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life's great lie

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The insolent projection called “Miss Minutes” blathers away about the destruction of the timeline and the collapse of reality as she knows it, high on her own self-importance. Loki ignores the lecture- a skill born of necessity, for the All-Father could grow quite long-winded at the least opportune times.

 

Instead he asks, “Are you a recording or are you alive?”

 

“Uh, sorta both,” she cheeps back.

 

He’d like to smack her with his stolen jet-ski pamphlet. Every instinct tells him to smack her, to see if there’s any impact to be made, or if she’s entirely an illusion.

 

Instead, Loki does what he isn’t supposed to.

 

He stops to think.

 

(Are those mutually exclusive possibilities, being a recording and being alive? If everyone is reading lines in a pre-written play, what else does “life” mean? Is the only mark of the living that they can feel as they act, that they get the privilege of suffering the disappointment and the pain and the gnawing self-hatred as they watch themselves make one poor choice after another, with no chance to tear themselves off the scripted track?)

 

(Loki is alive. Is he any more than an insolent projection?)

 

“What precisely was I arrested for?” Loki asks. 

 

(The TVA has answered this before, though not to his satisfaction. This cartoon is more likely to indulge repeated questions than anyone else here.)

 

“You were arrested for crimes against the Sacred Timeline,” she responds promptly.

 

“Because I picked up the Tesseract?”

 

“Exactly!”

 

“So in the proper sanctioned timeline I don’t pick up the Tesseract?”

 

“That’s correct. You’re doing great, Loki!”

 

“Is that because the Tesseract doesn’t end up near me in the first place?”

 

“That is classified information and not relevant to this training,” comes the chipper, useless response.

 

This time he does lash out, before either of them fully realizes it. He grazes her (weightless, nonexistent) foot just as she leaps away with a yelp and dives into the safety of the computer screen. She scolds him, but she sounds perky about it.

 

He stares back at her until Mobius drags him away, and even then the anger doesn’t yield. He does his best to understand it- it seems so important to understand “what makes a Loki tick,” as if he can be boiled down for eternity to a sentence or two- and finds it’s possessive anger.

 

That witless ceaseless sunniness reminds him of Thor. And though Loki had never liked that trait in his brother, this “Miss Minutes” doesn’t even deserve to imitate it.

 


 

Time passes differently in the TVA. 

 

This variant has left remarkably few clues in their wake (despite what he tells the TVA, Loki knows better than to assume every version of himself goes by “he”), yet they’ve managed to generate heaps of paperwork. It takes Loki longer than he’d like to admit to comb through it, because the TVA’s impenetrable jargon constantly sends him scurrying to reference books, only to find that half the reference books are impenetrable- classified. 

 

It doesn’t help that the All-Tongue has abandoned him in this place, making even the plain English twice as tricky to read. 

 

Ordinarily, he’d skim a thousand words a minute, buoyed by the All-Tongue’s power. Ordinarily, the All-Tongue’s magic allows Asgardians fluency in languages they’ve barely studied, competence in languages never even heard of. Ordinarily, Loki could pour the full force of his will and charm into the magic when he spoke, and the magic would spin silvertongued sentences to exquisitely convey his intent. But there is no magic here.

 

(He’s made do thus far with his own mundane knowledge of English, but speech now takes effort, and that effort does tend to get in the way of charm. It’s no wonder nobody listens to him here. Of course, the real reason charm no longer works for Loki might be that everyone knows him now, knows that under his mask lies a slithering poisonous double-tongued creature, a monster worthy of nothing and certainly not of trust.)

 

“Hey, Loki!” Mobius says. “Let’s get some rest, huh?”

 

He moseys over with his own brand of folksy charm. It’s practically impossible not to trust him. Loki doesn’t like it at all.

 

He smiles back, a serpent’s sentiment that reassures no one. “Gladly.”

 


 

Time passes differently in the TVA.

 

Loki doesn’t know the schedule here (it’s probably classified, like everything else worth knowing), so he can only hope he hasn’t frittered away all the hours designated for sleeping on his insomniac unrest. His stolen Tesseract glimmers in the corner of his assigned quarters, the one trace of personality or color in an otherwise grey-and-beige, spiritless room. It’s still somewhat useful that way, as a pleasant blue nightlight.

 

He laughs, cackling villainously for no audience but himself. The Tesseract is reduced to a nightlight, as if it was meant for chasing the darkness away and not for ushering it in. Its light hasn’t dimmed yet, but the thrum of power that ought to surround it, forceful and fierce as a star’s corona, is simply silent.

 

Magic is dead here. 

 

There ought to be magic sewn into the world, invisible strings of power running through every molecule, just waiting for some master sorcerer to pluck them. Even in Niflheim, a supposedly deadened realm, there was potent magic hanging in the mists. Even in the Void, a vacuum lacking all else, Loki had felt raw tendrils of magic, snapping against his body like live wires. 

 

But the TVA is the real Void, isn’t it? Loki can find no magic here. It’s as if he’s been blindfolded, been deprived of senses he’d never known he possessed. The creeping lack suffocates him the more he thinks about it.

