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Memento Mori

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Loki crashed into the ground with his eyes screwed shut and his breath stuttering in his throat. He kept them closed even as his shoulder protested from the impact, even as his heart fluttered like a frightened rabbit’s. His breath came short and irregular, speeding up as the realization set in, fast and difficult and there was no air he couldn’t breathe–

 

Loki snapped open his eyes with a gasp and staggered to his feet, tearing desperately at his collar. He felt the Titan’s hand around it still, squeezing the air and life out of him, crushing his neck.

 

His collar loosened and he gasped for air, his hand brushing over tender skin. Loki’s heart skipped a beat. His breath got stuck in his throat, confusion momentarily distracting him from his panic. There were no bruises. His skin was unscathed, the proof of his encounter with Thanos gone even as Loki felt the sensation of the giant hand pressing shut.

 

The bruises had stayed even after he’d returned (cheating death once more, how long would it be until it stuck?), ugly and circling his throat like a necklace. So where were they, now?

 

Something was wrong. Where was everyone? Where was Tho– No. Loki shut down the thought before it could fully form and took a look around instead.

 

He was greeted with the bland whiteness of a prison cell. And not any cell. Loki pressed his eyes shut in frustration. This couldn’t be happening. But a look behind him revealed his old cot, and on top of it and the floor the books that his mother had smuggled in behind Odin’s back (and how the thought of her still hurt, even after all this time).

 

Everything made sense now. Of course. The blasted stone had worked – and why shouldn’t it have? Perhaps some part of Loki had hoped that it wouldn’t. Had hoped that it would take him into oblivion, save him from living it all over, Frigga and Odin and Asgard and–

 

But why did it have to be here? Any point in time would have been better. A time where his imprisonment hadn’t filled his mother with disappointment. A time where Odin felt anything other than contempt for the child he regretted to have claimed as his son. A time where Thor did not hate him, did not have the invasion of his precious Midgard fresh in mind.

 

Loki closed his eyes, the thought of his brother sending a jab through his chest. Thor… Had their relationship ever been as strained as it had been here? After Loki’s biggest and most grievous betrayal? (He ignored the other pain, going far beyond Thor’s hatred, fresh and open like a wound, burning in his chest…)

 

“You couldn’t have taken me back just a year earlier?” Loki whispered, knowing fully well that he had only himself to blame. Who had dared to touch the stone in the first place?

 

Loki breathed through the tightness of his chest, chasing away all that remained of his panicked reaction. It would lead him nowhere to lose control, and even less so if he allowed himself to regret. It was far too late for that.

 

The guards had not stayed oblivious to his outburst. They approached his cell to investigate, their weapons clutched tightly. Paranoid, and rightly so.

 

Loki took one last, mildly shaky breath and slipped on a pleasant smile. Seeing as the guards tensed and held their spears higher, they knew not to trust him further than their weapons could reach. Loki thought back to the short span between Asgard’s fall and Thanos finding them, the one time in his life when he had fully and genuinely felt like a prince of Asgard. All of a sudden, his smile felt strained.

 

“We are instructed to notify the Allfather about suspicious behavior,” one of them warned, and Loki wondered how much of his outburst they had seen. They would jump at a reason to report him to Odin.

 

Actually… There was an plan. “Splendid idea,” Loki said, stepping closer to the edge of his cell. The guards took a step back. “Would you terribly mind fetching him for me? There is something we need to discuss.”

 

The guards shared a glance. “The Allfather does not wish to see you. Stand down.”

 

Loki watched them return to their stoic watch and hated the painful lump that formed in his throat. He swallowed it down, returning to his cot and shutting himself off to the useless sentiment. Feelings were the last thing he needed – his quest would be difficult enough as it was.

 

Now, he could have lived up to his reputation and talked the guards into giving him what he wanted. But even disregarding his intent to turn over a new leaf – how much more difficult would it be to make anyone trust him if he reached his goals with cheap manipulation? – it would take time. Time that Loki might not have, depending on how far exactly he had gone back.

 

Going by the tidiness of his cell, he could at least be sure that his mother was still alive. But for how long?

 

“I don’t suppose either of you could tell me the date?” he asked rhetorically, already knowing that he would not receive an answer.

 

But Loki was nothing if not resourceful.

 

“Heimdall,” he said quietly, shoving away the image of him beaten and broken, stabbed through the heart by Thanos. He felt a spark of relief that Heimdall’s abilities were limited to what his eyes could perceive. “If you would be so kind to deliver a message to the Allfather. I would do so myself, but I am afraid that his visits are few and far between.”

 

Loki paused, glee bubbling up as the first pleasant emotion he had felt since waking up. Odin had a talent of bringing out the spiteful side of him. “Tell him that I know about his deepest, darkest secret. The one he has done his best to paint over, to brush it under the rug like all of his other mistakes.” How he enjoyed every word of it. “Tell him I know about Hela Odinsdottir.”

 

There was no answer, but Loki hadn’t expected one. He leaned back with a grin that felt oddly wooden, knowing that it was only a matter of time.

 

And time had turned out to be such a fickle thing.

 


 

Time passed excruciatingly slow. There was nothing Loki could do but wait, and nothing in his cell could hold his attention well enough to distract him from his own thoughts. Memories of the last few days raged through his head now that the disorientation of his arrival had faded, memories about Thanos and the Midgardians and the War.

 

Two days passed before Odin gave in to visit his criminal disappointment of a son, and at the end of it Loki was ready to risk everything by staging a breakout, just to escape the torture that was his own mind.

 

Loki didn’t know what he would have done, had he been forced to endure one more replay of Thor’s–

 

It didn’t matter in the end. Odin stood in front of his cell, his weapon, Gungnir, at his side and looking entirely the ruler that he was. His eyes were cold and calculating, the exact opposite of what they had been on that day on Midgard.

 

Loki could feel the dismay in them, and he hated himself when it felt like a punch to the gut.

 

“Leave us.”

 

On Odin’s command, the soldiers at his side filed out of the room.

 

“I will not ask how you came to attain this information,” Odin started, “because it matters not. I will, however, ask what you intend to do with it. If this is a scheme of yours to force my hand, I advise you to think of something better.”

 

“In all honesty,” Loki said, his mouth twisting mockingly around the word, “I only intended to draw your attention. I started with something you knew to be true, so you would listen to the rest.”

 

“Talk, then,” Odin said, and it sounded like a challenge. “Do your worst. This will be the last conversation we will have in a long time.”

 

Loki didn’t make him ask twice. “What do you remember about the Dark Elves?”

 

Odin paused, caught off guard at the question. “I remember their crushing defeat at the hands of my father.”

 

“Wrong,” Loki said and almost found enjoyment in the moment. “Bor may have fought them off, but they are not defeated. Not entirely.”

 

“Is that what you asked me to come for? A history lesson? May I remind you that between the two of us, I am the one who has lived through what you have only learned from history books?”

 

“And how convenient it is to be the one who writes the history books.” Loki cut himself off before the conversation could get further. As satisfying as throwing his sins back at him would be, it would do nothing to invite Odin’s fury. It was not his plan to confront him. Although it was so, so tempting. “This is not a history lesson. It is a warning.”

 

“A warning,” Odin repeated, disbelief coloring his words. “About an enemy we have defeated millennia ago?”

 

“An enemy you have failed to defeat. Their leader lives, as do some of his followers.”

 

“Even if what you say is true, why would they attack? Why now?”

 

“The Convergence is nearing, is it not? The Elves know. And they thirst for revenge.”

 

Loki could have given details. He could have told Odin exactly who would pay the price for his arrogance, should he refuse to listen. He didn’t; Loki did not trust himself to speak Frigga’s name without shattering his facade.

 

At no point of his tale had Odin’s expression wavered. “I was not aware that my son is a seer.”

 

“I never cease to surprise you,” Loki said, refusing to acknowledge the unspoken question.

 

“And you are telling me this, because?” Odin’s gaze was sharp, his words hard and unforgiving. Questioning every word that came out of Loki’s mouth. “Love for your family?”

 

Loki’s lips twisted into a sneer. “I do not care for you, Father.” The word made Odin flinch and Loki basked in it, wallowing in the victory of having caused a reaction other than indifference. How easy it was to fall back into their old habits, the mocking and the scorn. Never had his words tasted quite this bitter.

 

“Nor do I care for Asgard or her citizens,” Loki continued, the words oddly ashen on his tongue. “I merely wish to save Mother. And Thor.” His voice faltered at the name, and Loki prayed that Odin had not heard.

Odin looked at him for a long while and Loki refused to cower at his gaze. Of all the emotions he felt about Odin, fear was not one of them.

 

“I do not believe you.”

 

“Color me surprised.” Loki almost rolled his eyes. “Promise me one thing. The time will come when I turn out to be right. Don’t make me watch through my prison cell.”

 

He held Odin’s gaze unblinkingly. After so many years, he still could not read what was going on in the old man’s head.

 

“So be it.” Odin stepped out of the cell and gestured his guards to come over. “Let it be known that if Dark Elves roam these corridors, Loki Odinson shall be freed from his cell.”

 

The guards chuckled at the mockery in his voice, but Loki didn’t allow the grin on his face to falter. Odin could not know that he was a different person than the one he had thrown into the dungeons. One who had nothing left to lose. And Odin could not know that Loki knew exactly what was about to come. He had nothing left to do but wait.

 


 

Chapter Text

Loki’s eyes snapped open when the screaming started. He must have been knocked unconscious. The battle! Was it still going? Was Thanos– No. No, that wasn’t right.

 

Loki clenched his eyes shut, his hands balled to fists. He shook off memories of a different life, and once the disorientation had faded, he knew that it was time.

 

Days had passed since his confrontation with Odin, and with only his thoughts as company and nothing else to do, time had passed excruciatingly slow. The thrill of having caught his father off guard had faded quickly, and if it wasn’t for Frigga’s life being on the line, he would have almost wished for the attack to happen sooner.

 

Not that he had any control over the matter.

 

A cell burst open at the very end of the dungeon, and although he could not see it from his own room, Loki knew that the creature that had escaped left corpses in his wake. He once may have been a Dark Elf, but he was not anymore.

 

Asgardian soldiers soon flooded the dungeons, the sound of combat filling the halls as they tried to subdue the escaped prisoners.

 

It was time to collect his prize.

 

“Excuse me,” he said, stepping to the edge of his cell where a tall, brunette Asgardian was engaged in battle. “If you don’t mind?” He nodded to the lock of his cell with a charming smile, his hands clasped behind his back.

 

She threw him an incredulous stare, nearly paying for the moment of distraction with a dagger to the gut. She dodged, threw off her opponent with a kick and buried her sword in his side.

 

“I’m aware that most of the creatures ‘roaming these corridors’,” Loki said, repeating Odin’s words mockingly, “are not Dark Elves. But that one is,” he pointed to the Kursed who was making his way through the dungeons leaving heaps of Asgardian bodies behind. Loki pretended like the sight did not let something stir deep in his chest. “More are going to follow. Free me like the Allfather has ordered, and it will increase your chances of victory exponentially. Wouldn’t you agree?”

 

He met her scowl with a grin. “Watch out,” Loki said casually, and she only just managed to dodge the attack aimed at her turned back.

 

Loki knew that he had won when she threw a glance over the battlefield and her face fell. She could see that they were losing.

 

The soldier took on a look of determination and seconds later, the barrier to Loki’s cell collapsed.

 

“You’re free,” she said, stepping aside with a grim look. “Just as the Allfather commanded. Now help us defend Asgard.”

 

“As tempting as that sounds,” Loki said, and watched as her face took on a rather interesting color, “I’m afraid I will have to decline.” He flashed a grin and proceeded to run off into the opposite direction. The soldier called after him, but her indignant yelling meant nothing to Loki. He did not have to explain himself, and he was not honorable like them. What had she expected?

 

Now, where was the route to the treasure vault that involved the least amount of fighting?

 


 

Not many artifacts existed that could hold an infinity stone, and none of them was like the other. In contrast to the scepter Loki had used for the mind stone, the tesseract was not able to channel the stone’s power, not without additional tools – hence Loki’s elaborate plan of setting up the machine on top of Stark’s tower, back in the day. The tesseract itself was nothing more than a container. In other words, it was practically useless.

 

On a related note, Odin found him with the infinity gem floating over his hand in a whisk of green magic, the remains of the tesseract in splinters at his feet.

 

Loki had no doubt that it made for a quite alarming picture to walk in on.

 

“Loki,” Odin whispered, his eye widening in barely contained horror at the infinity stone in his hand. “Are you mad?”

 

“I can assure you, I am not,” Loki said. He was, however, on a schedule. He couldn’t be sure, but considering that the Dark Elves had entered the palace, he might only have minutes left until Frigga would face Malekith.

 

“Is this what you had planned from the start?” Odin asked, naturally jumping to the worst conclusion immediately. This once, Loki could not even blame him. It didn’t mean that it didn’t hurt. “Is it you who was behind the attack?”

 

“Think what you wish of me,” Loki scowled, the gem held in front of him as a warning, “but I do not ally myself with such lowly creatures.”

 

“And the Chitauri made for such honorable comrades.”

 

“Point taken,” Loki said, baring his teeth in a grin.

 

“Whatever mischief you have planned,” Odin continued, “no matter what new tricks you have come up with, know that I will not allow you to harm Asgard.”

“Who needs new tricks when the old ones work so well?” Loki asked, and disintegrated into nothing.

 

Odin turned to where the real Loki leaped at him, his spear drawn and his expression screaming ‘your illusions do not fool me’. Old fool. Odin had never been Loki’s target; Odin was pointing it directly at him.

 

Loki thrust forward the gem, slammed it into Gungnir’s tip and took great pleasure in Odin’s horror-widened eyes. He had time to choke out, “Loki. What have you done?”

 

An energy wave rose up as the two artifacts merged, throwing everyone present off of their feet. Everyone, except Loki. He’d been prepared.

 

Scorch marks decorated the floor where Gungnir had fallen. Loki picked it up – his father’s most treasured possession and the symbol of his strength – and marvelled at the blue shine of its tip. The spear looked like it had been made to hold the gem. After millennia, it was finally complete. Loki had made it whole.

 

“Don’t move,” Odin whispered, he and his guards recovered and on their feet. Loki basked in their fear, their hesitance to charge at him while he wielded not only his father’s weapon, but also the infinity stone he had merged with it. One of the six most powerful artifacts in history.

 

It was that, or give in to the bitterness that his father, as always, expected the worst of him.

 

The space stone glowed and Loki held Odin’s glance as he let its power wash over him.

 


 

Travelling with the space stone was an odd sensation. To some degree, Loki had been able to teleport before. He had been adept at finding the hidden paths between worlds, the gaps that allowed only a rare number of people knowledgeable enough to slip through. The stone on the other hand allowed him to rip open the fabric of reality by himself. It made his possibilities limitless.

 

Even so, Loki made it only in the nick of time. He left behind Odin and the guards and strode into the throne room with a single step, distance melting away below his feet.

 

And there they were. Frigga, his wonderful mother, graceful and swift as she duelled Malekith himself. Loki forgot how to move. He forgot how to breathe. Frigga’s blade moved quickly and confidently in moves that Loki remembered from her combat lessons, her hair shining golden as it whisked around with her movement.

 

How often had Loki dreamed of this moment, of a chance to set things right. All those times he had imagined what could have been, had he not been locked away in his cell when his mother had needed him.

 

Malekith’s weapon nicked Frigga’s shoulder, her blood spilling on the floor and it was enough to snap Loki out of his daze. Malekith would not have the chance to beat her a second time.

 

“Dark Elf,” he called out to get Malekith’s attention. He played with the thought of drawing out his death, to make him feel even an ounce of the pain Loki had felt. But he knew that fate loved to punish those who took chances.

 

He wrestled down his lust for revenge and slammed Gungnir onto the ground, opening up a portal. Their eyes met and Malekith had no time to do anything except widen his in surprise before he fell into the depths of space and was no more.

 

The only sound in the throne room was Frigga’s rapid breathing. Loki’s voice was stuck in this throat, his hand clenching Gungnir to keep it from trembling.

 

“Loki,” Frigga whispered. Her wide eyes flickered to him, over to Gungnir and the infinity stone that glowed at its tip. Loki could see her coming to her own conclusions and couldn’t muster an attempt to defend himself. “What have you done?”

 

I saved your life , Loki thought, and said, “I’m sorry, Mother.”

 

“What is it that you’re sorry for? Speak to me, Loki.”

 

But Loki hadn’t completed his task. He could have left it as it was: his mother was safe, and Thor would be, too. He had no reason to care about anyone else. What had Asgard ever done for him? What had her people?

 

And yet, he found himself saying, “Mother, I have a favor to ask. Vouch for me, and ask Heimdall to pass his all-seeing eyes to me. Just for a moment.”

 

“Loki, I don’t understand.”

 

“Dark Elves are in the castle. Our soldiers are dying. I can end this, I promise.” He took Frigga’s hand and pretended that his own did not tremble. He had to press down another wave of sorrow. “If you have ever loved me, lay your trust in me one more time. I promise you, I will not disappoint.”

 

The not again hung between them unspoken but impossible to ignore and Loki had to suppress a bitter laugh. He did not deserve Frigga’s trust, and both of them knew it. Nobody in their right mind would trust him, Loki, the god of lies. Why would they?

 

“Heimdall,” Frigga whispered, squeezing his hand. “I will vouch for him. If my word is enough, pass on your gift as he says.” She closed her eyes, pressing them shut as if in deep pain. “And do as you wish if he betrays us once more.”

 

Loki’s lips twisted into a painful grin. His mother was not a foolish woman.

 

A heartbeat passed and Loki thought that maybe, Frigga’s word was not enough to win Heimdall’s trust. Then gold exploded behind Loki’s eyes and he gasped, losing himself in colors and images and worlds, too much to make sense of most of it.

 

He recognized the forge of Nidavellir, its star burning proudly at its center, someone tending to a garden with plants in shades of deep blue elsewhere, ships and transporters travelling through the depths of space, Midgard, small and insignificant and carrying far more power than it knew how to deal with, and in Vanaheim–

 

Loki tensed and concentrated. He focused on the Nine Worlds, then Asgard – he saw a flash of Thor, buried in a hug with Jane as he had found her in her hiding place and no, he couldn’t get distracted, he jerked away from the image forcefully – then the palace and every single Dark Elf in its halls.

 

Pure and utter hatred burned in his gut as he slammed Gungnir, satisfaction as hundreds of portals opened up to send all of them falling into nothingness. An entire race eradicated, and Loki could not pretend to feel remorse for it. He had never been a hero like Thor.

 

He wondered if Odin of the old days would have been proud.

 

He let go of Heimdall’s power with a shaky breath and found himself leaning heavily on Gungnir. “You have my gratitude,” he muttered, knowing fully well that Heimdall would not have helped him if it hadn’t been for Frigga.

 

Speaking of who...

 

“Loki,” she said, and Loki’s eyes fell shut as she took a step forward to take his face in her hands. He leaned into her touch despite knowing that he shouldn’t. Despite knowing that he didn’t deserve it. Loki had always been so selfish. “I don’t understand. Where is Odin? Is he the one who freed you?”

 

Or did you escape , she didn’t say, and if she had, Loki could not have denied it. It had been his trickery that had freed him. A gamble, based on his knowledge of a different world. Odin would not have freed him, and he would not hesitate to put him back.

 

The thought was enough to make Loki pull away. “I need to go,” he said, and it hurt. He didn’t want to leave. He wanted to spend time with Frigga, wanted to bask in the warmth of her presence, the privilege of seeing her alive and well.

 

But he couldn’t. There were things that he needed to do, things that only Loki could accomplish. The things he had come for in the first place. He had always been so selfish.

 

“What do you speak of?” Frigga’s eyes took on a desperate gleam. “Let me talk to Odin. You do not have to go. Don’t run from us, Loki, I’m begging you.”

 

“I have no choice,” Loki said, desperate to make her understand, but unable to explain to her the reasons. They did not have that kind of time.

 

“Just wait,” Frigga started, and was cut off by the door slamming open. Odin had arrived.

 

“I have always loved you,” Loki said, pulling his mother into a hug. She was stiff with surprise, but it didn’t matter. “And I always will.”

 

He looked up and his eyes met Odin’s. “Loki,” he warned, and Loki flashed a grin.

 

Another portal opened and Loki was gone, taking entirely too much pleasure in the fact that he had taken Gungnir with him.

 

Elsewhere, Thor and Jane had no time to do anything but share a startled glance as the floor opened up below them and they fell into thin air.

 


 

 

Chapter Text

Loki had not wasted a lot of time choosing their destination. The instant Odin had stepped into the throne room had been his cue to flee, so the only thought in his mind had been getting away – and taking Thor and Jane with him.

 

So when he opened his eyes in Norway, Midgard, Loki couldn’t for the life of him say why. The place may have had history – forgotten, unmade history that only Loki had the displeasure of knowing – but it was not like it held sentimental value for him.

 

“Thor!” the mortal, Jane, gasped, her eyes wide and fixed on Loki.

 

Loki had time to shrink down Gungnir into a dagger and slip it up his sleeve before Thor turned and their eyes met. Thor’s expression shifted from puzzled obliviousness – not knowing the significance of the place – into anger, and Loki felt something inside of him shatter.

 

“Brother–” Loki started, but was cut off when Thor pushed him back by the throat, away from his oh so precious Jane.

 

Loki hissed in pain, suppressing the urge to grab for his knifes and lash out. He pressed down old memories before they could form, even as the pressure on his throat made him want to crawl out of his skin.

 

“Loki,” Thor growled, so deep and menacingly that Loki would have made fun of him, had he been able to talk. “What is this? What have you done?”

 

It was starting to become increasingly tiring to hear that question again and again, when this once, Loki had done nothing that was not in Asgard’s best interest – or the world’s as a whole.

 

Well, minus stealing his father’s spear. He could admit that that had been entirely petty, and that Loki could have found other ways to harness the stone’s power, had he tried. He very much hoped that Thor would not find out about that particular detail… ever. Or, since his luck was not nearly good enough for that – or indeed, existent at all – at least until he was feeling a bit less enthusiastic about smashing Loki’s face in.

 

“Tell me the truth, brother.” Even with his hand at Loki’s throat, the word ‘brother’ did not sound anything but genuine. “Was it you behind the Dark Elves’ attack?” His hand tightened as a warning, then loosened enough to allow Loki to gasp for breath.

 

“Get off,” he rasped, swatting away Thor’s hand and stumbling back. Going by the look on Thor’s face, he was too surprised at the lack of knifes and/or insults to do anything about it.

 

“Contrary to popular belief,” Loki started, rubbing his neck and pretending like he didn’t avoid looking at Thor directly, “I do have standards about the kind of beings I ally myself with.”

 

Thor opened his mouth, and Loki growled, “If you’re about to mention the Chitauri, don’t.”

 

Thor’s mouth snapped shut, and Loki wanted to groan. One could hardly blame Loki for his lapse in judgement after his involuntary fall through the void. So what if he’d accepted a titan’s power in exchange for following his plan to Midgard? It was hardly his fault that said Mad Titan had turned out to be a threat to the entire known universe and all living creatures only years later.

 

… Fine. Perhaps Thor’s reaction wasn’t anything that Loki didn’t deserve.

 

“This looks like… Earth,” Jane said. She looked around curiously, momentarily too distracted to pay attention to Loki. Since the alternative might or might not be another slap, Loki wasn’t about to protest.

 

Instead, Loki’s eyes followed hers – and his breath got stuck in his throat. They stood before a far too familiar looking cliffside, looking out into a wide, gray ocean. The gem had not simply brought them to Norway. It had brought them here.

 

“It is,” Thor said, surprise – and suspicion – clear in his voice. “This is Norway. Why have you brought us here?”

 

Loki wanted to laugh, but his constricting throat made it difficult.

 

His eyes were glued to the cliffside, replaying the memory of Odin disintegrating into gleaming light. Before it, the last conversation they had had, and one of the few that had been peaceful and not ended in a murder attempt. And his goodbye, the proper send-off Loki had been denied with Frigga, locked up in his cell as he had been.

 

Why had he brought them here?

 

“Yggdrasil’s paths are erratic and winded,” Loki heard himself say. “Her connection to some places is stronger than to others. One must find a weak spot in the barrier between worlds and slip through. This is where it led to.”

 

That was what Loki held onto. He stubbornly refused to acknowledge that with the space stone in his hand, such details hardly mattered.

 

“But why bring us to Midgard at all?” Thor asked. “The palace was sprawling with Dark Elves! And Jane needs Asgard’s help. Not to mention that you are supposed to be in prison.”

 

“Right. Before this goes any further,” Loki said, raising his hands in a placating manner that only succeeded in making Thor’s hand tense around Mjolnir, “I would like to point out that I am the one who saved Asgard from said Dark Elves–”

 

“Loki…”

 

“–who, I assure you, I had nothing to do with in the first place–”

 

Loki…”

 

“–so if we could all take a deep breath and calm down–”

 

“Loki!” Thor growled, and Loki decided not to test his brother’s patience any further.

 

“We need to contact the Avengers.”

 

It was enough to stun Thor into silence momentarily. Then, ignoring Loki’s very reasonable suggestion completely, he said, “We are going to return to Asgard.”

 

“Beg your pardon?” Loki said, drawing up his eyebrows.

 

“Loki, I don’t have time for–”

 

“Seeing as we are talking about your friends ,” Loki put as much disgust into the syllable as he could possibly manage, “I would have thought you would be more appreciative of my suggestion.”

 

“And seeing as you are you, I know to do the exact opposite instead.”

 

“Unless he wanted you to think that.”

 

“Jane!”

 

“I’m just saying.”

 

Loki’s mouth twisted into a grin. “Jane, I presume?” he asked politely, pretending like he was meeting her for the first time. All that it earned him was a distrustful glance.

 

“You’re Loki?”

 

Loki sighed. “If slapping me would make you feel better, please get it over with,” he said, and turned his cheek.

 

Jane hesitated, distrust warping into a startled expression. “You deserve more than a slap,” she said slowly. “For New York. For everything that you’ve done.”

 

“You have no idea of all the things I have done,” Loki said, and although he went for menacingly, the sentence came out more matter of factly.

 

“Enough,” Thor decided, aiming a hard look at Loki. “I have no time to deal with you, brother. Jane needs me.”

 

“Ah, but you’ve already tried, have you not?” Jane had carried the reality stone when Loki had met her in his first life. Thor had felt out of options to the degree that he had bust Loki out of prison to flee Asgard and look for a cure elsewhere. “Admit it, Asgard cannot help you. But you know who can, don’t you?”

 

Loki met Thor’s scowl with a grin. “I am one of them. Your Midgardian friends are the others. So, if for once in your life you can manage to think with your brain instead of your muscles, let us go before someone else notices our presence.”

 

Loki could practically see Thor’s internal conflict, and couldn’t even blame him for his caution. Loki would not have trusted himself either, if put in the same position.

 

Even Thor’s near unshakeable love and forgiveness for him had proven to wear thin over time.

 

“What do you gain from meeting them?” Thor asked instead of making a decision.

 

Loki gave only a wide smile in answer. “Do leave some things as a surprise, will you?”

Thor’s scowl deepened, and Jane grasped for his arm once more. Irritation twitched through Loki’s body at the casual touch, at the blatant sign of endearment when at the same time, Thor showed him nothing but distrust and scorn.

 

But that was ridiculous. Loki did not need Thor’s affection, had never needed it.

 

Loki realized that Thor was looking at him, confusion flickering over his face before his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. He hurried to sharpen his expression and ban all sentimentality.

 

“You’ve beaten him before,” Jane said, “haven’t you? And he had an army then.” Her eyes flickered to Loki. “He’s alone now.”

 

“We cannot know for sure,” Thor said, but didn’t sound convinced. “It could be a trick.”

 

“Why, yes,” Loki said in a voice so dry he almost choked on it. “You have discovered my evil scheme. How did you know I have hidden another Chitauri fleet in my robes?”

 

“And what if he just goes back on his own?” Jane continued. “He obviously found a way out of prison once already. Wouldn’t it be better to keep an eye on him?”

 

“... Perhaps,” Thor said, and looked extremely unhappy with the thought. He pierced Loki with a glance as if trying to recognize his intent just like that. In the end, the unwillingness to leave Loki out of his sight seemed to win out, and he tore his eyes away with a dark scowl. “Know that I will not hesitate to drag you back before Father myself, should you try to betray us.”

 

The way he said it implied that Thor expected a ‘when’, not an ‘if’.

 

“Deal,” Loki said and fought to keep the smile on his lips. It was starting to feel painfully strained. “Now, unless you know of another way that leads to your team–”

 

Yeah I got em, yeah I got em

 

Don’t worry ‘cause I got them

 

Loki blinked, dropping the sarcastic remark to share a puzzled glance with Thor. He frowned, giving Loki a little shrug.

 

Discover like a ghana but I’ll be busting on em

 

“Erm,” Jane said, starting to rummage through her pockets. “Sorry. That’s me.”

 

“Is that your cell phone?” Thor asked.

 

“Is that supposed to be music? ” Loki asked, incredulous.

 

My buzzin just alarming

 

“I didn’t pick it!” Jane pressed a button and the noise – mercifully – stopped. “Hello? Darcy?” She took a step back and turned her back on them, evidently talking to this ‘Darcy’ person. “Look, just… Calm down for a second! I’m in Norway. Yes , that’s what I just said. Listen–”

 

Loki and Thor were left to look after her awkwardly.

 

“Her cell phone ? ” Loki questioned.


“It is a Midgardian communication device,” Thor said. “Somewhat primitive. It loses energy quickly, does not work beyond Midgardian borders and is quite breakable.” He paused. “It does, however, allow you to take ‘Selfies’.”

 

‘Selfies’ .” Loki repeated with disdain. “And they have no other way to get each other’s attention than by making the device play noise at them?”

 

“The details of its use escape me,” Thor admitted, and it wasn’t much longer until Jane rejoined them.

“Sorry. Apparently Darcy has been trying to reach me since we disappeared from London.” Jane shot Thor a mildly embarrassed look. “She also wants me to let you know how ‘totally uncool’ it was to leave her behind like that.”

 

“My apologies,” Thor said, and actually sounded genuine. Loki rolled his eyes. “I shall ask her for forgiveness myself the next time we meet. In the meantime, my brother has expressed interest in your technology–”

 

Loki’s eyes widened in indignation. “I most certainly did not–

 

“Tell us, is yours the regular way of being notified of a message?”

 

Jane looked between them, an odd look of surprise on her face. “Um.”

 

Thor frowned in concern. “Is something the matter? Have I said something wrong?”

 

“No! No, it’s just,” color shot into Jane’s cheeks as her eyes flickered from Thor to Loki. “Um. You mean the ringtone? That’s, erm. It’s different for every person, you can pick it yourself. Darcy changed mine as a prank. Sorry, it’s just,” her voice grew quieter, losing the rambling quality. “I knew that you two were siblings. I just, hadn’t really realized until now.”

 

A moment of puzzled silence followed, and Loki shared a glance with Thor. As soon as Loki realized what he was doing, he tore away his eyes and tensed. For a moment, he had genuinely forgotten who he was talking to. Not his brother, not his Thor, but a younger, different version of him who knew so little about the person that Loki was now.

