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Shadows Of Those Who Came Before

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The first thing Loki knew was Thor. Thor holding him. Telling him all would be well now. That they were together again and nothing in any reality could make that untrue. Swearing with all his lofty heroics that he would never let harm come to Loki again.

Standing there in that strange room Loki felt glad for Thor kneeling beside him, hugging him so tight he felt he might crack in two. Though why he was so gladdened by it he couldn’t quite grasp. There wasn’t much he could in that moment. He knew himself: Loki. He knew Thor: beloved older brother, all that was right with the world. But everything else floated just out of reach. The faces around him were mysteries, caught up in their own rejoicing. Pairs, entire parties. Their desperate joy filled the air with cacophonous, disorienting relief.

In the midst of it all he felt himself being watched, just a prickling on his neck, and he raised his gaze to find a red haired woman watching him. She stood behind a man embracing a family but her tears had dried. Her hard stare pierced the fog of confusion, striking at his heart.

And, suddenly, with shivers running down his neck, he knew one more thing. He knew the way people watched predators, the things likely to snap at their necks and lash out to leave bloody scars.

It was in her green eyes then.

Though not for long as one of the children by her side pulled her attention and a smile all too quickly.

He looked away, uneasy, uncertain as to what had prompted that or who she even was, returning Thor’s hug with desperation he didn’t know why he felt so intensely.

 

Thor explained the state of things to him not long after.

There was a man- a monster- named Thanos. Thor had shuddered at the name, hiding some ugly memories. Thanos had taken away many people. It had cost them much sacrifice to get those people back.

Loki had been one of those people.

Thor had told him he’d died. Not only that, Thor had told him more. That he was a Jotun. That he, in his shock, his anger, had done near unspeakable things. Attacked Jotunheim, fought Thor, besieged Midgard and stole his father’s throne among countless other crimes- all of which Thor attempted to distance Loki from, assuring him they were in the past and that both Midgard and the team around him knew that. Assuring him that despite the sins, Loki’s past self was not wholly malicious, contradicting all the evidence otherwise.

Loki didn’t know what to make of it. Of the things he- but not him- had done. The things that defined him- but not him. He didn’t linger long on death. That left him weak kneed so he simply refused to think of it. He lived and breathed now; that was what counted.

And so Thor told him. He was what mattered, not the past. Something about that struck false in Loki’s heart, though. Thor’s strangely mismatched eyes looked at him, caring, loving, but Loki wasn’t sure what exactly they saw in him. 

After that, Loki was introduced slowly to the team that had supposedly absolved him of his former self’s crimes. With near each introduction he saw that similar caution of the red haired woman- Natasha Romanoff- spider, Widow, even if it came in different forms.

While wandering, blissfully unsupervised for once, around the vast green complex that the Avengers called home he stumbled upon a lab filled with tech, metals of all make, tools he couldn’t place. But for his curious lurking he managed to set off some blazing alarm and was swiftly surrounded by strange robots brandishing weapons at him.

It was Stark who appeared moments later, harried, clearly having sprinted from some other part of this vast lab, that called them off. The look Stark gave was one of familiar caution, though his relief that there was no true threat softened the suspicion slightly. “Oh, it's the kid.” He waved down the bots as he caught his breath. “You’re good guys, I think I can handle him.” Turning on heel, Stark typed something into one of his many computers. “Just sneaking around, kid?”

“I was merely curious.” Even as the robots slunk back into their places Loki didn’t relax. “And I’m glad you got here in time. I’d hate for you to rebuild them after I was finished destroying them for daring attack me.” He pulled a smug smile, if just to tease. 

Stark stared at him for a long moment; Loki could see the wheels turning in his head, the age in his eyes. Finally, he chuckled. “Never thought I’d hear a joke from Loki.”  The name was a curse.

Loki attempted to ignore it. “You do know what I am the god of, right?” He itched to move but with Stark staring at him he stayed put, unwilling to give Stark something more to be wary of.

“Yeah but-” The lines around Stark’s eyes hardened. “You weren’t in the joking mood last time you came to Earth.”

“I’m not—”

“Loki!” Thor’s voice boomed through the room as he swept through the same doors Loki had slunk past, drawing all attention. 

“Ah,” Stark sighed with relief. “There he is, punctual as always.” His glance Loki’s way was openly cautious. “Your brother here was snooping around where he shouldn’t be, as usual.”

Before Loki could defend himself- after all, this room had not been in any way actively forbidden- and assure that he had no ill will and was certainly not hurting anybody, Thor took his shoulder to tower over both him and Stark. “I apologize.” Though it didn’t sound like a very sincere apology, his voice was too stiff, too formal. He squeezed Loki’s shoulder ever so slightly, a reassurance. “I’m sure he meant no harm. Right, Loki?”

Knowing what he had to say, though resentful about it, Loki reluctantly nodded. “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.”

Stark’s smile was strained as he leaned over. Much to Loki’s surprise and horror he ran a hand through Loki’s hair, mussing it. “It’s alright, tyke. But you can’t just wander around places like this, you might get hurt.”

Defiance sparked in Loki’s gut. “I don’t—”

“Ah.” Thor cut him off. “We should be going.”

Biting back resentment, and his tongue, Loki waited until they were on their own to speak his mind. “I don’t much like him.”

Thor smiled sympathetically. “He may grow on you.” When Loki scoffed he chuckled. “I know. But Stark has a good heart, he means well but you- ” Thor glanced down at him, sympathetic again. “You he does not know what to make of, I believe.”

Loki scowled, staring out over the lush field with crossed arms. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I know that,” Thor reassured.

But it wasn’t much of a true reassurance. Loki glanced up to Thor and saw distance in his eyes. “It’s just because of what the old Loki did, isn’t it?” The distance grew and Loki’s stomach flipped.

After a brief grimace, Thor stopped on the lawn and Loki followed suit. He kneeled to level them. “They will change their minds with time. We have to give them that patience. They saw you- the old Loki-” He stumbled over the phrasing with the ghost of a frown. “Saw him forced to his lowest and it will take time to mend those wounds. But they will see you as yourself, I swear it.”