 

(And he knows suffocation, knows what it is to gasp for air, windpipe pinched under the Other’s thumb and promises ground out under the Other’s boot and the Mind Gem penetrating his soul and he’ll never be free, he’ll never breathe freely again-)

 

He grasps at his throat and finds no hand but his own. That’s not enough to convince his runaway brain of safety.

 

By the time he comes back to himself, he’s lost track of time entirely. Drained and weary, he teeters on the threshold of sleep, half-plotting, half-dreaming. 

 

What was he arrested for?

 

For picking up the Tesseract. It’s the one pillar of the TVA’s story that’s stayed consistent. But that implies that in the “sacred” timeline, he didn’t pick up the Tesseract. Either the TVA manipulated that other timeline and kept the Tesseract from ever coming within reach, snatching away all hope of escape, or they manipulated him into letting the Tesseract linger at his feet, without picking it up. It’s debatable which option terrifies him worse.

 

(“Freedom is life’s great lie,” he’d once declared. He used to think that sentence was a lie.)

 

It’s clear what sort of nightmare he’s fallen into. An imperial government, guided by a sacred leader floating above critique, rules a disparate hodgepodge of worlds from a detached higher realm through the power of sweeping surveillance and, well, power.

 

Loki’s heard this story before.

 


 

“Sleep well?” Mobius prompts, knocking on Loki’s door in what must pass for morning in this windowless fortress.

 

“Perfectly,” Loki says, curling his lying mouth into a smile.

 


 

Asgard is doomed.

 

His sacred self will live to see it, according to the few records the TVA’s tight-lipped librarian will allow him to access. It’ll be Surtur’s work. More accurately, it’ll be Loki’s work, a desperate ploy to stop his …

 

His adopted sister?

 

(Goddess of Death, imprisoned by her own father and wiped from history. Even Thor hadn’t known about her. And that means Loki had been right, with every nightmare Mother had ever soothed away, with every paranoid theory he’d dismissed as insane and swallowed down silently. He’d been right. If he failed as a prince, he’d be locked up where no one would find him again. If he failed as Odin’s child, Odin himself would erase him from memory, as if he’d never existed at all.)

 

(Had Loki been her replacement? When Loki fell off Odin’s chosen track, had the All-Father begun making plans to prune him, so to speak, and change him for an even more tractable child?) 

 

He ought to ignore the implications of this revelation. He ought to glide over them, searching only for evidence about the Variant. Instead he does what he ought not to.

 

He lingers over the records of Asgard’s downfall, and he imagines, in indulgent detail, giving the All-Father a piece of his mind.

 

The apocalypses give him an insight; the alternate version of himself is no doubt hiding within them, cloaking their presence with chaos. Loki could turn them in at once. He could track them down, bring them back in chains, use that goodwill to prove himself worthy of the Timekeepers’ attention, and use that opening to steal the throne for himself.

 

(Of course, he’s tried this plan before. He tried winning Odin’s goodwill and the throne of Asgard with the corpse of King Laufey. And that had worked out so very well for him.)

 

He takes more time to plot his next move. That’s all he has now, time. The first bit of free time ever since that cursed coronation, though he supposes “free” is a strong word to throw around the TVA.

 


 

“The Timekeepers don’t monitor everything with equal care,” Loki states, dropping into the seat opposite Mobius.

 

To his credit, Mobius quickly wipes the alarm off his face. He puts down his sandwich, wipes a spot of sauce off his mouth, and settles back into his chair with crossed arms. “What makes you say that?”

 

“The fact that you haven’t already captured all the Variants that’ll ever exist.”

 

Mobius shrugs. “The Timekeepers make judgments about what’s worth looking into.”

 

“And so does the Variant,” Loki says.

 

Interest sparks in Mobius’s eyes. He makes a gesture, inviting elaboration.

 

“Oh? You’d like me to talk more now?”

 

Mobius rolls his eyes. “If you would, Your Highness.”

 

Loki nearly rolls his eyes at the title. “The Variant must be hiding somewhere where you can’t see him. The obvious choice is somewhere where you won’t see him, because the TVA doesn’t consider it worthy of attention. Some desolate place that’s meant to be uninhabited, where there aren’t usually life-forms to-“ spy on- “examine. Or some point in time so chaotic that it’s not worth it to notice every little thing that goes wrong.”

 

Apocalypses, he doesn’t yet say. Loki stalls for time.

 

“Huh,” Mobius grunts. “Could work.”

 

“The other possibility is he’s found a way to walk around like a regular person without tripping your alarms. Of course, to verify that, I’d need access to all of the TVA’s timeline monitoring technology…”

 

Right on cue, Mobius waggles his finger. “Oh, no, that’s not going to work. Come on, you really think we’d let you in that easily?”

 

Loki splutters, feigning surprise and then defeat. Mobius chuckles, immeasurably pleased at figuring out the God of Mischief’s plan.

 


 

Mobius hasn’t figured out Loki’s plan. He can’t have. Loki hasn’t even figured out his plan just yet.

 

He is once again stalling for time, spinning empty words, pretending to the world and himself that he isn’t hopelessly stuck in a trap of his own making. There is a way out of this Hel, even if he hasn’t found it yet.

 

Even if he never will.

