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Shadows Of Those Who Came Before

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The first thing Loki knew was Thor. Thor holding him. Telling him all would be well now. That they were together again and nothing in any reality could make that untrue. Swearing with all his lofty heroics that he would never let harm come to Loki again.

Standing there in that strange room Loki felt glad for Thor kneeling beside him, hugging him so tight he felt he might crack in two. Though why he was so gladdened by it he couldn’t quite grasp. There wasn’t much he could in that moment. He knew himself: Loki. He knew Thor: beloved older brother, all that was right with the world. But everything else floated just out of reach. The faces around him were mysteries, caught up in their own rejoicing. Pairs, entire parties. Their desperate joy filled the air with cacophonous, disorienting relief.

In the midst of it all he felt himself being watched, just a prickling on his neck, and he raised his gaze to find a red haired woman watching him. She stood behind a man embracing a family but her tears had dried. Her hard stare pierced the fog of confusion, striking at his heart.

And, suddenly, with shivers running down his neck, he knew one more thing. He knew the way people watched predators, the things likely to snap at their necks and lash out to leave bloody scars.

It was in her green eyes then.

Though not for long as one of the children by her side pulled her attention and a smile all too quickly.

He looked away, uneasy, uncertain as to what had prompted that or who she even was, returning Thor’s hug with desperation he didn’t know why he felt so intensely.

 

Thor explained the state of things to him not long after.

There was a man- a monster- named Thanos. Thor had shuddered at the name, hiding some ugly memories. Thanos had taken away many people. It had cost them much sacrifice to get those people back.

Loki had been one of those people.

Thor had told him he’d died. Not only that, Thor had told him more. That he was a Jotun. That he, in his shock, his anger, had done near unspeakable things. Attacked Jotunheim, fought Thor, besieged Midgard and stole his father’s throne among countless other crimes- all of which Thor attempted to distance Loki from, assuring him they were in the past and that both Midgard and the team around him knew that. Assuring him that despite the sins, Loki’s past self was not wholly malicious, contradicting all the evidence otherwise.

Loki didn’t know what to make of it. Of the things he- but not him- had done. The things that defined him- but not him. He didn’t linger long on death. That left him weak kneed so he simply refused to think of it. He lived and breathed now; that was what counted.

And so Thor told him. He was what mattered, not the past. Something about that struck false in Loki’s heart, though. Thor’s strangely mismatched eyes looked at him, caring, loving, but Loki wasn’t sure what exactly they saw in him. 

After that, Loki was introduced slowly to the team that had supposedly absolved him of his former self’s crimes. With near each introduction he saw that similar caution of the red haired woman- Natasha Romanoff- spider, Widow, even if it came in different forms.

While wandering, blissfully unsupervised for once, around the vast green complex that the Avengers called home he stumbled upon a lab filled with tech, metals of all make, tools he couldn’t place. But for his curious lurking he managed to set off some blazing alarm and was swiftly surrounded by strange robots brandishing weapons at him.

It was Stark who appeared moments later, harried, clearly having sprinted from some other part of this vast lab, that called them off. The look Stark gave was one of familiar caution, though his relief that there was no true threat softened the suspicion slightly. “Oh, it's the kid.” He waved down the bots as he caught his breath. “You’re good guys, I think I can handle him.” Turning on heel, Stark typed something into one of his many computers. “Just sneaking around, kid?”

“I was merely curious.” Even as the robots slunk back into their places Loki didn’t relax. “And I’m glad you got here in time. I’d hate for you to rebuild them after I was finished destroying them for daring attack me.” He pulled a smug smile, if just to tease. 

Stark stared at him for a long moment; Loki could see the wheels turning in his head, the age in his eyes. Finally, he chuckled. “Never thought I’d hear a joke from Loki.”  The name was a curse.

Loki attempted to ignore it. “You do know what I am the god of, right?” He itched to move but with Stark staring at him he stayed put, unwilling to give Stark something more to be wary of.

“Yeah but-” The lines around Stark’s eyes hardened. “You weren’t in the joking mood last time you came to Earth.”

“I’m not—”

“Loki!” Thor’s voice boomed through the room as he swept through the same doors Loki had slunk past, drawing all attention. 

“Ah,” Stark sighed with relief. “There he is, punctual as always.” His glance Loki’s way was openly cautious. “Your brother here was snooping around where he shouldn’t be, as usual.”

Before Loki could defend himself- after all, this room had not been in any way actively forbidden- and assure that he had no ill will and was certainly not hurting anybody, Thor took his shoulder to tower over both him and Stark. “I apologize.” Though it didn’t sound like a very sincere apology, his voice was too stiff, too formal. He squeezed Loki’s shoulder ever so slightly, a reassurance. “I’m sure he meant no harm. Right, Loki?”

Knowing what he had to say, though resentful about it, Loki reluctantly nodded. “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.”

Stark’s smile was strained as he leaned over. Much to Loki’s surprise and horror he ran a hand through Loki’s hair, mussing it. “It’s alright, tyke. But you can’t just wander around places like this, you might get hurt.”

Defiance sparked in Loki’s gut. “I don’t—”

“Ah.” Thor cut him off. “We should be going.”

Biting back resentment, and his tongue, Loki waited until they were on their own to speak his mind. “I don’t much like him.”

Thor smiled sympathetically. “He may grow on you.” When Loki scoffed he chuckled. “I know. But Stark has a good heart, he means well but you- ” Thor glanced down at him, sympathetic again. “You he does not know what to make of, I believe.”

Loki scowled, staring out over the lush field with crossed arms. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I know that,” Thor reassured.

But it wasn’t much of a true reassurance. Loki glanced up to Thor and saw distance in his eyes. “It’s just because of what the old Loki did, isn’t it?” The distance grew and Loki’s stomach flipped.

After a brief grimace, Thor stopped on the lawn and Loki followed suit. He kneeled to level them. “They will change their minds with time. We have to give them that patience. They saw you- the old Loki-” He stumbled over the phrasing with the ghost of a frown. “Saw him forced to his lowest and it will take time to mend those wounds. But they will see you as yourself, I swear it.”

The earnest promise fell on Loki’s uncertain ears. But he couldn’t deny Thor, not outright. He nodded. “Of course. I just- have to be patient.” Thor’s relieved smile lit the world but Loki didn’t feel much of its warmth. As irritating as it was to be seen as someone else by the Avengers there was someone whose opinion he much more cared about and was just as uneasy.

“I have a fine few hours before I need return to help Asgard. Would you want to keep me company? Have you eaten?” Thor’s concern, his caring, rang true.

But for who, Loki wasn’t sure. For him or for the Loki who was.

Thinking on it gave him a headache. “I have.” Though he wouldn’t say what; namely the remainder of a chocolate cake he thought belonged to one of Stark’s crew. “But I suppose I’ll stick around you, I’ve got nothing better to do.” He covered his own eagerness with breezy sarcasm that made Thor laugh.

“I’m glad you are so amenable.”

Later, in watching Thor trade sparring blows with the quiet blonde captain who shared his heroism, Loki couldn’t shake Thor’s words. Thor’s hypocrisy. If he could not see Loki for who he was how could the Avengers? How could anyone? He didn’t even know what it was his self had done, only what he could find online or through the most subtle of questions thrown Thor’s way.

When he got too curious Thor, with sad eyes and a distance about him, would always urge him to forget.

Which was infinitely difficult when near everyone around him was hostile. In truth, it felt wrong to forget. If he forgot there was always a chance of repeating his former’s mistakes. He wanted anything but that. So he focused on what he knew. He knew himself. He knew Thor. He knew that he- how some part or piece or version of him- died. He also knew he was being denied- shielded from as Thor would have put it- the absolute truth of who he used to be.

He assumed because the truth would be too much. That Thor forgave only because he was Thor, that his former self was monstrous. It had to be so, that was the best explanation for the reactions to him. It was reflections of that sentiment that he heard from the Avengers as he lurked in the shadows of their conversations.

He would do anything to avoid repeating that mistake, to free himself from that association. 

That fear left his nights uneasy, often disturbed by bloody nightmares that faded the more he tried to remember them, always just out of reach as if even they did not want to offer him any truth, or even a variant of it.

He also knew he wasn’t the only one brought back. But none of the others were so reviled. In thinking on it the affair seemed truly unfair, destroying those who were heros. 

In his attempts at repairing his legacy Loki sometimes let them speak to him as they saw him, as a child. A tyke as Stark put it. Which he was, he supposed. Being talked down to was endlessly annoying but if it buffed even the smallest mark from his reputation then it was worth it. At least that’s what he’d convinced himself.

Yet, if he were to truly fix his reputation- to break away from being their Loki- he guessed he would have to do more than play docile. How, though, he wasn’t quite sure. Without knowing what his crimes were he couldn’t guess at what might fix this. He had to find out what exactly he’d done. Maybe then he could remedy those mistakes. Maybe. He hoped.

Though not just now. Now he was sitting on one of the many balconies of this strange complex in a place called Jersey, staring at the screen of the device that had been gifted to him by Stark. The Spider- Parker not Widow- one of the ones returned- one of the few to not look down on him, had sent him a message. Hey! Want to go downtown this weekend?

Loki stared at the message. If he accepted the offer he’d have to tell Thor, to reassure Thor countless times of his safety, to endure the silent suspicions of the people that lived in this building. But time not being treated as a drawn blade or a child was tempting. Parker was kind, funny. Not as clever as the girl engineer of Wakanda, the first place he knew after Thor’s embrace. But, still, at least close to his level.

Only if you take me somewhere new. He finally replied, setting down the phone and staring out at the lush trees that surrounded their facility in a greenbelt. In the quiet of the morning he heard only the wind and the whine of bugs.

It wasn't Asgard. The Asgard that Thor said was gone, destroyed by the sister neither of them had known. The Asgard that Loki missed despite knowing nothing of it; a place that only carried the feeling of home in its naming. There was a new Asgard being built out west, where all the Asgardians remained. But Loki had yet to visit. Here in the foggy silence of a cool morning this complex was at least something solid. A place that was real amongst so much uncertainty.

Overhead a bird cried, sharp and harsh. He looked for it but found nothing.

His phone buzzed. A :I from Parker. Followed immediately by: deal!

“Making friends, huh?” The Widow’s deadpan voice caught him off guard, breaking the peaceful silence.

Trapped, he could only stand and turn, straightening his back. Despite the early hour she was already dressed. He could only guess how many weapons were stored beneath her thin red jacket. And in her eyes was that same wariness Loki had become familiar with. “I thought kids were supposed to sleep in. Isn’t that better for you?”

It wasn’t really a question. Loki knew that. “I don’t know. Is it?”

Her lips twitched at his returned rhetorical. “You eat breakfast yet?” That seemed sincere so he shook his head. “C’mon.”

Cautious, he followed her inside. Despite the warning in her eyes she’d never been outright hostile, none of them had. Not that it made baring their suspicions any easier. That could easily be attributed to Thor’s influence. His feet didn’t quite brush the ground as he sat at the stools pushed against the counter top and watched her rummage through the fridge. She pulled out a carton of eggs and a box of orange juice and arched an eyebrow at him. Feeling obligated to accept, he nodded.

As she poured the juice she spoke. “So, kid,” she said it with the air of strangeness, “how do you like this place?” She put the glass in front of him and set to the stove. Whether or not this was all an act, he couldn't tell. She was rather skilled in the art of deception. Likely moreso than him, though he'd never let anyone know that and his reputation made the Avengers think otherwise.

Every time he spoke to her it felt like a test. “It’s fine. A little cramped.” He added simply because it felt good to complain, even if just about trivialities. Though he wouldn’t mention the hostility. Nor the lingering air of strangeness that haunted his very existence. Telling the whole truth was foolish and he knew it.

“Yeah? I bet you’re used to a big castle on Asgard, right?”

Swallowing the mouthful of juice was suddenly a task. He wasn’t. He wasn’t used to anything. He knew nothing before Thor. Nothing beyond the faintest hints of what could be called memory. “Sure.” He lied shortly.

She didn’t look back at him but her hands paused for a fraction on the skillet. In her work she spoke no more and so neither did he, opting for the safety of his phone instead. When she set a plate piled high with scrambled eggs in front of him, though, she slid in beside him. He stared at the plate, cautious even as his stomach growled. “Eat. You want to stay short forever or not?” She finally said, voice controlled.

“You know that from personal experience I presume.” Taking a chance, he turned to beam smugly at her, all too aware of her power over him.

A flicker of surprise flashed across her calm mask before it disappeared, replaced by a thinly amused smile. “No, but Stark might.”

Keeping his grin through his surprise, Loki laughed and, finally, succumb to his hunger. The eggs were good, seasoned with some strange and delightful spices he felt particularly keen on. For a few minutes he was able to forget about her stare, about the hostility of the very walls around him and the fact that he felt out of place.

Though it didn’t last much longer than the final bite.

“Loki.” She almost chewed on the name. He looked up and her mask was back. “I know what you’re doing.”

He froze, thinking fast. That could mean any number of things. From his plan to sabotage the sinks of the third floor to lurking around Stark’s domain trying to figure out the secrets of his suits for himself. To more serious things. Things he’d thought he’d kept rather to himself: his fears, his attempts to remedy them. But instead of any of those things, he held up his phone. “Exploring the internet?” It was a feeble distraction and he knew it. “Is that a crime? I wasn’t aware.”

“Depends on the site. But no, that’s not it.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sorry to say I don’t know what it is you’re talking about.”

She snorted sarcastically, a sound that surprised him. “You're Loki. I know your game.”

It felt like everyone claimed to knowing him. “You do?” Was all he managed, too annoyed to say much else.

“You’ll never be happy just sitting here.” She continued after a moment, stabbing a fork through her scrambled egg as if nothing was out of place. Though the violent jab made Loki wince. “This isn't exactly a place for kids.” For just a second she looked at him and her eyes pierced. “You’re not just a normal kid, either. Which is even worse.”

For who: you or me? He knew better than to ask. Still, she played with words in not unfamiliar ways. If she would give him a riddle he could decipher it. “I don’t think Thor would much appreciate me running off.”

Standing, the Widow took his plate. “Probably. But you’re Loki. You’ve got a history of not doing what Thor wants.”

“Times change.”

Her smirk was sharp and for a moment, without judgement. “Oh? Should I tell Thor about you breaking into Vision’s room the other day?”

Loki flushed. “You have no proof. And besides, I doubt Thor would much care. He’d probably find it funny I managed to outwit the robot.”

She arched one eyebrow Loki’s way. “My point stands; you’ll never be satisfied here.”

There it was again, a condemnation of him. But this one rang a mite too true. “What would you have me do?”

“I don’t know, I’m not your guardian. But- if it were me- I’d want to get a little fresh air. It might clear my head.”

Before Loki could express his confusion a voice cut over the quiet morning. “Nat? Who are you talking to?” The Captain. “Oh. Loki.” The name was carefully said, distant and sad. Loki swiveled to see the blonde man watching him with tired eyes. His pause didn’t last long, as he nodded at Loki, a hello, and made towards the Widow.

She smiled at him. “Up early?”

“Always.” The Captain returned her strained smile. As Loki watched him the tension he held in his shoulders was clear. He sat beside Loki, just barely glancing at him. “How are the eggs?”

Loki just shrugged. “I’ve had better,” he said, shortly, to the obvious surprise of both of them. “I should go.” He pushed himself off the stool and, knowing they were staring out of the back, Loki slunk out of the room, feeling thoroughly cheated that he’d been denied any real help. Despite her hostility, the Widow had been prodding him towards something. He just need figure out what it was.

Though he couldn’t well think stalking the halls. This place was too chaotic, too filled with old grudges to leave well enough alone. He’d long since realized the dynamics of this home-that-wasn’t. The Captain and Stark rarely spoke, with them they carried visible baggage. And the split they created formed a divide of unspoken discomfort only rarely surpassed. The Captain’s crew, the one armed soldier and the flying man, they were most friendly among each other and the Widow. The archer hardly looked at Loki. The witch was quiet. The robot too. The scientist with a secret liked Thor or Stark’s company, though seemingly for entirely different companionship. And then there was Thor.

Thor who he loved. Thor who he knew, truly, one of the few things in this world. Thor who followed him like a phantom whenever he was un-busied as if entirely convinced Loki would find death around every corner. Thor who likely had Heimdall’s eye directed Loki’s way when he wasn’t around. Thor who was every bit as irritating as he was loving for all the same reasons.

Now though, Thor was gone, out dealing with what would become Asgard. And Loki was stalking the witch in her ruminations. Her magicks were endlessly fascinating. The ability to pry into the mind was a useful one; something he himself could have studied was Asgard still intact. As was, she was his closest link to fulfilling his curiosity. In learning maybe there would be answers. If he could say he truly knew himself maybe he could mend the rest of this fractured whole that surrounded him.

He watched her through her open door, inconspicuously sprawled across a couch with phone in hand- though unused. Mostly now she did nothing beyond meditating. Which was excruciatingly boring to watch.

In an attempt to assuage his boredom he took to practicing the spells he knew, the ones that were ingrained within him beyond his cloudy memories or lack thereof. Sparks danced across his fingertips in a rainbow of colors and he felt their heat though none of their fury. Slowly he morphed them into creatures. A thin beaked bird flew between his fingertips and spun into the air. Directly into the witches face where it burst into green sparks.

As his stomach lurched she waved away the remnants. Though she appeared unbothered by it. “Loki, right?”

There was no wariness in her voice, something infinitely refreshing. “Yes.” Though he felt certain she thought she already knew him. Everyone did, it seemed.

Twisting her rings around her fingers, a nervous gesture, she nodded. “I felt your spellwork.”

He hadn’t known she could do that. “Oh. Sorry, I- suppose.” Though he didn’t much feel like being sorry.

“I’d rather you do that than watch me behind my back,” she said with the faintest smile and he flushed, caught.

Grasping for a worthy explanation, Loki smiled too, knowing it looked stiff. Everyone knew him after all, he might as well use that to his advantage. “My apologies. But I am Loki, you really expect me to not snoop when you leave the door ajar?” He avoided a wince, though barely, his mouth sour. “It’s practically an open invitation for mischief.”

For just a moment she looked disappointed. “What do you want, then?”

Thrown off balance by her lack of acceptance of his reasoning, Loki nevertheless kept his wide smile. “I was just interested in your magicks.” Which wasn’t technically a lie, just not the whole truth. 

She quirked her eyebrows. “I’m surprised you're not the one being watched.”

Stiffening, he looked away. “I don’t need to be watched all the time.” Of course she’d be like all the rest of them. “I’m not doing anything wrong.” Not only had he wasted days watching her but now she’d likely call Thor to take him away to something only more unsatisfying.

“Other than stalking me. Don’t worry, I won’t tell.” When he looked up there was a thin smile on her face as she sat beside him.

He pulled his legs to his chest, half prickling at the closeness and half to allow her space to sit. That anyone in this compound, save Thor, would sit so near to him was an anomaly. He’d become intimately familiar with the berth everyone gave him that to see it broken was disarming.

“Show me something.” She prompted when he stayed silent. “I’ve only ever seen the Doctor’s magic, never anything from Asgard, unless you count Thor’s lightning. Your abilities feel- different. Older.” Her smile quirked higher. “Even though you’re…”

After a moment of nervousness, Loki complied and pulled a dagger from the ether. It’s blade glinted silver and its handle fit perfectly in his palm. He twirled it in his hand, an instinctive gesture that he knew despite his fog.

Looking to her for approval, he saw her tense at his blade. “Always ready for a fight?”

“Don’t I have to be?” The question slipped out and he winced, preparing for the reassurances of safety that would likely come. He could practically hear the condescension brewing.

Indeed she sobered but then remained silent, staring at his knife. “In this world of ours…" She shook it off. "Is- is that all you can do?”

“No,” he muttered, red. Knowing that his former self had so mastered the art and he knew so little was acutely embarrassing, despite how Thor assured him otherwise.

She seemed to recognize that. “I didn’t mean— from what I understood of you- of that you- he was a powerful sorcerer. You retained none of that?”

“I can manage just fine without all of that.” Though he was less certain of that than he was willing to admit. “It won’t take me much time to relearn it all. If I even want to, that's all distractions.” Another bunch of lies. There was no way to learn without a way to teach himself. Even he wasn’t that good. And of course he wanted to, knowing his wasted potential made his lacking all the more excruciating.

Something rebellious sparked in her eyes. “What if you didn’t need to? What if you could get it all back?”

Her sudden intensity surprised him. But, if he wasn’t wrong, then it sounded like she was proposing exactly what he’d been wanting. A chance at understanding the things he lacked.

“Is magic the only thing you lost?”

And though she didn’t specify, he knew. Despite his estrangement everyone that was once lost held a silent understanding with each other.

He hadn’t been the only one to lose things- memories, mostly. He’d seen it, watched the Captain explaining things to his winged friend, things he clearly should have known. He saw the lost memories front on the witch’s mind now. Their loss was shared, though he guessed the severity of his may have been the worst. “There are things I feel I should know. But- I don’t. Like I’ve lost something precious I didn’t know I had.” Despite his relief he dared not push his luck. She was still an Avenger, part of the group his former self had wronged. No doubt he’d wronged her too, somehow somewhere along the line. And everyone held grudges that no in death camaraderie could overcome. That he'd come to know well.

When her hand brushed his shoulder he jumped. “I’ve been prodding at my own fogged memories but every attempt to rectify them has failed. But- you’re a god. You’re a being made of magic. Maybe I could—”

“Do it.” He interrupted her, not giving himself time to think.

She blinked, obviously startled by his eagerness. “You’re sure?” Something like pity flashed across her face. “I can’t know what I might dislodge. It… might not be a pleasant memory and you don't deserve that. You’re…”

A kid. She didn’t need to say it, everyone already had. He’d heard that excuse enough. “I know.” A thousand absentee examples sprung to mind. His own death. His time spent under Thanos. The death of both parents. His rapid resentment for Thor. All things he knew were real but had no precedent to understand them or what they meant to him- to the former Loki. “You said it yourself- I’m a god. I can handle anything.”

She didn’t seem to believe him. Not that he could blame her. He didn’t either.

Still, she nodded and, after a surreptitious glance around, held a hand up to his forehead.

He went cross eyed trying to watch her.

“Just close your eyes. Relax.”

Realizing it was too late to ask if this would hurt, he complied, swallowing hard and leaving himself in the dark.

Her magic burst through his mind in that instant, winding and insidious like a snake in tall grass. Denying his first instinct to pull away, Loki dug his hands into his thighs. He was fine; he could do this. All he had to do was keep telling himself so. He- or a Loki- had survived worse than this inspection. She wouldn’t dare hurt him even if she wanted to, not with Thor’s wrath an ever present threat.

At that nervousness, he felt her magic hesitate. “Do you want me to stop? I understand if—”

“No!” Loki’s voice came out high pitched. “It’s fine!”

At his prompting she continued, prying deeper into his mind. It wasn’t painful as he’d feared, but instead felt like something personal. Her control over her magicks was as careful and precise as it was powerful, something he recognized as impressive through the fog that was his mind. For long minutes he simply sat there, uncomfortable and antsy, aware of the presence picking around in his head and wanting to scratch the growing itch on his nose.

Taking a chance to do so, he shifted on the couch.

And in that moment the witch’s magic snapped some tether in his mind. A spike of seidr shot through him, white hot, and settled like a heavy weight in his throat. Lurching forward, he felt her hands gripping his shoulders to steady him. “Sorry! I’m sorry! Are you alright?”

Shivering, he nodded, not trusting himself to speak for the nausea roiling within him. His throat itched and burned. The threads of the couch beneath him swam as his vision wobbled. There was something raw and wrong in the fog of his mind, something that ached to linger on. 

“Loki.” One of her hands was rubbing his back.

Coming off his lightheadedness slowly, Loki didn’t push her hand away.

“I’m sorry. You’re just a child, I shouldn’t have pushed so much—”

“I’m fine.” Straightening, he tried to shake off the aching wrongness in his mind. Despite that, the fog that defined him still lingered like a shade. Something within him was strange. Instead of answers he’d only been given another question. And his throat still itched.

It wasn’t fair.

Disappointment was nothing new. Still, it stung. Turning away so she couldn’t see him sniffling, Loki rose. “Thank you for trying, even if it was in vain. It’s more than anyone else here has done for me.” Hoping to escape, he beelined from the room, leaving her behind him.

Sulking in the depths of his room was far easier than dealing with his own thoughts. Or speaking with Thor who’d surely pry like he always did. He could only hope the witch wouldn't tell Thor what they'd done. By the guilt in her eyes, he guessed not.

It was easier to hide away from Thor and the team, to stare the the ceiling and catalog his foggy memories as he so often found himself doing. He knew Thor. He knew he was Loki, God of Trickery and Mischief. He had once died. Thor had brought him back. The bed beneath him was infinitely comfortable. He felt groggy, as if the witch’s magic had sapped the life from him. If he closed his eyes he might be better able to think.

When he opened them again he floated in a dark space. Despite the seeming emptiness of the space he knew instinctively he wasn't alone. There was someone or something here with him, their presence prickling on the back of his neck. The consuming wrongness that followed him daily was almost crushing here, threatening to suffocate him.

Attempting to right himself, Loki stared out into the dark. “And what is this?” Instilling confidence into his voice, he pulled a smile and hoped it looked convincing.

At first there was nothing. "Well, this is disappointing." He said, hoping to prompt something. Were this a dream- which he assumed- any such action would be better than floating through nothingness. He was bored enough in the waking world that such repetition in his dreams was more than slightly frustrating.

Then he felt a pressure crushing down upon him, the presence that filled the space was growing closer. The hostility in the air was undeniable.

Swallowing hard, he kept a smile that would trick anyone. “Must we? Really—”

The pressure clamped down upon his throat, choking the words from him.

A voice whispered, both from within him and from the dark space itself. “Prove yourself Loki. Find me. Stand in my place.” The command rung through the air, not so venomous as the pressure crushing him, almost desperate. Like a final plea.

“W-what? What does that mean?” Even as the invisible pressure pressed down upon his throat he managed a question, his eyes watering under the strain of it all. But he got no answer and the grip around him only grew tighter. “Stop!”

Suspended in the dark he was helpless against this pressure.

He had nothing to cling to but the whispered words and the quickly evaporating assurance that this was naught but a dream.

Spots danced across his vision, lighting the dark in brilliant, unreal colors. “Don’t.” There was no fist to claw at, only the undeniable force strangling him.

Reaching for seidr proved useless, as if it were being dangled just out of reach, taunting him. Without that last ditch effort he had nothing.

“Thor!” The sound came out broken, a wheeze, he tried again, the only thing he could think of. “Thor! Please!” There was no air left in him. Every second strained into infinite moments. “Thor…”

And suddenly sure hands were on his shoulders, pulling him into light, into waking. Before anything else he took his saving, painful gulp of air to soothe his burning lungs.

“Loki! I heard you!” Thor’s grip on him was tight, protective. In the moment Loki clung to it. “What’s wrong?”

Kicking off the sheets that had wound their way around him, Loki rubbed at his cheeks to find them wet. He couldn’t know when that had began. “Just a dream,” he muttered, embarrassed but not willing to shake Thor off him. There was an awful feeling in his chest. One Thor’s presence only just barely mitigated.

The genuine sympathy in Thor’s eyes made Loki wince. Stupid, thoughtful, loving Thor who Loki was always trying to avoid for this reason exactly. “What kind of dream?” As if he couldn’t guess.

“Just a—” Loki looked to his hands, unable to keep Thor’s sympathetic eye. “I don’t remember,” he lied. Thor didn’t need to know, he was already worried enough. Loki needn’t burden him further. That was the last thing he wanted to be, a burden.

Though the lie didn’t land as Thor sat on the edge of the bed. “Loki, I want you to tell me. I want to help. You need bear no burden of yours alone when I'm here.”

Still staring at his hands, Loki gave in. A lie would only get him so far. And he desperately wanted to believe Thor's assertion, foolish as it was. “I was- choking. Strangled by nothing.”

The smallest jolt of electricity ran through Loki’s arm as Thor’s grip momentarily tightened. “Oh,” he said faintly, distantly.

The sudden shift, the immediate distance between them, forced Loki’s eyes up. Such a change meant only one thing: Loki’s former self. The thing that stood between them, the Loki Thor saw and knew, the Loki Thor wanted back. Barely brave enough to even look, Thor’s expression, a certain raw, fresh pain, devastated. For a moment Thor was a man shattered.

In that crippling instant Loki knew, finally. But part of him didn’t want to believe. Couldn’t accept it. “That’s not- how I died.” The words he had heard in the dream echoed. Stand in my place.

Maybe the witch had done something after all. Some part of him knew dying all too well. And she had woken it. Maybe there was something there beyond the dying moments, though. Something dark and desperate and very real waiting and wanting to be found and uncovered.

He said nothing as Thor pulled him into a hug, though did he reciprocate with the same desperation he had possessed in his first moments, out of habit and fear in equal measure. Thor’s warmth soaked into him as he clung tight. “I’m sorry,” Thor said, voice soft and sincere. “I didn’t want to tell you. I thought- it would hurt too much. You had no need for the suffering.”

“It’s okay.” It did hurt. Even the brush of fabric around his neck felt heightened with this new knowledge and his skin prickled. The death was corporeal now. He- his former self- had died really and truly. It was tangible, not just some memory he would never possess and therefore incapable of hurting him. But in revealing this omission of his, well meaning as it was, Loki knew it wasn’t the only thing Thor was protecting him from.

Mainly from himself, he assumed.

“I swear on my life,” in seconds Thor’s fear was replaced by the confidence of a distinctly Thor nature. The confidence of a hero. “I will never let any such harm come to you again.”

The kind of confidence Loki could not, for all his efforts, emulate. Still, he could lie. “I know.”

 

At the least the experience of dying gave him something to think on. The whispered words especially. Stand in my place was self explanatory. Or so he assumed. Loki had done so, felt that terror. But: prove yourself Loki, that was more elusive. It seemed a paradoxical impossibility. He was Loki. That was one of the few things he knew unshakably, at his very core.

It sounded distinctly like a command. And, even though the witch’s tampering unlocked nothing so tangible, he felt like he was missing a piece of this strange puzzle that had been handed to him. That there was more. If there was something to be found, and according to that desperate voice there was, he need discover it in the hopes he could solve this wrongness.

In that vein he happened upon the idea that perhaps there was. Commands certainly had multiple meanings. Such vague, unhelpful riddlework did unfortunately match with his mind. If it were some lock to his memories clearly it would be designed of his own thoughts.

Prove himself Loki; by what means? And stand in his place, perhaps by more than experiencing that death. His first assumption was the metaphorical. But without acting dramatically he doubted he could prove himself anything like the Loki Midgard knew. He could take it literally. Stand in a familiar place to jog any hidden memories. But- to his knowledge- his former self had barely visited Midgard and Asgard was long gone.

Of course there were still a few places of import. One of which happened to stand starkly in the very city which Loki had promised to visit with Peter Parker. From what he had learned of The Attack on New York, Stark’s old tower played a vital role- which meant his former self had very literally stood there. In that, perhaps it could spark some vital memory to free him of this lasting sense of wrongness that accompanied him like a shade.

Though, with the tower no longer under Stark’s banner, it wouldn’t be so simple. Not that he even really wanted it to be. It would neither be fun nor very Loki of him to do things an easy way.

But it could be made enjoyably easier by enlisting help.

“You want- we can’t do that!” Peter stammered as he swung from his bed in his messy, cramped apartment room.

Sitting cross legged, Loki kept himself from rolling his eyes. “I thought it was fairly self explanatory. With your abilities climbing through the ducts will be easy. And we’re both small enough to fit through them.” At which Peter looked like he wanted to protest, but Loki cut him off. “I did my research, trust me.”

Not looking reassured, Peter kept his frown. “How many stories up is that? I’m not climbing—”

“The first thirty floors are offices. Those we can get through with an elevator, a clever plan, and confidence.” He smirked. “Which I have.”

“I dunno.” Swinging effortless up to his top bunk, Peter barely reacted to his scowl. “That could get us in trouble with, you know, the law? Or the rest of the Avengers. It’s technically breaking and entering, isn’t it?”

“So?”

He earned a blank, tired stare for that. “Okay…”

Flushing a bit, Loki continued on. “It might be illegal - maybe - but it won’t matter if we aren’t caught. Which I can assure.”

Immediately Peter returned to his skepticism. “How?”

“Because I’m Loki, obviously.”

“Okay. And?” He appeared unimpressed. Using that excuse had been a miscalculation, clearly it didn’t work on Peter the way it did most Avengers.

Which forced him to provide something more concrete. “I’ve been planning this all week.”

“But why?” Peter pressed. “You still haven't told me why.”

To distract his hands and keep them from wringing Loki picked a small toy off of Peter’s floor. The hard plastic dug into his fingers as he turned it over. “I think- I might be able to find some answers there.”

“What kind of… answers?” But even as he asked, Loki guessed Peter knew. Saw it as Peter’s eyes drifted momentarily. He had some questions from his return, surely. So many of them unanswerable. When the distraction cleared Peter nodded. “I mean... Fine, we'll do it. But if we get in trouble with Mr. Stark—”

“You won’t. They’ll blame me.” Loki allowed himself no time to linger on that statement. Or the absolute truth of it. Even Peter didn’t deny it.

The always strange task of riding the subway was, as ever, fascinating. In the uncomfortably crowded there was a fascinating anonymity. There not even one person gave him a second glance. A far cry from the constant watchful eyes of the compound where he lived.

What had been Stark Tower loomed above them, stripped of its iconic A that Loki had learned from his research. Like the rest of the city it pierced the pale blue sky, ostentatious, a testament to its creator’s ego.

Somewhere up there was Loki’s answer. In seeing it he was only more sure of that. That sense of wrongness which defined him was tugging him forward. He barely checked to see if Peter was following.

Inside was quiet and immaculately clean. A pale haired woman sat at a desk beside the silver elevator doors, picking at her nails. Despite her smile there was easily recognizable suspicion in her eyes.

Clearly her usual clientele were not people like them. Not that there was anyone like him.

Flashing her a smile he flicked a blank stock card from his jacket and presented it to her. “We have an appointment.”

She took the card, looking skeptical, and on it saw what half a week of researching and a simple spell could do. It was obviously what she needed to see, enough to get them where they need go without the pomp or circumstance. “Oh. Oh- I see.” In her surprise she glanced from the enchanted card to them, lingering on how Loki needed to hoist himself up with his arms to best see over the desk and how Peter fidgeted beside him. Still, with the irrefutable evidence of the card in her hand she conceded. “Thirtieth floor. Talk to his secretary there.”

“Thank you.” He offered a winning smile as they hurried past.

In the elevator, Peter slumped. “This is a terrible idea.”

“No it’s not!” Feeling defensive, Loki rebuked him immediately.

“I just wanted to hang out with Ned and MJ and… I dunno- do something other than break into one of the most high profile buildings in New York.” Peter ran his hands through his hair, not looking at Loki.

Trying to keep calm, Loki bit his lip. “I didn’t force you to come.” The last thing they needed was to be discovered now when they were so close just because Peter got cold feet. “Besides, we have all day to meet with your friends.” Nagging jealousy turned his stomach. “We’ll be fine.”

“I hope so.”

The floor they finally stepped out onto was just as eerily quiet and spotless as the ground floor. A pristine grey hallway stretching both ways out around them. “This way.” Loki winced at how far his whisper carried.