The earnest promise fell on Loki’s uncertain ears. But he couldn’t deny Thor, not outright. He nodded. “Of course. I just- have to be patient.” Thor’s relieved smile lit the world but Loki didn’t feel much of its warmth. As irritating as it was to be seen as someone else by the Avengers there was someone whose opinion he much more cared about and was just as uneasy.

“I have a fine few hours before I need return to help Asgard. Would you want to keep me company? Have you eaten?” Thor’s concern, his caring, rang true.

But for who, Loki wasn’t sure. For him or for the Loki who was.

Thinking on it gave him a headache. “I have.” Though he wouldn’t say what; namely the remainder of a chocolate cake he thought belonged to one of Stark’s crew. “But I suppose I’ll stick around you, I’ve got nothing better to do.” He covered his own eagerness with breezy sarcasm that made Thor laugh.

“I’m glad you are so amenable.”

Later, in watching Thor trade sparring blows with the quiet blonde captain who shared his heroism, Loki couldn’t shake Thor’s words. Thor’s hypocrisy. If he could not see Loki for who he was how could the Avengers? How could anyone? He didn’t even know what it was his self had done, only what he could find online or through the most subtle of questions thrown Thor’s way.

When he got too curious Thor, with sad eyes and a distance about him, would always urge him to forget.

Which was infinitely difficult when near everyone around him was hostile. In truth, it felt wrong to forget. If he forgot there was always a chance of repeating his former’s mistakes. He wanted anything but that. So he focused on what he knew. He knew himself. He knew Thor. He knew that he- how some part or piece or version of him- died. He also knew he was being denied- shielded from as Thor would have put it- the absolute truth of who he used to be.

He assumed because the truth would be too much. That Thor forgave only because he was Thor, that his former self was monstrous. It had to be so, that was the best explanation for the reactions to him. It was reflections of that sentiment that he heard from the Avengers as he lurked in the shadows of their conversations.

He would do anything to avoid repeating that mistake, to free himself from that association. 

That fear left his nights uneasy, often disturbed by bloody nightmares that faded the more he tried to remember them, always just out of reach as if even they did not want to offer him any truth, or even a variant of it.

He also knew he wasn’t the only one brought back. But none of the others were so reviled. In thinking on it the affair seemed truly unfair, destroying those who were heros. 

In his attempts at repairing his legacy Loki sometimes let them speak to him as they saw him, as a child. A tyke as Stark put it. Which he was, he supposed. Being talked down to was endlessly annoying but if it buffed even the smallest mark from his reputation then it was worth it. At least that’s what he’d convinced himself.

Yet, if he were to truly fix his reputation- to break away from being their Loki- he guessed he would have to do more than play docile. How, though, he wasn’t quite sure. Without knowing what his crimes were he couldn’t guess at what might fix this. He had to find out what exactly he’d done. Maybe then he could remedy those mistakes. Maybe. He hoped.

Though not just now. Now he was sitting on one of the many balconies of this strange complex in a place called Jersey, staring at the screen of the device that had been gifted to him by Stark. The Spider- Parker not Widow- one of the ones returned- one of the few to not look down on him, had sent him a message. Hey! Want to go downtown this weekend?

Loki stared at the message. If he accepted the offer he’d have to tell Thor, to reassure Thor countless times of his safety, to endure the silent suspicions of the people that lived in this building. But time not being treated as a drawn blade or a child was tempting. Parker was kind, funny. Not as clever as the girl engineer of Wakanda, the first place he knew after Thor’s embrace. But, still, at least close to his level.

Only if you take me somewhere new. He finally replied, setting down the phone and staring out at the lush trees that surrounded their facility in a greenbelt. In the quiet of the morning he heard only the wind and the whine of bugs.

It wasn't Asgard. The Asgard that Thor said was gone, destroyed by the sister neither of them had known. The Asgard that Loki missed despite knowing nothing of it; a place that only carried the feeling of home in its naming. There was a new Asgard being built out west, where all the Asgardians remained. But Loki had yet to visit. Here in the foggy silence of a cool morning this complex was at least something solid. A place that was real amongst so much uncertainty.

Overhead a bird cried, sharp and harsh. He looked for it but found nothing.

His phone buzzed. A :I from Parker. Followed immediately by: deal!

“Making friends, huh?” The Widow’s deadpan voice caught him off guard, breaking the peaceful silence.

Trapped, he could only stand and turn, straightening his back. Despite the early hour she was already dressed. He could only guess how many weapons were stored beneath her thin red jacket. And in her eyes was that same wariness Loki had become familiar with. “I thought kids were supposed to sleep in. Isn’t that better for you?”

It wasn’t really a question. Loki knew that. “I don’t know. Is it?”

Her lips twitched at his returned rhetorical. “You eat breakfast yet?” That seemed sincere so he shook his head. “C’mon.”

Cautious, he followed her inside. Despite the warning in her eyes she’d never been outright hostile, none of them had. Not that it made baring their suspicions any easier. That could easily be attributed to Thor’s influence. His feet didn’t quite brush the ground as he sat at the stools pushed against the counter top and watched her rummage through the fridge. She pulled out a carton of eggs and a box of orange juice and arched an eyebrow at him. Feeling obligated to accept, he nodded.

As she poured the juice she spoke. “So, kid,” she said it with the air of strangeness, “how do you like this place?” She put the glass in front of him and set to the stove. Whether or not this was all an act, he couldn't tell. She was rather skilled in the art of deception. Likely moreso than him, though he'd never let anyone know that and his reputation made the Avengers think otherwise.

Every time he spoke to her it felt like a test. “It’s fine. A little cramped.” He added simply because it felt good to complain, even if just about trivialities. Though he wouldn’t mention the hostility. Nor the lingering air of strangeness that haunted his very existence. Telling the whole truth was foolish and he knew it.

“Yeah? I bet you’re used to a big castle on Asgard, right?”

Swallowing the mouthful of juice was suddenly a task. He wasn’t. He wasn’t used to anything. He knew nothing before Thor. Nothing beyond the faintest hints of what could be called memory. “Sure.” He lied shortly.

