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How We Used to Be

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A few weeks before the Convergence:

It depressed Loki how Jorun's new office decorations revealed his dreadful lack of understanding of current Asgardian court style. The only redeeming feature was the Vanir style picture window that was nearly identical to the one that Jorun gave Loki for his name day several years ago. It always seemed to be stuck on a view of Vanheim which Loki assumed was Jorun's home region.

Loki often found himself wondering how he'd go about convincing Jorun to hire a decorator. Loki knew at least a dozen interior decorators which he had utilized when he had assisted Frigga in redecorating the palace every other century or so.

He also found himself contemplating how much trouble he'd be in if burnt Jorun's decorations in an elaborate ceremony to help ward against the spirits of dull decor.
Loki might be the most bored he'd ever been in his entire life. This included the time he had sat through a trade discussion on cabbages that lasted a week.
But even with the ugly decor, traveling to Jorun's office was better than having sessions in Loki's room again. Just walking from one wing to another helped Loki feel like he was going to these sessions voluntarily rather than being forced into them by his jail sentence.

"How are you doing today?" Jorun officially began the session.

"I'm almost used to being a prisoner in my own home." Loki found himself saying. He probably should have started out with some version of fine instead and made the newly promoted Mind Healer at least work for it a little.

"What has happened to make this issue the forefront of your mind?"

"Does it have to be a reason? Can I not just feel bitter about my lot?" Loki said. "I'm bored to death doing nothing but sleeping, reading and talking about my feelings. And whenever I make a comment or a suggestion that no one likes everyone goes let's avoid the mad prince until he's sane."

"Who has been avoiding you?"

"Everyone."

"Is there anyone in particular?"

"No." Loki lightly dug his finger nails into the arms of the chair. It was best just to get it out there. "I am not upset about Thor avoiding me. I'm glad he's gone because he is an overbearing idiot who does not deserve what he has. Whenever mother does guilt him into visiting its all my fault that he has to be off fighting and can not go to Midgard to see his 'One True Love'. It's not like just a few years ago he wanted to start an inter-realm war and he only ever met that mortal because of his banishment."

"Do you think you deserve praise for what you did?"

Loki looked away. Thinking had been so much easier now without the overwhelming dread that everyone was going to betray him. It also left a lot more room for non-survival based emotions like remorse. Loki shoved the heavy feeling away. He had been right about Thor not being ready for the throne. He had the legal right to attack Jotunheim. His attack on Midgard was minor in comparison to the inevitable war with the Mad Titan. He was not that bad. He could quickly list any number of people that were worse than him--Thanos, Rohan, that one Midgardian guy from the war that Captain America had fought, King Bor...
Loki really was not evil.

And he probably was not a monster.

Probably.

"No." Loki said reluctantly. "But I can not repair our relationship if he refuses to talk with me."

"Perhaps you should give him more time." Jorun suggested.

"Last week you said that I should start rebuilding my relationships! How can I do that and give him more time?"

"I was not referring to your relationship with Thor."

"Frigga and I are getting along well." Loki omitted mentioning his relationship with Odin. The wily bastard was still annoyingly inconsistent in his expectations and affections. Some of the All-father's visits were caring and hopeful while others he were angry and disappointed. But despite the epic shouting matches that usually ended up with Loki being isolated or being sedated, Loki was actually cautiously optimistic there was a chance that they could both be constantly civil to each other.

Eventually.

At the very least, Odin visited more often now than before. They had taken to playing Hnefatafl, a tradition abandoned sometime in Loki's early adolescence. It was a reminder of the good days, back when Loki has happy.

It was also the start of some of the more spectacular fights.

Odin cheats.

Loki wonders if Thor knows that the faultless All-father cheats at Hnefatafl.

He would ask if only Thor would come to visit.

There was something wrong about a universe where Loki talked more to Odin than to Thor.

"I made that comment in reference to the letter you received from Hoder. I was hoping you would re-cultivate relationships with others outside your immediate family circle." Jorun said for once not commenting on the lack of reference to Odin--the ultimate beginning of most of Loki's woes. Except that whole being born bit. That was Laufey's fault.

"And I said that I am not going to read it!" Loki growled. "Seventy years is far too late for a letter of reply."

"Perhaps..."

"No!" Loki stood up. "Where were they when I needed them? If they had been here--"

Loki paused. The room lapsed into silence. Loki returned to his seat.

"What would they have been able to do had they been present?"

"They would have been able to stop me." Loki said. "Balder would have gotten Odin to listen to me. Hoder he would have noticed something was wrong with me. Everything was easier when they were still here."

"How many years ago did they leave for Alfheim?"

"Nearly two hundred years." Loki said. "They have not visited since."

"Did you not live with them when you went to study at the Trädrötterna?"

"Scarcely a year I studied there!" Loki said. He felt the old pain return. It was the same pain that came when he thought of some of his lovers. Regret for opportunities lost and paths not taken. Loki had wanted to be a scholar once. Frigga had helped him gain entrance to study at the Trädröttern with his half-broth...

Balder and Hoder were not his brothers. Thor was not his brother. His real brother was large and blue with red eyes that still made Loki shutter. He tried so hard not to hate his Jotun skin. Angroboda made him sit in that skin and learn about Jotunheim. Facts about a culture that made no sense. Such a primitive world with backward beliefs.
Together they worked on his ice sculpting. Loki wished he could find it beautiful as Frigga claimed it was. She was probably just being polite. Mothers did that a lot. Finding beauty in the most crude products of their children.

And that was why Loki had not opened the letter from Hoder. Loki had lost so much recently. His place in society, his reputation, the love of his closest brother--but to lose all three of his brothers because of that disgusting blue skin that somehow had been under his real (fake?) skin all of this time.

How could he not have known? Shouldn't he have felt that cold in his blood? The second layer of skin just there under the first? Surely he should have known. Everyone else seemed to understand it instinctively. That was why Loki had never fit in. Everyone had somehow just known that Loki was wrong on a base level.

All of those comments over and over again from his childhood made sense. Loki did not look like his family--not family--because he was lying to everyone. His false skin was lying.

"Loki." Jorun said sharply.

Loki returned from his thoughts. He looked down at his forearms. Long red scratches and some bright red blood. There was no blue. Even his blood lied.

Jorun fetched a first aid kit, but merely watched as Loki treated his own minor wounds. Loki had tried to tell Jorun that the wounds didn't matter and it would heal swiftly anyway. Jorun in return made a valid point that it was a bad idea to have a prince emerge from Jorun's office with blood anywhere on him. There was no telling what the guard would assume had happened.

And it was never a good thing to stain someone else's furniture. Blood of any color was a trial to any sort of cleaner on any sort of substance.

Blood tended to linger.

And stain.

Even when one could not see it any more.

...

A few days before the Convergence

Jane lay in the soulforge marveling at the quantum projection of her internal system. The healers, most of whom she had not been introduced to, analyzed her readings with a thoughtful air. It was a beautiful thing to see things that only existed in theory being used in a such a normal manner. Here in Asgard were the proofs of every theory and concept that she had ever studied. It was a true advanced alien civilization, and Jane was the first to be able to explore it.

Asgard was perfect, far better than she had imagined. Jane would never admit it aloud--not even to Darcy--but here in Asgard Jane felt like a Disney princess. Thor was the perfect Prince Charming. Asgard was the perfect magical kingdom--by not actually magical at all but based on solid scientific principles that Jane hoped to bring back to Earth. Imagine the scientific papers that she could write based on this soulforge alone.

If only she didn't have the weird red liquid/energy in her body everything would be wonderful.

"So why have you brought your mortal here? Father and Sif cannot be overly excited at her presence." An familiar voice slid in to her reverie reminding Jane of news reports and recordings from Germany. Jane sat up, disrupting the soulforge.

There was Loki.

Alive.

Not imprisoned.

Here.

"Jane is here because there is something wrong with her." Thor said. "What business brings you here?"

Loki lifted his cup and then took a sip of whatever drink it was. "I was merely out for my daily constitutional to see the lovely familiar sight of the healing room when I heard such fascinating rumors of a mortal visiting the crown prince. The rumors of an impending engagement are most exciting, and I was hoping to catch a glimpse of my not-brother's possibly-betrothed. A human All-mother--I would suggest you start planning the wedding and the funeral together. It is likely that right flowers can be used for both."

"Loki." Thor growled.

"Just commenting on her short lifespan, nothing more. Does she know that she probably wouldn't survive the betrothal period? Humans are terribly short lived aren't they?"

"Why isn't he dead?" Jane said getting to her feet. She ignored the protests of the healers. She got angrier with each step she got towards the Asgardian monster. "Or in prison or something? How is he being punished for what he did to New York. To Selvig? To you? He is a monster and you just let him wander around? That is for New York!"

Jane's slap across Loki's face was countered by the look of outrage on the healers' faces.

"Please control your guests, your highness!" An older healer which seemed to be in charge said. "Loki, please do not bait the mortal. She is ill, and mortals are fragile. Where is Healer Jorun?"

"He was called away to help treat a concussion." Loki took another drink. Jane was annoyed that Loki had not spilled it.

"Angroboda then..."

"On Jotunnheim. I believe that her and Býleistr are attempting to get each other pregnant or some such reasoning"

"Wait for Jorun elsewhere."

"I've changed my mind, Thor. I like her." Loki smirked as he slithered out of the room. The woman in control of the healers turned to Jane with a scowl.

"You, mortal, are here at the request of the prince, and by the value of our oaths are you treated. It is not your place to question the ruling of the All-father nor verbally insult our patient."

"Patient?" Jane scowled. "Thor. What is going on with your brother?"

"He is ill in his mind." Thor almost muttered.

"Of course he's off his rocker! He's a psychopath!" Jane thought for a moment. "Wait, wait--you found him innocent by reason of insanity?"

"Not innocent." Thor said. "But there were reasons most valid--"

"He killed a lot of people. He's a murderer, Thor. He can't go unpunished just because your dad is the king. That's not fair and unjust and--"

"Please calm yourself--" A healer placed a gentle hand on her shoulder--only to be flung several yards away with a burst of red energy. The healers stared at the mortal, frozen for but a fraction of a second, before rushing to the aid of their comrade.

"We need Loki." Thor said. He gestured at a guard.

"I don't want his help."

"He is one of the learned persons in the palace aside from my father--"

"I don't trust him."

"I will defend you from aught that threatens you."

Loki managed to entered the room at that moment. He had obviously not walked far. This time Jane took the mental time to notice that he was wearing what she assumed was casual clothes--a green tunic and black pants. He stood out of his surroundings because he was not wearing armor, but his gold necklace and bracelets that belied any attempt to make it seem as if he was in prison attire. His hair was shorter than it was on the infamous videotape, proof that he was being well cared for.

Jane glowered at him. Loki smirked.

"For what it's worth, I, at this moment, do not want to kill you. But as I have come to be unable to trust my own mind recently, I will not claim that will remain the case."

"I would rather die than let you touch me." Jane said.

"Marvelous." Loki said clasping his hands together and starting to turn around. "Well, then I am done here. I wish you the most pleasant experience in Hel."

"Loki." Thor blocked Loki's exit with his arm.

"What? I am ceding to her wishes."

"Is she dying?"
"

Well, yes. Everything is dying, Thor, even you and I, just at a much slower pace. The question is and has always been is there anything that can be done to delay the inevitable. " Loki turned back and walked over to the soulforge. The healer moved to the side to let him look at the readings. The healers and Loki started a murmured conversation. The fragments of words that Jane did hear did not lead her to any sort of understanding. After a few moments Loki turned to re-address Thor who had taken to holding Jane's shoulder reassuringly.

"Mortals live such short lives." Loki said. "Did you know that humans have this disease where minor damage can make their own cells refuse to stop growing. It grows until it kills the mortal. There are also diseases that..."

"Loki..." Thor warned.

"Well. It's not a disease." Loki said looking at he readings. "The energy she released is--unnatural for this universe."

"Please speak plainly. We have not time for your convoluted explanations."

"I will be brief then. Know you the History of King Bor and the Dark Elves?"

"Only that Grandfather was victorious in all things."

"I would that you knew the history of your own kingdom." Loki looked towards the ceiling. "I thought you might know the battles at least. Come with me then to the library."

"Loki." Thor said. "You are not permitted there."

"Right. Sometimes I forget that the mad are not permitted in the library lest they infect the books. Go to the library then, Thor. Ask the librarian for the histories of King Bor. You are looking for the volume on the end of the Dark Elf War. Read it."

"Speak your theory."