 

This place is uniquely hellish for him, specifically. If Thor was here instead, he would have had brute strength on his side and a reputation for integrity. The All-Father would have his mind, unscrambled by the Void, unscathed by the Other’s savagery. Mother would have her smile, that warm, luminous heart that could make anyone care about her.

 

Loki is alone, untrusted, stripped of his charm and his magic. 

 

Magic alone kept him alive in Thanos’s prison. Left alone after each round of torments, bruised or bleeding or charred nearly to ash, he would unfold one shaking hand like the petals of a flower and conjure up fireworks, just enough to fill one palm, just enough to provide a spark of light in the darkness. He clung to his magic and with it, his last pretenses of sanity.

 

But magic is dead here. 

 

(He can feel himself fading to match it. It’s his only choice, isn’t it? The TVA can say he was made to cause pain and suffering and death, to make others shine brighter by comparison, but even that is a generous lie, too grand a legacy for one like him. His only birthright was to die.)

 

Loki gasps and clutches his head, his dimly lit room swimming before his eyes. Shuddering, he scratches away the tears and forces his fists away and unfolds them, considering the blood these hands have spilled. There are no fireworks to comfort him now, and so he considers the clean creamy skin, tinged blue by the light of the Tesseract-

 

Wait a minute.

 

Wait.

 

Magic still works in the TVA.

 

Loki stares at his hands, tears abandoned for a quizzical frown. He glances up, wondering how many mics and cameras are watching him, hidden in the eaves of this unassuming room. He settles for pulling a blanket over himself and hiding his head under it, like he’s still a young child frightened by thunderstorms. He resumes his inspection.

 

Of course magic still works in the TVA. Perhaps not every kind, but Asgard’s sorcery can take hold here- in particular, Asgard’s illusion magic. Loki’s proven it with every step he’s taken.

 

If magic didn’t work at all, he’d be entirely blue.

 


 

He stalls for time. 

 

Odin’s glamour, so subtle Loki went millennia without noticing it, holds. The TVA’s oppressive anti-magic wards cannot shake it. Loki doubts they sensed it in the first place.

 

He analyzes that one illusion and builds his own skill set up from there. It’s difficult work; he has to tug and shove each tiny bit of spellwork into being. He has to give up his subtler approach in favor of demanding magic obey him, like the All-Father always did. Occasionally the magic around him (made of thin, fragile threads, like he himself seems to be) complies. More often he finds himself fighting for breath, unable even to turn a few inches of skin blue under his clothes. Magic may not be properly dead here, but it has been buried alive, unreachable except through terrific struggle.

 

All things considered, Loki supposes “terrific struggle” counts as his birthright too.

 

He shoves and struggles and refuses to give up. He rebuilds himself, ever-aware of the TVA’s propaganda posters and the TVA’s personnel and the TVA’s cameras, watching him everywhere he goes. After a few days, he suggests to Mobius that the Variant might be hiding in catastrophes specifically, but he projects uncertainty as he does. He makes a half-baked plea to test out his theory in Ragnarok, specifically, and protests magnificently when he’s shut down.

 

(Loki grew up in the palace of Asgard, under Heimdall’s watchful eye. Spinning plans inside plans out of necessity and desperation is second nature.)

 


 

Hidden under his blanket with a compact mirror, pilfered from some guard or another, Loki practices. The All-Father’s inflexible approach to magic, to ordering magic to bend to his will, works until it doesn’t. It fails Loki in time. Really, he should stop being surprised.

 

It allows him to turn his whole body invisible in one exhausting show of power, but it fails at anything subtler. In particular, he cannot turn the collar around his neck invisible, not without his whole throat vanishing too. There it stays, a binding constant chain, and he cannot help thinking of the Midgardian tale of his demise.

 

(He will spend a seeming eternity in chains, they said. He will writhe and wrack the world with earthquakes, failing utterly to cope with his own pain, until he breaks free and ends the cosmos itself.)

 

(Now there’s an idea.)

 


 

A few days later, Mobius invites him to an ancient Roman volcano. Adorably, he thinks it’s his own idea. Loki lets him. He revels in magic, running free and wild with the magma below, reacting to his presence like a living thing. He unpens goats and monologues in Latin, perfected by the full force of the All-Tongue, and he resists the urge to signal Heimdall or otherwise plead for Asgard’s help. He simply dances through an earthquake and peacocks in the chaos and conjures six dull rocks in various colors, slipping them silently into his pocket.

 


 

Out loud, Loki speculates on how to stop the Variant. In the safety of his own head, he begs them to hurry up.

 

With light fingers and lighter illusions, he borrows six paperweights in the TVA offices and replaces them with other rocks.

 

He waits.

 


 

Mobius pulls strings, arranging some mission to a suspicious apocalypse. The Minutemen go out. Within the hour, the Variant crashes into the TVA.

 

(It’s about damn time.)

 

Loki’s done them the greatest favor he can- he’s stayed out of their way. He’s played dumber than he is, and he’s slowed the TVA’s investigation. Self-defeat and self-destruction have marked his entire history, so he decides for once to do the unexpected and refrain from meddling.

