monster," she whispers, her back turned towards him.

Loki smiles. "Yes, my darling Jane. That I am."

--

Jane sits in the chair for a long time, curled up tightly into a ball. Loki drapes a blanket over her, brings her a hot mug of tea. He ignores the panicked, terrified looks that she sends his way.

"Why are you doing this?"

"Don't ask me about my motivations," Loki demurs. "I'd prefer to spare you the nightmares."

"Not that," she frowns. "I mean... why are you being nice to me? Why didn't you -- why haven't you killed me?"

"I told you, I've decided against killing you."

"But why?" Jane demands, sitting up abruptly and sending the blanket tumbling down to the floor.

"I have a soft spot for pregnant females," Loki answers. "It likely has something to do with the time I spent in that condition myself. A ridiculous sentiment, I know, but hardly one you're in a position to complain about."

"So... if... If I hadn't told you about the baby--"

"Why, I'd have stabbed you and thrown your body off of a building for Thor to find," he says, absently. "It's not so complicated a concept, really. Anything else?"

"What do you want me to do?"

"For now, nothing." Loki is not about to give her the power to interfere with his plans just yet. "I didn't lie to you, Jane. Everything I said to you was the truth, of a sort. I have every intention of bringing you to see Thor. Unharmed, even."

"I don't believe you," she says, dully.

His lips pull back to show his teeth. "Well, it's good that you're learning."

--

He shows her to her rooms, much nicer than the prisons he's been inside recently. He even allows her some privacy, and some modicum of security in the form of a lock on her door. Not that it would be any deterrent to him, after all, Loki is the one who bears the key. No matter, he has her settle in, ensures that she has no way of escaping. None of her datasets or technology that might allow her to open a portal, however brief, and then he leaves her alone.

Loki returns to Midgard with a smile on his face, humming under his breath cheerfully. The time has come to finish this game, to take the final step, to finally be done. And he is so looking forward to the end, when finally he will find peace. The game, Loki thinks cheerfully, it is afoot!

--

Loki settles into his seat, choosing an unassuming café in France for this encounter. Having only just finished strolling about Paris as obviously as possible for a few hours, he expects that SHIELD will have someone come calling on him soon enough. He is still sipping at his first cup of espresso when he is proven correct.

Stark flies into view, armor ostentatiously reflecting the afternoon sunlight. He's bristling all over with missiles like an overeager porcupine, ready for Loki to attack.

"Won't you join me?" Loki gestures at the chair next to him. "There's plenty of room."

Stark doesn't even raise his faceplate. How rude. "What do you want, Loki? You here with another army ready to invade, or is this just another attempt at suicide-by-superhero?"

Loki is startled into a laugh. He salutes Stark with his cup, draining the last of the espresso and placing the cup gently on the table. "And here I was, hoping for a us to have a nice, civil chat," he says, waving a hand at the waitress.

"Don't think I'm about to appeal to your humanity," Stark quips. He does, at least, move his faceplate back so that Loki can see his face. "I hate to be predictable. How's the coffee in this joint? I haven't slept today, I don't think, so I'll probably have a cup or seven."

"Lovely," Loki says, smiling at the waitress as she places a cup in front of him.

Stark reaches out and grabs it, arrogant as always. "Keep 'em coming, sweetheart."

The poor dear just stands there, confused, until Loki gently repeats the request in French. "There's no need to be rude," he chides. "After all, we are in France."

"Oh, I knew as much," Stark rolls his eyes, gently sitting down. The chair creaks alarmingly at the weight of his suit, but it doesn't collapse. "The big freaking tower kind of gave it away. But Stark Industries isn't on friendly terms with the French at the moment, and well, I'm the Stark in Stark Industries, you know. It's kind of a continuity thing."

"You amaze me with your ability to prattle on," Loki sighs. "Drink your coffee, and be silent. I've no quarrel with you, but I also have no reason not to destroy this neighbourhood in a battle, should you offend me."

"Really? No reason? This is damn good coffee," Stark says, draining the cup just as the waitress arrives with more. "I might buy this place. Turn it into a Starkbucks or something."

"Have you ever been to Asgard?" Loki muses. "If you should ever do so, please, spend some time in the company of Brokk the Dwarf-Smith."

"Why would I want to hang out with some short guy with a habit of forging-- oh, this is a dig at my armor, isn't it? I know what I'm doing, no worries, babe. I may not be able to make a helmet with giant freaking antlers on the top, but hey, my armor is bullet-proof, lightning-proof, and it can fly. You really shouldn't diss the suit."

"Don't diss my helmet," Loki retorts. "It was a gift from my mother."

"Adopted mother," Stark corrects.

"My queen," Loki says coldly. "My liege, the woman who raised me and loved me despite my shortcomings. Do you know what that's like, Stark, or did your mother die still ignorant of your many flaws?"

Stark stiffens. "Low blow, bro," he murmurs. "You might wanna be careful with that."

Ah, so they both have sensitivities where it comes to their parents. Loki files the information away, inclining his head to give Stark his due. "In answer to your question," he says, “Brokk is the master forger, unrivaled in the nine realms. He is the one who forged Mjolnir, who crafts magic into his creations with the ease of a thousand years mastry. You could learn much from him, I think. Perhaps even make armor light enough that you need not fear causing damage to others' property, merely by sitting on it."

Stark laughs. "Was that you calling me fat? It was, wasn't it? You sly dog. That wasn't half bad. Not your best work, of course, but clever. Alright then, I'll bite -- why are you being so helpful all of a sudden?"

"Helpful?" Loki rolls his eyes. "Me? Surely you jest."

Narrowing his eyes, Stark scowls. "What are you playing at--"

"The gold-titanium alloy was a good start," Loki says, waving at the suit. "But there are too many weaknesses inherent in the metal, too many different types of wear and tear that must be such a trial to fix. You should look into a vibranium alloy. It's far more durable, and lighter than the metals you're currently looking at. Honestly, Stark, do you think that an adamantium suit could even get off of the ground? Not to mention, that much weight would seriously limit your maneuverability--"

"How do you know what I'm looking at?" Stark demands. "That's top secret, I haven't even saved that information onto my private server--"

"Oh, please," Loki waves a contemptuous hand. "Child's play, Anthony. Tell me, have you managed to create enough vibranium to make a suit yet? I know you've been stockpiling it, but--"

"LOKI!"