"You said to be brief.

"What will it tell us?"

Loki laughed. "The worlds are converging as we speak, Thor. What better time than for the Aether to reappear and wreak havoc?"

"Aether?"

"Go read a book for once, Thor." Loki snapped. "How you the natural son of two of the smartest beings in the realms I will never comprehend."

"At least Thor is a good man-- like they are." Jane snapped.

"Oh, naive mortal. You are a perfect match with the ignorance of Thor. Ask Thor why the Dark Elf war ended. I believe there is a mural of it on in the south hall. It is quite the artistic feat."

Loki left the room with a laugh that grated on Jane's soul.

. . .

The library was beautiful, and the book was easily obtained. Jane marveled at how the pictures moved on what truly did appear to be parchment. She wondered about the technology and why the Aesir seemed to employ it in such an archaic looking way. She wondered how excited Anthropologists and Cultural Studies majors would love this place.

The book told of an ancient war where Malekith, king of the Dark Elves tried to destroy the entire universe using a substance known as the Aether. His plan was foiled by King Bor who then killed the rest of the dark elves. Jane was not please to hear that Thor's grandfather was the cause of the end of an entire race, but she decided not to dwell on it.
But the story said that the Aether had been destroyed so they went to the All-father for confirmation of Loki's theory.

The All-father was not a pleasant man to be around. It was made pretty clear that Loki's disregard for humans was the party line. In fact Jane saw a lot more Odin in Loki than she did in Thor. Odin spent every opportunity he could to insult Jane and Thor's relationship to her. It took all Jane had to not cause an intergalactic incident by slapping the Space Emperor and her possible--maybe--if everything went well--father-in-law.

Despite his insults, Odin agreed to research how to separate and destroy the Aether.

Once the vile old man who was Thor's father left for the library, Frigga joined them. Frigga as kind and welcoming as much as Odin and Loki were bitter and unwelcoming. Jane mused that she would marry Thor just to have Frigga as the best mother-in-law in the galaxy.

Thor obviously took after his mother.

And then one compliment about Frigga's crystal necklace turned the conversation to the black and green psychotic elephant in the room.

"This is Eysvell--a gem made of ice. Loki has been working with Angraboda on his ice sculpting." Frigga smiled. "I am rather glad that Loki is getting in touch with his Jotnar roots by working on some of his old hobbies."

"Hopefully not the massacring hundreds part." Jane found herself saying.

Frigga paused for a moment in the middle of her stride. "I cannot fault you for your hatred of my son Loki." Frigga said resuming her stride. "But you also must understand that Loki is my youngest. The love of a mother knows only a beginning. I would love my son and hope for his redemption even if he was the bringer of Ragnorok. He was an unfortunate victim of circumstances."

"What circumstances could justify forgiving a mass murderer?"

Something in the distance exploded. Everyone around them tensed.

"The dungeons." Thor said.

Frigga tightened her grip on Jane's arm. "I will take care of Jane."

Thor flew towards the sound. Frigga pulled Jane along when they ran into the All-father. It was obvious that the royal couple loved each other, but Frigga did not believe that they were out of harm's way. Frigga even stole a sword from a passing guard.

"We must get Loki." Frigga said.

"Why?"

"Oh, my dearest. You have not had children yet, otherwise you would not ask me that question.".

. . .

Loki, of course, was reading. That was all he really did these days. Sleep, read, eat, get medicated and talk about his feelings. Well, on good days. Today was a very good day. He had seen Thor's mortal, annoyed Thor, and predicted the end of the universe.

Loki idly wondered what it would be like to be turned into anti-matter via Aether. Of course it had to be the Aether. It was the only thing that made sense. Of course it could also have been another of the Infinity Gems...or a few dozen other articles of power. But the universe seemed to have this odd sense of narrative. Thor's beloved gets infected by something as the worlds converge? Has to be the one thing that could destroy the universe. Thor would then somehow manage to save both her and the universe by hitting various things with his hammer.

This was how the universe works.

Bad things happen. Thor hits things with hammers. Thor is victorious. Everyone celebrates.

Loki plans. Loki fails. Loki is punished. Everyone laughs.

Loki looked down at his wrists and at the gold bracelets that tracked his every movement. They also did not permit him access to anything other than his cell, the healing rooms and one of the gardens. They also made it impossible to cast an illusion upon himself. He could cast a few minor illusions on other people, but that was the extent of that power. It even cut off his ability to access his hafas, or as the people of earth might call it--if Thor's selection of Midgardian study material was to be believed--a dimensional pocket.

Loki missed his stuff.

It just was not fair.

"I should not compare myself to my brother." Because he will always win.

"I have value." But not the type I should have.

"I am loved." According to the people who lied to me my entire life.

There was some commotion outside of his window earlier. It had been worth a few minutes of passing interest as ships that Loki did not recognize attacked Asgard, but the Loki figured that it didn't have anything to do with him. His window was shielded by a force field and the door was likewise guarded against his escape. Nothing outside of this room was his business any more.

The door opened. Frigga stood there with Thor's human in tow. "Loki, Asgard is under attack. There is a skirmish the dungeons, and the barrier has fallen."

"Ah. Excitement." Loki turned the page. "I was pretty certain that this is what we pay the guards for."

"I fear they come after the Aether." Frigga gestured at Thor's human.

"That is likely." Loki closed his book and sat up. "But why lead her here? I have not weapons to fight nor place for her to hide. The presence of the two guards outside is hardly reassuring."

"Loki." Frigga looked at Loki in that way that made Loki sure that his mother could see through him and into his innermost thoughts.

Loki leapt up and headed to a bookcase. He placed his hand at the top of the case in the small section long enough to read his essence.

"The servants did a very thorough job when they cleaned out my chambers." Loki said as the door opened. "I truly have no method of escape. I have but the most humble of

swords and a few daggers. But, what I do have is a place to hide."

"Of course you do, my son." Frigga smiled. "I will have to take your blades from you after this."

"I am reasonably sure that I am not likely going to kill myself or the guards." Loki said. "I should be allowed knives at dinner."

"Only someone who has never seen you throw a knife would believe you are ever safe with one anywhere near you." Frigga said sweetly. "And I am sure you have a few more weapons stashed around here for other later emergencies."

"I only learned from the best, mother."

. . .

Malekith found what he was looking for in the private section of the palace. The guards were easily dispatched, weak Aesir as they were. The door had to be shattered, but it only took a moment for Malekith to break it in half. He entered a room that was a study with a singular black-haired male Aesir in it. The Aesir was slight for his race; perhaps he was Vanir instead. But the race truly did not matter as much as he was blocking the way to the Aether.

"You really must learn how to knock." The man put down the book he had been reading.

"Where is the Aether?"

"According to the records it was destroyed." The Aesir said calmly.

"The Aether cannot be destroyed." Malekith drew his sword and lunged towards the man. The Aesir retreated, taking the time to draw his own blade from a sheath that had been hidden behind his chair. Malekith drove forward again, an was blocked by the dark-haired Aesir.

"Why do you believe that it resides here in my chambers after millennia of being thought destroyed?" The black-haired Aesir said as he danced the ages long steps common to the Aesir forms of short sword fighting with out a shield.

"Why are you locked here in the living quarters of the royal family?" Melekith said, his attention on how to make this fight as brief as possible. He knew how to fight Aesir. He knew where their weaknesses in their defense.

The man parried Malekith's latest attack. Malekith gave him a bit of credit for not being a regular oaf of a clod-footed Aesir.

"So my infamy has not spread across the entire nine realms then?" The Aesir sneered. "I am rather astonished. I figured that the stories of the mad prince were a gift given to the bards. They should be using my likeness for an eon. I make a most dastardly villain."

"What did you do?"

"Treason. Patricide. Attempted Fratricide. Tried to destroy one realm and conquer another." Each crime clanged with the ring of metal.

"Sounds like you are a true descendant of Bor." The dark elf caught the mad prince against a column.

"I thought so." The Aesir grinned as he slipped a hidden dagger between Malekith's armor. Malekith reacted to the pain briefly allowing the Aesir the opening to escape the press against the column. "But then I am mad, but then you are supposed to be dead. Perhaps this is all a dream."

"Put down your weapon then, Son of Odin, and see."

The mad prince drove forward his attack. The prince was skilled. Lighter and quicker than most Aesir, but ultimately still slower than an elf. The Accursed finally arrived as Malekith managed to get one of his feints to drive the prince to attack unwisely. Malekith had the blade to the prince's side in one swift moment.

"Check the other room." Malekith commanded.

Loki laughed. "There is naught here but the mad."

There were crashing sounds as the Accursed overturned most of the bedroom. He came back with a growl and a shaken head.

"Where is it?" Malekith pressed the blade closer.

"Where is what? I am somewhat uninformed of the goings on around here. I for one did not know that the Svartálfar were back. I believed that Bor had killed you all. But then artists always exaggerate. Have you seen the mural in the southern hall?"

"You seem rather cognizant for someone considered mad."

"Modern medicine is such an amazing thing."

"I should kill you and let Odin know the pain of loosing part of his family."

"I should warn you that I am adopted."

Suddenly, Malekith felt a sudden inexplicable chill from his captive. He jerked his knife in response, but it only scored a shallow gash before the intensely biting cold that radiated from the adopted son was too much. A sudden pain in Malekith's back revealed that the son was not alone, for an invisible older woman was behind him. Malekith spun to face her with his own dagger. The sounds of guards approaching troubled Malekith, but there was nothing he could do.

Malekith and the Accursed fled. They had failed to gain the Aether, but had taken at least the beginnings of revenge by slaughtering so many Aesir. True revenge would not come until all of Asgard lay death at Malekith's feet.

. . .

In the aftermath of the attack, there was much that needed doing. Frigga was helping organize the funerals of the fallen. Thor was helping shore up the remaining defenses. That left Jane to watch Loki get treated by the healers. It was not a pleasant task, but it was the only one anyone seemed to think her capable of. That and she could take a minute to say what needed to be said without witnesses.

"Thank you. If it wasn't for you and Frigga--I would probably be dead right now."

Loki groaned from the healing bed. He rubbed the bracelets on both arms. "Don't be stupid, mortal. I did not do it for you. I did it for my mother."

"I know."

"And if you die the Aether will only choose another host." Loki said. "Much easier to have a mortal host. You can barely use a fraction of its power. Just holding it is killing you. And, well, it's easier to kill you if it becomes necessary."

"You really are just as evil as you used to be." Jane said.

"No, I am practical." Loki said. "It is very liberating to be thought mad. My opinions are worthless. I cannot go anywhere interesting. But I can say anything and the people forgive you. I would recommend it, except for the fact I wouldn't."

Jane chuckled softly.

"I still hate you." Jane said.

"So do I."

Jane laughed for a moment, until she realized that she had not idea if he hated her or himself. She could not bring herself to ask. She excused herself, only to be taken into custody as she exited the healing chambers.

. . .

It wasn't until Loki had been released from the healing room that Thor had deigned to visit him. And it wasn't to see if his brother was well. Rather, it was to propose an elaborate plan involving treason by all of Thor's closest friends to save one mortal life.

And supposedly Asgard.

But the plan made no sense. The enemy had been weakened as Asgard had been in the attack. If Odin and Thor brought in reinforcements from the surrounding territories, perhaps also from Vanheim or Alfheim, there was no way a few ships of Dark Elves could defeat them. No, this was not about Asgard. This was about Jane, Thor's latest lust interest.

"No, Thor." Loki said. "The plan is stupid."

"We have to save the Aesir. If we follow Father's plan we will sacrifice more of our people than necessary when the Dark Elves return."

"No, Thor."

"Have you no heart?" Thor held Loki by the shoulders.

"No. What I have is a few steps to the executioner's gallows." Loki ducked his brother's arms.

"I will claim responsibility with father."

"No." Loki said. "What will happen is that something bad will happen, and suddenly it is going to turn out that it is my fault. I will be the viper who tempted the crown prince who must be stamped out before it strikes again. You will end up being exiled to Nilfheim or such like and I will be executed. No, Thor. I may be ill in the head, but I am not suicidal."

"Loki."

"No." Loki started to walk away back towards his room. At least in there mad plans were plotted by only the mad.

"I beg you. This is our only chance."

Loki stopped. It was that tone in Thor's voice. The "I-need-you-brother-to-help-me-do-this-insane-thing-because-it-is-for-the-good-of-Asgard-and-if-you-do-not-then-you-are-a-failure-as-a-prince-and-a-brother." tone. Loki wondered how he was considered the god of manipulation on earth when Thor merely had to use that guilt inducing tone to get even the hardest hearts (e.g. Sif and Heimdall) to go on idiotic and possibly treasonous adventures.

