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So That's What It Does

Chapter Text

"Move away, please"

Loki turned away from his brother's anguished face to look at the Midgardian who'd spoken. There was nothing distinctive about the man. He had short-cropped hair, receding slightly in front, a clean-shaven face, and the slight build which was typical of mortals. He was even garbed in the ubiquitious "suit" common to this realm. He was in all ways unremarkable, and Loki would have completely disregarded him if it weren't for the rather large gunlike weapon he was carrying, its muzzle pointed directly at Loki.

Not being familiar with the device in question, Loki elected to slowly straighten and move away from the control panel of the "Hulk cage", keeping his eyes on the new combatant. Then he created an illusion of himself, spelled to continue moving in a non-threatening way, leaving his real self-- safely shrouded in invisibility-- free to stalk this new combatant unseen.

"You like this?" asked the human in a mild, almost-conversational tone as he started walking forward. Despite his overall forgettability, there seemed to be something naggingly familiar about him. "It's a 0-8-4 we found at a spaceship crash site." With a slight shrug, he added, "Even I don't know what it does." He tapped a button on the device, resulting in a sinister hum and a reddish glow at its front end. "Wanna find out?"

By now, Loki had completely flanked his adversary. No, I do not he thought as he stabbed the sharpened end of the scepter into the man's back, inflicting a wound which should be severe enough to keep him out of action until affairs were concluded.

"NO!" screamed Thor, thumping his fist against the transparent wall of Loki's erstwhile cell. Loki idly wondered if this was one of Thor's mortal friends as he allowed his no-longer-needed simulacrum to dissipate. The strength of his brother's reaction seemed to indicate thus. If so, Loki hoped he survived; unfortunately Thanos's compulsions didn't allow him the freedom to waste energy on actions which didn't contribute to bringing about his desired victory, and healing an active foe didn't qualify.

Not outright killing Thor himself was going to tax Loki's considerable ingenuity enough. He forced himself to concentrate on Nick Fury's smug explanation of how the Hulk cage worked as he walked back toward the controls. He had to keep the expected lethality of this action in mind to satisfy the geas he was acting under.

So he threw himself completely into his role as he sauntered back to face Thor. He even gestured to the scepter's blade as if to say See? I can be a real warrior like you. Then he turned and stepped back to the cell's controls, listening to Thor's tortured breathing as he flipped open the little door over the drop controls. He turned his head to meet Thor's betrayed eyes as he flicked the control which opened the aperture in the helicarrier's deck.

Then he extended a slightly-trembling hand to hover over the button which would release the cage to tumble to earth. The part of him resisting the mad Titan's rule desperately told himself that Thor WOULD survive the drop, of course he would, he was Thor, the strongest and toughest of the Aesir. This litany was less than reassuring, especially since he had to simultaneously insist to his enslaved self that Thor's death was assured.

This internal conflict was interrupted when the forgotten human spoke up again, saying "You're going to lose."

Loki turned to look at him, intrigued-- and grateful for the interruption. "Am I?"

"It's in your nature."

Since Loki was in fact doing everything he could within the constraints placed on him to sabotage himself, this comment should not have rankled. It stung nonetheless, bringing back memories of all the centuries of Aesir mockery he'd endured for using "trickery" instead of "honest battle".

"Your heroes are scattered," he pointed out, walking back toward the fallen man. "Your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where is my disadvantage?"

"You lack conviction."

Annoyed, Loki retorted "I don't think I..."

That was when the mortal fired the scavenged weapon at him. Loki's last thought was that his mother had been right: His curiosity had proven to be the death of him.
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Thor watched Loki turn and start responding to Coulson's words with a stirring of hope ... and not just because Loki was no longer poised to drop him out of the sky. Perhaps Coulson's calm logic and wry wit could get through to his wayward little brother when Thor himself couldn't. Please, Loki, stop; you know this is madness. You were always the one to urge caution and reason-- has your jealousy changed...

Thor's hopes were shattered when weapon's beam struck Loki's midsection and lifted him off his feet, then enveloped him in a sphere of coruscating colors. Truly, he could not blame Coulson, for it was his duty to defend his realm, and Loki had brought this down on his own head by his actions. He could only pray to the Norns than Loki was left alive by the strange device.

The effects looked like no weapon Thor had ever encountered before. He could sense some kind of seidr, singing faintly on the very edges of Mjolnir's range. The "feel" reminded him of multiple cables snapping under high tension.

Then the forcefield vanished and Loki's limp body dropped like a stone to the deck. Thor's jaw dropped with shock when he saw what had befallen his brother. It was shocking enough to see Loki with blue skin and Jotun lines in his face, but what was truly astounding was how young that face looked now. Loki looked no more than 600 or 700 years old-- a mere boy on the cusp of puberty. It was hard to judge from this angle, but Loki seemed to have shrunk to the size he'd been at that time as well.

"So that's what it does," murmured Coulson.

Chapter Text

As Loki started to drift back into consciousness, his first thought was It snowed in the night.

It never snowed in Asgard, of course: It was always summer in the Realm Eternal. But Frigga had an estate in the boreal zone of northern Vanir, and had many times brought them along when she needed to tend to its affairs. Sometimes, if they were lucky, it would snow during the visit.

Loki loved the snow. He loved the crisp, enlivening tingle of the air. He loved the way the white mantle of fresh snow transformed the the everyday world into a new and exciting place. He even loved the smell of snow, something Thor flatly denied existed.

And he especially loved the deliciousness of awakening to the hushed quiet and soft brightness that signified new-fallen snow, and anticipating the enjoyment to follow. That was the feeling which suffused him right now. His mind and body felt new and clean, and his spirit felt completely at peace, for the first time since... he couldn't remember when.

It was a horrifying jolt to open his eyes to the ugly colors of the Midgardian helicarrier rather than his cozy bedroom on Vanir. For a few seconds, he couldn't make sense of what he was seeing. Then, like tumblers falling into place, his memories began thudding back. Thor's exile... the confrontation in the Vault... the battle on the Bifrost... falling into the Void... Thanos...

THANOS

Loki gasped and jerked upright, staring around himself wildly. The first thing his eyes focused on was the scepter, the metal now twisted and blackened, but the blue gem still intact, and mesmerizing. He could feel it reaching out to him, trying to reclaim its hold...

With a cry of repulsion, he scrambled away from it. In order to stay free, I must stay far away from this... thing!

And I must stop what I've begun.

To that end, he frantically looked around till he spotted the wounded Midgardian lying slumped against a wall, gazing at him in amazement. Loki rushed to human's side, stretching one hand over the wound. "I am sorry" he gasped in an oddly thin voice. Then he closed his eyes and concentrated on wielding the appropriate healing magic.

Perhaps this was a foolish expenditure of time as thousands of souls plunged toward the ground in the Midgardian's "helicarrier". However, as a purely practical matter, Thor was less likely to impede Loki's efforts to stop the invasion if his friend was healed. And really, this was the only person, Midgardian or Aesir, who'd recognized that Loki wasn't acting of his own volition; for that reason alone, Loki wished to keep him alive.

When that task was safely completed, he heaved a sigh of relief, and opened his eyes. Now that his mind was fully clear, he recognized the other from Clint's briefings... and from Thor's previous misadventure. It was Agent Coulson, Clint's "handler", as well as his personal friend.

The man was still staring at him, as if his own recent peril was of no consequence to him. One corner of his mouth turned up, and he quipped mildly "I must say, I didn't expect the Little Boy Blue effect."

Startled, Loki jerked back, starring at his Jotun-blue hands. Once the sight would have appalled him; since then, he'd learned what a true monster was. The weapon must have stripped away his Aesir seeming along with Thanos's controls, but why did the mortal say "little boy"? Loki stood to examine his reflection in the window of the facing wall.

For a moment, he reeled in shock. His face was reflected far lower than it should have been... about 8 inches lower. His features were also shorter and more rounded, as they'd been in his early adolescence. His hair had escaped into its natural dark curls. Numbly, he realized that it was a good thing that the spell which automatically fitted his clothing and armor to his body was still working.

No... No... I must look like myself, to persuade Clint and the others to stop the attack! He shifted to his Aesir form without conscious effort, but when Loki tried to restore his adult mass and appearance, he experienced severe pain in every bone and muscle of his body. Somehow, he managed to complete the transformation, but he found himself staggering forward and bracing himself against the wall to remain upright as his head swam.

When his senses returned, he could hear Thor bellowing demands that Coulson or Loki let him out of his cell. Lifting his head, he saw the human standing beside him, one hand extended toward Loki as if to steady him, his expression a mixture of concern and wariness. When he saw Loki's eyes open, he asked, "Are you okay?"

Loki painfully pulled himself upright, and replied "I must be; there is much I must put right, before it is too late."

Then he teleported away.
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When Loki found Clint Barton, he was battling Natasha Romanoff on a narrow bridge. Loki threw a telekinetic force field between them and called out "Agent Barton! Stand down! We have an alliance with Shield now!"

Both combatants spun to look at him, Hawkeye with surprise and hope, the Black Widow with shock, then an expression of bitter realization, apparently thinking that Loki meant that he had enthralled her commanders.

But she was not Loki's immediate concern. Fixing his eyes on Clint's, he told the archer, "Please stop the attack on the helicarrier at once, and order all our warriors to aid in repair efforts. Tell them that accomplishing the glorious purpose is being delayed." At the sight of Barton's distress, Loki raised his hands and qualified, "Temporarily delayed!" He poured all his persuasive ability into countering the pull of the geas Thanos had programmed into the Mind Gem. "With our new allies' greater strength and resources, we can better plan how to deliver the Earth into its bright new age in the most efficient way, with the least civil disruption and the fewest casualties."

As Loki had hoped, this argument sold the archer. "Sure, boss!" he said happily. He turned to the Widow, and told her earnestly "This is a good thing, Tasha-- you'll see!" Then he turned and trotted off, uttering arcane codes into his communicator.

As soon as Clint was out of earshot, Loki turned his attention to the other warrior, releasing the barrier constraining her. "Agent Romanoff," he said soberly. "The control over Agent Barton will fade over the next few days... perhaps sooner, since the scepter no longer has me in thrall; I do not know. It would be best to "play along" with his fixations until that happens. Should his or one of the others' compulsions prove unmanageable, your Agent Coulson has a device which will free them. However, the side effects are such that it would be well to avoid this course if possible."

The red-haired woman looked at him appraisingly, obviously skeptical, but not completely disregarding what he said. "You're saying that you were under control, also?"

Loki closed his eyes and threw his hands out. "Finally!" he exclaimed in a mixture of relief and exasperation. "Really, I was wondering if any of your species would pick up on that! Surely, one would think at least the possibility would cross your minds." That Thor also had suspected nothing... it was not the time to think about that now.

A darkness crossed her face momentarily, then she shrugged and said lightly "We've been distracted lately. So, who was pulling your chain?"

Loki shuddered, and licked his lips. Well, I have to test the extent of my new freedom some time. Closing his eyes and steeling himself for the expected agony, he whispered "Thanos."

To his relief... nothing happened. He sagged with relief, opened his eyes, and repeated in a louder voice. "Thanos! Well, in an immediate sense, the Other, but ultimately Thanos." Tensing with remembered frustration, he added tartly "And for your enlightenment, he is the monster I spoke of, not the unfortunate Dr. Banner. He is also the "real power" I attempted to warn your Colonel Fury of." Shaking his head wearily, Loki opined, "Truly, you are a difficult species to help."

The Widow absorbed that, eyeing him thoughtfully. Then she touched a finger to her ear and turned away slightly, obviously listening to something over their "coms". The lines of her stance eased noticeably, so Loki deduced that Clint had been successful, as usual.

"Well, why don't you come with me and you can tell us all about this Thanos, and your Chitauri allies?" There was still some suspicion in her stance and expression. "And while you're at it, you can explain why you can't use your fancy bayonet to simply remove your mind control right now."

"For one thing, I fear that any attempt to wield the scepter will bring me back under its influence. It is a powerful and subtle artifact, and the Other..." Loki tried to repress his shudder, but failed "is very skilled in the use of its persuasions. Your people should quarantine it as best you may.

"As for more detailed explanations..." he met Agent Romanoff's eyes gravely "I am afraid there is no time for that. Now that I have stopped the feint, I must go to thwart the true attack."

And with that, Loki teleported to his next task.

Chapter Text

"Someone tell me what the fuck is going on here!" bellowed Nick Fury as he entered the room. Yes, it was good news that reports were coming in all over the helicarrier that the attackers were disengaging and pulling back-- at least he hoped so. For all he knew, this was some new ploy by Loki, who was getting ready to set off a zombie bomb or something.

The sight that met his eyes didn't make him feel any better. The enemy Norse god was no longer in the Hulk Cage, while the friendly Norse god was inside it. Coulson was frowning over the control panel, apparently trying to figure out how to release their high-powered ally. This day just kept on getting better and better.

Agent Coulson and Thor both looked up at his entrance, but it was Coulson who spoke. "Well, sir; it appears that Norse gods can be mind-controlled, and Loki was. He came out of it when I shot him with the 0-8-4." He motioned to a large gun laying on the floor by his side.

Fury looked at it and recoiled. "Why the Hell did you use that thing? Why didn't you get one of the Phase II weapons out of the armory, like I told you to do?"

The agent shrugged. "I couldn't get to it-- battle damage. So I ducked into the lab, and picked this up. It turned out to be a good thing, too."

Thor spoke up then. "Indeed, Colonel Fury! After the bolt struck him, Loki expressed sorrow for his actions, and healed the Son of Coul." Thor frowned "Though I do not understand why it put Loki into his Frost Giant form, or rendered him centuries younger..."

Fury did a double take "Healed?!?" On closer examination, he saw blood stains on the front and back of Coulson's suit, and felt his soul chill at their placement. "Healed from what? "

Coulson grimaced apologetically. "Before I shot him, he got the drop on me and stabbed me. Fortunately, I was able to shoot him before he dropped Thor in the Hulk Cage. But the energy released seems to have damaged the controls, so I can't get Thor out." Coulson frowned at the panel again.

"I am sure I can free myself with Mjolnir," offered Thor helpfully, lifting his hammer. "I was able to make one crack in the glass already, I'm sure that with a few more mighty blows, I should be able to effect my escape."

Nick Fury wondered if this was all an incredibly detailed nightmare. "No! The last thing this ship needs is another hole in it!" He dropped his head into his hand, and massaged his remaining eye. "And where's Loki, if he's all meek and humble and good now?"

"The jury's still out on the third one, but the first two definitely don't apply," said the Black Widow dryly as she entered the room. "He just scolded us for not being bright enough to figure out that he was acting under compulsion." She looked around, her eyes briefly pausing on the damaged mind-control spear and Coulson's 0-8-4 gun, before meeting Fury's eyes. "Sir, I witnessed Loki telling Agent Barton to stop the attack, and that we were allies now. He did tell Barton that it was just a "delay" so we could plan together, but after Clint left, he told me that this was a stalling tactic until the mind control started fading, and that we should "play along" until that happened."