The whole cafe shakes with the sound of Thor's voice, booming like thunder as he lands with a boom in the middle of the street. The asphalt has cracked and melted around the crater he leaves behind. Well, Thor was always the type for a dramatic entrance.

Loki waves a hand. "Over here, Thor!" he calls. "Would you like a beverage? I'm sure that our waitress would be happy to serve you, once she's finished putting out the fires and cleaning the broken glass from your fortuitously gentle entry."

Thor strides forward, his cape billowing majestically behind him. The sunlight catches on his hair, highlighting his face with strands of pale light and haloing him with gold. “Brother!” Thor booms. “Does your deceit know no bounds? Unhand the warrior Tony Stark, return his mind to him at once!”

“Wow,” Stark says. “Easy there, big guy, I’m not actually being mind controlled over here.”

Thor doesn’t look comforted. “What deception is this?” he demands. “Your trickery shall not--”

“Well actually, Thor, I did mean to talk to you,” Loki says quietly enough that Thor is forced to fall silent in order to hear him speak. “After all, our last meeting was not exactly one conducive to conversation.”

Hesitating, Thor stands still, looking confused. “At our last meeting when last we spoke, you vowed that you would kill me, brother,” he says, finally.

“Surely you jest,” Loki says, flippantly. “I vowed no such thing, Thor. I did promise I would destroy all you held dear, but you cannot assume that your life is the only thing you value in all the nine realms! I am sure that your companion, the great Tony Stark, would be able to suggest more than a few things that you are fond of here on Midgard alone.” He holds up his coffee to demonstrate. “Are you sure you would not like a drink?”

Thor scowls at him. “What game do you play now, Loki?”

“I am here merely to convey a message,” Loki says with a smile. “Fear not, Thor, I mean you nor your companions -- nor even the mortals around us -- any harm. Not today.”

“Well, I’m sure relieved to hear that,” Stark drawls, saluting Loki with his cup. “So, you won’t mind coming in with us? I’m sure SHIELD has a really nice cell picked out for you.”

“Oooh,” Loki murmurs. “You do have the daring heart of a hero, don’t you, Anthony? Perhaps I shall accompany you back to your headquarters after all.” He holds up a single hand, exposing the pale wrist. “Would you like to clap me in irons?”

"Seriously?" Stark is staring at him with a skeptical, suspicious expression. "You're turning yourself in?"

Loki shrugs delicately, waving at his empty cup. "Well, not precisely. I would like to talk to Thor, though, and it seems that might be the safest way to go about it." He smiles. "Not for me, of course, but rather for all the poor helpless bystanders who might otherwise be caught in the crossfire."

"Uh," Stark shakes his head. "You're up to something, my friend, but fuck if I'm going to let you get away with it."

"I rather think you'll find yourself helping me," Loki smiles at him. "Do remember what I said, won't you? I'd love to see if the Man of Iron can be improved with a little advanced science."

"My tech is plenty advanced, you little---"

"Loki," Thor interrupts. "I-- you have vowed vengeance against me. I know not why you have come here, nor to what purpose you design your schemes, but hear me, brother--"

"I've sworn my mission and made my vows," Loki answers him. "And here I've come, to tell you and your Midgardian friends that I shall not target them. This is a time for celebration, Thor! You vow that the Earth is under your protection, and I have chosen not to harm it, nor its citizens, should you allow me the freedom to continue on as I have been. One might consider this bargain to be more than fair."

Stark's eyes are narrowed, lips pursed. He flips the faceplate back down, hiding his expression, and then he turns to communicate with the others, his message hidden from Loki's eyes and ears.

"I lead no invasion, I come not to attack SHIELD's personnel or its facilities. I've found what I was looking for, so I need not waste my energy," Loki retracts his hand, smoothly, placing it down on his lap.

"What game do you play?" Thor asks again. "Do not lie to me, Loki, I know you."

"No, you don't," Loki objects. "You never did, Thor, you were never interested in knowing me. What you know is the thin spectre, a shadow of myself, the pitiful squalling thing that Odin dragged back to his lair to enslave and bend to his will. What do you know of me, of who I am, of what I am meant for? Do you mean to fight the fates themselves, to bend destiny to your will?"

"Your fate is yours to choose," Thor replies.

"And I have chosen my path."

"What do you intend to do?" Thor asks.

Smiling, Loki gestures at Stark. "I intend to honor my truce, brother. I will not harm any human, nor enslave any to my will. In return, your SHIELD and your Avengers will leave me alone."

"And if the Midgardians choose not to accept your bargain?" Thor demands. "What then?"

"Well then," Loki places his hands gently on the table. "If the humans choose not to accept my compromise, then I shall defend myself. Or perhaps, perhaps I shall leave and never come back."

Stark's mechanical, toneless voice joins the conversation. "My people are pretty okay with you leaving and not coming back."

Loki grins. "Oh yes, indeed." He turns his eyes, and his smile, to Thor, who looks increasingly confused with every passing second. "Do you remember, Thor, when I asked what it was on Earth that had made you so soft?"

Thor stares at him, eyes unseeing. "Jane," he whispers, eyes widening in sudden realization. "What have you done with her-- Loki, you--"

Loki laughs and, with a small gesture, takes himself away from that place.

--

When he returns, Jane is not exactly pleased. His appearance in what functions as his sitting room (if he were to need such a thing) is immediately followed by having a large, heavy vase tossed at his skull.

Loki deflects it with his forearm, wincing as the vase cracks and then breaks in two when it hits the ground. Exasperated, he turns his gaze to Jane, who is holding its mate -- part of a unique pair, gifted to him more than half a millenium ago -- and wearing a familiar stubborn, angry look on her face. "Really?" Loki asks, droll. "Those are six hundred years old. And were a rather valuable set."

She seems unmoved.

"I brought dinner," Loki says after a moment, holding up the large bag of take-out he'd picked up on his way back. Enticing, mouth-watering smells waft alluringly from the paper bag in his hand. "Thai, if you're wondering. You'd mentioned a craving, earlier."

Jane's eyes are suspiciously wet, her nose reddened. "What are you doing here?" she asks. "I don't-- I thought you were gone."

"I was," Loki says slowly. "But your mortal form requires sustenance, and I've no wish to see you starve to death. As I've mentioned before, I mean you no harm."

"You kidnapped me," Jane retorts, scrubbing the back of one hand over her cheek as if to hide the fact that she had been crying. "You lied to me, lured me here under false pretenses, and are keeping me here against my will. That's not exactly the definition of harmless."

