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On Which I Stake My Name

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As a blue-collar magician with a tendency to make trouble with inhuman and human dark forces on an almost daily basis, as well as a man over forty coming to terms with the changes in the lifeblood pumping through old London town with a desire to keep a roof over his own head more often than not, John Constantine knew very well that even the likes of himself had to draw the line somewhere.

Demons troubling your grandmother? Fine. Ghost dog terrorizing yourself and your neighbors? Absolutely. Old magician friend found long-dead in a garbage chute like he'd propelled himself down it of his own accord until suffocating and suffering a horrible slow death in the midst of a bunch of refuse? Hell, the old bugger might be dead, but the mystery sure wasn't. John had taken a crack at it anyway. Living, dead, heavenly, infernal, and outright mythological: these forms of the supernatural were very much his forte.

John drew the line, however, at aliens.

No good ever came from that lunacy and more often than not it was a bunch of fae messing with some gullible drunks and the "probing" they did was--well, a lot more mundane than aliens from other planets or galaxies or whatnot. Either that or bloody superheroes, but in that case their business was with mad scientist super-villains and other heroes, not lowly common magicians who conned people about as often as aided them. They could keep their high moral standards to them-fucking-selves, as far as John was concerned. He'd saved the world a few dozen times by now, and he hadn't needed a jumpsuit in unnaturally bright and garish colors with a ridiculous cape, and a media following, to achieve any of it.

The aliens were worse, in a way, because John sympathized with them a bit; at least their costumes were just their own unearthly formal-wear or battle-gear or whatever. They couldn't help looking ridiculous, but that didn't mean John would willingly get involved in their dramatic messes. He drew the line at aliens, superheroes and other miscellaneous 'caped crusaders' (anyone who willingly accepted 'crusader' in their title tended to rub John's anti-imperialism and anti-religiosity tendencies the wrong way) villainous or otherwise. Let the well-funded heroes of earth from Captain Britain to the menagerie of lunatics in the Americas take care of that nonsense.

What his friend on the phone had, luckily, just sounded more like he'd been pranked by fae. Then again, Jesse knew about fae better than most, so maybe it really was aliens.

And in that case? John was having none of it.

"Listen, Jesse, it's just not my division, this stuff. I don't know shit about the laws of physics except about a million ways to break them, let alone how to track UFOs."

"There's no UFO's, John, for fuck's sake. Look, I sent you an email. Go open it."

With a put-upon sigh, the blond magician hauled himself from his utterly indolent state of repose and shuffled over to the poor excuse for a laptop Chas had given him when, of all things, his daughter had been done with it.

It was an older Mac model, and a bit sluggish, but it ran, and it could access enough of the internet to satisfy what little interest John had in its poorly-organized offerings. People like him tended to know better than to share most of the truer shit in such a fickle medium as the internet. In non-virtual reality, whatever you put out there generally can't come back to bite you more than three times. In virtual reality, where it was all a little more screwy, it could be more like three thousand times, and that was if the first half-dozen times somehow didn't kill you first. After that, god forbid any other mere mortal figure out your administrator password, or they might read a bit too much and wind up picking up where the last user left off.

Magic had trouble, in the virtual world, distinguishing between "caster" and "user" which John had taken advantage of, a few times, all of which had been added to his already-impressive array of recurring nightmares, because he'd had to hear the screaming and see... well, best not revisit that.

"Alright. I found the email. Now what?"

"Click on the attachment."

"Maybe I already have?"

"Just do it, John."

Click-click.

Taking a long, thoughtful drag off his cigarette, John squinted at the complicated design scorched into the grass by unknown means. It was old magic. Older than the last mythical rotters he'd dealt with, even: bloody Merlin and his lot. Old enough to be deeply disconcerting. Not aliens then? He could fucking hope. "This is coming and going with meteorological oddities too, you said? What kind?"

"Lightning storms. Nasty ones, atypical for the area. Strange lights in the clouds. A couple of friends of mine around here came to me, saying they'd had dreams about someone falling forever through fire, but they woke up convinced he was about to land."

Sounded more like myth than aliens, with the addition of the inexplicable viking-looking knot-work design burnt into the earth. That, plus lightning and thunder, made John reluctantly itch with curiosity. This looked so much like something man wasn't supposed to know that he had to pick at the marks it left, like ripping away a scab to see how the wound under it was faring. "Alright. I'll have you know that this is one of few things that have ever dragged me to Wales, mate, let alone that close to Cardiff. If I accidentally wind up an extra in an episode of Doctor Who again, I will make you regret it for the rest of your short life."

"Just come have a look, John, and help me reassure the local sensitives that the apocalypse isn't actually nigh."

 

~~

 

The scorch-mark was mostly worn away and a bit damp by the time Jesse led the consulting magician to it. It was about ten yards from one edge of the (chock-full of delusions of grandeur as the name was) Plymouth Great Wood treeline. Technically it was on private property. Neither magician actually cared.

John knelt and ran a finger over the places the grass had been charred to stumps, in between healthier still-greenish bits. A crackle of power hummed up his arm, making him taste ozone and see an array of neon colors, dimmed like they reflected off the opaque surface of a pearl.

"That's definitely magic. Seems like the remnants of transport, actually." He looked skyward suspiciously. If there turned out to be magic aliens, he'd have to get seriously drunk with one of them and ask a lot of very pointed questions. Then again, he'd always suspected there might be some connection between the faerie courts and something from off-earth, but only when he happened to be on acid, or mushrooms, and dreaming about past lives. "Maybe someone scouting the area."

