Charles sat at his desk long into the night, a single lamp burning behind him throwing illumination onto his worktop. Fatigue tugged at the edges of his mind, but he ignored it with long and ready practice. There had been another riot today, in Illinois; ever since the alien invasion over New York and the emergence of the Avengers, anti-mutant sentiment had been on the rise again. Some people felt that with the Avengers on the scene, there was no more need for mutant protectors of the populace; others thought that the next move of the Avengers would get to work cleaning up mutants, and thought to get a jump on the practice. Some even blamed the mutants for the appearance of the aliens themselves - there was no logic to it, and yet there it was.
He didn't blame the Avengers for it. There was no point, really - they hadn't intended this result, and anti-mutant sentiment tended to surge at the slightest provocation. An ugly eruption of mutant powers somewhere in the world - a series of bad storms, or other disasters which could be blamed on mutant powers - even a hit to the economy could cause the smoldering resentment of the human populace to flare up, seeking the nearest target to vent their rage.
Charles could understand it. Oh, he'd seen into their heads, so he knew exactly what they were thinking. But he didn't have to like it.
Every time this happened Charles would put in the longest hours, working like a man possesed to try to control the damage. And every time this happened Charles would lie awake yet longer into the night, staring at the ceiling and wondering: had he done everything that he could? Should he have spent more time with Cerebro, finding mutants who were in the danger zone and pulling them to safety? You couldn't know who was in danger. Should he have made more press appearances, soothing over the violence and hate with honeyed words? They never listen. Should he have spent more time training his X-men, that they could respond to riots as soon as they broke out and before they could spread to do more damage, take more lives? You have done all you can for them; they need to be independent now. Should he be spending more time with his younger students, counseling them and comforting those whose all-too-real terrors were called upon every time news of another riot breached the school?
The ceiling never had any answers for him.
A faint impression washed over Charles' mind, something between a taste and a smell: a whiff of ashes, as though smoke had just blown across his face. Puzzled Charles paused in his work for a moment and glanced up, looking around: was a window open somewhere? Perhaps Logan was visiting again, and smoking his horrendously fragrant cigars despite all the importuning of Charles' secretary that this office was a no-smoking zone.
Then the door to his office opened, despite the fact that not only should the door have been locked, but neither the vigilant young mutant guarding his outer office nor the building's state-of-the-art security should have allowed it. A figure slipped through it like a shadow, small and slim and dressed in dark clothes that blended seamlessly with the night. Only one splash of color stood out: a shock of bright red hair that floated about the intruder's head, framing a face that was young and ageless at once, coldly and emotionlessly beautiful. Charles recognized the young woman's face from a personnel file in Nick Fury's computers: Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow. Spy, infiltration expert and assassin extraordinaire.
"Good evening, Professor," she said. "I hope I'm not intruding."
And yet no matter the face before him, Charles recognized the mind that had just stepped into his office. It was bright, jagged, larger-than-life; it fragmented into pieces that filled the space about it, spilling out from the small body that failed to contain it. It was from that mind that spilled the scent of ash and the taste of blood, brief whispering flickers of violence and smug satisfaction and boundless grief.
Charles smiled, a real and deep expression of relief and happiness. "Loki," he said. "It's good to see you. I hadn't expected to see you again so soon."
It had been two months since Charles had last seen Loki, striding away through a doorway in space framed by the light of an alien sun. He'd only known Loki for a little more than a week before that, but it had been a very intense week of diving inside the alien's brain, attempting to free him from the morass of nightmares and madness that had overcome him. Despite the comparatively short time they'd known each other Charles had become very fond of Loki, and when the call had come from off-world for Loki to return to Asgard to fight off the invasion of Malekith the accursed, Charles had bid him farewell with sadness, hope and fear sharing equal space in his heart. Sadness to see him go; hope that he would rise to the heights of his true potential; and fear that he would fall back into his furious, hurtful, and self-destructive ways.
In the time he had been gone Charles had not forgotten him, but he had put aside thoughts of him for a time. With Loki on Asgard and Charles here on Earth, there was little he could do to help. Even Lilandra, empress of the Shi'ar, could not see or reach into the corner of the universe where the rest of the Nine Realms resided. Charles had, over the years, come to recognize when a teacher could coach and push and guide and advise, and when he had to just step back and let the student go.