"Well, if you would rather I stab you, you only need say." Loki uses his magic to conjure appropriate utensils, and places them on a small table. It's not large enough to hold a feast, but it will suffice for one -- or two -- to sit and eat. "Will you be joining me? If you'd prefer to eat in your room, I shall make you a tray."

He assumes she won't refuse the food. She is, after all, carrying a child.

"Out here is fine," Jane seats herself gingerly, and Loki opens the bag and begins to spread his loot over the table. They set up the meal in silence, Loki seating himself across from Jane in the hopes he'll be forewarned the next time she should aim any improvised projectiles his way.

"Did you have any difficulties today?" Loki asks, once he's assured himself the food is palatable.

"Are we playing happy families?" Jane replies, clearly disgusted. "My day was just fine, darling, and how was yours?"

Loki almost tells her that there's no need to be sarcastic, but coming from him the statement would be hypocritical.

"I hold no illusions about how much you must despise me," he says instead. "Don't think that I'll be shocked by your mockery."

"What is this, exactly?" Jane gestures between the two of them with her chopsticks. "I know you've said a lot of things, but you still haven't said anything. What exactly is this going to accomplish? Kidnapping me, or stabbing me, or throwing me off a building -- what does any of that actually get you?"

Silently, Loki raises his eyebrows.

"It's obvious you're using me to get to Thor," Jane continues, viciously attacking her food. "But why? If you were telling the truth about the Bifrost -- don't you-- I mean, doesn't Asgard need my research?"

He smiles.

Jane scowls at him, and then returns to eating with a fervour that could rival even Volstagg at his finest. She eats voraciously, taking large bites, but still every bit the lady with her dainty, expert hold on the utensils. Her manners are impeccable, she would stand out on Asgard like Sleipnir in Odin's stable.

They finish the rest of the meal without speaking.

Loki gathers the cardboard containers, used napkins, and clears the table after they are finished. Jane watches him with narrowed eyes, schooling her expression much better now than she'd been able to in all of their short acquaintance. Impressive, what can be accomplished in so short a time with the right sort of motivation.

"So, Jane says, standing up and walking toward him. "Tell me about your evil scheme."

"No," Loki replies. He looks around, deems the room adequately clean. "I would rather talk about your research. Have you made any more progress? Something I've yet to hear about?"

"A little," Jane answers. "Of course, without my lab, materials, notes, equations, computers, or anything else, I'm not going to be making any more. Why did you pretend that Asgard needs my machine?"

"Because Asgard does need you, Jane Foster." Loki shakes his head and then goes to remove his coffeemaker from its cupboard. "My idiot brother would never think to mention it; he thinks it beneath him to ask for help of any sort. And yet, that is the one who Asgard would see ascend to the throne, a childish buffoon who wants to play at war, more concerned with glory and violence than diplomacy or the good of the realm."

"Yeah, I can see you're not bitter about that at all," Jane replies, rolling her eyes. "Okay, so if the Bifrost really is broken, wouldn't it be better to wait until after I'd finished my work on the Einstein-Rosen Bridge to do your whole evil schtick?"

Loki begins brewing the coffee, having grown fond of the beverage in his time on Midgard. He considers her question for a long time. "If that were my only concern,” he says at last, "You would be correct."

"Okay, I get that you've got other stuff going on, and I respect that," Jane says. "But you-- if you hadn't decided to go all Silence of the Lambs on me, weren't you going to just plain ol' stab me? Hard to get a bridge made if the architect is dead before the plans are finalized, isn't it?"

Loki takes a few seconds to parse that. "I'm unclear as to the meaning of your reference, but you are essentially correct. If my attack had killed you, your current line of research might never have been finished."

Tilting her head, Jane considers him. "Interesting," she muses. "Either you were never really that concerned about Asgard having the ability to cross between realms, or you never cared that much about killing me."

"Which do you think it is?" Loki asks, genuinely curious. "Or are my motivations as yet still unclear to you?"

"I have no idea what your intentions are," Jane says with a huff. "And I wouldn't go near your motivations with a ten-foot pole."

The coffee doesn't take long to brew, and then Loki prepares a cup for Jane as well as himself. She seems to be content to sip it quietly, rather than throw the hot liquid in Loki's face, for which he is grateful. He hates to see coffee wasted.

"So," Jane says. "You're purposely trying to antagonize Thor, you want Asgard to have its Bifrost back, and you don't want to kill me. What does that tell me?"

"You truly do have an inquisitive mind," Loki says amiably. "Presumably, it's the reason you've been so successful in your chosen profession. I commend you on your persistence, but I am not going to explain myself."

She shrugs. "Well, I have to entertain myself somehow. It's not like you have some sort of nifty Asgardian TV around here."

"Read a book."

"None of your books are in English."

"You aren't treating me with the proper amount of respect," Loki says coolly. "What happened to cowering in fear? Or even just sulking in your quarters and staying out of my way?"

"You said you weren't going to hurt me," Jane says. "Since I've attacked you several times, and you still haven't done anything -- not even tied me up -- I've decided that until you prove otherwise, I'm perfectly safe with you."

“And yet, you still threw a priceless vase at my head." Loki points out.

"Well, I'm still pretty pissed at you."

He laughs. "You've reason to be. Very well, if you have no reason to fear me, I'll not complain. That does not mean that you should take it upon yourself to try my patience, however."

"So, what's the endgame?" Jane asks him. "What can you accomplish with what you've done? Asgard gains an Einstein-Rosen bridge, maybe, eventually, good for you and that's great... but that's got nothing to do with Thor. Why send your robot from hell if you apparently wanted to make things all personal? You don't make any sense.”

Loki nods understandingly. “I once drove a man mad by challenging him to understand my thoughts." He informs her. "Although, he did have the advantage of telepathy. I look forward to seeing what you shall come up with.”

Jane nods and drinks her coffee.

--

The next time he sees his brother, Thor seems to have worked himself into a towering rage. "What have you done with my Lady Jane!" he roars, loud enough to terrify a flock of nearby pigeons into panicked flight.

Loki looks up from his book to focus on where Thor is standing, red-faced and belligerent, with Mjolnir raised threateningly. "Hello, Thor."

"If you have done her harm, if you have touched her in any way--" Thor thunders on.