 

Scorn had always come so easily to Loki as deflection. “Unless you two insist on wasting more time with smalltalk, I propose we get on our way.”

 

Just as Loki had slipped back into sarcasm, Thor slipped back into anger. His brows furrowed and Mjolnir had not left his hand once. “You get one warning,” he said. “No more. If I come to believe that you attempt to deceive me, I will bring you straight back to Asgard.”

 

“Fine,” Loki said, as careless as he could manage. “Shall we go then? Or would you prefer to spend the night?” He nodded towards the wide span of green nothingness around them.

 

Thor’s frown deepened, but he did not take the bait. “I will contact Heimdall. He will bring us to–”

 

“No need,” Loki interrupted. He had ways of hiding himself from Heimdall’s gaze, but he could not stop him if Thor quite literally yelled for his attention.

 

“What do you–”

 

“I have picked up one or two things in my time in the void that I have not cared to share with you before,” Loki lied, and would have proceeded, was it not for the glowing red circle that materialized around his feet.

 

A moment of stunned silence followed.

 

“Loki,” Thor said, staring at the circle – the portal – in wary confusion. “What are you doing?”

 

No way. Not again. “Oh no, you don’t,” Loki said, grabbing for the spear-turned-dagger before the blasted wizard could–

 

A yelp escaped him as the ground gave way under his feet, and Thor’s alarmed expression was the last thing Loki saw before falling into thin air.

 

How he hated Midgardian sorcerers.

 

 


 

Chapter Text

Frigga could not take her eyes from the spot Loki had disappeared from. She did not move when her husband called her name, nor when she heard him hasten to her side. She was only vaguely aware of the guards filing out of the throne room, leaving only her and Odin.

 

“My love,” Odin said, his words soft with relief at seeing her alive. His eyes flickered to the wound on her shoulder and fury pulsed through his visible eye. “Who did this?”

 

“Malekith,” Frigga admitted, and did not react to Odin’s sharp intake of breath. “I confronted him. I fought him.” A bitter smile twisted her lips. “He was good.”

 

She let magic pulse through her hand and laid it over the wound, encouraging the skin to knit itself together before Odin could do something ridiculous like summon a healer to tend to the dreadful scratch of a wound she had oh so heroically suffered.

 

Odin’s eye narrowed like he had read her mind, and Frigga raised an eyebrow in challenge. Wisely, Odin decided to let it go.

 

“What of Loki?” he asked instead, and Frigga could not help but let her eyes flicker back to the place her son had stood only minutes ago.

 

“Gone,” she said, and found that the words to elaborate would not come.

 

“You’ve let him go,” Odin stated matter of factly, lacking the fury one might have expected.

 

“I’ve tried to stop him,” Frigga said, because she had. She’d tried, had confronted her son and asked him, begged him to stay. Had offered him protection from Odin, had promised at least a chance to reconcile. And for a moment, for a short, sweet moment, she had thought that he might agree.

 

Instead, Loki had reacted with sorrow. Never had she seen him so reluctant in something that he did, and Frigga wondered… For someone named the god of lies, Loki had always worn his emotions so openly displayed.

 

“He had Gungnir,” Frigga said, not daring to ask the question she might not want the answer for.

 

Odin did not do her the favor to explain. “He had.”

 

“And he was free.”

 

The sentence made Odin grit his teeth. “His trickery has bought his freedom.”

 

Frigga paused, saddened yet unsurprised at the fury in her husband’s voice. She might not have known half of what had occurred between them, but the instinctive need to defend her son came strongly and passionately. “Loki is the reason I am still alive.”

 

“He is?” Odin asked. “How?”

 

“I do not know.” Frigga frowned and thought back to her rescue. “He distracted Malekith as we were duelling. He wielded Gungnir and he… He opened up a passage. It did not look like the Bifrost.”

 

“It was not.” Odin closed his eye in what could have been exhaustion or regret. Perhaps it was both. “He has stolen the tesseract. It contained an artifact older than all of the Nine Realms.”

 

Frigga had been wondering about the blue gem that had sat at Gungnir’s tip. She also realized that Odin was holding something back. Truly, he should know better than to attempt to hold secrets before her. “What kind of artifact?”

 

As quickly as the intent to lie flickered up, it faltered under Frigga’s gaze. “An infinity gem,” Odin admitted. “Loki wields the power to manipulate space itself.”

 

Frigga’s eyes widened. She had heard of the infinity gems – how could she have not? There were legends about them, ancient myths of varying sources and credibility. Holding one of them in one’s hands was…

 

“Did you know?” she asked and did not know if she should dread the answer.

 

“That the tesseract contained an infinity stone?” Odin’s laugh was a harsh, bitter sound. “No. Or believe me, I would have taken it elsewhere. Somewhere Loki would not have thought to look.”

 

Protectiveness pulsed through Frigga’s body, and she could not shake off the thought of Loki fleeing the instant Odin had stepped foot into the throne room. Perhaps he had been right in doing so.

 

“He saved my life,” she repeated, and she was prepared to do so until Odin remembered. “And there was more… Ask Heimdall what he has seen. Loki has done something with the gem, I do not know what–”

 

“There is no need,” Odin interrupted, and avoided her gaze.

 

“Husband,” Frigga said when he failed to elaborate. “Speak to me.”

 

Odin let out a sigh. The only times Frigga had seen him this exhausted was when the Odinsleep had been near.

 

“One moment the hallways were crawling with Dark Elves,” Odin said. “The next all of them were gone. Fallen through portals and leaving nothing but their blood on our weapons behind.”

Surprise sparked through Frigga’s chest, and she felt guilty for it at once. “He saved us,” she said, speaking out the words that Odin had taken great care to avoid.

 

He hesitated. “It would appear so.” Something in his voice made Frigga’s eyes narrow. It was not long until realization found her.

 

“It does not change your mind in the slightest,” she said, and did not have to raise the sentence in a question. “You would throw him right back into the dungeons, no matter what he has done for us.”

 

“What am I supposed to think, Frigga?” Odin turned away from her, pacing the throne room restlessly. “He falls into the void and appears lost. He reappears with an army of savages, attempting to enslave the weakest of the Nine. He returns to us in chains, mocks his brother and the humans and me, and does not show even a sliver of regret.”

 

He halted in front of her, and his voice lowered despite the two of them being alone. His eye was closed so he would not look at her. “Frigga… He knew of Hela.”

 

Words failed her. There was the ever present jab at the mention of Odin’s firstborn child. Hela… Frigga had not met her before, and she did not wish to. It was difficult enough to know about Odin’s first life, about the beginning of his reign, despite knowing that he had come to see the errors of his way.

 

But how could Loki have possibly found out? “What did he say?” As much as she loved her son, Frigga would not put it past him to attempt to blackmail Odin, given the opportunity.

 

Odin’s mouth twisted into a bitter smile. “Nothing. He used his knowledge of her to lure me into the dungeons to give him my attention. Nothing more.”

 

“What then?”

 

“He also knew about the Dark Elves.”

 

A lump formed in Frigga’s throat. She could see where this was going. “But how?”

 

“Frigga…” Odin paused, knowing that his next words would not find appreciation from her. “We have to assume that he has let them into the palace himself.”

 

“Please.” Frigga scowled. “While being locked up in the dungeons? Only to save us from them himself?”

 

“Is that not exactly what he did on the day of Thor’s coronation?”

 

Frigga closed her eyes. “Perhaps. Except he had not been in prison at the time. And as childish as his reasons had been, he had had a purpose. What is his purpose if he flees before he can collect his prize?”

 

“He took Gungnir,” Odin reminded her. “And the infinity gem. Not so small a prize, wouldn’t you agree?”

 

Frigga’s lips curled around the bitter taste in her mouth. She could not deny it. “You are saying he led the Elves into the palace as a means to escape.”

 

“Can you truly blame me?”

 

The truth was that she couldn’t. Not entirely. “Then how did he come to obtain the information in the first place?”

 

“That is what escapes me.” Odin looked into the distance. “You and I know. A handful others do. But none of them would have told Loki, even if he’d known to seek them out.”

 

Frigga clung to that small piece of uncertainty. Perhaps she was foolish – but who, as a mother, could blame her for that? – but she wanted to believe that there was more behind it than the eye could perceive. She wanted to believe that Loki had saved lives, not put them at risk as a means to an end.

 

She set her mouth in a stubborn line. “If his only goal had been to acquire the weapon, he would not have had to rid us of the Elves.”

 

The look Odin gave her was a mixture of exasperation and fondness. “Your opinion of him is biased.”

 

“As is yours. You are always so quick to think the worst of him.”

 

“How can I not when he has burned us so often?”

 

Frigga averted her eyes. This conversation would not lead them anywhere.

 

Odin must have shared her thoughts, because he did not pursue the issue. “Come. Let us find out about the damage that he has done.”

 

It was as much of an olive branch as he could offer, and Frigga did not argue. Privately, she could not help but think that perhaps, Loki had been right in fleeing. No matter how much it hurt to see her youngest go.

 


 

“Jane, you haven’t told me that there are wizards on Earth.” Thor glanced around the chamber they’d been transported to, eyes wandering over ancient books and artifacts not unlike one of Asgard’s libraries.

 

Despite his curiosity, he took great care to put himself between Jane and the caped figure who had announced himself as “Sorcerer Supreme”.

 

“Yeah, because there aren’t. Or, there weren’t. The only ‘magicians’ are people who use tricks and illusions to impress an audience.” Jane’s eyes fell onto their host, who raised an eyebrow. “Um. Not that I’m saying you’re a fake, Mister– Doctor– Strange? It’s just. What most people call ‘magic’ is either a trick, or science that we can’t understand. Yet. I mean, a few years ago most people didn’t believe in aliens, either. Not that I’m comparing you to an alien, I mean–”

 

Thor’s lip quirked up in a smile. He laid a hand on Jane’s shoulder, causing her to trail off awkwardly.

 

“Nice place. I like your cape,” he said, not so subtly tugging at his own. “Where have you brought my brother?”

 

“Hmm,” the wizard said, drawing out the sound in mock thoughtfulness. “Your brother. Loki was it? Alien invasion on New York not so long ago, that Loki?”

 

A beat of silence followed, as there was nothing Thor was able to say in his brother’s defence. He chose his next words carefully. “I assure you, his presence on Earth is no danger to your people. I would not let him cause harm to anyone a second time.”

 

Strange paused in a way that Thor thought was entirely for the dramatic effect. “And how can you promise me that?”

 

“I have learned from my mistakes. I will not put my trust in him ever again.” The words hurt to say, but Thor meant them. He would not allow himself to lower his guard, only to find a knife in his back the second he turned it.

 

“Forgive me if your word is not enough to reassure me,” Strange said. “Your brother is dangerous, and he has proven himself hostile once before. People died.”

 

Thor closed his eyes, feeling a jab at the reminder what Loki had cost them. As if he didn’t know. “He will not get a second chance.” Sooner would Thor give his life than let any more innocents come to harm at the hands of his family.

 

Strange’s pointedly neutral expression showed that he did not believe him. “I have made an oath to protect Earth from threats exactly like him. Perchance we could–”

 

Thor was left to guess what Strange had been about to suggest.

 

A fizzling sound cut through the chamber, a blue-glowing tear opening up in mid air. Loki fell out of it and landed on the floor with an ‘Uhmpf’ , causing Strange to fall into a fighting stance before Loki had even managed to jump to his feet.

 

“How did you do that?” Strange asked, his eyes narrowed and the runes around his hands glowing in a menacing orange-red.

 

Instead of answering his question, Loki responded with a growl. “Don’t ever try to do that again, mortal .”

 

“How did you escape?”

 

Loki’s face twisted into a sneer. “You cannot compete with my magic, sorcerer. Midgardian magic is inferior to mine in every way.”

 

“How did you do it?” Jane asked, her eyes firmly trained on the spot where Loki’s portal had flickered out of existence.

 

“Jane,” Thor said, because he recognized the spark in her eyes. As much as he loved her for it, they had bigger things to take care off.

 

“You told me that there was nothing like the Bifrost on Asgard. Or in any of the worlds that you know.”

 

“Yes,” Thor said, “because there isn’t.”

 

Jane threw a pointed glance towards the two sorcerers in the room. “Well, both of them seem to know how to make portals! And one of them is from Earth!”

 

“Jane,” Thor repeated, his voice soft. “Is now really the time?”

 

“But think of the possibilities! If I could figure out the science behind it, imagine what–” Jane’s eyes flickered to the two sorcerers glaring daggers at each other, and her cheeks colored in embarrassment. “Oh. Yeah, right.”

 

“Why have you come?” Strange asked, pretending like the interruption had not happened at all.

 

Loki sent him another scathing glare, but did not reach for his knives. Thor was glad of it; he was not in the mood to break up a duel. “I have come to ask a favor of your precious Avengers .”

 

Strange paused, as did Thor and Jane. Was Loki being serious? What could he possibly want from them? There was no way they would listen to him in the first place, after what had happened the last time their paths had crossed.

 

“Ironically,” Loki went on, “you bringing us here might have resolved another matter.”

 

“Oh?” Strange said. “And what is that?”

 

“Do you know what it is that you have sworn to protect?”

 

Thor followed his brother’s gaze to the amulet that rested around Strange’s neck. It looked heavy and ancient in a way that would not have looked amiss in Asgard’s treasure vault.

 

Strange had done the same, something wary entering his gaze. “I do. The question is, how do you know?”

 

Loki ignored the question. “Then you must also know that it is not the only one of its kind.”

 

“And your point?”

 

Loki’s eyes fixated on Jane, and Thor instinctively tensed. “Take a look at her.”

 

“Wait,” Thor said. “What are you–”

 

Thor did not manage to complete his sentence. Strange’s hands twisted into complicated gestures that sent an energy pulse towards them, the same orange-red that his other techniques had been before it. Thor raised Mjolnir, but hesitated when Loki did nothing to react.

 

Then it was too late; the energy pulse reached them and Jane gasped as her skin pulsed red.

 

“Impossible,” Strange murmured.

 

Thor frowned. Unlike the other occasions the Aether had made an appearance, Jane looked entirely unharmed. “What was that?”

 

Instead of answering him, Strange’s eyes were set on Jane. “You are bound to an infinity stone.”

 

“A what?” Jane asked.

 

“An infinity stone.” Strange’s expression did not change from the incredulous stare it had taken on since using his spell. “They are the most dangerous and powerful artifacts in the universe. And one of them is possessing you.”

 

“You are talking about the Aether,” Thor said.

 

“If that is what you call it. It is most definitely one of them.”

 

The revelation did nothing to lessen Thor’s confusion. Before he could ask more questions, Loki chimed in. “Well. Since this is taken care of, I shall take my leave.”

 

Thor frowned. “What are you talking about?”

 

Loki had the nerve to look at him like Thor was the one being stupid. “The Aether is an infinity stone. Here is a Midgardian sorcerer with more knowledge of them than even Asgard’s libraries have. He is also a doctor, and your precious girlfriend is a scientist. I’m sure they will figure something out.”

 

The silence that followed was broken by Strange’s disbelieving, “Excuse me?”

 

Loki rolled his eyes. “I am not sure how to make it anymore obvious. You two are going to work together to fix her.”

 

“Why would you care what happens to me?” Jane asked.

 

Loki hesitated. “I don’t. My priority is the stone. I will take care of it once you have found a way to separate it from your body.”

 

“Hang on,” Strange said. “If you think I will let you run havoc with an infinity stone–”

 

“Calm down, sorcerer. My only intention concerning the stone is to destroy it.”

 

“Destroy it?” Thor asked. Considering what had happened in New York, Thor had trouble believing that Loki could keep his hands away from a source of power as big as Strange made them out to be. Much less destroy one of them.

 

Strange’s disbelief was heavy in his voice. “And why would you want to do that?”

 

“They are too dangerous to be wielded by a single person,” Loki said.

 

Strange’s hand twitched over his amulet as if to shield it from Loki’s gaze. “I will not let you take this one.”

 

“Keep it.” Loki twitched his shoulder in indifference. “The Aether will suffice.”

 

Thor found himself at a loss for words. Loki had always been unpredictable, had always found ways to catch Thor off guard and live up to his reputation as a trickster. And yet, Thor could not shake the feeling that something about his brother was off. He was making even less sense than usual.

 

Why, after escaping from the dungeons in Asgard, would Loki have taken Thor and Jane to Earth instead of fleeing to where even Heimdall’s eyes would not be able to follow? And if it was to destroy the Aether, like he’d said, why would he not keep it to himself instead? Why would he bring Thor, when he knew perfectly well that he would second guess Loki’s every move after what had happened in New York?

 

“Now that that’s taken care of,” Loki said, and Thor forced his attention back to the matter at hand, “let’s go.”

 

“What? I’m not leaving Jane!”

 

Loki scoffed. “You can come back to her once we’re done.”

 

“Done with what? What are you talking about?”

 

“Convincing the Avengers to help,” Loki said, slowly like he was explaining it to a child. “They, too, have one of the stones.”

 

“What makes you think they would help you?”

 

“Exactly. Which is why you’re coming.”

 

Thor tried to share a glance with Jane, but did not find help. She wasn’t even looking at him. Or Loki.

 

“So, you’re a sorcerer?” she asked, and Thor and Loki might as well have left already for all the attention she gave them.

 

“I am,” Strange said.

 

“Is that something you can learn? Or do you have to be born with it?” Jane’s voice almost vibrated with excitement, her feet shifting restlessly and her eyes wide.

 

Thor could see when he had lost, and sighed. “Fine. I will come.” If nothing else, he would be able to keep Loki out of trouble. Or try. If Thor could help it, Loki would not get the chance to cause any more problems for his team – or for Earth as a whole.

 

He turned to Loki and quirked his lips into a smile. “You should have said from the beginning that you wanted me to come as your bodyguard.”

 

Loki’s murderous glance managed to cheer him up considerably. “I merely wish to avoid unnecessary combat, if possible.”

 

“Of course. Whatever you say.” Thor did not try to hide his grin.

 

Loki growled, but let it go.

 

Or not? Next thing Thor knew, Loki held a dagger in his hand, and he grasped for Mjolnir in preparation.

 


 

Loki pulled the spear-turned-dagger out of thin air and ignored Thor’s wary “Loki…?” in favor of getting on with his plan before Thor had the chance to change his mind.

 

He realized that something was wrong as soon as he pushed energy into the weapon. He had had trouble opening a portal to free himself of Strange’s trap, but had written the cause off as the other sorcerer’s interference. Whatever he had said to Strange’s face, a sorcerer able to wield the power of one of the infinity stones was not to be underestimated.

 

Now that Loki was no longer trapped in a never ending fall, it did not take him long to identify the real problem.

 

He held onto the dagger as the space gem buzzed furiously, struggling against its container in its confined state. It tried to shake off the disguise, tried to unravel, to unfold – content as it had been in the spear, it let its displeasure known at being shrunk down into something less than what it was.

 

Loki grit his teeth, pushing on. He had to be able to create a single, measly portal that did not even cross into another realm. Anything beyond it might not work as long as the gem’s power was suppressed, but this… this had to work.

 

A growl escaped Loki’s lips as the dagger burned scathingly in his hand. It glowed blue and Loki sliced the air in front of him, tore right through the fabric of reality messily and ragged, missing the grace and the beauty that the space gem possessed normally.

 

Thor had no time to protest as Loki snatched him by his sleeve before the portal could break down. He dragged him along and only seconds later, New York’s skyline spread out in front of them from their viewpoint at the top of Stark’s tower.

 


 

Chapter Text

“So everybody would, in theory, be able to learn?”

 

Stephen only half registered the question, eyes drawn to the place where two Asgardians – one of them rather high on his list of intergalactic threats – had disappeared to who knew where. “Um–”

 

“Oh, they’re fine,” Jane said, making a hand gesture as if to swat away his concerns. “Thor can handle his brother. Probably. Most definitely. Besides, he said they’d go to the Avengers, didn’t he?” She didn’t give Stephen the opportunity to answer. “More importantly: You were about to explain your magic.”

 

“Was I?” Stephen asked, but he already felt his resolve crumble. Loki should be his first priority, should put him on alert to a degree were nothing else mattered until he left the planet, and yet…

 

He flexed his hand and made runes flicker up, checking that Loki had, in fact, teleported himself and his brother to New York. It seemed that for once, he had actually told the truth. Well, the Avengers could handle him. Probably. They had done it before.

 

“The training is harsh. And I’ve been told that a certain affinity for the art is useful.” He paused. “But yes, in theory.”

 

“Can you show me?” Jane asked next, not missing a beat. Had she stood this closely to him from the start?

 

Stephen hesitated. He had not been given his gift to use it as a means to show off to other people – he liked to think that using every opportunity to inflate his already considerably sized ego was behind him. But then, Jane was a scientist. Was it really showing off when she was so genuinely interested in his art?

 

He supposed that one small demonstration could not hurt.

 

Stephen pictured the room next door – no need to go overboard – and drew a portal into mid air. As simple as it was, it made Jane’s face light up in excitement.

 

“How does it work?”

 

“I can’t tell you the science behind it,” Stephen admitted. “And you won’t like the magical side.”

 

The spark of defiance – or was it determination? – that entered Jane’s gaze had no right being as endearing as it was. “Try me.”

 

“I picture the destination in my mind, and the portal I create will lead to it.” Stephen had to smile at the way Jane’s face scrunched up in discontent.

 

“So, somehow you’re creating a resonating link between two separate locations. Without limitation about their distance or relation to each other?” The question must have been rhetorical, because Jane did not wait for an answer. “It’s almost like… folding the fabric of space-time and cutting a hole through it. I wonder, what makes it different from the Bifrost?”

 

Jane’s voice dropped into thoughtful muttering, and yet Stephen found himself hanging onto her every word. She stepped closer, examining the portal. “The method of energy transfer seem to be at least somewhat related, but still distinct… And it’s so circular, I wonder if it has anything to do with–”

 

She reached out to touch the edge of the portal, and Stephen managed to slap her hand away just in time. “ Don’t touch that! ” That’s the last thing he needed: Thor returning to find his girlfriend having lost her hands because of his magic.

 

The portal fizzled out of existence, and Jane stepped back with a sheepish smile. “Sorry. No touching, got it.” She did not sound apologetic in the slightest, and Stephen wondered how often before she had risked her health in the name of science.

 

Yet, Stephen found that annoyance would not come. “If you like the portals, just wait until I show you what the Cloak can get up to.”

 

“Your cloak?”

 

Stephen swatted at its collar. “Go on. Show her what a brat you are.” The Cloak slipped off his shoulders almost before he managed to finish the sentence.

 

Jane reeled back in surprise as it hovered close to her face and twisted its collar in the imitation of a head tilt. “Oh my god,” she muttered, and Stephen couldn’t suppress a smirk.

 

Jane looked at him with wide eyes, then back to the Cloak. “How.”

 

“To tell the truth, I have no idea.” He paused. “Would you like to find out?”

 

The expression that followed looked like he had handed Jane the key to paradise.

 


 

They didn’t have to wait for long. Thor had not yet lowered Mjolnir when a door slid open and revealed Tony Stark, in casual clothing and with dark shadows under his eyes. Despite that, he sported a beaming smile.

 

It was almost comical to see how quickly it slipped off of his face once his eyes fell on Loki.

 

“JARVIS!” Stark barked, and a whirring sound from inside the building was the only warning they got before bits of machinery were launched outside, wrapping around Stark’s body and arming him within seconds.

 

Naturally, he aimed his repulsors at Loki. His voice filtered through his faceplate metallically but no less incredulous. “What the fuck .

 

“Hello, Stark.”

 

“What the actual fuck.”

 

“Tony,” Thor started, taking a step in front of Loki.

 

“What the fuck ,” Stark repeated, “is he doing here?!”

 

Perhaps Loki was not making the situation better with the gleeful smile on his face, but he could not help himself. He hadn’t even opened his mouth before Thor sent him a dirty glance, and Loki rolled his eyes, but stayed silent.

 

“We have come for help,” Thor tried, raising his hands in a placating manner.

 

“Buddy, you’re not the problem here.” Stark did not let Loki out of his sight, even as Thor tried to keep his attention on himself. “Your psycho of a brother is. Maybe Asgardian memory works differently, but he came to our planet with an alien army and tried to enslave humanity fairly recently? Ring any bells?”

 

“I know,” Thor said, raising his voice over Loki’s attempt to speak up. His brother was such a spoilsport. “And Asgard has fairly punished and imprisoned him for it–”

 

“And let him go already?”

 

“Not… Not exactly…” Thor carded his hand through his hair awkwardly.

 

There was a beat of silence.

 

“He escaped, didn’t he,” Stark said. It did not sound like a question.

 

Instead of answering, Thor said, “I am here to ensure that he does not start another attempt.”

 

“If it helps,” Loki chimed in, fully knowing that it would not, “I have brought nothing but the purest of intentions.”

 

“Forgive me if I fail to believe that,” Stark said, his repulsors glowing menacingly. It wasn’t like they could do Loki permanent damage. His newest, more advanced armor might have, as it had been designed to hurt the titan himself. But Stark had yet a long way to go until then.

 

“Frankly, I am insulted,” Loki couldn’t help but snark. “Facing me alone like this. Am I that small of a threat to you? Where is your team? Where is your legion?”

 

He had to give it to the mortal, he was determined if nothing else. Many would despair at the realization of not being good enough, but Stark? He had build an army to make up for it.

 

It was a shame that against Thanos, even that had not made much of a difference.

 

In the present, Stark had gone rigid at the mention of his creation. “How do you know about the Iron Legion?”

 

Oops.

 

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Loki improvised, pretending like he did, in fact, have an answer to the question.

 

“Let us go inside,” Thor interrupted before either of them could go on. “We should discuss what follows with the rest of the team.”

 

Stark hesitated, his eyes not leaving Loki for more than a few seconds at a time. Eventually, he caved in. “... Fine. Get him inside.”

 

And thus Loki followed his brother into the very same room he had been beaten in a lifetime before, feeling Stark’s eyes – and the threat of his repulsors – aimed at his back.

 

“JARVIS,” Stark said, refusing to shed the armor even now, “do me a favor and let the others know about our little… situation.”

 

“With pleasure, Sir.”

 

“Bruce doesn’t happen to be in the tower, does he?”


“I’m afraid not, Sir. Would you like me to contact him?”

 

Stark hesitated. “Not yet. Shoot him a message if things go south.”

 

“Yes, sir. If I may, the Iron Legion is functional and at your disposal, should you require it.”

 

“Thanks, buddy.”

 

Not even a minute had passed when a door burst open somewhere in the tower, loud enough to indicate that it had broken out of its hinges. There was no warning before an arrow came flying at Loki’s head, and would have buried itself into his eye socket if it wasn’t for the reflexes he had acquired over several hundred years of people trying to kill him.

 

“Oh my. It looks like your archer requires a leash. Or do you always let him run loose to attack your guests?”

 

Rogers and Romanoff had stepped into the room with Barton, but made no move to stop the archer.

 

“Tony,” Rogers said, his voice as tense as his body language. He did not wear his uniform, but his shield was raised and ready to strike. “Please tell me you have an explanation for this.”

 

Stark turned, an offended tone in his voice. “Why do you think I’ve got anything to do with this? This one’s all on Thor!”

 

“I am not the one who has decided to come here,” Thor said, crossing his arms with a pointed glare towards Loki.

 

“Considering the multitude of weapons aimed at me, would it kill you to share the blame just this once?”

 

The following moment of hesitation was enough to make Loki scowl in indignation, but eventually Thor stepped forward, raising his hands placatingly towards the spies and the soldier.

 

“Friends. I assure you that I will be the first to subdue my brother, should he attempt to betray me. Until then, I ask only for your patience and an open ear.”

 

Tense silence was his answer, until finally Rogers lowered his shield by just a fraction. The reluctance in his words was as obvious as Barton’s desire to take another shot at him. “We’ll listen.”

 


 

They didn’t believe him. Of course they didn’t. In all honesty, Loki had not expected anything else.


“So what you’re saying is that you weren’t to blame for the battle of New York,” Stark repeated, disbelief heavy in his voice.


“I am saying that I am not entirely to blame,” Loki corrected, and pretended not to hear the scoff it earned him.

 

“Right. Okay. So there’s an alien out there–”

 

“A giant, purple alien,” Romanoff added helpfully.

 

“A giant, purple alien who sent you here to do his dirty work.”

 

“His name is Thanos,” Loki said, and wasn’t this conversation just going splendidly ? “He is also known as the Mad Titan.”

 

Rogers was one of the few people who seemed to be trying his best to stay neutral. “Thor, have you ever heard of someone like that?”

 

“Of course he hasn’t,” Stark butted in, finally having stepped out of his armor. “Because he doesn’t exist. Do you honestly think this is anything but some sort of master plan to get us to let down our guard?”

 

“I would have thought that you of all people would know not to ignore such a warning,” Loki said, and succeeded in making Stark stiffen.

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

Loki gave him a knowing smile. “Tell me, Man of Iron. What is it that you’re preparing for?”

 

“Enough,” Rogers said at the same time as Thor warned, “Loki.”

 

Stark’s silence and the way his eyes had widened in shock had already declared Loki the victor. If everything else about his journey was doomed to be unpleasant, at least he could enjoy the power his knowledge gave him over his former enemies.

 

Thor tried to steer the conversation back onto the topic by answering Roger’s question. “The name Thanos does not sound familiar,” he admitted, “but the infinity stones exist.”

 

“Do you have proof?” Rogers asked, ignoring Stark’s scoff.

 

Loki’s face broke out into a grin. “I thought you’d never ask.”

 

None of them saw it coming.

 

He rushed forward to press one hand on Stark’s forehead, mirroring the gesture he had used on Valkyrie and fending off the arrow flying his way with the other. Instead of forcing Stark’s memories to the surface, he shared his own.

 

They were back on the refugee vessel, watching Asgard disappear in a ball of fire. Nevertheless, the air was buzzing with tentative hope, the whispers of families who had lost their home, but kept each other.

 

“Do you think it is a good idea to return to Midgard?”

 

“Of course. The people love me.”

 

There was banter and fragile, hopeful happiness.

 

Then Thanos. A bloodbath. A hand on Loki’s throat, squeezing shut, cutting off the air.

 

“I promise you, brother. The sun will shine on us again.”

 

“We have a Hulk.”

 

“If you were actually here–”

 

When Loki woke up, it was among his people’s corpses.

 

Loki grit his teeth as the spell threatened to break, but he clung onto it and kept going.

 

The scenery changed.

 

They were on Midgard with Thor and two of the Guardians. Their first steps back on Midgard had led them straight into a massacre. Midgardians fought an army of savages that made the Chitauri look civilized, and in their midst, there they were. The Avengers, older and weary, battlescarred in more than the physical sense.

 

“What took you so long?”

 

“What is he doing here?!”

 

“I meant, is it a good idea for me to return?”

 

“Honestly? Probably not.”

 

The scenery changed.

 

Twin suns rose in the dawn of a new day, illuminating purple soil and weary faces. Debris was strewn around them, not so ancient ruins failing to tell their story.

 

The silence was broken with the sound of metal on stone. “I can end this. I can end him .”

 

Loki’s breath sounded heavy in his ears. In their midst, the remains of the Infinity Gauntlet shone in the suns’ light.

 

Victory was within grasp.