She didn’t look back at him but her hands paused for a fraction on the skillet. In her work she spoke no more and so neither did he, opting for the safety of his phone instead. When she set a plate piled high with scrambled eggs in front of him, though, she slid in beside him. He stared at the plate, cautious even as his stomach growled. “Eat. You want to stay short forever or not?” She finally said, voice controlled.

“You know that from personal experience I presume.” Taking a chance, he turned to beam smugly at her, all too aware of her power over him.

A flicker of surprise flashed across her calm mask before it disappeared, replaced by a thinly amused smile. “No, but Stark might.”

Keeping his grin through his surprise, Loki laughed and, finally, succumb to his hunger. The eggs were good, seasoned with some strange and delightful spices he felt particularly keen on. For a few minutes he was able to forget about her stare, about the hostility of the very walls around him and the fact that he felt out of place.

Though it didn’t last much longer than the final bite.

“Loki.” She almost chewed on the name. He looked up and her mask was back. “I know what you’re doing.”

He froze, thinking fast. That could mean any number of things. From his plan to sabotage the sinks of the third floor to lurking around Stark’s domain trying to figure out the secrets of his suits for himself. To more serious things. Things he’d thought he’d kept rather to himself: his fears, his attempts to remedy them. But instead of any of those things, he held up his phone. “Exploring the internet?” It was a feeble distraction and he knew it. “Is that a crime? I wasn’t aware.”

“Depends on the site. But no, that’s not it.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sorry to say I don’t know what it is you’re talking about.”

She snorted sarcastically, a sound that surprised him. “You're Loki. I know your game.”

It felt like everyone claimed to knowing him. “You do?” Was all he managed, too annoyed to say much else.

“You’ll never be happy just sitting here.” She continued after a moment, stabbing a fork through her scrambled egg as if nothing was out of place. Though the violent jab made Loki wince. “This isn't exactly a place for kids.” For just a second she looked at him and her eyes pierced. “You’re not just a normal kid, either. Which is even worse.”

For who: you or me? He knew better than to ask. Still, she played with words in not unfamiliar ways. If she would give him a riddle he could decipher it. “I don’t think Thor would much appreciate me running off.”

Standing, the Widow took his plate. “Probably. But you’re Loki. You’ve got a history of not doing what Thor wants.”

“Times change.”

Her smirk was sharp and for a moment, without judgement. “Oh? Should I tell Thor about you breaking into Vision’s room the other day?”

Loki flushed. “You have no proof. And besides, I doubt Thor would much care. He’d probably find it funny I managed to outwit the robot.”

She arched one eyebrow Loki’s way. “My point stands; you’ll never be satisfied here.”

There it was again, a condemnation of him. But this one rang a mite too true. “What would you have me do?”

“I don’t know, I’m not your guardian. But- if it were me- I’d want to get a little fresh air. It might clear my head.”

Before Loki could express his confusion a voice cut over the quiet morning. “Nat? Who are you talking to?” The Captain. “Oh. Loki.” The name was carefully said, distant and sad. Loki swiveled to see the blonde man watching him with tired eyes. His pause didn’t last long, as he nodded at Loki, a hello, and made towards the Widow.

She smiled at him. “Up early?”

“Always.” The Captain returned her strained smile. As Loki watched him the tension he held in his shoulders was clear. He sat beside Loki, just barely glancing at him. “How are the eggs?”

Loki just shrugged. “I’ve had better,” he said, shortly, to the obvious surprise of both of them. “I should go.” He pushed himself off the stool and, knowing they were staring out of the back, Loki slunk out of the room, feeling thoroughly cheated that he’d been denied any real help. Despite her hostility, the Widow had been prodding him towards something. He just need figure out what it was.

Though he couldn’t well think stalking the halls. This place was too chaotic, too filled with old grudges to leave well enough alone. He’d long since realized the dynamics of this home-that-wasn’t. The Captain and Stark rarely spoke, with them they carried visible baggage. And the split they created formed a divide of unspoken discomfort only rarely surpassed. The Captain’s crew, the one armed soldier and the flying man, they were most friendly among each other and the Widow. The archer hardly looked at Loki. The witch was quiet. The robot too. The scientist with a secret liked Thor or Stark’s company, though seemingly for entirely different companionship. And then there was Thor.

Thor who he loved. Thor who he knew, truly, one of the few things in this world. Thor who followed him like a phantom whenever he was un-busied as if entirely convinced Loki would find death around every corner. Thor who likely had Heimdall’s eye directed Loki’s way when he wasn’t around. Thor who was every bit as irritating as he was loving for all the same reasons.

Now though, Thor was gone, out dealing with what would become Asgard. And Loki was stalking the witch in her ruminations. Her magicks were endlessly fascinating. The ability to pry into the mind was a useful one; something he himself could have studied was Asgard still intact. As was, she was his closest link to fulfilling his curiosity. In learning maybe there would be answers. If he could say he truly knew himself maybe he could mend the rest of this fractured whole that surrounded him.

He watched her through her open door, inconspicuously sprawled across a couch with phone in hand- though unused. Mostly now she did nothing beyond meditating. Which was excruciatingly boring to watch.

In an attempt to assuage his boredom he took to practicing the spells he knew, the ones that were ingrained within him beyond his cloudy memories or lack thereof. Sparks danced across his fingertips in a rainbow of colors and he felt their heat though none of their fury. Slowly he morphed them into creatures. A thin beaked bird flew between his fingertips and spun into the air. Directly into the witches face where it burst into green sparks.

As his stomach lurched she waved away the remnants. Though she appeared unbothered by it. “Loki, right?”

There was no wariness in her voice, something infinitely refreshing. “Yes.” Though he felt certain she thought she already knew him. Everyone did, it seemed.

Twisting her rings around her fingers, a nervous gesture, she nodded. “I felt your spellwork.”

He hadn’t known she could do that. “Oh. Sorry, I- suppose.” Though he didn’t much feel like being sorry.

“I’d rather you do that than watch me behind my back,” she said with the faintest smile and he flushed, caught.

Grasping for a worthy explanation, Loki smiled too, knowing it looked stiff. Everyone knew him after all, he might as well use that to his advantage. “My apologies. But I am Loki, you really expect me to not snoop when you leave the door ajar?” He avoided a wince, though barely, his mouth sour. “It’s practically an open invitation for mischief.”