"So where... is... Loki... now?" ground out Nick Fury. He felt somewhat comforted at the news that Barton was... not completely back to them, perhaps, but at least no longer an active combatant. For the moment, anyway; who knew what Loki's long-term plans were? Even if he'd been a victim of the same mind-whammy he'd dished out to Clint and Selvig, there was still the matter of sending the killer robot to New Mexico.

Romanoff shrugged. "He said he still had to call off the 'main attack' and... poofed out."

"Yes, we got treated to that stunt, too," confirmed Coulson. "I'm not sure if he was just going invisible or actually beamed himself out or not, but it sure looked like it."

"My brother can teleport," said Thor casually. "Not from one Realm to another, though he has other means to traverse between them, but within planetary distances, yes."

All three of the humans turned to stare at the Asgardian. "And you're just now mentioning this?" demanded Nick Fury.

"I... did not think of it? No one asked?" Thor sounded half-apologetic, half-affronted. "I did tell you he was a powerful and accomplished sorcerer."

Nick Fury was literally rendered speechless by this. How could Thor not have seen that Loki's ability to teleport should have been mentioned to his allies? It suddenly occured to him that they were giving Thor a lot more trust than his actual actions warranted. Yes, he'd defeated the giant robot in New Mexico... but before that he'd broken into a Shield base and beaten up a bunch of agents. Yes, he'd helped them fight the Hulk... after first kidnapping Loki from their custody and attacking two of their people with potentially lethal force.

Coulson spoke up, "You know, I think this is something we can thrash out later, after this 'main attack' has been neutralized." He looked up at Fury, "Sir, do you think we should pass this intel through the chain of command? Our people are going to need guidance on how to, er, make contact with Agent Barton and his forces before any unfortunate incidents occur."

A rush of fierce affection for his "one good eye" filled Fury. "Yes, see to that, Phil." He squeezed the smaller man's shoulder in gratitude for a moment. He didn't even like to think about trying to do this job without Coulson.

At that moment, he heard Rogers voice over the coms. "Stark has got the rotor fixed; it should be back on line... now. Where do you need us?"

"You and Stark should meet us at the Hulk Cage; we've another 'consulting' job for him... and also some new info to discuss."

"Aww... you guys just can't live without me." Stark couldn't let up on his habitual mockery, even though he still sounded a little out of breath. But he had restored Fury's ship to full working order, which bought him some slack... ah, hell; Nick wondered why he even pretended that he didn't secretly like Tony's habitual insouciance.

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As hoped, Stark had been able to free Thor from the Hulk Cage in short order; the fact that he did so by cutting out the cage door was annoying. But as Stark pointed out with impeccable logic, not only was Loki a quasi-ally now, but thanks to teleportation, the Cage could never have held Loki against his will in the first place. Stark had also tartly pointed out that as a Hulk-containment system, it had several conceptual problems from the get-go.

Nick decided to recast part of Tony's scathing analysis to the World Security Council later on. He had a feeling he was gong to need all the psychological ammo he could get.

But that was for later; first they had to deal with the presence of a shitload of mind-contolled ex-combatants and the absence of an ex-mind-controlled Norse god who'd decided to undo the "main attack" on his lonesome. After Stark and Rogers had unsuited, the Shield agents had done some housekeeping, and Thor had been introduced to vending machines, they all went back to the conference room to strategize.

"All of our 'new allies' have been settled in our trainee barracks." Phil Coulson informed the group. "Hill and I felt that was the best way to ensure that they only interacted with people who knew to humor them. So far, everyone has been very happy and cooperative. Oddly, they don't seem too concerned about Loki: They're mostly eager to get on with the 'Great Plan' as soon as possible. Mind you, they seem a little vague on what's going to happen afterward; just that everything is going to be immeasurably improved afterward." Phil Coulson coughed slightly. "It's a little sad to think we'll be arresting most of them once they're in their right minds again."

Fury rubbed his good eye and sighed. "Phil, we can hardly let targets on our 'Apprehend' list waltz off with a pat on the head."

"Oh, no: I don't feel that sad for them. It's just that I set our best interviewers to collecting intel from them... and I was thinking that as they 'came down' we might offer them amnesty in exchange for the infornation they'd given us, especially if they continued to give us more of it. After all, it's not like their former organizations would happily receive them back under those circumstances." Coulson gave Fury a look. "Clint did choose the more principled of our enemies to recruit for the 'Glorious Purpose'; a lot of them are potentially flippable."

Fury huffed. "All right, you have a go on that; let's see what we can do."

"How's Clint doing?" asked the Widow, leaning forward and fixing her eyes on Phil's.

Phil looked at Natasha sympathetically. "He's the only one who shows any personal concern for Loki. He's fretting that Loki is in poor shape, and won't take care of himself."

Thor nodded morosely. "Loki has always been thus. One must coax him to eat when he is engaged in one of his personal 'campaigns', and only Mother can induce him to sleep at such times."

"What kind of campaigns?" asked Cap with interest.

"The most recent one I recall was his advocating for permanently-maimed warriors; that the throne should pay for apprenticeships to new occupations, so that they might have a way to support a family, and thus could marry."

The entire room went still; it was Tony Stark who broke the silence. "Wait, you mean that disabled veterans couldn't get married?"

Thor shifted uneasily. "To marry, a man must be able to provide for any children born to the union. The stipand granted to men crippled in battle... it is enough that they need not beg for their meals, but it is not... Asgard cannot afford to grant luxurious wages to warriors who can no longer battle, or even train others in arms... the throne has always done its duty and provided for their sustenance, or course... is it not thus on Midgard?"

Fury answered, "On Earth, we see ourselves as having a duty to provide rehab and job-retraining to men injured in the service of their country, as well as 'sustenance' until they're able to get back on their feet." He thought a moment and shrugged, "Figuratively speaking."

Cap frowned. "That's pretty populist for a guy who was telling a crowd of Germans that 'subjugation was their natural state'."

Coulson coughed. "According to Clint, Loki's goal was to create a distraction while he stole the iridium. He'd told Loki about Nazi Germany while briefing him on..." Coulson colored slightly "...you, Captain. He said that Loki thought the Nazis were appalling, and asked if emulating them, would be sufficiently distracting to allow Clint and his team to escape unmolested. Clint assured him that Germans-- particularly the intelligentsia-- were very serious about 'never again', so that should be effective."

Natasha frowned and opened the desktop feed at her seat, then did some swiping. After a few seconds, everyone's panel lit up with video of Loki addressing the crowd at Stuttgart. She paused it as Loki was saying "In the end, you will always kneel."

"Thor, you're his brother. Does it look to you like he's more disappointed than happy that he's not getting any resistance from the crowd?"

The team studied the image. "Yeah, I do get a laugh-to-keep-from-crying vibe here," admitted Tony Stark.

"Yeah, but just a few seconds later he was trying to kill the old man who did stand up to him! And would have, if I hadn't gotten my shield up just in time!"

"Was he? How hard was the rebound off your shield, compared to Thor's hammer?" challenged Tony.

Steve frowned. "Now that you mention it, it barely registered comparatively."

Thor looked indignant. "Mjolnir is a mighty weapon. Nothing can be made of the fact that Loki's scepter is far weaker." He sounded so defensive that Fury wondered whether the rivalry between the two was as one-sided as Thor made out.

Still, playing family therapist to two Norse gods was not in his damn job description, so Nick contented himself by saying "It was plenty damn strong when he was taking out our security at the Pegasus Project in under 20 seconds."

Phil Coulson raised his eyebrows, then got busy with his tablet. In a few seconds, everyone's display was showing a split screen showing Loki in action at both Stuttgart and the Pegasus base. The contrast was dramatic.

It was Stark-- of course-- who said it. "Sorry to break it to you Gramps, but he let you win." When Rogers turned to glare at him, he raised his hands pacifically. "Hey, I'm not hating on you! I know you never finished basic training back in the day, because they put you on the show circuit right after Hydra stole the second vial, so it's hardly your fault. But still-- this guy took out a half-dozen armed Shield security guards single-handed in 14 seconds, mostly using his disco stick as a... stick. I mean, he fired it exactly three times. If he'd wanted to lay you out, he would have. Instead he drew things out until..." Stark's voice slowed down "...until I arrived. Son of a bitch! He scripted the entire thing!"

Nick glanced warily at Thor, but fortunately Thor either recognized that Tony wasn't traducing his mother or was too absorbed in the video he was watching to to have heard the expletive. Natasha said, "I'm afraid he's right, Steve. You can see Loki dialing down his skill level when he recognized your unfamiliarity with that form of combat."

Coulson intervened, perhaps wanting to save his hero from further embarrassment. "Since we already knew that Loki was acting under coercion, none of this is immediately relevant. What we need to know now is where Loki went to stop the other prong of his assault... and more importantly, if he succeeded." He glanced at Tony Stark meaningfully. "It's very annoying when someone who is supposedly working with you decides to go on a private crusade without telling you when, where, or why."

Tony sat bolt upright, a look of shock on his face. For a second, Fury thought that Coulson had finally gotten through Stark's ego. Then the man touched his ear and said "Wait! Loki and Selvig are doing what, Jarvis?"

Stark stood up. "Since when?" he demanded. Then "No, I'm not mad at you. Just tell me what's happening. He stood silently for a few seconds, an expression of intense concentration on his face. Then his eyes widened in alarm, and he called out "Jarvis? JARVIS!" Stark looked as frantic as Fury had ever seen him.

"Talk to us, Stark. What's going on?" Coulson projected both concern and calm as he-- and all the others-- rose to their feet.

Tony's eyes looked terribly vulnerable as he dropped his hand from his ear, and his voice was urgent. "We need to get to Stark Tower NOW! Loki and Selvig are there fighting over the Tessaract, which is doing weird things... and Jarvis isn't answering!"

"Everyone suit up," ordered Cap. "We'll meet at the Hanger Bay. Let's go foil the main attack."

The team dispersed. Coulson grabbed the 0-8-4 gun, and followed along.

Chapter Text

When Loki emerged on the roof of Stark Tower, he immediately lost his balance and fell to his hands and knees. His head was swimming, he felt hot, and was so intensely nauseous he felt on the verge of vomiting. He closed his mouth tightly and lay down on the pebbled roof of the tower, swallowing hard until the sickness receded.

He wondered what was wrong with him; it had been ages since he'd had such difficulty with a teleport. Not since he'd mastered the skill, in fact. Perhaps the long block on his teleportation ability while under captivity... no, he'd teleported without difficulty earlier. It seemed that the revival of health and spirits he'd felt after Coulson's gun had freed him from mind control was wearing off.

When the nausea abated, he opened his eyes, and cautiously raised himself up to look around. There was no sign of Selvig yet. This was a mixed blessing. He felt so sick and exhausted, that he just wanted to get this over with, so he could collapse, secure in the knowledge that the invasion was thwarted. Yet he wasn't looking forward to the confrontation with Selvig, who was sure to be harder to convince to postpone the Glorious Purpose than Clint.

Loki sighed, and sat up, rubbing his face. He could do this, he lectured himself. For the first time since he fell into Thanos's hands, he could see a way to ending this. All he needed to do was to hold on a little longer, and he would be finished. If the Midgardians wanted to execute him afterwards, so be it. He was just so tired.

The heat of the sun was unpleasant, so Loki scooted back a few feet to a low wall which provided a small area of shade. This left a visible track in the gravel. He had no idea why Stark wanted pebbles on his roof, or why there should be a wall around one part of the roof but not others. In fact, the design of the entire building begged a "Why?" Barton had said something about it being "a giant phallic symbol", and Loki had retorted reflexively "In that case, I never wish to see to see the man naked." Despite the deadening effect of the scepter's control, Clint snorted in amusement at the comment, a gleam of humor in his eye.

Loki found himself smiling at one of the few pleasant memories of the past few days before sobering. He wondered if Clint would hate him after the mind control faded. He wondered if he and Thor would ever have a close relationship again; he wondered if he wanted such a relationship with Thor again, if the love and warmth was worth the soul-withering contempt and hurt that came along with it.

He wondered how Odin intended to punish him. Even if he was excused for his acts under Thanos's controls, there was the assasination of Laufey, turning the Bifrost on Jotunheim... and the truly unforgivable crime, accidentally "killing" Thor using the Destroyer. Would anyone believe him if he protested that in the heat of the moment he'd forgotten Thor's temporary mortality, or that if he truly wanted to kill Thor, he would have had the Destroyer blast him, not backhand him?

Of course, Loki already knew the answer was "no". Let him protest his innocence a thousand times, marshaling reason and evidence in his cause, and all anyone would do is fling the epithet of "liesmith" at him. Let him even once claim credit for some misdeed, no matter how sarcastic his tone or whether it was in service of some greater ploy, and he would be believed immediately.

He really hoped Odin contented himself with simply killing Loki. After Thanos and the Other's attentions, to say nothing of Thanos's guards, he had no desire to endure any further punishments "for his own good". He'd never noticed that pain and humiliation did him any good. If they had, would he not be a very saint by now?

Perhaps if Odin were to punish him by banishing him to a place where he might make loyal and intelligent friends on his own merits, unburdened by his own dark reputation... But no; such "punishments" were only for his true son, not the fake one.

Loki found himself closing his mouth tightly again as tears swam in his eyes. Norns, but he was a pathetic child, still praying for the regard of his not-father, despite the fact that he'd never been able to win it even before all the horrors he'd committed in a desperate bid for a word of praise, or even an approving glance...

Enough! Loki slammed both hands against Stark's ridiculous roof. I must stop bemoaning my lot, and occupy myself planning how I will persuade Selvig to delay the Glorious Purpose for a few days. In retrospect, it might have been wise to procure Coulson's gun before embarking on his quest to stop the portal from being opened. But had he done so, he might have gotten caught up in tedious explanations and arguments, which might have taken so long that Selvig would have had the portal opened before he'd gained permission to take the... what had Coulson called it again? The 8-0-4 gun? Or was it 0-8-4?

What a foolish name for a weapon. The mortals should give it a more evocative name, like Spellbreaker or Liberator or something of that nature. But then, they hadn't known its function before Coulson fired it at him, so how could they bestow a fitting name on it? And how would they have tested it to discover its function, had Loki not been sent to lead the invasion when he had?

Loki yawned. His fatigue was making itself felt again. Surely it could do no harm to lay down in the shade and rest a bit while awaiting Selvig's arrival. The man was so... vociferous that Loki would hear his entrance easily. And the gravel was surprisingly comfortable to stretch out on...

"Wake up!"

Loki nearly jumped out of his skin. His eyes flew open to the unlovely sight of Selvig's stubbled face, which wasn't improved by the manaical grin on it.

"Hurry! Come on! Look at her-- she's so beautiful! And she's got a surprise for us! She's getting it ready right now!"