The face of the Black Widow broke into an unwilling smile, a laugh startled out of her in a that did not belong with the frame. "I suppose I should have known better," Loki said, now in his own voice, contrasting weirdly with the face he wore but resonating perfectly with his psychic aura. "You have proven immune to all my tricks." He stepped forward, gesturing with one hand, and the image of the tiny Russian woman melted away into his own form: tall, dark, gaunt and pale, dressed in foreign armor and wearing a tattered aura of fatigue about him like a shroud.
"I take it from your appearance here that the war is won?" Charles said, folding his work tablet away and putting it aside. He rested his hands on the table before him and really looked at him, taking in the level of his skin as well as the shape of the thoughts and feelings that swirled restlessly around him. Loki seemed... more centered, somehow, than the last time Charles had seen him. More centered and more calm, and yet also ragged, weighed down with a deep fatigue of the soul and a fraying constitution. The flame of his bright mind was guttering low, dangerously so, and Charles was more than dismayed to see it.
Yet he'd come back. He'd survived the dangers, whatever they were, and he'd come back to Earth of his own free will. That was two great spots of hope from which Loki could rebuild, with Xavier's help. That he had returned to Earth implied both that he'd defeated whatever menace had threatened Asgard (obviously, else he'd not have come back at all and Charles would probably have a very different problem on his mind) but also that he did not feel comfortable remaining there despite having triumphed. Had he still not reconciled with his mother, father and brother? It seemed not, or at least not fully. "How was your reception in Asgard?"
"Oh, it was absolutely marvelous," Loki said, his voice drenched in withering sarcasm. "Why, they were so thrilled to see me that I was nearly thrown into a jail cell within minutes of my arrival on Asgard, and no less than three of my brother's dear companions threatened me with death before the first night had ended.
"As Thor so humbly requested of me, I did my duty in getting the genie back in the bottle, and everything could go back to normal. Asgard stands as grand and golden as ever, perhaps with a few more scorch marks and a couple of dents here and there, but the Realm Eternal will endure as it ever has and they may happen to be under the impression that I'm dead right now," Loki admitted in a rush.
"Dead?" Charles repeated, startled. The air around Loki bubbled with a mixture of guilt and sly pride for having pulled off such a clever trick. "Now, whyever would they think that?"
Loki scowled. "I thought it might put them off my scent for a while," he grumbled. "I wished to be left alone, so that I could come and go as I pleased. Thor might have made vague, sweeping statements about penance and pardons, but it was clear that the All-Father, once he awoke, had other ideas."
The explanation came easily enough, but it was clear from Loki's thoughts that there was far more behind Loki's flight than his flippant words indicated. Charles caught a sense of frustration and bitter hurt, surprise and amazed warmth all roiling on a sea of deep, deep grief.
"Why don't you tell me what happened, Loki?" Charles said. "Starting from the beginning."
"What, can't you just read my thoughts and find out?" Loki sniped. The words were aggressive, almost accusing, but Charles could tell from the complex tangle of thoughts and feelings in his mind that he meant it sincerely. For all that he was a master of words, there were still things inside himself that were hard for him to articulate. It was much easier if Charles could just know what he thought and felt without Loki having to say it, without having to speak aloud of what he perceived as weakness and vulnerability.
"I would still like to hear you tell it," Charles coaxed him. "Putting it to words may help you sort it all out in your own mind; besides, there are many concepts in your mind with which I'm not familiar. The last time I saw you, Thor had called you back to request your aid in breaking a siege over Asgard. Tell me what happened."
"Hm. Very well." Despite his grudging tone, Loki was pleased by the invitation to share his story. He was like a kettle boiling over with thoughts and feelings restless to escape, to be expressed.
"Asgard kept its peace over the Nine Realms only with the aid of the Bifrost; all of Asgard's armies were nothing to the threat that they could appear in your backyard at a moment's notice. When Thor smashed the Bifrost, little wars and insurgencies broke out all over the Nine Realms. But once the Tesseract had returned to them, they were able to re-open the Bifrost and re-establish the peace. By which I mean, of course, smashing everyone else's heads together until they behaved. Neither Odin nor Thor are really much for subtlety.
