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Realm-Slayer

Chapter Text

In an Inky Well

 

The Well that feeds Yggdrasil is deep and black.  Tendrils of golden light twine upward from its depths and into the twinkling roots.

Except that it’s nothing like that at all, because that’s only a metaphor, because finite minds have trouble with the truth.

What mages see—true mages, with the innate ability to bend reality—is very different from what others see.

Her sister sees the Well, and has described it in great detail.

She sees a hole in the very fabric of the universe.  What pours from the hole is not golden light, but Time.  This thing is the origin of all things, guarded by a petty people who are all but extinct now.

Long ago, three Aesir women took up station around the hole, gazing within for knowledge.  They have since become something other, something like what used to guard the hole.  Time-reading face-changers.  They can see all that was, is, and may someday be, though they often disagree about what they look upon.  The price of asking their counsel is the madness of their conversation and the esoteric nature of their replies.

Loki whispers a spell, and she is there.  A ruined, dead world that may have once been beautiful.  Orange sky and gold-brown dirt and red grass.  Three women in golden robes crouch before a door in the air—a rounded ring holding the edges of a tear in existence.

“The green-eyed pilgrim, again she comes,” says Urd.

“Again and again and again and again,” says Verdandi.

“To ask, and to not ask, and to listen,” finishes Skuld.

Loki looks at the Well-that-is-not-a-well.  To her irritation, her eyes slide away of their own accord.  She still is not meant to gaze in, it would seem.

“They used to worship this place,” says Urd.  “Before the coming of hatred, and the Storm that Ends Worlds.”

“Take heed,” adds Skuld.  “What became of them could become of Asgard.”

“Their children would each come to look upon it, to better understand their nature and the nature of all things…but they did not dare look long, for many went mad from the sight.”

“Mad as you?” Loki asks impertinently.

The Norns laugh at her.

“We saw you when you were born, storyteller.  We saw what you would do.  And then you didn’t.  Yet in some other time and place, you did.  Yes, it was maddening, as it always is.  We see what will be, and then find that it was only one path.”

“Logically, if there are two possible outcomes, they must both happen,” says Loki.  “Causality at its most basic.  It is our limited perception that tells us only one of those two outcomes took place.”

“Oh, and hail the wise little princess!” laughs Verdandi.

“There is no spoon,” chortles Urd, and Loki frowns at the nonsense of the utterance.

“Come, come, Odinsdottir, you sought us out,” says Skuld.  “Ask, if you would dare.”

Loki clears her throat and begins.  “Heimdall tells of something strange happening on Midgard—something he cannot fully understand.  The words he gives make little sense, but it sounds to me as if the humans have found a way to dive into the Well.”

The Norns answer together.

“No.” “Yes.” “Of course.”

“Is it like what happened here?”

“Exactly.” “Not at all.” “Yes.”

Frowning, Loki pauses to think.  “The people here died out.”

“Yes.”

Asking why they died out has never yet yielded a united, comprehensible answer.  It’s never yielded the same answer twice.  “Why?” Loki asks, because she always asks.

“Because of a memory,” says Urd.

“Because of heartsbreak,” says Verdandi.

“Because of a dream of all they could have been,” says Skuld.

“No, no,” says Urd waving a hand.  “No, that’s why they didn’t die.”

“Ah, yes,” agrees Verdandi.  “Here and now, they are dead because they continued.  Because the Storm did not come to cleanse them, and so Nidhogg consumed them.”

“They are dead because of themselves,” says Skuld.  “And we are not dead because they are.  Because War can be a curious and total thing, when hatred overcomes all.”

Loki again tries and fails to look into the Well.

“See there, a thread,” murmurs Verdandi.

“From Midgard, our home is the tip of a ram’s horn.”

“And Jotunheim is a fish’s fin.”

She knows all that.  Impatiently, she frowns again.  “Should I go and stop those silly humans from splashing around in the waters of Time?  Or do you think they’re truly ready?”

“Time knows what she does,” chides Verdandi.  “To continue the scroll onward to the future.  Some elsewhen will someday soon or past need outside intervention to keep time from stilling.  The waters cannot stagnate.  Already, she has put in place the tumbling pebble which seeks and breaks down dams.”

Skuld abruptly stands and turns, pointing a finger at Loki.  “You will go and watch.  And when the time is right, you will know.  Time will call to you, green pilgrim, girl who could have become a World-Ender herself.  And at Time’s bidding, you will shape the eddies of the stream.”

Loki leaves for Midgard.

She watches.

And the humans make a great crystalline sphere, and when they hide it in darkness, she can peer into it and see the inky well of Time.

Without preamble, she appears to them, and the sphere tells them that she is the one they’ve awaited—she is to become a Keeper of Fate.