Despite looking distinctly ill, Peter followed wordlessly. Together they slipped into the innards of the building without a hitch.

So effortlessly, in fact, that his pride with his plan even staved off the embarrassment of being carried up story after story. Grey metal walls only occasionally gave way to outlets, though Loki counted each one, unwilling to overshoot his goal. And finally, after what felt an age of Peter swatting away cobwebs, they arrived. “Stop! Stop, this is the one.”

“Oh, thank god.” Peter sighed.

With a burst of magic the grate came off the wall skittering across the room. “You’re welcome.” Loki smiled as the two of them scrambled through. He heard Peter sigh again from behind him.

Smooth, tiered stone floors gave way to a view of the city that Loki imagined his past self appreciating. A bar stretched across the far wall and behind it a helipad grew from the side of the building above a precarious walkway. Couches that didn’t match with Stark’s “style,” if it could be called that, littered the floor space.

For the first time, Peter abandoned his anxiety. “Wow,” he breathed. “I’m actually in Avengers Tower!” He pulled out his phone.

“What was Avengers Tower,” Loki corrected, moving around the room. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. Nothing called out to him. He tried not to reach for disappointment too quickly.

But Peter didn’t seem dissuaded in his awe, taking a picture of the view stretching out below them. “This was where it all started. Where the Avengers came together to protect the world from evil. Er- no offence.”

“None taken.” Barely even paying attention, Loki sat on the stone floor, preparing to find even the barest trace of remaining seidr. There was something left behind. There had to be. Stretching his seidr, he searched for a reaction, for anything that resembled even the decayed remains of spellwork.

“Hey, Loki come take a pic—”

“Shh! I’m concentrating.” As Peter went quiet, Loki reached further.

And found something. Faint at first but distinctly there and intimately familiar in all its strangeness. In his excitement he lunged for it.

He was falling. Falling into the same dark space. The sense of familiarity was gone. “No!” He cried out and his frustration echoed. “I was so close!”

“Close enough,” replied a voice that seemed to come from within and without.

Crackling flames, nearly emerald in hue, sprang up around him. They filled the dark space with noise and light that cast strange shadows across his face. “Who—” He asked, already knowing. Fear coiled in his chest, unbidden. “Who are you?”

From the flames a figure formed, more phantom than solid, with a pale face cast sickly green, black hair fell across his shoulders. For a few moments he stared at his see through hands, some raw emotion unidentifiable on his face. Then he looked Loki’s way and a mask sealed that vulnerable emotion away. It’s presence made Loki’s skin crawl. His gaze drove through Loki, raking over him. “I am the fragments of the shattered conscious that was used to pull you into existence. I am what remains of a god who lived, trapped within your head. Maligned to remain a phantom of myself.” The ghostly figure paced, though never took his piercing eyes off Loki. “I am Loki.” His voice turned bitter. The name a curse all its own.

Loki matched the phantom’s stare, fighting past his fear. “What a coincidence. So am I. Strange for us to meet like this.” He was all too aware of just how carefully he need tread. This was the boogeyman who had attacked Midgard at the bidding of a Mad Titan and who only Thor had consistent words of fondness for. And Thor was too kind for his own good. This Loki was malicious and he’d do well to remember it.

The phantom Loki stared down at him, face a blank mask. “So it is. You’re the scraps of me.”

“What do you mean by that? It seems to me to be the other way around. I am very much real and whole. Certainly more so than you.” He smiled toothily, challenging.

“So whole and assured in yourself that you felt the need to search for the specter of me?” The phantom smiled back. Loki winced. “Truly you’re thriving.” The sarcasm bit through Loki’s confident facade. “I know you as I know myself.”

Everyone knew him. “I’ve heard that sentiment so many times I’m not sure it has any meaning left to me.” He heard his own frustration. The phantom’s lips twitched, noticing it too, no doubt. “Yet it is as untrue as such sentiments come. They see only you and refuse to acknowledge that I am more.”

“I take it my legacy is as a destroyer?” The phantom sobered. Something Loki felt a spike of resentment at. He had no reason to fear, he was already dead. “You are trapped alone with my bloody inheritance?” Loki nodded. “Unfortunate. You’re little but a child without my magic or knowledge. That’s a dangerous existence.”

“You underestimate my wit.”

The phantom was unfazed. “But not the dangers around you.”

“Dangers you created.”

He watched the other Loki blink twice in rapid succession, the smallest sorrowful crack in his facade. “I suppose I did contribute. You need help.”

Loki scoffed, letting his own bitterness flow. “Whose? I have few who would help me because of you. And all Thor does is reassure me the resentment will pass.”

At Thor’s name the phantom Loki started. “He lives?” The question was soft.

Loki almost didn’t answer it, taken unawares by the break in character. “He- yes? Thor lives.”

His eyes fluttering shut, the other Loki briefly collected himself. “I see,” the statement was flat, emotionless. When he opened his eyes Loki saw what looked like jealousy burning in them before he fell again into stoicism. “You need my help then.”

“You’re dead.”

The shadow tensed, his own hands twitching as they laced together in front of him. “Nevertheless, I’m here speaking with you now. So either I'm real or you've already gone mad.”

Glancing out into the darkness, Loki shrugged. “The latter is unlikely, I’ll give you that. But why should you speak of dangers when you yourself are one. I should tell Thor of your existence.”

His specter merely smiled, though his posture twitched. “If you think me so dangerous I suppose you should. Do you want to?”

He grimaced. “Not particularly. I am already estranged as is. Certainly if Thor told the Avengers that the ghost of my old self lived within my head they’d think me either mad or irreversibly tied with you.” Something he deeply wished to avoid. And, truly, if he told Thor of this he feared he might forever lose him to that distance between them. That Thor would never care for him when there were still scraps of his original Loki remaining behind.

“Correct.” The shade leaned forward from his fiery perch, looming over Loki. “And what a pity it must be to remain stuck in my image, especially on Midgard. ” He said the name with a wrinkled nose. “I say again: I can help you.”

“What good could you do?” At that the flames crackled higher and the phantom Loki looked briefly annoyed. Clearly he disliked being challenged, something Loki noted with the smallest selfish pleasure. 

“The fact remains that enough of me persists, by whatever means, to be speaking with you now. That can be enough, given the right circumstances.” His annoyance quickly disappeared beneath his mask once more. “There are dangerous things out there. Things only I know of. Things that could help to clear my- your name.”

“What things?” Curiosity gnawed at Loki. Despite his phantom’s history, something about the story rang true. Or perhaps he merely wanted it to. He wanted out of this endless cycle of doubt. If something could get him there he’d leap to the opportunity even if that something was this deceitful Loki.

The smile was back. “Why would I tell you with no leverage? If you would give up such things without a deal you’re not worth my name.”

Instantly annoyed, Loki scowled. “Then what? What could the dead desire? Life? I cannot give that to you.”

His phantom shook his head. “I want a chance that was taken from me. To see and speak again, even if it is a half life tied to yours. Here in this space,” He spread his arms in the dark space and fire trailed from them. "Many things are possible."

“It’s not your chance anymore, it's mine. But… if you’re interested and speak the truth.” He took a moment to narrow his eyes but all his specter did was smile dryly. The chance at shaking the accursed loneliness was deeply tempting. A secret friend, all to himself. Literally himself. Even if it was his evil self. And there was something special about this place, he felt it in his bones. The chance of infinite possibilities at his fingertips. “Then… on my terms I’ll let you stand by me. It won’t be life, not to any but me. But you won’t be in here.” He gestured out into the dark.

“There is no here.” The correction was played with an irritating smirk but was followed by a more submissive nod. “But it appears to be a fair deal. Within reason, obviously.”

That was enough of a reassurance. “Good. First, I am Loki the one and the only. You are dead and gone and have given up the title.” Stepping forward, Loki smiled thinly. When the shade nodded he continued, brushing the flames with one outstretched hand. They stuck there, harmless. “If you are not Loki then… you’re my opposite. Ikol.” He saw the shade briefly twitch, as if vexed by the wordplay. He paid it no mind. “You’re to be my ear whisperer and in doing so you’ll take a suitable guise. Every proper sorcerer needs a familiar, no?”

That didn’t seem to please his shadow. “Blatantly untrue. Where did you even hear that?”

“Thor always says I watch too much television. I think it’s much more the fault of the internet,” Loki rebuked, smiling as he shaped the flames in his hands. “Hm, now- you are to be my flitting word spinner, telling me things I need to know.” The birdy simulacrum he crafted sat in his hand, awaiting life. “And now I want out of this place. It’s not at all to my liking.”

“So be it, Loki.” With his words the dark place gave way to light, the fire disappearing along with the shade of a once Loki. Shadow dripped and ran until none remained.

He awoke to a tight hand around his arm. The man to whom it belonged he didn’t know but was watching him with a bored caution.

Instinctively, he made to pull away as a ghostly magpie landed on his shoulder, silent.

“Son, don’t.” The man's voice was gruff and stern. Not the kind Loki was apt to obey.

Before he could act though, Peter’s voice broke through. “Loki, please don’t make this worse.”

In his ear, the magpie whispered in his former's voice. “Do not emulate Thor. Think before you act.”

As if he didn’t know that.

They were in the lobby for the tower again, a quartet of security guards surrounding them. Beside him, Peter looked properly ashamed. In however much time had passed during his talk with his fragmented self they’d clearly been discovered. Loki felt briefly guilty for the unhappiness in Peter's eyes, knowing it was his actions that led to it.

“Your parents will be here soon,” the man holding his arm said.

“I very much doubt it.” Loki smiled widely up at him, unable to pass up the chance at smugness.

Though the roll of thunder that sounded from outside wiped it from his face all too quickly, something even Peter recognized and understood. “I’m- I gave them May’s number. Not- she must have called—”

“He won’t be mad at you, it’s fine,” Loki muttered, resigning himself. Ikol fidgeted, giving no words of advice. Not that there was much to say. Thor coming to collect his wayward sibling wasn’t exactly uncommon in either iteration, that much Loki understood.

Thor swept through the doors, golden, glorious, and disappointed. It was the latter that struck Loki in the chest. On his shoulder, Ikol’s claws tightened.

The guards winced, releasing him in their surprise at the sudden appearance of an Avenger like Thor. Loki slipped free of their range in an instant and immediately tried to make some amends. “Thor—”

“I don’t want your excuses, Loki. Not now.”

Loki sucked in a wounded breath. Thor had never spoken to him like that before. Dismissive.

Shifting his grip on Stormbreaker, Thor motioned towards the security. “I shall take them from here. Many thanks for keeping them out of further trouble.” He ushered them both from the building as the staff sputtered. “I will return you to your aunt.” He turned to Peter.

“Yes, sir.” Peter’s voice was meek, humbled. “I’m sorry,” he added moments later.

“You need not apologize.” And then the Bifrost enveloped them.

When they appeared on top of Peter’s building Ikol squawked in his ear, painfully loud. “Since when could he do that?!”

Unable to respond aloud, Loki merely shrugged, feeling dejected.

Stepping away, Peter didn’t look up from staring at his feet. “Thank you, Thor, sir. I promise something like this won’t happen again.”

“No, it won’t.” Which sounded properly threatening to Loki’s ears. “Give my regards to your aunt.” And they were off again in a whirl of color and sound.

Landing hard on concrete, Loki briefly contemplated bolting for safety. But Thor’s hands on his shoulders ruined any such chances. “Loki,” he said, the heaviest condemnation. “Why?”

“I- I just wanted to know if I could,” he lied. “I didn’t hurt anybody. I wouldn’t have.” Which was the truth. Really, at most he’d inconvenienced a handful of Midgardians. It was nothing.

But Thor merely sighed. “Of course not. But… you must think of others.” He kneeled down, leveling their sizes. “Hearing that Loki broke into Stark’s tower brings to mind unhappy memories for the team. Do you understand what I mean?”

Loki nodded, barely meeting Thor’s eye. “I know. It was… foolish.”

“Yes.” A slight smile quirked Thor’s face, offering some hope. “I’m not mad at you. Merely disappointed in your thoughtlessness.” He stood, turning towards the complex. “But you’re grounded. Pack a suitcase.”

Alarmed, Loki stuttered for a response. “Wh- where am I going?” This hadn’t been what he’d expected at all.

Thor looked serious once more. “It’s time for you to connect with our people. Oh, and no phone.”

“What! You can’t do that!” Loki clutched the device close. “I need it!”

“To my knowledge such punishment is the point of grounding, Loki.” Thor’s admonishment, amused as it was, stung. “And you’ll be fine.”

In Loki’s ear, Ikol spoke. “Doubtful. To the misfortune of many, a bored Loki is never bored for long.”

Chapter Text

The home to a new Asgard was raised just outside of the small town of Broxton, deep in the dry and vast farmlands of America. Negotiations on such intricacies as sovereignty, as far as Loki saw, were slow going and were what ate most into much of Thor’s precious and fleeting time with him. Despite that, construction on this new Asgard proceeded with help from Stark and a myriad of other parties all eager to find favor in Thor.

Not that Loki much cared. He had a roof over his head and food on his plate. It was too hot to worry about much else. Even stepping outside risked exhaustion so most days were spent sequestered inside, saved by the marvelous invention that was air conditioner. And, though he had no phone, he had Ikol to whisper his thoughts to.

Ikol who had opinions on every Asgardian and nearly every refugee of Sakaar and who shared those opinions freely. Every Asgardian save Thor, that was. The bird’s silence there spoke volumes of a history Loki couldn’t know, leaving him with only more questions.

And then there was Ikol’s promise to aid him which had up to this point gone unfulfilled despite Ikol’s vague insistence that patience was key.

“How am I supposed to clear my name if you won’t tell me what your clever 'plan' is?” Flipping through a newly written tome by one of Asgard’s few remaining bards, Loki didn’t look up at Ikol. The story itself was rather dull and full of undue pomp, but being so deprived he didn’t much care. It was, at least, something to occupy himself with.

“You must find a way off this realm. Our salvation lies beyond this little rock.”

That forced him up. “What? You never mentioned that particular detail.” How he was even supposed to get off Midgard escaped him. Thor would never allow it.

Though that was likely the point. “There are ways.” Ikol landed on his tome, eyes an unnatural green. “Find the Valkyrie. Speak to her.”

Loki balked. “Awh, but she—”

“Do you want my guidance or not? Speak to her”

“You know how she is.”

“Exactly; speak with her. If anyone were to have strange enough friends to help us, it would be her.”

Closing the book with a snap, Loki frowned at the bird. “You’re rather bold when it's not you that will have to do the talking.”

Ikol tittered. “Yes.”

Sticking out his tongue at the bird, Loki tossed the tome into the corner of his room, where it landed with a dull thud amidst a pile of other boring books and a rapidly accumulating mess of things that failed to keep his attentions.

At Ikol’s insistence, Loki sought her out. It wasn’t difficult. The perpetual drinker and sworn protector of the throne was not a subtle woman and made no efforts to hide her presence at any time. Not only that, but when Thor and Heimdall were busy, which was nearly all times these days, she assumed responsibility of his grounding if he wanted to dare venture outside of this new Asgard.

Not that she was particularly good at the job. She obviously had no real interest in managing him, which Loki took full advantage of.

Now they sat in the town of Broxton itself in a strangely sticky booth in a tiny store by the side of a half ruined road. Loki stared at his hands, only occasionally glancing up at Valkyrie, who had her feet kicked up onto the table. Talking to her possessed a unique difficulty the kind which he’d never faced. Even Ikol knew so little of her past that he had few ideas on how to best approach her.

And clearly she was just too blindingly cool to simply talk to.

In one of his glances, she caught him. Swinging her legs off the table as he straightened and quickly went back to staring at his hands, she leaned forward. “Hey, Loki. What is it you’re planning, huh?”

“I’m not—”

“Don’t bullshit me.” Despite her harshness she didn’t sound particularly angry. He met her eyes and found them sharp far beyond her lax demeanor. “You’re a kid. But you’ve got the same eyes as old you. Too smart and too bored for your own good and you know it.” She smiled, though the sincerity of it was doubtful. “Gimme a hint.”

He returned the smile. His heart was pounding in his chest but he pushed past that nervousness. “Maybe I’m planning how best to usurp Thor’s role as king. What would you do then?”

Her laughter filled the diner, Loki felt all eyes turn to them. “I’d punt you across the state. And I don’t believe that. Old you lied better.”

“Really?” Leaning into this angle, he gestured out the wide paned windows, out across the low, simple buildings and to the half build Asgard in the distance. “In truth, I’m curious. I know Stark is helping with the creation of our new home. But he’s not the only one, is he?”

She glanced from him out to the distant towers. “Nah. We’ve got more friends than just that guy. Luckily.” Briefly, she scowled, as if the thought of being stuck alone with Stark was a distasteful one. He sympathized.

“Who then?”

Before Valkyrie could do more than quirk an eyebrow, their waitress returned, setting two large glasses before them with a smile despite her clear nervousness at their presence and Valkyrie’s Asgardian leather. “Chocolate and vanilla milkshakes.” She left in a hurry, disappearing behind the counter to watch them at a safe distance.

Valkyrie motioned towards the glasses as their server rushed away. “Take your pick.” He grabbed the chocolate without a moment’s hesitation. “Alright then,” she smiled. Uncorking a flask she’d kept hidden, she poured some mystery liquor into her own. After sipping it and finding it to her liking she spoke. “There’s the bureaucrats. But they’re boring and no one cares about them. No, we made some more… cosmic kind of friends in order to take Thanos down and- get everyone back.”

Despite his focus on the delightful richness of the milkshake, Loki looked up, intrigued. Such topics as those he rarely got any insight on.

She seemed to doubt herself, though. “That doesn’t matter. What matters is we made friends and they owe us a debt. So the Guardians help us out with minimal complaining and- honestly- a better sense of humor than just about any of those Avengers.”

“The Guardians?”

“Of the Galaxy.” She smirked. “It’s what they call themselves.”

It was an impressive title, Loki had to admit. “How do they help?” Cosmic friends. Exactly what he needed. Or so he could hope. That offered a possible escape. “I mean, I’d think we would have quite enough man power.”

“Oh, it’s not that.” She waved a dismissive hand. “They bring materials. Stuff we need and can’t get here on Midgard. I’m surprised you haven't met them. They were there in Wakanda when- y’know- everyone… returned.” To cut herself off she took a long sip of her drink.

Loki shook his head. “Those first few days are… blurry now. I’m sorry to say I don’t remember if I have or not.”

“Sucks,” Valkyrie said, dismissive. “They’re cool. I can introduce you if you want. They should be coming around in the next few weeks.”

Despite realizing the rare genuine offer, Loki shook his head. That wouldn’t do. “Mmh, thank you, but no. Anyone who you call cool couldn’t possibly be interesting to me. I’m much cooler than all of you.” He smiled through his lie as she looked skeptical and definitely amused. It delighted him to see.

Leaning in to close the distance between them, Valkyrie slipped into a mock threatening whisper. “You really live to be a dick, huh?” Despite the question, she grinned.

Matching her smile with mischief, Loki merely shrugged. “What makes you say that?”

 

Ikol perched on a precarious stack of books in Loki’s room. “If you’re to stow away on their ship you’ll need avoid Heimdall’s prying eye. Especially now that Thor has that weapon.” His envy was brief but unavoidable.

“Obviously.” Not watching the bird, Loki dug beneath his bed. “I could have sworn I left it here somewhere…” The mess he was faced with rivaled the proportion of epics, or so it felt. He didn’t even think he’d owned this much junk.

Clearly not content to be ignored, Ikol flew to settled just above his head on top of his covers. “Perhaps if you put things in their proper places you wouldn’t lose them.” His voice was dry.

Sparing just a moment from his search, Loki glared at his bird. “That’s not the kind of advice I created you for.”

“Just an observation.” Though it sounded nothing of the sort. “What did you even lose?”

“My tunic! My Asgardian one. Thor paid a Vanaheim seamstress to weave protective spells into it.” He tossed a thick tome across the room, where it landed with a heavy thump. “I already know where my boots and pants are. It’s hard to lose leather pants.” He rolled his eyes. “But if I’m to go on a galactic adventure I need that tunic.”

When Loki glanced up again, Ikol was preening his feathers, something he’d learned expressed a certain haughtiness. “Perhaps if you wore it rather than those tasteless Midgardian clothes each day you wouldn’t have lost it.”

“Sweatshirts are much more comfortable.” He heard Ikol scoff. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“And I’m all the gladder for it.’”

At that moment Loki’s groping hand touched something metal and, grinning, he pulled the tunic free of its entrapment. “There we are.” The metal inlays glinted a spotless, precious gold that offset the intensity of the vibrant green fabric. The white hood drooped down its back. He stared at the symbol emblazoned on the gold inlay across its chest, rising black horns that mirrored the color of the long sleeves. The symbol that, along with a golden cornet he’d long since dug out of a drawer, identified him as Loki, God of Mischief, distinctly and irrefutably. Even looking at it made his head spin.

“Very good,” Ikol admired. “Much more appropriate.”

Throwing the thing across his bed he shooed Ikol from where he wanted to sit. “Oh, shut up.”

Fluttering to land on his shoulder, Ikol settled quickly. “I could.” Though he sounded resentful. “But there are still things to plan. Again I ask: how exactly do you plan on evading Heimdall’s gaze? You don’t have such an ability.”

Which was unfortunate as it was true. “But you did, didn’t you? You learned that skill.”

“Oh, yes.” Ikol’s pride leaked from even those short words. Not for the first time, Loki was glad he’d made his shade a bird and spared himself an infuriating smirk. “But the old tomes which I learned it from have burned in Surtur’s flame and none who still live possess even the barest knowledge to teach you the art. Ordinarily you’d be very much out of luck.”

Swallowing his own pride and lingering doubts, Loki nodded. “Would you teach me, then?” With a quick thought, he added. “And if I succeed you will tell me exactly what it is I’m going after. I will not go on a hunt entirely blind.”

The bird peered at him, clever eyes glimmering. “That seems a fair trade, good Loki.” He practically rolled over the name. “Let’s see if you have even half my skill.”

Even with Ikol’s preliminary explanations the spell appeared almost comically complex. With that in mind, it took Loki the greater part of two weeks to learn the intricacies of Ikol’s spell. With only the bird’s words he was left with only his imagination to visualize. Application of the art he could only practice in the deadest of night, when he was sure Heimdall’s eye had strayed elsewhere as to not heap suspicion upon himself. The last thing he wanted was people knowing he was following in the footsteps of his past self. Still, he was Loki. And not learning the spell was an impossibility for that reason alone.

When, at last, in evening hours so late they were early, he held the spell effortlessly, even Ikol seemed impressed, though reluctantly so.

“You have… promise.” Which, from Ikol, was the highest of praises.

Collapsing onto his bed, Loki released the spell and fell face first into a pillow that was marvelously soft. “More than you?” He heard his own muffled voice.

“You are me.”

Sitting up, Loki spared a tired moment to glare at Ikol. “No I’m not. And, besides, you owe me an explanation, remember?”

Ikol hopped closer, peering at him, taunting him. “Eager to move on?”

“Eager to sleep.” Loki countered, waving away the bird.

Settling on the window that looked over the blackened night, Ikol spoke, taking on the affect of a proper storyteller.  “In the moments before Surtur’s flame overcame Asgard I saved four of its most precious artifacts from the consuming flames and stowed them away in the ether. My reasons for doing so will remain my own. The first, the most dire- I do not know. Heros have dealt with that one, I assume. It’s of no consequence anymore.” He sounded briefly restless, uneasy, as he so often did. Loki paid it little mind. “But the other three, those I hid away in case the worst happened. They were not with me when— There is the Warlock’s eye. Once used in the past to ensorcell those with weak minds. In the wrong hands it could be a powerful weapon.”

“Why would you leave something like that undefended?”

Ruffling his feathers, Ikol glared at him. “I didn’t. My protective spells died with me.”

“I suppose I must take your word for it.” Though Loki didn’t much like to. The word of a serial liar was hardly something to rely on.

The bird perched lightly on his window. “You must.” Annoyance oozed through his voice for a moment. “Next, a book. The Book of the Vishanti; a record of spells the kind of which should not be given to those unfit to wield them.”

“Spells that could be useful to me?” Despite the exhaustion of many a near sleepless night weighing on his eyes, Loki remained alert. Nothing Ikol said now could be discounted. And the chance to learn new spells, new powerful spells, that was intriguing.

“If you could read them.” Ikol sounded doubtful. “Lastly there is The Casket of Ancient Winters, an artifact of the Jotnar.” His words were stiff, impersonal.

Loki knew the sound of a man lying to himself all too well. “Is that what taught you of our Jotun heritage?” He flinched as the bird took off, landing quickly on his shoulder.

Ikol’s claws dug into his skin, tighter than was necessary. “You are too thoughtless.”

“No. I just don’t care. It seems to me you’ve done all the caring there so I have nothing left to say.” Shooing the bird off his shoulder, Loki shrugged. “Thor told me in full confidence. And with my spotted memories I don’t feel it matters how long I went without knowing. I…” He crossed his arms tight, vaguely uncomfortable at the idea. “Don’t even know if I existed before Thor brought me here so… it’s no great lie for me. I’ve moved beyond your resentment.”

Ikol’s discontent was obvious as he swooped around Loki’s head. “Then you ask Thor what the damned casket can do.” With that snappy reply, he flew into the night, leaving Loki feeling slightly guilty for his words.

The Guardians arrived three days later. Their ship swooped out of the blue sky, nearly as ostentatious as Stark’s suit. As it descended its engines sent golden ripples out across the fields of grain that surrounded Asgard.

From afar Loki had watched them disembark, a patchwork and strange crew of seven. Even from a distance he could see a hulking green man arguing with what looked like an animal Loki had seen in Jersey, a raccoon if he remembered correctly, who appeared to be threatening him with an overly large gun. Another man broke them apart before they could trade blows.

Even from where Loki lay it was a noisy affair. “Oh, Ikol, they’re perfect.”

Ikol shared none of his enthusiasm. “Be wary of the green and blue women. They could tear you to pieces in seconds.” His voice was grim.

“You’ve met them?” It was the first Loki had heard of this. Not that it was unusual for Ikol to keep secrets, even from him.

“Once.” The bird offered no further information.

With that ominous warning, Loki followed them at some distance. He had no interest of being introduced by Thor or any of the Asgardians. Even that brought some baggage he’d rather avoid. For once he wanted control of his own image.

Though he did linger close enough to overhear them.

“Yo, Thor.” It was the animal, Rocket if he heard right. “We gonna get one of your feasts right?”

“Of course, friend, I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Thor’s affection was clear.

Loki watched as crate after crate was loaded off the ship by a score of Asgardians. With Thor and Heimdall at the helm the group traveled through what was built of the city up to the great dining hall with its half finished glass and metal roof and shining stone columns, a mix of old Asgard and something leaning towards the future. Even safely out of sight Loki was able to hear Thor speak and soon learned their names, as well as half a dozen other honorifics Thor indulged in. Along with that he learned the times in which the emptied crates would be returned to their place on the ship and, with that, knew when he was to leave.

And the exact short matter of hours before he’d be separate from Thor for weeks, if not longer. Thinking of it made him nauseous. But it had to be done, this would fix things, it had to. He just had to continue convincing himself of that fact.

It was at dinner he found an opportunity to isolate Thor, tugging on his arm. “Brother,” he said when Thor looked down. “Could I speak with you? Alone.”

Though Thor looked briefly concerned, he nodded. “Of course.” With a murmur to Heimdall beside him, Thor excused himself.

Loki tried to ignore the prickling of Heimdall’s gaze on his back as they rounded the corner of the hall into a wide courtyard. He was briefly, deeply grateful that Heimdall's gaze couldn't pierce past skin. But that relief faded as they walked and the feeling of finality overcame him. Even under the stars the fields of grain below almost shimmered. Loki took a moment to watch, realizing only now how quickly he’d grown attached to the fairly simple spectacle.

For a brief moment his eyes went misty. But he blinked the emotion away. There were more important things to worry about.

In those moments of contemplation, Thor kneeled beside him. “I see you’re wearing the clothes I had made for you. I’m glad they’re finally getting some use.” Though the lightness in his voice didn’t last. “Loki, it’s unlike you to call me away at such a public moment. What troubles you?”

“No troubles,” Loki lied, returning his attentions to Thor and the soft expression found on his face. At it, something ached in Loki’s chest. “It’s just- Thor, if you had the opportunity to make right a wrong but it meant leaving those you love behind, would you?”

Thor’s gaze briefly darkened. “I would. But, Loki, don’t fret.” He grew soft again, laying a hand against the back of Loki’s neck, a warm presence to reassure. “Any such mission I would conduct with the Avengers will keep me no longer than it must.” His smile was enough to blind. “I like it here with Asgard and with you too much for anything else. Nothing could keep me away forever.”

Loki returned the smile with some difficulty. “I’d expect nothing less. You are irritatingly difficult to get rid of.” It was impossible to muster the sincerity behind his ribbing.

His laugh was bright but brief. “Loki.” Thor’s smile vanished, a light extinguished. In its place was a much more serious emotion. “If you are suffering from a bout of melancholy, please tell me. I want to help. You needn’t bear this alone.”

It hadn’t been at all what Loki had expected. In that, he jolted, taken aback. “What?”

Thor blinked in rapid succession, clearly confused for a quick moment before an old sorrow crossed his face. One Loki knew. Sorrow for the lost Loki that Loki wasn’t and couldn’t be. The Loki who flew as Ikol in the night sky somewhere above and refused to speak on Thor, even in the barest sense. “Oh, you don’t- of course.” He laughed, almost to himself. It wasn’t an amused sound. “You- your self who was- he suffered from what our mother called melancholy. Periods of inexplicable worry and sadness. They most began to affect him around your age. I thought…” He trailed off, though his smile returned, all too strained. “I forget myself sometimes, never mind.”

“It’s fine, Thor.” Stiff, Loki looked out across the fields towards Broxton, desperate to get off the topic of the old Loki. “There’s a place in town that serves this marvelous creation called a milkshake. Would you mind coming with me some time? I think you’d like them.”

He watched Thor brighten. “Yes! That sounds a fine way to end your grounding. A reward for weeks of mischief not done.”

The words made Loki almost nauseous. “Thank you, that’s something to look forward to.” And, before Thor could stand, Loki hugged him. He felt Thor start, surprised. But before Thor could reciprocate, Loki pulled away and shook himself. “Asgard will be missing its king by now and I have mischief to plan for when my grounding has run its course. I’ll remember that promised milkshake.” With a quick, wide smile, he ran back towards the castle, not daring to look back at Thor.

Lurking on the outskirts of the half constructed Asgard, Loki watched the bridge to the ship extend towards the ground. The crates, now emptied of their cargo, were soon to be placed aboard.

There were a handful of Asgardians seemingly guarding the silent ship. But they were civilians. And he was Loki.

The inside of the ship shared the eclectic color scheme of its exterior. And, much to his relief, possessed a near countless number of nooks and crannies in which to hide. Swallowing back apprehension as he did so, Loki set to waiting and attempting not to think about how he sat in the guts of some strange ship. How he was soon to be spirited away to lands he’d never known with strangers who he couldn’t trust. If he did think too much he’d surely panic and ruin everything.

But thinking was unstoppable, even in trying to deny it he encouraged it.

Ikol landed on his drawn in knee, quirking his birdy head. “Does Loki regret his choices?” He sounded irritable, almost resentful.

Slipping into a whisper, Loki returned the irritability. “No. This is what has to be done.” He glared at the bird. “What a rich question coming from the likes of you.”

“What possibly could you mean?” Ikol’s haughtiness scathed.

“What of your regrets?”

For a few moments, Ikol remained silent, tilting his head away. “The dead have no need for regret.”

Loki just scoffed, angry at both Ikol and himself for this.

In the stifled silence that followed he found himself watching the bird to keep his mind from wandering. Despite his liars reputation his company was, at the least, the smallest comfort. Though, if Loki truly subscribed to that thinking then it was all he himself, Loki, liar, could be worth. A small comfort. Nothing more.

Uneasy, he shifted and drew his knees closer to his chest, hugging them tight. His skin prickled, the inside of this ship felt like a death trap, too tight, nowhere to run if things went wrong.

At last he heard the sound of many voices. A scratchy one loudest. “Quill, c’mon, they’re not that bad.”

“It’s not Thor or the Asgardians, Rocket.” Another voice replied. “It’s not!” It added moments later, defensive. Shuffling footsteps moved past Loki’s hiding spot. “I just- don’t like Earth. Of all the places they could’ve settled…”

As the sound of the engine roared to life Loki lost track of their conversation. Hidden both from Heimdall’s eye and the Guardians, feeling almost entirely alone save for the not so reassuring presence of Ikol, Loki remained hidden as the ship shook and rose, pulling him far from Asgard and Thor. He felt a tug in his chest as the ship sped up and in even more intense wave of vertigo as they jumped through space. He slammed his eyes shut, focusing on steadying his breathing.

This was a terrible idea. But he’d made his bed well and good now. He’d have to lie in it. But, oh, did he distrust the rocking of the ship around him.

When, at last, they slowed to a manageable pace a blast of music overcame the roar of the ship's engine and Loki knew now was his moment to appear. Though he did so with little grace, knocking over the crates he'd been hiding behind. As they fell with hollow crashes he smiled for the turning Guardians. “Er- hello! We were never introduced but I—” The blade at his throat cut him short and he gulped as ice shot through his veins.

The blue woman, Nebula, didn't move her weapon. “Who- do we know you?” Her sister was beside her in an instant and her other companions were quick to stand behind her, all wary.

Though not silent. Along with a myriad of creative curses from Quill and the raccoon, the Destroyer shouted out something along the lines of: “A tiny assassin!” While his companions in the tree and bug woman stood behind him, less cowering and more curious.

“I'm unarmed,” Loki assured Nebula, cold steel still all too close to cutting straight through him. It wasn’t exactly a lie. He could be armed at any moment, with just a thought, but he wasn’t now. “And you may know me.” With his hands up and a blade to a throat he couldn't quite bow, but he managed the slightest flourish. “Around the cosmos I am known as Loki.”

A solid few seconds of silence passed before someone spoke. It was the raccoon. “Thor’s brother?”

“Er- yes, I suppose.” As Nebula’s sister eased the blade away from Loki’s neck he drooped, both relieved and disappointed by their lackluster response. At least they no longer looked ready to gut him. And, for being Loki, he took that as a lack of knowledge.

“What are you doing here?” Gamora squinted at him.

“Also- how’d you get here?” Quill added moments later. “And how old are you?”

He smiled at the both of them, grateful to be off the topic of Thor. “I hid; it wasn’t hard. You really must be more observant. As for why I’m here… I’m on a very important mission. I needed a ride and you seemed like amenable folk.” He earned another collective blank stare for that. “And- I don’t how old I am. It really isn’t important.”

“Holy shit,” Quill muttered. “We accidentally kidnapped a twelve year old.” He looked briefly existential. “I really am turning into Yondu.”

Feeling his cheeks burn, Loki snapped at him. “I’m not twelve!” As Quill turned away Loki made to appeal to Gamora. “It’s of universal importance that I do this.” Her frown wasn’t encouraging.

Even less when she turned from him too. “Peter, we have to take him back.” As Quill groaned she shook her head. “I know. But we can’t keep a kid here. Especially Thor’s brother.” The weight behind the word told him they at least knew of his death. “What if he gets hurt?”