"Come now, Thor, surely by now your pet humans at SHIELD have shown you the security tapes?" Loki says mildly. "Jane Foster is quite the interesting companion. I've been visiting her for weeks, and yet you've never in that time found it in yourself to speak to her at all. How important can the woman possibly be to you?"

"I have kept my distance because I know better than to draw your attention to the things I love!"

"Things? She's a person, Thor! Surely she wouldn't appreciate you speaking of her thus. Regardless, my gaze was drawn to her for other reasons than your supposed esteem." Loki smiles. "And if you're watched the tapes, you'd know well enough that your Jane came willingly into my company."

"I know that you have, before, used foul magics to ensnare the minds of those you covet--"

"Oh, Thor," Loki says, disapproving. "Why would I do that if I don't have to? Don't fret, brother, your lady is alive and well."

"Set her free at once!" Thor demands.

"You really aren't in a position to insist," Loki smirks and closes his book. "Thor, do you remember when we were children? You and your friends would make sport of taking my toys, and returning them to me only after you had broken them in your games. Do you remember that?"

"We were children, Loki!"

"Yes," Loki agrees. "And children can be cruel. That is no matter, Thor. I was always far more careful of your belongings than you or your friends ever were of mine. So you see, you have nothing to fear. I've taken your toy, Thor. I shall return her eventually."

"She's not a toy," Thor says quietly.

"Oh, I know. But then again, I'm not the one who claims to love her. I've only taken her away because she's yours. When I return her -- and I will, eventually -- she'll be just as beautiful as she was before."

"If you so much as touch a single hair on her head--"

Loki raises his brows. "I've touched quite a lot of her, actually," he replies. "What exactly will you do, Thor?"

Thor howls, furious, and charges forward hefting his hammer. "Fiend!" he declares, as Loki vanishes only to reappear behind him. "Defiler! Abomination!"

"Perhaps I should mention once more, that it had seemed to her -- and to me -- that you had grown tired of her charms. Surely, you don't blame me for offering her some small comfort from her loneliness?" Loki inquires. "You oughtn't be so churlish."

"I know well what comforts you offer to maids that catch your eye," Thor replies thunderously. "Promises and lies, soft words and smiles, and then you throw them away, as if you'd never before spoken to them. As if you had not whispered in their ear."

"Oh," Loki shakes his head. "Your fair Jane was no maid when I met her. She knows well that I shall not offer her marriage, or even swear to be hers and hers alone. That is apparently the custom on Midgard, did you know? Women are able to choose their husbands -- change their minds -- and indeed, cast aside one man in favour of another. How do you think you compare? An absentee prince, full of empty words, when I've the presence of mind to visit her every day, and the wit to understand her work?"

Thor roars at him, wordless, and expression of pure rage.

Loki dodges another furious attack, smirking. "Did you really think that a woman like that would be satisfied with a brute like you?" he taunts. "Did you think courtly manners, a few days in her company, would be enough? Did you think you could hide what a violent, selfish, arrogant beast you truly are? What woman would ever be satisfied with you, Odinson if she doesn't need your protection or want your throne? Truly, you are an idiot, to expect that Jane would be satisfied with you when you have nothing at all to offer her, nothing that she considers of worth!"

"You lie!" Thor cries, and Loki can hear the pain in his voice. "You lie, Loki, my Jane would never--"

"Not yours!" Loki all but screams at him. "How does it feel, Thor, knowing that you simply cannot measure up? How does it feel to know yourself an inferior creation, unworthy of the love that you desperately seek? How does it feel, brother?"

Thor falls to his knees, shaking, his shoulders trembling. He is crying, Loki notes.

Thor's cheeks are ruddy and streaked with tears. "Why are you doing this?" he asks in a whisper.

Loki vanishes, only to reappear close by, lowering his voice as he leans to speak in Thor's ear.

"Because I want you to know what it feels like," he hisses. "I want you to understand my slights are notimagined, you dare speak of home, of love, but what do you know of standing hidden by a brother's shadow, denied your birthright, denied the very thing you crave the most? What do you know of striving to be worthy only to fall short again and again because of what you are? You know nothing, brother, you think that my life and memories of Asgard are as pleasant and easy as yours, but they were not.”

"You must know that you were-- that you are loved," Thor says. "Surely you don't doubt our affection? We may not share blood, but--"

"That's no excuse," Loki tells him, standing up. "I did not imagine the way I was treated, Thor. Where affection and praise were heaped on your shoulders for every miniscule achievement, I received nothing but criticism. Well done, Thor! and then Can't you do better, Loki? over and over again, never judged on my own merit. You cannot imagine a thousand years of that, Thor. A thousand years, when only one day has driven you to your knees."

"Loki, stop this," Thor says. "Bring Jane back to--

"To you?" Loki laughs. "To return to your embrace as if she'd never come so willingly into my arms?"

"I care not," Thor says, but his voice is unsteady. "I... I will not believe that she has betrayed me, unless I hear it from her lips. And if she says -- if the fair Jane has fallen victim to your charms, lured into your grasp like so much prey -- I care not. You shall not find my love so easily defeated.”

Loki nods understandingly. "I am glad to hear that," he says. "Glad indeed."

--

"Thor still loves you," Loki tells Jane. "I can't imagine why, but it remains so."

"I'm very lovable," Jane says severely, not looking at him.

"Oh, no doubt," Loki says, scowling. "Most assuredly, Jane, thou art a masterpiece of God's Works. My confusion is with my brother. He's hardly the sort to prove himself capable of love-- until our more recent conversations, I'd not been sure he was even capable. Thor's love, you see, is selfish and possessive. He wouldn't understand selfless devotion, wouldn't care for it if he did."

Jane seems unconcerned. "People change," she murmurs. She has appropriated a ball of twine and is using her chopsticks to wind and knot it in a strange pattern. Jane calls it 'knitting' and claims it to be a Midgardian ritual that females take part in to celebrate an upcoming birth. Loki is unsure whether or not she is telling the truth. She isn't lying, not exactly, but her expression hides the truth from him.

"Thor has remained the same for hundreds of years," he complains, rolling his eyes. "Before that, his personality remained the same and the only parts of him that changed was his height and his beard."

"Well, then he's long overdue for some personal growth," Jane replies placidly. "Does this look like a hat to you?"

"Are human infants born with more than one head?"

"No!"

"Then I should think your hat more appropriate for a species that is," Loki tells her.

She glares at him. "You could have just said no."

"Well, it looks quite like a hat for a two-headed being. Or perhaps for a small kukken.

