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How Asgard Lost Its King

Chapter Text

“S.H.I.E.L.D. does a lot, even I don’t know all of it, but I’m pretty sure we don’t handle extraterrestrial regime change.”

Darcy noticed Maria Hill did not look at either of them while she said this; instead, she looked past them out over Asgard from the balcony of the guest suite. Thor had put Darcy and Jane in what Darcy thought were surely the best chambers in the palace of Asgard, or at least the rooms with the best view. They appeared to hover over the vast gilded city shimmering before them in the azure Asgardian twilight. The two women had made fun of the decor to each other -- Darcy told Jane that she thought that the designers of Asgard clearly believe that if gold and decoration were good things, more must necessarily be better, and Jane had replied that everywhere she went she felt like she was in the nosebleed seats at the New York Metropolitan Opera, the ones next to the gilded ceiling -- but still they had been awed by the sheer overwhelming splendor of everything: the dinner served on golden plates, the vast hallways and vaster rooms, the endless views created by an architecture that erased the distinction between inside and out.

None of this was important to Darcy now.

Maria continued, “I agree with Nick that the Isle of Silence doesn’t sound like an especially secure prison for Loki -- especially after what happened today -- but what I don’t understand is, why do you two even want to do this? You met Loki for all of an hour, after he crashed his Chitauri ship into us. The whole goddamn time you were with him everyone was terrified that he’d hurt you. And now we’re supposed to take on Odin in order to help him? If I didn’t know for a fact that his scepter is still back at S.H.I.E.L.D.’s labs I’d be convinced he’d touched you with it.”

“The only reason Loki crashed into the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship was because you were chasing him,” Darcy shot back. “And the first thing he said to us when he pulled us out of space into the airlock on his ship was, ‘What are you two doing falling into the void? You’re mortal. You can’t survive in outer space.’ He always behaved like a perfect gentleman.”

And we saw the stars the way all would like to see them, Darcy thought. Vivid skyscapes of stellar dust shot through with brilliant stars, displayed as she had only seen in photos from the Hubble telescope. Loki -- strange, beautiful, patient with the mortals’ limited understanding -- had told them all about how he had attacked Jotunheim to prove himself a worthy son, how he came to attack earth, how the Chitauri now had a score to settle, and how he had stolen their ship from them. And when Loki asked them to promise not to tell anyone at Asgard that the Chitauri were no longer his allies -- for he still had his pride -- both Jane and Darcy had willingly given their word.

After Loki surrendered to the S.H.I.E.L.D. spacejet that materialized alongside, after the Aesir had destroyed the Chitauri ship and once again dispatched Loki to the Isle of Silence via the rebuilt Bifrost, after Jane and Darcy were back in their quarters in Asgard, Darcy could no longer keep to herself her opinion that what was being done to Loki just wasn’t fair. To her surprise Jane agreed, and then Jane reminded Darcy that while Thor had told her he’d tell her all she wished to know, it turned out that Thor knew virtually nothing about Asgard’s magical science. It was Loki who knew how to open the Einstein-Rosen bridges between the realms without a black-box mechanism such as the Bifrost.

But then Jane reminded her friend of the obstacles before them if they were going to even see him again, let alone help him. As agent Barton had put it, anyone who wanted words with Loki had to get in line.

They had decided to try to get S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cooperation first. Now Darcy was grateful that Jane took the lead, as Jane said: “There’s no need to joke about regime change. All we are asking it that you support us getting some kind of rehearing for Loki’s sentence. Loki’s what psychologists call the target child of an abusive family. He represents their enemies to them, and they’ve always treated him accordingly. He does something wrong, they punish him, he rebels against the punishment, they escalate, and around it goes. If things were ever arranged to allow him to win, you’d see that the real problem is Odin.”

“Since when have you been a psychologist?” asked Maria. “Your degree is in astrophysics.”

“I studied psych for two years. Then I decided I decided I wanted to escape from my family as far as I could, and switched to astrophysics. Loki’s situation always had so many of the risk factors for child abuse: a child being raised by unrelated adults, rigid patriarchy, family isolation, even a religious belief in dire prophecies....”

“I thought the problem on Indian reservations was mostly alcohol. Is religious belief in a dire prophecy really a risk factor for child abuse?”

“Alcoholics who beat their wives rarely beat up their bosses. It’s not the alcohol that makes them pick their targets. And, yes, religiosity and a deeply punitive mindset are risk factors for child abuse. When I volunteered at the local shelter in New Mexico we asked about beliefs in end time prophecies in the intake questionnaire, it’s actually standard. Loki’s situation has so many risk factors his family would’ve been referred to a case worker even before an onsite evaluation.”

“So a belief in something like Ragnarok is actually a known risk factor for child abuse.”

“Well, back on earth the end-times prophecy is usually Christian. But the idea is the same.”

“I just can’t get over the idea that you two actually want to help Loki because you chatted with him for half an hour. I’ve heard of Stockholm Syndrome, but this is ridiculous. Wouldn’t a free Loki be even more trouble? At S.H.I.E.L.D., his sentence of being locked up in some remote place sounds just about,” here Maria paused, and pursed her lips for emphasis -- “perfect.”

Darcy interrupted, “Have you ever read Ursula K. LeGuin’s ‘the ones who walk away from Omelas?’ Loki is the child in that story.”

“I’m familiar with the tale,” said Maria, “and I don’t recall the child in that story running around at the head of an army. Try again.”

“Look at it this way,” said Jane. “The real threat to earth is Odin and Asgard. Loki himself isn’t dangerous: he tried to conquer earth only because his allies wanted to get their paws on the Tesseract. And he never cared one way or another about Puente Antiguo; he sent the Destroyer there simply because that was where Thor happened to be. Anyone else in Asgard would have done the same. What S.H.I.E.L.D. needs is a defense against Asgard and the other creatures out here, not a defense against Loki.”

“Sitwell did write a memo....” said Maria, and fell silent.

We have a hit, thought Darcy, and jumped into the conversation. “Wouldn’t it be safer for earth if the Aesir did not view us as just another stomping ground for their personal feuds?”

Maria murmured, “We trust Thor.” But the look in her eyes had changed.

“Everyone knows how much I agree with that, but Thor can’t be on duty 24/7.”

“Loki smashed midtown New York.”

“And the Hulk broke Harlem but S.H.I.E.L.D. has no problem with him on staff, does it?” Darcy interjected. “I have this book -- from Dictatorship to Democracy -- that says an illustration of the stark brutality of the regime will rebound against it and undermine its legitimacy with its key supporters. We can harness that, but we need a strategic plan, and we thought you could help.”

“I know the book,” said Maria, “but did you really bring it to Asgard?”

“I have the ebook version on the Kindle app on my ipod.”

“Let me shoot this down before you get too wrapped up in whatever nonsense you’re planning. Remember Loki’s little speech in Stuttgart? All Loki’s speeches were about himself. The last thing your guy is going to be in favor of is any kind of freedom -- including his own. I expect the best you can hope for is that he agrees to some kind of resentencing because he doesn’t like being stranded on the Isle of Silence but has nowhere else to go, but freedom?” Maria shook his head. “It’s not even something he pretends to want.”

Jane remained undeterred. “If Loki always needs Odin or somebody to tell him what to do, wouldn’t Fury be best? Fury looks after his people. Finally, if S.H.I.E.L.D. turns Loki you’ll have an invaluable source of knowledge about all the threats out there.”

Maria still seemed doubtful. “Even if S.H.I.E.L.D. were to help you, or Thor, or even Odin might help you, though I doubt he’ll know he’s doing it, Loki is not going to help you free him in the least. Moreover, this had better not result in any kind of disagreements with Asgard. I don’t think Loki’s going to be cooperating with you even if you do spring him from this whatever it is …”

“Isle of Silence,” supplied Darcy.

“Asgard sentenced Loki to please earth. The Asgardians are embarrassed by his behavior, and anxious to make up for what he’s done. They’ll probably find the fact you want to help him endearingly cute. That’s the only reason I’m not telling Fury to lock the two of you up on Stark’s spaceship until we get home. As for dealing with Loki, good luck.”

“Will you help us?” asked Darcy.

“I’ll tell you this,” answered Maria, looking sharply at each of them in turn. “As long as you don’t do anything to Asgard, as long as you don’t do anything to earth’s relationship to Asgard, as long as whatever it is you’re planning with Loki makes us all one big happy family, as long as you don’t do anything stupid, I can promise that I personally won’t try to stop you.” She got up to leave. “And even then only if Nick agrees.”

“He can agree after the fact, can’t he?” said Darcy.

Maria didn’t respond to this.

“We’ll see,” and with that ambiguous promise, she left them to their own devices under the star-streaked Asgardian nightfall.

After Maria Hill was gone Jane said to Darcy, “Tell me about this book.”

So Darcy did.

Jane seemed more thoughtful after Darcy finished. “So all regimes rest upon certain legitimate features, which here seem to be the principle of kingship and magic. How are we going to undermine those here, exactly?”

“Their kingship rests upon honor, and Odin has no honor,” said Darcy. “We have to prove that. We undermine his legitimacy here, he won’t have the authority among his own people to come after us.”

“I can see that,” replied Jane. “Thor always said that his people saw Asgard as a beacon of hope, shining forth across the stars. If they could be made to see themselves as something else it could be quite the rude awakening.”

“And the magic?”

“Magic can be stolen,” said Jane. “Odin keeps all these macguffins in the weapons vault.....”

“We don’t even know what those are,” Darcy objected, “and even Thor thinks the tesseract is too powerful for humans to handle. I can’t imagine what the rest of the stuff is like.”

“Yes, well, we know some things already,” said Jane. “You’ve met Stephen Strange, haven’t you?”

Darcy nodded, slowly.

“He introduced himself to me in New York right before we left for Asgard. He all but begged me to steal the Eye of Agamotto for S.H.I.E.L.D. if I could. He said S.H.I.E.L.D. would be unbeatable if he could use it for surveillance.”

“So we steal this eye thing for Dr. Strange, we steal the Tesseract for Fury, but what about Loki?”

“After dinner I managed to talk to Sif at one point, alone,” said Jane. “And she told me about something else in the Weapons Vault. Something that I think we could use.” And she told Darcy her plan.

“But this is what Maria Hill just told us not to do,” Darcy objected.

Jane only smiled. “This won’t be the first time I did exactly what I was told not to do.”

Chapter Text

Jane was not kidding, thought Darcy. It was a long walk out to Heimdall’s rebuilt observatory, and longer in heels. It wasn’t her style to dress up, but Darcy had judged her sexiest heels would help in talking to a man, even if that man was a god. Last night Jane had made it all sound so easy: Thor gives me a tour of the weapons vault, I’ll get Heimdall to give you a tour of the Observatory, Heimdall points the Bifrost in the direction of the Isle of Silence, you taser him, wait for me to show up with whatever weapon I steal from the weapons vault, and then we see Loki and give him something to use against the Chitauri. And won’t he be surprised to see us....

Before Darcy loomed the giant golden bubble of Heimdall’s observatory, blindingly bright under the Asgard sun, much larger up close than it had appeared from Asgard proper; and large, too, loomed Heimdall, confronting her with a curious but none too friendly eye. His horns must reach at least eight feet, she thought.

“What brings you here, mortal?” he asked.

“Well, when Thor offered to give Jane a tour of the weapons vault, I told him that I’d rather see the Bifrost and the Observatory. Thor said you’d be the one to ask. Can you show me around?”

Heimdall just looked at her, both puzzled and watchful. He spies on earth, thought Darcy; does he ever spy on Asgard? Surely. But even the best surveillance capability requires someone to pay attention. As Jane had put it last night, who would suspect two mortals when everyone in Asgard was certain that all earth knew Loki to be evil?

Jane must have been right, because slowly Heimdall asked, “what is it you wish to know?”

“How does this thing operate? It’s a stargate of some kind, right?” and she stepped past him. Inside, on a raised platform she saw the glowing bollard just as Jane had described, quiet now; she walked around it, pretending to admire it, careful to step one foot directly in front of another to make her hips sway. Heimdall get a good look, she thought. I need you to be friendly, at least for another minute.

“I do not know. What is a stargate?” He was starting to follow her around the steps. Good sign.

“You open the bridge with your sword, right? Can anything else unlock it?”

“Each of the Aesir may unlock it. By staff or spear.” Heimdall had followed her all the way around by now.

Darcy turned to face him, trying to smile as fetchingly as she could. “Like, what would a mortal do? You know, one of us, someone who kind of doesn’t lug a sword around all the time?”

“The Bifrost is for the Aesir, that we may travel freely through the nine realms. Did your kind not come here in a ship that sailed the stars?”

Darcy smiled a little harder. “And how’d you know which of the nine realms you were going to hit?”

“It is controlled by thought. You will the world to which you travel.”

“The thought of the person holding the sword or spear thingy.”

“None other.”

Darcy slipped a hand inside her black bag, found the taser, closed her hand around it. “Heimdall, if you don’t mind, I’d like you to give me your sword.”

He made no move, either to attack her or to hand over the sword. He merely gazed at her with those golden eyes. That was upsetting; she had anticipated tasering him in self-defense. No matter.

She took the taser out of her bag in one swift movement and fired it; Heimdall crumpled, and lay still, face down. She remembered Thor collapsed on the sand in New Mexico. These guys taser beautifully, she thought.

However, now there was nothing to do but wait. She left Heimdall’s sword where it lay. After what he had said, she was not sure they should use it to open the bridge between the worlds. She would ask Jane when she saw her. Meanwhile, she settled on the top step of the platform where she had a good view of both the supine Heimdall and the empty bridge, glittering as peacefully in the sunshine as the endless ocean around it pouring off into infinity below. Nothing else moved. Evidently the Bifrost was a low traffic highway.

Presently she took out her ipod and, threading the earbuds into her ears, selected her Tracy Chapman playlist. She began to hum along to the music while she waited.

And then her cellphone rang...

* * * * * * * * *

“These are very powerful,” Thor cautioned Jane in the grey shadows of the vault. “Do not even attempt to touch. I will tell you everything you want to know.”

“What about that one?” she said, and pointed to a heavy rigid armored glove, upright on its stand, glittering dimly in the murky light, large dull rounded gems visible on each knuckle but with one on the back.

“Especially do not touch that,” repeated Thor, “that is the Infinity Gauntlet. Jane! Stop! What do you think you’re doing?”

Jane had dived for the glove. She knocked its glass case over and had it on her hand before he finished speaking. In an instant she felt overwhelmed by its power: thoughts, sounds, visions engulfed her in a cacophony of sensations.

Yet Sif had not been lying last night; all she had to do was think and it responded. Jane willed herself its master and in that instant she recovered, turned, and stopped Thor, now lunging for her in an effort to wrench the Gauntlet from her hand.

She left Thor outstretched upon the floor, deep in a sleep from which only a thought controlled by the Gauntlet itself could awaken him.

Behind her she heard the grinding of metal upon metal. The dense grating at the end of the vault disintegrated into itself, and the ancient artificial being behind it fired with the naked heat of a steel furnace.

But fast as the Destroyer moved, it did not move faster than the speed of thought. Jane raised the Gauntlet. A blast from the energy gem turned the force of the Destroyer back upon itself, and it crumpled -- then melted -- into molten metal that steamed and hissed as it met the water in the moat on either side of Jane’s feet.

Again behind her she heard the clanging of metal. She whirled to face the open doors of the vault, and beheld two of Asgard’s warriors with drawn swords bearing down upon her. Another thought, and they tumbled and sprawled on the steps, as soundly asleep as Thor.

Behind them, others, terrible and gleaming.

Surely she only had seconds until Odin himself appeared with all the force at his command. But she held the Infinity Gauntlet and could stop time itself.

And so she did.

Around her all was suddenly silent; even the cooling metal of the ruined Destroyer ceased to hiss. She held aloft the Gauntlet and started time again in Asgard for exactly two other people.

Then she gave the Gauntlet another command, and pulling out her cell phone, was delighted to discover it picked up a signal. Absurd to be amazed that the Infinity Gauntlet could make cell phones work in Asgard when she had already used it for far more impossible tasks, but still. She made two phone calls, and watched Maria Hill start as the S.H.I.E.L.D. director discovered herself standing beside Jane in the weapons vault.