 

Loki pulled away with a start, watching as Stark collapsed in a trembling heap in front of him. An arm slung around his neck and pulled him back – Thor, who else – and a notched arrow positioned itself inches away from his eye.


That had been close. He had been close – far, far too close – to showing Stark too much.

 

“What did you do to him?!” Barton hissed, his hands perfectly still even as his voice trembled with hate.

 

“Brother,” Thor growled into his ear, tightening his grip for good measure. Loki couldn’t help but twitch in discomfort. “I’ve warned you.”

 

“Tony,” Rogers said. His shield laid abandoned on the ground, leaving the threats of bodily harm to his teammates in favor of kneeling next to Stark. “Tony! What did he do?”

 

“You wanted proof,” Loki forced out, not quite managing a grin in his current position. “I’ve shown him proof.”

 

Interestingly, Stark’s reaction was far more extreme than Valkyrie’s had been back then. He could simply not compare to one of Asgard’s elite warriors. Valkyrie had not been reduced to a heaving pile on the ground, shaking and staring at nothing with an ever increasing breathing rate. Interesting.

 

“Sir,” came the voice from the ceiling, managing what Rogers had not and gaining Stark’s attention.

 

“J-JARVIS…”

 

“It is 2 P.M. We are currently in Avengers Tower, New York. The weather is 73 degrees with moderate rainfall. Other residents of the tower include Agent Barton, Agent Romanoff, Captain Rogers and Thor.”

 

If “JARVIS’” intention was to calm down his creator, he seemed to be successful. Slowly, Stark’s trembling subsided, and his gaze grew more focused.

 

“R-Rhodey?” he asked, absentmindedly grasping for Roger’s arm that held him upright. “Pep?”

 

“Colonel Rhodes is scheduled to arrive in New York in three day’s time. Miss Potts has just concluded the PR meeting that you could not attend due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’ that involved DUM-E, your business suits and a motor oil spillage. Shall I contact either of them?”

 

“... No. No, it’s fine.” Stark avoided eye contact with the rest of his teammates. “Thanks, buddy.”

 

“Tony,” Rogers said, climbing to his feet tentatively and pulling Stark up beside him. “What was that? Are you al–”

 

“What– What was that? What did I just watch?” Stark interrupted, eyes fixed on Loki and his expression carved of stone. He did not manage to keep the trembling out of his voice entirely. “What did you show me?”

 

Thor loosened his grip enough to allow Loki to speak properly. “That is what will happen if we do not lay this childish matter aside and work together.”

 

“If you think there’s any chance of us listening to you,” Barton hissed, “after what you just did? You’re even more insane than–”

 

“What do we need to do?” Stark interrupted, and the room fell silent.


 

Chapter Text

Tony’s heart beat rapidly in his chest, and he felt the sweat on his brow cold and sticky. He had started fumbling with his watch at one point and couldn’t bring himself to stop. Images of suffering and grief were imprinted in his mind, repeating in an endless loop like a flawed program.

 

He wished he could hold onto his facade better in front of his teammates; he could tell that he was freaking them out.

 

But they hadn’t seen what he had seen.

 

Tony knew that Loki’s entire shtick was manipulation, of course he did. But the nightmare that Loki had shown him – the vision, whatever it had been – had felt so horribly, nauseatingly familiar…

 

Tony had known since New York that something was coming. His nightmares, his paranoia, his… his anxiety attacks (and how difficult it still was to admit to them, even in the privacy of his own mind), all of them were caused by what had been stewing in his head since Loki’s first invasion.

 

Whatever it was – festering in his mind and poisoning his thoughts – Tony knew that it was real, even if he didn’t know what it was. And who was to say that the answer to his question hadn’t materialized on top of Avengers Tower in form of a hated trickster god? With how extraordinarily ridiculous his life had been ever since those months in Afghanistan, Tony would not be surprised.

 

Manipulation or not – because he wasn’t naive enough to believe that Loki hadn’t come for his own reasons – Tony knew, he just knew that this once, Loki was telling the truth.

 

“You know about, about... “ Tony closed his eyes, carefully forming the name that was rampaging in his head and leaving shatters behind. How could it already feel familiar when he had learned it only minutes ago? “About Thanos.”

 

Loki’s smile looked tense and painful. “More than you might think.”

 

“What do we do? What can we do?”

 

“Tony…” Steve hesitated, concern practically oozing off of him. He still grasped his arm like he expected Tony to collapse without the support.

 

Tony didn’t pull away because he actually might.

 

“Loki was in your head. He’s manipulating you.”

 

“I know. God, I know!” Tony’s hand twitched upwards, his lips twisting into a frown. Did they think he was stupid? “But he’s not lying. I know he isn’t.”

 

“Tony–”

 

“No! This, all of this, I… Something’s coming. And I…” His voice faltered, the confession weighing heavy on his tongue. “I’ve been afraid of it since New York. Look, I don’t trust him. Not further than I can throw him. But something… Thanos is coming. And if he knows something about him, how dumb would we be not to use that information?”

 

“This sounds crazy,” Steve said. “You know that, right?”

 

“I know that tone,” Natasha said with a glance at Steve. “You want us to listen to him.”

 

“Wait,” Tony said. “Really?” He’d expected to have to fight tooth and nail to convince his teammates to even consider listening. Or, more realistic, to have to take matters into his own hands.

 

“I don’t trust a word that comes out of his mouth.” Steve sent Loki a glare. “But two of our teammates believe him. It would be stupid not to look into it.”

 

“Two of our teammates, one of whom just had Loki inside of his head and the other who is his brother,” Natasha pointed out.


“I know. But if worse comes to worst, we can take him.”

 

Tony hadn’t expected that. And going by his moment of hesitation, neither had Thor. He let go of his brother warily, but stayed close to him in case he tried anything else. “You have my thanks, Captain.”

 

“You’ve been quiet,” Natasha said, and it took Tony several heartbeats to realize that she was talking to Clint.

 

He hadn’t lowered his bow – not that anyone expected or wanted him to. “Yeah, well. I don’t think anybody in this room needs it spelled out how I feel.”

 

“Hello, Hawkeye,” Loki said, but mercifully nothing else.

 

The pause that followed held all the tension of having to diffuse a bomb. Blindfolded. While having to recite the prime numbers of the Fibonacci sequence.

 

“Say we agree to work with you. Say we can set all of this aside,” Steve made a vague hand gesture, implying everything that had happened between them, from Clint to the Chitauri and New York as a whole. “What do you expect us to do?”

 

“I assure you,” Loki said, in that stilted, stuck-up way of his that set Tony’s teeth on edge, “given the choice I would do anything else before allying myself with you.”

 

“Then why are you here at all?” Tony asked. “You got out of prison, you could have gone anywhere after that. You know, some place where everybody doesn’t hate your face. Why come here?”

 

“I have told you of the infinity stones,” Loki said. “The scepter contains one of them. I have come to reclaim it.”

 

“It explains your tricks from back then,” Thor said. “They were not your powers.”

 

“They were once the scepter was mine to wield.” Loki’s mouth twitched into another smirk. “Just like Mjolnir’s powers are yours.”

 

“Even if we had the scepter,” Clint interrupted, his eyes spewing poison, “do you really believe we’d give it to you just like that?”

 

Loki rolled his eyes. “Hand it to Thor then. It does not matter. If you find a way to destroy it, you have my blessing to do it yourselves.”

 

There was a pause as for once, all of them were at a loss what to say.

 

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “You said ‘even if we had it’. What did you mean?”

 

Steve, ever their fearless leader, decided to bite the bullet for them. “... We don’t have it.”

 

Loki’s facade of insufferable superiority crumbled as his face twisted into a disbelieving glare. “What?!”

 

“Where is it then?” Thor said, almost subconsciously holding his brother back with a hand on his shoulder. It was not enough to calm their nerves in the slightest, and Tony could tell that he wasn’t the only one getting increasingly trigger happy as the crazy mass-murderer lost his composure.

 

“SHIELD took it to examine it.” Steve’s brows knit together in a frown. “It fell into the hands of HYDRA from there.”

 

“You had one of the universe’s most powerful artifacts in your possession. And you lost it.”

 

“Brother, enough.”

 

“They lost an infinity stone!”

 

“And pointing it out a third time will definitely make the situation better,” Tony said. “In fact, why don’t you try again?”

 

“Just find it,” Loki pressed out through gritted teeth, attempting a new method to murder them all with his eyes alone.

 

“Wow,” Clint said, “Thank you so much for that splendid advice. We could have never thought to do that ourselves, smartass.”

 

“Can we please dial the sarcasm back,” Steve chimed in with all the exasperation of a tired kindergarten teacher. “This isn’t helping anyone.”

 

“We’ve been working on getting it back ever since we found out that HYDRA had gotten their fingers on it,” Natasha said. “We’re close. You can trust us to get it back, and soon.”

 

Thor hesitated, but nodded. “I trust you.”

 

“If it helps,” Loki said, “the stone is the only reason for me to have come to Midgard in the first place.”

 

“So what,” Clint said, “you’re saying we find the stone, destroy it, and we won’t have to ever see your ugly mug again?”

 

“If all of us are lucky,” Loki said, twisting his lips into something far too scathing to be called a smile.

 

What followed happened with close to no forewarning, and Tony forgave himself and his team for not seeing it coming.

 

“I suppose that takes care of things,” Loki said, ducking out under Thor’s slackened grip and grabbing for something out of their line of view. “As lovely as this reunion was, let’s hope we never have to see each other again.”

 

“Loki,” Thor said, wariness in his voice, “what is your game?”

 

“Nothing that concerns you. Go back to your girlfriend. I promise I won’t try to overthrow anybody any time soon.”

 

Tony didn’t know where Loki had gotten the knife in his hand. By the time he’d stepped back into his armor and held his repulsor aimed at Loki, Loki had done something with it that opened up another portal in the middle of Tony’s living room, glowing in the same shade of eerie blue that the tesseract had. The sight of it made the back of his throat crawl with nausea.

 

“Loki!” Thor threw himself at his brother to pin him down, but missed by an inch as Loki stepped through the portal. He had time to throw them a glance and yell, “Find the stone!” before he ran after Loki and disappeared in a swirl of blue, seconds before the portal fell apart.

 

At first, nobody spoke, staring at the empty spot where the Asgardians had disappeared from.

 

Tony was about to break the silence with some sort of snarky remark when another portal opened up inches from where the first had faded.

 

This one was made of sparking, orange light.

 


 

“Take a look at this,” Jane said, and Stephen paused in his effort to dig through the Sanctum’s extensive library to take a look at the blood sample instead. They’d taken it earlier from Jane, once they had moved their topic of discussion to the Aether.

 

As much fun as playing around with the portals and his Cloak had been – had hanging out with other sorcerers for as long as he had honestly changed him so much that he had never tried to get behind how they worked? – both of them had eventually admitted that there were more important things to worry about.

 

“You keep calling it a ‘stone’,” Jane said, “but how can that be when it behaves more like a liquid?” She traced the recording with one finger, lost in her own musings. “It’s almost like it tied itself to my life by entering my bloodstream.”

 

“That may be so,” Stephen said, “but you have to consider which of the stones it is.” He projected an image of the stone in its most basic form, succeeding in tearing Jane’s eyes away from her notes. “We’re dealing with the reality stone. Changing its composition is the least of what it can do. It holds the power over reality itself.”

 

There was silence as Jane reevaluated the stakes.

 

“So how can we remove it?” she asked.

 

“I’m not sure we can. At least not as we are now.” Jane waited patiently for him to continue. “You told me about its defence mechanism. As long as it is bound to your body, we can’t do much without risking your life.”

 

Jane hummed, turning back to her notes. One would expect an at least somewhat alarmed reaction to those news.

 

They worked in silence for a while, and Stephen couldn’t help but marvel at how comfortable it was, despite the two of them having met less than a few hours ago.

 

“I wonder if it has other effects on my body,” Jane said. “Other than the defence mechanism, I mean. If it can really do as much as you say–”

 

Jane was cut off as runes lit up in front of them, and Stephen sat up rigidly. Oh, that was just perfect.


“What is that?”

 

“A spell I set up earlier.” Stephen paused. “Your boyfriend and his brother just left the planet. Should we be worried about that?”

 

Even Jane didn’t manage to come up with an excuse for that, and straightened up in alarm. “... Maybe. Can you tell where they went?”

 

“Not just like that. Perhaps if I had a DNA sample… Even then, I doubt I could cover more than a couple of light years. For all we know, they could have gone much further than that.”

 

“Or we could just ask them?”

 

Stephen raised an eyebrow. “Ask who?”

 

“The Avengers. They were with them when they disappeared, weren’t they? They have to know something.”

 

“Fair point.” But how were they supposed to get there? Stephen could portal them to New York, but from there they’d have to somehow access Stark Tower. Perhaps they would recognize Jane and grant her entrance? Or perhaps… “Could you look up Stark Tower on the internet for me?”

 

Jane blinked in surprise, but grabbed for her phone regardless. “Why?”

 

“I need a visual reference to set up the portal. I haven’t been in the tower before, but if you can find pictures of it online, from a tour perhaps, or an interview–”

 

“Does this work?” Jane interrupted, holding up her display. The picture showed Thor beaming into the camera with a frankly criminally charming smile. (Seriously. Was that an Asgardian thing, or was that purely Thor?) Only a small bit of what looked like a common area was visible at the edges of the picture, but it would have to be enough.

 

“Perfect.”

 

Stephen pictured the room as best as he could, drawing a portal into the air with orange sparks. The “After you,” already laid on his lips, but he changed his mind at the thought of several potentially trigger-happy Avengers on the other side of the portal.

 

In retrospect, perhaps they could have planned this better. Oh well. The portal stood, so it was too late.

 

Stephen stepped through and raised his hands in what looked like surrender, but was also a position that was one movement away of turning into a battle stance. “Don’t shoot. My name is Doctor Stephen Strange and I mean you no harm.”

 

He only had time to catch a glimpse of the Avengers – stood in a half circle around them, repulsors, Captain America’s shield and several other kinds of weapons aimed at them – before Jane came after him and broke the tension in a way that only she could manage.

 

“–so amazing!” she said, the first part of her sentence lost in the now empty Sanctum. “The Bifrost is a horrible way to travel, trust me. Your portals don’t seem to have any side effects. It’s just like stepping into another room–”

 

She leaned forward as if to stick her head back through the portal – how was she even still alive, with such an utter lack of self-preservation? – and Stephen dispelled it with a huff. “Jane.”

 

She didn’t even miss a beat. “–if I could monitor both ends, perhaps get a read on the energy signature…”

 

“Jane.”

 

“That reminds me. What happens if you close the portal while somebody’s halfway through?”

 

“Let’s not put it to the test,” Stephen said. He had a fairly good idea of what would happen, but didn’t think that now was quite the right moment to voice it. “Jane,” he tried again. “Perhaps we could continue this conversation when we do not have several lethal weapons pointed at us.”

 

Finally, Jane seemed to notice their predicament. “Right. Sorry.” Then, turning to the Avengers, she said, “Hi. My name is Doctor Jane Foster. I don’t know if Thor mentioned me–”

 

“What, are you kidding me?” the archer muttered – Barton, was it? “Forget Thor. As often as Tony and Bruce mention you, I’m surprised they haven’t dragged you to the tower themselves yet. Didn’t SHIELD try to hire you on several occasions?”

 

“Yeah, well,” Jane said, her eyes sliding to the ground as a smile pulled at her lips. “They didn’t exactly make a great first impression after stealing my equipment.”

 

Steve Rogers spoke next, suspicious eyes resting on Stephen and shield raised defensively. Stephen genuinely hoped that this day would not end in a fight with the Avengers. “That doesn’t explain who he is. Or why you’re here.”

 

“Not to mention how you’re here,” Tony Stark interrupted. His faceplate was drawn back, exposing his scowl. “What is it with people and teleporting straight through my tower’s security?!”

 

Stephen suppressed a comment about said tower’s security, his magic and an almost hilarious difference of power levels. As tempting as it was, he did not think that antagonising Stark would lead them to the answers they sought.

 

“We’re not here for you,” Stephen said bluntly. “This is about Loki.”

 

Barton rolled his eyes, but lowered his bow. “Isn’t everything?”

 

Stephen ignored him. “It is my job to monitor potential magical threats on Earth, and to contain them, should the need arise. Loki is one of those threats. If you know anything about his plans or where he and his brother went, I would appreciate the cooperation.”

 

Rogers hesitated. “If your job is to keep an eye on people like Loki, why did you only come now? Why not earlier?”

 

“Where were you during the New York invasion, for that matter?” Stark added. “Or was an alien army not magical enough for you?”

 

“I was in contact with both of them earlier. Thor had assured me that he could handle his brother, and since you have beaten him before, I trusted you to be able to do it again, should the need arise.” Well. That, and he had been somewhat occupied with far more intriguing matters, like the question whether or not his Cloak had always been sentient, or if it had once been a regular cloak, enchanted to become so.

 

“As for the invasion,” he went on, “I’m afraid I did not yet have my powers back then.”

 

For some inexplicable reason, Barton let out a groan. “You’re from the cult, aren’t you?”

 

“The… cult?” Stephen wasn’t sure if he’d misheard.

 

“Yeah, you know. The wizard cult.”

 

“It’s not–”

 

“It’s not a cult, Clint,” Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow said. Stephen only knew her name because it had been all over the news a few weeks ago. “He’s from the Sanctum.”

 

“How do you know about–”

 

“What’s the difference?” Barton said, interrupting Stephen yet again.

 

Rogers lowered his shield tentatively, stealing a glance at his teammates. “You know him?”

 

“SHIELD did,” Romanoff said. “Not much, but enough to list them as a neutral party instead of as potential enemies. And they’re not a cult,” she said, throwing a glance at Barton. “More like an organisation. Like SHIELD. Just older.”

 

“And more magical,” Stephen couldn’t help but add.

 

“Not to mention independent from the government or any other kind of higher supervision,” Romanoff said.

 

“Just one question,” Rogers intercepted, his tone that of an exasperated man at the end of his rope. “They’re not trying to take over the world, are they?”

 

“Not really.”

 

Stephen let out a huff at that, but was widely ignored. Rogers took his teammate at face value and put his shield on a nearby table, evidently deeming it no longer needed. Stark stayed in his armor, but his repulsors no longer glowed like he itched to fire them off.

 

“Now that we’ve established that I am neither part of a cult,” Stephen said, “nor trying to cause trouble, would you mind telling us where Thor and his brother went?”

 

“We can’t,” Barton said, flopping down on the nearest couch. The change in atmosphere was so abrupt, Stephen had trouble not to get whiplash from it. He shared a glance with Jane, who shrugged.

 

“What do you mean, you can’t?” she asked.

 

“We don’t know,” Rogers answered in Barton’s stead. “After he realized that we didn’t have what he wanted, Loki opened a portal and slipped through before any of us could react. Thor went after him, just before it closed.”

 

“Of course he did,” Jane sighed.

 

Stark raised an eyebrow. “You don’t sound very concerned for him.”

 

Jane shrugged. “I may not know Loki, but I know Thor. He’s beaten his brother before. Twice. I’m sure he can handle him this time, too.”

 

“More importantly,” Stephen said, mostly talking to Jane, “this means we’re back to square one. There’s no way to tell where they went.”

 

“Not exactly,” Jane said. Her thoughtful tone caught Stephen’s attention immediately. “We know what they’re after. What Loki is after.”

 

“The infinity stones,” he said, slowly. “How is that supposed to help us?”

 

“If we can find out where the other stones are located, maybe we can also find out where they’re headed. You can detect them.”

 

A beat of silence followed.

 

“I can do what?” Stephen asked.

 

“You detected one of them. You knew that the Aether was one.”

 

Stephen frowned. “Yes, because I knew to look for it. It was staring me directly into my face.”

 

“So what? The point is, we have a way to detect an infinity stone’s energy signature. Which means we only have to find a way to amplify it.”

 

“‘Only’,” Stephen huffed, but it sounded half-hearted even to his ears. “I assume you already have an idea?”

 

“One or two,” Jane said, smirking at him. “Care to help me test them out?”

 

“Couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do.”

 

“Now, wait a second–”

 

Stephen wasn’t sure who had said it, but before he could bother to find out, one of his portals had already led him and Jane back to the Sanctum. Almost before all of its sparks had faded, they’d already sunken into a deep discussion about energy signatures, space, and  how to find the six most powerful objects in the known universe.

 


 

Back in Avengers Tower, several moments were spent in stunned silence. Then, Tony stepped out of his armor and made a beeline for his bar.

 

“I fucking hate magic,” he muttered, and for once, none of his teammates cared to argue.

 


 

Chapter Text

Loki knew that he was being stupid. Leaving the time stone in Strange’s hands was foolish at best. At worst, it could cost them everything. It could cost him everything.

 

In another life and under different circumstances, Loki would not have hesitated to pry the amulet from the sorcerer’s neck with his own hands – even if it meant killing him in order to do so. Loki did not care for Strange, and he had no qualms about collateral damage. It would be the smart choice to make.

 

Every other stone could be forgiven, but if this one fell into Thanos’ hands a second time, everything would have been for nothing. He would be able to undo all progress Loki would have been able to make with a single gesture. Keeping the time stone intact was a stupid, foolish whim.

 

But what if Loki failed? What if he failed to prevent what he had lived through once? What if he needed to try again? Even with the stone within reach – perhaps because of it – Loki couldn’t bring himself to lose that failsafe.

 

Besides, all of the Midgardians as well as his brother had plenty of reasons to distrust him, even without another murder at his hands.

 

Speaking of his idiot of a brother: Loki was only mildly surprised when he fell through the portal after him, burning off half of his cape as the portal closed behind him. Loki hastily made Gungnir disappear. By now, the dagger was almost too hot to touch, brimming with energy that it did not know how to contain in its confined state. He wouldn’t be able to use it again until it calmed down – or until he would let it unfold into its proper shape.

 

“Loki!” Thor said, clutching what was left off his cape and entirely unconcerned that he could have lost an arm instead. “Look what you did!”

 

“Do not blame your change of heart on me,” Loki huffed, crossing his arms. “You were so set on staying with Jane only a few minutes ago.”

 

“I do not have to worry about her trying to destroy Earth.” Thor scowled, patting off the dirt from his graceless dive through the portal.

 

Loki rolled his eyes. “Please. I have left Midgard voluntarily, have I not? What more do you want?”

 

“Who is to say you will not return the second you get your hands on another infinity stone?”

 

“Stay, then.” Loki shrugged. “If it makes you feel better.”

 

Loki would never admit to the spark of relief that shot up in his chest at having his brother at his side. Not that he didn’t have confidence in himself. He’d been on his own for most of his life, and had been forced to learn how to get by on his own, lacking any kind of support. But having Thor at his back – however reluctantly – meant more to him than he would have cared to admit only few months earlier.

 

Thor’s cape slipped through his fingers, forgotten as he finally looked around. “Where are we?”

 

“This is Saskoria. It’s–”

 

“A travel hub,” Thor interrupted. “I know.”

 

Loki, too, allowed himself to look around. They stood behind a wooden crate, somewhat shielded from the buzz of activity next to them, the sound of hundreds, thousands of people shuffling around. Many travel routes led to Saskoria as a pitstop, turning it into a melting pot of cultural interaction. And, of course, the ideal place to pick up information from all parts of the universe.

 

Loki stepped out from behind the crate, plunging into the crowd and pulling a glamour over his clothes while he was at it.

 

“What are we doing here?” Thor asked, and had the sense of mind to lower his voice. It was unlikely to be overheard with so much noise around them, but one could never be too cautious.

 

“Gathering information,” Loki said. “So try to blend in, will you?” He turned to throw his brother a mocking glance, but did a double take instead.

 

Thor beamed with false innocence, pulling a scarf over his head he must have swiped from someone in passing. “You were saying?”

 

Loki turned and kept walking so Thor wouldn’t see his grin.

 

They continued in silence, knocked around left and right while the crowd swept them along. Loki kept his ears open, listening. Waiting for a reason to change direction, to follow whoever could bring them a step further towards their goal. All he needed was a scrap of a conversation, a thoughtless word that would catch his attention, that would–

 

“You know,” Thor muttered, interrupting his thoughts, “I could be far more helpful if I knew what it is we are looking for.”

 

Loki hesitated, his first instinct to keep his secrets close to his chest. But Thor was right. He wouldn’t be much help trailing behind Loki aimlessly, without even knowing what exactly they were doing.

 

If Thor asked, Loki could just tell him he’d gotten his information from his time with Thanos, after his fall through the void.

 

“You know about the infinity gems,” he said, “and about Thanos. To defeat him, we have to make certain that he doesn’t obtain even one of them.”

 

“So we are looking for clues where to find them.”

 

“Do not expect anyone to drop their name thoughtlessly,” Loki said. “Some might not even know what it is they are talking about. Listen for priceless artifacts that people are reluctant to talk about. Or for feats of extreme destruction and power that nobody can quite explain.”

 

Thor frowned. “And you hope to find what you seek with only that?”

 

Not particularly, Loki thought. In reality, he planned to spend the day making himself familiar with the time he had landed in. He knew that the Dark Elves’ attack on Asgard would have taken place at this time, but other than that? He would keep an eye out for any and all current events that were happening, and then start his search anew with the information he would find.

 

The location of the power stone for instance would depend entirely on which point in their career the Guardians were. If they had not yet joined up and roamed the galaxy – and thus, did not yet have the stone – Loki would be able to spare himself the time looking for them.

 

Although, since Thor had already asked…

 

“If you want something concrete, try to determine the whereabouts of a group called the Guardians of the Galaxy. If rumors are to be believed, they have a connection to at least one of them.”

 

There. He had not even technically lied.

 

Loki hesitated, then added, “If you truly want to help, we should split up. We will have a far easier time blending in without being glued together.”

 

“And have you slip away the second my back is turned?” Thor scoffed. “I think not.”

 

Loki rolled his eyes. “You said you wanted to help.”

 

“I did.” Thor paused, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully. Loki was about to ask, but before he could open his mouth, Thor added, “Give me your dagger. The one you’ve used to bring us here.”

 

Loki blinked. “You want the dagger.”

 

“As a guarantee. I’m sure you would find another way off the planet, but you wouldn’t leave without it. Would you?”

 

How about that? His brother was full of surprises. It was somewhat ironic, Loki thought, Thor asking for the dagger that was technically his by birthright. Or would be, once their father was gone and Gungnir was restored back to its former glory.

 

“You have a point.” Loki pulled out the dagger and cut a tiny, gleaming tear into the air to prove that it was real. He then handed it over to Thor and hid a grin at Thor’s baffled expression. He hadn’t expected it to be quite this easy.

 

Well, the joke was on Thor. He might have trusted Loki no further than he could throw him (a bad analogy, seeing as Thor could, indeed, throw him quite far), but Loki trusted him with his life. He knew his brother, and coming back to a younger version of him hadn’t changed that.

 

Even Thor’s hatred for him hadn’t changed that.

 

“Good luck. Don’t bother trying to find me; I will join up with you, later.” With that, Loki slipped away and blended into the crowd, leaving Thor – and Gungnir – behind.

 


 

 

"That sounds wonderful, my dear," Loki said, playing up the enthusiasm he didn't feel and letting it slip into regretful realization a moment later. "Ahh, but I am afraid I will have to decline. A pity, but I am somewhat short on time. My transporter is scheduled to leave soon."

 

Loki had to exchange a few more words until his most recent object of interrogation (obliviously so, of course) lost interest. He let the smile slip off his face the second his back was turned.

 

He – or perhaps she, now that Loki had borrowed a female appearance to avoid being recognized – hadn't been as successful as he – she – had hoped. She had managed to collect only few, frustratingly vague clues about a group of renegades that did not necessarily have to be the Guardians, and on various items that could or could not be infinity stones. Most likely they weren't. No word had been uttered about a mad Titan, nor about any sort of massacre or genocide in the nearest quadrants.

 

Perhaps she should collect Thor, give up for the day and try again at a different place, in another part of the universe.

 

Although, speaking of Thor. Loki slipped through the crowds (Still as dense and hectic as they had been before. This place had no concept of day or night.) and kept an eye out for her brother. She was somewhat surprised that Thor hadn't yet burst in to ruin one of her interrogations. Where had he gotten off to...?

 

Ahh. Of course. Loki heard his voice long before she caught a glimpse of him.

 

"Bartender!" There was a loud crashing noise that suggested some sort of dishware had met its violent end. "More beer for me and my comrades!"

 

Loki squirmed her way through the crowd in the loud cheering that followed. Thor wasn't difficult to find. Surrounded by people of countless species in various states of intoxication, her brother somehow managed to look the drunkest out of all of them. Nevertheless, it only took him seconds to notice Loki – despite her disguise.

 

"Sister," he roared, raising his newest jug of alcohol in greeting and spilling half of it. "Come and join us! The beer is only outdone by the excellent company!"

 

More laughter followed, and more than one person clasped Thor's arm (or whatever else they could reach) in good nature. Loki almost turned around then and there.

 

"Brother," she said, not using Thor's name as she wasn't sure whether he had used an alias. "I see that you're... having a good time."

 

"Good?" Thor cried, his voice obnoxiously loud. "You are jesting! It has been most wonderful! What has taken you so long?" He didn't wait for an answer and clasped a hand on Loki's shoulder, dragging her down beside him.

 

Where had he gotten another jug of beer so quickly?

 

“Come, drink with us! Allow me to introduce you.” He slung an arm over the exasperatedly amused looking person next to him. “This is Ari– Aro– Names, what are names? He is from the Corna… The Corona… From somewhere, I’m sure!”

 

The one who may or may not have come from the Corona System laughed. “He’s a riot, your brother!”

 

“I’m terribly sorry about him,” Loki said, fidgeting her hands and putting on an expression of concern. She had to suppress an eyeroll to do so, and would have much rather buried her face in her hands and groaned. “I’m sure he has had quite enough.”

 

“Nonsense!” Thor took a swing from his jug and slammed it on the table with a loud bang. “We have only just started! You, Aryn… Eryl…”

 

“It’s Elvyn,” one of his companions said. She smiled, so she couldn’t have found much offense in Thor’s apparent inability to remember names.

 

“Yes! Elryn! Your markings, I like them a lot. Magnificent, really, let me see…”

 

“I haven’t had them for long,” Elvyn said, running one hand over the tattoo-like markings on her arms. “The ceremony was only– Oh!”

 

Her answer was cut off as Thor tripped and knocked over a chair, catching himself on the table under loud clattering. “Sorry, sorry… Must’ve slipped…”

 

It was Loki’s cue to initiate their getaway.

 

“As I’ve said,” she said, more determined this time, “he’s had enough. Come now, Brother. Our transport awaits.”

 

Groans of disappointment sounded in between snickers and jeers. Loki suppressed the urge to shake her head. How Thor had managed to rile up so many people in his favor in such a short amount of time, she would never know.

 

Loki slung one of Thor’s arms over her shoulders and heaved him to his feet, discreetly jabbing him in the side with her elbow when he put unnecessarily much weight on her. Only because she could carry him, didn’t mean she appreciated Thor making her do so pointlessly.

 

“I shall see you again!” Thor yelled behind them. “Do not let the beer go to waste!”

 

Just before they ducked into the crowd, there was a muffled cry from the distance. “Hey! That drunkard stole all of my money!”

 

Loki rolled her eyes, letting a glamor wash over them. She dropped her female appearance. “Really, Brother?”