“I can handle myself,” Loki interjected. This wasn’t going quite as he’d planned.

That made the Destroyer laugh, a loud sound. “Little boy, our adventures are too dangerous for you and your little muscles.”

“Hey!” He knew he was practically crimson now. Abandoning the Destroyer, he searched for someone else. The bug woman. She had no muscular advantages to hold over him. “Please, you must believe me. I’m the only one who can do this.”

Her uncertainty was briefly inspiring, but too quickly she looked away. “I’m sorry, it’s not my decision and- and I agree with Gamora.”

“Thank you, Mantis.”

Ikol was infuriatingly silent, though Loki could practically feel his frustration. This could not go so badly as it was. It was too important. “You,” he turned to the cyborg who’d threatened him. “You knew the old me. He did terrible things, right?” Her grimace was unreadable but he plowed on. “I’m not him. But everyone on Midgard seems to think so. Even Thor-” Frustration broke in his voice. “Even Thor can’t escape it- him. If I don’t do this I’m afraid I’ll never be anything but him. Or- or something worse.” This wasn’t fair. None of it. “I don’t want to live like that forever. I can’t. You have to help me. You're the only ones who can.”

Something flickered in her expression, though she didn’t stay on him for long, instead turning to Gamora, who’d stopped dead in her pacing tracks.

Gamora looked at him, more seriously now. “What do you mean?”

Realizing he’d regained his audience, Loki leapt for the opportunity, raw and unwieldy as the emotion was. “Everyone looks at me and they see someone else. They know the deeds of someone who no longer exists. Someone who isn’t me. And by his doings I’ve got no chance to be anything else.” Ikol fluttered on his shoulder, discontented. “I have a chance to change that. I have to at least try, even if I fail. I don’t—” He sniffed, eyes falling to the floor.

In his ear, Ikol whispered. “Don’t weep. It’s unseemly.”

Not thinking, he batted at the bird. “Oh, shut up.”

Quill started, confused at his mutterings. “Sorry, what?”

“Nothing.” Trying to dry his eyes with one dark sleeve, Loki simply stared at the metal flooring. “I just- want Thor to look at me and see… me as I am.”

Again, there was silence.

“Shit,” Quill cursed again. When Loki wiped at his eyes and looked up the Guardians were whispering among each other. When they turned back they looked more serious. “Okay, kid. What exactly is it you want to do?”

“Wait, really?” Loki straightened, hope renewed. Quickly he buried any sorrows. He'd hoped they'd bend but he didn't expect it so quickly.

“Yeah, really.” Quill crossed his arms. “Tell us before we change our mind.”

Fluttering through the air now, Ikol spoke. “Don’t mess this up as well.”

Unable to tell him to shut up again, Loki continued with the spiel he’d practiced, back on track. “My former self took some very powerful artifacts from Asgard before it was destroyed. He hid them throughout space before Thanos caught up with him and-” Loki swallowed, throat tightening. The grimness of the Guardians told him he needn’t explain further. “If those objects fall into the wrong hands they could wreak untold havoc. I have to return them to Asgard or else my legacy will only be more wanton destruction.” He smiled, though it felt weak. “I may be the God of Mischief but not even I want that.”

A few of the Guardians shrugged at each other. For the first time, the tree spoke. “I am Groot.”

The raccoon nodded. “He’s got a point. How do you know?”

Realizing he was missing something, Loki glanced from the raccoon to the tree. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Oh, you don’t一” The raccoon looked briefly surprised. “Your brother- whatever. How’d you find out about this? Kinda seems like something Thor would have taken care of after… everything.”

This was a lie he’d practiced. “He doesn’t know.” The truth to be embellished. “Despite looking like,” he gestured down to himself, “this, I do have some of the memories of my past self. Not many. But most of them come from those last few weeks. I know where the relics are. I know how to get them.” The lie made sense; it was easy to swallow and they seemed to do so without question.

Quill nodded, looking at least minutely appeased. “And you think this will clear your name?”

Unable to glance Ikol’s way, Loki smiled thinly. “I must hope so.” He had little to go on but Ikol’s word and his own desires. It was a fleeting plan at best.

“Alright. I don’t have to like lugging a kid around, but we’ll do it." Peter rolled his shoulders, seemingly settling on the tale Loki had spun. "How many of these relics are there?”

“Three, precisely.” Loki slipped past him, staring out into space, a sight he’d never seen and yet felt a certain nostalgia for, his spotted memories struggling for some foothold.

“Oh, that’s not so bad.”

“Sure, if you discount their powerful, volatile enchantments and seductive nature of their abilities.” Loki turned briefly to smile at the Guardians, all of which had varying levels of apprehension on their faces. “We’ll be fine. You’ve saved the galaxy, right? Those seems like capable enough hands.” By Quill’s grimace, he was sorely mistaken.

Chapter Text

Thor called on the second day in the middle of a rowdy dinner. Drax was busy showcasing his ability to drink a stein of some mystery concoction and do one armed push ups with Mantis sitting on his back at the same time. And, as the other Guardians cheered him on with Loki watching in the wings, a screen flashed to life. A strange trill rung throughout the ship, almost lost in the chaos.

Loki’s stomach dropped as he saw the name and frozen face upon it, as candid and unflattering a picture as one could get of Thor. Under other circumstances he would have laughed at it. “Er- Quill.”

Quill turned and his face fell. “Shit.” He glanced between the screen and Loki, looking guilty.

“Please,” was all Loki could say.

“We have to lie to Thor.” As Quill sighed the rest of the team sobered up, Mantis slipping quickly to a stand. Rocket groaned and Loki couldn’t blame him.

“I’m sorry.” And he meant it.

But Quill waved him off. “It’s- fine. Go stand over there we’ll deal with him.” Deal with him. As if Thor was the problem and not Loki.

It was almost laughable.

Quickly shifting to the side, Loki watched all of the Guardians assume a facsimile of a normal dinner. With a last glance towards Loki, Quill put on a bored look and answered the call. “Hey, Thor. What’s crackin?”

Even from the first moments the worry on Thor’s face struck Loki in the chest, an unavoidable, almost crippling blow. His stress was palpable even through the screen. “No good things, unfortunately. My brother has gone missing.”

The blank expression on Quill’s face was almost admirable. “You have a brother?”

Thor just sighed. “Have you ever listened to a word I’ve said?”

Which meant Thor had, at least once, mentioned Loki to the team. For a dangerous moment Loki took to imagining what Thor had said. What Thor thought important to mention about his strange, once traitorous brother, now reborn. Or maybe it wasn’t even that brother he spoke of, but the other one who perched now on Loki’s shoulder. Desperate to rid himself of that idea he pushed the thoughts away.

“Listening isn’t one of my strong suits.” Quill quipped, conjuring the ghost of a smile.

Turning away from the screen for a moment, Thor pinched the bridge of his nose. “Rocket, friend.”

Crossing his arms, Rocket looked up to the screen for the first time. Guilt hung around him. “Yeah?”

“I know you were not in Asgard long. But I have to ask; did you see him while you were there? He disappeared soon after you left and is hiding himself from Heimdall’s gaze. I’m unsure how he even learned to do so, but with it he’s hid himself well.” Thor’s grimace left Loki only more guilty. Not for the first time he entertained the idea that he was going about this the wrong way. “He’s young and in his youth I feel he’s lost what meager sense he once possessed. Without it his recklessness is left unchecked.”

On Loki’s shoulder, Ikol bristled. “What meager sense? Please.”

Rocket considered Thor’s words for a long series of moments. “Little kid? Short, right. Wearing some dumb crown and a green shirt?”

Loki took a moment to adjust his cornet, too worried to be insulted. That guilt still lingered behind Rocket’s eyes, as if lying to Thor hurt him. Not that such a thing was unfamiliar, Loki found it no more pleasant.

Thor nodded, hope dawning like the sun. “Yes. He was acting strange that night.”

“Yeah, I noticed him at the banquet. But I didn’t see him after he left with you.”

Thor winced, but his hope only dimmed, not yet fading. “And there’s no chance he has hidden himself on your ship?” Thor glanced around, past the Guardians. Loki tensed, worried he might be in view, but Drax slid in front of him dashing any chance of Thor spotting him. “He has a remarkable ability to—”

Quill interrupted him. “I think we’d know if we had a stowaway.”

What hope was left in Thor’s eyes faded entirely. “I see.” He sighed. “I thought it was because I’d taken his phone and he was merely antagonizing me. But if it's something more serious, something I did, I worry...” Remembering himself, Thor nodded at the Guardians. “I will keep looking. Thank you for your time.”

“Yeah.” Rocket winced. “Good luck.”

Loki felt ill, his appetite was gone entirely. Somehow. Somehow Thor thought he was at fault. Had made to convince himself of Loki’s innocence. The trusting, loving fool.

Thor’s screen went blank and immediately Rocket groaned, turning to Loki. “Kid, you better know what you’re doing because if I have to tell Thor we lied and let his brother get hurt he’ll never forgive me.” He pointed one small hand in the direction of the screen. “And that’s not a man whose bad side I want to be on.”

“I can’t blame you,” Loki nodded, trying to return to himself. “But don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” He said so, half hoping to convince himself, throwing in a smile for good measure.

The eyes of the Guardians bored into him and he let his smile drop, mouth sour.

 

Travelling with the Guardians was a curious affair. Each had their own strange views, their own secrets and grudges. Their separations seemed so much wider than the attitudes which held them together. And yet, they were together regardless of those differences. They seemed to have formed a shockingly cohesive unit. One Loki found himself on the outside of. Again. Not that such estrangement was an unheard one, more an irritating consistency. He tried not to let it hurt.

At least this one he only had to endure for a short time. And in working towards the same goals it wasn’t so wide a rift to prove unmanageable. He would overcome.

“Quill, how close are we?” With half of the Guardians currently asleep and the rest scattered throughout the ship, Quill had nowhere to run from Loki’s questioning as he’d done for the last two days.

Without looking from the expanse of space, Quill sighed. “Just call me Peter. Or Starlord.” He smirked. “Anything but Quill. I feel like you’re my boss.”

“Am I not?”

To which Quill groaned. “No!” He glanced from his task to find Loki fiddling with one of the other chairs and the controls there. “Hey! Don’t, that’s Rocket’s chair.”

Taking in the controls and deciphering the meaning of each individual mechanism, Loki ignored him. “And Rocket isn’t here.”

“I’m serious. Get up. If he finds you he’ll rip you a new one.” When Loki didn’t obey Quill waved a dismissive hand. “Hey, whatever I guess, it’s your funeral.”

Loki grinned at him. “It’ll be fine.” Though he didn’t go so far as taking control, Loki copied Quill’s movements with the controls. Something he continued with almost absentmindedly as he proceeded to ask, again. “So, how close are we?”

Though Quill rolled his eyes, this time he answered. “We’ve got one more jump until we’ll be near the closest uh- relic?”

“Which is?”

“The eye thing.” Not looking up, Quill flicked on his music and it blared through the speakers, bass rattling in Loki’s chest. “That’ll wake em up.”

On Loki’s shoulder Ikol tittered, as if amused. Just listening to the tune Loki knew it was an old Midgardian song. “I thought you hated Midgard? Why would you listen to their old people music?”

Quill flinched and for a few moments there was only the music. “It was the music my mom loved.” For the first time Loki saw something pensive in Quill.He had been so relentlessly upbeat until now. Foolishly, Loki had assumed he had no reason to be otherwise. Though the pensiveness lasted not long, as he glared at Loki. “Did you say old people music?”

“Well, yes, that's what it is.” Loki leaned away from Quill’s genuine offense.

Scoffing defensively, Quill gestured at nothing. “It’s good music.”

“That old people listen to.”

“Cool old people.” The real hurt made Loki laugh. “Hey, I’ve got a beating heart you know!” When Loki subsided, Quill tilted back in his seat, throwing his feet onto his dash, looking just the slightest bit pleased with himself underneath the healing wound Loki had inflicted. “How’d you know it was Earth music?”

“There’s a…” Loki tried to remember the word one of the Broxton townies had told him. “A jukebox in Broxton. It plays old songs like these if you put a few coins in.” He smirked to himself. “I was able to scrounge enough to play the most obnoxious, atrocious songs on the device until they were forced to unplug it.”

Quill snorted. “Charming. I’m sure they love you.”

“Well, they haven’t kicked me out or threatened me with bodily harm so I assume they at least tolerate me well enough.”

Something flickered across Quill’s expression. “Anyone ever done that to you? Threaten you?”

“There’s no one dumb enough to cross Thor, even by association.”

“But if Thor wasn’t there…”

Loki just shrugged. He didn’t like to give that idea much thought. Whether that was for his own peace of mind or not was unimportant.

“Thor’s not here now.”

Loki met his gaze. “Are you threatening me?”

Quill started, shaking his head. “No! Just- Thor’s not here now. And you're all alone. Travelling through the galaxy to save some worlds. That’s a pretty big task for a kid.”

“I am a god,” Loki was quick to remind. His stomach twisted.

“Yeah, sure.” His dismissiveness almost stung. “But have you ever done something like this before?” Loki’s silence was almost painful. In it he heard Quill sigh. “Great. Well, what about… I dunno… helping Thor out. He’s a big dude but he could use a wing-man, right? And you’re little, good to reach places he can’t.”

This was absolutely not what Loki wanted to talk about. But he’d stuck himself here. “Thor doesn’t like me helping.” He winced at how small his voice sounded.

For a few seconds Quill said nothing. “Oh shit. You’ve never done anything like this?” Despite the implication of a question Quill sounded more distressed than curious. Clearly he already knew the answer.

Loki still shook his head. Just to confirm it.

“Hey, kid.” At that prompting, Loki looked up. Quill was serious again, all that scrutiny on him now. It was strange to see such attentions being paid to him free of the inherent suspicion that came with him being Loki that he’d so become accustomed to. “I know you don’t want to hear this and I don’t really want to be the one to tell you this. But… space is big. And kinda scary sometimes.”

“I can deal with scary.” Loki crossed his arms, staring out the windows into open space. Blue and purple dust glittered all around them. He’d dealt with enough nightmares to think himself an expert on fear. And it was not as if his life were so safe that he lived without the emotion. Were it he doubted he'd be here now. When he glanced at Quill he found him looking doubtful.

“Okay,” Quill said finally, not sounding appeased. “But we might get in real trouble. And not all of us are Thor with a big electric hammer. We can’t fly into bad situations and punch our way out if they go bad. When things get ugly they really can get ugly.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I can’t count how many times I thought I was going to die.” The smile he conjured was at its strained limits. “And the one time I did.” His eyes met Loki’s. “We’re both… post-death versions of ourselves, right? For you… it's a pretty big change, obviously. For me- I mean I’m still me-” For a second his furrowed brows seemed to doubt that claim. “But… everything feels so fragile now. Like it could all shatter any moment. I know that’s not what you think as a kid. I mean, you’re a god and a kid. You feel invincible. Hell, I’m betting you practically are. Just try to remember you’re not. It’ll save you a lot of broken bones.” He left an or worse unsaid.

Though Loki heard it anyway. “Dying gives you perspective, you know.”

“Problem is it wasn’t you that died, right? It was the other guy. Trying to do things different than that Loki doesn’t mean you can’t die.”

Loki couldn’t respond to that. He had nothing to say.

When that became clear, Quill shifted in his seat. “Trying to be a hero like Thor is great and noble, it’s awesome. Just… you’re a kid.”

The weight of a deadly silent Ikol on Loki’s shoulder was enough to jostle him out of his own head. He nodded, if just to appease.

It didn’t seem to do the job, as he heard the heavy weight in Quill’s sigh. Though such melancholy was short lived as Quill switched the music. “You know what you need, kid? Some wise words from some of my mentors.”

In an instant Loki realized what he was going to do and, already, was mortified. “Please, don’t.”

But there was no stopping Quill now, not when he was grinning like that. A mischief Loki could identify easily. “Ooh-oo child, things are gonna get easier,” Quill crooned, painfully out of tune. “Ooh-oo child, things’ll get brighter.”

Stricken with embarrassment, Loki contemplated fleeing. But his legs were as statues. Perhaps if he revealed himself to Heimdall now he would, one day, in a few hundred years, be able to exist without a constant watchman. Anything but this.

“Ooh-oo child—”

“Quill!” To Loki’s immense relief, Drax emerged from the depths of the ship, wrathful. “Your call to waking is villainous and you must be punished for it.”

“It’s just like an alarm clock, Drax, c’mon.” Instantly Quill was lax again, winking at Loki as he turned down the music. “Would you rather I go shake you awake or something?”

“Yes! At least then you prove you have the courage to face me in my first waking moments.”

“Shit, Drax, I think you’re right.” Quill smirked, though he focused back on flying moments later. “Hold on, we’re going through the last jump.”

As the ship shook Loki held tight to the seat, staving off his anxieties with the cold rationality that Quill had done this a thousand times before.

A force kicked his chair from behind just as they slowed. “Get out of my chair, kid.” Rocket stood on the chair’s head, looming above him. The rest of the Guardians slid into their seats, looking to be in various stages of exhaustion.

Before Loki could consider moving, Quill’s voice brought his attention forward. “We’re here.”

A pale planet stretched below them, smaller than Midgard. The land was a brownish red and unbroken by any visible bodies of water. It seemed a sad place, dead and dry.

Ikol hopped to Loki’s shoulder as Loki slid out of Rocket’s chair. “North. There are canyons and shallow caves hidden within there.”

“North,” Loki relayed and watched as Quill followed his orders. A series of slashes into the dirt lay below them, red rock exposed to whatever elements the planet had at its disposal. “The canyons. Land there and you can let me retrieve the eye.” He noted that the rest of the team had joined them. And how they almost unanimously frowned at him for that assertion.

Quill brought the ship to a stop still hovering above the atmosphere. “By yourself?”

“Er.” Loki looked away. That had originally been the plan. Not one he was much committed to now, though.

“Oh, no. We just talked about this.”

Looking anywhere but Quill, Loki just watched the planet below. “There’s nothing I could say to convince you of that, is there?” He had no desire to fight a losing battle here. Certainly not one he didn’t even entirely wish to win.

“Nope.” Crossing his arms and raising his chin like some stalwart titan- or perhaps just a Midgardian with quite the ego- Quill stood over him. The rest of the Guardians all voiced their own short, tired agreements.

It was strange to see such a cohesion; the Avenger’s quarreled over everything, such agreements never resolved so quickly. It was strange. Strange and irritating. “Fine, I can work together with you if I must.”

Quill snorted. “I feel like you could work on the enthusiasm.” When Loki scowled he smirked. “I’ll bring us down.”

As the ship lowered towards the dirt, Loki sulked behind the Guardians, allowing Ikol to perch on his shoulder and speak. “I can lead you through the caves.” The bird glanced out across the team. “When I left the eye here I assured this planet was empty of minds to be corrupted to avoid… unfortunate consequences. Now you walk into that very fire with just that sort. Beware. Do not let any of them handle the eye; its power could seduce them.”

Before Loki could disagree, Quill cried out and the ship pitched wildly to the side, sending him and the Guardians crashing hard against the sides of the ship. A horrible metal shrieking rattled the cabin for a painful series of seconds before their course was righted, still plummeting downward all too quickly.

Loki froze, panic choking him. Ikol was hissing but he couldn’t understand. His ears were ringing. And they were falling.

“Peter!” Gamora shouted over the screaming of failing electronics.

“There was something out there!” The red canyon walls filled the ship’s windows as they raced towards the hard stone.

Rocket skittered forward, jumping onto and leaping off of Loki before hoping to Drax’s head and last to the copilot’s seat. “You dipshit!” He pumped the brakes and took over, slowing their fall just in the slightest. “Hold on!”

Just as Loki registered the words and search for something to hold to he felt someone grab him round the middle and lift him into the air.

The ship slammed into the rock, jerking all of them forward. With it, Loki’s heart stuttered, the crash echoing throughout him. Loki watched all of Rocket’s half assembled weapons crash down on the spot where he had stood. When the Milano at last skidded to a stop the ship groaned and shuddered like a wounded animal.

Loki felt himself shaking.

“What the hell, Peter?” Rocket snarled.

“Something almost hit the ship!” Despite picking himself off the floor, Quill was quick to defend himself.

“So you crashed it?” Rocket shouted from his seat. “Great plan!”

“That wasn’t the plan!” Quill shot back. “I was gonna thread the needle but—”

Drax interjected, frowning. “Why would you be thinking of sewing? That is why you crashed.” Quill groaned over him.

“Peter.” Gamora, the owner of the arm around him, Loki realized, interjected. Though she was calm her voice held an undeniable frustration, patient as it was. “What did you see?”

Her sister shared none of her composure. “Nothing! He just can’t fly!”

“Hey!” Quill interjected, sounding genuinely hurt.

“What was it then?” She spat. “Because I didn’t see it!”

“I dunno! I was too busy saving our asses!”

Rocket scoffed. “Oh, yeah, I feel real saved.”

Reddening, Quill turned on Rocket. “It was something big. If I hadn’t swerved it could’ve done a lot worse.” He wrung his hands for a moment. “We need to fix the ship now and get off the surface. Regroup—”

“Excuse me.” Loki spoke, ignoring how his heart still pounded in his ears and how his voice still shook ever so slightly. As the team seemed to remember he was there Gamora released him and he dropped to the metal floor, clearing his throat. He realized, wincing, that his hands were trembling and so he clasp them behind his back. “If we’re already on the planet’s surface then we should retrieve the eye. How long will it take to repair the ship?”

He watched the Guardians glance amongst themselves. Rocket shrugged. “A day, probably. Maybe more, maybe less. Hard to tell without getting out to look. But we’ve fixed her in worse conditions.” The team shared a knowing look.

“Then we have a simple solution. Split the team since you won’t let me go alone.” Loki glanced Quill’s way. “Some of you stay here to protect and repair the ship. The rest of you come with me to retrieve the eye.” Despite his disagreement with it, Ikol’s advice was hard to ignore even in just speculation. It was for safety’s sake, he convinced himself quickly, that they couldn’t afford to not take Quill seriously. “That solves any worry of wasting time and will ultimately give us less time to stay on the planet.”

In the end the Guardians agreed with only minor complaints, most of them from Quill who continually insisted how unsafe the canyons may be.

To appease Quill they left the muscle with him, though that was only part of Loki’s reasoning. Gamora, Drax, and Quill were all physically among the strongest of the Guardians but more than that their minds were not entirely extraordinary like the rest of the team. None of them had that edge, so he assumed. Though Loki would never mention it aloud for fear of losing limbs. The others were far more interesting. Rocket, stubborn animal and even more than that in mind. Groot, the living tree. Nebula, a cyborg. Mantis, most interestingly, a mind manipulator and a powerful one at that. And, of course, Ikol; though none but Loki knew of him.

The canyon walls that loomed far above them were a rich red, deep, almost unsettlingly so. They left Loki uneasy, his mind running with the concept in ways that left his skin prickling. But Ikol flew on untroubled so there was no chance to stop and center himself. Rusty dust kicked itself onto Loki’s boots, leaving them a sickening shade, like long dried blood. In the depths the light was diluted, throwing them into a deep shadow that only grew as they reached the gaping maw of a cave in the earth. Even Ikol paused then. “Spark some light.” Ikol commanded as he circled round Loki’s head.

Before Loki could draw on seidr, Rocket shoved a strange, heavy object into his hands. “It’s a flashlight. Does what you think. I figured we’d need ‘em.”

Surprised by Rocket’s preparedness, Loki pointed the bulb into the shadows and lit the dark, starkly illuminating thick crimson walls. A cool breeze blew past him into the depths, as if beckoning him forward. Still, he hesitated. The first key to his salvation was in there but he couldn’t shake the thought that something else was too.

Apparently Nebula shared none of his apprehension. “Let’s get this over with,” she muttered as she stalked into the dark.

Unwilling to be outdone, Loki hurried back to his place at the front and for a while they did nothing but walk.

It felt like with every step the air cooled as the subtle slope of the stone sent them downwards. In a trick of the unnatural light the strangely smooth walls seemed to pulse. In their red hues they appeared the mottled organs of some grand celestial being. And they were already swallowed.

Skin crawling, Loki’s unease only grew as the cave split into many paths, each of different sizes and difficulties. All likely hid thousands of steps through suffocating dark and only one, the eye. Loki glanced up to the silent Ikol, hoping for guidance.

Rocket sidled up beside him. “Which way, kid?” He sounded casual but Loki saw how his nose twitched and his eyes darted. With his own flashlight he briefly illuminated each path.

“Simple. It’s- uh—” Loki kept one eye on the circling Ikol. His silence was an oddity. Despite it, Ikol took the center passage, swooping into the dark. “This one!” Loki grinned at Rocket, speaking confidence he didn’t feel. “Duh.” He felt Rocket’s eyes on his back as he started after Ikol.

Punctuating the walls of their journey were countless spikes of stone, from both the ceiling and floor, crimson teeth so sharp that Loki cut a deep slash down his palm as he pushed past one. Stopping for just a moment he stared at the blood running down his hand, remembering Quill’s words on mortality. He was a god- and yet another Loki had lost this universal fight out in the void of space, separate from the realms he knew.

It was Nebula who noticed, though she didn’t seem much concerned at his injury. “You’ve been through worse.” She spoke with some dark knowing, though something in her resolve shook as she glanced into the dark bearing down on them.

Mantis stopped beside him, showing slightly more concern. “Are you hurting?”

Her concern sparked some warmth in him and for a moment Loki let himself bask in it. But too quickly he reminded himself it wasn’t what Thor would do and so shook his head. “I heal fast.” He wiped away the blood and balled his throbbing hand, continuing their trek as Ikol dove down yet another branching path.

The faster they got to the eye the faster they could free themselves of this bloody hole.

For a long while there was no sound but that of their own footsteps against smooth stone, punctuated by the occasional drip of water from above. It was a near maddening silence. Despite himself, Loki imagined his former self making this journey in solitude.

Only a truly mad, or truly desperate man could embark on this alone. Loki wasn’t sure which he suffered from. Perhaps a bit of both. That wasn’t something he could just ask Ikol about and expect a truthful answer.

Glancing up at the long quiet bird, Loki stumbled under a divot in the rock he hadn’t seen, dropping the flashlight to the stone where its clatter echoed into an avalanche of noise that left them all frozen. After what felt an age, it passed and he picked it back up, thankfully undamaged.

“Loki.” The voice he didn’t recognize, though something in it was strangely familiar.

He turned to look at the Guardians. “What?”

They all stared back at him blankly.

“Who said that?” His mouth was dry. He felt his heartbeat in his throat.

Rocket glanced aside. “I said something when you dropped that thing but it’s not a word for kids so I’m not repeating it.”

“I am Groot.” Groot beside Rocket supplied helpfully.

“Don’t repeat it! What did I just say?!”

“No- what?” Loki frowned. Rocket’s banter made it slightly easier to dissuade his consuming unease, though not by much. It still lingered not so deep in his mind. Much as he tried he couldn’t quite convince himself he’d heard half of Rocket’s curse. It had been his name. And it hadn’t been Rocket’s distinct voice.

Still, there was nothing to do but move forward.

He tripped not too long after as a wave of disorientation rolled over him, this time he stayed down on his hands and knees. Nausea rolled over him and so he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to dispel his strange vertigo. The phantom weight of Ikol perched upon his hunched shoulders, still silent.

“Oh!” It was Mantis, crying out in something like horror. “The floor! It’s- moving!”

At that Loki forced one eye open. The striped patterns in the rock appeared to undulate. To just glance at it left him spinning.

Rocket was quick to play skeptic. “It’s just a trick of the light.” Though he didn’t sound too sure. “It’s just- the way the rock was carved out.” His voice trembled ever so slightly.

“I am Groot.” Even the tree sounded frightened.

Loki tried to steady each haggard breath. Rocket was right, he had to be. They were just deep in the rock, the air was thin. That was it. Simple. Logical. He was Loki. Loki was logical.

But he couldn’t even open his eyes.

“No. No. We’re fine.” Rocket attempted to reassure, likely not just Groot. “C’mon, Nebula, back me up.”

“I—” Her hesitation spoke more than any words.

Rocket practically growled. His hands on Loki’s back made Loki twitch, their weight sudden and unexpected. “Kid. You gotta get up. Shake it off, it’s not real. Understand?”

Still sheltered in the shadows of his own closed eyes, Loki nodded. “Of course. Obviously.” He forced his eyes open and up, staring into the blank dark ahead. That, at least, was not warping his balance. But in the dark was always the fear that he’d see some great, eldritch terror he’d see just seconds before they were swept away. Even worse, if he looked away and didn’t see his demise.

His breathing was anything but steady.

Rocket’s small hands pulled him away, forcing him to look down at the animal, into the barely concealed fear in those dark eyes. “Kid. We’re not going to keep moving without you. Pull yourself together.” There was a bare honesty in that. “Please.”

Unsteady, Loki nodded again. They had to move. He had to do this. And to continue he needed the persistent presence of Ikol. The bird stared at him, still perched on his shoulder.

“Loki.” Ikol spoke for the first time. To Loki’s alarm, with frustration barely concealing a strange brand of fear. “Something is wrong! You—”

And the bird, the simulacrum for his dead self that Loki had crafted out of his own thought and seidr, disappeared. Even the weight of his presence disappeared from Loki’s mind as if it had never existed. As it had been before Loki had crafted himself this most secret and dangerous of friends.

His loss rang deeper than Loki could have imagined, like a piece of him had been snipped away.

“Oh no.” Ikol was gone. Vanished. “No. No, no.” Despite desperately hoping this was some cruel trick of his former self Loki knew the truth. He let his flashlight droop down to the undulating rock as he crumpled against the slick walls.

An anxious Rocket was at his side in an instant. “Are we lost?” He asked, sounding grim enough that he already knew the answer.

“No. Yes. I…” Loki shook his head. “I don’t know what happened. He’s—” This wasn’t the plan. Ikol’s warning hadn’t been finished, whatever it was. The unknown in that petrified. He was out of his depth and alone in the guts of some miserable nothing planet.

He wanted Thor. Thor would know what to do. Thor would lead them through this in ways he couldn’t.

Mantis kneeled beside Rocket, worry plain in her strange eyes, though at least her terror had passed for the moment. “Did you forget?” Loki nodded, even if it was untrue. “It’s okay. We can retrace our steps and try again when you remember.”

The comfort in her words was sparse. If they could make it to an escape. Loki felt frayed at the edges of his mind, a bare nerve, and the rest of them looked no better. “How? We’ve twisted so many times. I don’t—” If he had been Thor this would never have happened. But, no, he was just Loki. That wasn’t enough.

Rocket jumped in. “Easy. Groot left a trail.”

Loki frowned, glancing past Groot into the dark, trying to ignore his swirling, irrational fears.

“I am Groot!” The tree scowled, glancing back too, confusion clear.

“What?” Rocket was next to look. “I heard you say that.”

“I am Groot.”

“No, you did.” A frustrated determination pushed Rocket away from Loki and into the dark as he flicked on their other flashlight. There was nothing but the smooth, swirling stone floors beneath them. “Wha- I saw you lay a trail. What happened to it?” Desperation cracked in Rocket’s voice as he turned on the rest of them. “You heard him say that, right?” Loki shook his head with ever increasing unease. So did Mantis. “Nebula, c’mon?”

“No.” Though she was blunt there was something shrewd about her as she looked over them. Loki felt her stare burn into him before it passed on. “You made a mistake. Like Quill.”

Rocket balked. “Are you trying to insult me? Now?!”

“No.” She repeated. And what she meant dawned on Loki in that moment, somehow relieving and horrible in equal measure. “Quill saw something that didn’t exist as soon as we entered the canyons. I’ve been…” She grimaced. “Hearing things since we entered this cave. And you thought you talked to Groot. Even the kid.” She rounded on Mantis and her gaze softened. “We all saw the floor. Moving like it was alive.”

Staring at the thin edge between the light of his flashlight and the consuming dark Loki had to consider it. Ikol had seemed sure the eye only affected those in direct contact with it. At the least, those with weak minds. Loki hadn’t considered himself in that category and his pride was costing him now. For his own sake he had to consider that perhaps it was Ikol who'd underestimated the eye. “It’s only been getting worse the deeper we go.” His voice echoed, warping strangely in the dark.

“Right. It has to be that eye.” Soon as the words left Nebula's mouth the cave was thrown into darkness, their flashlights failing them all at once.

Loki froze, petrified by the unknown dark that now swallowed them. He hadn’t so much as touched the flashlight. When he did he found it still in the on position.

Mantis screamed, though it came out more of a squeak.

“Mantis!” Nebula’s voice was strained as he’d ever heard her, wavering just on the edge of breaking.

What they were seeing now, this darkness, may not even be real. Not that such a thought was a reassurance. If anything, it made things worse. They could be trapped down here forever, travelling in their mind but simply spinning in circles and they would never know any better. They could be stuck down here until they starved or went mad, whichever came first.

Loki could hear Rocket’s claws skittering against the stone behind him. “We need out of here. This isn’t- I thought—”

Swallowing past the solid lump of fear in his throat was a monumental feat. Loki resisted the urge to sink to the ground. Every fiber of his being wanted Thor here to save him, take him away from this madness. But he only had himself. He only had Loki.

But if he were ever to see Thor again that had to be enough. “We just have to keep going.” His voice was painfully loud in the silence, making even him jump. Sticking one hand back into the dark, towards the place he’d last seen Rocket, he groped for some sign of the shrewd animal. “If it- if it’s getting worse because we’re getting closer then we must be near enough, right? Link arms and we won’t lose each other.” He ignored the creeping fear that they’d already lost their way. That he was talking to nothing but air and the fevered imaginings of his own maddened mind. That maybe none of this was real, that even he wasn’t real. He was just a copy, or some last fevered thought of the true Loki in his final moments.

For a moment he got no answer and he feared his suspicions correct, but then a fuzzy hand found his wrist. “Great idea, kid.” The praise was sparse, strained. “We good to go?”

The weight was real. He was real. He had to be. Reminding himself that, Loki gulped cold air and nodded. “Yes.”

Consumed by shadows they were freed of the spiraling rock that threatened to grind their progress to a complete standstill. But with no light Loki had only his ears to rely on, straining for the trickling of water. Ikol had said the eye was at the deepest of these caves. All he had to do was follow the water and it would, hopefully, lead him to his goal.

His ears, though, were just as susceptible to tricks of the mind. The whispers were near constant. And despite that their indistinct meaning was indecipherable, Loki felt their venom. Without a single solid word thrown against him he felt raked bare by the succinctness of their argument. His only defense was to push on, finding meager comfort in the weight and warmth of Rocket’s paw.

They crept forward, every step a lingering eternity. And with each advance the vicious whispers grew more solid, more tangible against their quiet, shuffling footsteps.

“Loki,” the shadows hissed. “Loki, Loki.” A constant call, urging, pleading, though for what Loki couldn’t know. Unable to defend against that which didn’t exist, Loki ignored his choking fears, the scraps of his common sense screaming for him to flee, and pressed on. The only thing tethering him to reality was Rocket’s hand and the rustle of the other Guardian’s footsteps. His reliance on them was all that kept him pushing forward.

Even they seemed besieged, though. Their own uneasy mutterings sounded the ramblings of the mad to Loki.

