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Chapter One

"I am impressed, Jane Foster," Loki says as he turns in a slow circle, taking in the desolate desert surroundings. The abandoned road is hazy with falling dust, lit eerily by the half-empty moon. "Not that you've managed to summon me, of course. Nor that you've figured out that I'm amongst the living. But rather that you came alone." His lips spread into smile. "Now it remains to be seen if you are brave or merely foolish."

Jane doesn't react to his taunting. She hugs a tattered roadmap to her chest. A piece of science equipment held together with duct tape rests on the hood of her idling Jeep. "Thor was looking for you," she says.

Her voice is strangely quiet. Muted, as if there isn't enough air to be had. Her lips are chapped, her hair in need of washing. Loki takes in the whole of her appearance without unlocking his gaze from hers.

"I find that unlikely," Loki says, matching her quiet tone. "I died. Quite heroically, if you remember."

Jane's gaze drops to his armored chest. "He figured it out."

The desert air is chilled to the point of freezing, but her sleeves are thin. Inadequate protection for a mortal against the cold. Loki's eyes focus past her, and he sees her jacket crumpled in the passenger seat. Drawing in a deep breath, he folds his hands behind his back and takes two very slow steps in her direction. Her eyes are still locked on his chest. Only the slightest tensing of her shoulders gives him any indication that she still has enough wits about her to fear him.

"Forgive my cynicism," he says. "But again, I find your claims unlikely. Thor, bless him, is more predisposed to immediately believe what he sees."

"Was." Finally, she looks up at him. Her eyes shine in the moonlight. "He was."

Loki stills.

He watches her. Waiting. Listening.

Fingers itching to snap her neck if she dares confirm what he thinks she's implying.

"He told me you like to use the same tricks on him again and again," she says. "Just to see how many times he would fall for it."

Loki allows himself a smile, but it is cautious. "His record is four. That's the fewest times it's taken him to anticipate my deception."

Jane lifts an eyebrow. "Looks like two is the new record."

Loki shrugs one shoulder. "Let's call it an even three. When we were quite young, I pretended to drown in the river after he'd forgotten me in favor of his friends. It took him hours to notice I was gone, and he wept as he detailed my passing to the All-father. One of my finest victories."

He's lying. Not a lie meant to deceive but rather one meant to lighten her mood or force a reaction from her. Any kind of reaction. But that horrible look of grim acceptance refuses to budge. He fears what lies behind it. As her shining eyes spill rivers onto her cheeks, he inhales slowly and wonders why it's suddenly so difficult to fill his lungs. Perhaps he's drowning after all.

"I've been trying to contact someone for weeks," Jane says. "No one in Asgard would respond, or maybe my messages failed. So I kept looking for you—because that's what Thor was doing when he di-."

Loki slaps her so hard that she falls back against the Jeep. Her eyes are enormous. Full of shock. Fear. For once in his life, he does not revel in the chaos he has wrought.

"Finish that sentence," he pants, a finger jabbed in her face, "and I will strike the light from your eyes."

Tell me.

No. Loki has learned this lesson.

Learned not to ask questions he does not want to know the answer to.

Jane has already made it through the five stages of grief. She watches and waits as Thor's wayward little brother struggles under the crushing weight of the first.

He agrees to accompany her to her home but refuses to let her speak more than one or two words at a time. He cuts her off mid-sentence and steers their conversation elsewhere—if it can be called a conversation at all. As Jane guides the Jeep homeward, words spill from Loki's lips in an agitated stream of information. It's as if banishing the silence will keep the truth from taking root.

As Loki explains the glamour he wore to trick them in Svartalfheim, the air in the Jeep turns far colder than the temperature outside. The chill seems to radiate from him. So cold, it burns.

"I thought the skin discoloration an exceedingly clever touch," Loki says with a manic, dazed sort of smile. "Something repulsive." He laughs, his breath freezing as it leaves his lungs. "Enough to startle him and make him not want to look overlong at my body."

Jane wonders if he has any idea that he's crying. The talk of Loki's faked death is too close a subject to another forbidden topic, and he changes direction without bothering with a transition. Praises her efforts at sending him a message. Tells her where she went wrong with her attempts to reach Asgard: "You assumed they cared to respond to a mortal." Asks her about the buttons on the dash and interrupts with more questions when she tries to respond.

Jane nods and speaks quietly at the appropriate moments. But mostly, she keeps her eyes on the road as she listens and trembles. Neither of them speaks about the fact that he had slapped her earlier and then threatened to violently end her life—or that he had touched her swelling cheek a moment later and whispered words that immediately took the sting away. Loki acts as if none of it happened. But it did, and he knows.

He knows Thor is dead, and Loki is not merely in denial. He is insane with it.

When the manic babbling quiets into silence, Jane changes her route.

Denial has ended, and as the truth settles on Loki's shoulders like a physical weight, bowing him forward in his seat, she is suddenly terrified of what follows. She chooses her words and actions very carefully and recognizes that bringing him to her home would be a mistake. She aims the Jeep toward the wilderness. No one around for miles. No one for him to slaughter in the rage that is surely coming.

No one but her.


She clenches her teeth to keep them from chattering. The cold and her rising fear conspire against her efforts.

"Pull the vehicle over, please."

She does as he asks and guides the Jeep to the side of the road. There are no street lamps nearby. Only the moon and endless miles of sand, rock, and starved vegetation.

Loki gets out of the Jeep and fails to close the door behind him. Jane doesn't call out to him as he walks away with surprisingly steady legs. Her foot is still on the brake, the gear still in Drive. It would be all too easy to speed off and leave him here to descend further into madness.

She stares at the open door for five minutes before putting the Jeep into Park. She pulls her jacket around her shoulders and buttons it up to her chin, giving in to the chattering of her teeth as she waits. She half expects to hear screaming. Something ridiculously overblown and dramatic. Perhaps explosions or a great chunk of the moon falling away and burning up in the atmosphere. But either Loki's rage is quieter than expected, or he is truly gone.

She knows without a doubt that Thor had loved Loki. Perhaps more than he could have ever loved her, even given decades together. But before now, she has only ever suspected that Loki loves Thor in return.

It's for this reason alone that she leaves his door open and waits. A silent invitation for when he's ready to return.

When he climbs into the front passenger seat and shuts the door, nearly two hours have passed. The eastern sky is just beginning to lighten and promise a new day. Loki's hair is cut very short—but jagged, as if done with a shaky hand. And the hollows beneath his cheekbones are more pronounced. It could just be the shifting shadows playing tricks on her eyes, but something deeper than that has changed in him. All at once, he looks younger and older. Wherever he was, it was much longer than two hours for him.

"I came back to tell you," Loki says quietly, "that I will fix this."

His voice cracks as if he has recently abused it. His eyes flicker to her face, and they are so sad and bottomless and haunted that Jane finally understands why Thor had nightmares of his little brother's fall.

"And that I'm sorry for striking you," he continues. "I—I should not have done that."

Without speaking, she drops her gaze to stare at his hands. At the healing wounds on both sets of knuckles. She's surprised that he's reached the bargaining stage so quickly, particularly since she feels the anger still burning in him, despite his apology. She wants to tell him that there is nothing to fix. Death can't be changed. But bargaining is a natural stage in the grieving process, and she knows he needs to go through it, just as she had.

"How is that possible?" she asks.

The question is flat. She doesn't dare to hope. Even in the company of a god.

"Anything is possible," Loki says. "For a price."

His face is laid bare of any kind of mask for a brief moment. She watches his expression turn fearful—then resolute—then weary. He reaches for her hand and brings it to his lips for a kiss. And then he's gone.

Chapter Text

"Know this, child." She draws out a long dagger. "Even I cannot wake the dead."

Loki is careful not to show fear as he considers the pitiless edge of the blade. He hoists the level of his chin as compensation. "Then what exactly can you offer me?"

Death sounds much like the tumultuous roar of the Bifrost.

Loki is lost to it. He falls, overcome by light and sound until he is rendered blind and deaf. He cannot draw in breath. He has no lungs with which to do so. No legs to deliver him to safety. No mind to lose. No heart to beat.

And yet it does. It hammers with such vital importance that Loki imagines it literally splitting his chest in two as it fights to tear itself free. What luck that it's all imagined. He has no body left to destroy.

Strange, though. He did not include his body in the bargain. It seems the witch took it anyway.

(Witch . . . now there's a good joke.)

If only she were merely a witch. But she is so, so much worse than that.

Loki exhales a breathy laugh—and is amazed he can manage such a thing at all. His lungs have reformed, and he fills them gratefully. Soon after, he finds his lips and stretches them into a smile because his new body is on fire with pain, and defiance is always easier than surrender.

If he were more honest with himself, he might admit that in all his long years, he has never been more terrified than he is now. His mind might struggle to understand the consequences of what he has agreed to. He might count the true cost of what he has bargained away. But he is a liar first and forever, and so he straightens his back and disciplines his smile as he carefully considers his new reality.

The ground feels unsteady beneath his stolen boots, as if not quite solid. The air tastes different. Of magic and snow. He knows at once where he is: Asgard. The Bifrost Observatory, to be precise.

When he is, however—that is not immediately apparent.

Loki has fallen back into time. No, he was thrown. Cast backwards until everything he was and ever could be was stripped away. Laughter had journeyed with him. Her laughter. She had told him he would reenter his own body in the past, and he did not ask what would happen to his past self. That way, he wouldn't be tormented with the horror of it.

Willful ignorance is his newest and dearest of companions—though even it always seems to abandon him eventually, just like everything else. No doubt he will figure out the truth, despite his best efforts to avoid it.

Loki succeeds at mastering the rising panic in his chest. As the light of the Bifrost fades, his eyes follow the snowflakes as they fall from his hair, melting quickly as they touch his sleeve. His skin and clothing hold a strange, icy chill. The smell of battle. His left forearm and hand are bare, unclothed. Achingly familiar, all of it. Somehow he knows when he turns around, it will not be Heimdall's unfeeling eyes that greet him.

Loki turns, lips pressed into a carefully composed line, and looks upon the All-father.

His father's youth stuns him. Odin is still an old man, of course. It's difficult to imagine him as anything else. But as Loki sees the light of hope still flickering in the All-father's exhausted gaze, he realizes he has fallen backwards in time much further than expected.

Exactly how far back did one have to go to undo a death? Surely the witch has misjudged the distance.

Odin might appear younger than the one Loki last saw in the future, but the All-father is still stooped and weary with troubles. Loki recognizes the Odinsleep's approach now, having driven the old man to it.

(Twice now.)

(The second time was infinitely more fun than the first, wasn't it?)

Loki's memory sharpens. Focuses. And it suddenly dawns on him where in the past he has landed. Odin has cast his firstborn son—(no, his only son)—down to Midgard in shame. Mjolnir has just followed.

Odin lifts his gaze to Loki's tense shoulders, and they tense impossibly more. He has the sudden suspicion that the old king can see straight through to the heart of Loki's deception—to know what he is, that he doesn't belong here in this time, that he doesn't belong anywhere.

But that's ridiculous. Loki doesn't have a heart. This one is merely borrowed for a time.

Still, he waits for the blow. For that powerful voice to ring out and demand where the real Loki is—the true Loki from this time. But the All-father merely turns away, too lost in thought or grief over Thor to see Loki at all.

The tension in Loki's shoulders begins to uncoil.

This, at least, is familiar ground.

When Odin leaves him at the gates without so much as a parting glance, Loki allows himself a rare moment of undiluted panic. He cloaks himself with a spell and hides in shadow, gasping and pulling at his collar as he tries to figure out if he has finally lost hold of the remaining threads of sanity.

(Of course, you have.)

(There were precious few holding you together to begin with.)

Loki is not prepared for this.

He wonders if it's even real or merely a delusion spun for him out of the witch's laughter and cruelty. Either way, he is hopelessly lost. Hopelessly fucked. Separated from the moment of Thor's death by years. They are not even on the same realm. Exactly how is he expected to protect someone who isn't even there?

(That's not the question you really care about.)

(What you really want to know is how you're supposed to endure it all a second time?)

Loki's eyes lose their ability to focus. He stares into the shadows without seeing them, wanting nothing more than to quietly cease to be. He wants to be nothing. He wants to know nothing. Remember nothing.

He wants these things because he's realized the Void still lies in his future.

His high-necked collar will not permit him to draw in breath, and though his fingers ache to rip and tear at the clasp at his throat, he can't seem to move his hands. Fear has rendered them useless.

Is this it, he wonders? Is this the true nature of the payment he owes in exchange for this bargain?

(I cannot. I will not go through this again.)

(Not even for him?)

Loki's eyes drift closed and squeeze.

(Shut up.)

"Witch," he says through gritted teeth. "When I find you, I will cut out your heart with your own blade for this."

An agonizing pain in his chest reminds him of the rules. That he shall do no such thing. That he shall not blaspheme her. Not when it is his heart she holds so reverently in her bloodied hands.

As the pain fades, leaving Loki dizzy and close to retching, he is also reminded that he has paid a terrible price to change the past.

(Not to relive it.)

He draws in a breath and lets it cool in his lungs as he considers this new thought. While he's quite certain he's lost his sanity, what with the voices in his head that may or may not be his own, he has not yet lost his place in Asgard.

He has not turned the Destroyer on his brother. Laufey has not been lured into Odin's chambers and betrayed to his death. The fury of the Bifrost has never been turned on Jotunheim.

Loki has not yet let go and allowed himself to fall.

As he finally feels his borrowed pulse begin to calm, he lifts trembling fingers to his lips to remind himself that they are there.

Then he smiles.

Chapter Text

(You should have told Jane.)

(You should have told her she succeeded. That Asgard received her messages.)

(That Asgard already knew.)

When Loki finally enters the palace, he has armed himself with a brilliant plan: Do not fall into the Void.

He will need rest and many hours of meticulous deliberation before he can extend his plot any further than that.

As he treads carefully through the long, echoing corridors of stone and hateful memories, his eyes dart ahead of him, reacquainting himself with the exits and hiding places. Instinct whispers in his ear, entreating him to either hide or attack, but he forces himself to look calmly each passing guard. Directly in the eyes. The stare he gives them is so bold and steady that he is rather surprised when they don't look away in reverent respect of his authority.

The feeling is odd. He's forgotten what it's like not to be feared. Or even considered.

No one here yet realizes he's a monster. The possibilities are as endless as they are beautiful.


When he turns, his mouth is already caught in a scowl. Aside from his family, there is only one person who would dare raise her voice to command a prince of Asgard. Even the lesser prince.

Sif grasps his forearm, expression hard, cheeks still burned pink from the unforgiving chill of Jotunheim. "Where have you been? There is talk of Thor's banishment."

Loki gazes down at her without bothering to mask his distaste. He might think her flushed appearance lovely were he not preoccupied with thoughts of how best to crush the insubordination out of her. "Is there?" he says, the very picture of innocence.

It's a relief to know he will not have to pretend overly hard to care for Sif. They have always despised each other.

(Always, Liesmith?)

(She was the first to betray me. I will not forget that.)

Sif shows him each one of her hard, white teeth before she nudges him forward. "The others are waiting. They'll want to hear."

(How childish.)

Loki drags a thumb across his bottom lip as he ponders.

(How childish you were to crave this attention.)

Sif and the Warriors Three sit around him without bothering to notice him at all as they discuss Thor's banishment and exile. In his irritation, Loki has given them little information—only a few words, enough to confirm that the golden prince has indeed fallen from grace. Loki is soon forgotten. His usefulness to them is as brief as it ever was.

Left alone, he finally has a moment's peace to stop and think. But instead of plotting how he might reshape events to keep his brother alive, Loki's mind is instead filled with an old, familiar anger. If there is one thing he hates, it is being ignored. Yet he does not move to leave.

(How childish you are. Even now.)

The thought makes him laugh aloud, and his friends—(Thor's friends)—exchange troubled glances at his outburst. Perhaps they had forgotten he was even there and were displeased with the reminder. It infuriates Loki that they won't voice their dislike to his face—that they only whisper and plot their treason behind his back.

It infuriates him more that he still cares.

Sif, at least, is forthcoming with her distain. The honesty is positively refreshing, and Loki's smiles brightly to encourage the anger behind her glower. "I would think you'd want to help us get your brother back," she says, "instead of laughing at his shame."

(Why? When the four of you have never extended the same courtesy to me.)

"Is that what I'm doing?" Loki says, his smile casting a shadow on the words. "Laughing at my brother, whom I love more than you can possibly fathom. How good of you to reveal my true intentions to me, Lady Sif. I would not know my own mind otherwise."

"Stop baiting him, Sif," Fandral says, the palm of his hand flat against his healing chest wound. He casts a wary eye on them both. "Norns, Loki, but you're in a mood."

"Something happened at the Observatory," Hogun says. "Something you haven't told us. This new demeanor of yours is troubling."

"Aye," Volstagg says. "Did the horror of the frost giants shock the innocence from you at last?" He claps Loki on the shoulder and laughs. It's a feeble attempt to lighten the mood, but it wins Fandral over all the same. The two of them elapse into a boisterous recount of the highlights of their battle in Jotunheim.

Loki looks at each of them in turn. It bothers him that these four, the very ones who have made such careful study of ignoring him these long years, have almost immediately noticed that he is different from the Loki they knew. Though his pride rather likes that, his sense of self-preservation doesn't like it at all. He will have to be more careful.

"My brother has been cast out," Loki says quietly to Hogun and Sif, who have not joined the others in the recount of the battle. "Exactly what kind of mood do you expect from me?"

Hogun relaxes and turns to join the others' discussion. He is familiar with a sullen Loki. A cowardly Loki who worships his older brother's shadow. The true monster's threat goes unnoticed. Almost.

"If you truly cared for your brother, you would already be at your father's side, pleading for his return," Sif says. "You've always been jealous of Thor. I wouldn't be surprised if you had something to do with his banishment."

Loki is the only one who hears her accusation. It stuns him that she dared—yet strangely, he is also pleased. Her honesty justifies his past rage. Justifies his future rage.

His lips part, ready to cut her down. But before the oaths can flow unheeded, his borrowed heart twists painfully. It startles him out of the building fury, and he is again reminded that he has a choice here. He can let sentiment rule him as it once did—let these traitors control his actions and fate by inciting his rage—or he can be the one on top, for once.

He has not yet fallen into the Void.

(I will not let you push me.)

His lips press together as he bottles his anger to use at a later time. He focuses on why he's here, and the others fall away. None of this matters anyway. They know nothing of grief or pain or loss. They are children throwing a fit because their playmate is grounded. He can't even remember why he's here instead of attending to more important matters.

And so he turns and quietly strides from the room.

He's quite certain he doesn't imagine the startled look of regret that crosses Sif's face, but it matters not. He has already hardened his heart against giving a damn.

Loki thinks to find his room—the one place in the palace that has always been his refuge. There he can consult with books he thought lost forever. He can think and regroup. Lay his head on an actual pillow for once and contemplate the reweaving of the future.

But when he comes to the threshold of his room and throws open the door, he cannot take another step.

There is no dust. No spiderwebs. No chill. The servants have left a fire burning in the hearth for their master. The books that were left scattered on the desk are neatly restacked in anticipation of the prince's return. The only thing not tidied is a cloak of vibrant green, cast aside on the bed. The fallen prince had worn it to his brother's coronation, then flung it away in breathless excitement as he savored how horribly perfect it had all gone.

This room is not his. It belongs to another. And Loki's relatively certain he's all but murdered him.

He shuts the chamber door with an unreasonable amount of force and pushes past it in a rush. He cannot breathe.

(Goodness. Whatever's gotten into you?)

"Shut up," Loki hisses.

Two guards stationed in the corridor exchange a glance. Loki stiffens when he notices them, his steps slowing for a brief moment before he balls his hands into fists and keeps moving.

How strange he feels. How wrong. He should not be here. Should not have dared think he could change anything. There is no solace to be found in the palace. No forgiveness. No room or corner that does not hold memories.


Loki follows the fresh air until it leads him outside into the starlight. His boots fall upon stone, then pebbles, then grass, but it's not until he sits down hard beside the great trunk of an apple tree—wide-eyed, gasping, "I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry . . ."—that he realizes why it's instinct to come to the queen's garden.

Because there is a queen. Because he still has a mother.

Her footfalls are silent as her shadow falls over him. "What are you sorry for, my darling?" Frigga asks.

The Jotunheim snow has long since melted and dried in Loki's hair, but it's only then that he begins to shiver. He looks up at his mother. And wonders.

(Why was your death more acceptable than Thor's?)

(Why did I seek to unmake time to save him and not you?)

When it's clear Loki has no intention of responding to her question, Frigga sits beside him in the cool grass and lays a hand on top of his, where it rests on his knee. He feels exposed as she searches his face, and again, he wonders if this is the moment he will be found out. Surely she will easily recognize the monster who has taken the place of her weak, simpering son.

"Are you unwell?" she asks, shifting her hand to his cheek. "Your skin is like ice."

Loki has always enjoyed a good joke. His favorites stem from unintended irony, especially when the speaker isn't in on the joke. Loki's lips twist into a smile. . . but it soon fades once he remembers that Queen Frigga is most assuredly in on the joke.

(Ah. That's why.)

All the same, herein lies another horrible fate he can correct. Loki vows that the Queen of Asgard will outlive him, regardless of all the lies she's helped weave to blind him to the truth. After all, he's developed a newfound respect for ignorance of the truth. It is a delightful state of being. Perhaps Odin and Frigga had the right idea all along.

The hand on his cheek is so very warm. Loki holds it there with his own for a moment before grasping his mother's hand and bringing it to his lips. She's waiting for him to answer her question, but all he wants to do is sit there and luxuriate in the quiet comfort of her love.

Oh, how he's needed this. It is the first time in years that he's felt safe. Her beautifully subtle scent calms his madness. Soothes the tattered shreds of his thoughts into calm order. He can think again. He can breathe.

(I can do this. I can save them both.)

"I was unwell. But I am better, now you are come, my queen," he says, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Frigga snorts and somehow makes it sound refined.

(So that's where you learned it.)

"Your brother's fall troubles you, I think," she says, letting him hold her hand and trace the lines of her palm with his fingertips. "Does he suffer?"

Loki remembers a broken man screaming at the heavens, down on his knees in the mud before a hammer that has forsaken its master. "He will."

Frigga's fingers close around his, fear shining bright in her eyes. Loki looks back at her with much the same expression, and it's possibly the first time he hasn't resented his mother for also loving Thor.

He's centered now. No longer mad. (Ha.) Seeing his once-dead mother alive and radiant has bolstered his hope, and Loki suddenly wants his brother safe at home as well. He knows the only danger Thor ever faced on Midgard was Loki's doing, but he cannot shake the knowledge that his brother will someday die.

There's only one way Loki can think of to convince Odin to end Thor's exile. Loki won't be thrown into the Void for it, but his punishment will no doubt be painful. But that doesn't matter. This journey back into time isn't about him. His life is forfeit anyway.

"I must go to the All-Father," Loki says. "I have something to tell him."

Frigga searches his face as if confused by what she sees. Loki tenses under the scrutiny, but it soon passes. "Your father is not well. And I think perhaps you aren't either. Can it wait for morning?"

Loki rises and offers her his hand. "I'm afraid it can't. I . . . might have played a small part in the events of this evening."

As she accepts his hand, Frigga somehow manages to chastise him with a mere glance without dropping her tranquil smile. Loki smothers a laugh. Whether she's his true mother or not, he absolutely adores her.

"Loki," she says softly. A warning.

"Minor," Loki explains with the most charming of smiles, "minor treason."

"I did not realize treason came in degrees," Frigga says.

"It does, in fact. A vast rainbow of colors and flavors from which to choose."

Indeed, he'd tasted many of them.

Frigga's smile darkens into affectionate sadness. "What am I going to do with you? Am I to lose both my sons tonight? No. We will go to your father together. And though I know it pains your pride, Loki, be forthright and humble with him. Tell him everything. Your father's anger burns brightest when he feels betrayed."

Loki swallows, his confidence not as strong as it was only moments before. "It does indeed. But I can face him alone, mother. I'm not a child."

"I know that," Frigga says. "But it's difficult not to worry. Your father is exhausted and fears his own rest. He has hidden how he struggles from you and your brother. He lashes out when he does not mean to."

Loki's lips press into a careful line. "You think he was too stringent with Thor."

"I don't know what to think."

"You think he will be more stringent with me. Even if my crimes are judged to be less."

Frigga has the decency not to lie to him. (At least this once.) Instead, she says nothing at all.

Chapter Text

"I need details," Loki says. "How did he die? When and where? I can't undo what I don't know."

The witch sips oily liquid from a porcelain cup. "I must say, child, I don't know when I've ever had a more diverting conversation. Are you sure you won't take some tea?"

There are no chairs in the king's study. It's commonly known that if you have something worth saying to the All-Father, it's best done on your feet or not at all.

Odin stands before a great golden table at the center of the room, and around him is an array of royal clerks. Several are distracted as Loki and Frigga enter the already crowded space, but most watch in silence as Odin presses his seal to the bottom of a scroll bearing his signature. He hands the document over to the head clerk, who bows and rolls it up.

The room smells distastefully of mead and cheese, and Loki nearly forgets himself in the urge to roll his eyes. They are drunk, the lot of them. After all, the greatest feast in a thousand years was prepared for Thor's coronation. Though there is no celebrating now—indeed, the look on everyone's face is rather grim—the food and drink have obviously not gone to waste. Loki is rather surprised not to hear a covert belch or find a snoring guard collapsed in the corner.

Loki's eyes fall upon the All-Father and take particular interest in the bowed head. It's tempting to gloat over the depths of the king's weariness. But the longer his gaze lingers upon the one he's vowed never again to call father, the more Loki's borrowed heart gives in to a familiar ache. A traitorous twinge of worry soon follows.

"All-Father." Loki's voice is steady, a practiced effort.

(Are you all right?)

"Loki," Odin says—and somehow turns the name into a sigh. "Not now."

And suddenly it's so refreshingly easy to gloat over the depths of the king's weariness. Loki smiles pleasantly, enjoys the picturesque view, and waits his turn.

(Look at me, old man. Look at my face and see how I've lost all fear of you.)

But Odin doesn't look. He mutters something to the head clerk and directs them all to leave with an impatient wave of his hand. It's never a good sign when the All-Father resorts to non-verbal cues or sharp sounds to communicate. As the room empties, each passing clerk bows briefly to Frigga and Loki as they file out. Frigga inclines her head in polite reply, but Loki just stares at Odin. He still wears a smile, but it has started to crack along the edges.

Because Odin will still not look at him.

Loki has only enough presence of mind to wait for the door to close before he blurts out, "I was the one who let the frost giants into Asgard."

(But let's be honest, All-Father. You did it first. I'm nothing if not a quick study.)

Odin stills. And then he finally gives Loki what he came for. An audience.

Beside him, Frigga sways on her feet and stares. Loki wonders if she had pressed for more details on his confession, if she would still have advised him to speak out. Perhaps "minor treason" was not the most accurate of descriptions.

Loki savors the moment, fighting a smile as he shifts his eyes between their faces. Moments like these are the only time in his life when he has won the full attention of his parents—when he brings chaos. And this is his absolute favorite part—when the realization dawns on his targets that he should never be underestimated. It's the only reason he's ever let himself get caught.

Odin shifts his weight backwards and lifts his chin as he might in the battlefield to assess a potential threat.

Frigga is quick to grasp his hand. "Odin, please. Hear him out." She looks at Loki sharply. "I'm sure he has a very good explanation. You had better, my son."

"I would love to offer an excuse, mother," Loki says. "But I'm afraid such a thing is not in my possession. I might tell you I did it because I felt Thor was not ready for the throne. Or that I simply wanted to spoil his shining moment. But I grow weary of spinning lies. It is . . . exhausting."

Loki exhales and realizes the truth of his words. Where had that come from?

"What is the reason, then?" Odin asks. The words are quiet, and Loki is familiar enough with the All-Father's rage to know the quiet words are the ones to fear the most. Odin is furious.

Which was really rather the point.

"It was a childish whim," Loki says. "I wanted to be seen, to be noticed, even if for the wrong reasons. I suppose that's why I'm telling you this now. Even your anger is better than your indifference. You should punish me, All-Father. Not Thor."

Loki waits for the reaction, pitifully hungry for it. He wants Odin to rebuke him—because anything is better than apathy or being cast into a prison cell for all eternity. That was not punishment. That was an oubliette—a place of forgetting. Loki wants wrath. Even a good flogging, he would gratefully endure. A father disciplines a child for a purpose. Because they love and that hope their efforts will mold the child into something greater. Because they believe their child capable of change. Of being better.

Which is why it's like a dagger to Loki's heart when the All-Father takes up his scepter and strides from the room without a word.

Tears stab at Loki's eyes before he has a chance to shield himself with anger. The pain is guttural. Humiliating. But when Frigga's slap finds his cheek, he's reminded that pain can also be sweet.

Loki is dazed by the blow but even more so by the embrace she gives him a moment later. His cheek stings but a little—barely warm—and he is so pathetically grateful she bothered to let him know he did wrong that he can barely form words.

His arms tighten around her. "Mother . . ."

"Don't," she says, eyes shining with anger as she rears back to look at him. "How could you say such things? I have never been indifferent to you. Not from the moment I laid eyes on you. How dare you. How dare you."

As Loki watches her turn from him and follow the All-Father, he whispers, "Forgive me."

(Save your breath, Liesmith. You're not sorry at all.)

(A brilliant success—making your mother cry.)

(But it's still not enough, is it?)

(It's never been her love you doubted. But his.)

(For you are nothing but a political toy that has outlived its use.)

Every thought from his own cruel mind bows Loki down further and further until he thinks he might fall.

"Loki." The All-Father's powerful voice carries through the palace and echoes through to the study. "Odinson."

A summons.

Loki straightens. Lifts his chin.

He has misjudged the All-Father. Discipline awaits him after all.

If watching the birth of chaos was his favorite of all moments, this is possibly the worst—the realization that he has to pay the price for his actions. All at once, Loki feels as though he has slipped back in time even further. He is a wide-eyed child covered in the sticky evidence of his own mess, awaiting judgment and fury.

It is the worst and most glorious feeling in the world.

To have a father care enough to feel fury.

As Loki hangs his head and follows the All-Father to the throne room, he wonders when he became such a masochist.

To be continued.

More soon – thanks for reading!

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

Jane cries after he leaves her. Gasping, broken sobs that run away from her the harder she tries to catch them.

Because Loki has scared the shit out of her. And because as crazed and violent as he is, she still wants him close because he carries the warm cloak of Thor's love on his shoulders. She could almost detect Thor's scent lingering protectively on the back of his little brother's neck. But he's gone now. They're both gone.

Eventually her tears are spent, and she starts up the Jeep. The yellowing headlights fall upon deep marks burned into the desert sand. And she shakes her head, wondering.

How on earth did Loki manage to commandeer the Bifrost to answer her summons? Did he think she wouldn't notice?

The All-Father makes Loki wait.

Evidently his punishment is meant to be a public affair, and again Loki wonders why he willingly invites this sort of trouble upon himself. He can't help but remember another time he stood here—when the All-Father told him he would never again see his mother and would spend the rest of his days in a cell.

He's made to stand before the throne while the elder council gathers. With them come the clerks, military officers, and even Heimdall. Frigga waits in the shadows behind the throne, but she won't look at Loki. The disquieted look on her face tells him she already regrets striking her son.

Even Thor was afforded the dignity of a private trial when he was banished. Loki takes to hating Odin again, because it's easier and a more interesting way to pass the time. Much preferable to quaking in his boots the way Odin no doubt expects.

The hour is late and the crowd, restless. Their ruined coronation feast is ruined yet again. They stand about the great hall and whisper. They wonder at the stony look upon Odin's face. At the barely veiled anxiousness in Frigga's. And the unexpectedly bold calm of Loki's. There are rumors of Thor's exile. Of a confession from the Liesmith.

As Sif and the Warriors Three file in, Odin scans the crowd briefly as if to make sure all are accounted for. Then Gungnir's base strikes the floor, sending a low rumble through the hall. "The Odinsleep approaches," he says. "Kneel, Loki, and accept your birthright."

The murmuring takes a few moments to die down, and even then, the silence is uncertain. Loki's lips part as he realizes with the rest of them that Odin means to crown him. But it's not the offer of the throne that's so surprising. It's the mention of his birthright. In another time, Odin had told him the only thing he was ever owed in life was to die.

(Which is it, old man?)

(Are they one in the same, or do you just weave random words together for the sake of hearing yourself speak?)

Odin watches his son without regard for the murmuring crowd. He doesn't speak or look away until Loki remembers himself and lowers his body down on one knee.

"Loki Odinson," says the All-father. "Do you swear to guard the Nine Realms?"

It's only through years of disciplining his expression that Loki manages not to flinch.

He recognizes the oath. Knows it well, in fact. He's even triumphantly acted it out with his brother when they were children, waving wooden swords in the air whilst scaling the great bookshelves in the library. Loki was always able to climb the highest when Thor's weight inevitably threatened to topple his imaginary mountain.

Though Loki can recite the words by heart, they're suddenly very difficult to hear. Unthinkable to say. Perhaps because he's never truly taken the time to notice they hold meaning.

Odin waits with no hint of impatience, even though Loki's hesitation obviously unsettles the crowd. They shift and whisper amongst themselves. Loki could be imagining it, but he swears he catches the hint of a sparkle in the All-Father's eye. Could it be because he's actually thinking about the oath instead of mindlessly shouting his acceptance as Thor had?

(Stop being so dramatic, Liesmith. Speak out and claim your birthright.)

"I swear," Loki says at last, his voice quieter than even he expects.

"And do you swear to preserve the peace?" Odin continues.

Loki wants to laugh at the ridiculousness of the question. Odin, of all people, should know that ruling rarely involves a moment of peace. Preserving harmony meant striking at the heart of discord without mercy or hesitation. Now this was an oath to which Loki would gladly pledge himself.

"I swear," Loki answers, louder this time.

Odin actually smiles. It's a knowing smile. Not a pleasant one.

And Loki wonders if it's really possible that the old king has this demented a sense of humor? To put a frost giant on the throne of thrones. The very idea is so twisted and wrong that bile rises to the base of Loki's throat. He struggles to swallow it down as Odin draws in breath to further defile his own kingdom.

"Do you swear to cast aside all selfish ambition," Odin continues, "and to pledge yourself only to the good of the realm?"

Sweet Norns, did it ever end? Loki hears the words but his mind struggles to comprehend the weight of them. It's no use. He's never understood why looking out for himself is such a terrible thing. Others have torn him down his entire life, then mocked him for the very insecurities they instilled in him. What was so shameful about a little ambition?

(Are you in jest, Liesmith? What room is there for ambition when your future is already forfeit?)

(You have no self to cast aside. You gave it up, if you remember.)

(Some might go as far to define that as selflessness.)

(But let's not mock the memory of your dearly departed brother with such a boldfaced lie.)

Loki's chin lowers, his eyes unfocused. "I swear," he says, if only to shut his own mind up.

Because none of it matters anyway. All of these oaths are one in the same to him, and he's already made this promise to himself.

(I swear not to fall into the Void.)

"Then on this day, I—Odin All-Father—proclaim you king."

And then the most unthinkable thing happens. Odin descends from his throne, hands over his scepter, and kneels before a monster.

The lack of cheering is expected. The dead silence is perhaps not. But to be fair, it was one thing to whisper of one's doubts about a weakling prince—and another thing entirely to voice treason against a king of Asgard.

Frigga is second to kneel, and though there are proud tears in her eyes, worry also haunts the edges of her smile. The silence of the crowd is somewhat foreboding, but slowly, each citizen kneels in obedience and draws their fist to their heart.

Led by Odin, all swear fealty to the king.

It's something Loki has only ever tasted hints of before. He has craved this moment more than respect, love, and dignity combined.

Which is why it confuses him so when he finds no enjoyment in the realization of it. This is the cruelest of jokes. A farce. A mockery of everything Odin raised Loki to believe. Odin has outdone himself. Dethroned the God of Lies whilst seating him upon another one.

"Is this my punishment?" Loki asks quietly, keeping his head bowed as the All-Father prepares for sleep.

If Odin thinks it odd that Loki would liken kingship to punishment, he makes no mention of it. "No," he says as he sets a pile of papers into order and looks around for any last minute tasks that need attention. "That will come later. I need to think on it."

When Loki looks up, his eyes are strangely stripped of color by the room's golden glow. "Then why crown me?"

"Why wouldn't I? I've raised you to rule."

Loki laughs.

Odin laughs as well, but only to mock Loki's amusement. "You doubt me, my son. You assume I've never thought you worthy or even considered you for the throne, am I right?"

Loki's brow arches. "Am I wrong?"

"I think you'll be as good a king as you want to be," Odin says after a beat. "You've always been in control of your fate. You have a brilliant mind, and though some would deny it, a fiercely loyal heart. You are misguided, at times. But if you fail at this, my boy, it's because you chose to."

"That's ridiculous," Loki snaps.

"Is it? I remember times when you were a child, when you would compare your work to your brother's and find it lacking. You would destroy your efforts to hide them before anyone could see."

Loki draws back as if struck. He has no memory of such a thing. It was Odin and the whole of Asgard who had found him lacking. Not Loki himself.

"I don't know how long I will sleep," Odin says. "A word of advice. Sif and the Warriors Three will request Thor's banishment be ended. Do not allow this."

And again, Loki wants to laugh or possibly cry. To think that his first decision during his short failure of a reign would have been the same as the All-Father's.

"Thor will find his own way home if he proves himself worthy," Odin says, "but that doesn't mean he is yet worthy to rule. I have placed Gungnir in your hands, Loki, and it is to remain there until I awaken. If your brother returns before then and creates dissent or challenges you in any way, then you are to banish him again. You are king. Take ownership of that role and do not hesitate to strike out at those who would oppose you. I cannot stress this enough. Every citizen of Asgard expects Thor on the throne. I have placed you there instead. Those you think of as friends might well side against you. Sif. The Warriors Three. Even Heimdall and members of the council. Be alert but also allow them time to acquaint themselves with your rule. Trust and loyalty take time. These things will come to you if you're patient."

Loki draws in a slow breath and holds it there. His borrowed skin feels too tight. He wonders yet again if any of this is real. Would events truly have taken this course had he not immediately gone in search of the Casket and demanded the truth of his origins from his father?

"When I awaken," Odin continues, "you and I will sit down and look at what you've done. We'll work through the successes and failures. There will be both, Loki. Kingship is impossibly difficult and mistakes will be made."

Even now, Odin braces himself for disappointment.

"You think me incapable," Loki says, anger aiding in his quest to find his voice.

"Do not twist my words," Odin says. "They are almost the exact ones I spoke to Thor before his coronation, though he only nodded without listening or thinking. Already you have surpassed him by simply hearing me. But do not willfully misunderstand me." Odin places a hand on Loki's shoulder, close to the crook of his neck. "You are a king now, and the time has come to end your childish pranks. It's time you grew up and learned to accept your failures along with the successes. My first month on the throne, I nearly destroyed millennia of hard work my forefathers fought for because I let my temper outshine wisdom instilled in me since the cradle. I also ordered the execution of thirteen soldiers I later discovered to be innocent of treason. Mistakes will be made, Loki. They happen to us all. But I didn't give up after those failures. I pressed on and learned from them. I tell you this not to say I expect you to fail but because I don't want you to destroy your work before I've had the chance to see it."

Loki cannot hold the All-Father's gaze. He stares at his chest instead, which looks so strange not covered in armor, and tries to remember if anyone's ever strung so many sentences together for his sake before.

"Father," Loki says, betraying his promise never to call Odin that again. "Sleep. Your kingdom will be intact when you awaken." He means what he says but can't resist letting his eyes flash dangerously at his father as an afterthought. "That is, if I wish it."

Odin barks a laugh and claps his son on the shoulder. The blow is surprisingly frail, more of a grasp for balance than anything else, and suddenly Odin's legs begin to quake. A helpless kind of panic washes over Loki. It's never been easy for him to see someone he thought unbreakable laid to waste by such weariness. It reminds him that even gods must die one day.

Loki grasps his father beneath one arm and calls for the guards to help. Frigga rushes in with them, worry still etched on her face as she draws back the covers on the great golden bed. Even as she urges Odin to lie back, he stubbornly grasps at Loki's hand and tries to speak.

"You must rest, father," Loki says, squeezing the All-Father's fingers to conceal how badly they're shaking. "I will do my utmost to make you proud."

(You really mean it, don't you? How pathetically sad.)

(Do you never learn from your mistakes?)

A good father might have told his son he was already proud. But Odin is not a good father. He is a king first, and so he says instead, "No, Loki. That's not what I want."

And then he's gone. Loki stares at the slumbering king, bewildered and hurt by his parting words.

(I warned you, didn't I?)

Frigga puts her hand over Loki's, which is still closed protectively over the All-Father's. "I don't think he had a chance to finish his last thought," she says.

Loki blinks, willing the moisture to retreat from his shining eyes. "I understood him well enough."

"Your father wants you to be your own man, Loki, not act out of a desire to please him. That's why he refused your declaration."

Loki hears his mother's words but isn't certain what to do with them. She softens Odin's rebuke to make it easier to swallow—a silvertongue in her own right—but that doesn't mean her interpretation is true. She wants only to comfort Loki because she's kind and loves even the lowliest of creatures.

Though his mother begs him to rest, Loki doesn't leave his father's side for the remainder of the night. He simply stares at the golden sheen that works to protect and restore the old king. Loki realizes how very young he had been when he first took hold of Gungnir. Little more than a boy, not yet a man. He never did make it to manhood, but instead progressed to monster. But even monsters are capable of reflection. And so he sits and wonders if he really had misunderstood those two words spoken so long ago.

No, Loki.

To be continued.

If you have a moment, I'd love to know what you thought. Thanks for reading!

Chapter Text

Thor is cleverer than Loki often deigns to admit.

Certainly, the wheels in the great oaf's brain take time to make their first full revolutions—but even Loki knows that it's hope and a pureness of heart that dims Thor's wits and makes him so quick to trust and act. It's a willful stupidity, which is quite possibly the stupidest thing Loki has ever heard of.

And yet it's the only thing that has kept him going for so long. Knowing that someone still hopes. Or rather did.

(At what point did you lose that hope, brother, and let the wheels of your mind spin unheeded?)

(At what point did you lose everything else?)

King Loki is drunk.

Spectacularly, blissfully floating on high in a farce of the past.

It isn't the first time he's broken into the king's private library and uncorked this very same bottle of priceless elven wine. Odin has long kept it magically sealed for centuries upon centuries to remain perfectly preserved.

Loki drinks it straight from the bottle with his boots up on the desk, planted in the direct center of one of his father's many leather-bound journals. The wine is no less delicious the second time around, though his borrowed body isn't handling the potency of the alcohol nearly as well as the monster's had.

"Look at you," Loki says to the bottle, which mirrors back his own reflection in the iridescent blue glass. "A baby, you are. Such soft, round cheeks and gentle features. A veritable treasure."

It's the very word Loki's boots rest upon in his father's journal: treasure.

How many different meanings can a single word hold, he wonders? It depends on context. The inflection. But the journal entry has neither.

Today I found treasure in Jotunheim.

Six lonely words dedicated to (Loki can only assume) the "birth" of the king's second child. Loki has looked for this journal before—one of dozens lining the great shelves of the king's library—but years in the future, this particular volume is missing. And of course, it's the only one Loki has ever truly cared about seeing.

It contains a full account of the war with Jotunheim, and Loki has waded for hours through countless pages of pretentious-warmongering-disguised-as-kingly-wisdom to find those six words. They only stood out then because of their brevity. Though when has Odin ever wasted much time thinking of Loki?

And what is Loki to make of his father's succinct declaration? Did Odin truly treasure his changeling child, or did he only see an object of political worth? Any way Loki tries to think of it, he can't move past how perverse it all feels. Either Odin had proudly claimed a monster as a treasure, or the old king is a monster himself. Neither thought improves Loki's opinion of him.

Suddenly inspired, Loki swings his legs off of the desk and sits up straight in front of the journal. Taking up a pen, he taps it against his lips briefly as he decides how best to summarize his thoughts on the matter.

He is a king now, after all, and has every right to transcribe his magnanimous reflections alongside those of former rulers.

"I sincerely hope," Loki says aloud as he scribbles the words in the margins, "your discovered treasure had the presence of mind to urinate on you."

When the alcohol wears off, Loki is left feeling hollow and gutted. After watching the old king sleep for the entirety of the night and then spending the morning finding imaginative ways to disrespect him, the need to sleep has finally driven an ache deep into the pit of Loki's stomach.

Again, he attempts to return to his old chambers to rest. This time, he can't even bring himself to touch the door.

(Whatever's the matter, high king of Asgard?)

(Afraid to sleep in a dead man's room?)

Loki draws in a shaky breath and nearly gives in to the instantaneous desire to go to his brother's chambers instead. Where the air smelled of well-oiled leather and polished iron and ashes from the hearth. With the enormous bed that still wasn't quite long enough for Thor's sprawling legs. It's where Loki always went as a child when he felt frightened or unsure. Thor rarely coddled him once they reached a certain age, but his warm presence had always done the trick regardless.

But Loki isn't stupid enough to go there. He knows that room will be much like his own. Filled with absence and emptiness. Another dead man's room.

There will be no rest for him today.

Loki straightens his posture and orders a passing servant to have another room prepared for him at once.

Sif and the Warriors Three track him down by early afternoon. They are later than expected, but perhaps only because Loki has taken to wandering through the Queen's gardens again in an attempt to avoid the throne room. There is a clear view of the Bifrost over the stone walls, and Loki finds his gaze lingering there as he paces.

Gungnir's cool weight feels strange in his hand—as though its owner has asked him to hold it for only the briefest of moments but then disappeared for an unexpected length of time. Loki cannot shake the feeling that it does not belong in his hand.

The four start by kneeling with their forearms across their chests. "My king," Volstagg begins.

Loki's fingers tighten around Gungnir. "Such sincerity. The answer is no."

"You do not yet know the question," Sif says as she rises to her feet. "You're not even looking at us."

Loki simply smiles in reply, eyes still fixed on the silent Bifrost.

"Shall we go in search of the queen instead?" Sif says. "Perhaps she'd be more willing to perform the royal duties for Asgard today."

The Warriors Three share in a worried glance. "Loki," Fandral says. "Er, I mean, my king. What Lady Sif means to say is that we feel . . . . "

"You want Thor's banishment ended," Loki says. "Which, I might remind you, was my father's last decree before entering the Odinsleep."

"No, the All-Father's last decree was crowning you," Sif says. "A king has the power to end a banishment."

Do not allow this, Odin had said. Do not hesitate to strike out at those who would oppose you.

Loki could tell them Odin's last decree was actually spoken to him in private, but he resists the urge to lean on his father's leadership rather than assert his own. It is unexpectedly difficult.

"I do have that power," Loki says. "But I will not use it to end Thor's banishment."

Though he isn't certain why. Hadn't he gone to the All-Father and confessed his sins for the sole purpose of bringing Thor home? What had changed his mind?

Loki finally lets his gaze fall away from the Bifrost and turns to his brother's friends. He smiles as he watches the treasonous thoughts take form in Sif's eyes.

He'd been too naive the first time he'd had this conversation, thinking her honor would keep her from challenging Asgard's king. He knows better now that he's witnessed her treason first hand. Twice now, in fact. She has betrayed not only him but the All-Father as well—all of them have—because to them, Thor is already their king.

Loki does not expect to ever win their friendship, but winning their cooperation is not an impossible task. It's a simple matter of appealing to their sense of duty and love for his brother.

"The All-Father gave Thor a way out, you know," Loki says quietly. "Should he prove himself worthy of it."

"What?" Sif says. "Why did you not speak of this before?"

Loki shrugs. "Because I don't like you?"

Hogun puts a quieting hand on Sif's shoulder before her temper gets the best of her. "What were the terms?" he asks.

"I have already named them," Loki says. "Thor must prove himself worthy. Only then will he be able to reclaim Mjolnir and return."

"Thor is already worthy," Sif says.

"Apparently not. For I do not hear his loutish footfalls scampering about in the hall."

"He is a prince of Asgard," she says. And rightful king, her eyes add. "I admit he is rash and often foolish in his haste, but even you must admit he is the best of us all, Loki."

The Warriors Three hold their breath. Volstagg reminds Sif she should not address him so, and she begrudgingly adds, "My king," to the end of her sentence.

"You and I are not to be the judge of Thor's worth," Loki says. "The All-Father tasked Mjolnir with that decision."

Even Sif falls silent at that.

"Where did he fall?" Fandral asks.

"Midgard. Into the desert."

Loki stops speaking after that. He shouldn't know so many details yet. But it's a minor slip that he can find his way around later if the need presents itself.

"Does Thor know the All-Father gave him a way to return?" Hogun asks.

Loki nearly smiles. It always amazes him when one of the Warriors Three actually utilizes their minds. "He does not. Father cast Mjolnir into the Bifrost after Thor. Not with him."

"And you would just leave your brother there without any comfort or hope of ending his banishment?" Sif says. "He does not even have his weapon. Thor has always looked out for you, Loki. He loves you and would go to you instantly if you were cast out."

Loki feels cold spreading through his limbs, and again, his eyes are drawn to the Bifrost. "Would he?"

It's strange—but Loki struggles to remember his brother's face.

The sun burns too brightly in his memory. Thor's features are lost to him until all Loki sees is his own shadow.

He remembers the sound of Thor's horrified screams as Loki's fingers let go of Gungnir. He remembers the thrill of the lightning Thor had brought down as he raged at the humans who'd captured his little brother. He remembers the salt left on his cheek from Thor's tears in Svartalfheim.

But his face is gone.

Sif is either oblivious to his introspection or simply impatient with it. "Of course he would, you imbecile."

"We shall all be executed for this," Fandral says into the hand covering his face. "I beg your pardon, my king. Sif speaks too freely with you."

Loki would be in his right to punish Sif for her insolence. His father had all but given him permission to do so before falling into the Odinsleep. She's very lucky he's after her allegiance rather than vengeance.

"I am called Liesmith, as you know," Loki says. "But I tell you this, Lady Sif. I will never punish you for speaking the truth. I only ask that you first consider the real truth. That you love my brother and would do anything—betray anyone—to get him back."

She is speechless for one long moment. Then, "I-I would not betray Asgard. Or my king."

Loki grins. "Ooh. Now who's the liar?"

Sif pushes forward, but Hogun and Fandral hold her back.

"You entreated me to end Thor's banishment, and I have refused," Loki says, unaffected by her rage. "Now Lady Sif. Do you have anything else you wish to ask?"

"Will you go to him?" Sif asks through clenched teeth.

"No. Anything else?"

"Will you allow us to go to him?" She obviously expects a refusal, for her cheeks color with fresh anger.

"Finally," Loki says. "She asks the right question."

Hope and surprise blossom in her eyes at the same time that Loki narrows his own.

(There. I will have you yet, my lady.)

After all, why not send her away with his blessing when she will only betray him if he refuses her? Sif will go to Midgard with or without consent. In truth, it will be rather nice to have her out of the way. All of them, in fact.

"See that Thor is safe," Loki says. "See that he remembers himself and returns to us soon."

(And get out of my realm before I strike you down where you stand.)

Loki is not surprised when Sif thanks him and bows gratefully before departing with the others. She does so only because her heart is flooded with gratitude and relief—not because she has given her loyalty to Loki as her king. She is a creature whose thoughts and actions are ruled by the sentiment of the moment—just like Thor.

(And you.)

(Let's not forget what a blazing hypocrite you are.)

True to form, he flinches when the Bifrost pierces the sky. His traitorous friends have yet again left him to face ruling on his own. And it's about that time that Loki figures out why he's still so angry with Thor. Because he has left him, too—at the very moment he needed support the most.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

The dream wakes Loki up in a panic. He's covered in sweat, panting, his muscles tensed in anticipation of a fight. And yet even as his eyes regain their focus and recognize that he's alone in his newly prepared chambers at the palace, Loki can still see the dream's continuation quite clearly in his mind.

For it's not a dream at all—but a message.

He sees Thor drop to his knees in the mud before Mjolnir, head hung low in utter defeat. The echoes of his screams are carried away in the wind until they too are nothing.

Thor has sent the King of Asgard a message expressing his discontent, and Gungnir has delivered it to Loki accordingly.

It's the second time he's received it, and though he's had time to calm down from the heights of his rage this time around, his gut reaction is unchanged. He still loves and hates the thought of his brother brought so low. He triumphs in Thor's defeat at the same time that it makes his stomach turn.

Loki knows he won't go to him—not to rub it in, nor to lie, nor to comfort. He's absolutely frozen when it comes to Thor, and he can't for the life of him figure out why that is.

(What a good joke. You're just full of them lately.)

(You know exactly why.)

(It's painted all over you.)

Loki's head hangs just as low as Thor's as he grips handfuls of his hair and pulls. "Shut," he whispers desperately, "up."

The woman is elderly but not so old that she cannot work. Loki tries not to look too bored as he watches her struggle to kneel. Judging from the looks of those in the throne room, he hasn't tried hard enough. But not even that inspires him to show more interest or compassion. Why should he listen to the "hardships" of Asgard's citizens when they have no idea the hardships they forced him to endure?

Nearly two weeks have passed since Loki took the throne, and nearly every second has been filled with the incessant whining of his people. They beg for aid and for war and for Loki to fail.

Thor has not returned, and the elders of the council whisper that the All-Father might not have been in his right mind when he banished his firstborn son.

Thor has not returned, and Asgard whispers that the All-Father was far too severe in his judgment when the only trespass was a few dead frost giants.

Thor has not returned, and Loki has spent the last ten days trying to figure out precisely why that is.

What was different this time around? Was Thor's worth really only shown when he acted in direct defiance to Loki? Even Mjolnir seemed to think him unsuitable for the throne.

The elderly woman is speaking now, and Loki's focus returns to her in time to catch the last few words of her plea.

"I ask only for enough aid to feed the child," the woman says. "She doesn't belong to me. Her mother is dead."

"And her father?" Loki asks.

"He is unknown to me." But something in the woman's face says she knows more than she's willing to say.

Ah—a whore's child, then. What a lovely way to waste another afternoon when he could be attending to his plans for the future.

"You made the choice to take this child in," Loki says. "Are you not willing to work to support her?"

"I do work, my king. It yields only enough to support myself."

"And what is your trade?"

The woman falls silent and lowers her head. Loki smiles.

An aging whore. Charming.

He's only sympathetic enough not to repeat the question and force her to admit her profession out loud. "Give this woman the supplies she needs to support herself and the child by tailoring linens for the soldiers."

The woman appears bewildered. "Thank you, my king," she stammers, "but I do not know how to sew."

"You will learn," Loki says. "Just from our short time together, I can already tell that earning a living with your hands isn't beneath you. And while you're at it, I daresay you will also learn why it's unwise to adopt a child you're ill-prepared to care for."

Many hours later, Loki wonders if perhaps his judgment was a bit too harsh. Too personal and filled with misdirected anger.

But the woman is gone now, and he doesn't want to think hard enough to admit why he was so unkind to her.

Loki chooses to walk the length of the rainbow bridge rather than ride there. The edges hold a new kind of horror to him now, and he trusts only his own feet to remain planted in the direct middle.

"Heimdall," he says when he reaches the Observatory. "I must say, you're looking positively radiant this evening."

Both Heimdall's hands rest upon the hilt of his sword as he gazes at Loki without expression. "My king."

With an ironic smirk, Loki strolls past him and walks to the open edge of the Observatory. He's been avoiding this journey since the beginning, but Heimdall has summoned him twice now. While it was good fun to ignore the first, it would be unwise to do so again. War is brewing, and his brother is far from home. Not even Loki knows what the future holds anymore.

Beneath his feet, water falls peacefully into the Void, unknowing of the terrible trap below. Loki stares at the mist and feels pity for it.

"What of Jotunheim?" he asks, ignoring the pressure of Heimdall's unblinking gaze on his back.

"They prepare," Heimdall says.

"And what do you see of their plans?"

"Very little. They are shrouded."

Loki blinks twice before replying. "How is that possible?"

"They learn quickly once taught. Though perhaps they lack the same finesse or power as their teacher."

Loki smiles. He knew Heimdall would quickly suspect Loki's part in showing the frost giants a secret path into Asgard, but the watchman's boldness in proclaiming it right to Loki's face never ceases to amaze him. This Loki of the past truly commands little fear or respect.

"They are shrouded, yes," Heimdall continues, "but I can still sense what seeks to blind me. I will alert you when the shroud begins to move."

Loki waits for more, but when it doesn't come, he turns and feigns a look of surprise. "That's it? That's all the reaction my act of treason is to receive?"

"You spoke of your actions to the All-Father," Heimdall says after a pause. "Who am I to challenge his decision to crown you?"

Loki returns his gaze to the Void again, uncertain how to reply to that. The more he changes the past, the more uncertain he becomes of the future. He no longer knows exactly when or how Heimdall will betray him. It's an unsettling thought.

Silence falls in the Observatory. Unending. Maddening. Just like the Void Loki can't seem to look away from.

When Heimdall's hand closes over Loki's upper arm, he nearly strikes out at him with Gungnir. But when he meets the watchman's eyes, he finds they are calm and neither kind nor unkind as he maintains a tight grip on his king. It's only when Loki's body adjusts backwards that he realizes he was tipping forward, ready to fall. Heimdall's grip on his arm is like iron.

"Do you wish to know of your brother?" Heimdall asks.

Loki snorts as he shakes off the watchman's hand. "Let me guess. He has already found a warm home, a full belly, and the unfailing love and support of mortal companions. My, but the All-Father is so very cruel in his judgments."

"Thor found Mjolnir in the desert but failed to lift it. Did you not hear his cries?"

Loki's left eye twitches. "I heard. I sent his friends to him in support, did I not?"

"The Warriors Three rally in support of your brother. Sif watches him. She does not understand why he cannot lift Mjolnir. Though she begins to."

"Ah," Loki says with a chuckle. "There must be another woman involved."

Heimdall remains silent, neither confirming nor denying.

"Fear not, good watchman," Loki says. "Asgard's golden prince will return triumphant with time. He has been brought low enough, and eventually logic works its way through even the murky recesses of his brain."

"He has no reason to return."

Loki thinks this ridiculous. Though the Thor of the future has admittedly matured, this Thor cannot be pleased that someone has beaten him in the race for the throne. Thor has always desired it as one would a trophy—though he has absolutely no comprehension of what ruling truly is.

"It seems he's grown too comfortable on Midgard, then," Loki says. "I suppose I could send the Destroyer after him. Shake things up a bit. That would certainly inspire him to take up his weapon."

Heimdall is silent for a beat. "It would not be enough."

And at that declaration, Loki wants to laugh. Because Heimdall took him seriously and did not question him. "You misjudge my brother. He is a creature who reacts. He does not think. Should I strike, Thor's hammer will strike back ten times as hard."

"I do not see how that would make him worthy," Heimdall says. "He will only perish at your hand should you strike, and while it is clear you are angry with him, his death is not your aim."

"And what do you know of my aim?" Loki asks, his voice cooled into silk. "Or my anger?"

Heimdall's hand again closes over his arm, and Loki feels suddenly feral with indignation.

(Do you honestly think I'm stupid enough to jump?)

(I am king. I own you. And the Bifrost.)

(And it is my birthright to stand here and to jump to my death and madness and despair if I so desire.)

"I know only that which you have shown me," Heimdall says quietly. "And it is my sworn duty to protect the king."

Loki snorts. "Which one?"

"I do not understand the question. There is but one king."

And again, Loki wants to ask which one Heimdall refers to. But he doesn't have the chance before the watchman speaks again.

"Sif calls to me. She requests the Bifrost be opened."

Loki nearly groans. He doesn't want her here, for he knows exactly what she comes to say. That Thor's banishment is unjust and must come to an end at Loki's decree. But even knowing that, he doesn't stop Heimdall from allowing her passage back into Asgard.

Because Sif has seen his brother. Spoken to him. Perhaps even embraced him. She can bear witness that the Thor of this time still draws breath.

When she arrives at the Observatory, her skin is stained with evidence of a desert sunburn, and she wears a familiar scowl as she acknowledges Loki's presence. She pauses only long enough to say, "Your brother is an arse," before storming off in the direction of the palace.

To be continued.

A/N – Thanks for reading! If you have a few moments, I'd love to know what you thought.

Chapter Text

"All I want is for Thor to live," Loki says. "That's it. Give him a future, and you'll have mine as your payment."

"I take payment up front," the witch replies as she sharpens her knife. "But are you sure that's your final request? I really don't think you understand what you've asked for."

"Blundering," Sif seethes, "stubborn, mule-headed pig of a man."

Inexplicably, Loki has grown rather fond of Sif on their journey back to the palace.

They walk with haste down the length of the rainbow bridge, though his strides are much longer than her quick, aggravated steps. He's so amused that he even forgets to fear the edge.

"He abandons Asgard at her hour of need!" she says, conveniently ignoring the fact that she has done the same thing. "And thinks nothing of it. He only drinks and laughs and flirts, and, 'Oh, another!' Can he really not see why Mjolnir deems him unworthy?"