For just a moment she looked disappointed. “What do you want, then?”

Thrown off balance by her lack of acceptance of his reasoning, Loki nevertheless kept his wide smile. “I was just interested in your magicks.” Which wasn’t technically a lie, just not the whole truth. 

She quirked her eyebrows. “I’m surprised you're not the one being watched.”

Stiffening, he looked away. “I don’t need to be watched all the time.” Of course she’d be like all the rest of them. “I’m not doing anything wrong.” Not only had he wasted days watching her but now she’d likely call Thor to take him away to something only more unsatisfying.

“Other than stalking me. Don’t worry, I won’t tell.” When he looked up there was a thin smile on her face as she sat beside him.

He pulled his legs to his chest, half prickling at the closeness and half to allow her space to sit. That anyone in this compound, save Thor, would sit so near to him was an anomaly. He’d become intimately familiar with the berth everyone gave him that to see it broken was disarming.

“Show me something.” She prompted when he stayed silent. “I’ve only ever seen the Doctor’s magic, never anything from Asgard, unless you count Thor’s lightning. Your abilities feel- different. Older.” Her smile quirked higher. “Even though you’re…”

After a moment of nervousness, Loki complied and pulled a dagger from the ether. It’s blade glinted silver and its handle fit perfectly in his palm. He twirled it in his hand, an instinctive gesture that he knew despite his fog.

Looking to her for approval, he saw her tense at his blade. “Always ready for a fight?”

“Don’t I have to be?” The question slipped out and he winced, preparing for the reassurances of safety that would likely come. He could practically hear the condescension brewing.

Indeed she sobered but then remained silent, staring at his knife. “In this world of ours…" She shook it off. "Is- is that all you can do?”

“No,” he muttered, red. Knowing that his former self had so mastered the art and he knew so little was acutely embarrassing, despite how Thor assured him otherwise.

She seemed to recognize that. “I didn’t mean— from what I understood of you- of that you- he was a powerful sorcerer. You retained none of that?”

“I can manage just fine without all of that.” Though he was less certain of that than he was willing to admit. “It won’t take me much time to relearn it all. If I even want to, that's all distractions.” Another bunch of lies. There was no way to learn without a way to teach himself. Even he wasn’t that good. And of course he wanted to, knowing his wasted potential made his lacking all the more excruciating.

Something rebellious sparked in her eyes. “What if you didn’t need to? What if you could get it all back?”

Her sudden intensity surprised him. But, if he wasn’t wrong, then it sounded like she was proposing exactly what he’d been wanting. A chance at understanding the things he lacked.

“Is magic the only thing you lost?”

And though she didn’t specify, he knew. Despite his estrangement everyone that was once lost held a silent understanding with each other.

He hadn’t been the only one to lose things- memories, mostly. He’d seen it, watched the Captain explaining things to his winged friend, things he clearly should have known. He saw the lost memories front on the witch’s mind now. Their loss was shared, though he guessed the severity of his may have been the worst. “There are things I feel I should know. But- I don’t. Like I’ve lost something precious I didn’t know I had.” Despite his relief he dared not push his luck. She was still an Avenger, part of the group his former self had wronged. No doubt he’d wronged her too, somehow somewhere along the line. And everyone held grudges that no in death camaraderie could overcome. That he'd come to know well.

When her hand brushed his shoulder he jumped. “I’ve been prodding at my own fogged memories but every attempt to rectify them has failed. But- you’re a god. You’re a being made of magic. Maybe I could—”

“Do it.” He interrupted her, not giving himself time to think.

She blinked, obviously startled by his eagerness. “You’re sure?” Something like pity flashed across her face. “I can’t know what I might dislodge. It… might not be a pleasant memory and you don't deserve that. You’re…”

A kid. She didn’t need to say it, everyone already had. He’d heard that excuse enough. “I know.” A thousand absentee examples sprung to mind. His own death. His time spent under Thanos. The death of both parents. His rapid resentment for Thor. All things he knew were real but had no precedent to understand them or what they meant to him- to the former Loki. “You said it yourself- I’m a god. I can handle anything.”

She didn’t seem to believe him. Not that he could blame her. He didn’t either.

Still, she nodded and, after a surreptitious glance around, held a hand up to his forehead.

He went cross eyed trying to watch her.

“Just close your eyes. Relax.”

Realizing it was too late to ask if this would hurt, he complied, swallowing hard and leaving himself in the dark.

Her magic burst through his mind in that instant, winding and insidious like a snake in tall grass. Denying his first instinct to pull away, Loki dug his hands into his thighs. He was fine; he could do this. All he had to do was keep telling himself so. He- or a Loki- had survived worse than this inspection. She wouldn’t dare hurt him even if she wanted to, not with Thor’s wrath an ever present threat.

At that nervousness, he felt her magic hesitate. “Do you want me to stop? I understand if—”

“No!” Loki’s voice came out high pitched. “It’s fine!”

At his prompting she continued, prying deeper into his mind. It wasn’t painful as he’d feared, but instead felt like something personal. Her control over her magicks was as careful and precise as it was powerful, something he recognized as impressive through the fog that was his mind. For long minutes he simply sat there, uncomfortable and antsy, aware of the presence picking around in his head and wanting to scratch the growing itch on his nose.

Taking a chance to do so, he shifted on the couch.

And in that moment the witch’s magic snapped some tether in his mind. A spike of seidr shot through him, white hot, and settled like a heavy weight in his throat. Lurching forward, he felt her hands gripping his shoulders to steady him. “Sorry! I’m sorry! Are you alright?”

Shivering, he nodded, not trusting himself to speak for the nausea roiling within him. His throat itched and burned. The threads of the couch beneath him swam as his vision wobbled. There was something raw and wrong in the fog of his mind, something that ached to linger on. 

“Loki.” One of her hands was rubbing his back.

Coming off his lightheadedness slowly, Loki didn’t push her hand away.

“I’m sorry. You’re just a child, I shouldn’t have pushed so much—”

“I’m fine.” Straightening, he tried to shake off the aching wrongness in his mind. Despite that, the fog that defined him still lingered like a shade. Something within him was strange. Instead of answers he’d only been given another question. And his throat still itched.