 

.End.

Chapter Text

But Count the Cost

 

This time, Loki is desperate for counsel when she seeks the Well.

“Again she comes!” cackles Skuld.

“Again and again and again—” begins Verdandi, over the younger Norn’s shrill laughter.

“Stop,” says Urd.

And Skuld and Verdandi fall silent.

“We are on the brink of war,” says Loki.  “Three whole Realms, and they talk of using a fourth for their battlefield.  A new Great War.”

“Ah, war,” sighs Skuld.

Verdandi begins to mutter under her breath.

“And what did you do to avert this?” asks Urd.  “What course took you, green-eyed pilgrim?  What violent, spear-shaking hand did you stay?  What heed took you of the parable of this dead place?”

“Father didn’t listen,” Loki says tersely.  “He never listens.”

“And what of his wife?”

“Nor to her, even in her most beseeching voice.”

“The minds of men are simple,” snorts Skuld.  “So very rarely does a man both see and hear at once.  Too far afield looks he, and this is why the words of his women fall on deaf ears.”

Urd rubs at her knees as if they pain her.  “Ah,” she says.  “War.”

“Is there no way to avert it?” Loki entreats.

“No,” says Skuld.

“Ah, war!” cries Verdandi, before returning to her muttering.

“Yes,” says Urd.

“Tell me what that way is,” Loki demands.

As one, they turn on her; she discovers that Verdandi has been saying ‘again and again’ in a relentless mantra.

“Would you gaze into my Well?” Urd asks, and her voice roars like fire and whispers like silk and cuts like a knife.

“You may mislike what you see,” warns Skuld.

Loki tries to look, but cannot.  As ever, her eyes slide away like water from a duck’s back.

Urd grasps her face in gnarled hands (when did she come so close?) and holds her, and her eyes focus on the storm-swirled blackness partly eclipsed by Urd’s shoulder.

Loki sees her father on a throne made of the corpses of children.  She sees a shadowed form of great power strike Odin down so powerfully that Yggdrasil itself is rent.

“No—” she gasps.

“Do you see it?” Skuld purrs in her ear.  “Do you see the new-sprouted branch?”

There.  Just as the shadow-thing moves to strike, she sees herself stay its hand.  She erases Asgard with a flick of her wrist.  Smooth.  Elegant.  Exact.  Free of the unbridled emotion that would have split the Worlds Tree.  And the shadow-thing subsides.

“Please,” she says, because her eyes have begun to blur and her mind is burning.

The Norns laugh at her.

“We saw what you would do,” they say.  “And though you resisted for a time, you return to your fate at last!”

Skuld covers Loki’s eyes.  “Do you understand what fearful thing it is you’ve seen?”

“The Storm,” she replies.  “The Storm that Ends Worlds.”

“It is said that demons flee before him,” says Verdandi.

“And it was he who showed the workings of the Well to those crawling ants on Midgard,” adds Urd.

Loki’s mind spins.  The Worlds-Ender is the Founder.  Are the Midgardians more worthy, then?  Or is there something wrong with the way the Norns mete the knowledge they gain from the Well?  Is there something wrong with the way the Aesir choose to act on that knowledge?  But there must be, of course, if Odin builds an empire with the deaths of the innocent…

“You have seen the choice that lies before you,” says Skuld.  “And when you ride to meet the Storm, you will know why.”

“Go now, Realm-Slayer,” says Verdandi.

“With our blessing,” finishes Urd.  “For no matter how beloved the branch, if it falls to rot it must be cut to save the tree.”

“Go,” they say together, and they shove Loki off that red-gold world.

She wakes in Idunn’s orchard, groggy and disoriented.  With war looming, the apples have gone unharvested, and the grass is littered with black-spotted gold lumps.  The place smells of sweetness and decay, a stifling sort of irony when the gleaming fruit provide such strength and lasting life to the Aesir.

There is no way for her to know how long it has been since she left to see the Norns.

“Loki!”

She stands when her sister calls.

“There you are!”  Thor is running toward her, golden hair streaming behind like a banner.  “Loki, please!”

“Peace, Thor,” she says, but knows her sister cannot be so easily calmed.

“You must stop him—he won’t listen.”

“I have been to Urd’s Well.”

Thor gapes.  “Then you bring back the Norns’ wisdom in this?  What say they?”

“They have shown me something.  I hope they are wrong.”

“Come, Loki, we may already be too late; it’s taken me three days to find you.  Father has set his mind to something terrible.”

She lets Thor pull her through the palace halls, running hand-in-hand as they did long ago in their youth, the golden floors singing their footsteps back to them.

When they reach the throne room, they slow.