Loki feigns a look of heartfelt understanding as he nods. This is quite possibly the best conversation he's had since engaging with that lovely little spider on Midgard.

"We can only hope Thor soon comes to his senses and returns to his rightful home," Loki intones with the utmost reverence. And then tries not to dissolve into giggles.

"You're just loving this, aren't you?" Sif asks.

"Oh my, yes."

She draws up short and looks at him hard. "What's wrong with you?"

"Well, let's see. Wherever to begin."

"You are bolder now. And mouthier."

"My lady—if you had an interest in my mouth, you had only to ask."

She draws back, her tanned, freckled nose scrunched in distaste. "That is disgusting."

Loki's face splits into a grin. He's having far too much fun with her discomfort to take offense. For now, at least. "Mmm, and that's rather the best part, is it not? How wrong it is."

"Loki Odinson," she bites out. "You are not acting like yourself. And just so we're clear, my king, I speak to you plainly because I think of you as a brother—and I do not like it when my sibling entertains incestuous thoughts about me. Now get your greasy little smirk out of my way and tell me the news of Jotunheim."

Over the course of the next three days, Loki finds he has a persistent shadow. And she is in a terribly terrible mood.

Sif follows him to meals and to the library and at times even hovers outside his chambers until he knows nothing of peace. She watches him in the throne room while he judges crimes and requests from the citizens, and though she criticizes his every decree with her eyes, she doesn't budge until he rises to take his leave.

"Not that I don't appreciate having someone glare at me every waking hour," Loki says when he can't seem to shake her on the fourth morning. "Or the glares that somehow find me even in my unwaking ones, but it really is unnecessary for you to linger."

Sif glares at him—possibly to be ironic, but he doesn't think her capable of such mental feats. She is hard, blunt honesty, and so she responds with, "Do you have any idea what people say behind your back?"

Loki's spine tingles. He does, in fact. Heimdall has spoken to him at length of the growing treasonous thoughts of the people. Loki's judgments are deemed cold, his reluctance to strike at Jotunheim cowardly, and his refusal to bring Thor home unforgivably shameful. His mocking rebuff of bribes from council members has even earned him several powerful enemies.

And yet he persists. Because his future is forfeit, and he really doesn't give a damn. Though also because it amuses him to tears that they have no idea who they're fucking with.

"I realize in comparison to the great and mighty Thor, you think me unworthy on the battlefield, but I am more than capable of defending myself," Loki says.

Sif hoists an eyebrow. "Against an entire realm? Your brother should be here. He should be the one guarding your back. No one would dare whisper then."

"And yet here we are," Loki says with a pleasant smile that isn't very pleasant at all.

"What has happened to you, Loki?" Sif asks for the hundredth time. "I do not understand what's happened."

(Enlightenment, my lady.)

Jotunheim strikes without warning.

Not even Heimdall has opportunity to summon Loki as discussed, for the frost giants have studied their teacher's example very carefully and waited to act until they mastered the trick of slipping by unseen. They strike in the quiet hours just before dawn, when most are asleep and those who aren't wish they were. And so by the time the shouts of alarm begin to ring out from the guards, the palace is already swarming with frost giants.

Loki falls out of bed with a crash and summons Gungnir to his hand. His armor materializes before he reaches the door. The hallway is flush with an unnatural chill, and as the sounds of battle reach him, Loki's blood runs cold as he realizes what's happening.

(And whose fault it is.)

He runs.

When Sif and a half dozen palace guards find Loki, he has just sent two giants to a fiery death with Gungnir. Their smoldering remains steam in the frostbitten air as they lay, broken and bleeding, on the marble staircase.

"How many others?" Loki asks, wiping blood from his chin. His lower lip is split.

Sif is uninjured save for an angry red mark on the side of her face. "I do not know," she says between heaving gasps of air. "We killed four others in the throne room, but their presence there felt like a distraction. Loki—what of your father?"

Loki stops breathing as he feels the rush of eerie, gut-wrenching irony, but he pushes the thought away before it can double him over. Striking Gungnir's base on the marble stairs, Loki shouts a powerful command. "To the All-Father. Protect the king and queen!"

Gungnir flares obediently and carries his words to every listening ear in the palace.

It is his first decree as king that is obeyed without hesitation.

The battle gains focus. There is a directive now—a goal to organize the scattered, panicked minds all across the palace.

Loki flies up the staircase, four steps at a time, with the palace guards at his back struggling to keep up. A frost giant greets him at the top, swinging his ice-encased arm like a hammer around a blind corner. It hits Loki hard in the chest, and he flies backwards into a column. The breath rushes out of him and freezes into a cloud before his eyes.

"Protect the king!" a guard cries, reminding his comrades of their mission.

"I didn't mean me, you imbecile!" Loki roars as the idiots swarm him.

With a wave of Gungnir, he sweeps the lot of them off their feet, and then conjures a knife that finds the giant's throat a breath later.

He wrenches free of the tangle of bodies and runs, killing enemies without hesitation as he flies. Sif battles to remain at his side, her movements effortlessly complimenting his after so many years of fighting together, though her eyes widen when she sees Loki use techniques and maneuvers she's never witnessed from him before. Any soldiers they pass quickly fall into place behind them, and Loki does not imagine the surprised looks on their faces as they see their young king take up arms with such mastery. Though he has always been competent, his skill improved significantly after he fell, spurred on by fury instead of inhibited by the insecurity of his youth. His borrowed muscles are not used to the movements, but he pushes through the pain.

Soon their path leads them to nothing but unmoving bodies—mostly those of their enemies. Loki's pace slows as the doorway of his parents' chambers comes into view. A crowd of palace guards blocks the entrance, and their faces are not relaxed in victory. A feeling of dread spreads through Loki's veins.

"My king," one guard says to him, his eyes bright with fear. "They are here."

"Get out of my way," Loki orders, shoving him roughly aside.

The crowd parts for him. But not only that—they look to him for guidance. They are fearful and uncertain. It's all Loki can do not to look around for whoever is supposed to give him guidance. But Gungnir resides in his hand. There is no other to look to.

And so it's with wary calmness that he strides to the front of his soldiers and looks King Laufey dead in the eye.

There are two Jotunn warriors in the room with Laufey, bringing the total to three. The Jotunn King stands boldly at the front, with little fear of the far greater number of his enemies, for he has hauled the All-Father from his bed and holds the weakened body in front of his own to shield himself. Odin's eye is open but just barely—a dazed, unseeing slit of vivid blue—and it's unclear if he's aware of the curved blade held tight against his throat. Two giants stand behind Laufey with weapons held at the ready. And between them is the queen, sitting on the ground and tangled up in the heap of her robes. She holds her frostbitten arm to her chest as if it's broken and looks at her youngest son with fear he's never seen before.

Loki's anger sends the temperature in the room plummeting impossibly further. "You dare."

"Loki . . . darling . . ." Frigga whispers, inching forward ever so slightly. "It's all right. We're all right."

Laufey laughs at this display. "I did not realize there were two princesses in the house of Odin." He bows his head with a sneer. "Your majesty. My heartfelt apologies, but what did the bitch say your name was again? There are no great songs or stories of Odin's runt."

The Aesir guards shift and grit their teeth at the insult. For once, they feel rage on Loki's behalf. Their whispers bubble up, gaining volume with each passing moment.

How dare the Jotunn filth insult Asgard's king? His name is Loki, and he is Odinson.

How noble the young king looks! How tall and straight-backed and unflinching. How his anger burns his enemies before him.

He slew dozens in his flight to save the king and queen. Would that the All-Father wake to see his son.

"Silence," Loki says, having suddenly achieved a perfect state of calm. "Heimdall, open the Bifrost. And aim its full power at Jotunheim."

Gungnir carries his voice so that it echoes throughout the palace and out into the streets, all the way to the Bifrost. Heimdall can hear him without Gungnir's aid, of course, but that isn't Loki's intent. He wants them all to hear.

A brief moment later, the golden room is aglow as the Bifrost's beam cuts through the sky outside, as seen through the windows. Even the frost giants flinch at the sudden brightness, though they are not quite certain why.

"Do you understand what that means?" Loki says, taking a bold step toward Laufey. "Allow me to illustrate. The longer the Bifrost pierces the land of your birth, the more of your people perish at its fury. It's happening at this very moment, in fact. It rips them apart where they stand." Loki breaks off with a smile. "And it gets even better. Soon the ground will tear asunder, frozen so cold that the entirety of your realm will shatter and fail. Now surrender your weapon, monster, and release your prisoners unharmed. Or I will turn all the great songs and stories told of you, King Laufey, into a wretched fragment of a memory."

Laufey is no longer smiling. "You lie."

Loki tastes his own blood from his split lip and for once delights in the fact that it's Laufey's blood as well. His grin widens, accompanied by a crazed, breathless laugh. "Shall I show you? It's a marvelous spectacle."

At his will, Gungnir burns the image of Jotunheim's suffering into the minds of the frost giants. It knocks the breath out of them and they stare, wide-eyed and unblinking, at the destruction of their realm.

"We had a treaty with Asgard," Laufey all but screams. He presses the knife against the All-Father's throat so hard that it draws blood, and yet Odin still cannot seem to move. "Your people broke it first."

"Then I fail to understand why you doubt my eagerness to finish the job," Loki says through his teeth, taking another bold step forward. "And so I say again—drop your weapon. And kneel."

It isn't until Loki catches the menacing shadow of his horns that he realizes he's clothed in full armor. He doesn't remember calling upon his helmet, but with it, he stands taller than anyone present, save for the giants. And even then, his shadow falls heavy upon them.

Laufey roars with frustration. "I will not bow to you, boy. It is under my heel your head will be crushed. I laid claim to your death long ago."

Loki flinches. "I said kneel."

"I should have bashed your worthless skull in when I had the chance," Laufey says, breathing the words like the holiest of oaths.

Gungnir strikes the ground hard, sending out a shockwave, and then Loki is screaming, "KNEEL."

The torchlight wavers, nearly extinguished before flaring back to life from the rush of oxygen. Dust floats down from the golden rafters, disturbed by the tremor, and falls upon the heaving shoulders of Asgard's King. A hush goes over everything.

And still, Laufey refuses to kneel. His arm tenses to drag the knife across Odin's throat.

In the end, it doesn't matter. The larger giant that stands behind Laufey strikes the Jotunn king hard over the back of the head with an icy arm. Laufey loses hold of both his weapon and his prey, and Odin drops limply to the ground with only minor injuries. His breaths come evenly, and his eye is still cracked open but dazed. His lips move, trying to form words, but none come.

The larger giant again strikes Laufey, driving him to his knees, and the smaller one soon catches on and kicks his king in the back, sending him sprawling.

In the end, King Laufey never does quite kneel. And yet Loki is satisfied. The sight of his birth father, betrayed and groveling on his belly, is quite sufficient.

Loki's eyes flicker to the two traitorous frost giants, studying them closer. Their markings and ornaments are similar to Laufey's. That of royalty. And Loki realizes with a jolt that they are Laufey's sons. The smaller one bears more than a little resemblance to Asgard's King.

"We kneel before you, King Loki," the larger one says as he drops to the ground. "And surrender our weapons. I humbly beg you to show mercy to our realm."

The smaller, younger giant kneels as well, though doing so obviously pains his anger and pride. And at his surrender, Loki truly does stand tallest in the room. And it's not only the frost giants who have knelt at his command, but his own soldiers kneel before the king's anger as well. Even Sif is down on one knee, her hand on her sword's hilt as she watches her king with thinned, bloodless lips.

"Heimdall," Loki says quietly.

Without hesitation, the Bifrost's fury slowly spins to a halt and flickers into darkness. Jotunheim is saved.

Laufey's eldest son sags even lower to the ground, limp with relief. The younger one only glares with icy red coals for eyes.

"Bind them," Loki orders. "Bring them and any others who still live to the dungeons to await trial."

It is his second command as king that is obeyed without hesitation.

And so ended the war with Jotunheim.

To be continued.

A/N – Anyone else out there dig badass Loki-with-horns? Rawr.

More soon!

Chapter Text

(He's not, he's not, he can't be .)

Loki's throat feels ripped apart from screaming, and yet he cannot seem to stop. His mouth is caught open. His fingers empty. His lungs barren. He can't inhale or exhale, so he screams without making a sound.

What was he thinking, answering Jane Foster's summons? It's not like he didn't already know. Her messages had made it to Asgard. They had made it to the king.

The king masquerading as a king while the watchman slept.

Just a plea to come. No details as to why. Just a persistent request to please, please come, something has happened.

And he knew. Long before Jane Foster's tears ran like rivers intent on drowning him. Denial only delayed the drenching.

He's lost count of how many attempts he's made on his brother's life. It's never mattered. Thor is the one constant of the universe. The thorn in his side that will never stop twisting and driving deeper. The boot that will never fail to find his neck to keep him down. The one voice that will never stop telling him to come home.

What was a shadow without the sun?

Loki's mouth is still caught open. He is drowning. His lips move, incapable of making sound, because he is truly nothing now. He is emptied out and is nothing. "Brother," he mouths with trembling lips. "My brother."

It's too late to ask for forgiveness. He never thought it'd be too late.

Frigga's broken arm has the slightest tremor to it.

Loki can feel her shake beneath his hands, which he holds pressed to her frostbitten skin. They are alone in the queen's private chambers just off of the main bedroom where the healers attend to the All-Father. Loki's eyes are closed as he draws on his magic to heal his mother's injuries, and everything else has fallen away.

Everything but that slight tremor.

(your fault your fault your fault.)

"Am I hurting you?" Loki whispers, not opening his eyes. He's so angry that it takes his full concentration to keep only the lightest of touches on her arm. His own hands begin to shake with the effort.

"I am fine, my love. You don't have to do this, you know. This is why we have healers." Frigga's voice betrays nothing of the pain she must be in. She seems to sense how upset he is, for she places the palm of her uninjured hand on the side of his face and strokes his cheekbone with the soft pad of her thumb.

But that hand, too, is trembling.

(she could have died she could have died)

Loki takes in a quick breath that is not quite a sob, nor is it a sigh. His borrowed lungs burn like there's water trapped in them. "No," he says sharply. "I will heal you. This is my fault, is it not? I practically handed them a map."

Her fingers move to tangle in his hair. "Loki."

He shifts his hands on her forearm. The frostbite has faded now into her normal, perfectly golden skin. He has to grip her harder now and pull slightly to reset her broken arm. "I'm sorry," he says when she tenses. "I'm sorry."

Frigga chuckles and continues to stroke his face and hair. "Your touch is still gentler than the head healer's. You waste your talent on me."

"And you waste your love on me. Tell me what he did to you."

"Loki." She tugs on his hair gently and leans forward until her forehead nearly touches his. "Stop this."

"I need to know."

She hesitates, but then says, "If I agree to tell you, then I want you to promise me something in return."

He jerks an immediate nod, not caring what she might ask for. There is nothing he wouldn't give to take her injury away. To get rid of this burning in his lungs and take it all away.

Frigga grins as she wraps one of his curls around her finger. "I could get used to these impulsive promises of yours, my son. The things I could purchase with a king's favor."

She's trying to get him to smile, and she's such a master at it that it almost works. But the moment passes, and she has to fulfill her end of the bargain.

"I raised a knife to strike King Laufey as he went for your . . . for the All-Father," she says.

Loki flinches at her slip.

"He blocked my blow," she continues, "and that's how my arm was broken. I still refused to drop my knife, so he gripped my arm to force it out of my hand. The frostbite inspired me to obey. The palace guards found us by then, thanks to your timely command. I don't know what he had planned if they hadn't come. Now Loki, I know those words make you angry."

Loki's eyes have slipped shut again. He is not angry. Anger is a calm, rational thing he left behind long ago.

"You're entitled to that," she says. "We both are. But I want you to wait before you sentence them. Wait at least a week. Longer, if you can. That is what I want you to give me in return for your promise."

Loki's eyes open to stare at her. It's a while before he can speak. "Asgard's people will expect action."

Frigga lifts her chin as if to challenge him. "You are their king. You do what you must in spite of what they ask for. Promise me you will wait. Sentencing them tonight would be a mistake."

Loki wants to tell her that the All-Father had warned him there would be mistakes. Now seems as good a time as any to make another.

He nearly asks her why she wants this, but he already suspects she doesn't want him to execute his birth father, especially since she thinks this Loki of the past has no idea of his true parentage. He knows she's only trying to protect him from making such a decision unwittingly, but it still angers him that she's keeping up the deception even now.

"You need to stop and think before you act," she says again. "You are exhausted, and don't think I haven't noticed how uneasy you've been since you took the throne. So much was put on your shoulders so very quickly and unexpectedly. To not have Thor, your father, or your friends there to support you is a burden you didn't deserve. I don't want you to make a decision out of anger and desperation that you haven't thought through. I know you feel guilty about hard decisions you've already had to make tonight."

Loki stares at her still, hardly remembering to blink as he wonders at her words.

(Is this guilt? Is this what it feels like?)

(Are you sure, my queen?)

(Because I think guilt feels more like a soundless scream.)

(One that never even makes it out into the air because of the great Void of culpability within.)

When he doesn't respond, she searches his face in a way he's grown increasingly accustomed to. He drops his gaze, but it's too late. She knows him too well and has sensed he's changed somehow. Though he hasn't exactly been hiding his bitterness, he's slipped by until now for all the reasons she's just named—she's thought him merely distressed over recent changes in his situation. It seems she's slowly coming to realize it might be something deeper than that.

The warm pad of her thumb brushes against his split lower lip, sending little tingles of magic through him as the injury knits itself back together. "Just wait, Loki," she says in the voice she used to coax him to sleep with as a boy. "You need to wait."

People move hastily out of Loki's way as he strides with purpose to the dungeons.

Whispers die down when his footsteps approach. Eyes avert. Heads lower. The citizens of Asgard will likely never come to love him, but they have certainly gained a healthy level of respect. They fear their king, and that is truly all he's ever hoped for. He moves on without acknowledging them, which if they had any sense whatsoever, they should be glad for.

He's left his mother behind with the still dazed and weary All-Father. Odin is caught somewhere between waking and sleeping, at times mumbling a few coherent words before growing quiet again. His eye does not close except to blink. One of the healers said he'd asked where his son was but didn't specify which. Frigga thinks he might wake fully soon.

Loki feels his time as Gungnir's owner coming to an end. Odin has slept longer than the three negligible days he'd claimed in another past, right before he woke just in time to drive Loki to suicide with two words. Odin should be positively rosy after this particular nap, so perhaps he could get the job done with one word this time around.

The very thought of the All-Father waking fills Loki with dread. Life is far more palatable without the constant inner need to seek validation from him. But strangely, Loki finds himself also in need of validation from a different father—though perhaps a far more ominous interpretation of the word. And so he journeys to the dungeons to gloat and revel in his victory. It's petty, he knows, but doesn't give a damn. He's made a promise to his mother not to kill Laufey for at least a week. But he didn't promise not to rub it in.

The scent of magical restraints and the crowded, unwashed bodies of prisoners is horribly familiar. So much so that Loki hesitates on the stairs as bile rises to his throat. But he pushes past it, striding down the final steps and straight to Laufey's cell.

And then his posture straightens, his face brightening as a smile finds its way to his lips. Because perhaps Frigga had it right. This is much better than sending Laufey to an instant execution, which was far too unsatisfying an end.

Laufey is unable to stand to his full height in his cell. He's bent over, crouched and cramped, yet still manages to sneer down at Loki. "It must pain you to hold your curved spine so straight, boy."

Loki's smile is unwavering. It even widens a degree. His curved spine was fixed at a young age by the healers. "And it must pain your spine as you bend to find comfort in your cell."

To say they glare at each other would fall far short of the truth. They are mirror images of bitter hatred.

(Oh, don't stop now, father. I want to hear more.)

(What other reasons inspired you to abandon me?)

(Please elucidate my many shortcomings.)

(I am simply dying of curiosity.)

"My king."

Loki blinks and breaks away from the trap of Laufey's gaze. Sif watches him, standing nearby. Her face is uncharacteristically pale and thoughtful. Loki lifts an eyebrow to prompt her to either speak or go away.

"The Bifrost," she says, her eyes shifting to Laufey briefly. "Someone has come. I do not think Heimdall would open it if it were an enemy."

"Thank you, Lady Sif," Loki says. "I know not what this realm would do without your wise council."

"Are you mocking me?"

Loki completely loses his composure and rolls his eyes so hard that they ache afterward. "The guard will have seen the Bifrost open. They will escort the visitor. You may greet them if you will."

"With your permission, I would remain at your side."

Since when has she cared for Loki's permission? "Oh?"

"You ordered the guards not to follow you here."

"Yes. I was there."

"You are mocking me again," Sif bites out. "There is no one here to guard you. I will stay."

"Guard me from what?" Loki says. "The enemies of Asgard are caged. I put them there, if you remember."

"All the same," Sif says quietly. "I would remain at your side."

They fall silent, shoulder to shoulder, as they stare into Laufey's prison cell. The Jotunn king is speaking again, spitting something hateful in their direction, but Gungnir mutes the words at Loki's bidding.

"Why do you stare at the prisoner?" Sif asks.

Loki shrugs a shoulder. "Morbid curiosity."

"You enjoy seeing him shamed."

"You don't?"

"The childish part of me does. And the part of me that is a warrior."

"I did not realize there was another part. How unexpectedly complex you are."

"Gods, you are an arse. You have won, Loki. This is beneath you."

"Is it?" Loki asks softly. A beat later, "Is it?"

Sif quiets beside him as if sensing that something is happening here that she doesn't understand. Or perhaps she has simply run out of arguments and has tired of the circles he spins.

"Perhaps you're right," Loki says after a long moment. "I should not deem such a monster worthy of my attention."

"That's not quite what I meant." Sif's fingers grasp the crook of his elbow to draw him away from the dungeons.

But it's so difficult to look away as Laufey continues to speak. The Jotunn king delights in every word, and though Loki cannot hear them, the message is all too clear. He's giving Loki exactly what he asked for. Every reason why.

"Loki, please," Sif says as she pulls at his arm. "Something is not right in your face. Come away."

"Loki," calls another.

A voice he knows. So warm, it could melt the very air it touched. The same voice that had never stopped asking him to come home.

And suddenly Loki is drowning again.

Breathless, he turns, his face stripped of any attempt to mask the sudden rush of emotion he feels as he sees his brother striding toward them.

Thor's hair is shorter than he remembers. His shoulders are not as broad, his chest not as bulky, and he's a good deal younger in his eyes. Grief and bitterness have hardened the Thor of Loki's time.

(No. They have killed him.)

"There you are," Thor says. And then he smiles.

White teeth and brilliant blue eyes and glowing perfection. Mjolnir hangs triumphant from his belt.

"Thor," Sif says, addressing him coolly. "So glad you found the time to join us, you great idiot."

To be continued.


Chapter Text

The All-Father's parting words bother Thor increasingly more each day.

His father had made it far too easy for Thor to leave Asgard behind after forsaking the throne. He had committed high treason, after all, and coerced others into doing the same. He'd also aided in Loki's escape and then delivered him straight into a situation that had cost his little brother his life. So very, very soon after he'd cost his mother hers by bringing Jane to Asgard.

The All-Father hadn't even looked particularly upset when he'd learned of Loki's death. And to Thor, that is the strangest thing by far. He's seen his father grieve for Loki before. This is different. Calloused and wrong. None of it makes even the slightest bit of sense.

Thor sits and ponders the problem for days, barely remembering to eat or sleep. Jane does her best to help him through his grief, but he can't seem to make it past the bargaining stage.

He's missed something somewhere. He's convinced of it. And he can't shake the feeling that once he finds it, things will only get worse instead of better.

Loki is absolutely frozen.

It's the same sort of feeling he'd experienced on Midgard—when his brother had dropped out of the sky, grabbed him by the throat, and pulled him from the mortals' aircraft with a look of promised wrath. That was another time and place, but it didn't matter. Loki is still left feeling like a little boy gazing up at a vengeful storm. He isn't certain whether to run or continue to stare at the magnificence. It's a beautiful way to die.

"I would have come sooner," Thor says with a lighthearted chuckle. He speaks in response to Sif's dry remark at his sudden appearance, but his eyes are on Loki, who hasn't moved or blinked or spoken. Thor's smile dims a bit. "I tried. You know I tried." The words are meant for his little brother alone.

Loki feels his eyes begin to shine with a pitiful display of sentiment. Not a single emotion but a thousand different ones tangling together into a hard knot in his throat. He presses his lips together hard so that they won't tremble.

(I know no such thing.)

"And why do you come now?" Sif asks. "Could it be you heard Asgard was attacked? That your parents nearly died in their own chambers? Is that what finally reminded you of your duty to this realm?"

Thor's calm expression reveals he already knows his parents are safe, but his eyes break away from Loki and look over his shoulder instead, where Laufey crouches and glares at them from his cell. Thor's disdainful glance lasts but a moment, as if nothing could be less worthy of his attention. "No," Thor says, drawing closer to them so that Laufey can't hear his words. "I didn't know of the attack until I arrived at the Observatory. I came because I heard Loki scream."

Sif shakes her head once, eyes narrowing in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"Everyone heard him. Everyone on Midgard, that is. It caused a frenzy, and I could not get home soon enough."

"That is ridiculous," Sif says. "Loki was not on Midgard. He was here and I with him, defending our home. Without you, I might add."

"I know my brother's voice, Sif."

And again Thor looks at Loki with those eyes of pure, hopeful blue. There are questions in his stare, as well as the promise of warmth and protection and home. It all tears viciously at the walls of Loki's resentment, leaving him exposed and vulnerable. But he still cannot move or speak. He isn't certain what to do or even how. There is simply too much pent up inside of him to ever hope to sort out.

Mostly, he's trying to figure out why his brother hasn't gripped him by the throat and dragged him straight to the edge of the Void.

For one strange moment, Thor's eyes focus on Gungnir, which Loki holds almost behind him as if trying to hide it. He can't figure out why he's doing that either—or what Thor might be thinking when he sees it. But the moment soon passes, and when Thor draws closer still, it's only to place a hand on Loki's shoulder near the crook of his neck. Loki winces. It's a familiar gesture, but he's never quite realized how close it is to a grab at the throat.

"You are angry with me, I think," Thor says. "You have every right to be. I'm so sorry, brother. I left you here on your own to shoulder far too much."

The air rushes out of Loki's lungs in a single gust. "I hate you," he spits out. And then he's moving forward to be caught up immediately in Thor's embrace. Gungnir clatters to the floor, forgotten. "I want to rip your limbs off," Loki says as he presses his forehead into Thor's shoulder, his fingernails digging angrily into his brother's back. "And beat you to death with them."

The words are like poison pouring from a wound, and he has never meant anything so much in his entire existence.

But the embrace—which he slowly relaxes into as his eyes squeeze shut—he means that, too.

Thor's strength anchors him. Keeps him steady so that he can remember how to breathe again. And Loki remembers that this is why he came back. So that this will never die because everything would die without the sun.

Thor laughs as he gives his little brother a crushing squeeze and claps him on the back. "I fear you will have to fight Lady Sif for the honor."

Sif watches them with her arms crossed, her expression not quite as severe as moments before. "You have four limbs. Plenty to go around."

Laughing again, Thor pulls back and grips Loki by the shoulders, eyes sparkling and bringing light even to the darkness of the dungeons. "I am here now, Loki, and I swear I will set things right. I have changed. My eyes are open now. You will see."

Loki's throat feels tight. He knows all too well that Thor has changed. Midgard did not just turn him soft. It turned him into a self-righteous, judgmental fool. A great and mighty hypocrite. Loki couldn't wait until that particular trait reared its ugly head.

"Everything that happened here with the Jotunns is my fault," Thor says. "And I will not let these monsters go unpunished for what they've done. I swear it."

"Ah, there's the hypocrisy," Loki says, placing a hand on his heart. "My old friend. Thor, I'm so relieved you still make everything about yourself. I would hardly know you otherwise."

Thor blinks, his smile slipping a fraction, as if he's the one who doesn't quite recognize his brother. Then he ruffles Loki's hair and shoves him playfully way. "You don't really hate me, do you, brother?"

"No more than I love you," Loki replies without hesitation. He summons Gungnir to his hand, and his fingers tighten around the cool metal. "Brother."

They walk together through the palace, Thor leading the way, Sif at his side, and Loki falling slightly behind. He keeps pace with them, but there's never quite enough room to walk as equals.

"I still don't know what you meant about Loki screaming," Sif says. "Is it true you heard him on Midgard?"

"Indeed, I did." Thor turns his head to address Loki over his shoulder. "The Lady Darcy wished me to tell you that you were a trend on the tweeting bird website. Though I still don't understand what kind of bird makes a web instead of a nest. Humans are perplexing."

Loki draws in breath to ask his brother what the bleeding hell he's talking about, but only holds back the question with the realization that Thor probably doesn't know either. "I never called out for you, Thor. Never screamed. Whatever you might think of me, I'm not one to ask for help."

"It wasn't that kind of scream," Thor says. "It was but one word."

Loki puzzles over it for one long moment—and then he smiles, a bit impressed with himself. He had sent that command out with Gungnir's power, and it had carried further than he had imagined.

"And did the people of Midgard obey?" Loki asks, his smile growing bigger by the second.

"That, uh—that is not their custom. To kneel."

"And why did that command in particular send you scrambling for Mjolnir?" Loki asks. "Afraid I would bring the realm to ruin?"

Sif exhales slowly. "Here we go."

Thor stops in his tracks and rears around at his little brother. "I came because if you had to use that command, to scream it in such a way like no one was listening, that you needed support. You sounded so desperate, Loki. Not like yourself at all. You sounded . . . ." He breaks off, unwilling to say the word.

Loki lifts an eyebrow as he thinks it for him.


"I realized I had no idea what was going on here," Thor says. "I didn't know if you were hurt or in danger, and you can't imagine the kind of helplessness I felt when I realized I couldn't get to you. Mjolnir came to me then, and I still don't know why it suddenly deemed me worthy. You say I make everything about myself, so perhaps that is the reason. Because I promise you, Loki, I was only thinking of you when I took up my hammer again."

Loki finds he cannot hold his brother's gaze, and so he stares at his own bloodless fingers as they squeeze Gungnir. The part of his heart that isn't yet poisoned and dying wants to believe what Thor says, but his self-hatred rejects the words. "I don't know what you expect me to say. One moment of putting me first doesn't make up for a lifetime of leaving me in the dust."

"Loki, that's unfair," Sif says. "Your brother leaves us all behind at times, but it's never mean-spirited."

(Not even when he commands me to remember my place? Or when he scoffs at my imagined slights?)

But Loki doesn't voice these thoughts because he's realized it was a mistake to defend himself at all. Bottling his anger is the only way to survive here—the only way he made it through his childhood and adolescence—and now that he's given in to the familiar lure of injustice, he can feel his pulse begin to pick up speed. He has Gungnir in his hand and could strike them both down with laughably little effort. He had no idea how difficult this would be—to resist the urge to strike. And so he says nothing at all because it's safer that way.

"There's nothing I can do to change the past, Loki," Thor says. "Nothing I can do to make it right."

Loki stares at his brother and wonders if he'll be able to change his past either. This is all going in an unsettlingly familiar direction.

"But I can start anew," Thor continues. "Here. Now. Sif, you will bear witness to my oath."

And then Thor kneels on one knee before Loki, right there in the middle of the corridor, and it all seems so horribly wrong.

"Thor, please. Get up."

"I swear fealty to you, Loki Odinson."

"Stop this." Loki grips Thor at the shoulder and pushes him over. Then he thrusts Gungnir in his face. "It is your birthright. Take it."

(shut up shut up it is your throne your birthright not his)

(And I will strike him down with it one day if he doesn't take it away from me. So you shut the hell up.)

"What are you talking about?" Thor says. "It is your birthright as much as mine."

(yes yes it is)

Loki's eyes shut, and he shakes his head in an effort to rid himself of his racing thoughts. As much as he wants to claim Thor's words as truth, not even he is that much of a liar. "This is not right."

"Loki, I love you for saying so," Thor says. "You are my first and truest friend. But I would not be worthy of your love or friendship if I let you bow to me now. Brother—let me finish my oath."

And so Loki watches with a numb (delighted) heart as Thor returns to one knee and swears loyalty to him as his king.

"It matters not," Loki mutters to him afterward. "The All-Father is waking. Your oath to me should last perhaps through the night."

Hours later, they are alone in Thor's chambers. Dawn has just broken outside, but heavy drapes are drawn over the windows, keeping everything pleasantly dark.

Loki has sat quietly on the cushioned seating area around Thor's great fireplace while a parade of people came in celebration of the prince's return. The Warriors Three arrived soon after Thor, having stopped only long enough to pack before calling out to Heimdall. With them, they brought a bounty of foods and trinkets from Midgard, which they'd doled out like treasure as Sif told them the story of the Jotunns' attack on the palace.

They're all gone now, Frigga the last to leave with a farewell kiss on both her boys' temples, but the room seems to still echo with their voices. They've both indulged in too much to drink, but it's only made them relaxed and tired rather than befuddled. Loki watches with lazy, hooded eyes as his brother crouches by the fire and arranges his treasures from Midgard.

"For you," Thor says, and tosses him a bag of fragrant beans.

Loki brings the bag to his nose and inhales, eyebrows lifting in approval. "Do you eat them? That would be a strange taste, I think."

"It would indeed, for it is not meant for such a purpose. You grind the beans, add boiling water, and then strain before drinking. It is called coffee."

Loki inclines his head. "I thank you."

Again, they fall into a companionable silence, and it's enough to make Loki truly begin to understand how much he's lost. There is no distrust in Thor's face. No hesitation when turning his back on Loki. Not even the slightest inkling that a knife might fly out in the dark. Would that they really were brothers and this could continue forever, but it's nothing but a lie. Their blood could not be more different—that of natural enemies—and soon Thor will lose his innocence and grow to understand why he shouldn't dole out his trust so easily.

Loki now sees this as inevitable and knows he doesn't deserve to feel such peace. And so he calls on Gungnir to speak and remind him of what he is. To deliver only to him the words he'd commanded it to silence. Laufey's words.

They curl around the base of his neck like icy fingers.

(She was a whore. Not even a decent one capable of bringing me pleasure. Instead, she brought your shamefully misshapen body to me in the hope I might claim you, but I only laughed. Oh, but I do enjoy a good joke. I was still laughing as I strangled her for daring to defile my temple in such a way.)

Loki sits up suddenly and takes in a sharp breath. Feeling ill, he sets his drink aside with shaking hands.

Thor glances at him with a chuckle. "Had a bit too much? Inhale the scent of the coffee. It will aid in restoring your wits."

Loki does as suggested and again brings the bag to his nose. His tense fingers squeeze it almost to bursting, but Thor is right—the scent prickles pleasantly at his senses, like little crackles of electricity to his brain, and it snaps him out of the cruelest of his thoughts. When he opens his eyes again, Thor is watching him, no longer smiling.

Loki immediately shifts his eyes back to the fire, unwilling to undergo his brother's scrutiny. Earlier he'd spotted Sif talking to Thor, both of them eyeing Loki in turn. The way Thor's expression shifted slowly darker left little to the imagination. She'd told him of Loki's strange behavior.

This is a conversation Loki does not want to have with Thor—for the exact same reasons he'd chosen to bottle his rage earlier instead of tapping into it. Once he got started, it would never stop until both of them were destroyed. And so even though he doesn't want to leave the perfect, warm comfort of his brother's chambers, he decides it's best to go.

Thor lifts a hand to stop Loki before can rise. "Please, brother. Stay and talk with me."

"I'm tired."

"So rest there. I have more to show you." Thor opens a colorful but flimsily constructed box and pulls out a metallic packet that crinkles in an unnatural way. He holds it up with a proud smile. "Pop-Tarts."

Loki wrinkles his nose as he wages a mocking guess. "Weaponized dessert?"

"Neither. It is a breakfast food. The tarts literally pop from a metal heating device called a toaster. It is very exciting."

Bemused, Loki watches Thor open the metallic packets and arrange the pastries contained inside near the fire to warm them. He wonders how the great and stupid Thor can be such a master at lulling him into this blinding sense of security when all Loki wants to do is lash out or run. But it's always been this way between then. They could wrestle each other into a mess of bruised ribs and bloodied noses, then eat dinner together later that night and discuss little more than the quality of the food.

"You miss Midgard already," Loki observes, hoping to steer Thor's thoughts to himself rather than his little brother's strange behavior. What he really means is that Thor misses her. Jane. But Thor hasn't told Loki about her yet, and so he improvises.

"I will return one day," Thor says. "When all is right here. And if I have my way, you will come with me this time."

And then Loki tenses again because he knows what comes next.

"Loki, why didn't you come to Midgard? I thought surely you'd come, even if but briefly."

"I am tired, Thor. The night is gone, and I don't want to fight with you."

"I'm not fighting," Thor says. "I'm asking. Why did you stay away? I admit, I was surprised when you did. I missed you."

"I'm sitting right here. There's nothing to miss."

Thor looks at him in a way that says: are you sure?

But Loki doesn't want to deal with that, so he answers his brother's first question instead. "I suppose I was afraid."

"Of what? You needn't ever fear me."

Loki snorts.

"And what am I to take away from that?" Thor asks.

"Nothing. It's nothing."

"You leave me to guess then. Perhaps you thought I might resent you taking the throne. Or even try to take it from you by force."

"Among other things."

There is a long pause. And then, "You think very little of me, don't you, brother?"

Loki blinks up at him, a bit startled. "No, Thor. I hold you above everyone. Even myself. The rest is just compensation to help me slink by."

"Am I supposed to know what that means? You spin these maddening circles with your words. Can't you just say it plainly?"

"I rather thought I did."

Thor sighs and presses his palms to his face in frustration. "You do nothing but contradict yourself. Loki, are you well?"

"Never better."

"Sif worries about you."

"Yes, well, she has you back now. I imagine she'll soon return to her first hobby."

"She says you haven't been acting like yourself. I'm trying not to make this about me, Loki, but is it? Is it because I dragged you into a bad position and then left, I mean. I ask only so that I might set things right between us."

"No," Loki says quietly as he stares into the fire. "No, this has nothing to do with you."

And it really didn't. It isn't Thor's fault that Loki is inherently a monster. Thor has never once lied to his brother's face or instilled false pride and security about what and who he is—and then ripped the very foundation away, leaving nothing but a mad struggle to put the impossibly mismatched pieces back together. Thor has never tried to be better than Loki; he simply is because of what they both truly are beneath the surface. Sif was right when she'd said Thor isn't mean-spirited. Thor is many things, but he isn't cruel. Only another victim of the lie, tricked into loving and protecting a monster when the natural order of things is to slay the beast in its tracks.

And therein lies the reason Loki aims his anger and wrath at Thor, though he's done little to deserve it. It's Loki's attempt to protect himself because he's scared to death. Thor is truth and goodness and everything Loki is not. The monster deserves to die at the crown prince's hand. Just like all the storybooks say.

The monster always dies at the end. And the sun shines bright, and the people rise up in joyous song as they watch the monster's lungs fill with blood and fail.

Some time later, after Thor has grown weary of Loki's endless evasion of his questions, they doze together in the seating area by the fire. Thor breathes steadily in and out of his mouth, the first to fall asleep as always. His head rests back on the cushions, his face turned toward Loki, who sits quietly beside him.

Loki is warm and comfortable but unable to find rest. His tongue feels thick with the sticky sweetness of the tart Thor offered him, which is by far the foulest thing that has ever touched his lips in all his long years. Really, who would do such a thing to batter and innocent, unsuspecting fruit? Loki smiles at the memory of Thor's panicked expression as he explained the poisonous qualities of each chemical ingredient listed on the box, but the amusement is short lived.

"I'm going to die, Thor," Loki whispers, knowing his brother can't hear. "There's nothing you can do to stop it, so I won't tell you because I know you'll try. It's of little matter anyway because you will live on, and that's how it should be. The monster should never be the one who lives."

Unable to resist any longer, Loki sinks down against the cushions and presses his face into Thor's shoulder. His eyes squeeze shut as he inhales his brother's familiar scent, drawing it deep into his lungs and refusing to let go until they burn and beg him to exhale. They haven't slept together in the same bed since they were boys, and this isn't exactly a bed. But Loki has never forgotten what this feels like—to have something solid and unyielding there to protect him from the shadows. He's almost able to pretend the monsters will never find him here. But who is he kidding? It's the daylight he hides from now.

Not long after, Thor shifts and places his hand on the back of Loki's neck. It's only then that he manages to drift to sleep.

To be continued

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

Loki wakes to the feel of nails scraping pleasantly along his scalp.

The room is dark and smells of ashes and the oil of coffee beans. Cracks of sunlight slip in between the drapes and paint the walls like lightning. Disoriented, Loki lies still for quite some time, having found very little true rest in years. Though he's not certain exactly where he is, he knows his brother is there, and that means he's safe.

"Do you yet stir?" Thor asks, his voice coming from somewhere above Loki's head.

Loki shifts and stretches, his cheek rubbing against the rough brocade of a cushion. After a few blinks, he finally remembers where he is—and more importantly, when. Sometime while he slept, he had shifted into a laying position with his head down on the cushion beside Thor's thigh. Thor sits upright beside him, yawning without covering his mouth and absently stroking his little brother's hair.

Loki licks his lips, too exhausted to sit up. "What is the time?"

"The fire still smolders," Thor says. "Late morning, I'd wager. We've received a summons."

Loki rolls from his side onto his back and blinks up at his brother. Then he groans and pulls a cushion over his head—because he knows the All-Father is awake.

"I could not agree with you more," Thor says. "Would that he sleep for another month. I suppose we could say we didn't receive his message."

"Why did you open the door, you idiot?" Loki's words are muted by the pillow.

Thor frowns, not understanding the question. "Well, there was a knock. And what do you have to fear from the All-Father? I was the one who was stripped of my powers and banished. He crowned you. And from what I hear, you've done a fair job of defending the kingdom against all the trouble I caused. You're the golden child of Asgard now, raven black hair and all."

An undignified snort comes from beneath the cushion. "Is that jealousy I detect?"

Thor chuckles darkly. "Well, I don't know. I would require you to tell me, you being the resident expert and all."

Loki pulls the cushion away from his face and glares up at his brother, who smirks pleasantly back as he opens a packet of Pop-Tarts. Bits of icing and crumbs hit Loki in the forehead, and he hisses through his teeth as he brushes them away.

"I was the one who let the Jotunns into Asgard, you know," he says, just for the hell of it. "Not last night, of course, but the first time they slipped in."

Thor freezes, his mouth full. The metal pastry wrapper begins to bend as he crushes it in his hand.

Loki's face spreads into his most practiced, evil smile. "You remember, don't you?" he all but purrs. "During your coronation. Right at the pentacle moment. Oh, I do hope you remember because I will certainly never forget. The look on your face was magnificent. "

And then he's sent flying off the couch and toward the fireplace. Loki manages to stop himself mid-roll, and he looks back just in time to see the thunderer summon Mjolnir to his hand. Thor breathes Loki's name like a promise.

Loki gasps and covers his head. "I am your king!"

The All-Father makes them stand, of course.

They have been summoned to the king's private library, where Odin sits at his regal desk, his elbows resting on the arms of his chair and his fingers drumming together at ominous intervals. He is not pleased.

Loki eyes the bottle of priceless elven wine in the glass case behind the All-Father's shoulder, and is thankful he had the presence of mind to refill it with water that he'd colored with a spell.

"You are both disguised with a glamour," Odin says. "Off with it."

The brothers exchange a glance.


Loki sighs and makes a small gesture with his hand. The glamour fades away, revealing the smudges of ash and dirt on their faces, hands, and clothes that he hadn't the time to clean properly. Loki's still delicately healing lip is split open again, his collar torn, and his hair peppered with pastry crumbs, as though someone had smashed one into the top of his head. Meanwhile Thor has a bruise developing on his jaw, and his hair is twisted into a rat's nest on one side. Parts of the left side of his beard are missing, the bald spots in the conspicuous shape of a hand.

Both of them smile at the All-Father as if nothing is amiss.

"I've changed my mind," Odin says. "Put it back on."

Loki obeys without hesitation.

Never before in his life has he so wanted a bath.

"I'm so very glad to see you two have shared in a pleasant and predictable reunion," Odin says with his usual pristine derision. "How very good of you to drag yourselves away from your playtime to answer your father's urgent summons. However did you manage to find the time? I imagine it was difficult to squeeze in between the daytime naps and the diligent destruction of our hard-fought peace with another realm. Well, then. Now that the two of you have graced me with your regal presence, whatever shall we talk about?"


"We could discuss how very sorry we both are," Thor says after a long moment. He tries for a hopeful smile as he leans to elbow his brother. "Aren't we, Loki?"

Loki's eyes drift shut, and he lifts a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose between his fingers.

"Yes, I am quite sure you will be sorry," Odin says, "after I am done with you here."

As far as Odin's outbursts go, this is one for the records. His voice booms off the walls, echoes into the halls, and shakes the very foundation.

"Both of you have acted like children," Odin yells. "Thor, what possible purpose could you have had in mind when you journeyed to Jotunheim? And to bring your brother there! When I found you, you were drunk with the rage of battle, with no mindfulness for anyone but yourself. Selfish, foolish boy. Did you think of Loki's safety at all? Or that of your realm? Or of Fandral, one of your would-be subjects, who nearly lost his life because of your wanton blood-thirst? I cannot imagine one less worthy to take the throne. Now then—do you have any juvenile objections to anything I have said here?"

Loki half expects his brother to attempt to defend himself, as he had before his banishment, but Thor keeps his gaze lowered. It seems the All-Father has finally struck a chord with him. "No, father," he says.

"And you, Loki," Odin bites out. "You have betrayed your brother, your family, and this realm most grievously indeed—with no mindfulness for anything but your own selfish need for attention. Lives lost. Peace shattered. Your brother's trust in you shaken. Another realm in ruin. And all of it, for what? A moment of validation to be sucked down into the bottomless chasm of your self-worth. Behold, the child king of Asgard!"

Loki blows out a slow breath, eyebrows lifted, and counts the seconds until it all ends. He has the terrible suspicion that there will be many, many more seconds to come. Odin does not disappoint.

"You've both forgotten why you stand there in your ripped and dirtied royal attire," he says. "Because I put you there and gave you my name. And do not think I won't hesitate to take even that away from you if this shameful behavior continues. Right here, right now, you both make the decision to grow up. Have I made myself perfectly clear?"

"Yes, father," they both say in unison—though Loki only speaks the first word.

Sometime during his rant, Odin had stood in order to properly scream at them. But now that the edge is gone from his rage, he drops with weary heaviness into his chair. "I am old, my sons," he says like a sigh. "My anger burns so brightly because I feel you do not listen, and I'm running out of time. I see such danger here between the two of you. There is but one crown, and I've raised you both with an entitlement to it. I worry it will come between you someday. Neither of you must ever forget your upbringing—the foundation of your childhood together. That you are brothers and are fighting on the same side. For there is no one easier to hurt than family because they will love you even as you strike out at them. Your mother and I will not be here forever, but if you two strive to keep the other breathing, you will never be without family or protection or home. There is no one in all the Nine Realms who share the connection you two have. No one will ever know you better than your sibling. Promise me you will never again forget that. We would not be having this conversation if you had remembered it to begin with."

"I promise, father," Thor says. "I would never let the crown come between us, even if it rests on his head until the end of days."

"I promise as well," Loki says. And he means it. Or at least, he wants to mean it.

But there's a quiet voice that still lives in the cracks in his mind, and it only laughs at him. (Now there's a talented liar.)

"Sit, Loki," Odin orders after Thor is dismissed. He points to the chair across from him, on the opposite side of his desk. "When you took the throne, I promised you that we would sit down together and talk. I would like you to tell me what you have done in recent weeks."

Loki swallows painfully and doesn't so much as glance at the chair. "Must I?"

Odin opens his drawer and draws out a small wooden box containing chess pieces. The desk itself has a board carved into it. Loki eyes the box, his interest piqued. The All-Father is a master at the game, the same way he is at war, political strategy, and the unflinching sacrifice of those who are no longer needed.

Loki excels at chess himself—and could play an entire game verbally, without the need for actual pieces on the board to help him visualize—but the All-Father has several thousand years of gameplay experience on him. Loki's talents, however, have flourished in his time away from Asgard. He is curious. And so he sits.

"Start at the beginning," Odin says, lining up the white pieces in front of Loki and taking the black for himself. "How long before Sif and the Warriors Three betrayed you?"

Some time later, the game is well underway, and Loki has a headache. Part of it is caused by the stress of trying to figure out what the All-Father is doing with the game, and the other is the stress caused by wondering what his father plans to do with his adopted monster of a child.

"I did not anticipate the Bifrost ever being used in such a way," Odin says, his eyes on Loki rather than the board. "An interesting strategy."

With a gesture of his hand, Loki sends his bishop out and tries not to look too smug as it takes his father's knight. "Is that all you're going to say on the matter?"

Odin's king travels on its own one space to the left, a defensive move. "You expect me to cast judgment?"

"Well, yes. I rather expected disappointment. Or perhaps even gratitude since I did it to save your life. Though I admit, I've never been able to anticipate your reactions. I always get it wrong."

"While you are king, you stand alone with no one above you. Why do you seek my approval at all?"

(Because you are my father.)

Loki wants to say the words, but they die on his lips because they're not true. And so he returns his gaze to the board and sends out an invasive pawn a moment later.

"Someone has to make the difficult decisions," Odin continues as he watches his rook come into alignment with Loki's queen. "Often times, there is no right or wrong. Just a series of greater and greater misfortunes. That is the job. To have another cast doubt or approval on an impossible choice serves no purpose. But I will give you a piece of advice as your father. You must think long and hard about your decisions before you make them. Because while you might not have to answer for them as king, you will have to live with them, and they will catch up with you."

Loki presses his lips together as he moves a pawn into a protective position to the rear-left of his queen. "And has it caught up with you, All-Father?"

A sigh. "Everyday a little more. Which is why Gungnir will remain in your keeping for the present."

Loki forgets about the game. "What?"

"You still have unfinished business. A trial to conduct, I think. I believe your mother has asked you to wait at least a week before sentencing the prisoners. Wise council, indeed. Have you thought about what you might do? I assume your gut instinct is execution. But I wonder if you realize what a valuable political tool you hold in King Laufey's cell?"

Loki's pulse begins to pick up speed. "How good of you to point that out. I shall give it due consideration."

It's Odin's turn to move, but he ignores the board. He instead stares at Loki without expression, and only after a long, uncomfortable moment, he asks, "And what have you thought of this experience? Do you enjoy being king?"

"It has certainly been educational, and the perks are nothing to scoff at. But as you say, it is difficult."

"And not very suitable to your temperament, I think. Correct me if I'm wrong, Loki, but I do not think you enjoy it very much. I did not choose Thor over you because of his age, you know."

(Oh, trust me, All-Father. I know.)

"Thor has the transparency that will win the loyalty of the people. But you have the mind that will ensure their survival. You will make Thor a fine advisor one day. There are few who could match your cunning in battle strategy. Except perhaps me. You still favor aggressive offensive strikes, it seems."

Loki is silent, fingers itching to strike at Odin's invasively placed rook. He already has his next five moves prepared, but it's not his turn.

"Does it bother you that I still ultimately intend the crown for Thor?" Odin asks.



"My intended job for you is no less important."

Loki takes in a sharp breath, dreading what the All-Father might mean by that.

"I need your help with Thor," Odin continues. "He did not learn all I meant for him to on Midgard. His love for you sent him home and inspired his humility here when I confronted him about his actions in Jotunheim—and that is worthiness of a sort. You now have had a taste of what will fall upon his shoulders one day as king, and I think it will help you better guide him to be ready."

"Is that my punishment, then?" Loki all but bites out. "For letting the Jotunns into Asgard. Prepping Thor to take my place?"

Odin chuckles. "You have always tried to guide your brother and offer your wisdom to him in the past, so this should not be an unfamiliar task to you. No, your punishment is yet to come, and I think Thor still has some learning to do as well. Your punishment is to clean up your mess and restore the peace you helped destroy. You will both serve as emissaries to Jotunheim. Norns help us all."

Loki feels suddenly ill as one of his worst fears begins to surface. How many different ways did the All-Father plan to use him, exactly? "Father, if you hold any lingering affection for me whatsoever, I beg you not to send me there."

Odin continues to stare at him with that strange, non-expression. "I hold a great deal of affection for you, but a punishment is not effective if you like it."

"This goes a bit beyond dislike."

"I know you are upset about what King Laufey did to your mother, but I need you to understand that there are consequences to your actions. They did nothing that you did not incite."

"And I accept fault in this situation. I will do anything else you ask. But please do not send me there."

"You act as though this is a permanent relocation instead of a series of diplomatic missions. Your role is only meant to avert further bloodshed and establish a more permanent peace."

"Then I fail to see how I am the right fit for the job, considering I want to see them all destroyed. They are monsters."

"It disappoints me to hear you say that. For someone who thinks Thor so ill-equipped to take the throne, you certainly maintain many of the same prejudices."

"I was raised that way."

"Not by me, you weren't. Nor your mother."

Loki narrows his eyes in challenge. "Really—how many stories did you tell us as boys? You inspired us, encouraged us to slay every monster in our path. Did you forget all that?"

"I did not," Odin replies. "And I would encourage you to discipline your tone with me, Loki, and speak to me with respect. It would appear you have made a connection between a monster and the Jotunns imprisoned downstairs. While they have acted monstrously indeed, I assure you, they are every bit as cunning and civilized as we. And again, I remind you that you and your brother behaved monstrously first. And so you both will go to Jotunheim, my son, and I hope this experience will help you develop a more mature understanding of others. Do you understand?"

Loki is practically shaking in his chair.

"I expect an answer. Do you understand?"

Loki unclenches his teeth only long enough to say, "Yes."

"Yes, what?"

"Yes, sir."

"You need not address me so formally," Odin says. "I ask only that you give me the respect a father deserves. Though you only seem willing to call me father when you want something. I hope this business of crowning you has not gone to your head. Your mother has spoken to me about your behavior while I slept. Is there anything you wish to speak to me about?"


"No, what?"

"No, father."

"Because the longer I look at you, the more I begin to understand what she means. Your eyes shine with bitterness. You are angry with me, I think."

Loki glares at him in reply but says nothing. His pledge not to fall into the Void and to keep Thor among the living inspires his silence to continue, despite his rage.

"I see," Odin says with a tight smile. "Well, if you will not voice your grievances with me, then I invite you to get over them. It's a lovely day. You are dismissed so that you may enjoy what remains of it."

"We haven't finished our game."

Odin shakes his head. "Oh, it is quite finished. It ended with your last predictable decision to protect your queen at the expense of your other pieces. You never do like to look too far ahead at the trouble you've brought upon yourself. Mate in seven."

Loki blinks down at the board, bewildered. It takes him a minute as he mentally moves through his planned progression of the pieces. Once he takes it two steps further, he swallows with difficulty. Then slinks down in the chair as he knocks down his king with a gesture of his hand.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

He has never told anyone this, but his first memory is of snow.

He has never told anyone that when he sees flurries floating about in the air, and the other children laugh and stretch their fingers out to catch them, his belly only twists with a gnawing, phantom hunger, and his throat aches with a thirst he can't explain.

He has never told anyone that the snow whispers to him that no one is coming.

He has never told his brother why he lingers so close to his warmth in the wintertime.

None of them would ever understand. And so he teaches himself to lie and to laugh when he really wants to scream.

Loki hates his father.

Both of them.

But for the moment, he hates Odin a fraction more because at least Laufey is upfront with his loathing.

His week is almost up, and time draws near to the sentencing of the prisoners. But all Loki can think about is how much he despises the All-Father—because he seems perfectly willing to stand by while his adopted son unwittingly executes his birthfather. It is a brilliant manipulation; a marvelous joke. Even Loki has to admire the cruelty of this particular punch line and can't help but wonder when Odin might think to deliver it to Loki. He cannot think it possible to hate the All-Father more than he does now.

And to have Odin so recently eager to pass on wisdom to him as a caring, interested father—especially after knowing how quickly he stripped that protection away from Loki the moment he rebelled—that is the worst thing of all.

Loki finds his patience with his current situation wearing thin. At times, he can't remember why he came back.

Thor will be fine, he tells himself. Thor was always fine until Loki lost his mind. He knows if he leaves them all now, all will be well.

On the eve of the day Loki is set to judge the prisoners, there is much talk of Jotunheim over dinner. The dining hall is filled with members of the court, laughing and celebrating the coming trial, which is sure to be a spectacle. Loki sits with his brother, surrounded by Thor's friends, and is all too aware of the fact that he's a monster walled in by the very warriors sworn to slay him. Yet another of the All-Father's most excellent jokes.

Loki glares at Odin without bothering to mask his anger, a trick he's picked up from his birthfather. Sitting to the right of her husband, Frigga eyes Loki with growing wariness. Though she is either unwilling or unable to speak up, she knows Odin means to allow Loki to commit patricide, and the worry for her son has started to physically manifest in her. She has lost a bit of weight, along with the easiness of her smiles.

(Good. Let them fret and wonder why you hate them.)

(Isn't that the very same game they've played with you all these years?)

"Have you decided what to do with the prisoners yet, Loki?" Fandral asks, speaking loudly so that the ladies at the adjoining table will know how important he is.

Now that Odin is awake, few remember to address Loki as king. "Kill them," he says in a quiet, unaffected tone.

"If you do that, our new roles as emissaries should be simple enough," Thor says with a laugh. His cheeks are ruddy with alcohol, his words slightly slurred. "A permanent peace is easy to establish when there's no one there to resist."

Sif manages enough brainpower to roll her eyes and shake her head at the same time. Loki is impressed. "You are all horrible," she says as she picks at her food.

"You do not think the Jotunns deserve execution?" Loki asks, eyebrows lifted.

"A warrior understands the risk of invading another land," Sif says. "Death is an honorable sentence. But I do not think it honorable to laugh at it."

Thor snorts into his flagon, and even Hogun cracks a smile as he breaks apart his bread.

"I am sorry, Sif," Thor says as he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. "Their deaths will indeed be honorable."

And then he's cracking up again—drunkenly leaning against Volstagg for support, who has also given in to a fit of hilarity—because who in their right mind would call a frost giant honorable?

Loki smiles pleasantly as he plucks a grape from his dinner plate and rolls it between his fingers. "And how do you think they should die, brother? By the sword, as we swore as children?"

He knows Odin is watching him. Listening.

He wants him to.

Thor takes the bait and drops a hand onto his brother's shoulder. "We shall do it together. No monster shall be left standing before our might."

"Aye, and we can finally get the bloody chill out of the halls," Volstagg says with a shiver.

"Not to mention the smell," Fandral adds. "Unsanitary beasts."

Laughter all around. Loki's rings out the loudest.

"Yes, they are quite hideous, aren't they?" he says, his eyes dancing sadistically.

"Ugly brutes," Thor agrees.

"Those eyes," Loki says in encouragement.

"Yes, like demons."

"And their skin and markings."

"Mmm," Thor says into his flagon as he takes a deep sip. "Unnatural."

"You two are shameful," Sif says.

"We're just having a bit of fun." Thor slams his drink onto the table. "You have grown far too serious since Midgard."

"And you have not grown serious enough," she bites back. "You have not learned a thing."

"Sif, they attacked us in the middle of the night," Thor says. "They hurt my family. Their deceptiveness and deceit is the worst kind of filth. They are the shame of the Nine Realms. A race of monsters. They have no dignity or loyalty between them—you yourself told me how quickly Laufey's sons betrayed their own father. Any efforts at reasoning with them would fail because there is nothing good or noble within them. Would that my brother have wiped them all out." And then he laughs even though no one else is laughing—because he's drunk and hardly knows what he's saying.

Loki reaches out to squeeze his brother's arm with trembling affection. "I'm so glad to hear you agree with me, brother. What a relief to hear such unbiased opinions from family."

And that's all he can get out before he starts to break down inside. He knows he asked for it, but this is far, far worse than any blow he's ever received in battle. This is his brother. Truth at last from the only one who has ever asked him to come home.

Loki rises to leave as the conversation continues to echo loudly through the hall. It's soon apparent that he has started an avalanche. All around him, people discuss the Jotunns with unfiltered hatred and disgust. They voice their eagerness for the trial and their confidence that Loki will do the right thing by choosing execution. Loki stands still for a long moment, just letting it all sink in.

Thor rises as well, meaning to follow his brother, but when he reaches for Mjolnir, his smile is quickly extinguished. He cannot pick up his weapon.

Their eyes meet. No one else has seen. And as a confused look of panic crosses Thor's face, Loki only smiles and thinks, (Loki: 2. Thor: 0.)

And then he turns his gaze to the All-Father, who sits next to the pale and horrified queen, and stoops into a mocking little bow.

All in all, a fine victory.

When his parents find him, Loki has retreated to his chambers. He sits before an open window, so angry that he's visibly shaking.

"Loki," Frigga says. And then she can't say anymore because it's so damn obvious that he knows.

"Get out," Loki whispers hatefully.

Odin closes the door. "Do not speak to your mother that way."