She makes a face. "I'm not going to ask. But. Fine." She tugs on the end of her creation to unravel it. "This seemed so much easier when my gran was teaching me,” she mutters. "I need a refresher course or something. Next time you go to Earth, you should grab me a book. Something easy. If you go during business hours and actually pay, the sales people can help you choose something appropriate. I'll also need proper needles and a few balls of yarn as well."

"Oh, of course," Loki says sarcastically. "And should I pick up anything else? Milk, perhaps?"

"I'm fond of two percent," Jane doesn't even seem to register the sarcasm. "And I'll need prenatal vitamins. I wouldn't say no to some fresh fruit, either -- oh, and I need to switch to decaf. You know what, I'll make you a list."

--

And that's how Loki finds himself standing in the middle of a large market, holding a flimsy plastic basket and attempting to decipher Jane's handwriting.

"Can I help you?"

"My lady would like these items," Loki thrusts the list towards the grocery-minion with an air of desperation. "I have no idea what they are, or if their intended purpose is to confound me, be thrown at my head, or perhaps used as a weapon. Why the Hel would she need a pot of gold to eat? I also have no idea what a vit-a-min-bee-twelve is, nor why she insists I procure more than one type of salt. Surely this is a joke?"

The woman, at least, seems sympathetic to his plight. She scans the list, nods, and then gestures for him to follow. "I'll show you what you need."

Loki follows obediently. When he's finished, he even pays for his purchases, a show of respect for the various peasants that had helped him complete this quest. Surely, he would have been lost without their assistance.

Women, he thinks, viciously.

--

Time passes.

--

Jane asks Loki probing, personal questions that he does not answer. Loki asks probing, personal questions that she deflects. Jane asks about Thor, which Loki answers truthfully (mostly), and about her research, which has stagnated and faltered in her absence. Loki occasionally offers her information about the police search for her, as she has been officially reported missing. Jane responds by offering her thoughts on Loki's past, his intentions, and motivations.

None of them are correct.

"So, are you ever going to tell me what you want from me?" Jane asks. The swelling curve of her belly is just barely visible. In another few weeks it will be obvious, but for now, it's only apparent to those who know to look.

Loki looks. "Could you lie to my brother, Jane?" he inquires. "Convincingly, without ever allowing him to learn the truth?"

"If I had a good enough reason," Jane says. A brave response.

"Is your life and that of your child not reason enough for you?"

"You won't kill me." Jane says confidently. "You might keep me trapped in this cave of yours for the rest of my natural life, but you aren't going to kill me. Not after going through all of this trouble."

"You trust me that much, yet still doubt my word?" Loki says.

"Your words say one thing, and your actions another," Jane shrugs casually. "I'll believe at least a third of anything you say, but probably not more than that."

"Will you do as I ask or no?"

"Why do you need me to?"

"That's not an answer."

"I don't write blank checks," Jane snaps. "You tell me what you want me to do, and why you want me to do it, and then I'll make up my mind. It's not exactly complicated."

Loki frowns at her, and considers her words. "Very well," he says. "I wish for you to tell my brother that the child you carry is mine."

Jane manages to choke on air, sputtering and coughing for almost a full minute before catching her breath. "What?" she half-wheezes, half-shouts. "Are you--"

"Quite serious," Loki says. "Why?"

"--insane, you crazy fuck? You want me to tell Thor that I cheated on him with his little brother?" she demands. Bright spots of colour stand out on her cheeks, not quite a blush, more an indication of her anger. "And you have the gall to tell me that you don't want me dead. How exactly is that not going to harm me?"

"Oh, don't be melodramatic," he replies. "My brother is in love with you, he won't hurt you. Even if he was the sort, I doubt he'd risk harming the babe."

"Wow, that is really not reassuring," Jane hisses at him. "Oh, he probably won't kill me! For all I know, Asgardians act like lions, killing any baby that isn't theirs."

"We most certainly are not!" Loki groans. “We do not kill our young, regardless of parentage.”

"I don't believe you!"

"You have no reason to fear, Jane. I am certain that Thor will not so much as think of doing you harm," Loki says with a sigh. "I don't require you to say that you were willing, if you'd rather. Only tell him that the child is mine. Do as I ask, and you will gain your life, that of your child -- and I shall fulfill my previous bargain with you, to fund your scientific studies until you've completed the technology to travel between worlds."

"Why?" Jane asks quietly. "Loki-- this doesn't make any sense. Why are you doing this?"

"I told you before that Thor hasn't abandoned his love for you," Loki says. "I wish to know if his love is truly as pure and selfless as he claims, or whether this is enough to break his will."

"You're almost enough of an asshole for me to believe that," Jane says, slowly. "Almost. But there's something else. Something you're not saying. Why do you care? Why does it matter to you."

Loki shrugs once more. "It doesn't."

"Maybe," Jane says, watching him. "Maybe, but... you have to know he'll hate you. Either way, if I say that the baby is yours, he will hate you."

"No matter," Loki says casually.

"It has nothing to do with me, does it?" Jane realizes, her eyes widening as understanding dawns on her. "You couldn't care less if Thor loves me -- you're testing how much he loves you."

"Oh, you are a sharp one," Loki growls, flashing his teeth. "Clever, clever Jane. What else do you suppose that I'm doing?"

"You're acting like a psychotic little freak, is what you're doing," Jane says coldly. "And that's not supposition. So, what, Thor is going to have to decide if he loves you enough to forgive what you've done to me--"

"What have I done to you, Jane?" he demands. "I have done nothing as of yet that would require my brother's forgiveness. Think you that I would have taken such gentle, tender care of you if I had such a yearning to be forgiven? I have not hurt you, nor bound you, nor forced you into my bed. I do not seek forgiveness for any of the things I have done. You are so very clever, but you are far from the mark. Your charms are many, Jane, but my brother is mine, body and soul. I know exactly how much thor loves me, I have no reason to test its measure.”

"I don't get you," Jane shouts. "Your stupid, psychotic plan makes no logical sense. What, you want to drive Thor insane? Is that what you want?"

"What I want is for you to stop questioning, and to tell one lie that will save your life, you damnable, thrice-cursed harridan!" Loki shouts at her. "What need have you to learn my plans? What havoc will you wreak in order to thwart me, if you learn of my intentions?"

"Well, maybe I'll decide to help you," Jane suggests, but everything of her stature says Not Fucking Likely.