"Aiming before they fire?" Jesse suggested. He looked younger than John remembered, but more steely. He also had gauged piercing in each earlobe with what looked like very small tusks poked through them, and hair the color of slightly-faded indigo ink that clashed terribly with his ginger eyebrows, but John sort of approved of that, for a man who mostly ran an only-vaguely-occult-leaning bookstore that formerly belonged to his (now contently retired in Yorkshire) parents, as Jesse did.

"All this fire business. You had one of these dreams yourself, then?"

"Dream, no. I was standing around out here, right before that happened the night before last." He nodded at the burnt grass. "I might've been on mushrooms at the time, but I swear they was wearing off. I'd finished my own ceremonial work an everything about thirty yards that way."

He gestured toward the tree-line. "So I wos sore and a bit uncomfortable and nauseous from throwing up half the 'shrooms, because it was honestly a bit bigger spell than I usually do, and I was shaken and a bit too sober, you know? I was thinking about finishing the bag, to be honest, just to make the walk home more bearable when all these lights started overhead and I thought maybe they hadn't worn off after all, so I walked out this way, since the wind seemed to be swirling around this spot. I walked out, and this beam of technicolor light came down here on the grass, right where this mark is now, and there were folks standin' in the light, see?”

Jesse gestured widely with his long, pale and freckled arms and spidery hands as he elaborated, “One was tall and terrifying in a horned helmet and armor with glowing gold eyes, but another was just, like, this old man in a broad hat with a couple of birds on his shoulders: big ol' ravens. There was another man, tall blond and a bit beefcake to be honest, who was arguing with the old bloke. Well, more like arguing *at* him, I suppose. I don't think the stoic old geezer was listening. Then they spotted me and just...”

He shivered for a moment before continuing, “There was light and the flash of some sort of symbol and I woke up on my ass back where I'd been casting earlier, and stumbled out thinking I'd prove to myself nothing happened and I'd thrown things about the interior of my circle all topsy-turvy just due to the ‘shrooms and a bit of post-casting hangover, you know? You do know; I remember you do, I've seen you off your tits the same way. But the point it, instead of finding nothing, I found this and called you, because I dunno how to deal with Norse Gods showing up in the middle of fucking Wales, but you've probably... well, you're the only one I know who's even survived just demons, right?"

John considered mentioning his past experiences with gods too: Aztec and Aboriginal Australian, for a start. He refrained. Best to be underestimated, and therefore set others' expectations of his capabilities firmly on the low end. He disappointed fewer folks that way. "What symbol?"

"It's a Valknut," Jesse said, pulling a folded bit of paper from his pocket, with a trefoil knot drawn on it, and proffering it.

John took it. The younger man was something of an artist as a hobby, and it showed in the detail he'd put into the drawing. There was something in the details around the edges of the knot that made John dizzy the longer he stared at them. He cursed himself when he realized it was a knockout-spell of some sort, so no wonder it made him start fading in and out to look at too long. He tucked the paper into his back pocket. "So, then. Odin, at least, and a couple of others, checked this place out, and stumbled across an innocent but colorful little earthly magician snooping around. Maybe they'll choose another spot for whatever mess they've got planned."

"Well..." Jesse looked nervous. "Look, you'd better come see this. I didn't mention it over the phone because it scares the bejesus out of me just looking at it." He started to lead the other man toward the tree-line.

"What sort of spell were you up to, before I go wandering into one of your circles?"

"I'd lost something important."

"How important?"

"I'd lost my name. It weren't easy getting it back," Jesse said flatly. "Fucking faeries, right?"

John nodded. "You made an ass of yourself and got out of it by the skin of your teeth, you're saying."

"Well, yeah."

"Good. I'm glad you made it," John said, with a bit more sincerity than he meant to actually convey; he'd known too many people who'd met far nastier fates.

"Me too, mate. Me too."

The older mage spent the duration of the walk considering what a lot of old gods might think of a kid like Jesse, of the spells he'd been working and the mushrooms in his system, and what they might be after, or what they might've even been looking for on their visit to fucking Wales of all places, to begin with. He had his suspicions, just based on the Eddas, unreliably post-Chrisianity as those were. (He'd learned a lot about distrusting those sort of resources, after a few incidents around Russia got some mates of his killed before he could even reach them.) That said, if anyone in Norse myth was likely to be banished from up on high, and made to fall through fire for a seeming eternity before crashing hard into the ground in the obscure armpit of the U.K. that was Cardiff? Well, only one name came to mind.

Even given a chance to think a long while about it--not missing a beat when Jesse changed direction abruptly and stepped through a tree (concealment spells were all playing to expectation, and what people expected to see in forests happened to be trees; Jesse was always a bit better at illusions than John was altogether comfortable with; a simple "nothing to see here" bit of suggestion in the air usually worked well enough for his own self without bothering to add a layer of visual distortion too) and into a section of the woods temporarily protected from casual intruders who wouldn't otherwise know any better than to trod straight into an active casting circle--there were few places he could think of more suited than Cardiff for obscurity and inconvenience, except perhaps the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma, over in the states, or... well, northern Scotland, frankly. Maybe Estonia. That didn't mean he liked the idea of being anywhere nearby when the gods either showed back up, or sent one of their most infamous criminals careening down to earth.