Loki turns and levels them with a glare that informs them she is most definitely not his mother. Frigga grasps Odin's arm for support.

Odin takes a deep breath as he puts a hand over hers. "My son. Tell us what you know."

Loki's sudden laughter borders on maniacal.

"And who told you this?" Odin says. "Was it Laufey? He is a liar, and you should not trust anything he says."

"Yes, it was my liar of a father who told me," Loki says, his face still stretched into a grin. "There are ever so many around these days. I do get them confused at times."

"No," Frigga says. "Laufey might have said something during his imprisonment, but you've been acting strangely since you went to Jotunheim with your brother. My darling, we always meant to tell you. You are our s—"

"No, my queen," Loki says, his smile unwavering. "No, I really think I am not."

"Loki, I want you to calm down," Odin says.

"Well, you see, I tried that. But then I started blowing things up, and that felt so much better. Now I've mostly just taken to hating you."

"Why?" Odin says calmly, not taking the bait. "Tell me what you know. Tell me exactly why you hate me."

"A bastard Jotunn runt of royal descent," Loki bites out. "With a tragically twisted spine, and so he was left to die. Picked up by the enemy as a war relic to be manipulated and used at a later time. Have I missed anything, All-Father?"

Odin stares at him for a long moment. "Yes."

Loki shakes his head, eyes narrowing. "Oh, no you don't. Do not pretend to hold affection for me now. I see straight through to the heart of you. Your audacity with your lies is astounding. And that is coming from me."

"I claimed you as my son, and therefore you are my son," Odin says. "Where is the lie?"

"You are master manipulator, indeed," Loki laughs. "No, the grandmaster. Let's not call it a lie then. How about deception? You purposefully deceived me into thinking I was Aesir."

"I picked you up in your Jotunn form, my boy. You were the one who shifted into something you thought would please me."

Loki almost laughs but then finds himself recoiling instead. "Oh, so it's my fault then? I deceived myself. The two of you had nothing to do with it. And it's so wonderful to know I was pathetic and needy from the start. Thank you ever so much for the visual, All-Father."

"You were starving and terrified," Odin says. "Pathetic and needy describes any child. That is rather the purpose of having parents to care for them until they can do so for themselves. And no—I was not implying that it was your fault you were deceived. This is ridiculous, Loki. You are of Asgard. You are our son. That is it. Period. The end. Why is that so difficult for you to accept? I do not understand your reaction."

Loki's breath is hitched with anger as it rushes out, his eyes shining. "Do you not? My entire life, I have lived in frustration and bitterness because I have striven for something I shall never be. I am incapable of it, and I have tried so, so very hard to please everyone that it has literally cracked my mind in two. And then to find out that I am truly nothing. Less than nothing! Not really your son nor ever his. Neither Aesir nor Jotunn. Even my own skin is a lie that I apparently tell myself because of how much I instinctually hate what I am. My own brother mocks my kind in public, and I agree whole-heartedly with every word he says! You do not understand what I've done. It comes to me so easily because there is nothing good inside. I am a monster, deep down to the very fiber of my being, and you've set me up to die here. I am a prisoner of war, no better than the ones in the dungeons beneath the palace. You should not have taken me, All-Father. If it was pity that inspired you then, you should have done us all a favor and crushed my head under the heel of your boot."

"Loki," Frigga cries.

"My son, please stop this." Odin takes a step toward him. "You have understood nothing."

And then Loki is screaming at them because he cannot stand the hypocrisy anymore. "Do not touch me! Do not pretend you care! YOU LET ME FALL, YOU LET ME FALL!" he screams as he never has before. His vocal chords feel close to tearing from it. The torrent breaks soon after, and he's immediately drowning in his sobs. They double him over until he grips his stomach in pain. "You let me fall, and you didn't even try to catch me!" he cries and rages, lashing out at them and backing away when they try to draw near. "I thought surely, surely you would try because I only let go to see if you would, but then you just watched with that disappointed look of pity and resignation like it was all for the best. You never wanted me, and you were glad to be rid of me! So do not stand there and pretend to love me when we both know the truth. You do not get to play the part of my father now. I hate you, I hate you both!"

At that moment, the door flies open and hits the wall with a bang. Thor stands at the threshold, breathing hard, his eyes enormous as he tries to understand what's happening.

And that only makes Loki angrier. "Get out, get out, GET OUT!"

But they won't listen. They only press in closer, palms upraised as if to say they are no threat, and Loki can't breathe or run because they're blocking his way. And so he grips his hair and looks frantically around—but the only way out is the open window behind him.

He goes dead calm, his face smoothing as he feels the fresh air on the back of his neck. Freedom. He turns and laughs pathetically in relief.

"Loki!" Odin shouts. He summons Gungnir to his hand, and it flares to life.

Though Loki wants to run and climb and fall until he is nothing, he instead finds himself frozen. It seizes him, and he cannot move for one achingly horrible moment—until the spell releases, and he drops to his hands and knees with a broken cry of anguish. And then it's too late to find any relief because they're all over him, and he's lost somewhere in the middle. The tears find him there, and soon he thinks he might not ever be able to stop crying. There is simply too much.

"Baby, shhh," Frigga says, smoothing his hair as she pulls him close. Magic seeps from her fingertips and into his mind, trying to sedate him. Soon he's as limp as a kitten, held against her.

"I hate you," he weeps quietly still. "Why wouldn't you catch me? Why won't you catch me?"

"You are not falling, my love. I've got you. We all do. You're on solid ground, and your family is here. Shhh."

"You're not," Loki whispers, breath still hitched, fighting against her spell. "You're not."

"Of course, we are," she says, kissing his hair and his forehead. "I knew you were mine the moment I saw you. My sweet baby boy."

"What is happening?" Thor asks—but no one answers him. His hands grip his brother from behind, a stricken look on his face.

"Do not tell him," Loki says, trying to shrink away from his brother but unable to move. "Please, I beg you. I can't take it. I want to die. I can't, I can't, I can't."

"What is going on?" Thor demands. "Loki, why do you say these things?"

"Thor, be still, my love," Frigga says in her softest tone. Her fingers stroke Loki's hair and pour out her magic into him as she rocks him back and forth. "We all need to calm down and be patient while Loki gets this out. Let it all bleed out of you, my darling. It is poison and does not belong in your heart. Your family is here, and we love you so much."

But despite the comfort of her words or of his brother's supporting touch, Loki continues to shake with guttural sobs. All he can hear is silence. Odin's silence. The All-Father kneels beside them, but he only watches. The old face is distressed, hopelessly confused, but he says and does nothing. And so Loki grieves, once and for all, over the death of his last shred of hope that he might not fall again.

When Loki wakes, his eyelids are so swollen, he can barely open them. He is either still under Frigga's spell, or he has lost the will to move.

His vision still functions, however, and he recognizes Thor's head resting on the mattress close to his. His brother is kneeling on the floor beside Loki's bed, with his arms and head on the mattress. He has one hand clasped around Loki's wrist like a shackle, as if he's afraid his little brother might slip away without his knowing. Though he can't see her, Loki can feel his mother's warmth behind him, her breath tickling the back of his neck, her fingers relaxed on his arm. They are both fast asleep.

Which is why Loki can't figure out who could be stroking his hair so tenderly away from his face. Or whose lap his head could be resting upon.

Instantly, he starts to cry again, but he has no energy to put into it. They are just slow, thick tears that leak out of him. His heart is utterly exposed.

"Loki," Odin says. "Be still, my child." His fingers smooth Loki's hair, a gesture not shared between them for countless years.

"The sun is up," Loki whispers, his voice ravaged. "I have a trial to conduct."

"Never mind that for now. I want you to be still."

"I hate you. You would let me murder him without knowing who he was."

"And who is he?" Odin says. "Certainly not your father. He forfeited that right."

Loki swallows and licks his lips, wanting water to soothe his throat. He looks at Thor and wonders what he knows. And more than anything, he does not want his brother to know. That's when things will truly begin to spiral down into hopeless destruction.

"He cannot hear us," Odin says. "Gungnir will see that our conversation is private. Thor knows only that his brother is upset. It is your choice if you wish to tell him why. But I wish you would also share the reasons with me, Loki. Last night you said I let you fall. I've spent hours in an attempt to figure out what you meant, but I do not understand it at all."

"Funny. I've never understood it either."

"You are not making sense."

"Metaphor," Loki whispers, tears slipping out as he squeezes his eyes shut. "It was metaphor."

"A metaphor for what?"

Loki smiles and gives a hoarse little laugh. "I would say I wish I could be there to see your face when you finally figure it out. But it will just be the same as before. You spitting over the edge and saying good riddance."

Odin's fingers stop moving.

"Yes, All-Father, as I mentioned last night, you have literally cracked my mind in two. I have gone mad. There, it's out in the open now, so you don't have to tiptoe around it."

"You are not insane, Loki. Anguish can feel like it at times, but your mind is sound."

"Proof again that you have no idea who I am."

"So tell me."

"A monster."

"No. You speak again of your anger. It can feel like a beast has taken hold. But that is emotion. Not reality."

"You do not know what I've done. I have killed." Loki laughs breathlessly at his own confession. He has truly given up any hope of saving face.

"The incident with the Bifrost affected you more than I realized. Guilt, too, can feel like a monster that tears at your sanity. But that too is an emotion. It is not who you are, and it will pass. I wish I could say it will leave you as whole and happy as you were before, but that would be a lie."

"Mmm, and we mustn't tell those. I wish you understood exactly how much I hate you, All-Father."

"That is fine. I much prefer hatred to indifference. Rage at me if you need to get your anger out. I can handle it."

"Really? Are you sure you don't feel like dropping off into a convenient nap to escape me? You are a horrible excuse for a father."

"Yes, and what else?"

"You don't care, you don't care, you don't care."

"That's not true."

"I want to die."

"That's not true either. You have more self-preservation than that. This, again, is only your grief and anger talking. You want very much to live. Otherwise you would not have cried out for help."

Loki laughs until it turns to silent racks of sobs. "It doesn't matter. It will all end up the same."

Odin's fingers again move in his hair. "I . . . I did not anticipate this reaction from you."

"That much is obvious. What did you think would happen?"

"To be honest, I did not think to ever tell you. None of it matters or changes anything. Loki, I do not often say much because I choose my words carefully. I say what I mean and very little else. When I call you my son, that is because you are. When I say you are of Asgard, that is because you were raised here. When I neglect to say that you were abandoned, that is because you were found. When I fail to mention Laufey's relation to you, that is because he gave up the right to call himself your father, and so he isn't. These things are fact. I accepted them and moved on as if they were fact. I rather expected you to do the same. I did not anticipate your grief, and for that, I am quite grieved myself."

"You feel only pity," Loki mutters.

"No, Loki. Until you are a father, I can't properly explain to you what I felt when I saw you abandoned—or what I feel right now as I see you so broken and unhappy. It isn't pity, my son. It's a feeling of wrongness. When you become a father one day, and you see a child in pain, your very instinct tells you to fix it."

"Liar," Loki whispers. "If it was not pity, then it was greed. I am only a stolen relic that has outlived its use."

"Oh, I think you still have some use left in you."

Loki turns his head to glare up at the All-Father in horror and disbelief.

"Loki, you were originally meant as a tool," Odin says. "But not for what you seem to think. You were meant for me. You were what convinced me to enact the treaty with Jotunheim in the first place—because I saw no monster in you. If you had not come along, I very well might have chosen to wipe them out. You taught me so much and corrected many misconceptions I had. I was much like Thor back then. Nothing but a brainless mouth and a sword too eager to strike. And you performed your duties to me well, with your eagerness to learn and love. I soon forgot that you were anything other than my boy, and it became hard fact. After that, I only saw what an insufferably clever little brat you are. If you've felt ignored these past years, then it was as I intended. You seek attention like a child. Why in all the Nine Realms would I be inclined to pay heed to such a thing?"

"I hate you," Loki says again—because Odin has disarmed him of everything else but that. "I hate you."

"For what it's worth, I am sorry, Loki. I have never wished this pain upon you."

"No. No, I will never forgive you. We are done."

"You may be done with me, but I will never stop loving you. Be still now, my son. Hate me if you will, but at least think about what I've said. I will give you time to let it all sink in."

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

"Why did you not think to ask the Midgardian woman where your brother's body was found?" the witch says. "Or how he died."

Loki squeezes his eyes shut as a wave of nausea nearly unseats him. "I do not want to know of these things at all. But I must if I'm to have any chance of changing this. Tell me."

The witch laughs, showing the hard stubs she has for teeth. "How I do like you, child. Your mind is a shattered little thing. So many crevices to hide in. Are you sure you want to know the answer?"

Loki takes in a deep breath, bracing himself for the blow, and then he nods.

"He drowned." The witch smiles as she leans forward, eagerly anticipating his reaction. "In the desert."

Seconds tick by. Then a solid minute. And then Loki's eyes open as he struggles to exhale.

Breathing will never come naturally to him again.

Thor is being the most insufferable of pests.

He will not leave Loki alone and hovers as he watches his little brother dress and prepare for the Jotunns' trial. It is mid-morning, and Odin and Frigga have gone at last. Loki's window is magically sealed shut, and his parents only left him alone at Thor's promise he would not leave his brother's side for a moment.

All of it is unnecessary. Loki is magnificently composed as he adjusts his collar and runs his hands down his armored chest. His hair and clothing are flawless, his spine perfectly straight and his chin held high. He wears a glamour only to hide his red, swollen eyes, but that is all. Everything else he has managed on his own. He has sworn to himself Odin will never again bring him so low.

"Loki," Thor whispers.

Loki clenches his teeth, then quickly disciplines even that small reaction. "I am fine," he says for the hundredth time. "You needn't linger."

"You are not anything close to fine. I am not fine having witnessed it, and I don't even understand it. Why do you push me away?"

"Because it has nothing to do with you."

"Are you certain? Because I think you were baiting me about Jotunheim last night. Your smile told me you knew Mjolnir would deem me unworthy for what I said. And then you ran up here and immediately fell to pieces. What am I to make of all that?"

Loki hates it when Thor makes use of his brain. "You make nothing of it. As I said before, I am fine."

He means to walk away then, but Thor steps into his path and grips him hard by the shoulders. Loki's eyes find a spot on the wall and remain fixed there.

"No," Thor says, shaking him a little. "No, you look at me."

He moves one hand to Loki's neck and then shifts it to his cheek instead when his brother still won't meet his eyes. The warmth melts Loki's resolve, and his eyes flit reluctantly to Thor's face. They hold a tired expression of dread.

Thor studies him before speaking. "Just weeks ago, you looked at me so differently. Something has happened to your innocence. Your smiles used to come so easily, and now I don't know who has hurt you. Was it our parents?"

Loki tries very hard not to start shaking again. "No."

(They are not my parents.)

"I do not think I believe you," Thor says, his eyes starting to shine with emotion. "Loki, are you in trouble? Do you need help?"

Loki stares up at him, mesmerized as he always is by the spell of Thor's words as they attempt to knit back together his hope.

(Yes, yes, I am in trouble, please help me, I am falling still.)

"You do not understand what I've done," Loki whispers. He swallows, thinking he might be sick. "Thor, I have done unforgivable things."

(I am an unforgivable thing.)

"You are my little brother," Thor says fiercely, shaking him again. "I know you. I know you have betrayed me twice now, and I still love you. There is nothing you cannot tell me."

Loki shakes his head sadly. "Not this. Thor, I am dangling over a precipice, and when I fall, there is no coming back. You are the single thread keeping me there. Please allow me my secrets. I am not ready."

Thor's jaw tightens. He is unpleased with the answer but doesn't push it. "You said last night you were falling. It fits somehow because that's what it feels like. You're slipping down some dark hole, and every time I try to reach for you, you rip your hand away. Why do you do that?"

Loki closes his eyes. He can't look his brother in the face any longer. Now that some of his anguish has drained away with his tears, all he feels is a heavy, overwhelming sense of Guilt. How could he have ever taken out his rage on his brother in such a way? How could Odin ever think him anything other than a monster?

"You do not understand," he whispers, his eyelids trembling.

"And you do not trust me to keep holding on to you if you tell me this secret of yours."

"I trust you, Thor. I trust you more than anyone. But I don't trust myself to allow you to hang on."

"A fight to the death then," Thor says, leaning his head down until it rests against Loki's. "I will hold onto you until it kills me. I swear it."

"No, Thor. I swear you will not." When Loki's eyes finally open, they are calm and resolute once more. "And I will win."

People move out of Loki's way as he strides with determination to the dungeons. He rather likes to think it's because of his unflinching stare or perhaps the menacing height of his helmet. Or it could be because he holds the might of Gungnir in his hand. But Thor follows close behind him, so it's more likely the threat of his bulk that causes the rush of movement. Kill joy.

"I do wish you would go away," Loki says. "Just when I rid myself of Lady Sif, I have a new shadow."

"And I wish you would tell me what you're doing," Thor retorts. "I made our parents a promise I wouldn't leave you."

"I intend to visit one of the royal monsters I plan to put to death later today. Does that afford me a moment of privacy with my victim? You can wait at the door."

Thor falls into a thoughtful silence as they round a corner. And then he says in a lower tone, "I am still unable to pick up my weapon, you know. It is in the dining hall, hidden beneath our table. Perhaps we both need to rethink our attitude on Jotunheim."

"How I do love when you get self-righteous and hypocritical at the same time."

"Our father taught us well."

Loki turns to flash him an amused grin. "Well-played, brother."

"Mind your horns when you spin around."

"Consider keeping a more reverential distance."

They descend the short flight of stairs into the dungeons, and Loki marches with purpose past Laufey's cell without sparing him a glance.

"Loki?" Thor hesitates, his pace slowing slightly before he jogs to catch up with his brother. "Is there another King of Jotunheim I'm unaware of?"

Loki smirks and presses on.

They come to a cell further down the long corridor, and when Loki looks inside, his smile slowly melts away. Helblindi Laufeyson, eldest son of the king, crouches on the ground with his arms wrapped around his legs. His head is bowed, eyes closed, breaths coming with shallow slowness. Loki sees the obvious pain and discomfort from being placed in so small a cell for a week—and strangely, he finds no vengeful satisfaction in it. Only more and more Guilt, piling on higher with each passing second.

It is the first time his heart has acknowledged that this is his brother.

His eyes travel to the next cell over, where his other brother, Byleistr, glares at him with near-feral aggression. He is clearly terrified, tensed and ready to strike, though he knows he's already lost. And yet Loki does not feel like a victor.

"Laufey's eldest," Thor says, nodding to Helblindi. "What do you plan to say to him?"

Ignoring the question, Loki calls to one of the guards. "Prepare an interrogation room. One of the larger ones. I will speak to the prisoner alone."

"You remember I am your fellow emissary, do you not?" Thor says in challenge.

"And do you remember I am still your king?" Loki retorts. "Or all you said last night of the shamefulness of this prisoner's betrayal when he stood up to his father so he could save his entire realm? Stand down, Thor. I think it best you wait here."

"Strange that you offer comfort to one you mean to execute," Helblindi says.

He paces the interrogation room, stretching his legs and arms out. The great Jotunn moves slowly, his breaths coming with equal sluggishness, as if he is overheated. His lids hang low over his simmering red eyes.

Loki offers him a sardonic smile from where he sits at a long table. "What is family for, after all?"

Helblindi laughs with shallow effort. His throat is parched. "I wondered if you might know. You hide things with your face well enough, but your eyes tell the truth. Very much like our mother."

Loki's smile tightens. "I was led to believe I was illegitimate. The son of a dead whore, and a rather poor one at that, according to our father. How good of him to inform me that not even my conception was pleasing to him."

"Our mother was the queen, and she is dead," Helblindi replies. He peers at Loki strangely for a moment, as if trying to make a decision. "Something you should know about our father. He is a liar, and he holds a great mountain of anger against you. He will hurt you again if he can."

Loki takes in this information without reacting to it. "And you?"

"I know little about you," Helblindi says. "Only that you attacked our land and seem to hate your own kind."

"I know little about you either. It's an instinctual hatred."

"No, it is because you were raised here. You think yourself better than us."

"The Aesir do, perhaps. But I know exactly what I am, and my hatred is not so discriminatory as to exclude myself."

When Helblindi smiles, only one side of his mouth moves. "Why are you here? You have already made up your mind to kill me."

"Have I?" Loki returns his brother's one-sided smile but puts a cryptic edge on it. "I wish to know more of our father."

"What of him?"

"Was he kind to you? What was he like when you were young? And now."

Helblindi lifts both his hands, and though Loki is uncertain what the gesture means to a Jotunn, it reminds him of a shrug. "He is hardened by many things. The loss of a child, for one."

"Yes, I'm sure he's very choked up about that. Or did he leave more of our siblings lying about as well? There could be hundreds of us—their little corpses sprinkled about the land."

"Is that what you think happened? There are many shameful stories told about you, my brother."

"Oh, do tell. I'm putting together an anthology."

"To betray your realm as an infant is most shameful. Our father did not leave you lying about, as you seem to think. You were lost in the rush of battle at the climax of the war. The priests charged with guarding you were slaughtered, and no one could find you for days in the retreat. Our father grieved for you, and I think it was your loss that brought him to his final defeat. Then he saw you in the hands of the King of Asgard, and you had transformed your appearance. You clung to him wearing the skin of our enemies."

Loki's eyebrows pull together and lift. "It would seem you're implying he took that rather poorly."

"You forsook your father and the land of your birth before you could even speak. I would not trust our father if I were you. He cursed your name that day and became most hard indeed."

"That's . . . rather a lot to digest."

Helblindi blinks at him. "Digest? What have you eaten?"

"Words. It is a saying. Meaning I am thinking through what you've said as one might digest a meal."

"Defecation follows a meal. I think that is not a very good saying, my brother."

Loki inclines his head. "Duly noted."

Helblindi leans against the wall, either unwilling to sit or worried the chair might not hold his weight. "What were you told of your origins?"

"Merely that I was found abandoned in a temple."

"That is true enough, though your abandonment was a result of battle rather than neglect. I think our father took your betrayal more personally than the rest of us. You were very small and were born into the terror of war. When our mother died in battle, it changed you. You became insecure and latched on to others at every chance. You schemed for survival, and after growing up in war myself, I cannot blame you for that."

Loki stares at him, drawing in several breaths through his nose before he asks, "Are you lying to me?"

Helblindi holds up his hands again. "For what purpose? You care not for the land of your birth, nor for the people of your blood. You will kill me regardless of what I say."

"You seem to have formed a very strong opinion about my intentions. Odd, since you yourself have admitted you barely know me."

"You are a survivor. And if you do not kill me, you risk your place here. The King of Asgard knows of your origins. You will plant doubt in his mind if you side in our favor."

"I am the King of Asgard," Loki reminds him. "And I do not strive to do things to gain the All-Father's approval. Not anymore. It is an impossible, maddening task."

"Are you not happy here, my brother?"

Loki considers the question, remembering the feel of fingers running through his hair, whispers of love and safety. "There are moments I feel I hardly deserve. The woman I call mother is very kind. And I have a brother." His eyes fall to the table.

"And the one you call father?"

"Let's just say the word 'odious' was conceived in his honor."

Helblindi's head tilts to one side. "Conceived? Do you lie with him?"

"Uh, no. No, I do not. I meant to say it was the origin of the word."

"That is another poor saying, my brother. Worse than the other."

"Again. Noted."

"And it is shameful to speak of one you call father in such a manner," Helblindi says.

"Any less shameful than betraying your own father to his enemies?" Loki asks. "You forced him to the floor in front of me."

Helblindi's response comes without any hint of regret. "He betrayed our people first in ignoring their suffering. My actions were honorable. Were my father able to return to his home, he would stand trial. His life would be forfeit. You do nothing here today that we would not do ourselves."

"Laufey is a king. Who is above him in Jotunheim that could make such a judgment?"

Helblindi shakes his head. "I do not understand you. He is king no more. He bowed before you. We all did."

"Come again? I don't follow."

"You are our king," Helblindi says as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. "Why do you think I addressed you as King Loki when I kneeled and asked for mercy for our realm? I would have addressed you as King of Asgard or simply by your name otherwise. That is also the reason our father hesitated in kneeling to you. It was unforgiveable all the same. A true king would have sacrificed his crown for his realm. To put it plainly, I took it from him and then gave it to you."

"Well." Loki leans back in his chair and puts both boots up on the table, crossed at the ankle. "That is simply fascinating."

"Make way for the king!" a guard shouts.

It is midday, and the time has come for the prisoners to be tried. Loki sweeps into the throne room with his eyes held level to the horizon. He is careful not to look anyone in the face, but he feels them all the same.

The room is full to bursting, the crush of bodies spilling out even into the halls. Heimdall stands at the rear exit, watching without expression, his hands resting on the hilt of his sword. Thor takes his place beside Sif and the Warriors Three, who wait at the very front of the crowd, facing Loki. Behind him, standing quietly in Loki's shadow, are Frigga and Odin.

He is very careful indeed not to look at either of them.

The waiting citizens had quieted somewhat at Loki's entrance, but the noise soon begins to crescendo as the Jotunn prisoners are led in. There are five in total. Laufey stands at the front with his two sons behind him, along with two warriors who were not killed in the invasion. Their hands are bound with chains, their mouths muzzled. Guards surround them on all sides, weapons drawn and ready. The height and size of the giants unsettles the masses, and they grow defensive as a result.

Loki fixes his eyes on Laufey as the murmuring ascends into shouting. He smiles. The two kings stare each other down on a very tempestuous chessboard.

The shouting becomes so loud that Loki's ears ring with it. The people of Asgard want blood. They are thrilled that the Jotunn king and his sons are here. They revel in the dust and rubble of the damaged palace walls around them—because finally there will be vengeance. There will be war. An end to the monsters. They spit curses at the prisoners, and Loki listens to each one patiently, understanding that the insults apply to him as well.

Murderers, they scream.

(Yes. We are. And what else?)

Loki tugs his sleeves into place beneath his gauntlets, chuckling under his breath as they shout answers to his silent question. This was going to be fun.

"Laufey of Jotunheim," Loki says, speaking loudly so that all may hear. The noise dies down in response. "You have broken our accords. Have you nothing to say in your defense?"

The people laugh, for Laufey is muzzled.

Loki laughs along with them, doing his part to put on a show. "You are silenced today because this is not to be a trial. Merely a sentencing. I was present in Jotunheim when we attacked you, as was I present in Asgard when you attacked us. I do not need to hear testimony, and I daresay it would not change my mind if I did."

The crowd mutters their agreement. Eyes shine in fierce approval of Loki's hard, unforgiving tone. They might not like it in other matters, but the unflinching rage of their king toward a Jotunn enemy is something they can cling to with pride.

Laufey sneers at Loki from behind his muzzle as if he didn't expect anything better from his traitor of a child.

Loki smiles pleasantly back. He waits for the crowd to quiet down before speaking again. "Since I am to serve as a witness for both sides, let me be fair and remind everyone present that Asgard also violated a treaty, which Jotunheim has peacefully maintained with us for centuries. We entered their realm with intent to do harm, and I daresay we succeeded far better than they succeeded here."

The people murmur. They do not like Loki's attempt at being fair, but they sense that he isn't finished.

"However, you chose to attack us instead of peacefully seeking recompense, the process of which is detailed in very plain terms in our treaty with you," Loki says. "And you did so in a very personal way, I might add—by entering the dwelling of your enemies in the night while we slept, with no warning, no attempt at a face-to-face conversation to settle our differences. Even we attempted to speak with you before our attack on your realm. Moreover, you threatened the life of the All-Father, who has orchestrated centuries of peace with you. And possibly the most offensive thing to me was that you also brought injury to a most beloved queen. Oh, Laufey. You should not have allowed yourself to be caught. Did you honestly think I would hesitate to strike you down where you stand for daring to touch my family?"

He glares hard at Laufey while the masses rise up in agreement.

"Yes, I know exactly what I would choose for your sentencing, and I tell you now, you would die. However, this is not a personal matter. I swore an oath before I took the throne of Asgard. To cast aside my own ambition and wants. To guard the Nine Realms and to preserve the peace. I feel no peace in this room. Do you?"

Loki pauses to let his words sink into the crowd. He hates them all. It is a joy to blow their minds.

"The people of Asgard have forgotten their promises to this realm," he continues. "Variations of those promises are woven into every oath we speak. I heard them when the very individuals in this room swore fealty to me as their king. I've heard them in wedding vows and at funerals. I recited them in school as a boy and shouted them at play with my brother. These oaths are everything to a true citizen of Asgard, and yet I wonder how many in this room have ever thought about what they've sworn? Laufey, you are very lucky indeed that it is not Loki Odinson who judges you today, for your head would already be severed from your neck. But I have no name or self except the oath I have sworn to my people. I am Loki Odinson no more. Rather, I stand before you as the King of Asgard."


"And I learned the most interesting thing today from one of your sons," Loki says. "Since I have stripped you of your freedom, and since you have bowed low to me indeed, I am the King of Jotunheim as well."

The crowd shifts restlessly. Heads duck down to whisper. Loki's eyes catch Thor's, and his brother stares at him hard with his lips parted. Loki quickly looks away before he loses his focus and nerve.

Laufey's two sons drop to their knees, and after exchanging a glance, the warriors behind them kneel as well. It is a rehearsed demonstration, planned behind closed doors by Loki and Helblindi. Only Laufey is left standing, and though he still glares his loathing at Loki, he is all too aware of the betrayal taking place behind him.

The whispering surges into a sea of muttering again. The crowd is catching on, and they decide they like it. They revel in the sight of their enemies bowing before their king.

"Remove their muzzles," Loki orders a guard. "Just the two sons. I would hear what they have to say. Why do you kneel, Sons of Laufey?"

"We defer to you as our king," Helblindi says once he is able. This, too, is rehearsed.

Loki's eyes flit to the younger prince. "And you, Byleistr Laufeyson? Where do your loyalties lie?"

To myself, the prince's eyes say. "To the King of Jotunheim," he says aloud.

Loki's smile widens. "And who is your king?"

"You are," they say in unison.

Those in the throne room love this. To see Laufey's kin brought so low that they have proclaimed him their king twice over. Loki has put on quite a show for them, and they thank him with their support and expressions of approval. But they are not as passionate as they were before. Loki's reminder of their oaths have quieted their blood-thirst somewhat.

"Ah, I thought you might say that," Loki replies with a smile. "Then tell your king—what was your purpose in coming here to Asgard? Since I am not one of you, I cannot bear witness to that."

"Our father ordered us here," Helblindi says. "To slay the All-Father in the night and take back the Casket of Ancient Winters. As you say, it was shameful that we did not confront you directly and make an attempt to negotiate with you first. We acted in obedience to Laufey, for he was our king—but he is king no more."

"Goodness, are you saying you would not have attacked us in such a way had you not been bound by an oath to obey your king?" Loki asks.

"We would not have attacked at all, for we have a treaty with Asgard," Helblindi says. "Let me teach you something of Jotunheim, King Loki. We have honor and fierce loyalty and love for our realm. It was my father who craved vengeance and blood, for he holds much bitterness toward the All-Father. But those of us who remember the war prefer times of peace. We only followed him out of allegiance."

"If that is true, why then did you betray him to me?" Loki asks.

"Because he forgot his allegiance to us," Helblindi says. "As you say, a true king has no personal ambition. Only an oath sworn to a realm. Our oaths are not so different from those of Asgard, King Loki. My father forgot his promise to his people and would not bow to you to save his own realm. So my brother and I reminded him of his duties. Were our father to be brought back to Jotunheim, he would face a most serious judgment indeed. He is a traitor and has earned his death."

Loki lifts his eyebrows and paces briefly before the crowd. "Well, this has been educational indeed, particularly what you say about your oaths. Jotunheim and Asgard seem to share very similar beliefs. I must say, I am shocked, to think that the tired rule of an unworthy king could blind so many to that truth for so long. It is very good indeed that Jotunheim now has a new ruler. I suppose that is now me." Loki's face splits into a grin as he indulges in a laugh. "Though I fear I do not have the constitution to rule a frozen wasteland."

The citizens of Asgard do not laugh with him. They hold nothing but confusion in their faces. Loki rather likes that.

"You have claimed me as your king," he continues, "and so it is my right to crown another. Helblindi Laufeyson, I have learned much from you today. In return, let me teach you more of Asgard and of our oaths and honor toward the treaties we enact. You kneel here before me, but now I ask that you stand, in the tradition of your people, and accept your birthright." Loki points Gungnir at Laufey. "And you shall get down on your knees, else I be tempted to rid you of your legs altogether."

In the end, Laufey does kneel, though it requires three guards holding the points of spears to his throat before he finally concedes. The masses shift their anger toward Laufey and away from the other Jotunns, just as Loki had intended. And then they watch as Loki hands over the throne of Jotunheim, asking that Helblindi swear himself to the same vows Loki swore to Asgard. Helblindi does not hesitate in any of his answers.

"Then I crown you King Helblindi of Jotunheim," Loki says. "Though I shall not bow to you, for we are now equals. We are at common purpose, brothers sworn to the same oath to our own realm along with all the others. Now King Helblindi, I believe I have already mentioned that most interesting passage in our peace treaty that gives us direction in these types of situations. It would seem we owe each other recompense for our attacks on one another. Would you agree, or would you prefer we do away with this pesky little treaty altogether?"

"We will uphold our treaty with your realm," Helblindi says. "As I mentioned before, we have honor."

Loki counts silently on his fingers, a mocking display for his people. "Goodness, I believe we have an even number of strikes against each other. I suppose that means they've cancelled each other out. What say you to that?"

The crowd begins to shift angrily. They are finally realizing what Loki means to do.

"It is as you say, King of Asgard," Helblindi replies calmly, ignoring them.

"Well, I suppose that concludes the matter, then," Loki says. "You are free, King of Jotunheim. I release your father and other prisoners to you as a token of our wish for future peace, and I ask you to leave our realm and to desist further invasive attacks as a token to us. If Laufey finds his death at the hands of your justice for the crimes against his own realm, so be it. I daresay his wrongs against Jotunheim are far greater than his actions against Asgard. I will not rob you of your justice."

"He will be tried this very day." Helblindi's words are nearly lost amongst the growing discontent of the people.

"Lady Sif, Heimdall—gather together enough men to guard our Jotunn acquaintances so that they may travel to the Bifrost in peace, and then to their homeland," Loki says, having to raise his voice in order to be heard. "And I ask the rest of you, citizens of Asgard—" He slams the base of Gungnir into the ground until silence falls again. "I ask you to stand still for a moment and reflect upon your oaths to this realm. Remember your honor, for it is a traitor of Asgard and of peace itself who would attempt to lift a hand against those to whom we have given our word. My people, let us demonstrate to our guests an Asgardian sense of integrity."

Absolute silence.

Loki is almost disappointed. His fingers were practically twitching as they gripped Gungnir, awaiting the first cry of dissent. But it does not come. The Jotunns are allowed to leave in peace.

The All-Father waits for him in the corridor behind the throne room.

Odin's face is as unemotional as it ever is. He looks at Loki no differently that he did only hours before, when his child was weeping in his lap. "Loki," he says in greeting.

Without speaking, Loki comes to a halt and waits for the rest, his mouth tensed and set into a straight line.

"I said I would cast no judgment on your decrees as king, and I will keep my word," Odin continues. "But as your father, I must say I am very proud of you."

Loki's look of cold anger shifts into outright exasperation. "Oh, shut up." He thrusts Gungnir back into the All-Father's hands and speaks over his shoulder as he stalks away. "I didn't do it for you."

To be continued.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

Thor's voice is like a crack of thunder in the desert. "Heimdall, open the Bifrost!"

There is no reply, nor has there been since he started. He knows something is wrong in Asgard—with the All-Father and who knows what else. Thor feels the frantic need to get home, but the way is shut.


Jane waits by her Jeep, arms wrapped around her body to hug herself in comfort. She doesn't want him to leave, but her worry for him keeps her silent on the matter. "Has he ever gone this long without answering before?" she calls.

Thor is too upset to reply. He has started to pant, his breaths coming hard with his anger and grief. His feet have grown so weary, he can barely lift them. His heart aches as if it has a mind to kill him. He doesn't want to believe what he thinks he might know.

"Thor," Jane says. "Let's go back. Come home with me. We'll figure it out."

Furious tears sting Thor's eyes as he roars, "Loki, open the Bifrost!"

He is not built for this kind of sorrow.

"You need a haircut," Sif observes. "You look like a troll."

Loki glances up from his book, which he reads while sitting at a remote table in the depths of the library. Sif stands there amongst the great bookshelves, which hold ancient, secret texts, and she looks about as uncomfortable as he's ever seen her. He isn't even certain how she found him all the way back here.

"Lady Sif," he says in greeting. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

If Sif notices his sarcasm, she has either chosen to ignore it or has simply grown immune. "I have not seen you in the dining hall."

Loki waits, an eyebrow hoisted to prompt her to get to the point. He has research to finish. "And?"

"Or anywhere else for that matter," she continues, irritation finally finding her tone. "You have been distant."

Loki sets his book aside, careful not to place it near the pages he's been writing notes on. The ink has not yet dried. "You know, I can deal with my family voicing concerns about me, which makes a certain amount of sense. But coming from you, it is simply odd."

"You have been distant," Sif repeats.

Loki's answering smile is tight. "No. I have been busy."

"Doing what?"

"Busying things."

"Thor is worried about you."

"Thor is an idiot."

Sif's irritation quickly dissolves into a familiar hostility. "Thor loves you, Loki, and you should consider letting him from time to time. You seem to have that problem with a lot of people. You treat others so poorly. You lash out with your barbs and your quips, and seek only to use your words to shame. Then you wonder why no one comes in search of you when you go missing."

Loki's smile remains unfazed. "Then why are you here, Lady Sif?"

"I have absolutely no idea."

"Well, then." His eyes shift to the doorway she had entered through. "I bid you good day."

Sif doesn't move. "We used to be friends when we were children."

"I notice you've made correct usage of the past tense."

"You cut my hair off, Loki," Sif bites out. "It was unkind, and it broke my heart at the time. And you never apologized for it—at least not in a heartfelt way—so do not tell me I have no reason to be angry or hostile with you. But you are still Thor's brother, and a prince of Asgard—and you used to be my friend as well. I don't expect your friendship now, but I would like to know if you are all right. Thor is worried about you, Loki. Do not mock that."

But that is a difficult request for Loki to process because his very nature demands he mock it. That way, he doesn't have to think about it or take it to heart.

Loki leans back in his chair, feeling somewhat like he has been slapped. Her words add to the heaviness growing in his heart. "I thank you for your concern," he says. He's able to keep his tone even, devoid of sarcasm, but he still wants very much for her to leave. "But I hope I have demonstrated in recent weeks that I am able to adequately care for myself."

Sif shakes her head. "Why do you insist on shutting everyone out?"

"If you knew others would be harmed while trying to help you, would you ask them to?"

"So you are in trouble, then."

Loki slams his pen down on the table, eyes bright with fury. "I bid you good day, Lady Sif," he hisses out. "Leave it alone."

Loki is not yet ready to fall, but he's felt himself starting to slip.

It doesn't alarm him, strangely. He knows he deserves it.

Days and weeks have started to tick by, and he's become quiet and withdrawn. There is a deep, hollow place in his heart where his anger used to fester. Some of it is still there, of course, and it will likely never leave him fully at peace. But Odin is now not worth his time, nor is Laufey, nor are any of them. The Jotunns are gone. His brother and mother are safe. He is no longer king. There is peace.

He isn't angry anymore. Just tired—so very tired.

And then, of course, there's the Guilt.

It has lurked behind his anger for so long, and it was a splendid place to hide. But so much of his fury has burned away until Loki is rendered near comatose at times by the sheer weight of how much he has destroyed in so very little time. He lies awake at night, staring at the ceiling as if it's a tidal wave of the blood he's spilled, come to drown him.

But he is not yet ready to fall into depression or give up. He still has a few more bargains to make before the time comes for him to pay for his sins. His Guilt demands it, and he owes it to Thor.

Two major players stand between the future Loki knows and the past he lives in. Thanos and Malekith. He could leave them both alone, of course, but they are still out there and will affect Thor sooner or later. Loki now has the opportunity to plan ahead, though it will be tricky since he's not supposed to know about any of it. It's not as if he can march right up to the All-Father and detail the enemies' plans without raising a few eyebrows. Enough of them are raised in his direction already.

The citizens of Asgard treat him strangely these days. They are not friendly, but they do bow their heads in respect for their prince when he passes them by. He has shamed them. Even worse, he did so in front of an enemy. But not even they can deny the truth of his words about honor and integrity, and so they merely watch him day after day and wonder how they've gone so long without noticing him at all. Though they will likely never come to love him, they know who he is now and have learned to respect the quiet power of his mind. A few even whisper that he might make a better king than Thor—at least in times of crisis.

Loki is unaware of all this. He does not care anymore, for his life is forfeit. This has never been about him. And so he sits in quiet corners, in the library and in the queen's garden, and ponders his options.

First comes Thanos, who Loki cannot defeat. He has already tasted the fire and torment of the Mad Titan during his fall into the Void, and he's not foolish enough to attempt a head to head confrontation with him. But Thanos wants the Tesseract, which is on Midgard, and he will send the Chitauri for it with or without Loki as his ally. And that, Loki can do something about. For Thor's sake. As recompense and to keep him safe from unknown variables until the past and future meet.

And then there is Malekith, who wants the Aether. Loki just so happens to know where it is.

Child's play.

"Prince Loki," Heimdall says in greeting.

Loki steps to the edge of the Observatory, not certain how he feels about no longer being address as king. It's been weeks since he handed Gungnir over to Odin, but without its weight in his hand, he still feels exposed. Vulnerable. His mind alone will have to be enough from here on out.

"Do you ever attempt to see into the Void?" Loki asks.

Heimdall's response comes in his usual dispassionate tone. "The blindness I feel when I turn my gaze there is disquieting. I do not care to look, and there is nothing to see."

"I would like you to try. During my time as king, I had my share of dreams. The All-Father's prophetic gift, I suppose, or perhaps not. My mind is disquieted as well."

Every word is a lie. Loki clenches his teeth and waits for Heimdall to call him out on it. Though Heimdall had served him well enough while he was king, Loki knows the watchman still doesn't trust him. Now that Heimdall recognizes Loki has the ability to evade his gaze and shield others as well, that trust will likely never return.

"What is it you have seen?" Heimdall's manner is impossible to read.

"I am not yet certain. There is a darkness there. I don't know how else to describe it. A Void should be nothing. This is not nothing."

"Have you spoken of your concerns to the All-Father?"

"I would not hide it if asked, but I would like to gain more understanding of it before I go to him. There's no need to trouble the king unnecessarily. Will you look? I have already begun my own research on the matter."

"I will not conceal what you have asked me to do from my king," Heimdall says. "Or turn my gaze away from that which I already watch."

Loki lifts an eyebrow. "Nor have I asked you to."

"Very well, my prince. I shall do as you bid."

Loki has planted the seed in Heimdall that he suspects trouble. Now he must play the part of a concerned prince looking for answers. And so he hides himself in the library and pours through ancient texts on Yggdrasil, the history of past wars, and the loss of a particularly valuable jewel from Odin's treasure room. An Infinity Gem. The Tesseract.

Loki makes certain he has enough books and research on other subjects so that his ultimate findings will not appear too convenient. However, his conclusions are still riddled with holes. It is all far too circumstantial, and Loki only has enough to say he has a hunch. If he is to continue his research and find enough evidence to convince others to act, he must place himself closer to the events themselves.

"All-Father," Loki says. He hovers uncertainly in the doorway of the king's private library, staring over Odin's shoulder rather than directly at him. He hates him and will never forgive him. But for now, he needs his help.

"My son," Odin says. He doesn't look at Loki either but rather finishes writing a thought down in his journal. He blows on the ink to dry it before closing the leather cover. "What have you come to show me?"

Loki's fingers tighten around his notebook of research.

Odin chuckles in his scathing sort of way. "Do you honestly think I don't know what you've been up to? Buried in the library at all hours and handing out tasks to the king's watchman? Come. Sit. Show me what you've found."

Loki lays it all out. Pages of notes, maps, and diagrams scattered across the All-Father's desk. He watches, his borrowed heart pounding as Odin scans them at length.

"I'm not sure I follow your logic," Odin says after a long while. "But I understand what has sparked your interest. I have seen the shadow myself."

Loki resists the urge to cough. "Oh?"

"Gungnir shows me many things."

Gungnir hadn't so much as whispered 'hello' to Loki, much less shown him any kind of shadow lingering in the Void.

"Oh, yes," Loki lies. "Gungnir shares many things indeed."

Odin glances up at him with a cryptic smile that could mean anything—and so Loki looks away because he doesn't really have the courage to wager a guess. The silence in the room is uncomfortable.

"You're still angry with me, I see," Odin says as he sets down a page of notes.

"I'm a little past that, actually. Moving into that state of indifference you feared."

"You may think that if it makes you feel better. But we will never be indifferent to each other, my son."

Loki ignores that statement out of principle. "I would like to go to Midgard."

"Yes, I thought you might."

Loki's shoulders tense, but he waits, not reacting.

"To meet Thor's mortal, of course," Odin says, his words rife with scorn. "He speaks of very little else."

"She is an astrophysicist," Loki points out. "As is Erik Selvig, with whom Thor is also acquainted."

"And what need does a sorcerer have of two scientists?"

Loki draws in a deep breath, steeling himself. The All-Father is entirely too clever for Loki to get any part of this wrong. "It's only a theory at present."

"I am not planning to laugh at you, Loki. Tell me."

"I think the Tesseract is on Midgard."

Odin's eye again falls to the stacks of research. "Go on."

"Thor has mentioned he made contact with an intelligence organization called S.H.I.E.L.D. during his exile on Midgard. Near the end of his stay, this organization extracted Erik Selvig to aid them in researching an unknown device. Thor was not very helpful in my probing of him on the matter, but he said he overheard Selvig speaking with Jane Foster about some kind of alien energy-source. I believe I am not the first to suspect it might be an Infinity Gem. The shadow moves."

Odin leans back in his chair, his fingers coming to tap together thoughtfully. "Heimdall has spoken to me of what he's seen in the Void."

Loki feels a brief pang of betrayal that Heimdall has not yet shared anything with him, but he quickly controls his reaction. "And what did he see?"

"It is as you say. A shadow moves. Though I wonder what makes you think it moves toward Midgard? It is a universe away."

"Has Heimdall been able to pinpoint the exact location?"

"He has," Odin says. "Though I still wonder why you are so fixated on it when it is nothing but shadow."

"As I said, it is only a theory. The shadow is an unknown variable, and if there is indeed treasure on Midgard, it will be targeted sooner or later."

"What do you plan to do?"

Loki shrugs, trying to give the illusion of having no solidified plan. "The Tesseract belongs to Asgard."

Odin smiles as if sensing there's more. "But?"

"If there is a threat of attack, the humans could use it to defend themselves against those who would seek to steal it."

"You could always just retrieve the Tesseract, if it is indeed there, and bring it back here for safety. As you say, it belongs to Asgard."

"True. But until we know what lies in the shadow, I feel I'm not quite that reckless. Or generous."

Odin laughs knowingly. "I see. You would rather Midgard risk the chance of attack than Asgard. They will receive the strike from any potential enemy instead of us."

"I would do what I could to help them."

"And so therefore you seek out the scientists to aid you in your quest to protect Midgard, likely making use of the Tesseract itself to do so. I must say, Loki. This is quite an interesting theory you've developed."

Loki stares at him, trying very hard not to appear phased by the All-Father's farsightedness. "You know, sometimes you are terrifying."

Odin's eye twinkles at him. "My boy, I believe that is the smartest thing I've ever heard you say."

They regard each other from across Odin's desk, the one with the chessboard carved into it, the squares of battle buried underneath the pages of Loki's research.

"Loki," Odin says at last. "How did I let you fall?"

Loki gathers together his notes, rises from the chair, and takes his leave without being dismissed.

Not long after, Loki throws open the door of Thor's chambers. With a heavy sigh, he leans on the doorjamb, feeling as though he's just had his ass handed to him in a mental wrestling match. He's not entirely certain who came out of the battle as the victor.

Thor sits by the fire, polishing Mjolnir, which he interestingly was able to pick up not long after Loki's lecture to the citizens of Asgard about their oaths of honor. Thor blinks up at his brother—and then smiles. "Greetings, stranger. Forgotten how to knock, have you?"

"What say you to an adventure?" Loki asks.

Thor places his weapon on the floor at his feet. "If this has anything to do with the library, I fear you must venture there alone."

"I was thinking of Midgard actually. How would you like to pay a visit to your Jane?"

The look of sheer joy that crosses his older brother's face is enough to make Loki smile himself. It's the first time in weeks he's felt even a hint of happiness, though his Guilt soon reminds him he does not deserve to feel such things at all.

To be continued.


Chapter Text

Chapter 15

"Don't you worry about creating a paradox?" Loki asks. "What happens when time catches up with itself?"

The witch adjusts the position of her knife, which she has placed on the table between them so that they fully understand one another. "There's a reason I require payment up front. I've done this before. One might say it's my job."

"Why does that offer me little comfort?"

"Because you're intelligent, of course," she says with a laugh. "Though perhaps not very self-aware. To answer your question, you are purchasing a new past. The old past will never return, but that will not wipe out the prior record fully. People will come to remember both. They will gain this knowledge when the two timelines merge. For those individuals you don't affect, they won't even notice the difference. Well, a slight hiccup perhaps. You've experienced moments of déjà vu before, haven't you? I do get many clients these days."

Loki is relatively certain he's never been more disturbed by an individual in his life, and that's saying something. He tries not to let it show on his face as he says, "That means Thor will remember he died."

"Indeed, he will."

"And how it came to pass," Loki adds. The thought makes him feel ill. He wishes he could spare his brother the memory of drowning.

The witch's eyes sparkle in the candlelight. "I wouldn't have it any other way. It's important to learn from the past, you see. Simply unmaking it and creating a new one is far, far too easy, and I do love a good punch line."

"I used to love them myself. Though now. . . ." Loki trails off with a sigh. "I suppose aside from Thor, the shift of the two timelines merging will be smooth. I only intend to change one event, so only Thor and those who know of his death will feel it."

The witch drums her fingers on the table beside the knife, her smile unwavering. "Oh, I don't know, little princeling. You do seem the type to enjoy sending tremors through the water."

Loki has come to the swift conclusion that he is not a fan of the desert. In fact, it's quite possibly worse than the snow.

From the very moment they land on Midgard, with the stamp of the Bifrost burned into the sand and rock at their feet, Loki feels as though he might be violently ill. He bends over—trembling hands coming to rest on his thighs—and tries to concentrate on the mechanics of breathing. He cannot shake the feeling that his lungs are slowly filling up with water, and yet his breaths seem to come too fast. Black spots fleck his vision as pure anxiety takes him over.

The desert is where Loki had learned of Thor's death from Jane.

The desert is where Thor had died.

It was foolish to have come here. To Hel with Midgard. Thanos could have them all.

Thor's laughter rings out, breaking through the worse of the panic attack's hold on Loki. Thor is in the best of moods, and not even the sight of his little brother ready to keel over can ruin it. "You're not seriously ill, are you?" Thor laughs. "You've been traveling by the Bifrost for centuries. Steady on."

Once Loki is able to breathe in and out at regular albeit shallow intervals, he looks around in distaste at their new surroundings. The hour is late, just after sunset, and the sky stretches endlessly before them in a smear of fiery yellows and creeping purples and blues. Loki's eyes take in the uneven terrain and the half-dead vegetation struggling to survive between the rocks. It's beautiful in a haunting, barren kind of way, but he refuses to acknowledge it. He hasn't forgiven the desert for what it represents.

"This place stinks of cow," Loki surmises.

"Well, then, you should fit right in," Thor says, slapping his brother on the back. "Let's see you don your helmet for the locals, mighty prince."

Loki groans as he takes the blow. The panic attack has stolen his pride along with his breath. "You are extremely fortunate I am too unwell to throttle you."

Loki stops talking after that and struggles to swallow. He shouldn't joke about harming his brother out here, of all places. Even the God of Lies and Chaos has his limits.

"Norns, Loki, is it as bad as all that?" Thor is still chuckling as his hand closes around his little brother's shoulder, steadying and supporting him. "Try to breathe. It will pass."

Loki sways, his eyes closing as he allows himself a rare moment of relaxation in the warmth of Thor's presence. It is the sweetest and cruelest of moments. His madness has quieted down considerably in recent weeks, the voices in his head all but silent for long stretches of time, but the Guilt has quickly taken its place. It informs him exactly how much he doesn't deserve this moment of peace. Especially from the brother he has betrayed so many, many times.

Loki straightens and pushes away Thor's hand with sudden impatience. "I'm fine," he snaps. He has had to say those two words far too many times of late.

Their eyes meet for a brief moment. Thor's are filled with concern and confusion. Loki's quickly fall to the ground.

"Why won't you just tell me what's wrong?" Thor asks. "Is it really so difficult to trust me? We are not in Asgard anymore. You can speak to me freely here."

Loki's breaths are becoming more even and precise—but only because his rising anger is helping him focus the anxiety. "Leave it alone, Thor."

"I will not. I am your brother, and I'm not the only one who plans to—"

Loki's temper goes from simmering to an all out inferno, and in an instant, he's right in Thor's face. "I said, leave it alone!"

Startled, Thor recoils and shoves Loki away hard. Loki stumbles backwards and falls to the ground in a cloud of dust. "What is wrong with you?" Thor demands. "I'm not your enemy, Loki. I'm trying to help!"

Loki is every bit as startled and appalled as Thor. His limbs shake as he gets to his feet. "I'm sorry," he says, still unable to look at his brother. "I don't know why I did that."

(Do you not?)

Loki shudders. It's been a while since he's heard that voice. Perhaps Odin is right. His madness thrives in his anger and grief.

"I will figure it out, Loki," Thor says, lifting Mjolnir to point it at him in warning. "If you won't tell me, I will find out for myself. I grow tired of these games."

"Good luck," Loki says. He eyes Thor's weapon and chooses not to visibly react to it, though inside he's fighting another round of panic. "Let's just get out of here. Which way to civilization? If there is such a thing in this wasteland."

After a walk of about a mile, they make it into town just after nightfall. At Thor's suggestion, they wear Midgardian clothing. Thor has chosen a simple pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, but Loki dislikes dressing so casually, particularly when on an errand of business. He chooses a suit instead—black and well-tailored with a crisp, white shirt and black tie underneath. It's far too warm for the overcoat and scarf he normally favors, so he regretfully leaves them off.

"You look ridiculous," Thor tells him. "No one in this town dresses so formally."

"I look respectful," Loki corrects. "Rather like a prince. You should try it sometime."

Thor soon finds what he calls a payphone, which he intends to use to contact Jane Foster. Loki waits at his side, rolling his eyes at the stars as his brother attempts to press tiny buttons with his enormous fingers. Loki eventually must help him make what Thor explains to him is a collect call, and together they puzzle over the automated message until they are at long last successful.

"What is the wretched thing attempting to collect exactly?" Loki mutters. "Patience? Wasted time?"

"Jane!" Thor cries into the phone when he finally hears her voice. He shouts as if she wouldn't be able to hear him at a distance otherwise. "I have come! Quickly, meet us in town before the machine interferes with our conversation!"

Passersby brazenly stare at them, particularly at Thor's hammer. Loki crosses his arms and glares back, daring them to make something of it.

It was a shame he couldn't send the Destroyer after this town again. Perhaps later.

Jane is a ways out of town, conducting research in the desert, and so Thor brings Loki to an eating establishment while they wait for her. He explains that it's called a diner.

Loki takes in this information with an increasingly exasperated expression. "That makes no sense. The person doing the eating would be the diner. The establishment should not be labeled as such unless it plans engage in the act of dining, which I think would frighten away potential patrons rather than attract them."

"Indeed, I have puzzled over it myself," Thor says. "I do not understand Midgardian speech very well, brother. We must work together to decipher it."

Once inside the diner, they take a seat near a window so that they can watch for Jane. Loki's opinion of the place does not improve. "Why is everything sticky?" he complains. "And what in Odin's name is a milkshake? That is just vulgar."

He makes a gesture with his hand and banishes the layer of scum from the top of the table. Looking up, he catches the eye of a little girl sitting nearby who watches him with enormous brown eyes. He lifts a finger to his lips. "Shhh," he says with a wink. Her stunned expression melts into a cautious smile.

"Do you plan on being in this mood the entire time?" Thor asks. "We came to Midgard at your suggestion, you know."

"I realize that, Thor. I simply was not adequately prepared for stickiness."

"That still doesn't explain your odd behavior when we arrived—or how you've been acting for the past few months, for that matter. I do not pretend to understand you at all anymore. Though that will change soon enough." Thor gives his brother a tight smile before he turns in his seat and calls out, "Woman! A round of coffee—and some of your sugary round cakes with the holes."

Loki feels a cold tingle of apprehension creep up his spine. "Holes?" he asks, encouraging the change in topic.

"Do not bother inquiring," Thor says. "Not even the Midgardians can explain their reasoning behind the holes. It is a mystery. Just like everything else at this table."

An hour later, Loki's opinion of Midgard has improved somewhat simply due to the quality of the coffee and the acrid wit of the woman who refills his cup before he has consumed even half of it. He thinks perhaps he was too hasty in formulating plans to send the Destroyer. The woman, at least, will be spared should he change his mind.

"There," Thor says. He gestures through the window, and Loki turns to see Jane Foster walking toward the diner alongside a young woman with long, dark hair. "Jane is the one with the more delicate features," Thor explains. "She is beautiful, is she not?" He's so happy that his smile seems ready to split his face. It's a complete shift in mood from only moments before.

Loki has the sudden desire to go somewhere to be alone, but he smiles through it. "Yes, Thor. Very lovely indeed. I'm rather impressed."

"The other woman is Darcy Lewis, and I must warn you, brother. She has a device called a cellular phone, inside of which is a hidden camera. She will try to catch you unawares." With that solemn warning, Thor is immediately out of his seat.

Jane and Thor's reunion takes place on the sidewalk outside, and Loki gets to his feet somewhat hesitantly as he watches them embrace and share in a kiss. He feels an unexpected tug of jealousy that he thought he'd moved past, but he supposes he will always feel resentful of those who would steal his brother away from him—even death. It's a foolish response. Almost all he has done since the moment he arrived in the past is worry about his brother's future. This should please him—seeing Thor so happy and unburdened, knowing he'll have someone clever to care for him when Loki is gone. Yet all he feels is left behind.

Soon enough, Thor ushers Jane and Darcy inside the diner. "Jane, this is my brother. Loki of Asgard."

"Jane Foster." Loki inclines his head in a polite bow. "We meet at last."

Jane looks up at him with her infectious, bright-eyed smile. "Oh, you're tall. I mean, I should have guessed you would be, but Thor talks so much about his little brother. I thought maybe you were a teenager or something."

"Alas, I am a touch older." Loki's eyes flit to Thor, a hint of resentment in his gaze. "And only a mere inch shorter, I might add."

"It is a very important inch," Thor laughs.

The girl with the darker hair speaks up. "And I'm Darcy." She gives an awkward little wave, fully aware that no one is paying attention to her. "Hello."

"Jane's assistant," Thor informs his brother, filling in the blanks. "How do you fare, Lady Darcy?"

"Swimmingly," she says, unsuccessfully attempting to mimic Thor's accent. "Can I order a cheeseburger? I'm starving."

Loki watches with a horrified expression as Darcy consumes a guacamole bacon cheeseburger. He's trying his utmost not to breathe, but he wishes very much to break every window in the diner for the sole purpose of getting a bit of fresh air.

"Want some?" Darcy asks, waving it in his face.

"Thor," Loki says. "Would you be overly upset if I killed this one?"

"Jane, my brother wishes to meet Erik Selvig," Thor says. "Will he be joining us later?"

Darcy slurps noisily from her soda straw. "Um, hello? You totally didn't answer your bro's question. Rude."

"Erik is still out of town," Jane says. "Working on that special project he was pulled away on the last time you were here."

"When do you anticipate his return?" Loki asks, leaning forward in his chair.

Jane shrugs. "Projects like these could take years, but we could call him. What did you want to talk to him about?"

"I have some information that might help Dr. Selvig along in his research on the Tesseract," Loki says.

Jane's eyes widen.

"What's a Tesseract?" Darcy asks loudly.

"Shhh," Jane hisses. "Keep your voice down. I'm not supposed to know what Erik is working on. How do you know about it?"

"You needn't panic," Loki says. "I trust Thor has told you of our watchman, Heimdall? When I began to suspect the Tesseract might be on earth, the All-Father had our watchman confirm it. We're only here to help him learn to stabilize and control it."

Thor looks at Loki because he knows that's not the full truth, but thankfully he has enough wits about him to keep his mouth shut. Still, Loki can tell Thor doesn't like it.

Jane exhales, blowing a stray hair out of her face. "I honestly don't know anything about it. Only that the cube is an energy source."

"Indeed it is," Loki says. "But it's also a weapon that can harm those who do not know how to wield it. I wish only to share information with Dr. Selvig that will keep the Tesseract from harming others. If I may?"