Odin sits, a folded missive in his hand that no doubt relates battlefield intelligence.  At his feet is a grand box filled with tiny, blood-soaked hearts.  Beside the box sits Frigga, sobbing.

Loki knows right away what has happened.  These hearts will be the power behind a grand spell of some kind.  Whose children were sacrificed is unclear, since several of the races are constructed so similarly.  It matters very little to the one who will come to avenge them.

Thor goes to their mother, but Frigga’s weeping cannot be soothed.

Odin has sealed his fate, and the fate of all Asgard.

“You should not have done this thing,” Loki says softly.

“A king does what he must to save his people, girl,” Odin dismisses, still poring over the creased report of enemy numbers and positions.

“Then you have either a very poor idea of what it is to be a king, or a very poor idea of what will save a people.”

“You dare—”

“She’s right, actually,” says a stranger’s voice.

Loki spins to face the newcomer, so swiftly that a lock of hair catches at the corner of her mouth.

He seems so…harmless.  So unassuming.

And Loki knows who the stranger is.

The Storm that Ends Worlds.  The man the Network calls Founder.

He is tall, yes, but willowy.  A lithe thing in awkward Midgardian clothes, barefoot, hair falling in mussed curls.  To Loki, he resembles nothing so much as a wild young boy stretched tall and wearing someone else’s clothing.  He bears no weapon, but Loki’s mage-senses tell her that he walks with enough power to bend all of Yggdrasil.

To come before his enemies unarmored and unarmed…  What a gentle creature.  Worlds-Ender the Norns named him, but he is not made for killing.  This is why she must do it for him.

“Odin Borrson, King of Asgard,” the man says, and he looks so disappointed.  “Your people had such potential.  You could have been great.  But you wanted more.  We gave you the ability to understand the speech of other races and be understood in return, and you use it to hurl threats and insults.  We gave you a way to traverse the stars, and you use it to steal from your neighbours.  We gave you tools the likes of which you had never dared dream, and you use them to slaughter innocent children.”

Odin says nothing, has not even the shame to look guilty in the face of such accusations.

The Worlds-Ender strides slowly nearer to the throne.  There is a storm as furious as his namesake in that pale gaze.  “Did you think I wouldn’t notice?” he asks.  “Were you really so arrogant that you thought you could just do whatever you liked?”

Loki fetches Thor, tugs her away from their parents.

“Children,” snarls the Storm.  There is thunder in his voice, and rain from his eyes.  “Children!”

“A sacrifice willingly given!” roars Odin.  “Their parents were proud to give them up, and now they have become a sacrifice for the sake of Asgard’s safety.”

With a wordless bellow of rage, the Storm raises an object that Loki doesn’t recognize.

And this is the moment.

She grasps his shoulder gently.  How strange, that he should feel so frail and mundane and transient beneath her palm, like a human.

He hesitates.

“You have seen all of Time,” she says.  “Surely you saw this.  Surely you saw what comes of it.”

He draws a shaking breath.

“And for what?  For this petty man who rules a petty, warmongering people?  I or my sister could try to take the throne, but it would not quiet their bloodlust.  Nothing can quiet their bloodlust now.  Ask them if they see what Odin has done, and they will praise him.”

He flinches as though her words have wounded him.

“So I ask you now,” she whispers, so softly that only he may hear.  “In all that may ever come to be, have you seen in these hating fools anything worth saving?”

She watches him carefully, and oh, how alone he seems.  More rain falls on the white plain of his face, but no more thunder rolls.

Loki takes that for her answer.

She gathers a spell of Unmaking, something dragged from the very depths of Urd’s Well, fuels it with his anger and his sorrow—the strength of them is unlike anything she has ever felt, blasting through her like a whirlwind.

She sweeps away the blood-soaked souls of Asgard, and their world evaporates into glittering motes.

All that is left is Loki, and her sister, and the Worlds-Ender.  They stand on a rough circle of gold, all that remains of Odin’s throne room…all that remains of the once-great Realm of Asgard.  All around them spread the stars, the many limbs of Yggdrasil.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he says.

“If I hadn’t, you would have,” she replies.  “And here, now, the universe cannot survive your wrath.”  She doesn’t admit aloud that she looks at him and can’t imagine allowing him to kill.

“I never wanted this.”

“And yet you know what would have been, otherwise—the fate of your own people.  You are the Storm that Ends Worlds.  When you do not, those worlds end without you, and far more messily.”

“When a good man goes to war,” he murmurs.  He takes a little tool from his pocket, presses a button, and vanishes in a flash of light.

Thor is still staring at where their parents once stood.

“Let us go, Sister,” Loki says.  “There is nothing for us here; Midgard awaits us.”

 

.End.

Chapter Text

Ripples

 

Loki frowns at the notification on her portable.