Loki sighed. There was really only one conclusion to this conversation.

"When do we start?" Loki resigned.

Thor beamed at him.

. . .

"Thor and his friends are plotting treason."

Odin stared down where Loki bowed humbly at the throne. Odin was grateful Loki had waited for a private conference with Odin, as benefiting a discussion of this sensitivity.

Loki's interaction with the court and all legal matters needed to be kept to the barest minimum.

"He wishes to take the Aether bearer away from Asgard." Loki outlined Thor's plan. It was simple, but involved treason at the highest levels including Sif, the Warriors Three, and Heimdall.

Odin swore. Thor remained headstrong and incapable of understanding the difficult decisions that a king must make. A trip to Midgard had not been enough to tame him. It may also have made him worse. This plan was nonsensical, ill-planned, and distracting when the army should be preparing to defend Asgard from the next attack.
And Thor's co-conspirators... Odin had forgiven them their treason in not obeying Loki when he held the throne to only to have them repeat it now. It was clear that they valued

Thor's friendship above all else including law, honor, and basic reasoning skills.

Which would be fine if Thor was king. But Thor was not king. At this rate Thor would never be King. Not because Odin preferred any of his other sons on the throne, bastard or adopted, but because Thor would have killed off the remaining subjects with his idiocy. All of this for a fling with a mortal lass. Eventually Odin hoped Thor would stop thinking with his cock and begin using the brain Odin thought his son had before this entire debacle began.

At least Loki's punishment was working rather well. Loki was far from being a presentable member of society--what was Odin going to do with Loki now that Loki was no longer fit to hold any authority?--but at least he was loyal once more. A few more years--probably twenty or so--and Loki could be sent to Jotenheim to begin his restitution there. Odin calculated about a century or two there before Midgard would be the next step. Fifty years making restitution to Midgard at the most and in less then three centuries he could have his son back to normal.

If Odin lasted that long.

"I have a plan, All-father." Loki interrupted Odin's thoughts.

Odin gestured for Loki to proceed as Odin allowed himself a moment of wondering what would have happened if Loki had not turned mad. A Jotnar on the throne--no, it could not be fathomed. The throne of Asgard belonged to the line of Odin and no other.

"We must distract Thor from his plan. Send us to Alfheim to request aid from Balder and Hoder. Perhaps even the members of the Trädrötterna."

"We cannot open the Bifrost and endanger the other realms."

"I have other paths." Loki admitted.

Odin tried not to smile too broadly. This therapy thing was marvelous. Loki was willingly giving up the location to his secret entrance into Asgard. Perhaps with a little more time Loki would reveal how he avoided Heimdall's gaze. Odin shaved off a few years mentally on how long it would take Loki to return to trustworthiness.

"Frigga, Thor and I will to Alfheim."

"No. I need Frigga, and you are bound here."

"My path is difficult to travel. I made it difficult to both find and traverse as part of its protections. You can amend my sentence as research for the good of the nine realms. You can send mother away to keep her safe."

"No." Odin said. "I cannot appear to be abandoning Asgard and emptying it of all I hold dear. No. I cannot send you with any others. I will need all of the guards that still stand to defend Asgard when the time comes."

"May my healer accompany me?" Loki asked. "He would benefit from researching at the Trädrötterna."

Odin signaled his approval of the simple request. He cared not about Loki's healer. The loss of Thor would be much more significant than one healer. He would have to reorganize the army to make up for the loss.

"I will race back should the discussion with your sons or the elves provide any insight." Loki bowed.

Odin barely noticed Loki's retreating footsteps, his mind lost on the best way to shore up Asgard's defenses to limit the casualties.

. . .

"I cannot believe this." Thor growled as he was nearly shoved into the skiff by two members of the castle guard. Jorun and Loki were already within it.

"Oh, don't be so dramatic." Loki said. "You will be back with your mortal lover before you know it. She is within the most heavily guarded part of the palace."

"You and father doom Asgard to destruction."

"Trust you not the Allfather and the strength of the troops?"

Thor grumbled as Loki guided the skiff gently out of the city. Thor sulked for most of the way.

"We don't need Balder's help." Thor grumbled. "Or Hoder. They haven't been home in centuries. We should be carrying out my plan and saving our people from further destruction. Father must have known!" Thor cried. "Who told him?"

"I did." Loki said adjusting his heading.

"What?" Thor took his hammer in hand. "You traitor."

"Yes, yes. So I am. But your plan was idiotic beyond measure. Not the least because we don't know if Mjolnir is even strong enough to destroy the Aether." Loki said. "I have a much better plan."

"Getting help from Baldur is not a plan." Thor growled. "Jane and the entire realm is in danger. It is not the time to be dealing with the pair of them."

"I think it's a pretty good plan myself." Jane's voice said from behind Thor. Thor spun around to discover Jane waving gently where Jorun was previously been. In her hand was a golden necklace that Thor recognized from his mother's collection.

"How?"

"Well, at this moment--Mother is having tea with some particles of light that just so happen to resemble one crown prince's Aether-possessed lover. She obviously supplied the necklace of concealment. Jorun's note to delay the departure due to an emergency therapy session with Volstagg may have accidentally gotten mixed up with Fandral's love letters. Mother will try to temper father's anger by the time we return, hopefully keeping both of our heads where they are currently placed."

"We figure that either we come back heroes or the universe is destroyed." Jane said. "But this way there are fewer risks."

"So we are to Svartalfheim then?"

"Don't be stupid. We need allies. Balder and Hoder should be quite willing to aid us in our righteous quest, treason or no."

"Who are Balder and Hoder?" Jane asked.

"Thor's brothers." Loki said.

"Wait--you never mentioned any other brothers than Loki."

Loki snorted. "They are not the brothers that one mentions in polite company."

"I don't understand..."

"They are sons of Odin, but not of Frigga." Thor sat next to Jane and looked back at his brother steering the skiff.

Jane was quiet for a moment until she asked if they were illegitimate.

"All of our other brothers are bastards." Loki laughed. "And I'm adopted. I guess that makes Thor the only true son of Odin."

"Balder and Hoder are sons of Odin."

"But not me, dearest Thor? I thought that was the point of all of your attempts to consol me."

"You twist my words even when your know what I mean." Thor snapped. "I hope that when you are sane again that will cease happening."

"Your claims of brotherhood are ever conditional."

"You are the most frustrating creature in existence!"

"I would not have to be if you learned to think before taking action." Loki smirked. He turned to Jane. "Baldur and Hoder are an open secret at court."

"If you did not over thinking things you would not be mad." Thor said.

"My problems are a result of the Allfather's lack of foresight, not a lack of my own." Loki snapped.

"Loki! Watch where we're going!" Jane shouted.

"I am!" Loki snapped.

"But there's a giant rock!" Jane said.

"You are not trying to kill us in your madness?" Thor asked.

Loki laughed and sped up, sending them straight into the rock. Thor grabbed Jane in a protective hold. And Jane thought they were going to die--and then they didn't. There was no impact, just the sound of Loki laughing.

"Tempting as that is--I don't want to die."

Jane felt the world going black around the edges. Thor was demanding why his brother had to be so dramatic.

"If it were easy, anyone could do it."

And then Jane lost the last bit of grip she had on the real world.

. . .

Jane was grateful when they arrived at their destination, not only because she woke up after her embarrassing fainting spell, but she was on yet another new planet. If only Jane had her scientific equipment. She really should be recording air and gravity measurements. Taking pictures of the stars for help triangulating possible locations. Sneaking bits of interesting looking plant specimens. There was so much that she could do to advance scientific discovery! She really did need to pocket some rocks or something.
Jane would have to take in as many details as possible for later recording. The area that they arrived in on the planet known as Alfheim was a forest. A majority of the trees were green and brown and seemed to be some kind of normal looking evergreen. Except they seemed to have flowers and possibly fruit. Aside from that, Jane would have said that it reminded her of the redwood forest in California, except that the rare deciduous tree had electric purple leaves and a silver trunk.

As Loki skimmed atop the forest, Jane even spotted alien birds that were as large as an eagle and the same bright purple as the exotic trees. She hoped to be able to see some animals when they set down. And almost as soon as she thought that, Loki began a descent into a clearing. In there were three buildings that resembled Viking longhouses.

"Are you sure that they are here?" Thor asked. "I was informed that they were teaching at the Trädrötterna."

"This is the location Heimdall gave for them. And as I was asking on your behalf, I doubt he led us astray." Loki answered. He landed the flying vehicle roughly. He barely paused as he leapt out onto the grass. Thor helped Jane out and continued to hold onto her shoulder. Jane was grateful since she was starting to feel weaker than usual.

A man came out of the door to the longhouse with a huge grin. Jane thought that the man looked like an older version of Thor with light hair she had trouble deciding if it was blonde or white. His beard was a few inches longer than Odin, but just as neatly kept. He wore only a minimal armor--a small breast-plate and bracers--in a style that Jane was coming to associate with Asgardian casual.

"Brothers!" The man greeted them. "How fare thee?"

"Balder!" Thor said exuberantly. "It is good to see you!"

Balder ignored Thor's acknowledgement to grab Loki in a crushing hug.

"Loki! I am ever grateful that you are here! We thought you dead, then evil, and now ill! Do not make your older brothers worry so!"

"Your concern is quite apparent despite your lack of attendance at anything of importance for the last two centuries." Loki growled. "And your lack of letters for the last five decades."

"Surely it has not been that long." Balder frowned. He appeared to be counting on his fingers, his hug never wavering.

"Let me go you giant lout!" Loki tried to shove his Balder away.

"Nay, I have many embraces to make up for." Balder tightened. "My poor baby brother has been sorely neglected! We must atone. Hoder! I have captured a Loki! He brings our other brother and a female with him!"

"Have they said why they have not visited?" A man who Jane assumed was Hoder appeared in the doorway. He had a more slender build than Balder and Thor, but was larger than Loki. His hair was a dark brown. The most striking things about his outfit was the elaborate silver metal visor that he wore, and the silver staff taller than he was that was carved and inlaid with jewels. His armor was even lighter that Balder's with leather trimmed with silver under a blue cloak.

"Our poor baby brother accuses us of negligence to our familial duties." Balder said.

"It seems that our letter of apology for such a neglect has brought us many returns." Hoder said. "It has been far too long, Thor." Hoder walked forward a few steps and opened his arms. Thor embraced him tightly for a few moments before stepping back. "Hand me the Loki." Hoder turned toward Balder.

Balder shoved Loki at Hoder. Hoder gave Loki a long lasting hug while Thor and Balder exchanged an embrace and manly slaps to the back.

"This is Lady Jane of Midgard." Thor introduced proudly.

"My pleasure to meet such a fair maiden." Baldur kissed Jane on her hand. Jane found herself blushing.

"Steal not the Lady Jane from me, Balder." Thor said what Jane hoped was a mock threatening tone.

"Fear not." Balder said. "I have recently met a lovely young man of elvish decent."

"An elf this time?" Thor groaned.

"You have no room to speak courting a mortal." Balder said. "But inside all--"

"I'm not anyone's brother!" Loki said struggling. Jane realized she had been missing a conversation between the other two members of the group.

"Lie not, brother." Balder said. "You have the most brothers of anyone present. Thor has one, as he cannot acknowledge us without complicating the succession. Hoder and I both have three, a fair number. But you, Loki, have four living and one dead."

"And you are the youngest of them all." Hoder added. He let go of most of Loki but took a firm grip on Loki's arm. "And as the younger brother, you should be quite used to being wrong by now."

Hoder halfway dragged Loki into the house. Balder followed after them. Thor took Jane's arm and escorted her inside.
While the outside resembled a longhouse, the inside had that alien technical edge that Jane was used to seeing in Asgard. There was a fire pit in the middle of the room and it was lined with two low benches on either side of the room, but the supports and furniture were made of some unidentifiable metal. The tapestries on the walls and benches were similar in pattern to ones she had seen in Asgard as well.

Thor and Jane settled on one side of the fire while Balder and Hoder sandwiched Loki on the other side. Loki looked frustrated at the overbearing affection. Jane wondered how long it would take for Loki to snap and he would reveal his underlying evil nature.

"What brings you here, Thor?" Balder asked.

"Know you of the Convergence?"

"I am tracking it, aye." Balder said. "Jafnharr is most interested in it. It is a most significant time for experiments."

"Experiments?" Jane said. "Are you a scientist?"