"If you do as I say," Loki says, pleadingly. "You shall have your life, your child, your work, the gratitude and favour of the king of Asgard, and likely my oaf of a brother as well. You will lose nothing, Jane, you risk nothing."

"And if you're lying? If Thor feels so betrayed that he can't look me in the eye?" Jane asks. "Will I have lost nothing, then?"

"That won't happen," he insists. "He has already vowed to take you back no matter what, Jane. He won't believe the words unless he hears them from your lips."

"Why does it matter?"

"Because, I need him to fight me" Loki roars. "I need him to hate me, to want me dead. I told you before I know how much my brother loves me, Jane. He loves me more than anything in the nine realms... except for you."

Jane gasps. "You were going to kill me," she whispers. "You want Thor to get... you want him angry. Why? So he'll kill you?"

Loki does his best not to react, but by then Jane isn't even looking at him, she's staring over his shoulder with an intense look of concentration, mind focused on her own thoughts.

"That's it, that's what all of this has been about. The whole time, this has all been an elaborate suicide play," she murmurs. "Why would you want that? You... you're--" and then that light settles on her again, understanding filtering through. "You're protecting him!"

Loki glowers at her. "You know nothing of what I am trying to do."

Jane smirks. "It's too late, I'm in your head now," she says. "That's why half the time it seems like you're working at cross-purposes. You're trying to protect Asgard, and Thor, and in order to do that you're pretending that you're the threat."

"I am a threat, Jane," Loki snarls. "Make no mistake."

"Oh, but you're not a threat to Thor," she says triumphantly. "When he was banished to Earth, you could have killed him easily. But instead, you sent the Destroyer -- and if you hadn't, he might never have gotten his hammer back, would he?"

"Enough!" Loki snaps. "Your prattle annoys me, woman, and I will have silence!"

Jane smiles. She doesn't say anything else, but her knowing smirk follows him when he transports himself away.

--

He spends a week preparing his magic.

A truth spell is a complex, energy-consuming affair, a spell to hide the truth is even more so. He takes great care with each oth the magical components, inscribes the runes with precision on the scroll he's prepared for exactly this purpose.

Jane Foster may refuse to help him of her own free will, but that does not mean that Loki has been bested. No, far from it. Loki does his best work in impossible situations, Fate has demanded that it be so, and Loki knows better than to fight against the tide of destiny. He need not hide everything, need not hide it for long. The spell need only last for a while, the truth can be uncovered once Loki achieves his goal.

Once he is finished.

He blots the ink to dry it, then carefully rolls the small scroll and tucks it away into a carrying case. The magic will depend on him, of course, but this method ensures that it shall not go awry with a momentary distraction. Magic can be fickle, and even a master of the arts such as Loki will not attempt such a working if there is even the slightest chance that his target might, for example, hit him with a chair or throw a potted plant as his head.

Perhaps he ought to make another attempt at convincing her to see reason, but Loki thinks any attempt would be futile. Jane Foster has proven that she is every bit as mule-headed, self-righteous, and arrogant as his brother. She also shares the same alarming lack of concern for her wellbeing. Threats won't work, and Loki is not about to bestow violence on a woman carrying a child.

Any child, although Loki won't deny the frisson of protectiveness he feels when he thinks about the baby--

The small spark of life, hidden away in Jane's belly, the future king of Asgard. Thorson. A child, perfectly formed, without Loki's cursed Jotun blood--

Thor's child.

Loki buries his face in his hands, hiding his tears. For although he has accepted his fate, accepted his heritage -- although Loki knows what he must do--

He wants.

Wants to live, to survive, to smile without holding back his anguish. Wants to see Thor's child grow up, wants to tell his brother--

... no.

Loki scrubs his face, wipes away his tears.

Sentiment.

Weakness.

He is stronger than that.

He needs to be.

--

Jane looks surprised when he returns.

"You won't be able to ruin this for me," Loki says quietly. It's a promise. "I won't let you."

Her hair falls forward, obscuring her features. She has one hand pressed flat against her belly. "What are you protecting him from?" she asks. "What's so terrible that you think--"

"I have been in the abyss," Loki doesn't look at her as he speaks. "I have fallen into the black, the empty spaces between worlds. And there... I have seen such things, Lady Foster. Terrible, agonizing things. There are creatures in the abyss, the likes of which would send even Odin Allfather screaming in terror. Nightmarish, powerful, and hungry. Lost for so long, starving for an eternity with only their own madness and the unending, biting hunger to keep them company. Alone, Jane, until a small, fragile thing fell wounded into their midst." He smiles, joyless. "Did you think that the Chitauri were the only creatures hiding in far-off, unknown worlds? The only ones that hungered, greedy, after the power of the Tesseract? No, fair lady. Far from it."

She looks at him, her expression unreadable. "And what makes them dangerous? Why do you think they're coming?"

"Because they are coming," Loki spits out. "They have tasted my blood, feasted on my power -- even now, I can feel them, inching ever closer. They hunt for the feeble, weak thing that whetted their appetites. They follow the trail of my blood, the traces of my soul that are spread out over the ether, and they will inch their way to me, consuming and devouring everything in their path. Oh, the Shield that protects the earth was enough for one army of mindless Chitauri soldiers, but when the earth itself is threatened? When these horrors come to swallow the sun? Think you that six mortals shall impact any difference against that might? I led them to the Chitauri first, but when the far reaches of space have been devastated, they will still hunt for my scent. They will follow me to Midgard, to Asgard, and their hunger shall not be appeased."

Wide-eyed, Jane stares at him, both of her hands curled protectively around her midsection.

"My death ends it," Loki says, and he feels so very, very tired. "It is the only thing that will end this. Do you not see, Jane? If their prey is dead, the hunt will cease. They cannot follow the traces of my life force once that force has been extinguished. The psychic sent will dissipate, there will be no trail to follow."

"But--" she shakes her head. "If you told Thor--"

"He is a stubborn, foolish lout!" Loki snaps. "I have-- no, I have not told Thor, but if you know my brother at all, you will know that he thinks to win any argument with his might, with the powers bestowed upon him with Mjolnir."

Jane makes a face at that, but she doesn't argue.

"He thinks that any foe can be defeated," Loki snarls. "He thinks that fighting is better than surrender! What shall we tell him, then? When he says to me that he would give up the nine realms to have me as his brother, when he says that he will stand by and watch the worlds we know crumble to dust just so that he can have me at his side? He will choose me, Jane, over the fate of the world you love. Over the kingdom he was meant to rule. Over the end of everything.