Given Loki Lie-smith's reputation as a god of chaos, mischief and lies, John wasn't at all sure he wanted to meet the little shit. All of his best tricks for use on gods and demons relied awful heavily on his ability to exploit their pride, their belief in their own superiority, and their greed. If the myths were true and Loki had really been impregnated by a horse and given birth to the resulting eight-legged foal, and was a con-man in his own right as well, John had a sinking suspicion that such a god wouldn't be so easily tripped up and ripped off as most. John had out-conned many con men in his time. If he managed this one, it'd certainly be another one for the books, but John didn't like the idea. Nothing felt right about it. He preferred to have a better idea of any potential enemy's weaknesses.

The more he thought about it, too, didn't he remember something insane about Thor in New York? Something to do with the invasion fiasco?

Damn. He should've checked the internet for that before he'd even bothered. He began swearing to himself silently, but at great length, for the final, short leg of their walk. People always tried to suggest smartphones for such problems as this. John enjoyed coming up with new suggestions for how they might most efficiently shove that idea up their backsides. He hadn’t given in to cellphones in the first place until the past few years, and that had only been to prevent his own kin and Chas from having him regularly kidnapped whenever they wanted to communicate with him reliably.

Then the older magician saw Jesse's casting site and the previously inexplicable sensations of his stomach doing its best impression of a cement mixer suddenly made a lot more sense.

The circle was unbroken: a sturdy, thick layer of salt under a series of flat stones to help them resist light rain or wind. No, more than that, John realized. Each of the stones had some sigils carved around their edges: good ones too. Jesse was really getting the hang of it, these days. No wonder his mucking about with fae had caught the interest of all-too-powerful potentially-interfering parties.

Everything within the circle seemed to get less light than the surrounding brush, and there was something in the air about it, a desolation and outcry of loss.

"Whatever's got into your circle, it's not looking for a name like you were," John heard himself saying slowly. "No, it's lost something deeper than that, and got its hook in here, somehow, and it's already altered a bit of what traces you left behind. He knows his name, but something else is broken or missing, some anchorage..."

"You alright, John?"

The older magician stepped closer to the circle, looking over the whole site. A Bag of spilled psychedelic mushrooms within the circle had become a faerie ring in a terribly short period of time. The smell of smoke, rot, ozone and something else unnaturally clean in comparison--bloodied ice and metal--filled the air. "I'm alright, but some other poor bugger isn't. When they dropped you back in this circle here, I think one of them made the mistake of saying whoever's name. It's probably still in the air, and that's how he managed to get a grip on your circle; his name looked for him, and when it found him, he held on tight to where it came from." He considered stepping over the circle of salt and stone. It was clearly the worst possible idea. Clearly.

"Would his name burn that there?" Jesse asked, pointing to a make-shift altar made of larger flat stone and a few bits of wood. The wooden back of the little structure had an image charred into it: a male figure, surrounded by flames.

"If he's desperate enough to grasp at straws, like the slightest mention of his name somewhere far away, and the creature doing the reaching happened to be very powerful, then maybe so." He took another small step closer to the circle.

"John--I don't think going in there is a good idea. It's clearly not mine anymore."

"You're right. It isn't." John stepped over the salt and stone, into the circle, and immediately gasped at the sensation of smothering heat and the smell of smoke and roasting skin. There was a sound like a cut-off scream.

"Who are you?" a voice snarled, rough and thin, barely functional, choked out from a very raw throat.

John could feel the breath of that voice on his face, but could see only red-and-black smoke. "I don't think you need to be knowing my name just yet. I've got a feeling I might know who you are already, but the myths are vague at best and probably pretty misleading. Mind making yourself visible like a good host?"

A pained laugh followed. "Myths. Ah, another voice from Midgard, and not my brother's this time."

The magician blinked. "Odin? Or uh..." He searched his memory frantically for a second. "Hellblindi?"

"What?" Now the wrecked god sounded outright incredulous. "No, you fool. Thor."

"Wait, I thought Odin was your blood-brother?"

"Hah! Yes, and you mortals all also tend to keep telling that tired old farce about the horse, as well," sneered the trickster. "Don't remind me of all that dreck. It's bad enough having traces of mind-control from an object of infinite power and the will of a mad demi-god burnt out of my mind by purging fires, without having to be reminded of mankind's ludicrous and slanderous storytelling when it comes to my person. I have never given birth in my life, nor is the Midgard serpent my offspring."

"So Odin is what, to you?"

"A betrayer who has lied to me for almost the entire duration of my very long life as though we were truly flesh and blood and he were my father, which he never was. Who are you?"

"I'm still not telling. Why are you occupying this circle?"

"It is... useful."

"It was meant to find a lost name, but you know your name well enough. What are you looking for?"

"My story. I have lost... a lot of context I had previously assumed to be applicable to me, but it was all for naught, now that I know what I truly am, and that the blood of Odin does not flow through my veins."

"You committed some crimes somewhere along the way, too, I presume?"

"Of course," Loki sighed. "Petty ones. Also an attempt at genocide shortly after committing a combination of patricide and regicide in one fell swoop. Also falling into an abyss. I returned, but was still lightly brainwashed, and now have spent months, by your planet’s calendar, getting the last of Thanos' influence burnt out of my very being. It's been a long few years."

"Your voice is sounding a bit better."

A low, malevolent chuckle. "You haven't noticed it, then."

Distantly, the magician heard his friend calling him, but couldn't turn toward the sound. He wondered if he even looked like he was moving, or if any of his words were audible, from outside the circle. "You've made me a locus to fixate on. Fuck."