Horrified, Loki turned his eyes to see that the Tesseract, encased in the containment system Selvig had created, was already attached to the building's arc reactor.

Pulling himself up, Loki gasped "No! Erik, you were supposed to wait for my word before starting." He stumbled a few steps forward, but he hadn't been mistaken-- the Tesseract was beginning to construct the portal.

Selvig shrugged as he went to his terminal. "I know, but you were sleeping so peacefully I didn't want to disturb you. And she was ready to begin-- she told me there was no need to wait any longer!" He beamed, having no clue what he'd just unleashed.

Loki wet his lips, struggling to marshal his sleep-scattered wits. What argument would sway Selvig? The man was a friend of Thor... perhaps that would work.

"But there is cause to wait, friend Erik; Thor has joined us in the Glorious Purpose, and wishes to take part." That was very true to Thor's character; standing aside while others did the exciting tasks had never appealed to Thor. With a sudden flash of inspiration, Loki added "And Odin must be informed, since he is the protector of Midgard. Therefore the Bifrost must be restored ere the portal is opened, so that Odin may ride Sleipnir in the victory celebration." Selvig had stated more than once about how exciting it had been to learn that the stories he'd grown up with were true. Surely, this would persuade him to stop the process before the Chitauri could come through.

There was a puzzled frown on Selvig's face as he considered Loki's words. Then his gaze swung sharply to the Tesseract, head tilting as if listening to something only he could hear.

"She... she says you are no longer supporting the Glorious Purpose!" His face was full of shock and dismay. "She says you are now an enemy and a traitor to the Cause!" Without further warning, Selvig lunged at Loki.

Under ordinary circumstances, Erik Selvig had no more chance of defeating Loki than a moth had of overpowering an eagle. He was not only mortal, but a man of middle years who'd never studied the arts of war, even in his youth.

But these were not ordinary circumstances. Loki was weak from decades of misuse and privation, and dazed with fatigue... and Selvig's slavery to the scepter and the Tesseract had unleashed unexpected reserves of strength and speed as he tried to grab Loki by the throat.

Loki managed to duck out of Selvig's attempted chokehold at the cost of collecting some scratches. Even in his current state, he could have killed Selvig in a second; it was defending himself without slaying the other which was the problem. Given how much using his magic was depleting him, Loki would prefer to husband his shrinking reserves for closing the Tesseract. That left hand-to-hand combat... but he wasn't sure how much battery a mortal of Selvig's age could endure without expiring. He would never forget the shock of the mighty Thor dying from a slap.

So he struggled to immobilze the other without harming him-- but since Selvig was in something close to a berserker state, this was easier said than done. The man was raving about how he'd "protect her", and ignoring all of Loki's pleas for him to think!. And all the while, the Tesseract was proceding toward opening the portal...

When Selvig changed tactics to trying to push Loki off the Tower, apparently without regard to whether he went over the edge himself or not, Loki decided reluctantly that the peaceful approach had to be abandoned. There were far more lives than Selvig's at stake: If Thor decided to hate him forever, so be it.

With a sudden change in momentum, Loki spun rapidly, surprising the unprepared Selvig into releasing his hold and staggering drunkenly. Loki took advantage of his moment of disorientation to slam his elbow into the back of Selvig's head. With a groan, the human collapsed to the ground like a felled tree, and went still.

Grimly, Loki turned his attention to the Tesseract. Thanos had chosen him for the "Glorious Purpose" because of his supposed "understanding" of it. It was true that teleportation and transfer from Realm to Realm were specialties of his, but how much that helped in comprehending an artifact... a being... a force like the Tesseract, let alone controlling it was another question.

And now Loki had to stop it.

Closing his eyes, he reached out with his mage senses, and "felt" the Tesseract. It was encased in a powerful energy field-- one that was smooth and tight, with no obvious loose ends that Loki could unravel it by, or gaps that he could pry it off by. Loki set his mouth, and sternly reminded himself that there was always a way. Always. He'd never failed to wiggle into any magic he'd set his mind to before. He tried not to let himself think that he'd never had such a time limit before.

Loki disengaged with a huff of frustration, taking a step back from the Tesseract. He needed to find a new approach to the problem... what Selvig had called "thinking outside the box". Reminded of the man, he turned to check on him. The mortal was still unconscious, but also still breathing. Good.

As he started to turn back to the Tesseract, he thought of the terminal Selvig had been using. Perhaps Selvig had constructed a way of turning of the Tesseract-- or at least the energy barrier protecting it-- from there? It was certainly worth a look.

Loki went to the terminal. Fortunately, he'd had ample time to familiarize himself with Midgard's quaint computer technology over the past few days. It was equally fortunate that Selvig was naturally driven to document everything he learned, theorized, or did regarding the Tesseract. It was an unexpected blessing that his writings were concise and objective.

They were also very useful. Selvig's technical drawings of the Tesseract's containment unit included a clearly-labeled "safety cutoff". Unfortunately, this cutoff was inside the energy field... why had Selvig designed it so?

Ah, here it was-- Selvig recorded in his last notes that the Tesseract had spontaneously generated the protective field, presumably as a defense against outside threats. He also noted that this field was identical to the energy of the scepter, and theorized that the scepter was the only thing capable of penetrating it.

Loki frowned. Using the scepter was not an option, since it wasn't here, wasn't whole, and couldn't be wielded if it were due to the threat of renewed mind control. But Selvig's notes suggested a possible way to get through the force field, and thus activate the safety cut off. Assuming Loki could do it... he was familiar with the principle, but he'd never attempted it against such a powerful energy source. But what option did he have? He'd created this mess; he'd fix it, or die trying.

Loki closed his eyes, and felt for the Tesseract's energies again. This time, instead of searching for a way to break through it, he strove to match his own seidr to it, to become like the "self" that the Tesseract couldn't defend against... and indeed, would see no reason to try. I am part of you. Nothing to fear, nothing to block or reject... nothing to even notice...

It was hard, at first. Every time he seemed to have it, he'd lose the rhythm with a jolt that he wasn't sure came from him or the Tesseract. There was nothing for it but to try again. Loki refused to think of passing time, or the consequences of failure. There was only the task of synchronizing with the Tesseract's energy.

Then something deep within him seemed to awaken... and he had it! The pattern was within him, a part of him. All he had to do was let his seidr dance to this inner music... and his hands slipped into the force shield as if it were swift flowing water. He let his hands continue to sink through the energy, moving slowly, smoothly, in tune with the internal logic of the force itself... until he felt the "cut off" Selvig had constructed.

Opening his sensitivity to the maximum, Loki examined the cut off, learning its nature. He could tell how much mage energy would be needed to activate it, shutting off the formation of the portal. Unfortunately, he couldn't check his own seidr to see if he had that much power left. To do so would mean losing his synchronization with the Tesseract's own energy signature.

The only solution, Loki realized, was to hold nothing back, committing all his reserves into the task of closing off the Tesseract. And he must do so with complete conviction. His melding his energies with the Tesseract was essentially passive; once he moved into active mode, the Tesseract would be able to see him, and would throw him out... unless he was able to complete the task of turning it off before that happened, all his efforts would be for naught. The Tesseract would never fall for the same ruse twice: It would open the portal, letting the Chitauri in on this defenseless world, and it would all be Loki's fault.

For a second, General Tyr's face appeared in Loki's mind, and he remembered the man telling him and the other trainees In battle conditions, strike each blow with the full intent to kill your enemy. Don't hesitate and don't hold back: Your opponent won't be doing either, and will kill you if you falter. Tyr had been stern, but always meticulously fair with Loki, unlike some of his other military instructors. His advice had always proved true under battle conditions, also.

Taking a deep breath, Loki struck swift and true, with all the seidr at his command.

Chapter Text

Nick Fury glared at Phil Coulson as he joined the group of Avengers outside the quinjet. Coulson gazed back as mildly and confidently as he could. He'd changed into a fresh unobtrusive-yet-professional suit. He knew that wasn't what Steve Rogers meant by his order to "suit up", but it fulfilled the letter of the law.

He wasn't sure why he felt if was necessary to insert himself into something which was technically an affair for the Avengers Initiative. Partly he was concerned about the possibility of renewed friction breaking out between Stark and Rogers, though cooperating to fix the helicarrier's rotor seemed to have resolved the tension between them. He also wanted to provide emotional support to Natasha, who he knew was taking what happened to Clint hard.

But beyond all that, he felt a strange compulsion to be there for Loki. If asked, he might have said something flippant about how "attempting to kill each other, then winding up saving each other" had created a bond. And the knowledge that Loki had been under mind control during his attempt to take over the world made a difference, too.

Most of all, however, was that he was beginning to ask himself some hard questions about Thor, and his relationship to Loki. Back in New Mexico, it had seemed so clear: Thor and his friends were the good aliens, and Loki was the bad one. But now that he thought about it, it never actually had been that clear. Thor had attacked his base and beaten up several agents, without even trying the "Do you mind? That's mine" approach to getting his hammer back. The attack on Puente Antiquo was bad... but they only had Thor's side of the story about what led up to it. And it was now clear that Thor left quite a lot of important information out of his accounts.

Then there was Loki's fearful reaction to the sound of thunder, indicating that violence was a regular part of their relationship. The fact that Thor immediately jumped to the conclusion that Loki had mind-controlled Selvig just to spite him, rather than simply taking the lead Tesseract scientist on the scene was another red flag. The "He's adopted" statement was also troubling.

Perhaps Fury shared his qualms, because all he said was "You damn well better be wearing kevlar right now."

Coulson gave a half-smile. "Full tactical grade, with steel inserts. Agent Romanov insisted." Rather touching of her, but he could understand Tasha's unwillingness to risk any more of her "family" under the circumstances.

Nick grunted, but stepped aside so that he could join the others. Rogers looked a bit upset, so Coulson took a place at Romanov's side rather than the Captain's as non-vebal assurance that he wouldn't trouble Rogers with any other gushing or importunities during the mission. Since Rogers' brow remained furrowed, that apparently wasn't what was bothering him. Phil allowed himself some private hope that he'd eventually get his Captain America trading cards signed.

Rogers transferred his frown to Fury and said "Sir..."

"Coulson is a fully accredited field agent who has served on countless operations under combat conditions, Captain. What's more, he's the only person Loki has apologized to over this cock-up, which means he has more rapport with him than anyone else on the team."

Thor pushed forward indignantly. "Loki is my brother! We--"

"Your adopted brother." Fury managed to overtalk a Norse god without even raising his voice, which was rather impressive. "As you were quick to remind us." Thor looked a bit guilty at that. "He apparently has more issues with you than a newstand, and seems more inclined to cooperate with any other member of the team than you. If there's anyone I'm thinking of pulling off this mission, it's you."

Thor looked stunned. He turned his eyes to the other Avengers, as if for support. Apparently, the others were feeling the same ambivalence toward Thor Phil was, because Thor's face crumpled into a hurt expression, similar to one he'd worn after failing to lift Mjolnir in New Mexico. It was hard to remain indifferent to such a kicked-puppy expression. Coulson found himself wondering what it was like growing up beside a brother with Thor's Teflon charisma.

Tony Stark was the one who broke the impasse by touching his ear and exclaiming "Jarvis!" in a tone of intense relief. "Talk to me, buddy; what happened?"

His eyes widened as he listened, then he said. "Okay, we'll be there soon, J, just hold on and keep rebooting yourself from your back-ups. There's nothing you can really do for either one of them; from the sound of it, they both need serious medical help." Stark looked up at Fury appealingly. "We're gonna need an ambulance-- is the MedEvac prototype up and running yet?... Look, don't worry about the suit, Jarvis. Get yourself booted up properly first; I can hitch a ride with the others, and from the sound of things, we're not going to need Iron Man right now anyway. No, Jarvis! Don't send DUM-E out with a blanket; that'll probably scare Selvig out of his wits, and from what you say he's freaking out badly enough already."

Fury half-turned and spoke into his com. "Hill, we need the MEC. Get a crew scrambled and have them meet us there. Destination Stark Tower, two vics; one conscious and disoriented human, one alien... Stark, what's Loki's status?"

Tony winced, and flicked his eyes at Thor. "Um, he's unconscious, and has burn blisters on his hands, and possibly higher up the arm. Jarvis can't tell for sure because of the black leather coat-thing. And um, he's a kid now. Like maybe 13 or 14 years old."

Thor looked horrified. Fury's lips tightened, but he just relayed the information that they had an unconscious child burn victim, then turned off his com. "Follow me," he told the Avengers grimly, and strode off.

As they followed in Fury's wake, Steve looked at Thor and demanded "Your brother is just a kid?" in an outraged tone.

"Nay! He is close to my own age. The weapon Coulson wielded caused this strange effect; I know not why."

They'd reached the MEC by then. The Avengers filed in and found seats out of the way of the bustling EMTs-- barely. There wasn't much space for ride-alongs between the medical/rescue section and the cockpit; Tony had trouble finding a place to stow his suitcase until a bespectacled EMT helped him, then returned to her own work. Counting noses, Coulson was afraid they were taking up some of the crew's usual seats. At least this was going to be a short flight.

Fury spoke briefly with the pilot, a muscular young woman with a long dark braid, then strode back to the entry. Fury turned, slapped the side of the doorway and said "Bring Loki, Selvig, and that damn Tesseract back ASAP. I want some answers." He nodded at them, then pulled the door closed with a thud.

As the MEC taxied out to lift off, Coulson asked Thor, "So just what is your age?"

"I am now 1100 years old. In a few weeks, I will be 1101."

Stark whistled, and drawled "Man, I would have never guessed-- you don't look a day over a thousand."

Surprisingly, Thor bridled at this. "I assure you, Man of Iron, that I have reached my full majority."

In a mollifying tone, Natasha asked "When is your age of majority?"

Ducking his head sheepishly, Thor admitted "1100 years."

"So... um, exactly how long do your people live?" asked Steve.

"Around 5,000 years, usually."

Stark looked thoughtful. "So... 60 Asgardian years equal 1 human year or thereabouts?"

Thor shook his head. "No, my mother told me that the ratio was 1 mortal year to 50 Aesir years." He frowned and looked unhappy; thinking of Dr. Jane Foster and what this fact implied for their relationship, perhaps?

Stark frowned as he re-did the math. "So, you're the human equivalent of 22 years old?"

Thor shrugged. "If you say so, Man of Iron; I do not have great experience with mortal ages."

Coulson leaned forward, "And how old is Loki?"

Thor replied "He is 1046 years old. He is considered an adult for most purposes, but the Council should really not have handed him Gungnir in my absense when father fell into the Odinsleep; he is not of the Age of Inheritance... or so I was told at that age." He sounded irritable, as if this slight still stung.

"So Loki is about 20 years old in our terms." mused Stark.

"Assuming that Jotnar age equivalents are the same as Aesir, that is." pointed out Coulson.