"Malekith, on the other hand, was. Asgard had been taking prisoners left and right in their efforts to break the insurrections. Malekith snuck an entire regiment of his best warriors into the very heart of Asgard itself by the simple expedient of disguising them as insurgents and sending them to be captured. Once there, they were able to stage a prison break and bring down the defenses that surrounded Asgard. Taken completely by surprise, the Aesir were overwhelmed and pushed back to the palace. They were able to raise the palace shields, and so hold for a little while against Malekith's assault, but his power seemed without limit."
Loki began to pace the office, his inner agitation seeking an outlet. He was becoming more engrossed in his story, now that he was recalling something he had seen rather than recounting what he had learned secondhand after the fact. "There is an... artifact, of sorts, that was created by the Dark Elves. They call it the Aether; other words for it are the Deepness, or the Twilight." Images flitted across his mind, of a deep red substance that crawled through the air like blood under water, reaching and grasping and creeping smoke-like through the tiniest of crevices. "It was created with the intention of quenching all light in the universe, returning the cosmos to the primeval darkness that existed before the birth of the stars. They had tried to do so once before, thousands of years ago, during the kingship of Odin's father Bor. They defeated Malekith, scattered his armies, and the Deepness was said to be destroyed."
"And was it?" It was a rhetorical question, since obviously Thor would not have needed to call Loki back to fight an enemy that had been dead for thousands of years.
"That would have been the sensible thing to do, would it not?" Loki's voice was rich with disgust. "But no. I suppose Bor couldn't pass up the opportunity to have such potent magic under his own control. One never knows when one will want to blot out all light in the sky of an enemy planet, after all.
"He hid it away in the weapons vault of Asgard and told all that it had been destroyed. But it was not. It was bound and dormant but the thing about magical artifacts such as these is that they have a life, an awareness of its own. When Malekith awoke from his slumber, he called to the Deepness and it answered him."
"So he laid siege to Asgard," Charles said.
"Yes. It was the stupidest thing," Loki shook his head, aggravated by the persistent idiocy of his kinsmen. "Bor probably didn't know better, but I don't know what Odin thought he was... The Deepness, you see, was created as the antithesis of light. It would never have the power to extinguish all sources of light in the universe. So instead it was made to absorb all forms of energy - including light - and convert it into its own dark form of energy that allowed it to expand and grow. And that fool Bor had placed it within his own weapons vault. With all the other spoils of his conquest, weapons and trophies of unimaginable power.
"No wonder Asgard was unable to repel Malekith's assault. He was being powered by energy siphoned from under their very feet! It even drew power from the Odinforce, forcing the All-Father into an untimely sleep. And the longer it sat down there, soaking up the power Asgard like a sponge, the stronger Malekith became..." Despite the flippant exasperation of his tone, there was still a lingering horror that accompanied the memories; trapped inside the palace inside a glowing golden shell with enemies on all side, pressing eagerly inwards, and a malevolent force growing under their very feet: the Deepness, a corruption of darkness that grew unchecked, devouring all it touched to feed its own unholy growth.
"How long did it take you to find all this out?" Charles prompted him, moving him past the memory of trapped helplessness.
"I suspected what was going on before I ever set foot in Asgard," Loki corrected him. "Confirming it took only as long as it took to argue those paranoid fools into giving me access the vault to check. But that still left the problem with what to do about it. We could not destroy the Deepness, and there was nowhere within Asgard we could take it that it would be out of range of the other sources of power. How fortunate for Thor, that he had within his walls one who knew all the secret boughs and crannies of Yggdrasil.
"Thor and I went alone, with only Sif to accompany us; we could not strip the palace of any more defenders than that. Of course, as soon as the Deepness left Asgard, Malekith sensed it and came to follow, as I knew he would. He intercepted us on Svartalfheim, and he and his golem overpowered Thor to steal the cask and absorb the Deepness into himself."