 

“What?” Thor said, straightening up and losing the slur in his voice. “He was harassing one of my drinking buddies.”

 

“Drinking buddies,” Loki repeated, throwing him an incredulous stare. “You couldn’t have known them for more than an hour.”

 

“So? One of us actually knows how to make friends.”

 

Thor grinned, playfully jabbing Loki with his elbow. Loki let it happen with an eye roll.

 

“I do hope you have made yourself useful, rather than spent your time going from one bar to the other.”

 

“I did not manage to find out anything about the stones,” Thor said.

 

Loki was not surprised. “I told you it would not be easy. We should leave and try again some other place–”

 

“I did, however, talk to someone who’s met the Guardians.”

 

Loki paused in his steps. "You did?"

 

"You sound surprised. Why, does that mean I was more successful than you?"

 

Loki scowled. "Would you rather spend more time gloating, or share what you've found out and actually get us somewhere?"

 

Thor's mouth was pulled into a smug grin. Loki had to suppress the urge to wipe it off his face forcefully. "I can't tell you where they are now. Only where they've been a few days ago."

 

"That will be enough," Loki said. "Even if they've moved on by now, I can use a spell to find them. I only need an anchor to do so." Perhaps a piece of clothing that they've left behind, or even just a hair.

 

"What are you waiting for?" Loki asked. "Tell me where we need to go. And while we're at it, be so kind to hand me my dagger, would you?"

 

"Yes," Thor said, making no move to reach for his dagger. "About that. Tell me what it is, first."

 

"... What?"

 

"The dagger. Tell me what it is."

 

Loki stared at him. Thor stared back, unrelenting.

 

"I know your magic, brother. I know your passages that lead through worlds. I know how long it takes to find one, if you do not already know it is there."

 

"Brother–”

 

"This?" Thor drew the dagger that was Gungnir. "This is not how it works. So tell me. Where did you get it?"

 

Thor had mastered the skill to use people's expectations of him against them, to make them believe that he knew less than what he did and that he noticed little of what was going on around him. He had gotten so good, that sometimes Loki found himself falling into the same trap he so often saw used on other people.

 

He took a look at Thor's determined expression and decided to cut his losses. "There may possibly be a tiny detail that I have forgotten to mention."

 

Thor raised his eyebrow. "Hmh. Forgotten. Of course."

 

"It may be connected to how I managed to leave Asgard. And also how I cast out the Dark Elves. And..." Father, he finished mentally.

 

"Go on," Thor said, a false cheer in his voice.

 

"First, promise you will keep an open mind."

 

"Loki," Thor warned. "Out with it."

 

"Just hear me out. I can explain."

 

In the end, Thor took the news better than Loki had expected. At the very least, he was not being dragged by his collar to atone for his (numerous, and unfortunately quite recent) sins.

 

Instead, Thor closed his eyes and frowned, pausing as if battling a stubborn headache. "In summary, not only did you steal Gungnir from Father, but you also took the Tesseract out of the treasure vault. And you melded them. Because it was convenient."

 

"In my defence," Loki said, and took a step back just in case, "my very first action with it was to save Asgard from being overrun by a horde of Dark Elves. You're welcome."

 

Thor opened his eyes to share a long, tense moment of eye contact. Loki expected him to start yelling the second he found the words to throw his way.

 

He wasn't entirely sure what to do when Thor started to laugh, instead.

 

"... Should I be concerned?" Loki was almost certain that amusement was not the right emotion to show in Thor's position.

 

Thor looked up at him with a grin. "I would have loved to see Father's face."

 

The image of Odin – eyes wide with shock and horrid realization – leaped back into Loki's mind, and his lips twitched into a smirk. "It was quite amusing." Of all the things they could have bonded over, Odin's humiliation was not one Loki had imagined.

 

Thor shook his head, his grin softening to a smile. "So. This is one of the stones we are looking for?" He turned the dagger in his hand, admiring the gleaming gem at its handle.

 

Loki shrugged. "It comes in handy for transportation. The portals will be far more stable, once I use Gungnir in its true form."

 

"So you risked them falling apart with us still inside because you refused to reveal Gungnir to me?”

 

“In all fairness,” Loki said, refusing to feel guilty for his caution, “you would not have been particularly understanding, had I shown you right after escaping prison.”

 

Thor shook his head, but did not protest. He eyed the dagger a second time, then held it out for Loki to take. “Come then. Let us find those Guardians of yours.”


 

Chapter Text

Thor and Loki arrived on the planet Thor's "drinking buddy" had pointed them towards merely minutes after their minor heart-to-heart, thanks to a freshly restored Gungnir. From there on, finding the Guardians was as easy as following the trail of destruction they had left in their wake, as well as the less than flattering words of angry locals.

 

Finding one of their prefered bars was a matter of minutes.

 

"Those wastrels? Showed up every day for as long as they were on the planet. Started a fight every time they were here. Crazy hotheads, the whole lot of them."

 

As well as their last place of residency.

 

"See that collapsed wall over there? That was them. Made them pay for the damage only to have my whole damn collection of crystals stolen."

 

And the repair shop that had fixed up their vessel.

 

"You don't belong to them, do you?! Bastards made off with the most valuable pieces of equipment I had in the shop. They weren't even compatible with their ship!"

 

“Your friends sound truly charming," Thor said, right after they'd had insults hurled at them by someone assuming they were two Guardians in search of the rest of their team.

 

"They're not my friends." Loki rolled his eyes. "I don't even know them. They are said to know about one of the infinity stones, that is all."

 

Within only half a day they had found an individual capable (and enthusiastically willing) to sell out the Guardians for nothing but the vague promise that they would pay for whatever it was they had done to him.

 

Quite frankly, Loki could not have cared less. This planet wasn't much better than Sakaar in that it was inhabited by scoundrels. Most of them deserved far worse than they'd gotten.

 

"You say that you only need a piece of their belongings to track them down?"

 

"Verily," Thor said, doing his thing where his smile was bright enough to cover up all of his second motives. "They have something of ours that we would like to get back."

 

"Say no more," he said, and he rummaged in his bag until he pulled out a small, gleaming dagger. "Figures that it was a matter of time for them to piss off the wrong person. Here," he presented them the dagger with a gleeful smirk, "this belonged to them. That crazy green lady used it. Take it. It's not worth much anyway."

 

“You have our thanks.” Thor gave a little bow. “You have done the right thing, my friend.”

 

A few minutes later found them well outside the city borders, far from curious looks. Loki needed to concentrate to make the spell work. After locating them, the space stone would do the rest.

 

"Perhaps have Mjolnir ready," Loki said, almost as an afterthought. “They might not react well to visitors.”

 


 

The self-proclaimed Guardians of the Galaxy were in the middle of an argument. This, sadly, was a rather usual occurrence as they argued over everything, from half the team’s tendency to start trouble with locals to who ate all the leftover food from their last trip.

 

Less usual was the portal that opened up in their midst, as well as the two armored figures that fell out of it and onto the floor of their spaceship with a grunt.

 

Insults that had been hurled around trailed off all at once. Within seconds their weapons were aimed at them – several swords, blasters and what looked like a crowbar Drax had pulled out of nowhere. Gamora subtly plucked Groot from her shoulder and let him slip into her pocket.

 

"Who are you," Peter said, "and how did you get here?"

 

One of the figures, tall and clad in black and green, raised his hands in surrender. He turned, and Gamora froze.

 

"We have come to talk," he said, "be so kind to lower your weapons and we can–”

 

"You.” Gamora’s hand tightened around the grip of her sword. "I know you."

 

It was difficult to forget the half-crazed figure Thanos had plucked from out of the depths of space. From out of the void, a place of pure nothingness that shredded a person’s mind and rendered them insane. For Thanos to find a use for him despite it had been a surprise. His failure had not.

 

If he was here – if Loki was here – it meant that he hadn’t killed him yet. It meant that perhaps, Loki was still following orders. Perhaps he was already on his way.

 

She did not care to find out the hard way.

 

Her sword cut through the air and clashed, caught at the blade of a large dagger. "Has he sent you to bring me back?" Gamora hissed, her face close to Loki's. "Is he that desperate?" She whirled around and swung her sword. Loki blocked.

 

"Please," Loki’s companion said. He raised his hands in a sign of peace, but didn't try to come between Loki and Gamora. "We have not come to fight. Let us all lay down our weapons and talk."

 

"Nobody sent me," Loki said, ignoring his companion. He opened his mouth to say more, but did not get the chance before Gamora charged.

 

A jab at his chest. A thrust towards his abdomen. Gamora threw a knife and rushed forward, slashing at his legs.

 

Loki dodged, each and every time. He was quick, Gamora had to give him that. "I'm surprised he hasn't killed you for your failure," she said. "What makes him think you’ll be enough to bring me to him, when it has taken you this long to crawl out of whatever hole you were hiding in?"

 

"As always, brother, your charisma remains unparalleled," blond, tall and handsome said.

 

Loki rolled his eyes. "Oh, be quiet, would you?"

 

"However do you do it? People just throw themselves at your feet wherever we go."

 

"You do realize you're not being particularly helpful, don't you?"

 

"Um. Hello?" Peter said, looking back and forth between the intruders. "Are we fighting or not?"

 

“Yes! We are!” Gamora snapped, at the same time that Loki said, “If she insists.”

 

"Who is that guy?" Rocket asked, throwing Gamora a glance over his blasters. "Anything we should know?"

 

Gamora closed her eyes, grounding herself. She reminded herself that her team knew about her past. They would not hate her for what she had once been.

 

"I know him. I was still working for Thanos, and so was he. He lead an invasion on Terra."

 

"Woah," Peter gave her startled look. "Wait a moment. He attacked Terra? For your dad?"

 

"Don't worry," Gamora said, looking straight at Loki. "He failed."

 

"Oi, asshat," Rocket called. "What do you want? Whatever it is, you can tell Thanos to stick it."

 

Loki's mouth twitched. "Thanos did not send me," he said, speaking slowly as if to a very young, very stupid child. "In fact, I have taken great care to avoid his presence."

 

"Because he would have killed you in a heartbeat," Gamora spat.

 

Loki, much to her irritation, smiled. "Yes. Exactly. I suppose that means we are in agreement that it is quite unlikely for me to be acting upon his word."

 

Gamora's sword wavered in her hand. She frowned. "Why else would you be here?"

 

"And who's he?" Rocket said, brusquely pointing towards Loki's companion. "Do you know him, too?"

 

"I am Thor," he said. "Loki's brother." Loki twitched at the sentence, but did not interrupt. "We are not here for you. We are here because of something you possess. Or if not, you will know where we can find it."

 

If Gamora hadn't been suspicious before, she would certainly be now.

 

"Oh yeah?" Peter said. "And what's that?"

 

Thor and Loki shared a glance. Gamora tensed back into her battle stance when Loki raised his hands, and saw the motion mirrored in her teammates. She remembered the green tint of his magic – it hadn't been that long since he had used it to act at Thanos' bidding – and watched as he shed the glamour he had cast to reveal a heavy looking, golden spear.

 

Gamora's heart skipped a beat as she recognized the gem that gleamed at its tip. "Either you're a liar," she said, her voice flat and heavy with tension, "or you're mad."

 

"Why?" Peter asked. "What is it? What's the spear thingy?"

 

"Let's grab it," Rocket said in what might have been supposed to be a whisper.

 

"You're collecting them," Gamora said, ignoring her team. "You're trying to wield their power for yourself. What makes you better than him?"

 

Loki's smile showed too many teeth. "I am not collecting them. I am destroying them. I am merely using this one," he nudged the spear in his hand, "to bring me to the others."

 

"Why would we believe you?" Gamora asked. "Why would anyone?" Loki's reputation preceded him. Nobody in their right mind would take his word for anything other than what would bring him closer to his goals.

 

At first, he’d been arrogant enough to believe himself capable of making a deal with Thanos and coming out on top. Either he was foolish enough to try the same with Gamora, or he genuinely believed he could get his revenge on Thanos. Either way, his venture would be fruitless.

 

"You do not have to believe me," Loki said. "I care little about your opinion. Just tell me this: Did you possess the power stone?"

 

"How did you know?" Drax said before anyone else could open their mouth.

 

Gamora closed her eyes, exasperated, but not surprised.

 

"You moron!" Rocket said. "He didn't know before you told him!"

 

"Does it matter?" Drax asked. "It is of no use to him. We already gave it away."

 

Rocket cried out in frustration. "You just told him even more than he wanted to know!"

 

"Just leave the talking to us," Peter said.

 

"Oh, do go on." Loki wore a wide, smug grin that was just asking for somebody to punch it off his face. "Where exactly did you leave it?"

 

"I am Groot."

 

"Groot!" Peter cried, frowning at the curious little brat who had somehow opened Gamora's pocket from the inside. "Didn't we teach you not to talk to strangers?"

 

"Thank you, small friend," Thor said, smiling brightly. To his brother he said, "They left the stone with the Nova Corp, on Xandar."

 

"You understand Groot?" Peter gaped incredulously. "It took me ages to learn.”

 

"Enough!" Gamora yelled, silencing her teammates. Her mind raced. It was too late to deny anything. Loki had gotten exactly the information that he’d wanted, and possibly more.

 

Should it come to a fight, Gamora was optimistic about their chances to win against Loki – his magic was little more than cheap tricks, and they outnumbered him by far. She couldn’t, however, be sure about his brother.

 

All of that was without acknowledging that Loki held an infinity stone in his hands.

 

"If it is a fight you want," Loki said, reading her tense posture correctly, "we will happily oblige." The space gem glowed up in warning, still held at the spear in Loki's hand.

 

"Brother, please." Thor held Loki back with one arm over his chest, uncaring of the immense power resting at his brother's side. "We are all on the same side. The one that stands against Thanos."

 

"If you are planning to take away the power stone, we are not on the same side,” Gamora said. “We brought it to Xandar so it would be safe. Safe from people like you."

 

"You are naive if you think the Nova Corp will be enough to hold off Thanos."

 

Gamora grit her teeth as heat rose up in her chest. She didn't want to hear it. They'd prevented Thanos from getting the stone once. Keeping it to themselves would only have painted a target on their backs. The stone was safe. They'd done the right thing.

 

Except Thanos had conquered and decimated planets far mightier than Xandar.

 

"You know I'm speaking the truth," Loki said, spurring on that treacherous part of her brain that wanted to tell her he was right. "The stone is not safe. As soon as Thanos decides to go after it, it will be his."

 

"What's the alternative?" Gamora snapped. "Keeping it myself would give him double the reason to come after us. The Corp stands a better chance of protecting it than we do." Did they though? Did they really? Gamora had known Thanos for almost her entire life. She knew him better than that.

 

"Let's put them to the test, shall we?" Loki said. "Thor and I will attempt to steal the stone from the Corp. If we succeed, Thanos would have been able to do the same without breaking a sweat."

 

"And watch you take off with it as soon as you've gotten your hands on the stone? Right." Gamora scoffed.

 

Loki hesitated, something akin to contemplation on his face. "Fine. I will go on my own. Thor will stay, with the space stone, as guarantee. And when I come back, you may watch me destroy the power stone with your own eyes."

 

Gamora's first impulse was to throw his suggestion back into his face. She was not stupid. Nothing good came out of trusting Loki.

 

But what was the alternative? Keep both brothers as prisoners to ensure that they would not go after the stone on their own? Wait for Thanos to find out its hiding place and watch him collect it himself?

 

Gamora found herself looking back at her teammates. Somewhere along the way she had reached the point where she no longer had to rely solely on herself.

 

"I mean," Peter said, slowly, "he could be lying about caring for his brother, but there's no way he'd leave behind the space thingy, right?"

 

Rocket shrugged. "Your call. But consider this: after everything he just said it would be hilarious to watch him get caught by those idiots in the Corp."

 

Loki was watching her with an almost bored expression. Gamora realized that if she refused, the brothers would use the space stone to flee and go after the Corp anyway. Getting dragged into another fight – with or against the Corp – was not something Gamora wished to repeat.

 

"Fine," Gamora said, and tried not to let herself feel like she was caving in. "But know that I will ram my sword through your brother's chest without hesitation, should you be lying."

 

Loki's face broke out into a grin. "Oh, don't tempt me."

 


 

“My King,” Heimdall said, tilting his head in a bow. “You have called for me.”

 

Odin did not waste his breath on greetings. "We need to discuss what action we will take against Loki."

 

Heimdall let his eyes wander through the council chamber. It was empty aside from him, the King and the Queen. "You have not summoned the council."

 

"We had hoped to settle some," Frigga paused, choosing her words, "differences between us, before consulting a broader range of advisers."

 

In other words, Heimdall was needed as a neutral, unbiased party. "Of course, my Queen."

 

"Allow us to ask some questions," Frigga said, an order wrapped neatly into a request. "You are the only one who has seen all of what has happened."

 

Heimdall sunk into another half-bow. "I stand at your service."

 

"Could Loki have helped the Dark Elves enter Asgard?" Odin asked.

 

Heimdall considered the question. "It is possible," he allowed, "but unlikely. You have consulted me in the design of Loki's cell. I have yet to detect a fault that could be exploited from within. Loki had not left the cell until after the Elves had begun swarming the palace."

 

"How can you be certain?" Odin asked. "How can you say that he has not likely aided them? How else could he have known about them before anybody else? Is it not the most likely explanation that he has invited them into the palace in the attempt to paint himself the hero, or else to cause enough havoc to allow him to flee?"

 

Heimdall paused. He had not earned his position as the crown's most trusted adviser by making rash decisions. "Until their attack, we believed the Elves to be extinct. To assume that Loki has lead them to Asgard would suggest that he has uncovered the survival of a species he is not old enough to have known himself. Despite being in prison at the time."

 

"Besides," Frigga added, quick to latch onto the defense, "he also knew of Hela. Someone who has been gone for longer than he has been born. Is it not more likely to have learned of both from a third party?"

 

Odin's expression darkened into a frown. "Heimdall. What ways could have been used to gain knowledge of Hela?"

 

"I do not know," he said. "There are not many who remember her, and fewer who would willingly speak her name." He hesitated. "Consider that there are many ways he could have used his knowledge against you. He could have spread insecurity and doubt within your citizens and tainted their image of you. He has done none of that."

 

Odin let out a deep, weary sigh. "How can you, either of you, trust him to have broken away from his evil schemes?"

 

"He has not given me a reason not to," Heimdall said simply.

 

He did not trust Loki. Perhaps there would never come a time when he would find it in himself to trust Asgard's youngest prince. But Heimdall did not draw biased conclusions, rather than judge the things he saw with disregard for past actions.

 

"Loki could have allowed the Dark Elves to continue their rampage through the castle and left Asgard to her fate, and he did not. He could have used the space gem and Gungnir to harm you, even kill you, and he did not. He could have misused my power when I gave it to him, and yet, he did not."

 

Odin looked up sharply. "Your power?"

 

Heimdall's expression did not twitch. It would seem that the Queen had... forgotten , to inform her husband of what had occurred. "I have passed on the power of my sight to him temporarily," he said.

 

Odin's gaze cut into his own like ice shards. "And what has lead you to do such a thing?"

 

"He merely followed orders," Frigga intercepted. "My orders. I vouched for Loki, and he used the power to save us of the danger you say he brought onto us himself."

 

"How do you know that was what he was doing? What makes you believe he did not use the opportunity to spy out Asgard's secrets? My secrets?"

 

"I have not transferred my gift to him," Heimdall said, attempting to not sound insulted at the insinuation. "I merely shared it. I allowed him to steer its focus for a brief moment. I saw what he saw, and he has done nothing besides what you have already known him to have done."

 

Odin shook his head in a manner resembling a parent's exasperation at their children’s unruliness. “What can you see of him now?” he asked, changing tracks.

 

“Not much,” Heimdall admitted. “He is not hidden from my sight in the way I know him capable of. Perhaps because he is not alone. Or perhaps the gem is too powerful an artifact to cloak.”

 

“Thor is still with him then?” Frigga asked.

 

“He is.”

 

The Queen’s expression smoothed out in relief. The King’s did not change at all. “We need to stop him before he can complete his quest.”

 

"His quest," Frigga repeated, her voice as strained as her pained expression. "So you think–”

 

"Admit it, the thought has crossed your mind as well. He has stolen the space gem out of Asgard's treasure vault. He has taken the Aether with him, as well."

 

"Perhaps he did not know–”

 

"Frigga, please. Loki cannot have blinded you this much."

 

Frigga closed her eyes. "No. He has not. But you cannot condemn a mother for her hope."

 

Odin did not acknowledge her last words. His expression was as grave as the words that followed.

 

“We must assume that Loki is attempting to gather the infinity stones. We need to stop him before he can succeed."

 


 

Chapter Text

They’d decided to take the Guardian’s ship to Xandar, rather than allow Loki to portal them. Nobody seemed willing to trust Loki even with a task as simple as that.

 

Xandar was not far. They were soon close enough to send Loki to the planet’s surface in order to prove their claims and win the challenge they had issued. Alone. Leaving the space stone behind with Thor. Oh, joy.

 

“How’s it looking?” Rocket asked through the communication link they had established.

 

Loki peered around a corner, reassuring himself that the corridor was empty. “I have only just entered,” he said quietly, just enough for his voice to carry through the link.

 

“So what, we’ll just wait?” Quill asked, so loud in his ear that it made Loki cringe.

 

“If you would not terribly mind, I suggest you keep your voice down,” he hissed, rushing ahead before someone could walk in on the not very stealthy argument. “I do not need your mindless babbling to make the mission more difficult than it already is.”

 

“Dude, don’t get your panties in a twist.” Quill lowered his voice only marginally.

 

“Pardon, but where are you from?” Thor asked, preventing Loki from snapping at Quill. “Your manner of speaking sounds very familiar.”

 

Rocket answered in Quill’s stead. “Seriously? You recognize it?”

 

“Terrans aren’t a very well known species,” Gamora added. “Peter tends to be… unique, in the way he talks.”

 

“You don’t have to say it like an insult,” Quill grumbled.

 

“Terra, you say?” Thor asked. “You’ve been to Earth?”

 

“If that’s what you call it. Not for very long, but yeah. I was taken when I was still a kid.”

 

By the way Thor’s voice gained in volume, Loki could vividly imagine his expression lighting up. “My lady, Jane, is from Earth! She is a scientist who studies the stars.”

 

"Is that why she's into you?" Rocket asked.

 

"Pardon?"

 

"Terra doesn't have interstellar travel yet, does it? You said she likes space. And you're an alien." Rocket made a suggestive sound. "Do the math."

 

Thor laughed, deeply and genuine. "Perhaps that is part of it. I assure you, Rabbit, there is more to our love than scientific interest."

 

Rocket let out a snort. "I bet there is."

 

"Oh please." Loki rolled his eyes, feeling old irritation rise up in waves. He recognized that tone of voice. He recognized it too well.

 

"Something the matter, brother?" Thor’s voice carried that annoying tone that proved he knew exactly what was going on, and was barely managing to stop himself from breaking out into a grin.

 

Thor excelled at putting up an oblivious, almost naive front, leading people to believe that he didn't notice them ogling him. Why, pray tell, did Loki have to be present to witness it? He couldn't even tease his brother. Thor was far too smug about it.

 

"Are you referring to his toned muscles and sculpted body?"

 

"Drax!" Quill cried, incredulous.

 

"Drax has a point," Gamora said. "He has the physique of a Boethean gladiator."

 

"Gamora!"

 

"And the glorious mane of a Dreac," Drax said.

 

“Oh come on,” Quill said. “That’s not even a thing. Admit it, you just made that up.”

 

“No,” Drax said, his voice almost solemn. “They live on Tessia. They are gorgeous but deadly, with hair that gleams as if the sun never ceases to shine upon it. No creature in the universe has a more beautiful hide.”

 

Loki barely restrained himself from making gagging noises.

 

To spare himself the rest of the conversation, Loki focused his attention solely on his goal of finding out where the Nova Corp kept the stone – a task far more simple than it sounded. Loki did not have to do more than head for the part of the headquarters that seemed the most heavily guarded – and to stay away from it, once he found it.

 

Nothing would ruin his mission sooner than a half-baked, impulsive attempt at swiping his target before he’d found some sort of opening. He couldn’t portal directly into the vault – without the space stone, his teleportation skills were by far not precise enough – so he needed someone to open the door for him.

 

On the other side of the com line, the Guardians tired quickly of listening to Loki lying in hiding. Their conversation grew muffled as they moved away from the console, leaving Loki to his own devices. Depending on whether or not they had moved on from their previous conversation topic, Loki could be glad of it.

 

He was almost certain that he’d been left entirely on his own, when Gamora’s voice filtered through the com unit. She spoke quietly enough to show him that they were on their own.

 

“Why did you do it?”

 

Loki didn’t answer, pretending to be engulfed in his mission. It was somewhat difficult as he was currently tucked into a corner cloaked and entirely motionless. Finally, he said, “You will have to be more precise. I have done many things.”

 

Gamora didn’t rise to the bait. “Why did you work for Thanos? You must have known how dangerous he is. You may be many things, but stupid is not one of them.” She paused. “Why did you join him?”

 

Loki checked the corridor for any sort of movement. Anything that could give him an excuse not to answer – or, indeed, to think about the question at all.

 

“Thanos had found me at a quite… unfortunate time,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “I was… perhaps not young, but foolish. I thought I had nothing left to lose.” A mirthful smirk split his lips, despite no one being able to see it. “I was mistaken.”

 

“Did he hurt you?” Gamora asked, quietly.

 

Loki remained motionless, listening to his own breath and the faint mechanic noises of the Milano.

 

He was not innocent by any definition of the word. Thanos may have coerced him, might have plucked him out of the void half mad and prone to suggestions, vulnerable to another’s manipulation. But Thanos was not the reason for his crimes.

 

Back then, Loki would have shied away from few despicable things to do to the Midgardians if it meant hurting Thor, even without the Titan’s influence. Hardly anything would have changed, suffering on Loki’s part or not. If anything, it was his rightful punishment for everything he had done back then.

 

Loki had almost opened his mouth to tell Gamora as such, when his mind swayed beyond the time of Thanos’ first invasion. He thought of all the years that had come after, of all the struggling, of the final fight. Of the final war. Loki thought of dull metal and gleaming gems, the air heavy with ash and the ground painted the color of reality. He thought of that very last day in the future that ceased to be.

 

“Yes,” Loki whispered, his tongue as heavy as the weight of his memories. “In more ways than I thought possible.”

 

There was silence on the other end, so long that Loki was almost convinced that he’d been left alone.

 

“Yeah,” Gamora said. “Me too.”

 

Gamora did not leave, and the two of them sat in silence.

 

Another few minutes passed by the time a set of doors opened to release a stream of people down the hall. Solemn faces and muttered discussions of strategy made Loki suspect some sort of war council.

 

Loki waited until one last group trickled out after the others, his focus zooming in on one person who stayed behind to close the doors. He rushed forward, pushed them back into the room and kept one hand firmly over their mouth to keep them from shouting.

 

Three advisers had stayed behind and looked up, startled.

 

"Who–”

 

Three well placed daggers took care of the issue, and Loki strengthened his grip around his hostage's head to suppress their scream of horror.

 

One thought of his brother made Loki wince. He sincerely hoped that Thor would never find out about the details of his little quest. Most likely he wouldn't ask for specifically this reason.

 

"You, my friend," Loki whispered, tilting his head close to his prisoner's ear, "will do me a favor."

 

The Corp's security vault was near. Even without the space stone or backup in form of his brother, Loki would be able to complete the mission with ease.

 

"Prepare the ship," Loki said, raising his voice to address Gamora. "We will need to make a quick exit very soon."

 


 

Loki wasn’t entirely sure how, but the Guardian's managed to mess up the easiest part of his entire plan – and, not quite coincidentally, the only part they'd been responsible for in the first place.

 

"Dodge!" Quill yelled, repeatedly slamming buttons on his garbage pile of a space vessel. "I said dodge !"

 

Loki dug his fingers into the armrest of his seat as another tremor shook the Milano.

 

"What do you think I've been trying to do?!" the animal yelled back from the other front seat. "I wanna see you do it better. Oh wait! Never mind, we'd be floating through space in pieces if you'd been the one steering!"

 

"A quick get-away," Loki said, pointedly refusing to lower his voice. "That is all I asked. Provide a quick get-away after I returned with the stone. Nothing more."

 

"I told you not to get the cheap fuel!" Quill abandoned the console entirely in favor of scowling at Rocket. "What's the use of saving a few bucks if it ruins our engine?"

 

As if proving his point, the Milano let out a sputtering moan.

 

"It's not my fault that last merchant tried to scam us!" Rocket didn't take his eyes off the screen. "I wasn't about to shove money down his throat for fuel worth a sixth of the price."

 

"Maybe if you had, we'd already have escaped," Gamora chimed in, scowling.

 

"Why didn't you just steal some?" Quill said. "You always do! Why not the time we could've really used it?!"

 

"Are you kidding?! He had fifteen eyes! Fifteen! Even I have limits."

 

"His species is renowned for their superior vision," Drax agreed. "As well as for their–”

 

"Look out!" Thor called. "Two more battlecruisers are nearing!"

 

Loki craned his neck to take a look at the rear window. The Milano would not survive even a single hit of the two newcomers.

 

"Where's Gungnir?" He'd never made a portal big enough for something as large as the Milano, but it should be possible. If not, he would just grab the power stone and Thor and call it a day. “Give it to me!”

 

"Forget it!" Peter yelled. He did something on the console that made the Milano tremble, but continue on more smoothly afterwards. "As if we'd give it back to you just like that!"

 

"You truly are as moronic as your species suggests," Loki snapped, annoyance – and a spark of worry – swirling in his chest as a blast missed them far too narrowly. "We will be blown into pieces if you do not let me take care of this!"

 

"You'd just abandon us and save your own skin!"

 

Well. Loki would, if the need arose. It didn't lessen his irritation in the slightest. "If you do not cease your stupidity this instance–”

 

"There is no time!" Thor shouted. He rushed to the back of the Milano with Mjolnir in his grip and proceeded to pry open the cargo hatch with his bare hand.

 

"What are you doing?!" Gamora yelled over the ear-numbing noise of air escaping into the vacuum of space.

 

Alarms started blaring, and Loki plunged after his brother just before an automated barrier slammed shut between the cargo hold and the cockpit, protecting the crew by keeping in the warmth and oxygen. And by shutting Loki and Thor out.

 

"Thor!" Loki's voice came out rattled as pressure crushed down on his chest. Asgardians were able to survive much – as were Jotunns – but a vacuum was edging on even their limit. His voice carried on despite it solely through his magic. "What’s the plan?"

 

Instead of wasting his breath on answering, Thor hurled Mjolnir out of the gap and straight towards the engine of the nearest battleship. The momentum of his throw carried him forwards and made him lose his footing.

 

Loki barely managed to throw up a barrier of magic in front of them before Thor fell into nothingness. "Perhaps next time, consider to give me a warning."

 

Thor flashed him a grin. “You would have caught me."

 

"If only you knew how tempted I am to leave you on your own, just to prove you wrong."

 

"Who's going to take care of the Corp then?" As if proving his point, Mjolnir emerged from the center of the explosion it had caused. It wasn't big enough to tear the ship into pieces, but enough to render it useless and send it aimlessly floating in space.