Loki holds out his hand, and his research materializes at his bidding. Jane squeaks, both startled and pleased by the trick, and she takes it from him with an amazed smile. Loki watches her face carefully as she spreads the pages out in front of her and digs in.

"Jane, when do you think we could call Dr. Selvig?" Thor asks.

There's no response. Jane's eyes and lips are moving—but nothing else.


"Uh, you just handed her reading material," Darcy points out. "We are now a table of three instead of four. She's down for the count." Darcy smiles at Loki. "But you know, if you just wanna talk to me for a while, I'd be totally cool with that."

"I beg your pardon?" Loki asks, somewhat reluctantly.

"Because I gotta tell ya," Darcy says. "Every word that comes out of you is like a lick in the right place."

Loki stares at her. It's several moments before he is able to properly formulate a response. "You know, this is quite possibly the first time someone has all but rendered me silent."

Darcy rests her chin on her fist and wriggles her eyebrows. "And yet the licks just keep on comin'."

"This is amazing," Jane says, not looking up from Loki's notes. "Is this really what Erik's working on?"

Loki is all too relieved to turn his attention back to Jane. "It is but a small fraction. The Tesseract is powerful indeed. As I said, I would very much enjoy the honor of meeting him in person."

"I'll call him tonight," Jane says, practically glowing with excitement. "No way will he pass this up. His location is a secret, but I bet he'll agree to meet us somewhere."

"Ooh, road trip," Darcy says. "Can I come?"

"No," Loki and Thor reply in unison.

To be continued.

A/N – Thank you for reading! Hope you enjoyed.

Chapter Text

A/N – Um, guys? Part of this chapter is going to hurt. Just hang in there and trust me, okay? I promise I will make it better.

Chapter 16

Even from the highest reaches of the Asgardian palace, Loki can hear Thor calling to him from Midgard. Gungnir delivers the message to the king, though reluctantly, as if it can sense Loki has not been properly bestowed upon the throne.

Though Loki isn't certain how his brother has managed such astonishing mental feats, Thor has somehow figured out Loki is not dead. More disturbing than that, he's also discerned Heimdall no longer stands guard at the Bifrost. Thor now calls Loki out directly. It won't be long before he knows Loki is in Odin's place on the throne while the All-Father wastes away in the Odinsleep. That is, if Thor doesn't suspect it already.

Why can't his brother just leave well enough alone?

Unconsciously, Loki's hand moves to his neck, and he imagines furious fingers crushing the life out of him. Thor has sworn to kill Loki the next time he betrays him, and Loki sometimes thinks perhaps he wants him to. Maybe then it will finally stick.

On the third day of listening to Thor's increasingly uncompromising demands, Loki descends to Midgard to face him. It's early morning in the desert. Thor stands alone, his back to Loki, watching the sunrise.

"Brother," Loki says in greeting as his fingers tighten around Gungnir. He keeps his chin high, lips set into a smile. It's important to him not to appear daunted in the least.

As Thor turns to face him, it's quickly apparent just how far Loki has pushed him this time. Thor is so angry that he seems to shimmer with it. His eyes are a brilliant, unforgiving blue that sharpens the edge of Loki's apprehension.

Thor's lips are pressed together, trembling, and tears spill unheeded down his cheeks. "You are not my brother," he says, his voice pitched with emotion. "He died a noble death, protecting and avenging his family. I don't know who you are."

The words are like a blade slipping between Loki's ribs, even though he knows he's asked for each and every one of them. But not even that can phase his smile, for he needs it to shield his vulnerability.

Loki's chuckle sounds hollow in the morning chill, as if the life is sucked out of him. "I see you are no longer attempting to hold on to that little fool. You are correct in your assumptions, Thor. Your brother died long ago, lost in the Void."

"I mourn for him every day," Thor says. His brow is pinched in the middle, his cheeks red and tight as he struggles to keep his heartbreak at bay. "Do you?"

Loki's chuckle shifts into outright laughter. "Well, now you're just being insipid."

Thor's teeth clench together as he asks, "So what happens now?"

"What always happens." Loki smiles, his eyes dancing with a combination of insanity and a thin tendril of absolute fear. "We fight."

Unbeknownst to Jane, her phone calls to Erik Selvig have been under surveillance. And so instead of engaging in a private conversation with Erik about Loki's information on the Tesseract, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been alerted to the presence of two Asgardian princes on their planet.

A string of unmarked vehicles swarm into town within the hour, and men in suits escort Thor, Loki, Jane, and Darcy from the diner without offering explanation.

Loki is alarmed at first but takes it in stride without putting up much resistance. If he really means to seek out the Tesseract, he knows he'll have to make contact with S.H.I.E.L.D. eventually—though he hadn't anticipated being taken captive. That part unsettles him. He dislikes feeling trapped but has learned to hide it well enough.

Several hours later, they find themselves in a temporary base out further in the desert. Loki and Thor are placed together in a small room lit with clinical brightness. There is a mirror on one wall, which Loki understands is a window so that others can watch them. The walls and flooring are white with no lines or textures to soften them. A rectangular table resides in the middle of the room, two chairs on each side.

Jane and Darcy have been brought elsewhere and are separated from them. Though this makes Thor uneasy enough to pace, he says, "I've dealt with these people before. They are secretive and imposing, but they aren't hostile without reason. Well, except for the time I attempted to breech their security to reclaim Mjolnir, but even then, they let me go."

Thor has been forced to leave Mjolnir in another room, for no other agents could take it from him.

"Worry not," Thor says to his brother. "I can call my hammer through these walls if there's need. They should mind who they trifle with."

Loki hates how closed in he feels—almost as much as he fears the familiar rising tide of Thor's anger—but Loki forces the apprehension out of his mind. He stands in the direct center of the room with his arms clasped behind his back, refusing to lean on the wall for support or sit in one of the chairs. "Indeed," he says. "However, I'm not sure I would have admitted that out loud since I'm relatively certain they can hear us."

"Good," Thor mutters as he paces, his eyes on the mirror. "Let it be a warning. If they bring Jane to harm, they will come to regret it."

The windowless door opens and in steps Agent Phil Coulson, his suit and hair in perfect order, an electronic tablet in his hand. Just behind him is Clint Barton, who is armed with his bow but merely holds it at his side without a hint of expression in his cool gaze.

Loki's lips twist into a smirk as he turns away.

However, once they can no longer see his face, Loki's smugness melts away into something else. He feels sick. There is not a single person in this room he has not done something unforgivable to.

"Jane Foster is enjoying a cup of coffee with her lovely assistant, Darcy," Coulson says, addressing Thor's last comment. It's a confirmation of Loki's suspicion that their conversation was not private. "We're not in the business of hurting innocent people. What remains to be seen is if you two qualify as innocent yourselves."

"What do you think us guilty of?" Thor asks. "This is a peaceful visit. We have done nothing to elicit such a response."

Loki turns to eye his brother's posture with growing apprehension. Thor's shoulders are pushed forward, his fists clenched. It's like they're back on Jotunheim before Thor's banishment, when Thor had faced down Laufey and nearly started a war.

Coulson gazes back with unflinching calmness. "You're trespassing."

"How?" Thor bites back. "You were the one who brought us here."

"I meant that you're trespassing on my planet," Coulson replies. "Not this base. Have a seat." He gestures to the table.

Thor remains standing, his fingers contracting as if he's seconds away from calling out for Mjolnir. Loki comes up behind Thor and gently touches his arm to encourage him to stand down. "You must forgive my brother's passionate response," Loki says graciously. "He only worries for the woman's safety."

"Just the one?" Coulson asks, eyebrows raised.

Loki smiles tightly and waits for his brother to fill in what he is unwilling to offer.

"The Lady Darcy is under our protection as well," Thor says.

"See, to me it's the other way around," Coulson says. "Dr. Foster and Ms. Lewis are my people and are therefore under my protection. They're from Earth. You two, however, are from someplace else. I want to know how you got here, how you know about the Tesseract, and how you managed to pull that hammer out of solid rock when nothing else would budge it."

Coulson's eyes are on Thor as he speaks, disregarding Loki almost completely.

Foolish, Loki thinks. He almost smirks again but notices Agent Barton has plenty of regard for him. Barton watches Loki steadily, his gloved hands relaxed at his sides. The perfect soldier. Calm, unemotional, and alert.

Coulson unbuttons his suit jacket as he walks toward the table. He sets his tablet down and takes a seat. Barton remains by the door, watching silently. "You fell off our radar for quite some time after the hammer disappeared," Coulson says. "Please. Sit down."

Loki nudges Thor forward, and miraculously, the big brute chooses to listen to him for once. The brothers sit—Thor pushed back from the table, arms crossed over his chest, and Loki sitting with perfect posture, his hands clasped and resting on the table before him.

"I returned to my home," Thor says in reply to Coulson's comment. "The hammer is mine. I did not steal it if that's what you're implying."

"Here's a lesson about Earth," Coulson says. "We tend to consider anything that lands on our planet as something that belongs to us. You planning on dropping anything else on us in the near future?"

When Thor opens his mouth to reply, Loki can tell it's not going to be the most diplomatic of responses. He lifts a hand and says, "Thor, if I may? Agent Coulson, what we—"

Coulson's eyes shift to Loki now. "How did you know my name? I don't recall introducing myself."

Loki opens his mouth and then shuts it again. It isn't like him to be so sloppy. His mind and nerves are stretched thinner than even he realized. "My brother has spoken to me of meeting you during his first visit to your realm."

The lie is smooth, and he delivers it without so much as blinking. But Loki can now feel Thor's scrutiny on him. "Agent Coulson, please understand that if we wished to escape or do this place harm, we could do so with laughable ease," Loki explains. "We are here out of goodwill."

"Though you are quickly expending it," Thor adds.

Coulson smiles as his eyes shift between the two of them. "This good-cop-bad-cop routine you kids have going is just adorable. Forgive my alarm, but we take unknown persons of interest seriously, especially when they start asking around about something that's supposedly top secret. I want to know why you're here. During Dr. Foster's phone call to Dr. Selvig, she spoke of research you've compiled on the Tesseract. We were unable to retrieve it from her. What kind of research are we talking about?"

One side of Loki's mouth tugs upward. "Goodness, I seem to have misplaced it."

"If you want my trust and cooperation, you would do well to cooperate yourselves," Coulson says.

"A gesture of benevolence, then." Loki holds out his hand, and the notebook appears out of thin air.

Coulson hesitates before accepting it. Unlike Jane, he looks more wary than impressed. "Handy," he comments.

"You have no idea," Loki replies with a steady smile.

Loki's eyes dart to the right as he notices Agent Barton stepping closer to them. He comes to stand behind Coulson to watch them while his attention is otherwise occupied by flipping through the pages of Loki's research.

"How do I know this information isn't harmful instead of helpful?" Coulson asks.

Loki shrugs. "It is but ink and paper."

"That's funny," Coulson says. "So are most religious texts, and yet many have died over them. This is all you were planning to share with Dr. Selvig?"

"Among other things," Loki says. "But alas, the rest of it resides only in my head."

Coulson nods as he closes the notebook. "I get it now. This is the bait. You're the hook. Thank you, gentlemen. This was most informative."

Thor sits up straight in his seat as Coulson rises and refastens the button on his suit jacket. "What now?" Thor asks.

"Agent Barton here will escort you and the two ladies out of this base," Coulson says. "I'll be hanging onto this research. I have a team that can analyze it and determine if it contains any potentially dangerous content."

"Those pages belong to my brother," Thor points out heatedly.

"It's all right, Thor," Loki says. "Perhaps Agent Coulson will see the good in our intentions here. And as he has so eloquently pointed out, they know where to find more information should this prove to be helpful."

"Indeed we do," Coulson says. "Rest assured that we'll be monitoring your whereabouts for the remainder of your stay, and feel free to cut that stay short at any time. In the meantime, try not to give me any reason to aim a missile at your heads, okay? Have a nice evening."

Agent Barton delivers the four of them to a motel about an hour away from the base. Before he leaves, he reminds Loki and Thor that S.H.I.E.L.D. will be in touch. Loki feels a hint of lingering interest mixed with regret as he watches the unmarked vehicle pull out onto the dusty highway. Had he been able to build his army out of clones of Barton, Loki might very well be sitting on the throne of Midgard.

Though they secure a pair of rooms for the night, Loki chooses to remain outside. He strides a good hundred yards away from the motel, and stands and stares at the horizon until the sky begins to brighten with the promise of morning. His borrowed heart aches as he remembers the last time he saw the sunrise on Midgard. He doesn't move, not even when his legs and feet begin to throb. His eyes are dry from staring. Sand and salt cling to his eyelashes. His hair blows in the breeze, long enough now to obscure his vision at times.

He wonders again what he thinks he's doing. Already he has been met with such suspicion and opposition on this quest, both here and at home on Asgard—particularly with the All-Father.

Something feels different here. During his time as Asgard's king, Loki hadn't striven to change anything other than to prevent his own fall into the Void. He had only reacted to events as they changed around him rather than proactively finding ways to manipulate them to his benefit. He doesn't hope to gain anything for himself here on Midgard either—it is a gift to Thor in repayment for all Loki has done to destroy him. He's beginning to rethink his approach with the Midgardians. A more passive attitude seems to work the best. He must let others come around to his persuasion at their own speed—or not at all. He must also be willing to give up, if it comes to that. Loki is beginning to regret coming here at all, but to leave would only prompt more speculation as to what is going on in his mind.

It isn't as if Thor will forgive him anyway once he remembers the truth. Loki has long since destroyed any hope of that.

He watches the desert warily, not trusting it—not trusting himself—thinking yet again that it was very foolish indeed to return to this place.

Thor's footsteps crunch on the rock behind him, and Loki blinks and rubs his eyes, realizing how gritty and dry they are. "Unable to find rest?" Thor asks as he comes to stand beside his brother.

Loki ignores the question. He's tired of talking about his well-being. "I thought to watch the sunrise," he says instead.

Thor stifles a yawn into his fist. "Strange that such a dead and lifeless place could hold so much beauty."

"If you say so," Loki mutters.

They stand together in companionable silence as the sky continues to brighten. The array of colors is astounding. It's only after the wavering heat of the sun pierces the horizon that Thor speaks again. "Loki, how did you know Agent Coulson's name?"

Loki's shoulders were already tense before the question was asked. "As I already explained, you mentioned him when you spoke to me of your journey to Midgard."

"I have no recollection of that."

"Yes, well, you are getting on in years."

Thor sighs and kicks at the ground. "All you ever do lately is lie to me."

"Don't be so dramatic. That's all I've ever done our entire lives."

"That's ironic. You calling me dramatic."

Loki shoots his brother a dark look, silently demanding he drop it.

Thor complies, at least for a few moments. His hand comes to rest on the back of Loki's neck. It's a gesture once shared between them in their youth—something Thor did to demonstrate his protectiveness over his little brother, particularly whenever something or someone meant Loki harm.

Loki can barely breathe under its weight.

"Sif has already confirmed from you that you're in trouble," Thor says. "Does it have anything to do with the Tesseract or S.H.I.E.L.D.?"

"Yes," Loki lies, just to throw him off.


Loki brings a hand to cover his face. "I really think I might kill you, brother."

Thor chuckles at the threat—but Loki inwardly reels from it. He can't believe he said that. He bats Thor's hand away from his neck and takes a few steps to put some distance between them. His eyes close as he tries to concentrate on the workings of his lungs. The desert seems intent on smothering him.

"Let me think of how else you could have gotten yourself into trouble," Thor says, his tone light as if this is a game. "There's so many of your traits to choose from. It will have something to do with you mouthing off to someone important, to be sure. Are you cursed, perhaps?"

Loki snorts as he blinks away tears, careful to keep his back to Thor. "With an older brother who doesn't know when to give it a rest? Indeed I am."

"I'm serious, Loki."

"So am I. We are done with this conversation."

"I'm not even close to done." Thor's words no longer hold any trace of amusement. "Tell me something, brother, and do not lie to me. At least this once."

Loki stares at the sun, wishing desperately to escape there somehow. "Thor, why are you doing this? When will you ever learn to stop pushing?"

"Never, because I love you," Thor says. "Loki, tell me the truth. Are you adopted?"

Loki freezes—then he turns, realizing the time has finally come for him to fall. His posture seems to cave in on itself, becoming more defensive and feral.

"That's it, isn't it?" Thor says. "Or at least part of it. I suspected as much after walking in on you arguing with our parents weeks ago. Mother said something about knowing you were hers when she first saw you. And then there are things I remember from our childhood."

Loki's shoulders are heaving with every breath. "What are you talking about?" he says through his teeth.

Thor looks as if he wants to move closer, but wisely, he doesn't. "I remember when father brought you home," he says. "You were so small, but you weren't a newborn. Father said you were my brother, and I was too young to question it. But now that I look back, you were just suddenly there. He brought you back with him when he returned from the war with Jotunheim. Loki, where did he take you from? Are you . . . are you of Asgard?"

Loki hasn't blinked since Thor started speaking, but angry tears spill over onto his cheeks regardless. "You just couldn't leave it alone, could you? Dammit, Thor!"

"Why would I when I can see how much it hurts you?" Thor shouts back. "You are changing before my eyes. I hardly recognize you at times. Loki, you tried to kill yourself right in front of me."

"Would that I succeeded," Loki spits out. "You would be far better off in particular. Believe me."

Thor lifts an arm to point a finger of warning. "If I ever hear you say that again, I will shake the life out of you myself. You are my family, and I will defend that without fail. Where you come from, who your real parents are—that changes nothing between us."

"It changes everything," Loki all but shouts at him. "The monster revealed to the hero at last. Go ahead—shake the life out of me! Strike the monster down the way you've always intended. Do us both a favor, mighty prince."

Though Loki's words obviously anger Thor, the fight seems to drain out of him. His expression is grieved, almost exhausted. "You are no monster, Loki, though I see you attempting to play the part of one now. That mask doesn't suit you, brother."

Loki wants to draw upon every bit of hatred and anger inside of him and strike without mercy—but so much of the anger is now burned out of his heart. He's running on empty and has only enough rage left in him to stand there with hatred burning in his eyes. It's up to Thor to turn this into a fight, and so Loki decides to push harder.

He goes still briefly in concentration, and then his skin shifts and changes. The desert air is suddenly stiflingly hot, the sand scraping at his skin like shards of glass. As his unfamiliar eyes open, they filter the sun's light strangely—a reddish tint staining everything. His throat aches for ice to soothe it.

The level of Thor's tense shoulders drops as he stares.

"You are right," Loki says, calling up a smile. He's quite certain it's a terrifying sight in this form. "I was wearing a mask. Now you see me, brother. Don't be shy with your insults now."

Thor's lips press together, his gaze dark with sorrow. He looks exactly as he did in another time, when Loki had first challenged him to a fight at the Bifrost Observatory while Jotunheim was being ripped apart.

"Brother, please stop this," Thor says, his eyes filled with tears. "I beg you."

"Just who do you think you're trying to fool?" Loki says, taking a step in Thor's direction. "Call upon your weapon, hero. Slay the beast."

Thor shakes his head slowly, a tear slipping down his cheek.

Desperate for some kind of reaction, Loki gets right up in Thor's face as he shouts, "KILL ME!"

Thor is embracing Loki before he even has a chance to finish the words. "Never," Thor says, his mouth pressed to his brother's hair. He shakes him in an effort to make the word sink in deeper. "Never, Loki."

Loki resists the embrace at first, going tense as his brother's arms engulf him—but at Thor's words, something simply shatters inside of Loki's heart. It is the absolute worst possible thing Thor could have said to him. Loki cannot handle any more remorse.

His Aesir form returns, coaxed into place by Thor's warmth. Loki rests his forehead against his brother's shoulder, his breaths coming hard as tears stream down his face. "You must do it. You do not understand what I've done or what I am inside."

"I understand better than you do," Thor says, his hand coming to cradle the back of his brother's neck. "Do you really think I care where you come from or what you look like? Loki, you fool. And I am a fool as well. I understand your anger with me now. Forgive me, brother. I recognize how blind and cruel I've been. If you are indeed Jotunn, then I have been woefully mistaken about their worth."

"Go to Hel," Loki curses into Thor's shoulder. "I will hurt you, Thor. Or worse. There is nothing good inside of me."

"That is a lie. Gods, I feel sick. I cannot believe the things I have said to you." Thor draws back to look at his brother, gripping Loki's arms tightly so that he can't get away. "Loki, I am so sorry. I can't imagine what that was like to hear. You are my family. My irreplaceable little brother. I see nothing else when I look at you, and I beg you to stop trying to make yourself into some kind of monster. There is nothing further from the truth."

Loki's eyes squeeze shut because he wants everything else to fade to blackness, too. He would clamp his hands over his ears if he could manage it. "You don't understand what I've done, Thor. I have betrayed you. Once you realize it, you won't be saying any of this."

"How have you betrayed me?" Thor's tone is cautious but still far from angry. "Loki, tell me what torments you so."

Loki shakes his head, tears dripping from his chin. "I cannot say it."

Thor's hand touches the side of Loki's face, his thumb working to erase the tears. "Yes, you can. Let me prove your fears wrong, brother. That is the only way this is going to stop."

Loki can hear his borrowed heart hammering in his ears. He wishes it would give up already. Maybe Thor will finally give him what he wants if he just says it out loud.

Loki's eyes open slowly to regard his brother. Thor deserves that, at the very least. "I have tried to kill you, Thor," he whispers. "So many times."

(One time I even succeeded.)

His teeth grit as the resulting wave of pain crashes over him.

He has been in denial for so very long. Weeks spent biting his nails and encouraging the fissure in his mind to crack even further because he can't reconcile himself with the horrible truth.

Loki never thought he would succeed at hurting his brother. When he had come to face Thor on Midgard, they had fought differently than ever before. Thor did not ask him to come home. It was as if he had fully given up that there was any hint of his little brother left in Loki. And Loki just struck, lashing out with Gungnir—a spell meant to infuriate his brother so that maybe he would finally deal the fatal blow Loki has been begging for for years. He'd used Gungnir to fill Thor's lungs with water and laughed as he went down hard on his hands and knees, coughing and spurting up mouthfuls of it, the droplets of water and spittle soaking into the sand. Pathetic, Loki had said.

He'd left Thor there, gasping for air but seemingly recovering. Loki was satisfied that he'd proven yet again how much he simply didn't give a damn that Thor had given up on him. Though, in truth, that knowledge was what had broken Loki in the first place.

It wasn't until Loki returned to Asgard and felt the sudden silence from Midgard that he began to worry. He'd waited weeks, ignoring the rising panic in his heart, before Jane had called out to him. Only then, it was far too late to retreat from the denial. It had consumed him.

Thor still holds onto Loki, but he's stunned silent by the confession, his expression marred with confusion. "You what?" Thor says at last. "Loki, what are you talking about? You have never tried to kill me." He blinks several times, his eyes focusing a bit harder on his brother. "Have you?"

Loki gazes up at him, feeling absolutely numb and hollow inside. "I have been so angry for years, Thor. You cannot imagine the anger and betrayal I have felt, though one day soon I think you might. It fractured my mind into pieces, and the part of me that was your brother is dead, consumed until there's nothing left of him. I never meant for you to be caught up in the fallout from my madness, Thor. Not like this. Forgive me."

"I barely understand a word you're saying," Thor tells him. "What have I done to anger and betray you so? Is it because of my words and actions against Jotunheim?"

Loki laughs bitterly. "No. No, all of that I agree with most enthusiastically. I am not angry with you, Thor. I simply hate everything—myself most of all. I am in the midst of self-destruction, if you have yet to notice."

"You have been calling out for help, whether you admit it or not," Thor corrects. "And I do not think you hate me, Loki. You would not appear so grieved by this confession otherwise."

The base of Loki's spine tingles. Sometimes it hits him how very similar Thor is to Odin. Perhaps Loki has been wrong to underestimate his brother's mind all these years.

Thor's hands squeeze Loki's arms. "You must not have tried very hard to hurt me if I did not even notice the attempt. Do you want to kill me now, brother?"

Loki's vision goes unfocused as he considers the question. There is little doubt in his mind that had his anger not already burned out of his heart that he might have tried to kill Thor all over again. Sooner or later, it would have happened. He's now starting to understand why the witch sent him back so far into time to work out his many issues at the source. She must have known he wasn't yet capable of stopping himself. She'd given him exactly what he needed in spite of what he thought he wanted.

Loki's head shakes back and forth sadly. "No, Thor," he whispers. "I don't want to hurt you. There's nothing left inside of me anymore. I am empty."

The tiniest ghost of a smile pulls at Thor's lips, though his eyes are still filled with wary grief. He looks older, lines creasing the skin around his eyes. "Empty of some things, perhaps, but not of everything. I said you could tell me anything, Loki, and I meant it. You are forgiven. We have a choice before us. We can either let this tear us apart, or we can hold fast to each other. I know what my decision is. What is yours?"

Loki tries for a smile, but it's a shallow effort. "Can't you just strike me dead, and we call it a day? I think that would be the simplest option."

"I am not going to help you self-destruct, Loki, but I will help you heal if you let me be your brother again. Promise me you will stop pushing me away. We will figure this out together."

Loki's smile turns a bit more frank. What luck that Thor suspects this is the only source of Loki's troubles. He'll be able to hide behind that and finally be able to go to his death in peace without being hounded day and night.

"I will hold fast to the end," Loki swears—which is coming all too soon.

Thor's answering smile is hopeful. "As will I, brother."

It's a pretty thought, but none of it matters. Loki knows it will ultimately be Thor who lets go first, and try as he might, Loki can't blame him for that. He's surprised Thor held on to the monster who killed his brother for as long as he did.

To be continued.

Chapter Text

The golden webbing of the Odinsleep spins its restorative magic around the All-Father's motionless form. He sleeps and hears nothing. Knows nothing. Discerns not what has happened.

It's often said Odin is still aware of his surroundings in this state, but Loki thinks that must be a lie. He would not sleep if he knew.

Loki's hands shake so urgently, he can barely close his fingers around the fur blankets to yank them away. His knees hit the bed, and he moves on top of it to shake the All-Father, gripping him first by the shoulder and then grasping handfuls of his clothing when he won't respond.

"Wake up," Loki says, the words staggered—little gasps of distress. "Wake up, you fool. It's . . . ." A sob builds inside of him, but it is only a painful squeeze of his stomach that won't break free. On the bed beside him, Gungnir hums softly with energy. Huginn and Muninn watch from their perch near the window.

When the unrealized sob finally relents, Loki's fingers continue to worry at Odin's shirt. "He is dead," Loki says. "Father, please, please wake up. I need you. Thor is . . . I can't breathe. I think I might have . . . oh, Gods, I can't breathe." He lowers himself down to hide his face in the unyielding comfort of his father's shoulder. "Papa, I don't know what to do. Please, I am alone, and I don't know what to do."

Loki did not think it was possible to hate the desert any more than he already did.

He would love nothing more than to burn it from the face of Midgard. Not only has it claimed Thor's life and the last remaining fragments of Loki's soul, but now it has borne witness to a critical error in Loki's judgment. It is not the first time his desire for death at Thor's hand has resulted in something completely unintended.

He cannot comprehend why Thor refuses to kill him. Loki has at last revealed his true face. Both of them, in fact—the external monster as well as the internal one. And still, his brother will not strike. Thor's patience and mercy only drive Loki's guilt deeper until his brain simply shuts off to protect itself. He cannot handle any more, and so there is nothing left to do except stop thinking and put one foot in front of the other.

Loki's heart is a cold, barren thing as he strides back to the motel. His expression is blank, and he doesn't bother to notice if Thor keeps up with him or not.

"I am not done speaking with you, Loki," Thor calls after him as he trails behind. His steps are slower because he's not ready to let this go yet. Loki focuses more intently on his destination and does not offer reply. "You are shutting me out again."

Loki halts and turns, his face still free of any hint of emotion as he points at the motel's parking lot. "There are two unfamiliar vehicles idling outside of your beloved's chambers. Would you like to investigate or not?"

Thor comes up alongside him, his lips pressed into a grim line as he takes in what Loki has pointed out. "Stay alert," Thor says.

Agent Barton sits behind the wheel of one of the vehicles, but he makes no move to exit as he watches Loki and Thor walk toward the pair of motel rooms. Barton's fingers tighten around the steering wheel, but his face reveals nothing more than focus. The second vehicle is of the same make, but there is an unfamiliar agent in the driver's seat.

Jane and Darcy's motel room door is cracked open, and Thor pushes in front of Loki when he sees it. "Jane?" he calls. He rushes inside so fast that the door hits the wall and leaves an indentation there.

When Loki enters the room and moves to see past his brother's towering form, he spots Jane standing with her arms folded, conversing somewhat uneasily with Agent Natasha Romanoff.

Loki's shoulders tense up before he remembers to discipline his reaction.

Instead of her S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform, Agent Romanoff instead wears a beige pencil skirt and a carefully pressed blouse with ruffles on the front to soften her appearance. Her makeup and hair are styled with a gentle hand—no harsh lines or colors—and her smile is pleasant and unsuspecting. Her demeanor holds none of the almost bored confidence he's witnessed before.

Loki calms the muscles in his face and body until they reveal nothing—no grief, alarm, distrust, guilt, attraction. Nothing.

"I'm Natalie Rushman," the little spider says, which is not her name at all. "My services have been acquired to assist you during your stay."

"She arrived about five minutes ago," Jane says to Thor. "I thought it was Darcy knocking. She went out to get us breakfast."

Thor moves to stand beside Jane, but Loki knows his brother well enough to recognize that Thor isn't nearly as alarmed as he should be. The pretty little spider's costume has served its purpose.

"S.H.I.E.L.D. sent you," Thor says.

Agent Romanoff carries a leather-bound notebook, and she shifts her weight onto one leg as she opens it up. The seductive curve of her hip is emphasized as a result. "Part of my job is not to ask questions," she says. "Merely to aid you in whatever you require. You can think of me as your personal assistant."

Jane's jaw tenses, and Thor's hand comes to rest on the small of her back. "That is most kind but unnecessary," he says. "We have everything we need."

Agent Romanoff's attention turns to Loki, and she tilts her head slightly to the side so that she can see him better—which, of course, is an attempt to put Jane and Thor more at ease with her intentions. Loki calculates his reaction with care and allows his eyes to gaze appreciatively back at her, right before he slides them with purposeful slowness down her curves.

Two can play at this game.

"You'll have to take that up with my employers." Though Agent Romanoff means her reply for Thor, her attention still lingers on Loki. "I'm only here to make your stay a little more comfortable."

"How very thoughtful," Loki all but purrs in reply. He wants to outwit her so badly, the palms of his hands itch. "I was beginning to think this realm had little social grace to its name, and I am pleased to learn otherwise."

"You'll also be pleased to know your meeting with Dr. Selvig has been approved," Agent Romanoff says. "Though there are caveats to the agreement. Those will be disclosed to you before the meeting. I've arranged for transportation for you and your brother to New York City later today."

Loki's chin lifts a degree. The Tesseract is not in the city. S.H.I.E.L.D. obviously doesn't trust them yet.

"That is welcome news," Thor says. "But what about Jane and Darcy?"

"My employers have asked that they stay behind," Agent Romanoff replies. "One of the caveats, I'm afraid. We've brought an extra vehicle to transport them to the destination of their choice."

Thor appears displeased with this news, but Jane leans in close to him and says, "It's okay. We'll be fine. At least you'll be able to see Erik and show him your brother's research. Thor, you have no idea how important it will be to him."

Agent Romanoff scans her notebook before closing it with a smile. "We'll leave whenever you're ready, then. Take your time."

Lingering at the edge of the parking lot, Loki carefully presses his necktie down, smoothing it into position as the wind attempts to displace it. He pretends not to watch Jane and Thor say their goodbyes, but of course, his mind fills in the blanks. As much as he wants to resent his brother's beloved, he can't. His borrowed heart is already choking and dying from useless emotions. He will not fall victim to another. Besides, Thor will need her when Loki is gone.

Darcy exits the motel room and lifts a hand to her brow to shield her vision from the glare of the rising sun. When she spots Loki, she smiles and hurries over with a bounce in her step.

"Norns help me," Loki mutters. He turns away to face the desert, hoping to discourage her approach. His tie is again caught in the wind and blows across his left shoulder, betraying him as it waves at her wildly.

Darcy positions herself right in front of him, blocking his view. "Jane said you guys are going to New York," she tells him. "There's this great pizza place near the Brooklyn Bridge called Grimaldi's. You should check it out while you're there."

Loki does not lower the height of his chin as he offers her a tight-lipped smile. "Exactly what is it that you assist Dr. Foster with?"

Darcy's hair whips into her face, and she tries to gather it into a ponytail in her hand. "Oh, you know," she says with a shrug. "Social commentary. Facebook. And I let her know when her instruments start beeping."

"Ah." He plucks one of her stray hairs from his sleeve and lets it fly away in the wind.

"Well, I guess we're leaving," she says. "You should come see us again. You know, before you go back to space and stuff."

Darcy lets her hair go and moves forward. Before Loki can stop her, her arms wrap around his middle in what he perceives to be an embrace, though he can't decipher what has possessed her to do such a thing. He goes rigid and blinks down at the dark head that rests against his arm, uncertain which emotion to choose from—confusion, aversion, or something else he doesn't want to think very hard about. He can't remember the last time a stranger has reacted to him with anything other than fear—or wariness at the very least.

She pulls away and pushes her glasses up higher on her nose, completely unaffected by the exchange. "See ya."

Loki turns only his head to watch her go. "Goodbye," he says uncertainly.

He focuses on Jane Foster then, who walks toward him with her arms ever folded in front of her. She smiles at Darcy as they pass one another, but the expression becomes softer, though more cautious, when her attention turns to Loki.

He grits his teeth, wondering what could possibly be in store for him now. "Dr. Foster," he says in greeting.

"Call me Jane," she says. "I just wanted to tell you goodbye. I'm so happy Thor brought you for a visit."

Loki bends ever so slightly at the waist. "It has indeed been a pleasure."

"Okay, I lied," she says with a laugh. "That's not all I wanted to say. I, um—" She kicks at a rock. "I saw you talking to Thor this morning."

It's the last thing he expects her to say, especially to his face. If anything, she should speak to Thor about this—not Loki. He wonders how much she witnessed.

When Loki doesn't reply, Jane quickly adds, "Don't worry. I only spotted you two through the window, and then I shut the curtains to give you privacy. I didn't hear anything, but it was pretty obvious something big was going on. Thor says you have trouble talking to him, and I know he worries about you. Sometimes it's easier to talk to someone you don't really know, so I just wanted to tell you that you can come to me if you ever need someone to listen. I promise I won't tell Thor anything."

Loki isn't certain what to do with this offer. He has no quarrel with Jane Foster save for a nagging sense of jealousy—but her statement leaves him feeling defensive, as if part of him he thought impenetrable is now exposed. It's so rare for others to reach out to him outside of their affection for Thor.

His lips part to reply, but no words come.

"You barely know me," Jane says with a nervous laugh. "I get that. But I think we have a lot in common. We both care about someone who's pretty hard to catch. It's a standing offer, if you need it. And if it helps, I might need it, too. Say hi to Erik for me, okay?" Jane leans up to kiss Loki's cheek—the same one she had slapped in another time. "And take care of Thor."

Loki's skin feels both warm and cold where her lips touched. "Farewell, Jane," he says, finding his voice at last. "I thank you for your offer. Worry not for Thor. Taking care of him is precisely what I'm here to do."

A private jet waits for them at the airport—white and sleek but covered in a light dusting of desert sand. Agent Romanoff stands at the foot of a short flight of stairs that one of the crewmembers has wheeled over so that they can board. She smiles at them serenely, her arms cradling her notebook. Agent Barton stands off to one side, not drawing attention to himself.

Half an hour later, they are in the air and on their way to New York. The landscape drifts lazily by beneath them, the cracked and dehydrated terrain of the desert seemingly endless. Loki pulls his face away from the small oval window and shuts the blind. With a sigh, he looks at his brother.

Their seats face each other with a glossy table situated between them, a row of windows to the right. Agent Romanoff sits near the front of the otherwise empty aircraft, thumbing through a magazine. She is too far away to hear them, particularly with the noise of the engines, but Loki remains wary. Agent Barton is nowhere to be seen, which makes Loki even warier.

Thor's brow creases as he glances through an aircraft safety pamphlet. "Brother, this booklet of pictures is most distressing," he says. "It contains depictions of death and destruction should this aircraft fall from the sky, yet all of the faces of the victims are smiling and mindlessly calm."

Loki takes the pamphlet from his brother and is soon chuckling at the pictures. "And here I thought the Midgardians lacked a sense of humor. I have a mind to keep this."

"Their technology is antiquated," Thor says. He appears uncomfortable and enormous in the compact seat. He's forced to hold his arms close at his sides. "And tiny. I feel we are barely moving. How do they manage to get anywhere at such speeds?"

Loki wrinkles his nose at the faint smell of exhaust coming through the vents. "Their idea of fuel is the dead remains of their extinct giants. What do you expect?"

"We should have had Heimdall send us directly to Erik Selvig."

"That would have only alarmed S.H.I.E.L.D. It was better to come through your Jane. This is slower, but it gives them time to understand we mean no harm."

Thor leans forward to whisper across the table. "Are you speaking in such a way because you think they might be listening to our conversation or because you genuinely mean that?"

After dropping the pamphlet onto the table, Loki lifts a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. There are times when Thor is simply brilliant—and then there are other times. With a quick gesture and a few whispered words, the dull roar of the jet engine goes instantly silent.

"What did you just do?" Thor asks.

"Afforded us a bit of privacy," Loki says. "No one can hear our conversation now. Not even the Midgardian devices they like to hide everywhere. They won't even see us talking." He settles down in his chair, relaxing for the first time since they landed in this miserable realm.

"I didn't realize you knew so much about Midgard," Thor says.

"I read."

Thor makes a sound in his throat as if to say he's relatively certain his brother hasn't shared the full truth with him. He watches Loki with a guarded kind of sadness. "I keep thinking about what we spoke of."

Though Thor's lack of descriptive nouns normally annoys Loki, Thor doesn't need to specify which conversation he means. There is only One of recent importance.

"I rather wish you wouldn't," Loki says.

"I cannot wrap my head around it. I know our parents love you, but they lied for centuries. Why didn't they just tell us?"

Loki scoffs. "Well, I'm sure it was amusing to watch. The little Jotunn runt thinking he's a god. What a riot that must have been. I'm certain it only got funnier the longer it went on."

Thor's eyes narrow as though he still doesn't understand the source of Loki's self-hatred. "Do not speak about yourself that way, brother."

"Very well. I will keep silent on the matter."

"No." Thor hangs his head with a sigh. "I am sorry. I said you could tell me anything. That does not mean I agree with what you say, but at least if you speak of these things out loud, I have the opportunity to correct you."

"Goodness, that does sound like a delightfully pitiful way to spend the remainder of my days. I do so enjoy being needy and pathetic."

"Or you could simply listen for once and realize I only say what I mean. I do not lie, Loki. I know you've been lied to by the very people you thought you could trust—but not by me. I will never do that to you."

Loki stares at Thor and rather wishes he could look away instead. He believes what Thor says. His brother is not a liar like him. But of course, that means that the Thor of the future hadn't lied when he said Loki wasn't his brother anymore. He had meant every word.

"I don't think I will ever forgive the All-Father," Loki says in a hushed voice. "I hate him, Thor."

Thor blinks three times before replying. "And our mother?"

Loki finally manages to break away from the pull of his brother's eyes. He studies his hands instead. "I don't know. Can we please change the subject?"

"I am angry with them, too, Loki. It was wrong to have done that to you, but we are still a family. In time, you will be able to forgive them."

Loki shakes his head. "No, Thor. I am done. I stay only for you, though you'd be far better off if I departed, one way or another. I suppose I am very selfish to linger at your side. Perhaps it's only for me that I stay."

A long span of silence falls between them, so deep that Loki finds himself wincing under his brother's scrutiny. "How did you try to kill me, Loki?" Thor asks.

It takes several attempts before he can articulate a reply. "With Gungnir."

A slow breath eases in and out of Thor's lungs as he processes that. "Is that why you tried to give it to me when I arrived in Asgard after my exile?"


"And then when I wouldn't accept it from you?"

Loki's lips form a careful line.

(Is this what you want, brother? To see my true face again?)

"I worried I would use it to kill you all over again," Loki says. He wishes very much for his brother to throw him from the aircraft for such a confession. "I worry still."

Thor flinches but otherwise remains motionless. "You speak as if you succeeded."

Loki looks up and watches his brother with haunted eyes.

"How long have you been struggling with this anger, Loki?"

A weary shrug. "Forever."

"Even before you knew the truth of your parentage? When did you even find out? It can't have been very long ago."

"I've always known something is wrong with me. It is intrinsic."

Thor leans forward in his chair, his arms coming to rest on the table. "That is not true. There is nothing wrong with you except for this anger that festers inside."

The volume of Loki's sudden laughter surprises even him. "That is quite possibly the most impressive oversimplification I have ever heard. Perhaps it is you who is wrong here." His fist comes down hard on the table. "I tried to kill you, Thor."

Silence falls heavy between them. Loki pants under the strain of the sudden rush of emotion, but Thor only appears unhappy.

After a long while, he says, "I won't deny that this knowledge hurts me, Loki. I can barely comprehend it, and the more I think about it, the more confused I become. I don't pretend to understand what goes on in your head or heart. It has always seemed like you are two steps ahead of me—but also two steps behind in other ways. You feel things more intensely than I do, and sometimes it takes me a while to realize that you're still stuck in a moment that has already passed. That doesn't mean you are wrong to linger there, but you also need to know when to let it go and move on. All I know is that we will figure it out, brother. Just keep talking to me, and we will find a way out of this."

Loki's expression has gone cold again, for his borrowed heart is too far-gone to comprehend such a thing as hope. He turns his face away in reply.

Beneath the belly of the aircraft comes the quiet grumble of thunder. The birth of a storm.

"Do you like to read?" Agent Romanoff asks. She holds a small stack of books, about a half dozen in number. "There's a library downstairs for hotel guests."

Loki's hands are clasped behind his back as he turns toward her. He smiles in an attempt to demonstrate how pleased he is with his suite, which is grand indeed. Unlike the modest motel of the prior evening, he has instead found himself in chambers fit for a king, with plush carpets, high ceilings, and a startlingly beautiful view of the city. The sun has set somewhere behind the buildings, obscured from sight. Thor's room is elsewhere, further down the hall. If only the spider would leave him in peace as well.

Agent Romanoff draws close—manipulatively close—and sets the books on a desk within easy reach. He doesn't look at them but rather keeps his attention fixed on her. The books she selected for him are likely meant as a sort of personality test to see what he's made of. She will no doubt take particular care to analyze which one he chooses first—or more importantly, the ones he studiously avoids.

To not acknowledge the gift at all might indicate to Agent Romanoff that Loki is wary of her, and so he does the only thing he can to avoid falling prey to her little game. He keeps his eyes locked with hers as he picks up the top book, choosing it without knowing the title. "I thank you," he says. "I do enjoy reading."

Her full lips twist into a smile. "I thought you might."

Loki breaks the gaze to glance down at the text in his hand. He's surprised by what appears to be a children's book but is careful not to react to it. Le Petit Prince, the cover reads.

"Do you speak French?" Agent Romanoff asks.

Loki is not certain he wants to explain the intricacies of the All-Tongue to her. "Your Latin-based languages are easy enough to decipher once you have mastered one of them."

Her eyebrow arches upward. "You know, I've worked with many clients before, but I can't seem to figure you out. You and your brother keep saying things that make me think you're not from around here."

Does she honestly expect him to believe she has no idea they are not from Midgard?

"You must be someone important," she notes.

"And why do you say that? You are one of the few individuals I have encountered here thus far."

"Let's just say your presence has drawn a considerable amount of attention." Agent Romanoff touches a finger to her ear and then points at the ceiling.

Of course, she's trying to put him at ease by letting him know that while S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't trust him, Loki can trust her. He leans in a bit closer before he replies. Her perfume tickles at his mind, making the flirtation come more naturally to him. "My brother and I are not hiding anything," he says. "Midgard is behind many of the other realms in terms of technology and scientific knowledge, but there is potential. We are only here to help you catch up."

"Midgard?" she asks.

"What you refer to as Earth," he clarifies.

Her lips part to give way to an incredulous grin. "What are you, an alien or something?"

"Something," he agrees.

She blinks and laughs, making a good show of acting surprised. The little spider even manages to appear flushed. Tucking a lock of hair behind one ear, she says, "Sorry. I shouldn't pry."

"There is no need to apologize," Loki says in his most gracious tone. "I have nothing to hide."

"You keep saying that."

"As you have so graciously pointed out, we have drawn much attention here. I fear we have given the wrong impression to your employers. I only seek to put their minds at ease."

The corner of her mouth pulls upward. There's a flash of the predator in her green eyes. "You don't look afraid," she observes.

Loki's heart rate quickens, but he smiles through it. "I understand feeling vulnerable to the unknown, Lady Rushman. It is tempting to lash out to defend one's self. I am merely standing still with my hands upraised until my intentions are deemed innocent. Trust takes time, and I am willing to wait."

"Lady Rushman," she muses. "I like the sound of that." She grins and laughs again, and absolutely none of it is genuine. "It's getting late, and I've kept you from your book." Her fingers reach out to curl around his forearm, and she looks up at him through the web of her eyelashes. "I'm in the next room over if you need anything during the night."

Even after she leaves, the venomous cloud of her perfume still lingers. Loki collapses into a leather armchair and tugs his necktie loose. With a little laugh, he leans his head back to stare at the ceiling, uncertain if he's terrified or in love.

He reads the children's book before retiring for the night.

It's a strange tale, with layered meanings likely not meant for children at all. The sentences frustrate him, and he lies awake afterward, the book held to his chest as he listens to the rain patter on the window. There are symbols—a snake in the desert and a search for water—that Loki ponders over with a sick feeling in his gut.

Why had Agent Romanoff given this to him?

A gentle roll of thunder resonates through the room. Loki watches flickers of lightning paint the walls and ceiling. It is an unobtrusive storm. Almost despondent, mournful. Thor is more affected by Loki's confession than he has let on. His grief over the betrayal falls from the sky like tears.

"Oh, just wait, my brother," Loki mutters as he hugs the book. "The true tempest is yet to come."

To be continued.

A/N – Just to give you an idea of where we're at, my current outline has 23 chapters total. We'll see if it works out that way with the chapter breaks, but that's what I'm thinking for now.

If you have a moment, I'd love to hear from you. You guys leave the most insightful comments. Seriously—this fandom rocks. I have never seen such love for a character before, and I kind of have a crush on you all. Cheers!

Chapter Text

A/N – Just a quick "warning" of sorts so that no one is overly disappointed—but I wanted to let you know that not all of the Avengers will appear in this story. In the movie, they are brought together in crisis-mode, but Loki's intentions on Midgard are different this time. I have brought in some major players who work naturally with the plot, and I hope you enjoy seeing them and won't feel too disappointed by those who don't appear. If I had put everyone in, I think it would have been a bit forced. I promise to write them all one day.

This fic is still gen, but there is a whisper of Blackfrost in this chapter. I'm human, okay? And they are pretty on top of pretty.

Chapter 18

Loki thought he knew what it meant to despair. He thought he wanted this, but apparently even his ambition is a liar.

Odin's chest continues to rise and fall at the same steady interval, unaffected by his son's plea for him to wake. Perhaps because Loki is no longer Odin's son. Why should he wake, when they have renounced each other in every possible way? Each one of the All-Father's breaths drives Loki's hopelessness a bit deeper, and yet he clings to them at the same time. Odin is all he has left.

"I'm sorry," Loki says. "I will do better. I will go back to my cell and take my punishment. I swear I will do anything you want. Father, please wake up, and tell me what to do."

The All-Father's hand finds Loki's forearm, the pressure of the old, withered fingers surprisingly firm. With a sharp intake of breath, Loki drags his forehead away from his father's shoulder and looks up. His eyes are wide, hungry. Desperate for anything yet full of fear. After all, he is the one who drove the All-Father into the Odinsleep to begin with.

Odin blinks back at him, his expression calm but somber, and Loki knows at once that the All-Father has heard everything. He knows one son is dead and another has betrayed him yet again. And yet Odin holds onto his son's arm just as tightly as Loki grips his father's shirt.

"Loki," Odin says. "My son. What are you willing to do?"

When Agent Romanoff comes for Loki late the next morning, she finds him standing before the open doorway that leads to the small outside patio. His hotel room is high above the streets. Outside, the sky is flat gray and the air, thick with humidity. Not even the sounds of city traffic below can permeate the quiet roar of the storm. Loki's eyes are cast downward as he watches rain droplets spatter onto his boots. Behind him, Le Petit Prince lies open on the leather armchair.

"This rain wasn't in the forecast," Agent Romanoff says. "We might have to take a boat to your meeting." Instead of approaching him, she lingers in the doorway, and her tone is far more professional than the one she'd used with him last night. She is talented at this deception—as if she actually feels she has crossed the line with a client and is seeking to reestablish proper boundaries.

Loki wonders if she has any idea of Thor's influence on the weather. He wouldn't put it past her to at least guess if he doesn't mind what he says, and so he feels it best to steer clear of the subject altogether. "Will we meet with Dr. Selvig today?" He turns to look at her as he speaks.

This morning, she wears a tailored black jacket and matching skirt paired with crimson-stained lips. A bit of her edge has surfaced, but she plays it off as professionalism. She gazes at him without blinking, with only the slightest ghost of a smile. It is a lovely but unnerving sight.

"We'll leave whenever you're ready," she replies. "Should I fetch your brother? I thought he would be here with you, to be honest. Or the other way around."

Loki again avoids taking the bait. He doesn't want to talk about Thor, particularly with her. "I am quite ready. Shall we?"

As she steps to the side to allow him passage to the door, her eyes fall to the book on the chair. "How did you like it?" she asks. "The book, I mean."

He pauses beside her, lips parting as he draws in a slow breath. It takes him an unusual amount of time to formulate his response. "I am yet undecided."

Her eyebrow quirks. "Books like that usually turn out to be my favorites. The ones that don't make you think aren't any fun at all. What's the point?"

Loki eyes her up and down as he shrugs on his coat. "Indeed."

To Loki's surprise, the meeting is scheduled in public in a small pub a few blocks from the hotel. Agent Romanoff enters first, with Thor and Loki following behind and Barton trailing ever silent at the rear. Director Nick Fury stands near the bar, facing the doorway, with Erik Selvig seated on a stool beside him. When Fury perceives their arrival, he walks straight for them.

The lighting inside the pub is dim, the air damp but fresh from the rain. There are a handful of patrons interspersed throughout the place, which seems odd for this hour of the day. As Loki shakes raindrops from his coat and casts a speculative glance around, he quickly discerns that every person present, with the exception of Erik Selvig, is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in disguise. Young, well-groomed, with one ear turned in his direction.

This does not distress him overly much. Loki has taken care not to demonstrate his powers—not even to shelter himself from the rain—and though Thor was made to leave his weapon at the hotel, it would not be difficult for him to call Mjolnir from this distance. Barton and the spider are admittedly talented in combat, but they are still no match for the combined might of the brothers.

"That is Erik Selvig," Thor tells Loki, nodding toward the older, bedraggled man at the bar. Erik faces away from them, his focus on his pint of beer and the soccer game playing on a television that is affixed to the wall.

Before Loki and Thor can move any further, Director Fury looms in front of them. "You deal with me first," he says. "Do you know who I am?"

Thor chuckles darkly. "I was about to ask you the same thing."

"Gentlemen, allow me to make myself clear," Fury says. "I am the person you do not want to fuck with. I want to give you both the benefit of the doubt, and that's why you're here today. The research obtained from you in New Mexico was groundbreaking. If you're truly here to help, wonderful. We look forward to working with you. But understand that we don't know who the hell you are or how you know about things that no one knows about. That makes us a little jumpy. My apologies if that makes you jumpy as well, but we can't afford to take chances. I think this exchange can go peacefully if we all set our minds to it."

Thor lifts his chin as he mills over what Fury has said, and after a beat, he nods. While he is still displeased by the distrust S.H.I.E.L.D. has shown them, he appreciates Fury's blunt honesty. Now that Thor knows where he stands, his posture becomes more relaxed.

"Your guardedness is warranted," Loki says. "I trust we have demonstrated our goodwill with our conduct thus far?"

"I suppose you have," Fury admits. He says the words like a sigh.

"Are you in possession of a name?" Loki asks with a winning smile. "Or shall we simply refer to you as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Fucked-With?"

It is a risky move on Loki's part to lighten the conversation, and it seems to pay off. From the bar, Erik Selvig rotates in his stool to cackle at Loki's boldness. Thor lifts a hand in Erik's direction, a gesture of greeting.

The tension in Fury's shoulders relaxes somewhat. "While that certainly has a nice ring to it, you can call me Director Fury. And now for the rules. You are not to touch the device. You're to serve as a consultant to Dr. Selvig only. Ms. Rushman here will work as your assistant and will keep record of your conversations, and Agent Barton will continue on as her security. You will meet with Dr. Selvig only with them present. Are these terms agreeable?"

There is a brief pang of disappointment in Loki's gut, quickly followed by relief. Part of him still craves the Tesseract and had hoped to at least see it, but that is not his purpose here. In fact, it might ruin everything—best to stay away. "They are," Loki says.

"I'm glad to hear it," Fury says. "Now for the part I'm still a bit puzzled over. What exactly do you want in exchange for your help?"

Loki is prepared for this question. His deceptiveness here thus far has not proven fruitful. Like many vulnerable creatures, the Midgardians appear to value frankness so that they can fully understand what they're dealing with. "The Tesseract, if properly wielded, has the ability to open a portal," Loki says. "A doorway, if you will."

"We've figured that out already," Fury says.

Loki steels himself before he reveals the rest. It is a gamble, but he hopes it to be the right one. "We desire a glimpse through that doorway. A shadow lingers beyond our reach that has disquieted the heart of our king. We perceive it to be a potential threat and wish to know more of it. A brief glimpse is sufficient. The portal may then be shut."

Fury takes this information in without reacting to it. "Dr. Selvig has yet to succeed in harnessing the device without, shall we say, unpleasant side effects. You would be able to help him with that?"

"I would."

"Without touching the device?"

"You will remain in full control, Director Fury," Loki says. "Considering the knowledge I have to offer, I would venture to say you are set to receive the better end of this bargain. Any shadow that threatens Asgard threatens you as well. I find it best to shine light on such things to afford a better understanding of how to react to it. Judging from your reaction to us, I feel you share the same philosophy."

"Let's see what you have to offer, then," Fury says. "Though I maintain the right to change my mind at a later date."

A smile touches Loki's eyes as he realizes he's finally won. "Understood."

Fury stands to the side to allow Thor and Loki a clear path to approach Erik Selvig. Thor moves forward first to greet his friend, and Loki hovers just behind, all too aware of Agent Romanoff, who remains silent but attentive at his side. In her hand is a recording device.

"It is good to see you again, my friend," Thor says, beaming as he claps Erik on the shoulder. "Jane and Darcy send their good wishes."

Though Thor has only used a small fraction of his strength, Erik winces from the blow but quickly plays it off with a chuckle. "Still a great hulking brute, I see. Is that who I think it is? Your brother, Loki."

"Dr. Selvig," Loki says with a well-mannered nod. "My brother speaks highly of you."

Erik doesn't respond at first but rather blinks at Loki several times. Then he laughs merrily as if he's seen a picture in a book come to life. "And I have read much about you. Don't think I don't know what you're all about, brother of Thor."

"I wouldn't believe everything you read," Loki replies, well aware of Erik's knowledge of Norse mythology. "Though I will admit, your elders have quite the sense of humor. I may or may not have played a part in encouraging it. I trust you know why we're here? I wondered if we might discuss your recent work with the Tesseract."

"And how would you know anything about that?" Erik says. His eyes are slightly unfocused, and his breath smells of alcohol.

Loki offers him the answer that will best make sense to his addled mind. "Because I am Loki, of course."

Erik chortles in delight. "How about that, eh? I don't trust you as far as I can piss, you impish little shit. Come on, then—let's have a drink."

The next week is a test of Loki's patience, nerves, and love for his brother. After all, he wouldn't even bother if not for Thor.

Loki meets regularly with Erik Selvig in various locations—usually a pub if Erik gets his way, though Loki prefers quieter, cleaner work environments such as the pleasant seating area in his hotel room, with its leather couches and separation from the noise of the city. Agents Romanoff and Barton are an ever present fixture—mostly silent observers—but Loki feels their presence quite distinctly. He is under their constant scrutiny and is therefore glad he chose to be honest with Fury about what he was after. Loki would never have been able to deceptively guide Erik Selvig to open the portal in a specific location otherwise. Strange that he had never thought to employ such tactics before; dishonesty always seemed to be the easier option.

They discuss the CMS device, which Erik describes only briefly and is surprised when Loki fills in a few important blanks. Soon Erik is practically gushing about his frustrations. It is not difficult to teach him. So much of what Loki knows of the Tesseract came from Erik himself, but Loki can tell that he is unfocused, clinging to minute discrepancies in his research that mean little in the grand scheme of things. This man had demonstrated effortless genius once his mind was focused by Loki's scepter.

How he dearly misses that scepter. Life was much simpler with it there to guide and bend the thinking of others to his will.

Loki spends hours gently coaxing Erik away from his frustrations over numbers and figures—and instead tries to aim him at the solution. It is delicate, manipulative work, but on the fifth day, Erik looks at him and says, "You know, iridium would do the trick. It forms anti-protons."

Loki would very much like to rip his hair out and yell, 'Finally,' but it has already proven far more fruitful to let Erik come to the solutions on his own. S.H.I.E.L.D. trusts Erik's influence on the research far more than Loki's. "What an interesting idea," Loki says. "I think you might be onto something."

"Can we get that?" Erik asks Agent Romanoff. "It's rare—found in meteorites—but it's important to the research."

"I can certainly submit a request to my employers," Agent Romanoff says. As she scribbles the memo down, her eyes flit to Loki. The look is bold but still expressionless. With each passing day, her demeanor has slipped just a bit further away from Natalie Rushman and closer to Natasha Romanoff. Loki thinks she must be doing it on purpose, though for what reason, he cannot guess. Perhaps simply to unnerve him.

In the end, even after a week of discussions, the ultimate problem arises precisely where Loki expects it. "Power," Erik says. "In order to do what you're suggesting, we'd need an unlimited supply of it. We just don't have that."

"Have either of you seen the news lately?" Agent Romanoff says.

Erik blinks at her as if puzzled by the suggestion. For weeks, he has lived and breathed his research on the Tesseract and had time for little else. "Eh, no? Was I supposed to? Nobody told me."

"Stark Tower," she explains. "It's powered by one of Tony Stark's reactors, and it's right here in the city. Would a self-sustaining energy source fit your needs?"

Erik falls silent, his vision going unfocused as he ponders the question. Equations seem to dance and spin before his eyes, and Loki sits back in his chair to watch with a smile. It won't be long now.

The coordination between completing the updates to the CMS device and getting Tony Stark on board with the project is no easy task. Thankfully, Loki has little to do with it. S.H.I.E.L.D. has had dealings with Stark in the past, and after a barrage of meetings that Loki is blessedly not required to attend, the arrangements are finally made and the paperwork signed.

After more than three weeks since their arrival on Midgard, Thor and Loki finally find themselves standing atop Stark Tower with the finished CMS device in place. The Tesseract glows blue at its center. The brothers are closely guarded while the cube is so near—only thirty feet away from where they stand—but S.H.I.E.L.D.'s attitude toward them has changed considerably. The brothers are now deemed non-hostile allies, but Fury is still good on his promise not to permit Loki to touch the device.

The sky above is thick with clouds, though the rain has finally stopped. Once the streets began to flood after several days of a steady downpour, Loki had confronted Thor about his mood and heatedly ordered him to get over it already. Things remain strained between them, but no more than they ever are. Loki strives to keep conversation with his brother polite and shallow, but he knows the only reason he succeeds is because they are rarely alone. Here they must appear unified, but once they are home in Asgard, Thor's willingness to keep silent on certain matters will no doubt change.

Tony Stark arrives more than an hour after the scheduled meeting time but rushes in ready to work. Though surrounded by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in suits, Tony has instead elected to wear jeans and a fitted black t-shirt that stretches over the glowing arc reactor in his chest. Despite his casual appearance, he is immaculately put together, with polished shoes and well-groomed facial hair. He wears sunglasses despite the lateness of the hour, and a moment later, Loki deduces why.

Spotlights ignite all over the roof of the tower and crane upward to the clouds. Simultaneously, music comes blaring over the loud speakers—a jumble of raucous sound Loki can only describe as madness itself set to the thunderous beat of war drums. He has heard it referred to before as rock music, a fitting name, for he would very much like to put it to death with one.

"Is that really necessary, Stark?" Fury asks, having to raise his voice to be heard.

"I thought our little demonstration could do with a bit of cover," Tony shouts back. "After the last party I threw, people won't think anything of it."

As Loki resists the urge to roll his eyes, he notices Agent Romanoff does not make the same effort. Admittedly, it is a reasonable plan, though lacking in the finesse Loki would have given, and so he keeps his thoughts silent on the matter.