System administrator priority order.  Slide coordinates sent to Node 005 Skuld.  Proceed to non-hostile environment to witness and carry out sentencing.

She hasn’t had a sapo for almost a thousand years.

“Skuld,” she says.

~Yes.~

“Confirm receipt of slide coordinates for sapo.”

~Confirmed.~

“Initiate pre-programmed slide.”

She lands in darkness, with the moon waning above and the lights of a city in the distance.  Nearby is a tall, boxy shape, high windows glowing dimly.  A door creaks open, letting some of the glow escape around a slender silhouette.

She has a thousand questions.

“I’m here on a priority order,” she says instead, slightly bewildered.  “To witness and carry out sentencing on a timestream fugitive.”

He spreads his arms and grins in the moonlight.  “Ta-daa.”

“I don’t understand,” she says as he shuts the door and the glow is snuffed out.

“Just saying goodbye,” he tells her, patting the tall box in much the same way as a warrior might pat his long-time steed.

“That’s not what I don’t understand, Worlds-Ender.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

“Founder, then.  What is going on?  Who exactly am I apprehending?”

“Me, of course.  I’m charging myself with establishing a stream-spanning organization, catastrophic timeline alteration, unauthorised—”

“You did all of that centuries ago, before it was illegal.”

He paces around her in a slow circle.  “Centuries ago.  Or just now.  Or months from now.  It’s the timestream, the stream of Time.  We can’t know how far the ripples of our actions go.”

She watches his bare feet on the dew-moist grass.  “Well, it’s a stream; in the forward direction, they go on forever.  They call it ‘upstream,’ but it flows the other way.”

“Exactly.  Where was I?”

“Unauthorized.”

“Ah.  Unauthorised tuning, and introducing pre-space-folding societies to advanced time theory, enabling them to create the enhanced form of vortex transit known as timesliding.  These charges and my culpability are not in question.  I hereby sentence myself to lifelong incarceration in the brand-spanking-new Null-Resonance Detention Facility.  Any form of noncompliance will be met with erasure.  Do I understand the charges and instructions put forth?  Yes, in fact, I do.”

Loki watches his face in the moonlight.  “Why are you doing this?” she asks.

“Because what I did was wrong.  It had good results, but it was wrong.  And our rules are for everyone, Fifteen, not just the people we think ourselves above.”  He smiles briefly.  “It’s quite funny, if you think about it.”

“What is?”

“Well, you’re Fifteen,” he drawls, gazing out at the city lights in the distance.  “The fifteenth hand-picked Keeper of Fate, one of the last I picked myself…and this is the fourteenth face I’ve had.  So it’s Fifteen replacing Fourteen.  The Realm-Slayer neatly tidying away the Worlds-Ender.  How very fitting.”

“I’m not replacing you,” she says sharply.  “You’re not the kind of person who can be replaced.  Anyway, you’re being melodramatic.  It’s just numbers.”

He laughs.  “If you look closely enough, everything in all the universes is ‘just numbers.’  And you, my girl, are not naïve enough to believe in coincidence.”

She stares at him, and comprehension is a cold weight in her stomach.  “You picked me, knowing this day would come.”

“Yes.  No.  Sort of.  But I knew I was right when you stopped me on Asgard.”  He circles her again.  “How many people in all of the Network would have dared such a thing?  How many people in the universe would have stopped me killing a baby-killer…by unmaking an entire world?”

“Unauthorized,” she says.  “I’m guilty of abusing my powers as a Keeper of Fate, and you haven’t charged me with it, so why should you charge yourself with—”

“No,” he interrupts.  “Emergency.  You saw an imminent catastrophic event and did what you, as a Keeper, deemed necessary to prevent it.  There’s a provision for that in Article Thirty-Two.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t feel guilty about this,” he sighs, stopping in front of her.  “Don’t.  This is your job, and you are very good at it.  This is how you save universes.  I always knew this was coming, and I was always just fine with it.  It’s the price I pay for building this beautiful new thing that will do what my people should have done.”

And, “Oh,” she says again.

He reaches out, takes her hand.  His pale eyes are gentle and weary.  “I’m tired of running, Fifteen.”

There, at last, she understands.  She swallows.  “Skuld, take us to Facility 6112.”

 

.End.

Chapter Text

Conducting the Blizzard

 

Keeper 015 is special.  She is the oldest living (non-computerized) Network Employee.  Even when the Network began, she had seen whole civilizations come and go.

They call her Fifteen, because she doesn’t care what they call her and they don’t seem to like her name.  In an organization dedicated to stability, she supposes that the ignorant must largely view her as anathema.  The wise know better.

If she could be bothered, she would explain to them.