Then, finally, a pale green light bloomed before them and Loki’s heart went to his throat. The green eye sliced through the shadows, it the only thing illuminated by its own eerie glow.

“Kid…” Rocket murmured in his ear, breaking the maddening loop of whispers both real and imagined.

“I see it.” Loki let renewed hope flutter up in his chest. Slowly, he eked towards the eye. “I see it.” At last the relic was before him, so very real. The object which had sent them spiraling was here now, just out of an easy reach. The first victory. His first victory. Right there, staring at him with an unmoving pupil. Staring through him. “I’ll get it.”

Loki stepped away from the group, releasing Rocket’s hand. He took one step towards the eye. And another. And then he teetered on an edge. And he fell, his body plummeting through the dark. The eye was gone. He couldn’t even scream; the sudden fall ripping him from even shock.

But the fall didn’t last. Before he could even begin to anticipate his crash he landed in an all too familiar dark space. Green light returned, this time in a crackling flame.

“Oh, not here…” He hadn’t truly fallen any more than he had escaped the eye’s influence, that he knew. Still, this place felt real.

Twin figures struggled to rise from those flames. Loki knew them before they even completed their forms and he balked. He had nowhere to run.

This wasn’t real. They couldn’t hurt him. He was at the mercy of only his warping mind. He had to remind himself of that. It would save him if he could just bear the punishment they would surely deal.

The phantom, fake Loki solidified, as Loki remembered, soaring and lean, all harsh angles and sharp lines. This Loki was a false image, magnified in the dark. “You’re struggling against unalterable fate. You are me. You must follow the path I laid for you.”

Loki tried to step away and his boot splashed through water. Desperate for any distraction he glanced down. The red earth mixed into a thick crimson silt that lapped against his heels. He couldn’t answer this illusion, that would only validate it. He wouldn’t even look its way. It had to fail then. Eventually.

The Thor rose beside his lofty brother. His figure shone with a radiance Loki could barely brave. “You can’t even deny it. You know the truth.” Loki met Thor’s eyes and found them cold, distant. That alone stung worse than any physical injury Loki could imagine. “I expect you to follow his path. We all do. It’s inevitable.”

Failing himself, Loki couldn’t look from the towering figure of Thor, staring as if captured by his luminescence.

His scarlet cape seemed to leech from the walls themselves, his blue eyes were ice against the sea of warm hues. An unnatural scowl mired his kind features. This wasn’t Thor, merely a conjured illusion of him, plucked from Loki’s own head and twisted terribly, brightly. And yet. “You can’t escape your place as Loki. Not after all this time. After all this shed blood.”

Loki tried to step away again, desperate for a way out. But his foot slogged and when he looked down again the red silt seemed to have overcome the water entirely, thickening to the consistency of— The overwhelming richness of copper hit him in a sickening wave. With a sour taste in his mouth he tried again to unstick himself from the mud, the blood, but he was stuck fast. Trapped, only to take witness.

The elder Loki bared down upon him, offering a rescue with a sharp outstretched hand. “Stop running. It only makes things worse for everyone.” The false Loki’s sudden grin was predatory and thrilled in equal measure. “But that is what we do best, isn’t it?”

“No.” Loki broke his rule, unable to stay silent. “You’re wrong.” Standing ankle high in blood, he held the gaze of his specter self. “You’re not real. You’re just a piece of my own head here to stop me.”

To his unease, the specter nodded. “So? You’re so desperate for understanding, for some hope of a kindred spirit that you consort with the tattered remains of the Loki who was. Despite all your assertions you still turn to him for guidance like the lost creature you are. He’s only leading you to help himself.”

“I have to follow.” It was impossible to defend himself from a creature of his own mind. The harsh Loki tore through his lies, leaving him bloody in their wake. “Ikol and I have a common goal. The moment that runs dry I will have no need of him. I am more than him.”

It was Thor who swooped in. “Are you? None seem to think so. I wanted my brother back. You were who I got for all my troubles. A child who shared none of the memories that made Loki my family. In Loki’s wickedness there was that shared past to keep us tethered. When you slip to your ways I will have none of that sympathy to hold me back. When you fall it will be eternal." His condemnation rang through the air. "I cannot save you any more than I will want to. You will follow the path of my brother but you won’t be him to me, not by anything but name. And after that I will still want after my true brother. Wonder what could have been had he returned and not his impostor.”

The pair of them consumed the darkness, cast strange by the green flames and the sluggishly lapping blood surrounding Loki. The finality of the radiant Thor’s words left him choking on air, unable to swallow, his head buzzing with its own horror. “No. I won’t. I’ll show you!” He knew he was pleading with nothing but couldn’t stop. “Please! Let me show you!”

“What have you to show that I cannot already guess at?” Thor’s dismissiveness was completely impenetrable. “One Loki will end up just like another eventually. Choking on their sins.”

Loki flinched. This was too cruel. Thor wouldn’t say that. But he, he Loki, would. He would tear himself apart at the first opportunity, his own fears given teeth with which to snap and maim him with precision accuracy.

His only defense was the weak fact that the opponents he faced were not real. “Shut up.” His defiance came out weak.

“It’s only a matter of time.”

“You’re not real. Shut up! I’m doing this to myself.” He gasped a breath, hoping for steadiness he couldn't muster. “Thor loves me. He cares.”

Thor scoffed. “You cannot even sound sure in that.” His presence towered, suffocating Loki. “Truly you do not know me. You cannot know me. And do you know why you will never understand Thor?”

Covering his ears with his hands, Loki wavered on shrinking to the floor, only propped up by the disgust, the fear, of the blood beneath him.

“Because you are afraid. You’re afraid that if you look beneath the surface, ask too many questions, my disdain for you will be revealed. That the man you idolize will cast you aside or to some role of unimportance.” Thor’s words were too much. They filled Loki’s head utterly like the very glow Thor gave off, scouring away the dark. “I can save you the trouble of searching and tell you your fears are very much founded in truths. Even you, chief amongst lairs, surely can see that.”

“You’re wrong.” But he wasn’t. At least, not in ways Loki could disprove.

“You run from Thor because you fear him like you fear me” It was his own phantom self again, voice vicious and low. “You’re a coward who cannot face that your love may not be reciprocated in whole. And if you go back you’ll never know because you will never ask. That is the way of Loki. You will be silent until you snap entirely, and then it will be too late.”

“Shut up. Shut up!” Loki’s step forward sloshed heavy blood up his knee. A defiance burned within him, no longer content to be degraded. “I will! I’ll face him and I’ll ask him. Why do you think I’m going through all this to return these relics?”

“Why do you think you’re doing this? Can you even be true to yourself in your own actions?” Thor smirked, an unnatural look on his face. “Or are you a liar to your very core? Like we all know you to be.”

The phantom Loki joined his sneer. “Like you assume me to be.”

Loki lashed out and raw seidr slashed through the world, lighting it with something beyond the sickly green flames. Where the phantoms were cut they wobbled, perfect illusions broken. “I’m not like you!” Emboldened, he set to ripping their false images apart. “I’m my own. I’ll make myself my own!” His own phantom wavered on losing any form entirely. “Your time is over!”

“It won’t be.” Even the phantom’s voice wobbled, its menace losing to unsteadiness. In its failings it lost its sharpness, returning to the guise phantom Loki who had met him once before in his dark space, sharp but not outwardly monstrous. “Not until you can see past your fears that I was not the horrific villain you so assume. Your fear of complexity will not bring you to a good end.” Despite Loki’s efforts, his phantom still retained enough of a solid form to point one accusing finger. “You make me the villain to elevate yourself. You assume that because I was bad you must strive to be the opposite. You will fail at that venture and condemn yourself to a half life because you refuse to see that I might have been more than a villain.”

Another lash tore through the image. “Shut up!”

“You will never seek the truth of us and that’s why you will fail. You’ll only bring us both lower by your arrogance. No Loki can be contained forever, certainly not by himself. Shape yourself a false hero and you’ll only find villainy more tempting.”

“You’re a liar!”

“You’re no different, Loki.”

Loki flinched. “Enough from you!” And with finality, Loki cast away the image. But he knew it was too late. Those words had wormed into his mind, made a home there with the fear, the uncertainty.

The phantom Loki was gone. Which left Thor. Radiant, all consuming Thor. Loki turned on him, focusing on the entirely unnatural disdain he frowned with. That disdain wasn’t Thor. Just Loki. And he was much easier to destroy. The shade fell without even a protest.

It simply watched him. Silent. Disgusted. It's too bright light flickered and faded as he tore it down.

When they were gone he stumbled forward as the flames sputtered, struggling through the dark against the blood at his feet. As he struggled the shadows unraveled, tunneling out until Loki stood before the eye, his feet on dry ground. He glanced down, just in case, and saw only a thick layer of red dust cast dark by the green glow of the eye.

Assured then, his hand was on the thing in an instant, unwilling to be thrown again into its psychic onslaught. The glass, if that's what it was, was cool, static, innocuous. When he was not immediately attacked he hefted the metal casing for the eye, surprisingly heavy, from the rock. The first thrills of victory rang through him.

Though they soured slightly as he turned around to see the Guardians shaken. From Rocket scrambling off the ground to Nebula with her weapon drawn in a shaking hand, defending against some attacker who wasn’t there, they all appeared to have been pulled from their own worlds. Loki could only imagine what they’d seen.

He didn’t particularly want to any more than he did muse on his own experience.

There was still someone missing, though. Ikol. Despite himself and loathsomely, Loki felt his absence.

As if at the thought the presence of Ikol returned, weak at first. From the darkness the bird swooped to land on his shoulder, heavy for such a false weight. “Your mind is a Helish refuge for the likes of me.” Ikol’s birdy form seemed mussed, feathers ruffled so unlike his usual meticulous appearance. He gave no indication of knowing what exactly Loki had just seen, much to Loki’s relief.

Loki had no answer to his complaints, not when the Guardians were there, and so just nodded in agreement.

Groaning, Rocket flicked back on his flashlight and, for the first time, the stark light held no menace. The walls that had shifted as innards were inert, simply thrown into contrast by the bulb. “Okay. I’m done with this shithole. I want out.”

Behind him, Nebula cursed out an agreement.

“Then,” Loki pulled a shaking smile, letting himself soak in his shallow victory rather than muse on just how easily a simple eye had torn them - him- apart. “Let’s go. I- know the way out.”

Scrambling over rocks was magnificently easy when they were still, when whispers no longer dogged every step. And, somehow, the journey to return was an infinitely quicker affair, the caves appearing far simpler and shallower than they were as he’d entered. No doubt the eye’s doing.

When, at last, they broke from the rock into the canyons, Loki felt the full measure of his victory wash over him. He’d done it, despite the hardships, he’d rescued one relic for Asgard’s to be constructed vaults. Returned a dangerous object to safer hands than those of his former self. He’d righted one wrong. Done something truly, undeniably good. Something Thor would have to acknowledge.

Staring up at the night sky full of a thousand colors, Loki relaxed. Though not for long as Rocket jabbed him in the arm as he passed.

“C’mon, kid, we’re not done walking yet.”

By the time they returned to the Milano it seemed repaired, the worst of its gashes mended and the remaining Guardians at work fixing its wounds.

Clutching the eye close to his chest, Loki let the other Guardians do the explaining, for once grateful that his youth freed him from such expectations. After all, he was but a child sent through a harrowing ordeal and the Guardians were apt to treat him as such whether or not he fully agreed.

Though he was not left entirely alone. Quill, after all was said and done in explanations, loomed over him. “Hey, want me to take that eye thing? It looks heavy.”

Instinctively Loki pulled back before he could remember himself and force relaxation. Quill’s offer wasn’t a threat and he knew it. “Oh, that- might not be safe.” Still, he didn’t particularly want to be parted from his catch.

Despite waving a lax hand there was a certain knowing in Quill’s eyes. “Don’t worry. I’ll put it in a box or something. The safest box we got.” He smiled, though it was just slightly strained.

 

Long after the team had gone their separate ways for sleep, Loki lay awake in the makeshift bed made for him. His mind ran out of his own reach but each time when he closed his eyes it returned to the two towering figures, to the overly harsh lines of their faces and their biting words, all spun from his own head whole-cloth.

Like his own title they had taken the truth and twisted it to their own needs. He knew well enough what that looked like. But never had he been on the end of those barbed lies. They dug into him leaving him restless and uneasy. In the end it was all too easy to see the truth in their words especially as the fear of just that kept him awake.

Chapter Text

The Milano’s speakers crooned over the crunching of feet on rough rock and the not so muted shouting matches that defined this sickly tradepost they had landed at.

From under the relative safety of the Milano’s wings, Loki watched Peter and Gamora dance. Their smiles shone, dyed in neon blues from the light of signs advertising drinks and new parts all around them. Even from afar Loki could hear Peter singing to the song, almost painfully out of key. “You see, I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name. It felt good to be out of the rain.” Draping both arms across Gamora’s shoulders he tipped his head back towards the sky. Though Gamora rolled her eyes she didn’t stop moving with him, nor dropped her genuine smile. “In the desert you can remember your name.” She stepped to his pace and, though Loki couldn’t quite hear, it seemed like she sang with him. “‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.”

Their joy was infectious. Even Ikol didn’t seem so relentlessly dour for once.

And that lightness was soon joined as the other Guardians returned from their excursion into the heart of the trade outpost. All of them were loaded down with items of uncertain origin or purpose, all of which piqued Loki's interest and left him wanting to explore the place on his own. Though he knew that was a dangerous want as Rocket had already attempted to dissuade the desire by telling him countless stories about escaping death and loss of limb at places just like this. 

Keeping a hand in Gamora’s grip, Peter spun out and offered his other hand towards the lot of them. “Just in time! The party’s barely started!”

Mantis was the only one to leap to the opportunity at first, quickly dropping her things to join them. She giggled as a grinning Peter swung her around into Gamora’s waiting arms where she dipped Mantis almost extraordinary low before bringing her back up, the three of them laughing.

By then the rest of the Guardians had made their way to Loki’s side. Drax carried crate after crate into the ship, giving no indication of wanting to dance, though he didn’t seem particularly unhappy at their antics. Nebula followed him, carrying both her things and the supplies Mantis had dropped, though by the way her eyes lingered she wouldn’t stay within the ship long.

“Hey, kid.” Rocket stopped by Loki’s side. With him was Groot, not yet dancing but visibly swaying to the music. It looked only a matter of time before he joined the rest. “You don’t dance?”

Loki shrugged. “Haven’t much had the opportunity to learn.” He smirked. “I’ve been stuck living mostly with stuffy adults, you see.”

“I’m gonna tell Thor you said that.” Rocket smirked, leaning against the heavy box Loki was perched on. “If you listen to Quill he’ll say you don’t need to be taught. That it's all,” he wiggled his fingers, pointing to his chest, “in here or whatever. Dude’s a sap.” The fondness in Rocket’s eyes was unmistakable.

Though under it there was something more insidious. A deep, lingering fear. The fear of someone who’d lost everything and was kept awake fearing he’d lose it again. A fear even now at his best with those who he cared about safe beside him.

With a punch to the gut, Loki remembered he wasn’t the only one to have lost everything.

But of course Thor didn’t fear like that. Thor was Thor. He was brave and heroic and everything Loki wasn’t. He was beyond Rocket, beyond everyone. He was Thor, greatest among them.

Still, the thought lingered. If there was even a flicker of fear Loki had aggravated it with his disappearing act. Even in all his attempts to change and be something different he was still antagonizing Thor. He was still Loki. His stomach flipped at the thought. The cycle would never end. Even him here, actively attempting to break it, he was just like his former.

Ikol fluttered to his shoulder. “Don’t weep for yourself. It’s unseemly.” His voice was almost resentful. Clearly he'd read Loki's face well enough to know the line of his thoughts. That he could do so irritated.

Loki stiffened, more annoyed at him than properly chastised. Still, it was enough for him to remember and collect himself.

When he looked back to Rocket the animal was staring at him quizzically. Clearly he’d observed the interaction, or at least the cues of it. “What’cha thinking about, kid?”

“What were you thinking about?” Loki shot back, flushing and defensive.

He watched Rocket balk, cycling through surprise to his own defensive streak. “That’s not a good comeback,” Rocket quipped, looking to Groot as he joined Peter and the others in their dancing.

Loki stared at his feet, feeling slightly bad for refusing Rocket. Though not enough to find the strength to apologize, even with the words on his tongue.

It wasn’t long before both Drax and Nebula joined them, doing their own sulking.

Though sulking wasn’t quite the word for what Drax was doing. “So, boy, are you a dancer or a fighter?” Inclining his head towards the twirling couple, Drax eyed him. Clearly the Destroyer’s mind was already made up on the matter.

Something Loki found amusing. If he were to be judged he’d much rather it be on matters like this than the type of things the Avengers thrust upon him. “I’m Loki,” he shrugged, “who’s to say I can’t be both?”

On his shoulder, Ikol tittered.

“... I see.” Drax said after a long pause. Though Loki doubted that he truly did.

The evening was long as space itself and the Guardians somehow made it longer. And, despite all his attempts, Loki could not best them in the particular waiting game of sleep. Even as he snapped to attention, jerking his head off the table where he’d let it rest, he’d come to in order to watch some Guardian do or say something outlandish. Whether it be Rocket constructing a weapon out of scrap and promptly being yelled at by Peter, or Mantis making Nebula laugh, if just for a moment, Loki tried to catch every moment. But he simply couldn’t. His battle would end with only one surviving victor. He'd weakened himself too much over the last nearly sleepless nights since retrieving the eye. His eyes were simply too heavy.

And if he could only rest them for a moment.

The last thing Loki remembered, and vaguely at that, was Drax scooping him up and laying him across the makeshift cot that was his bed and pulling a thin blanket over him.

He woke up later to the blaring alarm of Peter’s music, suddenly viciously sympathetic to Drax’s cries to punish Peter for this transgression.

When he finally pulled himself from the covers and slipped on his boots he joined the Guardians at the helm. Peter grinned back at him when he did. “Just in time, kid.” As Loki watched he saw an almost pastel planet fly into view. It’s oceans were a light blue and the land itself seemed washed of intensities, leaving only pale colors, greens, browns, vast swathes of pink the origins of which Loki couldn’t know at just a glance. “Ladies, gentlemen, and Groot, welcome to Maarin. I hear they have great ice cream.” Peter flourished towards the vibrant planet below them.

They descended towards a waterlogged port city, roar of the Milano’s engines in Loki’s ears. As they swooped low over the crystalline, emerald waves Loki got a good look at the city Ikol had directed them to. At the old stone of the buildings near the water. The sharper modernity in the layers and streets above them. And—

And Loki blinked, refusing to believe what he saw, mouth souring. In the heights of the city, among the finest of buildings somewhere between sleek steel and stone, he saw a statue. Even from afar he knew those horns. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“In my defense,” Ikol was quick to pipe up. “I didn’t make that.”

“Ugh!” Loki scoffed, turning away from the window. Even here he couldn’t escape his former’s shadow. Which meant the Guardians would see him too. They’d judge Loki by him, surely. Like everyone did.

Ikol fluttered with him as he paced, utterly unapologetic.

“I am Groot?”

Half the Guardians turned their attention to him. “What’s up?” Peter asked in explanation.

And though he couldn’t know what the tree had said, Loki assumed. “He’s been here.” He made no attempts to wrangle his vagueness and none of the Guardians did either, letting it settle in the air, dour.

His mood didn’t much lighten as they landed and Ikol began to speak again. “Don’t act so childish. I cannot predict everything that happens in the universe. Whatever has happened in my- absence- we’ll deal with it.” The bird landed on his arm which Loki reluctantly held out for him, hidden from the Guardians behind his back. “That’s what Loki does.”

“You’re infuriating,” he hissed. Competing with the legacy of his former self was never so simple as it should have been.

Ikol tittered, though he sounded more irritated than amused. “The feeling is very much mutual.”

Behind him, Peter coughed. “So… we gonna get out or… Y’know… after this we can get ice cream.”

That he was waiting for Loki’s word inspired some sparse comfort. Enough to coax a slim smile as Loki turned back to the team. “I suppose,” he sighed with false exasperation. No amount of statues would keep him from his goal, even if they might distract. And the temptation of sweets was a persuasive one.

As Loki stepped onto pale stone he was hit with the smell of salt and grime. Together they made a rank concoction Loki wrinkled his nose at. It reminded him distinctly of the brine of New York’s ferries the spider Peter had once coaxed him onto.

The many strange eyes he found bearing down on him and the Guardians went a long way to affirming that assumption. When Peter had paid their parking they moved on, Loki holding close to the assumption that if he found that statue the Book of the Vishanti would surely rest nearby. But the streets were so crowded with traders, aliens of all colors and shapes with voices just as loud and varied, that their progress was excruciatingly slow with him at the helm.

Luckily, he thought up a solution to that. A prodding with his dagger would encourage these people to move, surely.

Though when he tried his brilliant idea the ensuing argument with a rather large green fellow was only resolved by Nebula and Gamora’s very persuasive, armed presences as Peter hurried the rest of them past.

“Hey, kid,” Peter muttered as the two siblings returned to them. “We’re not trying to get run out of town, y’know.” He pointed at Loki’s blade. “Can’t just go swinging that thing around like a little… four eight madman.”

“I’m not— I know.” Loki watched Gamora’s silver blade glint in the light as she stowed it away, not trying very hard to refuse bubbling jealousy.

Despite the dagger in his hands being by all standards just as deadly, just as persuasive in such circumstances, it simply wasn’t because of the hands that wielded it. Because of him. As he was it might as well be a broken toy for all the menace he conveyed.

Ikol adjusted on his shoulder, as always choosing the least convenient times to offer his advice. “Perhaps if you had not abandoned any and all menace you could have held in a foolish attempt to distance yourself from me you would not find yourself in this predicament. A smile, true or not, will not get you out of every situation, much as we might wish it so.”

Loki didn’t comment on Ikol’s inclusion of we and simply took his words, unsure of what to make of them.

With the siblings leading, their progress was markedly faster. Which only left Loki more silently envious.

The higher they rose into the hills of the city, with every exhausting set of steps the grime fell away. Eventually they left the smell and dirt behind them entirely. The stone buildings shone stark white and where they melded with metal was seamless. The streets between buildings themselves were emptier too. Though Loki was quick to realize why. The odd armed guard stood at street corners, in front of shops and by alleys. At their hips were thick metal rods.

One of the guards caught him staring at the weapon and made to brandish it, grinning wickedly. Loki dropped his eyes to his feet, gulping, incredibly unwilling to take any sort of blow from the club.

A hand caught his hood, jerking him closer to the Guardians. When he looked up it was Mantis who held him. “Sorry.” Though she let go quickly. “Don’t stray,” she offered with a small smile. “It’s unsafe.”

“Yeah,” Rocket agreed. “Let’s not get on these guys bad sides.”

Loki just nodded. However reluctantly, he kept his gaze low and his shoulders hunched. At least until they reached the statue that had so caught Loki’s attention. When it stood before them Loki stepped forward to inspect its dark stone as the other Guardians stood back.

“I did not make this.” Ikol insisted again, taking off into the air only to settle on one of the rising horns. “Surely even you can see that.”

And, staring up at the creation with a knot in his chest, he did have to acknowledge Ikol’s words. The statue itself was composed of black stone carved into a hooded figure. There was no face to be found under the draped fabric, nothing to identify Loki as grand, or even as Loki besides the horns which sprouted from beneath the hood. Even the demeanor of the statue seemed inconsistent with what Loki guessed his elder self appreciated. There were rounded shoulders drawn in with an air of humbleness that reeked of falsity.

This wouldn’t be what Ikol would have wanted of his legacy. Even shining the barest light of honesty upon himself let Loki knew he felt the same. This was not a statue to celebrate Loki. It cast him just as a messenger, a powerful figure but not infallible.

Instead the focus seemed on the tome the statue Loki held out. The book was inlaid with intricate lines of gold. Clearly it was precious to the creator of this statue, whoever that was. It was the real star, it's gold glimmering against pitch black stone.

Peter interrupted his inspection, leaning against the statue and staring up at it with a crooked grin. “So this is you- or- was. Did you really have horns? Isn’t that a bit much?”

“No… its not...” Refusing the urge to brush his own cornet, Loki followed the statue’s invisible gaze to a building of metal arcs and pale stone. Two guards stood at its entrance-way, blocking a heavy looking curtain. They looked no less threatening than their counterparts lower in the city.

“Lemme guess?” Peter grimaced. “It’s in there.”

“Likely.”

“What are the chances we can just walk in?”

Gamora barked a laugh. “It’s never that easy.” Then her cynical eye turned on Loki. “At least, not for us.” Her tone was clever, dangerously so. “Hey, Peter, how up are you for doing what you do best?”

Peter’s smile for her dazzled, though he didn’t lose his cockiness. “Which is? I mean- I can think of a few things but there are children present so…”

Rolling her eyes, Gamora nevertheless smiled at him. “Moron,” she sighed fondly. “You’re doing it right now. Go talk those guards deaf. We’ll back you up. It should be a good enough distraction.”

Realizing her intentions and pleased by them, Loki cut in. “And I sneak in while you do?”

Gamora nodded. “Your size is an advantage here.”

“I’m smaller than he is!” Rocket piped up, sounding indignant. “And smarter. And better at stealing things. You guys have seen me- oh wait, no, you haven’t seen me steal anything that’s how good I am.”

Drax frowned. “Was it you that stole my socks?”

“Ew, no. Why would I need your socks?” Rocket made a face, sticking his tongue out.

Even Peter seemed curious. “What about those spare batteries I lost last month? There any chance you borrowed them?”

Nebula cleared her throat with all her usual curtness. “Do we have time for this?”

“She’s right. The longer we stand here the more suspicious we are.” Gamora nodded towards the building, wrangling the straying conversation with a deft hand. “Rocket, you might be right but this is magic we’re dealing with. He’s a god. His mind is going to take whatever punishment that book dishes out better than any of ours.”

Torn between fleeting pride at that praise and overwhelming uncertainty that was only spurred by her ominous words, Loki remained silent and let them argue.

“Oh, c’mon,” Rocket scoffed. “He’s twelve we can’t just let him walk in there alone!”

Though that was enough to break his listening streak. “I’m not twelve.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Rocket dismissed him.

Which left Loki bristling. Turning back to Gamora he nodded. “Let’s do it.”

As he spoke Ikol returned to his shoulder, murmuring discontentedly. “I have a better idea.”

Loki ignored him and in doing so felt the bird’s glare boring through his head.

Falling into line behind the Guardians, Loki curved his shoulders and threw up his white hood, anything to help him look as unimpressive and unnoticeable as possible. As expected the guards moved to block Peter’s entrance, their hands tightening on their weapons. Loki eyed them, apprehensive.

Peter breezed on, as if oblivious to all warning signs, only stopping a few steps from the aliens, off to the side enough that they need turn their bodies to look at him, leaving one side of the doorway unguarded. “Hey, boys! You two look like guys who would know their way around this big ass city. Any chance you could help a pal out and show me around?” His wide smile was impressively vapid.

The left guard, whose vibrant tattoos covered near every inch of visible skin, scowled. “No.”

Other than a blink Peter gave no indication of being thrown off. “Well then, you can help from here. No need to do all that walking. Okay, so—”

As both guards stared at the distracting and annoying figure of Peter, Loki slipped behind their backs through the heavy silken curtain that separate the building from the light outside. Fuzzy darkness fell around him as the curtain shuffled back into place.

Inside the first thing to strike him even as his eyes adjusted was the thick vanilla incense. It rolled over him in a dizzying wave. The pale, unadorned walls almost seemed to glow in the haze of smoke and the dim light. Magic laced the air. Loki could almost taste it, smokey, nearly electric. It shivered up his spine in a heady rush. If this was what magic was- this intoxicating power- then he truly was missing out. He spared a moment of irritation for his own inabilities, though only a moment as he was still propelled forward by the lure.

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as he slipped further into this strange place. From the entrance Loki stepped into a wide room, not unlike the new Asgard’s own dining hall, though not half so grand. Tall ceilings drew Loki’s eyes up to the murals of runes some small instinctive part of him understood as old magicks. Though they were not the culprits that left the air so heavy with unspent energies. When the runes revealed nothing new to Loki his interest in them faded and his gaze fell. Landing on a podium at the far end of the hills. On it, a book.

Loki took a step towards it, drawn magnetically. He strode past rows of smoking incense and baubles of light bobbing in the air. Hopping up the steps to the podium, Loki stood on his toes to pull the book from its place. He hefted it unsteadily into his arms, staggering off the podium. “See, Ikol, I didn’t need your help.”

The bird remained silent, still clearly bristling at being ignored.

Carrying the tome with both arms, Loki inspected it as he jogged across the hall. He made it only halfway before stopping entirely, frowning down at the heavy book. It’s markings were that of the statue outside but something about it left him unsure. Holding it he felt none of the intensity such an object should produce. Certainly the air seemed no heavier around it than it did otherwise.

But, before he could question it any further, invisible chains bound him. And, as he fell forward, too startled to even cry out, Ikol flew off, abandoning him. Though Loki swore he heard a vindictive laugh from the bird.

Loki’s teeth clicked together as his jaw hit the stone, throbbing a white flash of pain straight to his temple, bringing tears to his eyes. Trying to blink them away, Loki craned his neck to find his attacker. At first he saw only shuffling fabric of dark robes. “Hello,” he opened, hoping for a quick solution he doubted he’d get. “Would you please let me up?”

“I don’t help thieves.” A male voice answered. “Are you with those troublemakers outside?”

Loki played the first card he could think of. “I’m twelve! I’m not a thief.”

Cloth shifted as the man flickered his wrist and lifted Loki into the air by the invisible bonds. “Your age has no bearing on your capacity for wickedness.”

“Ouch,” Loki quipped with a thin smile. His mind raced. The figure before him had no face, there were nothing but shadows under the hood. But the hands that twisted spells were a pale pink, evidence of some life underneath the magic. Even with Loki’s feet dangling off the ground, the figure towered over him. “Listen, I’m clearly no threat to you, sir." He laid on the false reverie. "Let me go and you’ll never see me again,” Loki lied, smiling encouragingly.

The man ignored him. “Why are you here?”

“Just browsing.” The chains tightened around him but he couldn’t stop himself. “Or- have you heard of this thing called Vine? You’d be surprised to learn it’s not about gardening—” He winced as his very guts constricted. “Okay! Do you want the truth?”

The squeezing stopped. “Of course.” The man’s disdain was clear.

“Great! I am the connoisseur of truth.” The faceless figure gave no indication of suspicion. “I need your book.” As he spoke, Loki attempted to find some weakness in the bonds that held him, poking at the spell with his seidr.

“No.”

“Please? It’s really very important.”

“No.”

Loki sighed. Whatever held him had no easy escape as all his efforts proved fruitless. “Why not? I promise I’ll take the very best care of it.” He avoided adding a snide remark, though barely.

The robed man picked up the book Loki had nearly stolen. “You’re not even a good thief. This is a fake.”

“I’d noticed, actually. Just a little late.” Loki could almost feel the man glare at him. “Though you still haven’t answered my question.” He continued to rib, focusing on that to avoid the fear creeping up his throat. He couldn’t break this magic and had no idea exactly what this man could do. He was essentially at the mercy of a faceless specter. It was impossible not to be nervous despite how he tried.

“Were you ever to hold the real tome you would be thrown into madness. You’re a fool for seeking it out.”

Loki just shrugged. “You never know. I mean, if you’ve dealt with it I’m sure I could.”

“No!” That Loki’s words were getting such a reaction was more than slightly gratifying, despite the situation. “You weren’t chosen. It will destroy you!”

For a few seconds Loki watched the figure pace, dumbfounded. “Excuse me? I’m not- chosen? I don’t think that’s how the book works.”

It seemed the right question to provoke him into answering. “Yes! It is! The man who brought our book to us was a special kind and he told me many things.” Loki’s stomach flipped. His other’s lies were about to be fed to him. Doubtlessly they would taste foul. “He told me to watch the book, keep it safe.”

“I’m sure he did, but he was lying to you—” Loki’s tongue caught on nothing and in an instant he was gagged. And his greatest weapon was taken from him.

“No! I listened and did as he said. When I did, when I’d gathered enough people to my cause the book- it opened its secrets to us.” The man began to sound manic. “We’d been chosen! And from there- anything was possible. You have no idea.”

The continued gag kept Loki from a rebuttal, however desperately he wanted to give one about how he very much did have an idea.

“And you weren’t chosen, that’s why you can’t carry the book. It would destroy you and I don’t particularly want the blood of a child on my hands.”

Loki squirmed in his bonds again, beginning to feel the magic in the air shift again. That the man was not so homicidal to relish hurting him was a small comfort. Though it didn’t exclude any number of punishments. As he was working to not contemplate them Loki’s bonds shifted, swinging him upside down. Unable to protest beyond a vicious glare, Loki sat in silence, feeling the blood begin to rush to his head.

The man waved one pink hand. “Because I’m a fair man I’ll let you go without trouble. Don’t come again. This book is not yours and you must know that. I might not want to hurt you, but I will if its the only thing that will teach you to stay away from us.”

With the last of the words, Loki’s vision flickered and he had to squint at the sudden, near blinding light. Then he fell, the binds keeping him aloft vanishing in an instant. He twisted, crashing hard on his shoulder instead of his face.

“Oh, great.” It was Peter’s voice. As Loki righted himself he saw the Guardians frozen in place by the same bonds that had trapped him. “I’ve officially decided that I hate magic. It’s crap.”

As the spell binding the Guardians was lifted they staggered; Nebula drawing her sword and glaring at the building only paces away with the smug guards. But Gamora stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “It’s not going to work.”

Nebula scowled, but stood down.

Peter kneeled next to Loki. “You okay?”

Watching the guards, Loki just nodded. “I’m fine.” His ears were ringing. The sudden loss of pungent vanilla left him lightheaded. The air was freed of its magical potency but Loki felt kneecapped, suddenly cut off again from the thing which he deserved.

"We should probably get out of here," Peter held out a hand to help Loki up as he glanced back at the snickering guards. Loki didn't take it, his skin still crawling. But he did rise and, with the other Guardians, slipped away from the courtyard and into the streets. He barely looked where he walked, relying solely on the Guardians to lead him, still unable to shake the slight tremble in his hands.

“Hey.” Loki jumped at Peter’s voice. And, when Peter stopped by the side of a dim alley, recognized the concern in Peter’s eyes. “You sure you're alright? You know you don’t have to be, right? It's okay to not be one hundred percent all the time."

Loki stared at the insignias on Peter’s jacket if just to give him something tangible to focus on. “I said I’m fine.”

“You’re bleeding.” Peter pointed at Loki’s chin, voice drier now that his second helping hand had been slapped away.

“What?” Touching his chin, Loki stared at the red stain left on his fingertips. He brushed his chin again and watched the blood roll down his fingers, numbly fascinated by it. “Oh. I- fell when I was caught. I must’ve…” he trailed off, lamely. Wiping the blood off on his tunic, Loki pushed down the unwanted image of his elder self, bloody and silent. Though he wasn’t much successful and, slightly nauseous, he dipped his head, trying to let himself breathe.

The sound of wings and a sudden weight on Loki’s shoulder foretold the return of Ikol. “I see your plan worked marvelously.” His smugness was unbearable.