 

"You might want to pick up the pace," Loki said, his eyes following several battle ships that took the place of the one Thor had taken out. The pressure on his chest was painful, but manageable. "Care to place a bet how many ships the Corp will sacrifice before allowing us our escape?"

 

Before them, the Corp finished taking their positions and aimed their weapons. Thor simply laughed, Mjolnir in his hand and adrenaline sparkling in his eyes.

 

Loki wasn't sure whether to roll his eyes or smile, so he settled on doing both. Loki reached out for his magic, and the soothing cool of it pouring into his veins was a stark contrast to his brother's lighting twitching closely at his side.

 

Loki knew one thing for sure. The Corp did not stand a chance.

 


 

The Guardians decided to hold their end of the bargain and refrain from any more hostility towards Loki and Thor, seeing as it was thanks to them that the Corp had not managed to turn their ship into a smoking pile of ashes.

 

It may have also played a role that the number of infinity stones in their possession had risen to two.

 

"So," Quill said after they'd spent several minutes standing around the power stone in silence. "How are we doing this? How can we destroy it?"

 

Rocket made a noise at the back of his throat that almost sounded like a whimper. "We could make millions of units with this thing. Millions!"

 

"Remember the last time we tried to sell it to someone?" Quill muttered. "Let's not have a repeat of that. So," he said, raising his voice. "How do we get rid of it?"

 

Loki hesitated. The purple gleam of the stone was mesmerizing to watch. "I am not entirely sure."

 

"Wait," Quill said, his eyes wide. "Are you serious? You want to hunt each of these down but you don't even know how to destroy them yet?"

 

Loki felt his face warp into a scowl. "It is not exactly an easy task. The stones are the oldest and most powerful entities in the known universe. They are not easily tampered with."

 

Loki looked up to watch the expression of each of his... well, he supposed his new found allies. Rocket continued to watch the power stone with a sort of longing greed. Quill held onto the tree creature as it tried to squirm out of his hands – fascinated by the bright color of the stone, undoubtedly – and Drax didn't seem to be listening, not even bothering to try and suppress his yawn.

 

Gamora on the other hand scrutinized the stone with an odd intensity. "What if we don't?" Her voice was quiet enough that Loki was sure he must have misheard.

 

"Pardon me?"

 

Gamora tore her eyes away from the stone with effort. She hesitated, biting her lip and avoiding to meet his – or anyone else's – gaze. "It's just... I've been thinking. We could find a way to destroy it, and that would be it. But... what if we need it in the future?"

 

She turned her head to look at Loki directly. There was a spark in her eyes, cold with determination and vengeance. "We could use it against him. Against Thanos. Its power could be ours, not his."

 

Loki hesitated.

 

"Gamora," Quill said, fidgeting restlessly. "I get where you're coming from, but maybe this isn't the best–”

 

"I have had the thought myself," Loki interrupted, because he had. He'd thought about it extensively, in form of vivid revenge fantasies that showed himself, beating the Titan with the very same power he had used to shatter Loki's first life. Nothing would be as satisfying as that, nothing else Loki could do would feel right in a way that seizing the Titan's very own power would.

 

But that was all that they were. Fantasies, not likely to be acted upon except by hotheaded fools incapable of rational thought and self-preservation.

 

"The risk is too high," he said, his voice missing its usual edge. "If even one of them falls into his hands, it will all be over. He is difficult enough to beat when he is on his own, but aided by the stones?" Loki let his eyes slip to the ground. "No. We need to destroy them."

 

Thor made a noise at the back of his throat. Loki raised an eyebrow, realizing how oddly quiet his brother had been until now. "What is it?"

 

Thor tore his eyes away from the power stone, his brows set in a thoughtful frown. "You say that there is nothing more powerful than the stones."

 

"Yes. It does not mean that there is no way to destroy them. Only that it is hard to find."

 

Thor shook his head. "That is not what I meant." He nodded towards the stone. "If they are the most powerful objects in the universe, and this one is the most destructive of them all–”

 

Loki's eyes widened in realization.

 

"–why don't we use it to destroy the others?"

 

Loki gave a slow nod, his thoughts racing.

 

"Maybe." Surely, not even an infinity stone would be able to withstand the full power of one of its own. Especially not the one specifically created to cause destruction beyond any measure of comparison.

 

"It might work. It should. We will have time to look for an alternative during our journey." After all, even if they managed to destroy the rest of them, the power stone would hardly manage to destroy itself. "Until then..."

 

"How does it work, exactly?" Gamora asked. "Ronan used a war hammer to channel its power."

 

Loki nodded in confirmation. "The stones alone are almost entirely useless. We will need some sort of weapon. A powerful one, one with history. They will not accept to be wielded by anything lesser."

 

Hence the space stone's vehement protests at being used in form of a measly, nameless dagger. Loki could count himself lucky that he no longer needed to hide Gungnir from Thor.

 

"Any suggestions?" Quill said, raising his eyebrow doubtfully. "We don't exactly have many powerful, ancient artifacts lying around here."

 

"It does not have to be ancient," Loki said, rolling his eyes. "But it does need a name. It needs to be powerful enough to withstand its power, and–” Loki paused. "Thor. Give me Mjolnir."

 

"What?!" Thor took a defensive step back, one hand hovering over his hammer as if that was enough to shield it from Loki. "No!"

 

"Don't be childish. Give it to me."

 

"No way! You can’t have her!"

 

Loki paused. “ Her?

 

“Yes. She has a name and personality. She chooses who wields her by herself. She can’t be an ‘it’ anymore.”

 

“Thor. It’s a hammer . Stop being ridiculous.”

 

“She. She’s a hammer.”

 

“Oh, for the gods’–” Loki barely stopped himself from taking Thor by the shoulders and shake him until he started to see reason. If they went on like this, they’d be arguing right through the end of the world. “ She ’ll be fine."

 

"You don't know that!"

 

"It is a necessary risk."

 

"If you want to risk something, risk something of your own!"

 

Loki let out a huff, throwing up his hands in exasperation. His brother could be so annoyingly unreasonable. "Fine. Does anybody else have a suggestion?"

 

Silence greeted him, not that Loki was surprised. He was half tempted to let the matter rest and use an unguarded moment to merge the stone with Mjolnir, after all. She would be alright. Probably. And if not, Thor would certainly get over it. Loki had seen him do it once, he would be able to do it again.

 

Although Loki could admit that he had never quite gotten used to seeing Thor wielding a war axe, rather than his hammer.

 

Hmm. There was a thought.

 

"Perhaps we could return to Asgard," Thor said, brows furrowed in thought. "Our weaponry holds plenty of discarded pieces. We should have no trouble finding one that suits our needs."

 

"No trouble besides the horde of Asgardian soldiers that will run to take us in the second we set foot into the realm," Loki drawled, his voice thick with sarcasm.

 

Beyond a frown, Thor didn't rise to the bait. "You have a better suggestion, then?"

 

Loki paused, weighing his options. Returning to Asgard was but a fool's quest, sure to get them thrown into Asgard's dungeons – thrown back, in his case – as soon as Heimdall's gaze locked onto them. The alternative was admittedly only marginally better.

 

"There's one," Loki said eventually, accepting with reluctance that they did not have many options to choose from. "When have you last been to Nidavellir?"

 


 

Chapter Text

"Woah, hey!" Quill scrambled backwards to plant himself before Rocket – who'd been about to exit the Milano with a tool bag thrown over one shoulder and a blaster slung over the other. "What do you think you’re doing?"

 

"I want you to think very hard about this,” Rocket said, his voice pitched patronizingly. “We’re on Nidavellir . I don't know about you guys, but I'm going sightseeing." As the only one other than Thor and Loki who had heard about the place before, Rocket had been looking forward to their arrival with ridiculous giddiness.

 

Loki didn't particularly care either way. He had come to the forge for a reason and one reason only. He was going to go in, get Stormbreaker, and leave.

 

Technically speaking, they did not have to count on Stormbreaker alone. Any decent weapon forged by the dwarves was a masterpiece and should, by all rights, be more than capable of holding an infinity gem. Gungnir had been forged in Nidavellir's fire, and it was holding up to the challenge splendidly.

 

In any case, Loki didn't much care what their travelling companions got up to in the meantime.

 

"I don't think that's a good idea," Quill said, then frowned as if the thought of acting the responsible one felt foreign to him. He shook his head, then added, "We're getting the weapon and then we'll leave, right? We're not here for fun."

 

"What's gotten into you?" Rocket crossed his arms and scowled. "When have you gotten so boring?"

 

"Maybe back when we've agreed to visit a species made up of blacksmith warriors armed to their teeth with weapons they’re making themselves?"

 

"The dwarves are not a violent species," Thor chimed in from where he'd been carefully storing away the power stone. "Not unless you give them a reason to be angered."

 

"Exactly!" Quill threw his hands in the air. "When have we ever not given someone a reason to kill us?"

 

"Oh, don't be a buzzkill." Rocket looked down as the tree creature tugged at his pant leg. He crouched down to let him hop onto his hand, and allowed him to climb on his shoulder as he rose. "You're not stopping me from taking a look at Nidavellir. This place is a legend!"

 

"Woah, hold on." Quill's brows knit together in a frown. "You want to take Groot?"

 

"Duh. He needs to get out of the spaceship from time to time."

 

"You have no idea if it's safe out there," Gamora said. "He stays. Drax can keep an eye on him."

 

"Oh, come on. When's the last time he's been on a planet?"

 

"I am Groot."

 

"Exactly! He’s gonna think there’s nothing out there other than this dump." Rocket cast a pointed glance around the Milano. Piles of junk covered almost every available surface to the point where it was difficult to make out what the spaceship actually looked like. "He's coming."

 

"We don't have time for this," Gamora decided with a scowl, luckily for everybody present. Loki had been about to settle the matter in a far less diplomatic way. "Take him. Just make sure he doesn't run off."

 

"Yeah, you know how he's been ever since he's started walking,” Quill said. They’d almost exited the ship when he yelled after them: “And don’t steal from the dwarves!”

 

If Loki were to place a bet, he would give them no longer than half a day until they would be chased out of the forge. It was yet to be determined whose fault it was going to be.

 


 

Thor was a well known – and even better liked – face on Nidavellir, so the dwarves allowed them to head towards the center without a guide. As they showed disinterest towards most things outside of their forge, Thor knew better than to blame it on his charm and the dwarves’ trust in him alone.

 

Only few dwarves stopped to greet them on their way. The vast majority completely ignored them, unwilling to focus on anything other than their life’s work. Thor, long since used to it, was not discouraged. He knew his way around well enough.

 

"They're not very hospitable," Gamora muttered, not loud enough for any of the dwarves to hear. Even if they had, Thor doubted that they would have cared.

 

"They mean no offense," Thor said. "Other than trade, the dwarves prefer to keep to themselves."

 

"But you've met them before?" Rocket threw him a curious glance. It didn't last long, his eyes twitching back towards the weaponry being built all around them.

 

"Many times. The dwarves tolerate Asgardian visitors because of our long history together." He paused, laying a hand on Mjolnir's handle. "Asgard has long since granted Nidavellir and its people protection in exchange for steady trading relations."

 

"I am Groot,” the tree creature complained.

 

Thor laughed. "I'm afraid there is nothing to be done. The forges never cease to burn. Nidavellir is always hot."

 

"Worth it," Rocket grumbled, even though he'd started to pant only few minutes into their visit. Even Thor had begun to feel sweat on his brow. He wouldn't want to trade with the furred animal for all of Nidavellir's treasures.

 

"I have always hated this place." Loki scowled as Rocket bumped into him yet again in an attempt to avoid being trampled by a careless dwarf. The forges were always busy, loud and abuzz with activity.

 

Loki’s face was red from the heat, but he didn’t show it beyond his mild crankiness. Sympathy poured into Thor’s gut at the thought of Loki’s true heritage. He’d always been weak to high temperatures.

 

"Is that so, Brother?" Thor hid a smirk. "It has nothing to do with our last visit here with Father?"

 

Thor had visited many times more, but never again with Loki. Perhaps for the better.

 

Loki scowled, less than amused at the reminder. "I will have you know that–”

 

"Eitri!" Thor beamed as they rounded another workbench, thrilled despite the dire circumstances to see his friend. The dwarf was even older than Thor. He'd known him back when Thor had been nothing more than a stubborn, hot-headed teenager. "How are you, my friend?"

 

Eitri grunted a greeting, barely looking up from his work. "Thor. It has been a while." His eyes flickered up to rest somewhere behind Thor.

 

Thor suppressed the urge to take a step to the side in a futile attempt to shield from sight who Eitri had already seen.

 

"You've brought your brother."

 

The air grew tense as Loki and Eitri locked their eyes in a silent standoff. All around them the noise of clashing metal and hissing fire echoed through the halls. The Guardians fidgeted as if uncertain whether they should prepare for conflict or not.

 

Eitri's eyes were dark and gleaming as if they, too, had been forged in the heat of Nidavellir's dying star. "I trust our dagger has served you to your satisfaction."

 

Behind Thor, Loki stiffened. Carefully, he said, "It has been a long time since I have last come here. I am not certain what you–”

 

"We do not forget a single weapon that leaves our forges," Eitri interrupted. Thor could not make out anger in his voice, but that did not mean much. "We also know when one has been taken without our permission or intent."

 

Loki hesitated. Thor knew for a fact that one of the reasons he did not like Nidavellir was that he had never figured out how to talk to the dwarves. If it hadn't gotten him into trouble as much as it had back when he was young, it would have almost been funny. "Is that so."

 

Even the Guardians stayed silent during the long, uncomfortable pause that followed.

 

Eventually, Eitri turned back to his work with a huff. "Keep it. It was barely more than a child's toy."

 

Thor could almost feel his brother bristling in outrage. He was quick to interrupt before he could make matters worse for them. Mostly for himself. "We have come for your help, Eitri."

 

"You have brought Mjolnir and Gungnir." Eitri's gaze swept over his hammer. Thor didn't question how he knew about Gungnir as well. "Have you found them to be lacking?"

 

"Not at all. They are as marvelous as on the day that you have forged them." Thor hadn't actually been alive when either of them had been made. Even so, it didn't feel like a lie. Mjolnir had yet to let him down even a single time, and Gungir's capability to hold an infinity gem spoke for itself.

 

"The favor I am about to ask is of a different nature." Thor paused. "The fate of the universe might depend on it."

 

“Odin has told us the very same thing before receiving Gungnir as our gift.” Eitri’s tool hit metal and showered them with sparks. “He said so again, and started his war crusade with Mjolnir in his executioner's hand.”

 

Thor’s heart skipped a beat. Someone else had wielded Mjolnir before him? What war crusade?

 

“Now you stand before me,” Eitri continued, “and ask the same once again. Tell me, Asgardian. Why should I believe that you do not merely wish to make yourself stronger?”

 

Thor fought the instinctive need to defend his father. Something about Eitri's tone made him feel like he was being tested.

 

He'd cast aside his childish idolization of his father with the realization that even the Allfather was capable of making mistakes. Proof alone was Odin's contribution to Loki's downwards spiral, starting at the moment that Odin had taken him in and decided to keep his parentage a secret.

 

"I am not my father," Thor said, pushing down the thought that once, it was all he'd ever wanted to be. "I am not Odin, and I am not interested in partaking in whatever warfare he had conducted."

 

He was, however, intending to ask his father some questions. As soon as they had taken care of the rather more pressing matter of the impending end of the world.

 

"I merely wish to defeat a creature capable of – and planning to – spread great suffering and doom across the universe.”

 

Eitri's expression dropped into something that resembled deep weariness and grief. Thor was taken aback by the intensity of it.

 

"You know what my brother is talking about," Loki said, his brows drawn in a wary frown. "Do you not?"

 

"Not precisely." Eitri sighed, his shoulder dropping as if a weight had been placed upon them. "Our seers have gotten restless. More so than they are already."

 

Loki's head perked up. "I did not know there were seers among your people."

 

"They are few and far between," Eitri said, his eyes grim and his voice low. "It is a curse that poisons the mind and weakens the flesh. They suffer from the inability to distinguish what is and what will come to be. I would not wish their fate on anyone."

 

None of them spoke for several tense heartbeats.

 

Thor broke the silence, hesitant to tear Eitri out of his dark thoughts. "I believe that we know what has your seers in unease.”

 

He hesitated, stealing a glance at his brother.

 

"His name is Thanos," Loki went on easily. His voice was solemn in a way Thor had only rarely witnessed. "His intention is to bring balance to the universe by slaughtering a huge part of it. He has started with his home world and will not rest until he has finished what he has started. Or until we stop him."

 

“To do that,” Thor continued, “we need the means to harness the power of one of these." Thor opened the Nova Corp's container and stretched out his arms, allowing Eitri to catch a brief glimpse of the power stone resting at its center.

 

He knew that the message had gotten across when Eitri's eyes widened. "Is that...?"

 

"It is."

 

"It is one of the–”

 

"Yes.” Thor pushed urgency into his voice to make his friend understand quicker. “We needn't draw attention to it any more than we already have."

 

Eitri collected himself with obvious effort. Thor had never seen him look this agitated before.

 

"... Yes. Yes, of course." Eitri hesitated, looking around as if reassuring himself that his reaction had not drawn unwanted attention. None of the other dwarves had so much as looked up from their own projects.

 

"You are my friend," Thor continued once he was certain that Eitri would not cause an uproar. "I would not trust anybody else with the task."

 

Once his words had sunken in, countless emotions flickered over Eitri's face before he managed to reel them in and contain his obvious excitement. "You have my promise that it will be the most magnificent piece of weaponry these hands have ever crafted and ever will."

 

Thor's mouth pulled into a grin. "I knew I could count on you. And I promise you that as soon as I have finished what we have started, I shall return it to its creator."

 

Rocket let out a strangled noise. "Are you sure about that?"

 

"Of course." Thor patted Mjolnir's handle. "I am quite happy with Mjolnir and have no need for keeping both."

 

"Seriously?" Rocket was beginning to sound desperate. "No second thoughts? None? You're gonna give it away, just like that?"

 

“Rocket.” Gamora send him scathing look of warning. “Let it go.”

 

"I am Groot."

 

"Yes, I know that we only came to use the thing to kill Thanos, but–”

 

"I am Groot."

 

"What's that supposed to mean?! I'm perfectly capable of setting priorities."

 

Eitri's voice boomed through the hall and broke up the bickering easily. "Thor. Perhaps you could show your friends around the forge."

 

His tone made it clear that it wasn't a request. Still, Thor hesitated. "Surely the weapon will take a long time to make. We should leave and return another–”

 

Eitri waved him off with a motion that could have shattered a small building. "You underestimate our work. Designing a weapon is the part that takes the longest. Once the mold is made, it is only a matter of pouring the metal and seeing your work come into fruition."

 

Thor blinked, surprise welling up in his chest. "You have already designed a weapon capable of what we seek?"

 

Eitri's mouth twitched into a smile that looked sardonic more than it did cheerful. "I did not have the infinity stones in mind when I designed it. I am confident that it will live up to its purpose regardless."

 

"Eitri," Thor started, "You have my utmost–”

 

"Your father commanded us to built it," Eitri interrupted, his voice like cooling metal. "It was supposed to become Asgard's greatest weapon, surpassing even Gungnir and Mjolnir."

 

Thor found that rather difficult to believe. Still, he asked, "Why have you never completed it?"

 

There was silence for a long, breathless moment. When Eitri answered, he avoided Thor's glance. "The Allfather had changed his mind."

 

Thor's brows knit together at such a curt, deflective response that gave him more questions than answers. But as he tried to share a glance with his brother, he found that Loki wasn't looking at him, either.

 

Thor felt his frown deepen. There was something going over his head, some hidden, horrible truth about their father that Loki already knew.

 

But now was not the time to investigate. Thor could not afford to get distracted with the stakes as high as they were. Later, during some quiet, private moment he would confront Loki about what he knew – or perhaps Odin himself, once their mission had been completed. His father owed him that much.

 

Thor would get his answers, one way or another.

 


 

"Send warriors after them," Odin commanded, expecting his head of guard to follow his instructions without looking at her. "As many as you deem necessary. And take heed of the dwarves. Their alliance has always been of practical nature, not of loyalty."

 

He did not say that between him and Thor, Odin was not certain whose side they would choose. Thor had friends among them, genuine friends, while Odin had only ever commanded their obedience through mutual benefit. Or, on rare occasions he was not proud of, fear.

 

Odin had not wanted his sons' rebellious act to get out of hand. He certainly felt no joy sending his warriors to drag them back to Asgard forcefully. The second Thor and Loki had taken hold of another infinity stone, they'd left him out of options. Them setting foot on Nidavellir afterwards only cemented that decision.

 

The silence at his side spoke more of his wife's feelings than words ever could. Odin sighed, dismissing his guards and turning to face Frigga. Her expression was one carved of stone.

 

"They've left me no choice," he told her, urging her to view the situation from his perspective. "They have already found out how to use the stones." In fact, it had taken Loki mere seconds to figure out how to use Gungnir to serve exactly that goal. "What reason do you believe has brought them to Nidavellir? Hmm?"

 

Frigga avoided his glance stubbornly. "You cannot begin to presume what either of your sons is intending. You never could."

 

Odin closed his eye. This was not a battle he was able to win. "I beg of you, Frigga. I cannot make you see reason, but promise me that you will not interfere. Promise me you will not leave the palace. At least until I can bring both of them back to us."

 

There was a long, drawn out pause. At last, Frigga let her shoulders slum. "You are lucky you have not tried to command me."

 

"Is that agreement?"

 

"... Yes. Yes, I suppose it is." Odin knew his wife. She was reluctant, but she was telling the truth. "As long as you promise me not to treat them like common criminals."

 

The insinuation put a dark, indignant scowl on Odin's face. He caught himself before he could say something he would regret. "Of course."

 

Frigga met his promise with a nod. She rose, the fabric of her dress billowing with the movement.

 

"Where are you going?"

 

"Our chambers." Frigga did not turn. "I promised not to leave the palace. But I will not stand by your side and watch, either."

 

Bitterness arose at the back of Odin's throat and he swallowed it down with practiced ease. "As you wish."

 

If any of his advisers caught his blackened mood during the following discussion, they did not utter a single word about it where Odin could hear.

 


 

Chapter Text

"You need to leave," Eitri said rather than a greeting, his words almost jumbled in his hurry to get them out. He all but dragged Thor away from his conversation partner – one of the blacksmiths who'd proven surprising patient in answering Thor's questions about her craft.

 

He went on without letting Thor get a single word in. "Asgardian warriors have set foot on Nidavellir through the Bifrost. My people are trying to slow them down, but they have been sent by Odin. We cannot stop them."

 

Eitri's gaze hardened at his words even as Thor's eyes widened. He'd expected his father to take action, but it was far too soon. How had he figured out where to find them this quickly? Was Loki no longer cloaking them from Heimdall's sight?

 

"We cannot leave," Thor said, pushing away those thoughts with the reminder that it was already too late. "Not yet. The weapon–”

 

"Is finished." Eitri's alarmed expression thinned to let warm, genuine pride shimmer through. "Its name is Stormbreaker. It has turned out even more marvelous than I had anticipated."

 

Thor's eyes lit up in thrilled delight. "Anything crafted by your hands is sure to be a masterpiece."

 

"You can take it with you when you leave." Eitri didn't react to his praise beyond a pleased crease to his eyes. “Find you friends, first. Then reach out to it. It will listen to your call, just like Mjolnir does.”

 

Gratitude flooded Thor's chest in waves, and he beamed. "Thank you, my friend. I will never forget what you have done for me. For us." He turned, his eyes already surveying the chamber. "I need to find my brother and the Guardians–”

 

"Thor," Eitri interrupted, stepping into his way. "That is not all."

 

He hesitated and Thor had to force himself to stay still. Any second that they wasted was another that they risked being found by the other Asgardians.

 

Finally, Eitri said, "You have told me that you would return Stormbreaker to me once it has served its purpose."

 

"Of course. I would never presume to–”

 

"Keep it." Eitri interrupted him yet again. "A weapon is made to be used, not to be admired from afar. It would go to waste inside of its forge. As long as you promise me that it will not gather dust inside of some trophy chamber, keep it."

 

Thor swallowed the protest lying on his tongue. He knew for a fact that he would never exchange Mjolnir for another weapon, not even for the greatest weapon Nidavellir had ever born of its fire. Time was short, and Thor knew to value Eitri's testimony to their friendship regardless of whether he would be the one to wield Stormbreaker or not.

 

"Thank you," he said, hoping that he managed to put as much gratitude and appreciation in the sentence as Eitri deserved. "Thank you, my friend."

 

"Repay me by telling me what role Stormbreaker will have played in your victory." There was a twinkle in Eitri's eyes that Thor only rarely got to see. It disappeared as his expression dropped into a stoic mask. "Hurry. You will not have much time to find your friends."

 

Eitri was right. His father's soldiers had already arrived. They knew where they were, and would not rest until they had fulfilled the Allfather's command. Thor did not wish to fight them, although he would, if they gave him no choice.

 

Thor shared one last, hurried nod with Eitri. "You will be the first to hear our tale, once we have gained victory!"

 

Eitri's grin followed him out of the chamber as Thor broke out into a run.

 


 

Loki came close to being captured by the Asgardian soldiers only seconds after realizing that they had set foot on Nidavellir. He'd barely managed to cast an illusion after catching sight of them, and he suppressed curses while waiting in his hiding place for them to give him an opening.

 

There wasn't anyone other than himself to blame. He should have realized that his magic was no good attempting to cloak two infinity stones from sight.

 

Loki's heart was racing almost as quickly as his mind, trying to come up with an escape plan before Odin could succeed in making everything more complicated for them.

 

That was, of course, when his cover was torn from him with a panicked "I am Groot!" and the puny tree creature quite literally running into his arms. Loki caught him clumsily, realizing Groot's intention too late and mentally halfway to casting a spell in defense.

 

"Over there!" came the confirmation that Groot had succeeded in giving both of them away.

 

Brilliant. Loki suppressed a curse, snatching up Groot and hurling magic at their pursuers. He didn't wait for their reaction. He grasped Groot as tightly as he dared without risking harm to his fragile limbs and made a run for it, all the while glowering at the thought that Thor had insisted on holding onto the infinity stones.

 

While Loki was more than capable of taking care of a few measly, ordinary Asgardian soldiers, he would greatly prefer avoiding the confrontation altogether.

 

Killing them was another option. Unfortunately it was one certain to invite Odin's wrath, Frigga's disapproval and Thor's disappointment. How gladly Loki would swap his stance as morally gray, reluctant participant in preventing the end of the world for his plain and definite – but pleasantly free of expectations – role as villain.

 

"Do tell," Loki murmured once he was sure he'd gotten enough distance between them and the soldiers, "where have you come from, and why are your precious Guardians not with you?"

 

Groot wiggled out of Loki's grasp to swiftly climb his arm and settle on his shoulder. Seeing as they were no longer in immediate danger, Loki allowed it.

 

"I am Groot."

 

"Yes," Loki allowed, "I suppose that would have caused quite a bit of chaos." Although no amount of sword-flinging soldiers and disgruntled dwarves was an adequate excuse for them to lose sight of their charge.

 

"I suppose we have no choice but to find them." Seeing as the Guardians were more likely to tear apart Nidavellir before leaving it without their brat in tow, following their plan and meeting up at the Milano was certainly no longer an option. "You should be thankful that I did not simply leave you behind as a distraction for my father's soldiers."

 

"I am Groot." Groot held onto a strand of braided hair and happily swung his legs back and forth.

 

Loki heaved a sigh. "You are a quite annoying and puny creature." He didn't do anything to stop Groot's antics. "It is too bad that your team would not allow us to leave without you."

 

"I am Groot."

 

"Yes. They do seem bewilderingly fond of you."

 

"I am Groot."

 

"You are the exact opposite of those things. You are tiny and irritating and weak. They probably feel sorry for you."

 

"I am Groot!"

 

Loki gasped exaggeratedly. "You would dare to question me?"

 

"I am Groot."

 

"You are truly lucky that I am intend on leaving this place before my father has the chance to hurl us back to Asgard.”

 

"I am–”

 

"Shhh!" Loki dropped behind a pile of scrap metal, keeping one hand raised in warning so Groot would not attempt to speak again. Soldiers had already swarmed the hall he'd wanted to enter, and they argued with the dwarves in a heated tongue that barely hid their irritation.

 

"We are in search of Asgard's crown princes," one of them said, seeking respect and reverence through the pompous quality of his words and failing. "Have you seen them?"

 

None of the dwarves so much as looked up from their work. There was a long, drawn out pause in which the soldiers shifted restlessly on their feet. They were not used to being ignored.

 

The dwarf closest to their group kept slamming down her hammer, each boom of it loud and infuriating. Without looking up she said, "Maybe."

 

"Maybe?" the soldier repeated when she would not continue on her own. "Have you seen them or have you not?"

 

Clang. Clang. Clang . "I might have." She took her time choosing another tool, then continued with her work. "What do they look like?"

 

"One of them is broad and blond," an Asgardian was quick to rattle on, "and he might be wearing armor and a red cape. He carries a war hammer with him. The other is tall, has long black hair and uses magic. He is a trickster and a shapeshifter, so he might have taken on an entirely different form."

 

Another pause, longer than the first. Loki could almost hear the Asgardians holding their breaths.

 

"I know nobody of that description," the dwarf said eventually, resulting in a myriad of angered, badly suppressed muttering.

 

"Wait," another dwarf said, looking over from another workbench. His arms were bare and riddled with burn scars. "What about the ones who brought their armor for reparations?"

 

The soldier had already opened their mouth, but was interrupted by yet another dwarf, one with wild hair long enough to almost hide the amusement twinkling in her eyes.

 

"You are mistaking them for the group of Jachuu."

 

The soldier sputtered in baldy hidden outrage. "Jachuu look nothing like Asgardians!"

 

The scarred dwarf gave a careless shrug. "You all look similar to us."

 

It was a shameless lie, one the Asgardians had no excuse to fall for. Loki bit his lip to keep himself from laughing at the soldier's pathetic attempt to swallow down a growl of frustration.

 

"Look, if you cannot help us–”

 

His sentence cut off in a yelp as he dove to the side, narrowly avoiding being knocked over by a dwarf hurrying down the corridor.

 

"Why, you–”

 

Loki almost regretted leaving behind this sort of entertainment. Unfortunately it would have been extraordinarily stupid to waste the distraction the dwarves so courteously offered.

 

Keeping one hand hovering close to Groot and suppressing a sigh, Loki moved on to look for his brother and the rest of the Guardians.

 


 

Thor, Rocket and Gamora were on their way back to the Milano after finding out about the soldiers sent to apprehend them when Rocket halted their plan of escape by freezing on the spot.

 

Thor was tempted to scoop him up and carry him along so they could continue their getaway.

 

"Guys." Rocket frantically patted his pockets, his head whirling around wildly. "Where's Groot?!"

 

At first, nobody spoke. Gamora was the first to react. By shouting. "Idiot! I told you to pay attention to him! Not to all the scrap metal lying around."

 

"Excuse you?! This is Nidavellir. Even the scrap metal is worth billions."

 

"Which is obviously more important than keeping an eye on Groot."

 

"I didn't see you keep an eye out, either!"

 

"I didn't insist on bringing him!"

 

"My friends," Thor said, stepping between the two with raised hands. "We are only wasting time by arguing."