Do you look at nature, she would urge them.  See the raging blizzard.  See its profusion of tiny shapes, each differing from its brethren, clumped and blinding and disorderly.  Look yet closer.  The flakes are driven by wind, which can be predicted by the shapes and temperatures around it.  The flakes are each, deep down, made of the most rigidly ordered parts.  From afar, it looks as chaos, but beneath the microscope, numbers rule all.

All her life, she has known this truth.  All her life, she has played the long game.  Look for the order beneath, find the subtle causes, build them up to your own schema, watch the snow eddy where you will it.  Become the conductor of a grand concert.

She is an incognito tuner, and she is the best.  She can move mountains without anyone being the wiser.  Yes, she uses magic, but she has a grander gift, the true gift of her kind (her selves across the timestream, not simply others of her race)…manipulation.

Fifteen never does anything herself when she can convince others that they want to do it.

Often, all she has to do is whisper the right words in the right ear.

It goes ill in personal relationships, but very well in her professional life.

Fifteen is staring at her portable, attempting to work up her nerve to—no, that’s absurd, she doesn’t need to steel herself to call her girlfriend (a silly term, but Natasha prefers it for some reason).  She needs a plan of attack, that’s all.

Simplest would be apology, but she doubts it would work.  After all, she isn’t contrite, and certain people simply see right through her lies.  It would go something like this.

I’m sorry.

You’re not sorry.

I’m not.  Because I’m right.

You always think you’re right.

Because I’m always right.

This is why I think we should see other people.

So.  No apology, then.  Feigning amnesia might work; it has in the past.  Natasha didn’t for a moment believe it, but she understood that it was the closest she’d get to a sincere apology.  Flattery is usually a good bet, and meaningless gifts…

Fifteen does not jump when her portable chimes unexpectedly.

…it doesn’t count if there are no witnesses.

She grabs it, waits for the scan, reads the screen.

Orders.  A Sysadmin dispensation for immediate deployment into a red-locked incog.

Ah, the MM bundle, one of her homes-away-from-home.  Low but not insignificant chance of Fidelis Effect, which she can and has dealt with before.  Blah-blah botched pre-tune, blah-blah make the following adjustments, blah-blah incoming catastrophic event.

Thanos.

A challenge.  How delightful.

With a flick of her thumb, she draws up her contact list and calls Natasha.

~“I don’t think you understand what ‘I’m not speaking to you’ means.”~

“And yet you answered,” purrs Fifteen.  “Listen, Tash, I’ll spare you the gory details, but I’ll be on a job for a while.  Deep red, completely stealth, hard to say how long I’ll be gone, so it would be absolutely wonderful if you would—”

~“No.”~

“No?” she asks with a pout.

~“I am not babysitting your sister.  Every time I fall for that, she eats me out of house and home by day one, and you’re never gone for less than a week.”~

“If I were going to be gone for less than a week, I wouldn’t need someone to keep track of her, would I?  Come, now, darling…left to herself for a week, Thor would accidentally burn down half the district.  And you know she loves spending time with you…you wouldn’t turn down that adorable face, would you?”

There’s a long silence from Natasha.  Then, grudgingly, ~“Don’t think this means I’ve forgotten that I’m not speaking to you.”~

“Oh?  But you’re speaking to me right now, aren’t you, dear?”

~“I swear to God, Loki, I am going to slap the shit out of you when you get back.”~

“Of course you are, my love,” Fifteen says sweetly, and hangs up.

Then she rubs at the bracelet around her wrist.

“Skuld.  You have the orders?”

~Yes.~

“Good.  Slide us in.”

~Warning:  lateral transit destination has been flagged red and uninitiated.~

“Acknowledged.”

~Warning:  lateral transit destination has been flagged for impending catastrophic event.~

“Acknowledged.”

~Warning:  secondary locus forming.  Fidelis genetic fabrication facilities are insufficient to reconstruct frost giant subjects.  Permanent erasure is possible.~

Fifteen raises her eyebrows.  If it were easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun.  “Acknowledged.”

With a flash of light that Fifteen easily conceals with magic, she appears on the roof of a building in San Francisco.  She can see billboards and bright signs, the beating pulse of these consumerist mortal societies.  The last time she was in the bundle was to plant the idea that the Stark Expo should be revived, and they seem to have undergone some silly superhero craze since then, from the look of the ads.

Now, where to start…

“Skuld, find the Mandarin for me.  We may need to jump a little farther back to do this properly.”

 

.End.

Chapter Text

Synch


Fifteen surveys the smouldering wreckage.  “Skuld, show me the extrapolation for Stark, and overlay the ideal.”

On the largest crystal of the bracelet on her wrist, several white lines appear, threaded through by a narrow red one and a broad green one.