"You stepped into my circle wearing easily detected identification, John Constantine, and your talents, the power of your name and your, hmm, impressive reputation have their merits."

The magician winced. He'd known stepping into the circle was a bad idea. He had done it anyway, because how could he resist poking into the business of the likes of Loki, god of chaos and lies. To be fair: chaos and lies were his bread and butter, his best games, and his constant companions––whether he liked it or not.

Flick this suggestion of an old viking god across the nose, I thought. It’ll be fun, I thought. Clearly this is all a lot of bullshit and a bunch of renegade Nazis are about to show up and declare this to all be part of an evil plot to bleach heaven, or something ridiculous. No way this is really that Loki, right? Right? So he’d thought. I mean, what are the odds of them coming to fucking Cardiff? Right?

“I swear, if I’ve wandered onto a Doctor Who set one more time, I’ll-”

The god cut him off with a pointed throat-clearing, which was absurd because it sounded somewhere right between disapproving Liverpudlian primary school teacher, and psychotic super-villain. Before the fair-haired mortal magician could inquire about that, Loki observed, "You are precisely the sort of creature suitable to act as a focal conduit, to a god like myself. Much better than the younger little mage. A little more gifted though he is, you are far more ideal."

"Why is that?" Not like John didn't have a suspicion or several, all of them tinged with bitter chagrin and a bit of self-resentment.

"You are a liar and a killer and a cheat, of course. You don't murder many yourself, but you lead them to their own ends, in your ways. You are a trickster, and an infamous one. I can see every trick you've ever played, every monster you've slain, every betrayal you've committed against friends and foes alike, and every speck of blood on your hands. I can even sense something a bit other than human in your blood! How very novel."

"Knock it off, Lie-smith."

"Lie-smith," the trickster mused. Two deep green points of light glowed through the smoke for a few moments. "Oh, yes, I’ve missed the old names."

"Oh have you? I'm full of useless information like that. I'm a walking occult library, let me tell you, Scar-lip. Silver-tongue. Father of Fenris-wolf, thief of giants, maker of mischief, the cunning Ás, thief of Brising's girdle-" That one earned him a chuckle. "-father of Helheim's queen, Sky-walker, Accuser and Tricker of the gods. Does that about cover it? I’d rather not actually grovel, you see, because I would have a potentially lethal allergic reaction to my own humility. You well-greeted, now, and maybe less sour?"

A low, long hiss from the god followed, sounding pained and relieved at the same time. "Oh, that was clever of you, however unintentional.” There was the sound of metal straining and creaking, as Loki sighed into a stretch that made his muscles burn and long-stiff joints protest. The magician caught a glimpse of a cracked-and-shattered half-smile on the lower half of Loki’s face, through the smoke. Then everything went black entirely: no color, no sense of his own body either. John tried to gulp, but couldn’t figure out where his throat had gone. Paralysis, or had he been dematerialized yet again?

When the lights came back on, along with the rest of his senses, the smoke was thicker again, and Loki’s voice was louder, for all that it sounded somehow bloodier, as he said thoughtfully, “You meant to flatter me, but you have done quite something else..." Hidden by the smoke, thin lips caressed the shape of the words 'maker of mischief' and 'Accuser of the gods' as though savoring the flavor of them. Then he let his head tip back and laughed, a little, through audible pain. “O, how much I’d forgotten.”

John hesitated, recalling the nature of the circle he stood in, and Loki's purpose in maintaining even such a tenuous hold on it. "Reliving the good old days now, are you?"

"No... no, I am realizing that they were never good enough, nor was I, when judged by those biased too heavily against my own nature, given precisely who and what I am. I have been... far too tame. I have assumed myself Aesir, all this time, and restrained so many of my impulses and held myself back out of respect for virtues never meant for me. The very best of myself, the most unusual qualities, those which make me myself, and make the name of Loki worth remembering and fearing, are not Aesir qualities. I am as I have always been... only now more so."

The ground quivered underfoot.

"Thank you, John Constantine. I would return to you a gift you once thought was not yours, but I do believe it suits you better, for being thus earned, rather than inborn with presumptuous expectations..."

The magician felt a prickle of something that stung and itched, up along his spine. "What gift?"

"I suspect you've missed the rhythms of synchronicity. I think you will find it all the better, being able to choose and steer your own path through it."

Then the smoke cleared.

"-ohn!"

The blond magician turned, seeing Jesse look pale and worried. "I suspect only a few seconds just passed?"

"Yeah, you just went sort of still and pale. I was fucking worried, John. What the hell did you do that for?"

"Well..." John flexed his fingers, feeling a tingle of something--there wasn't as much of it out here, far from the denser populations of cities and towns where synchronicity flooded the air with a tangle of lives all hopelessly tangled together, but he could still feel a whisper of it again. He really had missed it: the ties to the rhythm of all the world, great and small, which sung to him softly, and led him perhaps not where he had intended to go, but always to right where he needed to be. It wasn’t so clear as before, but perhaps that was the added complication of being the one holding the reins this time; he had to pick his own melodies to follow, and learn how to use this part of himself all over again. More than his own pride would ever let him really admit before, he had longed to have this back. "I don't regret it." He looked at the altar: the humanoid figure amongst the flames had vanished, and the painted fires themselves looked... faded, somehow. John wasn't at all certain that would actually qualify as a good sign, but it made it clear that the circle was no longer Loki's. He reached out with a foot and kicked over one of the stones, and broke the salt ring beneath too, just in case.

"What did you do?"