It wasn’t fair.

Disappointment was nothing new. Still, it stung. Turning away so she couldn’t see him sniffling, Loki rose. “Thank you for trying, even if it was in vain. It’s more than anyone else here has done for me.” Hoping to escape, he beelined from the room, leaving her behind him.

Sulking in the depths of his room was far easier than dealing with his own thoughts. Or speaking with Thor who’d surely pry like he always did. He could only hope the witch wouldn't tell Thor what they'd done. By the guilt in her eyes, he guessed not.

It was easier to hide away from Thor and the team, to stare the the ceiling and catalog his foggy memories as he so often found himself doing. He knew Thor. He knew he was Loki, God of Trickery and Mischief. He had once died. Thor had brought him back. The bed beneath him was infinitely comfortable. He felt groggy, as if the witch’s magic had sapped the life from him. If he closed his eyes he might be better able to think.

When he opened them again he floated in a dark space. Despite the seeming emptiness of the space he knew instinctively he wasn't alone. There was someone or something here with him, their presence prickling on the back of his neck. The consuming wrongness that followed him daily was almost crushing here, threatening to suffocate him.

Attempting to right himself, Loki stared out into the dark. “And what is this?” Instilling confidence into his voice, he pulled a smile and hoped it looked convincing.

At first there was nothing. "Well, this is disappointing." He said, hoping to prompt something. Were this a dream- which he assumed- any such action would be better than floating through nothingness. He was bored enough in the waking world that such repetition in his dreams was more than slightly frustrating.

Then he felt a pressure crushing down upon him, the presence that filled the space was growing closer. The hostility in the air was undeniable.

Swallowing hard, he kept a smile that would trick anyone. “Must we? Really—”

The pressure clamped down upon his throat, choking the words from him.

A voice whispered, both from within him and from the dark space itself. “Prove yourself Loki. Find me. Stand in my place.” The command rung through the air, not so venomous as the pressure crushing him, almost desperate. Like a final plea.

“W-what? What does that mean?” Even as the invisible pressure pressed down upon his throat he managed a question, his eyes watering under the strain of it all. But he got no answer and the grip around him only grew tighter. “Stop!”

Suspended in the dark he was helpless against this pressure.

He had nothing to cling to but the whispered words and the quickly evaporating assurance that this was naught but a dream.

Spots danced across his vision, lighting the dark in brilliant, unreal colors. “Don’t.” There was no fist to claw at, only the undeniable force strangling him.

Reaching for seidr proved useless, as if it were being dangled just out of reach, taunting him. Without that last ditch effort he had nothing.

“Thor!” The sound came out broken, a wheeze, he tried again, the only thing he could think of. “Thor! Please!” There was no air left in him. Every second strained into infinite moments. “Thor…”

And suddenly sure hands were on his shoulders, pulling him into light, into waking. Before anything else he took his saving, painful gulp of air to soothe his burning lungs.

“Loki! I heard you!” Thor’s grip on him was tight, protective. In the moment Loki clung to it. “What’s wrong?”

Kicking off the sheets that had wound their way around him, Loki rubbed at his cheeks to find them wet. He couldn’t know when that had began. “Just a dream,” he muttered, embarrassed but not willing to shake Thor off him. There was an awful feeling in his chest. One Thor’s presence only just barely mitigated.

The genuine sympathy in Thor’s eyes made Loki wince. Stupid, thoughtful, loving Thor who Loki was always trying to avoid for this reason exactly. “What kind of dream?” As if he couldn’t guess.

“Just a—” Loki looked to his hands, unable to keep Thor’s sympathetic eye. “I don’t remember,” he lied. Thor didn’t need to know, he was already worried enough. Loki needn’t burden him further. That was the last thing he wanted to be, a burden.

Though the lie didn’t land as Thor sat on the edge of the bed. “Loki, I want you to tell me. I want to help. You need bear no burden of yours alone when I'm here.”

Still staring at his hands, Loki gave in. A lie would only get him so far. And he desperately wanted to believe Thor's assertion, foolish as it was. “I was- choking. Strangled by nothing.”

The smallest jolt of electricity ran through Loki’s arm as Thor’s grip momentarily tightened. “Oh,” he said faintly, distantly.

The sudden shift, the immediate distance between them, forced Loki’s eyes up. Such a change meant only one thing: Loki’s former self. The thing that stood between them, the Loki Thor saw and knew, the Loki Thor wanted back. Barely brave enough to even look, Thor’s expression, a certain raw, fresh pain, devastated. For a moment Thor was a man shattered.

In that crippling instant Loki knew, finally. But part of him didn’t want to believe. Couldn’t accept it. “That’s not- how I died.” The words he had heard in the dream echoed. Stand in my place.

Maybe the witch had done something after all. Some part of him knew dying all too well. And she had woken it. Maybe there was something there beyond the dying moments, though. Something dark and desperate and very real waiting and wanting to be found and uncovered.

He said nothing as Thor pulled him into a hug, though did he reciprocate with the same desperation he had possessed in his first moments, out of habit and fear in equal measure. Thor’s warmth soaked into him as he clung tight. “I’m sorry,” Thor said, voice soft and sincere. “I didn’t want to tell you. I thought- it would hurt too much. You had no need for the suffering.”

“It’s okay.” It did hurt. Even the brush of fabric around his neck felt heightened with this new knowledge and his skin prickled. The death was corporeal now. He- his former self- had died really and truly. It was tangible, not just some memory he would never possess and therefore incapable of hurting him. But in revealing this omission of his, well meaning as it was, Loki knew it wasn’t the only thing Thor was protecting him from.

Mainly from himself, he assumed.

“I swear on my life,” in seconds Thor’s fear was replaced by the confidence of a distinctly Thor nature. The confidence of a hero. “I will never let any such harm come to you again.”

The kind of confidence Loki could not, for all his efforts, emulate. Still, he could lie. “I know.”

 

At the least the experience of dying gave him something to think on. The whispered words especially. Stand in my place was self explanatory. Or so he assumed. Loki had done so, felt that terror. But: prove yourself Loki, that was more elusive. It seemed a paradoxical impossibility. He was Loki. That was one of the few things he knew unshakably, at his very core.