 

(For now. If they succeed in overthrowing the Timekeepers and stealing their throne, Loki will at once introduce himself. He will seek recompense for his favors. After all, every good monarch needs a scheming advisor.)

 

Alarms wail throughout the TVA’s halls. Dashing through the library, Minutemen hiss about multiple fast-growing branches and a threat to the Timekeepers. Loki’s barely risen from his chair when Mobius tackles him, hand locked like a vice around his arm.

 

“Are we going to fight the Variant?” he asks, not sarcastic, but not too eager either.

 

Mobius squints for a moment before hauling him forward. “You are going to stay out of trouble.”

 

As chaos erupts around them, Mobius maneuvers him towards another of the TVA’s innumerable holding cells. The process involves rather copious amounts of bodily contact. Loki keeps up a steady stream of questions, none of which get answered, and he stumbles a few times, casually brushing Mobius’s side.

 

“But I can help-“

 

“If we need help, we’ll let you know.”

 

Predictably, the doors slam shut in Loki’s face, leaving him alone once more. For a moment, he simply throws his head back and laughs.

 

(It is laughable, isn’t it, the idea that anyone would truly need his help? Loki pities anyone who finds themselves in that position.)

 

Loki collapses dramatically in a chair, and he allows himself one moment of wallowing in self-pity. It’s only a little marred by the alarms still blaring outside. 

 

Then he pushes his hair back from where it’s flopped in his eyes, casts the subtlest of spells, and pulls out the device he picked out of Mobius’s pocket, during their recent scuffling. He clicks one button and spirits himself out of the cell (while leaving a flimsy copy of himself there for any nosy cameras). Cloaked with invisibility, he stalks through the TVA’s halls, insinuating himself into the center of the chaos. A swarm of Minutemen flocks single-mindedly towards a set of gold elevators, only to stop still as the doors open. Out comes a stretcher, bearing a motionless figure veiled with white cloth. All that pokes out is the corner of a hunter-green cloak and two boots. 

 

(Loki recognizes fine Asgardian leather when he sees it.)

 

“She got through to the Timekeepers for a minute, I want an immediate review. And check her person for more stolen equipment before you eliminate her,” orders a commanding woman in a neat brown suit, wielding a pruning baton like a scepter.

 

Loki stays frozen until some other agent bumps into him and pauses, frowning. He doesn’t dare breathe. He simply slips away, evading any further contact, fleeing into a free space down the corridor.

 

In a rare stroke of luck, no one moves to imprison him. He tears off down the hall, footsteps covered by the continued alarms. He dodges agents who barrel past him left and right, throwing themselves into the problematic new “branch” timelines.

 

(In the chaos, he indulges his own curiosity, nabbing a few more devices from a shelf left far too poorly protected.)

 

It’s a risk, using TVA technology at all, but he loops himself back to the now-deserted library. This base is still on high alert, so for these few precious minutes, no one will care about an invisible figure rifling through some obscure records. He slips past the currently unmanned librarian’s desk, into a darkened backroom, and looks for anything he ought not to see. The Timekeepers might have censored any truly incriminating material, but still there ought to be something…

 

Thanos.

 

Immediately, Loki grabs the file, ignoring the way his hands have begun trembling. When he opens it, he at last learns why the Mad Titan wanted the Tesseract in the first place: to wipe out half the creatures in the universe.

 

Admittedly, Loki’s first reaction is awe at the scope of Thanos’s ambition. It’s quickly replaced with a series of horrifying realizations. A slaughter of that scale could end species that were endangered to start off with and devastate any community with remotely strong social bonds. Even the survivors would be ruined, psychologically. The damage from that kind of rip wouldn’t heal for millennia.

 

Even if the deaths were reversed in a few years, in what the Timekeepers term the “Blip.”

 

A blip.

 

It’s the resurrection of half the life in the galaxy, and they call it just a “blip,” and Loki knows exactly what the Timekeepers are. They are Thor, fantasizing joyously about killing all the Frost Giants. They are Odin, locking up his own daughter and pretending it’s not worth a mention. 

 

(Loki isn’t enough of a liar to pretend he’s immune to such apathy, but this “snap” and “blip” have shaken a heart he thought frozen and dead.)

 

If this is the story the Timekeepers have chosen to tell, then they are cruel writers indeed. But the Variant (perhaps not a better Loki overall, but one far better prepared for this task) failed to kill the Timekeepers. It wasn’t even a long struggle; she went down fast. Regardless of the current chaos, nothing seems truly changed here. Perhaps the scaly lizards depicted by all the statues are merely puppets, while the true rulers hide somewhere else, out of reach. Certainly if Loki managed to grab hold of all that power, he’d immediately cloak himself in all the illusions he could imagine.

 

(Darting frantically, his gaze snags on one name after another on the Snap’s casualty list. Nick Fury. Maria Hill. Sif.)

 

The Timekeepers cannot continue to rule. It’s the one truth Loki has faith in anymore.

 

Yet killing them is infeasible. That’s all he’s really learned from the Variant (though he hopes feebly that the corpse was fake, that she too learned to cast her spells inside this cage and somehow survived by trickery). Crossing the Timekeepers will get him killed. There is no other possible fate.