"Nay, I leave the seidr to Hoder and Loki." Balder scoffed. "I am a smith. I render the ideas of the seidmenn into useful form."

Hoder snorted. "As if you could do ought without my aid."

"Know you of the recent attack upon Asgard?" Thor asked.

Balder sat up. "Asgard was attacked? Say you that all is well."

"The deaths were many." Thor said. "Loki was also wounded..."

"We knew this not!" Balder said. "Are you well now then, brother?"

"I remain mad." Loki said ruefully.

"Declare yourself mad, not, brother." Hoder said. "You are but ill. The brain is but another organ, prone to disease and failing. The mad are the ones that the brain has fled and there is no recovery. I am assured that with treatment that you will be well."

"How will you know you when I am well?" Loki snapped. "I fear that everything I do that is not fitting will remain an indicator of madness. I will remain myself despite all you press upon me!"

"Hush, youngest brother, we liked you as you were. We would only ask that you are not likely to cause harm to yourself and others without cause." Balder said.

"We have something more pressing than Loki's madness." Thor snapped. "Malekith has returned and seeks the Aether which is killing Lady Jane as we speak."

"Bor killed the Svartálfar and razed their planet." Hoder said. "He destroyed the Aether. His return is most unlikely."

"Malekith said the Aether could not be destroyed." Loki said.

"What?" Thor looked over at his younger brother in shock.

"I said your plan was doomed to failure." Loki said. "Have you a way to contain the Aether, Balder?"

"To create something that important in such short notice--I know not..."

"You built the container for the Tesseract." Loki said. "Can you not adopt the design for yet another?"

"The Tesseract and the Aether are both very different." Balder said. "I only modeled the new container after the designs of Velentr. I am not a smith of his caliber, Loki! I cannot contain such a power forever."

"It need not be forever." Loki countered. "A few days until the convergence is over or Thor hits Malekith with his hammer hard enough. If Malekith somehow survives and obtains the gem after the convergence--then at least the risk will be lessened to the galaxy."

"I am confident to gain a few days." Balder nodded. "I will need a few hours."

"Malekith seeks the Lady Jane. We may not have a few hours." Thor said.

"I will finish as soon as possible. But I know not how to remove the Aether from a host."

"Do not fear." Loki said. "We will wait for Malekith to do it for us."

"This is a foolish thing." Hoder said.

"This is a desperate thing." Loki countered. "We have no other choice."

. . .

Balder and Loki were sequestered in Balder's "smithy" which resembled a blacksmith shop mixed with a laboratory decorated by the same designer that worked on Heimdall's observatory.

It was beautiful.

After the third time Balder yelled at her for touching things, Jane was delegated to helping Hoder make dinner. Thor remained on watch outside.
Hoder was amazing in the kitchen, especially once Jane realized he was blind. She wondered how such a marvelous society had not managed to cure his disability.
Unfortunately, Jane was just about as useful there as she was in the lab. There was something about the logic of the technology that Jane just didn't get. She was also weak from pretending the Aether was not killing her.

"Why do you live here instead of Asgard?"

"We have our reasons." Hoder continued preparing the meal.

"I mean is it weird that the two of you live in the middle of nowhere or is that normal?"

"Do you always speak to those of another culture this way?" Hoder paused. "I fear for your world if you fellow mortals have yet to learn tact."

"I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude. I'm just really curious and..."

"I do not desire to be friends with you." Hoder said. "And as such I do not desire to share my personal life story with you. Please go be useless elsewhere."

"You know what? I'm sick of all of this Asgardian mortals don't belong here BS. I am a sentient being, and I deserve some respect. I know this is about the relationship between me and Thor. Like I'll make him dirty or something. This is all so racist..."

"Speciesist. Do be precise." Hoder snapped. "And, yes, this is about you and my brother. This is about how you are completely unsuited for my younger brother."

"You have no right!"

"I have every right to protect my younger brother from a romance doomed from the beginning."

"How is it doomed? And you better not say that it's because of my lifespan, because heaven help me I am sick and tired of being reminded of my own mortality every single moment around you."

"You think that is an easy thing to overcome?" Hoder laughed. "Why do you think that we closed off your realm. It was not to let you develop on your own. It was because it hurts when you die. If you were Aesir you would yet be a babe! The formal courtship and betrothal process lasts nearly fifty Midgardian years. Thor will live all of your life in the excitement of the first blush of a relationship. You confuse his infatuation with devotion and then you will die, leaving him heartbroken. If you love Thor, truly and deeply more than your life, I would cease your relationship."

"I cannot! I love him."

Hoder laughed with a bitter cruel edge. "Love is not enough, mortal woman." He paused for a moment as if lost in thought.

"You know that you are not the first mortal that Thor believed himself in love with."

"What?"

"Thor. He used to visit your realm when he was a teenager. He used to sleep with maidens and kill entire armies for fun. Every once in a while he would come home with a mortal lass on his arm declaring her the love of his life.

"You, Lady Jane are not unique. This is a story that has been told at least thrice before."

"That means that you do not have a way to extend my life?" Jane blurted.

Hoder backed away. "Ah, there it is. Always with the desire for a longer life with you mortals. No, there is no apple, no fountain no magical spell that will extend your life. You can go home and stop bothering my brother now."

"No! I'm sorry! You misunderstand. I just I want to be with Thor as long as possible."

"I do not trust you with my younger brother, Lady Jane."

"I loved him when I thought he was powerless and without a kingdom. Surely that has to count for something."

"I think you are in love with Thor, not the Crown Prince." Hoder said. "He is, however, both of those people. I fear that you will make him chose to be the man you thought you love rather than the prince he was born to be. Do not let him choose you over his duty."

"What if he is happier with me?"

"Of course he will be happier without a crown!" Hoder snapped. Then his voice dropped. "But princes do not get to pick and choose when they are princes. He cannot live his entire childhood with the privileges of the rank of crown prince and then refuse to pay when the bill becomes due. Balder and I have sacrificed more than you can imagine in the name of his future rule."

"Hoder!" Thor barged in through the front door. "It is not your place to judge my courtship of the Lady Jane. I would take it well if you were silent."
Hoder laughed. "I am your older brother. I will have my opinion heard. The court mocks your obsession with Midgard. I have heard it even as far away as here. The elves and the dwarves are angered. They accuse you of concern only for the ones which are fair in your own eyes."

"I do not only regard--"

"Speak then of your friends which are not shaped like the Aesir. Speak of the allies within the Dwarven, Elven, Niflr or any Giant court that can assuage the ill conversation. Your throne is not as secure as Odin would have you believe."

"Perhaps I do not desire the throne!" Thor snapped.

Hoder was silent a moment. Jane could see his face twitch.

"I have decided that I would rather be a good man than a good king. I cannot make the decisions that Odin makes. Loki was right. I was not ready for the throne, and I do not believe I ever will be. I wish to be with Lady Jane more than anything else in the universe."

"STOP." Hoder shouted. "You are not permitted this Thor! Your brothers have sacrificed much for you and you would give it away for a woman?"

"Yes." Thor said simply. Jane's heart thudded in her chest.

Hoder approached Thor with a menace that Jane had not suspected in Hoder. "You, younger brother, know not what it is like not to be so blessed. Do not blame your brothers for envying you when you can so easily cast aside what others can not have."

"LOKI!" Hoder shouted heading towards the smithy. "We are going on a walk!"

Thor slumped into a chair. Jane came sat on the arm next to him, her hand on his shoulder. All of this negative feelings from his family was wearing on him. Jane wished there was something that she could do to help besides just being there to listen.

"Hoder is pretty terrifying for a blind man." Jane said.

"That he is." Thor said. "Despite his impairment, he is a most accomplished fighter."

Jane went back to the discussion she had with Hoder. She didn't really want to question Thor about his previous relationships. She couldn't really be jealous of relationships he had before she was born. A very odd thought to have. But there was something else she needed to ask.

"Thor--have you killed humans before?"

Thor shifted in his seat and looked away. "It was a while ago. I knew not how weak mortals were. I was new to the power of Mjolnir--"

"How many?"

"I know not." Thor said. "I am afraid to say that I cared not. But I have changed dearest Jane. I would give up everything to be a good man."
Jane smiled at Thor. Perhaps he wasn't a perfect prince charming, but he was a good man. A better man then most human men at least. And Jane loved him. All of this was more evidence that Thor's family were human-hating racists. Jane confirmed her desire to help Thor escape his overbearing family.

. . .

 

"I was aiding Balder. Our plan relies on swiftness of his completion of the holding device." Loki complained as he led his brother by the arm. It was a most familiar exercise to aid Hoder with his path. It reminded Loki of many pleasant days of walking through the gardens of a number of different planets with his brother's hand on his shoulder and a conversation on their lips.

"It also relies on me not hitting Thor on the head repeatedly." Hoder said. "Why is the most foolish of us the one born crown prince?'

"The Norns like a hearty laugh." Loki said.

"Balder should be king." Hoder muttered. "He is eldest."

"But the Vanir will revolt if their blood is not next on the throne." Loki countered. "It must be the son of Frigga."

"It amazes me that Thor is the son of Frigga. He is most unlike her."

"I have asked myself daily since I was an infant." Loki shook his head. "I tried to warn the Thing and Odin, before my planning, but they would not listen."

"Thor is popular with the Thing and the warriors." Hoder conceded. "He could be good a good king if he was not so..."

"Foolish? Stubborn? Emotional?" Loki began.

"Hush, Loki. The universe knows of you ire." Hoder sighed. "Come now and distract me from thoughts of a kingdom without an heir."

"Balder can take the throne if Thor declines."

"Balder has burnt too many bridges." Hoder corrected. "He also does not desire the throne."

There was a moment of feeling about foolish older brothers who cannot manage their own lives and yet are beloved by so many.

Hoder pulled a rolled up piece of leather from his pocket dimension. Loki was reminded of all the things he could not do with the bracelets on.
Hoder handed the leather roll to Loki. It was a package of daggers.

"Use these blades as a last defense." Hoder handed them other. "And please do not use them on Thor. I have heard enough of his griping for an age."

Loki snorted. "It was just a pin prick and he bellowed as a child. It is not as if he hasn't battled through much worse."

"If I might return to seriousness." Hoder said. "Loki, you are much loved, but when your punishment is over you need to get away from Odin and Thor for a while. Separation will do you nothing but good.

"I also care for you, it can be said by some that you are my least annoying brother." Loki said. "But I do not wish to live in the exile of the throne-less princes."
"I did not mean to imply that you should live here if you wish it not. Study at the Trädrötterna with Jafnharr, take a ship and a crew and explore the unmapped lands--anything. I

have not seen you as happy as back when you were adventuring by yourself."

"I was different back then." Loki stopped walking. "I know not if I can recapture the joy I felt in anything. I know not who I am any more. How much of who I thought I was is merely a result of my illness?"

Hoder tightened his grip on Loki's arm. "Take this as a chance to decide that for yourself. And know that our brotherly affection is neither conditional nor ending."

Loki was quiet. He had once thought that Thor's love was never-ending and yet his action when they were reunited was to throw him from flying Midgardian contraption and then demand the Tesseract back. He wondered if Thor knew how much further he would have gotten in persuading Loki had he but started with one of his annoying bone-crushing hugs and an assurance that Odin was not going to execute him for treason.

"We need to return to the others." Loki said turning around on to start the walk back.

. . .

Jane had been permitted back within the forge when the inevitable attack came. Balder had been working on some engraving with Loki offering a running critique of his work. Jane was baffled why the engraving was so important, but she decided asking questions and quietly observing was her best idea. It also stopped Hoder from making snide commentary as often as possible. Jane had never thought she would prefer Loki's company over any one else's in universe.

"Is the case completed?" Loki demanded as soon as Thor shouted warning. Hodr immediately exited the room to go help.

"Nay." Balder said.

"How much time do you need?"

"Just a few more lines and it should work!" Balder said. "If only they had come just a little later."

"How long do you need?" Loki repeated.

"Fifteen...no ten minutes."

Loki clenched his fist and reached into his coat. In what seemed like the space between seconds Jane found herself in Loki's grip and a dagger to her throat.

"Tell me, Jane. Do you trust me?"

. . .

Sometimes it felt like Thor had been in more battles in his life than there were stars in the Midgardian sky. The feelings of battle were generally the same. The adrenaline, the intense focus, the edge of fear hidden by the overwhelming anger and determination that the other side dies first. But every battle was different. Different enemies and different allies made the fight that much more exhilarating for the uncertainty.