It sounded distinctly like a command. And, even though the witch’s tampering unlocked nothing so tangible, he felt like he was missing a piece of this strange puzzle that had been handed to him. That there was more. If there was something to be found, and according to that desperate voice there was, he need discover it in the hopes he could solve this wrongness.

In that vein he happened upon the idea that perhaps there was. Commands certainly had multiple meanings. Such vague, unhelpful riddlework did unfortunately match with his mind. If it were some lock to his memories clearly it would be designed of his own thoughts.

Prove himself Loki; by what means? And stand in his place, perhaps by more than experiencing that death. His first assumption was the metaphorical. But without acting dramatically he doubted he could prove himself anything like the Loki Midgard knew. He could take it literally. Stand in a familiar place to jog any hidden memories. But- to his knowledge- his former self had barely visited Midgard and Asgard was long gone.

Of course there were still a few places of import. One of which happened to stand starkly in the very city which Loki had promised to visit with Peter Parker. From what he had learned of The Attack on New York, Stark’s old tower played a vital role- which meant his former self had very literally stood there. In that, perhaps it could spark some vital memory to free him of this lasting sense of wrongness that accompanied him like a shade.

Though, with the tower no longer under Stark’s banner, it wouldn’t be so simple. Not that he even really wanted it to be. It would neither be fun nor very Loki of him to do things an easy way.

But it could be made enjoyably easier by enlisting help.

“You want- we can’t do that!” Peter stammered as he swung from his bed in his messy, cramped apartment room.

Sitting cross legged, Loki kept himself from rolling his eyes. “I thought it was fairly self explanatory. With your abilities climbing through the ducts will be easy. And we’re both small enough to fit through them.” At which Peter looked like he wanted to protest, but Loki cut him off. “I did my research, trust me.”

Not looking reassured, Peter kept his frown. “How many stories up is that? I’m not climbing—”

“The first thirty floors are offices. Those we can get through with an elevator, a clever plan, and confidence.” He smirked. “Which I have.”

“I dunno.” Swinging effortless up to his top bunk, Peter barely reacted to his scowl. “That could get us in trouble with, you know, the law? Or the rest of the Avengers. It’s technically breaking and entering, isn’t it?”

“So?”

He earned a blank, tired stare for that. “Okay…”

Flushing a bit, Loki continued on. “It might be illegal - maybe - but it won’t matter if we aren’t caught. Which I can assure.”

Immediately Peter returned to his skepticism. “How?”

“Because I’m Loki, obviously.”

“Okay. And?” He appeared unimpressed. Using that excuse had been a miscalculation, clearly it didn’t work on Peter the way it did most Avengers.

Which forced him to provide something more concrete. “I’ve been planning this all week.”

“But why?” Peter pressed. “You still haven't told me why.”

To distract his hands and keep them from wringing Loki picked a small toy off of Peter’s floor. The hard plastic dug into his fingers as he turned it over. “I think- I might be able to find some answers there.”

“What kind of… answers?” But even as he asked, Loki guessed Peter knew. Saw it as Peter’s eyes drifted momentarily. He had some questions from his return, surely. So many of them unanswerable. When the distraction cleared Peter nodded. “I mean... Fine, we'll do it. But if we get in trouble with Mr. Stark—”

“You won’t. They’ll blame me.” Loki allowed himself no time to linger on that statement. Or the absolute truth of it. Even Peter didn’t deny it.

The always strange task of riding the subway was, as ever, fascinating. In the uncomfortably crowded there was a fascinating anonymity. There not even one person gave him a second glance. A far cry from the constant watchful eyes of the compound where he lived.

What had been Stark Tower loomed above them, stripped of its iconic A that Loki had learned from his research. Like the rest of the city it pierced the pale blue sky, ostentatious, a testament to its creator’s ego.

Somewhere up there was Loki’s answer. In seeing it he was only more sure of that. That sense of wrongness which defined him was tugging him forward. He barely checked to see if Peter was following.

Inside was quiet and immaculately clean. A pale haired woman sat at a desk beside the silver elevator doors, picking at her nails. Despite her smile there was easily recognizable suspicion in her eyes.

Clearly her usual clientele were not people like them. Not that there was anyone like him.

Flashing her a smile he flicked a blank stock card from his jacket and presented it to her. “We have an appointment.”

She took the card, looking skeptical, and on it saw what half a week of researching and a simple spell could do. It was obviously what she needed to see, enough to get them where they need go without the pomp or circumstance. “Oh. Oh- I see.” In her surprise she glanced from the enchanted card to them, lingering on how Loki needed to hoist himself up with his arms to best see over the desk and how Peter fidgeted beside him. Still, with the irrefutable evidence of the card in her hand she conceded. “Thirtieth floor. Talk to his secretary there.”

“Thank you.” He offered a winning smile as they hurried past.

In the elevator, Peter slumped. “This is a terrible idea.”

“No it’s not!” Feeling defensive, Loki rebuked him immediately.

“I just wanted to hang out with Ned and MJ and… I dunno- do something other than break into one of the most high profile buildings in New York.” Peter ran his hands through his hair, not looking at Loki.

Trying to keep calm, Loki bit his lip. “I didn’t force you to come.” The last thing they needed was to be discovered now when they were so close just because Peter got cold feet. “Besides, we have all day to meet with your friends.” Nagging jealousy turned his stomach. “We’ll be fine.”

“I hope so.”

The floor they finally stepped out onto was just as eerily quiet and spotless as the ground floor. A pristine grey hallway stretching both ways out around them. “This way.” Loki winced at how far his whisper carried.

Despite looking distinctly ill, Peter followed wordlessly. Together they slipped into the innards of the building without a hitch.

So effortlessly, in fact, that his pride with his plan even staved off the embarrassment of being carried up story after story. Grey metal walls only occasionally gave way to outlets, though Loki counted each one, unwilling to overshoot his goal. And finally, after what felt an age of Peter swatting away cobwebs, they arrived. “Stop! Stop, this is the one.”

“Oh, thank god.” Peter sighed.