“Excellent,” she says.  “Extremis is almost perfectly positioned, then.  How is the Winter Sol—”

White room in darkness.  Empty hours of loneliness and resentment and guilt and self-hatred and there he is, just look, so perfect, i love him so much i want to rip his face off.

Fifteen takes several deep breaths and focuses on the warning red flash of the bracelet.

~Fidelis Correlation Warning.~

“Low chance, indeed,” she scoffs.

She breaks away that little part of her mind, the part that looks at her sister and wants to smash her precious skull in, the part that rejoiced when she unmade their whole world, the part that calls to a fractured man alone in a cell.  She takes it and locks it away and tells it to shut up and mind its own business.

“How is the Winter Soldier coming along?” she asks Skuld.

A second red line appears.

“Let’s see…this branch has Pym too far out of position, so…  How is Lang?”

A third red line.

if you betray me, i will kill you

Speechless for just a moment, laughing outside and crying inside.  Such cold eyes!  He said ‘if,’ but he meant ‘when.’  So he’s finally given up.  Mother is dead, and the last person in all the worlds who cared for him, hoped for him, has abandoned him.

Fifteen gasps for air.  She clamps down harder on that shard of despair and shoves it farther away.  She must be separate.  She must.

Because her plan includes this version of Thor killing her counterpart.

If too much of her mind becomes the other Loki, she’ll die when he does.

~Fidelis Correlation Warning.~

She closes her eyes and pictures her sister.  Her beautiful, gormless, needful sister.  Thor has very little pride, because she has no proper sense of self-consciousness.  She disdains interaction with strangers, because they frighten her.  She won’t leave the apartment alone, unless she’s on her way to Natasha’s.  She cried any time their father tried to separate them when they were younger.

Fifteen loves her sister in a pure and protecting way, not in the covetous and hateful way that this world’s Loki loves his brother.

She refuses to give in to this madness, no matter how it pulls at her.  She has withstood its like before.  She has shared a piece of her mind with a confused child, with a bitter old man, with a vengeful psychopath, and always kept herself separate enough to do her duty.

She will not let her record be spoiled by pitying this wreck that was once a god.

“Skuld, find me a branch point for Quill and send me two months prior.  There’s work to be done.”

Her portable beeps—incoming comm channel from Core Monitoring.  Irritably, she thumbs it on.

~“We’ve detected a fidelis spike,”~ Pietro drawls, so would-be casual it makes her sick.  She can hear the sharp and hungry sound of teeth in his words, the scavenger waiting for the injured predator to fall.  ~“How are you doing, Fifteen?”~

“All operations proceeding as scheduled,” she tells him.  “Stark is in position.  Thor is well underway, Rogers and Barnes are progressing acceptably, Lang is branching.  I was about to go back and start preliminary work on Quill and Banner.”

The lengthy pause must be for effect, considering how Tom and Pietro process information so much faster (have to, because their bodies move so much faster).  ~“You jumped to forty percent compliance for a moment.  Will you be able to proceed?”~

She curls her lip.  “All operations are proceeding as scheduled,” she repeats pointedly.  “I can see how a human in my position might worry you, but I assure you that I have everything well in hand.”

~“That’s good to hear,”~ he says.  ~“We’ll continue monitoring.”~

The channel closes with a low tone.

“Unmitigated ass,” Fifteen mutters.  “Skuld, send me the graph of my fidelis correlation in this branch since my arrival.”

Skuld obeys.

Fifteen blanches.

In point of fact, her correlation spiked to fifty-seven.

It doesn’t make any sense.  The typical correlation is around five percent, but there are half a dozen spikes over twenty, one of them towering over the others.

when you betray me

if

when

ifWHENiF

She rubs at the aching bridge of her nose.  “Shit,” she complains to the cloudy afternoon.  “I’m nothing like him, why do I keep turning into him?”

~Recent fidelis spikes correspond to emotive projection of hyperbolic chronometric resonance.~

“When he feels strongly, it forces resonance?”

~Correct.~

“Shit.”

Apparently, she’ll need the bastard to fake his death.  Time to use their mutable correlation to her advantage.

It’s the work of a thought, a breath, and three seconds of spellcasting to stand invisible beside them—between them, at a table in darkness while they convince Thor’s comrades to aid them.

“Look at him,” she whispers.  “So blind.  So headstrong.  He may not realize it, but he needs your guidance and protection.  Without Mother, who will be his voice of reason?”

Her counterpart shifts uneasily; he’s heard her.

“And yet, without Mother, who would ever know the difference if you were to take on Odin’s role?  You’d be so much better at it…wiser, cleverer, infinitely more compassionate.”

His lip curls, and he looks away from Thor, into the shadows.

She leans closer.  “And Thor would once again show you that smile of adoration you once so craved.  Be the wise ruler, the kind father.  Soak up the love he has denied you these latter years.”