This fight was a lot more complex. His only ally was Hoder, who was a fair fighter for someone who was blind, but it still remained that Hoder was so disabled. Thor had to keep an eye out for Hoder in addition to fighting overwhelming odds. He also had to make sure that no dark elves reached the forge where Balder, Loki and his Beloved had not yet joined the fight.

Balder he could understand as he was finishing the enclosure, but Loki should have been burning for the fight. Loki had always been odd and cowardly like that. He always tried to avoid fights, taking up arms only when it was his last option. Even when Loki had finally deigned to join in the battle he would still rely on petty tricks to keep himself from truly feeling the rush and release of honorable battle.

Thor primarily left the dark elf minions to Hoder and his staff. Thor focused his attack on Malekith and the Accursed who was defending him. Thor's attacks were largely ineffective though, the Accursed strong enough to deflect mjolnir from its course.

The major difference with this battle and all of the battles that Thor had fought before was Thor was loosing this one.
Where was that twice accursed Loki?

And then Thor saw a flash of Loki's colors, green and black, out of the corner of his eye. He grinned knowing that Loki was a fair fighter when he tried. And then Thor's heart stopped beating. A feat quite astonishing considering the previous pounding of war.

Loki, traitor Loki, stood there in the middle of the battle with a dagger at Thor's beloved's throat.

"Come now gentlemen, all of you. Back away." Loki said. "I have here the woman who bears the Aether. I will either give her to your or slit her throat and take the Aether for myself."

"That will kill you, adopted grandson of Bor!" Malekith said with a sneer.

Loki laughed with an edge of hysteria and madness that Thor remembered from his tenure on earth. Thor cursed himself for the smidgen of pity and trust he had felt for the mad creature who was once his brother.

"Will it now? But then that is what they said about those who fall into the void and I survived that." Loki said. Thor regretted that he had let Loki fall into the abyss--and that Loki had managed to crawl out of it. This had probably been his plan all along.

"What do you desire?" Malekith said. Thor could imagine this scene as enacted by Laufey and Thanos. Loki making a bargain that would cause Thor pain.

"Nothing, I merely desire to watch the world tree burn." Loki laughed.

"Why?" Thor cried, his heart felt ripped in twain.

"Why not?" Loki screamed, his hand perilously close the fragile skin of the throat of Thor's beloved Jane. "Everyone lied to me! Always lying. They say that I am the god of lies, but I am what they made me! I try to speak the truth but no one listens! They want me dead! All of them. But not if I can get them first. The dead can't betray you. Better dead then hated."

"What lies?" Thor screamed. He needed to get through to his brother, before the red of Jane's life stained his hands.

"I am Jotun!" Loki screamed. "I am the monster that hides under the bed! I knew that there was something wrong, but I didn't know I could be so wrong about everything! I tried so hard, but they lied. They said that I can get better, but I know that they are brainwashing me into being their puppet! A puppet for them to tell how to act and how to feel. I am NO PUPPET!

"I am done. I am just done with everything." Loki said with tears in his eyes. The Accursed, who had been inching closer and closer to Loki during this speech, finally took hold of Jane.

And then Loki thrust Jane to the side and stabbed a knife between plates of the Accursed's armor and deep into his side.

Thor felt a jolt of joy and anger as the trick was revealed and the Accursed fell.

And then his stomach fell as he saw Malekith fall upon Jane and begin the extraction process. Thor rushed towards the event, Mjolnir in hand--and then Balder appeared across from Thor with the metal containment box in one hand and a sword in the other. Balder flung the box at the Aether. It drew the redness into it.
Jane fell towards the ground. Thor moved to catch her as the red liquid strained between the force of the box and that of the dark elf.
Malekith snarled, redoubling his efforts.

A bright flash of red light and the box was gone.

Malekith absorbed the Aether with a cry of triumph.

Malekith threw a surge of power out blowing Balder away into a wall, Hoder off his newly regained feet, and Jane and Loki crashing under the weight of the Accursed. Thor managed to fling himself away to not completely crush them.

Malekith disappeared.

The meadow and house of Thor's brother's was destroyed.

As was a great deal of the surrounding forest.

Lady Jane was no longer the bearer of the Aether.

But the universe was doomed.

. . .

"That could have gone better." Loki groaned as he levered himself off of Jane. She heard him mutter a string of syllables that were probably curse words.

"Are you unharmed Lady Jane?" Thor asked. Jane looked up to see the bright smiling Thor offering his hand. She took it as she took stock of her body. Despite the weariness and bruising, Jane no longer felt like a ticking time bomb.

"Beautiful acting!" Balder offered his hand to Loki.

"Your box failed." Loki ignored the hand and collapsed back into the dirt. "Hel damn you Balder! It failed."

"I said it was not ready." Balder withdrew his hand and sat on the ground next to his brother. "I am not a worker of miracles."

"We have doomed the universe due to your incompetence, and Thor's attachment to a mortal!" Loki growled.

"It is not over." Thor said. "We can fight."

"How?" Hoder asked taking off his visor. There was a cut dripping from his forehead. It was the first time that Jane has seen his face. He looked nearly identical to Balder except a little thinner.

"Can we ask Odin for help?" Jane asked.

"Heimdall will undoubtedly notify the Allfather of our failure." Loki said. "Odin will send what aid he can to Midgard."

"Wait--Earth. What is going on at Earth?" Jane asked.

"Midgard is the Middle Realm." Thor said. "If Malekith wishes to destroy all of the realms it must be on Earth at the moment of convergence."

"You might not be as stupid as you seem Thor." Loki said.

"I wish you did not make me out to be of an enfeebled intellect." Thor said.

Loki looked at Thor. "Perhaps if I didn't have to help you cheat to pass you exams I would respect you more."

"That was but a few times!" Thor protested

"You cheated?" Hoder said in a disapproving tone.

"I also wrote some of his papers when he was too drunk to finish them on time." Loki added. "And most of his speeches. We couldn't have the crown prince failing at the compulsory education because he can't deign to take his education seriously enough to study!"

"This is neither the time nor the place." Balder snapped. "What fools of brothers do I have who argue over minor squabbles when the realms lie in danger! Loki you will take us to Midgard where we will mount a final defense."

"They are not overly fond of me on Midgard."

"I care not." Balder said. "You will help us save the mortals anyway. That is your duty."

. . .

"I would have you tell me how your transportation is achieved." Hoder asked Loki calmly as the rest of the group recovers from what seemed to Jane to be the worst rollercoaster ride in the history of forever. Jane is tremendously grateful she doesn't vomit.

"I traverse Yggdrasil's branches."

"But those are inherently unstable." Hoder said.

"I have spent many years mapping them and calculating the right amount of energy necessary to use them in a..."

"Please, brothers." Thor said. "Can this discussion not wait?"

"So what is the plan?" Jane looked around at the place they landed. It appeared to be a roof of some kind.

"We will first find out where Loki has placed us. Then we will gain the aid of the local warriors and mount a defense." Balder said.

"Should we risk the Midgardians, Balder?" Thor said. "This fight is surely far too risky for them."

"The Midgardians beat an incursion of the Chitauri." Balder said.

"Only the ones which are called the Avengers are strong enough to fight and enemy of such strength."

"Then we shall summon these Avengers to battle." Balder said. "Surely they will desire to assist in whatever capacity that are able."

"I know not how to reach them." Thor said.

"Truly?" Badler said. "That is most troubling. Know you not of the location of their fortress?"

"They reside across the ocean they have come to call the Atlantic." Thor said. "It would be a most dire trial for them to arrive in time."

"Foolish younger brother!" Balder said. "Have you forgotten that we have Hoder who is most adept at teleportation? And Loki who can walk the limbs of Yggdrasil itself? We shall
set them to find aid. We shall proceed the place that the center of the convergence will occur and prepare for battle."

"No. No. That won't work." Jane said. "First of all Loki is a criminal here. They see him and they will arrest him. Secondly--how do you know where the convergence will occur?"
Balder took out a small disk from a pouch on his belt. It created a hologram of earth which rapidly zoomed into Great Britain. It zoomed in further and further until an topographical map came up with a yellow dot and concentric rings.

"The convergence is not an unusual occurrence. It is immensely predictable to those who know. This miǫtviðr will show us which direction we need to travel and how soon we can expect its arrival."

Jane's mouth dropped.

"And surely the Heroes of Midgard will understand that the safety of the realms is more important than revenge."
Jane contemplated how much trouble Midgard would be if Loki was accidently killed while trying to save it.

"It's probably best if I come along to explain things." Jane said.

. . .

Tony Stark was having a no good very bad day. It was probably more horrible than whatever stupid kid in that kid's book that Tony had never read could possibly ever have. He might however watch the movie. If he was desperately bored and drunk.

He was mourning the awfulness of his day by drowning it in alcohol.

First of all, Pepper was mad at him. The reason behind the fight was silly.

Or maybe it was not.

Or maybe Tony just wasn't sure what the hell they were fighting about in the first place. He didn't actually remember how it started and didn't know how to end it.

Especially when the white-flag of surrender, please-forgive-me bouquet had been rejected.

And today the brilliant ideas were just not coming no matter how loud he played his music, how many caffeinated beverages he drank or even how fast he drove in his car.

God, Tony hated days like these.

And then the alarm went off.

Not an alarm. The alarm. The Loki is in my tower and I need to be in my latest suit pronto. And then Tony turned around expecting death or a pointy stick of mind control doom--And there was Loki, but different. He lacked the helmet and golden armor that proclaimed him a diva of the worst sort. Instead he wore a well fitting black coat with minimal gold edging over a dark green linen tunic and black pants. His hair was shorter and rigorously combed back to something that made him look almost not completely unhinged. Holding Loki's arm's was a man dressed similarly, but his coat was longer, midnight blue with more ornate silver decorations. He also had his entire face covered by a metal visor etched with elaborate Viking runes or something.

And there was a woman who looked human.

Loki and his new ally were obviously on a brainwash recruitment trip and had claimed their first victim--

"Loki, I hope you have not gotten us lost." The man with the visor said.

"The Man of Iron is before you." Loki said.

"Well, then, be proper and introduce us." The man chided.

"Balder, this is the Man of Iron, Tony of the Family Line of Stark, one of Thor's shield companions. Man of Iron, this is Balder Hlójarson, High Scholar and Seiðmann of the Trädrötterna."

"What?" Tony felt a little off his game.

"This is Lady Jane of Midgard, beloved of Thor who is here to assure you that I am not here to conquer your realm."

"Like I'm going to fall for that, Rudolph." Tony summoned his armor with a thought. The visiting aliens waited while it formed. Tony was not sure what to do, but charged his weaponry anyway.

"While I am certain that you are in your right to act in distrust, but the news we bring is dire. The entire nine realms and the universe beyond them is in peril. If you trust naught else, trust that my younger brother is not suicidal." The man in the visor said.

"So you're not here for that drink?" Tony asked through his helmet.

The woman, or "Lady Jane," or Thor's human girlfriend, took over the conversation to basically tell a tale that was so far fetched it had Norse alien god written all over it.

"Will you aid us?" Hoder asked.

"What form of 'aid' does this come in?"

"We wish you to rouse the warriors of your realm to aid us in defense of the nine realms."

"I don't see why you're asking us for help. You're like gods or something, right? Can't you handle it?"

"It is considered polite to invite the local warriors to aid in battle." Loki said. "To claim someone is too weak to defend themselves is the height of insult."

"I'm not sure you get to lecture us on politeness, alien Hitler."

"This is a chance for you to defend your realm and gain glory in battle." Hoder said. "Are you warriors or not?"

"Look, Bambi and Reading Rainbow. I know I've got the whole armor thing going. I mean considering what Thor and Loki wore last time, I'm pretty sure armor is your cultural kink or something, but I'm not a warrior. I'm a billionaire, playboy, philanthropist inventor who also happens to be the most kick-ass Avenger." Tony took the time he spent talking to pour himself a drink from his bar. Conversations with Alien Norse Gods were better with a layer of alcohol between them. It was also a great way to get a bar between him and the crazies. Tony took a risk and opened his helmet.

"I am uncertain of the meaning of many of your words and as such do not understand the argument you are making."

"I am more than a warrior."

Hoder frowned. "Are you sure this is one of Thor's allies?"

"He is one of the ones who aided Thor before." Loki said. "I know not other than that."

"Wait. Didn't you rip out all of Clint's memories before?" Tony said. "To learn about us?"

Loki glared at Stark. Ah, there it was. This was still the mad invading alien who everyone assumed was in Asgardian prison chained to a wall in a pit of vipers or something. Tony commanded the mask to come down in preparation for the fight.