It was enough to pull Loki from his nausea, if just for moments. “Excuse me for a second.” He directed the comments towards Peter, though was already walking away. Walking a few paces up the street, he couldn't help but see the rising horns of the statue over the buildings on the street's edge. "You started a cult, you have no victory here.”

Ikol turned his head. “So now you’re not ignoring me? How gracious.” Loki could practically feel his sneer.

Frowning, Loki knew there was no good rebuttal to that rhetorical. “What do you want? After abandoning me to that man I thought maybe you’d stay that way.”

“Do you want me to?”

Loki didn’t answer that. Despite himself, despite Ikol’s abrasiveness, he didn’t.

“I thought so.” Ikol’s smugness was back. “Now, do you want my help or not?”

That he wanted even less, though. “Not when you’re acting like that.” There were people passing by them, nearly all of them looking at him strangely as they did. No doubt a child speaking to himself in the streets was a sight to behold. But, ultimately he was a child, those who saw would simply consign him to that and think no more of it. Turning away before he could ignite a real fight with the bird, one he felt beginning to boil in his stomach, Loki began his return to the Guardians before they could suspect any undue strangeness.

The bird puffed up in indignation, landing on his shoulder. “You don’t want my help?” When Loki didn’t answer he continued in his pettiness. “Foolish. Fine, if you’re so sure then I shall be what you made me, a bird to sit silently on your shoulder.”

“Ooh,” Loki breathed back, equally annoyed. “Does that make me a pirate? That would be quite fun. You know, Midgardians have made so many movies and stories about them, I think I’d quite fit in.”

Silent as the grave he’d climbed from, Ikol did not answer, but his glare scathed.

“Guardians!” Loki smiled at the Guardians as he rejoined them, silently boiling at Ikol. “We need a new plan, obviously. But I do know for sure that the book is in there, so there is some good news in this mess.”

Utterly unaware of the furious bird on Loki’s left, Peter jerked his head towards the building. “What happened in there?”

Loki waved a hand, smothering his anger at Ikol under peerless cheeriness. “Oh, my old self seems to have started a cult,” he said breezily.

Rocket barked a laugh. “I either hate this guy or love him.”

The Guardians stared at him with varying levels of exhaustion. “You’re kidding,” Peter sighed.

“Not at all.” Loki’s smile was so wide it hurt. And still Ikol seethed beside him, a furious little presence. “I met with their leader. Lovely man, quite obsessed with the tome and very full of himself.”

The bird on Loki’s shoulder practically radiated malice at that comment, as if trying to silently damn him.

Loki bit the side of his cheek, ignoring Ikol and keeping his smile. “Any ideas of dealing with him?”

It was Drax that spoke up, scowling at the building. “I’ll meet his magic with my fists, see how he likes being bound.”

“Er—”

Rocket cut Loki off. “Yeah, that’s not gonna work.”

Drax simply scoffed, crossing his arms tight. “It could.”

Nebula was next. “Let’s just blow it up. The book shouldn’t be hurt by that, right?”

Though Rocket seemed to appreciate that. “Ooh. I have just the gun.”

Grimacing, Loki balked. “Wouldn’t that… kill people?”

She acted unperturbed by his apprehension. “Well, you don’t have to do it, I’ll do it.”

“No!” Gamora interrupted hastily. “No killing people unless we have to.”

“Okay!” Peter jumped in. “Do we have any ideas that don’t involve blowing something up? Like, any at all?”

The team went silent.

To which Peter slapped a hand to his face, groaning. “Awesome. Love it.”

Slowly, Mantis raised a hand. “Um.” She smiled as all eyes turned on her. “If we could get close enough to this man I could… make him more suggestible to giving away the book. Or simply put him to sleep. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about his magic or hurt anybody.”

“Well, that’s great but how are we gonna get up close to let you do that? It’s not like we can just walk it, we already tried that.”

Mantis dropped her hand, falling into silence with the rest of them.

“Alright.” Deadpan, Peter shrugged. “Since we’re clearly not getting anywhere… uh. Who wants to get something to eat?”

With no better current options, Loki went along with them, much to the ire of Ikol who seemed to want this wrapped up as quickly as possible. That last fact certainly helped Loki’s decision to doddle with the rest of them. Which was only affirmed by the fruity, ice cream like substance they procured from a local shop not all so far from the cult building.

Ikol, true to at least his fury, stayed a silent, malicious force on his shoulder.

Looking up from his own bowl, Loki saw how easily the team rebounded from their failure. That their safety was threatened only minutes ago seemed to mean little to them now as they ate and spoke among themselves. Mantis attempted to share her portion with Nebula, who accepted, if hesitantly. Peter scooped a spoonful out of Gamora’s vibrant blue bowl and shoved it in his mouth only seconds before pecking her a kiss to make amends, leaving a blue mark on her cheek from her own ice cream. She wiped it off quickly but the affection in her eyes was unmistakable. Groot was busy feeding the stuff to a passing stray animal, utterly bored by the happenings of his team.

He envied all of them.

The cream caught in Rocket’s fur, though he seemed not to notice as he looked to Groot. “Hey! Don’t- c’mon. One of us would have eaten it.”

Groot looked up, holding his bowl aloft away from the hungry cries of the strange scaly creature. “I am Groot!”

“Well we don’t want it now.” When Groot went back to feeding the thing, Rocket smirked, fond.

Loki watched the tree shift his bark, extending his hand to better reach the shy scaly creature as this extension of his form was effortless. That Loki envied too.

“So,” Peter brought him back to attention. “Any ideas now that we got some food in us?”

And still the Guardians grumbled.

Gamora looked to Loki in deference. “It’s your book and your mission.”

“It’s not really my book; he stole it. I'm only retrieving it for its rightful place with Asgard.” But her unsaid reasoning was clear. It was Loki’s mission and he should be the one to solve this issue. Despite their aid his fate would ultimately come down to him alone. Luckily he wasn’t devoid of thoughts on the matter. “That man’s obsession certainly revolves around the book itself but he seems to revere my elder self as some kind of deliverer too.” Loki grimaced.

“So?”

“So we could very well use that reverence against him. I am Loki- if not the very same one- am I not?”

Peter leaned on his elbows. “No offense, kid, but you don’t really look anything like that statue out in front of that guy’s cult.” Though at Loki’s smile, Peter’s eyes widened. “Unless… you could?”

“Unless I could.” Loki echoed.

All the Guardians were invested now. Gamora arched an eyebrow. “Could you use your magic to pretend to be that Loki?”

“I don’t really need to try and be him,” Loki grimaced at the idea. That was exactly what he wished to avoid. “But he’s just a hooded figure to them, no? I can mimic fabric easy enough and lucky for me that’s most of the disguise but-” Loki flushed. “As you can tell I don’t yet have the stature to match and replicating height through the magicks I know has always been an issue with me.”

“Yeah,” Peter smirked, “I bet it has.”

While Drax burst out laughing Gamora punched him in the shoulder for the joke, a show of solidarity Loki appreciated.

“Anyway.” He spoke over Drax’s over loud guffaws. “If I could just—” Then his eyes landed on Groot again. “Actually- I have an idea.”

Minutes later he sat on Groot’s shoulders underneath a heavy cloth Rocket had stolen from some nearby vendor, hastily made to look like a robe. Groot’s branches shifted around him, mimicking his arms. The makeshift construct of spells Loki lay across them left him weak kneed so he felt immensely glad it was Groot who would do the walking. It was a threefold thing, both warping the appearance of the cloth, laying a heavy shadow across his face and shaping the light glinting off his cornet into horns in one efficient manipulation of light, and lowering his voice to match his elder self’s.

Not for the first and surely not for the last time he cursed his lack of knowledge on spellwork. He could meld together any number of basic incantations but even with utmost focus they couldn’t compare to the spells he couldn’t learn simply because the art was lost to all who would teach him. At least, save one stubborn, miserable bird.

As was, he almost felt like thanking Ikol for choosing such an easy to mimic disguise but that would include talking to Ikol, so he kept his appreciation to himself.

Peter looked up at them, frowning. “I feel like you’re too tall.”

Though Loki was only just slightly taller than him, such a difference was delightful and one Loki meant to take full advantage of. “Unhappy I will be taller than you one day?”

That seemed only to annoy Peter more. “Okay, but you can’t be sure of that.”

“I’ve actually grown to be this tall before!”

Peter crossed his arms. “I still think you’re fudging the numbers a bit. And besides, just because it happened one time doesn’t mean it will happen this time.”

Loki has no answer to that, only frowning.

“I am Groot!”

In response to Groot’s annoyance, Rocket scampered up their disguise. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll buy you a new friggin video game after this.”

“I am Groot.”

“The less you whine the sooner it’ll be over.” With that appeasement, Rocket looked up to Loki. “What are you gonna do when we get up there, just ask for it back or what?”

Loki shrugged and Groot’s branches followed. “I’m going to lie to him, of course. And if that doesn’t work I’ll just threaten him.”

Although all the Guardians seemed to agree with that line of reasoning, Nebula appeared doubtful. “Have you ever done that before?”

“I’m insulted.” Waving a concealed hand, Loki let himself sound hurt. “Depending on who you listen to this is what I do best.” For the briefest moment the shadow of a bird high above passed over him. He didn’t look up. “Now, shall we?”

With that everyone fell into place for their scheme. Rocket had placed smoke charges around the courtyard, all primed to go off and make his arrival memorable. The Guardians would act as “chosen” since the cult seemed to obsessed with that concept. With them he would take the Book of the Vishanti and disband this ridiculous cult. It was foolproof.

In his place, Loki waited for Rocket’s signal. He- or Groot, truly- would walk through the cloud of smoke, made ascendant and otherworldly by the illusion. It would be up to Loki to talk his way past the guards.

Then the signal went up and thick grey smoke poured into the courtyard. Groot began to walk and Loki prepared himself. Around them the Guardians fell into place. They burst from the smoke right in front of the men that protected the Book’s home.

Both guards held their weapons tight, immediately their eyes were drawn to Loki in the familiar figure of the statue. “Stop.” The one on the right directed.

Loki knew it was his time now. Spreading his arms wide and feeling Groot follow his moves, Loki spoke and heard the voice of his former self from his own mouth. That phenomenon he tried not to waver at. “You would stop me? Surely you’ve made a mistake?”

The left guard glanced at his more stoic companion but still spoke against them. “This is private property.”

As the smoke cleared behind them the statue behind them was revealed. In the lateness of the day, framed by the planet’s burning star, it cast its shadow across the building, across Loki. “I see,” Loki said, short and displeased. The left guard shifted nervously. “Regardless, it is by my will this building even stands as it is. And by my will what I see has displeased me. I’ve come to fix these… mistakes with those who are my true messengers.” Loki gestured to the Guardians, the dark cloth concealing Groot’s branches that made up his makeshift hands. “By their measure you were less than welcoming to their arrival.”

The right guard eyed them suspiciously, clearly not taken. “Maybe. What happened to the kid and that tree?”

“Wha- Shortstack?” Peter cut in, quickly sobering. He grimaced with surprisingly believable horror. “You don’t want to know what happened to him. Awful stuff.”

As Peter glanced leadingly in Loki’s direction, the guard’s demeanor suddenly shifted, cautious suspicion taking over skepticism. “And the tree?”

Loki split into a wicked smile none would see, sinking into his role. “That unfortunate creature has been reduced to naught but firewood.” His warped voice ran low and menacing. “They were chosen but they disobeyed my will. Such transgressions need be punished. Surely men of your… caliber understand that?”

It commanded the attention he desired. The left one stood at attention, alarmed. His colleague was less startled. Loki leered down at them all the same. “What should we do? I mean, the guy does look like the statue,” the nervous one muttered to his companion.

“I dunno.” Alternating between Loki and his weapon, the guard still appeared reluctant.

“I’m gonna go get him. I’m not dying for this weird ass gig.” And with that the left most guard disappeared behind the curtain.

His companion turned on them, eyes narrowed. “I don’t like this.”

“Nor do I like to be kept waiting.” Loki reveled in the concern that elicited in the man.

Though it was quickly followed by stubborn resilience. “I’m the one with the taser club, buddy.”

“My hands are my weapons. The very air you breathe can turn itself against you at a whim and a wave.”

“The boss can do that too; you’re not special.”

Loki scowled. “Hey- I mean- who was it who gave your employer his abilities?”

But Loki appeared to have lost his audience. “No, back up.” The guard took a step forward, hand on his club tightening. Yet in all his focus on Loki he missed Mantis slipping in behind him and froze in his tracks as she put a hand to his head.

“Shhhh.” With a finger to her lips, Mantis guided the man away from Loki. He made no protest, entranced as he was.

Watching it, Loki felt his skin crawl. Such utter control over a person’s very being. That was a kind of power that corrupted even the best men.

Though Peter gave Mantis a thumbs-up. “Awesome job,” he whispered enthusiastically.

Mantis beamed. Despite all of Loki’s uneasiness, it seemed she held no such nefarious purposes as she released the disorientated man without further harm.

He stood there, silent, docile.

Just in time for his companion to return, too hassled to notice his companions odd behavior. Staring at Loki’s-or Groot’s- concealed feet, he gestured inside. “He- uh- wants you to come in.”

“A wise choice.” Delighted, though careful not to show it, Loki held up a hand and felt Groot follow in an attempt to silence the snickering Guardians. “You two,” he pointed at Rocket and Gamora, “stay here.”

Inside the vanilla hit Loki again but with Groot as his legs he didn’t waver. With companions the silence of the building wasn’t so complete, certainly not as Drax yawned.

“Dude,” Peter hissed, elbowing Drax. “We’re supposed to be stoic, remember?”

“I am stoic.” Drax shrugged. “Even the most stoic of men must yawn.”

“Not now! We’re kinda in the middle of something!”

“Shut up!” Nebula growled across Loki.

They entered the amphitheater as the group quieted at the atmosphere. As before, Loki felt the magic in the air that left him out of breath. It seemed stronger now, the tug on his soul that meant the book was near, nearer now than before.

Across the hall he saw it in the pink toned hands of a man, the same man as before, Loki assumed. Now he was surrounded by a handful of other figures, all of them sharing his taste in fashion.

So Ikol really had started a cult. And it was up to Loki now to disband it. “Finally.” Loki’s irritated, altered voice cut the silence and the robed figures flinched. “Your door guard is not appreciated.”

The lead man dipped to a low bow. “We- I was trying to protect the book. I did what you told me to in return for this power.”

Forced to trust Ikol’s interpretation that he’d promised no such reward, Loki scoffed. “It wasn’t your power to wield. I never instructed you to use it.”

“I know but- but it opened itself to us!” Unphased, the man plowed on with excitement, as if delighted to show of his accomplishments to an elder. “We did amazing things. I could show you!”

It was almost funny. But Loki kept his frown. “I have little interest in that.”

“If we just—”

“Hey!” Peter cut in, puffing out his chest. “Weren’t you listening? He says he doesn’t care.”

The figure turned to Peter, visibly taken aback. “You-” He returned his attentions to Loki. “Who are these people?”

“My chosen.”

As if Loki has slapped him, the man jerked away. “This bunch?”

Loki looked down at the impatient Nebula, tapping her foot so loudly and rapidly it set a manic beat against the tile, to Mantis, rocking back and forth on her heels, to the visibly bored Drax and to Peter who still held his air of importance despite being insulted to his face. “Their merits are many and far outstrip your own.”

The robed men surrounding them grumbled their discontent. And still their leader continued to deny Loki’s words. “But- but we did as you asked. The book opened itself for us.”

“It wasn’t supposed to.” Loki snapped. The longer they stayed here the more likely it would be that their ruse was discovered and their plan would dissolve entirely. He needed to hurry this as much as he needed delicacy and that balance was front on his mind as he spoke. “Your place was as a keeper only and it’s time you return my possession to its rightful owner.”

“No. No, no. Let me show you.” Frantic, the man flipped open the book and as he did Loki’s heart skipped a beat. Ikol fluttered on his shoulder. Peter’s hand went to his gun but Loki held out a hand. Groot was slow to follow though, clearly apprehensive.

If only Loki had felt the pull of the magic before they all did now; the air itself very nearly sparking with wound tension, like the slightest wrong move would threaten to immolate them all. The man flipped through countless pages before finally settling on one Loki only caught a small glimpse of before he turned to his cult. “This one.” He glanced briefly to Loki. “We can show you what we’ve done.”

With quick movements a golden circle sparked to life across the floor, intricate lines connecting together to weave a pattern Loki couldn’t discern.

“Oh shit.” Peter cursed. “He’s got wizard magic.”

The shifting golden circle rose above them, shaky and amateur, barely stable. But still it whipped up a wind, catching Loki’s cloak in the beginning of a tempest. Whatever its duty was, despite all its flaws it still seemed apt to enact its will upon the world. With sparks around his hands, the man turned back to Loki. “You feel it right? The magic in the air.”

“I- do.” Loki offered, nervous. That very magic was curdling sourly on Loki’s tongue. Safe beneath shadows he scrunched his face, disgusted. “But I don’t need a demonstration.”

“This place isn’t what it seems!” The man interrupted. “We built it with the spells in this book, if we strip them all away we can show you how far we’ve come!”

“Strip them- all… wait- don’t do that!” In the same moment Loki realized what was happening Ikol took off, abandoning him again. “Stop—” Magic lashed out from the circle, arcing across the air. It struck the walls. It struck Loki in the chest, digging in, tearing at his tenuous enchantments. He tried to cling to them but the tug was undeniable. He’d soon be revealed for what he was: just a child sitting atop a sentient tree.

Peter was looking at him. “Loki!”

The walls were shifting around them, grand cathedral shrinking, runes fading. The building was reverting underneath the spell.

Panicking, Loki shouted the first half formed plan he thought of. “Groot, hit him!”

Unfurling from around Loki, who dropped to the floor, revealing their ruse and dropping the spells that had secreted him away, Groot’s arms raised high into the air, swinging down to crash upon the leader’s head with a worryingly loud thunk.

The man let out a small groan before slumping to the floor. The circle that was forming faltered.

“Okay!” Peter shouted, obviously just as surprised as the cult at Loki’s move. “We’re improvising then!” His first blaster shot found its mark, sending one member flying back against the far wall but his second was deflected by a summoned golden shield. It ricocheted around the room, exploding dangerously close to Loki’s feet.

Drax lunged forward, barreling down two hooded figures before being frozen in place by a trio of others. Mantis met the same fate as she attempted to sneak towards the men holding Drax; frozen in place her wide eyes stared at the remaining Guardians. Nebula broke the arms of one who attempted to grab her but stopped her attack when she saw Mantis at the mercy of the men. Though her glare was enough to make the men flinch back.

With two of the Guardians as hostages the fighting came to a stop. Worse, their leader who Groot had clubbed showed signs of life. As he stood, his hood falling away he appeared a normal pinkish man, no greatness about him. But his hands were up as soon he remembered himself.

In an instant all action froze, familiar invisible bonds trapping Loki and the Guardians around him. The man scowled at Loki. “You. You tricked me.”

“Well… yes and no.” Trying to keep a brave face, Loki attempted to keep himself confident. To not think about the fact that he’d failed again. That Ikol was right. Biting his tongue, Loki pulled an unconvincing smile.

“I warned you not to come back.” The man glanced back at his remaining companions. “Look what you’ve done. What did we ever do to you?”

“I- nothing.” Loki looked at his feet. The man had a point. “I just needed the book back. It’s not personal.”

Shaking his head, the leader twisted his wrist and the bonds around Loki tightened dramatically, squeezing the breath from him. “I regret this. It will be a stain on my conscious.”

“Hey! Douchebag!” Came a shout from somewhere behind Loki. And then, as if thrown, Rocket flew past their heads, landing squarely on the man’s face. Sparing just the shortest moment to wink at Loki, he slapped a small, plunger like device square on the man’s forehead. Not wasting his element of surprise, Rocket did the same to each standing cult member before finally landing on the ground beside Peter. He pressed the trigger in his hand and electricity lit up the room, dropping each and every cult member to the floor. “If you’re willing to hurt a kid you don’t have a conscious to ruin, buddy.”

As the men seized on the floor the bonds fell free of Loki and the Guardians. Starstruck, Loki stared at Rocket. “You- saved me?”

Rocket snorted at his surprise. “Well, yeah.”

“We saved you,” Gamora spoke up as she came to join them.

“I did most of it,” Rocket corrected. “She just got me there.”

"Threw you there.” With another correction, Gamora turned to Nebula. “Are you okay?”

Scoffing, Nebula nevertheless nodded. “I’m fine. Obviously.”

Collapsing against Gamora, Peter kissed her. “God, I love you.” Her smile was momentary, but delighted.

“How-” Loki interrupted them, still slightly out of breath and confused. “How did you know we needed help?”

Rocket and Gamora glanced at each other. It was Rocket that answered. “I dunno. We just kinda… felt it.”

With a flutter of ghostly wings, Ikol landed on Loki’s shoulder. “It’s a mystery if I’ve ever seen one.” By his knowing tone he was deeply pleased with himself.

Shocked, Loki couldn’t even be annoyed with him.

Above the hum of electricity that coursed through the cult members, Nebula spoke. “Are you gonna take the book or not?”

“Oh, right!” Remembering his mission, Loki swooped in to pick up the dropped Book of the Vishanti. He briefly met the eyes of the man who’d held him captive. “Sorry you got caught up in all this. But you were trying to kill me.”

The man couldn’t answer, his jaw locked.

Cradling the old leather, Loki hefted the book close. In his hands the book fell quiet, almost dormant, and with it the buildings enchantments fell away, growing dimmer and dingier. Part of him felt guilty as the building returned to a lesser state. They had accomplished something great in his former self’s wake.

“We good?” Peter looked down at him, waiting for his confirmation with a questioning thumbs up.

One Loki returned after shaking his melancholy. “Very much so.”

Peter grinned. “Awesome! Two down; one to go. We're nearly there, kid."


Later, long after the Guardians had exhausted themselves of amusements and reenacting Gamora throwing Rocket at their attackers, Loki sat with the Book of the Vishanti in his lap. Ikol sat opposite him, unspeaking. Most of its pages were covered in strange runes, glowing slightly, unreadable to him. But near the end the runes changed to the familiar text of Asgard, even the paper was of a different make, newer, smoother. Upon inspection the pages appeared sutured in by seidr. The elegantly penned text seemed to be in code, all nonsense words that, strung together, meant nothing.

Loki ran his fingers over the penmanship, already sure of who had written it. Imagining his former self’s hand in place of his he traced the words. But his script wasn’t so composed, his hand less practiced. His tracing simply couldn't measure up. Smothering jealousy, he glanced up at the motionless bird, chewing on his thoughts as they strayed to all that had happened, all that the bird was. “Thank you,” he finally said, the words falling on flat air.

Ikol looked up, regarding him with clever birdy eyes, an unnatural green that revealed his true nature. “You sound surprised. That sentiment doesn’t make for a proper thanks.”

Shrugging, Loki didn’t keep Ikol’s eye, falling back to the page, to the last remnants of the Loki who came before him. “You helped me.”

“Shocked I did something right for once? Something good.” Ikol’s bitterness was clear.

It made Loki flush. “Maybe.”

Ikol scoffed, fluttering to perch on Loki’s lap so he was impossible to ignore. “It’s not so much as an oddity as you’ve convinced yourself.”

“I can’t trust you.” Snapping shut the book, Loki resolutely looked anywhere but the bird before him.

“Is it me you doubt or is it yourself?”

“I-” Loki sat up, forcing Ikol off his lap. “I’m going to bed.”

Chapter Text

“Yo, Loki!” In the middle of watching Rocket construct some kind of weapon, Peter’s voice rang out over the intercom. “Report to the bridge!”

Rocket glanced up at him. “Did you do something?”

“Well, I did hide his Zune the other day but I didn’t think he knew it was me.”

Snickering, Rocket raised a hand for a high five. “That’s why he tore the ship apart yesterday. Where’d you put it?”

Returning the gesture, Loki smirked. “Under Drax’s bed.”

“Nice.”

As Rocket returned to his project, Loki made his way through the ship towards Peter, hardly nervous. Even if Peter had realized it was him who had stolen it, Loki knew he was in no danger, or even trouble as most punishment he could talk his way out of. Peter was uniquely gullible that way. What Rocket called soft. One well placed look and he folded, Loki had already tested it countless times in these weeks he’d lived with the Guardians.

When he got to the bridge he saw that Peter had his Zune at his side, likely paranoid it would go disappearing again. Putting on an air of innocence, Loki sidled up to him. “You called?”

“Yeah. Yeah.” By Peter’s distraction Loki guessed, delighted, that his scheme had gone undiscovered. “What’s the last thing we’re getting again? Like, what’s it called?”

Loki sobered. “Er- The Casket of Ancient Winters.” It was the thing that caused Ikol the most grief; the thing Loki knew the least about for that reason exactly.

But Peter just nodded. “So its cold? That’s it’s thing?”

On Loki’s shoulder Ikol spoke up, voice dry. “Even glacial would be an understatement.” Some old betrayal ran just below the surface. “Like the fiercest winter squalls contained in a single instant. Incredibly dangerous to all but the Jotnar.”

“Very cold,” Loki paraphrased.

“Okay, that explains some things.” At Loki’s frown, Peter explained. “I took some scans of it to make sure we weren’t walking into a trap and the whole planet is frozen.” At Loki’s skeptical frown he turned defensive. “I plan ahead sometimes!”

“Sometimes,” Loki echoed, teasing.

Peter scoffed, though under it was a laugh. “You’re one to talk, punk.” His harmless rebuke made Loki smirk.

But, dour, Ikol ruined his fun. “Ask after the planet. It was cold when I brought the casket but not wholly.”

Sobering regretfully, Loki crossed his arms. “Frozen, what do you mean?”

Peter too quieted. “Freezing. All of it.” He jerked a thumb out the cockpit windows. “We’re right above the planet if you want to take a look.”

“Wait, really?” Loki started, rushing over to the windows and pressing against the cool glass. The planet below them was a flat grey. At first Loki frowned, thinking that to be its land. But the longer he looked the more he saw. It wasn’t land but storms. Massive grey clouds that covered nearly half the planet. Twisting spirals carved themselves into the blank slate of the world.

The scale of it left Loki thrilled, though apprehension struck moments later. “Is that natural?”

Peter shrugged as he settled into his seat. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Directing the Milano with one hand, Peter pointed down towards the planet with the other as they skated high above its atmosphere. “Especially that.”

Commanding all the storms around it, a clear circle of spiraling clouds hung high above the planet. Even from their perch the storm appeared deadly and wild, sparking with flashes of lightning.

“It looks like a crazy weird blizzard,” Peter mused, standing. He moved beside Loki, who had kept silent, entranced by the cold destruction. “I’m guessing,” he sounded deadpan, tired. “Just based on the other two- that’s where your box is.”

Loki’s heart sunk. “Likely.”

“You got a coat or, like- a hat?”

“My tunic is fine.” Defensive of it in Thor’s place, Loki picked at the green fabric.

When he looked up Peter was staring at him doubtfully. “Its fashionable,” he admitted, though Loki guessed he was lying. “But it's not practical. Lemme see if I have an extra coat.” He snorted. “It might be a little big, though, hang on.”

Considering attempting to argue with him as he passed, Loki nevertheless watched Peter disappear into the depths of the ship. When he was safely alone he let Ikol hop to his arm. “Can the Casket do this?”

The bird stared down at the planet, at the swirling storms. “Perhaps. It may be terraforming the planet.” He spoke distantly, though Loki knew the edge of scientific curiosity when he heard it.

Loki had his own to propel him. “It can do that?” He took another look at the planet. The storm’s grey peaks revealed nothing to him.

Ikol twisted to look at him, green eyes clever. “I never thought of it, but it may be able to. The Jotnar have a very particular architecture that could be derived from the powers found within the Casket.”

“Ooh, fun.” Pacing, Loki immediately jumped to ways he could use the Casket. Perhaps to cool down Broxton. Or have fun with the Avengers compound. But a more serious thought broke through his excitement and he looked back at Ikol. “How long have the Jotnar been without the Casket?”

Ikol bobbed his head, a birdy shrug. “More than a thousand years.” He glared briefly up at Loki. “You should work harder to learn the history of Asgard, it’s a precious resource after Surtur’s work.”

Loki waved a dismissive hand, lost in his own thoughts. “I will eventually.”

Pointedly ignoring that sentiment, Ikol picked at his feathers. “Since you refuse to learn I suppose I should warn you; be careful retrieving the Casket. Touching it will reveal your true form.” Again, he sounded distant.

Loki just nodded. He’d learned well enough not to antagonize Ikol over their shared Jotun lineage. Of all the fights he would endure with Ikol that was one neither of them could win.

With heavy footsteps Peter announced his return, popping back up onto the bridge. “Try this on.” He shoved a heap of reddish leather into Loki’s arms.

Unfolding it, Loki frowned at the old jacket. Some of the fur lining it was matted and discolored, patches scattered across it showcased heavy wear. It smelled- stale.

“It used to be mine,” Peter said, proudly. “It was the first Ravager jacket Yondu gave to me. See if it fits,” he urged when Loki didn’t move.

Reluctantly, Loki slipped the thing on. The well worn leather was pliant and surprisingly warm. Fur tickled the back of Loki’s neck. True to Peter’s word, the jacket fit, only barely slipping over his hands.

Ikol scoffed in Loki’s ear, disgusted. “It smells no better than it looks.”

But Peter was beaming. “Look at that. You’re a real Guardian of the Galaxy now!”

Loki blinked. “I am?”

“Hell yeah!” Peter clapped him on the shoulder. “So, you’ll keep it?”

Feeling warm, Loki nodded without hesitation. “I-” He cleared his throat, suddenly choked up. “I will.”

On his shoulder, Ikol grumbled something unintelligible, sounding vaguely jealous.

“Awesome. That thing’ll keep you warm for sure. Let me get the team together and we’ll figure out a plan to get this bad boy.”

By the time the Guardians had gathered, Loki among them, they had drifted only closer to the swirling storm with its dramatic peaks and valleys cast grey across the planet. Lightning spiked at its surface as Loki watched.

Gamora frowned down at it. “Can we take the Milano into that?”

“Eh,” Peter shrugged. “Not sure. It might be a little too risky for her.”

“So, what?” Rocket interrupted. “We take the escape pods?”

It was Nebula who spoke up. “They’re strong enough to get us to the surface. But someone would have to stay behind to pilot the ship.” Clearly she wasn’t advertising herself for the job.

Drax leapt to the opportunity. “I would.” When the Guardians looked to him he turned defensive. “The cold is my enemy.”

“Yeah,” Rocket muttered. “Because you won’t wear a shirt.”

“I cannot be contained!”

“What?” Loki asked.

“They chafe. You wouldn’t understand, little man.”

“What?!”

Reigning in the conversation before it could get too out of hand, Gamora clanged the flat of her blade against the metal of Peter’s chair. “We get it. Drax stays.” She tallied them off. “Okay, so there’s seven of us going—”

“I am Groot!”

Rocket rolled his eyes. “Of course.”

“Fine,” Gamora sighed. “Six of us. That’ll make fitting into the pods easier; three and three. I’ll go with Peter. Rocket and Nebula, you’re both good pilots, you take the other one.”

Following with her count, Loki glanced to Mantis when neither of them were mentioned and found her looking his way as well. “And what of us?”

“That’s up to you.”

Rocket snickered. “Fight over it.”

Mantis gasped, as if horrified. “I would never fight my friends!”

“I’ll go with Peter and Gamora.” Which earned Loki a covert, appreciative nod from Nebula.

Though it didn’t seem to go unnoticed by Gamora, who shared a brief smile of her own before falling back into business. “Peter, the plan?”

Rehanded control, Peter puffed his chest. “Our, uh, educated guess is that Loki’s casket is in the middle - and coldest point - of that storm.” He glanced to Loki, who nodded and tried to look sure of himself. “So we’re going to try and get as close to the center as the winds will let us and go from there. We’ll use these.” He pulled two devices from his pocket, where he’d likely been storing them for dramatic effect, and handed one to Rocket. “They track cold and each other- in case we get separated.”

“Yeah, I know how they work,” Rocket said dryly, storing his. “I built them.”

Ignoring him, Peter plowed on. “Drax and Groot, you two try to keep in contact with us for as long as you can.”

“I am Groot.”

Peter briefly grimaced. “If you can’t- we’ll be fine. Just wait for us up here.”

The unmentioned apprehension made Loki’s stomach turn. It got no easier, not knowing how or if they would survive. He tightened the jacket around him, trying to soak in its warm comfort.

“We’ll be alright.” Peter repeated and Loki guessed it was for his benefit. Especially when Peter’s hand rested on Loki’s back, quietly urging him forward, urging him to have courage.

And, in response, he tried to, drawing from a shallow well within himself. He straightened his back and for that effort saw Peter smile.

But in the cramped pod they detached from the ship, Loki could hardly breathe. Staring at the Milano as they pulled away from it, he tried to focus himself, return to that well of bravery. He was so close to ending this, to returning triumphant.

With the end in sight, though, it felt hollow. He could return to Thor with his prizes but what would happen after that, he didn’t know. This quest had been such a welcome respite from his common pains he feared returning to them if this plan of his failed, if he couldn’t escape Ikol’s shadow.

On his shoulder, Ikol’s claws tightened. “Doubting our plan?” His voice was insidious, cutting straight to Loki’s fears in a way only Ikol could.

Glancing back towards Peter and Gamora, Loki merely shrugged.

“Worry not, you’ve proven yourself thus far.”

Loki squinted at the bird. “What is it you want?” He hissed under his breath.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re never nice unless you’re trying to prove or get something. What is it?”

Acting offended by his accusation, Ikol scoffed. “You simplify too much.”

Loki quirked a small smile. “But you don’t deny it?”

“I do.” Ikol shot back. “But I, like you, want for this to be done and over with. I have no great love for this Casket.”

“I’ve realized,” Loki said dryly.

The cabin shook. Outside, a low howl began to rattle past them. “Loki, c’mere,” Peter directed. “We’re getting close now.”

Sidling up to the two adults, Loki was forced to look down on the storm as they drew near. The howling sounded almost like some wounded animal. It made the hairs on the back of Loki’s neck stand on end and he shivered.

Gamora noticed. “It’s just the wind.”

“I’d guessed that.” Loki flushed, annoyed enough by the patronization.

Which Gamora seemed to realize. “Oh. Sorry, Loki.” And she sounded genuine. “You don’t have to be worried.”

Pulling Peter’s old jacket close, Loki looked away. “I wasn’t,” he lied. “But- you’re forgiven.”

Both adults smiled thinly. Though not for long as they began to dip towards the thick grey clouds. The howling grew feverish, painfully loud. And it would only get louder. Like the roar of the Bifrost, stripped of its familiarity, left strange.

Loki resisted the urge to cover his ears, shoving his balled up fists into his jacket pockets instead.

Peter glanced at the two of them as their small ship skated just on the cloud line. “Ready?” His voice barely carried over the wind. Both of them nodded an answer. Loki could only guess if Gamora was as much of a liar as him.

With a final looked up towards the Milano far above them Peter plunged them downwards.

Immediately the wind pitched the ship sideways. Everything around them went dark grey, almost black. The wind screamed, rattling the entire cabin.

Loki closed his eyes but that only made things worse and so he snapped them open again. Helpless, he bit his lip to keep himself from panicking. It wasn’t working. His teeth jittered in his skull; there was nothing to hold to, nothing steady about their little ship.