"What's a... Yoat-narr?" asked Steve, his face screwed up in confusion.

"That's the correct term for a Frost Giant, isn't it?" Coulson asked Thor, who nodded with a stunned expression on his face. "That's what Loki is; remember when Thor told us he was adopted?" He coughed slightly. "I did some reading in Norse Mythology after New Mexico, and they describe Loki as a Jotun who is accepted as one of the Aesir. I wasn't sure if that was true, because Loki and Thor aren't described as brothers in legend, either. But when he turned into a blue kid after being struck with the 0-8-4 gun, I rethought that. Thor confirmed it while I was trying to get the Hulk Cage door open." The far more disturbing things he'd read in Norse myth didn't need to be addressed right now.

Natasha raised her eyebrows. "He wasn't blue or a kid when he spoke to me and Clint to call off the invasion plan."

"After healing me, he somehow changed back. First he turned into a human-colored middle-schooler, which didn't seem to cause him any problem. It was when he tried to go from young teen to grown-up demigod that he looked like he was going to pass out. That's what makes me wonder if his, um, 'de-aging' was a revelation of an underlying truth, in the same way his turning blue showed his... ethnicity, as it were. As if in removing the mind control, the 0-8-4 gun removed all other... deceptions as well"

Natasha looked thoughtful. "That... might explain a lot. Thor, what did your mother say about the Jotnar/human age ratio?"

Thor shook his head. "We... we did not speak of it. At the time, we all believed Loki dead, so there was no reason to discuss the matter."

Now that was rather disturbing. Didn't Loki's family wonder why their youngest child suddenly went homicidally insane? Wasn't that reason enough to discuss anything which might have any bearing on the tragedy? Did the entire family simply have a problem with open communication, or were they simply willing to "write off" an unsatisfactory family member with nothing more said?

At that moment, the pilot's voice came over the coms. "We have visual contact with Stark Tower. I see one victim... but there's no room to land. We're going to have do a hover and haul. Gear up!"

Two male EMTs immediately slung first aid backs on, then began stepping into harnesses. Others began attaching cords to the corners of high-tech stretchers. A part of the floor retracted, revealing a rectangular hatch in the modfied quinjet's belly, currently covered by a glass window. Through it, Coulson, could see the roof of the Stark Tower, a strange contraption hooked to a computer terminal, an alarmed-looking Dr. Selvig cowering on the roof, and a small Loki, lying motionless. He was still ivory rather than blue.

The pilot commenced a series of small movements, centering the quinjet more precisely over the tower. "Tell me when you have a clear field." she requested.

One of the EMTs replied, "I thinks that's it! We're ready to deploy."

Now the glass cover retracted as well. One after the other, the harnessed medics stepped off the deck and were winched down to the roof. One went to Loki; the other to Selvig. After a few moments spent assessing their respective patients, the coms crackled to life.

"The kid's critical; his heart rate is rapid and irregular, his color is terrible, and that's about all I can tell you until we get this weird leather crap off of him somehow. Whatever this is, my shears won't make a mark on it." The EMT's voice was full of frustration.

Thor stood up. "Asgardian armor is bespelled to resist most damage. But I can release the spell... if Loki has not changed the key, that is." Thor's words ended on an uncertain note. "We both trusted each other with the keys to our armor... we always trusted each other..." Thor's voice trailed off mournfully.

"Let's get him on board first." The EMT was placing an oxygen mask on Loki. "Send the Stokes basket down."

One of the gurneys was raised by its cords and maneuvered over to the opening, and then lowered through it to the roof below. When it landed, both EMTs worked together to gently lift Loki into it and strap him in, careful of his burned hands. The oxygen canister was attached to a rack on the stretcher. As soon as everything was secure, the EMTs stepped away. "Ready hoist!" called one of them.

The litter began steadily rising. As soon as it cleared the quinjet's deck, the onboard medics sprang into action, guiding it away from the opening and over to a waiting stand. They pushed it down to the stand, and it clicked into place. The cords were then released, and a grim-faced medic looked over to Thor. "You said you can get this... armor off of him?"

Thor quickly strode to Loki's side. He wet his lips nervously, stealing a glance at his brother, then bowing his head. He made a strange gesture with his hand, and mouthed something silently. A greenish-gold glow covered Loki's clothing, then disappeared with a faint rustling. Thor raised his head, and stated "The spell has been released."

In concert, the medics immediately began clipping away Loki's leather garb with shears and pulling off metal pieces which were apparently loose now.

"Crap! What the hell happened to this kid?" exclaimed an EMT. Coulson stood to see what she was talking about... then wished he hadn't. Loki's chest was covered with deep, precisely symmetrical scars, from obviously deliberately inflicted injuries. Sadistically-placed scars, too: The X-marks bisecting the nipples made Coulson's stomach turn. A choking sound from Stark indicated that he wasn't the only one affected.

The lines of scarring ominously continued under the haphazardly-placed sheet which protected his modesty. In addition to the scars, the unconscious boy was emaciated, indicating that more than one type of torture was used on him. The blistered skin running up the kid's arms to halfway up his biceps was presumably recent, but it didn't make Coulson feel any better.

"Do you know anything about this?" the first EMT to treat Loki asked Thor accusingly.

Thor's stunned face was white as paper. "Nay" he said in a thick voice. "Our father was harsh sometimes, but not..."

The female EMT snapped out "Ted! Get your mind back in the game! These burns mean that we're going to have to go into the subclavian to place an IV. Ray, get the kit."

The swarming EMTs then obscured Loki's body from sight far more effectively than the sheet. Looking around, Coulson saw that Selvig was now on board, and the access hatch was completely closed. Tony was sitting down with his head between his knees. Steve was beside him, one hand resting on Tony's back. There was a look of grim reminiscence on his face, making Phil wonder for the first time how much was edited out of his beloved 'Captain America' comic books.

"Thor!" called Selvig weakly. "Thor, I'm so sorry."

As if relieved to be distracted by a less troubling problem than Loki, Thor strode over to Selvig's litter and clasped the human's hand, speaking reassuringly to him.

Recalled to his duties, Coulson looked around, and was relieved to see the silver Tesseract case in Natasha's hands. He met her eyes, and murmured "Thank you, Agent Romanov." He was rewarded with a faint but genuine smile.

The pilot spoke again, "Everyone stable yet, Heather?"

"Just a second, Mary..." the female EMT replied. "Okay, I'm afraid that's as good as we're going to get now. Let's get him into Dr. Noha's hands ASAP. Cleared for flight!"
"Roger that. Peeling out now!" The quinjet rotated, then started forward. "ETA to helicarrier touchdown, 15 minutes."

Coulson took a deep breath, then released it. They finally had the Tesseract back in their custody, the "Glorious Purpose" was cancelled, and they had their "target" in custody. He spared a glance at the pathetic figure on the table, the horrific scarring now concealed completely under the repositioned sheet. Mission accomplished.

Why did he feel that the hard part was just beginning?

Chapter Text

Clint was feeling antsy. He wasn't sure why; everything should have been great. He was no longer at odds with his fellow Shield agents now that they were on board and cooperating with the Glorious Purpose. He'd gotten to see Phil, and his handler had assured him that he wasn't mad at Clint, that everything was going to be okay. He'd told Clint to lie down and get some sleep, so he'd be fresh and alert when he was needed.

Clint had dutifully found an upper bunk in the dorm room and laid down on it, but for some reason, he couldn't sleep. Normally, he could sleep under any circumstances, but now he found himself staring at the ceiling, unable to even close his eyes. His gut was shrieking at him that something was wrong.

Maybe it was that he hadn't seen Loki in a while. Shouldn't he have sent for Clint to consult on achieving the Glorious Purpose? Or was Clint no longer needed, now that Loki had the combined resources of Shield to draw upon?

Clint took a deep breath and told himself to calm down. Loki wouldn't forget him; he was just undoubtedly busy briefing Nick Fury and Phil, and taking advantage of the much greater amount of data available to him. When he'd decided what he wanted accomplished, he'd come to Clint to get it done, like Phil and Fury had always done. Loki had just always given Clint a lot more discretion as to how he accomplished things, only occasionally vetoing him.

For example, he wasn't sure why Loki wanted to allow Dr. Heinrich Schafer to reach the gala before using the Optical Immobilization Scanner on him. Loki had explained that it ill-befit the honor of warriors to take the lives of scholars, but they could have easily have used the OIS on Schaefer's living body in the van after kidnapping him if it was that important to Loki.

But on second thought, keeping Schaefer contained afterward while they extracted the iridium would have been a pill, so perhaps Loki's way had been best at that. Clint had never used the OIS on an innocent civilian before, so he wasn't too sorry to have been overridden in this regard. And he had to concede that Loki's very public use of the device had made a brilliant distraction, even though it was far higher profile than Clint was used to.

Clint frowned. Thinking back on it, something was troubling him about that operation. He couldn't put his finger on it, but it also gave him an uneasy feeling. Maybe it was the fact that he'd allowed Loki to get captured? He wasn't used to bosses who insisted on inserting themselves into the line of fire. But Loki couldn't be dissuaded; apparently, Norse gods believed in leading from the front.

Loki had been quite calm about the possibility, simply saying that he trusted Clint to rescue him should that occur, and Loki was unable to free himself. "The only thing which worries me is the thought of my brother showing up, Clint."

At the time, Clint hadn't questioned that statement. He'd been preoccupied with planning his part of the operation. But now he couldn't shake the memory of watching a mortal Thor beating down one Shield security guard after another. Knowing that Thor's powers had been restored since then -- and how weak Loki was right now-- made him very anxious. Loki had said that they had an alliance with Shield now; but Thor wasn't part of Shield. Clint had had his own experience with "difficult" older brothers.

He couldn't stand it another moment; he had to find Loki now. Once he found him, surely the twanging anxiety in his nerves would relax.

In a single, fluid motion, he sat up, grabbed the bed rail, and vaulted himself over it down to the floor, startling the agent sitting by the doorway into dropping his StarkPad. The graphics of 'Justice League Academy' were displayed on its screen.

"Sir? Is there anything I can do for you?" asked the agent a little nervously.

"Nah. I'm just going to walk around a bit, clear my head." Clint tried to give the agent a reassuring smile, but he wasn't sure how successful he was. From the agent's reaction, it hadn't worked.

"Uh, sir, you're supposed to remain in the trainee barracks for now," said the agent nervously.

This gave Clint's free-floating anxiety a focus. If they were Shield allies now, why were they being treated as detainees? "How come?" he asked the tense agent.

"Um, why don't I get Agent Coulson or Agent Romanov to explain it to you?" The agent picked up his StarkPad off the floor, did some swiping, then looked up and said "Uh... it seems they're not available right now. Let me see if I can get someone else to talk to you." The agent was obviously flustered as he paged rapidly through his screens. He was also obviously inexperienced and in need of more training; he didn't even look up as Clint moved closer and knocked him out with a single expert blow.

Without pausing, Clint turned and scaled his bunk. He popped the vent cover open and slid through the opening, pulling the vent cover back into place after him. Then he crawled through the vents as rapidly as he could, trying to put distance between himself and his last known location.

He cursed himself as he crawled. He should have known better than to accept this "alliance" at face value. Shield didn't do world peace; they were a cold war organization specializing in covert ops. Loki was smart, but as an alien couldn't begin to understand the layers of deception which were Shield's modus operandi. Clint remembered Loki's shock when the use of the remote retinal scanner was explained to him, despite his quick masking of his reaction. It struck Clint that going by Thor and his buddies, it wouldn't take much "trickery" to get a rep as a devious mastermind in Space-Viking Land.

Clint listened to the chatter over the coms; fortunately his hearing aids doubled as his com link, so he always had access. His escape hadn't been noticed yet, but his luck wouldn't last long. Now he had to find weapons and Loki. He could kick himself for having stored his bow in the barracks locker. He still had the knife Tasha had given him, but he needed something with longer range. He began moving toward the nearest weapons locker. He knew he could jimmy them open, but he couldn't hack the armory's security. Not without another eyeball, anyway...

He flinched at the sudden mental image of Phil's motionless body, blue eyes staring sightlessly at nothing, deep puncture wounds around one reddened eye. He shuddered. He'd make do with the weapons locker.

"...Loki..." Clint raised his head instinctively as that name caught his attention in the com chatter. He tuned in and learned that the Avengers were headed back to the helicarrier, and that they had Loki and Selvig with them. The pilot was requesting permission to approach and land on D deck. Nick Fury himself granted approval, his voice sounding tense and grim.

Drawing on his memories of the helicarrier schematics, he started on the fastest route through the vent shafts to the hangar. He was going to find Loki. Loki might need help; it hadn't escaped his attention that the pilot hadn't stated that Loki was accompanying them, but that they "had" him. Maybe that wording wasn't significant... and maybe it was.

And once Clint found Loki, things would start making sense again. Surely.

As he crawled, he tracked the progress of Loki's quinjet through coms chatter as the pilot touched down and taxied into the hangar. He calculated that the best point of interception was Corridor H. He found a vent that gave him a good view of the hall just past the hangar archway, and waited.

He didn't need to wait long. He soon heard voices, Phil's among them, then the group came into view. An EMT team was with pushing a stretcher, speaking in urgent medicalese. Someone was in bad shape; not Phil... where was Tasha? Ah, over there, looking down at the stretcher's occupant, who was...

Every muscle in Clint's body tensed when he saw that it was Loki on the stretcher. There was an oxygen mask on his face, but it was unmistakably him, though looking amazingly young and vulnerable. Enraged, he kicked out the vent panel and dropped down behind the group. The conscious members of the party whirled around to gape at him.

What the fuck happened to him?” he growled, feeling his throat vibrate with his intensity. “What the hell did you do to him?” Dimly, one part of himself realized that he sounded crazed; the other part couldn't care less.

"Clint, calm down," said Natasha, moving slowly toward him, hands held out in a soothing gesture, though her eyes were wary.

"No! I trusted you-- he trusted you-- and this is how you repay him?" he spat out scathingly. He shouldn't give way to anger; he was on a mission. Or was he? He couldn't remember now, all he knew was the acid taste of betrayal, and the feeling of wrongness was roiling in his gut. "Why did you do this to him?" he demanded.

"None of us did anything to him, Clint Barton. He caused his own injury, attempting to right the wrongs he himself committed." said Thor defensively.

This self-righteous statement gave all of Clint's confused emotions a focus. He pulled out his knife and lunged toward Thor. The demigod's eyes were almost comically surprised as Steve Rogers pushed him out of the way.

Before Clint could make a second attempt, he felt a stabbing pain his arm. He looked down, and saw a Shield-issue tranquilizer dart embedded in his biceps.
He turned in the direction the shot came from, and saw Phil Coulson holding a dart gun, his eyes meeting Clint's with sympathy. "I'm very sorry," Phil said compassionately as everything went black.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The first thing Clint was aware of was that he was half-lying, half sitting on a padded surface, and that he felt terrible. When he opened his eyes, the world swayed in a seasick fashion. He immediately squeezed them shut again. When he tried to reach up and rub them, he discovered that his wrists were bound. A quick check revealed that his ankles were strapped down also. What the hell happened?