Tony's eyes drift momentarily to Thor and Loki, but he quickly looks away to demonstrate to them that he is unaffected by their presence. But four seconds later, he looks back. Loki's lips curl into a smile while Thor's arms cross over his chest. In this stance, the three of them size each other up.

Tearing his attention away, Tony claps his hands and spins in a circle. "All right, let's get started. Who's got the button? Tell me there's a button. Can I push the button?" He points to the CMS device and marches over to it. "JARVIS, you hooked up to this thing?"

"Interface with the device was completed ninety-three minutes ago, sir," JARVIS replies. His computerized voice seems to come from nowhere.

Meanwhile, Tony has drawn near to Erik Selvig, who stands near the device while he completes his last minute checks. "Seriously though," Tony tells him. "I want to push the button."

"It is like observing a child who has consumed too much honey," Thor says, his tone dark and disapproving. "How did a man such as this construct a tower to the stars?"

"You should try handing him something," Agent Romanoff replies. "It's funny."

"Anytime now, Stark," Fury calls out.

Tony looks over at them and uses the moment as an excuse to approach. "I couldn't hear you," he says, gesturing to his ear. "The music and all."

"Director Fury has expressed a desire for you to stop wasting our time," Thor says. His voice carries easily over the noise. "And I agree."

"And who are you?" Tony asks.

Loki can't help but smile as he senses his brother's rising temper. He rather hopes it will manifest itself fully. Always a good show, at least when Loki isn't the target.

Thor speaks through clenched teeth. "I am the crown pr—"

"Oh, I was just kidding," Tony says, cutting him off. "I know who you are, and I gotta tell you—you two Asgardian princes are just adorable. Wayne and Garth. Laverne and Shirley. Derek and Hansel." He looks at Director Fury. "Does that make you Mugatu? Don't answer that. That would be ridiculous. I'm obviously Mugatu in this scenario. JARVIS, are you ready yet?"

"Interface with the device was completed ninety-four minutes ago, sir," JARVIS replies. "And counting."

"Here's a tip," Tony says, turning his attention to Loki. "Don't ever program your butler to talk back. All right, JARVIS. Light 'em up."

Despite the man's passionate desire for a button, there is seemingly no need of one. JARVIS activates the device at his master's command. A tremor goes through the entire mechanism as a stream of blue light shoots upward from it. Loki's breath shivers out.

The Tesseract's power flows out like water spilling into the sky. It penetrates the clouds, spreading them apart as the portal opens to reveal deep space light-years away. There is a moment of confusion amongst the onlookers as they try to decide what they're looking at. To them, it appears as if the clouds have merely separated to reveal the stars behind.

"Those aren't our constellations," Agent Romanoff says.

"Holy shit," Fury mutters under his breath. "The goddamn thing works."

Barton shifts positions to get a better look. "Something's moving up there. Hard to see from here, especially with the glare of the spotlights. How long are we going to keep this thing open?"

"Not long," Fury replies. "A glimpse was all we agreed to."

Tony Stark is not very skilled at hiding his wonderment. He has removed his sunglasses, and his throat works as he tries to wrap his mind around what he's witnessing. "JARVIS, you getting a good look in there?"

"Yes, sir," JARVIS replies. "I have recorded approximately nine hundred and twenty thousand pictures and counting."

"Close it," Fury orders.

"You heard the man," Tony says. "But just this once. Shut it off."

The device shudders to a halt, cutting off the stream of power to the portal. Loki's heart pangs for one terrible moment as he feels the Tesseract's energy pulse and cry out to him before going silent. What a shame to harness something of such beauty.

Almost at once, the clouds begin to close in on themselves. Even after the portal snaps shut, everyone continues to stare. After a long moment of stunned silence, the first cheer of celebration goes up, and soon everyone's tension melts away. They move around, speaking breathlessly to each other about what they've just witnessed. Erik turns to Loki and holds his hand in a fist with one thumb aimed upward. Loki is left to speculate over what the gesture means, though judging from the way Erik beams at him, it is a positive one.

Thor fakes a smile as he claps Loki on the shoulder. Ducking his head down, he whispers to his little brother, "I don't know what they're so excited about. It was only a portal, but let us play along."

"Did you see what was moving on the other side?" Loki asks quietly. It is the first time he's spoken since arriving at the tower. What fun to sit back and let others act out his manipulations.

"It was difficult to make out," Thor replies. "But if I had to wager a guess, I saw ships. Legions of them." The pressure of his hand tightens on Loki's shoulder as the brothers share in an anxious glance.

Everyone crowds into Stark's penthouse living quarters while JARVIS compiles the images of the portal together for analysis.

"Wipe your feet, and stay away from my liquor cabinet," Tony orders the group. "And you. Mufasa." He snaps his fingers and points accusingly at Thor. "No shedding on the couch. JARVIS, what do you have for me?"

"I am afraid the three-dimensional rendering is incomplete," JARVIS explains. "The angle of the tower's position to the portal proved to be a hindrance, but I was able to capture adequate details on the objects moving in front of the stars."

"What kind of objects?" Fury asks. He looks to Thor and Loki. "Is this the shadow you were looking for?"

JARVIS projects an animated video loop into the center of the room. While an attempt was made to apply three-dimensional perspective to it, it is indeed incomplete. The best JARVIS can manage is to force certain aspects of the picture to appear closer than others. While it is immediately apparent to Loki what he's looking at, the others have still not caught on. He waits quietly and allows them to come to it on their own.

Tony walks around the projected image, unhappy with every angle he sees it from. "Zoom out, up the contrast, and balance out the colors. I feel like I'm watching Paris Hilton's sex tape." The video loop comes into better focus, and JARVIS manages to bring out the shapes of hovering warships floating before the dark expanse of space. "Um." Tony comes to an abrupt halt and stares. "Okay. Yeah, that's somewhat terrifying."

"What am I looking at?" Fury asks.

"Chitauri war vessels," Thor replies. "Dozens of them. They are creatures of mindless war and destruction." He looks at Loki in dismay. "What could be the purpose behind such a force? I have never seen its equal."

"Clearly nothing good," Loki says, careful to keep his expression grim. "We should report our findings back to the All-Father at once."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Tony says. "You two are just gonna split after dropping a bombshell like that?"

"Our purpose here is fulfilled," Thor replies. "Asgard is our home. I would advise you all not to open the portal again, for you are ill equipped to deal with this foe. It would be unwise to court war with them."

"So what, you expect us to just leave them floating out there?" Fury asks. "What if they find a way to us through a similar portal? At the very least, we have to prepare for the potential now that we know what's out there."

"Tony Stark," Loki says. "I've come to understand you design weapons of warfare."

"I'm retired actually," Tony says. His attention is fixed on the images of the ships. JARVIS has already started displaying measurements and calibrations, which Tony drinks in like water. "But don't worry, Rock of Ages. The blueprint is already in the works in my head."

"Have it on my desk by morning," Fury says. "Now what do you have to drink in this place?"

At long last, the hour has finally come for Loki and Thor to depart. Before they leave, they return to their hotel to gather together the few belongings they have accumulated in recent weeks. Most of Thor's treasures consist of food and useless trinkets, while Loki has acquired a number of books. In the end, however, he chooses to take only one of them with him—the first book he encountered here—for it is one of the few that has still lingered in his thoughts.

"That belongs to the hotel library," Agent Romanoff says. When Loki looks up, he sees her standing in the open doorway wearing her S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform, her arms folded across her chest. "Though I suppose I won't tell if you steal it."

"Goodness," Loki says as he takes in her changed appearance. "Well, I certainly didn't see that coming."

Her lips pull into a smile that doesn't touch her eyes. "Sure, you did."

"Perhaps I did suspect you were not all you appeared to be," Loki admits. "S.H.I.E.L.D. was never exactly shy with their distrust."

Agent Romanoff lifts a shoulder in a shrug. "Don't take it personally. I'm not done watching you."

"And what have you observed thus far?"

She gazes at him as if deciding how she wants to play this conversation. "You carry around a great weight," she says at last. "Guilt, I think. And you feel it most when you look at your brother, though I'm not entirely sure if he's actually your brother. One of you is adopted, perhaps? You being the most likely candidate since you're the insecure one. I suspect you ascended from some kind of lower social status, the hatred of which is ingrained in you. You overcompensate with ego to cover up your self-loathing. Aside from the guilt, you lack empathy for just about anyone else other than your brother, but you're very good at faking it. This leads me to believe you're here for Thor somehow and not for anyone else. You're afraid of something, and you don't want Thor to know about it. You're very guarded around me in particular."

Loki lifts an eyebrow. "I cannot begin to imagine why."

She pushes away from the doorframe and takes a few steps in his direction. "Just doing my job."

"And why lay all your cards out on the table?" Loki asks, adopting a Midgardian phrase.

"Like I said. I'm not done watching you.

"Nor I you," he says, letting his gaze fall down her curves.

Her eyes narrow into a knowing smirk. "Your charm isn't going to work on me."

"Likewise," he agrees with the prickliest of smiles. "I'm so very glad we understand one another."

Despite their frankness, there is a moment there where Loki feels he could move to kiss her, and she would reciprocate. But he is not that foolish. This is her final trap for him, to figure out what he's made of and if she would prove to be a weakness to him. But that is not the only reason Loki hesitates, for she does not know what he is. True, she suspects something is amiss, but she has not seen the monster for herself and would not consent to such things if she did.

While Loki is many things, most of them terrible indeed, there are some things he is not.

"I suppose this is goodbye, then," Loki says, his words breaking the spell of the moment. "I wonder if you would consider sharing your real name with me as a parting gift?"

She lifts an eyebrow. "Are you sure you don't already know it?"

Loki flinches. He has not slipped up a single time in her presence, always in control of every word he utters. "And why would you think that?"

"I didn't." Still facing him, she walks backwards toward the door. "But I do now. Thank you for your cooperation."

When they land at the Bifrost Observatory, Loki immediately fills his lungs with the cool, fresh air. He never thought he'd be happy to see this place again, but loath as he is to admit it, Asgard will always represent home. He loves it just as much as he resents it.

After a short exchange of greetings with Heimdall, Thor and Loki make haste to the palace. They seek out the All-Father at once and find him in his private library, recording his thoughts in one of his many journals.

"Well," Odin says as he puts the final flourish at the bottom of a page. "Let's have your report, then. Heimdall saw much of your journey, though some of it remained hidden from him." Odin looks up, finding Loki at once. "I take it you were successful in opening the portal?"

"We were," Loki says.

"And what did you see?"

Loki pauses and lets his brother speak instead. "Chitauri war vessels," Thor says. "Father, it was a massive army. Something stirs in the Void. We were right to go to Midgard to uncover this."

Odin still looks directly at Loki. "And what do you propose next, my son?"


After a beat, Loki looks around and then touches a hand to his chest. "Oh, I'm sorry. Were you addressing me?"

"I'm sorry—was that meant to be a joke?" Odin asks, throwing the words back at him. "If so, I fail to see the humor in it. Answer the question, Loki. What wisdom might you grant us in this situation?"

Loki does not like the way Odin says the word wisdom. He had felt glad to leave Agent Romanoff's scrutiny behind, only now he is subject to Odin's instead. "The people of Midgard are proud," Loki says. "They like to do for themselves. I advise we leave them alone. They now have knowledge and tools, and it's up to them to use them if there's need."

"And the Chitauri?" Odin asks.

Loki shrugs. "That would be your decision. Heimdall is aware of the shadow they cast. He can continue to watch them, at least."

"Very well," Odin says. "We will do as you suggest." Thor and Loki exchange a glance, both of them caught off guard by their father's behavior. "You are dismissed. Your mother will want to see you before you retire."

"Father, I would speak to you first," Thor says. "While we were on Midgard, Loki confided in me the truth of his origins. It was very disappointing to learn of your deceptions."

Loki's eyes bulge. Never in his life has he heard someone call Odin disappointing.

Odin opens his mouth to reply but then seems to rethink whatever he meant to say. He sighs and shakes his head instead.

"You should not have lied to him," Thor continues. "Nor to me nor to anyone else. The very fact that you did implies a need to hide the truth—as if it shames you somehow."

"Now that is simply not true," Odin interjects.

"I believe that," Thor says. "I know you love him, and so I will grant you the benefit of the doubt—but I still don't think you understand what you've done to him. Father, we grew up reenacting battles from the war. From our youth, we understood Jotunheim to be a place of monsters. If you truly wished me to be a brother to Loki, you should not have allowed me to go on as I did with such baseless antagonism toward another realm."

"People must come to such realizations on their own," Odin says. "Though as your father, I did attempt to discipline those beliefs out of you. There was a very good reason I banished you after your behavior in Jotunheim. That is how I react to things that shame me, my sons. With swift judgment. I do not avoid or cover up such things, as you seem to think I have done with the truth of Loki's origins."

Loki's jaw tightens as he thinks about his father's judgments on him in another time. He is well-acquainted with his father's shame.

Thor shakes his head. "Loki, with his speech on honor and integrity, has done more to improve perceptions of Jotunheim in this realm than you have in millennia. And he hates himself, father—so much that he has tried to destroy himself. Tried to make me destroy him. And he thought he would succeed in motivating me to strike him down simply by showing me his true face. That knowledge alone is enough to inspire self-hatred of my own."

Loki looks at him sharply. "Don't be an idiot, Thor."

"Only you would call me names while I fight to defend you," Thor snaps back.

"Well, then, stop being an idiot."

Odin briefly rests his forehead in one hand as if it aches. "Both of you, be quiet. As difficult as this is to hear, it pleases me to see you standing together. It is as I always intended—the two of you supporting each other when trials arise." His eyes flash at Loki. "Albeit in your own unique ways. I am proud of you, Thor, for the loyalty you've shown your brother—just as I am proud of you, Loki, for entrusting your brother with the truth. Both of you have grown in recent months."

With a roll of his eyes, Loki looks to the door. "May I go? I feel suddenly ill."

"I will remain," Thor says. "I have much still to say on the matter."

Loki storms out in a mood, not bothering to wait for permission from the All-Father. He cannot handle another second of Odin's hypocrisy, nor does he understand why Thor feels the need to say such things. But as Loki glares at each guard he passes in the corridors, the weight of what he has just witnessed begins to put pressure on his borrowed heart.

Thor believes Loki has attempted to kill him, and yet he has not brought that charge to the All-Father. Instead, he has defended his little brother and acknowledged so many years of hurt. Moreover, Thor has aimed considerable insult at Odin's rule and implied that Loki himself—a frost giant, for pity's sake—has a better grasp on honor and integrity than the All-Father.

Loki does not know what to do with this information, but he certainly doesn't like the way it makes emotion rise up into his throat. When will Thor finally wake up and realize he protects a monster?

It's not until several weeks later that the payoff from their visit to Midgard comes. Thor rushes into the dining hall one evening, breathless as he throws off his cloak and brings a hand to rest on the back of Loki's chair. "There is word from Heimdall." Though Thor speaks loudly enough for the entire table to hear, he looks first at Odin and then at Loki. "An attempt was made to steal the Tesseract from the laboratories at Stark Tower."

Those within listening distance fall silent to hear the rest. They turn in their seats to give Thor their full attention—all except for Odin, who instead watches Loki.

"Well?" Volstagg prompts. "Don't keep us in suspense."

"You seem to be implying the attempt failed," Fandral adds.

"It did indeed," Thor says with a smile. "Chitauri intruders attempted to activate the portal but were not cunning enough to get past the defenses Loki helped Erik Selvig put in place. S.H.I.E.L.D. had time to regroup and prepare for the attack, and they opened the portal themselves. A horde of Chitauri warriors was poised to enter it to aid in the theft of the Tesseract."

Loki's mouth twitches as he fights a smile of his own. "And?"

"Stark had weapons ready, designed for this very purpose," Thor says. "He fired them straight upward into the portal. Some falling debris damaged Stark's tower and the surrounding buildings before the portal was closed again, but there was not a single Midgardian casualty. Stark hit them hard, Loki. Heimdall confirmed the shadow has dispersed."

Mutters of approval come from those listening in on the conversation—but only Loki dissolves into outright laughter. It is a short-lived burst of hilarity before he regains control of himself, but those who notice still stare.

"Pardon me," Loki says as he rises from his chair. He tries to say more but is instead forced to bring the back of his hand to his lips to keep the laughter at bay. When he has swallowed it down, he adds, "I thank you for the news, brother. That is most diverting."

He takes his leave of the dining hall not long after that, for he knows Odin watches him—but this is simply too good not to enjoy. The muscles in Loki's face contort as he strides to his chambers, the grin almost impossible to fight. He has saved Midgard, and the very same people who had so thoroughly humiliated him probably now revere him as a hero. The very idea forces Loki to lean a hand on the wall and bite a knuckle to keep another rush of laughter contained.

One day, every person on Midgard would remember that Loki had nearly brought them to their knees. Now they would also know he undid it on a whim. He might not have done any of it for himself, but this was all certainly turning out to be the most hilarious of suicide notes.

He has allowed himself so few moments of lighthearted pleasure since his fall into the Void, and so after he is alone in his room, he whispers a silencing spell to allow for a bit of privacy. Then he leans his back against the door and slides downward until he sits hard on the floor in a very undignified manner. Alone in the dark, he throws his head back and laughs until his stomach hurts.

To be continued.

A/N – Oh, Loki.

I agonized over this chapter. Hope it worked. Thanks for reading!

Chapter Text

A/N – Part of this chapter was inspired by this gorgeous artwork set on tumblr by megatruh: pro-antagonist DOT tumblr DOT com/post/76345650983/

Chapter 19

Loki eyes the ancient text that rests on the All-Father's desk and wonders how such a thing could exist in Asgard at all without him knowing. "What you are suggesting—that will come at no easy price," Loki says, feeling vaguely stunned by it all. "That is the darkest of magic, the kind you yourself have forbidden by law. There is always a heavy sacrifice involved."

"Indeed," Odin replies without inflection. "There must be an equivalent exchange. In order to save a life, you will likely have to sacrifice your own. However, I do recall you telling me you would do anything. Was that a lie?"

The coldness of Odin's statement hits Loki like a physical blow. He hoists the level of his chin, trying his best to rebuild the walls of protection around his heart. He hates Odin. He should not care what he thinks. And yet—this is the only father Loki has ever known, and a father should love and protect a child without question. But with Odin, there have always been questions.

"What is she?" Loki asks. "Not even you could manage such a thing."

"A demon," Odin says. "An Ancient One. I would not seek to learn her Name. The simple act of Hearing it would likely break your mind."

And yet Odin would willingly allow Loki to go to this demon witch. He has essentially handed Loki a map to his own demise. When he had asked Odin for help, this is not exactly what Loki pictured, though he should hardly be surprised. It is not the first time Odin has clung to one son while watching the less desirable son fall to his death.

"It's a little late for that," Loki says. "I will go. Think of me however you want, but I am not a coward. I made my peace with death long ago. You should remember, seeing as you inspired my fall."

Loki turns to leave, but his ears remain attentive, waiting for the All-Father's reply. It doesn't find Loki as he slips through the doorway of the king's library, nor does it come by the time he reaches the middle of the corridor. His steps begin to slow. He spoke the truth when he said he was at peace with death—but this? The All-Father's silence is devastation itself.

When Loki fell into the Void, it was sudden—over in seconds with no time for regret or any real kind of protest. Odin is allowing Loki to fall again, but it is much slower this time. Loki's emotion betrays him, and he slows his pace even further, aching for Odin to care enough to ask him to stop. Even a goodbye would be something.

When Loki reaches the end of the hall, his feet can carry him no further. There is much he has to do—he owes Jane a last visit to let her know he will fix this—but grief weighs him down until he can hardly breathe. His eyes fill with tears, but he's too stunned to let them fall. He waits there, pleading with the silence to tell him he misunderstood.

But the silence politely informs Loki that he did no such thing. He understood the All-Father's indifference to him with perfect clarity. And so Loki lets go of his hope and allows himself to fall yet again.

As time pushes on, Loki begins to feel a slow descent into the inevitable.

Already he has been given more days, months, and years than he ever thought he would see again. But instead of gratefulness for every breath, the extra time only leaves him feeling conflicted. When he had forfeited his life to the witch, he hadn't really cared much for it. But things have changed. Slowly, painfully—but a definite shift.

His anger has dwindled to a manageable level, and he no longer feels the mindless rage that once inspired him to strike out without mercy whenever faced with something painful. He is hurt still—that will never fully go away—but it is a quiet kind of grief. In truth, he isn't certain how he feels about his situation now, and so he tries not to think about it at all. None of it matters anyway. He is a dead man walking.

But before the end, there is still one important task left, for he has sworn the Queen of Asgard will outlive him.

Saving Frigga's life will not be difficult. The Aether must simply not come to Asgard so that Malekith and Algrim, who would become one of the Kursed, will have no reason to follow it there. However, that still leaves the issue of Jane Foster possibly finding it again, as she had before. Though this is a different time with different variables, Loki does not like the uncertainty there. He must actively work to prevent the Aether from entering Asgard's borders and not trust the problem to resolve itself simply because of small differences in circumstance.

The Aether must either be destroyed or contained. Since Thor's weapon at the height of its power had not managed to destroy the Aether in Svartalfheim, Loki is in favor of the latter option—but to contain such a thing is no small undertaking. As the Convergence approaches, Loki spends many hours researching the problem, and soon, a solid plan begins to take shape in his mind.

As a failsafe, Loki also decides to push Thor toward Jane in the hopes that he can prevent whatever led her to the Aether to begin with. Loki has no knowledge of how she discovered it—only that she found a path to the Aether from Midgard. In this time-stream, Loki has the advantage of the Bifrost not being destroyed. With Thor free to travel to Midgard to distract and protect Jane, Loki stands a very good chance of beating her to the Aether.

Early one evening, as the sky has only just begun its descent into nightfall, Loki finds his brother wandering the grassy shoreline a ways off from the palace. It is a familiar place, full of nostalgia, for they came here often as boys to play amongst the reeds. Many epic battles were waged here between heroes and monsters, but they neglected the place as they grew older, particularly when Thor found his own set of friends.

Thor appears deep in thought. He has a handful of stones, which he throws one by one out into the water. They skip several times before sinking down.

"I looked for you earlier," Thor says when Loki comes to stand beside him. "We were to journey to Jotunheim today, if you remember. I took Sif and Hogun instead."

Loki clasps his hands behind his back as he watches another stone skip across the water, leaving little rings in its wake that spread out like shockwaves. Jotunheim is the least of Loki's worries. He has neither the time nor the stomach to think overly long about that place. Even if he wanted to, the moment his thoughts attempt to turn to Jotunheim, his mind instantly rejects the very idea. He will never reconcile with the place of his birth, and he does not wish to try.

"It must have slipped my mind," Loki says.

"Four times already, I have gone, and you only once," Thor says. "You are proving to be a disappointing emissary. King Helblindi sends his greetings. Reconstruction on the realm is well underway. You should see it, brother. The feel of the place is quite changed now that Laufey's rule has ended."

Loki's jaw moves as he sucks in his cheeks. While Jotunheim itself is easy enough to dismiss, the memory of his estranged brother is not. Helblindi was reserved but kind to Loki upon his visit to Jotunheim and had even extended the same courtesy to Thor, going as far as to thank him for taking care of his little brother all these years. Ridiculous oafs, the lot of them. Loki does not wish to face Helblindi again. It is too difficult to look him in the eyes, and Loki feels ill equipped to deal with any of it.

"And how is your Jane?" Loki asks, wishing to guide the conversation to more desirable places. "We have not spoken since your last visit to Midgard."

Thor smiles down at the single remaining stone in his hand. "She is well."

"Goodness, you must be in love," Loki says with a laugh. "I've never heard such decorative lines of poetry. That was a joke, by the way. Please do not ever attempt to set words to rhyme."

Thor skips the final stone across the water, and it travels further than the others before it is lost forever. As he brushes dirt from his palms, Thor says, "She makes me happy, Loki. I want to bring her here."

Which is exactly what Loki is after as well. "So why don't you?"

As Thor's head lowers, his smile fades into the look of pensive sadness Loki first saw when he'd approached. "I don't know how it would work," Thor says. "You should hear how our father speaks of her—as though she is nothing. He lectures us on protecting the other realms, yet looks down upon those who live there and considers them inferior. And then he wonders why you struggle with the truth of your birth."

Loki falls silent as he thinks about what Thor has said. As much as he wants Jane to come to Asgard, he is now rethinking it. He hadn't considered how she would be perceived here. "The All-Father is nothing if not a hypocrite," Loki replies. "He says only what will fulfill his purpose for the moment."

"Am I foolish for wanting this?" Thor asks.


Thor kicks a fallen branch into the water. "Please. Do not soften the blow. I might think you care."

As Loki draws in breath to reply, he already knows he will later regret the words. They do not serve his purpose in drawing Jane away from the Aether, and yet Loki is unable to stop himself from speaking out. "The All-Father means for me to be your advisor, and so I advise you to consider what bringing Jane here will do to her. She will constantly be looked down upon and treated as inferior because of what she is. And not just by the All-Father, Thor. You yourself have maintained the same prejudices against Midgard, as have I, and you cannot bring her here without explaining and preparing her for that. You do not understand what it feels like to be different in a place of overbearing perfection. Jane would be better off if you went to her on Midgard and stayed there, and yet the All-Father will not permit that. I think it best the decision fall to her, knowing the full conditions of the prejudice that will meet her here. Allow her to make her own decision. In truth, Thor, there is no choice here but hers. If you seek to hide the truth from her, she will only come to resent you later."

"That makes a good deal of sense," Thor says. "Only I don't want to tell her things that will hurt her. I don't want her to feel different or inferior. She is neither of those things. I do not see her that way at all, and I wish to protect her from others who do."

Loki bites the inside of his cheek as he struggles to maintain his composure. "Do you not see that this is exactly what your parents did to me? It is cruel, Thor."

As Thor meets his brother's eyes, Loki recognizes the battle waging behind them. "They are our parents, Loki," Thor says. "And do not take this the wrong way because I am still very much on your side—"

Loki snorts and looks away. "That sounds like a promising beginning."

"I am only attempting to be fair and see both sides," Thor says. "If you don't try to look at this from their perspective, then you will never be able to forgive them. Our parents love you, Loki, and I don't think their intention was to be cruel to you. Since facing this situation with Jane, I can better understand why they made the decisions they did. Out of love and the desire to protect. I don't want to cast a shadow of doubt over Jane with the knowledge of how others might perceive her, even though those are not my feelings about her at all—but you are right. Honesty is better in the long run. She will know where she stands from the beginning and can face it head on as a challenge to rise above. Leading her into that unknowingly would be unkind, even though my intentions would be good." Thor's hand comes to rest on the back of Loki's neck. "I thank you for your counsel, brother. We will make a good team one day, I think."

Loki swallows with difficulty. As much as he appreciates his brother acknowledging him, he still isn't certain what to do with it, especially when Thor speaks of them being a team in the future. "If there is one thing I learned during my short time as Gungnir's owner, it is that the king stands alone," Loki says. "You should not look to me for answers. You always find solutions on your own when you stop and reflect on what you already know. It's simply getting you to begin the process of reflection that proves so difficult."

Thor's fingers affectionately squeeze the base of Loki's neck. "You are finding nicer and nicer ways of calling me an idiot. I don't want to stand alone, Loki. I will have my brother at my side."

Though Loki wants to throw off the heavy blanket of Thor's affection, he instead stands still under the weight of it. "Thor, what changed between us? I do not understand it."

"What are you talking about?"

"You have never held much regard for me or my opinions," Loki says. "Or my abilities. Or anything else for that matter."

"It is true that I do not hold much regard for your deceptions or the way you manipulate situations to your advantage," Thor says. "You did very little else for many years, Loki, and I see now that much of that was caused by your frustrations here. But while I do not always like what you say or how you act, you are still my little brother, and I have always held you in high regard. I admit, we grew distant for far too many years, and that was both of our faults. My attitude toward you changed when I stopped having to defend myself from you. I saw you acting less in your own self-interest and thinking of others instead. Sif has spoken to me of the change in you as well, as have the Warriors Three. They still know nothing of your secrets, and I wish you would let me tell them. I hate that these lies persist."

"No," Loki says. "Do not tell them. It will either result in pity or insult, and no good will come of it."

"You have very little faith in your friends, Loki. Despite their opinions on Jotunheim, they know you. What do you think turned my own opinion around so quickly? All I had to do was associate a Jotunn with my brother, and that solved the matter."

Loki shudders. "They are not my friends."

"You know, sometimes you really are a fool," Thor says. "You perceive others' dislike of your behavior as their dislike of you, but they are two different things. With your recent lack of mischief and general reclusiveness, I daresay you are quite missed by the group."

"You are not allowed to call me a fool," Loki says. "That is my name for you. I also reserve exclusive rights to oaf, idiot, and lout."

Thor chuckles and shoves his brother forward a step, his hand dropping away from Loki's neck. "What am I to call you, then? Trickster does not fit these days."

Setting his jaw, Loki lifts a hand to the water and draws upon a wave, which swells and grows in size with each passing second. "Well, then," Loki says, his eyes dancing with mischief. "High time I reclaimed my title."

Thor hovers closer to his brother as he eyes the growing mass of liquid. "Loki, what are you doing? Don't you dare hit me with that. I will throw you into the water. Do not think I won't."

Loki turns his head to grin at him. "Some do battle. Others do tri—"

Before he can finish the statement, Thor shoves Loki forward into the water just as the wave slams into Thor. Both come up sputtering, laughing, and looking utterly ridiculous. "Come on," Thor laughs as he holds out a hand to help his brother back to shore. "Dry us off before anyone sees us behaving like children."

They are drenched and muddy with their hair plastered to their foreheads, and Loki cannot remember the last time his heart felt so untroubled. He smiles as he lifts a hand and whispers a simple drying spell that will draw the water away from their skin and clothes.

But the smile soon wanes as he realizes he has just used water to attack his brother. Water, of all things. It leaves him momentarily breathless. Stunned, as though someone has slapped him across the face.

Thor doesn't notice and places his hand on Loki's shoulder to lead him back to the palace. As they walk together, Thor's mood is light and carefree, and soon the horrible feeling in Loki's gut begins to lift as well—for he has not attacked his brother out of maliciousness or a desire to do any real harm. That is not who he wants to be anymore, though he isn't certain what else he could possibly be if not the enemy.

When they reach the palace, Thor refuses to allow Loki to retreat into solitude. He drags his little brother upstairs, where Sif and the Warriors Three have gathered in one of the common rooms they favor in the eastern wing. Fandral shuffles a deck of cards he acquired in Midgard and whispers something obscene to Volstagg that makes him roar with laughter.

"What is the game?" Thor asks as he sits beside Hogun.

"Fandral doesn't know how to play anything yet," Hogun replies. "He merely learned to shuffle the cards so that he could show off."

"That is untrue," Fandral says. "The Lady Darcy and I spent many hours trading wits at the Go Fish game. She is a fierce opponent indeed."

Loki looks with no small amount of uncertainly at the only empty chair left, which is beside Sif, who glances at him out of the corner of her eye. "Nice of you to join us," she says.

"Now, now, my good lady," Loki says. "We mustn't tell lies."

"That is ironic, coming from you," she replies, though there is no heat in her words. "Sit down, you idiot. We're about to start."

He sits and accepts the hand of cards Fandral doles out to him. Soon they are deeply engaged in the stupidest game Loki has ever attempted to wrap his mind around. Though the pace is slow and the rules poorly defined, Loki soon begins to relax. The others accept his presence there well enough, though they are wary at first and somewhat concerned with how quiet he is.

Thor is absolutely baffled by the way Loki is able to correctly guess which cards he has in his hand, not realizing that he sits in front of a mirror. Fandral is too busy glancing at the mirror to notice, but Hogun has figured it out, though he only laughs at the crown prince instead of helping him. Volstagg whispers to Loki and begs him to share his cheating techniques, while Sif heatedly demands they all remember their honor.

As their laughter and spirited arguments continue to rise, Loki feels a sharp burst of anger.

How dare the witch do this to him. How dare she give him what he has desperately needed for so long. Acceptance. Peace. A sense of belonging.

She is cruel indeed to give him a better life before snatching it away again. His future hadn't meant much to him before, and it would seem she has her sights set on a more valuable one. The price of his sacrifice grows heavier with each passing second.

Hours later, when Loki finally returns to his chambers, he finds the door cracked open. Though he expects to see one of the servants tidying up inside, he instead finds Frigga. She has retrieved a small stack of Loki's belongings from his old abandoned room, and they sit in a box on his bed as she sets about putting them in place. He hovers in the doorway, uncertain how he feels about seeing her.

While he loves Frigga, part of him is still deeply hurt by her actions. The betrayal is almost worse coming from her, whom he once trusted without question. He is polite and respectful to her—even openly adoring at times—but he no longer actively seeks out her counsel. Long stretches of time often go by without them speaking any words of real substance, and though Frigga has apologized to him more than once, Loki only tells her to think of it no more. But they both know the hurt is still there. He hasn't forgiven her.

"We have servants to do these things," Loki says with a ghost of a smile. "The High Queen of Asgard should wait on no one."

Frigga's eyes sparkle at him as she returns to the box to see what else she brought. "Just a few trinkets to warm this place up. You have left it quite barren, despite all this time. You never did tell me why you abandoned your old chambers, you know. You treasured many of these things, once upon a time."

She holds up the priceless golden replica of Yggdrasil that the All-Father had gifted Loki with when he'd come of age. "I suppose I was in need of a change," Loki says as he watches her place it on his desk. He plans to dispose of the gift again as soon as she leaves.

"Or perhaps you felt a change in yourself," Frigga says.

Loki feels sympathy for her, for she doesn't know the innocent fool that was her youngest son died when the monster fell back into time. She clings to someone who does not exist anymore.

"You left your old room behind when you learned of the realm of your birth," she continues. "I did not realize it at the time, of course, but it makes a good deal of sense when looking back. You felt different. I spoke with your brother about this earlier today. He told me you did not journey with him to Jotunheim again."

"I single-handedly rescued our treaty with Jotunheim and prevented a war," Loki says. "Thor has some catching up to do as emissary."

"Loki, I think we both know that is not the reason you hesitate. I fear you have not yet accepted what you are, and I had hoped you would have found more peace by now. It saddens me to see you struggling." She draws closer as she speaks and reaches out to touch his hand. "Won't you sit and talk with me, my son? You are here, and yet I miss you so much every hour of the day. What is so wrong with what you are that you hide yourself?"

Her words chip away at the wall around his heart but only so much. "Do I even have to say it?" he asks, his tone clipped.

Frigga sits on the bed and pats the mattress beside her. Reluctantly, Loki joins her and watches as she takes a familiar book from the box of his old belongings. He recognizes it at once, with its worn green binding and well-loved pages. He had learned how to read while listening to his mother's voice and watching her finger trace across the sentences.

"Do you remember when we used to read this together?" Frigga asks. "It was my way of trying to ingrain some important lessons in you. Though in looking through it this morning, I fear you might have misunderstood."

She flips to the final page, which depicts a scene of joyous citizens celebrating the fall of the monster that has lurked unknown in their midst. A brave prince stands over the beast with his weapon held high in triumph. Loki in his youth had colored the monster blue with a very poor spell, and over the years, the color had leaked past the lines and all over the page. With a wave of Frigga's hand, the blue vanishes. "When I saw that," she whispers, "I must have cried for hours. My darling, you misunderstood. How frightened and alone you must have felt when you learned the truth on your own instead of learning it the right way from those who love you."

Loki wants to deny this. He is a grown man, after all—not a child in need of coddling. "What's done is done," he says. "There is no need to keep revisiting this subject, though I'm not certain how I misunderstood."

"Oh, Loki," Frigga says. "I cannot let this go until I see that you have healed, and finding this book is just more evidence of the many ways your family has failed you. I should have spoken to you more freely as a child. You were strong and intelligent enough to handle it. Your father didn't want you to feel different, but there is nothing wrong with those differences. True acceptance and equality is a celebration of differences—not conformity. If your father went wrong in the way he raised you, it was that he tried to shape you into his own image. He is not perfect, Loki, nor are any of us—but you have always looked up to him as if he is. In his own way, I think he was simply trying to protect you from knowing you were abandoned. When you were a child, you were often uncertain. Leftover unease from the war, I think. We wanted you to feel secure as our son and as a child of Asgard, and while that worked for a time, I'm afraid we merely applied a bandage over a wound instead of working with you to make certain all the infection was healed. All we did was set you up to feel disappointed and betrayed instead of celebrating your differences to begin with. My darling boy. Can you ever forgive me? I have not been a very good mother, though I hope you know that I always cherished you. Every part of you. You are no monster, my love."

Loki stares at the book, unable to see past the slain beast. The wall of protection he's built around his heart holds steady against the volley of her attack, but it is damaged and thin. It always has been when faced with Frigga. While part of him hates her for betraying him, he knows it's just an attempt to protect himself. If he accepts Frigga as his mother and forgives her sins, what is he left with to defend himself against possibly being hurt again? Especially when his love for her is so much greater than any whisper of hate.

"I don't know who I am anymore," Loki says. "Sometimes I think I died and there is nothing left but an iron wall surrounding a grave."

It is the first time since his fall that he has revealed any real part of himself to her. He could never say such things to Odin or Thor, for they are not able to understand such complexities of emotion. Though admittedly, Thor is doing his best to try.

"Perhaps that Loki needed to be put to rest," Frigga says gently. She reaches out to smooth his long hair back so that she can see his face. "He spent much time trying to walk in his father's footsteps instead of making his own path. I think he represents a dream or ideal you've been holding yourself to, but that doesn't mean there's nothing else inside of you. Not all is lost, Loki. We just need to work to bring down those iron walls to find you again. I think this time, we should start with the fundamentals. I would like you to read this book tonight, and just so there is no misunderstanding—" She points at the prince. "This handsome fellow represents you." Her fingertip moves to the monster. "And this frightening beast is a symbol for that which gets in the way of attaining your goals. The monster can symbolize many things, Loki. I think you know what your own personal demon is right now, so the next step is focusing on how to vanquish it. Promise me you will read the book tonight?"

She hands it over, and Loki accepts it. He has heard what she's said, but as always, struggles to understand how it applies to him. As he closes the cover and runs his fingertips down the green binding, he says, "As you wish, my queen."

Frigga smiles sadly and reaches out again to stroke his hair. "Am I not your mother, too?"

Loki winces. Oh, how those words hurt to hear—echoes of the most horrible regret from another time. He wants nothing more than to erase the cold retort he offered her then—the last words she heard from him before her death—and so he takes her hand and brings it to his lips.

He tries. He tries so very hard, and yet he still can't say it. It is simply not the truth, but that doesn't mean he has to hurt her.

"If only I were so blessed," Loki says instead, still holding her hand to his lips. "Thank you for giving me the honor of pretending. It was the sweetest of illusions."

Tears shine in Frigga's eyes as her hand moves to cup his cheek. "My little silvertongue. Such honeyed words to cover up so much pain. I see your heart behind that iron wall, though you claim it no longer beats. I hope you can trust me with it again one day. You are loved, Loki—every part of yourself that you struggle to accept, your mother has cherished from the start. I will wait patiently while you acquaint yourself with that which I already know and adore." Frigga rises from the bed, and after bestowing a kiss on Loki's forehead, she moves to the door to take her leave.

Loki feels utterly worthless as he watches her. He thinks of how he felt in another time, when he had laid his heart out to Odin and was allowed to walk away without it being acknowledged. He cannot do that to his queen.


Frigga turns, her fingers already reaching for the door.

"I will try," Loki says. "To forgive you." He swallows and rephrases, for that is not what he wants to say to her at all. "I will forgive you," he says in a quieter tone. But that isn't right either. "I forgive you," he whispers at last.

The purest of smiles spreads across Frigga's entire face. She is so pleased that she glows with it. "And you think those are the words of a monster?" With a final quirk of her eyebrows, she slips away.

Algrim and Malekith will die.

Both of them touched Loki's mother, and so they will suffer painful, agonizing, fiery, pitiless deaths. The Queen of Asgard will be the last person standing in all the Nine Realms if her son has anything to do with it. It is time to put his plans into motion.

The Aether requires a container, the likes of which are uncommon indeed. To keep attention brought upon himself to a minimum, Loki feels it best to handle the construction on his own. Before doing this, he desires to make study of another like vessel in order to duplicate the proper wards and spells required to suppress such a force. There is one device in Asgard that is similar in nature—the Casket of Ancient Winters. Loki has possessed it before and understands the Casket itself is a mere container for the real force within.

Loki's mother will survive this, and he does not give a damn about anything else. And so he doesn't even hesitate to march straight into the king's library, glare down at Odin where he sits at his desk, and say, "I want the Casket."

Odin appears a bit dazed by Loki's unyielding expression. He sits back in his chair and lifts his head, lips parted in thought. "May I ask why?"

"Because it is my birthright."

"It is Helblindi Laufeyson's birthright first," Odin replies, "he being the eldest in his father's line. After Thor's reports on the current state of Jotunheim, I have toyed with the idea of returning the Casket. Is there a particular reason you want it?"

Loki's teeth grind together. Ever since the journey to Midgard, the All-Father has watched him closely, as if waiting for Loki to unwittingly reveal some great trickery. Odin has never trusted Loki's reasons for going after the Tesseract, and he certainly didn't buy the convenience of the outcome with the Chitauri. It is obvious Odin only agreed to Loki's suggestions on the matter as a test—to see what would happen and how Loki would react to it. Now, he does not feel free to speak with Odin about the Aether without making things worse, but Loki might get away with demanding the Casket out of some resentful sense of entitlement. It is a personal enough object to make the argument believable.

"Well, then," Odin says when Loki fails to explain himself. "If you will not give me a reason, I trust you know where the door is."

"So what exactly is my birthright then?" Loki snaps. "It is not the throne of Asgard, nor the Casket of Jotunheim. Am I only due the frozen rock I was cast out upon as a child?"

Odin smiles as he folds his hands together in front of him. "If you keep speaking to me in such a disrespectful manner, I am pleased to arrange something to that extent. Your birthright, Loki Odinson, is the throne of Asgard. I have placed you on it once before when your brother proved himself unworthy. Have you forgotten that?"

Loki scoffs. "And here I thought you only did that for a laugh."

"I have called you my son and given you my name. Until the day you demonstrate to me that you no longer wish for either of those things, you will remain in the line for the throne. If Thor is unwilling or unable to rule, then Gungnir falls to you. Please tell me what part of this confuses you."

"The part where I am not Aesir."

"You are my son. Is that what you're having difficulty with?"

"Yes. That is rather implied by me not being Aesir."

Odin shakes his head as if saddened by Loki's stubbornness. "By all means, make a choice, my boy. I chose to give you my name, and you are free to choose to cast it off if you no longer wish to have a father. Though I admit, despite the recent condition of our relationship, I would be very grieved indeed if it came to that."

Loki is infuriated. Odin's words infer that it was Loki's actions alone that had lost him his place in Asgard in the other time-stream. That is not what he wants to hear, particularly when he knows Odin only used Loki's crimes as an excuse to cast him off. He has let Loki fall twice now—down into the Void and into the witch's hands. There is not an ounce of grief in Odin's heart about the state of their relationship.

"You are such a hypocrite," Loki says.

Odin leans forward in his chair, watching Loki's face carefully. "How?"

Loki's lips press together hard. He is too angry to respond. Besides, when has speaking to the All-Father ever done Loki any good?

"Because I let you fall?" Odin guesses. "Again, I ask—how?"

"Go to Hel," Loki says.

Odin gets to his feet and slams a fist down on the desk. "Make a decision, Loki," he bites out. "Odinson or Laufeyson. I have given you time to deal with your anger toward me, and yet it only seems to grow. Why do you refuse to hear me when I tell you I see you as my own blood? I will not take my name away from you unless you ask it of me, and I would think very hard before you cast it off."

As if Loki gives a damn anymore about that name. If not for his love for Frigga, he would spit it back into Odin's face. He puts his fists on the desk as well and leans forward, unflinching in the face of the All-Father's fury. "I want the Casket," Loki says again, his voice smooth.

Odin blinks at him, searching Loki's eyes for something he doesn't seem to find. "Is Laufeyson your decision then?"

"Laufey is dead," Loki says without a trace of emotion. "He is not the current owner of what I seek. You are. I want my birthright, and the last time I checked, you have not claimed Helblindi as your son."

The set of Odin's jaw softens, and he steps back to better take in the sight of his son's demeanor. The subtle manipulation of the last few words Loki spoke seems to do its intended work on the All-Father. "Very well, then, Odinson," he says at last, his head tilting to one side as he stares. "The Casket is yours. Your birthright."

If Odin is looking for some kind of grateful reaction to this gift, he will not receive it. Loki pushes away from the desk, and as he strides from the room, he says over his shoulder, "Call off your Destroyer. I go to claim it now."

To be continued.

A/N – I fear it is my duty to tell you that I have a huge project due at work by the end of this month. I will try my best to update soon, but please be patient with me if I'm a little slower. Trust me, I would rather be writing Asgardian family drama. I'm not sure why, but this chapter hurt my heart more to write than Loki's freak out in chapter 12.

Thank you for reading! Hope you enjoyed. If you have a moment, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Chapter Text

A/N – Sooo I tried to figure out exactly where Jane found the Aether but did not succeed. I'm going with Svartalfheim. Try not to think about it too hard, and you will have my sincere blessings and thanks. I split this chapter since it got to be too long, and as a result, I'm now projecting 24 chapters total. There will not be a "flashback" (err, flashforward?) scene at the beginning of the next installment, so think of this chapter as the first of two halves.

Chapter 20

"Now you mustn't tell anyone about our little agreement, of course," the witch says. "That would spoil the punch-line, and I fear I might become very angry indeed if you robbed me of that."

Loki rubs at the back of his neck as he eyes the knife on the table between them. He doesn't want to look at it, yet he can't seem to stop. "What happens if I slip up?" he asks, letting his arm drop.

Perhaps it is Loki's imagination, but the color of her pale blue eyes seems to darken. With a knowing smile, she says, "I see your mind, trickster. You will not outwit me, and if you wish to save the one you call brother, it would not be wise to try. If you tell anyone, your bargain is forfeit, and time will revert back to the way it was before. It matters not to me since I claim my payment up front. But if you wish to succeed, I advise you to hold your tongue."

"And what if someone were to figure it out?" Odin asks.

The witch turns her attention to the All-Father, who up until now has sat quietly before his untouched cup of tea while his wayward son bartered his future away. Loki has tried very hard to ignore Odin, but nevertheless, his hard, dispassionate presence drives a hollow ache deep into Loki's gut. When he had appeared before the witch after his brief visit to Jane, he had found Odin already there with her, which was almost enough to inspire Loki to immediately turn around and leave. Odin had explained that he wanted to make sure Loki was true to his word. Such confidence in his honor.

"He will attempt to cheat," Odin says to the witch. "It is his nature. Better that we have the rules up front so he understands the consequences."

Loki endeavors to swallow the lump in his throat, but it will not relent. Even now, ready to sacrifice his life for his brother, Odin thinks Loki will somehow back out or twist events to his own benefit. His "nature," as Odin calls it, will allow for nothing else. It is innate. In his blood. Not a choice at all, but something Loki cannot run from or deny. He is a monster incapable of change.

"I see your mind as well, All-Father," the witch says. "This is the child's bargain—not yours. And judging from the energy I sense between the two of you, I doubt very much it will matter if you do figure it out. From here until the end, the child belongs to me. Have you an interest in making a bargain of your own?"

"No," Odin says, his tone flat. "We have already discussed this."

Loki calls upon a chuckle to ward off the increasingly familiar rush of despair. "The All-Father will not interfere or stand in the way of my demise. He only acts when it suits his purposes and is indifferent to everything else. It is his nature. Besides, he was deep in the Odinsleep when Thor died, so the question is moot. Now when do we start?"

The witch looks between the two of them, her eyes bright with excitement. "What a delightful question. I believe I know just the place."

Exactly seven days before the Convergence, Loki finishes his work on the vessel for the Aether.

He would prefer to spend several more weeks working out every minor imperfection in the wards to ensure the Aether will never escape, but he has simply run out of time. The Convergence approaches, and each day he waits brings further doubt about the future. Since Jane has declined Thor's request to join him in Asgard long-term, she, or anyone else for that matter, might stumble upon that which Loki seeks. It is time to take action.

The vessel is a thing of beauty. Loki sets the completed device on his desk beside the Casket and steps back to appreciate the quiet drone of energy that resounds from both of them sitting so close together. The vessel is smaller and rectangular, made of iron brackets and glass walls, which are interwoven with spells to make them impossible to shatter. The end product does not look much like the Casket, after which it was designed, but it has the same heavy, unmovable quality. It will feel even more so with the Aether contained inside.

Creating the vessel was the simple part. Locating the Aether has proven far more difficult than Loki anticipated.

He has already completed much research on the subject since his return from Midgard. However, Bor hid it well. From pieces of information Loki has picked up in Bor's journals in the king's library and overheard from Thor and Jane in the other time-stream, Loki has determined a general location. From there, his research has continued on foot.

He knows he cannot use the Bifrost for travel without rousing increased suspicion from the All-Father, and so Loki relies only on his own talents to find passage out of Asgard. For weeks now, he has taken to shielding himself constantly from Heimdall's gaze so as not to alert the watchman when he slips out of the realm. Every night, he has journeyed to Svartalfheim, searching the dank underbellies of abandoned temples. But only now, as the Convergence draws near, has Loki begun to sense the weaknesses in the walls separating the realms. He has spent the last two nights honing in on those places, knowing Jane had used one to find the Aether to begin with. One in particular holds an all too familiar whisper of power nearby, and Loki is willing to bet it is the slumbering Aether. All that remains is to authenticate and claim it.

And so in the darkest hour of the night while the rest of the palace sleeps, Loki gathers his things together for what he hopes will be his final journey to Svartalfheim. He takes both the Casket and the newly completed vessel and stores them away in his secret hiding place, where only he can call upon them with magic to appear immediately at his bidding. He leaves his cloak and armor behind, choosing instead to wear the style of clothing he favored more in his youth before his fall into the Void—dark in color, close fitting, and easy to move around in. He will need to stay light on his feet.

Before Loki departs, he grits his teeth and swipes at his shoulder, unable to shake the feeling that a phantom hand rests there. It is a disturbing sensation he has noticed more and more of late. The witch, no doubt. A subtle reminder that his time is nearly up.

Loki's eyes find the gilded mirror that hangs on the wall of his chambers, and he studies the empty air behind him. Though he knows no one is literally standing there, it is obvious she has latched onto him. "I know you are there," he mutters. "There is no need to push. I will come at the designated hour."

The phantom grip tightens on Loki's shoulder in silent reply.

Loki cloaks himself with invisibility as he makes his way through the empty palace corridors. He passes only two guards completing their late night rounds and is careful to mask the sound of his footsteps as he slips past them unseen.

Thanks to the weakened walls between realms, his journeys to Svartalfheim are not difficult to manage. The passages are more plentiful and easier to find and access. In the highest reaches of the west wing, there is a particular point of weakened space he favors because he has learned to manipulate and direct it. When Loki finds the right place, he lifts his hands to it and feels out the other side. It is no easy thing to direct, and he spends a considerable amount of time locating just the right place, all the while trying to ignore the unseen fingers digging into his shoulder.

Finally, he locates a familiar pulse of power on the other side of the opening. With a knowing smile, Loki drops his hands and steps through the passage. When his boot hits the ground again, it crunches on crumbling stone and dirt. Svartalfheim.

The first sensation he has is that of open space. He stands perfectly still while his senses adjust to the sudden shift. Though the ground is solid beneath his feet, he detects a sharp drop-off nearby. The air is stagnant and cold as a grave, and the slow drip of water echoes somewhere around him. From this information, he determines that he is underground, in a great cavern or ruins of some sort. It is not the first abandoned structure he has explored in this realm.

The difference with this particular excursion is immediately apparent. In the distance comes a faint glow of red light, a rippling shimmer cutting through the otherwise stifling darkness. Loki pulls on a pair of gloves as he stares at it. With a gesture, he sends just enough light through the place to enable him to choose his steps carefully and makes his way through the crumbling ruins. The light reveals ancient columns of stone that barely seem capable of holding up the weight of time's relentless passage.

The closer Loki comes to the eerie red glow, the more he's convinced he has finally found his prize. The Aether is suspended in the middle of a great column. Bor's trap is clever but imperfect, for the Aether has gnawed its way out of the stone. It would seem the entire Asgardian royal family, past and present, takes pleasure in the hiding and hoarding of war relics—among other things.

"Oh, yes, it's quite all right if grandfather obliterates an entire race and brings a realm to ruin," Loki says to the darkness. "Norns forbid I do it. An utter disgrace to the family, I am."

With a bitter smirk, Loki keeps his distance as he studies the Aether. It stretches and dances for him, and he marvels at its unexpected playfulness. He calls upon the empty vessel, which materializes between his hands. He whispers a spell to activate the wards, and the gloves he has donned protect his skin from being burned by the sudden pulse of energy. Keeping his eyes on the Aether, Loki sets the vessel down on the ground and slowly backs away.

Each step of retreat is difficult, for the Aether is beauty itself. It is not the first time Loki has wondered if its transformative properties could somehow be utilized to defeat the witch. Though he has not lost sight of his goal—to see that Thor and Frigga both live on after Loki is gone—it has grown increasingly difficult not to want to save his own life as well. All he has to do is kick the vessel aside and offer up his own body instead. The things he could do with that power to protect his own interests are unimaginably tempting—but what if he fails? Thor and Frigga would both die, and it would all be for nothing. No temptation is worth risking that, and so he casts the very idea out of his mind.

Loki whispers words of protection over himself. Closing his eyes briefly, he exhales, and a faint hint of his essence spills out before his lips. He sends it forth toward the vessel, where it settles and waits for its prey. A trap set to attract the Aether.

The Aether seems to sigh in relief before it pours out of the stone pillar like the slow cascade of a waterfall. The two parts of the column it was trapped between slam together with a deafening boom. Dust and bits of rock rain down on Loki's shoulders.

"In you go," he says, taking another step back as the Aether draws near. "There's a good girl."

But the Aether does not pause at the vessel. The spells latch onto it as expected, but only the tail end is caught while the rest of the Aether seems to grow and stretch in defiance. The entire cavern soon glows red with its mounting power.

Loki continues to move backwards, his steps more urgent. "Now, now. Let's have none of that. I am your master—not the other way around."

He has only enough time to fortify his protection spell before the Aether rears around and engulfs him. Loki's world turns crimson red. He is driven to his hands and knees with a cry of alarm, but the spell holds. The Aether does not take defeat lightly, and soon Loki's muscles and bones begin to strain under the immense pressure. It takes every bit of his strength to push back and hold it there—but while he begins to feel the effects of fatigue, the Aether's power only seems to grow. He cries out as the smallest crack forms in his protection spell, and his mind begins to race for a solution.

He is trapped. He will lose this fight. There is no way out.

But all at once, the pressure vanishes. He hears a voice, familiar and full of rage, and the Aether's crimson darkness soon retreats and slinks back. Loki's arms give out from underneath him, and he hits the ground, gasping his relief into the dirt for a few moments before he gathers together enough wits to roll onto his side. He looks up and freezes in dismay.

Odin looms tall before him. He faces away from Loki, Gungnir held high and humming with energy as Odin uses it to drive the Aether back.

"All-Father," Loki gasps, too stunned to move.

With a sharp cry of effort, Odin forces the Aether into the vessel, and the device closes and locks into place. And yet Loki feels no relief. How has Odin found him?

It is then that Loki remembers the phantom hand on his shoulder. Not the witch at all—but Odin's tracking spell. With that kind of connection established, he had only to latch onto it to follow Loki whenever he pleased. How many journeys to Svartalfheim had Loki made with Odin hovering silently behind him, waiting and watching to see what his son was up to?

Odin turns slowly, fury burning in his eye as he glares down at his son. He grips Gungnir so tightly that his fingers are white and bloodless. "You have approximately one second to begin explaining yourself."

But Loki can only stare. He has not seen the All-Father this angry since he banished Thor to Midgard, though this is perhaps a few degrees worse. Loki's one second of grace is soon spent, and then Odin begins to scream.

"Are you mad?" he roars. Loki winces at the volume. "What were you thinking, attempting to control a force like that on your own? Do you have any notion of what you're dealing with?"

As Odin marches forward, Loki is instantly inspired to rise from the ground. He stumbles backwards, tripping on a rock as he raises his hands in submission. While he might possess the physical strength to overpower the aging All-Father, Loki knows he cannot win against Gungnir.

"What am I saying?" Odin bites out. "This is you. Of course, you know what it is. So tell me, Loki—what did you plan to do with the Aether once you had it, aside from the spectacular underestimation of its power?"

"I mean to destroy it," Loki says, finding his voice at last.

"Lie to me again," Odin says, "and it will not go well for you."

Loki pales and straightens his spine—overcompensation to hide his distress. "Very well. I mean to contain it." His eyes dart to the vessel. "Obviously."

"For what purpose?"

"I haven't planned that far ahead yet."

Which is a lie, and Odin seems to sense it. He strikes Gungnir's base on the ground once, and Loki is suddenly unable to move, paralyzed by the might of his father's spear. He can still speak, however, though the words are difficult to get out. "To hide it!" Loki gasps. "I planned to hide it."

Odin grips Loki by one shoulder and guides him until his back slams hard into a column. The old king holds Gungnir near Loki's face, which Odin searches as if trying to see straight into his son's mind. He looks frustrated and weary. "Sometimes I wonder if you really are who you appear to be," Odin says. "I swear on my throne, if there is anyone else in there, staring at me through my son's eyes, I will burn you out of his body and cast you into torment and despair. Have I made myself clear?"

Loki pleads with his eyes, for he cannot push Odin away with anything else. "Father, you are not making sense. I am your son, and this is not what it looks like. I am trying to get rid of the Aether. It is dangerous."

Odin remains unmoved. His hand grips Loki's chin and forces it upward so that he can better glare down into his son's frightened eyes. Gungnir vibrates with purpose, and Loki feels a foreign pull on his mind that hurts. He realizes Odin distrusts his words so much that he has decided to force his way into Loki's head to take a look around for himself. This is dark magic—the kind Odin has advised Loki against since his early days of his youth.

Panic rises in his throat, for Odin cannot know about the witch. Loki will lose everything. He fights against the paralysis and fails. "Father, please!" he begs.

The pain lasts only a handful of seconds before it relents, leaving Loki wide-eyed, dazed, and gasping for every breath. He leans his back against the column, his borrowed heart throbbing like someone has driven a knife into it, then given it a cruel twist. The witch is displeased with the intrusion.

When Odin finally releases Loki's chin and steps back, some of the anger is gone from his expression, replaced instead with something else. He is still suspicious but troubled—and underneath it, there is even a hint of remorse. Whatever Odin has seen of Loki's mind has seemingly not revealed anything too ominous, and the relief Loki feels as the paralysis begins to leak out of his limbs is a wonderful thing indeed.

"It appears you are who you say," Odin murmurs thoughtfully. "I am sorry if I hurt you, Loki, but it was to ensure that there was not anyone else that had gained control. You do not act like yourself at times. I find it interesting that you are only now willing to call yourself my son. You must truly be into mischief if you're that desperate."

"You are mad," Loki bites out as he tries to rub feeling back into his arms.

"No," Odin says. "I am simply tired of playing guessing games with you. Haven't you realized by now that I see further than you've ever been willing to look? Gather yourself together for the journey home. We are leaving." Stretching an arm backwards, Odin summons the Aether to himself.

Loki struggles to swallow, his eyes darting to the vessel that Odin tucks beneath one arm. "That cannot go to Asgard."

"Oh, and why not?" Odin asks. "If you're attempting to do good here, my son, then by all means, speak up and explain it to me."

Loki looks around helplessly, not knowing what to do. He weighs his options in silence. If he tells the All-Father the truth, it will bring about disaster. Per the witch's rules, time would revert—and both Frigga and Thor are dead in that future. But to keep silent and allow the Aether into Asgard will result in a disaster of another kind. Malekith will be drawn to it, and there are no assurances as to what the result of his attack will be. They could all die this time around.

"Very well, Loki," Odin says when his son will not speak. "Then the Aether will go to the very place you do not want it to and will remain there until you are willing to voice your concerns. As you might have guessed by now, I have been watching you. That all-too-convenient encounter with the Tesseract was enough to prove that you know more than you let on. Did you really think I would fail to notice how perfectly your little theory worked itself out? Now you've gone after the Casket and two Infinity Gems. What's next, my boy—the Infinity Gauntlet?"

Loki's eyes widen as he realizes just how much his secretive actions have caused Odin to doubt his intentions. For once in his life, none of it is true. "It's not like that. You have misunderstood."

"Come," Odin says. "We will speak more on this subject at home."

Loki shakes his head, unwilling to move an inch. "The Aether cannot go to Asgard."

Grinding his teeth in fury, Odin slams Gungnir into the ground. The weakness in the walls between the realms rips open, and an unseen force drags Loki through it. He stumbles forward and clamps his eyes shut as a sudden blinding light attacks his senses. Eerie familiarity washes over him. The acrid smell. The hum of magical energy. The unforgiving glare of the lights. All of it, he knows well.