“I warned you when I called you,” Jane said.

“Did I actually teleport here? I thought only the Tesseract could do that. Can that thing do that?”

“That and much more.”

“Amazing. Stephen didn’t say anything about this.”

“It’s never been on earth. Did you bring a copy of the memo?” Love that mind gem, Jane thought to herself.

Maria fished it out of her messenger bag. “Here,” and she gave it to Jane, who tucked it into her jacket.

Now forget about it, thought Jane.

“Why is my bag open?” Maria started again. “What just happened?”

“Well, both of us know that Stephen wants this,” and Jane led her to the Eye of Agamotto.

“Oh my God,” said Maria. “We can’t just take it, can we?”

“What, did you think Odin paid for any of this?”

The two women looked at each other.

“It’s all spoils of war, isn’t it?” said Maria. “It’s not like Odin actually bought any of this stuff.”

“And it’s not doing anyone any good, just being hoarded here, is it?”

"Thor says Odin collects everything powerful here to prevent Ragnarok."

"You can't prevent a prophecy, and trying to do so only make it worse. You can only work with it, to minimize or alter its effects. Your own actions bring on your fate; it is your own actions you should control." Everything I learn about Odin makes him less and less qualified to rule the Nine Worlds, thought Jane.

Maria hesitated. Jane gave her a subtle push through the mind gem again, and in another instant Maria -- by-the-book Maria, Maria who never under any circumstances did not dot every i and cross every t of every rule -- had slipped the relic into her bag.

“And you know the Council wants this,” said Jane, leading her to the Tesseract, still suspended in the ornate glass and metal canister in which it had left earth.

“Of course,” said Maria, and the Tesseract joined the Eye of Agamotto.

“That’s probably enough for one day,” Jane told her. “Now head out.”

Turning, Maria saw Thor peacefully stretched out on the floor, and gasped. “Jane! What did you do to him?”

“Put him into a deep sleep. Listen, Maria, there’s going to be some fireworks here, and I have to make sure Thor is safe despite it all. He stays asleep until I wake him with this, and I’m going to seal this vault so that no-one can get in or out of it.”

“What kind of fireworks?”

“I’m not sure. You should go back to the S.H.I.E.L.D. spacejet.”

Nothing short of the mind gem of the Infinity Gauntlet could have persuaded a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent to lose interest in an upcoming alien power struggle that might affect earth, but Jane possessed the mind gem of the Infinity Gauntlet and Maria accordingly lost interest. And so Maria answered, “It’s just that I’m not sure locking Thor up here is safest for him. Do you think it might be better if somehow I could take him with me? Locking him up here could be a bad idea, if anything happens to this place.”

“Would you be willing to look after him?”

“Yes. Give me the power to wake him and to put him to sleep again -- what I will do is ask him to give his word that he will not fight. He never breaks his word, you know.”

“I do know. I trust you,” and with a wave of the Gauntlet, the inert body of Thor levitated gently a few feet off the ground. Maria found to her astonishment that she could move the body of the giant Asgardian god with nothing more than a push of her hand. “Will him awake, and he’ll wake up. Will him back to sleep, and you’ll hear nothing from him until he wakes. Now push him back to the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship. You know you can do it with one hand.”

“Won’t the guards stop me?” Maria asked Jane, as she maneuvered Thor towards the vast weapons vault door, still standing ajar.

“They won’t move as you go by, even if it looks as if they are leaping into action,” said Jane. “Pay them no mind. Get Thor to safety, and don’t let him off the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship without getting his word that he is to do as you bid him, and mind that you bid him not to do any fighting. Take care, and keep everyone from S.H.I.E.L.D. out of harm’s way.”

This took another push of the mind gem, but a push that proved as easy as any other. “I will,” and Jane waited until she saw Maria carefully guide the still-sleeping Thor out the vault doors.

Then Jane used the glove to seal the vault, and wished herself on the gilded roof of Valaskjalf, Odin’s imperial hall.

In an instant she found herself comfortably sitting on a roof gable. Odin’s throne and its sunken central court, partially enclosed by golden walls and pillars but otherwise open to the sky, was visible far below her, dwarfed by the the immense imperial peristyle surrounding it. On all sides enormous open air terraces, punctuated by a complicated network of gilded fountains and shaded here and there by vast gossamer banners of red and gold -- rigid now in the bright air -- encircled the black and gold of the throneroom. Beyond the peaceful, utterly silent city paused beneath the golden light of this alien sky, its traffic halted in the wide streets, its brilliant reflecting pools unnaturally still.

The only moving creature in all that golden day, she unrolled the memo of which Maria had so carelessly spoken last night. She read:

Re: Post-Invasion Debriefing of THOR, Avenger, Alien
To: Nicholas Fury
From: Jasper Sitwell

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” - Lord Acton”

“Odin has ruled Asgard as Allfather for centuries....”

Jane skipped over most of the following text, including the full transcript of Thor’s debriefing with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents about the Destroyer’s attack on the Puente Antiguo, about Loki’s attack on New York, and much more, most of which she already knew. Something had made Maria agree with them last night, something had made Jane’s efforts to control Maria’s thoughts with the mind gem mere pushes.

She found it:


“Thor’s account of events in Asgard and Earth, despite the general credibility of his demeanor, strain belief at various points. Thor blames Loki entirely and claims that all of Odin’s actions reflect the benevolence of a conscientious Allfather. However, it appears much more likely to S.H.I.E.L.D. that Odin allowed Thor to intervene in Earth’s affairs exclusively for the purpose of gaining the Tesseract....”

So that’s it, thought Jane. She skipped back to Sitwell’s analysis of previous events on Asgard:

“When it became clear that Jotunheim would probably never recover from the effects of its war against the Aesir, Odin decided it could be of no further value to him and therefore determined to destroy it. Realizing that in this case Odin no longer needed Loki to be an Asgardian puppet king of Jotunheim, Odin resolved to use Loki to destroy it, preserving plausible deniability to the Asgardian regime and blaming all casualties upon an expendable ‘rogue agent.’

“Thor blames Loki for the initial attack of a few Frost Giants in the Weapons Vault during his aborted coronation ceremony. It is much more credible to believe that Odin allowed the Frost Giants access to the Weapons Vault in order to prove that his successor was not yet worthy to rule than to believe that Loki allowed access.

“First, if Loki could get into to the Weapons Vault from beyond Asgard then there would have been no reason for Loki in exile to come to earth seeking the Tesseract, given that by Thor’s own account that Loki knows the Weapons Vault holds magical instruments that are far more powerful.

“Second, it appears that Odin monitors the Weapons Vault continuously and remotely. At the time of the attack during Thor’s coronation ceremony, Odin appears to have realized that the vault was breached without being informed by any external source. Following the coronation attack, Odin neither expressed any animosity toward Jotunheim or any immediate anxiety about the security of the vault. Instead, Odin abruptly cancelled the coronation ceremony and focused upon Thor’s reaction, treating Thor’s immediate and subsequent behavior as a personal affront leading to the exile of Thor upon earth. Finally, on the one occasion Loki visited the vault unannounced and alone Odin followed him there immediately.

“It may be the case that both Loki and Odin each opened a path for the Jotuns. In his debriefing Thor remembered that the Jotun king Laufey had stated that ‘The House of Odin is full of traitors.’ Thor dismisses this statement as a lie, but it suggests that more than one path into Asgard was opened from Jotunheim into Asgard. While Loki may have opened his own route between the realms, Odin’s obsessive focus on the weapons vault, his lack of concern about the particular event, and the perfect timing of the attack to coincide with the height of the ceremony all suggest that the path into the Weapons Vault taken by the Jotuns was opened and controlled by Odin himself.

“Thor’s account of Loki’s behavior is otherwise incredible as well. For example, Thor claims Loki alone originated the scheme to kill his own biological father in the presence of Odin, without acknowledging that is much more likely Odin required this behavior of Loki as a loyalty test. It is also likely that Odin set Loki to destroy Jotunheim as another loyalty test, even if it was one Odin allowed Thor to interrupt. These loyalty tests may have been implied rather than explicit.

“Thor may be Odin’s own son and heir, but Loki may more properly be considered Odin’s disciple. There appears to be no cruelty or violence to which Loki would ever hesitate to submit or to inflict if he thought it would win him the favor of Asgard. His actions may be a more accurate guide to Odin’s thoughts than Thor’s blind loyalty.

“The most probably and believable sequence of events is that Odin decided the time had come to destroy Jotunheim and manipulated his two sons into accomplishing this, with the additional benefit that sowing doubts among his own people about Thor’s readiness for the kingship would enhance Odin’s own personal power despite Odin’s inability to guard Asgard during the Odinsleep. Odin arranged events to place full blame upon Loki for all decisions taken during this second Jotun war, presumably in order to preserve Odin’s plausible deniability with his eldest son and his son’s immediate circle of warriors, and perhaps the general public opinion of Asgard (although the value of such public opinion in an absolute monarchy is hard to measure).....”

There was more, most of it speculation about the reputational value of honor in an oral tradition, but Jane skipped to the conclusion of this section:

“If this analysis is correct, and Odin determined upon the destruction of Jotunheim, there is no reason to believe that Odin may not take similar steps against Earth. While Thor himself appears both friendly and reliable, Thor also appears oblivious of the destructive and self-serving aspects of Odin’s policy toward the other eight realms. Given that Loki had been returned to Asgard muzzled and chained, Odin should be upgraded to a priority threat....”

Jane then skipped to the section under the subheading, “The Tesseract”:

“Thor by his own account was sent to earth by Odin ‘to put an end to Loki’s schemes.’ However, Thor was sent only after Loki was in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s custody, and then apparently under explicit instructions to get the Tesseract from Loki.

“Thor explains his demand for the Tesseract by claiming that he and Loki need the Tesseract’s power to return to Asgard, but the Tesseract does not need to travel with its passengers. First, Loki triggered it remotely; if Thor once back in Asgard wishes to return to earth without using dark energy, he should be able to travel to earth in the same way, leaving the Tesseract in human hands. Second, according to Captain America’s account of the Red Skull’s apparent death, it seems clear that the Tesseract in fact sent the Red Skull to another realm. If the Red Skull could trigger the Tesseract’s teleportation power inadvertently and still manage to leave the Tesseract behind, it cannot require much in the way of magical knowledge to do so. Certainly there should be no reason why Thor could not do the same.

“Thor claims Odin and Heimdall may have been able to see Loki only on Earth, but since Thor himself informed us of the Chitauri, it is obvious that Thor could not have known of their army or even been able to name it unless Odin had been observing the Chitauri’s preparations for war -- and by implication, Loki’s.

“Finally, Odin and Heimdall must have seen that in the centuries intervening between the Aesir’s previous visits to Earth during the Viking era and present day, Earth has developed and tested thousands of nuclear weapons. Odin may not have believed the Chitauri invasion would be successful, but Odin must have anticipated that the most effective way for Earth to repel an alien invasion would be nuclear war.

“Odin therefore must have been willing to risk the effects of nuclear war on earth in order to create a set of circumstances in which Earth would willingly surrender the Tesseract to Thor in gratitude for his services. If Odin had truly wanted to defend Earth, and keep the intergalactic peace in his capacity as the Allfather, the proper time to do so would have been to send Thor to collect Loki as soon as Heimdall located Loki, which as far as we know is when Loki first fell into the hands of the Chitauri (not to mention that this is what Odin would have done if he actually cared what happened to Loki). The fact that Odin did not send Thor to Earth until Loki was in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s custody and it looked as if the proposed Chitauri invasion might never happen, combined with the fact that the Tesseract itself does not need to travel when it serves as an intergalactic transport, suggests that Odin’s only goal all along was never anything but the recovery of the Tesseract. If this is the case, Odin has never cared what might happen to Earth -- or to either of his sons -- or anything else that may come between him and his true goal of accumulating as many magical weapons of power in his weapons vault as possible …..”

Now I understand the look in Maria’s eyes, thought Jane. S.H.I.E.L.D. is afraid of Odin too. Surely there must be many across the other eight realms who feel the same way. And even if I don’t know who they are, the Infinity Gauntlet will know.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Time for Loki -- and for Earth -- to make some new friends.

Jane stood, balancing upon the gilded roof ridge, aware that armed with the power of the Gauntlet she could have stood just as easily on thin air. Then she realized that that was what she should do: trust this magical thing shimmering with infinite power.

And so there above the silent alien city bright in its ethereal morning she stepped out upon the empty air, and as it held her aloft she let the Infinity Gauntlet speak to her - and she to it.

When she felt that she understood, she gave the Infinity Gauntlet a single command.

Then after checking to make sure Maria had Thor secured inside the S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel, she teleported herself to Heimdall’s observatory, and restarted time for everyone else.

* * * * * * * * *

Jane’s appearance was so sudden that Darcy almost jumped out of her skin -- and the look in her eyes so wild that Darcy immediately knew something was wrong.

Jane looked flushed, and there was an insanity in her eyes. “We’re winning!” she cried. “You should see what I did! Everything go OK here?”

“Totally cool,” answered Darcy. “What did you do with Thor?”

“Put him to sleep and handed him over to Maria. She’s keeping him on the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship and promised to look after him. Heimdall wake up?”

“Couple of times,” answered Darcy. “He goes out like a light when I hit him with full power, though. Even humans don’t do that. What’s that thing on your arm?”

“Thor and Sif call it the Infinity Gauntlet. It’s amazing. It does whatever I want. It even let me fix things so that these people are going to be too busy to chase us. What are you listening to?”

“‘For my lover, for my lover,’” chanted Darcy.

“$20,000 bail rhymes with two weeks in a Virginia jail? That song? Too appropriate for Loki. Can I taser Heimdall? I just want to.”

Darcy handed the taser over. “I think he’s still out cold.”

“This will wake him up,” and she made a gesture with the glittering Gauntlet; blinding unearthly light flickered among the translucent gems. Heimdall started to get up. Jane held out Darcy’s taser and zapped him. He groaned and fell.

“We can just teleport, so we should disable the Bifrost. I doubt we’ll be followed -- not after what’s hitting them now -- but just in case. Is that Hofud?”

“What’s Hofud?”

“Heimdall’s sword,” said Jane impatiently.

Darcy wondered again why Loki seemed to be the only Asgardian who never got a weapon with a name.

Jane took up Hofud from where it lay on the floor -- tasering Heimdall one more time while she did so -- and then taking a few steps up the platform she inserted the sword into the bollard. Vivid white light snaked about her from floor to ceiling in bolts of searing energy, and the platform on which they stood began to move and the ceiling to turn. When the revolving walls had just shut the open door but had not yet opened any other, Jane abruptly yanked out the sword. Around her the observatory stopped turning and the living streams of its energy flickered and died, and they were trapped with both entrances to the observatory shut.

Jane tossed Hofud at her feet and made another gesture with the Infinity Gauntlet. Heimdall’s sword shattered into a thousand pieces without a blow.

“The first time I see a functioning Einstein-Rosen bridge and I have to trash it,” she lamented. “Heimdall awake?”

“He’s getting there.” Darcy had been watching.

“Do you think I should kill him?”

Darcy stared at her. “No. You’re freaking me out, OK? We don’t know what Loki wants -- he doesn’t even know we’re coming. We get him, he can decide what he wants. And the sooner the better, because that thing is getting to you.”

“We’re making plans for Loki without consulting him, yes. But then, everyone in Asgard has done that to him since forever, haven’t they? And now for the first time those plans will have his best interests at heart. He deserves that at least once in his life.” Jane stepped over to the prone gatekeeper. “Heimdall, do remember watching Thor take on all of Jotunheim just because he was called a princess? Well, stories will be told of this day. Stories about how two girls with one taser between them destroyed all of Asgard by calling down upon it a most justified retribution. Lie here, you fool, and while you wait for a rescue that shall never come think to yourself about how you betrayed your rightful king Loki.”

Heimdall made one last scrabbling effort to get up.

Jane tasered him again. Turning back to Darcy she cried, “Now grab my other hand, and let’s go!”

Darcy hung on for dear life.

And a second later she had to let it go, reeling, because she had so suddenly found herself in such a very different place....


Chapter Text


“Communications?” demanded Maria Hill.