 

(He scans the darkened room for other files of interest. He spots one labeled “Mobius.” There’s another named “Phil Coulson,” a bulging folder with all sorts of papers sticking out, far too complex for the simple man Loki had killed with ease just days ago.)

 

Loki has been suicidal before. He isn’t now. This horror isn’t his to deal with, he isn’t remotely qualified, and he ought to just leave it for some actual hero to defeat. 

 

(He feels his way through the darkness on desperate instinct. There’s a massive volume labeled “Steven Rogers.” A few shelves down stands a book named “Loki Laufeyson”- not quite as thick, but still far more substantial than the files he’d been handed before.)

 

He reaches for that name, glittering tauntingly. He steps forth towards it, towards Laufeyson, Laufeyson, Laufeyson.

 

He stubs his toe on something hard. 

 

Swallowing down a curse, he glances. He scowls at whatever misplaced ungainly block dared flump down in the middle of an open floor…

 

Mjolnir.

 

Though his toe has already ceased hurting, Loki’s breath gets knocked from his lungs. There’s Mjolnir, dropped on its side like a meaningless, ownerless relic, and suddenly Loki can’t care about any other treasure here. The sob he’s been pressing down since the Void, since Jotunheim boils up unbidden, tearing through the silence.

 

Thor met the TVA.

 

Loki is under no illusions that he could have won that encounter, but it doesn’t matter. Thor fought the TVA.

 

(Stupid, reckless, ignorant of the threat, doomed from the start. But he fought nevertheless.)

 

Every fiber in Loki’s being trembles but not, for once, from fear. A possessive, protective anger blazes through him. Thor is his to hate, his to ruin. And yet, the TVA dared.

 

Loki wraps one shaking hand around the hilt, and the hammer stays. It must have come from the recent past or the future, after Odin cast the spell demanding worthiness. Asgard’s magic holds even here.

 

Loki’s anger mingles with a more dangerous poison- courage. Thor’s courage, that nearly got him killed time and time again, that kept him on the battlefield past losing every scrap of hope. It’s a foreign feeling. Liable to get one killed.

 

He wraps another hand around the hilt, and the hammer rattles, sliding an inch towards him.

 

(The anti-magic field must be weakening the charm. Dulling the hammer’s judgment.)

 

Distantly, Loki realizes the alarms are quieting outside. He pries his hands from the hammer and loops back to his cell before pressing one last button on the remote for his collar.

 

(He cannot hide a collar around his neck, but he can conjure the illusion of a collar where it isn’t.)

 

The door opens just a minute later, before the buzzing has subsided from Loki’s hands. He whips his head up theatrically to face Mobius, who’s trailing the woman from before. Their expressions are a study in contrasts: poorly disguised disappointment and well-disguised fury, respectively.

 

“What happened?” Loki rushes up to Mobius, making sure to sound suitably breathless and pathetic, gesturing grandly, slipping the remote subtly back into his pocket. “Did you catch the Variant?”

 

“That situation has been handled,” the woman answers before Mobius can even open his mouth. Loki takes several steps backwards, cowed by her icy expression. “But we’ve had to deploy almost every agent we’ve got, to clean up the rogue branches before we’re in a multiversal war.”

 

Mobius says, “What Ravonna’s trying to say-“

 

“You were brought on to catch the Variant before there was severe damage done,” Ravonna declares, as if she hadn’t been interrupted. “You failed in that mission.”

 

Loki frowns, striving to play the innocent. “Was I wrong, about him hiding in an apocalypse?”

 

“She,” Ravonna says, “has personally led to the deaths of no less than thirty of our Minutemen. Most of them since you supposedly joined our team, because you’ve been far less efficient at your research than I know you can be.”

 

Loki huffs and spreads his hands wide, a gesture of openness. “If you know me, then you know my life has been a living Hel these past two years. Forgive me if my mind is not at its sharpest.”

 

“Then there’s the fact that our quartermaster just completed a full inventory and reported several reset charges missing.” 

 

“And Casey at the front desk says he can’t find any of his tape rolls anymore,” Mobius says before trailing off, cowed by Ravonna’s glare.

 

She looks back at Loki and crosses her arms, a clear challenge. Loki opts to ignore it.

 

He widens his eyes, almost childlike. “Well, of course, there’d be reset charges missing. That’s her entire m.o., isn’t it? Stealing charges? You really should have sent me after her.”

 

Now Mobius looks disconcerted too, and Loki’s stomach sinks. 

 

(Playing innocent hasn’t really worked for him in years.)

 

“Or-“ Loki swaps to belligerence and lashes out, a far more believable tactic- “you lost track of your own supplies in the mayhem of responding to multiple calls. That’s more likely, isn’t it? You think you’re running some perfect machine here, utterly orderly, everything in its right place, but the truth you’re just as chaotic as the rest of us-“

 

Her jaw tightens.

 

“Loki,” Mobius cautions, as if he actually cares.

 

Loki rolls over him too. “It’s arrogance to pretend you’re even slightly fit to rule the universe! Madness, or sheer outrageous arrogance!”

 

“That’s enough.” Ravonna cuts him off in a clipped tone and turns to Mobius. “There’s no further use for him. Your orders stand.”

 

Mobius protests, “But-“

 

“Mobius.”