 

"Exactly!" Rocket scowled. "Every second we're standing around establishing just how wrong you are, Groot could be trampled!"

 

Gamora snarled. "You will regret ever having opened your–”

 

Thor banned the Guardian’s bickering to the back of his mind. He wondered if the stones would somehow be able to help. The space stone could certainly allow for a quick escape even for more than two people – unfortunately Thor had no idea how to use it.

 

Not counting Mjolnir, Thor was unable to use anything beyond the most basic form of magic, which was almost definitely too little to properly control an infinity stone.

 

All of a sudden, Thor found himself regretting his insistence on carrying the stones himself, rather than letting Loki keep them. Although to be fair, Loki had barely ever given him a reason to trust him. If anything, this situation was on him.

 

Rocket was currently talking himself into a panic. "– all alone out there! The dwarves won't even see him, he doesn't stand a chance. There'll be nothing left but splinters by the time we–”

 

"Rocket," Gamora snapped, "unless you've got a suggestion what we can do, shut up."

 

"You can talk easy! You're not the one who got him killed!"

 

"Oh, so you're admitting it then?"

 

"Is now really the time to–”

 

"If I brought the brat back to you in one piece," Loki's snide voice cut through their bickering, "would it mean we could finally leave?"

 

Relief coursed through Thor's chest as Rocket's cry of "Groot!" cut through the air. They collectively ignored Loki's grumbling about "moronic animals giving away their position" in favor of watching Groot jump from his shoulder into Rocket's arms for a hug.

 

"What about the weapon?" Loki asked while the Guardians were preoccupied.

 

"It is done," Thor said, watching relief flicker over Loki's face. There wasn't much sense in leaving the planet without the object they had originally come for. Especially if it meant having it fall into the hands of their father instead. "Eitri has told me that it will answer to my call. Just like Mjolnir does."

 

There was a pause.

 

"Well?" Loki raised an eyebrow. "What are you waiting for?"

 

"Yeah," Rocket added, apparently having finished their reunion and rejoining the conversation. "Let's take a look at it."

 

Thor looked down at his hand and frowned. He clenched and relaxed it, then looked up with a hopefully not too sheepishly looking expression. "... I am not entirely sure how."

 

Loki gave him an unimpressed glare. "You don't know how."

 

"I said I am not entirely sure–”

 

"You don't know," Loki interrupted, "how to get the weapon."

 

"Just give me a minute."

 

"You just said Eitri made it so it would work like Mjolnir," Loki said, exasperation seeping through his voice. "So what exactly is the issue?"

 

Thor felt the ridiculous urge to cross his arms defensively. "I know what Mjolnir feels like. I know what to reach for, what it is supposed to feel like. It is completely intuitive. I just do it."

 

"Then 'just do it' now!" Loki glared at him. Thor was tempted to point out that pressure would hardly help him figure out the trick sooner.

 

Still, he obeyed. He closed his eyes – something he hadn't had to do since the early days of learning to control Mjolnir – clenched his hand to a fist and felt for the power at the core of his body. The power that served to let him guide Mjolnir. The one he’d have to use to guide a stranger, now.

 

Mjolnir started humming at his side, brimming with energy and the intent to follow Thor's call. He was left no choice but to reach out blindly for something else. Something huge, something almost bursting with raw, brash energy – in stark contrast to Mjolnir's subtle beauty.

 

Thor reached for that feeling of power and pulled.

 

Sparks flickered across his hand in a web of electricity, welcoming the new weapon, welcoming Stormbreaker. Anticipation build up in his chest as Thor felt it coming closer before he could even make out a shape flying towards him at a rapid speed, the light of the forge reflected on its surface.

 

It looked like an axe.

 

Thor opened his hand expectantly, waiting to close his fingers around the weapon for the very first time. A portal opened up and swallowed Stormbreaker whole just before it had the chance to reach its rightful place in Thor's palm.

 

Thor was almost too stunned to speak. "What the– Loki!"

 

Loki gave him a mirthfully twinkling glance. "Let's go."

 

"Dude," Rocket yelled, as much agitation in his voice as Thor felt. "Seriously?!"

 

Loki had the nerve to roll his eyes. "You said it yourself: You already have Mjolnir. It would have only gotten in the way."

 

Thor refused to acknowledge the logic in Loki's sentence in favor of a scowl. (Not a sulk. He was over a thousand years old and most definitely not sulking.) "You could have let me taken a look at it at least."

 

"It can wait."

 

"But–”

 

"Unless of course you would prefer to continue making a scene. In that case we will soon be swarmed by Asgardian soldiers who will not hesitate to–”

 

"Boys, really."

 

Both Thor and Loki straightened up guiltily out of reflex. What they felt guilty about, Thor wasn't entirely sure.

 

"Is this how you are intending to escape your father's troops?"

 


 

Loki had to swallow a new wave of emotions at the sight before them.

 

Frigga was only a few steps before them, regal and composed as the queen she was, sitting on a throne of scrap metal.

 

The pain in Loki's chest was present, if somewhat muted since the last time he had seen her, on the day he had prevented her death at Malekith's hand. Lacking the shock and the agony of that initial reunion, there was also plain, shameless delight.

 

"Hmm?" Frigga prompted when the silence had gone on for too long. "I knew my sons to be reckless. But careless?"

 

"We could use the space gem," Thor pointed out. "Now that we are all in one place. We would be gone in the blink of an eye."

 

"And leave our ship behind?" Rocket crossed his arms. "Forget it."

 

"You truly have no clue what the stone is capable of." Loki pushed scorn into the sentence until it almost burst with it. "A measly space vessel is hardly worth mentioning."

 

Gamora's eyes were narrowed in thinly veiled distrust. "Give somebody else the stone, and I will gladly let them spell us away from here."

 

"If even one of you has the slightest clue about how to use magic," Loki said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "be my guest."

 

"In other words, we'd have to trust you not to leave us here." Gamora scowled. "No thank you."

 

"It's fine," Thor interrupted just as Loki prepared to voice an unflattering comment about Gamora's intelligence. "We will take the longer route and escape Nidavellir with the Milano." He sent a playful glance at Loki. "Or are you saying we are not capable of it on our own?"

 

Loki heaved a sigh. It was not that he didn't think them capable of escaping the traditional way. It was merely unnecessarily complicated and involved an annoying amount of fighting.

 

"Have you not forgotten something?" Frigga's quiet voice startled them out of their bickering. "What will you do if my intent is to stop you?"

 

Thor and Loki fell silent at the thinly veiled threat. The Guardians didn't dare to interrupt.

 

"I know you capable of great feats," Loki said, breaking the silence with tentative caution. "But even you cannot hope to stop us as a shade." Loki took a step forwards and held out his hand in invitation.

 

Frigga paused and Loki felt the tension of the Guardians and his brother staring at his back. Then her mouth twitched into a smile. Frigga moved to return his gesture, causing the projection of her to fall apart where they touched.

 

"There was a time when you weren't able to tell the difference."

 

"I had the best teacher," Loki easily countered, luring a smirk onto Frigga's face with the flattery.

 

Thor interrupted their moment of bonding, although he sounded like he was doing so reluctantly. "Why are you here, if not to stop us?" His brows creased in the attempt to make sense of their mother's actions. "Father clearly hasn't sent you."

 

Frigga's eyes flickered to the side. She sighed. "Perhaps I am here to put my conscience to rest."

 

Loki and Thor shared a look. Before they could wonder what Frigga meant, she kept talking without prompting.

 

"I will not ask about your plans because I do not think you would tell me the truth if I did." She didn't leave them the opportunity to feel guilty. "I merely ask this: Whatever it is you are doing, can I trust that it is the right thing?"

 

Loki found himself lost for words. As much as he prided himself for his silver tongue, it had always had the habit of turning to lead when facing his mother in a serious conversation.

 

He wasn't even entirely sure whether lying was warranted in this case. Was Loki doing the right thing? He certainly thought that the intention of saving the world from Thanos could be counted as such. But where his means of achieving it? Was his motivation?

 

Was he still one of the good guys, if he achieved a great goal through lies and because of selfish reasons?

 

Thor took the dilemma from his shoulders by answering in his stead. "I can assure you, Mother, that we have only Asgard's best interest in mind. And also the universe's as a whole."

 

"Sadly, we have not the time to persuade the Allfather of our hearts of gold," Loki added, his voice mockingly polite. "Please, do tell him that I am expecting my cell in impeccable conditions once I return."

 

"I'm certain he can be persuaded to grant you that wish," Frigga said, mirroring his dry tone. "Although," she tilted her head in the direction where loud clattering announced the soldiers' approach, "you might find yourself thrown back sooner than you would like."

 

"You heard her," Rocket snapped, fiddling with his blaster impatiently. "Let's go!"

 

Loki saw his own hesitation reflected in Thor's frown. He didn't want to leave. He wanted answers. Most importantly, he wanted answers as to why Frigga had made the effort to project her image across worlds – since surely there was more than the trivial reason she had revealed so far.

 

It wasn't worth to risk a pointless fight just to find out.

 

Thor tugged at his sleeve to pull him along. "We will tell you everything, once it is all over," he promised, sending their mother a pained, reluctant look. "Please, Mother. Will you be able to lay your trust in us until then?"

 

Frigga paused. She shook her head, a mild chuckle on her lips. "Oh, Thor. Do you really need to ask?"

 

Light enveloped her form in soft, green veils. Once they had dimmed, Loki found himself staring at a perfect image of himself – including the mocking curve to his mouth that looked too scornful to be called a smile.

 

At first, he couldn't make sense of what he was seeing – or rather, why.

 

Then Frigga waved her hand to raise an illusion in between them, and turned around to face the first couple of soldiers arriving with not a second to spare.

 

A breathless chuckle escaped Loki's throat, and he raised his hand towards the blurry, fractal-like barrier between them and their pursuers. Loki was certain that the soldiers were no longer able to see anyone other than Frigga in her disguise as Loki.

 

"Surrender now, trickster!" one of them yelled, drawing his weapon and attempting to look intimidating. "We have caught you!"

 

"So you have." Frigga spoke in a bored drawl, a twinkle in her borrowed eyes. "And how do you intent to proceed?"

 

The soldier's glance flickered towards his fellow Asgardians. "We will bring you before the Allfather to await your punishment."

 

"Is that so?" Frigga smirked in a way that looked so realistic, Loki would not have been able to do it better in a mirror. "I will enjoy seeing you try."

 

The last Loki saw of her before Thor managed to drag him away, was Frigga splitting her form into several images of Loki, all of them taunting and laughing as the soldiers failed to realize that their efforts to find the real, corporal Loki would remain fruitless.

 

Loki smirked, finally willing to turn his back on the distraction they'd been offered. Something warm and pleased curled up in his chest at the reminder that he’d always taken after his mother.


 



Chapter Text

When Stephen had suggested breathing exercises and meditation as a temporary solution for their infinity stone related problem, Jane had been skeptical, to put it mildly. If she were any less of a person, she might have even laughed in his face.

 

Several days later and with the newly gained ability to make the Aether manifest outside of her body – for a short amount of time until it rushed right back – Jane was ready to admit that Stephen knew what he was talking about. Even though it was still bound to her, it felt soothing to have at least some kind of control over the power possessing her body.

 

Jane let the liquid-like substance flow through her fingers, studying its motions and the way it reacted to her thoughts. It didn't look anything like Stephen's magic, nor did it look like the kind Loki used.

 

In the armchair next to her, Stephen finally put down his notes and gave up his attempt to make himself look busy. "There's nothing more we can do. Not until Thor returns and gives us more information."

 

A spark of irritation welled up in Jane's chest. "There is something more we can do," she insisted, not for the first time. "If you'd just let me–”

 

"I am not arguing with you about this," Stephen said, his brows lowering in a frown. "It’s too dangerous. Even if you're willing to pose as a guinea pig, I’m not willing to be the one risking your life."

 

Jane huffed in annoyance and turned back to the Aether shifting underneath her skin. They'd had this discussion far too many times in the past few hours for her to waste another go at it.

 

They'd finally managed to find a solution – a spell, deeply buried in one of the Sanctum's books and written in a language Jane hadn't been able to identify – and Stephen wasn't willing to use it. All because he didn't want to risk her "bodily functions breaking down under the stress of being separated from such a powerful, interstellar energy source". Ridiculous.

 

It wasn't like there was anybody else bonded to an infinity stone they could test it on instead. What were they supposed to do if they couldn't–

 

Jane paused, letting the Aether sink back into her skin. "What if we–”

 

"I told you, I'm not discus–”

 

"Just listen!" Jane sat up in her seat and scooted forwards. "There's another infinity stone on Earth, right? Not your amulet, but the one with the Avengers? The scepter?"

 

Stephen narrowed his eyes. "Yes. So?"

 

"So," Jane said, struggling to keep the impatience out of her voice, "why don't you try the spell on that one, first?"

 

Stephen hesitated. "Separating an infinity stone from an inanimate object is hardly the same as doing so from a living person."

 

"So what? It's better than nothing. And we need to start somewhere." How could Stephen stand the thought of sitting around and doing nothing while they were waiting for Thor and his brother to return? It had only been a few hours without science and magic to occupy her mind, and already Jane was growing jittery.

 

Stephen seemed to recognize that, and he sighed in defeat. "Fine. We'll ask them."

 

Except when they stepped into Avengers tower through one of Stephen's portals, they found it deserted. Jane took a look around, her eyes straying over debris and broken pieces of technology.

 

Jane's heart skipped a beat when her glance landed on a body lying at the other end of the room. She was about to break into a run when she realized it was merely a broken, empty Iron Man armor.

 

"There must have been a fight," she said, feeling the Aether brim underneath her skin. "Where is everyone?"

 

Stephen scanned the room with a critical glance and didn't answer.

 

"Didn't Stark have an AI installed in the tower?" Jane asked. Maybe it would be able to tell them what had happened. "Hello? We're looking for Mr. Stark and the other Avengers. Is someone here?"

 

Jane waited for an answer in vain.

 

"It must have shut down when the tower was attacked," Stephen speculated. "We should return to the Sanctum. There's nothing left for us to find, here."

 

"I wouldn't say that." Jane hesitated, climbing over what was left of a large sofa. A TV stood beside it with a crack through its screen, but otherwise unbroken.

 

Stephen hummed in acknowledgement and came over to help her get it to work.

 

The screen flickered to life with a news report. One glance at it made Jane suspect that every other station would be showing the same.

 

"Live footage from Sokovia shows the group of vigilantes known as the Avengers fighting an army of what appear to be drones or robots. As of now, no details are known about their creator or origin. However, they have left behind a trail of destruction and seem to show no regard for human life."

 

"We have been gone for less than two weeks." Stephen stared at the TV screen with growing disbelief. "How is another invasion happening already?"

 

"More importantly, why didn't your order let you know?" Jane frowned, unable to take her eyes off of the shaky footage of chaos and destruction.

 

At first, it didn't seem like Stephen was going to answer. "Perhaps they decided not to, seeing as the Avengers are already at the scene." More reluctantly, he added, "It might also be because the threat isn't of any mystical nature."

 

Jane hummed, not any happier at hearing the answer than Stephen at having to say it. "Well, you know now." She tore her eyes away from the TV screen with effort. "We've got to help."

 

Stephen didn't look surprised. He also didn’t look particularly happy.

 

"The Avengers are already there," Stephen pointed out. "They were able to stop the last invasion. They'll almost definitely deal with this one, too."

 

"The Avengers, minus Thor." Jane raised an eyebrow that hopefully expressed just how pointless it would be to argue with her over this. "You saw the footage. Even if they manage to win, people will still be dying."

 

Stephen closed his eyes as though he needed to draw strength for whatever he was about to say. "There's no way I will convince you to stay here and wait, is there?"

 

"Not a chance."

 

Stephen sighed in defeat. "I am not responsible for whatever happens next."

 

"I didn't ask you to be," Jane said. She wouldn't accept being stuck on the sidelines for as long as it took Thor to return. It wasn't the type of person that she was, and nothing Stephen could do would be able to change that about her.

 

Luckily for the both of them, he wasn't the type of person to try.

 

Stephen narrowed his eyes at the TV screen, presumably intending to use the footage as destination for one of his portals. "Be careful," he warned, proving Jane's assumption right. "We'll be right in the middle of it the second we arrive."

 

Jane watched one of the drones flatten an apartment building and felt the Aether under her skin brim in response to her quickening heart rate. If she wasn't able to fight alongside the Avengers, at the very least she refused to become a liability.

 

Setting her shoulders in a firm line, Jane nodded. "Let's go."

 


 

Tony was in the middle of turning one of Ultron's drones into scrap metal, scanning for any and all life signs that had not yet been evacuated from the area and, while he was at it, figuring out a way to prevent Ultron from leveling the city altogether when a stray blast caught him off guard and promptly made him crash to the ground.

 

Before he had the chance to so much as heave himself up from his lying position it was already on top of him, going straight for the power source of the suit. Which also happened to be powering his heart.

 

A snarl tore out of Tony’s throat as he fired off a repulsor blast. Even with the drone fended off, there was always another to take its place, and another, and another. There was no time to come up with a solution. What the drones couldn't deal out in terms of strength, they more than made up for in sheer numbers.

 

Tony cursed – although he wasn't entirely sure who his anger was aimed at. At HYDRA, who should have been wiped out several decades ago, rather than mess with powers they weren't able to handle all the way in the 21st century. At Loki, who had brought the scepter to Earth and left just as swiftly, leaving the temptation behind for dense humans to temper with.

 

Definitely at himself for being one of those dense humans and having created Ultron. When could it all have gone this wrong?

 

"Tony, look out!"

 

Clint's warning didn’t come quickly enough. Tony whipped around to face another rogue piece of his Iron Legion, its weapons aimed at his chest and far too close.

 

Tony had braced himself for the impact and was halfway through running damage calculations in the time it took him to even attempt to raise his arms in defense. Then the drone folded in on itself and into a pile of scrap metal at his feet.

 

At first, Tony wasn't sure what had happened.

 

"Huh."

 

Tony's eyes fell onto the two figures who had materialized out of nowhere. Jane Foster's arm was raised, a red-tinted liquid dancing around her fingers in lazy swirls. Next to her stood Stephen Strange, lowering his arm as if he'd been about to start his own attack.

 

"I didn't realize you knew how to do that," Strange said, one eyebrow raised.

 

"I didn't." Foster's eyes were wide and sparkling with excitement. "It's incredibly intuitive."

 

"Apologies for the interruption." Strange raised his voice and looked at Tony. "We came to the tower to ask for a favor regarding the infinity stones. It seems that you are... otherwise preoccupied."

 

"Alright look," Tony said, his brain rapidly switching over to a 'I guess this is happening now' kind of mindset, "we're kind of busy right now. How about you help us deal with a rogue AI who's set on destroying all of mankind and afterwards I'll do my best to help with your mystic space stone situation."

 

Foster and Strange exchanged a look.

 

"Tell us what's going on," Foster said, and Tony prepared to give the quickest, most efficient run down of battle strategies he could possible manage. Cap would be proud of him.

 


 

"I cannot believe you tried telling yourself that you weren't related to her," Thor said, crossing his arms and leaning back smugly on his seat on the Milano. Mjolnir lay one seat to the right, and Stormbreaker on the ground in front of him. The center of its blade glowed in a rich purple. "Comparing you and Mother, I seemed like the adopted one."

 

Loki rolled his eyes in order to hide the pleased spark welling up in his chest. "It would certainly explain your inability to master even the most basic magic spells."

 

Thor laughed, not bothered in the slightest at not having inherited any of his parents' magical talent. "What would I need it for? I've managed just well up until this point."

 

Loki remained silent, the corner of his mouth tugging into a smirk. There was no need to tell his brother that Mjolnir’s powers were in reality purely his. He certainly wouldn't learn it from Loki.

 

Another few moments passed, and Loki couldn't bear it any more. "Would you please pick up your axe from the ground?" The sight of it sitting on the dirty, littered floor of the Guardians' ship made his skin crawl in annoyance – especially now that it had been fused with the power stone. It looked like a piece of jewelry that had been dropped into mud.

 

Thor tilted his head to the side. "You were the one who insisted we should use the power stone on it right away," he pointed out. "Besides, don't deny that you were curious to take a look."

 

"Yeah," Rocket agreed, fiddling with a piece of technology that Loki hoped was nothing self-destructive. Or at least something with a radius small enough to only kill the Guardian. "Don't pretend like you're above that."

 

Loki let out a huff. "It would have hardly been advisable to keep carrying around one of the stones loosely." He couldn't believe that Thor was treating Stormbreaker so utterly unworthy of a weapon destined to play part in Thanos' demise.

 

His disgusted glance must have spoken for itself, because Thor leaned forward and picked up the axe with a chuckle. His fingers brushed along its blade almost fondly, either oblivious or uncaring that a touch of the power stone was capable of leveling planets. "It truly is a masterpiece." He paused, then held it out in front of him – right at Loki. "Would you mind storing this for me? Like you did before?"

 

In the pause that followed, Loki was left genuinely speechless. "You want me to store it?"

 

"Of course. You were the one who told me it would only get in the way."

 

"Yes," Loki said, his voice slow as if talking to a child, "but that is only as long as you keep–”

 

"No."

 

"You didn't even let me–”

 

"I know what you're about to say," Thor interrupted with a glare. "And the answer is no. I will not exchange Mjolnir for Stormbreaker."

 

Loki threw his hands in the air. "Have it your way then." He grabbed for Gungnir – wedged in between one of the seats and a wall, what was it with them and disrespecting priceless artifacts? – and with a gleam of the space stone, Stormbreaker was gone.

 

Loki dropped into the seat beside Mjolnir with a huff. He managed to keep silent for approximately half a minute.

 

"We have another actual, real infinity stone in our possession," he said, pronouncing each word clearly to bring across his disbelief, "and you prefer to play with your lightning."

 

"Mjolnir has never let me down. Why would I want to carry another weapon?"

 

"It's such a waste."

 

Thor threw him a mirthful glance. "Why don't you use Stormbreaker then?"

 

Rocket let out a strangled noise that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. Loki ignored him.

 

"I hardly think that is what your friend imagined when he asked you to put it to good use," he said, glaring at his brother. "Besides, can you see me wielding an axe?"

 

"Don't sell yourself short. I'm sure with some practice, maybe some muscle training–”

 

Loki suppressed the urge to sputter in indignation. "I didn't say I couldn't use it. I'd be more than able to."

 

Thor's grin was wide and infuriating, and it had never before made Loki feel as warm and tingly as it did now. "Of course, Brother."

 

In truth, Loki did not want anything to do with the axe. Not now, that an infinity stone sat at its center.

 

Loki reluctantly accepted the space stone as his tool to assist him gather the others, but other than that he'd rather see all of them destroyed in an instant. They'd never brought him anything other than suffering and misery.

 

One of them had made him drunk with power and lust for revenge, had spurred him on when his state of mind had been a its most fragile and his ability to see reason at its lowest.

 

Another, reality, had pulled the Dark Elves in its wake, and as such had triggered his mother's death.

 

Time, while also their biggest chance to make things right, had cost them everything in the initial fight against Thanos.

 

If Loki were superstitious in any way, he would have entertained the notion that the stones were cursed.

 

He looked up as Gamora climbed from the cockpit into the rear part of the Milano. "So," she said, sinking into one of the empty seats. "What now?"

 

Thor’s eyes flicked into Loki's direction, waiting for an answer just the same.

 

"Well," Loki said, drawing out the word and pausing to give himself more time. He didn't think the Guardians would try to stop them after they’d agreed to help them retrieve the power stone. "We have collected two of the stones. Three of the remaining ones are on Midgard. Our next logical step would be returning there and using the power stone to destroy them.”

 

Thor's eyes lit up at his words, no doubt excited to return to Jane and to his friends.

 

"As for the last remaining one," Loki continued, and hesitated. "To tell the truth, I do not know where it might be. But destroying those on Midgard will ensure that Thanos does not succeed in collecting them all. I am afraid we will have to start our search for the last one from scratch."

 

Gamora's eyes slid to the ground in an oddly elusive way. Loki frowned, watching her chew on her lip and grip the sleeves of her jacket tightly. Without raising her glance to look at them, she said, "We cannot go with you."

 

Groot's eyes snapped open in protest, and Rocket paused his tinkering.

 

"I am Groot!"

 

"Please tell me you didn't suddenly decide to trust that guy." Rocket frowned at Gamora, scrutinizing her with narrowed eyes.

 

"Nebula has managed to find us before," Gamora admitted grudgingly. "Others of Thanos' subordinates might, too. If what you say is true, and three of the stones are currently in one place, I won't risk luring him right to them."

 

Her words made Loki wonder just how much Thanos knew already. Did he know that Midgard held more than merely the mind stone? If he had, surely he would have made his move sooner?

 

Rather than voicing any of those thoughts, Loki said, "Am I right in assuming that you will not try to stop us, then?"

 

"It's not like we'd be able to." Gamora threw Loki a grim look that slid over to Gungnir, lying well within Loki's reach.

 

"You have our gratitude for your help in retrieving the power stone," Thor said. It was probably for the better, seeing as Loki had been about to needle Gamora further. "Perhaps you could begin the search for the soul stone while we finish what we started on Midgard."

 

Gamora hesitated, throwing a fleeting glance at Rocket and Groot.

 

Rocket shrugged carelessly. "Whatever you say. You know that Drax is just as enthusiastic about kicking your dad down a notch as you are, and Quill is far too reckless to have second thoughts."

 

"I am Groot."

 

"You're not going to do anything of the sort, you hear?" Rocket threw Groot a reprimanding glare. "Although I'm sure Gamora appreciates the sentiment."

 

Going by the curve of her mouth, Gamora did, in fact, appreciate the thought of the tiny, moronic tree creature taking on the Mad Titan all on his own. "We’ll help," she decided, turning back to Thor. "We'll be able to keep an eye on what Thanos is up to, as well."

 

"How will we communicate? My brother will be able to transport us whenever we need to, but you cannot do the same."

 

Rocket let out a snort, reaching for what looked like a box of scraps and rummaging through mechanical parts. "Who needs that?" He pulled out a small, silvery device and tossed it in Thor's general direction. He caught it. "It's a long range communicator. The quality gets worse the further you're away, but it should be able to reach us as long as you're not loitering around at the backend of nowhere."

 

Thor's face brightened up to a frankly ridiculous degree. "We are truly lucky to have met you and your team. We shall meet again, as soon as our business on Midgard is taken care off."

 

Somehow, Loki doubted that it would be that easy. Wherever his brother or his bothersome Avengers were involved, so it seemed, everything Loki attempted was destined to fail – or else be made unnecessarily complicated.

 


 

Loki hadn't expected to be proven right the second they set foot into Stark's tower. Seeing as they'd found the Sanctum empty upon entering it, they'd quickly decided on the tower as the most likely place for Strange and Jane to have gone. Now, seeing the aftermath of whatever had occurred in their absence, it wasn't so difficult to imagine what must have had lured them out of the safety of the Sanctum.

 

The sight of it threw Loki back to the day his own attempt at world domination had demolished the building, and he had to take a moment to review the timeline and reassure himself that no, this time he had absolutely nothing to do with it.

 

At his side, Thor froze as he caught sight of his teammates, sprawled out among the pieces of furniture that had survived and marked with dirt and exhaustion. For some reason, Jane and the sorcerer were among them, as well.

 

"Look who finally decided to show up."

 

Loki and Thor turned to find Stark standing in the doorway, his arms full of bandages, ice packs and what looked to be an obscene amount of Midgardian sweets.

 

"What happened here?" Thor asked, a crease between his brows that betrayed his worry. "Are you alright?"

 

"We're fine," Jane called from her spot on the couch, squeezed in between the Captain and the Widow. Her eyes were half closed, barely resisting the temptation to fall shut entirely. "Although you missed the battle."

 

"Settle down, Point Break." Tony dropped the supplies he had brought on a miraculously still standing table and let himself fall onto a nearby armchair. "It's kind of a long story."

 

Loki thought that it had to be some story, considering that nobody had so much as tossed a hostile remark towards him.  

 


 

Chapter Text

"You turned the mind stone into a person?!" Loki hoped that his voice properly expressed the level of disbelief and scorn he currently felt swelling inside his chest – although he was starting to doubt such a thing was actually possible.

 

One task. A single, easy task he'd left with the Avengers, and it was to correct their own mistake and retrieve the scepter they'd so carelessly lost in the first place. Instead of doing the sensible thing and waiting for Loki and Thor to return, they had decided to take matters into their own hands and play with powers they knew nothing about. They had not only almost lost their entire realm to a threat of their own creation, they had also gone ahead and fused the mind stone – not with a weapon, but with a sentient, humanoid creature.

 

One that they now refused to let him kill in order to regain the mind stone. Typical.

 

"Don't act all high and mighty on us." The impact of Stark's scowl was somewhat lessened by the ice pack pressed against his jaw. "If I’m not completely wrong about what you said earlier, you gave one to Thor."

 

"That is entirely different." For one thing, Thor's life was not dependent on the power stone's continued existence. For another, they needed the power stone's brute strength to destroy all of the others. 

 

Although, at the rate their mission was going, there did not seem to be even a single stone they could actually use it on.

 

"Of everything we just told you," Hawkeye said, wearing a scowl that matched those of his teammates, "the stupid stone is hardly the most important."

 

"You said Banner has disappeared," Thor said before Loki could protest, his voice low and concerned. "Is there any way for us to determine where he has gone?"

 

"The Hulk took a jet and turned off every single communication and tracking device that was on it." The Widow spoke as quietly as Thor, although no trace of worry marred her words. "Unless he turns them on by himself or goes on a rampage, it will be almost impossible to track him down."

 

"Let's hear what our resident supervillain's got to say about this." Hawkeye's gaze was all but sparking with loathing. "Any ideas how you can fix this mess?"

 

Heat rushed into his chest and flooded his veins, and Loki jerked his head around to glare right back. How was it that, despite doing everything in his might to stop the end of the universe, the very people who ought to thank him for it acted as though he kept trying to destroy it?

 

"If I understood your little story correctly, it is not me you should be aiming your wrath at. You can thank the witch for the monster's absence."

 

Maximoff had not spoken up once. She had tucked herself away a noticeable distance from the Avengers, and only managed to muster a tired glare in Loki's direction. The tension surrounding her and the other heroes was high. 

 

"What is done, is done.” Thor let his voice wash over them in a placating manner. "There is nothing gained from holding onto the past."

 

Hawkeye looked like he would rather duel Thor unarmed than willingly let go of anything he believed Loki to have done. Which, in fairness, was a considerable list. 

 

"Let us look ahead and share what we have learned." Thor turned towards Jane and Strange. "Have you found a way to separate stone and vessel?"

 

"No."

 

"Yes."

 

The two had spoken at the same time, and now glared daggers at each other.

 

"We have," Jane said, raising a pointed eyebrow at Strange and daring him to protest. "Stephen just thinks it's too risky to try."

 

"That's because it is." Stephen glowered back. "If it was just you risking your own life, you could be by guest. However, since it is me who will have to actually cast the spell–”

 

"Show me the spell," Loki was quick to offer, "and I shall be quick to do it for you." 

 

"I hardly think your kind of magic will do the trick." Strange's voice was colder than a winter on Jotunheim. 

 

"Shall we give it a try?"