Ah.

He sits straighter, lifts his chin, clenches his jaw.

Double-vision for a moment as she sees through his eyes, feels the surge of jealousy and covetousness, feels the gleeful little thread of triumph as he plans and plots.

Thor has succeeded in swaying his friends, and his smile is proud and bright, and for a moment, her whole mind is eclipsed by greed and loneliness and a vicious, bloodthirsty love.

Loki pulls away from her counterpart, disgusted by his madness and the sympathy it stirs in her.

There is a brief pause, as if they have sensed her movement; she leaves with a touch of the Node on her wrist.


.End.

Chapter Text

The Coin

 

Fifteen strides through the corridors of the housing complex like a stiletto-clad tiger, proud and vindicated and unrepentantly sporting her gaudiest set of horns.

A mother gasps and clutches her children close; a Steve spits at her feet; a woman makes a tasteless crack about ‘horny girls.’

But she is Loki, Realm-Slayer, Queen of a race and world she destroyed, and the multiverse would spin away into screaming chaos without her.

She holds her wrist out to the lock panel of Natasha's apartment, and Skuld obligingly overrides the lock.

“I'm home, my loves!” she declares.

Natasha barrels into her and shoves her bodily back into the corridor.

“Manhandling me already, dear?  I expected dinner first.”

“You've been gone for three months, asshole!” Natasha hisses.

Fifteen sighs.  “You wouldn't believe how much persuasion Strange needed, and then it took bloody forever to get Loki killed, that selfish little bastard…  Why are we standing out here?”

“Because first of all, I'm still not speaking to you,” grumbles the redhead.  “Second, your super-codependent sister is asleep on the couch after a screaming tantrum about you having never been gone for so long and it meaning that maybe you didn't love her anymore, or maybe you needed help and obviously she should go save you, or maybe you were already dead and nobody thought to tell her.”

Fifteen flinches.  “It was an extremely precise pre-tune,” she says stiffly.  “At one point, it was necessary to manipulate a single molecule.  Their overall success depended on them first failing in a very specific way.  It was exhausting, thankless work that took the better part of a year from my perspective, and if I ever do anything in my life that does not have my sister's best interests in mind, you will know that I have been replaced by a talentless imposter.”

Natasha exhales slowly through her nose, but still looks notably displeased.  “Welcome back.  Thanks for all your hard work.  You're still an asshole, and you still need to understand what you did wrong before you can come to my place, ever.  But Thor can stay whenever she needs to.”

“How is she doing with the new Proctor?”

“From what I can tell, marginally better than she's done with anybody besides Foster.  She still refuses to go as often as you wanted her to.”

Fifteen purses her lips.  “I…dislike the fact that she is generally unhappy when I'm away.  I won't say that I wish she were ‘whole,’ or some other such crassly diminishing drivel, but…as my profession so frequently demands my absence, I would certainly prefer that it not cause her such distress.”

They stand in silence for a while, and Fifteen tries to read the tale of the previous months from the general state of her sometimes-ex-girlfriend.  It’s worn on her, clearly; but she’s managed to focus her anger and frustration on Fifteen, rather than on poor Thor.

Someone angry at Loki?  Situation normal, as Pietro would say (Tom maintains—and Fifteen agrees—that in her line of work, if no one is angry, then she isn’t doing her job properly).

Natasha raises her eyebrows and breaks the silence.  “So you went to MM, huh?  Natalie said you were on the Thanos problem.  You don't find that just a little bit hypocritical?”

What.

In this moment, Fifteen knows only that she is on the verge of extreme violence and she cannot allow herself to tip past it.

“No,” she replies icily.  “When she wakes, tell her I'm home.  Good day, Agent Romanoff.”

And, too blindingly furious to linger, Fifteen turns and stalks away.

How absurd!  They aren't even in the same league.  It’s like comparing a battering ram to a bullet.  Thanos dabbled a little in economics and thought it gave him the right to kill half a universe to alleviate scarcity for the other half.  The oaf didn't even stop to conjecture which members of a given society would be the most peaceful and productive—so he managed only a modest delay of what he insisted was inevitable, and only did so through the use of a power that tended to cause cascading faults, just like higher-order magic.  To ‘save’ half a universe, he endangered dozens more.  How bitterly she wishes she could explain his idiocy to him, to wipe that smug look off his stupid purple face!

The very idea that Fifteen’s elegant machinations have anything in common with the way every Thanos bludgeons his way through the universes is so…galling…so breathtakingly insulting

“Mmm, I thought I heard those heels.”

“I will gladly end you and face sentencing for unauthorized re-tuning,” Fifteen tells the sleazy old man following in her wake.