 

With that (a bone-chilling lecture in one word, she’s good), she steps back out of the room. The doors shut behind her.

 

Mobius is holding a pruning baton. He fiddles with it, turns it over and over in his hands.

 

“Mobius,” Loki rasps, the very opposite of Ravonna’s calm control. “I’ve tried. I’ve played the role you’ve given me. The TVA can’t prove any wrongdoing.”

 

“Yeah,” Mobius says, with a hesitant step forward. “But we know you, Loki. You don’t have it in you to do the right thing.”

 

Even as he lights the golden tip, he furrows his brow, projecting doubt and unease.

 

Loki closes his eyes, sighing. “You don’t have to do this.”

 

“This is what I was made for,” he replies, almost a whimper. “You had your role, I have mine.”

 

The golden tip touches cream skin.

 

From the corner of the room, Loki watches the body wisp away, a deathly glow spreading outwards from the point of contact. It’s not so different from how ordinary illusions disintegrated, and he’s seen enough prunings now to get the details right.

 

Mobius stands by the chair for a moment, fiddling with his baton and hanging his head in apparent mourning.

 

Invisible, Loki follows him out the door.

 


 

Loki’s once again living on borrowed time. Back to what he’s used to.

 

He needs food, and water, and rest. He needs to hide in enemy territory and survive without running afoul of any of the TVA’s layers of unknown security- newly doubled on Renslayer’s orders. He could spend an eternity doing just that, if he wanted.

 

(He is Loki, god of lies. If he devoted the rest of his life to doing exactly nothing, they’d never catch him.)

 

Doing nothing is the safest road forward. It’s sheer arrogant folly to think he can truly move against the status quo. He is Loki, god of chaos, and here is where he’s met his match.

 

His fingers twitch, remembering Mjolnir. If he does nothing, it will stay trapped for an eternity, useless but to collect dust.

 

He loses track of time. Over hours or perhaps days, Loki feels his way through the TVA’s headquarters, fingers twitching as he searches for fragility. There is an off-kilter wrongness sewn throughout this place by its anti-magic wards, and now he senses that the wards are unevenly applied. He searches out the weaknesses in magic, the holes in an already threadbare fabric, the places where maintaining the simplest invisibility spell needs the full brunt of his concentration. He pulls himself forward inch by inch, floor after floor. He descends into the bowels of the TVA, seeking where the magic is frailest.

 

His quest draws him to a new door. There’s no gilded elevator here, just an unlabeled, scuffed-up door. It’d be fitting for nothing grander than a broom closet. He pulls it open.

 

It’s just a room with a window looking outside, at a city filled with glittering towers. Not Asgard, but not unlike it either.

 

An army of alarms start screeching, a thousand times louder than they had for the Variant. 

 

Forcing himself inside, Loki gives up the invisibility spell surrounding him. He throws what little power he has left here at a new, comparatively tiny invisibility spell, cloaking a handful of vials he’s scattered along the wall. There’s an anti-magic field originating here, a powerful curse that nearly flattens him like a Jotunheim storm, deeper and more ancient than he’d guessed. He can sense countless other mechanisms anchored here too, for manipulating time and space and minds and souls. For manipulating reality and power itself.

 

He knows it all from the twitch of his hand, now a persistent shudder.

 

“What do you think you’re doing?” Renslayer heads the charge, the tsunami of footsteps swarming down on him. Her soldiers stay outside the room, most likely kept out by spiritual compulsion, but she crosses the threshold to join him.

 

“Take a wild guess,” he replies, with his most cavalier smile.

 

(Stalling for time, shoving his shaking hand in his jacket pocket. He somehow once again underestimated the odds against him, how predictable, will he ever make a new mistake-)

 

“If you’re trying to attack the root of the TVA’s power, it won’t work,” she says.

 

“Won’t it?” He grants her his most dangerous smile. “I’ve got my hands on reset charges, as many as she had. But I know to place them here.”

 

(He’s treed himself, trapped himself, and he has no options left. She’ll catch up to that conclusion any second now.)

 

She scoffs. “Those don’t have nearly enough power to damage anything that matters.”

 

(That’s true. It’s what he sensed the second he opened the door, the second he got smacked with a deeper emptiness than he’s ever known. He is empty inside, heart frozen and broken and reduced to dust. Inevitably he keeps talking, though he has already, inevitably lost.)

 

“You may be interested to know that in magic,” he replies pleasantly, “we have something like the principle of batteries too. You can charge a system with fuel to increase its power.”

 

(Oh.)

 

“And what are you planning to charge your charges with?” She lifts her eyebrows as he extends his free hand, the one that’s not threatening to shrivel or split open from pain. “Even if you’ve got your hand on an Infinity Gem, it wouldn’t have anything close to its full power here.”

 

(This is the most honest conversation he’s had in recent memory. He detests it.)

 

“You have two options,” Renslayer sneers, now lighting her baton. “You come quietly and give us back all those charges, and we’ll lock you in one of our more pleasant cells, or else I’ll remove you right now. Either way you’ve lost.”

 

(Either way, half of life will disappear. Either way, Asgard will burn.)

 

“I don’t want that,” Loki murmurs.