By the time Loki opens his eyes, he has already discerned that the All-Father has transported them straight into a cell in the Asgardian dungeons. Odin calmly steps past the open threshold and summons an energy barrier to settle into place and lock his son inside.

Dread grips Loki hard. "No. Father, no. You cannot do this."

"I can and I will," Odin says. "Until you're willing to sit down with me and finally explain what is going on, you will remain in this cell. Now then, do you have anything you wish to say to me before I leave you here with only your regrets for company?"

The level of Loki's gaze drops as he wracks his brain for something he can offer Odin to appease his suspicions. He cannot stay in the dungeons. Not only will it drive him mad with torment, but he is unable to prevent attack on Asgard from here. "I have not been collecting these items of power for myself," Loki says, stammering over the words in his rush to get them out. "I left the Tesseract on Midgard, and they were able to use it to protect themselves. I wanted the Casket only to aid in the construction of the vessel to contain the Aether. I copied the wards. That is the truth."

"Perhaps," Odin says, "though I think still not the complete truth. You are frightened. More so than I've ever seen—except perhaps once. Why do you want the Aether, my son? Tell me what inspires this fear so that I can help you." Odin's tone is calmer and more controlled than before. His words hold an unexpectedly gentle affection. It is the voice of Loki's father—not that of his king.

But Loki's mind rejects the affection because he recognizes that it's only manipulation in disguise. Several things inspire his fear, but Odin is fixated on the Aether for the moment. Loki decides to limit his explanation to that subject alone, and hope Odin is satisfied. "The approaching Convergence," Loki says. "I worried the Aether was in danger because of how it was used the last time the Convergence took place."

"That was five thousand years ago," Odin points out. "Moreover, the dark elves are dead and gone. Strange that you would worry about such an unlikely thing. Why did you not come to me with this before?"

"After the way you reacted to my theories on the Tesseract, why would I bring another suspicion to you?" Loki says. "You cannot keep the Aether in Asgard. Leave me in this cell if you desire, but take it far away. It is dangerous. Others might be drawn to it and come to claim it."

"Might come or will come?" Odin says. "How do you know these things, Loki?"

Loki draws back, looking distinctly uncomfortable. Sometimes it startles him how far Odin's mental leaps can stretch. "I am a scholar. I study and keep my eyes open."

"I am a scholar as well and recognize that the things you know cannot be traced to mere research. You would not be this fearful if it is simply a theory. My son, let me help you. Whatever this burden is, you need not carry it on your own."

Loki's lips press together in an effort to keep himself from speaking out. There is a long, agonizing moment where he simply wants to confess everything. He is so tired of feeling alone with this burden, and there is a traitorous part of him that will forever look to Odin as his father. Is it so wrong to want to seek help?

His borrowed heart throbs in reply. A warning from the witch to remember himself.

And it's not as if Loki hasn't already learned this lesson. Twice. Despite what Odin says, he will not come to his son's aid.

Loki clutches at his chest, pulling at the fabric of his tunic as if it might help relieve the pain. He looks around the cell and realizes it will again be his home for a time. "I cannot explain to the extent you will no doubt require of me," he mutters.

Odin glances down at Loki's hand as it worries over his heart. "Cannot or will not?"

"Both," Loki snaps. "They're the same thing, are they not?"

"You know very well they aren't," Odin says. "If you cannot speak, even to save yourself from this cell, then there's seemingly an important reason to maintain your silence. You once had a very healthy sense of self-preservation, though I often worry something has compromised that. It is my responsibility as your father to determine what you fear and handle it accordingly, particularly if you are unable to do so yourself. When I accepted the role of your parent, I did not take it as lightly as you seem to think."

Loki snorts and turns away, beginning to pace in an effort to escape unwelcome thoughts.

"Despite how much you've come to hate me, I consider myself responsible for your safety and well being whether you like it or not," Odin says, watching his son's progression as he walks the length of the cell and back again. "For the last two years, I have watched you behave as if there is an axe hanging over your head. You have undergone a personality change and have become depressed, reclusive, and even hostile at times. You sneak around at all hours of the night and keep secrets that weigh on your heart. I do not accept that it is merely the truth of your heritage that has caused this change in you. I suspect there are people threatening you that I do not know about, and I tire of worrying about the dread I see in your eyes. The time has come for me to force your hand. At least locked away in this cell, I know nothing can harm you."

Loki barks out a bitter laugh, for Odin's words grow increasingly exasperating by the second. "You are indeed the chief of liars. You pretend to care but only lock me up in here to forget about me. Typical. I should have guessed this would happen sooner or later, knowing the true workings of your mind."

"You have called me a hypocrite more than once in the past, and now you label me an outright liar," Odin says. "Do you really doubt my love for you that deeply? I know I am hard on you, my son, but there is a universe of difference between tough love and abandoning one's child. Hate me as much as you like, but I promise you, Loki—I will never choose the latter."

"Oh, just you wait," Loki says with a grin. He spreads his fingers with a flourish as if he has a magic trick in store. "I know I'm excited for the punch-line. How about you?"

Odin sighs and turns to leave, Gungnir in one hand and the vessel in the other.

Loki strains to see around the barrier in order to watch Odin's departure. "Where are you taking the Aether?" he calls out.

"To the vault," Odin replies over his shoulder. "I certainly hope that will make you nice and furious. Send one of the guards for me when you are ready to have our little chat."

Silence soon falls. Once it sinks in that he is truly alone, Loki rips off his gloves and punches the wall until his knuckles are left ravaged and bleeding.

To be continued

A/N – Loki's had it too easy. Time to make him sweat. :) Just wanted to say how much I appreciate each review/kudos on this story. Your kind words and the very fact that you're even reading this seriously mean the world to me. Thank you for letting me share the Loki feels with you, bloody knuckles and all. <3 More to come soon.

Chapter Text

A/N – I know I said there wouldn't be a flashback scene, but then I remembered something that I haven't shared with you yet and have only alluded to thus far. It's not much, and you'll have to excuse the interruption in the conversation with the witch. Also, the chapters continue to break in unexpected places, so I'm going to stop saying how many I expect there to be until the end. At least you have an idea of the ballpark figure.

In summary: I'm a dirty liar, and you shouldn't listen to anything I say.

Chapter 21

"There was a body," Loki says in the guard's voice.

It's difficult not to follow the words up with a laugh. He really should have stayed away from Asgard, particularly so soon after escaping eternal incarceration, Thor's idiocy, and a near-fatal attempt on his life. But the last time others thought Loki died, he didn't have the chance to see how the All-Father reacted. Thor had alluded to a time of mourning, but Loki isn't certain he believes it. He remembers only Odin's look of guarded silence as he fell into the Void.

Loki is here merely because he is curious. That is all. No other reason.

Well. Perhaps one.

There is a part of him that needs to know if it's true that Odin is as indifferent to him as he has led Loki to believe. He is hungry for a reaction of any kind—good or bad—for anything is better than apathy. He would prefer an outright declaration of hatred to that.

However, the All-Father's face reveals much the same level of unemotional distance as it ever has. "Loki," he guesses.

Loki's eyes flicker to the All-Father's face. He waits for more, but Odin does not offer it. Instead, he rises from his throne and staggers down the steps, using Gungnir like a staff to steady him. Without another word, he wanders out of the throne room and down a lonely corridor.

Loki wavers in place where he stands, uncertain whether or not he should follow. Something tugs urgently at his heart, though he is hesitant to put a name to the emotion. "My king?" he calls out.

A clatter sounds up ahead. Metal hitting stone. Loki rushes forward before he can stop himself, and soon his shadow falls over the All-Father, who has collapsed onto the ground, his eyelid drifting shut as he succumbs to the Odinsleep.

Gungnir glitters an inch away from his reaching fingertips.

Loki is left alone in his cell for the remainder of the night and well into the next day. The solitude grates at him. He wants action, violence, resolution—but all he is allowed is time alone with his frustrations.

The dungeons are quieter than he remembers. Though still surrounded by the typical array of prisoners, his collection of "friends" is limited since the Marauders have not brought havoc to the realms in this time-stream. It is yet another positive effect of Loki's fall back into time, though he has still ended up in much the same situation as before. This does not surprise him, for he knows this cell is truly about Odin's desire to discard and forget about his insubordinate son—and for Loki to feel each and every second of that neglect in a very purposeful and tangible way.

Having lost all sense of decorum along with his calm, Loki sits on the floor with his back against the wall. He chews on his thumbnail, and his mind races away behind his unblinking eyes. Though he tries to think up a solution, he has no idea how much time he has. This is not a perfect mirror image of the past, and so he cannot expect things to go the same way. He might be able to lie his way out of this cell, but deceptions take time to construct—particularly if he wants the All-Father to buy into them. Even if Loki had the time to concoct such a thing, that would require someone to lie to, but he has had no visitors.

With the unrelenting glare of the lights, it is difficult to tell how much time has passed since his arrival, but he has learned to do so by meals and the changing shifts of the guards. Roughly eighteen hours later, Thor comes down the dungeon steps and approaches Loki's cell. He is without his weapon and wears little in the way of expression.

Loki is on his feet in an instant and draws as close to the energy barrier as he can without touching it. "Finally," he snaps. "Where have you been?"

Thor does not appear impressed by his brother's mood. "You have been in here less than a day. Calm yourself. I tried to see you last night, but father forbade it."

"Since when has that stopped you?" Loki says.

Thor's jaw tightens and then unclenches. "I am here now. Loki, what is going on? Father said you went after something dangerous alone, and it nearly overpowered you. Why did you not come to me?"

Loki ignores the question. "Will you ask mother to come see me? I thought perhaps she would already, but she has not appeared."

"Did you hear what I said?" Thor asks. "Father has forbidden it. You are lucky that I made it down here. Besides, who do you think sent me to see you? The queen wishes me to say it is high time you started being honest with your family."

Loki presses his palms into his eyes. "This cannot be happening. Brother, you have to get me out of here. It is of the utmost importance."

"Tell me why first. Let me help you, Loki."

With a blur of movement, Loki's already injured fist slams against the energy barrier. His knuckles burn and tingle afterward, as though they've had an encounter with Mjolnir's lightning. The sensation travels up his arm and pulls out a deep ache. "You can help by letting me out," he says. "I cannot believe, after all we've been through, that we are even having this argument. What happened to all that talk about how we are brothers, and how you would never forsake that bond? And yet you let him lock me up in here when I have committed no crime."

Thor's expression does not change as he looks down at the wounds on Loki's knuckles. "I didn't say I wouldn't let you out. I only want to know the reason why I'm risking treason for you. What is it you refuse to tell the All-Father? I am your brother. You can tell me."

"Fine," Loki bites out. "How's this for a reason? If you don't help me get the Aether out of Asgard, then our mother will die."

The statement hangs in the air between them. Loki is taking a significant risk here. He would not dare say such a thing to Odin, who would only ask more and more questions to figure out how and why Loki suspects such a thing might happen. But Thor, while clever in his own way, does not think as rapidly. Thor followed Loki willingly to Midgard and asked few questions about their purpose there. There is no reason to think he would hesitate to listen to Loki now, particularly when his past requests have paid off in such a beneficial way.

But Thor only chuckles—a hard, humorless laugh that sounds off coming from someone who is normally so warm. "Loki, that is ridiculous. There is no way you could know that. Tell me what you're really up to."

Loki's shoulders slump. "I just did," he whispers, taking a step backwards.

"You expect me to believe you can see the future?" Thor laughs again. "You've been talking to the fortune-tellers in the streets. I thought you outgrew that when you were a boy."

As Loki stares at Thor, a feeling of dread spreads through him like ice. "You are not my brother."

Thor narrows his eyes. "Now why would you say something like that?"

"He wouldn't laugh," Loki says. "Thor would question me, but he wouldn't mock. He says I can tell him anything, and he has proven that to me more than once. Off with the disguise, All-Father. It will not work on me a second time."

With a flicker of green light, the glamour falls away from Thor's form, and there left standing in his place is the All-Father, Gungnir in his hand. "So tell me, my son," Odin says, "was the bit about your mother dying merely a ploy to gain Thor's unwavering support, or do you actually expect her death to happen?"

Loki burns with fury. It is very lucky for the All-Father that there is an energy barrier separating them. "Are you really willing to risk your queen's life to find out? Knowing your callousness, the answer is likely yes."

"Well, I rather thought to ask the queen for her opinion on the matter," Odin says. "To ignore your warnings is obviously dangerous, but how else am I to lure out that danger in order to eliminate it? I am not your only parent, nor the only one who worries for you. And so I am relatively certain I know what your mother's answer will be. Shall I go ask for her decision now, or do you have more to share before I leave you here again?"

Loki rakes his fingers back through his hair. Though he is livid with the All-Father, lashing out at him won't solve anything. He needs to somehow tell Odin enough to inspire him to take these warnings seriously. As much as Odin claims he's trying to draw out the danger, he is still only watching Loki to see how he reacts. This is a game to him. Not reality. He does not understand or appreciate the extent of the threat.

Loki had felt no warning in his borrowed heart when he'd told the disguised Odin about Frigga's potential death. Strange, that. Loki tries to remember exactly what the witch had explained to him when she'd laid out the rules before his fall back into time. She had specifically warned Loki not to tell anyone about their bargain. But how had she replied to Odin when he asked what would happen if someone figured it out?

"It will not matter," Loki says, remembering her words at last.

"What was that?" Odin asks.

Loki looks up, his eyes wide and thoughtful. "There is something I cannot tell you. Something I have been hiding, and as you have already ascertained, there is a very important reason why I must keep my silence. But I do not think it is against the rules for you to guess."

"Rules?" Odin echoes.

Pain. A sharp jab in the heart that steals Loki's breath away.

That was the wrong word to use. Stating that there are rules implies there is a rule-maker. It is quickly apparent that Loki must not speak of the witch—not even to hint at her presence. But this experiment has given him an idea. As long as he doesn't answer Odin's questions about how he knows, he can state his knowledge of the future. Loki doesn't care if he has to stay imprisoned in this cell until his time is fully up. The witch is powerful enough to claim him from anywhere. But at least his mother and all of Asgard might be spared an attack if he speaks out.

Odin's eye drifts downward to where Loki rubs at his chest in discomfort. "I am listening, my son. Take your time, and choose your words carefully. It would appear there are consequences if you say too much."

"I have already told you everything you need to know," Loki says. "The Aether must leave Asgard. The queen's life depends on it. If you fail to do as I say, Asgard will be attacked. And yes, All-Father, we will be attacked. Not may. Will. Do not ask me how I know this, for you will only waste your breath."

Loki empties his lungs once he has finished speaking. It is a tremendous relief to get that off his chest. He has potentially invited serious trouble upon himself by doing so, but he doesn't care. He has only weeks left before he must forfeit his future to the witch. He can keep his mouth shut about her until then, regardless of how much pressure the All-Father puts on him. Once Frigga and Thor are safe from Malekith's plans for the Aether, Loki has nothing else to lose, but he cannot stand by and let disaster fall when he has the means to stop it.

Odin's lips press together as he considers his son's bold claims. "Attacked by whom? You have previously implied the events that took place during the last Convergence would be repeated."

Loki feels another surge of relief as he nods. Odin has caught on and has asked the right kind of question. Now they can get somewhere, assuming the All-Father takes his claims seriously. "They will attack by air," Loki says. "You should fortify the shields but do not rely solely on them. Keep the throne room empty and close off the Bifrost to newcomers so that enemies cannot slip inside."

"The shields and the throne room I can manage, but the Bifrost I will not close," Odin says. "I agree not to press you for more information on how you've come across your foresight of this attack, but I will say I've begun to fear someone has attempted to coerce you into helping them attain the Infinity Gems. I do not see how you would know of such a plot unless you yourself have been in the company of this enemy. And yet, it seems as though your heart is in the right place. Your actions have directly led to the destruction of a legion of Chitauri war vessels, and now you advise me to ready Asgard for battle. I want to know who leads this force. Perhaps they seek retribution on you in repayment for the blow you dealt them on Midgard. I think they must have also threatened your mother's life, which is why you fear her death. Whoever it is you refuse to name, they have earned themselves a new enemy. I will speak with your mother and will ensure her safety. If your warning proves sound, then you have given us a distinct advantage. Asgard is strong, and whatever is coming, we will meet it head on. And so I bid this enemy welcome, by the Bifrost or by air. I shall stand in wait, ready to deal with them as I see fit. They should mind where they tread."

Tears sting Loki's eyes. It is an unexpected swell of emotion—traitorous in nature, for Loki neither believes nor trusts the All-Father. And yet, it is so comforting to be held firm in his gaze. The hope his words weave is intoxicating. Odin has his assumptions wrong, of course, in his reasoning that Loki's foresight of the future is due to the wrong kind of associations. Loki knows he should see this as a positive thing, that Odin still does not suspect his bargain with the witch—but at the same time, Loki feels a sort of helplessness. He can save everyone else but himself. The witch has laid her trap for him well.

"Thank you, father," Loki says quietly. "Though I must tell you that you do not realize what you're playing with. This could very well result in disaster."

"Have you so little faith in your own people?"

Loki's posture stiffens. "They are not my people, if you remember."

"Then why are you trying to protect them?" Odin says. "I have tried my hardest to find a selfish motive here, but I cannot seem to locate it."

"Perhaps if Asgard prepares for battle, there is a chance," Loki admits. "If you will not remove the Aether from this realm, then at least free me from this cell. I have cooperated and have been as honest with you as I am able. I can help."

"I'm sure you could," Odin says. "But you won't—not in the way you would like me to think. I know you, Loki. If I release you, you will attempt to steal the Aether and draw whatever it is you fear away from Asgard and your mother. I cannot let you do that. I will go speak with the queen now and, since you have cooperated, allow her to come see you afterward. Don't go anywhere." With an ironic chuckle, Odin turns to leave.

The choking emotion is still wedged in Loki's throat. He is frustrated beyond measure that Odin will not free him but also grateful for the promise of his father's protection. If only it weren't a lie. His borrowed heart doesn't know whether to hope or give in to despair.

Fury is the easiest option by far. "I hate you, old man!" Loki calls after him. "Do you hear me?"

Odin does not offer a reply as he ascends the steps of the dungeons, and Loki is left to wonder if he imagined the slight falter in the king's normally confident stride.

It's not until the next morning that Frigga appears. She wears a gown of turquoise silk and a teasing smile. "I assume you will want me to prove my identity," she says. "Ask me anything you like, my love. Something only you and I would have shared in alone."

Loki sighs as he pushes away from the wall. "No need. In three sentences, you have demonstrated respect, regard, and affection. All of these things indicate you are not the All-Father in disguise. You shouldn't be down here in the dungeons in person, though I am always happy to see you."

"I would have come earlier," Frigga says, "but your father has been in quite the mood. He even blocked me from sending a projection yesterday, and so I am very pleased you chose to speak more freely with him."

Loki flinches. Though he tries to hold her gaze, he instead finds himself very distracted by her words, and his thoughts obscure his vision as effectively as if they were tangible objects. "I-I didn't realize the All-Father could block you in such a way."

Which implies Odin hadn't blocked Frigga in the other time-stream in spite of the harsh sentence he had laid out, declaring Loki would never again see his mother.

Frigga shrugs and folds her hands together before her. "It is not often he resorts to such things. He is understandably worried about you. There was a meeting last night, you know. Your father gathered together Heimdall, Sif, the Warriors Three, your brother, and myself, and we all compared notes. Some interesting theories arose."

"Let me guess," Loki says. "That I'm mad?"

Frigga's serene expression does not falter. "You are always so anxious to think people believe the worst of you. The general consensus is that while we don't understand, we will not stand down. We are all in agreement with your father. Whatever you fear is coming for Asgard, we will face it head on."

Loki's hands clench into fists. "That is beyond foolish."

"We are your family," Frigga says, her brows raised. "That is love."

The level of his chin drops. He doesn't know what to say. After everything he has done and every horrible thing he is inside, he does not deserve such love or loyalty anymore than he deserves to call this beautiful woman his mother.

He moves closer and speaks quietly. "Mother, if I asked you to leave Asgard, would you?"

One side of her mouth pulls into a knowing smile. "Not a chance."

Though that is far from the answer he wants to hear, his eyes fill up with fierce affection. "Brave, stubborn woman."

"You adore me," she says with a wink.

Loki's mouth twitches as he strives to suppress a smile of his own. "Relentlessly."

"I will not be leaving Asgard," Frigga says. "Not while you worry so, and certainly not while my child is locked up in a cell. Your father spoke to me of the threats made on my life, but I would gladly give that up to see you safe—as would he."

Loki's bitter laugh rings out before he remembers to check it. "Pardon my rudeness. It is not you I doubt."

"Why is it you can forgive my trespasses against you but not his?" Frigga asks.

Sadness shines in her eyes. Loki is careful not to look at it. "I don't trust him. He has manipulated me since I was an infant. He plays with us all like chess pieces."

Frigga takes in a slow breath as she chooses how best to phrase her response. "It is true you are not the only trickster in the family, nor the only clever one. You take after your father more than you realize, and like you, he is not always perceptive about himself or how others view him and his actions. But I do think I know your father rather well, having been married to him for several thousand years. My darling, I will never lie to you again—so believe me when I tell you that I know without a shadow of doubt that your father loves you."

Loki steps back from the barrier and turns away. Why is she doing this to him? Coming from anyone but her, he could laugh off those last two words. Instead, they drive a deep crack into his resolve to forever despise the All-Father. It's suddenly difficult to remember the times Odin has let Loki fall without an ounce of remorse. Instead, he reflects on the feel of his father's hand holding his when he was a boy, and how safe and special that simple gesture made him feel. Or the way Odin reacted to the news of his son's demise on Svartalfheim, or how he prevented Loki from leaping to his death during the confrontation about the truth of his heritage, after which Odin spent the night stroking his son's hair and wondering where he went wrong in raising him.

Odin has not always let him fall.

This is dangerous. So very dangerous. If he permits himself to trust Odin again, he will only be shattered all the worse later on. The witch might be waiting to kill him, but Odin is the only one truly capable of destroying Loki. And so he hangs his head and fortifies the shield around his heart. "I'm sure he's led you to believe that. He is talented at deception."

Frigga watches her son with worry growing in her eyes. "Loki, he really thinks you hate him."

"Well, that's likely because I do."

"I know you better than that. While it is true anger lingers in your heart, you love your father just as much as he loves you."

Loki snorts. "I would say that's an accurate statement." Though his words are spoken without feeling, even he doubts the sincerity behind them. In truth, he is shaken.

"You know," Frigga says, "I remember a time not very long after you found out about the All-Father's betrayal when you fought to save his life. Did you forget? You pointed the Bifrost at the land of your birth and faced down the king of a realm, your birthfather, in order to protect your adoptive father's life. If you look deep in your heart, you might be surprised how great your love for him is. It's nothing to be ashamed of, Loki. In fact, I would say it's quite admirable."

Loki very studiously keeps his eyes fixated anywhere else but on her face. "I wish I didn't care," he mutters. "Masochism at its finest."

"Caring is not the easy way out," Frigga agrees. "But it is the brave way forward. Though he does not often let on, your father is very grieved over the state of your relationship. We've had many talks about his struggles with communicating with you. He has opened up more lately, has he not? That is my influence and his desire to try. He reacts to things that hurt him much the same way you do—by pushing them away. The fact that he's still hanging onto you when he's hurting this badly is very telling. You have already admitted you care for your father. Now you just need to accept the possibility that he might care for you in return. Just the possibility, mind you. Let him prove the rest."

"That requires I have hope," Loki points out. "A dangerous thing, that—and hard to come by. I thank you for your words of wisdom, mother. I promise I will give them due consideration. Now, you should let me out of this cell so that I can bestow upon your hand a proper kiss of appreciation."

Frigga makes a humming sound in her throat as she smiles. "You little charmer, you. I will pressure you no more about your father, but I hope we can talk more soon and get to the root of your hurts. In the meantime, I will bring you some of your belongings to make your cell more comfortable. Knowing your legendary stubbornness, as well as that belonging to your father, I fear you might be here for some time."

Loki opens his mouth to reply, but a sudden movement pulls his attention away. Five guards come to stand in a half-circle behind his mother, facing outward and away from her with weapons held in their hands.

"Forgive the intrusion, my queen," the captain says with a bow. "We have an incoming prisoner. Just an extra measure of precaution."

The base of Loki's spine tingles. "Escort the queen from the dungeons at once."

"Don't be ridiculous," Frigga says as she adjusts the fabric of her sleeve. "I am perfectly safe. Truth be told, you prisoners should be more afraid of me than the Einherjar."

A quiet rumble of laughter goes through the guards at her words, but they quickly fall silent in concentration as a prisoner is led down the dungeon steps. Loki's breath shivers out and does not return as he recognizes a disguised Algrim. The monster meets Loki's eyes and passes mere inches behind Frigga on his way to his cell.

"This cannot be happening," Loki whispers.

Particularly so soon. Malekith and the dark elves must have awoken when Loki claimed the Aether, whereas Jane had found it later, closer to the Convergence. Loki thought he had more time than this, and yet it seems he has triggered an early countdown to the attack on Asgard. The palace is in immediate danger. If Malekith does not deviate from his original plan, then he will crash a ship right into the throne room. Loki cannot do anything to intervene from his cell but hope the All-Father has paid heed to his warnings.

Loki looks at Frigga and says in a low voice, "You need to get out of here. Go tell the All-Father the moment of attack is at hand. Stay out of the throne room, and hide somewhere safe."

Frigga's smile melts away into seriousness. She turns to glance at Algrim as he is guided into the cell. "You are frightening me, Loki. Who is that?"

"I will explain later," Loki says. "Please go now. If something happens to you, I will never forgive myself."

Frigga seems to deliberate for a moment before she reaches out to the control panel of Loki's cell and pushes the button that draws back the energy barrier. Loki realizes she has set him free, but he doesn't dare move, for the guards immediately rear around at him. Their faces are conflicted, for they know their prince and former king has committed no crime. They seem relieved when Loki lifts his hands in surrender.

"I must ask you to stand down and allow the prince to come out of his cell," Frigga says. "Loki is imprisoned only until he divulges information. The All-Father instructed me to release him if he spoke the truth on a certain matter, which he has now done. Moreover, there is suspicion of an impending attack on Asgard, and he will need to defend himself. This is an emergency, and I advise you all to ready your weapons and obey your prince's commands."

The guards shift uncertainly and exchange glances. Faced with anyone but their beloved queen making claims of imminent battle, they likely would have protested at once.

"I will deal with the All-Father," Frigga assures the captain. "You have my word." She holds out her hand to Loki. "And I'll have that kiss of appreciation now."

Loki steps out of his cell and takes up her hand at once. After bestowing a warm kiss on the back of it, he says, "Mother, please make haste." His eyes move to the captain, addressing him next. "Send two of your men with her. They should not allow her to leave their sight."

Before she departs, Frigga gives Loki the sort of expression only she is capable of mastering—filled with equal measures of love, concern, pride, and a fierce command to win whatever battle he thinks is coming. Loki watches her for as long as he can manage as she ascends the dungeon steps with two guards following at her heels. It is only when she is lost from sight that he returns his consideration back to Algrim's cell.

The monster has noticed the attention he has received. He considers Loki's wary countenance and soon seems to comprehend he is under suspicion. But Algrim's confidence only grows as he digs a bloody stone out of a wound in his side.

Loki swears under his breath. He did not previously witness Algrim's transformation into one of the Kursed in the other time-stream, for the vantage from his cell was poor. While admittedly fascinating, now is not the time for study. "Get behind me," Loki commands the remaining guards. He pushes ahead of them when they don't move fast enough.

"Prince Loki," the captain says. "He is only a prisoner brought in after a scuffle at an outpost, and he is properly detained. Would you prefer we move him to a higher security cell?"

Loki ignores him, for Algrim has crushed the stone in his hand. Flames erupt beneath his skin at once, and as it spreads through his body, black smoke fills up his cell like a volcanic eruption. The sharp smell of sulfur and burning flesh permeates the air. As Algrim's bulk increases in size, his horns calcify and curl into their cruel, menacing shape. He lets out a gut-wrenching roar that sends a shockwave of disbelief through the guards.

Loki is the only one who doesn't flinch. He calls upon his armor, holding out his arms as the leather and metal materializes and takes form on his body.

"Do you have a weapon?" the captain asks.

Loki smiles, his eyes fixed on his target like a lion honing in on its prey. Algrim is not the only one in possession of horns. The weight of Loki's golden helmet makes him feel dangerous and invincible. "Indeed I do," he says.

Footfalls sound on the dungeon steps behind them, and Loki turns to see Thor hurry in with Mjolnir held firmly in his grasp. The guards shift with uncertainty once again, for they recognize the grim look of concentration on the crown prince's face. They have seen it in battle before. "Father sent me for you," Thor says. "He received your warning from our mother and has issued the alarm. Come. We must aid the soldiers." As Algrim's fist slams against the energy barrier, Thor's gaze moves past his brother to stare at the monster in astonishment. "What is that?"

Loki feels something akin to gratitude that Odin has taken his warnings seriously. There was once a time in Loki's life when no one trusted a word he said, and he certainly did not expect such support to ever come from the All-Father. But now is not the time to reflect upon such things. "A dark elf," Loki replies. "He is one of the Kursed."

"Loki, what is going on?" Thor says as he comes up alongside his brother. "I thought the dark elves were extinct."

"Seemingly not," Loki says. "Prepare yourself."

Algrim continues to beat his way to freedom, each blow like a battering ram, and the energy barrier soon begins to bend and give way under the pressure. "That is impossible," the captain says. "Nothing can penetrate that barrier."

But as if to prove him wrong, Algrim delivers a final strike that dissolves the last thing protecting Asgard from his wrath. Smoke billows into the dungeon corridor as he steps out and faces them.

"All of you, stay behind me," Loki shouts.

Thor spins his hammer in his hands and readies himself for a fight. "It doesn't work that way, little brother."

Loki steps forward and summons the Casket from its secret hiding place. Once it materializes, he grips it at its sides and unleashes its full power directly at Algrim. Winter howls through the dungeons, coating the old stones with ice, extinguishing the fires in the metal pits, and whipping through Loki's hair and clothing like biting shards of glass. He can feel his form shifting as it strives to protect him from what might otherwise kill him.

Though he despises the very idea of his Jotunn form, he grits his teeth and bears the transformation. No one in Asgard except his immediate family and perhaps Heimdall is aware of Loki's true heritage, but they soon will be. He hears the disconcerted cries of the guards behind him but does not hesitate to continue the attack. Watching Algrim slowly become encased in ice is worth the high price of Loki's secret.

He has used this trick on Heimdall before and knows no small amount of ice will do. Though he is not certain this will kill Algrim, it will trap him and buy them time to figure out how to dispose of him for good. Loki only closes off the Casket when he is convinced the monster is rendered sufficiently immobile. Though he wishes to do more, he stops because he recognizes that the Casket's power could bring real harm to the palace. Already, the dungeon walls seem brittle as glass, as if the ice has frozen the stone so completely, that the cold is literally prying the very molecules apart.

Silence falls, interrupted only by the sounds of labored breathing and chattering teeth of the guards. Loki turns to look at them, and their bodies quake with either fear or cold as they stare upon the unfamiliar form of their prince. Since Loki knows he will never be loved, he rather hopes it is fear he sees in their eyes.

"Very well," Thor says to his brother. "I will just stay behind you, then."

The brothers share in a breathless smile of relief. The moment is short-lived, however, for Algrim's body is full of fire. Without warning, he bursts from the icy trap, and the shards go flying, one of them burying itself into Loki's shoulder while another slices through his cheekbone as he turns his face away to protect it. The Casket clatters to the ground and Loki soon follows as he loses his balance. His helmet falls away.

He is no stranger to battle or injury. He knows how to deal with pain as well as how to push it aside in order to focus on the more urgent tasks at hand. But before he can even think about recovering or seeing how Thor or the guards fared the attack, Algrim's seizes hold of the leather strap that crosses Loki's chest and hauls him to his feet. Loki's boots go skidding across the icy ground in an effort to stop his forward momentum, but then his feet lose contact entirely as he is lifted into the air.

As his horrified eyes meet with Algrim's, Loki hears Thor call out his name from somewhere behind him. Loki tries to tell his brother to run, but Algrim's fist slams into his jaw before he can speak. The pain alone is enough to knock the wind out of him, even without the blow. His vision blurs, and his fingers go limp and lose their grip on Algrim's arm. Cries of outrage resound through the dungeons, Thor's loudest of all, but Loki's ringing ears barely register the sound.

As the air fills with Mjolnir's lightning and the ice begins to melt and steam, Loki wonders if perhaps he will escape the witch after all. This is a death of his own choosing, and so he smiles as he returns his focus to Algrim. It is the last thing Loki can do before Algrim throws him without mercy into an icy column.

His head and shoulder connect with it hard enough to break off parts of the frozen stone. As he collapses to the ground, his vision rolls as if someone has sent him hurtling off a cliff. He has only enough time to cough up a mouthful of blood before everything goes painfully black.

To be continued.

A/N – No, Loki isn't dead. Just full of ouches and dizzies. Thank you for reading and for the sweet reviews/kudos. They have really kept me going on this long journey. I am officially calling this thing novel-length, and we are definitely not done. Try not to kill me for the cliffhanger.

Chapter Text

A/N – Guys, please forgive me, but I cannot type "Kurse" and keep a straight face. He is Algrim in this story, and his elven dignity should thank me for it. ;)

Chapter 22

"Well, go on, little princeling." The witch pushes the knife forward. It makes a scratching sound, like nails dragging across the table. "Take it. You must be the one to end your life."

Though Loki feels the weight of Odin's scrutiny, he does not dare reach for the weapon. The All-Father will see that his hands are shaking and judge him for his cowardice. His feigned courage is all he has left. "I thought you would be the one to do it," Loki says, taking particular care to keep his voice steady. "The end result is the same. Why does it matter who delivers the blow?"

"It is true that a sacrifice is powerful regardless of who claims the life," the witch replies. "But self sacrifice—that is a rare substance. It makes my stomach growl just thinking about the things I could do with that kind of power. No, my child—you must take your own life. And after your bargain is granted, you will return here to me when your time is up, and you will do it again. Take a moment to truly understand what I'm asking you to do. Let it sink in, all the way down to your gut." She turns to Odin to explain. "The understanding makes it more difficult, you see—and in turn, the sacrifice gains power. Rash decisions lack a certain something. It's always best to allow as much time as possible to let it all build and fully ripen."

Loki's pulse accelerates as if his heart realizes what its owner means to do to it. He isn't certain why he's suddenly so frightened. It's not as if he's never attempted suicide before, but the witch is right—the impulsive decisions are much easier than this. Before he fell into the Void, he had no time to think about what it meant. He simply let go and was so full of pain that he did not care what happened to him next.

He is still filled with the same pain—and more. But now, faced with certain death, he only feels light-headed. Sick. He reaches out and takes the knife anyway because deep down in the back of his shattered mind, he knows . . . he knows he owes this to his brother. Though he refuses to think about why.

(Oh, I wouldn't worry.)

(You'll figure it out.)

(Goodness, do you think your father suspects?)

Loki shudders and swipes at his right ear as if to brush away something unpleasant. "What if . . . ?" He searches his mind for another question to ask her. Any question. "What if I'm unable to return here at the predetermined time?"

The witch laughs at his attempts to stall. "Then I suggest you find yourself a knife of your own to do yourself in before I come find you. I care not when or where you die, child, so long as you do."

"Loki," Thor says, his tone urgent, frightened. "Brother, open your eyes."

Thor's voice reaches him through the hazy darkness of unconsciousness, but Loki does not want to listen. Everything hurts when he tries. It's not until his brother gives him an insistent shake that Loki awakens with a gasp of pain. His eyes sting when he tries to open them, and Thor's thumbs help him wipe blood away from his eyelids so that he can see.

There is something he needs to do, but Loki can't remember what it is. Cringing at the taste of blood in his mouth, he fights against the dizziness and struggles to roll onto his side. Breathing takes a considerable amount of effort, and he thinks it likely that he has at least one broken rib, though he has no recollection of receiving the injury. He would very much like to vomit, but he pushes the pain aside instead. "What happened?" he asks as he blinks up at his brother.

Thor's face is bloodied as well, and one eye is nearly swollen shut. A fight took place while Loki was unconscious, and it is unclear who came out the victor. Thor is alive, but Algrim is nowhere to be seen. Several motionless bodies lie mangled on the way to the dungeon's exit.

"Stay here," Thor says, his voice grim. "The intruder is loose in the palace. The guards he didn't kill took chase, and I must go to their—"

The ground beneath them jolts, and Thor grips Loki's shoulders hard and moves to shield him. As bits of rock from the ceiling rain down on Thor's back, Loki grits his teeth and tries desperately to pry his brother's fingers off of his shoulder, which is injured from Algrim's attack. There is a terrible noise coming from the direction of the throne room upstairs—bursts of stone breaking and crumbling under the weight of something huge. Loki knows exactly what it is, though Thor appears dazed with questions.

As soon as the ground beneath them stabilizes, Thor is on his feet, hauling his brother up with him. "What was that? An explosion? The shields must be down."

"An enemy ship hit the palace," Loki says. He leans against the wall and tries to reestablish his sense of balance. His broken ribs feel as if they are scraping against his insides, which could quickly become dangerous, and so he puts a palm flat on his torso and holds very still as he uses magic to force the bones back into place. The resulting pain is bad enough that he has to let his mind go blank in order to endure it without screaming. It is a quick and dirty healing job, not meant to last long term, but it will get him by for now.

"Thor, where is our mother?" he asks, his voice a little too calm. When he looks up at his brother at last, his eyes are on fire with pain and fury.

Thor is already moving toward the exit, unable to stay still during a fight any longer. "Father sent her to the vault," he calls over his shoulder. "The Destroyer will protect her. You stay here."

The reply leaves Loki stunned, and he offers no response as he watches his brother disappear up the stairs. The Aether is also in the vault.

Alone in the dungeons with melted ice dripping from his hair, Loki has a troubled moment where he wonders if some deaths are simply predestined—unable to avoid, no matter of how hard one tries to twist fate in order to prevent it. He worries that this might be his punishment for giving Odin hints about the witch.

He retrieves the Casket and stores it away—and then he runs, as if that might banish the unpleasant thoughts from his mind. Each and every movement sends a sharp jab of pain through him, but he will not give up on his mother, who was the very last to give up on him.

The first few steps he manages with only a limp, and they come easier after that. The pain doesn't relent, but he's dealt with worse before. He passes the bodies of two guards who were stationed in the dungeons, and he finds more of the dead in the corridor beyond. Their bodies are reduced to discolored corpses, and Loki's throat feels unexpectedly tight as he looks upon them. Only minutes before, these men had stood behind him. He was once their king and bore witness to their oaths of fealty. What he feels is not exactly sympathy but rather something closer to fury that the enemy has touched something that is his.

Loki's steps pick up speed, following the sound of combat that seems so unnatural as it reverberates off the walls of his home. He ascends the stairs and finds the palace in chaos, the battle well underway. Up ahead where the hall meets with the throne room, light filters in from places it shouldn't, and smoke and dust tickle his throat until he has to cough and press the back of his hand to his mouth. He once took delight in this very same attack on Asgard, and now it only infuriates him. It feels personal. If ever he needs evidence that he has changed since his fall back into time, he has only to remember the disparity of this moment compared to his prior experience.

But Asgard is not as ill prepared as they were in the other time-stream. Dark elves pour out of the throne room with their weapons ready, but many are cut down before they can fire off the first shot. Odin has taken Loki's warnings seriously. The Einherjar stationed within the palace outnumber the enemy by far.

And they are winning.

Loki allows himself only the briefest of moments to take pleasure in the spectacle before he refocuses on the greater problem at hand. Thor and Algrim are nowhere to be seen, nor is Malekith. Thor would have followed the strongest warriors, realizing he might be one of the few who could take them out. He would have trusted the Einherjar to deal with the remaining enemies. Loki looks past the crush of battle to a distant staircase that leads to the vault. Regardless of where Thor is, Loki knows he needs to find his mother before something else does. He can only hope Odin stayed with her.

The path to the vault is not clear, and Loki conjures a knife into his hand as he pushes forward into the fray. His face and neck are covered in blood from the deep cut on his cheek and smaller wounds in other places. More than a few wide eyes take in his appearance. Those who recognize the dark look of focus in Loki's gaze move out of his way, for they remember it from the frost giant's attack on Asgard. The dark elves are not as cautious. Two of them hone in on Loki, their round, empty eyes and motionless mouths disturbing to look upon. As one of the elves lifts its weapon, Loki's knife buries itself in the creature's throat. He rushes forward and grabs the other elf by the arm, yanking it off balance and holding it close as he knees it savagely in the stomach. Before it can recover, Loki has snapped its neck.

His injuries scream with pain, and he spits blood onto the ground as he marches past the dying bodies. He has no time for this.

A distant boom fills the air, the sound originating from the sky outside. Loki's eyes find a window, and a deliciously pleased smile soon lights up his face. A legion of Asgardian ships has taken out Malekith's larger mothership. Odin has prepared Asgard well for the airstrike, having been warned of it beforehand. All around him, the Einherjar send out a cheer. The sound would make any citizen of Asgard's heart swell, and Loki is surprised to discover his is no exception.

As he watches the burning vessel slowly fall from the sky, someone grabs his arm and hauls him behind a corner. His back hits the wall, and he doesn't even have time to consider the resulting pain because a bomb goes off in the very place he was standing only seconds before. It is one of the elves' imploding devices, like a miniaturized black hole intent on sucking them all in. Loki blinks down in astonishment at Lady Sif, who has just saved his life by pulling him out of the way.

Her expression is a mixture of disapproval and amusement. "Aren't you supposed to be locked in the dungeons?" she asks, her ponytail whipping in the wind caused by the blast.

One corner of Loki's mouth pulls upward. "Good to see you, too, Sif."

Together they look around the corner, where Volstagg laughs merrily as he throws the body of a dark elf right into the face of another. They go down in a tangled heap of twisting limbs, and Hogun soon descends upon them to finish the job. All around them are similar scenes of triumph. Elves lie dead on the ground with their unsettling blank masks set at odd angles. The Einherjar come to the slow realization that they are running out of opponents.

Fandral strolls up to his friends, his sword bloodied but held in a relaxed position at his side. "Is this all of them?" he says with a laugh. "I've barely warmed up."

Though the battle is nearly at an end, Loki is not even close to feeling satisfied. "To the vault," he orders. "This isn't over yet."

Loki leads the way, though his friends try more than once to persuade him to turn back to seek aid for his injuries. Their confidence is high after their effortless victory, and they do not understand Loki's apprehension. He sets the fastest pace he can manage and ignores their protests as they take up chase.

When they near the vault, the hair on the back of Loki's neck stands on end. The air is electrified from Mjolnir's lightning, and his skin and nerves tingle with it. He can smell the fire of the Destroyer, as well as the stink of burning flesh, but it's not until he hears the All-Father shout out a command that fear strikes Loki's borrowed heart cold.

He no longer has to convince his friends of the urgency after that. They all run at the same speed and rush into the vault together. The door is twisted off and missing, as though one of the imploding bombs was used to break in. A group of guards stands near the entrance with their captain at the lead. He holds out a hand to Loki to urge him to stay back.

Loki takes in the scene. The Destroyer looms over them all, its fiery mouth open and ready, but the All-Father has a finger pointed at it as if to tell it to stand down. Algrim lies dead and burned on the ground before the Aether, which inhabits the place that the Casket once occupied, and the bodies of several other dark elves surround his. Judging from the Destroyer's missing forearm, which lies useless on the floor behind him, Algrim did not go down without a fight.

Malekith is on his knees before the All-Father, but his countenance holds neither fear nor surrender. His eyes are on the Aether as Odin glares down at him with the point of Gungnir pressed to his throat. Odin is speaking to Malekith, but Loki isn't interested in listening to the exchange.

He is far more concerned with the beautiful sight of his mother, who stands off to one side, watching the proceedings from the shadows. She is calm and uninjured, but the blood has drained from her face. Thor stands protectively in front of her, wearing a look of weary focus. When he sees Loki, Thor does not smile but instead seems to censure his little brother for not obeying his command to stay in the dungeons where he wouldn't meet with further injury.

Nevertheless, Thor doesn't protest when Loki hurries over to them. His relief at seeing Frigga unharmed is too great to stay away, and he takes her into his arms the very first second he is able. It hurts like the blazes to hug her, but he endures it gladly.

Frigga is not as willing to push aside his pain. She pulls back and lifts a hand to touch his bloodied cheek. "You're hurt. What happened?"

"I am fine," Loki says, so relieved, he's close to laughing. "More than fine, actually."

"You are no such thing," Frigga insists. "Hold still." She moves her palm to the deepest cut near his cheekbone and sends out a healing spell. As the wound begins to knit itself shut, she says, "Where else are you injured?" Reading his posture, she turns her attention to his ribcage and shoulder without him needing to say a word. His stance relaxes as the pain leaks out of his body.

Loki catches Thor's eye and sees him smirking, rubbing in the fact that Loki is being fussed over by his mother in front of everyone, including the enemy. Loki doesn't care. He would allow the woman to spit-clean dirt from his face if she wanted to.

"Did they harm you?" Loki says.

Frigga shakes her head, a smile playing at her lips. "They asked me to call off the Destroyer. Would you like to know what I told them in reply?"

Their conversation is interrupted as the volume of Odin's voice rises. It reminds Loki that there is another discussion taking place. "I am astounded that you dared come here," Odin bites out, bending down to look Malekith in the eye. "Did you forget the lesson my father taught you? What a pleasure it is to reinforce it."

The sound of the All-Father's wrath will never fail to send a thrill of nervousness through Loki, even when the anger isn't directed at him. It makes him feel like a child again. Regardless, he silently encourages Odin to continue. For once, they are on the same side. Loki's fingers curl around his mother's shoulder and draw her closer to him.

"I assure you," Malekith says, "I taught Bor plenty in return."

Odin's laughter mocks the words. "What luck that my sons are here to witness your failure. I feel we have come full circle. And speaking of my family, did you honestly think you could come here and intimidate a prince of Asgard or make threats upon the life of my queen?"

Loki winces. Malekith has no idea who he is, though Loki has certainly let Odin believe he does. He thinks he has finally found the source of his youngest son's troubles. "Father," Loki says. "You don't—"

Odin points at Loki and barks out an order to stay silent. Loki might have reared back from such a command in another time, but now he only turns his face away with a sigh.

Malekith says nothing in reply to Odin's question. His pitiless gaze moves away from the Aether and fixates on Loki and Frigga instead.

Gungnir burns hot as it presses against Malekith's throat. "Do not look at them," Odin warns. "You are speaking with me. Tell me what quarrel you have with my son."

"Do you think I experience fear in your presence?" Malekith asks. "Or that I would flinch away from my demise if it meant dragging you down with me? I sacrificed my own people for the sake of watching yours die as they were crushed. I feel nothing but triumph in my death."

Without hesitation or any kind of emotion whatsoever, Malekith pushes forward and drives the spear into his own throat. It is a distraction, for only a startled few notice that his arm shot out a moment before to send a hidden knife flying. Loki sees it before it hits and tries to pull Frigga behind him, but the knife still buries itself in the flesh of her upper arm.

Frigga goes rigid against him, and Loki gasps as her knees bend and fail under her weight. Thor is at their side in an instant, and he helps his brother ease Frigga down to the ground. There are exclamations of outrage coming from all around them, and Malekith watches the scene with hunger as he bleeds out and dies on the vault's floor.

Loki notices none of this. His face is a perfect mask of concentration. With a spell, he draws the pain out of his mother's arm while he pulls the knife free from her flesh. Frigga clenches her teeth in discomfort but does not protest. Thor holds her from behind and whispers words of encouragement as she leans back against him.

"You'll be fine," Loki assures his mother. "I can heal this."

As Odin's shadow falls over the three of them, Loki's eyes focus in on the blade, which is coated in an oily black residue. Frigga sees it, too, and gives a weak laugh. "Well, that doesn't look good, does it?" she jokes.

Loki's head is already shaking in denial before he has fully comprehended the problem. He drops the knife and puts both of his palms to his mother's arm again. His eyes close in concentration as he taps into his magic, and almost at once, he senses something is off with her blood. A black stain seems to spread through her. He can feel her skin start to burn with fever even through the fabric of her clothes. Beads of sweat develop on her forehead.

"What's wrong?" Thor demands. "It only hit her arm."

"Poison," Odin says as he kneels beside them. His fingers reach for Frigga's hair and smooth the curls back. She starts to shiver as she leans into the warmth of his touch.

"No, it's fine," Loki insists, his eyes still clamped shut. Each breath is labored, for he is not in possession of his full strength, nor has he completely healed from his own injuries. His hands shake with fatigue as he pours his power into her, trying his best to lend her his energy while he fights to slow the poison's progression. "It's fine. I will fix this. You are not going anywhere."

Frigga's body tenses as if she's trying to fight off the urge to cry out. She blinks up at him and whispers, "Loki."

He knows she wants him to give up, but he refuses to acknowledge the request. "I will fix this," he repeats. "I've got you."

But he really doesn't have her at all. A wound he could heal, but he cannot stop the spread of poison through her blood. It slips through the fingers of his magic like smoke. All he can do for her is offer up his power to keep her heart pumping, but when he opens his eyes, he sees black spots in the corners of his vision. "Father, please help me," he whispers as a stream of blood trickles down from his nose.

"Let me take her," Odin says. "Thor, help your brother. He is about to pass out."

Thor shifts his mother's weight and very carefully allows his father to pull her into his arms instead. He looks at his little brother and puts a hand on the crook of his neck.

"No," Loki snaps as he jerks his head to the side. "Get away. Just help me."

Frigga's cold fingers fall upon Loki's and make a feeble attempt to squeeze them. The color has leaked out of her lips. "Sweetness," she whispers, "I am in pain."

It takes a moment for her words to truly sink in. Loki's head shakes slowly back and forth as tears spill over onto his cheeks. "Do not ask it of me. Do not go. Mother, please. You cannot go."

Thor moves and touches Loki's shoulders from behind, gently squeezing a silent request. Odin's hand covers Loki's and encourages him to release Frigga. Had she not told him he was hurting her, he would not have been able to be persuaded, but she has always known what he needed to hear, even if he might not like the words. A rush of cold spreads through him as he breaks the connection. He doesn't take his hands away but only stops the flow of power into her. When he realizes what he's done, he lets out a frightened sob.

"Shh, it's all right," Frigga says. "There is nothing to fear. I did not. . . ." Her words trail off as she seems to stare through her sons at something far more distant. "I did not get to say goodbye before. This is a gift." She refocuses on them and says, "Your mother loves you both. I am so proud of my boys. Take care of each other and. . . ."

She blinks several times and stares at Loki hard, and then her lips part in surprise. "Oh," she says, her voice barely there. "Oh. I see what you are now." She smiles at him, as if she's never felt more pleased. "My clever boy."

She exhales the final word and does not take in another breath.

Odin cradles her and touches her cheek with the tips of his fingers. Her eyes meet his, and she smiles up at him. With the final bit of air in her lungs, she whispers something only he can hear before she passes away.

Thor brings Loki to his chambers and makes him sit near the fire, which has nearly gone cold in the hearth. Loki stares at the smoldering ashes without seeing them, barely comprehending that this is reality. He says nothing as Thor moves around the room behind him. While stunned tears stream without end from Loki's eyes, his older brother wears only a tired, grieved expression as he pours water into a basin.

If Thor has an opinion on his little brother's open display of emotion, he makes no mention of it. He carries the basin of water over and sets it on the ground in front of Loki's feet. Kneeling, Thor dips a cloth into the water, wrings it out, and uses it to clean the blood off of his brother's face and neck. Thor's hands are steady, precise, and the freshly healed wound on Loki's cheekbone stings only a little when the cold water touches it. His skin still tingles with a whisper of Frigga's healing magic. It's as if she left him a kiss there.

Thor cleans Loki's hands next, and that is a much more difficult task by far, for it is not his blood that stains them—but Frigga's. Thor doesn't even blink as he washes the blood away, and Loki envies his brother's composure.

This is how Thor copes. He works. Mends. Sets things right.

Loki only knows how to destroy.

He can feel the anger building again. His hands shake between his brother's steady fingers. Loki wants to hurt something. Himself, if nothing else is available. He wants to set everything on fire and then throw himself in because he would never be satisfied to just sit and watch.

"Thor," he whispers.

And that's all it takes. Thor drops the cloth into the bloodied water and hauls his little brother to his chest. The embrace is absolute, and Loki fights against it only so that he can understand how strong and unbreakable it is. Soon he can barely breathe under the crushing pressure of his brother's arms, and it's only then that Loki feels safe enough to break. Though he wants to explode into violence, he instead deflates and gives in to quiet sobs of grief instead.

Despite his sorrow, this moment holds the strangest feeling of relief he's ever known. There is nowhere to go. Nowhere to fall. For the first time in his life, he feels as if he can let go without worrying about where he will land. He finally thinks he might be able to stop.

Thor holds his brother for a long time without offering commentary. The warm pressure of his mouth against Loki's ear and the unfailing strength of his arms say enough. Thor waits patiently while his brother's desire to self-destruct slowly drains out of him, and he doesn't release Loki until he's capable of holding himself together on his own.

Afterwards, they sit together in stunned silence and wonder what to do next.

To be continued.

A/N – Many of you have asked for Loki to receive a hug in this story. I'm about 99% sure you meant under different circumstances. Sorry about that. I promise Frigga's death will serve a purpose, just as it did the first time.

Chapter Text

A/N – So there is snow in TDW but not (I think) in the scenes where Jane visits. I'm just going to pretend it's still winter in Asgard, and she just happens to visit on a warmer day. Humor me. Snow is pretty.

Chapter 23

In the end, when the bargain is laid out and there are no words left to say, Loki takes his own life in the company of a demon and a god.

He does not allow himself time to think before he strikes. He knows if he does, he will start to beg, and he will not allow Odin to see that kind of cowardice. A quick blow. Hard and unforgiving. As if he's striking down an enemy—because he is. No time to flinch or second-guess his sacrifice. No hesitation or fear.

But of course, when the pain comes to light every one of his nerve endings on fire, the fear finds him anyway.

More than a day has passed since the queen's death. Loki sits alone in her garden at the roots of the very same apple tree where he'd sworn to himself that Frigga would outlive him. And yet here he is—a liar to the end.

He doesn't understand how this has happened. He would give anything to switch their places, but he has nothing left to offer. His very existence is already spent.

As Loki turns a frostbitten leaf over and over in his hands, snow flurries drift down from above. The branches of the tree still hold fruit, despite the cold, and the canopy shields him from much of the weather. The flurries that do make it through the branches cling to his hair and clothes but melt when they touch his skin. The last time he sat here, it was the snow of Jotunheim in his hair, and he had contemplated exactly why he wasn't willing to save Frigga the first time she died. The memory is sobering. Looking back, he barely recognizes who he was. He doesn't fully grasp what has changed, but it terrifies him to think that the monster is still inside him somewhere.

He has not moved since early that morning when he wandered outside in a despondent daze, though he has had several visitors. Servants, the queen's personal maid, his brother—even Lady Sif, who sat quietly with him for a surprising amount of time. But that was hours ago and they have moved on after sharing in their grief with him.

Frigga's funeral is to take place that night, and the sky is already growing dark overhead. But Loki still cannot move from the place where he swore to save his mother. He wonders if this is how Thor felt when he watched Loki die in Svartalfheim—as though he'd been given a second chance at saving someone only to have it snatched away.

Loki refuses to feel this regret again with Thor. His eyes train on the sharp drop-off at the edge of the gardens a small distance from where he sits. It is surrounded by a short wall that one could sit upon to enjoy the view of the realm or the churning water below.

He isn't staring at it for the view.

It's not that he's suicidal. There's not enough rage or madness left inside of him for anything so drastic. But there is fear. He gave himself a very limited list of objectives when he fell back into time, and now one of them is lost forever. He cannot shake the feeling that the longer he lingers here, the greater chance he has at failing his brother as well.

What if he loses his temper, and Thor is there? What if he hurts his brother or somehow exposes his bargain to Odin? Loki will lose everything, and he is shocked to find how much that entails.

Not just Thor's life—but many lives that Loki has taken or let slip by unnoticed. He has instead delivered a deathblow to the plans of two warlords. He has proven himself capable of rule and has instilled one brother upon a throne while readying a second to take another. He has friends who guard his back and a realm that acknowledges and respects him, even if they will never love him. Despite Frigga's loss, his bargain bought her the chance to reconcile with her youngest son and to say goodbye to her family. She had called it a gift and looked so proud when she recognized how far he had come.

Loki is at peace here. Not a traitor or a criminal. Not homeless or without identity. Not an orphan—but instead a brother and a son. He has defeated his own madness. He will not give these things up, especially when all it takes to solidify them forever is to simply stop breathing.

This isn't suicide. This is how he wins.

He considers the dull roar of the water below and decides it's a comforting sound. Not a terrible way to die at all. He has experienced far worse, to be sure, and he is no stranger to the concept of falling. They're practically old friends by now.

"What are you thinking about?" Odin asks.

Loki starts and looks to the left, where Odin leans against a wall facing his son. "I didn't realize anyone was here," Loki says.

Odin turns Gungnir absently in his hands, the base of the spear making little circles in the light dusting of snow. "I can see that," he says.

Loki's eyes dart away. He can only hope the All-Father doesn't suspect where his thoughts have been, but of course, he probably does. If there is one thing Loki does not need right now, it is Odin's perceptiveness. And yet Loki's borrowed heart betrays him yet again and welcomes the arrival of his father—because deep down beneath his resolve to end things courageously, he is still afraid. He doesn't want to die, and he doesn't know what to do about it. It is all he can do not to run to his papa and beg him for help.

"Father," Loki says quietly. His fingers rip the frostbitten leaf in two and let the pieces fall away. "Do you think some deaths are predestined?"

Odin sighs and shifts his weight against the wall. His eyes are weary with sadness as they come to rest on the ground. "I take it you're asking this because you tried very hard to prevent your mother's death. You worked for months on your plans to dispose of the Aether, didn't you? You were frantic in that prison cell, worrying about the threats made on her life. How defeated you must feel right now."

Loki's head falls back to rest against the tree trunk. He says nothing. This isn't exactly why he asked the question, but he listens nonetheless.

"Though you might find comfort in the idea that her death was predestined and that there was absolutelynothing you could do to prevent it, I think it unwise to speculate on fate," Odin says. "Coming from someone with the gift of foresight, you should heed that advice. That way leads to madness and endless frustration, for it removes an individual's freedom and drive to make choices. Binding ourselves to fate is, in essence, a form of giving up. It robs us of our will to fight against unwanted outcomes. If you knew ahead of time that your mother would die, no matter how desperately you tried to stop it, would that have prevented you from trying?"

As Loki turns his face to stare at Odin, tears shine in his eyes. He wants his father to tell him there's hope, even if it's a lie.

"Of course, you would still fight," Odin says with a hard laugh. "You are my son. Your mother's son. It seems you're looking for a way to explain what happened or perhaps to assign fault. I want you to understand that your mother's death was Malekith's doing alone. You and I could speculate forever over what might have been, were fate on our side. There are countless things that could have happened differently. For example, I might have chosen to interrogate Malekith in the dungeons instead of in the vault. Or Thor could have stood a little closer to your mother, or you could have moved just a bit faster. My son, such thoughts serve no purpose. Your mother's death is no one's fault but Malekith's. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

A tear slips down Loki's cheek, and the cold air bites at the wet trail it leaves. "But if we had just—"

"No, Loki," Odin says. "Fault lies with the one who commits the crime. There are no excuses. There is hostile intent and execution, and Malekith was the one who chose to throw that knife at your mother. Not anyone else."

Loki's gut aches with a pang of guilt as his thoughts turn to his own crimes. He has always surrounded himself with excuses to justify them. "That's a limited way of thinking," he points out. "There are circumstances that affect the outcome. Inaction. Ignorance. Coercion. Abuse. Triggers that push people over the edge. I would call the culmination of that fate. It forces an individual down a certain path."

Though Odin is unaware of this, they are no longer talking about Malekith.

"And yet that still discounts the ability of this individual to fight or refuse to keep walking down that path," Odin says. "There is a series of circumstances leading up to every misfortune and a tragedy behind the ambition of every murderer. We could speculate all the way back into history looking for the original root cause of your mother's death. I'm sure something significant drove Malekith to the mental state he was in, but you forget that he still had the option to choose not to act. Fate or circumstance might have brought him there, but he chose to give in and become that calculating monster we encountered. Let us look at you in comparison. In recent years, I have witnessed you on the brink of self-destruction after some significant moments of perceived betrayal, and yet you have made very different decisions from Malekith. What does that tell you?"