"Oh. I just called Loki a bunch of names and he decided he didn't want to owe me a debt over it, and now here I am."

"You are absolutely stark raving mad, aren't you?"

"Usually, yeah. Let's head to pub, shall we? I need a drink, after that."

 

~~

 

Loki was dragged before the throne in chains again, but this time much more cheerfully.

So he hadn't anticipated Odin breaking out of his forced rest soon enough to reclaim his throne. So he hadn't even realized there were still slivers of Thanos' purposes, wrapped in bits of reality distortion playing off the trickster's own paranoia and more greedy impulses, leftover from dealings with Thanos until Odin traced his reasoning for sending the Aether away back to them.

So he wasn't ungrateful to have those shards gone at last, and perhaps the almost-hope in Thor's otherwise stern expression wasn't actually as unwelcome as Loki might seem to outwardly regard it.

That didn't mean he had to behave for any of these traitorous Aesir lunatics, and as such he beamed at them gleefully, as though he were in on the greatest joke in all the realms, and they were all playing into it perfectly.

Predictably, all of the court seemed to frown at him almost in unison.

"Well, I feel quite refreshed," Loki announced. "It's very good to have one's mind to oneself, after rather too long staring through a sort of bluish haze."

"Do you claim that your actions before now, during the times you committed the crimes to be leveled against you, have not been your own, since your return to Yggdrasil after your fall?" boomed the All-Father, genuinely curious.

Loki gave it a bit of thought, clearly weighing the option of lies versus truth without favoring one or the other, or feeling anything like a scrap of actual guilt. "Nnno, not really. I was no more inhibited than a drunkard, or someone on the edges of a Berzerker rage just before its tipping point. I was mad, but I was also still myself, and my decisions, while weighted in favor of matters which might please Thanos--particularly the relocation of the Aether, which I do believe crossed a line, as I can't fathom how I ever found that idea sane in the first place, as of now--were not actions I might not have done otherwise, though I was a bit more resistant to being brought back to reason than I would've been without interference from Thanos, but I do not plea to be held unaccountable for my failures; not when the courts of Asgard have very clearly set precedents, in other cases of persons about as inhibited as myself, and found them still guilty... save for one small factor, which has never been brought before such a court, for none have dared break one particular, interesting little law concerning mages and adoption." He raised his index finger casually, as though the gesture didn't also require him to lift a lot of chains, and his opposite hand too, to achieve.

"What factor is that?" Odin asked, eyes narrowing with suspicion.

"In the oldest laws writ down by your father when Asgard was first formed, it is specified that should any child raised by citizens of Asgard, and prove to have strong gifts for mage-craft, they should be aware of their origins, for the safety of all,” Loki said. “It is not in any books in this room, but think back, Odin All-Father,” Loki said coldly. “You know I speak truth in this, and that law was carved in stone long before your own birth.”

“It is,” the All-Father said. “Its punishment was left to be determined by the rightful king of Asgard.”

“Which I was,” Loki countered, sly and fierce. “I am a mage, and you shattered the foundation of my identity. No mage as powerful as I has been so betrayed as that," He declared coldly. "In the time between discovering my true heritage as no son of Odin, and my fall from the rainbow bridge, I was very much not in control of myself, my actions, or even my magic, fully. My fall through the abyss was all the worse for that, and left my mind open enough for those slivers of influence from Thanos, now freshly removed, to be embedded in the first place. I almost believe Frigga must have known that my actions, more even than Thor’s, would be the key to unlocking your long-lost humility and belief in your own fallibility, Son of Bor, for you have never been more wrong in your entire life than every moment you have spent judging my worth.”

A susurration of confusion and anger hummed through the crowd. It took the trickster a few moments to discern what particular details so enthused them. When he did, he could not help but grin all the wider.

Oh, Loki realized. No one told them.

All of the royal family before him looked uncomfortable, and the trickster's mirth only increased. "Oh, how fine this is! Do I get to tell all of them my own self?"

"Loki," Thor warned. "Please."

"Would it ruin what little good-feeling they might have towards me, for the knowledge that I killed Laufey myself, if they happened to be told that I'm his bastard son raised as Aesir, never told the truth until all that I had built of myself as a mage had solidified around the narrative that I was your son, Odin All-Father, and brother to Thor by blood? I had accepted long ago that I must be something of an anomaly amongst my kin, a shadow in comparison to so much damned light, but I still knew in my heart that I belonged to Asgard," Loki continued, the throne room silent as held breaths around him suddenly. "I suppose that it might. Or they might come to doubt the wisdom of their king, for his ever pursuing such a foolish plan as bringing a creature such as myself into your home and then lying to me for the entire duration of my stay, expecting me to never find out. For any grander schemes you might’ve had for me in relation to peace with Jotunnheim: I would never have been suitable as a diplomatic liaison to Laufey, not with how I was raised, and educated, in Asgard by Aesir teachers including yourself; and especially not given all that I have learned over the centuries about the people that monstrosity Laufey and his father laid waste to, when they froze Jotunnheim. For you to claim that you ever clung to that dream is to admit yourself a fool, Odin All-Father. At least Frigga had the decency to love me selfishly, instead of regarding me solely with pity and condescension as you always have."

The court at his back was growing louder now, full of questions and increasing anger. Loki always did know how to work a crowd.

Well. He knew how to work them into a mob and aim them at other people. Usually Thor, but for now this would do.

"Enough!" Odin bellowed.

All fell silent.

Loki remained smiling, but it did not quite reach his eyes.