Jasper Sitwell glanced at her briefly before returning his attention to the wide monitor that dominated the bridge of the Stark spacejet that had brought the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to Asgard. “Working. No-one seems to have done anything to those mechanical bugs we put up in the hall ...”

“I’m sure the Aesir have no idea what they are,” replied Maria, joining him in front of the screen, “Who’s that? What’s going on?”

Jasper shrugged. “You know Nick, he likes eyes on everything. He hasn’t said who she is, just thinks we should watch the video feed for now. Where are the Thor girls?”

The thin dark creature perched on Odin’s winged golden throne was human in shape, but the delicate hands and face were dark blue and the wide eyes glowed vermillion red. Odin knelt before her, head bowed before the lowest of the black steps that led to the black marble dais that supported the golden throne. Flickering green magic imprisoning him to the ground, and around them both more flashes of green suggested that all of Valaskjalf was filled with the newcomer’s power.

“Jane and Darcy?” replied Maria. She suddenly realized that she didn’t know, and this - weirdly - did not disturb her at all. She could remember everything that had happened in the Weapon’s Vault, and found that all of it felt at as if it was absolutely the right thing to do. Am I compromised? she wondered. But she did not feel the least bit “unmade” as Barton had described it. Instead all she felt was a peaceful serenity, a conviction that things were going as they should. “I don’t know. Are they with Nick? Where is he?”

“Nick’s in Valaskjalf, there,” he answered, gesturing to the image of golden Hlidskjalf filling the screen. “As soon as we heard incoming he went to offer whatever help we can give. He should be somewhere near that big throne thing.”

“That man,” said Maria. “Simultaneously paranoid and gullible. I bet he’s still trying to get Odin to let him talk to Loki.”

“It’s not paranoid to think someone else might have been controlling Loki, even Thor thought that,” replied Jasper. “And he’s not gullible enough to believe anything Loki tells him. Nick just wants to get his own sense of what makes the guy tick.”

They watched. Presently Maria said, “what the hell?”

“I think she’s telling the story of the Jotun war,” said Sitwell slowly. “Except from the Jotun point of view.”

“Does her account differ from Thor’s?” asked Maria.


They watched and listened a little more.

“All this must be already known to you, or at least to those of you who returned from Jotunheim,” said the black-shrouded being on the great golden throne. “We did sell our lives as dearly as we could. Now I will tell you my own story. You will not think this to see me now, but I was beautiful once. So beautiful that even our King came wooing. You do not believe me? Let me change the color of my skin, then, that you may see me as we see ourselves. It is easier, too, to be this color in your warm air.” With a graceful gesture she pushed back the black wreathed about her head, and before their eyes the ridged blue skin faded to smooth white and the red eyes to green. They beheld a beautiful dark-haired woman, her slender form a thin dark streak against the vivid gold of Hlidskjalf.

“Does she look familiar to you?” asked Jasper.

“Yes,” replied Maria, “but how could she? There’s no way we could ever have seen her before, and yet....”

On screen, behind the flickering green, they could now hear a murmur among the assembled Asgardians. “Yes, our king,” continued the woman, “King Laufey. I am Farbauti, Laufey’s former queen. And widow. I see you know that name, though I doubt you know mine.”

“My god,” gasped Jasper, as he and Maria stared at each other in horror. Then Jasper added, “he’s a dead ringer for her, that’s why she looks so familiar!”

“I’m getting Thor,” said Maria. “He needs to see this. Especially if what she’s saying is the true story of the Jotun war.”

“Where is Thor, anyway?”

“I have him under a spell.”

Jasper stared at her, baffled. “You know spells? Like, Asgardian spells?”

“Long story,” said Maria, leaving the bridge, “but I’m coming back with Thor only if he promises not to fight.”

“Good luck with that,” was the last she heard....

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Thor stood between them, staring at the screen, as entranced by Farbauti’s tale of intergalactic rebellion and total war as the two mortals who watched with him on the bridge.

“So that is Loki’s Jotun mother,” he finally said. “We thought she was dead.”

“Evidently you thought wrong,” replied Jasper Sitwell.

“And these stories she tells of the war in Jotunheim... we did not behave that badly, I think.”

“Maybe you think wrong again?” suggested Jasper.

“One aspect of what she says can be verified,” said Maria.

“By Midgardians? How come mortals to have any records of this war?”

“We have the records made by the ice sheets themselves,” replied Maria. “Thor, you told Jasper that the Frost Giants threatened the earth with a new ice age. However, the Viking era was the apex of the medieval warm period, and the climate in Europe did not slip back into what we call the ‘little Ice Age’ until the sixteenth century. We have records of swift ice ages -- the Younger Dryas stadial, things of that nature. There’s nothing like that for the tenth century. So when she says the Frost Giants never tried to freeze the earth, that matches our own early climate records.”

Thor said nothing.

They listened for a while, and presently Jasper said, “You know, Thor, it doesn’t sound like the Aesir put any limits on what they do when they go to war.”

“These must be lies, or at least exaggerations,” replied Thor, but he shifted from foot to foot, uncomfortable. “The Allfather would never allow such things.”

“Wars are easy things to lie about,” Jasper continued, “but this sounds like a pretty detailed eyewitness account. And you’re too young to remember anything yourself.”

“Yes,” relied Thor, again unwillingly.

“What I don’t get is, when Odin fights a war, he and his soldiers can do whatever they want, but when Loki fights a war -- with Jotunheim or with earth -- all of a sudden the same actions constitute war crimes that require Asgardian justice?”

“We punished him to please earth,” replied Thor. “Your council called him a war criminal. Nothing in his punishment related to anything done on Asgard or to Jotunheim. Odin sentenced him only for such harm as he wrought upon earth.”

“It doesn’t sound like Asgardians know how to wage a war other than by committing war crimes.”

“Laufey was an evil king. The first duty of a king is to protect his people in war. No other act of a king is as important as that.”

“So Laufey was guilty, I get that. But did you have to slaughter everyone wholesale?”

Thor didn’t appear perturbed by this comment, although he still looked generally troubled. “We are the gods of the Vikings. The way of the Viking is … not a path of peace.”

Jasper was undeterred. “I get that the way of the Viking is not a nonviolent path, I really do. Unlike the Frost Giants, they left behind a record in our world. But I’m not quite sure why you.....”

“Odin had to gain possession of the Casket of Ancient Winters.”

“Did he? It sounds as if Odin is quite the klepto.”

“Do not insult the name of my father with...” and then Thor stopped, confusion apparent on his broad face.

“You know I’m not lying, Thor,” said Jasper after a moment’s pause. “Just as I think we both know Laufey wasn’t lying when you talked with him in Jotunheim. He told you that 'the house of Odin was full of traitors,' as I recall. Traitors is plural, Thor. Plural means more than one.”

“What are you saying, mortal man?” demanded Thor.

And as Maria listened, amazed, Jasper told Thor the substance of his memo. Maria couldn’t tell whether Thor was more upset from what he heard from Jasper or from what he heard from Farbauti.

Presently she heard them arguing over whether Loki must have known that his scepter could shut down the portal. Between pointing out that Loki was both known for his lies and reminding Thor that Loki appeared glued to his scepter on all S.H.I.E.L.D. videotapes, Jasper seemed to be winning the argument.

“Shut up, you two,” interrupted Maria, “she’s getting to the part about Loki.”

All of them listened in silence as Farbauti described how she had entrusted her newborn child to the warriors of the Jotuns’ temple: “These assured me they would defend that sacred space to the death before they would permit the impious Aesir, who considered themselves to be gods and thus commit sacrilege wherever they walk upon holy ground, to enter....”

“We didn’t know they felt that way, either,” said Thor. “I’m sure we thought anyone could just walk into a temple.”

“You do consider yourself gods, is she right?” asked Jasper.

Thor hesitated.

Before them, on the screen, a voice that sounded like Fandral’s asked her why she had not stayed to defend her child with the temple guardians.

Farbauti moved so quickly she seemed to disappear. “Take your sword,” they heard her say, “and try to fight me.”

Thor tensed, and Maria laid a restraining hand on his arm. “I think she’s only disarming him. Widescreen,” she ordered the spacejet’s video.

The camera lens zoomed out in time for them to see Farbauti knock the sword out of Fandral’s hand with her own weapon. Now they could view more of Odin’s hall they saw that it was not just Odin who knelt, restrained by the green magic, but a host of Asgardians assembled in the vast space surrounding the throne as far as they could see. To the right of Hlidskjalf, partly hidden by one of the huge golden freestanding columns ringing the black floor, Maria thought she could make out Fury’s dark head.

As she took in more of what the panning camera showed her, however, she gasped. Something had ripped apart Valaskjalf. Gaping, ragged holes marred the distant roofline of the peristyle where it had gleamed against the sky, far above the innermost ellipsis of massive golden pillars. Immediately above Fandral, a dark network of cracks snaked down each of the huge golden columns in spidery black lines. Chunks of marble, marble dust, and what looked like chipped or melted lumps of solid gold dimmed the luster of the gold and black marble floor. Far back among the masses of people huge stones, evidently fallen from the entablature, reared jagged little cliffs of ornate marble among the kneeling imprisoned crowd. Whatever power had put Farbauti on Odin’s throne had shattered his hall.

Farbauti sent Fandral’s sword spinning across the dusty black floor and held her own sword point to his throat, but she did not drive it home. “You may frighten the daughters of men and of Aesir with a sword,” she told him, “but do not try to frighten a Giant’s daughter with such a thing. I fight as well as any man, and that hateful day I fought beside my husband and king where the battle raged fiercest. Those who promised to sell their lives to protect our most sacred temple and the child I entrusted to them were the most devoted of our warriors, not our best.” She dropped the sword point, and Fandral took a long deep breath.

Farbauti retook the winged golden seat of Hlidskjalf, but there was now the stillness of grief in every line of her slender shape.

“The guardians of the temple fought and died, all of them. The Aesir killed them all and polluted the temple. When I finally reached it it was destroyed, a blackened ruin surrounded by corpses. It would have been better, far better, for me to have died with them, for me to be entombed in that hideous ruin with my dead child. As for what I had called my husband -- after he was beaten, after his people had died, after our power was taken, Laufey sought peace. Peace! Sought by that fool just to spare his own sorry life, the only thing that worthless coward valued -- then, when it was too late. I never spoke to him again.”

She paused, and silence reigned across the ruined golden courts of Asgard.

“I have lived a thousand years, in grief, since. I have plotted my vengeance against you for a thousand years, in grief, since. Shall I tell you what it was like? Shall I make you feel it?” and here she raised one slender hand, as graceful a gesture as any Maria had ever seen. “For I am a sorceress, and whatever power has put me here has raised my own meager strength a thousandfold. I can make you feel a little -- a very little -- of what I have felt, all these centuries. Shall I inflict pain upon you? Or death, as slow as it was certain, such as you dealt to us? You took no captives in that war, or spared none that you took. Why should I not do the same to you? This would be justice -- a very little -- of what you deserve.” And the green fire arced from her hand.

A cry went up from the captive Asgardians.

Thor gripped his hammer.

“You can’t fight magic with that thing,” said Jasper.

“Wait, something’s happening,” said Maria....

Chapter Text

Darcy staggered, found her footing, and looked around her. She and Jane stood in an autumn wood, sere and brown, among a grove of white aspens whose yellow leaves fluttered in an invisible breeze. The silvery light was the light of an overcast day, but glimmered with an unearthly brightness, as if they sheltered under the cloud cover of a sun more brilliant than any that had ever shown upon earth. All was deathly silent; Darcy had never in her life been in a wood so quiet. She felt the chill in the crisp air, and shivered slightly.

She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out.

The Gauntlet flashed again, and suddenly she could hear the wind sighing among the trees. “Are you cold?” Jane asked. Darcy answered yes, could hear herself speak, and just as suddenly found herself back in her familiar comfortable boots, sweater, jacket, jeans and wool hat. “Come,” said Jane, and she began to walk between the fluttering yellow aspens. Darcy saw that Jane too was now dressed in the warm clothes they had worn in Puente Antiguo instead of the more professional outfits they had taken with them to Asgard.

Darcy could see no path, but there seemed to be no underbrush in this forest and it was easy enough to pick their steps among the mossy stones and shivering leaves.

“We are on the Isle of Silence, and there is no sound anywhere in this place. The only reason we can talk is I willed sound around us with the Gauntlet. The Gauntlet’s zone of sound will apply to Loki too. Does that answer your question?”

“I didn’t say anything,” replied Darcy.

“I can listen to your thoughts using the mind gem on this thing.”

“Please don’t, OK? Jane, we need to get rid of that. It’s doing things to you.”

As they climbed the trees thinned around them, and the stone outcroppings among the moss and leaves grew more prominent. A few minutes more, and it seemed to Darcy that they had reached the tree line. Ahead of them rose the barren mountain, slabs of cool gray granite and green lichen, its summit lost in the opaque clouds.

Jane kept talking, even as she led Darcy at a pace which forced Darcy to step more quickly among the rocky moss than the girl would have liked. “Loki will hear us coming, and the sound we make will let him know that his visitors are more powerful than the magic of this place.”

So that’s why we are scrambling, thought Darcy.

But as it turned out they were almost at their goal. Darcy saw him as soon as they stepped out from among the trees. Loki was seated on a natural rock formation shaped like a high-backed throne, facing them, resplendent in green and gold against the stony cliff. Truly a king in exile, thought Darcy, and she remembered the S.H.I.E.L.D. videos of handcuffed smiling Loki being marched to glass prison on the helicarrier. He knew how to carry himself in captivity.

His vivid eyes widened in surprise as he recognized his visitors -- and widened further when he looked at the shimmering metal glove on Jane’s hand as they approached. “Greetings, mortals,” he said as he rose to greet them, “It is a genuine pleasure to see you both again.” A thin smile touched his lips as they approached. “This time I cannot say that I thought you would come. I truly am surprised. But was the Russian woman not available?”

Darcy found this hurt. “Loki, we’re not here to trick you or trap you, I swear we’re not,” she panted as she scrambled the last few feet.

Jane had already reached the rocky outcropping, and stood now right below the natural throne, one booted foot balancing on a rock. “No avengers on this trip,” she said. “They’re a fighting force, after all, and Fury thought it might not look good to bring any of them on a diplomatic mission.”

Loki studied her for a second, glancing between her face and giant gleaming metal glove she cradled on her hand, but then reseated himself on the cupped rocks. “Please be welcome -- this seems to be the most comfortable place here. How go the affairs in Asgard? It was an ancient rule with us that mortals were not to be allowed into the city of the gods. It is my brother’s influence that has changed this, no?”

“It is Thor’s influence that has allowed S.H.I.E.L.D. to visit Asgard,” answered Jane, seating herself to Loki’s left on a rocky ledge, “and Fury’s that allowed us to take a spaceship here. I think Fury’s argument was that S.H.I.E.L.D. had to justify allowing Thor to take the Tesseract back to Asgard, and that as long as we had mere humans, and no Avengers, there’d be no sense of threat. Because we’re not dangerous.” Then Jane giggled. Darcy decided she did not like the sound of that giggle at all, as she seated herself to Loki’s right.

“If you can indeed manage the Infinity Gauntlet, they may want to rethink that,” Loki agreed. “Do you know what it is that you carry?”

“I do now,” replied Jane.

“I confess I am curious to see you so comfortable with it. We have always believed that mortals cannot handle even the power of the Tesseract, let alone something that can alter the fabric of reality.”

“You have to order it to cut you off from its sensory input,” replied Jane. “Otherwise it makes you aware of all life and matter, and, yes, that felt like it would kill me.”

Loki’s jade eyes sparkled. “That was wise. Such a diminution of its power is necessary, even when it is commanded by us. The downside, of course, is that it will then tell you only what you specifically ask to know, so you may not be able to use it fully. ”

“I’ve been asking it a lot while I’ve had it, and it’s frustrating to just get knowledge question by question....”

“Even that is dangerous,” Loki cautioned her. “The distance between what you were and what you are with the power of the Infinity Gauntlet becomes insurmountable very quickly. Do not seek to tap into its full omniscience, even to seek knowledge.”

“It’s sort of sentient, did you know that? I found it talks to me.”

This was exactly the kind of thing that was beginning to get Darcy worried. Jane’s starting to sound like Erik going on and on about the truth of the Tesseract, she thought. If I don’t do something she’s never going to give it up.