They could be plummeting and there was nothing he could do. He was entirely at the mercy of this storm. His breath caught in his throat as the world pitched.

A hand brushed his shoulder and the contact, fleeting as it was, broke Loki’s paralysis. He looked up, first seeing a green hand extended his way, then seeing past it to Gamora with her hard eyes fixed on him, briefly gone soft. She didn’t speak; he wouldn’t have heard if she had.

He stared at the hand for a moment, unsure. But, as they were thrown adrift by the shrieking wind, he took it. Her hand squeezed his and he clung to her, desperate, as if she could save him, all too aware they were both helpless.

But at the least, he wasn’t alone.

It was cold comfort as the air he breathed didn’t seem to reach his lungs and the world tossed around then. He felt l his stomach twist, what meager breakfast he’d eaten flipping and churning.

Gamora held tight to his hand until they landed, what would have been called a crash had thick snow not slowed them to a tumble. It was Loki who pulled away. Their view that had been grey now shone blinding white.

Loki hardly saw it, sinking to the floor, collapsing in on himself. Shivering. Clapping a hand over his mouth to keep his breaths from hiccuping. His ears were ringing louder than the moaning of the wind outside. He felt sick. Wrong.

He barely saw Gamora kneel beside him, wordless.

Ikol landed on his head and hissed into his ear. “Get up!” But he couldn’t. He was shaking worse than the storm, staring at the black of his boots as tears landed there only to run off. He could still hear the storm ringing in his ears, far too loud. It consumed everything but panic.

Peter sighed with relief, immediately recovering. “Well, the ship’s heating still works.” His chair squeaked. “Hey, Gamora, can you- oh . Oh shit.” His sudden drop made Loki’s cheeks burn with shame.

Which was only worsened by Ikol’s frustration. “Up! You survived. You live, unharmed!”

“I know!” Loki hiccuped before balling his fists into his eyes, hiding his face. His chest felt like it was still falling, hollow and too heavy at the same time. He wanted to scream. Scream until he felt right again. Until all of his anger, his fear, everything he couldn’t understand was gone. But he couldn’t. It only bubbled up as hot tears running sticky down his face.

He knew he was making a fool of himself. But he couldn’t stop. The tears wouldn’t stop. And if he couldn’t handle a crash how could he earn a place among heros? Among Thor. The thought only worsened the sickness clutching at him.

“Hey…” Peter kneeled beside him with Gamora. His voice was soft. The pity almost made Loki sick. “Kid…” Peter’s hand brushed Loki’s back but Loki jerked away, wishing he could simply disappear.

For a brief, deeply selfish second he envied the ghostly Ikol.

“Loki.” Peter sounded hurt but didn’t try to reach for him again. “It’s- it’s okay to be scared. Take your time. Breathe.”

Loki glanced up at Peter from over his hands, uncertain. “I’m—” Not, he tried to lie. But the word wouldn’t come off his tongue. “Stupid,” he muttered instead, trying to wipe at the tears that wouldn’t stop.

It was ridiculous. He was being ridiculous.

“Everyone cries sometimes.” It was Gamora. “You’re not worse for it.”

“Thor—” But Loki stopped himself. He couldn’t know that.

“Thor has totally cried,” Peter rebuked Loki’s unsaid protest.

Picking at the gold of his boots, Loki nodded. He believed Peter but Peter couldn’t know, only guess. There was only one who knew for sure. “Ikol…” Loki muttered, letting the name sound little more than a misheard mumble to the unknowing adults.

“Of course he has.” Ikol answered, sounding haughty if not vaguely uncomfortable at the question. “But you should stop.”

He briefly glared at the bird. Wiping at his eyes, Loki attempted to straighten his back, to convince himself he was well and fine. The feeling of falling was fading now, replaced by the sick exhaustion of spent tears. Still, he didn’t try to stand. He wasn’t sure if he could. “My apologies,” he said stiffly, wincing at just how thick his voice was.

Peter tried again to reach for him and this time Loki let him. “Dude, you don’t need to apologize. That scared the shit out of me too.”

Gamora smiled sympathetically. “You never get used to crashing.” Her smiled turned lighter, mischievous. “Even Peter, and he’s crashed every ship he’s ever flown.”

Loki snickered weakly, still trying to rub the wetness from his face.

“Hey!” Peter fake scoffed. But sunk back to his smile moments later. “You know, I’ve cried on missions before.”

Looking Peter over, Loki nodded. “I can see that.” He smirked when Peter blinked, surprised.

“You weren’t supposed to.” Frowning briefly, Peter scooted closer to Loki in their small pod. “Whatever, I’ll tell you anyway. There was this bank heist Yondu brought me for. I was like... fourteen - max. It wasn’t going so hot. And half way through I just broke down. Right in the middle of the most delicate part. The stress or something - it just got to me.”

Loki flushed and looked to his lap.

“I totally screwed it all up and we didn’t get what we came to steal and that only made me feel worse. Yondu picked me up and threw me over his shoulder. We were lucky to make it out of there. He made fun of me for it later but never made me do a heist like that until I was way older.” Lost in his own memories, Peter’s smile was fond.

Sniffling, Loki rubbed at his eyes. They were puffy. But, at the least, he could breathe again. “You sound lame.”

Peter barked a shocked laugh. “Wow!”

Which pulled laughter from Gamora.

Peter turned on her, clutching his chest dramatically. “I open my heart and this is what I get?” His outrage was wild as it was inauthentic. “I’m surrounded by a bunch of assholes!”

Though Loki was slow to join Gamora’s laughter, he did eventually and that only heightened Peter’s false outrage.

And for a few, brief, brilliant seconds, wracked by laughter, Loki lost his fear.

It was Ikol’s claws digging stinging lines into him that snapped him from the instant. “Are you done?” Ikol hissed. Loki winced at the consuming envy of his interruption. “We have a task to carry out.”

As Loki sobered so did the Guardians and they fell into quiet. Outside the wind howled. “Thank you,” Loki offered and meant it. “But we should find Rocket and the others.”

Peter grimaced. “Yeah…” He dug his small device from his jacket pocket, flipping it on. It let out an annoying, high pitched beeping which kept a steady, slow pace. “Awesome. It still works. This should lead us right to the other guys.”

Which meant stepping outside. Into the blizzard.

Following Gamora as she made to unseal the pod, Loki attempted again to steel his nerves, feeling a mite more successful this time. “Ready for the cold?” Gamora looked to him.

Smiling thinly back, Loki nodded. “I am a Frost Giant, I think I can handle it,” he said, if just to irritate Ikol.

Gamora squinted at him, clearly surprised, but didn’t deny his claim. With a heave against the door, she flung it open.

The cold rushed into their cabin like water, filling every corner. And, despite his bravado, Loki’s breath caught in his chest, shock freezing him in place for a single moment by the sheer instantaneous chill of it.

When he could move again his breath came out in white puffs. He pulled Peter’s jacket tight around him, shivering.

“Wow,” Peter said again, more subdued. He held out the beeping device in front of him as he stepped into the snow. Loki followed. With Gamora last behind him.

The snow puffed around Loki’s boots, soft up to his ankle. He sloughed through it nevertheless. It was only Gamora that kept him from lagging behind.

In peering past the swirling snow and the howling wind he began to see structures, massive columns of ice that rose into the sky. They lurked almost out of sight, leviathans in the murk.

Ikol, buffeted by the wind, pointed them out. “The Casket’s doing. These structures are not so unlike what I remember of Jotunheim.”

“Then it must be the Casket that built their realm. It would make sense.” His muttering was torn away by the wind, only caught by the keen ears of his ghostly companion.

He heard Ikol’s uncertainty and discomfort. “I- cannot be certain. We were taught little of them, beyond their monstrous qualities.” Loki could nearly feel the grimace in Ikol and made one himself.

In those words Loki found a shred of doubt beginning to worm into him. If the Jotnar were born monsters who was he to try and change his fate. His blood was tainted far beyond the task of being Loki. It was to his core.

But no, he couldn’t afford to think that way. If he were to think he could be anything but the Loki before he need extend that courtesy. Loki shook off Ikol’s words, smothering that doubt. “If you know so little than you cannot trust what you were told,” Loki rebuked. “If we know anything it is that Asgard lied.”

”That it did,” Ikol agreed grimly.

For what seemed like an exhausting, freezing age, they walked through the snow listening to the infernal beeping of Peter’s machine. It was only the pace of the machine that told them they moved at all.

Wrapped up in his own cold misery, Loki didn’t notice when Peter stopped and promptly ran into him. Gamora lunged forward to catch him before he fell backwards into the snow. “Ugh,” Peter groaned. “I can’t feel my toes.”

As Gamora released Loki she took Peter’s machine from him. “I know, but we have to keep moving.” She lay a hand on Peter’s shoulder, Loki could see her shivering. “I can take the lead if you need me to.”

“Babe, you’re a lifesaver.” Peter brushed a hand down her cheek. “I’d kiss you but I think we’d stick.” She rolled her eyes at that as Peter moved to walk behind Loki, offering a hand Loki’s way. “You good?”

Loki nodded shortly, eager to keep moving. “Cold, that’s all.”

They set up walking again and soon passed beneath one of the behemoth structures. Loki stared up at its spires, grateful for the protection it offered from the wind and snow, and amazed at their intricacy.

The machine was beeping faster now than it had before. But still a white haze kept them from seeing to far beyond their own faces.

“Yo!” Came a shout, echoing around the strange structure. It was Rocket’s voice.

Loki never thought the scratchy voice could ever sound so comforting.

“Rocket!” Peter kicked into the snow, lighter beneath the icy spires. He whipped his head around, searching for the other Guardians.

They appeared from the mist near Gamora, all three of them looking cold and windblown. Gamora briefly embraced Nebula, who held a sour scowl.

Rocket hopped off of Mantis’ shoulder, shaking off clumps of snow that were comically stuck to him. It made Loki snicker. “Oh, yeah,” Rocket grumbled. “Laugh it up, kid.”

“Gladly.” Loki smirked. Which earned him a half hearted snarl from Rocket.

In the midst of their reunion the wind picked up speed, catching Loki’s hair and groaning through the almost tunnel of rising spires. The ice itself creaked all around them. Loki’s skin crawled at the sound and even Ikol gave pause, landing on Loki’s shoulder.

When it faded Peter spoke. “How was the flight?”

Rocket scoffed but it was Mantis who answered. “Not very fun.” She frowned.

“Yeah, ours too.” Peter didn’t glance Loki’s way much to Loki’s silent appreciation. “But we’re here now and it sure as hell isn’t getting any warmer so…”

Nebula nodded. “We should keep moving.”

The Guardians closed ranks, Loki realized, around him. Almost instantly the grip of the cold loosened. He caught Rocket’s eye from where the raccoon was standing on Peter’s shoulder and Rocket winked.

Before he could so much as smile back Ikol tsked in his ear, clearly irritated. Loki looked down at his own feet, discontented.

The snow whistling between rising columns only occasionally buffeted them but grew stronger as they delved into the storm. Each gust was cause for pause as the ice around them creaked and groaned. Loki could feel the cold deepening even protected as he was. It sank into his bones until they felt like leaden weights.

He found himself longing for the hot, buzzing days of Broxton. How Asgard’s sun-warmed stone would burn at his feet. Everything so irritating he longed for now, shown in a new light by this biting, unrelenting chill.

A particularly strong rush of wind nearly unseated Rocket from Peter’s shoulder and drowned them in an echoing howl. Tightening Peter’s jacket around himself, Loki couldn’t even recover from its chill before the creaking began.

The very world around them seemed to groan in a thousand voices, a thousand places. Ice cracked and the cracks magnified in the echo chamber.

Loki froze and the Guardians followed as the roof far above their heads whined under the stress of the wind and snow. Every second stretched as no one dared breathe.

“Okay…” Peter hissed, still completely motionless. “We’re going to run. And get out of here before it—” The ice creaked low.

A great rumbling began to roar through the cavern.

Peter didn’t finish his command before they followed on it, dashing past thick, creaking columns of ice. Cracking ice turned into deadly projectiles as the ceiling above them began to give way.

As Loki struggled to match the Guardians pace, Peter fell into place beside him and snapped some device to his boots in a single motion. “You ever seen The Wizard of Oz?”

Almost tripping as he tried to see what Peter had done, Loki had to shout over the collapsing ice. “What?!”

“Ugh, kids!” Peter cried, dodging falling chunks of ice. “You’re Dorothy, click your heels!”

Still baffled, Loki nevertheless did as he was told. With a burst of fire he shot forward into the air. He landed, stumbling, far in front of the sprinting Guardians.

“Keep going!” Peter shouted.

Every blast of rocket flames threw him around crumbling columns. Propelled by his pounding heart, Loki ran until the blizzard worsened and the icy cavern began to fall away. Still the rumbling roared across the land.

Free of the fear of collapsing rocks, Loki turned to scan the cavern for the Guardians. He spotted them, running through a forest of icy spires. But the ice was falling fast, faster than they could possibly escape it.

Loki stepped towards them, ready to jet forward, back to his friends and the disintegrating ice. The falling frost brought with it a heavy white cloud, he saw it nearly swallow Gamora. He could save them. He took another step forward.

But Ikol flew at his face, sharp claws outstretched. “No!” Somehow, in all the rancor and sound, his shout, his command, was the loudest. He swiped at Loki’s eyes with glinting claws.

Forcing Loki to stumble back. “No?!” Backing up, Loki swatted at the bird, trying to look past him to the Guardians. Still Ikol came at him, not letting him past. “Move, you infernal—” His next step back met no ground.

And he was falling, falling again, surrounded by snow. The world went entirely white. He felt almost weightless, like he was flying.

But not for long as he hit ground and tumbled down a steep, snowy hill. Trying to stop himself, Loki clawed at the snow for some foothold. But all he could find was loose snow. He was helpless to come to the Guardians. Because of Ikol. Betraying, lying bird.

“Ikol!” He accused and then hit hard ground, his head snapping, crunching back.

The world went dark.

Loki blinked back the snow caught in his lashes. His head throbbed. There was a wet stickiness running down his forehead. He was acutely, violently cold. He picked himself up from the snow, spitting at the taste of copper in his mouth.

There was someone to his left, facedown, blonde hair stuck with snow.

Thor. Was Loki’s first thought. But no. It wasn’t Thor.

“Peter!” Loki crawled towards the motionless Guardian. Peter’s shoulder was warm as Loki struggled to turn him over. Blood dripped sluggishly down the side of his face from a gash along his hairline. It stained the pale snow a violent color.

Loki’s head spun at the sight of it, anxiety tightening his stomach.

His shaking breath came out in white puffs. “Peter- please.” He could see Peter’s chest rise and fall but in the biting cold that could only last so long. “You have to wake up. We have to—” Loki looked up, looked around, searching for the other Guardians. For help.

He saw them as he had Peter, covered in snow and motionless. Gamora’s hair, vibrant in a blank world. Nebula’s hand, glitching with an unsettling twitch. Rocket was halfway up the hill they’d fallen down, half interred in snow. He searched for Mantis and found her face up, covered in a dusting of white snow. Her lips were parted and pale. From them came the occasional puff of white breath.

Desperately, silently save for his crunching footsteps, he checked on them. That they lived was a small comfort.

He managed to pull Rocket from the snow bluff, dragging him and Peter to an outcropping of snow and rock protected against the wind. And did the same, with more effort, with Mantis, hoping their pooled warmth would save them. He tried with Gamora but the cold caught him halfway and he had to drop her, coughing, trying to catch his breath.

He tried to activate the device Peter had snapped to him but they seemed broken, only sputtering acidic smoke.

The frigid air pierced through him, slicing at his throat and lungs with each attempted breath. Stumbling, he tried again to lift Gamora but his hands, stiffened by the cold, ached as he made to drag her through the snow. This time he fell with her as he dropped her, knees crunching against snow.

Leaving her still body, Loki shoved his hands into his jacket, desperate to find warmth. “Please. Please wake up. I can’t- can’t—” Stuttering to a stop, shivering, tried to return to Peter and the others, hoping that they had awoken. But he didn’t make it far before folding in on himself.

It was in that moment that a shadow passed over him. He looked up and saw the familiar shape of Ikol. At the sight all his rage returned and he surged upwards, rendered momentarily speechless.

If Ikol noticed he made no attempts to dissuade his anger. “There is no time to cry again.” His voice was biting as he swooped over Loki’s head.

His callousness helped Loki find his voice. “This is all your fault! You stopped me from going after them!”

With the audacity to be surprised, Ikol scoffed. “I saved you. Going back in there would have been your doom.”

“And now we’ll die in the cold! Some great savior you are!”

Ikol flinched.

Which Loki leapt on, urged on by burning rage. “Is that what you think you are? How deluded- how selfish are you?”

That caught Ikol’s ire. “You accuse me of selfishness? Look at you! You think only of yourself in this quest. Your fruitless attempt to save your friends would have been your first and last act of selflessness. What a way that would have been to die.”

Flushing, Loki looked to his feet.

“Oh? Have I upset you?” Contempt curdled Ikol’s words.

“I hate you!”

“Go ahead, the feeling is mutual.” Landing on a snow bluff, Ikol perched just above his eye level, somehow managing the high ground despite the bird’s diminutive stature. That in itself was irritating. “I have no time left for petulant children who are too full of themselves to follow even the most basic advice. And yet here I am, stuck with you.”

Every word Ikol spoke cut to Loki’s bone. Somehow such insults were only worsened when they came from Ikol- his very self no matter how wicked. But that last point, there was something in that Loki could use to defend himself. “You’re stuck with me because I’m the one who pulled you from my head. You’d be long gone were it not for me.”

Yet Ikol just spat a humorless laugh. “None of which was at my will. Had you not wanted for my companionship you wouldn’t have sought it out. But, no, Loki cannot keep from causing misery.”

Shouting over the hissing wind, Loki stepped towards the bird and felt himself sink into the unsteady snow. “I just wanted help! That’s what you were supposed to do- help me. I thought-” He grimaced, it was a foolish hope. “Thought you’d want to. Clearly I miscalculated and now I’ll freeze to death on some nothing planet.” He sniffed, too cold to cry. “And all I’ll have accomplished is killing the Guardians of the Galaxy with me!”

“Call for Heimdall if you’re so distraught.” Ikol’s reply was sharp. “He always cleans up our mistakes.”

It was an idea, but a last ditch one. “I- just wanted to fix things. You said this would...” Struck by a thought colder than the air as he watched the silent Ikol, Loki stiffened. “But you’re just using me to clean up your messes, aren’t you?” His voice suddenly shaky, Loki sucked in a breath. “Even if we survive this I don’t even know if Thor will care. If any of them will. Doing this won’t stop you being the thing they remember me by.”

To his dismay, Ikol laughed, a short, sharp sound. Unfathomably bitter. “Of course they won’t. This is nothing but an errand list of problems to be solved. To them this is child’s play and you’re still Loki. The problem is in your very blood!”

“You told me it would help!” Even his hopes had abandoned him now.

“I lied!”

“What could you possibly gain from sending me running across the universe then? Why the lie?”

And all too quickly, Ikol’s demeanor shifted. “To prove to you they will always see me.” That was a lie, Loki knew it.

Yet he didn’t want to quite call it out yet. His fear of what that truth might be kept him away. “No they won’t. I’ll find something else- something new.” He knew how weak an argument that was. But still in his mind he lingered on Ikol’s new lie.

Ikol scoffed. “You’re still Loki. It’s all they’ll see.”

“Shut up.” Stepping back, Loki couldn’t tear himself from staring at the bird. Ikol’s black feathers cut him a sharp figure against the backdrop of unending white.

“Despite everything- you tell yourself you’re better than me.” Ikol’s viciousness cut to the bone. “When you awakened this piece of me within you I believed it. Truly, It wouldn’t be hard to outpace my goodness. And you make friends better than I ever did.” Again came that bitter envy. “Befriended these Guardians. I couldn’t have done it.” But now Loki felt the heat in Ikol’s voice turn not just upon himself but onto the bird as well. Loki blinked at the sudden turn, something in like pity twisted in his stomach. And still, Ikol continued. “But in truth, beyond your charm, you’re just a selfish child playing pretend.”

“I’m trying—”

“Trying?” Ikol cut him off. “Your attempts are weak because your heart isn’t in them.”

Taken aback, Loki took a few seconds to answer. “What do you know of my heart?”

“We’re one and the same, foolish child. Perhaps not in mind but in blood.” The rancor in Ikol’s voice was all encompassing. “You think yourself so unique but you’re just tracing my steps both in body and in spirit. How can you hope to improve when you won’t even acknowledge what you must do to do so?”

“I’d never do the things you did.” Loki tried to draw himself up, save himself from the wavering in his heart.

For the briefest second the bird was silent. In that moment Loki felt his own apprehension spike, this silence wasn’t a peaceful one. Then the dam broke. “You don’t even want to consider why I did those things! You refuse to! I am irredeemable to you because you’re selfish. Because you will not even imagine yourself in my place, making my mistakes. You’re a selfish child who only cares about his own reputation. Running from my damned image will achieve nothing!”

“Shut up!” Realizing he’d practically shouted, Loki quickly fell into a hiss. “You don’t know what your legacy did to me, you can’t know.” Fighting past a thickness in his throat, Loki kept talking, words pouring like hot fire, scorching his insides and alighting his face with burning heat so intense the cold no longer bit. “I have to contend with you every day! Every thought- you’re there. Anything I do, everyone who knew you sees you! Even Thor—”

“What do you know of Thor?” Ikol seemed to hit a hysterical peak. In his mouth, Thor’s name carried a host of immeasurable weights. “You barely know him! I died for him!”

Loki flinched, silenced. Somehow, he’d barely considered that. The other Loki had died for his own mistakes, surely.

But the contradiction was from Ikol’s mouth. And still, the bird kept going, as if unaware of what he was saying. “And now I have to watch a shade take my place. You get to live my happy ending. And you sit here complaining, running away? Do you have any idea what I’d give to stand in your place? I thought it strange I did not go to Hel in death. Now I wonder if this is my Hel. If you are.” Every word cut. “I made mistakes, yes, but at least I owned them in the end. Clearly it wasn’t enough as I’m doomed to watch you make them all over again, refusing to acknowledge your own flaws.” Loathing slipped into an exhausted sorrow. “We truly are a despicable kind.”

Still burned but unable to contradict that sentiment, Loki drooped. “I’m trying. Really.”

“Try harder.” Ikol was deadpan now, his fire gone.

The sudden shift somehow hurt just as much as the flames. “Why did you send me away from Midgard?” Loki sobered, curiosity dulled. His own fire was dimming, the cold returning, nipping at his fingers and nose.

Ikol glanced up at the sky, looking like he was readying to fly away for one fleeting moment. But that moment passed and he faced Loki again. “To keep you away from Thor.”

And Loki understood. “Because you’re jealous.”

“To be snatched away at the very moment of reconciliation and brought back like this.” The bird’s feathers fluttered in the harsh wind. “A phantom, specter, unable to do anything, to speak to him- forced to watch you in my place. It stung. It stings. I spent so long pretending I hated him and before I could even prove otherwise I— Those last few years of spite will always be what he remembers me for.”

“That’s not true.”

“What do you know?” The anger was back in a single lash of words.

Loki bore the blow. “It’s obvious he loved you well as any brother could. Better even, because he’s Thor. I see it every time he looks at me. It’s almost funny, you know.”

“How?” Ikol’s question was sharp, raw.

“I spent my days jealous of you for that and you were jealous of me for the exact same thing. We spun ourselves in circles.”

“Ah.” Ikol drooped lamely. “So we have.”

Succumbing to silence, listening to the wind, Loki stared at the bird. His anger was fading. “Did you really- die for Thor?”

“Wouldn’t you?”

Loki looked away. “Yes.”

Ikol laughed again - not so bitter this time - sadder, though. “We are both Loki, truly.” When Loki offered a hand out Ikol took flight and landed upon it. “You’re still a fool.”

Unable to muster more than a frown to that point, Loki shrugged. “Perhaps… So you really don’t think there’s anything I can do to change people’s minds about me?”

“There is no easy solution that will wipe your legacy clear.” Ikol quirked his head. “Even I wasn’t sure how I was to survive Midgard beyond threat of Thor’s wrath. When I fade from this world for good the memory of my actions won't.”

Pacing, if just to keep warm, Loki blinked at Ikol's assertion. He wasn't sure what Ikol meant by fading, though by Ikol's melancholy tone now was not the time to ask. Instead he focused on the things he knew. The things he wanted. “It’s Thor’s opinions I care about the most. The others- they’re annoying but…” Loki sighed, his breath pale. “Maybe Thor was right about patience being the key.” But Loki wasn’t patient.

“Thor has become annoyingly wise on such matters.”

Which made Loki snort despite himself. “He wasn’t always?”

Ikol scoffed, now a softer sound. “It’s a recent development.”

He’d never heard Ikol so light. The sound struck guilt deep into him. “I don’t want to wait for Thor to come around.”

Buffeted by the groaning wind, Ikol bobbed his head. “Confront him,” he said shortly with a twist of bitter irony to his voice.

The advice Loki balked at.

“Ah, it’s a difficult thing.” Ikol’s ironic lilt peaked, falling back into melancholy.

Loki frowned. “How could I even begin—”

A blurry cough cut him off. “Uh, Loki?” It was Peter, awake and staring at him as Loki spun around. “Who’re you talking to?” Peter looked past him, eyebrows furrowed. When he found no one, his eyes slid to Loki himself.

When he did, Loki realized he was still holding his arm out for Ikol. Which led to him throwing his arm down, almost tossing Ikol to the snow as he did, Loki smiled weakly. “You’re awake! I was afraid that you…” His relief was tapered by the cautious confusion in Peter’s eyes.

Peter touched at the wound across his forehead, grimacing. “They can’t get me yet.” His curiosity turned to alarm as his eyes snapped from Loki to the empty wastes. “Where’s Gamora and Nebula?”

An opportunity Loki leapt on. “They’re alive. I just- couldn’t get them. They were too- heavy.”

But relief washed over Peter. “Oh, good. We should…” As he began to stand Mantis’s head fell off his shoulder.

When she hit the ground she groaned, slowly opening her eyes. “Uh- Peter?” She tried to sit up but failed, clutching her head.

Immediately he kneeled next to her. “Hey. Take it slow. Stay here. Wake up Rocket if you can. We’re gonna go get Gamora and Nebula, okay?”

“Okay.” She nodded, still rubbing her head. “You promise you’ll be back.”

“I promise.” With a reassuring smile, Peter rose and looked back to Loki. “Lead the way.”

In leading him to the other Guardians, Loki could feel Peter’s gaze prickling on his neck. His eyes only faltered when they reached Gamora and Peter flinched at the sight of her motionless. But she took a breath, puffing white against the air, and he unfroze, leaning over to scoop her into his arms. It was only after that when he seemed to find the words. “So… who were you talking to?”

“Nobody,” Loki lied, hurrying to take the lead so he wouldn’t have to look Peter in the eye.

He heard Peter sigh. “I woke up to you shouting. I know that’s not true.”

Loki winced. “How much did you hear?”

“Enough,” Peter said shortly, falling silent as they returned to the snow bluff where Mantis and a now awoken Rocket were huddled. A piece-metal contraption spewed flames giving them light and some sparse heat, no doubt Rocket’s work. Peter lowered Gamora beside it, brushing back her hair with a soft touch. He nodded to Rocket and Mantis who was already scrambling to sit beside Gamora. “We’ll be back.”

Catching onto Loki’s silence, Rocket glanced between the two of them, frowning. “Whatever you say.” Was all he offered, though.

Without an escape, Loki led Peter into the snow again.

It was there he continued. “Loki,” he said. And the name carried weight. But this was weight Loki understood, his weight and no other’s. The familiarity struck him so deep he almost missed Peter’s next words. “We’re here because we trust you. Because we want to help you. But this trust has to go both ways. I don’t want to say that you owe us that- but you kinda do.” He sighed. “I can’t force you to tell me, obviously.”

Loki didn’t dare glance at Ikol on his shoulder. “I’ve resolved it.”

“What’s it?”

Ikol’s claws tightened. “They’ll think you mad if you tell them.”

Which was likely true. “It’d be difficult to explain.”

Peter snorted. “We’ve got time.” When Loki didn’t answer he softened. “Like I said, I can’t force you to tell me. Just- it’s not only your head on the line out here.”

“Actually,” Loki said suddenly, his decision solidifying in his chest as he made it. “I do need to tell you something. It’s- strange.” On his shoulder Ikol made a small, skeptical sound, which he dismissed.

When he finally looked up at Peter, he found Peter smiling at him with a mixture of pride and approval. “Strange is my middle name. Can I say that when we’ve got a guy who’s literally named Strange? Is that allowed?”

“He’s not here,” Loki offered.

“Ooh, good point. Yeah, strange is my middle name.” But Peter’s confidence wavered for a second. “How strange are we talking about?”

With a grimace, Loki shrugged. “That’s for you to decide.”

They came upon Nebula only moments later, her body half buried by the falling snow. Before leaning down to pick her up, Peter rolled his shoulders. “Alright, let’s do this.” The moment he grabbed her arm there was a flash of movement and, with a shout, Peter was pinned underneath her knee.  “Whoa! Nebula it’s me! We’re cool!”

Nebula was glaring at him, her fist at his throat. “I could make it look like an accident.”

Loki, who’d jumped back, watched the two of them, uncertain of what to say.

“Yeah, you could.” Peter agreed, sounding strained.

At that she rolled off of him, straightening to a stand. She turned to Loki and he braced himself, unsure if she’d attack him next. But all she did was nod. “Loki,” she acknowledged. “You look cold.”

“I- am?”

She nodded again. “So am I. Where’s my sister? Mantis- Rocket?”

Groaning as he rose, Peter brushed snow off of his jacket. “Glad to see a bump on the head hasn’t changed you at all.” When she just scowled he grimaced. “Okay. The others are safe. We can head back now.” He glanced Loki’s way furtively. “There’s stuff we need to talk about.”

Though it wasn’t so covert a look that Nebula didn’t catch it. “Is there?” Her suspicion pierced.

Loki didn’t respond to it, just kicking his feet through the snow. He bore her gaze until they reached the other Guardians.

The Guardians huddled around Rocket’s makeshift fire. Gamora, busy attempting to contact the Milano, looked up as they returned, brightening. “You’re safe!”

“Course,” Peter sat down beside her, shifting as Nebula leaned against the unstable rock wall beside him. But too soon his eyes turned Loki’s way. “But there’s something Loki needs to tell us. Not sure how ‘safe’ we’ll feel after that.”

All eyes turned to Loki, still standing on the edge of the firelight.

“What?” Rocket asked to no one. “Loki? What’d you do?”

Ikol fluttered on Loki’s shoulder as he fidgeted with his hands. “Lie, a little. About… some things.” Their skeptical silence stung. He was quick to mollify. “Not this quest, it was very real to me. But- where I found it- how I found it. I do not remember these places or these artifacts. They are as new to me as they are to you.”

Leaning forward, Gamora frowned. “Then how have you been leading us?”

“I- had help. Someone to give me guidance.”

The Guardians shifted, confusion shared. “It’s just been us this entire time,” Peter said, doubtful.

“Yes and no.” Loki pulled a weak smile, unable to stall any longer. The explanation had to come. “His name is Ikol. He’s a bird as I made him, a word whisperer and a worm eater. He is what remains of my predecessor and has been guiding me since before I stepped foot on your ship. Because he’s of my thought he is only given shape in my eyes. You cannot see him but he is here. He can see you.”

For a long moment only the wind spoke, howling around their tiny alcove. “Uh,” Peter blinked, frowning around at the other Guardians. “You’re talking about an imaginary friend? That’s not weird, every kid has one.”

“I didn’t,” Nebula spoke up.

Peter stared at her for a few seconds. “...Okay- almost everyone. But Loki,” he looked back, still skeptical. “It’s just you.”

His skepticism burned. “No, it’s not! He’s as real as any one of you. He lied to me about why I need go on this mission, sent me here for his own purposes.”

“Loki,” Peter leaned forward. “You messed up and that’s okay, you don’t need to invent an imaginary for you to blame.”

Ikol tsked in Loki’s ear. “They won’t listen. They cannot see me and they cannot understand.”

Flushing, frustrated, Loki looked around the Guardians and found similar sentiments as Peter shared among them. “You must believe me.” His eyes landed on a frowning Mantis and on an idea. “Mantis-” he hesitated. Her powers were strong to the point of intimidation but they could help. And he trusted her, had learned how to. “Look into my head. Show them that I’m telling the truth.”

“Um.” She hesitated, drawing her hands to her chest. “You really want me to?” When he nodded, swallowing his apprehension, she offered a small smile. When she stood before him her hands hovered just off of his forehead. Even then she seemed to see his fears. “I won’t hurt you.”

“I know.”

Her hand touched his forehead and Loki watched her antenna begin to glow. Loki felt a wave of calm wash over him, her doing. And she gasped, eyes focusing on the bird on his left shoulder. “Oh!”

Ikol tittered, meeting her eyes. “Hello, bug woman. Very pleased to finally make your esteemed acquaintance.”

Loki frowned. “That’s nicer than you’ve ever been to me,” he muttered.

“Mantis.” Peter spoke up. “What is it?”

Her hand not on Loki’s forehead stretched towards Ikol. “You- are not him, are you?”

“No.” Loki could hear Ikol’s smile. “I am not. He’s proven that well enough.” And Loki flushed.

Mantis brushed Ikol, touching his feathers. Her antenna shone brighter for a second before she flinched, jerking away from both Loki and Ikol. She gripped at her head. “Ah! He—” She looked up, looked towards Ikol but her eyes searched for something she couldn’t see. She met Loki’s eyes instead. “He’s telling the truth. There’s another- person there, with him. A different person.”

The validation, the praise, sunk into him.

“Wha—” Peter started, following Mantis’s line of sight to see nothing.

“I told you it was strange.” Loki shuffled his feet.

Nebula pushed off the wall. “What does he want?” There was caution in her eyes. It was impossible to forget that she had once met the former Loki.

“He wanted to send me far from Thor. He believes none of these artifacts will do what I wanted to for my standing on Midgard.”

Rocket growled. “We got sent on this mission by a bitter ghost?”

“Not a ghost, per-say.” Loki watched a ripple of discontent roll over his friends. “But yes, it was his idea. We have- begun to work through our differences but I understand if you wish to stop. I- could get you out of here if you want.” He thought of Heimdall with his all seeing gaze. “You could be safe. And warm.”

Peter narrowed his eyes. “‘You?’ You’re leaving yourself out of that equation.”

Glancing out into the snow, Loki nodded. “I want to, truly, but… I need to finish this even if it doesn’t help me. I’ve come this far. And- the casket doesn’t belong here.”

“Selfless,” Ikol murmured. “There’s a start for something new.” He laughed, grimly amused. “Or perhaps just it’s just stubbornness.”

Loki didn’t have a response to that, only his own hopes that it was the former. Perhaps a bit of both. That he could live with.

After a few seconds of pause, Peter snorted. “I’m not leaving you alone here.”

“Yeah.” Rocket stood. “Who do you think we are?”

“We wouldn’t abandon you,” Gamora reassured, with Mantis nodding vigorously. Only Nebula remained silent, but not arguing seemed enough.

Loki smiled. “Thank you.” He stepped towards the fire, feeling he was able to enter their circle. “I wasn’t entirely sure how I would have summoned Heimdall without him noticing me.”