It is all Loki can do not to groan. He can't imagine a worse thing for Odin to say. Though his father means for the words to comfort his grieving son and assign guilt to the murderer alone, every syllable instead cuts Loki deep. It is the first time he has ever thought about his crimes without the comfort of his excuses—for in truth, there are very few excuses left to him anymore. His time here in the past has eradicated nearly every single one of them. He is left only with the choices he has made, and just thinking about how much he has destroyed his own life leaves Loki absolutely speechless.

"I do not want you feeling guilty over your mother's death," Odin continues. His tone is softer as he looks at his son's face, which is devastated. "You fought very bravely yesterday, and I daresay you succeeded at defeating our enemy. Malekith's army fell upon our realm and failed. You saved countless lives when you trusted me with the foresight of that attack. Not only in this realm but in all of them. Had we been unprepared, Malekith might very well have taken the Aether, and from there, unleashed disaster upon all during the Convergence."

But Loki isn't listening anymore. He puts his face in his hands, and his breaths start to come hard.

Odin falls silent as he watches his son struggle with grief. After a long moment, he says, "I wish I understood you better, Loki. I say something meant to comfort you, and yet it seems I have done the opposite. What goes on in that head of yours? After all this time, you are still a mystery to me. Your mother knew you better. She loved you very much, you know."

Loki's hands slide to capture the moisture on his cheeks. He swipes the tears away angrily. "I don't know why. I wasn't even hers. And I don't know why you bother with me either."

Odin makes a humming sound in his throat. "You know, I looked through one of my old journals this morning. I needed to reflect upon happier times, I suppose. And when I sought out a very memorable entry—one that is very personal to me—I found the most interesting note scribbled in the margins."

Loki stills and blinks up at his father through the wetness of his eyelashes.

Odin shakes his head back and forth, fighting a smile. "I haven't laughed that hard in a very long while. I thank you for the moment of levity, for it was most needed. For the record, not only did you urinate on me as a baby, but you repeatedly attempted to bite me. From my fingertips, I fed you tiny bits of bread dipped in milk, and had you been in possession of teeth, I would likely have lost my fingers along with my eye in the war. After you were fed, you looked up at me with such trust and promptly fell asleep. When I put you down, you awoke and cried until I retrieved you again. You clung to me like you had always known me, and I remember feeling so stunned and amazed that I felt I had always known you as well. I experienced much the same thing with Thor when I first held him, and that is how I knew you were my son. My treasure, however—well, that depends on the day. You owe me a bottle of elven wine, you intolerable little brat, and I fear we just rendered their race extinct. Again." Odin chuckles and turns his face into the wind coming over the garden walls. "You might not understand why I bother with you, but I certainly do."

Loki stares at his father, clinging to each word. He is too tired for cynicism.

"When I brought you home," Odin continues, "your mother immediately became very protective of you. I think she sensed what you had been through and that you were unable to tell anyone about it. You were often restless and insecure and only found comfort with constant reassurance. Your mother always knew what you needed, and I trusted her to give that to you, perhaps more than I should have. And now, she is no longer here. One of the last conversations I had with her was about how utterly incompetent I am at communicating with you. I am not used to being this terrible at something. You and I are both stubborn and have very strong convictions about how things should be. I suppose I should be glad to see you following in my footsteps, and yet we only seem to be drifting further apart each day. Loki, I admit I am at a loss here. Will you tell me what you need from me? Tell me how to be a better father to you."

Loki exhales a shaky breath. Catch me, he wants to say.

"Let me go," he says instead.

Odin's gaze seems to sharpen, and he looks at Loki with more focused intent. "Right before your mother died, she whispered something to me. She said you were still falling. If I have learned anything about you of late, it's that you say and do the opposite of what you mean when you're hurting or afraid. This is very different from my own thinking, mind you, but it seems you lash out or push others away when the thing you need most is support. And so I will interpret your words to mean you need me to hold on. Your mother spent a good deal of effort constantly reassuring you of her affection. I admit I have never understood why when we made certain you had every privilege growing up, though now I am beginning to see. She knew you would one day find out the truth of your origins, and we might not be with you when you did. You would need that rock solid foundation of assurance, and I never gave it to you, did I? When the ground crumbled underneath you, I certainly did let you fall."

Odin pushes away from the wall and walks over to where Loki sits on the ground. He rests Gungnir against the tree and kneels, gripping his son by the upper arms. "Now you listen to me, and I will tell you what I plan on telling you every day until there are no more days left in my possession. Loki, you are my boy. My son. I love you, and I am proud of you."

Another hit to Loki's list of excuses. The worst one yet.

He can't look his father in the eye anymore, nor can he deny the conviction he hears in every word. Odin loves him. At least, this version of him does, and for all Loki knows, perhaps the other one did as well. The only thing different between that time and this one are the choices Loki made to spit in the face of everything Odin had raised him to believe. It was a very calculated way to show Odin he no longer wanted to be his son. Perhaps it had worked better than he intended.

Odin's fingers squeeze Loki's arms to compensate for the lack of eye contact. "You frustrate me to no end, and locking you away in that cell gave me more satisfaction than it probably should have—but only because you were safe inside of it. Safe from yourself and this destructive anger I see simmering in you. You have a choice here, Loki. Give in to the fate of a child left alone to die in the cold or choose to fight for each breath. I know something is still hunting you, but you do not have to face it alone."

Loki looks up, eyes wide.

"Oh, yes," Odin says. "I know there is something still out there with its claws in you. I can feel it. I have seen the face of a hunted man before. Your mother also saw something in your face before she passed away, and she said several very strange things. I thought at first it was a delusion brought about by the poison, but I know my queen. I think at the end, she saw more clearly than any of us."

Muscles tensing, Loki tries to pull away from Odin's grip. He cannot let his father continue down this path. He has too many pieces of the puzzle.

"It's all right," Odin says with another squeeze of his fingers. "You don't have to tell me what it is. We have already established that you cannot speak on the subject without consequences. Just know that I will deal with it. I want you to find peace and trust in your father's love for you."

There is only one thing Loki wants more than what Odin has offered him, and that is for Thor to remain as he is. Alive and unharmed. It gives Loki the strength he needs to refuse. "I knew ahead of time that the queen's life was in danger, and her death came to pass. If you keep pursuing this, Thor will be next. I beg you, father. Please stop."

Odin fills his lungs slowly with air as he considers Loki's statement. "You ask me to choose one son over the other."

Loki shakes his head. "There is no choice. Thor is your true son. I am not. I release you from that obligation."

"How very thoughtful, though I fear I must decline. Shall I go inquire after Thor's opinion on the matter? I daresay I know what his response will be, just as I knew my queen's."

Anxiety begins to rise up in Loki's throat, but he quickly forces it into submission and uses it to fuel his determination instead. "You allowed your queen to gamble with her life, and how did that play out? I will not let you sacrifice my brother next. Believe me, All-Father—I will kill myself first. This is not your decision."

The threat stuns Odin, and there is a long pause of silence that falls heavy between them. Loki has seen the same look on his father's face before—long ago in another time, when Loki was dangling over an abyss, seconds away from giving up. Odin's face holds confusion. Aversion. It's as if he barely recognizes his son.

"Loki," Odin says at last. "Don't you dare." He gives his son a shake to punctuate every word.

Despite the roughness of his father's handling, Loki's expression softens. This is all he needed—to know Odin gave a damn. Loki can handle everything else on his own. "It's all right. I don't blame you for this. Not anymore. You let me fall, but I understand now why you did. It's all right, father. I let go."

Odin's face does not soften along with his son's but rather seems to grow angrier by the second. He reaches out to reclaim Gungnir, and when the All-Father's fingers close around the cool metal, Loki feels a powerful tracking spell tear into the flesh of his left shoulder. As Odin gets to his feet, Loki is left gasping with surprise. His hand goes to his shoulder. The spell is not painful, but it is absolute, far more potent than anything Odin has ever used on him in the past. Loki will not be able to cough without his father being aware.

"We are not done," Odin says. "Yours is not the only decision here, Loki. Do you have any idea what such a thing would do to your brother? Or to me?" He points behind him at the drop-off. "You go over that edge, and I will haul you back up again and throw you straight into another prison cell. Have I made myself clear? Glare at me if we have reached an understanding."

And of course, Loki can't help but glare in reply, even though that's exactly what Odin wants him to do.

"Good," Odin bites out. "You will come to the docks in one hour, and after we see your mother to her final resting place, you and I are going to have a very long talk."

The designated hour comes and goes, but Loki does not move. The snow has ceased falling on the gardens, and the overcast sky is now fully dark. He can hear the stirring of a crowd near the docks and knows the torches will be lit soon. Thor will be looking for him. Odin will be furious. Loki understands he will regret it if he stays where he is, but he is absolutely frozen in place.

The sound of boots marching through the icy grass let him know he has company, but he does not look to see who it is.

"Loki," Sif says as she approaches. "Why are you still here? It has been hours since I left. Do you know what time it is?"

No response. Just a weary shrug. The tracking spell attached to his shoulder pulls in an uncomfortable way.

Her shadow falls over him, blotting out the light from the fire-pit near the pathway leading back to the palace. "It is time to honor the fallen," she says. "Get up."

The slow shake of his head is the only reply he offers.

Loki braces himself after that—either for Sif's cutting honesty or for her pity. But she only sighs and sits on the ground beside him in the same place she had occupied when she'd visited hours before. Together they stare off into the night, and as minutes begin to tick by in silence, her hand finds his in the darkness where it rests upon his knee.

He looks at her in surprise. It is the first time he has focused on anything at all since his father left him here, and he's glad when she doesn't notice the attention. Though he doesn't understand why she chooses to linger with him when honor calls her to the docks to respect the fallen, he's relieved to find her presence here doesn't feel like pity. It feels like loyalty. She is simply giving him the patient support of a friend, and he knows without asking that she will not leave this place again until he does, even if it takes the whole night.

Loki's hand turns over so that he can grasp her fingers in return. They are cold, and he wishes he were better able to warm them. "Sif," he says quietly. "I'm sorry about your hair."

Among so many, many other things.

As Sif meets his eyes, a very old hurt seems to melt away from her expression. The ghost of a smile finds her lips. "Well, here's a secret for you. I like my hair better dark, but don't let that go to your head."

He smiles in reply before he remembers himself.

Sif shifts her position to face him more fully. Their frozen breath meets in a cloud between them. "I'm sorry about your mother, Loki. Her boat will set sail soon, and she would want you there. It is time to see her off. Will you come with me?"

But as Loki only shakes his head yet again, he understands a bit more why he feels so paralyzed. He does not want Frigga to go and will not take part in any ceremony meant to deliver her where he can't follow. If his acknowledgment of the seriousness of his crimes has shown him anything, it is that Valhalla is not in his future. After tonight, he will be separated from her forever.

More footfalls sound in the distance. Loki squints in an attempt to see through the darkness, and he finally makes out the shapes of three approaching shadows. Fandral's voice echoes through the gardens. "Did you find him?"

"Over here," Sif calls back. The fire-pit soon lights up the faces of the Warriors Three. As they draw closer, she adds, "He won't get up."

"Well, then," Volstagg says. His hand shoots down and grabs Loki under his arm. "We get him up." Hogun follows suit and takes the other arm, and together, they haul Loki to his feet.

Thor waits for them at the edge of the crowd, searching the sea of faces until he finds the one he's looking for. The tense set of his shoulders relaxes as Loki approaches, both of his arms still held by Volstagg and Hogun. The brothers don't say anything as their eyes meet. While others might feel the need to offer them words of comfort or sympathy, they fully understand how the other feels in this matter. Without a word, Loki brushes off the hands of his friends and falls into step with his brother.

They find Odin waiting for them in full armor, Gungnir in hand, overlooking the proceedings on the water. He doesn't turn to acknowledge his sons, but he does speak in a low voice. "Thor," Odin says. "Rumors of Loki's heritage have begun to spread through the realm. We must present a united front in this matter and leave no room for the misunderstanding of our loyalties."

"Done," Thor says.

At once, his hand comes to rest on his little brother's shoulder, and the weight of it alone is enough to send an ache deep into Loki's throat. His chin lowers. He does not deserve such things, and yet they are gifted to him anyway. Their friends take up positions of support around the brothers, and Odin's shadow falls protectively upon them all.

There are stares from onlookers. Some merely curious. Others full of disbelief or outright hostility. Thor's hold on his brother tightens, and he stares with steely determination right back into their faces until they are inspired to look elsewhere.

"Shameful," Sif mutters.

As the boats begin to slide into the water, it dawns on Loki that his friends know his secret as well. They know what he is and that he doesn't belong here. That he is not one of them. That Thor is not his brother but rather his natural enemy. Regardless of this, they came to fetch Loki anyway, literally dragging him through much of the city to attend the funeral of a queen he has no right to consider his mother.

It is yet another excuse scratched off of his list. There is hardly anything left.

Frigga's boat appears, and Loki soon forgets about everything else. It is not only the queen's vessel on the water, but at least a dozen others. A troubling number, but there were far fewer deaths here than in the other time-stream. Loki has saved lives with his warnings of Malekith's attack, and the people of Asgard have no idea that those who previously died stand alive and well in their midst.

When the first fiery arrow streaks across the sky, Loki begins to weep because he knows what's coming next. All around him, the faces of the others remain dry, but he doesn't care.

Loki is not Aesir. He lacks the heart of iron they all put such value in. He loved his mother—loves her still—and refuses to keep the evidence of that hidden inside. Let them look upon his tears and judge him if they will. This is simply who he is, and he is tired of apologizing for it.

"Aren't you going to join us in the dining hall?" Thor asks. "The feast is underway."

Loki comes to a halt at the mouth of the palace corridor and turns to look at his brother. Thor's face is weary, and he does not look as though he wants to partake in a meal anymore than Loki does. Why Asgard feels the need to feast after a funeral has never made much sense to him. Though he knows he should accompany Thor to the dining hall to offer his support, there are other things he needs to do—and soon, before he talks himself out of it.

When Loki doesn't offer reply, Thor speaks again. "Brother, I know you are hesitant to come now that your secret is revealed, but I want you to trust in your family and the honor of your realm. The same guards that saw your transformation also saw you risk your life for them. You have served as this realm's king and have protected us against attack from Jotunheim and now Svartalfheim as well. I know you fear the backlash of this revelation, but I see it as a good thing. I will be there with you, as will father and your friends."

Loki tries to smile, but it turns into something sad instead. One day very soon, Thor is going to know that Loki murdered him in cold blood. Robbed of his excuses, there is absolutely nothing he can offer in his defense to give his brother comfort. Instead, Loki says, "You know I love you, don't you?"

Thor's mouth pulls into a hesitant smile, as if he isn't quite certain if his brother is completely sober. "I think you capable of moments of sincerity when you put your mind to it, yes." His tone is sad but teasing. It is a promise of brighter times.

But Loki only shakes his head, willing his brother to listen. "Sometimes I act without thinking because it all gets to be too much inside. Sometimes I rip things apart that I love just so that nothing else can rip it apart first. I know it's no excuse, but I wanted you to know that I am sorry."

"You speak of the past again," Thor says as he approaches, "but I have already forgiven you long ago. Stop this, Loki. Come here." There in the middle of the hall where anyone could walk past and see, Thor pulls his brother into a crushing embrace and says, "I love you, too. Let us think of the past no more."

After offering Thor the explanation that he desired a change of clothes before braving the feast, Loki instead goes to his chambers to prepare for something else entirely. From the back of his shelves, he retrieves a book few know he possesses. He consults with the pages only briefly, reacquainting himself with the spell before he goes to his cabinet of supplies. It's not long before he has what he needs.

Once preparations are complete, Loki opens a satchel and begins to pack. He wonders if Odin's tracking spell is powerful enough to sense what he's doing, and so he tries very hard to keep his mind blank as he works. Odin is right—committing suicide would be a very cruel thing to do to Thor, especially after only just losing Frigga. Leaving Asgard is not much better, but Loki can only hope it's kinder. He will die soon anyway, and Thor doesn't need to see the body. His brother will find comfort and the strength to keep moving forward, just as he always has.

And even though he knows he needs to put distance between himself and Odin, who has vowed to figure out his youngest son's secret, Loki is not quite ready to die.

To the small stack of clothes in his satchel, he adds a few personal items he can't bear to part with. The book his mother gave him with the stories she used to read him as a boy. The coffee beans from his brother. He even takes the book he acquired in Midgard, though he isn't certain why.

Loki pauses at his desk, his eyes falling upon the golden replica of Yggdrasil that his father had given to him. He had meant to dispose of the gift after Frigga had unearthed it from his old chambers, but Loki has never quite gotten around to it. It was once one of his most cherished possessions. He picks it up before he can talk himself out of it, and it joins the rest of his treasures in the satchel, which he vanishes away into his secret hiding place, alongside the Casket.

He feels a tug on his shoulder and works faster, dropping to his knees on the floor beside the supplies he has already laid out. Though he rarely uses physical materials for spells anymore, this one is neither simple nor without considerable risk. He needs the added stability. A bit of salt. The smell of burning herbs in the air. The smear of his blood on the ground. Before he has even whispered the first three words of the incantation, his shoulder feels like it has been lit on fire.

Odin pulls at him hard, but Loki finishes his spell just in time to resist. He grits his teeth with effort and puts a hand to his shoulder, allowing himself a moment to simply appreciate how fierce Odin's hold on him really is.

"Forgive me, father," Loki whispers.

With a cry of pain, he rips Odin's tracking spell away from him. It is every bit as agonizing as driving the witch's knife into his own heart, and it leaves him breathless and close to retching. He knows Odin will feel the severed bond and come running. Loki has only a very short time to move, and so he forces himself to his feet. He tears open a hole between realms and stumbles through.

The snow of Jotunheim is frozen solid beneath his boots.

Loki takes in a breath and finds he cannot manage another for quite some time. It feels as if his body has been plunged into the iciest of waters. Though he might be a frost giant by birth, he is also a true shape-shifter, and his Aesir form is not conditioned for this.

He hugs himself as he assesses his new surroundings. Jotunheim is darker than he remembers and unspeakably colder. If a realm of endless winter could also possess a colder season, he thinks surely this must be it. His teeth start to chatter. He's not even wearing gloves or a cloak since there was no time to grab them, but he tries his best to focus on one problem at a time. He is weakened from ripping away Odin's tracking spell and then traveling so far before he had a chance to recover. He cannot manage such a feat again until he's had time to rest, though the cold might very well kill him before then. The chill bites at his mind, making it difficult to think.

Of course, there is an obvious way to fix this problem, but he's not quite that desperate yet.

He can see the shadows of icy spires in the distance and has traveled to this realm enough times to know he has landed close to the temple where the royal family lives. However, the Jotnar often choose to remain outdoors in the elements. Loki cannot even begin to fathom why.

Though he is too cold to move, thankfully it is not long before he is spotted. His dark clothing against the endless sea of white gives him away, and he hears the blare of a horn rise up in the swirling wind. Despite his desire to be found, the eerie bitonal call fills him with sudden dread.

The monsters are coming.

Their heavy footfalls fracture the ice beneath their feet, which sends terrifying cracks of sound echoing through the air. Loki's boots slip beneath him as he backs up, but there is nowhere to go. The giants descend upon him like beasts. Bare-chested and fearsome. Red eyes simmering in the darkness.

Loki has absolutely no recollection of why he thought this was a good idea. Something about this being the last place Odin and Thor would look for him, though that will do him little good if he is torn to pieces and eaten. He lifts his hands in surrender, but his exposed fingers shake pitifully in the cold.

"What is it?" one of them calls.

A smaller giant pushes forward ahead of the rest, and Loki's eyes widen as he recognizes him. "An Asgardian," Byleistr spits out.

While they both know that isn't really true, Loki is relatively certain his estranged brother does not give a damn.

The crowd parts again, and Loki feels something akin to relief as a more welcome ally comes into view. King Helblindi is not the tallest giant present, but he still holds himself higher than the rest. There are ornaments of gold in his ears and around his neck, and those near him bend their heads forward in submission.

"Prince Loki," Helblindi says in greeting. If he is surprised at his brother's unexpected appearance, his tone does not reveal it. "News has reached us of the passing of Asgard's queen. I had a fire lit for her in the temple." His eyes take in Loki's appearance. "I will bring you there. You are in need of the warmth."

Loki does not budge. He is shaking not only from the cold but now with emotion as well. Never in his life has he felt more lost. It has begun to sink in that he can't feel his father's hold on him anymore. He will never see Odin or Thor again.

"Loki," Helblindi says, gentler this time. He takes a series of cautious steps toward him as if he thinks Loki might run if he moves too fast. "My brother. You are still in your Asgardian form. You will die out here if you don't come with me."

Though it is difficult to speak, Loki manages to ask, "Where?" His eyes flit uncertainly to the faces around him, each one more frightening than the last.

"The temple," Helblindi replies patiently. "Home."

"Home?" Loki repeats, still not understanding. He is surrounded by monsters. The concept of home doesn't make any sense. Unless of course, he is a monster, too.

Helblindi nudges him forward in silent reply, and Loki is too confused by his kindness to protest.

To be continued.

A/N – For those of you who have previously asked if Helblindi would return, the answer is yes. :) Thank you so much for reading. See you soon.

Chapter Text

A/N – I have written a Loki/Sif outtake for this fic, which takes place during the prior chapter. Since I've promised this fic will remain Gen, I have posted it only on my tumblr. It's here if you would like to read it:

pro-antagonist DOT tumblr DOT com/post/81076922945/bargaining-outtake-1

I would read that before reading Chapter 24. I will post at least one more outtake on my tumblr, closer to the end of the story.

For those of you who dislike Loki/Sif—carry on. Nothing to see. It was allll in your imagination.

Chapter 24

"You're all right," Odin assures him. "You're all right."

The All-Father's hands are on Loki's upper arms, supporting him and keeping him from falling over, but Loki can't feel the pressure of the old king's fingers. There is only pain and fear, which has sent him into an absolute panic. Every breath tastes like blood. His hands and feet have gone numb, and the sensation has slowly crept up his limbs and into his torso. When the numbness starts to inch into his skull, causing the corners of his vision to go black, Loki's breaths stop coming so fast. His muscles slowly relax, and his face becomes smooth, peaceful.

Loki blinks up at his father, tears leaking from his eyes, and silently asks for something. Anything at all.

"Well done, my boy," Odin says.

It is enough.

The Jotunheim temple is everything Loki anticipates—dark, unwelcoming, and unfathomably cold. Every surface is hard and every texture rough, save for the slick buildup of ancient ice. The passage of time is visible on everything, even in the deep blue color of the compressed ice outside. It is a desolate, lonely place with not an ounce of warmth or comfort to be found. A wasteland adrift at Yggdrasil's trunk.

All in all, a fitting place for a monster to await death.

Loki's eyes have difficulty adjusting to the darkness of the temple, but the frost giants that are charged with escorting him march with steady purpose through the gloom. They have little to no need of the light. At his back is Helblindi, whose long legs keep an uncomfortably slow pace so that he can guard their guest from behind. In front of Loki is Byleistr, who does not slow his stride at all. He glances back at his smaller brother without bothering to hide his disdain.

Though there are no torches anywhere, Loki's eyes begin to adjust to the darkness. He cranes his neck upward to take in the full magnitude of the place. The ceiling is so high above his head, he cannot say for certain exactly where it is. It is a dizzying structure—too immense to comprehend at present—and Loki stumbles until he rights himself again and looks straight ahead.

In the distance, he can see fire flickering off of the walls, and he nearly groans in relief at the promise of warmth. In prior visits to Jotunheim, he has been able to warm himself with seidr, but his journey and tearing out Odin's tracking spell has weakened him. The biting cold makes certain he remains that way. He will need to rest before he can use his powers again.

They bring him to a room with great stone walls carved with runes, and ice has developed within every crack. Loki does not pay much attention to his surroundings, for he sees only the low burning fire in a pit at the center of the room. He rushes over to it and kneels, for there is no place to sit save for the floor. His fingers tremble as they hover over the flames, but there is hardly any warmth that can pierce the icy air.

Helblindi speaks to those who have accompanied them to the chamber, and most of the giants leave save for Loki's two brothers and a guard, who takes up position by the door. Byleistr paces the perimeter of the great room, glaring at Loki, while Helblindi approaches the fire pit. He wears a look of wary calm, as if he hasn't quite decided how he feels about their guest.

"My brother," Helblindi says. "You need to shift your form. This is our cold season."

Loki shakes with laughter. In truth, he isn't certain if he's ever heard something so funny before. "Yes, I noticed."

"Are lost hands and feet worth your pride?" Helblindi asks.

Loki smiles up at him tightly. "Possibly. I suppose we will find out."

"You see what I mean?" Byleistr says to Helblindi. "He turns his back on his heritage still. He does not belong here."

"And how do you propose we sent him back?" Helblindi asks.

"Call out to their watchman," Byleistr says. "Let Asgard come dispose of this mess."

"Please do not do that," Loki says, his tone mitigated now that he senses a real threat. "I am fine by the fire. I thank you for bringing me here. Soon I will have rested from my journey, and I can warm myself."

Lies, all of it. He has never felt more winded or drained. He isn't certain if he could manage a spell if he tried. The cold has ripped the very principles of magic from his mind, as has the growing pain in his shoulder. It throbs, as if he physically removed part of himself when he ripped out Odin's tracking spell.

"I am fine," Loki repeats as if to convince himself. The flames lick at his reaching fingers, yet Loki feels nothing. They have gone numb.

Byleistr marches over and slaps Loki's hands away from the fire. "What you are is a fool."

Startled, Loki blinks up at his brother as if truly seeing him for the first time. He knows enough about his estranged family to understand Byleistr is younger than him, born a century after the war from a different mother. And yet there is something very familiar in the haughty descent of his cheekbones and the way he hoists his chin when he's posturing. Though their skin and eyes are different colors, Loki and Byleistr very closely resemble one another.

Loki only has experience with brothers of the older variety. He has always trailed behind, ever filled with envy and frustration that it is literally impossible to catch up with someone older than himself. Now he is the one ahead of another, and he finally thinks he might understand a bit of Thor's irritation with him throughout the years. Loki would very much like to drop his little brother off of a reasonably high precipice.

"You are not helping," Helblindi says.

"Nor are you," Byleistr bites back. "He will die if his stubbornness does not relent, yet you waste time placating him."

Helblindi lifts his hands in the shrug-like gesture Loki witnessed from him several times in Asgard. "And what do you suggest?"

"Not placating him," Byleistr says. "Obviously."

"How lovely to know you care about my well-being," Loki says.

With a scoff, Byleistr rears around to face him again. "If a Prince of Asgard dies in our realm, who do you think the All-Father will blame? I care not if you fall. Only where."

"Peace, Byleistr," Helblindi says in warning. "He is our guest, and Asgard, our ally."

"You are an embarrassment to our people," Byleistr spits at Loki. "This is a perfect example of why. You will not even wear your own skin in order to save it. Disgraceful arrogance. You are not worthy of your own heritage, and I say this to you now, Asgardian—you are no brother of mine."

Loki cocks an eyebrow, undaunted. "Noticed that, have you?"

The effrontery of the statement might be more effective if his teeth weren't chattering.

Byleistr growls in frustration and grabs Loki by the neck with his icy hands. Loki cries out, his body tense with alarm but also from the struggle with the cold, but Helblindi only sighs and watches instead of helping. Though Loki struggles against the iron grip of the giant, he feels an abrupt rush of relief spread through him. The unforgiving cold relents, leaving him still shaking but recovering. The feeling comes back to his fingers and the tips of his ears, and Loki realizes that his brother's touch has forced him to shift into his Jotunn form.

Everything goes unexpectedly peaceful—still cold but pleasantly so. In truth, now that he has experienced such blissful relief, he could not change back to his Aesir form if he wanted to. The brothers are now mirror images of one another. The same red eyes and markings on their skin. Loki's hair and stature are the only things that set him apart. Ever out of place, even amongst his own kind.

He gazes at his surroundings with sudden awe, completely struck by how differently things appear when seen through these eyes. There is a subtle blue glow emanating from deep within the temple walls—like a glacier but with something far more magical at its core. Even the icy runes hold a luminance that makes the very symbols seem to come alive. Loki's breath shivers out; his skin tingles—and neither sensation is a result of the cold. Something far deeper inside of him responds to this place. He has felt it before when handling the Casket of Ancient Winters.

Byleistr's hands relax on his brother's neck, and he pushes Loki away, causing him to fall back onto the floor. "No need to thank me," Byleistr scoffs.

As Loki gets to his feet with one hand on his sore neck, he watches his younger brother leave the room, fuming and gloating every step of the way. "Is he always so pleasant?" Loki asks.

"I found his behavior to be rude," Helblindi says. "He lacks patience and respect, but he will learn with time."

Loki winces and backs away from the fire, which is suddenly uncomfortably hot. "I was being sarcastic."

Helblindi stares at him, his presence calm but imposing—like an ancient mountain gazing at an insignificant dust storm. "I realize that. I choose to be literal. It unsettles others. Those who bite back with their words of spite only reveal their insecurity. I have moved past such things."

The unexpectedly manipulative reply draws a hesitant smile out of Loki. Perhaps they are related after all.

Loki's gaze is again lured away by his surroundings. He cannot stop staring, particularly at the runes, which he has only a passing understanding of. Jotunheim has never been his preferred area of study, though he is educated in the basics of their history, art, and literature. No book could teach him the way this feels. There is magic in this place, and he suddenly craves it like the very air he breathes in.

"What do you stare at?" Helblindi asks.

"The ice," Loki says, his tone faraway, wistful. Such a simple word, and yet it does not fully capture the wonder of what he's seeing. "Everything looks so different."

Beautiful is what he wants to say—but that, too, is inadequate to describe the temple.

"You are a shape-shifter," Helblindi notes. "You have not, I think, looked upon the realm of your birth with your real eyes since you were an infant. This is a holy place where we come to honor the dead. We light a fire as a reminder that even the very ice beneath our feet is vulnerable. Asgard's queen was kind to us when we were imprisoned in your dungeons, even though our attack left her injured, and so we lit this fire in remembrance of her."

Loki's gaze drops to the flickering flames. The memory of Frigga makes his throat feel like it might close up. Of course she would have been kind to Loki's kin. In fact, there is little doubt in his mind that she would have been kind to them even if they weren't related to her adopted son.

"She was certainly kinder to you than I was," Loki says.


Loki feels the familiar stab of guilt attack his borrowed heart. "I would ask your forgiveness for that, but I doubt you would accept it."

"You assume correctly," Helblindi says. "What have you to apologize for? We invaded your land, and you defended it. You made a worthy judgment and restored us to our home. You are our ally."

Loki cannot look at his brother because he knows he will only see a reflection of himself. He wears his true skin at last but has not reconciled with it. Though he tries to remind himself that Helblindi means nothing to him—just another face in the multitude—something feels different. His Jotunn blood reaches for this person. Needs him. There is a bond there that Loki cannot explain, though he has felt it before—with Thor, Frigga, and even Odin.

"I thought never to see you again," Helblindi says. "You have stayed away, despite your position as Asgard's emissary, though we have seen Prince Thor several times."

"It is nothing personal against you. I have . . . ." Loki trails off as he tries to search for the words that best describe where his head is at. He does not want to insult Helblindi, but at the same time, he needs his brother to understand. "I have struggled with the knowledge of my birth. I was raised without it, you see."

When Loki finally dares to meet his brother's eyes, he finds Helblindi devoid of expression. Not insulted or disapproving, though not pleased either. "When did you learn the truth? When we spoke in Asgard, I interpreted your words to mean you always knew."

"I learned the truth fairly recently, in the grand scheme of things," Loki replies. "When we invaded Jotunheim two years ago, one of your warriors grabbed my arm. It changed."

It has been longer than two years for Loki now since he has lived through it twice, and yet it feels as if only minutes have passed. He will never forget that moment when he realized the truth. Ever. It is more ingrained in his memory than his fall into the Void or the throat-tearing screams he surrendered at the hands of Thanos.

But as Loki holds up his hand now, he does not feel the same confusion. He knows damn well what he is, and his Jotunn skin is seen through different eyes now. His own markings seem to glow with the same magic he feels all around him, as if he is literally part of this place. Instead of horror, he feels only a weary aversion. He is not yet at peace with himself, but he is also too tired to continue to wage war. Not only has his anger slowly left him, but so has his need to destroy himself.

As much as Loki's grief over Thor's death drove him to strike this bargain, it is just as much about working through his own grief over his choices and his shattered sense of self. Deep down, Loki knows this is the real reason he came to Jotunheim. Everything it represents to him feeds into his self-hatred, and that is the very last excuse left on his list. It is time to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

"The All-Father never told you where you came from," Helblindi says, as if repeating the fact to himself in the hope that it will make more sense. "That was unkind."

"It was," Loki says. "Though I don't think he meant for it to be. I used to think he did it to be purposefully cruel or perhaps to keep me as an obedient tool he could make use of at a later time. But when I confronted him about it, he told me that once he accepted me as his son, he simply never saw me as anything else. I called him a liar when he told me that because I didn't believe him. Or perhaps I didn't want to believe him because it robbed me of excuses that were very important to me." Loki's hand finds his shoulder, which still throbs from the absence of the tracking spell. It seems to ache with grief over the lost bond. He thinks he might believe Odin now, though he will not say so out loud. Such thoughts are private.

"This explains much," Helblindi says. "You were raised thinking you were better than us."

Loki looks up sharply, feeling unexpectedly defensive of his family. It is one thing for him to scream and rage at them, and another entirely for someone with no real comprehension of the situation to accuse them of wrong. "Not by my parents, I wasn't."

Odin's words, coming straight from Loki's lips. Thank the Norns the All-Father isn't here to feel smug over this.

Helblindi draws closer, meeting Loki's eyes as he puts a hand to his shoulder.

"What are you doing?" Loki snaps. He doesn't move, though he wants to.

Helblindi squeezes Loki's shoulder, not in affection but more like the way a physician might examine a patient. "You tore away a spiritual bond with another. That wound will never heal. Though it is not a physical injury, you will always feel it, as will the one you shared it with. Someone must have wanted to connect with you quite desperately to employ such old magic. I take it the All-Father does not know you are here?"

The description of the spell momentarily distracts Loki from the conversation. While he had called it a tracking spell—something Odin might use only to control him and monitor his actions—this was something else entirely. Odin had literally attached himself to his son in an effort to stop his fall, and Loki promptly ripped them apart. "Are you going to tell him?" Loki asks quietly.

"Why should I?" Helblindi says. "The All-Father stole my brother away from his true family. I suppose I owe him thanks for saving your life, but I feel those charitable thoughts do not extend so far that I would give you up again, particularly when you seem unwilling to go. You appear in need of sanctuary and a very long rest, and you will find both here if you allow yourself to. If you have warmed yourself sufficiently, I will bring you to a room that you may call your own while you are among us."

"I thank you," Loki says. "I am indeed in need of sanctuary."

Before they leave, Helblindi looks up at the runes all around them, which glow and pulse with life. Each swell of energy is perfectly timed with Loki's footsteps. "This place responds to your presence," Helblindi says. "Odd."

Loki presses his lips together and offers nothing in reply. Within his secret hiding place, the Casket of Ancient Winters disagrees with Helblindi's statement. It is not Loki's presence at all that the temple responds to, but the ageless power he possesses, finally within reach of its home.

Loki spends the next week in an absolute daze.

Ice and snow, when viewed through the eyes of a Jotunn, were spectacular sights to behold. Every delicate filament of each snowflake stands out to him, each one unique and worthy of hours of study. Loki's vision is not only sharper now but also better able to filter the spectrum of colors in a way his Aesir eyes never could. He now understands Jotunheim is a rainbow of ancient power. Auroras dance within the ice, reminiscent of the ones that sometimes light up Midgard's skies, and with each passing day, the colors grow more vibrant.

They dance faster beneath Loki's feet as he walks past. The snow that catches in his hair glitters like starlight. Some whisper that he is blessed. Others call him cursed. But everyone takes note of his presence. Loki does not offer them the knowledge that it is the Casket the realm is responding to rather than the one who holds it. It is far too amusing to watch them speculate.

The Jotnar have a full understanding of Loki's betrayal of their kind when he was only a baby. More than that, they know he turned the Bifrost on them and had taken lives in defense of another realm. But he had also been their king, whether they knew it or not, and had honored Jotunheim's treaty with Asgard when the whole of the realm was screaming for blood. Loki had restored the royal family to their rightful place and allowed the Jotnar to seek vengeance upon Laufey themselves. In this way, Loki has shown them respect and continues to do so by wearing his true skin as he walks amongst them. Though they are wary, they show him a measure of respect in return. If anything, they are impressed with his courage and boldness to even come here at all.

During the second week of his stay in Jotunheim, Thor comes looking for Loki. He leaves again with lies ringing in his ears.

Two days pass before Helblindi is able to coax Loki out of his hiding place in his chambers—his shoulder throbbing, his mind almost incoherent with guilt.

A trip is planned to distract him from these kinds of thoughts, and Loki soon finds himself walking up a mountainside path with his brothers, who desire to show him the finest view of the realm. As Loki looks down at the city below, it occurs to him that the architecture is laid out in a very purposeful way. The realization lights his mind on fire, and he thinks of little else for days. It is a much needed distraction from the sorrow.

He travels up that path many times over to stare down and study the layout, making connection after connection to old myths and ancient symbolic meaning. The very way the streets are laid out is a cipher. Divine geometry aimed at the stars above. Maps laid out for the gods. Absolutely brilliant.

There is a jagged scar in the ice from where the Bifrost's attack cut into it, and Loki is absolutely horrified with himself for marring something so beautiful. It was like taking a knife to a priceless artifact.

He has never once realized the Jotnar care about art, for he has only ever seen them as a race of mindless, uncivilized beasts. But there is such great care paid to every detail and placement of each stone and monument.

Even the spires of the temple tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end as the shadows cross the land throughout the progression of each day. The warrior's journey, one of the temple priests calls the story. Beneath the dark gaze of every Jotunn warrior Loki encounters is a deep reverence for the realm they call home. He never anticipated meeting a warrior who was also introspective. Loki thought he was rather unique before now. Somehow, learning otherwise does not upset him. It is a relief to finally find understanding of the quieter places in his mind, while still acknowledging his power.

At the top of the mountain is a labyrinth of caves—a full day's journey from one end to the other. A group of elders escort Loki and his brothers through, and he learns the history of the realm through the engravings in the rock and the layers of minerals, which light up with quiet power as Loki (and the Casket) pass by.

It is all there. Millennia of memories and chronicles, carefully preserved and respected. He knows the history of Jotunheim already, but it is another thing entirely to see it portrayed through the eyes of the people. He can feel their pride and taste the terror of war in the depictions he sees on the walls.

What strikes Loki is the respect paid to the natural landscape, while still constructing impressive structures. While he loves Asgard's architecture and has long felt it superior to any other, Loki has never liked the way the Aesir demand nature bend to their will, with their dams and canals. The Jotnar build around the natural characteristics of their land. These caves, for instance, were carved out by ice before the Jotnar encouraged the pathway ever deeper.

"There is nothing in your Asgardian technology that is not more beautiful in its original form," a priest tells him. "Natural beauty is always superior to created beauty, no matter how talented the artist. The true artist understands it is preferable to emphasize what is already there."

For some reason, this makes Loki think of Frigga's words to him long ago, when they spoke of Odin's failed attempt to shape Loki in his own image. He dismisses the thought before he truly lets it sink in. It hurts his injured shoulder to remember such things.

Near the end of the journey, they come across the stories of the war with Asgard and more interestingly, the loss of Laufey's son, betrayer of the realm. The depiction of Loki as a child is not a kind one—a shrieking babe with his pale skin like a mar against the dark cave wall. It is the only color in the room, and it is jarring. Unnatural.

"We call this one The Scourge," Byleistr supplies helpfully in the most pleasant of tones.

"Die," Loki offers in reply, equally as pleasant.

Byleistr laughs under his breath. It is the biggest leap of progress they have made in their relationship since Loki arrived. Helblindi only sighs and trudges on, leaving them to their endless bickering.

On the third week of Loki's stay in Jotunheim, after repeated requests to venture again through the full length of the caves, Byleistr informs Loki that there is a library in the temple where he can continue his studies and to leave him alone already.

Loki does not leave the library to eat or sleep for three days.

There are books. Great, enormous volumes with stupidly thick pages that his small hands have little patience for, but oh, what they have to say. The lines are poignant, succinct, powerful. Quiet reflections, imposing verse, hilariously biting prose. He cannot remember the last time he has been so excited in the pursuit of new knowledge. It makes him feel young again—at the dawn of his life rather than the sunset.

"My brother," Helblindi says on the first day of the fourth week. "You must sleep."

Loki looks up from the text, which is an exploration of magic and its affect on the mind. He has given up on the library table, which is far too high for him, and so he sits on the floor instead, cross-legged like a badly behaved child. His hair is a mess, one side of his collar popped up and askew, stomach screaming at him to feed it, and he absolutely does not care.

"Have you read this?" Loki says, eyes bright with excitement.

Helblindi glances down at the text with the same non-expression he always wears. "I have."

"This is utter brilliance," Loki says. "This is . . . this is what I've been trying to say for years but could never quite put into words. The Aesir do not understand the subtleties of seidr. They assign gender to it and unnatural expectations. They force it to go where they want it to and keep it outside of themselves instead of within. Who wrote this? Do they still live?"

Helblindi's expression does not change. His eyes hold a weary reverence in their depths—the eyes of a king who now understands what it means to rule. "Our father did. And no."

Loki is left with his mouth hanging open, the pages of the book bent and almost tearing in his hands.

The conversation continues outside, for Loki is suddenly in desperate need of fresh air. Helblindi watches in silence as his brother paces the length of the courtyard.

Out of all the monsters in all the stories in all the Nine Realms, Laufey is the one Loki fears the most. Not even reflecting upon his own monstrous self compares to the horror he feels when he thinks about his birth father. Laufey is the one who didn't hold on when Loki rejected him first. He is the source of everything.

Loki does not want to think about Laufey. He does not want to find common ground with the fallen king. He does not want to make peace with this or understand the reasons behind the abandonment. Laufey is the enemy—the only one Loki feels justified in never forgiving.

"I have upset you," Helblindi observes.

Loki swipes at the moisture on his cheeks as he paces. "No, no. I am fine. Just a speck of dust in my eye."

Helblindi sighs. "Come."

Laufey's final resting place is an urn of gold affixed to the temple walls. It is placed in the first room Loki was taken upon his arrival in Jotunheim, with the fire pit burning at its center. The pit is cold now, though Helblindi busies himself with lighting it again while Loki takes in the shock of seeing their father's remains.

Beside Laufey's urn is Farbauti's—his birth parents resting together for the remainder of time, surrounded by runes that spell out royal titles and prayers.

"I'm not sure why you brought me here," Loki says.

The temple runes pulse with power with every syllable. The Casket grows impatient.

"Nor I," Helblindi says. "It might be too early for this. We shall see."

Loki continues to stare, feeling as though he's looking at his own future grave. The sight of it makes him tremble inside. "I'm going to die," he blurts out.


(oh gods)

(i must go to her tomorrow)

Helblindi straightens, the fire now burning in the pit at his feet. "All die eventually. We are not gods."

"Yes, well, I'm just now figuring that out," Loki retorts. "Forgive me if it's a bit of a shock."

Several moments pass before Helblindi speaks again. "Are you ill? Is someone hunting you?"

Loki snorts. The witch doesn't have to hunt. He is already snared. "It's complicated."

"When I met with you in Asgard before my trial, I noted that you were a survivor," Helblindi says. "Has that changed since then?"

"No. But some things are more important than living."

Loki's eyes squeeze shut. Though he has not let himself think about such things for weeks now, he misses Thor so much, he can barely breathe. He misses Asgard as well. His parents. His friends. Jotunheim has surpassed all expectations—it is in his very genetic makeup—but it is not his home. Just as Helblindi is his brother but not his family. That kind of unspeakably deep bond is not yet there between them, though Loki thinks it might develop if encouraged. True family is deeper than blood; it is an absolute refusal to give up and let go, a promise forged by the passage of time and tested by hardship. Helblindi could fall into that category one day, but they have only just taken the first few steps down that road. Loki has journeyed for centuries with Odin, Frigga, and Thor.

Loki opens his eyes, looks at Laufey's urn, and very clearly thinks: You are not my father.

It is not a spiteful thought. Only a realization of truth that releases something deep inside of him. He lets go of the expectation there—the feelings of hurt and rejection caused by the knowledge that Laufey cast him aside—and there is something very freeing about choosing to walk away from the hurt instead of clothing himself in it. Loki does not know his birthfather—where his mind or intentions were at when he chose to feel nothing but hatred for his own child. As Odin has said, there are no excuses. Laufey might have blamed his child for betraying him first, but he made the choice to hate and spread lies in return. That is not Loki's fault. He was an infant. He was small and starving and dying, and when someone was compassionate enough to pick him up, of course Loki reached anxiously back.

Laufey is not Loki's father.

Odin is.

It is the simplest of truths. Something Odin had accepted long ago and expected Loki to do as well. He thinks he understands now. It is simply fact.

As Loki backs away from Laufey's urn, he feels little more than curiosity. A Prince of Asgard paying his respects to a former King of Jotunheim. Nothing more.

"Does the All-Father know of your fate?" Helblindi asks. "Give me one reason why I should not tell him what you have shared with me."

"I left them, more or less, in peace," Loki says. "All of us reconciled. And yes, I think he knows. If I hadn't left, something very bad might have happened to my brother, and that is why I ask you to keep your silence."

"Is there nothing I can do to help you?"

"No. My brother will die if anyone tries. I will lose everything."

"Talking is helping you. Telling someone of this burden."

Loki exhales a long breath, the tension leaving his muscles. "Yes. Yes, you have no idea."

"Have you considered that your brother might not care if he dies if he could protect you instead?"

"I have," Loki says. "But we would both die in that instance. I die no matter what. To put it plainly, I have fucked myself."

There is a long pause before Helblindi replies. "I would ask why you chose to put that word in that sentence, but I would likely only become more confused. If it were Byleistr in this situation, I would feel very angry and betrayed were he to march off to his death behind my back. If you are to die regardless of what happens, then you have denied your brother the opportunity to say goodbye. You have even given me that chance. Why not him?"

"I suppose you and I never really got to say hello," Loki replies, his eyes falling to the ground. "As for Thor, it's complicated. He would hold on too tightly."

"And you think I would not?"

The slightest of smiles finds Loki's mouth. "You're going to contact the All-Father and tell him where I am, aren't you?"

"The first moment I am able." Helblindi smiles in reply, a rare expression for him. "I suppose that means this is goodbye for us, then. Is there anything else you wish to understand before you go? It seems this has been a very personal journey for you."

Loki swallows and turns to look at his brother. He needs this—to talk with someone who does not dive headlong into judgment or panic. Helblindi is very much like Thor in that way, and Loki needs that solid foundation badly. There is so little time left, and he wants to understand more and more of what he has been blind to for so long.

"You are so much more than I ever thought a frost giant could be," Loki says. "I have been wrong about everything. I always thought . . . I mean, I was taught . . . no, I assumed the Jotnar were monsters. And that meant I, too, was a monster. And I still struggle with that. There's something wrong with me, brother. I don't care when others are hurt. I do experience guilt, but only with a select group of people. And when I get angry . . . ."

Helblindi takes in this information without reacting to it. "The Jotnar are often called a cold race, for we only develop strong bonds with a few individuals, usually family. It is a very fierce bond, and when it is betrayed, it is not easily rebuilt. Whether you are aware of it or not, I feel you have developed this sort of bond with your Aesir family. I have seen how you look at them. The way you guarded the All-Father and his queen during our attack on your realm was very telling. I developed that bond with you when you were quite small, though you were too young then to remember it now."

Loki recalls the way his heart tugged when he looked upon Helblindi in the Asgardian dungeons. "Perhaps not that young."

"The Jotnar develop these close bonds and trust that others will protect their own. If there are outsiders without a family unit, another will take them in. It is necessary for our survival, and those who stray from their family often go mad from loneliness or perish altogether. From what I have observed, the Aesir are very different in that they focus on the whole rather than the individual. It is not an inferior way of existing—only different from ours. I have had to explore this way as king, and it does not come naturally to me. It is not that I wish harm or neglect on others outside of those few I love. I simply know that someone else is caring for them far better than I could, and it's none of my concern. In turn, I have a far greater amount of love to offer those in my circle. However, that changed when I became king. I had to choose between my family and my realm, but there is only one choice for a true ruler. You and I have had this discussion before."

"What happens when a Jotunn bond is broken or betrayed?" Loki asks.

Helblindi's answering smile is tight. "It is not advisable to break a bond of trust with a Jotunn."

Loki sighs and kicks at the ground. "You can say that again."

Helblindi tilts his head to one side. "Did you not hear me the first time? Oh. That is another one of your sayings. Why don't you ever just state what you mean?"

"Half the fun is guessing," Loki says with a hint of his old mischief.

"If that is what you think, then you are certainly your father's son."

Loki's smile turns a bit more genuine, despite the deep ache in his shoulder. He thinks about Odin's maddening way of speaking—each word specifically designed to confuse the listener and lose them in a web of endless circles. "I am indeed. I thank you for offering me refuge, brother. Before I go, I wanted to offer you something in return."

He calls the Casket into his hands, holds it out to his brother, and waits anxiously for his reaction. The very walls of the temple seem to sigh in relief. A shiver of power goes out, disturbing the fire and dimming the glow in the temple's walls before they shine vibrantly once more. A realm come back to life.

Helblindi's expression does not change in the slightest. "I was wondering when you would hand that over."

Loki deflates, the level of his arms dropping in disappointment. "You knew I had it?"

"I suspected." Helblindi's eyes fall to that which Loki holds, and his expression warms with pride. "You forget I knew what this realm was like before the Casket of Ancient Winters left our borders. It has brought life back to this place. Can you feel it now, my brother? Do you understand?"

"Not really," Loki admits as he looks down at the Casket. "I feel it, yes. I can admire and respect its power. I am part of it, and it, part of me. But I do not understand it, nor do I truly understand this realm yet. That would require a lifetime of living under its influence."

Helblindi's quiet laughter rumbles low in his chest. "And that, my brother, is what makes you hopelessly Asgardian. I think it time you found peace with that."

The King of Jotunheim and his predecessor exchange their goodbyes.

But before Loki departs, Helblindi says, "You have three brothers. Do not forget that."

Loki finds Byleistr in the library, reverently putting away the books that Loki left littered about the great tables and floor.

"Finally gave the Casket back, did you?" Byleistr says without turning to acknowledge his brother. "About time."

Loki huffs out a sigh. He hates it when the ending of a carefully planned joke is spoiled. "I am leaving," he says, quickly getting to the point. No need to pretend there is something here between them when there isn't.

Byleistr looks up, brow lifted. "Very well. Did you expect me to care? Please say you expect me to care."

Loki leans against the table, partially amused and partially in want of a large, blunt instrument with which to inspire pain and suffering in a certain individual. He thinks this must be how Thor has felt everyday of his life since Loki was first brought home. "Not particularly. But I thought you should know all the same."

"I suppose you are not the great traitor I was raised to believe you to be," Byleistr says as he thumbs through his father's book. "You have met expectations, if only slightly. Safe travels, Asgardian."

Loki smiles, enjoying the strange feel of being the older, more mature one for once. "Farewell, brother."

But there is still one brother left to say goodbye to.

That night—the very last night, mere hours before he must go to her—Loki slips out of the realm of his birth and steps into a less familiar one. He reaches with his mind and seeks out a connection with Thor. It is not a physical goodbye made in person, but Helblindi is right. Loki owes Thor something. He has already had his parting words with Odin, even if spoken in another time.

A solid mental connection across realms requires two sorcerers, and Thor has never been any good with this kind of thing. He lacks the patience and delicate touch, but it is in his blood, both of his parents being quite gifted in the art. And so Loki takes a chance and nudges Thor's mind, willing him to accept the connection and solidify it.

A breath later, Loki is shocked when Thor latches on to him with a grip like iron. Loki laughs aloud in utter surprise at how fierce the connection is. He can almost feel his brother's fingers digging into his forearms. Perhaps Odin has taught Thor a trick or two, or maybe instinct simply kicked in when he sensed his little brother.

Loki feels Thor's worry, as well as the absolute relief over making contact. "I'm all right, brother," Loki says. "I'm absolutely fine."

Thor is not gifted enough to speak back, but Loki senses the question: Where?

"Somewhere safe," Loki says. "I needed time to work some things out."

Home, Thor demands.

Loki smiles. There are no two words linked so closely together in his mind as those—Thor and home. "I am home. You are here, and so I am home."

Now, Thor says.

Loki thinks he hears an expletive come across the connection, and his mouth splits into a grin. "You overbearing oaf. I am fine. I am good, in fact. Better than I have been in many years. It's felt like a lifetime since I've been able to breathe—like I fell into the desert and yet still managed to drown—and yet it also feels like only yesterday that we were boys, chasing after father's footsteps through the palace."

Thor has absolutely no idea what Loki is talking about. Please, he says.

Loki's smile wanes a bit after that. "I want you to understand that I don't blame you for the times you tried to forget we were brothers. I know you don't remember that, but you will soon. I understand, and you were right. I am a fool, and I put myself there. Just know that your brother was still inside me somewhere, and he was horrified at what he saw when he woke up. This is so worth it to me, Thor, to know that you will be safe and whole when I've gone. I did this only for you, but it ended up being for me as well. I am at peace with this, brother. I promise. Goodbye."

Loki lets the connection slip a little, if only to let Thor know that he meant that last word. Thor tries to hold on tighter, but he does not have the power. Please, Thor says.

"Just say it, brother," Loki urges. "Say goodbye. Trust me in this one thing. You will regret it if you don't say it now."

Never, Thor says instead. Never.

Which, of course, is the absolute best thing his brother could say.

In truth, there is nothing that could better remind Loki why he started this journey in the first place.

To be continued.

A/N – Wow, that chapter was long. Hope it made sense. Thank you for reading and for your unbelievably sweet comments and kudos. It means so much to me to hear from you. This chapter and the prior one have really honed in on the purpose of this entire story, which has been difficult but satisfying to write. Thank you for being patient when it takes me a little longer to post. See you soon.

Chapter Text

A/N – A few people told me the Bargaining outtake was difficult to read on my tumblr. I've put up a new layout, so hopefully that helps. Happy reading!

Chapter 25

"I am impressed, Jane Foster," Loki says as he turns in a slow circle, taking in the desolate desert surroundings. "It is no mere simpleton who can make contact with me when I do not wish to be found."

The hour is achingly late, as evidenced by the dark circles under Jane's eyes. Despite her fatigue and the unforgiving nighttime chill, she is far more composed than the dazed, grieving creature he encountered in the other time-stream.

Her Jeep idles behind her, its yellowing headlights barely cutting through the darkness, and she sets down a familiar piece of scientific equipment on the vehicle's hood. Her hair is pale in the moonlight, and she has forgotten to wear a coat. "Thor was looking for you," she says.

Déjà vu nags at Loki's already fragile sense of well-being. It is a risk to come to this place, but it seems fitting to stand here with her since this is where his journey began. But that isn't the reason he came. He's careful to keep any hint of reaction from his face, though her words make his borrowed heart ache. "I know. I spoke with him earlier."

Jane allows herself the smallest of smiles. Perhaps she thinks Loki and Thor have reunited, though nothing could be further from the truth. "He said you ran away from home. I'm not the only one he has looking for you."

Loki tries not to feel too smug that he has so masterfully evaded capture, but the guilt he feels over leaving his brother squashes Loki's pride with relative haste. "You make me sound like a wild youth."

She shrugs. "Like I've said before, your brother talks about you like you're a teenager. He was so worried, Loki. Really frightened, like he thought he would never see you again. Where were you?"

"In the land of my birth." Loki drops the level of his gaze and begins to pace. "There is a reason I answered your summons. I need your help."

Her brow creases. "Okay. But what can I do?"

"I want you to reconsider your decision not to go to Thor in Asgard," Loki replies.

Jane's confusion only deepens. She looks around at the bleak landscape, as if she's forgotten why she came all the way out here at such a ridiculous hour. "That's not exactly a simple choice."

"Do you love him?"

"I. . . ." Jane blinks a few times before finishing her thought. "I haven't let myself go there. He's not exactly what you would call available."

Women are baffling creatures. "Allow me the opportunity to aid in clarifying your feelings for my brother," Loki says. The words are so sweetly spoken that it's difficult to detect the edge of scorn. "You love him. All love him. It is impossible not to."

Jane hangs her head briefly and does not disagree.

"Many months ago," Loki continues, "I asked Thor to speak to you about what it is like living in Asgard when you are different. I fear I have frightened you away. The Aesir are bullheaded and crass, but beneath their bravado, they are well-meaning. It all boils down to whether or not you care what they think of you. Once you stop striving to earn their regard, it just might find you anyway."

"Well, I could have told you that," Jane says. "That's not why I refused Thor's offer."

It is Loki's turn to be surprised. "Oh?"

"Maybe it's stupid," Jane admits.

Loki's answering smile is tight. He rather hopes it's stupid. He is in need of a good laugh.

"I don't care about getting hurt myself," Jane says. "I'm strong enough to handle it. But I have less than a century left to live, and it could be another thousand years before he even gets a gray hair. Is it fair to ask him to commit to me when what we have is so temporary to him? It feels wrong."

Loki wants very much to look down at Jane Foster as something inherently inferior, but there is a quiet bravery in her that registers with him. She likely doesn't fully realize it, but she is in love with Thor. And anyone willing to go to such lengths to protect his brother's heart is someone Loki would like to see at Thor's side after he has gone.

"There's a saying here," Jane continues. "Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Speaking as someone who will outlive me by thousands of years, do you think that's true? For him, I mean. I already know it would be true for me."

Loki smirks at the irony of her posing this question to him, since he is the one with so very little time left. Only another minute or so until the truth is out. "My previous answer would have been no—the pain isn't worth it, though perhaps for more selfish reasons than what you have stated. Back then, if I had it my way, I would not have loved a single soul in all the Nine Realms. I did my utmost to push the ones I cared about away, in fact—sometimes resorting to violence to do so. Much safer that way. Less chance of getting hurt. But life is not safe, and pain only serves to remind us of how much peace we had before we lost it. When you come around on the other side of grief over a loss, it's easier to see that it was all worth it. Even when it seems there is no purpose to any of it, you can choose to take hold of it and create purpose."

Jane stares at him as if she's caught on that they're no longer talking about her relationship with Thor. "Loki, are you okay? You seem—I don't know—resigned or something. What's going on?"

Loki smiles and crosses his arms over his chest. It is absolutely amazing to him that there is not an ounce of fear in her—to be standing out here in the middle of nowhere with a murderer. "Oh, give it another thirty seconds or so. You'll figure it out."

Time has run out. He must go to the witch now. He can feel her tugging at his borrowed heart as a reminder, and the longer he lingers here, the worse it will get. But he stands his ground and waits for Jane to make up her mind. This is important.

Jane's lips part. She looks even more worried about him after his confusing statement. "My offer is still open, you know. I'm here if you need someone to talk to. I won't tell Thor, if that's what you want."

Loki inclines his head. "I thank you for the offer, but I must tell you that Thor is more in need of it than I am. Will you go to him?"

Jane takes in a few slow breaths as she considers the question. Her jaw tightens resolutely before she nods. "Will you come with me?"

He laughs and kicks at the dusty ground. There's no need for him to answer that question when reality is about to crash down on every person whose life Loki has affected in the last two years. She is a clever girl; she'll figure it out. He is nervous for the moment to come to pass yet dreads it at the same time. The clock ticks down within his chest, dragging him ever closer to his death.

Jane stops breathing. She blinks at him as she hovers in place, unspeaking for quite some time, and Loki knows the moment has come and gone.

He lifts his eyebrows and tilts his head to one side, studying her reaction. "Jane?" he says eventually when she doesn't come up for air.

She takes in a huge breath, her eyes shifting to stare off into nothing. "How?" she gasps. "How?" Of course, that is the first question a scientist would ask. She puts her hands on the side of her head as if it's spinning, and then a look of fear crosses her face. "Oh, my God. Is Thor dead?"

Loki shakes his head. "I told you I would fix it, didn't I?"

Tears appear in her eyes, but she's too dazed to allow them to fall. "What? Oh, my God. Loki, what did you do? How?"

"You will go to my brother, Jane Foster," Loki says. "Tonight. I'm not leaving until you agree. You will call out to Heimdall after I have gone."

Jane is still shocked, but she has enough wits about her to look up at Loki and nod. She understands now. Thor's life is just as temporary as hers is. They could both die tomorrow, regardless of how long their natural lifespans are. Every moment apart is wasted.

Loki relaxes as that realization crosses her face. They will be fine now, and so he turns to walk away.

"Loki," Jane calls after him.

He pauses and waits, a small cloud of dust rising at his feet.

"When you came to me—before." Jane says the word like she isn't certain how to describe the other time-stream. "You said anything was possible for a price. But what was the price?"

Loki laughs and turns to flash her a boyish grin. "Worth it."

Just on the outskirts of London, tucked away on a quiet street of consignment stores, tea rooms, and carefully trimmed hedges, is a tiny shop of Curiosities.