"Were I to tell him the truth, he will insist that we stand and fight-- until every soul is dead, until Asgard is ashes, and Midgard merely a memory. He will choose me over everything, will accept no other outcome, no surrender, and when the stars are dead and the Tesseract's energy depleted, when we two are all that remain of all the lives in existence, when at last we fall-- he will believe, will truly believe, that he had made the correct choice."

Stepping forward, Jane places one hand on Loki's cheek, tenderly. He can see the faint glimmer of tears in her eyes as she listens to him.

"I cannot," Loki whispers. "I cannot let him-- I cannot be the cause of that. I have to protect him from that, you see? I will not let him become a monster."

"Oh," Jane says softly. "Oh, Loki..."

"I am making my choice," Loki says. "I am choosing Midgard, and Asgard, and Alfheim, Muspelheim, Svartalfheim, Vanaheim, Niflheim, Helheim -- and yes, even Jotunheim, for all that I tried once to destroy them. I am choosing to save these worlds. To ensure that my mother shall live to mourn me, to keep the realms safe. I have Thor's love, but the cost is too great, it's too much to bear. Thor loves me, and he would sacrifice it all -- everything -- to have me. Everything but you, Jane."

Perhaps she hadn't really understood it, the unfathomable depths of Thor's love. Now, though, Jane stands before him with tears in her eyes and her fingers stroking gently over his cheek. Now she understands.

"And so you are the only thing that Thor would not sacrifice," Loki continues. "If he loves you that much-- well, then I will use you. I will convince him that there is nothing of me left to save. I will make him despise me, Jane, so that when we fight, he won't hold back. He won't stop."

"Why does it have to be Thor?" Jane asks, finally, after so long silent. "Couldn't... someone else?"

"I tried that," Loki says wryly. "Thor stopped them. He needs to-- he has to hate me, or it won't work." Not for the first time, he curses Thor's stubbornness. Mountains have faded and stars have died waiting for Thor Odinson to change his mind. "I have to convince him that I don't love him, and then I must sell that I am beyond redemption. And finally, I must make him angry. Angry enough to kill me."

"He'll hate himself," Jane says. "When he finds out-- when he learns what you're doing. He's going to hate himself."

"He'll be destroyed." Loki agrees. "It will unmake him."

Tears fall, dripping down Jane's cheeks. "Oh," she says, a soft, involuntary exhalation.

"Don't tell him," Loki begs. "Please, Jane. You can't tell him. Don't let him know -- you have to protect him, you can't ever let him know. I know I'm a monster, I know I've done terrible things, but this is it. This is the cruelest trick I have ever played. Don't let him find out the truth. Let him hate me, if you've any kindness left in you at all."

"It's okay," Jane whispers. "It's okay, Loki. I've got you-- I'll take care of him, I promise. I'll help you, you can-- you can remember that. When it's time. Okay? I'll take care of him."

--

In the end, he doesn't use the spell.

He doesn't need to.

--

Jane Foster is naive. Innocent. Honest. Her reputation is one that remains spotless, a force for truth and science in a mad, greedy, liar's world.

Which is why the woman is able to lie so very, very convincingly. Loki may never know what the woman says to Thor to get him so violently, frighteningly furious. It's just as well. Perhaps, he's better off not knowing. Perhaps he should have sought her aid from the beginning. The Midgardians have a saying about Hell having no fury like a woman scorned. Loki considers that for all his scheming and machinations, Midgard's women would make him seem like an amateur.

Everything goes exactly to plan.

More or less.

--

It starts with a storm.

The skies darken, winds howling in sudden, murderous violence. Loki looks up and sees the black clouds boiling on the horizon, blotting out the deep blue of the sky.

His heart beats wildly in his throat.

Lightning flashes in the black skies, and Loki smiles, nervously, his heart pounding.

Thor is not angry.

Thor is-- if there were something beyond rage, beyond anger. Beyond the destructive furor verging on madness, that would be Thor. His face is cold, still, like marble. Immovable, resolute, and for a moment Loki looks at him and sees how Odin must have looked, young and formidable, when first the Aesir came down from Asgard to defend the nine realms from the Jotnar invasion.

How much greater Thor could have been, if he'd been allowed his own war to fight.

--

Even knowing that he aims to lose, Loki fights as if his life depends on it. Anything less and Thor might falter-- Loki fights in silence, ignoring Stark's taunts, ignoring the Hawkeye's quips. He fights with all the pent up frustration and ire he has left to him. Anger that he was never good enough, Anger at his choices. Anger because, for all his faults, Loki's loyalty only ever lay with one person, and for that he will be hated, remembered as a traitor and a villain. Hatred for the fates who gave him an impossible choice- - his everything, or Ragnarok. So, Loki fights savagely, plays the madman, opens the Casket of Ancient Winters and lets the rest of Earth's defenders struggle to close it while he concentrates his energy.

He drags up reserves of magic he's never before dared, forges a sword from lightning and ice, darts screaming across the skies to strike at his brother's heart. He burns through everything, all the weapons in his arsenal, and fights as if his energy is endless.

Loki has a thousand years of brotherhood, a thousand years of love. It's enough. He needs nothing more.

He knows the movements of Thor's shoulders, from a hundred hard-working years in the sparring ring. He knows, for example, that if he were to stab at Thor's right shoulder, that Thor will drop to one knee and swing Mjolnir at Loki's shin. He knows when to jump, to tumble to the side with his sword braced; knows to dodge Thor's close-fisted blow to the side of his head. It's like a dance a thousand years in the making, choreography that none of the others who seek to join their battle could even hope to follow.

Like playing a game.

--

If Loki were to admit the truth (which he does, on occasion, if only to keep everyone guessing) it would be this:

Falling off of the Bifrost was meant to be his last. He'd never thought that he would survive. Surely, if he had known then what he knew now... if he'd known what horrors lurked in the deep, dark, endless night, he would never have let go. Loki had tried his damnedest to die, and at that, he had failed.

This is also the truth:

Loki's schemes almost never start out that way. He plans something simple, and then everything in the universe conspires to stop him, getting in his way as he tries frantically to keep everything on track.