"Hoder, we have delivered the warning. The Man of Iron will undoubtedly inform the warriors of SHIELD of the danger to their realm. We should return to aid Balder and Thor."

"Nay." Hoder said. "We were sent to gain the allies, and we shall. The realms will not want for defenders due to our inability to convince the mortals to aid in their own defense."

"No. I believe the threat is real. What I don't believe is that this entire thing is not Sven's new crazy plan to get us all killed."

"I assure you upon my mother's name that Loki has very little to due with this plan and far less that he can do to do more damage than you are currently doing by delaying us. Loki, know you of the other locations we can meet the Shielded warriors?"

"Nay." Loki said. "Their fortress previously flew upon the air. They have undoubtedly learned the weaknesses in their construction and built another fortress which is not sky-borne. I could scry the location, but it seems a pointless endeavor when my welcome will be far worse than the Man of Iron."

Hoder sighed. Out and out sighed in exasperation.

"Hey, look it's not our fault that you expect us to trust the God of Lies."

Glass shattered, something moved in the corner of Tony's sight and suddenly Hoder was holding an arrow inches from Loki's face. Loki yanked the arrow out of his brother's grasp and threw it towards the window.

Luckily for Clint's ongoing ability to breathe--it did not explode and take out Tony's newly rebuilt glass walls.

Clint arrived at the window by rope ladder from a helicopter or something. His bow was drawn the entire time he let go of the rope, a masterful feat considering he only really had two arms. The Black Widow arrived right behind him with a gun just as Jarvis let the SHIELD agents out of the elevator.

"I would ask your allies to refrain from shooting at my youngest brother again." Hoder said.

"Who are you?" Black Widow demanded.

"This is Hoder, Thor's older half brother." Jane decided to take on the role of introductions. "I'm Doctor Jane Foster. And despite the fact that Loki is here, we're actually trying to save the world."

. . .

Clint knew what happened to him under Loki's control was not Clint's fault. Before he had ever been allowed into the field, Clint had gone through training about how to endure torture of all types. But all of the SHIELD training had not prepared him for mind control. There had been rumors of experiments of Third Reich and clinical studies into the limits of brainwashing and hypnosis.

But that was all.

No preparation for how to heal from violation on a level more intimate than anything else SHIELD had previously conceived of.

In the world after Loki, SHIELD agents were warned of mind control. They went through exercises like they did to ward off the pain of torture, isolation, starvation and other means of breaking people. Experiments were in process to replicate and then learn how to break "Foreign Mental Influence" like the textbooks now called it.

Clint thought that he was over it.

It turned out he wasn't.

Clint did not let go of his bow--strung now with an explosive arrow. He tracked Loki's every movement. This had the added benefit for tracking this Hoder who held onto Loki's arm constantly. Clint wondered what the visor thing was for. He decided to demand the alien remove it.

To check for blue mind controlled eyes.

Clint was annoyed no one else thought of it.

Hoder frowned. Loki explained briefly about the eye color change of the mind control.

"It's either you take off the mask or we hit you over the head." Clint said. "Considering the fact we would have to probably have to get Banner to hit you over the head to get the appropriate amount of damage--Loki can tell you how much the Hulk can hurt you guys."

"The mind control left a visible marker and is removed by an injury to the head? Such an odd form of mind control." Hoder said as he removed the mask. Clint saw Natasha and

Tony stare at the newcomer with unadulterated curiosity. Hoder looked far more likely to be a brother of Thor than Loki did. Clint did not focus on his features, carefully looking for signs of mind control. Hoder's eyes were not the cloudy tesseract blue, nor did they look at all alarmed. They were brown and rather unremarkable. Except that they also did not seem to be focusing on anything in the room.

"How blind are you?" Natasha demanded.

"I cannot even perceive light." Hoder said as he replaced his visor. "It has always been thus."

"But you freaking caught an arrow!" Clint said.

"The visor helps me process sound and air currents." Hoder adjusted his grip on Loki's arm. Clint realized that the grip on Loki's arm served a number of purposes. The first was as a need for guidance from someone who could see, the second was keeping Loki in place to lessen the danger. Clint appreciated the gesture. Hoder obviously didn't trust Loki completely.

"And such an inefficient form of mind control." Hoder said to Loki. "Why would you use that instead of your usual style?"

"Wait, what?" Clint said.

"What other types of mind control are there?" Natasha demanded.

"There are far too many to list here. There are many books on the subject on Asgard and even more on Alfheim." Hoder said. "But in brief there are a number of categories by which it is classified. There is a range in the amount of awareness of the subject during and after being affected, if there are any physical markings, whether it can be fought from within or without, which does it affect and how much of mood, memory, decisions and physical actions. There are some types that require drugs, injections, physical touch or eye contact. Some are limited by range of controller to controllee. Some will leave the affected being mind dead..."

"Okay, we get it." Natasha said. Clint avoided shivering.

"What is Loki's usual style?" Natasha said.

"Subtle manipulation of potential choices with no ability to trace it." Hoder said. "No other side-affects, just a subtle shift in possible choices."

"We have yet again meandered from the proper path of this conversation. Will you aid Thor and Balder in their fight against Malekith?" Loki interrupted.
"How are we going to get to England that quickly?" Clint said. "Or you for that matter?"

"I shall transport you there." Hoder said.

"I'm out." Stark said. "I've gone through enough alien portals for more than a dozen lifetimes. I will stay here and protect Manhattan here in the good US of A where we spell gray and color properly."

"I'm going." Clint said. "I still owe Loki an arrow through his eye."

"We'll arrange to have some SHIELD agents meet us there with some heavy artillery." Natasha said dialing on her com-link.

"What about Captain America and the Green Monster." Loki asked.

"Hulk is at a nice calming retreat where not even SHIELD can find him." Stark said. "And the Captain is in DC last time I checked. And, no, we are not letting the crazy alien anywhere near the capitol of our country."

. . .

Balder and Thor stood ready at the place where the convergence was predicted to appear. The trouble was that they were surrounded by mortals holding up their ever present communication devices. Thor had tried to convince them of the danger, but they seemed to be incapable of realizing the danger they were in. They eventually gave up and stood in the most likeliest place of incursion, ignoring the clicking of the small boxes the Midgardians use to communicate with.

"Hoder said that you are to give up your kingdom for the mortal." Balder said with no introduction.

"I will not hear another word against the Lady Jane. She is a maiden above reproach."

"She is quite beautiful."

"And she has an unparalleled intelligence."

"For one born on Midgard."

"Midgardian or not, I love her as she is." Thor said. "Why cannot my family be happy for me?"

Balder stroked the edge of his broadsword with his thumb. He looked into his younger brother's eyes. There was something deeply sad within them. Something that Thor was not used to seeing in his half-brother's eyes. Balder had always been the happy brother, the who found joy in honor and duty. Sadness did not become him.

"Remember you two hundred years ago?" Balder asked.

"I remember many things of two hundred years ago." Thor ran through his memories. What was he doing two centuries ago? He had just reached his majority about then. He had been gifted Mjonir about that time as well.

"That is when Odin banished us to Alfheim." Balder said.

Thor felt the ground fall away and wondered if the attack has now. It was not.

"I had not heard of this..." Thor began, but Balder continued with his story ignoring Thor.

"It was about the time of the Thrimm debacle."

Thor remembered that time. Loosing a priceless family heirloom to an alien was something that the Thing would not let him forget. Dressing as a bride as part of Loki's ruse was something that his friends would never let him forget, either.

"While you were off attempting to regain Mjolnir Hoder asked formal permission to court Princess Nerthus."

Thor remembered the Vanir princess. She was quite beautiful. She was brilliant and kind and would have been a great match for Hoder.

"But she is married and has a child now..." Thor started.

"Odin forbade Hoder from marrying Nerthus because any children of their union would have been a potential political rival for you."

"What!"

"When it came out that you had lost Mjolnir and then regained it by destroying an entire wedding party, the Thing wanted you disinherited. They were even considering supporting Loki as a viable replacement as your actions proved you irresponsible and a danger to those in your charge."

"But I have changed..."

Balder grinned slightly and distantly. "Yes, Thor. I believe you have, but back then you were very self-absorbed. The Thing went behind Odin to ask if children of Hoder and Nerthus would be an acceptable alternative to the treaty. The Vanir not only agreed, they suggested that I marry one of Nerthus' siblings and if Odin died before our children reached their majority, I would rule as regent."

Thor felt sick. Balder had never been a real rival for Thor's position before. Thor was used to dealing with the theoretical rivalry with Loki, but Thor had always known that Odin's infrequent references that Loki was a candidate for the throne was only Odin assuring Loki was not lesser to Thor in Odin's eyes.

"Odin learned of the bargain and accused us of conspiracy against the crown." Balder said. "And I was quietly exiled to Alfheim. Hoder went screaming. He shouted things at Odin that were treason to speak. Odin graciously forgave him but ordered that Hoder was to never communicate with Nerthus again."

Thor felt like his chest was constrained in armor far too small. What had Thor been doing when his brothers had been exiled?
"Is that why you wrote not for so many years?" Thor said. "This was why you did not visit?"

"Our anger was misplaced." Balder said. "It has been difficult for us these past few centuries. It was hard to pretend joy when we spoke with you. We do not begrudge you your birthright, Thor. We have never sought after your crown. I will love you regardless for you are our younger brother."

"I love you as well, Balder." Thor said.

"From what little I know of your new beau, she is a good woman. But know this, true son of our father and King, if you choose a woman you scarcely know and will only live with for a few decades over your blood kin and duty--it will be difficult to forgive you."

Thor shoved down the anger that now everyone one in his family seemed to hate Jane. He knew that if they would but spend a few days with her with an open mind then they would love her, but not even Balder approved.

"Now that I have delivered Hod's message as promised, I can also add that a few decades with your love is better than nothing at all." Balder said. "You have a big heart, Thor, one that you will undoubtedly follow regardless of the consequences. But for once, please think before you do anything too rash. If that is possible for my most impulsive of brothers."

"Thor!!" A familiar voice drew Thor's attention to a Midgardian woman running towards them. It was Darcy.

"Where's Jane?" Darcy demanded.

"She has gone to help convince the Avengers to aid in the defense of Midgard."

"So this whole world mixing thing is a big deal?" Darcy said. She gestured behind her as Selvig and another Midgardian male caught up to her. "Selvig's a little obsessed with it. Said the ancient civilizations left messages about it. We're here to measure the weirdness level for science reasons."

"The Convergence is considered to be the event that has ensured that sentient life developed on all nine of the worlds of the Yggdrasil branches in a most similar time." Balder said. "It is also the cause of related species being found on different planets.

"Who are you?" Darcy said as Thor greeted Selvig briefly. "And what's the Igdrizzle?"

"I am Balder Hlójarson."

Thor had always been sad that Balder was not permitted the term Odinson even though everyone knew it.

"Balder!" Selvig pulled away from Thor to stare at Balder in what seemed to be shock. "You're still alive?"

"I am. Why believed you that I was dead?" Balder said confused.

"Myths, old ancient myths, though not so old to you." Selvig said. "But the worst has not happened yet. No. Our myths--the Norse thought you were gods had stories about you. But they are not always right. I mean they were right about Thor and the hammer and the thunder and they were right about the rainbow bridge and Loki being evil--don't trust Loki!"

"Why would I not trust my youngest brother?" Balder asked.

"Your brother?" Selvig said.

"He is the son of Odin." Balder said. "Regardless of his birth."

"Wait, Thor, you have more brothers?" Darcy said. "Why didn't you say something?"

"We are related by Odin alone." Thor said.

"Wait...oh. I got ya." Darcy said. "Those myths can't always be that far off. What I need to know is did or did not Loki give birth to an eight legged-horse? I've got money on it."

Thor wished he had one of the Midgardian boxes to take a photo of Balder's face. It was most hilarious.

"I worry about these Midgardian myths." Balder said. "Surely a being of Loki's size giving birth to warhorse should not be considered a believable rumor."

"So yes or no on the m-preg possibilities? Inquiring minds want to know."

Balder stood there with a lost look on his face for a moment before looking at Thor for help. Thor grinned.

"Is Loki with you?" Selvig asked, drawing attention away from the awkwardness. Thor knew that of all of the mortals, Selvig had the most reason to hate Loki. Thor wished that his

friend had stayed away from this site of convergence. Telling him of Loki's light sentence was a very difficult thing.