 

"Geez. Both of you, calm down," Stark said. He was still pressing the ice pack against his jaw. "Just to be clear, we're talking about a spell that could pull the reality stone out of Doctor Foster, right?"

 

"In theory," Strange reluctantly agreed. "It could just as well kill her in the process."

 

"What's the alternative here?" Jane said. "To leave the Aether there? To keep it bonded to my body?"

 

"It doesn't seem to be harming you any longer," Strange pointed out. "You've been learning how to control it. Incredibly quickly, if I might add."

 

Jane shifted in her seat, either uncomfortable at the turn in conversation or unsure. "Maybe. But Thor said it would be safer to destroy it."

 

"Loki said that," Strange corrected, throwing a narrowed glance at Loki. "Forgive me if I do not take him at his word just like that."

 

"You cannot possibly be suggesting we leave the infinity stone inside of her." Loki failed to do anything but stare in disbelief. "Truly?"

 

"Is there a way to put your spell to the test that does not involve Jane?" Thor asked. 

 

"We were going to test it on the scepter." Strange shrugged. "Obviously that is no longer an option.”

 

Loki did not speak it out loud, but he let a disgusted huff express just what he thought of the Avengers' insistence on treating the robot as a human being. Seeing as it was unlikely that any of them would change their mind, Loki reluctantly began to come up with options that did not involve killing this ‘Vision’. 

 

They had already named it. 

 

"How exactly did it happen?" he asked, pinning Vision with an intent gaze. "How did you... come to be?"

 

"It is difficult to say," Vision admitted. "There was nothing, and then... I was. The code that makes up my brain does not gift me with memories, and my body is brand new. As for the mind stone..." He hesitated, touching his forehead tentatively. "It is odd. It feels a part of me, and yet it doesn't."

 

"The mind stone is what powered the Cradle." Stark sounded as though he was thinking out loud. "That's what the stones are: energy sources. It should still be powering your body, now."

 

"I am not entirely certain that is the case." Vision paused. He didn't do anything outwardly, but the mind stone began to shine in a blinding yellow. "When I draw power from it, it is as a conscious action. I can feel it. But it does not happen automatically, and I do not feel as though I would need to, to only keep my body working."

 

"You're saying it's an energy boost, but not essential?" Stark asked. 

 

"I believe so."

 

"But you can't know for sure." Rogers' brows were drawn into a frown. "Removing it might still hurt you. Just like it might Miss Foster."

 

"Perhaps some risks are worth taking. Besides," Vision said, his eyes sliding over to rest on Jane, "if somebody were to risk their life, it should be me. I am not human, and I have only existed for mere hours."

 

"That doesn't mean your life is worth anything less than ours," Rogers said. 

 

"Even so. I am more likely to survive than Doctor Foster is. That alone is enough to make the decision."

 

Strange wore a contemplative expression. "He has a point," he said, slowly. "The reality stone has bonded to Jane's bloodstream. If it refuses to let go, I might end up tearing apart her blood vessels in the attempt to remove it. The mind stone doesn't seem to be part of your body so much as it lies on its surface."

 

He took a step towards Vision, scrutinizing the mind stone with a calculating glance. "It might be similar to removing a tumor. It is well within my capabilities." 

 

“I’m not sure of this. At all.” Rogers frowned at Vision, his lip tugging down in a reluctant frown. “But it’s your choice.”

 

Several pairs of eyes in various states of reluctance swayed over to the android, waiting for a decision. 

 

Vision took his time to answer. "I think," he said, raising his head to meet Strange's eyes, "that the risk is worth it. I would like you to try."

 


 

Tony managed to keep his objection limited to the occasional exasperated eye-roll, and almost succeeded in convincing himself that there wasn't anything more behind it than his inability to understand such unadvised decision making. 

 

It wasn't his choice to make. He wasn't the one casting the spell (luckily, seeing as everything related to magic was sure to make him break out in hives), nor was he the one to risk his life he had gained merely hours prior. It didn't matter that it was Vision who might end up paying the price. Vision wasn't JARVIS, and Tony would do well to remember that. Vision didn't need Tony to make his decision for him. 

 

"Prepare yourself," Strange said, his hands already forming the gestures that would either free Vision of the mind stone or kill him. "The sensation might be... unpleasant."

 

Tony almost wanted to give a derisive scoff. It was somewhat ironic how quickly Strange had changed his mind about the risk of his own technique, now that it was no longer Doctor Foster who might lose her life. He chose not to point it out. Everybody had made their choice, and now they would have to live with it – or not.

 

Vision's face scrunched up in discomfort as a warm, orange glow closed in on him, encasing the gem sitting on his forehead. 

 

Tony suppressed the urge to leap forward and break Strange's concentration. 

 

There was a nauseating crack and an angry humming, and the mind stone floated in the air in front of Vision. On its own. Separated. Seeing as Vision stared at it in startled bemusement rather than crumbling to the ground, Tony let out a tentative sigh of relief.

 

The humming swelled into an eardrum shattering buzzing as the mind stone quivered. For a moment it seemed frozen in time, strung up to hover in mid-air. It shot towards Tony at the speed of a bullet, and he felt himself thrown against the nearest wall as it impacted with his chest. 

 

His grunt of pain blended with the shouts of surprise from the others. 

 

"Stark!"

 

"Tony!"

 

Tony gasped for air as pain pulsed through his body, streaming out from where his back had hit the wall. "What was that?" His voice came out shaky. In front of him, his team was staring in equal shock and concern, their eyes twitching to his chest as though they couldn't help it. 

 

Loki was scrutinizing him like a peculiar specimen.

 

"Tony... You need to calm down." The tension in Steve's voice managed to be the exact opposite of calming.

 

Something wasn't right. The light from his chest shone too dark and in the wrong shade. The reactor in his chest brimmed at a different frequency, still there, still working but spreading a feeling of wrongness that made Tony cringe and suppress the urge to rip it out of his chest. 

 

"Wh-What is this?" His hand shook as he clutched at his chest, fumbling with the buttons on his collar. "What just happened?" His hand kept slipping, so he gave up trying to undo the buttons and ripped at his collar until it tore open. 

 

The glow of his arc reactor had changed from an electric blue to a soft, warm yellow. His own rapid breathing droned on in his ears. 

 

"Stark–” Strange interrupted himself. He took on a tone of voice that one would expect directed at a small child. "Tony. You need to calm down."

 

"Calm down?! Are you serious?! That thing just– It– Did it just merge with my arc reactor?!"

 

"It would appear so." Loki stepped forward, squinting at his reactor with far too much interest. "How curious."

 

Tony felt certain that in this moment, he could have taken on Loki and strangled him with nothing but his bare, mortal hands. 

 

His eyes fell on a hunched over, contemplative looking figure, and Tony’s pent up frustration evaporated. For the moment. 

 

“Vision,” he said, the single word enough to redirect the others’ attention from him to the android. “Are you alright?”

 

Vision did not answer immediately. He looked ahead blankly, raising his hand to touch the blank spot on his forehead. The spell had worked precisely enough to leave only a smooth, clean hollow in the size of the stone. 


“I… believe so.” Vision’s eyes twitched upward to rest on Strange. “It feels… odd. But my body seems to be functioning well enough without it. It would appear that your spell has been successful.”

 

Tony didn’t say it out loud, but he was determined to be the judge of that himself. As soon as he found a quiet moment, he would drag Vision down into his workshop and run every single test he could think of, as well as quite a few others he would make up on the fly. Even if Vision came to hate the sight of his lab by the end of it, it would be worth it as long as it guaranteed the android was operating without flaws.

 

“I would not necessarily call what has happened a success,” Loki muttered, making the furious spark in Tony’s chest well back up and ban Vision from his mind momentarily, now that he had assured himself of the android’s temporary wellbeing. 

 

For once, Tony’s wrath wasn't primarily directed at Loki. "You didn't say anything about this happening!" He fixed Strange and Foster with a glare and hoped that it looked angry rather than panicked. "Why did it do that?"

 

Strange looked at him – or rather at his reactor – as though it was something interesting lying under his scalpel. Tony was no longer sure who he wanted to punch more badly: Strange, or Loki.

 

Before he had the chance to give in to either urge, Loki answered in Strange’s stead. "It would appear that the stone refused to separate from its vessel without a replacement."

 

Tony bristled at the careless tone. "'Replacement'?!"

 

"Although why it chose you, I have no idea." Loki had not taken his eyes off of the reactor. "Tell me, Stark. Were you in possession of that device a few years ago?"

 

"As a matter of fact, I was." Not that it was any of Loki's business. Tony scowled, taking a defensive step back and fighting the urge to cross his arms over his chest. "Why?"

 

"I attempted to use the scepter on you," Loki said, for some reason deciding that this was an acceptable memory to bring up. Sometimes Tony wondered if Loki made everybody around him loathe him even more than they already did on purpose. "It would appear that your... reactor, protected you from the mind stone's influence."

 

Tony blinked, taken aback by the realization in Loki's voice. Personally, he didn't buy it. "So what? It blocked the scepter, that's all. Seems like your voodoo powers only work with direct contact.”

 

"Don't be absurd." Loki rolled his eyes. "If you knew anything at all about them, you would realize that an infinity stone is above such limitations."

 

Tony was about to snap back that quite obviously they weren't – together with several hand-picked insults that would most likely involve something about Loki's fashion choices – when Doctor Foster derailed his train of thought by interrupting the argument. 

 

"Well, that's the connection then. Isn't it?" She looked around as all attention turned towards her, a light blush on her cheeks. "I mean. I've read up on your arc reactor a few years ago, back when you first made it public. You used your father's studies as basis, didn't you?"

 

As always, the mention of Howard managed to put a frown on Tony's face. "Yes. He studied the tesseract. It seemed like a promising lead to follow." 

 

"Exactly!" Jane's voice rose as her eyes twinkled in excitement. "The tesseract is one of the infinity stones."

 

There was silence as the information sunk in. 

 

Strange hummed, looking at the arc reactor with new interest. Tony contemplated shrugging over a jacket just so everybody would stop staring at it. "I suppose that explains its... attraction to you."

 

Tony opted to ignore the comment. "Alright, so the stone is in my arc reactor now. Great. Wonderful. So, I can just exchange the reactor and be rid of it. Right?"

 

Strange's hesitation squashed Tony’s hope immediately. "The reality stone entered Jane's bloodstream. I am not sure you will be able to get rid of it just like that, especially if it doesn't want you to."

 

Tony scoffed at the notion of treating the stone like a living being. Powerful artifact or not, he wouldn't believe that it had a will of its own until he saw so with his own two eyes. "Use that spell of yours then. It worked on Vision. Just do it again."

 

There was an edge in Strange's gaze that hadn't been there before. "Unless it is physically causing you – or Jane – harm, I rather wouldn't. You just saw how unpredictable the stones are. Who knows who it will try to bond with, next?"

 

Who knew if the next person would survive like the two of them had, Tony mentally finished. He hated when other people used logic against him.

 

Tony took a deep, calming breath and tried to ignore the humming in front of his rib cage. "Alright. So it's staying for now. That's... great. Just brilliant."

 

"Is it interfering with your reactor's functions?" Foster asked, and Tony found himself wishing that Bruce was there to talk science to him instead. 

 

He hesitated, raising one hand to feel around the edge of his reactor. He focused on taking in the sensation, to actively detect any difference between the way it was working now versus the way it had worked hours prior. 

 

"... No, I don't think so," he settled on, somewhat reluctantly. "It feels weird. It feels wrong. But I think it's still working properly."

 

"We will find a solution," Strange said, not half as assuring as he probably intended to be. "It will just take a bit longer than expected."

 

"You might do well to hurry, sorcerer," Loki said, making Tony tense out of habit more than anything. Something about his expression made it seem like more than an idle threat. "Not everybody is as accommodating to your human shortcomings."

 


 

Chapter Text

"You might do well to hurry, sorcerer," Loki said, making Tony tense out of habit more than anything. Something about his expression made it seem like more than an idle threat. "Not everybody is as accommodating to your human shortcomings."

 

One second Tony was looking at Loki and trying to decide whether to feel threatened or affronted at his comment. He blinked once and found Steve’s back blocking his view, the muscles in his shoulders straining against his uniform and almost threatening to tear it apart. 

 

"You're not touching him. Or the stone." 

 

Shuffling to his left told Tony that Clint had grabbed for his bow. Natasha had most likely done the same with her weapons, but quietly. Tony wasn’t entirely sure how to react to that.

 

Loki scowled at them, but he was smart enough not to make a move. "I was stating a fact, not threatening him. Thanos would not have hesitated to rip the mind stone out of the android's skull, and he will not hesitate to rip out your heart, either."

 

"You told us yourself how powerful the stones are," Thor said. He had been oddly silent so far, and Tony wondered whether he was more likely to jump to his brother's aid, or to condemn him like the rest of them. "We have collected four of them now, and Thanos has none."

 

"It won't be enough!" Loki whirled around to Thor, his voice sporting an edge it hadn't before. "He will be unstoppable with only a single one of them. Even with none, beating him is a near impossible task." 

 

Something had been bothering Tony from the start. Something beyond Loki's presence in his tower, unbound and free to use his magic as he pleased. Tony blamed his post-battle exhaustion for not picking up on it sooner. 

 

"How do you even know all of this?" Tony narrowed his eyes when Loki froze at his words. "How do you know any of what you're telling us?"

 

"I believe," Loki said, his voice slow to make him sound as though he was weighing his words carefully, "that it does not concern you where I came to attain my information."

 

"Oh, I believe it does. The way you're talking makes it sound like you know exactly what this guy has planned. How come you know so much about him?"

 

Loki's voice took on a scathing quality. "You would do well to remember that without information, we would be utterly helpless."

 

"Tony's right," Natasha said, resting an unyielding gaze on Loki. "If Thanos is as merciless and powerful as you claim he is, he would not have let anybody close enough to find out about his plans. At the very least, he would not have let them leave unharmed."

 

"I am good at what I do," Loki said simply. "That is all you need to know about–”

 

"Loki," Thor interrupted, his voice calm but firm. "Tell us. How have you found out?"

 

Loki's demeanor changed immediately. His back went rigid and his excuses trailed off, now that it was his brother asking the question. “Does it matter?” he asked, his voice clipped and his words harsh.

 

If they hadn't been to the tower and displayed their odd sibling dynamic before, Tony would have had trouble believing that the two were the same brothers who had attempted to murder each other during the New York invasion. 

 

"It matters if you expect them to help us on our quest." Some emotion flashed through Thor's eyes, as brief as it was intense. "It matters if you expect me to help."

 

If Tony didn't know better, he would have said that an expression close to betrayal bloomed on Loki's face. But that was ridiculous. New York had happened fairly recently; even if the brothers had somehow made up along the way, Loki couldn't possibly expect that sort of animosity to disappear in such a short amount of time.

 

Tony wasn't entirely sure what to think when Loki actually seemed to cave in. 

 

"Fine," he said through clenched teeth, reluctance heavy in his voice and irritation burning in his eyes. He hesitated, chewing on his tongue as though physically struggling to get out the words. "I... I've seen it happen before."

 

There was silence, broken only by Clint's scoff. "What's that even supposed to mean?"

 

"It means exactly what I have said."

 

"How could you possibly have–”

 

"Thor," Loki interrupted, his voice gaining in strength as he overcame his reservations. Now that he had accepted that he couldn't talk his way around an explanation, he seemed determined to get it over with as quickly as possible. "Haven't you been wondering how I knew about the Dark Elves? How I knew to save Mother?"

 

"I assumed you used the riot to break out of your cell," Thor said, slowly. He did not sound convinced by his own words. "I had thought the rest had been coincidence. Luck."

 

"I would not have managed to act in time because of mere luck." Loki's voice held a level of conviction that took Tony aback. "Even if I had, that is only half of it. What about the stones? Have you not wondered why I know so much about them? About where they are? About how to use them?"

 

Thor hesitated. He clearly did not like the direction the conversation was going. "You’ve told me that you have allied yourself with Thanos before, back when you attacked New York."

 

Tony stiffened. As did most of the other Avengers. Neither of the brothers had deigned to mention that particular bit of information. 

 

Loki, either unaware or uncaring of the shift in atmosphere, acted as though none of the Avengers were even there. "Do you truly think that a person like him would explain his entire plan to a mere foot soldier?" He scoffed. "He gave me the mind stone so I would have the power to complete my task. Beyond that, he told me nothing."

 

Thor frowned. "How, then? When did you find out?"

 

Loki paused. He seemed to sway between confidence and wariness, wanting to get out whatever it was that he wanted to say, but unsure how his brother would react upon hearing it. "I've lived through this before." 

 

A strangled noise cut through the air. It seemed that Clint had barely stopped himself from laughing out loud – a cynical sound, rather than a happy one. 

 

"Seriously?" Tony said, sharing the sentiment. "That's what you're going with?"

 

"Is the thought that unbelievable?" Loki didn’t spare either of them more than a glance before he turned back to his brother. "You know that the time stone exists. Has it never occurred to you that somebody might have used it?"

 

Thor's eyes rested on Loki in an unreadable expression. Without looking away, he asked, "Strange? What say you?"

 

Strange’s expression suggested that he would rather make balloon animals for a living than utter the following words. "It is, theoretically, possible." 

 

He closed his eyes and promptly corrected himself. "I know for a fact that it is. I’ve used the stone myself on multiple occasions. Although," and he sent Loki a heated glare that spoke of distrust and the wish to distance himself from the trickster, "never more than a few minutes into the past. The risks grow with the span of time you have left behind. Coming back several months, or even just weeks is more likely to tear apart the fabric of time than succeed."

 

"It is unlikely then," Thor clarified, "but not impossible?"

 

"... Yes," Strange admitted. "It is possible. Somebody might be able to travel back in time and correct past mistakes."

 

"Somebody might," Clint repeated. "Fine. But this brings up a very good point. Why him?"

 

Natasha took over his sentence effortlessly. Her eyes rested on Loki. "You said that you’ve allied yourself with Thanos before. What changed?"

 

Loki let out a derisive huff. "I do not need to explain myself to you. I merely grant you the knowledge of why it would be exceedingly moronic to not take my word seriously."

 

Tony raised an eyebrow. "And there I thought you were trying to get us to believe you. You're not exactly doing a great job here, you know?"

 

"We can easily put him to a test." 

 

Something in Clint's voice startled Tony. He didn't like the gleam that had entered Clint’s eyes. 

 

Thor seemed to have picked up on it as well. He sounded wary when he said, "How do you intend to do that?"

 

"Last time I checked, there's currently someone with psychic powers in this room," Clint said. "Let's have Wanda take a look. That should clear it up, shouldn't it?"

 

Wanda's head perked up in disbelief. "You... want me to look into his mind?" Her voice stumbled over the words, although Tony wasn't sure whether it was because of unwillingness or mere surprise. 

 

Considering the team's stance on her abilities up to this point, Tony could hardly blame her. He felt a spark of reluctance well up at the thought of the vision Wanda had planted into his brain, the way she had dragged his worst fears to the front of his mind. He wouldn’t wish anyone to fall victim to such an invasive power. Even if it was Loki.

 

He wasn't going to say so out loud, however. It would be worth it, if it meant figuring out the truth and his motivations. 

 

Loki had gone still at the suggestion. "The witch is not getting near me."

 

"Oh?" Clint raised an eyebrow. "Well that's interesting. When did you change your mind about screwing with other people's heads?"

 

Just like that, the bulk of Tony's reservations vanished. Loki hadn’t cared about the people he’d made suffer through mind control. He had not wasted a thought on it before turning Clint – and many more people – against them, forcing them to do his bidding, forcing himself into their minds against their will. He had attempted the same with Tony. 

 

Why should they care about something similar being done to him? Tony dared to think that reading someone else's mind was not nearly as bad as brainwashing them. 

 

"You are welcome to try." Loki's narrowed eyes made him seem more dangerous than only seconds ago. "But I will promise you now that she will not succeed."

 

“Is that a threat?” Clint asked. “Another one?”

“It is a promise. One that I intend to keep through whatever means necessary.” Loki threw Wanda a glare that swayed between derisive and scathing. "Her powers are not even her own. I will not let some cheap copy meddle with abilities she does not know how to use."

 

"Didn't her powers come from the mind stone?" If anyone could have gotten Tony to defend Wanda of all people, it would be Loki. "Because copy or not, that still makes her far more impressive than you are. No offence."

 

Tony took an immeasurable amount of glee in the offended expression that flickered over Loki's face. 

 

"Perhaps that would be the case in the hands of someone who could properly wield it."

 

"We're getting off track here," Steve said, ever the voice of reason. He turned towards Loki with a grim expression. "It's simple. Wanda has the power to prove that you're telling the truth."

 

"And I have already told you that I will not allow–”

 

"Loki." Thor interrupted his brother, although he did not look happy about it. He hesitated. "If it means that we will be able to move on, perhaps it would be the best solution to let her."

 

"Whose side are you on?" Loki snapped. His back went rigid as soon as the words left his mouth, and he turned away as though he regretted asking the question. 

 

Tony took a sadistic sort of pleasure in his reaction. He also felt secured in the knowledge that Thor would not blindly take his brother’s side because of whatever reconciliation they had went through during their absence. 

 

"There are no sides," Thor insisted, although the annoyance lingering behind his voice suggested otherwise. "You were the one who initially insisted on requesting the Avengers' help."

 

"Which is not to say that I will willingly allow them to rummage around my head like a group of bumbling Bilgesnipes." Loki pressed the words out from clenched teeth, something in his gaze resembling that of a cornered animal's. He was rapidly losing the one person who had so far stood his ground for him, and he realized it. 

 

"If you don't have anything to hide, you shouldn't be worried about it," Tony said, his voice forcefully cheerful. "You don't have anything to hide. Right?"

 

Thor's gaze was just as expectant as everybody else's. It made Loki's expression shut down further, all the way into grim refusal.

 

"Wanda," Clint said before Loki had the chance to say anything else. "Go on. Let's get this over with."

 

Loki drew a knife faster than any of them was able to follow. Tony charged his repulsor watch, Steve donned his shield and the spies drew their respective weapons mere milliseconds later. 

 

Tony wished that Bruce hadn't made a run for it. They could seriously use their resident rage monster right about now. 

 

Wanda, too, held her hand raised in a glow of red magic, although it looked more in response to Loki's hostility than Clint's demand. Tension crackled through the room in the form of half a dozen trigger happy meta-humans and/or superheroes.

 

"Loki," Thor said, his voice wary and his hands raised on either side of his body as though that would be enough to hold back both his brother and his team. "There is no need for this."

 

Loki's hand tightened and relaxed rapidly around his dagger. He seemed to be weighing his options – or else trying to decide whether to cave in to his genocidal urges or not. 

 

He growled, and Tony wasn't entirely sure whether it was a good or a bad sign. 

 

The glare he sent Thor was frosty and stilted. "I'm leaving. Decide for yourself whether you wish to remain or to come with me."

 


 

Loki grabbed for Gungnir while trying to suppress the whirlwind of emotions raging in his chest. It had been easy to forget during their adventure in space, and Loki supposed that a reminder had been long overdue.

 

This was the reason Loki was better off on his own. This was the reason he and Thor had never worked out in the long run. They could pretend to understand each other and to have each other's back while things were going their way, but once it came down to it, it simply wasn't enough. 

 

A treacherous voice in his head whispered that it might have been different with an older Thor, the brother he’d had Before. In all likeliness, it would have only been a matter of time until he’d have reached the same conclusion with him.

 

Despite everything they had accomplished thus far, once confronted with the question over Loki's trustworthiness, Thor had sided with them . Despite having done nothing but fight for the continued existence of the universe, Thor still didn't believe that it would last. He wanted Loki to prove himself, again. 

 

Loki's memories were not something he was able to share – because of entirely different reasons than the Avengers seemed to expect. 

 

Gungnir was heavy in his hand, and Loki activated the space stone with a nudge of his magic. 

 

He didn't need them. He didn’t need Thor, nor any of them. If they weren't willing to cooperate, he would simply take care of the remaining stones and return for the ones on Midgard once the Avengers were no longer expecting him. 

 

If it meant killing both Foster and Stark, so be it. They had been given plenty of alternatives, and if they were so foolish as to refuse them, who was Loki to blame?

 

A hand wrapped around Loki's – the one that was gripping Gungnir – and stopped him in his tracks. 

 

"Loki, wait!"

 

Thor's distraction was all that it took. Loki went rigid as he sensed a menacing aura from behind and wrapped himself in veils of green – his own magic coming naturally to him where the space stone didn't. 

 

The mind stone's power – twisted into something else, forced from its natural yellow into an aggressive, obtrusive red – tore through his shield like it was nothing and plunged Loki into darkness.  

 

Loki was falling. He'd been falling for ages, further and further, the endlessness of the universe above him and the nothingness of the void below. Time had lost its meaning. Odin and Thor had long since vanished, lost behind the vast distance he had left behind through his fall.

 

He would not ever see them again. He would not see his mother again. Something cold and heavy curled up in Loki's gut, made his stomach churn and tied off his throat. 

 

He had let go. Why had he let go? He was falling, nothing but air between him and the void, calling out for him, empty and quiet and breathtaking– 

 

Loki should have never let go of Gungnir. 

 

The skin of his arm stood out from the void's blackness in its rich, dark blue color. Terror fluttered in Loki's chest, a lump forming in his throat as the realization sunk in. 

 

"Am I cursed?" Loki whispered, knowing the answer and dreading it regardless. 

 

"You're my son."

 

"I am the monster parents tell their children about at night."

 

"Loki..."

 

"Tell me!"

 

Odin fell to the floor and left Loki alone with a blank mind and turmoil in his chest.

 

"Heimdall, open the Bifrost!" Loki called, attempting to outrun the feeling of helplessness that had formed at the sight of Hela. He and Thor did not stand a chance against the Goddess of Death.

 

"Loki, no!"

 

"I'm not doing 'get help'."

 

"Loki!"

 

"I have to get off this planet!"

 

Some of the chaos in Loki's mind settled. Images came and went, colors passing his inner eye as it rushed through the many centuries of his life, battles and arguments and fear, always fear. 

 

Loki was not a coward, but he had always been prone to it.

 

"We cannot beat him," Loki said, failing to make his voice sound cutting. His heart pounded in his chest fast enough to make him feel light-headed, and Loki cursed it for betraying him like it did. "It was hopeless when he retrieved the very first of the stones, and it is hopeless now that he has attained them all."

 

Loki shook his head, allowing his exasperation to shimmer through his battered emotional barrier. What did it matter to appear strong? Everybody knew that he would flee the instant it became an option. 

 

"What is the point of continuing the fight? We have already lost."

 

The Widow did not turn to look at him. Her eyes were locked onto nothing, clouded with thoughts she would not share with anyone. The tension she had worn around Loki before – the readiness to jump into battle – was all but gone.

 

"Maybe it's no longer about winning," she said, and neither of them seemed happy with the statement.

 

Twin suns rose in the dawn of a new day, illuminating purple soil and weary faces. Debris was strewn around them, not so ancient ruins failing to tell their story. If nothing else, they betrayed the intensity of the battle. Thanos had not bled easily. 

 

The silence was broken with the sound of Stormbreaker being dragged over the ground. "I can end this," Thor said, determination carved into his stupid, confident expression. "I can end him."

 

"And he will take you with him," Stark said, and Loki hated him for speaking the words out loud. 

 

He hated Stark even more for not stopping Thor, his idiotic oaf of a brother who would throw himself into Hel voluntarily if it meant saving everybody else. 

 

"If that's what it takes."

 

Loki watched as Thor walked away, the fires reflected on Stormbreaker's metal. In their midst, the remains of the Infinity Gauntlet shone in the suns' light. 

 

Victory was within grasp. Instead of euphoria, Loki felt nothing but dread. What did victory mean, if it cost Loki the one person who meant something to him? What was the point in beating Thanos, if nothing that mattered would remain?

 

Loki set eyes on Thanos' corpse carved open on the ground, and he felt sick more than he felt victorious.

 


 

 

Chapter Text

Loki was released from the vision with shaky limbs, a racing heart and flashes of memories still flickering in front of his eyes. His chest heaved with too fast breaths and he was fighting to keep the bile from rising up in his throat. 

 

While he couldn't say that this was the worst he had ever experienced in his life, it hadn’t been pleasant. Emotion whirled around in his chest, awakened by memories being dragged out of the depths of his mind. Every moment in his life that had found Loki scared – frightened, stiff from terror and paralyzed with fear – every single one of them pulled out from where he had stored them deep, deep in his mind to never be burdened by again. 

 

"W-What was that?!" The witch's voice cut through his frantic thoughts like a sharp dagger. 

 

They’d been the worst of his memories, the worst that Loki had ever experienced. And the witch had seen them all.

 

A figure slid against him, snaking a strong arm around his body and keeping him upright. Loki felt their voice vibrating in their chest once they started speaking. Thor. Who else?

 

"You did not say anything of this sort happening," he growled. "You were to prove the truthfulness of his claims, nothing more."

 

"What did you see?" Barton asked, ignoring Thor.

 

Wanda’s eyes were fixed on Loki in a wide-eyed stare, her face a sickened, pale shade. Before she opened them to speak, her lips were pressed together in a tight line. "You said Thanos was the one whose goal it is to destroy the universe," she said, her voice quiet and brimming with an emotion Loki was not able to identify. 

 

Loki could not get the words out of his mouth. Not with his heart pounding in his chest as though it wanted to jump straight out. 

 

Thor answered in his stead, glowering at the witch. "He is."

 

"Then why does your brother fear seeing him defeated?"

 

Her statement hovered in the air scathingly and accusing. 

 

"You had no right," Loki whispered, feeling the residue of his anxiety disperse as pure, utter fury flooded his chest. 

 

"How about an answer to that question?" Barton said.

 

"You should not have dared to lay hands on me," Loki hissed, his eyes fixed on the witch. He shrugged off Thor's grip and felt his magic respond to his thirst for vengeance, rushing through his veins and answering his call to wrap around the witch's throat, to press shut her airways and to slowly, agonizingly– 

 

Thor blocked him with his own body, planting himself between Loki and the Avengers. A part of Loki contemplated attacking regardless.

 

"Woah, okay, wait." Stark’s voice was as tense as his body language as he put up his hands in a placating gesture. "Hang on. Just to get this straight: You showed him a vision of what he was afraid of. And Thanos was defeated in it?"

 

"Looks to me like we've gotten our answers." A victorious glimmer flickered through Barton’s eyes. Loki felt the urge to carve them out of his skull with a dagger. 

 

Thor shifted in front of him, sporting a sort of unease that looked odd considering it was caused in face of his teammates. "Let us not jump to conclusions before–”

 

"No offense here, buddy," Stark interrupted. "I don’t like her powers anything more than you do, but I'm kind of having a hard time coming up with an alternative here."

 

"He’s been keeping this secret from you all this time," Rogers agreed. "If this is what Wanda saw, I don't blame him."

 

"He tricked you. You've got to see that," Barton said. "I don't know how he convinced you of his change of heart, but he's clearly still working for Thanos."

 

Loki's eyes twitched between the Avengers rapidly. The situation had begun feeling threatening as the hostility was rising. Loki was losing even the tentative support he'd had, earlier. 

 

"I'm not sure about this, Thor." 

 

Loki perked up at the voice. Jane had kept herself to the background thus far. 