Loki gravely replied to Jane, “the soul gem is sentient. It can even draw upon the minds of those who reside within its own universe. Most people who wear the gauntlet don’t know that. It is very clever of you to have found it out.”

And Loki’s just as bad -- he could probably talk about the damn thing all day. Darcy decided it was time to interrupt. “We stole it to give it to you. Jane, hand it over.”

But Jane made no move, and neither did Loki. Instead, he merely looked at Darcy, amused, and possibly a little saddened. “I will not take it.”

“But you must!” cried Darcy. “Why won’t you take it? It’s yours. Take it and go wherever you like. You don’t have to stay here anymore.”

This time Loki exchanged a glance with Jane. “I thank you, maiden, for you kind offer, but I refuse. In truth it is dangerous for that to be even out of the Weapons’ Vault. While I am genuinely glad to have a chance to speak with you both, you really should return to Asgard as soon as possible.”

Eventually Darcy broke the silence that followed. “So what is this gauntlet thingy anyway?” They had stolen it to give to him, and in Darcy’s opinion Jane could not hand it over soon enough. If he really wouldn’t take it they were in a bit of bind.

While Loki appeared unwilling to wield the Infinity Gauntlet, he appeared willing enough to talk about it. “Thanos the Titan created it to harness the combined power of the Infinity Gems. Between them they control time, space, power, mind, soul, and reality itself. The gauntlet is not merely an artifact of power; it can alter the past as well as the future, and take souls from the halls of Mistress Death and restore them to life.”

“Did Odin use this thing to rebuild the Bifrost and rearm the Destroyer?” asked Jane. “Because I’m pretty sure Thor told us he trashed the first, and I saw him smash the second.”

“I do not know,” replied Loki, “but I think he must have. Odin has certainly altered it. Thanos designed it for himself, but Thanos was left-handed, and the gauntlet now fits the right hand.” He was obviously curious, but Darcy noticed that while he eyed it carefully he would not move nearer. “It closely resembles the metal gauntlets that Thanos always wears, and I suspect Thanos merely affixed the Infinity Gems to his existing armor.”

Jane looked at the huge metal object hanging on her arm with new respect; her slight hand was swimming in it. “This is the size glove that Thanos puts on?”

“Yes. Thanos is not human.”

No shit Sherlock, thought Darcy. “Sounds like it would be a bad idea to meet him in a dark alley. Where is he now?”

Loki’s green eyes darkened, and he shot a keen look first at Darcy, then at Jane. “How far does our zone of sound extend on this isle?” he asked her.

“Just what you can see, around us and this mountain. There’s silence elsewhere,” she replied.

“I do not know where exactly he is now, but he has returned,” said Loki. “Thanos is ….dangerous. More than you know. He created the Infinity Gauntlet, and he is its master. You and even I must shield ourselves from its omniscience to wield it, but he does not need to. With his own power he is capable of existing upon planes of existence such as would kill a lesser being, and of teleporting between realms effortlessly. There are few creatures with his native power. With the Gauntlet, he is unstoppable.”

“Returned from where?” asked Darcy.

“From the halls of Mistress Death, I think,” replied Loki. “Thanos is Death’s worshipper and would-be paramour. Among other gifts she grants him a particular type of immortality: she simply recalls him to life whenever she requires him to do her bidding.”

“I’d think Death would be powerful enough on her own,” said Darcy. “What kind of bidding?”

Suddenly thoughtful, Loki steepled his long white fingers. “For instance, Mistress Death prefers balance, a constant and steady harvest of souls. Should the earth be in the midst of a great extinction, Death would be receiving too many, followed by too few. Should you learn that Mistress Death restored Thanos to this plane of existence to exterminate the particularly invasive species that was causing this extinction, what would you do?”

In the silence that followed Darcy could hear the wind whistling through the rocks above them and whispering in the trembling pale forest below. Now there’s a conversation stopper, she thought.

It was Loki himself who broke the silence. “It might be the case that one could lure Thanos to do something other than Mistress Death’s bidding. For she keeps an eye on him, and if his true plan is not what he told her, her anger will be great.”

“Sounds like a risk,” said Jane.

“Oh yes,” said Loki, and he smiled.

Sounds like pure fucking crazy, thought Darcy. Aloud she said, “I really don’t know. What I want to know is, are you O.K. here? I mean, this place is pretty -- don’t get me wrong -- but it sounds like Odin and company kind of abandoned you on a desert island. Is there a roof for you to sleep under? Are they feeding you? I mean, what’s up with this silence thing?”

Loki sighed, and smiled at her, and crossed one booted leg on top of the other. “We do not require food and shelter as you mortals do, which reminds me that as I am currently unable to offer you either I shall have to be sending the two of you back to Asgard before too long. For myself I find it peaceful here. I admit the nights are absolutely dark what with the clouds and, but for your magic now, absolutely soundless, and that is unpleasant. But dawn comes soon. And as for the Chitauri -- the less they know in Asgard, the better.”

“We’ve told no-one anything about the Chitauri,” said Jane, “but you realize that if you do what Odin wants, you’ve bought yourself centuries of misery. Neither Darcy nor I thought that was fair. So we stole the Infinity Gauntlet for you. We really did.”

“Your thoughts are kind, but I tell you again that I will not take it. In truth, the visits of the Chitauri provide me with sport. None of the creatures have been able to lay a finger on me, and thus so far they have provided me more entertainment than anything else. It was worse when I could not fight the Other’s attentions because I was supposed to at least pretend to be his ally. My only other visitors are likely to be my brother and his friends, and that would be painful as well, if in an entirely different fashion.”

“So, isolation, starvation, sensory deprivation, family guilt trips, and the occasional Chitauri mauling,” said Darcy. “Like, why are you doing this again?”

“If I am to be reconciled to Asgard, I must,” replied Loki.

“But you had no plans to reconcile with Asgard when you were making yourself king of earth.”

Loki merely looked at her.

“You did have such plans,” cried Darcy. “And for beating Thanos too I bet. Before or after he did Mistress Death’s bidding?”

“There would not be much point in doing it after, now would there be?” Loki answered. “Especially since it would serve to separate Thanos from Death’s service and end his reincarnations.”

“So what’s going to happen to earth now? Like, with Thanos still out there?”

“I assume that as my brother has the earth under his protection, and as Odin as Allfather has appointed himself to keep the peace, they will protect you,” answered Loki. “And should they come here to ask my assistance, I shall not hesitate to lend it.”

“If you took the Gauntlet, couldn’t you turn back time to a point where you could still do that?” asked Jane. “This controls time as well. You get as many repeats of reality as you like,” and she giggled again.

Loki frowned. Even Loki’s beginning to realize that thing is doing something to Jane, thought Darcy. “It is wise to be sparing of its use, and especially wise not to use it to alter the fabric of reality or any of the streams of time, because...”

Far above them the cool air of the mountain was split by a sonic boom that drowned Loki’s words. Startled, all looked up for the sound.

Darcy had been in New Mexico when the Chitauri invaded New York, but she had seen the video of their ships. The one hovering far above them did not quite have the look of one of the great sea creatures that had come down through the rift in the sky; instead it seemed to be a carrier of some kind, but she recognized the half dozen or so aerial jetski riders it poured forth. Although they launched far above the mountain, the Chitauri fliers came rapidly nearer with every circle in the sky. Loki raised his arms, a throwing knife appearing in each hand; Jane lifted the Infinity Gauntlet, and Darcy just cursed, because she realized that Jane still had her taser.

But fast as they had moved, the Chitauris moved faster, and now the alien creatures were so close the three could hear the swooping Chitauri chatter to each other: “Humans! Humans! Humans are death! Flee! FLEE!” and quite suddenly they saw the alien fliers spiralling back into the sky as quickly as they had come, if not faster. They watched in amazement as the last of the fliers disappeared into the Chitauri ship, which immediately vanished. Another sonic boom reverberated across the mountain.

As it died away they looked at each other and started to laugh. “My god, did they run just because they saw us?” asked Darcy.

“Apparently,” answered Loki. “My erstwhile allies appear not to be the most courageous warriors in the nine realms.”

“Do you think that might have been part of the problem with your little war?” asked Jane.

“It did not appear so at the time,” Loki answered her. “But I must thank you for having spared me another of their visits. The Other was not pleased to learn I had failed to secure the Tesseract for him,” and if there was any discrepancy between this and what he had said earlier about the Chitauri Darcy was not tempted to say anything about it. Neither apparently was Jane. “Still that should not have happened,” he added, looking troubled. “Even Odin should not be running the risk of letting the Infinity Gauntlet fall into the hands of the Chitauri.”

“Because the Chitauri work for Thanos, or would give it to him, or something?” asked Darcy. “Look, I don’t see where Odin comes into this. We stole this to give to you.”

Loki shook his head. “I think Odin sent you … and I think I shall continue decline to receive it. Odin’s test does give me a chance to talk to you both again, so believe me when I say I do not mind. But please return to Asgard forthwith, and return that to safety.”

“There’s no test,” said Jane. “I asked Sif what in the weapons room could be used right off the bat by someone who didn’t know any magic and she told me about it, but she also said that a mortal couldn’t handle it.” Jane giggled again. “She got that wrong.”

I wish, thought Darcy. “Odin didn’t send us. If Odin wanted you, he’d send Thor, you know, or some other kind of official Asgardian guy. We stole it for you.”

“Lady Darcy, please do not misunderstand me; I am delighted to see you both, and only wish I could offer you more hospitality on this rocky isle. It makes me very happy to be able to talk to you. But the presence of that” (and here he gestured toward Jane’s hand, still careful not to touch the Gauntlet) “is a test set by Odin. It is impossible to know exactly what is required to pass, but one is generally not wrong with going with the choice that requires more courage, or more humility, or more resignation. And so I am not going to take that from the Lady Jane, however much you entreat me.”

“This test business sounds horrible,” said Darcy. “Why can Odin just do this to people? Who died and made him Allfather?”

“Bor Burisson, if you must know,” said Jane, and to Loki, “what can we do to convince you that we really did steal it for you?”

“Nothing, because I know you could not do such a thing. Odin would never allow it.”

“Seriously, what does it take?” demanded Jane. “Because I swear I took it. I had to put Thor to sleep and I had to melt the Destroyer and I had to …”

“What?” said Loki. He was no longer smiling.

“The Destroyer came out of the woodwork when I took the Gauntlet,” Jane explained. “Or the metalwork, to be precise. You know, the big metal robot that wandered around after Thor in Puente Antiguo. The grid thing at the end of the room just kind of disintegrated and the Destroyer walked out all fired up as if it was going to blast me like it blasted everyone in New Mexico. So I melted it. Then I had to knock out two regular Asgard guards, and then I stopped time because I figured that otherwise I would just have to be doing that kind of thing all day. And then I went out on the roof and set up things so that no-one would come after us, and then I restarted time and got Darcy, and here we are.”

Loki was staring at her. “Can you tell me exactly how the metal grid disappeared?” he asked.

“It just kind of faded into nothing. It wasn’t like it was built of bolts that drew back into the wall. It was there and then it wasn’t there and there was the Destroyer firing up its face and starting to move. The goddamn thing made a very nice molten puddle though, because I used its own heat to melt it.”

Loki was still staring at her. “What do you mean by faded?”

“Seriously, it just faded. Turned into little dots of metal where the crossings had been and then the dots of metal were gone.”

Loki looked at Darcy for confirmation. “Did you see this?”

“No,” said Darcy, “because we weren’t sure what we could steal or what it would do, and, anyway, to be honest, I kinda wanted to taser Heimdall. He was mean to you. So I walked out the Bifrost and tasered him until Jane said we could just teleport. But Jane stole the glove all right. This isn’t any kind of Odin test. I wish we could convince you, but it really isn’t.”

Loki looked back at Jane. “What did you mean by set up things?”

“I’m not sure exactly. I kind of left it up to the Gauntlet. I’m guessing that it took down all of Asgard’s defenses -- your people have got a shitload of magic flickering around that place, did you know that? actually, you being you, you probably did know that -- and opened the paths between the worlds, and then I collected Darcy and we found you. But I tell you I left them busy back at Asgard, and probably not enjoying themselves either.” Jane giggled again, more of snigger than anything else, and stood. “The Gauntlet’s is yours - but you must give me a kiss first.”

Loki stood also, and Darcy scrambled to her feet. “Are you not my brother’s lover?” he asked in a tone of wonder.

“When I fell for him I didn’t know anything about Sif,” Jane replied. “And I hadn’t seen you.”

So much for Thor, thought Darcy. Being Thor’s girl had never seemed to Darcy to be ideal, seeing that Thor would probably value his woman more than his horse but less than his hammer, and Darcy had always wondered if Jane was serious about him.

Loki stepped closer to Jane. “What exactly did you tell the Infinity Gauntlet to do to Asgard?” he asked, laying one hand on the metal on her wrist.

“Kiss me to find out,” said Jane again.

With his right hand Loki raised her chin and bent over her to touch his lips to her mouth; his other hand began to slide the Infinity Gauntlet from her right arm. Jane resisted neither, and as he took the Gauntlet off her hand he kissed her precisely, carefully, and, Darcy noticed, without using any tongue.

“Hey,” said Darcy. “I helped, didn’t I? My job was to secure the exits. If I’d known you’d wanted that metal thing more, believe me I would have switched places with Jane.”

“Then I shall give you a kiss as well,” replied Loki, and he touched her cheek. The sheer pleasure of his touch sent an electric shock through her. His hand traveled around to her chin and lifted it. Then she received the same warm, precise, exquisite kiss, a sugar touch on the lips.

“May these stones be my witness,” said Loki as he pulled the Infinity Gauntlet onto his right hand, “I do not don this willingly, but I must learn if you have put Asgard into danger.” And he lifted his hand.

The charges flashing between the living gems of the Infinity Gauntlet shimmered iridescent in the filtered sunlight.

And once again suddenly Darcy found herself in a very different place....


Chapter Text

Darcy found her footing and looked up; they were in Valaskjalf, Odin’s great hall, near a golden pillar now ominously cracked half its length. The air on her face was freezing, and she was glad she had her hat and that Jane was also still in her warm Puente Antiguo clothes. She sensed more than saw that the hall was full of both people and magic, and why were there lumps of half-melted gold and broken white rubble strewn across the floor?

She heard Loki gasp, saw him raise his gauntleted hand, saw the green net of magic sparkling through all the the air flicker out. The woman on the throne and the golden man who knelt before her switched places in the flash of an eye, and now it was the woman who knelt, a new net of green-gold magic pinning her to the polished black floor where the man had just been. An instant later a huge golden staff with an intricate finial upended itself from the dais where it had lain and came to rest leaning against the throne; the man reached out and grasped it, but otherwise did not stir. Once he was enthroned, Darcy recognized him as Odin, Thor's father.

And she heard Jane yelling at Loki: “I didn’t give that to you so that you could come right back here! Stop it, you’re ruining everything!”

“What did you do here?” Loki yelled back. “What else did you set this to do?”

“I’m not telling you what the Gauntlet’s doing, you’ll only undo it. We shouldn’t be here, Loki. I stole that thing for you to use it to get away, not to come right back to Asgard.”

“I do what I want,” he told her, “and right now what I want to do is to undo whatever you did.”

Jane’s still crazy, thought Darcy. Not good. So not good. Wait, she didn't urge Loki to take the glove as much as I did back there -- so maybe this is just a display for the Asgardians? Better.

Then Darcy noticed something else: wisps of what appeared to be smoke seemed to be coiling themselves around the cracked pillars of the hall and flowing over the rubble on the dark floor. She stepped back and put her hand down to the nearest, and felt heat. Not smoke. Steam. Even the air on her face and hands seemed to be warming up.

Loki and Jane appeared to be much too busy arguing with each other to notice.

She felt a hand on her shoulder, and Nick Fury appeared out of nowhere. “Where were you two?” he hissed. “What’s that thing?”

“Long story,” she replied. “And a total fuckup. We were trying to help Loki, but it’s coming out all wrong.”

Loki looked around the once-gleaming throne room, taking in the shattered roofline and the startling contrast of the gold and white rubble with the jet floor. Darcy saw the assembled Asgardians slowly recover and stand, one by one, then in groups, as each of them found they were no longer pinned down by magic. Only Odin, his one eye gazing balefully from the throne, made no move.