"Loki is with Hoder." Balder said. "They should return when they have gained the assistance of the shielded warriors and the ones sworn to avenge."

"YOU BROUGHT LOKI?" Darcy asked. "I mean how stupidly crazy is that?"

"He is the only one of us who can travel the realms without Bifrost." Thor said trying to be reasonable. "We needed him to aid in the defense of Midgard."

"Loki was supposed to be gone forever." Selvig said. "He's a mass murderer! You can't trust him."

"I do not." Thor said.

"Thor..." Balder graveled.

"Loki did much damage in his madness. He killed many Midgardians. He tried to kill me twice. He took over the minds of others! I cannot forgive him. I care not that he was ill in his mind. Father was guilt does not make it right."

"Thor--"

"Nay, Balder. I will not forgive him."

Balder grabbed Thor's arm and drew him in close. "You are far too candid in front of strangers."

"They are not strangers; they are friends."

Balder's eyes flickered in anger, but Thor saw him tamp down the anger. "You, son of Odin, have the right to be angry at Loki, it is true. You do not have the right to abandon your blood duties."

"You forget that Loki is not truly blood."

"You are a fool, Thor." Balder tightened his grip. "This is a chance for us all to start anew."

"You can preach of a new beginning, but you were not there." Thor growled. "You did not have to fight him again and again. To hear him laugh at the misery of others. To hear him tell me father was dead, just to cause me pain! To have to have the Midgardians pity me because I failed my brother. No! It was not I who failed him. He was the one to cause this because he was jealous."

"It is more complicated..."

"No. It is not my fault that I was born to wedded parents and am the only legal heir. I am sick and tired of the jealousy of my brothers."

"I AM NOT JEALOUS." Balder shouted. "What I am tired of is having to apologize for every stupid thing my younger brothers do. What are you to accuse Loki of a lenient sentence when you served less than a month for starting a war."

"Loki tricked me into it."

"STOP RUNNING AWAY!" Balder snapped. "You flee from every truly difficult thing in your life."

"I do not run!"

"You flee everything Thor! You do not enjoy your studies so you flee to the training yards. You surround yourself with sycophants instead of advisors. You fear commitment so you sleep with every woman that catches your eye. You spent your entire childhood blaming Loki for every little mistake you made..."

"They were his idea..."

"He's YOUNGER than you!" Balder shouted. "And now that your within reach of your crown you want to give up because Midgard is easier."
Thor stared at Balder. He wanted to snap back, but he didn't know how to respond to that. Midgard was not "easier." On Midgard he didn't have his Asgardian friends. The culture was strange, things tasted funny, the ale was watery, everything was far too delicate, his friends would die within decades...

"I am not running away."

Balder snorted.

Thor was never so glad that an alien ship landed filled with enemies before.

. . .

Hoder transported the group into the midst of battle. Malekith had apparently arrived a few minutes before the Convergence in order to cement the ideal location for his plan. Loki barely had to think to whip out the daggers that Hoder gave him and his other brothers had forgotten to search for when he surrendered the dagger he had used in his previous deception.

Fighting the Svartálfar was not like fighting the Ljósálfar, like a one would assume considering that the Ljósálfar had evolved from the Svartálfar relatively recently on a astrological timescale. The Ljósálfar tended to favor long distance weapons and in a melee tended to fight with dance-like elegance--which could actually be exploited by the knowledgeable fighter. The Svartálfar on the other hand fought with a brutal and grim determination to never give ground. It was more like fighting a small troll or even a frostless ice giant.

Loki's thoughts shied away from that comparison as he stabbed one of the dark elves in the back and shoved him into an open porthole.
Loki spotted Thor fighting the now giant Malekith with his hammer. What a stupid use of power. Malekith has an Infinity Stone and he makes himself larger? If Loki had an Infinity Stone he would...bargain it away to Thanos for an army to take over mortals.

Loki was glad that he could blame the madness and the Chitauri cult for that plan because in hindsight it had been really stupid. It was rather embarrassing all together.
Loki noticed that the spider had taken to electrocuting a dark elf and holding him in place for the hawk to stab it through an opening in the armor with an arrow.
Loki spared a thought to find Thor's human watching with Selvig. He almost felt sorry for the man. The human brain had not yet managed to evolve into something capable of thinking in eleven dimensions yet. Dumping a bunch of isolated facts into such a slow mind had to have done some damage.

And there when Mjolnir into the sky--despite having trained with Mjolnir for centuries, Thor still could not get the power levels right.

Loki shoved another enemy into an opening between the realms. Loki wondered how long it was going to take to track them all down. Maybe Odin would let Loki volunteer to help. As much as Loki complained about training, a good fight was a great way to relieve stress.

Loki narrowly dodged a staff and realized it belonged to Hoder. Loki identified himself swiftly. Hoder was good at identifying where a person was, but in a fight he could not determine friend from foe.

"How goes the fight?" Hoder asked as Loki took a position at his brother's back.

"The shielded warriors are fighting well for mortals. They are not currently in need of rescuing."

"What of our brothers?" Hoder's staff blocked a blade with a clang.

"Thor engages Malekith with the grace he always wields Mjolnir. Balder seems to have taken a blow to his arm, but he fights on."

"The battle goes well then?"

"Aye." Loki said.

There was a sharp pain in his stomach. He spared a glance to find a knife. Apparently at least a few Svartálfar fought like Ljósálfar after all. Loki had forgotten that he was not wearing his armor. Armor that he had worn for centuries into battle.

Armor that Odin had melted down because Loki was no longer a Warrior.

Despite the fact that he was probably going to die in battle today because there were two dark elves converging on him, and Hoder was engaged with another. Wounded and with only daggers, Loki only had the time to block one of the coming blows.

 

Loki had never believed in Vallhalla before.

He still didn't.

Loki blocked the one headed for his head but he did not make it in time to do more than deflect the one to his gut. The sword dug in deep, far more painful than the thrown dagger. Loki wished futilely for his armor. For any armor.

And then Loki felt warm. The dark elf cursed and let go of the sword. The dark elf was hit in the head by Hoder. At least Loki would not be alone on his trip into the darkness.

. . .

Hoder often wished he could see, not always, but often enough. It was hard being blind in a society where one's ability to fight was prized above all else. Hoder had managed over the centuries to perfect a way to keep himself alive when he periodically found himself in battle. It involved staying in one place and hitting anything that came within reach.

The most assistance he could lend or take was fighting with one of his brothers near his back. They knew how to avoid getting in his way. Balder also knew them well enough to isolate their location by sound.

Hoder heard the think of what sounded like a dagger hitting flesh. Loki's pained gasp. The smell of blood surrounding them too strong to confirm that way that Loki was wounded. There was a metalic sound of a dagger deflecting a blow and the sound of a sword hitting followed by the sound of Loki in pain.
Hoder smashed his opponent's head in with his staff. He had to get to Loki.

But in a battlefield taking a step was more treacherous than Hoder's usual trek in unfamiliar territory. Hoder braved the unknown with steps less cautious than he should take. He heard the dark elf scream in pain and the sudden decrease in temperature.

At least Loki would be easier to find this way.

Hoder nearly tripped over a downed body on his way towards the cold. He scarcely noticed that someone was nearby. One had an ancient styled bow. It must be a Midgardian trying to help. Hoder was grateful because he was not in any condition to fight.

"Hoder." Loki's voice helped Hoder orient himself. He fell to the ground and searched for the coldness.

"Don't. Can't control it."

Hoder ignored Loki. He ignored the cold, and the battle, and the frostbitten pain to complete an emergency teleportation towards Thor's current beau. He made sure to calculate that he would end up within a close radius to her, inside a building, and not on top of any debris.

When he arrived Jane was currently discussing with the older Seidrmann how to change his detection devices into a way to control the openings between the realms. It sounded both implausible and possibly incredibly dangerous. Even if it did work, the mortals would be dumping enemies into unsuspecting populouses. There were places in Niflheim and Alfenheim that lived by a pacifistic code---imagining some Dark Elves dropped there made Hoder colder than the current tepmerature of his adopted little brother.
Yet another example of why humans were well known for being a short-sighted and narcissistic race.

But this was not the time for worst case scenarios and bemoaning the idiocy of the mortals. Hoder had to get Loki out of the danger zone so that he could heal on his own. The blades of the Dark Elves were known to contain a compound that slightly inhibited the healing rate of Asgardians. Hoder was not certain of the compound's effect on a Jotun.
Loki was freezing cold. Hoder remembered the coldness of the Jotnar skin. Hoder had been a Seidrmann attached to the unit that Balder led in the last war with the Frost Giants. They had both been so young back then. Far too young to be at war, and yet as Thor had just been born, assets that Odin could order into the war to prove his dedication to the cause without risking his heirs.

Was it his and Balder's stories that had started this? Was this all their fault that Thor craved war and Loki feared his own skin?
To think that the coldness of the feared Jotnar would fill Hoder with hope. Jotnar warmed after their death--Loki was still dangerous to touch which meant he was still alive. Hoder kept his investigation to Loki's clothes as much as possible. They had clearly been designed to withstand the dramatic change in temperature--a sensible precaution which Hoder suspected was Frigga's.

It was about this time that Hoder noticed that the human conversation had stopped. Footsteps that were probably Jane's were headed towards them.

"Why is Loki blue?"

"He's a frost giant." Hoder said. He heard Jane moving towards Loki. "Don't touch him!"

"At least they got that right." Jane's elderly male companion said. Hoder was not in the mood to puzzle that out.

Hoder meanwhile had pulled out a satchel from his coat. His hands were shaking. Hoder was having trouble holding it.

"Let me help." Jane said.

Hoder tossed the bag at her general direction and instructed that she pull out several stones. Hoder went back to paying attention to Loki.

"I need you to turn it off." Balder said. "Can you turn back or stop freezing everything?"

"Can't." Loki said weakly.

"Yes, you can. This is only a defense mechanism. You have to calm down."

"Not afraid of me."

"How could I be afraid of my little brother." Hoder said. "We have to take the blades out now."

"Not...brother."

"We discussed this earlier. You are my brother and not amount of trouble is going to change that."

Loki spasmed with pain. Hoder took off his jacket and wrapped the hilt of the sword with it. He gestured to Jane. She handed back the pouch and Hoder fished out a gem. Hoder grabbed the sword and with a mighty yell somewhere between determination and pain he wrenched it free. Loki screamed in pain and Hoder dropped down to crush the jewel in his hand and sprinkle it on the wound. The process was repeated with the knife.

"You are going to be fine." Hoder said wiping the liquid off on his shirt only to wince in pain.

"You shouldn't have touched me." Loki's eyes were half closed.

"Like I'm afraid of a little frostbite." Hoder laughed with an edge of pain.

"Malekith..."

"Balder and Thor be victorious."

"I don't know. It doesn't look good." Jane doubted the might of the sons of Odin. Hoder decided that one was allowed a few dark thoughts at a battle that might signal the end of the universe. "But maybe...Selvig can I see those? Maybe there is a way to turn Selvig's detection devices into a way to manipulate the openings."

Hoder was not sure what hurt more, the frostbite or the stupid plan the mortals were hatching. Devices designed to detect the openings between the realms tended to be relatively basic. A simple echo effect achieved by sending out a tiny trace of energy and then translating the reflections. If the detection devices were strong enough to affect the barrier between realms in any significant way then they were very crude and sending out far too much energy. Enough energy to make Hoder worry about imminent explosions brought about by primitive construction methods and inferior Midgardian materials.

"Shouldn't that be healing like super quick?" One of the mortals asked. Hoder turned his attention away from where the mortals were possibly creating a very large and unstable bomb to the younger female friend of Thor's lover. The mortal seemed to be gesturing at his hands.

"The touch of a frost giant takes a few days to heal even under the best of care." Hoder said. The pain was returning with a vengeance now that his attention was back on his injury.

...

"You shouldn't have touched me." Loki said as Hoder tried to function with his discolored hands. He tried to sit up, but the pain made him decide that horizontal was a perfectly acceptable position to be in.

"That was not going to happen." Hoder said.

Hoder's hands did not look good. They needed to get home to Asgard to seek appropriate medical care as soon as possible. Hoder needed his hands. They were how he learned about the outside world in absence of his sight. Loki unthinkingly reached out to help Hoder wrap the bandages, but his blue hands reminded him that he was the cause of the damage.

"I'm sorry." Loki said. "I should have fought better."

"And we should have garbed you in appropriate armor." Hoder shook his head. "It is far too easy to forget that much has changed since we last spoke."