As if asking the question opened Pandora’s box, all his memories came rushing back. The Pegasus Project… the Tesseract going crazy… the hurried evacuation… Loki’s arrival… being touched on the chest by Loki’s spear, and then…

God! Clint groaned as the memories of all his actions of the past few days unrolled before him in pitiless clarity. He remembered shooting Nick Fury, recruiting a ton of eco-terrorists and hacktivists, appropriating weapons and gear from Shield caches… and ruthlessly attacking his fellow agents and whatever civilians got in his way. He wanted to puke.

“Clint, you’re going to be alright.” Natasha’s calm voice. He opened his eyes to see Tasha watching him sympathetically.

He laughed, harshly and without humor. “You know that? Is that what you know?” He pulled against the restraints, more to relieve his feelings than out of any expectation of getting free. “I got… I got no window. I have to flush him out.” He writhed futilely against his physical bonds, and even more futilely against the fact that despite everything, he still felt loyalty and protectiveness toward Loki. Well, alongside a desire to put an arrow through his eye socket.

She rose, and walked to the counter behind his head. He heard the sound of pouring. Over the gurgling, Clint heard her say, “You gotta level out. It’s going to take time.”

He shook his head. “You don’t understand.” He took a deep breath, then blew it out. “Have you ever had someone take your brain and play? Pull you out… and stuff something else in?” He lifted his eyes to her, and asked “You know what it’s like to be unmade?”

Natasha turned to him and met his eyes unflinchingly. “You know that I do,” she said quietly, a world of unspoken pain behind her dead-level delivery.

Clint took a few hard breaths, knowing the truth of that statement. “Why am I back?” he asked after a few seconds. “How’d you get him out?”

She shrugged, and replied “Loki said that with the control on him broken, you and the others should gradually come out of it. We learned from Selvig that a grade three concussion will break the control at once.” She gave a slight smile. “Cognitive recalibration.”

Apparently coming to a decision, she sat down beside him, and began releasing his restraints. “Phil hoped that tranking you would have the same effect, without risking permanent neurological damage. Guess he was right.” She looked up from her work and added wryly. “I was going to try hitting you really hard on the head.”

“Thanks,” he responded sincerely. Then the meaning of what she’d said registered. “Wait… Loki was under control too?” Thinking about the condition Loki was in when he came through the Tesseract, that made sense. Still, Clint wasn’t sure how he felt about that. On the one hand, the fact that even a god could be mind-controlled made him feel less… weak... for having succumbed. On the other hand, he didn’t like the notion of viewing the man who’d raped his mind as a fellow victim. It was Loki’s face playing in his mind’s eye as remembered the experience of losing himself…

Clint squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head, trying to shake himself out of that memory. To distract himself, he asked Natasha, “How’d you break him loose? And who was controlling him?”

Natasha went back to undoing his bonds. “Phil shot him with an untested 0-8-4 that fortunately turned out to be an ‘anti-mind control gun’. As for who… Loki called him Thanos. He also mentioned someone he just called ‘the other’. Don’t suppose he told you anything about them?”

“Nope. He once or twice walked off saying something about needing to report, but…” Clint shuddered, chilled again by the memory of how it felt to have his mind enslaved to another purpose. To distract himself, he asked “Hey, how did Phil guess that an untested weapon would have an anti-mind control effect?”

“He didn’t,” Tasha replied absently, concentrating on freeing his feet. “He was going to get one of the Phase II weapons out of the armory, but he couldn’t get into it because of battle damage…” she broke off there, but it was too late.

Clint swallowed. “Natasha,” he asked in a small voice “how many agents did I…?”

“Don’t!” She interrupted him before he could finish asking the question. “Don’t do that to yourself, Clint. This is magic. This is gods and monsters and nothing we were ever trained for.”

Intellectually, he knew that was true. Emotionally… it was far too much to unpack right now. He changed the subject. “Loki… what did happen to him?” He sat up and swung his legs off the operating bed. Natasha stood up to accommodate his movement. Clint grabbed the water Natasha had prepared earlier and drank some.

Natasha sat back down down on a wheeled stool and replied. “He’s in critical condition; the doctors are going crazy trying to get him stable. Based on what Erik Selvig said, we think Loki stuck his arms through an active force shield in order to turn off the Tesseract before it could open a mini-wormhole to… somewhere.”

Clint put down his water bottle, suddenly feeling nauseous. That was the “Glorious Purpose”; letting an alien army in to ravage his world. That was what he’d been doing with such zeal and at the cost of innocent lives. Putting his own family in danger…

Natasha rolled her stool forward, laying a hand on his arm. “Clint, it wasn’t your fault. Remember that— Thanos is the bad guy here, not you.”
Clint looked away, for a second, then looked back at her. In a clogged voice, he said “Well, if I put an arrow through Thanos’s eye socket, I’ll sleep better, I suppose.”

Natasha gave him a smile. “Now you sound like you.”

He managed a half-smile back. In a slightly more natural voice, he added “Assuming Thanos has eye sockets, that is. What intel do we have on him?” Concealing the movement from the security cameras, he used their private sign language to ask Family?

With the same discretion, Natasha signed back Safe! Out loud, she replied, “Not much. Loki told me his name, then teleported out. I could tell that he was terrified just to say his name, though.” She looked thoughtful. “Now that I think about it, he was acting as if he was afraid he’d be hurt for saying the name. Or maybe just for attempting to say it.” She frowned as the implications of this struck her.

Clint frowned too. “A couple of times during… while I was… Loki would suddenly jerk his head so sharply to the left I thought he’d break his neck, with this grimace of pain on his face. I thought it was more muscle cramps from dehydration, so I kept giving him more Gatorade to drink. He would always thank me, but once said ‘I’m afraid this will not be able to remedy the situation, Clint’ in this kind tone…” Clint punched the operating table hard to vent his sudden fury. How fucked up was it that he felt guilty for not seeing that his abuser was being tortured? It would have been so much easier to just be able to hate Loki, and have done with it.

Natasha reached out and clasped his arm again in silent support. “Clint,” she said after a moment. “There’s something you should know. The 0-8-4… it didn’t just free Loki, it kind of… de-aged him. It turns out he’s a different species than Thor… and Phil suspects that by his race’s timeline, he is just a kid. Or he’s supposed to be.”

Clint felt his face contort with confusion. “What?”

She shrugged. “Apparently, he’s a shapechanger on top of everything else, so he makes himself appear as old as he wants to be. Or believes he should be; I’m not sure how it works.”

Clint scrubbed his face with his hands. “Sounds like there’s a lot of backstory on Loki and Thor that we don’t know.”

Tasha smiled suddenly, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “Fury’s assigned Agent Rose Arden to debrief Thor; I get the feeling he’s fed up to his eyepatch at Thor’s idea of information sharing.”

Clint barked a laugh. Rosie was sweet and charming with a fluttery manner which masked a mind like a steel trap. She could get the most hostile and defensive of witnesses to reveal everything down to their short's size while feeling like they were idly chatting with a new acquaintance. Natasha viewed her as a colleague worthy of professional respect.

At that moment they were interrupted by Phil Coulson opening the door. He did a double-take when he saw Clint up and free, and shot an inquiring glance at Natasha. At her silent nod, he visibly relaxed.

“Agent Barton, it’s wonderful to have you back”, said Phil with a dry half-smile.

“Thank you, sir; it’s great to be back.” He nodded at Phil, still feeling awkward. He hoped Tasha was right, and with time he’d feel normal again.

Phil’s nodded back supportively. “If you’re up to it, we need you both in the conference room ASAP.”

Clint and Natasha both stood. “What’s up?” asked Natasha.

One side of Phil’s mouth quirked up. “We have the Queen of Asgard— or rather, her hologram— on the command deck, asking to see her sons.” He stepped back, and motioned to them to follow him.

Chapter Text

When Coulson arrived on the Command deck, the first thing he saw was a tall, beautiful woman wearing an expensive-looking gown in shades of green, with a gold-toned breastplate and matching vambraces. She looked regal— no other word applied— despite the anxious look in her eyes. This contrasted oddly with the agents who were carefully taping off an area around her with yellow caution tape and safety cones. He looked inquiringly at Nick Fury, who was standing at parade rest with an indecipherable look on his face.

“She told us that if someone tries to touch her, she’ll lose the connection, and it’ll be a pain to re-establish it,” said Fury sotto voce. In a louder tone, he said, “Your Highness, this is Agent Phil Coulson, Agent Natasha Romanov, and Agent Clint Barton. Agents… this is Queen Frigga of Asgard.”

The woman inclined her head graciously. “Agent Coulson, my older son has spoken well of you. Thank you for your generosity to him during his late exile.”

Coulson bowed slightly in return. “Thank you, your Majesty.” He felt slightly guilty, because most of his “generosity” at the time consisted of letting Thor have enough rope to hang himself and his collaborators. Well, that and not having Clint go for a kill shot. “It was an honor and a privilege,” he added. This part was true; being part of a documented alien First Contact had been a huge rush. He’d read everything he could find about Norse gods, scrutinized every second of video, questioned Selvig, Foster, and Lewis exhaustively for every crumb of information they had as they waited in vain for Thor’s promised return. In retrospect, he’d been more than a little blinded by the glamour of it all, and had failed to adequately think through the implications of what they knew.

There was a twinkle in the queen’s eyes, as if she’d deduced something of what he hadn’t said. “Thor has always had a very overpowering presence.”

As if on cue, Thor rushed onto the command deck, trailed by Maria Hill and a wide-eyed Agent Rose Arden. “Mother!” he exclaimed happily, striding toward her with his arms outstretched.

“Careful, Thor!” Frigga cautioned, raising one hand palm out in a warning. “I am not here physically, but only in my astral form.”

Thor stopped so quickly it was almost comical, though the downcast look on his face was anything but. “Of course, Mother; I… forgot.”

The queen smiled at him reassuringly. “It can be easy to do so at times.” Her face then became serious. “Thor, what befell your brother? Odin said he’d suffered some injury which was delaying your return, and the mortals knew not how to treat it.”

Thor winced. “It is… complicated, Mother.” Then he brightened. “We did learn that Loki was not acting of his own will, but was under a geas forcing his actions. Once freed from this control, Loki was repentant and ended the invasion.”

A surprised and relieved smile dawned on her face. “Oh, that is such wonderful news, Thor!” Then her smile faded and a puzzled look took its place. “But… why did Odin not mention…?” Then she shook her head firmly, and said, “That does not matter now. May I speak to Loki?”

All the humans and Thor exchanged uneasy looks. The queen’s gaze sharpened. “What is it that you are refusing to say?” While still polite and well-modulated, there was definite command in her tone.

Natasha Romanov stepped forward. “Your Majesty,” she said in a tone both formal and compassionate, “Loki collapsed after stopping the Tesseract from forming a portal in our airspace. He’s unconscious now. Our doctors aren’t sure how much of his condition was caused by this effort, and how much is the effects of prolonged ill-treatment in his captors’ hands. He’s extremely malnourished, and shows signs of… other abuse.”

The queen’s face paled. “No! Oh, my poor Loki.” Then she collected herself, and stated firmly. “I would see my younger son now. Will you lead me to him?”

“Of course, your majesty,” said Coulson gently. “But there’s something we need to tell you before you see him. He’s been… changed.”

Looking even more distressed, she asked, “Changed? How so?”

Coulson hesitated; explaining to an already-upset goddess exactly what happened to her baby boy while sliding past the “I shot him with an unknown weapon, and it’s just dumb luck that this wound up freeing him instead of killing him” was going to take delicacy. Frigga was probably well aware of the exigencies of war, but given her current state of maternal protectiveness… she might react badly to this revelation.

Thor barged in. “The weapon which freed Loki from his geas also transformed him into a boy again. He appears as he did back when he was around 700 years old. It also returned him briefly to his Frost Giant form… But do not fear! He is now back in Aesir form again, and remains so despite being unconscious.” He frowned. “Mother, you once told me that the Aesir live 50 years for every mortal year. Is this also true for Jotnar? The Son of Coul has suggested that perhaps they live longer than us, and this explains why Loki appears so young now, but this is hard for me to believe. Is it so?”

Frigga’s jaw dropped. “What?” she exclaimed, looking completely dumbfounded.

“It is okay, Mother; Father has already explained to me about Loki’s true parentage,” Thor said reassuringly.

The queen drew herself up. “Thor Odinson, pray tell me exactly what your father said about Loki’s ‘true parentage’.”

Thor looked uncertain. “He… told me that Loki was the son of King Laufey of Jotunheim. Father found him abandoned in a shrine, left to die because he was a runt, no larger than an Aesir babe.”

Frigga shook her head. “When he first brought Loki to me, Odin only said he was a child of high birth, orphaned by the war. He said nothing of Loki being Jotun… Had I known this… there is much I would have done differently.” She lowered her eyes as if she were searching her memories, an unhappy look on her face.  

When she raised them again, there was a spark of anger in them. “Tell me, Thor, when did Odin entrust you with the truth of Loki’s race and birth?” she commanded.

Thor shifted uneasily. “It was after Loki… fell… from the Bifrost. Father came to me to explain what led Loki to turn against me.”

She shook her head. “You mean when Loki deliberately let go on the Bifrost in a quest for self-destruction. Let us have no more of pretty lies in this family, Thor; they have served us ill.”

“I agree, Mother. This has always been my preference, but Loki…”

Frigga laughed harshly. “Loki! Loki is far from the worst liar in this family. Beside Odin’s lies, Loki’s most egregious falsehoods are but childish fibs, or a diplomat’s tact! Indeed, now that I think back on it, I believe Loki might be the most honest of us all.”

Looking half baffled, half indignant, Thor opened his mouth, but Frigga cut him off with a gesture. “No more,Thor! We can speak of this later; I would see my other son now, no matter what his color or size.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They walked to the infirmary in a pack, with Frigga surrounded by a protective circle of Avengers and agents. When they reached the ICU module Loki had been placed in, Coulson saw Steve Rogers was sitting in a chair by the bedside, leaning back with his long legs stretched out before him. When the entourage arrived, he hurriedly sat up. When he saw Frigga, he immediately rose to his feet, and nodded at her. “Ma’am,” he said politely.

“Mother, this is Steve Rogers, Captain of America. He graciously volunteered to watch over Loki while I was engaging in the Midgardian post-battle ritual called ‘debriefing’. Steve, this is Frigga Allmother, Queen of Asgard.”

The captain’s eyes widened, but managed a slight bow and said, “Your Majesty”. Rogers seemed slightly unsure of the correct etiquette for addressing alien royalty.

Frigga smiled reassuringly. “Be at ease, Captain. I would thank you for your aid to my sons.”