Loki gestured to the woman pinned by magic at the foot of Odin’s throne. “Who’s this?” he demanded.

No-one answered him. In all that great hall, before that assembled multitude, no-one spoke.

“How did she take Hlidskjalf? How did she even get in? What happened here?” Loki demanded. He met not merely with silence but with bowed heads; apart from the old man on the throne, none of the assembled Asgardians would meet his eyes, and Odin’s one-eyed gaze stayed inscrutable. “Whatever happened, she has attacked Odin and Asgard. She must pay for what she has done,” and one of his little silver knives flashed in his ungauntleted hand.

Loki’s really reluctant to use that magical glove thingy, thought Darcy, Why, when he should be able to kill her with one touch of its magical finger?

In the silence that greeted this Loki seemed to become aware that killing the invader did not meet the approval that he expected. He hesitated, weapon at the ready. “Come on, this isn’t the first time a rebel and an intruder has been slaughtered at the foot of Odin’s throne.”

Frigga stepped forward to speak. Was it an illusion that her face looked so much more careworn than when Darcy had seen it last night?

“Spare her, Loki,” begged the Queen of Asgard. “For my sake. She has surrendered,” she added hurriedly, “and we don’t kill captives in Asgard.”

Loki looked baffled. “Since when?” he asked.

Frigga actually managed to stare him down, as the silence lengthened around them. Guess that one is a queen after all, thought Darcy.

“All right,” Loki finally said, and the knife disappeared. “As you wish. What should I do with her, then? Who is she?”

“Just spare her for now,” said Frigga. “Give the Gauntlet back to your father,” added Frigga, more composed. “You can maintain the magic that imprisons her without it.”

“Certainly,” he replied, and as he stepped toward Hlidskjalf his left hand began to take the metal glove off his right; however, light continued to flicker between the iridescent gems with the same intensity.

Beyond the golden walls half-enclosing the central court with the throne there echoed a dull boom, as if something immensely heavy had landed, and it seemed to Darcy that the wisps of steam seeping across the floor were picking up speed. Loki appeared to notice them for the first time, and, wide-eyed, he turned to Jane.

“Now what is happening?” he screamed at her. “The Gauntlet is in my possession, how is it possible that you still control it?”

“Because I programmed it,” Jane yelled back. “You treat it like a weapon. I treated it like a computer, I instructed it to take steps to reach a certain result. These attacks will keep coming even though you have possession.”

“Not if I can help it,” cried Loki. Raising his still-gauntleted right hand, he ordered: “With the exception that I retain the possession of the Infinity Gauntlet and that everyone assembled at Valaskjalf is still here, let everything be as it was before Jane laid her commands upon the Gauntlet.”

Darcy watched amazed as the crumbled roofline of Valaskjalf instantly repaired itself, cracks retreating up the golden columns and broken fragments of rubble lifting through the air as swiftly as a film running backward. Far back in the crowd, huge chucks of fallen stone reared up, were raised invisibly through the empty air and were reassembled into the cornice of colonnade surrounding the throne room. But Darcy noticed that although the last fragments of flickering green magic disappeared from the air, the woman they had bound at the foot of Odin’s throne did not move.

And Jane cried, “Wait! Loki, can you just undo all damage with that thing?”

“I don’t see why not,” he replied. “The Infinity Gauntlet can control reality itself.”

“Can you undo the damage and destruction you visited on earth? From here?”

“I suppose so.”

“Loki, don’t just stand there, fix things back on earth before you give it back. At least the death and destruction part. Do it now!”

“All right,” he said, “Let everything be fixed on earth that Jane wishes to be fixed in the way in which she wishes it to be fixed.”

“Does this mean you also got your grant money?” Fury joked in Darcy’s ear.

“Probably,” Darcy whispered back.

Frigga took another step toward them. “Loki, you should not be using that. Give it back to the Allfather. Right now.”

“Don’t let him have it unless he rescinds your exile,” Jane yelled at him. “At the very least. Or threaten to trash Asgard, or something. Don’t just hand it over. They’ll never give you your freedom unless you force them to.”

“I don’t threaten, and I don’t bargain. Here it is,” and all watched as Loki climbed first the black steps of the dais to lay the Infinity Gauntlet directly below the seat itself on one of the golden steps leading up to the winged throne.

The look in Odin’s one eye did not soften as he watched, and apart from following Loki with his gaze the Allfather did not move.

Behind her Darcy heard Maria hiss at Nick a question about the wisps of steam streaming over the floor. He hissed back that he didn’t know: “this place can’t even be closed off, so even with Loki’s revocation something could still be coming in out of the sky. I wonder why they never roofed it over?”

Darcy could hear Maria explaining that the Valaskjalf was too large to be covered -- the space under such a roof would be so huge that it would, in effect, create its own weather: condensation would occur on the ceiling and it would rain inside the hall. It had to be open to the sky. “Like the Nazi Volkshall that couldn’t be built, it can’t be an enclosed building, it’s too big,” Darcy heard Maria whisper at him.

“These Asgardians really do build on a fascist scale, don’t they?” she heard Jasper reply. “That golden organ-looking thing is as big as a mountain. What do they even need it for?”

She turned and saw Maria and Jasper on either side of Nick Fury, Thor behind them. Right, she thought, no more Jane spells, he’s awake now. She noted that Thor was neither armed for battle nor wearing his helmet. Even without the spell Maria apparently still had persuaded him not to fight.

“Some people should be more careful about what they wish for,” said a voice from the foot of the throne, and the strange woman charged up the black steps, lunging for Loki, a long blue-white blade of ice stabbing up from her arm. “I know not why you surrender to the Allfather when your own shieldmaiden advises against it, but you have come between me and my revenge, and you have not the advantage of the Infinity Gauntlet over me now.”

But Loki still stood between the intruder and the jewelled glove shimmering on the golden step. “I have my own magic yet,” he replied, and one quick green-lit blast from his outstretched palm sent her flying a good twenty feet or more. He grabbed a sword out from the hands of one of the Einherjar guards who had resumed their places on either side of the winged throne and leaped down to fight her.

But his metal blade turned her icy one only once before Frigga yelled, “stop! Loki, don’t fight, and don’t kill her. You can bind her, I know this. Do so.”

“As you wish,” said Loki and with a swift ringing blow his blade smashed the ice starting up from her hand. Before she could recover his thin white hands had made a few quick gestures and she was once again imprisoned by flickering green-gold magic.

“Yet the lady’s point stands,” said a great deep rumbling voice, and out from among the golden pillars there strode what could only be described as a mighty demon, twenty feet high and burning with a crown of flame. Across his brilliant red, almost-naked body here and there smaller tongues of flame flickered up, and the wisps of steam swept over the floor of the hall around his enormous feet. As he stalked up Darcy found that he radiated heat as Farbauti radiated cold. The crowd scrambled to get away from him, piling in between the golden pillars and leaving the central court empty. “Some people should be more careful what they wish for -- I, for instance, managed to land within the outer limits of your Valaskjalf while you wasted your time in idle argument. Know that I am Surtur, summoned here by that Gauntlet that you surrendered too easily. As I no longer feel the compulsion of your magic glove to explain Odin’s crimes and thefts to you all, I take it that I need not bother with speeches. Let me have back that which Odin stole from me, and I will leave you all in peace.”

“You must come through me, monster, if you would that,” replied Loki, and gripped the sword that he had taken from the guard.

Surtur stopped before the magic cage that pinned Farbauti in the middle of the great open court. “Who’s this?” he asked.

“I’ve no idea,” replied Loki, “no-one here tells me anything. However, as Frigga has asked me to spare her, her life is sacred to me.”

“Then get her out of the way,” said Surtur, “for otherwise she will be in the middle of our fight.”

In an instant Darcy felt the electric spark of magic behind her, and realized that Loki had whisked the caged frost giantess to the side of the hall, beside Thor and the mortals. The prisoner made no attempt to alter or fight the green-gold links that surrounded her, and appeared to be watching events as intently as they did.

Now Surtur and Loki began circling each other, preparing to spar in the empty space before Odin’s golden throne.

“But I know you,” said Surtur. “You are Loki, the disgrace of Asgard. The Chitauri visited my realm recently, looking for you, and I think I remember they were promising you a world of hurt.”

“They found me,” replied Loki with a smirk, “but even I can beat the Chitauri.”

“Did they want to hurt you because you betrayed them, or merely because you lost?” inquired the demon.

“Really I have no idea. I told you, no-one tells me anything. But it is not time for Ragnarok,” replied Loki, “and you do not yet bear the sword Twilight. By that alone I know I shall win. On guard, demon, and I will show you what I can do.”

“Well, then, arm yourself, little raratosk,” said Surtur, “and after I defeat you I shall make Odin give back that what he and his brothers stole from me.”

And the fire demon was as good as his word, at least as far as the fight went. It was quite a battle.

Surtur’s blade may not have been the legendary sword Twilight, and Loki’s blade was merely what he had just taken from the guard, but both blades were in the hands of masters. Surtur, large and slow, handled his enormous two-handed sword as if it were an ax, swinging it wide and high; and whenever it hit the inlaid marble floor it cut deep into the stone. Loki danced, elusive as the wind, reaching past Surtur’s defense to score endless stabbing wounds into his opponent.

But these wounds appeared to have no more effect upon Surtur than stabbing an iron into a fire, for they closed up again as soon as they opened. And though Darcy could not help but think that a single blow from that mightly weapon would have split Loki in two, Surtur could not manage to touch him. Scorch marks appeared on Loki’s leather clothes and armor and sweat upon his brow as Surtur’s flames surged around him, but he moved far too quickly for the demon's huge slow sword to make contact.

Presently Loki’s blade seemed to shimmer in the light, and Darcy surmised that he was summoning ice to his aid in battling Surtur’s flame. Great clouds of steam puffed out whenever the two blades clashed as the ice that ran down Loki’s sword met Surtur’s fire, until the two leaping figures were half-obscured in billowing white, save where Surtur’s flame gleamed dimly through the dense water vapor. Then she heard a few sharp cracks and a clatter and realized that Loki’s borrowed sword must have shattered in the combination of heat and cold. She saw another weapon glitter and lengthen from his arm, and knew that he was summoning a spear of ice into his hand. Gleaming white ice weapons sheared gouts of flame, and burst of fire reduced ice to steam that billowed so thick it that it soon became almost impossible to see either fighter. In what glimpses she could catch, however, it seemed to Darcy that Loki was slowly forcing Sutur back, away from golden winged Hlidjkalf, back down the gleaming jet floor toward the fountains and reflecting pools just inside the shadow of the peristyle.

Maria put her hand on Thor’s bare arm: “Don’t intervene,” she said, but Thor just smiled.

“Little brother seems to be holding his own,” Darcy heard him reply.

Presently the red flames billowing behind the walls of steam seemed to meet a force cutting them down. It was not ice, though the flash of Loki’s ice spears stabbed into the flames as fiercely as ever. Instead Loki seemed to be summoning puffs of empty air which cut away both steam and fire.

“What’s he doing?” asked Darcy.

“He’s generating electricity, I think,” replied Jasper. “He ought to be able to do that -- as a frost giant he should be able to drop the temperature around him enough to create an electrical field just from the temperature differential. Bursts of electricity can put out a fire. At least I think that’s what he’s doing.”

“He ought to be in the top ten floors of Stark Tower,” said Maria. Darcy noticed that the stranger was eyeing Jane and listening to their conversation. Maybe she’s figured out that it was Jane who had granted her the power to conquer Asgard, and I’m sure she’s wondering why this mortal girl showed up with an Asgardian frost giant, Darcy thought. But Darcy did not know what had happened here while they were gone, and did not want to ask Jane.

She looked around for Thor and found him still behind Nick and the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, talking quietly to Heimdall. Oh, shit, Heimdall’s here, she thought, and instinctively reached for her taser -- not that it would do much good here, without that magical glove to back it up, and in any case Jane still had the damn thing.

But Heimdall did not seem to notice the mortals, and made no move to approach any of them. Behind him she saw a horse, reins in the hands of a waiting servant. So that’s how he got here so fast, she thought.

Surtur’s flame seemed to weaken; more time elapsed between bursts of his fire and the flames when they flared did not reach as high. The speed of the demon’s retreat became faster. He left in his wake a scorched black marble floor marked by deep gashes from his sword and splashed with water, as the dissipating steam condensed into puddles. The crowd yielded before them, and formed again following in their footsteps as the Asgardians pushed forward to see the battle after it passed beyond them.

When Loki finally drove Surtur up against the cliff of huge gold-tiered fountains that marked the end of the court surrounding Hlidskjalf, Surtur apparently began to realize that while Loki’s sharp little blows couldn’t hurt him, they could force him into one of the enormous glittering pools of blue water.

“Little frostling, you fight better than I expected,” he rumbled. “And you spoke true: I have not the great sword Twilight in my hand today. One of these years I shall return with my true sword, and you shall rue the day you left a fight unfinished with Surtur. But unfinished it must be for now,” and he stamped, once, and disappeared in a blinding flash of flame. Where his foot had stamped the black marble broke in on itself, and the gold inlay melted and ran down to puddle in the shape of his enormous foot.

Loki paused, breathing hard, hands open and empty, looking around warily as if to make sure Surtur was really and truly gone. But after the clouds of steam dissipated into puddles of water, revealing neither Surtur nor any other newcomers to Valaskjalf, he turned and slowly began to walk the length of the great black inlaid floor back to where Odin sat still and glaring with his one good eye.

The onlookers parted before him, shaping themselves into two sides of a long human corridor that ran the length of the hall, until the ones furthest back stepped away to either side of the raised dais upon which stood the winged throne. Some of the assembled Asgardians began to applaud here and there, and what started as scattered applause spread until the noise echoed off the marble roof of the imperial peristyle. As the clapping of the crowd grew and turned into cheers, Loki gradually began to smile.

He really is a diva, thought Darcy, as she watched Loki drink in their adulation. I wonder if Thor ever stood aside and let him take the honor of victory before.

Winded, damp and scorched, but apparently otherwise unharmed, Loki reached the dark steps that led to Hlidskjalf. He knelt on one knee, took off his helmet and placed it before him. Then he raised his head and looked up to Odin on his golden throne.


Chapter Text

Loki waited, one knee down, his helmet before him, as the clapping and the cheering subsided.  He looked more wary than happy, Darcy decided, as if he waited more in fear than in expectation.  

And in this he was not disappointed, for Odin still said nothing, and still did not move.  Instead, Frigga stepped forward again.  She seemed to exchange a fleeting glance with her lord and husband.  When she turned to her adopted son, her expression held only disappointment and regret.

Darcy noticed that the Gauntlet no longer gleamed on the steps to the throne, but Odin did not appear to be wearing it, and she could not see it anywhere else.  

Frigga thanked Loki for what he had just done, but carefully, as if the formal words of the Asgardian court were a mine field over which she could only slowly pick her way.  Her tone was gentle, but her words were harsh.  She suggested that it might have been better, once Loki had the Infinity Gauntlet in his possession, if he had not used it to grant both his own and the mortal’s wishes.  Could he not have returned time to the point before which the mortal stole it, rather than to simply undo what she had done?

Picking up his helmet, Loki stood before her, holding it, and the expression on his face was more perplexed than unhappy.

With an edge of impatience in her voice, Frigga again asked him: “The Infinity Gauntlet can do that, can it not?  I have always heard that it can alter the fabric of time.”

“It can,” he said, slowly.  “Yet if one makes use of the Gauntlet to bend reality, one starts to attract attention....”

“But such a choice, had you made it, it would not have violated the limits on its power, would it not?”

Loki looked increasingly unhappy.  “There exist no limits upon the power of the Infinity Gauntlet of which I know.  There exist, however, certain entities who consider themselves guardians of this reality.  Alter reality, and they may come forth.”

“How can they?” asked the Queen of Asgard, “can you not simply overrule them as you would any other enemy?”  She cast another fleeting glance at her royal husband, but Darcy could detect no change in Odin’s baleful gaze.

“These entities can come through the Gauntlet itself.  There exists within the Soul Gem a pocket metaphysical universe.  A being that establishes a spiritual anchor within Soul World may use it in turn as an anchor from which it may reach out to the other five gems and take control from within....”  Realizing that Frigga was not following his explanation, Loki fell silent.