Loki flinched at that. A few centuries ago Loki had been an Odinson. Now he was a liar and a pretender to his own identity. Loki knew he was supposed to be working on this. His mind healer insisted on it. He had really been a Jotun the entire time, but it did not feel that way. It felt like Loki had been Asgardian before and now he was a monster.

"We did not mean it." Hoder said.

Loki did not know what he was talking about and so he remained silent.

"We should not have told you that the monsters under the bed were Jotnar. If we had known we would have told you that they were fire giants."

"Fire giants..."

"We would never have teased you for being small, or having dark hair." Hoder said. "We'd have told you we loved you more and not been jealous that you had a higher rank than us."

"You would have been scared of me."

"Never." Hoder said. "It is terribly difficult to be afraid of a tiny baby who just loved to be held. You used to make this adorable little noise and hold my hand. And then as soon as you learned to walk you would lead me around and give me objects so that I could feel what was interesting."

"But if you knew that I was this hideous blue..."

"What is this blue that people use? What does the blind man care about a specific wavelength of radiation that people with a specific range of sight has designated with a specific name?" Hoder interrupted.

"Cold, then. Frozen solid through and through."

"I'd have worn gloves." Hoder held up his hands. "Balder would have spent the first few years of your life designing comfortable armor that would have let us cuddle you properly. We'd have taken you on more trips if only to carry the meat in your pack so that we would not have needed to dry it."

"Balder would have been happy not to have to eat dried meat all of the time." Loki joked. He regretted the jerk to his abdomen.

"Right! And he'd have not named the first sword he gave you Lævateinn."

"Damage twig..." Loki groaned. It had been a very nice sword, but it had been embarrassing to introduce in battle. Eventually, Loki had lost it in the hide of a dragon Thor had killed over a large body of water. His precious Lævateinn probably remained in the oceans of Vanheim until this day.

"He'd have named it something like icicle or frostbite."

Loki groaned. "How goes the battle?"

"I know not." Hoder said. "But I doubt that the battle will be aided much by our return."

. . .

Balder lowered his blood slicked sword to the ground as Thor managed to trip Malekith into an open porthole. It had been a tough battle, but a well fought one. He took personal stock of his body despite knowing that the adrenaline coursing through him undoubtedly masked some of the injuries. Once he was pretty sure that he was not badly injured, he turned around looking for the ones that he held dear.

Thor was injured, but he would undoubtedly be better served by his lady love who was running toward him. Her companions followed in her wake. Some of the mortals had fallen, not the one named after the bird or the spider, but other shielded warriors. Balder still did not understand why they called themselves shielded warriors but did not bear shields, wear armor, or even cover themselves more than the average Midgardian. Balder mentally added it to the list of Midgardian peculiarities, and continued searching.

Hoder and Loki were the members of Balder's family always at the greatest risk. Balder hated how Thor took Loki out on adventures that he clearly was not skilled enough to go on and then not protect him adequately. Hoder, stupid, stubborn and overly proud Hoder. A blind man did not have any reason to be on a battlefield, but that never stopped Hoder. Balder loved his twin, but a great deal of Balder's stress could be eliminated if Hoder would just accept that he was handicapped.

Stupid stubborn little brothers.

But Balder could not imagine them any other way.

But Balder did not see them. This was not good. The fact that he did not see a body was good, though. But what if they had fallen through the openings with the Dark Elves and continued to battle on another realm? What if their bodies had fallen through and Balder would never have a body to burn on the boat?

"What concerns you, my brother?" Thor asked taking a moment from enjoying his victory with his mortal.

"Where are our brothers?" Balder asked.

Thor looked startled. "Has Loki run away?"

Balder stiffened. Thor had just finished a bloody battle and his first thought was that Loki had run away? How badly had their relationship degraded that Thor's first thought was

that Loki was to blame for any misfortunes?

"They are over in the library." Jane said. Balder was grateful for her presence. Balder was not in the mood to teach proper behavior to his little brother. "They were hurt."
Balder stopped listening. He started immediately toward the library as fast as he could with his remaining strength. If there was one being that Balder could not live without it was his twin. Balder would prefer to die than be left to face the universe without Hoder's constant presence. Balder could do without lovers, friends, and even other family members, but a universe without Balder was simply unfathomable.

Balder had not covered half of the distance when Hoder and Loki appeared walking through the door. Whatever the wound had been, it had not been enough to permanently maim. It took another quarter of the distance to realize that Hoder's hands were wrapped.

"What is wrong with your hands, brother?"

"Nothing too great." Balder said.

"The hazards of rendering aid to a frost giant." Loki said. "We are returning to Asgard. I'm assured you and Thor can find your way back?"

"I will go with you." Balder said. "I have no need to linger with the Midgardians. Thor can summon Heimdall in his own time."

. . .

Thor took a few hours to finish up before taking leave of his human friends and taking the sky skiff back through the Bifrost. He was a little annoyed that Balder and Hoder did not stick around to be introduced to all of his friends, including Stark who had flown to England as fast as he could. On the other hand, it was wise of them to take Loki home away from the Midgardians. The Migardians had kept on complaining about how Loki's sentence was far too lenient. Thor had found it difficult to explain, especially when secretly agreed.

But then Loki was his brother and he loved him. He wanted him to get better. He was glad that Loki had not be executed. He was glad that Loki had a chance to redeem himself.

Loki had been a valuable asset this entire venture.

And yet someplace deep inside Thor wondered if Loki was still just pretending. Thor feared that one day he would turn around to find Loki's dagger in it.
It was a good thing to keep Loki away from Midgard.

Just in case.

To protect them from each other.

Thor walked to the throne room with trepidation. He had been avoiding thinking about this confrontation as much as possible. Jane had assured him it was a good idea. He did not want to be king. The anticipation he had felt his entire life when he contemplated his future reign as monarch of Asgard and leader of the rest of the nine realms was replaced with trepidation. The solution was simple in theory, but difficult to go through with.

Thor greeted his mother with a hug. It was tighter and longer than Thor usually gave. This might be the last time that Thor hugged her. How disappointed would his mother be with him in the next few minutes? Would she come to visit him if he was banished again?

But this was the best way for everyone. Thor listened to his mother inform him that Hoder's frozen hands were minor, and Loki's wounds were healing nicely. Balder was still in the healing rooms with them if Thor wanted to join them.

Thor felt a little guilty that he had not even noticed two of his brothers were wounded, even if it was minor. He thought about going to visit them one last time, but if he went to visit them he might lose his nerve. He already knew their opinions.

If only Loki had not lost his mind, his position as a warrior and his place in the succession, he would be getting his dream come true in a few hours. It was sad for him in a way.
Balder would probably inherit now. He'd be good at being king. Amazing, probably. So much better than Thor ever could have been.

This was the best way.

"I wish to speak with Father." Thor said.

Frigga smiled softly. "He has been waiting for you in the throne room. I believe I know what you will ask of him, but are you sure it is a path you wish to take? Jane was quite

lovely, but you barely know her."

"This is more than about Jane." Thor shook his head. "I have learned much about myself these last few years, and I know now that I am not suited to rule."

"What?" Frigga said. "You are not going to ask for permission to marry Jane?"

"No, Mother. Please do not be disappointed in me." Thor clasped her hands in his. "But I do not desire to be king. I cannot sacrifice my love, my life, and my very being to the throne like Father has. I desire my freedom."

"Oh, my sweet son." Frigga said. She took one hand and placed it on his cheek. "I am surprised at your decision, but I understand why. You were always a noble warrior above all else. Ruling would have been a terrible strife for you, but you would have led well in the end. Please reconsider. Ask to be stationed on Midgard for a few centuries, but do not refuse the crown."

"No. This is what I need to do. This is who I need to be. Please, if you truly do understand, do not ask me to change my mind."

Frigga embraced Thor again.

"Be well, my son."

Frigga left Thor's side, gliding away. Part of Thor wished for her to stay, for her to be a calming influence that she always was in conversations between Thor and his father. But Frigga knew than this was something that Thor had to do alone. Thor continued to walk calmly in direct opposition to the blood racing in his veins. Thor's heart beat at a tempo he had never experienced even in battle.

This would be the first step to becoming his own being.

No longer Thor, the crown prince.

No longer Thor, the future king of Asgard.

Simply Thor, a good man.

The guards opened the doors to the throne room, and the waiting was over. It was time to disappoint Odin.

. . .

As soon as Thor entered the Throne room, Odin knew that he was going to do something foolish. It was not too hard a guess as Thor often got it in his head to do foolish things.

The timing of this foolish thing was not good. Thor would expect a boon for delivering the final blow to Malekith despite the haphazard and risky way that he went about it.

But then, that was probably Odin's fault. Odin had been far too indulgent of his children. It was hard to really pay attention to them when he had a realm to rule and eight others to oversee.

"What do you desire, my son." Odin asked. Thor had a very determined look on his face. Odin was not fond of that look. It was a familiar prelude to any number of arguments over the centuries.

"Father, I cannot be king of Asgard." Thor said. And there it was. Odin gritted his teeth as Thor continued. "I will continue to protect Asgard and the nine realms with my very last breath, but I cannot do so from that chair."

"How quick you are to change your tune, Thor." Odin snorted. "Was it only a few years ago we stood here that coronation that began this nightmare?"
"Many things have changed since then." Thor said. "I have learned much."

"Not enough!" Odin banged the ground with his spear.

"I cannot make the decisions that you are forced to make. I cannot order millions to their deaths. I have learned that I would rather be a good man than a great king."
"What did you think kingship was this last millennia?" Odin shouted. "Did you not study the ways of governance? Did you not sit with me on councils of both war and state! Were you not paying attention this entire time?"

"I regret that I did not comprehend."

"All of this for a human girl? What will you do when your mortals die?" Odin sneered. This was all the fault of the humans. Short-sighted creatures with no understanding of the broader impact of their actions.

"This is not about my friends!" Thor raised his voice finally.

"Lie not! It is they who have led you astray. I curse my foolish decision to send you to that blighted realm. Had I but punished you in a different way this all would not have come to pass."

"This is not about the humans! This is about how I am not able to be king! I cannot sit upon a throne and order others to die for me when I can aid them."

"Call me then a coward?" Odin shouted. "It is you who is a coward! Running away from your birthright. Running away from your responsibilities."

"I am not a coward!"

"If you leave then you leave everything." Odin said. "I will not have a coward as a son."

Odin was sure that the threat would work. There was no way that Thor would give up everything. Not for a mortal woman and a handful of her friends. He would not choose them over his family and his life long friends.

And then Thor let go of Mjolnir. He unclasped his cloak, and his armor.

Odin fumed.

Odin regretted.

Odin sat impassively as Thor said his final words.

"I would rather be a good man, than a great king."

And Odin was silent as he watched the only true Odinson walk back to Bifrost and away from everything that had previously defined him.

. . .

"Odin is an idiot sometimes. He should know that giving an ultimatum to Thor is like challenging him do just do something. They are just so unbelievably stubborn. If only Odin gave him a few decades away from his duties." Hoder said. The three remaining brothers gathered in Loki's room as Loki had been returned to his house arrest.

Due to Loki's punishment and lack of position, and Hoder's time in the infirmary. Balder had been the only one present at the ignomious public ceremony where Thor had been stripped of his position in the succession, his title, and his rights as a citizen of Asgard.

His rights as a warrior had been left, however, in deference to his years of victorious service.

Odin had even returned Mjolnir to the treasury.

Balder was now the heir to the throne, and he had wept over it. Ever since a few days after Thor's birth when Balder had accepted his little brother was the prince, he had never desired the throne. The possibility of his inheritance had always included the death or disgrace of one, and then a few decades later, two of his brothers.

"Be careful how you speak." Balder warned. He was not about to lose his twin to another banishment so soon after the lifting of the first.

"Odin and Thor will repair their relationship eventually." Loki said. "This is only slightly worse than the dragon invasion incident seven decades ago. Thor will manage to prove

that he is the most worthy Asgardian, and Odin will forgive him. It always happens this way."

"I worry this is different."

"Asgard is not whole without Thor." Loki insisted. "Odin's ire will cool eventually, and Thor will realize that he has been most foolish. There will be some attack that requires Thor's aid, and everything will be back to normal. Just watch."

Balder silently watched his youngest brother fiddle with a pen on his desk. It was possible that with Loki's therapy he was becoming more optimistic. It was far more likely that Loki was trying to convince himself that there were still constants in his universe when even his own species had proven a lie. Balder let the matter rest for the moment. There was nothing left in his world to do but wait and hope for a future that was like the way things used to be.