Ikol tittered. “You wouldn’t have been able to. Once he’s found your scent Heimdall is a hard hound to lose.”

“Well, glad we could help.” Peter’s smile was dry as he picked up the device Gamora had been working with. He fidgeted with it for a few moments. “It’s definitely getting colder out there. So either it’s almost night or we’re getting closer to your artifact.”

“Let’s hope it’s the latter.” Warming his hands by the foul smelling gas fire, Loki shivered. The warmth sunk deep into his icy hands, stinging as it thawed them. It was impossible to guess at the time. The thick blizzard blocked out all but the dimmest light. But wandering through the storm at night wasn’t an appealing prospect in the slightest; neither was he keen to huddle in the cold for hours on end. “We should move.”

The Guardians shifted, shuffling together what belongings they’d momentarily discarded. “Sure kid,” Rocket reached for the machine spewing flames. “I’m good to go. But are you?”

“Of course,” Loki lied, pulling his hands back to prove so. “All I want is to move on and get this over with.”

Rocket arched an eyebrow. “Okay.” His skepticism reeked but he shut down the fire nevertheless, storing the device in his pack.

Immediately a wave of ice cold rolled over their makeshift campsite, banishing any comfort they’d been able to find.

Without that, Loki moved on, shoving away his apprehensions. He held his hand out to Peter. “The compass.” Which he received after a moment of surprise. Pointing northward, Loki took to marching through the snow and the Guardians followed.

Marching kept him from thinking about much more than the pain in his feet and the cold chilling him. It was an almost welcome respite.

But not one the Guardians encouraged, as Gamora, followed too closely by her sister to be a mere coincidence, hastened to walk beside him. “So,” she began, taking a curious air that sounded all too deliberate. “What all has this- other Loki talked about?”

Blinking back snow, Loki looked up at her. “Things.” His intentional vagueness made Nebula grumble, only confirming his suspicions. They wanted something. “You should work on your subtlety.” Gamora winced. “What do you want to know? About you? He only mentioned that he’d met you both, nothing more.” Loki kicked at snow, watching it scatter on the wind. “Even if he had I wouldn’t cared, I cannot rely on the testimony of others to make my impressions.” He looked back up to her. “It would be hypocritical.”

By her smile she understood, though she glanced back at Nebula a moment later and something in her darkened. “That’s pretty wise of you but it’s not what- He never mentioned his time with—”

“No.” Loki cut her off as Ikol stiffened on his shoulder. “And I haven’t asked. I doubt he’d tell me.”

“You’re correct,” Ikol muttered, sounding distant, lost in his own thoughts. “It’s not your place to know.”

Gamora looked relieved. “Good.” A similar distance fell over her as well. “Some things should stay buried in the past. No kid should be burdened with it.”

His curiosity tempered, Loki nodded. “What was your opinion of him?” At his ask he felt Ikol’s claws tighten. Still, he didn’t back down.

She smiled at him strangely. “I thought you didn’t care about the opinions of others.”

“I- try not to. But that doesn’t mean I can’t hear them.”

“I hardly met him, really.” As Gamora spoke, Nebula joined the two of them, her shoulders tense and face down. “But if you want to know… He was angry, violent, and desperate.” She sighed. “We all were.”

In that same moment Ikol echoed her statement. “They were the same.” He fell silent when he realized she had essentially defended him.

Nebula scowled. “That was the only way to survive. We all did what we had to.”

Gamora nodded. “It doesn’t mean we don’t regret what we did. Though, I guess I can’t speak for him.” She glanced to Loki before bursting out a short laugh. “This is so strange- he’s listening to this right now, isn’t he?”

Smiling too, though not feeling very amused, Loki nodded. “He is.”

“And I thought I’d seen it all. Somehow the universe just keeps getting weirder.”

To which Ikol tittered.

“He agrees,” Loki relayed, which earned him a grumble from Ikol and alarm from Gamora.

Though she quickly brushed it off, shaking her head. “Crazy…”

Ikol chided him. “I am not a toy to amuse your friends.” Loki knew his tone well enough to not argue. Feeling guilty, Loki looked up to the sky, letting the wind and snow catch at his hair.

And saw a shadow against the blank white blizzard. Loki blinked, expecting it to be a mere illusion of the howling storm. But the shadow remained, solidifying into a towering monument, blueish in the blankness.

“Oh, shit.” Peter craned his neck to stare up at the structure as they all came to a stop before the massive ice formation.

In Loki’s ear, Ikol muttered: “Jotunheim...”

“It’s here.” Loki said grimly.

Rocket scampered around the visible edge of the construct. “No doors,” he said as he returned to them, rummaging through his pack. “We’ll have to break in.” His grin lit something mischievous in Loki.

Trailing Rocket as he pulled their makeshift campfire and some glowing mechanics from his pack, Loki questioned him, already guessing at his intentions. “What are you going to do?”

“Knock on this ice for me. Tell me if its hollow.” Not answering his question, Rocket smirked his way, clearly enjoying his curiosity. He pressed his ear against the ice as Loki followed his directions. Loki’s knocking echoed, dull thuds ringing through the air. “Nice.” He set the dormant device beside the ice, exhaust pointed towards the building. In a few seconds he had connected a handful of other components to the device. He handed a controller to Loki. “Back up.”

Scrambling back with excited anticipation, Loki returned to the side of the Guardians with Rocket.

“Whenever you’re ready, kid.”

“Rocket,” Gamora started. “Is this really—”

Loki pressed the button. A great, roaring whoom filled the skies. And for a second there was nothing. Then Loki squinted at the sudden tempest of flame, twice his height, roared from the tiny box. It burned white hot into the monument, drowning out even the storm for a long minute.

When the fire faded it left a gaping hole in the thick blue ice.

“You were saying?” Rocket grinned at Gamora. She just rolled her eyes at him.

Loki was first inside and first to feel the chill spike, pulsing energy running through the very air, to see the rising arcs of ice that held the tower aloft. At the tower’s center was a second wall, intersected by rough stairs. There was intricacy in them, their design simplistic yet grand and strong enough to support what had to be tons of ice. It was almost unbelievable that a mere relic of the past had built it all.

Peter’s impressed whistle echoed throughout as the Guardians followed Loki in. “Damn. This thing has style. Hey! And made stairs, that’s convenient.”

Eyeing the massive staircases, sized for a giant, Loki felt the cold seep to his bones, so much more intense here than outside. He stepped up onto the stairs and his boots clicked on the ice. “It’s up here.” He could feel the Casket pulling at him, tickling in the back of his mind. Ikol shifted on in shoulder and that slight weight reminded him of Ikol’s own history. Had he felt the draw too? That primal thing. Something he hadn’t known was there or perhaps just denied. The betrayal when the truth was laid bare.

No wonder he hated the Casket.

And yet, he’d still saved it from Surtur. Loki had to wonder whether that act was selfish or selfless. Or perhaps it was instinct he’d spent so long trying to bury.

Loki took another step, another click. Realizing he didn’t hear more he looked back. The Guardians were huddled together at the tower’s base, shivering.

Though at his look, Peter smiled encouragingly. “You want us to come with you?”

He did. But he cold feel the ice in the air, in his lungs. And it would only get worse with the untamed Casket. That would put them in more danger.

He shook his head. “I’ll retrieve it.” And pulled a thin smile. “After all, I won’t be alone.”

Every step sunk the cold deeper into him but he didn’t stop. Couldn’t, really. He’d come too far.

His breath puffed white, every inhale came with a body wracking shiver. When finally the stairs ran into flat ground he paused, body numb, teeth chattering.

But it was there. Glowing, swirling blue barely contained within a box. Its influence seeped into the room, the ice it rested upon almost consuming it.

Loki stared at the dancing colors, enthralled. It was only Ikol’s whispering that shook him from awe. “Move or you’ll freeze in place.”

“Wh-what if it f-freezes me when I t-touch it?” Shivering, Loki slowly approached, still watching the strange box. Its tug was undeniable now, a persistent tug within him.

“Hope it doesn’t,” Ikol offered, grim. “I’ve never seen it so unleashed. You-” he hesitated. “True heir to Jotunheim- may be able to quell it but if you cannot…”

“I just w-won’t think about that.” Approaching the Casket, Loki felt his fingers stiffening, aching as the cold consumed him. Closing the gap, his fingers brushed the box and a deep shiver went down his spine. A chill fell over him, creeping down his fingers like the thick drip of a cracked egg. He watched his fingers turn a brilliant, deep blue, watched the hue creep down his hand, raising strange ridges.

On his shoulder, Ikol shifted anxiously.

Where the blue crept the cold lessened. When it finally ran up his neck and over his face the light in the room seemed to change, the ice taking on a new brilliance. Even the Casket’s fury calmed. When the chill had settled over him he grabbed at the Casket’s handles, trying to ignore how the box’s shifting colors caught his eyes in their loops and twists, and the strange ache in the back of his mind. Tugging it from its self made pedestal, Loki gasped as the cold redoubled around him. Snow kicked up encircling him in a halo, picking up his hair, whipping in the chilled air. New frost cracked across the ice surrounding him.

“Stop!” And for a moment the cold did as the ache within him tweaked. But it returned when his focus passed, creeping over the floor and up the walls.

Ikol took off, swooping around him. “If you don’t stop that force the Casket will overtake the entire structure, your friends included.”

“How? How do I control it?” The frost was cracking at his boots now. Ice crunched as he yanked himself free, stumbling back a few steps.

“I don’t know, I only ever used it to destroy! That’s all it is good for!”

Sparing a moment to glare at Ikol, Loki planted his feet and took a deep breath. He could feel the ache in his mind like an open wound. Reluctantly, he reached for it, letting the sensation wash over him. It chilled him to the core, aching in his bones. “Stop it, I’m your master now.” He commanded again and his voice rang, imbued with some strange power. His entire body throbbed with the power of the Casket. But he denied it, trying to control the tempest that had overcome him. His breath caught in his chest as he did, the ache abating, tamed. “Enough!”

Slowly the frost stalled its progress and the swirling energy within the Casket dimmed. Loki watched it, cautious for any rebellion, but it stayed dormant in his blue hands. From outside the sound of the storm faded away.

“Well done,” Ikol landed atop his windswept head. “You’ve reclaimed your birthright.” He sounded stiff again.

“Our birthright,” Loki corrected, frowning at the Casket. Whatever victory he felt was dull, mostly consumed by crushing exhaustion, the ache in his muscles from the walk and the fall, and deeper too. His quest was done, everything he had wanted so deeply he had achieved. But now he didn’t know what came next and he felt hollow again. The uncertainty left a sour taste in his mouth.

He stared at the Casket, unsure of himself or the future.

Clicking shoes against ice pulled him from his dourness and as he turned he saw the Guardians in the stairwell. The mere sight of them relieved his consciousness of its heaviness.

Peter’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re blue!” His shock was innocent. “Whoa, and red eyes too, that’s pretty sick. Hey, Nebula, you’re not the only—” He grunted as Nebula punched him in the gut.

“Finish that sentence and I’ll cut out your tongue.”

“Okay,” he said, strained, clutching his stomach. “I get the point.”

Rocket approached Loki, glancing between him and the Casket. “You alright, kid?”

Clutching the box close, Loki glanced down at himself. “I’d expected this.”

“Uh- so that means yes?”

“Yes,” Loki quirked a tired smile. “I suppose.”

Walking around the chamber, poking at Quill’s radio, Gamora spoke up. “The storm outside is gone. Drax and Groot should be able to get the Milano to us.” And as she said so the radio crackled to life.

Drax’s voice shouted through. “You live!”

After a sigh of relief Gamora spoke back at a more manageable tone. “We do. Can you come pick us up? I’ll send you our coordinates.”

Speaking up, Peter rubbed his hands together. “Quickly. I don’t think my hands will ever be the same. And the kid turned blue!” He winked at Loki, who smirked.

“What?!” Drax sounded alarmed. “Did you let him freeze?”

“Yes!” Loki smirk widened as he heard Drax’s shout in response to his word. “Frozen solid!”

Drax’s angry growl came through the speaker.

Trying quickly to mollify him, Peter snatched the radio from Gamora. “Drax! He’s fine, he’s cool.” He walked down the stairs, still trying to reassure Drax.

Rocket snickered. “C’mon, kid, let’s get out of here.”

Without the storm the snow outside shone a brilliant white. The other ice formations on the horizon held less menace now that they weren’t half hidden by a constant grey swirl. Even the air seemed to be warming, though Loki guessed he could only feel that minuscule difference because of his Jotun skin.

Sitting in the snow, with the Casket on his lap, he took to inspecting his hands. His nails were dark, almost black. It was strange seeing himself so warped. Familiar and yet not.

Rocket sat beside him, watching him. “So you can just do that?”

“Well… not on my command. It’s the Casket pulling this form from me. I should return to myself when I remove myself from it.”

Nodding, Rocket eyed the Casket. “Man, that would be useful to have when you’re in trouble. Just touch it and boom- new face.”

Touching his face and the strange, patterned ridges there, Loki shrugged. “I’d rather learn to shift my shape like my former self.”

“He could do that?!”

Ikol tittered and Loki smiled. “So says Thor.”

“So, like a Skrull?”

“I don’t know what that is,” he admitted, annoyed with himself for the failing.

Though Ikol seemed to take insult, scoffing. “Their talents are by no merit of their own. I worked for that skill. They are just cosmic jesters.”

“Ikol says they’re losers, so no we’re not alike. I’m no loser.” Loki smirked at Rocket’s flash of alarm.

The alarm quickly fell into laughter to Loki’s surprise. “Yeah, they’re assholes. One cheated me out of a thousand credits and then got away because he freakin shapeshifted.”

Obviously delighted at garnering a reaction, even by proxy, Ikol shifted on Loki’s shoulder, hopping closer to Rocket. “I’ve had a similar experience. Except that I found them hiding as the bartender.”

“Ikol says he’s better than you.” To which Ikol laughed at as Rocket looked shocked.

In that moment Loki felt a pang of guild and didn’t push it away. To live separate from the world, unable to interact with others save though him. It must be maddening.

Rocket’s shock died out, though. “Wait, I just noticed- Ikol? You named him that? Like- really?”

Feeling himself flush, slightly surprised that he even could, Loki dug his hands into the snow. “Maybe… I- wanted my name for myself. If I took it away from him I- thought I could claim it. Clearly I was wrong.”

Rocket whistled. “Yeesh, kid. How long have you been holding on to that baggage?”

Loki looked away, staring at the horizon.

Crunching snow preceded Rocket’s little paw resting on his arm. Loki looked and saw sympathy in his eyes. “You don’t need to answer that. But, y’know, I think you’re a pretty good kid. And the coolest Loki I’ve ever met.”

Biting his lip and letting his gaze fall to the Casket on his lap, Loki just nodded.

“If you really have an issue with Thor and how he treats you- just talk to him. Tell him what's up. He’s a good dude, he’ll get it. Trust me, I know talking all mushy is hard. I hate doing it too but it's better than running around the universe trying to impress him. There’s no way you’re not enough for him.”

When Loki looked up, sniffling, he saw Rocket’s smile. It cracked something in him and he had to look away again, rubbing at his eyes with the ball of his hand.

Rocket’s hand hesitated on his arm before patting him just as uncertainly. “You’ll be okay, kid. And - hey - you can go home now.”

The roar of engines cut off any thought Loki could pull together as the Milano swooped from the sky. It screamed towards them, only pulling up at the last moment, spraying them all with snow.

“Ugh,” Rocket growled, brushing the stuff off and standing. “This is why we don’t let Drax fly.”

Scrambling to his feet and hefting the Casket with him, Loki squinted at the lights of the ship. They seemed unusually bright.

The ship’s ramp threw up more snow as it descended. And, even as it was only halfway extended, Drax ran down it followed by a much more reluctant Groot who stayed at the base of the ramp. “Where is he?” Visibly shivering as he hit the snow, Drax whipped around to face them. It was when he saw Loki that he relaxed, approaching them. “But you look healthy! And you have your box!”

“I do have my box.” Loki smiled, slightly puzzled by his non reaction. “But you truly think there is nothing wrong?” He glanced down at his blue hands.

Drax looked him over as the other Guardians emerged from the icy fortress. “No, you look perfectly well. Better than, even. After all, you succeeded despite your skinny stature. I never thought you could do it.” Which caught Loki off guard and, strangely, sent Ikol into a laughing fit only Loki could hear.

Rocket snorted. “Real encouraging, Drax.” Though Loki barely heard, as concerned with Ikol’s strange behavior as he was

Recovering from his laughter, Ikol set to muttering as if to himself. “If I’d had this- you cannot imagine- you cannot. You have it so well- this… lack of judgement . It’s- unbelievable. As if nothing is wrong. With you. With us.” His ramblings sounded half mad with disbelief.

“Thank you, Drax.” Loki said, meaning it. “But can we please get on the ship? I’m rather cold and—” The Casket was heavy, he could feel it taking its toll on him.

Backing him up, Rocket made for the Milano. “Yeah, let’s get out of here.” A cue which Loki was apt to follow.

After so long in the snow the inside of the Milano was uncomfortably warm. Loki felt the heat crawling under his skin like so many bugs. He could only hope that it would stop after he put away the Casket.

“Loki.” It was Peter, swanning onto the ship. “Where you want us to put that thing? We got plenty of safe boxes and if we don’t I’ll just throw some of Rocket’s stuff out to make room.”

“Hey, I heard that.” Rocket growled, not turning around from where he’d fallen onto one of the heating vents.

Trailing after Peter, Loki smirked. “Anywhere. I’m sick of the thing.”

“Love that answer, makes my job easier.” Rummaging around for a few moments, he popped open the top of a crate. “Throw it in- er- it won’t explode or anything if you do that, will it?”

Delicately setting the Casket into its new home, Loki raised an eyebrow. “Would you expect it to?”

“I dunno, kid. Living with Rocket has trained me, I guess.”

As soon as his fingers left the box Loki felt the change come over him. It crept as the cold had, slowly but steadily. He watched the pink creep back into him as his fingers turned pale. With the change his discomfort faded, the warmth returning to something welcome. He straightened as the last of his familiar color returned and even the lights of the Milano changed around him, their harsh glare softening.

“Pretty cool,” Peter admired.

“Yes, the Jotun are a rather cold species.” Loki smirked back.

It was a response that Peter apparently did not appreciate, as he groaned and threw his hands up. “Wow! After that I can’t wait to get you back to Earth.”

“Wait.” Loki flushed as Peter stopped mid stride, turning back to look at him curiously. “Maybe you could- take a slower route back.” He picked at his hands. “I- haven’t decided what to say to Thor yet.”

Peter’s smile was soft. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”

Chapter Text

Sitting atop a grassy hill, Loki couldn’t help but feel melancholy. All around him the Guardians were sprawled and enjoying this moment of complete stillness. Laying back, Loki stared up at the baby blue sky and the wispy, pinkish clouds that hung there. He dug his hands into the cool dirt, tearing up pale grass. He closed his eyes and relaxed, felt the weight within him lighten, the warmth of the twin stars lighting this remote planet, the slight breeze in his hair. He sighed and with the rush of air a knot in his chest loosened.

For just a moment he was adrift. Nobody.

But the light was too bright in this dark space. He opened his eyes, squinting up into the sky, and he was Loki again. He saw Ikol first as his eyes adjusted, a dark silhouette against the sky. And worry crashed down again.

His journey was up, he had to return; this break was merely a farewell and a brief one at that. In all his preoccupation with the relics he hadn’t spared much thought for return beyond occasional longing and constant dread, a fear of the uncertain future. With the Guardians he was Loki but on Midgard he was Loki. And still he wasn’t entirely sure how to remedy that weight.

At least now, though, he thought he might know where to start.

Loki sat up, turning to watch the Guardians.

Gamora lounged, head in Peter’s lap as he clumsily braided her hair. “I can’t believe the Ravagers taught you how to braid.” She said, smiling.

He laughed. “I haven’t done it in years. I thought I’d forgotten.” He smiled, melancholy himself. “And it wasn’t them that taught me. It was my mom.”

“Ah,” Gamora sighed and her hands brushed his.

Groot was perched on the other side of the hill, lounging, enjoying the light. Rocket was beside him, working on some small grey device.

Beyond them Loki saw a still lake, reflecting the sky almost perfectly across its surface. Along that shore Mantis and Nebula walked together, too far away for Loki to see all but their silhouettes.

Peter’s whistle brought Loki back to attention. “Hey, kid, you wanna learn how to braid? You’re getting pretty shaggy yourself, it might come in handy.”

Picking at his hair, Loki smiled. “I think Thor would take offense if you stole that opportunity from him.”

“Pretty sure he’s already gonna pissed at me for kidnapping his little brother.”

“Most likely,” Loki affirmed. “You’d better prepare a fine excuse.”

Peter shrugged, not looking overly concerned. “I’ll make something up.”

As Loki made his way down the hill they lay upon, running down the steep slope of pale grass, Ikol swooped from the sky. Slowing, Loki let Ikol land on his arm. “What have you got to say?”

“We can only wait so long to return.”

“Ach- bird of ill omen.” Loki frowned as he made for the lake. “I know. Let me have this moment, would you? We’re nearly done.”

Ikol peered at him with clever, unnatural green eyes. “Do you know what you will say to him?”

Kneeling beside the clear lake, Loki went still, his fingers hesitating just on the edge of the water. “I- have some ideas.”

“But nothing concrete.” It wasn’t a condemnation. Not even disappointment. Just a knowing. An understanding. He, of anyone, could understand Loki’s hesitation.

Brushing the cool water, Loki watched the ripples he made echo out across the lake. “I’ll have something to say when I must. We’re good at that.”

Ikol went suspiciously quiet. Loki knew him well enough to assume he had something to say. And lent him time to say it, keeping quiet as he set to floating blades of grass across the water. “What will you-” Ikol finally started, sounding strained. “What will you say of me?”

Heart sinking, Loki watched a too thin blade of grass sink beneath the surface as it was overcome by water. “I could address your existence.” He could guess at what Thor would do if he did.

“You could. Part of me wants you to.” And Loki flinched. “But what I want isn’t what is best for any of us.” He laughed, though it was humorless. “As it always seems. If he were to know of me- he’d never let me go. His proven that weakness of his time and time again. He cannot pull away, he cares too much. He’s lost enough, to realize he must lose me again- I fear it would do nothing but hurt him.”

Drawing his knees to his chest, Loki watched the lake, barely seeing it. “Why does it hurt so much to disappoint him?”

Ikol hopped to perch on one knee. “Because he is Thor.”

Pressing his hands into the cool mud of the shore, Loki frowned, feeling lost as he so often did. “What do you want of me, then?”

At first Ikol didn’t answer, instead turning to watch over the lake. For a few long moments they sat, sun warmed and silent. “My time in this form can only last so long. I can feel it- my fleeting connection to this world is tenuous now. Your spell will only keep me until that hold snaps entirely.”

Loki went cold. Ikol had mentioned this fading before but Loki hadn’t thought through it. Hadn’t thought he would lose his companion. “What happens to you after that?”

“I do not know,” Ikol admitted, sounding remarkably small. “How could I? Perhaps Valhalla. Perhaps Hel. Perhaps nothing. I cannot even know how ‘myself’ I am. If I am just fragments what does my decay mean?” He picked at his feathers, a nervous tic. “Thinking on it leaves me floundering so I’ve chosen not to.”

“I’m sorry.” It was all Loki could think to say.

Laughing again, even grimmer, Ikol turned back to him. “There’s much you could apologize for. But not this. It’s not your fault. I’ve faced down eternity so many times before. It always brings something unexpected in its wake. Were I a braver man I’d face it as an adventure.” The bird went still and fell quiet, ducking his head.

Loki, unsure of what else to do, ran a thumb down Ikol’s slick feathers. He felt the bird tense and almost stopped but Ikol relaxed just as quickly, sinking into the touch. Basking in the fleeting contact. “I- shouldn’t have doubted you for so long.”

“Yes- though I am easy to doubt. You only acted as you thought wisest, I think- were I in your place-” Ikol hesitated, clearly dwelling on that thought. He snapped to attention though when Loki continued to pet him. “I would have done the same.” He chuckled. “Though such assumptions were very childish of you.”

Laughing too, though weakly, Loki stared up at the unfamiliar sky, feeling immensely small. The sight sobered him. “If you fade couldn’t I just enter that dark space again and remake you?” It was a weak hope and he knew it.

Still perched on Loki’s knee, Ikol bobbed his head. “You’ve already worked against order to lend me this life and I sincerely doubt you could do it twice. I suspect that space will fade with me.”

Loki frowned. Such helplessness burned. “I have nothing to offer you, then.” Admitting it burned even worse.

“Nothing more than you already have.” In Ikol’s voice was a wry smile. “You’ll have to cope without me. Does that frighten you?”

Biting his lip, Loki meant to say nothing. The question loomed so large, the prospect of a lonely eternity almost inconceivable, though less so than Ikol’s future- or lack thereof. But if Ikol could face it he must too. “Yes,” he said, finally nodding. “I don’t- want to be alone again.”

Which left Ikol silent for a few long moments. “Brave of you to admit it.” Ikol’s sigh was weary. “But you’re not really alone, not now. You’ve already proven yourself better at making friends than I ever was. And possessing better judgement in who you should befriend.” He lightened, irony twisting his voice. “You’re clever; that can carry you far.”

Ikol’s hopeful words seemed genuine but Loki felt something beneath it, a dread Ikol was hiding. Dread for what was and what wasn’t to come.

“Don’t act so dour, it could take months for me to fade.” Clearly agitated and unwilling to dwell, Ikol fluttered from his knee into the sky.

“There’s so much I won’t learn without you. Spells—”

“You know that’s not true.” Ikol interrupted him wryly. “You saw them.”

His notes. The ones Ikol had woven into the Book of the Vishanti. So Loki’s suspicions were confirmed. “But you’re a finer teacher than any notes could be.”

“Flatterer,” Ikol quipped, emerging from- or simply hiding- his melancholy.

Loki spared a smile. “Aren’t those in code?”

Which made Ikol scoff. “If you cannot decode them then you do not deserve them.”

Standing, Loki stretched towards the sky. “I’ll take that challenge.”

Peter’s voice carried across the field. “Loki! We’re ready to go when you are!”



Midgard stretched below them. Loki couldn’t tear his eyes from it. Thor was down there. And he still didn’t know what he could say.

“Kid,” Rocket broke his trance. “You ready?”

“Not particularly,” Loki admitted, pulling himself away from the window. On his shoulder, Ikol swayed. He braced himself as Rocket lowered the Milano towards the planet, slowly unraveling the threads of the spell that had kept him hidden from Heimdall for so long. If he let the gatekeeper know first it might mitigate Thor’s anger, or so he hoped.

As if sensing his anxiety, Peter laid a hand on his shoulder. “How mad could he be? I mean- we’re bring you and some powerful stuff back unharmed. That’s gotta count for something right?”

Loki smirked grimly. “Oh, his fury is going to rock the earth.” And he felt Peter wince.

Something Drax chuckled at. “He’s a man of admirable conviction. Quill, you’re no match for him.”

“Thanks, Drax.” Groaning, Peter’s hand slipped from Loki’s shoulder. “I’m gonna go get those nasty little artifacts ready to move. It might keep Thor off my ass.”

“We’ll be fine,” Gamora reassured. “Thor can’t be mad forever.”

Ikol tittered at that. “She’s right,” he whispered in Loki’s ear. “Thor’s heart is far too soft. I betrayed his trust three- four- many times and still he forgave me.” Loki could hear the creeping melancholy in that statement. “He’s a fool.” And the fondness there too.

The Milano slowed as the last threads of Loki’s spell unraveled. Though he couldn’t actually, he imagined he could feel Heimdall zeroing in on him. The ship creaked as it hovered, its ramp extending down to the golden grain of Broxton’s fields, just on the outskirts of the new Asgard. And, as it did, thunder rolled over the plains. The evening sky turned grey as Loki watched, his heart sinking with the weather.

Even the Guardians seemed to know what that change meant. Though not all of them were apprehensive. Nebula was already descending the stairs along with Groot, who appeared less interested in the drama than the chance at fresh air.

When Loki hesitated on the threshold of the ship, wavering, Mantis held a hand out for him. “Come, there’s no use waiting here. He’s your brother, he loves you.” Her smile was open and reassuring.

Loki took her hand and felt a mere tickle of her influence, just the slightest attempt to comfort, not in any way malicious. Like she hoped to ease his anxiety. He kept hold of her hand as they descended the ramp and stepped foot once more on Midgard. He felt the softness of the earth beneath him as it began to sprinkle.

Staring up at Asgard, Loki marveled at the new additions. So much had changed in his months away. Life had gone on without him and the city had grown.

The other Guardians shuffled out around him as the wind began to kick up, whipping over the fields. “He’s coming,” Loki said, not taking his eyes from the highest peaks of Asgard. As Peter fidgeted with the crated artifacts lightning hit that highest peak and streaked across the sky. Loki refused the urge to shield his eyes.

“Loki!” Shouted the streak of electricity as it screamed towards them, echoing voice full of power and fury. Thor landed paces from them, the blackened dirt where he touched down smoking as the electricity dissipated and the ground stopped its trembling. His mismatched eyes scanned the Guardians before landing squarely on Loki. “Loki.” And the name carried weight. Too much for one person to carry.

Though Loki made to shoulder it, stepping forward. “I’m back.” He smiled weakly, holding out his arms to present himself whole and unharmed. On his shoulder, Ikol went stiff but didn’t flee, bearing Thor with him. Loki was grateful for that.

Thor stared at him, mouth slightly ajar. He stood, entirely still save for the way he shifted Stormbreaker in his grip. Whatever emotions he felt mixed together until they were unreadable on his shadowed face.

Loki didn’t want to be the first to look away but Thor’s stare burned. “Thor,” he tried again, taking another step forward. “Have you gone deaf in my absence? I didn’t think you were that old—”

Thor dropped Stormbreaker and crossed the distance in a matter of seconds and, before Loki could even react, enveloped him in a crushing embrace. He squeezed as if he feared Loki would disappear from beneath him if he let go. Which, if maybe impossible, wasn’t entirely unreasonable.

The act took the wind from Loki. And when Thor didn’t release him Loki couldn’t get it back. Spots danced against his vision as he squirmed in Thor’s arms. “Thor,” he whined breathlessly. “You’re crushing me.”

It was only at his insistence that Thor released him, standing to his full, glorious height. “You’ve grown taller.” He smiled, brighter than the sun.

Such an observation caught Loki off guard. “I- have?” He looked down at himself, momentarily distracted from the magnitude of the situation.

Peter cleared his throat. “That’s it? That’s all you’ve got to say? He comes back after months and that’s all you got?” He almost seemed offended for Loki.

At his accusation, Thor sobered, shadows falling across his face again. He glared Peter’s way just briefly enough to make Peter wilt back. “I have many things to say. And many questions which need answers. Like why it is that I find my brother with the Guardians of the Galaxy? Or why you,” he turned to the Guardians as the sky darkened. “Lied to me about seeing him. Or what it was you’ve been doing with my brother for the last months?”

Loki jumped in front of the Guardians, breaking the intensity of Thor’s wrath against himself. “It’s my fault! They were helping me. I asked them to keep me secret.” He fidgeted with his hands when Thor turned his attention back. “I- brought some things you might want to see.”

“Loki,” Thor started, sounding confused, but Loki had already moved to open up the crate of artifacts. “What—” Thor followed Loki and when he peered into the crate to see the Warlock’s Eye, the old Book of the Vishanti, and the Casket of Ancient Winters he went blank with shock. His hand slipped into the crate, hovering over the Casket. That unfamiliar pain was back in his eyes. “H- how did you find these things?”

“I can’t tell you that, exactly.” Loki met Thor’s eyes as they turned on him. “You just have to trust me that it’s okay.”

Thor studied him for a long moment and in it Loki briefly feared Thor would deny him. But Thor nodded, dashing those fears. “Then I will.” His attention returned to the crate moments later, though. “What did you do to retrieve them?”

With a harsh laugh, Rocket drew eyes to him. “That’s a long story.”

“I have more time than you could imagine.”

“I’ll tell you the story,” Loki spoke up. “But not now.” When Thor frowned at him he offered the hint of a smile. “You did promise me a milkshake.”

“Loki,” Thor started, an admonishment and denial. And Loki wavered on wilting back.

But Peter cleared his throat and spoke in a deeper voice than his norm. “You should probably listen to him. He deserves that.” He puffed his chest and straightened his back as both Thor and Loki looked to him. It was as if he need change himself to attempt to stand up to Thor, so naturally and easily greater than them.

Loki sympathized.

Thor watched Peter’s show silently, clearly slightly bemused at it. He said nothing for a long moment and Loki dared not interrupt for fear of irritating the problem. But Thor cracked an amused smile and, with a sigh, nodded. “At least he’s been in fine company… Yes, that seems fair. But, Loki,” and Loki raised his chin when Thor returned attention. “I will hold you to this telling.”

Dipping his head, Loki managed a glance towards Peter, who winked. “I would never dream of disappointing.”

The hand Thor put on his shoulder disturbed Ikol, who fluttered into the air but didn’t flee, still silent. “Guardians, my friends.” In his addressing he turned stiff and formal. “I’m glad you’ve safely brought back my brother but I think it's time for you leave. You’ve done enough.” The way he said it made Loki’s skin crawl.

Even Peter’s laugh was nervous. “Yeah, I guess that’s fair. You- uh- aren’t mad at us, are you, buddy?” A question which Loki thought was rather unwise.

Thor’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Do you want honesty?”

Peter grimaced, scooting back. “No, actually. I’m good.” His eyes fell to Loki and as he looked ready to say goodbye he frowned. “Hey, where’s your jacket?”

“My- your jacket?” Loki stuttered, taken off guard.

“It’s yours! I gave it to you, kid. It’s proof you’re a real Guardian. Wait here.” Without another word, Peter bolted back into the Milano. Something Loki thought might be to escape Thor’s judgement.

Which left the other Guardians standing outside, awkwardly trying not to look at the less than amused Thor. It was Rocket who broke the silence, scampering down off of Groot and up to Loki. “Hey, kid, if you ever wanna ditch Earth for a while just give us a call.” He handed Loki a small grey box, obviously some modified contraption.

Loki stared at it for a long moment. “You really should just get a phone.” Still, he held it close.

Rocket scoffed. “Terran tech sucks.” And the other Guardians laughed an agreement. Even Thor smiled.

Before Loki could agree the roar of an engine rolled over the flat fields from near Asgard and Thor chuckled. “Speaking of.” He murmured, his small smile growing. Loki craned his neck to find the source and spotted a line of dust barreling towards them along a thin dirt road. When its creator finally came into view Loki saw a bright white Midgardian car with no roof. Driving it: the ineffably cool Valkyrie, hair flying behind her.

As she slammed the car to a dusty stop Loki saw that Heimdall sat in the passenger's seat. They both climbed out and Valkyrie jogged over, brushing hair out of her face. “I told you he was with the Guardians. Hey, guys,” she greeted them with a wave. “Hope he didn’t give you too much trouble.” She fixed Loki with an amused look. “You too, kid.”

Loki smiled nervously at her before Gamora spoke from behind him. “Only a little, nothing we couldn’t handle.” And with Valkyrie breaking Thor’s sour streak, the Guardians finally moved. Both sisters converged on Valkyrie and her car. “Bit of a downgrade from your last ship.” Loki edged closer, trying to hear.