It has been there for as long as anyone can remember, selling medicinal herbs, stones to help focus energy, and the occasional charm to encourage fate in a more favorable direction. There are rumors of pricier items, though very few seem willing to speak on the matter. Or perhaps there are simply so few left to speak of it at all once that price is paid. Weeks often go by with no patrons seen at the door, though the shop continues to thrive all the same. Every morning at precisely ten thirty on the dot, the little sign in the window flips to Open.

Though it is in the middle of the night where Jane is in the American desert, London is only just waking up. Morning sunshine warms his back. That is, until he steps onto the shop's property. Loki's shadow immediately disappears, and he does not even want to take a guess as to why.

Gravel crunches pleasantly beneath his feet as he journeys to the shop's entrance. Cheerful daisies line the pathway, perversely yellow and pulsing with life despite the winter cold. Their healthy existence is all the more disturbing when considering all other vegetation around the property is dead.

Only a sensitive practitioner or medium would detect how extremely wrong the energy around the place is. Not just a small sense of discomfort—but a heart-pounding knowledge that evil truly does exist.

The lines of the shop's structure seem blurred and are difficult to focus on, a product of existing both in the physical and spiritual realms. The place seems to reach and latch on to all who pass, drawing in just a little energy to satiate its endless appetite.

Ceramic garden gnomes line the wooden steps, and Loki takes particular care to keep his eyes on them at all times, lest they think they can fool him when his back is turned. The shop is not open yet, but he doubts she cares. He can see light through the lace-curtained windows. When Loki's fingers stretch to take hold of the doorknob, the door opens itself and creaks open. He sighs and shakes his head. She is ready for him, all right.

The inside of the shop is spotless. Shining wood floors, countertops full of trinkets, a fire burning in the hearth. The walls display a selection of clocks for sale, all of them beating at odd intervals. Only the slightest hint of decay taints the air, disturbing the pleasantness of the scene.

The witch's back is turned to him, though her arms are down at her side as she faces the wall. He cannot think of a single thing she could have been doing in that position, and so he chooses not to think about it at all. Odin had warned him that contemplating her for too long would break his mind, and Loki now believes him.

Though slight in stature, the witch's shadow fills the entire room. Her hair is white but healthy and full of youthful shine. It falls to her waist in a thick sheet, curling ever so slightly at the ends. Though likely older than humankind, she appears as a middle-aged woman. Younger than she should be but timeless nevertheless. She wears a plain white dress, slightly dingy with age and belted at the waist.

When she turns to greet her guest, Loki's borrowed heart lurches when he sees the unexpected blackness of her eyes. They are unblinking—unbearably attentive—all pupil as if she's staring into full darkness. She does not appear completely the same as she did before, perhaps no longer worried about protecting his mind from the full knowledge of what she is.

"Oh, hello, little princeling," she says, a smile on her thin, bloodless lips as she steps away from the wall to approach him. "Right on time, you are. Come in. You caught me in the middle of cleaning up."

Just past her shoulder in the other room, Loki can see the table where he struck his original bargain with her. He flinches and takes a step back—because there at the table, collapsed with his cheek pressed to the lace covering, is his old body. Dead. Glassy eyes staring.

The witch chuckles, showing her yellowing teeth as she savors his reaction. "Would you like some tea before we begin? It warms the blood."

As disturbing as seeing himself dead is, Loki can't help but feel absolutely startled by how different he appears in comparison. The body is thin, a near feral look in his gaze even in death. Over the last two years, Loki has gotten used to this new body, which is healthier and has never been exposed to the trials of the other time-stream, like the Void, Thanos, war, or imprisonment. Bitterness had aged the old Loki and sharpened every line. It is the body of a madman. An orphan with no home or identity. A cast out. A self-made monster. At this realization, Loki no longer feels any connection to his old body. It is absolutely alien to him now, for he is none of those things anymore.

His spine straightens as he returns his attention to the witch. "No, thank you," he says politely. "I'll just wait here until you're ready."

The witch appears delighted by his calm. "Oh, you are a strong one, aren't you? I can smell the fear on you, yet you do not run. Cowardice taints the power of the sacrifice. While you are clever enough to fear me, you are not a coward."

"No, I am not."

As if to prove him wrong, the light in the shop changes, the shadows growing impossibly deeper. Loki turns to look at the window just as little droplets of rain and sleet begin to strike it. Only moments before, the sun had been shining.

Loki's composed demeanor melts away into instant apprehension. He moves to draw back the curtains covering a window and sees black clouds overhead, swirling around like a tempest. It is the last thing he can make out before a wash of frozen rain blurs his view.

"Goodness," the witch says as hail begins to strike the shop's roof. "Your brother must be in quite the mood. How very delightful."

Oh, no. Loki has always worried this might happen. His family's memories have returned and with them came Odin's full understanding of Loki's bargain. But if the All-Father interferes in any way, Thor's life and the current future itself could be in jeopardy if the witch decides their deal is forfeit.

Loki lets the curtains drop and turns to face her. "I did not tell him. I upheld my end of the bargain and ask for no allowances."

"Nor shall you receive any," the witch replies. "But let us not be rude to our guests."

The door opens with an agreeable chime of the bell but strikes the wall so hard that it rattles afterward. Odin strides into the shop, Gungnir in hand, bringing light back into the room along with a gust of wind from outside. His stance is a mountain of absolute fury as he makes eye contact with Loki. Behind him is Thor, who does not pass the threshold.

"Outside," Odin commands Loki. "Now."

"All-Father," the witch purrs as she creeps along the edges of the room. "Your presence here changes nothing. It will all end the same. The bargain is sealed."

Odin's hard gaze shifts to her. "I realize that. I was here when the bargain was made. You will give me a moment alone with my son."

The witch laughs. "Anything you say now will only make the sacrifice cut all the deeper. By all means, feel free to make it worse. You have five minutes before I claim that heart in his chest as my own."

Odin drags Loki outside by the crook of his arm. The shop's porch is covered overhead, but that does not stop the mixture of freezing rain and sleet from finding them. The wind drives it sideways.

As icy raindrops strike his face and neck, Loki gazes at Thor, so hungry for some kind of acknowledgement or connection that his borrowed heart starts to ache. But Thor refuses to meet Loki's eyes. He now knows his little brother is a murderer.

Worse. Loki is his murderer.

Oh, it hurts. Thor is lost to him, and Loki knows he absolutely deserves no better.

With a face full of sorrow, Loki returns his attention to Odin, and his expression soon shifts into dread. He has seen his father in a fury before, but nothing like this. There are several long moments where the old king simply seems past the point where he can formulate sentences.

Loki swallows and says, "Father . . . ."

"Don't," Odin bites out. "There is nothing you can say right now that will not fill me with further rage. Selfish, cruel boy!"

Loki winces, tears shining in his eyes as he just stands there and takes it.

"You do not run away where I cannot find you," Odin shouts at him. "You do not let go and fall where I cannot follow. You do not cast aside my hand of protection as if it is your choice instead of mine. I am your father! Do you have any idea what it felt like to lose you, knowing you were in danger and thinking I didn't love you enough to care? Do you?"

Loki is well-versed in the art of being screamed at by the All-Father. He knows a rhetorical question when he hears one, and so he keeps his mouth shut. Thunder cracks in the air, setting off car alarms in the distance. Thor leans with his fists pressed into the porch railing and stares out into the empty street, drawing in breath after breath as if he's trying not to cry.

"You don't know, do you?" Odin says. "Well, allow me to illustrate. I had this bright, cunning gift of a child, whom I loved as one of my own—and don't you dare question that love again, boy. I instilled in that child my values and believed that one day he would help rule my kingdom once I was gone. And yet here we are. Again and again, you have thrown everything I have ever given you back into my face. You have refused to accept my love, and for the sake of satiating your anger and need to destroy yourself, you have betrayed every single member of your family most grievously. I admit I am far from a perfect father. I have failed you in many ways, but your actions are inexcusable, Loki."

Odin pauses. He wants acknowledgement, and so Loki wets his lips and says, "I know."

But instead of being appeased with the response, Odin's frustrations only seem to grow. "You know nothing. You only ever assume and take hold of your insecurities as hard fact. You blame me for so much of your anger, but I tell you this—I did not let you fall into that abyss, Loki. I was stunned. Imagine, if you will, having a moment of weakness where you knew you failed your child. I fell into the Odinsleep and was not there for you when you needed support the most. And when I woke up, the Bifrost was destroyed, my queen was frantic, and my sons were at each other's throats. And as I'm struggling to understand what in all the Nine Realms is going on, my bright, beautiful youngest child tells me he has caused all of this destruction to make me proud. Please interrupt me if you remember this differently."

As Loki's eyes close, tears spill down his cheeks. Just like seeing the dead body inside, he knows he needs to look at this and recognize it for what it is.

"What did you think I would say to that, Loki?" Odin asks. "You seem to expect perfection from me, but I am just as flawed as you. The only word that came to my mind in that most perplexing of moments was No. I regret that. I wish I had better understood how far gone you were. You were mad with desperation, but I didn't know that. Had you not let go, I would have hauled you back onto that bridge, and after I screamed at you until your eardrums ruptured, do you know what I would have done? Helped you."

The last two words make Loki wince. There are no excuses left. Nowhere else to go except to face this truth head on. After all, what else has Odin been trying to do but help him, ever since Loki accused his father of letting him fall?

"Since you were the rightful king at that time, there was no crime against Asgard," Odin says, "though there were many against your family. But what you tried on Midgard—in Asgard's name I might add—now that was a crime. Instead of falling upon your family to help you, you chose to let go and sink ever further into your anger. And not an ounce of remorse to be seen, even after your brother dragged you back to my court. Oh, the smugness in you, even clothed in chains. Excuse after excuse. Do you honestly blame me for locking you away in the dungeons as I struggled to understand what happened to you? And then more betrayals. Letting us think you died in Svartalfheim. Attacking your brother so brutally on Midgard."

Loki's eyes open to stare at Thor's back, which looks so wrong as it shuts him out. "I didn't mean to hurt him."

"But you did, Loki!" Odin shouts. "You hurt him so badly, it killed him."

Loki's lips tremble as he presses them together. Odin is right, and there is absolutely nothing Loki can say to justify this.

"You deserve banishment," Odin says. "Disownment. Execution. It is high time you grew up and learned to handle the consequences of your choices. This falls on you."

"I know." Loki's voice is quiet now, as if he's drifted off somewhere alone.

Odin stares at him, still panting with anger, but his tone is softer when he speaks again. "You truly accept these things? You're not simply agreeing with me to shut me up?"

Loki gives a tired shrug as he wipes tears and raindrops from his face. "I am here, aren't I? Fear not, All-Father. Justice will be served."

Odin's breaths begin to slow little by little. "Oh, my boy," he says, his voice shaky with emotion. "There was a time I feared someone had gutted out your soul after you fell from Asgard. The light was gone from your eyes when I saw you again, and I thought perhaps you were just a shell of your former self, come to torment me while I grieved for my son. But I see him here now before me, and you cannot fathom how relieved I am. Loki, do you have any idea how much you've grown? I don't think you truly comprehend it, and somehow that makes me even prouder of you, though I doubt you did it for me. Well done, my boy."

Loki's face has long since crumpled with emotion. He knows he has done wrong, and now he also knows Odin still loves him anyway. It makes it better and worse all at the same time. "I'm sorry, father," Loki says as he begins to weep. "I'm so sorry."

Odin is ready to catch him up in his arms when Loki goes in for the embrace. They have not hugged for years and years, and Loki has absolutely no recollection of why. There is no one capable of squeezing him so tight or making him feel like the center of every universe. Even Thor, with all his fierce affection, cannot match the utter ferocity of their father. Odin is the one Thor learned it from.

"It's all right," Odin says as he cradles the back of his son's neck. "You're all right. I've got you, my boy."

But a bargain is a bargain, and even the All-Father cannot hope to fight a demon.

As he accepts the knife—with Thor anxiously pacing the edges of the room, his breaths coming hard, and Odin at his youngest son's side, his hand still firmly grasping the back of his neck—Loki decides this is better than dying alone.

The witch chuckles as she watches, her teeth spread apart as if she's been starving for this moment for years.

The knife catches the light as Loki brings the point to his chest. His fingers readjust themselves, gripping tighter. He will have to strike hard to break through his sternum.

He tries to think of things that make him happy—like the smell of coffee beans or his blissfully quiet chambers in Jotunheim, where he sat for hours watching the way the glacier light reflected so beautifully off of the golden replica of Yggdrasil that his father had given him. He thinks about his mother's voice reading him stories as a child, and of Thor's youthful laughter cutting through the evening stillness as they chased each other through the reeds by the river. He thinks about the pride he always felt when walking behind his father, fitting his little feet within the great footprints Odin's boots left.

"Courage, Loki," Odin murmurs in his ear. "Just like last time."

"I can't do it," Loki says.

He is seven years old and small for his age. The training room's dirt floor is cold beneath him, yet he does not try to get up. He glares at the wooden practice sword in front of him, which only seconds before, was knocked out of his grasp. He hates it. It feels so cumbersome, a little too large for his delicately boned hands, as if he is not meant to wield such things at all. But every boy in Asgard has already mastered its use, and Loki has fallen behind. Being the son of the king does not protect him from ridicule. If anything, it only invites more.

Odin's shadow falls over him. "Yes, you can. On your feet. Push yourself."

Thor would have no difficulty getting up. Thor would not have fallen in the first place.

Odin does not say these things out loud, and so Loki's mind fills in the blanks for him. He reaches out and takes hold of the sword. His fingers ache from where Odin knocked it out of his hand. "I'm sorry, father. I thought I was."

"No, Loki," Odin replies. "I have yet to see you try. You are afraid of failure and disapproval, and so you stop before you invest the practice time needed to truly master a skill. Choose what you want your future to look like, and then fight for it. What do you want to be when you are my age?"

Loki is far too young to comprehend the full meaning behind Odin's words, but he does understand the last question. His face lights up as he says, "I want to be like you."

Odin's eye sparkles at him. He is pleased. "Then I suggest you get off your ass."

There is a brief moment of surprise, but then Loki smiles hesitantly, his lips pressed together before they split apart in a grin. His mother would make such a fuss if she heard his father curse in such a way, and Loki has earned more than a few punishments for making use of that very same word himself. This will be their secret. Though Loki doesn't always understand his father's ways, sometimes Odin is simply the best.

"On your feet, Loki," Odin says again, his tone affectionate but unyielding. "You are Odinson, and you are stronger than you realize. Do not ever allow yourself to be defeated by defeat."

Loki's little knees ache from striking the ground. His right hand is scraped and raw from where he caught himself. But he gets up because his father is watching, and it's not so difficult to want to try for him.

"Back straight," Odin says. "Chin high. Yes—that is what I want to see right there. Never let your opponent sense fear or doubt, even when that's all you feel. Courage is not about never experiencing fear. That is unreasonable. It is about mastering your reaction to it."

"I'm not afraid," Loki says. His hands are trembling. He is terrified he will fail at his first set of trials tomorrow. But he mimics his father's stance, lifts his chin ever higher, and glares back with determination.

Odin smiles. "There's my brave boy."

Back straight and chin held high, Loki drives the knife home.

The lack of pain confuses him at is familiar enough with death to know it's a process and not nearly as quick as others would like to think. But where is the pain lighting his nerve endings on fire? Where is the slow drift into numbness? His mind and vision are focused as he opens his eyes to see the knife sticking out of his chest. But there is nothing. No pain. No blood. He pulls the knife out and stares at the perfectly clean silver blade.

Instead of dying, his heart feels suddenly . . . right. In a way it hasn't felt in a very long time.

A gasp of pain draws his attention away, and Loki's lips part in utter horror as he sees the blood streaming down from Odin's chest instead.

"What?" Loki says. He drops the knife like it has bitten him. "Father."

He reaches out to help Odin, who has started to crumple to the ground. "Take him, Thor," Odin gasps as he's laid down. Blood spatters his lower lip.

"What did I do?" Loki shouts, suddenly filled with panic. "I don't understand. I didn't mean to hurt you."

He feels a hand grasp his shoulder and slaps it away. His heart feels so strange. Though it hammers wildly in his chest, he cannot shake the feeling that something within him has been set right again. His borrowed heart never once felt natural to him, ever since his fall back into time. He has always been aware of the unfamiliar way it beats. Though he had assumed he had "borrowed" it from his younger self, a new kind of horror fills Loki as he stares at his father.

As Thor again tries to pull his brother away, it suddenly dawns on Loki that Thor is holding Gungnir. The rest hits him like a slap to the face.

"What did you do?" Loki demands, even though he has already figured it out.

Odin must have made a deal with the witch before Loki did. It is his father's heart that he borrowed. If at any time it stopped beating, it would not be Loki who died—but Odin would fall in his place. Of course, the All-Father's life would have been more valuable to the witch than Loki's. Had Odin planned this from the start? Had he purposely misled Loki with coldness so that he wouldn't suspect and back out of the bargain before it was sealed? As always, Loki has never been willing to look far enough into the future to see what trouble he has brought down on himself, and so his father did it for him.

Odin smiles. His face has gone peaceful. He is fading fast. "It's all right, my boy," he whispers. "I've caught you."

It's the last thing he says before the light goes out of his eye.

Tears spill onto Loki's cheeks as he physically reels back. He is breathing in so fast that the air never quite makes it out again; his lungs will not expand any further. Thor's arms are around him now, hauling him backwards toward the door. "No!" Loki shouts as he again pulls away.

The brothers begin to struggle in earnest, and the witch laughs almost endearingly at the scene before her. "It was a pleasure doing business with you, little princeling," she says. "Do come again."

"You give him back, give him back!" Loki screams at her. "I will kill you!"

The threat only makes her laugh harder.

It takes every bit of Thor's strength to pull his little brother out of the front door and outside into the freezing rain, where he shouts for Heimdall to open the Bifrost.

When they land at the Observatory, Loki fights Thor harder than he ever has in his life—not to hurt him but to simply get away. He has to go back to help his father. He has to take his place and set this right.

As he battles to break free, he realizes they are not alone. Not only is Heimdall there at the Observatory, but so are the Warriors Three and Sif. Jane is nowhere to be seen, perhaps the least of Heimdall's worries. Thor's teeth grit as he struggles to hold onto his brother, and Fandral has to come help him. Together they hold Loki down until he's weeping and shouting and cursing at them all. Hogun twists his arms behind his back to attach the handcuffs that will prevent usage of his powers, and Volstagg holds his legs down to keep him from kicking his opponents away.

Sif watches, pale-faced and clearly upset. In her hands is a muzzle, but she doesn't move forward to put it on him.

"Sif," Fandral says, his face bright red as he strains against Loki's surprising display of strength. "A little help, if you don't mind?"

But Sif only shakes her head. "Just let him scream it out. No one can hear him here but us."

The walk back to the palace is excruciating.

Never has the length of the Rainbow Bridge felt quite this long—not even after the Battle of New York. Every step is one Loki never thought he would take again, and he drags his feet, his head bowed so low that his chin nearly touches his chest. All of it is so wrong. It should be Odin here instead of him. This repaired future was Loki's apology to them all and not one he ever intended to live in himself. He does not deserve a single beat of his newly restored heart, and every person around him knows that just as well as he does.

The city beyond the bridge is filled with commotion. People pack the streets, talking out their confusion with each other, the sound of their voices audible long before the crowds come into view. Sif, the Warriors Three, and Heimdall surround Loki with their weapons drawn, mostly hiding him from view at their center, but he can hear the citizens' reactions nonetheless. Their words are a mixture of anger, gratefulness, surprise, and bewilderment. Some of them hug family members or friends, their faces covered in tears as they realize a death has been undone. Many simply stand there, absolutely astounded.

The God of Mischief has certainly played a masterful trick on them this time. They have no idea what has happened, but without even asking, they seem to know exactly who to blame.

When Loki passes them by, they all fall silent, uncertain what to say or think. He is a traitor and a murderer in one time, and a respected prince and former king in another.

Perhaps the people would be more daring if not for the intimidating sight of Thor marching in front of the group, Mjolnir in one hand and Gungnir in the other. His expression is made of stone—full of determination and absolutely zero patience. Raindrops begin to pelt the crowd, and a sudden swell of wind and lightning sends them all scrambling back into their houses and shops. By the time the hail starts, the streets are empty, and the group has reached the palace grounds.

As they come to the great entryway, bringing a gust of wind into the palace with them, two Council elders rush up to Thor to inquire where the All-Father is. Thor places one fist on each of their chests, a weapon gripped in each set of fingers, and gently inspires them both to get out of his way. The palace halls are filled, just as the city streets were. Guards, servants, and others have all come to stare and whisper.

Loki wants very much for the ground to split open and swallow him whole. But if his continued existence has taught him anything, death would reject him anyway.

They take him to the dungeons, of course. Where else would a murderer go?

Rainwater drips from Loki's hair and clothing as Volstagg unlocks the bindings on his wrists. Every part of Loki's body aches from his wrestling match against them all. He is exhausted and in pain, both physically and mentally. Once the bindings are removed, everyone files out of the cell except for Thor, who is finally—finally—looking at Loki.

And oh, how Loki wants his brother to look away again. Thor's rage is a fearsome sight. The look is not purely made of anger but also brims with the worst kind of betrayal and grief. He is practically in tears from it all. Thor has lost his father and his trust in his brother in one fell swoop.

Loki does not attempt to offer an apology. He has already told his brother a dozen times how sorry he is, though without disclosing the full reason why. If Thor hadn't heard him then, he certainly will not accept it now. Loki regrets not pushing his brother away from the start. It would have been kinder than to allow Thor to love him and then feel this kind of heartache now. Perhaps he gave Jane the wrong advice after all.

He would not blame Thor one bit if he wrestled him to the floor and strangled him to death, but that doesn't stop Loki from backing up in fear as Thor marches forward to confront him. Though it is in his full rights to take out his vengeance on the one who robbed him of his life, Thor does not hurt his brother. He only grips Loki by the front of his clothes and shakes him hard, letting out a cry of frustration right in his face.

Loki's back hits the wall as he's shoved away, and he's left shaking and stunned as he watches his brother storm out, leaving him alone in the cell. He slides down until he's sitting on the floor, the side of one hand pressed to his lips in a futile effort to keep the emotion locked away inside of him. His shoulder throbs with every beat of his restored heart.

He understands Thor's anger, but that doesn't mean it hurts any less. There is so much else that doesn't make sense at all—such as why Odin All-Father, King of Asgard and Protector of the Nine Realms, would lay down his life for him. And Odin hadn't even done it in this time-stream but in the prior one, when Loki did not fully understand why he deserved to die. He cannot wrap his mind around it.

Never in Loki's life has he felt more ashamed or grieved.

Or so loved by his father.

To be concluded.

A/N – Almost there. One chapter to go, and it's not what you would call a simple one. If you have a moment, I'd love to know what you thought. I honestly have no idea how people might react to this chapter, so I'm curious.

As always, thank you for reading. Try not to be too hard on Thor. He's had a bit of a rough day. :(

Chapter Text

A/N – Just to clarify what has happened with the memories of the prior timeline, people now have a full mental understanding of what happened in both timelines. In other words, they remember everything. However, only the current timeline now exists as physical reality. Things that were changed from the prior timeline did not revert back to the way they were before. Hope that helps.

Chapter 26

On the first night of Loki's imprisonment, Jane tells him that his trial will take place in exactly one week.

"I'm not sure why waiting that long was so important to him," Jane says, "but I'm glad he was firm with the Council. Thor needs time to . . . think."

Loki watches her face without any hint of expression on his own. She pretends not to notice the attention as she dabs ointment on his knuckles, which are bloodied and bruised. He's sitting on the ground with his back to the wall, and Jane kneels before him, an armed guard standing on each side of her. There is an angry, red smear on the wall above Loki's right shoulder that caused some concern, but so far, he has only attempted to hurt himself.

As he stares at Jane, he cannot figure out why she's here. He asked her to come to Asgard for Thor's sake—so why is she in the dungeons wasting medical supplies? Eventually Loki looks away again. He tries to remember why he hates her so much, but he's simply too exhausted to care.

On the second day of Loki's imprisonment, Jane chews on her thumbnail as she considers the untouched pile of bedding that she brought him the previous night. The blanket is still perfectly folded, and the pillow hasn't a single crease. Beside them is a neat pile of peeled-off bandages, and Loki's knuckles are again wrecked.

He has not yet made it through the second stage of grief.

There are tears in Jane's eyes as she opens up the jar of ointment. She says nothing while she tends to his wounds, but before she goes, she moves to give him a hug. It is an awkward, one-sided gesture since he is sitting on the ground with his legs held tight to his chest. But she endures it patiently and doesn't let go as she says, "Thank you for saving him. You said you would do it, and you did. Thank you, Loki. Will you try not to hurt yourself again? Please?"

By the third day, Loki has broken his hand. After the healers have mended it, he is made to wear bindings around his wrists to prevent him from doing further harm to himself. As he studies the intricately designed manacles, he wonders if everyone is so lacking in creativity. They sincerely seem to think this will stop him.

His bedding remains untouched, along with the books Jane brought him. He hasn't spoken a word in days, nor will he eat or drink. Loki is on strike. He should not be in the land of the living, and so he does what he can to remedy that. It's the only way he can think of to prove to his brother that he is truly sorry. That he never meant for it to happen this way. That he really did intend to die and leave them all in a happier future.

Thor comes on the fourth day and silently oversees the work of the healers as they reconstruct Loki's crushed hand. He has done such a marvelous job destroying it that the process of making it whole again takes more than an hour. Thor glares at his brother for every second of it, and Loki is too filled with shame to meet his eyes. The hour passes in silence, and once they're finally alone, Thor says exactly three words before he leaves again. Loki swallows back a choking wave of emotion and consents to finally eating his breakfast.

His wrists are left unshackled—almost like Thor daring him to try it one more time—but Loki doesn't attempt to hurt himself. He can't bear to see that look on his brother's face again. It seems like no matter what Loki does, it always results in Thor getting hurt.

On the fifth day, after a night of pacing and fretting, Loki discovers he is still furious and now has no physical outlet for it. Unfortunately, consuming food as given him enough energy to put some real effort into pondering why. How dare Odin do this to him. How dare he think he could just throw his life away for Loki. A god dying for a Jotunn, of all things. He and Odin are not even connected by blood. Not even the same race. It makes no sense. Loki is a monster and a murderer—just like Laufey, who had waited in his very same cell for a week for his own trial to take place. Loki paces because he can't escape the feeling that he is only the mirror image of his birth father and his hateful choices. Helplessly defined and held fast to a fate that was determined by the past actions of others.

But Loki loses interest in these thoughts after a few hours and pays no further attention to the voices in his head. The anger is an old wound inside of him that has left a scar but has no festering infection trapped inside. He doesn't really believe those things anymore. He'll pick at the scabs at a later time. Perhaps after supper.

By the sixth day of his imprisonment, Loki has burned through the final vestiges of his rage and has at last exited the second stage of grief. As he's contemplating the third, a visitor arrives, and she is quite possibly the last person he ever expected to see in Asgard.

Natasha Romanoff leans her weight against the opposite wall and stares down at him, completely unmoved by the sight of him so pathetic and wrecked. She's dressed in casual clothing—jeans and a fitted leather jacket—and possesses a distractingly large piece of chewing gum in her mouth.

"Rough day?" she asks.

Loki licks his dry lips and lifts a defiant eyebrow in her direction, a smirk firmly in place, as if to ask her what the fuck she thinks. There is no need to wear a mask around her anymore. He doesn't even try.

One side of her mouth pulls into a half-smile, and he can't help but marvel over how different she appears. He is not the only one who has removed the mask. This isn't Natalie Rushman, nor is she the Black Widow. He has never met this person before. In his head, he refers to her simply as Natasha.

"I've come to talk about your defense strategy," Natasha says. "Your trial is tomorrow, you know."

Loki's shoulders begin to shake. He's grinning a few seconds later and then soon forced to cover his mouth with one hand to keep the laughter at bay. "Defense strategy?" he says, his voice cracking from disuse. They are the first words he's spoken in nearly a week. "Exactly what am I defending myself against?"

"From what I've gathered, there's an angry Council screaming for you to be put to death."

He laughs again. Mocking, derisive. Odin would be proud. "The question still stands, Agent Romanoff."

"Fair enough." Natasha tilts her head to the side as if the new angle might help her see him better. "So you want to die, huh?"

"Well, it's not a question of want so much as should."

"I see. You think you're deserving of death. That's interesting." She crosses her arms over her chest and readjusts the position of her back on the wall. "You see, back when we first met, I had you pegged as a psychopath. Kind of a no-brainer, to be honest. But then we met again last year when I didn't remember anything from our first encounter, and I was thinking more along the lines that you might be a sociopath. You know, the general lack of empathy, the overabundant charm, and the bold-faced lies you think you're so good at hiding. Now I'm starting to think my experience is not quite well-rounded enough to define you. You've got some layers beneath that snark."

Loki sneers at her. "Tell me again why you're here?"

"You have no idea what's been going on this past week, do you?"

"Alas, I seem to be incarcerated if you have yet to notice."

"Okay. Here's a recap. People want you dead. Your brother is a little lost right now, and so he's called for reinforcements. Witnesses, if you will."

Loki rolls his eyes toward the ceiling. "Oh, good god."

Natasha shrugs. "Mock if you will. It makes no difference to me, but here's the way I see it. There's no evidence of your prior crimes. None. It never happened in this future, and you can't be judged for something you never did."

He snorts, eyes still aimed upward and showing no sign of descending. "Oh, that's good. I like that. You know, you sound nearly as mad as I literally am. Company at last. Do go on."

"Though I can't speak for you, I can assure you that I'm not crazy. Exactly how can they prove a crime that didn't happen?"

"You are reaching, Agent Romanoff. The last time I checked, first hand accounts of a crime still count as damning evidence. If you've witnessed something, say, in another time, then you can testify that it indeed took place."

"True. But you're forgetting that there is still no actual crime. No dead bodies. No destroyed city. No crater in the earth. Unless, of course, you've been busy behind everyone's back in this alternate future, in which case, this defense won't help you. Have you done anything that would qualify as a crime in this future?"

Loki sighs and lets his head fall back against the wall with an all too pleasing thud. In another life, he would be entrenched in figuring out how to get himself out of this mess. Now he just wants to sleep. "Will you please go away? I did not ask for your counsel."

"You know what's really funny to me?" she says. "Let's set aside all the discussion of murder and destruction for a minute and talk about something personal. When you were on Earth, you could have taken advantage of a situation with me in that hotel room. You didn't. And let me tell you—if you had, you would be a bloody stain on the floor right now, and I would be the one arguing for your execution. But again, you didn't. That kind of thing gets my attention. So tell me—why didn't you go there?"

Loki chuckles, his teeth flashing wolfishly. "How graphic do you want me to be with my answer? Though I must warn you, I have quite the vocabulary."

She's smiling now, head shaking back and forth and eyes narrowed as if she's finally starting to nail down his character. "Whatever. Keep deflecting if that makes you feel secure. You didn't take advantage of me because I didn't know who you really were at the time. You didn't think it was morally right to go there when I didn't have all the facts. Am I right?"

"Go away."

"And you won't even admit that you did something noble. Not only have you turned over a new leaf, but you're embarrassed about it. Or embarrassed of the past, at least—of what you were before."

"You mean, a monster?" Loki says. She's called him that very thing in the past, and so he pulls out that mask and slides it into place—the unblinking, unrepentant eyes and the wide-mouthed smile, so utterly delighted with the chaos he has wrought. This is the absolute masterpiece in the portfolio of his lies. "There is no before, Agent Romanoff. I am what I have always been and ever shall be. You simply didn't have the full picture until now."

Natasha's expression doesn't change in the slightest. "I've been there, you know. I understand what it feels like to want to destroy yourself. Guilt and self-hatred are not easy things to defeat, especially with others watching and judging you. It's nearly impossible if there's no one there to believe you're capable of it. Loki, this is me telling you I think you're capable of it. You proved that to me without even meaning to. I could help you learn to live with it, but somehow I don't think convincing you that you deserve a second chance is going to be a simple task."

Loki laughs, the mask still set in place. It doesn't feel quite natural there anymore—his muscles feel stretched and strained as they struggle to maintain it—but he doesn't care. He'll wear it to the end.

She stares at him for a long moment before adding, "You're going to sabotage your own trial, aren't you? You want to lose."

Well, of course he does. Loki is in the bargaining stage of grief. In a way, he's been trapped there for years and years—long before Thor's death—desperately trying to find his story's end. If he dies, there will be no more grief because he is the Source Of It All. That is his bargain.

It's time for it to stop, and so the monster only laughs again in response to her question. She's clever enough to figure out why.

After she's gone, Loki lets the mask fall away. The muscles in his face ache afterward from the strain. He has only enough energy to pretend when others are around. He'll need to conserve his anger for tomorrow, or there won't be enough to last through the trial. He is so very tired of trying to maintain it.

He wishes desperately that Thor had not chosen to wait a week before sentencing him. Loki remembers the way Frigga had asked him to do the very same thing and how much his decision had changed in that short time. It was like sending him to a time-out corner until he had calmed down.

Thor must not calm down in this situation—nor must Loki, though that is proving to be something of a struggle.

With an impatient sigh, Loki looks around for something with which to pass the time. He does not give the books Jane brought him any attention, for he does not want to reap any benefits from kindness right now. Instead he calls upon the book Natasha once gave him on Midgard—Le Petit Prince—which he had hidden away with the rest of his treasures before his escape to Jotunheim. There was no kindness in her when she'd given it to him. She was studying and manipulating him, and so he'll give it a pass.

He turns the children's novella over in his hands, glaring down at it as if it's a mirror. Ever since he first read it, the words have been like an itch in his mind he's unable to locate. He opens the book to a page he has marked and stares down at the words he has long since memorized.

Translated, it says, "Of course I'll hurt you. Of course you'll hurt me. Of course we will hurt each other. But this is the very condition of existence. To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter. To become presence, means accepting the risk of absence."

Gritting his teeth, Loki rips the book apart at the binding and throws it into the energy barrier of his cell. When it isn't sufficiently destroyed, he sets it on fire with a wave of his hand.

But it doesn't do him any good. He has read it too many times, and the words ring in his head even as they burn. "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."

It's not quite the exact kind of anger he was looking for to feed upon—but it will do.

Lady Sif comes for him on the seventh day, sent to fetch him for the trial.

The set of her jaw is tight, and her eyes burn with disapproval as she watches the guards fasten chains to Loki's hands and feet. In her own hands is a muzzle.

Loki smiles pleasantly at her, his expression full of every ounce of biting sarcasm he can manage. "My lady. Why ever do you hesitate? You know you're just dying to see me humbled. Let's have it then. Don't be shy."

Her cheeks flush with fresh anger. "And why do you think I would enjoy that?"

Loki blinks twice. That isn't the response he was anticipating. Sif glares up at him with intimidating intensity, but it does not feel like contempt. He isn't certain what it is, but the vulnerability beneath it leaves him slightly shaken. Instead of needling an enemy, he feels like he has disappointed a friend.

"The purpose of the muzzle is not to shut you up or humble you," Sif says. "It is to force you to listen and prevent you from making it worse."

Something shines in her eyes that Loki does not want to think about, and so he pretends not to see it as he intensifies the ire behind his smile. He wants it to be the last thing she sees before she puts the muzzle on him. Apparently, she still needs convincing that he deserves this.

Sif shakes her head sadly. "If you will not keep silent for your own sake, then find it in yourself to do it for your brother. This is killing him, Loki. When are you ever going to figure out that trying to destroy yourself doesn't only hurt you?"

Loki's smile fades away just before the muzzle is fitted into place.

"Make way for the king!" a guard shouts.

It is midday, when the prisoners are typically tried, and the throne room is filled to bursting. Loki is careful not to look at anyone as Sif and the Warriors Three escort him inside. For his own amusement, Loki pretends the guard was announcing his arrival. He stands at the center of his ex-friends, bound and muzzled, and tries to give the illusion that he does not give a single damn. But it is merely that now—an illusion. Try as he may, he cares very much.

Sif's words trouble him, but she doesn't seem to understand that Loki knows very well that he is the source of Thor's pain. That's the very reason he wants it all to end—to protect everyone else. Especially Thor, who has repeatedly been caught up and even fatally injured in the path of Loki's self-destruction. What other choice is there but to ensure that he dies, once and for all?

The throne room is still damaged from Malekith's attack. Though the rubble is cleared, the reconstruction will take time. Great scaffolding is set up all around the hall, most of the focus set on rebuilding the supporting columns to ensure the upper floors do not collapse. The throne room feels different this way, with the fresh air and light from outside pouring in. It leaves Loki feeling strangely at peace—like everything might work itself out and prove to be all right in the end—and he does not like that one bit.

And so he puts the mask back in place and allows the monster to fix his gaze on the newly crowned King of Asgard, who stands on the platform beneath the throne. Loki has very few things left in his possession with which to speak to his brother, and so he fills his stare and his swagger with confidence, amusement, defiance, and delight. And most importantly, a promise to do it all over again and again until everything is reduced to ash.

(kill me, you fool)

(before i get to you first)

It is not an easy expression to hold, for his older brother looks so very tired. Loki is not the only one who has undergone a slow change through the years. Gone is the reckless, arrogant warrior whose reign as king Loki once feared. Thor's eyes now hold a quiet sadness. There is strength still beneath it, but it has been tested and pushed to the breaking point. The arrogance has been beaten out of him, along with his innocence.

Others are present as well. Heimdall stands at the rear of the hall in the place he has always preferred—a distant overseer. Certain Council members that Loki has long since considered enemies stand at the front of the crowd, their accusations ready. Loki gives them a heartfelt nod of approval. Natasha also stands near the front, along with Helblindi and Byleistr. Loki assumes they are to serve as the representatives from the realms that he has aimed his wrath at. He makes certain not to look at them so that they can feel exactly how much he does not care about them.

(get away from me, all of you)

(run before you are burned)

Jane is there as well, though Loki does not notice her at first. She stands in the shadows to the right of the throne in quiet support of Thor. It is where Frigga often stood during trials when she did not wish to pressure or be in the way. Loki also nods at her, a silent thank you. Thor will have somewhere safe to fall when this is over.

There is murmuring in the hall but not so much to make it difficult to be heard. "I would like to remind those present that the prisoner is not a true member of the royal family," a member of Council shouts, his voice carrying over the din. "No special preference should be given to him."

Cries of approval, along with some mutters of dissent. Loki looks sharply at the man, who is audacious indeed. Who would dare speak to the King of Asgard in such a way?

(shut him down, brother)

Loki turns his attention back to Thor and waits for Gungnir's base to strike the floor to demand silence. It does not come. Loki's eyes narrow.

(what's wrong with you?)

(they will eat you alive if you don't show your teeth to them first)

Thor waits for silence to fall, and eventually it does. His face is like stone. His hand grips Gungnir like he's not fully convinced it belongs to him yet—like someone handed it over unexpectedly and then disappeared. Loki understands exactly what that feels like.

It's then that he notices that Thor's knuckles are bloodied. Loki swallows back a sudden feeling of nausea. He doesn't know how to make this any easier on his brother.

When Thor finally speaks, his voice is quiet but carries easily. "Before the All-Father died, he made me swear certain oaths. To cast aside my own ambition and wants. To guard the Nine Realms and to preserve the peace. I am the King of Asgard now, and so my ambitions and wants have nothing to do with any of this. No ties to family can get in the way. Loki Odinson, you stand accused by your people, and so I am here to listen to the evidence and lay down a judgment."

Applause from a portion of the Council. There are other reactions as well. Shakes of the head. Looks of pity or curiosity aimed in Loki's direction. To his right, Sif readjusts her grip on her weapon and gazes warily at the crowd.

Oh, of course. This is all very familiar. Thor obviously paid close attention to Laufey's trial when Loki had made this same point. It feels very different being on the receiving end of it—and yet achingly familiar. Odin had made him feel like this before after the Battle of New York. Loki now knows he deserves it—that he made the choice to commit so many atrocities and should not expect to be saved—but it still hurts. He has no protection from his brother here.

(nor do you want it)

(remember yourself, laufeyson)

"We have a witness from Midgard," someone calls out. "Let's hear what she has to say."

"Indeed," Thor says, as calm as ever. His style of responding to the people—of actually listening to what they have to say—is off-putting to Loki. Thor should shut them up and tell them the way it will be. "Lady Natasha of Midgard has come as a representative for their interests," Thor continues. "What charges do you bring against the prisoner?"

The murmuring dies down as people strain to hear. Loki lifts his chin and straightens his posture, ready to stand proud at the forefront of his crimes. Yet in the back of his mind, he already knows what's coming. How dare his enemies conspire against him like this.

"No charges," Natasha says. "I'm unaware of any crimes committed by the prisoner."

(stupid, idiotic woman)

The Council agrees whole-heartedly with him. They rise up in outrage, calling her ridiculous.

"On Earth, we don't judge someone when there is no evidence of a crime," Natasha replies once they've quieted enough to allow her to speak.

"But these things still happened," someone shouts. "He killed people. In Asgard's name, I might add."

"Do you have a list of names?" Thor asks. "People who are currently dead at the hands of the prisoner? I know of no such deaths."

Sputtering. Floundering.

Loki closes his eyes and lets out a sigh. This cannot be happening.

"A year ago, the prisoner came to Earth," Natasha says. "I was assigned to watch you both, and we also had you under constant surveillance. I can attest with confidence that there were no murders or other crimes committed by him during his stay. In fact, he helped us defend ourselves against an alien attack."

"The very same attack he incited before!" someone calls out.

Natasha shrugs. "Where is the proof of that? Give me hard, physical evidence, and I'll be happy to give it due consideration. However, I don't think it exists."

Loki hates everything and everyone. Had Sif not put this accursed muzzle on him, he would be giving them all a very detailed rundown of exactly how depraved he really is. And yet with every passing moment, the tiny crack in his resolve spreads deeper—because Sif had put the muzzle on him for this exact reason. She wants him to stop and listen. She wants him not to ruin this.

For some reason, Loki hears Odin's voice in his head. A private conversation from the past, moments after he was crowned king. A plea not to destroy his hard work before his father has a chance to see it.

There are people present who are anxious to see Loki executed, yes—but there are many others who are not. Not everyone cheers when a point is made against him. There are just as many people shaking their heads or shouting back an argument. Even those with hard, unforgiving looks in their eyes are falling silent and choosing to hold back judgment. The voices of dissent become unexpectedly hesitant.

And Thor stands silent while it all echoes through the throne room around them, staring at Loki hard as others come to his aid without him even asking. The King of Asgard might not be able to help him, but that did not mean Loki was alone.

He did not expect any of this. He does not deserve to be defended, and yet Sif and the Warriors Three surround him with their weapons ready. Loki isn't a simpleton. He knows they aren't here to make sure he doesn't escape but rather here to defend Loki against anyone who might try to hurt him. Just like they had at Frigga's funeral.

This is too much. All of it, ridiculous. He is a murderer. The son of a monster.

He remembers something else Odin once said to him. The very same three words Thor had spoken to him on the fourth day of his imprisonment.

(odinson or laufeyson?)

Loki flinches.

He is trying so very hard to be one of those things and yet now knows damn well he's the other. Why won't they just let him pretend to be a monster and be done with it?

The trial goes on. Loki's prior crimes on Midgard were by far his most treasonous, and now those have been dismissed. The Council regroups, having lost the biggest argument they had. They begin reaching for his other crimes. The incident with the Bifrost comes up.

But Thor only looks calmly to his watchman in response to the accusation. "Heimdall, are you aware of any destruction of the Bifrost Observatory?"

"I am not, my king," Heimdall says from the rear of the hall. "The structure is sound."

"Then again, I am not certain how that is a valid argument against the prisoner," Thor says. "Particularly when taking into account that it was me who destroyed it in the prior time."

"But his actions led to it," a Councilman argues. "He turned the power of the Bifrost on Jotunheim—our allies—and he had to be stopped. He did the exact same thing in this time as well."

"I am aware of that," Thor replies. "And he did so both times while serving as the King of Asgard. Are you questioning that authority?" There is a dangerous edge to the words. Thor is really asking if they're questioning his authority.

Beneath his muzzle, Loki smiles.



(show them your teeth, brother)

"I would never question the authority of my king," the Councilman says. "But I do question the prisoner's right to Asgard's throne. Loki Laufeyson does not possess royal blood."

Byleistr's derisive laughter cuts through the noise. Helblindi gently shushes him but wears a look of incredulous amusement that matches his brother's. Loki stares at them, allowing himself to really look for the first time since he arrived, and realizes how angry his brothers are on his behalf.


(i nearly destroyed your entire realm)


"Let me clarify," the Councilman says. "The prisoner does not possess the royal blood of Odin. He is not Aesir and has no right to sit upon Asgard's throne."

"I think you'll find that the All-Father was quite detailed in the legal adoption paperwork," Thor says. "We can bring the documents out for inspection if you'd like. There is an entire section that speaks of Loki Odinson's birthright, and the throne of Asgard is listed there. The All-Father is the one who put him on the throne, if you remember."

"And in the prior timeline?"

"The queen put him there," Thor replies. "And why wouldn't she? I was banished, and so the throne legally fell to Loki. Again, I fail to see how this is a relevant argument."

Loki is practically shaking with anger. He wants to mention the third time he took the throne—when Odin fell asleep after Loki's supposed death in Svartalfheim. No one properly put him on the throne then, and it was not long before he used that power to attack his brother most cruelly. But even if he weren't muzzled, Thor would likely only argue that the line still legally fell to Loki. Thor had refused the throne when it was offered to him, after all.

(you utter fool)

(you are trying to save the same person who killed you)

"And does the King of Jotunheim have nothing to say against this?" another Council member shouts. "It is not only Asgard or Midgard in question here."

Loki rolls his eyes. Now they're tolerant of other races?

"King Helblindi," Thor says. "I understand that the prisoner spent several weeks in your realm. If you wish to bring any charges against him, now is the time to speak out."

"It was a peaceful visit from an emissary of Asgard," Helblindi says. "Prince Loki spent much time learning of our culture in order to better understand it. When he left, my people's opinion of Asgard was much improved. As for the attack with the Bifrost, that matter was resolved the last time I stood in this room. We attacked Asgard, and he defended his realm. I do not understand how this is relevant to a criminal trial."

"Anything to add, Prince Byleistr?" Thor asks.

"Like Midgard, we do not try prisoners when there is no evidence of a crime," Byleistr says with a sneer. "However, I've come to understand that not every realm is quite as sophisticated. Forgive me if I struggle to understand the question, King of Asgard. We have this strange custom called honor where I come from."

Loki is absolutely going to kill his little brother. Byleistr is going to get himself maimed—or worse. They don't even like each other. So why defend him?

The general assembly does not like Byleistr's response at all. A Jotunn has just insulted them. However, it only makes them want to prove him wrong and show the visiting Prince exactly how honorable they are. And that is very bad news for Loki, who wants nothing more than to be judged guilty by the masses. But even the Council members are now simply standing there, stunned and without any further arguments in their arsenal.


He is losing.

And so Loki lifts a hand, though he is bound and unable to elevate it very far. It is a signal to Thor that he wishes to say something.

The weariness in Thor's expression deepens, but he nods nevertheless. "Remove the muzzle, and let the prisoner speak. It would seem his fate is in his hands alone."

Odin didn't believe in fate, but Loki still thinks he might. This is yet another lesson Odin tried to teach him—that there are always, always choices in the end.

Very well, then. This is his choice.

Loki is careful not to look Sif in the eyes as she unfastens the muzzle and carefully pulls it away. He knows she's silently pleading with him, just as he knows she is not the only one. But he has listened to what they have to say, and now it is his turn. They need to understand.

He takes a moment to stretch out his jaw before he speaks. "Here is a valid charge no one has thought to mention. I made a deal with a demon. The blackest of magic and highly illegal, the punishment of which is death. And yes, there is evidence that this bargain took place in the minds of every person here. The current state of reality itself is evidence. And you yourself can serve as witness to the exchange, seeing as you were there when the final price was paid."

The crowd shifts. This is unexpected—for Loki to bring the only real damning piece of evidence against himself—and there is an uneasiness to the way they murmur. They aren't certain how they feel about this. It was one thing to punish him for an actual crime, but is it fair to put him to death for saving lives?

"We made contact with the demon when we retrieved the All-Father's body," Thor says. "It seems the only bargain ever made was the All-Father's, to give you a second chance. The demon also gave the impression that it was on the king's orders that you went to her in the first place. Is that true?"

Loki grits his teeth. "The All-Father gave me the idea, but I—"

"Is it true, Loki?" Thor says again, louder this time.

Everyone seems to fade away until it's just the two of them. The dialogue is solely between them now. In the end, it has always come down to this. A fight to the death, Thor had once called it when he'd told Loki that he would hold onto his little brother until it killed him.

Loki doesn't know what to say. He does not want to hurt his brother and cannot see a way to avoid it. "I went to the demon for you," Loki says. "I made that choice, brother, and I would do it again. I swear to you, that was not the All-Father's bargain."

"You might have thought that was what was happening," Thor says, "but she lied to you at the All-Father's request. But even if what you say is true, I've come to understand that you were the King of Asgard at this time. Is that an accurate statement?"

Loki feels sick. "Oh, Thor. Stop this."

"That means the All-Father was not king when he made the bargain with the demon," Thor says, "and was therefore under no protection from his title. You were. The All-Father's death satisfies the law. The crime has been punished."

Loki is simply livid, so angry that he's close to tears. Everything is coming apart at the seams. He knows he's losing. Odin has played this game of chess masterfully, and Loki is only now just seeing the All-Father's endgame. "And what about the start of it all?" Loki says. "When I let the Jotunn warriors into Asgard on the day of your coronation. That is treason."

Surprised gasps from the crowd. The brothers ignore everyone. It's as if they are standing alone in a room, yelling into each other's faces.

"You told the All-Father of your crimes, and he dealt out judgment accordingly," Thor says. "Since when are transgressions punished twice?"

"Since when are they not punished at all?" Loki shouts back. "What about our last battle together, brother? That's the very reason I did it all to begin with, isn't it? The reason I went to the demon in the first place. Surely you remember the outcome."

"I do," Thor says. "But again, where is the evidence?" He holds out his arms as if to say he's standing right there, whole and alive.

Loki's eyes squeeze shut. Were his hands not bound, he would be pulling his hair out. Why won't Thor just let him fall? Loki has long since let go of himself and is lashing out at anything and everything that tries to keep him from his end. "I beg of you," he says. "Please stop this. Let me go. It is the best thing for everyone. I should not even be here. This was never part of the plan."

"It was part of our father's plan," Thor says. "As was forcing you to live with the consequences of your actions. Strange, but so far those consequences seem to be positive in nature, and that appears to be no one's fault but your own. You made the choices that got you here, and so Loki Odinson, I judge you innocent of the crimes laid before you. You are free to go."

Loki lets out a cry of utter frustration that drowns out any others. Hot, furious tears spill down his cheeks. "Dammit, Thor!"

But even as he curses at his brother, Loki understands that this is simply who Thor is. He does not let go—ever—and Loki suddenly has trouble remembering why he wants him to so badly. He can't remember why he would ever want to hurt someone he cares about so much. Someone who has always been on his side. As a last ditch effort, Loki reaches into his arsenal for his anger, hate, fear, and the horrible feelings of jealousy and betrayal that have plagued him for so many years—but he finds nothing left.

"Your fate is to be decided by your future crimes alone," Thor finishes. "I suppose the rest is up to you. You have a choice—to destroy what you've worked so hard to rebuilt or to honor your father's sacrifice. If you truly want to die, now is your chance to act out and show us all. What is your decision, brother?"

Now Thor calls him brother.

And worse, the ridiculous oaf has started to cry.

Thor does not cry. Only in the rarest circumstance, when everything is simply too much to bear, has he ever shed tears. He is always, always the one who chooses to be strong for the sake of others, no matter how much he's hurting himself.

And Loki has reduced him to this. A newly-crowned king with bloodied knuckles, crying in front of his people.

It is about this time that it occurs to Loki what a good king his brother will be.

It breaks something inside of him. As much as Loki hates himself, he loves Thor so, so much more. This is suddenly no longer about him finding his end but about someone trying to hurt his brother. Thor's refusal to hate in spite of hate is going to kill him one day if Loki is not there to protect him from it. Thor needs his brother by his side. Not fighting him.

Before Loki even realizes what he's doing, he is down on his knees, eyes lowered to the floor in humility. "I swear fealty to you, Thor Odinson, King of Asgard, and bind myself to your service." Despite the emotion welling up in his chest, Loki speaks his oath in a clear voice so that all may pay witness. He has fought this for years and years, and he is simply done. There is no one he is happier to serve, and so his voice rings out even clearer as he continues. "I, Loki Odinson, cast aside all selfish ambition and pledge my body and soul to the will of my king, to protect the Nine Realms and preserve the peace, even unto my own death."

Loki looks up at his brother, eyes filled with the fiercest of loyalty. "You are my king," he says. "You are my king."

Thor has already closed over half of the distance between them. He quickens his pace until he's slipping between Hogun and Fandral to get to his little brother. Thor kneels and fumbles with the bindings on Loki's wrists until they come free at the king's bidding. Then he's hugging his brother, as tightly as he can manage, not giving one damn about the swell of voices around them.

The people of Asgard have plenty to say about this, but not a single word penetrates through that hug or the barrier of protection that Sif and the Warriors Three form around the brothers.

"Get them out of here," Thor mutters, covering his brother's head protectively with the palm of his hand. "The trial is over."

The king's library holds the strangest stillness.

Odin's chair is slightly askew, and his favorite pen sits beside the last journal he would ever write in. Beneath it is the chessboard engraved into the old king's desk—a grandmaster indeed. Loki wonders where his body is. No one has yet mentioned a funeral, and he is willing to bet Thor has waited for his brother to be there for it.

While Odin's desk appears mostly untouched, other surfaces in the room have not fared the same fate. A table at the far end of the room is covered in books and some of Odin's old journals. There are legal documents—an adoption record, if Loki is right—and a copy of Asgardian law opened up and marked.

Loki despises people who scribble notes in books, but who is he to argue with the King of Asgard? They're his books. Besides, it's far too astonishing to think that Thor was reading them at all.

It seems his brother has spent many hours here, perhaps trying to make sense of it all or to ensure that he was prepared for any argument that might come up in Loki's trial. Loki can sense the desperation that Thor felt, and feels no small amount of guilt as he watches his brother drop himself into a chair, looking very much like he has not slept in a week.

It doesn't seem strange at all to Loki that Thor didn't choose to sit in Odin's chair but rather claimed one of the two visitors' seats on the opposite side of the desk. But the weariness on his brother's face or the bloodied knuckles? Those seems strange. No, they are simply wrong.

How many times has Thor taken care of Loki when he was not able?

Loki looks around and spots a pitcher of water on a tray near the door. The tray contains a meal that Thor has failed to eat. Loki takes the pitcher and a carefully folded napkin and brings them over to where Thor sits. Taking a seat in the chair next to his brother, Loki sets the pitcher down on the desk.

Thor's hands rest on his legs, and Loki lays his own hands on top of them, closing his eyes as he heals the wounds with a warm surge of magic. It takes only a few seconds, and when he's done, he dips the napkin into the pitcher of water and cleans the blood off of his brother's now perfectly cured hands. He can feel Thor's eyes on his face.

"Loki," he whispers.

And that's all it takes. Loki drops the napkin, and they meet in a mutual hug that is half love and half rage. Both emotions are equally as fierce.

"I thought you dead," Thor growls in his ear, pulling a fistful of his brother's hair. "I want to kill you."

"Trust me," Loki replies. "I know the feeling. You're going to get yourself killed one of these days, you idiot. Again."

"Loki, you have got to stop this."

Loki's arms tighten around his brother. "I have, Thor. I've stopped. For you, if nothing else. I will not fight you anymore."

"I mean it," Thor growls through clenched teeth. "This is the last time, and then I am done."

But they both know that isn't true. It's like their personal inside joke now. Practically a running gag. Thor will never give up. He isn't capable of it.

"At least until the next time," Thor admits with a spine-popping squeeze. "Or the time after that. Damn it all, Loki."

Despite the fact that it's becoming increasingly difficult to breathe, Loki holds his brother for a long time without offering further commentary. Eventually Thor settles and sags against him, and Loki knows then that it won't be difficult to coax him into some food and rest.

He takes care of his brother quietly, asking a guard to bring a fresh tray and setting the room into order while Thor continues to rest and pull himself together.

Afterwards, when Thor has taken in a bit of wine and bread, they sit together in stunned silence, staring at their father's empty chair, wondering what to do next.

Two Years Later . . .

The newly appointed emissary from Alfheim is all easy charm and appeal—just like every other visitor to the realm has been since Thor's ascension to the throne. It is the elf's first visit to Asgard since his predecessor unexpectedly committed an act of treason, and a feast has been thrown in his honor to welcome and introduce him.

Loki wears the most pleasant of smiles as he leads him on a tour through the queen's gardens, which he has lovingly tended everyday for the last two years. The branches are heavy with fruit.

"You should try an apple," Sif suggests, her fingertips toying with her weapon.

Loki's smile tightens ever so slightly as he looks at their visitor. "Indeed. They're simply to die for."

"Delightful," the elven emissary says as he plucks one from a branch. "You certainly know how to treat your guests most splendidly."

Loki wants very much to kick the elf over the wall and send him to his timely death. "Of course," Loki says, his smile unwavering. "But we are merely the king's humble servants. This is but an extension of my brother's gratitude toward your realm for your continued loyalty in the war with Thanos."

"Oh, yes," the elf lies as he turns the apple over in his hands. "We must all band together to the end."

"It is such a relief to hear you say that," Sif tells him. "We have met others in your position who have not been as forthcoming with their true intentions."

Loki could not be prouder of Sif's performance. Her capacity for sarcasm has grown by leaps and bounds since they became friends, though she is putting a little too much heat into the words. She should learn to keep it agreeably hostile rather than so overt. He makes a mental note to coach her privately later.

The elf swallows as he eyes Sif's weapon. "Is that so?"

Loki touches the back of his hand briefly to his lips, as if remembering something most unpleasant. "I'm afraid Lady Sif speaks the truth. There was indeed an unfortunate situation a few months back."

"Someone tried to betray our king," Sif explains. "Perhaps thinking that since King Thor is newly appointed to the throne, that he has no one to support and protect him."

"They tried to come through me," Loki admits. "As if I would attempt to betray my king and brother. Very foolish. But I must admit, the end of the story is quite humorous, though perhaps not for the faint of heart."

"Prince Loki, not in front of our honored guest," Sif scolds. "He has only just eaten."

"You are right, my lady. Forgive me. It will not do to have him come over ill in the queen's gardens. That would be embarrassing."

"I think my stomach can handle it," the elf says. "What, uh, happened to this traitor, if I might ask?"

Loki's mouth spreads into a slow smile, leaving Sif to finish the story.

"We did," she says.

An hour later, Thor finds Sif and Loki sharing an apple as they stare out across the realm. The sky is descending into twilight, and the Rainbow Bridge cuts an electric path to the Bifrost Observatory. As always, it is an absolutely magnificent sight that never fails to steal Loki's breath away.

Thor leans against the wall beside his brother and takes the apple away from him, claiming a bite before he hands it over to Sif. "Our guest just departed most unexpectedly," Thor says with a heavy sigh. "Still, I think everything went well, all things considered."

Loki snorts. "You would think that."

"Thor, I mean no offense," Sif says as she chews, "but that elf is the most abysmal liar I have ever met in my life. Even worse than your brother."

"Excuse me?" Loki says, reaching to snatch the apple out of her hand.

Sif's eyes glitter back at him. He has taught her the art of sarcasm and mischief a little too well, and his irritation melts into a reluctant smile as he realizes just how far his pupil has come. They might not agree on everything, but when it comes to protecting their king, they have reached a complete understanding.

"I suppose that means the influence of Thanos is still spreading," Thor says. His tone is weary. At his temples are a few strands of gray hair. Jane adores them, and Loki adores making fun of them. "He will bring war to all the Nine Realms before this is over. I admit, I do not know what to do."

"We do what we always do, brother," Loki says as he tosses the apple core over the wall, down to the water below. "We win."

The end.

A/N – You made it! Heck, I made it. If writing this story has taught me anything, it's that I should never be a therapist. My patients would need therapy after my therapy.

As some of you have already figured out, this story has been about Loki getting to a place where he is no longer fixated on destroying his own life (including anything and anyone involved in that life). That was the entire conflict, and everything else was just a symptom of that. He has always been both the protagonist and antagonist of his own story. It might sound weird, but to me, the real character-related climax of this story was in this chapter—not the prior one.

Thank you so much for reading! It would mean a ton to me if you would let me know what you thought. I appreciate every comment, kudos, and rec. I feel like I've made some friends since I posted the first chapter, and that's the best thing of all. :)

I will be posting a Loki/Sif outtake to my tumblr in a day or so. (Sorry, I figured you guys would want me to post this chapter once it was complete rather than waiting.) When the outtake is done, you'll find it on my "tumblr only fic" tag here: pro-antagonist DOT tumblr DOT com/tagged/tumblr-only-fic

MUAH. Bye.