“It’s nothing, ma’am. I just didn’t want him to wake up alone.”

She gave Steve another smile, though she couldn’t resist craning her neck in an attempt to get a better view of Loki. Rogers, always the consummate gentleman, pulled the chair out as if to offer it to her.

Coulson coughed. “Um, Captain Rogers, the queen isn’t actually here; she’s projecting her image from Asgard, and any physical contact will, er, disrupt the transmission.”

Steve blushed. “Sorry, ma’am.” He picked up the chair and stepped back away from the bed, giving Frigga a clear path to Loki’s side.

Frigga stepped forward immediately, and anxiously examined her younger son. Behind his oxygen mask, Loki was nearly as white as the sheets. Multiple tubes, wires, and sensors were sprouting from his emaciated body, and a screen on the wall depicted an ever-changing array of numbers, symbols and wavy lines, most of which Phil couldn’t begin to decipher.

As if Loki didn’t didn’t look pathetic enough already, his burned arms were elevated on armrests attached to the railing, draped with non-stick gauze. Fortunately, his hospital gown concealed the disturbing scarring on his body.

From where he was standing, Coulson could see the shock and horror on Frigga’s face. Thor took a step toward her, reaching out to her before recalling the situation and dropping his hand, a look of misery on his face.

“Excuse me, I must get to my patient,” said a polite but firm voice. Coulson turned to see Dr. Noha behind the Avengers. She was a fair-skinned woman wearing a brightly-colored hijab with her scrubs and lab coat. “I am told his mother is here, yes?”

“Yes, she is,” Phil told her, motioning her forward. Looking back to the stricken queen, he said, “Your Majesty, this is Dr. Noha. She has been treating your son. Dr. Noha, Queen Frigga of Asgard.” It occurred to Coulson that he was becoming almost casual about performing royal introductions.

The smallish woman walked up to Loki’s bedside, and bowed slightly. Frigga, who had regained some of her composure in the interim, nodded back, and said “Please tell me of my son, Lady Noha.”

The doctor took a deep breath. “He shows signs of being abused for a very long time. The MRI shows multiple healed fractures inflicted over the course of many years... and some very recently. In addition, there are scars which indicate deliberate torture— repeatedly.” She gave Frigga a look of deep sympathy.

“However, the healed wounds are of lesser concern than the severe malnutrition, and the burns over approximately 12% of his body. It is too soon to tell exactly how deep the tissue damage goes, and the fact the injuries were caused by an unfamiliar energy source adds to the uncertainty. But whatever the cause, burns place additional demands on the metabolism, raising the amount of caloric intake needed. We are trying to find the correct balance of mineral supplementation to nutrition to prevent cardiac arrhythmia, but this is a trial-and-error process. His current mix is working, but it’s not going to be enough to meet his needs long term.”

Dr. Noha looked up at the queen in appeal. “We are physicians; we want to heal all those who come into our care. But when we are dealing with a different species we know nothing about, and an individual who is in such a fragile state, who has experienced so much trauma… Please, anything you can tell us would help.”

Frigga took a deep breath. “Healing is not my specialty; nor am I physically present to aid in Loki’s care. Lady Eir is a skilled healer, but her knowledge is of the Aesir form. Nor can she come here before the Bifrost is restored.” A thoughtful look crossed the queen’s face. “But… I know of someone who can, who is also knowledgeable about Jotnar physiology and healing. It is just a matter of persuading her…”

With a suddenly decisive air, Frigga turned to Thor. “Watch over your brother, son. I will send someone to his aid as soon as may be.”

“But Father said for me to return with the Tesseract as soon as I could…”

She snapped. “Thor, right now your father’s wishes are of little interest to me.” From the look in her eyes, the All-Father was going to get an earful at the next opportunity. “Loki’s wellbeing takes precedence right now; remain with him until you are relieved.”

Thor bowed his head submissively, and said, “Yes, Mother. Father did say that I was to aid the mortals in battle, and Lady Rose Arden informed me that my sharing my knowledge with them will help their warriors improve their skills, so I should finish this ‘debriefing’, should I not?”

Coulson picked up his cue. “Thor’s information would indeed be very useful to us, your Majesty.”

Frigga smiled gratefully at both of them. “That is a good plan, Thor. Thank you again, Agent Coulson.” She took one last look at Loki, then vanished.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Frigga opened her eyes and stepped back from her scrying station. Her first impulse was to contact Gerd immediately, but she was wise enough to know that she should eat first. Depleting herself would not help Loki in the long run.

So she went out to her sitting room. Her attendants immediately looked to her for direction.

“Fulla, please fetch me some food suitable for restoring my energy; I will be doing more seidr work this afternoon. Nya, please go to Lady Eir and request that she attend me as soon as possible, bringing Prince Loki’s medical records on data crystal.”

The two women bowed and murmured assent. Frigga went to her desk and sat down, deep in thought. Her other ladies, reading her mood, went back to their assigned tasks. None approached her until Fulla brought her a tray. Frigga thanked the young woman, dismissed her, and set about consuming the exquisite food without tasting a bite of it.

Odin had lied to her. Her mind kept circling back to that thought like a moth to a flame. Though it really should not have been so shocking: Had not she and Odin lied to both their sons and Asgard about Loki being their biological child? She winced mentally remembering the platitudes she’d tried to soothe Loki with after he’d learned the truth. No wonder Loki had given her such an incredulous stare! But at the time she’d been so distraught over Thor’s exile and Odin’s medical peril that Loki’s upset over such a minor detail had seemed excessive, even self-indulgent. He had parents who loved him, so what did it matter that he wasn’t genetically related to them?  

But later, when she had time to think— far, far too much time to think about conversations she believed she’d never get to have— it wasn’t that simple, was it? The fact that he’d been lied to all his life alone had to have been devastating. Frigga thought about her own sense of betrayal at Odin’s lies, and realized how much greater cause Loki had for grievance on that front.

The revelation that he was Jotun must have been yet another stone dumped on Loki’s already reeling psyche. Frigga winced mentally. How many times had she blithely ignored jokes or lurid stories about the “Frost Giants” from courtiers, Einherjar, servants, even from Loki and Thor’s nannies? Over and over for centuries… What must Loki have thought when he discovered that he was one of these “monsters”? What must he have felt?

And then to have Gungnir placed in his hands, and with it responsibility for every life in Asgard, at a time in which the war with Jotunheim had been restarted… how could anyone struggling with such shocks to his sense of self have made wise, considered decisions under those circumstances?

Her ruminations were interrupted by the arrival of Lady Eir, trailed by Nya. Eir approached Frigga with unusual formality, kneeling before her and murmuring “My Queen”. When she lifted her head, her face was composed, though her eyes were watchful. As she rose, she glanced at the remnants of Frigga’s meal with an educated eye, undoubtedly drawing the correct conclusion about Frigga’s use of seidr.

“Lady Eir,” Frigga acknowledged the healer with a nod. She rose, and asked, “Would you attend me in my quarters? I would speak with you in private.”

“Of course, my Queen.” She followed Frigga in silence.

As soon as the door closed behind them Frigga rounded on Eir and demanded fiercely, “Did you know of Loki’s true race?”

Eir stiffened. “My Queen, even though the King forbade examination of Loki under Soul Forge, I am not an idiot; yes, I soon discovered the truth.”

And you never told me of this?

The healer’s eyes widened, but she stood her ground. “My Queen… I assumed that you knew. You and Odin came to me together with Loki, asking my aid to pass the babe off as the child of your body. When I realized what he was… I thought that you were in Odin’s full confidence.”

Frigga gave a harsh laugh. “So did I.” She swallowed and composed herself. “I beg your pardon for my rudeness, Lady Eir. I should save my wrath for the one who truly deserves it, and you are not he.”

Eir’s face softened. “I have never had a child of my own, but I have dealt with many distraught parents. I have learned not to take personally the words of a frantic mother.” She paused, then continued diffidently. “And… how is Loki, my Queen? There are such rumors flying… and you did ask for his medical records…”

Frigga closed her eyes. “It is… not good. Loki has apparently been starved and tortured for a long time, and then performed a great work of seidr on top of it. His Midgardian healers seem well-intentioned, but their practice of medicine is so primitive… Loki is only barely alive, like a candle on the verge of guttering out. And if we cannot get a true healer to him soon…”

Eir’s face paled. “And without the Bifrost, we cannot go to his aid…”

Frigga eyes flew open, and she said fiercely. “Gerd can.”

“But no one has heard from Gerd since she disappeared after the trial…”

“I have. I offered her refuge in a place neither Heimdall nor Hlidskjalf could see, and where Skirnir could never go, even if he discovered where she was.”

“Then she owes you much. But— forgive my bluntness— will she be willing to leave her sanctuary to aid Prince Loki, after what he and your other son did to Jotunheim? She loves her people fiercely.”

“I am hoping that the fact that Loki is one of her people will move her to mercy, after I explain the story behind his sudden madness. And the fact that he is still…” Frigga suddenly remembered that she needed to get clarification on a crucial point. “Eir, how old is Loki, in Aesir terms? Do Jotnar live and grow on a different schedule than us?”

“I do not know all the details, but I do know that the Jotnar live longer than the Aesir and Vanir. I can tell you that despite his height, Loki has not gone through puberty yet. I suspect that Loki has used his instinctive shape-changing ability to “push” his growth when he began to fall behind Thor; his bones are less dense than they should be. The most recent test results I have suggested that he was close to beginning puberty, but I have not examined him for more than a century; I do not know what stage of maturation he is at now.”

Frigga nodded grimly. It hurt to think that she’d been so blind to her son’s needs, but it was a tool she could use to persuade Gerd. “No wonder Loki has not grown a beard yet,” she murmured wryly.

Eir shifted uneasily. “There is another reason for that. Loki is not male. Or rather, he is not only male. He… it was after he was severely gored by that bilgesnipe… in repairing his intestinal damage, I discovered that he has female organs as well as male. This trait is common among Jotnar, known among the Alfar, but rare among the Vanir, and even rarer for Aesir.”

Frigga felt stunned. “I… I changed his diapers when he was a babe. I never noticed… well, there was a slight difference, but it was almost imperceptible… You told me it was nothing to worry about!”

“At the time, I thought it wasn’t. Remember, I knew none of this then. It was only later, after I discovered Loki’s true sex, that I researched and discovered that this… anomaly marked the place where his vagina would someday develop.”

Frigga set her jaw. This didn’t matter; Loki was her child regardless. Her immediate task was to gain Loki the aid he needed to survive. Afterwards… she could weep and mourn. And then try to think how she could make redress to Loki for her many failings.

There was no more time to delay. “Please give me the data crystal containing Loki’s medical records. They contain this information you have just shared with me, do they not?” Frigga spoke in the most level voice she could command.

“Yes, my Queen. This is Loki’s full and complete physical history, made for my eyes only.” Eir produced the crystal from a fold of space and handed to Frigga with a bow. “If I may ask, how are you to get it to Gerd without the Bifrost?”

Frigga smiled slightly. “Rest assured, Eir, Gerd and I have developed a way to share the information on data crystals without physical contact. It has proved very convenient in the past.” She drew in a deep breath. “And now I can delay no longer. You may now return to your usual duties, Friend Eir.”

“As you wish, Friend Frigga,” said Eir warmly, responding to Frigga’s less formal terms of address. “May the Norns grant you victory.” Eir bowed and left the room, leaving Frigga alone with the task before her. 

Chapter Text

As soon as the door closed behind Eir, Frigga turned and strode over to a specific spot on her bedroom wall. She pressed a hidden catch and pulled open two cleverly-concealed cabinet doors. This revealed an oval mirror, with various pieces of jewelry displayed on the inside of the cabinet doors. Odin had seen her use this many times, and thought it nothing but an ingenious vanity.

And so it was, but that was not its only use. Frigga pressed gemstones set around the mirrors frame in a certain order, and the mirror misted over. Now she could only hope that Gerd was near enough to perceive the signal at her end, and willing to speak to Frigga. She took a seat on the padded vanity stool, and began planning what she wanted to say.

After a few minutes, the mist cleared away. Now the mirror no longer reflected Frigga’s face and private quarters, but the beautiful and severe face of the Jotnar maiden Gerd. She was in what Jotnar called their “warm form”, her pale, rose-tinged skin as flawless as the day that the pervert Skirnir had targeted her. Gerd’s long, straight gleaming mane of palest strawberry-blonde streamed over one shoulder, long enough that had she been standing it would have been well past her hips.

In retrospect, Frigga wondered how she could have missed the resemblance between Loki’s unblemished ivory skin and the famed dewy perfection of Gerd’s complexion. Though their faces were different, both had beautifully carved features. Frigga suddenly wondered how closely Gerd was related to Laufey, and thus Loki. Kinship might be another tie to sway Gerd into helping Loki… except for the awkward fact that Loki had slain Laufey. This was going to be difficult…

However, it would get no easier by delaying. “Greetings, Gerd,” said Frigga in a determinedly pleasant voice, smiling.

“Frigga,” returned Gerd, in a neutral tone, with not even a trace of a smile. No, this was not going to be easy at all.

But her child’s life was on the line, so giving up was not an option. “Gerd, I need your help.”

Gerd’s eyebrows rose. “How so?” she asked in the same impassive manner as before.

Frigga had decided that the best policy was to give the essential information as concisely as possible. That lessened the chance of Gerd cutting the connection in fury before Frigga had finished. “I have just discovered today that Loki is a Jotun, and a Jotun child at that. I have also been informed that Loki first learned that fact a year ago, right before Odin’s collapse into Odinsleep. I believe the shock and distress caused by this revelation had much bearing on Loki’s later actions. I do not believe he was in his right mind at the time that he focused the Bifrost on Jotunheim, and in fact he attempted suicide by deliberately dropping off the broken Bifrost immediately afterward.”

Gerd froze as if turned to stone, a look of blank shock on her face. Frigga wondered if it might be courteous to allow Gerd to absorb this information before continuing, but she considered it best to maintain her her chosen strategy.

“We believed Loki dead, but just a few days ago Heimdall saw Loki on Midgard, apparently attempting to conquer it and rule it as king. Odin used dark magic to send Thor to Midgard to thwart Loki. In the course of battle, it was uncovered that Loki was acting under a forcible geas, and as soon as it was removed, Loki acted to sabotage his plans before they could come to fruition.

“However, this act of defiance came at a severe cost. Loki was severely wounded by this effort, and added to the many tortures he received while in his captor’s hands, he now lies close to death. The Midgardians healing abilities are too primitive to save him, and with the Bifrost incapacitated, we have no way to get an Aesir healer to his side.”

Frigga paused to wet her lips, gauging Gerd’s reactions. She still seemed stunned, but she was listening… or at least she hadn’t cut the connection. Cautiously heartened, Frigga launched into her entreaty.