 

And her professional facade cracks for just one instant, as she laughs out of shock. “How does what you want matter?”

 

(He doesn’t want that chaos. He doesn’t want that death. He wants nothing more than to stop it before it starts, to do right by his timeline, to save everyone alive.)

 

“We’ll see if it matters,” he says, licking his lips.

 

She tips her head, silently asking what he means.

 

The answer comes as an obnoxious crash.

 

(Loki’s never been so fond of that sound before.)

 

There’s one crash, then another, growing louder in rapid succession until Mjolnir smashes through the ceiling. Loki’s ready for it, catching the hilt in his waiting hand. Renslayer reacts just a split-second later, calling her forces across the threshold. An army against a broken, solitary god.

 

Loki brandishes the hammer, an unspoken threat. If he were Thor, he could throw it just so and take out the three first lines of soldiers. If he were Thor, he would, and three hundred lines would replace it, and he would go down in that glorious, hopeless battle.

 

(Ravonna’s eyes harden. She expects that, that a shivering babe left in the cold will reach for the light of glory, even if it kills him once more.)

 

Loki whirls the hammer flashily, knocking away the first soldiers that reach to him. He simultaneously reaches to the deeper magic, that thrumming current of power that cannot be silenced even here.

 

Lightning calls when he calls it. He moves to throw it at Renslayer, and the full power of this place leaps when she calls it, shimmering shields wrapping around her. At her call, the magic opens, exposing its most vulnerable depths.

 

He feints. At the last possible second he shifts his aim to a handful of bottles, scattered along the edge of the room.

 

(With magic, like allies easily with like. The reset charges can be understood as both magic and science, as lightning in a bottle. Mjolnir’s sparks leap so easily toward them, mixing with the charges, amplifying their power a thousand times over.)

 

Mjolnir snaps the tenuous invisibility charm, revealing the charges and the hungry void spreading out from them through both space and time. Renslayer cries out in horror, though Loki doesn’t hear her words. Instead he flings himself out the window, Mjolnir bursting through the glass.

 

The growing void calls him, snapping at his heels, pulling him back towards oblivion. He’s read this story before, and as one of his hands starts smoking and shriveling to ash, he ought to let it take him.

 

Instead he clings to one last remnant of Thor and outruns it, flying into the air of this foreign realm. 

 

There is unsuppressed magic here, strings running free and wild. They feel vibrant and alive, impossibly easy to reach and impossibly sensitive to the touch. A single wayward poke could end worlds. 

 

This place is different- dangerous with power. Loki’s hand, now on the verge of disintegration, only confirms it.

 

When Mjolnir at last slows, he lets himself dangle in thin air and extracts that hand from the hole it’s burned in his jacket. It is a shriveled, bejeweled limb, bearing six Infinity Gems in a makeshift gauntlet. They are strapped in place by his collar, loosened from his neck and wrapped around his hand instead. The stones have been permanently weakened by their time in the TVA, and this collar was made to bend the forces of time and space and reality. Even as the gems react explosively to the bizarre blazing magic of this place, the gauntlet will hold for a few minutes more at least. In all likelihood, it will hold on longer than he will.

 

(Of course, this band wasn’t made to hold six rocks in the first place, so he had to secure them further with several strips of now charred tape. One must make do.)

 

One wayward poke could end worlds, and so Loki approaches this task with unprecedented focus and care. With the power of the gauntlet, he closes his eyes and reaches for the Sacred Timeline- for his timeline. He finds it splayed out like a body on an operating table. The Timekeepers have dissected it, adding on alternate branches and loops and all manner of frills, like veins and arteries in a circulatory system, like scalpels digging into flesh. But those are unnecessary, aren’t they? What use are they, except to allow the TVA control and power? 

 

The truth of the timeline shines like a beating heart at the center.

 

Gritting his teeth, Loki snaps. He snaps his fingers and cuts away the parasitic junk and collapses everything, like a particle being observed, into a single timeline free from any keeper’s control, fully outside this realm’s reach. One timeline, to be saved or wrecked by the doings of its own people. “Wrecked” is more likely, but at least it will be free.

 

Perhaps there’s a multiverse of entirely separate timelines elsewhere, still in this realm’s clutches. But Loki doesn’t care. He hasn’t got time to care, not now as the magic of this place and his misshapen gauntlet eat him alive. He lets go of Mjolnir and plummets. He tries to free himself of the band, but the pain and growing weakness stop him from undoing the strap.

 

(The void calls.)

 

He reaches to the Mind Gem- the one gem he knows best, for all the worst reasons. He reaches out to himself, to the closest moment when his mind still shone, bright and whole.

 

In the shadow of a city not unlike Asgard, his body and his ruined gems burn away.

 


 

(The void calls.)

 

(Home calls louder.)

 


 

Loki wakes on his feet, unsinged and physically unhurt, wearing his finest ceremonial garb. He wakes in a golden hall on Asgard, and a moment later he recognizes which one. It is one of the backstage wings, just off the grandest hall in the palace. He must have been waiting for some fancy event, most likely a parade celebrating Odin’s latest triumph.