With a burst of magic the grate came off the wall skittering across the room. “You’re welcome.” Loki smiled as the two of them scrambled through. He heard Peter sigh again from behind him.

Smooth, tiered stone floors gave way to a view of the city that Loki imagined his past self appreciating. A bar stretched across the far wall and behind it a helipad grew from the side of the building above a precarious walkway. Couches that didn’t match with Stark’s “style,” if it could be called that, littered the floor space.

For the first time, Peter abandoned his anxiety. “Wow,” he breathed. “I’m actually in Avengers Tower!” He pulled out his phone.

“What was Avengers Tower,” Loki corrected, moving around the room. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. Nothing called out to him. He tried not to reach for disappointment too quickly.

But Peter didn’t seem dissuaded in his awe, taking a picture of the view stretching out below them. “This was where it all started. Where the Avengers came together to protect the world from evil. Er- no offence.”

“None taken.” Barely even paying attention, Loki sat on the stone floor, preparing to find even the barest trace of remaining seidr. There was something left behind. There had to be. Stretching his seidr, he searched for a reaction, for anything that resembled even the decayed remains of spellwork.

“Hey, Loki come take a pic—”

“Shh! I’m concentrating.” As Peter went quiet, Loki reached further.

And found something. Faint at first but distinctly there and intimately familiar in all its strangeness. In his excitement he lunged for it.

He was falling. Falling into the same dark space. The sense of familiarity was gone. “No!” He cried out and his frustration echoed. “I was so close!”

“Close enough,” replied a voice that seemed to come from within and without.

Crackling flames, nearly emerald in hue, sprang up around him. They filled the dark space with noise and light that cast strange shadows across his face. “Who—” He asked, already knowing. Fear coiled in his chest, unbidden. “Who are you?”

From the flames a figure formed, more phantom than solid, with a pale face cast sickly green, black hair fell across his shoulders. For a few moments he stared at his see through hands, some raw emotion unidentifiable on his face. Then he looked Loki’s way and a mask sealed that vulnerable emotion away. It’s presence made Loki’s skin crawl. His gaze drove through Loki, raking over him. “I am the fragments of the shattered conscious that was used to pull you into existence. I am what remains of a god who lived, trapped within your head. Maligned to remain a phantom of myself.” The ghostly figure paced, though never took his piercing eyes off Loki. “I am Loki.” His voice turned bitter. The name a curse all its own.

Loki matched the phantom’s stare, fighting past his fear. “What a coincidence. So am I. Strange for us to meet like this.” He was all too aware of just how carefully he need tread. This was the boogeyman who had attacked Midgard at the bidding of a Mad Titan and who only Thor had consistent words of fondness for. And Thor was too kind for his own good. This Loki was malicious and he’d do well to remember it.

The phantom Loki stared down at him, face a blank mask. “So it is. You’re the scraps of me.”

“What do you mean by that? It seems to me to be the other way around. I am very much real and whole. Certainly more so than you.” He smiled toothily, challenging.

“So whole and assured in yourself that you felt the need to search for the specter of me?” The phantom smiled back. Loki winced. “Truly you’re thriving.” The sarcasm bit through Loki’s confident facade. “I know you as I know myself.”

Everyone knew him. “I’ve heard that sentiment so many times I’m not sure it has any meaning left to me.” He heard his own frustration. The phantom’s lips twitched, noticing it too, no doubt. “Yet it is as untrue as such sentiments come. They see only you and refuse to acknowledge that I am more.”

“I take it my legacy is as a destroyer?” The phantom sobered. Something Loki felt a spike of resentment at. He had no reason to fear, he was already dead. “You are trapped alone with my bloody inheritance?” Loki nodded. “Unfortunate. You’re little but a child without my magic or knowledge. That’s a dangerous existence.”

“You underestimate my wit.”

The phantom was unfazed. “But not the dangers around you.”

“Dangers you created.”

He watched the other Loki blink twice in rapid succession, the smallest sorrowful crack in his facade. “I suppose I did contribute. You need help.”

Loki scoffed, letting his own bitterness flow. “Whose? I have few who would help me because of you. And all Thor does is reassure me the resentment will pass.”

At Thor’s name the phantom Loki started. “He lives?” The question was soft.

Loki almost didn’t answer it, taken unawares by the break in character. “He- yes? Thor lives.”

His eyes fluttering shut, the other Loki briefly collected himself. “I see,” the statement was flat, emotionless. When he opened his eyes Loki saw what looked like jealousy burning in them before he fell again into stoicism. “You need my help then.”

“You’re dead.”

The shadow tensed, his own hands twitching as they laced together in front of him. “Nevertheless, I’m here speaking with you now. So either I'm real or you've already gone mad.”

Glancing out into the darkness, Loki shrugged. “The latter is unlikely, I’ll give you that. But why should you speak of dangers when you yourself are one. I should tell Thor of your existence.”

His specter merely smiled, though his posture twitched. “If you think me so dangerous I suppose you should. Do you want to?”

He grimaced. “Not particularly. I am already estranged as is. Certainly if Thor told the Avengers that the ghost of my old self lived within my head they’d think me either mad or irreversibly tied with you.” Something he deeply wished to avoid. And, truly, if he told Thor of this he feared he might forever lose him to that distance between them. That Thor would never care for him when there were still scraps of his original Loki remaining behind.

“Correct.” The shade leaned forward from his fiery perch, looming over Loki. “And what a pity it must be to remain stuck in my image, especially on Midgard. ” He said the name with a wrinkled nose. “I say again: I can help you.”

“What good could you do?” At that the flames crackled higher and the phantom Loki looked briefly annoyed. Clearly he disliked being challenged, something Loki noted with the smallest selfish pleasure. 

“The fact remains that enough of me persists, by whatever means, to be speaking with you now. That can be enough, given the right circumstances.” His annoyance quickly disappeared beneath his mask once more. “There are dangerous things out there. Things only I know of. Things that could help to clear my- your name.”

“What things?” Curiosity gnawed at Loki. Despite his phantom’s history, something about the story rang true. Or perhaps he merely wanted it to. He wanted out of this endless cycle of doubt. If something could get him there he’d leap to the opportunity even if that something was this deceitful Loki.

