In defence of my realm and my people, I might yet do much worse than this, and regret none of it.
Nuada Silverlance had been right about one thing at least: for all that they were the self-proclaimed protectors of the Nine Realms, Asgard’s royal family did preciously little about troubles that weren’t their own.
Loki devoured all reports, pestered Heimdall endlessly, mastered scrying, and developed his own methods of visiting other realms undetected; he saw Alfheimr’s protracted agony, Midgard’s poisonous expansion, Jotunheimr’s quiet rebuilding. But when he tried to share his concerns, his father just shook his head and did nothing, and his brother’s immediate reaction was to grab Mjolnir and propose to go charging in.
Sometimes, Loki wondered if he was the only one who saw, who understood, who could feel the edge on which all Nine Realms were standing.
When Nuada Silverlance emerged from hiding in a shower of blood and gore, Loki knew he wasn’t alone.
The Allfather’s orders were strict: no intervention. Thor, itching for another battle to prove himself, tried to argue that the presence of a prince from Muspellsheimr on the Midgardians’ side meant that –if only to make the contest sporting- he should be sent to join in the fray, but one glare from Odin and he fell quiet, bristling with resentment and restlessness.
Loki didn’t even bother to ask. He locked himself in his rooms with a scrying bowl and watched in its waters how the tale of the Golden Prince unfolded.
“Father, you were once a proud warrior. When did you become their pet?”
The waters tinged red as Nuada killed his own father; Loki thought the elves’ custom of inheriting the throne through parricide barbaric, but what kind of father would be willing to sacrifice his children and his people for his antiquated honour and ideals? He wouldn’t mourn King Balor’s death.
“You could be a king... but if you cannot command, than you must obey.”
The waters turned murky as they showed the death of the last of the forest sprits, those gentle giants who’d populated the tales Frigga told Loki in his childhood, when he sat at her feet while she worked on her weaving; the Nine Realms were all the poorer for it, and Loki promised revenge on the Muspellsheimr prince who’d let it happen.
“Father always tried so hard to shield your heart from mine.”
The waters sent out slim tendrils of mist whenever Princess Nuala showed up; Loki had never hated and admired anyone as he hated and admired the fragile-looking princess who was so deeply loved and so willing to take advantage of that love for her own ends.
The waters were very still when Nuada Silverlance was defeated in combat.
“Kill me. You must. For I will not stop. I cannot.”
“No!” Loki shouted in the silence of his room, his breath disturbing the surface of the water.
He considered stepping in, slipping between realms and making a sudden appearance in Midgard to write his own ending to the story. He could, and the crown glittered so temptingly in the golden light, but as he hesitated (loath to act like Thor would, wary of Odin’s punishment), Princess Nuala drew a silver dagger, twin to the one that hung from his belt, and put a stop to the duel in the only way she could.
Loki prayed to the Norns that he’d never have to see, in the face of anyone he loved, anything like Prince Nuada’s expression of heart-breaking disappointment as he looked at his sister. He waited, voice strangled in his throat, for the elf twins to turn to clay as their souls departed their bodies. The Golden Army didn’t matter now, or the crown held in the demon’s grip; all his attention was on the elf prince and the blood putting a splash of colour in his ghostly figure.
But then the blue being, the clumsiest pawn he’d ever seen, showed his worth at last as he knelt by the princess and examined the wound, applying a field dressing around the dagger.
“You’ll live,” Loki saw him say. “You’ll live, I give you my word.”
Loki let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. She would live, so Nuada would live. Defeated, in gaol, in ignominy, but he would live. He would live and he would wait and the day would come when Loki would be in a position to lend him his aid.
“Wouldn’t you do the same, Loki of Asgard, if the day came?”
When the day came, Loki was ready. He’d shed his doubts long before, dismissed his reservations as easily as his father and brother dismissed his concerns.
He felt few regrets. It was necessary: necessary to save Asgard, necessary to keep the Nine Realms safe, necessary to put Loki in a position to help Nuada, and necessary to make Odin and Thor understand.
“Know your place, brother.”
Only many years of hearing similar sentiments kept Loki from screaming. His place? His place was on a throne, just like Thor’s, Odin had always said so. How dare his brother belittle him like that, in front of the Jotun king no less, when it was Thor’s own foolhardiness which had led them there and Loki’s oft-maligned diplomacy what might yet keep them alive?
But it wasn’t the time or place to let his frustration get the better of him. Loki had plans in motion, things to do, and getting killed or captured in Jotunheimr was not one of them. Once again, he’d do his best to salvage one of Thor’s brainless schemes and then go back to see his efforts dismissed or outright ignored.
The anger, the fear, the blue tint creeping over his hand… all this got pushed aside in the heat of battle and the events on their return.
“You have betrayed the express command of your king. Through your arrogance and stupidity, you've opened these peaceful realms and innocent lives to the horror and desolation of war! You are unworthy of these realms, you're unworthy of your title, you're unworthy of the loved ones you have betrayed!”