"Your words are not without truth, Loki," Odin said. "I have served you ill, as a father. There are many lessons, it has become clear to me now, that neither you nor your brother ever truly learned."

The trickster's eyes narrowed, his smile fading into a sneer of hostility and suspicion. He waited, as Odin strode down from his throne to stand only a few steps before him. The younger trickster looked into the face of the god-king he had once idolized, and felt only bitter contempt. He had no love left to waste on a fool who had done more damage to the mind and soul of Loki than anyone save Frigga could probably even have fathomed, had she been alive and present. "I no longer trust your guidance, nor your lessons. Your wisdom is tainted by prejudice, old fears, and a suspicion that I cannot be controlled by you to a degree that you will ever be comfortable with, for I was never yours, and never will I be your pawn again."

Odin's expression darkened. "You speak as though you are the one in control of your life, Loki."

"I am in control of all that escapes you. That includes myself; it has before, and it will again. You do not truly known me and it is true that you never have, and never will, just as you never truly understood Jotunns themselves. You would have rather dealt in peace with Laufey than liberate his world from the ice, and you do not think that criminal?"

"What point would there be?" the All-Father snapped. "All that is beneath the ice is dead."

"Knowledge never dies. Ideas never die. Stories never die," Loki corrected. "Whole civilizations, whole cities and small nations frozen over, and you do not think there is anything to save? Do you recall nothing of the power of the old giants, or are you merely fearful of their potential, as you are of my own?"

"Your potential requires more temperance before it can be trusted. You have been broken, but never humbled by any other than your own kin. You question my lack of action against the ice of Jotunnheim, and yet you carelessly destroyed a few hundred mortal lives when you wreaked havoc upon Midgard: lives briefer than ours, and thus rarer, for how fleeting they are, in all the nine," Odin chastised.

"You stare down upon Midgard from up here in your great city, and watch thousands, if not millions of them, kill one another every single day, for the pettiest reasons, and the most tragically beautiful alike," Loki countered. "Count for yourself how many died the day before my arrival, compared to every day I was upon earth, and the following weeks after my presence, and you may notice a rather different pattern. Before my actions, they thought themselves alone in the universe, and they had no one to fight but one another. I killed many. I wreaked havoc, and did a bit of damage around and in a few cities of Midgard. The deaths of innocents therein? The fault for that lies with me, but I spared every child I could from the worst of it. The ends I have achieved do not justify the distasteful means I used, but you cannot say that the earth is not a little less self-destructive, now that the people occupying it know for certain that their neighbors on the ground are less a threat to them than some that might watch from the stars overhead. You abandoned them long ago, All-Father. I have brought them back into the nine realms. Do you fear their potential too?" He crowed a laugh, when this resulted in being backhanded, and continued to laugh, despite the stricken look on Thor's face when the trickster straightened himself back up, grinning with a little smear of blood across his very white teeth. 

The crowd at his back reacted, but their whispers were frightened: of Loki, or of Odin, it was difficult to discern.

"You hardly had such benign intentions at the time," Odin spat.

"What do intentions matter in the eyes of the law? I would not be spared anything at all just for better intentions. No, it matters not what I intended; it matters what the results were, the pain and grief and horror suffered because of the things I have done. Is that not true? Is that not the letter of the law when loss of life is taken into account?” he sneered. “It is the scars that matter, both those which leave behind visible marks, and those subtler traumas psychological. That said, truly, I must ask: what were your intentions, as you raised me, Odin Borsson? Would you forgive yourself the harm you’ve done, for how well-intended your actions and decisions have been all this time? Are you proud of the results?" Another blow from the back of the All-Father’s hand followed; it was almost enough to rock the younger trickster back on his heels. Again, Loki laughed, audibly sucking blood to pool at the back of his throat before swallowing it down and straightening up again to meet his adoptive father’s stare with his wild cat-green eyes. "If ever brute force were enough to temper my malice, do you not think that having Thor as my elder sibling might have made a meeker monster of me?" He snapped, teeth now redder still, and his voice made rough and wet with the blood.

Odin hesitated and the whole room was silent except for the younger trickster's malevolent sniggering.

Loki ran his tongue across his teeth visibly and swallowed a bit of the excess red once more before speaking further. "You believe I do not value mortal lives highly enough, you say.” He rolled his eyes, and managed to put his entire body into the movement. “It is obvious you have some punishment designed to ‘educate’ me to that end. If you still so dare to try, I recommend that you state the conditions of my sentence, and I will escape by thinking of something you never could," he whispered. "You watch, and you learn, All-Father. I will teach you lessons of my own."

The All-Father's eyes narrowed further, but he took a half-step back and announced, "For your crimes, you will be rendered mortal. Not all of your powers can be bound, but your magic will be weaker than an amateur mortal’s, and to even attempt greater magics beyond the mere manipulation light will, after a mere hour, render you unconscious due to pain. Manipulation of matter, should you attempt more than the smallest exertion of force, might stop your heart. You will be bound in this manner, until you truly learn the loss of every mortal life you have ended since your fall, and in doing so come to understand the true potential of humanity."

The fallen prince grimaced a little. "How melodramatic."

"I will trust your expertise in that matter," Odin deadpanned in response, and struck the floor of the courtroom with the butt of his spear.

Then Loki felt only pain and saw only darkness, until again there was fire.

 

~~

 

This time the fire was briefer, but more terrifying in its own way; it was his immortality being stripped while he was hurled through the earth's atmosphere, after all.

Pulling at his magic for aid was reflex, but it made his very bones ache with searing agony until the moment he stopped.