“I do not understand.”  Frigga frowned.  “There are such limits upon its power?”

“I speak not of limits but of unintended consequences.”

At this point Sif stepped forward from among the assembled Asgardians, and her impatient expression boded no good to Loki.  “Consequences such as the devastation wrought by our little frost giantess here?” asked Sif, pointing at the stranger still pinned by the flickering green light.

Jane pulled Darcy away, toward the throne; Fury, Jasper and Maria edged away with them, widening the space so that nothing stood between Sif, Loki, Frigga and the invader.

“Possibly, although that was not what I intended,” replied Loki.  “Why will none of you tell me who she is?”

“Because she said she was Laufey’s widow,” Sif spat at him.

Loki mastered the expression on his face, but he dropped his helmet.  Picking it up he said, “What difference can that make to us?  I will still kill her if you desire it.”  His voice was not as level as it had been.

A murmur spread across the assembled crowd at this. “Why not?  Laufey was our enemy, was he not?  And she is as well, is she not?”

“The fact that I forbid it should be enough for you,” said Frigga, and glanced once more at her lord and master still on his winged golden throne.

Odin finally spoke.

“Heimdall, take the Jotun invader back to the bifrost and return her to Jotunheim where she belongs.  Then come back here.”

Heimdall stepped forward, bowed briefly toward Hlidskjalf, grabbed the woman effortlessly and, tucking her under one arm like a lightweight satchel, he marched up to his horse.   Tossing her over the saddle -- and the flickering bounds of magic that held her still appeared to reach out to pin her to the saddle --  he mounted and spurred the horse.

Although the distance from the throne to the Bifrost and the Observatory was one long shot of open court and open highway, so quickly did Heimdall move with his burden that it was only a matter of minutes before he was out of earshot.  All watched him go in silence.  No-one spoke until the pounding of hoofbeats had died away.

Then Odin looked with true hatred and disgust at the slight dark-haired figure that stood before him, and said, “Loki Laufeyson.”

And if Odin had been less angry or more clever he would have stopped there, for everyone knew what it meant.  Especially Loki, whose look of fear deepened into something broken.  But Odin did not stop there.  In his folly he continued to speak, and thus lost the affection of the one son whose love he could alienate.  

The Allfather now stood, Gungnir in hand, rising to his full height.  Despite the vastness of the hall around him, the immense pillars, the giant high winged chair itself, Odin filled it:  his was an enormous presence, the presence of something ancient, cunning and powerful, now coiled and ready to strike, and Darcy felt fear as she looked on.

“In coming here, you betrayed the express command of your king.  If you had truly meant to keep the peace you would have done as your Queen bid you -- you would have turned time back to a point where you kept to the Isle of Silence and we still feasted here in Asgard, in safety and ease.  You did not.”

Loki bowed his head and stared at the ground; otherwise he did not react.

“Today is not the first day you have brought grief and suffering to Asgard.  Well before this, you betrayed the trust placed in you here and attempted to annihilate an entire realm.  Next, unprovoked, you attacked and attempted to conquer another realm solely for the purpose of making yourself its king.  For this latter act you were most justly sentenced, and appeared to accept your sentence -- and, fool that I was, I believed you.”

Odin pounded Gungnir on the golden platform of his throne for emphasis, and Valaskjalf rang out with the heavy musical sound.  “The events of today demonstrate that you have not changed, whatever you may say.  Everyone here has seen you fight as a Frost Giant.  That is what you are, that is what you have shown to us this day, that is what you always will be.  I had dreamt to change that; I had thought that if I took you into my own halls, if I raised you in my own family, I could change what you were.  But there are some things even I cannot undo:  one of them, I now know, was to alter your innate nature.”

He paused.  Loki still said nothing, head bowed.  

Presently Odin continued.  “The crime and folly of having you here has been and always will be mine alone, yet while I may I shall at least limit the danger that you represent.  As king, I swore to set aside all selfish ambition and rule only for the good.  In my weakness, I let you gain power.  I swore to preserve the peace.  In my folly, I let you break it, time and time again.  I swore to guard the nine realms.  There remains but one course of action that I may take.”

He paused again, and still there was silence throughout that great hall.

“Know your place:  this is not it.  Henceforth your evil -- which I thought to my sorrow was only mischief -- shall trouble Asgard no more.  It is not just to the innocents of the nine realms that you stay here, with access to all that we are and have, when others are all too likely to pay the price for your wickedness.

“I end this now.  Today we learned they want you in Jotunheim.  Go, therefore, to those with whom you have always belonged.   Go there, scion of the Frost Giants, and make your home among your own people, and may you never trouble us here in Asgard ever again.”

“Oh my god,” murmured Jane.  “Did Odin just do what I think he did?”

“Sounds like it,” said Nick Fury.  

Darcy noticed that murmurs such as theirs were sweeping the assembled Asgardians, now grown restive.  Odin’s misjudged this, she thought.  The crowd is on Loki’s side.

The golden pillars rang with the sound of Gungnir hitting the golden dais, but Odin could no longer summon silent obedience from the Asgardians.  The Allfather himself seemed to realize that he had gone too far.  When the ringing sound of uru metal upon pure gold subsided, he spoke, and the crowd quieted a bit as some turned to listen.

“Good people of Asgard:  this is my fault; I never should have sent Thor to retrieve him from earth...”

“And you never did,” rang out over the hall.  Thor strood forward, standing right before the throne, glaring up at his father and hefting Mjolnir in his huge right hand.  He wore his winged helmet and silver armor sheathed his arms.  “I remember you ordered me to return with the Tesseract, but it was only after you spoke of the Tesseract that you ever thought of Loki.”

“Thor, my son, this concerns neither you nor the aid you brought to our allies on earth.”

“Yes it does.  Now I remember that when the metal man told me I could have Loki as long as I returned the Tesseract to the mortals, I found myself confused, wondering if we would be even welcome if I returned with Loki but not your shining jewel.  Then we got to fighting and I forgot about it.  I remember now.”

“I too grieved in my folly, but this one’s fate was always in his own hands.  You remember wrongly.”

“I think not.  You told me that the Tesseract was a signal to this realm that Earth soon would be ready for a higher form of war.  You sent me to earth only after you convinced me that it was most important to recover the Tesseract at once.”

“Why do you twist my words?”

“Because I think I finally understand them.  You care no more for the peace of earth than you care for the peace of Jotunheim.”

“You do not understand these matters.”

“I think I do.  I told you once the nine realms laugh at us.  Today I have discovered I was wrong. They do not laugh.  They spit.  Even these mortals believe I hail from an evil house.”

“I took evil into my house when I took in this one; I cast it out today.”

“The mortals name not Loki when they speak of the evil of Asgard,” snarled Thor.  “They name you. And from what I have seen today, I am beginning to wonder if they are right.  I am starting to understand that that is how these things work.  You lie to me, as well as to Loki, so that I may be believed when I tell others that ours is an honorable race.  I am the honest wholesome face you present to the realms from which you steal.  I lie for you, not knowing that I lie, because I am not to know the things you do.  It was you who let the Frost Giants into the Weapons Vault because you could not bear to have another be king of Asgard, even for an hour.”

At this point Loki tried to interrupt, but now as at every other time, Odin and Thor in an argument were in no mood to listen to him.  Odin snarled him into silence and cried to his other son, “You cannot understand this.  You are not ready to be a king.”

“Maybe I never want to be.  Once I called you an old man and a fool.  I spoke in anger then.  I speak in cold consideration now.  Whether you are a fool or not I leave for others to decide.  This is what I decide:  Loki is not going to Jotunheim and I am not going to stay in Asgard. I am leaving, and I am taking Loki with me.”

“I forbid it.  You do not dare.”

Thor hefts his hammer.  “Old man, you shall see what I dare.”

Odin’s grip on Gungnir shifted, but Thor threw his hammer before Odin could raise his weapon.  Mjolnir hit the metal shaft of Gungnir with a clang that must have been heard from the Bifrost, and the force of the blow sent the golden staff flying, crashing into the gilded wall and falling, ringing, to bounce and roll until it came to rest on the gleaming floor, while Mjolnir returned to Thor’s hand.

Loki did not move; he simply stood, open-mouthed, helmet in hand, as he watched his father and brother fight before all of Asgard.  Thor and Odin continued to glare at one another, Odin grim, Thor angry, Mjolnir at the ready in his huge hand.

And into the silence and the space before the winged throne stepped a blackhaired unsmiling warrior who saluted Odin and spoke:  “Allfather, a good king would never exile a loyal warrior; it is not honor to weaken Asgard in war just for the pleasure of watching another’s humiliation.”

Odin appeared more astonished than upset at this fresh challenge from one of his own warriors.  In amazement he eyed the Asgardian warrior and cried, "Hogun! Do you realize what you’ve done?”

“Yes,” said Hogun, “I’ve criticized you, the Allfather.  I only wish to add this, of which I have heard much over the past year: the veterans of your first Jotun war were happy to learn that the Jotuns have sued for another truce.  They did not want a Jotun campaign similar to the one on which you led them, and they were glad that your son’s actions spared Asgard another such war.”

Odin made no move to fetch Gungnir from where it lay, but continued to stand, his face now twisted in anger.  “This is why I am king!  Follow your master into exile, then, if you come from such a race of cowards that you cannot stomach conquest.”  

An enormous warrior with a flowing beard now stepped forward as well.  “Will all due respect, my king, I’d like to follow Thor into exile on Midgard as well.  I wish to try this drink they call coffee.”

And before Odin could answer, another handsome warrior, dapper in armor that seemed more polished than could be strictly necessary, sauntered next to the others and said, “I’d also like to go with Thor, if it please your grace.   I don’t remember that I had much of a chance to meet these American earth girls and I’d like to get to know them better.  Midgard didn’t seem to have them when we last visited.”

“You assume Thor can take that one to earth with him,” snared Odin.  “How can that be?  Midgard will extend him no welcome.”

As if on cue, Fury strode into the sunken court, not stopping until he stood next to Thor.  “You’re wrong about that.  Midgard is happy to take both Thor and Loki, as well as the Warriors Three.”

“This I cannot believe,” said Odin.  “You have every reason to call Laufeyson your enemy.”

“And Loki’s not the first for whom we’ve made a different call.  From what we’ve heard today, it’s justified.  But I think Thor’s got enough of an entourage right now.  With your leave, Allfather, we’d best be going, I think.”

Darcy heard Jane let out her breath.  Must be because we’re not taking Sif, maybe she loves Thor after all.

Odin glared at the human, baffled.  “You have heard the lies of but a few, and those few were monsters,” rumbled Odin.  Is Odin trying to argue with Fury? thought Darcy.  

“Like Loki here? You’ve been very keen to make sure we don’t ever talk to him, from that muzzle thing on earth to his exile while we’ve been here.  And it doesn’t take a genius to notice that while Loki takes all the punishment, you’re the one who seems to wind up with the basement full of magical tinker toys.  Other people’s toys.  And that’s part of the problem everyone else has with your rule, isn’t it?  Because no matter how much you talk about peace, it doesn’t sound like your wars were all started by Loki.”

“Asgard safeguards dangerous weapons.  They are kept where I can watch over them myself.  The nine realms are safer with their defenses here.”  Odin really is going to argue with Fury, thought Darcy.  Not good.  So not good.  We better get out of here fast, before the Allfather decides to smear us all across the floor.

“I heard Thor,” said Fury.  “You defend the realms by making them defenseless, and that’s what you call peacekeeping.  Our work with the Tesseract may have attracted the Chitauri but it’s pretty clear that first it attracted you.”
“And if you had done it not they would never have come.  I took the Tesseract only to protect the peace.”
“I heard Farbauti,” said Fury.  “You may say peace, but it sounds more like the other thing to me. In fact, it mostly sounds like you created a desolation and called it peace. There seem to be an awful lot of realms that want vengeance against Asgard, and I'd really like Earth not to have to join that list. So much so that I really think we’re better off doing our own defending from now on, Allfather.  Now if it’s all the same to you, we really do need to be leaving.  By the way I’m taking your kids, since that seems to be the style around here.  On behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D., thank you for your cooperation.”

And with a motion to Thor, Nick Fury turned and strode away; Thor followed, taking Loki by the arm and leading him.  Darcy and Jane fell into place behind them, Jasper and Maria fell in behind them, and the warriors three brought up the rear.

Chapter Text

Neither Odin nor any of the other Aesir moved to stop them as they filed out of Valaskjalf, as Fury led the strategic retreat to the Stark spacejet.  The walk was nervewracking but blessedly short.  

Before the gleaming metal hatch of the spaceship could be completely locked into place, Thor suddenly spoke.  

“If we are leaving Asgard for earth, we should get the Tesseract.”

Fury quickly replied, “Don’t bother with that,” and Jasper, who had paused with handling the locking mechanism, finished bolting down the hatch.

“Thor, stop, and think.  If these mortals could get into the weapons vault to steal the gauntlet, they surely helped themselves to the Tesseract as well.”

Fury looked at Loki with respect.  “I thought you’d be down for the count.”

“What, because Odin called me Laufeyson?”  Loki’s tone was scornful, but Darcy thought she saw a haunted look in his eyes.

“Partly.   Loki, can you get this ship back to earth?  I have an idea that Heimdall is not going to want to open the bifrost for us.”

“Since you have the Tesseract, even Thor can transport you.  You have no need of me.”

“He’s right,” said Thor.  “Even I can operate the Tesseract.”

Maria produced it from her bag; Thor took one handle, Fury the other.

Jasper sat at the controls, flipping switches.  “Tell me what to do,” he asked.  

“Nothing,” replied Thor.  “This simply teleports the entire ship.  Where do you want us?”

“Anywhere orbiting within earth’s atmosphere is fine,” replied Fury.  “This is a space shuttle, after all.  Everyone strap in.  I just don’t want any kind of repeat of what happened to the NASA dark energy lab -- I want those energies dissipated above the surface.  Sitwell, stand by to fly this thing in airplane mode.”

Darcy was never quite sure what happened next, but whatever it was, it was fast; a few disconcerting moments later she could see the welcome blue and white horizon of a sunlit earth outside the spacejet windows.   She and Jane were knocked off their feet; the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents had managed to belt themselves into their seats in time, except for Fury who had one hand firmly on the back of Jasper’s chair and the other braced against the metal wall fronting the instrument panel.  Only the Asgardians appeared unaffected, Thor still with a hand on his brother’s arm and the Warriors Three still standing on the other side of Jasper and the control panel.

“We seem to be home,” said Fury, stepping away from the ship’s instrument panel and coming to lean against the metal bulkwark.  He crossed one booted foot over the other and crossed his arms, facing the two Asgardian princes.  

Thor let got of his brother’s arm, and Fury appeared to focus his one eye on Loki.  “First things first.  We land this ship and then we are going to debrief the Asgardians.  I guess it’s only fair to warn you, Loki, that your debriefing’s likely to take several months.  Meanwhile, we need to decide where we are going to put you.”

And by that Darcy knew that on some level she and Jane had won, because this meant even Fury was not willing to hand Loki over to the World Security Council.  One good thing out of all this, she thought; otherwise she still felt afraid.  Odin had been tremendous in his anger.

Thor spoke up.  “Loki is a wanted criminal among you, but we have no need of the shelter that mortals require.  I can keep Loki in a remote location on earth, far from any humans who might wish vengeance upon him.”

Maria stepped forward.  “That won’t be necessary,” she said.  “I personally will take charge of Loki’s debriefing, and I will select staff at S.H.I.E.L.D. who can be professional about it.  We could start with him at the New Mexico facility.  Once we’re there, we can determine the best place for a permanent location.”

“Wherever you put him, I’d appreciate an opportunity to be posted there as well,” added Jasper Sitwell.  Fury glanced at him.  “Asgard and Jotunheim are my area of expertise  -- and, after all, I’m the guy who wrote the memo.”

“I’d like to request that Erik and I also be allowed to pursue our research there,” said Jane.  “I’d really appreciate a chance to ask Loki some questions.”  She shot Darcy a look, as if to say, finally.  