The smile was back. “Why would I tell you with no leverage? If you would give up such things without a deal you’re not worth my name.”

Instantly annoyed, Loki scowled. “Then what? What could the dead desire? Life? I cannot give that to you.”

His phantom shook his head. “I want a chance that was taken from me. To see and speak again, even if it is a half life tied to yours. Here in this space,” He spread his arms in the dark space and fire trailed from them. "Many things are possible."

“It’s not your chance anymore, it's mine. But… if you’re interested and speak the truth.” He took a moment to narrow his eyes but all his specter did was smile dryly. The chance at shaking the accursed loneliness was deeply tempting. A secret friend, all to himself. Literally himself. Even if it was his evil self. And there was something special about this place, he felt it in his bones. The chance of infinite possibilities at his fingertips. “Then… on my terms I’ll let you stand by me. It won’t be life, not to any but me. But you won’t be in here.” He gestured out into the dark.

“There is no here.” The correction was played with an irritating smirk but was followed by a more submissive nod. “But it appears to be a fair deal. Within reason, obviously.”

That was enough of a reassurance. “Good. First, I am Loki the one and the only. You are dead and gone and have given up the title.” Stepping forward, Loki smiled thinly. When the shade nodded he continued, brushing the flames with one outstretched hand. They stuck there, harmless. “If you are not Loki then… you’re my opposite. Ikol.” He saw the shade briefly twitch, as if vexed by the wordplay. He paid it no mind. “You’re to be my ear whisperer and in doing so you’ll take a suitable guise. Every proper sorcerer needs a familiar, no?”

That didn’t seem to please his shadow. “Blatantly untrue. Where did you even hear that?”

“Thor always says I watch too much television. I think it’s much more the fault of the internet,” Loki rebuked, smiling as he shaped the flames in his hands. “Hm, now- you are to be my flitting word spinner, telling me things I need to know.” The birdy simulacrum he crafted sat in his hand, awaiting life. “And now I want out of this place. It’s not at all to my liking.”

“So be it, Loki.” With his words the dark place gave way to light, the fire disappearing along with the shade of a once Loki. Shadow dripped and ran until none remained.

He awoke to a tight hand around his arm. The man to whom it belonged he didn’t know but was watching him with a bored caution.

Instinctively, he made to pull away as a ghostly magpie landed on his shoulder, silent.

“Son, don’t.” The man's voice was gruff and stern. Not the kind Loki was apt to obey.

Before he could act though, Peter’s voice broke through. “Loki, please don’t make this worse.”

In his ear, the magpie whispered in his former's voice. “Do not emulate Thor. Think before you act.”

As if he didn’t know that.

They were in the lobby for the tower again, a quartet of security guards surrounding them. Beside him, Peter looked properly ashamed. In however much time had passed during his talk with his fragmented self they’d clearly been discovered. Loki felt briefly guilty for the unhappiness in Peter's eyes, knowing it was his actions that led to it.

“Your parents will be here soon,” the man holding his arm said.

“I very much doubt it.” Loki smiled widely up at him, unable to pass up the chance at smugness.

Though the roll of thunder that sounded from outside wiped it from his face all too quickly, something even Peter recognized and understood. “I’m- I gave them May’s number. Not- she must have called—”

“He won’t be mad at you, it’s fine,” Loki muttered, resigning himself. Ikol fidgeted, giving no words of advice. Not that there was much to say. Thor coming to collect his wayward sibling wasn’t exactly uncommon in either iteration, that much Loki understood.

Thor swept through the doors, golden, glorious, and disappointed. It was the latter that struck Loki in the chest. On his shoulder, Ikol’s claws tightened.

The guards winced, releasing him in their surprise at the sudden appearance of an Avenger like Thor. Loki slipped free of their range in an instant and immediately tried to make some amends. “Thor—”

“I don’t want your excuses, Loki. Not now.”

Loki sucked in a wounded breath. Thor had never spoken to him like that before. Dismissive.

Shifting his grip on Stormbreaker, Thor motioned towards the security. “I shall take them from here. Many thanks for keeping them out of further trouble.” He ushered them both from the building as the staff sputtered. “I will return you to your aunt.” He turned to Peter.

“Yes, sir.” Peter’s voice was meek, humbled. “I’m sorry,” he added moments later.

“You need not apologize.” And then the Bifrost enveloped them.

When they appeared on top of Peter’s building Ikol squawked in his ear, painfully loud. “Since when could he do that?!”

Unable to respond aloud, Loki merely shrugged, feeling dejected.

Stepping away, Peter didn’t look up from staring at his feet. “Thank you, Thor, sir. I promise something like this won’t happen again.”

“No, it won’t.” Which sounded properly threatening to Loki’s ears. “Give my regards to your aunt.” And they were off again in a whirl of color and sound.

Landing hard on concrete, Loki briefly contemplated bolting for safety. But Thor’s hands on his shoulders ruined any such chances. “Loki,” he said, the heaviest condemnation. “Why?”

“I- I just wanted to know if I could,” he lied. “I didn’t hurt anybody. I wouldn’t have.” Which was the truth. Really, at most he’d inconvenienced a handful of Midgardians. It was nothing.

But Thor merely sighed. “Of course not. But… you must think of others.” He kneeled down, leveling their sizes. “Hearing that Loki broke into Stark’s tower brings to mind unhappy memories for the team. Do you understand what I mean?”

Loki nodded, barely meeting Thor’s eye. “I know. It was… foolish.”

“Yes.” A slight smile quirked Thor’s face, offering some hope. “I’m not mad at you. Merely disappointed in your thoughtlessness.” He stood, turning towards the complex. “But you’re grounded. Pack a suitcase.”

Alarmed, Loki stuttered for a response. “Wh- where am I going?” This hadn’t been what he’d expected at all.

Thor looked serious once more. “It’s time for you to connect with our people. Oh, and no phone.”

“What! You can’t do that!” Loki clutched the device close. “I need it!”

“To my knowledge such punishment is the point of grounding, Loki.” Thor’s admonishment, amused as it was, stung. “And you’ll be fine.”

In Loki’s ear, Ikol spoke. “Doubtful. To the misfortune of many, a bored Loki is never bored for long.”