 

He scrambles away, ignoring surprised exclamations from the servants around him. He unlocks one secret passage after another and rushes directly to the Vault, hidden deep below the palace. 

 

Loki has meddled with forces he does not understand. If he has failed, like he always has before, the TVA will come after him any second now. He intends to meet them in battle with all the weaponry he can access anymore, as far from any other casualties as possible.

 

Gasping for breath, he stalks into the Vault and orders out the two shocked guards. Rapidly, he sizes up all the weapons available here. There is an Infinity Gauntlet that he now recognizes as a fake- a weaker, tawdrier thing than even the one he’d rigged up with that collar. There’s the Eternal Flame, that could be useful, and he instantly snatches the Warlock’s Eye. He wakes up the Tuning Fork. He wakes the Destroyer too and places it on high alert. His stroll ends, inevitably, at the Casket of Ancient Winters.

 

After a moment he takes that in his hands, accepting the way it breaks Odin’s glamour to reveal blue skin underneath.

 

Back down the hallway, the Tuning Fork rings shrilly. That’s a warning of strong, invasive magic nearby, and he grabs the Casket and roots his mind firmly within its spellwork, molding its icy power to his will before he physically lets it go again to draw his swords. There’s a crack, and terrifying intruders burst suddenly through the floor of the vault with weapons drawn and murder in their eyes-

 

The Frost Giants.

 

Of course it’s the Frost Giants. This must be the day of Thor’s coronation, and the Jotunn have come to steal their casket at Loki’s old command. It’s a thorny tangle of royal intrigue, poised on the precipice of war. It all seems so petty now. 

 

They stare at Loki. Loki stares at them, biting back a laugh.

 

“Don’t attack,” he says quickly, partly to the Giants. More to the Destroyer, gearing up for a massive fireball.

 

Mercifully, everyone listens to him.

 

Wrangling his thoughts into some semblance of strategy, Loki waves at the Casket without quite touching it. “This is an initial gesture of good faith, though I’d prefer you it quiet for now. Asgard will be renegotiating the treaty soon under the rule of its new king, to strengthen the alliance between our worlds in preparation for a far greater threat. By taking this, you acknowledge your openness to these negotiations.” 

 

He keeps his chin high, his mien regal. He allows the Giants to nod, bow, and take their Casket, and then he sends them back out the way they came.

 

He waits. The next set of intruders comes soon enough.

 

Odin, Father of All except perhaps him, storms down the stairs. Thor follows closely on his heels. The TVA is nowhere to be seen.

 

“What have you done, Loki?” the All-Father barks out, stopping midway. He towers far above Loki, as ever.

 

“I’ve handed over the Casket to its rightful owners,” Loki replies mildly, still by the place where the stolen Casket had lain. “We’re going to need their help soon.”

 

“You just conspired with our greatest enemy-“ here comes the lecture, some things will never change- “and handed them their greatest weapon! Please, give me one reason why I shouldn’t have you thrown into prison this instant!”

 

“How predictable, your go-to parenting technique,” Loki mutters. More loudly, he says, “Here’s one reason out of many: because with magic, like allies with like. In any given age, the Casket bows to the most powerful and high-ranking Frost Giant sorcerer to impress their own magic upon it. Now, do you really think the Jotunn will be unleashing its full destructive power anytime soon, without my say-so?”

 

Thor’s blinking in blissful confusion, as ever, gaze torn between his father and Loki. Odin is a hundred steps in front of him, as ever. His face is twisting with horror at the implications, and Loki cannot ignore that condemnation, and it’s all so petty but Loki wants to throttle Thor and break Odin down to atoms. Every instinct tells him he must. The old rage is back, made fresh by this time and this place, and so are the horror and the grief that never healed because the TVA kidnapped him before he achieved any semblance of closure.

 

And his powers strengthened while he was away. He knows now how to do it quickly, how to install himself as King of the Nine Realms and drag everyone into their places against Thanos. Deception and regicide and madness are his fate; that’s how Loki’s story has always gone. And as Odin’s face warps and darkens and his hand clenches around Gungnir, Loki can’t see what else to do, mind shattered by the Void and the Other and the TVA, by the weight of his own spurned, broken love-

 

In comes one other figure, who stops them all.

 

“Loki,” she calls.

 

Odin freezes as their queen comes down and crosses the Vault, closing that infinite distance. She steps towards Loki and then pauses, scrutinizing him closely. 

 

“Oh.” Her eyes shift, radiating heartbreak. 

 

He wonders what kind of monster she sees. What kind of misplaced, heartless, worthless nightmare-

 

She reaches for him.

 

“The future has not been kind to you.” She places her hands on his cheeks, kind and soft and real. “Has it, my son?”

 

Mother’s words are kind and soft and real, like nothing he has known in recent memory, and Loki opens his mouth to tell the truth. What comes out is a wordless, aching wail, but she only grabs him in an embrace and holds him tighter. Thor doesn’t wait to plunge forth too, striding down the stairs to reach for his brother, and Loki’s words spill out, all truth, all warnings of fire demons and mad timekeepers and mad titans and death and war and sorry, sorry, I won’t do it again, and they hear him. 

 

They hear him and still, somehow, hold him like he’s theirs.

 


 

This is a new story.