 

She hesitated, accidentally meeting Loki's gaze and dropping hers immediately. "Did he ever really clue you in about what he was planning? Are you really sure he gave up on what he was trying to do back then?" She trailed off, biting her lip. "He hasn’t denied any of it. He hasn’t denied what he saw of… of Thanos. What he feared happening. How do you explain that?"

 

Loki realized that there was no point. There was no one in this room who would take a stand for him. He'd lost. For the first time, Loki felt something akin to nervousness bubble up in his chest. 

 

His eyes twitched over to Gungnir. It lay out of reach, fallen on the ground during the vision the witch had forced on him, and Thor partly blocking his way. Perhaps if Loki threw himself forward and acted quickly enough...

 

Thor grabbed behind himself blindly and closed a tight grip around Loki's forearm as though he had heard Loki’s thoughts. A spark of fear flared up, and Loki swallowed. 

 

"Thor–”

 

"I apologize," Thor said, his voice tight and his eyes avoiding Loki's gaze. His hand was like a vice around Loki's arm. “But I am afraid I do not see an alternative.”

 

Loki's mouth went dry. He flexed the wrist that wasn’t captured by Thor, shrugging a knife out of his sleeve faster than anyone was able to follow. He didn't want to do this. But if he had to... "Think about this, Thor. You can't possibly be as dense as your little–”

 

A yelp escaped him as Thor lunged forward and dragged Loki with him, the action so sudden that Loki forgot the weapon he had conjured to defend himself. Several of the Avengers called out in surprise. Thor's hand closed around Gungnir and the Avengers tower blurred in front of their eyes as the Bifrost carried the two of them away.

 

Thor let go of him as soon as their feet touched the ground. Loki stumbled forward, his breath heavy in his ears. His hand tightened around the knife in his hand, and he whirled around to face his brother while his heart was still threatening to leap out of his chest.

 

One glance at Thor made him want to crawl into a hole and not come out for the next several decades. His brother’s grip around Gungnir was firm enough that it would have shattered a lesser weapon. His expression was tight, his brows furrowed and his eyes filled with regret. 

 

Loki had put that expression there. He had forced his brother to choose between the Avengers and him. Even with all the knowledge he had, Loki still managed to screw everything up. 

 

"Thor..." he started, and trailed off when he realized he didn't know what to say. He swallowed against the lump in his throat and changed tracks. "How do you know I'm not working with Thanos?" A bitter smile tugged at his lip. "For all you know, your team might have been exactly right about me."

 

"Because I know you," Thor said simply, his expression unwavering. "And for all you pride yourself on your intellect, you have never been one to make smart decisions." 

 

"Excuse me?" Loki hesitated. “What the witch saw–”

 

“Was a memory, not a vision. Am I right?”

 

“It… was.” Loki stared at Thor, going over their exchange of words in his head. Thor had just found out that he had come back in time. He had realized that Thanos had already been beaten in that last, unacceptable future. So why was he– 

 

Oh. Loki clenched his jaw shut, pressing down emotion that was bubbling up in his chest. Thor thought he knew him so well, did he? Thanos had been beaten, Loki had been alive, and the only other person who could have possibly mattered– 

 

"You think I risked everything to come back. For you."

 

Thor paused, looking into the distance unwilling to meet Loki's gaze. Loki wondered what he would have been able to read out of it, if he had. "All these games we play," Thor started. "All these conflicts we share, all the arguments we have. And yet, you still mean more to me than anybody else in this world."

 

Loki's mouth was dry. Words failed him. 

 

Thor's eyes twitched back to rest on him, and this time it was Loki who had to force himself to meet his brother's eyes. "I suppose this is all the proof I will get that my brother cares as much for me as I do for him.”

 

Words of denial jumped to Loki’s mind, and he found that he could not voice them. Taking note of his struggle, Thor continued.

 

“I want to ask you, Loki. Was it worth it? Truly? You've beaten Thanos. Was my death truly enough to make you risk giving him a second go?"

 

Loki forced his lips to form a weak, fleeting smile. "You know me. I've always been selfish." Selfish enough, apparently, that he had chosen his brother over the entire universe.

 

The mixture of pain, fondness and, worst of all, disappointment in Thor's eyes was enough to claw its way into Loki's chest and make him long to explain his side of the story. Thor hadn't been there – this Thor hadn't. He hadn't known what it had been like. 

 

Older Thor would have known him better. He would have understood. 

 

Or perhaps young Thor knew him better than Loki was comfortable with. 

 

"It is done now," Thor said, putting a stop to the topic neither of them wanted to continue. Pain flickered over his expression momentarily. "We will not be able to return to the tower for a while. We will have to make do without their help."

 

Loki suppressed a derisive comment, knowing it would not be appreciated. His eyes slipped to the ground, caught on something black and scorched, and Loki paused. A smile played around his lip, genuine this time. 

 

"Is something funny?" Thor raised an eyebrow. 

 

Loki raised his head, no longer trying to suppress the smug grin. He nodded towards the ground, where the Bifrost had left deep markings on the grass. The Bifrost had, not the space stone. "You have figured out how to use Odin's powers through Gungnir."

 

A startled look flashed through Thor's eyes, and his eyes twitched towards Gungnir. 

 

"I wasn't doing it on purpose," he admitted. "I didn't think. I just... acted."

 

"Considering your team was likely to have taken off my head, had we stayed longer, I do not blame you," Loki drawled, and regretted it as Thor's expression fell. 

 

"I want to believe they could have been reasoned with," Thor muttered. "They would have listened to me, eventually."

 

Loki swallowed, avoiding eye contact. "Perhaps if you had been alone. With me, the chances of them listening were almost nonexistent." 

 

Thor did not answer, and Loki did not press the matter. The topic felt done for once Thor sighed and straightened up. "So," he said, forcing the regret from his face and catching Loki's gaze. "You have lived through all this before, have you not?"

 

Loki hesitated. "Perhaps not quite this." There were already huge changes Loki did not quite know what to think of. He’d hoped he would manage to destroy at least one of the infinity stones by now, rather than carrying two of them around and leaving the others scattered. "But for the most part, yes. I have."

 

Thor pinned him with an intent gaze. "Do you know what happened to Banner?"

 

Loki blinked. He realized, "As a matter of fact, I do." He had not wasted a thought to the man thus far. Now that he did, he remembered the Avengers' tale of Ultron and how it had ended with the Hulk taking one of their vessels and fleeing. It did leave Loki with a question, however.

 

How in the world had Banner ended up on Sakaar, of all places?

 


 

"Are you certain this is where he landed?" Thor let doubtful eyes stray over piles of trash. "Here?"

 

"Believe me," Loki said, navigating around the nearest garbage pile and keeping an eye out for the palace, "I was as surprised as you were to be reunited with him." 

 

Although he had certainly not felt Thor's excitement over the fact, back in the arena. 

 

"But how has he even come here? Sakaar is nowhere near Midgard!"

 

"He must have accidentally passed a wormhole after leaving the atmosphere," Loki speculated. "He was lucky to have ended up somewhere at all. He could have gotten himself stranded in space."

 

Even if 'somewhere' was about as bothersome of a place to be as it went. Nobody in their right mind would decide to come to Sakaar voluntarily, and nobody in their right mind would want to stay, were they given the chance to leave.

 

Nobody besides those who felt as though they had nothing left to lose or no remaining will to live.

 

"A man called the Grandmaster rules over the planet," Loki explained. "He looks harmless, but be not fooled. Our chances will be higher if we avoid a confrontation with him altogether."

 

Thor gave a slow nod, taking in the information. "Is there anything else I should know?"

 

Loki contemplated the question. "We have a potential ally within. She works for the Grandmaster, but you have... managed to win her over eventually."

 

"Oh? Was it difficult to do?"

 

"I cannot say I have spent overly much time with her. We… were not close."

 

Thor hummed. "She tried to kill you?"

 

"Indirectly. On multiple occasions."

 

"I suggest you let me take the lead, this time around." Thor threw him a grin and set out towards the giant building that housed the arena. 

 

"She's a Valkyrie," Loki said, halting Thor in his tracks. "Or she used to be."

 

Thor's eyes lit up in what Loki could only describe as awe. "A Valkyrie? We're about to meet an actual Valkyrie?" 

 

"A former one," Loki corrected. He hesitated. "I truly do not want to dampen your excitement. But at this point in time, she feels no bond between herself and Asgard. She does not consider it her home anymore."

 

He contemplated saying more, but found that the words would not come easily. He had found out about Valkyrie's past by forcing his way into her mind and making her relive the experience (a fact that was not lost on Loki in terms of its irony). She would not want him to know, and she would not want him to tell Thor.

 

Before he had the chance to come to a decision, Thor gave a hesitant nod. His eyes had lost their thrilled quality and dimmed in grim resignation. "I will keep it in mind."

 

It did not take them much longer to reach the palace. Loki took care to choose the smallest, least used of its many entrances and motioned for Thor to follow him.

 

"We should attempt to avoid being seen until we've found Banner." Loki pressed his lips together, sifting through memories of the weeks he had spent here. "A disguise might work to keep us hidden long enough. As servants maybe, or perhaps–”

 

Loki realized that Thor was only listening with half an ear. "Am I boring you, brother?" he asked, raising a pointed eyebrow. "May I remind you that we are here to free your friend?"

 

Thor had the decency to look sheepish. "I know. I have been thinking–”

 

"The Norns beware."

 

"– and why don't we simply attempt to speak with this Grandmaster?"

 

Loki stared. "Could you repeat that?"

 

"Well, Asgard is at the height of its power. Father and Mother are both alive and ruling. We are in a much different situation than you have been, back then."

 

"You are not wrong," Loki said, slowly. "And your point?"

 

"We are both Princes of Asgard," Thor continued, "so why not introduce ourselves and simply ask him to return our friend?"

 

"Your friend," Loki corrected, "and if you think that would work, you are madder than I had thought possible. You cannot reason with the Grandmaster. You cannot... you cannot simply ask him to return Banner as though this all has been some great misunderstanding."

 

"It is worth a try."

 

"Believe me, brother, it is not." Loki couldn't quite believe he was having this conversation. "The Grandmaster is not only mad. He is arrogant, and powerful and he knows it. You cannot convince him to do something he does not want. One of the things he most certainly does not want, is giving up his champion for the arena. Trust me when I say that breaking him out is our only option."

 

The stubborn line to Thor's mouth made Loki want to sigh in annoyance. He did so, if only to let Thor know what an utter moron he was being.

 

"Fine," Loki said, crossing his arms. "If you are truly so anxious to get yourself locked up for the next arena fight, be my guest. I, however, will make sure to stay clear of the Grandmaster and complete our mission."

 

"Wonderful." Thor grinned, completely ignoring the taunt for what it was. "Make sure to keep an eye out for the Valkyrie, as well."

 

"No promises," Loki muttered, and went on his way.

 


 

Loki was likely to find Banner at the very center of the palace, and as such not easily accessible even with the information he had gathered in those weeks he had spent on Sakaar in his first life. 

 

At the very least, Thor's inadvisable plan might prove to cause a big enough distraction to allow Loki to slip behind the scenes and fetch Banner undetected. If, of course, Banner could manage to put his distrust towards Loki to rest momentarily.

 

Their relationship had not started out on the most positive of terms, and if Banner was currently in the form of the monster, Loki was not particularly anxious to see him again.

 

For the moment, Loki did not have to concern himself with the issue. He found Valkyrie first. 

 

Loki passed an area he remembered was often used for sparring – an open, empty room that was lacking even the most basic equipment. The arena was the only alternative, one that only few, foolish people (including, apparently, Thor) chose voluntarily – and he paused as he recognized the noises of exertion from within.

 

Loki found himself in a somewhat awkward position. Despite Thor’s wish to keep an eye out for Valkyrie, they had not actually made plans concerning her. One of Loki’s choices was to attempt to pull her over to their side and take her with him on his quest to find Banner. Considering that Valkyrie might have already befriended the monster, Loki might even be able to take advantage of her standing in the Grandmaster’s court.

 

Alternatively, he could spare himself the trouble of talking to her, keep moving and pretend as though he had never seen her in the first place. Thor – or Banner – would be none the wiser.

 

"Are you going to keep staring like a creep," Valkyrie said without looking up, "or do you actually want something?"

 

Loki felt his lips pull into a smirk and took a step into the room. Perhaps – just perhaps – it wouldn't be so bad having Valkyrie back at their side, after all. 

 


 

Chapter Text

"You're insane." 

 

"Maybe so." Loki pulled his lips into a carefree grin. "Nevertheless, I'm telling the truth."

 

Valkyrie hummed, drawing up her eyebrows. "Right. So, just to reiterate: you’re saying we knew each other in another lifetime. We had a common enemy and I decided to retake a position I’d freed myself from centuries ago. We lost, and now you’re trying again. By coming back. In time.”

 

"You did not exactly return as a Valkyrie," Loki said, biting back the comment that the Valkyries only existed as a group, "but essentially, yes."

 

Valkyrie’s gaze suggested she wasn't certain whether to keep talking to him and risk catching his crazy. 

 

Loki's grin widened. He might not be trying as hard as he could have, but at least he would be able to tell Thor that he had tried. 

 

"Look, Lackey–”

 

"It's Loki."

 

"Whatever. If you think knowing about my past is enough to make me drop everything and come with you, you're mistaken. I could have left this place any time I wanted to. There's nothing out there for me."

 

Loki shrugged. "Very well then."

 

Valkyrie raised an eyebrow. A mild slur decorated her voice and made no secret of what she’d been passing the time with before coming here. "You don't seem all that intent in persuading me."

 

"My brother is the one who wanted me to talk to you. I cannot say that I am overly invested in maintaining our previous relationship."

 

Valkyrie's second eyebrow joined the first. "We didn't get along then?"

 

"I wouldn't go that far. We had some... disagreements during the time we both worked for the Grandmaster." 

 

"Right. About that," Valkyrie shifted to lean on her sword, "Tell me again how you managed to get in the Grandmaster's good graces? Because he doesn't just go around–”

 

A tremor shook the palace and cut Valkyrie off, and both of them fumbled to stay on their feet. They paused, listening intently as fighting noises paved their way through the building.

 

Loki let out a sigh of exasperation. "I told him it wouldn't work," he muttered, quietly wondering which of the Grandmaster's subordinates Thor was currently fighting. 

 

"Wait," Valkyrie said, "are you saying that's your brother? Did he try to go up against the Grandmaster?"

 

"He was determined to attempt a diplomatic route, rather than go behind his back."

 

"He's dead then."

 

"I would not come to rash conclusions." Loki threw a glance over his shoulder as a particularly loud crash echoed through the hall. "Although I do not wish to tempt fate."

 

"I'm not coming with you, if that's what you think." Valkyrie demonstratively turned the other way – and was promptly forced to leap back as the wall burst open and pieces of debris were flung in her direction. 

 

Valkyrie took a fighting stance next to him and Loki raised a mocking eyebrow. "Had a change of heart?"

 

Valkyrie had no time to answer.

 

The wall caved in as whoever had damaged it made their appearance. Loki tensed his muscles, magic brimming in his veins as he prepared to leap to Thor's aid. 

 

The snarky greeting he had already prepared died on Loki's lips as the blood drained from his face.

 

"That’s not one of ours," Valkyrie said, laughably careless in face of their predicament.

 

"I know," Loki whispered, his mind racing. 

 

Ebony Maw – one of Thanos' most loyal henchmen, and one of his most skilled – had already seen them. He sauntered towards them – as far as the word held true, seeing as his feet weren’t touching the ground – his lips pulling into the parody of a smile. "Loki of Jotunheim. It has been so long."

 

Thanos’ children were too early. Loki ought not to be surprised, considering they had meddled with the old timeline everywhere they’d gone.

 

Thor was nowhere in sight. Loki found himself scanning the wreckage ahead of them, feeling pathetically relieved when he couldn't make out a figure buried underneath.

 

"Not long enough," Loki drawled, covering up his shock as well as he could. "To what do I owe the pleasure, Maw?"

 

Loki did not remember much from their first meeting. He had been agitated and half mad when Thanos had plucked him from the void, and he had not cared for the identity of his ‘rescuer’, nor his subordinates. Thanos had quickly freed him of his indifference. 

 

"I don't think it will surprise you to learn that Lord Thanos is displeased with you." Maw looked positively thrilled at being the one to deliver the message. "You have not only failed your little invasion, you have since then obtained several of the stones and appear to be in the belief to be worthy of keeping them for yourself."

 

Maw's lips twisted into a smirk. "Allow me to remedy that."

 

Loki felt the tug of Maw's ability too late. He grasped for Gungnir as it was pulled out of the dimensional pocket he had created for it and missed, forced to watch it launch itself into Maw's waiting hand. 

 

Loki’s heartbeat pounded in his ears. Maw held Gungnir almost reverently, regarding the space stone with such greedy thrill that Loki wanted to tear it out of his grip and relieve him of his hands for the audacity. 

 

"Looks like you two got history," Valkyrie said dryly. Her entire body was tense – she was too smart to take the situation lightly.

 

"Very well," Maw said, letting go of Gungnir only to let it hover close to him in midair. He flexed his hand and Loki tensed in helpless anticipation – he had no way of warding off telekinesis, no way of protecting Stormbreaker when Maw’s powers had breached his dimensional pocket once already.

 

Nothing happened. Stormbreaker refused to follow Gungir’s path.

 

Maw’s lips twisted unpleasantly. "Give me the other one."

 

"And why would I do that?" Loki did his best to cover up his surprise and shroud his expression in confidence. "You should know that I am more than capable of teleporting without the space stone. What is stopping me from fleeing?"

 

Other than Thor's – and perhaps, maybe Valkyrie's – presence on Sakaar and the fact that he could not allow Maw to return the space stone to Thanos. 

 

"That is the issue with you heroes." Maw's smile widened. "You care so deeply."

 

Loki was so startled by Maw's use of the word 'hero', he almost missed the point of Maw's little declaration. 

 

A body – a person – went flying under Maw's influence, yanked right into his grip and held up as though he was displaying a piece of meat. Loki was too stunned to say anything. 

 

"Alright," Valkyrie said, drawing out the word. "And now?"

 

The person in Maw's clutches let out a groan. Disoriented eyes looked at their new surroundings and, with much effort, focused on Loki. 

 

Banner's eyes widened. "Loki?!"

 

"Hand me the stone," Maw said, pausing dramatically, "or he will die."

 

"Okay," Valkyrie said. 

 

"Go ahead," Loki said. 

 

"What?! No, don't!" Banner squirmed in Maw's grip but didn't manage to dislodge it. "What's going on?! Where am I?!"

 

Maw ignored him. His eyes narrowed. "He is your friend."

 

"I've never seen that guy before in my life," Valkyrie deadpanned.

 

"I have," Loki said. "And the last time I saw him, he beat me to a pulp."

 

Valkyrie snorted. "That guy beat you to a pulp? Seriously?"

 

"That was the Other Guy! It wasn't me!"

 

"He was slightly more green and considerably bigger at the time," Loki said, ignoring Banner. 

 

Valkyrie looked at him as though he had lost his mind. "What are you even talking about?"

 

"Cease your mindless babbling," Maw hissed. "Give me the stone, and your friend shall live."

 

"We are not friends," Loki said. 

 

"We are," Banner said, turning to Maw and displaying an admirable amount of self-preservation. "Don't listen to him."

 

"We are enemies."

 

"Associates."

 

"Vague acquaintances, at best."

 

"Throw me a bone here!" Banner craned his neck towards Loki and couldn't seem to decide whether to glare or to plead with him. 

 

"How did he even capture you?" Loki asked, quietly wondering just how far they were able to push Maw until he ran out of patience.

 

Up to this point, he was doing an admirable job of keeping his composure. "Once you strip away his strength," Maw said, "the mindless beast is but a human."

 

Loki took this to mean that he had beaten Hulk in combat and forced him to turn back into Banner. Telekinesis was not something he was able to punch away – him being bested didn't surprise Loki as much as Maw's assumption that Loki and Banner were allies did. Just because Thor grew attached to every Midgardian they ran across, did not mean that Loki was prone to do the same. 

 

"Wait." Valkyrie's brows were knit in a frown. "Mindless beast? Big and green?"

 

"Oh dear." Loki let out a mock-sigh.

 

"Hulk? Is that you?"

 

"You know him?" Banner grimaced. "Please don't tell me he beat you up, too."

 

"Enough!" Maw discarded Banner and made him slam against the wall as his patience snapped. Maw deemed him no longer worthy of his attention and didn’t spare him another glance. "There are other ways to make you return what is His."

 

It was their only warning. Loki pushed Valkyrie to one side and dove to the other as sharpened wedges of stone dislodged out of the wall and zipped past them. Loki looked up and Maw was in front of him, reaching for his throat. A swing of his dagger and Loki leaped back, getting himself out of reach. Right next to Banner. 

 

"Who is that guy?!" Banner yelled, copying Loki and retreating further down the hall. It was no use: they couldn't outrun Maw when he was using his powers. "Why's he trying to kill you?"

 

"Now is not exactly the time for idle chatter," Loki said through gritted teeth, throwing a knife and bringing down a pillar with a burst of magic. 

 

Maw dodged effortlessly. 

 

Valkyrie dodged barely and with a heated, "Watch it, Lackey!"

 

The pillar shattered all over the ground. Pieces of it rose into the air, shooting past Loki and blocking off the hallway and their route of escape. 

 

"How is he doing that?" Banner asked, sticking closely to Loki's side. 

 

"Telekinesis." Loki projected illusions of himself all over the hallway and, realizing with annoyance that Banner had deemed him his most likely chance of survival and refused to leave him alone, created copies of Banner as well.

 

Swallowing down old nervousness at the thought of the Hulk, Loki added, "You realize that your alter ego would be much more useful of a companion in this situation."

 

A shudder racked Banner's body as Maw dispelled the majority of Loki's illusions with a single attack. "He's... not exactly being forthcoming right now."

 

Loki paused. "Did Maw truly beat him?" 

 

"... I think he did."

 

"Very well," Loki muttered, sifting through battle strategy in his mind. Ahead of him, Maw used his powers to fold an ornamental fountain that Valkyrie was using as cover, forcing her into the open. 

 

All the while, Maw did not bother to move out of his rigid, confident stance. Gungnir hovered unused beside him, mocking of Loki's failure. After they’d collected two of the stones, he should have expected Thanos’ forces to catch up to them. 

 

"Where even are we?" Banner hissed. He still did not seem to have grasped the concept that they were in the middle of a battle and, as such, not exactly in the right circumstances to hold a pleasant conversation. "Where's Thor? The last thing I remember is Sokovia."

 

"Thor is not here," Loki answered curtly. "You would do well to concentrate."

 

"Yes, but where–” Banner yelped as one of Maw's projectiles missed him barely. "He won't be happy if he finds out that you didn't help me!"

 

"He won't find out if nothing of you is left."

 

Banner's gaping expression was almost worth losing his life over as Loki barely managed to dodge the next attack, too distracted by his amusement. 

 

"You should forfeit," Maw advised them. "Not a single one of you stands a chance against me. You would not be so much as an inconvenience to Him."

 

"Stop lumping me in with those guys," Valkyrie called. "I don't even belong to–” She cut off in a swear as Maw hurled another piece of stone structure at her. 

 

"Fine. You asked for it." A sprint and one graceful dodging maneuver later Valkyrie had taken a stance right next to Loki and Banner. "Tell me you've got a plan. I'm not dying at the hands of that lunatic."

 

"Oh?" Loki raised an eyebrow, creating a temporary barrier between them and Maw. It would not hold long, but perhaps it would grant them the time to decide on a strategy. "I must admit, I didn't think you cared."

 

"About dying?" Valkyrie asked bluntly. "I don't. But it's gonna be on my terms. Not on his."

 

Loki paused. There wasn't exactly much to be said about that. "Very well then." 

 

"Um," Banner said, "guys..."

 

Ahead of them, Maw grabbed for Gungnir. Loki's eyes widened. The space stone glowed, and Maw smirked before reappearing in their midst, having crossed Loki's barrier. 

 

Loki discarded the spell and pushed Valkyrie and Banner away. He cast another, creating illusions around Maw and charging under the cover his clones provides. 

 

A shower of projectiles dispelled them all. Maw teleported towards the real Loki – too late. Loki used the split second before Maw used the spear and fell back in time to see Valkyrie charge at Maw with her sword. 

 

"He's not using the spear to its full capabilities." Banner talked quickly, making use of the time Valkyrie bought them while fighting Maw head on. "He hesitates whenever he prepares an attack with it. He doesn't do the same while using his own power."

 

"He hasn't had the time to test its capabilities," Loki agreed, keeping his voice down. Maw's own attacks were precise and deadly. Those of the space stone were powerful but unpolished. Untrained. They needed to move quickly before he had the chance to master it.

 

"We need to overwhelm him," Banner said. "If he can't concentrate, he can't use the spear."

 

He said it as though Maw's own powers were not bothersome all on their own. "It is worth a try," Loki muttered for lack of other options. He wasn't keen on continuing to fight Maw. He was even less keen on dying at his hands. 

 

"What do I do?" Banner sent him a quick glance. "Without the Hulk, I'm not much use in a fight."

 

Loki thought it through, watching Valkyrie throw maneuver after maneuver at Maw. Maw was toying with her.

 

"Leave the fighting to Valkyrie and I," he decided. "You will attempt to seize the spear, once he is distracted."

 

Banner's eyes widened. "Are you insane?! That's never going to work! I'm not– Without the Hulk, I'm–”

 

"If you intend to come out of this alive," Loki interrupted harshly, "you will have to get over yourself."

 

He didn't wait for an answer before throwing himself back into battle.

 

Maw was too skilled a fighter to beat in open combat. His telekinesis was dangerous in terms of raw power and refined through years and decades of experience. 

 

If there was a weakness to be exploited, it was his confidence in his own abilities. 

 

Loki dodged and attacked and deceived, using every single of the abilities in his repertoire. He didn't touch the power stone for fear of giving Maw exactly what he wanted. 

 

Maw evaded a dagger aimed at his throat by dodging upwards. Valkyrie leaped after him, swung her sword at his back and grunted as a chunk of debris hurled itself at her stomach. 

 

Her body was riddled with bruises and small scraps, and her left arm dripped blood on the ground. She wore no armor. She hadn't been prepared for a battle. 

 

They needed to end it, quickly. 

 

Loki created half a dozen illusions of himself – and, following a whim, threw in a couple imitating Valkyrie, as well – and made them charge at Maw in a myriad of daggers and swords created from light. 

 

Loki stayed behind and caught Valkyrie's gaze. 'Now', he mouthed, and hoped that the message had registered before sending a surge of magic upwards and bringing down the ceiling.

 

It took Maw a split second to ward off the falling boulders and debris. Valkyrie used it to charge from behind and thrust her sword into his back – only to watch it bent out of shape before it could pierce skin. Valkyrie dropped it, tore off her cape, threw it around Maw’s neck and pulled.

 

Maw snarled, dragged out of his confident, rigid stance by the unexpected move. 

 

"Banner!" Loki snapped as he conjured a couple of daggers and broke out into a sprint. "Move!" He aimed his daggers at Maw's immobilized form and was unsurprised when they shared the fate of Valkyrie's sword. 

 

Loki grunted as he and Valkyrie were thrown back by a wave of telekinesis. 

 

"Pitiful," Maw said, talking slowly as though enjoying every second of it. Gungnir hovered somewhere behind him. Out of his sight. "How does it feel? Scraping up every last shred of your courage to oppose Thanos, only to fail in so much as posing an inconvenience to him."

 

"Enough of an inconvenience to send you after him, apparently." Tension underlined Valkyrie's taunting, carefree voice. 

 

"An example," Maw said, "meant to prove what will happen to those foolish enough to refuse Thanos. No matter how small their–”

 

Maw's sentence cut off and he whirled around, summoning Gungnir closer with a flick of his wrist. Banner yelped, swept along and dangling in the air from where he'd tried grabbing it. 

 

"That was a mistake," Maw began, and he didn't get to finish the sentence as Valkyrie slammed into him like a battering ram. 

 

Loki reached out to wrap Banner into veils of green and pulled, forcing him and Gungnir into one direction while Maw was thrown back into the other. Both spear and human plunged downwards as Maw's concentration broke and Banner hit the ground with a grunt. 

 

"I've got it!" He stumbled to his feet, one fist clasped tightly around Gungnir and floundering to gain his bearings while carrying the unfamiliar, heavy artifact. "You hear? I've got the space stone!"

 

Loki decided to take a chance. It was a reckless move, befitting his brother more than it did Loki. But his brother wasn't there and his own attacks weren’t working. 

 

If they wanted to leave the planet in peace, Maw would have to die. 

 

Maw's attention was focused on Valkyrie and Banner, and Loki opened his dimensional pocket.

 

Reaching for Stormbreaker’s handle felt like attempting to lift Mjolnir. Raw power flickered over his skin instead of electricity, pushing against his fingers as a warning. It strained against Loki's muscles with a weight it could not possibly possess, almost as though it was resisting. 

 

Stormbreaker had a mind of its own, but there was no curse laid over it that allowed only the worthy to lift it. Loki pulled it out of his dimensional pocket with a grunt and used the momentum to hurl it at Maw’s neck. 

 

Maw whirled around and batted his hand, and Stormbreaker was flung away inches before it could have broken skin. 

 

Loki felt Maw's powers take hold of his body. His muscles strained against the immovable resistance as he was lifted from the ground and dragged forward to hover close to Maw. 

 

"For an insect, you've proven too bothersome to keep alive." Maw's eyes were narrowed in irritation at the drawn out battle. "Lord Thanos would have appreciated the opportunity to deal with you himself. He will understand that sometimes, one is given no choice while dealing with vermin."

 

Loki's jaw was jammed shut by a foreign power. He couldn't move his head, but was able to make out Banner from the corner of his eye. He’d been thrown back to lean against a pile of debris, Gungnir still clutched in his hand. He wasn’t moving. Most likely he was immobilized the same way Loki was. 

 

"Before I end your meaningless existence, Asgardian, tell me. Where is your brother?" The invisible hold around Loki tightened. "It would be regrettable to waste more time on this forsaken planet–”

 

Maw whirled around and Stormbreaker buried itself in his shoulder instead of his turned back. He grunted in both pain and surprise, thrown back by the momentum of the thrown weapon. 

 

Valkyrie wasn't far behind. She threw herself forward and pressed the axe further into the wound, forcing a pained groan from Maw for every inch that it pierced. Loki dropped to the ground, Maw's concentration no longer sufficed to keep him pinned. 

 

"That's for breaking my sword." Valkyrie leaned forward on Stormbreaker's handle, pressing the blade deeper with her own body weight. 

 

Maw grit his teeth, glaring up at her with scathing eyes. "You should work on your aim." Valkyrie had not hit anything vital.

 

"That right?" Valkyrie's eyes swayed towards Stormbreaker's blade. "Tell that to the axe."

 

The power stone at the center of its blade flared up. Power surged through it in an almost blinding purple and Valkyrie let go of it in time to watch its destructive force spread over into Maw's body. 

 

“You will lose,” Maw pressed out, knowing he was dying and accepting it. 

 

He did not scream even as destruction ravaged his organs from within. Maw died as dignified as he had lived and shed his last breath with the conviction of having served Thanos with even the last of his actions.