Yes, Loki had hoped Odin would realise how rash and thoughtless Thor could be. No, he hadn’t quite expected things to go so far, both their tempers to get so out of hand, or Thor’s punishment to be so harsh. He tried to step in, again the voice of reason, and again he was ignored.
Curse them all, then. Let them and the Norns deal with the consequences of their actions.
The discovery of his true parentage only made him more determined: he was no monster, no Jotun, no traitor, no failure in the eyes of the Allfather. He’d show them, he’d put the Nine Realms to rights: neutralise Jotunheimr, cleanse Midgard, restore Alfheimr, ensure Asgard’s safety…
“I only ever wanted to be your equal…”
He was so close to achieving it all. So close, if Thor and his ignorant compassion and newfound conscience hadn’t stopped him.
King Odin’s biggest, costliest mistake was underestimating how much he meant to his youngest son.
Loki fell. He fell for seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, eons. He fell through darkness so all-encompassing that he forgot what light was. He fell in a loneliness so absolute that he forgot he’d ever had a family, a home, a hero. He fell until all he knew as desire, duty and dreams were torn from him.
Loki landed and the pieces of his old self landed around him like fallen petals. Out of habit, he gathered them around himself, but they would never again be anything more than borrowed plumage.
And it was this lost creature which wandered into the lair of one he would have been hard-pressed to deny even in his best days.
“Your ambition is little, born of childish need.”
Maybe it had been, before. But not anymore.
The Loki who went in search of the Tesseract was not the Loki who’d wielded the Casket of Ancient Winters.
“Wait and plan and strike when the time is right.”
Some things didn’t change. Some things were too deeply etched into the core of his soul for a thousand falls to erase. Some things (Thor’s love, Odin’s disappointment, Nuada’s lessons) would haunt Loki regardless of how many deals he made, how many armies he commanded or how many realms he ruled.
“You give up this poisonous dream, you come home…”
Loki bit the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood to stop himself from laughing. His one poisonous dream had been Asgard, had been thinking he belonged in its golden halls and on its golden throne, had been the belief that he –the monster- would ever be accepted there. He’d shed that dream during his fall, along with so much else that Thor would never understand.
“We were raised together, we played together, we fought together. Do you remember none of that?”
A shadow he’d been, but a shadow he’d be no more.
And to think that Thor, who’d have dragged both Asgard and Jotunheimr to war but a handful of years before, thought he could lecture Loki on what it took to sit on a throne… Loki, who’d prevented a war, Loki who’d saved lives, Loki who could see ahead while Thor was blinded with his lust for battle.
Oh yes, Loki was listening. And what he heard amused him. But it wasn’t Thor’s words he remembered.
The waiting and the planning came naturally to him, in both his past incarnation and his present one, as did the careful -almost caring- knowledge of his enemies.
“You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code, something that makes up for the horrors. But they are a part of you, and they will never go away!”
In the endless moments before the dawn, when he preferred not to sleep and hear The Other in his dreams, Loki considered breaking out Nuada from where he was incarcerated in the frozen land of the South, but now he understood why the older prince had refused his wide-eyed almost-offer of refuge that one time in the Troll Market, centuries before.
The day would come, but not yet.
There was a realm to conquer first. Loki looked around himself and, under the bright lights and the shiny surfaces, he saw the filth, the gangrenous rot that Nuada had warned him about; it made his skin crawl, though he was nowhere near as attuned to nature as an Alfheimr native, and he didn’t regret that soon the Chitauri would be arriving with cleansing fire.
It was necessary.
“The Tesseract is showing me so much. It's more than just knowledge, it's... truth.”
Not that anyone would understand. Loki despaired, sometimes, at seeing everyone stumble around the truth, blind to it. Even his servants, eyes blue with the power of the sceptre, looked but did not see and were content to follow orders. Of all the people he’d met since… leaving Asgard, there was only one he suspected could be made to understand, but he also suspected Tony Stark would cling to his blindfold, out of stubbornness if nothing else.
“There are no men like me.”
Loki took pride in his loneliness because he had no other option.
Later, once his debt had been paid and that dark shadow of The Other’s master didn’t hang over him, he would go in search of a like mind. Even if Midgard was razed to the ground, Alfheimr could still be restored, with enough power and determination, and with one of the Nine Realms as a base, what couldn’t Nuada Silverlance and Loki Silvertongue do?
Loki would find his equal yet, and it wouldn’t be Thor, so blinded by sentiment that he didn’t see the silver dagger (with the royal seal of Clan Bethmoora on the hilt) until it was too late and Loki had shown him what he thought of his childish plans.
“All of you are beneath me!”
Victory was so close again, except that -for all that he had seen it happen before-, he underestimated the Midgardians, the sheer bloody-mindedness that made up for their lack of magic, strength or intelligence.