Then he focused not on magic, but on his own bones and muscles and blood, and found them much more willing to obey him, even now. He curled into himself and focused on a form that could withstand the heat, but shifting into anything with more than his current mass sent such pain through his every nerve that he nearly passed out. The same went for anything with too little mass.

Loki fell, and fell, and finally managed to conceptualize a version of his preferred dragon-shape much smaller and lighter than he had previously attempted to use.

As with any too-new form, his limbs were clumsy, and he barely managed to slow his descent and control his spin enough that crashing to the ground didn't shatter any of his bones even as he skidded along the wet earth and grass. Finally, his claws sunk in, and he halted.

Everything hurt.

Perhaps provoking Odin to quite that extent had been a little over-the-top, but damned if the gallows-god geezer hadn't deserved it.

Loki could hear shouting, and realized his landing had apparently not been very low-profile. Depending on where he had landed, his face might very well be known. He would have to borrow a different one. One that Midgardians would feel more protective of than suspicious.

He considered what the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow had taught him about that, and with an effort, forced bones and skin to obedience with more effort than it ever required with magic flowing more freely through his veins than it did presently.

"Oh my god, I think it hit someone!"

You may be right, Jesse. Where did the fucking thing even go? It had wings like a fucking eagle!

Bigger than that.

Bat-wings, John! It had to be a demon, you know it.

Shut it, Chas.”

Oh, god, it did hit someone, look, she’s scuffed up and a bit bloody, we have to help.

Chas, what the fuck are you doing? Keep back, you daft bastard! You dunno if she’s even hu-

John!” shouted a third voice, followed by some warning the trickster couldn’t make out, at a distance.

Loki peered up through all of the hair hanging in her face, green eyes only a little dazed. Sitting up was an effort. Maintaining the illusion of clothing was also quite taxing and would require genuine replacement very soon. "What... what happened?" the trickster groaned, sounding small and confused as she could manage.

“Maybe she really is hurt,” said the third voice.

"Don't, Jesse," warned the more suspicious of the trio.

"Miss, are you alright? Did you see anything?" said the voice the trickster could already identify as belonging to a human male named Chas.

"I heard something, like a scream, and then I turned to look," Loki lied, pushing hair away from her face and focusing with an effort on the hand being proffered to her. Gratefully, she took hold, and let the man pull her to her feet gingerly. She didn't have to feign the dizzied swaying, and suspected a mild concussion might be to blame. Running a hand through her hair and wincing when her fingers brushed a sore spot, slightly wet with blood, rather confirmed it, and she emitted a pained noise, knees almost giving out as black spots danced across her vision.

The man who aided her in regaining uprightness was joined by another on her other side. He wasn’t touching her, but instead just kept looking at her a bit shrewdly through a thin, crooked trail of tobacco smoke.

"I get the feeling you need a bit of a hand," the second man said, and Loki suddenly recognized that voice.

"John!" Chas snapped. He was burly, with a very mean face, but gentle hands, one of which bore a wedding band. His touch was genuinely helpful, not intrusive or expectant: just worried. "Just don't. You can see she's hurt, and probably concussed."

"Easy, Chas, I’m not even interested like that, but uh, let’s say that I see a great deal, yeah," the magician countered, smiling kindly despite his slightly flirtatious tone.

Loki leveled a fierce green glare at him, then, able to discern suddenly that he wasn’t fooled by the illusory clothes she wore. "Then get me proper clothing, or are you not a even that much of a facsimile of a gentleman these days, John Constantine? I can't maintain the illusion for long, and it's bad enough with just you and the younger magician over there staring."

The cigarette at the corner of John's mouth fell to the ground and went out in the mud. His mouth continued to hang open for a second.

The first man, who was a little burlier, with dark hair and eyes, looked both confused, and somehow unsurprised. "You a demon or something?"

"No, Chas," Jesse said quickly. "I don't know what she is. John?"

The older magician considered carefully. He then huffed in resignation, shrugged out of his trench-coat and proffered it to the lady.

Loki nodded her thanks and slipped bruised arms into its sleeves before pulling the front shut, wrapping the whole thing around herself thoroughly as possible, and belting it tight, not bothering with the buttons. She exhaled exhaustedly when the illusion-spells dropped, and managed to straighten up and dust herself off, and Chas a bit too, almost graciously. "Thank you both."

John was frowning at her. "You know me."

"I do," she agreed.

He stared a bit longer, then snorted. "Oh, it’s you.” First he winced, then he frowned, and finally he just raised an eyebrow pointedly and settled back in to his default unimpressed mask. “I’m pretty certain that you weren't a woman last time."

"How would you know? You hardly saw me."

"Except the eyes. They were glowing, but I remember them. They lit up your face a bit, too. I see through the illusions and glowing sorts of things. Experience."

"So it would seem."

"But uh... she’s not a demon?" Chas repeated. "We're sure?"

"That would depend on how Christian you are, or how viking," Loki teased.

"Don't, you'll give the old man an aneurism," John muttered. "What are you doing here, anyway, Lo?"

She glared at him. "'Lo?'"

"You got another appellation equally inconspicuous?"

Lips forming a thoughtful moue for a moment, Loki shrugged. "What could it possibly be short for, though?"

John shrugged. "Dolores or Lola, mostly."

"Lyra," she said. "Lyra Walker."

"You gonna tell me your mom was a hippie and gave you the middle name 'Sky' while you're at it?" the magician mocked.