“Please, Gerd: Help him. You know how to travel the dark passages between worlds, and are a skilled healer of Jotnar, Vanir and Aesir. I beg you, if not for the sake of a tormented child, for the sake of the aid I gave you when you needed it.” A sob escaped her throat. “Please, Gerd. He is not born of my body, but he is my son nonetheless. Please.”

Gerd remained silent at first, lips slightly parted. After a few moments, Gerd finally spoke. “How is it that you didn’t know that your younger son was Jotnar until today?”

“When Odin brought Loki to me, he only told me that he was a child of noble breeding who needed a home. He cautioned me not to ask for specifics, hinting that there was some scandal involved.” Frigga smiled sadly. “I… I was so happy to have a second child, that I did not wish to try to unravel the mystery, for fear that it might lead to my learning something that I had rather not know: The thought that the child might be Odin’s bastard occurred to me, bolstered by the fact that Odin insisted on the name ‘Loki’ for the babe.”

Gerd frowned slightly. “Odin chose the name Loki?”

Frigga wasn’t sure why Gerd was asking about this detail, but she would work with any interest Gerd expressed. “Aye. In fact, he said ‘His name is Loki’ as he laid him in my arms. I had grown up hearing tales of Odin’s great love for his foster-brother Loptr-Loki, so it was not surprising that he would wish to honor a child with this name.” Frigga’s lips crooked wryly. She’d also grown up hearing speculation about the nature of their love, and whether it was the reason Odin was delaying marriage for so long. It was only after Loptr’s tragic death that Odin had approached Queen Freya about wedding Frigga. “It seemed as good a name as any.”

Gerd didn’t seem to think so. There was tension in every line every line of here body, and her frown was fully manifest. “Frigga… when exactly did Odin bring Loki to you?”

Frigga hesitated a moment, because it was a sore subject to all Jotnar. But she could see no choice. “It was right after the Fall of Utgard, and the treaty which ended the war.”

“And… how old did your Loki appear to be when you first laid eyes on him?” From Gerd’s manner, this was no casual question.

“Why, a few weeks old. We and Eir were put to some difficulty to come up with an explanation as to why he wasn’t a newborn.” Frigga frowned, remembering Odin’s blasé suggestion of using the Odinforce to physically transform the infant into the “proper” age.

Gerd sagged, as if this answer disappointed her. “I suppose it was too much to hope for,” she murmured to herself, looking down at her hands. Then she straightened her posture resolutely, raising her gaze back to Frigga’s face. “You said that you’d only recently learned of Loki’s race. Tell me how you discovered this.”

“Odin told me that Loki’s intended invasion of Midgard had come to naught, but that Thor and Loki were being detained by ‘an injury’ to Loki.” Frigga felt renewed outrage at Loki’s dire condition being so dismissively characterized, in a tone that suggested Loki were malingering to avoid answering for his misdeeds.

“I was too impatient and anxious to wait to see my boys, so I projected my astral form to Midgard. The mortal warriors told me that during the course of battle, Loki had been struck by a weapon which removed his mind control and his Aesir seeming after impact… and also revealed him to be a pubescent b… youth.”

“It was then that Thor shared with me what Odin had told him a year ago: That Loki was Jotnar rather than Aesir or Vanir." Yes, her anger was clear in her voice, but what of it? It wasn’t like Gerd had been any great admirer of Odin before this.

Gerd brushed a few shining strands of hair back from her face. “Did Thor also share how Odin acquired a Jotun infant in the first place? Or who the parents may be?”

Frigga took a deep breath. She hadn’t wished to raise this issue, but there seemed to be no choice. She closed her eyes and pulled up the memory. “Thor said Odin told him that Loki was the son of Laufey, and that he found him abandoned in a shrine. Odin said that it was because the babe was a runt, no larger than an Aesir infant.”

Gerd stood, her stunned face as white as alabaster. Frigga winced mentally; kinslayer was an evil name in all the Nine Realms. But when she finally spoke, her words were nothing Frigga had expected. “Frigga, can you show me what Loki looked like when he was four years old?”

Frigga frowned; Gerd’s responses were baffling. But she could see no reason not to comply; it was to Loki’s advantage that Gerd view him as an innocent child. “A moment, Gerd,” Frigga replied as she reached for her treasure box.

After a little rummaging, she found the memory crystal she needed. She searched until she found the visual recording labeled ‘Loki’s 4th birthday’. She stepped back, then displayed a life-sized hologram of an excited and adorable Loki, bouncing and spinning as he eagerly awaited the signal to enter the room where his party was set up. Frigga couldn’t help smiling at the image of her beautiful second son.

A gasp from Gerd drew her attention back to the Jotnar woman. Gerd was staring at Loki as if he was a miracle, tears rolling down her face. “You… you had Farbauti’s child. He was alive, all along.”

It was Frigga’s turn to gasp. “What?”

“Farbauti… she was so furious with Laufey for what he’d brought down upon Jotunheim… She decided to return to… to her own people. She retrieved Loki from the palace nursery, and took him… Frigga, there are many Jotnar secrets, which I am sworn to never divulge to another race. But there is a shrine, which contains a portal to… to Farbauti’s homeland. Do not ask me more!” Gerd wrung her elegant hands in agitation, then bit her lip and began to pace.

After a few seconds, she seemed to master herself and turned back to Frigga. “Once she reached the shrine, Farbauti discovered that the portal’s power source was missing. Laufey said later that he’d ordered it removed to keep Odin from taking another Jotnar treasure. Perhaps this was true; perhaps it was not.

“But either way, it left Farbauti with a dilemma. As a seidkona she was a small Jotun, and Loki was an awkward burden to carry through the deep drifts created to thwart the invading Aesir army. She dared not teleport carrying him, because of Loki’s nascent worldwalking skills. He might have instinctively fought for control of the shift, possibly destroying them both.

“So she made a difficult choice; she bade Loki to remain in the shrine, waiting for her return. She trusted that the long tradition that shrines were sacrosanct even in times of war would keep any Aesir soldier from entering. She left Loki, believing he would be safe.”

Gerd buried her face in her hands. “Farbauti never saw Loki again. He was gone when she returned with the power source. She searched frantically, as did her friends and supporters, but no trace of him was ever found. Farbauti was never able to forgive herself. Finally, she did return to her kinfolk. Alone.”

Frigga’s vision blurred. As a mother, she couldn’t imagine experiencing such a devastating loss. And I was part of that loss. I should have questioned Odin, I should have made certain Loki’s mother consented to the adoption… but I didn’t want to risk losing Loki. I was willing place my joy over another woman’s grief, and I must accept the blame for that.

Gerd dropped her hands and continued. “When the word came that the Queen of Asgard had given birth to a second son named Loki, it seemed like nothing more than a cruel coincidence. The idea that Frigga’s Loki and Farbauti’s Loki might be one and the same, that someone might have used forbidden magic on Loki to hide him…”

“Forbidden?” gasped Frigga, jolted out of her self-recriminations. “Why forbidden?” Magic was only forbidden if it was extremely harmful.

Gerd grimaced. “Forbidden is perhaps too strong a word. Say rather abandoned, after it was discovered to be pointless. At one time, it was believed that one might gain practical immortality by deliberately de-aging oneself at periodic intervals… but it was discovered that the restored youth slipped away in a few decades, or a century at most, leaving the caster back where they began. Indeed, re-casting the spell repeatedly in an effort to hold on to vigor and beauty was found to actually speed the march of time. This made it worse than useless for those seeking eternal youth.”

Gerd began to pace again. “But if cast on a child just at the end of infancy… After four years, children change but slowly. Who would notice four extra years in a child of 100 years? Or perhaps an even older child; it was noted that the years came back more slowly in younger mages.”

Since it seemed that Odin’s use of this spell had done Loki no obvious physical harm, Frigga decided that contemplating the metaphysical and moral implications could wait until the current crisis was resolved. “Gerd, will you agree to help my child?”

Gerd whirled so quickly that her pale hair fanned out behind her. “Aye, but there are two things you must agree to beforehand. The first is that as soon as Loki is safe, I will travel to Farbauti to tell her of his survival. You must swear to make no attempts to keep her from her own child.”

Frigga felt her heart break within her chest. The searing pain was like nothing she’d ever felt before, but Frigga kept her eyes fixed on Gerd and said “Agreed” in an almost-steady voice.

“The second…” Gerd’s voice faltered. “The second is that you find some way to keep Skirnir busy while I’m… out.” The Jotnar woman looked very young and vulnerable suddenly; this would be the first time she’d left her sanctuary with Freya’s shieldmaidens and Valkyries since the failed attempt to convict Skirnir for his crimes.

“Agreed,” Frigga stated in a far firmer voice. Frigga would have agreed even if she hadn’t been bartering for Loki’s life. Which reminded her…

“I have Loki’s complete medical record from Eir on data crystal. Would you like to copy it ere you depart?”

“Yes, of course. Let me get a blank crystal… there are many things I must pack as well.” The mundanity of the task seemed to settle Gerd. She rummaged through a desk drawer, then drew out an emerald-green crystal and slotting it into her receiver; Frigga took the fact that it was a near-perfect match for Loki’s eyes as a hopeful omen. She fitted her crystal into the appropriate space on the mirror frame, and started the data transfer as Gerd swiftly filled a gray leather satchel with various medical items.

But when the chime signaled that the transmission was complete, Gerd turned and strode back to the mirror to pull up the interface. Her long, elegant fingers danced as she expertly navigated the display, a look of complete concentration on her face.

At one point she paused, coming out of her trance to look hesitantly at Frigga. “Frigga, did you know that Loki is blessed by Ymir?” Seeing Frigga’s incomprehension, she asked “Ymirheil? Kaksineuvoinen? Possessing both male and female sexual organs?”

“Ah. Yes; Eir told me earlier today. It is just that I am used to thinking of Loki as my son, so I continue to use those terms.”

Gerd opened her mouth as if to say something, then shook her head. “We must speak more of this later. But it is not an immediate concern. What did you learn of Loki’s condition on Midgard?”

Frigga closed her eyes, seeing Loki’s pathetic form before her again. “The mortal healer spoke of physical tortures… and he was evidently starved in addition to that; he was skin and bones, poor child! He was also burned over both arms, up to within a few inches of his shoulders, and his seidr is apparently too weak to allow him heal himself. Also, since he is unconscious they are having trouble getting nourishment into him, not to mention that preparations meant for Midgardians are not suited to his needs.” Frigga swallowed and opened her eyes again. “He is so totally depleted, that attempts to give him nutrition must be carefully metered, lest his heart falter.”

Gerd gasped, a hand flying to her mouth. “His condition is dire indeed. I need to pick up a portable Soul Forge, and some other specialized equipment from the Valkyries’ storeroom, then I will go directly to his aid.” Gerd turned and settled the items in her satchel, then closed it and slung the strap over one shoulder.

Then she looked over her shoulder hesitantly. “You will remember your promise about Skirnir, won’t you?”

“Absolutely,” Frigga replied, giving Gerd an encouraging smile.

Gerd took a deep breath, and steeled her shoulders like a warrior heading to battle. She moved back to her side of the mirror, and placed her hand lightly on the frame. “Farewell, Frigga.”

“Farewell, Gerd. And good fortune!”

Gerd nodded, and then with a look of resolution, pressed the disconnect, leaving Frigga gazing at her own reflection. After a second, Frigga gave herself a firm nod, then began securing her private communication system away, already thinking of what kind of assignment she could give Skirnir to keep him occupied and out of the way. It would have to have sufficient prestige to suggest that the ever-ambitious courtier might weasel his way back into favor if he completed it well, but that didn’t mean it should be anything enjoyable

Chapter Text

Nick Fury was sitting alone in his office, mulling over his last “consultation” with the WSC when Coulson rapped on his doorframe.

“Come in,” said Fury, motioning Coulson in. “What’s the word on the Sceptered Army?”

Coulson smirked briefly at the term, then grew serious. “They’re still mostly mind-whammied and fully cooperative. We’re getting a lot of good intel from our interviewers.”

“Speaking of interviewers, how’s Thor’s debriefing going?”

“I’ve listened in on some of it. Asgard is looking like a strange medley of Dark Age social conventions, super-advanced science, and Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’. Of course, some of that may be due to being filtered through Thor’s perspective; Queen Frigga seemed to be more… nuanced. Of course, there is that thing about disabled soldiers not being given job retraining until recently…”

Fury grimaced and rubbed his face. “In the movies, space aliens are always either all Zen and shit or insectlike monsters with a taste for human flesh. Or maybe weirdly colored humanoids who want to conquer the planet and kidnap white coeds for their harems. That’s at least… simple. No moral ambiguity involved: You know exactly what you need to do about the situation. You may be shit-scared that you won’t be able to accomplish it, but at least you know what you need to do.”

“To the best of my knowledge, Loki didn’t target college students of either gender during his fake conquest. Or eat anything but energy bars.”

“Doesn’t matter to the World Security Council. They want a villain to blame for the assault in Stuttgart and the loss of the Pegasus Project facility. And so they can pimp their own reputations higher for having ‘defeated’ him. Capturing an abused child-soldier just doesn’t make for good PR.”

“Not to mention that none of us actually beat him. It was he who defeated the real villains— Thanos and what’s-his-name.”

“But we don’t have either of them in custody. We do have their catspaw, and they don’t want to ‘complicate’ the situation by revealing the mind control to the public. Or, for that matter, his current age.”

Coulson made a moue of distaste. It sometimes amazed Fury how much moral fiber had survived in Coulson through all these years of working for Shield.

“The ethical issue aside, that’s not going to work out for the Council. Loki is the child of the rulers of one of the few alien races we know to be somewhat-favorably disposed towards Earth. I don’t think Queen Frigga is going to be happy with anyone who tries to use her baby boy as a scapegoat.”

Fury snorted. “Some of them have apparently Googled some Norse mythology, and have concluded that Odin would go for it. After all, ‘He’s adopted’ as Thor tells us.”

“That reminds me. We learned something else interesting during Thor’s debriefing-- Frost Giants are the boogeymen of the Aesir. Most of the disabled warriors Loki was advocating for were Jotunheim War veterans. Jotnar apparently have the ability to induce frostbite in their opponents through a ‘freezing touch’, and if this isn’t treated soon enough, can cause the loss of the affected limb. From the way Thor related this, many warriors consider this a fate far worse than dying in battle. Think of ableism cranked up to eleven with a secondary dose of body horror.” Coulson looked thoughtful. “You know, that may have made discovering that he himself was Jotnar even more traumatic for Loki. He seems to have a lot of interaction with a group with even greater prejudice against Frost Giants than most Aesir. It must have been like a child raised by Nazis discovering that his birth parents were Jewish.”

“Or a boy raised by White Supremacists learning that he’s part African American.” Fury interjected wryly.

Coulson gave him a penetrating look. “Yes, that would also be a good analogy.”