But Darcy had her own agenda when it came to Loki.  “And if you think he needs a full-time minder, I’d totally appreciate that job.  If you don’t want to assign me to him full-time, I’ll take the night shift.”

Fury looked at her. “The night shift,” he repeated.

Puzzled, Thor looked around the assembled humans.  “Wherefore this newfound love for my brother?”

“I kind of want to know the same,” said Fury.  “Actually, what I really want to know is this,” and unraveling his arms and legs he stalked over to where Jane and Darcy still sat on the floor.  “You two spent all of half an hour with Loki.  No promises made or asked for, you told me, no threats, no magic.  Just polite conversation.  Then first chance you get you go steal the most powerful whats-it in Odin’s magical toy chest to give to him, just because he flashed his baby blues at you?”

“I’m not sure his eyes are blue,” said Jane.  “They seem to contain quite the galaxy of color.”

“I think the question of the true color of Loki’s eyes requires a lot of research,” said Darcy.  “As a professional researcher, I volunteer to undertake this research.”

“And I’m not sure they flashed, exactly,” added Jane, “but he did do the puppy dog eyes.  There’s not much in the nine realms that can resist Loki when he does the puppy dog eyes.”

Fury’s expression belied this, and the look he shot at Darcy suggested that he was pretty sure he’d be immune to the puppy dog eyes.  “This have anything to do with what Surtur said about the Chitauri?”  he asked.

Shit, thought Darcy.  “No,” she lied.  “I’ve no idea what that was talking about.  But I really wanted to see Loki again, and that perpetual Asgardian punishment timetable just did not work for me.  So Jane and I figured we’d do something.”

Fury looked skeptical, but instead of replying he turned to Maria Hill.  “You’re not a girl still in school...”

“Hey,” protested Jane, “I’ve defended a Ph.D.....”

“But you and Sitwell were feeding Thor highly classified information just to help these two.  You were behind this as much as they were.”

Maria didn’t flinch.  “Loki has cheekbones to die for,” she said, as matter-of-factly as if she had been reporting on the location of enemy guns.

Fury gazed at his second in command in absolute disbelief.  Mouth agape, he stared at Loki, he stared back at Maria, and then he looked at Loki again.  

“You laid the mack down on Maria Hill?”  he finally said in a tone of true wonder.  

“What does that mean?” asked Loki.

“I have no idea,” said Jane.

Fury shut his jaw, and it occurred to Darcy that she’d never seen him embarrassed before.  “A mack is a ladies’ man.  All I can say is, Loki, you better not come to earth to be a player.  That would be a whole different kind of trouble, and Earth has had quite enough of trouble you’ve caused already.”

“What is his meaning now?’ asked Loki.

“Player means you stay faithful to me,” said Darcy.

“No it doesn’t,” said Jane. “I do know that much.”

Jasper was watching them, amused.  “Earth girls can be useful.  I think I remember reading about how when they put Charles Mason on trial, all his women coordinated their stories so that he’d get off scot-free and as a result his defense attorneys wouldn’t put on a single witness because they’d all be lying for him.”

“Really,” said Loki.

“Please let’s not put ideas into this guy’s head,” said Maria Hill.

“If you have this kind of appeal to women, why were you trying to bring in an army of aliens to conquer us in the first place?” demanded Fury.

“I am beginning to wonder that myself,” said Loki.  “Is a player the same thing as a mack?”

“Now, Rocky, that’s no way to behave on your first day out,” said Darcy.

And of course Loki wanted to know what Darcy meant by that too.

“Knock it off,” snapped Fury, “you know perfectly well what we are talking about.  Sitwell, don’t tell me your judgment was also compromised by Loki’s puppydog eyes.”  

“I would like to remind you, Sir, that S.H.I.E.L.D. does not discriminate in hiring based on sexual orientation,” Jasper deadpanned, “but for the record, no, it was not.  You’ve read the memo I wrote.  I helped Agent Hill because I thought that if we were going to get into a situation with Asgard we could turn both Thor and Loki.”

“Sir, I can explain,” said Maria. “When Jane and Darcy spoke to me, it occurred to me that if they were trying to rehabilitate Loki, that might improve relationships between Asgard and earth, which at the time I believed to be the reason for our visit.  If Jane and Darcy failed all that would happen would be that they’d be sent home to earth in disgrace.  I honestly thought they couldn’t do much harm.  If they succeeded …. well, it didn’t turn out as I expected, but here we all are.  I agreed with Jasper that what we were doing was a very cost-effective way to test Odin’s defenses.  And we are, in part, the ‘Logistics Division.’”

Thor stopped staring at Loki as if he’d never seen him before and transferred his attention to the director.  “You came to Asgard planning a war against the Allfather?” he demanded.

Fury met his eyes unflinchingly.  “We never sought war with Asgard,” he answered the thunderer.  “And I pray we may never see it.  But as Director of  S.H.I.E.L.D., I figure I have to be always ready for everything.”

“A wise king...” Thor murmured to himself.  

Jasper looked up from the spacejet’s controls to interrupt.  “If I were you, Thor, I’d be a little more worried about the fact that your girl seems to find your brother very pretty.”

“That’s out of order, Agent Sitwell,” snapped Fury.

“You saw me with Loki,” Jane protested.  “We never did anything but quarrel.”

“Director, Jane, I assure you that I understand,” said Thor, “and I take no offense.  Your agents need take no action to deflect my attention.”

“One more thing,” Nick continued, turning back to where Jane and Darcy were still seated, curled up against the metal walls, “I need Jane to tell me what she asked the Infinity Gauntlet.  And I’d also very much like to know how you came to choose it out of all the relics in the Weapons Vault.”

“Sif,” answered Jane, and, to Thor, “you must know that Sif wants to be the next Queen of Asgard.”

“I do not love her,” growled Thor.

“I do not think that stops her,” answered Jane.  “But I spoke to her alone, and after I swore to her on my parents’ graves that I would never consent to be queen of Asgard if she would answer my questions, she agreed to tell me what I needed to know.  I asked her what magical force in Odin’s weapons vault could be used by a neophyte who knew nothing of magic.  She laughed at me and said that the Infinity Gauntlet answered to thought alone, but that it would overwhelm any mind that tried to grasp its power, let alone the mind of a mortal.  And then she extracted a most solemn oath from me that never should I consent to be queen of Asgard, or the consort of the ruler of Asgard, in any form whatsoever.  I willingly swore whatever she asked of me, for I could knew I could never stay and rule this Asgard when your strength rests only on cruelty and power....”

“Asgard has always been a beacon of peace, shining forth across the stars,” interrupted Loki.

“You have heard Odin say that,” replied Jane.  “But even in Asgard you are not what you say but what you do.  And so I swore the oath Sif asked of me, and told her also that I planned to leave and never return, because I thought then -- and I think now -- that Sif and the rest of Asgard do not understand just how much can be controlled by thought alone.  Especially since she asked nothing else from me.”

In a low voice, Loki added, “Such as not to steal any of Odin’s instruments of power.  What else did you take from the weapons’ vault?  Did you take Surtur’s eternal flame?”

“Is that what Odin stole from him?” said Jane.  “I don’t think so, but only because we couldn’t fit it in the bag with all the other stuff.”

“That weapons vault is an accident waiting to happen,” Darcy volunteered.

“What else?” Loki demanded, but Darcy noticed that her comment had brought the ghost of a smile to his cheek.  

“The Tesseract, of course,” said Jane, “and the Eye of Agamotto.”

Loki looked at her with what could only be admiration.  “And how did you know to steal only the most versatile of Odin’s relics?  For Surtur’s flame serves no purpose save to light the nine worlds on fire at the end of time.  The Tesseract and the Eye were the most useful things in there, and the Gauntlet remains unmatched for sheer power.”

“We have magicians on earth,” said Maria, “such as Dr. Strange.  He told us what to look for.”

“There are male sorcerers on Midgard?” Loki asked.  “Is magic not a woman’s pursuit?”

“I’d put Stephen Strange up against the best your nine realms had to offer,” said Maria.  “And, no, on Midgard mastery of magic is not a woman’s job.  Although I fail to see why it would be a problem if it were.” She stopped, interrupted by Jasper, who was gesturing her to come to see something on one of the spacejet’s screens.

“I think you’ll like Dr. Strange,” added Jane.  “And he’s got one hell of a magic library in his house on Bleeker Street.”

“On Midgard, a master sorcerer’s library of books about magic,” said Loki, and looked as if he did not quite dare to believe it.

“Sir,” said Jasper, “as you can imagine, now that you’re back the switchboard is lighting up like a Christmas tree, but there’s one thing that Coulson thinks you need to see right away.”

“Coulson?” asked Thor, and glanced at his brother, who did not react.

“The Infinity Gauntlet,” explained Jane, “it brought back him and all the other people.”  

Darcy noticed that the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents did not appear to be surprised to learn that Coulson was still alive.  Maybe they’re used to this kind of thing, she thought.

Maria looked up from where she was leaning over Jasper’s shoulder.  “Sir, Coulson’s on one.”

Fury strode over to the controls, and they heard Coulson’s voice.  “Director, do you copy?”

“I copy,” answered Fury.

“We have a phenomenon, sir.  A small U.F.O.”

“Do we have a video?”

“Didn’t managed to catch it, Sir, as far as I know, although we’re scanning all the surveillance videos now.  For the moment all we have is a description of a small gray pyramid, about fifteen feet on a side.  But we got a shot of the sky right after it left.  Very hard to see, but there’s a trace of an aurora.”

“That’s not due to the U.F.O.,” said Jane.  Scrambling to her feet, she leaned over Jasper’s other shoulder for a closer look.

“What is it then?” Fury asked her.

“Erik and I think it’s a trace of a short-lived wormhole.”

They all looked at her.  “This was my research, O.K.?  This is what I was doing when Thor fell out of the sky and hit my truck!  Erik knows all about it, let’s ask him.”

“Why do you think the aurora is not due to the U.F.O.?”  Fury asked quietly.

“Because it looks exactly the auroras my calculations could predict.  It’s a naturally occurring phenomenon.  But if it is a natural wormhole, the U.F.O. may be using it to travel.”

Fury looked doubtful.   “That sounds a bit far-fetched.”

“She’s right,” said Loki from where he stood.  Everyone looked at him.  “You are seeing traces of rifts that open in the void; I have used them.”

“I recorded seventeen over the course of six months in Puente Antiguo,” said Jane, “and I found I could time them to the second.  Does that sound right to you?”

“I have no idea,” replied Loki, impatient, “why would I bother to count them?”

“Loki, I really need to talk to you when we get back to earth,” said Jane.  Loki only shrugged.

Fury turned back to the spacejet’s commlink.

“Do we have any other information on this U.F.O.?  any other records?”

“Yes,” they heard Coulson’s voice say.  “Just came in.  Apparently there’s one picture from another sighting, taken right before the object disappeared.  It’s poor video but it’s all we have so far.”

All watched the screen show a dim gray pyramid floating before a vivid sunset.  Jasper zoomed in on the image, and as it turned they seemed to see a purple shape superimposed on the gray.  A second later it simply disappeared, and they were merely looking at a bank of rose-colored clouds against a golden sky.

“Give me the last second,” said Fury.

Jasper fiddled with the controls, and a moment later they could see the blurry gray triangle.  Superimposed upon it appeared to be an image approximately in the shape of a man, but the proportions were not human and the only colors were purple interspersed with a metallic gleam.  The more Darcy studied the image, the more it seemed to her that the gray pyramid could be a very strange huge throne with the weird dark creature sitting on it the way a human would sit on a chair, if such a creature could sit on chair.

“Thanos,” said Thor.

Fury looked at him.  “You know this guy?”

Thor answered,  “I know of him.  He was a Titan and he loved death.  Rather more literally than most.  He collected the Soul Gems and created the Infinity Gauntlet from them.”

Fury looked at the Asgardians.  “Do any of you know what he wants?”

“No,” said Thor.  “He was killed trying to use the Infinity Gauntlet to control the universe.  He is supposed to be dead.”  Loki did not answer, and appeared to be staring at the floor.

Jane and Darcy looked at each other.  “But we know,” said Darcy.  “What Loki said on the Isle of Silence -- that wasn’t a hypothetical, was it?”

“Yes, but I also remember Loki wanted to know how big the zone of sound was before he was willing to talk about it.”

Coulson’s voice again.  “Director, the Council’s on the line.  They want to know how New York repaired itself.  Same with the NASA lab and the SHIELD helicarrier, and how the men and the civilians we lost just walked out of them.  They’re being insistent.”

“Tell them to wait,” said Fury.  “It’s a lot more important right now that we get access to secure communications room.  Where are you?”

Coulson told him.

“Good enough.  We’ll use my office on the lower level there.  Sitwell, bring her down.”

Jasper Sitwell broke the silence that followed.  “Prepare for descent,” and this time everyone managed to find their seatbelt.  Jasper leveled the spacejet’s wings, lowered its nose into a shallow dive and began its approach to the landing site.

“Ok, everyone, this flight is going to be over,” said Fury.  Turing to the Warriors Three he said, “Asgardians -- we’re going to be met when we land.  Follow your handlers.  Loki, Thor, Jane and Darcy -- you’ll come with me. General protocol will require extensive debriefings, as you know, but first I need to talk to the four of you about this Thanos.  And I’ve got still some unanswered questions about the Infinity Gauntlet.”

“Including us?” asked Darcy.

“Yes, including you and Jane,” replied Fury.

Jasper landed the Stark spacejet as easily as if it were an airplane, taxiing gently to a halt in front of a looming mountain, and only then did Darcy realize that it had been designed along the same lines as the Space Shuttle.  Coulson, in sunglasses and a blue suit, was waiting for them on the tarmac.  Professional as ever, he appeared relatively unmoved as Thor greeted him with the reverent warmth that Darcy thought Viking warriors must extend to their shield companions when they are reunited in Valhalla after death in battle.  

Finally Coulson turned to greet the rest of them.  “No hard feelings, I hope,” he said to Loki.

“Fear not.  Yours was the the devoted sacrifice of a faithful servant,” was the reply.

To Fury, who had been barking into his phone that he was here with Loki and Thor and that Loki was a friendly, repeat, not a hostile and not a prisoner, Coulson said, “The Council wants you on line 1 as soon as possible.”

“I said, they’ll just have to wait,” replied Fury. “Sitwell, take care of the Warriors Three.  You know what to do.  Interrupt us only if there is another sighting of the phenomenon.  Coulson, take the rest of us to my office on the lower level.”

“If you want to know where that thing is going to appear next, get in touch with Erik,” said Jane.  “We’re much more likely to spot this Thanos if we focus on the rifts.  Train your satellite cameras on where we know the auroras are going to appear, and you’ll probably be able to get a video.   Erik has my timetable.”

“Good idea,” said Fury.  “Hill, talk to Selvig.  Be ready to report to me within the hour.”  And striding before them, his long black coat billowing behind him in an earthly breeze, he led them off the tarmac into the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility buried deep within the mountain.

Chapter Text

After the strange daylight and lurid astral horizons of Asgard, Darcy found the ordinary bright daylight of Sol an immense relief.  It was a short-lived one, however, for Coulson immediately led them through S.H.I.E.L.D. security deep into the mountain, taking them down what felt like several hundred feet in an industrial-strength elevator.

“Is this a prison?” asked Thor.

“No,” replied Fury, as he led them through gray hallways emblazoned with the stylized S.H.I.E.L.D. logo at regular intervals.  A hand on her shoulder caused Darcy to drop behind the others a few paces, and Phil Coulson hissed in her ear, “You came back with the Tesseract?”

“Yes.  Tesseract’s the least of it.  Odin kicked out Loki and Thor threw his hammer at him and Fury said everybody could all come to earth so here we are.  Also we took some of Odin’s shit, including the Tesseract.”

“Why did Odin kick out Loki?”

Darcy did not want to get into what she and Jane had done, so she just said, “Odin’s just the kind of guy who always says that if you didn’t provoke him he wouldn’t have to hit you.”

This must have been enough, because Phil released his hand from her shoulder and let both of them catch up with the rest.