This is also a truth:

Loki's three-day reign as King of Asgard saw five traitors exposed. He saw removed from the seat of his power the only one whose power and position might have threatened the throne, should Odin not rise from his sleep. He killed the enemy king whose plots threatened Asgard with war, saw the return of the crown prince (without rescinding Odin's banishment), orchestrated the return of all of Thor's powers, and caused such devastation on Jotunheim that their realm need not fear war with the Jotnar for another thousand years.

More truths:

Loki had told one person, and one person only, of his plans to seek out the Traitors in Odin's house, to lure Laufey-King into Asgard and kill him.

Forewarned, Frigga had known not to call for guards whose loyalties could not be trusted. Instead, she picked up a sword and slew a Jotun warrior on her own.

Heimdall never explains his treason.

Sif, Hogun, Volstagg, and Fandral are not asked to.

Another truth:

Thor knows nothing of this. He knows only that Loki lied to him about Odin's death, that Loki sent the Destroyer to kill him, Loki fought him on the bridge and tried to destroy Jotunheim.

--

Here is a lie (Loki was always better at those):

Loki never felt loved.

--

Thor stands above him, Mjolnir raised high, but Loki doesn't see him. Instead, he remembers kind eyes, red as blood, in a deep azure face lined with scars. This is the face he dreamt about as a child, the face that haunted his every waking moment.

She is dead and cold, and her eyes are kind.

He thinks maybe that this was his mother's face.

Thor brings his hammer down, down--

--

Loki yet lives.

Who knew such paltry, insignificant creatures could craft a shield mighty enough to withstand Mjolnir? Loki stares up at the man--

-- at Captain America--

-- who is protecting him--

and he thinks, what the ever-loving, Norns-buggered, nine-times-cursed actual fucking fuck is going on?

Captain America stands up, taller in Loki's eyes than even Odin had ever been before him, and he says "Thor," and "--don't," and "He's your brother, you can't do this--"

-- because the universe fucking hates Loki. The fates make constant mockery of his very life. Loki scowls, furious, even though he should still act the madman, or at the very least he ought--

"I'll do it," the Man of Iron volunteers.

Loki stares.

"Let Tony do it," Captain America agrees.

Throwing his head back, Loki howls with laughter. Perhaps the fates mean to be kind to him after all. This once. Just this one.

Loki knows that they think he is mad -- rabid, a creature to be put down, pitied.

Fine. He cares not.

Stark takes Thor's place, arms his missiles. His face is hidden by the helmet, but Loki thinks that underneath, Tony Stark's face is grim. He doesn't stop laughing, doesn't make a move to protect himself. Delightful. This is just delightful.

Stark's missiles hurt. They burn, and hurt so very much, but Loki cannot be killed by them. Harmed, perhaps. He laughs as Stark works his way through the arsenal he carries, and--

-- perhaps he'll just--

sit forever

here

and

never stop laughing.

Is this a joke? Loki wonders. Is fate this cruel?

And then Thor, once more, Mjolnir in his hand. His face is twisted in an expression of... grief, Loki realizes. He watches, fascinated, the play of muscles beneath Thor's skin, sees the hesitation in his movements.

Even now, Loki sees, Thor hesitates.

And then--

And then--

"Don't hurt him!" Jane's voice, behind him, a desperate scream.

Loki twists around, laughter caught in his throat, choking him.

"Don't hurt him, Thor!" Jane says, coming closer, and Loki can see she is unharmed although a tad fatter than she'd been when last they spoke. Loki turns back, only this time, Thor's face is filled with hatred, with anguish, with pain.

Stumbling to his feet, Loki turns once more (He's dizzy from all the spinning. Really, he never enjoyed dancing) and a long, glittering sword appears in his hand. Jane is only a few paces away-- and surely Thor will not want to watch her die. Surely he won't hesitate, if it means choosing between a mad brother and the woman he loves--

Thor leaps forward, swinging Mjolnir with all of his might, directly into the path of Loki's sword.

Oh, Thor.

Instead of blocking the sweeping stroke of Loki's weapon, Mjolnir passes straight through, the illusion dissipating into mist and light and Thor--

Thor.

Loki chokes, not on laughter this time. He feels his body break, ribs and organs crushed beyond all healing, no magic left to save or protect him. The ground comes rushing in, towards him, darkness and blood and the loud, wailing screams of the damned--

No, that's not the damned.

Loki doesn't have the breath to scream or howl in agony, but his body has been torn apart, gutted at the seams. And the hand on his shoulder is too large, to strong, not at all comforting. He is forced over onto his back, looking up into Thor's shocked blue eyes.

He can taste blood on his lips. Red, of course, even though he'd always believed that Jotnar bled black. Loki's blood stays red, though, even as Thor grasps his useless, numb hand in warm blunt fingers and stammers apologies in broken sobs.

Loki smiles fondly at his big brother. "One last trick," he mumbles around a mouthful of blood. His fingers are numb, but the pain is fading away. Instead,he can feel a slow, comforting warmth spread over him. "S'okay, Thor," he slurs. "Just a bit of fun. You know I didn't mean-- more tricks. Always tricks with me."

He feels a small, delicate touch on his cheek. "Jane."

Her eyes are brown, now. They may have been another colour earlier, Loki can't quite remember. It'll come to him.

This is what dying feels like, Loki realizes. It's not---

"Brother, please, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, Loki, please don't die, don't do this, Loki... Loki--"

--not so bad. Not really.

"Tell me what to do-- how do I heal this, Loki, brother, please. Hold on. I can fix it, I can--"

He's not scared anymore.

Loki smiles. "Jane," he whispers. "Take... take care. You promised to take care..."

"I will, Loki, I will," Jane whispers back.

He feels her lips on his brow, soft. A kiss? He closes his eyes. He blocks out the noise, the distracting orchestra of wailing, shouting, Thor saying things... words.

Red eyes, but they're so kind. So caring. Her touch is soft against his skin, cold in a way that warms him from the inside. "Always,” she croons softly, and Loki can hear the affection in her voice. "Always, my sweet baby boy, I will always love you," she sings to him.

"Always," he whispers. "Love. You-- love you too."

--

"You're going to lose."
"Am I?"
"It's in your nature."
"Your heroes are scattered; your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where is my disadvantage?"
"You lack conviction."

--

So, this is dying. This is what it's like to fade away, to drown in his own blood. Loki exhales, softly, feels the heavy weight of Thor's hand in his own, the soft caress of Jane's fingers over his jaw.

He feels safe, here, even with the floating numbness of his limbs, the way his world is blurring at the edges.

This doesn't feel like losing.

It feels like triumph.

--