Fury stood and began to pace. “My father was a great man. Very great. He loved me, and gave me everything he thought I needed to succeed.” He paused, staring at nothing. "He loved me, but he didn’t understand what it was like to be a black boy at majority-white elite schools. Still less did he understand what it’s like to be a black man in our culture.

“I was always told ‘If you want to rise high enough in the military to change things, you can’t always be playing the race card’. In practice, that seemed to mean never calling out racism… ever. I learned to keep silent while swallowing down all kinds of shit, always telling myself to wait until I had enough clout to speak up.” Fury rubbed his remaining eye. “Now I’m the fucking director of Shield… and I find that I still always have the taste of shit in my mouth.”

Coulson opened his mouth, then shut it again, looking thoughtful. “You know, I was going to say ‘I understand’, but it occurs to me that I don’t. So let me just say ‘I’m sorry’ instead.”

Nicholas spontaneously smiled at Phil, cheered. “Centuries of institutional racism is hardly your fault… but thanks anyway.”

As Coulson returned the smile, Fury reflected again on how very much he didn’t want to do this job without Coulson by his side.

To restore professionalism, he asked “So what do you suggest we do about the Council’s plan?”

“Well, I think…”

At that moment, Maria Hill appeared at the door, a harried look on her face. “Sir, we just had another alien materialize on our bridge… and this one’s really there. I mean physically present. She says she’s here to treat Loki… and she’s not too happy at being asked to wait before seeing her patient.”

Fury gave a grunt as he heaved himself to his feet. “Well, here we go again. I wonder if Captain Sisko ever has days like this?”

The corner of Hill’s mouth quirked up. “I prefer to ask myself ‘What would Aeryn Sun do?’ To each their own fictional role model.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When they arrived at the bridge, Coulson saw that this alien woman was very different than Frigga. She looked younger, and far less poised than the queen had been. Her stance was practically thrumming with tension, and she clutched a large grayish shoulder bag tightly to her chest, as if afraid someone was going to wrest it from her.

Her expression showed no trace of this, head tilted back in a haughty pose that reminded him of Loki. She was even fairer than Thor, with very light strawberry blonde hair. It shouldn’t have looked as good as it did against her pink-and-white complexion. Coulson had to repress a smile as he remembered Fury’s wry crack about “weirdly-colored” aliens.

Fury himself seemed to have his game face on. “Welcome, ma’am. I’m Commander Nick Fury of Shield.”

She nodded stiffly at this. “Greetings, Commander. I am Gerd, a healer. Queen Frigga has sent me to heal… the one you know as Loki of Asgard.” With a touch of tartness, she asked “May I please go to my patient now? I have been given to understand that his condition is dire.”

Coulson stepped in to reduce tensions; he figured it was better him than Fury or Hill. “Of course, ma’am. We have our customs and protocols to follow, especially in times like these. Would you follow me?”

He kept up a light line of patter as he escorted her to the infirmary. Romanov had fallen in silently behind him, and interestingly Hill joined her, making a hand sign for the armed guards not to follow. Well, it wasn’t like they could add much more containment than the Black Widow backed up by Maria Hill, should Gerd prove to be a hostile.

The healer said little as they walked, though her level of tension ebbed discernibly. Given the fact that all Norse myth had to say about Gerd was that she’d been the object of one of the most rapey courtships in recorded history, she probably wasn’t a threat. Well, not extremely likely to be, anyway. He noted that despite the claim in the Prose Edda that she was Freyr’s queen, she hadn’t claimed any honorific title for herself, not even the “lady” that Thor bestowed so freely. It was probably best not to ask questions about the subject right now.

Not that there was much chance to do so: They’d now reached Loki’s ICU pod. Clint was sitting in the chair by Loki’s bed, apparently half-asleep. He started awake at their arrival, dropping his Starkphone on the floor. “Aww, phone, no,” he groaned groggily as he bent over and fumbled to retrieve it.

Giving him a suspicious glance, Gerd darted around to the other side of the bed. She immediately focused her attention on her patient, ignoring everyone else.

Coulson frowned at Barton, concerned. The man should really be a patient himself, not watching over another patient. The fact that Hawkeye of all people had been startled by their entry showed how off his game he was. The fast-acting anesthetic in the trank gun was preferable to a grade III concussion, but that didn’t mean it could be simply shrugged off. Plus, there were the unknown effects of the scepter to consider…

Natasha went over to Clint as Dr. Noha arrived to introduce herself to Gerd. She touched his shoulder as she knelt beside him and picked up his phone herself. “Clint, why don’t you go get some sleep?” she murmured softly.

Clint rubbed his eyes. “I’m waiting for Steve; Dr. Noha sent him off to feed his super soldier metabolism. Or Thor, if Rose is finished with him. Nobody should wake up alone in the hospital. Nobody.”

Coulson stepped closer, so he could talk under the urgent medicalese going on on the other side of the bed. “He won’t be alone: His mother’s healer is here to take over, see? You can stand down, Agent; mission complete.”

He said the last words in a mildly humorous tone, hoping to strike a light-hearted note. But Clint let out a tortured sob before pressing his fisted hand to his mouth, clenching his eyes closed while his body was racked with shudders. Coulson and Romanov exchanged worried glances. Over the other side of the bed, Dr. Noha and Gerd had broken off their consultation were watching with concern.

Natasha moved first. She put an arm around her exhausted partner and lifted him onto his feet. “C’mon, Clint, let’s go to my quarters. We’ll eat gourmet chocolate and watch movies until we fall asleep.”

Clint looked torn. “I… I should debrief first.”

Coulson took his cue. “No, you need to rest and recover first. You’ve already shared all the critical intel, remember?” Clint flinched at this unwelcome reminder to his time under mind control, so Coulson continued smoothly. “Have Tasha make you some of that Russian hot chocolate and make her bingewatch ‘Dog Cops’ with you, okay?” Whoops, he really should have said Romanov in public… but the hell with it; Clint needed to relax, so proper Shield protocol could take a hike.

Natasha made a face. “You had to remind him of that,” she mock-grumbled. “But yes, we can do that. The first three episodes of the new season are out, and we can see whether the Teuscher makes makes better hot chocolate than the Scharffen Berger. It’ll be fun.”

Clint scrubbed his face with his hand. “That… does sound good.” He managed a faint smile.

She smiled back, then drew him out of the room, bantering playfully about demanding a viewing of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in recompense for being subjected to ‘Dog Cops’. Clint’s exact response was too faint to make out, but the tone sounded humorous. Good.

Gerd watched the two agents retreat, wide-eyed. “He is… soul-injured, is he not?” she asked, sounding concerned.

Coulson sighed. “That’s a a very good term for the condition we call PTSD… Post-traumatic stress disorder. He hasn’t been officially diagnosed yet; things have been very fraught around here lately.” He smiled dryly. “It’s our first alien invasion, you see. We’re not at our best.”

Gerd looked perplexed for a moment, then nodded. “Ah, yes. Frigga mentioned that Loki had been forced to try to conquer you.”

“Oh, he wasn’t so bad, really. We were a lot more worried about the ‘army’ he kept going on about.”

She frowned, then shook her head firmly. “All of this can be discussed later; first I must attend to my patient.” She turned to Dr. Noha. “I think it best to leave your arrangements for nourishment in place, barbaric as they are, until I have a better idea of Loki’s condition. I need to set up a Soul Forge around him to gather that data.” Then she pinkened. “I mean no offense, truly, we deeply appreciate your efforts to help Loki, but…”

“None taken,” replied Dr. Noha politely. With a mischievous smile, she added, “It is not like we do not wish for better alternatives ourselves. Now, how may I assist you in setting up this… ‘Soul Forge’? That is a curious name. How does it function?”

Gerd rolled her eyes. “It is a useful device with an excessively pretentious name. The inventor styled it after a line of poetry about how the Norns ‘forge all our souls/ on the anvil of our experiences’. She bent down to her bag, and and pulled a set of large, curved poles that logically should have never fitted in the size of bag she’d been carrying. She proferred them to Dr. Noha, who took them with a look of amazement on her face. Gerd ducked toward her bag again, muttering “I need to get the base set up and the power source connected.”

Coulson sidled over to Maria Hill and murmured “She’s obviously got an Undetectable Extension Charm on that bag.”

Hill raised an eyebrow. “I was going to say ‘It’s dimensionally transcendent.’ You never forget your first Doctor.”

They shared a grin, then turned their attention back to business.

“So, this can show you everything your patient has experienced over their lifetime?” Dr. Noha was asking in wonder.

“No, not as such. What it does is show…” Gerd frowned. “Certain experiences, especially traumatic ones, leave what you might call ‘scars’ in the way one’s mind works. To use a metaphor, if a sapling tree looses a branch, it will change the way the rest of the branches grow. From this, an experienced forester can determine decades later that a branch was removed, and deduce something of how the branch was lost. For example, whether it was deliberately pruned off or forcibly ripped away.

“This is a great oversimplification, of course, because souls are vastly more intricate than trees, and there are far more numerous types of damage possible.” Gerd’s expression turned darkly reminiscent for a second before she visibly pulled herself together. “Does that answer your question, Healer Noha?”

Dr. Noha nodded. “Yes, I think so. One of our planet’s psychologists— Dr. Bruce Perry-- has been studying the effects of child abuse on neurological organization. I would like to discuss this with you later, after Loki has been treated, of course.”

Gerd looked surprised. “Yes. I would like that. If it is possible; I have a responsibility to discharge, once Loki is stable. And I will have to gain permission from my liege for additional time. But, after that…” She drew a deep breath, looking as if unexpected new possibilities were opening up before her. “I would enjoy such conversation.” She gave Noha a radiant smile. “Thank you.”

“But first, I must see to my patient.” She set her jaw and began going over the contraption she’d assembled around Loki’s hospital bed. It looked something like a canopy bed without a canopy, with slender curving posts at each end. The head and foot were connected by pipes carefully threaded under the armrests supporting Loki’s poor, burned arms. Gerd touched several points of the assembly, nodding in approval.

“Healer Noha, is it possible to make this room less… bright? It will be difficult to read the Soul Forge’s results in this lighting.”

“Yes. I can put in in night time mode.” The human woman went to a control panel, and fiddled with it. The room dimmed. “Is this acceptable, Healer Gerd?”

“That will be fine. Thank you.” Gerd took a deep breath. “Now let us see what has been done to this child.” She made a gesture with one hand…

A holographic image of a stylized humanoid body formed a couple feet above Loki’s own body, surrounded and in some cases intersected by three dimensional symbols of varying colors. Coulson didn’t know what the usual results were for a Soul Forge scan, but based on Gerd’s horrified gasp, he felt that these findings must be very bad. Even to his untutored eye, the jagged and barbed appearance of many of the shapes looked ominous. The multiple black hooks embedded in the image’s head seemed to confirm the mind control, and the fact that so many of the scariest glyphs were located in sensitive areas suggested some of his darkest suspicions about Loki’s treatment by his “allies” were true.

A movement from Gerd broke Coulson’s sickened fixation on the scan results. She stepped forward, almost staggering at first, then with more control and purpose. Tears were running down her face.

“This… this will not be covered up, denied, and forgotten! This outrage will not be overlooked in the name of political expediency, or the greater good, or whatever other fine-sounding term the Aesir contrive! This truth will be spoken and acknowledged, and may the Norns take the vigor and prosperity of any who try to deny it!”

Moving swiftly, she went back to her magic bag. After rummaging for a moment, she stood up holding a bag of clear crystals in her hands. “I will record this, so that all can see with their own eyes what was done to Farbauti’s child!” She selected a crystal, and proclaimed, “For Odin War-Merry, so that he can see what came of his bloodspilling and child theft!” The crystal turned red in her hand as she jammed it into an aperture on the Soul Forge’s frame. The next crystal she pulled out took on a blue hue as she placed it into the next opening. “For King Helblindi and Prince Byleistr, so they can know what befell their little brother, and why… why he committed such crimes against his homeland.” Her voice took on a somber tone one the last few words.

More calmly, she inserted a crystal which flushed amber as she held it. “For my liege Queen Freya; this is not technically an affair of Vanaheim, but as Loki is in some sense her sister’s son, it is only fair that she should know. Also, this is a matter which affects multiple realms, so as a ruler, it is meet that she should know.

The final crystal chosen turned forest green. It trembled a little in her hands as she intoned, “For Farbauti, though I dread her heartbreak when she sees it, for no mother should have to learn of such atrocities being visited on her child. But she has dwelled in ignorance of her child’s fate for far too long already, and the bitterest knowledge will be sweeter than than the poisonous taste of not knowing.” She placed this crystal in the final socket almost tenderly.

Coulson tried to resume breathing as quietly as possible. An irreverent part of him couldn’t help but observe that a penchant for high drama seemed to be common to all “Norse gods” yet encountered. The more serious part of his brain was grappling with the implications of Gerd’s speech. So Loki was not adopted, but rather kidnapped from his true family? Odin was not actually the ruler of all the “Nine Realms”, but just one head of state among many… and vulnerable to inter-realm politics? And in contrast to Thor’s claim that Odin “protected the peace”, Odin’s reputation outside Asgard seemed to be more Atilla the Hun than Once and Future King. Or at least according to Gerd, who might not be an unbiased source.

“Might we have a copy of that? Only with notations explaining what all those symbols mean, compatible with our technology…” Coulson’s voice trailed off as he realized how complicated his request was. If they had solid proof of coercion and abuse, the World Security Council would find it harder to shovel the blame solely on Loki. But getting that proof in legible form might be difficult… maybe he could put Stark on it? The man thrived on doing the impossible, after all.

Dr. Noha asked, “Would not it be simpler to simply make a recording of you explaining the meaning of what we see here?” She waved at the light show above Loki’s unconscious body. “We have the technology to make visual and auditory recordings, which we could play back on our own equipment. It would indeed be very convenient for his care to be able to access the scan results through our system, but our ancestors did somehow manage to practice medicine before computers were invented.”

Gerd nodded slowly. “Yes, I see your point.” She winced. “It is just that I dread having to say in words what was done to this child. It is… a painful issue for me.” She set her jaw. “But I will do it. And I will provide you with a copy as well; I need to make a separate one for Frigga as well, since her husband does not always share information with her.”

“First, however…” She turned back to her patient. “There is healing that I must do, while Loki is still in too deep a coma to feel my ministrations. Otherwise, he might wake in a panic, and do serious injury to himself or those around him. In fact, perhaps it would be best if all of you withdrew from this alcove.”

Hill and Coulson exchanged a look, then obediently retreated to the hall outside Loki’s cubicle. Dr. Noha followed their example with obvious reluctance after Gerd waved her after them, softened by an understanding smile.

After the frail mortals had withdrawn from the immediate line of fire, Gerd positioned her hand six inches six inches above Loki’s pelvis, and closed her eyes. A pinkish-gold light streamed from her hand into Loki’s body. Glancing up again at the Soul Forge’s projection and estimating the number of glyphs, Coulson resigned himself to a long wait.