Fury finally ushered them into a spartan but spacious and well-lit windowless office containing several chairs ranged around a mahogany desk.  A large detailed globe stood on a stand in one corner and a framed photo of the Earth photographed from the moon landing hung on the wall beside it.  Gesturing at the others to take a seat, Fury seated himself behind the wide desk, facing them, his face haloed by the huge stylized logo of S.H.I.E.L.D. that decorated the wall behind him.  Phil Coulson took up a stand on Fury’s left, while Fury pushed away the computer screen on the right side of the desk.

“Loki, what can you tell us about Thanos’ surveillance capabilities?”

“Probably not as much as you want to know,” replied Loki.  “All I know for certain is that Thanos has an uncanny ability to show up whenever his name is invoked.”

“Speak of the devil and he shall appear,” mused Fury.  “How much were your speeches for the benefit of Thanos?”

“I admit I was careful to say nothing of which the Titan was likely to disapprove, should he hear of it.  But do not flatter yourself, mortal, I meant every word I said.”

“I’m sure of it,” replied Fury.  “How does Thanos’ knowledge of what happens compare to, say, Heimdall?”

“His senses are different from Heimdall’s, though no less acute, but they seem to vary in scope.  I found I could conceal my presence from Heimdall, but not from Thanos.”

“That’s really scary,” said Fury, and looked as if he meant it.

“But there seemed to be things Thanos did not know. He appeared unaware of anything that transpired in catacombs where Selvig assembled the portal.”

“Well, we’ve got more than three levels of leadlined flooring above us, and a few more tricks and toys besides.  So we should be safe here....”  Fury leaned forward across the desk, his restless hands folding over themselves.  Darcy realized he was nervous.

The Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. looked the Norse god of mischief and lies right in the eye and asked him, “So, Loki, why did you attack earth?”

Loki looked taken aback, but replied, “Isn’t it obvious?”

“Actually, no, as a matter of fact it isn’t.”  

“I wanted to make myself king of a realm, and earth looked easy to conquer.”

“Is that all?”

Loki did not answer, and presently Thor said, “He also wanted vengeance against me, but do not concern yourself with that.  I have promised to answer for my brother, and I shall.  Is not Thanos the greater threat?”

“We’ll get to Thanos pretty quick,” replied Fury.  “Loki, is that true?”

“What difference does it make?” Loki snarled.  “What is this nonsense?  What do you want?”

“Odin wanted the Tesseract,” Thor replied.  “Is that what you want to hear us say?”

“No,” said Fury.  “Bear with me a moment, gentlemen.  I’d just like to game something out here.  Take this Thanos, for instance.  He was killed trying to gain control of the universe, Thor, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Thor, “and how he is seen alive again I know not.”

“Neither do we.  However, let’s assume he still has the same goals.  It’s a safe assumption that he’s going to want his magic mitten back, and an equally safe one that Odin’s got it squirreled away somewhere.  But even though Thanos gets his paws on a genuine Asgardian prince, he doesn’t go to Asgard.  Instead he finds out that Loki here knows all there is to know about the Tesseract, a macgruffin that Loki tells him is located on the much more accessible earth, so Thanos decides he’s going to start his war of universal conquest here.”

“But you don’t know the workings of the Tesseract,” objected Thor, looking at his brother in surprise.  “It’s been on earth since the first Jotun war.  Even in Asgard it was little more than a legend.”

“Thor, I was lying,” Loki replied with impressive patience.  

Darcy thought she caught the ghost of a smile in Fury’s eye.  “In any case, the Tesseract is quite easy to operate, at least as a portal.  It was not a lie Thanos was likely to uncover, just like the lie that the stabilized portal you would build for him could not be closed.  Thanos would never suspect the scepter that he himself had given you.”

“Do not flatter yourselves, mortals, that I did not intend to conquer this realm,” said Loki sharply.

“We don’t,” Fury said quietly.   “That backdoor needn´t have been for us.  It could also maybe come in handy if, say, Thanos wanted earth for a staging ground for the vast armies he might employ for the conquest of Asgard.  He might have discovered a little too late that his armada had not managed to follow him there.”

Loki said nothing, but it seemed to Darcy that his expression softened a bit.

“Thanos trapped in Asgard might even learn that with the portal closed, you could find your own way in to kill him.  Preferably with an audience.  Something like the way you took out Laufey.  You won a hell of a victory over Jotunheim, even if only the rank and file seem to appreciate it.”

Loki still said nothing.

“Wait a minute, I think I know how Thanos came back to life,” said Jane.  “It was the will of Mistress Death, wasn’t it?  What you told us on the Isle of Silence.”

Loki continued to look at the floor; the rest of them looked at Jane.

“Loki described it as a what-if,” she went on.  “Suppose Mistress Death likes a steady harvest of souls, not a cataclysmic collapse.  Say Mistress Death doesn’t like the fact that the earth’s in the middle of its sixth great extinction, and so she dispatches Thanos to take care of the humans who were causing it.  Except that if Thanos went off to conquer Asgard instead, Death wouldn’t trust him anymore.”

Fury frowned.  “He explained all this to you?”

“At that time Loki thought Odin had sent us,” said Jane.  “He figured we’d be letting Odin know.”

Fury looked at Thor.  “I’m guessing this kind of thing didn’t come out at Loki’s trial.”

“What trial?” said Thor.  “Odin merely ordered his punishment.  It was the same when I was exiled to earth.  The Allfather simply decides, that’s all.  But I think I know whereof which Jane speaks.  You are changing the chemistry of your atmosphere, are you not?  Peace we can keep, but our laws provides us with no guidance here.  I tell you frankly that all in Asgard are mystified as to why the mortals seem to be intent upon destroying their own realm.”

“Yeah, that’s a problem,” said Fury.  “Which is why we need the Tesseract.  It’s a clean energy source, and it should be able to give us energy to replace coal and oil.  But until that happens, you tell me that this gives Thanos an excuse for killing the human race to please Mistress Death.”

“Death does not love, whatever the delusions under which Thanos may labor,” said Loki unexpectedly.

“But since he’s no longer going to be lured off to Asgard, Thanos is still our problem,” replied Fury.  “Any ideas?”

Thor gripped his hammer.  “We fight him!” growled the Norse god of thunder.  Loki said nothing.

It occurred to Darcy that from his point of view Loki had good reason to say nothing: however pleasing it might have been to Odin to be presented with a dead Titan and a living Tesseract, a conquered Earth and an obedient drone army of Chitauris, Loki could well appreciate that a mortal would see in such accomplishments nothing more than a vision of horrors which boded ill toward earth.  From what little she had seen, she could guess that Asgard neither forgave failure nor valued mercy, and the Asgardian prince’s downcast gaze suggested he expected none of the latter here.  Yet surely even Loki could understand that crimes he had not committed could not be held against him?

Fury turned his gaze from Loki, and said,  “Jane, I still want to know what you asked the Infinity Gauntlet to do.  You never said.”

“Right now?”  Jane was puzzled.  “All right.  Darcy and I decided it was unfair that Loki had no weapons, so we decided to raid the weapons vault for him. But it's not really a weapons vault, it's kind of a storeroom for all sort of magical stuff, isn't it? Anyway, after I stole the gauntlet, and even though it obeyed me, I could sense that it had a mind of its own.  And I thought, let me see what it has to say.  When I stopped time I took it up to that portico above Odin´s throne, and questioned it.  Something spoke to me, telling me the Infinity Gems could give me all that which they possess:  sovereignty over life and death, power over earth or any other realm, a sign to control all elements, the ability to alter the very rules of physics and science and chemistry.  I then asked the Gems to make Odin truly love both his sons the way as a father he claims to do.  And they told me that love was not of their essence, or available to their skill; they could enthrall Odin if I so chose, and make him do whatever actions I asked; but love -- love freely given, love alone -- was beyond them.  Then I beggged the Gems to allow me to give the Gauntlet to Loki so that he might leave Asgard and all its evil, and they answered that I might try this but he would not take it.  I could not believe that, but they assured me it was true, and bid me ask for something else.  When I did not answer them, the Gems spoke again, and they asked me this, was there any gift they could make me that was not worthless in my eyes?”

Jane paused; no one else spoke, so she continued.

“I laid a condition upon the Gems that they should not to kill anyone or harm earth, but if they needed to destroy Asgard, they should feel free to do so.  And then I asked of them, if you cannot make Odin love his sons, then give me this:  show him to them.”

“That’s what you asked of the Infinity Gauntlet,” said Fury.

“Yes,” replied Jane, “that was all.”

Loki broke the silence.  Eyes wide, he looked at his brother:  “But you are the golden child, the one who can do no wrong.  Odin does love you.”

Thor shakes his head.  “No, brother, he does not.  Jane is right.”  

Loki jumped up, overturning the chair in his frenzy.  “But he does! He does! You are the first-born, the heir, the beloved.  You are his real son, cherished as I could never hope to be.”

Thor did not move.  “No, brother.  Do you remember my coronation that never was?”

Loki stood still.  “All too well.”

“Do you remember how Father was not happy, that day?” continued Thor, not getting up but shifting his chair to face his brother, still standing.  “I was triumphant, winking at Mother, Sif was rolling her eyes, the Warriors Three were up to their usual tricks, but Father was grim.”

If it was possible for Loki to any more still, he was, but he spoke.  “I remember.”

“Then do you remember the three of us and the ice in the Weapons Vault?  Father never smiled, but the more angry I got, the more his mood lightened.  He did not even raise his voice until he could say to me, But you’re not King!  That was what roused his anger, he expressed neither grief nor rage over the valiant warriors just slain in the course of their duty.  And then in Jotunheim, when he spoke to Laufey, and again, when he cast me out from the Observatory, he was happy.  He was almost falling over from need of the Odinsleep, but he was happy.”

If it was possible for Loki’s skin to be any more white, it was, but he spoke.  “I remember, but Thor, that ….that can’t be true.  It isn’t the truth!  It must be that you … you were too exuberant to be king.  Or some such matter.”

“Should I not be glad to be made King, when all of Asgard clapped and cheered to see me made so, and none had any cause for grief at the change, even if it was but for the duration of the Odinsleep?” asked Thor.  “No, brother, it was Father who let the Frost Giants into the Weapons Vault, to prove to all that none were fit to take his place.  Least of all me.”

“No,” cried Loki, in horror.  “You were always all he could have wished for in a son.  I was the evil one, the dark child, the changeling.  It was I who opened the secret way to Jotunheim, who invited Asgard’s enemies into its heart!  It was I who ruined your day of triumph. None other!”

“No, brother,” said Thor again.  “Who else could have timed the invasion of the Jotuns to the second, to match the moment upon which the power would be bestowed on me?  Who else was aware of their presence besides Father?”

Loki appeared on the verge of a complete meltdown.  “I know what I did!  I swear to you that I know what I have done!  I thought you might kill me, but never that you might not believe me!”
“There was no reason for you to disrupt the ceremony, but the Allfather had every reason,” said Thor.

“There was a reason.  Listen to me!” and Loki took a deep breath, looking around at the others, distracted but regaining control.  “There is no excuse for what I did, no justification, nothing good in it, but there is an explanation.  Thor, you wanted a war, the bloodier the better.  You courted war!  You were eager to lead Asgard’s armies into another bloodbath.  You were not ready to be king, even if you were of age, and I had to do something to stop it.  So I decided to ruin your ceremony, to ruin your day.  If Odin had not yet proclaimed you king, I thought he would simply appoint Mother to manage Asgard during the Odinsleep as he has done so many times before.”  

He looked around the room again, wild-eyed.  “I opened the Weapons Vault to Jotunheim because I thought you would remember, or at least would be reminded, that Jotunheim was the one realm that was forbidden.  I can scarce recall this now, but I swear it seemed a safe choice at the time.  I knew nothing of my own connection to that hideous place.  I was ever your shadow, but to make certain you committed no folly after the ceremony itself, I truly became your shade and followed you everywhere.  I thought that if only I stayed with you I could talk you out of doing anything stupid, or that the Warriors Three or Sif would do so.  They also knew Jotunheim was forbidden!  I told Heimdall our destination and if he had but done his damn duty he would have spoken to Odin before we ever spoke to Laufey.”

It occurred to Darcy that Heimdall may have done just as he was bid.  In her mind’s eye she could see Odin and Heimdall in the Observatory, Heimdall watching Odin, Odin watching Thor in Jotunheim, waiting for precisely the right moment to intervene.  

“We should never have reached Jotunheim!  I even dared to hope that if I spoke before you could answer Laufey I could prevent you from getting into a war, would I have dared to step out of my place for any lesser reason? But it is impossible to keep you out of trouble, Thor.  Impossible!  Every step of the way I met with complete failure.  All my efforts to prevent you from starting another war were useless.  And now here we all are.” Loki looked so distraught that it even looked as if he might cry.

Fury broke the silence that followed.  “Odin stole an instrument of power from every realm except earth, then.  You could have invited in anybody and gotten the same result.  Only earth still had its Tesseract.  Why did Odin wait until now to retrieve it?”

“It had been most skillfully hidden by mortal men.”  Loki reached down and pulled up the chair he had overturned in his frenzy, but instead of sitting he placed his hands on the back and leaned on it.  “It was not found until some decades ago, when a certain Johann Schmidt determined that the descendants of a line of Odin’s priests were keeping it in Tonsberg, Norway.  Believing the Tesseract to be just an energy source he was unaware it was a portal until he triggered its power by accident.  He has not been back to earth since that time as far as I am aware.”  

“You know him,” said Fury.

“Yes,” replied Loki, “He is actually a mortal, although he has neither the appearance nor the lifespan of one.  I believe Thanos made some use of his knowledge of the Tesseract to create my scepter.”

Phil and Fury exchanged a glance.  “Steve said it worked like a Hydra weapon,” said Phil.

Loki was surprised.  “You know of him, then.  I had thought he left earth before any of you were born.”

“He did,” said Fury, “but he is no less dangerous for it.”

Phil Coulson looked directly at the man who had killed him and asked, “Loki, will you help us?”

Loki did not answer.

But while they were talking, Thor had succeeded in connecting some of the dots.  “There is but one thing I cannot understand, brother.  You knew the Gauntlet was in the Weapons Vault.  We have both seen it there.  And you know the secret paths into the Weapons Vault from every realm, you just said so yourself.  Why lead Thanos in a fierce battle to conquer earth in preparation for an even fiercer assault on Asgard, when you could have simply opened the path into the weapons vault and handed his prize over to him at any time?"

Fury just looked at him, Darcy just looked at him, even Jane just looked at him.  Darcy finally decided once and for all that if Jane could put up with anyone that stupid without facepalming, it must be true love for real.  

And Loki looked at his brother as if he really, truly could not believe that was the only thought that could have occurred to Thor after everything that had been said.

But Thor was too enchanted by his own discovery to be disturbed by everyone’s looks, however.  “By the Nones, brother, you have always been faithful! We should never have doubted you,”  and he jumped up to enfold his Loki in an embrace.  Loki tolerated it, but rolled his eyes.

Thor place his hand on his brother’s neck.  “Now give us a kiss,” he demanded.

“Stop,” said Loki, and, realizing what he’d just said, froze, staring wide-eyed at his brother.

Then Fury spoke.  “Loki, while your father’s been indulging his favorite hobby of stealing other’s peoples relics and hoarding them in his basement, and your brother’s been off picking stupid fights and picking up girls, it sounds to me like you’ve been fighting a lonely war defending Asgard by yourself for quite some time now.  Would you like some company?  Especially since it seems likely that we´ll be mixing it up with this Thanos sooner rather than later.”  Fury punched up some numbers on the phone. “Hill, report.”

“Sir, it’s working!  We have new video, do you want to see it?”

“Is Selvig with you?  Put him on.”

“Yes, I am here,” said a man’s voice.  “Is that Director Fury?”

“Director Fury speaking.  Any more sightings of the U.F.O.?”

“Yes, yes, partial video over Patagonia and full video over Peru.  There’s a pattern!  He’s working his way north.”

Fury folded his hands.  “Loki, do you want to fight Thanos on earth instead of in Asgard?  You can protect Asgard from here.  In fact, it sounds as if this won’t be that different from what you had already been planning to do.   You’ll just be fighting with earth’s willing cooperation this time, instead of in spite of it.”

Thor gripped Mjolnir, and blue eyes met the wide eyes that contained a galaxy of color.  “Brother, how long has it been since we have gone into battle side by side?”

A slow smile touched Loki´s lips.  “Too long.”