"Hmm." Charles considered the sequence of memories that played out in Loki's mind. "Of course, I suppose it helped them in this task more than a bit when you stabbed Thor with a paralyzing venom, pushed him down a cliff and kicked him in the face before presenting the casket containing the artifact to Malekith, promising him your allegiance in return for destroying Asgard while you watched."
"Well, yes," Loki admitted, sounding simultaneously embarrassed and smug. "It was all a show of course! But how could I resist? I mean, people were just lining up on Asgard to promise me all sorts of horrible deaths if I betrayed Thor. I simply couldn't bear to disappoint them."
"Very obliging of you," Charles let out a small laugh.
"And it did convince Malekith of my good intentions. Or bad intentions, as the case may be. He never stopped to wonder that I might have tampered with the artifact in any way. Remarkably trusting, for a dark elf.
"And so he took the Deepness into himself, just as he planned. Unfortunately for him, that turned the problem into one that Thor could solve by hitting it hard enough with Mjolnir, just as he planned. Since the paralyzing venom was so handily out of his system by then," Loki concluded with satisfaction. "The backlash from the death of the Deepness set up a singularity that consumed Svartalfheim, but there was little enough of it left by then to wreck, so its destruction was no great loss to the Realms. Just as I planned."
"That's marvelous, Loki," Charles said warmly. "You saved your brother and your friends, and all of the Realms, from what it sounds like. I'm so proud of you." He smiled wryly, then shook his head. "But Loki, you really need to get out of the habit of destroying planets as solutions to your problems."
"I suppose." Strange mortals and their strange priorities. "Malekith and his kind sought to purge the universe of light, killing every being that depended on it; the destruction of his homeworld was little enough to pay, for that presumption."
Charles decided not to pursue the point just then. "And then you... 'died?' "
"Yes. It seemed... appropriate. I mean there could hardly be a better location for it, there in the middle of a barren wasteland. And the planet collapsed right after, which conveniently excused the lack of a corpse. I wonder... I wonder if they still had a funeral for me, on Asgard." Images flickered quickly through his mind of an elegant boat gliding gracefully across the dark, the bright arc of a flaming arrow to set it alight. The longship is for the honored dead. Had I done enough to overcome my dishonor? Thor seemed to think so. "...Thor leaked all over my face, you know, when he thought I lay dying. Sentimental fool." Those last few words came out sounding almost fond.
"He still loves you."
"He's still a fool," Loki snapped. More a fool for still loving me. He does, I don't understand it, but he really does. How can he still care for me after everything? The thought left him with a warm glow in the pit of his stomach, like the banked remains of a campfire hidden under a careful, protective layer of ashes. "I don't care. I needed... I needed some time to get away. From him. From Asgard. From (Odin) from everything. I hid myself from Heimdall, from Hlidskjalf. I don't want him to come looking for me."
"You can stay here as long as you need, Loki," Charles offered. "I'm simply happy to have you here, and see that you are well."
"Odin wasn't," Loki said abruptly. "He didn't care. I brought him the news myself, disguised as a guard. He didn't care. I suppose without Frigga to make him at least pretend to have some semblance of regard for the wretched lost creature he stole from Jotunheim..." He trailed off. I suppose I truly am an orphan now. Killed my own father Laufey, and now Frigga...
"Frigga?" Charles asked quietly. "Your mother?"
"Dead." The word was quiet and uninflected, but the storm of rage and grief that followed on it was not. Dead. Murdered, slaughtered like a beast. Kurzed killed her, he broke her neck like she was nothing, just one more common palace guard for him to cut his way through. He should never have laid hands on her, he should have been struck down from the heavens the moment he tried -
"I killed him," Loki said, his breathing harsh through his clenched teeth. Air whistled as he drew in a ragged breath. "The monster who killed her - I killed him. I swore I would kill him and then I did. I stabbed him and crushed him and I scattered his ashes in the barren desert. I killed him, and it doesn't... it didn't help, it didn't bring her back. I killed him and she's still gone."
She's gone and I could not stay. I could not stay in Asgard, not with every curtain and carpet bearing the trace of her hand. Not seeing her form in every hallway, her face in every surface. I couldn't do it. So I fled, like a coward. And I came to you because you were the only place I could think in the nine realms that might welcome me.