"You two known each other long?" Jesse sighed, sounding increasingly world-weary.

"We met once, in a dark corner of the woods," Loki responded, low and salacious. “Sorry if I made a mess of your place, young Jesse.” She fluttered her eyelashes for emphasis, enjoying the sudden dawning terror in the younger magician’s eyes as realization struck.

“Shape-shifter,” Jesse muttered. “Right.”

Chas made a face, which John ignored, in favor of cutting in: "Actually, I'm terrified she'll rip my face off any second, to be honest. I was afraid of worse before that, but it seems like you got knocked down a few notches, Lyra. Finally time for the torture to end and the lesson-learning to begin or something? I hate paternalistic gods that way. Fuck 'em. What's your heroic quest, then?"

Loki made a disgusted noise. "I truly never would. I now feel nauseated. I should smite you for that alone."

"How would you smite me, exactly? I'm curious," John remarked.

Wrapping a hand sweetly around his throat, the trickster focused on dragon-shape and illusion both, so that the human without magic wouldn't see the long curved claws or the scales crawling up her wrist to her forearm, as she let John feel inhuman strength squeeze his windpipe just so. "Not your face would be torn. I rather would prefer to watch your expression as I cut through each and every little fiber of muscle and sinew right below it."

John tried and failed to swallow. It looked very uncomfortable. "Point taken, but I did just do you another small favor, more of a bit of generosity at least worth sparing my throat for a bit maybe, and you look like you need all the help you can get,” he rasped.

Loki let go. "You asked, and therefore I answered you. I did you no real harm." She looked at the younger magician, then, as spells and shape-shifting both retreated.

Jesse stared, and slowly raised both hands, palms-forward. "I'm out. Lovely to meet you, but my husband is waiting up for me, and I was already late before being interrupted by your, hmm, meteoric arrival. Bye!" He turned and strode off.

"Thanks, Jess, you're a real pal," John called after him.

"Get her out of Wales, please. I've got enough problems with those lunatics over the Rift in town."

"Wait, what?" Chas sounded alarmed, but a bit excited.

"He's deliberately screwing with you; this isn't an episode of Doctor Who, Chas, get it together. You." The magician jabbed a finger at the god wrapped up in his trench-coat, looking up at him with an innocent expression that was actually really distracting, with her lower lip looking like... Well. "Is there a reason you decided on this form? I have to ask."

"I used to wear it all the time to get out of trouble in other realms, and to make my brother's traveling companions uncomfortable," Loki countered, smiling sinfully. "Do you not like it?"

John cleared his throat. "It's hard to remember you're a lunatic god of chaos, is all."

"Good. I would hate anyone to recognize me from global headlines concerning the incident in New York last year."

The magician's hands came up, both palms against his face, muffling his words as he swore at length. He'd thought about that. He knew he should've looked it up earlier. His hands fell away and he snapped, "I draw the line at fucking aliens, alright?"

"Oh you poor foolish soul," Loki crooned, cupping his cheek in one hand and looking almost apologetic. "You have so much to learn."

"No. You're on your own. I'm through here. Done with this." He turned and went as though to march away.

"Your wallet is in this coat," she reminded. "As are your cigarettes."

Chas chuckled at the way his old friend froze in place and fumed silently for several seconds before pivoting on his heel and marching back over.

"You need clothes," he sighed.

"Yes," Loki said.

"And probably a place to sleep."

"Without your libido anywhere near it, for the record. My apologies, but I have an aversion to blue eyes and blond hair; they remind me far too much of my brother."

"That's probably the only time I'll ever be compared to a thunder god, but that's fine. I know crazy, and I do not need your style of crazy involved with me sexually. I doubt I'd survive you."

Loki grinned at him, pleased and flattered. "Ah, you're learning quickly. Very good."

"You're lucky I was nearby when you fucking landed and you know it, you tosser," John grumbled.

It took a moment for the trickster to come up with a response for that, because All-Speak had communicated the literal meaning of that casual insult, as well as the casualness with which it was meant, and she was deeply amused by both. "I have no intention of doing that while in your company."

John choked.

Chas's eyes widened. "What?"

Loki petted his arm. "Nothing to worry about." She looked at him a bit more closely then, and began to smirk. "Ah, you're the one with the cab. His best and most loyal friend, I believe."

"What?" The magician sounded a little alarmed.

Leaning a bit closer to the blond, Loki chuckled softly. "I meant it, when I said I could see every. Single. Betrayal," she whispered near John's ear. "Now keeping that in mind along with just how very resourceful I am, and you can appreciate just how lucky you are that you found me, and offered to aid me, rather than myself being left to my own devices with all of my most valuable resources to exploit for profit, in all this mortal world, being your secrets, because oh, how many of them have such value." She patted his cheek only a little patronizingly as she pulled away. "I'm glad, personally. I think we can get along very well; also, you're a fine trickster yourself, and I do so hate to punish one of my own." She then turned on her heel, bringing the men's attention to the fact she was barefoot as well, and proceeded to saunter off toward the well-lit pub parking lot a dozen yards away, and Chas's cab where it awaited them under one of the lamps.

"What've you gotten into this time, John?" the cabbie asked, a little unnerved.

"I have no fucking clue, but I've a feeling I won't enjoy it," the blond sighed, reaching absently for his cigarettes only to recall they were still in his coat. He swore and started after the mad god.

Chas shook his head, and followed them both at a slightly slower pace. After all, it couldn't be that bad, right? As long as it wasn't demons again. ... Right?