“Peace, sister-self,” he demurrs.  “I only intrude upon your magnificent display to offer, as ever, a listening ear.  Who but Loki can know the pain of being Loki, after all?”

She spins and clutches his scrawny throat with her painted nails.  “You are repulsive, old worm.  You know nothing of me or my pains, except perhaps for the pain of being surrounded by ignorant, short-sighted simpletons so convinced of their own superiority that they wouldn't know true genius if it stripped naked and sat in their laps.”

“I know the look in our eyes when we hurt Thor for his own good,” he drawls.  “A little bird told me that you'd gone to save that garbage fire of a bundle from Thanos…  Did our beloved golden buffoon require…motivating?”

“You think you know me,” she scoffs, squeezing.  “Do not confuse your coveting with care; you hate your brother.  You and I could not be more different.”

“It must be easy to love something so thoroughly in your thrall,” he chokes out.  “Which, of course, is why you keep the silly creature in the role of beloved pet rather than equal partner.”

She drops him.  “Pitiful old dotard…  She looks to me as you once looked to your brother; I have not made his mistake of dismissing that as my due.  I shape worlds with a flick of my finger, while you have only ever used your strength for petty little vengeances.”

“I have become the acknowledged expert on petty little vengeances, my dear,” he coos. “Someday, you too will seek my talents, same as all the others.  Someday, you will see Loki as I do—a bastion alone in a storm of pretty lies, unique in the excruciating honesty of merciless redress.  Like a poisonous caterpillar, our words are eyespots, diversion and warning in one; but our toxic nature is hardly our fault, and it's terribly forthright, for those with the wit to pause and observe.”

“You're talking in circles,” Fifteen lies.  “Self-important nonsense.”

“Is it?” he asks sweetly.  “Have you never wondered why Loki nearly always grows old and Thor so seldom does?”

“No,” she tells him bluntly.  “And I won't start now.”

“Liar,” he pronounces with deep affection.  “You know where to find me…should the need arise, of course.”

She starts walking again, more measured this time.

He’s wrong.

She doesn't need to wonder.

Thor is an incarnation of youth, fertility, beginnings…  Loki is the coin’s other face, a creature of change and destructive renewal, wildfire to Thor’s thriving forest.

Growing old is, quite simply, not in Thor’s nature.

By contrast, Loki can be young…but can never stay that way.  No Loki can exist for long in stasis.  Like Time herself, they cannot be allowed to stagnate; it is their bane, in simplest terms.  If it goes on too long, it kills them.  The more they stay the same, the older they get.

Fifteen has used that knowledge more than once to destroy her other selves.  She uses it to keep herself alive.  When she travels, she lets some piece of her become each of her counterparts.  She might almost call it symbiosis, except that the ones she ‘feeds on’ gain nothing in return and occasionally lose everything.

Only two others know the secret of her continued vitality, her appearance of agelessness that lets her seem to Thor’s eyes to be exactly the same as ever:  the Worlds-Ender and a very different version of her sister.

Then again, she knows their secrets, too.

She politely presses the door chime of Don Blake HX377’s door.

~I'm busy!~

Fifteen smiles fondly.  “Pause your game and let me in, you barbarian.”

After a moment, the door opens.

He regards her in silence for several seconds—gauging her, no doubt, as she gauged Natasha.  There’s more grey in his hair than she remembers, and it makes him resemble their father.  He's been giving away too much of his strength, it seems.  “You look as though your latest meal disagreed with you, little vampire,” he comments without malice.

“A bit less sane than most,” she admits.  “And there was some strange fidelis activity going on.”

“Well, come in.  You know my home is always open to Loki.  Have you tried spitting him back out?  Metaphorically…”

“How uncharacteristically clever of you, Thor.  No, I haven't tried; perhaps I ought to.”

“Let me know when you make the attempt, so that I may document the process thoroughly.  I'm still working on my Senior Theorist application, and your resonance siphoning will put me on equal footing with the old grump himself.”

“Your brother's been offering me a ‘friendly ear’ again.  Still insists I'll one day resort to his line of work.”

“Hm.  No, I don't see the great Realm-Slayer bothering with revenge.  You take too many pains to remain detached; you are famed for it.”

Fifteen stares at her brother-sister.  “If you'd ever met the Founder at the peak of rage, you would understand.  He loved the children my father slaughtered, without ever having met them.  His anger at their deaths almost ruined him.  It almost tore this universe asunder.  I have learned my lesson:  I trust and love no-one but Thor.”

He smiles at her, tugs her close, kisses her hair.  “That is a simple truth of Loki, and I would have it no other way.  Come, sister-brother—there is a second controller with your name on it, and a two-player puzzle that has long thwarted my poor burlap lad.”

 

.End.