Shrugging, Valkyrie glanced back towards her car. “Yeah, well apparently we can’t have ‘unlicensed ships’ flying around and for some reason they wouldn’t give my ride a license.”

Heimdall spoke up as he walked past her. “Because it met none of the safety requirements we must follow.”

And she waved a dismissive hand. “Which is stupid, it’s fine, I’ve never died in it.” When she saw Loki listening she glanced Thor’s way, as if worried Loki would follow her irresponsible lead and Thor would blame her for it. Which was foolish. Loki did well enough following his own irresponsible tendencies. “Eh- whatever. I got this thing instead,” she changed subjects, pointing towards the car. “It’s not as cool but the locals don’t freak out when I bring it into town.”

Nebula nodded appreciatively. “How fast can it go?”

The smile Valkyrie cracked was wide, wicked. “You wanna give it a spin? I modified it a little.”

At the sound of that, Rocket took interest, scampering over to them. “What’d you do?” Groot followed, if just by instinct and his own curious excitement.

Valkyrie only ushered them towards the car. “You’ll find out.”

As the four Guardians piled into the car, Loki inched towards them, longing to go too. But it was Heimdall’s hand that caught him. “Young Loki,” Heimdall said with a small smile as Loki scowled up at him. “I see you’ve inherited the talent of evading me.” His smile quirked slightly higher. “Nevertheless, I’m glad to see you’ve returned to us safely. That being said, I believe your brother wants you to stay by his side for now.”

The statement guilted Loki into not pursuing Valkyrie and the four Guardians. Which left him with Heimdall, Thor, Drax, and Mantis as Valkyrie’s car roared back to life. It was Mantis who tried to break the silence that settled as the car sped off. “Um- Asgard looks nice.”

“Thank you,” Thor said, and clearly meant it. Tired as he was he still brightened at the mention of Asgard. Like a proper king. Something Ikol too must have noted, as he murmured something soft to himself. Thor continued, unaware. “We’ve come far and we still have far to go. But the future looks bright for Asgard.” His smile shone.

And Ikol shuffled on Loki’s shoulder. “So the future rolls on, with or without us. There’s no stopping it.” To which Loki nodded, not daring speak in front of Heimdall or Thor.

Peter emerged from the Milano moments later, his jacket bundled in his arms. Without looking at Thor he thrust it into Loki’s arms. “It’s yours. Keep it safe, okay?” He winked as he stepped back.

The jacket seemed so slightly bulkier than usual. And bundled as if it were surrounding something. Loki knew well enough not to try and unpack it, if that wink met anything. “I make no promises,” he smiled back. He tucked Rocket’s contraption in the soft leather too.

It was only then that Peter noticed half his team had gone missing on him. “Where- what the hell happened?”

Drax answered. “The warrior took them with her.”

The naming seemed to confuse him for a second. “The- oh, her. Cool.” He glanced nervously at Thor again. “So- uh. What’ve you been doing since we left?”

“Looking for my brother.” Thor said shortly and stiffly. A reply that made Peter wince. Thor’s hand on Loki’s shoulder tightened as he spoke to Heimdall. “Could you watch the Guardians until they deem it fit to leave?” He glanced Loki’s way. “We should be going.”

But Loki slipped from under his hand, backing away. “Not yet. Not until I can say goodbye to all of them.”

Thor’s exasperation was clear. “Loki,” he sighed. “Please.”

“I won’t go with you until then.” He stared Thor down, planting his feet on the earth.

From above him, Ikol chuckled. “Argue with him the way only we can, it’s the only way you’ll win this.”

Loki doubled down, urged on by Ikol. “I’m not leaving yet.” He watched Thor’s resolve crack.

And break with surprising ease. “Fine.”

“Soft-hearted fool.” Ikol murmured before falling back into silence.

It was that waiting which overtook them. The remaining Guardians were the ones to pick at it, first speaking among themselves and finally attempting again with Thor and Heimdall who slowly came around to speaking. Loki felt caught in the middle, separate from both groups by each of their claims over who he was.

When Valkyrie returned, Guardians in tow, Loki felt that tearing double. He stepped back towards the Guardians, all of them sobering as they realized the finality of the moment, all the while acutely aware of Thor’s stare on his back. “So,” he started, smiling, small and crooked. “If I’m ever ungrounded for this, feel free to visit.”

Peter smiled back. “It’s pretty clear being grounded isn’t gonna stop you from being kidnapped.”

“Of my own volition.” He reminded. “I hope you realize you couldn’t kidnap me on your own.”

With a snort, Peter kneeled down. “Pretty cocky, kid.” He opened his arms hesitantly, smile soft.

“I’ve been accused of that.” With Thor’s eyes on his back, Loki accepted Peter’s hug, soaking in it. Though it was swift and when Peter pulled away Loki felt a certain lacking.

Hardening the soreness in his heart he next turned to Gamora and her sister. Gamora offered him another brief hug, which Loki accepted. “Don’t do anything we wouldn’t do,” she said as she stood up and brushed back her hair.

Nebula just nodded at him. “Or anything we would do.” And he nodded back.

Drax seemed to attempt at crushing his hand with a vigorous handshake. “Grow strong like your brother. If I see you haven’t changed by the time we come back I’ll be disappointed.”

Massaging his hand, Loki smirked. “I’m all about change.”

Mantis’s hug was tight and intent. “I hope you and your friend find some peace now,” she whispered in his ear, glancing around for the invisible Ikol as she let go. “You both deserve it.” All Loki could do was nod, both he and Ikol left speechless by the hope for them.

Rocket and Groot were last. The tree waved at him. “I am Groot.” And though Loki didn’t know exactly what it was he said, the sentiment was clear enough.

In that moment Loki made a decision. “When I see you next time I’ll be able to talk to you as an equal. That’s a promise.”

“I am Groot!”

Rocket laughed. “He says it's about time.” Though his laughter was short lived as he realized it was his turn for goodbyes. He managed a jerky nod. “Watch out for yourself. If I hear that you’ve gotten yourself in trouble on this little dirtball without us I’ll be pissed.”

“That’s something I can’t promise.”

Shaking his head, Rocket looked past Loki to Thor. “Make sure you don’t do anything too stupid around this kid because he’ll end end up doing it it too!”

Which made Thor smile. “Aye, rabbit. I’ll keep that in mind.”

Rocket winked back at Loki. “Good luck.” And with a last, strained look between the brothers, Rocket scurried up the ramp into the Milano. Groot followed, waving another goodbye for Thor. Then Drax. Mantis, with a final wave of her own. And followed by Nebula, who’s eyes lingered on Loki. Until only Peter and Gamora were left before him.

“Take good care of that.” Peter pointed at his jacket in Loki’s arms.

Sniffling, Loki nevertheless managed a smirk. “Good thing you told me that. I was prepared to toss it off the nearest cliff.”

And Peter rolled his eyes. “Alright, kid, we’ll see you later. And, hey, you did a pretty good job on all this.” His affection was genuine. It made Loki’s heart ache. “Better than I could’ve done at your age.”

“Of course,” Loki quipped, trying to refuse his wobbling voice. He smiled as Peter groaned.

“You never stop, do you?”

“Make sure you talk to your brother,” Gamora reminded.

“I’ll try,” Loki replied, less confident. He watched the two Guardians disappear into the Milano, stepping back with Thor as the ship’s engines kicked up dust and burned the air. Thor’s hand on his shoulder kept him steady and still until the bright ship vanished from the skyline. The ship’s absence left Loki’s eyes stinging as he rubbed at them with the back of his hand.

Something Ikol noticed. “They’re not abandoning you. You will see them again.” The reassurances were soft. That they came from ghostly Ikol, so unsure of his own future, made Loki wince.

Which Thor didn’t notice. “It’s time for you to come home, Loki.” He looked to Valkyrie but before he could speak she cut him off.

“I’ll drive back on my own, thanks.”

Heimdall still stood with them, though. “She does not need my escort. Nor I her vehicle.”

Thor nodded, shifting his grip on Stormbreaker. The Bifrost enveloped them moments later, roaring, unspeakably powerful, familiar. When it faded the three of them stood on a wide open courtyard of Asgard. Asgardians jumped around them, shocked by their sudden appearance. It was Thor who drew them back to attention, sweeping a hand over the crate of relics. “Take these to my chambers.” Once the Asgardians nodded he turned to Heimdall. “We’ll need a place to keep those. Something new. Not like the vault- too many secrets were kept there.” He glanced Loki’s way, a familiar distance in his voice.

It stung. Enough for Loki to step forward. “Thor,” he interrupted and both adults looked his way, Heimdall with the slightest, knowing smile. “I returned them. I think I’ve earned a say in what happens to them.” He saw Heimdall’s smile quirk with quiet amusement.

Thor regarded him for a second before slowly nodding. “That… seems fair to me.” His smile was less enthused than Heimdall’s. “But not now. Now have promises to fulfill. Promises that include telling the Avengers that you’ve arrived home.” He looked sympathetic to Loki’s grimace at the naming of the team, though his tone was scolding. “I’m not making you go. But if I did it would have been warranted. You did bring it upon yourself.” Which was annoying as it was true. “Heimdall, could you accompany him to his quarters?”

“Thor.” Loki accused, irritated. He’d nearly forgotten how unique it was that the Guardians had come to treat him mostly as an equal. With all the best intentions it was Thor who had always fallen deep into the trap. “I haven’t forgotten the way. And I won’t attempt to leave again,” he added upon seeing Thor frown. “I left for a reason. That reason is spent and if it weren’t I wouldn’t be standing before you.”

The statement seemed to stump Thor for a few moments. “I- see.” The smile he eventually pulled was melancholic. “You’ve lost none of your stubbornness. I will find you when I return and we will talk then, as you promised.” He pierced Loki with one last, searching gaze before turning back to Heimdall.

Feeling minutely accomplished, Loki bolted into the halls of Asgard before Thor could change his mind. He felt eyes on his back, saw surprise in the faces of those he passed. Surprise that turned away when people saw him looking. It seemed that, in his absence, he’d become quite the topic of gossip.

Ikol flew beside him, clearly noticing the same. “ Your reputation is mine among them, remember? We’re back among wolves.” Loki shivered but Ikol continued. “You’d do well to remember you are one yourself. Bare your own teeth if you must.”

With that in mind, Loki tried to ignore the gossip. Whatever it was he’d hear it eventually and he had more dire things to worry about than it now.

His room wasn’t as he’d left it. The immaculate cleanliness betrayed somebody’s snooping. He smirked at the posthumous futility of it. He’d left no clues to be discovered.

Dropping Peter’s jacket to his bed he quickly unfolded it to find a paper note, folded over so its contents were hidden, and a small cassette with the words ‘old people music’ crudely scrawled on across it.

Ikol perched on his bed. “Is that- old Midgardian technology?”

Staring at the paper and the decrepit Midgardian cassette, Loki smiled. He set the cassette on his bedside table. He’d find some way to play it. The note he shoved in one of his dresser drawers. He couldn’t read that yet. The time wasn’t right.

Sitting cross legged on his bed, Loki next pulled at the ether surrounding him. The strain of the spell left him sweating but as the makeshift book he retrieved from the ether landed on his lap, he grinned. His former’s notes, all of the spells he knew, written and preserved with ink and parchment, they sat in Loki’s lap now, ripped from the Book of the Vishanti and crudely stitched back together with a cover he’d stolen from one of the many- mostly unused- manuals stored in the Milano.

“Thief.” Ikol muttered, though not maliciously.

“I’ll share them eventually. If anything is truly mine by right of name- it’s this.” Even more than the Casket. He was Loki first. That title preceded all other monikers. Loki’s notes, Loki’s spells, those were rightfully his. No one would take them from him. “Once I’ve had my fill I’ll give them to Thor.”

“That could take years. Decades.”

“Then it will come as quite the surprise.” Cradling the makeshift book, he hid it delicately beneath his bed. Part of him wanted it to take that long. Selfishly so that he could have Thor to himself. But also so that eventually Thor would have a piece of his brother. Eventually.

Alone now with only Ikol and his thoughts, home- so he was supposed to understand- the exhaustion hit in a wave. Loki slumped across his bed, so soft he sunk into it. After growing so accustomed to the makeshift cot the Guardians had made for him he’d all but forgotten what this small luxury felt like. The sheets smelled of lavender as he dug in, curling tight around himself.

He slipped his cornet off and watched the gold glint in the light. The metal was cold beneath his hands as he inspected it, looking for nothing. It was a reminder of himself and he’d bore it. Attempted to make it his own. He couldn’t yet know if he’d succeeded.

Hopping across the bed, Ikol regarded the cornet as well, tilting his birdy head. “You wear it well enough. Better than those Midgardian rags,” he added rather snidely.

Loki scoffed, though didn’t attempt to deny the backhanded compliment. “Back to nagging, I see.”

“You know I’m right.” Loki could hear the smug smile in Ikol’s voice.

“Maybe. But your word is hardly writ on the matter. We’re about change now, remember?” He set the cornet beside Peter’s disk and closed his eyes. Despite the exhaustion relaxing didn’t come easy.

Ikol’s voice, tireless specter, sounded in his head. “You’re going to sleep now? You still haven’t decided what it is you’ll say to Thor.”

Loki waved a dismissive hand. “I’ll decide when I’m forced to.”

 

Sun shown through the grimy windows of the Broxton diner Loki and Thor sat in. Loki fidgeted with the spoon in front of him, watching Thor’s empty booth as if it would bite him. He jumped as their waitress returned and set a basket of fries in the middle of the table. She scurried off with a last glance at his golden cornet and dark sweatshirt combination, no magnetic, famous Thor to keep her beyond her barest curiosities at his sense of fashion.

Loki stared at the fries. Ikol was perched on the booth beside him, just as silent, as uncertain as to what was to come.

By the time Thor returned, sliding awkwardly into the booth that was far too small for him, the fries were still untouched. “You’ve quite mangled their silverware. You know they’ll make me pay for that,” he said with a small smile.

Remembering himself, Loki glanced down. In his distraction he’d twisted the spoon into knots, leaving it unrecognizable. He dropped the metal, where it clattered against the cheap table. Thor’s presence practically suffocated him.

That frozen discomfort Thor seemed to pick up on as his smile faltered slightly. “Loki,” he sighed. “I ordered food for the both of us.” And, with another attempt at levity, he popped a fry in his mouth. “They’re not poisoned.” To emphasize he showed off the half mashed fry.

Loki snickered as Ikol groaned.

His amusement appeared to relieve Thor, who’s smile softened. “It’s not bad. Eat some.”

And Loki did, trying desperately to relax and gather his scattered thoughts.

For a while they sat in silence and Loki began to breathe. Thor, for all his flaws and mistakes- many of which Loki would need bring to light in this booth- did care deeply for him. Talking would be difficult but it would bear fruit. “Did the other Loki like fries?”

Thor blinked, setting down the fry that had been halfway to his mouth. “I don’t believe he ever tried them.” Something Ikol confirmed with a small nod.

So Loki had already surpassed his former there. He ignored how that thought ached. “Do you think he would have liked them, then?”

The sadness returned to Thor’s eyes, an ever present force. But Loki needed to keep digging at the thorn. If he didn’t it would never come out. “I- don’t know. I think he may have found them too greasy for his liking.”

“I like them.”

The claim shifted something in Thor’s gaze. “I’m glad.” But the shift faded.

Frustrated, Loki kept prodding. “What do you think that Loki would have thought of Midgard?” Ikol flinched at the question, one the pair of brothers had surely once discussed. Before… all that had happened.

Thor’s wince that confirmed Loki’s suspicion. “I can’t claim to know. But I think…” The melancholy overwhelmed. “He would have, at the least, grown to appreciate the planet. If not the people- then the land. There’s ample space to lose yourself without ever seeing another soul.” He smiled, just briefly. “The sweets. Those would have endeared themselves quickly to him. He has- had- quite the sweet tooth, though never let anyone but me know. I mean- you know this- you feel the same.”

He did. But it didn’t help his tentative argument so he pushed on. “I do. But if I didn’t?”

Thor frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean…” Loki glanced out the windows. His words caught in his throat.

It was Ikol who urged him forward. “You have your opportunity. Take advantage of it before it slips from your grasp and is lost.”

“Thor,” Loki started again. “When you look at me what is it you see?”

Loki watched his brother lean back in the booth, brow furrowed and frowning. “I see my brother.”

“But—” Which one? Loki sighed. “That’s vague.”

“Your question was vague.”

For a moment they frowned at each other.

Trying again, Loki leaned forward. “I am your brother. I know that because it's what you told me. And I know I am Loki, something else you told me.”

Which seemed to alarm Thor. “Because you are!” His raised voice turned heads.

“I am! Were I not- you telling me so wouldn’t make it true. I know you’re right in your assumption. I feel it in my bones.”

“Loki…” It was Thor’s turn to sigh. “You’re talking me in circles.”

“He’s right,” Ikol quipped.

At that Loki’s mouth twitched, annoyed and unable to fully suppress it. “I am Loki.” He said again, claiming the name that resonated in his chest. “But that means so many things to so many people and all of those people- they see something I’m not. When they think of Loki it’s not me they see.” He bit his lip, afraid of the precipice he was readying to pass over. “They see a past that wasn’t mine and a possible future that isn’t written yet. The story they put me in was already written. And I don’t want it. I want my own.”

“As you deserve.” Thor was frowning, clearly slightly lost. But, even confused, he attempted to affirm.

It almost made Loki smile. Almost. “You put me there too. In that narrative with the Loki who was.”

Thor balked, as Loki guessed he would. “I- know who you are. Loki,” he laughed, a disbelieving, nervous sound. “I would never—”

“You are, Thor.” In interrupting him, Loki watched Thor flinch. “You’re doing it without ever realizing. You just did it by assuming I have a love for sweets simply because the Loki you knew did.”

“But you do like sweets! Valkyrie told me!”

“But did you think that before she told you?”

Thor opened his mouth, as if to deny, but closed it just as fast. He looked down.

So Loki continued. “You assume things about me because of him. You assumed it was melancholy I was suffering from and because of it didn’t realize I was readying myself to escape Asgard. You do it all the time without realizing. You slotted me into his place just like the Avengers. Your memories may be kinder to him but they are just as insidious.”

For a long moment Loki stared at just the side of Thor’s face. When he made eye contact he was still frowning. “Have I truly been antagonizing you like this?” Loki nodded and watched Thor put his head in his hands. “I’m- I hadn’t realized. And this annoys you?”

Quirking a humorless smile, Loki nodded again. “Annoyance is- not quite right. Thor…” He teetered, afraid of vulnerability he couldn’t return from. But he had to tip over that edge and he knew it. “You were- everything. The very first thing I knew was you. And all that I learned afterward, about me, about the Loki that was, that I learned from you before anyone else.”

Thor flinched and looked away again, as if looking directly at Loki stung. Which maybe it did; though the thought terrified. “Loki… I hadn’t thought…” He sighed, watching cars move past their window, watching the Midgardians. “I’m sorry. It- I should have realized. The...” Words seemed to hurt him as he stumbled over them. “I let myself- When I look at you- I hope that you don’t think I resent you for who you are.”

“I—” With a sigh, Loki tried to ignore the knots in his stomach. “I know that.”

“Do you resent me?”

“No,” Loki said immediately. Though he frowned moments later. “I don’t- really. Maybe I did- for a little while- but not now.”

“That might be more than I deserve.”

That Loki had to deny, vehemently shaking his head. “It’s not. You’re- Thor, how could I not forgive you?”

Thor laughed at the statement, more an expression of shock than anything. “You… I was blind.” He sobered quickly. “You were never a replacement. I want you to know that- to hear it from me.” Thor leaned forward and the table creaked under him. He matched Loki’s gaze in earnest.

Loki and Ikol shifted at the same moment, Loki’s eyes falling from Thor’s. He believed Thor. He had to. The alternative threatened too much. “I know.”

The sounds of the diner, clinking silverware, muted chatter between Midgardians, filled the silence. “Loki,” Thor asked. “Can you look at me?”

Unwilling and unable to refuse, Loki looked up. Thor’s eyes were only for him. They saw only him, no other. “Why did you run away? You said it was because of me.”

This subject was no easier. But the answer was more definite. “I thought that I could assure myself I was different by retrieving those artifacts. That I was helping instead of hurting people. I saw the Loki that everyone assumed me to be as evil when, in truth, he was not. And… I thought, that if I returned these precious artifacts, you would see me as something more than what I thought Loki meant.” He smiled, bitterly amused.

“Where did you get such an idea?”

Thor didn’t understand his laughter. And Loki couldn’t explain. So he lied. “It was a desperate idea. And poorly considered. The only reason I succeeded at all was because of the Guardians, who accepted it.”

Now Thor smiled too, though it was a tentative emotion. “They are over eager to help those who are lost. I think particularly for you. You have an effect that is particularly hard to deny.”

Loki reached for more fries, marginally relaxed and appeased by the praise, only to find the basket near empty.

Thor swooped in immediately. “Would you want a milkshake? It is that which you recommended to me, after all.”

“I would.”

Their waitress returned as soon as Thor flagged her down, obviously eager to help such a figure as him. Loki couldn’t help but feel a little envious. Thor’s smile for her shown. “What’s your favorite flavor of milkshake.”

The question seemed to take her off guard as she stuttered. “My- uhm—”

“Whatever it is, I’d like one. And for my brother…” He deferred to Loki with a small smile.

“Chocolate,” Loki said once their waitress had recovered enough to listen to him. He saw Thor’s smile soften as the woman slowly walk take their orders. It was only once she was gone that Loki made to broach more serious, though less personal, matters. “I think we should return the Casket to Jotunheim.”

Ikol turned towards him. “That’s foolish.” Though he didn’t seem as sure as he once had. Loki hoped that meant his mind was changing as well. Such change would be good for him.

Even Thor looked surprised. “Why? It is rightfully yours, is it not?”

Loki shrugged. “I have no want of it. And, besides, I think the Jotnar might need it more.”

Thor scratched at his beard thoughtfully, the workings of a king going on just behind his eyes. “You know the story of that Casket, do you not?”

“I do.”

“That it was used to attack Midgard. That our father -” He looked briefly conflicted. “That he had to protect this planet from the Jotnar, who were emboldened by that weapon.”

“And that the other Loki used the very same Casket to decimate Jotunheim. Yes, I know it all.”

Thor watched him, mismatched eyes contemplative. “Then what’s your reasoning? I’m not saying I disagree, whatever it may be. But why do you want to return the Casket?”

Leaning back, Loki crossed his arms tight. “Because I saw what it did to the planet that we found it on. It built structures of ice that rose into the sky and dominated the landscape. I must assume that it is what helped build Jotunheim. They’ve been long without it, I think it's time their property is returned to them.” He smiled wryly. “As reparations- or something of that sentiment. It only seems fair that- after all a Loki did to them- a Loki return the Casket to them.”

Nodding slowly, Thor still didn’t seem wholly convinced. “And what if they decide to use it as a weapon again?”

Loki glanced at Ikol, who simply shook his birdy head. No solid help would come from there. “Have we not learned that Odin lied? That the old Asgard was built on the blood of others? Can we know this was not an instance of that?” He watched Thor nod. “And… even if it weren’t- times change. People change. You offered me- and my former- that chance to change. Shouldn’t we offer the Jotnar the same?”

Thor’s smile was impossibly fond. It made Loki squirm. “That’s fine reasoning. And would make for a fine attempt at diplomacy. I’ll have Heimdall reach out to them.”

“I want to be there,” Loki added, sensing an opportunity. “I found it, after all.”

His opportunistic addition seemed to amuse Thor. “I’d rather you not but…” He smiled at Loki’s glare as the waitress returned with their shakes and vanished again into the back of the diner. “But- fine. Should this work you may accompany us. With an escort- namely Valkyrie, to watch over you specifically.” As Loki snatched up his shake, Thor continued. “And what of the other two relics. Any requests on their housing?”

Loki had none. But Ikol did. “Don’t give the book to that wizard.”

A statement Loki found amusing but relayed nevertheless. “No, though I know the Book of the Vishanti contains many types of magicks and much of that would be interesting to some…”

“Ah, the sorcerer.” Thor’s smile turned briefly wry. “I’m sure he would appreciate the book.”

As Ikol bristled Loki clarified. “And I’m just as certain he will find ways to learn those spells on his own.” Loki had only met the sorcerer in brief moments, but he was with all the others in the way he looked at Loki. And Ikol’s venom for him was enough to rid Loki of any lingering doubts of the matter.

Thor chuckled as he sipped at his shake. “Oh, I agree.” Loki had to appreciate the brief, petty streak in him.

They sat in contented silence for a while, enjoying the ice cream before them. It was Thor who broke the quiet first. “How did you find these artifacts?”

Loki had prepared this lie. “It wasn’t difficult. We just listened to the right rumors and we were led right to them.”

Thor nodded. “How did you know they were out there? I’d assumed they’d been destroyed when Asgard—” He cut himself off, briefly darkening.

“I just… knew. I can’t explain everything, Thor.” He smiled through his lie.

Thor seemed to accept it.

But the lie brought other guilts to the surface. Guilts Loki sat on until the both of them had finished their drinks. “Thor,” he started, glancing again at Ikol, who himself was watching his brother. He gathered his courage and continued. “I know you never got a goodbye with- with the other Loki.” Both Thor and Ikol went deathly still. “And… I know I’m not him. You know that. But… if you could have- what would you have said?”

The mournful grimace that crossed Thor’s face made Loki almost regret his questioning. But he held his silence for the sake of both Ikol and Thor. He hoped this could give them both some peace. Finally, once Thor had collected his likely numerous and winding thoughts, he sighed, a heavy and old sound. “There’s so much. Too much to put in a single goodbye.” His smile ached. “Neither of us were quite so good at goodbyes.”

Ikol broke his silence, sounding just as distant as his brother. “That question is unanswerable. There’s no such thing as a simple goodbye. He knows that. You’ll learn that eventually.”

Loki nodded, but kept his attention only for Thor. “What of the things you couldn’t say, then?” He was trapped in the middle of two brothers, part of the equation himself but on the outside of this particular situation. All he could do was try to facilitate some healing. Both brothers needed it and with time so uncertain with Ikol there would only be so many opportunities. “Thor.” He prompted softly.

Watching out the window, it was a long series of moments before Thor mustered an answer. “He was treacherous. I cannot count how many times he stabbed me in the back.” He smiled briefly. “Many times literally. But… he was always my brother. I never forgot that.” His smile quirked, equal parts amused and melancholy. “You know, he only apologized once. And the circumstances were… strenuous.”

And Ikol shuffled, turning his head away.

Loki answered for him. “From what I understand it would have been out of character to do that more often.”

From his haze, Thor smiled at Loki. “You’re right.” Though quickly he fell into his memories again. “I thought- when he returned to help us on Asgard- I hoped that it would be the start of something new for him. And it was, I believe. He was changing, choosing to change for the betterment of everyone. But…” Darkness overcame Thor.

A darkness which Loki knew had a name. A name no one said. “And then what happened- happened.”

Thor nodded slowly. “Yes. And the chance was taken from him.” He echoed Ikol’s shouting frustration on that icy planet, though he carried none of Ikol’s fire. “Any goodbye I could muster would be insufficient. I know what he did, though I do not know why he could not simply let the Tesseract be destroyed. In those last years I understood him so little…”

A slight quiver to Ikol betrayed the bird. Loki bore his emotion silently, still willing Thor on.

And Thor continued, his head sinking into his hands. “He was given a choice and he chose me over the safety of the universe.” Loki winced as he heard Ikol make a small sound. “It means little now… but I cannot forget that.” He smiled again, weak and melancholy. “I’d sooner forget my own name than forget him.” With that aching thought, Thor went quiet. “That urge of mine, I think, was why I put him upon you when I should have known better.”

When he realized Thor was done Loki turned to Ikol. The bird seemed so small as he sat on the booth, perched, silent and invisible to the world. “Tell him…” Ikol murmured, uncertain. His voice wavered. “Tell him that his sentiment- is appreciated.” He turned stiff under the emotion, seemingly locked in place and unable to look at Thor across the booth.

Loki winced, but turned to Thor for him. He took a breath and tried to wet his dry mouth. “I think- though I cannot know- that he would have made that choice a thousand times.” Thor’s knuckles tightened for a moment and Loki stuttered, the indescribable emotion almost frightened.

“I- wouldn’t have asked that of him, to do that. And I don’t ever want to ask it of you.” Loki’s fatal choice clearly ate at Thor. A pivotal thought, a moment, that wouldn’t let go and likely never would.

Loki winced but tried to continue. “I- understand.” He promised nothing because he couldn’t. “You know that I think you’re right, he really did want to change because of you.” He fidgeted with his hands. “I know I do,” he added, part of him hoping Thor hadn’t heard

Thor didn’t immediately respond. When he pulled his face from his hands his eyes shone. At first Loki thought it was sorrow but when Thor smiled he realized it was a softer emotion. “Thank you. I- must hope you’re right. As for you, Loki,” the name carried such weight. But for the first time Loki felt it was meant for him and not another. “You have exceeded all of my expectations, including your ability for mischief.”

Smiling weakly himself, Loki simply shrugged. “Whatever could you mean?” He asked, knowing full well what Thor meant.

“You managed to sneak from under my and Heimdall’s watchful eyes into the expanse of space. We’re I not your brother and guardian I’d find it impressive.”

“So you are impressed?”

“No!” Thor rebuked, smiling. “I’m not and you shouldn’t do it again. It was incredibly irresponsible and thoughtless. Do you have any idea what kind of a mess you caused?”

“Quite a big one, hopefully.” With a grin Loki played at innocence. “How could I have possibly known?”

But Thor just scoffed as he stood and glanced for their waitress. “You knew. You’re too clever to fake ignorance.”

As Thor paid their tab, Ikol fluttered to Loki’s shoulder, looking otherwise unaffected by the lightened mood. Clearly he was lost in his own head. “What you said… you- have my thanks.”

Loki whispered back. “I’m not trying to replace you, I just wanted to remind you of that.”

“Ah, so it wasn’t out of the goodness of your heart.” Ikol responded dryly.

Smirking rather wearily, Loki glanced around to see Thor stuck taking a picture with their waitress. “You said it yourself: I’m not that selfless.”

“So I said,” Ikol parroted.

“Loki!” Thor called out, returning to his side. “We should return home. There’s much to be done and- I hope- that our better understanding of each other can help with that.” He lay a hand on the back of Loki’s neck, a warm presence.

Loki smiled up at him. “I hope so too.”



Sitting under the wide, familiar night sky with the old Loki’s notes on his lap, Loki rubbed at his eyes. The encoded words swam in his vision, having lost what meaning he had gleaned from them from the hours of near fruitless work.

A cool breeze ran over the fields surrounding Broxton and rustled through Loki’s hair. It was a welcome evidence of coming winter. Soon the golden fields would be quiet and still and the newly finished halls of their Asgard would overflow with festivities. Thor had already warned Loki that they would be hosting guests, which meant the Avengers and, more excitingly, the Guardians as well.

Loki couldn’t wait to see the look on Peter’s face when he saw how Loki’s recent growth spurt had shot him up. Even more than that, Valkyrie had been teaching him to fight. Though he wasn’t yet anywhere near beating her he thought he could, at least, impress. Certainly he knew how to handle himself better than he once had. And with his increasing litany of spells he knew a few he could delight with.

Setting aside the notes, he stood and walked to the edge of his balcony. Leaning against the edge of the cool stone, staring out over dark fields and the small city of Asgardians below him, he felt as if he were on the edge of the world. Like he could tip over and be lost forever.

Ikol swayed silently on his shoulder. In the last months his constant companion had grown only more and more quiet, evidence of a fading even Loki could feel now. His former self, his friend and confidant, was nearly gone now, though his snide comments had always remained a constant throughout.

Loki felt it like a weight in his chest. Knew he’d soon have a hollow spot within him and wasn’t sure how he’d fill it.

But he would eventually, he knew that. Valkyrie was a fine one to spend time with, her stories were always interesting when she felt like sharing them. He’d reconnected with the spider Peter and been invited back to the city of New York many a time.

The Loki who was would live on in his writings now laying in Loki’s quarters, in Thor and Valkyrie and those who had known him, however briefly. Yes, in his actions, the worst of them and also the best. And in Loki who no longer wanted to forget entirely.

A song was coming from the city, faint snatches of whining strings caught in the air. Something about it was intimately familiar, like something he’d heard in a dream. Or, more likely, in a life that had been lived by someone else.

The song stirred Ikol. “Loki,” he sighed.

Loki held a hand out for him and he fluttered to it. “Loki,” he echoed, smiling despite the knot in his chest.

The naming seemed to ease him. “You’ll do well. Thank you.” Came a quiet word, almost a whisper. His form flickered.

“Loki,” Loki repeated more urgently with better words stuck in his throat. He didn’t dare breathe, terrified to miss the moment.

And, with a silent sigh, the Loki who was faded.

Loki stared at his hand for a moment before he let his arm drop. He listened to the scraps of music drifting from below, numb, barely aware of even himself. For the first time in months he was alone.

Time lost meaning as he watched the night, thinking nothing.

At some point he retrieved Peter’s note, long unopened in the months since he’d returned to Midgard. On the edge of the world he read it to himself.

Kid,

If you’re anything like me, you’re reading this way after I gave it to you. I hope everything turns out okay with Thor. He’s a pain in the ass but Rocket likes him and he did kinda save us all, so I guess he’s alright. If it isn’t, though, you know how to call us. We'll always come get you if you need us to.You’re a Guardian, so you’re never really alone. Remember that.

Until I see you again (which I know I will)

Loki stared at the note, overwhelmed. After a while he pocketed it, numb.

It was Thor’s voice that eventually broke Loki’s stupor. “Loki? Don’t tell me you’ve been up all night.”

Blinking back to himself, Loki realized that light was creeping into the blackened sky, just tendrils of blue that would soon bloom into day. He turned and saw Thor at the doorway, wearing a small, tired smile. It looked like he, at least, had slept as his hair was flat on one side. In stepping away from the railing, Loki pulled a weak smile of his own. “Do you even have to ask?”

Thor chuckled, meeting him at the balcony. He looked out over the city for a moment, eyes soft. “I can always hope that you will sleep. Though I know it’s so often futile.”

“So that’s why you’ve come? To shame me into resting?” Loki lingered beside him. His presence was a sweet comfort that Loki desperately needed. He tried to soak in Thor, to block out everything else.

Resting a hand on Loki’s neck, Thor shook his head. “No! I only suggest.”

“Then why are you here?”

Thor shrugged, still smiling. “I just- felt I should check on you. I cannot explain it. Are you unhappy with me here?”

Swallowing hard, his mouth suddenly dry, Loki nodded. His attempts at forgetting crumbling around him as he tried in vain to salvage them. But, before he could stop himself, he grabbed Thor’s arm and hid his face. Sniffling, he tried to stop his tears and failed miserably.

Surprised, Thor stiffened for a moment but wrapped his other arm around Loki seconds later, pulling him in for a hug that only made Loki more tearful. “Loki…”

“I’m- fine. I’m-”

“It’s okay, Loki. It’s okay.” Holding him, Thor spoke softly and let him cry. “You’re okay.”

And Loki knew he was right, as he so often was.