Loki saw himself defeated -lying on the ground, surrounded by his enemies, the artefact he sought out of his reach- and admired the symmetry of the Norns’ design. And though he had no sibling willing to sacrifice themselves for him (no, he had no sibling, period), if someone had cause or occasion to watch him from a distance, he would give them no cause for disappointment.
“Don’t think of offering me refuge. Would you take it, if you were in my place?”
It didn’t take many words (and not all of them were lies) for the Midgardians to fall divided again.
It took a monotone retelling of some of the punishments Odin had dispensed in the past (over Thor’s loud but unconvincing protestations) for the Captain to oppose sending him to Asgard to be judged, on humanitarian grounds.
It took a whispered memory, haunting in its inadequacy, of the void beyond the worlds for Stark to back the Captain, his eyes troubled.
It took a sly reminder that he was the only one who knew anything about the threat which still hung over Earth for Fury to do his best to delay Loki’s departure in hopes to be able to interrogate him.
It took a smile to send the beast scurrying away, a seed of doubt growing under the veneer of confidence it sported like it sported that kind, bespectacled face.
It took absolute silence for the assassin to keep watching him from the shadows, more mistrustful now than ever, just like Loki wanted her.
It didn’t take anything to keep Barton away from him.
Loki’s gag kept his magic contained -barely allowing him enough to keep his Aesir glamour-, but they had to take it off to let him eat and drink, at the Captain’s insistence (“… and so Odin Allfather took Ymir’s son and hung him from a tree, without food or water, for as long as it took for him to renounce his oath of avenging his father’s death, about seventy of your human years…”); he tasted the metal in the water and the cloying chemicals in the bread and wondered if they had tried to poison Nuada with the same substances.
Keeping an exemplary conduct wasn’t difficult. Something told him a certain elf prince wouldn’t even have tried.
“You’re telling me you’re going to let us tell you when you can and can't speak? You, the God of Mischief… excuse me, the God of Fucking Mayhem and Destruction and Messing Up Manhattan?”
Loki smiled and took a small sip of water. He rather enjoyed Stark’s visits.
“We’re not letting you go until we have information on what brought you here. Don’t think I don’t see through what you’re trying to do with Rogers, all those sob stories designed to make him think you want to stay here. You want to go back and wreck your father’s house and that’s fine by me, but not before I have the intel to protect this planet. Understand?”
Loki sighed through his nose and took a bite of something mushy. He enjoyed Nick Fury’s visits a lot less.
“I will bring you home, brother. They try to make delays, but Stark has given me his word he will fashion a way for us to contain the Tesseract and use it to go back home. Nothing has changed there. And no matter how many of the old stories you tell the Captain, Father will not be cruel to you.”
Loki bit his tongue and tasted blood. Not your brother. Not my father. He already has. Things Loki might have broken his silence to say if Thor didn’t always take care to visit him when the gag was well in place.
In his silence, Midgardians underestimated him. Midgardians overestimated themselves, so confident in their abilities that they never thought of wondering if they were spreading themselves too thin.
Keeping one ancient, dangerous, otherworldly prince captive was within Midgard’s abilities. Keeping two, however, would prove too much. Not that they ever made the connection, the petty humans, more concerned with maintaining their artificial differences than in joining against anything less than an immediate threat.
Technology, in spite of what Thor had said, wasn’t that complicated -closer to magic than Loki wanted to admit- and Midgardians surrounded him with it on all sides, at all times, relentlessly. He grew to know it, understand it, almost like it; perhaps some of it could be salvaged, in the future.
Loki didn’t expect outside help and he didn’t get it, but another threat came to Earth, needing all of The Avengers’ attention. Previously busy corridors were quiet, guards were more sparse, and even Stark stopped visiting.
One evening, while Loki was taking his dinner, the lights flickered; he and the four guards looked up at the light bulb. Loki spoke one word and the light went out in his cell, in the whole secure building, in the whole town, country, continent, world.
Such fragile webs, the humans wove. Such fragile webs on which they wove their whole lives, their whole world.
It was a beautiful sight that greeted Loki outside, while the SHIELD safehouse descended into chaos. The world was covered by the darkness Midgardians hadn’t experienced since they had tamed fire. It wouldn’t last (he’d need much more power to break their web instead of merely disturbing it), but it was an omen of things to come.
Magic had welled inside Loki for months; it was easy to fold space in on itself and make his way to another secure facility in the throes of chaos, easy to make his way undetected to the cell designed for its most dangerous prisoner.
Loki arrived there to find the doors already broken, the cell already empty. He stopped in the doorway, a tendril of doubt winding its way around his heart. Was he too late? Would his help never be acknowledged? Would his plans fail to come to fruition even before the seed was planted?
The touch of cold metal brushing the back of his neck felt like relief, and Loki grinned in the darkness, keeping himself very still.
“Nuada Silverlance,” he whispered. “It’s time you left, my prince.”