"I am so sorry, Loki," Charles said, as gently as he could. Images of Frigga fell through his mind, each one colored by pain or grief but still vivid in their beauty and strength. They were without question idealizations, filtered through his memories like this, but the personality of the woman she had been came through sharply nonetheless. "She must have been a remarkable woman."
Loki let out his breath sharply, then turned abruptly to face him. "Give me something to do," he said, his sharp and demanding voice a cover for the raw pain beneath it. Please. "Some quest, some task to accomplish, something to keep my mind and my hands busy. I came here to repay my debt to you, to return your boon. Give me a way to repay it!"
"I'm sure I can think of something," Charles said, and then smiled. "Indeed, there are so many possibilities, it's hard to know where to start. What would you think of guest lecturing?"
Loki was escorted to his new quarters by a mortal woman - no, a mutant woman; he was beginning to be able to tell the difference if he concentrated hard enough - with long red hair and cool grey eyes. She reminded him a bit of the other red-haired woman he had recently encountered, the Lady Spider, and not only because of her hair; they had similar auras of danger about them, a shadow under their eyes that warned others that they had come through many dark battlefields and would not be averse to one more. The look she gave him was wary, despite her demeanor of professional politeness, and Loki was not sure how to feel about that; pleased, perhaps, that even in this place they still recognized the threat he could bring to bear. Perhaps.
"These are the supplementary teacher's quarters," she told him, swiping a blank square wafer in front of a glass panel. The panel beeped, and a loud clack inside the gate indicated that a lock had fallen open; she pulled open the gate and gestured him inside. They were in a small courtyard shaded by trees, with a smooth stone path branching out to each side. The woman (Xavier had said her name, but Loki had not been paying attention terribly well - Gray?) led him to the leftmost corner. The door was made of dark wood, set with wrought iron numbers in Midgardian script that matched the gate. "You'll be in here."
She handed him the wafer and a small set of clinking metal tokens - keys, Loki realized after a brief inspection. "I assume you won't be needing any parking," she said. "It should have all the furnishings in place, but if there's anything you need, you can call Housekeeping - the number is posted on the door. If you need anything else - I understand you're not from around here -"
"I'm sure I can figure things out from here," Loki assured her with a thin smile. These accommodations were simple, compared to Asgard's level of technology, but Loki was not Tho - not an idiot. He could make a fair guess at the purpose of any of Midgard's machines; and starting from the premise that a thing was made to be used, it was not usually difficult to figure out how to use it. He had always been skilled at observing those around him and mimicking their behavior... and for anything that really stumped him, there was always magic. "Thank you."
She shot him a doubtful look, but did not pursue the question. "Today is Friday, and Professor X said you would be giving lectures starting Monday," she said in her soft voice. She used the nickname that all the mutants seemed to for Charles Xavier, simultaneously respectful and affectionate. "Hopefully that will be enough time for you to put together a lesson plan. We'll see you then."
With that she turned and walked off, and the faint aura of crackling danger faded with her. Loki waited till she was out of sight before turning to the door she had singled out as his; he dropped the keys into a handy dimensional pocket and simply opened the lock with a twist of his hand in the air, letting himself into what would be his new home.
The small suite of rooms beyond was furnished adequately, if not luxuriously; there was a bed, a chest of drawers and a mirror in one cozy niche, a writing desk and several chairs gathered around a table on the other side of the room. To the right, a bare gleaming tiled floor was bracketed by counters cluttered by unfamiliar metal and plastic devices - he glimpsed what looked like a sink and an oven, so probably a Midgardian kitchen. The walls were divided into two, top and bottom: dark wooden paneling from the waist down, and a soft beige color above. A few metal-framed paintings of landscapes or still life decorated the empty spaces along the walls, tasteful but impersonal. Glass bulbs attached to poles or recessed into the walls and ceiling promised light, as soon as he could figure out to activate them. Short shadowed hallways opening into the walls most likely led to the baths or perhaps weapons storage.
Loki had plenty of battle and adventuring experience and was no stranger to camping out in the wilderness if need be. This was by far a step up from tents pitched on beds of dry heather in the pouring rain, even if it was undoubtedly missing a few amenities Asgardians tended to take for granted. It was... cozy.
And yet -
And yet so sterile, bland and impersonal; it was clearly a guest room, like one you would find at an inn, and there was a difference between taking shelter at an inn for a few nights and living there, making it the closest thing you had to a home.
A sudden impulse took Loki and he murmured a low incantation, raising his hand as the space around him wavered and then expanded in a bubble. The dim room disappeared, washed away in a rising tide as his own chambers in Asgard took their place. The vaulted ceilings, gables carved and gilded, with wide arches opening onto the spectacular view of Asgard beyond. The golden walls veiled behind a multitude of dark velvet drapes and tapestries, offering his eyes some rest from the unrelenting shine of the rest of the palace. The furniture, huge and heavy and carven with runes to make them last; he'd had one desk over two thousand years old still as sound as the day it was made.
Loki built up the illusion inch by inch, detail by detail. Not his rooms as he had last seen them, barely glimpsed during the few hours he'd spent on Asgard before they'd had to hurry the Deepness out of the palace to safety. (Sometime in Loki's absence his rooms had been cleaned to the bone and shut away, like a tomb - all the normal detritus of living that he'd left scattered behind him on the day of his fall had vanished, only a few mementoes kept out on walls and tabletops like museum exhibits.)
No, this was his chambers as they had once been, years ago when he'd still lived in Asgard and everything had been fine. Well. As fine as they had ever been. When he'd still believed himself a prince, still believed himself a man, still thought himself brother of Thor and son of Odin. When his clothing had lain flung over bedposts and strewn across counters in the flurry of getting ready for a feast or ceremony; when a plate of bones and cracker crumbs had sat on the corner of his worktable, the remains of a midnight snack from where he'd worked long nights to perfect new spells. When the trophy bilgesnipe horns that Thor had awarded him after their first hunt hung upon the walls, where Thor would see it every time he came in the door but Loki wouldn't have to look at it the rest of the time. When the first dagger that Odin had ever given him lay stowed in a careful place of honor in his top drawer. When his bed had been graced with quilts given to him as name-day gifts, personally crafted for him by Frigga -
The illusion abruptly collapsed, disappearing as quickly as a popped bubble. Loki's hands clenched into fists to stop them from shaking, set his jaw to stop it from chattering. An illusion, that's all it ever was, he told himself ruthlessly. The only thing in that world was real was her love, and that's gone now past all remaking.
Standing there in the shadowed and cold foyer of his new home, Loki felt a sudden burst of misery sweep over him. How had he come to this - how had he fallen so far? He had once been a prince of the royal house of Odin, premiere of all the Nine Realms - he had once ridden at the head of a conquering army, poised to destroy all it swept across. How had he descended here to hide in his tiny, cramped little room to serve at the beck and call of mortals?
But they aren't really mortals, he reminded himself, for the mutants were something more, something special and powerful. They were more akin to the Aesir than to the humans who surrounded him, and anyway he was not to be a servant - he had been invited here to share his knowledge and his power, imparting to them the service of his wisdom.
He owed Xavier a debt, after all. Conquering army or no, he had never been any more than a hapless puppet. During his sojourn in the deep reaches of space, Thanos the Mad Titan had imposed upon him to regain the Tesseract for his own nefarious purposes, then placed a block on his memory to prevent him from recalling enough to resist it. He had stumbled about on Midgard in a daze of confused and half-forgotten schemes, not even realizing that he served not his own fate but the whim of another. If Xavier had not been able to break the block on his mind and recall him to his true self, it was likely that Loki now would be languishing in the dungeons of Asgard, still spinning himself deluded fantasies about a kingship he had never truly wanted in the first place.
And he would repay that debt. If not to Xavier directly, then by proxy to these mutant children he sheltered. He could offer them something that no one else on this benighted planet had. He could be valuable; he could be valued.
The thought lifted his spirits somewhat. Loki lit the lamps in his new home with a snap of power from his fingertips, and went to investigate the quaint features of his new kitchen.